Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino Look Back at ‘Dirty Harry’

Dirty Harry poster

Of all the movies Edgar Wright selected for The Wright Stuff II Film Festival at New Beverly Cinema, “Dirty Harry” is the one he has watched the most. Wright screened a nice print of the 1971 classic along with another movie called “The Super Cops,” and joining him to talk about it was filmmaker Quentin Tarantino.

They started off riffing on trivia about how the original title for “Dirty Harry” was “Dead Right,” and how it was first going to star Frank Sinatra who later pulled out when the 44-magnum ended up injuring his wrist. It also turned out the late Irvin Kershner, who directed “The Empire Strikes Back,” was the first choice to direct the movie (Don Siegel eventually took the job). Tarantino and Wright also talked about how actor Albert Popwell played a different black stereotype in each “Dirty Harry” film except for “The Dead Pool,” and they both wished he played the mayor in that one.

For Wright, what he loved about “Dirty Harry” was the grittiness of its main character and the atmosphere of San Francisco. On the DVD for “Hot Fuzz,” Wright did a location tour where the film was made, and he even checked out the deli where Eastwood was filmed eating a hot dog when the bank robbery took place. As for the film’s score by Lalo Schifrin, he declared it his all-time favorite saying it marked the birth of “acid jazz.”

But much of the treasure trove of information came from Tarantino who said he first saw “Dirty Harry” when he was five or six years old, and he described it as a “political lightning rod” upon its release. Apparently, it got a lot of crap thrown at it by liberal critics who didn’t want a police fascist solution as well as from right wingers who got freaked out by Scorpio and the ills of society.

The way Tarantino viewed it, however, “Dirty Harry” does have a solid agenda. When Andy Robinson played Charles “Scorpio” Davis, there had never been a villain like him before in movies and, the term serial killer had not really been coined yet. The agenda was for there to be new laws for new crimes, and “Dirty Harry” was screaming for those new laws. Scorpio was not your average villain, and that he got such a kick out of his crimes was easy to see. There was no cure in store for such a psychotic character like this one.

Both Tarantino and Wright agreed “Dirty Harry” really holds up after 40 years. Much of this is due to its sequels treating the iconic character more as a superhero than a regular human being.  With “Magnum Force,” Tarantino felt it was made more for critics of the first movie than its audience as it preached against its predecessor and the character itself by having Harry go after those taking the law into their own hands. This was the same deal with the other sequels, but “Sudden Impact” is the lone exception. Wright remarked at how, along with John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” “Dirty Harry” has one of cinema’s most perfect endings which was eventually ruined by sequels.

They also talked about Siegel who had already been around for a long time before he directed “Dirty Harry.” Siegel was a B-movie genre director from the 1950’s and a Hollywood craftsman who eventually became an auteur. For the most part, Harry Callahan represented the quintessential character of his films; the cop who takes the law into his own hands. Even after directing the 1971 classic, Siegel would continue to have a long and healthy career in films, eventually reuniting with Eastwood on “Escape from Alcatraz.”

Tarantino also described “Dirty Harry” as the single most ripped off and imitated action movie of the 1970’s. He even gave a list of every single movie which stole from it: “McQ,” “Newman’s Law,” “Nightstick,” and everything from Cannon Films. The similar thing about the ripoffs was they lost all the political subtext which made “Dirty Harry” such a strong film. It became all about going after some big drug dealer or crime syndicate, and there was nothing political about that. When it came to 1970’s movies, the only others which were stolen from as much were the ones starring Bruce Lee.

“Dirty Harry” apparently also boasts the first homosexual date in cinema history as seen through Scorpio’s scope rifle. Tarantino said it was the first instance of unforced male sexuality in movies, and he still remembers the audience laughing at this scene when he first saw it. Back then he thought the audience wanted this couple killed, pointing out how they were not as enlightened as we are today, and that they were culpable for their “sinister intentions.”

Hearing these two great filmmakers talk about this Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood classic made for one of the most interesting evenings I have ever spent at New Beverly Cinema. A new generation of audiences will look at “Dirty Harry” differently and may see it as tame compared to plethora of serial killer movies we see today. With the popularity of “The Silence of the Lambs” and the “Saw” movies among others, serial killers have long been the norm in American cinema, so the accomplishments of the 1971 classic threaten to seem diluted as a result.

Thanks to Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino, we are reminded of “Dirty Harry’s” place in cinematic history and how it opened doors not just for Eastwood, who made the transition from westerns to other films, but for so many other movies as well for better and for worse.

John Carpenter Looks Back at ‘Escape From New York’ and ‘Escape From LA’

John Carpenter Escape From New York photo

“Escape Artist: A Tribute to John Carpenter” continued with the exploits of Snake Plissken in the double feature of “Escape From New York” and “Escape from LA” at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica. These films featured some of the collaborations between Carpenter and Kurt Russell who first worked together on “Elvis.” They quickly became great friends and went on to work together on several other films including these two and “Big Trouble in Little China.”

The emcee warned us that the print of “Escape From New York” was pretty faded as it was an original print and the only one American Cinematheque could get their hands on. This was being generous as it looked like it had been slaughtered by countless film projectors, and the color was faded to where everything looked pink. It is astonishing it didn’t break apart in the projector. Still, the fans still enjoyed watching the film, one which they have seen hundreds of times before. They laughed when “1997 NOW” came up and when Lee Van Cleef speaks into this enormous cell phone no one would have today, let alone in 1997.

After “Escape From New York” ended, Carpenter came to the stage and was greeted with another thunderous standing ovation. Carpenter quickly acknowledged the crowd by saying, “Thank you for coming out to see the movie tonight, but I got to tell you this is the worst fucking print. My fucking God! There’s no color in it!” The audience laughed loudly as they were in complete agreement.

