Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Director Luke LoCurcio Speaks About "Aphasia," His Hit Short at TFF

Playing at Film Festivals

Director Luke LoCurcio Speaks About Aphasia, His Hit Short at TFF

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 4/23/15)

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By Danny Peary
If you’re a movie fan and anywhere near New York City this weekend, I highly recommend that you make time to see René Clement’s exquisite, heart-wrenching, Oscar-winning French classic Forbidden Games (a beautiful recently restored print with new subtitles!), at the Film Forum beginning Friday–AND at least one shorts program at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Robin Rose Singer and Luke LoCurcio; Photo by Ian Kaplan.
Robin Rose Singer and Luke LoCurcio; Photo by Ian Kaplan.
On Saturday, one day before the festival ends, all shorts will be screened one last time from 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. in auditoriums 6 and 9 at the Regal Battery Park Stadium 11 at 102 North End Avenue.  (Keep in mind that you may have to arrive early to get the Rush Line if a program is sold out.) I will give a personal plug for the FML program of seven technology-themed shorts playing at 4:30 because it includes a super 12-minute futuristic short,Aphasia, directed with style by Luke LoCurio and produced and written by its gifted lead, Robin Rose Singer.  Singer (who I interviewed for this paper when her starring vehicleKisses, Chloe played at the 2010 Hamptons International Film Festival) plays a cheerful young woman, Emily, who lives alone in her spotless and spiffy high-tech New York apartment of the near-future.  She is content to spend her evenings sitting in front of her huge interactive television, holding and texting with her phone, using her computer to exchange flirtatious IMs with a musician she has never met, and eat food delivered to her door.  But one day she ventures out to meet the musician, with unexpected results.  For the next few months I will be posting interviews I’ve done at this year’s TFF with directors and actors who came to New York with features, but I am pleased begin with the following Q&A I did this week with Luke LoCurcio about his impressive short.
Danny Peary: I read that when you were growing up in New Jersey you immersed yourself in movies and “started experimenting with cameras around age eight.”  So was your career determined when you were youngster or later on?
Luke LoCurcio: I pretty much knew I wanted to be involved with film since I can remember. At the beginning I was interested in science fiction and horror SFX, but that evolved into filmmaking naturally.  The idea of world building and limitless storytelling was very intriguing.
DP: When you were making shorts was there a steady progression where your earliest film led to a better and more layered next film to an even better and more complex next film on so on?  Or do you think the order in which your shorts were made doesn’t matter?
LL: Yeah, in a way.  My earlier projects and pieces were more experiments in shots than anything. The visuals were a big cornerstone for me through the progression so I think it makes sense that is where it started.   As I got older I had to understand story better and that really helped me get a grasp on tighter tales.
DP: Were you gravitating toward making horror and science fiction films and that led you to Aphasia?
LL: Horror is probably my favorite genre.  There’s something about the fear you can invoke in an audience that is really fun. Growing up it was always the horror films that got me most pumped when they were on or if  I was at the rental store.  I’ll never forget watching John Carpenter’s The Thing as a kid.  HUGE INFLUENCE.  That said, films are films, and I absolutely love well-told dramas, westerns, and whatever genre.  Horror just has a very special place in my heart.
DP: This is such a personal film for your star, writer and producer Robin Rose Singer, so I’m curious about the early conversations you had that allowed her to trust that you were picturing the same film visually and thematically as she was.
LL: First let me say that Robin Rose Singer is an amazing person. Her work ethic and dream-driven passion are rare to find these days.  We worked together on a film about six years ago or so and we creatively hit it off from the start.  When she approached me about Aphasia and we had discussions about her vision, I became more and more intrigued and soon we found ourselves pretty much on the same page regarding what the final outcome should be. We have both noticed people in our lives obsessing over material technology to the point where we think it is a serious issue and we saw this film as a great opportunity to explore that. We instantly trusted each other and that was solidified through conversations about making the film.  I felt super comfortable going into the production itself because of this trust and our parallel visions.  If it wasn’t for that initial trust,  it would have a harder climb to get where we wanted to go. I was very humbled by her trust in me and I believe that helped the whole process move as smoothly as it did.  Basically, we trusted each other.
DP: Many filmmakers seem to think if they had a bigger budget they could turn their story into what they really wanted to make, a feature–but am I right in thinking you and Robin agreed that this story worked best at 12+ minutes?
LL: Everything I have worked on that I was serious about and hoped would go somewhere had a small budget.  WithAphasia I would say we had exactly what we needed.  The film is very balanced shooting-wise.  You need to be smart, creative, and efficient with budgets and short films call for that.  Robin and I never had a conversation about a feature when making this film, but I can’t say about the future!
DP: Robin’s character Emily has a guitar in her near-future, technology-dominated apartment.  I know it’s symbolic of music and singing–”old ways” to communicate–and I want you to talk about that and your impressive visual design, but also did you two intend it to be one of the few objects in her world, including food, that isn’t some sort of a rectangle or oval?
LL: Good eye-thought connection! Yeah, the idea was to have her space be as bland, overly neat, empty, and removed as possible.  The guitar is almost a relic of her past, and society’s past.   Anna Kathleen and the design crew really owned this one.  I was so impressed.
DP: In terms of visuals, talk about your interesting shot of the barebacked Emily from behind as she stands at her closet–even she has a geometric look.
LL: The only thing I can really say is sometimes shots just appear to me and they feel right for a particular moment in a scene. That shot fits somehow into the overall film. I’m glad it has had an interesting effect visually.
DP: When Emily emerges from the NY subway onto the street, I felt a jolt and felt dreariness, like I’m seeing a city that has been decimated by a plague perhaps (maybe technology burn-out).  Was what I felt what you hoped viewers would feel?
LL: I love that!  It wasn’t the intent so much to show what has happened to this world but rather to yank the viewer out of her isolated apartment quickly and with a startling effect.  But yeah, we had some conversation about how this world would be more corporate-government-technologically controlled–and that obviously always evolves into some sort despotism, mild or harsh.  So you are onto something!
DP: Talk about spending months working on this film with Robin and others and overcoming challenges because many people will think “it’s a short so it probably took two weeks to complete.”
LL: Classic.  Making a film is always challenging.  Personally I find the hardest challenges to be those in pre-production because this is when you are molding your shots and ideas, and from the look to the performances to the finalized script everything needs to be ready to go.  I storyboarded a lot of the film so when we got into production we could just paint by numbers and be more efficient, and that was the case. Storyboarding is time consuming but also vital to the film itself because it’s basically a visual blueprint of the movie.  It helps me immensely.  The shooting was quite easy on Aphasia.  I usually shoot my own work so having a full film crew and DP made life extremely easy for me, especially when it came to shooting scenes and for overall production.  I had freedom to focus on directing rather than wearing multiple hats.   Editing the film is where the real work was put in.  Here we have a 12-minute film, but to get there took months of chopping and trying out different things. long days and long weeks. Robin was a true warrior–she kept me going and took it to the finish line.  To people who think short films take no time at all, let me say that they do.  Whether it’s a 5-minute film a 12-minute film or a feature, you want to make every second count and you pour your heart into it and spend as much time as possible editing and fine tuning it.  You don’t want to settle on a cut that needs more and sell yourself short!  Film to me is the ultimate art form, in the sense it includes various arts, from visuals, performances, writing, tech work, music, and so on.  When you make a film and you are serious about it, you give all that you have.  There is a reason that most feature films have long credit lists. There is a reason films cost money and there is a reason why only the mad keep at it, haha.
DP: Do you consider Aphasia a cautionary tale?  Or a kind of one-joke punchline on us, like one of the many Twilight Zones that deal with loss of identity?
LL: It’s so funny you say that. I actually talked to Robin about how I wanted to approach this film as if it were a Twilight Zone episode, where at the end you are left feeling helpless.  Its definitely a cautionary tale.  Technology is great but it is a double-edged sword. We need balance and need to return to nature, I believe.  The character of Emily has put herself in a very unfortunate position due to her addiction to technology and her narcissism.
DP: What are you proudest of about this film?
LL: I’m proud of the film itself, because as a whole it represents all the work everyone on the team put in, from Robin and me to the set designers to the production assistants.  When I watch it, I know who was on top of what and that makes me feel proud of them and proud of the field we chose.
DP: How does Aphasia fit into your own progression as a filmmaker?  The title of your first feature, The After, which I assume in a horror or sci-fi film, seems fitting in that I think you believe it wouldn’t have been the same film if you made it before Aphasia.
LL: Aphasia is a blessing. It really has given me the opportunity to work on something I found not only very compelling but also could help me pursue projects I’ve had in my mind for years.  The After has also been a true journey.  We shot it two or three years ago and the footage is absolutely beautiful and we have a great cast.  It has another very interesting Twilight Zone-esque story about how a dark government takeover would affect the lives of a few young Americans. It’s all told from their perspective.  We waited till the time was right and we plan on shooting this summer to wrap edit.
DP: How does it feel for you and Robin to have Aphasia play at the Tribeca Film Festival?
LL: It’s an extraordinarily humbling experience and we couldn’t be happier. Here’s to hoping it leads to opportunities to tell more stories!
DP: How can people see Aphasia after the festival?
LL: The next stop for Robin and me is the Cannes short film market. All updates on future festivals will be atwww.aphasiathefilm.com.

