Saturday, April 28, 2012

Joe Papp Doc A Class Act

Playing at Tribeca Film Festival

Joe Papp Doc A Class Act

(from 4/29/12)

Joepappkarenphoto.jpg Karen Thorsen, photo by Danny Peary
Joseph Papp has been dead for twenty years yet he continues to be a major force in New York and other cities that promote public theater. Everyone who loves theater realizes they owe Papp a debt, including documentarians Tracie Holder (last picture) and Karen Thorsen (first picture) and the celebrities they have gathered to celebrate him in their inspiring, heartfelt movie Joe Papp in Five Acts. You'll be able to see Holder and Thorsen's film on PBS next year, but there's no reason to wait that long when you can see the world premiere on a big screen this Sunday (4/29) at the Tribeca Film Festival. Be sure to catch it at the AMC Loews Village at 66 3rd Avenue at 11th Street. The other day Thorsen had to rush back to the editing room to assure the film would be finished in time for tomorrow's debut, but we did this quick interview.
Danny Peary: What does it mean to you to have a Joe Papp film at the Tribeca Film Festival on Sunday?
Karen Thorsen: Well, this is an extraordinary festival and it's great to have the world premiere in the city where Joe Papp was born and did all of his work.
DP: Was he from New York?
KT: He was from Brooklyn. His parents were from Lithuania--but there's a reveal in the film I don't want to give away. Imagine him growing up with English not being his first language. He had a teacher who introduced him to Shakespeare and he'd go to the library to read his plays. He didn't know they were in Old English, he just thought it was how people spoke English then. Then he found out people no longer spoke that way.
DP: Are you from New York?
KT: I live in Connecticut but I was born in New York and saw Joe Papp plays all my life. And now my son stands in line. It's amazing how the tradition goes on. There's still the Public Theater on Lafayette, there's also Shakespeare in the Park. He died twenty years ago but his legacy lives on.
DP: Are you surprised that many people don't know he's dead or haven't heard of him?
KT: A lot of people don't know who he is but they know his institutions, and they believe in what he believed without understanding that he's the guy that really started the idea of free Shakespeare. He started it on a truck in the fifties, going to the five boroughs of Manhattan, and getting a permit to put on a play in a park or local square. So all these kids, including blacks and Latinos, would come out to see Shakespeare. The wouldn't know that Romeo and Juliet die in the end and shout, "Don't do it!
DP: What do you think is the most important thing to remember about him?
KT: What's most important is that he believed art should be for the people, that theater should be like the public library and people could see a play for free.
Q: Who funded his work?
KT: He had a lot of friends and got a great deal of non-profit funding, government funding, and funding from organizations who believed in Joe, patrons of the arts, and actors who got their start with him. So many people were grateful to Joe and wanted to pay him back. They also helped us over the years it has taken us make the film. The list was so long that we couldn't put them all in the credits.
DP: You have Meryl Streep and an impressive group of famous people talking about him in the movie.
KT: All of them have a story to tell. They got their starts with him. In our electronic press kit, there is a huge quote by Kevin Spacey. And there are others. All of these people believed in him.
DP: How come there are five acts?
KT: We had six acts at one point but it's a classic play structure. We had enough to say about him.
DP: What was your motivation for spending years working on this film?
KT: Joe Papp had an extraordinary personal story and an extraordinary passion in something I believe in, which is that art should be for everyone. Art shouldn't be just for the elite, it should belong to everyone. In these difficult economic times that's an especially important issue and we need people to talk about it. If they see this film, I think they'll talk about money for the arts.
DP: Why is that important to you?
KT: Because I like the intersection of art and social justice. I did a film on James Baldwin, who wrote and worked on civil rights, and I'm making a film about Thomas Paine, who did the same thing for democracy, writing and then starting the American Revolution. Joe Papp did it for the arts. He wasn't a writer but he was an impresario who had a social conscience. And he had an intense and complex life, so Tracie Holder and I got to tell a good story and tell a message. There is one important line in the film where the British playwright David Hare says Joe Papp taught him to be radical at the center. I really love that line and it was almost the title of the film.
joepapptracie.jpg Tracie Holder
DP: Do you consider this film to be political?
KT: It's about social justice, it's about the politics of race and inclusion, it's about the economics of art for everyone. But it's also a biography about a very complex, wonderful guy, who really was radical at the center.

Great Doc at TFF--"The Flat"

Playing at Tribeca Film Festival

Great Doc at TFF--"The Flat"

(from 4/27/12)

