August 11, 2011

Miranda July

A thirty-something couple decide to take another step towards cementing their relationship by adopting a homeless cat --- which leads them to re-examine their life and their relationship. Much like her debut film "Me and You and Everyone We Know," Miranda July's sophomore effort centers around quirky characters with undeniably charms --- think of a Solondz-lite world that is less confrontational and accentuated on whimsical traits. A rom com with atypical rom com characteristics, this Sundance/Berlin Film Festival preemed The Future was picked up by Roadside Attractions and released on the last weekend of July and is currently expanding in theaters nationwide. Here's our sit-down with the writer-director-actress-artist and, the voice of Paw Paw.

Yama Rahimi: How did this project started?
Miranda July: It started, the first kernel of it, when I was editing the first movie which was a very dark time for me. Actually I was going through a break-up and here I was editing a relatively light and funny movie. I remember thinking that next time around I should show this kind of feeling, just this side of life where things do not magically work out. That was the seed of it. The first image was stopping the time which I thought I was playing that part but you follow this ideas through years and years. I got married since then and so many things happened and I no longer wanted to be that person.

Interview: Miranda July (The Future)

Rahimi: How do you feel about doing press long after the film has finished and premiered in Park City and Berlin?
July: In a weird way it's tough as it is, it's also like a healing process where you move further away from the battle wounds of making it. Like if we had more time for that scene or if I haven't hired this person, it would have been easier. At Sundance all that and the wounds were still fresh and on my mind where I was just shaking where I still want to edit it. But as time goes on where other people's perspective come in you just let go where it becomes a real movie at that point. I don't watch my films anymore where they become like ex-boyfriends where I loved them but also moved on.

Interview: Miranda July (The Future)

Rahimi: How difficult was it to get this film made compared to your first film?
July: Well on the one hand it was easier because everyone who was involved financing this movie were involved in some way with the first movie. But that side happened in the middle of the recession where a lot of companies were just dropping right and left. Specially for a film like this where they thought it won't make any money. So the budget where I thought would significantly more that the first movie wasn't at all. I actually had less days to shoot. Also now that I'm known I was busted by the unions where I had to make everything more legit. It was tough and it's a movie without any stars which puts it in certain bracket.

Rahimi: Jon Brion did the score for the film. How did the collaboration came about?
July: He was the lucky thing that came from the first movie which he saw and asked me I want to score your next movie. It was a great collaboration for three weeks which mostly at night because he works only at night from 8pm to 5am. I came with certain sounds, some of them from Brian Eno stuff and different songs. He was testing sounds with me to see if I respond to it and if I did we work on that. I'm not a musician so we tried to create a language together.

Rahimi: How important was winning the Camera d'Or in Cannes and did it have any impact on your career in anyway?
July: Well it's worth to mention that this movie was entirely financed by European money which is related to that. The movie did really well in a lot of European countries because of the auteur tradition which is celebrated there but does not exist here. So it had an impact on my career in a practical way.

Rahimi: What's next for you?
July: I just finished a book that comes out in the fall that's called "It Chooses You" and it's a non-fiction book with my own writings and interviews with people who sell stuff through the Penny Saver classifieds where I met Joe Putterlik, the old man in the movie which was an unrelated project but I ended up casting him in the movie who's a non-actor. So there's that story and a lot of other stories and photographs. I'm also working on a novel which is many years away.

Rahimi: You are from Berkeley originally. How did it shape you?
July: Berkeley kids are kind of unique because we grew up without a norm. For me the norm was to be around people who are passionate or even fanatical about what they loved or causes. They cause their own jobs and way in life. Not that everything was radical all the time. I'm a total product of that more so than my parents because they didn't grow up in Berkeley. They were a little surprised when I dropped of college because I knew what I wanted to do and didn't have to be hired by somebody else. Although I wished as a kid things to be more normal and live in the suburbs. Looking back I'm glad I didn't and it's a wonderful place to grow up.

July 15, 2011

Tom Hooper

British helmer Tom Hooper's winning streak should continue well past tomorrow's night date at the Oscars. With The King's Speech, he might have produced one of the best films about a British Royal -- which is quite an impressive accomplishment when you consider that the Monarch's history is longer than film history. Hooper and writer David Seidler tap into a story so rich and complex that we should be thankful that no one attempted to bring it to screen beforehand. I sat down with the filmmaker before the Oscar nominations were announced.

Yama Rahimi: I was first introduced to your work with Longford (2006) which in turn drove me to check out your 2008 outing The Damned United. I was wondering how do you go about choosing your projects?
Tom Hooper: That film is very well loved but hardly made any money at US box office. The King's Speech has made 58 million and counting and it shows unfortunately how significant it is how your choices of subject matter can influence your decisions on projects. I'm actually not a soccer fan and I fell in love with the script (The Damned United) because I found it so universal. I thought it talked about the big themes of Clough's self destruction through pursuit of power and collaboration through this very specific world of football which actually didn't require you to like football but it was terribly hard to get that message across that it was a film for everyone. In the UK it did well but in the US it was an uphill struggle.

Rahimi: That's hard as a filmmaker for the public to give your film a chance!
Hooper: Yes. That's where the journalistic community have to help to guide the people to give films a chance that they wouldn't otherwise expect.

Rahimi: Looking at your competition for the DGA award, I noticed you had perhaps the most unusual career path starting in TV.
Hooper: It's an expression to be honest to show how difficult is to become a director in the UK because the industry is so tiny but the healthy stream is in television. Me and my contemporaries like Joe Wright had the same career path in television. The other thing about TV directing in the US is unless it's for HBO, you don't have much of creative control as you have in the UK which is the same as you would have on a movie, the same level of authorship.