Escape from New York poster

The discussion started off with a question about the genesis of the project. Carpenter talked about writing the script back in the early 1970’s when there was a great sense of cynicism in America about our President and in response to the hostage crisis in Iran. He also admitted he was inspired by two of his favorite movies back then, “Dirty Harry” and “Death Wish.” Those two movies involved men driven to the brink emotionally and who took it upon themselves to wreak vengeance on those who wronged them. Like those characters, Snake Plissken gets the job done, and this brought a lot of satisfaction to audiences as nobody in the real world seemed to be accomplishing anything.

Carpenter said he initially wanted Clint Eastwood to play Snake Plissken. For one reason or another, it did not work out. He also said he had shopped this screenplay around to several studios which rejected it outright, but fortunately he had a multiple picture deal with Avco Embassy which had produced “The Fog.” Ironically, they wanted Charles Bronson for the title role. Somehow, everything came together when Russell got cast as Snake Plissken, and he portrayed the character as an asexual human being who cares about nothing more than staying alive. In the process, he created one of the most memorable anti-heroes ever seen in a movie.

Carpenter also talked about Lee Van Cleef, a favorite actor of his from Sergio Leone westerns, who played Police Commissioner Bob Hauk. Lee had seriously injured his knee during the filming of another movie and had never gotten it fixed, and as a result he was in constant pain while making “Escape from New York.”

With a budget of only $5 million dollars, “Escape From New York” needed to be filmed as quickly as possible. Carpenter said the rule of low budget filmmaking was to shoot as little film as possible and to make it as long as you can. In fact, there is actually only one real shot of New York in the entire movie which features the Statue of Liberty, and it pans from there and dissolves into a set in Los Angeles. A lot of what you see of New York in the movie are actually models and matte paintings done by artists from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, among them James Cameron. Much of the movie was filmed in downtown St. Louis which had had a huge fire that destroyed several city blocks. The city let Carpenter and his crew film there in triple digit temperatures, and they even shut the power down for them when they filmed at night.

Escape from LA movie poster

When it came to making “Escape from LA,” Carpenter had a budget of around $50 million to work with. But while he and Russell had more time and money, Carpenter said he had the hardest time writing the screenplay for it because he felt that everything he was writing was “bullshit.” What got him to revisit Snake Plissken was that Russell was so keen on playing the character again, and they solved their script problem by moving the action to Los Angeles which was in a constant state of denial with all the earthquakes and natural disasters occurring there. They simply took the same scenario of the original movie and updated it to reflect the current state of the city while filming.

“Escape From New York” may have had only one real New York shot in the entire movie, but all of “Escape from LA” was filmed in Los Angeles. The sequel was shot over a period of one hundred and three nights, and Carpenter said he found filming at night to be very “soul draining” as it changes the way you see things and the darkness infects you in a very unhealthy way.

One audience member brought up how at one point it looked like Carpenter and Russell might do a third movie called, “Escape from Earth.” This never panned out because “Escape from LA” unfortunately bombed at the box office. There was also supposed to be a video game based on the movies, but the company involved with it ended up going back to the past by resurrecting Pac-Man. There was even talk of a television series which would act as a prequel to the movies and even an anime movie chronicling the further adventures of Snake Plissken, but neither of those projects became a reality. Despite the box office failure of “Escape from LA,” there are still many people out there who are intent on continuing the exploits of their favorite antihero.

These days, Carpenter said he is content to sit at home and watch the NBA Finals or play video games. He told the audience he had just finished playing “Ninja Gaiden 2” and would be moving on to “Metal Gear Solid 4” next. It doesn’t seem like he is in a big hurry to make another movie, but this could change if the studios pay him a lot of money. Carpenter feels the movie business keeps changing on him, and he does not appear to be as enthusiastic about making films as he once was.

Carpenter closed out the evening by saying he had to go meet with his drug dealer. Before he left, the moderator gave him a gift saying Carpenter had given so much to us that he wanted to give something back. This something was the “Escape from New York” board game which is, apparently, the most complicated board game ever.

After the discussion ended, he did take some time outside the theater to sign autographs and pose for pictures with fans who still see him as a big inspiration. If you look at movies of recent years, you will see Carpenter’s influence over many of them both in their visuals and the music. To this day, he remains one of the important directors of the sci-fi and horror genre, and his cult following remains as strong as ever.

As the evening wore on, many came back inside to watch “Escape from LA.” The print was in much better condition, but this didn’t stop it from breaking down during the movie’s last seconds. For those who know how this sequel ends, it only seemed comically appropriate as Snake shut down… Well, you know.

Denny Tedesco and Company Look Back at ‘The Wrecking Crew’

The Wrecking Crew poster

The Wrecking Crew” joins the company of great documentaries like “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” and “20 Feet from Stardom” as it puts the spotlight on a group of musicians who have been in the background for far too long. The title refers to studio and session musicians based in Los Angeles, California who played anonymously on many famous records back in the 1960’s. During a decade dominated by The Beach Boys, The Mamas & The Papas and The Monkees among others, they were the ones who recorded the music we came to love so much.

“The Wrecking Crew” was directed by Denny Tedesco whose father, Tommy Tedesco, was a legendary guitarist who played with this group of unsung musicians. Tedesco started filming this documentary back in 1996 when he discovered his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer as he wanted to get as much of his father’s musical history on film for the record. From there, it became a celebration of musicians whose work resulted in the creation of many great songs. In addition, Tedesco succeeded in getting many interviews from stars like Cher, Nancy Sinatra, Mickey Dolenz, Glen Campbell and Dick Clark who shared their memories of The Wrecking Crew and of what they brought to the world of music.

