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.

american-crime-story-the-people-v-oj-simpson
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.
american-crime-story-the-people-v-o-j-simpson2
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.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Tarantino + 7 at The Hateful Eight Press Conference, Part 2

Playing in Theaters

Tarantino + 7 at The Hateful Eight Press Conference, Part 2

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 12/31/15)

hatefuleightposter
By Danny Peary
After a successful two week 70mm “roadshow” engagement, during which it played in one hundred theaters in the US and Canada, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight goes into wide release on Thursday, December 31, including at United Artists Southampton 4 Theatre. On Monday December 14, I was at the Waldorf Astoria Towers in New York City to attend a press conference for Tarantino’s brutal, funny, towering, genre-jumping Western. A brief synopsis: In Wyoming, not long after the War Between the States, John Ruth (Kurt Russell) tries to take vile criminal Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) by stage to Red Rock, where she will be hanged for her many crimes. He is joined along the way by African-American bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and former Rebel soldier Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the new sheriff in town. Warren and Mannix do not trust one another and verbally spar with each other, accusing each other of atrocities and bigotry during the war. And the tension builds further when the four of them must wait out a blizzard with several dangerous strangers at a stage stopover. Certainly at least one of them is planning to help Daisy escape.
On the 26th, I posted Part 1 of the press conference, featuring Tarantino and seven of his nine stars, Russell, Leigh, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Demian Bichir, Bruce Dern, and Goggins– Jackson and Channing Tatum were not present–answering questions from the moderator. Here is the link:http://sagharboronline.com/tarantino-7-at-the-hateful-eight-press-conference/
hatefuleightpressstanding
What follows is Part 2, when the press asked the eight participants, mostly Tarantino, questions about the film. I note my one question.
Q: Mr.Tarantino, I want to get this out of the way right away. There is a group calling for a boycott of this movie, telling members of the police unions across the country not to see it.
Quentin Tarantino: I hope that doesn’t happen. Just because some union mouthpieces are calling for a boycott doesn’t mean that all the different officers on the street are going to necessarily follow suit. I have to say it’s kind of a drag because the statements I’ve made I believe are very true, and I intend to go maybe further with that as time goes on. I think you can actually decry police brutality and still understand that there is good work that the police do. I think I’ve made that pretty clear. And I also know that there’s a whole lot of police out there who are real big fans of my work and I just hope that they’re not going to take Patrick Lynch’s word for what I said. What I said you can actually look up. Since then, there has been just a little bit more clarification on my part without my walking it back at all, because I still stand by what I said.
Q: You said earlier that you were not done with Westerns yet, so will film number 8½ also be a Western?
Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kurt Russell in The Hateful Eight.
Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kurt Russell in The Hateful Eight.
QT: We’ll see. I think if you were to call yourself a Western director today you need to do at least three Westerns. Back in the 50s, it’d be like 12, but today it’s three if you really want to put your Westerns on the shelf with directors like Budd Boetticher, Anthony Mann, and Sam Peckinpah. The third Western could actually be for TV. There’s an Elmore Leonard book called Forty Lashes Less One. I’ve owned the rights for a while, I get them and I lose them and I get them and I lose them, but there’s something about the piece that demands that I make it. I would really like to do Forty Lashes Less One as kind of a mini series. I’d write it all and I’d direct it all, and maybe it will be 4 hours or 5 hours or something like that and that would fit right along the lines of The Hateful Eight and Django Unchained. It’s a really good book that deals with race and takes place in Yuma Territorial Prison and I’ve wanted to tell the story. I’m hoping I’ll do that eventually.
Q: If you make it for television, would you shoot on film?
QT: Oh yeah, absolutely. I’ll never shoot on digital.
Q: Where did your inspiration for The Hateful Eight come from?
QT:  I watched a lot of episodic Western shows from the ‘60s like The VirginianHigh Chaparral, andBonanza. And I found myself watching episodes that had really cool guest stars like James Coburn, Robert Culp, Claude Akins, and Vic Morrow. When they were special guest stars, they always played strangers who came into town, and you never really knew who they were other than they had a past about them that was revealed at some point in time. Often you didn’t know if they were a bad guy or a good guy until the end of the episode. And you didn’t know if Doug McClure or Michael Landon would end up being their friends or kill them. I thought, “Those are really interesting characters. What if I took eight characters like them and trapped them in a room together and just let them hash it out?” That actually was my starting point, what got me to sit down and put pen to paper.
Q: Did The Magnificent Seven come to mind?
QT: Not really. When I think of that film I think of a team working together. This movie suggests that in title but not in execution.
Q: Quentin, where did you get the idea of doing the “country-house murder mystery” as a Western?
QT: You know, I just thought it would be a good idea for the story, I thought it would be very interesting. This story kind of lends itself to it at a certain point, but also, frankly, it was that I like mysteries and they haven’t done mysteries in a long time. I didn’t what exactly was going to happen, at least in the first draft of the script. I just kind of dealt with everything as it went along. So I was writing the stagecoach part and it was just that. Then we get to Minnie’s Haberdashery and there’s four people waiting. I didn’t even know who those four people were yet; I wanted to be as in the dark about them as the audience would be and as the characters who arrive in the stagecoach would be and then just have the reveal themselves to me little by little by little. And introducing that mystery aspect, I just thought that would be a lot of fun, Especially when you haven’t seen a mystery at the movies in a long time it could be a really entertaining experience. I remember after I gave Sam Jackson the first draft of the script, I go to him and ask, “So what’s your favorite part of it?” He goes, “Well, I like when I start figuring shit out and I turn into Hercule Negro.” [Laughing] And that’s what we called his character through the whole shooting.
Q: Since this was such a lovefest among you and the actors when making the film, how did you ratchet up the anger and nastiness between their characters? Was it strictly the script that created the tension?
QT: There is a lot of it in the material. There’s a similarity between The Hateful Eight and Reservoir Dogs to some degree. In terms of dramatic structure, I don’t think I even understood one of the reasons why Reservoir Dogs worked so well when I wrote it and when I made it, but after hearing people talk about it I kind of figured it out. And since then I’ve kind of worked on that same principle, in particular with the basement scene of Inglorious Basterds, so now it’s like something I do. I believe that suspense can be like a rubber band, where you just keep stretching that rubber band. Using the basement scene as an example–that could be a 5-minute scene, or a 6-minute scene or a 7-minute scene and that you know, that would be good. But if I can stretch that rubber band to 25 minutes and it still holds, it doesn’t snap, well then it should be better. Well, I’m now taking that very idea to its conclusion by making a movie this long and if that rubber band doesn’t stretch, maybe it’s kind of a boring movie. So I think part of what’s going on is: that stretched rubber band is the threat of violence that is just hanging over the movie and hanging over the characters. Violence doesn’t even need to happen, but you’re prepared for it to happen and you don’t know where in the story it’s going to come. You know it’s going be horrible whenever it does come, but exactly when and how and who, you’re not so sure about. And, frankly, if I don’t pull that off and if these actors don’t pull that off then maybe the movie’s not so good, maybe it is dull. I’m betting we’re pulling that off.
