Monday, February 1, 2010
When Danish Zentropa director Mads Brugger decided to take himself and two Korean-Danish comedians to North Korea under the guise of a fake comedy project, he employed what he thought might be the magic word for repressive regimes seeking international image burnishing: “cultural exchange.” The film opens with a shot of Brugger, lying on a hotel bed, calmly reading Kim Jong-Il’s official Instruction Manual for Film Directing. The secret police who watched this footage every night apparently had no objection. What they somehow did not expect or anticipate was that Brugger would one day turn this footage into a feature film, and add narration in English explaining the shot as a ruse to reassure the North Korean secret police.
In some ways, The Red Chapel is a hidden-camera “gotcha” stunt in line with the work of Sascha Baron-Cohen or The Yes Men. But the stakes are much higher. North Korea under Kim Jong-Il has the second-most tightly controlled media in the world (Eritrea is reportedly the worst), and a mind-bending record of the starvation and internment of uncounted millions of its citizens. While the footage that Brugger was able to capture doesn’t show anything the North Korean government doesn’t want the world to see, Brügger adds angry, politicized voice over to give context to the profoundly disturbing public performance being enacted for their benefit. The Secret Police’s inability to understand Danish allows the three comedians to communicate freely on tape while they are guided past the hysterically smiling, clapping schoolchildren and the eerily sterile, advertising-free streets of Stalinist show-city Pyongyang.
What happens is this: Brügger, Simon and Jacob arrive in Pyongyang and are greeted by Mrs. Pak, an effusive and elegant woman who regularly bursts into tears in patriotic pride. Jacob, a self-proclaimed “spastic,” is physically handicapped, sometimes confined to a wheelchair, and speaks with a slur; handicapped people are notably absent from all aspects of North Korean society, supposedly taken from their mothers at birth, institutionalized or killed. The menace of that reality is never spoken of (except in Danish between the filmmakers) — instead, Mrs. Pak and everyone else shower Jacob with frantic, smothering praise. Simultaneously, the government-issued theater professional assigned to supervising their performance decides that it would be better if Jacob’s part in the comedy be minimized; better, in fact, if the audience not even know that he was handicapped at all, and even better still if Simon could end the show by proclaiming his loyalty and love for the Dear Leader. Step by step, the North Koreans strategically co-opt the performance for the Dear Leader’s propaganda needs, as the Danes slowly to lose their minds trying to act normal in this world of fear, lies and excruciating politeness. In some kind of Vaso-Vega meta-theatrical freak out, soon everyone is putting on an elaborate stage play for everyone else.
Filmmaker interviewed Mads Brugger at the Sundance Film Festival, a few days before The Red Chapel won the Grand Jury Prize in documentaries.
[call-in line announces, “You are now being recorded.”]
Mads Brügger: Now I am becoming paranoid.
Filmmaker: You should be.
Brügger: When I spoke with a high-ranking diplomat in Pyongyang, the first thing he asked me was, “So tell me, how does this email work?” I explained it to him, and then his second question was, “How do you read other people’s emails?”
Filmmaker: Does North Korea know about the film?
Brügger: It was on a television program in Denmark, and they know about that one. They were not happy. The [North Korean] ambassador in Stockholm wrote a fax to the management of the Danish Broadcasting Corporation. He wrote that ‘the difference between man and animal is that man has a conscience, and that [Mads Brugger] has no conscience, and therefore must be an animal. I damn him, exclamation mark.” So it means that I’m not going to Pyongyang in the near future.
Filmmaker: So your project began as a television series? Did it change when you turned it into a feature film?
Brügger: Yes, a four-part television series. I realized that most people don’t know very much about North Korea and think it’s like China or Vietnam or something, when in fact it’s the most repressive totalitarian state ever created in the history of mankind. If you don’t know that, then your whole take on the project, what we are doing, will not make much sense. We had to take out a lot of important scenes; for instance we had one amazing scene where Mrs. Pak tries to persuade Simon to stay in the country and play an action hero in the movie industry. She says, “Mr. Simon, you display a very powerful and manly emotion.”
Filmmaker: Can you talk about the level of danger that you felt being there, and the risks involved?
Brügger: [We were filming] before the two American journalists were captured and taken prisoner there. The only other case we knew about was an American reporter named Andrew Morse, who was I think the first American journalist in many, many years to be admitted to North Korea. And then they find out he’s making hidden recordings, or they suspect him of doing so, and they place him under arrest, destroy his computer and take away his footage, and then after two weeks in prison, he’s forced to sign a statement that says he’s an American spy, then he’s allowed to leave the country. But it really shocked me when these two American girls [Laura Ling and Euna Lee] were sentenced to twelve years in a labor camp – two years for illegal entry and ten years for intent to slander the name of North Korea. If that is the yardstick of how they measure things, then we most certainly would have been in the camps for many, many years.
Filmmaker: How did you get the idea in the first place, to go to North Korea?
Brügger: I was looking for a place where the use of role play, and pretending to be someone you’re not, would actually be morally justifiable because you’re basically exploiting something very important about how humans interact. It dawned on me that it had to be a dictatorship, and then I started reading about the last remaining dictatorships in the world, and then I stumbled upon North Korea and became obsessed with it. It defies anything you’ve heard about before. Because I had worked with communists in the Ukraine, I knew that a magic word for them was “cultural exchange.” It makes them all misty-eyed. So I knew that I had to offer them a cultural exchange project, and I knew that I had to offer them comedy, because dictatorships are really bad at handling comedy. All dictators are basically laughable, especially Kim-Jong Il. I knew Simon from Danish Broadcasting — he’s one of the channel’s most gifted comedians. Then I heard about this self-proclaimed “spastic” appearing in the comedy clubs, and I went to see him and it was amazing. Even though half the audience didn’t understand what he was saying, he was still really making an impact; he’s very bright and very funny. It dawned on me that if I would match them together I would make a very bizarre kind of Laurel and Hardy duo. I approached the North Koreans, went to Pyongyang to meet them, and to my amazement, they said yes.
