‘Nightcrawler’ is a Brilliantly and Insanely Twisted Motion Picture

nightcrawler movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2014.

Just when I thought I wouldn’t see a 2014 movie as twisted as “Gone Girl,” along comes “Nightcrawler.” Delving into the underground world of Los Angeles freelance crime journalism, this is a thriller which feels like a cross between “Taxi Driver” and “Network” as it follows characters who do not hesitate to cross over any and all ethical or moral considerations in order to survive another day in an infinitely cruel and competitive world. You will find yourself laughing at things you would normally never laugh at, but that’s because it serves as a way to deal with the increasingly insane scenarios which will leave you staring at the screen with your mouth open.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Louis Bloom, an alienated young man struggling to find work anywhere and everywhere. The movie starts off with him stealing materials from a construction site which he then attempts to sell at a scrap yard with little success. His attempts to find a job or even an unpaid internship prove to be utterly fruitless despite his best efforts and conniving ways, and he is a symbol of how many Americans who are having the toughest time finding work. Then one night while he’s driving on the freeway, he comes across a nasty car accident and, like many, he is tempted to take a closer look. This is when a camera crew led by Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) drops by to film whatever footage he can get to sell to the local news station. Instantly intrigued, Louis goes out and buys a cheap video camera and starts filming crime scenes and human carnage which eventually catches the eye of veteran news producer, Nina (Rene Russo).

“Nightcrawler” marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy whose writing credits include “Freejack,” “Two for the Money” and “The Bourne Legacy.” With a limited budget, he succeeds in creating a crazy version of the American success story, proving it can be achieved but at a soul sucking price. Gyllenhaal, with a stare which cuts through the audience like a laser beam, gives us a character beyond determined to rise to the top of the TV news food chain. In many ways Louis is enigmatic as we don’t get to know too much about him, but no one can deny he is a full blown sociopath who has finally found something he can make a career at.

Gyllenhaal does some of his best work yet in “Nightcrawler,” and I’m not just saying this because he lost 20 to 30 pounds to play Louis. His focus as an actor is never in doubt as he makes Louis as compelling a human being as he is an insane one. Even as Louis throws all reason out the window, we cannot help but be mesmerized as Gyllenhaal makes him a highly unlikely antihero.

It’s also great to see Russo here as well as she brings Nina to a life in a way which showcases how vulnerable her character can be despite how hardened life has made her. This is a character clinging on to her job for dear life in a business prepared to chew her up and spit her out without a second thought. It should not be a surprise she crosses countless journalistic guidelines to get the bloody violent footage her audience is craving for. Whether or not she believes it is the right thing to do is beside the point because her survival in an unforgiving economy is foremost on her mind. You can chastise Nina and Louis all you want for the choices they make in life, but like anyone else, they are driven to survive by any means necessary.

I loved the scenes between Gyllenhaal and Russo as they constantly size each other up to where they firmly believe they have the other person figured out. As Louis gets more and more successful at capturing footage others could only dream of getting, and this eventually leads to him getting better equipment and a super cool car which goes super-fast, their relationship gets increasingly tense as he makes it clear to Nina who’s in charge. Nina observes Louis with both utter fascination and disgust as he stares right through her to where she can’t help but be taken in by him.

As “Nightcrawler” hurtles towards its wonderfully insane conclusion, Louis becomes a magician of sorts as he manipulates events to where he creates news he greatly profits from. We should despise him for what he does, but Gilroy has the audience firmly in his grip to where we can’t help but admire him for the devious things he has accomplished, and that’s regardless of what happens to others in his path.

Gyllenhaal was born to play Louis just as Russo was born to portray Nina, and both actors are well served by a supporting cast which matches them from scene for scene. The always reliable Bill Paxton plays Louis’ chief competitor, Joe Loder, and he is a hoot to watch as he tries to gain the upper hand only to see things blow up in his face. Also terrific is Riz Ahmed who plays Louis’ partner in crime footage coverage, Rick, a nice guy who hasn’t lost his moral bearings but is constantly forced to go against his better judgment in order to keep his job. Ahmed does great work as he makes us sympathize with Rick even as he gets into situations he can’t quite pull himself out of.

With “Nightcrawler,” Gilroy has given us a wonderfully twisted tale which shows how the American success story can become a reality if you’re willing to lose yourself in the process. What’s brilliant about the movie is it’s filled with characters molded by the world they live in. We can berate them all we want, but their actions speak more about what society has turned them into. In a time where employment opportunities are not as plentiful as they should be, it’s a little hard to blame these characters for what they do. But when we are forced to do the same, hopefully we can do it in a way that is nowhere as life threatening. Of course, that might just be wishful thinking.

I have to end this review with this piece of dialogue Louis Bloom has as it sums up the state of the world today perfectly:

“I know that today’s work culture no longer caters to the job loyalty that could be promised to earlier generations. What I believe, sir, is that good things come to those that work their asses off, and that good people such as yourself, who reach the top of the mountain, didn’t just fall there. My motto is: if you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket.”

* * * * out of * * * *

Please check out the interview I did with Gyllenhaal and Russo on “Nightcrawler” which I conducted on behalf of We Got This Covered down below.

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David Gordon Green Captures an Authentic Reality in ‘Joe’

Joe movie poster

One of 2014’s most underrated and overlooked movies was “Joe.” Directed by David Gordon Green, who just directed the incredibly successful reboot of “Halloween,” it stars Nicolas Cage in one of the best performances as Joe, an ex-convict and a foreman for a small tree removal crew in Texas. One day, Joe is met by Gary (Tye Sheridan), a 15-year-old drifter who has just moved into town with his wayward family, and he ends up giving the young man a job on his crew. However, Gary’s father is an alcoholic bastard who beats up everyone and anyone in his path, and this presents Joe with the choice of finding redemption in his life or meeting his maker by putting an end to this vicious situation Gary has been tragically caught up in.

For Green, “Joe” represents a return to his independent roots where he made his mark with films like “George Washington” and “All the Right Girls.” As a result, he ends up capturing a reality of life which is not easily captured in other movies as we watch characters native to the state they live in trying to get by in life. Green ended up hiring non-actors to play certain roles as he wanted to capture the realism of the environment these people live in.

I was lucky enough to attend the press junket for “Joe” held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California for the website We Got This Covered, and I asked Green what it was like capturing the authenticity of these people and where they live. More importantly, I was interested in finding out if capturing this authenticity was easier or harder to accomplish in this day and age where we are bombarded with an endless number of “reality shows.”

David Gordon Green: That’s a good question. We live in a world with reality television so it’s less surprising to see a camera on the street corner to see a production. Certainly, a lot of us who frequent the Los Angeles area don’t even bat an eyelash at some production that’s closing down a street and taking us on a detour. I kind of like that the production element can be that much more intimate because the mystery has been dissolved a little bit. When I was a kid you would watch a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of a movie and it would blow your mind learning the steps of folly and the art form behind it. Now I think everyone has a good, clear concept of that. There’s not that obsession with that. It’s also a world where people know where the lines of documentary, reality TV and fiction/narrative filmmaking are starting to blur a little bit. I actually think there are a lot of values there. Some of the great performances are documentary performances. You see a movie like “Grizzly Man” and you’re like, if only I could take Timothy Treadmill, I could make an amazing script for him. In that way it’s become a lot easier and it’s just about trying to market a film to be appealing to an audience. Trying to get a movie that emotionally connects with an audience and invites them into a world that does have an authenticity. It does take you to difficult places but has enough of an emotional honesty and levity to be able to be something that you want to look at and an attractive quality within the cinematography and music that brings you in and makes you feel fulfilled. All of these technical elements that come in make it a rewarding experience and not just the dramatic hammer coming down to tell you their melodrama, but really to open up insight into the characters and their revelations to each other.

With those comments, I hope audiences take the time to discover “Joe” as it is a movie deserving of a bigger audience than it ended up getting in 2014. While many think Cage makes nothing but bad movies these days, this one reminds you of what a great actor he can be given the right material.

Exclusive Interview with Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo about ‘The Case Against 8’

The Case Against 8 Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo

Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo are two of the people at the center of “The Case Against 8,” Ben Cotner and Ryan White’s documentary which takes a behind the scenes look at the historic federal lawsuit filed in an effort to overturn California’s discriminatory ban on gay marriage known as Proposition 8. These two have been together since 1998, and Katami is a fitness expert and small business owner while Zarrillo is the general manager of a theater exhibition company. We watch as they make their case about why they deserve the same rights as anyone else who wants to get married, and we revel in their victory which makes for a genuinely happy Hollywood ending of sorts.

I had a great time talking with Katami and Zarrillo when they were in Los Angeles to talk about their involvement in “The Case Against 8” back in 2014. For the two of them, this was a case which was supposed to last at least a year, but it ended up going on for five.

Ben Kenber: When this project started this project started, obviously you had no idea of what kind of documentary this would turn out to be. What was your reaction to having these documentary filmmakers, Ben Cotner and Ryan White, follow you around all the time?