Kurt Russell:  John Ruth carries that ball. He’s the only one that carries that ball. The rest of them are pretending who they’re pretending to be, whoever that is. I think the most extreme example of [building tension] actor to actor is in all honesty when I walk over and talk to Michael Madsen [who is sitting alone at a table] and he’s Mr. Blonde [his character in Reservoir Dogs] and I’m Snake Plissken [Russell’s character in John Carptenter’s Escape from New York] and there’s going to be some fucking problems. Michael is a fantastic energy, he’s a force as a human being. I’m more of just an actor. I’m not Snake Plissken. I don’t even like snakes, OK? I didn’t want to let Mike down and I certainly didn’t want to let Quentin down, but that was challenging for me. That wasn’t easy with my personality to go over and just be so bombastic and seriously confident. It was my first experience in a long, long time to relish working with actors that all I had to do was talk to them. I could just go be my guy. I didn’t have to do anything for them. I didn’t have to pull for them as actors. You guys know what I’m talking about when you start pulling for other actors? “Come on, man, come on, bring it.” That wasn’t a problem when you’re talking to Michael Madsen. You just got to go hold your own, you’ve just got to go do your thing. That was exciting as hell. That was awesome to do that with every character and every actor in this film.
QT: Before we did the script reading, we did a three-day rehearsal. I wrote John Ruth for Kurt and I wrote Joe Gage for Mike, but that was the first time they got to do that scene and when we read that scene it was just like, “Oh, whoa! Snake Plissken is challenging Mr. Blonde–holy shit!”
Q: You mentioned a live read. Did you have the experience of getting an audience’s response to the script before it committing it to film, and if you changed actors or anything else in the film based on that?
QT: We altered a lot because this live read was just from the first draft. I wanted to do three different drafts of the film.. It was different from what I normally do. Normally I write these big long, unwieldy novels and there’s the beginning and the middle and the middle’s always great because now you’ve committed to writing so much and you know more about the characters than you ever could before you started writing. And then there’s the end and by that point the characters have just taken over so they always dictate the ending to me. I’m doing genre movies so I have an idea where I’m going at the end, like at the end of Kill Bill I thought it was very possible she would kill Bill–but how, why, exactly how you feel about it, all that was very open to question. But that’s one of the reasons that I like genres is that I can like explore a lot of different things, but still kind of have a road that I’m travelling to some degree or another. This one I wanted to do differently. I wanted to spend time with the material. More time than I normally spend, i.e. from the beginning middle and end, even through the process of telling the story three different times. In the first draft, the Lincoln Letter [that Warren proudly carries with him], which is a motif that plays out through the film, was dealt with only once and it was in the stagecoach. Now I knew I wanted to do more with it, but I wasn’t ready and I didn’t have any obligation to have to do it in the first draft. I could kind of find it on my own; then in the second draft, it appeared in the dinner table scene. And in the third draft it appears later, the way you see it in the movie. To give you another example, what happens to Daisy ultimately in the third draft, which is what is in the movie, was where I thought I wanted to go in the first draft, but something stopped me from going there with her in the first draft. I almost felt I didn’t have the right to [give her that ending] because I didn’t know her well enough yet. So I wrote the whole second draft from Daisy’s perspective. Not in a tricky prose way, just in an emotional way so I could really get to know her. I wanted to be on Daisy’s side for an entire draft of the story so I could really feel I knew her. And then after I felt I knew her I could do what I needed to do to her in the third draft.
Q: Mad Movies has called The Hateful Eight a horror film. Do you agree with that?
QT: Mad Movies which is sort of like the French Fangoria, are not the first people to say, “Hey is this your first horror film?” A couple of people have brought it up and there are definitely horrible moments in it to be sure. Tim, Walt, Kurt, and I just got back from the press and the premieres in London and France and it was surprising how it was a theme in France. I mean every interviewer came in and said, “It’s Western but horrifique.” They really kept hitting on this horror film aspect that the film actually does to some degree play into it. I don’t think this movie is influenced by that many other Westerns, but one movie it’s definitely influenced by is John Carpenter’s version of The Thing, which also had Kurt Russell and also had a score by Ennio Morricone. Now that actually makes sense because this movie is very influenced by Reservoir Dogs and that was influenced by The Thing. There’s obviously trappings of it: the characters are trapped in one room, there’s a lot of paranoia going around, nobody can trust anybody, and there’s a horrible blizzard going on outside. But the biggest influence when it came to that was the effect that The Thing had on me the very first time I saw it in a movie theater on opening night. I think that was actually the first time I could break down in a more critical way, the effect of a film. The paranoia was so strong between those characters, and they were trapped in such an enclosed space that the paranoia just started bouncing off the walls until it had nowhere else to go but through the fourth wall and into the audience. So that was the effect I was going for with The Hateful Eight.
Q: The overture suggests an Italian horror film.
QT: That’s for damn sure. I didn’t expect Ennio Morricone to give me a Western score. A movie with Terence Hill called Genius in 1973 or 1974 was his last official Western score and he always said he didn’t want to do Westerns anymore. So even though this is a Western, I wasn’t expecting a score similar to like Two Meals for Sister Sara or anything like that. I was figuring it was going to be dark and this was almost how he described it. He gave me a horror film score and at times even a Giallo [Italian slasher film] score. There are even elements of a Giallo in The Hateful Eight. Giallos are usually mysteries. There’s even a black glove killer in my movie. I just think it’s one of those things where you see the killer with the black glove it’s like, “Ok I can’t wait for them to show more of the characters so I can see who wears a black glove.” And then it’s “Oh, shit, all the characters are wearing black gloves!”
Q: Quentin, how difficult and how important was it for you to get Ennio Moriccone to score this film?
QT: It was a dream, it was a dream. We had made overtures towards working with each other, in particular Inglorious Basterds and Django, and it never quite worked out because of the timing and schedules. With this movie, I had a little voice in my ear that said this movie deserves its own score. I take nothing away from the other movies that I’ve done using other scores, I think that those are right for them, I didn’t hear that voice then. But on this one I heard this little voice saying this material deserves its own theme, its own piece of music that is its own personality. And he was very interested and so I took the first step, and the first step was actually just translating the script into Italian and sending it to him. And we sent it to him and he read it, and his wife read it, and his son read it and they all really liked it. His wife really liked it I think that went a long way. And then we got together and I went to meet him in Rome. I went to his lovely, apartment, maybe the greatest apartment I’ve seen in my life. We were there talking about it and I go, “So what is it you see or hear.” And he goes, “Well I have this idea for a theme.” He didn’t hum it or make his sounds and stuff, but he goes, “I just see this driving, driving forward, it’s like the stagecoach moving through the snow moving through the snow, moving forward moving forward, but it also is ominous sounding and suggests the violence that will come.” At first I didn’t think he had time to write more than just the theme. But I ended up seeing him the very next day at the [David di] Donatello Awards, and he goes, “I’m going to write you more.” So 7 minutes of music became 12 minutes of music, became 22 minutes of music, became 32 minutes of music. I think he sat down and got inspired. He actually didn’t see the movie until in London just the last couple of days, so he didn’t score to scenes we’d shot but scored just to the script. He wrote a couple of pieces of music that he thought could be really good for the material itself, but not scene specific. About three suites like that and also some other music that he thought I could use for emotions and he gave it to me and let me take it and put it into the movie the way I’ve always done before. So it ended up being a very, very lovely encounter and now I’m looking forward to having him do a score before I even shoot a movie so we can actually really get down to it, but it’s become a lovely, lovely relationship. I actually cherish it.