Filmmaker: How did you describe the show to the North Koreans?
Brügger: I told them that it was a creative project that I wanted to film, that I would show how Simon and Jacob would experience North Korea, and how the North Koreans would react to their comedy show. I made it sound really innocent and naïve, and they really liked it. And what also tipped the scales in my favor was my resemblance to Lenin.
Filmmaker: You think so?
Brügger: Yeah, yeah they were mad about it. They called me “Big Lenin” in Korean.
Filmmaker: Something that surprised me a lot is how deeply emotional the North Koreans are, and how effusive they are when communicating, and how that contradicts with what they’re actually doing…
Brügger: Living in the most oppressive authoritarian state in the world really warps, destroys and perverts human sentiment and human emotions. It’s very difficult for them to handle human emotions. Mrs. Pak is still a mystery to me, why she was dealing with Jacob the way she did. At one point I thought she must have been cruel or sadistic; on the other hand she seemed to be genuinely interested in Jacob. It became more and more obvious that Jacob was having an emotional impact on her. We even thought at one point that maybe she had had a handicapped child at one point.
Filmmaker: That was certainly my suspicion.
Brügger: Yes, because I asked a Korean person I know, if the things she was saying like, “I feel Jacob is more than my son,” if that was a normal thing for a Korean thing to say. And she said that it was very extreme, even for Koreans.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about Jacob’s handicap, and how the North Koreans reacted to it, and what it was like for Jacob?
Brügger: What amazed me was how bad they were at dealing with the comedy show, and Jacob’s part in it. Obviously the audiences in some ways were directed [by our minders]; they were briefed before they saw our show. When they’re saying to Jacob that he has to act like a normal person playing a handicapped person, that really shows the contempt they have for handicapped people. Because in a perfect socialist state, there are only perfect socialist bodies making perfect socialist babies, according to their doctrine. A person like Jacob is not supposed to exist. Wherever we went in North Korea, they would think that Jacob was either very, very ill, or very, very drunk. They had never seen a guy like that before.
Filmmaker: I want to ask about the scene where you attend a rally, a huge march with thousands of people chanting in unison to commemorate the day of the “American Invasion.” You, Jacob in his wheelchair and your female minders end up at the front of the march, and Jacob refuses to chant or pump his fist in a very rebellious way. Whereas you do chant and pump your fist, and keep warning Jacob in Danish that what he’s doing is extremely dangerous.
Brügger: The march was a very schizoid, schizophrenic moment for me, because one part of me was very full of admiration and clearly recognizing the grandeur in Jacob’s courage and his will to rebel against this extremely repressive regime, while standing in the heart of that regime. The other part of me wanted to silence him completely, because I was terrified. So it was a very complicated moment, and also I was drunk at that moment.
Filmmaker: You were drunk?
Brügger: The last five days there I was more or less drunk all the time to keep my nerves in balance.
Filmmaker: Did your own behavior surprise you, when you watched the footage?
Brügger: Well, whenever we were filming, we were conscious of the fact that the North Korean secret police were going through all the footage while we were sleeping. So we had to keep that in mind all the time. Also we were trying to do very basic comedia del’arte, you know, with Simon and Jacob being two clowns, and me being the evil white clown. But when I see it today I’m still quite impressed about how calm we all seem to be, when we really should be running, screaming about in terror.
Thursday, January 28, 2010
When I was asked by The Huffington Post to comment on New York movies premiering in Sundance, the first film that popped into my mind was Josh and Bennie Safdie's Daddy Longlegs. Now, as you may know, I'm a big fan of the Safdie brothers, selecting Josh for our 25 New Faces for the film he directed, The Pleasure of Being Robbed in 2008. That picture is a delightfully freewheeling romance of sorts involving a young woman, played with depth and originality by Eleonore Hendricks, who casually steals, not out of maliciousness or for greed but simply because of a worldview that sees the world as hers.
This second film, Daddy Longlegs, directed with his brother Bennie, extends the Safdies' emotional range further. It's the story of Lenny, a projectionist and divorced dad, and it's set during the summertime two weeks he has custody of his two young sons. Lenny's lifestyle is both perpetually frazzled and compulsively bohemian, and his take on parenthood is somewhere between unaffected love and a call to child services. Lenny is based on the Safdies' own dad, and their ability to weave their complicated emotions about him into a work that is alternately shocking, free-spirited and joyful is testament to their extraordinary emotional intelligence as directors. Much credit goes to Frownland director Ronnie Bronstein, who plays Lenny in his acting debut. There's some of Bronstein's naturally searching loquaciousness in Lenny, but there's also the keen intelligence of an actor firmly aware of the implications of his choices.
Daddy Longlegs (previously titled Go Get Some Rosemary when it world premiered at the Cannes Film Festival's Director's Fortnight) screens tonight, January 28, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of Sundance USA. Whereas other films from the festival are headed out to cities around the country, Sundance has appropriately sent the Safdies back to their hometown. Kids and irresponsible dads exist everywhere, but there's a particularly Gotham flavor to the brothers' filmmaking, a capturing of the people and textures of this city that will thrill all of its cineastes. If you miss tonight's screening, you can catch the movie on VOD through Sundance Selects for a limited time before its theatrical launch later this year.
Filmmaker: Let’s start by talking about how you wound up casting Ronnie Bronstein, the director of Frownland, as a character based on your dad.
Josh Safdie: It started with registration at SXSW. I didn’t know he was a filmmaker. I genuinely thought he was a lost silent film actor, like a celebrity from the 1920s. I was totally intimidated by him. The night he won the [Special Jury] award, the programmer who selected both our short, We’re Going to the Zoo, and Frownland, came up to me and said I should meet him. I missed Frownland because I had left my key in the car running overnight. I had this crazy experience — the windshield wipers rubberized my windshield because it was running all night and it was raining. When I was introduced to Ronnie, I said, “Something must be important about you because when I was trying to make your screening I left my keys in my car overnight….” He was weirded out by that introduction, but he and [d.p.] Sean Williams still went to see our short the next day, and they liked it.
