Wednesday, October 23, 2013

In Costa-Gavras's "Capital" Money and Greed Rule Our World

Playing in Theaters

In Costa-Gavras's Capital Money and Greed Rule Our World

(from Sag Harbor Online 12/23/13)


It’s always exciting when a new film by an old master is released.  That Costa-Gavras is still directing movies at the age of eighty, decades after he made such powerful and influential political thrillers as Z, State of Seige, The Confession, and Missing (which  won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay), is cause enough for celebration.  But it is especially gratifying that the Greek-born, naturalized French director continues to vigorously target those conducting atrocities in our world.  In his classics, his villains were fascists; today they are our equally evil and powerful bankers.  Capital is, as the production notes state, “set in the high stakes world of global finance,” where charming men in suits exhibit “ruthless ambition, power struggles, greed, and deception.”  The premise: When the CEO of France’s Phenix Bank collapses on the golf course, Michiavellian young executive Marc Tourneuil (French comic Gad Elmaleh of Midnight in Paris) is crowned as his replacement.  Those who appoint him assume he’ll be easy to manipulate but they don’t foresee that he’ll be as corrupted by money and power as them.   Capital, fresh from playing at Hamptons International Film Festival, opens theatrically in New York this Friday at the Paris and Regal Union Square.  In anticipation, I recently did these two brief interviews with the gentlemanly Costa-Gavras–it was thrill to meet one of my movie heroes–and his witty leading man, Gad Elmaleh.
Capital Costa-GravasCosta-Gavras  Photo: DP
Danny Peary: I read that soon after you arrived in Paris from Greece in 1951, you went to the Cinémathèque Française, and ironically, considering Capital, the first film you saw there was Erich von Stroheim’s silent epic, Greed.
Costa-Gavras: I still think about that.  I was in France for fifteen days, going to the Sorbonne and trying to learn French correctly, and reading literature and start working on my degree. Then, a friend of mine said, “Let’s go to the Cinémathèque. And I discovered Greed. It was a movie that went on for three hours. It was a shock. I was not used to that kind of work.  It did have an impact on me.
DP: Greed made you aware that films don’t have to have happy endings.
C-G: I was fascinated to see that it was possible in cinema to do something different from what I had seen. The Cinémathèque was inexpensive and it was close to the university, so I went every night and saw many movies. My ambition was to write things, and I said, “This is a kind of new art I would like to learn about.” [Note: Costa-Gravas has had two stints as president of the  Cinémathèque Française.]
DP: I’m sure there were other films that had an impact on you.  What about The Battle of Algiers, which came out a few years before your early films that attacked fascism and repression, Z, The Confession, and State of Siege?
C-G: It’s an amazing movie. Gillo Pontecorvo and Franco Solina took the true story of repression and wrote a great, great story. They made a perfect movie.
DP: What about Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man!, a satire or allegory about capitalism?
C-G: Yes, yes. Maybe I saw it and said, “This is great, I’d have liked to have done a movie like this.”
DP: Watching Capital, I was reminded of the surreal elements in Anderson’s film. Did that stick in your mind?
C-G: Probably.  We’re all influenced by movies. We pick up things we saw from this movie or that one. Some people will say this film or that film looks like that other film, but I can’t say.
DP: About ten years before you made Capital, you stated that you wanted to make a film about money and the economic system.
C-G: Yes. At that time there was no crisis like today. But even then money was a problem that changed people drastically.  Since then it has been happening more and more. When I used to go to Greece, people would ask me, “What are you doing now?”  But in time, I discovered people began asking, “How much money are you making?”  Money became the new religion.
DP: Ten years ago, would you have made the same movie as you did today?
C-G: No, no. It would have been a different movie. But it too would have been about the psychological changes brought on by money and how people want more and more goods.  If I’d done the movie at the time, I’d have called it Family Business. It would have been the story of a family who are thieves in certain ways. They make some money, they get bigger and bigger. And their kids, when they grow up, decide not to do the same thing. It was the idea of the quality of the goods versus the quality of the life.  That is the idea in Capital, but it’s told in a different way. I still say, “What’s behind this story is money.”
DP: Well, the subtitle for Capital is Money is the Master.
C-G: It’s not my subtitle, but they took a line said by one of the characters in the movie. Money becomes the master of a religion.
DP:  Forty years ago you turned down The Godfather–another film about family, women being shoved to the background in a male-run world, and money, power, and territory–because you felt you didn’t know enough about America, but today could you have set Capital entirely here?
C-G: Maybe, but it would be completely different.
DP: You once said, “Art should make visible what is not seen in society.” How does that apply to Capital?
C-G: I think this is the goal of the cinema.  People go to the show and they can learn something. They did that at theater productions in ancient Greece, and they do that in the shows of the major directors of the cinema.  There’s always something about the society that we discover through the cinema. Capital shows things we do not see very clearly in society. We have bits of it every day in newspapers and on television, but we never have them all together with a character.
DP: To do research for your character, Marc Tourneuil, played by Gad Elmaleh, you sat down with bankers in France.
C-G: The major ones, yes.
DP: Did you like any of these guys? Were they charming?
C-G: Of course they’re charming and well educated. Most of them, in particular the ones who are very high, were respected by politicians, by everybody. They were surprised that they were meeting me.  In the very beginning, I told them I’m doing a movie about banking and said, “If you’d like I’ll tell you more of the story.” It was funny because they said, “No, no, no.”  At the end, quite all of them, told me that the banks have to be regulated or we’re going to have a catastrophe.
DP: So off-the-record they admitted that is what is needed globally, but I don’t think they would want that.
C-G: Later, when they were on television, they said, “If you regulate, you’ll kill us.”  Their public explanation is that if you regulate the French banks, the unregulated American banks will become even bigger and eat them. This is their nice justification for not having regulation.
DP: Which gives banks the freedom to do things that are evil, like laying off workers for profit?
C-G: Evil and legal–everything they do is legal and admired by the majority of the people. I remember before the crisis, the newspapers wrote that they were making  lots of money, its shares were going up and up–it’s great, it’s extraordinary. There were very few people who were critical and saying that we were headed for a very difficult period, much less a catastrophe.
DP: In the movie, Marc Tourneuil says confidently that governments will never dare to regulate banks.  But is regulation of the banks your solution to the economic crisis, something that will make the middle class reappear?.
C-G: I don’t have the solution, but what I’ve heard everywhere is that they have to regulate. President Obama has said that. Maybe the solution is in-between regulation and no regulation.
DP: It’s like the world lets big bankers be evil. To become the CEO of a giant bank, can you be ethical?
C-G: No.  In a book I read years ago , the author, the president of the credit union, said that it’s impossible to get regulation because the heads of the banks and the stockholders who tell them what to do, are very greedy. So there cannot be ethics.
DP: That’s similar to what we say about people in government here.  They all have ties to big business, so nobody’s who’s elected to a high office is untainted and their ethics have already been compromised.
C-G: Alan Greenspan said, “We believe in self-regulation.”  But that is impossible. There will never be self-regulation because the world is a jungle and everyone wants to be the biggest lion.
DP: Where does Marc fit in?  Once he becomes the CEO-in-waiting, he seems more likable than the greedy men he deals with.  But is he better?
C-G: He probably starts out as a better person.  He says to his wife that what he wants most is to be respected.  But as the story develops, he puts aside his ethics, I think. He knows what’s happening, he knows good from bad. And when he has the opportunity to do something good, he doesn’t do it.
DP: Does that make him different from the others, that he knows the difference between right and wrong and he still does wrong?
C-G: They all know.
