Video courtesy of Kevin Lee.
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Week in and week out, as part of our ongoing series of video interviews, I chat up film-world personalities along with my producer and colleague, Cristina Garza. And sometimes, it’s the things people say before the cameras go live, or after they’ve been powered down, that remain with me weeks or even months after the conversation ends. There is an art to the interview, to be sure, and even after a decade of face-to-face repartee with people I admire (and a few I don’t), there’s always something to learn from every exchange. Gabbing with a director for a long-form print piece, for instance, is not the same as sitting her down in front of a camera, which records, warts and all, not just the back-and-forth banter (or its gaps), but the physical appearance of the interviewee, which makes some people (even A-list celebrities) self-conscious and just a little stiffer than they might otherwise be. A good video interviewer must be respectful and informed—that’s a golden rule—but also a decent judge of personality and mood, able to loosen up and relax the person being filmed before the tape runs.
Last week, I spoke at length with French writer-director Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep, Demonlover, Boarding Gate) about his new film Summer Hours, which is screening at the 2008 New York Film Festival. Though I’ve met Assayas twice before and consider myself a fan of his work, I knew he didn’t remember me (why would he?) and wanted to find a way to engage him before we were locked into formal conversation. (He was preoccupied, but far from nervous.) I asked if he’d had a chance to see Laurent Cantet’s The Class, the Opening Night film at NYFF and currently a theatrical hit in France, knowing he’d have a strong opinion one way or the other, probably negative. Without hesitation, he told me he took issue with the film’s “micromanaged sociology,” which led us into a discussion of the new vogue for realism in today’s international cinema. Assayas prefers the “mystery” of pure fiction, he told me, because—except in special cases, such as the work of Frederick Wiseman—he finds it is superior to the aesthetic paradigms of documentary. Ironically, for him, fiction offers a more sophisticated engagement with reality. This I found utterly fascinating, and while his remarks didn’t change my own opinion of Cantet’s observational schoolroom drama (one of the best at NYFF this year), they allowed me to pursue a related point in our discussion of Summer Hours, a pastoral family drama filmed in an almost classical French arthouse style.
Mike Leigh (Riff Raff, Secrets & Lies, Naked) was a different case altogether. On the eve of our interview, several acquaintances warned me that Leigh was notorious for being irascible and rude, and not just to journalists (which is sometimes understandable). Having heard about his ostensibly arrogant, hard-charging way of dealing with the public, his students, and those with the temerity to lob questions at post-screening Q&As (the nerve of some people!), I was anticipating a most unpleasant tête-à-tête with the legendary director, whose latest film, Happy-Go-Lucky (also at NYFF), I consider to be one of his best. Instead of a sour personality, though, Leigh was a vivacious presence. He bounded into the hotel suite where we’d set up, greeted us warmly, and gamely took a seat in a swivel chair by the window overlooking midtown Manhattan, telling us how much he loved being in New York for the film festival each September, when the weather is crisp and autumnal. And he responded amicably when Ana Maria, our videographer, prompted him with a few get-to-know-you questions to test the microphone. It was only once the interview began that I got a taste of Leigh’s acerbic conversational style. He flatly refused to synopsize his film for the benefit of non-festival-going viewers, saying “No—ask me a question.” Then, during the course of our lively banter, he had a habit of tweaking questions, dramatically stopping the camera to clarify a fact, and defending his image from what he seemed to perceive were the philistine forces of reportorial consensus: “It is absolutely erroneous that …” went one reply, or [I’m paraphrasing here] “The idea that I left the theater for film is a hoary myth perpetuated by legions of journalists, mostly those, in my opinion, of an uncritical and unintelligent orientation.” And so it went.
I actually found Leigh’s combativeness sporting, and told him so, a remark that made him chuckle darkly. Some might find his manner hostile or impolite, but I think Leigh is charmingly forthright; he seems to enjoy holding people to the letter and form (if not the spirit) of their inquiries, demanding the same rigor and seriousness from his viewers as he does from his actors and students. And if nothing else, his cranky candor reminded me that precision, in speech or written argument, is always a virtue. I look forward to our next sparring match.
Damon Smith is the editor-in-chief of FilmCatcher.