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Category Archives: Interviews
It is safe to say that director Shawn Levy does not have those crippling, middle-of-the-night moments of doubt we mere mortals do — or, if he does, they don’t show on the press tour for “Real Steel.” Levy’s animated and super-psyched to talk about his new robot-boxing film that also tells the tale of promoter Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) reuniting with his abandoned son Max (Dokota Goyo). After the ‘Night at the Museum” films, Levy’s shown he can get big money out of big effects — with ‘Real Steel,” though, he tries for (and occasionally gets) big emotion, too. We spoke with levy in L.A. about what he learned from producer Steven Spielberg, kid actors and boxing’s ballet versus boxing’s brutality.
When you have Steven Spielberg, the king of heartbreaking special effects movies, as a producer on this, how much do you learn from him? How much of a great opportunity is that?
Levy: You ask the right question, because a lot of people have asked, ‘Is it intimidating? Was it daunting?’ Not at all, but it was the dream mentorship of my life. You learn so much, because Steven is so generous with his instincts, with his advice, with his anecdotes and wisdom. It was really one of the greatest mentorships anyone could ever imagine.
It also helped make an important decision in terms of making the film, which is he referenced ‘Jurassic Park’ and the practical dinosaurs on that making it so memorable. You built several robots to give it that realism, to give the actors something other than a tennis ball on a stick to work with. I’m sure it would have been cheaper to go all virtual, but would you have gotten the film that you wanted?
Levy: I don’t think we would have gotten a film that’s as realistic as it is, and I know we wouldn’t have gotten the acting. Not only does it affect Hugh’s performance to have a real robot, but maybe most critically, that’s a 10-year-old boy as a co-star in the movie. Is this movie is going to have some magic to it, it’s going to come from that boy in the way he connects with the father, in the way he connects with the machine. The fact that he was doing scenes with a real, remote-controlled, eight-and-a-half foot-tall robot lends those scenes a poetry and an emotion that you wouldn’t have gotten if I had asked him to fake it with a tennis ball on a stick.
Let’s talk about Dakota Goyo and his role as the prodigal son comes back to the wayward father. At one point he was hosing mud off of Atom. This is a great kid performance, but how do you make sure it doesn’t go outside of that band where you want to be real? It very easily could have.
Levy: You cast well and you do your job as a director. I saw hundreds of boys to make sure I found the one who felt the most authentic, because then you root for him. Sometimes if Dakota was acting too much, I would literally say, ‘Less, less, less, less. Stop acting. Stop showing me anything; just be.’ That’s how it worked.
You have a ‘rep’ as somebody who does these big special effects films, but at the same time, you really burrow into this movie; you really make it about the human relationships. Was that the appeal as much or more so than big special effects?
Levy: Much more so. I live my life pretty emotionally, for better and for worse. I’m pretty thin-skinned and transparent. I lead with my heart, and I wanted to make a movie that did the same. It’s ironic, because it’s a movie that throws a lot of punches. It’s as much about its big-heartedness as it is about its action. That balance — that priority, frankly — of putting that underdog redemption tale in the foreground, the robot boxing in the background, that was by choice, by design.
Was it nice to be able to do a film about boxing that has the battles and the ballet of it without the blood and the brain damage?
Levy: Yeah, and it’s why women are responding so vociferously to the movie. In the words of one female journalist who I sat with recently, they’re able to enjoy the choreography and the ballet of the brutality without any wince factor. No one’s getting hurt, not blood is shed — it’s hydraulic fluid and paint shards. It allows you to root for the action in a way that isn’t mitigated by having to cover your eyes.
What did you learn from this that you really want to take to your next film?
Levy: I learned first of all not to be intimidated by any visual effects that I don’t understand. It can all be learned. You can then use them as tools to tell your story. I also learned that you have to be really vigilant, the more complex the movie, to not lose yourself and to not lose sight of the priority. With ‘Real Steel,’ it was the most complicated movie I’ve made, and yet I wanted it to be the most human, in simple terms. Every day I would remind myself, ‘It’s about the people, it’s about the people.’ When I watch the movie with audiences and I see the emotional reaction of the audiences, it’s especially gratifying, because it’s the human story that pays off.
With his rippling voice and air of no-holds barred intelligence, Jeffrey Wright (“Source Code,” “The Manchurian Candidate”) plays Senator Thompson in George Clooney’s political thriller “The Ides of March.” Thompson has a few scenes — and only a few lines of dialogue — and it’s a tribute to Wright that he’s able to fill a seemingly small part with such verve and vigor. We spoke with Wright in Toronto about politics, working with Hollywood’s best-looking director and his take on 2012.
Aside from the fact that your director is better looking that usual, what’s it like working with Mr. Clooney? Obviously he’s got insight in acting, but are his technical chops there as a director?
Wright: Not yet, but I’m hoping.
No, but seriously.
Wright: I was serious. No, George — it was a fantastic experience. I never worked with him as a director. We were in ‘Syriana’ in separate tracks. He brings such a clarity and a calm to a movie set. That’s all you can hope for your director and a clear command of the vision. We as individual actors know our little component, but the director really has a clear command of the overall. They don’t always have that. George cowrote the piece, was acting and directing at the same time, and doing it with such ease that it was really mindblowing. He’s a wonderful director to work with.
I think it’s a line from Hillary Clinton that politicians campaign in poetry, but they govern in prose, and there’s a difference between speeches and actions. Your character, you have that incredibly blunt speech, and then you get to do this high-flying bit of language about the public nomination. Is it fun to play that contrast between the public and the private?
Wright: Absolutely. That was very much what I was trying to contrast. I think he’s the commentary on these guys: How genuine are you? Do you talk the talk and walk the walk? What I think happens too often — not always — is that these guys are willing to sacrifice the common interest, or the interest of the larger constituency, in terms of the interest of their own egos. My way of commenting on that was playing this contrast of the public and private persona.
It’s the fall of 2011 and all we’re getting is a lot of throat-clearing on the 2012 elections. Regardless of party, what could any politician say to win your vote and support in 2012?