DP: You think Gabriel Byrne’s character, Dittmar, who operates an American hedge fund and attempts a hostile takeover of Marc’s bank, knows he’s doing wrong but doesn’t care?
C-G: His strategy, his target, is to get more money, more money, more money.  He says, “If we don’t do it we will be out.”
DP: Which is the system.
C-G: Absolutely.
DP: Actually, what Marc is doing is gaming the system.  He understands the rules of the game so can manipulate them.
C-G: He understands and goes up and up in power. He likes going up, he wants to be king.  He gets rid of all women who have with different propositions, just to have the presidency. He pushes away his wife, his son, his family–and even the woman he admires who wants to write a book with him. Nothing counts for him except his position at the top.
DP: His wife turns out to be the big disappointment. You’d think she has some kind of morality and can control him a little bit but she doesn’t really try.
C-G: She tries at the end. She tells him, “Write books and we’ll have a nice life” And then she says to him. “If you’d like to be, again, president, you won’t find me at home.” And even then he decides to not go with her and goes back to his bank.
DP: In the film’s production notes, you write about Marc’s character in the source novel, Le Capital, and “the ferocity” in which author Stéphane Osmont portrays him.  In the movie, we see Darwinism at work and  a dog-eat-dog world, but do we actually see Marc’s ferocity?
C-G: Yes.  He’s not armed with a Kalashnikov and killing people, but he decides to fire hundreds of people to make a profit.  That’s ferocity.
DP: You chose to hire France’s most popular stand-up comic, Gad Elmaleh, to play Marc.
C-G: Yes, but I told him, “You’re not doing a comedy. You’re serious, don’t use the tricks of comedy, don’t create a one-man show. I hired him because from the very beginning, for the audience, he’s sympathetic.
DP: Why do you want him to be sympathetic?
C-G: So people will say, “Oh, this Marc seems to be a good guy, let’s see what he does that’s good.”
DP: And we’re surprised when he goes in the opposite direction. He’s clear-sighted, he knows that all the bankers’ greed is setting the stage for disaster, but he jokes that it’s disaster for us and not for his bank.
C-G: The bankers, the people who deal with a lot of money, have the power in democracies. And our democracies are very weak in front of the money.
DP: In the production notes, Capital is termed a “darkly comic drama.” There is humor in the film, but is the word “comic” applicable?
C-G: I wouldn’t call it that, but sometimes you may not have comedy but you have irony, sarcasm. We have situations that become comical for us because it’s all so unbearable, so excessive.
DP: Your target in this film is not a fascist dictatorship but banks. So is Capital, like your classic films, a political movie?
C-G: They are all political.  Roland Barthes said we can analyze all movies politically. And I completely agree with that.
DP: And its subject is the perfect subject for our age, which is the perfect time for the release of your movie.
C-G: I never thought about that. I started working on it four or five years ago, without thinking about whether it would come out at the right time.  In the meantime the global economic crisis happened. So I think it is a good time for it to come out and let’s hope the audience will agree.
Capital Gad photo
Gad Elmaleh Photo: DP
Danny Peary: It’s nice meeting you.  When I say that, what’s your response?
Gad Elmaleh: “It’s nice meeting you”?
DP:  I am referring to the bit you did with Jerry Seinfeld on his web series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” when he taught you that if you say to someone “It’s nice to meet you” you want them to continue the conversation, but if you say “It was nice to meet you” you’re telling them the conversation is over and they should leave.
GE: I remember. I translated that and I do it in France and it works! When someone stops me in the street, I say it was nice to have met them and they leave.
DP: In my opinion, the key scene in this whole movie that defines your character, Marc Tourneuil,  is when he goes home for an informal family lunch and he’s still wearing a suit and a tie. Was that a big choice?
GE: It’s funny you say that because that is my favorite scene in the movie. I said something to the producer one day and she didn’t like what I said. I said, “I wish all of the movie would look like this scene.” Because it’s where Marc is human. He’s talking to his family, but he’s still into his finances and banking. I never thought to talk to Costa about the suit thing.  It’s interesting that he wears the suit. He’s with the family physically but he’s not.
DP: It seemed to me that it was an indication he’s fighting off guilt about disregarding his working-class roots. Because surely the other people in the banking world that he deals with don’t have families like that.  Marc is probably the only one who knows there are good options available but he still deliberately takes the wrong path.
GE: Yeah, that makes sense.  He understands what his angry uncle says about laying off workers but ignores him. And as he is leaving he looks in the room where all the kids are playing video games and he could go sit there with them, but he leaves for his job.
DP: He knows better, that’s the real shame about him.
GE: This is how you know he is a bad person. He’s not a crazy man, he doesn’t have fantasies and then come back to reality. I think Costa wanted to show that he knows exactly what he’s doing.
DP: Marc’s very calculating. But he has to be to succeed in banking because, as he says in the beginning, everybody wants to screw him.
GE: I think these guys are very paranoid. Everybody wants to screw me but I’ll screw them first. It’s like politics, you know.
DP: I think what Costa-Gavras wanted when he cast you, was to have us instantly identify with Marc and then be disappointed in him.  We think at some point Marc’s going to turn out to be a good Robin Hood as opposed to someone who takes from the poor to give to the rich.  But he doesn’t.
GE: One day I was talking to Costa and I asked, “Why did you choose me, because I’m a comedian, I’m a funny actor.” He said to me something interesting–”People will have empathy and affection and sympathy and because they like him, they’re going to feel worse.”
DP: Marc has relationships with three women. Do you seem him playing three different roles with them?
GE:  He has a solid base with his wife. He’s challenged by the younger French woman in London who is an expert on finance in Japan. It’s a cerebral erection. And with the model, it’s all sexual.  But I think he’s really the same person with the three women.  He needs those different things, you know. With the model, he thinks he needs to do something with all his money so he gives it to her. I know real stories about these kinds of guys.
DP: He’s kind of a buffoon with the supermodel as she keeps stringing him along and keeping him out of reach.  He’s erudite and calculating at all other times but with her everything goes out the window.  I’m reminded of Eric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee–a man can be rich and intelligent but he sees a pretty young girl and loses control.
GE: Yes, it’s like an Achilles’ heel. Its funny that it’s always with politicians that this happens. Look what happened with Dominique Strauss-Kahn. He’s brilliant and powerful but he kills himself with the scandal.
DP: How long could you spend with Marc before he’d drive you crazy?
GE: I would be really fascinated for a few hours.  But I wouldn’t go on vacation with him or spend a week talking to him. I think he must be interesting and smart and I’d ask him some advice about money, but nothing else.
DP: Is there any hope that Marc will become a better person in the future?
GE: No. I’ve been asked so many times why he doesn’t go off with the Japan expert, and I say, “That would have been the American version of the movie.”  He’d go to her and give the money back and there would be nice music.  But this is Costa-Gavras, so it’s a different movie.
DP: I know you were wanting to do your stand-up comedy routine in English here in America, so was doing the English-speaking scenes in the movie good preparation?
GE: Yes.  I now have done my routine in English.  It was very good, very challenging, very hard.  I like this challenge of performing in front of an American audience when nobody knows me  I show up on stage and I have to be funny. It’s just funny or not, and I like that.
DP: Are you called “the Jerry Seinfeld of France” because you do observational comedy?
GE: Yes, sociological. And I’m getting laughs in English!
DP: Where do you think Capital fits into your overall career?
GE: It made me realize I’m definitely a comedy man. I loved what I did with Costa, but comedy is my thing, what I love the most.  There are a few moments in the movie that are a little but funny, but it’s not a comedy. It’s much harder to be funny than to be serious in a movie.
DP: Well, it was nice meeting you.
GE: Yes, it was nice meeting you, too!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Krokidas's "Kill Your Darlings" Opens Hamptons International Film Festival

