Sunday, June 5, 2016

Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, and Gavin Hood Talk About "Eye in the Sky"

Playing in Theaters

Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, and Gavin Hood Talk About Eye in the Sky

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 3/11/16)

Helen Mirren in Eye in the Sky.
Following its red carpet premiere Wednesday night, Gavin Hood’s white-knuckle political thriller Eye in the Sky officially opens in New York City and elsewhere this weekend. Helen Mirren slipped into military garb to play Colonel Katherine Powell, a UK-based commanding officer who wants to order a drone strike on a house in Nairobi, Kenya before the major terrorists who are inside depart. With time running out, her commanding officer, Lt. General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman’s last role), is elsewhere in a stuffy conference room trying to convince skeptical British diplomats of the legality of the strike. When it is obvious that one of the terrorists is about to go into a highly populated area wearing a suicide vest, it looks like the missile strike will get clearance from British and Americans at the highest level.
eyeintheskyposter
But when a little girl starts selling bread outside the house, Steve Watts (Aaron Paul), the drone pilot who sits in a bunker in Nevada, refuses to launch the missile until a new collateral damage assessment is done and there is less chance the girl will be harmed. When watching this exciting, provocative movie, you may find yourself rooting for something you were against when you entered the theater. And afterward, you will be eager to engage in healthy debate about whether drone strikes are ever justified. This is the rare recent movie that encourages thinking, and that’s surely a good thing. On Wednesday afternoon, I participated in a press conference at the Towers of the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. Present were Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, and Gavin Hood. I actually got the ask the first questions but since they were about the climax of the movie, I moved them and the responses by Mirren, Paul, and Hood to the end of the following (edited) transcript, as a SPOILER ALERT section. The questions that come before my part were asked by other journalists.
Q: Helen, you have many scenes in the movie where Colonel Powell is trying to convince Aaron’s drone pilot Steve Watts to deploy the missile on the house with the terrorists and scenes where you speak to your commander [Lieutenant General Frank Benson] played by Alan Rickman.   But you were never physically on the same set with Aaron or Alan Rickman.   However, since you all filmed in Cape Town, South Africa, did you get to see each other?
Alan Rickman
Alan Rickman
Helen Mirren: No, I didn’t get to see Alan and I hardly got to see Aaron. Gavin shot all of my stuff first, and then I went away and Aaron came, so at least we crossed paths for one night. And then Aaron went away and Alan’s general and the actors who played the politicians came in. It was in that order. And, Gavin, you shot the stuff on the ground last of all, is that correct?
Gavin Hood: Yeah, unfortunately, because it is completely the wrong way to do it. But because of budgets, shooting, and schedules go, in filmmaking you start with your perfect plan and then there’s the reality of “When’s Helen available?” You just get in there with your actors and to the credit of these two, they gave great performances although they didn’t have footage of the people they talk to, including each other, in front of them–they had green screens in front of them.
HM: But we had a director who knew exactly what he was going to shoot and had it very well planned so he could talk it through.
Q: It turns out that this is Alan Rickman’s last film.
(Left to right) Gavin Hood, Helen Mirren, and Aaron Paul at press conference
(Left to right) Gavin Hood, Helen Mirren, and Aaron Paul at press conference
HM: I think Alan would be incredibly proud of this movie. I think he is very proud of this movie, let’s put it that way. I think that if he looked at his canon of work, and it’s been great work his whole life, I think if he had the chance to choose what would be his last movie, I’m convinced he would point to this movie. What I love about it is that the Alan you see up on the screen is Alan. He was brilliant as Snape and in all of the character roles he often played. But that is Alan. The elegance, the wit, the formidable nature of him, the humanity of him. We have Alan up on the screen and I think that’s such a great thing for his last movie.
Q: To both actors: where you drawn to your parts because of what is happening in the world regarding drones?
Aaron Paul: This story took me there. The first time I talked to Gavin he had such a specific vision of the story he wanted to tell. He wanted to make it a very honest, human story, and that’s what this film is. It takes you to the front line of terrorism and drone warfare, but it gives you an inside look at these characters and really humanizes them. I wasn’t very familiar with the drone warfare. But when doing this film I talked to a drone expert. I did spend a lot of time with him from the moment the Nevada bunker was built on the sound stage in Cape Town. Before we started shooting, we would go there and spend hours a day in that bunker and I really learning how to fly these drones. He would call out orders behind Phoebe Fox [who played Watt’s sympathetic assistant pilot] and me and say to do this and do that. I mean, the pressure was on, because I didn’t want to look like an idiot. I wanted to feel like I was actually flying these things, and you really put yourself in that position. It is a crazy idea that you are in the safety of a bunker in Nevada, while flying something very dangerous in another country. He told me about how these guys can fly four drones at once. I had no idea that they can control more than one at once. At times he could have a drone in Kenya or a drone in Australia. I didn’t realize that part of it. He has seen the film and he is very proud of it.
HM: I was drawn to this film because of the amazing script [by Guy Hibbert, the writer of Mirren’s acclaimed TV series, Prime Suspect]. The film that you see, it’s so true in filmmaking. If it’s on the page, it’s on the screen, and with this movie it was absolutely on the page. It was a beautifully written, constructed, has an interesting issue that it deals with in a very interesting and humane way. Like Aaron, I didn’t really know very much about drone warfare but we were all on the learning curve with this one, and regarding the research that Guy had done, and then Gavin had done, we all learned a lot. I had no idea of the technology. I had no idea that these kinds of operations are conducted in the way that they are with all of these checks and balances, and I thought, “You know what? That’s a good advertisement for democracy.” It’s not bad that people go into these kinds of operations with their consciences and an awareness of legality and political issues; and I thought it was fascinating how so many voices are involved. Every second counts, which is how the film ratchets up with the tension.
Q: Colonel Powell fits in with the strong female characters you’ve been playing recently, so I wonder if you worry about type casting? Do people simply think of you whenever they need somebody strong and able to take charge?
HM: I love that. If that’s how I’m typecast, I’m very happy with that, thank you very much.
Q: Gavin, I understand Colonel Powell was originally a male character. Did you think that making the character female would add more feeling to the part?
GH: Yes. I never told Helen until after the film was made that Powell was originally a male. Helen, I think you only found out when I mentioned it in some interview.
HM: Yes. Yes. Yes. And I’m going, “You were so bad.”
GH: In the original script the character was written for a man and I don’t judge Guy Hibbert for doing that. There are many, many men doing this work and there are women doing this work, but frankly at this point there are more men than women doing military work.
AP: I’m not sure if that’s true for younger people in the military.
GH: Yes, more and more women are going into these roles. We did research, because I didn’t want to put Helen Mirren into a role that women wouldn’t be in. We specifically put her in the military intelligence branch. She could be commanding this operation if she was a Colonel in the Army, but military intelligence, we honed it so that it would be correct for a woman to be in this role.  It could have been a man, so why change it to a woman? Well, a couple of things. I have twins, one’s a boy, one’s a girl, and I loathe seeing my little girl ever feeling that she can’t do whatever she wants. Also, frankly, I would like the ethical and legal and policy questions that this film raises to be discussed by all of us.  We are moving into an age of greater automation in warfare. More and more women are in positions of power. We may have a female President, other countries do. So I didn’t want to make it a guys’ war movie and exclude or discourage half my audience from coming. So from a commercial point of view, I thought I could have it both ways. Helen Mirren is the lead and truthfully I flatter her but it’s true that while I’m reading the script I’m thinking, who plays this Colonel? As I did with the character played by Alan Rickman. Who plays this Colonel and gives the audience a fully fleshed out character despite the fact that it’s written so economically?  We’re trying to drive forward with a plot. This is not a character-driven film, and yet every character has to feel fully human. So you just want the actors that can give you as much as possible. I’m glad, thankful really, that Helen and Aaron both agreed to do this movie.