Jeff Zarrillo: We knew that it was really important the story get told because our story, and Kris (Perry) and Sandy (Stier’s) story, is the same story of thousands and thousands of people around California and beyond. So, Ben and Ryan coming on board to memorialize it was a great way to make sure we could put a film together that would help inspire people and help educate people who might be on the fence. Or it might inspire the young kid who is sitting in his room watching this movie, and his parents are out in the living room and they don’t know if he or she is gay, and he looks at this film and says, “Wow! I can do this too! It’s going to be okay.” I think the young people that have yet to fall in love will watch this movie and become inspired to fall in love regardless of their sexuality. So, I think with Ben and Ryan coming aboard to do all this, to put a period on the sentences, they have a stake in the outcome too. They are two gay men living in California who would love the opportunity to get married, so I think we always knew that they would take good care of the story, protect the story and tell the truth of our lives and also the lives of so many other people.

Paul Katami: I echo what Jeff said. I mean you go walking into the world of the unknowns. Our focus was the case and no one could’ve ever imagined the twists and turns that it took. But at the time it’s a testament to Ben and Ryan, and they said that this is an important venture. This could be a landmark case, this could be a teachable moment for people, this could help other states and potentially people around the world understand that when there’s an injustice like Proposition 8 you must fight it. You must be at the front end of it because we were on the back end of it when we got into this case. So, it was a testament to them to say that we are going to be putting forth the time and the effort and the commitment for however long it takes, not knowing what the third act is and not knowing how this is going to end. I think it’s a true testament to them in saying regardless of win or lose, it’s an important story to tell because it will get people talking about the truth of the matter. I think that’s the goal of a good documentary which is to just represent the truth. No angle, no hard-hitting, this is just telling the truth of what happened. And much to what Jeff said, I believe that that person who may be in the middle of this subject matter, we preach to the choir all the time, but we want to find that unexpected ally. So maybe that person is going to sit in their home in their living room, and they don’t have to publicly affirm or deny anything. They can just sit and understand what the truth of the subject matter is based on this case. To us that’s a benefit beyond anything we ever dreamt about when they first approached us.

BK: Is there anything you wish was included in this documentary that wasn’t?

JZ: That’s a good question. I think the movie is so well done and well edited that there are moments where you think, “Wow! I really would have loved to have seen that” like the moment where we get the decision. But I think that Ben and Ryan have done such a good job of using the footage they had, and Kate (Amend) did such a great job editing it that you almost feel like you’re in the room with us. You can imagine Ted (Olson) sitting there with this tie over his shoulder, or you can think of Paul sitting in the courtroom and his knee going up and down and me telling him you need to stop. You almost feel like you were there with us. So, there were parts that we wish were there, but they are typically the parts where the cameras weren’t allowed to be. So, everything else was told very well, and to have 600 hours of footage and filter it down to an hour and 45 minutes and still have a really strong progression in narrative from beginning to end I think is really a testament to their abilities as filmmakers and Kate’s ability as a really strong editor.

BK: Did the thought of being surrounded by cameras make you hesitant to be in the documentary?

PK: A lot, but ultimately, I think in the back of our minds we knew the most important camera that was following us was the one that was going to tell the story. And so many times you have a private moment, just a totally private moment, and you look up and there would be Ben or Ryan behind a camera and you’re like, “Wow I didn’t even know you were in the room,” which is also the testament of a good filmmaker that they are going to capture the truth that way. You don’t ever feel like you have to be on. You can be yourself so they made us feel very, very comfortable along the way with the process. They funded this completely on their own. These filmmakers were behind the cameras, and there might have been just one camera on you, one person in a corner of the room for five hours, and at the end of the day you’d look up and be like, “Wow, we just went through deposition in preparation and Ryan’s been standing there the entire time with the camera on the shoulder or making sure focus and sound was right.” So, talk about being dedicated to the film (laughs) because some of that testimony prep is just not exciting. So, you’re aware but you’re not aware in a way, and I think that was the beauty of it because you see sometimes people dealing with the media who are in their face. They need a response in the moment, and sometimes that’s not the most genuine thing because you are reacting to what you feel you need to say or need to do. Their (Ben’s and Ryan’s) cameras were the most important ones, but they were not always in our faces. They were always capturing the truth of the moment.

BK: What I like about this documentary is forces you to look at the specifics of the case and the people involved. When Ted Olson was announced as the lead attorney in the case against Proposition 8, there were a lot of objections as he is considered a conservative and also represented George W. Bush in the “Bush v. Gore” case. What was your initial reaction when you heard that Ted Olson would be representing you in this lawsuit?

JZ: Well it’s very funny. Again, we’ve had these coincidences throughout this whole process, but I (swear to God) had just watched “Recount.” I had never seen it, and for some reason I had seen a pop up on HBO and I TiVoed it and watched it, and within the month we were a part of this lawsuit. So, I knew that I could probably sit down at the dinner table and have a great conversation with David Boies (who represented Al Gore in “Bush v. Gore” and was also representing the couples in this case) about everything we agreed on, but with Ted Olson there were probably very few things we would agree on. That really underscores how important it was to have both of them there because it stripped away all of that. This has always been a partisan issue, so the fact that they became involved stripped all that away regardless of the reactions that Ted got from his conservative friends and colleagues. But I really just love the fact that it really just underscores that this is more about equality and it’s more about being an American than being a Democrat or a Republican. And Ted is one of the sweetest grandpas you will ever meet.

BK: What kind of effect has the documentary had on your life so far?

PK: For us it’s kind of an out of body experience. During the case, it was really about work. It was about making sure that we worked to do what we needed to do for the case to be our best to make that goal happen, and then going right back to our everyday lives and work as well. So, there’s really no ego attached to it, but when you see the film at a festival and someone comes up to you afterwards and says I’ve been affected this way by this film, and it’s always been positive, you think of the power that you have in your own life and with your own voice. Because five years ago it was just Jeff and Paul in Burbank speaking on the couch about what we could do to speak out and do something and make it different. And five years later we are watching it in a documentary film after a legal battle at the Supreme Court of the United States. So, to me, I think in terms of how it affects us is that it affects us by saying you don’t need a legal battle to make a difference. You don’t need to have this major platform or media or a documentary. You can make a difference by just making a decision to saying yes to something in your own home or community, to stand up and protect yourself and present yourself and people like you because that’s all that we did, and we got lucky. We merged with an effort with people who put their lives on the line to start this movie way back when, and it’s a much easier time for us to do it now. We feel very lucky and blessed, but we also hope that the film can then inspire someone else to do the same. Continue taking the torch forward.

BK: This lawsuit took five years to come to a full conclusion. But when you began it, how long can the lawyers say it was going to take?

JZ: 18 to 24 months.

PK: Yeah, and no testimony (laughs). Don’t worry about it; you won’t even take the stand.

JZ: No trial, it’ll all be a series of motions that will be filed. You’ll have to stand there and make a few appearances, but that would be it. But then Judge Walker decided to have a trial, and we really understood what having a trial meant and how important it would be to have a thorough record and presentation of evidence and experts. And really, how much that trial showed the way that the evidence being on our side versus on their side, it made all the other things worth it.

BK: When the defendants presented their evidence which argued for Proposition 8, a lot of it became kind of comical…

PK: There was no evidence (laughs).

BK: Oh right, sorry about that. There was one point that was brought up called gender disorientation pathology, and I literally started laughing.

PK: But this just goes to show you that that is a perfect example of why we had to bring the Proposition 8 campaign to court. Can you imagine that you could just write this and then disseminate it and say this is the truth? And that’s not even the worst of it. That’s actually mild. Junk science was made up and then purported as truth, and then people vote based on that. So, you take that to the court of law and you say “prove it.” Where did you find this? And the answer is that “we found it on the internet.” It’s laughable, right? But it’s also so angering because good people were swayed into believing something that was untrue for your benefit and to the damage of other peoples’ lives. Its embarrassing is what it is. People laugh at it because it’s ridiculous, but then talk to the people who lost partners of 30 or 40 years during this process before they were able to legally marry and how their lives have been destroyed because of the prohibitions to federal law and federal protections and to state laws and state protections. To them it’s not funny at all. We laughed too (at the defense’s arguments). We were like, are you kidding? It’s a funny part of the movie, but that’s how idiotic it is. You sit there and go, oh my God! Of course, you laugh and you laugh at David Blankenhorn and you laugh at these moments where you’re like, really? It’s responsible procreation? Jeff’s sister-in-law said, “I was really offended by that,” because she had to artificially inseminate. And she’s like, “Well does that mean that I’m not responsible? That I’m not a responsible person? I’m married, I want to have a family, and I want to be responsible to this institution.” So, it’s laughable, but at the same time it’s angering.

BK: I remember watching that Proposition 8 commercial on television where the little girl comes home and tells her mother that she got told a story about how she can be a princess and that she can marry a princess too, and I remember thinking “are you kidding me?”

JZ: People live in this world of sound bites and instant information because with working families and moms coming home late and dads coming home late and you’re helping them (the children) with homework and you’re getting them fed, this is how you are getting your information; on bumper stickers and 30-second campaign ads, and that’s why they work.

BK: The documentary really covers your side of the case more than the other side. Did you want to see more of the other side presented, or are you happy with how it all turned out?

JZ: We’ve had that conversation with Ben and Ryan too, and I think we are all in agreement that this is really, at the heart of it, a love story. It’s a story of two couples. The other side didn’t have any arguments anyway, and it would just take away from why this is such a strong argument on our side. I think just by adding David Blankenhorn and his evolvement, I think that certainly helps. By the time the documentary was made, we didn’t know about Chuck Cooper’s evolvement with his daughter being a lesbian and he’s planning her wedding now. That may have been interesting to have in the movie, but it came out well after the documentary was already done.