Playing in Theaters

Krokidas's Kill Your Darlings Opens Hamptons International Film Festival

(from Sag Harbor Express 10/10/13)

By Danny Peary
On Tuesday October 1, at the Waldorf Towers in New York City, writer-director John Krokidas gave me three reasons why he was beaming. It was his 40th birthday. His debut feature Kill Your Darlings had its New York premiere at the Paris Theatre the previous night. And he was looking forward to his film opening the Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF) this Thursday, October 10, at 7 p.m. at Guild Hall.
Interestingly, Krokidas came together with Austin Bunn, his roommate at Yale, to write about the rocky romance between two other Ivy League intellectuals — Columbia freshmen Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) and Lucien Carr (Dane DeHann) in 1944.  The relationship between poet and muse dissolved when Carr stabbed jealous, older hanger-on David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) — a murder that profoundly affected Ginsberg and their pals, burgeoning writers Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster), and hastened the birth of the Beat movement. Krokidas eagerly talked to me about his smart, exceptionally acted, multilayered period piece.

Danny Peary: When did you first learn about the Beats?
John Krokidas: I found them in high school. I was a closeted teenager and read Allen Ginsberg, and he was so open decades before anyone else about being gay as well as his loves, passions, and politics. I wished I could be that brave. Jack Kerouac I loved for his humanist bent and that he wanted to go off and meet people to find the soul of this country. And I loved William Burroughs just for being a radical person who shook everyone off their pedestals. I realize now that it’s the artists you fall in love with when you are young that form the cornerstones of your own cultural identity.
DP: Although you and Austin Bunn were fans of the Beats at Yale, you didn’t write Kill Your Darlings until you were much older than the characters in your script. Were memories of your college experience instrumental in writing about these future writers?
JK: Yes. We remembered the fun and the pretention of staying up until three in the morning debating philosophical ideas, and trying to create our own belief system. I dreamed, like the characters, of starting a countercultural revolution. When you’re 18, it’s romantic to do something different from what your parents and school are teaching you — and have an impact on the world. This is what the movie is about to me.
DP: The most dramatic incident in the movie is Lucien Carr killing David Kammerer, but Allen Ginsberg is the main character of your film.
JK: An event doesn’t make a movie. We looked at all the future Beats at that point in their lives and realized Allen Ginsberg had the most growth and largest arc to his story. He went from being the dutiful son to being the person who writes the story about the murder and gets in trouble at Columbia, and from being a caretaker for his emotionally-ill mother and then emotionally-troubled Lucien to taking care of himself.
DP: Wouldn’t it have been much harder to make Lucien your protagonist because he’s elusive and mysterious, a muse among the writers?
JK: We actually tried. But I couldn’t get myself into the mind of a complex individual who commits a murder. I could, however, get into the mind of a repressed young gay person who yearns to do something important with his life, and falls in love with someone who is charming but never loves him back the way he wants him to. It’s on the ashes of such relationships where you finally get the strength to become yourself.
DP: In regard to your title, are you drawing a correlation between breaking societies’ rules and breaking writing rules as the Beats did?
JK: I think that’s a good read. Austin and I believe emotional violence comes with the birth of a self. When young, you will meet somebody who’s more charismatic and worldly and will see your potential and help you grow — but not as high as themselves. You must remove these people from your life to fully become yourself.
DP: It’s interesting that like you and Austin and your young characters, your actors — Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Jack Huston, Ben Foster, Elizabeth Olson, and even Michael C. Hall — are all on the cusp of breaking through to bigger things in movies.
JK: That’s an incredibly poignant thing that we became aware of during production. These actors willingly took risks for a first-time director. There was something magical at work, and we hoped we were all invoking the spirit of the Beats by trying to express ourselves as we never had before.
DP: Casting Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg was an inspired choice.
JK: He offered to audition for me to make sure that I thought he had the emotional qualities for the role. Dan, who is a poet himself, brought all of the intelligence and sensitivity that I needed to portray the young man who would become a great poet. I watched him bring Allen Ginsberg to life.
DP: Can we ever know the circumstances of the murder? One would think David stalked Lucien until he stabbed him, but Lucien had David write his school papers.
JK: I don’t think we’ll ever really know what happened that night.  However, we can surmise that their relationship was co-dependent and toxic. Some say Lucien needed David just as much as David needed him. I think there’s a germ of truth to that.
DP: Are you excited that you’ll be going to Opening Night at the Hampton’s International Film Festival with Dane DeHaan [who portrays Lucien] to present Kill Your Darlings?
JK: What’s happening has been very emotional for me because I’ve been working on this film for 10 years. I’ve never been to the festival. In fact I’ve only been to the Hamptons once, when I was 17, and I spent only a day there. But to be invited to present my movie there was on my wish list and is an extension of the dream that’s coming true at this time. So I can’t wait.
For more Danny Peary on Film visit weekly. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Steve Hoover on His Inspiring Tribute to His Remarkable Friend, Blood Brother

Playing in Theaters

Steve Hoover on His Inspiring Tribute to His Remarkable Friend, Blood Brother

(from Sag Harbor Online 10/18/13)