All About "About Elly"

Playing in Theaters

All About About Elly

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 4/9/15)

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By Danny Peary
Director Asghar Farhadi, left, festival co-founder Robert DeNiro, center, and actor Payman Maadi attend the Awards Night party during the Tribeca Film Festival Thursday, April 30, 2009 in New York.  (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)
Director Asghar Farhadi, left, festival co-founder Robert DeNiro, center, and actor Payman Maadi attend the Awards Night party during the Tribeca Film Festival Thursday, April 30, 2009 in New York. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)
About Elly fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor.  I’m delighted that this marvelous Iranian masterwork, a mix of mystery and societal issues, finally made its New York debut this Wednesday at the Film Forum (where you should see it before April 21) because it was made six years ago.  In fact it was made two years before the next collaboration of director Asghar Farhadi and brilliant actor Payman Maadi/Peyman Moaadi), A Separation, and that extraordinary film played in New York, Hollywood, and around the world, capturing the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.  Back in 2009, I wrote:
“Not surprisingly, About Elly was selected the best narrative film at the Tribeca Film Festival.  This stunningly-directed psychological thriller is not like any Iranian film you ever saw or (foolishly) deliberately missed.  A group of former law school classmates reunite for a weekend by the Caspian Sea, settling into an empty house on the beach. They bring their kids and one woman, Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), invites her beautiful single friend Elly (Taraneh Alidousti), hoping to set her up with the newly-divorced Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini).  But on the second day, Elly disappears and everyone on the screen and in the audience begins asking questions.”  During the festival I took part in the following roundtable with Farhadi and Maadi (whom I interviewed in October for this page about the sadly-neglected American political film, Camp X-Ray)–before the film won its major award.  I note my questions.
Q: How did you come to be involved in this film?
Payman Maadi: I am a scriptwriter in my country and was about to make my first feature as a director. I had made a short and [Asghar] Farhadi came to see it. He liked it and after one or two months he called me and said he wanted me for his next project. I thought maybe it would be as a writer, but he said, “No. I choose you for the main character, for acting.” I was shocked. And I said, “Are you sure about it because I know that you are a very well known director in this country and whatever you want you can have. So why me?” And he said, “Because the part is very close to your character when I saw you at your screening.  I’m sure you can do it.” I said, “Okay.” He said, “Don’t worry.” I said, “I’m not worrying because I trust you.” But I was a little bit scared before rehearsals.
Q: Did you rehearse a lot?
PM: Yes, because Mr. Farhadi came from the theater.  For about two months we were on the stage rehearsing. We would play some scenes that were not in the script just so we could get close to the person we were playing. They were scenes before we came to the beach resort at the beginning of the movie.  He had us play each other’s roles so that we could think, ‘If I were in his position, what would I do?”  This made us closer to each other. After we were at the Caspian Sea we continued to rehearse scenes that are in the movie. We were getting some personal rehearsals for each other. After the rehearsals I thought it was possible to play it.
Danny Peary: What clicked?
PM: I was between seven or eight professional actors and actresses.  All of them were very well-known in Iran and had played in films with each other.  I was always in the back of the camera and I didn’t know how to leap in front of it. But Mr. Farhadi said, “They also have to rehearse and come to a point they are so far from now.” So all of us had the same distance to go. Their acting in this film wasn’t like anything they had done, so they had to work just as hard as me. Knowing that helped me.
Q:  I’d like the director to talk about the gender politics in the film. Because the women have a quite clearly defined role and the central character, Sepideh is actually orchestrating everything that is going on around her.
Asghar Farhadi: The image of Iranian women in America and Europe that you see on the news is very much different than the reality. This film specifically targets the middle-class family.  We have different ideas and images about the middle class. The middle class can be powerful in Iran and the women in the middle class family can be very powerful.  In my own experience, when I used to go to the north border, the Caspians were my friends and they would take a boat out and it wouldn’t be only men making decisions.  It would be a democracy.. Even though the laws of our country are not very much pro women, the women themselves are trying to make themselves stronger.
DP: But when the men try to save Elly’s reputation, isn’t that more backward than what you’re talking about?  It seems that the men, who are enlightened in some way, fall back to tradition.
AF: I don’t see the difference between men and women. I treat everyone equally in my movies. I don’t see inequality between the characters. The subject of the film is not about men and women but human beings who react to a situation. You can’t point to one gender and says that’s the villain.
DP: I’m in total sympathy with Elly.  I have no problem with her coming on this trip although she hasn’t broken off her engagement yet.  But they seem to worry about a scandal involving her being engaged and there being an unmarried man present.
Farhadi’s Female Interpreter: Let me add this myself, if I may. Maybe it’s not such a big deal about her being engaged or not. But maybe in the Persian culture, in the Iranian culture, it is a big deal for some of these things. If someone is having an affair or something like that, it will become a whole big deal for everyone, even the children. It is more about Persian culture than anything.
DP: So is that what the movie wanted to express?
AF: The problem the whole movie is about the behavior of one particular woman and what she thinks. I could have switched it and it could have been the behavior of her husband and what he thinks.
Female Interpreter: I’d like to add something else here about what you said.  They all come to understand that Elly is engaged, but they don’t have that serious a problem with that. They only worry about getting into the trouble if the fiancé comes and goes to the police.  They even say to each other that they don’t have any problem with her being engaged. It was her decision to come for the weekend.  But they worry about the fiancé because he is a very angry man and could get them into the trouble. And they are protecting the group by making decisions that’s best for it.
AF: I have done this in my previous films as well.  It’s a new tragedy, “the modern tragedy.” It’s not about good and evil, and everyone might be saying the right thing, so you don’t know which character to believe. That’s the whole reason why the audience gets so involved with the characters and why people want to voice their opinion as well. “Why don’t you do this or that?”
Q:  The film is set up like a mystery and everyone is wondering what happened to Elly.  Because of the pressures she has, could viewers think she committed suicide?
AF: I watched the movie as if I were just a member of the audience.  And I never got the idea that she might have committed suicide. But I’ve been hearing it a lot from different audiences. I don’t have any problem with audiences thinking she is capable of suicide or not. But the reason people think she might commit suicide is because so many Iranian films have portrayed a lot of sadness and depression and women having a lot of problems. They may think, “This is another suicide.” But Elly is not that depressed.
DP: But if you didn’t want people to consider she might have committed suicide, you could have easily shown that it wasn’t a suicide with one more minute of filming her. But you didn’t do this. So we can think along with the family and try to figure out all of the possibilities.
AF: I wanted to make a film that would cause people to watch in two different ways. You would enjoy the film and then go home and think about the political views in it.  This is the most socially-conscious film I ever made and I hope people go deeper and deeper into it when they think about it at home and keep thinking about it. The characters vote, but democracy sometimes is wrong. Democracy will not work in a family or in government when no opinion is wrong.
DP: But it is only a couple of people that decide what to say to Elly’s fiancé after her disappearance, which I found as strange as Elly’s fiancé pretending to be her brother.
AF: Well, everyone seems to be lying to defend themselves. All the characters try to hide something to protect them.
PM: The reason that he says he is her brother not his fiancé is he’s trying to make a safer-like area to get truth from the family. If he said he was Elly’s fiancé then maybe they weren’t going to give him the right information. That’s why.
Q:  What director has inspired you most?
AF: Fellini.
DP: How about Alfred Hitchcock? In Psycho the lead character, played by star Janet Leigh, disappears halfway through . . 
AF: I admire Hitchcock very much. I knew it would be very hard for audiences to believe that Taraneh Alidoosti disappears so early in the movie.  She is a big star in Iran so people will expect her to return.
DP: The direction is outstanding the entire movie, but, Payman, the scene everyone will remember is when the men try to save your character Peyman’s son in the rough sea.  Did you do the swimming or did you need stand-ins?
PM: We did all our own swimming.  It was very difficult because the water was very rough.  It took us many days to shoot.  We’d have to wait until the sea was the same as it was when we began filming the scene.  By the rocks there were many broken shells and stones and it was difficult not to cut our feet. And the water was dirty and caused me to choke. The camera was everywhere, including in the water.
DP: Congratulations to both of you. This is the best film I’ve seen at the festival. I hope you win the narrative award.

