John Carpenter Revisits ‘The Thing’ at the Aero Theatre

John Carpenter Dummy Magazine photo

“Escape Artist: A Tribute to John Carpenter” was held a few years ago by American Cinematheque at the Aero Theater. In addition to being treated to a double feature of “The Thing,” which is widely regarded as his best film, and “The Fog,” the writer, director and composer also showed up in between both films to give us more insight on their making and took questions from the audience. Even though these movies are now twenty to thirty years old, they still resonate deeply for movie fans today. This was proven true by the fact these screenings were sold out and packed with Carpenter’s biggest fans.

While “The Thing” was not a big hit upon its release, it has since developed a huge cult following and been critically re-evaluated as the masterpiece it always was. Eighty percent of the audience had probably seen this movie several dozen times, but they still jumped during its most shocking moments.

The Thing movie poster

After the movie ended, Carpenter came to the stage and was met with a standing ovation and thunderous applause. He thanked them for coming on out to see this movie when they could have just watched it at home. One fan in turn thanked him for coming on out to visit with us as he has millions of fans all over the world, and yet he chose to hang out with us.

Today, as the emcee pointed out, many are surprised “The Thing” was not a big hit when released back in 1982. Carpenter put it all the more bluntly:

“It tanked! 1982 was supposed to be the summer of love. It was the summer of ‘E.T.’ and it was the summer of freedom and hope, and ‘The Thing’ was about as bleak a movie as any that could have been released that year. People hated it for that, and all the sci-fi fans out there absolutely hated it and trashed it when it first came out.”

As Carpenter pointed out to actor and friend Kurt Russell on the movie’s DVD commentary, “We came out two weeks after ‘E.T.’ And while there’s was all warm and cuddly, ours was ugly and hideous.” Universal Pictures, which released both movies that summer, attempted to make it the summer of extra-terrestrials, but the timing did not work at all in Carpenter’s favor and it later cost him the job of directing the Stephen King adaptation, “Firestarter.”

One fan pointed out how “The Thing” was unique in a sense as it is one of the few Carpenter movies he did not compose the score for. While the score does have the Carpenter sound, it was actually composed by Ennio Morricone. Carpenter said Morricone is one of the greatest film composers ever, and he did point out there is one synthesizer piece of music which was not composed by Morricone. Now he wouldn’t say who composed it, but it’s safe to say he did, and in association with Alan Howarth.

Another fan pointed out several of Carpenter’s movies have been remade like “Assault on Precinct 13,” “The Fog” and “Halloween,” and a remake of “Escape From New York” is in the works. This fan said he found remakes blasphemous, and to this Carpenter replied, “I actually find it flattering. They also have to pay me a lot of money when they do that.”

Dean Cundey, director of photography on “The Thing,” worked on several of Carpenter’s movies including “Halloween.” Carpenter has not worked with Cundey for some time now, and one man asked why and if there had been a falling out between them. Carpenter replied they have not fallen out, and he recently caught up with Cundey at a movie shoot in Canada. Carpenter did, however, point out why they haven’t worked together for a while, “Dean wanted to be a director. And when you have a director on a movie, and a director of photography who wants to be a director, that’s just not going to work out.”

Everyone who knows Carpenter knows he is a big fan of westerns, and he recently recorded a commentary track for the special edition release of “Rio Bravo.” Many wonder why he still hasn’t directed a western of his own, and Carpenter replied he honestly didn’t know but that he came close several times. The closest was when he wrote the script for “El Diablo” which was made into a cable movie that earned him a Cable Ace Award. If you look closely, all of his movies do have western elements to them. The closest he has ever gotten to making a western is “Vampires” with James Woods.

Many also wondered, and it was asked, what future projects he has on tap and of what his current passions are. His reply was, “Current passions? I’m playing Ninja Gaiden, I just got Metal Gear Solid 4 for PlayStation 3… No seriously, I have a couple of things I’m looking at doing, so we’ll see what happens.”

Before he left, he did have some things to say about “The Fog,” “I have heard that the print for this movie is not in the greatest shape, and that it is pretty faded. But keep in mind that when we made this movie, we made it for only $1 million dollars, so please be kind.”

Exclusive Interview with Sean Combs on ‘Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A Bad Boy Story’

Sean Combs, a.k.a. Puff Daddy, is many things in life: a rapper, mogul, actor and businessman whose strong work ethic came about when he was a young boy. Following his time as an intern at Uptown Records, he came to form his own label, Bad Boys, which became a highly influential foundation for hip-hop and developed the careers of many artists including the late Notorious B.I.G. Combs’ image in the media, however, has been constantly pigeonholed into something which is not altogether true, and with the documentary “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A Bad Boy Story,” he looks to correct this so the world at large can see him for who he really is.

Directed by Daniel Kaufman, “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” shows Combs at his most open and vulnerable as we learn how he became a millionaire at the young age of 19 and learned to navigate the real of corporate business. We come to see how the Bad Boy family he helped bring about filled his need for a family as he felt he never really had one before, and discusses how his world was forever shattered when the Notorious B.I.G. was murdered. We also see Combs get a Vitamin B12 shot right in the butt, and if this doesn’t show open he is willing to be on camera, then I am not sure what will.

“Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” also documents the Bad Boy artists reuniting for a 20th anniversary concert at the Barclay Center in New York which was put together in a mere three weeks, an insanely short schedule for any show to be assembled in. Among the artists, some of whom have not performed live for years, include Lil’ Kim, Mase, Faith Evans and Mario Williams among others.

I was lucky enough to speak with Combs while he was in Los Angeles, and we talked about how challenging it was for him to let go of the control he has over his image for this documentary. In addition, he also discussed the fun he had in sending up his own image in “Get Him to the Greek” and, in echoing what Nina Simone once said about being free means having no fear, admits to the place he finds himself being the most fearless in.

Please check out the interview above. “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A Bad Boy Story” opens in Los Angeles and New York on June 23, and it will be shown exclusively on Apple Music starting on June 25.