PK: David Blankenhorn has this really awesome evolution afterwards. Believe it or not, the case that he went into to try to support the proponents of Prop 8, he came out understanding better what it was about. He went through the process quite publicly. The film doesn’t say this is right and this is wrong. The film says this is what happened and this is how it ended because of what’s right.

BK: It’s astonishing that Proposition 8 ever made it onto the California ballot, but it’s even more astonishing that it took so long for it to get overturned.

JZ: Judge Walker actually admonished the lawyer for the Attorney General at one of the hearings early on before we even had a case. He asked, “How does this get on the ballot with this language?”

BK: The movie ends on a great note with you and Jeff getting married, and it’s a wonderful moment because you see all the joy in the room. That is what it’s all about.

PK: That’s exactly right. We say that all the time. Getting married to Jeff doesn’t change the institution of marriage and it doesn’t harm any kids anywhere. It only benefits our lives and the people that we touch with our lives, and when you see that joy and you see that much relief after being damaged for so long like a second-class citizen, I think it’s hard for anyone to say you don’t deserve that. Believe what you want to believe in your home, I guess, but you don’t go try to enact a law because of it to help prohibit other people from the same rights that you have.

I very much want to thank Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo for taking the time to talk with me. “The Case Against 8” is now available to own, rent and stream on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

Exclusive Interview: Kris Perry and Sandy Stier on ‘The Case Against 8’

The Case Against 8 Kris Perry and Sandy Stier photo

The Case Against 8” is a highly in-depth documentary about the historic federal lawsuit filed to overturn the discriminatory (and completely unnecessary) ban on marriages for gay couples. This fight for marriage equality went on for five years, and filmmakers Ben Cotner and Ryan White were there for it all as they went behind the scenes with the legal team of David Boies and Ted Olson (the same two lawyers from the “Bush v. Gore” case) and the four plaintiffs named in the suit. HBO aired the documentary on June 23, 2014 which coincided with the first anniversary of the Supreme Court rulings which restored marriage equality to California and ended federal discrimination against gay couples under the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

I was very excited to talk with Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, two of the plaintiffs in the case, when they arrived in Los Angeles in 2014 to talk about “The Case Against 8.” We see them both getting married at the documentary’s beginning, and it’s a wonderful ceremony to watch. But then came the passage of Proposition 8 which defined marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman, and their marriage was soon declared void. After five years of fighting for marriage equality, Kris and Sandy succeed in getting married again and they are still trying to adjust to the reality of that.

The Case Against 8 poster

Ben Kenber: When the idea of the documentary came about, was it something you were initially open to or were you hesitant to participate in it?

Kris Perry: Well we were a little hesitant about media in general at the beginning of the process. We didn’t know how it would turn out, we didn’t know what was going to happen, and we knew people would be opposed to marriage equality and they might direct it at us personally. So we were pretty reticent about media, but the filmmakers were sort of in a different category. They obviously were supportive of Sandy and I and everybody on the team. The obviously had good intent, they were incredibly trustworthy and thoughtful and supportive, so we always felt like they were different and they did something different than what a lot of people did which was just cover a minute or two here and there. They lived through it all with everybody and I think that sets them apart and made them special for us, so we were really happy they were around actually.

Sandy Stier: They became invisible very early on which is kind of interesting. They were very quiet so they set up the cameras quietly everywhere and they were such sweet guys. It was easy to accept them being there, and they also seemed protective of us in some really nice ways. I always felt like they wouldn’t include anything that we didn’t feel comfortable with, and they were very open to our perspective and what we felt okay with being in it or not. And also, on some level, I don’t really believe they would make a documentary or that it would really even happen because we had no idea what would happen with the case. We didn’t expect it to be as big a deal as it was, and I thought these nice guys are here filming and that’s great. They might make a documentary, but it’s probably kind of a long shot that it’ll be something that’s that big of a deal. So I know that sounds kind of crazy but I thought that they were so sweet and I hope that this works out okay for them, but I kind of thought that they were wasting their time.

BK: Is there anything that you wish was included in this documentary but wasn’t for one reason or another, or are you perfectly happy with the way it turned out?

KP: We’re very happy with it. We were just on a panel with the editor (Kate Amend) the other night, and somebody asked her that question because she looked at all 600 hours and was the one with the job of deciding what was in or out and had to fight with Ben and Ryan about what they wanted in. Her answer I thought was beautiful as she said, “Now that I’ve seen it this many times, I think I wouldn’t change one bit of it. I wouldn’t put anything in that I took out, and what’s in is what should have been in.” I was happy to hear her say it because she saw everything and we never did and yet I think it couldn’t be longer, it couldn’t have more in it, and I think they made some beautiful decisions.

SS: I think they did certainly a fantastic job, and we will never really know about all the footage that they have. I’m sure we would be kind of blown away by some of what they have that we will probably never see. The one thing is when I watch our wedding, I loved the way they captured it but hoped so much that are four boys would’ve been there that day we got married, and they couldn’t be there. It’s always a reminder of how we had only one out of the four and that was just painful, but they could not have done a better job putting it together and making it make sense. It’s a complicated case to make sense of and they did a great job of weaving it together.

BK: The voice of love speaks louder in this documentary than any other voice that’s featured in it. What was it like watching your wedding as it is presented here?

KP: It’s great. I mean who gets to see their wedding on a full screen in a movie theater with Dolby? That’s like a really lucky thing. I like seeing Sandy’s face again because it really was such a blur that day and there was so much happening and there were so many people including the Attorney General and all the people standing there all of a sudden. To be able to focus just on the person I was marrying was like, “Oh right, that was what was happening too.” There were the two of us and then there was everybody else, but you get pulled into that everybody else part. So I like how easy it is to focus on the two of us in the way that they included it in the film, but you can see everybody else too. But they are not the point of the wedding.

SS: To see all the people that were there supporting us at our wedding, it’s a rare wedding where you don’t know most of the people. But that’s how it happened. It’s kind of fun to see all those faces again.

BK: Now that the documentary is finished, what effect do you think it has had on your life so far?

SS: So far I think it has been a wonderful gift to us to go back and see people and see how it comes together and relive it. Every time we get to relive it slightly differently and focus on a different part of the film. It’s been a very positive impact on us so far. I think it that what will honestly be a little weird is that once it’s on TV on HBO, there are all these people we don’t know who will see it and they peer into your lives. People are in your kitchen with you and at your child’s graduation, and it’s just an odd thing knowing that so many people we don’t know will have been viewing our lives. But it’s okay.

KP: Yeah, I really think it’s been positive so far. The people who have seen it like you who have come in and say, “Wow, I didn’t realize how much was going on because I didn’t track it every day,” I’m really glad for someone like you that’s open to looking at the bigger story. It gets interesting again, and now when you hear about Utah or you hear about Pennsylvania or Illinois you’ll go, “Wow! Now I know what it takes to fight something in court. Now I know what it takes to be a plaintiff.” It gives you new perspective.

BK: What was your first reaction when you found out that Ted Olson, the lawyer who essentially gave us George W. Bush as President, would be representing you in this case?

KP: Skepticism maybe a little bit. But the people that found him and wanted him to do it and hired him are some of the people I respect the most. The political efforts of Chad Griffin and Rob Reiner and Bruce Cohen and Dustin Lance Black, I just thought these are guys who have seen so many battles and have tried to win so many rights that, if they think Ted’s the guy, who am I to question their wisdom? And they were right; he ended up being a terrific champion and still is and will continue to be. So I just was relying on the jury of peers that we had before we met.

BK: We’re so quick to judge people based on political beliefs, and I’m really getting sick of that. One of the great things about “The Case Against 8” is that it strips away partisan politics and forces us to get beyond our own biased beliefs to fight for what’s right.

SS: Yeah, and I think on some level that highlights the fact that we have politicized almost every argument in our country as though they are political arguments and they aren’t. Issues of marriage equality, why is that a political argument? Why are so many other issues… Why do they need to be political arguments also? So the more we can get out of that realm, the more we can actually make progress.

BK: The lawyers representing you at one point talk about how they’re getting more grief from the gay and lesbian groups than the conservative groups, and it shows how the mob mentality can take over on either side of the political spectrum. The documentary aims to be saying that need to be open to people and what they have to offer, and that’s even if you don’t agree with their belief system.

KP: Yeah. I think getting away from the ballot box and raising money for political campaigns and people saying things in political campaigns that aren’t even true and winning is necessary. I think it was the right time to go on to a new path and try to create a new way to solve that problem, and I think it was a better path. It’s harder on some levels as it takes forever. Campaigns are over in a year, and this was a five-year effort so everybody can’t do it but maybe everybody won’t have to.

BK: What are your plans for the future?