Should We Celebrate "The Sound of Music" Fifty Years Later?

Available on DVD

Should We Celebrate The Sound of Music Fifty Years Later?

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 3/14/15)

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Following a Julie Andrews-Lady Gaga tribute at the Oscars, Twentieth-Century Fox is launching a year-long campaign to celebrateThe Sound of Music’s 50th Anniversary.  A highlight will be the theatrical release of a restored version of the film on April 19 and 22.  Also, four new books and a themed Princess Cruise are scheduled.  But before any of that comes the home entertainment release this week.   Avid fans, many who rank it as their favorite movie, will undoubtedly be thrilled that the five-disc collector’s edition set has 13 hours of additional content, including a new documentary, The Sound of a City: Julie Andrews Returns to Salzburg, on DVD, Blu-Ray and Digital HD.  I think it’s a bit presumptuous that The Sound of Music is being promoted as if it were “America’s movie” and loved by us all, which is akin to reminding us New York Giants fans that the Dallas Cowboys are “America’s team.” I don’t buy it.  However, there is no denying that the movie’s popularity, particularly among youngsters who always come home long before their curfews, has escalated considerably and that watching it on television annually has become a family event the way it used to be with The Wizard of Oz.  And it is unsettling to me that this box-office blockbuster for the masses has developed a strong, addicted cult following. As in 1965, I think incomparable Andrews is wonderful and the lively first half of the movie is quite charming—though the title confuses me because I don’t think anyone says, “I love the sound of music” rather than just “I love music”—yet I’m still no more enthusiastic about it overall than I was when I wrote this brief critique for my 1986 book Guide for the Film Fanatic:
“One of the most popular films of all time—which is what it was calculated to be.  You’ll know you’re being manipulated at every turn, that you’re expected to feel a lump in your throat or laugh and cry on cue (when the music swells, when a child smiles, when a stern adult is kind), that you’re expected to be as undiscriminating as the audience who sits through the show ‘Up with People!’  But even if you become sick on the sugar, you’ll find it hard not to appreciate the talents of Julie Andrews, whose exuberance is infectious, whose voice is superb [which we tended to forget in future years when musicals stopped being made], who is as good as Streisand at acting  while singing a song.  It’s easy to see why she was the top female draw of the time.  In the role that reinforced her goody-goody virgin image, Andrews is a nun-in-training in Austria who becomes a Snow White governess to seven incorrigible, love-starved children.  If you thought Miss Frances of Ding Dong School was so nice to children, then you’ll adore Andrews.  She teaches these kids to play, sing, and have good manners (they don’t protest) and their strict widower father, Christopher Plummer, to feel love again—for the children and for her.  They become one happy family—the Trapp Family Singers—just in time for the serious part of the picture, when they must escape the Nazis by fleeing over the border.  The familiar Rodgers and Hammerstein songs are cheery and childish and catchy—you’ll feel like a fool humming them for the rest of the day.  Except when nun Peggy Wood sings “Climb Every Mountain” to Andrews, they are skillfully blended into the plot.  Film won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (Robert Wise), Best Editing (William Reynolds), Best Scoring Adaptation (Irwin Kostal), and Best Sound.  From the stage musical by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse; Ernest Lehman wrote the shrewd script.  Also with: Eleanor Parker, Richard Haydn, Anna Lee, Angela Cartwright.”

Chris Messina Had Two Roles When Making "Alex of Venice"

Playing in Theaters

Chris Messina Had Two Roles When Making Alex of Venice

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 4/16/15)

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By Danny Peary
Just as the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival is underway comes the theatrical release of a film from last year’s festival.
Chris Messina.
Chris Messina. Photo by DP