Can't Stop Won't Stop documentary poster

Exclusive Interview with Tim Smit on His Directorial Debut, ‘Kill Switch’

Tim Smit photo

Acclaimed writer, director and visual effects artist Tim Smit makes his feature film directorial debut with “Kill Switch.” Based on his short film “What’s in The Box?” which gathered a large audience on YouTube, it stars Dan Stevens as physicist and NASA pilot Will Porter who is recruited by Alterplex, a power company which has built an enormous tower designed to harness unlimited quantum energy. The company’s vice-president, Abby (Bérénice Marlohe), informs Will a mirror universe has been created solely to drain energy from, and he is sent into it with a device called a “Redivider” which will balance the power between the two universes. But as you can imagine, nothing goes quite as planned as the mirror universe proves to more than anyone thought it could be as Will finds himself on the run from drones, soldiers, and people he is no longer sure he can trust.

“Kill Switch” takes place in a future version of our world, and it is largely a POV movie as we see much of the action from Will’s eyes as he struggles to say alive in an especially hostile universe. I talked with Smit about the movie’s origins, how the story evolved from a short into a feature film, and of how he was able to create a visual effects heavy movie in just 18 days and on a small budget.

Kill Switch poster

Ben Kenber: I really like the way this movie is set up because you are thrown into this story to where you cannot help but be gripped by everything going on. You’re not sure what is happening and, like Dan Steven’s character, you are desperate to find out. When conceiving “Kill Switch,” did you know how the story was going to end, or did you just start off with the idea and went from there?

Tim Smit: We knew that, when I did the short a couple of years ago, the box was going to be used as sort of a kill switch for destroying a parallel universe meant for energy harvesting. But we never really knew the full arc of the story before we hired the writers to get involved, so it took a while to get to the point we ended up with. It was interesting and a very steep learning curve for me to work on this as a conceptual arc as a writer and also as a director, and of course the visual effects too. It wasn’t fairly clear, but we got there as we developed the kill switch idea.

BK: The screenwriters you hired for this project, Charlie Kindinger and Omid Nooshin, what would you say they brought to this story which wasn’t in your short film?

TS: What they did is they fleshed out the characters much more than we already had in the original short. But they also wrote the dialogue and they did the screenwriting of the story. It was a difficult movie to write because of the whole POV aspect. It’s difficult to tell a story through POV. Also, we did have, for that reason, to introduce the whole flashback storyline to help us with that, and to help provide a rest for the audience so that they do not get POV tired. So, they focused on that the feeding of information so the audience knew enough to keep going with the movie, and they were more associated with that than the base idea.

BK: I did watch the short “What’s in The Box?” which led to the “Kill Switch” feature film, and the whole idea of the parallel universe is something which has been explored in science fiction constantly such as the “Dark Mirror” episode of the original “Star Trek” series. What inspirations did you draw from when putting together the short and the feature film?

TS: So, the main inspiration behind it was a couple of things actually. Visually it was inspired by a couple of video games because this was always meant to be sort of an homage to video gaming, and we used various inspirations like “Half-Life,” “Halo” and games like that. From a physics standpoint, the idea for the parallel world came from the concept of Schrödinger’s cat, a thought concept where you got a box and in it is a cat with a poison. If you keep the box closed, you don’t know if the cat survived because the poison still has a chance to kill the cat. You only know the cat is dead when you open the box. So, this is kind of like the idea for the initial mystery where you’ve got this black box and you don’t know yet what it is and you don’t know what it does, but it triggers you to go along and see what it ends up doing. So, the whole idea of Schrödinger’s cat was the main inspiration behind the short and the box as a MacGuffin.

Kill Switch POV still

BK: The POV shots reminded me a lot of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days” which also had them. When you put those shots together, did you have a set of rules you wanted your collaborators to follow during shooting?

TS: Yeah, we did a couple of things, some of them worked better than others, which we wanted to explore. One of them was, most of the time, we wanted to see the other actors. As a rule of thumb, we wanted Will Porter to be running behind the other characters so you can actually see what’s happening. So that was something we took into consideration while we filmed this because you are kind of used to the main character taking the lead, but in this case, he’s following them because otherwise it would be difficult to see them. It’s a very simple thing you have to keep in mind, and that was one of the rules we followed.

Kill Switch Dan Stevens

BK: Did Dan Stevens have to do any camerawork himself for the POV scenes?

TS: No. Obviously I would’ve loved to have used him, but we just didn’t have the budget for him for all the days. So, we just hired him on some of the days where he would be the voice, and of course on the days where we would shoot conventional scenes. Our DOP was basically the character, and then Dan came in later and did the ADR for the character.

BK: The special effects are actually pretty good for a low-budget movie like this. We see objects like train cars falling out of the sky. Did you set any rules for yourself as to what kind of objects and vehicles could fall into the echo universe?

TS: So, we focused initially on metallic objects just because that made it easier to create for us. The idea was that this parallel world is being arched for energy, but somehow the original world is fighting back as the universe is trying to balance itself out, and it does so by pulling over objects from the original universe into this echo universe. The rule of thumb was the first thing to be pulled over was small metal objects for various reasons, but you can figure out in physics that there are only four main forces, and one of them is electromagnetic. It is not inconceivable that something like metal will react first or that something else will react to metal first. It made easier for us to make these objects fall down. It’s harder to do entire buildings or something like water. It was a compromise, but I felt it worked from the basic physics ideas as well. We see this boat falling from the sky, it’s not metaphorical.

BK: The whole idea of an echo universe is interesting because the characters say there is not supposed to be any organic life in it, but we can see from the start there is.

TS: Yes, that’s what I like about the movie as well. It’s not as fleshed out as it should be, but the idea is that this company didn’t care. They were just interested in creating this echo universe, and they are telling us that it’ll be fine and there will be no organic life, but they don’t care. They just care about the energy, and of course they didn’t expect it to be that intense or of the rebellion that arrives. But I kind of like that idea of what are your priorities as a company. These huge oil companies are pretty much going across the line, and that’s what drew me to this story as well. That was something I could really personalize.

Kill Switch Berenice

BK: Dan Stevens has a very challenging role because he wasn’t on set too much, but he still had to get to the emotion of what is characters going through. Also, Bérénice Marlohe has a wonderfully intimate presence throughout the film. How did you come to cast both these actors?