The Flat is flat out my favorite film at the Tribeca Film Festival. Israeli director Arnon Goldfinger (The Komediant) had me at hello with his simple beginning in which disinterested family members clean out his grandmother Gerda Tuchler's flat in Tel Aviv after she passed away at the age of ninety-eight. The award-winning filmmaker expected his entire film to be about the astronomical number of possessions found during the emptying of the flat where Gerda and her long-deceased husband Kurt resided after they fled Berlin in 1933. But something entirely unexpected happened as his cameras rolled that took his story in fascinating new directions. The original premise wasn't replaced, but Goldfinger and a new story that took on a life of its own added many complex and thrilling layers to it. The eureka moment was when Goldfinger discovered letters and photos that revealed there was much more to his grandparents' lives than anyone, including his mother (under the umbrella in the photo) realized. Especially troubling was that this Jewish couple befriended and traveled to exotic locations with a high level Nazi and his wife. In fact, Von Mildenstein helped the Tuchlers settle in Palestine, and corresponded with them until 1939. After the war, astonishingly, the Tuchlers resumed their friendship with the man who had hired Eichmann and worked many years with Goebbles. Most of the film is about Goldfinger putting together the pieces of the story by conducting interviews, searching archives, and, significantly, tracking down Von Mildenstein's hospitable daughter, Edda, who insists her father was a journalist and not a big-wig in the Nazi regime during the thirties and forties. His movie doesn't just show his step-by-step process when trying to solve both a family and historical mystery but also deals with his internal battles when deciding what to do with the information he has uncovered in regard to his mother and Edda--and even his grandparents. The Flat has been playing in Israel for seven months and will be released in Germany in June. It deservedly won Tribeca's award for best editing in a documentary, which could be a harbinger of great things in America. I was fortunate to speak to the modest, personable and thoughtful Arnon Goldfinger early this week at the festival.
Danny Peary: The early part of your movie hit home with me and I'm sure with anyone else who has cleaned out the home of aged relatives--particularly in that the belongings of their entire lives are deemed worthless by outsiders. An expert (see photo) looks at your grandparents' impressive library and tells you that nobody reads Shakespeare, Goethe, or The History of the Jewish People anymore and that all these old books are worth a pittance. An expert says their lovely Persian rug is worthless. Uncaring movers toss their decades-old furniture off a balcony. How did you feel watching strangers come in and say that what your grandparents accumulated over their lives had almost no value?
AG: The making of the film raised a lot of conflicts in myself. I was the director of the film but I was also a son, a grandson, and, though I didn't include it in my film, a father. For me, as the grandson, I just wanted to grab that guy in furniture-throwing scene and make him stop what he was doing. But being a director, I had to steel myself and let it happen. There was this feeling I had that nobody really cares and that when the apartment is emptied it will all vanish--and that's it.
DP: Did anybody else in your family share your enthusiasm for what you were learning about your grandparents?
AG: Well, they gave me the space to work, but you see in the film that they weren't that interested in what was going on and that continued. When they saw the film for the first time, they were shocked because they knew nothing. My mother joined me step by step on the journey...
DP: A bit reluctantly at first.
AG: Yes. But she knew much more than the others because she was involved. She knew what she was participating in. But my brothers and sister and cousins weren't interested.
DP: You live in Israel?
AG: Yes, in Tel Aviv. I used to live not far from my grandmother.
DP: Since you lived close enough to visit, did you know her well?
AG: After I made this film I understood how much I didn't know. I know her much better now, even though there are still many things that remain a mystery. Also I know my grandfather much better because I was only fifteen when he died. He was a judge. He was very remote.
DP: Like someone at the head of dinner table who doesn't say much but seems to be judging everyone?
AG: Yes. In an interview I did that is not in the film, a writer described him as "the head of the mafia." Nobody knew what he wanted but people knew not to do what he didn't want. I liked him as a character, like a grandson likes his grandfather, but there was a big distance between us. One very special thing about making this film is that I realized that grandparents think about their grandchild but the grandchild doesn't think about his grandparents with much depth. I hadn't before, but for five years, I thought about my grandparents on a daily basis. I thought about their lives, I learned about their conflicts. I feel I know them now but of course there are limitations to that.
DP: What would you like to ask them if you had five minutes with them? I'm sure you'd want to know about their relationship with the Von Mildensteins but is there something more?
AG: I would want to know their reaction to what I found in my research but I'd also want to know what they thought of the film that I made about them. During the making of my film, I thought a lot about whether I should film it and whether they'd want me to do it. If they didn't want me to know about them, then why did they leave behind so much evidence, including the letters? Do I have their permit to do it? It's not an easy question. There is a moral issue here because they are not alive to protect themselves. What is my right? The only way I could deal with this was to conclude that I had some kind of job or duty or destiny and I must make the film. It felt beyond my control, almost as if I were called to do it.
DP: Well, it may have started out as a family story but it turned out to be a historical story. Von Mildenstein was Eichmann's first boss, and he worked with Goebbles for about seven years, so it turns out he was an important figure in history. I don't know how much of an historian you are but if you're filling in blanks in history than you must feel that you have an obligation to do it.
AG: It was filling in blanks in history. One of the things that I started to do, which was unusual in my family, was to ask questions. I've found out at screenings of this film that many people have families where no one talks about the past and unpleasant issues. When you ask questions you take something from the subconscious and push it a little into the conscious. That's the move I think I caused. I don't know all the answers now and it's not like everyone is now open in my family and speaking about everything, but there has been a change.
DP: Your mother plays a big part in your film. But not your father. I wondered if he was told anything more by his parents.
AG: My father is very, very ill. I filmed him but he was almost not in a conscious situation so after talking about it with my family I made the very difficult decision not to include him in the film. But I doubt he knew more than my mother.
DP: You had to make hard decisions about what was appropriate to leave in and what was inappropriate and needed to be taken out. I would think the hardest moment for you was when you present Edda with the evidence that her father, Von Mildenstein, was a Nazi. This was after years of her denial about her father's past and not wanting to know certain things. She doesn't accept the evidence you present fully and you can see she's been struck a blow. What were your feelings when you were filming that scene?
AG: It was for sure one of the two hardest scenes for me to film. After doing research I was sure that Von Mildenstein didn't quit the Nazi regime--and I double checked it and triple checked it. In the film I go to an archive. In reality I went to many archives. The minute I was certain about Edda's father, I knew I had to tell her. I could not release my film without telling her. Also our relationship would not allow me not to. It was beyond any question. It was less a conflict about telling her and not telling her than how to tell her. What would be the cost of telling her? I had to take the responsibility for what would happen. I didn't know what would happen when I told her.
DP: So did you say to her, I have something to tell you and you might not like it?
AG: I told her that I found something new and that I must show it to her if it was okay with her. I asked her for permission. I had to travel a long way. It was not in my neighborhood. Edda and her husband live in Wuppertal, which is in the middle of Germany, east of Dusseldorf. I didn't know what was going to happen but I realized that I must be in front of the camera sitting beside her. The embarrassment made the scene very difficult for me. You can see that on the screen.
DP: You're looking at her face. It was almost as if her life flashed before her eyes when you told her. She'd been telling a story about her father to everyone for many years and now an outsider comes in and says what she said about him was wrong. What was your reaction to her reaction?
AG: It was very hard.
DP: Afterward did you think you'd ever see her again or did you think the cost of your telling her was that she would never want to talk to you again?
AG: In the film there was a cut, but in reality that scene continued. We stayed that day and talked about other things, and we are still in touch today.
DP: Which is great. Did she cry?
AG: No. There is something very amazing about the film. Nobody cries in it. There isn't a single tear. Today in Israel, when people use the television remote and go from channel to channel they can't watch for a minute before somebody cries onscreen. Suddenly I make a film with stories and drama and nobody sheds a single tear. But that is the film. It has such a subtext of feelings and all kinds emotions--that's the story of those characters and this world.
DP: Has Edda since told you how she felt when you told her the truth about her father?
AG: No. People have asked me if she has since started to do research and calls me to tell me about it. And the answer is no. For me, I ended my journey and now it's her journey, and her decision, and I'm not going to ask her about it. If she wanted to tell me, I'd go there, but she hasn't. Maybe she is doing research about her father but feels it's private.
DP: When she told you that her father was a journalist and not part of the Nazi regime, did you feel she knew the opposite and was lying to you?
AG: No, no, no, I don't believe that. There is a whole range between the truth and the lie. And I don't believe the characters are fully conscious of the truth or in complete denial. I think it's in-between. They know something. I don't think she's lying.
DP: I assume Edda feels some guilt now knowing that her father wasn't, as she told you and everyone else, "clean as a whistle." But does your mother feel guilt after learning that her parents had a close friendship with a Nazi, not just prior to the war but after? I'd think that was a revelation.
AG: Yes it was. You know, I think the film did something very strong to my mother beyond your question. It's very hard for an outsider to understand that. The truths that we reveal in the film are very complicated and uneasy to process. But when truth is revealed there is a feeling of relief because there is not longer the burden of hiding a secret or denying the truth or being afraid to learn something.
DP: What was the other scene that you found the most difficult?
AG: The scene with my mother when I show her the letter from her mother, who chose to stay behind in Germany [and was sent to a concentration camp]. It was a very strong letter. I thought a lot about the best way to show it to her but then suddenly we're both being filmed and unexpected things are happening. It was very hard. Another difficult scene for me was being in the cemetery in Germany with my mother and trying to find a family headstone. Especially the dialogue between us made it uncomfortable.
DP: But at that point your mother--and I'd think this was a great thing for you--was involved.
AG: Yes, you can see that she's more into what I have been doing. There is movement with her, there is a change in her.
DP: I think that she is exhibiting curiosity and realizes that what she knows after decades of accepted ignorance about her family isn't going to kill her. In fact, she had joined with you in trying to discover any stories that are out there about your family, and it's actually a positive thing.
AG: Yes, I feel that way. Since the film was released, she has a much better understanding of what you were talking about than during filming. When she saw the film she experienced much more of that relief I mentioned. It was a process that continues.
DP: I wonder if her parents ever thought of moving back to Germany after the war ended. My reason is that you seem to believe that being German was more important to them than being Jewish.
AG: I don't think it's a matter of being more important. What is very clear for me is that they were first Germans and then Israelis. They were German Jews. We took out many scenes that we filmed but there was one scene we took out that we were sure we'd include. It was a scene in which my mother and I visited my grandparents' last flat in Berlin. I'm making a film called The Flat so it made sense to go there. The guy who lived there was a physics or math professor who wasn't Jewish but had taught for three years in Israel. He was very friendly and was thrilled that Israelis were coming and made a surprise for us. After my grandparents left Germany in the early 1930s, there had been many tenants and the apartment had been rebuilt at different times. Well, he found for us the floor plan of the apartment in the 1930s. It was amazing. They had an apartment with seven huge rooms, with places for the cook and nanny. I asked my mother on-screen, "Did you have a nanny?" And she said, "Who do you think was raising me?" We looked at each other and realized what they left behind. They lived on a little street next to the Ku'damm, which is like Fifth Avenue, and very bourgeois. They had to have lived a very good and honorable life--and then they were kicked out.
DP: Other than Coca Cola, which lied about their employee Von Mildenstein's Nazi past after the war, is their a full-fledged villain in your movie?
AG (laughing): I think it's an ironical anecdote about Coca-Cola. The film is not at all about good guys or villains. I tried very hard not to be judgmental, and it was not easy. There is nothing more natural for a child to be judgmental toward his parents. But I tried not to be because I didn't know everything and I'd only seen part of the truth. Sometimes at the beginning I'd say, "Oh, my God, why did she say or not say that?" But instead of stopping there and drawing a conclusion I'd take one more step and I'd discover why.
DP: Also you probably hoped--beyond hope--that there were even some good parts to Von Mildenstein.
AG: That's absolutely true. Somehow I believe he did have them.
DP: Well he had a nice daughter for one thing and he did help your grandparents leave Germany when it became dangerous for Jews.
AG: That's right. It's hard to think about it, and I'm not a historian, but some people in the Nazi regime were people.
DP: And even those who do evil usually don't think they're doing evil.
AG: That's right.
DP: The Flat is a joint German and Israeli film. Explain why that's important to you.
AG: Nowadays in Israel you can't make a big film, and I consider this a big film, without it being a co-production, without raising money from abroad. However, while I knew I must have a co-producer from Germany, it wasn't because of the funding. It was because I wanted to have someone of my generation from the other side, the German side. I had to struggle all along the way with my own stereotypes. I was afraid of being an Israeli Jew making a film on this subject and meeting Germans and trying to have a real discussion. I wanted to have someone making the film with me, who paralleled me. There was my partner and co-producer Thomas Kufus--we went a long way together. And I had two German researchers, Mareike Leuchte and Franziska Lindner. We had a lot of discussions.
DP: Like them, I felt I understood what you were experiencing during filming, beginning with the flat being cleaned out and then finding letters and other evidence and deciding to make the story play itself out. I related to this journey, if that's the right word.
AG: Yes, it's a journey and a process. I lived through it. When I began I didn't realize I'd learn about my great-grandmother. Or finding Edda, Von Mildenstein's daughter. That was complete luck. It was one of so many lucky moments I experienced as a documentary filmmaker. Edda might not have wanted to talk to me or she might not have spoken English. But she was happy to meet me and she spoke fluent English. Both she and her husband were very nice and welcoming to me and to my mother on the second visit.
DP: Over the five years, were you worrying that you had no ending until you unraveled your grandparents and Von Mildenstein's full story? Because while you were making the film, you were going to the archives and visiting Edda three times. So were you thinking, "Where is all this leading, and can I ever end my movie?"
AG: To be honest, I was thinking about something that people who see the movie now would think is very strange--I didn't know if I even had a story for a film. For a long time, this was my worry. It was because I didn't know about a conclusion and also because I wasn't sure there were connections between all the fragments. And--I know this sounds ridiculous now-- I wasn't sure this story would be interesting to anyone else...