You can see Alex of Venice beginning Friday in New York.  Chris Messina, a native of Newport, has been all over the place as an actor–from television’s The Mindy Project andThe Newsroom to major films like Argo, ManglehornCakeand Vicky, Christina Barcelona to such TFF flicks asFairhaven and The Giant Mechanical Man–and you can see him in Alex of Venice, too, but it is also his directorial debut. And he has done a super job, particularly with his fine cast.  I wrote last year: “Alex of Venice  is a character piece about a workaholic environmental attorney in L.A., Alex (the exceptional Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who lives in Venice, California.  When Alex’s husband George (Messina) suddenly leaves her, she is forced to pay more attention to their shy son Dakota (Skylar Gaertner) and her aging actor father Roger (Don Johnson). Still neglecting her son, she enlists the help of her irresponsible, free-spirited sister Lily (Katie Nehra) around the house while she deals with the biggest case of her career and has an affair with the man she is fighting in court, Frank (Derek Luke).”  This is the kind of film that slips away the day you planned to see it, so make a point of going at least a day earlier.  This is a roundtable I participated in with Messina, a truly nice and humble guy, at last year’s festival.  I note my questions.
Q: You’re an actor and now also a director, so you have those two perspectives.  Was there ever a clash while acting in and directing this film?
Chris Messina: I had a great bunch of actors who were kind enough to do me the favor of being in my first movie, and I just tried to stay out of their way.  As a director, that was maybe the best thing I did. I’ve directed plays here in New York, small theater stuff, and I’ve wanted to direct a film for a long time.  I think that I have a certain way that I like to work, as an actor, and I tried to find people who like to work that way.  I set up a playing field where we would work the way that I like to work. A lot of times we had two cameras running, and if a camera was on you there’d be another one on me. We’d run the duration of the card, which is about 27 minutes long. Terrible for an editor, but great to find real moments.  As an actor, I don’t like when there are a lot of cuts because what the director says Cut!, somebody comes in and fixes your hair, the director gives you a note on your performance, the sound guy dresses your mike, and before you know it the headspace you were in is gone, and you gotta ramp back up. So, 27 minutes without cutting–maybe throwing out a few notes here and there, but letting it play– created a lot of honesty. I have a great actor friend, Matt Del Negro, and he did me the great favor of coming up to the set and directing me. I really trust him.  When we did Argo, in which he was amazing, I loved watching him go from shooting to looking at the playback, and then adjusting himself for the next take. We didn’t have that luxury because we had 21 days and I think Argo‘s shoot was something like 80 days. When you’re doing 27-minute takes, if you’re gonna watch that whole thing back, you’re not gonna make your goal for the day. So Del Negro was there to kind of guide me as a director while I acted–if you were there on that day, you’d think he was the director.
Q: You are very busy acting, so was it hard to make your movie?
CM: I left four or three days, and I played Pacino’s son in Manglehorn, that David Gordon Green directed. That was a dream come true. Like any short ethnic actor I grew up wanting to be Al Pacino or Robert DeNiro.  I do a lot of dumb things, but the number one thing was that I finished this movie, I had two weeks off, and then went back to the second season of The Mindy Project. I cut the movie pretty much in my trailer as I was shooting. It just was a naïve, foolish thing, to think that when I was done shooting that I’d have time or energy. So it was like having two full-time jobs, I will never do that again.
Danny Peary: In making Alex in Venice, was your inspiration Paul Mazursky, whose films include Alex in Wonderland?
CM: Paul Mazursky I love. But there were tons of directors that I tried to steal from. I think every shot in the movie was stolen from another movie.  Good and bad movies taught me what I liked and what I didn’t like. It’s like tattoos, the films, they stay with you–they become a part of your makeup. While we were making the movie I had everybody watchHannah and Her SistersAll the Real Girls, and Kramer vs. Kramer.  I was watching Hal Ashby and Robert Altman and I would say Woody Allen and Sam Mendes were huge inspirations. Woody, as you guys all know, he casts his movies really well and then he kind of lets you go, and when I was in his movie, I never felt like I was making a movie. Sam Mendes taught me that every actor comes with a gift and it’s the director’s job to let that gift out. That really hit home, because so many times directors tried to shove me this way and shove me that way, and I thought, “Why am I here and not being used to my advantage?”  What I do well, they didn’t want, so why did they want me? So I tried a place where these actors where able to bring their gifts, and let them fly.
Q: Why did you set your film in Venice, California?
CM: I love being there. Venice Beach has changed a lot but it’s like a small town, in a way. It’s very eclectic and has got a lot of interesting characters. Sometimes it reminds me of Brooklyn by the sea, or Coney Island.  I had a great DP, Doug Emmett, who shot the movie and I think he really captured it.
DP: Talk about the title.
CM: That wasn’t the title of the movie when it was given to me. I think we came up with Alex of Venice way after we shot the film. I think we were untitled until then.
Q:  What big changes in the script did you make?
CM: We made big changes. When the project was first brought to me, it was kind of like a collage of all these characters in Venice, and at the core was the family, and that was very interesting to me.  I recognized myself in them, it reminded me of my family and loved ones.  So we got rid of the outer circle of characters, and then we just centered on the family. And then myself and Justin and Katie, we came up with a new outline, went away, wrote a new script, and it was really good and a lot closer to the film.  Then we brought in Jessica Goldberg who really cracked the movie open for us. She invented the Don Johnson character, and having him be in the play, The Cherry Orchard. I know her from theater; I did three of her plays.
Q: You have a lead female character who is textured and nuanced, with good qualities but a lot of flaws as a wife, mother, and human being.  Was that what you wanted to write about?
CM: Yeah, but you know at times when we were writing it, for a couple of weeks, I thought it was the kid’s story. I thought it should be through her son’s eyes for a while. Then I thought it was just about two sisters.  Finally it was just really clear that it was about this one woman. The writing kind of just dictated that.
DP: The opening is shot in the house, the camera going all the way thought the house.  You didn’t do that that just to show off but because there was a thematic purpose to that.
CM: By taking the camera all the way through the house, I wanted to create the chaos of this house, and I wanted to show the audience how her family life is. The first act of the film was always really tricky in that you’re ten minutes into the story and there’s a break-up. It’s very difficult on how to get there. I kept watching Kramer vs. Kramer. When that movie, Meryl Streep is packing her bags. . I tried different things like that, I even tried a version in which the movie starts right after the break-up. It was very important for me, in very little time, to get to know who these people were.
DP: There are a lot of two-character scenes in the movie, which I’d imagine is scary for a first-time director–or did they make it easier?
CM: As an actor, I don’t like that because I feel like, “I gotta get this right because they’re not going to be able to cut.  If she’s really good and I’m not, I’m gonna feel bad. As a filmmaker or an audience member, I like to watch things that don’t have a lot of cutting. because I then get lost in the materials and I stop seeing the film that I’m making.
Q: You have become an extremely busy actor.
CM: I’m lucky that I have that problem, and it’s not really a problem, it’s a gift. I won’t lie to you that it’s tiring, but there have been so many times that I wondered if I’d ever work again.  So I’m grateful to have work.  I know this business is crazy that it might not be always the case for me, so I’m enjoying it while it lasts.
Q: Was casting Don Johnson as Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character’s father was your idea?
CM: Yeah. I saw him in Django, and on HBO in Eastbound and Down. And of course I watched him as a kid, on Miami Vice. I just thought he’d be perfect for the role.  He comes with this iconic TV status that I thought would be great for the character, who was on a television show. I’m so happy I went with it, because he was incredibly dedicated, he took it very seriously and came incredibly prepared for the role.
Q: What about the little boy who plays your character’s son?
CM: He’s fantastic. That’s one of those lucky things with the casting director. I kept saying, I don’t want a kid actor.  I kept saying, “I want to find a young River Phoenix.” And that’s hard to come by. Then Skylar walked in.  He had done a lot of acting, but he didn’t have that song-and-dance kid actor thing; he’s got a real soul, his essence is beautiful.  I noticed it in dailies that when I directed him, he wasn’t as good as when I just left him.  The fun thing about working with Skylar, especially in the diner scene, was that I could direct him if I wanted my character to be in the scene with his character. So if I wanted him to be angry toward his father, I could just start yelling at him and provoking him rather than giving him a note as the director.  I found that to be really fun. And he was so open, he would just go wherever you took him, and that was great.
DP: The movie could be categorized as ” slice of life,” because slice of life films don’t have to be about change.  However, the inclusion of The Cherry Orchard into the storyline made this a film about change.
CM: One of the last things I did, I’m embarrassed to say, eight or nine years ago, was The Cherry Orchard with Jessica Chastain and Michelle Williams at the Williamstown Theater Festival.  The play had a great impact on me. Chekhov is a writer that I’ve always liked working on–I think he’s phenomenal. I wanted the play to mirror what was going on in the film’s story.  The characters are going through changes, some of them big, some of them small, some of them wanted, some thrust upon them.  As in The Cherry Orchard,  there’s a lot of change going on, and people are saying goodbye to an old life and accepting a new life. The idea was to meld the old and the new.
DP: Everybody changes for the better, actually.
CM: Yeah, I think so. I think it’s hopeful. Eventually Roger will get pretty sick, and that change will be devastating to that family, but they’ll come to a place of bravery and honesty with themselves and him and I think they’ll take care of each other the best they can.  That’s what I imagine.
Q: Is George the cherry orchard in this?
CM: I never thought of it that way, that’s an interesting idea and it could be. I think all the characters are bits of the cherry orchard, but there’s no doubt George could be the entire cherry orchard.
Q: When you worked with Al Pacino, what was that like?
CM: I did Salome with him on Broadway, so I knew him a little but, but it’s like one of those – it’s corny, but one of those, pinch me, how is this happening? We did this scene where we’re screaming at each other, we’re father and son and we’re not getting along, but you can’t help but feel that’s the Godfather! But you remind yourself, “Shut up, shut up, do the scene, stay the moment.”
Q: Can you out-scream him?
CM: Nah, nobody can out-scream him. He’s scary when he screams.
DP: How is it to be back at the TriBeCa Film Festival?
CM: It’s great to be back here. I remember this festival, I lived in the city when it first started, it was massive for this place, much needed. It’s an honor to be here, it’s a real honor. You guys have seen the films, but it reads to me like it’s a great slate this year.
Q: Would you be okay with this movie getting [an internet/iTunes kind] of release?
CM: Yes, very much so. Look, I’d love it to be in a movie theater, and it was shot to be in a movie theater, but you know, I have two kids and I hardly get to the movie theater so if you can get this movie on Netflix or iTunes, or VOD, if you get it on your iPad, your iPhone, that’s not the way it was supposed to be watched, but I’d rather you see it and experience it than never see it. It’s tough.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Margot Robbie in Focus

