Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Director Luke LoCurcio Speaks About "Aphasia," His Hit Short at TFF

Playing at Film Festivals

Director Luke LoCurcio Speaks About Aphasia, His Hit Short at TFF

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 4/23/15)

By Danny Peary
If you’re a movie fan and anywhere near New York City this weekend, I highly recommend that you make time to see René Clement’s exquisite, heart-wrenching, Oscar-winning French classic Forbidden Games (a beautiful recently restored print with new subtitles!), at the Film Forum beginning Friday–AND at least one shorts program at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Robin Rose Singer and Luke LoCurcio; Photo by Ian Kaplan.
Robin Rose Singer and Luke LoCurcio; Photo by Ian Kaplan.
On Saturday, one day before the festival ends, all shorts will be screened one last time from 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. in auditoriums 6 and 9 at the Regal Battery Park Stadium 11 at 102 North End Avenue.  (Keep in mind that you may have to arrive early to get the Rush Line if a program is sold out.) I will give a personal plug for the FML program of seven technology-themed shorts playing at 4:30 because it includes a super 12-minute futuristic short,Aphasia, directed with style by Luke LoCurio and produced and written by its gifted lead, Robin Rose Singer.  Singer (who I interviewed for this paper when her starring vehicleKisses, Chloe played at the 2010 Hamptons International Film Festival) plays a cheerful young woman, Emily, who lives alone in her spotless and spiffy high-tech New York apartment of the near-future.  She is content to spend her evenings sitting in front of her huge interactive television, holding and texting with her phone, using her computer to exchange flirtatious IMs with a musician she has never met, and eat food delivered to her door.  But one day she ventures out to meet the musician, with unexpected results.  For the next few months I will be posting interviews I’ve done at this year’s TFF with directors and actors who came to New York with features, but I am pleased begin with the following Q&A I did this week with Luke LoCurcio about his impressive short.
Danny Peary: I read that when you were growing up in New Jersey you immersed yourself in movies and “started experimenting with cameras around age eight.”  So was your career determined when you were youngster or later on?
Luke LoCurcio: I pretty much knew I wanted to be involved with film since I can remember. At the beginning I was interested in science fiction and horror SFX, but that evolved into filmmaking naturally.  The idea of world building and limitless storytelling was very intriguing.
DP: When you were making shorts was there a steady progression where your earliest film led to a better and more layered next film to an even better and more complex next film on so on?  Or do you think the order in which your shorts were made doesn’t matter?
LL: Yeah, in a way.  My earlier projects and pieces were more experiments in shots than anything. The visuals were a big cornerstone for me through the progression so I think it makes sense that is where it started.   As I got older I had to understand story better and that really helped me get a grasp on tighter tales.
DP: Were you gravitating toward making horror and science fiction films and that led you to Aphasia?
LL: Horror is probably my favorite genre.  There’s something about the fear you can invoke in an audience that is really fun. Growing up it was always the horror films that got me most pumped when they were on or if  I was at the rental store.  I’ll never forget watching John Carpenter’s The Thing as a kid.  HUGE INFLUENCE.  That said, films are films, and I absolutely love well-told dramas, westerns, and whatever genre.  Horror just has a very special place in my heart.
DP: This is such a personal film for your star, writer and producer Robin Rose Singer, so I’m curious about the early conversations you had that allowed her to trust that you were picturing the same film visually and thematically as she was.
LL: First let me say that Robin Rose Singer is an amazing person. Her work ethic and dream-driven passion are rare to find these days.  We worked together on a film about six years ago or so and we creatively hit it off from the start.  When she approached me about Aphasia and we had discussions about her vision, I became more and more intrigued and soon we found ourselves pretty much on the same page regarding what the final outcome should be. We have both noticed people in our lives obsessing over material technology to the point where we think it is a serious issue and we saw this film as a great opportunity to explore that. We instantly trusted each other and that was solidified through conversations about making the film.  I felt super comfortable going into the production itself because of this trust and our parallel visions.  If it wasn’t for that initial trust,  it would have a harder climb to get where we wanted to go. I was very humbled by her trust in me and I believe that helped the whole process move as smoothly as it did.  Basically, we trusted each other.
DP: Many filmmakers seem to think if they had a bigger budget they could turn their story into what they really wanted to make, a feature–but am I right in thinking you and Robin agreed that this story worked best at 12+ minutes?
LL: Everything I have worked on that I was serious about and hoped would go somewhere had a small budget.  WithAphasia I would say we had exactly what we needed.  The film is very balanced shooting-wise.  You need to be smart, creative, and efficient with budgets and short films call for that.  Robin and I never had a conversation about a feature when making this film, but I can’t say about the future!
