Friday, May 31, 2013

Moving to the Left when Traveling to The East

Playing in Theaters

Moving to the Left when Traveling to The East


In Zal Batmanglij's political thriller, The East, the second feature film he's written with rising star Brit Marling, the young actress plays Sarah, the prize recruit for a security firm that protects major, often disreputable corporations.  The first big assignment she's given by her dynamic boss, Sharon (Patricia Clarkson), is to infiltrate an anarchist  eco-terrorist group called the East.  This extremist freegan, underground collective has been targeting companies that are callously putting people's lives at risk with their products or polluting the environment.  While gathering Intel, she finds herself attracted to the charismatic Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), inspired by the dedicated Izzy (Ellen Page), and seduced by the communal living, and she wins them over by participating in the group's dangerous, subversive "jams."  She comes to question the East's eye-for-an-eye tactics that endanger individuals--as well as her own values.  Will she side with Sharon or Benji or take her own path?  In anticipation of the film's release this weekend, I took part in the following critics roundtables with, first, Marling and Clarkson, and, second, Skarsgard and Page.  I note my questions.

Roundtable with Brit Marling and Patricia Clarkson
Q: Brit, in the press notes it says that before you and Zal Batmanglij wrote the screenplay for The East, you two actually spent time experiencing the freegan lifestyle, including dumpster diving.  So how much in your movie is fabricated and what real-life experiences made it into the screenplay?

Brit Marling: The East collective was totally made up, we never met anybody like those people.  Although certainly we were inspired by our experiences in regard to their philosophy and how they live--squatting, harvesting food from dumpsters, train-hopping. For a summer, Zal and I did and saw all those things.  It is a very hard lifestyle, you can’t romanticize it, but also there's so much meaning and feeling in it. There's something beautiful about living as a tribe and sharing everything. I think that's conveyed in the film [in how we portray the East]. But the culture jams they think up were all made up.
            What isn’t made up, oddly, is all the corporate crimes that happen in the movie. There really is a company that dumps coal slurry and arsenic that was ending up in bathtubs and kids were getting tumors. That’s real. That stuff about pharmaceutical companies was pulled from a PBS special about how people were taking certain prescription drugs and having adverse reactions. One woman took pills to prevent a sinus infection ended up in a wheelchair.  And the BP spill happened when we were making the movie, so we put that into the movie. You have to feel frustrated when watch the BP oil spill happen, and see that they get slapped on the wrist with a fine that they could pay in a week.

Sharon (Patricia Clarkson) wants the confused Sarah (Brit Marling) to put her head on straight
Patricia Clarkson: I'm from Louisiana and my dream is for the really big guys to go down. Because somebody has to. Texas just filed their big lawsuit, Louisiana has so many lawsuits against that damn company. Nobody’s backing down. But you look at what just happened at that factory in Bangladesh, and what we're wearing may have been made there. So we all have blood on our hands at every moment of our lives, and how do we stop that?  And the pharmaceutical companies...

BM: It’s complicated; it’s not like we can be against all pharmaceuticals because of course a lot of drugs save people’s lives. But there are some companies that are driven strictly by profit.  

PC: We’re all part of it and it’s hard to give it up.

Q: Do you think you could keep up that freegan lifestyle like Brit?

PC: Could I do the dumpster diving? Could I live like that?  No, I’m way too spoiled. I’m 53 years old so probably the only thing I could do is go camping.

BM (laughing): It’s hard to be a vegan in New Orleans.

Q: Brit, did that experience you had as a freegan stay with you while you were playing Sarah?

BM: I still think about it all the time. When you have an experience like that, it changes you and I don’t think Zal and I will ever quite go back to being the people that we were. It really widens your perspective and you can never really close it again.  It is hard for any of us to figure out how to lives our lives and be accountable so that we don't help oppress people in other parts of the world that we've never met or thought about. It’s hard to break away. Modern life can be really alienating and I'm frustrated by things and I think a lot of what we wrote in the movie is a reflection of that. 

Q: The East is a group of anarchists, yet we see throughout the movie that it can be very oppressive in some ways. There's a certain amount of conformity that shows, yet they’ve got these ideals in regard to freedom and individualism. Talk about creating these characters within this collective.

BM: I guess it’s true that whenever people come together in a group, a kind of groupthink takes over. Even if you’re on the fringe or the outside and promoting freedom of behavior [and individual thought], you still tend to assimilate with the people around you. So in the group, there’s a similar way they dress and talk about things. I think that stems from their politics. What I find interesting about some of these anarchists is that their activism manifests itself not through direct action but in the way they live their lives. They get off the grid, don't use standard energy sources, harvest their food from what our culture sees as waste. None of it– the make-up or clothing or things--are the trappings of this culture. But you’re right that this can become, in and of itself, its own rule book. I think some of that comes from the strong focus and persistence of their mission, which is to wake up people. And part of that includes trying to live in a way that keeps them awake themselves.

Q: It’s interesting that the characters in the film on both sides came from privileged backgrounds.

PC: Yes.  At a certain point everyone assimilates; you all kind of reach the same high or low water mark, eventually. We do all kind of merge with our surroundings, and our surroundings will ultimately dictate our actions.

Danny Peary: Do you think that when Sharon was Sarah's age she was much like Sarah, but made a conscious decision to go to the right instead of the left?

PC: Possibly, but I think she’s always kind of been who she is, which is a woman on a journey to reach the top. I think she made a conscious decision and was willing to do whatever she had to do to get there.

Q: Brit, when you were writing Sarah, did you devise her moral compass first and then work from the inside out?

BM: Yeah, I think what’s interesting about what Patricia just said about Sharon, is that there’s a desire for Sarah to follow her to the top. Sarah looks up to Sharon for having the tunnel vision and persistence to get to the corner office and be the head of the company.  I believe that’s where Sarah's mind is set on reaching, but her moral compass is set in a different direction. She doesn't realize it until the moment she calls her boss and says, I think a bunch of innocent people are about to hurt, and Sharon says to not interfere because they aren't their clients.  

