Author Archive

The Gronvall Report: Director Marc Turtletaub on Puzzle

Friday, August 3rd, 2018

Puzzle, a beguiling contemporary love story adapted by Oren Moverman and Polly Mann from Natalia Smirnoff’s 2009 Argentinian film Rompecabezas, heralds producer Marc Turtletaub’s arrival as a director. Upon leaving a long career in the financial industry he transitioned to film in 2004, and after only four features, enjoyed his big breakthrough in 2006 as one of the producers behind Little Miss Sunshine. After that he was on a roll, producing such acclaimed pictures as Chop Shop (2007), Away We Go (2009), Jack Goes Boating (2010), Safety Not Guaranteed (2012), and Loving (2016).

His movies tend to be about relationships rather than genre, and Puzzle especially reflects that sensibility, although it nods to the genre of the Forties and Fifties that was known as the women’s picture. Kelly Macdonald plays Agnes, a suburban housewife who has spent her life devoted to taking care of men–her father, husband, and two sons—seemingly without question. When by chance she discovers she has an uncanny knack for assembling complex jigsaw puzzles in record time, she ventures into Manhattan to buy more, and stumbles upon an ad from a wealthy businessman named Robert (Irrfan Khan) who is looking for a partner with whom to compete in an upcoming jigsaw championship. What follows is a journey of discovery, where Agnes winds up surprising everyone: Robert, her family, herself, and us.


Andrea Gronvall: Could we talk about the tone of Puzzle? The opening sequence feels old-fashioned, in that we see this housewife, Agnes, toiling alone in this big old house. There are no digital distractions, no TV in the background, like in the 1950s. Then we learn she’s doing all this scrubbing, decorating, and baking for her family and guests, yes, but it’s her own birthday party. The setup is not only funny, which it is supposed to be, but it also stings, you know? And that establishes the tone for the rest of the film, because you blend these different emotions—love, devotion, levity, pain—into a current that builds momentum as it flows outward. How do you decide, going in, what the tone of a film is going to be, and how do you maintain it?

Marc Turtletaub: That is a question I haven’t heard before, and I think about it a lot—not necessarily when I’m shooting, but beforehand. You think about how grounded you want a story to be, but then you also think about sections of a movie. The opening of the movie does feel like it’s going to be about the 1950s, and that was intentional. We shot it in silhouette; we shot it with Agnes wearing a dress that could have been from a different generation—it almost blends into the wallpaper, right?—but subliminally. And although this is 2018, the house itself feels like it’s frozen in time; it was the house she was raised in.

As far as overall tone is concerned, I’m drawn to nuanced characters, characters that aren’t stereotypical, but distinct. When I have real characters, who are behaving in a real way, it helps to define what the tone of a movie will be. And sometimes you find it in the editing. You have a certain intention going in, then you’ll realize, okay, I’ve shot this scene three ways, and I want to be consistent with the tone of the movie, so I’ll pick this take over that one. It’s a question that’s hard to answer, but you often are developing the tone as you go.

AG: What was your average number of takes, and did you rehearse with your actors beforehand? You shot Puzzle in, what, six weeks? 

MT: We shot it in 30 days. And I would typically do three to five takes, and not rehearse, because I wanted the actors to bring in what they were going to without my mediation. I had amazing actors, and because I’ve become wiser as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to let great actors do what they can do.

AG: Kelly Macdonald is terrific. 

MT: She’s marvelous, isn’t she?

AG: She was the best thing about Goodbye Christopher Robin.  And then there’s Boardwalk Empire and No Country for Old Men.

MT: She’s wonderful in everything she touches. She’s a chameleon, so I love her as an actress. And she’s in every scene in this movie.

AG: She carries Puzzle, without a doubt, but I’m not going to slight Irrfan Khan. 

MT: No, Irrfan is one of our great actors. Because I hadn’t rehearsed, I didn’t know what his performance would be like until we were rolling. And it was so unexpected, and that’s what I always want in a movie, a story where I don’t know which way it’s going to turn, and performances that are not what I expect. And that’s what I got from him, in spades.

AG: You must have seen The Lunchbox, right? Was that a factor in your casting him?

MT: Yeah, a big one. I loved it.

AG: Khan has such range. Whatever he’s in, he elevates the material. But maybe because I haven’t seen a lot of his Bollywood films, I never thought of him as a romantic lead until The Lunchbox. In Puzzle he’s almost rakish, but just as appealing. 

MT: He is a handsome guy. It’s not typical casting for him, and I think that’s why he wanted to do it, and came all the way from India to shoot it, because it’s not where you expect to see him.

AG: Is Agnes attracted to his character Robert because he’s so worldly, and she’s been so sheltered? Is it a case of opposites attract? 

MT: That’s a good question. The viewers will have to answer it for themselves, but I know that many of the women who have seen the movie said what a handsome man he is. And my editor—it’s really funny—I wanted a female editor [Catherine Haight] because this is principally a story about a woman, and as a man making a film about a woman I wanted to have one in the editing room. And she said “I’m going to make sure that we’re telling telling Agnes’s story.” While you’re shooting, the editor creates an assembly cut. It’s basically putting together the whole movie, as it was written, without much interpretation, no changing of the story. When I went in to see the cut, it was so heavily about Irrfan that I said, “Wait a second—you told me you wanted the female perspective here, but it’s Irrfan 365 days a year. What are you doing?” And she said, “He’s so good!” So, I teased her about that a lot, but he is great.

I think David Denman is also a surprise to people, because we remember him for his comedic role in The Office, but here his character Louie could be stereotypically unlikable. And I think that he played Agnes’s husband in such a way that he’s not a stereotype:  he’s likable, and yet, at the same time, not likable. There’s a complexity to the role that I thought was really wonderful.

AG: Well, his character’s not likable because he’s kind of obtuse. It’s not convenient for him to think about what his wife really might or might not want. But Denman’s got that big bruiser body type, and at one point the viewer fears he might hurt someone. I love how this movie upended my assumptions of where it was going.

MT: It’s the rare time that a screenplay that came to me is one where 90% of what you see on the screen is on the page, and so I was really fortunate to have that.

AG: You’ve had an impressive career producing movies, some of them very successful, quite a few of them critics’ favorites as well. With Puzzle you’re both producer and director, so you have to wear both hats. Did you often find that your work habits as a producer were compatible with your instincts as a director, or did you, upon occasion find… 

MT: It’s a little schizophrenic, huh? Well, I think as a director you have to focus principally on directing. So, yes, but I had my producing partner and two other producers on the set every day, so I was surrounded by great producers. Because I’d been on the other side of the table, I got the practical aspects if they said, “No, we can’t afford that,” or “We don’t have time for that,” and the need to figure out how to make that work. And because I’ve had enough experience, I know how to accept “no” sometimes. Many directors don’t want to hear “no”—and yet that’s reality.

AG: You started out in the film business at a later age, without have grown up in it. So you really didn’t have any movie business mentors. Do you mentor people now? 

MT: I do. We started a company, my producing partner Peter [Saraf] and I—I think it’s almost 14 years now—and we were struggling at first to make one film a year. And this year we’re going to make four films, and three TV shows; we’re shooting in Tunisia, China, and Norway; and we’re making a story about Mr. Rogers starring Tom Hanks. I just pinch myself and go, you’re so fortunate. What really gives me great joy, though, is that we have people working on those movies that have been in our company and started as assistants or interns, who have been with us nine, ten, twelve years—and to see them grow into producing their first film, from getting it set up at a studio, is rewarding.

The Gronvall Report: Leigh Whannell on Writing and Directing Upgrade

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

Fourteen years have passed since I interviewed Leigh Whannell and his filmmaking partner James Wan for their debut feature, Saw. They were a delight then, and over time I watched their success compound as their little indie horror became a franchise, followed by another horror franchise, the Insidious series. Horror is a great genre, especially when the movies are made efficiently and exuberantly. So when I heard Whannell had written and directed a new film, Upgrade, I quickly queued up and was not disappointed. Wildly creative and wickedly funny, Upgrade marks a bold new direction for creator Whannell and a star-making turn for leading man Logan Marshall-Green, who plays Grey Trace, a low-tech, old school car mechanic whose back is broken when he fails to prevent his wife from being murdered by mysterious thugs. Set in the not-too-distant-future, Upgrade follows the quadriplegic Grey as he adjusts to a surgical implant called STEM, a tiny artificial intelligence device that interprets his brain waves and restores movement to his body. Once again mobile, Grey sets out to avenge his wife, and finds in his STEM buddy a digital enabler that becomes increasingly overenthusiastic. Cinematographer Stefan Duscio’s evocative sci-fi-noir images ratchet up the suspense in a tale of automation gone berserk.

When Whannell passed through Chicago years ago, he wrote the first act of the first draft of the Upgrade screenplay, inspired by the city’s noir vibe. He’s as much fun as he was when Saw opened, perhaps more. He seems to have come into his own.

In the U.S. and other developed countries, our cultural postwar fears about automation arose out of our worries about becoming outmoded, of losing out to machines that could one day take over our jobs. In Upgrade, you tap into a newer, deeper strain of that anxiety, one where we fear that the machines we have come to love and rely on are taking over us. Absolutely! And I think the automation thing has already happened. If you look at the manufacturing base of this country, a lot of robots are building cars now. It’s no longer an all-human assembly line, and there’s lot of anger and resentment about that, but I think we are creating this new anxiety ourselves. We often are the architects of our own destruction, aren’t we? We split the atom, and then we built a nuclear bomb. We did create a technology with this forward momentum without necessarily asking why we’re creating it, or what it’s leading to.

I can feel this general hum of anxiety in modern life about our devices. I mean, they own us! I was on a plane the other day, and I looked around and every single person was staring at their phones; it was like I was living in an episode of “Black Mirror”! And that point you’re making about when the tech is in us: it’s no longer going to be something we’re holding. How much of our humanity are we going to give to this tech? How much are we going to let it do for us? So yes, I wanted to infuse the film with those anxieties.

Thanks to A.I., in the film Grey regains the use of his limbs—which of course is an important, desirable thing. But then he starts getting into his new capabilities, as he learns how to work this gadget implanted in him, and soon that devolves into paranoia over digital surveillance. Was there any one particular digital device out there today that inspired you? It’s less about one single digital device than it is about the digital prison that we’re building for ourselves. Information can’t be seen or grabbed, it’s just out there. And what’s even weirder is to watch the younger generation come up in this post-privacy world, where they actually don’t care. In fact, their goal is to put everything out there in this digital realm. They want to be an open book: “I’m all online.” I remember seeing a photo of Mark Zuckerberg where there’s a little piece of black tape over the camera on his computer, and immediately I thought, “Uh, what does he know that I don’t?” Every time there’s a giant hack, like in the last election, it creates anxiety. Upgrade is not about one particular piece of technology, like iPhones. I was trying to tap into the fears out there, because that would make the best movie.

It’s amusing when analog gets in the way of digital in that highway chase scene. And that brings me to your judicious use of CGI, which is admirable. You did not go overboard. No, we only used it when we absolutely had to, when practical would not suffice.

So, those in-camera effects: a lot of how Grey moves certainly has to do with how good an actor Logan is, and his physical prowess and muscular control. Please take a fight scene, any one you want, and tell how you shot it. Did you speed up the camera? Slow down the camera? What’s in-camera, or practical effects, and what, if any, are computer effects? In the first big fight scene in the attacker’s house, where Grey cuts him: that is all practical, no CGI. First you have Logan; as you say, he is a special effect unto himself. He trained for months to move in this way that felt very fluid, and also to pull off that delightful effect of his head being surprised over what his body is doing. What we added to that was just in-camera stuff; nothing was done in post. We strapped an iPhone to Logan’s body, under his clothes, and the camera locks to the phone, and so the Steadicam operator holds this camera housing and the camera unit that sits in it will move wherever Logan moves. Plus, good old-fashioned wire rigs. Oh, sorry! There was one element of CGI, where we were painting out wires. For instance, when he leaps up off the floor, we did have to use wires. But again, it speaks to that thing where we only used CGI when it was absolutely necessary, because we couldn’t have wires in the shot.

You must have saved a bundle. I know! Necessity is the mother of invention, right? We did not have the schedule or the money to overthink this stuff, and we had to come up with a way to make things unique, without relying on a giant post-production budget.

What was your shooting schedule? The film was shot in thirty-two days. I remember we had two nights for the car chase. We shut down a section of freeway in Melbourne—not a big section, either, but a really short section, and I kept saying to Kylie [Du Fresne] the producer, “Two nights is not enough, we need an extra night.” And she would say, “Uh, let’s see how we go”—which means “no” in producer talk. Yet we managed to get it all in there, and full credit to the crew, because the crew in Australia were real top-shelf people. That’s the good thing about Australians: the best crew members, the best grips and gaffers and camera people, work on really big movies, big Hollywood movies, but those Hollywood movies aren’t always shooting in Australia. Between jobs they’ll go do your independent movie. So you end up getting a champagne crew for a beer budget.

Can you talk about budget, net or gross? Well, in Australia, once we did all the rebates and stuff, the film came out to about eight or nine million dollars, Australian.

So, that’s your out-of-pocket, eight or nine million? Yeah, about five million dollars, American, but that’s taking into account the exchange rate, the tax rate rebate, and the fact that I’m Australian. Most movies in Australia are funded by the government, so if you’re Australian, you can actually get some government money. I don’t believe we could have shot this film in Los Angeles; we wouldn’t have been able to do it, but we could pull it off in Australia.

Did you storyboard the complicated sequence where Grey, rapidly losing power, heads toward the hacker’s den? By the way, the “J. Wan” on the doorbell? Nice touch. And did you catch where the Jigsaw puppet was spray-painted on one of the walls? That’s our little “Hitchcock moment,” James and I. We always put a little Jigsaw puppet somewhere in the movie as an Easter egg.

Grey is running out of time, and by the time he gets to the hallway leading to the hacker’s door, he’s reduced to crawling. How did you stage that, where the camera seems to careen and tilt at these crazy Expressionist angles? It’s the same thing; it’s all in-camera. We just put the phone on Logan, and the camera moves with Logan. And to answer your storyboarding question, we did a storyboard only for the action set pieces, like that one. You can have an idea of what you want to do, but the rhythm is actually discovered in editing. The edit room is where I found a sort of metronome; I realized that the sequence [as storyboarded] was more segmented, and that I wanted to keep cross-cutting, between Logan and the men coming up the stairs, and the men in the elevator. I wanted it to feel like a clock, a clock that keeps ticking.

Harvey Weinstein Hopes To Put Hands On Sexual Harassment Expose

Wednesday, May 16th, 2018

“This is classic Harvey, he was poking around, flattering me to find out more about my film about him. He’s a classic sociopath.”
Harvey Weinstein Hopes To Put Hands On Sexual Harassment Expose

The Gronvall Report: An Interview With 1945’s Ferenc Török

Wednesday, April 11th, 2018


At the beginning of 1945, not a Holocaust film so much as a post-Holocaust film, two Orthodox Jews clad in black suits arrive in a small Hungarian village on a swelteringly hot day in mid-August, 1945, shortly after World War II has ended in Europe. None of the townsfolk has seen a Jew since all the local Jews were deported to concentration camps the year before, and no one recognizes these two men, who carry wooden crates they claim to contain perfumes and cosmetics. It’s 11am; the strangers will reach town by noon. The news travels like wildfire, and soon the villagers are hunkering down in their homes and businesses, furtively peering out the windows, anxiously awaiting a glimpse of the mysterious, unwelcome visitors who could well be set on revenge.

1945 was a sensation when it debuted in the Panorama section of the Berlin International Film Festival in 2017 and won awards on the festival circuit, including Best Feature at the Jerusalem Film Festival, as well as several audience nods. If you haven’t heard of Ferenc Török (this is his seventh film), you likely will very soon. The brilliant young filmmaker, who turns 47 this month and is not Jewish, cowrote the screenplay with his Jewish friend and Budapest neighbor, Gábor T. Szántó, adapting Szántó’s short story. Veteran cinematographer Elemer Ragalyi (Jakob the Liar, An American Rhapsody) shot in gorgeous black-and-white, evoking classic films of the 1950s.

One of the reasons 1945 is so compelling is your handling of suspense. Two Jewish strangers get off a train at a small village; their presence immediately generates shockwaves of fear and suspicion among the population. One of your influences was Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, but 1945 also reminded me of some classic science fiction films from the Fifties, like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), in that the locals are so afraid of these aliens. Also, like thrillers by Hitchcock.

Yes! [Like Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Strangers on a Train (1950), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)–each of which plays on the fear of outsiders.] Why do the villagers in 1945 feel so threatened about the otherness of these two Jews? Because this is a story about the collective paranoia that comes from the characters in the town being afraid of something about the past which they haven’t wanted to face. It operates on different levels for each of them, but they all have secrets, or degrees of guilt about what happened during the war. Because everyone in this fictional town was involved in some way, or benefitted in some way, from the deportation in 1944 of all their Jewish neighbors. How the state made non-Jewish Hungarians complicit in the destruction of the Jews started slowly. At first some discriminatory laws were passed during the late nineteenth century, but Jews who were part of the wealthier bourgeoisie in larger cities were safer than Jews who lived among poorer rural non-Jews. But when the Fascists came to power increasingly more severe anti-Jewish laws were enacted, and after the Nazis invaded in 1944, Jews were rounded up and shipped en masse out of the country in a very short period of time [by the Germans and Hungarian collaborators].

1945 is a fictional story, of course. But every Hungarian family has its personal stories about the war, and what happened immediately after, and a lot of what happened had to do with money. In reality, partly to try to make the new peace last, the new government wanted to make the people more compliant—especially in the countryside, where there had been so much poverty and losses during the war. So, for example, the state put up for auction homes and property that had belonged to Jews, real estate and valuables which sold at deep discounts. Homes were bought up at a fraction of their original value. For many of the new buyers, who were given certificates of ownership, this was the first time their families ever had anything that nice. In our movie, the villagers are afraid they will lose it if the heirs of the deported Jews make claims to get it back.

Which reminds me of that scene early in the film where the town’s clerk (Peter Rudolph) has this exchange with a policeman: “Jews have arrived.” “How many of them?” “Two. For now.” 1945 is definitely somber, but there’s some underlying dark humor as the movie unfolds, involving irony. It turns out that the two Jews have not come for revenge–but even if they had, they wouldn’t have had to do anything, because the village implodes all by itself. Yes, and only a few years forward in history the new regime would then go on to collectivize private property, also to appear to help those people—the poor and middle class–who had lost the most during the war. So, my cowriter Gábor T. Szántó and I felt it was really important to explore that brief period of time between the end of the war and the growth of Communist power, a time few Hungarians talk much about, and very few Hungarian movies before ours have covered.