A press day for “The Wrecking Crew” was held at The Professional Drum Shop in Hollywood, California, a famous location where George Harrison once bought a pair of drums for Ringo Starr. Joining Tedesco was The Wrecking Crew’s drummer Hal Blaine who came up with the group’s name, and its keyboard player Don Randi. While the documentary started playing at film festivals in 2008, it did not receive a theatrical release until 2015 due to the incredibly difficulty of licensing music for its inclusion here. I asked Tedesco how the documentary evolved from when he started shooting it in 1996 to when he finally got a rough cut together.

Denny Tedesco: Format wise, we started shooting in film, 16mm, because I wanted to be a filmmaker. My wife Susie and myself, she’s a commercial producer, had better access to the film cameras, but we also liked the idea of film. But years later I started to go to video out of necessity, and I realized that was much easier because now what I missed with film is a lot of great interviews. With film, you’ve got to have a whole film crew. When we started cutting I knew the beginning, I knew the middle and I knew the end, but when the first 30 minutes of the film were cut another director saw it and said, “Why are you cutting it like this?” And I said, “What do you mean?” Because I wasn’t gonna be part of this film at all. I was the director and I wanted to keep myself out of it. He said, “You’re crazy not to be a part of this. You have access that none of us have. What you’re cutting, we couldn’t do this. You should go the other way.” And that’s when I decided that I would try and introduce the film as myself and that this is the reason why I started the film; my dad’s passing away and I said this is the story of my father and his extended family, The Wrecking Crew, and that’s how I introduce all of these guys.

Tedesco, Blaine and Randi said all the musicians originally came from jazz backgrounds, but that they eventually found themselves playing rock and roll music as they could make more of a living this way. We get to meet each of these musicians, and one who stands out in particular is Carol Kaye not because she is the only female member of The Wrecking Crew, but because she is a truly gifted bass player. Randi himself described Carol as being very innovative and that she has a great ear for music, and she gave us all a respect for the bass guitar we should have today.

Hal Blaine: I have to make mention right here about Berry Gordy who was actually a neighbor of mine. We used to laugh at the limo that used to pick up this little, tiny child to take him to school every day. Eventually there were people out there saying they did all the Motown records, and we knew that they didn’t. We knew that we had done a couple, three maybe, but there were some people who claimed they did all of them. They will be nameless at this point. Berry Gordy, not very long ago, did an interview and mentioned the fact that the very first hits came out of his garage where he had a little studio, and then he became Twentieth Century Fox’s head of musical engineering. We did the first few (songs) like “Baby Love” and a couple of things and it was an amazing time, and I was shocked to hear Berry Gordy actually do this. Not coming clean, but just to clear up things.

Randi also shared a sobering story about The Funk Brothers, Detroit based musicians who performed the backing music to the majority of Motown recordings from 1959 until 1972 when the company moved to Los Angeles.

Don Randi: When we all went into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville, The Funk Brothers were there and The Wrecking Crew was there. We all went in at the same time and I sat with The Funk Brothers and they had me crying because there weren’t no contracts and they didn’t get the residuals. These guys are old and they don’t have that… Those guys worked their butts off for Berry, and when they first came out on the first date I did for them they went to pay us with cash, and I said, “Wait a second, we don’t do this.” And they said, “Well that’s the way we do it in Detroit. We pay cash.”

Well, hopefully all these musicians will get the respect they deserve when audiences watch “The Wrecking Crew.” It is a great celebration of the music we grew up on and of the artists who created it in the first place. While this documentary might look like it is riding the coattails of similar ones, it stands on its own and sheds a light on a piece of musical history we all need to know more about.

Danny Tedesco: All these other docs, thank God they came out. Thank God they laid the ground work and thank God they were successful. And I’m so happy because there is always another story. I tell people there’s so much information out there. You could interview your parents and you would get a great story and they should. There’s so much knowledge out there and I’m so glad that these different musicians… I’m lucky that I got them in their youth. If I had to do this documentary today, forget it. A lot of guys are gone and memories are maybe not as sharp.

The Wrecking Crew” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

Ben and Josh Safdie Discuss the Making of ‘Heaven Knows What’

Heaven Knows What movie poster

Heaven Knows What” is a movie which takes us into a landscape alien to many of us: the world of a drug addict. Arielle Holmes stars in a riveting performance as Harley, a homeless addict on the streets of New York who has two passionate yet volatile loves in her life: her boyfriend Ilya and heroin. We watch as they struggle to survive one day after another on the mean streets of New York, struggling with addiction and each other as Harley attempts to prove her love to Ilya in the most passionate and dangerous way possible.

The movie was directed by brother filmmakers Josh and Ben Safdie whose previous credits include the comedy drama “Daddy Longlegs,” the documentary “Lenny Cooke,” and the crime-drama “Good Time” starring Robert Pattinson. I got to speak with them while they were in Los Angeles, and they described the various elements behind this movie’s making in great detail.

“Heaven Knows What” is based on the memoir “Mad Love in New York City” written by Holmes. I was eager to read it after watching the movie, but it hasn’t been published yet. Josh explained why.

Ben and Josh Safdie photo

Josh Safdie: She has a few publishers who want to do it, but she’s like rethinking about how she wants to release it now that she’s done these two other movies and is now in the responsible world.

Ben Safdie: There’s a beautiful rawness to it. If you were to read the pages, it really feels like you were right there sitting next to her all the time and it’s beautiful. That kind of immediacy is also what really attracted me to it because first you hear about, oh, homeless person addicted to drugs. We’ve heard that story a million times. How do you tell that story in a new and different way? Her voice was that new way.