Danny Peary: Jennifer, when you said there are many sides to Daisy, you implied that she isn’t 100% rotten. Where in her did you find a reason for your sympathy toward her? Is it just that she has spent her whole life dealing with hateful men?
Jennifer Jason Leigh: No. I don’t want to give away too much, but I’ll just say that Daisy has very strong loyalties and I think she has a very good and big heart. I do feel that about her, I mean as crazy and wicked evil as she is, she has a good heart.
Kurt Russell (laughing): Ahhhh, I really do not agree!
QT (laughing): That’s Jennifer’s job to feel that way!
JJL: I guess it is.
QT: Where I was coming from when I wrote the character of Daisy, and things evolved, is that she was like a Manson girl out west. My starting off point was Susan Atkins. But in that same vain I will point out something and I’ll say it so it can be printed without it ruining any of my surprises. These killers in the movie do some horrible murders–and you see these murders on screen and I think that’s one of the more horrific parts of the film. At the same time they’re the only people that do anything for anybody else in the whole movie. They do it for her. I mean as far as they’re concerned if they have to kill every son of a bitch in Wyoming, that’s what Wyoming gets for trying to hang her. And so there is that dichotomy. I think with every character, there is also an “on the other hand.” You might think the other hand is bullshit, but there is the other hand.
Q: What was your thought process in having Daisy sing a Jack White song?
QT: I had another song in mind all through the shooting, but somebody had given me a mixtape with it on it back when I was doing Kill Bill, and then all of a sudden it just hit me. So I started playing it and I really liked it. I also like that fact that it actually plays like a interior monologue of Daisy’s. If you listen to the lyrics in association to what Daisy is thinking at that point in time, it’s about somebody coming to rescue her, somebody talking to her, don’t worry honey it’s rough, it’s tough, but we’re comin’ to get you baby, we’re comin’ to get ya.
Q: Tim Roth, did you see any similarities between your characters in The Hateful Eight and God of Hell?
Tim Roth: Wow. I think it’s just the duplicitous nature of the two characters.
Bruce Dern: If there’s one thing I want to say, it’s that the man [Tarantino] has a magnet. You’re so drawn to him and the main reason is his reverence for what went before, his respect for the industry. His knowledge of the past is just mind boggling and if you dare question him he will tell you facts about stuff you never knew existed. And that was a delight for me and that kind of thing you don’t get very often.
Walton Goggins:  Quentin also visually takes his actors through a sequence of shots that come out of his imagination. This allows for this strange kind of adjustment, like an improvisation that is physical combined with the written word that you just don’t anticipate. You actually don’t want to have the right answers because you like that it could go anywhere.
Q: Quentin, it’s so challenging to shoot winter, so why did you decide to do that?
QT: Well I haven’t spent that much time in the snow and the Snow Western is its own little sub genre of very bleak and pitiless movies. Also with the idea of shooting 70mm, you know the mountains, the blizzard, the snow, and especially that stagecoach moving through it would give it a big visual look. And even when you’re inside, the blizzard outside is always going on and to me is like a monster in a monster movie. It’s always outside, raging and waiting to devour the characters whenever they leave.
Q: This is the sixth Samuel L. Jackson movie you’ve made. As a director what’s your opinion on how he has evolved as an actor from when you started working with him, up to now?
QT: I think when Sam came out of his mother’s womb the doctor said, “Mrs. Jackson, you just gave birth to a 2-pound baby actor.” I don’t know if Sam became a better actor as time went on because I think he was always really great, but his stature has risen and his persona has become bigger and bigger and bigger. I love him because nobody says my dialogue quite like how Sam Jackson does. It’s not poetry, but it’s poetic [the way he says it]; it’s not song, but it’s musical and he sings it; it’s not stand up comedy, but it has a comedic rhythm and he nails that fairly well. Also Sam and I are huge Lee Van Cleef fans, so there definitely is this tip of the bat wings to Lee Van Cleef in his characterization and even the way we did the look.
Q: If you were casting this movie 15 years ago, would his character have been quite as large? Do you think it would be different?
QT: It’s interesting you ask that. Thinking about The Virginian, I speculated that if I was doing this movie in 1969 I couldn’t cast some of the characters but I could see Claude Akins being a great John Ruth, Bruce Dern as Chris Mannix or Jody [played by Channing Tatum] to tell you the truth. I think Vic Morrow would be terrific as Jody. I could see Robert Culp as Joe Gage [played by Michael Madsen] and frankly if it was 1969 I would probably cast Bill Cosby as Major Warren [played by Samuel L. Jackson].
Q: Do you enjoy the post production process?
QT: The writing process is my favorite part when I’m doing that and then just as I’m getting tired of it, sick of it, I’m done with it. I don’t really like pre-production because I want to get into it right away, but then I start shooting and then that’s fantastic and just as I’m getting sick of it usually, we’re wrapping it up. And then same thing with the editing. Now that’s my favorite process as I’m doing it and then just as I’m getting sick of it, we’re done. You know I like the sound mix, I like the color timing, but writing, shooting, and editing are my favorites.
Q: Walk about your editor Fred Raskin.
QT: Oh Fred is great. It was one of the tragedies of my life to lose Sally Menke the way I did, and Fred was an assistant on Kill Bill and I didn’t want to start working with somebody I didn’t know before. So we worked on Django and we got along together great and then I worked with him on this and it was just a joy. One of the things about him that I just love is that when he gets my material he laughs and smiles at the same lines again and again and again no matter how many times we hear it.   I’m always laughing and so you could work for four months with the guy and he laughs at the same jokes every single time it plays and smiles at the same jokes every time it plays. You can’t ask for any more than that in an editor.
Q: It has been said that this is your most political movie to date. Do you agree?
QT: I don’t know if that was what I was thinking about, when I started putting the pen to it, but it became that. I remember that it really came to me when Warren and Chris Mannix have their political discussion in the stagecoach. When I finished writing that, I was like, “Oh wow, this is kind of relevant to today, an almost kind of a blue state, red state, Western kind of deal. I thought that was kind of neat because one of the things about Westerns is they really, really reflect the decade in which they are made. If you look at the Westerns that were the most popular in the ‘50s, they really reflected an Eisenhower ideal and this perceived sense of American prosperity and of thinking we won the World War II by ourselves, and of there being this rise of the suburbs and the supermarkets and all that. But then if you look at the Westerns of the late ‘60s and through the ‘70s, you’ll see that they reflected a very cynical and jaundiced time in America. Think about how in the movies of the ‘50s we lifted up characters like Wyatt Earp and Jessie James and Billy the Kid and then in the ‘70s we tore them down and showed them for what we were. That almost vindicated our own cynical views of America and that just tells you what the ‘70s were like with Vietnam and Watergate. Bruce Dern did a movie calledPosse directed by Kirk Douglas that is a Watergate Western in every way shape and form. After the script was finished and we started shooting The Hateful Eight I saw that the events that had been happening in the last year and a half that we’d been watching on TV just made everything in the film seem more relevant than it was when we started. So yes, I do think it is my most political movie to date.