SS: Well when we were in the case it was always that and doing that in addition to our lives. Back then we were raising kids and working, and now the kids have launched basically. They take a lot less time. The youngest kids are in college and the older kids are grown-ups so we’re no longer actively parenting on a day-to-day basis, but we both have very big and busy careers that need a lot of attention and a lot of focus. So that’s our immediate thing to just get back to work and make work a huge priority, and we both in our work do a certain amount of advocacy as well. Kris still works in early childhood education advocacy at the federal level now. I work on public health and systems and policy so we want to get refocused on that, but in terms of the issue of marriage equality, the fight’s not over. We don’t have marriage equality in 50 states, so there is a lot more work to be done to the degree that we can help advance that cause in those states. We are absolutely happy and very motivated to participate, and beyond that there are so many other issues. There is employment discrimination, there are still a lot of issues around LGBT rights and, beyond rights, quality of life. It’s just something that I think Kris had a great a-ha moment when she talks about the quality of life as an LGBT kid and what it does to you to feel like you don’t have the same options and that your life is less than others. There’s a lot of work to do.

BK: Do you still encounter a lot of obstacles in life or do you feel like you are on a good path now?

KP: I think because it matters so much to get married and stay married, you have to work at it. You have to work really hard at being grateful that you have that, and you have to keep making it work because circumstances are changing all the time. Even having a situation where we had kids or we don’t, that’s an obstacle. And we don’t know what the future holds. There could be some hard things and you have to keep the bond strong, and we’re just lucky we got married. We are still trying to believe that, you know? That took so long and we’re still digesting the fact that we actually got married.

It was a real pleasure to talk with Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, and I wish them the best in life. “The Case Against 8” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

Exclusive Interview: Ben Cotner and Ryan White Talk About ‘The Case Against 8’

Case Against 8 Ben Cotner and Ryan White photo

The documentary “The Case Against 8” focuses on the historic federal lawsuit which was filed to overturn Prop 8, California’s discriminatory ban on gay marriage. Its directors, Ben Cotner and Ryan White, spent five years filming the plight of two couples (Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo) who were plaintiffs in this case as well as Ted Olson and David Boies, the lawyers in “Bush v. Gore,” who represented them. The documentary made its debut on HBO back in 2014, and it gave us an in depth look at what went on behind the scenes with these people as they fought for marriage equality.

I got to speak with Cotner and White in 2014 when they were in Los Angeles, California for “The Case Against 8” press day. Cotner has served as an executive at Paramount Pictures and Open Road Films, and he has worked on the films “An Inconvenient Truth,” “American Teen” and “Side Effects.” White produced and directed of “Good Ol’ Freda” which is about Freda Kelly, The Beatles’ longtime secretary, and “Pelada” which follows two soccer players as they travel around the world. They were both very open about the challenges and surprises they encountered while making this documentary.

The Case Against 8 poster

Ben Kenber: The lawsuit was supposed to last only a year or so, but it ended up going on for five years. You couldn’t have known how everything would turn out, but did you have a clear idea of how you wanted this documentary to play out?

Ryan White: No. We began filming in 2009 right after the case was filed, but more just to cover our bases in case it became something big. We were lucky to get Ted (Olson) and David (Boies) on board, and they recognized also that if it snowballed into something bigger, it might be important to have a video record of it. But we filmed for three or four years without even knowing whether we had a film, or at least whether we had a third act or not. It was when the Supreme Court granted cert in December 2012, that was when we really sort of launched into hyper drive and realized that we have to finish our film. We had six months to edit it, but also that we would have a really great ending no matter which way it went.

BK: And you did end up with a great ending.

RW: Well we were very lucky in a Hollywood fairytale type of way (laughs).

BK: What surprised you most about making this documentary?

Ben Cotner: I think one of the things I was most surprised about was how open the plaintiffs and the lawyers were with us in sharing their lives. When we first went in there we had never met them, so it was really important for us to spend a lot of time gaining trust with them and for them to be comfortable with cameras around. Ryan and I intentionally didn’t have big camera crews. We shot everything ourselves so I was surprised that we were able to slip in and out of rooms for these incredibly confidential meetings and they let us do that. That was really, truly, as a documentary filmmaker, such a gift and such an exciting opportunity for us because we would get to see things that were happening that other people involved in the case weren’t able to see.

RW: I mean it’s a surprise where we are now in the country with the climate on marriage equality and what’s happening with states right now. When Prop 8 passed I think only two states had legalized gay marriage at the time in California was the third so it was relatively normal that things like Prop 8 could pass, and now it’s pretty abnormal. Even in the reddest of red states we are seeing federal judges saying that the constitutional bans/the state bans are unconstitutional, so I would’ve never expected in 2008 when we began this film that we would be at this point which feels like a tipping point.

BK: There is some attention paid to the defendants. Did you ever get any pressure to put a little more focus on them as well, or did you feel that they got enough focus?

BC: The title of our film is “The Case Against 8” because we really wanted to tell a character piece, a journey of these people to overturn this law that was affecting them. I think in doing so we spent so much time behind the scenes with these people that it would’ve been deceptive of us to pretend to be giving fair attention to the other side. At the same time, we wanted to be very respectful and not villainize them. So it really wasn’t that we were setting out to make them look bad. I think we wanted to present the best of their arguments that we could see as they were presented in court and be very true to what they said, which I think at the end of the day we were. Their lead witness, David Blankenhorn, we approached when he changed his mind about same-sex marriage very publicly. He agreed to an interview which we thought was really interesting, so we could actually see some of the perspective of somebody who was, at the time, on that side during the trial. It wasn’t that he was a hateful person. He would say there was some animus in their belief that gays and lesbians shouldn’t have the right to marry, but it wasn’t because he was trying to be mean to anybody. He was essentially a nice guy. As he said, he just hadn’t gotten to know people. So for us it was important to be as fair as possible to them but not pretend that we were going to make a film about whether gay marriage was right or wrong and be fair to both sides. It really wasn’t about that for us. It was telling these characters’ stories.

BK: You had 600 hours of footage when you finished making this documentary. What was it like editing that down?

RW: A nightmare (laughs). No, it’s fun editing it down but it’s also a nightmare at the same time. Ben and I shot the footage ourselves so we were intimately familiar with what we had shot, but we hadn’t looked at it for many years. When we would shoot on tapes and we would put them into safety deposit boxes. We didn’t look at the footage. Our agreement with the legal team was we wouldn’t put a film out until the case had resolved, so we didn’t even look at the footage until we knew it was going to the Supreme Court and then we only had six months to finish a film. So it was a really fun, sort of nightmarish process to have to go through all that footage and figure out what we had and how we could put it into a cohesive narrative, but that’s where all the chips fall into place. Our main editorial goal was to balance a legal story with the human story. If you look at the structure of the film, it leads in and out of legal intricacies with the lives of the plaintiffs, and that was sort of the balance that was always the goal to strike. Hopefully we did in the end.

BK: Was there anything in this documentary that you wanted to include that you were unable to for one reason or another?

RW: It would have been great to have footage of the Supreme Court just to get to see them in action. I liked what we were able to do with the scene and hearing their voices is amazing. I can picture it myself, and as an audience member I would love to be able to picture those nine justices in action.

BC: There were some very special, intimate moments with the plaintiffs such as the day after they testified. Everyone left the courtroom and went into this sort of back secure elevator that was closed to the public, and everyone that was involved in the case was in there including us. And as soon as the elevator doors shut everybody burst into chairs. Those little special moments that, because you’re in a courtroom you can’t be filming, I think it would’ve been great to have. But fortunately there were plenty of other joyful moments that we could put in the film.

BK: I was talking with another documentary filmmaker recently and she talked about respecting the space in terms of keeping a certain difference from your subjects. Do you think you were able to pull that off?

RW: I think it’s inevitable in a film like ours that lasts for five years that’s so personal and with issues that are personal to Ben and I, we are gay Californians, that it’s hard not to have a respect for their bravery. Also, seeing them go through the wringer during this case, it’s hard not to feel invested in what happens to them. So we tried to be very respectful of telling their story faithfully, and also if there were things that they didn’t want to be part of the process we were respectful of that, but to their credit that was very few and far in between. I think one of my favorite parts of the film right now is that we are releasing it, and Ben and I are not holding cameras anymore. This morning we were all in the same room and we got to spend time with them without any of us working. It’s just getting to enjoy being together because we did become friends with them during the process. We adored both of their families, we wanted them to get their fairytale ending, and we were thrilled filming their weddings so I think it’s just about finding a balance between respecting their privacy and also trying to make a great film. We obviously had a lot of respect for them as people and families.

BK: One of the things I love about this documentary is how it peels away at political labels.

RW: Thank you. That’s our goal. That’s what we wanted to do.

BK: Ted Olson was the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, and he is the same guy who basically gave us George W. Bush as President of the United States. What was your first reaction when you found out that he was going to be taking this case?

BC: We were definitely surprised. We knew who Ted Olson was, and he is one of the most famous conservative litigators in the country. At the time, Dick Cheney was probably the only prominent conservative who was speaking openly for same-sex marriage. When he took the case we were surprised, but then once we got to know Ted we understood a little bit more why. He was never really opposed to it and he believes in equal protection of the law and always has believed that. But what was so great about it was that we could look at the issues not in a political way and not in a partisan way. We could look at the facts and we could look at what scientists were saying. Preeminent scholars from around the world came and testified about what the real science and statistics say, and individuals like Kris, Sandy, Jeff and Paul could speak to their experience and how it affected them in a very real way. So I think it allowed those stories to be heard in a way that never had happened before.

