Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Healing Power of Music Is Evident in "Alive Inside"

Playing in Theaters

The Healing Power of Music Is Evident in Alive Inside

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 7/24/14)

AliveinsidephotoPhoto: DP
Michael Rossato-Bennett (L) and Dan Cohen.

Alive Inside:A Story of Music & Memory fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor.  This Friday it opens nationally, as it begins its second week in NYC.  Director Michael Rossato-Bennett literally ran to the post office before its midnight closing in order to submit it in time to the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.  At Sundance his film won the Documentary Audience Award and it’s easy to see why. From the opening scene–equipped with an iPod and earphones, long-time nursing home resident Henry, who suffers from dementia, sits up in his wheelchair for the first time in years and starts cheerfully singing along to the Cab Calloway song–Alive Inside is extraordinarily uplifting.  Watching people return to the land of the living through music is an extremelyemotional experience.  For several years that has been the experience of social worker Dan Cohen, the founder of the nonprofit Music & Memory, who is on a crusade to bring iPods with personalized music into the lives of the elderly and infirm in nursing homes around the country.  Rossato-Bennett has spent three years on Cohen’s trail, sharing the joy of seeing how music benefits people who were given up as lost and the frustration of trying to convince nursing homes to replace medication with music.  Last week I did the following interview with Rossato-Bennett and Cohen, hoping to spread the word…no, the music.
Danny Peary: This idea of playing personalized music to Alzheimer’s patients is one of those things like suitcases with wheels. It’s self-evident that it would have a positive effect.  What took us so long to think of it?
Dan Cohen: That’s exactly right. There’s nothing new here except a central twist of innovation. We all had the music but nobody thought of giving the technology to our elders.  Oh, it’s technology, so they don’t want it. So my thing has always been, “What kind of music do you like?” Tell us and we’ll provide the technology to give it to you.
DP: When did you come up with the concept of playing “personalized music?”
DC: In 2006. We all heard journalists talking about how iPods were ubiquitous–kids have them, adults have them.  But in a nursing home?  Would I have access to my favorite music there? So I googled “iPods in nursing homes” and found there were 16,000 nursing homes in America and none were using iPods. Nursing homes are kind of in digital isolation. So I had to get the music to people who are compromised. I come from a technology background and am always making up new applications for people or leveraging technology, so this was natural for me.
DP: We always think of technology as being dehumanizing, but what’s interesting about you, Dan, is that you have a history of showing the connection between technology and humanity. That’s pretty much your personal theme.
DC: The Internet, YouTube, all of that is humanizing, really.  It makes possible something that had never been possible before. We’d never had any of this without technology.
Michael Rossato-Bennett: On that point, there were so many comments that were made online about the Henry video we posted on the Music & Memory website [in hopes of raising additional funding].  “This is what the Internet is for!  This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen on the Internet.” There was a hunger in people to have this kind of deep human experience when using the Internet.
DP: Dan, how was it being the subject of a movie for three years?
DC: Well, at first I was very nervous being in front of the camera.
Henry is featured on the poster
MR-B: Now you’re not.
DC: No, I got used to it.
DP: Michael, I don’t know your background in terms of music.  Was it something important to you, so that you understood Dan’s mission?
MR-B: I actually had a childhood that was so traumatic that I shut down in a lot of ways. I shut down so much that as a young person I couldn’t do rhythm. Other people could do rhythm but I couldn’t get it. What happened was that I was trying to protect myself, I was trying to insulate myself.  It’s what happens when people are traumatized, and it’s what happens to a lot of people who are in nursing homes. So that’s why I really have an affinity for this story, because it took me years and years before I could really take music in, before I could really do rhythm.
DP: When was the breakthrough for you?
MR-B: It wasn’t until my late twenties. I didn’t get married until my late thirties because I don’t think I was capable of it.  But now I have grown and healed my own self, just as Samite [from Musicians for World Harmony] heals those people in Africa in the movie by bringing their deepest memory, music, into an environment that took away all their humanity. I could identify with this, and honestly I really feel like all of us can because there is a degree of institutionalization in all of our lives. When humans are treated like objects, like things, they do not respond well, they shut down, they go into trauma. How do we take a being out of trauma? How do we do it naturally? We cry, we laugh. That takes us from one state to another, just like Samite does in the movie. Music is an ancient tradition for changing human states and doing it communally.
DP: Oliver Sacks says in your movie that “Music is inseparable from emotion.”
MR-B: Dr. Sacks says there is no music part of the brain. There’s a hearing part and a seeing part and a memory part, but there’s no music part. So over tens of thousands of years, we decided that we would make music in our own brains.  A primate will not respond to music, but an infant in the fetus will respond to music. So music is sort of a primal human experience.  People in nursing homes left their music behind, so that’s why the effect is so profound when they hear it again.
DC: What I’ve always thought of is a way to integrate it into the life flow of a facility.  There are places that have 250 iPods and they’re doing fine. So you have 250 people who now that have this freedom of self.  Their day is totally transformed because they’re having a good time and not just sitting there and watching the clock.
MR-B: If I gave you your music, you would not respond in the way that some of these elders respond.
DP: True, but my favorite song is from 1959, and when I’m surprised by it coming on the radio without being introduced, I get a chill and go back to being ten-years-old old. That’s what they experience, right?
MR-B: Exactly, exactly.
DP: The movie illustrates that music creates spontaneity in an environment where everything is about conformity. So there’s a conflict. The institutions that want to maintain control of elderly patients don’t necessarily welcome spontaneity.
DC: Institutional change is slow, right?  Even young people who work in a nursing home get it–iPods, iTunes, what’s the big deal? And they roll it out to half a dozen people there, and then they’re told, “No, you can’t go any further. You can do this, but don’t bother anybody else.  We have enough problems with hearing aids getting lost, and dentures getting lost, now we got iPods–forget it!  Don’t do that, our staff has no time to put them on and take them off.”   MR-B: Think about it like drugging. Basically, when you have so many people in an institution and one person starts acting out, like the guy in the movie who was screaming a lot, it can ruin the experience for everyone else.  So they drug those people very quickly–and we have a tremendous problem with over-medication in these institutions.  Music is one of the few things that can reduce that.
DP: In the movie you talk about how the elderly in nursing homes are terribly overmedicated.  Is music supposed to replace the medication?
MR-B: I’ll tell you the biggest idea that I had while sitting in my bedroom and editing this film. I realized that you have this massive population of people that are beginning to show signs of dementia. When a person’s at home and starts acting out, that is the moment when caregivers say, I can’t handle this anymore. In a family, it’s so incredibly hard to deal with a family member who has dementia. You almost have to trade your life for their life. That’s not the way it used to be. When I was a kid, there was a woman with dementia living next door, and her seven daughters took care of her. It didn’t ruin any one person’s life. We can’t do what we’re doing because we’ll run out of money to put everybody in nursing homes. We barely have the money today to put everybody with dementia into nursing homes. What happens is that they’re overcrowded so if anybody acts out the first thing they do is sedate them  They use these anti-psychotics or anti-depressants, and they sedate these people and their personalities disappear as well. All drugs poison one of the systems in the body. Personalized music is amazing–and I’ve seen it over and over again–in that it can give a moment of peace to both the caregiver and the person who’s suffering.  Especially people with Alzheimer’s. They have this kind of dissonance, where the world becomes overwhelming–there’s just too much data coming in and they can’t filter it out–so when they put headphones on, half the world that they have to deal with disappears.  The way our brains interact through music is that it wakes us up. So over the next ten or twenty years, if we can use music to keep people at home three months longer before they need institutionalization, we’ll save hundreds of billions of dollars. It’s inevitable. They did a study here in New York, and where personalized music was used, the use of anti-psychotics in the facility went down from 13% to 38% over eighteen months.  If there were a drug that had that efficacy, it would be the biggest blockbuster drug in the world. Most of the drugs right now for Alzheimer’s are in demand although people don’t believe they’ll work.  They just want something.  There is no drug that does anything, but fortunately there’s lot happening in science right now.
DP: I ask this is a complimentary way: Is your film dated already? I know many new nursing homes have taken your advice about bringing in iPods.
DC: We don’t know yet how things will change exactly, because the movie’s really current. Michael’s been really improving it, working on it.
DP: Well, at the beginning of the movie there were very few nursing homes using music.
DC: And now there are 640. So we’re getting there, but that’s still only one percent, so only one out of one hundred people in the US has access to music. At this time 99% are sitting there being left in the hallway, wheelchair to wheelchair. And nobody’s really giving them anything to stimulate them. Give them an audio book. They were teachers?  Put iTunes University in their headphones, they’ll love it. They’ll have something to talk about.
