Monday, February 6, 2012

Continuing the "Battle in Seattle"

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Continuing the "Battle in Seattle"

(from 9/19/08)

So you've seen "The Dark Night" thirty-five times and still haven't figured out that Heath Ledger's Joker sounds like an effete character created by Al Franken. It's time to be more adventurous with your moviegoing and instead of making a beeline to another megahit, check out one of the independent films that needs support to stay in theaters. You may hate them, but I'll still recommend two controversial films that I think have been underestimated by most critics: "Towelhead" and "Hounddog," featuring terrific and brave performances by young actresses, Summer Bishil and Dakota Fanning. Another sure-to-be controversial film opens Friday and though it has some flaws, I'd like everyone to go see it because it's well-intentioned, makes powerful political points, and even dares have left-wing extremists as heroes. Stuart Townsend's ambitious "The Battle in Seattle" is about the successful five-day protest by an international assemblage of environmentalists, anarchists, labor, consumer advocates, human-rights groups, and pacifists to shut down the World Trade Organization convention in 1999. It turned into a full-scale riot when the Seattle police became aggressive, and a state of emergency was declared. The protest was barely covered by America's media and the fact that it succeeded was ignored. No American filmmaker would dare turn that event into a movie, but Irish actor Stuart Townsend spent six years trying to bring it to the screen as his first directorial effort. Townsend: "I went on the Internet and read about the event and thought it was incredible. The film is like my personal journey. I wanted people to experience what I experienced the first time I saw footage of that colorful, creative protest. I was just blown away. When I saw the riots I said, "This is America?" I couldn't believe it. Protesters in Seattle were ahead of the curve fighting against an economic system that has brought us today's financial crisis, that has brought us the world's food riots. Unfortunately, I don't think people are going to see the connection. I hope the film helps them connect the dots." Townsend assembled a super cast, headed by his partner Charlize Theron (an actress who always has had remarkable integrity), Martin Henderson, Woody Harrelson, a personal favorite Michelle Rodriguez, Andre Benjamin (of Outkast), and Connie Nielsen. Some of them were politicized by the experience; others simply say they were educated about the event and the issues and hope the film does the same to viewers. But first potential viewers have to see the movie, which is why Townsend and several members of his battle in seattle cast were in New York this week to publicize their film. I was able to ask a few questions to Michelle Rodriguez, Martin Henderson, Charlize Theron, and Stuart Townsend. All nice, passionate people.

Danny Peary: Michelle, you say you have a collection of documentaries about the world situation. You don't mention watching narrative films. So did you recognize that this is the first America-set fictional film of any consequence that has radicals who are heroes?
Michelle Rodriguez: Right on! What I was aware of upon reading the script is that for the first time I felt like every perspective that I could think of regarding the fight for human rights or a human belief system is covered. I felt that even if I were an extra I would have loved to be part of this film. I did it because I believe in it. There is something about the protester I play that is so human and she reminded me of what I love about this country. I've traveled to many different countries in my little ten years of being in this business and had this opportunity to educate myself on various perspectives of how the world looks at America. People around the world are having trouble trusting the powers that be, which is why people like movies with vigilantes or rebels who fight back. Being a citizen of this country I've also gotten to see what some of the benefits are to being a woman here. There are a lot of things I take pride in and a lot of things I kind of reject. One of the things I love is the ability to speak and be heard. And sometimes it takes radicals to wake people up. Because if they're not making noise, the media is not going to cover an event. It's really sad. Only when people stand up and dare make fools of themselves in front of the media will people who are more concerned with what I wear going actually listen. I didn't know anything about what took place in Seattle in 1999 from the news. The news didn't inform me about World Trade Organization talks in Seattle, with 30,000 people battling in the streets for their rights as humans. It's just amazing that it was ignored that way.
DP: Your character Lou is really passionate, which is probably why you were attracted to her. But was it you who made her that passionate?
MR: Oh, no. She was written that way for sure. But I just added a little element of heart to her. Stuart and I had some dialogues and we changed a couple of things and I gave her a little heart. Sometimes the anger or emotion is so overwhelming that you don't really understand why the character is doing something. I thought it was incredibly important that we at least get through to the audience that there is a reason for her actions, rather than what may seem to be insanity.