Benny: I had been trying to make a short, and that night Josh sent me a photo that had Ronnie in the background. He said, “This guy has got to be in something. Email him about the short you want to make.” So, I sent him this really formal email out of the blue, which to this day, every month, he’ll send back to me. There’s something really weird about seeing yourself so distant from someone you are now really close to.
Filmmaker: What happened next?
Josh: Ronnie was showing Models, the Frederick Wiseman movie, at AMMI, and invited us. I loved the film, and that’s when I asked him, “This is going to seem very weird, and I know my brother contacted you about playing this silent comedy actor, but I think you’d be really great in this story I wrote with my brother. It’s about a dad.”
Benny: [His casting] was a confluence of things. One time he was showing Frownland in Boston and had nowhere to stay. He gets my number, calls me and says, “Can I stay in your place in Boston?” I was like, okay, but we didn’t really know each other, and suddenly we’re staying in the same apartment. We watched Reflections of Evil and then walked all over Boston together. That’s how we got to know each other.
Filmmaker: So how did you merge what you discovered in Ronnie with your vision of your dad?
Josh: I remembered Ronnie’s demeanor based on the speech he gave at SXSW [when he won the award]. He said something like, “This is not a careerist opportunity for me” — there was something goofy to it. Then I saw Frownland a bunch of times, and then we hung out with him. We worked together on [Mary Bronstein’s film] Yeast. We got to see both his ugly side and his slapstick side – he’s a really silly guy. We knew the character we were writing wasn’t Ronnie, and we knew that he didn’t want to play himself, so we came up with this character Lenny, and that’s when the movie took its second form. [Ronnie, Bennie and I] sat down in a diner, three days in a row, eight-hour sessions, and we talked about the movie so much that he knew it. We had written Go Get Some Rosemary as a 44-page story but, in fact, he never read it until after we were done shooting. It was in that diner that the real casting [took place]. We knew exactly what he was capable of and not capable of.
Benny: All just from the looks on his face. If we told him about a scene and it didn’t hit anything with him, we realized that scene wasn’t going to work. We had to tailor this weird version of our father into Ronnie.
Filmmaker: But what was it specifically about Ronnie that prompted you to think of him as a character based on your dad?
Josh: I think it’s the silliness mixed at the same time with the seriousness. We see our dad in that. When I think of our dad, I think of this lonely guy who was delivering jewelry in midtown in the late ‘70s, and I could really see Ronnie [playing that kind of character]. The big difference is that our dad was not an American. He fancied himself as an American, but he became an American in 1982. English is his fourth language.
Benny: He is not as verbose as [Lenny].
Filmmaker: Tell me about the balance between comedy and critique in the film, about constructing the complicated nature of Lenny’s character.
Josh: The movie is a weird meditation on perspectives. It’s very much from the perspective of the kids, but at the same time it’s from the perspective of this man. Ronnie was kind of our soldier in the field — he was our tool to express ourselves as we are as adults. I’m very grateful to him for that. That’s where the movie started to become more complicated, when we realized that he had become a very good, contemporary friend of ours, and we were going to express ourselves through him. That’s where the complicated perspective of the movie comes from — in that initial sit down we realized that his [character] wasn’t just a father figure, it was also us.
Filmmaker: What about the process of directing him on set? What was that like?
Josh: Ronnie in the preproduction process was very cerebral about it, and in the production he became very emotional.
Benny: There were certain times we would sit down with a scene, and he’d come at it one way, in one frame of mind, but [Josh and I] would have sat down the night before, reconciled our differences, and put together a unified vision. And we would know, “Ronnie is really going to pull [the scene] this way, and we have to do something that throws him off it in the opposite direction!”
Josh: It was like chess. Ronnie loved that aspect of it.
Benny: And even while we were filming, Ronnie would know that I’d be more open to certain things than Josh —
Josh: So he’d go to him for those things!
Benny: It was almost like a war, or a battle, but we always knew it wasn’t an ego thing. It was always about ideas.
Josh: That’s why [Ronnie’s] was the biggest casting decision. A really good actor will question the ideas of a scene and the validity of its emotions.
Filmmaker: Did the filmmaking process change for you on this second film?
Josh: Absolutely. The first movie was —
Benny: — way more organic.
Josh: I have a lot of respect for that movie because it was very much like a jazz improvisation. We knew the melodies, and then we kind of went into our own solos. I’m very respectful of that, and I think it’s a triumph, personally, but we had no idea what we were getting into when we started. I had a lot of mangled, gutteral feelings when I thought of Eleonore as her character, who turns out to have been very much a character. I’ve been with her now two and half years, and it’s weird, we did this interview for French television and they shot it on the Staten Island ferry, and she popped this question: “Do you ever think we could work together again like we worked together on Pleasure of Being Robbed?” And I said, “No, I don’t think so.” We saw each other as such caricatures, and those caricatures we were able to write. Now we know each other and we know all these things about each other so the caricatures are negated.
Benny: There’s less mystery.
Josh: But the difference [in the making of the two films] is that we knew what we were getting into when we embarked on Daddy Longlegs.
Benny: There was a beginning and a definite ending.
Josh: And we knew the complications. We knew there were two direct perspectives of the movie. There was a harsh perspective, where you are super-critical of this person, and then there was also an extremely loving, compassionate perspective. And we knew we wanted them both at the same time. That’s, to me, the biggest success of the movie, that its perspective completely dances — you don’t know if you love [Lenny], you don’t know if you hate him.
Benny: It’s subjective too. You can watch the movie and be veered down one path, where you just see the hate, and not even know the other loving side exists. Each subjective [position] exists separately, and that they don’t make an objective movie is strange. We wanted [the audience] to feel this weird duality of how we feel towards our dad.
Josh: And how we feel towards ourselves too.
Benny: Writing about somebody’s criticisms to point out the reason you love them is really difficult.