Peter Rudolf is terrific as Istvan, the town clerk or notary who basically runs the place, where almost everyone does his bidding. He plays a strongman type, a bully, which made me think of the political scene in some European countries today (and in the USA, for that matter) where there seems to be a nostalgia for strong men who’ll take charge of a nation and fix its problems, as if the citizens themselves don’t have a responsibility to be vigilant about the safeguarding of democracy. It can be a slippery slope from democracy to autocracy. Istvan is a type of guy long familiar to Europeans, whether we’re talking about Italy, Poland, Russia, you name it. In a patriarchal culture, where women have traditionally not had much say, he’s like mafia—a father figure with authority, like in The Godfather. Istvan’s a small godfather, a little Caesar, the fixer who’s always looking after his own interests first. We have had democratic elections in Hungary where the new governments kept their promises for about the first ten minutes, and then pretty much returned to the old ways. And the people accepted it because the old ways were what they were familiar with. But today some young Hungarians are taking an active interest in the health of democracy.

I read Szántó’s short story “Homecoming,” from which 1945 is adapted, and was struck by changes between them. Of course you had to open the story up for the screen, adding material to allow a narrative of feature length, but you also brought some younger characters more to the forefront. There’s the young Orthodox man who arrives, and in the town there’s the shopkeeper who knows there’s a better life to be led elsewhere, and then his fiancée, and also her former lover who she’s not quite over. What was behind this decision? We expanded the story to include more characters so that we could create an entire village with different personalities who had different reasons to worry. But also in Hungary today we have the twenty-first century generation. My parents and grandparents can remember the time period of the movie, but the young twenty-first century generation doesn’t know much about it, and we really need to come together to concentrate on the property issue, because it’s so key to events that happened immediately after the war. And so with some of the younger characters the movie gets to show a young person’s point of view, and they help tell the story for us. By showing what they want for the future, I wanted to suggest that 1945 is not a closed story, but an open story. And that maybe the slippery town clerk [the shopkeeper’s father], the guy who always will know how to play whatever situation to his advantage under whatever new government he finds himself in, you could imagine maybe living today as some billionaire in Budapest.


#         #         #

The Gronvall Report: Ziad Doueiri on THE INSULT

Thursday, January 11th, 2018

After acclaim at Venice where Palestinian star Kamel El Basha won the Volpi Cup Award for Best Actor in The Insult, French-Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri’s film headed to Telluride and Toronto, but when Doueiri, who lives in Paris, headed back to Lebanon in September for the commercial premiere, he was detained at the Beirut airport and sent the next day to a military court to face charges of treason for shooting The Attack five years ago in Israel. Though Doueiri was released without charge, he believes agitators from the anti-Israel BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] movement were behind the incident. In October, BDS publicly pressured the Days of Cinema festival in Ramallah to drop The Insult from its closing night slot, on the grounds that the film promotes a “normalizing” approach to Israel.

The Insult hardly “normalizes” anyone or anything. Instead, it is a taut, fast-paced drama about a highly irregular court case where Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a Beirut Christian car mechanic, sues a Palestinian illegal worker, construction engineer Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), over not apologizing for a verbal insult that Tony himself provoked. Yasser’s Lebanese foreman intervenes to smooth tensions, but neither Tony nor Yasser will budge, and (without giving away surprise twists) events escalate to a bewildering fever pitch, landing the men in court and inciting media frenzy.

Doueiri co-wrote the original screenplay with Joelle Touma, his writing partner on his last two films, and, until recently, his wife; they underwent divorce proceedings during the filming of The Insult. Joelle comes from a Lebanese Christian background while Doueiri is a secular Muslim, so their personal histories inform conflicts in the story. I spoke with Doueiri while he was in Los Angeles to promote the film, which landed on this year’s shortlist of nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Doueiri is no stranger to the city, with his first big break in the industry in the early 1990s coming as an assistant camera operator for Quentin Tarantino on Reservoir Dogs, and who, like Tarantino, seems to have seen every Hollywood movie ever made.

How did you find your leading men, who were, I confess, previously unknown to me? I was surprised to learn that Adel Karam is a comedian; you cast him against type. And that Kamel El Basha is from the theatre, and that this is his first major film role. The camera loves him. He reminds me a little of Henry Fonda; he has the range to go from stoic, to vulnerable, to noble, to furious. Did you cast these guys together? I cast them separately. Beforehand I was not aware of these actors, either, even though Adel Karam is a very popular television comedian with a talk show. In Lebanon, he’s like Jay Leno. When the casting director told me Adel does comedy, I was curious because comic actors often have a gift for drama. Before casting Kamel El Basha I interviewed him via Skype, and felt I could work with him. On the set I did have to talk him through things, and tone down his theatricality. That scene where he’s screaming in the construction trailer we shot when he was really angry at me because I had already made him do several retakes. But he let his anger work for him and pulled it off. I was so happy for him when he won his award. It is compensation for the very hard life we choose when making movies.

Do you storyboard scenes? Do you rehearse before you shoot? I don’t storyboard unless I’m planning a very complicated sequence. I’ve been on a lot of movie sets, so I just trusted the camera, like I did when I was shooting the TV series “Baron Noir” for Canal Plus. I didn’t want the actors in The Insult to worry about their movements, so I used the Steadicam on purpose to follow them around, letting them see what it’s really like, for instance, moving around a courtroom. I only do a few rehearsals, because we’ve already discussed the scene thoroughly in advance. But they don’t improvise any dialogue; their lines were filmed to the letter.

Your film is a serious drama, but it also has elements of the absurd. Call me crazy, but in a way it resembles the Israeli film Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, in that there are two litigants, locked in utter intractability, in a court where the judges can’t believe their ears. That’s a great film.

It is, isn’t it? In both Gett and The Insult, the legal case in question shouldn’t be that difficult. Did you spend time in courtrooms to do research? My mother is a lawyer, so during writing I consulted her for accuracy about laws in Lebanon. Once you know what those are, you can see where the drama lies. So my mom took me along to court, and allowed me to assist her; in Lebanon, you don’t have to be a legal professional to assist a lawyer. But mostly I was influenced by American courtroom films, like The Verdict, a great work, and Judgment in Nuremberg, one of the best films ever made. It’s not about the law; it’s about the human dimension. I watched Philadelphia again. The genre is about revelation of character. Courtroom films take your characters and put them through the system and fuck up their lives. It’s like in that movie Michael Mann made, The Insider, in that scene where Al Pacino, Russell Crowe and his wife go to meet Christopher Plummer, who plays CBS newsman Mike Wallace, and this is the first the wife hears that her husband is going on TV and will create this big scandal and get in trouble, and she storms out of the room. So Plummer asks Pacino what’s going on, and Pacino says, “What can I tell you, Mike? These are ordinary people under extraordinary pressure.” In The Insult, the characters are under so much pressure: legal, social, family, media. Why is Tony so angry? He wants justice. Why is Yasser so resistant? He doesn’t believe he can get justice. And that’s what the point is: the whole film is about dignity.

Lebanon’s civil war was so complicated; the more I read about it, the more I have to read to understand it. But The Insult is not difficult to follow; by focusing on one small corner of the bigger picture, you’ve created a work that sheds light not only on the Lebanese and Palestinian conditions, but also has a universal appeal. Were you consciously planning that when you wrote it? My family lived through the Lebanese civil war. I grew up in chaos, and I have vivid memories of everything we went through: the checkpoints, the shelters, and daily injustices, like my brother getting stopped and slapped. Life goes on, but it all still registers. When I began writing the script, I believe my unconscious mind took over, filtering those moments we lived and witnessed long ago. But also a big influence was my life in the U.S.; I left Lebanon at 20 to move to Los Angeles. I co-wrote this screenplay with a partner, but all the scenes I wrote I originally wrote in English, then translated them for the final script. The one thing Joelle and I were emphatic about was that we wanted the story to be understandable to everyone, not just the Lebanese. Anyone—European, American—can understand it. Half my life has been spent in the U.S., so I didn’t want us to get bogged down in details that were too specific.

Where did you find Camille Salameh, the actor who plays Tony’s lawyer? He’s terrific. That speech you gave him late during the trial, where in making personal disclosures he risks all hell breaking loose, is riveting. He’s a theater professor. He was wonderful. I wrote his part with Ed Concannon, the character James Mason plays in The Verdict, in mind. Wajdy Wehbe [Salameh’s character] was my life; everything that I believe I put in his mouth. I really wrote his lines very carefully because they express my views. That speech was my response to the BDS movement, for what they did to get my last movie, The Attack, banned in 22 countries. I was so pissed! BDS tried to do that again with this film, but they were only able to get it banned in Palestine. That is very unfortunate, and so sad. And it’s not fair. Everyone everywhere should be able to see a movie. [Since I spoke with Ziad, The Insult was also banned in Jordan, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait.]

Congratulations on having the first film from Lebanon to make the shortlist for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy award. Are you feeling any pressure, or are you just enjoying the moment? When I think about it, it gives me joy. But as a filmmaker, you don’t put all your happiness eggs in one basket. My biggest happiness is that The Insult opened in Lebanon, to became #1 there at the box office, and that the government secretly submitted the film to the Motion Picture Academy for Oscar consideration. For me, this is the cherry on the cake.

#   #   #

The Gronvall Report: “Planet of the Apes” Costar Terry Notary Takes Center Stage in “The Square”

Friday, November 10th, 2017

One of 2017’s most accomplished films mercilessly sends up the international contemporary art scene, proving that an art film can be both serious and seriously funny. Three years after his terrific comedy-drama Force Majeure, Swedish director Ruben Östlund again examines masculinity, personal responsibility, and the bourgeoisie in The Square, which won the Palme d’Or in May at Cannes, and is also Sweden’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. A powerful, celebrated director of a modern art museum in Stockholm (Claes Bang) loses his bearings after his wallet and cell phone are stolen, and an American journalist (Elisabeth Moss) further distracts him from the realization that most of the exhibits he’s curated are garbage (one exhibit literally is).

In a movie full of lacerating wit, one scene stands out: a formal dinner for wealthy museum patrons, who get more than they bargained for when Oleg, a burly performance artist (Terry Notary), menaces them with his uncomfortably realistic interpretation of an ape man. Notary knows about simian behavior. The actor, who is also a stunt coordinator, motion-capture performer, and movement instructor, plays Rocket in the Planet of the Apes franchise, and breathed life into the CGI title character of Kong: Skull Island. But Oleg may be his scariest role yet. I was relieved when I interviewed him during the recent Chicago International Film Festival to find him far from intimidating. He’s well-spoken, polite, and almost preternaturally calm. Because he has only one scene in The Square (but what a scene!), we dissected it at length, so spoilers lie ahead.

Congratulations on winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Were you guys expecting it? No! We were thrilled to be a part of the festival, and just be in the running. It’s a testament to Ruben; he’s amazing.

It’s so apt that you’re smack dab in the middle of the movie’s poster, because your one lengthy, masterful scene is absolutely key to the film. At the beginning, your character Oleg is only glimpsed from afar, as he makes his entrance at the rear of the banquet hall. Then he gradually moves forward, and for a while disappears off-screen. Then he re-enters the frame, with the camera almost riding his shoulders as he circles the tables. Once he scares off the far more successful celebrity artist (Dominic West), Oleg moves closer and closer to the camera, zeroing in on a petrified, pretty redhead (Madeleine Barwen Trollvik). The stunt girl.

She’s a stunt girl? Please tell me that you used a harness to drag her across the floor, because you couldn’t have really pulled her by her hair! She was so tough, really tough, telling me, “Pull my hair. I think it would be great if you did.” And I’m like, “No, no, no—can’t do it.” And she said, “Yes. I’ll grab your hand when you pull me off the chair.” So, she had a good grab on my arm, but I had to choreograph it, because she said, “Just grab as much hair as you can, in a bunch, because we’re going to do it in one take.” I did feel her hair pull, but we got it in one take.

Audiences underestimate what stunt people do. Some of them go on to leading roles, like the late Richard Farnsworth [The Straight Story], or rising action star, Scott Adkins [Doctor Strange, American Assassin], because along the way they developed presence. And you have tons of presence. Thank you. We had to go there. It was funny: after every take, I would go around and apologize to people [for roughing them up], but then I’d say, “I’m apologizing in advance, because I’m going back in,” and they were once again the victims.

How long did it take to shoot your scene? We had a rehearsal day, and then shot the scene in three days.

The rehearsal was because you needed to block your movements for the camera. Basically we knocked out where we were going to go, and what we were going to accomplish. The thing I love about Ruben is that he leaves things open for exploration and collaboration. It gave me the space to play, and he sculpted it. He would say, “I would like you to come through to this table now, and do something there, okay? Find someone here that you can do something to.” My challenge was to come in, not knowing what I was going to do, other than find someone in the room who didn’t want to be chosen, and do something with them.

Regarding Dominic, all Ruben said was, “You have to chase the alpha male out of the room and become the new alpha male.” And so I met Dominic right then and there, and said, “Hey, I love your work, I’m a big fan, but I’m going to chase you out of the room now.” And he’s like, “Great! Let’s do this.” And we didn’t know how we were going to do it; we didn’t rehearse anything, but his reactions were so great that I just fed off what he was doing. It was kind of like a jam session. And I think we did that take twice, and the second one, I think, is the one that made it into the film.

But if Ruben had [specifically] instructed, “Okay, I want you to knock the glass out of his hand,” that action would not have felt as real, because it wouldn’t have been spontaneous, you know? So it was up to Ruben to trust the process, and to be so aware of what’s needed to give an actor the space to allow things to happen in time, so you don’t feel rushed. We could allow the moments in between to create tension and the real emotions that were building into what else was going to happen—wherever that went.

So he knew your motivation, but then let you find your way. Your process sounds like the way Michael Jordan used to play for the Bulls. You know, flow. Of course skill has a lot to do with performance, but after a certain point you don’t think about it all that much. Exactly, exactly. When I’m working with actors, I don’t like to use the term “Don’t think,” because you actually are thinking; it’s just a different way of finding a connection with your mind. When you’re in athletics—I was in gymnastics—when you do a perfect dismount off of the high bar, you can’t be thinking about it. You have to allow your mind to soften, and it becomes a feeling. It’s almost like you go into what I call a “dropping into yourself,” where you’re almost watching [like a spectator]. It’s a state of mind that I call the “soft mind-body connection.” Because if you’re trying too hard to hit a certain thing, that only brings on tension and restriction.

When you’re softening the mind, there’s room to shift and listen, and to respond; it’s the same with acting as it is with athletics, the same exact process. And once you’re in that state, you allow yourself to continue to let it happen, and don’t interfere with it. But you can think it; it’s just that I can’t predict, or telegraph, or choreograph something in my mind that I want to replicate. That’s where you get into trouble. You’ve got to just know that the end mark will happen, and you’ll get there.

You went to theater school, after which one of your first gigs was with Cirque du Soleil—and if Cirque isn’t choreographed, I don’t know what is. Well, it was in Cirque that I really took the technique that I learned in gymnastics, and then forgot that technique for the first time. Because when you’re performing in the circus, there’s a story; it’s not as regimented as gymnastics. You lose yourself in the story, but still accomplish all the tricks and technique. Once you sort of train that vehicle of expression, your body, your instrument, and then forget everything, you’re in your scene. It’s like musicians playing guitars. They’re not thinking about where their fingers are going to go; they’re feeling it. So, you turn the technique into a feeling, and then feeling takes over, and the technique remains.

You’ve worked with big directors [James Cameron, Ron Howard, Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg], and, presumably, have learned a lot from them. The benefit of my job is that I get to sit next to directors and monitor all day with them, and watch and coach and help, at the same time. I’ve been really fortunate in the film industry, helping to develop characters, working with actors, and then playing characters in the film, as well. That’s my favorite thing to do, is to be performing, and then step in and help other people when I’m not working. In Cirque, I learned what I help actors do now, like getting to neutral body.

Hold on a moment. What is neutral body? Neutral body is a blank canvas; you enter a role with no preconceptions. We’ll work on the walk, your everyday walk, which is the blueprint of your life—all the past traumas, your successes, and everything. Our social conditioning has shaped us all, who we are. When you walk, maybe you’re leading from your hips, or you’re dropping your lower back. We go and identify those things, so that an actor knows what the instrument is doing, and what strings need to be loosened or tightened, or just removed. You balance everything, come to neutral body, and then you kind of know what your habits are, and what you personally bring to the table that’s going to influence your character.

Speaking of tables, let’s return to The Square. The bit with Dominic where you break the glass, which you guys didn’t plan, was great not only for you two to have energy to feed off of, it also gave all the extras sitting around the tables something to react to. They were amazing. They were the life of the whole scene, because they didn’t know what would happen, any more than we did. You could feel the energy in the room; you could cut their tension with a knife, because people didn’t know if they were going to be singled out. They weren’t pretending; it was real. I thought we were going to lose a bunch of them after the first day, but everybody came back. I was like, “No one left?” And Ruben said, “No, they were into it. They love it!” And he didn’t tell me that they were all high-art patrons; they weren’t extras.

They weren’t actors?! No, they were real art-world people: donors, billionaire donors, owners of galleries, and famous photographers, and some singers, too. He didn’t tell me any of that. Only on the last day did he say, “Do you know who you’ve been throwing water on? A billionaire donor; she’s actually the biggest donor in Sweden.”

Oh, that Ruben! I suspect he’s a tad crazy, he so clearly likes to mess with people’s minds. [Laughing] Yes! Oh, yeah, definitely.

#   #   #

The Gronvall Report: John Carroll Lynch Talks LUCKY And Harry

Thursday, October 5th, 2017

Some of the best performers in movie history have been character actors, and the late Harry Dean Stanton, who appeared in over 200 pictures before his death in September, was near the top of the list. For much of his career he was a stalwart supporting player, doing everything from westerns to gangster sagas, horror to science fiction, and Biblical epics to teen comedies. He was 58 when he starred in his first leading role, in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, a film that perfectly exploited Stanton’s laconic demeanor and soulful intensity. He lived to the ripe age of 91, and his farewell to us is one last leading role, a fictional version of himself, in the warm and intimate comic drama, Lucky.

For his directorial debut, character actor turned filmmaker John Carroll Lynch, working from a screenplay by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, drew on his own relationship with his star to craft a tender, funny portrait of a cantankerous desert loner nearing the end of his life. Lynch is one of Hollywood’s go-to guys, having worked with some of the industry’s best directors, including Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo), John Woo (Face/Off), David Fincher (Zodiac), Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino), and Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island). The 6’3” native of Boulder, Colorado was on hand to talk about his film when Lucky had its Midwest premiere at the Chicago Critics Film Festival in the spring.

Why is Harry Dean Stanton iconic? I’m assuming his iconic status is partly why you chose to make Lucky.