HM: I agree with Gavin’s point that the discussion of the issues becomes broader with a woman as the Colonel. Would a woman make those decisions? I don’t think that’s in the discussion at all. It’s more that we are all in this together, so we women can’t sit back and say, “Oh, typical men, you know.” I think having it be a woman is a very good device just to broaden the discussion and bring us all into the discussion.
Q: Did you meet with anyone who helped you play your character?
HMI didn’t meet up with an actual female Colonel, but we did have a military advisor on the set.
GH: A military intelligence officer who knows exactly what’s going on. He talked to us about targeting and he was in fact a military intelligence officer in a targeting unit that had targeted over Libya of all places.
HM: Yes, and he was with us all the time and he was absolutely invaluable. I think the thing that surprised me the most was how obsessed the military personnel are with what they’re wearing.
GH: Well, he felt responsible about making sure that we didn’t get anything wrong
HM: Like how your sleeves have to be rolled up.
AP: Oh, yeah. He was so specific.
HM: And your belt buckle has to be here, not there, it’s got to be here; and your cap has to be folded exactly like this and put here and only so much of it can show. They’re absolutely obsessed with the details.
GH: You once expressed why you thought that they did that. You said that if that’s what you have to wear every day and you’re not allowed to change it up, then you get very obsessed with it being just so.
Q: Could each of you say what was the key to understanding your character psychologically in terms of motivation?
HM: I never really think of motivation, honestly. If it’s on the page I do it.
AP: Exactly, if it’s on the page you have something great to work with. When you read this script, your heart starts to beat a little bit faster and you’re really just inside this world, and the moment you start watching this movie your hands start to clam up and you’re into it. And to repeat myself, it just humanizes everything. For instance, with Alan Rickman’s character, before he goes to work he’s buying a toy for his grandkid and after doing his work he completely forgets about work and thinks of the kid. This is just their day-to-day, and that’s what really drew me to this film.
GH: Alan’s character compartmentalizes. Will Aaron’s drone pilot be able to compartmentalize his life the same way Alan’s has? I don’t know what he will decide to do. It’s ambiguous. I don’t even know if he knows in that moment, and that’s okay. Alan Rickman’s character knows and psychologists know that only the drone pilots who learn to compartmentalize, survive. The other 30 percent don’t. Is it good to compartmentalize? Maybe it’s terrible. But if you don’t, you can’t do this job.
Q: Gavin, have you gotten feedback from Somalians or anybody that might have been a little sensitive to the subject matter?
GH: That’s a great question and I’ll give you the best answer I can, which is that all the actors in the movie that play the Somalians are Somalian refugees who were running from al-Shabaab, having come to Cape Town. For example, the man who plays the father of the little girl, and the woman who is her mother, are married. She’s a singer. His brother was shot by al-Shabaab, and they walked for three months. We think coming from Mexico to the States is far–try walking from Somalia all the way to the Southern tip of Africa, going through five countries. There are thousands of refugees in Cape Town, many of whom are applying for asylum in the United States. It begs the bigger global question of: “Do we take refugees in?” If we don’t, where do they go? And how will they feel about us? All of these questions are in the balance. The young little girl, Aisha Takow, is currently awaiting approval or disapproval of her asylum ratification to this country. The little girl selling the bread, and she’s not alone. The little boy who runs to fetch the bread, is her real life brother. Her real mother is a woman who buys bread from her, and the little girl with the green hijab is her sister. That little family has been through hell and is desperate never to be sent back to face al-Shabaab. In casting those roles, we went into the Somali community in Cape Town and we held open auditions. My wonderful casting director, a South African woman called Moonyeenn Lee, who has been there forever and who does an amazing job going into communities and looking for real people. I can tell you that we were in those communities. Many people, not just some, came in, looked at the script, looked at the pages we were talking about. I had to be honest with them about what the film was about, and when they heard it was in any way connected to al-Shabaab, boom and they were out the door. Mothers would take their kids and leave, not because they were pro al-Shabaab, but because there’s that much fear of him. The actors who chose to be in this film are brave. So we not only did we talk to Somali people, but also they’re in the movie. I don’t know if that answers the question.
Q: Helen, I know there is a huge refugee problem in the UK.
HM: Well, it’s a problem in many people’s minds, yes. Whether it actually is a problem is another matter. For millions of years, it seems to me, people have been traversing the globe and finding safety. That is the absolute natural human thing to do. We’re just obeying our perfectly natural human instincts and animal instincts if you like, but I mean, seems to me that, that is the history of human life, moving to a better place. My God, I’m part Viking, we’re all mixes–that’s the brilliance of DNA, isn’t it, that I can find–oh, my God–that I’ve got a little bit of Chinese in me. I think it’s exciting and wonderful, in a way. I know it comes out of tragedy and horror and that is something else, but there are beautiful things that come out of that.
GH: Some of us who were brought here came to a worse life, I hate to say. But we’re all immigrants in some ways.
Q: Helen, did your initial reaction to the moral dilemma raised in the film change as you got further into the process?
HM: Not change, but I got a deeper understanding of it. Definitely. I think when I first read the script, my reaction was that it was tough and I saw the Colonel as the villain of the piece, if you like.
GH: She may be, but not from her point of view.
HM: I agree. As I got deeper into it I started really understanding the issues and had a more global understanding of it. My attitude changed and I think now I would say that she does the right thing. It’s a terrible thing to say!
GH: And I’m not sure I would say that.
HM: It’s awful.
GH: There’s a great debate and that’s the point. What I love about Helen’s approach and Aaron’s approach is that they may not agree with me, but to me an actor’s job is to commit to the character that they are playing and get underneath that character’s skin. A director’s job is to try to understand multiple points of view. I need Aaron to get under the skin of that character, do the deep work. Helen, it’s fascinating to me. Helen has so studied this woman so that, Helen, you may be right about her.
HM: In terms of the world, appalling decisions that have to be made. I’m talking about the world rather than just her as a woman.
GH: I don’t want anyone to walk away with the impression that this film does represent what happens in every drone strike. Just so we all understand. This movie shows you how many players can be involved. It doesn’t mean that every time there’s a drone strike that many players are involved. Colonel Powell is compelled to go up a kill chain that you only go up and up if the situation is evolving in a way that is becoming more and more complex and has more and more political ramifications. So if you are in what we call a “defined conflict,” which essentially means Iraq, Afghanistan, the defined war zone where drone strikes are happening every day. A drone pilot, like Aaron’s Steve Watts, might be flying that mission tomorrow. He’s over Afghanistan, he’s watching with an eye. His on the ground forces are moving through an area of defined conflict and they’re being attacked by 25 Taliban and he goes, “Guys, guys, guys, I can see them over the hill.” And they say, “Can you take out the target?” And he says, “Yes.” So the rules of engagement already allow him to fire a missile. We’re in the conflict. We’re not in a friendly country with civilians selling bread. So he may only have to refer up to his Colonel, and someone like Helen’s Colonel Powell would say take him and be done without even picking up the damn phone.  So that’s her instinct. She runs the show. But in our film, she’s thinking, “I’ve got this frigging complication. I was supposed to do this, now I’ve got to go talk to these policy wonks to give me permission.”