Filmmaker: What was it like as brothers directing together?
Josh: The most appropriate fighting happened. We would hash out our ideas even before rehearsals so we knew that if we were arguing we’d know that the only thing was wrong was not our relationship but that an idea was wrong. If we were having an argument we knew that something wasn’t right, and that was a very comforting thing to know. If we’re arguing about something, it would turn into a stupid personal fight but then we’d know that something wasn’t right in a scene or on a page.
Benny: We’ve always had ourselves as constant companions, so we have similar ways of looking at things, but there is a slight difference. I’m more critical, or more analytical —
Josh: And I can romanticize things.
Benny: And that crunching together produces a deeper perspective than what we would have done individually.
Josh: Because there’s complication.
Benny: I learned so much more about him and myself.
Josh: And on a technical level, I shot 50% of the movie, and Benny did 50% of the sound, so a lot of times in these intimate scenes there was me with a camera, and there was an unspoken dynamic.
Benny: This seems really cheesey, but I guess it made sense that you were looking at it and I was listening to it so we had to trust each other.
Josh: We were shooting really long-lens stuff, so a lot of times I couldn’t hear the dialogue. When we were shooting out in the streets, we never wanted unsuspecting strangers to look and see a film crew. We wanted them to see this guy manically running into his apartment with his two kids. We wanted them to tell their friends and have the movie live on in their dinner conversations.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the editing — what the process was like, and what kind of decisions you had to make.
Josh: Ronnie helped us edit, and then we shot four extra days to fill holes – logical holes, continuity holes, and emotional holes.
Benny: The reshoots on this [film] were so strange. They felt like pure business. “We’re trying to go from here to here and it’s not working. We need to write a scene to fill that hole.” It was about filling these holes.
Filmmaker: How were you guided? Was it just yourselves, or did you do feedback screenings?
Benny: We don’t do that. It was mainly the two of us, and Brett and Ronnie sitting down watching. If something didn’t fit right, you, Josh, would say, “I don’t know what I think of this scene,” and that would start this enormous discussion. We’d go from the highs and the lows and we’d eventually cut out something we loved.
Filmmaker: When was the first time you saw it with an audience?
Josh: We showed it to the six-person crew, and there were two extra people in the studio at the time, so there were eight of us. It was an assembly, but we had already cut 40 minutes. We did some sound design, but emotionally it was a rough cut. That was probably the closest thing we’ve done to [a small group screening]. The biggest thing people said to us was, “That’s a monster of a movie.” It was so long! We took it as a compliment: “We deflated our audience!” But the most important feedback we got from those eight people was that there was so much emotion [in the film]. It was playing flat towards the end. Everybody said, “It has to be an hour shorter.” And that’s when the movie kind of went into a spiral. We started cutting things really randomly, totally in the moment. We had to stop, and we moved the editing to Benny’s bedroom, and then Ronnie really started becoming part of the conversation. He’d come over and we’d have these massive conversations and then we’d do an edit.
Benny: Those were crazy 18-hour days.
Josh: We were trying to make that Directors Fortnight deadline, which was good, because I really believe in deadlines.
Filmmaker: How do you see yourselves in relation to the independent film industry right now? Where do you see yourselves as fitting in?
Benny: I don’t know what it’s like on set for other films. I don’t know if it’s in any way like what we are doing. In some way it does feel like we’re a little separate, like we are at this other table. But I don’t really want to know that.
Josh: We were hanging out in Stockholm with that director, Adam Bhala Lough, who made Weapons and that Lee Scratch Perry doc. He said, “You guys don’t realize but there are no middle movies anymore, no $6 million movies. There are $80 million movies and under $250,000 movies. So we are grateful that we could be so free in the shooting process. We were allowed to emotionally experiment and do whatever we wanted. We could just keep shooting and shooting. I don’t even know what the final budget was on this movie, but if this is the biggest budget I’ll ever see, I’m fine with that. The budget was never a limitation on the movie, except for the paper tornado scene. A friend said, “I wish somebody would give you $2.5 million dollars just so that paper tornado scene could have been four stories high.” And yeah, I would have loved to have closed the block and had massive blowers and much more paper. The one shot I wish we had is a piece of paper traveling through the sky. And I wish we could have had steadicam sometime.
Benny: But at the same time, we did have a rented apartment on 35th Street that we completely had free range to transform into a museum of our childhood emotional ideas, and that was our set. For months we could go there and do rehearsals.
Filmmaker: So even though you are working with six and not seven-figure budgets, budget hasn’t felt like a limitation?
Josh: The interesting thing about wherever independent film is going — I’m perfectly okay if producers are standing behind directors doing these highly personal movies. Not narcissistic, self-involved movies, but highly personal movies you can have free reign with. The idea of a production based on feeling and intuition, I really like that. I’m hearing of people making movies for $80,000, $1000,000 and sometimes shooting film, and if those are the big budgets of this new free filmmaking movement, I’m totally okay with that. I think that’s interesting. Most of the stuff I’m seeing, however, is not taking the risks that I want to see. I want to be so emotionally mixed-up about a movie that I can’t turn away from it.
Filmmaker: Do you feel like you know your audience and have a relationship with them?
Josh: We’re starting to, at least a little bit. Changing the title, that’s something we are doing in conjunction with an audience. We understood that Go Get some Rosemary was a title for us, and it wasn’t translating. We learned that at Cannes. It was kind of alienating and too esoteric. It was playing like a “gotcha” title, and our movies aren’t heady like that. Daddy Longlegs was Ronnie’s suggestion, I think it has a jazzy silliness but at the same time it has a sadness to it. The idea of having long legs is a weird optimistic phrase.
Benny: It’s clumsy. There’s something funny about being clumsy, but you can always fall over.
