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After Once, It’s Time to Begin Again

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By Danny Peary

The cast and director. Danny Peary photo.

The cast and director. Danny Peary photo.

Begin Again fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. John Carney’s extremely engaging follow-up to the 2006 international sensation Once opened last Friday in New York City and this Wednesday begins its national release. I anticipate that it will soon play in the East End because who isn’t curious about seeing Keira Knightley sing and Adam Levine act?  They, surprisingly, come off with flying colors doing both.  They play a song-writing couple, Gretta and Dave, who split when he becomes a huge recording star and is unfaithful. In New York, she stays with her busker friend, Steve (James Corden, who won the Tony as the lead in Broadway’s One Man, Two Guvnors) and is about to go back to London when she is “discovered” singing at a club by a heavy-drinking, formerly successful A&R man, Dan (Mark Ruffalo).  Dan is estranged from his wife (Catherine Keener) and teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) and is on his last legs, thinking he’d never find a raw talent again.  Hoping that starting her career with a hit album can rescue his career, the re-energized Dan records the semi-reluctant Gretta singing at outdoor locations around the city with a makeshift band of his musician friends.  The movie comes off as a fantasy set in an alternate New York but like Once it effectively brings real emotions and issues to the surface and you’re happy to go along for the ride.  And then there’s the music.  In the New York Times, A.O. Scott was really unkind to the songs.  Pay no attention. It’s a fabulous soundtrack and the way both Knightley and Levine perform the catchy, well-written songs in the movie is exciting. Begin Again is more flawed than Once, but it too is the rare movie you can recommend to almost anyone.  I attended the following press conference held last Thursday in SoHo.  In attendance were (R-L in the picture) Carney, Knightley, Levine, Ruffalo, and Corden.

Kiera Knightly and Adam Levine.

Keira Knightly and Adam Levine.

Moderator: John, there was this movie that came out, Once, that was a global phenomenon.  We talked a few weeks ago, when you were in Dublin, where you live, and you told me that you had the idea for Begin Again back when you were wrapping Once, but that you wanted to wait before you started working on it.  Is that right?

John Carney: I did want to wait so that the two films weren’t following each other directly. I feared I’d just become the ‘music guy,’ which is what has happened anyway. So waiting did nothing for that. But I did want to wait until the story was ready.  I’ve been watching the music industry change so much even since then, so I’ve developed the story on those terms. I think the print industry is the only industry that has changed to the same degree that the music industry has changed.

Moderator: And the inspiration was that when you were in high school you were touring with a band. And you thought it would be interesting to tell the story…

JCa: Well, actually I was in a band after I left high school. I had a bunch of A&R men angling for the next U2, which we weren’t, unfortunately, but Dublin was the city that everybody came to.  I guess they went a lot to London as well. These A&R men were really 25-year-old guys, with coke habits and credit cards without limits. And they were sort of swarming around, bringing these band kids out to clubs and wining and dining them, just in hopes of finding the next big band. The stories they were telling us! And I just look back over my life and I wonder where those guys are now, and I wonder whether they’ve adapted to the massive changes in the industry.  Still got the coke habit? Are they still trying to discover music?  Is that desire still there? Even though the Internet has changed the industry, are there still music-loving A&R men on the hunt for that new magical thing? Is that magical thing still out there?

Moderator: And the first person you cast was Mark Ruffalo as a heavy-drinking, washed-up former A&R man.

JCa: Yeah, Mark was the dream guy for this role.

Moderator: Mark, do you sing at all in real life?

Mark Ruffalo: No. Well, I did sing for the movie and it was cut out. I was singing in the shower.  It was supposed to be a lyric poem song.  But we couldn’t get the rights to that song.

JCa (joking): That’s what I said to Mark.

Moderator: And Keira, have you sung in public before?

Keira Knightley: Yes and no!  I did a film years ago called The Edge of Love and I sang a bit in that. A very 1940s kind of theatrical thing. So yes, I have sung before but it was very different.

Q: Did you take lessons?

KK: They very kindly got me some lessons with a very lovely man called Roger Love. For a lot of those songs, the lyrics weren’t written until a couple of days before we got into the studio so we didn’t have the songs to try to figure it out before we got there.  So it was just about trying to figure out what my voice was, because I didn’t know.  He tried to figure that out.

JCa: It was fun actually. We had this really new song and she went in and sang the first few lines and we all gave a sigh of relief.  We knew we can make this work!

KK (laughing): I wasn’t exactly relaxed when I was doing it.

Moderator: Adam, you did this before appearing in American Horror Story. You hadn’t done any acting before. Did you take acting classes?

AL: No. I tried to take one and it didn’t go well. It was bizarre. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like what I was being told, because it wasn’t making me happy, but that’s a whole other conversation I don’t want to have. So I just thought that I would pretend that I knew what I was doing and hope and pray that it worked, because these people on stage with me are all very, very talented. Mark’s shaking his head because he’s angry with me. But yeah, no lessons, actually.

MR: I’m shaking my head because for some people acting is so easy.  And acting isn’t easy.

Moderator: And James, you’re now in Into the Woods. And you’ve been a singer for quite some time.

James Corden: Yeah, I’m a professional singer. It’s my trade. I’m joking – not at all. But I have a theory that all rock starts want to be actors and all actors want to be rock stars, so I spent my whole school life forming boy bands.  I was in a boy band called Insatiable. We were quite big in the Buckinghamshire area, you might know.  We had a song that I wrote, called “Girl Are You Ready?”  We thought it was amazing, but in hindsight I think it sounds a bit rapey.   It didn’t work out for us. But since Adam’s heard some of Insatiable’s stuff, I think we’re going to hook up for some tracks. I think we’ll most definitely go forward.

Adam Levine (straight-faced): I look forward to that.

JCo: It’s a big surprise but I can share it with you guys. We’re going to be called Maroon 6.

MR: And Satiated.

Question from Journalist: Now that you’re all wonderfully successful, was it easy or hard to go back to that experience of being a struggling artist?

MR: It wasn’t my favorite place to be, so it’s not easy to go back there.

JCo: Mark really committed to the alcoholism aspect of the film. Because at the time I was on Broadway, I would shoot in the afternoon and get in a car and whisk across town to do the play and then quite often go back afterward and shoot quite a lot of the montage stuff.  And it was a great time when we were on the subway shooting this montage scene, and Mark said, “You must be exhausted from just doing the play, you must really need a drink,” and he was holding a Starbucks cup, and I said, yeah, I could really use one, and he passed me this Starbucks cup and it contained a vodka tonic. I really thought, well, this is the greatest moment of my life. I’m drinking booze with Mark Ruffalo while watching him film on the subway.

JCa: A little anecdote to that: the first AD comes up to me on the film set and says, Mark and James are both drinking alcohol–they think we don’t know, but we do know!

Q: Can Adam and Keira answer that question too about whether it’s hard to go back to play a struggling artist.

KK: I’m an actress, so yeah.

AL: You know, my character is kind of in the midst of becoming successful, and it was a very specific time when it happened to me. I was probably tempted by some of the same things that Dave is.  My story’s very different than his, but it was very easy to tap into what it was like to experience all these things that we never expect to experience. When you’re a musician, I don’t know if you’re ever very sure of anything.  You never know what’ll pay the bills–you don’t care about that as much as you care about playing music.  So this guy is just overwhelmed, and so was I, so that was pretty easy to play, actually. I believe that had something to do with why John called me.  Very few people get to experience those things and I think he thought I’d be able to articulate it for the camera. It was all John telling me what to do the entire time.

Q: Did you say yes right away when John called you?

AL: Yes.  Fuck yes, I believe..

Q: Adam, now that you’ve gotten a taste of acting, where do you want to take it?

AL: I have no idea. All I know is it was really fun. It was a dream experience.  I don’t think I could have done it [without these people up here.] This sounds really kiss-assy, though it’s really not meant to be, but I love these guys–all of them. They were so nice. I had no scenes with Mark, and the first day I got there and was trying on my clothes for the film, and he was so welcoming and warm and sweet. He and John and Keira and everybody made it easy. It was just one of those things, I don’t think it can get better than this, so I might not ever make another movie!  There’s no way it can surpass this as far as how much fun I had, it was a blast.

JCo: It stops being fun after the first movie!

Q: And, Adam, how did you tap into and relate to your character?

AL: I wanted to treat this guy, Dave, like a totally different person from me, even though it was impossible, because I literally don’t know how to act. So I was like, okay, some of me is coming out here, it’s not fucking possible that’s not going to happen. Referring to my character, like I said, there was a very specific point in my life, where I thought, “Oh my God, you know, I’ve made it!” There were fifty of those moments, I’ve been so fortunate in my career. There was a time probably in the early 2000s when our album went platinum, when I said, “What, are you kidding me?”  That was when I partied too hard and did a lot of stupid things and that is part of who Dave is. I was that guy.

Q: Keira, did you draw on anyone for inspiration for Gretta.

KK: I didn’t, no.  The part wasn’t based on anything for me, we just sort of worked on it from the character’s point of view, like “Okay, this is somebody who doesn’t like fawning, she’s just somebody who really likes being in the background.” It was just about finding what would work for me.

Q: What about the inspiration for Dan?

JCa: I had a really good conversation early on, years ago, with Mark.  Mark, you were shooting somewhere in Ireland, and I couldn’t believe that I’d gotten your phone number and I rang you up and we had a discussion about this character. And we ended up talking a lot about 1970s movies that we loved, like The French Connection with Gene Hackman.  We we were trying to find what the vibe might be like with this guy, and a bunch of late ‘60s, early ‘70s films were references.

MR: Well, I did want him to feel a little bit like a throwback.  And I liked the kind of A Star Is Born relationship that Dan has with Gretta. It’s warm, it’s not sexualized. He’s someone who really sees a talent and wants to develop it. I do a fair amount of daydreaming about these people, and I somehow came to this idea that any music person I played would be like Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips.

AL: It’s so fucking funny you just said that because the second I saw you, you just exuded that guy.  That’s Wayne Coyne! You looked like him, your hair looked like his hair. Wow!  I’m so glad you said that.

MR: I really love him, he feels like the real deal as far as music goes. I hope he doesn’t take offense to my homage to him. But I’m a big fan of his. So he was probably the only music person I drew from, although with Dan’s glasses, there was probably a little weird Dylan type gene. But that was pretty much it.

JCa; You use one thing as an actor, and that alone gives you the character. I thought the glasses were that for you, Mark.

MR: That and Dan smokes. I knew an old Jewish songwriter who was a manager in the ‘70s, and he was on the music scene and so a lot of my character’s qualities, especially the Nat Sherman cigarettes and that gruff quality, that throwback quality, were his. He was a really interesting character.

Q: Keira, In regard to clothes, was there anything about [your previous characters] Anna Karenina or Sabina Spielrein that you found in Gretta, and if either of them were to give advice to Gretta, should she take it?

KK: No on the advice.  The clothes–we actually had discussions with the costume designer.  I wanted Gretta to dress for women, not for men.  I wanted her clothes to be something that women would like and get for themselves, and men wouldn’t necessarily get it for them. So we worked quite hard on that kind of idea. So that slightly tomboy, slightly Annie Hall, completely non-sexualized thing is what were going for. The men’s trousers was a big thing.

Q: This movie is an attack on selling out in the music industry, but all of you have to confront that daily, whether you’re in the film industry or the music industry. For instance, you make small films but after a few small films, you have to make a big film. So when that happens, do each of you say, “Well, I have to sell out a little today?”

KK: Do I have to go first?  Well, I like differences, and I think that’s what’s been really nice about being Gretta.  I don’t dislike big blockbusters, in fact I like them very much and sometimes that’s exactly what’s called for on a day when it’s raining and I want to sit and have popcorn and just kind of get lost in a movie. I think about that as far as making them, as well. I did Jack Ryan because I wanted to do a pure piece of popcorn. And it exactly fit coming after I did Anna Karenina, this incredibly stylized movie that was—we were sort of trying something in a new way—very, very dark. What I really wanted after that experience was to make something absolutely different. And it was the same with Begin Again.. I wanted it to be really low-budget and hit the ground running and keep going as fast as possible, all that. I wanted that kind of speed. So I feel incredibly privileged that I get the opportunity to do both types of films. I certainly don’t sneer at big-budget things, and I don’t sneer at small-budget things, I think it’s about the opportunity for me to do all different styles of movies.

JCo: Most things aren’t very good, but that’s nothing to do with scale or size or any of those things. Most things, 90%, just aren’t that great. No one sets out to make something bad, sometimes they just are. And the trick is to operate in that 10%, whether it be something with a huge budget or a small budget, and that goes for music, television, theater, art, everything. You want to operate in the 10% but acknowledge that sometimes you’ll miss the mark with that, and sometimes you’ll make mistakes.  But those are the only things that teach you to go on and try and operate in that place where you can make something that’s really good. I love watching films that some people would say are trash, and I love  watching things in a different style. I don’t think it’s a question of selling out or not selling out, I think it’s just trying at the core to make something that’s good. And there’s no better representative of that than this film, where a group of actors get on board with a director they love because they’d seen something of his that they loved. We all went, “Yeah I’m in on this journey with you, John, whatever it is and wherever we go. And I’ll absolutely do my best to make sure it sits within that 10%.”

AL: I really want to answer this question. There’s a great scene in the movie with you guys [Mark and Keira] when Dan and Gretta talk about how people spend a lot of time figuring out who they are and presenting that to the world and then re-calculating.   I think in order to understanding selling out, you first have to define what it means to sell out. To do something you don’t want to do because you might be able to gain something financially, or to not be behind something that you wind up doing for some other reason–that’s probably what I’d call selling out. Not feeling good about doing something that might help you get ahead. But doing something that you love regardless of whether it’s making a blockbuster movie or writing a pop song or trying shamelessly to succeed at something–that’s not selling out, I think that’s actually fine and I would encourage that all the time. Selling out really comes at a point when you sacrifice your own personal credibility in order to have success on a larger scale.  Doing something that makes you feel gross and benefitting from it. That’s what that is to me. And it’s very clear-cut. But people do have a hard time defining it, and they kind of throw a lot of things out there and say it about giant movies or a huge record that’s very popular and a lot of people like…and people then say they don’t like them anymore [because they had commercial success]. I always hated that growing up and if my favorite bands became successful I thought, “Good for you, that is fucking amazing, congratulations, I still love you!”  I didn’t get a selfish, possessive, bullshit attitude and think “Oh, they were mine and now they’re everyone else’s and I don’t like them anymore.” That’s a horrible way to operate. God, they get to pay the bills and have amazing lives, that’s great. And they’re a great band, fuck yeah.  So that’s how I feel.

MR: I got into acting because I wanted to act, and I love acting. And so that’s my true north, to be creative and to be challenged in what I love to do. And sometimes that takes me into a big-budget movie, sometimes that takes me to a small-budget movie, but I’m doing essentially the same thing in each one of those, which is stretching in a way that I hadn’t. That’s my aim. I come from the theater, and in the theater you’re never pegged for one thing. You can be in a comedy in one season and you can be the romantic lead the next season, and you can do a period piece the following season and do something modern the season after that. No one ever says to you, “This is what you have to do! This is what we expect of you!” So that work ethic is what I know to bring to my film work as well. It just takes you on this wild ride.  And, cynically, the day that I decide to do something just purely for monetary gain or because it is going to get me to the next thing  will, I think, only lead to my downfall somewhere. It hurts your creative self. And so I think the idea of selling out is a lot of times a projection that people create about artists that is more a reflection of who they are than what is actually happening in front of them with the artist.

JCo: I slept with John to get in the film, and it didn’t feel like I was selling out at the time. I’d do it again.

Q: Keira, how did you relate to the romantic and the heartbreak aspect of the movie?

KK: I think it’s what I liked about the film. You can kind of take it out of the music industry story, and essentially what it’s about is people falling down in life and trying to pick themselves back up, and whether that has to do with a relationship or a career or wherever. I think you can’t be adult and not have felt that in whatever extreme way. So obviously yeah, I completely understood where Gretta was coming from and the feeling that you know exactly what’s going on and who you are and where you’re going and suddenly finding that you have no idea who you are, where you’re going, or what’s going on. All adults have experienced that.

Moderator: Finally, John, can you talk about the scene in which Gretta and Dan walk around Times Square. Was it at three o’clock in the morning and you had a handheld camera?

JCa: Yeah, we did actually. That was the one true maverick moment working on this movie, when we did not get permits and it was Mark, Keira, me, an AD, and a focus puller. There was supposedly no way we were doing to get that scene I had written in Ireland of walking around in Times Square.  Those three words—“in Times Square”—terrorized the producers.  People would get the script and go, “Ha, that’s not going to happen!”  It can happen as long as you don’t tell anybody or try to close it down, because that would have looked ridiculous.  We didn’t want extras pretending that they’re looking up at signs going, “Wow, Times Square!” So they’re real tourists walking around in the movie.  If I extended any shot in that sequence by two frames, there’d be someone going, “It’s Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo!”

AL: There’s a scene Keira and I shot in which our characters are walking into an apartment building together and someone recognizes Dave and comes up to him–and only thirty seconds earlier two girls had come up to me on the street. So literally it was happening and then we shot the scene where it was happening and there was just no difference between reality and what we shot.  There was zero projection of anybody and it was great because we were immersed in all of it the whole time. It felt real because it was. Shooting on the street was amazing.

