Director Stephen Cone & Actor Cole Doman on Their New Queer Coming of Age Film

Share Button

Updated from BAMcinemaFest 2015 in celebration of the film’s run at IFP.

“They’re experiencing intense spirituality through the church and also having orgasms for the first time—that’s wild,” says director Stephen Cone about the teenagers in his new film Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, which has its New York theatrical run beginning tonight at IFP. As the Chicago-based filmmaker’s seventh feature, we again see Cone excavating the emotional experiences of his own past to explore the complex dichotomy between spirituality and sexuality. Starring fantastic newcomer Cole Dolman, Henry Gamble centers on 24 hours in its titular character’s life. As a 17-year-old preacher’s son, Henry navigates the crossroads of living in an evangelical household while discovering who he is on his own terms.

As we noted in our BAMcinemaFest roundup:

 A rare and genuine sincerity lies at the heart of Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party. As one of the most interesting films of the festival, Cone’s latest explores everything from sex, religion, and the intersection of private and public life to the suffocating pressure of adulthood and the confounding experience of being a teenager—all set within one day at a suburban pool party. The event brings together his parents, who’ve grown emotionally adrift from one another, and the religious community of adults and teens around them. The ensemble drama meets coming-of-age story is a beautifully crafted and compassionate portrait of one specific community yet feels universal in its themes and struggles, thanks to Cone’s acute dramatic and emotional understanding. 

To celebrate the film’s screening, we chatted with Cone and Dolman to get a closer look at how the story evolved for both of them, the ecstasy of music and its relation to God, and mining the depths of the past.

Stephen, where did this story begin for you and how did it evolve from your past work?

Stephen Cone: I’d written a screenplay called Porn Ministry about two southern ministers who travel to the San Fernando Valley to spread the gospel to the adult entertainment industry. It wasn’t a very good script, but it culminated in a ten-page pool party sequence back at home, in which a crowd of evangelical Christians gathered to take their clothes off, which is the irony at the core of most of what I’ve made thus far. I think I saw in this an opportunity to confront this world again in a more direct and intimate way, and wondered if this party could be an entire movie. 

HGBP_cc_21050420.00_20_18_20.Still005

How did you go about casting and did your idea of the characters change once you met actors like Cole or Pat Healy?

SC: It was a lot of people I knew before but never worked with and other people I had never met before, but it’s all a really exciting process because if you’re open to it, an actor can give you a different idea and a different texture to a character. It’s the cliché of the editing being the final rewrite, but I would add that casting is kind of a final rewrite because when people give their own ideas of characters it becomes a whole different world and makes the movie so much more interesting. You just have to be open to all these beautiful people coming in and seeing not only what they can do for you, but how they can make this story come to life. 

Cole Doman: I was actually not called in to audition for the role of John, the more religious guy, but after I went in, Stephen asked me to read for Henry and I was relieved. I instantly felt a connection to Stephen, which is rare for me and especially in an audition setting. It felt really warm, but that’s also how I felt throughout the entire shooting process. It was my first feature, and I’d never acted on camera before or seen myself on camera, but this was really comfortable and I was really stoked. 

Can you tell me about bringing Henry to life and how you two worked together to shape who he was?

CD: After being cast, Stephen emailed me some videos and recommended some movies for me to watch. His father was a minister and I was raised in an Irish Catholic family and went to Catholic school, so he also showed me a lot of videos about commercialized churches. We also talked a lot in terms of sexuality and religion, which is something I’ve had my own struggle with before. But then what was really helpful for me was the music he sent me that he thought Henry would love. Henry’s music is a gateway into a world he knows he belongs in but doesn’t live in. The things that Henry is going through in this movie, in the 24 hour period at his age, I may have been going through those things a few years before Henry, but it’s familiar territory for me and Stephen as well.

SC: The only time in my life that I was as obsessed with pop music as I was with film was between the ages of 12 and 15. I used to just go into my room and plant a chair in front of the radio, and sometimes I would do my own radio station or I would just play music and listen without doing anything else. That was almost a primary inspiration that I’d kind of forgotten about. So music was huge, but it also goes back to ecstasy. As a young Christian teenager, you almost experience ecstasy through music first, and it also makes it harder to feel God because music’s so exciting. So I did think about that in making the film too, in terms of Henry having a duty to go to church three times a week and be a good Christian boy but also wanting to just go to his room and listen to music—that’s real ecstasy, that’s heaven.

henrygamblesbirthdaypartyjoekeerycoledomanpoolnice

Stephen,  about this story did you connect with most?

SC: I think about that a lot. There’s the young, queer teenager in The Wise Kids, but there’s also the preacher’s daughter, and in a weird way, in that film I felt closer to her and that character. But I don’t know, what does that say about mining your past? My dad wasn’t a pastor of a mega church, so it’s interesting because you’re mining elements of your past and bringing in fictional elements to the past. I was really interested in trying to get inside the emotional state of everything that swirls around you when you’re 15, 16 or 17 years old. Music is changing your life and you’re going to church and hearing about Jesus Christ and eternal paradise, and then you’re going to movies, and you’re feeling all these sensations, so life is entirely spirituality and cultural sensation. I wanted to get inside that and really try to relay what tht feels like and that community, that Evangelical community and these characters who were forced to go on living despite themselves. There’s so much going on and there are so many internal and external forces, and heaven and earth and body and soul, and just the  constant navigating of forces. I just wanted to get inside it with an intensity and do something that evokes the sensation and feeling of living in that time and that world, but it’s challenge to do that.

I read an interview where you talked about loving Jonathan Demme’s films for their sincerity, which I found interesting because it’s the sincerity that I like so much about Henry Gamble. What other directors do you look to for inspiration or reflection of your own sensibility as a filmmaker?

SC: My two or three major influences I think of all the time are John Cassavetes, Jean Renoir, and George Cukor. Those are some pretty sincere filmmakers who just stared others in the face—whether it was in a scared way or a defiant way, it was never insincere. So I would say those guys. I also like Terrence Malick, but I also tend to go back to Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale, which I actually think is sort of more applicable to this film. There’s a theme of freedom and a bunch of people living their own lives, so he’s a big deal to me. For this film I was trying to think of filmmakers who tend to shoot the interior, and that was a film that I think magically related. 

HGBP-Alt-4

How did you approach the film stylistically? Were you more concerned about the aesthetic elements in this film more than in your previous work?

SC: I’ve had kind of a reluctant aversion to stylization over the last few years, which was part of the reason why I wanted to embrace stylization and with a new intensity. I also switched cinematographers for the first time, so that was a conscious choice to just do something new too. It’s not that there wasn’t a cinematic sensibility behind the earlier movies, it’s just that I’ve always been careful to not draw attention to the choices, to not make it about the choices. I like when you can feel a cinematic presence, because that’s Geroge Cukor, who I think is really formally exciting but if you don’t look closely it seems to be just photographing actors. If you really look closely there is an exciting formal presence behind The Philadelphia Story but the actors are so great and it’s so pleasurable to watch that you can go back and miss it very easily. So that’s what I was attempting to do with the earlier things. But then I’d hear things like, “You should do TV,” like it’s supposed to be a compliment. So with this, I just wanted to go full on and fire on all cylinders and try something new. I don’t why it took me ten years to realize this, but you get to a point where you understand that just because you’re making stylistic choice doesn’t mean that it’s automatically drawing attention to itself. So it can be a really lovely harmony and unity in the making of the thing.

Was there anything you looked to specifically for inspiration on this?

SC: Totally, the influences ran the gamut. Some movies were just personal, and some jumped around in tone. So in the beginning, I actually thought about The Ice Storm a lot in terms of the private experience of family. Every time I went to an 80s party movie to look at I just got bored, even with the act of thinking about it. The first movie I ever thought of, and this is going to sound really strange because it could not be further from Henry Gamble, but I thought a lot about Paranoid Park. I thought about how it alternated between internal experience and external experience, and also how Gus van Sant filmed bodies in that movie is really interesting to me. I also thought a lot about John Houston’s The DeadBoogie Nights, and Olivier Assayas’ Cold Water. In the back of my mind the whole time, even thought I never referenced it overtly, was Rachel Getting Married.

HGBP_cc_21050420.00_00_04_08.Still009

Cole, how did you feel when you watched the film and saw yourself on screen for the first time?

CD: I was really nervous. The cast got together to watch it, and we were all really nervous. I’d never seen myself as a character on screen before so I was especially nervous and was really emotional, more emotional than I thought I was going to get. When the cake came out and everyone was singing “Happy Birthday” I was really crying hard. I’m an emotional person to begin with, but I was brought back to that experience, what I shared with all these people, where I was now, and being and being proud of that. Of course there are some moments where I watch it and cringe, but that’s completely normal. It was a learning experience; you just learn more and more. 