AP: That’s because it changes from a capture to a kill.
GH: A kill, but not just a kill. A kill in the divine set of circumstances. So what Guy Hibbert and I wanted to do was present the most complex scenario in order to push it all the way up the kill chain. Maybe all drone strikes should still go up the chain of command. But they just wouldn’t have time, I’ve got to think so. I think you can pause this film at any point and spin off into multiple discussions. I hope that this film is just a contribution to the discussions. We don’t profess to tell anyone what to think. Whether we should be there is a great question. To that point the question people ask me is, “What do you think of drones and should we have drones or not?” Well, let’s ask the question. The drone is a tactical weapon recently invented. At the time the long bow was invented people objected to that, too. You’re shooting people from afar? How dare you, you coward! Every time a new weapon is invented there is a policy discussion. We need that policy discussion. Should we be using drones over Tribal Pakistan? Should we be intimidating a local population with surveillance 24/7 seven and with armed attacks happening every few weeks? Should it be okay that kids are afraid to go out and play if it’s a sunny day because drones can’t see you only on cloudy days? Should we be using a big strategy that turns that population against us? The drone is a tactical weapon. Should it be deployed in this way? Are we using it to better our overall objective of winning the hearts and minds of the population away from the streams of ideology? That when it has political fallout implications. It’s very interesting because I hasten to say that not everyone in the military has one point of view. There are people in the military who absolutely agree with the suggestion made here that drones are a really bad being, deployed really in a bad way. But their argument is not is a drone good or bad, it’s “Are we deploying this new weapon in a way that moves us forward or backwards?”–and you have to assess that situation by the situation.
HM: I think in many ways this film reminded me of a courtroom drama, only the audience is the jury. And then when you come out of the cinema, hopefully you go and have dinner or you go to a bar and you discuss it, and you talk about strategy. Is it correct, is it incorrect, should we, shouldn’t we? It throws it out, the film throws it out to the audience. And what I love about the film is it makes no decisions for you. it puts decisions in your lap.
Q: Helen and Aaron, when you saw the final cut of the film, what surprised you?
HM: I think the thing that surprised me was the wit in. It was the funniness, and I thought that is what makes the film ultimately palatable, because it’s a tough, difficult subject. It’s very tense but the humor makes it watchable. I think it’s fantastic in that way.
AP: Watching this film, I saw that it is a very human story and it puts an audience in these characters’ shoes. I’m not surprised by that–I knew that was going to be the case.
But the simple fact that I’m sharing a screen with Helen Mirren, you know, it’s out of control–it’s such a beautiful dream of mine. So thank you all.
SPOILER ALERT
Danny Peary: Helen and Aaron, after what they do, will your characters be able to sleep that night?
AP: I think that there is an easy answer, no.
HM: And I would say yes. I think my character would sleep, absolutely. Sleep really well because: “Job done. Thank God we got our target. What happened was terrible, terrible that, but that was the price we had to pay, but thank God we got her.” So I think yeah, she’d sleep well.
GH: I’m glad Aaron says his character wouldn’t. I think that’s the point.
AP: Yeah, putting myself in that situation, I don’t know if I could sleep. That is the price you have to pay. I mean, you re serving your country, you are doing your duty, but for me I don’t know. I don’t know if I could do what he does.
DP: The next morning. if there were no ranks to separate them and they could actually talk to each other, what do you think they’d say to each other? I ask because they both might get some closure if they got to speak to each other–even though they probably never would.
HM: They might. I don’t know the protocol or how they’d find themselves in the same bar at the same time, but I think my character, Colonel Powell, would say, “Next time Lieutenant, you do what I say when I say to do it!” I suspect she’d say that. And then maybe five vodkas later they might get into the complications of the issues. I don’t know, but I suspect people like my character have to manage to put that behind and carry on, because: What’s next? What are we dealing with next? There will be possibly many more of those situations to come. Aaron, what is your answer?
AP: What you said. Yeah. I don’t think he’d want to reopen those wounds [by talking to her], but they experienced something pretty traumatic together. He did what he had to do. He was trying to buy some time in order to, hopefully, save this young girl’s life. But it is what it is.
GH: Can I just point out that the mindset that Aaron’s character has when he says, “I’m the pilot in command, responsible for releasing the weapon. I have the right to ask for the CD [assessment] to run again. I will not release my weapon until that happens.” That is a line that they’re all trained to say. We didn’t make that up. He was trained to say that not because of his own conscience, but from a war crime point of view, to ensure that he’s following a legal order. He suspects that she is bending the rules too much. He is not only allowed to, he is required to because he is the final person [to determine whether the drone is fired]. The trainer of drone pilots that I interviewed said to me, “It doesn’t matter if it’s the President on the line.” That’s why the drone pilot is given that line to say [to his superiors]. So when Steve says that [and questions Powell’s order], he’s actually doing the right thing. Now do all drone pilots do the right thing? Or are most intimidated by someone as intimidating as the Colonel? I did speak to drone pilots who have taken that route. And also to F-16 pilots who have declined to drop their payload. I spoke to one who knew that his target in Iraq was not correct. When he visualized it, when he was flying over it, he realized that they got the coordinates wrong and he pulled out. He told me, “I had a four-star General yelling at me, not very politely, ‘Drop your fucking load, Lieutenant!’” He said, “I just knew it was wrong and in that moment I didn’t give a shit about whether I stayed in the Air Force or not.” That doesn’t mean all pilots would do that, but that’s what he did, and that’s where we got those kind of scenes. I asked, “So what happened?” He said, “I landed my jet. They came and they took my black box, and for two weeks I thought, ‘Jesus, am I going to get court-martialed or not?’ Then it just went away.” Now the difficulty for a young Lieutenant in his position is if it is illegal, and he’s pushing back and pushing back, he could be court-martialed. Because if you follow an illegal order that’s a war crime–Nuremberg was about following orders that were war crimes. So these guys are in a really tight spot!
END SPOILER ALERT
Q: Helen, tell us about your kissing Stephen Colbert when you were on his show last night.
HM: The thing is, I’ve been deeply in love with Stephen Colbert for a long time.
GH: For real or were you just pretending?
HM:. No, no, for real. Oh, absolutely. I think I dreamt I kissed Stephen Colbert. And as I was walking out last night, I looked at him and thought, “You know what? If I don’t take my opportunity now I’ll never have it again.
AP: So you just kissed him?
HM: I kissed him.
AP: Good for you!
HM: Oh, gosh. This morning my husband was going off to work and as I saw him off, I thought I’ve got to tell him. I said, “Darling, I kissed Stephen Colbert last night.” So forget Stephen Colbert.
Note: I want to thank iHop publicity firm for inviting me to the press conference. And I want to highly recommend another film they are handling, Argentine director Pablo Trapero’s The Clan, which opens in NYC next Friday. It’s a wild, perverse political thriller based on a astonishing true story–and it has one of the most fascinating movie scoundrels in a long time, played chillingly by Guillermo Francella.
Note 2: For yourself or any baseball fan you know, please preorder my new book on Jackie Robinson: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/jackie-robinson-in-quotes-danny-peary/1123308452?ean=9781624142444