PC: I think our moral compasses can be reset at any moment. We all think we have a very set moral compass. I like to believe I do. But then, tomorrow I could wake up and be on the front page of the New York Post!

DP: There’s a quote in the press notes in which the filmmakers say that The East "isn’t an 'issues' movie or a 'political' movie." I disagree–it is an issues movie, in terms of what you just said about accountability. Brit, can you expand on that?

BM: We didn’t think we could make something didactic, because we didn't know any of the answers. Often when you’re making an issues movie, it’s because you have an idea for a solution. We didn’t, although we may indicated some mechanism for the cure.  However, we believed it was interesting to make something that provokes the dialogue that we’re all having, just talking about these things. I think that’s all we were hoping to do. That’s why they’re saying the film is a thriller rather than an issues movie.  We didn’t want it to be a polemic, we wanted it to be about emotion.  For instance I think there’s a real mother-daughter relationship between Sharon and Sarah, and in the rooftop scene in which Sharon rushes off in a helicopter, we want you to see, more than anything, the daughter looking up at her mother, and feeling unsure.

DP: Talk about how Sharon, her surrogate mother, and Benji, her lover, pull Sarah in opposite directions.

BM: We’d always thought that the movie relied on Sharon being as charismatic and sexy and alluring as Benji. These two forces in her life had to have equal power or the movie would feel weighted one way or the other. She has to be as drawn in by both.

DP: After a break, do you think Sarah would go back to the East if she weren’t attracted to Benji?

BM: I think she goes back because she wants to figure things out. Is this person that I’m in love with  willing to compromise or change? Is he open to changing from the way he sees the world and meeting me halfway? Sarah is very interested in a lot of his and the East’s perspective, but she feels differently about the means to the end. Benji believes in an eye for an eye, that’s just the person he is. Sarah doesn’t think that harming even one person is okay while in pursuit of some kind of awakening. I think she goes back to the house to find that out and realizes very quickly that he’s not going to change.

DP: If she didn’t love him, would she have gone back to the house anyway? Would it be the same if only the others were there?

BM: I think she would leave her job and go her own way, but I am not sure if she would go back to the collective.

DP: She does show that she will take her own way.

Sarah (Brit Marling) and Benji (Alexander Skarsgard) are drawn to each other
Q: What was that mansion location like?

BM: That house was crazy.  It was in the middle of downtown Shreveport, with cars going by all the time. It looks like a mystical mansion in the woods, It was a former alternative lifestyle nightclub, all black and gold paint, but the production designers who designed Beasts of the Southern Wild, Zal and the DP transformed that place.

PC: I was hoping when I was approached to do the movie that it would shot in New Orleans.  But I was told it would be close, in Shreveport. I love Shreveport but people don’t understand that if you’re in Shreveport, you might as well be in New York, because the distance between New Orleans and Shreveport is just vast.

BM: It is vast, but we chased Patricia. I don’t know how Zal got to her agent, but it was just like, please will she do this movie? I’d been the biggest admirer of her work from High Art days. When Patricia said she would do it, Zal and I jumped up and down and ran around and screamed. We were so excited. We had a really good time together.

Q: Brit, You get to develop projects that you are in, which not a lot of actors do. If you don’t like the scripts that you get you can just sit down and write one tailored to you.  

BM: It’s so competitive out there.  There are so many fiercely talented female actresses.

PC: I was having that exact thought two days ago. There are so many talented women in our business. Young, middle-aged, older. The span is astonishing.

BM: I write out of necessity.  I've got to write not only to get yourself a job, but also because of all the woman whose work I love. Julia Ormond has a small but pivotal role in The East and she really makes you believe that her character has been poisoned. There are not enough women writing for all the great actresses like Julia, who should be doing really challenging, cool stuff.

PC: Sadly, if you  look at the movies that are playing, eighty percent of the cast is men, and there are only roles for one actress, maybe two. Certainly the independent world is different, but it's hard find roles that suit us. But, Brit, you know you are a shining star, and that most women who look like you aren’t writing their own scripts.

Roundtable with Alexander Skarsgard and Ellen Page

Standing: Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgard
Q: Had either of you seen or heard of Brit’s work before hearing about this project?

Ellen Page: We were both huge fans of the previous movies she made with Zal, Sound of My Voice and Another Earth, and her performances were just astounding. And then to know the story of how she and Zal entered this industry was incredibly inspiring. I love their work, and the moment you meet them, their passion and their creative intent and their purpose for telling stories is palpable and infectious. I wanted to be part of their body of work.

Alexander Skarsgard: I was already a fan when I read the script. I was going to go to New York right after we wrapped a season of True Blood, but I would have three months off so I was reading scripts for that time. I got this and it was such an amazing, intelligent script. It wasn’t clear who the good guys and bad guys were, it was very murky, and I felt it raised some interesting moral questions. Where do you stand and how far are you willing to go for a cause? I always want to take on projects that are fun and feel new.  It’s a discovery, you know, rather than feeling repetitive. That gets me creatively excited. I read it on the fourth of July, when I was in San Diego, and was blown away by it. I called my agent that day and said I wanted to meet Zal and Brit. They work in LA, so I jumped in my car and drove up to Los Angeles that day and met with them. I didn’t know them personally, but after meeting them and feeling their energy and enthusiasm, and hearing their story about their backgrounds and how they got started, I just felt, Please let me work with you guys!

Q: Brit and Zal lived the freegan lifestyle for a while. How much did that spill over onto the set?

AS: A couple of the members of the East were played by real anarchists from New Orleans.  They came up to Shreveport and lived with us and were part of the group, basically. They were in the film, playing themselves in a way. Those are people in the group who don’t look like they’re from Hollywood.

EP: They have real tattoos.

AS: Three of them were up there with us for two months, living with us, and it was fantastic.  When we did that sequence, when Sarah returns and we’re all dancing, it was such an amazing night.  The ones living with us brought their friends up that night.  Freegans, anarchists, who would sing and play. They were great musicians.  They had this recorded song they wanted to use in the film, and they would stop, pause, play. It didn’t quite work. Then between two set-ups they just started playing and we started dancing and Zal saw this, and he was like, "Fuck the take, let’s do it for real."