I came into this movie not knowing anything about its backstory, and I honestly thought Holmes was a highly trained actress as her performance is brilliant and mesmerizing. This, however, is not the case as she is not all that far removed from the addict we see on screen. She was a homeless addict for years but has managed to get herself cleaned up, and her performance in “Heaven Knows What” has earned her attention from many who want to make her a star. Both Josh and Ben described what it was like working with her.

JS: Her performance is incredible. You have to remember when you live on the street you’re performing on an everyday level. Whether you’re hustling this person or trying to get this thing out of that person, it’s a performance and a performative life. She was also moonlighting as a dominatrix where she literally was performing as a different character.

BS: One of the most difficult performances you can give is as yourself because you need to be able to understand what makes you tick and then be able to put that out there without any inhibition. And then that’s how you build other performances because if you can get at your core in its ugliest form, or whatever its form, you can build from there.

JS: Acting is just painting your personality a different color. I really was amazed. When I watch the movie now, as I get more and more distance from it just in terms of just having filmed it with a sense of making it, I watch Ari’s performance and I’m really in shock about it. It would take like six or seven takes to get the performative level because it would often start out with her enthusiasm level and how enthused she was to do the scene. Sometimes she was really in it and she would give us this incredible performance. Other times it would take 12 takes to get it out of her. It’s really a beautiful performance from her. And the guy, Caleb (Landry Jones, who plays Ilya), is an actor in Hollywood movies. That’s like the craziest performance because people don’t even realize that it’s a performance and they learn his real story that he is a Texan and that he was in “X-Men: First Class,” he was in “Contraband,” he was in “Antiviral,” he lives in Los Angeles. This is not him at all. Maybe there are traces of him in Ilia, but no, that’s not him.

What’s fascinating about “Heaven Knows What” is how it combines fiction with a raw cinema verite. It’s essentially a fictionalized version of true events, and yet it feels like we’re watching real life unfold right before our eyes. I asked the directors what it was like balancing out the fictional elements with the real-life ones while making this movie.

BS: I think it was about putting them in a blender and not knowing where that line was because that was the only way to make it successful. We made a documentary before this, and that was a documentary. That was a real person and we were trying to tell his real story, but in order to tell his story most effectively we had to use techniques from fiction filmmaking, reenactment and changing the timeline. We were fictionalizing reality there to get the point across. So here we are making a fiction film with a kind of documentary base, and again we had to employ the same kind of tools. You have to make things up to really get at the true emotional core of things. (Werner) Herzog says it’s like the ecstatic truth once you get there.

The movie also features a brilliant electronic score which serves to illustrate just how alien the world drug addicts inhabit is to the rest of us. Along with movies like “The Guest,” “It Follows” and “Ex Machina,” electronic film scores are making a big comeback. Josh and Ben talked about the movie’s composers and why they chose that kind of music.

JS: There’s a bunch of things that are happening in music in the movie. For the most part, we feature the work of Isao Tomita and his renditions of Debussy. We really wanted to have a romantic score, but this movie is like a time squared, nighttime vibe. It’s like electrified and it’s kind of seedy, and it’s an alien landscape almost. We like to say the movie takes place on Mars which is where an addict’s brain goes in a weird way. Debussy music is some of the most romantic music ever composed, but when it’s done through this Japanese mind from the 70’s it’s different. It’s reinterpreted. It’s no longer really romantic but it has its core in romanticism.

BS: There’s other music that we use throughout the movie. There’s some original music by Paul Grimstad in the hospital sequence, and then there’s Ariel Pink who’s a Los Angeles guy who wrote a song for the movie called “I Need a Minute.” It’s electrified as well, and he wanted it to be a love song to the locked bathroom, being able to lock your own bathroom and needing another minute while people are banging on the door.

Watching “Heaven Knows What” brings to mind movies like “Kids” and “Requiem for a Dream” which dealt with lifestyles which were unnerving and at times horrifying to witness. We want to look away and these films dare us to, but in the end we can’t avoid the reality of what people do to each other and themselves.

“Heaven Knows What” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

William Friedkin Discusses the Creation of ‘The French Connection’ Car Chase

The French Connection car chase

William Friedkin’s “The French Connection” was shown as part of American Cinematheque’s tribute to him, and he went into great detail about how the famous car chase came together. It is still one of the best car chases in cinema alongside “Bullitt,” and it’s the kind Hollywood doesn’t dare do anymore.

The French Connection movie poster

Actually, it turns out there was never a car chase in the original script for “The French Connection,” but Friedkin felt it needed one as this was a police procedural, and the audience would need a temporary release from it. Also, Friedkin didn’t do any storyboards to prepare for it. In fact, he has never done storyboards for any of his movies because he feels he has to see it in his mind. The shots captured on film come together from what he sees at the time, and he doesn’t even use a second unit to shoot any footage. All that you see on screen in “The French Connection” comes from life as it happened in front of Friedkin.

In coming up with the chase, he and some crew members walked down 50 blocks of New York streets to figure out how it would work best. As Friedkin kept walking, he suddenly felt the subway under his feet. Now logistically, he couldn’t do a car chase with a subway as it was underground, but it made him wonder if there were any elevated trains left in New York. The production team ended up finding one in Brooklyn, so Friedkin went to the Transit Authority to get their cooperation in pulling this chase off.