Wright: I just want somebody who’s genuine. I think our current president is that. I think he’s well-intentioned; I think he’s thoughtful. I think there’s serious challenges the country’s facing. Obviously, we have to battle some of these economic issues, get some job growth out there. Bill Clinton said it best, if that’s right: It’s the economy, stupid. I usually look for someone who’s genuine, who’s not trying to pull the wool over my eyes and pander to the lowest common denominator, who’s trying to lead us to a better place.
In “Take Shelter,” actor Michael Shannon plays Curtis — a dad and working man who starts having shadowy and frightening visions of disaster and torments himself wondering if he’s merely insane or, worse, right. Directed by Jeff Nichols (who collaborated with Shannon on the excellent indie “Shotgun Stories”), “Take Shelter” has received raves at Sundance and Cannes … but it’s also a film that with, no hedging or over-explanation, can play at Austin’s genre-based Fantastic Fest. We spoke with Shannon in L.A. about the film’s apocalyptic themes, his unlikely fame thanks to “Boardwalk Empire,” his 9/11 movies “The Missing Person” and “World Trade Center” and if he’s truly ready to step into Terence Stamp’s shoes playing General Zod in Zack Snyder’s now-shooting “Superman: Man of Steel.”
You and Mr. Nichols had done such great work with ‘Shotgun Stories.’ When did he broach the idea of this story with you? It plays with genre and expectation with a lot of ways that ‘Shotgun Stories’ didn’t.
Shannon: I think people imagine that after ‘Shotgun Stories’ he wrote another script for us to collaborate on. It didn’t really work like that. He was very spent after ‘Shotgun Stories.’ It took him a long, long time to get that film finished and out. He had this period where he didn’t know what to do next, and he was anxious and didn’t know if he was going to make another film. He was also anxious about getting married and starting a family, and out of that anxiety came this story. It started for him out of a very personal place, from a very personal experience he was having. The first time I read it, he didn’t present it like, ‘I want you to play this part.’ He just wanted somebody to read it, someone who knew him and appreciated his aesthetic. He wanted some feedback. I read it, and I told him that I thought it was really lovely. Then we didn’t talk about it for a long time. One day out of the blue he called and said that he’d gotten some financing and that he wanted me to play Curtis. They were starting in two months or something. When it happened, it was very sudden. That’s when I signed on.
Obviously, we have something we can’t talk about at too great length for fear of dispelling some of the joys of the film, but even in that two-month time, did you do any research into revelatory experiences?
Shannon: I tried to come in a blank slate, because I feel like at the beginning of the movie, Curtis is a blank slate. He’s an Everyman; he’s a normal dude, and he’s working his job and he starts having these dreams. He doesn’t know what to do; he doesn’t know what’s happening to him, and he doesn’t understand why it’s happening. He knows it’s a thing with the mother, her background and whatnot, but I think he’s been consciously avoiding dealing with that anyway and trying to be as solid a guy as he possibly can. I didn’t want to know more than Curtis did. I felt that I might run the risk of condescending to him or being condescending in my performance.
It’s a comparison that’s been made before, from everything from your introduction at the Oscars by Mr. Walken and the fact that you’re both in the category of American leading men over six feet tall, but I was really thinking of ‘The Dead Zone’ during this film, as well as ‘Close Encounters.’ Was that part of the attraction of it?
Shannon: I love ‘The Dead Zone’; that’s one of my favorite movies. That’s a good call. For me, one of the main draws was that I was going through a very similar experience to Jeff. He was getting married and starting a family; I was starting a family too. It goes by very quickly, but in the film you hear Curtis say that his father passed away a couple years ago — my father passed away a couple years ago, too. It was life synchronicity; it was something that I could identify with and, I thought, I could bring a lot of my own personal experience to.
The scene at the church supper: It’s an hour and 10 minutes into the film before Curtis even tells another person what’s going on, and then even after that you have the church supper sequence like something out of ‘The Hurt Locker’ where you go off. How do you maintain that intensity throughout a shoot?
Shannon: The shoot itself was intense. We shot this movie in four weeks, so when the budget’s low and you don’t have a lot of time, it can be hard work some days. You build this incredible momentum, like you just show up and you live the story because you don’t have the time to sit around and contemplate everything. You go and you’ll do two or three big scenes a day. The day we did that Lion’s Club scene, the church supper scene, we were shooting two scenes that day. The scene we shot in the morning — which is actually in the film without dialogue, as part of a montage — we were shooting a scene where all the guys from work go to the bar because it’s raining and we can’t work. You see a shot of us sitting around a bar drinking beers, whatever. We were basically improving and cracking each other up, goofing off. We went from that to the supper scene, because it was the same location. Days like that are so surreal to begin with that it gives you the momentum to go there.
When you have a film like this, which is something so resolutely American and small and told in such measured tones, for all of its apocalyptic imagery and sense, this is a super-small film. Right now I can drive through L.A. and there you are (in ‘Boardwalk Empire” billboards) looming behind Steve Buscemi in period garb. Is there a conscious effort to try to turn some of that energy to get people to look at ‘Take Shelter?’
Shannon: Definitely. I would hate for it to sound like I’m using one project to try and benefit another. I love all the work I do in equal measure. I’m doing something like ‘Man of Steel’ right now, and I’m having a blast doing that. It would be lovely if, because of that work, it helped me get financing for some of these smaller films.
If the people from ‘Take Shelter’ could plaster you up that ominously all over L.A., I’m sure they would. …
Shannon: I think one of the reasons Jeff didn’t say right away, ‘I want you to play Curtis,’ because at the time they wrote the script, it would have been probably hard from the beginning for the budget if I was playing Curtis. It sucks when you’re in that situation: You try a few things to make it so that you’re a viable option, and it seems like I’m heading in that direction, hopefully.
You two certainly have this mutual level of respect — is it, to a certain point, faith? Do you know he’s going to have good stuff for you to do?
Shannon: Oh, yeah. I would have been in ‘Take Shelter’ regardless. I would have played one of the guys at the bar. I want to work on everything that Jeff works on. He’s actually working on his next movie (‘Mud,’ with Reese Witherspoon) right now — he might even be shooting already. I might — fingers crossed — be able to do a cameo in that. I don’t want to sit one out.
I do just want to ask about one other film on your resume, with recent events: Do you wish there had been more of an audience for ‘The Missing Person?’