DP: So the music is part of a multi-pronged approach to bettering their lives?
DC: The music is kind of a low-hanging fruit; once a facility has iTunes set up, they now have a whole media center. Now they can have audio books, e-books, apps. There are many apps that specifically say Alzheimer’s and there are apps that don’t say it but they’re perfect–they’re for fitness, relaxation, a whole bunch of things. So yeah, our goal is to bring the tablets in.  I recommend that every nursing home has three iPads–and I’ve been getting them out there and getting good feedback.
DP: And the goal is to have all this be part of insurance plans, right?
DC: Well, that would be great. To support it that way. Managed care.
MR-B: We have a lot of feelers out there, but I don’t think this film will be outdated for twenty years. And I’ll tell you why. First of all, it’s about some of the most elemental fears we have. Death. Decline. Aging. These are things that culturally we do not address. At its heart this film is about connection–the power of music to connect you to your past.  Music and all the arts are an antidote to isolation present in sterile institutions. We have a massive transition period here, and it’s not going to be one year or ten years. It’s going to take us a tremendous amount of effort to figure out how we as a culture deal with aging.
DP: What would personalized music be for you?
DC: The Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, James Taylor, the Beatles, sixties stuff, late fifties music when I was eight-years-old.
MR-B: I like Bach, Pavarotti.
DP: What about classical music?  For fans of classical music, can you put on anything or does it have to be specific?
DC: Everybody’s different with classical music. If you want somebody to really enjoy it, you must go with what they like. Their top ten favorites, it depends. I’m really picky when it comes to classical music, but if it’s a dementia issue, it could work to play not something specific but perhaps violin concertos, which they’d just enjoy no matter what they played.
MR-B: While making the film we met a woman named Barbara.  Her mother was a very sophisticated woman who always loved classical music.  When she started having dementia, Barbara put together a whole iPod of classical music for her.  But when her mother listened to the music nothing happened. Barbara kept replacing the classical music with other classical music.  But her mother didn’t respond to it. One day, she put on Ray Charles singing “Come Rain or Come Shine,” which was the song her husband used to play for her.  And her mom had a huge emotional reaction. So Barbara changed the iPod list from classical to Ray Charles and all the music that her mother and father had listened to together. I get chills just telling this story, because it touches something so profound in these people.  She literally wasn’t responding to classical music at all.
DP: You don’t talk about religious music in the movie, but is there something even more stimulating about religious music?
DC: I’ve had a chance through Alzheimer’s groups to speak to a hundred and fifty chaplains and members. They love this because what’s more core to your youth than religious music.  Religious music was with your family when you were five-years-old, and then you take it with you through life. For some people that could be one of the genres of music that is everything to someone.
MR-B: And it is often. We’ve met a lot of people, and all they listen to are hymns.
DC: The challenge is to find whatever music is for a person.
DP: Your whole thing is about personalized music. So when people with guitars and other instruments come into these institutions and perform random music, is there a positive effect on the people listening.
DC: If somebody’s good and comes in and plays the old tunes, yes. There’s interaction and that’s a positive because no one’s visiting these people. More than half these people never ever get a visitor. And studies show that if nobody’s visiting you and you’re idle, it’s a recipe for decline. If you’re not getting visitors and you’re not doing anything, that’s a toxic combination. The live musicians are usually there an hour a week. They tell me their secret guilt is that they get the people going with the music and the rhythm but when they leave the people go back to slumping in their chairs.
DP: So the solution is that you have to leave music with the people, on iPods.
DC: Well, to me it’s not either/or. The more live music people coming into their lives, the better, but also give them their own music. We don’t only want to hear music on the radio, we want to hear it in a concert. I saw the Beach Boys last weekend and it was great. I’d never seen them in concert ever!  And the Rascals and the Lovin’ Spoonful, it was just great fun. And with good headphones–we provide inexpensive but good headphones–it’s like being front and center in the orchestra, for these people.
DP: There’s a line in the movie about how painful it is to believe that once you are old no one needs what you have to give.  Seeing people like Denise, who is bi-polar, we realize they have a lot to give.
MR-B: They do! What I want people to understand is that it took me as a filmmaker a year before I really fully understood what was actually alive in these Alzheimer’s patients.  It took a lot of time considering what is the wisdom that an elder has for a younger person.   It’s a very subtle transference between the old and the young, and I feel sorry for those elders who don’t get the chance to give what they can to the young and I feel sorry for children who don’t get the chance to know elders.
DP: Was this a hard film to make?
MR-B: It was a very hard film to make. I cut it three or four times.
DP: In terms of editing, I would think that it was really hard for you to make the decisions to veer off briefly from seeing the elderly respond to music to girls in Africa who had been raped and a man who has MS.  Was including their responses to music a tough decision?
MR-B: You know, it was a very gut-level decision. A lot of people have asked me Why is that MS patient in there?  It was just my gut.  Steve is in an absolutely incomprehensible situation, being in a place where you can do nothing but listen and talk. For eight years nobody thought to bring him music. Now we see music open up his life. I can’t illustrate it any better. And the reason Samite is in my film playing music for the girls in Africa is because he understands how music can literally melt trauma. Melt the frozen soul. That’s what we experienced hundreds of times. In a nursing home, you see some living dead people. How do you wake those people?  Even to think that it can be done…
DP: Michael, did you ever say, “How do I get this and this?” Or was it mostly, let’s see what happens when we turn on the camera?
MR-B: Sometimes we tried to make some points, I guess, and other times we just said, let’s see what happens.
DP: I loved the opening with Henry, but one of my favorite moments that you got on film, probably with no planning, is of the seemingly comatose woman who is lying on her side in bed.  When music plays in her ears, her feet move wildly in rhythm.
DC: People usually first see from a distance and laugh because they don’t really know what’s going on.  Maybe it’s nervous laughter.  Then when they see her in close-up, they become quiet, because it’s like holy mackerel!  There was really very little going on with her, and suddenly she’s going to the music!
DP: Talk about when Denise touches Samite’s face.
MR-B: Incredible! Better yet, his nose! Denise, this white woman, is squeezing the nostrils of this African man because she finds his larger nostrils interesting or whatever. There’s such a beautiful innocence to that moment. I’m really proud that there’s no concept of race in this film. It transcends race.
DP: How is Denise now?
MR-B: She’s still around, She breaks my heart. Imagine your life without a daughter, imagine your life without your work, imagine your life without your husband. All of these things this woman never had a chance to experience, really. That makes me sad.
DP: In the film, she ends up with more than she had.  She gets her mental faculties back to a certain degree. She’s younger than a lot of the others, so she has time ahead so we hope if she gets it together.
MR-B: She’s a fighter.
DP: I want to point out that Regina Scully was one of your producers.  She has great credentials including being executive producer of Invisible War, about the epidemic of rapes in the military.
MR-B: Yeah she’s a great human being.  It’s interesting that our connection is that she too recognizes how traumatized all of us are living in this commercial culture where our connections are diminished. She’s very interested in supporting anything that creates some sort of connection between humans.
DP: In the press notes, you say your life has been transformed from making this picture in ways you didn’t expect. I would think it’s such an emotional topic that you knew you were getting into something that would take a toll or reward you.
MR-B: Once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky, you get to be useful to the world. The other day there were a hundred and fifty people in this room to celebrate my fiftieth birthday, and they all said I changed their lives in some way. Just by being a good person and a good dad and a good friend. I’ve helped people who’ve had emotional problems, who are my friends,  just by being a nice guy. I could see my life stretching out in front of me and I could start to see the end, and I’m like, whoa, if I keep on doing this, what am I going to end up doing for anybody? So here was my dream: on my sixtieth birthday, there will be a thousand people who can say I’ve changed their lives. I’m going to attempt that, I don’t know how, but I’m going to make that happen. I certainly didn’t think it was going to happen through this movie, I was just working.  But in hindsight I chose to do for good, not for self-aggrandizement or profit or anything. I had an opportunity to be useful to the world and I never ever expected that.
DP: How do you hope your film helps people?
MR-B: I would like Alive Inside to help people see that there is real hope inside of us.  Music is a path we can follow to love and aliveness, and I think we’ve forgotten that. I think we can make some real progress in the world if we have things that we can trust.  There are few things we can trust–we can’t trust religion, we can’t trust philosophy, we can’t trust governments, we can’t trust our countries. However, three things that are still phenomenally trustworthy are music, love, and connection.  They are really what this film’s about.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Dotting the Eyes in "I Origins"