TS: It was amazing to work with these two. The great thing about Bérénice and Dan is that they are both so interested in science fiction, and they are both really interested in broadening their own horizons and trying to do something new. It’s an experiment, this film. Let’s be honest, you don’t see a POV movie every day. It’s an attempt to do something new especially with a director that’s also doing all of the effects. It was an experiment on multiple levels, and they were committed and went for it, and that’s what I really appreciated about them. It was a very difficult movie especially for Bérénice because she was acting against I camera where there is no reaction, and most of the enemies are CG. It was very demanding for her to do, but she gave it her best and gave it everything she had. We had 18 days to do everything.

BK: 18 days? That’s very impressive especially for a science fiction movie.

TS: It was something I underestimated when I started working on this. I was experienced as a visual effects artist, but I wasn’t experienced as a character director. You would think shooting this movie, even though it was 18 days, would’ve given you a whole set of problems and obstacles to get over, which we had. But even after it was all done, that’s when the real challenge started. You would think that after having a number of years of the effects experience that it would be easier, but it was actually the other way around. It was very difficult for me to combine the directorial duties and the effects duties at one point. You can get so involved in the technical part that you get sort of a tunnel vision and you still have to be the director. There is the reason why the director is separate from the visual effects department because that makes the movie better.

Kill Switch vessel

BK: “Kill Switch” takes place in a future which seems not too distant from our own. We never get an exact date of the time the movie takes place in. Was that intentional on your part?

TS: Yeah, actually it was, but sometimes in the movie you do see the date on the newscasts, but it was never deliberately mentioned. I felt, in my mind, the movie was in the near future, but the concepts we are introducing we do not have access to in the near future. The problem with going further into the future is your design and your world view changes, and the budget doesn’t allow that. If you really want to know which year it was, it was actually 2043. So, it was further into the future, but not that far. It was a budget reason.

BK: You studied natural sciences as a student. Did those studies inform the science of this movie?

TS: Yeah, the studies did help. A lot of people wonder why I studied natural sciences if you wanted to be a filmmaker, but the way you were trained as a scientist really does help in making movies. There’s a certain amount of problem solving that you are used to which is really helpful as a director, and the visual effects that I did, they tend to be of a physical origin. With physics, you are trying to explain or describe the real world. With visual effects, you are kind of doing the opposite. You are using formulas to create a fake or, at least, a realistic looking fake world. To me, that is really fascinating and the physics background helped in doing that.

I want to thank Tim Smit for taking the time to talk with me. “Kill Switch” is now playing nationwide at the following theaters:

Laemmle Monica Film Center, Los Angeles

Cinema Village, New York

AMC Rio, Washington, D.C.

AMC Methuen, Boston

AMC Southfield, Detroit

AMC Arizona Center, Phoenix

AMC West Oaks, Orlando

AMC Ritz Center, Philadelphia

AMC Woodridge, Chicago

AMC Town Center, Kansas City

Poster, stills and trailer courtesy of Saban Films.

Click here to visit the movie’s website.

Jennifer Grey and Jason Reitman Revisit ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ at New Beverly Cinema

Ferris Bueller Jennifer Grey

On Friday, February 19, 2010, Jason Reitman began his program of movies at New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. The first double feature of his program was “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Election,” great movies dealing with high school and teenagers in an intelligent way and which star Matthew Broderick. “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” was one of John Hughes classic films from the 1980’s which everyone has seen at least nine times. Reitman remembered wanting to see it with his dad when it first came out, but his father, Ivan Reitman of “Ghostbusters” fame, was busy shooting “Legal Eagles” and couldn’t get away from the set. They ended up going to the movies later, but instead they watched “Big Trouble in Little China,” John Carpenter’s ode to martial arts movies which was not as successful, but later become a beloved cult film.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off poster

Reitman said he considers “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” to be Hughes’ love letter to Chicago. Indeed, Chicago does look very beautiful as shown here. These days, it’s rare to see it without snow covering it. Richard Belzer has a brilliant quote when he played John Munch on “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “Chicago has two seasons, winter and St. Patrick’s Day.”

Reitman saw Ferris Bueller as the guy who knows everyone is dying from a terminal disease. Knowing this, he lived every day as if it were his last. He then went on to say “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is a movie about people dying, and the last moment of joy anyone has comes at the end of the parade when Broderick is out shaking his bod to The Beatles’ version of “Twist and Shout.” The acclaimed director was serious about this and even said, “If you came out of this movie happy, THEN YOU MISSED THE ENTIRE POINT!”

Before the movie began, Reitman brought out a special guest, Jennifer Grey. She played Jeanie Bueller, Ferris’ largely unpleasant and infinitely resentful little sister. Grey would go on to become a big star when she starred in “Dirty Dancing” opposite the late Patrick Swayze. Reitman said he asked Grey to come just this morning, and she was very gracious to appear at such short notice.

Grey warned Reitman upfront she smoked a lot of pot during the movie’s making, so she doesn’t remember a lot of it. However, during her brief time with Reitman, she did remember quite a bit, so maybe all the smoking helped.

One of the big revelations was that Grey admitted was never really a big fan of Hughes before she got cast. She had just seen “Pretty in Pink” which he wrote the screenplay for but didn’t direct, and she declared she didn’t get it. As a result, Grey went into the audition not really caring if she got the part or not. She didn’t even try to hide her attitude towards Hughes when talking to him about how she didn’t really care for his films. It was this attitude which got her cast as the bitchy little sister of Broderick’s iconic character.

Another big revelation we learned was Hughes and Broderick were always at odds with one another, and the tension between them was always high. Broderick found it very hard acting to the camera, one of the signature devices of this movie. Grey also said Broderick was “very slow” in putting a performance together, and this was certainly the case when he played Ferris. It got to where Hughes was constantly waiting for Broderick to start giving him what he wanted, and there were points where Grey said Hughes leaned over to her and said, “Is he ready now? Is he warmed up? Is he gonna give us ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs?!’”

Still, Grey recalled her experience of making “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” as being “heaven on earth,” and she felt very safe with Hughes as a director to where she never felt self-conscious about anything she did. She admitted she loved every single experience she had making this classic, and she even developed a big crush on Hughes, describing him as being a “Baby Huey.”