JCo: I’m still surprised that we got away with it in New York. Sorry man, but the paparazzi just follow me wherever I go.

JCa: We had to take James’s name off the call sheets to try to get them off his scent.

Emma, Andrew, and Marc on The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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By Danny Peary

Andrew Garfield as Spiderman with Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy.

Andrew Garfield as Spiderman with Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy.

The Amazing Spiderman 2, in 2-D and 3-D, will definitely be the top attraction this weekend at the cinemas in both Southampton and East Hampton.  It’s pretty hard not to be lured into the sticky web of this sequel that is doing tremendous box office throughout the country. So I think it’s a good time to take a brief break from posting my interviews from the recent TriBeCa Film Festival and give a nod to a film that I admit I haven’t seen yet.  However, for the Australian magazine FilmInk I visited the set in New York last summer on the day they were shooting the early graduation scene and got to have some quick back-and-forths with Andrew Garfield (Spider-Man/Peter Parker), Emma Stone (Gwen), and director Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer). There were other international journalists present but what follows are my questions only and the responses.

Emma Stone

Danny Peary: Emma, in Gwen’s speech, she tells the graduating students how precious time has been and will be. Is that a theme of the movie?

Emma Stone: Yes, time and timing are probably the most definitive themes of this second movie. Gwen’s speech, makes a lot of sense because her father died in the past year. So a lot has happened and a lot has changed for her. This past year she’s had a lot of realizations and is trying to impart that in her speech.  She’s grown up in a very major way. I love Gwen and her story. It’s very cool.

DP: You’re back working with Andrew and Marc. Is it easier this time because you have a communication that really works and it’s not necessary to talk everything through?

ES: Yeah, I think we all feel really comfortable together. It’s really nice getting to work with the same people again, because making movies is like being in a traveling circus and you have a new work family every three months. So it’s really nice to come back to work with people that I know and trust.

DP: Were you a fan of the superhero comics?

ES: I didn’t grow up reading comics, I kind of just learned about the comic book superheroes through movies. I grew up with Michael Keaton in the Tim Burton Batman movies.  They were my favorite, and then I saw the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy when I was a little bit older. I was struck by its passion.  Spider-Man  has such a legacy and that’s something that most movies can’t really replicate.  As actors, you don’t travel around the world with most movies and have every person who speaks to you know who you character is and know the other characters and storylines.  With other movies you’re just hoping that people like it. With this, you’re just hoping we’re all doing it justice!

Andrew Garfield

Danny Peary: Has it been easy to slip back into playing Peter Parker and Spider-Man?

Andrew Garfield:  I never slip in. I always have to crowbar myself into whatever I’m doing. Maybe that’s a personal problem I should take a closer look at. It’s a different chapter, so it’s a different person. There’s been major growth within Peter, there’ve been major changes. There’s been lots of experience, so every day I feel like I’m starting from scratch.

DP: Of course, Peter Parker will always have a major issue regarding who he is.

AG: Really, in Peter, in the story there is the sense of identity crisis. It’s exciting to play, but also what it means is that you need to have a certain amount of trust.  Peter doesn’t know who he is at this point. He’s losing himself as Spider-Man, he’s losing himself as Peter.  Peter’s relationship to Spider-Man is so complicated. On the one hand, it’s like two people: Spider-Man’s the older brother and Peter is the younger brother in the shadows. But as the older brother is getting all the approval, the praise, adoration, and has all this amazing skill he has been given this great gift, Peter can’t be part of any of that. He’s not allowed that in his daily life. He also has to be alone because of the power that he has.

DP: He tries to push Gwen away to protect her but what would his life be like without Gwen if she really stayed away?  He’s destined to be alone, but it’s easier to be alone if there’s no one tempting you to be together.

AG: If he’s without Gwen? I don’t know how to answer that. Of course we don’t know what could be until we’ve experienced it.

DP: I think he’d be miserable because he’d be missing a part of himself. But even with her, can he be happy ever?

AG: That’s a great question, and that’s a question that we explore in this film. That’s always been explored with this character. I think it would feel very weird to him to be happy. I don’t think he’d feel very comfortable with it for too long.  If a problem didn’t come along he’d create one.

DP: In Gwen’s speech, she talks about time being precious. Did Marc Webb tell you that theme was important to the film?

AG: Yeah, but I think it’s self-explanatory. Her “time is luck” line is important for Gwen to say.  Because of what happened to her father, I think it’s a beautiful sentiment.

DP: The other thing Gwen says is that everyone thinks they’re immortal.  I know at that age, kids think they are immortal and invincible, but I don’t think Peter or Spider-Man does. So he’s the exception.

AG: Yeah, I guess…I think he feels pretty secure that he can get himself out of most situations, but does have a great awareness of people being vulnerable from the first film because of his experience with his parents, his uncle, and Captain Stacy. People around him have died.

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Marc Webb, director

Danny Peary: You’re from Madison, Wisconsin and I went to college there and felt the Madison vibe in 500 Days of Summer.  Does this film have that vibe too, particularly the relationships?

Marc Webb: I don’t know that that’s from Madison, I’ll tell you though, I think sometimes there’s a little bit of a separation between what we think about in New York and Los Angeles vs. what happens and what people value in the rest of the country. I think there’s a little bit of a gap there. I think one of the things I really value, having grown up in the Midwest, is an understanding and an appreciation for what that part of the country appreciates and loves. And it’s not that we’re all sort of the same, we’re all human and we all like these big mythological films. I don’t know, there’s something about the down-home nature of Wisconsin that I think I appreciate. You’d have to ask my mom.

Q: I mentioned the relationship, particularly the sweet but complicated love story of Gwen and Peter. I’d think there is danger of losing that in the action.

MW: Action the first time around for me was a new thing. I’d done a little bit of action in music videos, but I’d done very little. This time around we had a lot more time to set those action set pieces up. There is a lot more fun, a lot more humor, a lot more really volatile, intense action beats. So we spent a lot of time thinking about, preparing, and orchestrating those. But there’s also the great love story.  What I think separates Spider-Man from many of the other comic book movies is that central relationship. I hope people will relate to Peter Parker in the simple domestic dramas he has to endure and go through. That’s still fundamental Spider-Man, I think that will still exist, those small little moments that make him who is.

DP: Does he still search for himself?  Is that part of what Peter Parker does?

MW: There’s always the internal quest. I think it’s harder to think about as an actor and a director when you’re doing a big tent-pole movie, where there’s always the external conflict—stop the bad guy! But what I think people relate to the most–and are more difficult to express because you need nuances–are the internal conflicts that people have.  With Peter, it’s about it means to be Spider-Man, and what the nature of sacrifice is, and how he has to sacrifice in order to live what is his destiny. That is very much at work in the second movie.

DP: Along with Peter’s sense of responsibility.

MW: Yes. I think the writing and the performance are really very sophisticated in handling that material. You know, he’s still a kid, and he’s got that punk rock attitude, which you can even see today when he’s near the podium and getting his diploma. That’s a very important part of Spider-Man.

 

 

TFF: Brin Hill Directs Joss Whedon’s “In Your Eyes”

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By Danny Peary

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Typically, filmmakers bring their newest films to film festivals in hopes of finding a theatrical distributor. But after its April 20 world premiere at the TriBeCa Film Festival, Brin Hill’s metaphysical romantic comedy, In Your Eyes, which was written and executive produced by Joss Whedon, was made available around the world for $5 with a digital release on the film’s website: www.inyoureyesmovie.com.  The release was powered by the Vimeo On Demand platform and was translated into Spanish, German, Portuguese, French, and Japanese. It seemed appropriate that viewers could watch it simultaneously in diverse locations because it is about two people who are 2,000 miles apart who can see and experience the same things. Since they were kids, Rebecca (Zoe Kazan) and Dylan (Michael Stahl-David) have felt disconnected from everyone around them but have sensed that someone was there with them, in their heads.  This connection troubled them –she spent time in an asylum, he spent time in prison–but also comforted them. She is now a lonely housewife in New Hampshire and he works in a car wash in New Mexico. Suddenly they start seeing through each other’s eyes and carrying on conversations in private and public, making everyone think they are loony. Their attraction grows and life becomes more exciting, but also more dangerous.  In the future, I’ll post roundtables I participated in with Kazan, Stahl-David, and Nikki Read (who plays the one person in town who doesn’t treat Dylan as an outcast).  The following is a one-on-one I did with the amiable Hill (Ball Don’t Lie) during the Festival. 

Danny Peary: So you’re becoming a regular at the TriBeCa Film Festival.

Brin Hill: This is my third time here! It might be a record, I was actually wondering that the other day.

DP: Nicki Reed is in In Your Eyes as well as two others this year.

BH: People do the TriBeCa Trifecta in one year, I just spread it out over a decade.

DP: You’ve now had three experiences at TriBeCa.

BH: This has obviously been different in that we’ve gotten a lot of great press since Joss Whedon made a big announcement about the digital distribution.

DP: Tell me your background, beginning in Boston.

BH: I’ve crossed this fair country a lot. After Boston, I moved to Santa Monica, Venice, when I was twelve. I was blessed to go to art school, where I studied film history.  My film professor was a professor at AFI and he was an amazing film theorist. So I always sort of knew I wanted to do that. I did a little UCLA time too. At UCLA we made 16mm, non-sync films. My film won the Spotlight Award there for me and Justin Lynd. It was this film about three kids in Venice who find a gun, and a day in their life. It was multi-cultural, one black kid, one white kid, one Latin kid. Much like Venice.  Then I came back to NYU for grad school. I went straight from undergrad to grad school. I made a bunch of films at Tisch, including a short called Morning Breath, a Brooklyn love story.  It went to Sundance, won a special jury prize there, and actually showed at the first TriBeCa Film Festival. I actually ended up working for Spike Lee, who was one of my professors at NYU.  I worked for him on a couple of movies. We share a common love of basketball. Then I was here making various things, before going back to Santa Monica. I have been there for a while…

DP: What’s your basketball background?

BH: I played decently high-level in high school, and I played in college. I like to play three point line to three point line, no defense, just shoot. It’s not how many you make, it’s how many you take. But the wheels are already coming off over here. Three of my friends went to play in the NBA. I did not, but so we have all these guys who played in the league, Mark Jackson used to play in our game until he went to the Warriors. These guys are all so big.  I’m a two-guard, I don’t go down the block. But playing with those guys, I got beat up, so I realized I was done. I play a little bit, not so much. I play with my kids now, I coach them.

DP: So did you have sports ambitions?

BH: To me, sports was always a tool that afforded me opportunities in certain respects.  My high school team was really good, so I could go there and pursue art. And same with college, it got me into places and afforded me things. But the thing that Spike Lee and I used to talk about was that basketball taught me about competition. Which is the film industry in a lot of respects.  So I got that lesson out of sports.

DP: I read that Joss Whedon wrote the script for In Your Eyes a while ago. What part did he play in the process of getting this film made or did he move away and leave it to you at some point?

BH: He was involved in the process.  I don’t know when he wrote the script but I know it was a passion project. He and I sat down with my creative vision and he gave his two cents.  Then we had the table reading with the actors. I was in New Hampshire getting ready for the shoot and flew back for the table read with the actors and Joss and one of the producers. We had Zoe Kazan and Michael Stahl-David, and Joss and I played all the other characters. When we got to New Hampshire, Mark and Zoe and I would meet and go over his scene work. Joss watched dailies and made notes. He was around, he just wasn’t on set. He and I would email.  Occasionally I would need clarification on a scene that was coming up the next day, and we’d make sure we were seeing things in the same way.  On a couple of  occasions he sent rewrites of scenes.

DP: We’re in an age where everybody can connect but other than Dylan and Rebecca, who connect by an unusual means, people still don’t.

BH: I think Her was about that, and I like to think it’s a theme I thought about for In Your Eyes, too. Obviously connection is central to it.  Joss Whedon’s writing in general, whether it’s The Avengers or Buffy, is about loner heroes who band together to overcome adversity.  It’s a central theme in everything he does, so I sort of latched onto that. To me my movie is about two loner heroes finding a connection to overcome adversity. As a commentary on how we’re all trying to figure out how to navigate connection in this age, it’s timely in a lot of ways. I think it’s a metaphor for what’s going on.

DP: Having seen Ball Don’t Lie and In Your Eyes, that search for connectivity is, to me, a theme of yours as a filmmaker. But I think your major theme is the title of one of your scripts: Won’t Back Down.  Certainly Dylan and Rebecca move forward despite the obstacles.

BH: For me, all the stuff that I do is about people overcoming perceived socialization and the limitations of their environment. That’s something I can relate to in terms of my neighborhood in Boston, where kids on my Little League team  were socialized by what they perceived was a limited environment. So I’m always looking back at that.

DP: What do you mean by “socialization?”

BH: How society puts limitations on you based on who you are, where you’re born. Michael Stahl-David talked about it a little bit at the Q&A the other day, saying how being different in a small town is really hard, because you’re under a microscope in a lot of ways and you’re told to be a certain way.  If you’re different, if you’re punk rock, if you dress differently, if you’re an artist, or if you think differently, people are going to look at you strangely. Which is why a lot of people come to a place like New York, where you can find other people like them. I think there’s an element of that in this movie, too. You hit on it, it’s a central theme for me–how do people overcome circumstance and environment when it puts constraints on you?

DP: Well, both Dylan and Rebecca, if you think about it, could have been destroyed because they never fit in. But there’s a resilience to both of them.

BH: Yeah, absolutely. For Won’t Back Down, the script that I wrote was slightly different from the movie they made, but that was the central theme. It was about the resilience of characters. Can you overcome adversity to break through and find your destiny? I think that’s what I was alluding to with Joss.  He’s always telling that story about overcoming adversity to find one’s destiny, whether it’s a superhero or whether it’s two lovers..

DP: One reason I loved Buffy was the kindness of the show. It’s about Buffy doing it alone or banding together with her gang to help people in need, including each other.

BH: Yeah, that goes back to what you were talking about, connection, finding someone to help you. That’s what I meant by banding together, because you can never do it alone. The world and the universe is too big for just one voice.

DP: Of course, it’s major to your film that Dylan and Rebecca help each other.

BH: Yeah, I’m on board with that, 100%.

DP: This film is essentially about two people having a long-distance relationship. Did you have long-distance relationships?

BH: It’s funny, you’re the first person to ask that question.  I hadn’t thought about it, but my wife and I dated in high school and were off-again, on-again, but never lived in the same place. So I think, like, a little bit of that seeped out into this movie.  Back in the day, we didn’t have cell phones with affordable plans when we were in college, so we were always on the phone and my phone bills were just insane. That existed in my life for a long, long time.

DP: In the movie Dylan tells Rebecca that looking back on his life, she was the best thing in it.

BH: “The only thing I liked about me is you.”

DP: But as a viewer I’m wondering, did they drive each other crazy?  Because they felt someone inside their heads and had no explanation.

BH: It’s true, people have brought that up. I like that people have different ideas. Different viewers have said. “I thought they’d never make it together, I thought that he’d get shot.” But they have a cynical view of what this movie is. You can’t end it that way.   I think it’d be so disappointing for people because of the sweetness of this film. If you ride this journey the whole way, you want to see them get together.

DP: Did you ever think people might believe that one of the two characters didn’t exist?

BH: I thought that some people would wonder that at some point. Late in the film, when she arrives and he’s not there, I think at that moment, some viewers might think she’s bonkers and made him up because she needed that.  I always thought because the script has both feet in reality, so as a filmmaker, I never went in that direction. I thought these two people are absolutely real and this is absolutely happening. I think the style of the film, the way we treated it, was all about trying to feel real and unfolding the story in real time in a real way. But I can see how a viewer might interpret it differently. I do think it’s cool that people wondered about it being real.

DP: You mentioned “destiny” before. Is this the ultimate fate movie?

BH: You know, I hadn’t thought about it on those terms, but I guess that’s true. People asked why this connection from afar is happening, what’s the explanation, and Joss and I always talked about how it happens when these two people need it the most. When they’re kids and feeling alienated from their environments, that’s when they need it. It helps them. Obviously, it freaks them out, but then they settle into it and they realize this is what they need, this is what they’ve lacked in their life. On some level you could argue that they’ve manifested it–and that would speak to their destiny in the external sense of the word. So I don’t know if it’s the ultimate fate movie, but it definitely deals with fate.

DP: You don’t give an explanation for why this is happening. Therefore, as I see it, the only explanation is that these two are destined to be together and their hearing and speaking to each other is the only way to get them together.

BH: That’s sort of how Joss and I thought about it, in the sense that they need each other at this moment in their lives. If they both appear for each other, it speaks to what we were talking about before, in terms of people needing one another to overcome adversity –or to do anything in this world. It’s hard to go it alone.

DP: I love that opening, with the young Rebecca sliding into a tree in New Hampshire and the young Dylan feeling the blow in New Mexico. I think there’s something so sweet about how a boy connects to a girl, first love.  They don’t live next door to each other, it’s not a traditional small-town thing where they’ve known each other since they were kids.

