“The Beaver” was Jodie Foster’s first feature film directorial effort since “Home for The Holidays” and it starts off with Mel Gibson as Walter Black laying on an inflatable cushion in his pool, looking lifeless as if any direction he’s had in life has been rendered completely non-existent. We quickly learn he is the CEO of a toy company, has a beautiful wife and two sons, and that he is severely depressed. We are meeting him at the point where he has been in this depressive state for quite some time, and it has gotten to where his wife Meredith (played by Foster) doesn’t want him living at home anymore, and his kids don’t know what to make of him.
After a failed suicide attempt, Walter is brought back to the land of the living through a hand puppet of a beaver which develops a life of its own after he puts it on his hand. With a Michael Caine cockney-like accent, the beaver tells him he is going to save Walter’s life. And sure enough, his life gets better very quickly as the beaver begins doing all the talking for him both at home and at work. But as time goes on, this beaver threatens to make Walter hit rock bottom in a way he may never be able to recover from.
“The Beaver” is a black comedy which gets blacker as it rolls along. The trailers made it look like a light affair, but this is most certainly not the case. It does have its funny moments, but it is really a serious examination of depression. This is an important issue because it is not something you can just simply get over regardless of what others will tell you. Depression can seriously debilitate you and affect those who love you the most, but not many fully understand this. The idea that you must go through life and take the punches which come with it can only go so far. Sooner or later, we find we can only take so much until we break. While some may have a great smile on their faces, they may be fighting a battle you know nothing about.
As Walter Black, Gibson reminds us of what a great actor he can be when given the right material. Aside from his work as a director, which really has been truly remarkable, it is easy to forget what a great presence he can be onscreen. Gibson captures Walter’s emotional downfall in a way few actors could, and he makes you care about him even as he heads further downhill emotionally. It is a brave performance that doesn’t hold anything back, and you have to admire the lengths Gibson goes here.
Foster remains an excellent actress as always, and seeing her acting alongside Gibson is a treat as they were so much fun to watch together in “Maverick.” She makes Meredith Black a strong-willed person who holds it together despite Walter’s behavior. It all makes Foster’s work even more fascinating to watch, and you sympathize with her plight throughout.
It is a real shame it took Foster 16 years to direct another movie. Her past efforts of “Little Man Tate” and “Home for The Holidays” showed a great eye for characters isolated from others because of who they are and what they are going through. Her work on “The Beaver” is especially commendable in that it is not an easy script to bring to the silver screen. Finding the balance between the comedy and drama makes this challenging even for the best directors working today. But Foster manages to pull it off like the professional she is, and she shows an incredible sensitivity to the subject of depression.
For me, “The Beaver” is one of the best films made about mental illness. The screenplay by Kyle Killen topped the 2008 Black List, a ranking of the best unproduced screenplays. I can see why as it features wonderful characters which are thankfully down to earth, and the dialogue feels fresh and does not contain an abundance of worn out clichés. Many will find the premise of a man working through mental illness with the aid of a hand puppet to be far-fetched and unbelievable. But this screenplay really takes some chances, and I honestly did not find any of what I saw as being beyond belief.
Besides, is it really that far-fetched for an adult to play around with puppets or stuffed animals? Look at these names: Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Ben Kenber. All these men have become well known for performing with puppets to the joy of many. Yes, I did put my name up there because I still have a love for stuffed animals which I used to make home movies with and sometimes bring to my day job. People may think this is strange, but I like how it sets me apart from the rest of the crowd.
In addition, there are other wonderful performances to be found here. The late Anton Yelchin, who did unforgettable work in the “Star Trek” movies, “Terminator Salvation,” and “Green Room” among others. He is excellent as the Black’s oldest son, Porter. Throughout, he is terrified of becoming like his dad and implores his mother to divorce him. Yelchin makes what could have been a major brat into a fascinating individual whose endeavors in doing homework for others have long since become quite a profitable venture for him. His relationship with his father never feels contrived, so when we get to the end of the film, the emotions in their climatic meeting feels truly earned.
I also really liked Jennifer Lawrence as Norah, the popular valedictorian cheerleader who hires Porter to write her graduation speech. When this film was released, she was still riding high on the acclaim she received for “Winter’s Bone.” Norah is anything but a cliché, and she surprises us as much as she does Porter with a strong intelligence and a completely welcome lack of snobbery for a popular high school student. At the same time, she also hides a pain deep inside which defines her state of mind, and this presents her with something to overcome. Lawrence is great to watch here, and it was a sign that she had more great performances to give us which we eventually got in films like “Silver Linings Playbook.”
