Exclusive Interview with Ashim Ahluwalia on ‘Miss Lovely’

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On the surface, “Miss Lovely” might look like a typical Bollywood movie, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s a Hindi feature film which digs deep into the sordid back alley of India’s film industry of the 1980’s which churned out countless horror and soft-core porn movies. In the midst of this sleazy atmosphere are the Duggal brothers, Sonu (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and Vicky (Anil George), who are among the most prolific producers of trashy C-grade films for Mumbai’s underground market. But while Vicky has no problem with what he does, Sonu is desperately looking to escape this underground reality. When he meets the beautiful actress Pinky (Niharika Singh), Sonu sees not only his chance for escape but also the opportunity to make a real romance movie with her as the star. But as he works to make this a reality, he ends up going down a road from which there is no return.

“Miss Lovely” was directed by Ashim Ahluwalia who is said to be part of a new generation of Indian filmmakers who prefer to avoid working with Hindi film stars, and his films have been described as unconventional in how they blur the lines between documentary and fiction. This is certainly the case here as Ahluwalia’s film deals with an industry he has seen up close, and he invites us to journey into its murky depths. It was originally supposed to be a documentary, but when Ahluwalia couldn’t get those working in the C-grade film industry to be involved, he decided to make a fiction film instead. What results is an unforgettable motion picture which is as unsettling as it is intoxicating to sit through, and it’s one of those movies I sarcastically describe as being good fun for the whole family.

I got to speak with Ahluwalia while he was out to promote “Miss Lovely,” and he was super excited to talk about it as the movie looks at an industry which has long ceased to exist due to changes in technology and the widespread availability of pornography on the internet. It was fascinating to hear him talk about this as filmmakers today are dealing with a shift in technology from film to digital, and it’s a shift many are not quick to embrace.

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Ben Kenber: I was blown away by it and it was not at all what I expected. It’s more of a movie you experience than just watch.

Ashim Ahluwalia: Exactly. I think that’s really a good way to describe it.

BK: I especially liked how you shot this movie on Kodak Super 16 and 35mm film as it gives the movie a really rough feel which in turn captures the sleazy nature of the business these characters are engulfed in.

AA: Yeah, it was also about the end of celluloid. The whole period that these films were made in was kind of the end of celluloid and then you have VHS replacing it. In a way, that was the precursor to the digital age and this whole way of consuming sleaze I guess. It just moved to the internet in the 2000’s and then that was the end of that. So I think a lot of it has to do with this material that was so critical in the way these films are made and consumed. It’s crazy to think that they were shooting that sleaze on 35mm (laughs), and now people would just die to get their hands on that kind of access to celluloid, so it’s pretty much part of what the film is about.

BK: Now some have suggested that “Miss Lovely” is part of a new wave of Indian cinema. How do you feel about the reaction this movie has had so far?

AA: It has random individuals doing random things and they’re not really connected, and that has more to do with the fact that now people are more exposed to cinema and they’re getting excited by what’s happening in the rest of Asia and the possibility of digital, etc. I think this whole idea was kind of overblown. It was sort of a moment when they were trying to tie everything together. I think “Miss Lovely” is a very odd film honestly. It’s not unique. It’s not odd just to India; it’s just odd generally because it’s such a hybrid film. It’s just taking very comfortably in a way that most art-house movies don’t just take it from the musical, taking from a 50’s noir, taking from sex horror, taking from porn, maybe documentaries or experimental films and stuff like that. I don’t think it represents a new specific type of film from India, but I think this is definitely a moment where there is new stuff and it’s not just Bollywood, Bollywood, Bollywood.

BK: To be honest, I’m not too familiar with Bollywood films…

AA: Well you’re lucky (laughs).

BK: I think the closest I’ve come to Bollywood so far is “Slumdog Millionaire,” but I’m not sure if that counts.

AA: Well yeah but it’s borderline Bollywood honestly. New Bollywood is kind of like that.

BK: How difficult was it to re-create the Mumbai of the 1980’s as you remember it?

AA: It was really hard because most of the places were being bulldozed as we were shooting them. So sometimes at a location, half the building was already knocked down and we just got them to hold for like a week until we shot a scene. It was literally shooting the last remnants of that kind of 80’s one-hour hotels and cabaret halls and stuff. I would say that about 60 or 70% of the locations are gone now and it’s not even been two years. It becomes kind of a document of those places and that kind of time. It doesn’t exist anymore.

BK: I read that you were not looking to romanticize or do a parody of the 1980’s. How did you manage to keep yourself from doing that?