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Edward Burns: He's the One

Find "She's the One" on video

Edward Burns: He's the One

(from Movieline, 8/1/06)

Writer-director-actor Edward Burns became an overnight sensation with his first film, The Brothers McMullen. As he finishes his second movie, the filmmaker reveals what it's like when Hollywood comes calling.

Edward Burns became the flavor-of-the-month when, last year, the writer-director-actor's first feature. The Brothers McMullen, won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Predictably, Burns quit his dead-end job at "Entertainment Tonight," and got wooed by the Tinseltown players whose careers are the stuff of "ET." Less predictably, the 28-year-old filmmaker decided not to sign any long-term deals, and concentrated instead on making his second movie. She's the One, Here, the native New Yorker reveals how his life has changed in the past year--and how he's managing to keep his feet on the ground.
DANNY PEARY: As we've been talking, strangers have come up to congratulate you on making The Brothers McMullen, but no one is asking for your autograph. Does that bother you?
EDWARD BURNS: I'm glad they don't. The only guy who has wanted my autograph wrote me about 20 letters saying how much he liked my TV show, "77 Sunset Strip,'' and how he wanted a signed photo of "Kookie."

Q: Were you surprised when The Brothers McMullen won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance?
A: It was a shock. I'd been devastated because McMullen had been turned down by all the other festivals and by distribution companies because it "wasn't edgy enough."
Q: When did you stop working for "Entertainment Tonight"?
A: I quit as soon as I got a distribution deal after the first Sundance screening. I worked at "ET" for four years as a full-time gopher, which was four years too many.
Q: After your Sundance success, were you lured to Hollywood?
A: Yes. You can't imagine what it was like--I had been making $18,000 a year and suddenly these studio heavies are taking me out to fancy lunches and telling me, "You're this, you're that, you're going to make so much money." I came back to New York and talked things over with my family, and with my girlfriend, Maxine Bahns, who'd made her acting debut in McMullen. I signed with Fox Searchlight for my second film. She's the One.
Q: At the end of McMullen, Maxine's actress character accuses your screenwriter of wanting to leave her to go out to Hollywood for some "action." Did that reflect what the two of you feared might happen if the film made it big?
A: We never actually had that discussion, but that's something we still think about. As I go on, I know the person I don't want to become, which is a "swinging dick in Hollywood." I don't want to become that showbiz cliché and spend 30 years chasing around 18-year-old girls.
Q: In She's the One, you and Maxine are again a screen couple. Were you reluctant to take advantage of your power as writer-director and cast yourself as the other male lead, who plays romantic scenes with Jennifer Aniston and Cameron Diaz?
A: At this point, yeah. I'll probably have to do love scenes with other actresses if I want to continue acting and making these small relationship films. Maxine and I have talked about it. I'm not going to be crazy when she's cast in some film opposite whomever and has to get naked with him. I ask other actors to do it, so it's unfair of me and her to say that it's OK for them but not us.
Q: Speaking of love scenes, McMullen had the most romantic of endings, with your two characters kissing in the middle of the street...
A: I give them about three months.
Q: That's pretty cynical, given that you and Maxine have been together seven years.
A: That character's not me--the three brothers were based on guys I knew in high school. We joked that the film should have been called Stupid Men.
Q: Despite the She in the title, your second film is again about brothers. Is this one more autobiographical?
A: I wanted to look at my relationship with my brother, Brian, when we were younger. I wanted to explore whether we'd hate each other as adults if that sibling rivalry hadn't been put to bed.
Q: Is it harder to write women characters?
A: I sweat that a little bit. Once we cast. I look for an actress to tell me. "You're full of shit in this scene, she wouldn't say that." On She's the One Cameron Diaz said, "I like when she's icy, manipulative and tough, but couldn't we make her more human to make those moments even better?" I didn't say, "How dare you?" I rewrote the part.
Q: How were you able to get Jennifer Aniston?
A: She liked The Brothers McMullen and was willing to rework her "Friends" schedule to be in the film.
Q: As we've seen, the presence of a "Friends" star doesn't guarantee a film's success. Do you worry about She's the One flopping?
A: No. What it will do at the box office has never been on my mind. Whatever happens, I'll make a lot more films. I'd love to be like Woody Allen and continue to make modestly budgeted, personal films. I don't care about the money--I want my films to stand the test of time.

Danny Peary interviewed Laura Linney for the May issue of Movieline.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Put TFF Doc "The List" on Your List

Playing at Tribeca Film Festival

Put TFF Doc "The List" on Your List

(from 4/25/12)

listphoto.jpg Beth Murphy, photo Danny Peary
Beth Murphy surely is correct in assuming that the brave, inspiring protagonists of her documentaries--especially the young women who battle breast cancer in Fighting for Our Future (2002), the 9/11 widows and Afghanistan widows who bond in Beyond Belief (2007), and now Kirk Johnson, who resettles endangered Iraqis in America in The List--are heroes. But it should be pointed out that this humanitarian filmmaker is a hero herself to me and others for having the courage and compassion to have traveled the world, including war-torn countries, to bring to light stories that need to be told. The List is one such dramatic story and it is premiering at the current Tribeca Film Festival. You can still see the film at the Clearview Cinemas on 23rd and 8th on Wednesday at 3:45 and Saturday at 8:30. The List was on my list of must-see movies even before the great reviews started flowing in and I was grateful able to spend a few minutes talking with the acclaimed director.
Danny Peary: You worked on The List for four years?
Beth Murphy: Yes. I started filming it in August of 2007.
DP: Was that always the title and did it ever have a subtitle?
BM: It was the original title and [laughing] it changed to The Promise of Freedom and then we changed it back. I never thought of adding a subtitle, which would be descriptive.
DP: If you're going to spend four years on a film, it has to be something essential to you, so why did you want to focus on this topic?
BM: You're right, all my projects have to resonate in a really deep way and be meaningful. Way back when I thought I might do investigative pieces and have protagonists who might be pretty despicable. But I realized it means a lot to me to like the people who are featured in my films and to really believe in who they are and what they do. And that's certainly the case with Kirk Johnson. I have a deep personal interest in refugee issues and have served many years on the board of an organization that works with immigrants and refugees and we do a lot of resettlements in America. In 2007 our resettlement department was expecting an influx of Iraqis. We were waiting for all these Iraqis to arrive in New England...and nobody came. There was discrepancy between what was being said by the government and what was actually happening on the ground for our organization. I was curious about why this was going on. So I started making phone calls and that is what eventually led me to Kirk and his work.
DP: Were you already thinking movie?
BM (laughing): I was. But there was a question about how to tell it. There are a lot of great stories out there and the question is: Am I the person to tell that story? It's really critical that I have unique access or s unique angle.
DP: And you have to click with your subject, in this case Kirk Johnson.
BM: Absolutely. It has to be an intimate relationship, one that is built on a foundation of trust. When Kirk and I met I knew pretty much immediately that I wanted to start filming with him. Less than a month later we started filming. The first person on his list was arriving in Chicago to move into Kirk's childhood home. His parents were taking him in.
listpromo.jpgKirk Johnson
DP: Talk about Kirk's involvement with resettlement. I read that he was working with an aid group that tried to improve the infrastructure in war-torn cities in Iraq and then after returning to America, he learned that his Iraqi co-workers were being murdered or threatened by radical militias because they were perceived as traitors for having helped America, including as translators.
BM: Kirk worked for USAID on reconstruction projects, first in Baghdad and then Fallujah. He was the first person from USAID to go to Fallujah in 2005 when there was a lot going on there. To me, Kirk represents the best in America. He's young. He turned thirty when we traveled to Iraq together. He celebrated his birthday there.
DP: You filmed in several countries. Was he with you all the time?
BM: He was with us in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. We were also with Chris Nugent, who is a refugee lawyer from Holland & Knight We had a three-person crew. We traveled without Kirk the second time we went to Iraq and Egypt. That time there were just two of us.
DP: Where did you shoot in Iraq?
BM: We were all over. We stayed primarily in Baghdad but drove to Sulaymaniyah, Nasiriyah, Basra, all over the country.
DP: Did you travel to certain towns because someone there had contacted Kirk about fleeing to America?
BM: In a couple of cases, yes. In another couple of cases, we were traveling to meet up with the military for two reasons. We wanted to talk about the withdrawal because the primary concern of these Iraqis is what will happen to people like them after American forces leave. We did it minimally but also we did have a bit of an embed in order to film military translators.
DP: I assume these people who want to leave Iraq want to take their families with them because they fear repercussions. 
BM: Absolutely.
DP: What was your process in filming? Did you follow Kirk around or did you hear of things and take Kirk with you?
BM: When we filmed with Kirk in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan, all the Iraqis we met with were on Kirk's list or wanted to be on it. They had been in touch with him so he organized how we were going to meet them together. When we weren't with Kirk in our other trip to Iraq, we interviewed Iraqis by ourselves. Many people on his list were people he worked with or had relations with, but there were a lot of people we interviewed without him who didn't have that personal connection to him but were on the list.
DP: So there actually is a formal list?
BM: Yes, with over 3,000 names on it, of which 1,100 he has successfully brought to the United States. The first on the list was his friend, but they don't go down the list one at a time. All of the people on the list have been assigned attorneys who are working on their cases. There are about 200 lawyers across the country working on these cases. There has been a massive paradigm shift in refugee law--never before have refugees had such access to legal support.
DP: Had you been to Iraq before?
BM: No, these were my first trips there. I've been to Afghanistan five times now.
DP: So like us, you've just watched the war on TV. What was your surprise there, maybe in regard to how America is perceived by the populace.
BM: The biggest surprise came on the final trip to Iraq in 2010. I really believe there is no worse feeling than being an American in Iraq. It's devastating. I didn't meet one Iraqi there who has any sense of hope for the future. None.