Harry Dean’s truth, the sense of truth that he brings to every role, is incredible, and it really is about his willingness just to be in imaginary circumstances. That’s a very rare gift, the ability to be present in the way in which most people aren’t available. That kind of perfect moment in his work is the end of The Straight Story, where he silently brings the audience to the realization of the weight of this life-long grudge between two brothers. His understanding of the gesture that his brother has made [toward reconciliation] plays out in real time in front of you, but it’s not through camera movement, it’s not through words; it’s his willingness to absolutely live that moment.

He strikes me as brave. To live on film, you have to be open to express as much pain as joy.

I agree. And he was very brave in Lucky, because this material comes from his life. My job with him was to create Lucky’s fictional journey, one that wasn’t Harry’s [real-life] journey, but to do so through Harry’s words. So, it was a very weird relationship to the material. It doesn’t come from somebody else’s life; he is revealing himself in this movie, in a way that’s very personal.

You establish through repetitions—his morning exercises, his daily walks through town—how the character is set in his ways. And yet events occur that show he can still be open to new experiences, even if change makes him feel vulnerable.

You mean that he’s fragile. Yes, at the very beginning of the film, he thinks he’s finished. But life has a way of reminding us that we’re never finished. And I think that’s what this story is, about this man who consciously lived the life he did; he fought as a young man in World War II, so this is not the first time he’s thought about death. That’s what the movie is about, that we all have to come to terms with death, right now. And what’s great about it is that the screenplay works in some ways like Harry’s mind works, and I responded to that, because a meditation on one’s own death doesn’t have to be maudlin or self-pitying or cold. It just has to be true: that some time in our future, whether it’s today or 40 years from now, the lights are going to go out for us. That’s all we have to know to understand that this world, this moment, is precious.

My view is that whether you believe in God or have a strictly scientific view of the universe, life is both a gift and a responsibility. You owe it to make the most of what you’ve been given.

I think there is another thing in the story that is important, and that is: “I don’t live alone; I’m in a community.” Lucky can’t survive without the other people in this town, even though he ignores them. Part of what happens in the story is that he recognizes that he no longer can ignore these people; he can no longer simply love just one person, he has to love all of them.

Lucky is tough on the outside, vulnerable on the inside, and slow but steady, like the tortoise in the film. Is the tortoise a metaphor for Lucky’s life? 

It was important to me that in the screenplay eternity is represented by physical objects, and by animals in the world. That tortoise is going to outlive us. The saguaro is growing a quarter-inch each year, and it towers over Lucky. Eternity is here, right now; we don’t have to search for it, we don’t have to look for some outside world. Even though that’s perfectly fine as you say, whether you believe in God, or don’t believe in God, we still all have to look at eternity and make our peace with it. And that’s one of the tricky things about this material: this is not a scary movie; it’s clear-eyed, it’s straightforward, and it’s funny.

I love the regulars in the bar. They’re like a bunch of desert rats, showing the effects of maybe having spent too much time in the blazing sun.

I love that the writers created characters who have a little hitch in their get-along. They’re kind of held together by baling wire and chewing gum—like all of us, right? What’s great about that bar is that everyone’s accepted, no matter how crazy they are; whatever their mania or obsession is, there’s a place for it. No one is excluded; the only thing you can’t do is smoke.

You obviously greatly admire The Straight Story. Were there other movies that you watched, or asked your cast or crew to watch, that informed your choices as a director?

The Last Picture Show, a movie that I think inspired the writers. I really wanted to have vista in the movie. It was in the screenplay, but it was really important that the desert was a character, and you felt its vastness, its life, its vitality, its aridness. So, at some point during production, I asked everybody, “What if John Ford were to make a character piece?” We wanted the movie to feel like Ford’s Monument Valley sequences, in that Lucky is tiny, compared to the vastness of the world. We don’t live big lives, and what happens is that he comes to terms with that.

As an actor you have worked with a number of prominent directors. Can you name any who particularly influenced you?

As an actor, it took me a long time to figure out what I was interested in. I needed to learn how to act before I could figure out what I wanted to act in, and what I wanted to emphasize in my work. I’m a young director, in that I’ve directed one feature. But I will say this: every master director or co-directors that I’ve worked with are at a place in their careers where they know what they’re interested in, know what they’re passionate about, and they don’t care what you think—they are chasing their dream. Either you’re on for the ride, or you’re not. And I love that!

Because you know where you stand.

Because you know where you stand. As an actor I know what I’m chasing; I’m interested in flesh and blood, in wisdom and rawness. I hope if I have the good fortune of directing again, I’ll know a little bit more about what I’m chasing as a director.

#         #         #






The Gronvall Report: Director Dorota Kobiela on “Loving Vincent”

Sunday, October 1st, 2017

Loving Vincent is one of the most extraordinary animated features you are likely ever to see. A British-Polish-U. S. coproduction, it’s a celebration of Vincent van Gogh’s luminous paintings, and also an inquiry into the mysterious circumstances of his death by gunshot in 1890 in Auvers-sur-Oise, France. Long part of van Gogh’s legend, the verdict for decades was that the tortured Dutch artist, who had a history of mental illness and poverty, committed suicide. It was certainly the view that earlier films about Vincent have shared, including Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 biopic Lust for Life, starring Kirk Douglas.

But the writing-directing team of Polish animator Dorota Kobiela and British producer husband Hugh Welchman adopt a different take in Loving Vincent. Their film draws on the controversial theory of art historians Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, who, in their book
Van Gogh: The Life,” maintain that the facts point instead to a tragic accident. Kobiela and Welchman turn the final weeks of van Gogh’s life into a whodunit, as a skeptical young man, Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) sets out after the artist’s death to find Vincent’s brother Theo, in order to deliver a letter he’s entrusted with by his postman father Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd). Along the way Armand talks to several key acquaintances of the dead man–Doctor Gachet (Jerome Flynn) and his daughter Marguerite (Saoirse Ronan); Pere Tanguy (John Sessions); and a neighborhood snoop, Louise Chevalier (Helen McCrory)—and becomes determined to uncover the truth about Vincent’s demise.

All these characters sat for van Gogh, who memorialized them in portraits that are renowned worldwide today. The genius of the makers of Loving Vincent is that they took live-action footage of the actors, shot in front of a green screen, and then used 65,000 individual high resolution photographs of oil paintings by 125 artists to fill in the frames with images largely copied from van Gogh’s works, making this the first fully painted feature film in animation history. The film received a ten-minute standing ovation in June at France’s Annecy Festival. Annecy is to animation what the Telluride and Toronto film festivals are to narrative features: a launchpad for awards season contenders. Kobiela, an alumnus of Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts, as well as The Warsaw Film School, Direction Faculty, was in Los Angeles recently to talk about the art of her film.

As a trained painter, what do you love about the medium of oils?
I started painting at 15, and found oil to be perfect to extract different colors from the palette and to manipulate impasto [the thick application of pigment]. The medium allows so many different approaches to painting. I worked in that mode for ten years.

It’s unusual for an animated film to embrace the mystery genre. What inspired your particular narrative approach?
From the very beginning of the writing process, the concept was always inspired by the mystery surrounding Vincent’s death, and how we wanted to tell his story through his paintings, and to do it as much as possible in the spirit of his work. We asked ourselves, why did his death happen this way, if it was suicide [as reported]? Suicide didn’t make sense. [After long, hard struggles] everything seemed to be going well in his life, and he was hopeful. He had two successful exhibitions, and positive critical reviews–some acclaimed him as a genius. This disparity so fascinated us, it inspired our approach. There were so many contradictions reported; throughout our extensive research we read lots of witness statements that conflicted with each other.

How did you and your husband divide the work of co-directing the film?
I started making the film as a short, and then I met Hugh [on another project]. He had a general knowledge of Vincent as a mad genius. When I first told him about my project, he showed only polite interest. But then London’s Royal Academy of Arts mounted an exhibition of Vincent’s letters [combining his correspondence with his art], and it drew huge crowds. So, that engaged Hugh’s imagination, and he started reading and developed an appreciation for Vincent’s bravery and hard work. Hugh was doing the historical research while I was focusing on the paintings and how to tell the story. Then Hugh got the idea to make the short a feature instead, that we would script together.

After a film Hugh had produced in 2008, Peter and the Wolf, won the Oscar for Best Animated Short, the Polish Ministry of Culture approached him about a film on Chopin. I was hired to direct the animated short Chopin’s Drawings [which became part of a feature film, The Flying Machine (2011)]. We worked closely together on that short, filling time while waiting for production of Loving Vincent to begin.

Viewing a painting by van Gogh is almost a psychedelic experience: although we’re looking at paint fixed on canvas, the colors seem to vibrate, partly because of their alignment and juxtaposition, and partly because of his brush strokes. In your film, the images do indeed vibrate. How did you achieve that effect?
That was our aim, of course, an insane undertaking, looking back. We wanted to use his techniques, but using canvas boards. The key is that he painted extremely fast, taking half a day, or just one day, to finish a work. So did we, not just because of the sheer volume of paintings that were required to copy, but first to understand the period of the painting, and analyze the order in which he painted, and get the colors right—but not overthink it.

The whole film was shot based on the performances of actors, but a lot of the material flowed from the imaginations of our artists; that’s what you see in the backgrounds surrounding the actors. That vibration, or shimmering, is what comes of animating Vincent’s brush strokes in our copies and interpretations of his paintings.

Were different teams of artists assigned to different characters?
Yes. I assessed each artist’s specific abilities, which was very important for filming, to know who could paint what under our deadlines. But you also have to understand the human aspect involved in this kind of performance: someone could get sick of painting only Dr. Gachet, for instance. And an animator could easily take six months to complete one shot [depending on its duration], so you want to avoid burnout.

What were the differences between creating the black-and-white flashbacks and the color sequences that are set in “the present” time frame of the story?
Major differences on many levels. During Armand’s journey, we aimed to capture Vincent’s style as seen in the portraits of the witnesses, or the scenes set in his landscapes [the town of Auvers and its nearby environs]. And we wanted to be very precise in terms of backgrounds, costumes, characters’ faces, etc.; there’s a historical record for reference. We wanted it to feel as if we were inside his paintings come to life. We approached the black-and-white sequences as a more classic type of narrative filmmaking, imagining his past without having to reconstruct it in his own visual terms. In that sense, it’s freer.

Those flashback sequences revolve around the charismatic actor who plays Vincent, Robert Gulaczyk. He is wonderful—where did you find him?
We knew we were going to shoot most of our actors in a studio in London. But we also wanted to shoot as much as possible in our Polish studio, so we decided to ask for a Polish actor. The right actor was so hard to find that we almost gave up. Then one day I was looking again through our casting director’s file and I came across Robert’s photo and asked, “Who’s this? Why didn’t I see his picture before?” And the casting director said, “Oh, no, he’s not what you need—he doesn’t speak English.” And I said, “But he can learn!”

So Robert came to the set the same day we called him and he auditioned. We knew right then that he was the one. The most iconic image of Vincent in the film, where he turns to face the camera over his shoulder [in three-quarter profile], that’s from the first minute of Robert’s audition. He just understood.

#       #       #

The Gronvall Report: CITY OF GHOSTS and Citizen Journalist Abdelaziz Alhamza

Friday, July 21st, 2017

What does “home” mean to you and how far would you go to protect it? That’s at the heart of City of Ghosts, the documentary by Matthew Heineman (director of the Academy Award-nominated Cartel Land), who follows a group of refugees from Raqqa, the first Syrian city during the Arab Spring to resist the forces of dictator Bashar al-Assad, only to fall later to ISIS. These young men, several of them only in their twenties, struggle to reclaim their home under the banner “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS, abbreviated). Nonviolent protesters, they are citizen journalists from previous other lines of work, who’ve stepped in for professional reporters who no longer can cover the war zone because the pros have become targets of both Assad and ISIS. (A harrowing statistic: since 1992, 85 journalists have been killed in Syria.) Just as in last year’s Oscar-winning Best Documentary Short about the Syrian crisis, The White Helmets, where director Orlando von Einsiedel relied on footage shot largely by Aleppo native Khaled Khateeb, City of Ghosts is powered by images captured on cameras and cell phones by members of RBSS. By shooting and disseminating the breaking stories no one else can get out, the RBSS volunteers put themselves in as much danger as if they were employed by Reuters, AP or The New York Times.

City of Ghosts opens in Manhattan at a 2015 ceremony where RBSS received the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. Shown accepting the award on behalf of the group is RBSS co-founder Abdelaziz Alhamza — Aziz, for short — the designated spokesman because, as he says, “my English isn’t terrible.” He makes polite small talk later with guests at the black-tie affair, one of whom, doubtless with the best intentions, urges Aziz and the other RBSS activists to find some relaxation while in New York. But his advice feels ironic, as do the instructions of a photographer snapping a group photo. “Maybe a little smile, possibly,” she asks, before telling RBSS co-founder Hamoud al-Mousa, “You’re so serious, my friend.” As we’ll see as the film unfolds, “serious” doesn’t come close to describing the situation and dedication of this group, who work in shifts around the clock in safehouses at undisclosed locations, living on coffee and cigarettes while under constant threat of exposure and death.

Aziz was a university student in 2012 when Assad’s forces, in a crackdown on protesters in Raqqa, arrested and tortured 15 schoolboys for writing anti-regime graffiti. Immediately the citizens rose in opposition and young guys with cameras raced to record the fighting. After Bashar’s forces withdrew, a power vacuum followed and in 2014 the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria moved into Raqqa, pushing out victorious rebel groups. Aziz and Hamoud, a self-described film obsessive, continued shooting and to their horror, they witnessed a steady escalation of terror. They recorded the public executions, beheadings and crucifixions of anyone who opposed ISIS. Soon ISIS was targeting RBSS for posting its undercover footage online, where it was picked up by regional and overseas news organizations. Several members of the collective had to flee, finding asylum in Germany, as Aziz did, or in Gaziantep in Turkey, near the Turkish-Syrian border. But even in exile RBSS wasn’t safe; their journalism mentor and co-founder, a courageous filmmaker named Naji Jerf, was shot down in broad daylight on a busy Gaziantep street. And when ISIS couldn’t locate RBSS reporters, the terrorists turned to murdering members of the collective’s families back home in Raqqa. Both Hamoud’s father and older brother were killed by ISIS in retaliation and as a warning to others.

In a telephone interview, I asked Aziz that, after all the many death threats RBSS had received, why did they choose to become even more visible by allowing director Heineman to follow them around with a camera and what was it about Matthew that led them to trust him? “We met him for the first time in Washington, D.C.,” Aziz replied, “when two of my colleagues and I were told by someone with the Committee to Protect Journalists that there was this filmmaker who very much wanted to talk to us. At that time we had no interest in making a documentary, but we met with Matthew and he told us what he had in mind and what his role would be. Then RBSS spent a couple of days discussing [his proposal]. We decided to sign on to the project for the same reason we had formed RBSS: our mission is to get the word out that Raqqa is being slaughtered silently and we knew this film could get the word out even more. We trusted Matthew because he presented himself professionally and came across as a good person. And once we began filming [the documentary], he was with us all the time and we got to know him and trust him even better.”

Heineman’s behind-the-scenes footage is intimate and gripping, but he also does an excellent job of explaining a highly complex scenario, in terms that a layman can understand. He organizes his material logically and incorporates clips from across the globe—including from ISIS itself. City of Ghosts uses a number of ISIS propaganda videos to help illustrate how the terrorists recruit new members. I asked Aziz how much of the ISIS army is comprised of foreigners. “Our research shows that there are fighters in ISIS from 84 different countries,” he told me. “They come from everywhere, from all ages and join for many different reasons.” But, as RBSS’s own video coverage indicates, Raqqa is far from the “paradise” ISIS claims. Surely, many of these recruits must figure out soon after arrival that they’ve been conned, so how many defect? Aziz replied, “It takes a lot of effort and determination for many foreign recruits to make it to Syria. But as hard as that is, it’s harder to leave Raqqa once they’re there. Each person who wants to defect is pretty much on his or her own to figure out how to get out and they fear for their lives.”

As City of Ghosts makes clear, the struggle for Syria is being waged as much on the internet as it is on the ground. “The battle between ISIS and us is growing every day,” Aziz says in the movie. “That’s why today, when you search on Google for ‘Raqqa,’ you won’t only see what ISIS wants you to see. You’ll find us.’’ RBSS continues the fight, not only by smuggling out video shot by members still in Syria, but also by pushing Western media to step up. Recently Aziz penned an op-ed in The New York Times, “Bombs Will Not Defeat ISIS (but Maybe the Internet Will”) and Heineman shot an accompanying video in which Aziz asks the help of “international governments and innovative leaders of Silicon Valley” to defeat extremist ideology of ISIS. I asked Aziz if during his West Coast press tour had he met with any of them, or had any of the high-tech titans he entreated—like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube—reached out to him?

“None of them has reached out to me,” he replied.

I have to wonder what they’re waiting for. They wouldn’t, if it were their homes at stake.

# # #

The Gronvall Report: Director Aisling Walsh On MAUDIE

Saturday, June 17th, 2017

Things are looking up for women filmmakers, with Patty Jenkins’s blockbuster Wonder Woman, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s biopic Megan Leavey, and now Aisling Walsh’s Maudie, an intimate, perfectly scaled life story of celebrated Canadian folk artist Maud Dowley Lewis (1903-1970). The movie gives Sally Hawkins as the title character, and Ethan Hawke as her husband Everett, roles that rank among the best in their already illustrious careers. Their chemistry is true joy.

Maudie begins in Depression-era Nova Scotia, when rebellious Maud, who has been patronized and resented since early youth for the juvenile arthritis that misshaped her body, takes a job as live-in housekeeper for a hardened local fisherman, Everett Lewis, a surly loner who grew up in an orphanage. They each carry a lot of emotional baggage, and have diametrically opposed temperaments, making for some uncomfortably rough going early on. But through patience, persistence, and sweet reasonableness, Maud finds ways to break through his defenses. She brings order and companionship to his existence, and the fact that the post cards and canvases she paints of rural subjects begin to fetch money doesn’t hurt, either.

A multiple BAFTA nominee for directorial work in television, including “Wallander” (2011), starring Kenneth Branagh, and “An Inspector Calls” (2015), starring David Thewlis, Walsh also won plaudits for her 2003 feature Song for a Raggy Boy, starring Aidan Quinn and Iain Glen. The Dublin-born filmmaker is a graduate of that city’s Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, and of England’s National Film and Television School, considered among the top 15 international film schools. Maudie combines Walsh’s love of painting and of film to serve a romance that blooms in a most inhospitable environment.

The love story genre used to be a staple of the movie industry. Why do you think there are so relatively few now?

That’s a good question. I think what drew all of us to the project was the love story. It’s a portrait over 35 years of a marriage that was quite rare in its time, a story of a woman’s struggles and how she opened up her husband’s life.