Tarantino + 7 at “The Hateful Eight” Press Conference

Playing in Theaters

Tarantino + 7 at The Hateful Eight Press Conference

(from Sag Harbor Express 12/25/15)


hatefuleightposter
hatefuleightpicturepresscon
On Monday December 14, I was at the Waldorf Astoria Towers in New York City to attend a press conference for Quentin Tarantino’s newest epic, genre-jumping Western, The Hateful Eight, which opened Christmas Day. Two stars, Samuel L. Jackson and Channing Tatum, were not present, but Tarantino brought along his seven other stars: Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Demian Bichir (afterward, I got to tell him how much I missed his TV series, The Bridge), Bruce Dern, and Water Goggins (before the conference, I got to tell him how much I missed his TV series Justified). Since these seven actors, as well as Jackson and Tatum, play individuals who have already done hateful acts during the Civil War or will do hateful acts during the movie’s 187 minutes, I am wondering why the title isn’t more fittingly, “The Nasty Nine,” but no matter because once the bodies start piling up, you’ll likely lose count anyway. In Wyoming, not long after the War Between the States, John Ruth (Russell) tries to take vile criminal Daisy Domergue (Leigh) by stage to Red Rock, where she will be hanged for her many crimes. He is joined along the way by African-American bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Jackson) and former Rebel soldier Chris Mannix (Goggins), the new sheriff in town. Warren and Mannix do not trust one another and verbally spar with each other, accusing each other of atrocities and bigotry during the war. And the tension builds further when the four of them must wait out a blizzard with several dangerous strangers at a stage stopover. Certainly at least one of them is planning to help Daisy escape. Tarantino is no fan of John Ford but you’ll recognize some Stagecoach inThe Hateful Eight, and there are moments when Russell seems to be saying lines written for John Wayne (including “That’ll be the day), but there’s also Western moments indebted to Budd Boetticher, Anthony Mann, and Nicholas Ray, as well as forays into mysteries and bloodbath horror films. And there’s a song sung by Daisy, and as much chatter and philosophizing as in My Dinner with Andre.Overall, it’s pure Tarantino. The following is Part 1 of the Press Conference, when the eight participants answered questions from the moderator. In Part 2, which I’ll post here sometime after Christmas, they also answer questions from the press. I even got one question in, to Jennifer Jason Leigh, that Russell and Tarantino also responded to.   So keep an eye out for that.
Moderator: Mr. Tarantino, talk about the roadshow,” this amazing release strategy that has been announced.
Quentin Tarantino: Yes, the “roadshow” version opens on December 25. It’s going to be exclusive for one week and then we will open wide on the 31st, keeping the 70mm projection. It’s going to go for two weeks and then we’ll lose some of the screens after the second week, but we’ll keep some of them. The Weinsteins have done an amazing thing in regard to the Road Show. I’ll put it into perspective. Warner Bros. put its entire weight behind Christopher Nolan when he did Interstellar. Nevertheless, it played in only about eleven venues in its 70mm run. We are playing in forty-four markets in a hundred theaters with our roadshow. Not only that but they include some of the biggest and “funnest” movie palaces that are left–like the Music Box in Chicago, Hollywood Theatre in Portland, the Fox Theatre in Detroit, the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles. It’s really wonderful. All the theaters that had 70mm capabilities, we utilized them. But in other places, we just moved the screens in. I remember in our first discussions, we said “Look, we should be like Neil Diamond or The Book of Mormon coming into town. We’ll go into big venues that might not even show movies anymore but we’ll set up our big screens and our projectors.” It has been a herculean effort and they pulled it off. We’re screening in a hundred theaters in the U.S. and Canada and I’m really proud of that. We’re trying to do this like the old-school roadshows, where they had overtures and intermissions and were a little longer. Ours is about seven minutes longer for the road show version, and you get–and it’s hot off the presses today–this really cool program, and we’re giving out T-shirts that say, I SAW THE HATEFUL EIGHT IN 70MM.”
M: It seems that you’re in a Western phase right now. Does this film come out of your experiences onDjango Unchained and do you see them as linked?
QT: Yeah, there is a chain that connects Django and The Hateful Eight. I guess I am in a bit of a Western period right now. Normally I do a film in a genre and I know what I what I want to do but don’t know how to do it. Like shooting the big martial arts scenes in Kill Bill. But then I learn how to do it; I learned on the job and figured it out and I’m real proud of it. But then I don’t do another martial arts film. And the same with the car chase in Deathproof. I kind of learned how to do a Western and realized I wasn’t done with the genre. I wasn’t done with what I had to say. One of the things I had to say in this regard was dealing with race in America, a topic which a lot of Westerns had avoided for such a long time. I had more to say. There was also something else about Django: you’re dealing with such a big subject, slavery in America, that as fun as the movie was there was this downer Sword of Damocles hanging over the whole thing that you always had to deal with in a responsible way. That was actually an aspect of The Hateful Eight, but even though I was dealing with similar issues I could just let it rip and do my Western without having History with a capital “H” hanging over the whole piece.
M: Kurt, your character, Ruth, and Daisy, are linked in the film, sometimes physically with the chain, meaning the two of you are always together. Can you talk about the pros and cons and challenges of that kind of working relationship?