Reitman asked how Charlie Sheen got cast as the drug addict who befriends Jeanie Bueller while waiting at the police station. Grey explained she was the one who got Sheen involved as she had just done “Red Dawn” with him. There was actually a lot of improvisation during the police station scene, and Grey said the moment where Jeanie says some people call her Shawna was born out of that.

One of the questions really burning on Reitman’s mind was what it was like for Grey when she worked with “her brother.” Broderick and Grey were actually dating for a time during this movie’s making, and she replied the only time you see her character and Ferris together in the same room is at the very beginning and right near the end.

Before the movie started, Grey finished by saying Hughes did such a great job in capturing the voice of the time and of teenagers in general. She pointed out what we all came to see, that Hughes very much understood the gravitas of being a teenager and of how difficult and frustrating those years can be.

It was great to see Grey come out for this special screening of one of the best and most entertaining movies of the 1980’s. Reitman went on to say we all must be wondering what became of Ferris Bueller after he graduated from high school. There was always talk of a sequel which would show Ferris as a burned-out executive of some corporation, and a day off from this kind of job is always welcome no matter what day of the week it is. What did Reitman think? For that, he said to check out Alexander Payne’s “Election.”

 

 

Exclusive Interview with Ira Sachs about ‘Love is Strange’

Ira Sachs photo

Ira Sachs’ previous films have dealt with the dangers of being in love and how it can feel like an illusion, but his latest film “Love is Strange” has him dealing with love in a more positive fashion. It focuses on a gay couple, George and Ben (played by Alfred Molina and John Lithgow), who have been together for over 30 years. When gay marriage is made legal in New York, they finally get married and are super excited about starting a new chapter in their lives together. But things quickly change for them quite drastically when the Catholic school where George teaches decides to terminate his employment upon discovering he married Ben, and this forces them to spend time apart for the first time in years as they search for cheaper housing.

I very much enjoyed talking with Sachs over the phone while he was doing press for “Love is Strange.” The movie not only chronicles the challenges these newlyweds face, but of the impact that their situation has on the family and friends closest to them. During our interview, I asked Sachs how he goes about keeping his characters in the movie down to earth, why he decided not to get political considering the issues involved, and why he decided this time to make a different movie about love than he had previously.

Love is Strange movie poster

Ben Kenber: This movie has such a wonderfully organic feel to it. How do you go about keeping the characters in the story feeling so down to earth?

Ira Sachs: That’s a nice question. I try to be as open as possible to my collaborators and to the city and to the situations that are in front of me. I think of directing as not so different to acting in a way in that my job is to listen and respond organically and authentically, and you have to do that 1000 times a day when you make a film. But if you situate yourself in a place which is most open and attentive, you have to be very observant as well. I think it creates something that has the organic feeling you’re describing.

BK: John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are both brilliant in this film, and they have been friends for a long time. The rapport they have together onscreen feels just wonderfully natural. Did you have to do a lot of directing with them, or did you just let them loose?

IS: We made a pact, the three of us, that we were going to create a certain kind of texture for their relationship that was going to be different than what either actor had been asked to do in a long time. There was a level of realism and naturalism and simplicity that the roles called for. These are really modest man, Ben and George, but they maintain a confidence as individuals that I felt was very much what I witnessed in John and Alfred, and I wanted the film to share that confidence. So we had this kind of agreement that everything would be kept to a very delicate tone, and both actors are known for their larger qualities in terms of performance. What I wanted to do was rein that in, and I think that allowed for some new things to appear.

BK: What I really admired about “Love is Strange” is it could have been a polemic about intolerance and that, even with gay marriage now a reality in many states like New York, we still have a way to go for achieving equality in life. But this movie is more humane and very objective in how it views the different forces which threaten to tear these two characters apart.

IS: My interest as a director is to depict the intricacies of relationships and of intimacy, and that includes romantic relationships as well as family and community. In this case it also includes the city of New York. I set out to make a romantic film about New York. I’m also as a director at bit of a historian meaning that my job is to be accurate about the time that I live as well as my characters, so the kind of pulled from the headlines quality just gives the film shape in a certain way. I like to think of myself as a neo realist, someone who is interested in making the ordinary of everyday lives extraordinary. For me that should in addition also include some amount of documentation of the details of these characters’ lives in a way that’s very specific.

BK: One performance in particular I really wanted to point out was Charlie Tahan’s who plays the temperamental teenager Joey. It’s always great when you get an exceptional performance from a child actor because they are not always easy to get, and the character has a nice arc throughout the movie. What was it like working with Charlie?

IS: Well, to me he is the revelation of the film because we don’t know him, and what we’re actually discovering is the birth of a great, great actor. I felt like there was conversation when we were shooting the film about Leonardo DiCaprio in (“What’s Eating) Gilbert Grape;” it’s that kind of performance. It’s so open and so honest and so raw and so easy. There’s just this ease and I think that was something that impressed all of us, more experienced filmmakers and actors on set, about Charlie was how naturally it came. He is an experienced child actor. He’d been in “Charlie St. Cloud” with Zac Efron. He was the voice of the kid in “Frankenweenie” so he worked with Tim Burton. He wasn’t plucked from nowhere, but he came in and gave an audition that was breathtaking.

BK: Charlie said you really knew how to write for kids and that you really understood them and what they went through. Did Charlie stay close to the script and was there anything specifically that he added to it during shooting?

IS: Well the script is a blueprint for the emotions you hope to reveal, so actors add everything. I’m quite specific about the script and it is a very written film and it’s constructed through the screenplay, and yet I search for a kind of emotional improvisation on set that has to be very, very fresh and real. So I don’t rehearse my actors before we start shooting. We talk, we spend some time with each other, but I’ve never heard the line said nor have the other actors. What it gives the movie is a kind of freshness. I think two words that should be banned from the set are “subtext” and “motivation” because when you’re speaking to those things, you’re trying to pin down the impossibly ineffable of any one moment.

BK: Another performance I really loved in this movie was Marisa Tomei’s. Not only does she bring a naturalness to her role, but she’s also able to communicate so much without saying a word. What was it like watching her pull that off?

