Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Radcliffe, Temple, and Hill Toot Their "Horns"

Playing in Theaters

Radcliffe, Temple, and Hill Toot Their Horns

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 10/30/14)

By Danny Peary
Horns, Alexandre Aja’s genre-bending adaptation of Joe Hill’s cult novel, opens theatrically Friday in New York City and elsewhere.  You can also see it on VOD. Just as Ben Affleck’s character is wrongly accused of murdering his cold-hearted wife in Gone Girl, a young man, Ig Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe gives still another excellent post-Harry Potter performance), is blamed for the rape and murder of his virtuous long-time girlfriend, Merrin (an appealing Juno Temple).  Unlike Affleck’s ineffectual character, Ig grows a pair of horns that have the power of making everyone he comes into contact with reveal their most despicable thoughts and desires.  Ig sets out to find the real killer, and as he gets closer, he increasingly transforms into the Devil.  He is even accompanied by snakes during his pursuit.  He may be the Devil and is capable of brutality, but he isn’t such a bad guy.  That’s one of the many quirks in this daring, well-cast and acted, zany hybrid that is at once a love story, a parable, a murder mystery, a satire, and a horror film with images that are not for the squeamish.  It’s a wild ride that I hope you take to the end.  On Tuesday, I was part of this lively roundtable with Radliffe, Temple, and Hill (Stephen King’s son) at the Trump Soho in Manhattan.  I note my questions.
Joe Hill, Juno Temple and Daniel Radcliffe.
Joe Hill, Juno Temple and Daniel Radcliffe.
Q: Joe, before this project got off the ground, what did you perceive would be the biggest challenge a filmmaker would face when adapting your book to the screen?
Joe Hill: I never thought it would be a film. I thought it was such a weird, unlikely story to be adapted.  My leaping off point was Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.  You have Gregor Samsa, a man with a meaningless job, waking up one day as a giant insect.  He was an insect even before he turned into an insect and even his family didn’t respect or care about him.  When he becomes a bug, the internal truth becomes external.  Horns is pretty much the same way.  In my other stories, even fantasies, there’s usually an explanation of a conventional sort.  But this is more surreal, magical realism, and very Kafkaesque.  It has a black sense of humor and a tragic love story and a lot elements and I thought that was so strange that I couldn’t imagine anyone really making it into a film.
Q: Daniel, what was your first impression of Joe’s book, which is quite different from his father Stephen King’s books.
Daniel Radcliffe: I wasn’t looking at Joe’s work through the frame of his father’s work.  I just viewed it as an incredibly original, daring, witty, and emotional piece of writing.  I was pleased how that transferred into a script. Obviously things change when a novel is adapted into a screenplay but the one thing you don’t want people to be upset about is the absence of the book’s tone.  What makes Joe’s book unique is that it rampages through different styles, and we have remained very faithful to that and hopefully fans of the book will respond to that in the film.
Q: How did you feel about a movie that mixes so many genres–romance, satire, crime, horror, mystery…everything?
DR: Joe has said how he likes old movies that did many different things, and one of my favorite films is A Matter of Life and Death [1946], which has some amazing flights of fantasy, including a court case in heaven.  It is very funny and imaginative, and also has real drama and dramatic tension throughout. It does everything successfully.  That’s what excited me about the script for Horns.  We live in a world of people who obsessively categorize everything and I like that this film is very hard to pin down.  If you can describe a movie in one sentence and do it justice, it’s probably not a very good movie.  I think Horns will take many sentences to define.
JH: I wouldn’t call Horns a horror movie exactly.  In bad horror you get the jock and the cheerleader and the geek and the virgin and other one-note characters, and the character who has the most dimensions turns out to be the serial killer.  I find that morally odious because I don’t want to root for the bad guy, I want to root for the good guy.  I don’t think horror should be about disgusting people, about shock, or about sadism, but about characters you can really love so that when you see them suffer you will root for them to pull through.  It should about empathy rather than nastiness, and a sense of humor and a sense of romance brings more to the story.  What we see more and more, especially in the last decade, are horror movies that do only one thing.  They’re only scary, or sadistic, or funny, or romantic.  Because that’s so much easier to market.  They know how to sell a movie like Ouija because all it does is try to be scary for an hour and a half.  But that’s not necessarily better storytelling.  I love ambitious storytelling.
DR: Also, if you were to look at your life as a film, you’d be very hard pressed to pin it down to being only one genre.  A script like this without a sense of humor wouldn’t be something I’d be interested in doing. Because even the darkest times in life often result in the use of humor even as a coping mechanism or something else.  It’s a lot more complicated and real this way.
Q: The movie is many things, but, Joe, what do you think of the original religious aspect in the book being toned down in the film?
JH: I don’t know if I agree that the movie toned down the religious aspect, I just think it has a lighter touch.  It doesn’t hammer you over the head with religious subtext and it’s good that it’s not a theology lecture because I doubt if people would buy a ticket to that. Ig is a giving, loving person who thinks about others.  And Merrin is also a giving, loving person who thinks about others. In that way, it has a kind of quiet, Christian idealism, I guess.  But it’s not a religious film like a Mel Gibson movie. [Laughter]
DR: It’s interesting that you can watch this film as a very religious person and enjoy it.  There’s a lot of Old Testament-style justice. And you can see Ig as sort of a Job figure.  But I think we’re using religious symbolism and imagery to tell the story of humans, rather than the other way around.
Danny Peary: What I find most interesting is that when you expect Divine Intervention and God to save the day and goodness to prevail as in many good vs. evil films, Ig must go back to being the Devil to get the job done.  At one point it’s stated that “God turns a blind eye,” so is God present at all in this story and is the Devil an antihero rather than a villain?
JH: There is one viewpoint that God and the Devil aren’t adversaries, they’re actually on the same side.  In some ways that makes sense if you think that God hates sinners and the Devil punishes them.  The first time we ever see him, he frees two people from a jungle prison where they are being held by a megalomaniac and awakens them to their sexuality at the same time–which is kind of awesome and progressive.
Juno Temple: Weirdly when you look at Ig when he become a devilish, demonic creature, you see that he’s in that guise for good to solve a horrible crime.  So it’s the idea of playing with good and bad and how good can be bad and bad can be good.
JH: I’ve always thought that the Devil is kind of a superhero and he’d fit right in with The Avengers.  He has superpowers and has a really cool look with the horns and red costume.
Q: Daniel, how much of your look was makeup and how much was done on computer?
DR: It was all really there.  from I wore the horns and extensions and everything else. If there was some touching up in special effects, it was minimal. And there is only one snake in the film that is visual effects–it was actually a real snake but it looked like it was made out of rubber. [Laughter]
Q: Daniel, I saw you this year in the play The Cripple of Inishmaan and you were amazing.  You were the cripple in the play and now in this movie, you wear horns almost the entire time.  Can you talk about altering your body to play Billy and using props with Ig?
JH: I really enjoy being physical and being challenged with different roles.  With The Cripple of Inishmaan, I had to do something myself to change my body.  On Horns, the acting and attitude was obviously in my jurisdiction but the transformation itself was the work of other people and I was the beneficiary of it.  Any time you can look in the mirror, and you’ve gained distance between what’s looking back at you and the person you normally see in the mirror that’s a good thing.
DP: Joe, did you name Merrin after the priest who tries to rid of the girl of the demon in The Exorcist?
JH: I did.
DP: Juno, your character is portrayed as totally good, even angelic, keeping demons out of Ig while she’s alive.  Yet despite her being established like that she has premarital sex, which is progressive in that it breaks movie rules.
JT: First and foremost, Merrin is good, but she’s human good.  Being human is being naughty and nice, you’re going to be a bit of both.  I think that enjoying lovemaking can be seen as a sin, especially within her character.  But it’s complicated because she’s also truly in love with somebody and I think sex is a big part of being in love.   She is obviously this presence.  I truly feel you need people like Merrin in the world who just have this light around them.  You feel so happy and lucky to know them.  Do I feel she’s really good in a religious, angelic sense? No.  I think she’s human but, my God, I think she’s a good human.
JH: The Devil is okay with sex before marriage! That’s another reason he’s so awesome!
DP: Ig is a nice, caring, decent young man.  But if Merrin hadn’t existed, would he have gone down the wrong road with all of the other kids he grew up with?
DR: It’s really hard to say but it’s undeniable that if someone like Merrin walks into your life and adapts to who you are you and your lives become intertwined, then the relationship is going to be special.   It is special because Ig and Merrin meet each other in their formative years and they become for each other what the other one lacks. Seeing Ig as an adult and knowing about his past relationship with Merrin, I find it hard to even imagine what life would have been like for him if they had never met.  Probably it wouldn’t end like it does or as early as it does!   You know, better to have loved and lost.