RW: Yeah, and the case was engineered around stripping politics out of it. We sort of tried to mimic that in our film because we could have concentrated on a lot of political things. We didn’t want to make a traditional social issue film about one side’s opinion on an issue and the other side’s opinion on an issue and try to draw a conclusion from it. That just wasn’t our goal. Our goal was to tell human stories, and that is the trajectory of two couples. This isn’t a movie about gay marriage being right or wrong. It’s just watching what these two couples were put through and the extraordinary circumstances they had to go through. Most straight people propose, get married in a year and it’s very routine. That’s what they grew up thinking is normal, and these two couples didn’t go through that. They went through a completely rigorous zig-zag way of getting to their fairytale ending. So I hope that that’s what the film’s take away is; just human stories rather than the political things that just sort of overwhelm the issue.

I want to thank Ben Cotner and Ryan White for taking the time to talk with me. “The Case Against 8” is now available on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

‘The Equalizer’ Reminds Us Never to Mess with Denzel Washington

The Equalizer movie poster

When actors get to a certain point, they find themselves playing older men with a violent past which they have long since renounced, but we know they will jump back into action when the occasion arises. Whether it’s Liam Neeson in “Taken,” Sean Penn in “The Gunman,” Keanu Reeves in “John Wick” or even Clint Eastwood in “Unforgiven,” these characters end up falling back into their violent ways as life has left them little else to fall back on. A song by Eminem, “Guts Over Fear,” spells this out perfectly:

“It’s too late to start over. This is the only thing I know.”

This is certainly the case for Robert McCall, the main character of “The Equalizer” which was a popular show from the 1980’s. Now Denzel Washington makes this character his own in this cinematic adaptation which shows McCall leading a decent life at a Home Depot-like store named Home Mart where he befriends its many employees, and who spends his time outside work at his bare apartment or at the local diner reading a book. But a look into his eyes tells of a dark past he would rather not tell you about, and we all know this past is going to come roaring back.

This dark past comes to the surface when Alina (Chloe Grace Moretz), a teenage prostitute McCall becomes friendly with, ends up in the hospital after a severe beating. Seeing the damage done to her, McCall goes to the Russian mobsters who employed her to beg for her freedom. Even after he presents them with an envelope filled with over nine thousand dollars in cash, they are quick to dismiss him as just some old guy who is way past his prime. Unlike the “John Wick” movies where the villains react in embarrassment upon realizing who they inadvertently pissed off, the antagonists of “The Equalizer” have yet to realize how brutal McCall as they believe youth counts for more than age. By the time they come to see their mistake, the chance to make an apology is quickly rendered moot. Just ask the man whom McCall forcefully shoves a corkscrew under his chin to where you can see it inside his mouth.

Of course, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and McCall’s actions have infuriated the Russian Mafia to where they send out theiir chief enforcer Nicolai Itchenko (Marton Csokas) to deal with the situation. It is important to note one of the books McCall reads is Ernest Hemmingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” which is about an aging Cuban fisherman who struggles to catch a giant marlin out in the Gulf Stream. As the book begins, the fisherman has been unable to catch a fish for over 80 days, and “The Equalizer” starts with McCall leading a peaceful life which suggests he has not beaten the crap out of anyone for a long, long time. But we all know a giant marlin of sorts will be thrown into his path, and we are left wondering just how badly his antagonists will get their due justice.

There is no denying Washington is one of the best film actors ever, and “The Equalizer” could not have come to him at a better time. His career has lasted for several decades, and he has surpassed the point where he has nothing else left to prove. Washington was 59 when he played Robert McCall, and helps him give the character more gravitas as he now has the face of a man who has seen more than any person should in life. All he has to do is give off a look with his eyes or speak words with his still smooth voice to let us know he means business. And when he starts the timer on his watch of his, we know things are about to get nasty.

Watching “The Equalizer” reminded me of “The Gunman” which starred Sean Penn as a former special forces officer and mercenary whom we see at points apologizing to others for being so good at killing people, a skill he wishes he was never taught. Penn is another one of our finest actors, but his performance was laughable as his character displayed himself in a way which felt insulting to our intelligence. Washington, however, does not make this same mistake in playing McCall. There’s a scene in which he admits he has done things he is not proud of and that he gave up on doing them out of respect for his late wife, but a look into his eyes is enough to tell us he is not about to apologize for who he is and that he accepted this part of himself a long time ago.

“The Equalizer” also allows Washington to reteam with his “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua, and this continues to be a match made in cinematic heaven. Let’s be honest, the plot of this movie is formulaic and hits all the notes we expect it to hit throughout, and we have a good idea of how things will turn out to where expect this to be a run of the mill action thriller. As long as it delivers the goods, this is enough.

Still, both Washington and Fuqua, along with screenwriter Richard Wenk, add their little touches to the material to where “The Equalizer” proves to be anything but average. Washington sells himself easily in this role, but he also adds a strong humanity to the character as we watch him help his friend Ralph (Johnny Skourtis) pass the security guard exam and keep a fellow employee calm while she is being robbed at gunpoint. Washington makes McCall a wonderfully rounded character in a way which could have come off as inescapably cheesy in the hands of another actor.

While Nicolai Itchenko comes off as just another overconfident gangster, let alone a Russian gangster, Fuqua gives Csokas some strong moments where a look at his tattoo-covered body reveals a man who has long since been rendered into a cold-hearted bastard to where any sense of empathy within him no longer exists. Csokas also has a scene where he stares off with Washington in the same way Al Pacino and Robert De Niro did in “Heat” as their characters try to figure the other one out, and he shows how deep Nicolai’s psychosis stretches in a way we do not often see in the typical action extravaganza.

Other actors make a sizable impact in their small roles, and it reinforces the saying of how there are no small roles, only small actors. David Harbour, before he became famous on “Stranger Things,” plays a corrupt cop whom McCall gives a chance to do the right thing in a coldly calculated way. Harbour makes the most of his moment opposite Washington when he yells out how life has given little in the way of choices to where he survives the only way he knows how. Sure, it may seem like a cliched moment, but Harbour sells it for all it is worth to where you cannot dismiss his performance as you walk out of the theater.

You even have Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo, two actors you can always depend on, showing up as Brian and Susan Plummer, a married couple and former CIA employees who were instrumental in McCall’s life and remain there for him in the aftermath of the tragedy he has suffered. Leo in particular brings a strong dramatic energy to her few scenes as she makes us see how Susan sympathizes with McCall’s situation to where she understands him in a way few others can or are willing to.

What I admired about Fuqua’s direction is that he has succeeded in making a slow burn thriller and not an action movie which hits the ground running like most do these days. Fuqua takes his time and is not quick to reveal everything about McCall to where the mystery of this man empowers the ultra-violent scenes to where we are constantly left on edge. When it comes to the movie’s climax at Home Mart, Fuqua keeps us as off-guard as the bad guys to where we cannot help but feel we are in their shoes as McCall takes them out with cruel precision. Ever since “Training Day,” this filmmaker has proven to be excellent at making action set pieces feel more visceral than they usually do, and he gets away with moving the story at a pace that seems unthinkable in today’s cinematic world which overflows with superheroes and comic book characters.

I’m not sure where I would place “The Equalizer” in the pantheon of Washington’s and Fuqua’s careers. It may not be among their best works, but it shows the care and intelligence they are willing to put into a typical genre film to where we got more out of the final product than we expect. I never did get the watch the television show which had Edward Woodward starring as Robert McCall, but I think it is safe to say Washington and Fuqua have taken this story and its main character and have safely made them their own.

* * * out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy about ‘The Tribe’

The Tribe movie poster 2

The Tribe” is one of the most unique cinematic experiences you will ever come across. The movie is told completely through the use of sign language, and it contains no subtitles and no narration of any kind. While this might scare off the average moviegoer, those who dare to watch something outside of the usual Hollywood fare will be in for a movie like few others.

The movie follows a shy deaf teenager who has just arrived at a new boarding school where he is trying to fit in. Soon after he arrives, he is courted by a blond-haired student who turns out to be the leader of a gang which traffics in robbery and prostitution among other illegal activities, and he works his way up the criminal ladder with much success. However, when he falls for one of his female classmates, he finds himself in a dire situation which leaves with little hope of escaping out of it alive.

“The Tribe” was written and directed by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, and I got to talk with him on the day it was slated to be screened at Cinefamily in Los Angeles, California. We sat in the theater’s outside patio which Myroslav described as the last place in California where one could smoke.

Ben Kenber: This was a fantastic and very unique movie. How did the idea for “The Tribe” come about?

Miroslav Slaboshpytskiy: In my childhood I studied in the school which is the same school we used to shoot “The Tribe” in, and across the road we had the deaf boarding school. I saw how difficult communication was between the children without the support of sign language. They can directly change by appearance and emotion because the deaf people, when they use sign language, can communicate very emotionally always. It looked like a miracle to me and I really wanted to share this feeling with audiences, and of course it wouldn’t have happened unless I could understand sign language. Many years ago in film school, I thought it was a great idea to make an homage to silent movies, and much later I had the possibilities to shoot “The Tribe.” I once made a short movie about deaf people called “Deafness.” You can find it on YouTube, it is free, and then I had the possibilities to turn it into a feature film. It was a big challenge for me. I’m not sure if it really works, but finally it more or less works. I’m so happy about that.

BK: I think was great you were able to get away with making this movie without using subtitles or voice over or any kind of narration. Mel Gibson had wanted to show “The Passion of the Christ” without subtitles but was unable to. Was it hard to sell potential financiers on a movie like this without subtitles?