Playing in Theaters

Dotting the Eyes in I Origins

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 7/18/14)

By Danny Peary
I Origins fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor.  The second science-based SF film written and directed by Mike Cahill (the impressive Another Earth, starring Brit Marling) opens in New York City on Friday.  It is described in the press notes as being “both a molecular biology thriller and a love story.” Smart, provocative, and well cast, it begins as a SF film but no experiment goes wrong and leads to horrific consequences, and it turns into an exploration of reincarnation.  Michael Pitt is cast against type as Ian, an atheist scientist who is studying the origins of the eye.  Ian is aided in his research by Kenny (Steven Yeun of The Walking Dead) and Karen (Brit Marling), his brilliant freshman assistant. Ian falls for Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), a mysterious, spiritual woman he meets at a party.  Years after Sofi’s death, Ian goes to India because it’s discovered that a young girl, Salomina (Kashish), has eyes that are, impossibly, a perfect match for Sofi’s.  Last week I participated in roundtables with Mike Cahill, Brit Marling and Steven Yeun, and Michael Pitt and Astrid Bergès-Frisbey.  I note my questions.

Mike Cahill Roundtable
Q: What is the origin of your movie?
Mike Cahill: I didn’t know I was going to make the movie until I met Michael Pitt. I was asked if I wanted to meet him, and since I’d admired him for a very long time, I jumped at the opportunity, just to chat. We sat down in Brooklyn in a coffee shop, on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn. During the conversation I told him the story of I Origins, and he was like, “That’s really cool, I’d love to hear more about that one day.” And that set off a wildfire in my head to write it. I’d had the idea for twelve years floating around in the ether, and I’d written many, many things up until that point on it, but I didn’t have a script.  I wrote it two weeks later, that was in August, and we started shooting at the end of January 2013. It was one year in the making, and we released it at Sundance, literally to the day that we finished production, January 2014.
Q: I think it you should be commended for making affordable science fiction films.
MC: For me, the sense of wonder in movies, over the last fifty or sixty years, has partially been driven by visual effects, but it has also been driven by ideas.  Cutting-edge visual effects that are in very expensive movies and give us a sense of wonder are lame after about two years.  But an idea can last forever.  And an idea is free.
Q: Virtual technology has actually become reality these days. The question is, How do you bring those elements in and separate the spiritual element?
MC: Well, I think writers of science fiction are often influenced by current technologies and the predictions of where they may go in the future. So they extrapolate what’s going on now to tell their stories. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was about electricity animating dead things and it was extrapolated to be this great horror/sci-fi, but that’s what science fiction writers do, except for Jules Verne who was completely prophetic. Iris biometrics first began in 1987 at Cambridge University. Minority Report is set years after that, but it’s an extrapolation to where we may end up. On the other hand, I wanted to make my movie grounded in now, using current technologies.
Q: The giant eye billboards in your movie remind me of the Great Gatsby eye posters–with kind of a dark God looking down on us in a sense.
MC: Completely. I’m sure something made me choose to have a billboard.  I once lived in LA and this company, Joe’s Jeans, had a billboard of just eyes on Sunset Boulevard. I remember thinking that was really a pretty spectacular image, and it was very different from the Gatsby one. It was sexy.  The one we have has a different feeling. It is as if a ghost were looking from the void. I kind of wanted to create that feeling, I guess. Originally, Ian didn’t find the girl in India through a billboard. That was an idea that Alex Orlovsky, the producer, came up with. That was kind of cool.
Q: So this idea for the eye, was that from this poster on Sunset Boulevard?
MC: I worked at National Geographic a while ago, and I used to read National Geographic when I was a kid, in my childhood bedroom, and the June 1985 issue was of that famous “Afghan Girl.” Steve McCurry took that picture. His story really inspired me, because he didn’t know the little girl’s name [Sharbat Gula], and it was something like seventeen years later they mounted a mission to find her, and they found her through her eyes. They had had these biometric scientists scan her eyes from the photograph.  That was a trigger for me.  What if you could find somebody through their eyes?  What if they were a different person and their eyes persisted?  And we live in a world now where there are databases of eyes.  Hundreds of millions of eyes are catalogued in biometric databases. And in India, where the third act of the movie takes place, there is a national program to scan all of its citizens’ eyes. There’s over a billion people there. I wanted to tell a science fiction story that uses current technology and that is romantic.
Danny Peary: Michael Crichton used to mix real science with fake science, and jumble it around so readers couldn’t tell the difference. Your film does that.
MC: I like when you’re not entirely positive if something is true or not. What we propose in this film is not something you can disprove, right? It gets me really excited that you can actually believe the narrative when you leave the theater.  I’ve heard people say that when they see the moon in the day sky that reminds them of Another Earth.  I like grabbing that thing that’s right in front of us. One time I was on this island called Brioni in Croatia, in the Adriatic Sea. And there are these old and beautiful Roman ruins on the beach.  Tourists were taking pictures of the ruins. Along the water are all these rocks and on the rocks are dinosaur footprints. It was so fascinating to me was that this civilization had risen and fallen and all the kids for centuries had played in the puddles of the dinosaur footprints long before we discovered dinosaurs had lived on earth. People came and went without finding dinosaurs.  I asked myself, “What are the dinosaur footprints we will leave behind.” What is it that we look at right under our noses that has such a significance that we just take for granted? And so that kind of inspired the story, in a way.
Q: Do you truly believe in reincarnation? You’ve done a documentary on it before.
MC: No, I never did a documentary. I edited a documentary about Leonard Cohen and he talks about reincarnation a little bit. But do I believe in reincarnation? I don’t know.   Scientifically speaking, nothing gets destroyed. If something’s destroyed it then manifests into energy.
Q: You’ve described filmmaking as being similar to being a scientist. Do you feel that connection with this storyline?
MC: I really admire scientists, I wish I were a scientist.  I was kicked out of biology in freshman year at Georgetown.  I was in one of those 101 classes, with like 200 people, in a big auditorium, and I remember the professor kept showing the atom and how the electrons move around it, and I was asking, “Why do artists draw it like this, why don’t you draw it a different way?” I couldn’t get over the fact that there were so many different ways to artistically render an atom that would accurately show what it does. And the professor told me to see him after class.  He said “You’re going to be here for twelve years if you can’t get over the fact that an atom looks like that.  You’re not going to make it through.”  He didn’t kick me out but he encouraged me to get the fuck out of biology and pursue something else. I had a little knack for economics, which I thought it was fun and interesting.   I didn’t love it like I love filmmaking, but filmmaking was very much a hobby. So I ended up studying economics and doing filmmaking through a crazy series of coincidences and fortunate happenstances.
Q: Do you feel this movie is challenging to the scientific community because of its ideas on reincarnation?
MC: My oldest brother is a neuroscientist and my second-oldest brother is a molecular biologist.  They watched the film–and a lot of scientists watched the film–and I was wondering what they’d think.  What one brother said to me was that more so than anything else, the movie captures the spirit of young PhD students in the lab, wanting to make discoveries. He has never seen that in a film, and thought it was true to the reality of being a scientist.  I thought what he said was really exciting and nice.  When I got the Sloan Award, a scientist came up to me.  He was a really sweet, older guy, and he kind of whispered to me, “I just want to thank you, you made scientists fuckable.” It was one of those moments! Jill Tarter, who’s the head of SETI at NASA, was the one who presented the award for scientific themes to me, for this movie, so that was one of the most exhilarating, rewarding feelings.
DP: I’m the only person who likes the movie Winter’s Tale.  Basically, Colin Farrell’s character falls in love with a young woman and you think that’s what the film is all about, but it turns out this romance leads to him years later saving a little girl who has a connection to his true love. Is your film about such fate? Does he meet Sofi, an adult, and fall in love with her only so he can save this girl later on?
MC: I don’t know I can say entirely that was meant to be.  Anyone who watches the film can read it any way they wish, so I can’t necessarily put in the interpretation that it’s about fate.
DP: But did you want it to be about fate?
MC: It’s suggested that Sofi lost her parents at a very young age. Salomina has a very similar fate. If you watch the film several times, there are layers upon layers that hopefully can be pulled from it. There’s something that’s very subtle there and I don’t know if one gets this or not, but it’s part of a read.  It’s that you get the sense ever so slightly that once Ian has found Salomina–and Priya [Archie Punjabi] pulls up in a car–the child’s going to be okay, someone’s going to look after her. Perhaps this was meant to be.
Brit Marling, Michael Pitt and Steven Yeun
Brit Marling & Steven Yeun Roundtable
Q: How did your careers begin?
Brit Marling: We both have weird origin stories. We ended up in this business ass-backwards, both of us.
Steven Yeun: My story’s just very kismet. Everything just kind of happened and there were a lot of closed-doors and open-windows situations. I’ll give you one example.  I remember moving to Chicago and everyone was telling me that it was impossible to get into Second City. I decided to go for it even if it took four or five years to break in.  I went to this agent panel, where everyone in the audience was trying to get an agent. After the panel was done, everyone rushed the stage and tried to give the agents their headshots. I thought there was no way I was going to get a word in edgewise with any agent, so I dropped back. The stage lights went down and the house lights went up one by one, and one just goes on– bonk–right over my head. And the agent Vanessa Lanier points over everybody and says to me, “You, stop right there.”  And then she walked over and said, “Give me your headshot, I’ll call you tomorrow.” That’s just one of many crazy stories.
Q: What’s your weird-fate story?
BM: Gosh, it’s funny that I was actually having a conversation with somebody the other day about the difference between fate and destiny–and how much of fate is you muscling your way through a certain amount of something and how much is a happy accident. I don’t know, I sort of muscled my way through a lot of it, writing my way in, because it was so hard to decide that I wanted to be an actor at 24.  If you have an econ degree and are not even in SAG, people are allergic to you in LA–they want to put on a hazard mask when you come in the room because you’re just so illegitimate and so out of left field. So I had to really just try to eke it out by writing and certain happy accidents totally happened. Another Earth and Sound of My Voice were programmed the same year at Sundance, and that was a total happy accident, and created enough of a thing where I could sort of keep working. Fate and destiny is a confusing thing, how much of your free will is involved, and how much is it you marching toward some place that is preordained. I don’t know the answer to that.
SY: If I did, I would be in space.
BM: Yeah, we would be in space.
Q: To play your parts were there any scientists who you borrow from?
BM: Michael Pitt was reading a lot of Richard Dawkins.  Michael and I visited some labs.  Mike Cahill’s brother used to work at Johns Hopkins, so we went down there and put on lab coats and gloves and sort of started living in real time that lab life.  We read a lot, reading Dawkins and sharing evolutionary biology textbooks.  But I didn’t really model Karen after any particular female scientist. I was interested in the idea of a girl who really didn’t wear any make-up. And not like a no-makeup look, where she’s secretly curling her eyelashes and secretly putting on foundation. Nothing on her face, and never brushes her hair, and shows up in sweats and doesn’t care about presentation and doesn’t care about being loved or having her work recognized. She’s just obsessed with the work. In a time period in which we’re all so fixated on Instagram and Facebook and capturing the moment, and validating our tweets, she’s the opposite of that.  She’s just obsessed with the work and doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, and doesn’t care how many fans or followers she has.  That type of character was really interesting to explore right now.
Q: Do you get that certain perspective from playing a female in a male-dominated field?
BM: I remember reading a bit about Marie Curie, about her and her family.  Of course there have been really influential women in science, but their stories are just a lot less told. I think a lot of times it’s been hard for women to be validated in that profession. I was just reading something the other day about a group of women who were testing very well to go into space, even better than the men in some of the physical and psychological trials. But they just felt, “No, if someone’s going to put their foot on the moon, it needs to be a man first.” And I think that has been part of our culture for a long time, but it’s changing.
Danny Peary: Brit, you tend to play educated women, as you are yourself. Karen is educated.  Would you ever want to play a stupid character?
BM: I think definitely I could.  I think there are just different kinds of intelligence. Some people are very academic and well-read, and that’s one kind of intelligence, and some people are very into their bodies, about movement and communicating with a physicality, and that’s another kind of intelligence.  I’m very interested in playing people who think or feel differently than I do.
DP: Can Karen and Sofi ever have a conversation?
BM: Often with love triangles it’s about two women fighting over a man and them competing.  Because the world has been arranged for women to fight over men. And I thought the moment when they came together was so interesting. We didn’t plan this, but the look that happened in that scene between us wasn’t of hatred or anger or jealousy or–it was of compassion. These two women really deeply love the same person, and because they deeply love him they love each other. And there is something painful about that, and intense and overwhelming. Though they’re really different people, I think the truth is if they had a conversation they would have respect for each other and been interested in each other’s ideas. Maybe.
Q: Was this role a challenge for you in any way?
SM: Yeah, it was a challenge because Karen’s a bit socially awkward. I think in real life, like when we all went out to do the scene in the bar and were hanging out, Michael and the three of us, and we were just being ourselves, we were having a great time.  Karen just isn’t quite able to communicate or engage that way. I think she’s drawn to people like [Steven's character] Kenny in the story.
Q:  Steven, you bring an energetic, comedic side to the film.
SY: I guess Kenny ends up kind of being the relief in a pretty heavy discussion. I don’t know.  Going back to the bar scenes, which were a lot of fun–there’s a lot of stuff on the cutting room floor that, if anything, served the purpose of getting us all into character. And it was great to improvise.
Q: How was it balancing making this film and the Walking Dead?
SY: I loved to be a part of this film just to get to work with Brit and Mike Cahill and Michael Pitt. That’s what initially drew me to Mike Cahill and Brit–knowing Another Earth, knowing what they do. I love their aesthetic, that you can take something that’s science fiction, which can be totally out there, like space aliens and lasers, and ground it with reality that it could happen tomorrow. That to me is the ultimate draw for this film. At the time, when I wanted to be a part of it, I remember I was reading Schopenhauer and really dark, weird stuff. I was reading about suffering, and how that’s the norm. It was just perfect. I was in that weird middle space of: What is life? Is it spiritual, is it science? Also, on The Walking Dead, we talk about that.  What is humanity? What does it mean to be connected? Are we made of the same material? For me the biggest joy of this was discussing such things with you guys, Brit and filming it. And the final thing is that people walk away from this film questioning everything.
BM: Between shooting scenes we’d be sitting in this room off the set, and we would just start talking about what the scenes provoked us to ask each other. In our conversations we’d ask, “How did you grow up?  What did you first think of spiritually? Are you interested in thinking about things logically or not?”  So we got to know each other because of what the film makes you hone in on.  It was really an amazing thing.
SY: We got close in a very short span of time, and were propelled toward each other. It was just a great bonding experience.  We were in a collaborative environment that really allowed all of us to just play. And I think that might be the fabric of what this movie is.
Q: How do the two of you feel about reincarnation?
BM: I have very complex feelings about it. I feel that human perception and language are so limited that we don’t yet have any way to talk about this stuff we don’t understand. There is something that I think every woman will say at some point in their life–that they met someone and during the encounter they  locked eyes and there was a sense of knowing them far beyond what was possible in the brief time they’d spent with each other.  What is that? How do we explain phenomena like that? I don’t know what any of that means. I think that if reincarnation is happening, if there is some recycling of energy, then it’s probably not as literal as any of human attempts to describe it are.  But I think when we tell stories, we’re just pointing at something that we’re collectively feeling.
SY: Have you ever read [Andy Weir's] short story, “The Egg?” Basically, to sum it up, this guy dies and he talks to God, and God’s going to send him right back down to Earth, and he’s like, “Why?” And He explains that you are to experience every single person on this Earth until you have a complete understanding, because you’re all one. You get to experience everybody’s life. So maybe those moments when you lock eyes and you’re feeling that you know this person, it’s because you’re looking at yourself. That kind of stuff is interesting to me.
Q: You talk about reading scientists and biologists, but did you read anything about metaphysics or reincarnation, or the idea of science needing spirituality?
BM: I was reading some theology and poetry that was hinting at the spiritual, but not any texts that actually fused them together. I think I didn’t go deeper on purpose, because the movie was looking to do that. So I didn’t want to read too much about other people’s ideas.
Michael Pitt & Astrid Bergès-Frisbey

