Interview: Hong Khaou, dir. Monsoon

Read Time:13 Minute, 16 Second

This sophomore effort from Hong Khaou stars Henry Golding as Kit, a British Vietnamese man returning to his birthland for the first time to scatter his parents’ ashes. Monsoon sketches the geographical and emotional contours of such a journey, steering between the cacophonous traffic of Ho Chi Minh and the restless, internal tides of memory and mourning.

With this film, UK-based Khaou follows up on his breakout feature, Lilting, which won a cinematography award at the Sundance Film Festival back in 2014. Cambodian-Chinese by birth, Khaou fled the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia with his family and grew up in Vietnam. Working on Monsoon, Khaou returned to Vietnam for the first time in thirty years. The film premiered at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival last year and also stars Parker Sawyers, Molly Harris and David Tran.

Here, Khaou shares more about developing Monsoon, filming in Vietnam, and finding a way to express the internal worlds of his characters onscreen.

Sara Merican: Could you walk me through your process of bringing this film to the screen? What was the inspiration for you?

Hong Khaou: I’ve always had an idea of wanting to make a film in Vietnam. Even though I’m not Vietnamese, I grew up there and my childhood memories are of that place. And I wanted to touch on the conflict there as well. The American-Vietnam War, but not make it a period piece, more a present day thing. And then the very, very rough draft got into the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. They gave me a small grant, and I was able to use that grant to then visit Vietnam for some time. And subsequently, I was able to go back to Cambodia after that. So that’s when I think the script started taking shape. I think then the character Linh came in when I was visiting Hanoi. It’s something that I’ve always cared about, and it’s something that I still go through — this tug of war, a sense of identity between cultural and national identity. And most days I’m okay, but every now and again, I still get these internal conflicts and I think it will probably stay with me.

SM: How much does the personal inform the creative in this piece? How do you decide what to put in a film, or take liberties with?

HK: I filter everything through me. And it’s the only way I know how to do it. The film isn’t autobiographical, but I think a lot of it is very personal. And there are feelings, things that I care about deeply and I try to make it work in the film. And when you try to do that, there’s room that you have to kind of embellish or exaggerate a bit. I did extensive research into it. There’s an audio archive in America of Vietnamese refugees’ experiences going to America, and there’s a smaller library of archives in the UK. So I was digging into that a lot and kind of amalgamating some of these stories into one, putting it into, let’s say, the experiences of Kit. I think the process of writing is a case of just writing and refining and ditching things that you don’t like, and then sometimes you bring them back. And eventually arrive at a place where it can talk about things. Like one of the big motifs in the film is this sense of old and new, the young and the old, the past and the present. And Vietnam. I think it’s quite a unique time at the moment because it’s going through this incredible transition. I thought it was a really perfect time to capture that.

SM: Which was the archive that you took a look at in the UK and the US?

HK: There’s an archive by a Vietnamese house in the UK, it’s held in the British Library. And then there’s one in the US, and that was a really amazing archive because they have children asking their parents — the children are interviewing their parents about the experience. And I thought that it was quite clever to allow the next generation to understand their parents’ history.

SM: That’s really fascinating. I was watching this Vietnamese short film a few days ago where they tried to use Kafka’s Metamorphosis as a sort of metaphor for representing Vietnam as a country in transition, the past and the future. So your comment reminded me of that. I think that’s a very contemporary topic as well, negotiating all these moments of transition.

HK: Yes, I think there’s definitely a generation of adults who come from a diaspora background, where our parents have fled countries in conflict. We are now grappling for a sense of who we are. Interestingly, when I was writing this in the UK, it felt quite pertinent at that point, and maybe it still does…we were going through the Brexit referendum ourselves, and America had Trump — kind of about power. And so this talk about refugees and immigration became so polarizing. Nobody wanted to have a proper discussion, and when you try to it just became polemic. It was such a convenient scapegoat. I think it’s a fascinating subject personally, and not to sound arrogant, but maybe this film in some way puts a face to that experience.

SM: In this film, there are all these sights and sounds that Kit, the main character, experiences and sees. But so much of the film is also the internal world that is unspoken. How do you find that expression of this internal world in your film?

HK: Kit indeed does go through an internal journey. We had to find an actor that could give us access to some of those internal struggles and nuances. And then also use sound and camera as a way to externalise or embellish those motifs that I wanted to talk about. For example, that motif between past and present, the young and the old — I think it’s in the writing and it’s also in the way I wanted to film. The look of it was so important. For a film that’s so small and intimate, it needed a beauty or language that can translate. I don’t know if people got it, but one of the things I wanted to do was to shoot Kit off reflections at the beginning, arriving, to give that separation between him and his birthland. And to keep that gentle distance that he is dislocated from and then as the film progressed, I think we started to remove that motif. Because it is such a personal journey, it was filmed to allow the audience to feel like they’re watching something very personal. Not from afar, but just a couple of steps behind you. I think when heartfelt moments arise, you would feel it beside him.

SM: Yes, I noticed the reflections and mirrors. Another thing I’m curious about are all those phone conversations that take place. We only hear Kit’s side of the conversations; we never really hear the other side. What was your thinking behind that?

HK: It was to give him a sense of loneliness. I think because of his story, I felt it was interesting to just hear his side. I hope in doing that you will get a sense of what is being spoken. It’s to give it an artistry and tell things in a way that doesn’t feel too familiar or too obvious.

SM: Yes, I think it links to what you said about dislocation as well. That you always see Kit dislocated from whatever his life was outside of Vietnam, because now he’s on a return journey.

HK: I wanted that sense of feeling slightly foreign in his birthland, and the sense of loneliness with it.

SM: On the topic of the main character, how did the casting process come about, in terms of finding Henry Golding for this role?

HK: We knew it had to be an actor that that was good enough to give us access to those internal nuances and personal elements. We spent a lot of time searching extensively in the UK, but we went really wide. We went out to New Zealand, Australia, as far as Germany as well. We just cast the net wide to get the best possible actor. There was a moment we had an actor fly over from Australia and tested, but unfortunately it didn’t work out. And then we had a taping of Henry come in and I think immediately all of us got quite excited because he had a presence. He makes you want to watch, and that was quite an important quality already. We tested him thoroughly, like we spent a lot of time asking for audition taping and I even worked across Skype with him. And then eventually we felt it was something worth exploring. So I flew over to LA, as he happened to be there. We spent a day working on a handful of scenes so that we can both get a sense of working together. What really worked for me was when Henry accessed some of these emotions, and it didn’t feel mannered. It came across very honest. I think that’s partly because he doesn’t come from a heavy training, acting background. And then it got me really excited. It just felt very real for me. Having worked with him that day, I felt that we were able to talk about things and together, find a set of languages for Kit. It’s weird because at that time, we didn’t know anything about Crazy Rich Asians. I mean, people talked about it, but I really didn’t understand how big the book was and obviously, the subsequent [film] success of it. So that was never a factor for us. But I think it was important he did tell us that he had done two feature films and he had at least some experience of working on a on a film set. And yeah, now he’s this big star.

SM: I guess the sort of personality he embodied in this film was just so different from his character in Crazy Rich Asians. It’s quite remarkable, seeing that range he has. How was it like working with him? Especially trying to evoke those internal thoughts which are for the most part left unspoken.

HK: The film always needed that. And Henry clearly was capable. So once we saw that he had these qualities and layers, we spent a lot of time in rehearsal talking about Kit and talking about how I wanted a more understated performance, but still be able to actually access these things from a deep place from within. We spent a lot of time talking about it. It was really important that the tone of the film was that.

SM: How did you conceptualise the other characters like David, Parker and Molly, and go about casting them?

HK: The script was always going to be this two-hander between Kit and Lewis and that has always stayed the same. And then in subsequent drafts and when I went up to Hanoi, that’s when I found the Linh character. In my head I felt that the three of them had an interesting dynamic. When I was writing I felt that Parker represents the past, Kit represents the present, and Linh represents the future, to speak of Vietnam. I was writing these characters with this kind of motif in mind. We found Parker through a casting agent in the early test when we flew the Australian actor over. Even though it didn’t work for him, we found somebody that was really exciting. Parker’s really exciting but we couldn’t do anything until we find… We had to find our Kit and then build everybody around him. And then for Molly, it was a taping that came in again. We were really excited. She’s Vietnamese, but she was adopted from a very young age by Dutch and English parents. And when she filmed, that was her first time back to Vietnam. So I felt that a lot of the actors understood the themes in the film. Parker’s dad fought in the Vietnam War as well. We were able to put a really good group together.

SM: How long did you film in Vietnam for?

HK: The filming altogether was 30 days, across six weeks. And then were there another five, six weeks before that to prep it.

SM: How was the experience like?

HK: It was amazing, to be honest with you. Vietnam is such an incredible country, culturally, just to be able to shoot a film there. And it’s insanely cheap as well. On the one hand, it is quite bureaucratic to film there because of the regime of the country. But equally, they welcomed us with open arms, they really kind of just welcomed us and allowed us to film in

the places we didn’t think we could get. I felt like it really elevated the film. It made the film look a lot more expensive than…we literally placed all actors in those moments. We couldn’t close the street down or anything. That gave the film another layer. It felt authentic. And there are things that you inevitably get filming in another country — things that are lost in translation and cultural differences in working. But yeah, I think we got along well. It had its moments.

SM: Yes, I felt like there was just a lot of texture in the film — quiet alleys, busy streets, the opening shot of the film, with the motorcycles crisscrossing. There’s not really a rule, but people have their own code that they follow at intersections. It was really special how you embodied that in the film.

HK: Vietnam is like that. All your senses are assaulted the minute you arrive there. A cacophony of sounds. We needed to capture that. I remember thinking, there’s no way we can control that. We just have to embrace them and make it part of the texture of the film.

SM: How do you preserve that original voice, the original idea, the original concept in such a collaborative medium like film? Where producers have their own sort of voice, people who provide funding have their own voice, and investors and all that. How do you take this input as part of the creative process, but also preserve your original intentions as well?

HK: I guess maybe because I am the writer and director, I felt there was a lot of respect to allow me to write this in a way that I envisioned and imagined it. But of course, the process like you say, is collaborative. This is my second feature. Everybody goes in knowing this is a collaborative process. And rather than fighting it — I don’t think that really brings about any kind of positive result — it’s to get involved with people that you have an affinity with. Luckily, I was able to work with Tracy [O’Riordan, Monsoon’s producer] and learn from her experience and then she could help me. And for funding, we’re lucky because it came from the BFI [British Film Institute] predominantly first and then BBC Film came onboard. They were very encouraging and supportive of me telling a personal story. But of course, along the way, the notes came in and it was time to pull your hair out, and it’s really tough. Everybody did with the right intention. It might not feel it at first, but looking at a result, I feel like we’ve gone through a filtering process, or just a process of whittling away, rewriting and rewriting to arrive at a place that I’m very happy with.

Monsoon is released in cinemas and digital – 25th September.

Sara Merican

Interview: Thomas Clay, dir. Fanny Lye Deliver’d

Read Time:7 Minute, 39 Second

It’s been over a decade since British indie director Thomas Clay had a new film set for release. After 2008’s Soi Cowboy, Clay spent time researching the English interregnum: exploring its political and social upheavals to find an untold story buried within a less frequently mined period of history.

The resulting film, Fanny Lye Deliver’d, is a surprising mix of bodice-ripping and political philosophy, musket fights and early feminism. Ahead of its release on digital platforms, we chatted with Clay about the perils of hiring star geese and the forgotten sex lives of the Ranters.

Tom Duggins: I want to start this interview with a real hard-hitting question. There’s a great shot in the film of a goose making its way across a farmyard. Did you have an expert goose wrangler on the set?

Thomas Clay: There was yeah. We actually had two geese. As the camera was moving down, the goose had to be positioned in-shot just at that moment and the second goose kept cutting across the other one, so it took a few takes. We tried swapping the geese as well. There was a star goose and then, I guess, a supporting goose. Initially, the star goose was struggling. For some reason, he just wasn’t performing. So we swapped them over. That didn’t work. We were about to give up and then we said: “Let’s give the star goose one more shot.” We swapped them back and it just happened, he did it on cue.

TD: The production notes mentioned Heaven’s Gate as an influence. I had an image of you making everyone wait all day for the ‘perfect’ goose shot.

TC: I wish we could’ve gotten it in one shot, it was always going to be tricky to capture. Heaven’s Gate was more of an influence because, with Giorgos, the DoP, we were looking for a film which we thought had the right feel in terms of lighting. Heaven’s Gate was the one we both struck on. Especially because of the mist and the smoke and the slightly sepia look to it.

TD: Some film critics really dislike that film.

TC: I love the film, I think it’s great, the long cut. I know it was spliced up when it was first released, and that put people off, but the extended version is great. The reference for us though was mostly photographic.

TD: The film’s set in a really interesting time period. It made me think about Witchfinder General and, more recently, A Field in England. Approaching your own take on that period, do you try not to think about what other directors have done?

TC: It’s an underrepresented period of history and that was part of the inspiration. You have Winstanley as well, the Kevin Brownlow movie. There’s also a biopic of Oliver Cromwell with Richard Harris in it. I was actually working on the script when Ben Wheatley’s film came out. There have been a few films set there, but not a great deal. I think that was part of the appeal, to take a crack at something which hadn’t been too thoroughly taken apart by other film-makers.

TD: Most period dramas which go to the lengths you’ve gone to, to preserve historical realism, I think they often function to uphold quite a nostalgic view of British history. With Fanny Lye Deliver’d though, a lot of the ideas expressed are quite modern and challenge that more innocent view of the past.

TC: I wanted to tell a story about ordinary people and their lives. I think that’s still quite uncommon in British period films. The story is fictional but it’s based on reading a lot of pamphlets from the era and speaking to expert historians who gave me a sense of what it would be like to live in those times. They were dangerous, violent, uncertain times for most people.

TD: I feel like some people might think it was inconceivable that anyone would have a threesome in the 17th century.

TC: If you look at the key sets and groups from that period, you have the Levellers and the Diggers who’ve been dealt with in other films. The third main group is the Ranters, who’ve never been properly portrayed on screen before, so an early decision was: we wanted to include them. I don’t think you can make a film about Ranters without having sex in the film. There’s a number of real historical figures who inspired the characters in the film: prominent Ranters like Abiezer Coppe and Laurence Clarkson. They went around writing pamphlets and encouraging orgies. There was also a couple – Mary Gadbury and her partner William Franklin – who travelled around the country. He said he was Christ and she said she was the bride of Christ. They were tried and thrown into prison around that time, 1650.

TD: Did you spend much time discussing the film’s political philosophy with the cast?

TC: At the beginning, before we shot the film when I first met Maxine [Peake], that was something we connected over. We both had an interest in the political philosophy of the period. Later, we had conversations with Freddie and Tanya in particular, but most of the time, during the shoot, you’re just trying to get on with it. The discussions become a lot more mundane.

TD: In the production notes, again, you talk about the significance of Puritanism in the history of the United States. Was this film trying to throw light on present-day America at all?

TC: The history of England at that time is the history of America, in a way. The Protestant dissenters went across and formed many of the institutions there. That conflict between the Puritans and the Quakers was going on in the ‘New World’ as well. In Boston, in 1660 I think, the Puritan community executed some Quakers. I guess that tension is still there today in American society between the egalitarian Quaker view and the more money-driven Puritan idea. Puritanism is all about land and property and properness. I wrote the script in 2012 though, it isn’t addressing the events of the last few years.

TD: Did you feel that a woman’s perspective hadn’t been shown enough in films set in that era?

TC: It’s important to the 17th century, especially in the Quaker movement, there was this emphasis on women’s rights. Margaret Fell was the co-founder of the Quakers and helped to established the idea that a woman wasn’t the property of her husband, that a woman should be free to speak in church. Things that seem obvious today but were radical at the time. So it was important to have a female perspective. I also saw the film more as a western – since 2012 this has become less unusual – but I liked the idea of making a western with a female protagonist.

TD: The film was shot somewhere in the West Midlands. Where was the set exactly?

TC: It was a farm a little bit south of Bridgnorth in Shropshire. Some remnants of the building may still be there. The land-owner agreed to keep it in the end. The last time I saw it was a year after the shoot. They took off the roof and the cladding but the frame was still there. It’s a planning issue I suppose, but I think they were hoping to turn it into a holiday home.

TD: Tell me a bit about the decision to use voice-over in the film.

TC: It was something I came to in post-production, which isn’t too unusual. If you look at Apocalypse Now, Days of Heaven, there are two examples where the voice-over came later on. The decision came through a number of things. I wanted to get the running time down a little bit, so it was quite practical at the start. As it came together though, I really started to fall in love with it and appreciate what the voice-over can do to help us enter the world and feel the inner lives of the characters more.

TD: It definitely brings Terrence Malick to mind.

TC: Once you move to it, it’s hard to give up. You can see why he’s kind of addicted to using it. It allows you to move so much faster as well and it helps you avoid exposition in the dialogue.

TD: Fanny Lye Deliver’d was quite a long time in the making. Are you hoping your next project might move a little quicker?

TC: It would be nice, to make a film quite quickly. One doesn’t have too much control over these things, they just take a long time. Once we arrived in post-production it took longer than anticipated, mostly due to the music. But hopefully, the next one will be along sooner.

Fanny Lye Deliver’d is released on digital platforms on 26 June.

Tom Duggins | @duggins_tom

Interview: Pedro Costa, dir. Vitalina Varela

Read Time:17 Minute, 14 Second

Since his 1997 feature Ossos began his work with the disadvantaged communities of Fontainhas in Lisbon, Pedro Costa has become one of cinema’s most singular voices on the dispossessed.

Through his Fontainhas trilogy (the aforementioned Ossos, In Vanda’s Room, and Colossal Youth) and beyond (Horse Money) Costa has created astonishing, almost dreamlike voyages through dislocation, dereliction, and destitution that is all the more remarkable for their emotional resonance given the filmmakers austere aesthetic. Costa’s latest film, Vitalina Varela, takes as its protagonist a woman who appeared briefly in his last film and tells her story in breathtaking chiaroscuro tableaux.