JT: Yeah.
DP: Talk about that and the film’s tag line, “Love Hurts Like Hell,” which makes it clear we’re watching a love story.
JT: I think it’s a good tag line because ultimately when you look at this relationship it hurts like hell because his love has been taken away.  Not only has the love of his life been ripped away but also he’s suspected of murdering this young woman.  He did love her and everybody around her loved her. This is an honest love story in which Merrin and Ig are both wholeheartedly in love and I think have an incredible balance.
DR: Going back to what Juno said, Ig and Merrin are such a loving, committed relationship.  My mom and dad have been married for over thirty years and the institution of marriage is not something I have any personal problems with. But getting married doesn’t prove that you love someone.
JH: My favorite scene in the movie is when Merrin and Ig break up.  You have these two people who love each other so deeply and they say such agonizing and painful things to each other.  They obviously care for each other but stick their knives into each other over and over again.  It’s easy in films and novels to make it seem like bad things happen because of evil but actually a lot of bad things happen because of people trying to do the right thing. You almost always suffer because of love, not only because of hate.  People are much more likely to kill because of love than hate.
Q: Daniel, after shooting such emotional scene, when the director said “Cut,” did you go right back to being yourself?
DR: No. Particularly if you’re not done yet it’s not helpful to snap back to yourself.  By the time Juno and I filmed that diner breakup scene, we were getting along, but when you do intense scenes like that it kind of solidifies your relationship with the other actor. We shot it for two days and it was very emotional.  We were there for each other but because of the nature of the scene we needed to be in our own spaces as well.  It wasn’t possible to flip back and forth in and out of character.
Q: That was my favorite scene, too.  I was interested in whether they are looking at love in a child-like way, talking about their love lasting forever, or an adult way, realizing they might not know each other after all.
JT: I’m a hopeless romantic.  I believe in true love and that at any age you can fall madly in love with someone and it can last forever.   That also applies to friendships because I think love shows itself in many different ways.  I think it’s interesting that we can never totally know each other because that’s a joy of being human.  I think every human should have a bit of mystery because if you fully know someone you might not be in love with them entirely.  It’s the idea of having things that are only yours.
JH: That’s actually one of the things the story is about.  What does it do to you when you know everything about someone else, including their worst thoughts?  Would seeing their darkest places destroy your feelings for them?  I know that before I wrote the book my idea was to take this decent, sort of perfect young man and destroy him and turn him into Satan.  While writing the book, I discovered that destroying someone who is decent is harder than I expected.  Even when they are faced with the worst in the people they love, they can still find the power to forgive them and still care about them.  And for a pretty dark story, that’s kind of hopeful.
DP: Juno, at the film’s premiere, you spoke about Merrin being “a memory” because she’s dead when the picture begins.
JT: That’s something that drew me to the character.  Because memories are so precious.  Even as an actress, you draw on so many memories–memories of being sad or happy, or maybe being bored while taking a train from one city to another.  You wrack your brain for some of your favorite memories.  You can sit by yourself and laugh at your memories or be taken into another universe.  Memories are the most brilliant thing the human mind is capable of storing, I think.  Getting to play a memory was such an honor, especially to play the memory of someone who truly loves her.
JH: There’s also the Rashomon thing where we keep seeing her through other people’s eyes.
JH (cont’d): For instance, it’s great going into Lee’s head and seeing that he doesn’t get it.  He’s reading things in Merrin that simply aren’t there.
Q: The Devil’s not the villain in this movie.  It’s Lee, Ig’s long-time friend and lawyer.
JH: You have this character of tremendous malice in Lee Tourneau. He obviously yearns for Merrin, but what he really yearns for is to be complete. Ig is complete because he and Merrin together finish each other.  Lee has never had that and can’t imagine what that feels like. Max Minghella poured so much emotion into that role and it’s wonderful.  I really think that he’s one of the film’s secret weapons.  If there is one thing in the film that I think is so much better than what’s in the book it’s the depiction of Lee Tourneau.  In the book, he’s kind of the boogeyman.  He seems perfect but we know he’s an empty box, a hollow sociopath.  But in the movie he comes across as basically sort of a good guy with some nasty impulses.  You see a man, one of the bros, one of the friends, who could be guilty of sexual assault.  I’ve talked to people who feel that’s so real.  Usually the men who commit sexual assault and murder are not Ted Bundy figures.  It’s usually a friend, someone you trusted who took advantage.
Q: Daniel, did you ever have a betrayal from a friend that you could draw on for the friendship between Ig and the real killer?
DR: No, no! I’ve never had a friend like that to draw on, which I’m very grateful for. [Laughter]  I’m sure I’ve had something but nothing that is comparable.  Obviously you draw from whatever you have experienced and with some friends we reached a point where we couldn’t be friends anymore but that’s not really the same thing.
Q: Joe, in regard to the issue of violence against women, I’m curious what it was like for you to write the scene where Merrin is raped and killed.
JH: I’m not sure how I can respond to that. [Note: Hill donates to the Pixel Project.] Indie rockers will sometimes say, “I don’t know how you can dance to that song because I was in such pain when I wrote it.”  And you kind of want to swat them because they seem so full of themselves and pretentious.  But Horns was a really unhappy and paranoid book that was written by an unhappy and paranoid man.  The whole thing is just kind of this muddle of being depressed and not feeling like I could write a novel.  The end came out really well and I’m proud of it, and for me it’s a lot easier to connect with and enjoy the movie because I have a little distance from it and I could just sit back and enjoy it while all these other people [like the director Alexandre Aja and screenwriter Keith Bunin] did the heavy lifting.  I don’t know how the actors had the courage to do what they did in the film. I want to know how you, Juno, could do that?
JT: Shooting something like a rape and murder scene is never going to be easy and shouldn’t ever be easy. When you sign on to play a character who is going to go through that, you have to be ready to do it. We shot in the middle of the night in the forest in freezing cold Canada.  It was important to respect Merrin and not wear a warm coat and not drink a hot chocolate, because if I was really her in that situation I would be so frightened.  As you said, Joe, someone you have grown up with and trust can turn on you just like that–it’s such a chilling thought.  Alexander Aja created such an intense environment that night.  It took a long time, it was cold, it was miserable in the right way.  I was so lost in it.  It was a horrible scene but I wasn’t going to be a starlet and say, “Oh, sorry I’m not going to shoot that.”  You have to go for it and let go and allow yourself to be frightened.  And to be honest, it does take time to shake it off.  You should respect a scene like that and for any woman who has gone through something like that I didn’t want to be fucking pampered when doing it.
DR: And you weren’t.  That was like your first or second day of shooting. I got there a week later and Juno had set such a high bar.  The crew was saying, “That girl stayed under those rain machines four hours without complaining.”  That was not representative of how most actors would be.
JT: Max is actually a very good friend of mine.  I see him on a regular basis because we’re neighbors in Los Angeles.  I know him so well but when Lee does that sudden shift in personality, it really was frightening.
JT (cont’d): What was amazing about working with all these young actors was that we all just went for it.  All we could do was react to each other, so it was so great that we could trust each other.  That’s all thanks to Alex creating this universe.  You do it, and the next day you want to have cocktails together.  Everybody around you respected the position you’re in.  That was something I was blown away by when making this film.  Not only was that rape and murder scene brutal, there were a lot of brutal scenes.  Every single actor was challenged.  Even the kids who played us when we were young had challenges, physical challenges, real fear, hard situations.  I can say everybody respected that.
Q: Daniel, what was the most poignant thing for you in the film? Was it listening to Ig’s parents say awful things to him and reveal how they truly feel about him?
DR: That was horrible but the thing that brought me up short every time, whether reading it or doing it, was the scene in the treehouse in which Ig reads Merrin’s letter and finds out what was really going on with her.  That is what makes this story stay with me.  That love story Juno talked about is so key to the film.  We created this perfect, universal dream relationship between young lovers–which Joe then destroyed! [Laughter]  There is something so blissful and golden about it and I think everyone has had some version of that relationship, so what befalls them is hard to see.  But I believe the end of that storyline, with Ig reading the letter, makes the movie really special.