Rahimi: In the US working on TV is something you retire to instead of starting your career.
Hooper: Apart from HBO because when I did John Adams, I had the same authorship that I had on The King's Speech. The process is the same, the only difference is one is nine hours and the other two.

Rahimi: I also notices you are drawn to period films. Is it because of what BBC offers or is it something personal to you?
Hooper: I'm drawn to best stories that I came across which have been period films. It's hard to find contemporary stories which offer the same rich and complex characters. In the end it's all about the script and characters. My teenage films and early TV work were contemporary tales. Only recent work has been period.

Rahimi: I love period films, especially European films because it opens the window to another era...
Hooper: In literature it's mostly period stories of another era. I grew up reading Dostoevsky and others. I hardly read anything contemporary growing up. If you read the greatest writers, they are mostly in the past. Only recently you find great authors still alive. To me it doesn't matter if it's in the past or present. A good story is a good story.

Rahimi: What's impressed me about The King's Speech is how rich and complex the story was. It's a story that nobody really knew about. Most people know about King Edward VIII but nothing about King George VI until now.
Hooper: Some people think it was a rather unlikely success story but I found it a perfect storm of ingredients when I read the story. A man with a stammer forced to become a king right at a time when the radio was taking over as a mass medium, right before second world war who's saved by a failed Australian Shakespeare actor who has become a speech therapist. You can't make this stuff up.

Rahimi: Exactly if it weren't a real story, nobody would have believed it. The behind the story is also a great story in the manner in which it came to you....
Hooper: As directors we are known to be slightly controlling personalities, so it's humbling to recognize the massive role chance plays in our lives as in love I suppose. I'm half Australian and half English. I live in London. My Australian mother was invited by Australian friends to make up a token audience for a reading of The King's Speech, a play that hasn't been produced or rehearsed. Basically a bunch of actors around a table. She has never done such a thing before. She came home and ring me up: "I have found your next film."

Interview Tom Hooper The King's Speech

Rahimi: And Geoffrey Rush got the same story.
Hooper: Geoffrey Rush was sent the story in an equally unlikely story. The story was sent in a brown paper envelope like an orphan child to his Melbourne house doorstep because someone at the London theater had an Australian friend who knew Geoffrey's address.They sent a note saying: Dear Mr. Rush, you don't know us but would you do our film?

Rahimi: That's amazing! So give me some perspective. Were you guys approached at the same time?
Hooper: Geoffrey got it before me but Geoffrey and I were introduced by HBO because I initially wanted to cast him in John Adams but he wasn't free. When I heard he was involved, I was thrilled because there's no other Australian actor who could play the role. He's the perfect choice. It was only an asset that he was involved. He was fantastically tenacious to get the film made.

Rahimi: How difficult was to assemble the ensemble cast -- which on screen more than on paper appears to be the ideal, dream cast?
Hooper: It was amazingly easy. What's extraordinary is that in England you have this kind of level of actors like Sir Michael Gambon, Sir Derek Jacobi, Claire Bloom who was Charlie Chaplin's muse in Limelight who are willing to come to play for little money to play few scenes in the movie. A lot of actors in that group who I wanted to work with to assemble them in a room was a joy. Also the reason to have this cast was to have actors to play iconic characters such as King George V, Queen Mary, Edward VIII to suggest these are iconic characters.

Rahimi: How do you select your Director of Photography and Production Designer?
Hooper: I'm very loyal to the head of departments. It was third time working with my DP Danny Cohen with whom I did Longford and the European part of John Adams. Also my third time with Eve Stewart, my production designer with whom I did Elizabeth I and The Damned United. With Eve I remember her extraordinary work with Mike Leigh in Vera Drake and Topsy-Turvy. What's lovely with this collaborations are the ongoing conversations from one film to another where we always take it to another level which is exciting.

Interview Tom Hooper The King's Speech

Rahimi: Were you surprised by the success of the film?
Hooper: I always believed it but its success has taken a life on its own that's beyond my wildest dreams. In England there have been standing ovations at normal screens and it has made more money than Iron Man to give you an idea and here in the US we are going to blockbuster territory as we keep expanding to more theaters which is phenomenal. What's lovely for me is when we were setting up the film, the studios were busy declaring this kind of drama was dead. A lot of specialty divisions like Warner Independent, Paramount Vantage and Fine Line were shut down. It was a depressing time to be a drama director. I cannot tell you the pleasure at looking at the UK top 10 where The King's Speech is number one and Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan at number two, two films the studios didn't want to make are dominating the box office.

Rahimi: What does the Academy Awards mean to you personally?
Hooper: Should I get nominated it would be a dream come true. I wanted to be a director since I was twelve and the Academy has a long history and tradition. To be part of that tradition would be unbelievable. [Update: Since our interview, Hooper did indeed receive a nomination for Best Director.]

Rahimi: What films and filmmakers inspired you to become a filmmaker?
Hooper: The extraordinary thing about BBC was when I grew up (which they don't anymore) is they would show every week a classic European film so I got a comprehensive education on TV watching Tarkovsky, Bergman and Truffaut as well as American directors such as Coppola and Scorsese. But I have to acknowledge another thing that I have thought about recently is that my family was a working family and the only time we would come together was to watch the British comedies on TV. I think I have humor in my films which owes it to those shows. I think one of the secret weapons of The King's Speech is its humor which might be responsible for its box office draw. I am a great believer in the Shakespeare tradition to alternate between comedy and drama.

Interview Tom Hooper The King's Speech

Rahimi: I think the "feel good" aspect of The King's Speech is a driving factor in its success.
Hooper: The feel good factor can be very powerful but the truth is if it's too formulaic it won't work. Some films don't work because it's too obvious.