CineVue’s Ben Nicholson was lucky enough to sit down with Pedro Costa back when the film screened at the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Ben Nicholson: You first met Vitalina when you were making Horse Money and was wondering about what first drew you to her and then what compelled you to revisit her and make her the main protagonist of this story?

Pedro Costa: Well, I met her in the neighbourhood where her husband lived, where he built this house, where some of the Cape Verdean’s live now in Portugal. This was not the neighbourhood I was shooting in years ago. It’s more mixed, there are more white people. It’s not so African, let’s say. But I was doing Horse Money and I had the idea of doing a musical sequence with people in houses, interiors. I couldn’t find anymore any traditional houses, that resemble the old neighbourhood, so I went to this neighbourhood with a friend who guided me. He said, ‘I know two or three houses that we might try.’ He said there was one especially, but it was abandoned; it belonged to this guy who died. And we got there; we were trying to see if we could get in. The house seemed very closed and suddenly the door opened and Vitalina was there. She was inside, she was dressed in black.

She probably heard voices – our voices – and was afraid, so came to the door, thought it was the police or immigration. Firstly, we talked a bit; she was the widow and she came to the funeral of her husband. She had come late because of some bureaucracy and clearly, she was afraid, depressed, a little bit hiding. I sensed immediately she was not getting out. Nobody knew her. So I asked if I could shoot her, just one shot and that shot is in Horse Money. Then I asked her if she could be in another shot, just standing like in a photograph, and she said ‘yes’. I felt that she could be in the film, I didn’t know how yet, I just had a feeling. So, I came back, while we were shooting Horse Money, three times and she told me a little bit of her story; her arrival was recent, she had been there for three months. I began imagining a role for her in Horse Money, a sort of visitation, an apparition in Ventura’s nightmares, a strange woman coming to the hospital to visit her husband but bringing very bad news.

So that’s what we did, and while working on Horse Money with her, we began talking about making a film around her – about her story – and she seemed comfortable with it. There was even a kind of – this is maybe pretentious to say – but I thought there was a kind of therapeutic side to it. She could get out a bit, work, be with us. So, she could come out of this morning, come out of this black hole. And I think it helped, the time just spent with us, making the film, and working so hard to build this story.

BN: When you say, ‘build this story’, how does that process work? Are you asking Vitalina to tell you stories and then you’re helping to construct something, or is it much freer flowing than that?

PC: We take some notes, it’s not really writing, but some phrases, dialogue, beginnings and ends, guidelines – things like that, just notes. The work is actually quite classical, or conventional, in the sense that theatre people work or even musicians. First, I talked with her, like I had talked with Vanda or Ventura before, for weeks and weeks, alone with her and that’s the first part of the work. I like to mix, kind of, so in the mornings she tells me her life, or I begin selecting episodes moments, collect, you know, ideas and situations. Then in the afternoon, we go walk around a little bit, through museums, parks. We just walk around the city. I did that for her to see things that could perhaps associate her life to a different world. So, the main work in preparing was to define and establish the moments that I thought were the ones I wanted to work on.

I knew that the film would be the moment of Vitalina’s arrival until the presentation. It would not include her life before or after, it would be just this mourning period – I think we thought of about seven days or 10 days after her arrival, then it became more abstract. We had these kinds of limits because it’s easier to work like that: first night, the second night, third night. So, we started imagining all the scenes; first scene, second scene, a progression that was very chronological. Once I had this idea, I brought the crew. I had money – not much, but I thought I enough – to shoot, like I always do, from Monday to Saturday, every day, for at least one year. It was the three of us, then a fourth person came. So, I brought the crew, all the equipment – not much: camera, lights, sound – and we began. We started with everything in her house; kitchen, the rooms, the living room when all the men are there. Meanwhile, I had selected three or four or five men in the neighbourhood that could be the mourners, that could be friends and colleagues. So, we had more or less everything controlled and then we came to the moment rehearsals and preparation. You can prepare a shot with the camera rolling, trying the light and someone’s acting and then you can say that it’s no good, that we should try something else, or move that scene from the room to the kitchen.

We have this kind of freedom, we are not obliged by time, just our own discipline. We have certain limitations and we have a certain, I think, decency let’s say. We are not so so crazy. But, I mean, the film’s permit not to shoot if some of the actors are not well, or if we thought we’re not getting the light, or it’s too noisy that day to do a proper monologue, things like that. We do not have the means, and I wouldn’t like to do something different. I did those kinds of things where we have 16 or 600 assistants and we quiet down the neighbourhood, impose ourselves almost by some sort of police means. I did it, I was assistant director on those kinds of films before I made mine, and it was the worst experience in my life. It’s a nightmare – it’s what you see the streets in London too, you know, ‘silence, please!’ etc. It’s awful, it’s a military police operation, so knowing we cannot do that, and we don’t want to do that because it would break completely our trust and relationship with people, we have to wait. We have to wait for a quiet moment for something to pass, someone to get better, etc. etc.

It’s a very risky way of doing films, of course, because you can spend days and days waiting for something. These are days that are not wasted because we are always, in a way, working. We are always there. They are preparing something, I’m with Vitalina, the sound director’s collecting sounds – ambient sounds, he is going around, goes to the house of a lady and records a dinner, or something – and the others are imagining how to place some lights in the kitchen or building some stuff. We are always building because we need things, it’s very artisanal, we have a lot of hammers – it’s our method. So that’s the work and then from take one, let’s say to take 15, things evolve and change. We get, hopefully, in general, I think we get closer to our first idea, closer to a form that we think is correct, or to a light that we think is just so.

BN: Speaking of light: the cinematography across the series of films you’ve made since you arrived in Fontainhas is so striking and feels so deliberate. I wondered if you could speak briefly about your intentions with the cinematography. I don’t know whether you would agree, but the depth of darkness in this film felt even more important than in Horse Money, despite feeling very similar aesthetically.

PC: Sure, it’s darker because that moment in Vitalina’s life is dark. She lives in darkness. She’s like the rock song In Darkness Let Me Dwell by John Dowland. She never opened the door, daylight passed by and she was not aware of it passing, so I wanted to have that in the film in some way – not only the lighting but in the way she stalks, a little bit, all the spaces, how people move. Sound, also; you can hear a lot of things in the dark and you hear slightly feverish, you’re more conscious of sounds, they’re more menacing or something. I would say that the light, it’s not even an idea of light, it’s trying to get close to the light we see, we saw, we experienced in those spaces and in that neighbourhood. Maybe there is a little bit of fantasy, sometimes, which I think is always okay – a little bit of delirium almost, strangeness.

But I think our work, what we discuss, the way we talk when we are with a reflector or a mirror or a lamp is: ‘Remember what was here. What did we feel in this room without light? What did we feel in this kitchen when just a ray of sun came through that small hole?’ I wouldn’t say it’s working the light; it’s how the lights work on the space. The light works on us. The light works on Vitalina. The light predisposed her to a certain rage, or expression, or sadness, or fury. The sound was the same; she was always telling me about the constant fighting. It’s a problematic neighbourhood, people fight, people discussing a very high tone, so this constant war was really…breaking her apart. Just imagine, she needed quiet and there she was in absolutely the wrong place.

There’s an architectural condition that we really are very conscious of. Light gets in through; it’s not like our houses – there are breaks, there are holes. All the spaces are very confined, in the whole neighbourhood the way houses are built is a kind of maze, so the light’s very much reflected light that breaks in at several points and gets in already reflected, it could be just a ray. Sometimes, or most of the time, our work or what we want to do, it’s just not easy. It’s not easy to have it the way it is. Not working the light in a different way, just let the light work on our sensibilities. We’re so familiar with the spaces, we live there in a way, and we try to have it like we experience it.

BN: You mention sound there a couple of times and I thought was quite interesting because you hear these everyday sounds outside. You’re very aware of a world that seems to be carrying on as normal, while you’re locked into these spaces that feel very internalised.

PC: Yeah, it’s knowing we will probably have a lot of direct sounds because there’s some dialogue, there’s some monologue – I knew Vitalina would talk a bit, I knew Ventura would talk a bit – and all of those scenes are recorded with direct sound, there’s no other way. But, to record direct sound properly, with a good quality and some grain in the voice, we need a certain silence around. So, as I told you, we have to wait a little bit. We need to shut down a little bit the neighbourhood, to silence life a little but that’s a lie, it doesn’t happen like that. Vitalina crying or Vitalina mourning or praying probably – most certainly – would have 50 guys selling drugs, shouting, dogs barking, women fighting with their husbands, babies crying. Everything you get. So then, because we have so much time, and because our sound director can go around recording ambient sounds when it goes to editing, we have a long long time with sound editing and we more or less recreate everything. Then we can select if we want a dog here or a baby there. We select just by some musical instinct or a feeling.

And of course, like you say, this is also to have some interesting contradiction, or contrapuntal things, with Vitalina. The certain flow depends on the mood or depends on the scene. It is very long and very interesting too and very beautiful working with sound editing. I prefer the term ‘sound editing’ to ‘sound design’, it’s not really sound design, it’s association. It’s association, dissonance, harmony. It’s not about designing, the word design means something else. It’s closer to what we do with image, in a way, and about – again, like I told you with light – coming back to our first impressions of the place, of Vitalina. I always like the film to be, in the end, not far from the first reason, or the first desire I had to make it. I was when I was younger, very afraid of forgetting why I am doing this. And I say this because it happens, it happens to a lot of people; that’s the weakness I see in a lot of films. They don’t go to the centre of the Earth, let’s say. They lose themselves; they lose themselves with the money, with the producers, with the actors, with themselves. There are 100 different reasons, but they are not obstinate. We have one reason – to get to the end of this story, to the end of this poem, to the end of this life. That’s what I want to not forget, this personal flame, fire and desire that made me do all of this mobilisation. It’s a lot of work; we’re moving worlds.

BN: I’ve heard you speak before about the other things that you’re doing while you’re making, in the community and the lives of these people.

PC: I don’t want it to sound like I am, or we are, some kind of social assistance; we just help. There’s always something we have to do. Sound guy goes to get sounds and then we need him, ‘where is he?’ and he had to drive Mr Somebody to get his daughter, or he went to buy something for someone. It could be that, it could be helping, in the first days and months, Vitalina with everything. She had nothing; she had no passport; she had no permit to be there. That was a long process and difficult, hard. We didn’t do anything special; we couldn’t do it faster for her – it’s legal paperwork so you cannot rush that – but just being with her in – you know, it’s not hostile but also not very friendly places. Those corridors, those institutions, those doctors, dentists, whatever. She needs things and she didn’t know how to do it in the beginning.

And it comes full circle to last week we finished work on her house. We rebuild the house completely. The roof, we broke some walls in the house, now we’re painting everything, helping her to get a decent house and she’s working there too. All four of us are there when we have time, but we go there. And the house is now, great. It’s just this feeling that you have that you’ll be back, we’ll be back. So, I think there will be another film. For now, I don’t have a reason to go somewhere else. It’s a good situation. I always have this feeling now that there surely will be other Vitalinas around the corner. Why not, you know? In that sense, there’s no limit. Everybody can be in the film, everybody can do this work, but they will have to work.

BN: I wanted to ask about Ventura. As far as I understand this is the first time he has really played a character for you and I wondered how that came about and how that was different to working with him previously when he’s been more in the mode of Vitalina in this one, using his own history.

PC: I’m not sure, we don’t talk about that. Even if I would be working with professional actors, I don’t think I would be talking motivation or things like that. Really, it’s just about the words, the gestures, how to go out, come in – very practical, concrete things. He had this model. Vitalina told me about this priest and I thought suddenly it was a good way of having a companion for her during the second half of the film. She doesn’t go to the church that often, but she looks for the church, and she’s a believer. It’s a problem – no, not a problem but a question – to have that in the film, religion, and faith. It was not comfortable but, with Ventura or without Ventura, this question cannot be avoided. It’s a little bit like In Vanda’s Room. I had shot her in her room talking about her mother, father, life, motherhood, but the drugs were always there. It could not be avoided; it was her life. Vitalina’s the same. I felt we could not avoid that side of her, so in a way it was good to bring in something a little bit concrete, to have this personification of faith through a guy who had lost his faith, this – not confrontation – dialogue. He says ‘you lost your husband; I lost my faith. We’re in this dialogue now.’ And there was this model for the priest. Vitalina told me about this man that we really existed in Cape Verde, Ventura knew him too. It’s so known story, almost a legend because it’s so tragic. So, we proposed it to Ventura, he liked it a lot in the beginning and we joked a lot. All the people in the neighbourhood where he lives began calling him ‘priest’ for weeks and weeks, until now. They are always astonished by Ventura’s work, his stature let’s say, in the films and in this film too – they’re amazed. Not in the sense that you’re a real priest, but that you’re something else, saying unusual things, it’s not you. So, in that way, I think he did a very good job and he brought things to his [laughs] holiness – words, he mixed things. Sometimes I had no idea actually if this came from the Bible. Vitalina worked a lot with me, writing the dialogue, but Ventura brought some strange stuff. I think things from songs; he likes to sing a lot; he knows a lot of Cape Verdean songs by heart. So, in the middle of a Bible thing, he would put a lyric from a song; it worked quite well – a sort of spiritual collage [laughs].

BN: I read a quote in which you compared working on Colossal Youth and Horse Money, and you described Colossal Youth as ‘rehearsed’ and Horse Money as ‘chaotic’. How would you describe working on Vitalina Varela?

PC: This was probably the hardest work we did. Hardest in the sense that it was very intensive. To find things, research, do them. We couldn’t give up. And we were a small crew for this ambition. I don’t know, maybe because of what we just talked about, it feels now like a ceremony. Every day, or the good days, felt like a kind of ritual. A lot of things came together. I mean Vitalina and cinema came together. In a way, I think that Vitalina needed that, needed to work in this very concentrated way, and I think [laughs] cinema needed Vitalina.

Vitalina Varela is in UK cinemas now. A retrospective of Costa’s films is taking place at the ICA until 15 March.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson

Interview: Song Kang-ho, Parasite

Read Time:7 Minute, 46 Second

To say that Bong Joon-ho’s latest film, Parasite, is attracting attention ahead of its UK release in February would be something of an understatement. Having already topped many end-of-year lists in territories blessed with an earlier release schedule – not long after becoming the first-ever Korean film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes – the hype is very real and richly deserved.

If 2020 marks the year when Bong manages to fully cement his reputation as a household name amongst a global audience of filmgoers, then the same may well be true for his long-time collaborator: the celebrated actor Song Kang-ho. The pair have worked together numerous times since 2003’s Memories of Murder and Kang-ho’s performance crowns Parasite with a level of pathos that helps the film cohere beautifully in its final moments.

We sat down with Song to discuss his thoughts about Parasite’s subject matter, the reasons for it becoming such a big international success and to find out what he thinks of being compared to Robert De Niro or Toshiro Mifune.

Tom Duggins: Parasite is getting a lot of love on social media, there’s been a huge amount of buzz internationally for it. Have you had a look at what people are saying on Twitter?

Song Kang-ho: I haven’t been looking at it myself, but I am hearing about a lot of it. It will be released in the UK in February, which is quite late on in the process. I’m really looking forward to hearing what British audiences have to say about the film.

TD: On the topic of online hype, the memory jingle which your daughter in the film (Park So-dam) recites has become a meme. Do you wish that your character had a meme as well?

SK: Ki-taek doesn’t have any songs which could go viral, but in Korea, one of his lines became very popular and went viral, which is where he says to his son: “Oh, you have a plan.”

TD: What is it about that line that caught on do you think?

SK: That line sounds positive, but it also carries negative connotations. It’s something you can quote in any situation and I think that’s why it really took off in Korea.

TD: At the moment, it feels like Korean culture – internationally – is becoming more and more popular. There’s K-Pop, of course, but Parasite could well become one of the biggest Korean films ever, in terms of global popularity. Do you have any thoughts on why Korean culture is gathering so much interest and excitement?

SK: I’m not very familiar with K-Pop, but with cinema – and Parasite in particular – I think Korean cinema carries this destructive dynamic and sensibility. Korean culture in itself is very dynamic and I think that’s why K-Pop is so popular as well. It’s a dynamic form of music, and that draws people in and makes them go crazy.

TD: When I’ve been reflecting on Bong Joon-ho’s work over the last decade, it struck me that he’s chosen to tackle quite big ideas in his films. In Snowpiercer and Parasite, the idea of class and inequality is very prevalent. Okja was concerned with animal welfare and environmentalism. Do you think Parasite is capturing people’s imaginations partly because of the present political climate, globally?

SK: I think Parasite has earned such a great response because, essentially, the entire world is living under one giant structure – the structure of capitalism – and it’s a very honest portrayal of how we live our lives within that system. It’s a very sharp satire of our current state and it’s also a very raw and realistic portrayal of our reality and that’s why it’s gained such a great response.

TD: The last film you worked on with Bong Joon-ho – Snowpiercer – had a big international cast. This is his first Korean-only production in a while, I wonder if you feel those experiences working outside Korea have changed anything when working on Parasite?

SK: I can’t really speak to the inner workings of director Bong, but with Okja and Snowpiercer he’s been able to take on many challenges and experiment, and the films were big successes. I think it was time for director Bong to work with a full Korean cast and crew again because this is such a Korean story. I don’t think director Bong has any long-term master plan for the future, however. I think as an artist, he will follow impulses and choose the projects he wants to work on at the moment.

TD: There’s a scene at the beginning of the film where the Kim family are putting together pizza boxes to earn some much-needed cash. Did you have any monotonous jobs early in your career, when you were starting out?

SK: Not folding pizza boxes! Mostly, I did a lot of manual labour at construction sites. I did a lot of that when I was young.

TD: Carrying bricks and cement around?