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Hillcoat and Three Stars Discuss “Triple 9,” Coming to East Hampton This Weekend

Playing in Theaters

Hillcoat and Three Stars Discuss Triple 9, Coming to East Hampton This Weekend

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 2/24/16)

Anthony Mackie and Casey Affleck in Triple 9.
Anthony Mackie and Casey Affleck in Triple 9.
By Danny Peary
Triple9poster4
John Hillcoat’s tough cops and mobsters thriller Triple Nineopens this Friday nationally, in New York City, and at the United Artists Cinema 6 in East Hampton. Set in Atlanta, it’s about a group of troubled corrupt cops, including Anthony Mackie’s Marcus, and a damaged former cop, Aaron Paul’s Gabe, who are beholden to the Russian mob and perform robberies for them. The female who is in charge while her husband is in a Russian prison–another against-type portrayal by Kate Winslett–orders them to do a risky, final bank robbery. To pull it off, they need a huge distraction so they decide to kill Marcus’s new, honest partner Chris, played by Casey Affleck. They realize that calling in a “Triple 9”–code for “a policeman down”–will result in almost the entire force rushing to the scene, far away from the bank. For the Australian magazine, FilmInk, I was with a group of journalists who visited the set in Atlanta last July, on the day Hillcoat was to film Marcus engineering Chris’s murder, in an abandoned building that had actually once been a dormitory for Morris Brown College. Below are my brief exchanges with Hillcoat (The Proposition, Lawless), Mackie, Paul, and Affleck.
John Hillcoat.
John Hillcoat.
John Hillcoat
Danny Peary: You’re an Australian making a film about the Russian mob and corrupt police in Atlanta, Georgia. Do you consider this film distinctly American?
John Hillcoat: Very much so, especially because we deliberately set it in Atlanta. It started in L.A, and moved to Atlanta, so it’s location-specific and very specific to what’s happening in America right now regarding the criminal landscape, from the streets all the way to the people on top right now. I spoke to the top guy in the FBI on organized crime in Atlanta, and he confirmed that this hardly a worldwide pattern but it’s specifically happening in America. The Russians are at the top of the chain. They are Jewish Russians.   Israel has opened its gates to money laundering in the way that Switzerland used to. So I’m told that all of the top Russian mobsters now have Israeli passports. So we have this Irina character, played by Kate Winslett. Her husband is in the gulag because had an altercation with Putin–I’m probably giving too much information—and Irina’s in Atlanta running the show for him. The thing about the Russians is that they subcontract. So most of their business as a criminal organization tends to be hands-on only if it is personal. Otherwise they subcontract it to other criminal gangs. And what we have in the film is a criminal gang that consists of corrupt cops, ex-Blackwater, maybe ex-Navy Seals. They’re a freelance group of criminals and they’re working between the Russians and the next layer down, which is the cartels, and they actually control all the streets now,
What’s interesting is that Georgia is predominantly African-American, and there’s huge gang activity. I say our police gang unit, because we’re replicating reality, is between 12 and 15 officers, and they deal with 50,000 gang members. The African-American gangs do not challenge the Latino gangs, because even though the Latino gangs are the minority and are outgunned, they have the back-up of the cartels, which are distributing the drugs they’re bringing in. So the African-American gangs are helping distribute it, and they know not to mess with the Latinos. So that’s kind of the landscape that we’re in, and we’re trying to make what I call, an epic crime thriller. It involves the very top down to the actual street gangs, who are near the bottom. We’re relentless on the research, and actually we have two technical advisers here today. Some of the cops are real cops, some of the gang guys are real gang guys. Of course we have our actors as well, who are great actors.
DP: In terms of the storyline in which some of the characters set out to do the crime, is there an inevitability of what’s going to happen? Is there fate at work?
JH: Definitely, we’re working on an existentialist level. Like a lot of these criminals, they’re in it for life, this is their lives. It’s not one of those movies where they’re all trying to buy their way out, and be something else. This is who they are. By being that way, there is some level of fatalism, but there is also a lot of moral conundrums, and moral conflict. Basically, every single death in this film matters. Even if it’s a minor guy in the streets, to the top-level, we’re trying to make every death mean something. I’ve always been anti violence. I’ve always thought of it in terms of: there will always consequences.
DP: You want it to be real.
JH: Yeah, yeah. And it’s messy. And it’s physically painful and it’s psychologically devastating. We’re trying to weave that into it. It’s not an escapist film. I have to say, in terms of the scale we’re trying for, the action is kind of unpredictable and kind of crazy. The horror of violence is something we’re not shying away from, but we’re not making it gratuitous, I’ve always tried to not do that. We’re actually filming one of the climaxes today.
Anthony Mackie
Danny Peary: Tell us about your character.
Anthony Mackie: The movie exists in two different realities. On one side of the film is the mafia, and on the other side is the police department. I play a cop who has to walk between the two worlds.
DP: Is Marcus a morally ambiguous character?
AM: The ambiguity is not there so much. I think his morals are straight to the point. I think most public workers feel like they’re overworked and underpaid, so they’re always looking for a second means of income. Schoolteachers, firemen, police officers. I feel those are three of the most important jobs in our society, and three of the most underpaid jobs in our society. If you’re good at it you should be compensated fairly. I feel like this movie plays into that desire.
DP: Does Marcus have guilt at all?
AM: Extreme guilt. I think one of the reasons I wanted to play this character so much and begged and pleaded to have this opportunity is because there are so many different colors to him. You get to see Marcus in his true element working with everyone and figuring out how they, as bad guys, are going to pull off this crime. But the reality is, unless you’re in a James Bond movie, or Spiderman, a bad guy never walks around with a T-shirt that says, “I’m a Bad Guy.” A bad guy really believes in what he’s trying to do.
DP: So Marcus doesn’t think he’s a bad guy even though he commits crimes?
AM: Right. He doesn’t look at himself as a bad guy. He’s not doing something to be bad, he’s doing it because he thinks it’s the right thing to do. The longest conversation John Hillcoat and I had when I signed on to this movie was, “Why is Marcus doing this?” Because that’s what determines why does what he does at the end of the movie. If he’s just, “All right, let’s rob a bank and get a lot of money and move to Jamaica and have a great time,” that’s one thing. But if there’s another reason for doing it, then the idea of killing another cop isn’t such a big deal because it’s the means to an end. He has fear and sadness about what he has to do, but knows that it’s the right thing for him. That moral aspectt gives him all those colors and makes him so complex and three-dimensional,
DP: Are there any scenes of Marcus at home?
AM: No.
DP: Can you picture him at home?
AM: I think that he’s a bachelor. He’s guy that loves chicks. I mean, he drives a Mustang, and if you can’t get chicks with a Mustang, you can’t get chicks. I feel like if you drive a Mustang, any year, a chick will know you’ve got some class. And you can outrun a Porsche or a Ferrari. He’s enjoying the life of a cop. And he’s enjoying being able to come back to the neighborhood and still have his feet in the underworld of his neighborhood. Even though he’s made it out and made it to the force, he’s still part of his community and has friends there, and it’s a stronghold that he came from.