By Danny Peary
Blood Brother fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor.  Steve Hoover’s deeply moving tribute to his best friend, Rocky Braat, who found his calling living with and working with HIV/AIDS kids at an orphanage in Tamil Nadu, India, is premiering at the Landmark Sunshine Theater on Houston Street in New York City on Friday.  It won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance earlier this year, the Hot Docs 2013 Audience Award, the Audience Award for Best Feature at the 2013 Atlanta Film Festival, and many other awards at festivals.   You owe it to yourself to see it.   I hope you do and it plays not only in Sag Harbor but receives wide circulation because 100% of the film’s profits will go to Rocky and the orphanage.  Guaranteed, you’ll be inspired. Braat, who the adoring kids call “Rocky Anna,” which means brother, is proof positive that country music star Becky Hobbs was correct when she penned the assuring line, “there are angels among us.” The personable Hoover, who directed, edited, and cowrote his debut feature, arrived in New York early this week and we had this conversation.
Steve Hoover (L) and Rocky Braat
Danny Peary: How many years ago did you meet Rocky Braat in art school?
Steve Hoover: We met in the Fall of 2001. It was the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, a commercial art school.  He lived across the hall from me and he introduced himself to me one day, just as I was getting on the elevator.
DP: And he wanted to be a graphic designer, and you wanted to be a filmmaker?
SH: He wanted to study graphic design, and I was interested in animation. Then I switched my major to industrial design, did that for a year, and then finally switched to filmmaking.
DP: Why do you think you two guys became such close friends?
SH: I think we just kind of liked each other.  Rocky has always loved people and reached out them.  He was a really social guy at school. He was someone who made the effort to build a friendship. When he introduced himself to me, he had a guitar, and he started playing and singing.  I was from a small town, and I’d never heard anybody sing as well as him in person, not at a concert or anything, so I was really impressed.  And he liked my artwork.  I guess what started it all was that we took interest in little pieces of each other’s character and talent.
DP: In your movie, he plays the guitar and sings for the kids at the orphanage and he’s pretty good. Did you ever encourage him to be an off-campus coffee house singer?
SH: It’s funny you say that, because he told me that when he was growing up, he always wanted to do that.  He pursued it a little bit in college.  He wrote music and did little shows and worked really hard to try to record songs. But it never really went anywhere and I think that dream faded.
DP: Did he encourage you to become a filmmaker?
SH: Well, that’s kind of interesting.  There were two bedrooms in the apartment we lived in and we shared a bedroom. We’d have other people live with us in the other bedroom and they’d come and go but Rocky and I were stable roommates for many years.  As we were going to sleep, we’d talk about different things, including our dreams. When I switched to filmmaking, I had two things I wanted to do.  I was very interested in filming wildlife and making some sort of documentary in a developing third world country.  I talked to him about this and he was always reassuring. Rocky always has been really encouraging and supportive of my efforts in film, even now.
DP: In your “Director’s Statement” in the film’s production notes, you say that there was “nothing about him that was especially out of the ordinary.”  He was someone who couldn’t commit to anything, he’d lie immobilized in his underwear in front of fans in the hot summer. Would you have been surprised by what Rocky is doing today in hot India?
SH: I definitely would have been surprised by what he is doing. Rocky traveled around a little bit in the US, trying to figure out where he would be. He would always go places but leave in a few months.  He lived in Arizona and LA for a couple of months.  He almost moved to Alaska. He lived on the road for a couple of months, replacing light bulbs in pharmacies. But he’d always come back to Pittsburgh. I saw him as someone who was trying to find where he thought he should be, but I never would have expected him to end up in India, doing what he’s doing for five years.  However, I wasn’t surprised that he took his initial trip to India as a tourist because he’d been everywhere else.  He bought a one-way ticket for his trip, but I was expecting him to come back soon.
DP: But he spent time with needy kids in the orphanage and was hooked.
We see in the movie that Rocky is very sensitive, but did you ever see a humanitarian bent to him before this?
SH: He’s definitely a sensitive guy, and I think he’s always been nurturing and good at taking care of people. He was always concerned when people were troubled. He was the kind of guy who’d sit down and talk with you if he sensed you’re going through something.  He liked to cook meals for people.
DP: Was he the type who gave money to a homeless person on the street?
SH: He would take it a step further.  In college, usually through Rocky’s prompting, we’d have different homeless people stay at our house. We literally invited homeless guys to come in off the street, take a shower, and stay with us for a couple of days. We tried to help recovering heroin addicts, things like that.
DP: I’d guess that one of the things that bonded you was that you had the same sensibility.
SH: For me, it came through different experiences that he and I had. We had some spiritual changes when we were in college. I was more influenced by that and inspired by Rocky.  Looking back on those interactions–people trying to help people–I’d say they could have played a part in Rocky’s ultimate decision to move to India.
DP: Early in the movie, in an animated sequence, there’s the story told by his father about how when Rocky was a kid he nursed a badly mangled cat back to health. That’s really interesting because that’s what we’d expect from the adult Rocky in your movie. Had Rocky ever told you that story?
SH: No, I wasn’t aware of it. I went to talk with his father and after the interview was over he said, “I’m going to tell you this story…” And then just started talking.  We weren’t prepared to record him, so at the beginning it is just camera audio, and then we were able to get the better audio.
DP: I know Rocky has always had a difficult relationship with his father, so I was surprised we hear from him at all, but that is the only time he talks in your movie.
SH: There were some technical reasons why that’s the case, but that story was the only thing we recorded of him that he felt comfortable giving us permission to use.
DP: How did you two decide that you were going to a make a movie about Rocky and his life at the orphanage in India?  Was it your decision or a mutual decision?
SH: He’d been living there for a year and emailing me, and giving me updates about his experiences. Some of them would be funny, some of them would be tragic, but I was always moved by them and curious about Rocky in India. It still didn’t make sense he was there. Rocky had been asking me to visit ever since he went. At the time, I was doing a lot of commercials and music videos and I was losing my passion. He was saying, “Bring your camera to India.  It’s a very inspiring place, maybe it’ll rekindle some of that fire in you.”  He was a budding photographer when he first went, so he was really excited when he got there and could take photos. He thought the same thing would happen to me and my camera.
DP: Does he still take photos there?
SH: He still takes photographs and the company I work for, Animal Media Group, has   actually published a book of his photos and journal entries.  All the profits go to Rocky and the orphanage, which is great.  All the money from Blood Brother is also going to Rocky and the kids and other HIV efforts. One of the programs we’re putting together with the money is developing small businesses for the kids to run and operate– Rocky is teaching the kids photography and one those businesses will be a photography business.
DP: So you go over there to visit him and take your camera, but you’re not yet thinking of making a documentary?
SH: When he was inviting me, I just felt a need to visit my friend.  But I had always wanted to make a documentary and I had the resources to do it, including access to gear, so before going to India I started moving forward with that thought. Going into it, a feature was always what I wanted to do. I approached him and asked, “Is it okay if we do this?” And he said, “Absolutely.”  Initially it was just going to be me and my wife going over, but as I started talking about it and making plans, everything changed. The producer, Danny Yourd, whom I’d worked with for a long time, jumped on board, as did a couple of other friends.  Other people started volunteering their help. We did a Kickstarter campaign to raise money, and ultimately there were five people who went. It was a month-long trip, and three of us were there the whole time.
DP: Did Rocky tell you not tell anybody in the village that the kids at the orphanage all had HIV/AIDS?  Because we see in the film that the nearby villagers had a bad reaction when they found out.
SH: No, nobody ever told us to conceal anything, but it was something that they didn’t advertise. The home actually used to be in the city but the kids had problems with their school and in their neighborhood, so through a series of connections and events, they found the land outside of the city to build the orphanage. They moved out there and it caused so many problems when the all the villagers found out.  They just can’t get past the stigma.  The home didn’t hide that the kids are HIV-positive and they have donors and visitors come all the time.
DP: It’s very moving in the movie when you and Rocky arrive at the orphanage at the break of dawn, after he has been away for a while, and he climbs over the wall and all the kids rush out to greet him. What were your emotions seeing this in person?
SH: It was definitely emotional.  That whole morning was incredible.  We got there at two or three in the morning and everything was dark. It took an hour and a half to get to Rocky’s house. We got there and the sun started to rise. I always tell people that India slowly revealed itself to me. I could have spent the whole day just soaking that in.  But at that time, we got to the orphanage and the kids came out, and they were just filled with joy.  They were happy to see Rocky and happy to meet new people. I was really overcome. I was amazed at the kids–amazed visually—and just completely inspired and overwhelmed.
DP: You also saw the love the kids had for Rocky.
SH: Oh yeah, that was something else. Even in the village, where he had built relationships with everyone, I was seeing a Rocky I felt like I didn’t know. It was interesting because I had wondered what he’d look like in these surroundings. And seeing him there, that morning, it immediately started to make sense. I thought, “Okay, this guy has just so much to give, and this is a place where there are so many needs.”
DP: I guess this is my big question: how much do you think his troubled childhood–as an abused kid and an abandoned kid–led to his wanting to help these kids?
SH: I think it had a great deal to do with it. That’s the reason I wanted to introduce what happened in his past into the film. I think he’s able to sympathize with the kids. Though these kids suffered more, he knows the feeling that some of them have because he too went through traumatic stuff.
DP: I would guess that he never wants to let these kids down because adults had let him down. Does that make sense?
SH: His dad was a soldier and left when Rocky and his sister were young [leaving them in the care of a drug-addicted mother and her abusive boyfriends--until his grandfather took them in]–and though he returned, he was an inconsistent figure in Rocky’s life.  So Rocky knows how these kids feel after they’ve gone through similar things. Some of them had good parents who died [usually from AIDS] and some had parents who were still alive but didn’t want them and left them at the orphanage. He knows that feeling and I think this was the first time he saw a group of kids he was able to connect to.
DP: There’s the double-edged sword thing in his taking care of these kids.  As we said, he’s super sensitive and that’s exactly what’s needed with these kids–but when they suffer or die, it really takes a toll on him. In the film he says early on that going back to India means he will suffer.
SH: I feel like through the year, while making the film, he came to a lot of resolution and contentment about being there. But even with that, it hasn’t stopped the kind of suffering that he goes through. The great thing is that the kids have been really healthy. There hasn’t been a major medical scare. Rocky still goes through the emotional challenges, but the good thing is he’s proactive about getting help.  He talks a lot about it, he works on it. I feel like he’s a healthy place.
DP: In the movie, we can see you that you found a comfort level with the kids, and enjoyed being with them.  Did it take you much time to be comfortable with the kids when Rocky wasn’t right there with you?
SH: Yes. There were different things that would trigger the stigma in my mind that I had that I thought I wouldn’t have when walking into the orphanage because I was educated and Rocky had prepared me for this.  But it took me awhile to get past the stigma, as it probably would with most people.  It’s almost like there were different tiers to it. I’d be like, “Okay, I’m comfortable with the kids holding my hand. But if I go to touch them, I’m going to be a little more calculated to make sure I don’t touch a wound.”  Over time I got less cautious and more comfortable in treating them like people as opposed to patients.  The good thing is the kids really helped. They’re so warm and intrusive in a good way. They’ll reach out and grab your hand and will initiate affection.
DP: They’re sweet little kids who can smile although they have tragic stories to tell. I think that’s probably one of the first things you responded to when you got there and met them.
SH: Yeah, definitely.  I take away a lot from these kids. I was equally inspired by the kids and Rocky. They hold out in the face of their trials and how difficult their lives have been. They’re really amazing kids.  They just put so much in perspective.
Rocky and the kids at the orphanage