DP: Robin’s character Emily has a guitar in her near-future, technology-dominated apartment.  I know it’s symbolic of music and singing–”old ways” to communicate–and I want you to talk about that and your impressive visual design, but also did you two intend it to be one of the few objects in her world, including food, that isn’t some sort of a rectangle or oval?
LL: Good eye-thought connection! Yeah, the idea was to have her space be as bland, overly neat, empty, and removed as possible.  The guitar is almost a relic of her past, and society’s past.   Anna Kathleen and the design crew really owned this one.  I was so impressed.
DP: In terms of visuals, talk about your interesting shot of the barebacked Emily from behind as she stands at her closet–even she has a geometric look.
LL: The only thing I can really say is sometimes shots just appear to me and they feel right for a particular moment in a scene. That shot fits somehow into the overall film. I’m glad it has had an interesting effect visually.
DP: When Emily emerges from the NY subway onto the street, I felt a jolt and felt dreariness, like I’m seeing a city that has been decimated by a plague perhaps (maybe technology burn-out).  Was what I felt what you hoped viewers would feel?
LL: I love that!  It wasn’t the intent so much to show what has happened to this world but rather to yank the viewer out of her isolated apartment quickly and with a startling effect.  But yeah, we had some conversation about how this world would be more corporate-government-technologically controlled–and that obviously always evolves into some sort despotism, mild or harsh.  So you are onto something!
DP: Talk about spending months working on this film with Robin and others and overcoming challenges because many people will think “it’s a short so it probably took two weeks to complete.”
LL: Classic.  Making a film is always challenging.  Personally I find the hardest challenges to be those in pre-production because this is when you are molding your shots and ideas, and from the look to the performances to the finalized script everything needs to be ready to go.  I storyboarded a lot of the film so when we got into production we could just paint by numbers and be more efficient, and that was the case. Storyboarding is time consuming but also vital to the film itself because it’s basically a visual blueprint of the movie.  It helps me immensely.  The shooting was quite easy on Aphasia.  I usually shoot my own work so having a full film crew and DP made life extremely easy for me, especially when it came to shooting scenes and for overall production.  I had freedom to focus on directing rather than wearing multiple hats.   Editing the film is where the real work was put in.  Here we have a 12-minute film, but to get there took months of chopping and trying out different things. long days and long weeks. Robin was a true warrior–she kept me going and took it to the finish line.  To people who think short films take no time at all, let me say that they do.  Whether it’s a 5-minute film a 12-minute film or a feature, you want to make every second count and you pour your heart into it and spend as much time as possible editing and fine tuning it.  You don’t want to settle on a cut that needs more and sell yourself short!  Film to me is the ultimate art form, in the sense it includes various arts, from visuals, performances, writing, tech work, music, and so on.  When you make a film and you are serious about it, you give all that you have.  There is a reason that most feature films have long credit lists. There is a reason films cost money and there is a reason why only the mad keep at it, haha.
DP: Do you consider Aphasia a cautionary tale?  Or a kind of one-joke punchline on us, like one of the many Twilight Zones that deal with loss of identity?
LL: It’s so funny you say that. I actually talked to Robin about how I wanted to approach this film as if it were a Twilight Zone episode, where at the end you are left feeling helpless.  Its definitely a cautionary tale.  Technology is great but it is a double-edged sword. We need balance and need to return to nature, I believe.  The character of Emily has put herself in a very unfortunate position due to her addiction to technology and her narcissism.
DP: What are you proudest of about this film?
LL: I’m proud of the film itself, because as a whole it represents all the work everyone on the team put in, from Robin and me to the set designers to the production assistants.  When I watch it, I know who was on top of what and that makes me feel proud of them and proud of the field we chose.
DP: How does Aphasia fit into your own progression as a filmmaker?  The title of your first feature, The After, which I assume in a horror or sci-fi film, seems fitting in that I think you believe it wouldn’t have been the same film if you made it before Aphasia.
LL: Aphasia is a blessing. It really has given me the opportunity to work on something I found not only very compelling but also could help me pursue projects I’ve had in my mind for years.  The After has also been a true journey.  We shot it two or three years ago and the footage is absolutely beautiful and we have a great cast.  It has another very interesting Twilight Zone-esque story about how a dark government takeover would affect the lives of a few young Americans. It’s all told from their perspective.  We waited till the time was right and we plan on shooting this summer to wrap edit.
DP: How does it feel for you and Robin to have Aphasia play at the Tribeca Film Festival?
LL: It’s an extraordinarily humbling experience and we couldn’t be happier. Here’s to hoping it leads to opportunities to tell more stories!
DP: How can people see Aphasia after the festival?
LL: The next stop for Robin and me is the Cannes short film market. All updates on future festivals will be atwww.aphasiathefilm.com.