Kurt Russell: When Jennifer and I started to rehearse we didn’t really think there’d be much of a problem with being chained together. We didn’t think it would represent anything much either. And it turned out that nothing was further from the truth. Everything that we did was informed by how that chain connected us. So we had to sort of get the Fred-and-Ginger of it all together, and that informed Ruth and Daisy’s relationship. So for me there was John Ruth and for Jennifer there was Daisy Domergue, but together we were going to be this team. Chained together for a week and a half, 24/7, the Stockholm Syndrome sets in pretty fast and Ruth and Domergue are going to get to know a lot about each other. And of course over a five-month period of time, the Stockholm Syndrome between Jennifer and me set in.
M: Jennifer, in approaching Daisy, was it all on the page or were there outside influences?
Jennifer Jason Leigh: So much of it, obviously, is in on the page, with such a great character. With Daisy there’s a lot that’s mercurial that we wanted to find, and we wanted to find that together. So much of Daisy is informed by John Ruth because she is always reacting to him, to his chain, to his hits, and determining what mileage she can get from that. She thinks she is a lot smarter than John Ruth. And actually she is. She’s playing him during a lot of the movie. But there’s this one moment–and what’s so great for all of us actors about doing a Tarantino movie is that we’re always being surprised–where everything just shifts, when John Ruth isn’t just a putz, a fool she is so much smarter than. He is suddenly very smart and very dark when he goes and gathers all the guns from everyone. Then she has to rejudge him, just as all the other characters have to be judged again. Everyone in the movie is terrible and hateful, but you also care for them. Maybe their weaknesses are the good parts of them in a certain way. I remember the day we shot that scene in which Ruth takes the guns. Daisy has been having a blast–yeah, she’s supposed to be going to the gallows but she knows she’s not going to the gallows because she’s going to figure it out. But at that moment it’s not so clear anymore. That was so exciting as an actress to not know that was coming. I’d read it on the page yet when I felt it happen in the room, I swear my blood went cold. It was phenomenal.
KR: I’ve never said this. It was an unspoken thing. Because of who John Ruth is, when the clapboard went bang and it’s “Action,” that chain was mine, I owned it. Because of that I felt that as soon as we heard “Cut!,” the chain was Jennifer’s! We had to have a balance. I really appreciated what she was going through. If you turn that chain over to the other person, as she did, it wasn’t easy.
JJL (laughing): I’m not as good a dance partner as you are; you’re a much better leader and I’m much better at following.
M: I wonder that since all you actors play characters who are both charming and despicable if all of you considered yourself the “hero” of this movie?
Michael Madsen: I read about James Cagney and he said that if you are playing a character who is noble, you should probably try to find a mean streak in that person, something dark that he is carrying around; if you play someone who is evil you should probably try to find something good somewhere in that person. Quentin lets your character help you out so you’re capable of doing that.
M: Tim, as with Michael, you were in Reservoir Dogs. Was the experiences working on that film and this one like apples and oranges or was pretty much how you remembered working on Quentin’s first film?
Tim Roth: The man’s the same. But the set has changed and the surface atmosphere. He has so much more knowledge of cinema and how to tell a story.
QT: On Reservoir Dogs, along with the production assistants, I was probably the least experienced person on the set. Tim and Mike had made a lot of movies by that time. I was just getting through the process.
MM: My whole career came from that.
M: Demian, what was your experience working with Quentin for the first time?
Demian Bichir: I was curious about how everything was going to work out, not only because you have a huge-name director in front of you but there was this amazing group of actors. I remember our first table reading at a hotel in Los Angeles. As an actor, you want to always one day say a Tarantino line on film. So I was excited about that. But to listen to every line of the script in the mouths of this group of fantastic actors was beautiful. Also I remember going back home and saying “Everyone was so fucking nice.” Because you know that a small fish can be lost in a big ocean. And when I met Quentin I found a warm, generous, loving man. It was a confirmation that the biggest artists are the nicest.
M: Bruce, you’ve worked with Hitchcock and Kazan and some of the finest filmmakers in the history of the medium. Do you see connections between them and Mr. Tarantino?
Bruce Dern: I’ve been very lucky in my career. But this guy does a couple of things that the people I’ve worked with don’t do. He has the greatest attention to detail I’ve ever seen. Burt Lancaster once told me about [Italian director Luchino] Visconti, but he has the same attention to detail as Visconti, trust me. And the other thing he does for actors, and everyone behind the camera as well, is give them the chance to get better, a chance to do material that is so original. You’re so excited that he chose you and not Ned Beatty or Jimmy Caan! And you’re excited to go to work every day. You’re excited because he might just do something that’s never been done!
M: Walton, would you ever suggest to Quentin an alternate line of dialogue?
Walton Goggins (joking): There’s no improv in this press conference–he wrote everything everyone said. No, I didn’t suggest anything.   It is every actor’s dream to get the opportunity to say a Quentin Tarantino monologue or even a line. There is no need to change, even to add a “and” or “the” because it really is perfect the way it comes out of his imagination. Why would you mess with perfection?
END OF PART 1
Still looking for that perfect baseball gift for yourself or someone who has every other baseball item you can think of? Fortunately, my new book on Derek Jeter has not sold out! And it’s not even expensive at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Baseball-Immortal-Career-Quotes-Immortals/dp/1624141625/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1450823993&sr=1-1&keywords=baseball+immortal+derek+jeter+by+danny+peary

"Room," Featuring Brie Larson's Award-Worthy Performance, Plays in Sag Harbor

Playing in Theaters

Room, Featuring Brie Larson's Award-Worthy Performance, Plays in Sag Harbor

(from Sag Harbor Express Online December 20, 2015)