Playing in Theaters

Margot Robbie in Focus

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 3/5/15)


focusposter

Will Smith and Margot Robbie.
Will Smith and Margot Robbie.
I found it interesting that Margot Robbie, an Australian actress with few screen credits but fantastic looks and diverse acting talents, was entrusted to do almost as much media as superstar Will Smith to promote Focus, a mischievous mix of suspense and romantic comedy that is playing at the UA East Hampton 6.  And that the movie’s trailer was filled with (sexy) images of her. I think it’s because everyone involved with the movie believed her multifaceted portrayal of a young woman who is eager for Smith’s dapper conman to make her his partner in his trade and his life will launch her into instant stardom.  That was the prerelease buzz, which made her an in-demand talk show guest and the subject of numerous magazine and newspaper profiles.  For the Australian magazine FilmInk I participated in this roundtable with the smart, congenial, no-airs actress about the hit movie and a role that could have been written for her. I note my questions.
Danny Peary: Did you get this part in Focus before or after The Wolf of Wall Street?
Margot Robbie: After. Wolf opened a lot of doors for me and has given me so many opportunities. A lot of people are interested in me for characters that are similar to the role I played in Wolf  because that’s the only movie they have seen me in, but fortunately some people are giving me the opportunity to play different kinds of roles.  I want to keep it a little diverse, and earlier this year I was in Z for Zachariah, which is an indie film, and I play a character who is the polar opposite of my character in Wolf.  And playing Jane in Tarzan will be very different again. It’s brilliant that all the films I’ve done lately, including Focus, have been totally different genres and with totally different characters.  It keeps it exciting.
DP: I would think this film is an incredible showcase for you because you get to do almost everything in this role.  You get to be funny, sweet, cold, sexy, silly, daring, a fun date, a sexpot.
MR: Yes, I guess I didn’t appreciate that enough in the beginning and it wasn’t until we really got into making the film that I started to know how lucky I was.
Q: You were in Croatia when you heard you were going to audition for the movie?
MR: Yes, I was backpacking with my little brother, and I was on an island.  I had just been on another island that night and I came back and went swimming at 6AM, off this island.  It was this big carpe diem. We’d been swimming in the ocean and I was soaking wet, I got back and my little brother was locked out of our hostel room. I took out my phone and I had this voicemail message from my team, frantically saying, the Focus audition is happening in New York and I had fly out from Croatia that night. I was thinking, “Oh, god how do I get back to the mainland?” I asked the hostel owners, and they’re saying, “There’s only one boat that leaves the island and it leaves in fifteen minutes, otherwise you won’t get there until tomorrow and you’ll miss the flight to New York.” So it was like this mad rush and I literally ran down, grabbed my suitcase, left half my things in the room, and ran down the hall yelling out to my brother.  He said, “Where are you going?” I said, I gotta go to New York.  I’ll meet you in Italy in four days!” “Where?”  “Rome!” I never actually met him in Rome in four days, but he went off and he managed just fine.   It was this giant race to get back to the mainland for this flight to New York. I had to get a catamaran, then a bus to the airport, wait for hours, then fly to France, wait for another bunch of hours, for the flight to New York.  I got to New York but they lost my luggage. I’d been wearing the wet clothes because I hadn’t had time to change.  I couldn’t be bothered, so I took off the wet shirt and put on a pajama shirt. So I was in New York about to do this audition in ripped shorts and a pajama shirt. I had nothing else, no makeup or anything. And my audition was in a couple hours’ time. The next morning, I was walking to the audition in my pajama shirt, thinking, “I cannot do an audition with Will Smith in my pajamas, this is ridiculous,” so I stopped in at TopShop on the way and bought a button-up shirt.  I went wearing that, but the rest of me looked so shabby. Denise the producer was like, “We loved you, you came in very fresh-faced in ripped shorts. I said, “Yes, that wasn’t a strategic wardrobe choice.”  It was literally because I had no other options at the time.
DP: On your Wikipedia page, it says you’re going to be in an upcoming comedy, Focus. When you talked to the directors for the first time, did they say Focus was a comedy?
MR: They didn’t specify, no. John Requa and Glenn Ficarra have made all kinds of films so it’s very hard to put them into a specific genre. I wasn’t told Focus was a comedy, though there are obviously a lot of comedic moments in it. I didn’t know if it was going to be an actual comedy.  When I first started hearing about the project, I looked at John and Glenn’s previous film, I Love You Phillip Morris. There were these massive tonal shifts and moments when I would be laughing, then I would be crying, that sort of thing, and the actors on screen did that pretty much too—laughing and then crying.  There seems to be really a bit of everything in their movies. All the actors have an opportunity to do a bit of everything—and that was very enticing. That’s really what made me want to work with them.
DP: What was your audition?
MR: We did the first scene in the hotel bar, where Will and I meet for the first time. Then we did the scene in which she tries to convince him to let her come on board with his team.
DP: Did you do it the same way every time?
MR: We started improvising, and I can’t remember what he said but I said something like “Wow, you’re a dick!” And apparently when I walked off, Will was saying something like, Yeah, I like her, I think she’s the right one.” And they said to him, “You like her because she called you a dick, right?”  And said, “Yeah, that was awesome.” It ended up becoming this running joke in the film. I don’t know how much ended up in the final edit, but we always ended scenes with my saying, “You’re such a dick” or “Why are you being such a dick?” All because I said that at the audition.  It wasn’t in the script.
Q: So how was it starring in a film with Will Smith?
MR: He’s the most incredible guy and so wonderful to work with and hang out with. When you hear the name Will Smith, you think that he’s one of a handful of actors for whom you automatically have very high expectations—impossible expectations. And he’s one of those people who exceed any expectations.
Q: When the film’s trailer was released there was a lot of talk online about the chemistry between the two of you.
MR:  Yeah, it’s so bizarre, it’s not one of those things that you can really plan for.
Q: Sometimes when you see a film where the male lead is significantly older than the leading lady it is quite noticeable, but in this film it’s just not an issue because you seem well matched.
MR: Yeah, I’m equally surprised as anyone. I remember thinking when I got that call about auditioning for Focus that I would never get cast opposite Will Smith.  I couldn’t think of a couple that made less sense in every way, shape, and form. No one would ever buy it because of the age difference. But initially I didn’t think we would ever work either and I don’t think a lot of people did.  I had met John and Glenn previously and they insisted that I come in to read, and I think a lot of people, including Will probably, were thinking, “I don’t see this working.” Then we got in the room and it was apparent that we have very similar personalities.  Chemistry is a weird thing–we had this immediate rapport and it worked out fine.  If there is a rapport, it takes away the idea that it couldn’t be possible. It does make sense on the screen.
Q: In The Wolf of Wall Street, you play the wife of a criminal, Jordan, played by Leonardo De Caprio. And in Focus, you fall for a con man. Are you attracted to crime genre?
MR: I don’t really think of it as being attracted to the genre.  It’s just that a lot of films are made about criminals, because there’s obviously a lot you can do with that. I never actually thought of Jordan being a criminal in The Wolf of Wall Street.  InFocus, I guess there is a different kind of thievery, it’s a little more playful.
Q: What excited you about playing Jess?