All About "About Elly"

Playing in Theaters

All About About Elly

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 4/9/15)

By Danny Peary
Director Asghar Farhadi, left, festival co-founder Robert DeNiro, center, and actor Payman Maadi attend the Awards Night party during the Tribeca Film Festival Thursday, April 30, 2009 in New York.  (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)
Director Asghar Farhadi, left, festival co-founder Robert DeNiro, center, and actor Payman Maadi attend the Awards Night party during the Tribeca Film Festival Thursday, April 30, 2009 in New York. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)
About Elly fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor.  I’m delighted that this marvelous Iranian masterwork, a mix of mystery and societal issues, finally made its New York debut this Wednesday at the Film Forum (where you should see it before April 21) because it was made six years ago.  In fact it was made two years before the next collaboration of director Asghar Farhadi and brilliant actor Payman Maadi/Peyman Moaadi), A Separation, and that extraordinary film played in New York, Hollywood, and around the world, capturing the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.  Back in 2009, I wrote:
“Not surprisingly, About Elly was selected the best narrative film at the Tribeca Film Festival.  This stunningly-directed psychological thriller is not like any Iranian film you ever saw or (foolishly) deliberately missed.  A group of former law school classmates reunite for a weekend by the Caspian Sea, settling into an empty house on the beach. They bring their kids and one woman, Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), invites her beautiful single friend Elly (Taraneh Alidousti), hoping to set her up with the newly-divorced Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini).  But on the second day, Elly disappears and everyone on the screen and in the audience begins asking questions.”  During the festival I took part in the following roundtable with Farhadi and Maadi (whom I interviewed in October for this page about the sadly-neglected American political film, Camp X-Ray)–before the film won its major award.  I note my questions.
Q: How did you come to be involved in this film?
Payman Maadi: I am a scriptwriter in my country and was about to make my first feature as a director. I had made a short and [Asghar] Farhadi came to see it. He liked it and after one or two months he called me and said he wanted me for his next project. I thought maybe it would be as a writer, but he said, “No. I choose you for the main character, for acting.” I was shocked. And I said, “Are you sure about it because I know that you are a very well known director in this country and whatever you want you can have. So why me?” And he said, “Because the part is very close to your character when I saw you at your screening.  I’m sure you can do it.” I said, “Okay.” He said, “Don’t worry.” I said, “I’m not worrying because I trust you.” But I was a little bit scared before rehearsals.
Q: Did you rehearse a lot?
PM: Yes, because Mr. Farhadi came from the theater.  For about two months we were on the stage rehearsing. We would play some scenes that were not in the script just so we could get close to the person we were playing. They were scenes before we came to the beach resort at the beginning of the movie.  He had us play each other’s roles so that we could think, ‘If I were in his position, what would I do?”  This made us closer to each other. After we were at the Caspian Sea we continued to rehearse scenes that are in the movie. We were getting some personal rehearsals for each other. After the rehearsals I thought it was possible to play it.
Danny Peary: What clicked?
PM: I was between seven or eight professional actors and actresses.  All of them were very well-known in Iran and had played in films with each other.  I was always in the back of the camera and I didn’t know how to leap in front of it. But Mr. Farhadi said, “They also have to rehearse and come to a point they are so far from now.” So all of us had the same distance to go. Their acting in this film wasn’t like anything they had done, so they had to work just as hard as me. Knowing that helped me.
Q:  I’d like the director to talk about the gender politics in the film. Because the women have a quite clearly defined role and the central character, Sepideh is actually orchestrating everything that is going on around her.
Asghar Farhadi: The image of Iranian women in America and Europe that you see on the news is very much different than the reality. This film specifically targets the middle-class family.  We have different ideas and images about the middle class. The middle class can be powerful in Iran and the women in the middle class family can be very powerful.  In my own experience, when I used to go to the north border, the Caspians were my friends and they would take a boat out and it wouldn’t be only men making decisions.  It would be a democracy.. Even though the laws of our country are not very much pro women, the women themselves are trying to make themselves stronger.
DP: But when the men try to save Elly’s reputation, isn’t that more backward than what you’re talking about?  It seems that the men, who are enlightened in some way, fall back to tradition.