Rahimi: How difficult or easy is to make a film about the Royal family when the monarchy is still in place in Britain?
Hooper: I don't have a particular interest in the British monarchy but what interest me as the storyteller is the mechanism of a film set in the monarchy allows for the extraordinary intensification of stakes. That's what Shakespeare was preoccupied that if you take a theme of lust for power or murder and attach it to a king, the dramatically intensification becomes huge because the personal crisis become a constitutional crisis which is the same in The King's Speech. It's the narrative power more than any fascination with the Royal Family.

Rahimi: What's next for you?
Hooper: I'm middle of it but haven't decided yet but I'm also getting an incredible amount of offers which I haven't had time to read and keep apologizing to the producers.

Rahimi: Would you work in the US?
Hooper: Oh yes. I worked with HBO and Tom Hanks on John Adams which quite an extraordinary experience. So it depends on the project.

December 27, 2010

Amir Bar-Lev

Unless you've been living under a rock, Amir Bar-Lev's The Tillman Story does more than connect the dots from simple AP press releases, it sheds light on Pat Tillman from a more detailed, personalized, human perspective. For those living under that rock, Tillman was a professional NFL football player who passed on the opportunity to make millions by playing with a pigskin, by joining the army to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately the uniqueness of this story had more to do with how the Bush administration took it upon themselves to cover-up the circumstances of his death and essentially spin it as a propaganda tool --- essentially pouring more salt on the wounds of the Tillman family.

Bar-Lev along with the Tillman family and other witnesses depict the fallen soldier as a complex human being and try to illuminate the circumstances surrounding his death while paying tribute to a hero who's remarkable life was cut short by tragedy. An utterly compelling and heartbreaking film about the causalities of war that is both timely, and relevant.

Amir Bar-Lev The Tillman Story Interview

Yama Rahimi: First off, congratulations on your film. I have been wanting to see it ever since I heard about it because I actually had the chance to meet Pat Tillman. Back at a wedding in San Jose that I was bartending in 2000, he was hanging out at the bar and from what I gathered, was beyond small talk, there was a curiosity when he asked questions. I was startled because the waiters knew him and wanted to know what he talked about. I didn't know who he was except for being nice and inquisitive and was fascinated that I was from Afghanistan. I think you point that in your film.
Amir Bar-Lev: That's fascinating. You have to put that in your story. I'm gratified to hear that the film resonated to you. Maybe you haven't tapped into Pat's public persona as I have in the last three years but if you did, you would find he was turned into opposite of that and his inquisitiveness has been taken out of the story and replaced with the idea that he was a guy with determination and single set of beliefs. You know what I mean?

Rahimi: Yeah. Well it comes with creating the hero myth with simplified approach with a basic set of beliefs where in actuality human beings are more complex.
Bar-Lev: Well you have seen it in person as did most of his family and friends where we see it as second hand. They all say he wasn't like that but a more complex person.

Amir Bar-Lev The Tillman Story Interview

Rahimi: So how did you get involved in this project?
Bar-Lev: Well I knew about Pat Tillman what everybody knew from the news and the basic facts. Somebody told me to look into his story a little deeper and didn't take long to see that there were two interesting parts to the story for a filmmaker. One that there was a high level cover up, and another part which we already touched upon who he really was as a person that was subjected into myth-making same as his death. So once we understood that the military lied about his death, the media lied about his life that got me very interested. That's the kind of story that any filmmaker would be drawn to.

Rahimi: How did you get the family's approval?
Bar-Lev: The family didn't want to do it and they were very resistant because they are very private. They have also been very disappointed to this point to the media's treatment of their son. So we spent a long time working on convincing them to trust us. In my last film (My Kid Could Paint That) I was pushed out by the family at the end of the film which was my calling card as I sheepishly handed over a DVD to them and told them don't worry.

Amir Bar-Lev The Tillman Story Interview

Rahimi: I was amazed how politically balanced the film was. I mean you could have gone after some culprits, specifically the military, in a more aggressive way, but it was even handed.
Bar-Lev: Well there's a reason for that. Pat has a very wide appeal and people who admire him come from different parts of ideological spectrum. So we didn't want to alienate a part of our audience because the film is about Pat more than anything. So we wanted to invite everybody to the dialogue of what actually happened to him and the country at the time. We will see how the dialogue goes once the film is released. I want to see the people's reaction whether they admire somebody that doesn't exist or don't admire him anymore. Maybe it will ignite a dialogue about who Pat actually was.

Rahimi: What were the challenges of making the film while working along with the family?
Bar-Lev: Well the family was a challenge but a great one because all they wanted us to do was if you are going to make the film, go deeper and don't go for the obvious aka close up of us crying or the myth. The wanted us to elevate the story to the level it deserves. So it was a good challenge. The other big challenge was that there's no answers yet. Any audience who looks into this, will expect to be told how exactly Pat died or to be told exactly why Pat enlisted in the first place. Those answers are not in our film for obvious reasons but it has been frustrating to me that some reviews mention that Amir Bar-Lev sheds light on the Tillman matter. It's not accurate. Hopefully we illuminated to some degree but don't want audiences to expect to walk out with all the answers because the family doesn't have all the answers yet. The hope for the film is to put the audience in the shoes of the family and the family doesn't have all the answers and how Pat died remains a mystery to anybody who looks into it.

Rahimi: I noticed that...because you have got everything up to the minutes before and after but not the actual shooting itself.
Bar-Lev: Because it's actually very hard to understand how those soldiers could have fired on his position for as long as they did and as close as the distance they were without slipping into one of two mistakes. One mistake is that it was the fog of war and it was so confusing because they were attacked from all sides. That's the mistake the military and government wants you to believe. On the other side there are people who believe he was assassinated but there's no evidence to support that either. The truth might be in the middle of those two. There's no simple answer. The soldiers testimonies state that they were hyped up. I think it causes us to re-evaluate combat...that combat is terrifying and so are the psychological aspects on the soldiers. There's a side of combat that's exhilarating and a great story to tell your family and friends. Nobody wants go home without some kind of action. These are some of the aspects that could lead to understand what the soldier went through at that given moment.