Astrid Bergès-Frisbey: It’s a shame that today we have to convince people to leave their living rooms and go to the theater to watch the film. But at the same time I understand and I’m happy to do it because I feel from all the screenings and Sundance that people view it as an experience.  This is cinema and it’s different from just watching TV.
Q: I absolutely love your character. I loved how she is honest and didn’t beat Ian over the head with her beliefs but she just tries to convince him in a loving manner.
AB: I would change a lot of what you’re saying.  I would say that she invites him to see the world in an entirely different way. Just assume that it exists. And that’s a little bit what the film does in a way, too, to people. It doesn’t tell you the way to think, it just invites you to think about it. I like that she tries different ways, including having a serious conversation using his vocabulary to explain things. Something that I’m amazed by is that she sees these possibilities inside him.
Michael Pitt: I love how you explain things, it’s so awesome.
Q: Michael, you’ve played insane or irrational people, rock ‘n’ roll people, and dangerous people but here you play this very grounded character.  I think that’s a compliment to your skills.
MP: Thank you, thank you. When I met Mike Cahill he said, “I want you to play that character.” Normally in this business people want you to keep doing what you’ve been doing and they can’t think out of the box. Right off the bat, I was very impressed that he was a young director who seemed to see something in me that other people hadn’t. And so that was one of many things that went into my decision to play this character.
Q: Because this is a completely different role from anything you’ve ever done, were you hesitant about it at all?
MP (tongue-in-cheek): Yeah, I was hesitant when Mike Cahill asked me to play the role and offered me insane amounts of money and fancy cars and said I’d get laid for the rest of my life if I made this movie. Was I hesitant? It was a very organic experience. We started talking about the project and we just kept workshopping it, and then it just seemed like we were on the set. I’m really happy I made this film, I think it’s a great film and I’m happy to have been able to work with the actors who are in this film, I totally support them and everything they’re going to do in the future–and the same with Cahill. When you can say that and mean it, that’s a really good feeling.
Q: What do you think about the symbolism of the eyes?
AB: That made me probably escape a little bit from eye contact. When you’re an actor, something that I regret sometimes is that you disconnect a little bit from people, just to preserve your soul. In some ways something that I felt was that the soul is behind the eyes of the people.  There is something very mysterious about it.  I think there are so many people who ask themselves, “Have I met this person before?” Our eyes can look so much like planets, as if everybody has a single unique planet. There’s research that cannot explain the eyes. It’s such a mysterious organ.
MP: If a religious group is debating science, and that debate gets to a really a high level, they bring up is the human eye [as an example of intelligent design]. Which Darwin said could never be–the stages of evolution of the eye are not there.  The data’s not there. It’s what religious groups use to discredit evolution. And the truth is if you base it on data and proof, you can’t say they’re wrong. You can’t explain it yet..
Q: During the research process, scientists sometime shy away from the religious element because they are always going for facts.
MP: Richard Dawkins is a brilliant scientist. I think it’s obvious that he’s a bit mischievous and is definitely trying to provoke people. He has very strong atheism. He’s a lover of knowledge and [detests] groups who in the name of religion throughout history have tried to hold science back. He doesn’t want that to happen. It’s his passion, his love, so he gets very defensive about it.
Danny Peary: Can Ian lie, is he capable of lying?
MP: I’ve never been asked that question before. Can he lie?  Hmm.  I think that in his pursuit of truth in data, lying would be a waste of time. For him to flat out lie about things is maybe against his nature. For better or worse. Maybe there are things that he should lie about, you know, that he shouldn’t be so up-front with.
DP: So, when he tells Karen that he didn’t want to stay with Sofi because she was too childlike, is he telling the truth or is he lying?
MP: When he says to his wife that he didn’t think that he and Sofi would end up together, he believes that. I do think he believes that. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it would have been his choice. That could have been what he thought Sofi’s choice would have been. It’s good that you’re asking that question because it’s really interesting. I think that he believes in data and he has to be obsessed with science. When you really research these guys, you find that they have to be obsessed. They pick a thesis and go in that direction and don’t know for seven years whether or not they  went down the wrong road. It’s heavy.
DP: Karen’s the better match for Ian, in that way.
MP: Yes, I think certainly that. But he’s haunted by Sofi.  She explained to him that there’s a crack in the door and the light’s coming through. What she sees in him immediately, which makes him very uncomfortable, is the 2% of the unexplainable. He knows it’s in there, and if no one else is around, he’ll think about it. But certainly he’ll never talk about it. And she sees it from the moment she meets him, and that is a very powerful thing when someone sees that. And I think that’s one of the reasons why he’s haunted by her.
DP: Astrid, in the opening sequence when Sofi meets Ian at a party, she tells him she’s from outer space.
AB: Another planet. That’s the scene where she provokes him.
DP: This film is about origins and connectivity so is there a 1% possibility that’s true?
AB: I never thought about it! Maybe she is an alien.
MP: I never thought about it either, but now I think it’s true!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

After "Once," It's Time to "Begin Again"

Playing in Theaters

After Once, It's Time to Begin Again

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 7/1/14)


The cast and director. Danny Peary photo.(R-L) John Carney, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine, Mark Ruffalo, James Carden Photo:DP
The cast and director. Danny Peary photo.

Begin Again fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. John Carney’s extremely engaging follow-up to the 2006 international sensation Once opened last Friday in New York City and this Wednesday begins its national release. I anticipate that it will soon play in the East End because who isn’t curious about seeing Keira Knightley sing and Adam Levine act?  They, surprisingly, come off with flying colors doing both.  They play a song-writing couple, Gretta and Dave, who split when he becomes a huge recording star and is unfaithful. In New York, she stays with her busker friend, Steve (James Corden, who won the Tony as the lead in Broadway’s One Man, Two Guvnors) and is about to go back to London when she is “discovered” singing at a club by a heavy-drinking, formerly successful A&R man, Dan (Mark Ruffalo).  Dan is estranged from his wife (Catherine Keener) and teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) and is on his last legs, thinking he’d never find a raw talent again.  Hoping that starting her career with a hit album can rescue his career, the re-energized Dan records the semi-reluctant Gretta singing at outdoor locations around the city with a makeshift band of his musician friends.  The movie comes off as a fantasy set in an alternate New York but like Once it effectively brings real emotions and issues to the surface and you’re happy to go along for the ride.  And then there’s the music.  In the New York Times, A.O. Scott was really unkind to the songs.  Pay no attention. It’s a fabulous soundtrack and the way both Knightley and Levine perform the catchy, well-written songs in the movie is exciting. Begin Again is more flawed than Once, but it too is the rare movie you can recommend to almost anyone.  I attended the following press conference held last Thursday in SoHo.  In attendance were (R-L in the picture) Carney, Knightley, Levine, Ruffalo, and Corden.

Kiera Knightly and Adam Levine.
Keira Knightly and Adam Levine.