AF: I don’t see the difference between men and women. I treat everyone equally in my movies. I don’t see inequality between the characters. The subject of the film is not about men and women but human beings who react to a situation. You can’t point to one gender and says that’s the villain.
DP: I’m in total sympathy with Elly.  I have no problem with her coming on this trip although she hasn’t broken off her engagement yet.  But they seem to worry about a scandal involving her being engaged and there being an unmarried man present.
Farhadi’s Female Interpreter: Let me add this myself, if I may. Maybe it’s not such a big deal about her being engaged or not. But maybe in the Persian culture, in the Iranian culture, it is a big deal for some of these things. If someone is having an affair or something like that, it will become a whole big deal for everyone, even the children. It is more about Persian culture than anything.
DP: So is that what the movie wanted to express?
AF: The problem the whole movie is about the behavior of one particular woman and what she thinks. I could have switched it and it could have been the behavior of her husband and what he thinks.
Female Interpreter: I’d like to add something else here about what you said.  They all come to understand that Elly is engaged, but they don’t have that serious a problem with that. They only worry about getting into the trouble if the fiancé comes and goes to the police.  They even say to each other that they don’t have any problem with her being engaged. It was her decision to come for the weekend.  But they worry about the fiancé because he is a very angry man and could get them into the trouble. And they are protecting the group by making decisions that’s best for it.
AF: I have done this in my previous films as well.  It’s a new tragedy, “the modern tragedy.” It’s not about good and evil, and everyone might be saying the right thing, so you don’t know which character to believe. That’s the whole reason why the audience gets so involved with the characters and why people want to voice their opinion as well. “Why don’t you do this or that?”
Q:  The film is set up like a mystery and everyone is wondering what happened to Elly.  Because of the pressures she has, could viewers think she committed suicide?
AF: I watched the movie as if I were just a member of the audience.  And I never got the idea that she might have committed suicide. But I’ve been hearing it a lot from different audiences. I don’t have any problem with audiences thinking she is capable of suicide or not. But the reason people think she might commit suicide is because so many Iranian films have portrayed a lot of sadness and depression and women having a lot of problems. They may think, “This is another suicide.” But Elly is not that depressed.
DP: But if you didn’t want people to consider she might have committed suicide, you could have easily shown that it wasn’t a suicide with one more minute of filming her. But you didn’t do this. So we can think along with the family and try to figure out all of the possibilities.
AF: I wanted to make a film that would cause people to watch in two different ways. You would enjoy the film and then go home and think about the political views in it.  This is the most socially-conscious film I ever made and I hope people go deeper and deeper into it when they think about it at home and keep thinking about it. The characters vote, but democracy sometimes is wrong. Democracy will not work in a family or in government when no opinion is wrong.
DP: But it is only a couple of people that decide what to say to Elly’s fiancé after her disappearance, which I found as strange as Elly’s fiancé pretending to be her brother.
AF: Well, everyone seems to be lying to defend themselves. All the characters try to hide something to protect them.
PM: The reason that he says he is her brother not his fiancé is he’s trying to make a safer-like area to get truth from the family. If he said he was Elly’s fiancé then maybe they weren’t going to give him the right information. That’s why.
Q:  What director has inspired you most?
AF: Fellini.
DP: How about Alfred Hitchcock? In Psycho the lead character, played by star Janet Leigh, disappears halfway through . . 
AF: I admire Hitchcock very much. I knew it would be very hard for audiences to believe that Taraneh Alidoosti disappears so early in the movie.  She is a big star in Iran so people will expect her to return.
DP: The direction is outstanding the entire movie, but, Payman, the scene everyone will remember is when the men try to save your character Peyman’s son in the rough sea.  Did you do the swimming or did you need stand-ins?
PM: We did all our own swimming.  It was very difficult because the water was very rough.  It took us many days to shoot.  We’d have to wait until the sea was the same as it was when we began filming the scene.  By the rocks there were many broken shells and stones and it was difficult not to cut our feet. And the water was dirty and caused me to choke. The camera was everywhere, including in the water.
DP: Congratulations to both of you. This is the best film I’ve seen at the festival. I hope you win the narrative award.