DP: Is it there is no hope for the future because of what America did?
BM: Absolutely, because of the state Iraqi was left. There was so much hope at the beginning. We open the film with that, and it was very dramatic for me to remind myself of what happened at the beginning of the war, with the American flags being held high; and there was "Go USA" and all this enthusiasm.
DP: Is what Kirk is doing helping with America's image there or will the image remain bad because he's rescuing Iraqis they're angry with?
BM: That's a tough question. I'd like to think it would help. I like to think that any time relationships can be built in a meaningful way, even one person to one person, that's meaningful.
DP: That's a theme in much of your work.
BM: Definitely. Yes, it's happening, and the people who are coming here are integrating into communities and building relationships. Like the couple who moved in with Kirk's parents. He's a son to them now.
DP: Give me two or three things you're gratified about being able to communicate in your film?
BM: I think it's really important to communicate the moral consequences of war, and morality in times of war. I like to think it can be a point of reflection about the tragic human consequences of war, so when we do engage in places we have more of a sense of what we're doing and the legacy we'll leave behind in another country and at home. I hope it is also an exploration of American values, and how we can be true to them when we operate on the world stage.
DP: As an addition to your oeuvre, is The List a satisfying part of what you want to do?
BM: It's a difficult topic and when I think of what the Iraqis who worked with us have been through and that I told the story only because of that, so it's hard to feel anything other than I'm happy to have had the opportunity to share Kirk's work with people. I think his work is important, as is his message. That I can help to communicate his message means a lot to me.
DP: Is Kirk the only one doing this kind of work?
BM: He's at the helm but are so many people supporting what he's doing in every single case. In addition to the lawyers there are advocates for all the Iraqis. On each case, there is a huge dossier containing letters of support from American supervisors and former colleagues.
DP: Have things changed since Obama replaced Bush?
BM: It got worse. The numbers are more deplorable in regard to Iraqis getting into America. There is less attention being paid. The hope was that when the administration changed that things would change dramatically for the better for this population, but in fact it got worth. The expectation was that more people would be saved; in fact, fewer have been. Nobody knows how many people have been killed or disappeared. They can't even track how many Iraqis worked for America. There are some pretty dramatic reports. One company kept track of the number people killed over a certain amount of time. It was disgusting.
 DP: Your film Beyond Belief had a connection to 9/11, which was the reason the Tribeca Film Festival came into existence. How does it feel for you to have a film at this festival?
listbeyondbeliefposter.jpgBeth Murphy's previous film
BM: Beyond Belief premiered at the festival in 2007 and to have The List premiere here five years later makes it feel like I've come home. I'm really grateful to the festival and the Tribeca Film Institute for all the support. I love everything about the experience. Also: Kirk brought Iraqis to New York. One of the main characters in the film ended up here--he's working in a law firm!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Morton the Impaler Doc at TFF

 Évocateur at Tribeca Film Festival

Morton the Impaler Doc at TFF

(from 4/22/12)

When I'd happen upon Morton Downey Jr.'s vile and venomous talk show in the late eighties, I'd have a hard time switching channels. I'd want to hiss, boo, and throw things at the screen, just as we wanted to do watching the dirtiest wrestler when we were kids and didn't realize it was all fake. Now thanks to directors Seth Kramer, Daniel L. Miller, and Jeremy Newberger we again can feel our skin crawl as the right-wing small-screen pioneer with a big toothy mouth is resurrected in the provocative Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie. Surely, the egomaniacal Downey Jr. would have been first in line to see its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, where its final public screenings will be on Tuesday and Friday nights (check for location and times). You might want be there too, whether you remember him or want to learn what all the fuss was about and how, as the festival's program says, "the pursuit of fame and fortune over the airwaves can ultimately destroy your soul." On Friday, I spoke to Kramer (left in my photo) and Miller about their film.
Danny Peary: Morton Downey Jr. was one of the most detestable right-wing hosts ever. Have you met people who liked him?
Daniel Miller and Seth Kramer: We liked him!
DP: As a person or as entertainer who persevered?
SK: As an entertainer. We were in high schools in New Jersey when he came on the air and went off the air two years later, and were fans--we were the demographic. We wouldn't have voted for him for president and we didn't follow his lead for political advice, but he had a show that talked about politics and social issues in a way that appealed to high school kids. Everything else on TV where there was political debate, was all very civil and polite compared to him. He was outrageous and hilarious. He was "screw you" and in your face and it was a real trip to hear politics addressed in that way.
DM: His appeal is that he spoke of politics in very reductionist black-and-white way. In professional wrestling, you have one guy who represents dark and one who represents light and you cheer for one side--it's easy and it's fun. And for someone who doesn't want to process all the nuances around an issue, Downey was entertaining.
DP: From where did his show originate?
DM: It came out of a tiny studio in Secaucus, New Jersey, which we revisit for the film. It still exists.
DP: What was his prime period?
SK: His show was on the air from 1987 to 1989. Before that he was on radio.
DP: Who was Morton Downey Sr.?
DM: He was at one point one of the most famous people in America. He might be considered America's first recording star. He was an Irish tenor. One of the stars of the first RKO film ever was Morton Downey Sr. He was a huge, huge deal and Morton Downey Jr. grew up in and was always trying to escape his shadow. It's a lot of what motivated him to do what he did.
DP: He was a reactionary and that's what his fans found appealing but was he sincere or was he smart enough to know what he saying was bullshit.
DM: That's sort of what our movie investigates.
SK: His father grew up with Joseph Kennedy and Mort grew up around Camelot. He came from a very liberal background. with Bobby and Teddy Kennedy. Then in the eighties on television he was saying liberals were destroying America just like the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs do today.
DP: Do you think one more than the other?
SK: It's the same: it's the populist entertainer who serves as the mouthpiece for the everyday man who is being ignored by his government.
DP: "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore."
SK: That's right. He was more like Glenn Beck only because he brought it to television. Mort was in national syndication. I think of Glenn Beck's dramatics and how his whole body language expressed what he was subscribing to is very similar to the Mort phenomenon. They also lasted the same amount of time on national television, about two years and then they were done.
DP: Why do you think this guy who was on radio and television makes a good movie subject that you'd spend a couple of years on?
SK: In our present day, this kind of act, this kind of populist performer, can have incredible influence on and sway over the public.
DK: In a scary way?
SK: I'm not sure if it's scary, but it is a real way. There are two sides to this. Half of Americans will say it's scary, it's propagandistic, it's terrible for the country.
The other half will say that before these guys came around it was all liberal media, and Fox News and Beck and Limbaugh provide a much needed antidote and provide the other side. So we come in and take you back twenty-five years and you see that Downey was doing the same act. So it's a useful and timely film.
DM: Beyond his legacy, Downey had fans but went into obscurity. People ask me, "Is Morton Downey Jr. still alive?" or "Is he Robert Downey Jr's father?" Let me make it clear that he's not Robert Downey Jr's father. This film gives you a chance to watch Downey again and to laugh at his shtick. To be honest, he went above and beyond Fox News. You don't see what he did anymore, you don't see anyone being that confrontational and it's fun to watch.
DP: There were guys even earlier than him.
SK: Joe Pine, Wally George. In the movie, we get into how Downey was part of a continuum. Bob Piven created the show as a copy of Joe Pine, who had a confrontational act in the 1960s. Pine was on radio, then television. They wanted to repeat it with Downey for the MTV generation.
DP: You always thought with Pine, George, and Downey that thank God there aren't enough people believe then. In that case Downey would be scary rather than freak-show entertainment. Rush Limbaugh has been around for a long time. Why do you think Downey burned out so soon?
SK: It's a difficult act where you have to be increasingly outrageous so you can keep your hold on an audience and keep them interested and involved.
DM: Rush Limbaugh is really good at it. But even so he almost blew it by calling the college student a slut. The new guys have perfected the act but even they can get in trouble. Glenn Beck is gone. Soon or later you put your foot in your mouth, and you either keep going or are done.