Stephen, are you working on something else now? 

SC: Yeah, I am, but in the old days I’d would probably try to figure out some small movie to make this summer in the absence of the money or energy to do something bigger. But I’m finally at a point where I can take a deep breath and say, let’s work on something for next year, which I’ve never been good at. It sounds obvious, it’s how most people work, but I’ve always been in a hurry to make the next thing, which has its ups and downs and its pros and its cons. In some ways I feel like my film education wouldn’t have been as slow if I actually slowed down.

But yeah, I’m writing something, it’s a female-centric coming of age movie—again, that’s accidental. I really love Esther Kahn and I want to make a female-centric coming of age movie with a really interesting, strong 18-year-old girl and this thing I’m writing is set in the mountains in North Carolina and she’s a projectionist at a movie theater. It’s a small town love story about a young lady and boys and cinephilia all that stuff. 

Necessary Chaos: Director Nathan Silver Talks ‘Stinking Heaven’

Share Button

Rerun for Stinking Heaven’s theatrical release, beginning at Anthology Film Archives tomorrow.

“I’ve always dreamed of making movies that are not movies, but rather, moving pieces of madness: fitful and raggedly energetic,” said director Nathan Silver when we caught up in Brooklyn last week. As one of the most fascinating independent filmmakers working today, the prolific and maniacally passionate Silver has made five features (The Blind, Soft in the Head, Exit Elena, Uncertain Terms) in five years and shows no signs of slowing down. But it’s that fiendish desire to create and explore that pours over into Silver’s films, making them feel both inspiring and painfully pleasurable to watch. And with his latest film, Stinking Heaven,  Silver once again revisits his affinity for stories that explore the claustrophobic and emotionally fraught experience of familial structures and shared living. Whereas Uncertain Terms took place in a secluded home for pregnant teenagers, here Silver gives us a raw portrait of a suburban safe house for recovering addicts. Set in New Jersey in the 1990s, and featuring an ensemble cast that mixes indie film staples with incredible unknowns, Stinking Heaven intimately explores the daily life and rituals of the house, from group therapy and reenactments to the strained relationships and dynamics that make up their insular world. Shot on lo-fi cameras from the decade, the film plays out as a raw depiction of the tempestuous atmosphere that overcomes the house when a new member begins to disrupt their daily order. Shot through Silver’s neurotic and chaotic lens, we’re given a unique and visceral film that’s as intelligently crafted as it is playful and risk-taking—a refreshing and exciting new work from a director who gets better with each new world he chooses to inhabit.

Last week, I sat down with Silver to chat more about the unbearable joy of cinema, his particular filmmaking process, and directing his mother on screen.

stinking-695x525-1

A little while back you and I were talking about how exciting it is when watching a film feels like an experience and gives you a physical reaction. So I’m curious what films initially gave you that kind of visceral stimulation and had a lasting effect.

When I was a kid I didn’t love movies because as soon as I started to realize what the story was about I got bored. I was very antsy, but I remember loving Batman with Jack Nicholson. Then my parents showed me Un Chien Andalou when I was very young because I was obsessed with Dali’s paintings. The visceral thing didn’t really happen in a movie theater until college, though, because I was more into poetry and literature as a teenager and I thought movies were an inferior art form—I was a really pretentious teenager, obviously.

One of the first major experiences for me was seeing Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex. I watched that because Richard Foreman, who I working for at the time, recommended it. The first ten minutes of it shook me up and I just loved it. I can’t get over the lyricism of it and how crushing it is. I don’t know exactly what’s so crushing about it, but it just gets me. Then there was a Kira Muratova movie I saw just before graduating college, Getting to Know the Big Wide World. I just sat in my seat at Lincoln Center for 20 minutes afterwards; I couldn’t shake that one. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul had a similar effect. That had to do with timing too, because I saw it after a bad breakup in college. I’d gone back to my parents house for a weekend and I rented that from their local video store, and on the side of the VHS was a picture of Fassbinder. I thought he was just going to be one of the actors in it and I thought he was going to kill Ali. I kept waiting for that, but then it ends up being this melodrama love story, and I just fell apart watching it. So these are not necessarily sensory movies; they’re not crushing in the same way that something like Leviathan or Tabu is. I love Tabu because of the way it manipulates sound, and it just crushes you with nostalgia in a way that just gets me so badly. Yesterday we were trying to cut the trailer for Stinking Heaven and the editor and I were having a lot of trouble with it, so we watched the trailer for Frownland. That has such a mania to it, and just that sense of desperation and anxiety—it’s a joy to watch but it’s unbearable. It’s an unbearable joy, and I love that. 

Is that feeling of unbearable joy and energy something you inherently bring to your movies?

There’s a certain neurotic quality I share with the kind of filmmaker who would make a film like that. That kind of energy is also the energy of the music that I’ve loved since I’ve been conscious, like The Fall—that weird, jagged, strangeness. There’s that saying: it’s not music, it’s The Fall. I’ve always dreamed of making movies that are not movies but rather, moving pieces of madness: fitful and raggedly energetic.

Hannah Gross in Stinking Heaven

You begin your films with an outline and the rest is mostly improvised, which almost feels like a reaction to the fact that you studied playwriting and screenwriting. Do you find that because you were forced to do so much writing in a condensed period of time, it’s now freeing to make films in this way? Is it easier for you to do so because that sense of narrative structure and storytelling is engrained in you?

I think so. I’m grateful that I studied all the Aristotelian bullshit. I transferred from the General Studies program to Tisch in my second year, so I was writing very experimental plays. They said, “We’re not going to be able to teach you anything because the only thing you can be taught is structure.” So I gave in and learned all about the “well-made play.” At the time, it was like doing a crossword puzzle or something, trying to fit all the pieces together. But you’ll find them in any good story – they come through unconsciously – it’s just how we tell stories. But I think it’s good to have it hammered into you, spit it out, and reject it – instead of just rejecting it completely outright. It’s good to have some sense of forward motion in movie and the “well-made play” kind of structure enforces it.

Do your ideas come first from characters and people in your world or from dramatic situations you want to explore?

It used to be about situations – I wanted to get in the same subject matter that all these novelists and poets from nineteenth century France were into. I wanted to know that kind of debaucherous lifestyle from nineteenth century France, but it wasn’t what I was living. I started thinking about my own life and what was surrounding me. I started to draw on my mother and other people around me.

Did you draw from the people around you for Stinking Heaven?

It began with Keith Poulson and Deragh Campbell and just figuring out their characters with them. I knew I wanted them to run some sort of cult or commune, but I didn’t know just what kind at the outset. Then after many discussions with them, it became clear that it was going to be a sober-living house. We started doing research on different types of rehabilitation therapy, psychotherapy, and reenactment therapy.

Henry Douvry and Eleonore Hendricks in Stinking Heaven

Those reenactment scenes were fascinating to watch. The first time we see them played out, it feels completely jarring and exciting—but it’s also a risky thing to do. 

It’s a character acting. At first it can come across as bas acting. When someone sees the person going through all this emotional catharsis, many people go, “What the fuck?” I think it’s fascinating, that he distancing effect. Not only is it an uncomfortable situation the character is reenacting, but it’s also uncomfortable for some audience members because they think that potentially the actor is just flailing about – and I love that. I take a lot of joy in that sense of confusion.

Did you have a personal connection to this story?

Part of my family was involved with various communes, so I suppose that’s where the personal connection lies: this idea of people living on top of each other, living toward some end-goal or ideal.

That seems to be something you are working through in all your movies.

Absolutely. With this one it reached its logical conclusion, as there is no protagonist. You’re like passing a baton or something from one character to another. You think Hannah is going to be the protagonist but then she’s not. She just kind of enters the house and is absorbed into it. She wrecks this havoc, but it’s not her story. You’re watching all these characters fall at the wayside and you’re trying to figure out who to stick with, but in the end it’s about the house.

There’s always something going on behind all of these characters’ eyes, which is the mark of good acting but also your work with them to create their character. Do you build that together and work out a backstory even if we never hear about it on screen?

I meet with all of them individually and have them come up with their own back stories and then we discuss and refine and revise as we go. At first, I don’t know what was going to happen story-wise. Once the characters are set, I sit down with a writer and figure out how to structure the story. Of course once the actors begin to actually interact with each other, we must further revise and refine their behaviors. 

Do you like placing that responsibility on the actor?

 Yes, absolutely. I’m so limited in what I can imagine. If you’re going to be working with others, I feel they should be bringing their full minds to the table. It’s not just bringing their bodies.

So is the experience of being there and watching the situations you’ve created unfold what attracts you to filmmaking?

Absolutely. I’m stifling laughing behind the monitor. It’s just so fun. Even if it’s miserable situations, watching people in groups trying to deal with each other, it’s the comedy of life. If you can’t laugh at it, you’re just going to be miserable.