Should We Celebrate "The Sound of Music" Fifty Years Later?

Available on DVD

Should We Celebrate The Sound of Music Fifty Years Later?

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 3/14/15)


Following a Julie Andrews-Lady Gaga tribute at the Oscars, Twentieth-Century Fox is launching a year-long campaign to celebrateThe Sound of Music’s 50th Anniversary.  A highlight will be the theatrical release of a restored version of the film on April 19 and 22.  Also, four new books and a themed Princess Cruise are scheduled.  But before any of that comes the home entertainment release this week.   Avid fans, many who rank it as their favorite movie, will undoubtedly be thrilled that the five-disc collector’s edition set has 13 hours of additional content, including a new documentary, The Sound of a City: Julie Andrews Returns to Salzburg, on DVD, Blu-Ray and Digital HD.  I think it’s a bit presumptuous that The Sound of Music is being promoted as if it were “America’s movie” and loved by us all, which is akin to reminding us New York Giants fans that the Dallas Cowboys are “America’s team.” I don’t buy it.  However, there is no denying that the movie’s popularity, particularly among youngsters who always come home long before their curfews, has escalated considerably and that watching it on television annually has become a family event the way it used to be with The Wizard of Oz.  And it is unsettling to me that this box-office blockbuster for the masses has developed a strong, addicted cult following. As in 1965, I think incomparable Andrews is wonderful and the lively first half of the movie is quite charming—though the title confuses me because I don’t think anyone says, “I love the sound of music” rather than just “I love music”—yet I’m still no more enthusiastic about it overall than I was when I wrote this brief critique for my 1986 book Guide for the Film Fanatic:
“One of the most popular films of all time—which is what it was calculated to be.  You’ll know you’re being manipulated at every turn, that you’re expected to feel a lump in your throat or laugh and cry on cue (when the music swells, when a child smiles, when a stern adult is kind), that you’re expected to be as undiscriminating as the audience who sits through the show ‘Up with People!’  But even if you become sick on the sugar, you’ll find it hard not to appreciate the talents of Julie Andrews, whose exuberance is infectious, whose voice is superb [which we tended to forget in future years when musicals stopped being made], who is as good as Streisand at acting  while singing a song.  It’s easy to see why she was the top female draw of the time.  In the role that reinforced her goody-goody virgin image, Andrews is a nun-in-training in Austria who becomes a Snow White governess to seven incorrigible, love-starved children.  If you thought Miss Frances of Ding Dong School was so nice to children, then you’ll adore Andrews.  She teaches these kids to play, sing, and have good manners (they don’t protest) and their strict widower father, Christopher Plummer, to feel love again—for the children and for her.  They become one happy family—the Trapp Family Singers—just in time for the serious part of the picture, when they must escape the Nazis by fleeing over the border.  The familiar Rodgers and Hammerstein songs are cheery and childish and catchy—you’ll feel like a fool humming them for the rest of the day.  Except when nun Peggy Wood sings “Climb Every Mountain” to Andrews, they are skillfully blended into the plot.  Film won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (Robert Wise), Best Editing (William Reynolds), Best Scoring Adaptation (Irwin Kostal), and Best Sound.  From the stage musical by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse; Ernest Lehman wrote the shrewd script.  Also with: Eleanor Parker, Richard Haydn, Anna Lee, Angela Cartwright.”