Congrats also goes out to young Riley Thomas Stewart who portrays the Black’s youngest son, Henry. It’s a remarkable performance for an 8- or 9-year-old as he has to convey both the confusion and effect his dad’s depression has on him. The scenes he shares with Foster and especially Gibson are wonderfully realized, and it helps that he has a former child actor directing him who knows how to coax a performance out of such a young human being.
Watching “The Beaver” reminded me of another great movie which had a big effect on me, “Lars And The Real Girl.” Both films featured characters whose pasts damaged them emotionally, and who seek release through unorthodox methods. With Gibson, it’s a hand puppet, and with Ryan Gosling it’s a sex doll he treats as his new girlfriend. Each takes what seems like a completely implausible story and surprises us by making it more than some average comedy which just dumbs everything down.
If you have not already seen “The Beaver,” I do hope you give it a look. Regardless of how you feel about Gibson these days, it’s an incredibly well made movie that takes a great script and visualizes it with respect and empathy to the subject of depression. While it was declared a “flop” after its first week at the box office, this should not define its worth. This film may not be for everyone, but those in the mood for something cinematically unique should find much to admire here. More importantly, I applaud any motion picture which takes the subject of depression seriously. It is not a mental condition that anyone can simply get over.
By the way, I love how Foster got Teri Gross of “Fresh Air” fame to do a cameo. I always wondered what her studio at WHYY in Philadelphia looked like, and we get a brief look at it here. Now how often does that happen?
Alejandro Inarritu pushed cinematic boundaries in 2014 with “Birdman,” and now he did it again in 2015 with “The Revenant.” Based on the novel by Michael Punke, the movie transports us back to 1823 when frontiersmen and fur trappers traveled the states of Montana and South Dakota, and some of them soon came to discover just how unforgiving nature could be.
Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Hugh Glass, a member of a hunting party searching the land for animal pelts. In a seriously intense scene, Hugh ends up getting mauled by a bear to where he looks to be on the verge of breathing his last breath. One party member, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), becomes insistent on killing Hugh as dragging his seriously wounded body through the elements threatens to slow everyone down and put them all in the crosshairs of Indian tribes looking for revenge.
Fitzgerald ends up trying to smother Hugh to death, but he is interrupted by Hugh’s Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) who calls out for help. But Fitzgerald, overwhelmed by a fear of dying, ends up stabbing Hawk to death and gets the rest of the group to leave Hugh for dead and move on to safer grounds. But despite being so mortally wounded, Hugh rises up and pursues Fitzgerald over thousands of miles as he is driven by an unshakable force known as vengeance.
Inarritu, along with the brilliant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, puts us right in the middle of the action to where we, like the characters, never feel safe for a second. Arrows are flying everywhere and we are in an environment which we are not as familiar with as we would like to think, so the specter of death is always just around the corner.
What’s especially brilliant about “The Revenant” is how it captures both the beauty and unforgiving nature of the wilderness. The vistas captured are incredible to take in but this is also a movie you will want to put on a heavy coat while watching what Inarritu has caught on camera. The weather is so fierce here to where you can’t help but wonder how anyone could possibly survive it. Heck, I cannot help but wonder what watching it would be like in a 4DX theater. Could theater owners bring the temperature to subzero levels and provide audience members with parkas?
With “The Revenant,” DiCaprio finally nabbed the Best Actor Oscar which had eluded him. While I wished he had gotten his first one for his go-for-broke performance in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” it seems very fitting he got it for a performance which has him suffering through the worst a human being could ever be forced to experience. In movies like “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “The Aviator,” “The Departed” and even “The Basketball Diaries,” he has shown a fearlessness in delving into a character’s dark side or a part of them which can never be easily controlled.
DiCaprio makes you feel every ache, pain and broken bone Hugh experiences in his infinitely long journey. Much has been said about how incredibly difficult it was to make “The Revenant,” and it looks like few had it harder than this actor did. We watch DiCaprio traverse a viciously cold landscape while lacking the ability to talk, and he even resorts to an “Empire Strikes Back” form of survival by keeping warm in a dead animal’s carcass. DiCaprio has never been an actor to fake an emotion or deliver a moment less than truthfully, and he certainly doesn’t do that here.