IS: She’s like this quiet storm because she’s so focused as an actress. There’s a scene where she has no dialogue and she’s in bed with her husband and she’s got a lot on her mind, and as a director you just watch and you think, “She’s writing paragraphs for me.” She thinks so much while doing so little. I think what was exciting about this role for Marisa, and I think what makes people connect to it, is that she was allowed to play a woman of her experience and her intelligence, and she wasn’t asked to do anything other. In this case, Marisa is the fulcrum of the story; she’s the generation in the middle. The film is really about these multiple generations: the older couple, Marisa and her husband (played by) Darren Burrows who were very much in the middle of their lives, and Charlie Tahan who’s playing in adolescent learning about love for the first time. But it all kind of centers on Marisa and she is in a way a stand-in for me, the artist who is watching these things and trying to figure out how to act.

BK: Your previous films “Delta” and “Keep the Lights On” tend to deal with love as an impossibility or an illusion among other things, but “Love is Strange” sees it in a much different light. What made you decide to do a story on love in this particular way?

IS: I think I’ve changed a lot in the last 10 years. My previous films were all about characters trying to understand themselves, and they were films of self-discovery. I think it was very much what I personally was involved in, trying to understand who I am and become comfortable with who I am, and that took a long time. In my 40’s things have been different and I feel much more at ease, and I think that has created the possibility of new kinds of relationships. I’m married and my husband and I are raising children, but it’s not just the kind of signifiers that imply change. It’s something much more internal, and I think the film is about the internal qualities of love which are so distinct for each of us.

BK: Since this is a low budget independent movie, I imagine you had very little time in which to shoot it in. How did this affect you overall as a filmmaker?

IS: I’m a producer on all my films as well as the writer and director, and I always create the situation where I have the economic means to create the aesthetic objects that I need so my sets are very calm. I’ve made films that cost $200,000 and I’ve made ones that cost multi-million dollars, and the experience is not too different. If you’re doing your job right as a filmmaker, you have what you need.

BK: Regarding Alfred Molina’s character of George, it’s interesting because the Catholic school he teaches at doesn’t seem to mind his relationship with Ben much until the two of them get married. Later on in the movie, George has a great line where he says, “Life has its obstacles, but I’ve learned early on that they will always be lessened if faced with honesty.” What inspired that line?

IS: I think it speaks to the heart of the film. The film is in some ways about education with a small e. What do we teach each other? What is our responsibility? How as a culture do we carry on our values? What do we share in relationships and as parts of family? Also, the film speaks to how loss impacts individuals not just in terms of rights but in terms of experience. You can imagine George as a teacher being somewhat, to me, like what Alfred Molina is as a person which is you want to be your best self around him, and those are the kinds of people that I have known whether it be my parents or… I was very close to a sculptor who was 99 when he died, and at 98 he began his last work which was of a teenager with his backpack, and to me the idea that he was reaching for creative opportunities at that age was something I could learn a lot from. I feel that the film talks about those kinds of educations, and I think that when you’re young you don’t realize that your parents are people and that your grandparents are also. I think this film is about perspective and how we begin to recognize that people in our family are actually human beings with their own stories.

I want to thank Ira Sachs for taking the time to talk with me. “Love is Strange” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

Photo courtesy of the New York Times. Poster courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Exclusive Interview with Alfred Molina about ‘Love is Strange’

Alfred Molina Love is Strange

He has played a variety of characters in movies like “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Prick Up Your Ears,” “Boogie Nights,” “Spider-Man 2” and “Not Without My Daughter” to where it seems like he can play anybody (and he probably can). Now Alfred Molina takes on a more intimate role in Ira Sachs’ “Love Is Strange” where he plays George, a Catholic school music teacher who, as the movie starts, marries his lover of 39 years, Ben (played by John Lithgow). They have a joyous ceremony, but once word reaches the school of George’s wedding, they subsequently fire him. This leads to a great deal of upheaval in the newlyweds’ life as they are forced to sell their apartment and spend time apart for the first time in years as they search for more affordable housing. The situation weighs very heavily on George to where he feels like he’s failing Ben and everyone around him.

It was a great pleasure to speak with Molina while he was doing press for “Love Is Strange.” It turns out that he and Lithgow have been friends for many years, so the fact that they have great chemistry onscreen should be no surprise. In addition, I also asked Molina about how sees the world of independent filmmaking today, why Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus” inspired him to become an actor, and of what it was like to shoot this film without any rehearsals.

Love is Strange movie poster

Ben Kenber: Since you and John Lithgow have been friends for a long time, did the chemistry you two developed onscreen come easy to you?

Alfred Molina: Yes, it did. I think the advantage of being friends with John, having had a relationship as friends, helps us both in a way. For me, it just meant there was shorthand already in place. There was an ease and a rapport and a relaxation between us that was very easy and also very conducive and helpful for the roles we were playing. I think we would’ve still enjoyed the fact that we are friends if we had been playing adversaries in a movie or a good guy, bad guy. But the fact that we were playing a couple in a long-term relationship, I think our history as friends only helped and sort of aided that.

BK: What I really liked about this movie is that what the characters go through is quite ordinary, but it takes on a different feeling here. We don’t see enough movies these days about regular ordinary people, and the problems the characters go through here feel quite epic.

AM: Yeah. People lose their jobs, people lose their homes and it’s always bad news. But it happens very often for the most trivial of reasons, and I think the fact that Ira Sachs and (co-writer) Mauricio Zacharias created a couple who, by their very ordinariness, when this crisis happens to them, it takes on epic proportions. And like most crises that happen to ordinary people it becomes huge because normally in our own lives we don’t have the power or the means to overcome them quite so easily. It takes time and I think the fact that George and Ben are, for all intents and purposes, a very ordinary and a very anonymous couple adds to the strength of this story.

BK: I also wanted to congratulate you on receiving the Spotlight Award from the Creative Coalition at Sundance for your work in independent films. How do you think the world of independent films is faring today? Has it gotten easier to make them or harder?