AA: Well I think there’s sort of like a hipster 1980’s thing and I really wanted to stay away from that. I didn’t want to just make like fetishes of all those little 80’s objects. For me, the reason is because I spent a year and a half hanging out with a lot of these people from the C-grade industry because I initially wanted to make a documentary. So, by the time I was done with that one-and-a-half-year period, it was very hard to poke fun at anyone because these are people that you spent so much time with and saw so intimately. It was hard to caricaturize them.

BK: During the movie, we don’t see a lot of the real world outside of the one the Duggal brothers inhabit. When it does intrude on their sleazy underworld, you feel almost as lost as the characters do as they desperately try to escape their circumstances.

AA: Yeah, it’s kind of claustrophobic. I wanted the film to be like this kind of maze that you were trying to get out of and you can’t. The whole point is this kind of escape ends up being a fantasy of a film that could maybe get you out of there, but it’s sort of like endless passageways that lead into other passageways. It’s just a very interior, claustrophobic kind of environment which I think, for me, I relate to that. When you work sometimes in film you feel like that. You don’t have to really only work in secret cinema, but sometimes a bad day job can be like that. So, I think that idea of you were always trying to escape but you can’t, I like that somehow.

BK: This is your first feature film as a director, and your previous film was a documentary. What was the transition like for you from making documentaries to directing an actual feature film?

AA: The first film I made was “John & Jane” and that was a documentary, but it was shot on 35mm and looks more like a dystopian sci-fi film than a documentary. Somebody told me that my documentaries look more like fiction and my fiction looks more like documentaries, so I’m really interested in this idea of what a fiction film is and what a documentary is. “Miss Lovely” is not a conventional or traditional film. It’s still quite loose in terms of its language and it’s quite experimental, so I don’t find much difference. I feel like I could slip in and out between these two worlds quite easily in some ways.

BK: You once said that the raw energy of these C-grade filmmakers reminded you of why you set out to make films in the first place. What was it specifically about them that reminded you of that?

AA: Well I think what happens is that when you start working in any capacity like in an industry or an environment, what ends up happening is that you become quite jaded as a filmmaker. You’re just like always thinking about how do I get money, do I put it in this thing, if I put this person in it then I get this money and then if I work with that person then I get this distribution, etc. I think what ends up happening is that you lose that energy and spirit of why you really love cinema. You don’t watch films anymore because you’re so jaded by it. But when I experienced these guys making films, although the films are very bad admittedly, the way that they would make the films would be so like run and gone. It would be like, “Oh are we running out of film stock? What we do? The actor’s not available? Get another actor to stand in for the guy.” So the character is now played by a different actor, or if you don’t have a shot then you put a stock shot in, or the police are coming into the building so you have to finish the scene like within 15 minutes. The whole anarchic energy of the way the films are made really reminded me of what independent film should be; just making it with such passion. It’s like the passion is going to make the film happen. It really inspired me in a way to just make something which I really love with some degree of madness and passion which I think sometimes gets filtered out of you.

BK: I’m always waiting for the independent film world to explode again like it did in the 1990’s.

AA: Yeah exactly, and then you see how it’s just been co-opted and it feels like such a tired kind of thing.

BK: The characters in “Miss Lovely” are basically composites of the people you met in this industry. You said you originally wanted to do a documentary, but a lot of the people you talked to didn’t want to be involved in it because of the illegal nature of what they were doing. How accurate is this movie to those types of filmmakers?

AA: A lot of the people that were going to be in the documentary initially, I got them to just play themselves in the background. So all the background characters are all like real C-grade people. All the secondaries are actually people that, when I cast them in a fiction film, were like, “Okay I’ll do it.” But they didn’t want to be in the documentary somehow. So, a lot of those real elements I just kind of brought back into this movie in another way through another backdoor and just brought the realism back into it.

BK: That’s surprising to hear that they did find a way to be in this movie without compromising their true identities.

AA: Yeah, and as long as they were in costume they felt like they weren’t revealing too much of themselves, but they were playing themselves essentially. That just gave the whole thing a bona fide genuine authentic atmosphere that is just almost impossible to re-create artificially with actors who don’t know anything about that world. I felt it just brings another energy to it.

BK: The cast is just spot on with their performances. What was the casting process for “Miss Lovely” like?

AA: Well a lot of them are real people that, when you meet them, are so performative anyway. There’s a midget casting director, the little guy, and when I met him he was just so charismatic when he was talking to me about what he did. He is actually a casting director in real life, so he just had to do what he always does and he was really comfortable. A lot of them were really comfortable around the cameras somehow. It’s almost like they were waiting all their lives to be in front of the camera, and suddenly they just did that thing. And of course, if I gave somebody lines, finally they would never remember the lines but they would do their own thing which would be better than the lines I wrote. I would be like, “Yeah let’s just keep that. It’s much better.”