Moderator: John, there was this movie that came out, Once, that was a global phenomenon.  We talked a few weeks ago, when you were in Dublin, where you live, and you told me that you had the idea for Begin Again back when you were wrapping Once, but that you wanted to wait before you started working on it.  Is that right?
John Carney: I did want to wait so that the two films weren’t following each other directly. I feared I’d just become the ‘music guy,’ which is what has happened anyway. So waiting did nothing for that. But I did want to wait until the story was ready.  I’ve been watching the music industry change so much even since then, so I’ve developed the story on those terms. I think the print industry is the only industry that has changed to the same degree that the music industry has changed.
Moderator: And the inspiration was that when you were in high school you were touring with a band. And you thought it would be interesting to tell the story…
JCa: Well, actually I was in a band after I left high school. I had a bunch of A&R men angling for the next U2, which we weren’t, unfortunately, but Dublin was the city that everybody came to.  I guess they went a lot to London as well. These A&R men were really 25-year-old guys, with coke habits and credit cards without limits. And they were sort of swarming around, bringing these band kids out to clubs and wining and dining them, just in hopes of finding the next big band. The stories they were telling us! And I just look back over my life and I wonder where those guys are now, and I wonder whether they’ve adapted to the massive changes in the industry.  Still got the coke habit? Are they still trying to discover music?  Is that desire still there? Even though the Internet has changed the industry, are there still music-loving A&R men on the hunt for that new magical thing? Is that magical thing still out there?
Moderator: And the first person you cast was Mark Ruffalo as a heavy-drinking, washed-up former A&R man.
JCa: Yeah, Mark was the dream guy for this role.
Moderator: Mark, do you sing at all in real life?
Mark Ruffalo: No. Well, I did sing for the movie and it was cut out. I was singing in the shower.  It was supposed to be a lyric poem song.  But we couldn’t get the rights to that song.
JCa (joking): That’s what I said to Mark.
Moderator: And Keira, have you sung in public before?
Keira Knightley: Yes and no!  I did a film years ago called The Edge of Love and I sang a bit in that. A very 1940s kind of theatrical thing. So yes, I have sung before but it was very different.
Q: Did you take lessons?
KK: They very kindly got me some lessons with a very lovely man called Roger Love. For a lot of those songs, the lyrics weren’t written until a couple of days before we got into the studio so we didn’t have the songs to try to figure it out before we got there.  So it was just about trying to figure out what my voice was, because I didn’t know.  He tried to figure that out.
JCa: It was fun actually. We had this really new song and she went in and sang the first few lines and we all gave a sigh of relief.  We knew we can make this work!
KK (laughing): I wasn’t exactly relaxed when I was doing it.
Moderator: Adam, you did this before appearing in American Horror Story. You hadn’t done any acting before. Did you take acting classes?
AL: No. I tried to take one and it didn’t go well. It was bizarre. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like what I was being told, because it wasn’t making me happy, but that’s a whole other conversation I don’t want to have. So I just thought that I would pretend that I knew what I was doing and hope and pray that it worked, because these people on stage with me are all very, very talented. Mark’s shaking his head because he’s angry with me. But yeah, no lessons, actually.
MR: I’m shaking my head because for some people acting is so easy.  And acting isn’t easy.
Moderator: And James, you’re now in Into the Woods. And you’ve been a singer for quite some time.
James Corden: Yeah, I’m a professional singer. It’s my trade. I’m joking – not at all. But I have a theory that all rock starts want to be actors and all actors want to be rock stars, so I spent my whole school life forming boy bands.  I was in a boy band called Insatiable. We were quite big in the Buckinghamshire area, you might know.  We had a song that I wrote, called “Girl Are You Ready?”  We thought it was amazing, but in hindsight I think it sounds a bit rapey.   It didn’t work out for us. But since Adam’s heard some of Insatiable’s stuff, I think we’re going to hook up for some tracks. I think we’ll most definitely go forward.
Adam Levine (straight-faced): I look forward to that.
JCo: It’s a big surprise but I can share it with you guys. We’re going to be called Maroon 6.
MR: And Satiated.
Question from Journalist: Now that you’re all wonderfully successful, was it easy or hard to go back to that experience of being a struggling artist?
MR: It wasn’t my favorite place to be, so it’s not easy to go back there.
JCo: Mark really committed to the alcoholism aspect of the film. Because at the time I was on Broadway, I would shoot in the afternoon and get in a car and whisk across town to do the play and then quite often go back afterward and shoot quite a lot of the montage stuff.  And it was a great time when we were on the subway shooting this montage scene, and Mark said, “You must be exhausted from just doing the play, you must really need a drink,” and he was holding a Starbucks cup, and I said, yeah, I could really use one, and he passed me this Starbucks cup and it contained a vodka tonic. I really thought, well, this is the greatest moment of my life. I’m drinking booze with Mark Ruffalo while watching him film on the subway.
JCa: A little anecdote to that: the first AD comes up to me on the film set and says, Mark and James are both drinking alcohol–they think we don’t know, but we do know!
Q: Can Adam and Keira answer that question too about whether it’s hard to go back to play a struggling artist.
KK: I’m an actress, so yeah.
AL: You know, my character is kind of in the midst of becoming successful, and it was a very specific time when it happened to me. I was probably tempted by some of the same things that Dave is.  My story’s very different than his, but it was very easy to tap into what it was like to experience all these things that we never expect to experience. When you’re a musician, I don’t know if you’re ever very sure of anything.  You never know what’ll pay the bills–you don’t care about that as much as you care about playing music.  So this guy is just overwhelmed, and so was I, so that was pretty easy to play, actually. I believe that had something to do with why John called me.  Very few people get to experience those things and I think he thought I’d be able to articulate it for the camera. It was all John telling me what to do the entire time.
Q: Did you say yes right away when John called you?
AL: Yes.  Fuck yes, I believe..
Q: Adam, now that you’ve gotten a taste of acting, where do you want to take it?
AL: I have no idea. All I know is it was really fun. It was a dream experience.  I don’t think I could have done it [without these people up here.] This sounds really kiss-assy, though it’s really not meant to be, but I love these guys–all of them. They were so nice. I had no scenes with Mark, and the first day I got there and was trying on my clothes for the film, and he was so welcoming and warm and sweet. He and John and Keira and everybody made it easy. It was just one of those things, I don’t think it can get better than this, so I might not ever make another movie!  There’s no way it can surpass this as far as how much fun I had, it was a blast.
JCo: It stops being fun after the first movie!
Q: And, Adam, how did you tap into and relate to your character?
AL: I wanted to treat this guy, Dave, like a totally different person from me, even though it was impossible, because I literally don’t know how to act. So I was like, okay, some of me is coming out here, it’s not fucking possible that’s not going to happen. Referring to my character, like I said, there was a very specific point in my life, where I thought, “Oh my God, you know, I’ve made it!” There were fifty of those moments, I’ve been so fortunate in my career. There was a time probably in the early 2000s when our album went platinum, when I said, “What, are you kidding me?”  That was when I partied too hard and did a lot of stupid things and that is part of who Dave is. I was that guy.
Q: Keira, did you draw on anyone for inspiration for Gretta.
KK: I didn’t, no.  The part wasn’t based on anything for me, we just sort of worked on it from the character’s point of view, like “Okay, this is somebody who doesn’t like fawning, she’s just somebody who really likes being in the background.” It was just about finding what would work for me.
Q: What about the inspiration for Dan?
JCa: I had a really good conversation early on, years ago, with Mark.  Mark, you were shooting somewhere in Ireland, and I couldn’t believe that I’d gotten your phone number and I rang you up and we had a discussion about this character. And we ended up talking a lot about 1970s movies that we loved, like The French Connection with Gene Hackman.  We we were trying to find what the vibe might be like with this guy, and a bunch of late ‘60s, early ‘70s films were references.
MR: Well, I did want him to feel a little bit like a throwback.  And I liked the kind of A Star Is Born relationship that Dan has with Gretta. It’s warm, it’s not sexualized. He’s someone who really sees a talent and wants to develop it. I do a fair amount of daydreaming about these people, and I somehow came to this idea that any music person I played would be like Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips.
AL: It’s so fucking funny you just said that because the second I saw you, you just exuded that guy.  That’s Wayne Coyne! You looked like him, your hair looked like his hair. Wow!  I’m so glad you said that.
MR: I really love him, he feels like the real deal as far as music goes. I hope he doesn’t take offense to my homage to him. But I’m a big fan of his. So he was probably the only music person I drew from, although with Dan’s glasses, there was probably a little weird Dylan type gene. But that was pretty much it.
JCa; You use one thing as an actor, and that alone gives you the character. I thought the glasses were that for you, Mark.
MR: That and Dan smokes. I knew an old Jewish songwriter who was a manager in the ‘70s, and he was on the music scene and so a lot of my character’s qualities, especially the Nat Sherman cigarettes and that gruff quality, that throwback quality, were his. He was a really interesting character.
Q: Keira, In regard to clothes, was there anything about [your previous characters] Anna Karenina or Sabina Spielrein that you found in Gretta, and if either of them were to give advice to Gretta, should she take it?
KK: No on the advice.  The clothes–we actually had discussions with the costume designer.  I wanted Gretta to dress for women, not for men.  I wanted her clothes to be something that women would like and get for themselves, and men wouldn’t necessarily get it for them. So we worked quite hard on that kind of idea. So that slightly tomboy, slightly Annie Hall, completely non-sexualized thing is what were going for. The men’s trousers was a big thing.
Q: This movie is an attack on selling out in the music industry, but all of you have to confront that daily, whether you’re in the film industry or the music industry. For instance, you make small films but after a few small films, you have to make a big film. So when that happens, do each of you say, “Well, I have to sell out a little today?”
KK: Do I have to go first?  Well, I like differences, and I think that’s what’s been really nice about being Gretta.  I don’t dislike big blockbusters, in fact I like them very much and sometimes that’s exactly what’s called for on a day when it’s raining and I want to sit and have popcorn and just kind of get lost in a movie. I think about that as far as making them, as well. I did Jack Ryan because I wanted to do a pure piece of popcorn. And it exactly fit coming after I did Anna Karenina, this incredibly stylized movie that was—we were sort of trying something in a new way—very, very dark. What I really wanted after that experience was to make something absolutely different. And it was the same with Begin Again.. I wanted it to be really low-budget and hit the ground running and keep going as fast as possible, all that. I wanted that kind of speed. So I feel incredibly privileged that I get the opportunity to do both types of films. I certainly don’t sneer at big-budget things, and I don’t sneer at small-budget things, I think it’s about the opportunity for me to do all different styles of movies.
JCo: Most things aren’t very good, but that’s nothing to do with scale or size or any of those things. Most things, 90%, just aren’t that great. No one sets out to make something bad, sometimes they just are. And the trick is to operate in that 10%, whether it be something with a huge budget or a small budget, and that goes for music, television, theater, art, everything. You want to operate in the 10% but acknowledge that sometimes you’ll miss the mark with that, and sometimes you’ll make mistakes.  But those are the only things that teach you to go on and try and operate in that place where you can make something that’s really good. I love watching films that some people would say are trash, and I love  watching things in a different style. I don’t think it’s a question of selling out or not selling out, I think it’s just trying at the core to make something that’s good. And there’s no better representative of that than this film, where a group of actors get on board with a director they love because they’d seen something of his that they loved. We all went, “Yeah I’m in on this journey with you, John, whatever it is and wherever we go. And I’ll absolutely do my best to make sure it sits within that 10%.”
AL: I really want to answer this question. There’s a great scene in the movie with you guys [Mark and Keira] when Dan and Gretta talk about how people spend a lot of time figuring out who they are and presenting that to the world and then re-calculating.   I think in order to understanding selling out, you first have to define what it means to sell out. To do something you don’t want to do because you might be able to gain something financially, or to not be behind something that you wind up doing for some other reason–that’s probably what I’d call selling out. Not feeling good about doing something that might help you get ahead. But doing something that you love regardless of whether it’s making a blockbuster movie or writing a pop song or trying shamelessly to succeed at something–that’s not selling out, I think that’s actually fine and I would encourage that all the time. Selling out really comes at a point when you sacrifice your own personal credibility in order to have success on a larger scale.  Doing something that makes you feel gross and benefitting from it. That’s what that is to me. And it’s very clear-cut. But people do have a hard time defining it, and they kind of throw a lot of things out there and say it about giant movies or a huge record that’s very popular and a lot of people like…and people then say they don’t like them anymore [because they had commercial success]. I always hated that growing up and if my favorite bands became successful I thought, “Good for you, that is fucking amazing, congratulations, I still love you!”  I didn’t get a selfish, possessive, bullshit attitude and think “Oh, they were mine and now they’re everyone else’s and I don’t like them anymore.” That’s a horrible way to operate. God, they get to pay the bills and have amazing lives, that’s great. And they’re a great band, fuck yeah.  So that’s how I feel.
MR: I got into acting because I wanted to act, and I love acting. And so that’s my true north, to be creative and to be challenged in what I love to do. And sometimes that takes me into a big-budget movie, sometimes that takes me to a small-budget movie, but I’m doing essentially the same thing in each one of those, which is stretching in a way that I hadn’t. That’s my aim. I come from the theater, and in the theater you’re never pegged for one thing. You can be in a comedy in one season and you can be the romantic lead the next season, and you can do a period piece the following season and do something modern the season after that. No one ever says to you, “This is what you have to do! This is what we expect of you!” So that work ethic is what I know to bring to my film work as well. It just takes you on this wild ride.  And, cynically, the day that I decide to do something just purely for monetary gain or because it is going to get me to the next thing  will, I think, only lead to my downfall somewhere. It hurts your creative self. And so I think the idea of selling out is a lot of times a projection that people create about artists that is more a reflection of who they are than what is actually happening in front of them with the artist.
JCo: I slept with John to get in the film, and it didn’t feel like I was selling out at the time. I’d do it again.
Q: Keira, how did you relate to the romantic and the heartbreak aspect of the movie?
KK: I think it’s what I liked about the film. You can kind of take it out of the music industry story, and essentially what it’s about is people falling down in life and trying to pick themselves back up, and whether that has to do with a relationship or a career or wherever. I think you can’t be adult and not have felt that in whatever extreme way. So obviously yeah, I completely understood where Gretta was coming from and the feeling that you know exactly what’s going on and who you are and where you’re going and suddenly finding that you have no idea who you are, where you’re going, or what’s going on. All adults have experienced that.
Moderator: Finally, John, can you talk about the scene in which Gretta and Dan walk around Times Square. Was it at three o’clock in the morning and you had a handheld camera?
JCa: Yeah, we did actually. That was the one true maverick moment working on this movie, when we did not get permits and it was Mark, Keira, me, an AD, and a focus puller. There was supposedly no way we were doing to get that scene I had written in Ireland of walking around in Times Square.  Those three words—“in Times Square”—terrorized the producers.  People would get the script and go, “Ha, that’s not going to happen!”  It can happen as long as you don’t tell anybody or try to close it down, because that would have looked ridiculous.  We didn’t want extras pretending that they’re looking up at signs going, “Wow, Times Square!” So they’re real tourists walking around in the movie.  If I extended any shot in that sequence by two frames, there’d be someone going, “It’s Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo!”
AL: There’s a scene Keira and I shot in which our characters are walking into an apartment building together and someone recognizes Dave and comes up to him–and only thirty seconds earlier two girls had come up to me on the street. So literally it was happening and then we shot the scene where it was happening and there was just no difference between reality and what we shot.  There was zero projection of anybody and it was great because we were immersed in all of it the whole time. It felt real because it was. Shooting on the street was amazing.
JCo: I’m still surprised that we got away with it in New York. Sorry man, but the paparazzi just follow me wherever I go.
JCa: We had to take James’s name off the call sheets to try to get them off his scent.