BH: There’s a little bit of an old-school quality, a throwback quality to this movie, that I love. Even the beginning feels a little bit like the way 1980s movies used to open. I like that it has that feel. I wanted it to feel that way, sort of like a classic, bigger movie. I always knew the two color palettes. When I first read the script I saw blue and orange, and I don’t know if it’s because I was channeling my inner Steven Soderbergh with Traffic or all of his movies, but I wanted to define their two spaces because there is so much back and forth between them. I defined that look immediately for myself, as a director.

DP: How does it end?

BH: With a normal tone.

DP: It turns yellow, doesn’t it?

BH: A little bit, but that’s because it’s the sunset. It’s a beautiful, beautiful sunset, it’s alchemy.

DP: Michael Stahl-David is superlikeable. He actually has your vibe.

BH: I try to zen out my vibe. Michael has such an easy way about him. He’s very charismatic in this movie.   I guess he was in Cloverfield, in which he played the main kid. He was also on that show The Black Donnellys, about the West Side mob. It was on for a heartbeat, and now it’s on Netflix. .

DP: In the roundtable,, Michael was joking that Dylan falls in love with himself by looking through Rebecca’s eyes.  And I said, “That’s actually what he does.”

BH: It’s true. He learns to love himself and appreciate himself because that’s how someone else sees him. That is true in this film for both Dylan and Rebecca.

DP: Zoe Kazan had two movies play previous at TriBeCa, The Exploding Girl and The Pretty One, in which her characters undervalue themselves.  That’s true with Rebecca as well.  In all these films her characters have to find self-worth.  Dylan has to do that too.

BH: Yeah, I think that’s a central theme that Michael accidentally hit on for you.  It’s about appreciating one’s self.  That line I quoted before–”The only thing I liked about me was you”–is more about how they see each other, and now they see themselves in a new way.

DP: They talk about what they have done for each other over the years.  I would like to think that their strength comes from the other person who’s always in them, always rooting for them, always being a positive influence on them.

BH: And their personality inside the other person, it’s always been there.

DP: Another film that deals with the two people sharing bodies is All of Me, the comedy with Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin.

BH: I rewatched it before I made this movie, because I was thinking, “What movie is this like?”  All these agents would say, “Are you going to shoot the movie in split-screen?” “No, I’m not shooting in split-screen.” ” POV?” No, not really.”  I watched All of Me, and I saw that it’s completely different tonally. I watched it to see what it was like to have two personalities inside yourself. It wasn’t relatable to my movie. It’s just a broad slapstick comedy.

DP: It’s the premise more than anything. But usually with possession movies, one of the characters by the end disappears, and you’re left with one person. In your movie you have two individuals. The other thing we touched on before is that there’s no explanation for their supernatural connection–the Zoe Kazan-scripted Ruby Sparks is like that.

BH: Someone at a Q&A asked if Ruby Sparks  inspired this, but the only thing that informed it was that Zoe acted in it. Joss hadn’t seen that movie because it hadn’t been finished yet. It’s good, it’s really fun, she’s great in it.

DP: Zoe said it was really hard acting in front of a mirror in your movie.

BH: And she’s really good in her moments in front of the mirror. She has two scenes in front of the mirror in this movie and I love both of them. It’s so interesting that she said that, because she didn’t express that on set, in the moment, But I can definitely see how that would be really hard.  You can act opposite someone even if they’re hiding under a couch or off-camera and yelling their lines, but this was the first time she was actually looking at herself while in her head she has to imagine that Rebecca’s seeing Dylan.

DP: And, making it harder, Zoe is seeing herself as Rebecca through Dylan’s eyes and the audience’s eyes.

BH: It’s interesting, I didn’t think about how challenging that would be, because you’re seeing it through Dylan’s point of view and feeling the emotion he’s feeling for you, whether it’s heart-racing or whatever. That would actually be manifesting itself in what she’s feeling for him. I hadn’t thought about how complicated that is!

DP: How do you film that scene?

BH: Michael was off-camera, doing all his lines so he was present but Zoe couldn’t see him, which is true of almost all their scenes. So it was not your traditional sort of coverage. It’s a lot like what we were talking about–long-distance phone conversations.

DP: Did you ever not have Michael there to read the lines?

BH: Very rarely, because it was very important for them to be there for each other.

DP: Zoe Kazan is off-beat beautiful, and you captured it.

BH: I think she’s so charismatic and so pretty and so cute and part of that is her performance. I think she gives you a lot of different options as an actress, she has versatility. I think there’s a notion that people typecast her or pigeon-hole her into something like manic pixie, like Zoey Deschanel, but that limits her.  She has so much more range than that. I think her beauty is natural, it’s not overt when you see her, but on film she’s unique-looking in a really cool way. A lot of times, Joss picks unique-looking women in his projects–like Amy Acker – people who are a little off-center in terms of who we think of as movie stars. So she sort of fits that a little bit.. I didn’t have to work at that. She’s a great actress and I think everyone falls in love with her every time.

DP: Was the long-distance “sex scene” hard to edit?

BH: It wasn’t scripted that way, it was scripted very simply.  I wanted to do something that would capture how they feel for the audience. I wanted to visually share what they were going through with viewers.  It breaks with reality a little bit, but I think it captures the experience that they’re going through. For me, it was, “How do I manifest this?”

DP: It’s very sensual. You had to be sensual with the male body as well as the female body, which is hard.

BH: I didn’t really think about that, it just came naturally, I guess. Our DP and editor did an amazing job cutting it, I think. It was tricky to find the right music for that, but hopefully it works for people.

DP: You made an interesting choice in regard to a relationship with her husband, Phillip (Mark Feuerstein). The choice was to have him truly love her, rather than just be completely in love with himself or love someone else. Rebecca even recalls how helpful he was to her when she had a breakdown years before.

BH: Part of that is an element of his trying to make her fit this great, perfect image of what he wants his wife to be. He meets her when she is young and insecure and molds her. I think it’s stunted her personal development and growth.  There’s danger with characters like Phillip, because they don’t have a ton of real estate in the movie.  There’s an element of a trope with him, but I wanted him to be at least a little three-dimensional, in the sense that he does truly love her. Whether he loves her or the idea of her is hard to know.

DP: But you could have made him more of a villain.

BH: There was a version of the movie in which I could have made him much worse. But I dulled the edges a little bit and tried to make him more three-dimensional.  Mark was going against type.  It was an inspired decision by all of us, collectively, to go after him for the part because we could have cast that part with someone you’d immediately think of as a villain. But we know Mark in a different way.

DP: Did Rebecca love Phillip at some point?

BH: I think so, or, here again, maybe she loved the idea of him.  He did help her through a hard time.  But he’s not right for her.

DP: Has Dylan ever been in love?

BH: No.

DP: We’re talking about fate and destiny, so have they each always thought there’s someone out there for them?

BH: Yeah, they talked about sensing there was someone with them and helping them get past things. I think in her mind, she thought that person was her husband, but over time she thought that it might be her soul mate or kindred spirit.

DP: Zoe and Michael said they would have loved to have done the film in chronological order. How about you?

BH: I see from an acting point of view how that would have been helpful, but for me I don’t know that it would have made any difference.  It’s so rare that you’re afforded the opportunity to shoot things chronologically.  Because of our budget, you just have to go with the logistics of trying to stick with the schedule.

SPOILER ALERT

DP: At the roundtable I did with her, Zoe wondered whether they will stop hearing each other once they’re together.

BH: I think they’ll stop.

DP: She also wondered what happens to the characters after the film ends.. You don’t have to tell me what happens, because it’s up to viewers to decide, but in your mind, do you know what happens? Or do you not want to know?

BH: I don’t know that I want to know, I like the idea that they just found each other. I love open endings, not that this is an open ending in a traditional way.  Who knows where they’re headed?

DP: This is where you’d like to leave it?

BH: Yeah, it is a natural ending. I like the openness of it, I like people spinning their own narrative. I like to think that love can conquer all of it, no matter where they end up, no matter if they live in a boxcar for the rest of their life, or if they find a house somewhere.  I believe love will conquer whatever their environment is. They’ll have a great life.

END SPOILER ALERT

It’s More Than “Just a Sigh” for Bonnell and Devos

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Jérôme Bonnell and Emmanuelle Devos in the “Just a Sigh” film poster. Photo by Nobu Hosoki.

By Danny Peary

Just a Sigh fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor.  For now Jérôme Bonnell’s (Le Chignon d’Olga, Les yeux clairs) critically-acclaimed quirky French romance is playing at arthouses in Manhattan.  Emmanuelle Devos is magnifique as usual as Alix, a stage actress who takes time off from doing Ibsen in Calais to audition in Paris for a tiny, silly part in a movie.  Unable to withdraw money from the bank or to reach her boyfriend back home by phone, the aggravated and somewhat irrational actress finds solace with the handsome married professor (Gabriel Byrne) she meets on a train and tracks down at his friend’s memorial. They are attracted to each other, but will they risk getting closer and even committing to each other before she must return to Calais later that night?  I respectfully didn’t ask Bonnell and Devos about the ending when we did the following interview.

Danny Peary,: Jérôme, have you seen Brief Encounter, the 1945 British drama with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard? It’s also about a chance meeting by a man and woman in a railway station, and their passionate romantic interlude. Their relationship goes on for a longer time than Alix and the professor’s one-day affair, but was David Lean’s film an influence on you?

Jérôme Bonnell: I am familiar with Brief Encounter, of course, but I’ve seen it only a couple of times and don’t know it by heart.  Of course there are similarities with the train station and all that, but that movie is a lot more hinged on ideas of morality, lies, guilt, and culpability.  I didn’t want to explore those issues in my movie.

DP: What does your title mean to you?

JB: It comes from Casablanca–lyrics in “As Time Goes By.” It’s very far from the French title, Le temps de l’aventure, which means Adventure Time but is impossible to translate. In English it doesn’t mean the same thing at all. There are several meanings in French to the words time and adventure.  Adventure is about love and time is about…
Emmanuelle Divos: …the right time to do something.  Like the right time to live and the right time to love.  It can be the right era or the right age.
DP: So are you saying it’s the right time in their lives for Alix and the stranger—the professor played by Gabriel Byrne–to meet?
JB: Yes, that can be one of several interpretations.
DP: I think they both need to meet each other at that exact time in their lives.  I think that’s key to the movie.

JB: Oh, yes.
ED: I love coincidences because I don’t believe in coincidences.
DP: Do you think it is coincidence, fate, destiny or happenstance that they meet?
ED: I feel that the people we’re supposed to meet we do meet; and we meet the people we need to meet at the right time.  We meet them when we need to make a change in our lives, maybe in the way we think.  As actors we meet the directors we deserve or the directors that help us push what we can do in our art.
DP: They first meet on the train to Paris when he asks her directions to a church.  It seems like he is trying to pick her up. But in fact, he really does need directions to the church to go to a memorial, and a couple of scenes later, she goes there to find him. She makes sure they connect.  That’s not destiny, that’s Alix actually forcing the issue.
JB: Just because a character makes a decision doesn’t mean there’s no destiny. People make decisions all the time and there’s no premeditation there, things just happen.
DP: Alix at times seems totally irrational and her behavior is completely surprising and even shocking.  When she pursues him, it seems like the most irrational thing she could possibly do.  But with hindsight, after seeing the entire movie, I would say her decision to go after him is the one rational, good decision she makes.
JB: I do like that interpretation a lot–the act that seems the craziest ends up being the most rational and the one that makes the most sense. I haven’t thought of that before but I do like that.
DP: Emmanuelle, do you think it is a positive choice on her part to pursue him?
ED: Yes, this is a decision that she’ll be able to rely on for the rest of her life.  Even though she comes off as a little bit irrational and all over the place, this decision is like a building block for her. It’s like hard cement, a strong base for all the events that will happen to her in the future.
DP: What do you think the professor sees in her? Why does he respond so much?
JB: It’s hard to put into words what love at first sight, le coup de foudre, is.  I think it’s really impossible to define because the mere definition of it would make it smaller.   Maybe it’s something on the order of a revelation, when at the same time something is revealed to us, we reveal something inside us.

DP: Emmanuelle, I think Alix is very complex. When reading the script for the first time, did you understand her right away, maybe because you’re playing an actress?  Or did you not understand her until the end when something important about her is revealed?
ED: Before I shoot a movie, I think about it and work on it beforehand.  But then when I’m actually on the set, there are new things popping up every day about who I’m playing.  It’s like when you have a relationship with someone and they surprise you with new things about them, day after day. Until you are on the set, and there’s fire on the set, you don’t know what can come out of your character. I think we’re there to capture an instant, a moment, without having been able to see it before.  It would be really sad if we could have foreseen it.
DP: There’s a line where the professor says, “I’m not very good with pain,” and she says, “Me, neither.” But she’s an actress, and I think her whole life is full of pain and embarrassment.  And, Jérôme, you don’t make it any easier on her.  You set up all these obstacles to her having a pain-and embarrassment-free day.  She has no money, she has no phone, and when she tries to call her boyfriend from pay phones, she gets his voicemail or a band walks by and the drumbeat is deafening. She also has a difficult audition conducted by a numbskull who gives her ridiculous instructions.  Then there’s a visit with her sister and they get into it, literally. And when she wants to be intimate with the professor, his friend keeps turning up. At such times, I thought you might be making a comedy and I’m thinking, is this the life of a French woman, or just an actress, or a woman who’s having a terrible day? What were you trying to do?
JB: I sprinkled all over the film all these obstacles.  They were meant to be a humoristic device but they also were meant to say something about the times we live in. At the same time, they became the tools that allow her to find her freedom. When I was writing the script, and I came up with the idea of making her an actor, everything suddenly started to make sense. There was a new logic that revealed itself to me. I can’t even describe it more specifically. But I can say that it is actually possible to talk in depth about this film without talking about what it is to make a movie and to film somebody. Here I had two actors who revealed themselves to each other and at the same time, things about themselves were revealed through the other. When I filmed Emmanuelle I revealed things about her, and she helped me reveal things about myself.
DP: Alix’s audition is a great scene. What I found interesting, Emmanuelle, is that you’re playing an actress who is taking the emotions that have built during her aggravating day to help her play a woman who is having just as awful a day. Getting locked out of an apartment when naked is something that might very well have happened to Alix during her day!
ED: Alix goes through a lot of obstacles, and she too is kicked out and her clothes are stripped from her on many levels.

DP: In most current American films, there is a build up to the couple having sex, but we rarely see them having sex. So, Jérôme, talk about your decision to show them when they’re actually in bed.
JB: I didn’t really ask myself what I was going to show in the sex scene, I focused on what I was going to hide.  I showed some things but there were many others that I didn’t show. We show them in bed but never see them actually having sex. I tried to film that scene as if I was not watching them.  That’s ambiguous because I’m filming, so I’m obviously watching.
DP: You begin the film in Calais, so did you decide to set the rest of the film in Paris strictly because of its romantic nature?
JB: It’s in Paris because the noise, bubbly nature, and liveliness of the city serve as a counterpoint to the intimacy between the two characters. I like that a love story like this takes place in such a big city, and Alix, who is from Paris, feels like a stranger in her own hometown. I’m from Paris and I liked the idea of filming in my hometown as if I were watching it with a foreigner’s eye. I am a Parisian yet this is the first film I’ve filmed in Paris.

DP: Finally, Emmanuelle, how fulfilling was it to play Alix at this point in your career?
ED: It was very fulfilling.  There are a thousand reasons, but maybe the most important is that I was filmed with such attention, care and love.  And as Jérôme said earlier, by doing this film we revealed parts of each other to each other.  There was such intimacy and, at the same time, modesty and elegance.  That is so rare.

Raymond de Felitta Shows How to “Rob the Mob”

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rob-the-mob-poster

By Danny Peary

Rob the Mob fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor.  This Friday it opens in New York at the Angelika, an indication that it’s not the predictable mob comedy one might expect from the title.  The true tall tale told by director Raymond de Felitta and screenwriter Jonathan Fernandez includes humor of the absurdist variety, but as in de Felitta’s smartly-cast, superbly-acted mass-audience-would-love-them-if-they-bothered-to-see-them little films Two Family House and City Island (which won the Audience Award at the Tribeca Film Festival), it blends the wit with off-kilter romance/love, quirky plot twists, tricky family relationships, and serious themes. And at the center is a big heart.

rob-the-mob-600x337 A quickie synopsis: “Rob the Mob is the true-life story of a crazy-in-love Queens couple who robbed a series of mafia social clubs [in the early 1990s] and got away with it…for a while…until they stumble upon a score bigger than they ever planned and become targets of both the mob and the FBI.” Michael Pitt (Funny Games, TV’s Boardwalk Empire) and Nina Arianda (Midnight in Paris; Tony-winner for Venus in Fur) are sensational as the doomed Tommy Uva and his clever girlfriend Rosie, heading a terrific cast that includes Andy Garcia (City Island), as soulful mob don Big Al, a serious Ray Romano (Everybody Loves Raymond) as a reporter on the mob beat, Cathy Moriarty (Raging Bull), and Michael Rispoli (star of Two-Family House).  I spoke last week to De Felitta about his stars and new movie.

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Danny Peary: When I saw the title Rob the Mob, I assumed it was going to be a full-fledged comedy, which it isn’t. Did you keep the humorous title because you wanted the film to maintain a light-hearted tone even when things become darker?