Maud and Everett are both outsiders who together find a way not only to survive but also achieve fulfillment. At the beginning you think it’s never going to work out, that they’re never going to fall in love. By the end of the film he’s a changed man, who allowed her to find herself as an artist. They live a simple, modest life under tough circumstances, and yet they’re very happy, despite the fact that they’re not the sort of people who fit into the box that “normal” society would assign them. Instead, they thrive within their own box—a tiny 12’ by 12’ house on an isolated stretch of road. It’s only within the last five years of her life that Maud becomes anywhere near well known, thanks to a half-hour documentary by the Canadian Broadcasting Company, whose crew interviewed her and Everett and showcased the home she so vibrantly decorated with her paintings. Now, 50 years after her death, her art is being looked at again.

Maudie is a painterly film, and not just because it’s about a painter. The lighting choices you and your cinematographer Guy Godfree made are evocative and resonant. How did you draw on your own training as an art student to devise the look of this film?

I just think that it’s more how you relate to the world, how you respond to that particular landscape, and how you respond to people. I’m only five feet tall and my view of the world is often from that height. You find a reference, a photograph, a painting that gives you a feel of what you’re after, and you respond. That location where we shot looks and feels dramatically different on a cold rainy day than it does on a warm sunny day.

I studied color and composition as an art student, but here I also wanted to echo Maud Lewis’s painting and its relationship to that landscape, the view she had from that small corner in her little home of the vastness of the surrounding land and sky. Once they open that door and look out, you go from something intimate to the largeness of the world that surrounds that cottage. If you’re working that far north and the weather is cooperating, sometimes you get great natural light.

For me what was really important were Sally and Ethan’s performances within that cramped home. The house starts out as very dark and dreary. Maud gradually changes it; with her painted landscapes she brings some of the color and vitality of the outside world in, and creates something personal and romantic.

I have to tell you—and maybe this is why I’m not a casting agent—I would never have thought of pairing Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke onscreen. You worked well with Sally on the British miniseries “Fingersmith” a dozen years ago, and over the years had hoped to work with her again. But how did you see Ethan as such a good fit for her?

Sally and Ethan are very similar in a lot of ways. I think of them as being beyond actors; they’re artists who get really excited by a challenge, and transform themselves. I was blown away by the film work he’s done over the last few years, particularly Boyhood (2014). I have always loved him; there’s something in his collected work that made him right. And probably no one else would have offered him a part like this. I just thought he was brave enough; he takes chances. We met in London, and I sensed we could work together and be bold.

How did you know that?

He’s an artist, like Sally. That’s what this film required. It would have been a different film without him; I can’t imagine it any other way.

Without a doubt he’s highly talented, with sound instincts. When he started out in movies, he could have easily gone the “pretty boy” route, but he didn’t—he kept pushing for projects that were edgy or innovative, that broadened his range. Plus, he directs, and has done a lot of theatre, on Broadway and off.

And more: he’s a musician, a composer, a screenwriter, and a novelist. It wasn’t easy shooting in that remote location, withstanding the elements. But you create a reality and make it your own. There’s no room to hide in that 12 x 12 space. He and Sally were fearless.

How long did it take you to develop the film?

I spent about two and a half years, but I joined the film in year 10 of its 13 years in development [after the previous director had departed]. I read the script and knew immediately that I wanted Sally for the title role. A few days later I sent her a couple of pictures of Maud Lewis; Sally wrote back and said “yes.” After that, things moved quickly.

You’ve stated elsewhere that you don’t see any difference between directing films and directing television. But surely there must be some differences between working on a small independent movie like Maudie and making a TV show for some giant media company?

I’ve done a number of one-off films for television, but that’s not like working on a long-running series, where you are looking as your overall goal the return of that series. Working in TV informs your filmmaking.

For example, [J.B. Priestley’s] “An Inspector Calls” was not a stage play familiar to me, although I knew that a screen adaptation had been filmed in the 1950s. When you are approached with a project, you think about who are the people I could make it with? What would a particular actor bring to it? What would be the challenges that I’d face? The same thing happened with Maudie. It’s all storytelling. Without my work in TV I don’t know if I would have made theatrical movies. I’ve been really lucky.

There’s been a lot in the American press over the past few years about the difficulty female directors have getting work in Hollywood. Obviously the Irish film industry has its own structure, but did you face any particular hardships as a woman in the industry on your side of the Atlantic?

Even though I’m Irish, and Maudie is an Irish-Canadian co-production, I went to film school in England and I live in London. But I think it all starts much earlier: you say as a teenager that, for instance, you want to be an astronaut. I come from a family who believed I could do whatever I wanted to; I never thought of myself as a female in a male-dominated world. People have asked me if my directing career would have been different if I had been born a man. I don’t know. Who knows what kind of films I would have made? But given my interests and my methods, I don’t know that I would have done things any other way.

# # #

The Gronvall Report: Oren Moverman On THE DINNER

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2017



Ensemble dramas are among my favorite movies, in part because i’s thrilling to watch well-matched, gifted actors play off each other, instead of just one star dominating every other shot. Live theatre can be more satisfying than what’s at the local multiplex for a similar reason: you’re looking at tested pros taking a script and running with it, all the while igniting  potent interpersonal chemistry. Filmmakers like indie stalwart Oren Moverman still recognize this, making riveting adult-themed pictures that resonate. The writer-director’s latest work is The Dinner, his adaptation of Dutch author Herman Koch’s eponymous satirical novel, which was an international bestseller. The story unfolds from just before, through to the aftermath of, a dinner at an upscale restaurant (shot on location at impressive Alder Manor, a historic Renaissance Revival mansion in Yonkers), where two couples meet to discuss an urgent matter concerning their miscreant teenage sons. But it will take almost a full set of courses, from aperitif onward, for the parents to get down to the nitty-gritty. By the time we arrive at the digestif, it’s a wonder that they’ve kept their food down.

Richard Gere is Stan Lohman, a silky-smooth Congressman campaigning for governor while also striving to get healthcare legislation passed. Rebecca Hall costars as Katelyn, his much younger trophy second wife, who resents that condescending label, but as a pragmatist knows her place within the corridors of power. In flashbacks, Chloe Sevigny plays Barbara, his idealistic first wife and mother to his three children. Also at the table is Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan), reluctantly joining the older brother he despises. A former history teacher who had to retire after a nervous breakdown, he’s joined by his loving and extraordinarily accommodating wife Claire, whose mission in life is standing by her man and calming troubled waters. As Paul, Steve Coogan is indelible, by turns bristling, brooding, and caustic, but surprisingly vulnerable, especially in scenes opposite Laura Linney as his spouse, such as when he’s in the bathtub listening to her reading the potential side effects of his medication, or in their one tender bedroom scene, where she says she’s missed his old self, the man he was before the drugs brought him back to “normal.” They are the picture of a devoted, beleaguered couple, but there are also hints that she might turn out to be more Charlotte Corday than “The Good Wife.”

The Dinner is Moverman’s fourth time as director. He also wrote the screenplays for his films, starting with The Messenger (2009), which he co-wrote with Alessandro Camon (the film garnered them an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and for Woody Harrelson a Best Supporting Actor nom); then Rampart (2011), co-written with James Ellroy, and Time Out of Mind (2014), which he scripted from a story he co-wrote with Jeffrey Caine. Moverman’s films deal with weighty social issues—war, alcoholism, police corruption, homelessness, mental illness—but not in a preachy way. In The Dinner, he uses America’s Civil War both as the background for Paul’s breakdown (who collapsed under the pressure of writing a book on the subject), and also as a metaphor for the deep, still smoldering divide between Stan and Paul, which is about to turn volcanic. If there’s a common link between these four films, it might be the lengths people will go to when their backs are against the wall.

What were the steps you took to adapt Herman Koch’s novel, first as a screenplay for Cate Blanchett’s directorial debut, and then, after she left the project due to scheduling conflicts and you took the helm, to shape it into what you wanted as the director of the film?

 The first draft of an adaptation tends to be about the book, and tends to explore what worked in the book that would work in a film. The first draft of The Dinner followed the novel’s action to a point, except that I moved it to America [not Amsterdam, the book’s setting]–because Cate wanted it to be an American story–then added Gettysburg, then an assistant, and also included a trip to Berlin. Cate wanted to focus primarily on the adults. Then when I took over, I expanded the mental health issues, added Stan’s introduction of a Congressional mental health bill, changed his assistant to a woman, and had both brothers go to Gettysburg.

An eminent colleague saw your film at the same press screening as I did, and although he said the acting was great, he told me afterwards that he found the characters impossible to like, because they do such awful things. But, I replied, the film sets that awfulness up at the very top, when we hear Paul’s voiceover narration about how much he prefers the ancient Greeks, how by the time we got to the Renaissance it was clear humanity was on the wrong track, and how our current modern era is worthless. In other words, the audience is getting a heads-up to expect something along the lines of a classic Greek tragedy as the film unfolds. The novel doesn’t begin the same way; was that passage your invention?

Paul looks at things in a very dramatic way, and responds to them dramatically. The gist of what he is saying there—that he likes the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians—comes later in the book, in a chapter at the school where he last taught, as he’s ranting against the principal. In the movie I decided to put that speech at the top, and added the comments about the Renaissance and the modern age. It’s Paul’s capsule view of what the modern age is, how we’re all hopelessly overwhelmed by technology, institutions, relationships, demands, and history. Embedded in that first voiceover are the themes of the movie, something we can realize by the end if we go back to think about it.

As a provocation to start an extended conversation [between the two couples over dinner], it has so many strands. The book latched on to the many aspects of Paul’s narrative threads very well, but I chose to break them down differently, as you can see in the three different voiceovers Paul has in the movie, at the beginning, middle, and end. In the middle voiceover, when Paul is complaining about Stan, their mother’s favorite son who always gets what he wants, Paul says that everybody falls for Stan, but his women leave him before long. Because Stan’s not who he appears to be, he’s not who he says he is. Everyone thinks he’s so ethical and humane, but by the time we get to the end of the couples’ evening together, we’ve seen different sides of Stan.

I’m glad you brought up this issue of the unreliable narrator, because that’s one of the key elements in your movie. In the book, eventually the reader learns that Paul, who’s the novel’s only narrator, is not to be trusted. In the film, sure, we get the idea very early on that Paul is a little off, that there’s something wrong here, but as the narrative progresses, and we learn more through a series of flashbacks, we begin to wonder about the other characters, and if they’re maybe playing him, manipulating him for reasons as yet unknown–like in the basketball sequence, where Paul’s son denies that he ever threw the ball through the smoke shop window. Are we meant to think he’s trying to gaslight his father, and absolve himself of blame?

At the end of the day, the movie takes this idea of the unreliable narrator and applies it to everything. Who really can you trust? Yourself? Memory is faulty. Your friends and family? Everyone has his or her own agenda, and is self-serving. History? History is written by the victors. In the case of the basketball sequence, you have two unreliable narrators, father and son—or even three, if you count the store owner. It seems to me that at the time the broken glass incident took place, in that flashback the kid is too young to have thrown the ball with the required amount of force. He couldn’t have done it. The father put the blame on his son so that he, Paul, could look heroic by coming to his son’s defense, while at the same time appearing blameless.

I’m not going to ask anything about Richard Gere, but will just comment that after seeing him in your previous film, Time Out of Mind, and in Joseph Cedar’s new film that’s also out now, Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, on which you served as a producer, it strikes me that Gere has become your muse.


But let’s talk about Steve Coogan, a remarkable actor with considerable range. I’ve seen a lot of his work, and I like Steve Coogan, although he scares me: he’s got that underlying British-Celtic-feral thing going on. He seems like a hard-charging guy—he’s made almost 50 quite diverse movies by now, so, clearly he’s driven. But I’ve never seen him do anything like this before. How did you get this amazing performance out of him? 

I think the answer is in how you stated the question. You’re kind to give me credit, but the performance is Steve’s. My job was to recognize that he had this performance in him. Steve is very smart and quick, and has great comedic instincts; he also has anger in him, because he cares deeply about a lot of issues involving injustice. He’s well-read; he’s cultured; he has a very rich core. And even though this is not a comedy, he brought all of that to bear in the role of Paul. Paul may suffer from mental illness, but what he has to say is not very far off the mark from what’s going on during the dinner conversation. It’s really quite close to fact.

Well, he broke my heart, and your movie did, too. Getting back to my earlier reference to Greek tragedies, unlike those antique plays, at the end of The Dinner there’s no catharsis. The audience doesn’t leave feeling purged, in the sense of emotionally released. Partly that’s because the ending is ambiguous, which for me is not a problem, because that’s life.

Yes, this is definitely a modern story. The ending is unclear, and that is where we are today. Many of us in our complicated world are lucky to be regarded as comfortable, but there’s a cost: just look at us. There is no catharsis.

#               #               #



The Gronvall Report: Jason Connery and Company on Tommy’s Honour

Sunday, April 23rd, 2017

It takes a team to make a movie, and it takes an exceptionally committed, resourceful team to make a shiny indie gem like Tommy’s Honour, the true story of Tom Morris and Tommy Morris, Jr. Father and son champion golfers in Scotland toward the end of the nineteenth century, they transformed the game, laying the groundwork for what the sport has become today. But this picture is about far more than golf: it’s also a love story; a tale of sweeping social change and class conflicts; and a moving portrait of a devoted father and the eldest son who would surpass him in talent, ambition, and fame. Based on the 2007 book by Kevin Cook, who co-wrote the screenplay with Pamela Marin, the film is directed by Jason Connery (The Philly Kid, 51, The Devil’s Tomb), himself a keen golfer who practically grew up on the links watching his father Sean Connery play. The movie stars the internationally acclaimed Peter Mullan (My Name is Joe, Braveheart, War Horse) as Old Tom; magnetic rising talent Jack Lowden (Denial, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk) as Young Tommy; and the dazzling Ophelia Lovibond (The Autopsy of Jane Doe, the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise) as Tommy’s wife Meg.

Connery, Lowden, and Lovibond were joined by American producers Keith Bank and Jim Kreutzer for the U.S. launch of Tommy’s Honour over Easter weekend, still savoring the film’s win as Best Feature Film at the Scottish BAFTA Awards. “That was a wonderful moment,” recalls Connery. “It was a sort of culmination of—well, then it was five years’, now it’s six years’ work. I completely lost the ability to speak for about three or four seconds, which felt like three or four minutes, and I think the audience were thinking, what’s happened to him, did he have a mini-heart attack or something, because I literally went blank.”

The narrative of the movie is sturdy and propulsive; its tone and scale, intimate. Old Tom Morris was the groundskeeper at fabled St. Andrews golf course, and in addition to being a great player in his own right designed many of Scotland’s finest courses. During his prime, most of the other top players were also manual laborers, non-pros hired by the aristocracy; the gentry would bet on them at matches and pocket the winnings, giving only a small percentage to the struggling men. Young Tommy was his father’s co-worker and protégé, but unlike his dad, questioned the status quo. As Tommy’s skills grew and he became the star attraction on the circuit, drawing ever larger crowds and therefore heftier bets, he challenged the rich landowners—in the film led by the imperious Alexander Boothby (Sam Neill of Dead Calm and Jurassic Park)—and defied his father by setting his own terms financially and going on tour. When Tommy fell in love and married a woman considered beneath his station, other frictions within his family arose.

I tell Connery one of the things I most like about the movie is that his direction is not fussy. “I hate it when the camera has a mind of its own, when the camera has a perspective that is different from the storytelling,” he explains, adding, “The idea was that the camera doesn’t make moves that aren’t justified by what’s happening in front of it. I’m a big fan of John Ford, and if you actually watch a John Ford film, and try to imagine where he put the camera, after about three minutes you’re so in the story you forget to think about where the camera is.” The views captured by cinematographer Gary Shaw (Moon, Believe) are nonetheless impressive; Tommy’s Honour was shot on location in Scotland, inviting the audience in with an unobtrusive attention to details that feel authentic and natural.

A movie screenplay is the underlying framework for images and sound; I wonder about the connection here between script and images, how Connery arrived at his visual strategy. He replies, “I love the idea of the visual elements telling the story as opposed to people verbalizing, because in a way, words–certainly in films sometimes–can be mundane, in the sense that they only tell you one part of the story. Now, when you’re working with actors who have many levels of ability, hopefully you’re getting more than that. And when the actors flesh [the screenplay] out with their emotions, very often I find that we don’t need to say that line, because actually I can see it in their faces, and I would prefer that.”

When he has a certain sequence or scene in mind, does it spring from one dominant image that then colors everything around it? “I often look at the art of the time,” he says, “and maybe not even of the time–the artists, and what people were doing. The end of our film is near the start of the Industrial Age; there was a Civil War in America, and much change going on. I watched a lot of period films before making the film, and I also watched quite a few golf movies.” He says he storyboards, and also works from a “lookbook,” a term new to me. He clarifies, “It’s an electronic version of the idea of the film and what I’m trying to do. It’s like 22 pages of pictures, and character profiles, and how I’m going to shoot it, and how it might look, and I use it as reference to show not only investors, but also people who might be interested.” [He later emailed me the lookbook, and indeed every major aspect of Tommy’s Honour is evoked there in some form–Victorian-era photographs; biographical sketches and historical anecdotes; weathered handwritten documents, like the rules of golf (there were only 13 then); and notes on how Connery planned to use the camera—all arrayed across a green plaid tartan background.]

If the lookbook’s vintage photos of the real-life Tommy Jr. and Margaret Drinnen, the disgraced former maid whom he wed, capture the youth, promise, and beauty of the couple, actors Lowden and Lovibond breathe vitality into the characters. You get echoes of their on-screen chemistry in their off-screen banter, at once playful and mutually supportive, and as though they share some shorthand, or a kind of secret language. To call them entertaining and lively is an understatement: they’re not just the brightest lights in any room, they are the room. I ask Scottish-born Lowden what initially attracted him to the project. “First and foremost,” he replies, “the story. I just thought it would be beautiful, the arc of it. It was quite a tragic arc, of him achieving so much, and then he’s dead at 24. I just found it amazing. There’s something about these people. He seemed to have sort of a death wish. You know, Senna, the racing driver Senna was always accused of that, that he had a death wish.” Lovibond concurs, “I think these people kind of burn out, don’t they? They fly too close to the sun, and they’re gone.”

A favorite scene of them together in the movie is when Tommy and Meg first meet in the restaurant where she works, where he is being pitched by a British aristocrat to decamp to England for bigger bucks. But all the while Tommy barely listens, as his nose keeps following Meg’s progress around the tearoom. “I’m with you,” Lowden says. “Even just as a film fan watching that scene, it looks like two people in love. It looks like we know something that nobody else does. And he does love golf, but he’s bored by all this talk about golf.” Lovibond interjects, “It’s like when he says to his father, ‘Your god is golf—‘”

Her co-star completes her thread, “’—but it’s not mine.’ He’s not just looking at some girl. And [to Ophelia] you come over to him, and I say, ‘You know, you’re serving tea to the champion golfer of Scotland,’ and you slam him. And he likes it.”