Keanu Reeves Talks About Playing "John Wick"

Playing in Theaters

Keanu Reeves Talks About Playing John Wick

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 10/23/14)

By Danny Peary
An action-revenge thriller with a high body count, John Wick opens theatrically this Friday, and the advance word is good.  For the Australian magazine FilmInk, I went on a set-visit in Brooklyn last winter with five other international journalists.  Filming took place outside, in a large parking lot next to an abandoned bank. It was freezing, causing all of us to huddle around a space heaters between takes.  When we could brave the cold, we stood to the side and watched a shoot-out amidst several parked cars, a meticulously choreographed scene that took two days to film.  There was a lot of gunfire and well-dressed thugs fell dying into the mud, ruining their suits, and clearly the victor was the title character played by Keanu Reeves.  Afterward Reeves, in a dark suit and tie and with slick hair that was parted down the middle, sat in a tent getting his makeup reapplied. He wasn’t made up to look handsome.  He emerged with his face covered with scratches, cuts, and blood.  That’s how he looked when we did the following, very informal roundtable at a square table in the unheated building.  I note my questions as I represented FilmInk.
Keanu Reeves in a scene from "John Wick."
Keanu Reeves in a scene from “John Wick.”
Q: What are you shooting today?
Keanu Reeves: My character is trying to get to a Russian crime lord, Viggo, played by Michael Nyqvist.  To find out where he is, he first goes after Viggo’s son Iosef [Alfie Allen] and he has to kill his henchmen.
Q: Talk about your character.
KR: John Wick is a former assassin who worked for Viggo but fell in love and got married and kind of put his past behind him. He literally buried his past, his guns, in his basement. His wife [Bridget Monahan] passes away from an illness and she gives him her dog.  She tells him, you need someone or something to love. John Wick has been robbed of his ability to grieve and to have this kind of hope, but he got this gift from his wife. The son has two henchmen with him and they steal John’s car and kill the dog.  So he seeks revenge. The film plays with worlds. There’s the normal world he has lived in and the underground world from his past that he goes back into.
Q: You’re the protagonist in this, and you’re a cold-blooded killer.
KR: Yeah, it’s pretty Old-Testament. It’s not a New Testament story until, maybe,  the final scenes. The journey starts off, he wants revenge–maybe not revenge, but reclaiming.  Someone’s taken something from him, and instead of saying, Q: You’re the protagonist in this, and you’re a cold-blooded killer.
KR: Okay, I’ll deal with that loss and move on, he’s the kind of person who’ll say, No, you can’t take that from me.John Wick is a little extreme. Viggo describes John as someone you would send after the bogeyman.
Danny Peary: The most dangerous revenge characters are those who have nothing to lose. Does your character at this point have anything to lose?
KR: I guess the deepest and easiest answer is yes, his soul. It’s the good part of him. When this switch goes on with John, I don’t think he reflects a lot about the dark side that he goes into, but I guess if he doesn’t do what he does in the film and he doesn’t reclaim his good side, he’ll be lost in the dark side of death.
DP: With your character, there’s resurrection, but how can he allow his dark nature to take over in order to defeat all these people and still get redemption?
KR: I think it’s because when we first see John, we see the good side of him. He’s with his wife and he’s loved.  He restores old books. He’s a nice guy. I think of him as an orphan who went into the military and kind of got pulled out of the military. That backstory is not spoken about, but hopefully I can transmit that he’s not a monster. Because I feel like he’s relatable. When things that we love are taken away, I think we all strive to protect and reclaim them, so I think in terms of relating to this character and what he does, there’s some wish fulfillment.  If they did that to me, that would be my way of dealing with it! [Laughter] An impulse, a basic impulse.
DP: It’s like peaceful Viggo Mortensen being forced to resort to his old ways in The History of Violence.
KR: Yes. I don’t know, I sympathize with the guy.
Q: What was your weapons training for this?
KR: It’s been fun.  I’ve had some movie gun training in the past, so some of the techniques I was familiar with, but each character I play requires something different so I worked for a while with a gentleman from LAPD SWAT.  I also worked with a guy from the army, because I would be doing different kinds of weapon and tactical techniques.  So it was basically reacquainting myself with weapons and techniques while training new things on the job and trying to get it right under the circumstances. One thing I needed to get right was a tricky holster!
Q: What about training for hand-to-hand combat?
KR: I worked with some very accomplished jujitsu and judo practitioners. I’m very much a beginner, but when I can focus on certain techniques, I can hopefully get pretty good at them.  I hasn’t been easy, and my knees aren’t as fresh as they were ten years ago, but with experience comes efficiency–and I’m a lot more efficient.
Q: When you do something like this, is there an adrenaline rush or something that elevates your excitement levels?
KR: Yeah, this film gives me a lot of opportunities to do action.  They wanted me to not do everything.  The way that they’re filming, they’re doing some inserts but they’re very long takes, and you’re seeing it happen. They want me to do a couple of throws, jujitsu and some judo. Some neat things that I haven’t really haven’t had the chance to do much of before.  So I was excited by that. There are fight sequences when it’s Action!, and you have to go for it.  And there is an adrenaline rush.  But even the scene you saw today, it’s movie fighting.
Q: After months of training and the end of the shoot now, are you exhausted?
KR: I really love this project.  You know, you go into a project with lots of hopes.  We’ve been filming for a couple of months now and the directors, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, have really realized all that I could hope for. We have a wonderful cinematographer, Jonathan Sela, a great cast, and the right tone for the film, so it’s going to be a unique genre picture.
DP: What do you mean by right tone?
KR: It has a real tone but it’s a hyper-reality.  It’s really hard-boiled. And I like that. It depends on your sense of fun, but for me it’s fun.
Q: Has directing given you a different perspective on the set, as an actor?
KR: Absolutely, and not only on the set.  While it’s definitely everything on the floor in terms of the camera and shooting, I also see things differently in regard to pre-production and post-production, and try to support the directors with everything involved with the picture.
Q: What is your relationship with the directors?
KR: I first worked with Chad when he was a stunt double on The Matrix.  That’s where I met him. We did theMatrix trilogy together. After that, I also worked on pictures with David. They went on to create a company called 8711, which is action design. They did a lot of second unit filming for some really big Hollywood movies. I’d seen their work so on the action side of it, I was really confident and excited about what they could do with the opportunity to direct. Working with them on the script and my character, I felt that they were so creative and understood the material really well.  They’re really collaborative, they pay attention to detail, they know what they want, they accept my help.  For me, it’s everything that I could look for in an actor-director relationship.
Q: What about a sequel for this?
KR: I don’t know, it depends on how they end this version, if I die or not. There’s a question about whether or not John Wick survives. We’ve shot different versions of the ending. John Wick, the Beginning! Yeah, I mean if they wanted to do something like that, I’d be game, hopefully with the same directors. I really enjoyed playing the character.  I still love acting, because every role has variety. Each role, including John Wick, has its puzzle and its journey. I really enjoy figuring it out and going on that journey.