Q: What is your character Benji's perspective on the fact that you have this anarchist organization that espouses ideas of freedom and individuality, and yet there’s a groupthink, a conformity that they have?

AS: Benji's a leader although he’s very adamant about there being no leader in the group. He hates cult leaders, because that means you follow someone blindly; whatever they say you believe and you follow.  So he tries to avoid becoming that. That’s why when Sarah, talks about him and his followers, he’s says, "Well, I don’t have any followers. It’s a true democracy. We vote on everything." I think to him it’s all about figuring out the best structure and how to be efficient and to do the most damage--and by doing that, the most good.

Q: Ellen, your character Izzy's attitude is: conform to the group or be cast out. Where is she coming from and how does she justify what she does?

EP: I think a lot of the time in groups that I’ve been around, the lifestyle itself is just what people really, truly believe in. They really believe in living as they do and creating no waste and taking accountability for their actions. So of course it creates this sort of conformist aesthetic.  Obviously Izzy went through a huge, huge shift, as I think a lot of people do who wind up in these environments and have this kind of philosophy. I think she has profound guilt and anger, and that's what becomes externalized. But I don’t think that ever takes away the validity of witnessing atrocities and then wanting to do something about it. I think there’s a validity in what these people are angry at. Yes, a lot of it is personal and internal, and obviously there’s an emotional connection to it [including Izzy with her rich father] but I think as a human being you can’t separate yourself from what you know is wrong.

AS: When it is personal, that sort of opens your eyes.  That's true in Izzy’s case and Benji’s as well. Money changed not only his relatives but also corrupted him, and that scared him.

DP: Why do your characters--especially Izzy who is very suspicious at first--come to accept Sarah?

AS: I think Benji is intrigued pretty early on. There’s something about her.  As I said, with his personality, he could easily become a cult leader, and that's why he's so adamant that they vote on everything.  And he’ll ask everyone in the room for their opinions.  She shows up and is tough and asks difficult questions that he can't answer. He likes and respects that.

EP: Izzy is at first obviously extremely confused and reluctant to accept her.  Who the hell is this girl and why are we letting her in here?  But then when it comes to the moment that they need someone to help them in an extremely intense operation that could have terrible consequences if they are caught, and she not only volunteers to do it but does it with great success.  When Sarah helps them pull off the jam against the pharmaceutical company Izzy is won over.

DP: That’s the practical reason she accepts Sarah, but doesn't she also develop an emotional attachment to her?

EP: I don’t know how emotional it is. I think it’s emotional only in the sense that others have said they’d step up to the plate and then let them all down. People act like they’re committed but when it comes to breaking the law they won’t follow through with it. And to have her be so committed and follow through with it for the cause – obviously she has an incredibly emotional attachment to the cause–that wins Izzy over because that's what she cares about the most.

AS: For Benji, I think there’s a deeper and more meaningful reason for him why he wants Sarah there. That’s revealed at the end of the movie.

DP: How would you summarize your characters?

AS: Benji does things in the way he believes will have the most impact--the most effective way.  I think just being passive and being sedated is what scares him most. For him, any kind of awakening is good.

EP: Izzy is pretty militant. The more civil disobedience the better. She's pretty angry and thinks and thinks the group should take it to the next level. She believes in eye-for-an-eye justice.

director Zal Batmanglij Photo:DP

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Archive: The Perfect Match: Director Lian Lunson and Her Subject Leonard Cohen

Find Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man on Video

The Perfect Match: Director Lian Lunson and Her Subject Leonard Cohen

(from 6/22/06)

Lian Lunson

In late January 2005, a one-of-a-kind tribute concert was held at the world-famous Sydney Opera House to conclude the Syndey Festival, an annual three-week event dedicated to the arts. Rockers and folk artists such as Nick Cave, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Kate's supertalented kids Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Beth Orton, Linda Thompson, Linda's rising-star son Teddy Thompson, and Jarvis Cocker were among the 13 performers on stage that memorable night, singing thirty-one songs—including such classics as "Suzanne" and "Chelsea Hotel"-- that had been written and recorded by Leonard Cohen during his almost 40 years as a pop culture icon.

Lian Lunson, who had acted in Australia before coming to Hollywood in the 1980s, filmed the occasion, shot additional footage of Bono and The Edge talking about the influence Cohen had on U2's music, and managed to record intimate conversations with the reclusive Cohen about his poetry, songwriting, and unusual life (including how this Jew became an ordained monk). She inserted old photographs and footage from Cohen's past, mixed in some expressionist footage of her own to capture the haunting mood of much of Cohen's work, and topped it all off with a historic coupling in New York of Cohen and U2 on "Tower of Song."

The result is her first theatrical feature, "Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man," which--as she pointed out prior to the film's New York City opening at the Film Forum--is more than a concert film and something other than a typical documentary.
Q: What part of Australia are you from?

LL: I'm from rural Victoria, the countryside outside of Melbourne. I moved to Sydney to go to drama school, which I attended for three and a half years. Then I did a lot of theater and starred in a TV-movie ["Army Wives" (1986)] and a feature film ["The Big Hurt" (1985)] and had a couple of smaller roles. So I was just starting to get known when I moved to L.A.

Q: Did you go to Hollywood to be an actress?

LL: Yeah, but I lost interest in about five minutes because it was much different from what I'd known. Australia had a much smaller acting environment, so we all knew each other and the few major casting directors all knew us. Even if you weren't getting paid, there were a lot of theater groups and opportunities to perform. I guess acting was my way out of Australia to come here, but it wasn't really the right thing for me to do. I'm very proactive and like getting involved in things rather than sitting around and waiting. I grew impatient and went into production.

Q: Your resumé says you produced music videos for such artists as Neil Young, INXS, Pearl Jam, Public Enemy, and Dwight Yoakum. Was it because you were a music fan that you gravitated toward music videos?

No. When I first came to America I started doing work on various film sets, doing pretty much every job. As part of that I got into the producing aspect, learning how to structure budgets. The particular production company I worked for, overseeing budgets, did mainly music videos and commercials, but I left that company and started to produce on my own for various directors. I formed my own company, Horse Pictures, in 1997. I did my first video and other stuff with Willie Nelson and that led me to making the feature documentary "Willie Nelson Down Home" for PBS.