DP: Is he proud to be a cop?
AM: I think so. I think every cop is proud to be a cop. I don’t think they’re proud of what they get paid, but I think they’re proud of making it out of the academy and becoming a cop. It’s so hard, so why do it otherwise?
Q: How would you say this movie stands out?
AM: I think what’s unique about this one is that the cops are more human. I feel like a lot of times you watch TV and movies, and cops are just hardass guys in great shape that just yell and beat up people. I’m like, “When do they unwind?”If every cop is so pent-up and so aggressive and so annoyed at life, at what point do they just release? I think with this movie, the fun thing is, John is allowing us the freedom to show that release, to show where they get their rocks off, and where they actually become three-dimensional human beings. Because this movie’s so plot-heavy, we have to figure out ways to make our characters three-dimensional, to make the plot a piece of set dressing as opposed to being the focus of the movie, and our becoming pieces of set dressing.
DP: Any favorite action sequences so far?
AM: No, but I’m hoping today to get to shoot my gun at somebody. Specifically at Casey Affleck.
Aaron Paul
Danny Peary: Have you met any other actors from Idaho?
Aaron Paul: I’m very proud to be from Idaho. I’m sure there are others, although I can’t think of any right now. There are lot of actors who live in Idaho. Bruce Willis has a place there.
DP: Are you considered a big thing back there?
AP: I’m not sure but the governor dedicated an “Aaron Paul Day,” in October.  It’s crazy that I’ve been in L.A. for almost eighteen years.
DP: I am sure since Breaking Bad, you’ve been increasingly recognized in Hollywood. Are your fans from the show mostly male?
AP: No, definitely both, although at the very, very beginning I think it was more guys as a driving force. But today it’s girls and guys, both for sure.
DP: What is it like for you to play a policeman?
AP: I haven’t done it before. Actually, Gabe’s an ex-cop. It’s been years since he’s been off the force. It would be fun to show up for work and put on the attire, but it doesn’t really feel much different. He’s going through a lot of issues right now, or he has been for the last few years. The backstory is he’s seen some pretty awful things. And there was a corrupt cop when he was in the force, and he did a “suicide-by-another cop,” which is just cop wanting to commit suicide but having another cop to kill him instead. So that’s what happened. Gabe just had enough, he just couldn’t be a part of it anymore, so he left. And now he’s still doing robberies and that sort of thing. He’s really tactical, he really knows what he’s doing. He’s actually the one who comes up with the plan to pull a Triple Nine, which is the police code for “Officer Down.” And that’s just going to drive the entire police force to one side of the city, making it clear on the other side of the city for them to pull off their next heist. He comes up with this idea as more of a joke, and then they take him seriously, and he’s desperate throughout the entire movie to try and get them to stop, because he doesn’t think it’s a good idea.
DP: Does your guy understand he’s a bad guy, or does he think he’s okay?
AP: No, he knows he’s a bad guy. For sure.
DP: Anthony Mackie says he thinks Marcus is a bad guy, but Marcus doesn’t think of himself as a bad guy.
AP: I think both Marcus and Gabe are struggling with their decisions. They definitely have done some bad things in their lives, but the Triple Nine they both disagree with. Gabe definitely disagrees with hit; Marcus is kind of on the fence, but deep down he knows it’s wrong.
DP: In a lot of police films it used to be that there’d only be one bad apple, and now it seems like there’s systematic corruption. Do you find that this film, which is a cops-and-robbers and heist film, at all reflects the real world?
AP: About corruption. I honestly couldn’t answer that question. I have no idea. Maybe. That world is so foreign to me. I’m not sure. There are corrupt cops out there and there are definitely some good cops out there, lots of good cops.
DP: Is it a warzone out on the streets, in LA and Atlanta?
AP: Oh yeah, an absolute warzone out there. On a ride-along I did in LA, I had a chance to go into that world that I’m not used to, a world that is there 24/7. I got just a peek behind the curtain and I saw little kids on their little razor scooters having handguns. They’re the ones who are at the malls selling the drugs. I’m talking about twelve-year-old kids, and they have no choice. They’re born into that world, and they have to join a gang, because if they don’t, they’re in danger. So it’s almost like it’s not their fault. Some people are able to break away from that but the majority can’t do it.
DP: Are you still having lots of talks with John Hillcoat at this point in the filmmaking, or was that done all at the beginning?
AP: No, it’s every day, same sort of thing. When I first started in this business it was hard for me to get the courage to say anything. I was 17 years old, I was a baby, I was just excited to work –just tell me what to do and I’ll do it. But through the years you learn to stand on your own and have your own opinions about things, and create things with the writer and the director.
DP: Judging from your make-up today, with the beat-up face, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a slow day for you…
AP: Yeah, there’ll be a little action! This is towards the very end of the film. He’s been desperately trying to get the rest of the group to not pull off the 999, and finally he’s taking matters into his own hands. “Spoiler alert! I get shot and die tonight. So there will be some action. I’ve died in a lot of movies. I don’t know what that says. END SPOILER ALERT
Casey Affleck
Danny Peary: You have risen to star status playing characters who have little or no education, no real money, and not much power, except if you want to consider your psycho lawman in The Devil Inside Me. Have you ever played a character who got a degree and has many opportunities in life?
Casey Affleck: There must be some parts where I’ve played educated characters, but I can’t think of them.
DP: There’s always crime in your characters’ world. Why do you pick these characters?
CA: That’s true, that’s the kind of thing my kids ask me, too. They don’t get to see a lot of these movies so they want to know why I can’t just do something they can see. But sometimes the parts pick you, to be perfectly honest, and you kind of just take what is offered. There are certain things that are available to you and you choose the one that’s sort of the highest quality, or has a group of people who you like. Sometimes I choose projects just because I want to work with the director. I realize it’s pretty dark material, or it’s pretty violent, but I think these are a group of talented people and I can learn something from them, so I end up on these jobs. It takes a great amount of effort and luck to change the way that people perceive you, so then they’re offering you different things. They’re not sending me, whatever, Tom Hanks parts. They’re sending him a certain kind of role because he started off as a certain kind of actor. And I guess they think of me with police officers and veterans and private investigators.
DP: Is your character the white knight among all the corrupt policemen or is he something different?
CA: Chris is definitely the least corrupt of all of them, but I don’t know if I’d call him a white knight. John has talked about him using terms like, “he’s got a steadfast moral code, he’s uncomplicated, he’s solid to the core.” I think he’s meant to be a kind of a surprisingly gritty, moral person. He’s our hope.