Josh: We just got our first sketches of the French poster, and they’re naming it Lenny and Les Enfants: “Lenny and the Kids.” Nobody can name this movie! This Greek festival named it something they wouldn’t translate for us. Not being able to name something is the biggest compliment — it’s a sign of uniqueness. But going back to audiences, when we were in Cannes, this young French guy, like 20, comes up to us. He had seen The Pleasure of Being Robbed, and he said, “When I heard you made a movie about a dad and his two kids, I thought, this isn’t underground.” I hate that expression! What does that mean? It’s not underground because it’s about a family! What does “underground” mean — that it has to involve young distraught people? And then I realized that people judge movies based on the demographic they see on paper. They see a father and kids and think it’s for families. But I do think this movie has a really weird reach. The people I’m most interested in hearing reactions from are middle-aged parents who are totally affected by the movie. And people who think, wow, I’m so disheveled I could never imagine having a kid. That’s where I come at the movie from. My dad was my age when he had kids. Jesus, that seems like a project. I think of that every time I walk down the steps of my apartment, like, wow, I could have a kid upstairs!
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Ken Waldrop’s His & Hers is a documentary focusing on 70 women from the Irish Midlands, arranged chronologically from age 0 to 90, telling small stories about their lives. Irish Midlands women, being funny, sarcastic, charming and warm, are good subjects; Waldrop knew that because he grew up the son of one of very funny and sarcastic Irish Midlands mother. He constructed the film to mirror his own mother’s life; the women speak of their marriages in their twenties, their sons, and, finally, their husbands and these men's deaths. Some of the interviews are about tiny things (who controls the remote control), and some are directly about the big issues (how you never stop feeling the loss of your husband); some are hilarious, some are heartbreaking. All of them are about love, to some degree. One of the central goals of independent filmmaking is to construct a series of small moments that add up to a much larger truth. The tiny moments we get with the adorable ladies of His & Hers add up to a small miracle of a film — a deep, emotional meditation on the universality of human experience.
Filmmaker: Your movie made me cry and cry.
Waldrop: OK, that’s a good sign! You know, we all have mothers, we all have grandmothers, we all have younger people in our lives, so I think there’s something in there for everyone. But I didn’t go out to make such a universal kind of thing (laughs). Making these choices, I was so worried, and my producer Andrew Freedman was just like, “Ken, this film is so low budget, if we fail, we should fail while doing something that is a little bit more dangerous.” But at the time I was so apprehensive.
Filmmaker: How did you come up with the idea?
Waldrop: You know, the film started with my thinking about my mother, because she had such a happy marriage, and she became a widow in her sixties. I thought, “It might be interesting to try to create a life’s journey in the same sort of way I’d been making my short films — with vignettes, [in a documentary style.] I used my mum’s life as a kind of structure. I wanted to make a film that was devoid of divorce and big bad things. I wanted to explore the ordinary, to try find this extraordinary journey that we all take if we’re lucky enough to find people to fall in love with. And of course there are ups and downs. There’s no doubt about that, but in general, I wanted to give a kind of positive thing.
Filmmaker: Can you describe the structure of the film a bit more?
Waldrop: Well, [since we’re using my mum’s life as a structure,] the story of the film was going to be the lifespan of a woman who was going to lose the love of her life when she got to her sixties. So the girl was going to be a baby, with her father as the most important man in her life, she was going to grow up, meet a boy, fall in love, get married. The husband passes away when she’s in her sixties, and they were going to have a son, who then was going to come out and look out for her, later in life. So it was always going to be, a girl grows up, the most important male in her life is her father, and growing up-
Filmmaker: You know the fact that the facts of these different women's lives are all so similar didn’t even occur to me when I was watching it. It seems so obvious in retrospect.
Waldrop: Yeah, I mean obviously, all the women had someone in their lives, but they had would have different variations. They all had big families, so they might have had four girls and two sons, which wasn’t the case if they were all single-parent families with just boys, but they all had a male child, [and that’s what they discuss in the film.] I wanted it to mirror my mum’s story.
Filmmaker: Can you speak more about wanting it to be positive? The women truly don’t speak about any terrible things, except for death. All the conversations seem to be about love.
Waldrop: I knew that it would be dangerous. Irish women, they’re always sarcastic about their husbands, but inside that, inside their little bickering and their problems, you can tell there’s genuine love behind their stories. I decided to limit again to Irish women, and Irish Midland women. Obviously there’s all sorts of ladies in Ireland, and all cultures and creeds, and I started to worry that the film wouldn’t represent all North Irish people. And then I thought, “That’s crazy, I’m just going to make the film, and these women are just going to remind me of my own mother." And in fact, they all live no further than about 60 miles away from each other. This was because we cut the budget and didn’t have enough money for petrol, so we put our base down in a village and looked for women there.
Filmmaker: What other budget limitations did you have?
Waldrop: Well, I really, really wanted to shoot on 16mm, I wanted to work with the constraints that that would impose. So I only had ten minutes for everybody’s interview.
Filmmaker: Oh my goodness. One roll of film per lady.
Waldrop: Yes, including all the cutaway shots and all else. So you can imagine how stressful that was. And we were doing two people per day, so we only had four hours with each character, because we’d have to move on in the afternoon. So it became a bit of a military organization, because there were only four of us. For that reason, we decided, “Okay, we’re going to shoot during the day, indoors, because if it rains we won’t be in trouble.” It was a real team effort. We went home every night and cooked our dinners, and we’d look over the rushes from our little monitor, we’d discuss what we got that day, and consider the next two days’ characters. Because we weren’t shooting in sequence, we’d have to kind of go back and forth in the story, and work out what we talked about. In a way, it was a mundane, trivial life, and I’d half complain, you know, “That lady is talking about her car,” but I knew that we needed to talk about the car, just in case, because that was a way into the next story. I needed those little kind of clever edits that would keep the audience engaged, to make sure the film kept a kind of flow. After four or five characters, we started to make choices that we thought could lend itself to kind of creating this overall face of the film that exists in it. Of course there were ups and downs in the process, and some characters didn’t work out, but we really had a good success rate. I think, as we filmed new characters, we only lost twelve, and kept 70. So good extras for the DVD.