Shannon: Oh yeah. To me, that is tragic, what happened with that film. I’m not going to lie: I think Strand Releasing really dropped the ball on that one, big time. Part of the problem with that release is that — depending on where you saw the movie — sometimes it was so dark that you could hardly see the image on screen. They didn’t make any cranks; it was all just digital projection, but if you’re going to do that, you really need to know what you’re doing. I remember going to the premiere in New York and everybody scratching their heads saying, ‘Is it supposed to be this dark?’ Me sitting in the audience going, ‘No, it’s not,’ and trying to figure out what was going on. They didn’t blow any wind into the sails on that movie, that’s for sure. It seems like it’s having a life on DVD and DirecTV or whatever.
Whenever I think of buying a brown suit, I think of that film.
Shannon: I loved that script. When I read that script, I thought, ‘This is the most interesting examination of 9/11.’ I’d worked on ‘World Trade Center,’ which is much more fact-based, this-is-what-happened, and it’s a very beautiful and inspiring story, what my guy did, Dave Karnes, going in there and finding those guys. But ‘Missing Person’ was very dear to me. It was hard: That was low-budget, and we really had to grind it out. I was so happy with the final product, and then when it didn’t get out as much, it was criminal, I thought.
The other thing about ‘World Trade Center’ — it’s a great performance — I don’t think Dave Karnes ever blinks. All I could think is A) this guy is really selfless, and B) the e.e. cummings line about ‘How do you like your blueeyed boy, Mister Death.’ When you read something, do you know if it’s going to be a movie where you’re going to look off to the horizon a lot with that thousand-yard stare?
Shannon: When I read that, I’m not going to lie: I was incredibly intimidated to do that part. I think any actor in their right mind — being honest — would say I’m absolutely nothing like this human being. I don’t have one thousandth of the courage or strength or determination that he has. When Oliver said, ‘You’re the guy,’ I kept saying, ‘Are you sure?’ I had to do it. Somebody had to play the damn part. I watched all the interviews with him on the morning talk shows and stuff. It’s funny because once I was in my Marine uniform, we were down in the Wall Street district shooting one of these great shots where I’m walking down one of the narrow streets by myself. It was a beautiful shot. There’s this janitor across the street from the building. I was in my fatigues, and he shouted across the street like, ‘Hey, no man, no.’ I’m like, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Your sleeves, man. You don’t have those right. I’m a Marine; you’re not a Marine. What are you doing?’ He came over and fixed my sleeves like, ‘You’re supposed to roll them up to here. There’s supposed to be like this; you’re supposed to be like that.’ I was so embarrassed. I was like, ‘I’m sorry. This is how the costume person did it. I don’t know.’ Once he got me sorted out with my uniform, I was good to go.
A couple months ago, I was driving in LA, and crossing the street was this older gentleman in gray linen shorts and a pink polo and a gray sweater. I thought, ‘That older gentleman looks great,’ and then I realized it was Terence Stamp. I said, ‘That older gentleman looks great because he’s General Zod.’ That’s nearly 30 years after the fact. Are you ready for 30 years of being General Zod?
Shannon: I don’t know. I can’t imagine my performance is going to be as iconic as his. I’m just starting shooting, so it’s hard to sit here and anticipate giving a legendary performance. I just try to take it one day at a time and not get overwhelmed by the hugeness of it on each scene as we go. I’d be perfectly happy to be remembered for anything 30 years from now. If somebody remembers my first name 30 years from now, that would be a great thrill.
It’s normally the practice that you interview the people involved with a film before its release; talking to them after — even as little as three day after release — can bring on an entirely different perspective. In Marc Forster’s “Machine Gun Preacher,” Michele Monaghan plays Lynn Childers — the wife of Gerard Butler’s Sam Childers, and the catalyst for his transformation form prisoner to preacher. Still, Sam’s transition — and Lynn’s life — go in very different ways than that simple synopsis suggests. We spoke with Monaghan by phone, touching on how you best play a real person, the challenges that “Machine Gun Preacher” faced in its first week in theaters, and which of her film’s she’d most like to return to.
With ‘Machine Gun Preacher,’ the one thing I’m wondering about is, in a lot of ways, your character kicks off the big philosophical turn of the film, and does so on screen. When Sam Childers comes home, Lynn says, ‘I’ve found Jesus, I’ve quit stripping, I’ve made an act of effort to change my life; you’re onboard or you’re not.’ Was that interesting to know you would have all of that to convey without the audience seeing any of it?
Monaghan: Yes, because it wasn’t just that. This is a woman that was conflicted. That’s basically the start of her arc, really. My challenge in playing her was really to show a woman that was completely torn by two worlds. This is the world in which she feels so compelled to support her husband, who’s doing great good in the world and continues to do that, but at the same time sacrificing her family’s needs and her needs as a woman and as a wife, as a mother. That was the challenge in trying to convey that and having to spend a lot of time with Lynn, that actually became very apparent to me in what tools she uses in her day-to-day life.
When you’re playing a real person, how much time do you spend with them? You want to absorb as much as you can while still leaving yourself some wiggle room.
Monaghan: That’s exactly right. We started off speaking on the phone, and then I actually went to Central City and spent a weekend with them. That time I spent with them was invaluable, because all the questions that I posed Lynn and having her be so forthcoming and honest with me — and they were tough questions, of course. Also, watching them as a couple and understanding their dynamic and what really keeps them together, that glue that keeps them together. They still, after all these years and considering everything they’ve been through, have a great passion for each other, great love for one another. The thing that binds them is their faith and their belief that Sam is doing God’s work and he’s really changing the world in a very great way.
Isn’t that one of the challenges of the film, that it’s about somebody who’s doing God’s work but may be skipping a few of the commandments? A lot of the times when we see faith depicted in films, it’s fairly pious, pacifist …
Monaghan: It’s exactly that; that’s the story we’re telling. We’re telling that story because it’s a provocative one and it really makes people question their own belief system. Whether you agree with it or you disagree with it, we’re just happy people are having a conversation about it. He’s a flawed hero; he’s not a perfect hero. He’s “fighting a war” in a land where there are not really any rules. There’s not a lot of positive things you can say about the LRA in terms of children and what they’re doing for them. Sam, the reality is he saved thousands of lives. He may have done it in a way that you wouldn’t do it or the person next door wouldn’t do it, but you can’t dispute the numbers, either.