Jamie Chung and Bryan Greenberg Find Romance in "Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong"

Playing in Theaters

Jamie Chung and Bryan Greenberg Find Romance in Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 2/11/16)

Bryan Greenburg and Jamie Chung in "Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong."
Bryan Greenberg and Jamie Chung in “Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong.”
Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. You won’t have to wait until tomorrow to see Emily Ting’s debut feature, because this Hong Kong-set romance opens this weekend, at the Village East Cinema on 12th Street and Second Avenue in NYC and around the country. “Ruby (Jamie Chung), a Chinese American toy designer from L.A., visits Hong Kong for the first time on business. Finding herself stranded, she meets Josh (Bryan Greenberg), an American expat who shows her the city. Meandering through nighttime streets pulsating with energy and possibility, they fall into a winding and carefree conversation, buoyed by an undeniable attraction.” There is only one problem with their perfect “first date,” which Josh admits to Ruby–he has a girlfriend.
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They part ways but run into each other a year later, after she has moved to Hong Kong. He still has his girlfriend and now she is engaged to someone back in America. But on their second night together, their attraction is even stronger and things become increasingly intense. We sense they were meant to be together for the next hundred years, but do they realize it, too? You will find that the Ruby and Josh have so much chemistry because they are played by the immensely charming Jamie Chong (terrific in the little known Knife Fightand as Mulan on TV’s Once Upon a Time) and Bryan Greenberg (HBO’s acclaimedUnscripted and October Road), who were engaged when they filmed this movie and married last Halloween. Fresh from being interviewed on Today, the two stars had breakfast and this conversation with me this Thursday in a very loud and crowded Le Pain Quotidien across from NBC.
Danny Peary: Bryan, I know that both you and Emily Ting went to Tisch, before she produced a couple of movies you were in. Did you meet there?
Jamie Chung, Emily Ting and Bryan Greenberg.
Jamie Chung, Emily Ting and Bryan Greenberg.
Bryan Greenberg: We were there at the same time but didn’t know each other. That’s the way NYU is. We “reconnected” on The Kitchen, which she produced with a lot of other NYU alums who I didn’t know either before working on that film. Then we worked together on A Year and Change, and while we were working on that she gave me the script for Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong for Jamie and me to read.
DP: So you were brought in as a team.
BG: Yes, we were engaged then.
DP: Jamie, did you know Emily at that time?
Jamie Chung: Yes, because I also did A Year and Change, in a tiny role. She was the producer and from that brief introduction, she told Bryan that there was this script she wanted both of us to read. She sent it over to see if we wanted to do it and we really loved it.
DP: In the production notes, Emily says you two to give her back “really good notes in re-working the script” and she “went through two months of intensive re-writes with their guidance.” What were your suggestions?
BG: The script was great. The dialogue flowed, the core of it was there but it just needed a little bit of a polish. The biggest thing was that after the two acts in Hong Kong there was also a third act set in Los Angeles. It was just a whole other thing and we all fell in love with the idea that it all take place in Hong Kong, which meant extending the film by making the second act a little longer. So we worked with Emily on that. She was super-collaborative but we don’t want to take any credit for the film you see.
JC: It is all Emily. The skeletons are definitely there but our thinking was from a character perspective, because that’s how we read scripts. We didn’t think of the story as a whole, which is what Emily did and is so hard to do. From my perspective–in the second act, when Ruby and Josh meet again after a year, there was nothing in the script that held her back from getting together with Josh. We needed something to tie her down a little bit, like give her a secret. Her secret was she was engaged. That kind of helped to pull her back a little bit…
BG: It raised the stakes.
JC: Right, it raised the stakes because she’s torn about what to choose. That was something we came up with together.
DP: If the first time they met, Josh didn’t have a girlfriend, would that have been a good time for them to begin a relationship or would it have been too early for them?
JC: The story would have ended there! Nobody wants to watch a movie about how much in love two people are. I feel it’s more interesting to watch imperfect people, imperfect couples. There’s got to be conflict. That’s what drives every story.
DP: Emily says she’s a big fan of Before Sunrise and the sequels and they were an influence on this, as is obvious. In the first movie, the characters played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are young. If she had a boyfriend and he had a girlfriend back home it wouldn’t matter because of their ages. But your characters are older, with career responsibilities and a few more years of life and the maturity to make long-term commitments with another person.
JC: Yeah. The wok is one clear difference that sticks out with me. [Unlike the two young travelers in Before Sunrise] Ruby is in Hong Kong because of her new job. It’s not the job she wants to do but she knows she has to make some money with the toys before she can begin her own fashion line, which is what she really wants. Josh has a pretty great job in finance.
BG: But Josh is young enough to make a career switch. [He wants to become a writer, as Ethan Hawke’s character becomes.]
JC: It’s a quarter-century crisis.
BG: He’s old enough to be successful at something but young enough to make a pivot.
DP: Bryan, when they first meet, when Josh is taking a break from the party where his girlfriend is, and Ruby asks him for directions, would he have volunteered to walk her to her destination if she had been a guy?
BG (laughing): He was have said, “Hey, man, don’t you have an iPhone? Pull it out!”
DP: So immediately he realizes he’s doing something wrong?
BG: Yeah, that’s the beauty of this film. It really focuses in on that gray area of what is and what is not cheating–and the morality of actions, even when they are not physical. The nuance is fascinating and I applaud Emily for exploring that.
DP: Jamie, if Josh was wearing a ring, would Ruby have walked with him to her destination?
BG: I think she would have appreciated his help, regardless. And if he was wearing a ring, she would have felt more at ease, thinking, “He’s not trying to hit on me.” At the beginning, when he first asks her, she refuses him. Then she walks off and realizes how crazy Hong Kong is and she walks back up the stairs and says she does need his help.  I think she would have said yes immediately if he was married. As a grown woman, when a man with a wedding band on is being polite I give him the benefit of the doubt.
DP: As they spend more time together on their walks, do you think Ruby and Josh have the exact same feelings toward each other, or is one way ahead of the other?
BG: It’s hard for me to say. But trying to be objective, I think Ruby is a little more taken by Josh than he is by her at the beginning.
JC: I don’t think so.
BG: You don’t think so?
JC: I don’t think she’s taken by Josh. I think she just appreciates his help. I think she eventually warms up to him.
DP: I don’t totally agree with that because there are expressions Ruby has that indicate she is attracted to him, too–although I’m not disagreeing that he ismore attracted to her.
BG: She makes the choice to come with him. He doesn’t initiate that. He is helping her out but he’s not trying to push her to the next step. But when they meet again a year later, I do think that Josh is the one who is pushing it. He’s the one who is essentially saying, “I know it’s bad but let’s take it a little further.” I think Ruby is more innocent in the first act, because she doesn’t have a boyfriend then, and [not knowing Josh has a boyfriend], she is the one who is pushing it.
DP: I’m not sure if it’s more about her being innocent or naïve as it is her being curious, wondering where things could go.
JC: It’s always what ifs. “What if I’m making a mistake?” “What if this is the man of my life?” “What if my boyfriend back home is the man of my life?”
DP: I think one of the hardest things you had to do was to draw on your own experience of falling in love while at the same time remind yourself that Ruby and Josh are two different people.
JC: Yes.
BG: With acting, I think of everything as very short-term, immediate. When I approach the first scene I then think about what I want to do. It’s that near-sighted. So I can’t get caught up in if it’s my life or the character’s life because at that moment what I’m focusing on is so minute.
JC: I agree with that. In that first scene, as the character, you don’t know what’s going to happen; decisions are made in the moment.
BG: We were able to draw on our own history and that influenced a lot of the story, even some of the dialogue. And the idea of white guy dating Asian girls. That’s a little loaded: when he says that, of course I know what that is like. Also: when people, Josh and Ruby, meet for the first time and the timing isn’t right–that’s the same thing that happened to us. When Jamie and I met, the timing wasn’t right…
JC: There was no flirting.
BG: But there was something there.
DP: I’m sure you both saw Annie Hall and remember the scene when Woody Allen is having a polite conversation with Diane Keaton and meanwhile he’s actually wondering what she’s like naked. So when Ruby and Josh are walking down all those steps in Hong Kong and carrying on a civilized conversation, are there wild thoughts going through their heads?
JC: There’s always a subtext. There’s always something between the lines.
BG: It’s “what’s literally happening?” and “what’s actually happening?” That’s how I approach my work. I try to find what’s underneath because there’s always something that’s not on the page.
DP: You two seem so comfortable on screen together, like you’ve been acting together for years. Were you that comfortable?
JC: Yes. Physically we were uncomfortable because it was so hot in Hong Kong but emotionally very comfortable.
BG: Because we already were engaged…
JC: And living together…
BG: And we knew each other so well, so we decided that during filming we’d live in separate places. That created a little distance between us and the characters.
DP: I read in Us Weekly that you did that so it wouldn’t appear that your characters had your own high degree of chemistry, especially when they first met. I assume you filmed this movie chronologically so their chemistry would build.
BG: No. We actually filmed the second act first. I had to shave!
JC: But we did try to film what was in each of the two acts chronologically.
DP: Was there discussion about whether their second meeting a year later was fate, confirming they are destined to be with each other? You spoke earlier about how you two had to reconnect as well.
JC: They happen to meet each other on a boat at the start of the second act. And it’s completely fate because she never takes that ferry to Kowloon, and that where he lives. She’s taken aback because they left their first interaction so abruptly and she happened to move to Hong Kong since the last time they met. She’s a bit scared because now she is engaged. She wants to pick up where they left off or close the book after a final chapter.
DP: I know you have to identify some with your characters, but–and I consider them very likable–have you ever thought about whether they are good people?
JC: I think they want to try to do the right thing. I don’t think Ruby wants to hurt anyone. She certainly doesn’t want to hurt her fiancé back home. She’s the one to say, “I’m cheating.” Josh’s first response is: “We’re not doing anything. This isn’t anything wrong.” He’s in denial and yet he keeps pushing it to the next level, like one stop instead of two stops. It really is a personal decision on where you draw the line in terms of what’s cheating and what’s not.
BG: As actors and artists, it’s not our job to judge these characters, good or bad. I think everyone considers themselves a good person. Even Hitler did. It’s the audience’s decision about whether Josh and Ruby are good people. It could be that it’s a little bit of both and that makes it interesting.
DP: Are we watching them become increasingly attracted to each other, or are we watching them actually fall in love?
JC: I think they’re falling for each other.
BG: Yeah, they’re falling in love and fighting it. Is the juice worth the squeeze? Is it worth it. I know we shouldn’t be doing this but I can’t help but feeling this way. And I don’t know what to do. These characters are asking themselves, “What is the right thing to do?”
JC: I feel that the second act is very strong in regard to that conflict. It has been set up.
DP: Now that you’re married would you play your characters with a different perspective?
JC: I wish I played Ruby with more resistance in the first act. If a guy is hitting on you and you’re not having it but you need something from them–that would be more interesting versus trying to be coy with it.
DP: Well, I’d say Ruby resists him very strongly at the end of the first scene.
BG: No regrets. No looking back.
DP: Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy do a lot of talking when walking in Richard Linklater’s trilogy. Unlike you two, they didn’t walk down stairs, at least as much. It really is an art.
BG: It really is. We had no permits to shoot there. We were just running and gunning.
JC: It was a free-for-all.
BG: We had some amazing takes that you’ll never see. One time a drunken ex-pat walked right toward the camera in the middle of a take. . There were a lot of long takes with us walking and because we were unable to control the situation, we just had to adapt to it. It was difficult and challenging.
DP: You both have done a lot of acting but have you ever done anything like this film?
JC: There hasn’t been anything so character-focused, with just two lead characters. I’ve never done anything like this.
BG: I’ve never done anything this intimate. This is one-on-one, two scenes, so contained.
DP: Talk about the title Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong. I think it tells us something about the characters, both Americans living in Hong Kong, being unsettled in time and place.
BG: I never thought about it. I do think it’s a great title. I think this movie is very much about that city. It’s a character in the film and it is being introduced to western audiences in a way they’ve never seen before outside of action films.   This is the first romantic film I’ve seen set in Hong Kong. I didn’t know about this city and was surprised by how progressive it is. It’s a crazy, advanced city. I feel like it’s a day ahead and L.A. is a day behind.
DP: In her director’s statement, Emily Ting, who has spent a lot of time there, describes Hong Kong as being a “magical” but “sometimes alienating metropolis.” I won’t give away the ending, but IF Josh and Ruby end up together, do you think that they’d stay in Hong Kong or return to America?
JC: They could get away and start fresh.
BG: Maybe, or they could set up shop in Kowloon.
DP: Was it a completely romantic setting in your view, or did you want it to be partly alienating?
JC: I liked getting lost in the crowd. I thought it was romantic.
BG: Very romantic.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Screenwriter Karaszewski Tackles O.J. for Television Miniseries

