Archive for the ‘Filmmaker interviews’ category

Muse of the “Metropolitan:” A (Short) Conversation with Whit Stillman

August 28, 2009

last days of disco

It wasn’t hard to track down Whit Stillman. Though it was hard to get a word in.

Before the screening of Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco at The Film Society of Lincoln Center, I hoped to find the director, introduce myself and ask for a couple minutes after the screening for a “brief” interview.

But finding the chronicler of the so-called “urban haute-bougeoise” (his term), proved fairly easy: all I had to do was look for the man in the impeccable suit.

“Mr. Stillman,” I asked. “If I could grab a moment of your time, I’m Nicholas, I’m  a reporter for the filmlinc blog–”

“Ah, great.” He told me graciously. “So nice to meet you, Nicholas. This is Tara, she’s in the film.”

A blond woman curtsied. I shook her hand too.

“Ah yes, very nice to meet you, but Mr. Stillman–”

“And this is Mark, the composer.” Mr. Stillman put his hand on the shoulder of a shy gentleman who gave a wave.

I tried to interrupt again.

“And this is…”

And so it went.

This social etiquette is not just a function of Mr. Stillman’s personality, but also eminently of his films. In his Academy Award-nominated film Metropolitan and in the later Last Days of Disco (recently released on Criterion), Mr. Stillman produces portraits of sheltered WASP-y New Yorkers in their mid-twenties growing up on the Upper East Side (Indeed, in Metropolitan, the banishment of one of the characters to Manhattan’s Upper West Side is a source of great shame in the film). These characters, sometimes characterized as “debutantes”, sometimes as “yuppies,” all show impeccable good manners even when savaging each other verbally, as they often do throughout the films. Mr. Stillman’s style is extremely distinct, his films are truly unmistakable, and his characters qualities have more often been compared to the protagonists of Jane Austen novels than other filmic protagonists. His style incorporates both humor and compassion for the hapless/helpless Manhattan socialites he portrays.

And as I waited to speak to him, introduced to his filming companions, I realized that this was more of his style: that he introduces the characters and then let’s them speak for themselves.

When I got to him after a long line of adoring fans had approached for DVD signing, I managed to sneak in a few questions.

“You were popular in there,” I told him, as I snuck him out to the Walter Reade balcony.

“I wish I were that way in Hollywood,” he said modestly, drink in hand.

“I’ve heard you compared to Woody Allen, in terms of your style and intimacy with your well-to-do characters,” I informed him. “But then again, sir, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Jew in any of your movies.”

“Guilty as charged,” he replied. “I love Woody Allen and he’s certainly an influence. But he’s like a savant and I’m like a dyslexic; he keeps up the pace constantly creating, a movie a year, while I seem to come out with them on occasion. But Allen often seems to break reality in his films and I try to stay there”

He continued: “I’ve been accused of naturalism,” he said, as if naturalism were a crime. “But, I’d like to think that people who are “naturalistic” are often on the wrong side of things. When I was making one of my films, we had to have a scene through a car windshield and my director of photography asked me if I wanted to fake the glare that might be in the windshield to make it seem more ‘natural’. I told him no, I didn’t care about that, I wanted to see the actor’s faces. I feel that the stronger part of reality is the emotional truth of how we connect to people, to characters. The expressions on the actor’s faces, that’s reality to me, much more important than a glare on a car windshield.”

“But what about fiction, sir?” I asked. “You got your start there, much like some of the characters in The Last Days of Disco. What’s the difference between a story told in fiction and one in film?”

“Well I got to meet Tom Wolfe,” He said. “And he told me what he thought the difference was. That in fiction you cant talk about someone’s shoes. You can talk about someone’s mannerisms, while if you did that in a film, there’s no room for it, if you lingered on a pair of shoes, people would think you were weird.”

At this point, I was interrupted by more of Mr. Stillman’s guests who came to greet him and say good night, as I realized that he is very much a part of the social community still that he writes about, shoots about, and gently mocks.

“Before you’re swept away,” I asked. “Any advice for the writers and filmmakers of today?”