Raymond de Felitta (left): Some people said it wasn’t serious enough a title for the movie, but I always loved it because it’s cheeky and I feel the movie in general is cheeky. When I watch it with audiences I see there are good laughs through the first half and absolutely none in the second half, when it turns into a different movie. To me, that’s cheeky. If I did my job right, you don’t really see what’s coming and that’s part of the movie’s fun. I got a little pressure here and there to change it, but ultimately it’s Rob the Mob. It is what it is.

DP: In New York, it’s going to open at the Angelika, a site for art films. Is that surprising to you?

RDF: I guess the bigger question is: what are “art films?”  I don’t know any more. I think Rob the Mob is an art film under the guise of a genre film, which reflects my own preference in movies.  If you don’t care about film and you just want entertainment, you’ll like the title and love the idea of the movie, that somebody with an Uzi robs mob social clubs. And if you are a serious filmgoer, you might hear that it is not just a mob movie but has little more going for it.

DP: You’ve called it an “anti-mob movie.”

RDF: Yeah, because “mob movies” are over with, in a sense. Rob the Mob was not going to be The Godfather or Goodfellas or Casino.  There’s no more room, it’s done. So you’re either going to make a really bad mob movie, or find a new wrinkle.  This movie is not really about the mob.  The more we developed the script and the closer we got to doing it, I began to feel that this movie will live or die with the romance of these two people Tommy and Rosie. If you understand that it’s about their love for each other, I think the movie will have heart and be special and won’t slide off into a genre and be this kind of movie or that kind of movie. It had to have a center and their romance is the center.  I love when things are disguised as other things, and that’s why I wanted to do this movie. It’s a mob movie, but it’s really not, it’s about these two people in love. I guess you could fit it into a genre with Gun Crazy, They Live By Night, and Thieves Like Us.  There is some of those films in mine, but mine is more kinetic. It was a bit of a magic trick. I don’t know if I pulled it off, but I liked doing it.  Whatever people think this movie is, it’s not quite that; it a different animal.

DP: So where does the mob fit in?

RDF: While it’s not primarily about the mob, I love that the mobsters are the victims in the movie. They’re kind of the worn out, tattered remains of their former selves. I thought that was a fun, interesting angle, because to me it humanizes them rather than makes them larger than life.  It brings them way down to the actual size they are. They’re the guys at this stupid club on the corner. That’s where they hang out, and they don’t do much there other than sitting around. It’s not at all glamorous.  They can’t even figure out how to deal with Tommy and Rosie, the amateurs who are robbing them.  That’s the truth, they did not know how to deal with this couple who was making fools of them and threatening the organization.  Those are the things that I liked in the script.  I felt it turned our view of the mob upside down.

DP: In the production notes, you say that Rob the Mob’s coming from a true story made it more interesting for you. If it were a fictional story, would you have been interested in doing it?

RDF: You know, it’s hard to say.   Because it weren’t true, if it was made up, it might be too silly to believe.  This story is so unbelievable and so strange and has so many odd things about it, that it being true is what makes it interesting; as fiction it would be far-fetched. Somebody really did pull off those robberies on the mob!  Tommy and Rosie were really rubbed out.  The facts of the case make it interesting. I compare this story in terms of its truth to Dog Day Afternoon. Similarly, if I write a movie about a married man with a secret gay lover and he needs money for a sex change, and he has a Vietnam vet friend who robs a bank, you’d be like, “Where’s this coming from? Did you hear this story somewhere or did you make it up?” In fact that story happened, too.  Also similar about the two stories is that neither had any real notoriety. The Dog Day Afternoon story also came and went in just a few weeks and never was a big, nation-wide story.  I think dramatizing these stories is a little more poignant because you’ve discovered such a large theme and such a big and bold story in something relatively obscure. I’d never heard of Tommy and Rosie Uva.

DP: I vaguely remember something about a list of Mafia names that proved there was an organized crime organization.

RDF: That’s why I focused so much on the list. I wanted to show that there was something bigger that happened than what Tommy and Rosie ever knew about, that they even understood. We couldn’t fit it into the movie, but the different mob families all started arguing about who actually made the hit on Tommy and Rosie.  One of them was caught on tape taking credit for it and he wound up being sent to prison for the rest of his life. I couldn’t dramatize any of that because it happened after they were dead, and the movie has to end when Tommy and Rosie are shot. I didn’t really want there to be a long coda. But yeah, there were things about them that were a bigger story.  Jonathan Fernandez, the writer, and I talked about the size of a movie that’s just a caper film. And Jon pointed out that what The King’s Speech was really telling us is that if this guy didn’t fix his speech impediment, England would have lost the war. It’s not that cynical, but the gist of our story is that a little act led to something heroic. We started looking at Tommy and Rosie as two little people who actually took down a big chunk of the mob. They didn’t mean to, they didn’t know they were having that effect, but Tommy’s crusade against the guys who beat up his dad when he was as a little boy actually leads to big things. He got somewhere in his life, he did finally accomplish something, and I find that very moving. If you can twist the story that way, then I think you’ve got a great character arc.

DP: There seems to be a parallel story.  Big Al tells the FBI that he doesn’t want to be humiliated in front of his grandson and as a boy Tommy experienced his own father being beaten up and humiliated in front of him.

RDF: I don’t know if other people get it but the fact is that Tommy and Big Al had so much in common.

DP: I think Big Al would have liked Tommy, actually. He would have understood Tommy’s anger toward the mob from what happened to his father.

RDF: I think you’re right. They’re both haunted by deaths in their pasts, they’re both haunted by things they can’t change or avenge.  And ultimately Tommy’s actions have a huge impact on Big Al, although they’ve never met.  When we were editing a scene with Big Al in post-production, we’d cut to Tommy and Rosie just to reiterate that their stories are impacting on each other. I think it’s so interesting in life to look back and realize the people who’ve impacted you whom you’ve never met. You’ve somehow had this parallel existence, and one person’s actions have paid off positively or negatively in someone else’s life.

DP: Tommy has charm according to Rosie, but Big Al’s the person who really has the charm in the film.  And he’s probably the one really smart person in the movie. Do you think a reason Tommy and Rosie are so vulnerable is because they’re not smart enough?

RDF: I think they’re idiot savants.  They don’t really know what they’ve gotten themselves into. They think they’ve got a handle on it, but no. She’s reasonably more polished than he’s ever going to be, but yeah, they’re not smart enough.  Andy Garcia plays Big Al as a guy who was actually too smart to be a mob boss. He really shouldn’t have wound up where he is. He should have been a businessman.

DP: He loves to cook so he could have run a legit Italian restaurant.

RDF: That part Andy and I developed together. We were looking to create a Don that hadn’t been done. He’s not Powerman; he’s tired, he’s a grandfather, he doesn’t really understand how he got where he is.  I felt the way he’s portrayed by Andy is a big part of our turning the whole mob concept on its head.  What if it’s not about a powerful Don and about “respect” and all that crap, which we’ve seen so many times? What if it’s about a guy who wants to play chess with his grandson?  Big Al’s fatal flaw is ultimately his humanity–he doesn’t order a hit on Tommy and Rosie at the very beginning before things escalate.  That’s what you’re supposed to do as a mafia don.

DP: The Uvas were really married, but in the movie they’re not married.

RDF: Yeah, we took that liberty because I wanted us to see Tommy ask Rosie to marry him.  I just felt it was such a beautiful place for them to finally get to. The fact is they really were murdered on Christmas Eve, so I wanted them to have that moment before it happens.  That’s the sentimental Italian in me.

SPOILER ALERT

DP: There’s a Bonnie and Clyde reference in regard to their being shot in their car, but you are very protective of them and we don’t see them get torn up by the hail of bullets.  What happens to them could be shown with as much brutality as what happens to Bonnie and Clyde in Arthur Penn’s movie, but you don’t, won’t, let that happen.

RDF: Well, you’re not going to beat Arthur Penn’s ending.  But I also don’t need to see their death.  I only need to know that they get gunned down and what the ending is going to be.  I was inspired in some ways by the ending of The Wrestler, where he goes leaping off the ropes into the ring, after he’s told he can’t wrestle anymore.  You don’t need to see anything after that.

DP: I love that it’s elegiac, even sweet and super romantic, oddly enough.

RDF: I thought the same thing. To me, that was very important – how do we feel about Tommy and Rosie at the end?  Do we end with a huge downer and see blood everywhere ? That was something we developed as we were doing it, we figured out a way to give them some dignity and let their romance live on.

END SPOILER ALERT

DP: In the production notes Nina Arianda says that the romance between Tommy and Rosie is kind of a combination of Romeo and Juliet, Bonnie and Clyde, and Sid and Nancy. Actresses usually don’t bring up Sid and Nancy in conversation, but there’s a madness in the romance that really appealed to her in that film and in Rob the Mob.

RDF: Michael Pitt and I talked about how great love, passionate love, is actually a destructive force. It doesn’t have any boundaries, it does whatever it needs to do, it has its own fierce energy.  That’s how we saw the romance of Tommy and Rosie.  It’s a force that can’t be stopped. They create their own catastrophe. The way I always read the real story of Tommy and Rosie is that she was trying to show the world what she saw in him. She wanted the rest of the world to see it. It was so much bigger than what anyone else had ever thought of this guy who seems pretty much like a druggy ex-con. He had this side to him that she believed in, and that was his humanity and poignancy. The whole act of what they do–coming up with his bizarre scheme and pulling it off–is his work of art and his gift to the world. She was so proud of him for it. That’s what I loved about their real story.  It was about two people who in their sociopathic way thought they were doing something light and beautiful for each other.

DP: In Gun Crazy and Bonnie and Clyde the robberies themselves are sexual acts to communicate the love the two lead characters feel for each other.  Are you trying to show the same thing when they kiss in the car before he commits the crimes and when they celebrate in their apartment afterward, throwing the money into the air?

RDF: I do think what we show after the robbery is like an orgasmic release for them. But they also have a practical consideration. They are trying to put together enough money so they can settle down and finally be normal.  There’s the whole concept–One of these days I’m going to be like everyone else– that a lot of us carry around, mistakenly. If only I could organize the world to fit my needs, then I’ll finally be part of the normal world.

DP: Do Tommy and Rosie have a death wish and is their being ill-fated part of the romance?

RDF:  I guess so, but I look at it as Rosie being so in love with Tommy that she’ll do whatever he needs to complete his journey. She’s not necessarily the doomed one. She’s just so profoundly in love with Tommy and so believes in his misunderstood genius that’s lost in the world, that she’ll do whatever.  That of course leads to their doom.

DP: And she sacrifices her career at the collection agency for him.  Granted, it’s a weird career, but you see what talent she has to do it. And he has no talent to do it. She could take over the agency some day.

RDF: She absolutely could be working in a hair salon or be a teller in a bank. Rosie is every one of those great girls from Queens who maybe had some drug issues in high school, but got over it and now have jobs. Tommy isn’t capable of working a real job. He is a dark, sad, sociopathic young man.

DP: Michael Pitt and Nina Arianda are perfectly cast. I think you might look at the film now and say, nobody else in the whole world but these two actors could play these parts. I’m sure you recognized they have the potential to be superstars down the road, but at this particular time, you could still afford them. You were very lucky. Is that how you see it?

RDF: Absolutely. It’s funny how these things come about, the weird journey of filmmaking. The very first actor we sent the script to was Michael Pitt. The script was not exactly the script we ended up shooting, but it was a pass at it and you could understand what the basics were. And Michael “got it.”  I thought, “If this guy gets it, he’ll become a collaborator through the whole process.” I wanted to have a relationship with the actor playing Tommy.  I wanted it to be like Scorsese and De Niro, and we’d do this film together, and create Tommy. I thought that if we got that character right, the movie would have heart and soul. If we didn’t, we’d have simply a guy playing a young thug.  So Michael and I became very close while working on the development of the story and his character.

DP: With dark hair, Michael Pitt looks a little like Elvis in your movie, a good-acting Elvis.

RDF: A very young Elvis, yeah.  It took us a long time to get the financing because everyone was trying to get us to get a bigger name than Michael to play Tommy.  They also wanted a big name actress to play Rosie.  But none of them wanted to do it– Mila Kunis, Scarlett Johansson. You make a list of name actresses, you send it out, you don’t really know if they ever read it. After quite some time, my producer said, “Look, if we make the movie for less money, we can probably get this done and not have to try to rope in a name actress as if we were searching for Scarlett O’Hara.  It’s ridiculous.” So on Michael’s recommendation we went after Nina. She had this tremendous Broadway life that happened to her very quickly, so when they brought her name up, I asked, “Is she going to want to do it, or is she waiting for a starring role in a bigger movie?”  She read the script and really loved it, and met with me and Michael.  Like you say, I can’t imagine anyone else playing those parts now.  A wonderful thing about filmmaking is that once it’s done, it’s real.  Those two amazing actors are in my movie.  But it’s funny that along the way there are always so many bizarre iterations.

 

Tom Gilroy (and Lili Taylor, too) on “The Cold Lands”

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By Danny Peary/Photo of Tom Gilroy by Danny Peary; Photo of Lili Taylor by Brad Balfour

The Cold Lands fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor.  Tom Gilroy’s (pictured, left) second feature, which he wrote and directed, opens Friday in New York at the IFC Center, and there is nothing else like it in the city.  In the film’s production notes Gilroy (who has acted in numerous films) says he admires “people who live ‘off the grid,” and that these people on the margins and off the map are “rarely shown clearly and concretely…I wanted to make a film that was a snapshot of America right now, and wrote it to take place in the town where I live in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York.  I looked around me and the story emerged from the places and some of the people I see all the time.”  Here’s the brief synopsis of Gilroy’s story in the production notes: “When his fiercely self-reliant mother [Nicole, played by Lili Taylor] dies unexpectedly, eleven-year-old Atticus [newcomer Silas Yelich] is wary of the authorities and flees deep into the forests of his Catskills home.  His sheltered off-the-grid childhood is over, and a new life on the move has begun.  As Atticus wanders the woods in a daze, relying on whatever food and shelter he can find, the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur. [He has conversations with his dead mother, he pets a white deer.]  When he encounters Carter [Peter Scanavino], a scruffy, pot-smoking drifter who lives out of his car and sells necklaces [he makes himself] at music festivals, Atticus latches on.  The two form a wary alliance, and their dependence upon each other grows, neither is quite sure he is making the right decision [to stay together].”  On Monday in Manhattan, I had this conversation with Gilroy about his movie.  Following it is a very brief conversation I had with Lili Taylor, one of my favorites.

Danny Peary: I read that in the production notes that you and Lili Taylor have known each other a long time.

Tom Gilroy: Lili, Michael Imperioli, and I formed a theater company together in New York City about twenty years ago.  There were many actors from that company who are in The Cold Lands–John Ventimiglia, Nick Sandow, Andrew van Dusen, and Maggie Low.  I guess the last thing we did was Hamlet in 2000. Lili played Ophelia, Jared Harris played Hamlet, and his dad, Richard Harris, played the ghost.  Before and after, for a year, we did Hamlet, I was making my first film, Spring Forward, and since then I have been content to do only film work.

DP: It’s been a long time between features.

TG: Not for the lack of trying. Paul Mezey, who produced The Cold Lands [with Andrew Goldman] and Maria Full of Grace and Beasts of the Southern Wild, and I were trying to get a movie going on a daily basis after Spring Forward. I wrote several scripts and they were sent to various places and optioned and set-up to begin shooting, only to fall apart.

DP: But you got this one made. How long did this take?

TG: I started working on this one almost a year before we shot it.

DP: Did you know the title while you were writing the script, or did the material dictate that you call it The Cold Lands?

TG:  I was already writing it. Originally I was going to call it something like Run Away Split, a beekeeping term.  Lili and I live within half an hour of each other in upstate New York, and right before you turn off to her exit, there’s a rest stop. It’s just a place where you can pee in the woods, make a phone call, and stretch your legs. There’s a blue sign there that you can see in the film following the end credits. It’s one of these signs you see all over New York and the Northeast; it’s yellow and blue and states the historical information about the region. And what it explains is that this area was called “The Cold Lands” in the 1600s.  If you lived in the city, you referred to upstate as “The Cold Lands,” and often it was considered a place where people would disappear. If you got into some trouble down here–maybe you got somebody pregnant or the police was looking for you–your family would say, “Oh, he’s gone up to “The Cold Lands.’”

DP: I think your story could have been set in the 17th Century before there was colonization, or the 1800s and it could have been a Western, with Atticus and Carter riding horses on trails through the woods rather than riding in a car on paved roads.

TG: That’s part of what we were trying to get at.  We wanted it to be contemporary, but also be contextualized so it could have taken place 100 or 200 years ago.  A log cabin without electricity could be in any century. The drifter who makes necklaces could just as easily have been a tinker. That was all deliberate, because I wanted to dig a little into the on-going American mythology of pioneers. That’s why in the opening scene Nicole teaches her son Atticus about the Anti-Rent War that took place up there in the 1700s.

DP: Do people know about it there?

TG: In my time they do. All over Rensselaerville, where I shot the movie, there are signs that say this battle took place there. Nicole takes her kid to the actual place.

DP: Are you from there?