Rahimi: Did you try to approach the soldiers in question?
Bar-Lev: Of course but they didn't want to speak to us.

Rahimi: A thought that I had was, because he was a football star among common people, there might have been some animosity towards him among the soldiers but that's going into conspiracy theory.
Bar-Lev: Have you read the book "A Separate Peace" by John Knowles?

Rahimi: No.
Bar-Lev: All I can say if the soldiers deliberately fired at Pat Tillman, knowing it was Pat, they did it on deepest of unconscious levels. I don't think anybody could have done it on a rational level.

Rahimi: Another disturbing fact for me, was this notion that if the soldiers are gun crazy, they'll fire at anything. It explains the high level of civilian deaths in Afghanistan, which in turn has caused the opposition to grow stronger.
Bar-Lev: Right. What about the compound? They run out of bullets firing which is a violation of the Geneva Convention to fire at the civilian houses. In my mind what this film is about is the myths we tell ourselves to make war more palatable. One of the myth that has been around, not so long ago was the myth of precision warfare since the last Gulf war. This smart bombs that go into a window and killing only the terrorists. You can sit back and blame the government for it but they tell us and we want to hear it because it makes us feel better about ourselves. That's part of the story that it's a myth.

Rahimi: What made you want to become a filmmaker?
Bar-Lev: It wasn't the money. (Laughs) I don't know if I can answer that but studied religious studies in college. A lot of those ideas I find myself drawn to creatively. In all of the three films you see that my interests are about the way human beings project meaning onto the world around them. Certainly the Tillman story is about religion in my mind. It's not accident to my mind when you see at the end of the film drilling into his sculpture. It's resonating image like a crucification. So this is how I came to film this not because of the production but because of the philosophy.

Rahimi: I know there was the Sundance premiere, but had the family seen the film? How was their reaction?
Bar-Lev: We were very nervous to show it to them and it's very gratifying to us that they approve of it. We showed them the film and the youngest brother who's in the film who initially didn't wanted to be involved called us and said he regretted for saying no to us. We told him if he could get on a red eye flight from California to New York and that's how he ended up in the film. He wasn't initially in the film.

Rahimi: What about Kevin? He never wanted to be in the film?
Bar-Lev: We got involved at the moment when he made a statement in front of the congress. So we were there. He was disappointed by the failure of the congressional hearing and investigation that he didn't want to do anymore. Of course he helped us, but he didn't want to be in front of the camera.

Rahimi: Any films or filmmakers that inspired you?
Bar-Lev: This film was inspired by John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." I'm no different than anybody else I watch films like everybody else.

Rahimi: What can you tell us about your next project which will be your first fiction?
Bar-Lev: I'm going from one hero to another.

Rahimi: Did you want to go into fiction?
Bar-Lev: I love films. I love to do more documentaries. If some films allows you cross the genre, then so be it. The way I got into the film was by trying to make a documentary about Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead for a long time. I have been talking about it for so long that the word got out to the producers of the fiction film. To their credit they said here's a guy who's interested in the story and knows a lot about the story and approached me. When I saw the script it was very exciting because it stays away from a lot of the fictionalization on this type of stories whether it's Pat Tillman or Rock'n'Roll biopic where the cookie cutter cliches are applied. The writer and producer were aware of that and that's what's exciting about this project. I really responded to this.

Rahimi: How advanced are you?
Bar-Lev: I'm about two weeks into it. I just got the job. I read the script a month ago and they gave me the job two weeks ago.

Rahimi: Well Jerry Garcia had a long life and no two hour film can do justice to it.
Bar-Lev: Well the writer was aware of that and has a narrow focus.

Rahimi: I like that.
Bar-Lev: Me too.

The Weinstein Co.'s The Tillman Story is currently in theaters - check your local listings. Visit the official website.

May 31, 2010

Hirokazu Kore-eda

Japanese writer and director Hirokazu Kore-eda returns to a thematic subject matter he knows well: loneliness and emptiness. This time out, he does so via the point of view of an inflatable sex toy and once again, Kore-eda manages to make compelling observation, grafting an original essay that is both warm and fuzzy, but tragic, contemporary and extreme -- in many regards it's a portrait full of heart and humor that will resonate with many. It's the Pinocchio-like tale of an air doll used for sexual pleasure by a lonely man, and then comes to life, indexes what makes humans human and falls for a video store clerk. Korean actress Bae Doona is pitch perfect as the air doll, she physically and emotionally gets into character which makes for a rich and satisfying observation about the human condition. To give enough substance to such an exaggerated premise is no easy task, but a talent such as Kore-eda makes it work with ease. SFIFF showcased the Cannes preemed Air Doll - here is my sit-down with the Japanese filmmaker.

Hirokazu Kore-eda Air Doll

Yama Rahimi: What was the the genesis of this project?
Hirokazu Kore-eda: The start of this film was 10 years ago when I first read the Manga comic story of this and there was one particular scene that really struck me. It was the plastic doll working at the video store and she cuts her arm on a nail and collapses onto the floor with the air deflating. The man working with her tapes her arm and blows air into her. I thought that was a very erotic scene. I had not thought of putting sex scenes into my films but I thought in this way I could depict a very erotic scene without to having the man and the woman be naked which could be done nicely. That was the start of the film.

Rahimi: I loved the idea of using a doll as a sex object which is usually how women are used. Was it intentionally to show the objectification of women through a doll?
Kore-eda: There are several men in the film that appear to use the doll as a sex object. However the man, Hideo, who lives with the doll reflects several men I met during the research who live with the plastic dolls. They don't see them just as sex objects. They might take them to the park, they make meals for them if the dolls don't eat so they meals together as a way to fill their own loneliness or emptiness. Even more so they interact with the dolls more than they do with other people. So that's another aspect I wanted to show.