Q: How much time did you spend with him?

I ended up being in that world of his for nearly two years. I'm so hands-on in my producing that I couldn't spend that amount of time, energy and work on a project if it weren't about someone I was moved by. It was great because I was already such a huge fan of his before we met. I did the video and a short movie with him in Europe. And based on that, he asked me to do the PBS film. Now I've written a feature film that will star him, which I'm doing next. I love Willie. He's 72, but looks 40.

Q: How did you learn about the Leonard Cohen tribute concert at the Sydney Opera House?

LL: Hal Willner is a very good friend of mine. He's a well-known music producer from New York who does these great concept shows where he ingeniously puts unique people with amazing songs. It's all kinds of music. I had seen a lot of them, including the Harry Smith Project and the Randy Newman one. He told me he was putting on the Leonard Cohen "Came So Far for Beauty" concerts, beginning in Brighton, England, with an amazing group of performers. The third one was in Sydney, and he said there was the possibility that it would close the annual Sydney Festival at the end of January 2005. I thought it would be great to film it, given that it was in the Opera House. But I felt I could do that only if I could include Leonard in my movie. I really wanted to make the film about him, with the songs in the concert being like chapters in his life.

Q: Do Australians embrace Leonard Cohen as much as Americans and Canadians do?

Definitely. We have fewer people there so when we take someone into our arms, pretty much everyone does. Everyone there seems to be a Leonard Cohen fan. I was always a huge music fan with eclectic, across-the-board tastes, and I came across him in the punk days in Australia, at the time of the Boys Next Door and when Nick Cave had his first band. In those days, every house you went to where there was a punk fan, that punk fan also had a Leonard Cohen record. Punk and Leonard Cohen. Today there aren't many people who don't have a Leonard Cohen album in Australia.

Q: When you were getting to know Leonard Cohen and trying to get him to be involved in your film about him, did he ask you a lot of questions about yourself?

It was just general conversation. Leonard and I would talk for hours, about everything but the film. I never talked to him much about the film. That's because after my first meeting with Leonard, which lasted six hours, when I walked away I thought that if he didn't want to partake in the film because of his perception of me, that was meant to be and I'd have to trust his decision. I would accept it was the right thing.

So I didn't push it at all and just let it take its course. And we became friends, and he'd make lunches for me and we'd talk, and then one night before we were going to meet at his house for lunch, I asked him if I could bring my camera. And he said, "Sure." So I locked in my camera, and we continued taping the types of conversations that we had prior, and we'd eat, so it was natural and easy. I filmed him at different times, including when he had a beard.

Q: What went into your decision to film him only in extreme close-up?

LL: It's just a personal choice. I was interested in his face. Also, in my Willie Nelson film everything is shot in intense close-up. It's like I'm talking to you now—that's how I see you. We're right across from each other. That's how I like to see and talk to someone; I find it to be much more intimate.

Q: After you got Leonard Cohen's blessing to go film the concert, did you worry you'd have a hard time getting financing for such a film?

LL:  Mel Gibson set me up with LionsGate. Without his support, I never would have gotten the film made, so that's why he got a producer credit. I'd known him for a long time and we'd worked together when I produced "Music Inspired by the Passion of the Christ."  Mel's got eclectic musical tastes, and I knew he was a huge Leonard Cohen fan, as well as a Nick Cave fan. Leonard is a deeply spiritual searcher, like Willie Nelson, and that's why I'm attracted to him and I'm sure that's why Mel and other men are attracted to him. Mel knows more about Leonard Cohen than anybody. I knew he had deep respect for him and would understand what I was trying to do, so he was the right person for me to go to. If anyone could help me get it made, he could.

Q: In the film's production notes, you say, "Leonard Cohen is essential." Why do you think that?

LL: He is essential because he's one of those great writers who don't come along very often. There are only a few of them who are prepared to wander out into the wilderness and ask questions. We wouldn't have the courage to go out there by ourselves, but he takes us with him. He's a deeply spiritual, funny, adventurous spirit.

Q: You have said that his poetry and lyrics are "resonant and unfathomable," that his words are "constantly reaching for something beyond what can be expressed.

LL: It's the otherness behind the things that he says that I was always attracted to. Particularly in this day and age, we are reminded that he is one of the great poets, one of the great wordsmiths that inspired the likes of Nick Cave and U2. Bono just went on record saying there would be no U2 without Leonard Cohen. He admires him that much. I'm hoping that the younger generation discovers Leonard's music, so when Bono says that it it's meaningful.

Q: I had always thought of Cohen as a lyricist for adults, but Bono says in the film that Cohen "gets you at all stages of life"—when you're young and idealistic, when your relationship is breaking apart, when you can't face the world and need something higher to comfort you.

 LL: I agree with that totally. I found Leonard when I was a teenager and many others have too. As Bono says, he taps into every moment you seem to have.

Q: You have said you wanted to explore what motivates Leonard Cohen to write. Did you learn why when you spoke to him?

 LL: What I learned about him is that even after all the years of writing, he's still such an incredible searcher. He's a searcher in the true sense of the word, and that's what motivates him in his writing, as well as how he lives his life. He mentions the first thing he wrote was when his father died, and though he doesn't even remember what it was, the element of this young boy writing a poem and putting it in his father's bowtie and burying it in the garden is so deeply symbolic and beautifully natural.  You realize that his expressions on anything really come out in his writing.

Q: Do you think his writing has changed over the years? Or does he think it has?

LL: I wouldn't answer for him. But I think his writing always has been incredibly rich and continues to be that way. His latest book of poetry is so beautiful.LL: The first time I met him I was so struck by him. When you meet somebody and they have a profound effect on you, when you walk away you have a sense of that person. That's what I was interested in portraying rather than something suited to the voyeuristic, day-to-day, information highway everyone is on. I wanted to try to capture the vastness and essence of who he is as a person through what he says in the film. That was my goal. There wasn't one thing about him I was trying to express, but I'd go to sleep at night thinking of things he said that had stayed with me and that helped shape how I cut the movie. I was hoping people would be stuck with the same things I was.