BK: All the actors seem to have a wonderfully natural quality whenever they appear onscreen. It’s like there inhabiting the roles instead of just playing them, and it really sucks you into the atmosphere of the movie even more.

AA: Well that’s because a lot of them really are those people, so that’s partly it. And the others who were more professional actors were now having to match their performance with someone who’s so bona fide and so real that they are like, “S—t! I need to get better at what I’m doing because I’m looking fake now in relation to this person.” So, putting nonprofessional and then professional actors in the same space together creates a very interesting dynamic.

BK: “Miss Lovely” reminded me a bit of the Coen Brothers’ film “Barton Fink” as both movies have protagonists who really want to make a difference in the industry they’re working in, and then they see their dreams get shattered in the worst way possible.

AA: Yeah, I like that film a lot actually. That’s a very atmospheric film. The atmosphere is very much a character in the film, and it’s not just about the narrative. It’s just about the texture of that space and stuff. It’s a good reference I think.

BK: Another movie reminded me of was “Boogie Nights” and the scene where the producers are talking to Burt Reynolds about switching from celluloid to videotape since it’s a lot less expensive.

AA: Yeah. I think probably there are similar interests from filmmakers because we grew up in a certain time and a certain place, and you’ve seen this shift happen to digital and it’s such a radical change in terms of what it means to make a movie or what a film even is. I think it’s all about a certain generation of filmmakers grappling with the shift.

I want to thank Ashim Ahluwalia for taking the time to talk with me. “Miss Lovely” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

Exclusive Interview with Matt Shakman on ‘Cut Bank’

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Matt Shakman has had quite the journey through show business so far. He started off as a child actor doing commercials, and he played the role of Graham “J.R.” Lubbock, Jr. in “Just the Ten of Us,” a spin-off of “Growing Pains.” From there he went to Yale University where he studied theater, and while there he directed several plays. Upon arriving in Los Angeles, he founded the Black Dahlia Theatre which American Theatre Magazine later called one of “a dozen young American companies you need to know.” Eventually, this led to him directing television for such shows as “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Mad Men” and “Fargo.” Now, he makes his feature film directorial debut with the thriller “Cut Bank,” a film noir along the lines of “Blood Simple.”

Cut Bank” stars Liam Hemsworth as Dwayne McLaren, a former high school football star who is desperate to escape his hometown of Cut Bank, Montana. Then one day, while filming a video for his girlfriend, he witnesses the town’s mailman Georgie Wits (Bruce Dern) being shot to death. From there a scheme is uncovered where some people look to get rich very quickly, but it all comes to spiral out of control in horrendous ways. The movie also stars John Malkovich, Billy Bob Thornton and Michael Stuhlbarg.

I got to speak with Shakman over the phone about “Cut Bank,” and he discussed what it was like working with actors like Malkovich, Thornton and Stuhlbarg, how he managed to shoot the movie on 35mm film, and he spoke of how he went from being a child actor to a theater and television director and now a film director.

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Ben Kenber: I read you approached this movie as a play more than anything else.

Matt Shakman: Yeah, I tried to cast actors who I’ve always admired and put together kind of like a rep company. In a way, I could imagine doing the movie again and everybody switching parts. They’re all so great and talented and versatile. So yeah, I definitely considered it like I was casting a play.

BK: Of all the actors you cast in this movie, John Malkovich was the first one you went to. What made you start with him?

MS: I’ve been a fan of John Malkovich onstage and onscreen, and he’s a personal hero of mine because he founded Steppenwolf. I’m a theater guy and I founded a small theater in Los Angeles, and I look up to Steppenwolf and the guys who started that. I just thought, here’s a guy who is from Southern Illinois who sort of felt like he knew this world, and yet we haven’t seen him play this small-town guy in a really long time maybe since “Places in the Heart,” and he’s brilliant in that movie. He’s come around to do great but larger than life characters in so many films. So we reached out to him and he really responded to it and he had personal experience with the town of Cut Bank. He actually worked there one summer putting himself through college. He worked on the trail crew at Glacier National Park and knew the town of Cut Bank very well, so he had a strong personal connection to it. He did a beautiful job playing a guy who really feels sort of overwhelmed by his own decency which feels really believable in that small-town world.

BK: Watching “Cut Bank” brings to mind other movies like “Blood Simple” or “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead.” When it came to making this movie, were there any clichés or cinematic tropes you were looking to avoid?