SK: Yeah, working on a construction site doing various things. I did it because the daily rate of pay was pretty high.

TD: It’s been said about your performances that you have an ‘everyman’ quality that you bring to some of these roles. I think that’s very true of Kim Ki-taek in Parasite. Do you think that kind of life experience – working as a labourer – has contributed to that in any way?

SK: Of course, there might be some influence in my performances, but it’s not as if I intentionally sought out those experiences for my acting career. For actors, everyone goes through a difficult period early on and you do these sorts of jobs.

TD: An idea that gets repeated in the film a few times is that of ‘crossing the line’, with respect to how we behave around others, our social interactions. Is that idea also there for you with your fellow actors when working on a scene together?

SK: To be honest, I think with acting, you always have to cross the line. How provocative you are in crossing the line is the fundamental essence of creating art and being an artist.

TD: I was thinking about it in terms of working through a scene, as well. A line is the thing that’s prepared for you to say, but it’s also how we mark out our personal space and guard against other people.

SK: I don’t keep any notion of certain lines that shouldn’t be crossed. I want my fellow actors to feel like they are free and can give any kind of performance, whatever seems natural. I think all actors would feel that way and I think it’s what the director would want as well.

TD: Something Parasite does really well is to play with our sympathies, especially between the two different families. I think it’s possible to see the Kim family as lovable rogues but also perhaps quite villainous as well. I wonder how you see the families at the heart of the story.

SK: On the surface, the Kim family does take on this abnormal position, almost like poachers, but it’s not as if they’re a criminal group that intends to commit crimes. I think if you look at their actions and the journey they take, there’s an element of satire to their whole process. Through their journey, we get to witness the worldly desires and ambitions and personal desires that we all have as human beings, and I think it’s a satire on those kinds of desires and ambitions. They’re definitely not bad people. The surface-level actions they commit, we see it, but we understand their actions and we are allowed to sympathise with their motivations. The same is true for Mr Park’s character, there’s no negative portrayal of that class either: the Park family are nice people who make an effort to gain their wealth. They’re not the villains of this story, in this story, there are no villains. To think about the title – Parasite – the question isn’t ‘which family is the parasite?’ There’s no dichotomy to the story, anyone can be the parasite and I think that’s something the film wants you to consider.

TD: People have compared your relationship with Bong Joon-ho to that between other directors and actors who frequently collaborate: De Niro and Scorsese, or perhaps Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. Do you ever think about your relationship with Bong Joon-ho in that way?

SK: I never watch films by those directors and think about my relationship with director Bong. I think it would be a dream for any actor to work with director Bong and it’s not really up to the actors whether you forge these relationships. For me, it’s just a matter of fate and destiny.

Bong Joon-ho’s Bafta and Oscar-nominated Parasite is released in UK cinemas on 7 February.

Tom Duggins

Interview: Shola Amoo and Sam Adewunmi, The Last Tree

Read Time:6 Minute, 40 Second

British filmmaker Shola Amoo returns to screens this week with his sophomore effort The Last Tree. The coming-of-age tale tells the story of Femi, a Nigerian boy fostered in Lincolnshire who struggles to reconnect with his culture after he moves in with his biological mother.

Ahead of The Last Tree’s UK cinema release, we sat down with Shola and his star Sam Adewunmi to talk about everything from semi-autobiographical filmmaking to fostering and maintaining UK talent, and much more. Have a read below.

The line between the semi auto-biographical and the fictional is also present in your first film, A Moving Image. What do you like about making movies this way?

Shola Amoo: I just love how authentic it is. There’s a truth to the work that almost becomes undeniable because you’re working from such a truthful place. There are many similarities [between A Moving Image and The Last Tree]: even though aesthetically that truth is rendered very differently, the way we worked on The Last Tree so much was documentary-esque filmmaking to some degree. The way I shoot fiction is that I’m always trying to eliminate performance anyway until it’s seamless like a documentary. So there’s such synergy between the two projects and I feel like that’s the foundation of all the work.

I know that your experiences were fused with other stories of people who have gone through this. What was the most surprising thing you learned while finding out about them?

Shola Amoo: There’s such range in this world of fostering, particularly from that Nigerian perspective. I know stories of people who didn’t go back home. Stories of people who had a choice and decided not to. All of that stuff I found really interesting.

Sam, if Shola were to make a movie about your life, what is the thing you’d love him to focus on?

Sam Adewunmi: I guess it’d be similar to The Last Tree. While this movie is focused on Femi’s perspective I’d love to see a film about the first generation who came here and their experiences and how they handled having to raise children here and find work. I know so many people that had really important degrees where they come from and then they come here and have to start again with really menial jobs. They were overqualified, but that was all that was available to them. So I guess it wouldn’t be my life, but it would be the lives of aunties and mothers and uncles.

Tai Golding plays Femi when he’s young before it transitions to Sam. What conversations did you have with Tai about synching up those characters and performances?

Sam Adewunmi: I’m glad you recognised the transition because we didn’t really talk much about Femi as a character. This was Tai’s first film, and he’s so good and so grounded. That’s what I observed in him and tried to sync up for myself. Having known how Shola was working with him I just wanted to see what he was like and get to know him on a personal and emotional level. And through that, I was able to understand Femi’s childhood and incorporate my own ideas for the character as well.

Shola Amoo: All the younger kids in this movie never saw a script. So they were cast and we were building the character with them. I didn’t want to restrict young performers with the confines of the script. I liked all the raw, natural acting I was seeing so it was just about developing that further.

This film is told through Femi’s eyes, and I love that. But if you had the opportunity to tell this story through another character’s eyes, which character would you be most intrigued to do that with?

Shola Amoo: Definitely Femi’s mother, played by Gbemisola Ikumelo. That first generation individuals coming to a foreign land narrative is crazy and expansive. Working several jobs, raising kids in a foreign space who are culturally a little bit different even if at home you’re instilling a certain kind of dogma. I’d be very interested in doing or seeing something like that.

There are various points during the film where Femi receives advice, and although it’s coming from a place of love he’s not receptive to it. Sam, I’m sure you were much more receptive to Shola – what’s the best piece of advice, or constructive criticism that he gave to you?

Sam Adewunmi: I don’t know how early it was in the process, but Shola very briefly said to me “I trust you to make the right decision”. It’s not something I’d heard on the set before. You’d think the director wants to put the film together in a specific way but he was just like “what do you think about this? Cool, adjust that”, and that gave me a lot of confidence and freedom to do my thing.

[Mild spoilers ahead]: Can you talk a bit about Femi’s Dad? To be a preacher who hasn’t treated his ex-wife well despite being extremely well off… it’s not a character we often see on screen.

Shola Amoo: It’s based on a real person that came out of my interaction with other people when I was doing my research, amalgamated with other personal things. The hypocrisy of the character was so interesting to me. The idea of being such a stately, godly figure, but lacking in so much simultaneously… Also what was interesting is the break in the relationship between his mother and father. What that represents to me spiritually is interesting as well. Him being very much of the Christian cloth, and her having more traditional Yoruba leanings, and that being a site of conflict. All of that coalesces, and Femi has to make a hard decision at the end of the movie.

Shola, you’re an NTFS graduate. You’ve been brought up in UK film programmes. So many UK creatives in this industry are moving to the US. What should be done to help improve things here?

Shola Amoo: Opportunities. Fewer schemes, more investment. More jobs, in a sense. You do scheme after scheme after scheme and I’m not sure if that’s actually as useful as throwing them into a job and getting them making what they should be making. We see a lot of actors leaving these shores in search of better characterisation. I remember someone – maybe David Oyelowo? – saying that we don’t get dominant black characters here. If we get more opportunities to the creators they can create more of those characters that retain those actors. It trickles down. It’s less about dialogue and more about financing, straight up. Enabling these projects, supporting these creatives, and letting them build these great characters for actors to want to stay here and maintain their work here.

Sam Adewunmi: Talent is international. You can work anywhere once you’ve got a skill like filmmaking or acting. I don’t know if we have to look at it as retaining. I think it’s actually just about creating more. When you look at some of our biggest stars at the moment, someone like Daniel Kaluuya – he was doing lots of plays before he did Get Out, and now he’s doing a lot of stuff in America. But I don’t think he’s the sort of person to not do a film in the UK if there’s a really good script here and there’s an opportunity for him to play a character. Like Shola said, it’s just about creating more opportunities.

The Last Tree is released in UK cinemas from 27 September.

Amon Warmann

Interview: Alison Klayman, dir. The Brink

Read Time:14 Minute, 36 Second

Alison Klayman made her name as a film-maker with 2012’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a close study of the revered Chinese artist which followed him across the course of several years, leading up to his eventual arrest in Beijing in 2011.

Now, in 2019, she’s made a return to overtly political subject matter, swapping out an actual political refugee, fighting censorship from his government, with ex-Breitbart chief Steve Bannon: a proud advocate of propaganda, shamelessly concocting narratives of ‘Establishment’ persecution that don’t quite match up to the jet-setting freedom his wealth and fame entails.

Klayman set out to capture the unsettling mixture of banality and danger that a figure such as Bannon – with his high-level connections and manipulative understanding of media – represents. We got the chance to talk with the director, discussing her overall approach to the film and the uncertainty that comes from filming someone so hungry for attention.

Tom Duggins: How did the project get off the ground? Did you approach Steve Bannon to make it?

Alison Klayman: The project originated because my producer – Marie-Therese Guirguis – knew Bannon from an earlier point in his life when he put together a group of investors and bought an art-house film distribution company where she happened to be working. He was her boss for three years and they had a pretty good working relationship, but they lost touch when the company folded. Then, he got into the Tea Party and Breitbart and really moved farther right in his politics and activities.

When he was suddenly in the news in August 2016 after joining the Trump campaign, she was horrified and reached out to him: basically, sending him angry letters saying she was really disappointed and he shouldn’t be doing what he was doing. Of course, that didn’t change his actions at all, but that began a correspondence because he wrote back. Then, once Trump won and Bannon found himself in the White House, Marie-Therese had the idea to do a film that might expose what Bannon was really like. 

I think the one-dimensional portrayals of him in the media were doing a disservice to the public because it wasn’t getting right where his power came from and that was effectively giving him more power. She had a hunch he would say yes to a film if she appealed to his ego – he said no quite a few times, but eventually, he said yes and that’s when I got a call.

TD: So, if he’s being portrayed in a one-dimensional way actually obscured where his power comes from, where does his power come from really?

AK: I think that a lot of his power comes from his ability to be a salesman and to sell moneyed interests and the press on his brilliance as a strategist. He’s part of these things, like Breitbart and Cambridge Analytica, but fundamentally what he’s doing now… it’s not like he’s the Grim Reaper, or that he’s a philosopher or scholar of far-right politics. I think he’s actually much more down to earth. He has some personal charm, but it’s actually more in the vein of a consultant and salesman, rather than him having some grand vision of how politics should work. I think he really got lucky and was milking this idea of his being a kingmaker.

TD: He comes across almost like a quiz show host, at points. If that makes sense. He’s got this patter when he’s on stage, it’s cheesy but it gets people on board, and he has these catchphrases as well – ‘A rose between two thorns’ – he says that countless times in the film. Is that part of his constructed persona?

AK: I think the lines he goes to are very much of his demographic, of a certain age and type, as if every time you’re in a photo with a woman you have to make that joke, and you think that it plays well. To make jokes, when he’s on stage, like ‘That’s my ex-wife’ and ‘Thanks Mom!’ – I think that kind of thing goes a long way. When people see him as being, like he says in the film – like Jabba the Hutt or this drunk – when you see someone as a monster, if you oppose their political agenda and their agenda of hate, as I do, I think there’s something safe in thinking that they’re just completely monstrous and unappealing. That makes them very singular and apart from the world, and I think to see him and how he interacts in company that includes the former president of Goldman Sachs and female Jewish Republican candidates, it’s kind of jarring, to see him as a real person, but the movie for me was a look at the banality of evil and it felt more transgressive to show him being charming. I think the difference is he’s trying to be charming and you don’t have to be charmed.

TD: What was your relationship with him? Did you like him in any way?

AK: The first adjective that came to mind, in the beginning – and I held it throughout – was formidable. I tried to come in with no expectations of what he would be like personally, but I did come in with a strong sense of my values and what I think is right and wrong, and to use my judgement of what is true and false. It wasn’t really a matter of liking him, because my sense of purpose was so strong the whole time.

The way I regarded him, my daily mantra was: ‘Let him underestimate me, never underestimate him.’ I felt like I was there to observe. He treated me, for the most part, with respect, but the whole point of the film was to observe him in action and as closely as I could. For me, as a film-maker, I never wanted to separate what he was doing from the consequences of his rhetoric and his actions. To be honest, that was always on my mind. Even if, at the moment, he was being perfectly polite and respectable, I was never really able to separate him from…as he says in the movie, separating yourself from the moral horror of it all. I worked really hard to keep that at the centre of things, but to also be open to what he showed me. 

He could have manipulated my feelings if he wanted to, but I was very much on high alert for manipulation and I was surprised that he never even tried to pretend he wasn’t in support of these incredibly cruel and xenophobic immigration policies. What surprised me was how thin all of the ideology and all the policy conversations were. There was a moment, in 2017, when Democrats were reeling from their loss and people were giving a lot of credit to Bannon and his strategy, thinking there was something to be offered there to the nation and their voters. So, I was ready to hear what they had to say and there wasn’t much at all. Like you said, quiz show host banter and one or two points hitting home. I just don’t believe that a wall is going to solve the real problems America has.

TD: It’s obvious that he’s enjoying the camera being there a lot of the time. Is that part of the thinness of his ideology – is it all just about him being the centre of attention? And if so, as a documentarian, how do you respond to that, giving him the attention he craves?

AK: I think that you can’t separate what he’s doing from his desire for attention and his desire to be important. I don’t think that it’s a singular motivator, but his desire for wealth, power and attention is mixed in at every stage.

I centred that in my work, that understanding, every day. I was there to capture everything. He may enjoy that I’m filming, but in the end, I have the ultimate creative control, I get to make a ninety-minute film out of hundreds of hours of footage. I was very interested to see what the story was that he wanted to tell and then decide what the story was that I was telling. In the end, I think the film is about recognising that he’s telling a story, and recognising the challenges of covering someone like that. I think that there are irresponsible ways of doing it and I think that’s one of the important questions right now for news media.

I had the luxury of this being a long term project, but I think that’s why I was able to get a certain quality out of him and get him, at times, to be quite comfortable and relaxed in front of the camera. I think, in the film, you get a good range of him being sometimes a bit more performative, and at other times, a bit more real. I think that comes from just being around someone a long time. 

Honestly, it felt like his primary constituency was the press. He was constantly texting with them and had multiple journalists from every major outlet, going on the record and off the record, trying to create events and narratives and getting them to cover it, and it was happening left and right. I really thought the film was about what it’s like to cover someone like him. I really think it can be a mistake to let someone like him dominate the news cycle and treat the things he says as newsworthy and relevant. I think this film allows him to reveal himself and reveal that problem.

TD: How free was your access to him? In the film, we see you getting thrown out of meetings occasionally. Were there times when he changed his mind about you filming him or not filming him?

AK: It was a daily fight to get in the room and stay in the room. Not even to speak of what it took to be kept abreast of a very last minute, disorganised schedule that included expensive international travel. In London, where I captured some of the most important scenes, that was the first time I stayed in the same hotel as him, at Brown’s, which was very expensive but it paid off. I don’t know if I would have gotten my way into those meetings if I wasn’t also a guest of the hotel, and wasn’t able to find out about things and push my way in. The other people he was meeting with had to agree, which was obviously out of my control, and sometimes also his. Very often, with reporters, he wouldn’t let me stay if he was going off the record or if it was a high profile reporter. I tried very hard to film his interviews with Michael Wolff and he wouldn’t let me in. 

So, there was plenty that I wasn’t able to see and I wanted to show that in the film as well because I wanted to show the audience that there were limits to my access and show that I understand that there are limits to my access. Especially in an observational, verité style film, you’re limited to a certain range of cinematic and story-telling devices. We tried really hard to try and just watch him, but also give the audience the sense that they’re observing him, rather than it being a direct platform for him to communicate what he’s doing. I think some films advocate for an issue or try to deliver their message to you, but for us in the edit, the guiding principle was: how to tell the story without empowering him and making it his unfiltered narrative.

TD: Something funny about Steve Bannon is that, despite his political salesmanship and his carefully crafted persona, at times, he also seems to completely lack any self-awareness. There’s a great moment in the film when Paul Lewis from The Guardian basically rolls his eyes at the camera in response to one of his remarks.

AK: Yes! When people ask, that’s normally my response to the question: what surprised you the most? Honestly, the way that he sometimes seems like he’s very self-aware, self-deprecating. He can make jokes and work a room, that requires self-awareness and social skills. Then there are these other moments where he just totally reveals himself in ways that I genuinely don’t think that he saw. That’s what made him a good subject and made it possible to craft a film where he exposes himself.

TD: Even when he’s trying to be self-deprecating, it’s often self-aggrandising as well. There’s that moment where he jokes that, when people find out that he drinks kombucha, its share price will drop 50%.

AK: I agree. I hope that the experience of watching it feels quite effortless and direct, but we spent a lot of time choosing how many times to include him making jokes like that. I think the film has quite a lot of humour in it. It’s quite a chilling watch, but there are also moments for laughter. The responsibility of what it means to make a film about someone who expressly tries to convert people and co-opt the mainstream media, and thinks so little of people that he can influence them by sticking to those very basic messages… the editing process was very important. You know, do we let him make this kombucha joke, and how many times, and when?

TD: What was the guiding editorial process then? What was the line that you took, say for the kombucha jokes and all the rest of it?

AK: I think Veep was an inspiration for me when shooting in the field, and I told the editors that as well. I think the Sean scene in Venice, for example, when he gets promoted, or to be more precise, is asked to oversee Raheem’s activities in The Movement. In my head, at the moment of filming it, I thought: ‘I want this to play like a scene from Veep, it’s so funny.’ I even tried to shoot it that way. I described it as like Veep, but you’re not laughing by the end. The point isn’t to laugh, it’s to reveal their hypocrisies and underlying agendas.