I ask how they respectively found their characters’ physical and psychological cores. Lovibond answers, “The corset certainly helps you get into character right away, but I consciously wanted to make her more relaxed, and not focus on posture all the time, but more on sitting into my hips, because she was quite rejected [by the close-minded society of the time] over the way one ought to behave, the way one ought to be. I wanted to reflect that insouciance, I suppose, in her body language.” She then turns to Jack, remembering, “We were just talking about that, about your walk, the way Tommy walks.”

The 6’1” actor, who feels he looks like “a baby giraffe in tweed” alongside his partners up on screen, reveals he was inspired by Liam Neeson in Michael Collins. “He’s also quite a tall bloke. I love the film; there’s something about whenever he walks out of a scene—everybody’s always walking in that film, but he walks with such purpose. I watched it before I did this film, where there’s a lot of Tommy hitting a shot, and then walking away, that whole thing of Tommy moving forward all of the time, kind of a restless bloke. So I tried to do that with my character.”

The hero’s gait is definitely jaunty, with a bit of swagger. Tommy Jr. tilts full speed ahead for most of the movie, slanting toward the future; he may not know what that future is, but it’s not going to be what insufferable toffs like Boothby dismiss as “nothing.” In today’s golf, you’re looking at highly paid, elite athletes—although considering what the broadcasters make, more power to the players if they can get it, right?—but the sport in Tommy’s Honour is about the common people. Lowden’s response to what I thought was a casual observation is so forceful he startles me: “But that’s where it came from! It came from the people, it came from the guys that worked on the land; it really did! And, look, if anyone can take a kicking, it’s the upper classes, okay? And you know, I hate ‘class,’ I hate the idea of class, I hate that’s in our society. I hate that people get referred to as middle-class, working-class.”

I try to make the point that you can’t ignore that it exists, and Lovibond leaps to his defense: “But the use of the terms perpetuates that.” He continues, gathering steam, “If we would stop using the terms it would kind of disappear. Even the people who say they’re working-class, and take pride in it, it’s like—“ She jumps in, “Why don’t they go out and buy a T-shirt that says it?”

He agrees. “I would rather that people distinguish themselves through their nationality rather than their class, because there are so many different nationalities in the world, it’s fantastic. But classes—are there like four classes, or three perceived classes?—and [referring to Boothby and his ilk] you’re shoving yourself in there? Shut up! That’s what I like—that they can get a kicking in the film. And they can take it.” Clearly, this young man with so much fire in his belly was the right choice for the role. And the two of them together made me rethink some things I thought I knew.

Well before the actors signed on, and years before Connery’s assured turn at the helm, Tommy’s Honour began as a passion project for Chicago-based film producer Jim Kreutzer (Just Write), who first learned about the Morris family while playing the links at St. Andrews during a vacation with a then ailing close friend. Kreutzer soon bought the rights to Kevin Cook’s award-winning book, and after much searching eventually tapped Connery (who had been producing and directing films since he founded his own production entity, Unconditional Entertainment) to direct, certain they were on the same page. But after putting some of the initial financing pieces together, Kreutzer hit a wall. “I was stuck. I couldn’t get it done,” he recalls. “We were fortunate about three and a half years ago to meet Keith Bank through a mutual friend. And as we were casting things on the water, sometimes you’ll get a nibble, but pretty much Keith just swallowed this for a lot of reasons: his interest in golf, his interest in philanthropy, his interest in promoting the game himself.”

Bank, who also lives in the Chicago area, adds, “You know, my day job is the venture capitalism industry. I did a film [Heaven is a Playground] 28 years ago and swore I would never do it again. It’s a tough business. It’s not like I hate the business. I like it; it’s just not my goal to do full-time. But this project just really struck a chord with me when Jim came in and told his motivations and reasons for doing it. I read the material, and met Jason, and I just said, if I’m ever going to do it again, this speaks to me.” Kreutzer and Bank dubbed their company Gutta Percha Productions, named after the stuff old golf balls once were made of—which is also, coincidentally, the substance used to fill root canals (Kreutzer started out as an endodontist).

I ask Kreutzer if he thinks it’s harder to do this work because he lives in the Midwest, rather than on the West Coast. “I don’t think so at all,” he replies, “in fact, just the opposite. I think fundraising is easier outside of Los Angeles, because people in L.A. are so cynical about filmmaking because they’ve been there for all those years. I was offered a job to go live in California and make movies ten, twenty years ago, and I turned it down, because I liked living here. Here you’re able to step back, not get swept up, and not get so inundated with projects. And if you start believing your own press, then you’ve made a mistake.”

“The challenges in making a film are multiple; certainly, coming in on time and on budget,” Bank adds. “My attitude, right or wrong, is you can hire talented, good people that are experienced, who know how to do that. We were fortunate that we had good source material and a good script to start with. You have to get a little bit lucky along the way to make sure the weather cooperates, to make sure you don’t have accidents on the set, and so on, but the raising the money part is challenging for any film. It’s, I think, extra challenging for independent film, and it’s extra, extra challenging for sports and golf-oriented film, and it’s extra, extra, extra challenging for people who are kind of in the industry, but kind of not in the industry. There’re just so many hurdles that it’s a lot easier for people to say no than to say yes, so you have to give them a compelling reason to say yes. And then once you do all that, and you make the film—and I think we made a very, very good film—you have to find someone else who believes in it. And you hear the same diatribe from all the distributors: it’s an independent film; it’s a period piece; it’s a sports movie. Everyone likes to put a label on it–and, as you know, one out of ten movies that get made never land in a movie theatre.

“So you have to have a distributor that sees the vision, shares the vision, and gets people to show up. With this film, the upside is that you have 24 million golfers in the US—that’s the low-hanging fruit—you know where to go find them, there are channels where you can get to those people. The downside is those who put it into the bucket and say it’s a sports film, or it’s a golf film, and how do you get to the non-golfers and the rest of the movie-going audience?”

With some trepidation I admit to Connery that I have never played golf and don’t understand the game, yet Tommy’s Honour resonates with me and I got very caught up in his film—which is honest, but could sound like faint praise. But he responds, “It’s such a joy to hear you say that you don’t know anything about golf, you’re not interested in golf, and yet you were fascinated. This film was at least a gateway for you to say, so, that’s how it started, oh, that’s what happened, oh, now look at it. To me that’s accessibility, because golf is a very polarizing game. You either love it or you hate it. A lot of people hate it. I’m hoping that we can bridge that gap.”

The Gronvall Report: Michaël Dudok de Wit On THE RED TURTLE

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

There are many animals among this year’s contenders for the Best Animated Film Academy Award, including Finding Dory, The Secret Life of Pets and Zootopia, but none as mysterious as the title character in the hauntingly beautiful The Red Turtle. Directed by acclaimed Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit, this wordless fable shows how a man shipwrecked on an uninhabited island, far from any other land mass, copes with loneliness and his sometimes hostile environment. The arrival of a giant red sea turtle changes his life in ways he never could have foreseen.

The Red Turtle marks the feature writing-directing debut of de Wit, who has an international following for his short works, including Tom Sweep (1992), The Monk and the Fish (1994, for which he won a Cesar), Father and Daughter (2000), for which he won an Oscar) as well as The Aroma of Tea (2006).  One of his most ardent fans is Studio Ghibli director Isao Takahata (My Neighbors the Yamadas, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya), who was captivated by Father and Daughter and in 2006 tried to get it favorable distribution in Japan. In the same email containing Takahata’s proposal to de Wit came an offer from Studio Ghibli’s renowned producer Toshio Suzuki, expressing interest in having de Wit direct a feature for the company. Thus was a creative alliance formed; ten years later The Red Turtle won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard sidebar. It also received five Annie Awards nominations. The film opens in Los Angeles on January 20, and then will roll out to other markets.

I caught up with de Wit over the phone when he was in Los Angeles for the AFI Festival last November. Affable, cultivated, expansive yet modest, he repeatedly gave credit to his collaborators, reminding this reporter that he didn’t do any animating himself on The Red Turtle. He did, however, draw all the charcoal and paper sketches for the film’s animatic in pre-production, provided some background renderings during production, and did some touch-up work. A perfectionist, he is all about the details.

Your opening scene in The Red Turtle of the man tossed by the sea evokes some of the “ukiyo-e” (“pictures of the floating world”) by Japanese painters and print makers of the shogun era, who in their turn were influenced by Chinese scroll painters. Vincent Van Gogh and his contemporaries were very taken by “ukiyo-e,” and the line between their work and that Japanese art is clear. Now here you are today, a European making the first non-Japanese film produced by Studio Ghibli. Do you see some sort of cycle here?

A full cycle, in many ways: I admire Hokusai, Hiroshige, and other Japanese artists, but there are also references in the film to drawings by the Impressionists. I first saw Hokusai’s “Manga” [a forerunner of anime] in my twenties, and remember exploding, “My God, look at this!” I even asked Studio Ghibli if they expected my film to have the Japanese style of their films, but they said no, it was up to me as the director. Later, after they saw the completed film, they said they were pleased that it’s that rare animated movie that isn’t influenced by anime at all.

You did all your own drawing in your previous animated short works. But directing a big studio feature is quite different. What was the scariest thing about directing The Red Turtle, and what was the most satisfying? Looking back, do you see your adjustment as happening in measured steps, or did you feel at times as though you were tossed into the ocean yourself, to sink or swim?

The day I when I started writing I imagined it was going to be very difficult. I was wrong, although much of what else I had learned earlier I had to rethink in making this film: I had to learn the finer points of editing, and adjust to how different it is to work alongside other animators, when I was not doing any of the animating myself. My biggest fear was that the film would lose its character because of some “middle of the road” effect, where so many people would be working that they could lose themselves [their distinctiveness] in the overall project. So I kept the crew small, about a dozen carefully chosen animators, working in Angouleme, France [at Prima Linea Productions].

The next biggest challenge was the exhaustive work schedule: 60 to 80 hours per week, year after year after year. You can become deadened, with the danger of losing your judgment and creativity. I was ambitious; this style was very difficult to animate and it was quite contained. We didn’t have a massive budget. As a first-time director I had to explain a lot. Gradually, as the first of the test sequences came in, I felt that the film was going to be fantastic.

What was one of the most satisfying things? Well, just to go to Japan to Studio Ghibli and sit at a table with producers [Isao] Takahata and [Toshio] Suzuki and ask them questions and talk about their philosophy. I stayed for a month in Tokyo and they put me to work on part of the storyboard. Then there were the meetings we had at my apartment where we sat on the floor on cushions and tatami mats and ate rice bowls while we exchanged ideas.

Listening to you I’m struck by the awe you genuinely seem to feel about being in the company of these masters. It’s like you have no ego.

Many animators don’t have inflated egos because they work so hard. The first animation festival I attended was Annecy in 1975. I thought, “These people don’t have an ego; they work, work, work. It’s all about the art.” Of course, I’m talking about animators who made expressive short films, who had not yet experienced working on a large film. But right then and there I made up my mind that being an animator was what I wanted to do.

The narrative and tone and some of the visual motifs of your Oscar-winning short Father and Daughter have echoes in The Red Turtle. Is it possible that because you’re from the Netherlands, you have a very particular response to how land meets the sea? I mean, parts of Holland are below sea level, and then there’s that quality of the light and sky. I love how the sky looks in your films.

 In all of my films, water has a big place, and no one has ever commented on that before. I’ve often wondered myself why is there so much water. I loved swimming when I was young. And when you are in Holland where the land is flat you can’t help but notice the sky. The skies in Japan are also amazing; the clouds are so different. But the light in my films definitely owes much to the Netherlands.

I have a question about technology and how it affects creativity. I’ve noticed that the instruments I use to write affect my process of writing. Using a pen produces something different than a typewriter, and using word processing on a computer most certainly has changed how I write, and what I write. Your brain responds differently, organizes differently. Do you think there are any physiological or neurological differences in animating with pencil and brush and animating with the kind of digital Cintiq pencils used in The Red Turtle?

Yes, definitely. If you use a piece of charcoal—or pencil, or in–it affects the subject you create a lot. I have absolutely no scientific proof I can quote, offhand, but I do know that we use different parts of our brain whenever we switch tools. The traditional tools of an animator—lightbox, pencil, eraser—are simple, but produce very rich effects on thick sheets of paper. Just to be orderly, you have to put a little number in the corner of each drawing. You become logical; you become efficient. Now, switch from that after dozens of years to a screen and a small plastic pencil, and that tactile screen is packed with many little software tools. You use your rational side of the brain much more to be productive. Your posture is different, your gestures are different, and over time your synapses fire differently. It’s strange, kind of like switching musical instruments.

So, after working this hard on The Red Turtle, what‘s next? What do you typically do during your downtime to recharge?

In theory, I should have had downtime in April, but promotion for the film already had begun. I had a few days off to be a tourist in Japan, which I enjoyed. As for my next project, I really have to step back before moving forward. The downtime has yet to come.

#       #       #

The Gronvall Report: Author Deborah E. Lipstadt On DENIAL, David Hare And Rachel Weisz

Monday, October 17th, 2016

What happens when an American historian writes something about a Brit where she dismisses his authority as an historian, and he then sues her for libel, and she discovers that the British legal system doesn’t operate on the American judicial presumption of “innocent, until proven guilty,” but that she and her defense team must prove that her accuser is the liar? Denial, rolling out in platform release via Bleecker Street, takes such a real-life case and turns it into a courtroom cliffhanger. Directed by Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard, HBO’s “Temple Grandin”) from a screenplay by David Hare (Damage, The Hours), the film is based on Deborah E. Lipstadt’s account, “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier” (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2006). In her book she details how as a holder in 1995 of an endowed chair in Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Atlanta’s Emory University, she received a letter from Penguin, the British publisher of her 1993 book, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” informing her that British author David Irving was suing for being called a Holocaust denier. The movie is largely concerned with her trial in London, and every line of dialogue in the courtroom scenes is lifted verbatim from official transcripts. Essentially, she and her team had to prove that the Holocaust happened.

Oscar winner Rachel Weisz stars as Lipstadt; Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton, Snowden) costars as her Scottish barrister, alongside Andrew Scott (Spectre, BBC’s “Sherlock”) as her British solicitor, and Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner, the Harry Potter franchise) as David Irving—a dream cast if ever there was one. Lipstadt recently visited Chicago to talk about the film. I was truly struck not only by the level of her erudition, but also by how quick, lively, good-humored, and forthcoming she was at such an early hour.

During the pre-production of Denial you met a few times with David Hare, and he eventually gave you his screenplay to read. After you read it, what were your comments?

I was very careful, because he is one of the great screenwriters of our time. I didn’t say “I don’t like this” or “I don’t like that,” or “I think we should have the character move here.” I looked for inconsistencies, or I looked for mistakes, like a line about hanging chads, and then I would say, “That’s a great line, David Hare, but that happened after my trial.” That kind of thing, or where he wrote when I learned about something—like when did you learn that the British legal system put the burden [of proof] on you—and I had learned that very early on, whereas he had that happening later in the screenplay. I was sensitive to content items relating directly to me that had either been ambiguous in the book, or might have got confused in my transmission to him, but nothing in terms of dramatic construction.

A movie adaptation can’t include everything that’s in the book or any other original source material. Is there anything in your book that you wish the film had included, but didn’t?

You know, I always joke that the movie version I would have made would have been four hours long—and that’s the short version. There was stuff I didn’t even include in my book, because then my book would have been 700 pages. A couple of things: first of all, the incredible support I received from my university. They were behind me, setting up a travel fund for me, easing my teaching load. When I went off to go on trial, I was going to take a leave of absence because I was on salary, but they said, no, of course not, you just go, it’ll be as if the courtroom is your classroom from afar.

So, I wish that that had been there, and I wish there’d been a little more emphasis on David Irving’s rightwing extremism and connections. The racism I think is played out very well: the ditty he sings to his daughter, what he says about the women who work for him—the Sri Lankan, the Pakistani, a Barbadian. But what we found in his diaries! He used to go to America very often, and there was a gentleman in Louisiana who would come down to Key West to spend time with him and play tennis. This guy, whose name was David Duke, was writing a book, and Irving offered him editing suggestions.

And that Irving called on a Cal State-Long Beach professor named Kevin MacDonald to testify—the only person he brought in who didn’t have to be subpoenaed—who was trying to show that I was part of a vast Jewish conspiracy. And that guy now is connected with the alt-right, which is heavily associated with Breitbart News, a far-right extremist site that’s very racist, and very anti-Semitic.

But by and large, if the filmmakers had to choose what material to fit into an hour and fifty minutes, I think they did it very, very well. The things that impressed me so much, as the person to whom it happened, and as an historian, was their emphasis on truth, on getting it right.

David Hare has said that he deliberately chose not to try to delve into Irving’s psychology; rightly so, because how could Hare, realistically, play armchair shrink? But that does raise a very interesting point: why you? David Irving must have had many other critics, so why did he go after you?

Great question–not only were there other critics, but critics who were far harder on him than I was. And I think she says it, at one point—“she,” meaning me—

The character–

The character, when she’s having lunch with her colleague. (A), I was an American. I was far away in Atlanta. He didn’t think I was going to fight. It was harder–how do I put together a defense team, what do I do? (B), I’m a woman, and he’s a misogynist, and anti-Semitism, misogyny, racism, are often together part of a whole package. And it’s certainly the case with David Irving. (C) I’m a Jew. I’m a Jew who’s not an ambiguous Jew; it’s part of my DNA. Like part of my DNA is that I’m a woman. How do I feel as a woman? I don’t know, ‘cause that’s the only thing I’ve ever been. At times people will ask Rachel, how do you find so many good parts for women? And she replies, you’re talking about women like they’re giraffes. It’s who I am, it’s inbred in who I am. And he wanted to prove that there’s this vast right-wing conspiracy, although I wasn’t its leader—I couldn’t be the leader, because I’m a woman, and you couldn’t have a woman as the leader.

Obviously, your movie is about the Holocaust, in that it is about Holocaust denial. But one can’t really categorize it as part of the expanding genre of Holocaust movies. In my mind I keep remembering a piece that the late Elie Wiesel wrote almost 40 years ago for “The New York Times Sunday Magazine” about the NBC mini-series “Holocaust.”

Oh, he hated it!

Hated it, but he used that review as springboard for an essay that reached beyond a mere review.

I know, I just finished a book containing that review, so I’ve got that review. I’m so sorry that Elie has passed away; he was a good friend, and a big supporter.

Looking back at that essay, I marvel at how prescient he was, that he foresaw this outpouring of Holocaust-themed works in drama, literature, and pop culture like movies and TV shows, creating a danger of–


Yes, trivializing the Holocaust.