DP: What I heard about your film is that there are moments when viewers are going to say, "I can't believe that was on television way back then."
SK: That is the case. Some of this stuff will make your jaw drop.
DM: He was far more vicious and brutal when attacking a guest he doesn't agree with than anything you see today. It's unbelievable.
DP: I remember that his cigarettes were more than a prop, they were like weapons.
SK: He died of lung cancer in 2001. They were such an important part of the act. I think he was trying to take us back to a different, more conservative era, Mad Men-style, which was to play-it straight, tell it like it is, and disrespect women a little bit.
DM: And you blow smoke into the face of someone who doesn't agree with you.
DP: Did people in Downey's audience attack him or were they all supporters?
SK: He fought with his audience pretty hard. We interviewed someone who fought with him.
DP: Did you talk to people who had revelations about him, saying perhaps that he was different from his public persona.
SK: Yeah, that's all in the film.
DP: Did you speak to family and are they proud or ashamed of him?
SK: We spoke to his daughter Kelly Downey. Proud is a little strong. She loved her dad and 's very reflective when talking about him. She gives complete insight on what it was like to live with this kind of performer and what it took to keep it up.
DP: Do you think your film is political?
SK: It's balanced. It deals with politics.
DP: You want people to see something in your movie.
DM: Right. It's really meant to make you delve into the role of the populist entertainer. What does it mean?
SK: What do these guys do? We have industry insiders, we have Sally Jesse Raphael, Richard Bey, and Bill Boggs who were doing the talk show bit at the same time. We get an inside look at what it takes to do this kind of show, and how to use anger to draw in an audience. We have Pat Buchanan, who has been doing it for a long time. We have Herman Cain.
DP: Did you already know everything in your film before you started shooting or did you learn things along the way?
SK: We just knew his public persona. We investigated if his colleagues, his producers, and everyone else manufactured this person. Was he created like a Frankenstein monster to get ratings or is what he said really what he believed?
DP: What does it mean for you to be at the Tribeca Film Festival?
SK: Oh, my God, this is great. New York is our home. We lived and worked in New York for almost two decades. And this is like a homecoming for Downey. He was a New York/New Jersey guy. So we're bringing Downey back to the city.
DP: Since you began this project has anybody said to you that Morton Downey Jr. is his idol?
SK: No, I'm not sure how we'd deal with that!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Alice Braga Reaches New Heights in "Lower City"

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Alice Braga Reaches New Heights in "Lower City"

(from 4/21/06)

It may be a star-making performance. Alice Braga had exhibited a remarkable screen presence when her characters hung out with teenage gang members in the award-winning "City of God" and raced around the dangerous streets of Sao Paolo in the noirish melodrama "Journey to the End of the Night," which debuted recently at the Tribeca Film Festival. It was apparent that the young Brazilian actress had the striking beauty, talent, ability to make you believe her characters existed outside the lens of the camera, and earthy sex appeal that made her aunt Sonia Braga ("Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands," "Kiss of the Spider Woman") an international star in the late '70s and '80s.

Now her early promise has been fulfilled, as she gives a truly sizzling performance in her first starring role, as a hooker and stripper in Sérgio Machado's debut feature "Lower City." I had been charmed by Alice when we met at the Tribeca Film Festival and was eager to speak to her again about her rising career and her daring turn in Machado's naturalistic, sexually-drenched ménage-a-trois picture that is set in the lower belly of Bahia, Brazil.

Q: Did you always want to be an actress?

AB: I grew up going on sets with my mom, Ana Maria Braga. Today, she works in commercials as a director and an editor, but she used to be an actress. I knew I wanted to work in the cinema, but I wasn't sure if it would be acting or something else. I took some acting courses and did some theater in school, but I was still trying to figure it out because acting is such a difficult career to choose.
Then my mom's friend allowed me to do some auditions and I started to get some commercials, which I did for fun. Then I did a short film, "Trampolim," which was great. Then Fernando Meirelles invited me to do "City of God." As soon as I started acting in movies and playing characters, I realized that's what I wanted to do.
Q: Has your aunt Sonia Braga been a major influence on your career?
AB: Yes and no, because Sonia left Brazil when I was very young and hasn't lived there in more than 20 years. She's always visited and we'll always been in touch, but her influence has been from a distance. I was influenced by the fact that she was a really good actress and became really well known; and because of her I always believed in my dream and worked hard to get what I wanted. It's great to have someone in the family who does the same thing you do, but she was never so close that she could help me or give me advice. She was always abroad.
Now I'm here and she's in Brazil doing a soap opera. I have always been Sonia's niece, but my mother was a much bigger influence on my career. She never pushed me, she was always supportive, and if I'd wanted to become a lawyer she would have supported me just the same. She was always there for me. When I audition, she still says, "Concentrate, focus…" Once you're an actress, you always have those feelings.
Q: Do you live in New York now?
AB: I still live in Brazil but I've been traveling for five months to festivals, so I've spent a lot of time in the U.S.
Q: Was your first contact with Hollywood through "City of God?"
AB: Yes. I didn't know how it worked, so it was interesting. It's a different culture and the Hollywood way wouldn't work in Brazil, but I liked my experience. I even got an agent.
Q: So you want to break into Hollywood pictures?
ImageAB: I want to open doors. I'm really lucky that all the films I've been doing are coming out here. "Journey to the End of the Night" debuted in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival. The other film I did, "Sólo Dios Sabe," is a Mexico-Brazil coproduction that played at Sundance. I know it's a strong industry here, so if the doors open for me I'd love to get in. Even so, I'd love to do more and more Brazilian films and more and more Latina films in Mexico and Argentina and other countries.

Q: "Journey to the End of the Night," is your first American movie. It was directed by an an American, Eric Eason, and stars American actors Brendon Fraser, Scott Glenn, and Mos Def. The two female leads, however, are Latinas--you, who are from Brazil, and Catalina Sandina Moreno, from Columbia.

AB: It was an American film, but all the shooting took place in Sao Paolo. That's where I am from so even though it was shot in other places of the city, I felt like I was home. My character spoke English, Portuguese and Spanish.

Q: Eric Eason says he found you in New York when he was casting the film.

AB: He found me at a party for a charity screening of "City of God" in Soho. He saw me and Mos Def talking about the movie and he said, "Those are my Wemba and Monique," two characters who spend a lot of time together in the movie. How do you say it? "Right time and the right place." It was a great experience. Mos is a creative actor and really sweet and generous, so he was wonderful to work with and learn from.
Q: In that movie, you were part of an ensemble. How did you get your first female lead in "Lower City?"
AB: Walter Salles, who produced this film, had also produced "City of God." He spoke to Sérgio Machado and recommended me. But Sérgio couldn't find me because I was in New York. So he tested many girls to play Karinna, but didn't sign any of them. Meanwhile the two male parts had been cast with Lázaro Ramos and Wagner Maura, and they were already rehearsing. Finally, with only a month before shooting, he found me and got in touch.
I was in New York doing press for "City of God" and the Oscars. He asked me to come back to Brazil. I read the script with Sérgio and the film's acting coach, Fátima Toledo, and they invited me to play Karinna. When I read the script I immediately thought, "This is such a challenge, so I said yes on the spot. I only had to meet the boys and do rehearsals and figure out how we felt about each other. And it happened.
Q: Did you later have second thoughts?
AB: When I read the script, I had no hesitation about accepting the role. But when I began to rehearse, I'd say "Oh, my God, am I doing this?" I was really afraid of the amount of work and responsibility. I asked, "Should I do this? Am I talented enough?" I had to go through all of my fears to get past that.
Q: Before you were born, your aunt did a lot of nudity and became a respected actress, but did you worry it was a real risk doing so much nudity and fairly graphic sex scenes so early in your career? Or would you say, "Well, I'm young, this is the time to do it?"
AB: Yeah, definitely. I really wanted to do it because Karinna is such a strong character that I knew she would be important in my life. I loved the opportunity to throw myself into the part. My only worry was the challenge to portray someone like that--I wondered if I could do it. I never worried about exposing myself and getting criticized for that, just about the acting.
However, when I read the script I definitely knew it was a risk. Not because I'd expose my body, but that I'd I expose myself in other ways by giving so much of myself. But the moment I met Sérgio and Lázaro and Wagner, and because I had already worked with Walter and Fátima on "City of God," I knew it was something special. I knew these people were going to take care of me, the character, and the story.
Q: Could you have done "Lower City" as your first film, or was it better that you did as part of a progression in your career?
ImageAB: Everything went in the right order. I think I needed to move from one thing to another, and learn more each time to be prepared for the work and process I needed to do on "Lower City."
Q: How did Sérgio cast Deco and Naldinho, the two best friends who become enemies when they each fall for Karinna?

AB: Lázaro and Wagner are best friends in real life. That's why Sérgio chose them. The actor he went after was Lázaro at the time he wanted the whole cast to be black. Then he went to Lázaro's birthday party and Wagner gave a beautiful, emotional speech about how their friendship was so important to him. Sérgio said, "Great, I have my other actor."

In my opinion, Wagner and Lázaro are among the best actors now in Brazil. They had done a really famous play that brought them up to cinema and television in Brazil. So they were really good actors and they're both from Bahia, like the two characters—and Sérgio. So Sérgio thought they were perfect.

Q: Had you met either of them before?