American Crime: The People v. O.J. Simpson is Playing on Television

Screenwriter Karaszewski Tackles O.J. for Television Miniseries

(from Sag Harbor Express February 7, 2016)

Will it happen again? Will we again become a nation of TV watchers obsessed with the O.J. Simpson trial, as we were from the time the original jury swore to be impartial in November 1994 to when a revamped jury delivered its shocking verdict in October 1995, acquitting him of allegedly brutally murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, waiter Ron Goldman, just past midnight on June 13,1994, outside her condo in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles? During the ten weeks FX telecasts its much-ballyhooed miniseries, beginning this Tuesday — several critics claim it’s the first must-see TV show of the year — I anticipate the same heated water-cooler debates, partly about the innocence or guilt of the former gridiron superstar and part-time actor (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.), but more about how each bit of evidence and each sideshow trick was being processed by the (unseen) jury. In addition, a special treat for us viewers is promised—we will be able to follow all the participants who became household names out of the courtroom and see what really went on behind the scenes as the trial went on and on and on, and the verdict, which we assumed as Guilty from day one, suddenly seemed up for grabs. Gooding Jr. heads an all-star cast that includes Sarah Paulson (Marcia Clark), John Travolta (Robert Shapiro), Nathan Lane (F. Lee Bailey), and Courtney B. Vance (Johnnie Cochran). And there is star power on the other side of the camera. Just as Simpson called in the big guns to be his ‘Dream” defense team, FX brought in the supreme writing team of quirky-celebrity biopics to tell the familiar story in a new way: Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who are also executive producers along with Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk). Their impressive previous biopics are Ed Wood, Man on the Moon (about comic Andy Kaufman), Auto Focus (about actor Bob Crane),The People vs. Larry Flynt, and Big Eyes (about Margaret and Walter Keane). I interviewed Larry Karaszewski for Sag Harbor Express Online in December 2014 for Big Eyes(http://sagharboronline.com/a-revealing-chat-with-larry-karaszewski-the-cowriter-of-big-eyes/) Here is a conversation we had this week about his first venture into television.