The first thing to figure out was how fast the trains could go. Friedkin said if they went over 100 mph, they couldn’t do the chase as it would be impossible for Popeye Doyle to follow the train by car. The train supervisor he talked to said the trains go at 50 mph, so what seemed impractical suddenly became possible. Not only did Friedkin want to have a car chase the train, he also wanted to crash the train for the chase’s climax. But the train supervisor said it would be too difficult because they had never had an elevated train crash or even heisted. Having heard all this did not deter Friedkin, and he planned to steal the scene if the transit authority’s cooperation was not going to be granted.

As Friedkin and his crew headed for the exit, the train supervisor suddenly said, “Wait a second. I told you it would be difficult. I never said it would be impossible!” He told Friedkin that if he were to help him with this, then he would need $40,000 and a one-way ticket to Jamaica. His reasoning was if the movie was to be done Friedkin’s way, he would be fired, and retiring to Jamaica was always in the back of his mind. Sure enough, the supervisor was fired, and he moved to Jamaica like he said he would, so it’s safe to say he lucked out.

In filming the chase, the shots were picked up just as they happened in real life. There’s no way they would ever be able to film a chase like this today without prior approval from the city, but Friedkin and his crew were young and reckless, and they unleashed mayhem New York never saw coming. There were not supposed to be any accidents while filming it, but there ended up being many of them which forced the crew to fix the car after each take. I’m pretty sure they ended up using more than one as a result. Friedkin ended up saying they did a number of things he would never even think about doing today, and that they were very fortunate no one got hurt.

Taking all this information into account, this car chase feels even more thrilling than when I first saw it. The way it was filmed was completely insane, and the fact they pulled it off at all was a miracle. When Gene Hackman finally brings the 1971 Pontiac LeMans he is driving to a complete stop, the sold-out audience at the Aero Theatre applauded loudly which shows how powerful the sequence remains today. “The French Connection,” like many of Friedkin’s movies, has deservedly stood the test of time.

Eli Roth Explores the Home Invasion Genre with ‘Knock Knock’

Knock Konck movie poster

It has been eight years since “Hostel: Part II,” and the phrase “directed by Eli Roth” has been largely absent as the horror filmmaker has focused more on producing and acting, but 2015 saw him return to the director’s chair with a vengeance. First, he gave us the cannibal horror film “The Green Inferno” which saw its release delayed for a couple of years, and he quickly followed it up with the home invasion thriller “Knock Knock.” Keanu Reeves stars as Evan Webber, an architect and happily married husband and father whose family leaves him alone at home one weekend so he can work on his latest project. But Evan soon makes the biggest mistake of his life when he lets two young women into his home after they claim to be lost, and they come to play a number of psychosexual games which have him begging for his life.

Roth was at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California to do a press conference on “Knock Knock,” and he was very verbose in discussing what motivated him to make this film. Now whereas his previous movies “Cabin Fever,” “Hostel” and “The Green Inferno” featured young adults heading out of their comfort zones and into the world for a dose of excitement and danger, “Knock Knock” is very different in that it rarely strays from Evan’s comfort zone which is his home. I asked Roth if this scenario presented any new challenges for him as a writer, and his answer was far more descriptive than I expected.

Eli Roth: No, I mean I liked the idea. Obviously I was very interested, probably because I grew up in Massachusetts with that kind of over sheltered, over-privileged and overeducated upper middle-class kid image that yearns for that life experience. In “Cabin Fever” they want irresponsible partying and drinking and drugs, in “Hostel” they want sex they think they can’t find, and in “The Green Inferno” they want validation through this vanity act and they want Twitter followers and it all comes back to bite them in the ass, literally in “Green Inferno.” But with this one, it is about what happens when you let that force into your life that you’re suddenly like, oh my God there’s a crazy person in my house. What have I done? You realize that, because you’re smart, that’s actually what makes you vulnerable. You think well I know how to handle this situation because I’m a smart person and look how well I’ve done so far, and then you drop your guard and then maybe there is some situation where someone’s in your home for whatever reason and you realize, oh my God, this person could take my stuff. There are my alarm codes and they could just really unravel me, and they could do it in such a short amount of time. And then Nicolas (Lopez) and I decided to add the social media aspect. We also were interested in the generational difference in sexuality. Girls in their teens or their 20’s, they must be so much crazier because of internet pornography. There is this grass is always greener mentality and looking at the way teenagers sexualize themselves on Instagram for likes and follows, we’re looking at some people like, in the cast and crew, their young sisters that are 15 or 16 and looking at their friends. You can’t tell in your 40’s if that girl is 16 or 36, and I’m playing on that difference of the sexuality in generations. Now nothing is private anymore, so when we were writing it we just thought about all of the things about modern fears. I wrote “Cabin Fever” when I was 22, I wrote “Hostel” when I was 32, and I wrote “Knock Knock” when I was 42, so they are all very much written about my fears at those ages.

Well, whether he is directing a movie or just producing or acting in one, Roth is certainly not a filmmaker you should ever call lazy. He remains as prolific as ever, and he has a large number of projects he is working on. Among them is “Meg,” an adaptation of Steve Alten’s science fiction novel about an ancient 60-foot long shark which terrorizes a small coastal town. Some critics have described the book as the “Moby Dick” of killer shark novels, so it will be interesting to see Roth’s take on it.

Knock Knock” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

Matt Cimber Discusses ‘The Black Six’ at New Beverly Cinema

The Black Six movie poster

On February 22, 2011, the Grindhouse Film Festival presented their answer to Black History Month with the blaxploitation classic “The Black Six.” This took place at New Beverly Cinema, and the organizers of the festival, Eric Caidin and Brian Quinn, had this to say, “As white guys, we find this an important part of black culture.”