“Don’t watch too many movies.” He said. “After all, there’s life out there to live.”

At which he was taken away back into the crowd.

-Nicholas Feitel

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From the Film Talk, a special interview with Elliott Gould

August 20, 2009
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See Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice this Friday and Sunday

Great new stuff from our friends at The Film Talk, an interview with Elliott Gould who will be appearing at the Film Society tomorrow and Sunday, as a part of our Natalie Wood tribute and screening of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Note to film buffs: the film premiered at the 1969 New York Film Festival, and two of the original actors who were there will be here at the Film Society this week! Check out the podcast for Mr. Gould’s fantastic memories of working with Natalie Wood, as well as other recollections of his impressive careers in the movies.

YESTERDAY’S ANGEL
Natalie Wood
August 19 – 25, 2009See schedule and buy tickets

Listen to The Film Talk podcast here

From The Film Talk: A Podcast on the Films of Andrei Tarkovsky

July 3, 2009

From our friends at The Film Talk, a special look at the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, and why you should clear the 3.5 hours to see Andrei Rublev on the big screen. The podcast also includes an interview with filmmaker Dmitry Trakovsky, who made the documentary Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky, which will screen at the Film Society next week with a Q & A with the filmmaker.

Revisiting Tarkovsky at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
July 7 – July 14, 2009 – See schedule and buy tickets

Listen to The Film Talk podcast here

To get a weekly dose on opinionated film discussion, you can subscribe to The Film Talk on iTunes.

Closing Night at Human Rights Watch: The Yes Men Fix the World

July 3, 2009

The Human Rights Watch 20th International Film Festival closed last week with a righteous guffaw.

The Yes Men Fix the World left a packed Walter Reade Theater in tears of laughter… and social awareness. The documentary drew its comic prowess from the hysterical deformity of corporate America’s moral compass.  And while it’s hard not to laugh at a lodestone that points to a bottom line, it’s also hard not to see the danger in such a perversion.

The second documentary created by “Yes Men” Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, Fix the World begins with a voice over explaining that Andy is getting ready to impersonate a DOW spokesperson on the BBC in front of 300 million people, “…and that’s why he looks so nervous.”  Some well-assembled backtracking shows us how The Yes Men function. For the most part, they create fake websites said to represent the various unjust organizations of the world, and wait until people fall into the trap and contact them. They then take various opportunities, for example, to participate in conferences, or to appear on international television.

Early in the film, Mike presents at a conference as a so-called representative of DOW. He claims to have created a model by which a company can calculate whether the human life an enterprise may cost is worth the probable monetary benefit. A character they have created personifies the model: Gilda, a gold skeleton. Alluding to a tragedy that occurred in Bhopal, India in 1984 when a plant belonging Union Carbide, now a subsidiary of DOW, released 42 tons of toxic gas into the air, Mike explained how a worthwhile “gold skeleton” can be differentiated from a futile “skeleton in the closet”: Mike asks, “how many Americans does it take to screw in a light bulb? Twelve. One to screw it in, and eleven to file the lawsuit. How many Indians does it take to screw in a light bulb? Oh, just one.” The Yes Men hoped that the concept of such a model would shock and disturb a room full of white collars, but instead the group embraced it with applause.

Unfortunately, all of the Yes Men’s other attempts at unearthing hearts beneath suits are similarly futile. It is thus that the documentary becomes not a story of problems fixed, but of problems illuminated. This is best illustrated by the pair’s biggest stunt. Masquerading as “Jude Finisterra,” a representative of DOW, Andy went on the BBC and promised at long last to compensate the hundreds of thousands of victims of the Bhopal tragedy. Upon realizing the hoax, DOW immediately released a statement saying that no such compensation would be provided, even though the hoax made it pretty evident that this would be the right thing to do.

Despite this stunt’s impotence when it came to actually changing corporate policy, Andy said in a Q and A following the evening’s screening that he saw the BBC appearance as the Yes Men’s biggest victory, because it succeeded in arousing awareness about the Bhopal tragedy. According to Green Peace, hundreds of articles that would have otherwise went unwritten came into being as a result of the hoax. While Andy concluded in the Q and A that, “DOW would never do the right thing” on its own, he sees a possible solution in further regulation of corporations on the part of the government.  The hope is that the Yes Men’s reawakening of public awareness will somehow translate into public policy.