Ashim Ahluwala Shows the Ugly Side of "Miss Lovely"

Playing in Theaters

Ashim Ahluwala Shows the Ugly Side of Miss Lovely

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 6/26/14)

Miss Lovely fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. Indian director-writer Ashim Ahluwalia’s second feature opened at the Cinema Village in New York City last Friday.  Everyone won’t like it but few will deny that it’s a uniquely made narrative about a subject we know nothing about.  It’s set in Mumbai’s sex-horror underground film industry in the 1980s. Tough Vicky Duggal (Annil George) and his brother Sonu (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) made z-budget horror films, in which they insert illegal porno reels.  Their gangster boss takes most of their profits and they can never break away. Sonu is disenchanted about his life and lets Vicky do almost all the work.  He falls for a seemingly innocent movie extra, Pinky (former Miss India Niharika Singh), and promises her that he’ll finance a romantic film called Miss Lovely and give her the title role.  He will have to steal money from Vicky, which might put his older brother in jeopardy with their boss.  He doesn’t know that Vicky and Pinky have a past.  I did the following interview with Ashim Ahluwalia prior to his film’s release.
Danny Peary: Had you lived in America before attending Bard College in the mid-1990s.
Ashim Ahluwalia: I grew up in Bombay, I lived there all my life and then I attended Bard and studied film. Bard was very interesting for me because it was a very experimental film school. It completely opened my mind to a new way of thinking about films and film language.  Going to Bard made a big impact on how I think about film.
DP: Todd Haynes went there just a few years before you did.
AA: Yes, he did an MFA at Bard. It’s funny because I only realized that after the fact, and it makes sense because he’s one of those American filmmakers that I really connect to. I love his his amazing and very undervalued films.
DP: Were you known as one of the top film students there?
AA: I was known for being obsessive about cinema, I would watch ridiculous amounts of films and was a bit of an encyclopedia of this stuff. What I found interesting was that Bard film school was anti-establishment and in conflict with the American film industry and the narrative films Hollywood was making at the time. I have had a very similar relationship with the Bombay film industry. But I wanted to go back to India to make films because I felt like it was very oppressive to make feature films in the States, from Indian scenarios. [Note: In May 2013, Ahluwalia received the Charles Flint Kellogg Award in Arts and Letters from  his alma mater, an award is "given in recognition of a significant contribution to artistic or literary heritage."]
DP: Tell me about your acclaimed first feature, the 2006 documentary John & Jane, which some critics don’t consider a documentary at all.
AA: It was my first film, and it was superficially a documentary set in a call center.  A call center is where you get routed if you make a call to customer service.  Usually your call gets sent to India.  The people who answer your calls are Indian kids who have never left and use fake American names so the Americans they interact with might think they are in America.  I thought that’s a very interesting space for both a documentary and a dystopian sci-fi film, because it reminded me of all the ’70s American dystopian sci-fi films I’d watched. The technology films were set in the early 21st century, which we are in now, and might have characters with chips implanted in their brains.  It’s kind of fascinating how close these call centers were to that vision of the future that we saw in those films.
misslovelyashim2Ashim Ahluwalia  Photo: DP
DP: So were you thinking of yourself as a documentarian before you switched from making a second documentary about India’s sex-horror films of the 1980s to making “Miss Lovely,” a narrative film on the same subject?
AA: John & Jane was technically a documentary, so that’s where I come from. My second film was intended to be a documentary about the making of a sex-horror film called Maut Ka Cehra [Face of Death] before it became my first fiction film, into which I incorporated a lot of documentary elements. I couldn’t make the documentary it because the people involved [including ex-con filmmakers] didn’t want to be seen.  The funny thing is that I used a lot of the people who refused to be in the documentary in Miss Lovely.  A lot of producers, females, and secondary and background actors are actually people from the C-movie industry, just dressed up in period costume. They were more than happy to play a part in a real movie as long they didn’t have to speak on camera.
DP: While watching Miss Lovely, I was thinking the whole time that it had come from a true story or many true stories.
AA: For a year-and-half I spent a lot of time behind the scenes for extended periods of time over with a lot of people in the C-movie industry.  They were my subjects but nobody wanted to be in the documentary, for an obvious reason–they didn’t want to be arrested.
DP: They didn’t tell you that in the beginning?
AA: Well, they hadn’t really understood what I was doing. And then I said, “Okay, what you told me last night was really interesting, so can you tell me that again with my camera on?”  And they said, “Are you completely insane?” I started realizing how serious the pornography issue is in India.  There’s essentially a minimum of three years in jail if you’re convicted of distributing pornography. So the only way for me to do something with all the material I’d accumulated was to sort of set it in a fictional universe, and a series of different stories, urban myths, and gossip essentially became the basis for the screenplay for Miss Lovely.
DP: Was the C-movie industry your characters work in a step below the B-movie industry?
AA: It’s different . A B-movie in India, like in the United States, is a movie that has a low-budget but still has filmic aspirations.  A C film in India was an excuse for a movie, and was just made so illegal sex bits could be inserted into something. The movie took just a few days to make and was just a place to intersperse illegal sex reels that would not go to the censors but directly to the cinemas.
DP: Was there an equivalent in India in 1980s to the American porn industry of the late sixties and early seventies?
AA: It was closer to the late 1950s and early 1960s stuff in America, almost like Doris Wishman nudist films and sex education films. We’re talking about a specific film period in Miss Lovely, the mid-80s, which is completely dead now. It has been wiped out by digital, DVDs, the Internet. Like everywhere else in the world. It’s gone.
DP: In the late sixties and early seventies in America, when porno became chic, we thought that soon Hollywood films might contain hardcore sex.  Was that going on in India?
AA: No, it wasn’t.  There was no connotations that we’d have anything like Bollywood movie and have porn in them.. In India, sex is so taboo, so it was hard to believe you could have a nude woman in a film when even a kiss was not allowed. You have to put it into the perspective of a very conservative culture, where men and women in mainstream films barely kissed. Only in the last five years are we beginning to see lip-to-lip kisses, and you didn’t see that before Bollywood. There has been almost no nudity, and breast shots were always censored, even for adult films. Meanwhile you’re having these guys secretly making hardcore porn films. Filmmakers were considered criminals.
DP: Were there a lot of trials?
AA: Yes, ,but unlike in the States, where it became a 1st Amendment issue, in India, it was “No, no, no, it’s illegal, you can’t do that, you go straight to jail.” There was really no respite. It wasn’t like there was some loophole in the law that somebody could use to get off. It was pretty much as criminal as killing someone. That’s the equivalent level at which it was judged.
DP: In your Director’s Statement in the press notes, you express admiration for the filmmakers you hung out with, saying that “the renegade filmmakers produced films out of nothing. Their raw energy reminded me of why I set out to make the films in the first place.”  But in an interview you say, ” I imagined the people as frustrated artistes, but I realized that they’re just hardcore Bombay guys who are constantly transacting.” So were they frustrated artists or were they all hacks?
AA: They were hacks.  When I met these guys, they weren’t the romantic artists that I thought they would be. However, I still felt very inspired by the way their films got made.  They had an anarchic spirit, making these films in one-hour hotel rooms while running from the cops. The fact that they were distributed by hand reminded me almost of early experimental film, or another way of making films. I was excited by the guerilla style of filmmaking, how they were doing things outside the industry. You start running out of film and don’t have enough for the scene? You put in a free stock shot. I was drawn to things like that.
DP: In America, in the 1970s, we saw there were some talented, fledgling filmmakers making porno or exploitation films.  Did you discover any guys making C-films who had talent?
AA: These films had a lot of weird things that were accidental or maybe self-reflexive, that I found interesting. There was always something in there.  One film had the actresses on screen, who the director on screen was trying seduce, looking directly at the camera.  It was the camera of the director in the film, but it was really the camera of the director of the film. This was Godardian kind of moment, where the director is, “Okay, do it for my camera, do it for my camera.” I don’t know if this director knew what he was doing, but suddenly it was really interesting. The camera becomes our perspective, and since there’s also a camera in the movie itself, the perspective shifts between a third-person and a first-person narrative. It was like this incredibly sophisticated formal meta-text, and I was thinking, “Wow, this is amazing,”
DP: So if you’re into Godardian and Brechtian alienation techniques, do you want us to remember while watching Miss Lovely that it is a movie?
AA: I like when you think it’s a movie, which is why I’m so interested in the conflict between documentary and fiction.  Is this real, are these real people? Or is this a movie and everything is artificial? Formal questions do appeal to me, I think lots of filmmakers go along with the rules of the genres of their films–I find that boring. As a filmmaker I really enjoy that Miss Lovely seems to be a pop movie, then starts falling apart and becomes an art house film, then switches to sleaze. It doesn’t satisfy any classification and can slip between being a sex film and an experimental film or a musical and something Brechtian just by a little slight of hand.
DP:  At various times you pause in the action and have static shots of structures and striking architecture.  These formal shots remind me of experimental films, which your shorts were.  Did anyone say to you, why are those images in there?
AA: Of course. The art house people are like, “Why did you put a song in there?” and the pop people are going, “Why do you have those structures in there?”  It’s very interesting how much of their viewing experience viewers bring to the film–and where they want to steer it.  They think, “Why don’t you just tell me the story? Why don’t you just tell me what happens with those guys?”  I choose to remain somewhat opaque about characters and some people love that and some don’t.
DP: Your influences that I know about are from the seventies and eighties, but what about the thirties?  I was reminded of Josef von Sternberg because of your emphasis on exotic decor, costumes, a crowded frame, and eroticism– the sense that you can smell sweat, perfume, sex, as when Dietrich’s women entertain.
AA: I do love von Sternberg.
DP: I was also thinking Busby Berkeley, just because of the way the characters maneuver through crowded spaces and backstage, as if everything were choreographed.
AA: Yeah, exactly, spatial stuff, I love that.  I think you can also see that I’m a real big fan of novels. I’m oddly a big fan of Jim Thompson, and he’s somebody I really had in mind when I was putting the script together.  When I was asking myself, “Why isn’t it coming together as a traditional thriller?,” I would always think of how Jim Thompson always moves between a crime novel and psychological portrait. He was a huge influence.
DP: Are your main characters, the Duggal Brothers, Sonu and Vicky, inspired by a real brother team who made C-movies for gangsters or are they fictional?
AA: The brothers in my movie came from a combination of things. I wasn’t making a biography of two real brothers but sort of a pastiche of multiple stories about brothers that I’d heard through the industry. In fact, the younger brother going to jail for making pornography was based on a real story.  There is some history to the brother thing.. I found that in India and even the US, where you had the Mitchell Brothers ["Behind the Green Door"], there were brothers working together, particularly when their business was illegal, because they trusted each other.  In the mainstream Indian cinema of the 1980s, it was common to have  a good brother and a bad brother as the main characters.  It was sort of like the cliché–one brother was a cop and the other was a criminal, and then at the end they’d come together. I really liked integrating ’80s film tropes into my movie about that time, except Sonu and Vicky Duggal come apart rather than come together.
DP: They reminded me of characters from gangster movies of the ‘30s. Other than loving his brother, does Vicky have any redeeming qualities?  Sonu sabotages Vicky to make a movie starring Pinky but he never fully breaks away from him or the business he says he hates.
AA: They’re brothers that really hate having to work with each other. Family is celebrated In Indian cinema and I really liked the idea of two brothers who can’t stand each other yet make a gesture of loyalty.  Even though Vicky is the cliché of the dominating older bother, I find him more straight.  He’s the brother who actually does the work. He has a loyalty to his younger brother that Sonu does not have for him. He’s younger, but Sonu is always feeling superior to his elder. Sonu is not a very nice guy even through he’s supposedly the underdog.
DP: In the press notes it says Sonu is “dimwitted.”  I don’t think he’s that.
AA: I don’t see him as dimwitted. He’s one of those guys who’s silently seething in the background and waiting for a moment when he can take what he can.
DP: Sonu is trying to make Miss Lovely, a romance starring Pinky. What would you have thought of this they’re trying to make? I think he’s trying to make the type of movie you wouldn’t want to see, right?
AA: Right.
DP: So Sonu, your lead character, has a dream to make a film you’d hate.
AA: I think that’s true. Indian critics have said a very interesting thing, which is that Sonu is trying to make a film that would not allow my film, Miss Lovely, to exist. These films are dominating Bollywood, which doesn’t allow a filmmaker like myself to work.
DP: Sonu is played by a really handsome actor.  Why was it important that you cast someone who is handsome?
AA: Do you find him handsome? That’s funny. Before Miss Lovely, Nawazuddin Siddiqui was a really struggling actor with no money.  H had never had a lead role couldn’t believe that I would put him in the lead. “Are you sure you want to do this?”  I had enough co-production money that I didn’t need Indian studio money, so I hired an unknown.  Now he’s a star. Now he’s on the cover of GQ in India and stuff like that..
DP: Pinky is a conniving character, which is obvious to us but not Sonu. Do you hate her for it or do you respect that she’s just trying to survive?
AA: I don’t hate her. I find her actually a strangely sad character. I think she’s really had to work.  You don’t know much about her, she doesn’t have a real name, her name keeps shifting. She’s not really someone being given the opportunity to do anything really other than work the system, which she can do because she’s beautiful.. She remains very enigmatic, like a lot of actresses that I’ve met in the industry, who say, “I just came to Bombay last month,” and they tell you a made-up name.  Then I meet the same actress again two years later and they say, “Oh, I just came to Bombay last month,” and they have a different name.  I have a lot of empathy for Pinky and all the characters in some strange way. Including Vicky.
DP: Pinky has a musical number in the Bollywood style.  There’s nothing like it elsewhere in the film.  Did you enjoy filming that?
AA: I loved it. There are a lot of earlier filmmakers, around the world and in India, that were able to slip between genres in a way that I don’t think we can do now, in the current state of the industry worldwide. You don’t have that degree of freedom.
DP: In your film, the police clear out a theater where men are watching a horror-sex movie. Were those people being arrested?
AA: Yeah. It’s pretty scary. So the idea that Miss Lovely was made and has been released commercially in India is hugely radical.  The conversation that it has sparked never existed before it was made, it was just not in the public domain. Now of course it’s going the other way and people can’t stop talking about it.
DP: Your film has just a little nudity, so are people in India going to it for titillation of because they see it as an art film?.
AA: It took one year to get this film through Indian censors I said there’s hardly any nudity and you can cut the nudity. The film went to Cannes. After that the distributors wanted to get into the cinemas in India, and then the censors just made it very, very difficult.
DP: Did going to Cannes and the Toronto Film Festival help you?
AA: Yeah, that made me a valid, non-sleazy filmmaker.  Otherwise it would just be considered a sleaze film. I will say that in India, the distributor did a very interesting thing. To give it a bigger release, they placed it in cities as an art house film and in small towns as a sex film. It has gone very wide.
DP: That it’s playing in grindhouses in India must be a dream come true, right?
AA: Yes, I’m very proud to say that my film has shown in Cannes and in the shittiest small towns in India.
DP: So now that you’ve have a hit and have become well-known in India, do you want to stay there to make films?
AA: I’m working on something that might be shot in Italy. It will be set in the 16th century in Italy, and be about Giordano Bruno, the philosopher. It’s an Italian-British co-production, a very different type of film.