And he was right in many respects. I would say that NBC’s “Holocaust” had an impact, but that’s for another conversation. It had a big impact, certainly, and in Germany it had a big impact.

But in general–

First of all, this is more a courtroom drama than it is about the Holocaust, although it’s that, too. It’s a unique blend, I think, of a courtroom drama and a movie about denial of the Holocaust, and about conspiracy theories. It’s interesting: David Hare—he may write this in his introduction to the new version of my book, which is now called “Denial”—was initially reluctant to take on the job, in part because he felt the Holocaust is such a tremendous topic. There’ve been so many poor and cheap productions on the subject, but then when he read my book, he was intrigued about a number of things: first, the courtroom drama; second, the contemporary relevance, which I’ll come back to in a minute; but third, the fact that in most films, where a woman, or some regular Joe, comes to battle, they somehow find their voice. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Norma Rae, Erin Brockovich, Henry Fonda’s character in 12 Angry Men—you know. David Hare said here was a story of a person who not only already had a voice, she had to deny her voice; she had to keep silent [in court and in the press]. She’s the central character, and the courtroom is the central setting, and yet she’s silent. Rachel plays much of this part with her eyes, with her facial expressions. I think she captures it magnificently.

But going back to that middle piece: when we started to plan this movie, and I say “we,’ because they brought me in a lot. I have friends who work in Hollywood, and when they heard the degree to which I was involved—David Hare shadowing me; Mick Jackson visiting me; the producers in the beginning, every few weeks and every few months calling with updates; Rachel wanting me to spend days at her house, just so she could get my accent, my temperament, my intonation, etc. But none of us–even a year ago as final plans were put in place, none of us assumed that the film would have contemporary relevance. I’m not talking about just the Presidential elections. I think it speaks to a much bigger issue about people feeling that truth and fact are negotiable, who feel that if they really believe something, it must be true. As in, “If I really believe that 9/11 was an inside job by the CIA, it must be true.” Or, “If I believe there were Muslims dancing in New Jersey on 9/11, it must be true.” Even though there was no evidence. If I said, “It’s my opinion that the earth is flat,” you would say, “This woman is crazy. That’s her opinion, but it’s a lie.”

There are lies, opinions, and there are facts. And what Holocaust deniers try to do, and now what so many people do, is take lies, where the evidence is all to the contrary, and turn them into opinion, to encroach on the facts. “The Economist” ran an article [print issue of September 10, 2016] about how we live in a post-truth era, and cited Stephen Colbert, that great American commentator, and his term “truthiness.” So what’s the takeaway? Films, I don’t think should have messages. If they have a message, they’re either very bad films, or they’re documentaries. One of the takeaways here is that in Denial there aren’t two sides to every opinion. There are only facts.

The Gronvall Report: Hannes Holm on A MAN CALLED OVE

Sunday, October 2nd, 2016

Recipe for a successful screen adaptation: (1) Option the rights to an immensely popular novel, Fredrik Backman’s “A Man Called Ove,” translated in more than 35 languages, and still on the New York Times bestseller list after 39 weeks. (2) Hire as writer-director Hannes Holm, a commercially astute filmmaker with several award-winning comedies under his belt. (3) Cast in the title role one of Sweden’s most accomplished stage, screen, and TV actors, Rolf Lassgard, who starred in Colin Nutley’s Under the Sun (2000) and Susanne Bier’s After the Wedding (2007), both nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, and he played Henning Mankell’s detective “Wallander for several seasons on Swedish television. (4) Mix well and you get a box office gross of more than $20.5 million in Sweden alone, the third highest gross and largest in that country for 32 years. A Man Called Ove is Sweden’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Enter indie savant Music Box Films, the ambitious, energetic specialty film distributor kicking off the film’s U.S. platform release with openings in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. In A Man Called Ove the company has a title with the potential to cross over into the American mainstream (if any subtitled film can), in part because so many of the social issues the main character faces—immigration, economic upheaval, gay rights, ageism, and entrenched bureaucracy—mirror ours this side of the Atlantic. In makeup that makes him look much older than he does in reality, Lassgard, large and burly, carries the weight of a lifetime of mistreatment, missed opportunities, and personal tragedy. Widowed six months, and let go from his job after decades of faithful service, Ove is still vigorous, and stubborn, as he channels boredom, grief, and anger into his tasks of self-appointed local enforcer. As he daily makes the rounds of his gated community, searching for rule breakers and punishing them (leave a bike where you shouldn’t, and Ove will lock it up), he redefines curmudgeon. He longs to rejoin his beloved departed spouse Sonja (Ida Engvoll), but his efforts to shuffle off this mortal coil are continually thwarted by his new neighbors, a family of mixed ethnicity, where the wife, Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), is clearly the most sensible (as was Sonja). Slowly, after considerable comic friction, Parvaneh draws Ove out of his bitterness, aided by a fluffy stray cat that’s impervious to his disapproval.

Hannes Holm traveled to Chicago to take part in the Music Box Theatre’s participation in national Art House Theater Day. Were it not for his shock of thick snowy hair, you’d never be able to guess Holm’s age; he is trim and wiry, with the kind of cheekbones the camera loves (he entered the business as an actor in 1981), twinkling blue eyes, and an infectious enthusiasm for new people and new experiences. He believes it’s fundamental that a director should love his actors, and he’s jazzed about shooting his next project in India. In other words, Holm is a 180 degrees from Ove, and slyly funny. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation.

I have a question.

You have questions. That’s very good.

Yes, isn’t it? Otherwise I’d be totally wasting your time. In all the Swedish films that have made it to the U.S. or Canada, I haven’t seen anything like the housing development that Ove lives in. Is it suburban? Could you talk a little about the setting?

Yes, it was called the One Million Program [aka, the Million Programme]. In the Sixties and Seventies the Swedish government built so many houses and suburbs, because people really needed them. They built high-rises outside the cities and a lot of these kinds of semi-attached houses as well. But in the Eighties and Nineties when you talked about the One Million Program in Sweden, everyone thought it was a big failure, because in the suburbs when you put so many people from a lower social class [alongside the existing population], problems will occur. But nowadays, where people don’t have anywhere to live, the One Million Program has turned out to be a good thing. In the movie, Ove and Sonja probably bought their semi-attached house in the 70s, with subsidies from the state–as did my family, when we moved to a semi-attached house. And now, the second generation of immigrants is moving into these houses, and they do a thing you never do in Sweden, which is making a present of food to their neighbors.

A welcoming gift.

Exactly. That custom peaked in the 70s, but we never do it anymore. But that gift starts the relationship between Parvaneh and Ove, that grumpy old man. At first I wasn’t interested in filming that story, where the grumpy old man becomes nice, or decent. Was I the guy to do that again? Because so many people had done that story before. But then I realized many things, but one thing is that it’s important to re-tell the classical old stories, at new angles.

Well, it certainly worked in the Pixar movie Up. Perhaps the archetype of the grumpy old man explains part of the appeal of Backman’s novel, which has been on The New York Times bestseller list for over half a year. That’s saying something, because humor doesn’t always travel across national boundaries.

I started out in comedy, which is why I’ve come to Chicago so late in life. Ove is an archetype, as you said. I think the book is a bit funnier than the film. When I met Annica Bellander, the producer, she gave me the book and asked me if I wanted to make the film. But the thing is, I had done so many comedies already, and really wanted to do something else, and the title A Man Called Ove smells like comedy, so I said thanks, but no thanks. The meeting was over, but I’m a poor man, so I kept the free book, and I read it–in one evening, in fact. The next morning, the sun was coming up, and I was crying, and I thought I saw something in it for me as a director. Before, I had been thinking, I’m 53 years old, and reasonably intelligent, and know that you don’t take on a bestseller, because eight out of ten movies based on best-selling books turn out to be failures.

Really? Do you mean in Sweden, or in Europe, or where?

In general. The book’s fans show up at the cinema to see how you are going to massacre their lovely, lovely book. But then I met Freddie Backman. He was a bit grumpy, but he was also smart. He said since he didn’t know anything about screenwriting, I should do the script. I usually write my own stories, so this was a change of pace for me, to adapt another person’s work. I wrote it in two months, quick for me. Then I mailed him the script, and I was nervous about what his response would be. The next day, I got his answer, one word: “Yes.” While I had been writing the script, I had thought about why so many movies based on popular books don’t work. I read the novel 99 times more, and then I gave it to my mother, telling her I don’t want to see it again. And then, basically, I stole the story of the book. It’s like when you read a book, and you tell someone else what it’s about: it’s no longer the author’s story, it becomes your own version of the story. So, after thinking that through, it was quite easy to write the script. Though there was a change the production company wanted: they didn’t want the cat.

They didn’t want the cat?! I love the cat!

I love the cat as well!

But how did you get the cat to do what you wanted it to do? Cats are not known for following direction.

I was shocked when I heard that the production company really didn’t believe in this film. The movie cost $350,000 to make. In Sweden it has now earned $20 million, and one of the big reasons for that, I think, is the cat. We couldn’t afford a digital cat, so we had two live cats. Magic was the more aggressive cat, and Orlando was the lazy cat. But they looked so much alike, that one day we had a near catastrophe on the set, when we gave the cat to Rolf to hold. It started hissing and growling, and we realized we had grabbed Magic by mistake. But the cats did a good job, and so did Rolf with them, because they bonded.

A_Man_Called_Ove_-_2Rolf Lassgard is a terrific actor. And he was so appealing in Under the Sun, a truly memorable love story.

I’d never worked with him before; I met him for the first time doing this film. But everyone in Sweden knows who he is. My first girlfriend was Helena Bergstrom, who would later go on to star with him in Under the Sun. So when I finally met Rolf, I told him this funny story I’d read about an interview Helena had with a very stupid reporter, who asked, “When you do love scenes, how is it? Do you feel something when you kiss an actor?” And Helena was going, oh come on, it’s my job. I have a husband, and children at home, there are a lot of people around on the set, there’s the camera; of course not. But the reporter would not give up on his question, and so finally after ten minutes she said, “Okay, one man.”

I could see that. But you know, before he did Ove, I bet when people approached him on the street they’d call, “Hey, Wallander.”

That’s being the victim of TV, it’s true. When we were thinking about casting, we were going over names of actors known for comedy, but I said, no, I think we need someone who is not known for being funny. And when I called Rolf to ask him to play the part, he said, “But, Hannes, I’m not funny.” But sometimes the best comedies are the films that are not meant to be comedies.

Essentially this is a serious film with overtones of comedy. And the comic overtones are there because, unfortunately, Ove has had much sadness in life.

Yes, it’s a kind of a black comedy.

Do Swedish comedies tend to be a little darker than American comedies? Off the top of my head, I can’t think of many American comedies that are about death and suicide.

A lot of Swedish comedies are not dark, but I think for a Swedish comedy to travel, as you say, it has to be on the dark side. When I gave the script for A Man Called Ove to my wife, Malin, to read, she said, “Too funny.” She started tearing out the funny pages. The thing about humor is that it is a tool; you can’t overuse it. So, I’m learning. Then there’s the other extreme. There’s this guy in Sweden, a director, called Ingmar Bergman. He’s dead now. I hate—no, “hate” is a strong word. But when I saw his films, I couldn’t believe how he could take all the humor out of the room, just vacuum it out. I have an idea to make a film with my DP [Goran Hallberg] about Bergman, actually. Because in the late Fifties and early Sixties Ingmar made some commercials, so I want to write a script imagining the meetings Bergman had with the advertising firms, the clients, and all the stupid stuff you go through when you make commercials, but telling it in the Ingmar Bergman way. It would be a funny contrast, the ad world and Bergman’s style.

#   #   #


The Gronvall Report: Simon Helberg on Meryl Streep And Florence Foster Jenkins

Thursday, August 11th, 2016

If you’re, like me, one of the 15 million viewers who every week watch the long-running CBS series The Big Bang Theory, you don’t need any introduction to the multi-talented Simon Helberg. You already know him as Howard Wolowitz, perhaps the most insecure (and endearing) of the IQ-chart-topping science geeks on the long-running sitcom. Despite having one-upped his egghead pals by flying on a NASA mission, the hyper-competitive Howard seems to be in a permanent state of over-compensating for any number of deep-seated eccentricities (okay, neuroses). Helberg so wins you over in his portrayal, you can’t help but identify with Howard’s stratospheric angst.

So you can understand how thrilling it was to read that Helberg had been cast with third billing, no less, opposite Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant in Stephen Frears’s biopic Florence Foster Jenkins, the much-ballyhooed Paramount Pictures release opening this week. Although he has acted in quite a few films before this, Helberg enjoys his heftiest big-screen role yet as the hungry young classical New York pianist Cosme McMoon, so far into the closet he doesn’t even know he’s there. Hired by the titular music-mad heiress to accompany her during her delusional pursuit of a singing debut at Carnegie Hall in 1944 (delusional because her wildly off-pitch pipes could shred bark off a tree), he is a latter-day Sancho Panza to a female Don Quixote, following an impossible dream out of loyalty to, and eventually, affection for his patroness. The money, of course, does comes in handy, and did Cosme mention that he also composes?

Initially Florence comes across as a dreadful culture vulture, an overbearing wealthy lady who lunches while indefatigably waving the flag of whatever and whomever she deems as improving a less refined populace. How Streep can make her every warble more horrific than the last is a testament to the actress’s powers of invention and her command of her own singing voice. As her younger, philandering common-law husband, St. Clair Bayfield, Hugh Grant fleshes out his familiar screen persona of the quintessential charming, self-effacing British sophisticate with a new dimension: layers of grit, regret, and menace, as he schemes relentlessly to hide from Florence the truth about her vocal gaffes. And as the impecunious Cosme, Helberg follows his costars’ leads; as the film progresses he matures, becoming warmer and more humane. As with “The Big Bang Theory,” in Florence Foster Jenkins the stage-trained (New York’s Atlantic Theater Company) Helberg again proves a very funny and sensitive supporting actor who helps up the game of everyone around him. During his recent swing through Chicago the surprisingly open performer impressed me as a born communicator, more articulate about his process than any other actor I’ve ever met.

Fans of “The Big Bang Theory” already know that you have musical talent, but it’s gratifying to see it so prominently featured in Florence Foster Jenkins. That mode of performing—you played the piano live for the camera, while still in character—posed what kind of challenge?

It was a great challenge; it required sort of a juggling act to get there, because, first of all, the music was incredibly challenging just to learn. I play piano, and I play it well, but I don’t play classical music, and I don’t play opera music, and I never have, really. To play somebody who is a classically trained pianist, I had to be really good, or at least I had to pretend to be good. But Stephen wanted to do it live: Meryl’s singing, and I’m playing, and that was important to him, and I didn’t want to let him down. So I bluffed a little, and said I can do it, and then I really had to put my money where my mouth was. I learned all the pieces very well, as best I could, because I knew we were going to decimate them when we got together with Meryl and she sang. You have to be able to bob and weave, so you really have to know it backwards and forwards. And then came figuring out who the character was, and how he would play, and how he would sit, and how he would live in that—and so it was [about] two components, and merging them. It was tough; it’s tough just to act anyway, and especially when you’re in the presence of so many great people. There’s a pressure there, and then to add opera to it almost sent me to the hospital, but it worked out.

You’re a very physical actor, and the differences in your body language are notable, from early on when Cosme is auditioning, versus how you comport yourself later when you’re sitting at the concert piano–perfect posture, that. Did you study various pianists to see how they moved when they were on stage?

I did watch some, like Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubenstein—and Lang Lang also; he’s on the other end of the spectrum, he’s very flashy—but when I took lessons for this movie, I really wanted to learn about the classical technique: how your hands, and your arms, and your posture [contribute]. One of the things the teacher that I studied with told me was how these young piano players at the conservatory always have these very long arms; they’re always told to imagine that they have weights at the end of their arms that sort of pull them down when they sit at the piano. You would imagine that your fingers are being weighted down through the keys, and you don’t use your wrists or your elbows. And I thought, ooh, this is interesting: those gangly people are like a puppy, or someone with a growth spurt, unaware of their bodies; they haven’t figured out how to coordinate their movements. And I thought about this guy Cosme who’s probably not fully in his body, or in his element at all, and just kind of floating through there with his arms, almost as if they were separate entities. So that helped.

It’s wonderful how you straddle the divide between comedy and poignant dramatic moments. I love Stephen Frears’ work, and this is a great script by Nicholas Martin, and it’s a measure of their respective skills that early in the film we’re not too sure about how we feel about the three main characters, who aren’t shown in their best light. But then the movie unfolds, and we see them more clearly. My favorite scene is the one you have with Meryl in Cosme’s apartment. I don’t know where you go as an actor to get in touch with that kind of vulnerability, but it’s beautiful.

Thank you. It was a scene that always existed as you see it, that’s sort of in the middle of the movie as an anomaly; I think Meryl said that at one point, “Well, this scene’s an anomaly.” Because we were going to shoot it first, but she thought we probably shouldn’t, because our characters are doing something they’ve never done, really, in the course of this movie. Eventually for one reason or another it got shifted a little bit later into the schedule. It was still early on, but it wasn’t the first day, it wasn’t our first scene. And I already was excited about that scene, and scared; it was challenging, and it felt like it kind of beat us up a little bit—even Meryl, I think, that day, found it was hard, and it was emotional. And it was amazing to be with her, thinking she must always feel, like, “Well, another brilliant day in the life of Meryl Streep,” but when we left, we both were sort of, I don’t know, bogged down by it, how it came out. But sometimes that trouble is what the scene is, and it was a vulnerable, raw moment in those characters’ lives in this movie, and then for us, I think, it just kind of spun us around. And that was a big moment, coming away from it, and seeing it [in the finished film] I think it’s beautiful, too. But I certainly left that day feeling unsure. It’s an interesting lesson in surrendering.

Because of your TV show, many people associate you with a contemporary persona, but you appear to fit very comfortably in a period piece. What kind of tools did you rely on to get into character? Did the costumes help you embody a person of that time?

Well, I’ve always felt sort of out of time, in some way. I used to think about the different eras where I might have fit in better. But I’ve always loved period pieces, and loved theater that let me, say, step into the Forties, or into Oscar Wilde’s world. I think you just listen to what the story is, and, sure, the costumes help create that, for the audience, at least. And then you step into it, and you do move differently, and you do feel different. I didn’t consciously over-think the period [aspect] of it, aside from what the state of the world was, in terms of wartime, and in terms of him being gay. But it’s so fun; it’s a beautiful-looking era, cinematically.

So now you’ve worked with the Coen Brothers and Stephen Frears, terrific filmmakers. What are the differences between working on the sets of Florence Foster Jenkins and A Serious Man?