The most optimistic move the Yes Men make is the mass distribution of a “special edition” of the New York Times.  Researched and compiled by a huge team of Yes Men, the paper is a vision of what the world could be like at a point in the future. Given that the future date chosen for headlines such as “Iraq War Ends,” and “Maximum Wage Law Passes,” is this Saturday, July 4, 2009, it’s obvious that the paper’s socialistic optimism is more than a little bit cock-eyed. But that’s the big upside of keeping your tongue in your cheek: outrageous hope.

The Yes Men Fix the World has its television premiere on HBO July 27. It will be screening at Film Forum beginning October 7.

-Morgan H. Green

This weekend, HRWIFF presents: “Youth Producing Change”

June 19, 2009

“I guess I just want people to know what it’s like.”

It’s a sentiment that I heard repeatedly from the filmmakers of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival’s Youth Producing Change.

The program is somewhat, well, as advertised: it showcase young people (around senior-age in high school) who have made projects demonstrative of human rights issues in their community, personal expressions, or experiences that for them are definitive.

“In Iran, no one blinked if I wore the hijab. It is not a restriction,” one filmmaker told me. “But here, it is not that way. People look at you differently. People assume.”

That filmmaker, Sahar Shakeri, was a recent immigrant from Iran, having accompanied her mother, a schoolteacher, on her path to get her Ph.D in Englsh Literature. Encouraged by her teachers, she turned her feelings about the contradictions inherent in wearing the Muslim veil into a short 7-minute film, “Thoughts in a Hijab.”

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Another filmmaker, Jessica Cele, already worked at an educational video center when she asked them if they would help her make her film.

“The center I worked for already released public-safety information, doing their own stuff,” she told me. “But I wanted to see, you know, how we’d do it. How youth could do it.”

Her film, “It’s Not About Sex,” explores issues of sexual violence in society, discovering that while it is tragic, an antidote is talking about it in public.

“In my eyes, it’s only when you talk about it, hard as it is that things can really start to change,” Jessica said.

Clevins Browne, the filmmaker of “In My Shoes”, was also on message when it came to dialogue.

“You know, my film’s about youth homelessness in New York City,” Mr. Browne told me. “When I tell most people about that, they act surprised as if they didn’t know it existed.”

But that’s what the Youth Producing Change showcase is all about: giving voices to those people to whom voices were once stifled before.

When I asked him why he wanted to make movies, Mr. Browne’s answer was simple, his smile broad and confident.

“Because people don’t know,” he told me. “And they should.”

-Nicholas Feitel, Contributing Editor

Doing it, Digitally: A Chat with Glenn Kenny on Steven Soderbergh’s Girlfriend Experience

May 26, 2009

Steven Soderbergh has had what some would call a bipolar career, starting off with his widely acknowledged indie Sex, Lies and Videotape and ending up somewhere around Ocean’s 13 (a three-quel, not a thirteen-quel, thankfully), by way of Erin Brokovich. But even with his mainstream films, Soderbergh has burned the candle at both ends, continuing to make his farcically commercial vehicles while releasing camp, kitsch and craziness like the pastiche film The Good German or the crazy micro-budget Bubble.

The latter film is the result of his partnership with HDNet Films and producer Mark Cuban, shooting on the vaunted RED-One camera, a digital device with the quality of film, and casting mostly non-professional actors as largely versions of themselves for a heady experience that usually involves two-weeks-or-so of shooting and simultaneous video-on-demand releasing. This model, which he used previously for Bubble and his political-epic Che (a selection of the New York Film Festival 2008), is turned towards the smaller, upscale livelihood of a call girl and her personal-trainer boyfriend in his new film, The Girlfriend Experience.