Deragh Campbell in Stinking Heaven

What camera was this shot on?

It’s a Ikegami HL 79E. I can send you the specs. It’s basically a broadcast camera. It was used mostly in the mid-80’s.

How did this camera lend itself to this particular story? What was it about Stinking Heaven on the page that begged for this aesthetic?

During the development phase, I had this sense of doom in my personal life that reminded me of something I remember feeling as a kid in the late 80’s/early 90’s. I was also loading up on all these documentaries from that period, and suddenly I just knew that the movie had to take place back then. I wanted it to have the haze and grime of those documentaries, so we looked into the cameras that folks like Jon Alpert used. As soon as we stumbled onto this particular model through a YouTube clip, I knew we needed to get our hands on it. 

I read that you said each of your movies is a reaction to the last one you’ve made. How was Stinking Heaven a reaction to Uncertain Terms and where does this leave you now for your next movie?

Uncertain Terms was more about telling a classical story, and it was much more scripted. With this one, no dialogue was written and it was way more along the lines of Soft in the Head. So after having something that was more scripted, going back to something that was complete chaos was necessary. Something’s shifted in me, where  I’m developing multiple projects at once, and I no longer have that violent need to react to my last movie.

Is it because you feel like you’ve achieved something specific with Stinking Heaven that you didn’t with your past films?

I can’t say why. I feel somehow all my frustrations with Stinking Heaven are just molecules in the air, so I’m not even aware where they are and I wouldn’t know what to react against. I would certainly shoot on an analog camera again, I would certainly shoot improvised and completely chaotic movie again, it hasn’t shifted that. I want to shoot things that can go a bit further out there with what the story is telling using narration, utilizing surreal elements, and getting out of this linear documentary-style slice-of-life movies. So maybe that’s my reaction to Stinking Heaven

Bringing in more structure would allow for a new kind of absurdity.

There’s has to be some structure to allow the absurdity to shine. You need some string to hang the lights off of. 

Keith Poulson in Stinking Heaven

Do you enjoy acting in your movies?

Yea, I love acting. It’s fun. I hate memorizing lines though. I just get off on reacting to other people, and that’s what acting is—acting is reacting. 

How did you begin casting your mother [Cindy Silver] and what was the experience of working with her like?

In my short films, I would always cast this other woman Carla for the role of the mother, then I realized, Why wouldn’t I just try acting using my mother, because I want the things she says to come out of her mouth. It had nothing to do with Carla’s acting, I liked the way Carla acted in the movie, but my mother is a one of a kind storyteller. I was always fascinated with how many tangents she would go on and how she could talk about five different things at once. She’d be talking to you about about how her friend is in despair and about to commit suicide then turn to another person and say, “The cat’s about to get out!” ask another person if he wanted a glass of seltzer. Her mind’s just bouncing all over the place. Working with her is not necessarily fun, we fight a lot and it’s essentially a traumatic experience for us both during the shoot, but afterwards, we’re completely fine with each other. She’s going to be in The Perverts, and she’s going to be in the Denver movie that I’m shooting in July. It’s like you can’t escape your family and I can’t escape her and she’ll be in my movies no matter how much we fight.

And now she’s won awards for her acting. 

Yea. It’s really funny because she doesn’t want to travel to act. She’ll only travel for me, she says.

Filmmaker Rick Alverson’s Seven Cinematic Inspirations

Share Button

Originally run for Sundance 2015

As the follow up to 2013’s The Comedy, filmmaker Rick Alverson’s latest foray into the nightmarish male psyche, Entertainment will finally have its theatrical release beginning this week. Centering on a dispirited and aging traveling comedian, known to us only as The Comedian, the film follows as he travels across the desolate California desert, performing at third-rate venues to unenthused audiences and leaving a series of strange voicemails for his estranged daughter. Starring the bizarre and hilarious Gregg Turkington, alongside fantastic up-and-coming actor Tye Sheridan as young clown touring with him, and small roles from John C. Reilly, Amy Seitmetz, Dean Stockwell, and Michael Cera, Entertainment is a far more tonally subdued and unnerving character portrait than his previous film, echoing the disquieting emotional isolation of its protagonist.

The Comedy was an experiment in violating that instinct one has as a filmmaker or artist to promote oneself, to have the work be an extension of one’s aesthetic and contours,” Alverson told me. “It felt like a real conversation with the world and a craft to divest myself of that and ask questions obliquely through the work.”

To get a closer look into Entertainment, we asked Alverson to curate a list of films that served as inspiration for the film as well as films that continually inspired him as a filmmaker.

BENNY’S VIDEO, Michael Haneke

A chiseled, unflinching look at indifference and civilization.

COME AND SEE, Elem Klimov

One of the most sustained, haunting considerations of fear and curiosity I’ve ever seen. 

WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, Mike Nichols

I usually have an aversion to dialog dependent narrative but love Albee and Nichols’ commits so strongly to this couples relentless stamina. 

TWO LANE BLACKTOP, Monte Hellman

The way this film unfolds and our slippery grasp on what it’s saying have stayed with me for decades. 

A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, John Casavettes

One of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen, but so full of the effort to live.

STROSZEK, Werner Herzog

A benchmark statement on the American dream. 

THE IDIOTS, Lars Von Trier

When I first saw The idiots I didn’t know what I was watching, and when it became apparent I couldn’t forget it. A perfect balance of form and content. 

The 16 Best Films to See in New York This Weekend: Akerman, Suzuki, Rivette, Cassavetes + More

Share Button

Presenting our weekly guide to must-see movies in New York: from Jacques Rivette at BAM to John Cassavetes at Nitehawk, here are 17 films to see in New York this week.

***FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 13***

BRANDED TO KILL, Seijun Suzuki
The Film Society of Lincoln Center

brandedtokill1-1600x900-c-default

This fractured film noir is the final provocation that got Suzuki fired from Nikkatsu Studios, simultaneously making him a counterculture hero and putting him out of work for a decade. An anarchic send-up of B-movie clichés, it stars Joe Shishido as an assassin who gets turned on by the smell of cooking rice, and whose failed attempt to kill a victim (a butterfly lands on his gun) turns him into a target himself. Perhaps Suzuki’s most famous film, it has been cited as an influence by filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, Park Chan-wook, and John Woo, as well as the composer John Zorn, who called it “a cinematic masterpiece that transcends its genre.”

Read More

TOKYO DRIFTER, Seijun Suzuki
The Film Society of Lincoln Center

tokyodrifter1-1600x900-c-default

Tasked with making a vehicle for actor-singer Tetsuya Watari to croon the title song, Suzuki concocted this crazy yarn about a reformed yakuza on the run from his former comrades. The film is mainly an excuse to stage an escalating series of goofy musical numbers and over-the-top fight scenes. Popping with garish colors, self-parodic style, and avant-garde visual design, Tokyo Drifterembodies a late-1960s zeitgeist in which trash and art joyfully comingle. “With influences that range from Pop Art to 1950s Hollywood musicals, and from farce and absurdist comedy to surrealism, Suzuki shows off his formal acrobatics in a film that is clearly meant to mock rather than celebrate the yakuza film genre” (Nikolaos Vryzidis, Director of World Cinema: Japan).

Read More

AMARCORD, Frederico Fellini
MoMA

Screen shot 2015-11-06 at 9.42.05 PM

Screened with an additional 10 minutes of silent outtakes edited by Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso), this Italian theatrical version ofAmarcord—unlike the English-dubbed U.S. release—highlights Fellini’s use of multiple narrators and points of view. Filmed in Fellini’s seaside hometown of Rimini, where he made I Vitelloni in 1953, this affectionately grotesque fantasia about provincial life during the Fascist 1930s is filled with his usual gallery of broadly sketched eccentrics—the village idiot, the overripe mamma, the buffoonish collaborator—seen through a filter of personal reminiscence (the title means “I remember”) that makes this one of his most deeply felt films. And while its vaudevillian pleasures remain undimmed across the 42 years since it won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, Amarcord is also a trenchant meditation on Italy’s national character, reflecting Fellini’s observation that “fascism and adolescence continue to be . . . permanent historical seasons of our lives.” 

Read More

OUT 1: EPISODES 7 & 8, Jacques Rivette
BAM

out1epthreefour613x463

Over eight episodes, a cast of French New Wave icons improvise a spellbinding tale involving two theater troupes rehearsing Aeschylus, a female con artist (Berto) who seduces her victims, and a deaf-mute (until he speaks) busker (Léaud) on a quest to uncover a mysterious secret society. As the characters’ paths crisscross and the film’s puzzle-box structure grows ever more elaborate, a portrait of post-May 1968 Paris and its dashed dreams emerges. The result is a cinematic experience unlike any other, in which, as Rivette himself put it: “the fiction swallows everything up and then self-destructs.”