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in "Room."
Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in “Room.”
By Danny Peary
I look forward to seeing an unusual film with a curious title, Room, which opens Friday at the Sag Harbor Cinema. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Adam & Paul; Frank) from a screenplay by Emma Donahue, which she adapted from her best-selling novel, it features a standout performance by Brie Larson that is receiving awards nominations.
The synopsis from IMDB: “Room tells the extraordinary story of Jack, a spirited 5-year-old who is looked after by his loving and devoted mother. Like any good mother, Ma, dedicates herself to keeping Jack happy and safe, nurturing him with warmth and love and doing typical things like playing games and telling stories. Their life, however, is anything but typical–they are trapped–confined to a windowless, 10-by-10-foot space that Ma has euphemistically named Room. Ma has created a whole universe for Jack within room, and she will stop at nothing to ensure that, even in this treacherous environment, Jack is able to live a complete and fulfilling life. But as Jack’s curiosity about their situation grows, and Ma’s resilience reaches its breaking point, they enact a risky plan to escape, ultimately bringing them face-to-face with what may turn out to be the scariest thing yet: the real Room world.” I became a fan of Brie Larson when she played a damaged but resilient incest victim who works as a supervisor at a group-home for at-risk kids in the indie Short Term 12, so I’m glad she’s being recognized now for being one of our best young dramatic actresses. I didn’t get the chance to talk to her about playing Ma in Room, but I did get to speak to her during a set of the Amy Schumer–Judd Apatow smash-hit comedy Trainwreck for the Australian magazine FilmInk. Here is the brief but, I think, revealing conversation with the smart, genial actress about her thoughts on moving back and forth between comedy and drama and dealing with her increased fame.
Danny Peary: I was told by Barry Mendel, the producer of Trainwreck that you were considered for the role of Amy Schumer’s sister after they saw you in Short Term 12, a serious film. Is there a fine line for you between doing drama and comedy?
Brie Larson: They’re actually pretty much identical, because the way I go about doing both is just being honest and sincere and vulnerable. And the only way to do that is to expose yourself. It takes the exact same thing in comedy and drama. I find the best comedy isn’t about trying to be funny–for the most part when things become humorous it’s because it’s so true.. My favorite comedians are the ones who open up and share with us about the way their mind works and the way they see the world, and then we can all laugh communally at the absurdity of the universe. The planet is so bizarre and upside and topsy-turvy and makes zero sense, we may as well laugh about it.
DP: I saw an interview with you from a couple of years ago in which you said dramatic roles used to take a real toll on you until somebody said, Let it go. Is the reason you do comedy to get away from that sort of thing, or does doing comedy take a toll on you also?
BL: It is still work, and there’s a lot of talking, and it has a lot of emotional stuff in it, and I’m exhausted at the end of the day, but I wouldn’t say it takes a toll on me. The next thing I’m doing [Room] is pretty dramatic, so I’ll be interested to see how much I can let it go. Doing drama or comedy, I feel there’s one story I want to tell and within that there’s a handful of stories, different ways that the one story can be told. Either way, I want to support whatever takes me to that light that I see in my head. I’m very interested in the power of comedy, and in the writing and directing process in making comedies. And in making all movies. The coin flips back and forth, and I’m bouncing between it all.
DP: In that same interview, you talked about how you wanted to be a magician as a kid so really hated the TV special that revealed how all the tricks were done. Similarly, you said that when you are in a movie, you wish everybody who sees it doesn’t know you, Brie Larson, are the actress on the screen and that your identity remains a secret. Do you still feel that way?
BL: Yeah, and I’m realizing more and more that I’m losing something that has been very important to me. Especially being in New York I’m realizing every day that my anonymousness is really rapidly deteriorating. It’s been very hard for me to recognize this and strengthen myself because there’s nothing I love more than being able to walk up and down a street and observe people and be able to engage with them without their having any idea of who I am. I just want to participate as a player in this world who doesn’t have a bunch of movie credits. I am finding new ways to deal with it. The reason why I talk about stuff like that is because for all of us there’s such a sense of wanting to know the answer, of wanting to know why. I totally get why people are that way because I suffer from it, too. The problem is that some people see me in a movie and identity me as being the person in the movie with an answer instead of realizing that I’m just playing a role. If I play a character who exercises freedom and shows viewers that all of us have the ability to make free choices it gets mistaken and people think, “Oh, let’s glorify this actress who’s free. ” It doesn’t always translate as clearly as I would like it to that I’m not the character I play.
DP: So there are expectations of you because of the role you play?
BL: For sure, even more than before. But for me to think people shouldn’t judge me, I can’t judge anyone. I can’t be upset at someone else for doing it because that means I’d be judging them for judging me– it just keeps going on forever.
DP: If viewers sometimes think you are the character you are playing, are you okay with risking playing characters in movies that have powerful messages and themes?
BL: I don’t ever want to shy away from anything, and I’m not one to shy away from exposing vulnerability or exposing darkness. Every set has its own rhythm and its own way of working. And that’s part of what I love about my job, going to different places and working in different ways. I just did a musical in India about genetically-modified rice, and what attracts me to it is that we can talk about something that’s a true issue and strikes very hard, but the movie is not fear-based. It’s not done in a way that makes us sad or scared, but instead it brings us together through laughter and love and heart.
DP: It doesn’t surprise me you’re in a musical because I know that your own music is important to you. Have you had time to be creative musically despite your hectic movie schedule?
BL: It’s hard to do because my thoughts just veer so easily into whatever movie character I’m working on. As I’m walking down the streets, I’m thinking about my character and not about myself. When it comes time to write I want to speak from my heart about me, but my thoughts are all wrapped up in all my character’s experiences in the movie. So I don’t know which thoughts are mine and which are the thoughts of my character. It’s weird.