Rahimi: The theme of loneliness and emptiness seems a byproduct of technology in the modern world that keeps people from interacting with each other in comparison to the third world where people live without the comforts of technology but have a shorter life because of the harsher conditions. What are your thoughts about that?
Kore-eda: As I developed the script I put people who doubt their own originality, they feel they are substitute themselves. Those kind of people are scattered around Tokyo. In fact Tokyo is full of those types of people. Because everything has become convenient in our modern lives, you really don't need to interact deeply with other people in order to live or survive but that means they are not fulfilled and suffering. These are people around me and I put those in the story as well.

Hirokazu Kore-eda Air Doll

Rahimi: What are the films or filmmakers who have inspired you to become one in your formative years?
Kore-eda: There are many but Truffaut, Fellini and Rosselini. Ken Loach and Hou-Hsiao Hsien inspired me after I became a filmmaker. In my first year at the University, I went to see Fellini's "La Strada" and "Nights of Cabiria" as a double feature. Of course I have seen and loved films before that but it was the first time I became aware of the director being there. I felt the director was looking at Giulietta Masina and became aware of the director's gaze. I thought making a film is gazing or looking at something.

Rahimi: The reason I'm asking is because one of the main setting is the video store and there are references to other films and I wanted to know if they are your favorite films.
Kore-eda: They are all my favorite movies.

Rahimi: What were the challenges of making a film about an air doll? How did you create a fully developed character
Kore-eda: This doll is a cheap doll. So she has an inferiority complex because she's translucent and has plastic lines she wants to hide. Now the dolls are more developed and expensive made out of silicone, so they have more weight which is closer to human feeling and touch. She has complexes that an adolescent girl might have whether her nose is too big or not high enough. Those are feelings she develops when she has a soul.

Rahimi: As far as the main actress goes, was it difficult to find a Japanese actress or did you want to work with that particular Korean actress?
Kore-eda: I'm a great fan of Bae Doona and always wanted to work with her. I know this was a difficult role but the language wouldn't be a problem for her. So I gave the offer to her as my first choice. When I think of it now, I don't think any of the Japanese actress we have could have done the role, so she's the only one.

Rahimi: What's next for you?
Kore-eda: I'm planning to shoot a film in summer with children, maybe five or six children. The story will be that a new bullet train will come to their town for the first time. They will go and see it that's all I have no. I haven't written the script now. Once I cast the children, then I will get more ideas from them. Once again it's an interactive process.

May 30, 2010

Samuel Maoz

Bestowed with the top honor at the Venice Film Festival, Lebanon is a powerful, gut-wrenching, claustrophobic, timeless antiwar film from Israel by writer/director Samuel Maoz. The story, set entirely in a tank on the first day of the first Lebanon war in 1982 shows how the four young men experience the horrors of war. While the setting is specific, the story is universal and could easily be the backdrop for any country, and any war. Based on Moaz's own experiences, Lebanon gives a singular vision and point of view on how he experienced the war - an experience that is engraved in the filmmaker and will surely be will surely be ingrained in future patrons of film. Selected as part of the 53rd SFIFF, I had the chance to sit down with the director.

Yama Rahimi: Can you tell me how this project came about?
Samuel Maoz: Well it's my own personal story. I was the gunner, Shmulik which is the nickname for Samuel in Hebrew. So it was a need for me to unload and to expose the war as it is -- without the heroic stuff and cliches. I don't know if the expression to forgive myself is correct, but I wanted to understand. I feel a responsibility towards my destiny because I survived it.

Interview Samuel Maoz (Lebanon)

Rahimi: I think it's a powerful film because you put the audience in the tank and let them experience the war from a first hand POV. Was there any hesitation to have the entire film set in a tank?
Maoz: Yes. I told myself at the beginning that I needed a simple and basic plot, something that you can tell on eight or ten lines. Basically to have a ground to stand on and even the event which was real and much worse had to be toned down to tell the story of what's going on in the tank and the minds of the soldiers during the war. I was asking myself how can I tell the story to deliver it without talking about it. To understand it less through the head than through the stomach and the heart. To achieve that you need to create a strong emotional experience. So I told myself the only way you can do it, to actually take the audience into the tank, so that they totally identify with the characters so they see what they see and know what they know. I knew that the only way for the audience to understand it is to feel it, so feeling is understanding. I wanted you to see the gunner in front you and when the victims look, they look at the audience. That's the only way to smell and taste the war. That's why the film has minimal dialogue less than 30% and more 70% without a word because when you are dealing with such an extreme situation with dilemmas and conflicts, you can't use words. The only way is through the eyes and body language. It was an experiment that I was lucky that it paid off. It was more than luck because we worked very hard. (laughs)

Interview Samuel Maoz (Lebanon)

Rahimi: Well the conflict you are depicting has affected people on both sides for generations. Do you think there will be peace someday?
Maoz: I can see from the reaction to the film in Israel. If you analyze the reactions, you can see that as much as the audiences are young, the reactions are positive. As much as the audiences are old, the reactions are less positive and more negative which refers to the past and the young to the future. I see it that way that my parents generation came from Europe from the German camps and they see it like they don't have any other choice but to fight. They really believe that someone wants to terminate them, so they have nothing to loose but to fight against all the chances and they won. Our generation was stuck in the middle, and the new, Internet generation had their war with the best army and weapons regarding the technology and equipment, they lost. Why? Because they don't have the same motivations. So the older generation doesn't want this film because they are afraid that mothers won't send their sons to war anymore. They still believe that everyone wants to terminate us. They have their good reasons to believe that. If someone came from the concentration camps, I can believe that they believe that but we had a normal childhood. When were 18, we didn't believe that someone wanted to terminate us. All that was in our heads was the Tel Aviv beaches and girls. The new generation is totally free of this thinking and because of that, they think peace will come. I don't think peace will come because of idealistic reasons, -- but because of egoistic reasons.