MS: In Europe, financing a movie is the same as it is in the Ukraine in that it’s a different system of financing. It works different. I think all European and Ukrainian films spend the money of taxpayers. You must pitch the film in film funds, and film funds support the films so it’s completely different than like in the United States system. When I prepared to shoot “The Tribe” I was a local star in Ukraine because I had made several short films. I had received the Silver Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival. So when I presented the project to the Ukrainian film fund, of course they supported the film. This film looks completely different from any other Ukrainian film, and people were a little bit nervous about what might happen but finally it happened. Considering the subtitles, I never considered this idea to use subtitles and words. We had already sold this film to 44 countries. That’s never happened with a Ukrainian film before. All the distributors signed a contract, and the contract had an article which tells them they have an obligation to prohibit the use of subtitles and narration. I hope nobody will watch “The Tribe” with subtitles, and after my death too (laughs).

BK: What I loved about the movie was that, even if you don’t understand the words being said, you do get the gist of what is going on. The ad line for The Tribe is that love and hate need no translation, and it perfectly describes the movie. Were you ever worried that people wouldn’t understand what was going on?

MS: Actually no. When I shot the short film, I tried to not shoot what I didn’t understand because, if I can’t explain why I’m shooting this film that way, then I am on the wrong track. The audience has a cinema memory, and before I started to do this film the viewers had to understand what I was going to do or else I would lose their attention.

BK: When it came to casting “The Tribe,” you decided to cast non-professional deaf actors in the roles. Was that your plan from the start, or did you ever consider using professional actors?

MS: I never considered the option of hiring professional actors because they can’t communicate in sign language. It’s the same like in American movies with accents. They cannot master the thinking of sign language. They must communicate very organically because, for the deaf people, sign language is an extension of their body and an extension of their being. So for this reason, I needed the deaf people.

BK: There are a number of scenes that you shot in “The Tribe” which last several minutes. What was it like working with the actors on those long scenes?

MS: We had a very long shooting period which was approximately half a year. Because we have an unprofessional cast, we can sign a contract that makes it look they’re at a real job like at an office. It’s much better because you have a rented car for you and a lot of people taking care of you and you’re the big star. Of course I’m joking, but we have this process of a lot of rehearsals. We had them from 7 to 10 days for one scene. When we felt that we were ready to shoot, we ordered this heavy film equipment and started to shoot within days and kept trying to get a better take. Then we started to rehearse the next scene and moving step by step towards the end of the film.

BK: Yana Novikova, who plays Anya, in particular is asked to do a lot of hard stuff in “The Tribe,” and she has a lot of great scenes. Her abortion scene is very well directed and acted. You can see the pain in that sequence very vividly. What was it like directing that particular sequence?

MS: The abortion scene, everybody is asking about it. People were fainting during the scene in Israel, in Moscow and in New York last week. How we shot the scene was completely non-dangerous. I am proud of the scene because it is a total illusion. It’s like when you go to the circus and David Copperfield cuts the woman into two parts. It’s the same. It’s a complete illusion. We had a lot of engineering, a lot of rehearsal and we prepared the scene very well. We visited with Yana to this hospital which had a woman doctor who consulted with us. She doesn’t only do abortions; she likes to deliver babies as well. She made them tour around the hospital through the birthing wing. We had a rubber woman’s body without foots and legs, only vagina, which medical students train on. They train on this rubber body, and this rubber body would scream if you did something wrong. It was very funny. And then this doctor sits closer to me and watched the monitor and screamed much higher than me if something went wrong. For this reason, we can do it very well, but again it’s a complete illusion. The woman who performs abortions told me the story, and I felt that I had to put in this movie because I’m not a big expert in abortions before this.

BK: It’s a very touchy, taboo subject in America, and I found it very brave that you put it in the movie because a lot of filmmakers would’ve found excuses not to include an abortion scene in their movies most likely out of fear. But it is an important sequence because it shows you how hard it is for someone in the country to get an abortion.

MS: Yeah. In fact, it was very funny because when it was shown at the Dublin Film Festival, after the screening there was a beautiful Q&A session. Some woman asked me if someone abused me in my childhood. I said no but I’m very open to new experiences. An old man visited me outside of the cinema and shook my hand and said, “Thank you very much. It was a great sequence and a great scene and we have a lot of them here. It’s very brave that you showed it.”

BK: Was “The Tribe” shot on film or was it shot digitally?

MS: We shot it on an Alexa. It would’ve been impossible to shoot it on film with those very long takes because we would’ve gone bankrupt after two or three days. I always want to shoot on 35 mm film, but we don’t have the financing possibilities. But we have a copy of course on 35mm.

BK: Another shot that stood out to me was the one where we see children doing some sort of show for the parents, and once they clear out Sergey, the new kid at school, comes into the picture. It’s like the last moment of pure innocence to be found in this movie. What was your thinking when you were putting that particular scene together?

MS: In fact, it’s like a tradition. It’s the first day of school when everybody goes to school, and it’s like a celebration. It’s like a social ritual, and it still continues in the Soviet Union. In 2007 when I started my research for “The Tribe,” I witnessed this ritual at the boarding school and made a video for myself. I completely agree with you that this ritual looks completely different. It looks like something more or less cute. And then the scene rapidly changes and you see the dark side of the system.

I want to thank Miroslav Slaboshpytskiy for taking the time to talk with me. “The Tribe” is available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

Exclusive Interview with Yana Novikova about ‘The Tribe’

The Tribe Yana photo

Yana Novikova is one of the stars of the critically acclaimed Ukrainian drama “The Tribe” which was written and directed by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy. It opens up on a shy young boy named Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) who has just arrived at a boarding school for the deaf, and he soon finds himself being initiated into the school’s gang which deals heavily in robbery, bribery and prostitution. But just as he becomes like any other member, he falls in love with one of his female classmates, Anna (Yana Novikova), and this triggers a series of events which in turn leads to an unnerving and unforgettable conclusion.

The cast of “The Tribe” is made up of deaf, non-professional actors, and it contains no subtitles and no narration. Yana has one of the movie’s most challenging roles as her character works after school as a prostitute in order to save up money for a visa. She dives into her role fearlessly, and it’s a role which required a lot from her in terms of nudity and raw emotions. That’s not even to mention the scene where Anna gets an abortion, a subject which remains taboo in many societies.

It was a great pleasure for me to talk with Yana back in 2014 while she was in Los Angeles, and she was joined by two sign language interpreters who helped bring her beautifully long answers to light. For a first time actress, she gives an exceptionally brave performance.

The Tribe movie poster 1

Ben Kenber: How were you cast in “The Tribe?”

Yana Novikova: During my time in Belarus, which was my hometown, I was going to college and was studying engineering, tailoring and was busy with my studies. There was an acting program nearby. I was not involved with that, but I was called by a friend of mine about the fact that in Kiev, Ukraine they had a college for the deaf. So the Ukrainian friend of mine was telling me about how they had acting classes and you could learn about dance and movement and things like that. My friend told me that there was an audition taking place in Kiev, Ukraine, and it was in two weeks. So, I had two weeks to prepare for this audition before I flew out to Kiev. To start my preparation of my rehearsal I had to tell my parents about the audition, and at first my mom said no, absolutely not. She was shocked this was my plan that I wanted to do. She said, “You don’t have friends out there in Kiev. Do you even know the city?” So mom was very concerned. “You can’t drop out of college, you know? You are working on getting your degree” at the college I was attending at Belarus. I had to strongly express to her that, even though I was involved in my studies at college, I really wanted to get into acting. My mom told me repeatedly no and I had to calm her down and convince her, so I changed my story a little bit and told my mom that I was going to be visiting friends in Kiev. So, I had to lie a little bit and I did everything secretive. But I made my preparations, I flew to Kiev and stayed with a group of deaf friends and there was a group of writers there. I didn’t know who the writer was, I didn’t know who the director was, but that director was looking at who had auditioned. He was just sort of incognito. We didn’t know that he was there and he was watching all this. I got completely involved and completely absorbed in rehearsing in preparing for the audition. They tell me that, after the audition, they were going to be selecting three people and I was like, “Three people? That’s it, out of this whole group of 10?” They said there’s just not enough scholarship money to audition for this program. There’s only enough scholarship money to accept three deaf people for this acting program. I was so upset when I wasn’t chosen. I cried and I asked them questions about why I wasn’t selected, “What were you looking for? Were you more concerned about my logistical issues about living so far away? Was that an issue; would I be able to pay for the dorm or not or things like that? What were the selections based on?” And they said, “Well you’re better off staying in Belarus and continuing on with your college and your studies.” And I said, “No, my heart is not in engineering. My heart is not in sewing and tailoring. I really want to get into acting.” So we went back and forth and back and forth, and they repeatedly told me no and that they were not selecting me. But the director, who was present, made time and came up to me and said “Well perhaps if you’re willing to fly to Kiev for the next production and try out for that audition, we have an audition for another project coming up called The Tribe.” So, I ultimately did that. I flew back to Kiev and auditioned. There were about 300 people who auditioned for the film, a long line of people all deaf. They took photographs of us as part of the audition process, they got our profiles and everything, they got information, and after the audition they told us to check the Internet to look and see if your name shows up on the list to see if you were selected. So, for about a week I kept my close eye on the casting list, and when I finally saw my name on that list and that I was chosen I was thrilled. During that process there was actually another very small film project that was going on that I was given a very, very small role in. It gave me an opportunity to do some rehearsal and do some practice in the role as a boy actually, a little rebellious boy character. So I had this real short, small role in this other project, so while I was filming and preparing for that, the director really took a hard look at me and evaluated me during that whole process, and then in September I was already chosen for my role in The Tribe. I was so happy. I completely dropped out of college and I told one of my professors and he was like, “Why are you quitting? You don’t like college? You don’t like what you’re doing?” And I said, “No. I’m actually an actress and I’m getting into acting.” And I let the professor know that I got a job and the professor was like, “Are you joking?” I said, “No I’m actually going to be acting in a film.” So, once I did that I went home and packed, and still my mom didn’t know at that time what had taken place and that I was chosen for this film. So I was in the middle of my packing process and mom came in and said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “Well I was chosen to be an actress in a film.” My mom said, “Are you joking? You dropped out of college and you are completely shifting your plan?” I said yeah and my mom obviously got very, very upset and told me no I don’t want you to do this. So I ignored what she told me and I flew to the Ukraine and started filming The Tribe, and I actually didn’t see my parents for the whole month of September. I did stay in contact with my parents, but I didn’t see them in person. Once the production was done, I found out that it was chosen to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival and won some awards and things like that. Finally, through that process and learning about that on the Internet, my parents finally started to believe in me and that’s when the nudity issue came up and that I had to be nude in the film. I said, “Well mom and dad, that’s part of the acting work and life.” So I was so happy that finally I was actually a real actress and that I was a real thing.”