AB: I met Lázaro before doing the film, but really fast at a party. But I'd say I met them both for the first time in Bahia when we rehearsed for the film.

Q: You live in Sao Paulo, but are you familiar with Bahia, where the film takes place?
AB: Yeah, it's one of my favorite areas of Brazil. It's in the northeastern part of the country and I've been going there since I was a kid because my grandma is there. My family is from there. So I know Salvador a lot, I know Lower City—the area and the energy.
Q: Do you think it was important to set the film in Bahia rather than in another part of Brazil?
AB: Sérgio always said this story could be about a rich woman and two lawyers, instead of a hooker and two uneducated guys who transport things on a small boat. But I think the type of love and passion and sensuality in the movie isn't found all over Brazil, but specifically in Bahia. It's a state that has sensuality and seductiveness in the way they live and talk and dance. It's all very physical. The love story between the three of them and everything else could have been done anywhere, even Sao Paolo, where I'm from. But if it were set in Sao Paolo it would be a different film. Sao Paolo is like New York, where people wear ties and go to work and jog. This area is more sensual.
ImageQ: There is such intensity to the sexual scenes, so could you have made this film with two actors who knew each other without two months of rehearsals?

AB: No, we really had to get involved. It was something Sérgio really thought necessary for us to get 100% into our characters and see how they related to each other. Their love for each other is so passionate that we needed to understand their feelings and emotions and to be part of the life that they live.

The film could have gone terribly wrong if we didn't throw ourselves into it. Without rehearsals, we wouldn't have felt anything, we just would have done it If we were only half into characters and half out of them, it wouldn't have worked. That's why he had Fátima, who is a really important acting coach in Brazil, work so closely with us for so long.

Q: On "City of God," you also worked with her. Was she different on "Lower City" when your part was so much bigger?

AB: It was more intense how she worked with me on this film, but she was trying to get the same result. She had a specific way of working, where she tries to get the character's feelings and emotions into your body.

We read the script and then I just worked with the physical exercises she gave me—I did a lot dancing and singing exercises and I did a lot of kundalini to loosen my pelvis and free my sexuality. Her work is really sensorial. Once you feel like them, you can get into the story they are living. You believe that these characters exist in that area and

ImageQ: What was it like each night after you began shooting the movie? Was it so intense that you couldn't divorce yourself from what took place on the set?

AB: I tried not to go too far away from the character because I'm at the beginning of my career and still learning about acting. I tried to stay connected to her at all times. There was always a strong energy between us. But that the same time, when I went home I needed leave her at the set just so I could rest. Because, as you say, there was such intensity in her and her relationship with her two lovers.

Q: Did it become difficult to shake out the character from yourself?
AB: Not at all because Fátima works at both "getting into it" and "getting out of it."

Q: Is it true that for you to "get into" one of the really intense scenes, you had a crew member lie down on you a few minutes before the cameras rolled? Did all the crew members volunteer to lie down on you?
AB: I invited him. I needed someone who was strong. I needed someone who wasn't Sérgio or the boys. He was the one holding me down, but all the crew was respectful and being silent. As I said, Fátima wanted us to get into our characters in a physical way and connect to them through our bodies. What I did with the crew member was a specific exercise. He lay down on me and I struggled to get up. But he wouldn't let me. What I wanted was to feel like Karinna, who had to try to get up and struggle through every day. Fátima gave me that exercise so I'd feel like I had to get up and keep going like Karinna, and it helped me a lot.
Q: Wagner said Fátima Toledo told the three of you that "you should find yourself in the role." He thought it would be a piece of cake but found it very difficult. Did you bring any of yourself to this character or was it too far removed from anything you've done?
AB: It's far away from what I've done or who I am. But I think I bought sweetness to the character, a childlike quality that she still has even though she's now a young woman. Even though she's a hooker, everything that's sexual has something sweet about it, something pure or non-vulgar.
If you have a character so challenging, you have to reveal yourself. You go for it and discover a lot about yourself. It was so natural because we'd done so much rehearsal. When I say natural, I mean it was Karinna, it wasn't me.
Karinna is a character who is alone in the world, so she fights to survive. She needs to take care of herself. I don't have that in my life, thank God. I have my family. But she has fear and I have fear—I had fear to portray Karinna. It was really painful because while Fátima is amazing, she is a really intense and difficult person to work with. She makes you dig deeper and deeper into yourself and sometimes you suffer in order to do good work.
Q: Was it important to dye your hair blond to play Karinna?
AB: It helped play the part because I'd look in the mirror in the morning before going to the set, and I'd see it's not me. Looking at myself in the mirror for three months with that blond hair, I became her. It was such a strong change. It definitely helped me portray her because I understood her better.
It was part of who she was. She's one of the girls who dream of looking like a Hollywood movie star or someone who sings on the American dance music they listen to. She probably thinks she's sexier and more glamorous because she has blond hair. A lot of girls in Lower City have that look. In fact, Karinna was based on a girl who had dyed her hair.
Q: Mandy Moore told me during an interview about her character in "American Dreamz" (read interview...) that she changed her hair from blond back to brunette the moment shooting stopped on the film. How about you?
AB: Yeah! I changed it back immediately, too. Nothing against the color, but I didn't like it on me. It was in the script to be blond, but I asked if I had to dye my hair because it destroys it to do that.
Q: Do you think these three lovers could be played by actors in their 40s?
AB: I think it could be anyone. But Sérgio chose these three characters because he was curious about the young people who inhabit Bahia nowadays. He said there are lots of Karinnas, Decos and Naldinhos in Salvador.
Q: Sérgio has said he's a fan of François Truffaut, whose characters often made vain attempts at communicating their love or anything else. In "Lower City," the characters communicate almost exclusively through sex.
ImageAB: I think it's done sexually because Bahia people don't feel shy--if they're horny and want to have sex, they go for it. But I don't think this story is only about sex—it's about love and caring between these three people. The three of them are lonely in the world, and while she is drawn to the men for sex, she also is attracted to their friendship and love and being part of a family, things she never got before in her life.

Q: But these are people who would never just sit around and talk—they are always communicating their feelings physically.

AB: Sérgio wanted to show the sensuality and sexuality, and not have the characters hold back when they're feeling that. But I think they do talk as well, on the boat and at other times. Maybe a little.

Q: Do you think Karinna would love Deco and Naldinho separately? Or does it have to be as a pair?

AB: I think it has to be the two of them. She loves them as individuals with passion, but she really loves what they are together. She loves them both as men, but they complement each other and together they are what she loves. She can't live with only one of them because she never had in her life what they give her. I knew that from the beginning. Each of the boys would joke, "Please, please don't love him more than me."

We were all concerned and I was paying attention all the time to make sure I didn't show more love in one scene for one of them than for the other in another scene. Sérgio said it was an equilateral love triangle and everyone loved each other with the same intensity, so I had to show the same love to both of them.

Q: Do you think she tries to break them up?
AB: No. She loves that they are such loving friends—that is part of their appeal—and it's hard for her to see that she might be the reason for the rupture in their friendship. She doesn't want to break them apart. She never wants them to split.
Q: While I watch the movie, I'm thinking that these are three doomed characters because you can't end up with a woman in love with two men and their all being together. But without giving away the ending, there is a powerful metaphor when she mixes together the blood of the two men, showing how strong their bond is.
AB: Exactly, they share blood. I didn't see that the characters were fated for a bad ending. I saw that they're trying to live in the moment. They're just struggling to get together and struggling to experience this love without suffering or without anyone being lost. It's hard, but they're trying to stay alive and do the best they can to stay together.
Q: Sérgio included a cockfight in the film and I think he did that to draw a parallel between the physical acts of the human characters, whether they're having sex, which is like a painful wrestling match, or--in the case of the men--beating each other. Everything is so primal and primitive and instinctive that it's like a caveman movie in which two brutes fight for a female. I'm wondering if Sérgio ever used the word "animalistic" when directing you.
AB: Yeah. He always said he wanted to have real human beings, people who touched each other and looked each other in the eyes, and when the boys fought, he wanted that to be like two dogs or animals going at each other. Because we are animals so he wanted to portray that. The sex is not always sensual. Sérgio wanted us to show a very human but animalistic lust and desire, connecting with each other. He wanted to show truth and reality, not just show well-shot, beautiful-to-look at it sex scenes. He wanted the audience to smell it and touch it.
Q: There's sweat, blood, tears, vomit, grime, pealing paint. As a viewer you almost want to shower after certain scenes.
AB: That's right! We had an amazing cinematographer, Toca Seabra, and he tried to make it look like a documentary. Sérgio wanted a very specific language for the film, and the camera was another character, in my opinion.
Q: I was struck by the intensity of the sex scenes, due in part to the camerawork. A twosome seems like a threesome and a threesome seems like a foursome because the cameraman is right on top of you with a hand-held camera. Toca Seabra's so close that you're not always completely in the frame. When you saw the dailies were you surprised at how close he was to you?
AB: Fátima told me not to watch dailies, but curiosity kills. So I'd say to Sérgio, "Please let me see just one scene." I preferred not to watch, but what I saw didn't surprise me. The sex scenes were all planned. I knew there would be a handheld camera there on top of us and there would be intense close-ups It was Sérgio's desire to do that and Toca spoke to us about it a lot, and it was great because when Sérgio started to shoot we were just doing ballet with the camera.
During those scenes we could feel the camera moving around. Toca would breathe just like us when we were excited, and if we were calm, he'd be calm. He figured that out. If we were sweating so was he. If we were crying, he was almost crying. We were all dancing together, the actors, Sérgio, Toca, and all the crew. It was such a beautiful connection. It was really special.
Q: Would you do the sex scenes more than once, perhaps all day long?
AB: We would do them a few times and Sérgio would tell us what he wanted each time. We didn't have the money to do one thing all day. This was a medium-budget film for Brazil, but there's not much money in Brazilian cinema.
Q: Do you think the nudity and steamy sex scenes will be seen as much more shocking in America than in Brazil?
ImageAB: There's a different culture in America. In Brazil they're more used to nudity. And in Europe, too. In America they're more conservative. But people in Brazil were shocked a bit by the movie. That's funny, right? Not because it is sensual but because of the strong sex scenes in it. They were shocked by how much was revealed. They weren't expecting that. But they like it. I'm curious to how Americans will respond. I think they'll like the movie, too, because above all else it's a love story.