Danny Peary: Martin, you play Lou's radical lover. How similar are you to Jay?
Martin Henderson: I see him as being motivated politically by the issues that he cares about and emotionally by the death of his brother. I'm a pretty mild person but if I care about something enough or certain lines are crossed, I can get riled up and very emotional. I identify with his wanting to fight back against something that is wrong. But I'm not an activist in the way these characters are. The real people Jay was based on are true front-line heroes. I met a few of them. Jay is more of a leader than anyone really was, because they didn't want to have leaders the police would target. I asked them why they did what they did. Stuart Townsend jokes that he cast me because I turned up with a full beard and long hair and I was the only actor there he believed could be up a tree. As an actor, it was a joy to work on something that matters and that has relevance today. We're in a world where we're increasingly affected by the issues that this movie calls attention to.
Danny Peary: Charlize, you say it's a bad-ass movie made for $1. 50 that could easily be a blockbuster directed by Jerry Bruckheimer. But despite what you say, I do think it's foremost a political film. Coming from South Africa, what do you think is the effect of street protests?
Charlize Theron: I think it's amazing that we say the government works for us, then forget that. Then you watch over a million people protest this war in Iraq and realize the governments don't go, "Wait a minute, we work for these people." Those protests were world wide and somewhat magical to watch. You can't ignore those images of so many people standing together. A lot of the successful tactics used in Seattle in 1999 and elsewhere since are still proving to be effective. Protesting is different from what people think it is-they see it as a "hippie" movement of Love, Peace, and War, and getting high and walking through the streets naked. But today's protesters really understand their rights and understand government and what their effect can be on government. I'm always impressed when I see protests, no matter what country they're in. Always. You should know that I'm not trying to deny that this is a political film. I think life is politics and I think we forget that. When we do movies like "In the Valley of Elah" that are considered "political," people run away so fast. What they don't realize is that this is life on the screen. It's real. The brain has to get rewired-we can't stop making these movies because people don't want to see them. We just have to start marketing them and talking about them differently. We can tell people that they aren't going to get preached at and they are going to have a wild ride and see some amazing characters and maybe learn something about the world they live in without being hit in the head with a hammer.
DP: I say it's political because most films will just say "war is bad," which everyone agrees with and isn't controversial or brave, but Battle in Seattle has specific, real targets, including the WTO, the police, and our media. That's brave.
CT: I'm so glad you think that. Thank you!
DP: Are you promoting this film and traveling with Stuart?
CT: We have been traveling nonstop. We screened it at both conventions and we've taken it to tons of film festivals. This has been a six-month endeavor. An interesting thing about Stuart is that he chose to distribute the film himself and has single-handedly, obsessively, been working on an amazing grassroots campaign, which is the only way to spread the word when you have no money for publicity. So you have to travel and you have to do tiny screenings.
And the amazing thing is that everywhere we've gone, the audience has had an overwhelming emotional reaction. You know those people are going to leave the theater and spread the word. That's the best marketing you can hope for.
DP: When you screened the film in Seattle, what was the reaction?
CT: It couldn't have been better. One person came up and said there were five important things that I remember about what happened in 1999, and your movie had all five things in it. That was so great to hear.
DP: Stuart, I'm sure nobody was racing you to get their movie about the 1999 WTO protest out first. No American director would make this film. They don't make political movies.
Stuart Townsend: Right, nobody was thinking about this idea for a film. I'm surprised no one has made a film about Kent State, either. The market place is difficult for such films. We don't have money for publicity, that's why we're hoping for word-of-mouth.
DP: In the production notes it says you were inspired by one of my favorite films, Haskell Wexler's "Medium Cool," a political film set at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. "Medium Cool" was about how reporters can't stay detached when they see injustice, and that's what happens in your film with the Connie Nielsen's television reporter.
ST: Yes, there's that element in both films. We actually have footage from "Medium Cool" in the movie. And Haskell Wexler is in the movie. He's eighty something and came up for a day. It was minus 2 degrees and he didn't even bring a jacket. We gave him one but he's a robust man and didn't need it. The inspiration was his camerawork. I loved the immediacy in that film and the soft focus of certain things. He was smart enough to know that somehow he was going to be able to put actors into the real riot. That is why it was such a novel film. I love his cinematography. "The Battle of Algiers" is another film with incredible camerawork that inspired me.
DP: You say the Seattle police isn't your villain, but I think what the police do in the riot scenes is the touchiest thing in the movie. Middle-class Americans will be shocked that police do act like that when there is a protest. Did you include Woody Harrelson's sensitive policeman to give balance?
ST: I feel like the riot footage villainizes them enough. It was real, I didn't make it up, that's what they did, and it's up there on the screen for people to judge for themselves. But I wanted to give them a voice, Woody Harrelson's character, because I had read about them. They were human beings, but they were unprepared, untrained.
It's hard to believe but some of them were scared with thousands of people approaching them. Some of them weren't taken care of properly-they didn't eat, they didn't sleep much although they worked for several days on end, they didn't get bathroom breaks. It doesn't justify what they did, but at least that helps you relate to them.
DP: You want to promote the film to get everyone to see it, so are you trying to downplay that it is a political film?
ST: It is political, but I'm trying to hide that fact in "entertainment language."
DP: At the recent Republican Convention, they isolated the protesters, just like in China during the Olympics.
ST: I was there. We screened the movie and then I walked out to what was basically my movie in real life. There were five hundred riot police and a thousand protesters pushed aside so they couldn't be effective. It was like they had been put in a cage.
DP: I know you're publicizing "The Battle in Seattle" on the Internet, just like the protest in 1999 was the first protest organized over the Internet. And Charlize says you're taking it all around the country.
ST: I recently showed it at USC in Los Angeles. And the kids really loved it and came up afterwards to talk. One girl with a skateboard, who was really sensitive and in tears, came up and said, "Thank you for making the movie." That really hit me. It was a genuine thank you. I felt that all of my six years of work on the film was worth it.

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