MS: You mentioned some films that I love, “Blood Simple” being one in particular. I think that blend of dark comedy and thriller stakes is something to aspire to, and we tried to do our best in that same kind of world. Also “The Last Picture Show;” the idea of the small town and the guy who wants to get out of it, that’s always been a big inspiration for me. A lot of 70’s crime thrillers were inspirations as well. We went and shot 2 perf, 35mm to give it an extra grainy look so we could evoke some of the Sergio Leone films of the 70’s as well. So, those were just some of the inspirations.

BK: I love that you got to film this movie in 35mm. Was it hard to get the opportunity to shoot in that format?

MS: Definitely. We had to make a lot of sacrifices to be able to pay for it. The cost of doing film had gone up so much because the labs were shutting down everywhere, and you couldn’t get the same deals that you would get before. Kodak was really cutting the price on film to try and keep people shooting film, but we were just on the other side of that curve where they realized uh-oh, nobody’s shooting film anymore so we need to get whatever we can get out of the people who will be using our stock. I love it. I wish I could always shoot on film. It’s really just a much better way to do it.

BK: That’s what I have been hearing from a lot of filmmakers. There are still a lot of things you can capture on film you can’t on digital film.

MS: Yeah, there’s a mystery to film that I think is important, and we were shooting a lot of days here where film has a real advantage. The argument can be made that when you should at night, having something like an Alexa can bring certain advantages in terms of less light needed and more range. But I still think that nothing really touches film.

BK: Among the performances in “Cut Bank,” one which stands out in particular is Michael Stuhlbarg’s as Derby Milton. He had the lead role in the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man,” but he’s almost completely unrecognizable here. How did you go about directing him?

MS: Michael’s a genius and a total chameleon, and I’ve been a fan of his ever since I saw him in “The Pillowman” (a play by Martin McDonough) on Broadway. He stole the show there and I think he’s been stealing every show everywhere he does ever since, so I was so thrilled when he agreed to come on board and be a part of “Cut Bank.” I sent him a bunch of references and pictures I had, one of which was a Chuck Close painting, which we both really liked a lot. He sent me a few references as well which inspired him, and we built this guy together through lots of phone conversations and exchanging images. Eventually we came up with what Derby looks like now which involved all sorts of trickery from wigs and fake teeth and contact lenses and coke bottle glasses and fingernails and all that. But he’s a great actor and he’s very thoughtful. He’s very smart and he goes deep into the character, and I thought he did a beautiful job.

BK: Yes, this is a character that could have easily been turned into a stereotype, but Stuhlbarg gives Derby a uniqueness I don’t seen many other actors giving the character.

MS: Definitely. Derby is a really fascinating guy even though he is the antagonist of the film. He’s probably the most reasonable person in the movie and what he ends up doing and the body count that follows him really is unnecessary if people were as reasonable to him as he is to them.

BK: It’s great how you made the town look vast, but at the same time anybody who has lived in a small town like Cut Bank can definitely relate to it feeling like a prison and wanting to break free of it.

MS: Exactly. That kind of modern western feeling of being trapped in this little frontier town with the gates of the port closed, and the idea that anything beyond those gates is terrifying is best to be ignored is what the town has to confront. By the end they are able to turn around and head into an uncertain future, but the whole experience of the film is opening up that town.

BK: What were the biggest challenges of making “Cut Bank?” It takes place in what is said to be one of the coldest places in America, but you actually filmed it in a time of year when it was exceedingly warm.

MS: We shot in Canada and Alberta and in the town of Edmonton, and that’s very close to Calgary where I shot “Fargo.” I’ve been there when it was the coldest part of the year at minus 40, and I’ve been there when it was the hottest day on record, so I’ve seen the full cycle from super cold to super-hot and it has its challenges. Certainly, there are some scenes in the movie, especially in the junkyard trailer where Bruce Dern is, where we were shooting in the middle of really, really hot summer days in a metal tin can covered in black fabric to make it look like it was nighttime. Everybody was sweating. It was pouring off of them. It was miserable and I felt terrible, and you can still see in a couple of shots in the movie how red everybody’s face is when they are in that junkyard trailer. So it did have its challenges like no air-conditioning, and you just kind of roll up your sleeves and do the best you can despite the elements. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.

BK: I got a kick out of Bruce Dern’s character here. He’s been around for a long time, but his career has gone up another notch thanks to his work in “Nebraska.” What did Bruce bring to this movie that wasn’t in the script?