Filmmaker: One thing all the women share is a way of communicating that’s very funny, and very sarcastic, and they all seem to know how to tell stories about themselves in a way that I feel is particularly Irish — I don’t know if that would have worked for a group of U.S. women.
Waldrop: I think you’re right. I’m from the Irish Midlands. My mum’s a Midland woman, I know all her friends, and I knew that especially when they talk about the men in their lives, there is this innate sarcasm, and these kind of weird games that Irish men and women have with each other. I knew if I could get through to that that there’d be something to have. But it was a question: I have four hours with these people, how do I get through to that and makes sure they’re not talking in their telephone accents, you know? It’s the first time these people are on camera ever in their lives, and they’re all very nervous, and they don’t know me. I sent them my DVD of my shorts, so they had some idea of where I was coming from. And of course, I made a film called Undressing my Mother, which had my mum naked in it.
Filmmaker: Oh goodness.
Waldrop: That did shock a lot of them. (laughs)
Filmmaker: So how did you get past their "telephone accent?" Did you ask them all the same question?
Waldrop: I said, “I want to talk about the simple things in life that connect you, to your son, husband, or father." So that was easy for people, because they thought I was talking about [the things that you use to control one another], whereas if I was like “I want to talk about your relationship to your husband,” they’d be like, “Oh God, no.” You know, I’d have to kind of meander my way into their lives. I would start my banter, would discuss my own life, and it just became a chat, as opposed to an interview. So I hope that’s what comes across.
Galt Niederhoffer is no stranger to Sundance, having produced films that won awards there beginning in 1997, when Morgan J. Freeman’s Hurricane Streets won the Audience Award. As a founding member of Plum Pictures, one of New York’s most active independent film production companies, she has produced over a dozen films, including Grace is Gone, Dedication, Prozac Nation, Lonesome Jim, The Winning Season, The Baxter and After.Life. Niederhoffer grew up in New York, one of six daughters of a squash champion-turned-hedge fund maverick, in a rambling, eccentrically decorated house. In her first novel, A Taxonomy of Barnacles, Niederhoffer may have used her vivid and unique family dynamic for raw material; in her second, The Romantics (on which the film is based), she explores the family you make after you leave home: your friends.
Lila (Anna Paquin) is marrying Tom (Josh Duhamel), and Tom used to date Laura (Katie Holmes), and Laura and Tom may or may not still be in love with each other – dramas that the remaining five of their best friends from college arrive to witness. The group gathers for the rehearsal dinner and spends one long night reliving their college memories and testing the boundaries of their new adult lives. Comparisons to The Big Chill are inevitable, but this is a film that’s less about reliving the past than it is about reckoning with the future. As the seven friends come together, fall apart and come together again, all in the course of one night, they repeat their favorite toast — “to our glittering future!” — and each time its meaning is different.
Filmmaker: What were some of the pitfalls of the Romance Movie genre that you had to work through or fight against?
Niederhoffer: I don’t think anyone with any sense of movies and books could write a romantic story without an awareness of its tradition. It’s hard not to allude to various hallmarks of the genre, so I find those references unavoidable but sometimes really interesting. But you always want to avoid cliché — so, [I was] fighting cliché, and when appropriate embracing it. There are moments [in literature and cinema] that can never be done better than they have been. All you can do is embrace it and acknowledge the debt. I really wanted to make a sweet, emotional, romantic movie — something that moves you and swells your heart, that makes you weepy at times [and makes you] walk out of the theatre feeling happy and like you want to go make out with your honey.
Filmmaker: Just like a wedding.
Niederhoffer: (laughs) Yeah, exactly. I mean these things have a purpose — they make us feel good, and they remind us of the universal fact that we all are pitting this enormity of emotion against the question of that emotion’s validity in real life. I’m still most interested in stories with a love story at the center. [A wedding] seemed like the best setting in which to explore a love story of heightened proportions, the proportions of love when it seems to be the only thing that matters – which is a quality of love that it loses once you grow up.
Filmmaker: What was happening in your life when you wrote the book?
Niederhoffer: I was just turning thirty, and I was pregnant with my second child — actually, I finished the manuscript the week before he was born. I was really settling into this new phase of my life, being a mom and an adult, I suppose, and maybe looking back on the period before that phase with some nostalgia and some romance. Things change so completely when you become a parent; all that stuff like Love and Heartache kind of leave the picture for a little while. I was in that new phase of being a responsible human being who had lost the luxury of all of that drama and, in a sense, frivolity. So I guess I was interested in reliving them, through this idea of retelling the old story of a rich girl and a poor boy and someone else caught in between. I also wanted to do something that just had more sincerity and more heart [than my first book]. Sincerity goes very easily to the point of sentimentality, and I wanted to ride that line, which is a hard thing to do. Emotions are as tricky in stories as they are in the real world. They’re big and unruly and often the very unattractive sign of absurd and compulsive narcissism, you know? That quality is so true of young people and their emotions that you really have to navigate it with some care. The question kind of becomes: are young people fools, or are young people honest?
Filmmaker: Jane Austen territory.
Niederhoffer: It’s interesting that you would mention her because my first book was a real homage to Pride & Prejudice — but that’s why I think the Romantic period was so interesting to me, and why I had an epiphany moment when I figured out the title, and the central metaphor of it; two of the characters keep going back to this poem from the Romantic period. The Romantic poets were so interested in emotion — the importance of emotion, the placement of emotion, and the objects of it. They were reclaiming emotional intensity back from the Church, back from organized, institutional notions of love, and putting it into all sort of different things: nature, death, inspiration, the act of writing, and romantic love.
Filmmaker: Do you agree that the story is one of six people all trying to decide how to deal with their emotions, or whether they want to deal with them at all?