MR: We filmed in New Orleans and then in Argentina, Buenos Aires, two locations that were very high on my to-go list, so that was something enticing about the job.  But I suppose the main thing about my roll was that I was really excited to learn pick-pocketing. One of the thrills of being an actor is you get to pick up little skills, and whether you’re doing stunt training or martial arts, whatever. You can always pick up a little skill or party trick, and this obviously was a fun one. I was like, “Oh, it would be awesome to learn to do actual pickpocketing.” We were taught by Apollo Robbins, one of the world’s best pickpockets.  He’s known for being that because he’s done shows in Las Vegas. It’s fascinating to learn the methods. You can take it from an intellectual side, understanding how the mark’s mind works; and you find blind points because that’s how people steal effectively. So we learned those sorts of things. We had to practice dexterity because the physicality of it is kind of difficult. So learning pickpocketing was the first thing that attracted me. On a basic level I think it’s a fun party trick, but I am also fascinated to learn anything that kind of incorporates the cerebral sides of things. There’s something a little exciting about pickpocketing.  I learned how to do the steals.  Apollo, had me practice on people who were walking into the room, that were working on the set, that sort of thing. The most terrifying thing was having the confidence to actually execute a lift.  I knew how to do it, and I knew how to place my hands and everything, but to have the confidence to do it while looking someone in the eye is so ballsy and that’s the thing I struggled with most. But I think Jess does not have that problem at all.
Q: So who is the bigger con artist, Jess or Nicky?
MR: I guess that’s an argument that Nicky and Jess could have until the end of time. Since I play Jess I would say Jess is the bigger con artist but if you speak to Will he’d probably say Nicky is the bigger con artist.
DP: What does Jess think of herself?
MR: I think she’s aware that she’s ambitious but she’s also very confident that she can achieve whatever she sets her mind to. She doesn’t really have any fear when she is working towards a goal, and that works perfect for a pickpocket.
DP: So she’s confident and resourceful. But does she like herself?
MR: Yes…yeah, she does. She has a moral compass, and though it may be askew to other people’s standards, to her standards she would never do anything immoral.
DP: How much does Jess care about money?
MR: I think she likes the thrill of stealing more than the rewards of stealing, I think she just wants enough to get by and have what she wants. I don’t think she’s too money-crazy, too greedy.
DP: Does she change between the beginning and the end of the film?
MR: Definitely. I think what she wants changes. She wanted a new life and to experience the excitement of the grifting world, but in time she just wants honesty, I suppose. There’s a transformation from the old Jess to the new Jess, and it’s like playing two different characters because they’re so different.
DP: Yes, again, you get to see many facets of your acting in this film. When I was watching the film, I was struck by the patience in your delivery, so my assumption would be that you’re very calm and confident in front of the camera? Is that correct or totally wrong?
MR: That’s probably just me being a selfish actor and trying to milk the moment, I suppose. I kind of learned what works and doesn’t work on screen when I was on Neighbours.  I did like over 300 episodes and I haven’t seen all of them obviously.  I don’t know if anyone has–my own family wouldn’t’ have even seen half of them.  It was a really great learning experience for seeing what works on-screen and what doesn’t. I remember watching some of my very first episodes. I’m blinking and looking around the room, and sometimes I’m looking at a point–but on on-screen it reads totally different from how I felt it. So I kind of learned, one, what’s distracting for an audience member, and  two, also, that I can take my time when it’s needed. Sometimes I used to get the feeling that I wanted to rush through it, to keep the pace up. John and Glenn would always say when to pace it up and when to slow it down. They were like, “Take those moments.” Or they would be like, “Let’s make this snappy,” and then you’d have a kind of Ping Pong dialogue. So they kind of controlled that as well.
Q: What was it like on the set?
MR: The set was very lighthearted, very fun, and very quick-paced.  John and Glenn obviously write very funny material and they are also really hilarious in real life. Will, as everyone knows, is really funny, and we had so many wonderful actors in the film who were comedic gold. BD Wong, who plays the gambling guy in the stadium scene, improvised and he was hysterical. There are so many outtakes where I was just absolutely in hysterics because he was so funny.
DP: You mentioned the Australian show Neighbours. You made a couple of films early in your career and then you committed yourself to a soap opera. Was that a tough decision?
MR: That wasn’t a strategic choice at all, that was me purely taking any opportunity that was available. And at that stage the thing that got the ball rolling was doing a couple of very low-budget indie films. It was unpaid work, but it was a chance to be on the set, which was a dream come true. And then I did a couple of guest spots, an episode or two, on a couple of TV shows, and one thing led to another, and within six months I got the job on Neighbours from being in that first indie film.
DP: But did that sabotage your movie career for a while, by committing to a soap opera?
MR: No, because at that stage committing to a role on Neighbours was a much better career move than doing the indie films that weren’t ever going to get distributed or seen at all. In Australia, unfortunately, the industry is kind of limited, but the two biggest shows–the most internationally recognized– are Home and Away and Neighbours. So being on one of those shows is the biggest stepping stone to get to America. Indie films that can’t get distribution and were never going to get me to America.
Q: Are you still interested in doing a movie that shoots in Australia?
MR: I would love to.  I’m dying for an opportunity to get back home and work at home and do an Australian film or an Australian project somehow. I was home for my mom’s 60th birthday, just for a day, which meant a lot of flying to and from London, and other than that I take a few days at Christmas.  This year I am going to take a couple of weeks. which is the longest amount of time I will have had at home in years. Otherwise it is very hard.
Q: You mentioned that when you got the audition you were traveling – is this what you like to do in your downtime?
MR: Definitely.  My plan once was to finish school and then travel, just kind of run around. Now any time I have any time off from work I try to travel.  I always have the most fun when I stay in hostels because I meet many more people. It makes sense to stay in hotels when I’m in New York doing work things, but while traveling, I don’t really get a feel for a place if I’m in a hotel.  A hotel makes it seem like everywhere else. But yeah, yeah, bead and breakfasts and hostels are generally the best way to do it.
Q: Do people recognize you?
MR: It’s weird, I stayed in a hostel earlier this year in Dublin, when I had a weekend off from Tarzan, and Neighbours shows I was on played there. When you’re somewhere like Croatia, you’re going to be under the radar a lot more, but I was actually fine. I think I look so different from how people see me on screen so they don’t make the association. Maybe they think, “She look like the chick in Wolf, but it couldn’t possibly be her because why would she be in a hostel in Dublin?”  In fact a couple of people did say that to me. So I haven’t had any problems being recognized–once or twice but that was it.
Q: Do you still keep in touch with Scorsese?
MR: I haven’t seen him in a while actually. I think the last time I saw him was around awards season earlier this year. After the Golden Globes, a bunch of us from Wolf went off and had dinner, and it was so much fun getting together and catching up.  After each  of the awards shows we’d all go have dinner somewhere. I got two solid hours of chatting just with Marty, I was so grateful for that time, because after that things got chaotic and I was gone five days later. I went to New Zealand and after that everything sort of took off again. I haven’t had a chance to catch up with anyone from Wolf since then.
Q: Are there any other directors you’d like to work with if you get a chance?
MR: My absolutely dream ultimate list of the top three was Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, and the Coen Brothers. I could watch their films a thousand times. They’re the top three on my bucket list.
Q: Do you have a master plan now for your career?
MR: Nothing specific I guess but the plan has been the same since my first meeting with my managers–in my career, I want quality, diversity and longevity. So that’s the big goal and we always strive toward that.   The smaller, in-between goals are obviously to work with great filmmakers, and we have a list much more extensive than the three I mentioned.   Also I’d really like to create some work as well, whether it’s producing or directing or writing one day.
Q: A lot of movie actors are on Broadway now.  Do you have any interest in theater?
MR: I definitely want to get on stage at some point.  Maybe Broadway but I’m not sure.  I doubt if it would be in a singing role, because I don’t think that’s my forte and there are so many talented singers out there. But you never know. Definitely getting on stage in some way is pretty high on my priority list.
Q: If you had not discovered that you have the gift of acting, what would you have done?
MR: I’d probably end up performing in some way. I love the trapeze so I’d like to think I’d be a trapeze artist. To be in a circus would be an amazing job.