The film turns into this really interesting moral calculus: What’s the ratio of lives saved to lives taken?
When you’re working with Mr. Butler, he’s got this size to him, this sense of mass. What’s it like running scenes with him?
Monaghan: He’s incredible. He really embodies this man with everything that he has. I think he’s lived with it for over a year, so when we started to film it, actually, there was a great sense of confidence that he had in Sam. He worked so hard. You can feel the aggression, you can feel the rage, you can feel the hope, the conviction — all of these things that Sam is, I could feel those with Gerry. He took everything very seriously. For instance, the preaching: You only see snippets of it in the movie, unfortunately, but the days that he would preach, he would preach for about eight hours nonstop. You could hear a pin drop. It was really incredible. I felt very fortunate to be able to work with Gerry on this role, because it was something he really believed in. We signed on to do the movie for all the right reasons, and it was a real labor of love for him.
Mr. Forster has had this career where he’s vacillated between these very dignified films, and then he’ll make a Bond movie. In many ways, this film is the perfect point between the two: It’s so drama-driven, but it does have these big widescreen moments of something like action. What’s it like working with him as your director?
Monaghan: He’s fantastic. I really admire Marc. I’ve been a great fan of his work, and I was so excited to get the opportunity to get to work with him. He’s one of the most calm, cool, and collected individuals I’ve met. He’s incredibly focused; he trusts his actors. He really guides you into a performance that you maybe didn’t know you were capable of giving or were prepared to give. He really understands the details of a performance, really specific, the nuance. It was such a pleasure to work with him; I hope I get to do it again and again.
Are you somebody who neurotically watches things like box office and reviews, or do you just go, ‘The movie’s out there, we’ll see what happens?’
Monaghan: That’s exactly right. I really like to use audiences as a gauge, although I know maybe critics haven’t really been really supportive of the movie. It’s their job to be critical, but I can tell you, I’ve watched this movie with audiences time and time again, and the impact that it has on them is extraordinary and it’s powerful and it’s moving. People want to know how to make a difference; people want to know what they can do. I’m extraordinarily proud of that.
It was recently announced that because there are no new ideas — people like to recycle things that have happened — that they’re developing ‘Source Code’ as a TV show, which sounds like an intriguing idea, but that made me wonder specifically, of your characters and of the worlds they’ve lived in, which one would you most like to go back to, just for fun, on the big screen?
Monaghan: That’s a good question. I loved ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.’
You’re going to make a lot of my movie friends happy. Basically, if Mr. Kilmer and Mr. Downey and Mr. Black said, ‘We’re going to make up some crazy reason for those characters to saddle back up’ –
Monaghan: I would be first in line.
Would it be presumably called ‘Kiss Kiss Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Bang Bang?’
Monaghan: Exactly. There’d be a lot of bang-bangs and a lot of kisses.
Austin, Texas — which pulls eccentrics and devotees of all forms of art like a siren’s call — is, not coincidentally, the home of Fantastic Fest, a sprawling-yet-intimate event dedicated to presenting the best in horror, science fiction, action, drama and anything else. as long, of course, as its fantastic. This is a film festival where a crowd howled for Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” — egged on by a substantial gentleman in a skimpy fox costume. This is a film festival where the Rza of the Wu-Tang Clan (presenting an award), Bill Pullman of “Independence Day” (presenting a film) and Elijah Wood of “The Lord of the Rings” (just, you know, man, chilling out) on the karaoke stage at the Highball, next door to the screenings at the infamous Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar Boulevard. This is a film festival where panel discussions start at podiums and end in a boxing ring, like last year when Alamo Drafthouse CEO and Fantastic Fest co-founder Tim League argued the merits of 3D with “Avatar” star Michelle Rodriguez before going a few rounds with her. We spoke with League in a two-part interview; this first part touches on the Festival’s shifting mission statement, the ideal mix of professionalism and blood, why horror films can have the hardest time finding an audience and more.
If people don’t know what Fantastic Fest is, how do you describe it in one sentence that doesn’t get you sent to jail?
League: Sometimes we like to say it’s a film festival with the boring parts cut out, but then we’ve added a few parts, too. That’s not a very good sentence. I think it’s a film festival that focuses all day long on having fun, both with movies and with parties and making an eight-day celebration.
Last year, you had everything from a live recreation of a radio play to a live theatrical production starring Jeffrey Combs as Edgar Allan Poe. How important is stuff like that to go outside the walls of a film festival — even in terms of entertainment, never mind things like the trips to the shooting range?
League: I think it follows our philosophy with the movie theater, because Fantastic Fest was born out of the Alamo Drafthouse and the programming we do at the Alamo. I would never have felt constrained by the idea that everything we did in the movie theater had to be movies. A lot of times, we like to think what can you do in a space, a gathering of people, that has a big screen and has audio-visual that can be fun as well, above and beyond the movies. We’re still first and foremost about celebrating great genre film, but I think you can have some tangential fun without actually stringing up the celluloid.
At a certain point, do people come to you and say, ‘I really want to see this because I hear it’s crazy,’ and what you’re thinking is, ‘Well, we are showing films; we are professional here?’
League: Yes. It is interesting, because I think some people come to Fantastic Fest and really focus on the parties and the day trips and the barbecue. The core of the audience, what we spend most of the year doing, is trying to be curating films that meet with our mission. We started out with the idea of doing this festival in part because of the somewhat perceived lowly state of genre film. We were thinking, ‘Wait a minute; these actually can be great films as well.’ Those are the movies that we try to seek out more than anything: Incredible storytelling that maybe just happens to have a little hint of blood and guts to it as well.
Just a little hint.
League: Just more than a dash.
You’ve been expanding; you’re doing things like the Fantastic Arcade, which is video game stuff. At what point do you go, ‘We’ve got this and we’ve got that; everything connects?’