Q: Were you trying to set a haunting mood with the dark, surreal imagery that bridged the Cohen interviews and the concert foootage?

LL: Leonard comes with such grace--he fills the room with just his voice and energy—that when I pulled away from him talking, it all just dropped. I felt I had to build a world to nestle him in. So that was a lot of Super 8 footage I shot around his house; a lot was shot in Australia—the night scenes were shot in the Sydney Harbor. I wanted the film to be sort of a collage. It's not really a regular documentary with talking heads and music; it's more like a scrapbook and collage of imagery supporting this man. That's what I was working toward.

Q: Did he attend any of the concerts?

LL: No. He knew the concerts were taking place, but Leonard is very private and reclusive and doesn't partake in anything like that. However, I brought some of my footage to his house. We watched it together and he was very, very moved by the performances.

Q: Do you think he learned anything about himself from watching how people reverently perform his songs in your movie?

LL: No, he's too modest. I don't think Leonard realizes how other people are inspired by him

Q: Does he realize he's a unique talent?

LL: I don't think so.  He's so humble, he doesn't think like that.

Q: How did you feel watching the concert?

LL: The concert was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen. It was so beautiful and in my country, so it was a really gorgeous experience. That concert was like how you should see music. Everyone was standing off in the wings watching each other, and you could feel the joy that they all had together singing those words. It really was incredibly special to see that. And I remember while watching it that I was wondering how I'd make it work because I couldn't use it all because the concert was much too long.

Q: When I was watching the film I was thinking how performers with different styles, from Antony to the McGarrigle Sisters, can all do Leonard Cohen songs, and have them sound like their own. For instance, all drew from Cohen, yet a few had a Lou Reed bent, while Martha Wainwright beautifully singing "The Traitor" sounded at times as if she were doing Steven Foster, whose tunes are a strong influence on the entire McGarrigle clan. I've read that you think the different performances are a collage of Cohen himself.

LL: When I got to Sydney and met all the singers and saw them performing, I felt like they were a patchwork quilt of Leonard Cohen. They each represented some part of him in some way that I had sensed when I met him. I felt, wow, they all had inside them an essence of Leonard Cohen, who is such a complex individual. I felt there was some part of him in all of them. That was part of their being such big fans of his as well. I was trying to capture the essence of them, so it wasn't my mindset to think that they were being influenced by anyone other than Leonard Cohen and their own styles. I felt Martha's version of "The Traitor" was so unique. You know, it was done all in one take. When someone is singing so great you don't go anywhere else. The one cut is during a musical interlude, when Leonard explains the song, and then we cut right back to her.

Q: Talk about the camera placement.

LL: This was a very important concert for the Sydney Festival and the audience. I wasn't able to light the show, I wasn't allowed to be seen, and I wasn't able to get into the Opera House and place my cameras until about an hour before the show. So I had to run by the seat of my pants and do the best I could. Given the nature of the Sydney Festival and that it was their show, I really respected the limitations. It was right for them to not want me seen, because it was a very personal, intimate show and I would have been annoyed if I was in the audience and was distracted by filmmakers. So I was grateful to even be allowed to shoot.
I didn't have a lot of room to try different things with camera angles. I had four cameras, very, very basic. Personally that was fine with me because I'm not really into those big shoots. I was beside the main camera in the TV booth, so I was able to tell the cameraman exactly what was needed and he got a lot of footage from the front. I had my main DP down on the floor in the dark getting close-up side shots. I was very confident that with those two cameras that I would get it covered. I also I had one camera by the mixing desk up the back, and another above, which I didn't use because I didn't have enough time to plan it out.

Q: What about mixing color footage and black and white footage?
LL: The choice was usually based on how it looked. For instance, I thought Nick Cave singing "Suzanne" was better in black and white. And there was a group shot of them rehearsing that was in black-and-white. That was shot on my small DVX-100 camera, and because of the lighting in the room it looked better in black-and-white. I didn't have a plan although I knew I wanted to use black-and-white if it worked in context of what I was doing aesthetically. When I was cutting the film, I could see how it worked. So we were doing the opening credits in black-and-white, setting that up with some color, and blending it in so it wasn't "Oh, my gosh, why have we suddenly gone to black-and-white," and then letting it come in periodically.

Q: All through the film I wondered if U2 was going to perform and if Leonard Cohen was going to perform, because they weren't at the Sydney concert. Did you know all the time that they would perform at the end?

LL: No, that was an organic thing that happened. I was putting the film together and trying to work out how I was going to make it and how it would be a cohesive piece. I called Bono first. I had met him 18 or 19 years ago when I had just moved to Los Angeles and they were doing "Rattle and Hum" and living there. I didn't really know anybody at the time and met him through a friend of mine and we became instant friends and the whole band became like family to me. And we've been close friends ever since. I knew how much the band revered Leonard Cohen, so I asked him, "Will you say something in the movie about him? Will you let me interview you in the movie?" And he said, "Or course I will."

Then one day, after I'd pretty much cut the whole film together, Leonard and I were having coffee and I just said, "It's sort of weird that we have all these people performing, but we don't have you." And he said, "Well, I don't have a band. And I haven't performed in near on fourteen years." It was the words "I don't have a band," that struck me. And I thought, "Well, I know a band." I wondered, "Maybe if I asked them, he might be willing to sing with them." So I ran home and called Bono and said, "You know, there's a possibility that Leonard may perform if he had a band, and I don't know any other bands…" And he said, "Are you asking us to be his backing band?" And I said, "Yes." And he said, "You know we would be honored, we would do anything." That was their dream.

Bono was incredibly busy with their tour and everything else he does, so I fell into The Edge's corner. So during the tour, he had the band rehearsing "Tower of Song" at all of their sound checks across America. When they got to New York to play at Madison Square Garden, they had one afternoon off. So I brought Leonard to New York for that day, and we used all their sound engineers and crew to record it.