Tom O'Brien's "Manhattan Romance" in The Big Apple

Playing at Film Festival

Tom O'Brien's Manhattan Romance in The Big Apple

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 11/6/14)

Tom O'Brien.
Tom O’Brien.
By Danny Peary
Modern Romance fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor.  It hasn’t had its theatrical release yet but it can be seen Sunday night at the Big Apple Festival at the Tribeca Cinema in New York City. This is writer-director-leading man Tom O’Brien’s smart, witty, terrifically-acted follow-up to his critically-acclaimed Fairhaven, which was about three male high school buddies who have a tumultuous reunion in their Massachusetts town.  It is about one lonely outcast who finds himself adrift. Danny works at a New York ad agency but on the side tries to finish a documentary he’s been shooting forever about relationships.  He hasn’t been able to have a successful relationship himself, other than his strong friendship with Carla (rising star Katherine Waterston), and now finds himself with Theresa (a super Caitlin Fitzgerald of Masters of Sex), who won’t have sex with him and believes in open relationships.  Carla tells him he could do better but the only other woman he has strong feelings for is Carla, and she is involved with Emmy (Gaby Hoffmann).  He senses she is bisexual but she won’t admit it.   He is frustrated in every way.  Last Friday I spoke to the amiable actor-filmmaker over breakfast about his second feature.
Danny Peary: Congratulations on being the Opening Night film at the Big Apple Film Festival.
Katherine Waterston and Tom O'Brien in "Manhattan Romance."
Katherine Waterston and Tom O’Brien in “Manhattan Romance.”
Ton O’Brien: We’re thrilled.  It took a while to finish it because of funding, and then we started hoping for a New York premiere. Big Apple is perfect.
DP: You are one of the few athletes who made a successful transition to filmmaking. Are people surprised now to find out that you were once a serious hockey player?
TO: Probably those who just know me from New York as an artist and writer.  But people who just look at my height and weight aren’t that surprised.
DP: You were a goalie at Elmira College.  How good were you?
TO: I was one of the top Division II players.  There was one guy on our team who made it to the Boston Bruins and most of the others guys went to the minor leagues or Europe.  I was scouted and could have played in Europe if I wanted, but I thought there was no point in doing that and delaying my life. As soon as my college hockey career ended I needed to find another outlet.
DP: When did you start writing?
TO: I did some writing in high school but nothing really serious.  In college I was an English lit major and did a little creative writing.  I came to New York when I was about twenty-two to be an actor and started a theater company with Chris Messina and Rosemarie DeWitt.  It was called All Seasons Theatre Group and I started writing plays for it.  They were all one-acts but for one full-length play called The Group that we put on at the Ensemble Studio Theatre [in summer 1999, with Chris Messina directing].  I wasn’t in the full-length play but I was in some of the one-acts.  Most often we’d write for each other and the other people in the company.
DP: What about writing for yourself?
TO: That developed out of the practicality of wanting to get better roles. I wanted to write myself good roles because nobody else was doing that.   So Chris and I talked about writing a movie for ourselves.  So I wrote the script forFairhaven, which would feature us, and for years, he helped me develop it.  [O'Brien would play Jon, an ex-quarterback who is stuck in town, and Messina would play bad-boy Dave, who returns to town for his dad's funeral.] During that whole process of writing a good part for me, I fell in love with writing itself.
DP: Did you prefer from the start to write personal material?
TO: I think so because that’s what I have always been drawn to most when I see films and plays.  Relationships, how characters behave.  I was interested in writing about characters exposing themselves and being vulnerable and open.
DP: Fairhaven got really good reviews to help it out of the gate.
TO: It did. Stephen Holden gave us an amazing review in the New York Times and that got us into a lot of doors. The roll-out for Manhattan Romance has been more low key and we’ve done the smaller festivals and flown under the radar. It’s nice how it is being done.
DP: Talk about casting this film.
TO: The first person I went after was Katherine Waterston.  This was two years ago before she was cast in the lead in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice.  I knew her from theater and I’d met her socially a couple of times. I thought she was interesting and beautiful in a nontraditional way.  Her mom is a supermodel [Lynn Louisa Woodruff] and her dad is Sam Waterston. She’s kind of a combination of the two of them. I talked to Chris about who could play Carla and we concluded we wanted a New York theater actress who felt she needed to be a lead in a movie. I asked Chris, “What about Katherine Waterston?”  I think she’d done only one movie, The Babysitters, with John Leguizamo.  He went, “She’s perfect!” So he emailed her and I met her and thought she was quirky and funny and reminded me of Diane Keaton in Annie Hall.  She was dying to star in a movie and had loved the script so we decided right then to do it together.  I didn’t audition her.
DP: Was there one thing in the script that she wanted you to explain to her?
TO: She was really concerned with the believability of Carla leaving her lesbian relationship and going straight.  I didn’t have to rewrite anything because it was there in the script but she just wanted me to keep an eye on that as the director.
DP: How did you cast Caitlin Fitzgerald as Theresa?
TO: Ed Burns had seen Fairhaven and asked me to lunch.  I told him that I needed a producer to get my second movie made and he said, “I think I know the guy for you, Michael Harrop. I’m meeting him later”  At that moment, somebody walked by the restaurant and Ed goes, “That’s Mike!”  So he grabbed him and brought him in.  Mike had worked with Ed for years and he ended up being my producer.  I mentioned to Ed that I was looking for someone to play Theresa.  He recommended Caitlin, who starred with him in his film The Newlyweds. He put me in touch with her.  So his influence is all over the movie.
DP: Carla and Theresa don’t have any scenes together, so did Katherine and Caitlin ever meet?
TO: They knew each other.  Katherine had to leave in the middle of the shoot to do Night Moves with Kelly Reichardt and when she left Caitlin came in to shoot her scenes.  Then Katherine came back and we finished. She suggested Gaby Hoffmann to play Emmy. I didn’t know her.  It was amazing for Gaby to come in and do a supporting role.  She said, “I always wanted to play Katherine Waterston’s girlfriend.”  We had her for only four days, but she’s such a pro that I didn’t have to give her a word of direction. I didn’t have to give any of them much direction. It’s the Woody Allen thing–it’s all casting.
DP: Don’t take this the wrong way, but if I didn’t know differently I would have thought you had made Manhattan Romance before Fairhaven.
TO: That’s interesting because that’s sort of the opposite of what we’ve been hearing. Most people who sawFairhaven first think this is a leap forward in terms of the filmmaking.  But I can see what you’re saying becauseFairhaven definitely had a bigger budget and the aesthetic was intended to be glossier, with less hand-held shots.
DP: Also I would think you would have wanted to get all the autobiographical material out of your system in your first film before making a movie about three male characters.
TO: Yes, Manhattan Romance is more autobiographical.  There’s a lot more of my life in it than in Fairhaven. InFairhaven there was more cover, on this one I feel more exposed. It think of it as a reflection of the solitary, single New York life that I’d lived for so many years.
DP: I know there is much of Jon, the former high school football star who wants to be a writer, and Danny, a striving filmmaker, that is you.  So could Jon and Danny be friends?
TO: That’s a good question.  I think so.  I feel that if Jon got out of Fairhaven and went to New York and became a writer he might be Danny down the road.
DP: Or you.  In Fairhaven, Jon tells his therapist that it’s hard being who he is.  That seems to be a prevailing theme for you because if Danny went to a therapist I’m sure he’d say the same thing.
TO: You’re right.  It’s like what Scorsese says about directors exploring the same themes their whole career.  So that’s definitely one theme of mine.  Hopefully by the end of the movies Jon and Danny will be closer to stepping into their own selves.  Those are the most interesting characters for me.  We see Hollywood movies about guys who win the game and win the championship and become everything they dreamed of being.  But what about the people who don’t have it that easy?  Therein lies the drama.  I think it’s a nice juxtaposition when you see someone who should be a heroic character and realize he’s not.  Like a one-time star quarterback who once saw him himself as the next Tom Brady.  When you really get into his head and his life, you see he’s not heroic after all.
DP: Does Danny miss his father because he has no role model or male figure to talk to?
TO: It’s interesting that you’d ask that because my actor father [who has a small bit as Danny's uncle] has pointed out that in both of my scripts there is an absence of a father for my characters.  I think it’s a character thing–how do you become a man without having your father be an example?
DP: Directors have common themes in their movies through their whole careers, but I believe you had to make Manhattan Romance when you are at this age, not ten years down the road.
TO: Absolutely. When I look back at the plays I wrote ten or fifteen years ago, I ask, “Who was that who wrote that?”  There are certain things you have to do at certain ages and then move on. I think it’s a film for right now.  When I was making Fairhaven it was like me ten years ago, but Manhattan Romance feels like me when I was making it.  What’s interesting is that the whole crew was single.  My producer, my DP, everyone in the camera departments.  I thought, why not make a documentary about this crew? Since I made the film I have a girlfriend. It is life imitating art.  Being in a relationship, it would be hard to make this movie today.
DP: I expected Manhattan Romance to be a broader comedy because it won the Audience Award at the New Hampshire Film Festival and I wouldn’t have guessed the audience in Portsmouth would so much appreciate a subtle comedy.
TO: The audience at that festival is very savvy and discriminating. My tone is usually very realistic and I love the bridge between documentary and narrative.  I want to feel like I’m watching real lives.
DP: You also have a lot of dead-pan humor.
TO: That’s the kind of humor I grew up with.  Bill Murray, the early Chevy Chase, and those kinds of comic actors.  I also like awkward comedy
DP: I know Woody Allen is your biggest influence. His movie was Manhattan and your movie is Manhattan Romance, and I think you tried to capture the city as much as he did.
TO: That was the idea. This movie was always meant to be an homage to him.  I’ve been in Manhattan for fifteen years now and I’ve always had this experience of it in my head that I wanted to visualize.  For instance, there’s a montage scene where my DP Scott Miller just stole some shots of people in the city.  I wanted to show cinematically what it’s like to walk down the street in Manhattan.  I include early morning scenes when the city wakes up and night scenes when there’s chaos and it’s too stimulating at times.  I try to show the whole spectrum.   We did a lot of walking through the city and you’ll see many familiar places.  Scott and I traded a lot of our New York experiences.  He is kind of the quintessential New York DP,  so we were lucky to get him.  I feel he really captured my internal vision of the city and we were on the same length right from the start.
DP: You could say the “Romance” in the title refers to a romance with the city.
TO: Yeah, it’s the romance between two people, Danny and Carla, but on a bigger scale it’s a romance with the city itself.  We wanted the city to be a character.
DP: Also New York is a giant city of more than eight million people, yet you can be lonely in it, as Danny is.  That’s the difference in New York of having one person in your life and not having someone in your life.
TO: Exactly, it makes a huge difference  We wanted to capture that loneliness and isolation he feels as all these people pass by, crossing into each other’s world’s because it’s so crowded.
DP: Talk about the scene when Danny gets frustrated and starts running through the city, running with no place to go, and the camera impossibly stays on you.
To: It was crazy.  They were in a van and my producer was driving and the DP had the door open and was shooting.  It was Friday night on Prince Street in SoHo so it was packed and I don’t know how they kept up with me.  I was jogging at first and when I realized they were still with me, I ran a little faster and they stayed with me the whole time.  For awhile we considered playing that in one shot.
DP: A line you have quoted in interviews is “Truth is best served through fiction.”
TO: I quoted Hemingway. It’s true.  I wanted this film to be fiction but have the feel of a documentary.  I like the layers of reality there–it’s a film about a filmmaker making a film.
DP: Those are interesting shots when Danny has his interview subjects framed on his camera and meanwhile Scott Miller is shooting him.
TO: It was important to me to shoot like that.  A lot of TV shows, like The Office, do those documentary shots of the subjects but I wanted it to be more about this guy making a documentary. So I told Scott at the beginning to always shoot me while Danny is shooting.
DP: Danny seems to understand the couples he shoots but is he capable of understanding himself?
TO: As is often the case, it’s easier to see things in other people than in yourself.  I think he’s doing that when making his documentary on relationships.  He’s looking at all these other relationships and during the course of making his film he starts to learn more about himself and who he really wants to be with.
DP: So this is a progression for him?
TO: He has been working on his documentary for so long that he needs to finish it before he can move on with the rest of his life.  For him to get together with someone in a real way, he needs to figure out something about himself through making the movie.