In the edit, I think transparency was a guiding principle. We were careful about how we used his VO. When we tried hearing him describe what he was doing cut to footage, a typical device in documentary, it felt wrong because it felt like we were just delivering what he was saying. I wasn’t sure it would be clear to the audience whether or not we were just accepting what he was saying. So, in this film you always see who he’s talking to when he speaks, we don’t rely on him to narrate his objectives, because he’s not a reliable narrator.

TD: Do you worry at all that hardcore Steve Bannon supporters would take that as further evidence of a media-led conspiracy to suppress what he has to say? Does that play on your mind?

AK: My biggest fear was that his supporters would co-opt the film because it’s so fair and that they would see it as a ‘rah-rah’ portrayal. I think also the transparency was necessary because, in this time of fake news and low faith in the media, it had to be clear that this was not the result of deceptive editing in any way. Obviously, there are choices and editing that happens, but I wanted to show that this really was what he said. There’s a lot of cuts where you see the question, the answer, the next question and the next answer. Where we could do that, wherever possible, that was one of our principles, because I felt that he should be able to reveal himself without me having to manipulate or change the meaning of something he was saying or doing. But I did fear that, because his supporters think he’s so right, that the movie could become further evidence, for them, of how right he is. I was incredibly worried about that. 

But, now, I can thankfully say that hasn’t happened. Also, as for the idea of hardcore Bannon supporters, I’m not sure they exist, to be perfectly honest. It’s not the same as making a movie against Trump. You see how much people like Steve in the film when he’s touring around, but I don’t think there’s an army of people who are going to stand up for Steve’s honour and valour. I think the consensus, from people who know him, is that it’s a pretty good depiction of him. So, again, the movie was made by someone who does not agree with him, but my hope was that it would be a revealing and damning portrayal that was done very fairly.

The Brink is out in UK cinemas now.

Tom Duggins

Interview: Andrew Bujalkski, dir. Support the Girls

Read Time:9 Minute, 20 Second

Mumblecore legend Andrew Bujalski’s latest film, Support the Girls, headed by the singularly brilliant Regina Hall, tells the story of a group of young women working at a Hooters-style bar in Texas. We sat down with the film’s director to discuss empathy, understanding, and the liminal spaces of the highway-dominated world in which the film is set.

CineVue: Your new film, Support the Girls, is about a group of working class women working in the service industry. From the opening scenes of the film, there’s a real sense of authenticity to the world that you create. What motivated you to tell this story?

Andrew Bujalski: I walked into one of those places (a Hooters-style bar) – they’re fairly common in the States, or they were – maybe a decade ago, and I’d always known they’d existed, but something about it surprised me when I went in there. There was something so peculiar, so uniquely American about it, and it wasn’t – because obviously they sell a certain raunchiness – but then you get inside and it’s not particularly raunchy at all. It’s more about comfort than anything else. There was something about the contradictions built into that, and totally how particular to our culture it is. I don’t think there’s any other culture on the globe in history that quite would have produced the demand for such a place.

CV: The bar’s manager, Lisa (Regina Hall), keeps repeating the phrase that “we’re mainstream”, almost like a mantra. Does she believe it?

AB: Sure, I think so. When I was trying to figure out this story and how I might find my way into this world, there was that character, that idea of an endurable optimist. First of all, that kind of character always appeals to me. And it also felt like the right way for me to get it. I knew that I was approaching the story as an outsider: I’m not and could never be one of the women who work there, and nor am I really one of the target market, either. So I couldn’t come at the story from either of those places, but I thought if I had this character who needed to see the good in the place, that could be my way of telling the story.

I think that I have that instinct as well, you know – more so now than ever. This is something that I started thinking about maybe ten years ago. In 2019, I don’t know if I would have had the bravery to take on this story today; I was conceiving it in a very different world. The idea a few years ago, that these places are just full of human beings just trying to get through their day one way or another, and that there’s – it’s very easy to judge people for any number of reasons but to me it’s more interesting to meet them where they are.

CV: Right. There’s a lack of judgement – the film is clearly on the side of the girls – but there doesn’t seem to be much judgement of the morality or the gender politics of these kinds of places.

AB: Sure. Of course the women in the movie are the lead characters, and the ones who have our attention and our sympathy. I know that some people have looked at the movie and said “well, this is an indictment of men”. It’s fine for people to interpret it this way, and not entirely inaccurate, but it’s certainly not what I set out to do. It just wouldn’t occur to me as a writer to sit down and say, “let me indict men!” As flawed as all those male characters are, I had to have sympathy for them as well, otherwise there was no way for me to tell the story.

CV: Right. The film doesn’t feel overtly political, but had you set out to make a political statement with the film?

AB: I think everything is political, depending where you’re standing. I think my dramatic instincts are the same as political instincts in as much as they’re both about trying to listen to people, trying to understand where they’re coming from. It’s always a question for me, it’s always an exploration. I don’t think I’ve ever sat down to write a movie thinking, “I know what needs to be said here, and I’m going to say it: I’ve worked everything out here so let me tell you”. I usually start with questions that I don’t know the answers to – the movie is a way of asking those questions. 

CV: So it’s that sense of coming in as an outsider but not assuming that you know everything already.

AB: Yeah. And I think that was a pretty uncontroversial approach a few years ago. It’s an interesting time to be living in now because I think even just these basic notions of empathy – there’s a question of whether or not that’s useful – in contemporary society anymore, or if that’s a crutch and it has to go, and we all have to stand up and say, “I know what’s right, and you’re wrong.” I certainly don’t know the answer to that either, and for better or worse I’m always going to be the guy standing in a corner saying “I’m not sure”. Maybe that will get me put up against the wall and shot someday, but we’ll see.

CV: Oof. It feels insane that being neutral on something or not having a strong view of your own can be controversial. Almost as if being uncontroversial is controversial in itself.

AB: Even going back to my first movie [Funny Ha Ha], when I was making it seemed like the most inoffensive thing I could have imagined, you know. A pretty simple story about a young woman trying to find her way in the world. I’ve never been a provocateur, but even with that first movie, it really infuriated people who were expecting something different, who want to know who the good guys and bad guys are.

CV: Right – Support the Girls doesn’t really have good guys and bad guys either, though there is there are a few male characters who Lisa comes up against. You’ve said that the film wasn’t intended as an indictment on men, but did you feel that you needed to include those kinds of characters in order to create empathy for the women in the film?

AB: It wasn’t so much a dramatic engine thing. I thought those kinds of stories and those kinds of situations were reality. A lot of the writing process for this was gathering – I went and sat in a lot of these places and tried to keep my eyes and ears open and then there was a lot of imagination too. Certainly, none of the situations [Lisa finds herself in] are uncommon. But even with those characters or situations where someone is clearly in the wrong, you still have to find a way of getting into that person’s head.

CV: And then you’ve got the people in the middle, like Lisa’s boss, who at times is quite unsavoury, but there is a degree of sympathy there too – he’s trying to run a business, being outdone by the bigger fish in the industry.

AB: The key to him, and certainly what I thought about a lot with James le Gros, who did such a great job was – that guy more than anyone else – his engine is self loathing. It doesn’t make bad behaviour more excusable, but that’s where he is.

To some extent you can’t understand what everyone else is going through. But always what motivates me as a filmmaker and as a storyteller is a fascination with things that you can’t understand. You can spend every day with somebody and still see behaviour that baffles you. That’s where a lot of my, a lot of all of our, mental energy is, living with each other and wanting to understand.

CV: It’s almost as if the characters are on a similar journey to the one that you were on when you were making the film, where your whole approach to writing the film was trying to meet people in the middle and trying to understand them.

AB: A big part of the story for me was asking what is the value of good intentions. You have Lisa, who for better and worse has projected a kind of idealism on to the place. She’s determined to see the best in her girls and her customers, and that very frequently blows up in her face. Almost without fail, most of what she tries to do to help or make everybody’s lives better turns around and bites her. So I think the big question for me is, what is the value of that? Has she still put something good in to the world even though things haven’t worked out? I’m not sure what the answer is but I think I learn a certain way on this, and that shaped a lot of the structure.

CV: Sure. The final sequence, without spoiling it, come to a quite ambivalent resolution. Might we see more of these women?

AB: As a storyteller, this was initially something I conceived of as a TV series, but then when I was able to go back and claim it as a feature, that was helpful for me because I really like endings. I find them a very useful organising principle. For me, a movie is always a poem, it’s about lining up the elements and getting them to resonate with each other, so I get a little panicked – without an ending I don’t know how they resonate. So I will say, for me as a writer, I didn’t really know what the story was until I knew how I could end it. Of course the characters live on, but at that point it’s out of my hands: then they belong as much to the audience as they do to me.

CV: The film has some really nice visual touches. The opening sequence has all those shots of a mundane highway and the bar is set in this place that isn’t quite a city, but not quite the middle of nowhere. What was your approach to building this world?

AB: Well, it certainly takes place in highway world! That certainly feels American – I don’t know if you quite have that [in the UK] – there is so much of a universe that exists purely on highways, where it’s kind of nowhere. We shot the movie in Texas, and certainly there is a Texan feel to it, but it wouldn’t really be that different in any of the other forty seven continental US states – highway world is kind of the same everywhere here, and there is somewhere inherently liminal about it. That was appealing to me because it wasn’t something that I’d seen much of. It exists in movies but I liked the idea of setting the movie almost entirely in that space which is kind of nothing.  

Support the Girls is out now in UK cinemas. Read our review of the film here.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell

 

 

 

Interview: Brady Corbet, dir. Vox Lux

Read Time:9 Minute, 1 Second

In 2015, Brady Corbet went from supporting roles in films like Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (US) and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, to suddenly being lauded as one of the most exciting new directors working in American Cinema.

Corbet’s debut The Childhood of a Leader, a historical coming-of-age drama about a petulant 10-year-old boy growing up in a world pulsating with anger, was celebrated for its intelligent exploration of the conditions that led to the rise of fascism in Europe during the 20th century.

This month, Corbet returns with his sophomore feature, Vox Lux. Scrutinising the curation and construction of celebrity, the film follows a pop star named Celeste (Raffey Cassidy and Natalie Portman) and explores the reactionary relationship between art and violence. Positioning Celeste’s meteoric rise to fame against some of the most politically formative events of the 21st century, Corbet attempts to understand how an era defined by reality TV and acts of terrorism will be remembered in years to come. We sat down with Corbet earlier this month to discuss Vox Lux, and his career so far.

Patrick Gamble: Why did you choose music to explore the relationship between art and violence?

Brady Corbet: If you’re going to talk about the 21st century you have to talk about pop culture, and the best way to do that is to have your heroine be a pop star. The main reason is the omnipresence of pop music in our daily lives. Whether you’re in a taxi or at the grocery store these songs have a way of finding you. Whether you wholly embrace the mainstream or swim against it, it’s the one thing that connects us all. What’s interesting to me about pop music is how it’s designed by corporations. It’s the same with cinema too. We all know Marvel is pulling our heartstrings, but for me, the fascinating thing about modern culture is how it feels like there is no alternative to the mainstream anymore.

I’ve been quite surprised by how many people have asked me; ‘what are you trying to say about pop music?’ I didn’t know it was such a fragile field and couldn’t stand up to some scrutiny. The movie is an indictment of certain practices in the pop-industrial complex, but it’s not a criticism of pop stars. The thing that amazes me about that industry is these incredible artisans who are involved in making such highly infectious tracks. Granted, it’s not very personal music, because it’s designed by a group of executives, but that doesn’t prevent us from having a personal connection to it. We all have memories that are shaped by these sounds. I thought it was interesting to tell a story about it.

PG: You’ve labelled the film as a 21st Century portrait, but unlike The Childhood of a Leader which is set against the Treaty of Versailles, Vox Lux doesn’t focus on one decade-defining moment. 9/11, Columbine and terrorism are all alluded to, is that because it’s impossible to know how the present-day will be recorded in history?

BC: Totally. When President Truman left office I think he had an approval rating of 20%. Now he’s regarded as one of the great American Presidents. For example, I don’t think any of us really know exactly how the Obama administration will be remembered in 15, 20 or even 30 years’ time. We know the positives, but sometimes it can be hard to reconcile with the negatives of that administration. At the time it was such a milestone; it was something we were all so proud of, not just as Americans but as citizens of the world. Even now it’s actually quite painful to talk about it in a nuanced way. So I agree, it’s almost impossible to pinpoint which moments of our time will be the defining ones in the future, but making this film is a little like Voyager 2. We took all this stuff that we felt was representative of the time we’re living in, put it into a box, and launched it into space. The truth is, it’s nerve-wracking to make a movie and not know if time will serve it well or not. I guess we’ll have to wait and see if the movie really captured something about the moment we’re living in, but I thought it was worth a try.

I’ve always been interested in historical movies, and novels. Everything from Luchino Visconti and Ken Burns, to W. G. Sebald and V.S. Naipaul. I think the only way I can make a contemporary movie was to approach it like a historical film, but one about our recent history. The reason the second part of the movie is set in 2017 instead of 2018 when it was finished is that I wanted the viewer to experience the movie as a historical one, and juxtapose these events which are direly serious, with the seriously absurd. I think the juxtaposition of Apple News updates about the Kardashians and school shootings is something that is unique to this moment in time. So, the idea of making a movie where the first ten minutes open with a mass shooting and the last ten minutes are a pop concert serves as a reminder of how peculiar this era is.

PG: Just like in The Childhood of a Leader you give the audience the beginning and the end of the story but no middle. How did you decide on this structure?

BC: I didn’t lose a second act accidentally if that’s what you’re implying. It was purely for cinematic reasons. I just felt that we’re all too familiar with the tropes of these rise and fall narratives. The idea was: “What if we took celebrities in rehab to operatic extremes.” I liked the idea that by cutting out the middle you’re constantly learning new things about these characters in the second half of the movie. For me, it was a way of keeping a very cliched story alive.

PG: One of the things that makes this leap so abrupt is seeing Raffey Cassidy (who plays young Celeste) return as Celeste’s daughter Albertine. Can you tell me a little about this decision?

BC: Seeing an actor reprise her role serves several purposes. Right from the beginning, I had this vision of a character taking her younger self out to lunch, and giving them a lot of bad advice. I also thought it would be interesting to have this one face that links part one and part two. Raffey’s is the last face you see in the movie, and in a way, the essence of her character lives on even though that character is robbed of you in part two. The film has a Brechtian contract with the audience. We turn the lights off and then when we turn them back on nobody has really aged, but you have a completely new performer who you have to accept is the same person. I also felt it would be devastating to really fall in love with Raffey’s character and then suddenly have to deal with her being replaced with this garish affectation of a pop star.

PG: Would it be fair to say that it also represents the idea that history has a way of repeating itself?

BC: Throughout Vox Lux and The Childhood of a Leader, there are these images that are supposed to evoke one another. So, for example, during the final scene of Vox Lux, there’s exactly the same number of close-ups in the crowd as there is during the rally at the end of The Childhood of a Leader. We recreated those images, but instead of shooting them in celluloid we shot them on high definition. So you have these images that are almost the same, except one is a fascist rally and the other is a pop concert. But it’s one thing to say it, it’s another to see and feel it.

The most powerful experiences I’ve had as a reader or a film viewer is when somebody says something that I have thought myself but could never quite articulate. There’s a famous Jafar Panahi quote; “If we could tell a film, then why make a film?” I love talking with people about the movie but it’s rare that I can shed any more light on it. You can talk a lot about the process, but as soon as you start describing the images and the feelings they produce they can lose some of their power. I think movies which wrap things up have a strange way of disappearing from your mind. It’s like there needs to be an open question in order for them to live on beyond the end credits.

PG: Vox Lux also has the lamentable honour of including Scott Walker’s final score. His music is such a dominant presence in both your films, his loss must be quite difficult to process on both a professional and personal level?

BC: I’m in production on my next movie and I’m still processing the loss of my friend. We were very close collaborators and I loved him very much. I imagine it will dawn on me in a year when I finish the movie because he was always the last person I would collaborate with. It’s going to be strange. I think maybe we’ll either do no score at all or just a solo piano. The reason I love Scott’s music is that it’s so extreme and so architectural. His albums remind me of Richard Serra. I can never replicate that again, and I know I have to move in a totally different direction, but I feel incredibly fortunate that I got to know him for the last seven or eight years of his life and I’ll miss him like hell.

PG: And what is it your working on next?

BC: My new film is another historical movie. It’s called the Brutalists and it’s set between 1947 and 1980. It’s about a Hungarian Jewish architect that lost his firm during the war and relocated to Philadelphia after surviving the camps in Birkenau. It’s about him trying to start his career again in the US, but it’s also about the tortured relationship between art and commerce in America. There are no government subsidies for the arts in the States, so it’s private equity that gets these projects made. Therefore, there’s always this unique dynamic between the financial partner and the artist and that’s something I wanted to explore.

Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble

Interview: Zheng Kai, star of Shadow

Read Time:4 Minute, 27 Second

Zheng Kai is one of China’s biggest actors, but in the West he’s hardly known. Promoting his latest film, Shadow, a visually striking period action epic from Zhang Yimou, the director of Hero, The House of Flying Daggers and The Great WallZheng is hoping that all that is about to change.

Shadow’s visuals wowed audiences at its World Premiere at this year’s Venice Film Festival, and is now playing at the BFI London Film Festival.

Chris Machell: Tell me a little about your new film, Shadow, and the character that you play.

Zheng Kai: As you know, Shadow is from director Zhang Yimou. He’s very big in China, very successful. Everything he’s done is a masterpiece. This is my second film with him after we collaborated on The Great Wall. After The Great Wall, he called me and said, “we’ve got another project”, so I asked, “what is it?” He didn’t have the script yet – he just asked me for my time. Time goes by and then last year, in February, he called me again and told me he’s ready to shoot.