Chris Messina Had Two Roles When Making "Alex of Venice"

Playing in Theaters

Chris Messina Had Two Roles When Making Alex of Venice

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 4/16/15)

By Danny Peary
Just as the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival is underway comes the theatrical release of a film from last year’s festival.
Chris Messina.
Chris Messina. Photo by DP

You can see Alex of Venice beginning Friday in New York.  Chris Messina, a native of Newport, has been all over the place as an actor–from television’s The Mindy Project andThe Newsroom to major films like Argo, ManglehornCakeand Vicky, Christina Barcelona to such TFF flicks asFairhaven and The Giant Mechanical Man–and you can see him in Alex of Venice, too, but it is also his directorial debut. And he has done a super job, particularly with his fine cast.  I wrote last year: “Alex of Venice  is a character piece about a workaholic environmental attorney in L.A., Alex (the exceptional Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who lives in Venice, California.  When Alex’s husband George (Messina) suddenly leaves her, she is forced to pay more attention to their shy son Dakota (Skylar Gaertner) and her aging actor father Roger (Don Johnson). Still neglecting her son, she enlists the help of her irresponsible, free-spirited sister Lily (Katie Nehra) around the house while she deals with the biggest case of her career and has an affair with the man she is fighting in court, Frank (Derek Luke).”  This is the kind of film that slips away the day you planned to see it, so make a point of going at least a day earlier.  This is a roundtable I participated in with Messina, a truly nice and humble guy, at last year’s festival.  I note my questions.
Q: You’re an actor and now also a director, so you have those two perspectives.  Was there ever a clash while acting in and directing this film?
Chris Messina: I had a great bunch of actors who were kind enough to do me the favor of being in my first movie, and I just tried to stay out of their way.  As a director, that was maybe the best thing I did. I’ve directed plays here in New York, small theater stuff, and I’ve wanted to direct a film for a long time.  I think that I have a certain way that I like to work, as an actor, and I tried to find people who like to work that way.  I set up a playing field where we would work the way that I like to work. A lot of times we had two cameras running, and if a camera was on you there’d be another one on me. We’d run the duration of the card, which is about 27 minutes long. Terrible for an editor, but great to find real moments.  As an actor, I don’t like when there are a lot of cuts because what the director says Cut!, somebody comes in and fixes your hair, the director gives you a note on your performance, the sound guy dresses your mike, and before you know it the headspace you were in is gone, and you gotta ramp back up. So, 27 minutes without cutting–maybe throwing out a few notes here and there, but letting it play– created a lot of honesty. I have a great actor friend, Matt Del Negro, and he did me the great favor of coming up to the set and directing me. I really trust him.  When we did Argo, in which he was amazing, I loved watching him go from shooting to looking at the playback, and then adjusting himself for the next take. We didn’t have that luxury because we had 21 days and I think Argo‘s shoot was something like 80 days. When you’re doing 27-minute takes, if you’re gonna watch that whole thing back, you’re not gonna make your goal for the day. So Del Negro was there to kind of guide me as a director while I acted–if you were there on that day, you’d think he was the director.
Q: You are very busy acting, so was it hard to make your movie?
CM: I left four or three days, and I played Pacino’s son in Manglehorn, that David Gordon Green directed. That was a dream come true. Like any short ethnic actor I grew up wanting to be Al Pacino or Robert DeNiro.  I do a lot of dumb things, but the number one thing was that I finished this movie, I had two weeks off, and then went back to the second season of The Mindy Project. I cut the movie pretty much in my trailer as I was shooting. It just was a naïve, foolish thing, to think that when I was done shooting that I’d have time or energy. So it was like having two full-time jobs, I will never do that again.
Danny Peary: In making Alex in Venice, was your inspiration Paul Mazursky, whose films include Alex in Wonderland?