Q: The final sequence in which Leonard Cohen sings with U2 has a surreal feel, almost like when The Band sings on the soundstage at the end of "The Last Waltz." Were you affected by that film and is it a hindrance for all directors of concert films to always have to take that picture into account?

LL: To tell you the truth, I've never seen "The Last Waltz." I like a lot of the '70s concert footage. I love "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" and "The Concert for Bangladesh." I like when it's shot close-up and you feel like you're there. It's like the boxing footage of "When We Were Kings." I want to get lulled into the experience. I hate a lot of cutting and editing--it just does my head in. I hate cranes and dollies and never use them. That stuff is just a waste of money. I want it to be intimate and basic.

Q: What was the feeling when you were recording Leonard Cohen and U2?

LL: You have never seen happier people than everyone in that room that day. Even the crew was ecstatic. Crew members are usually tired on their day off, but they were all like schoolboys. Seeing U2 like schoolboys, too, was very special. They were feeling it was a remarkable day. So the energy was so high.

Q: And were you like a schoolgirl?

LL: Absolutely! I had to work and focus, and didn't have much time to do what I needed to do and keep that together, but it was hard not to be overwhelmed by what I was watching. When I turned the camera off, the excitement continued, it didn't let up. We didn't do that many takes, and everyone would look at each other and want to do it again. It was really a beautiful group to be part of that day.

Q: Since you're Australian and the Leonard Cohen tribute concert was filmed in the Sydney Opera House during the Sydney Festival.  I'm surprised it hasn't been distributed there yet.

LL: I have gotten so many inquiries from Australia because, as I said, Leonard Cohen is so popular there. It was picked up for distribution by Roadshow Pictures.  I think what they're going to try to do, which is a really great idea, is to tie in its premiere to the next Sydney Festival in January. It would be so nice to give it an outing outside by the Opera House, surrounded by water. In that way, we can remind people that the concert did take place in the Opera House. Fingers crossed, that's what they'll do before they have its regular release. For its L.A. premiere, it's going to be part of the L.A. Festival and be screened outdoors. It's that kind of movie.

Q:: What about the soundtrack album?

LL: The concert was over three hours long, and it was so hard deciding what music I had to leave out because everything was so great. I'm glad to say that all the songs in the movie are on the CD, plus a lot more that I couldn't fit in. So if your favorite Leonard Cohen song isn't in the movie, you'll find it there. It will be coming out on July 17.


Hisham Zaman on Before Snowfall

TriBeCa Film Festival

Hisham Zaman on Before Snowfall


It has been a month since I saw Hisham Zaman's Before Snowfall at the TriBeCa Film Festival, but I can't stop thinking about it.  I still think about Siyar (Taher Abdullah Taher), a teenager in a village in Kurdistan who recently lost his father and naively promises his older sister in marriage to cement relations with a neighboring family.  I still think of how she runs off with the young man she loves and he travels from Iraq to Turkey to German to Norway to kill her and restore his family's honor.  I still think of how he meets and takes a young girl, Evin (Suzan Ilir), on his journey and learns about love.  In the six years it took Zaman, who was born in Iraq but lives in Oslo, to complete his film, he made it his mission to create real characters who would have resonance with people all over the world.  He succeeded, brilliantly. I did the following interview with the dedicated director during the festival.
Hisham Zaman Photo: DP

Danny Peary: For the audience to experience the pain and the suffering in your film, I think you created characters you loved. After investing six years in the making of this film and taking an epic journey along with Siyar and Evin, did you feel that you had to experience their emotions as well?
Hisham Zaman: I felt every moment with them, including every moment of grief. I felt pain and delight and all the mixed feelings they had on their journey. I felt a responsibility to not only make a good film but make my characters human. Because I met them--I went to their homes and met with their families. I felt a responsibility as a director to really feel the suffering, all the emotions that come with this subject. I felt that I had to ask for that extra shot to be sure that we had it, so that the portrait of this boy would be realistically served. I felt myself also in a kind of warzone, we had to survive in severe conditions, because we were shooting in geographically hard, harsh places. For instance, the film begins and ends in Kurdistan, where Siyar’s family lives.  It’s the part of Iraq that has suffered through many decades war, and suddenly we want to make cinema there! I felt all this pain.
DP: When you finally finished the film in the editing room after so many years, was it a happy or devastating moment for you?
HZ: I had a feeling of emptiness, and wondered how the film would be perceived and if it would be understood.  I had the feeling that I would make it better if I had one day more.  That’s how I feel every day while making a film. I go to the set in the morning and I ask myself, “Will I make this scene good by the end of the day?”?
DP: You now have to do a quick movie to get it out of your system. Six years is long time!
HZ: Yeah, yeah.  But it’s important to make clear that during those six years I was concurrently shooting another feature film. But I can say that I had this film in my head for six years because I wanted it to be the one huge film that I’d be known for in the world. That’s why I paid so much attention to the details an audience doesn’t think about. I did much of the music that plays in the background.  And Siyar’s breathing inside the oil tank?  That’s me. I felt these things were necessary for me to do, because I needed to make a film that I can stand for, not just today but also in ten years.
Siyar is wrapped up so he can be smuggled out of Iraq in an oil tanker

DP: You went to different places, it was an epic journey, but did you try to film it chronologically?
HZ: We did. But we had a weather problem in Norway, and the snow we needed was gone when we were supposed to shoot there. So we waited another year to shoot in Norway. That’s why we shot the opening sequences in Kurdistan, and then we went to Istanbul and Germany, before we finally shot in Oslo. That created a bit of continuity trouble for us, particularly in how we edited scenes with Suzan as the girl.  It was challenging to maintain the continuity psychologically because Taher and Suzan are not trained actors. We had to make them remember.
DP: Did you work with the two of them for two years straight?
HZ: No, I worked with them on the days we shot the film. We didn’t rehearse much. Actually, the rehearsal is the film. Often what you see is what I saw for the first time. So we had a harsher production. If I’d prepared them so that every line was delivered perfectly I wouldn’t have caught the reality of the way they said things. In the morning we took care of the technical stuff such as the camera set up, and at the same time I’d work with the actors. I never give them a script.  I gave them the idea of who they are and who they’re going to be on this journey, but I never told them which scene was coming after.  And I never told Taher what was going to happen to Siyar at the end of the journey. So everything was a surprise for the actors; sometimes they liked the surprise, sometimes they were confused by it. But all in all, the result was effected by this way of working.
DP: When the fleeing Siyar runs down the hill and smack into tree, was that scripted?
HZ: No, but Tahar saw a tree at the bottom and ran into it on purpose.  He is physically strong, he participates in a kind of wrestling.
DP: In the next scene there is bruise by Siyar’s eye.  Was that real?
HZ: No, that was makeup. I get this reaction from people, that they feel the pain.
Siyar's sister refuses to adhere to his command to marry someone she doesn't love