League: We’re aware of the idea that one could grow to be too big. People have compared our crowd to a Comic-Con crowd. It’s interesting to look at the growth of what Comic-Con was 15 years ago to what it is now. We’re definitely not out to do that. In terms of capacity and size of the festival, we’re almost maxed out. We don’t want to expand beyond the walls of the Alamo Draft House on South Lamar, because we like the idea of everybody close, being in the same community, being in the same space together for a week and seeing what comes out of that. Additions like the arcade we do because they do feel natural. We see a parallel between the indie game development world to the indie filmmaking world. There’s a lot of similar ideas and aesthetics and processes at work. A lot of my crowd is a gaming crowd as well. There might be some other expansions that we could do, but at its core, we’re really always going to be a film festival that has some other things happening as well.
What films are you unequivocally the most excited about?
League: I’ll tell you what film I was really smitten by. This was at Cannes I saw it: A Belgian movie called ‘Bullhead.’ I don’t know if you’ve seen that one yet or not. ‘Bullhead’ is a first-time director and a new star who’s absolutely fabulous in the film. I feel like he’s got a Mads Mikkelsen quality to him. It’s a movie that centers around intrigue and espionage and illegal steroid use in the cattle processing industry. There’s a central character who, within the first 15 minutes of the movie, his testicles are smashed with a brick by a bullying neighbor kid. All throughout his life, he’s dealing with these masculinity issues, but he also gets addicted to steroids since that’s his business. It’s this ‘roid rage guy who’s very fragile and sensitive about his masculinity, but then it’s all intertwined in this plot of smuggling, steroid smuggling, in the cattle industry. I really love it. It was uncharted territory for me for a story line and great new talent, great new acting and directing talent.
It’s got to be tough to find stuff that’s going to work perfectly, yes?
League: There’s certain niches that we like to fill. A lot of times, we don’t really play that much straight ahead. Horror, for example: Frankly a lot of it just bores me, because you see the same tactic over and over again. We’ve all seen it before. That’s actually the most challenging category for me, is to find exciting new horror films. There’s a lot of horror films that are made, and we really only select a handful. It’s because we select things where it’s going in a slightly new direction.
What percentage of things you get sent are just horrible?
League: Horrible is probably about half of it, maybe. Then there’s the other 40 percent that’s relatively proficient but (with) nothing terribly new or interesting to say. The biggest problems are in the writing and acting more so than the technical side of things. Within the shorts and the features, we see maybe 1600 movies within the whole programming community, somewhere around there. That gets whittled down to 50 shorts and 70 features. Most of what we see is not that great.
Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury may have only two films to their credit — but when one of those films is conspired by your correspondent to be one of the best horror films ever made, 2007′s “Inside,” then that’s enough to get your attention when its follow-up, “Livid,” lands at the Toronto International Film Festival in the Midnight Madness section. “Livid” is a mix of blood and ballet, as a group of kids inadvisably try to ransack the house of a 100-year-old ex-ballet teacher who’s been in a coma — only to discover that she’s not really in a coma, and not especially human anymore. A mix of Sam Raimi, Dario Argento and “Black Swan,” “Livid” is a dark phantasmagoria — and a universe away from the knife-and-shadow realism of “Inside.” We spoke with Bustllo and Maury in Toronto.
I was at the 2007 midnight screening of ‘À L’Intérieur’ (‘Inside’) — and have never been more frightened in my life. And it’s great to see that that film from you guys, who have a history with such a great film at the festival, it wasn’t a case of you guys being last-time directors: You came, you conquered, you closed it out, and everybody went home terrified. Can you talk briefly on what that experience was like, having the film close out Midnight Madness in Toronto?
Maury: For us, it was first unexpected to be there, because it was our first movie. Since the beginning, it was just a small movie that we’ve made in our country, in France, and we never expected to be invited anywhere else than in France. When Colin Geddes sent us an invitation, it was like, ‘Wow, we’re going to travel; it’s so cool.’ We knew (Toronto’s Midnight Madness) has a good reputation, but we weren’t so familiar with it. It was like a punch in the face, because as we were expecting nothing, it was really wild. As I said during ‘Livid’ presentation, when it’s really honest, we’ve shown the movie worldwide, and it was the best audience we ever had. It was really wild; for a director-filmmaker, it was so exciting, so satisfying, because that’s why we make movies: To entertain and to tell stories to people and hear the crowd react so well was an achievement for us.
The atmosphere at Midnight Madness, is that great for you as a filmmaker?
Bustillo: Yes. Like I said during the presentation, it was like being in heaven. We went to the Midnight Madness for the first time four years ago. The smell of weed, a lot of people played with a beach volleyball. We don’t have this kind of stuff in France. All these guys were here to watch our movies at midnight, so it was really like being in heaven. Like Julien said, it was really, really incredible and maybe the most crazy audiences we had seen during the promotion of ‘Inside.’
It’s interesting you don’t have stuff like that in France, because there’s been this new wave of French directors doing stuff with horror. Where do you think that French new wave of horror came from? What do you think started that?
Bustillo: It came from the beginning of the cinema. The French invented the théàtre bizarre, the grand guinol. After the new wave, the nouvelle vague, French people and French filmmakers are following that as a trend from our culture and send this culture to the American people, English people. This new wave is not really a new wave in France; it’s a new wave in foreign countries, but in France it’s only two or three movies per year. We have Alexandre Aja, who’s now a big star in the US. Filmmakers like us, and our movies, but that’s all.
Maury: There is no positive energy in France. It’s really funny, because everyone here and in foreign countries we visit talk about this new wave of horror movies in France. It’s really aside from the outside. Inside, it’s really not like that. In France the audience, the producers, the journalists — nobody cares about horror and the fantastic. Nobody talks about it, and it’s really underground. Just because these kinds of movies are selling well under foreign countries, there is a big buzz about it. In France, it’s really hard to do horror movies — really. Nobody wants to hear about it.
People often think, ‘Oh, horror films are all the same; it’s just horror,’ as if it’s a big block of concrete. There’s a huge difference between ‘Inside,’ which is a crazy lady with a knife and in the real world, and the H.P. Lovecraft, Guillermo del Toro, weird fairytale that ‘Livid’ is. Did you guys know how far you were stepping away from what you had done when you wanted to make ‘Livid?’ Did you know that all bets were off in terms of filmmaking and the laws of physics, that it was going to go from suspense to a more magical, more supernatural bent-reality story?