Interview Samuel Maoz (Lebanon)

Rahimi: Peace is peace. I agree. There's a strong support for it from the Israeli cinema which has been outstanding with films such as Waltz with Bashir, Lemon Tree, Beaufort and your film.
Maoz: The reaction has been great every where we have been, all over Europe and here in the US. People have compared it to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with their soldiers and their sons. At the New York Film Festival, six people came to me and said how the film touched them and reminded them of their experiences in the Vietnam war. The people from Sony said this is about Lebanon and different from Vietnam but they said the experience was the same, the conflict and dilemma. It's something that remains with you the rest of your life.

Rahimi: It's also about the damage and the toll it war has on the individual. Even though the war finishes for some, they are haunted by it for the rest of their lives.
Maoz: Even during the making of the film, I was reminded how lucky I'm to be able to unload something that I have been holding for 25 years. Even that I was able to do the opposite, I still don't feel clean or clear of it. I can accept myself and learn to live with it but it's still the first thought in the morning and last at night. When you are taking a life, it's not a small issue. It's not like a broke a glass or lost my house. It's not something you can say what's gone is gone.

Rahimi: It seems to me that we as human beings still haven't learned from 4000 years or more of wars.
Maoz: In the end it's the cruel trick of war. The army can prepare you that you are in good shape to fight and operate the weapons but nothing can prepare you for the emotional experience. If the war is...for example, a beast, the war needs death in order to survive. So the soldiers are ordered to kill but it's not normal to kill, so you need to be psycho to do it or to be able to do it. The trick of war is primitively simple, not to take a soldier but a human being and put him in a real life danger situation. What I say now seems theoretical but when you are actually in that situation, you feel it with every cell of your body. It's this process it takes the first 24 or 48 hours for the metamorphosis to take place when our survival instincts takes control. It's like a heavy drug, it's physical. At first you loose your taste, then your sight, then you realize you haven't slept for 24 hours. Then you don't think about those moral or ethical codes that applies in normal life. In the war you are in such an extreme situation that everything in normal life does not applies anymore. You can't live with the codes of normal life. Of course you can but you won't survive for more than few hours.

Then you kill because you want to survive and become like an animal that somebody tries to hunt. Somebody measured the instincts and our strongest instinct is our survival instinct, more than our visual which is controlled through blinking. Once we went into a small town, they said 50% of the balconies are the shooters and the other 50% is the civilians. So they say you can't survive if you go from balcony to balcony because you won't survive past the third one if you look at them one by one. So what's your options at the end and be moral? I'm not talking about shooting at kids on the streets which is murder. That's why I set the film during the first day of the war because it's the most difficult day when the dilemmas and conflicts come. After two or three days you are on your surviving instincts there's no more dilemma or conflict that controls your judgment. You are just surviving the moment with all your body and mind without thinking what happens later or tomorrow.

Rahimi: It's our animal instinct.
Maoz: Yes, our most basic instinct. In the tank your view is limited which is why the war doesn't allow you to look at the big picture.

Rahimi: Even though the film is from the point of view of the soldiers in the tank, you still feel for the victims. As I have learned from my interviews from Israeli and Palestinians, it seems they are united in their vision and solidarity for each other than the governments. Have you experienced that as well?
Maoz: I could write you of Palestinians, Iranians, Syrians and Lebanese people that I met at the festivals. We could have signed on many peace agreements.

Rahimi: Which is a shame that the governments have the power where the people can live together peacefully.
Maoz: It's the point of view of the governments that's the problem because they think that war is the only solution. If they start from the point where they don't think war is any solution at all, which will be starting point, we can start to achieve something. If they start with war, then there's nowhere else to go. Take the Lebanon war for example, it started as an operation that was supposed to last 40 days but ended after 18 years. So as I said before, if the war is a beast, you can't control it once you release it.

Rahimi: What were the challenges of shooting the film with the young cast?
Maoz: First I knew I could do the traditional rehearsals because there wasn't much of dialogue to begin with. Words were my enemy, so it was a very tough two months preparation without a word which was to get them to experience inside the tank. So I talked about the experience then I locked them each separately in a dark containers for few hours. Instead of telling them about the claustrophobic experience, I let them experience it. In the container your body save energy but after two hours you are in a hypnotic state of mind. Then I started to knock on the containers with iron pipes to simulate a sudden attack on the tank and to jump from 0 to 100% of awareness. Then came another two hours where they were expecting another attack that didn't came. So after five hours when they came out and I look at them, I knew I didn't have to tell them anything. Because I was going for feelings and the actors had to deliver that feeling. I had to create warlike situation that was similar. The shooting was tough because it was a very physical experience because of the heat, sweat, dust and oil. It was something they had to feel which you can't act. Since the audience would experience it through the visual language.

Rahimi: What films or filmmakers inspired you to become a filmmaker?
Maoz: It was a stupid western when I was 4 or 5 years old. I had an uncle who used to take me to the movies 3 or 4 movies a week, so I was raised on American westerns. So in one film there was a shot of train that approached the camera and passed it. I was amazed at that. When I had my bar mitzvah, I asked my father to buy me an 8mm camera which he did. The day after I was on the train tracks and tried to copy that shot. I saw the train smashing the camera into pieces. That was my first lesson in cinema but it didn't break me so I worked and bought another camera. Next time, I put other objects and experimented. I did a lot of shorts until I was 18 but the war cut short my career.