Read More

JOHNNY GUITAR, Nicholas Ray
Film Forum

JOHNNY-GUITAR-2-img-lighter

“How many men have you forgotten?” “As many women as you remember.” In a dusty Arizona town, Joan Crawford’s pants-wearing, gun-toting saloon owner (“Down there I sell whiskey and cards. All you can buy up these stairs is a bullet in the head. Now which do you want?”) stands to rake in the dough when the railroad comes through. But when the stage is robbed and a rancher murdered, the townspeople ready a noose for her more-than-friend The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), with insanely jealous cattle baroness Mercedes McCambridge (years later the voice of the Devil in The Exorcist) hell-bent on having Crawford join him. Enter Joan’s old flame Sterling Hayden, as the eponymous Johnny, who, despite preferring guitar-play over gun-play – and up against bad guys like Ernest Borgnine and Ward Bond – does what a man’s gotta do. Nick Ray’s baroque, emotionally tormented Western, photographed in “gorgeous Trucolor by Consolidated” (and looking better than it ever deserved in this new 4K restoration), bursts at the seams with sexual tension and anti-McCarthy allegory. American reviewers scratched their heads (British critic Gavin lambert deemed it one of the silliest films of the year), but it was immediately embraced by the young critics of Cahiers du Cinéma – among them future directors Eric Rohmer (“Ray is the poet of love and violence”), Jean-Luc Godard (“here is something which exists only in cinema”), and François Truffaut (“dream-like, magical, delirious… the Beauty and the Beast of the Western”). High praise indeed for a Republic Pictures oater!

Read More 

***SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 14***

ZIGEUNERWEISEN,  Seijun Suzuki
The Film Society of Lincoln Center

zigeunerweisen1-1600x900-c-default

Named the best film of the 1980s in a poll of Japanese film critics, Zigeunerweisen takes its title from a recording of violin music by Pablo de Sarasate. The piece haunts the film’s two main characters: Aochi, an uptight professor at a military academy, and his erstwhile colleague Nakasago, who is now a wild-haired wanderer and possible murderer. The movie’s plot is a metaphysical ghost story involving love triangles, doppelgängers, and a blurred line between the worlds of the living and the dead. “Underlying the teasing riddles,” writes film critic Tony Rayns, “is an aching lament for the sumptuous hybrid culture of the 1920s that was swept away by the militarism of the 1930s.” Print courtesy of the Kawakita Memorial Film Institute.

Read More

KAGERO-ZA, Seijun Suzuki
The Film Society of Lincoln Center

kagero-za1-1600x900-c-default

According to film critic Tony Rayns, Kagerô-za “may well be Suzuki’s finest achievement outside the constraints of genre filmmaking.” In this hallucinatory adaptation of work by the Taisho-era writer Kyoka Izumi, a mysterious woman named Shinako invites Matsuzaki, a playwright, to the city of Kanazawa for a romantic rendezvous. While Matsuzaki is on his way, his patron Tamawaki appears on the train, claiming to be en route to witness a love suicide between a married woman and her lover. Matsuzaki suspects that Shinako is Tamawaki’s wife, and the trip to Kanazawa may spell his doom. Like Zigeunerweisen before it, reality, fantasy, life, and the afterlife blend together in Kagero-za—most spectacularly during the grand finale, in which Matsuzaki finds his life morphing into a deranged theatrical extravaganza. Print courtesy of the Japan Foundation.

Read More

OUT 1: EPISODES 1 & 2, Jaques Rivette
BAM

out1eponetwo613x463

Over eight episodes, a cast of French New Wave icons improvise a spellbinding tale involving two theater troupes rehearsing Aeschylus, a female con artist (Berto) who seduces her victims, and a deaf-mute (until he speaks) busker (Léaud) on a quest to uncover a mysterious secret society. As the characters’ paths crisscross and the film’s puzzle-box structure grows ever more elaborate, a portrait of post-May 1968 Paris and its dashed dreams emerges. The result is a cinematic experience unlike any other, in which, as Rivette himself put it: “the fiction swallows everything up and then self-destructs.” New restoration courtesy of Carlotta Films US.

Read More

JEANNE DIELMAN, 23, QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES, Chantal Akerman
MoMA

Screen shot 2015-11-06 at 9.43.11 PM

One of the most influential films of the 1970s, Chantal Akerman’sJeanne Dielman describes, with meticulous detail, three days in the life of the title character, a middle-aged single mother and part-time prostitute (the magnificent Delphine Seyrig) who manages her clients with the same impersonal efficiency with which she washes potatoes. The film’s careful color scheme, lost in most circulating prints, has been restored digitally from the original 35mm color negative by Belgium’s Cinémathèque Royale.

Read More

OUT 1: EPISODES 3 & 4, Jacques Rivette
BAM

out1epfivesix613x463

Over eight episodes, a cast of French New Wave icons improvise a spellbinding tale involving two theater troupes rehearsing Aeschylus, a female con artist (Berto) who seduces her victims, and a deaf-mute (until he speaks) busker (Léaud) on a quest to uncover a mysterious secret society. As the characters’ paths crisscross and the film’s puzzle-box structure grows ever more elaborate, a portrait of post-May 1968 Paris and its dashed dreams emerges. The result is a cinematic experience unlike any other, in which, as Rivette himself put it: “the fiction swallows everything up and then self-destructs.” New restoration courtesy of Carlotta Films US.

Read More

THE HOT ROCK, Peter Yates
Film Forum

Hot_Rock_1972_2082050

 A group of unlikely jewel thieves attempt – repeatedly – to heist a rare diamond from the Brooklyn Museum in this caper comedy starring Robert Redford, George Segal, Paul Sand and a scene-stealing Ron Leibman. Written by Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman (based on the Donald E. Westlake novel). With a quirky, jazz score by Quincy Jones,  fabulous early ‘70s New York City locations, and a supporting cast including Zero Mostel, Moses Gunn, and Christopher Guest in his film debut. 

Read More

***SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 15***

CAPONE CRIES A LOT,  Seijun Suzuki
The Film Society of Lincoln Center

caponecriesalot1-1600x900-c-default

In this surreal comic confection, a traditional naniwa-bushisinger moves to Prohibition-era San Francisco. He goes in search of Al Capone, whom he mistakenly believes is president, hoping to impress the gangster with his singing and to popularize the art form in the States. Filmed mostly in an abandoned amusement park in Japan, Suzuki’s vision of 1920s America is an anarchic collage of pop-culture images, from cowboys to Charlie Chaplin. One reason Capone is so rarely seen is that it reflects the racial attitudes of the time in which it is set by including, for example, a minstrel band in blackface. Such discomfiting images are balanced by scenes featuring an actual African-American jazz ensemble that joins the film’s hero in jam sessions mixing blues, jazz, and naniwa-bushi. Print courtesy of the Japan Foundation.

Read More

A TALE OF SORROW AND SADNESS,  Seijun Suzuki
The Film Society of Lincoln Center

ataleofsorrowandsadness1-1600x900-c-default

Nearly a decade after being fired by Nikkatsu Studios, Suzuki returned to the director’s chair with this titillating tale of a model who is groomed to become a professional golfer as a publicity stunt. When she turns out to be good at the sport, her success leads a deranged fan to hatch a blackmail scheme. “Riddled with the director’s wildly non-conformist use of non-contiguous edits, unhinged shot composition, and violent splashes of colour, crazed and chaotic and for too long buried in the sand bunkers of obscurity, this long-overlooked work simply cries out for revival” (Jasper Sharp, Midnight Eye). Print courtesy of the Japan Foundation.

Read More

OUT 1: EPISODES 5 & 6, Jacques Rivette
BAM

outonealternate613x463

Over eight episodes, a cast of French New Wave icons improvise a spellbinding tale involving two theater troupes rehearsing Aeschylus, a female con artist (Berto) who seduces her victims, and a deaf-mute (until he speaks) busker (Léaud) on a quest to uncover a mysterious secret society. As the characters’ paths crisscross and the film’s puzzle-box structure grows ever more elaborate, a portrait of post-May 1968 Paris and its dashed dreams emerges. The result is a cinematic experience unlike any other, in which, as Rivette himself put it: “the fiction swallows everything up and then self-destructs.” New restoration courtesy of Carlotta Films US.

Read More

THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE, John Cassavetes
Nitehawk Cinema

Film_254w_KillignBookie_original

Los Angeles always feels personal when John Cassavetes sets it as the background for his films. In his stylistic noir vision, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, the city becomes a landscape where morals and masculine identity are tested after the unhealthy appetite of gentleman’s club owner, Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara), puts him in an impossible situation. Having to answer to his angry loan sharks, he must choose how far he’ll go in order to appease the gangsters. Cassavetes gives L.A. a surreal and gritty atmosphere here; it’s a city you certainly don’t want to mess with.