Q: Could you do another film like "Lower City" after "Lower City" or would you need something less demanding?
AB: Not right after, but after two months of vacation? Yeah.

Q: What is next for you?

AB: I have the two films coming out. I'm reading scripts in Brazil, but I haven't signed to do anything yet. I'd also like to do a play in Brazil. I want to take acting courses, maybe in New York, maybe in London.

Q: You have a great sense of humor. Have you done comedy?

AB: No, never. It's a different language, a different kind of acting. Somebody told me that the breathing and timing is different in comedy. I'm curious about it, but I don't know if I'll do it. I love to do drama, so let's see. I'm still at the beginning so I have to study much more to pursue different characters.

Q: Do you have favorite actresses in Brazil or elsewhere?
AB: Fernando Montenegro is an amazing actress. Maria Luisa Mendonça is another Brazilian actress--I love her work. Others are Isabelle Huppert, Maggie Chung, Brenda Blethyn. Natalie Portman is a really good actress who does different things than other young actresses who are coming out. I really admire Rachel Weisz. I haven't met them—I think I'd have a heart attack if I did. No, I'm kidding.
Q: You're the only person associated with "Lower City" here in America promoting it. Where's Sérgio?
AB: Sérgio is in Sao Paolo. He's busy working and being with his little boy. Lázarus is doing a soap and theater, and Wagner did a soap and is having a kid. So everything is happening at the same time. I can speak English, so they sent me here. Sérgio said, "Go work for me." I said, "Ok." I have fun. I love it!

Video Interview:

Friday, April 13, 2012

Guy and Grace on "Lockout"

Playing in Theaters

Guy and Grace on "Lockout"

(from brinkzine 4/13/12)