May 2, 2010

Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Jean-Pierre Jeunet returns in top form with this visually stunning comedy that has everything you would expect and more. After a man is injured by a random gun shot, he unites with a group of friends to take revenge on two rival weapon manufacturers. A film that evokes an inner child's sensibility and emphasizes the more whimsical qualities that can be found in smaller doses in the French filmmaker's previous work. An original script with a superb cast make this film a treasure full of wonders. The film unites Jeunet with comedian Dany Boon (Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis) and it's match made in cinematic heaven.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet Micmacs Interview

Yama Rahimi: In this film you manage to merge successfully the whimsical and fantastical with a political message...:
Jean-Pierre Jeunet: It was a risk actually to mix a serious subject with slapstick. To reassure me I thought of The Great Dictator. It was a risk and I hope it works.

Rahimi: It worked for me because it's a timely subject matter. With the 30-plus wars ongoing wars in the world, this gets to the root that weapons and bombs do have consequences. I'm from Afghanistan which is still one of the countries with the most mines.
Jeunet: When we did the research for the film, we met this weapon's dealers and discovered they were nice guys. They were open minded and have the passion for technology. They were very nice with us. They are unaware of consequences of the technology. When we brought it up, they would say, "no we work for the right side, we are the good guys. We don't build mines, it's them the bad guys."

Rahimi: This is your first film in 6 years. Did it take that long to make this film?
Jeunet: Well I write my own scripts which is not for everybody because it's a long process. Also a long process to find financing, then you lose an actor and so on. It's a long process also because I'm picky, I'm taking time to shoot and in post-production. I also lose a year in promotion of the film which I follow everywhere. This time it was specially long because I lost two years on "Life of Pi" which is a beautiful project. I wrote the script, made the story board and scouted the locations in India and Spain.

Rahimi: What happened to "Life of Pi"?
Jeunet: It was just too expensive that it didn't make any sense. When you read the book, you think it's easy because you have a kid and a tiger in a boat in sea, so it must be cheap to make but no tigers love kids, kids don't like the sea and tigers are good swimmers, so you can't put all the elements at the same time. Everything has to be done with visual effects which is very complicated to make.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet Micmacs Interview

Rahimi: How did this project came about?
Jeunet: After two years I was starving to make a film, so I opened my book of ideas and looked on what I could use to make a film. Oh a story of revenge, perfect. Oh I loved the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with the toys of Toy Story. So I make a story of a man with a group of stupid people. Then the weapon dealers which is preoccupation of mine. So I mix it all.

Rahimi: How ingenious. Your films are rich with wonderful details. At what point do incorporate them? During the writing process or after you have the script?
Jeunet: At the beginning when we have the concept of the story. Once we know we have a revenge story, we open the book of details and see what we can use. For example the story of the sugar and coffee or the mine in the football field which I had in mind for 20 years. I have boxes of ideas and details like that. It's pre-occupation to have a rich movie. For some people it's too much and too many details.

Rahimi: No I love it. I think it's rewarding on repeat viewings and a pleasure when you discover a new detail you missed the first time.
Jeunet: This guy wrote me that he saw Amelie 54 times and his wife wants to divorce him because of that. (Laughs all around.)

Rahimi: Chance or fate are always playing a role in your films. What is about it that fascinates you?
Jeunet: I had a good luck and chance in my life. I love stories with coincidences and fate like the books of Paul Auster. I had some premonitions of my own. One day I was visiting a huge set at the Universal Studio long time ago for the Steven Spielberg movie "Hook," I had this voice or feeling that one day I would make a film in Hollywood. So when I was called to do "Alien," I knew the time has come.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet Micmacs Interview

Rahimi: You have found the perfect match with Dany Boon. Was this project written for him?
Jeunet: No I wrote the part for Jamel Debbouze (Amelie, Indigenes) but he dropped 10 weeks before the shooting because of personal reasons. It was the right opportunity to hire Dany. I have been following his career for 15 years from stage because he's the king of stand-up comedy. He's a very talented writer, actor and director. He's funny and I hate him. His film "Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis" in France holds the same record as "Titanic".

Rahimi: You have an impeccable cast again. Was it difficult to cast the film?
Jeunet: No. I love this family of actors and my casting director knows that and my taste. Usually the main character I find myself but for the others he sends options. I pay attention to all the characters, even the small roles. For characters that have only one sentence, I see twenty people. For Amelie, for the character who said "Ticket please!" I saw like 40 people which pissed off a lot of people. I look for interesting faces and character actors.

Rahimi: There's an homage to movies of the 40's and 50's, especially the Humphrey Bogart kind...
Jeunet: Well I wanted to start with "The End" which was in my book of ideas. So I looked at the films. I used the Bogart film but could have been any other. But the French dubbing is very tacky because it was done in the 50's which was appropriate for our film.

Rahimi: What films or filmmakers inspired to become a filmmaker?
Jeunet: Definitely Sergio Leone with "Once Upon A Time in the West." Second one was Stanley Kubrick. I saw "A Clockwork Orange" 14 times at the theater. Before that when I was 8 years old, I was making puppet's theater with lights and everything. So I made everything myself, the stage, the costumes.

Rahimi: What's some of your favorite films?
Jeunet: Again "Once Upon A Time in the West" which I can watch again and again. "Night of the Hunter" by Charles Laughton, Gus Van Sant's "Good Will Hunting," which is not a masterpiece but I loved it because it touched me. "The Godfather" of course which is not very original. French films by Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert.

Rahimi: What's next for you?
Jeunet: Now I would like to make an adaptation because I'm not ready to write another personal movie. It's a good opportunity to make another kind of film which would be more adult and serious. I don't know yet. I found an amazing book. I will meet the author in LA who's a famous script writer. I heard he wants to direct the book himself.