Bustillo: For us, with Julien, we are a little bit fed up with ‘Torture Porn’ movies. The new French movies are (often) ‘Torture Porn.’ If you watch movies like ‘Inside,’ like ‘Captifs.’ Like ‘Martyrs.’ I said during the presentation that Julien and I are f##king big fans of Giallo movies and Dario Argento’s movies. Dario Argento is maybe one of our favorite directors. We never asked the question and said, ‘We must do ‘Inside 2.’ No, we just wanted to explore another side of the genre. ‘Livid’ was the opportunity to enlarge expression of the genre.
The other thing I would say — and I say this with nothing but kindness — if anybody said to me, ‘”Inside” is “Torture Porn,”‘ I would know they were an idiot. The reason I love ‘Inside’ — and I tell people it’s the best, scariest movie I’ve ever seen — is because it’s all character-driven. By the end of it, you know why that woman is there with a knife, you know why she wants what she wants, and it’s this very sad variation on the Nativity story, and it’s completely character driven. When you’re writing ‘Livid,’ do you go, ‘We have to make sure some sense of who these people are and what they want comes through?’ Does it start with the idea or with character?
Maury: Like ‘Inside,’ we tried to put a lot in the movie. Because we are young filmmakers, we don’t know if we are going to do another movie after that, and you have the feeling that it could be the last one. As we are a new side of the genre with ‘Livid,’ we try to put a lot in it. I think it was hard to handle because the budget was the same as ‘Inside.’ A little bit lower than ‘Inside.’
You got a lot for your money.
Maury: That’s what we tried. We tried to have something not cheap and quite trustful to our vision, but of course it wasn’t trustful. We only had one and a half million Euros, so it was really complicated. Our motivation was only to try to do a movie that we could pay for. It’s the only motivation. We never thought about what the audience is going to think about it. It’s just what would we like to see in the theatre. That’s how the story begins.
When you’re making a film like this and you start writing it, did you know you were going to shoot at that location, or did you have to run around France going, ‘We need a big, creepy house?’
Bustillo: The house we had in mind was a little bit different — maybe smaller — than the gigantic one we found. We were very lucky, because during the prep of ‘Inside,’ when we were looking at the house of the character of ‘Inside,’ it’s an absolutely usual house inside. It was incredibly fortunate to find it, because we found this house in one shot. After finding the house, it was so incredible, because the disposition of the rooms –
The floor plan, the architecture?
Bustillo: Exactly — was exactly the same of what we have written.
There’s a brief moment in the closing credits, a dedication or a note of thanks to Sam Raimi. If you were to say, ‘Okay, you want to be a horror filmmaker; you want to see how you can get a lot of power functionality for very little money. These are the three movies with the best budget-to-terror ratio,’ what is on that list?
Bustillo: ‘The Evil Dead,’ ‘Brain Dead.’ Scary for low budget — one of my favorite written — I don’t know the budget of this movie, but I think it’s a low budget — it’s an Australian movie, and it’s our reference for ‘Livid’ — is ‘Next of Kin.’ Do you know this one? It’s an absolutely creepy, raw movie. Our mention was grannies and that the mansion is haunted. You must see it. We are such f##king big fans.
Maury: I’m thinking, trying to remember the budget of ‘Halloween.’
It’s super cheap.
Bustillo: It’s super cheap. ‘Halloween’ is one of our favorite.
Are you the kind of guys who compulsively keep sketch books, and you’re like, ‘This is my design for the taxidermy creatures, the fish head creatures and the wolf head creatures. Here is the design for the clockwork ballerina girl’s back,’ or do you say to your production team, ‘We want a wind-up girl; go to it?’
Maury: The problem is that we have no talent at all for drawing. We would really love to be like Guillermo del Toro and have this sketchbook, like, ‘Wow, what a fantastic monster’ in two seconds. We have sketchbooks, but you don’t want to see it.
Mostly stick figures?
Bustillo: We were doing storyboards, but like Julien said, they are awful. They are functional, but they are not arty.
Maury: We draw, but we mostly use pictures for our art team, the creation. We show pictures from everywhere: From books, from whatever we find on the internet, from other movies. There’s a lot of influence.
Horror is a tough genre to direct actors in. You can’t say to somebody, ‘This is like that time you had a bad breakup,’ or, ‘This is like that time you had a bad day at school.’ You can’t say to somebody, ‘This is like that time you saw a 100-ear-old vampire.’ Is it tough with actors, directing them in horror? Is it more difficult because of the nature of the genre?
Bustillo: No, because in France it’s so unusual to do a supernatural movie, then for the actors, it’s equivalent for them. I’m happy to do something different. They want to do raw movies.
Maury: Of course you still have problems; it’s the same for a fresh director to express fear, especially when you work with young actors. As Alex said, the energy here, we just have to try to find good ways to keep that energy.That’s kind of easy.
Do you have an idea you’re working on, even now in your down time? When I leave, will you go, ‘I was just thinking…’ and it’ll be completely different from both ‘Livid’ and ‘Inside?’ And will you keep working in horror?
Bustillo: Yes, we will keep working in horror … because we are addicted.
Clad in a high-collared tan retro-dress and a pair of red-soled Louboutin shoes, Evan Rachel Wood is the model of a modern starlet as she talks about her role in “The Ides of March” — until she wants to talk about the paralysis of partisan politics in modern legislation. It’s rare to find the modern actor — regardless of gender — with a mind as clear as their skin, but Wood is that actor, and that intelligence — and, yes, a tempering hint of naiveté — is evident on-screen as she plays Molly, the Presidential-campaign intern whose romance with high-level campaign staffer Ryan Gosling opens up problems in George Clooney’s political thriller. We spoke with Wood in Toronto.
I feel like we can’t talk about the twists and turns of the plot too much because it might dilute the pleasures of the film for some people. When you were reading the script, were you going, ‘Oh my God?’
Wood: Absolutely. I didn’t see the play; I didn’t know the story. The storyline surrounding my character, there’s a lot of twists and turns that occur in that. I was shocked.
Do you feel like audiences won’t see it coming, either?
Wood: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of surprises in the film that no one’s going to see coming.
You’re playing an intern in a political campaign. Did you research that world? Did you get a taste of it? There’s documentaries and research materials, but did you go and look at that process and what it’s like or just go with what was on the page?