I sat down with Glenn Kenny, a real-life blogger and film critic, who in the film plays a character out of a movie by Todd Solodnz or Todd Field: a smarmy “hobbyist” and rater of escort services who self-identifies as “The Erotic Connoisseur”.

Given that he himself is a blogger and that most of the people in the movie are playing themselves or something similar–Sasha Grey, the lead, is a porn star playing an escort–I asked him if he was worried about people thinking he actually was the part he played.

“Well,” he said, adopting a sardonic tone. “Let’s just say I’m lucky to be married in more ways than one.”

Kenny, a long time film critic and writer who wrote for Premiere magazine for over a decade, now blogs on the web at his site Some Came Running, a place where he talks about movies and his life, but does not in fact rate escorts.

“I was long-time friends with the screenwriters, David Levien and Bryan Koppleman and they had worked with Soderbergh just recently on Ocean’s 13,” Kenny explained. “They were holed up in a hotel room, writing another script entirely, when they saw a couple down outside the hotel which just didn’t seem right; an older man, with a much younger woman in intense clothes, hanging off him, as if for dear life.”

“One of them asked aloud, ‘What’s that?’ and another one of them replied ‘Oh, it’s the Girlfriend Experience, a service where a prostitute doesn’t just dole out sex, but simulated love as well.’ And this got them all thinking and so, David, Bryan and Soderbergh thought there was a script there and wrote it.”

However, even though Levien, Koppleman and Soderbergh collaborated on the script, the script was almost an outline and all the dialogue was improvised with the actors on set immediately, a sort of crystal-meth rush of Mike Leigh method. As a result, a script that was written in March 2007, according to Kenny, ended up heavily referencing September 2008, with the anxiety of the financial crisis and the upcoming election at the forefront.

“They would have newspapers for us on set from the week it was supposed to be and we would just sit around and talk about it,” Kenny recalled.

In the film, Chelsea/Christianne (Sasha Grey) is a practitioner of “The Girlfriend Experience”, while her boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos), a personal trainer, chases his own dreams of breaking it big in the world managing a gym or marketing a line of sportswear. Their relationship is interesting in the acknowledgment of Chelsea’s profession. “You’re the best at what you do.” Chris tells her, when she seems threatened by another escort’s popularity.

This anxiety drives Chelsea to seek “Glenn,” the character played by Glenn Kenny, who runs a website that rates escort services. One of the most sublime moments of the film occurs when Chelsea shows up at an old furniture store to be confronted with an old man who directs her to Kenny’s character, who lives in the back.

Kenny explains: “Steven really wanted to use that store. And when we got there, this old man, the store owner, was there. And Steven said let’s put him in the movie. So I was faced with this old man, who I had just met for the first time and of course it was improvised, so I thought, what could the relationship be between me and this guy and I thought–landlord–but wait, wouldn’t it just be more awful if it was my dad?”

Two more improvised riffs from Kenny also add up to some of the best moments in the film: a description of a prostitute “junket” in Dubai that “Glenn” offers as bait to Chelsea, and a stinging review of Chelsea’s services to him administered, off-screen, for free.

“We actually shot the sex scene, I had to ask my wife about that, but it was cut from the film,” Kenny told me. “And when I wrote my on-set diaries for GQ, they ended up dropping them and I can’t help but think it was because they didn’t see me naked next to Sasha Gray.”

“As for the ‘junket’, well I’m a film critic and I thought that would be funny. I actually heard some sailors I met overseas talk to me about their experience in Dubai and how the most beautiful women they’d ever seen were the Russian hookers they saw in Dubai. So I thought, wouldn’t it be funny if my character brought a bunch of high-class prostitutes to them to try to convince them to ‘buy American.'”

Those diaries, which ended up here on Martin Scorsese’s Auteur Project, are very humorous and provide more insight into the casting process as well as the improvisation on set.

Overall, I thought the film fairly successful, a Steven Soderbergh take on Two or Three Things I Know About Her, with Sasha Grey standing in for Mariana Vlady and an interesting time-capsule of an anxiety not-too-far-gone.