Also excellent in “The Revenant” is Tom Hardy who, just like he did in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” portrays a character forced to survive in the harshest and most unforgiving of environments. Fitzgerald could have been just another one-dimensional villain in this movie, but Hardy imbues him with a wounded humanity that makes him far more lethal and frightening. Just watch the scene in which Hardy faces down the barrel of a gun and just try to think of another actor who could be as convincing as him in a moment like this.
Tremendous performances, amazing cinematography, the most vicious bear attack in recent cinematic history along with a haunting music score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Bryce Dessner and Alva Noto help to make “The Revenant” one of the best and most unforgettable movies of 2015. Inarritu remains unwavering in his directorial vision and he has given us a movie that grabs you and never lets you go until the credits start rolling. While some motion pictures get overshadowed by their behind the scenes struggles, this one does not. Of course, this will not stop people from talking about the making of “The Revenant” for years to come.
Oh by the way, this movie is “inspired by true events.” This is much more honest and fitting than saying it is “based on a true story.”
* * * * out of * * * *
WRITER’S NOTE: When this movie was released, some were under the mistaken impression that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character got raped by a bear in one scene. This rumor ended up spreading like a wildfire, but anyone who has seen “The Revenant” can attest this is not what happened at all. DiCaprio gets attacked because he accidentally comes across some bear cubs, and this shows that you never ever mess with the mama bear.
“U Want Me 2 Kill Him?” is yet another in a long line of movies “based on a true story.” But after watching it, you have to believe it’s true because no one could make a story like this up. Based on the Vanity Fair article by Judy Bachrach, it stars Jamie Blackley as Mark, a very popular high school student who ends up getting into a relationship with his online girlfriend Rachel. Mark ends up becoming so hopelessly in love with Rachel to where he’s willing to do anything to win her favor, and she soon has him befriending her lonely younger brother John (Toby Regbo) who gets picked on at school every day. As a result, Mark and John develop a strong friendship which soon leads them down some very dark paths that will have them doing things they never believed they were capable of. It all leads to one of the most shocking and baffling crimes in England’s history.
The movie’s director is Andrew Douglas who is best known for making the acclaimed documentary “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus” and for helming the 2005 remake of “The Amityville Horror.” I got to speak to him about “U Want Me 2 Kill Him?” which I felt served as a reminder of how threatening technology is in this day and age, and of how the emotions of a teenager are always simmering just beneath the surface. Douglas talked about the long road it took to get this movie financed and made, how familiar he was with the real-life story, and he also gave me an update of what’s happened to Mark and John since the movie’s release.
WARNING: THIS INTERVIEW DOES CONTAIN SPOILERS.
Ben Kenber: I was not at all aware of the true story this movie was based on. Were you aware of this story or the Vanity Fair article it was based on before you got the script?
Andrew Douglas: I’m not a big magazine reader anymore because of the internet, but for some reason I did look at that magazine and I did see the article. Ever since “The Amityville Horror” I’ve always got a weather eye out for projects. I didn’t know at the time what it could be or what it might be, but it just seemed such an extraordinary story. Being in America and finding a story from back home was also very appealing, and then it took a couple of years (to get it off the ground). It had a funky journey because uncharacteristically I tried to buy the rights to the story. It wasn’t something I’m used to, but I did have an agent and I reached out to try to buy the rights to that story thinking it was so extraordinary that I got to be able to do something with this. In the meantime, Bryan Singer of all people had also reached out and snagged the rights. So, a year went by or maybe six months, and a script came out based on that story which Bad Hat Harry, Bryan Singer’s company, had produced and it was pretty good and I took a meeting on it. It went into the air as what’s called an open directing assignment, so I managed to arrange a meeting on it. In the meeting I pitched a slightly different interpretation of the same material, and then another year went by during which the studio the project was with, Warner Independent Pictures, went down the tubes taking the script with it. So, all of a sudden that material was untouchable, so Bat Hat Harry got in touch with me and said, “Remember the take that you had on this story?” I said, “Yeah.” They said, “Well could you come in and re-pitch it to Bryan?” So, I did and they really liked it and they felt it was sufficiently different from where they’ve been in order to start again with the same thing. Over the next year I developed up the script and I found a young English writer who had a great voice for authentic youth, and I presented it to Bad Hat Harry and got my commercial company, Anonymous Content, involved a little bit as well to pony up some money, and all of a sudden, we had a film. Interestingly, right around the time I was shooting, there was also in London an opera based on the same article. I went to see it and it was kind of very operatic and it couldn’t be more different from the film, but it was very interesting to me that here’s a story that grabbed at least three different people in three different ways. The first script was quite documentary in the sense that they presented the kids from a kind of adult perspective, and really to me it was a story of how weird the world is. The opera was told from the police woman’s point of view, so to some extent the story was really about a police woman being puzzled by the internet and by the strange landscape of the internet. My take on it was here’s this weird world, here’s this odd landscape that we haven’t really explored in literature or in film yet, but I’m going to approach it from the point of view of one of the inhabitants of it. The idea was to see if I could find a way through the perplexing nature of what Mark does. What was interesting to me as a kind of challenge was we have these two ordinary boys, more or less ordinary boys, who live in an ordinary town, horribly ordinary, who go to a regular school. They are not project kids, they are not kids who are used to knives or used to violence. How do they make the journey that they made? That was really a kind of interesting challenge to me, and I felt as though it would be best served by really taking on the point of view of one of the kids. It could’ve been either of them funny enough, and John certainly makes an interesting journey as well. But I thought Mark was slightly the more difficult journey to explain; a regular kid who’s handsome and good at football and popular with the girls. What is missing in his life that he needs this thing so badly, that he needs to go as far as he goes? And I just thought that was both interesting in a conventional drama, but also interesting in the context of this new landscape of the internet.