Marius Matzow Gulbrandsen won the Best Cinematography prize at TFF

Siyar contemplates a honor killing of his sister

DP: How old were you when you went to film school?
HZ: I was 26.
DP: I ask you’d that because your age while making conceiving this film comes to mind when I think of what I think is a key moment in the film. It’s at the beginning when the men of the village tell Siyar he’s a man.  Of course, he’s a boy but believes them. Did your youth affect this whole film? If you were older, if you were 50, would you have made it?
HZ: It’s a good question, because I was thinking then that I should be making easy films and do the difficult personal film when I am fifty.
DP: No, I think Before Snowfall is a young person’s film.
HZ: It was an idea I’d had since film school, but I never was able to put it together in this way when I was that young. I needed the experience of making short films, and to see the struggle with my own eyes, and collect pictures, videos and all this material to study so I could portray it well.
DP: As I said, Siyar is a boy.  The way I see it is that all the men in his world let him down.  All that honor stuff is forced on him by older men.
HZ: Yeah, but it’s also normal in the Middle East. You take responsibility as a child. Sometimes it can be for a simple reason, such as your father being ill and not getting any benefit from any state.  Then the boy in the family has to take action. The boy’s intention is to make sure his family survives, even sacrificing his education for his family. This is something that happens not only in small villages but in the cities. And today, it doesn't happen only in the Middle East, but it could happen in China or in the United States. I see a lot of poor people in this country. This film is like an examination of this boy’s way of thinking when he’s in the village and then when he stand alone in the world, outside this village and circle. He makes the choice to fill shoes that he can’t fill. He has to be the father in the house, but the way he does it it’s not right. But by the end, you will see that this boy is not a monster. He’s a good man.
DP: I'd say we don’t need to wait until the end to see that. We see that all the way through the movie. His sister tells him early in the movie, "You don’t understand being in love." He does come to understand love through his relationship with Evin.  He changes.  
HZ: I think it’s easy for journalists to focus on the honor killing, but the film is much more than that.  It's about the landscape of culture, tradition, life, and city, how he reacts to that and learns to be the man he is. He goes out of his village like a boy, but he becomes a man in the end. But what kind of man? That’s for the audience to decide.
DP: All through the film we recognize his potential and then...
HZ: Let’s not reveal the ending. But I can say that what happens is because of choices he made.  
DP: Evin melts his heart and provides him with love and the companionship, helping him evolve from confused boy to good man.  Does she change in a good way too?
HZ: I believe so. She's going from being a thief to searching for a better life and dreaming about a boyfriend.  In the ghetto, she uses the people around her to survive. But in this boy she finds trust and she finds something that is unique. We see something in  the eyes of those two young people that makes us feel that they will take care of each other. But like him, she has her own project, to reach her father in the West.
Siyar and Evin
DP: I wonder if you've seen John Ford's classic western, The Searchers. There's a fabulous, emotional moment when John Wayne's character finds his niece who was abducted years before by Indians but instead of killing her like he'd planned and she expects, he picks her up off the ground and no longer is threat to her.  You have a similar scene in your movie.
HZ: I know The Searchers. Nobody had brought it up before. It's an honor that you talk about this.
DP: Similar scenes from an American movie and a German-Iraqi-Norwegian coproduction have the same emotional impact.  So talk about the universal themes in your movie.. What do you think people around the world should take from this?
Taher Abdullah Taher as Siyar
HZ: It’s about dignity and how a boy has to take care of his family, how he makes a physical journey, and how he recognizes his sister's love. If we used the big words, it’s also about life and death. You don’t need to have come from a specific geographical, social or political background to enjoy the film and be touched by its themes,  We see that an individual who has a destructive goal can go through a change and become a better human being. But is that enough in the film and is that enough in life?  When I was a child, I was told that if you do good, good things happen to you, and if you do bad, bad things happen to you. My Kurdish mother says, "Do something good, give it to the water, let the water take it. Just do good and feel good, that’s the important thing."  I think this is what Siyar does. I think he tries to do something really good, and he learns from the past that what he has done isn't right, but something happens to him that challenges him even more as a human being. This challenge is at the center of the film.
DP: How is it being at the TriBeCa Film Festival.  
HZ: It’s a big thing for me to be here. Suddenly the spotlight is on my film.  I love New York; I was here before at the Kurdish Film Festival, where I showed my short film, Bawke, which was at Sundance, and Winterland. And to come back here with my first feature film gives me such a good feeling. I've gotten a really good reaction, and every screening has been full and people are raising their hands to ask questions. It's important for a filmmaker to get this reaction.
DP: I was amazed by the number of extras you have in your film.  I felt I was on a trip.
HZ: That's what I hoped. We had really, really good help in many places. When the people saw they were part of something important, they wanted their names on the film. They felt this film takes on subject that they need to be talked about.
DP: Not only that, but you put your film in the water and you let it flow.
HZ: Exactly!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Star and Producer Kiki Sugino on Odayaka