Joining them was the director of “The Black Six,” Matt Cimber. He announced to the audience this was the first time he has seen the movie in 40 years, and he said he “suffered through it.” The film is best known for starring football players who were at their peak: Gene Washington, Mean Joe Greene (his name generated the biggest applause), Mercury Morris, Lem Barney, Willie Lanier, and Carl Eller. Cimber’s agent at the time told him he could put together a bunch of football players if he could put together a movie. The only catch was there could be no drugs, no swearing, and no naked women.

Cimber said all the guys were game and that he wrote a good script for them to work with. When he started as filmmaker, he was encouraged by a friend to make “black films” because the thought was most people didn’t understand black people. It was fun making “black pictures” for him because there was a lot of great talent in the black community, and many actors weren’t really getting hired.

“The Black Six” also had actual members of the Hell’s Angels in it, and they had to be paid at the end of each day in cash. But there was an even bigger problem: they didn’t like blacks. However, it turned out they were also big NFL fans, and everyone ended up getting along great. The film crew had to work hard though to keep the Hell’s Angels quiet during takes. One of them ended up driving his motorcycle through a hotel!

This film had a budget of $90,000, but each of the NFL players got $10,000 each. Cimber ended up being forced to cut corners wherever he could. The lady playing the farm owner was actually the one who owned the farm they filmed at, and that’s why she’s in the film. Triumph also gave the production some motorcycles to work with although the players said they looked like “little toys.”

The movie came out in 1974 long before the days of VHS, DVD, or any other kind of home entertainment. Back then, if you didn’t get your movie into theaters, you didn’t get your money back and you were dead. When it opened on Broadway in New York, many other movies were opening at the same time, but Cimber proudly said this was the only one with a line around the block.

Matt Cimber went from “The Black Six” to create a “varied” resume which was the result of him never focusing on just one idea or one thing. He also created and directed the successful TV series “GLOW: Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling” which was a satire of the sport (Quentin Tarantino is said to be a big fan of it). While his work may not cry out for an Oscar, he has had a strong career which has lasted several decades and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.

Jenny Slate Makes a Lasting Impression on us in ‘Obvious Child’

Obvious Child Jenny Slate

We all know Jenny Slate from her brief tenure on “Saturday Night Live,” and she has since left an impression on us with “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” and on episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” But in Gillian Robespierre’sObvious Child,” Slate gives one of the best breakout performances of 2014 which will stay with you long after the movie has ended. As comedian Donna Stern, we watch as her life hits rock bottom after she gets dumped by her boyfriend and fired from her job in rapid succession. Then after a one-night stand with a really nice guy named Max (Jake Lacy), she finds herself dealing with an unplanned pregnancy. She decides to get an abortion, and it all leads up to the best/worst Valentine’s Day she’s ever had.

Obvious Child movie poster

I was very excited to meet Slate when she arrived for a roundtable interview at the “Obvious Child” press day held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. I told her I came out of the movie wanting to hug her character, and she replied that was great and exactly the way we were supposed to feel (I couldn’t agree more). The movie is advertised as being the first “abortion comedy” ever, but that’s far too simplistic a description. To me, it was about how Donna learns how to empower herself and trust people again after having her heart broken, and Slate felt the same way.

Jenny Slate: It’s not representative of what the film actually does or how it unfolds. I guess, trying to look on the positive side, if people think that’s all that it is when they go and see the film, they will be delighted to see how complex and thoughtful it is and funny. If you think about it as just the story of one woman trying to understand the process of going from passive to active and trying to understand how to make choices you’d think, well why would I try to shy away from that? That’s a human story and I should just tell it.

“Obvious Child” derives its title from the song of the same name by Paul Simon. The discussion about the song led Slate to talk about when she used to ride the subway while she was a college student living in New York. She reminisced about how, when the train went through a tunnel, the window across from her would become a mirror, and this usually happened when she had headphones on.

JS: I remember sophomore year of college I would listen to, on repeat, the “Amelie” soundtrack and just imagine myself as a woman in a movie that was about a woman. It’s pretty interesting that I got to do it. I think a lot of people connected music that way. It makes them feel like they’re in a movie.

In the movie, Slate’s character is a comedian who does a stand-up act at a club in Brooklyn. The way Slate performs Donna’s act, you can’t help but think all her material was improvised, but Slate made it clear those scenes were the result of her collaboration with Robespierre.

JS: Gillian wrote this stand up based off of the style that I perform in; sort of loose storytelling, very instant with the audience, a conversation that’s evolving and not clubby or anything like that. She wrote it, we cut it down, we did some workshopping where I improvised a set based off of what she had written, and she recorded that, rewrote it, and then on the day of the shoot the shooting draft of the film had that stand-up set that we turned into bullet points so that I was not memorized and that it could be natural. You would have the feel of Donna feeling it out, and we talked about it and then I went up and went through these subjects that Gillian had set out and some of them are exact lines of her writing and some of them are lines that came up during it, and she would also call out to me during the shooting and be like, you know, circle back to talking about dirty underwear or whatever. And then I would go back and, during that time of walking backwards, new material would come in. I think if somebody says to me that it’s okay to work and it’s okay to be loose then I go with that. It’s in my nature to be playful and it’s my nature to feel a little bit claustrophobic with the rules, and that’s something I often just have to deal with and work through. You can’t improvise on every job, and you should be good enough at acting that you can say your lines. But for Gillian to say you can be a little looser and for her to be comfortable enough in what she had written to be flexible was an amazing testament to her. We are just a good pair.