Paul Haggis and His Two Actresses on "Third Person"

Playing in Theaters

Paul Haggis and His Two Actresses on Third Person

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 6/19/14)

Third Person fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. Written, produced, and directed by Paul Haggis (who won back-to-back Best Screenplay Oscars for Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby and Crash, which he directed), it opens this Friday in New York City. Because the film has a twist that changes our perspective on everything we’ve seen earlier in the film, I will avoid revealing too much by safely sticking to the Synopsis in the press notes: “Third Person tells three stories of love, passion, trust and betrayal, in a multi-strand story line reminiscent of Paul Haggis’s earlier Oscar-winning film Crash.  The tales play out n New York, Paris and Rome: three couples who appear to have nothing related but share deep commonalities: lovers and estranged spouses, children lost and found…Michael (Liam Neeson) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has holed himself up in a hotel suite in Paris to finish his latest book.  He recently left his wife, Elaine (Kim Basinger) and is having a tempestuous affair with Anna (Olivia Wilde), an ambitious young journalist who wants to write and publish fiction.  At the same time, Scott (Adrien Brody), a shady American businessman, is in Italy to steal designs from fashion houses…There he meets Monika (Moran Atias), a beautiful Roma woman, who is about to be reunited with her young daughter. When the money she has saved to pay her daughter’s smuggler is stolen, Scott feels compelled to help…Scott starts to suspect that he is the patsy in an elaborate con game.  Julia (Mila Kunis), an ex-soap opera actress, is caught in a custody battle for her six-year-old son with her ex-husband Rick (James Franco), a famous New York artist…Julia is reduced to working as a maid in the same upscale boutique hotel where she was once a frequent guest.  Julia’s lawyer, Theresa (Maria Bello) has secured Julia one final chance to change the court’s mind and be reunited with the child she loves.  Rick’s girlfriend Sam (Loan Chabanol) is a compassionate onlooker.”  This synopsis leaves out…pretty much everything.   I took part in this following roundtable with Haggis on Tuesday about his intriguingly enigmatic film.  I note my questions.  After it, is my quick exchange with Atias and Chabanol.

Interview with Paul Haggis

thirdpersonhaggis2 Paul Haggis  Photo: DP
Q: What inspired you to make this film?
Paul Haggis: This idea was brought to me by Moran Atias. When I was sitting on the set of The Next Three Days, in the last week of shooting, she came in for two days to do a small role.  She asked if she could sit on the set and watch because she wanted to learn how to direct or something and take a look at the cameras.  So I said yes, just be quiet.  Moran is beautiful woman so everyone wanted to talk to her.   At some point, she started pitching ideas to me for movies, which I thought excessively annoying. I was trying to direct a movie!  I think the first one she pitched was a Holocaust movie, and I said, I’m not going to do a Holocaust movie, thank you very much, it’s been done too well before, and I don’t know what I would say about it. Then she said I should do something about relationships.  My first instincts were to reject that idea, but I then went, “Oh, that’s interesting.” That movie wrapped, and we both headed back to New York.  We met and I actually recorded her for fifteen hours as she talked about her relationships, her friends, her failings in relationships, all sorts of stories. She went away after a week or so, and I sat there and started thinking where I’d failed in relationships, and what intrigued me were several questions: How can you succeed in a relationship if you have somebody across from you who you believe is totally untrustworthy?”  What if you just decide to trust them, despite all the evidence that they are not trustworthy? You’re a smart person and you know that person is probably lying to you, but what happens if you just decide to trust and believe in that person?  Is love transformative?  Is that kind of acceptance transformative? What if you insist on saying, “I know who you are, I know what you did, just admit it and everything can be fine”?  Do you admit it? And if you get what you want, do you no longer want it? It’s a very cynical view, but if that person finally opens up to you–will you betray him, or her? It’s better that those questions don’t go away than if you have the answers.
Q: So if this started out as Moran Atias’s idea, how much of it could be autobiographical?
PH: All of it!  Not really.  [laughter]. All my work is partly autobiographical, Crash was, absolutely. You wouldn’t recognize me in those characters in Crash, but I was in every single one of them. Those were fears that I had felt, things that I had thought in my heart– I just projected them onto other people. You just wouldn’t recognize me, but I’m also in the characters in The Next Three Days, in which Russell Crowe’s wife Elizabeth Banks is arrested for murder.  It was a prison breakout movie, and I was asking myself, “What would I do in his place? How far would I go for the woman I loved?  And what would I do if she told me that she was guilty? Could I still believe in her?” It was very personal.  So was In the Valley of Elah [about a man, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who tries to find how about the death of his soldier son]. On Third Person it’s easier to see because it’s about a writer, but all my films are like that.
Q: So how did you instill yourself into the story?
PH: I started by asking myself questions.  Obviously in my relationships, things have worked, mostly things have failed. And I asked questions about those things. I wanted to explore different aspects of how I’d failed or how I could possibly have succeed if I’d done something better or did something less. Then I put my answers into stories in which the real people I’m writing about will mostly not recognize themselves. That’s really what I did.  I explored a lot of things, especially about how damn selfish we writers are and how other people often pay the price for that selfishness. I thank God I have never gone through a tragedy like Michael or the other characters go through, but I can imagine myself there. Because often it’s children who pay the price for our selfishness. I moved to Hollywood when I was 22, I was married and we had a kid right away.  I worked as a furniture mover and at various other jobs eight-to-ten hours a day, trying to support my family.  Then I’d come home and write for two or three hours every night. You love your kids, but…It’s a very real guilt I carry, now it’s just [here] in fictional form.
Danny Peary: When her rich ex-husband Rick, played by James Franco, breaks a promise and refuses to let her see their son, Mila Kunis’s Julia asks, “Why do you get to play God?”  But that seems to be a question that could be asked to the writer Michael (Liam Neeson), who creates and manipulates all his characters. And in turn, that question can be asked to you as the writer of the movie and creator of the characters, including Michael.
PH: Exactly, absolutely true. It’s a question, I think, that I have as a filmmaker and also as a human being. Playing God as a writer and especially as a person is something that haunts me.  I write about what haunts me. There’s a reason pride is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Because we’re prideful, we think in our relationships that we’re good, we’re right, we’re the sensible one, whatever. I remember being in a relationship where this woman said to me, “Your asking me to open up to you is just a game. If I’m finally completely vulnerable to you and trust you completely, and open up to you, you’ll just betray me.”  I went, “Wow, this is a woman with serious trust issues…but what if she’s right?” That if is how I approached this. I often like to write from the point of view of characters that I completely disagree with. That challenges me, and gets me to look at my own justifications, rationalizations, bullshit.

DP: The writer-as-God theme is probably the most important theme in this film, but your movie is also about overcoming bad choices.
PH: The most interesting characters, the most interesting people, are ones who often work against their own best interests. Bad choices. They go in directions where you’re like, “What? No, no, no, no!”  They push away someone who’s trying to love them, they push away someone who’s trying to get their trust, they love someone they shouldn’t love. Another thing I was exploring is the idea that while we think we keep finding the wrong person in life, at some point we might ask ourselves, “What if the wrong person is really the right person?” In this movie polar opposites are drawn together into relationships, and then pulled apart, and then drawn together.  They’re completely wrong for each other but though some of it doesn’t work, some of it does. I don’t think there’s much logic involved.
DP: There’s an erratic nature to your characters, and I don’t know if it’s deliberate or unintentional.  Maybe their erratic because their creator, Michael, is experiencing erratic emotions.
Q: It’s both for me.
Q: So it’s legitimate to assume that maybe all these characters are in Michael’s mind?
PH: It’s very legitimate. At some point or other, they are. How much is he trying to rewrite his own life? How much is he trying to explain his life, or explore his life? But then how much is he trying to avoid by doing that That’s what I explored.
DP: In the press notes, it says that you usually are a quick writer but this script took you many, many drafts.  Was it because it was so personal and you were exploring the same things Michael was?
PH: It took me so long to write because I allowed the characters to lead me along. That was totally the wrong thing to do.  We writers should structure things and force our characters to do what we want them to do. And that’s what I almost always do, playing God. But this time I let them take me to places, and they took me to blind alleys or off a cliff or to bridge of no return; or they would wander off into the desert and get lost.  They took me to see the things I didn’t want to really look at. That’s exactly what’s happening to Michael with his characters. It’s easier to live with drama than with responsibility for what you’ve done.  The storyline and who the characters are changed radically over the last two-and-a-half years.  I finally just realized what I was writing about – and that came to me very slowly.  After a year, I went “Oh, this is what I’ll write about.”
Q: Beyond personal stories of your own, were there other inspirations for your film? I saw comparisons between this and The Singing Detective,  maybe because of the idea of a writer stuck in a room.
PH: You know, that’s a great analogy. It was a brilliant TV series. It wasn’t conscious of it in any way while writing the script, but the problem with watching anything good is that it will stick in your mind forever. That’s why I try to not watch movies while I’m either writing or directing. That’s hard, because this movie took me five-and-a-half years!
DP: Are you a fan of American Graffiti?
PH: I was, why?
DP: The intertwining stories. That was one of the first films to try that and it left such an impression on everybody.
PH: You’re right, I hadn’t thought of that. I always think of Robert Altman, of course, but he came later.
Q: Talk about the film’s title.  Is it about writing in the third person or about a third person in each of the relationships?
PH: There are different ways to interpret it. It can be exactly what you said, that there’s always a third person in the relationships, although you often don’t know who that person is. It might be someone from the past who is keeping you from moving on or keeping you from connecting with somebody. I don’t keep a journal, but I love the idea that Michael distances himself so much from his own feelings that he actually writes in his journal in the third person.  Anna and Michael talk in the third person–they flirt, they say fabulous things to each other, they also can be incredibly cruel.
Q: Talk about casting Liam Neeson in a part where he types rather than shoots a gun.
PH: Liam is one of our best actors. I remember talking to him about doing a film years ago, before his personal tragedy.  I wanted him to a play a role in a drama, and I thought he would be very good.  It was something I hadn’t written but was planning to direct, He really wanted to do it, but when I talked to my financiers, they said, “Liam Neeson is not really worth a lot at the box office.  I said, “He’s a brilliant actor.”  I dined with him and thought he was perfect for the role and was a lovely, lovely man.” At the end of dinner he said, “Paul, I did this little film that’s coming out soon.  I hope no one sees it.”  That was Taken.  Three months later, those same producers came back to me and said, “Do you think you can get Liam Neeson for this role?” That’s how our fickle business is. I didn’t end up doing that movie but I chased him from the moment I finished writing this script.  I didn’t worry that he made so many action films.  He’d made a lot of great movies, but told me that he hadn’t had the chance to play a romantic lead in something like twenty years. And women like him.
Q: Did some of the actors adlib or did they stick to your script?
PH: We had very little rehearsal time, but I feel that if an actor is skilled and can understand the scene and what my intent is although it’s not always obvious on the page, then they can act it. I gave them the freedom to improvise and most of them didn’t. There were lines that changed, but not a lot.
Q: It is everyone’s nightmare to be in a hotel hallway naked, like Anna is in one scene.
PH: I wish I’d lived that experience!
Q: Was Olivia Wilde on board with doing that, and then running naked down a flight of stairs?