Wood: The story’s so great, the writing’s so great, it was really there. George gave a lot of the cast some great documentaries to watch, which show the behind-the-scenes with press on the campaigns and the interns. It’s a really interesting line of work, to get that close to a candidate and to see the evolution of where they go throughout the whole process. It’s clearly interesting. ‘Journeys with George’ was my favorite, I think. That’s an amazing documentary.
Your character is the lowest of the low on the food chain, but she’s also the daughter of the Democratic National Committee chairman. It’s the weird combination of privilege and lack of privilege. How do you play that?
Wood: I felt like my character has grown up in this world. It’s all she knows, so I think it was always assumed that this was what she’s going to do, and when she gets out of college she’s going to be an intern. She’s accepted this as her life. I think she’s still a 20-year-old girl and she’s still going to have her fun, and she’s not intimated by any of these men. I think she uses it to her advantage, really.
There’s an old and cynical line that politics is show business for ugly people. Did you find any similarities in the worlds?
Wood: Of course. I think a lot of politicians are some of the best actors in the world. You have to sell yourself to an entire country, you have to be entertaining, you have to be charismatic. That’s all like a show. I do see similarities, sometimes.
The film talks quite a lot about politics and idealism versus reality, campaigning versus the pros of getting elected. What could a candidate, regardless of party affiliation, say to you right now to earn your vote and your support in 2012?
Wood: I don’t know. I’m in a weird place where I think at this point it doesn’t matter who gets elected. I think the way this system’s built, they can’t govern the way they want to govern. It’s an uphill battle for anyone. I think a lot of things need to change, and I think people need to stop being so afraid. Things do need to evolve and need to change. I think we need to let go of some of our past ideas.
When you’re caught up in the madness of a film festival like this, is it very easy to forget about the actual work? When you’re busy doing press and worrying about what to wear, is the hubbub worth the hassle?
Wood: Absolutely. Something like this is fun. I’m so proud of this movie, and the cast is amazing. I love doing press and touring with these guys is amazing. I try to have fun with it, and it’s fun to play dress-up. It’s whatever.
After premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival to near-universal acclaim, the stars of “Take This Waltz” met the press — not Michelle Williams, but Seth Rogen and Luke Kirby (who respectively play Williams’ husband and could-be lover as she’s tempted by chance and desire) as well as Sarah Silverman, who takes on a role as Rogen’s recovering alcoholic sister. MSN Movies took part in a roundtable interview where we and other journalists spoke with the three about monogamy, working with Williams, comedy versus drama and why sex scenes require a member of the crew to hand out high-fives.
Seth, this movie shows a more serious part than we knew you before. How was it for you to play such a role? Was it freeing? It was freeing for us to see you in such a role.
Rogen: Why is it freeing? No, honestly, I approached it the exact same as I approach anything else. The process, honestly, was exactly like every movie I’ve ever done, really. Watching it’s a little different, because the end product is decidedly more dramatic than the other movies I’ve been in, but while we were making it, it didn’t feel any different than any other thing that I had done. We tried to be real and natural and serve the story as best as I can. I did the same thing. That’s what I always do.
Sarah Polley said today that she really cast you as one of the first people because the goodness came through. Doesn’t that give you a reputation as a –
Rogen: A@#hole? I think that’s part of the reason I can get away with saying all the horrible things I do say: You can tell I’m really not that bad a guy underneath this. Apparently.
I believe that the male audience will be rooting for your character. Do you believe that you’re more somebody that the average male viewer will identify with?
Rogen: Yeah, maybe. I think people tend to identify more with the person who’s in the unfortunate situation than the one who’s in the fortunate situation, generally speaking. That being said, I don’t think my character is really a victim in the movie. I think that he is part of the marriage that’s evolving, and he doesn’t really want to evolve. He’s accepted this is how it’s going to be forever, and his wife has not accepted that. They’re not communicating about that. To me, I think as far as mechanics of the movie go, you tend to sympathize with the person who’s in the disfortunate situation. My character probably could have prevented this whole thing if he was more willing to evolve with the relationship.
There’s a question of Mr. Kirby’s character, if he’s a sincere person or a horrible manipulator. Mr. Rogen, there’s a question if you’re more sinned against or sinning. Was that ambivalence being in the script a great amount of the appeal of doing the film?
Kirby: I don’t think that Daniel’s intentions are all sinister, that he’s pathological in any way. It must have sprung up from his own loneliness that he’s probably feeling prior to meeting Margot. I don’t imagine that he’s a very happy person before that. I think that the dawn breaks when he sees her and sees that she’s present with him. His intentions aren’t bad; he just feels something unleashes and he can’t carry on. It’s giddy; it sheds light on his world. How can you resist?
I only ask because I had a 20-minute long fight with a gentleman who had seen the film about whether or not you were the biggest dick in the world or if you were sincere in your aim.
Silverman: But that’s so great that the movie did that.
Rogen: I always hope my movies lead to physical violence.
You’re in a chapter in your career now where you have a lot of artistic control because producers add an addition to the acting a well. In Sarah’s filming, she has clear, distinct artistic vision for this film. You didn’t have the producer’s hat losing that creative control and having to follow the direction of this creative, artistic director. How did that change the way of going about your recent films? Did you like the lack of responsibility? Did you find yourself acting as a producer even though it wasn’t written on the contracts?
Rogen: No, I’m always happy to do less work than more work. Having one job on a movie is much easier than having three jobs on a movie. I’m more than happy to relinquish control, especially if it’s someone else’s thing. I expect the actors to have a similar attitude when they’re doing our thing. She’s very open. It’s not like she was controlling of every moment of the movie. She’s very collaborative, had a lot of conversations about the scenes and the lines. It never felt like we were just serving her vision. It felt very exploratory at times and that we were trying to find a vision together. I’m more than happy to not do a bunch of shit and do less shit.
Did you create a back story for your character? We don’t see your character as much, but she seems like a rich character.
Silverman: We had rehearsal, and Sarah was very careful to talk to each of us in depth about our characters. I’m sure I have a lot of notions about who she is that may not have transcended film.
Rogen: She skydives, right?
Silverman: She’s really into skydiving.