Niederhoffer: Yeah, that’s an interesting way of thinking of it… The movie, at its best, is looking at the various ways in which we handle emotions in our lives, and how that serves us and serves an individual. Another weird thing that happened in the mid-19th century is that emotion became defined in such a way that you could almost say it was invented. You have the Victorian era, and Freud, and suddenly there’s this totally new definition of the human heart and the human head and a narrative put in place about the fight going on between them. That’s a dramatic construction; that’s a story we tell ourselves about how people work and how our bodies work. If you accept that definition, which is pretty absurd, it becomes a way of understanding people and dramatizing the choices they have to make. Each of these characters is fighting their way through the choice they have to make.
Filmmaker: How did being a producer prepare you for directing?
Niederhoffer: Being a producer made me incredibly grateful for the opportunity, because I know how hard producers work — and all of our producers just worked their asses off, especially because it’s such a hard time to get a movie made. Like all movies, it was a little rocky getting it going, and I was so scared it wasn’t going to happen. So when it finally did, when everyone pulled through and worked so hard, I just was crazy with gratitude and understood that I had to carefully assess the battles that could not be won versus the battles that needed to be fought. It made me a little more humble and a lot more practical.
Filmmaker: The thing I least envy about directors is the pressure on them to think creatively in the midst of this overpowering, relentless production machine.
Niederhoffer: I think that’s the hardest thing. People are right to say that the best director is the decisive director, but I realized something about that. Sometimes being decisive means saying, “Hold on one second, I need to think about that.” Sometimes it’s not best to just shout out an answer; your gut sometimes does need a good 30 seconds to hear itself out. Everything is so accelerated and rushed, and that’s also part of the thrill of filmmaking — you add to this incredible mixture of people and limits and opportunities this crazy time thing, where every second costs thousands of dollars. That adds this “game” quality to the whole thing, like you’re playing this game of Tetris, trying to solve a new problem every minute.
Filmmaker: How did you come up for the aesthetic plan of the film?
Niederhoffer: That was the result of an incredible, really joyful collaboration between me and the core creative members of the movie – Sam Levy [the DP], Tim Grimes [the Production Designer], Danielle Kays [Costumes], and now Jacob Craycroft the Editor. We had one of those awesome experiences that you dream about, that I had seen other filmmakers have. It was a weird kind of echo of the story, the way we came together as strangers and were thrust together as a group of friends, and suddenly we had to listen and share and argue and disagree and concede, and it was all the things that the movie was about; being inspired, being moved, and becoming emotional because of a person or idea that takes you out of the mundane existence of daily life.
Filmmaker: What was it like working with this ensemble cast?
Niederhoffer: The magical, transporting, very intense thing that happened with the key creative crew happened again when the actors arrived. It was so intense, the exchange that happened between myself and all of these people, so much so that I would sometimes forget… I would think, “OK, I have to do the democratic thing and find out what everyone agrees on here,” and then I would remember that it was my right and responsibility to the movie that a clear vision be upheld and described. You hear about directors who are totally open and kind of defer to the actor, and others who are completely rigid and ignore the actor in favor of their original vision. I found early on that while it is essential to maintain a clear sense of your gut — I think that’s what vision means; what is your gut, after you take that second to ask yourself, “What is the best idea here?” — that right before that, you absolutely must listen to the best idea. Because if not, you might miss it. And often actors do have the best idea about blocking or a line or a scene, and it’s absolutely critical to pay attention. I found that whole interchange, first with my creative collaborators and then with the actors, really thrilling, quite emotional and utterly taxing, but ultimately very awesome.
Monday, January 25, 2010
Tasked with “celebrating experimentation and the convergence of art and film,” the New Frontier section at Sundance has been exhibiting feature films and installations for the last four years. Shari Frilot is the programmer, and spent the entire year reviewing work from new artists, figuring out which part of the ground being broken she wants to put in front of the Sundance audience.
How to show film art in an art film context? Frilot tries to make sure that the artists all “speak the same language” as cinema. This year, the spotlight artist is Pipilotti Rist, who creates video work of massive proportions, having recently filled most of the ground floor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City with a multi-screen project that invited you to lie on a couch and let envelop you. Rist is showing her feature Pepperminta, as well as using the same project for a live installation. Another trend: two films — Oddsac and All My Friends are Funeral Singers — seem to be representing the future of music videos: whole features built like albums, that will tour with the bands (Animal Collective and Califone respectively) and replace the short-form promotions they used to do. There are live documentaries, interactive Google map shows, art that you need night vision goggles to see, festival-long experiments in remixed cellphone video… there are more differences between this work than there are similarities, but collectively, this is the work at the festival asking all the questions.
Filmmaker: How is this year’s programming different from the years before?
Shari Frilot: We definitely charged ourselves to make something very different from the years before. The theme this year is "breaking out." Breaking out of old forms, old infrastructures, breaking out completely from the screen of presentation — that is, breaking off of the esteemed cinematic presentation and integrating into the realm of walking and talking. Where is the cinematic image as you walk through your everyday life? The shows this year are much more sculptural, [the exhibition] overtly engages the body, in really intense and physical and sensual ways. Pippiloti Rist’s installation is an entire red room, with beds in it (pictured above: Frilot, on left, and Rist).
Filmmaker: She’s a great artist to showcase in this environment, her [video] work is so enveloping…
Frilot: She’s our Artist Spotlight this year, she’s our example of an artist and a filmmaker who’s coming to the festival and platforming her project in a way that I’ve never really seen anywhere. She’s showing her first feature film, Pepperminta, and we’re showing it in the normal Sundance theaters in the more traditional way, and she is also constructing a fully immersive installation that is directly related to the film in the New Frontier space. So there is a visual world that you can enter in two ways with her project: one through a narrative arc in a [traditional theatrical environment], and one where your body is explicitly engaged with a kind of sensual, luscious, red lounge with beds, and the images from the film completely surrounding your body. I had hoped that [these ideas] would resonate with people who are looking for answers in this new, rewired landscape that we’re dealing with in the industry.
Filmmaker: One reason that I love your programming is that it’s not literal, you know, like, "This is the kind of iPhone movie that people are making."
Frilot: Oh gosh, I take that as a huge compliment!
Filmmaker: Well I imagine it’s very hard to contend with a film industry and the art world and merge them in a way that resonates with the Sundance audience.