I got the script, and I had the character of the King, and it was really good. I’d never tried that sort of character – I’ve done love stories, comedies, but this was a serious character. So I took it. The character is very ambitious, very self-indulgent. In the film, he kills someone, betrays them; he laughs, he drinks, he does whatever he wants to do on the whole, because he’s the King! He’s a monster in his heart, he wants to control. It’s very Shakespearean.

The use of colour in the film is very special. [Zhang] makes very colourful films; Hero, for example, is very colourful. But this time, you’ve got black and white in our costumes, background – everything is black and white. The only colour is in our faces, our blood, the trees. The music and sound are very good. I saw it in Venice for the first time, and I was shocked.

CM: Was it Zhang that attracted you to the project?

ZK: The most important thing is the script, the story. This is a story about shadows – everyone has his own shadow: certain characters have doubles, and others are pretending to be who they are not. The script is very dramatic. Sometimes when we would shoot, it would be like doing a [theatrical] drama on the set. I’d sometimes have lines that would run to two pages, like I’m performing on the stage. It’s such a dramatic, Shakespearean movie, that makes it very interesting to me.

CM: You’ve had a prolific and varied career to date, with TV work, drama, comedy, action, and music under your belt. But Shadow stands out as one of the more serious films you’ve made to date. Do you see your career moving in that more dramatic direction?

ZK: Yes, this is a big step for me. We’ve been to Venice, now Toronto, and maybe more festivals. This is progress for me. This is not only an art film but also a commercial film. The actors in this film are popular, well-known names in China, but Zhang Yimou is good at making actors more like artists, people who know us will forget what we look like on TV, how we sing, how we are on the reality shows; I hope they just remember the characters.

CM: For Western audiences, we aren’t as familiar with those actors, we don’t know them as celebrities.

ZK: Haha, that’s good!

CM: You’ve previously worked with the film’s director, Zhang Yimou, on The Great Wall. Which other directors do you see yourself working with?

ZK: I’ve worked with a lot of famous directors in China, but this film gives us a great chance to come to new directors in the Western market. Maybe, I hope so! I hope it’s a chance for Chinese actors to be known by more Western directors and producers.

CM: We’re seeing Hollywood studios catering more to international markets, particularly China. Are you seeing the effect of these decisions in China, and if so, what does that mean for the future of international cinema? Do you see yourself starring in more Hollywood or trans-Pacific films?

ZK: I’ve been to Hollywood once or twice already and they’ve given me interesting scripts, and I appreciate that. The past few years Hollywood has been focusing on China by writing some Asian characters or shooting some scenes in China, but they’re not always the biggest characters. Still, I’m hoping for more substantial Chinese involvement. Maybe some time in the future, we can produce films together.

CM: We’re seeing more films that are funded and produced by more than one country. Your biggest film in the West has been The Great Wall. That created some controversy here due to the casting of Matt Damon. What was the reaction to this in China?

ZK: This was something new for China. Zhang Yimou is very interested in new things. He’s trying to push things forward. He’s made a big contribution towards international collaboration – this is how it was mostly perceived in China. He’s the man who’s really doing that thing, and making that progress.

The BFI London Film Festival takes place from 10-21 October. whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell

Interview: Johanna St Michaels, dir. The Inertia Variations

Read Time:9 Minute, 33 Second

Johanna St Michaels is a writer and director whose films Penthouse North (2014) and The Islands Amid The World (2011) explore the effects of time on people and places that slowly become neglected.

Her latest film, The Inertia Variations (2017), is her most personal to date, taking as its subject her former partner Matt Johnson: better known as the vocalist and songwriter behind The The. We caught up with Johanna to talk about the experience of documenting your ex on camera and the sometimes painful nature of creating something new.

Tom Duggins: What made you want to make a film like The Inertia Variations? It’s quite unusual.

Johanna St Michaels: It was an art project from the beginning, that’s how we sought funding to make the film initially. But what happened was, Matt came to me with this poem that he had recorded, by the poet John Tottenham, and I said: ‘My God – that is you.’ Everything it says about inertia and not being able to do anything. So I said let’s do a project about it. It was hard to get funding for it, even after several attempts, and then we came up with the idea that Matt might do something live alongside it, he said ‘well, perhaps I could sing a song.’ But then the problem was that he couldn’t write anything!

He wanted to do his political radio station instead, so then we got funding to do a performance/art film, but then he had another child and his brother got sick with cancer, so nothing really came of it. The thing is though, we had received money from Gothenburg city – where I live now – and that money was due to expire in 2014. They told us: you have to do something with it or else we’ll take the money back. That’s when we really started to get working. We did this nine metre high radio sculpture that, actually, my partner Jacob (who’s an architect) helped us to design, and he helped us put it up on the top of a gallery here in the harbour.

TD: I was wondering about that actually. The sculpture’s quite important for the opening of the film, but I was unclear what its purpose was.

JSM: It was inspired by a Shukhov tower in Moscow and Matt being obsessed with shortwave radio. I found it really interesting because of its relevance for political views, how they’re formed and how the propaganda machine works. That was the case in the Soviet Union, of course, but also Matt and I used to live in the United States together. We felt like we were living in this shadow of the empire because, I think at least, that a lot of US television is very propaganda-like. Especially Fox and all that.

Anyway, I knew that I could use the poem as the inner side of Matt – because he’s a very private person – and the radio show as the outer side of Matt. So it was quite an experimental way of doing a documentary. The radio show was a very good form, I thought, because Matt had to be very much in the moment. He couldn’t think too much about what he was saying, since he was fielding questions live from people on Skype and over the telephone.

TD: You’re the director of this film, but you also feature in the film quite a lot as well. There’s a scene where Tim Pope literally grabs the camera off you and turns it around onto you. Was that a strange experience, being the film-maker but then suddenly having the camera turned around on you to become the subject?

JSM: Well, I’ve featured in my films quite a lot. I would say I’m quite resistant to the idea of being in my films, but the times in the past where I’ve done it – it became obvious to me after a while that, if I’m asking questions from behind the camera, people will wonder: ‘who is this person?’. I got some outside advice and they said you’ve got to go into this film because you’re the ex-partner and it’s weird if you’re not. You can use those private moments. It gives another aspect to the film. I am used to being an object in my own films, because a lot of the time I do know the people I’m filming. With my first film, I got dragged into it because my subject kept asking me questions and it was inevitable that I also become the subject.

TD: Tim Pope is a filmmaker himself, of course. Is that a danger when interviewing directors that they might do that to you? How did you feel about it when it happened?

JSM: Obviously, I’m a bit embarrassed, I think, in the film. But looking back, I think it’s good. It’s good to have that explanation of how mine and Matt’s relationship really was. We weren’t so good as partners. We were good at working together on art projects and maybe we should have stayed at that.

TD: Very shortly after that scene, there’s a sequence where Matt gets grilled about some of the language in his songs from the 80s, and the slight misogyny to them. He says – it was a different era and I was too young to know any better. I just wondered what your take on that was?

JSM: It’s Tim Pope’s wife Victoria who asks those questions, and I actually asked Victoria to ask Matt those questions. I do go in and interfere with my documentaries sometimes. I wanted to know. It’s interesting, because Matt is very political and I think it’s interesting to look at how women were treated in the ‘80s. It wasn’t that long ago and there were other musicians who did music videos where women are not whores or portrayed in that sort of way. Thinking back, I wonder if I should have pressured him a bit harder on it.

TD: You think you could’ve pushed a bit more?

JSM: Yeah, I think I could have pushed him a bit harder on that, because I do think – even if it’s a different time – it’s still pretty…from someone who’s politically aware. I was a model at that time, in the 1980s. The female stereotypes at that time were pretty horrific. I could have been harder as a director there.

TD: Does your past experience as a model, of having been the subject of photography, have an influence in how you approach things now you’re behind the camera?

JSM: Absolutely. A lot of my documentaries are about physical decay. My film Penthouse North is about a former beauty queen and what happens to her when she gets old. She used to live in one of the best addresses in New York. When she was young, she got all the glory and now she’s old she lives alone and on social welfare. It’s quite horrific and I think the beauty industry is quite harsh.

TD: It’s a very intimate thing to be photographed or filmed and I suppose I wondered if you felt you learnt things by appearing in front of the camera that help you as a director?

JSM: I think I know what makes people very comfortable in front of the camera, or at least I know what makes me comfortable in front of the camera, gets me to open up, and that’s not having a big team around. With Matt, he never would have let anyone else be so close to him. He agreed to it because it was just me and the camera. Especially the scenes in the garage [which housed Matt’s brother Andrew’s studio]. It was very hard for me to get Matt and his father to do that. As Matt’s other brother Gerard says – ‘oh it’s just Jo with the camera’. It’s those intimate moments, I think that’s what I carry with me with the camera.

TD: There’s quite a lot of political content to the film – there’s a lot of talk about manipulation and the way that London’s being taken over by corporate redevelopment – and it all feels very negative. Do you agree with that assessment?

JSM: I think Matt and I share the view that, as I mentioned earlier – we lived in New York, and I lived in the States for twenty years – always feeling manipulated politically by the media. I think that is what we tried to get across. Matt wanted to say his thing. I don’t always agree with Matt on everything he says, but I think it’s interesting to look at how the political stuff is formed. One thing we talk about in the film is that Matt doesn’t want to invite anyone who disagrees with him, and I think that’s the problem a lot of the time. We don’t want to take in any other person’s views.

TD: The film is partly about writer’s block and how difficult it can be to create something. Do you feel that, in making the film, you got a good sense of where that comes from

JSM: Do you mean where Matt’s writer’s block comes from?

TD: Yeah or perhaps just more generally as well.

JSM: When Matt and I used to live together, he had writer’s block then. People used to come to me and say ‘can you get him to write again?’ I think it’s hard, you get scared. One thing I wanted to try to explore is that if you do something and do it well, you get scared about whether you can do the same thing again. I feel that way when I start a new project: perhaps it’s a fluke that I did it before. I think the poem describes that feeling very well. You get up, sit down, write, have that empty paper or an empty timeline in front of you.

You think, how am I going to fill this? And who’s going to watch this? I also found the other side of celebrity interesting as well though. It’s a weird thing, you’re in the moment in front of people where you’re cherished, but then you’re just alone and there’s no audience there. I followed a flamenco band in the film I’m currently working on. They played in one of the most prestigious venues here in Sweden, and then all of sudden, they’re standing at a little hot dog stand outside, where it’s grey and snowing and nobody knows who they are. 

TD: And you think that affects their creativity? That disappearing from the spotlight?

JSM: I think so. I think, in Matt’s case, death is also a part of it. His younger brother Eugene died and he stopped writing completely after that, although he still did a bit of touring. His whole family were so saddened by this death of a young person. I try to explore that in the film as well.

The Inertia Variations is available now on MUBI / mubi.com

Tom Duggins

Interview: François Ozon, dir. L’Amant Double

Read Time:8 Minute, 34 Second

The French director François Ozon is no beginner when it comes to tackling eroticism on film. His output during the 2010s has included two explorations of female sexuality – 2013’s Young and Beautiful and 2014’s The New Girlfriend. Now he returns with a third, the erotic thriller L’Amant Double. We caught up with Francois ahead of the film’s release to talk about sex, psychoanalysis and how he likes to work.

Tom Duggins: My first question concerns one of the earliest shots in the film, where Chloe is at the gynaecologist and a shot of her vagina fades into a shot of her eye. Could you tell us about the intention of that shot?

Francois Ozon: It was a way for me to start the film with two frames which show the direction of the story. It’s a film about the interiority of a woman, and at the same time it’s an investigation of this woman. So there is the symbol of her vagina and the symbol of her eye for the investigation.

TD: There’s a scene later on in the film where the same thing happens, roughly, only the camera seems to travel down her mouth and into her oesophagus?

FO: The second time it’s her throat. I saw the inside of her mouth and I realised that the larynx looked like a clitoris. It was a big surprise for me that the vocal cords look like a vagina. So it was visually interesting to show that. It’s very clinical, but it was in the spirit of the film.

TD: So you’d say the spirit of the film is a woman’s interiority and her psyche?

FO: Yes it’s a film about the subconscious of a woman who is suffering from stomach pains. She feels she has something inside which doesn’t work. This is what the film is about. At the end she discovers what it is, but at the beginning of the film it causes her a lot of pain. She has to research herself and that’s why she goes to see a shrink.

TD: Speaking of that, I feel like the psychiatrist’s union might not be too happy at the way their profession is represented in this film. Would you agree?

FO:  No, I spoke to many psychoanalysts in France – perhaps the English are different – but it can happen that you have a crush on one of your patients. You are a human being and sometimes you fall in love. I speak of the character of Paul, not Louis. Louis is not a good psychoanalyst, but it’s shown clearly in the film. He’s a pervert and he’s playing with his power. But Paul is quite honest. When he discovers that he has feelings for this girl he says – we have to stop these sessions. But it can happen in any job where you fall in love with your partner.

TD: On the topic of Paul, I wondered if – with his glasses and his beard – was he meant to look like Sigmund Freud?

FO: No, I did not have Sigmund Freud as a model because I don’t think he was very sexy! I wanted Jérémie to be sexy in the film. It was more a way of giving Paul and Louis different looks in the film. Differences between the two twins.

TD: It reminded me a little bit of Dead Ringers by David Cronenberg. Not just because it features twins, but also the body horror element of it. I wondered if that was an influence?

FO: Actually, I hadn’t seen Dead Ringers before making this film. When I decided to make a film adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates, some friends told me I had to see it. When I saw it, I realised there are some connections between the book and Cronenberg’s film. I suppose maybe Joyce Carol Oates wrote her book after watching Cronenberg. But Cronenberg’s film is in the point of view of a man. This film is from the point of view of a woman, one who is being manipulated.

TD: You talk about this film being from the point of view of a woman. As a director, how did you feel you gave that sense of her perspective?

FO: I don’t make any difference between a man and a woman. I find it easier to make a portrait of a woman. I am more lucid and have more distance. When I make a film about men I have the feeling that there’s a mirror in front of me and I find it more disturbing. Maybe it’s easier for me to hide behind a female character.

TD: Chloe herself is treated quite badly in the film. Is misogyny part of what the film is exploring?

FO: The film is about the subconscious of this woman who is searching and trying to investigate herself. She has a tendency to project her pain on others. The twins are a projection of what she has inside. Because it deals with sexuality, her exploration of sexuality. That’s what she says to Louis, she says – ‘I want to try to fuck you’ – to explore something new. Because she doesn’t know what she likes. Where her desire is. She doesn’t look to be badly treated, she just wants to discover something about herself. Exploring her sexuality – domination and submission.

TD: I suppose part of the reason I ask is that some people think psychoanalysis has a history of treating women in a slightly patronising way. Was that on your radar at all?

FO: I think it depends on the psychoanalyst you’re with. It’s difficult to make generalities about that, there are some good, some bad.

TD: Playing twins can be a tricky thing for an actor. How did you think Jérémie Renier handled it?

FO: I think it’s always a great pleasure for an actor to play twins. It’s a big composition, it’s very exciting. Of course, he was afraid. He didn’t know if he would be able, but he was so excited and it was so much fun to play these two parts. We spent one month shooting all of Paul’s scenes and one month shooting all of Louis’s. On no single day did he have to play the two characters, so it was easy for him to compose two different characters. I think it’s the dream of many actors to play twins.

TD: Although, I suppose there’s a tendency sometimes for actors to slightly overdo it a little bit.

FO: Jérémie is a very sensitive actor and very honest. He’s someone who is better and better like an old wine.

TD: Speaking of things getting better as they progress, this is the second time you’ve worked with Marine Vacth. Did you have her in mind to play Chloe early on?

FO: No. At first I wondered if she would be too young for the part. Actually, I discovered that she became a mother after making my film. She’s a real woman. I was a little bit nervous to show her the script, because again it’s a film with nudity and sex scenes. I thought – ‘My God, each time I give her a script it’s too sexual’ – she’ll be upset with me. But actually she enjoyed the script. She was very touched by Chloe. And she realised that this film could be a good opportunity for her to compose a character far away from what she is in life.

TD: Do you find that sexuality as a topic requires a slightly different approach because it’s so intimate and personal?

FO: Very often, the actors are very nervous. I’m very honest with them. I tell them immediately from the script, when we do a reading, I tell them what I will show, what I won’t show and what I want. I don’t think you have to lie to actors. First, you have to know what you want to show in the film. Some directors say – ‘It’s a sex scene, do what you want’. I don’t do that. I know exactly what I want because I think sexuality shows something of the character. It has to be very precise, so I tell them exactly what I want. Because of their nerves about playing the scene, they tend to be very good straight from the first take and it’s very fast. It’s almost like doing a stunt.

TD: The preparation makes it much easier?

FO: Yes. As a director you have to be honest. Just because the film is perverse, that doesn’t mean the way of shooting it has to be perverse.

TD: You tend to work with the same people frequently. Does that happen quite naturally, where you build up those working relationships?

FO: It depends. When I have a good relationship with an actor, very often I feel I have to explore a new facet of their skill. For example, when I worked with Charlotte Rampling in ‘After The Sun’, afterwards, I proposed ‘Swimming Pool’ to her. The two parts are very different  The actors are very rich in personality, and when you become friends you want to work together again. It’s always a pleasure, but there are some actors I don’t want to work with again.

TD: Why is that?

FO: It depends. Sometimes it’s the chemistry. Sometimes there are very good actors but in terms of their behaviour, they are not good people. So, do you say – he’s a great actor or she’s a great actress – I don’t like them but they’re good for the film. Or do you decide to work with people you really like? For me, after many films, I prefer the latter. But you never know what will happen. Perhaps someday I will work with an American Hollywood star and I will have to support his behaviour and it will be good for the film.

François Ozon’s L’Amant Double is out now in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema.