DP: Is there a revelation moment in regard to his feelings toward Carla while making the movie?  I know he looks at the footage of Carla sitting with Emmy on their couch, so does he realize that they don’t fit as well as he and Carla do?  Is there something he sees?
TO: I think so.  But maybe there’s not one specific moment.  That’s the conclusion he’s coming to through watching his footage.  Danny is a watcher.  He makes this movie that requires him to watch other people in the city.  Eventually he says he wants to start dealing, he wants to stop observing and be a participant in his own life.  That is the moment when he decides not to sit on the sidelines anymore but be in the game.
DP: Does he think of himself as a supporting character in his own life?
TO: I’d say so.  There’s a line in the film about how he realizes he’s watching other people have their lives rather living his own life.  He concludes he wants to start living, which he can do after putting the movie away.  His relationship with Carla becomes his new project.  I’ve constantly had that experience of having unfinished projects get in the way of my life.  Fairhaven especially because I worked on it for so long. I could identify with this filmmaker who never makes his film or a writer who never writes his novel.  I was someone who couldn’t finish or follow through. Danny couldn’t finish his film in the past, but now he does and realizes that maybe he can be with Carla and live this life that he wants to live.
DP: Does Danny undervalue himself?
TO: Yes. He’s better than he sees himself.  Carla tells him that he’s better than to be in his situation with Theresa. Sometimes it takes someone else to show you yourself.  That’s what Carla and Danny do for each other.  They boost each other.  It flips during the movie and he’s telling her that she’s better than to be in her relationship with Emmy.  They give that honesty to each other and that’s part of their connection.
DP: When he talks to Carla about his preferring to be alone rather than having a relationship, he talks about the need to make sacrifices in order to have a relationship.  I thought that was an odd approach for a person to take.  Compromising is part of relationships, but it sounds negative for him to enter a relationship with the attitude that he’s losing something rather than gaining something.
TO: That’s been his experience.  He’s been alone so much that he’s kind of fallen in love with his solitude and he wants to stay independent and not sacrifice his alone time.  I think there are sacrifices in relationships but there are definitely great things too.   It become a trade-off.  What do you value more–the freedom to do whatever you want to do or a connection to another person?  He tells Carla that he hasn’t met anyone he’d sacrifice his time alone for.  But she calls him on that, saying it doesn’t have to be that way.
DP: Does Danny have any male friends?
TO: Well, he has his buddy who he works with at the editing studio.  But I think he’s a loner.  Carla is his best friend.
DP: Manhattan Romance begins with Danny already involved with a New Agey young woman, Theresa, who believes in open relationships. Jon, your character in Fairhaven, also has a New Age girlfriend who believes in open relationships.  Are New Age types part of your world?
TO: Yes. In my other life, I teach yoga so I’ve been around the New Age community a lot.  In Fairhaven, Angela, the New Age girlfriend played by Alexie Gilmore, becomes a positive person for Jon, but I didn’t feel she was fully realized on screen as much as I wanted to. I really wanted to explore that more with Theresa.  I based Theresa on a real person and Caitlin pretty much is her. Katherine’s character, Carla, is more of an amalgam of different people but Caitlin’s was specific to one person and she nailed her to a T.
DP: Some of the lines Theresa and Danny say to each other as they hug–”innocently” for her but not him–are so funny.  Like when he tells her it’s great that they can hug without his feeling sexual.  He thinks it’s a good thing when he can tell her, “I feel nothing.”
TO: Yeah, and they are real. Put your life in art, Woody Allen-style.
DP: Is he genuinely interested in open relationships?
TO: He’s interested in some progressive ideas about relationships because he hasn’t had luck in standard relationships. So he’s open to the idea that there is something else.  When he’s lying in bed with Carla, she tells him that relationships don’t have to be about one thing.  She breaks it down for him, but he thinks it’s all or nothing and if it doesn’t work he’s willing to try something crazy.  But I think he’s more in love and seduced by Theresa then he is into open relationships.
DP: There’s a lot of self-deception with all your characters, so does Danny wrongly think he could handle Theresa seeing other guys, too?
TO: Totally. I wanted the audience to understand what he’s going through.  She’s a beautiful woman and he is drawn in when she gives him attention, but we know it’s just never going to work. You see that early in the film when Theresa gets up from their table and goes to sit with another guy.  That was an example of what it would be like with her.  And he’s thrown by it.  The idea was interesting but the actuality of it would be hard to do.
DP: We are sure that Danny needs to get away from Theresa.  But we can feel a little sympathy for her because there’s some self-deception going on with her and she’s covering up some pain.
TO: I wasn’t looking to make her the total bad guy.  I wanted to walk the line.  I have seen in the New Age community that there are people who have total self-deception and are a bit crazy, but there are more authentic people who are living the life they want.  I wanted her to be in the middle.  She might be full of shit but she’s trying to figure her life out and really believes in these ideas.
DP: I’m not sure she really believes in these ideas, I think she wants to believe in them.
TO: Yeah, she’s not 100% there.  But there are people who do live those lives.
DP: Like Jarrod, the guy who takes off his shirt and sits on her couch.  He comes across as a completely obnoxious, pretentious guy but when challenged he tells Danny, “You don’t know me.”  That is his one line that hints there may be something there.
TO: You and my mom are the only two people who have picked up on that line so far.  She loved that line because she thought it made him a more well-rounded character.
DP: That one line gives him infinite possibilities.  I still wouldn’t want to spend any time with him.
TO: Neither would I. Except the actor is a sweetheart of a guy who happens to be Katherine’s brother-in-law, Louis Candelmi. He’s a really good actor who’s doing a play at the Public Theater right now.
DP: Just as you didn’t want to make Theresa a villain, you don’t set up Emmy as an awful person.  She’s very close to being perfect for Carla.
TO: Yeah! I’m glad that came across. In the Hollywood version of this story, Emmy would be a terrible person and there would be no doubt Carla should leave her to be with Danny.  But I wanted there to be subtlety and to show that it’s a pretty good relationship between Emmy and Carla. I didn’t want it to be black and white that Carla should need to leave. She’s just not quite what Carla needs.
DP: A theme of yours is that people gravitate toward relationships that they know will have unsatisfying resolutions.
TO: They don’t know that at the time. I don’t think they’d go into it if they knew the outcome.  I always tricked myself into thinking that I can fix it or make it work.  At some point you have the realization that it’s not going to get better.
DP: Were you trying to resolve such things in your own head by exploring these characters in your film?
TO: Yes. It is interesting that I got a girlfriend after finishing my movie.  Like Danny, I finished my movie and was able to be with someone too.
DP: You don’t have to answer this but how close is your girlfriend to Carla?
TO: It’s interesting that she has a lot of the same qualities.  She is also grounded and down-to-earth. Maybe in some way I was writing the perfect woman for me and of an idealized version of a relationship.
DP: Do you think Danny and Carla’s odd relationship is in any way specific to Manhattan?
TO: It’s definitely specific to my experience of New York. When I arrived I felt for the first time, “Oh, I’m home, this is where I should be.”  It’s the land of misfit toys in a way, where all these people from different places come and find their family and home here.  Danny and Carla are misfits at home in New York.  So for me their experience rang true.
DP: Among the millions of people, you would think that there would be 100,000 people who would be good matches for Danny or Carla, but they gravitate toward each other.  In fact, Danny is attracted to Theresa, and Carla lives with Emmy. But could it be that they are the only match for each other?
TO: I don’t know. I guess that’s a philosophical question having to do with whether there is only one person for each person.
DP: Well, do you, not necessarily personally, but as the director-writer of Manhattan Romance, want to make us believe that Danny and Carla are the only match for each other?
TO: The idea is that these two people have an intense connection.  They are friends first but feel something more underneath the friendship.  But they don’t know how to define or articulate those feelings, especially with Carla being in a lesbian relationship with Emmy.  It is even more confusing for her because of the whole sexuality thing, but neither is consciously aware of what their feelings are.
DP: Your film is interesting in regard to being a viewer.  Because when Danny and Carla are both seeming vulnerable and you put the camera close to them, as when she sleeps overnight in his bed, we don’t know if we’re supposed to feel sexual tension between them.  We feel guilty for not accepting that they can just be friends and for thinking he can win her over although she’s a lesbian.
TO: It was intentional.  I wanted you to feel that you were in bed with them.  I love that Scott Miller was invisible and they forgot that he was in the room.  At the screening in LA, somebody said, “I was uncomfortable for a lot of the movie.”  I took that as a great compliment.  I wanted people to feel uncomfortable because it’s all so raw and open and vulnerable.  That’s how the characters are. I think the whole movie is based on there being an underlying sexual tension between them.  So right from the start, we want you to feel that connection. You’re going on a ride with Danny and feeling his intimacy with Carla.
DP: In the script, you include a reference to a guy in Carla’s past.  Danny tells her that he doesn’t want to cross a line with her, but does that guy from her past tell us viewers that she might be bisexual and be worth pursuing?
TO: It is purposeful.  If she had never been with men before and had only been in lesbian relationships, for her to suddenly flip and go 180 degrees the other way would a little hard to buy.
DP: Do you want us to root for Danny to win Carla?
TO: Yeah, ultimately that’s what you want.  She shows up at the end and it’s a version of the classic movie.  He’s just said how he doesn’t like classic movie endings and then he finds himself in one with her.
DP: We like Carla from the start, particularly in comparison to Theresa, and we like Danny but until she has her near breakdown after her breakup with Emmy we don’t really see how good he is for her.  Is that when we’re supposed to see he’s good for her too, or earlier?
TO: Different people see it at different times.  Many people connect with Danny right from the start and go on his whole ride, and others connect to Carla and then come to appreciate Danny more at the time you mention.  Women seem to really like the love story between the two and want them to get together at the end.
DP: Among these characters, do you think sex gets in the way?
TO: For sure.  He obviously wants to be with Theresa sexually and she’s giving him the push-pull.  He has a genuine connection with Carla but when they are together the sexual tension kind of screws up their relationship.  Sex makes them distant from the other rather than enhancing the connection.  They are best friends and both think that if they have sex they might jeopardize what they have.
DP: For the intimate scenes between Danny and Carla, Danny and Theresa, and Carla and Emmy, did you rehearse?
TO: We kind of just talked them through.  You don’t really want to rehearse those scenes.  You don’t want to lose the spontaneity but you also want make sure the actors feel safe and secure enough to do those scenes.  You sometimes get actors who hold back to protect themselves.  As an actor, you want to feel free to do those scenes.  It was more me who was concerned for them.  They said, let’s do it, whatever.
DP: Your movie is called Manhattan Romance but the romance actually blossoms outside the city.
TO: We shot in Cold Spring [in Putnam County].   I wanted to give the film a little time jump and some distance geographically.  That space was needed for Danny and Carla to come together. It would have felt forced to do it linearly, with them getting together at the end in Manhattan immediately after the previous scene.  The two of them needed what had happened between them at Emmy’s Election night party at the bar to sink in.
DP: He tells the audience at his movie’s Q&A that he doesn’t believe movies should have endings where everything is tied up in a bow.  And your ending is kind of open-ended.
TO: It’s funny that some people expect the screen to go to black after the Q&A.  Even having the final scene with Danny and Carla walking together, it’s not tied up.  That was in the script.  I love ambiguity in films.  Some people may think it has been resolved and they are going to go off and get married and live happily ever after.  Some people may think they will spend the weekend together and realize it’s not going to work.  So it’s a mix of ambiguity and the classic movie ending.
DP: It’s Bogart and Claude Rains.
TO: I steal from Casablanca a lot.
DP: How can people see Manhattan Romance?
TO:  For people who miss the Wednesday night opening there will be another screening at 8 pm on Sunday, at the Tribeca Cinema. Then hopefully we’ll get a distributor.  We’re talking to distributors and sales agents.  Rather than do festivals for a long time, we’d rather just get it out there quickly and capitalize on Katherine also being in Inherent Vice.  That comes out December 12 and we’re hoping to ride its coattails. Just since we shot the movie, the careers of Katherine, Caitlin, and Gaby are exploding.  Caitlin’s got Masters of Sex, Gaby’s been on Girls and has got  Transparent, an Amazon show that’s getting really popular.  So the cast and Ed Burns connection will hopefully draw a lot of people to the movie.  I hope people see it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Payman Maadi on the Small But Powerful "Camp X-Ray"