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Danny Peary: My impression was that when FX started slowly promoting its upcoming miniseries about the trial of O.J. Simpson there was little reaction, at least here on the east coast. But now, with The People v. O.J. Simpson: An American Crime Series set to premiere on Tuesday, there is suddenly tremendous excitement, with scores of people saying, “I can’t wait to watch it!”  How has the anticipation been on the West Coast, particularly where you are in Los Angeles, where it all happened?
Larry Karaszewski:  Scott and I felt an immediate interest in the story from everywhere. For the last three years it’s ruined every dinner party that we’ve gone to. Once people found out I was working on the O.J. project, it’s all they wanted to talk about.  If you were around in 1994-95 the case became ingrained in your life. That being said, it is the ultimate west coast story.  It’s a cliché for a filmmaker to say that the location is a character, but in this case it’s true.  The O.J. case is the story of Los Angeles at that moment in time.  So many of the locations are iconic–Brentwood, Rockingham, Bundy, Mezzaluna, the downtown court building, the 405 freeway.  We are so happy that we were able to insist on shooting in L.A.  You feel the city in the show.  There were a few quicky O.J. TV projects in the late ’90s that shot in Canada for budgetary reasons, and five minutes in they feel totally fraudulent.
DP: When I interviewed you in 2014 about Big Eyes, you told me that you and your long-time writing partner Scott Alexander had been trying to make a film about Walter and Margaret Keane for eleven years.  At the time you told me you were also working on the O.J. Simpson miniseries, but didn’t say for how long. Although it is adapted from Jeffrey Toobin’s book, The Run of His Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, was it your idea that you sold to FX, resulting in its creating an “American Crime Series” format? Or did FX bring the idea to you because of your experience with celebrity-trial movies?  I am thinking the latter because you two had written only film scripts before.
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LK: The project was initiated by producers Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson.  They are amazing.  They got the rights to Jeff Toobin’s book and brought it to FX.  We had never done TV before, having always turned it down.  But the second we heard about this as a miniseries we said, “Yes!”  It is a story that always fascinated us, but we never would have done it as a movie.
DP: In 2014, you told me: “The O.J. Simpson miniseries we’re doing right now is the most ambitious project we’ve ever done.  It has given us a bigger canvas than we’ve ever had. It’s ten hours starting with the night of the murder and ending at his acquittal. What we’re doing is a big a very juicy Altmanesque portrait of Los Angeles with all these different characters, the birth of 24-hour media, the LAPD and Rodney King and race relations, and, of course, the court case.”   From that description, I would think this story had to be told in ten hours, not two, so was getting “a bigger canvas” something you were pleased with from the start?
LK: With a two-hour limitation we would be able to tell only the major events, the stuff that people already know.  But ten hours—that format gave us the freedom to explore all the characters in this story and the rich themes. Race issues, class issues, gender issues. The birth of 24 hour media and reality TV. The history of the conflict between the LAPD and African Americans.  How money played a role in the case.  How fame played a role. How Marcia Clark was judged differently than everyone else because she is a woman. No one was critiquing F Lee Bailey because of his hair.
DP: I think “Altmanesque” is a key word in your statement because of his multicharacter, films likeNashville, in which he had several storylines going at once, all over town.
LK: Yes.  Altman was an influence because there are no supporting characters in this miniseries.  Everyone is the lead in their story.  They all have agendas.  We talked a lot about other films of the 1970’s as well.   Dog Day Afternoon was a big influence.  The way a true story becomes a media event. The way that film is both funny and tragic… and most importantly real.   Network was another. And All The President’s Men in terms of making a thriller out of a story in which you already know the ending.
DP: I’m sure people ask you if Making a MurdererThe Thin Blue LineWest of Memphis or any other trial documentaries about the miscarriage of justice influenced you. My guess is that you use your own films with trials as your primary models.
LK: Making a Murderer could not have been an influence because we didn’t see it until our series was already wrapped!  But what a fascinating show.  All the true crime stuff that is captivating people right now–The JinxSerial–is all great stuff.  But yes, our biggest influence on this show was probably our film, The People vs. Larry Flynt. We wanted to revisit that mixture of serious themes and crazy, larger-than-life characters.
DP: How much planning did you and Scott do prior to beginning the writing and did you follow your plan completely? Did you say to each other that every segment had to have a certain tone, reveal certain facts, have certain twists, reveal more about certain characters, raise certain questions, and elicit certain reactions from viewers?
LK:  We spent over a year planning.  Working with Brad and Nina on making sure every episode had a big idea behind it.  Then we brought in an ace writing staff– D.V. DeVincentis, Joe Robert Cole, Maya Forbes, Wally Wolodarsky–and everyone jumped into the research.  Toobin’s book was the main source but there was so much more to look at.  Every person connected to the case wrote at least one book.  All the court transcripts had to be looked at–10,000s of pages. Just as an example: Barry Scheck’s DNA testimony went on for a week, but we had to turn it into a three-minute scene while keeping all the ideas and drama.
DP: So what were your biggest challenges and what bad choices did you want to avoid?
LK: The biggest challenge was marshaling all the information.  And keeping a consistent tone. Scott and I feel that real life films tend to be dry–just the facts.  We think life has a mixture of seriousness and absurdity.  The old adage “truth is stranger than fiction” certainly applies to the O.J. Simpson case.  So we were going for that and it was important to us to treat Nicole and Ron Goldman, and their families, with respect.
DP: Everyone in the world had and still has an opinion about this case, especially about whether Simpson was guilty or not. In your discussions with Scott, was it a major concern to figure out how to express themes important to you and your own viewpoints without coming across as biased?
LK:  The idea was not to try to retry O.J.  I think everyone has already made up their own minds about that.  We wanted to look at the case and try to understand the verdict.  Why did the jury come back with Not Guilty?  How did Johnnie Cochran turn it from a case about the murder of two innocent people into a referendum on the LAPD?
DP: In the video promos, you get our attention by saying that we viewers don’t know half of the story. How did you get to know that half of the story?  What was THE biggest discovery you made?
LK: Too many to single out.  Every episode has tons of stuff that most people are not familiar with–what actually went on in the Bronco, what was going on with the jurors, what happened at Kardashian’s house the day O.J. got arrested; the relationship between Cochran and Christopher Darden before the case started, the fact that Marcia filed for divorce three days before the murder took place. It’s endless.
DP: Of all the people involved in the trial that you researched, are there one or two that you discovered were more fascinating than you knew and enjoyed depicting in your scripts?
LK:  I’m not dodging the question by saying all of them.  I think if you have a strong opinion of any of these characters–and how can you not?–you will come out from watching the show seeing another side of them.  It was important that we showed them all as human beings.
DP: In the promos, Simpson says “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” Is that a key line for you in regard to the entire story?
LK: There have been many times in American’s history where people mistakenly believe the country has reached the point of being post racial.  And then something horrible happens and reality slaps us in the face.  O.J.’s trial exposed this…as has the last year and half with all the police shootings and Black Lives Matter.
DP: I’m not sure if you had conversations with Cuba Gooding Jr., but what was the most important thing you wanted him to think as he played Simpson?
LK: My children are 19 and 22. They know O.J. only as a prisoner, as a person who the world thinks of as a murderer.  We wanted to remind people of how beloved O.J. was before the tragedy. Everyone loved O.J.  He was a football star, a TV performer, a movie star, a corporate pitchman. Cuba was perfect casting because we needed someone you couldn’t believe was a killer.  Plus Cuba is such a great actor he can do anything–he won an Oscar for playing a football player.
DP: Did Simpson think if he got off, he would be accepted back into the world as he had once been?
LK:   Sure.  Toobin has a term in his book.  He says that O.J.’s job was “Being O.J.” But after the trial he could never go back to just “Being O.J.”
DP: Because of the Bronco chase, white people always assumed he was guilty and that the trial would be a slamdunk for conviction.  But a great number of black people assumed he was framed anyway. They ignored the chase.  As did the prosecution, amazingly, because they didn’t bring it up during the trial.
LK: After the chase the prosecution thinks they have an open and shut case. But our plot is about the unraveling of certainty.  How it all slips through their fingers.
DP: You, Scott, and I went to USC, as did Simpson.  It still crosses my mind that he went to our school. Did you and Scott ever talk about that?
LK: A little.  More so for Scott.  He not only went to USC, he grew up in Brentwood, only a few minutes away from Rockingham.  So this felt like a territory he really knew.
DP: If Bill Cosby ever goes to trial, would it be like the Simpson trial?
LK:  A Cosby trial would be huge, but I doubt the networks would shut down all daytime programming to play the case.  The Simpson trial happened at a specific time when 24-hour media was just blasting onto the scene. It took over everything.