Well, on the set of A Serious Man, we shot [my stuff] in only a day. I did go a few times for a rehearsal and a table read; it was brief, but intense. The similarity is that the Coens and Stephen don’t say a lot to the actors. The Coens write it, they edit it, and they do everything, so that story in its entirety is 100% their vision. They’re in charge of facilitating that: from the script to the screen what you see doesn’t change much. And Stephen doesn’t write his movies, and doesn’t edit his movies, and so his vision is just executed in a different way. And [in both cases] it’s seamless; you don’t even really know how they’re doing it, because there’s just not a lot of talking. It feels effortless, from both sides, although obviously there’s a lot of effort in it, and they surround themselves with people they trust and who they know are going to tell the same story. There’s very little micro-managing, at least from the point of view of the actor. The directors, if they want it again, might ask if you would like to do another take. Or they might say, “I’m happy.” I think the Coens asked me to lean forward once, instead of leaning backward. I don’t know–they just trust.

That’s nice, really.

[Laughs] It’s nice, but also there are moments where it’s kind of disconcerting, where you’re just left [thinking], they trust me that much? I don’t trust me that much.

Your father, Sandy Helberg, is also an actor with an interesting career. Did he take you along to movie sets when you were a kid?

I definitely went to a bunch of different sets, when he’d be on TV, and my mom [Harriet B. Helberg] was a casting director, and so I’d go and watch tapings of sitcoms. And my dad was in The Groundlings, and I would go to The Groundlings, and just watch these great, brilliant people. And I know that that all shaped me, for sure. It just wasn’t something that I thought about, or really even considered doing, until I was 16 or 17. I wanted to do music, really.

You also have training in karate. What kind of a belt do you have?

A very small one, now, because it’s from when I was ten. Black belt—but again, it would probably be like a bracelet for me at this point. I was very little. The biggest thing that I probably kept from that—aside from that tiny belt—is discipline. I learned about focus and discipline. I never wanted to beat anybody up–luckily, because I probably would have failed. But that wasn’t what it was about for me. It was about the passion of doing it. That was what I wanted to do; I didn’t think beyond that about anything else. There was a period when I was, like, nine, where I went to karate six days a week.

So, when you watch action movies, and see the fight scenes, given what you know do you ever wince and think, that is so not how it’s done?

[Laughs] “Yeah, I could have done better. Yeah, Steven Seagal, he knows nothing.” Oh, no, I don’t tend to lord my past in karate and martial arts over anybody else’s careers these days. I think we’re all in the right field. I have no input into anything that Jason Bourne is doing.

#       #       #

The Gronvall Report: Adam McKay On THE BIG SHORT

Monday, December 21st, 2015

After months flying below the radar of industry watchers, The Big Short arrived in theaters late into awards season to shake things up. A bravura, full-throttle adaptation of Michael Lewis’ non-fiction bestseller about the Wall Street crash of 2008, the movie is directed and co-written (with Charles Randolph) by Adam McKay, who is best known for collaboration with Will Farrell on hits like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and The Other Guys. McKay’s step up here is sizable¾in ambition, although surprisingly not in terms of budget, as the reported $28- to $29 million it took to make The Big Short is only a couple million north of the budget for Anchorman.

But McKay got his money’s worth, and it’s all there on the screen, starting with a kick-ass ensemble headed by Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt as brilliant investors (some very eccentric) who see (a) that America’s housing market boom has been built on shaky mortgages and bad loans, and (b) how they can profit from the disaster waiting to happen. What could have been an indecipherable parade of financial terms like credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations becomes instead a heady brew of rapid-fire dialogue, dynamic camera work, and sly cameos by celebrities playing themselves (Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez, and Anthony Bourdain) as they directly address the camera to explain the obsfucation of high finance. Considering the widespread devastation caused by the 2008 market collapse (from which, it hardly needs saying, we are still recovering) this is gallows humor, but of a very fine order. Equally fine is the drama, which succeeds largely because the flawed characters at its center are nothing if not recognizably human.

An ingenious stroke was to hire Barry Ackroyd as his shooter. Ackroyd was nominated for an Oscar for The Hurt Locker and a BAFTA Award for his work on Captain Phillips; his next project with Greengrass will be the latest installment of the Jason Bourne franchise. Throughout a dozen films with social realist director Ken Loach, Ackroyd honed a verité style that adds layers of immediacy and authenticity to already true-to-life material. In The Big Short his images offer effective counterweight to McKay’s biting assessment of the absurdities of Wall Street.

It was a homecoming of sorts for McKay when he stopped in Chicago to appear at the film’s local premiere. He got his start here as a founder of the improv sketch group Upright Citizens Brigade. He’s married to Shira Piven, a film director in her own right (Welcome to Me), who’s a member of the Piven theatrical family, practically a dynasty in these parts. I caught up with the charming, owlishly bespectacled McKay while he was literally stretching his long legs across a coffee table during press day at the Ritz-Carlton.

How did you decide on Barry Ackroyd as your cinematographer? His career has shown such vitality and range, from his long association with Ken Loach to an amazing war film like The Hurt Locker. He’s phenomenal.

I couldn’t agree with you more. He’s one of the greatest in the history of cinematography, ever. I didn’t want the film to have that kind of marble-clad, austere look that a lot of movies about Wall Street have had, and knew that he would capture the energy, the life of our characters and settings.

What was your working method with him? How did you communicate?

Working with him was one of my happiest experiences in film. Barry operates the A camera, and like John Cassavetes, he favors long lenses. He likes to stand back from the action, and watch the scene unfold, like it’s an event. He doesn’t want to be anywhere near the actors. Which is good: that way, the actors don’t know where exactly they’ll be in the shot, so they’re forced to remain in the moment of the scene. And he had a very capable assistant on the B camera. Between the three of us, we developed our own language. Watching each day’s footage I learned Barry’s style, and also how to tweak it, when I wanted. I told him, if you see something happening that you like, you have to go for it; you’ve got a green light from me. But there are also moments where the movie is a little more formalistic, like where we had to frame specifically to break the fourth wall, or for other reasons.

I’m curious about how certain shots came about. For instance, one of my favorite funny moments is in a scene at the Las Vegas forum where Mark Baum (Steve Carell) is challenging the speaker. It’s a wide shot from near the back of the room. Carell is outside frame, until his character gets so outraged at the half-wit at the podium that his left arm shoots out into the frame to make an emphatic zero sign, and all his indignation and fury just radiate off of each digit. Whose decision was that? Yours, I’m betting.

You noticed that! Yes, I saw how Barry was framing the shot, and suggested that if he moved the camera a little, to throw Steve out of frame, it would be funnier.

You wrapped shooting when? You tested a lot over the summer, I read.

We finished shooting toward the end of May. And yes, I did test the film with audiences a lot, maybe five to six times, because our movie is a little bit of a conversation with viewers. We were looking for the right alchemy between a serious subject and the lighter moments where we try to explain what happened. Mostly we discovered that audiences were able to understand complex terms like CDOs, which was crucial.

It’s refreshing that there aren’t any heroes in your film. The three groups of maverick investors that you focus on are sympathetic only to the extent that if they hadn’t done what they did, they’d have been squashed by the impending economic meltdown that only they, apparently, foresaw. Well, maybe not so much Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who set too much into play. But with the others, it was more or less a case of “eat or be eaten,” because that’s what the market is, or at least how the market has been defined by our contemporary brand of capitalism.

The way the market is supposed to work is that for every investment there’s a counter-investment. Mark Baum was an investor who was intent on rooting out corruption because to do so was good for the market, in that corrupt companies could not ultimately succeed, and therefore were bad for business. And so he would “short,” or bet against, investments that, after much research on his part, he identified as bad or fraudulent. Michael Burry believed in value; he had this astonishing capacity to crunch data, and he believed that numbers didn’t lie. And Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro) had this theory about how people underestimate the chances of bad things happening. As for these guys not being heroes? I think the one thing you can say they did was stare into the mouth of the beast.

I was interested to learn that you’ve been a social activist from your earliest days in show business. What are you involved in now?

There are a number of causes that I support: the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the Sandy Hook Promise. Gun control is a big one for me. I’m also involved in fighting climate change. I donate money, and every now and then I’ll do a fundraiser. Or “Funny or Die” will post a video. I try to pursue activism, on some level, in everything I do. Definitely, over the years I’ve learned that you can do a lot through comedy, or the occasional op-ed in “The Huffington Post.” You just keep at it.

The Gronvall Report: On SON OF SAUL

Friday, December 18th, 2015

Just as there hasn’t been a documentary about the Holocaust to surpass Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, it’s hard to imagine a future fictional narrative that would come close to matching Son of Saul, writer-director László Nemes’ debut feature about Auschwitz-Birkenau in the waning months of World War II. In terms of vision, artistry, innovation, and intensity, there’s never been anything like it. It’s the polar opposite of so many previous, similarly-themed films. Of course there will always be more Holocaust movies, although few to none, I’ll hazard a guess, with the impact of Son of Saul. There is no catharsis or relief or uplift to be found, only a credible approximation of the relentless hell that was the Nazi death factory. And yet you cannot look away.

The plot is simple; in fact, everything basic to the narrative is contained in the lead character’s name: Saul Auslander. Auslander, from the German, means outsider, foreigner; this particular Auslander is a Hungarian deported to Poland to slave as a Sonderkommando, a Jewish concentration camp prisoner conscripted to assist the Nazis in exterminating other Jews. Saul is a Biblical name derived from the three-letter Hebrew root shin.aleph.lamed (sha’al), a verb that means to inquire or petition. One day while cleaning out the dead in a gas chamber, Saul discovers a boy he believes is his son; thereafter, he obsessively asks everyone who will listen: where within the camp might he find a rabbi to say Kaddish over the corpse and give it a proper burial?

The opening shot of the film begins out of focus. Gradually the figure of Saul emerges, and it is with him that the camera will stay for almost every shot of the movie; the entire film is foregrounded in Saul’s consciousness. Much of the film consists of long takes, and there are many close-ups of Saul, played by Géza Röhrig, who last acted over two decades ago in two productions in his native Hungary, and has in the years since worked as a poet and Jewish studies teacher in the Bronx. Some journalists have compared Röhrig to Mark Ruffalo and Jean-Paul Belmondo in terms of “type,” or looks. Viewers understandably make these associations, but part of the strength of Son of Saul relies on Röhrig being a fresh cinematic face; because he is a tabula rasa, nothing interferes with the audience’s connection with his character. We don’t look at him and think, oh, Geza Röhrig, famous actor—although his performance is so masterful and visceral, after this he may well be Geza Röhrig, movie star, should he wish to pursue that path.

Nemes, a Hungarian Jew who lost family in the Holocaust, grew up in Paris and is an alumnus of New York University’s film school, where he met his cinematographer, Matyas Erdely. However, Nemes has said he received a much better education during his apprenticeship to art-house auteur Bela Tarr, for whom he served as assistant director on The Man From London (2007). I caught up with Nemes and Rohrig during their recent trip to Los Angeles to promote Son of Saul, Hungary’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. The Sony Pictures Classics title, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes, opens commercially this weekend in platform release.

Writing about the TV mini-series “Holocaust” for the “New York Times” in 1978, Elie Wiesel used his review to express his dismay and concern over the danger of popular media treatments of the Shoah, which he believed would only lead to trivialization. Little could he know back then how many inaccurate, inept, and/or exploitative fictional treatments of the Holocaust would follow. I see Son of Saul as sort of a corrective to those many mediocre movies. Do you think that one of the reasons your film is so hard-hitting is that it is about the Sonderkommandos, a relatively unexplored chapter in fictional representations of the Shoah?

ROHRIG: The subject matter is not entirely new; think back to The Grey Zone [the 2001 drama by Tim Blake Nelson]. But we had to forge a new cinematic language—not dialogue, but the very grammar of film, and find a new angle. Most of the earlier Holocaust movies that people are referring to [when they’re comparing those films to Son of Saul] didn’t get the subject right, didn’t treat it right, or didn’t allow the horror to be felt. What Laszlo has shown is that the old ways of representation no longer work.

NEMES: Let me just add that I think the tendency in film for too many years has been to treat the Holocaust for its dramatic value. It became the standard to use it as background to raise the dramatic stakes in many different kinds of films [war stories, mysteries, romances]. I think we need to find the real meaning of the Holocaust, not to use it as an excuse for entertainment. [With our picture] we wanted to avoid the iconography, the dramatic and visual codes that have been used to reassure the viewer, rather than interrogate the viewer. We made this film because we wanted to go back to the engine, and re-tool it.

I saw your film at a large, packed house at the Chicago International Film Festival; there were maybe only two seats available in the front row, and no one in the audience spoke during the screening, or checked cell phones. They were thoroughly immersed in the film. What, if any, have been the differences between how American and European audience have responded to the film? And in Israel? I read that you had a festival screening in Israel.

NEMES: We had a very, very small screening in Israel, more like an industrial screening.

ROHRIG: Generally, I’ve found the older moviegoers are more linked to their own pasts, and younger viewers feel it differently. The responses have tended to vary more along generational lines. Because this film is coming from Hungary in a global age, the idea of audience reception being wildly different between European nations and America doesn’t fit my experience. But we don’t know yet about Germany and Israel.

NEMES: Actually, I went to the Hamburg Film Festival, and for the first time I saw it in a big venue that was only one third full of viewers. I’m a little worried about the Germans, I have to say, because for decades the Germans have established a practice of rewriting their history in cinematic terms, with movies like Das Boot and Downfall. They’ve come to the point of making films that almost glorify the Fuhrer. I’m pretty shocked by that development. Outside of the safe path that I’ve described [of festival screenings], there might not be much room in Germany today for this kind of film.

How was Geza cast? How did you two become acquainted?

ROHRIG: Some things are ordered from higher up. We were both studying at NYU, and were invited by a friend for a Sunday meal. We then began to meet to talk and walk around the city. Lazlo at the time was making his short films. He didn’t share with me what he was planning for a feature film. A couple of years later an email shows up in my inbox saying he had me in mind for this project, and he sent me the script [co-written by Nemes and French novelist Clara Royer]. Once I read it, I knew it was a very good script. For reference I had my own library on the subject, and had been very frustrated by previous depictions of the Holocaust. Because Laszlo carefully avoided the traps, his treatment was very effective and even radical. We started to talk and to rehearse. I was flown to Budapest, and put up in the production’s rented apartment, and they began to set challenges for me. Pretty much 9 to 5 we were trying to find that place I needed to get to in the movie, and I wasn’t trying to rush the process, or being overly nervous. After a month and a half, I had no reservations about taking the role.

How long was your shooting schedule?

NEMES: We had 28 consecutive days of shooting.

ROHRIG: Except for Shabbat, because I am a religious Jew.

That brings me to my next question. Obviously you know that Judaism doesn’t have the same focus on the afterlife as does Christianity; we Jews are supposed to be concentrating more on fulfilling certain obligations here on earth, rather than contemplating heaven and hell. However, a philosophically inclined Roman Catholic I once knew had, to my mind, a most sensible definition of hell, which he characterized as the absence of God. Am I off base here, but isn’t Saul’s quest on behalf of his dead son a form of tikkun olam, an attempt to coax God back into the world, and thereby help heal it?

ROHRIG: Many religions have meaningful approaches to spirituality. We all have our own upbringing, we all have our questions and desires, In this film, the very fact that Saul doesn’t know the Kaddish prayer, and that you don’t need a rabbi to say it for you, indicates that he has not had a religious upbringing. But that doesn’t mean he’s not a spiritual man. Saul, despite not having been trained as a practicing Jew, nonetheless behaves as he should. Without knowing it, he invents the mitzvah: it’s what you do, not what you say, not what you think, that counts. He was not looking for approval, or to medicate himself. I think by encountering this child, this miracle of surviving a gas chamber for nothing, he didn’t want this miracle to go to waste. At least for this boy, he‘s going to do the right thing. There are a few things halachically [by Jewish law] that you have to do, but for Saul, there was this personal mania underlying his actions. His determination was the one thing that allowed him to be in the image of God, even in this place. And for that reason, he was the only happy person in this movie.

Laszlo, your movie is so layered, given all the planes within your shots, with Saul in the foreground, and the background frequently out of focus. When the violence isn’t off-screen, it takes place in this fuzzy background where we can hardly comprehend it. Likewise, the sound comes at us in all directions, a cacophony of voices and languages that we can’t make sense of, so how could someone trying to survive in the middle of this chaos do any better? Can you elaborate on your strategy?

NEMES: For the camera, we knew that we wanted to accompany the main character very closely, because we knew we wanted a portrait of the man. His face reflects everything that goes on, he is the filter of everything. So we knew that we couldn’t represent the camp as something understandable; we had to create in the viewer’s imagination a reconstruction of experiences in the camp, where prisoners had only limited access to everything, from information to visuals. We had to convey in cinematic terms the individual’s sensations. We also wanted to immerse the viewer in this world, because we wanted to get visceral reactions. For that we had longer takes. And sound was designed to show there’s not much more [information] there than what you can see. The sound mixing was a long process, five months. We needed human voices, layered in different languages. The more we used, we found the more we needed. The fact that the viewer cannot identify the origins of sounds makes it restrictive, but it also reflects the experience of what went on. The sense of being lost is what we wanted to convey. That is what was missing before [in most earlier movies about the Holocaust]: one individual being lost.


The Gronvall Report: Kent Jones Talks HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015

One of the outstanding entries in this year’s Chicago International Film Festival was Hitchcock/Truffaut, a documentary for movie fans of all stripes, from the veteran filmgoer to the cinema-curious newbie. A fascinating chronicle of the 1962 interview sessions between Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut (which were greatly facilitated by translator Helen G. Scott), the film not only revisits the resulting seminal book, Truffaut’s “Hitchcock;” it also reexamines the men’s careers, and their relationship with each other. More than a tale of mutual admiration between two world-class directors, it’s a cerebral yet playful mash note to the movies (not just theirs), and given added heft by rarely seen archival footage, as well as by the amicable on-camera participation of contemporary filmmakers Wes Anderson, Olivier Assayas, Peter Bogdanovich, Arnaud Desplechin, David Fincher, Kiyoshi Kurasawa, Richard Linklater, Paul Schrader, and Martin Scorsese.

Hitchcock/Truffaut knows movies inside out. Co-writer Serge Toubiana, a former editor-in-chief of the French film magazine Cahiers du cinema, has been director of the Cinémathèque Française since 2003 (a post he’s soon departing). Director and co-writer Kent Jones, a prolific author and contributor to “Film Comment,” is one of America’s most respected film critics. Through his longtime association with Martin Scorsese, Jones segued into making films himself in 2007, writing and directing the documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, which Scorsese narrated and produced. Jones followed that up by co-writing and co-directing with Scorsese the Peabody Award-winning A Letter to Elia (2010).