February 8, 2010

Michael Hoffman

With a pair of Best Supporting Oscar noms in the bank, writer/director Michael Hoffman (Restoration) makes a smashing comeback with this breath of fresh air take on the last days of celebrated Russian writer Leo Tolstoy and his wife Sofya. An examination of the complexities of love and marriage that excels -- Hoffman brings out the best in thesps Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, Paul Giamatti and James McAvoy by allowing the foursome to delve into a full range of emotions that afflict the human condition. Simply put, The Last Station is an accurate portrait of one the greatest writers in literature as he deals with his legacy and what has come between him and the love of his life.

Yama Rahimi: This film marks sort of "comeback" for you, not that you were gone entirely.
Michael Hoffman: I was kind of gone. After the Emperor's Club, I got involved in a project that didn't came together and that's the risk you take when you get involved with independent films which was two and half years. I was passing on projects I shouldn't because I thought this movie was coming together and it didn't. Then I did a little movie with this company I formed called Serenade, where we made six movies with 500K a piece that got released but in a very tiny way. Then I started working on this, which took five years and in that time there were opportunities and studio movies that I could have done but I thought I should do it and stick with. If it hadn't worked, I mean that's a terrifying thought to me. Back in September we didn't have American distribution and we were nowhere and I was depressed. Then we went to the Telluride Festival and Toronto which was great but still very late in the game because the deal with Sony Picture Classics wasn't done till October.

Interview Michael Hoffman The Last Station

YR: Well it was a scary year because a lot of the films at major festivals didn't get distribution right away or still don't have.
MH: It's a difficult market. In Toronto only eight films got sold, of course some had distribution from the beginning.

YR: So how did this project came to you?
MH: Well I read the novel in train when I was travelling from Siena to Paris and it was the only novel in English but didn't see a movie. Then I reread the novel in 2004 and saw immediately a film about marriage which I experienced since first reading the book. I never wanted to make a biopic about Tolstoy. The film I saw was about the tragic comedy about marriage, about the difficulty living with love and impossibility of living without love. Although I wrote a first draft of the screenplay and didn't like it, I went to read the four great plays of Checkov such as "The Seagull," "The Cherry Orchard," "Three Sisters" and "Uncle Vanya." where I saw how to make the tone work. How to incorporate something of the way the absurd and the sublime of Checkov with all that proximity of the tragedy and comedy. After I had the script, I went to find the cast which was extraordinary.

YR: Was it difficult to get the cast?
MH: No. I never had the problem where I sent the script and didn't get yes except for few exceptions but actors dropped in and out because of the finanacing. Then Helen came and with her Russian origins it was the perfect fit for her talent to move from drama to comedy. Unlike most romantic comedies where the chemistry is important between the actors such it was between George Clooney and Michelle Pfeiffer in "One Fine Day" where you have to arrange a meeting to see if they have chemistry, here it wasn't the case. In this film I didn't even think of that because the love has to be real. You have to believe that Leo and Sofia are married for 40 years when you first see them and that's something you can't direct.

YR: It was a great cast including Mirren and Christopher Plummer who has been consistently good.
MH: How come that this guy has never been nominated before after more than 40 years with 150 films that included "The Sound of Music" to "The Insider" and "Syrianna" amongst many others.

YR: I looked at your career and it seems you struggled between studio and independent system. Is that true?
MH: It's absolutely true but the problem with that is that I spent 10 years of my filmmaking life on two films, "Restoration" and "The Last Station," both each took five years to make. I can't afford to do that again. So after this project, it seems good to come back to the studio system and work on a project you like where you know that there's distribution at the end. It's really terrifying to do all this work all these years and not knowing whether it will see the light of the day or not.

YR: You mentioned both Restoration and The Last Station, those two films got you more attention than others. Is that correct?
MH: No, I would say "Soapdish" got me the most attention which has a long life and people still watch it. It was a movie I didn't want to do and took it initially just to develop it then it took a life of its own. So it's really hard to predict which project is good to get into.

Interview Michael Hoffman The Last Station

YR: Also you were at Sundance in its early years. How was that experience?
MH: I was in the second year. It was my film school. I never attended film school. I had this script called "Promised Land" which eventually got made that Robert Redford produced. In the script there was two stories, one in the town and other on the road. I gave the script to James Brooks and he said I love the story in town, get rid of the other. Then I gave the script to Bertrand Tavernier and he told me to keep the road story but get rid of the story in town. So what I learned was what's the story you want to tell. Obviously if you have a script and somebody tells you to pay attention to certain parts, that's valid. You have all these high profile talent give you their opinion but ultimately it's up to you what story you want to tell.

YR: Tell me about your strange debut "Priveleged" which was also the debut of Hugh Grant, James Wilby and composer Rachel Portman.
MH: Rachel Portman was my girlfriend at the time but everybody that worked on that project are still working in the industry. What happened was I had a scholarship at Oxford and Rick Stevenson who worked for a senator and made a film about the youth conversation corp. He came back and wanted to make a film. He said we should make a film because it was the best set in the world and we had it for free. I said I have no interest in making films and wanted to work in theatre. The reason he approached me was because I directed plays and worked with a lot of actors. Then through a professor, we met John Schlesinger for dinner and he asked how he could help. So by the time we left the dinner we everything set without having a decent script or idea of what we were going to do. Anyway we got to make it which so bad. Amazing is that everybody went to have great careers including Hugh, James, Rachel and Imogen Stubbs many others behind the cameras.

YR: Well it seems it was about being at the right time at the right place.
MH: Absolutely unreal but yes.

YR: What are some of the films or filmmakers that inspired you?
MH: Well it was "The Sound of Music," then "Romeo and Juliet." It was the "The Seventh Seal" that blow me away where I thought film can be art. Then of course all the great films of the 70's, "Five Easy Pieces", "The Godfather" and "The Conformist" to name few. Of course "Aguirre","Wings of Desire" and Tarkovsky. So there's a lot of films that I loved.