TG: I grew up in Richfield, Connecticut, which is where I shot Spring Forward, but I live in Brooklyn and been living in Rensselaerville.

DP: In the movie, we hear that the missing Atticus is from Richfield.  Did you mean Richfield Springs, New York?

TG: Actually it takes place in Rensselaerville but I called it Richfield in the movie, like the town in Connecticut.  I don’t even know why.

DP: You talk about this film being meditative and transcendental. I’m sure that’s what you wanted because much of it is set in the woods, and Atticus communes with nature. No doubt that was important to you when making this film.

TG: Not only important to me but important to American culture. If you look at the transcendentalists like Thoreau, Walden, Emerson, and the Hudson Valley painters, there’s a culture very rich in nature and spiritualism in the Northeast. I really wanted this film to resonate with American themes. And from a filmmaking standpoint–as films become more and more digitally shot, or everything is handheld and looks like it was made in two days–I wanted to film something that looked a little slower, a little more meditative, and a little more like art.

DP: With the illusions Atticus has of his dead mother and other unusual images in the woods, are you using alienation techniques so viewers will say, “This isn’t real, it’s a movie!” or do you want us to see it as real?

TG: It’s supposed to be real, but real can look like a Judd Apatow movie, too. This is real the way that I see the world, and because the kid’s a dreamy kid, there’s a dreamy aspect to it.  This was all consciously done on my part.  It’s certainly real in that much of what we see is happening and what Atticus sees he believes is real.  I don’t know if he actually sees a white deer, but he believes he does. It’s all deliberately presented in a way that allows you to project what you want onto it.

DP: Do you relate to this boy? Is this boy somebody you could have been under similar circumstances?

TG: I think in many ways, a lot of men could have been this boy. Part of this story is a young boy trying to figure out who he is and where he fits in. On a larger scale, I was interested in seeing the boy as a metaphor for the United States. We have come from this pioneer history, and if you look at what’s going on in the United States, in a lot of ways it seems to be dissolving.  States want to secede from the Union, people don’t want to pay taxes, we don’t want to have public schools, we don’t want to have unemployment, we don’t want to have social services…So who’s going to walk through all the rubble after it collapses? It’s going to be a young boy or a young girl, and that person is America. Make your own decision about what you want to happen to them while they walk through the rubble, but in general, that’s what the movie deals with metaphorically.

DP: I know you admire Nicole because she has such good intentions and does teach Atticus about the world, her good values, and how to be self-reliant, but is she 100% a good mother?

TG: Is there such a thing as 100% a good mother?  That’s the real question. I’m certainly not interested in presenting her or anyone else as an ideal.

DP: Is Atticus prepared for the world without her? Or, if she didn’t die, would he have had a good upbringing through his teenage years?

TG: Either. He was having a good upbringing and that would have continued.  On his own, he’s a creative, trusting, intuitive, industrious, self-reliant, smart child. And that’s a lot more than you can say about a lot of kids, you know? One thing’s for sure–he’s not going to spend three hours a day watching VH1. Instead, he’s going to be swimming or imagining or building beehives, or learning how to make necklaces, and all that’s pretty damn good.

DP: I thought it was important that you have him go to a party, because otherwise we’d think he was lonely and completely isolated because of his upbringing.

TG: Oh, absolutely, it’s also why I have him play the trombone.  He’s in the town orchestra.  His mother also mentions that he goes swimming at the lake in the summer, which is what a lot of the kids do in my town.  That’s where kids who are home-schooled meet the kids who attend school, and all the kids get to know each other as they swim and dive and play and hang out.

DP: If Nicole had money and could afford lights all the time, would they still have what she calls “Pioneer Night?” Or is she just trying to make a good thing out of a bad thing?

TG: It’s both. She’s definitely, like all mothers, trying really hard to making the most out of their circumstances.  When we used to go on road trips, my mother would create games for us, like counting how many red or blue or white cars go by. Those games were fun and didn’t cost a penny.  Nicole’s clearly a smart woman who she chooses that they live the way they do. It’s not I’m poor, I have to live this way. She has taken a very extreme stance about how she wants to live in a modern society. People may disagree with the organic food or the lack of electricity, but underneath all that is the idea that she stands for something really important with which to imbue her child.

DP: They receive food from Maggie [Maggie Low], the social worker and church lady. Including meatloaf.  I was surprised they eat meat.

TG: They don’t. Well, he can eat meat if he wants.  Actually, now that I think about it, Nicole does eat meat, too.  That was Lili’s decision. She didn’t think we should make it hippy-dippy because plenty of people up there will eat any food that you give them, and why not meat? It’s like in Beasts of the Southern Wild–we’re all meat. She definitely believes that. And that meatloaf was free.

DP: From what we see of Maggie, I’d think she could be overbearing but she is a nice person. So why is Nicole so defiant around her?

TG: Nicole’s problem with Maggie is that she’s terrified that she is going to take away Atticus because of the way they live.

DP: Even if Nicole’s still alive?

TG: Yep. Nicole is a person who lives off-the-grid and home-schools her kid, and is very suspicious of consumer culture and mainstream culture.  Then there’s this other woman, a  wonderful woman who works for the Health Department—whose part was much larger in the original script—who has concerns about Nicole.  She reads Maggie as being an interference and a threat. She could show up at the house and say, “This is an unfit home and I’m taking the child.” That would terrify a lot of people.  She wants to raise her kid with her own values.

DP: I wasn’t sure if Nicole realizes that she might die at any minute from her diabetes.

TG: I think she knows that she’s ill but doesn’t imagine that happening. What typically happens when women of that age have diabetes is they have two heart attacks. They have heart disease, which often is not detected until they have a small heart attack. Even then they might confuse it with mismanagement of their sugar intake.  Nicole doesn’t have healthcare so can’t seek medical advice. The second heart attack kills her.

DP: Was there a father figure in the past?

TG: No.  He’s not around, and I didn’t want a father that to be an element of the story. I wanted there to be many ways one can read into it, including how Nicole ended up alone with the boy. He’s clearly her biological kid, but I don’t really think her biological father is germane to the story.  What matters is that she’s independent and the kid has nobody but her.

DP: I think it is germane that there is no father figure because when Carter appears, Atticus gravitates toward him so easily.  I’m sure he sees Carter as a father figure or a older-brother figure.

TG: Right, but I don’t think any of that has any bearing on who the actual father was. It’s the absence of the father that’s key to Atticus’s seeking out and feeling natural with Carter.  He’s hungry for a natural kind of bond.

DP: The illusion of Nicole disappears at the exact moment that Carter appears. Is that intentional?

TG: Yes, she’s supplanted by Carter.

DP: And she has a smile, right?

TG: Yeah. Well, she’s accepting. She realizes that she’s going away at a time her kid keeps rebelling so this is her last chance to get it right. When she sees Carter, she is thinking I have to go away, I’ve done my job and I have to resign myself to letting this happen. On the heels of that, Atticus meets Carter.

DP: You could have made Carter a female and a new mother or older-sister figure, but it’s important the new character is a man, right?

TG: Yeah. It was just intuitive to make Carter a male and a little bit more of an outlaw. It never would have dawned on me to make him a female.

DP: It is, I think, instinctive on your part.  There has been an absence of a male figure in Atticus’s life so you want to see how he interacts with a male.

TG: Carter came out of my love for The Hardy Boys and books like that. A young boy sees a guy like Carter and he seems like such a cool ideal.  Atticus thinks, “Wow, this guy’s got all the freedom you could possibly want.”  Of course, that’s not true and because Atticus showed up he’s going to relinquish that freedom he does have to take on the new responsibility.  You’ve got this adult guy saying, “I’ve got to give up my freedom to take care of this kid,” and the kid thinking, “This guy’s really free so I’m going to hang out with him.”

DP: Is Carter good for Atticus, and is Atticus good for Carter?

TG: Outside of any kind of consideration of the law, they are good for each other.

DP: Well, the law would probably assume that Carter’s not taking care of an underage boy but abducting him.

TG: Right.  Spiritually, Atticus is absolutely a great thing for Carter.  As for what Carter is to Atticus, as the writer I deliberately set up their relationship to reveal the biases of the person watching the movie. I personally think Carter is awesome. I have a couple of nephews, young men in my life, and I try to be their Carter, in some ways.  From some strict moralistic or ethical mainstream perspective, Carter’s a disaster. He smokes pot, curses all the time, lives out of his car, lives hand-to-mouth. And now he is a fugitive because he has this boy in his car.  If you are upset by all these things, what do you suggest Carter do?  Should he turn Atticus into a crumbling social system?  Or should we be optimistic and–this is coming out of an American tradition of rebelliousness–believe that the kismet of these two people meeting is actually a positive thing?  My dad believes the former should be done, I believe the latter.

DP: The real great part is, of course, that Carter’s gay.

TG: I’m making a point for sure.  The gender identification of either adult, Nicole and Carter, is open to interpretation. If you notice, Carter’s very flirtatious to the woman that buys the necklace from him.

DP: But that’s his way of selling a necklace. He’s a sweet guy.  He forgets her and goes swimming naked with guys right after that.

TG: The nudity aspect has more to do with his just being a wild man. But I’m fine with people reading that he’s gay, that doesn’t make any difference to me.

DP: Well, I think it’s very important. I think it’s brave that you put thirteen-year-old Atticus sleeping next to the naked Carter and there’s nothing to worry about. Some conservative viewers would expect sexual molestation to take place every time.

TG: Right.  The kid has no choice but to sleep next to him. Once that evening transpires and nothing has happened, there’s a real bond there. It was a real test, and nothing happened. Then of course you see Carter twelve hours later and he’s nude with these other guys and taking Ecstasy and you go, “Oh, he’s kind of a nudist.”

DP: Well, I didn’t think that. I thought he was just gay and I thought that was a great thing because you’re making the point gay men can be trusted around boys.

TG: Thanks. That’s all deliberate. Peter Scanavino has a really great, non-threatening, non-traditional masculinity. He really nailed the character. He’s attractive to men and women.  I have gay and straight friends who’ve seen the movie and just go, “Wow, this guy’s a babe.” He’s not macho or aggressive, yet he’s very masculine, and obviously smart and creative. All that was really important to me.

DP: Could you see Liev Schreiber’s ex-con in Spring Forward going off with Atticus?

TG: I think that character would be a little bit more wary of his influence on a boy. He is so insecure.  He might think he isn’t equipped to help Atticus and try to find someone else to help him.  Carter makes the decision to help.  When he’s in the laundromat and looking at Atticus, he just goes, “Okay, I’ll do it.”  It’s deliberately ambivalent at that point, you don’t know what he’s really thinking, but for me, he makes a firm decision, thinking “I gotta do this.  I can’t continue to be completely wild. Fate has dropped this kid into my lap and I’ve got to deal with it. Whether it’s a stray dog or an orphan kid, I’ve got to do it.”

SPOILER ALERT

DP: We’re watching the movie and we’re waiting for the kid to break down and weep.

TG: He does a little bit at the very end.

DP: But that’s the first time he’s really laughing…

TG: It comes out of crying.  He trusted Carter and he thinks Carter left him behind.  When Carter returns he stops crying and laughs.

DP: But what about not crying after his mother’s death?

TG: Well, I talked to several people who lost their parents as young kids, including my girlfriend who lost her mom when she was five, and none of them cried. They cried when there were adults and thought back about it.  At the time, they thought about what they should do but they didn’t really know what the deaths meant. How do you define what forever is to a 12-year-old?  It’s just something that happens to Atticus and then he’s thinking about surviving and then he’s thinking that he wants to be with Carter.  When he thinks Carter leaves him and he believes all his doubts about Carter were true, he cries. Then Carter comes back and makes him laugh.  “Yeah, I am a dick.”

DP: That’s brotherly.

TG: Of course.

DP: Talk about the ending.  Roads are always metaphors in movies.  It’s either open-ended and anything can happen or a dead end is on the other side of the hill.

TG: First of all, the road movie is a traditional American genre. All good endings are really just the beginning of the next part of the story.

DP: I’m waiting for the police in the next part of the story.

TG: The police are part of it.

DP: Carter’s decision could to get them both into a lot of trouble…or not.

TG: There have been plenty of bad cases, where somebody abducts a boy for 30 years.  But I think this is a pretty good circumstance. Carter’s going to have to send the kid to school, lie about a birth certificate and a lot more, and pretend he’s the father. There’s not certain disaster right around the corner, at least in my way of looking at it. I’m certain Rush Limbaugh could watch it and say this is a disaster!  He’d think it’s going to be like that ad they had going around on the Internet that shows if you skip school you’re going to step on a land mine on a beach and blow up. But I see this as a positive, spiritual coming together, like Huck and Jim or Kerouac and Moriarty.

END SPOILER ALERT

DP: In terms of writing, you seem to like two-character scenes.

TG: I don’t know why other than my training was in theater, and that tends to have two-person scenes most of the time.  They’re the easiest form of conflict. Spring Forward had two people in every scene, and there would be the intrusion of a third character. That’s just instinct I guess on my part. My next movie will be about a group of women, so there will be lots of scenes with multiple characters.

DP: Talk about Silas Yelich. When you go into acting like he did, you expect a lot of talking, but Atticus is a quiet kid.

TG: Silas is my neighbor. For a year before we made the movie, he came to my house every two weeks for a couple of hours, and we would do acting exercises and improv.  I taught him how to cheat for the camera, what makes a scene work, what conflict is, what an objective is, all of that. So by the end of the year, he became a very instructive, creative actor.  He knew his lines, but he was also aware that if somebody changed a line you didn’t have to stop but could work around it.  He was 11 or 12 when he did the movie, now he’s 13 or 14. He has grown a foot and is very handsome and athletic, and is an Abercrombie and Fitch model. He doesn’t look at all like the kid in the movie, but I really wanted to capture that awkward moment between childhood and adolescence, where you’re neither/nor, and it’s a very formative time for young people. I wanted to capture two weeks of that in somebody’s life, and I found this boy and his family was willing to let me do that.

DP: Lili Taylor accepted the role halfway into your first sentence describing the character of Nicole. She did it out of friendship, but why did you know she was right for the part? Is she just right for anything?

TG: Right now, Lili and Nicole are inseparable to me.  Lili did so much to create that character.  Spring Forward was not one second of improv, everything was written down, every shot, every move. This movie has a much more organic feel to me. I was telling Lili about the story, and she says, “Okay, that’s me.” I’m thinking, “Okay. Why not have Nicole be Lili?”

DP: And what did she bring?

TG: Well, she brought an incredible understanding of parenting. She is a parent. And Lili lives up there in that part of the world, and she’s very self-reliant, really into nature, really into birds.

DP: Did Silas and Lili connect?

TG: Yeah, like I said, I worked with him for a year so he knew who Lili was. I don’t think he ever saw one of her movies, but Lili came up to my house and they just hung out for an afternoon, got ice cream. Lili then went to his house with him and I stayed home. He lives on a small farm, so he introduced her to his sheep, ducks, rooster, chickens, and his cat.  And that was Lili’s way in with him. It wasn’t let’s discuss the movie, at all.  He knew what she was doing and she obviously knew what she was doing, so they just kind of spent the afternoon as she did it.

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A Quick Chat with Lili Taylor

Danny Peary: Atticus is showing signs that he’s about to enter his rebellious years, just as Nicole dies.  Do you think she was good mother and that she and her son would have an easy time together if she didn’t die?

Lili Taylor (pictured, left): It’s easy to judge a parent and be critical.  I think she’s a “good enough” mother to Atticus.  Kids change, rebellious or not, but at the end of the day I think they would get past the rough times.  They would manage.

DP: If they had money enough for electricity, do you think she’d have a “Pioneer Night” in which they make due without lights?

LT: I think she’d want to do it anyway.  I think it’s important to her because it’s a way to teach him her values.  She feels grateful for what they do have and wants him to feel the same.

DP: When Nicole is working as a cleaning lady in an office building, she looks at herself in the mirror.  Is she thinking she might die and is worrying about what would happen to Atticus?

LT: I’m not sure she’s thinking she’ll die, but maybe she is.  She is thinking that she doesn’t feel well and that makes her worry about her son. She’s not going to get better because she rejects modern medicine.  If she trusted modern medicine I think she’d still be around. It could have saved her.

DP: The last time we see her she’s dead and is now an illusion of Atticus’s.  She smiles and disappears just as Carter appears and takes his place in her son’s life.  Did she smile because she knew Atticus would be in good hands or because she was proud of him for being able to survive in the woods after all she has taught him?

LT: I think she smiles because she’s proud of him.   I don’t think she’s sure about Carter. She has such strong feelings for her son and wants him to get along with Carter.  Of course, remember that she is Atticus’s illusion and he is modifying what she says and her expressions so that he can believe he gets her approval to go off with Carter.

DP: You are on a hot streak with the smash hit The Conjuring and a sequel in the works, the TV show Almost Human, a new play, and Blood Ties soon to be released.  How does The Cold Lands fit into all that you’re doing?

LT: I think it’s a beautiful, brave movie.  I’m glad Tony wanted me to do it because I love working with those filmmakers who have strong visions.