MS: He’s a live wire (laughs). I loved Bruce Dern. He’s incredibly alive as a performer. He describes what he’s doing as dancing in a way, and I think he absolutely is truly that, a dancer. He’s playing with it almost like jazz as he goes and that’s wonderful. He’s never going to do the same thing twice. He does throw in some bits of improv as he goes, and a lot of wonderful things ended up in the film that were all of his own devising. He’s a bit of a mercurial, charismatic guy and he has the best stories in the world. He remembers everything that has ever happened in an illustrious way, and it’s incredible to hear. He tells stories about everyone from Hitchcock to Spielberg, etc. He’s in one of my favorites also from the 70’s with “The King of Marvin Gardens.” It’s a pleasure to get to work with somebody who’s a legend like that.

BK: Billy Bob Thornton also stars in the movie, and he’s played a lot of unforgettable small-town characters. What would you say he brought to this movie that wasn’t in the script?

MS: He really does understand this world. He’s from a small southern town which is such a different thing from the prairie town in the film, but it has the same kind of heartbeat. Billy Bob, like Malkovich, is just one of my heroes. He’s a great writer and a great director and a great actor, and I had the pleasure of working with him on “Fargo” as well. He’s just an incredibly good person and very smart, and whenever he had notes we would talk about the script and you knew you were getting notes from an Oscar-winning screenwriter. He always had tremendous things to say and just made everything better.

BK: There is a scene between Liam Hemsworth and Oliver Platt where Liam looks at Oliver and realizes that this is the person he will become like if he throws all his moral values to the wind. Would you say that’s the case?

MS: Yeah, he’s very interested to know what’s the big city is like, and here in the person of Oliver Platt is the big city. I love Oliver Platt. He’s great and he brings this incredible urbanity and charm and intelligence to it. But yeah, he represents the big outside world in all the positives and all the negatives.

BK: James Newton Howard scored this film. How did you manage to get him on board?

MS: Through his generosity. He does these just giant movies like “The Hunger Games” and “Maleficent,” and then “Nightcrawler” which is a smaller movie but certainly a big profile film. Getting him to come and do our tiny little film was entirely because he is just a lovely, generous person. I reached out to him, we had a mutual friend in common, and sent him the script and made my pitch about what the film would be about, and he really liked it and wanted to come on board. He devoted tons of time and energy to it, as much energy as he puts into his other big films, and he really cared and did a lovely job.

BK: “Cut Bank” is being distributed by A24 Films which has become a great company for independent films to get behind. What did A24 bring to this project that other distribution companies might not have brought to it?

MS: God bless A24. Their taste is great and eclectic. They are picking up movies that are very different from each other, but are all really worthy. I was so thrilled when they wanted to release “Cut Bank.” They’re a great group of people who really care. They are very supportive of the movie. They have devoted a lot of energy and great taste to their marketing and ad campaign with the artwork they are doing. They have left no small detail unnoticed. They are really on the ball and I’m really thrilled to be a part of a company that has released everything from “Under the Skin,” “The Spectacular Now,” “Spring Breakers” and “A Most Violent Year.” It’s a really great roster of movies and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

BK: How much time did you have to shoot “Cut Bank” in?

MS: 27 days for “Cut Bank,” which is fast for a movie that is 93 minutes long, so we were jamming and going quickly. I thought this would be a little more luxurious compared to my TV days as TV is famous for being quick, and I was wrong. Doing an independent film is actually faster than doing TV. We were out there shooting outside of Edmonton and small towns. We were building our entire world from the ground up and going into practical locations which added extra challenges, so time was not a commodity we had a lot of. We had to hustle and go as fast as we could to try and get it all done in time. There was a lot of different locations, there was a lot of night work, and we were shooting at the time of year when the night is the shortest. We only had about four hours of darkness every night so we had to be really careful about how we structured everything, and we ended up shooting all night long in order to have the time to shoot all the night stuff.

BK: Does working that fast help you creatively?

MS: It can. Necessity is the mother of invention. It’s true that when you’re forced to compromise, you sometimes end up with a solution which is better than what you were trying to accomplish to begin with. Everybody bonds together and tries to get everything done. You’ve got a short amount of time so everybody knows it’s game time, and that brings out the best in everybody.

BK: You started out as a child actor. How would you say you evolved from being a child actor to a director?

MS: It was definitely part of my life when I was young, and I had some experience being on the other side of the camera and understood about hitting marks and what the actor’s process was like. But then I left that behind and went off to school and had a normal experience in college and did a lot of theater and found my way to theater directing. My path was more direct from theater to directing plays to directing television and to directing film than really from the acting experience, but I’m really grateful to have had that background and the experience of being an actor because it helps. When speaking to actors, I understand what they are going through and what their process is like.

I want to thank Matt Shakman for taking the time to talk with me about “Cut Bank” and his career. “Cut Bank” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

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