Playing in Theaters

Payman Maadi on the Small But Powerful Camp X-Ray

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 10/16/14)

By Danny Peary
Kristen Stewart and Payman Maadi in "Camp X-Ray."
Kristen Stewart and Payman Maadi in “Camp X-Ray.”
Camp X-Ray fits my category “Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor.”  This Friday Peter Sattler’s beautifully acted, troubling,  touching, and important debut feature–which makes it clear why America must close Guantanamo–opens theatrically in New York City and on VOD.  The synopsis in the press notes: “A young woman (Kristen Stewart, giving her most mature performance, excels as Amy Cole) joins the military to be part of something bigger than herself and her small town roots, but ends up as a rookie guard at Guantanamo Bay.  Her mission is far from black and white, as she is surrounded by hostile jihadists and aggressive male squad mates.  When she strikes up an unusual friendship with one of the detainees (Iranian actor Payman Maadi, who follows the Oscar-winning A Separationwith another extraordinary performance), both of their worlds are forever shifted.  Written and directed by Peter Sattler, Camp X-Ray is a deeply human story of two people, on opposite sides of war, trapped and struggling to find a way to live together.”  I met Payman Maadi when I interviewed him and director Asghar Farhadi about the terrific About Elly several years ago. We have stayed in touch and last week I spoke to him in the city about his first American film. As we were having breakfast at Sarabeth’s, a couple passing by recognized the budding international star.
Danny Peary: Do you get recognized a lot in America?
Payman Maadi: Yes, from A Separation.  In Los Angeles more than New York.  Each time it happens, it surprises me.
DP: Is there a community of Iranian actors and filmmakers in America?
PM: Yes.  Actors, filmmakers, artists, singers.  If I don’t know them personally, I do know who they are.  Most of those I know are banned from working in or going back to Iran because they did or said something against the government.  Which is not me.   I now live with my wife and daughter in L.A. and in Iran.  I’d like to manage my career where I can go back and forth.
DP: Which you couldn’t do if you criticized the government there.  So do you get support from the Iranian government when you make movies in Iran?
Payman Maadi. Photo by Danny Peary.
Payman Maadi. Photo by Danny Peary.
PM: I don’t do anything for or against the government. I’ve tried not to ask for its financial support, even when I directed my film Snow in the Pines two years ago in Iran and had no money.
DP: Did you direct Snow in the Pines before or after A Separation?
PM: I was ready to direct my own movie but I got the script for A Separation and it was brilliant, so I stopped and made the film with Asghar Farhadi.  We had worked together before on About Elly. 
DP:  Of course, it won an Oscar in America., but was A Separation received differently outside of Iran than in Iran?
PM: Asghar told me, “I doubt if it will have the success of About Elly.”
DP: About Elly had Hitchcockian elements so you two recognized it had universal appeal.
PM: Right, it could have taken place in Denmark or Mexico, anywhere.  But A Separation wasn’t like that and we weren’t sure it would be liked outside of Iran. We thought it was more an Iranian film that was very much about society there.  It turned out that it was really well received first by the Iranian people and then out of the country. What we learned is that if you make films outside of America and want to get known internationally, you must first become successful locally.  The people of your own country must agree with you that it’s a true, authentic portrait of your country. Asghar did a great job and I owe him a lot.  It was successful because people everywhere left the theater thinking about their wives or husbands, their daughters, their relationships, their marriages.  What we learned from showing the film in New York, Los Angeles, Germany, China, France, Abu dhabi is that we’re not that different.
DP: In interviews you’ve said you want the films you act in or write or direct to show that people are alike everywhere.
Payman Maadi and Kristen Stewart in "Camp X-Ray."
Payman Maadi and Kristen Stewart in “Camp X-Ray.”
PM: To be honest with you, this belief came to me only after I experienced watching A Separation with people from around the world.   It wasn’t before that.  As Asghar says, it’s to the benefit of the media to show differences between nations not similarities.  They profit from that.  But when you have a character like mine in A Separation whose father is suffering from Alzheimer’s, it’s the same for everybody around the world who has that experience.  Whether you’re Iranian or an American, it’s sad watching your father deteriorate like that or watching a couple with a child separating.
DP: Was A Separation instrumental in your getting cast in Camp X-Ray?
PM: Peter Sattler was a big fan of A Separation and it was a big reason I got this film.
I was in Iran making Melbourne when my agent sent me the script.  When I read a script, the first thing I focus on is the story.  Maybe it’s the writer in the me, but it’s the experience I have had since A Separation.  The film must be a good film.  If the only award a movie gets at a film festival is Best Actor, it doesn’t matter, no one will see me. If it gets a Best Picture award it will seen by a wider audience and will open more doors for the actors.  So for me the story must be good, then the character must be good, and the third thing is the director. I didn’t know Peter at the time.  This was his first movie.  I liked his script right away.  But  I had to read it again. The second time I went through it I focused on the characters.   English isn’t my first language so I had to focus on every word.  Then Peter called me.  He wanted to see me so we spoke for about ten minutes on Skype.
DP: It seems so odd to me that someone in Hollywood can Skype with an actor in Iran about being in his film.
PM: There are a lot of things that are filtered in Iran but not Skype. The Internet can be slow and you often get disconnected but it’s not something that can be controlled by the government.  A lot of my friends are in America and they Skype or Face Time with their families back in Iran.  I did that when I was here and my wife and daughter were there.
DP: In the press notes it says Peter was reluctant to contact you because he wasn’t sure you were right for the part.  Did he tell you that?
PM: After he confirmed that I was in the film and we became really close friends he told me,  “I loved A Separationand I loved your performance but I felt I needed somebody louder, who expressed himself and didn’t keep things inside.”  He wanted somebody who would shout and laugh loudly…
DP: But in A Separation you weren’t particularly quiet or withdrawn. There was anger and shouting.
PM: I know.  But what happened was very funny.  When Peter Skyped me, I don’t know what kind of mood I was in that day but I had a very loud greeting, “Hello, Peter!”  I later told him, “Peter, don’t worry about the loudness because I am very loud.  In fact, whenever I’m talking to my wife in public, she has to tell me to lower my voice.”
Kristen Stewart and Payman Maadi promoting "Camp X-Ray. Photo courtesy of Payman Maadi.
Kristen Stewart and Payman Maadi promoting “Camp X-Ray. Photo courtesy of Payman Maadi.
DP: Also in the press notes, he says he cast you because he saw the chemistry between you and Kristen Stewart when the two of you Skyped.
PM: The next night the three of us met on Skype for about forty-five minutes because Kristen wanted to meet me.  Then she said she wanted to see A Separation.  She got a DVD and watched it and said she loved it.
DP: So she hadn’t seen your films yet?
PM: No, but to be honest, I had never seen Twilight or any of her movies before, either.   So I had no prejudgments about her.  I saw her the first time at Peter’s home in Los Angeles and she was more than friendly.  She came to me and said, “I’m very happy to work with you.”  I asked Peter if Cole’s hair color will be blond or dark because in the movie, Ali always calls her “Blondie.”  He said dark, like Kristen’s natural color.  He asked me what I thought about that.  I said I loved it.  To Ali, all American girls are “Blondie.”  That’s funny
DP: What’s great is that Cole accepts being called “Blondie.” You and Kristen come from two different parts of the world, you have made different kinds of movies, her acting is very low-key while you are expressive and verbal. I do think it paid off for creating two different characters that you were so different as actors.
PM: Kristen said, “Let’s rehearse and talk.  Tell me about your style of working or let’s create something together.”  People come to me and ask, “How is she on the set?  Is she friendly at all?”  And she is. She was very thoughtful, very hard-working, full of energy, very eager to do something great.  She was never satisfied with whatever she did, she was always asking for another take, saying “Let’s do it the other way.”  I liked that very much.  It was very, very important to me because most of my performance was dependent on my partner.  It was all dialogue between Kristen and me, it was like ping pong.  I couldn’t be a good actor unless I had a good partner in this film.  So I was glad we rehearsed a lot trying different versions.
DP: Did you talk to Kristen about what her character’s reactions were supposed to be in response to Ali’s imprisonment at Guantanamo and all the different ways he communicates with Cole?
PM: I asked her what she was thinking about.  She was thinking a lot about these issues and about her character every day and she would tell Peter and me if she thought her character should react differently from what we had planned.  And Peter would say, “That’s true.”  And I’d say, “Kristen, can you do it for me because I need to know what I must do if you change your reaction like that.”  I’d say, “If you change something here, then we have to also change that other action.”  Peter would say, “Payman is a screenwriter and he remembers everything.”
DP: So was Peter accepting changes from each of you?
PM: More than other directors I’ve worked with here, he’s like Ashar Farhadi in that he leaves you to do whatever you want to do, minimize it or maximize it, and observes you to see what worked and what didn’t work. He didn’t talk to us and say for us to do this or that, which happens a lot in America. For him, performance comes first, then the camera.
DP: Did you rehearse in the same place you shot the film?
PM: We rehearsed and filmed at a former juvenile detention center [in Whittier, Ca.] that looked almost exactly like Guantanamo. We did this because sometimes you get surprised when you move from one location to another.  At the prison we rehearsed for two or three days with closed doors.  We wanted to determine what we could hear if the doors were closed between us.  I didn’t have much space and Kristen didn’t have much space so there weren’t so many things we could do.
DP: Even during, I imagine you sat close to each other?
PM: We found some rooms and we tried to stay very close, to get used to the small space.  I wanted to watch Kristen very closely to make sure nothing was exaggerated. When you are close, you use your eyes to see all parts of a face.  There’s big meaning in how the eyes go up or down or to the sides. We asked Peter to watch these things through the camera lens during the final days of rehearsal.
DP: Were you told you would watch dailies?
PM: I never developed the habit of seeing dailies, but for this film we had to do it because of the close shots.  We needed to see when we moved our eyes how big the movement was.   When I made my own film I didn’t let any of the actors watch dailies. And the result was good.  But after this experience, when I make another film I will definitely show some dailies and rushes to my actors.
DP: What were those last days of preproduction like?
PM:  In the mornings we rehearsed or did a table reading and then we were through as actors.  Peter was going to the set to make sure everything was ready and I would go with him whenever I had a chance. He was working on other things and I had nothing else to do, so I asked him, “Can I stay in the prison by myself.”  One cell was ready and I decided to go inside and stay there for hours.  He said, “Yes, but do you want me to leave the door open?’  I said, “No, close the door.”  Peter said, “We’ll be working over there, so whenever you want to come out let us know.” I stayed in there over a few days and it was very helpful.  Peter also asked Kristen to walk around the hallway outside the cells and she would do it for hours, as Cole would.  It helped me a lot, knowing she was outside.  I was in a very small room, all Ali has in this world.  There were no other tools I had as an actor, but no matter how small the room was you find a variety of things around you.
There was just a small window looking out into the hall, so if I moved my head to the left or right while filming, I was out of the frame. So I’m in there thinking, what can I do?  If I go to the back of the cell and shout it sounds low but if I walk toward the door shouting it’s totally different.
DP: But while you were trying to get into Ali’s character are you thinking always that he’s someone who can’t leave? Are you asking how does he exist? and how does he not go crazy other than by refusing to do so?  And are you also thinking how heartbreaking his life is?