 

“Winter’s Tale” Heats Up the Winter

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By Danny Peary

I’m disappointed that “Winter’s Tale,” writer-director Akiva Goldsman’s adaptation of Mark Helprin’s epic romantic fantasy has been getting mediocre reviews, especially ones that say the film has no heart.  It’s not for everyone but I recommend that you catch it before it vacates the UA East Hampton 6 Cinema because Goldsman’s “love letter to his late wife” is as heartfelt a movie as there has been in some time.  Not only is Goldsman’s tale of a burglar (Colin Farrell as Peter Lake) and dying young woman (Downton Abby alum Jessica Brown Findlay as  Beverly) who fall in love at first sight in an alternate-universe New York City of 1915 about love, but also it defines it.  It a love capable of miracles, including breaking the boundaries of time—it’s the type of love Goldsman truly believes exists.  The second part of the film, in a modern but still a mythic New York, is a bit conventional, but the first part may cast a spell over you.  Goldsman doesn’t explain this world, and noone who lives there questions it’s fairytale nature—including a flying white horse with wings and a villain (Russell Crowe, who starred in the Goldsman-scripted A Beautiful Mind) whose face becomes monstrous when he does his brutal deeds—but it’s lovely to look at and is certainly a magical place where miracles can happen and true love can flourish and defeat evil.  For the Australian magazine FilmInk I recently attended a junket for the film and got to have the following exchanges with Goldsman and four members of his terrific cast: Farrell and Findlay together, Jennifer Connolly (whose single mother Virginia is part of the modern story) and a long time favorite of mine, Eva Marie Saint (who plays Beverly’s sister Willa in the modern sequence).

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Akiva Goldsman (pictured, left)

Danny Peary: You’ve been writing scripts for many years. How was it directing for the first time?

Akiva Goldsman: Doing the directing was exactly what I imagined, but the rest of it was so much more challenging that I literally have been calling all my director friends [whom I wrote scripts for] and going, “I love you, I’m sorry.” It was really cool directing but significantly more challenging.  Because directing for me, anyway, is a collision of what you imagine in the real world–as a writer you sit there and say confidently “It will be like this!”–and the truth of what it can be, and you have to wrestle with it every day.  I think it’s all a happy accident.   Not to be glib, but I think it’s all mostly attempting to accommodate limitations. I never understood before that that’s what directing is. It’s not your imagination, which writing is. So how do you marry those two things?  I think it’s actually super fun, and when you direct what you’ve written it’s a different process than when you direct what someone else wrote..  I would not know how to direct something that I didn’t write. Somebody once said that directing is actually the “greatest hits” of all your mistakes. Finally, when you edit, what you have is all that you have. It’s unlike when you’re writing and you have everything available to you and can change any scene the next day to what you really want to say.  That’s why I’ve always said that short of facing an impossible deadline, we writers should never hand in anything that’s bad because we have endless opportunities to make it better. If we’re handing in something bad, we are making the mistake of thinking it’s wonderful when it’s not—or we’re just being lazy. Because when you turn it in there’s no going back; with directing more than any job, there’s no going back.

DP: In the film’s production notes, you talk about taking many years to adapt Mark Helprin’s long novel.  You say, “While I was in the process of trying to crack the book, I had an unexpected loss.” I’m sure your ability to “crack” the secret to adapting it properly wasn’t only about shortening the story but figuring out what the film should be.

AG: That’s right…

DP: I don’t want to ask you what your personal loss was, but did that help you approach the subject?

AG: …My wife died….She died very suddenly at a time I was trying to figure out how to adapt the book.  I’d loved the book since the 1980s, I thought it was an amazing book. And then Rebecca died, and I was sort of in the “I’m-not-doing-anything-ever-again” mode.  But I needed something that seemed to promise what I needed to believe, which was there was reasonableness behind this senseless loss.  So I then knew how to finish it. I had to do this.  Winter’s Tale is a weird object because it’s an accumulation of favors. Everybody who did it did it as a favor to me, they’re almost all people I knew. The movie cost just north of 40 million dollars, but Warner Bros. budgeted it at 80 million and that was the conservative estimate. I just literally called in every favor I had, twenty years’ worth, so now I have no favors left. It’s a Hail Mary to faith. It’s the hope that stuff adds up in the end.

DP: Also in the production notes you state, “One of the major themes of the story is that essentially we all have a destiny, we all have a miracle inside of us, and it’s for one person alone.” Are you saying that carrying out a “miracle inside us” is our destiny?

AG: That’s the idea.

DP: So doing a miracle and our destiny are the same thing. Why is that an important theme for you?

AG: I just like the idea–and I think it’s a theme in Helprin’s book–that we sort of go through life saving or being saved, on a carousel of meaning.  How do you find meaning in life?  Having access to finding meaning is to me very interesting.

DP: This film means a lot for you. Do you think you’ll see your career as before and after you made it?

AG: It’s a before-and-after for my life; I have no idea about my career. You know what I mean?  I didn’t write it for any of the same reasons that I wrote my other scripts, other than A Beautiful Mind, which was a lot about my childhood and also came out of a place of real emotion. This film was just not designed to make a lot of money, it was just something that I needed to do.

DP: I think Colin Farrell and Jessica Brown Findlay were perfectly cast; you believe their clever, brave, and beautiful characters fall in love at first sight and that their love is true, magical, and eternal.

AG: What happened between them on camera was very truthful to me. They had a real spark. They had to. It had nothing to do with me whatsoever, it was just good luck. Yes, you can coach them a little bit here and there, but they are both lights. Colin is this roguish character, but you can tell what’s underneath—it’s like opening venetian blinds and having the light come in. He’s unbelievable. She’s unbelievable, too, like a spotlight. I read a lot of young women for Jessie’s role, but she was amazing. Colin and Jessica together was a vision of wonder. It’s very evocative when you see people connect to each other that way.

DP: I’m guessing they both understood your definition of love.

AG: I hope we all have an idea of love, the idea of first love, anyway. Colin had to understand a deeper idea of love as Peter goes through the movie, from the first act to the third act.  In regard to Jessica playing Beverly–I always say that the best characters are those in the third act.  She never actually pays the piper and there’s something quite beautiful and pure about that.

SPOILER ALERT

DP: Why do you think Peter has to fall in love with Beverly in the past in order to save someone in the present?

AG: I think that for me is still something to figure out.  Love is more complicated than we imagine it to be, and love is more complicated than first love. There is a line –and I can’t remember where I first heard it—that I used to say very quickly: “Happy endings destroy the happiness you had.” I’ve decided that’s not true. We just need to redefine what a happy ending is. When I wrote this movie, people kept saying, “Can’t you not film the part of the movie after Beverly dies? Just make a movie about Peter and Beverly and not have her die.  Now, that’s a love story.” Yeah, but it’s not a grown-up love story. For me, that’s not the truth of love. I don’t know what the truth of love is yet, but I know it’s more complicated than that, and that’s what I’m trying to figure out.

END SPOILER ALERT

DP: Twice Peter stands next to a tombstone of Arnold and Betty Angel.  Did that have any special meaning?

AG: No.

DP: Really?  Well, another thing I wondered about is Willa’s age in the modern scenes. How old is Willa?

AG: I think she’s probably north of a hundred if you do the math.

DP: Was it intentional that you made her impossibly old?

AG: Yeah. My response is, how does Peter’s horse fly?

DP: How did you get Eva Marie Saint to be in your fantasy movie?  Was she a friend doing you a favor?

AG: She is not someone I knew or had any history with, but I admired her. So I sent her the screenplay, and amazingly, she said, “Let’s have lunch.” We talked for a while, then she just reached out and took my hand and said, “This will be fun.”

Colin Farrell & Jessica Brown Findlay (pictured, below right)

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Danny Peary: There are many movies about love, but this film actually defines love. How do you see love through your characters, which is how Akiva Goldsman obviously sees it?

Colin Farrell: Love should really be defined through each person’s personal experience and personal expression resulting from that. This love story was Mark Helprin’s first, then it became Akiva’s interpretation of a particular aspect of Helprin’s novel. Akiva  put the love of his heart and the love of his experience and the love of his pain into this script at a time in his life when he was going through a lot.  Working on his script was a great source of healing for him. So with that in mind, I was just kind of like a bottom-feeder, feeding off of his experience and his definition of love as something that is ethereal and transcends the physical, quotidian world, and somehow transcends the linear aspect of time in this world. But I think trying to find love in one particular way or a few particular ways, is impossible. Based on his experience, Akiva brought to life Peter and Beverly–and how they meet and what they mean to each other—and they represent one of many possible definitions of love.

Jessica Brown Findlay: I think these two people meeting in the way they do and at the moment they do, shows, I suppose, that they’re experiencing a certain kind of love.  Because before then, they each had not necessarily a lack of hope but more of an acceptance that true love would never happen in their lives. The kind of love that we see happen to them is incredibly beautiful and exciting because they are two people who thought that wasn’t going to be part of their lives. If you see the film, you know the love is there, it is a very specific kind of love.

DP: A fairytale love or a real love?

JFB: I suppose if you take into account the qualities of the film, both of those elements are together.  There are the realities of love for mortals—things happen and change, nothing will stay the same forever.  So there’s a logic to that and a science.  But a fairytale love can exist if you believe in something that defies logic.  It’s believing in something else–what if it could be magical?  I think the love of Peter and Beverly combines both the real love mortals feel and the fairytale love Akiva believes in and we’d all like to believe in.

DP: A theme in Titanic is that if two people are in love, they can live a lifetime in just a few hours.  Does that apply to Peter and Beverly in Winter’s Tale?

CF: Yeah, very much so.  But if you live each day as if it’s your last, there’s a bit of a wormhole there.  It’s a hectic pace to live at so you may not live very long.

JBF: I suppose once Beverly meets Peter Lake, she starts living for the first time. Before she met him she was merely existing.  You’re supposedly alive if you are breathing in and out.  That’s how life is defined. But is that really living?  Once she meets him, she’s a bit like a butterfly in that she doesn’t have long to live but she’s really out there living properly.  What a gift that is for Peter to give her–it’s a beautiful part of the story, I think.

SPOILER ALERT

DP: Jessica, when you first read the script, and came to the part fairly early on when Beverly dies, did you start flipping through the rest of the script to see if she reappears?

JBF (laughing): I thought what? Well, obviously I read the whole script because I thought it important for me to know the whole story–if anyone asked me about it I wanted to have something to say!  I suppose that even though Beverly is no longer on the page and is not in any later scenes physically, she is somehow still there.  She is relevant to everyone’s lives and still living in a place in history.  Stuff from the past doesn’t really disappear, buildings made by people who are no longer here are still standing.  It always carries on through time. So I think Beverly’s in the whole movie.

END SPOILER ALERT

DP: What appealed to you most about the script for Winter’s Tale?

JBF: It could have been cynical but it wasn’t.  That’s what made it really cool.

CF: It lacked cynicism and was so throw-back and old-fashioned.  It wasn’t hip in any way and there was something so pure about it.  And sentimental.    I’d never done anything like it and I believed completely in my character’s journey.  I just really loved it.  That was why I did it.

Jennifer Connelly (pictured below, left)

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Danny Peary: Did you make Winter’s Tale because of your friendship with Akiva Goldsman?

Jennifer Connolly: I’ve been friends with Akiva since we did A Beautiful Mind together thirteen or fourteen years ago. I’ve been hearing about this project for many years, how he was adapting Mark Helprin’s book and developing it.  It was always very important to him, so the first thing I thought of when he asked me to be in it was not about how I could play my part but how happy I was that Akiva was getting his film made, that it was finally coming together for him. I guess he always had me in mind because when he asked me to play Virginia, he said he thought of her as this girl with dark hair and green eyes, who was a mom and lived in an apartment on the Hudson River.  And I was like, “Uh…that’s me.” So I got the part and finally read the book, and really liked it.

DP: Virginia shows up two-thirds of the way through the movie, in the modern scenes. Is this the latest that a character of yours has ever made her first appearance in a movie?

JC: I don’t know!  Is it?

DP: I think so.   Virginia is actually an odd character to play because the movie is about the everlasting love of Peter and Beverly, so Virginia can’t fall in love with Peter and he can’t fall in love with her.  Since their relationship can’t go anywhere, was that hard to play?

JC: No.  I don’t think having a romance with Peter is really her purpose in the film. When Peter, the protagonist of the film, is lost, she’s a link to his past and to his destiny. I think that’s really her job in the film.

DP: But isn’t it also Virginia’s role in the film to be us?  Isn’t she the only character who, like us, sees impossible things that she has trouble believing?  Isn’t that her role?

Q: I think potentially, as well. Of course she only comes in quite late in the film.

DP: All the characters in the 1915 sequence accept the fantasy world in which they exist, asking for no explanations, but then we come into the present and the characters live in what is essentially the real world we viewers live in.  And fantasy things happen here, too. There aren’t a lot of characters in the movie, so Virginia is only character Akiva has who asks the questions we’d ask.

JC: Right, I think that’s an interesting interpretation.

DP: Do your two new films, Winter’s Tale and Noah, approach miracles differently?

JC: I couldn’t think of two more different films. I don’t even know how to draw a comparison between those films.

DP: I can tell you the big difference.

JC: Tell me.

DP: In Noah, God is the miracle worker, in Winter’s Tale, it’s Peter who is capable of a miracle, so it’s a man-made miracle.

JC: Right!

DP: On the two sets, were you feeling that both directors had a grandiose vision of miracles and man and that you were making something really special?

JC: Well, yes, because of the subjects of the films. Noah, certainly, is a bigger-budgeted movie with a different scope than Winter’s Tale.  It is very much a spectacle, so Darren Aronofsky wanted it to be epic in its scale–which I think he accomplished.  Everyone always wants to make a special movie, right? Everyone’s always putting all their resources into every film.

DP: But did you sense you were accomplishing something unique in both films?

JC: Honestly, it was hard for me to make that kind of assessment when things were going on. There are so many moving parts, especially in movies like this, that are complicated and have many different sides to them. Frankly, while making Winter’s Tale for the majority of the film, I wasn’t often witness to what they were filming, so it was a little hard to gauge what the result would be.

Eva Marie Saint (pictured, below right)

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Danny Peary: I’ve been a huge fan of yours since the fifties, when you came to movies from theater…

Eva Marie Saint: …and from live television, which was like theater.

DP: Back then, fantasy films were B movies and for kids.  So did you ever think you would appear in a fantasy film? Actually two fantasy films: Superman Returns in 2006 and now Winter’s Tale.

EMS: I actually never thought about it.  I played Superman’s mama. My best dream is I’m flying–don’t analyze it, I know what it means! So when I met the director, Bryan Singer, I said, “Superman is my son and he flies, so why can’t he teach me to fly and then we can have some scenes where we’re both flying?”  That was my dream.  When I met Akiva, I’d read parts of the book Winter’s Tale, which was written 30 years ago. It’s an 800-page book, and I remember skimming through it.  Although this is Akiva’s first directorial job, I knew he is a wonderful writer and I just had faith that he could do a good job directing it.  I guess he had faith that I could do it, too, because after that meeting, we decided to do it together.

DP: Did you ever ask Akiva why Willa is way over 100 years old? And still working! He says he knew that was impossible but he wanted it that way….

EMS (laughing): No, but playing her just made me feel young at 93!  I thought it was a miracle, but you do read about people living to 100 now, and still working.

DP: You briefly met Mckayla Twiggs, who plays the young Willa.  When aiming for consistency in the character, as a child and as an adult, was your reaching out with your hands to embrace Peter the major thing you learned the young Willa did in 1915?

EMS: Yeah, that revealed that my character had been the little Willa. Sometimes you really have to think through the movie because it’s not that obvious at times.

DP: The little Willa falls in love with Peter very quickly, which only a little kid can do.

EMS: She has a crush on him and loves him for loving her sister.  She still does in the present, when I play her. Willa was never jealous of Beverly because she was too young.

DP: What do you think this movie is really about?

EMS: It’s a love story and it’s kind of a mystery because not all the answers are that obvious. When I first saw it, I felt both sad and happy when it ended. I was sort of inspired by it and sad because of what happens to the two, harmless people played by Colin and Jessica.

DP: I think this movie is different from anything you’ve done. Do you feel the same?

EMS: The movie is not that easy at times, it really isn’t, because it takes such a turn.  I’d get lost a little bit, but then I’d catch up and understand it. It’s not that you have to bring something to this movie, you can just sit back and watch it and it’s a good experience, I think.  It is different, but I think it will find its audience because people are basically romantic, no matter how old or young they are.  I think they will find the love to be inspiring, and the fact that it takes place in New York City over 100 years is really fascinating. You have to really listen to what’s happening. I think it’s a great Valentine’s Day movie for all ages. I can’t see it being just for the young or just for the old. My husband and I saw it recently and we both were kind of teary-eyed.  I think it’s a wonderful, interesting film. Magical, strange, and beautiful.

DP: In Winter’s Tale kissing is tremendously important, because Beverly has never been kissed on the mouth before she meets Peter.  Even in their sex scene, kissing is emphasized.  I was reminded of perhaps the greatest kiss in movie history, that between you and Cary Grant as the camera spins around you in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.

EMS: I have to tell you about that scene. Hitchcock choreographed it, we were on a train.  The space was so small and I was just thinking, “I hope I don’t step on Cary’s feet, and I hope he doesn’t step on my feet.”  That’s not what I should have been thinking. I’m from the Actors Studio, so I should have known that. But that’s all I’m thinking about.