Read More

THE PARALLAX VIEW, Alan J. Pakula
Film Forum

parallax-view-22050

Reporter Warren Beatty digs into the cover-up of a political assassination at Seattle’s Space Needle and finds a super-secret right-wing organization at the source, in Pakula’s ominous descent into post-Watergate paranoia, shot by the great Gordon Willis (THE GODFATHER). “Beatty gives possibly the best performance of his career… One of the high points of the New American Cinema.” – Alex Cox, The Guardian (UK) I.B. Technicolor 35mm print courtesy Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.

Read More

The Director of ‘Peggy Guggenheim — Art Addict’ on Her 3 Favorite Contemporary Artists

Share Button

For the release of her new film Peggy Guggenheim — Art Addict, documentary filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland tells us whose work she’s continually excited and inspired by.

“I like the whole idea of a character that wants to reinvent themselves,” said director Lisa Immordino Vreeland on what inspired her fantastic new documentary Peggy Guggenheim — Art Addict. “She’s a woman who took these things on and was unhappy at a young age, but instead of just sitting there complaining, she wanted to do something about it.” Coming off the success of her celebrated debut documentary, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, Vreeland’s latest focuses in on Peggy Guggenheim, another iconic woman, and one of the art world’s most renowned figures.

The film explores Guggenheim’s fascinating life—from her unique upbringing and tragic family history to her scintillating days in 1920s Paris and the platform she created for some of contemporary art’s most talented minds. Championing now iconic 20th century masters like Marcel Duchamp, Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, and many others, Guggenheim supported and adored their work before modern audiences caught on. Although Guggenheim was wonderfully idiosyncratic and known for her many lovers, she was also vulnerable, passionate, and extremely dedicated. It’s a side of her which Vreeland acutely displays through intimate and revealing tape recordings with Guggenheim herself, creating an entertaining portrait of an extraordinary woman whose remarkable life story usually gets hidden behind her work.

When we caught up with Vreeland last week, she shared some of the contemporary artists whose creative output she admires. Stay tuned for our forthcoming interview with Vreeland, and take a look at her artist picks below.

KARA WALKER 

Creative Time Presents Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety” from Creative Time on Vimeo.

Her storytelling is what attracts me so much.  She reexamines things that have happened in history and allows us to think about it in a different way. 

Vreeland’s favorite work: Walker’s installation for Domino Sugar Factory

ROBERT GOBER

107553

Robert Gober (American, born 1954). Untitled Leg. 1989–90. © 2014 Robert Gober via MoMA

For his ability to go back and forth from reality to dreams throughout his work. 

Vreeland’s favorite work: His whole show at the MoMA in 2014.

TRACY EMIN

CS37_0026_Emin_OH_GCR

Automatic Orgasm 2001 via Saatchi Gallery

For the brutal honesty of her art and stripping herself bare to us, the viewers.

Vreeland’s favorite work:  Emin’s embroidered works – especially the blankets.

Stephen Winter’s ‘Jason and Shirley’ Cuts Deep Into a Black, Gay Classic of Essential American Cinema

Share Button

Re-run for tonight’s Evening With Stephen Winter at MoMA

“It’s the only film that’s part of Essential Cinema that has a black gay man as its lead protagonist,” says director Stephen Winter about Oscar-winner Shirley Clarke’s seminal 1967 documentary Portrait of Jason, which serves as the basis for his latest film Jason and Shirley. As Winter’s first feature-length narrative work since 1997’s Chocolate Babies, his new movie takes Clarke’s now-iconic film and turns it inside out. Nearly half a century since Clarke turned the camera on Jason Holliday—a downtown legend, entertainer, and hustler with a larger-than-life personality—to deliver a radical and captivating documentary about persona, race, sexuality, and performance, Winter presents a fictionalized version of the chaotic 12 hours Holliday and Clarke spent together in her Chelsea Hotel apartment. 

In Jason and Shirley, Winter gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Portrait of Jason, capturing everything from the exhausting push-pull of Clarke and Holliday’s director-subject power play to the provocation of Holliday’s astonishing emotional breakdown and the hidden memories of his painful past. Starring downtown theater veteran Jack Waters and Sarah Schulman (who also co-write the film), Jason and Shirley plays out with anxious fervor that builds slowly before coming apart at the seams before our eyes. 

This week, Winter’s film will have its world premiere at BAMcinemaFest. To honor the occasion we spoke with him to get a closer look at his personal connection to Portrait of Jason, how he and his collaborators crafted the film, and the cultural significance it holds today.

When did you first see Portrait of Jason and what was its immediate effect on you?

I first saw it when I was a kid, probably 21 years-old. It had a cataclysmic effect on me because it was the only film that’s part of Essential Cinema that has a black gay man as its lead protagonist—and it’s a devastating portrait. It’s hilarious, it is riveting, it’s brilliantly made, but it would appear, upon first watching, that Shirley is goading Jason into greater depths of emotional despair as the films grinds on. Then Jason himself is a black, gay prostitute; he hasn’t fulfilled his dreams of being a cabaret singer, and he seems to have a great deal of notoriety but not a lot of love in his life. He’s constantly chain-smoking, drinking, and referring to all kinds of drugs and the adventure of his past. It’s very intense. 

When you compare that to every other film ever made that has white gay people in it, it’s pretty rough. So it took me a long time to come back to it. Everybody who’s black and gay and into art goes through Portrait of Jason, and everyone interested in documentaries or essential cinema goes through it. Also, as the years went on, I noticed that although it’s on the top of the list for people who are interested in essential cinema, it’s not a film that’s embraced by gay people or black people—possibly because it has a whiff of exploitation, possibly because it’s so dark in its subject matter, or possibly because Jason is sort of a “bad subject” and not a positive role model. Although, you could look at the coded gay figures that appear in Hitchcock movies as murderers and such, they’re not great role models either, but they do get on the list of like, The 50 Gays Films You Have to Watch. But Portrait of Jason falls through the cracks. That’s also possibly because Shirley Clarke, although an iconoclast genius, as a female director in the 1950s was marginalized because of her gender. She always showed difficult subjects, mostly about black people, which also marginalized her. Even though she was a member of the Chelsea Hotel and was a legend, nobody writes books about her and nobody teaches classes about her. 

Where did the idea to invert the film come from, to show it from Jason’s perspective?

Fast forward years later, the idea of the film came up and I leapt on it. Taking that historical event and putting it in Jason’s perspective, I thought it could not only bring a full circle resolution to the questions and the pain that surrounds Portrait of Jason, but also reintroduce it to a whole new group of people—be it feminists, millennials, black people, or anyone who’s interested in issues of the human condition. Portrait of Jason should be up there with Paris is Burning and Fahrenheit 9/11, as one the most important documentaries. Jason Holliday, this historical figure who was a real person and lived in New York and was running around with Miles Davis and in the same circles and James Baldwin, he should be up there as one of the great creative figures and personalities of our time. He was living his life openly, brazenly, and with pride. After you’ve looked at Portrait of Jason multiple times, it’s amazing how much less of a victim and how much more of a human figure who’s a survivor he is—and that’s what’s so exciting about it.

How did you, Jack Waters, and Sarah Schulman begin assembling the film together?

It started with Jack Waters. Sarah, Jack and I have known each other for years, and they’re both geniuses. Sarah is an activist, journalist, and playwright; Jack is a legendary downtown performer and artist. The idea was bouncing around them that Jack should play Jason in something, and Sarah had the idea of: Why don’t you [Jack] play Jason, I play Shirley, and Stephen Winter write and direct it as a film? She called me on that just as I was going to start working on The Butler with Lee Daniels, where I was sort of his right-hand man in archival material. So when Sarah called me with this idea, I was so filled with the 1960s, but I was also exhausted. I said, “Let me think about it,” and went to sleep for a month. When I woke up, it was all there in my head: the perspective I wanted to take, the way I wanted it to look, what I wanted the ending to be. Everything that Jason and Shirley turned into was fully formed into my head. So it was a real organic creative process to create this emotional truth based on the historical fact.

Did your questions of exploitation in Portrait of Jason effect how you approached writing these characters and structuring the dynamic between them?

The only piece of research I did was looking up the making of Portrait of Jason, and the very first fact that flew out at me was that it was shot over a 12-hour marathon; it was just a nonstop shooting period. I was shocked because I had never asked myself that fundamental question: How long did they shoot? It’s ingeniously constructed because it’s all long takes looking at Jason and you hear Shirley Clarke’s voice on screen, and when the film rolls out it goes to black with audio, but then it comes back. So it gives you the illusion that it’s happening in real-time, that you’re watching, in real-time, a guy have a nervous breakdown—but it was actually twelve hours. So it was a 12-hour film with 10 hours cut, and that means the world is in there, and that means all the questions that I have are in there. So if it took her 12 hours to get that performance out of him, which a lot of people thought was Jason playing himself, then this is a story about two geniuses battling over supremacy of what is the truth. 