AM: Well, I think it all depends on one’s perspective. Independent moviemaking is always a challenge. I think whenever you’re working on projects that don’t have immediate commercial appeal and you’re working outside of the studios, especially on low budget films where you’re really scrambling to raise $2 or $3 million to make a movie or however much it is, you’re working under all kinds of restrictions and challenges and the biggest one of course being time. You don’t have time. You very often don’t have time to absorb any mistakes or any accidents or anything that happens that kind of works against your schedule, so it’s always a challenge. But I think the fact that there are so many independent movies finding an eager audience means that there’s something being done right and well. There is an audience out there for good stories. There’s an audience out there for well-made, well-crafted, sincere movies about real people in real situations, and I think the reason why there’s an audience is because of the way cable TV, for instance, has welcomed movies. So many directors and writers and actors are now working on cable shows because that’s where some of the best movies are being made where young directors are getting the chance to make their films and tell their stories. The relationship between the product and the audience has changed a lot. There was a time when you were working on television that you were very much the guest in someone’s house. But now cable has changed all that because you’re paying for it. Also, our TVs have gotten bigger so it’s like watching a movie, and if you’ve got a 50-inch screen in your front room, the ratio is pretty typical of a small movie house. You can be watching movies at home and I think that changes the dynamic between the product and the audience, and there’s an audience out there for small films. The independent industry lurches from one crisis to another, and in those ups and downs there’s some great movies being made.

BK: I’ve talked with a lot of indie filmmakers recently and they usually get a shooting schedule that’s 30 days if they’re lucky, but those schedules keep getting shorter as time goes on.

AM: That’s right, yeah, because making movies gets more and more expensive. But there will always be an independent director, writer, actors who want to continue to work in that milieu because ultimately that’s where the most interesting stuff is happening. I can only speak for myself, but I think that’s where the best films are being made.

BK: Your character of George has a great line in this film where he says, “Life has its obstacles, but I’ve learned early on that they will always be lessened if faced with honesty.” I think it’s very interesting in that George teaches at a Catholic school and has for many years, but the school doesn’t always respect the individual that he is.

AM: Absolutely, and I think that’s a great shame for anyone who’s in the same position as George; losing your job or losing your home or being chastised by society in some way because of who you choose to love and who you choose to spend your life with. As a heterosexual that’s something I’ve taken completely for granted. I can take it for granted that I can love whoever the hell I want and no one can stop me, but my gay friends have only recently begun to enjoy that right. So I think that’s why lines like that in the movie are terribly important and very, very resonant not just for gay men and women but for everybody. I was talking today with John (Lithgow) about how… He’s only been to a few gay weddings in recent years, but we both found them incredibly moving. Weddings are moving anyway. Anybody who confidently stands up and says I want to spend the rest of my life with this other person is making a very dramatic and a very moving and emotional statement, but when it’s two gay people you know that it’s not just full of the romantic and emotional power of the moment. It’s full of years, sometimes decades, of struggle to reach that point, so it has even more significance.

BK: That’s a very good point. In recent years, we’ve had movies like this and “The Kids Are All Right” which are about gay couples, but the fact the couples are gay becomes irrelevant because they deal with the truth of what married life is like and the struggles which come with it.

AM: You ask anyone who’s active in any kind of human rights or equal rights campaign and I’m sure they would say that their ultimate goal is to no longer have to have conversations like this where one sexuality is no longer relevant. Whenever I come across any kind of vaguely homophobic sentiments I’ve gotten to ask people, “When did you first realize that you were straight?” It’s amazing the reaction that gets because they don’t know how to answer, and the truth is that no one should have to put up with being asked that.

BK: I once read that you said you have to believe in what you’re saying in the same way your character does. Whether it’s Mother Teresa or Adolf Hitler you’re playing, you have to portray them honestly and accurately regardless of whether they were good or bad. A lot of actors like to change material to where it suits them better, but I liked what you said because it goes the fact that the part is not about you, it’s about the character you’re playing.

AM: I’ve always regarded my job as being about serving the character regardless of who the character is. At a certain point taking on a job and then once you signed the contract and taken the money then saying “oh by the way I don’t think my character would say this” or “I don’t think my character would be like this,” that’s a conversation that one should have before you sign the contract and take the money. Once you have committed to something, you should be committing to the same things that everyone’s agreed on. Just as an act of creativity, you’ve got to give the same amount of dedication to whether you’re playing Adolf Hitler or Mother Teresa.

BK: I also read you were inspired to become an actor after watching the movie “Spartacus.” What was it specifically about the movie which inspired you so much?

AM: You know, I don’t know myself. It was so long ago and I must’ve been about nine years old when the film came out. I just remember coming out of that film just knowing that’s what I wanted to do. I don’t mean I wanted to be a gladiator, but I just wanted to be doing that; making films, being in films. I’m not quite sure what it was that prompted that, but it was a very powerful feeling.

BK: There were no rehearsals of scenes when it came to filming “Love is Strange.” How did this affect you as an actor?

AM: Well it was an interesting process really because normally you have rehearsals and work things out. I would hate for you to think that it was due to a lack of preparation; it wasn’t that. Ira Sachs, our director, came to the project impeccably prepared. What he didn’t do though was that he didn’t have us rehearse the scene and then play into the camera what we had rehearsed. He just wanted us to go into the take with the camera running and to just discover it in the moment. That was a very refreshing way to work, I loved it. I’m looking forward to doing it again. It’s very rare that directors give you that kind of freedom and also, given the fact that we were under the severe constraints in terms of time and money, it worked out well.

BK: “Love is Strange” seems to give the audience a very unique look at New York whereas other movies tend to portray it as a crime ridden place among others things. Would you say this movie gives a more accurate view of New York than other recent films have?

AM: Well, I think it’s as accurate a view of New York as any other movie. I don’t think the view of the city that the movie has is a negative one by any means. The city looks beautiful in this movie especially in that last sequence with that sunset and the two young characters on their skateboards. It’s a beautiful, beautiful ending to the film. Because it’s the most photogenic city in the world, any film that takes place in New York has to deal with New York as a character in the film. There’s nothing nondescript about New York. It’s a unique looking place. No other city in the world looks quite like it, so I think it’s something any filmmaker has to embrace.

BK: The interesting thing about the way Ira Sachs frames this movie is that it could’ve taken a huge political stance but he doesn’t which feels quite appropriate. He’s not taking issue with anybody, but he’s takes good observations of the Catholic doctrine and how it affects certain people.