BK: Speaking of the nudity, you were asked to do some things that are not easy for any actor to do. How did you manage to get comfortable with the actors and the crew during the scenes where you had to be nude?

YN: The very first scene, I was just nude from the top up when the boy pushed the new student into our dorm room. But the script actually said that I was just going to be wearing a small little bra type thing, so that was what I was expecting at first during the filming of the first scene. And the director said, “Well actually, do you mind… Let’s time out for a second. I think the scene would do better with nude from the top up without the bra.” So I was like whoa, really? That was really overwhelming. I was upset at that point. I considered myself an actress and I wanted to get into my role, but I wasn’t expecting that. The director and his wife, they talked me down and calmed me down and said this was part of acting, “You don’t need to feel uncomfortable. Just focus on the beauty of the film in its entirety.” They gave me some different films to watch and to help get myself more into my preparation and into the role to help give me some ideas, and there is one specific French film called “Blue is the Warmest Color.” That specific film I watched and it had a significant impact on me. That really, really got me to change my point of view. The director decided to tell me more about the film itself which also went to the Cannes Film Festival and explained the process it had gone through, and I was full of questions about it. So, after seeing and learning more about that movie, “Blue is the Warmest Color,” I started to ask Myroslav, “So is it possible that ‘The Tribe’ could be that successful? Could it make it to Cannes and have the same level of success that the French film for that?” At that point in the whole process I hadn’t been finally selected for that full role, so we were just in rehearsals in that part of the process. So then when it was suggested to me that I watch that other film and started asking Myroslav those questions, it was at that point in time that my point of view completely changed. I got completely into the role during the rehearsals and everything, and I decided at that point I was fine with going with Miroslav’s direction of going full nude, and I wanted to prove to him that I could do it and that I was capable and that the film could make it to Cannes. So, it was a change in my point of view and my focus. During the scene where Sergey and I had to practice nudity, what we did to rehearse for that part was that we got into the nudity slowly so day by day by day we would remove more and more clothing as we rehearsed that scene. So we did all the rehearsal and then the actual filming took place, and finally everything just came together. Everything just melded so we filmed, and little by little by little by little the clothes came off as part of the filming process of that scene, and after we had done that scene it was no problem for me. We just completely filmed the whole thing, and then the next scene was the sex scene where we were in the 69 position. Our characters really grew. We became closer with one another and love developed. Our characters started to love one another, and love requires so many different ingredients and all these small and different elements being in tune with one another and showing that connection to the camera. Both myself and Sergey, it was our very, very first experience doing that type of thing and we were able to connect, and the rest is history.

BK: Another big scene for your character is when she has the abortion, and it’s a very brave scene in the movie. Myroslav explained to me that it was all an illusion, but your acting and the nurse there made it seem very real. How did you go about preparing for that particular scene?

YN: Thank you for that complement on that scene. When I learned that the abortion scene was part of the film, I didn’t have a problem doing it. I knew that it was part of the movie, but the challenge for me was that I didn’t have any real life experience with an abortion. So I had to do my research. I checked on the Internet, I interviewed and spoken to other women who had been through that experience and I tried to incorporate all those different elements into myself and then actually put those into that very scene. The other girl who was active in the film, she and I were in the same boat. She had never had that personal experience, so she and I and a director went to an actual medical clinic where they do those types of things, and the doctor there shared with us everything we needed to know about the abortion process. So, when the filming began the very next morning, it was a very long day. There were many, many takes and many retakes. We had to start from the beginning of the scene, walk-in and take off my clothing and go through the emotional part of it; the crying and the whole thing. And then we had to cut many, many times. We had to stop. Filming that scene went from morning until night. We went through a lot of tissues. I went through a lot of tissues that day. I was completely exhausted. I had to really try my best to conserve my energy before filming and then film the scene, be completely exhausted and then try and find that energy again and film the emotional parts again. It was exhausting and at that time I was trying to connect with the character and going through that abortion experience, and as a woman I tried to really reflect what it was really like and really tried to show it accurately. The director really worked with me to really draw out my genuine emotions to reflect that character. The goal was so that the audience could connect with that character and really connect with what she was really going through, and that scene was very, very important. It had a big impact in the movie. It actually was showing the beauty of what that person was going through. That’s how I would describe it. It was very, very hard work, and it was something I wanted to share.

BK: Were you aware from the get-go that this movie was going to be shown without subtitles or any narration, and how did you feel about that?

YN: I definitely was aware of that fact and I thought it was cool. I liked it because, for myself, when I watch a film I don’t like to look at the action and then have to look down and read. It’s work to do that to watch a film. It’s almost impossible sometimes to get everything all at once. I thought it was cooler because then the audience could really focus on the actual character and all the different elements of the character and really get into that, and so I absolutely completely supported Myroslav in his position to make the film without subtitles.

BK: It’s great because, even if you don’t know sign language, you still get the gist of what’s going on in the movie from scene to scene.

YN: Yes, absolutely. You get the gist, you get the story, you get the emotion, you see the facial expressions and all of that is obvious. It’s impossible to not understand from the beginning to the very, very end. It’s a very colorful film. It’s easy to understand. Everything is right there and presented visually for you. It’s like a person kind of going through and really experiencing that life and gives them that idea of getting into that story.

BK: In the end this is not a movie about deaf people but about people trapped in a situation that does not offer them an easy escape, and that’s what’s great about it. It’s not about one kind of people because it’s really universal in its themes.

YN: Yes, it is universal, absolutely. It’s both. It incorporates the deaf world and there was no interpreting needed actually. You understand the concepts and it’s beautiful. There’s no interpretation of language and it applies to all walks of life and the emotional parts of it as well. It applies to everyone. The emotions are universal. Everyone feels the same emotions. It’s very explicit.

I want to thank Yana very much for taking the time to talk with me. “The Tribe” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital. For those movie buffs who are very interested in having a unique cinematic experience, this is a must see.

 

Exclusive Interview with Dragan Bjelogrlic about ‘See You in Montevideo’

Dragan Bjelogrlic photo

See You in Montevideo” was the Serbian entry in the Best Foreign Language Film for the 87th Academy Awards, and it is a sequel to “Montevideo: Taste of a Dream.” It takes us back in time to the first World Cup which was held in Montevideo, Uruguay and follows the national soccer team of Yugoslavia. These players have never been outside of their home country before, and everyone else views them as outsiders to where many of their competitors treat them with utter disdain. However, they eventually win people over thanks to their youthful enthusiasm and their love of soccer. But as the games go on, we see how their love of soccer threatens to be crushed by corrupt forces beyond their control.

Both “Montevideo: Taste of a Dream” and “See You in Montevideo” were directed by the same director, Dragan Bjelogrlic. In addition to being a filmmaker, he is also an actor who is considered by many in his country to be a “Serbian Robert Redford” as he is typically cast in roles where he plays a charismatic criminal like Čika Kure in “The Wounds.”

Bjelogrlic was in Los Angeles for a screening of “See You in Montevideo” at the Landmark Theatres back in 2015, and I was lucky enough to spend a few minutes with him afterwards to talk about it.

See You in Montevideo poster

Ben Kenber: This was a wonderful movie. I have to apologize because I haven’t seen the first movie yet.

Dragan Bjelogrlic: Oh no, no. I prefer people who have not watched the first movie because my whole idea was to make a totally independent second movie and totally independent story which is the global story. When we decided to make two movies about the same subject, I organized all of that and I said to my producer, “What do you think? Maybe I’ll make the first movie and then get something else to make the second movie.” But after the success of the first movie he said, “No, no! You must! Just forget about the first movie and try to make something else.” So I like spectators who didn’t watch the first movie (laughs). No really! And you’re right, (if you have) watched the first movie you will feel more comfortable.