It was her wanting, him resisting, him wanting, her resisting. Now in real life, Shirley’s the director and she gets the final word. She gets to cut her film. In my film, it will be everything that was not in Shirley’s film, so it would be all those 10 hours now lost to history. I have my characters and what the goals are. It’s not about him versus her or her versus him, it’s that classic Rocky versus Apollo, that battle of the fittest. In real life, of course, Shirley cuts her own film, makes her a work of art, and she has the last word. But in the emotional life, it was Jason, from his perspective, who wins because he gets to be remembered, he gets to give a titanic performance unmatched in the history of film, and he gets to live on forever, which is an amazing thing.

He was also the first snap queen ever put on film. He snaps several times throughout the film, as we now do today. He’s the first person to talk about gay prostitution in such a frank way and talk about what like was like before Stonewall. If he’s not the first, he’s the first to give such a rigorous view from that world. If he hadn’t shown up that day, if he blew it off or Shirley hadn’t chosen him, imagine what would have been lost in history. So the fact that he did get into the room and he did give that performance and he got recorded, that is so beyond legend. It is shocking that up to now so few people have actually seen it.

How does Jason and Shirley, as well as Portrait of Jason, translate to cultural today? Why are these films vital now, and what do you want audiences to take away from the movie?

In terms of our national conversation around race, class, sexuality and gender—especially now that we’re at the end of the Obama era—the nation has done a lot of growing up, and it’s been a hard growing up for some. Sometimes it’s very empowering and sometimes it’s devastating as you look at the blood on the street. All people across the board are more alive to these things and more aware of these things than ever before. We’re not talking about skin color and sexuality or gender, we’re talking about the human right to be alive. This film was shot a year and a half after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 , and barely a hundred years after slavery ended. Think about that! Barely a hundred years. So this film asked, “Why are you alive, Jason Holliday?” Then my film is like, let’s go full circle on that question, and let’s all ask ourselves, why are we alive and why we sometimes feel apart from each other when we really should be together.

If there’s one thing I want to see on the cover of magazines in the next year, it’s black gay men, dressed as men, presenting themselves—not as something that’s unusual or is objectified or not understood, but just as people, as any other person. As a natural progression it’s gone from Neil Patrick Harris to Laverne Cox, and now it’s time for this. So often when you see black gay men in the media presenting themselves it’s around some issue. They’re depicted with some kind of grave expression on their face—that, or they’re being fabulous, which is fine, but not even a fraction of the whole. I’m just looking for humanity. I’m looking to make it no longer unusual. I met Laverne a couple of years ago when she was still an emerging actress, and she was like, “I’m here to be an actress, a trans woman who’s also an actress, and will play all types of roles.” I was like, “Well, hell yea.”  She also wanted to be the voice of the future to defend trans people, and she does. So black gay men next, without the qualification, just a person.

Winona Ryder on Getting to Play Roles Her Age & Michael’s Almereyda’s ‘Experimenter’

Share Button

Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Now in her 40s, Winona Ryder is finally getting what she wants. “I feel like only recently I’ve hit a point where I’m actually old enough to play my age, which is a tremendous relief,” says Ryder when we sat down at the Crosby Street Hotel last Tuesday. An icon of 90s culture, Ryder became the decade’s go-to “waifish ingenue” with films like Reality Bites, Heathers, and Girl, Interrupted but has moved beyond that in her career, and is now getting to take on the more mature roles she’s always wanted to play. With her latest film, Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter, Ryder portrays Sasha Milgram, the wife of controversial social psychologist Stanley Milgram, whose obedience experiments shocked the 1960s. Starring opposite a compelling Peter Saarsgard, Ryder delivers a delicate yet captivating performance as the woman who was not only his partner, but his emotional anchor. Breaking down the barriers between memory and reality, Almereyda brings his imaginative and intelligent touch to the story of Milgram’s work, crafting a character portrait in the way only he can. 

With Experimenter out in theaters this Friday, we sat down with Ryder to chat more about working with Almereyda, the female characters she admires, and re-teaming with Tim Burton for Beetlejuice.

I’m such a fan of Michael’s films. It’s the way he chooses to approach universally known material and make it totally his own that’s so interesting—whether it’s Stanley Milgram or Hamlet.

Me too! He’s actually someone I’ve known since I was 16.

How did you meet him then?

I met him at the Independent Spirit Awards the year Down by Law was there.

So 1986?

Yeah. We have a really, really close mutual friend who’s a photographer and then when he was doing the documentary on the Sam Shepard play [This So-Called Disaster: Sam Shepard Directs the Late Henry Moss] I was living up in San Francisco. He’s someone who, to me, is so uncompromising and thoughtful. Actors want to work with him because he’s not just going to do anything, he’d rather go teach. There’s a lot of trust there.

So how did you two reconnect for this film?

He called me a couple years before it was made when they were still trying to raise the money. I just immediately said yes. Peter was attached and he’s honestly one of my favorite actors and someone I’ve known forever and really wanted to work with. The opportunity to work with both of them was sort of a no-brainer. Then reading the script, it was such an unusual, untraditional imaginative take on a biopic. I’ve done biopics and you have to cram decades into a movie. It can work sometimes and other times it doesn’t, and this was just so interesting. The things that he chose to focus on, in terms of the experiments and the scenes of our marriage, were unusual. She wasn’t the nagging wife, she was a big part of his life and their marriage was very strong. She was very supportive and involved, his rock. It was really great because I got to spend some time with Sasha.

When you’re portraying a real person, and someone who’s still alive, does that make the role more difficult? Do you feel like you have to justice to that person?

Yes, most of the time. Certainly with things like Girl, Interrupted and the things where the people are still with us. But for example, with The Iceman, I deliberately didn’t and she didn’t want anything to do with it either. I didn’t quite believe she was totally oblivious and I felt that my character was just in denial, so it wouldn’t have helped me. But there is always an extra element of wanting to please that person and I actually just did it with Show Me a Hero too. But when you meet Sasha—I feel like this is a weird word to use because there’s no pun intended—she’s such a spark. She’s so intelligent and she had such an amazing life before they met. She had traveled, she was very worldly. They were very, very much in love. She worked with him and she was supportive, but not in that way we always see. She also stood up to him.

2

It was also interesting to see how the work he did effected the world he came to. You mentioned the typical wife we so often see in films—do you read a lot of those one-note characters in the scripts you’re offered?

There was a time, because I had a lot success when I was in my teens and 20s and then I went through this period where I looked too young but I actually wasn’t too young, that people still associated me with these younger, waifish ingenue characters even though I could have been a lawyer or something else. I feel like only recently I’ve hit a point where I’m actually old enough to play my age, which is a tremendous relief. I know there’s so much put on youth these days, but I had a weird experience because when I started acting all of my heros were like Ruth Gordon and Gena Rowlands and I always got along with older people. My mom was a hospice worker and I used to go with her, before I was an actress, and I remember saying, “Oh my gosh each one of them there could be a movie about their life.” But there is something very liberating about getting past that weird 30s thing. I’m turning 44 this month and I just feel like I’m finally being offered, or able to play, parts my age.

That’s actually incredibly refreshing to hear considering how scared people usually are of getting older and not being cast once they’ve reached a certain age. 

Well, I understand that too. Did you see Searching for Debra Winger? It’s a documentary that Rosanna Arquette made where she just talked to actresses about this very thing, about getting put out to pasture after 40. It happens and some don’t make it. But to me, my favorite characters were like Margo Channing, which Bette Davis played when she was like 43, 44. I’ve always found older roles more interesting than the ingenue parts. Also when you start as young as I did you’re always the kid and you want to be older.

You also get to play more complex characters who’ve lived richer lives, which you can draw on from your own experience.

In a way I feel like it was a blessing in disguise in my 30s because I took a lot of time off and I explored a lot of other interests that have nothing to do with acting and Hollywood. What do they say when you’re young, “Would you rather be interested or interesting?”I was always like, “Interested, is that even a question?” I am a very interested person. I was in San Francisco recently with my parents and some friends and they were talking about me as a kid and saying that I would just consume everything. I remember the first time I heard about Milgram I was in the car with my dad listening to the Peter Gabriel’s So album and we were listening to the song that goes, “We do what we’re told…,” which is called “Milgram 47.” I asked him and he told me about it.