PM: Yes, yes!  I was thinking of that and many other things.  Ali is surely thinking, Where is my country?  Where is my family? Where are my friends?   He’s thinking of his mom: they grabbed me and took me away and she hasn’t heard of her son for eight years.  They’re probably searching for me.  What is in the news about me?  Does everyone in my neighborhood now think I’m a terrorist?  Sometimes you get suspicious about yourself–what if I was a terrorist and did something I don’t remember?  If I admit I did something and said, “I did it, hang me please,” it would be end of story.  Those are things I thought he’d be thinking.
DP: Ali tells Cole he is from Germany.
PM: Ali is Tunisian, but was raised in Germany.
DP: In the opening, Ali is taken prisoner in his apartment.  He had just emptied a bag of what looks to be cellphones, not weapons.
PM: That’s what they are.  Perhaps he was regarded as suspicious because of that.  I read how Americans pay money for leads to terrorists, so that means somebody can accuse anyone of being a terrorist and the Americans will pay him $5,000. So the situation is risky when you are, for example, buying cellphones.
DP: This movie makes us think that it doesn’t matter if he did anything or not, but that he should receive due process and be treated humanely.
PM: Exactly. We are not saying whether he’s guilty or not.  There are guilty people in Guantanomo who were caught doing terrorist acts and they deserve punishment–but punish them already, don’t just keep them there without judgment or being subject to the Geneva Convention [just because they're called detainees, rather than prisoners].  Give them life in prison, even hang them but keeping them there is bad for not just the “detainees” but for the US government.  The people of America don’t want this!  They just can’t close it.
DP: It will surprise many people to see Kristen Stewart starring in a low-budget film against the inhumane treatment of Muslims at Guantanamo Bay. Do you think it is important that Cole is a female, to contrast her even more with Ali?
PM: It makes it more interesting.  I think it separates them more.  Cole could be a male and I think Peter wrote that character as a male.  I like that it’s a female and man and their relationship isn’t sexual.  It’s not about opposites attracting.  Before we were shooting we received a book two-inches thick, DVDs, photos, and links for Internet research.  I saw documentaries on Guatanamo and trials with lawyers talking about the prison and the issues.  I spent hours doing research and saw that the movie is very precise and correct about everything.  Everything in the movie is similar to how it really is in Guantanamo Bay.  And there are female guards.
DP: A lot of this film has to do with how Americans, the guards in this case, are naive about politics and who the detainees really are.  All these soldiers are young and Ali is more educated than any of them.  The danger Peter surely wanted to avoid was having it seem to viewers that Cole is just a naive prison guard who is attracted to a smarter, more worldly prisoner, whether it’s in Guantanamo or any prison, and he manipulates her.  But we don’t think that because Cole gets closer to Ali as she becomes less naive about the situation.  There’s a learning process with her, while none of the other soldiers want to learn anything and stay naive about the detainees.
PM: We are watching only American soldiers, not American citizens.  They are young and maybe that’s why they are so naive.  They aren’t interested in books.  Soldiers have a lot of things to do so maybe they don’t have time to read.  Ali has nothing to do but read.  He says, “Each time the new guards arrive, they treat us like bad guys.” She says a good thing to him, that the other guards “will learn.” Like she has. That is not a small thing for him.  Earlier he asked her, “What did you learn?”
DP: When he says that to her he’s skeptical that she’s learned anything.
PM: Very skeptical. He asks her what she learned from such things as the hunger strikes?
DP: She does learn and opens up to him.  I would think you shot this film chronologically because of how they both change and their relationship evolves.
PM: We had to. It was very helpful for Ali and Cole to gradually become connected to each other.  Indoor and outdoor scenes could be filmed chronologically because everything was shot at the juvenile facility. The outdoor shower scene and the scene where I kick the soccer ball were dependent on how the weather was. Doing it chronologically was very beneficial.
DP: Do you think your two characters start reacting positively toward each other at the same time?
PM: I can’t say that.  From the beginning, Ali is studying her.  I don’t know when exactly he realizes she is not a bad person. After she says, “I’ll try,” and he says, “I’ll try, too,” he tries not to be bad toward her.  In the first days Peter and I were talking about my character, and he said that what is very important for you to understand is that this guy can be the nicest character on the earth, with a soft voice, and ten seconds later he can be acting like an animal.  They treat him like an animal there, making him act like a mad man.  They want to dehumanize him.  In some scenes, you can see that he’s trying to make a connection to Cole and tries to be nice but when she doesn’t respond, he starts shouting and cursing.
DP: Is he really that mad at her or is he just trying to get a reaction from her?
PM: No, he’s not trying to get a reaction.  He is disappointed that she is the same as the other guards, like the other Americans.  He is mad at her.  He says, “You think we’re the terrorists but you are the bad people.  You are trying to show yourself to the world as good people by putting us here, torturing us, and doing all these things to us.  But you know what?  You are the bad people.”
DP: In such scenes Ali is extremely frustrated and angry, and Cole is trying not to lose him and trying to make him understand, without saying it, that she cares and is listening.  They seem like hard scenes to play.
PM: Again, Peter cared about our performances and trusted us completely but he knew what he didn’t want. He’d explain to us what wasn’t right because of this or that. He’d say, “Don’t use that word,” or “Don’t shout when you want to say this.”  I remember his reluctance when we filmed a very intense scene in which Ali says that the detainees are being treated like animals. I started shouting and making sounds of tigers and dogs.  Peter came to me the second day and said, “You know what? Do it a little bit lower.”  I thought back to when we first Skyped and said, “I told you I’m loud!”
DP: Ali shouts a lot in the film, but some of the moments that have the most impact are when he isn’t talking at all.
PM: The first thing that caught my attention when I read the script is that Ali has a second layer to him where he just observes and says everything he needs to say with his eyes.  I would later ask Peter to please let me use silence as a tool between my lines.  So I may say a line and then stop and watch her, then say something else.  I said if everyone stops speaking it will be terrifying.
DP: When I think about that now, it’s not so much his loudness that is important, it’s that Ali is university educated and verbal and he is in a situation where he can’t talk to anybody. That’s the shame.
PM: Yes, yes, what you say is totally true.  He’s very talkative and nobody will talk back to him.  He always tries to engage new guards in conversation.  He isn’t manipulating them, he just wants so much to communicate with someone else. What he needs is someone to listen to him.  It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t express a political opinion; he’d be happy just to talk about Harry Potter or Nebraska or Alfred Hitchcock or Hannibal Lechter.  It doesn’t matter.  Whatever comes up, it’s a conversation.  Did you know it’s actually true that Harry Potter is the most popular book in Guantanamo Bay? They have different translations for it.
DP: Why do you think that’s true?
PM: It’s magical, it’s entertaining.
DP: Also it’s escape.  And it’s long, the same length as the Koran.
PM: It’s not a short story, each book takes a long time to read.  And as you say it takes people beyond reality.
DP: Does Ali read the Koran?
PM: He has read it a thousand times.  I think he becomes a little doubtful to everything, he’s losing his beliefs because he thinks too much.  He’s not getting in the prayer lines with other detainees.  The worst part is you don’t know what to hang on to when you’re suspicious of everything around you.  That’s what happens to a lot of prisoners who don’t have anything to do.  They doubt everything. But I think that after this Ali will go back to normal and go back to believing what he did.  The best thing for him is to become more stable.
DP: In movies set in American prisons, the hero often spends his time studying law books, trying to figure out a legal way to get out.  But those imprisoned at Guantanamo have no due process.
PM: Yeah, they have no legal rights.
DP: I think it’s important when Ali explains why detainees shouldn’t follow the rules because that would mean the rules are legitimate.
PM: That’s one of his principles.  He doesn’t believe in a lot of things, but that he believes in strongly.  If he was a terrorist he wouldn’t say something like that. I think.  As a terrorist, you understand why they would have rules saying you can’t do certain things.  But if you’re not a terrorist, you don’t see it like that.  I’m not a terrorist so you don’t have the right to tell me what to do and treat me like a terrorist.  It is not something trivial that he is saying.  It is coming from the inside.  If they say, “Do this and that or you can’t watch TV,” he says,  ”Fuck TV, I don’t need permission from you to watch TV.  I haven’t done anything.”  I think the rules line is very important.
DP: Ali is less belligerent than the large detainee who follows no rules, but they’re both being treated badly.  It’s much more likely that he was a terrorist, but the film asks that they both to be treated humanely and released.
PM: I don’t know if the others are real terrorists and Ali doesn’t know either.  He knows he’s not guilty of being a terrorist but not of the others’ guilt or innocence.  When she asks Ali why the big detainee doesn’t use the elliptical machine that they demanded, Ali says that it might be because he’s an asshole. It’s assumed that the detainees are all together and that they’re all brothers, but it’s not like that.  Still none of the detainees deserve to stay at Guantanamo, guilty or not, and be treated like that. That is a theme of the movie.
DP: Talk about the emotions you were having as filming was coming to an end.
PM: The ending scenes were the last scenes we shot.  It was very hard and very dependent on the situation that they prepared for us on the set.  I was very happy with the situation but I asked something from Peter as well. I asked for two minutes before every scene was shot, to just be by myself.  When they said, “We’re ready,” I needed two or three minutes in total silence in the cell to focus.  I even told Peter before one or two scenes not to ask me if I was ready but to see through the lens if I looked ready.   The circumstances on the set were very important for such emotional scenes.
DP: Did you or Kristen cry during the making of this movie?
PM: A lot.  That’s a good thing that you ask. The final days I cried for 48 hours.  In every take I was crying.  Kristen was standing behind the camera and she was crying every time.  That’s why I can tell you that she was a lovely partner.  She was helping me a lot.  Whenever I was standing behind the camera watching her, I was crying for her, too.
DP: Were you both crying for the same reasons?
PM: Yes. We didn’t talk about it with each other.  When the shot was done, each of us found our corners.  We didn’t go to each other say, “That was good, that was great.” Never.
DP: That’s interesting because I would have thought that when playing roles that take such a toll on you that you’d want your costar to come over and comfort you.
PM: No, no, we didn’t do that at all.  Sometimes I’d see Peter from afar and his facial expressions told me his reaction.  Sometimes I want to see reactions, but I usually don’t want to watch people after takes, I don’t want to see the reaction of the crew.   I don’t want to see the camera, I don’t want to see anybody.  I just want to be the lone person on the planet.  If you want to play a detainee at Guantanamo you have to delete everyone else around from your mind.  You can’t go to anyone and ask, “How was it?  How did I do?”  Kristen was like that too.
DP: At one point, Cole starts being punished by her superiors for associating with Ali, just as Ali is being punished by them as well for being insubordinate.  Did you, Kristen, and Peter talk about the parallels?
PM: We were aware what was happening but we didn’t talk about it that much.  Kristen and I tried to stay as close as we could to the characters we were playing and they don’t speak to each other about such issues.  Amy Cole and Ali don’t talk about what is happening with Amy.  She doesn’t tell him.  We tried to avoid talking about what was happening in the scenes we weren’t in.  I do remember asking Kristen, “How did it go yesterday when you shot the scene with Cole’s superior officer?”  She told me that John Carroll Lynch was brilliant in that scene.  That’s about the level we went to, talking about those scenes.  We didn’t go through them and discuss their meanings. We didn’t have to.
DP: There are usually not a lot of words being said between Cole and Ali, so was there telepathy?
PM: What comes to mind is when he says, “I just want to know how all these things end,” and she asks, “The book?”  And he says, “Yes, the book.”  Then he says, “You know what I mean.”  They were definitely talking about something else.  In the rehearsal, we did a lot of improvisations for some scenes.  And for that scene we talked for about five minutes about the book, but both Kristen and I, like our characters, were talking about something else.  It would be impossible for Ali to say all that is in his mind, so there are metaphors.