AM: Yeah, absolutely. It’s not a political film; it’s not a diatribe on the state of gay culture or the Catholic Church. It’s a domestic story. It’s a love story set against some real events that happened to real people, and I think it makes some very wry observations about the city and about New York real estate and about the conditions a lot of people live under. It’s not a message movie. What drives the movie is a kind of deep humanity.

I want to thank Alfred Molina for taking the time to talk with me. “Love is Strange” is available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

 

Gregg Araki Grows as a Filmmaker with ‘White Bird in a Blizzard’

White Bird in a Blizzard movie poster

With “White Bird in a Blizzard,” Gregg Araki deals with the life of an adolescent once again. Based on the book of the same name by Laura Kasischke, it takes place in the 1980’s and stars Shailene Woodley as Kat Connor, a young woman whose mother ends up disappearing from her life. This happens at the same time she is discovering her sexuality with the next-door neighbor, Phil (Shiloh Fernandez), and she doesn’t seem too phased by her mother’s sudden absence. Her father, Brock (Christopher Meloni), has long since become a complete wimp, and his emotional repression prevents him from dealing with this situation in a rational manner. We follow Kat as she goes from high school to college, and eventually, she comes to see just how deeply affected she was by her mother’s disappearance and becomes determined to find out what happened to her.

Many of Araki’s films deal with the lives of teenagers, and he deals with them in a way which feels both honest and emotionally raw. “White Bird in a Blizzard” is the latest example of this, but while it deals with similar themes, it also feels somewhat unique to what Araki has given us before. He appeared at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California for the movie’s press conference, and I asked him if his view of adolescence has evolved much from one movie to the next. Araki replied it definitely has.

Gregg Araki: Back in the 90’s I did a series of three films (“Totally Fucked Up,” “The Doom Generation” and “Nowhere”) that I have become sort of famous or infamous for that were kind of a trilogy about being a teenager. It was called the “Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy” and they were very unhinged in a way and a little bit chaotic. I made those films 20 years ago and I definitely feel like in that time I’ve become older for sure and I think more mature and I’m more developed. I don’t really think I had a film like “White Bird” in me then. The analogy I make is that in this film I did called “The Doom Generation” which is also about young people, those kids have no parents. They have no house and they have no family; it’s just these kids doing crazy stuff. And in this movie Shailene does play somebody who is 18 and Shiloh (Fernandez’s) character is 18, and so they have their teenage moments and they meet in a Goth club and dance and they have that sort of carefree youth about them. But at the same time, this film is so much more about the family. Kat’s relationship with her mother or father, her parents’ marriage and just that whole world that, to me, like “American Beauty” or “The Ice Storm,” is about the world of the American dream and what is underneath the surface of it all. To me, that’s much more this film than my earlier movies about young people.

It’s always great to see a movie which takes adolescence seriously, and “White Bird in a Blizzard” does qualify as one. It also allows Woodley the opportunity to give another great and honest portrayal of a teenager just like she did in “The Descendants” and “The Spectacular Now,” and it shows how Araki, even at the age of 54, still truly understands what teenagers go through. But moreover, it shows how far Araki has come as a filmmaker, and it will be interesting to see where his career goes from here.

“White Bird in a Blizzard” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

Here is a video interview I did with Araki, Woodley and Chris Meloni which I did for the website We Got This Covered.

George Lazenby on Why He Played James Bond Only Once

George Lazenby as James Bond

More than 40 years after “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” was released, George Lazenby still has the dubious distinction of having the shortest tenure as James Bond. To many, he’s the joke of the franchise and referred to by others as “the one that failed.” Whether or not you agree with this, everyone still wonders why he ended up starring in only one 007 movie. Did critics rip his performance to shreds in the press to where it was too painful to continue? Did he have other plans? Well, he told a sold-out audience at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood why his tenure as Bond lasted only for a single film.

Lazenby said he does and doesn’t regret doing more Bond movies and that, after all these years, he still doesn’t know why he got the part. The producers did, in fact, want him to play Bond again and even offered him a contract to do several more. The 70’s, however, were just around the corner (“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” was released in 1969), a time of long hair and bell bottoms, and his agent informed him the Bond franchise would not last beyond the 60’s. Although we know this was clearly not the case, Lazenby listened to his agent.

Lazenby also admitted he was happier as a model in Paris and didn’t like getting up early in the morning. When the movie was released, he had already grown a beard to hide from the public. But once he became unrecognizable, he had a little trouble getting into the premiere.

The things Lazenby did enjoy included going to fine restaurants whose owners invited him back and said, “The check’s on us.” It also got him instant access to nightclubs where he fearlessly jumped onstage with the dancing girls as if it were perfectly allowable. At one club he even told the head bouncer, “Send the girls to my place for a drink!” Now he didn’t think the bouncer would honor this request, but sure enough, there were 20 girls waiting for him and his buddies at the hotel. The next morning, four of them were still hanging around.

Albert R. Broccoli remarked that had Lazenby done more James Bond films, he would have been seen as the best actor to have portrayed 007. While many still consider him the least of the Bond actors, he still has many fans who considered his performance in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” terrific, and he still holds the record for being the only Bond who could perfectly throw his hat onto the hook. To quote a line from the beginning of the movie, “This never happened to the other fellow.”

George Lazenby Reflects on Playing 007 in ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’

On Her Majestys Secret Service movie poster

After all these years, George Lazenby is still the only actor to play James Bond in just one movie, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” While nowhere as respected as Sean Connery or Daniel Craig, Lazenby still has his share of fans who gave him a standing ovation when he appeared at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. The evening’s moderator, Stephen Rubin, proclaimed Lazenby was a “terrific James Bond,” and if he had to do just one Bond movie, he picked the right one to star in.

After five movies, Connery quit playing Bond as he had grown tired of what he described as “impossibly long schedules.” Lazenby was not the first choice to replace Connery as he had no acting experience other than doing commercials, and Lazenby claimed he got considered for Bond when the late Cubby Broccoli spotted him at a haberdashery getting a Connery-like haircut.