Tom Duggins

Interview: Andrew Haigh, dir. Lean on Pete

Read Time:13 Minute, 0 Second

After the success of both Weekend and 45 Years, British director Andrew Haigh now turns his attention to America, with Lean on Pete. To mark the film’s release we caught up with the talented young filmmaker to discuss this challenging adaptation, loneliness, and working with horses.

Stefan Pape: So how did this come about? Did you read the novel and think, I have to make this a movie? Or was it brought to you with a movie in mind?

Andrew Haigh: My partner gave it to me, he said ‘I think you’ll love this book’. He’d read a bunch of Willy Vlautin novels before, and I trust his opinion, and I read it and loved it. I very quickly thought that I wanted to do this, and this was a long time ago, just after Weekend. I just knew it could be a movie, and I get sent a lot of books by agents and very rarely do I think that I can make it into a film. Even great books. For me, there was something about Charlie, his loneliness, his need for stability and his odd sense of hopefulness amidst the misery. I stuck with it a little bit and then over the next few months, I knew it was the one. I tried to get the rights, but there was a battle between myself and other directors, who I won’t mention, but I managed to succeed.

SP: When you read now is it almost impossible not to visualise the text and see it on cinematic terms? Can you enjoy a book in the same way you were once able to?

AH: No, not at all. It’s the most depressing thing about making films now is that I can’t read a book for pleasure. Unless it has been made by someone else, maybe, but even then it’s difficult. Most books I do have to read to consider making into a film, so I read non-fiction for pleasure basically, because I can relax as I know I won’t make it. It’s tricky.

SP: And you stayed with Willy?

AH: Yeah, it was ages ago now. I spent a few weeks in Portland to hang out with him, I met some jockeys, some trainers, we went to a race in Oregon. Then I went on a road trip for three months with my partner, camping, staying in motels, basically following Charlie’s route that he takes in the story. Which we obviously compress, but in the book it’s endless. So I went on that route, and obviously I’m never going to have to experience what Charlie does, but I got a sense of the world, the people, the landscape.

SP: How was it awaiting Willy’s feedback? If you adapt Dickens, for example, you won’t get a phone call from the man himself letting you know his thoughts. So that must be quite nerve-wracking?

AH: I was terrified about it. He was fantastic in the whole process, he gave comments on the script, told me stuff he felt didn’t make sense for the characters, he was great like that, and he came on set a bunch of times. He’s such a nice guy. Then when the film was finished I sent it to him and I was so nervous, and it took him three viewings to be able to watch it. Because my Charlie is not his Charlie. He has got a vision in his mind as a writer, even about what Charlie looks like, and my Charlie is not that. So it took some time for him to recalibrate, and then we had a screening and afterwards he had to go on stage and he was crying his eyes out at the end of the film. I think that was the first time it hit him in a proper way. It must be so strange, it’s like someone taking 45 Years and remaking it completely and then me watching it.

SP: So much bad stuff happens to Charlie. It feels authentic and we invest in his plight – but was that a difficult balance? Because sometimes when bad stuff keeps happening, it can take you out of the story.

AH: Absolutely, and I was really worried about that. In the book, so much more stuff happens, it’s really bad, it’s endless. But in a book you can get away with it, you can put it down. In a film I knew that couldn’t happen, so it was about limiting the bad things and keeping in the stuff that makes the most sense, that feels authentic enough. It was a fine line as I wanted it to feel incredibly real, but at the same time there was a fable-esque quality to it. So I hoped that would help with all the bad shit that happens along the way, and you’d have enough interest in Charlie to be there with him along that journey.

SP: Assuming you didn’t have a huge amount of understanding for this world before signing up to the project – does that help you? Because Charlie enters into this world not quite knowing what it’s all about either.

AH: Absolutely. I was a bit worried about that to start off with, why would I make a movie when I don’t know much about this world? But I set it up as truthfully as I could, I had advisers. But you’re right, Charlie doesn’t know this world, he’s experiencing it for the first time and so it helps. The audience doesn’t know, it’s not even normal horse racing. They run for 20 seconds, I didn’t even know that existed.

SP: Is that one of the joys of being a filmmaker? You get to learn and experience new things all the time.

AH: Yep, and that’s why I wouldn’t only want to make films that I understand completely. For me, I want to go and make films that are about different things but underneath all of those stories there is a connecting tissue, a link to all of these stories. That’s the key, I want to investigate them in totally different worlds and environments.

SP: We can’t help but view America on quite cinematic terms, our relationship with certain parts of America is so steeped in cinema, in how we see the landscape. Does that help when making a movie like this, to have that outside perspective?

AH: It’s both a blessing and a curse actually, because when you go out into those landscapes, which are huge, and they’re impressive and beautiful, you want to photograph them. Charlie is stranded in the desert and I want to see that desert around him. So it makes sense that I would tell that story. But when Americans watch Lean on Pete, they don’t even mention the landscape. Critics in America barely even talk about it, because that’s just America. It’s us in Britain that notice the wide shots of the desert, but for them it’s where they live. It’s like somebody in Britain presenting a shot of a field. So it’s interesting, but for me it’s only important if it somehow serves the story.

SP: Loneliness is the core theme to this tale, which appears to separate it from your preceding two movies, which are about relationships. But then loneliness still played a part in those stories too?

AH: I think loneliness is the key theme in all of my films. You look at Weekend, Russell is actually unable to have that relationship with Glen because he’s overwhelmed by his loneliness, and he’s desperately looking for someone to fill this void. In 45 Years it’s a story about a woman becoming lonely within a relationship, and this is about someone becoming isolated as all the protective elements of a normal life drift away from him. In all of my films I’m investigating all of the ways that we as humans feel alone, and how we try to not feel alone, which I think is basically everything we do in our lives, we do to not feel alone. Loneliness is probably our core emotion, we do whatever it takes to not feel alone.

SP: I guess that’s what makes it so relatable? Because what Charlie is going through are, hopefully, things we’ll never have to face, but there’s still that strand we can cling onto.

AH: I think all of us are like one millimetre away from falling into loneliness at all times. When a relationship breaks down, suddenly you’re lonely. If it’s your birthday and nobody has called you, you feel lonely. If you lose your job, you’re lonely. It doesn’t take much for us to become that again, and also more importantly, we’re all very scared of that, because we know how overwhelming it can be. It’s not easy for anyone growing up, everybody has felt alone, so we know what it feels like and it’s a scary, terrifying thing.

SP: Though an intimate character study, Lean on Pete is still exploring larger, socioeconomic issues in America.

AH: I didn’t want it to feel like I’m bashing someone over the head with a message or anything, so for me if something is going to be political, it needs to come out of something personal, something character driven. But if you’re telling a story about someone in a community falling through the gaps and having no-one, no safety net to catch him, it’s bound to have a political, socioeconomic pertinence. To me it’s so fucked up that there are people like Charlie that can fall through and not be helped. It’s everybody’s role, whether it’s family, community, the government, to be able to help those people, and so often that doesn’t happen. It’s not about blaming people all the time, because people have very difficult lives. It’s more about trying to understand why people are driven to certain things.

SP: Everyone in the film have their own issues to contend with, and most don’t have a lot of money to their name. 45 Years did a similar thing, except they were much more financially comfortable. It shows that money doesn’t always necessarily matter.

AH: Everybody is suffering to some degree. In times of difficulty, whether it be emotional or physical, economic, you actually become a bit more selfish, because you’re trying to protect yourself. I think in times like that when you want society, or the government of the time to come in and say, ‘I’ll look after you now’ because nobody else has the strength to do so.

SP: Lean on Pete has been described as an “American road movie” – do you see it on those terms, as a genre movie? Or is it just someone who happens to be travelling, and is doing so in America?

AH: The latter. People want to quickly develop a context of what the movie is, and an understanding of what the movie is without actually thinking fully about what it is. To me it’s not a road movie, he doesn’t go on the road until an hour in. He’s on a journey, definitely, but it’s not a road movie in the traditional sense. Just like it’s not a coming-of-age movie either, in the traditional sense. So I don’t think it’s either of those things, but I guess it’s just easier to label it. I’m probably to blame for that as well, because you say that sort of stuff to get it funded.

SP: Yeah it’s not just audiences and critics that define movies on those terms. To get it green-lit you probably have to sell it in four words.

AH: “A coming-of-age road movie…with a horse”. And suddenly people get what it is, then you watch it and think, it’s not that actually. I mean, there’s a lot of the film without the horse. It’s not about a boy and a horse, it’s about a boy and the horse is part of that story.

SP: I read that you’re not particularly fond of horses.

AH: I hate them. No, I like them a little bit more now actually. But I had bad experiences the two times I tried to ride a horse in my life. I’m quite an anxious person, so anything I don’t fully understand makes me anxious.

SP: There is a famous saying in film, to never work with children and animals. Charlie Plummer isn’t a child, but you do have a young protagonist here, and of course one of the supporting characters is a horse. Did you face any troubles on the way? More so with the horse, I should add.

AH: It was stressful. Charlie was great, he’s as professional if not more so than any other actor I’ve ever worked with. He was so prepared and fantastic. But the main difficulty was not the smaller scenes, they were fine, you have to be patient and the trainers were great, but it was the racing scenes. We didn’t have much money, we didn’t use many horses, so almost all of those racing scenes we had one go at it, one chance. It was difficult, without a big budget, it wasn’t a Seabiscuit budget, and those things become challenging when you have real animals.

SP: Charlie Plummer is a real find. You’ve mentioned how great he is to work with – but also, what a talent.

AH: I think he’s really, really talented, and he’s only going to get more talented. He’s so dedicated but understands what the industry is and what he has to do. He knows it’s difficult, and he’s really sensitive, and often actors are not as sensitive as you want them to be, but he’s so sensitive about everything around him, from working with us to existing in a scene with others, without any ego. He’s amazing.

SP: When dealing with a role who is effectively in every single shot, the casting process must have been a nervous experience?

AH: I was terrified. If we couldn’t get the right kid, it would be awful. Everything hinges on that. We were casting out of LA so it was full of LA kids coming in, and we thought it would just be awful. There were some good kids we met but he was just head and shoulders above everyone else, he was outstanding. When we saw him we knew he’d be the guy.

SP: What also helps with making a movie in America, is the chance to work with legendary American actors. I mean you’ve worked with incredible British actors too, but here you’ve got Steve Buscemi, for example.

AH: Yeah, and it was so cool.  I loved Trees Lounge, the film Steve directed and it had Chloë Sevigny in it, and they hadn’t worked together since so it was lovely to put them back together in a film. I remember talking about this in 45 Years, to think that you can employ an actor and escape their history is impossible. When you watch 45 Years you know of Charlotte, you know of Tom and you know what they’ve done, and that can actually help the film. With Steve and Chloe I loved the idea that they are such a part of American independent cinema, and have done such interesting films and I can get them together. They’re great, interesting actors and they’re both character actors essentially. Neither of them have really been romantic leads, they’re not that kind of actor. They are character actors.

Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete is released this Friday in cinemas and Curzon Home Cinema.

Stefan Pape

 

Interview: Xavier Legrand, dir. Custody

Read Time:5 Minute, 23 Second

Xavier Legrand is an actor and director whose Just Before Losing Everything was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. His first feature Custody, a powerful film which explores the anguish and anxiety caused by a violent father, won the Silver Lion at Venice last year. We caught up with Legrand to talk about film, the French legal system and how acting prepares you for life as a director.

Tom Duggins: Custody is an extension of a story that you already told in your 2013 short film Just Before Losing Everything, was it a challenge to return to a story that you’d already told so well the first time?

Xavier Legrand: Yes of course it was a challenge to go back to the same story and the same actors, but the original idea was to make three short films, and when I made the first film I already had the others planned out. After I made the first short, it became obvious to me that it would be better to make the other two parts as a feature film.

TD: So it felt like a natural next step?

XL: When I decided to make a film whose chief subject is domestic violence, I didn’t want to just settle for showing a woman escaping from that kind of situation. It was important to show how the difficulties continue after the separation. And particularly when children are caught up in divorce and domestic violence.

TD: The film shows how frustrating the legal system can be in handling cases of domestic abuse. Would you say there’s a campaigning element to the film?

XL: I wouldn’t say I’m campaigning because I’m a film-maker and my job is to tell stories. However, making films is about asking questions of the world and that’s what I’m doing.

 

TD: What questions in particular do you feel the film asks?

XL: The question asked by the film is – can a violent husband be a good father? In France, what the English term ‘domestic violence’ is called ‘conjugal violence’ and the idea is that the violence only affects the spouse, hence ‘conjugal’. Many judges and lawyers in France have therefore got the idea that if violence is only directed at the spouse, then their children won’t be in danger.

TD: The father, Anton, is called a loser a few times in the film. Should we feel sorry for him at all or is he beyond that?

XL: Well pity perhaps not, but it’s important to show that he’s not a monster, he’s a man. He’s unhappy, he’s not good at loving, things have gone badly for him. It’s important to show that he’s not just stupid, he’s a human being. Anton feels he’s rejected by everybody, he doesn’t recognise his own violence and so he feels that he is a victim.

TD: Anton seems like someone whose insecurities are manifesting in a completely toxic way. Is it possible to say he’s misunderstood or is his behaviour fundamentally unacceptable?

XL: It’s never acceptable, nothing justifies violence. Even if his wife had been cruel to him or cheated on him, nothing would justify it. The problem is that patriarchal society has told men that women belong to them, and men think that they can make that a reality through violence and control.

TD: Do you think films such as yours – which show these difficult, painful issues in society – can change the world in some way?

XL: Change the world no, but what film can do is to change the way we look at things and understand things. Film is there to entertain us but it’s also there to document things. The particular thing about film is that as we watch, we identify with the characters, so it educates us through emotion and not just theory.

TD: Are there any particular films that have changed the way you look at things?

XL: There’s a film called Parcours meurtrier d’une mère ordinaire about a woman who puts her newborn babies in a freezer, about women who deny their own pregnancy. It had a big effect on me, but it wasn’t released outside of France.

TD: Did you know that you wanted Léa Drucker and Denis Ménochet to reprise their roles from the first film?

XL: Originally, when I was planning to make three short films, then I was planning to have different actors playing three different couples. But once I’d decided to do it as a feature, then yes absolutely.

TD: I thought Thomas Gioria, who plays the son Julien, was very good. How did you find working with such a young actor, especially on a film covering such an intense subject?

XL: We spent a very long time preparing to do this film and developing a trust between Thomas and myself. The first thing was to find a child who really wanted to make the film and who had the maturity for this part. We spent a long time talking about the film and the violence in it, and we had to talk about it in a way that we were each using a language that the other could understand. We also had someone there on set just to look after Thomas to look after him and make sure he was OK. Thomas listens well, he’s talented, and he really stood out during casting.

TD: As an actor yourself, have you had that experience in front of the camera, of not trusting your director?

XL: Yes, my way of directing is very much built on my own experience of how I’ve been directed. On films where that trust isn’t there, between you and the director, it’s very difficult to work together.

TD: Do you have plans already for your next project?

XL: I’m going to be acting in the theatre next year as well as doing a film in June. I’ll also be writing my next film.

TD: Do you know what subject matter you’ll be tackling this time?

XL: Yes, I know.

TD: Can we expect something similar to Custody or something quite different?

XL: It will be different, but I’m keeping it a secret for now.

Xavier Legrand’s Custody is released in UK cinemas from Friday 13 April.

Tom Duggins

Interview: Josephine Decker, dir. Madeline’s Madeline

Read Time:12 Minute, 44 Second

Madeline’s Madeline, the latest film from Josephine Decker, wowed audiences when it premiered at Sundance last year. Telling the story of a precocious young girl (newcomer Helena Howard) who takes her acting classes a little too seriously, it is a psychologically rich tale about parenting, race, and the blurring between art and life. We sat down with Decker to talk all about her latest work.

Redmond Bacon: How did the idea for the film first come about?

Josephine Decker: It wasn’t ever one idea. I met Helena [and] I was like “we’ve got to make something with you,” then we started talking about themes that were interesting to us. I had this idea about the futility of art, and how you go into something thinking you are going to save the world and take on the prison system and immigration with your little performance art piece about the three little pigs. And I was really interested in the ways that performance itself and the processes of acting can really crack open and reveal parts of yourself that you don’t really know are there. So, I think there was a lot of ideas actually – it wasn’t just one. Then we improvised with actors for like almost a year on the weekends.

RB: Did you workshop like in the film itself?

JD: Yep. After that long I started trying to write and cull down, and realized the thing that was really staying with me from that year, even though we made so many amazing improvisations, was actually just the process itself; the complex weaving of real life and art and how those two blended together.

RB: I was going to ask about the relationship between life and art, because the in the film the theatre piece starts to blend in with real life. Was this the same for you while you were making the movie, or did things remain professional?

JD: Professional is a funny thing in this context because when you’re improvising with people and improvising from real life, you use the time that you have, and you leave at a certain time, but there is an intimacy and a shared experience that already blurs life and art. For all the confusing ethics that come up around that, when you’re in a theatrical troupe it’s a real, shared experience that enhances your own life. So it is your art, it is your life.

RB: The scenes of people workshopping and the theatre scenes reminded me of Jacques Rivette. Was this an influence for you?

JD: Oh that’s so wonderful. The funny thing is I haven’t seen that much of his work. I saw Celine and Julie Go Boating which blew my mind. I saw it at Bam [Brooklyn Academy Of Music]. They did a print of it, and I thought “Wow, you can do a lot with cinema”. But truthfully, I haven’t seen that much. Also, now I’m very curious. I would like to see some more Jacques Rivette.

RB: Out 1 is the 13-hour one. I saw it on Mubi.

JD: It’s pretty wild. I think I saw one section of that and was like: “It’s a little slow”.

 

RB: Very slow, yes. But your style is very different from Rivette’s. You use a hand-held camera, lots of cutting and you don’t really go for establishing shots, like “this is the outside of the building” and then we’re inside now. You always go straight into the characters heads and emotions. Is this your intention?