Andrew Jenks Talks About His Troubling Documentary "dream/killer"

Playing in Theaters

Andrew Jenks Talks About His Troubling Documentary dream/killer

(from Sag Harbor Express Online on December 1, 2015)

dream/killer fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. Meanwhile, beginning this Friday, you can see Andrew Jenks’ powerful indictment of the criminal justice system in Manhattan at the AMC Empire on 42nd Street. On December 11, it opens in L.A. at the Laemmle Fine Arts.
Andrew Jenks.
Andrew Jenks.
From the Press Notes: In the fall of 2005, 19-year-old Ryan Ferguson was convicted of murder and sentenced to 40 years in prison based on someone else’s dream. When Columbia [Missouri] Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt was brutally murdered in the newspaper’s parking lot, the crime went unsolved for two years, leaving the affluent college town desperate to bring home justice. At the time, it was the only unsolved murder in the city.  A break in the case led police to Chuck Erickson, who confessed to the crime, implicated Ferguson as an accomplice, and left America with one of the country’s most outrageous miscarriages of justice. Over the next 10 years while Ryan languished in prison, his father Bill engaged in a tireless crusade to find justice. dream/killer tells the story of this extraordinary father’s journey to free his son. The cast of characters reveals the very best and worst of the American judicial system. From the questionable District Attorney-turned-judge Kevin Crane to the high-powered Chicago defense attorney Kathleen Zellner. The documentary uses archival footage from when Ryan was first arrested, interviews with him in prison, and court hearings that reveal the flaws of the American judicial system. The arguments of the ruthless prosecutor, which are eventually countered by Zellner, are also depicted to show how easily the system is influenced.  Interspersed with footage from the Ferguson family archive, dream/killer looks at the personal consequences of a wrongful conviction.
dreamkillerposter
When dream/killer played at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, I spoke to director Andrew Jenks and separately to Ryan and Bill Ferguson. This is my conversation with Jenks, followed by a link to my interview of the Fergusons that was published here in April.
Danny Peary: In your “Director’s Statement,” you say you originally wanted to make a documentary likeErrol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line and also help free a man who had spent years in prison because of a miscarriage of justice. Was that your initial goal?
Andrew Jenks: First it was just about my understanding of the case. I hadn’t done enough research at the time to know whether or not he was guilty. But I quickly realized that he most certainly innocent. I love Errol Morris and thought: “If I’m any good at what I do, maybe I can make something half as good asThe Thin Blue Line.” I thought we’d also use reenactments and show different ways of looking at a murder. We’ll make a movie, it’ll come out, and maybe, maybe, maybe it will help this young man, Ryan Ferguson, get released. But as we were filming, Ryan’s conviction was vacated and he was released. Once that happened we knew we had a different movie on our hands. It was no longer going to be The Thin Blue Line, per se, but it could be something equally powerful.
DP: If there had been no media attention at all, do you think Ryan would be out of prison?
AJ: I think he’d still be in there. However, even if there had been no media attention, I think Bill Ferguson, his dad, this superhero of sorts, would find a way to get his son out eventually. But I think that the media—and I don’t mean our movie, but 48 Hours and CBS–being there early on, and then the national coverage that kind of came with that, put a lot of pressure on the local judicial system and the police. I think the media played a large part in getting him freed.
Ryan and Bill Ferguson.
Ryan and Bill Ferguson.
DP: When did you meet Ryan Ferguson for the first time?
AJ: I started speaking with Ryan about two and a half years ago. We talked on the phone quite regularly, at least two to three times a week. I met him in person about two years ago in the Jefferson City Correctional Center, the JCCC, which is a maximum security prison. That’s when we did our first interview.
DP: Obviously any kind of positive reinforcement was beneficial to him, but I bet it was hard for you to know that a movie about his plight might not do him any good. Were you wary about giving him too much hope?
AJ: Yes, I think any time I’ve made a documentary or a TV show, there’s definitely a degree of managing everyone’s expectations and making it clear that we could end up going nowhere. No one may see what I film or, if I don’t do my job, it could be a terrible movie. I’ve made bad movies in the past, so let’s hope this is not one of those.
DP: You had a real burden, I would think, to get it right.
AJ: There’s certainly an element of pressure, but Ryan had already gone through so much and had been so wronged that he had already pretty much managed expectations to a T. So there wasn’t really a need for me to say, “This movie will change things.” I think he had already heard that from plenty of people at that point and was very aware that promises made to him didn’t always come through. He had experienced disappointments. I’m lucky to call him a friend, but I consider him a mentor of sorts, and admire him. Not to be too cheesy, but I’ve never met anyone like him and his family.
DP: I would think you wanted to make a unique film but at the same time show that this story of an innocent man being railroaded into prison represents millions of cases, that such trials go on all the time.
AJ: Yeah, it’s estimated that 3% to 5% of those who are behind bars are wrongly incarcerated, so that would amount to about 100,000 innocent prisoners. I would say that’s a pretty conservative estimate. So through Ryan’s story of being sent to prison and his dad’s nine-and-a-half year odyssey of trying to get him out, we in turn were also able to show this larger story about how America’s judicial system is broken at its core. How disheartening it is to know that prosecutors have absolute immunity. Kathleen Zellner, who eventually represented Ryan, was really able to articulate that. She is, I like to say, kind of “America’s lawyer.” I think she’s overturned something like eighteen wrongful convictions for people who had either been given a life sentence or the death penalty. She was able to say that what happened to Ryan could happen to anyone. If you look at Ryan’s case and think, “Well, this couldn’t happen to me,” you’re definitely wrong. If there is an unsolved murder, you could walk outside today and me and my buddy could point at you, and that’s all it takes, two eyewitnesses. That’s the reality for why I think the police and a district attorney who needs a conviction can easily frame someone and get them put behind bars. Kathleen recently told me, “I could frame Mother Theresa if I wanted to.” I think that’s shockingly true.
DP: Let’s talk about the villain of the piece, the unethical prosecutor Richard Crane, who partly because of winning this high-profile trial rose in the ranks from D.A. to judge. Did he convince himself that Ryan was guilty, or do you think he didn’t care if he was innocent?
AJ: Well, I’m even hesitant to almost call him a villain. I think everyone is a human being. I think he did a tremendous amount of wrong, and he was manipulative, but once he saw the opportunity to put these two suspects behind bars, he was convinced of their guilt. [Note; Ryan and Bill Ferguson believe Crane always knew they were innocent.] I would like to think that he no longer thinks that. But I know that even when some of the facts started to come out, he would still publically say that without a doubt they’re guilty. Crane and his team manipulated police reports, manipulated Chuck to believing he was guilty and that Ryan was his accomplice, manipulated Jerry, manipulated Ryan, and did other awful, awful, awful things. But the reason I don’t specifically point him out as the villain is because I think he turned into a villain because the judicial system itself allowed him to do so. By not holding him accountable and giving him immunity, the system encouraged him to do all these awful things. As a prosecutor, you just want to do your job, which is to get one conviction after another, whether the person on trial is guilty or innocent.