“I like Soderbergh even when he is working on Ocean’s 13, though like all directors he’s made up-and-down films. He just keeps throwing things at you until he gets what he wants; he’s really hands on,” Kenny said. “You know, when they called me up for the part, they told me they needed someone who could talk, who could go-on, who could expound…”

“Who could bloviate?” I offered, giving the root of the term “blog.”

“Yeah,” Glenn Kenny said with a smile. “That too.”

-Nicholas Feitel

Nicholas Feitel also writes for his own blog, Feitelogram

Don’t Call It “Quirky”: Jim Jarmusch hashes out The Limits of Control with YFF

May 4, 2009

THE LIMITS OF CONTROL

Both devotees and the merely curious gathered last Thursday, April 30 for the Young Friends of Film special event “An Evening with Jim Jarmusch.” The event boasted a chat & reception with Jarmusch following the screening of his new film The Limits of ControlFilm Comment editor Gavin Smith issued an ominous yet invigorating disclaimer that the film was zealously dividing the critical legions, but proudly forecasted it to be a personal Top Ten of 2009 entry.

Jarmusch is an indie icon due to his highly-regarded oeuvre, as well as his distinctive white-maned guise and a uniquely droll, delicately precise mode of articulation that has made him a go-to talking head for profiles and documentaries. Suffice to say, he’s a prized raconteur with much to share. Things got to a befitting start as Jarmusch declared, “This is the first real audience for the film,” before quipping, “that is, if you are real.”

Jarmusch unconventionally opened with a confessional of the semi-cosmic deliberations haunting him as of late. Like the film itself—laden with  endless variations of cryptic passages, exchanges, and codes—he returned time and again to the power of the “imagination” and its transcendent ability to decontextualize information, all the while mischievously noting, “this doesn’t necessarily relate to the film.” The discussion conformed with his continual quest to find new ways of conveying meaning outside of conventional narrative tropes. The film, ultimately,  “was an exercise in celebrating a love of cinema and what it is capable of.”

When Smith insistently questioned the political critique inherent in his recent films, highlighted by Murray’s Dick Cheney evocations in Control, Jarmusch semi-jokingly replied “I’d rather talk about Pythagoras.” While he conceded, “It was a real drag in the last ten years telling foreign cab drivers I was Canadian,” and reinforced the Dead Man-reminiscent stance that “America was founded on genocide,” Jarmusch remained weary of didactic messages, insisting his films are grounded in metaphor.

The audience was refreshingly uninclined to ask for cut-and-dry explanations, instead throwing out suggestions for extrapolation. Jarmusch expressed extreme admiration for his DP Christopher Doyle (“For every two ideas, he has a hundred.”), regular performers Bill Murray (“He’s just so human. I am moved by how observant and empathetic he is.”) & Tilda Swinton (“I just want to layer more and more preposterous wigs and disguises on her… One day I asked her to marry me.”), and film scorers Boris (“Their music is very cinematic, atmospheric. Music nurtures my creativity process.”). He discussed the intuitive rhythm he and longtime collaborator/editor Jay Rabinowitz worked to create, and displayed a surprisingly optimistic attitude towards the You Tube age, celebrating the beauty of “free information.”

Jarmusch’s frantic request for three more questions after Smith announced “We’ve got time for one more,” revealed a charmingly superstitious nature, a formalist sensibility much like his filmmaking, and an eagerness to engage his audience. He proved receptive to the inevitable non-questions, welcoming interpretations of the film, insisting, like the mantras of its characters, that subjectivity is the name of the game. His only expressed hostilities were towards the descriptor feared by all serious-minded independent directors: “quirky.”

Attendees were invited to a reception in the Walter Reade lobby; the clamoring throngs accumulated not around the free alcohol but the special guest, who went beyond gentlemanly courtesy, genuinely engaging each inquiring mind. “Elvis has left the building, time to go home,” chaperone Smith chuckled, but a lobby exit revealed that Jarmusch had merely retreated outside for his trademark nicotine indulgence, continuing to hold court with enthusiasts waiting in the wings.  Walter Reade’s newly designated smoking area rules were left graciously unenforced.

-Brynn White