TriBeca Film Festival

Star and Producer Kiki Sugino on Odayaka


 Saeko (Kiki Sugino) and daughter, fearing radiation
In the international news this month was the detection of frighteningly high levels of radiation in the groundwater two years after the tsunami and earthquake caused a near meltdown of a nuclear power plant near Fukushima, Japan.  I flashed back on one of the best and most topical films of the recent TriBeCa Film Festival, Nobuteru Uchida’s Odayaka.  (For one definition of the word Odayaka*, scroll down.)  The rare Japanese narrative film that is pointedly political, it tells the story of two young women who have strong emotional responses to the crisis in March 2011.  Neighbors who have never met, Saeko (rising Japanese star Kiki Sugino), a mother whose husband suddenly walks out, and Yukako (Yukiko Shinohara), who is happily married and would like to have a baby, don’t believe the reports by the media and government that say there is no reason to worry about radiation spreading to Tokyo.  They worry about the air and the local fish sold at the groceries.  Saeko worries about the safety of her daughter and tells others to take precautions.  But when both women speak out, they are greeted with apathy or hostility.  It’s a brave, compelling film, quite unlike any other Japanese film that has played in America and well worth seeking out. Before I saw Odayaka at the festival, I did this brief interview with Kiki Sugino, who coproduced the film as well as appearing in it.  She tells me that she is now directing her first film.
Kiki Sugino Photo: Brandon Rohwer

Danny Peary: You were born in Hiroshima, so I imagine you have thought about radiation all your life.  

Kiki Sugino: That’s true.  Every child learns about it in school.  It’s called Peace Education in Hiroshima, and then I felt I was almost forced to learn about it.  But I now realize that it’s very important to learn about it, for my grandmother.

DP: So when the deadly tsunami and earthquake happened in 2011 and the Daiichi power plant near Fukushima started leaking radiation and there was danger of a meltdown, did what you learned in school come to your mind?

KS: Yes, although I was not in Tokyo, where I live and the film takes place.  I was in Osaka, Seoul and Hong Kong from 11th to the 23rd of March at film festivals. So I was away for almost two weeks, but I was being told what was happening. 
DP: Were you worried about people back home?

KS: Of course. But when I was away from Japan, I saw a gap between what was being said by the Japanese media and the international media. 

DP: In what way?

KS: The Japanese media announced that everything at the nuclear plant was under control and there was little reason to worry about radiation outside the area. And the government said repeatedly that the current level of radiation had no immediate impact on health.  
Strangers Yukako (Yukiko Shinohara) and Saeko (Kiki Sugino) are brought together by crisis

Yukao helps Saeko get her daughter back
DP: Deliberately providing wrong information to the public.

KS: Right. The foreign media was more accurate about the radiation leaking into the atmosphere and the need for more evacuation.  The government and Japanese media had a strategy for not scaring the people.

DP: How did you get involved with the movie?

KS: I was offered the film by the director, Nobuteru Uchida.  I was given a one-page synopsis.  I liked his concept very much and thought it was very necessary film to make at this time. They’re making documentaries about what happened but it’s important to have a narrative film on this subject so many people will see it. I’m an actress and I live in Tokyo, so I wanted to make it personal.
Director Nobuteru Uchida

DP: Do you identify with your character, Saeko?

KS: It’s mixed. I could relate to her in some ways but in others she is very different.  She has a kid and her husband leaves her and wants a divorce.  So she is the only one to care of her daughter when the earthquake happens and the radiation spreads to Tokyo.

DP: Do you see this movie as a cautionary tale, a warning to people, or an angry expose against the government for not telling people their health is at risk? 

KS: It covers it all.  But I’d say most of all it is a strong warning about a potential problem.

DP: Is the potential problem a future nuclear plant leakage caused by earthquakes?  Or is it high levels of radiation found in the groundwater?

KS: This film deals with the leakage at the nuclear plan and radiation.  We understand this problem can happen anywhere, not only Japan. You can change the country and the dates.  But the potential problem is not only the radiation itself but some people's aggressive attitude when they can't accept other people's choices and decisions.  That causes discrimination, as you see in the film. A lot of people were discriminated against just because they were afraid of radiation spreading in Japan.  My character tries to speak out and she is threatened by other people who think she’s spreading paranoia when the media is saying there is nothing to worry about.

Keeping children safe, a major theme of the movie

DP: So in Japan people who speak out about the dangers of radiation from faulty nuclear power plants are criticized and harassed?

KS: Sometimes in Japan when you do something different from others, you’re like a nail that sticks out and gets hammered down. The basis of the story in the movie is radiation but it’s a metaphor about discrimination. There are some people who say we are safe in Japan from radiation and others who say we’re in danger.  And they’re yelling at each other. This is the beginning of the war.

DP: Do you think you’re going to get negative feedback in Japan because of this movie?

KS: I thought about that during the process of making this film. It was very difficult to finance because the topic isn’t very popular. But once it’s out, there will be more people who sympathize with what we’re saying.

DP: How do you like being at the TriBeCa Film Festival? Is this a good audience for your movie?

KS: Yeah. I am so happy to be here.  New Yorkers understand because 9/11 is related to 3/11, the date of the earthquake in Japan.  It’s different presenting the film here because in Japanese society an artist can’t make political statements. If we make a political statement about radiation, they’ll tear us down.

DP: How would you define the word Odayaka and explain why that is the title?
KS:  I want people to consider where the title* comes from.  Odayaka means "calm" or "tranquil" in Japanese. After 3/11, people in the world admired the quiet Japanese.  The Japanese pretend that nothing happened, and that's not good. The title is used with irony.

 Me with Kiki Sugino and her brother Jo Keita, an associate producer and sound designer on the film and our translator  Photo: Brandon Rohwer

*To further understand the film’s title,I asked Japanese film critic Nobuhiro Hosoki for his interpreation.  He replied: “Odayaka means serenity but of course that’s not how the situation was after the earthquake.  The title is meant to make people consider others who live far away and were affected most by the tsunami, earthquake and the radiation. I don't know if this explanation makes sense to anyone but the Japanese, but that's what it means.  I don't think people who live in Tokyo feel safe or serene, it's actually quite the opposite; but their reaction pretty much follows what TV, newspapers, or  neighbors say.  People in Japan are often easily swayed by other people's reactions. How should the mothers at the preschool react when the two women warn them of contamination?  How should we react? There's no right or wrong answer, but the film’s title asks us to just consider the value of life.”