CM: Paul Mazursky I love. But there were tons of directors that I tried to steal from. I think every shot in the movie was stolen from another movie.  Good and bad movies taught me what I liked and what I didn’t like. It’s like tattoos, the films, they stay with you–they become a part of your makeup. While we were making the movie I had everybody watchHannah and Her SistersAll the Real Girls, and Kramer vs. Kramer.  I was watching Hal Ashby and Robert Altman and I would say Woody Allen and Sam Mendes were huge inspirations. Woody, as you guys all know, he casts his movies really well and then he kind of lets you go, and when I was in his movie, I never felt like I was making a movie. Sam Mendes taught me that every actor comes with a gift and it’s the director’s job to let that gift out. That really hit home, because so many times directors tried to shove me this way and shove me that way, and I thought, “Why am I here and not being used to my advantage?”  What I do well, they didn’t want, so why did they want me? So I tried a place where these actors where able to bring their gifts, and let them fly.
Q: Why did you set your film in Venice, California?
CM: I love being there. Venice Beach has changed a lot but it’s like a small town, in a way. It’s very eclectic and has got a lot of interesting characters. Sometimes it reminds me of Brooklyn by the sea, or Coney Island.  I had a great DP, Doug Emmett, who shot the movie and I think he really captured it.
DP: Talk about the title.
CM: That wasn’t the title of the movie when it was given to me. I think we came up with Alex of Venice way after we shot the film. I think we were untitled until then.
Q:  What big changes in the script did you make?
CM: We made big changes. When the project was first brought to me, it was kind of like a collage of all these characters in Venice, and at the core was the family, and that was very interesting to me.  I recognized myself in them, it reminded me of my family and loved ones.  So we got rid of the outer circle of characters, and then we just centered on the family. And then myself and Justin and Katie, we came up with a new outline, went away, wrote a new script, and it was really good and a lot closer to the film.  Then we brought in Jessica Goldberg who really cracked the movie open for us. She invented the Don Johnson character, and having him be in the play, The Cherry Orchard. I know her from theater; I did three of her plays.
Q: You have a lead female character who is textured and nuanced, with good qualities but a lot of flaws as a wife, mother, and human being.  Was that what you wanted to write about?
CM: Yeah, but you know at times when we were writing it, for a couple of weeks, I thought it was the kid’s story. I thought it should be through her son’s eyes for a while. Then I thought it was just about two sisters.  Finally it was just really clear that it was about this one woman. The writing kind of just dictated that.
DP: The opening is shot in the house, the camera going all the way thought the house.  You didn’t do that that just to show off but because there was a thematic purpose to that.
CM: By taking the camera all the way through the house, I wanted to create the chaos of this house, and I wanted to show the audience how her family life is. The first act of the film was always really tricky in that you’re ten minutes into the story and there’s a break-up. It’s very difficult on how to get there. I kept watching Kramer vs. Kramer. When that movie, Meryl Streep is packing her bags. . I tried different things like that, I even tried a version in which the movie starts right after the break-up. It was very important for me, in very little time, to get to know who these people were.
DP: There are a lot of two-character scenes in the movie, which I’d imagine is scary for a first-time director–or did they make it easier?
CM: As an actor, I don’t like that because I feel like, “I gotta get this right because they’re not going to be able to cut.  If she’s really good and I’m not, I’m gonna feel bad. As a filmmaker or an audience member, I like to watch things that don’t have a lot of cutting. because I then get lost in the materials and I stop seeing the film that I’m making.
Q: You have become an extremely busy actor.