DP: In an interview about Melbourne, you were asked about what happens after the movie ends.  And you answered that you didn’t think about what happens, that you wanted to play in the moment.  But in Camp X-Ray, your character wants to know how things will end.  Is it healthy for your character to think about endings, or does he have to go day by day so he won’t go crazy?
PM: No, he doesn’t.   All these years he has been going day by day but also thinking what’s going to happen at the end.  That’s very logical and reasonable thing for a detainee there.
DP: He even wants to know the ending of the last Harry Potter book, which he can’t get a copy of.
PM: That’s a beautiful metaphor for that.  It’s funny and meaningful.  I say funny because the whole situation is funny.  It’s not only that he reads the final book and knows how it ends, it’s also that he becomes hopeful for his future.  He sees the light at the end of the tunnel, I think.  He’s now happy to know that there are good people in this world, not all Americans are bad guys and they don’t consider them bad guys.  The best thing in the world for him is what she says, not the freedom.  She’s an American and probably the last person on the planet who would say that he’s a good guy.  But she says, “You’re a good guy.”
DP: You may not have thought of this but the reason he wants to read the end of the book is to find out if Snape is a good guy or bad guy.
PM: Yeah, the twist of the character.  I didn’t see any of the “Harry Potter” movies but I was told that Snape turns from a bad guy to a good guy.
DP: Your character and Snape are seen wrongly until the end.  Peter snuck in that clever idea.
PM: I believe that.  One reason Peter and I get along and communicate so well is that we are both film buffs.  I’m sure he has seen all the Harry Potter movies.
DP: I get teary-eyed thinking about when he opens the newly-arrived library book, the final Harry Potter book that he has waited two years to read, and there is an inscription from Cole ending with “Love, Blondie.”  The shot of the book is an insert, but when you looked at that in your hand, what was your reaction?
PM: I cried. When I saw Camp X-Ray at Sundance I expected to see me crying.  Because we did about ten shots and in eight of them I was crying.  Each time we did that scene, it was like a emotional faucet being turned on and off.  If there were twenty more takes it would have been the same, crying at the very same moment.  But I like the version Peter used.
DP: When you first read the script, did you have a big reaction to reading, “Love, Blondie?”
PM: Yes, I did.  I was surprised.  That was one of those moments when I thought I’d like to share the movie with people.  That was a very lovely thing.  She tells him her real first name but still signs the book that way.  “I don’t know if Snape is a good guy, but I know you are.  Love, Blondie.”  Amazing.
DP: It’s a movie moment I won’t forget. I get choked up talking about it.
PM: The same here.  Peter is very kind, thoughtful, giving, supportive, and emotional.  He cares a lot about these issues, he loves people, he cares about the relationships between people.  A line like that would have to come out of a person such as Peter.
DP: Another huge scene late in the movie is when Ali considers suicide.  In the conversations you had with Peter and Kristen, I would think you had to convince yourself that Ali shouldn’t kill himself.
PM: Yeah. We knew about it from the script but we didn’t talk about the suicide scene more than a day before we shot it.  We did a lot of rehearsing for the movie but we didn’t rehearse that scene and did it in the moment.  We didn’t want to be self-conscious of what we were doing, we wanted it to be natural.  There’s a scene in A Separation, when my character is showering his father who has Alzheimer’s and he starts crying. We didn’t rehearse or talk about that scene either.  We were filming another scene but lost the light so we figured out what scene we could without light.  The shower scene.  Everyone expected me to say hell no because I didn’t have any preparation.  I said to give it a try.  And we did it on the first take.
DP: So you think it was a good idea not to prepare for the suicide scene?
PM: Very much. I told Peter, “Just tell me what you want and where the camera will be.”  We did several takes and each time we changed something.  We didn’t rehearse or talk about the way he’d do it that much.  The first time I saw the tool was when they gave it to me during the scene.  The knife came out of the Koran and I said, “Oh, my god.”
DP: He’s been in Guantanamo for eight years.  Do you think he’d done this before?
PM: Trying to kill himself, no.  I don’t think so.  There was a line in the script that isn’t in the film.  I’m happy it’s not in the film but it was very interesting.  He tells Cole that if she calls the medics with her radio it will take them three minutes to arrive.  Because he went to the university and is smart, he can calculate that it will take him two minutes to die. So don’t even think of making the call. That’s why she puts the radio down.  That was logical.
DP: Talk about when she puts her hand through the window in his door, takes the blade, and touches his arm.  It’s not just two people touching.  It’s an American woman touching a Muslim from the Mideast.  It’s a major thing for Ali to allow himself to be touched by her.
PM: We did it in totally different ways.  Peter, who is a very talented director, decided to do something minimal, not showing my face or Kristen’s face that much. I’m not in the shot.  Only my hand is in the shot, and I love that shot.  He didn’t want to do it this way but this was a shot that was supposed to be mixed with other shots.  But he looked at dailies and just used that.  That’s the magic of movies.
DP: Were you staying in character?
PM: Very much.
DP: What was Ali thinking of at that moment?
PM: Trust.  That’s extreme trust.  She puts her hand through the hole in the door and the knife is in his hand, it’s a really big thing.  He puts the tool in her hand, then she grabs his hand.  It’s a really beautiful scene and it’s the ultimate way of showing that two people can connect and trust each other by communicating and listening to each other.
DP: That’s the reason for the movie.
PM: That’s true.
DP: You shot that scene a long time ago, but when you think of it now, do you get watery-eyed?
PM: I do. Everything starts with throwing out prejudgments that this is a bad guy and Americans are bad guys and that Americans and Middle Easterners have nothing in common to talk about.  When you start talking you see that you’re that different and can learn from each other.  That’s what happens at the end of the movie. It’s very beautiful when she brings up the story of her seeing a lion in the zoo.  The result was that she thought the zoo people must let the lion decide whether to stay or be let loose in the unfamiliar wild.  If you want to kill yourself I will give you the space to do it.  At the beginning of the film, the chief guard tells the new guards that they are not there to prevent the detainees from living, the walls do that.  They are there to prevent the detainees from dying because that would cause a big scandal.  So they want to prevent them from killing themselves.  When she leaves, she gives the right to Ali to decide to kill himself or not.
DP: I agree with that.  But is there something more?  Because he talks about how no country will take him if he were released.
PM: Yes, because he was in Guantanamo as a terrorist.
DP: I’m thinking that she is saying release Ali even if he doesn’t have ideal options on the outside.
PM: I don’t know.  In her own way, she tries to stop him.  She proves she isn’t naive when she asks him he wants to kill himself to become a martyr and go to heaven.  She asks smart questions.  She hopes she has had enough impact on him that he won’t kill himself.  And she did.
DP: The reason that it is better that he doesn’t kill himself is that she truly believes things will change and he’ll get out.  If she believed that he’d forever be imprisoned I’m not sure she’d be so motivated to keep him alive.
PM: That’s true.  When you think about it, that makes sense.
DP: So the shooting ends, the movie wraps, and it’s all over.
PM: Those last few days were very tough and amazing. Then Peter spent a couple of days on extra shots without the actors.  And two or three days after the crew had finished, there was a wrap party.  I came shaved and in a suit.  I wasn’t aware that I looked different because that was myself. Every person was, “Oh, my good, look at you.  You don’t look like a detainee anymore!”  I surprised everyone.
DP: You filmed this a year ago, so what’s it like getting together with everyone now to promote the film?
PM: Great, butI avoid talking about the film.  I believe that whatever I wanted to say I said in the film.   And the worst part, especially for a director, is to attach explanation to what you did.  If fans ask for explanations I don’t get irritated because we made the film for an audience.  Once the film is done, it’s not in your hands anymore.
DP: I know you want people to ask you, as I ask you, Do you still think of Ali sitting in that cell?
PM: Nobody has asked that yet.  As the credits run at the end of the film, you see the guards walking in the small hall between the cells for about five minutes.  It’s telling you that the prisoners are still there and life goes on there.
DP: In the production notes, Peter Sattler says, “It’s not a political film; it’s a deeply human one.”  I don’t agree.  Often filmmakers will say their very political films aren’t political because they don’t want to scare away American moviegoers. But if we look at the human element and we start identifying with the people who are imprisoned at Guantanamo, then we start asking what can be done for them, including closing the facility–and at that point it becomes political.
PM: That’s 100% true.  That’s good to hear.  I agree with you. You cannot say it’s not a political film.  When you say “Guantanamo Bay,” you’re talking about politics.  When you say “terrorist” or “suspected terrorist,” you’re talking about politics.  The focus is not on the political issues and that’s what Peter was trying to get across.  But we can’t escape from the fact that there are political things in the movie and after you leave the theater you will think about the situation in the United States that has kept Guantanamo from closing.
DP: Tell me about other projects that are out there already?
PM: Melbourne was at the Venice and Zurich Film Festivals and it will be at the Cairo and Tokyo Film Festivals.  I’ll try go but it depends on the schedule for the Criminal Justice series I’m doing for HBO.  It hasn’t been on the air yet because James Galdofini was in it, and he died.  We were in limbo for two years and now John Turturro is in it.  He’s absolutely great.
DP: The premise of Melbourne is A census taker arrives at the home of a middle-class couple as they are about to go to Melbourne and things change.
PM: That’s all you need to know. The other film I’ve done that’s out is Tales, which I made with a great director, Rakhshan Bani-E’temad, the “First Lady of Iranian Filmmaking.”  It’s a beautiful film that won the Best Screenplay award at Venice a month ago.
DP: How often do you go back and forth between Iran and America?
PM: It depends.  We just moved actually, to Los Angeles.  There’s no law about my having to return to Iran, so I could stay here for ten years if I wanted.  I’m still observing the situation, and finding out if it’s possible to make films in both America and Iran. I’ll see what happens. I’m trying to do this because I love to work in Iran, too.  A Separation was made in Iran, About Elly was made in Iran.  I made my own film, Snow in the Pines, in Iran. I’m here in New York until mid-February, in an apartment on the upper East Side. I’m writing seven or eight hours a day and am very productive. I’ve finished one screenplay after two years, and am working on three others. All have parts for me.  There’s one set in Los Angeles that I’ll direct.  There is a dramedy set in New York. The other two will be made in Iran, including one I’m writing with Rakhshan Bani-E’temad that she’ll direct.  I can’t make those kinds of films, my films, in the United States.
DP: Were you surprised that in the United States you could make Camp X-Ray?
PM: I was surprised.  You couldn’t make such a film in Iran.  I’m very happy to see that’s it’s possible to make films like Camp X-Ray today.
DP: Finally, for fans of A Separation, please talk about the ending.
PM: People always ask me about the end of A Separation, about whether the daughter will choose to live with her father or mother when the judge asks her.
DP: Do you know?
PM: Yes, we talked about it a lot.  But we talked about something else–more important than which parent she chooses is which way of living she chooses.  There are two different ways of thinking.  She is living in a country where there is something wrong.  She has the choice of leaving with her mother to live in a better place, or to stay with her father to fix it. His wife tells him that he can’t even manage the house issues without her there “but you want to fix the country?”  He says, “You want to leave, go.  I’m not like you that when there’s something wrong with the country, I just leave.”
DP: From what you just said, I would think the daughter would make the more difficult choice and stay with her father, who needs her help more than her mother does.  But I don’t want to know what she does!
PM: Me, neither!  That’s the beauty of the film.  We can change it in our minds every time we see it.
DP: The one thing we know is that she, like the slightly older Cole in Camp X-Ray, is smart enough and knows enough to make the right decision.
PM: Exactly.