DP: In the amazing sequence when Surya, the sweet young boy who was infatuated by your camera, is in the hospital with all his vitals shut down, and Rocky takes care of him nonstop, it’s like watching Mother Teresa at work. Were you in awe?
SH: Definitely. Rocky would be inspired if he heard you say that. There’s a handful of reasons why he wanted to check out India, and one of them was a documentary he had seen about Mother Teresa. It was so awesome how she touched sick people that nobody else would touch and took care of people no one else would. That inspired him. Watching him take care of Surya was an incredible experience for me.  After spending time at the orphanage in my first trip to India, I was more rough and rugged—I was now comfortable with the stigma and thought I could handle India. So we land at the airport on our second trip and literally go straight to the hospital and stay there for days.  I wasn’t prepared for that. Watching Rocky take care of Surya affected me deeply. I had seen him caring for the kids at the orphanage, and a lot of it was light-hearted.  But this was just a whole other level of care and devotion, and it was a lot more real. He had done similar things before, I just hadn’t seen it. And a lot of the lights went on—whoa!  I started realizing how limited I was. Like you were saying before, if Rocky wasn’t there I’d have checked out. I wouldn’t have been able to do it. In some ways, he was opposing authority in caring for kids. People weren’t really comfortable with him being there and doing what he was doing, but nobody else was doing it so he was like, “I gotta do it.  Somebody has to.”
DP: What he did in the hospital you captured on film, and I can’t think of anything like that other than in a Mother Teresa documentary.  Seeing little Surya smile at you and the camera when he’s in such agony is deeply moving, and I’m sure when you looked at the footage later you thought, “What I got here is amazing.” Is that true?
SH: Yeah. I was also the editor on the film and working with the footage, going through all that and constantly re-watching it, was just very moving.  I never got numb to the footage, and I still find it moving.
DP: People applaud when pilots land airplanes safely, but we all want to applaud Rocky after saving Surya.  It was a big moment, as are other moments in the film that are about life and death.  But you also filmed small stuff, too.
SH: That’s true. We kind of filmed everything. There are so many little moments that to me really help show the character of Rocky and of the kids. A lot of these little things were really special to me. Something like getting pizza is such a huge deal to these kids.
DP: There’s actually a pizza motif in your movie. I think you knew by showing these orphan kids across the world loving pizza we can relate them to our own kids in America.
SH: Yeah, definitely. That’s something that really inspired me, just realizing how normal they were. They go to school, they play, they laugh, they have friends. With the exception of their situation, they just want to do the things that we want to do.
DP: Before going back to India for Rocky’s wedding, did you work on the film at home?
SH: I had been organizing the footage, marking interviews and stuff like that. I had started post-production but I wasn’t heavy into the edit. I had planned on being in India only for five weeks on the first trip, so when I left I went back to live life. I’m married and have a full-time job.
DP: But you always intended to go back for his wedding, whenever it was?
SH: Yeah, I told Rocky I was basically on call.
DP: In the movie, you interview his sister, grandfather and father. None of them were at the wedding. Did it hurt him that you were the only “family” who came?
SH: Yeah, it was definitely hard on him.  He invited everybody.  His wedding was in India and it’s expensive to go there and it’s difficult because of the passports and getting visas–but I had to do all that stuff and I got there. I’m not slamming anybody, I’m just saying I definitely made the effort.  He was definitely hurt by their absence. You see him crying at the wedding; he cried for a while and people were trying to be supportive but I cut down that scene. It definitely hurt him, but it hasn’t stopped him from always trying to connect with his family.
DP: Because family has always let him down, I sensed that you felt you had to come through for him by coming to India and being his friend through the wedding and everything else. You didn’t want to disappoint him.  It’s not just Rocky, but it’s also the strength of your friendship that viewers will find very touching. You did come through for him, so there are two inspiring adults in this movie–you and him.
SH: I always want to be there for Rocky. My wife jokes that when Rocky calls, the world stops for me, no matter where I am. It’s interesting that you point that out. I remember Rocky prepping me to go to India, when he’d always say, “Do this, don’t do that. Don’t  bring any comforts, don’t bring anything.” He was trying to prepare me for the stigma, how to treat the kids.  I’d take all that to mind and heart, because I wanted to, like you were saying, make him proud of me and have him see that I was able to do it.
DP: Also, as you know, he’s somebody who doesn’t see his own worth. He’s never evaluating himself. but by your doing this for him, you make him feel better about himself.
SH: Yeah, I’d say so.
DP: And I’m sure he’s also humbled that you are donating all profits from the movie to him and the orphanage.
SH: Leaving India, as we started to put everything together, I was like, “Man, I really want this film to help Rocky and those kids.” I wanted people to think about these kids. I wanted this to be as practical as possible. How can this movie physically help the kids? That’s how we came up with the model, people pay to watch the film and the money going in Rocky’s direction.
DP: I’ve read that in addition you established the nonprofit LIGHT, which stands for Looking to Inspire Global Healing Today.
SH: That was set up by a friend of mine who also visits Rocky in India.  He started that and we worked together to design it so Rocky can access the profits from the film. We couldn’t just give the money to Rocky because it would be taxed heavily and he’d have to take care of the business side of things, which he wouldn’t want to do.  So we wanted to protect him and get him all the money. So we started LIGHT to receive the money from the film as well as donations from people who want to help.
For information on how you can help Rocky Braat and the HIV/AIDS orphanage in India, go to and