As actors we’re very, very amateur psychologists, we work with trying to understand people, so the obedience experiments themselves were so fascinating to me. I’m somewhat of a history buff, but especially WII. My grandfather died in the Battle of Guadalcanal and my dad lost a lot of family in the camps, so I’ve always been fascinated with that and how could people stand by and all that. I read Banality of Evil and a lot of stuff of Eichmann. Banality of Evil is an opinion and it’s controversial, but I think Milgrim was effected by following orders and WWII.  So I just found the whole thing very fascinating. I was happy to get the chance to work with Michael, he’s an artist, and I find him to be so elegant in his choices. He’s so thoughtful as a person but also in the choices he makes. There’s something that happens when you’re on a set where nowadays if you have a question you kind of have to call it out and have everybody hear you, but Michael will come over and take that time even though we’re under the gun. You trust that if you’re going to try something that may not work, he’s not going to use it. To have that trust is really amazing.

4

Now that you’re doing more TV work with Show Me a Hero, do you find that’s where all the good roles are right now?

It’s so weird the way the business has changed. For movies, it’s either small movies like this that are labors of love that you have to wait years to get the money and you’re paid nothing, which is fine, or movies like The Avengers. They don’t make middle budget movies anymore, so TV has become sort of that middle. It’s new to me. I did this mini-series, which was different because it was like six hours but there was an end to it, and I’m doing this thing for Netflix now where we’re doing a season. But I’m curious to see how different it is than making a film. 

Speaking of your past, are you definitely going to be reuniting with Tim Burton for Beetlejuice?

I hope so! I feel like every time I open my mouth about that I regret it, only because I don’t know. Tim kind of confirmed it in an on camera interview and I repeated that and then that’s all anyone was talking about. It would be very exciting and it sounds like it’s going to happen, but I just don’t know!

Olivier Assayas on Working With Kristen Stewart and Revisiting His Past With ‘Clouds and Sils Maria’

Olivier Assayas, Kristen Stewart, Juliette Binoche
Share Button

Re-run in celebration of FIAF’s “Theater & Cinema” series. Clouds of Sils Maria will screen this afternoon and this evening. Get your tickets here.

With his last film, Something in the Air, filmmaker Olivier Assayas revisited the sentiment of his profound and poetic early films to give an autobiographical look at an artist’s coming of age. With his latest cinematic endeavor, Clouds of Sils Maria, the acclaimed French director again reaches into the past—but this time through the eyes of the performer, re-teaming with one of his first collaborators, actress Juliette Binoche. Exactly 30 years ago, Assayas received his first screenwriting credit on André Téchiné’s César Award-winning Rendez-vous, the film which also catapulted Juliette Binoche to international stardom. Whereas that film told the story of an ingenue on the precipice of her career, Clouds of Sils Maria brings us into the world of seasoned, internationally celebrated actress, Maria Enders, at the peak of her career.

CLOUDS-OF-SILS-MARIA-5

Written for and around Binoche, the film begins when Enders is invited to perform in the revival of the play that made her a star twenty years prior. Having originally played the role of Sigrid (an enticing young woman who drives her boss, Helena, to kill herself), now in her matured age Enders must take on the role of Helena, opposite an infamous tabloid-dwelling Hollywood starlet (Chloë Grace Moretz). To prepare for the role, Enders escapes to Sils Maria, an isolated and serene location in the French Alps. To help her rehearse, she brings along her devoted assistant, Valentine, played by Kristen Stewart in the most wonderfully nuanced and natural performance of her career—and one which made her the first American woman to win France’s César Award. With Assayas’ keen sensitivity to the human condition and the everyday suffering of artistic expression, Clouds of Sils Maria unfolds as an intimate and cerebral chamber drama that hits at the nexus of between performance, celebrity, and empathy. 

Earlier this year during the New York Film Festival, I sat down with Assayas to discuss how Binoche lured him into making this film, the weird energy of Kristen Stewart, and how woman are far more interesting subjects than men.

Looking back at Something in the Air, this film feels like a strong departure from that and in a very different register—was that a conscious decision for you?

Yeah, I mean this film kind of happened to me, and it came to me via Juliette Binoche. She’s the one who said to me, “Why don’t we make a film together?” It was not planned; there was no strategy there.

Is that how you generally approach most of your films?

Yes, although some are more concrete. When I’m making a movie like Carlos, I make it because it comes to me in a weird way, and then it grows and grows. I try to get rid of it, but it doesn’t go away, so I end up having to do it. Something in the Air was more controlled, and it was something I knew I wanted to make and knew it was the right time to make it. This movie, in a certain way it echoes movies I’ve done, like Irma Vep, which also dealt with an actress playing her own part. It’s also an extremely different film, but ultimately has something to do with a part of my life, which is this relationship with Juliette Binoche.

We started together and met via cinema because we were both involved in this movie, Rendez-vous, thirty years ago. That was her first big part as an actress and basically put her on the map and it was my first screenwriting credit, which really helped my career. So when Juliette calls me and says we should make a movie together, it’s something that has an instant echo and means something. I know why she’s calling me and saying that, and I know she has a point even if I don’t know what that point is yet at the time.

CLOUDS-OF-SILS-MARIA-1

What is it about Juliette as an actor and a woman that continues to fascinate you?

It’s extremely difficult to answer that question and be completely honest about it. Juliette has done a million things and has such a big career, and my initial doubts in doing this film were about what I can do with her that she has not done a million times. I wanted to make something that wouldn’t feel like we were going over the same ground and doing the same thing over and over again, so it had to be something that would make the film interesting to me and to her. It was not a given, like, oh wow we’re going to make a film together, it was more cautious.

I know she’d made films with Abbas Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Bruno Dumont, and she ‘s done all those movies in the past with Leos Carax—so where do I fit in? What can I bring her that is very specifically what she has not already done. The reason I called her back three days later and said, yeah, maybe let’s try, is because I felt that she had never really played herself. So why not turn the problem around and instead of thinking of what kind of part I could write for Juliette, why not try to imagine what kind of movie I could build around her, using whatever I know of her as the inspiration for the film.

So is this a story you would not have told if not for her involvement?

No, it’s a movie that totally has its roots in what I know of Juliette, what I don’t know of her, and what I fantasize about her. It’s also the echo of our shared past. In a sense that Rendez-vous was a movie about how a very young girl becomes an actress, it ends in more of less the same place where Sils Maria ended. I haven’t seen the movie more or less since it was made, so I’m not sure I remember everything precisely, but it’s kind of a ghost story and deals with life, art, and creation. So this movie is totally fueled by our shared memories and the personality of Juliette, with the fact that she has a career in French and English.

CLOUDS-OF-SILS-MARIA-4

I’ve always thought of Juliette as a woman who transcends age. Of course she has to deal with it internally, but in her roles and performances, she simply continues to evolve.

Exactly, yes. Let’s say that’s part of the subject of the film, it’s how some actresses have the capacity to transcend aging but still have to deal with it in one way or another. I suppose I would have made a similar movie around Isabelle Huppert. 

After making your last two films with male protagonists, was it refreshing to go back and tell a woman’s story? Do you find you connect to women more as an artist?

Yes, yes. I missed it. It inspires me. Although in different ways, most of my movies were really centered on woman. It’s only in the last stage of my career that I’ve been getting somewhat interested in making boys films. It’s mostly because I had never made them so all of a sudden there was something new about it for me, but my inspiration has mostly been about women. It’s always very hard to explain or understand, but it has to do with that fact that woman are more interesting.

Historically, they are in a more interesting position. The position of women in modern society is changing, and it’s transforming society. Contemporary woman have to deal with reinventing their position in society, regarding their work, family, and their love life. It’s the most important change in modern society, so it’s exciting because there are more interesting dynamics than the identity of men who feel threatened, which basically creates the worst and most stupid aspects of modern society.

CLOUDS-OF-SILS-MARIA-6

How did Kristen Stewart come into the picture? Considering you wrote the film around Juliette, did you initially have anyone in mind to play opposite her?

Not really. I didn’t write with someone specific in mind. I just know that the moment I sat down and started imagining who could be  Valentin, the name of Kristen instantly jumped from the page.

Was there a particular role of hers that caught your attention?

I liked her in every movie I’ve seen of her. Even in movie like The Runaways, I thought she was so amazing as Joan Jett. I was not so fond of the film, I think it could have a million times better, but the way she grasped that character and embodied it, it was believable. She had that punk rock energy, and few actresses can do that. I met her a couple of times in real life, thanks to my producer because he had produced On the Road and they became friends. That film was in festivals when Something in the Air was traveling around, so we bumped into each other a few times. I really liked her, and I liked her presence. She has a weird presence, but she has a kind of intensity, which is what translates best on screen.

k

She and Juliette have a simpatico relationship and fantastic energy between them. Was that something that grew instantly and organically or did you work with them to build that dynamic?