Rogen: I’ve picked that up.
Silverman: I actually made one choice, because I know people in AA fixate on simple things to obsess about, to go to. Chapstick was going to be that for me, but that’s all I got.
Did you embrace Toronto while you were shooting it?
Rogen: Yeah, it was great. It was a lot of fun shooting here.
Did you feel that Toronto comes through as an actual character in this film? I know Sarah was passionate about the city, and she tried to capture that.
Silverman: I love how vibrant it is, how colorful, and the places she decided to shoot and how she shot it. It was really beautiful. For people who haven’t been to Toronto, if they see this movie they’re going to want to go to Toronto. I love that street where the house was.
Rogen: Me too. It was a great street.
Silverman: The feel of it makes you want to live there. The neighbors sit out on the porch in the summer.
Rogen: And argue with each other really loud.
Can the guys talk about working with Michelle Williams in romantic scenes? She’s a very high performer, it seems. Is she like that when you work with her?
Kirby: She has a massive stillness to her that’s really engaging to be around, inside of the work. It is kind of cliché to say it makes it easier, but –
Rogen: It does.
Kirby: It does. Knowing someone’s available to you, it’s as good as having a really good partner in life. It’s the same thing inside of the scene. You know that that person’s there with you; it casts aside 50 percent of what you had to worry about. You don’t have to call upon any tricks or anything. You’re just inside of it.
She’s never done this kind of sex and nudity ever before. What was it like doing those erotic scenes with her? Was she nervous?
Kirby: Those scenes are always uncomfortable, because there’s at least 10 men in the room.
Rogen: That’s always how I do it. What’s weird about that?
Kirby: It’s exposing and very vulnerable. You try your best to maintain a sense of humor, I think, is the best thing.
Silverman: People don’t realize there’s a sound guy and there’s a camera guy and there’s the boom guy and this and that and then there’s the guy for high fives. There’s a lot set up.
Each one of your characters is in this stage of protracted adolescence: Mr. Rogen with the baby talk, Ms. Silverman with the grotesque selfishness of alcoholism, Mr. Kirby with hie ‘career’ driving a rickshaw …
Silverman: Somebody has alcoholism in his family. Someone’s been to Al Anon.
It paints the entire generation as this generation of permanent adolescence. Do you feel like that’s a fair charge against the generation you’re representing in this film?
Kirby: I don’t know. I know a lot of people in their 80s who get hammered and talk about Korea.
Silverman: I wouldn’t say alcoholism is a part of the kidult phase. It’s been around since alcohol.
Kirby: There is a quality that people who don’t have a privileged life, not to have a lot of uncertainty. There’s nothing else dictating. They can choose.
Rogen: I think movies in the ’60s and ’50s portrayed people as adults only, which was bullshit. I think now our movies are just more realistic. In the movies, they’re all wearing suits and hats and they talk very appropriately, and you know between takes they’re all doing drugs and fucking the shit out of each other. I think we just show that side more as opposed to the other, buttoned-down side, which was pretty much fabricated for movies anyway. I’m sure Rock Hudson had very similar before and after hours. He’s a good reference for that, right? That’s a very good reference for that, safe reference for that.
Silverman: I think that is a generation that exists right now, but I think that other generations that were more adult, I think we’re mistaking adult with not ever asking yourself, ‘What do I like? What do I want?’ Getting married and having kids and things that may not actually be your cup of tea. People forget to ask themselves that.
In “Ides of March,” Ryan Gosling plays a talented young political operative working under older and seemingly more-experienced peers like Phillip Seymour Hoffman and George Clooney, occasionally earning the upper hand; it’s not an entirely inappropriate metaphor. Gosling’s here at Toronto with not one but two films — “Drive” is playing the festival as well — and even with the festival serving as a fairly triumphant homecoming for the Canadian-born actor, he’s calm and relaxed when we talked about politics, preparation and how having George Clooney as your director means more than just working with the best-looking director you’ve ever taken direction from.
There’s an old and mean saying that politics is show business for ugly people. When you learned about this world for this film, did you see similarities between what you do and what these political consultants and campaigners do?
Gosling: There’s some similarities, but at the end of the day the decisions we make don’t kill anybody potentially. There’s no one’s lives at risk at our job.
How do you get that kind of gravity, that intensity that you have in the moments of a political campaign? How do you recreate that as an actor?
Gosling: I don’t know specifically what you do. I think that’s the trick is that you’re trying to get that. We watched a lot of these documentaries that were on the campaign trails: ‘Journeys with George,’ and there was one for the Obama campaign. We tried to keep watching those to give ourselves a sense of what the relationships were on campaign trails. At the end of the day, it’s not really a very accurate political film, because it’s not a political movie; there’s not a political message. It’s just a thriller that uses politics as a backdrop. It could be set on Wall Street or in Hollywood. …
When you’re watching Mr. Clooney at work, he’s assembled this great technical team like Stephen Mirrione, the editor. When you’re watching him direct — aside from the fact that he’s probably the best looking director you’ve worked with — do you look at him and go, ‘Yeah, I could maybe do that; this is something I could work towards one day?’
Gosling: He’s a very impressive guy. It’s hard to feel that way at the end of the day. You end up feeling like I could never do that. He’s writing, he’s producing, he’s directing, he’s starring in, he’s got his work in Sudan, he’s got three to five practical jokes in the works at any given moment, and then he’s checking scores on the game. He’s doing everything all the time. I could never do that.
Right now we’re in this incredibly tedious period of throat-clearing before the 2012 elections, even though it’s in the fall. Regardless of affiliation, regardless of party, what could a candidate say right now to earn your support and your vote for 2012?
Gosling: I don’t know. I don’t really like to talk about politics in this forum. I don’t think you should talk about politics in sound bites. Or I shouldn’t, anyway.
Politics so often gets distilled to bumper stickers, which is the worst possible medium for it.
You’re here with ‘Ides of March,’ and you also have ‘Drive.’ Is it half the work or doubling or cubing? Is it easier or harder?
Gosling: You have to apply the five rule. If it’s odd, you have to add a five. If it’s even, you add seven and a zero.
Having two films at Toronto, the only way to calculate the increased effort is to convert it to metric?
Gosling: (Laughing) Yeah.