BK: That’s a good point because this movie does feel like it stands on its own. I also found it fascinating how the movie chronicles the love of the sport and how it gets corrupted by greed and politics towards the end. How did you go about researching all this project?

DB: I read a lot of articles and a lot of books which were made about soccer. It’s the most popular sport. And there were a lot of journalists that wrote about it, and people didn’t read it back then. There were some people who were aware of what things were going on. There was the enthusiastic period where they were pioneers, and the people who created it first were very enthusiastic and it was good. The first World Cup was very good, but when 100,000 people come it’s some big plan. Okay let’s make some compromise, but it’s really very sad. We are witnesses now.

BK: Regarding the actors who played the soccer players, did you want real soccer players cast or were you just comfortable casting actors whether they had soccer experience or not?

DB: They are actors. At the beginning some of them were students and some of them were actors, but I try to combine actors and athletes. Thanks to God, we Serbs are good at both (laughs). We had a lot to choose from so it was not a difficult choice. That’s something which was not such a big problem. The only problem was the bind. Like somebody said, “Oh people in Uruguay, they will not like this.” It was a problem for me, but they find this fact that the policeman gave back the ball and somebody covered that. I said aha, this could be a subject. Who knows in which kind of sports football will be developed? That’s something which was my idea.

BK: In the process of turning this true story into a movie, did you have to take any dramatic license with the facts at any time?

DB: No. We just followed the facts and we tried to be precise with all facts especially with the match between Yugoslavia and Uruguay. What has happened? Who got the first goal? Who was the referee who canceled the first goal? It’s all the facts you can find in articles. There is my concession that the facts are facts.

BK: What’s up next for you?

DB: I don’t know. I have a lot of opportunities. My main job is as an actor, that’s my main profession. I like to act a little. This may be comfortable for me, but it’s not necessary for me to direct. If I find something which I feel (strongly about), I will direct.

Big thanks to Dragan Bjelogrlic for taking the time to talk with me. “See You in Montevideo” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

Exclusive Interview with Toby Regbo about ‘U Want Me 2 Kill Him?’

Toby Regbo in U Want Me 2 Kill Him

In “U Want Me 2 Kill Him?,” Toby Regbo gets one of his biggest and most memorable roles yet. The movie is based on a true story which was chronicled in Vanity Fair about a 16-year old schoolboy who gets arrested for attempted murder. His explanation was he was working under orders from an MI5 agent, but the truth of the matter ends up revealing something far more shocking.

Regbo plays John, a lonely boy who gets picked on at school and is later befriended by one of the most popular students there, Mark (Jamie Blackley). The friendship comes about because John’s sister Rachel (Jaime Winstone), whom Mark has developed an online relationship with, asked him to look out for John. But when Rachel is found murdered, both John and Mark in their devastation vow revenge against the person who took her life. What happens from there is not worth giving away, but it resulted in one of England’s most shocking crimes and showed us all how much of a threat the internet can be.

I got to speak with Regbo over the phone about his role back in 2013. During our conversation we talked about how his role reminded him of his years as a teenager, how much time he spends on the internet, the challenges of playing a character based on a real life person, and he even gave me an update on “Maleficent” which he was cast in.

U Want Me 2 Kill Him poster

Ben Kenber: Were you aware of the Vanity Fair article or the true-life story this film was based on before you got the script for it?

Toby Regbo: Not before I got the script. I read originally for Mark, the other character that Jamie Blackley ended up playing which is a good thing the roles ended up that way. But no, I didn’t know anything about it until I auditioned for it, and then once I got close to getting the part then I started looking further into it. I read the article and I also had some information that wasn’t in the article. I met the journalist who wrote the Vanity Fair Article (Judy Bachrach). In fact, she came to the set. But once you know the story, you want to know as much as possible about the case. It’s so mental that this happened.

BK: What appealed to you most about the role you ended up playing in the film?

TR: It’s hard to talk about the film without giving too much away.

BK: Yes, that’s true.

TR: I guess the interesting thing for me was trying to play the scenes in the movie without giving any tells to the ending. That was the key for me, trying to create something that was believable enough that you don’t see it coming I guess, at least for not a long way away.

BK: Yes, that must have been tricky because you read the script and wonder how you can keep from revealing everything. That must have been a challenge for everybody involved.

TR: We did a lot of rehearsals which is great. It’s the most rehearsal I’ve ever done before starting a film. Andrew Douglas, the director, and his wife Lenore sort of coached us (me and Jamie) through the movie. We did three or four weeks of rehearsals beforehand and working everything out. It was about just trying to keep them real, trying to find out exactly what motivated them. We did a whole bunch of work with sort of character objectives. We used this book called Ivana Chubbuck’s “The Power of the Actor” and we worked out what motivated our characters.

BK: Do you prefer to do a lot of rehearsal before you shoot a movie or does it depend on what movie you’re working on?

TR: It just depends on the whole vibe. I do like rehearsals, but at the same time the best stuff that ever happens is stuff that you don’t plan for. You can do things to death, but you just got to get out and do it for real. I’m doing this TV show and we’ve been shooting for like ten months now, and I’ve never shot that long before. It’s like a different process. You shoot like 8 pages a day, you get scripts like a couple of days beforehand, there’s not much preparation time and you just got to sort of go with it. It’s great training as an actor.

BK: I agree. The chemistry you have with Jamie Blackley onscreen is terrific and you two come across as very down to earth and really good friends. This makes the eventual unraveling of their friendship all the more painful to witness. How did you two develop that chemistry?

TR: It came to us naturally. Jamie is one of the easiest people to get along with that I ever met in my life. And also at the same time, when we started filming we both had fallen in love with girls at the same time, so we had that camaraderie on set. We were always talking about how long we should wait until we say I love you to a girl, so we both had that commonality. It worked out for Jamie, it worked out for me.

BK: Before you made this movie, did you spend a lot of time on the internet and in chat rooms?

TR: I’ve never been in a chat room before. There was a time where we used to go on MSN Hotmail a lot when I was like 14 which was a fucking nightmare. More than anything else, the social media revolution has helped kids talk shit about each other at an exponential rate. It’s been a lot of fun on there talking about who kissed who and what boy did what, and that was a great fucking waste of time for a couple of years. I’ve sort of grown away from it now. I thought I go and do a lot of other things than just waste all this time online.

BK: Were you able to do a lot of research on the person your character was based on? We find out at the end of the movie that a lot of information can’t be revealed due to certain laws in England.

TR: Yes, and I think that’s for the best. The character that I play, I based it on the script which was based on the Vanity Fair article. But I felt very distant from whoever this unknown boy, now a man, is. I don’t know the name, I don’t know who he is, I have no connection with him at all and I think that’s the way that it should be. On Demand on my TV earlier today I saw the trailer for the “Diana” movie. The story is about Diana and how the press ruined her life and how they like ended it. However you want to look at it, it was this terrible event that happened and now she’s dead, but they’ve made a fucking movie about it. I mean the hypocrisy of like saying oh look how terrible it is that the media ruined her life, and then they’ve made a movie about it. That doesn’t seem to make any sense. But I did feel a responsibility playing someone who is real. Although they did a very terrible thing, they shouldn’t have to have this film on their shoulders for the rest of their lives. It based on a true story, but there is this creative license in it.

BK: It’s interesting because with certain movies that are based on true stories, many actors feel the need to learn as much as they can about the real person they are playing to the point where they fall into the trap of impersonating them. I guess knowing less about the person your character was based on was probably more freeing for you because you weren’t shackled to that.

TR: Yeah, I mean I think for some actors they love that. They really want to get inside the heads of the real person, but I find it very, very strange to try sort of mesh this other person over the top of you especially when it comes to your voice and like doing an accent and that sort of thing. I think its dangerous territory where it can become an impersonation. I would always approach playing a real person with extreme trepidation, but in this case I felt like I was playing the character that was written on the page rather than this actual boy who is out there in the real world.

BK: I imagine you’re not far from the age of the character you play in this film. Did playing this role bring back any memories of being a teenager for you?

TR: I was 19 when we filmed it and I’m 22 now. Bringing back memories of a teenager would’ve only been one year. To be honest, being a teenager is fucking shit most of the time. Kids are really, really horrible, and I totally understand escapism that both of these boys are sort of trying to pursue through the power of the mundane inanity being a teenager growing up in the suburbs trying to have the “mad life” as Mark would put it.

BK: I see that you were cast in Disney’s “Maleficent” as the young Stefan. Can you tell us anything about that movie?

TR: Well I can tell you that I’m not in it (laughs). I worked two weeks on that and there was some studio nonsense. Basically they wanted the character that I was playing to be younger, much younger. We were doing this prologue to the film and they wanted 10 rather than 16, but they waited two weeks into filming before making that decision. I’m still glad that I got to be on that set. I’ve never done anything like that before, and I hope that it turns out well. It’s amazing what they are doing there, and I never been in something with such a big budget. Just the level of detail… There were these chests on the set, these like fairy chests or whatever, and you open them and they are like filled with all these intricate gilded swords and beautiful linens and stuff. The level of detail was amazing. I’m sad I’m not a part of it.

I want to thank Toby Regbo for taking the time to talk with me. “U Want Me 2 Kill Him?” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.