JD: Yes, I’m really big on seamless transitions. I remember writing in the script that she would run out of a car upset and run into a rehearsal [on a] totally different day, wearing totally different clothes – but the emotion moves with her. I never really understood this whole establishing shot, because I know it tells you what place you’re in, but it can take you out of the emotion you’re in. To me, the emotion you’re in is always much more important than the place.

RB: I saw your other films to prepare for the interview, and they didn’t hit me as much because I didn’t see them in the cinema. Do you always make films to be seen in the cinema? You wouldn’t sell it to Netflix or anything, without a theatrical release?

JD: It’s a great question. [Putting on a jokey voice] It depends how much Netflix is paying.

RB: They get everyone eventually.

JD: It’s interesting because for Thou Wast Mild and Lovely we shot on a 5D, and we didn’t even have a monitor. So poor Ashley Connor [cinematographer] is looking at a screen like this big [makes a small rectangle with her hands] to make her choices about what’s going to be in the film. And in a way it was funny, because I edited that film almost completely on a laptop. Seeing it in a theatre was such a surprise because it’s kind of a claustrophobic film in that people are framed very close and its tons of medium shots until the end where you really release things into the bigger world. That was on purpose, because I feel like that film plays fairly well on a smaller screen, because it was shot on a smaller screen. I think this film [Madeline’s Madeline] does do much better in a theatre. Saying I make films for the theatre – truthfully I can’t afford to edit on anything bigger than [a laptop] yet. Maybe someday. I do think the size of the screen really affects the pace of the film and the edit of the film.

RB: I wanted to mention the theme of race in the movie. First, I thought it was incidental, but when we meet Evangeline’s husband, he’s also black. Did you want to say something intentional about race here?

JD: I think it was intentional, like: what is Evangeline’s curiosity? Where is that coming from? Is that derived from her experience of “I’m going to have this baby”, or “what is this baby like?” I think it was intentional that the questions she might have around race are embedded in her, in her pregnancy and in her partnership.

RB: What were your key inspirations for the movie? I thought there was a Persona kind of vibe and I also wrote down 3 Women.

JD: Two of my favourite films. I love 3 Women, and Persona I just re-watched recently. Persona and Babe are two of my favourite movies. I would say I didn’t have a lot of film inspirations for this. I had a lot of painting inspirations, like abstract paintings, and I was really interested in minimalist painting and making a canvas that allows you to choose the story or create the story out of just brushstrokes. And then I listened to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” maybe a hundred times and I think that I was kind of really interested in a structure for a film that wasn’t a normal narrative structure but felt a little more like a song. Like the way that a motif arises and arises and arises enough times that it explodes into the – like Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” [sings “Rhapsody in Blue”] and then when it hits the Dah you’re like “yes!” Anyway that’s all.

 

RB: So regarding the topic of mental illness. This is a topic that is very prominent now in the media. Do you think – I don’t think so – that some critics may accuse you of exploiting mental illness for narrative purposes?

JD: Well I guess that depends on your take of the film, but I definitely wouldn’t call it exploiting mental illness. I think the characters exploit the mental illness of others. I think both characters are exploiting the other character’s mental illness for their own gains. If anything, I hope it would be read as a commentary on how misunderstood mental illness is, how easy it is to psychologise someone and how easy it is to put a person into a category. I think that the mother Regina is creating this character of Madeline as a mentally ill helpless person that she has to really watch because who knows what will happen, and I think there’s moments where Madeline’s like “OK great, you want me to be that person, I’ll be that person for you”. I think it’s complicated, especially with a young person, and there were versions of the film where I thought it was interesting to keep the question alive – is she mentally ill, or is her mum convinced of it – but I think this one is a little clearer that she is struggling with something that is going on inside of her. My hope would be that it creates a deeper conversation around it.

RB: We get this ambiguous ending, where we’re not quite sure if its real or not. Do you always look to create an ambiguous, unsettling feeling in the viewer, as opposed to tidying it up with a neat bow?

JD: I would say that’s true, yes. Always. I like movies that don’t end on the final shot, you kind of keep the audience writing the film until long after it works out.

RB: For a film like this, how do you find the funding? Because it might be a hard sell for Hollywood.

JD: I know, it’s so true. We were lucky that Bow and Arrow – the production company – read a draft of the script and was interested and responded. They really liked Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, so they were really early partners in saying yes to the project. We were able to raise a lot of money through the momentum of having a group that was excited for the piece to exist. Then Forager came on and helped us as we were getting into the edit. We were lucky to have partners who believed in this kind of work. It’s a strange piece, it’s not your normal piece of cinema, so I was grateful that some folks seem to respond well.

RB: In Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, you worked with Joe Swanberg, who is something of a patron saint of Modern American Independent Cinema. I’m wondering if Swanberg gave you any advice in your filmmaking.

JD: It’s funny because he might even be sleeping in that room right now [points to room behind her]. He’s staying with us here – he’s one of the executive producers on this film. We were working on Mild and Lovely and he saw me getting a little surly at the end of the day and I was like this is so hard balancing everyone’s input and making everyone happy and he said: “Josephine, no one’s happy unless you’re happy. If we finish a take and you look miserable, we’re all miserable. You need to get what you need. Just ask for what you need and we will all feel like we got what we needed, even at the time it feels like we’re fighting back.” And that gave me a lot of permission.

RB: In The New Yorker in 2014, Richard Brody said that the three most exciting American directors working today are Wes Anderson, Terence Malick and Josephine Decker. Does that excite you or make you very, very nervous?

JD: I think I feel really honoured to have his support and trust.

RB: He doesn’t like a lot of films.

JD: That kind of thing, it feels like a kindness. Because I’m so often saying the opposite to myself. The process of art-making, at least for me, is feeling like a failure all the time, feeling like I’m not going to be good enough, nobody is going to like what I do, so when there’s a little bit of news that somebody thinks what I’m doing is worthwhile it’s kind of like a salve that helps me keep going and calms the intestine. I’m very grateful and will take all the positive reinforcement I can get.

RB: Your films are a lot about female power and women’s relationship to sex. What are the ideas you are trying to create around female sexuality and power?

JD: I grew up in Texas in a very repressed culture that was not sex positive at all. It was all about waiting until marriage; it was a very religious community. It was honestly very focused around male pleasure. There was not very much exploration of female pleasure. It was not something that was talked about. I think that when I started to make work, I think there was pent-up, brewing anger and also violence inside my own sexuality around what I wanted to get and how I wanted to get it. I think I created characters in Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely who were going to get what they wanted, and they would destroy anyone to get that. And that felt really good to me to create, and I needed to see that to feel more empowered within myself.

RB: This actually ties into one of my other questions. Do you want to provide a sense of catharsis for the audience, to allow them to confront their demons and get a cathartic reaction to it?

JD: I think I try to. I can’t ever tell how the audience is going to react to something. My dad is a poet, and the thing I learnt from poetry is that with the smallest amount of words you’re trying to take a sword to someone’s soul and explode something open in a very beautiful way. I think that is something that I am interested in within cinema. How do you access a part of our human space that isn’t about [the] plot blowing up at the end but is about expansion?

RB: How did you discover Helena?

JD: She was doing a performance at a teen arts festival in New Jersey. A bunch of teens were performing and I was supposed to give feedback on every performance. I gave feedback on two kids from Frozen before her, and she got on stage and did a monologue from Blackbird that left me literally weeping and I couldn’t give any feedback. I think I said: “I have no notes”. This was the best performance I had ever seen in my life. Then I very patiently requested her contact information slash chased her down the hall, got the contact information and said: “Yeah, let’s make a movie together.”

RB: What’s next?

JD: I was hopefully going to direct a feature film this summer that is in the early stages, and I don’t know how much I will be able to talk about it yet. But it will be set in upstate New York and [knocks wood] fingers crossed that will come together.

Redmond Bacon

Interview: Sebastián Lelio, dir. A Fantastic Woman

Read Time:7 Minute, 36 Second

One of the biggest names to emerge from Chile’s new golden era of cinema, Sebastián Lelio first achieved international recognition with his fourth film Gloria, a dynamic comedy-drama about a middle-aged woman’s ill-fated romance with a retired naval officer.

This week marks the release of his hugely anticipated follow-up A Fantastic Woman, a brazenly expressive melodrama about the cost of being authentic in a world built on binaries. After premiering at last year’s Berlinale, where it picked up a Silver Bear for Best Screenplay, the film has gone on to be nominated for the Best Foreign Language Feature Oscar, thanks primarily to the remarkable performance of Daniela Varga.

Varga plays Marina, a resilient young woman who finds herself ostracised when her lover, Orlando (Francisco Reyes) suddenly dies. The reason? Marina is a transgender woman, something that evokes disgust and anger in Orlando’s family, who proceed to kick her out of his flat and refuse her entry to his funeral.

The film almost made history, with Vega originally in the running to become the first trans-woman to be nominated for best actor. She sadly missed out, but her performance is undeniably central to the film’s success, something Lelio was eager to discuss when we sat down with him at last year’s Transylvania Film Festival to talk about the film and his career so far.

Patrick Gamble: Historically, films about trans characters tend to star cisgender actors, but you’ve bucked the trend here. You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you wrote Gloria with Paulina Garcia in mind. Was that the case with A Fantastic Woman and Daniela Vega?

Sebastián Lelio: Not really. We started writing around a story and then the idea of it being lived by a trans-gender woman appeared. Once we made that decision the script writing process stopped because I felt I needed to educate myself more about the trans-experience. I’ll admit I was very ignorant; I didn’t have any transgender friends so I decided to look for a consultant. After two or three meetings with various people they all said you have to meet Daniela; “she’s great; she’s fantastic; she sings, she acts, she has a great personality, I’m sure she can help you”. So I met Daniela and I was fascinated by her.

To be honest, after that meeting I knew she was going to play Marina but we continued to work together for several months. During that time the script began to incorporate various aspects of her life and at the end of the process I asked her to play the lead; she agreed straight away. It was a risk, at that point she only had a little bit of theatre experience and I was asking a lot from her. She had to sing, she had to dance, she had to learn how to drive, so it involved a huge amount of preparation. It was all or nothing really; if it failed then the film failed. It was a lot of pressure for her but I like to think that I create a space of mutual trust for my actors so they know that they’ll be protected.

PG: The film flirts with multiple genres; its part romance, part fantasy, part character study, but what I really enjoyed was how the story feels like it’s trying to become this conventional piece of genre cinema, but Marina won’t allow it to be reduced to something so simple.

SL: Did you know that in Spanish we use the same word for gender and genre? So we say sexual género and cinematic género. Both words are the same. I conceived this film as a transgénero film; so not only is the main character transgender but the film itself is trans-genre; its identity refuses to be labelled, just like Marina. This isn’t a film about transitioning, Marina has already fought that battle and won it, I was far more interested in showing that she’s ready for the world, but the world isn’t ready for her.

PG: There are elements of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Pedro Almodóvar in your work, but there’s also this dreamlike quality, specifically the film’s opening scene that feels like the cover of tawdry romance novel coming to life. Could you tell us a little about your influences?

SL: I’ve become really interested in the dreamlike quality of the film viewing experience, and Marina’s story felt like fertile ground to explore that aesthetics further. Every time I write a new film there’s always a pantheon of films flying around my head. For example, the scene in which Marina is leaning against a gale at an extreme angle, I was thinking about Buster Keaton; that flamboyance, that excess. But there’s also Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold (Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud), especially those shots of Jeanne Moreau walking in the rain. The way she looks at the camera. There’s something about this portrait of a woman that felt like an act of cinematic love.

PG: You’ve certainly created a loving portrait of Marina, but there’s also a lot of violence in the film. I’m thinking specifically of the sellotape scene…

SL: Yes, I wanted to find a way of applying violence to Marina without leaving any mark or trace. At the same time it’s so humiliating, it’s about deforming her, because that’s how they see her; they see Marina as a monster. It’s all about creating a triangular gaze, first you see how they see her, and then you’re forced to confront how you feel about that. I realised when I was editing the film, the only person who didn’t have any problem with Marina, apart from Orlando, was the dog. The dog has no prejudice, no judgement, just acceptance. In a way that’s a great lesson; we should learn to be more like dogs. All the judgements in the film reveal aspect of the people that are judging her. They say nothing about her, and in a way she’s like the locker in the film, she’s an empty box that we fill with our own projections, our fantasy and our fears.

PG: Music seems to play an important part in your films, could you tell me a little bit about the process behind your song choices?

SL: For me music is not something that visits cinema, it is very much part of cinema. Although it’s only a small part of the process, it’s one I really enjoy. I always listen to music whilst writing and although most of those songs don’t end up in the film, they become a way of accessing the type of emotions I’m trying to explore. If you analyse the ending of A Fantastic Woman and Gloria, they’re both resemble moments from a musical but I would say these ending are a little more complex. The music suggests optimism for what’s coming but something in the actor’s demeanour suggests it isn’t going to be simple. There are new battles coming, but perhaps they have a couple of new weapons to face what life has to throw at them.

PG: Chile is renowned for being quite a conservative country, did you struggle to get the film financed?

SL: In a way, Chile is like an island. We’re isolated by the Atacama Desert in the north, the Andean Mountains on the east and the Pacific Ocean on the west. Then there’s the mark of the cross, which is rooted in the DNA of our culture. Weirdly, finding the financing for Gloria was harder because people were was like; what’s sexy about a woman in her sixties? And I was like, ‘well…everything’. But I was lucky to find producers who were crazy enough to think I might be right. A Fantastic Woman was much less complicated, probably because of the success of Gloria, but also because the film has elements of a thriller; someone trying to survive, trying to prevail, those are very attractive elements to financiers.

In Chile it’s a very fragile industry. The generation I belong to started making films around ten years ago and we were coming from a moment in Chilean history when cinema had disappeared. During the dictatorship cinema almost died, there were exceptions, but it was very hard to make movies. Everything had been dismantled, the culture was destroyed and many filmmakers went into exile or fell into advertising. Thankfully it was reborn, and I belong to the generation that had access to film schools for the first time in years. Everything was very candid, there wasn’t anywhere to hide, only a genuine desire to make films, so that’s what I do, I make films.

A Fantastic Woman is in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from Friday.

Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble

Interview: James Erskine, dir. The Ice King

Read Time:8 Minute, 39 Second

James Erskine is an accomplished director and documentarian who has explored a number of different sporting greats through the medium of film. His latest, The Ice King, tells the life story of John Curry: a pioneer in the world of figure skating, who redefined the sport by incorporating elements of performance art into his routines. We sat down with Erskine to talk about Curry’s triumphs and the private demons of an inspired athlete.

Tom Duggins: You’ve made films about football, cycling, cricket, tennis, motorsports, and now figure skating. Are you slowly working your way through every sport there is?

James Erskine: I make films about the world that happen to be seen through the lens of sport. For me it’s about finding an amazing story with an amazing central character. I would say the film is really about genius. Whether that is genius purely constituted in an individual or whether that’s an act of genius. Even going back to One Night in Turin, Gascoigne is a kind of genius. He was problematic as a character, but what he does, no one had been able to do that. That’s what makes him a genius. It’s the same for Sachin Tendulkar and John Curry. I started off making films at the BBC in arts. I made a lot of films about art and performance and this film was a melding of those two things. The Curry story is amazing. Imagine wanting to be an artist and deciding that the way you were going to do it was to become an athlete.

TD: Do you think football is an art form?

JE: I do think football is a performance art of sorts. In football you get moments of art but the whole game is not art.

TD: That comparison between Paul Gascoigne and John Curry is interesting. Watching The Ice King, it’s noticeable how disordered John Curry’s private life was compared to how graceful and composed he was in his performances. Can that be another common element to genius?

JE: There’s a really interesting quote from Francis Bacon, this is in one of the amazing interviews with the art critic David Sylvester. He interviewed Bacon in his studio, and his studio was chaos, and Silvester asked him: ‘Why do you keep it like this?’ And Bacon says: ‘I’m an artist and my job is to make sense out of chaos, the chaos of humanity, and therefore I surround myself with chaos’. I think there’s a valid idea that artists require that. I don’t know about geniuses.

TD: Another interesting element of that, which comes across in the film, of what artists do or need, is the idea of sacrifice. John Curry talks quite a lot about the sacrifices he had to make to pursue figure skating.

JE: I didn’t think about it properly until I made the film, but you would have to get up at five in the morning and skate for six or eight hours. Your legs are done in by the cold. We shot the end sequence at an ice rink in Baltimore, where they try to recreate one of the dances, The Blue Danube. I was just stood on the ice for an hour and a half, and I was in total agony afterwards. Because it’s a very hard surface and the cold comes up through you. A very interesting thing, I think, about Curry is that he sets out on this journey for acceptance – that’s a big theme in the film – acceptance by society. And he is accepted, he wins the gold medal, he has twenty thousand people at the Met Opera house, he’s told he is a genius. But he can never accept himself.

TD: The Blue Danube sequence in the film is very captivating. I couldn’t help thinking about 2001: A Space Odyssey when I saw it.

JE: John was very interested in it. I have letters where he talks about going to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. He was very aware. He was often compared to David Bowie. There was definitely an aesthetic which he reached towards with David Bowie as well. So there’s both Space Odyssey and Space Oddity going on in those things. That’s why they chose the music. It wasn’t the original piece they were going to do. But knowing that piece, the context of it in 2001 and where it comes in, where a man is cast into the eternal frozen waste of the universe, trapped to always be the same – it seems to me that’s what that dance is partly about. We lucked out with that Blue Danube footage, it had never been seen before we found it. It was old rehearsal footage.

TD: Who did it come to you from?

JE: It came from Nathan Birch, the man who choreographs it in the film. He was sort of John’s protégé, who then set up The Next Ice Age company. It was amazing when we found it because we weren’t sure how to end the film. We needed a final dance.

TD: Does that kind of thing happen quite often when you’re making documentaries? Those moments of luck?