Okay, in the super-charged sci-fi thriller, Lockout, which is set about sixty years from now, a wrongly-accused, resourceful former agent named Snow agrees to a deal whereby he can avoid being sentenced for murder if he sneaks into a maximum security prison in space to rescue the president's daughter, Emilie. You see, while on a good-will mission, she was taken hostage by murderous, crazed convicts during a jail break. It's essentially Die Hard in Space, but if Bruce Willis isnt available, who are you gonna call? Well, Luc Besson and his cowriters, Irish directors James Mather and Stephen St. Leger, made an inspired choice in Guy Pearce, a cult star since The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Memento, and just off his Emmy-winning turn in the mini-series Mildred Pierce. Pearce has made his mark in films with action, especially L.A. Confidential and The Proposition--where he played another character who can avoid prison by performing a dangerous mission--but he'd never played a full-fledged action hero in a blockbuster. The Aussie pulls it off admirably. What about casting the president's daughter? Leggy, blond beauty Maggie Grace, one of the original stars of Lost, had been a memorable kidnap victim in Besson's Taken, so she was an ideal choice to play Emilie--especially since she proved adept at engaging in comic banter with her leading man, like Irene Dunne and Rosalind Russell were with Cary Grant. She, too, proved to be suited for a blockbuster action film. In anticipation of the film's release on Friday, I took part in the following roundtable interviews with Pearce and Grace.
Roundtable with Guy PierceQ: What was the appeal of this character Snow that made you want to do the project?
Guy Pearce: His sense of humor, ultimately. I sat down with Luc Besson and he ran me through the project. He gave me a script and said, "There are two Irish guys that I've written this with and we're very keen to make sure this character is amusing and he finds himself amusing. He wanted to get back, I suppose, in that retro-sense to Bruce Willis-type characters we saw in action movies in the 1980s. I didn't want to go back and look at those characters and consciously plagiarize anything. I didn't want it to fall into that two-dimensional world of action heroes we've seen in the past. I found the idea interesting but I needed to make sure Snow wasn't just flippant for flippant's sake or insensitive about killing people.
Danny Peary: Do you think he is so insolent and cynical because of the negative way the world has developed?
GP: What clinched it for me about taking the part was that Snow has a humorous view of everything but only because he needs to bury some of emotions under it. I didn't delve deeply enough into human psychology because the movie didn't require it, but I think it's a combination of things that cause Snow to be as cynical as he is. His age is one. He's just getting tired of the work he is doing. And, yes, he's unhappy with the way the world is developing and the fact that we now have a prison that was thrust into outer space when obviously the prison system on earth is in dire need of reassessment. The planet is overpopulated and the prison system is clearly overpopulated. Those elements are interesting and surely Snow finds them disturbing under his armor of humor.
Q: What do you think of the idea of sending prisoners into space?
GP: It's a nerve-wracking idea, isn't it? We're all aware that the prison systems in America, and around the world, and at home in Australia don't work.
DP: Australia was founded by convicts, so its a bit similar.
GP: That's right, so you'd think we'd get it working. I think it's a sad prospect if we eventually say we have too many prisoners and not enough prisons, so start shooting them into orbit. And in the prison in the film there's no therapeutic rehabilitation, and that's the main concern. They don't learn anything while in prison. They're put to sleep so if they wake up it feels like just a minute after they committed their crimes.
Q: How much did the actors know about the world of that time?
GP: I don't know how to answer that to be honest. I don't think the guys were interested in developing the world to great length. They just wanted to make a piece of entertainment, the story being set far enough into the future to establish a different kind of world but not so far that we can't relate to it. We all had questions about how the world would be at this time, but I imagine each actor delved into it at a different level. I thought Stephen and James were interested in the dynamic between Snow and Emilie and the extreme nature of the situation more than a real analysis of what the world would be like at that point in time.
Q: Your character isn't a stealthy spy. The minute he arrives at the space prison everyone knows he's there.
GP: That was a conscious decision to play it that way. We needed a prisoner to see him when he arrives on the ship. Maybe twenty years before, he might have been stealthier, but he just doesn't care much anymore. He's there to rescue his friend but doesn't really want to be there and doesn't really care about the president's kidnapped daughter. He's gotten to that point in this life where he'd rather be sitting on a couch at home, watching sports and drinking a beer. This all falls under the guise of entertainment in that it leads to a humorous situation. But when called upon, the skills of his past--his ability to fight hand-to-hand or use equipment--is something he can do blindfolded. He's clearly a skillful guy.
Q: We've seen you play tough guys before but never with this level of physicality. What were the challenges of doing some of the action sequences?
GP: That stuff is always challenging but funny enough it was really easy for me. I'm quite agile and quite physical and very fit and I really work from a physical point of view as an actor, anyway. Even if I'm not in fight scenes or doing stunts, my physicality is very present in my mind. That plays a big part when I am trying to put together a character like Snow. I don't take an intellectual approach and a lot of my work does come from a physical place.
Q: So were you working from the outside in?
GP: I wouldn't say it's as clear as that because I'm also trying to understand him from the inside, ultimately. I get so far from the inside and then I actually have to get on my feet and start moving around before I can answer more questions about him and delve deeper into him. I can't sit around a table for weeks and weeks discussing a play or the characters in a play. I need to get on my feet and move around before finding some of those answers as to who my character is.
Q: Snows a lone action hero, a single guy, but despite the constant action he and Emilie find time to begin a relationship.
GP: Because of their differences they get off on a particular footing with each other and there's bickering from the outset. That's obviously something we've seen through the history of filmmaking; it's a nice way to create drama between two characters who we hope on some level will get together. It's an entertaining way to bring their relationship to life.
Q: Do you think that relationship will last?
GP (laughing): It probably will. He is someone who needs to be challenged and she can challenge him as well as anyone can. And he clearly finds her attractive and there's some sexual chemistry between them.
DP: Talk about Maggie Grace.
GP: Maggie was a horrible, horrible girl. No, she was a delight. She's a very smart girl and we got along really well. It was really important for us to establish the relationship of Snow and Emilie and understand we were on the same page in regard to the disdain they feel for each other and the bickering they're engaged in. So she was great. And clearly she's a better dresser than I am!
Q: How long was the shoot?
GP: Nearly three months. It was basically October, November and December of 2010.
Q: How much impact did Luc Besson have during production?
GP: He wasn't on the set at all, other than at the beginning when he talked to each department to make sure that everyone was feeling good about what they were doing and indicating that if he could help he would. But I don't think he wanted to inflict too much of his style on the film. What he impressed on me was how impressed he was with Stephen and James and the short film they'd made, Prey Alone. All the work that Luc did was in the establishing of the script and he really wanted to allow them to do what they were good at doing. Having said that, the impression that I have is that he was far more present during post-production, throughout the editing. There were a lot of visual effects that they had to render for this movie and I think Luc was present for that period.
DP: I wonder on slow-paced movies if the pace on the set is slow, so conversely was the pace on set high-octane for this high-energy film?
GP: Not really. It didn't seem too rushed. There were some days when we had to whip through it pretty quickly but there was nothing out of the ordinary. And Stephen and James are Irish guys with great senses of humor so they were always up to taking time for a laugh and I think everyone had a good time. They were are aware of what they could create in post-production in terms of rhythm and energy and intensity of the work. There were some specific shots we were doing that we knew were going to be really dynamic, but generally things were serene. The first day was calm and the first day is usually the gauge of how the set will be.
Q: Can you talk about being in Ridley Scott's Prometheus?
GP: I really can't. I'm not allowed to. Obviously what's being posted on the Internet gives an opportunity for people to get a sense of some of the philosophies and ideas behind the film. We know there's a connection with the original Alien and with all the Alien films I guess, even though I find it difficult to connect 3 and 4 with the first two Alien films. Personally, I think Alien is only one worth look at, by far the best one. To label Prometheus as a prequel limits it. Ridley expanded it and expanded it and took it outside the realm of being just a prequel.
Q: Are you comfortable going back and forth between big and small films?
GP: I don't cut the pie that way. It's about communication and ideas and whether that comes about in a really low-budget, independent movie with a first-time director or a massive studio film with a highly-established director doesn't actually matter to me because really what I'm responding to is the feeling I get when I read the story. I am aware there is a difference and am aware that from outside there is a difference but that's never the driving force for me. With Ridley on Prometheus, he's able to make the world that we're in and the set that we're on feel intimate, connected, and small and you have time to get your ideas across and have discussions with him without feeling that the monster of a historic franchise is on your shoulders. You forget all about that with Ridley. And I can feel the same with first-time director, as on this film. I worked on a film that Drake Doremus just did that doesn't have a title yet. He's the guy who won Sundance last year with his film, Like Crazy. It's very low-budget and all improvised but wonderfully communicative. So in a way they feel exactly the same to me. I've worked on bigger films that were just terrible because we didn't have contact with anybody and were just dealing with somebody's assistant's assistant. I feel at a loss in that situation but you can also feel like that on an independent film. Some directors don't have the personality to deal with actors and so they'd rather have someone else tell you their ideas. If I don't feel like I'm communicating with the head of the beast I struggle.
Q: So the director is more important than the budget?
GP: Absolutely. You can be with someone on a small budget movie who can make it seem like a big project. Or someone on a big budget movie who is under pressure not to lose millions of dollars and causes more tension than on a little indie picture. Fortunately, that wasn't the case on Lockout, which was fun to make. It all depends on the people you're working with.
Roundtable with Maggie Grace
Q: You're becoming a regular in Luc Besson films.
Maggie Grace: I was in Taken and Lockout and recently finished working with Luc for a third time, on Taken 2. I wish I learned more French back in the Lost days because it would come in handy now that I'm working with him so often. It's such a joy being in his films and working with him and the same people over and over. It sometimes feels like we're a family or a merry band of travelers going to different countries. Taken was shot in Paris. We shot Lockout in Serbia. Taken 2 was shot in Istanbul. I'm glad Luc has come back to the science fiction genre for the first time since The Fifth Element. It's such a fun world with all kinds of opportunities. There's certainly a stylized world in the film but the movie is not pretentious in any way and it doesn't take itself too seriously. There are homage moments, genre references and inside jokes, and it's the sense of humor, especially between Emilie and Snow, that drew me to this. There's a combative sexual energy between them that I loved; there's throwback kind of feel to their relationship, not just of action films of the 1980s but of classic comedies.
Q: Since youre the veteran with Besson, did you give Guy Pearce advise?
MG: In no other context can you say that Im the veteran and not Guy! I wouldn't attempt to advise Guy on working with Luc or anything else in life. He's a smart guy. I'm so happy to see him come to the action genre for a change. I'm sure he's been offered many action movies but in this one his snarky, acerbic, dry sense of humor is well utilized. We need more of that in the action genre. It was a joy working with him. I'm a big fan of his work from Memento to The Proposition. He's always incredible but has not been given his due in many ways. I think it's because he's so mercurial that he disappears into the films and isn't noticed. When I was telling my family and friends I was cast in this movie, they said, "Oh, yeah, Guy Pearce, he's the one in...what was that film?" And I'll name his movies and they'll say, "That was him?" He just disappears into his movies.
DP: What about you? Do people know you mostly from Lost?
MG: More Taken now.
Q: You learned to speak some French for Lost. Did you have to learn any special skills for Lockout?
MG: Yeah, we had some combat training and work on the wires so we had to feel comfy up there because the schedule was so crazy once we started shooting.
Q: How was it physically being in this action film?
MG: I prepped a lot. But there are limits to what the president's daughter can do--it has to be within reason, right? That she can shoot is part of a joke--she's a Democrat--and is an indication that she's surprising.
DP: Because this is an action film, did you and Guy say to each other that you had to make all of your characters' intimate scenes count?
MG: Yeah, there was a sense that you had a limited amount of time to create characters who people will really care for. You won't necessarily have a full first act with characters sitting around living rooms talking so people will know who they are. We did have some time at the beginning where we could act things out and make a lot of changes and talk about what we wanted in each scene.
Q: How did you like having short black hair from the midpoint of Lockout?
MG: That was fun, although I don't know if I'll get my next haircut from Guy. We had a wig obviously but he may have gotten a few slices in there.
Q: Your characters don't develop much during the movie. So did you talk about a background story with Emilie from before she went on her mission in space?
MG: Yeah, Stephen and James had developed the story for a while, so they did have an idea of the lives the characters came from. We didn't cut anything from the script at the beginning.
DP: After the one female hostage is released, Emilie is the one female character left. So what was it like being the one female surrounded by actors and men in the crew?
MG: Luckily we had a pretty bad-ass producer named Leila Smith, so we could hang. She's quite amazing. There were also Serbian ladies on set as part of the crew. But yeah it was largely a male environment, which is a good portion of what my life has become.
Q: What do you want people who see this movie to take away from it?
MG: You know, if I'm going to be really honest, if you're looking for a message film, look elsewhere. It's really unabashedly a good time. It's unapologetic about that. It's a fun romp and a popcorn movie. And it's funny. That's what I was excited about when I read the script. Yes, it's a sci-fi action thriller, but it's funny.
Q: When you do something that is quiet and introspect and something like this when it's not that introspective, which is more of a challenge?
MG: I cried after gym class in middle school and was kind of Maggie Graceless so action movies always provide bigger challenges for me, although they are fun to make. It's fun to do gun training at the range or horseback training or work on wires. It does really inform me as a person. If I could do an action movie every time I have a breakup in a relationship, it would be wonderful. It's easier for me doing action than before because I'm working with the same people. I felt safe and there was a sense of community and we had a great stunt team. So if a more kick-ass heroine who comes along, I'll be prepared.

Q: In Taken you were the kidnapped daughter who didn't do much; but in Lockout the kidnapped daughter gets to fight some. Are you hoping at some point to play the person who does the rescuing? Would you like to be a kick-ass action hero?
MG: I think that would be fun. I don't know if it's my goal in life but I'm having a lot of fun making action movies. It's kind of new for me because I was a Jane Austen-Jane Eyre girl growing up. My family is getting a kick out of this. I would love to play more empowered characters, maybe like Laura Croft Tomb Raider.
Q: Talk about Taken 2, where you do get to be the rescuer.
MG: We just wrapped about a month ago. It was crazy having Liam, Famke Janssen, and myself back. It was almost five years that we shot the first one, so that's a long time to wait for a sequel. It's really interesting what they've done. What happens is driven by a personal vendetta. The body count in the first one was thirty-seven and that did have consequences. In this one my character's parents are taken so I have to help free them. Trust me that it does make sense, it's not a coincidence. My character doesn't suddenly morph into a Nikita. Of course, I have dark hair there too. When she changes her hair color at the airport her actions change. She's a young girl who tries to cope with the circumstances. She's her father's daughter and rises to the occasion because she has the most compelling reason to do so.
Q: What about The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2?
MG: We blocked shots for the installments together. I haven't seen it. I again play Irina Denali, a vampire, who through a misunderstanding, is a villainess.
Q: Is there anything else on the horizon?
MG: I did a little film called Decoding Annie Parker, which is about finding a cure for cancer. I have a supporting role but it was something I really wanted to be part of. I said that whatever role they needed me to play, I'd be there.
Q: Will there be a sequel to Lockout?
MG: You never know. It was a lot of fun to make.