Monday, October 7, 2013

Cunningham and Alpert's Heartfelt Valentine Road Debuts on HBO

Playing on HBO

Cunningham and Alpert's Heartfelt Valentine Road Debuts on HBO

(from Sag Harbor Online 10/6/13)

By Danny Peary
You probably remember hearing about the tragic incident on the west coast.  On February 12, 2008, in a classroom at E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard, California, a fifteen-year-old boy named Larry King was shot and killed by another student, Brandon McInerney, who was humiliated when King asked him to be his valentine in front of his macho buddies.  The hate crime got attention for being an extreme example of intolerance against gays and transgenders, but soon was forgotten. Many of us assumed that the school and community were so broken up that everyone pledged to fight harder against bigotry and homophobia in Larry King’s memory and to make sure Brandon McInerney was properly vilified and sent to prison until his hair turned gray.  But we were wrong.  To see what really transpired, tune in to HBO on Monday night for the television debut of Valentine Road.  This fascinating documentary, which was acclaimed at Sundance and other festivals earlier this year, is the directorial debut of Marta Cunningham (pictured, below right) and was produced by Sasha Alpert (Autism: the Musical; pictured below, left) and Eddie Schmidt.  A few weeks ago, I did the following interview with Cunningham and Alpert in New York City.
VALENTINEROADPHOTO_cropSasha Alpert and Marta Cunningham (right)
Photo: DP