One actress who was brought up with much excitement during this interview was Gaby Hoffman who plays Donna’s roommate, Nellie. Hoffman is best known for playing Kevin Costner’s daughter in “Field of Dreams” and for playing Maizy Russell in “Uncle Buck.” The interesting thing is that Slate and Hoffman actually look a lot alike to where you want to see them play sisters in a movie together. As it turns out, Hoffman’s career proved to have a major effect on Slate’s.

JS: I have always wanted to be an actress since I was young and can’t remember anything else. It was my ultimate desire, and she was my age and acting when I was growing up. I used to think I looked like her and was just like, oh I want to be like that girl. And when I got to meet her in my adulthood, I was like totally blown away in general just because I was such a huge fan. After getting past that, the real ultimate moment of just like being totally floored was discovering her personality. She’s very wise, really open and just like really no nonsense. She’s very fearless and I think she sets the bar really high for performance, and I felt that in a good way. I wanted to impress her, and I just think she’s the closest you can get to like a goddess. She’s got that real mythical vibe.

Now many people may say Slate is just playing herself in this movie, but this is the kind of unfair assumption we tend to make about actors in general. We may think we know an actor from reading about them in magazines or seeing them on the countless talk shows on television, but while Slate is a stand-up comedian like Donna, she was quick to point out the differences between herself and her character. Most importantly, she does not expound endlessly on her personal life like Donna does.

JS: I don’t do it. It just never seems right to me, but I’m not Donna. I know my boundaries and I think, although my standup is about like being horny and diarrhea and things like that, I still feel like it’s paired with really nice manners. I think the cornerstone of having nice manners is to have an equal exchange. Someone says how are you, and I say fine how are you, and Donna does not understand boundaries and limits at the beginning of the film. For me, I get it. My relationships are precious and I don’t talk about my husband on stage unless it’s something flattering. But even if it was something flattering that was going to embarrass him, I wouldn’t do it because there’s just too much to talk about.

Seriously, Jenny Slate’s performance in “Obvious Child” is one of the best and most moving I saw in 2014, and it’s a must see even for those who, like me, are not fans of romantic comedies. Regardless of how you feel about the Valentine’s Day Donna ends up having, it’s a lot better than the one Slate told us about from her past.

JS: I had a really bad Valentine’s Day one year because I had a really shitty boyfriend who forgot that it was Valentine’s Day, and he gave me his digital camera in a sock. Wow, thanks! Such a bummer, the worst present ever. That’s like a present that a baby would give to somebody. I never wanted a digital camera in general. I don’t care, I don’t like technology. I just wanted some fucking chocolate. Look around you! There’s hearts everywhere! Fucking get it right! Dammit! My husband is so good at Valentine’s Day. He rules at it. No socks.

Ultimate Rabbit Exclusive Interview: Bryan Fogel Talks about ‘Icarus’

Bryan Fogel Icarus photo

Actor, writer and filmmaker Bryan Fogel first came to the world’s attention with “Jewtopia,” a play he co-wrote and starred in which went on to become one of the longest running shows in off-Broadway and Los Angeles history as it was seen by over a million viewers. Now he is set to reach an even larger audience with his documentary “Icarus” which will debut on Netflix on August 4.

Icarus documentary poster

“Icarus” follows Fogel as he went on a mission to investigate doping in sports. Like Morgan Spurlock in “Super Size Me,” he becomes the main experiment of his own documentary as he dopes himself with performance enhancing drugs to observe the changes they have on his body, and to see if he can avoid detection from anti-doping officials. By doing so, he aims to prove the current process of testing athletes for performance enhancing drugs does not work in the slightest.

During this process, Fogel comes to meet Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, a pillar of Russia’s “anti-doping” program who aids the filmmaker in avoiding doping detection through various processes which include being injected with various substances as well as collecting daily urine samples which will be smuggled from one country to another. But as Fogel becomes closer with Rodchenkov, he soon discovers the Russian is at the center of his country’s state-sponsored Olympic doping program. From there, “Icarus” goes in a different direction as it delves deep into Russia’s program and discovers the illegal activities go all the way up to the country’s highest chain of command which includes Vladimir Putin. The deeper this documentary goes, the more aware we become of how truth can be an easy casualty as others die under mysterious circumstances.

I had the opportunity to speak with Fogel about “Icarus” while he was in Los Angeles to promote it. He spoke about the documentary’s evolution from being a simple exploration into sports anti-doping programs to becoming a geopolitical thriller where witnesses are forced to go into hiding. Also, he spoke of how Lance Armstrong’s admission of using performance enhancing drugs was merely a needle in the haystack as many athletes were utilizing the same chemicals and threw him under the bus to save their own careers.

Check out the interview below.

Gillian Robespierre Sets the Record Straight about ‘Obvious Child’

Obvious Child Gillian on set

Obvious Child” marks the feature film directorial debut of Gillian Robespierre, and it is one of the most assured directorial debuts I have seen in some time. It tells the story of aspiring stand-up comedian Donna Stern (Jenny Slate in a star making performance) whose life has just hit rock bottom. As the movie starts, she gets dumped by her boyfriend, fired from her job, and then finds herself pregnant after a one-night stand. Suffice to say, this is not the best of times for her. But at the same time, what happens from there results in one of the best romantic comedies you could ever hope to see.

Obvious Child movie poster

Now since Donna decides to get an abortion, “Obvious Child” has been labeled by many as the first ever “abortion comedy.” But while Robespierre is glad this has given her movie far more attention than she ever expected, she does not share this point of view. During an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, she made this very clear.