Directing this 007 adventure was Peter Hunt who apparently got the job as a Christmas present from the Broccoli family. Lazenby described him as tough and that he got his way most of the time. He also admitted lying to Hunt about being an actor, and when Lazenby later told him he wasn’t, Hunt went crazy and fell down on the floor laughing. Once he composed himself, he told Lazenby, “Stick to your story. I’ll make you the next James Bond!”

The two of them, however, had a falling out on the first day of shooting, and Lazenby said Hunt didn’t speak to him again for nine months. According to Rubin, Hunt’s challenge in getting a performance out of Lazenby was to “piss him off.” Rubin also remarked how tough the last scene must have been for Lazenby as it’s the most emotional in the Bond franchise, and Lazenby said he did one take with tears and that Diana Rigg, who plays Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” bit him to get the desired emotion in another which he said wasn’t needed.

One thing’s for certain, Lazenby’s work in the action sequences was nothing short of excellent. On top of holding several black belts in martial arts, he credited a lot of his toughness from living in Australia where you “smack your mate.” Sounding almost Russell Crowe-ish about his birthplace, Lazenby said he could take care of himself once he got the first hit in, and back then he was too stupid to be afraid.

Regarding his fellow cast mates, Lazenby said Rigg thought he was a “complete idiot,” and she got pissed at him after he beat her in a game of chess. She also didn’t want him mucking around with other girls during filming, a promise Lazenby admitted he was unable to keep. He was discovered having a tryst with a receptionist, and when asked if she was memorable, Lazenby replied, “She was!”

Telly Savalas played Bond’s arch nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and Lazenby described him as a “great guy who loved to gamble.” When Lazenby got a raise from $100 to $1,000 a week during shooting, Savalas saw his money and asked, “Hey, do you play poker?” Lazenby also said Savalas used to bet everything he had including his house.

Even if Lazenby is still considered the worst actor ever to portray James Bond, it certainly didn’t seem to be the case considering the standing ovation he got upon entering the Egyptian Theatre. He gave us a 007 at his most relaxed in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” and this makes his interpretation of the role the most unique in the long-running franchise.

Michelle Monaghan and Ron Livingston on the Making of ‘Fort Bliss’

Fort Bliss movie poster

Claudia Myers’ “Fort Bliss” deals with something we don’t see much in movies: the challenges of being a female soldier and a single mom at the same time. The movie stars Michelle Monaghan as U.S. army medic Maggie Swann who has just returned home after serving a tour of duty in Afghanistan. But instead of arriving to greet her son Paul (Oakes Fegley) at the air base, she instead finds him back at home with his dad, her ex-husband Richard (Ron Livingston), and stepmom, and he doesn’t really remember her much. From there, Maggie works to repair the bond between her and Paul before her duties in the military threaten to tear them apart yet again.

Both Monaghan and Livingston dropped by the SLS Hotel in Los Angeles, California for the “Fort Bliss’” press day, and it was fascinating to hear about their experiences making this particular movie. This was a very low budget production, so there wasn’t much time for anyone to waste. I always wondered how actors deal with the lack of time because we are led to believe they are used to working on movies which allow them to take a nap in their trailers between takes while the crew sets up for the next shot. But while having fewer resources can seriously affect some actors, Monaghan and Livingston did not let any limitations stand in their way.

“There’s something really exciting about the idea that they just don’t have time to micromanage you in your performance, so there’s a lot more responsibility to just show up,” Livingston said. “Your first take on it is gonna be the take that goes into the movie by and large unless it’s really egregious because there’s not a lot of time to waste tinkering with it, you know?”

“It is true that you don’t have a lot of time to play with it,” Monaghan said. “I think that’s why the prep time becomes so essential for an independent film. It’s your responsibility as an actor or a director or a writer to really play your part. You can’t just turn up and expect all these experts to show you something on the day. That’s really, really important. That’s a part of our job, and also we shot this movie in 21 days. It was so incredibly exciting because we were living, eating and breathing it. We shot in two different locations in and around Los Angeles and then Fort Bliss (in El Paso, Texas) with the help of the Army. With all their resources, the production value looks by far more than what we had for it.

“21 days with combat sequences is pretty incredible,” Livingston noted.

Again, I imagine some actors would have preferred to have more time to prepare for the roles, but they don’t always have that opportunity. When it comes down to it, they have to work with what they are given instead of complain about what’s working against them. For Monaghan, the fact there wasn’t a lot of down time on the set of “Fort Bliss” didn’t affect her too much.

“There’s not (a lot of down time), but I always tend to find that I feel the strongest about performances in general when they’re shot in that way because you’re in it,” Monaghan said. “You are in the thick of it, and to say that I go to sleep at night and dream about the character and the role, you are. It’s 21 days where you’re attacking it for that period of time, and you don’t have time to think about it. Good things tend to come from that.”

One of the best scenes in “Fort Bliss” comes at the beginning when Maggie and dozens of other troops are returning home from Afghanistan. It looked like the production succeeded in hiring the best background extras they could find as they looked so incredibly enthusiastic in welcoming the soldiers home, but it turns out there was a lot more authenticity involved than we realized.

“When you see the coming home scenes at the beginning, it was truly people of soldier’s families, military wives, husbands, and children that two days prior had just welcomed one of those big planes home,” Monaghan said. “Fort Bliss sent out an email saying, ‘Would you guys come back two days later to shoot a scene?’ So they brought back all their signs and it was amazing. The military band was there and even the Harley Davison guys came back and all the former vets with their bikes and everything. Everybody was so proud to be there. That’s so profound to be able to have that experience and to feel that energy of what it’s like and everybody hugging one another. To be able to have that access and that resource was so invaluable. We constantly had that throughout the process of filming. I say this film has been so blessed, but it has. I’m so grateful to everybody in how far reaching the efforts that everybody has gone to.”

“Fort Bliss” may be coming in under the radar, but it is truly deserving of your attention. It deals with the female perspective of war and how women still have a stigma attached to them whenever they serve in the military. Many expect women to stay at home and be a mother to their children instead of fighting wars overseas, but life continues to be more complicated than we expect it to be, and nothing is ever that simple.

You can also check out this video interview I did with Monaghan and Livingston which I did for the website We Got This Covered.