DP: But it shouldn’t have been a worry because neither of you move; it’s just the camera’s moving around you two, right?

EMS: No, we moved a little bit, too.

DP: Wow, that’s a big secret.

EMS: The biggest secret is that the first time we shot the scene I was thinking about my feet the whole time.  Then the second time, I thought about Cary Grant.  He was adorable and I really kissed him.  The photographer taking stills for the studio was on a little ladder in the tight space with us. And as he was taking his photos of our lengthy kiss, he got so excited that he fell off the ladder! So we had to do it again, which was okay! Those crazy things happen.

DP: In terms of romance, Winter’s Tale is very romantic.

EMS: It’s very romantic.

DP: With the power of a kiss onscreen….

EMS: It’s incredible seeing Colin and Jessica in profile on the bed.  It is just so beautiful.  It is true love, and I think everybody has to react to that in the movie. That alone.

Zoe and Jenée on “The Pretty One”

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By Danny Peary

The Pretty One opens theatrically this Friday, and it’s always worth noting when a new Zoe Kazan film is released.  I’d say no actress gives more feeling when playing underdogs than the immensely talented Indie star, which is why we always fall in love with her characters.  This was true two years ago when she played the lead in The Exploding Girl, a jilted young woman with epilepsy.  She deservedly won the Best Actress award at the Tribeca Film Festival.  Now Kazan (who also wrote and starred in Ruby Sparks) brings tremendous sensitivity (and a lot of humor) to two characters with identity issues in Jenée LaMarque’s debut feature, a light comedy with a touch of sadness.  The two young women are identical twins: Laurel, a wallflower who remains home to look after their widower father (John Carroll Lynch), and the dynamic Audrey, who is a successful realtor and has men chasing after her.  When Audrey is killed in a car accident, Laurel assumes her identity as her way to cope with her loss and also experience being “the pretty one” finally.  She doesn’t even tell her grieving father that she is the one who is alive. Laurel moves into Audrey’s apartment, takes her job, and deals with all of Audrey’s acquaintances–including Basel (a bearded Jake Johnson from TV’s New Girl), the quirky neighbor Audrey detested but Laurel is attracted to; and her boss’s husband Charles (Ron Livingston), with whom Audrey broke off an affair. She then has to face the dire consequences for her deception. The following is a roundtable I took part in with the personable Kazan and LaMarque (who gave birth in August).  I note my questions.

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Danny Peary: Jenée, I didn’t see your short, Spoonful, which is also about sisters and a death in the family.  So did this evolve from that?

Jenée LaMarque (pictured, left): It does share the sister aspect, and it’s sort of darkly comedic in a similar way. It didn’t come from it but it has a similar tone.

DP: Can you tell us a little about the writing process for this?

JL: This was actually the first screenplay that I ever wrote. I wrote the first draft when I was pregnant with my daughter who’s now five, so it’s been quite a journey. During the process, I went to AFI and studied screenwriting.  I wrote most of the draft of the script when I was in film school, and then continued revising and writing afterwards. So it was a long process. One of the wonderful boons for the movie was Zoe, who is not only a great actress and very funny but also an incredibly talented screenwriter.  She contributed a lot as a writer and storyteller.

Q: Zoe, talk about your part in the collaboration.

ZK: I asked Jenée for something which was above and beyond.  I asked her to sit down and talk through the entire script with me. We had the luxury of having the time to do that. I came out to L.A. multiple times and we would sit down and I would say, “Where did this line come from? ” Or: “How funny is this supposed to be?” Or: “Is this moment supposed to be sad?”  And we really talked through every moment of the script before we ever shot it, so I had a good idea of what Jenée wanted. And also, during that process, if I got to something that I felt was not going to sound right coming out of my mouth, I would ask to talk about it.  Jenée was great about making revisions and also sticking by her guns when she thought we could make something work or if I didn’t understand what her intention was.  We did a good job of balancing that.

JL: I think Zoe and Jake Johnson also had great chemistry and could improvise off one another. There are some scenes where the way they communicate is very playful.

ZK: She really encouraged us to do that.

JL: Yes, I really wanted them to follow the structure of the script, but along the way to improvise and make it their own. The moments that I find the most fun are those that I didn’t plan to happen.  The improvised moments are funny and real.

ZK: Having that freedom was really cool, because often first-time writers are really cautious about every word in their scripts.  I know that I was cautious with my first script for Ruby Sparks.  We always tried to do justice to the script, so it was never about trying to make the script better.  It was just about letting organic things happen.

Q: Zoe, because you were the screenwriter on Ruby Sparks, were you particularly attached to that movie?

ZK: Yeah, that was a very special experience because that was the first time I had written a script and I’d never been involved in something from start to finish like that before, and I was making it with my boyfriend [Paul Dano] and [the directors] Jonathan [Dayton] and Valerie [Faris], who’ve known him since he was a teenager.  It really felt like a labor of love in a different way.  But every time I do a movie, I think it has to be worth investing in completely and I need to love it like it’s coming out of me. I didn’t start writing because I felt I always needed to be in charge but because I felt like I had stories to tell.  I do that through acting, too.  When I read Jenee’s script, there were parts of me that I felt like I could address through her words better than I had been able to express them through anybody else’s words before.  I think Jenée and I both connected on a personal level to the loss experienced in the film.   I felt like that was a part of me that I wanted to be able to express.  That was a really cool thing.  For me it was about connecting to Jenée’s world.  She had a very specific vision. She knew what she wanted to do with the camera; she knew what she wanted in terms of tone. That’s something that in a first-time director is really rare.

DP: And did you connect to Audrey or Laurel?

ZK: I connected to the idea that these twins are sort of two sides of one coin.  There’s a kind of duality to both characters that was intriguing to me. Audrey is very forward and very confident but is also feels some self-hatred. Laurel is buried inside of herself but has creativity and joy underneath that.  I hadn’t been asked to do a lot of really sexy stuff on film before, and that’s a big part of my life–I’ve always been a really sexual person.  I went through a period of time when I was “sleeping around,” and I honor that part of myself, rather than calling it immoral.  And I was able to show the part of me that still feels like a gawky 13-year-old. There’s a part of me that’s never going to feel pretty, that’s never going to feel like a grown-up, and I liked being able to give life to those parts and say they’re beautiful too and  worth looking at.  I was just thrilled that Jenée wanted these things, and I was really trying to connect to that.

Q: Playing the twin sisters, did you think of other actresses who’ve done the same?

ZK: I grew up on Hayley Mills’ The Parent Trap because that was one of my mom’s favorites from being kid.  I loved that. And, well, Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap. She’s so good in that movie it’s crazy!  After doing what we did in our film, I can’t believe an 11-year-old could do what she did.  I watched a lot of movies for inspiration, including a couple of Jane Campion films.   Jenée turned me on to some videos this woman made of identical twins who are posed in the same clothes and the same place. Jenée gave me a reading on twins, explaining what it’s like to lose an identical twin–that was probably more helpful than those movies.

Q: Since you play both twins, did you find it hard to perform opposite yourself, particularly with getting the timing right?

ZK: It was really hard, we had to work on that together.

JL: It’s difficult.  It took three times as long to shoot the scenes where she was playing both characters. She acted off of a body double, and it was about trying to create a connection between the two of them. There’s a lot of math and calculating.  It’s challenging because you create a performance for one twin and then you have to do a second performance.

ZK: And if my body double did something accidentally with her hands that was in the shot, I’d have to match that in my performance. That was hard because it limited me, and I probably became a little Napoleon on set. Do not do that with your hands! Because you’re trained as an actor to be really generous with your scene partner and vibe off of what they’re doing, but I’d watch her with half my brain going, is that going to be in the shot? That’s kind of a challenge. I got so much better at the technical aspects of building scenes after doing that.

DP: In The Exploding Girl and this film, you play young women who underestimate themselves. Did that appeal to you on a personal level and did you identify with them?

ZK: Yeah. I have to put on makeup for a living, it’s part of what I have to do. I grew up essentially an enormous book nerd and I never felt I was the pretty one. I always felt like an odd duck. I think there are parts of yourself that you put away to become a grown-up. You protect yourself. But it’s really wonderful in your acting to be able to bring those things out. I’m not a very shy person but there’s a shy part of me and being able to let that part be is a relief. For instance, on The Exploding Girl, I didn’t wear makeup throughout that whole movie, I did my own hair and those clothes were mine. There’s a release in feeling that you’re not the girl and don’t have an obligation to be pretty.  I really felt that on this one. We all go home and throw on sweatpants and take off our makeup and put up our hair up and we look like opossums. There’s a part of all of us that doesn’t feel good about ourselves and this movie deals with that. Audrey went out and convinced the world that she was beautiful and sexy and an adult.  But there’s a conundrum because all those insecurities also exist in her–in us–so how do we reconcile that?

JL: There’s the side of us that feels insecure and scared and doesn’t want to take chances and believes we don’t deserve anything.  But there’s also the side of us that’s brave and goes out there and takes risks and maybe puts on makeup. There’s value to both sides.   I’m not saying that if you’re brave all your problems are going to be solved.  That’s not what this movie is saying.  I think women deal with that sort of duality and ask, Where do I fit on the spectrum of being a woman?; and Am I going to choose to wear makeup or am I going to not choose to wear makeup? I hope that people honor both sides.

Q: Zoe, what’s next for you?

ZK: I’m just writing a bunch of screenplays right now.  And, oh yeah, I wrote a play.

Q: What’s it about?

ZK: An affair.

Q: What about you, Jenée?

JL: I’m also working on a couple of screenplays.  I really focused on this movie for the last five years. It’s such an honor to finally be putting it out in the world.

ZK: I’m going to brag about Jenée for a second. After this film came out of Sundance, her script got put on the Black List and was a big deal.  I think, Jenée, you’ve had a lot of pressure on you, and now it’s really cool that you’re going to be creative again.

JL: Thank you, Zoe, I’m really excited about that.

 

 

Rola Nashef on Her Untraditional “Detroit Unleaded”

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By Danny Peary

Detroit Unleaded fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. But beginning this Friday, you can see Lebanese-American Rola Nashef’s perceptive, clever, offbeat romantic comedy at the Cinema Village in New York.  Nashef’s lovingly-made debut feature, which she cowrote, directed, and produced, actually premiered theatrically on the 13th in Detroit, where she still lives because it “is still the cheapest place to make a movie.”  Its world premiere was at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the inaugural Grolsch Film Works Discovery Award.  Since then it has been receiving raves at festivals world wide, appreciated for eschewing objectionable media-made Arab stereotypes.  Sami (E.J. Assi heads a fine cast) is a handsome, young Lebanese-American whose dreams of leaving Dearborn and attending college in California are shattered when his gentlemanly father Ibrahim (Akram El-Ahmar) is killed by someone robbing his combination gas station and convenience store.  Sami must stay put and take over his father’s business with his cousin Mike (Mike Bateyeh, who you may know from “Breaking Bad”) and continue to live with his mother Mariam (Mary Assel), who spends each day mourning for her husband years after his death.  Unlike the cheery, entrepreneurial Mike, Sami despises his job and never befriends any of the diverse customers on the other side of the bulletproof glass he installed and sits behind all day.  But life becomes brighter when he is smitten with a brash young phone-card saleswoman, Najlah (Nada Shouhayib).  Naj is attracted to him, too, and though she knows her controlling brother would object, she repeatedly visits Sami and even sits with him in his glass cage.  Their romance is chaste, but there are jolts of electricity.  Does this charming duo have a future together?  Last week I interviewed the personable and spirited Rola Nashef about their romance and her unique film.

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Danny Peary: Talk about your background, beginning when you were five years old and your family fled south Lebanon and emigrated to Michigan.

Rola Nashef (left): Yeah, all my memories of the first five years of my life are of a civil war. Then I came here and I sort of became the navigator of my family. Because my parents didn’t grow up in the school system here they struggled with American culture, and I had to teach it to them.  My dad worked at GE, Oldsmobile, on the line, and my mother stayed home.  They had a completely different life than the one they had overseas. They had to start from scratch, and a lot of times they didn’t have all the answers, so I had to go out and get those answers.  That allowed me to carve my own path and I see now that was what made me work harder at figuring out things, like school and making new friends.

DP: How did your childhood affect your politics?

RN: I think that when you come from that environment, you see things differently.  When people around me spoke in favor of going to war, I always felt like I had to step in and say, “Have you ever been in a war?  Actually, this is what war is like. It destroys culture and it destroys people. And if you had lived through it, you might not support it now.”

DP: Coming from that background, it’s not surprising that you became a political activist, first in Lansing and then Detroit, where there is a larger Arab community.

RN: Right, I went to Michigan State in East Lansing and I was the president of the Arab Student Organization.  We were definitely activists and were always trying to have our voices heard. We had political battles for years there.  Then I moved to Detroit and worked with the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services.  I worked in the cultural arts department, and met artists and my first filmmaker, and my activism developed into creative expression.

DP: Did meeting those creative people inspire you to become a filmmaker?

RN: I saw an ad in the paper for a new film school that opened. [The Motion Picture Institute of Michigan in Troy.]  The first day I was there I knew I had to make movies. I thought that if I could do it in an entertaining way, making films was how I wanted to translate my culture.  I felt that if I could get people to sit down and watch a film and identify with an Arab character for an hour and a half, they were going to find it a lot harder discriminating against or stereotyping that character. People view other people through the lens of media. That’s just how the world works.

DP: Originally, Detroit Unleaded was a twenty-minute short you made in 2007. [Her other short was the romantic comedy 8:30, made in 2001.]  Was there a beginning, middle, and end, or was it left open-ended?

RN: There was actually a beginning, middle, and end.  It was about this young guy who hooks up the night shift at his family’s gas station in order to see his girlfriend. It takes place in one night, so it’s a different set-up than the feature. His mom is in the short, too, but his dad had already passed away.  [Mary Assel played Mariam in both the short and the feature.]

DP: In another interview, you talked about how working in a combination gas station and convenience store is like a rite of passage for Arab men in Detroit.  They spend their days in isolation behind protective glass, as if they are in cages. We know about the glass ceiling for marginalized workers, but here I’m thinking about the glass wall.

RN: In Detroit, I kept seeing these repeat images of Arab guys behind a cage. And of course they were all gorgeous, and I was thinking, “What is this cage situation?”  It was almost a rite of passage to work there, because all of my guy friends either owned or worked in gas stations growing up–and they all had these crazy, outrageous stories. That was really a main inspiration for the short.  It just kept repeating in my head: Is this really what they immigrated here for?” Is this really the American Dream, to sit in a bulletproof cage?  I thought it was such a blatant metaphor.  There are a lot of “cages” everywhere. There are a lot of places that trap people and keep them from doing what they want in their lives. It is a metaphor for how we constantly are put in boxes or create boxes for ourselves.  It’s about breaking out of that box. You don’t have to shatter the box, you can just walk out.

DP: Where did you premiere the short?

RN: At the East Lansing Film Festival in Michigan.  It went to twenty-six festivals around the world.  Also, it was shown at tons at universities and colleges, and many museums and institutions.  So it had a really great run. It had a very diverse audience, and even though it wasn’t accepted by top-tier festivals, it didn’t matter to me because the audience connected to it so I knew there was something there.

DP: When you started sending out your short did you target festivals and institutions in cities with large Arab communities?

RN: The short did really well in non-Arab communities all over. I always felt it was a crossover film and addressed far more than one group of people.  I think the whole vibe of the gas station really played into that.  It’s like a turnstile that allows many different people to come in and out of each other’s lives. Normally they wouldn’t interact with each other, especially in Detroit where it is so racially and economically segregated, but they do in these gas stations/convenience stores. I think that played into how I wanted this film to reach many different groups of people. It was really like that from the beginning, from the short film. People from all walks of life were fans of it. I felt that I really created something and people were into it!

DP: Usually, when somebody makes a short, they’re already thinking, “What if I expand the movie?  How will I change it?  How will I fill in more content to make it worthy of being 90 minutes?”  Were you thinking about expanding it to into a feature while you were making the short?

RN: I wasn’t.  I always felt it could be a feature, but there wasn’t an up-front strategy to expand it.  It was more like, “I have this idea that could be a feature, but I don’t have the experience or resources yet so let me make it as a short.”  So what happened was I made the short and as soon as soon as it premiered, people told me, “We loved the characters and didn’t want it to end.”  I had  been so hyper-focused on making the short really good –I think it was the first time in my life that I was that hyper-focused on something–but as soon as audiences liked it, I said, “This has to be a feature.  Now what do I have to do?”

DP: Get investors?

RN: Yes.  They had to see the short.  They didn’t know what to expect and were surprised.  The reaction of the audience made a big impression on them.

DP: Were the investors from the Arab community in Michigan?

RN: Yes. There were six private investors and they were from my very close circle of family and friends. They had known me my whole life and invested because they believed in the project and felt that I had proven myself as a director on the short. They also liked the story and the characters and felt that could carry a 90-minute movie.

DP: You recast your main characters, Sami and Naj.  Is E.J. Assi Lebanese?

RN: Yes. When we shot the film, he had graduated from Wayne State University with an acting degree just a month before. So this was his first gig. And he did a great job..