Frilot: Well, honestly, I’m following the artists, and I’m following the filmmakers, and they’re the ones presenting sophisticated visions. I can’t take that credit. My job is not to build an art exhibit, my job is to build an alternative universe at Sundance, a kind of festival within a festival, with the support of the community and dialogue and discussion and the artistic inspiration around the evolving cinematic cultures. It’s about creating a [space] where people can get ready for thinking about a different way about the cinematic, to kind of disengage to reengage. But [the artists] have to be speaking the same language that filmgoing audiences have, in a way. It really is about experimentation. How do you present the cinematic image with an independent vision to film festival audiences, how do you do it? And how do you do it in a way that it doesn’t turn audiences off, but turns them on to something new?
Filmmaker: How has your thinking abot it changed in the last few years?
Frilot: I’ve always approached the question by referring to Audre Lorde, she’s a black feminist poet and theorist, and she speaks a lot about the power of the erotic, and erotic knowledge. And erotic is not about porn; she’s talking about the information that you have, that we all have, in our sensual selves. A lot of the artists this year are dealing with the sensual, and the pleasure principal — how do our bodies engage with the moving image? The site of our cinematic culture is around the body, it’s around the moving body, it’s changing our body. There is a tremendous physicality to the work this year, and that resonates so strongly with that viewpoint. It will be interesting to see how people are going to respond (laughs).
Filmmaker: Which of the pieces are good examples of those ideas?
Frilot: Well, when I say sensuality I’m using as a very broad way of describing how you use your body to touch and feel the work. So a great example is the Post-Global Warming Survival Kit by Petko Dourmana When you enter the installation you walk into a completely black room, but there’s a tent in the room. It’s pitch black, unless you take the night vision goggles that were given to you at the entrance and put them to your eyes, and then you can see an entire landscape — essentially this seascape. The tent is the residence of a worker from the future whose monitoring the rising sea levels and taking notes and keeping a diary, and you can’t see any of this unless you have the night vision goggles because in the future. So, in the vision of the artist, we had to create a nuclear winter to keep the planet cool. So this is something that directly implicates the body — you have to touch him and walk around and go around somebody, and their residence, and where they live, and what they are thinking, and what they are doing, and getting into the interiors of the character, this would-be character.
Frilot: Another great example is a piece by Matthew Moore, he’s a farmer from Phoenix, Arizona. He grows lettuce and carrots and grapefruits, and his piece Lifecycles is actually something that will be installed at the Fresh Market Grocery. With his work, he strived to connect consumer activity, to connect the lifecycle of the produce to the object you are buying. So we’re planting a number of screens in the produce section of the market, so for example, if you wanted to go and buy some lettuce, above the lettuce there’s a video that he’s shot of his own crops, from seeding to packaging. You find yourself in what has become a rather cold experience in buying and shopping, and developing a more physical and connected relationship with the thing that you’re buying.
Filmmaker: You could make a kind of reductivist comparison between that and Food Inc., which is a documentary about Where Our Food Comes from…. But, how do you think the New Frontier work relates to the other features? Or, as a programming section, how does it relate to NEXT?
Frilot: The films in NEXT are pretty traditional indie films. They’re really creative, they’re straightforward storytelling pieces of work, and they’re made for really really cheap. They kind of remind us that a lot can be had with a little, and that actually plugs into the new financial landscape of what our business is, and that’s why it’s called Next. It’s really called Less Equals More, but we call it NEXT because it’s more media-friendly.
Filmmaker: Like the "Next" distribution model.
Frilot: Exactly, like the next distribution model, whereas New Frontier is where filmmakers are really taking risks in terms of the storytelling itself. A film that has to do with all of this [distribution, new forms of media] is All My Friends are Funeral Singers. It’s interesting, because it was conceived to have the form of an album, and it’s by the band Califone. Oddsac, which is by Animal Collective, is another example. All My Friends… was made to promote the new album, and they’ve been taking it on the road, doing concerts and showing the film, doing a live score, so that’s a model coming up out of the music world. This is a trend that you will probably end up seeing in other festivals.
Filmmaker: It’s so true, and I’ve never thought about it. Rather than make a video, because the music videos is such a dying form, unfortunately, or a changing one.
Frilot: It is a changing form, and I guess this is where it is evolving to, kind of full-scale, feature-length work, some more experimental than others. Then there are films like Double Take and Memories of Overdevelopment. Double Take is just a really super-solid essay film, about thinking of killing his doppelganger, and also thinking about the rise of television in society during the Cold War….. It takes all these different elements and puts them together and it’s very poetic. And Memories of Overdevelopment is about a Cuban revolutionary who is now negotiating his creative freedom and a sense of viability, as the world evolves past an age of revolution, that kind of militaristic terrain. And this guy is such a talent, Miguel Coyula. First-time filmmaker, and really just one of these films that was just born out of the head of Zeus, like fully formed. One thing I feel really obligated to talk to you about, that really warrants attention because it’s so fresh and so significant is Utopia in Four Parts. It’s a documentary that is essentially a performance of a live documentary. He presents the piece live, he does all of the narration live, and the musical score is done live, so it’s all within one room, and he’s there, so the film itself is a rumination all about utopia. it’s really about him tinking about the utopian dream as it has evolved during the twentieth century, of how he believes that today we don’t have great ideas anymore, and we don’t have this shiny optimism that we used to have for the future. The future now scares the hell out of us.
Photo by Jill Orschel
THE RED CHAPEL'S MADS BRUGGER |
By Alicia Van Couvering
DADDY LONGLEGS' JOSH AND BENNY SAFDIE |
By Scott Macaulay
HIS AND HERS' KEN WALDROP |
By Alicia Van Couvering
THE ROMANTICS' GALT NIEDERHOFFER |
By Alicia Van Couvering
SUNDANCE SENIOR PROGRAMMER SHARI FRILOT TALKS NEW FRONTIER |
By Alicia Van Couvering