Whiplash's Damien Chazelle on His First Jazz Movie and Himself

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench on video

Whiplash's Damien Chazelle on His First Jazz Movie and Himself

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 2/28/15)


Miles Teller and JK Simmons in Whiplash.
Miles Teller and JK Simmons in Whiplash.
By Danny Peary
Damien Chazelle
Damien Chazelle
I could write a book about how much I usually disagree with Academy Award selections—wait, I already did!—but I must say I was delighted that writer-direct Damien Chazelle’s riveting semiautobiographical Whiplash sneaked off with three Oscars (it was nominated five times).)  The biggest one was for supporting actor J.K. Simmons as the smiling martinet jazz band leader who makes life miserable for but, perhaps inadventently, pushes defiant young drummer Miles Teller to greatness.  I’m sure moviegoers are curious about the strikingly innovative 30-year-old Chazelle (who was a drummer at Princeton High with an “intense” music teacher)—among the rules he breaks, I love his camera placement in particular that gives Whiplash a surreal sensation.  So I think it’s a good time to reprint this in-depth interview I did with him when his first feature, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, played at festivals in 2009. It too is about jazz and you surely will want to check it out.
The production notes’ synopsis: “Guy [Jason Palmer] and Madeline [Desiree Garcia] have been dating for three months.  He’s an up-and-coming Boston jazz trumpeter, she an aimless introvert looking for work.  The excitement of first love has faded, and shortly after the film opens Guy’s wandering eye is caught by a more outgoing woman.  Her name is Elena [Sandha Khin].  She and Guy meet on a crowded subway car—a meeting that spells the end of Guy and Madeline’s romance.”  Or does it?  Guy will try to win her back, using his instrument—no, no, his trumpet! Chazelle said, “I wanted to make a movie about people who could only communicate through music.  I may have used fantasy as a framework, but for me it’s all about real life.”
Danny Peary: I’m curious who responds to your movie.  Do people say they like your movie because they can tell you love movies?
Damien Chazelle: It’s either “I can tell you love movies” or “I can tell you love music.”  Or both.  I guess the film brings to mind other films or pieces of music.  The people who talk to me about it seem to have an appreciation for films, but I think there’s an entirely different sector. It’s hard for me to guess how people who aren’t familiar with what I’m drawing from–or ripping off–would think of my movie.
DP: I read that your film is an expansion of your thesis project at Harvard, but were you determined that your first feature had to be about your two passions, or were you just thinking that somewhere along the line you’d make a film that incorporated both?
DC: It was more the latter.  There were a lot of movies I wanted to make and some will involve music as heavily as this one does.  At the time I happened to be obsessed with musicals, particularly modest thirties and forties Hollywood musicals, but also the big, glossy Stanley Donen-Gene Kelly movies of the fifties. They all worked their way into my movie. I wanted to do my own take on that style of music.  But even non-musicals wound their way into my first movie.  I’ve been such a big movie watcher for awhile, so even if I wanted to avoid those influences I couldn’t.
DP: Of your influences on the film, start with John Cassavetes.
DC: The summer when I was first writing the script, I watched Shadows, Faces, Opening Night, and every one I could get my hands on, again and again.  I’d watched Cassavetes films before but then I became obsessive about them, particularly Faces, because of their electricity and pulsating energy.  They seemed to be totally improvised, although a lot of was carefully scripted.  Movies like Shadows are jazzy movies—I don’t mean musically, but their sense of spontaneity.  They were movies of that time, and I tried to make a movie about my time but within that idiom.
DP: When you make a film about jazz, do you feel you have to make a film with a jazzy, rhythmic style?
DC: I guess it’s a slippery slope. There are some jazz films that treat jazz like a sacred cow and don’t really get the anarchic energy of the music.  The best jazz films are those where the music was new at the time or those where you sensed the filmmakers felt it was new– like how Ricky Leacock shot Jazz Dance or After Hours with Coleman Hawkins. Jam session shorts from the mid-fifties and early sixties.  Or back in the early thirties when sound was being introduced to film.  These movies that were shot at pivotal times in jazz history and you feel you’re watching a form define itself.  That’s why I like old musicals because they were experimenting their way toward the finalized version of the form.  Cassavetes was constantly reinventing himself, so every movie he made felt like an event.
DP: I would think Band of Outsiders by Jean-Luc Godard, in which characters burst into song, is a major influence on this film. You’re one of the few young people who watches Godard.
DC: I know. I adore Band of Outsiders. For my money the best musical number ever filmed is Anna Karina’s number in Godard’s Pierrot le Fou, when she sings with the dead body in the room while making the guy breakfast.  I kind of ripped it off in my movie.  That’s the epitome of what a musical number can be—an effortless overflowing from mundane real life to movieland.  Godard understood that better than anyone, so that’s why he’s my all-time favorite filmmaker.  People who say they love Godard mean the Godard of the sixties but I love his later stuff too.  He still makes great films and is the best director who ever lived to my mind.
DP: Godard’s alienation technique, where you know you’re watching a movie, obviously influenced your movie.
DC: What’s interesting is that while there is that alienation, his best movies are very emotional and humanist and beautiful.  But some people can’t get past the formal blocks.
DP: Your film is in black-and-white but I was reminded of Jacques Demy’s musicals that are in lavish color.
DC: Except for Lola, which I love. I also love The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort.   Umbrellas is totally different.  It is a grand, sweeping musical about totally ordinary people who lead totally ordinary lives, and nothing really major happens on a melodramatic scale, and the romance doesn’t work out at the end.  I cried the first time I saw it.  I think it is one of the most overwhelming movies to me, although there’s not much of a plot and nothing we haven’t seen before on a narrative level, but Demy makes it new.  It has a candy-colored look that I love, and obviously I was going for something different visually in my movie.  But musically, that was the score I had my composer Justin Hurwitz listen to the most.  Everything that Michel Legrand ever wrote.  Score-wise that was the Holy Grail for me.
DP: You have a scene in which Madeleine walks through the streets singing.  Were you thrown when Once came out with a similar scene?
DC: I’d been shooting for a year and a half when Once came out.  I liked it but got worried that people would think I was taking from it.  But Once is very different in that they kept it realistic through and through.  I was sure I wanted to make a musical in the old sense of the term with the ridiculous notion that people burst into song with an orchestra out of nowhere accompanying them.   When I’d walk around I’d see a location and think it would be perfect for a musical number.
DP: One of the really underrated musicals is Oliver, which has music integrated into dialogue.
DC: I love Oliver.  I haven’t seen it since I was a kid, but I remember street venders singing.  I also love Love Me Tonight, where we see different people singing “Isn’t It Romantic?” and the number even travels out of the city, traversing a whole world and you feel the exuberance.
DP: Most people growing up don’t watch those old movies anymore. So did you watch them by yourself?
DC: Some of them.  A lot of them I was introduced to in class at Harvard or the school’s film archives or by renting as many DVDs as I could.  When I was younger, I pored over as many movies as I could, especially in the summers that I didn’t have much else to do.    I was an uninformed film fanatic until about high school, but I always knew I wanted to make movies and prized watching movies over any other activity.  My parents liked movies, but I’d say in my immediate circle I am the anomaly.
DP: Was your father Bernard involved with music?
DC: Not professionally. He still plays guitar and writes music in his spare time, but he’s a mathematician.  He teaches at Princeton and that’s where I grew up.  In high school I became very immersed in music, in drumming in particular.  Jazz drumming became a huge passion of mine and I spent a lot of time playing and listening to old records.  At Harvard, I thought I was going to do English and then I discovered the film program they had there.  It was a small, documentary-heavy film department. After three years I found this project and worked my way back to the music world through film.