Danny Peary: Marta, in the production notes you say, “I first heard about Larry King and the tragic circumstances of his death from a small article in the Southern Poverty Law Center Magazine.”  What filmmaker reads that?
Marta Cunningham (laughing): I do!  The Southern Poverty Law Center started during the Civil Rights Era and is historical. I grew up with it being the Mecca because my parents were Civil Rights activists.
Sasha Alpert: The Southern Poverty Law Center is in Montgomery, Alabama, and next week we’re actually screening Valentine Road there. So that’s kind of going full circle.
MC: The first place was firebombed in the seventies, and it’s still constantly being threatened, so the security there is insane and it’s basically a compound. What they do now in their journal is encompass all types of civil rights and human rights issues in this country. I was so happy to have stumbled across that article.
DP: When you first came upon that article did you ask why this story about a straight kid killing a gay kid because he asked him to be his valentine wasn’t really, really well-known?
MC: Exactly. Why am I reading this in just the Southern Poverty Law Center’s quarterly magazine instead of today’s newspapers?
DP: I know that first article led you to the Newsweek cover story, “Young, Gay, and Murdered.” Were you looking for a project?
MC: At the time, I was looking for things to possibly write about. I also wanted to get into an AFI workshop, and the requirement was to do a short. But after I started doing the research, and sitting in on Brandon’s hearings at the Ventura courthouse, talking to his attorneys, and talking to some kids who knew Larry and Brandon, I realized that this could be a great subject for a documentary. Everything was unfolding right then, so I switched gears pretty quickly.
DP: But the trial lasted 3½ years?
MC: Yes, the pre-trial motions, the hearings, and all that took that long.  Brandon’s defense attorneys were relentless about trying to the case moved to juvenile court rather than have him tried as an adult.
DP: Why did this particular case strike you so much that you’d spend four years making a film about it?
MC: I fell in love with Larry, this child.  He could have been my brother, son, or a friend I grew up with, and I felt that he needed an advocate.  I think all of us who worked on the film felt that way.  We wanted to create a film that reflected how we saw him, which was that he was a wonderful young human being.  It just disturbed me on a core level that our society had not taken an interest in telling the true story.  The story that they instead chose to tell in the media actually seemed to blame him for his own death.  So I really wanted everyone to look at the whole, true picture.
DP: Sasha, why did you join the project?
SA: I actually heard about the story when it happened. What surprised and really intrigued me and BMP Films is that it happened so close to LA, which we think of as being a very open-minded place.  I think that is what drew me to it, that this could happen right around the block. I was drawn to the elements of the story that Marta put into her film.  First, there was Larry’s absolutely horrible early life.  And then there was Brandon’s equally horrible upbringing.  And there was nobody around to help either one of them.  There was intolerance that led to a tragedy, and then there was the issue of Brandon being tried as an adult. Human rights issues abound in this film and issues dealing with adults not taking care of children.
DP: How did you two get together on this?
MA: For about a year and a half I was working on it, and then I met Eddie Schmidt, the other producer.
SA: Eddie and I had been looking for a project to work together on for a few years, and when he brought me this, I said. “Yeah, this is absolutely it.”
DP: It took a long time to make.  Were you ever worrying  that you couldn’t pull it off because at first you didn’t have access to key people like Brandon’s mother and brother and didn’t know what kind of footage was available?
MC (laughing): I’m sure the producers felt that way!
SA: I think the scariest time for me was after there was a hung jury.  Then we didn’t know what the next part of the film was going to be. It could have taken years to retry the case and maybe it would end in a hung jury again.  It was confusing for everyone where to go next.  And it was so hard emotionally that there was a hung jury because there had been a murder and everyone knew who did it.
MC:  It wasn’t a good ending.  I had to take a moment because I was wrecked. I had sat through nine weeks of that trial and then to have a hung jury!  It was a very difficult emotional experience to make this film anyway, and then to have no resolution was so hard to take.  I was like, “Okay, let’s just talk about what is probably going to happen.” Because I had formed a relationship with the prosecutor, Maeve Fox, I got the inside scoop that the two sides were leaning toward making a deal regarding Brandon’s sentencing.  It turned out be good for all of us, I think.
DP: I won’t divulge what the deal was. But one of the many interesting things about your movie is that viewers, including me, aren’t sure what we want to happen to Brandon, we don’t know what trial verdict is best.  And, before changing my mind, I agreed for a time with the defense attorneys that maybe he should be tried in juvenile court. Were you feeling the same thing?
MC: Yeah, definitely. Eddie, Sasha, our executive producer Jon Murray and I were all really torn. It was a really upsetting journey on many levels.  The concept of trying a child as an adult in the state of California was one of the main reasons they had a hung jury, but what was really upsetting was the bigger reason some jurors wouldn’t convict Brandon.  It wasn’t because Brandon was a kid, but because they went along with the defense’s argument that Larry was a sexual harasser!  That the jurors accepted this was very disturbing.
SA: Marta would come back to the office and say, “You can’t believe what I heard at the trial today.”  Then I’d go and I couldn’t believe what I heard either.  She said things were being turned around and there was homophobia going on.
DP: In the film we recognize the homophobia of jurors who fell for Brandon and anti-gay teachers at E.O. Green Junior High.
SA:  It didn’t all make it into the film–partly because we didn’t interview every teacher at the school–but teachers took the stand and said things that were shocking.  And there were so many of them! There obviously was a prevailing wind blowing over the school.
DP: And the one teacher who was sympathetic to Larry and was present when he was killed was fired.  It comes across in your film that the other teachers, and other people in Oxnard were glad that Brandon got the “problem” out of the way, so they didn’t have to deal with this boy who didn’t hide his feminine nature.
MC: One of the jurors actually says that Brandon was the solution to a problem. That was really disturbing and I will never will fully understand that kind of thinking.  It’s shocking to hear someone accept that as a rationalization for a human being’s life being taken.  It was hard sit across from a teacher and listen to her tell you that a child who liked glitter, make-up, a purse, and Target heels, was a threat to her understanding of what a boy should be.
DP: Why do you think Larry was attracted to Brandon enough to ask him to be his valentine?
MC: Brandon was cute.  That’s all.  I was told by a couple of kids that it was just a Truth-or-Dare situation. Larry was sitting with some girls, and they were goofing around, and they said, “We know you like this boy so go ask him to be your valentine.”  He was like, “Fine, I’ll do it.”  It was a dare, really nothing more that that.  These were just junior high kids, very young kids, and none of them had even dated. It was harmless but the media made it seem Brandon was threatened by Larry.
SA: And Larry was a very small kid and Brandon was about 6’1″.
DP: Adding to the tragedy is that Larry was no longer an unhappy kid. He wasn’t a kid who felt suicidal because of his sexuality but was comfortable in his own body.  He was a kid you wanted to watch grow up and be a bright example for many in the same situation.
SA: He was very inspirational.  For kids and adults, it’s very hard to muddle through life when you feel the world’s against you, yet Larry was so strong and solid in his core and was able to deal with so much negativity and so many setbacks and still be essentially a happy person.
MC: The woman where he lived says he came home every day skipping and singing.  He was this beautiful, giving child.  I found out that he knitted scarves for war veterans, for Christmas presents. He brought flowers to people who were having bad days. One kid told me that once when she was having a bad day at school, he sang “Amazing Grace” to her. He really was a special kid.
DP: The school didn’t even offer the kids any grief counseling after Larry was shot, indicating they’d didn’t think his death was important enough for that.
SA:  A child was murdered in Oxnard and the adults there who were supposed to take care of the kids at the school in the aftermath were so thoughtless.
DP: Your film is populated by kids who are dealing with issues that even adults can’t handle.
MC: So many adults failed in this situation.  It’s clear why it’s not the title now, but originally we thought of calling it, “It Takes a Village.”  It really shows the failure of so many adults to reach out to these kids who needed them so much.
DP: The production notes describe Larry as “the victim of a hate crime that grabbed national headlines and dramatically changed the lives of students, teachers and the community.” But doesn’t your film point out that the community kind of swept the crime under the rug?
MC: It’s not mentioned at school. The kids told me that the adults just wanted to forget that it ever happened and never mention it.  But the kids really are so tremendous because they’ve refused to let it die. They’re like, no no no no, this did happen. We lost a friend, the school lost a student. We show the tree that was donated by a nursery in his honor, that the adults don’t want to acknowledge as having anything to do with him. And even though some of Larry’s friends didn’t really know Brandon and are shocked by what he did, they still think of him as a kid and one of them. I think the kids represent a lot of how the community feels, that they lost two children.  When you talk to the kids and you talk to the parents who had to go through this experience with their children, they might not have understood Larry or accepted Larry, but they certainly didn’t want anything bad to happen to him. There wasn’t the kind of animosity that we hear from the teachers and the jurors.  The teachers and the school is a separate community with its own thing happening.  And the jurors were not actually of the community but were Los Angelenos who live in Chatsworth.
DP: When we first learn about Larry’s death early in the film we are totally against Brandon. Then we can think the film is going to put us on his side, too, by presenting his sad background and then bringing in his defense lawyers who are against kids being tried as adults in California and receiving stiff prison sentences.  But then we see Brandon is violent in prison and learn that he is a skinhead and that the lawyers who swoon over him are a bit loony.  It’s very interesting how the film repeatedly makes us change our perspective.
MC: Yes, I created a film to reflect the journey that I took. I wanted you to go through the journey I went through, every day.  That was really important, and Sasha and Eddie were behind me on that. You are sympathetic toward Brandon and then you see these Nazi drawings that he did, and they’re so disturbing and so upsetting–and he still thinks that way. He still believes that white people are intellectually superior to other races. That’s his belief system.  Then you talk to his family and you understand why he is that way to a certain degree.  You also are told why they love him so much, and how they’re never going to give up on him.
DP: Is he a tragic figure, like Larry?
MC: No. I think it’s a tragedy what happened to Brandon, but I would never excuse his choice to kill Larry, because it was a deliberate choice. He forgot the gun that day and went back inside the house to get it.  He had twenty minutes to think it over, and he didn’t change his mind.
DP: A great moment in the movie is when a few female members of the jury talk about Brandon’s doodling. They can rationalize that his drawing Nazi insignia is understandable because “boys like to draw,” but they can’t rationalize anything Larry did that was strange to them.  Nothing.
MC: It’s amazing. They truly related to Brandon like a son.
DP: When you filmed those former jury members raving about Brandon, what were you thinking?
MC:  I was excited because they were revealing what I thought that they thought.  Because I couldn’t film them during the trial, I had no proof until they let it out to each other.
SA: If they’re willing to gloat about Brandon in front of the camera, it shows they’re proud to adore him.
DP: It’s interesting that Maeve Fox admits she picked a lousy jury.
MC: She owns up to it. I felt for her, as a human being. She carries this with her today, still.
DP: It’s not only the members of that jury who think like this.
MC: Yes, but like Sasha said, when you live in California and surround yourself with certain kinds of individuals, you don’t realize that the person next to you in Starbucks doesn’t think the same way.  I grew up in Southern California and though I know there are pockets of people who aren’t so liberal, I just didn’t realize the amount of animosity there is.  It’s just hatred, really. I can’t see it any other way because there’s no way for people to rationalize and make it okay to kill a child who did nothing wrong.  No one knew who Brandon was or the tragedy that he was living in at home, because he kept that from everyone, but you still can’t say what he did to Larry was okay.
DP: When did you finish your film?
SA (laughing): In January, minutes before Sundance.
DP: Five years have passed since Larry’s death and Brandon’s trial. And nine months have passed since you finished editing the film before taking it to Sundance and on the festival circuit. So what are your thoughts as it debuts on HBO on Monday?
MC: I’m really interested to see the reaction it’s going to have.  What will viewers take from this film that asks more questions than it answers?  As I told people at festivals: I want to ask: How are you going to help people like Larry?  How will you help change things for them?
SA: The biggest hope I have is that it reaches kids in that demographic, kids in junior high, kids that can still stop themselves from being bigoted, and of course kids who are just beginning to realize that they could be gay or transgendered and need to know that there are other people in the world like them.  We also want to reach out to people that could be advocates for them.  Our hope is that everyone realizes we’re all the same in the end, that we’re all just trying to do the best we can.
DP: So you want a positive outcome for the movie.
MC: Exactly.