JE: Well, by the time I actually wrote the film, I knew we had that footage. But there was a point where I wasn’t sure if the film was makeable, I felt we needed to go and find something. So, I said to my researchers before we even started – if you can find ‘The Blue Danube’ and ‘Moon Skate’, these mythical dances, we’ll make the film, and if you can’t I don’t know how we can make the film. Because you feel it has to have something more, it can’t just be a bunch of old BBC shows. I mean you can make a film like that, but the performance needs to be somehow more. ‘Moon Skate’ is extraordinary and it really is a work of genius.

TD: The other piece of footage that really stood out was the dance to ‘Burn’ by Jean-Michel Jarre, where all the performers are dressed in red and white. Watching it, it made me think about red and white blood cells.

JE: That’s what I thought. For me it’s the only thing I can think of when I watch it. I’m glad you’ve said that, because that’s what I wanted you to take from it.

TD: Do you think John Curry was aware of it too, even on a subconscious level?

JE: Friends of his would have started to die around that time, from Kaposi’s sarcoma. In his community, in New York, people were dying and we know it affected friends of his. So I think, absolutely, it seems like it was not an unconscious decision.

TD: Another thing the film examines very well is the idea of machismo and masculinity in sport. Do you think the world of professional sport still has a confused attitude where those things are concerned?

JE: I think it’s more than confused. In terms of homophobia, in terms of gender, in terms of race there are still major problems in sport. And homophobia is a big one. In the art world, you’re allowed to be a little bit strange, but the sport world pushes you toward conformity. Also artistic excellence isn’t generally discovered until you’re in your twenties, whereas with sport you tend to be on that path from a very early age, and sexuality is something that you come to understand better later on in life.

TD: Another detail in the film is that John Curry was outed by the media…

JE: Well…

TD: Do you disagree?

JE: He was definitely outed by the media. I think whether John Curry’s character was such that he was self-sabotaging is another question. I think that’s something you see in his life. He spent all that time working to win the Olympic gold, and then on some level, perhaps subconsciously, he allows it to slip out. Certainly, in the rest of his career, he would reach a peak and then self-sabotage. He would get the Met Opera House and then refuse to perform.

TD: Do you think that we should be less interested in the details of someone’s sexuality? Both the media and the public generally, do we need to get better at letting public figures have their privacy?

JE: I think it’s inevitable. It’s a double-edged sword. If there’s no gay footballers, for example, willing to talk about their private lives, then it’s very difficult to use them as examples at the same time. I think that makes it more complicated. I think it should be talked about. The worst element of it is what goes on social media, the trolling and abuse you get.

TD: The subject matter of the film is quite sad in some ways, but the tone of the film itself is quite buoyant and joyful throughout. Was that something you were concerned to achieve?

JE: Well I didn’t want the film to end and people feel depressed and feel like life is futile. This was someone who did something and changed the way the world saw this endeavour. And that is a triumph. There’s a quote from Johnny Weir, I’m not sure if it’s in the film, but he says that making your mark is the hardest thing to do in the world. John did it, he created great art and that’s rare.

TD: Lastly, what are you working on next?

JE: There’s a few things that I can’t talk about, but one thing I’m doing is developing a dramatic film about John Curry. That was always the ambition: to make the documentary, really explore his life, show it on the big screen, and then try to find another way into his story. Because I think his story can reach different audiences in a different way. I think he’s a fascinating character and I think it would be an amazing film.

James Erskine’s The Ice King is out now on DVD and on demand. theicekingmovie.com

Tom Duggins

Interview: Yorgos Lanthimos, dir. The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Read Time:8 Minute, 27 Second

To some, the name Yorgos Lanthimos may not immediately spring to mind, but his films certainly will. His latest effort, the Palme d’or-nominated The Killing of a Sacred Deer, once again reunites him with acclaimed actor Colin Farrell in a darkly comic revenger.

We sat down with Yorgos during the London Film Festival to discuss his latest film – one which will make you squirm in discomfort – as well as the ethical quandaries he faces during filming and his relationship with the absurdism that runs through all of his features. Mild spoilers ahead.

Richard Hayward: I saw The Killing of a Sacred Deer recently, and the opening scene of heart surgery stunned me. What made you choose to open the film in such a bold, audacious way?

Yorgos Lanthimos: From the very beginning of the screenplay, we had to have an operation written into Steven’s (Farrell) surgeon character, so when we shot it, it was a very complicated matter to film a real surgery. We had to sterilise everything, get vaccinated, figure out where we would put the rig, and keep out of the way of the people that needed to get in. It was a rig above the actual operation, and then when we completed the shot of the slow zoom out of the heart with all these hands going in there. I saw it and realised “We don’t need to shoot anything else”, like people calling for assistance or even zooming out any further. When we coupled it with the music – which I played on location – it felt so strong and complete as a beginning that we didn’t need to change it. I can’t justify intellectually why, because it’s a very visceral experience anyway, but it just felt we didn’t need to shoot anything else.

RH: Throughout your filmography you’ve taken inspiration from Greek tragedies, this time drawing on comparisons with Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis. It’s even mentioned within The Killing of a Sacred Deer in passing, so how much did it influence your script?

YL: It’s pretty much a straightforward reference that we made to the tragedy. I knew the tragedy of course, and I like it very much, but we started the screenplay first and then realised that there are these similarities between both, so we thought it was interesting enough to include it as a reference. Those kind of themes have been explored since ancient times, and making this association to something so old in a contemporary film made us realise that those kind of questions haven’t really been answered so many years later. They still concern us, but actually, we deal with them even less and we’re kind of shocked and scandalised when we dare to present them in a contemporary setting. I found it interesting that there was this connection, so wanted to highlight this, but we did write it independently from the tragedy.

RH: From the bizarre way in which people are punished in The Lobster, the insistence on the language as a tool of power in Dogtooth, and now you’ve got the nonchalance of the Murphy family’s matter-of-fact approach to their fate. Is this stark absurdism something you purposefully try to include?

YL: It’s not so conscious for me so I can’t really agree on any one theory around it, but weirdly enough a lot of it comes logically for us. When you create a certain set-up and situation, it leads you to a certain way of solving problems. As for Dogtooth, the use of language in that way of finding different meanings for words was a necessity. We were trying to solve the problem: “How do you deal with kids being isolated from an environment, and what happens if they hear this word?” You try and come up with a solution to the situation you’ve built that would make sense to the fictional parents. This kind of extreme and strange situation, you have to solve these problems with logic, so it ends up being absurd but at the same time it’s because it starts from one thing and logically ends up there. The punishments in The Lobster, for example having John C. Reilly getting his hand burnt in a toaster, fits within the world we were creating. When I say world I don’t mean it’s a different world, it’s just that they have a different atmosphere with different rules. We try to find associations between those worlds and their atmospheres with whatever we need to show. If it’s a punishment, or a joke, we need it to somehow relate. It’s logic for us.



RH: This is your consecutive film with Colin Farrell. Was it a conscious casting decision or did he come to mind after you and had written the part of Steven?

YL: He wasn’t always. I don’t think about these things when we’re writing the screenplay, I try to focus only on that. When I feel confident that we have something complete I think about who could be in it, what it’ll look like, where we will set it and what the sound will be like. But of course, when we got to the next step he was definitely one of the people I thought of first because we had a great experience working together on The Lobster, and it made sense for me to build on that relationship and explore things further. This being a much more complex thing for him, I thought that was just a natural thing to do.

RH: And what about Barry Keoghan as Martin? How did you cast him?

YL: I saw hundred and hundreds of kids from all around the world, and Barry just stood out. He was initially older than I had imagined for the character of Martin, but that quickly went away. I couldn’t see anyone else being this kid. I desperately needed someone that was going to be complex enough to convey all different aspects of the character at the same time. I didn’t want this to become a one-dimensional evil teenager, it was necessary that it was someone you could relate to and understand a kind of warmth, and one that you might be able to understand where he was coming from. He sometimes needed to be a normal kid, and then other times feel like an avenging angel of death of some kind. It was hard to find a young actor that could embody all that – sometimes all at once – and Barry just stood out. He was perfect.

RH: With Barry and your young cast, they’re often placed in bizarrely violent and sexual scenarios. How do you approach that in an ethical way and is there anything you wouldn’t get them to do?

YL: First of all you have to make sure everyone is comfortable. The parents are always involved, so I was never in fear of doing anything that anybody would feel uncomfortable with, and also, the most important fact is that these things happen one thing at a time, so we can deal with them very practically. I’m not a fan of creating an atmosphere on set that is the same as I want to be present in the final film, so my set is never a dark place with people being gloomy. It would make the film too self-serious so I always like people to enjoy what they’re doing. I never intellectualise the situations either, and I never go into psychological manipulation or try to get the actors to feel what they’re supposed to in the film. I try to avoid that. Whatever we do is far removed from what’s on screen, and most of it is very straight forward. The cast and crew are all really respectful toward everyone and we take everyone’s feeling into consideration. We’re very cautious about it all.

RH: You’ve recently finished wrapping on The Favourite. From the synopsis alone – ‘A tale of envy and betrayal in the court of Queen Anne in early 18th century England’ – it seems quite unambiguous for a Lanthimos film. Is that the case, or is there a similar dark streak to it? What can you tell us about it?

YL: I guess the story is more straight forward, but I’m the same person making it. I suppose the best part of me making this is to make a different kind of period film and do something with the genre while still managing to be original and fresh, so although it is inspired by history and real people, we have taken a lot of liberties. We went to great lengths to write a screenplay that felt very unique, and to find writers that could create that. It was also very important to have the actors that I wanted to be a part of this thing, like Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz. Visually, as well, we wanted to make it so that it would stand out, which included things uncommon with the period and using language that feels more contemporary, as well as other elements that make it feel different to your average period film.

RH: Lastly, will you ever return to Greek language filmmaking, or are you happier making films in the English language?

YL: Well, at the moment it doesn’t make much sense for me to do that. It’s going to be a hard film to put together, and because my films could be set anywhere practically it just makes sense to keep making English films. If I ever thought it was important to make a film that only makes sense to it in Greece and in Greek, I would do it, but for the moment it doesn’t seem like the next thing I need to do. Maybe I could use Greece as a setting, because all the actors I work with go “Let’s go to Greece and make a film”, so again if it makes sense then we might go ahead and do that: make an English film in Greece.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is released in UK cinemas from this Friday.

Richard Hayward

Interview: Barry Keoghan, The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Read Time:8 Minute, 30 Second

Barry Keoghan’s latest role sees him tackle something a little different: the unhinged teen, Martin, in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer. We sat down with Keoghan to talk to him about his new villainous role, his favourite directors and spaghetti.

Richard Hayward: I have been fortunate enough to see a lot of movies during this year’s London Film Festival, but few stood out to me as much as The Killing of a Sacred Deer, particularly your turn as sociopathic youngster Martin. Seeing at at a 9am showing was quite a wakeup.

Barry Keoghan: [Laughs] 9am? Jeez man, that’s like a shot of espresso.

RH: You’ve already worked with a huge wealth of talent, with directors Christopher Nolan and now Yorgos Lanthimos, and with actors such as Michael Fassbender, Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman. How do you remain humble when working alongside such major stars?

BK: It’s not something you really check yourself on. When you meet these people who have these ‘names’, you realise they’re just normal people with success, and the status is the only thing that divides them. They’re just normal people who are committed to their work and are still wanting to make really good films, so when you see that in the first hour you meet them, all the nervousness goes. Obviously it will take my breath away, like when I met Tom Hardy it was like “Fuck, that’s Bane!”, y’know, I’m big fans of these people and to meet them catches your breath, but then you get over that, and it’s like they’re just normal people.

RH: What drew you to Yorgos and scriptwriter Efthymis Filippou’s script for The Killing of a Sacred Deer?

BK: Yorgos did! I watched his previous films, The Lobster and Dogtooth, and I was like “They’re weird, really weird, but unique”, and I just wanted to do something like that. I’m always up for a challenge, I’m always up for working with people who want to try something different and with Yorgos I felt like I was going into an experiment. I was down for it .

RH: Were you mostly drawn to the abstractness and weirdness of it then?

BK: It was mostly his language and his world. Yorgos’ world and how he creates them stands out. I wanted to be a part of that, and will hopefully be a part of another of his worlds. I would love to do something with him that flips it altogether: something that challenges the both of us. Whatever he’s up for, I’m up for.

RH: How did you get into the mindset to go from a kindly, sympathetic hero in Dunkirk, to an insidious menace in Sacred Deer?

BK: I’d put it down to dialogue. I didn’t go in with any feelings or emotions, I didn’t attach any of that because that’s Yorgos’ way. There’s no creating a backstory, I left that down to him. As for Dunkirk, I just really wanted to show the naivety of George, and his innocence; he was a gateway for the audience. Both Yorgos and Chris [Nolan] are masters of their universe: they both create these worlds with a vision and are very precise in what they say, with little words they know how to get a good performance out of you.

RH: With Yorgos’ films, his characters are mostly always emotionally inaccessible or robotic. Did you emulate any of his past creations to into your own?

BK: I did: I read The Killing of a Sacred Deer in The Lobster tone. I think if you’re going into a Yorgos film you have to take on that language. He won’t ever pull you on it, but you have to have that going into it. The Killing of a Sacred Deer was a bit more real than The Lobster, which was nice, because The Lobster was a bit more science-fiction and this felt more contemporary.

RH: What did you do to avoid imitation from his past films?

BK: Always be original with your characters: if you’re playing a baddie don’t try “Oh, I’ll look at these bad guys for inspiration on that characteristic”, I just wanted to throw my own twist in, which is to play it as present as possible. I wanted Martin to be really present. I think I’ve done that, I think I made him so present that when Martin wasn’t even there you felt like he was lurking in the background. He’s a creep.

RH: It’s known that your audition for Dunkirk involved utilising a remote as a makeshift weapon, with batteries for bullets. What did you do for the audition here? Did Yorgos give you any inclination of how he wanted you to be?

BK: I framed that audition [for Dunkirk] very purposefully so that I could get the batteries in and out easily without the camera seeing them. But for Sacred Deer, the weird thing is I was in Greece when I filmed the audition, and then he flew me back to London.

RH: The themes of Sacred Deer are pretty dark, did Yorgos give you any inclination of how it would be on set?

BK: On set it was enjoyable and easy going. As dark and as intense as the movie is, it wasn’t like that on set at all. Colin and I like to mess around, it’s a very family environment, with all the crew. Everyone had a laugh. Yorgos didn’t realise that I struggle with the number ‘three’, because I say ‘tree’. He saw that I struggled with it, during the listing of the three rules. I was like “I can’t, Yorgos”, and he just told me to keep going. We filmed that a few times and it was really challenging.

RH: That’s a fantastic scene. Afterwards, a few other journalists and I had quite a laugh at how Martin eats spaghetti. It’s all in the audio and the sinister smirk you give to Nicole at the end.

BK: [Laughs] This was basically the American way. We had done that scene so many times, and there’s only so many spaghetti carbs you can eat, so I got to the point where I just put it in my mouth, and pulled it back out. He kept that take. As an actor you don’t get many scenes like that, where you think, “I can fuck around with this. I’ve got a bowl of spaghetti, I’m in my boxers, Nicole Kidman is here, let’s make history”, so you have to capitalise on it. That scene is going to stick around I think. I love the laugh at the end that comes after I say “I’ve gotta go to class”, it’s freaky man.

RH: Would you like to play another villain?

BK: I’m going to stay away from that for a while. I’ve turned down offers that would do well for my bank balance but I’ve turned them down because some of them have been the baddie and I don’t wanna fall into that. The next one coming up for me is American Animals, where I play a normal teenager from a good family, so this is another chance for people to see me in a different role. I’m all about that for now, the range. It’s gonna be a good one.

RH: You have so many odd scenes like the aformentioned spaghetti scene, or the moment you compare armpit hairs with Farrell, but another stood out to me: what was it like to have Nicole Kidman kiss your feet?

BK: That was weird, I tell ya. I was “Alright, it’s happening. Are we rolling?” I never thought I’d be able to say “Nicole Kidman kissed my feet.” It’s madness.

RH: You’ve already mentioned you’d like to work with Yorgos again, but there anyone else you’d want to work with?

BK: Lenny Abrahamson, Barry Jenkins, y’know, Paul Thomas Anderson and Martin Scorsese, I’ve a list of them. I’d be blessed if I got to work with one of them. Yorgos is actually lining one up for myself and Leonardo DiCaprio…

RH: That sounds like an ideal pairing! Would you take any role they gave you, even if this role was a villain?

BK: Hmm, see, I’d have to talk that one out with the team. Maybe I could make him a likeable villain, one you could be rooting for!

RH: There were some points in Sacred Deer where you were able to understand Martin’s warped justifications., even if they were skewed.

BK: Yeah, at the start you could wonder “What’s happening with this sweet boy”, and there was this sexual tension so it was weird. Yorgos does that on purpose though, he gets us really close, face-to-face. And like in The Lobster, with the maid, that’s so fucking weird. He’s a weird man. I think he wants to be an actor. [Laughs]

RH: Do you think he’s got it in him to direct himself in one of his own films?

BK: I’d love to see that. I’d love to see him play even a little part in something he does. Imagine! I’ve a lot of love for that man, he’s a genius, I mean it. He bought me a Nikon FM2 camera. And Colin got me a Nikon as well, a digital. I’m always learning and taking pictures of things I like, learning that there’s no right way to do it. Technically, yes there are rules to follow, but people love blurry images.

RH: What else do you do when you’re not on set, or when you’re back in Summerhill, Dublin?

BK: I just chill, man. It’s all about just taking time. I’ve had seven months to chill now though, so I’m ready to get back to working.

RH: In Sacred Deer, Martin’s favourite film is Groundhog Day. Was that your choice? If not, what would you have chosen.

BK: That was Yorgos. I don’t know why. There’s something… about that choice. I would have put in, hmm, Get Rich or Die Tryin’. That would’ve been weird. [Laughs]

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is released in UK cinemas from this Friday.

Richard Hayward