Jones currently serves as artistic director of the World Cinema Foundation, as well as as director of the New York Film Festival. On the heels of another successful season for NYFF, he jetted to Chicago’s festival to appear at screenings of Hitchcock/Truffaut, a Cohen Media Group release that begins its platform commercial run this week. I met him at the offices of Music Box Films, one of the many new businesses that have transformed the formerly industrial Morgan Street neighborhood into a part hipster/part grunge enclave that resembles areas of New York City. Jones looked very much in his element. Tall and energetic, once seated he was attentive and soft-spoken, focused yet relaxed, and even a little soulful as we talked about Hitchcock and Truffaut, film criticism, and the future of the movie industry.

HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT filmmaker Kent Jones.  Courtesy of GODLIS.

HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT filmmaker Kent Jones.      Courtesy of GODLIS.

Andrea Gronvall: For many moviegoers, this book, Truffaut’s “Hitchcock,” was one of their “ah-ha” moments, when they realized they were deeply in love with film. What were your ah-ha moments?

Kent Jones: I mentioned to a very close friend whom I had known since I was 14 that I had found all my old baseball cards when I was cleaning out the house where I grew up. He said, it’s interesting, because it leads to the whole way that you get engaged with movies. What he meant was that there are the faces of the baseball players on the cards, and then there are the faces of actors. There’s a different kind of relationship now with actors, I think, than there was then. And I’m talking about the faces of older actors, and in particular Bogart, who was very, very important to me when I was a kid.

Bogart was my dad’s generation. The way that he moved, the way that he expressed himself, and the way that he spoke, was in line with my dad, with my experience of him and his generation, the people around him, the people who came out of World War II. Although Bogart was older [than them]; he was in World War I. That’s how his lip was damaged, allegedly. But Bogart, Gable, Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, and so on, these were the faces I connected with in books about movies when I was a kid.

And of course the idea of the universe of movies was very different then; it was connected to an older time. Bogart was the link, because he was a countercultural favorite, beloved by younger people. His films played forever on college campuses in the early ‘70s.

AG: Is that where you saw most of these films?

KJ: I saw a lot of them on TV, but then in the early ‘70s I left the country for the first time with my parents, for England, and we saw Casablanca in a packed theatre in London and that was an ah-ha moment for sure, particularly the close-up of Bogart when he sees Ingrid Bergman again for the first time. It’s an absolutely remarkable scene. I got into movies that way, but then when Richard Schickel’s documentary series “The Men Who Made the Movies” was aired, that was certainly an “ah-ha” moment in the sense that I understood that, oh, there’s such a thing as a director. And Hitchcock was one of those people, [as well as] Hawks, Minnelli, Wellman, Capra. Pointedly not John Ford, who Dick Schickel never liked.

AG: I’m not that crazy about Ford, either, but that’s neither here nor there.

KJ: I think I saw that series before I saw a film by Hitchcock. I saw Dial M for Murder in the basement of my headmaster’s house with the school crew that won whatever that semester. We saw it in 2-D, obviously, and on a 16mm print. But there was also a little place where I grew up in the Berkshires, a very interesting place. During the summer it showed movies, and I went there with some friends of mine, and with my mom, this was when I was like 12 or 13, and saw Psycho and The 39 Steps, and that was absolutely a revelatory experience. And the book, I think I got like when I was 12 or 13, like Fincher did.

Fincher’s experience of the book is very close to my own; we’re roughly the same age. The idea of poring over the book, this is something that he talks about in Hitchcock/Truffaut, that’s something that I absolutely did when I was young, especially those photo layouts. Of course, in a funny way those montages are inaccurate because Truffaut didn’t have anything to check them with, other than the notes he took in screening rooms. But it doesn’t matter. The point is that he’s giving you a sense of what cutting is, what the layout of the scene is. That was an eye-opener.

AG: For me, your film is this totally immersive experience, and expands the experience of reading the book. Recently, after a local colleague and I had just seen your film, he wanted to know what I thought of it, and I said I loved it. He said that he felt that you relied on a bunch of talking heads, which we see a lot in documentaries. And I said, but that’s absolutely pivotal to what you’re doing, because you’re mirroring Truffaut’s experience of speaking to Hitchcock, in that you’re a film critic turned filmmaker, talking to these other directors. Were you aware of this parallel while you were filming?

KJ: No, I would put it differently. Yes, the movie is made up of a lot of different elements that are very, very common in documentaries.

AG: Well, there aren’t too many other ways to do documentaries.

KJ: Yeah, that’s true, but of course, it’s what you do with them that ultimately counts. I mean, there are talking heads, and there are talking heads. If I made a movie where I had a bunch of people sitting around talking to the camera and saying, Alfred Hitchcock was great and here’s why, that would have been talking heads, in the sense that your colleague was describing.

AG: Like almost anything on American Masters.

KF: Exactly. But I didn’t want to do that. And the thing is that somehow, what you have to create is some kind of space. Like, Noah Baumbach. I asked Brian De Palma to be in this film, obviously, and he declined for a very good reason, because Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow were making this movie about him. Brian said, I have to save my thoughts about Hitchcock for Noah and Jake’s movie. And their movie De Palma is great. The thing about it is that it’s only Brian; he’s the only person [interviewed] in the movie. Along with the clips and photographs, somehow a space is created, So, that’s what I wanted to do, was to create a space between the filmmakers, a kind of a common space where people are extending the conversation. It’s sort of what you were talking about, [but] I’m looking at it from the different end of the telescope, so what you’re describing is maybe like the meta factor.

AG: Although they don’t interact with each other, the directors you interview come across as fraternal, and willing to suspend their own egos. They are totally into talking about Hitchcock. I would love to see that kind of enthusiasm catch on with the public. As your film shows, Hitchcock agreed to do the book because he was promoting a new appreciation and critical reassessment of his reputation. Hitchcock/Truffaut comes at a key time because so many younger viewers have never seen anything by Hitchcock, even though today there are so many ways to see films, largely thanks to digital. Yet, as my longtime colleague Dave Kehr says, in some ways older films are more in danger than ever. Do you think we are at, I don’t want to say a crisis, but some kind of tipping point in terms of film criticism, where, because there’s such a glut of stuff out there, and because of the triumph of studio marketing, people are in danger of overlooking the movies they shouldn’t miss?

KJ: That’s a very complicated question, and a good one. I started working in Marty’s office in ’91, when things were just constantly happening; everybody was participating. We all had a love of cinema. The Film Foundation was becoming successful; it had already achieved its first goal, which was to establish some kind of a bridge between the archives and the studios. There was a consciousness of film preservation in the ‘90s. American Movie Classics was still an actual channel that people wanted to watch in those days for movies, as opposed to Mad Men, and didn’t have commercials, and was kind of like what Turner Classic Movies is now. It had all those RKO movies, for example. And I felt like, well, the lines are long at Film Forum, Bruce [Goldstein] is doing great business, etc. I did my first program with Bruce with films of the ‘70s; it went really well.

So, I thought, yeah, mission accomplished, but of course that’s always an illusion. Because I started to understand, hey, wait a minute! You have to maintain it, it’s a practice, you have to constantly be reminding, guarding, protecting. By the same token, everyone kept talking about the digital revolution: it’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming. When it came, it came at such a rate of speed that people didn’t even recognize it. A couple of years ago, Amy Taubin and I were at a side-by-side DCP comparison [with the original film] of Dr. Strangelove that Grover Crisp did, and Amy said, oh my God, we have to do something about this. But, too late; I mean, this [restoration] was done.

So, then you realize the problem becomes, who’s going to guard these movies? Well, the studios aren’t going to do it, as they’ve proven. Now, Jim Gianopulos [Chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment] loves movies, he really loves movies. He came to the New York Film Festival for [the restoration of Ernst Lubitsch’s] Heaven Can Wait, threw a dinner for Marty, and he and Marty and I did a conversation. But that’s not the case with other studios. You wonder, what’s going to happen to all that stuff, as the value decreases, as the generations of younger people make less and less of a connection? The people of my generation, who have fathers who were in World War—that’s a big part of what we call cinephilia that’s gone.

I remember I gave a talk at a class that a friend of mine teaches, and I asked the kids if they’d ever seen a silent film, and one kid said, yeah, I saw one once on YouTube. And what he meant was, he saw 20 minutes on YouTube.

AG: That’s right.

KJ: That was The Big Parade. And he said, that was interesting, yeah, it was black-and-white, And I think that’s the way things are going, is that film is becoming more and more of a specialized discipline. The idea of movies as one big, popular medium is waning. You know?

AG: Yes!

KJ: And Marty would say the same thing, like, I’m a dinosaur; people don’t make movies the way that I do anymore. You know, there’s Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, there’s Fincher, there’s a couple of other people of that generation, there’s Tarantino. Then when you get to a younger generation, you’re talking about a different kind of relationship with the film image. Film as we know it, cinema as we know it, is really going to become just an art form, as opposed to a really popular thing that’s got all kinds of stuff that’s floating around in it. That’s okay; it’s just the way things are. It’s sad for people our age who grew up when we did, but that’s just the way it is. But going to the multiplex now, most of what’s showing, I don’t really care about. I don’t care about Mad Max: Fury Road, to tell you the truth; I wanted to like it more.

AG: I haven’t seen it yet.

KJ: That’s at the high end, made at least by a guy who’s a real artist of some stature. But for all those reasons, yes, things are endangered. Dave’s always made that point, and he’s correct about that. People assume everything’s available; in fact, it’s not the case. And then, when I see things that are available, but they’re all in the same format, unless they’re Scope, and when I watch, not the 1.33:1 movies, but the 1.50:1, the 1.75:1, they all come out at 1.78:1, the size of that screen. When I walk into a bar and see an old movie made before 1950 and it’s stretched, and nobody knows how to change it, I wonder what’s going to happen to the memory of the film. So it has to become like a discipline that has to be preserved, in the same way poets preserve poetry. You know, poets aren’t in it for the money.

AG: My neighbor, who’s a poet, would certainly agree.

KJ: [American poet] Robert Creeley was not somebody who was in it because he wanted to make a killing on the market, or win awards. It’s something different, so I think that’s what cinema is going to become. I think what’ll be lost is the kind of grandeur that’s available to you when you can spend a lot of money on building sets, the production design, the visuals. But, you know, it will become more artisanal, more a specialized thing. But preserving the past? That’s a tougher one. I just really don’t know, because that’s a space matter. What are they going to do?

AG: Now that you are well along the way in your transition from film critic to filmmaker, do you feel you can perhaps appreciate the filmmakers that you like even more?

KJ: I think that in general in film criticism, there’s a big gap—and there always has been—between the way the filmmakers see cinema, and the way that critics see it. But I think that the more that I learn about making movies from the filmmakers I know, and from making the kinds of movies that I do, I’m trying to bridge that gap. And so, yes, it definitely gives me a heightened appreciation of what filmmakers do.

The Gronvall Report: Jay Roach On TRUMBO

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015

Quiz any ardent film fan and you’ll likely find among her or his favorites one or two movies about Hollywood, anything from noir classics like Sunset Boulevard and The Bad and the Beautiful, to the mystery-satire The Player and the exuberant Singin’ in the Rain, to comedies as various as Bowfinger, Matinee, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. To add to that eclectic mix now comes the biopic-dramedy Trumbo, from indie distributor Bleecker Street. Nimbly directed by Jay Roach, it’s a highly engaging movie about a tough (and touchy) subject, the Hollywood blacklist that began in 1947, and didn’t end until the 1960s.

Smoking hot following his Tony Award for “All the Way” and his multiple Emmy-winning run on “Breaking Bad,” Bryan Cranston stars as Dalton Trumbo, the phenomenally prolific author, raconteur and bon vivant who in his postwar heyday was one of the highest paid screenwriters in the nation. As comfortably as he lived, though, he firmly believed that less fortunate working stiffs were entitled to just wages and other protections that labor unions provide, and he was active in leftist politics. How during the Cold War he ran afoul of the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) witch-hunt—he refused to name names of suspected members of the American Communist Party—is only the first part of this fascinating tale. The movie then switches gears to become the story of an intrepid underdog, as Trumbo, banned from working at any major studio, figures out how to fight back, and in the bargain rescues some of his pilloried fellow screenwriters.


Cranston beguiles as the hard-driving, big-hearted Trumbo, who nonetheless was at times irascible and egocentric. As Edward G. Robinson, Michael Stuhlbarg sheds light on the tortured emotions behind a left-leaning sympathizer’s transition into one of HUAC’s friendly witnesses. Helen Mirren plays the venomous right-wing gossip columnist Hedda Hopper with such cool, calculating malice that you wonder why the actress has never been cast as a Bond villain. John Goodman steals scenes as Frank King, the plain-speaking, bat-wielding B-movie producer whose only hard line was his bottom line. But perhaps most persuasive is comedian Louis C.K., showing considerable dramatic skill as Trumbo’s frenemy Arlen Hird (a composite character based on the blacklisted screenwriters Alvah Bessie, Lester Cole, John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, and Samuel Ortiz, who with Trumbo and others became known as the Hollywood Ten).

Trumbo screenwriter and producer John McNamara first learned about the blacklist as a student at NYU, where one of his professors was Hollywood Ten survivor Ian McClellan Hunter (played by Alan Tudyk in the film). McNamara has delivered a script that avoids the traps of many a period piece; it bristles with a vitality that makes Trumbo an eye-opening lesson for those too young to have heard of the blacklist, and, for those who know the history, serves as a bracing reminder about our First Amendment rights. As director, there could not have been a more solid choice than Jay Roach. A master of comedy (the Austin Powers trilogy, Meet the Parents, and Meet the Fockers), he showed he’s also sharp about politics when he directed the HBO dramatic movies Recount and Game Change, winning Emmys for each. His latest project for HBO is the film version of “All the Way,” with Cranston reprising his Broadway role as Lyndon Baines Johnson. During his recent swing through Chicago, I found Roach to be open, astute and genial, not to mention funny (but hey, no surprise there).

Andrea Gronvall: With Trumbo you walk a fine line between depicting the tragedies of the blacklist, when careers were ruined.

Jay Roach: And lives.

AG: Yes, most definitely lives. But then the story shifts gears, and in the second part of the film we find ourselves rallying with Trumbo as he matches wits with adversaries and works like a madman to hang on to everything he holds dear. This is a tricky tonal trajectory to pull off. Did you plan it this way in development?

JR: From the beginning I always knew it would be about how Trumbo finds his way. He goes from being at the top, to suddenly being faced with all this persecution and loss, but he says, “I’m going take it on.” And he does.

AG: How do you run your set? You have such a diverse cast, from Cranston, who is so ebullient and versatile, to Stuhlbarg, who is an actor’s actor, to Louis C.K., who most people know only as a comedian. What was your approach with your actors? How many takes do you do?

JR: Those are good questions. Partly because I grew up directing comedy, I do embrace the chaos. We had a very good screenplay, but when you have an actor like Louis C.K., who has tremendous improvisational skills, you don’t say, “Just stick with the script.” Some of my favorite moments with him were his adlibs, where he would inject his character with such attitude, like when Arlen challenges Trumbo with the line, “Do you have to say everything like it’s going to be chiseled into a rock?” And then Stuhlbarg, who has such an impressive resume, does a lot of research into his character. He would come to us with notes as to what he found, along with his thoughts and observations, and we incorporated some of those into the script. But when it came time to shooting, he pretty much stuck with the lines as [finally] written. And Cranston! Every take is great with Cranston. I’d shoot even rehearsals with him, because every single take he did yielded something we knew we could use. Some of the other actors have different styles, of course. I found it useful to let them warm into their roles. I could give them more takes to come up with something, because I knew in the end they would deliver. And then there’s Helen Mirren, who is so smart, so hot, so sexy.

AG: Yes, she is, but she takes umbrage a little at being so often described as “sexy.”

JR: I understand that, certainly. [smiling] Actors are more than just their faces and bodies. Doing multiple takes with her showed how she would arrive at something, in that there were subtle differences with each take. It’s not until you get into the cutting room that you find out how subtle she is. And she’s great at wearing hats, too! First as Elizabeth I, then Elizabeth II, and now as Hedda Hopper!

AG: I assume you are a member of the Directors Guild of America, but are you a member of any other craft guild or union?

JR: Yes, I am a member of the DGA, but I’m not sure how current my membership is in the WGA [Writers Guild of America], which is how I started out.

AG: I ask, not to put you on the spot, but because I found it really interesting that when HUAC was interrogating all those Hollywood producers, directors, actors, and so on, the sessions would begin with the infamous question—

JR: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” But when they were interrogating industry members who belonged to a union, they would also ask if those witnesses belonged to a union.

AG: Yes, as if to equate Communism with membership in a union.

JR: Of course, Trumbo was openly a Communist, let’s be clear on that. But many American Communists in Hollywood at that time were not very hardcore [compared to Communists in the U.S.S.R.]. Early on, most were motivated by idealism. They lived through the Great Depression, they saw all this horrible suffering and need, and they wanted to do something about it. Their support of unions [and other causes, like civil rights] was part of their humanist outlook. To understand how deeply Trumbo believed in American laborers’ rights to belong to a union, look at the transcripts of his HUAC testimony, where he stood his ground, maintaining that it was the right of any union member not to have to reveal his membership, in part to protect him [or her] from the inevitable harassment that would follow. What’s very interesting is the fight that was going on in the background between two different writers’ organizations [reporter’s note: described at greater length in Bruce Cook’s biography “Trumbo,” upon which John McNamara based his screenplay]. There was this competition [in the 1930s] between the Screen Playwrights, a group that was endorsed by the studios [as their collective bargaining agent], and the Screen Writers Guild, in which Trumbo would become very active. Eventually, the Screen Writers Guild prevailed. So, when it came time for Dalton and others to appear before HUAC, resentful members of the Screen Playwrights [reporter’s note: who, Cook says, had earlier banded with other industry factions to form the red-baiting Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals] grabbed the chance to brand numerous Screen Writers Guild members as Communist. And because the Communist Party was willing to take on the accused writers’ cause, that further fueled certain perceptions.

Like in that scene with Roy Brewer [played by Dan Bakkedahl], who did head I.A.T.S.E., one of the largest entertainment industry unions, but who also spearheaded a lot of anti-Communist agitation. He goes to threaten Frank King, telling him not to hire blacklisted writers, or else Brewer will bring the press down on him and ruin him. And King takes out his bat and says go ahead, my customers don’t read!

AG: So, were you attracted to this project because of its messages about unions, or about First Amendment rights?

JR: Dalton Trumbo was a guy who was a storyteller committed to language. He came from a kind of old school of writing, one where people who were so verbal, had such big personalities, and so many ideas, translated it all into performance. I was attracted to Trumbo as the story of a man who used the power of storytelling to take on this giant apparatus that was trying to deprive people of their basic human rights. For me, this at its heart is a David and Goliath story.

AG: With laughs!

#       #       #