PH: Completely.  That was the great thing about working with Olivia.  I told her from the beginning, “Olivia, you’re going to be butt-naked in this movie.” and she said, “Okay, I can do that for you.”  She knew what the scene was. And she made it so comfortable for us, making us feel that it was not a big deal. Of course I closed the set, and it was just me, the DP, and the camera.  No one could see monitors.  That was a set, thank God, that we built. Both of the hotels, the Mercer Hotel and the St. Jacques, we built completely on a soundstage in Rome. She didn’t really run down the stairs from one floor to the next.  The stairs went into a pit.  And then she came down what was supposed to be the next level of stairs.  Olivia did an interview in which she said that between takes she was eating pizza, and forgot she was walking around butt-naked.  I wanted that scene to be joyous, not sleazy in any way.  It was just so much fun to watch her. She’s so vulnerable in that moment playing a character who hasn’t been vulnerable and has been quite cruel to others–we want to see that other side of her.
Q: What was the funniest thing that happened during shooting?
PH: Liam’s character, Michael, was supposed to step out of the shower and see Olivia Wilde, Anna, lying naked on his bed and reading his journal. This took place on a set we built, and I wanted steam to be coming out of that shower. So I put Liam in the shower with the hot water running and then the DP started talking to me, and then Olivia asked me a question.  Finally, Liam screams, “I’m goddamn scalding in here!”  The hot water was burning that poor son of a bitch. He was waiting very patiently for his action cue for way too long. So he came out and was quite red. And not from anger, red because I almost fried the poor man.
DP: One thing I find really interesting in this movie is your emphasis on first impressions. You immediately identify a character or situation by showing us revealing props–or Olivia Wilde’s legs–or you have sharp first lines said whenever characters enter a scene.
PH: I do like to try to set up characters and let you think you know them.  Judge them completely and say, “This is who this person is.” I like doing that, so that I can then subvert those expectations. That’s true with Michael and Anna.  I wanted to say, Here’s Michael, he’s a great guy; well, okay he’s cheating on his wife, oh he’s left her. So he’s a flawed man, but a good man; what the hell is he doing with Anna, who’s a crackpot and  so volatile that she’s cold one minute and hot the next.  Maybe the sex is good, but please, Michael, grow a pair of balls, what are you doing?  Who’s using whom? In relationships, you often think, “Oh, this is the good person and the other is the devil.”  Then when you really get inside of a relationship you realize it’s maybe not that way.
DP: Michael tells Anna that her short story is cold and impersonal. Was that part of your problem writing this, not making it personal enough?
PH: No, I think what Michael says earlier to her is my problem. He says, “It’s very clever.” She goes, “Ooh, clever, thanks.”  I used to be a clever writer.  I was for years.  But once I realized how you’re supposed to write, the last thing I wanted to be was clever. There are very few people like Oscar Wilde who can be really clever and also reveal themselves. It’s easier to be clever as a defensive mechanism, so that you don’t have to reveal yourself on paper.
DP: Is Michael talking about himself when he says Anna’s writing is cold and impersonal and clever?
PH: We often project our own frustrations, and when Michael criticizes her short story he was obviously having a problem with his own book. His characters were protecting themselves, They were all making excuses for his life. (I fear that.)
Q: Talk about Mila Kunis’s character Julia.  It is hard to tell whether she or her ex-husband Rick, played by James, is damaging their little son more.
PH:  I want you to go in thinking she’s irresponsible but is not going to hurt her kid. But she cries and confesses to Rick about something she did. He breaks his promise to her, and she cries that she lied to him.  I love planting clues with humor early on, and if  you think back there’s a scene where she saying that she used to be in a soap opera and got that job because she could cry on cue. So is that what she’s doing now?
Q: All the characters have ambiguous, open-endings.
PH: I don’t know if the stories themselves are ambiguous.  The movie itself is ambiguous, but in the stories, you pretty much see who wins and who loses. Those who trust, like Anna, don’t always win.  Scott trusts Monika, so he risks everything because she insists she has a daughter. That story is about belief, and I want the audience to see it’s about what you believe, not what the facts are.
DP: What’s the reason you set Third Person in three different cities?
PH: One reason is that it would make it physically impossible for my characters to meet. So when things start happening, you’d have to go, “Okay, that impossible. And if that can’t really happen, then what is happening?  And why?”  Also, who doesn’t want to shoot in Rome and Paris and New York? They’re the most romantic cities in the world.  I spent a lot of time in Italy shooting this, which was fabulous. And since it was going to be a really complex story, I really wanted to celebrate it and have it be joyous, and convey that visually. What better cities to film this than Paris, Rome, and New York?
Q: Do you think of yourself more as a writer or director?
PH: That’s a hard question to answer. I see myself as a filmmaker, and sometimes I get the chance to write or direct, and sometimes I get to do it all, like with Third Person.
Q: You’ve been making films for than a decade. Have you considered writing a play?
PH: That’s how I started out. My plays were so bad that I was chased out of Canada. I would absolutely like to go back to it but I haven’t found a story that tells itself best on the stage yet.
Q: What are you working on right now?
PH: Nothing, absolutely nothing. I spent eight weeks here over Christmas.  Usually I spend three months here editing my movies, but this time I didn’t go away.  I said, I’m a New Yorker, I’ve had a place here for ten years; my youngest son goes to school here; my best friend and best reader, my ex-wife is a terrific playwright who loves it here; I like to write here; I’m staying.  It’s brutally cold but it’s the  perfect weather to be miserable and write.  So that’s what I did, spending eight weeks writing a brand new story.  Then I read it through and threw it out. So I’ve got nothing.
Q: A couple of years ago, you were going to make a film about Scientology.
PH: I was never going to make a film about Scientology. There was just the book. It’s not that I shy away from it, but I just haven’t found a good story to tell. I’d have to find something that really intrigues me.
DP: This film is really hard to talk to you about because we can’t reveal the ending. But, do you think people will like this better on the second viewing?
PH: I think so, yes. I think they’ll enjoy it more because they’ll be in on it. Hopefully they won’t run around telling everybody what happens. There are lots of clues that I plant quite early in Third Person. which people probably don’t notice the first time around. But next time you notice.  In Rome, Adrian Brody’s character Scott turns and looks up as a Mercedes passes, and in the back seat is Anna, who is in Paris. This was an impossibility but I was being quite literal.

 A Quick Exchange with Loan Chabanol and Moran Atias

thirdpersonmoranloanMoran Atlias (L) and Loan Chabanol Photo: DP

Danny Peary: Is Loan a name other people have, do you know other Loans?
Loan Chabanol: I do, in Vietnam. Lo-An. It’s a Vietnamese name, and my grandmother is Vietnamese. So it’s a very common name.  In France we have a lot of Julies.
DP: Do people call you Loan, pronouncing it like the word for borrowing?
LC: All the time. I make it cool, I’m like, “No problem, call me any name you want.”
DP: Moran, you spent a couple of years talking with Paul Haggis about relationships, all leading up to Third Person. So is this film anything like your original concept?
Moran Atias: Oh, yeah, there are so many things I see myself in, including the other characters.  That was a first-time experience for me as a writer. As actors we get to hide. We can change our hair or use an accent, and all of a sudden it’s not you anymore.  But it’s always you, I feel; you always bring yourself, but these tricks are like masks. As a writer, even though they’re speaking in third person, it’s really yourself and your fears and doubts.  I felt extremely exposed for the first time, and I was truly mesmerized by the whole outcome.
DP: Was that a surprise?
MA: Yes, because I did not expect the film to happen. Because I think back to when I was sitting in a hotel room with an idea and then an Oscar-winning filmmaker wants to do it, and then there’s money to make it, and then brilliant actors like Liam Neeson sign on…None of this felt real to me, I was living in a bubble. And then there were moments when it didn’t happen, because we lost financing, and then Liam had to go off and do Taken 14, and we were like, “Okay, what happens now?” So I yelled with joy and had moments of sobbing throughout the years.  Now the film is exactly what I hoped, everything I dreamed of.
DP: Loan, I kind of see your character, Sam, as the calm in the eye of a hurricane. Everyone else is experiencing turmoil and she’s so composed. She’s the observer of the film, as I see it. How do you see her and how does she fit into the whole thing?
LC: I think she’s a fly on the wall.  I think she’s on the wall and everything is happening and she just watches it. She does not judge anyone, and that’s a big strength. When you don’t have any bad thoughts about anyone, you just see what’s going on. I think she feels a lot, she doesn’t really show her feelings, but she tries to help anyone who needs it. She could just pass by when Julia is on the bathroom floor crying, but she doesn’t because she’s curious and cares and has good instincts. I think she’s looking for the truth. For me, when I read it, she represented love, and on the purest level that you can imagine. She is just true, unconditional love.
DP: Do you think Sam is responsible for Rick making the friendly phone call to Julia about their son?
LC: I think she’s a great help with that, yeah. She could judge Rick, she could be mad at him, she could leave, she could just explode.  I remember that scene when she talks to him. On the first take I had her be judgmental, and Paul was like, “No, cut! She’s not judging him.” I was like, wow. At that moment I really understood her strength. She’s love. She’s hope.
DP: She’s the  conscience.
LC: Yeah, she’s very powerful.  She’s almost like a symbolic figure in the movie, a little Buddha. That’s how I connected to her.