DP: Were you a prize pupil or were you unknown?
DC: I was probably one of the unknowns.  But the faculty was very supportive, especially Robb Moss, who was my adviser on the movie.   As soon as I communicated my ideas for the film he became passionate about it and went way beyond what an adviser usually does in terms of giving his time and help.  He also put me in touch with people who could help me and became a huge support system unto himself to give the project life.
DP: In planning out a career, many filmmakers decide that their first film will be a horror film.  But did you think that you’d expand your musical short into your first feature film?
DC: Yeah.  Even when I began making it as a thesis film, in the back of my head I wanted it to be my first feature film.  I wasn’t entirely sure how I’d do that.  There was no decisive moment when it switched from being a thesis film to a feature, but I kept working on it for a couple of months after graduating.  It just took on a life of its own and started growing and I took off time from school.  It became a 2½-year process as it reinvented itself as it went along.  I had the simple idea to do a musical about real life and people, paying attention to the world around me and filming it as though it were a documentary.  So I wrote a loose but conventional script, but none of the actors saw that script so we tried to recast the movie around them and their worlds.  That led the film around detours and into certain areas I didn’t expect.
DP: After four years of making the film did you say that you wished you knew something four years before?
DC: There was nothing specific but I learned a lot during the making of the film, especially dealing with the actors.  Everyone needed a different approach.  It took some trial and error over a few months and a lot of shooting to figure out what approach worked best with each actor.  Desiree Garcia never acted before but she responded like a professional actress.  She liked a sense of control.  She liked for me to describe what I perceived to be the emotional trajectory of her scenes.  I talked to her in textual terms about what the scenes actually meant, and then she interpreted it on her own.  Jason Palmer hadn’t acted before so approached acting as he did being a musician.  He liked being given a situation and revolving it around his personality. Sandha Khin had done theater acting but not film acting, and wasn’t familiar with the kind of improvisation we were doing.  It took a few shoots before everyone got it down. I shot some initial footage knowing it wouldn’t be in the final movie, but wanting to get the ball rolling.  Once we got the ball rolling, things clicked and our shoots became progressively easier.
DP: What was the most memorable thing about the shoot?
DC: My favorite scene is the “Love in the Fall” number at the party and the footage of the first time we shot it was accidentally destroyed by the lab! That’s memorable. So we had to shoot the entire number all over again.
DP: Did your actors age in the four years?
DC: They did, but it was mostly haircuts that I had to negotiate.  Desiree’s hair length changes dramatically but that could be attributed to the passage of time within the film.  Luckily nothing was too noticeable and it didn’t affect continuity.
DP: I’m not sure you had dailies, but did the three actors look at footage?
DC: We shot off and on and haphazardly, I was editing as we were going, which helped us know what was missing, what emotions had to come across more clearly.  I showed certain scenes to them, but for the most part I didn’t show them footage.  I think if they’d asked I would have shown them.  They had their own lives going on, whether it was Jason playing his trumpet or Desiree going after her PHd.  So when we weren’t shooting, they weren’t thinking of the movie.  We never had a strict shooting schedule, it was just people living their lives and I’d ask if they had a couple of hours free so I could film them.  That’s how we did it over two years.  The film never felt finished.
DP: I assume that you didn’t throw a rap party because your two lead actresses never met until the premiere at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.
DC: By the time filming was done my actresses had moved to the far corners of the world and Jason was on tour.  I never realized they hadn’t met until they were in the same room and I thought, “Hey, I don’t think you’ve ever met.”
DP: Desiree Garcia did her PHd. on Hollywood musicals?
DC: Yeah, that’s how we clicked.  We had a mutual friend who is a tap dance teacher in Boston.  I’d been talking to her about trying to find dancers for the film and she said that I should meet Desiree because she was interested in that period of musicals and also dances. She put us together.
DP: Did you have an auditioning process?
DC: Sandha went through the most traditional auditioning.  I auditioned her with the guy who plays the policeman and the girl who plays his daughter.  That scene kind of came out of auditions.  Desiree and Jason were spur of the moment.  I saw them and they immediately fit my sense of who Guy and Madeline were.  I did loose, improvised scenes with them that had nothing to do with the script.  I wanted to see how they responded to a camera and to direction and to each other. Mainly it was to confirm my suspicions that they were right for the parts.
DP: In person I see that Sandha is much taller than Desiree but a lot of people told me that they thought Desiree and Sandha were the same actress.
DC: Yeah, I know.  It’s funny that in person they look much different but on screen they have a similar look—which I knew and found interesting.  Madeline ends up going out with a guy who looks like Guy.  It’s not uncommon that you latch on to someone who resembles the person you are attracted to.
DP:  Desiree and Sandha have the same lips.  So does the policeman’s teenage daughter.
DC: I didn’t realize that.  That’s interesting.  Maybe that’s the kind of face I like on screen.
DP: I read in the production notes that you saw Jason play his trumpet at a club and immediately went up to him and offered him the role.   If he didn’t work out were you prepared to get rid of him?
DC: When I first went up to him, I had the feeling he wasn’t going to email me back about my thesis movie. He was sort of reserved and shy and in his own head space.  I almost felt like a sleaze pitching my movie to him.  When he did email me I was so excited.  I was prepared to replace Jason or Desiree if they didn’t click but it was mainly me hoping they’d respond to my movie because I knew from the get-go that I wanted them.
DP: You made a drastic decision changing your lead from a drummer to a trumpet player.  You’re a drummer so was it originally more autobiographical?
DC: The basic love story wasn’t autobiographical but everything in-between—his musical background and life—was certainly drawn from my own experiences.  But that was in the script stage and I always knew that it would change and the film would be about whoever played that role.  That’s why it was so hard to find someone to play that role.  Jason was the last person we cast.  We spent almost have a year looking.  I still would like to make a movie about a drummer.
DP: What was the difference between a drummer and trumpet player?
DC: The interesting thing about drummers, and what this script was originally about, was that they’re never frontmen, they’re sidemen.  And there’s a totally different spin.  You’re the guy in the shadows driving the whole thing forward.  When Jason came on board, Guy became more the familiar romantic frontman musician, But he has a shyness that makes him a little less familiar, because he’s not a showman unless he’s on stage with a trumpet.  So that I found interesting.
SPOILER ALERT
DP: When the chips are down and Guy tries to win back Madeline before the clock runs out, he plays the trumpet for her rather than talking to her.
DC: That scene wasn’t in the original script. It came about because of Jason.
DP: Otherwise in that scene, Guy would have to drag a full set of drums into Madeline’s apartment instead of just a trumpet  That scene works as it is because your film seems to be about how these people communicate through music.  But if that scene hadn’t come about unexpectedly, would your film still be about that?
DC: I think it would still be about that.  But that scene we stumbled upon crystallizes that idea in a more precise way.
DP: Does Guy deserve to get Madeline back?
DC: He made a mistake and I think he deserves to get her back. Bu tactually… maybe she’d clearly be in the right not to go back with him.  I don’t know.  I think they’re right for each other, but I’m not sure it will last.  In terms of the moment, they seem right for each other. I guess it depends on what the audience thinks. I’m not the one to ask.
END SPOILER ALERT
DP: Finally, I was glad that Desiree still had LPs rather than CDs.  That seemed fitting.
DC: Of course.  This is a movie about LPs and 16mm, a camera over the shoulder and no lights or crew.  It’s an old-fashioned movie.