It just happened. I don’t work with actors, I film them, but I don’t work with them in the sense that I don’t rehearse. I don’t do reading and I don’t give them comments on the psychology of the character or backstories. I’m just not interested in that, it bores me to death. I believe in spontaneity and recording in the documentary way of what happens when the actors say the lines for the first time. So you can say I film rehearsals, but another way of putting it is, that what you see in the film happens to be rehearsals, it’s like the first time they say those words, and it’s magical.

That’s where I connected the most with Kristen. I’m less organically attached to Juliette’s process. She needs to work and she needs rehearsal, but I did not give her rehearsal. She needs a coach, but I did not give her a coach. She kind of resents that still, but it’s not my culture and I don’t like it. If they want to rehearse in front of the mirror in the bathroom, I don’t have a problem with it, I just don’t want to know about it. I just want to know that whenever they are on set things will come out with a certain degree of spontaneity. So Kristen is the opposite of Juliette in that way—she learns her lines in the morning and thinks she’s done after we’ve filmed one or two takes.

That’s also evident in their characters and performances, as Juliette/Maria is so heightened and theatrical, whereas Kristen/Valentine provides a more mellow, naturalistic foil.

Exactly, and ultimately it’s not really something you can predict. You don’t know what is going to happen between two actresses in a scene. They could have disliked each other because they’d never met, so anything could have happened. Here we were extremely lucky that there was this instant bond between them and an instant connection.

Thinking of the discussions in the film, do find that theater imitates life more than life imitates theater?

Let’s suppose art is what happens at a later stage and is what happens when a playwright is writing. In the middle, what is happening is a human being trying to understand the emotions of another human being. We not so much into art as within struggling to be able to share the suffering and emotion of the fellow human being. It’s very basic and the beauty of what acting is about. Actors, they’re simultaneously part of the artistic process, they’re part of the creation, and what they bring is some human reality. They can’t fake it, they have to find one way or another to go beyond the issue of art and make it about understanding.

I could sense some strong connections between this film and R.W. Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Did that serve as a reference for you?

Yes, very early on. It was actually the first idea I had. I thought they would be rehearsing Petra von Kant, but then I realized that it didn’t exactly fit in, it’s the wrong pacing. When you’re dealing with a play there are a lot of words involved, so Petra was not the same rhythm and it’s much longer scenes than whatever I could afford if I wanted to make this movie interesting. So I had to make an extremely condensed version of some key moments from Petra von Kant.

 

Clouds of Sils Maria begins its theatrical run this weekend at IFC Center.

Brit Marling on Painful Performances and Her New Film ‘The Keeping Room’

Share Button

Photo from BlackBook, August 2011

As an actress, writer, and producer, Brit Marling is carving out her own narrative in cinema. “I’ve been able to develop writing along the way as a way to make the waiting more possible. It would be hard to be that patient in your art,” she tells me when we spoke on the phone earlier this week. As we’ve noted, “Marling first emerged on the independent film scene in 2011 when she co-wrote her debut performances in Mike Cahill’s sci-fi moral tale Another Earth and Zal Batmanglij’s mystical thriller Sound of My Voice—both Sundance hits that showcased the kind of dynamic female roles Hollywood wasn’t offering.” Since then, she’s gone on to appear in films like The Company You Keep, I Origins, The Better Angels, and her latest starring turn in Daniel Barber and Julia Hart’s The Keeping Room. But whether she’s working behind the camera or strictly in front of it, there’s an ineffable grace, strength, and emotional intelligence to Marling that makes her one of the most fascinating women working in Hollywood.

Part feminist Civil War western, part home invasion action movie, The Keeping Room is a wonderfully bare bones re-imagining of a well-worn genre. The film follows Augusta (Marling), a Southern woman fighting to keep herself and her family alive after an encounter with two violent soldiers determined on destroying everything in their path. Living with her sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and Mad, their female slave (Muna Otaru) in their rundown farmhouse in the woods, the three must fight to protect their lives and and their home, fending off the encroaching terror of the drunken soldiers whose blind rage leads them to stop at nothing to get what they want. With visceral and raw performances from its stars, the film gives a vicious depiction of what it was like to be a woman in 1865 and the harrowing struggle you had to face just to keep on breathing.

With the film out in theaters today, I chatted with Marling to find out more about her immersion into this period, the artists that inspire her, and how the world is opening up for female actors.

You’re currently co-writing a show for Netflix with Zal Batmanglij—how has that experience been so far?

As it turns out, writing what’s basically an eight-hour feature, is a lot of work—but we’re having a great time doing it. It’s been an unusual challenge doing that and getting to talk about this film at the same time. 

Are you enjoying the challenge of having to write something long-form and evolving?

Yeah, I am. But it’s definitely so different now the way that people binge-watch things. You want to make something with a beginning, middle, end or chapters, but you also learn that if you binge-watch, all the episodes have to hold up. So to create something you’ll  experience at once is really challenging, but also cool because there are no rules right now. Back in the day you would have to come up with a pilot that represented everything and the kitchen sink about the show within an hour or half hour, and now it’s different. Now you have to think about: how do you begin something where the first hour doesn’t have to feel like a pilot, but instead you can enter it the way you would a great novel. 

7-keeping_room-stairs__large

With everything else you’re working on how, what attracted you to The Keeping Room?

A friend from college sent me the script and said it was by someone she went to high school with and that had been on the Black List. I read my friend’s email after midnight and didn’t think much of it, but then I started reading the script and within the first ten pages I turned back the cover page and said, “Who wrote this?” The opening scene of the movie was so intense and breathtaking. It was so unique and so realized. In some ways it’s a period piece, a drama, a home invasion genre movie, an action movie—it’s so many things breaded together and yet all of those pieces disappear when you’re in it. It hits you as something truly original and without precedent.

5-keeping_room-horizon__large

Where other movies have tried to glamorize or gloss over the daily struggles of existing in this time, The Keeping Room exposes them in a really brutal and terrifying way. I thought your performance was wonderful, but it also incredibly exhausting because you seemed like you were in really in pain the whole time, as your character would have been.

It’s so interesting to hear you put it that way, no one has really expressed it so cleanly: it was a painful performance—not just emotionally, but also physically, it was kind of impossible. I look back on it now and I don’t even know how we did all of that. There’s the emotional content of the movie, but then you add to that the horseback riding and the sprinting through the woods and the shooting and the chopping wood. I remember getting to the end of the shoot and feeling like I didn’t know how to return to the real world; I had just spent all this time in 1865. At one point I was even burned really badly on set and didn’t even think about it, then later when I came back home I was like, wait a second why didn’t I tell anybody about that? In your mind you think you’re surviving The Civil War, so getting burned is par for the course. It’s hard to explain to people that you do really go there psychologically and you allow yourself to go a bit mad to really believe you’re in the time period. 

So when you’d go home at the end of the day were you able to look at your email and do normal things are were you just totally in it?

It was hard because by the time we drove back to the hotel you had two hours to play with before you needed to eat and sleep, or else you just weren’t going to survive the next day. So with those two hours, you’re like, okay, I could try to wash some of this dirt out of my hair, I could try to repair the skin that’s coming off my elbow, I could look at my scenes for the next day, I could call people back, but you can’t do it all. So you pick and choose what you’re going to give yourself, and it’s usually looking at the scenes that are coming, which is why when I got to the end of it and came back to LA, I felt totally adrift. I felt so out of touch and unable to communicate with people what you think you’ve just been through. 

2-keeping_room-duck__large

In the past we’ve spoken about the importance of paving new space for women in Hollywood today and developing these strong female characters. How do you go about choosing the projects you work on and the roles you write for yourself with that in mind?

That’s such a good question. You have to be patient and wait for those roles. I think that every actor feels like, if you’re really lucky, there’s one or two or three really great stories that will come to you that you just know you’re ready to give yourself over to play. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to develop writing along the way as a way to make the waiting more possible. It would be hard to be that patient in your art. I imagine, like, a painter having to audition to get the paint or canvas to do what he or she loved. But one of the things that’s really exciting, is that more women are starting to write and direct, so the more female storytellers there are the more parts start to come around. Women are flooding into the space of storytelling. Even everyone being so excited about Elena Ferrante’s books, everyone has such an appetite to understand women better, it’s so interesting—and it’s not just women, some of the interesting conversations I’ve had about Elena Ferrante’s work have been with men. It’s a really exiting time to be an actress because I think it’s all opening. 

What was the last thing you saw or read that really struck you and inspired you?

I have so many answers but I’ve been reading Maggie Nelson’s books. The Argonauts, oh my god it’s so great, and also Bluets. The Argonauts is just breathtaking and the voice is so particular and so insightful. Her writing is so clear, she has this way of making you understand really complex things effortlessly; she makes it seem so easy. So her work as been really inspiring. I’m also reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me right now. What a gift to have given the world, just to give a voice and give language to a space that has been hard for people to talk about. So reading that book, that’s just blown me away. Sometimes I have to just put it down and just pace around the room a bit.