DP: He’s a find, I think.  Nada Shouhayib is very pretty, but why did you pick someone who had never acted before to play Naj?

RN: In order to find this cast I knew I had to explore the non-traditional, non-acting community, because there was acting talent there that had not been cultivated. With Nada it was pretty instant. At her audition, when she read the part, I just knew she was the one. I remember her saying a line for the first time and that I gave her some direction.  She took the direction, made the necessary adjustments, and read it again. And all a sudden she looked up and said, “Acting is fun!”  I said, “Yeah, welcome to the rest of your life, you’re going to be a star.”

DP: Besides recasting the leads and having an opening sequence showing Sami’s father until he is murdered in a robbery, did you make big changes when expanding the short into a feature?

RN: Everything in the feature started in the short.  But I expanded and developed the storylines from beginning to end and added characters. It does have a much different setup. The first thing I did was have Sami and Naj actually meet for the first time at the gas station.  In the short, they already know each other but in the feature, it starts and they meet. The short was a huge learning process, obviously, and I made tons of mistakes, like every filmmaker does. The most rewarding part for me as a filmmaker was to have the opportunity to fix what I’d screwed up and have a full ninety minutes to do so.

DP: Obviously, you’re going for the universal in the feature, but if non-Arab Americans appreciate it, will a Lebanese or other Arab Amercan from the Detroit area appreciate it just a little more?

RN: Yeah, I think that especially young Arab Americans will experience it a differently. First, you never see a film with twelve leading roles that are all Arab-American and they’re all positive. That’s never happened.  I think for the first time, Arab Americans can identify with the characters on the big screen and see themselves being portrayed as fun and hip and cool and really hot and sexy.  That was missing from my life when I was a teenager and growing up. I never saw anybody like me or who had the issues that my family and I faced being part of an immigrant community. Also this will be the first time that all these inside jokes, specifically cultural jokes, are on the big screen. Especially in terms of the Arab American dating dynamic.  There’s so much that is unique and young Arab Americans will be able to see how an Arab American love story really play outs, as in their own lives. It comes with its own cultural taboos as well as norms, rules and regulations that you have to follow and also maneuver around in order to date somebody.

DP: In regard to the dating ritual, what I expect everyone to react to most is when Naj won’t let Sami kiss her but at the same time tells him that of course they’re together.  Is that a real thing?

RN: Within Arab culture, there are still a lot of dating restrictions. And there’s still a sense of preservation. I’m not talking about preserving your virginity, I’m talking about preserving yourself.

DP: Well, there are times when Naj is alone with Sami and can do whatever she wants with him, as long as she trusts him not to brag to his friends about what they did.

RN: Exactly, but here’s the thing. She’s alone with him, but after years of being raised in an Arab family, she can never really be alone with a boy.  You know what isn’t allowed and you need to preserve yourself for a serious relationship, preserve yourself for marriage. Marriage is still the number one institution in Arab culture and is more important than anything. We’re a very tribal culture and that’s a good thing because it means we’re very strong and we’re very rooted in family. However, it comes with a lot of restrictions. We’re such a close-knit community and the innocence of women is still preserved. Even if our youth doesn’t necessarily subscribe to it, they’ve been raised to think this way so of course it’s going to enter their consciousness. So Naj is alone with this guy, but it’s almost like her entire family is in that room with her.

DP: I love that song, “Let’s Talk,” that plays on the soundtrack when Naj is being courted by Sami. She sings to talk about love and talk about life.

RN: It’s by Hannah Georgas, who is this wonderful, rising Canadian star.  I actually found that song the night that we finished the shooting script.  The writers went home after we celebrated a little bit and I was just sitting there with Canadian radio on, and that song came on.  I loved it right away.  It felt like it was the voice of Naj.  In the song, she remembers when she was young and sings, “I know that I lied just so I could stay out all hours of the night.” And I’m like, “That’s exactly what happens!”

DP: When Naj gets back in the car to go home, her three girlfriends might ask, “Did you kiss him?”  Would she say no but that she wishes she had?

RN: Maybe.  It’s tricky. There’s a lot of back-and-forth, I want this but I can’t have this.  Naj is an emotional tornado when she walks in, but she’s somebody who contradicts herself because she lives in a culture that’s a little bit contradictory. She wants Sami to respect her, but she also really wants to be with him. A lot of young women who grew up in an Arab immigrant community can identify with that. At the same time, again, it’s the restraints that push her.  So she lies beneath the counter with Sami.

DP: She’s on the top shelf and he’s on the bottom shelf and they don’t touch, but I think that is your “sex scene” in the movie.  They’re separated and can’t see each other, but they’re in the frame together and she’s in an alluring dress, nobody else can see them, and you’re filming them in a seductive manner. A little slow motion?

RN: No, it’s just slow pans.

DP: They’re sleeping together in a sense. Is she aware that they’re doing something sexual?

RN: That’s a really good question, actually. I never thought she is aware. It is more that Naj thinks Sami can’t see her.  But you don’t always need eyes to see or feel what’s happening.

DP: So from your viewpoint, do you agree that this a sex scene?

RN: It’s about holding back. There’s this actual block between you, but you’re so close, and you do have these sexual feelings for one another. Sometimes, by not actually doing the act, it becomes even sexier.  That to me is a huge metaphor for these sort of Arab relationships, where Arab men and women are so close and familial.  Let me say that if I meet an Arab guy, I instantly know how his mom is, and how his dad is.  We have an instant connection because we were raised in a very similar manner, so when we meet each other, it’s like family, almost. We feel that close. If we date each other, we become very close yet we’re not supposed to touch each other. There’s still the need for preservation. We are reserved about actual sex, period.  It’s part of our a conservative culture, so Arab youth looks for ways to please our parents but also live a freer life.

DP: I don’t know if it’s intentional, but I guess we admire Sami for respecting her wishes.

RN: That is something that Arab guys are used to with Arab girls. He knows not to touch her.  She’s pretty much in control of any physicality in the relationship.

DP: Sami does make gestures.

RN: He’s still a guy, so he’s going to try. But if nothing happens between them, he understands why.

DP: Sami tells Naj that she wants to marry him eventually. Does he know this positively and when he says it does she suddenly realize he’s correct?

RN: I think it’s an assumption. A lot of times Arabs gets together and put their relationship in a box: this has to be serious because it’s an Arab guy, this has to be serious because it’s an Arab girl. You don’t just date an Arab girl just to date an Arab girl; you date her because you want to marry her at some point. You see what I mean?  I think these are some of the issues that Arab women in this country are facing, because it’s not always true that we’re just looking to marry an Arab guy; we’re also looking for The One.  So there are often these weird assumptions within the Arab youth dating culture. Such as: “Oh, she’s going to think that if I start dating her I am going to marry her.” For Arab girls, as soon as you’re with an Arab guy, there’s this pressure on you.  Is he into you?   Are you going to meet his parents? Is he going to propose?  Are you going to marry him? There’s just this rush. I am generalizing, but this is from my experience. There’s this pressure all of the sudden because it’s an Arab that you’re dating.  If that pressure was removed, things might unfold in a more down-to-earth, natural way.

DP: In one sequence, you have Naj and three other young Lebanese women riding around in a car, and they’re a fun group. Is that something you identify with?

RN: Oh, yeah. That would totally be me and my friends. You know what I love about that scene?  There’s such a horrible stereotype about Arab women–to me it’s the worst stereotype–that we’re submissive and passive and we’re so oppressed.  These four girls to me represent the way we really are.  They might be more controlled by their parents than other girls and have to sneak out of the house to go to the club, and sneak out of the club if they see their brothers there, but they do it.

DP: I would imagine that at least one of them would change into sexy clothes after she leaves her parents’ house?

RN: Exactly, the whole changing clothes thing.  But does all that really mean they’re so oppressed, or that they’re faced with challenges and obstacles they have to maneuver around?  That’s how I grew up. I never wanted to rebel or reject my family, but I had to find loopholes in order to live a freer life. I swear I’ve been pulling off things from when I was a young teenager. I’ve gotta get out of the house, how am I gonna pull this off? I’d have big, elaborate set-ups to get out of the house. Now I wish I could have been more honest with my parents. I’m sure we’re way more honest with each other now, but growing up, I had to find loopholes.  That’s actually how I learned to be a producer.  To me, filmmaking is all about constantly finding loopholes to get things done and move mountains out of your way. And growing up in an Arab immigrant community was great training for that.

DP: Which of the girls do you most identify with?

RN: I would say all of them. I didn’t base any of them on one particular person, it was always a mix. What inspires me most when writing scenes like that is dialogue. I love dialogue, I love language in general, and I love the way people deliver lines, and improvise–the art of improvisation in real life, not in film. I’m a filmmaker of course but I consider myself an improvisational artist.  I learned that about myself.    Sometimes an entire character will be born just from my hearing something in a coffee shop.  In the scenes with the girls, I can say that my friends and I have said at least one of those lines at some point.

DP: I thought it was funny was how patient the three are sitting outside in the car while Naj visits Sami in the convenience store. He can’t believe they were waiting the whole time, but Naj doesn’t even think about it.  Obviously, this is normal for her and the girls in the car.

RN: They gotta look out for their girl, they gotta look out for each other. [Note: Nashef is working on her next film, Nadia's House, a comedy about four Lebanese girls trying to married.]

DP: Did E.J. and Nada need you to explain much about their characters and their relationship? Or did they just know it?

RN: They knew it. They identified with the characters, that’s why I think it was such a special thing for them. E.J.’s dad owned a convenience store, and he grew up working there. Nada had a very diverse education and experiences in her life that allowed her to identify with Naj, a woman who knows what she wants.

DP: Is there anything that you had to tell any of the actors?

RN: I think that all of our instincts were in line. I think we cast people because they were very much in line with the scenes, with the goals of the film, and my artistic goals. Of course I was there to support them and keep them on track, in terms of: What do we want to accomplish with this scene?  What do we want to accomplish with this character? What do we want to bring through from your own life experience? We talked a lot in rehearsals.  We had two months of rehearsals. People have told me that’s a lot for a low-budget indie, but look at the performances that were produced. You know what I mean? I think people don’t actually spend enough time with actors in rehearsals. I think they take it for granted. It’s not like we rehearsed live. We got together and chatted about our own experiences, and what was it like dating, what was it like going to a gas station, what it was like working for your dad at the liquor store.  I’d say, “E.J., what are some of the things that this scene brings up for you in terms of your own emotional history?” So it was a lot of chatting.  The main thing that we did was develop relationships.  The film is very relationship-oriented.

DP: I think your film is also about how people have a hard time breaking away from their pasts, including cultural traditions. Sami’s mother Mariam is stuck, still mourning the loss of her husband, wearing black and being unsocial. And Sami’s stuck because of her, staying in a job he hates and still living with her. The past is dictating the present. If Sami’s father didn’t die, how would things have been in that family?

RN: Yeah, Sami’s life really took a left turn. He was applying to colleges. He wanted to go out-of-state, he was dreaming about California. If the father had not died, that’s where he would have been. He would have been young and carefree. Instead he was thrown into a cage and has to be a businessman.

DP: Just before Ibrahim died he gave Mariam a car so she could be more independent. He was actually being progressive.

RN: Yeah, absolutely. Sami’s father Ibrahim reminds me of so many Arab men in my community, in that they dream a lot for their kids and want them to have the best of everything.  They’re very sacrificial, and are willing to sit in a gas station and make money so their kids will have a better life than them.  What I love so much about him is that he always encouraged his wife to go out, learn to drive, be more independent. For Mariam, he was her guide in this new world. .

DP: He was able to assimilate easier than she was.  He was friendly with everybody, but she still can’t even visit her neighbors.

RN: Because he was with people all day at the gas station.  She’s simply a more introverted person, but if he were still alive, she would be much more outgoing and be more comfortable making friends. I think a lot of times in Arab culture, our mourning process can be very severe. You’re so riddled with guilt that this person is gone and that you’re left behind that you refuse to be happy. Mariam thinks she can’t be happy because her husband is gone. It’s like a form of self-punishment. It’s sad and very hard to watch, because they do this out of love.  But it’s an act of guilt, which is not a great thing.

DP: Mariam and Sami–and even Naj–don’t have to break away from their pasts necessarily, but be like rubber bands and stretch forward in their lives.

RN: Absolutely. I say sometimes that the theme of the film is, again, how people create their own boxes of who they are and how they interact with each other. Sometimes we can transcend these boxes. If it’s the past that’s holding you down, then you have to break away from it; if it’s actually a physical cage that’s boxing you in, you have to literally step outside the cage.  If it’s taboos and rules we have in our head about dating an Arab guy or girl, then we must step outside them.  For me, it has never been about breaking away from Arabic tradition but about how to incorporate all of these things into our lives. We’re not trying to rebel against Arab tradition and we don’t want to reject our families because there are so many beautiful things about that. It is more like the rubber band thing you are talking about.  It is more like expanding the tradition, making it more fluid.  I believe culture is fluid and identity is fluid. People are always asking, “Do you identify with this or that?” Well, maybe today I do, but tomorrow I might not!

Speaking Up for Gil Hodges

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By Amy Patton

“He was a class act,” said Tom Clavin, a local author and journalist of the late baseball player Gil Hodges, the subject of Clavin’s latest non-fiction effort with co-writer Danny Peary; Gil Hodges: The Brooklyn Bums, The Miracle Mets and the Extraordinary Life of a Baseball Legend.

A class act, perhaps, and no doubt a talented player and manager who died tragically of a heart attack in 1972, just two days shy of his 48th birthday.

“Gil was an incredibly modest and humble guy,” said Clavin.

Hodges was a player, according to most reports, who shied away from fame and publicity and focused on his performance and contributions to his team. But in the minds of baseball fans of the 1940s and 1950s era of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the memory of Hodges’ true accomplishments may be, well, a little muddled.

“One of the interesting things about Gil Hodges is that he is still so undervalued as a great player,” said Peary.

Hodges’ name, no doubt, is not as easily recognizable as players from the famous “Boys of Summer” era, such as Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella and “Pee Wee” Reese who commandeered the diamond on Brooklyn’s fabled Ebbets Field.

Although Hodges shares much in common with those star players, it’s somewhat distressing to the authors that Hodges has not yet been inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame, an omission, they say, as equally tragic as the player’s own death at a relatively young age.

“It’s the baseball equivalent of a miscarriage of justice,” said Clavin.

Peary and Clavin are hoping their new book about Hodges’ life, particularly his little-known Bronze star-decorated service in World War II as a Marine gunner, will bring new light to what they describe as an exemplary sports career and life as a gentleman athlete.

It’s a life, they argue, that deserves induction and Hall of Fame recognition.

“It’s really the reason I wanted to write this book,” said Peary. “Today many people think of Gil Hodges as just a very good ballplayer. It’s a distortion of history that truly bothers me. He should get his due.”

Surprisingly, the man himself may not have put much stock into the accolade were he alive today, according to accounts in the book by his widow Joan Hodges.

“Joan told me when she asked Gil about it, he replied, ‘It’s just not that big a deal to me.’ And it probably wasn’t. He was just such an incredibly modest guy. But I think to his family (Gil is survived by his wife and four children: Gil, Jr., Cynthia, Irene, and Barbara) it would mean a lot.”

There are “certain milestones,” explained Clavin, that automatically transform a player into a Hall-of-Famer.

One, he said, is achieving a .300 lifetime batting average and the other a minimum of 500 career home runs.

“Gil didn’t have either one of those. But he played 16 seasons for the Dodgers and the Mets.”

Hodges, as a player and later as a manager of the New York Mets, was on three World Championship teams.

“He was really consistent in everything he did,” said Clavin.

Like many sports greats, Hodges had his roots in humble beginnings: His father Charlie worked for decades in the coal mines near Petersburg, Indiana. Passionate about sports, Hodges lettered in baseball, football, basketball and track during his high school tenure. His first season as a professional ballplayer came in 1947 when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers as the team’s catcher.

Hodges continued his career with the Dodgers after the franchise relocated to Los Angeles in April of 1958. In 1963, he moved into management with the Washington Senators and in 1969, coaxed the “Miracle Mets,” as they were dubbed in the press, into a world championship as manager, defeating the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles.

Clavin and Peary are not strangers to collaborating on literary sports projects. In 2012, the writing team released “Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero,” which received a warm reception among critics and readers. Clavin also expects the debut of his upcoming book in October of next year, “The Heart of Everything That Is: The Life and Times of Red Cloud, the Most Powerful Warrior Chief of the West” with co-author Bob Drury.

The authors hold hopes that their new book will encourage reader interest that could spur an official nod to Hodges from Baseball’s Hall of Fame (HOF). That ambition nearly came to fruition last year when Hodges was considered for induction yet again by the HOF committee, which is composed of members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. In December of last year the committee voted on the matter “but he came up short,” said Clavin. Another vote regarding Hodges’ inclusion is slated to happen again in late 2013.

“Gil Hodges: The Brooklyn Bums, The Miracle Mets and the Extraordinary Life of a Baseball Legend” will be one of many books showcased by local authors – both Clavin and Peary are longtime Sag Harbor residents – at the celebrated annual Author’s Night at The East Hampton Library, which will be held on Saturday, August 11.