DP: And basically Crane knew what it takes to get convictions. He had experience.
AJ: Right, he knew how the system could work in his favor. I wouldn’t lose sleep at night by saying that he is the villain of the movie, but I think it’s also important to point out the circumstances and the environment in which he works allows bad stuff to happen.
DP: Talk about having archival footage of the Fergusons. Was it good to have as much as you had, or would you have actually preferred less, so you wouldn’t be tempted to get off track and spend too much time on Bill Ferguson’s history.
AJ: It’s as if Bill Ferguson knew during his entire life that there’d be a movie made about him. Obviously, he never thought it’d be a movie like this about his efforts to get his on out of prison on a murder charge. When you look at his background, and see all the different things he did in that footage, you see that it made him into the person who would be determined to get his son out, and never take no for an answer and always try to figure out another piece of the case. I think if Bill had said in an interview, “I spent my twenties going across Europe, then down through Africa and then across Australia,” that would have been interesting to hear, but actually seeing his footage of that makes a world of difference. Without that footage I don’t think the film would have been what it is.
The movie definitely benefitted from the footage in terms of the storytelling done by me and Sam Lee, who was my editor, co-producer and so much more. She did such an incredible job crafting this movie.
DP: You don’t mention that Bill and Leslie Ferguson have divorced until later in the film. Did you want us to be surprised?
AJ: No, there was just so much story in Ryan’s life—and so much story in general—so bringing in the divorce would have been a whole other sidebar that would have taken us down another route.
DP: I was surprised because the archival footage makes you think they are the perfect couple.
AJ: Yeah. I think that in a sense they are the perfect couple, because they were able to come together when their son’s life was at stake. People forget that every day Ryan was in prison, his life was on the line. Those are dangerous facilities, and murders are happening more frequently than anyone realizes. Their divorce, in a sense, was a bit inconsequential, but more relevant is that here are two parents who come together for their son, whether they still loved each other or not. I don’t know if it changed much.
DP: From watching footage of them in their youth, I could have been friends with them back in the sixties. They seemed really familiar.
AJ: That’s great to hear. I think they, as a family, are very relatable to a lot of people. They’re kind of this all-American family, if you will.
I hope that will make a big difference when people watch the film.
DP: You have this film and you’ve watched it probably a zillion times. What still gets you? Where in the movie do you have your emotional shock?
AJ: Every time those shackles are taken off Ryan and he hugs his mom for the first time. That, I think, will always get to me. We had a rough cut of the film done and we sent it to Kathleen and different lawyers and different people to get objective opinions. When Kathleen saw it she sent us that footage. I didn’t know it existed and I don’t think anyone else did either. She sent it, I seem to remember, as a text message. We had already finished the film, and I said, “Oh my God!” For me, the movie was obviously lacking that key moment. We had a whole cut in which Ryan gets out and then we go directly to that press conference at the Tiger Hotel, and I was always thinking in my head, “This movie will never be what it could have been, because we don’t have footage of that moment he gets released.” When Kathleen sent me that footage, I couldn’t believe it, man. That moment will always give me chills or cause a bit of tearing up. I got to know his mom and dad so well while their son was still behind bars. They got only a couple of seconds to hug Ryan now and then when they visited him in prison. So to see him hug his mom and dad for more than two seconds and actually grab them is so powerful.
DP: What got me was every time you put on screen how many years he’s been behind bars. Because we’re seeing Ryan’s life slip away.
AJ: I’m happy you say that because that was tricky. We wanted to figure out the right way to show that passing of time. Again, I’ll say that Sam Lee really shaped this movie. She had the ability to take a step back and see what in the narrative was special, I think also it’s important, as we’re talking here, that we recognize that while Ryan is now free, it’s not really a happy ending. Ryan is one of many individuals who were wrongly incarcerated for many years; there are many other innocent people who are currently in prison and will be for the rest of their lives, unless they get the death penalty. They shouldn’t be there. Ryan is just one example. He is out of prison but he lost his 20s. He’s figuring out who he is right now, and I think it’s actually quite sad.
DP: It’s a better ending than it could have been.
AJ: That’s a good way to put it.
DP: And what about Chuck, whose lying and confused testimony played a huge part in getting Ryan convicted. He’s innocent of the crime, too, but he’s still in jail.
AJ: Chuck is still in jail. It’s quite clear if you look at the facts that he didn’t commit this crime. So he’s also a victim. He was told things by the arresting officers and he was manipulated by them and Crane. He was the one that was first interrogated, and was the one that put him and Ryan at the scene of the crime–at least he said so. And he was the one who really got manipulated by Kevin Crane. He got terrified.
DP: That footage of him denying involvement before the police convinced him to confess—couldn’t play in the courtroom, so the jury had a hard time seeing that he was manipulated.
AJ: It was unbelievable. We weren’t able to put it in the movie, but sometimes you hear the casual nature of people in the courtroom, where people say they want to get out of court early on a Friday so they could go to the ball game. And I’m sitting there thinking “Good God, we’re talking about Ryan’s life here!” I don’t know how Bill and Leslie were able to keep fighting with such vigor.
DP: Certainly the most regrettable moment in the original trial, as you presented it, was the female witness who would have testified that Ryan was not the killer she saw in the parking lot if only Ryan’s bumbling lawyer had asked her–that one question could have changed everything.
AJ: If he had asked her, she would have said, “That’s not the guy.” It’s shocking to think, however, that during the retrial she did point that out and he was still put behind bars. And to think that they went back into court and another witness Jerry Trump admitted he committed perjury and made up his incriminating story. and Chuck said he lied, and at that point there was no DNA evidence, no physical evidence, and no other eyewitnesses, yet they continued to say that Ryan was guilty and should be behind bars. It’s shocking.
DP: In America, you’re supposedly innocent until proven guilty, but once you’re guilty it’s impossible to prove your innocence. Does that make sense?
AJ: It sure does. Ryan was in jail for eighteen months before he even got to trial, so even innocent until proven guilty is a joke. And Ryan would tell you that a local jail is in a lot of ways worse than a prison. They kept the lights on 24/7 and many times he wasn’t properly nourished, to say the least. He was given an arbitrary $20-million bail that guaranteed he wasn’t going to get one second of freedom until trial. So he was behind bars for 18 months before getting a stab to prove his innocence.   It was absurd.
DP: How did your world premiere screening at the Tribeca Film Festival go?
AJ: The best part was when the Fergusons came up after the movie and everyone gave them a standing ovation. That’s all you can ask for, you know.
To see the trailer:
To read my interview with Ryan and Bill Ferguson, copy and paste this link:
http://dannypeary.blogspot.com/2015/07/tff-devoted-father-rescues-his-innocent.html
For movie fans who are or know baseball fans, I hope you consider my new book about Derek Jeter, copy and paste this link.
http://www.amazon.com/Baseball-Immortal-Career-Quotes-Immortals/dp/1624141625/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1448860241&sr=1-1&keywords=baseball+immortal+derek+jeter+by+danny+peary