Dorothy Vogel and the Art of Collecting Art

Dorothy & Herb 50 x 50 Is Playing in Theaters

Dorothy Vogel and the Art of Collecting Art

(from Sag Harbor Express 9/24/13)

By Danny Peary
Megumi Sasaki’s charming documentary, Herb & Dorothy 50×50, opens Friday at the Sag Harbor Cinema, almost five years since her Herb & Dorothy won the Audience Award at the 2008 Hamptons International Film Festival. The acclaimed first film told the incredible story of two national treasures, Herb and Dorothy Vogel, a postal worker and librarian who—while living in a tiny one-bedroom New York apartment with cats and turtles—spent 30 years amassing the world’s finest collection of minimalist and conceptual art, which they donated to the National Gallery in 1992. The sequel, both a biography and a treatise on art, is about the decision by the Vogels and the National Gallery, which ran out of space when the collection reached 5,000 pieces, to lend 50 works to one museum in each of the 50 continental states.
Herb passed away in May 2012, but I recently spoke to Dorothy about him, their inspiring 50 x 50 project, and the new movie.




Danny Peary: You and Herb never courted fame, so how is it now having two films made about you?
Dorothy Vogel: I’m amazed because we’re ordinary people and not used to all this attention. I try to just go with the flow. It’s well deserved but the recognition that Megumi has received is also a wonderful surprise because she’s like family. It is also very important to me that the artists in our collection get recognition.

Megumi Sasaki and Dorothy Vogel Photo: DP
DP: In the movie you talk about paintings leaving your “nest,” but didn’t you feel similarly about the artists you helped support before contemporary art became popular? 
DV: That’s true. We were very proud of them and excited by their achievements. We appreciated each others’ friendships and followed their careers, sharing both their joys and sorrows.
DP: They felt they could discuss their art with you because as Richard Tuttle says, you have an “aesthetic eye.” 
DV: We had different relationships with different artists, and some were more verbal than others about their work. Herb developed his eye for modern art and I learned from him, I absorbed it very quickly, but since we stopped collecting, I think I’ve lost that ability. We did it together. I don’t know if Herbie could have done much without me. I certainly wouldn’t have done it at all without him.
DP: Was collecting an obsession or a mission to gather as much art as you could at bargain prices?
DV: Herb was a little bit of a bargain hunter, but not me. He was also a hoarder.  Maybe I am too. I never felt we were on a mission. But we were very obsessed. We just enjoyed collecting art. At first it was about gathering, then it was about distributing.  Those are the two movies.
DP: In the new movie we see confused adults and teenagers looking at your collection in museums.  Do you ever identify yourself and explain why something you call “difficult art” is worth a fortune?
DV: No, no, no. I’m too shy to go up to anybody and say it’s my collection. I assume people will have trouble liking certain art, but I don’t think it’s up to me to explain it. Unlike Herb, I never studied art history, so I don’t have the vocabulary.

DP: Did you think all the art you purchased was beautiful, or did you see something else?
DV: Maybe compelling ideas. We just felt it had importance.
DP: Did you immediately understand what you purchased?
DV: Herb said, “If we waited until we understood the work, we wouldn’t have been able to buy it.” I enjoyed looking at art; I never felt I had to understand it because what an artist tried to do and what we see are two different things. Art is subjective.
DP: Do you agree with Richard Tuttle that your collection as a whole is a work of art?
DV: Definitely. Richard was very skeptical about 50 x 50 because he thought it was breaking it up, just as Herb did initially. But it’s still our collection. And we didn’t break up Richard’s or any artist’s work.
DP: You’re admired for never selling anything that became valuable. Did you decide that at the beginning?
DV: We must have. But if Herb needed open-heart surgery, I would have sold something—but Medicare covered our medical expenses. And Herb never went into a nursing home.
DP: Were you two aware of the importance of the 50 x 50 project?
DV: Yes, as does the film. Not everyone can travel to New York or Washington, so we sent the art to them. Some of the museums give people their first access to the type of work that’s in our collection. They like our story so they look at the art and it’s a revelation.
DP: In the two films, others talk about your impact on their careers and contemporary art. Do you recognize your influence?
DV: It’s nice to be recognized by our peers, but it’s not for me to say if we were influential.  Herb was much more conscious about the importance of art history.
DP: In the film, we see you’ve put Herb’s painting on an otherwise bare wall in your apartment. Is this the first time you’ve displayed one of his paintings since the 1960s?
DV: Yes, then virtually all of our work was on the walls, but we took it down and put up other artists’ works. And we never painted again. I feel I misjudged him. He was a lot better than I thought.
DP: I was surprised how big that painting is, because you liked small.
DV: No, we just couldn’t afford big. We liked big too.
DP: Why did you mount that particular painting?
DV: Because I was its inspiration.
DP: The film’s production notes state that after Herb’s passing, “Dorothy now works to create a living tribute to their partnership.”
DV: I don’t want people to forget what Herb did and who he was. He loved art and nature—that’s who he was. I talk about him when I tour with Megumi and her movies. I go to Japan, I go to Singapore. I just feel so sad that Herb’s not here to experience it with me.

An interview with Megumi Sasaki and interviews with other filmmakers can be found at “Danny Peary on Film” at