Gillian Robespierre: That’s not why we made this movie, to be called an abortion comedy, because we don’t think it is. I don’t think abortions are funny or hilarious, and I think that shorthand leads to believe we’ve been flippant or glib with the topic. We wanted to accomplish a couple of things with making this movie, and one was making a romantic comedy that was very entertaining, had a lot of romance, had a really funny leading lady, and had somebody who was recognizable onscreen who felt like she could be you or your sister or your best friend. And her parents were recognizable and her best friends were recognizable in a genre that sometimes doesn’t seem relatable. That’s what we wanted to do and really wanted to show. And we wanted to take some stigma away from abortion at the same time and show a procedure that was not full of regret and shame. Donna doesn’t put it on herself and her friends and the characters around her don’t put it on her either. That’s simply all we wanted to accomplish.

Indeed, the movie is really about how Donna picks herself up from her depressed state, comes to empower herself, and eventually learns to trust other people again after getting her heart shattered. This allows Robespierre to find humor in the more serious moments, and at the same time she succeeds in keeping things both human and intimate. These days it seems incredibly difficult to make a movie with such down to earth characters, but she pulls this off with what seems like relative ease.

GR: I think when we talk sometimes even in one sentence, offstage or on stage in a movie or in real life, sometimes we write comedy and tragedy in one beat. I think we’re just trying to take that sort of natural tone that we have and put it on the screen and cut out all the fat that movies and romantic comedies have and have the tone just be very realistic. Donna is a naturally funny character so in one beat she’ll be saying something very self-deprecating, and in the next second she’ll be saying something very sweet and heartfelt. I think that’s just how we interact with each other. To me, it’s just a realistic portrayal of how modern people speak to each other.

When it came to the movie’s title, Robespierre admitted it came from the song of the same name by Paul Simon. She explained why she chose it.

GR: I don’t think Donna is a child or an obvious child. I think Donna is somebody who’s not ready for what the late 20’s is giving her, and she thought she would be someplace else,” Robespierre said. “She didn’t know that the late 20’s is just as hard as her early 20’s, and she’s just trying to figure out how to be confident in where her voice is on and offstage. She’s just trying to figure out how to take over this passivity that seems to be a running narrative in her life, and I think she’s mature and thoughtful, and I think she’s doing something that needs to be done.

The fact Robespierre chose the title of a Paul Simon song for her movie made me wonder if the lyrics played a big part in her decision.

GR: I’m a rhythm girl. I do know the lyrics to the song, I’ve read the liner notes, and I think that determines the feel of the song. It’s not just like drum and bass, it’s obviously Paul Simon’s beautiful poetry that he’s written. But I just liked it for nostalgic reasons and I’m a sucker for nostalgia. I listened to that song a lot when I was little in my car looking out the window, making up my little movie ideas; ‘Oh look at that tree, I feel like I’m in a movie.’

Of course, with this movie being a comedy, you come out of it wondering how many of its scenes were improvised instead of scripted. When you have a strong comedic talent heading your cast, we are quick to believe the director had no choice but to let their main star rewrite the screenplay themselves. But to hear Robespierre say it, the job of a director is to work with people instead of for them.

GR: I think filmmaking makes me really excited about being a filmmaker, and wanting to do this in the first place is that you get the chance to collaborate with a lot of smart, creative, intelligent actors, cinematographers, and editors. Every step of the way is collaboration, and what Jenny and I found in each other was a tone of how we like to speak with one another, and a comfortability of where our parameters are. I was very comfortable with letting Jenny go because she knows Donna just as well as I do, and we were really on the same page. So if a word didn’t feel true and if a sentence would have been funnier this way, I was very malleable. I have an ego, but it’s a different kind of ego.

“Obvious Child” started off as a short film Robespierre made, and it made me wonder about the differences between making a short as opposed to a feature length movie. Her immediate response was time and money as she never had enough of either, but she did go into more detail about what she had to deal with this time around.

GR: We had a crew of 30 people which was very new for me. The short was just four or five people all from film school. This was a real movie set where my producer Elizabeth (Holm) and I worked really hard to hire a crew. We were a boss and paid thirty people, and there’s something really exciting about that and really scary about that. To be somebody’s employer comes with, I think, a lot of heaviness and respect for the people who work for you and who were coming in every day and bringing in so much of themselves to their roles whether it’s Jenny coming in every day focused, but also the crafty person and the DP and the gaffer. Everybody was full-fucking focused.

Still, with “Obvious Child” dealing with the divisive issue of abortion, people can’t help but think pro-life supporters have been giving the filmmakers and actors a lot of grief. Robespierre responded she hasn’t personally received any feedback from any pro-life groups, and she again reiterated her movie is not an abortion comedy. In my opinion, I liked how it dealt with abortion in an intelligent and refreshing manner. Movies like “Juno” and “Knocked Up,” both which I loved, sidestep abortion in favor of dealing with unplanned pregnancies in another way. But in this post Roe vs. Wade world, it’s surprising we haven’t had more movies like “Obvious Child.” But while it may seem like a revolutionary movie, Robespierre made it clear she wasn’t out to reinvent the wheel.

GR: There’s room for other storytellers out there. I think just because one movie is tackling unplanned pregnancy that ends in childbirth, that’s a real narrative and that’s a story that happens. We’re tackling it in a different way but also making it a comedy using a genre that we love which is the romantic comedy. I was just watching “Knocked Up” last night, it was on TBS, and I laughed my head off.

“Obvious Child” was, in my opinion, one of the ten best movies of 2014. While Jenny Slate is getting the praise she deserves for her performance, the movie’s success is really thanks to Gillian Robespierre whose work here bodes well for the great future she has ahead of her. In a sea of independent films which constantly get lost in the shuffle of all the superhero blockbusters being unleashed on us, it’s great to see a movie like this get the attention it deserves.

Image, poster and featurette courtesy of A24.