CM: I’m lucky that I have that problem, and it’s not really a problem, it’s a gift. I won’t lie to you that it’s tiring, but there have been so many times that I wondered if I’d ever work again.  So I’m grateful to have work.  I know this business is crazy that it might not be always the case for me, so I’m enjoying it while it lasts.
Q: Was casting Don Johnson as Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character’s father was your idea?
CM: Yeah. I saw him in Django, and on HBO in Eastbound and Down. And of course I watched him as a kid, on Miami Vice. I just thought he’d be perfect for the role.  He comes with this iconic TV status that I thought would be great for the character, who was on a television show. I’m so happy I went with it, because he was incredibly dedicated, he took it very seriously and came incredibly prepared for the role.
Q: What about the little boy who plays your character’s son?
CM: He’s fantastic. That’s one of those lucky things with the casting director. I kept saying, I don’t want a kid actor.  I kept saying, “I want to find a young River Phoenix.” And that’s hard to come by. Then Skylar walked in.  He had done a lot of acting, but he didn’t have that song-and-dance kid actor thing; he’s got a real soul, his essence is beautiful.  I noticed it in dailies that when I directed him, he wasn’t as good as when I just left him.  The fun thing about working with Skylar, especially in the diner scene, was that I could direct him if I wanted my character to be in the scene with his character. So if I wanted him to be angry toward his father, I could just start yelling at him and provoking him rather than giving him a note as the director.  I found that to be really fun. And he was so open, he would just go wherever you took him, and that was great.
DP: The movie could be categorized as ” slice of life,” because slice of life films don’t have to be about change.  However, the inclusion of The Cherry Orchard into the storyline made this a film about change.
CM: One of the last things I did, I’m embarrassed to say, eight or nine years ago, was The Cherry Orchard with Jessica Chastain and Michelle Williams at the Williamstown Theater Festival.  The play had a great impact on me. Chekhov is a writer that I’ve always liked working on–I think he’s phenomenal. I wanted the play to mirror what was going on in the film’s story.  The characters are going through changes, some of them big, some of them small, some of them wanted, some thrust upon them.  As in The Cherry Orchard,  there’s a lot of change going on, and people are saying goodbye to an old life and accepting a new life. The idea was to meld the old and the new.
DP: Everybody changes for the better, actually.
CM: Yeah, I think so. I think it’s hopeful. Eventually Roger will get pretty sick, and that change will be devastating to that family, but they’ll come to a place of bravery and honesty with themselves and him and I think they’ll take care of each other the best they can.  That’s what I imagine.
Q: Is George the cherry orchard in this?
CM: I never thought of it that way, that’s an interesting idea and it could be. I think all the characters are bits of the cherry orchard, but there’s no doubt George could be the entire cherry orchard.
Q: When you worked with Al Pacino, what was that like?
CM: I did Salome with him on Broadway, so I knew him a little but, but it’s like one of those – it’s corny, but one of those, pinch me, how is this happening? We did this scene where we’re screaming at each other, we’re father and son and we’re not getting along, but you can’t help but feel that’s the Godfather! But you remind yourself, “Shut up, shut up, do the scene, stay the moment.”
Q: Can you out-scream him?
CM: Nah, nobody can out-scream him. He’s scary when he screams.
DP: How is it to be back at the TriBeCa Film Festival?
CM: It’s great to be back here. I remember this festival, I lived in the city when it first started, it was massive for this place, much needed. It’s an honor to be here, it’s a real honor. You guys have seen the films, but it reads to me like it’s a great slate this year.
Q: Would you be okay with this movie getting [an internet/iTunes kind] of release?
CM: Yes, very much so. Look, I’d love it to be in a movie theater, and it was shot to be in a movie theater, but you know, I have two kids and I hardly get to the movie theater so if you can get this movie on Netflix or iTunes, or VOD, if you get it on your iPad, your iPhone, that’s not the way it was supposed to be watched, but I’d rather you see it and experience it than never see it. It’s tough.