BK: Yes, absolutely. These days people seem to be more open with one another on the internet than in real life when they are face-to-face.
AD: Yeah, I think that’s true, and also not necessarily honest as well of course. One of the things that internet provides then and now, even though we have cameras now which we didn’t have in the wild west of 2003, is the secret language of texting. So, I might be projecting on this, but there is still something very alluring, hopefully not with my kids, about what is called the dark room. Being able to go into a dark room where nobody knows you and nobody can really see you and you can be anything. Maybe it was two years ago that there was a floater piece about young gamers with their avatars. They had a real portrait of the gamers and then right next to them was their avatars, and it was so interesting and, in many ways, it was like a pageant. You get for example a disabled person or another person or the most extreme avatar who is everything that they weren’t, and it was very interesting and moving to see that article. I think to some extent this is what we do and this is what my film’s about. The film doesn’t judge them. Mark says early on to John, “I want a mad life like you have,” and John gives him one. He so does for six months there; he gets a very, very mad life. John on the other hand, he’s just sort of like a brother or somebody to look out for him, and you get that. So, I try not to judge the kids and say they’re weird or they’re bad. I just try and say that in a funny way both kids got what they needed and what they weren’t getting from home. And I thought the judge was very cool. I copied the dialogue straight from the court transcripts, so when the judge says that each boy is an extension of the other, that’s actually what the judge said. I thought that was like one of the coolest judgments. You’ve got to expect courts to be that smart, and I just thought that was really interesting because it was something that nobody had really seen before. It was a new crime so John was accused of organizing his own death, and Mark equally was accused of stabbing him. So, for the judge and for all the generations of the legal institution, it was very perplexing which could have been another take on the movie of course. This is material that has many different points of view on it. Somebody else could’ve taken it from the point of view of the trial and try to figure that out. You know how cool “The Social Network” was? It was all based around those court hearings. That could have been another way to go, but you just make your choices and I am pretty happy with how it came out. There are moments where it has to kind of stretch credibility. I had Mike Walden (the movie’s screenwriter) write the characters as realistically as I could bear, but still when you look back from the end of the film they’re melodramatic. They’re still not quite real and that was kind of intentional. The film is almost more fun watching it the second time. A film like “The Usual Suspects” or “Fight Club,” when you watch these kinds of films a second time you see all the tricks, and it’s very satisfying the see how the filmmakers flirted with showing you everything.
BK: This is definitely a movie that needs to be watched at least twice to see how the characters managed to accomplish all that they did. “U Want Me 2 Kill Him?” also reminded me of what it’s like being young and how the emotions of a teenager are just simmering below the surface to where they don’t know how to deal with certain things.
AD: Right, and the stakes for a kid dealing with those emotions are always so high. So, here’s this person online who he never met. He has a girlfriend of sorts, although that other girlfriend in the real world is just kind of messing him around, but here’s this girl he’s never met and he knows the stakes are so high somehow, and that kind of felt true. You’re absolutely right in what you just said. You have a feel as though one meeting and he loves somebody, and then they die and then you have to seek revenge. Teenage emotions, they run so big really.
BK: Yes, they do. It’s almost easy to believe that a young teenage boy could do what he did, and that’s scary too because when you’re that young and you feel the need to do something, you can get easily manipulated. The other thing I found fascinating, even though we know what happens at the end, is how the movie shows the power women can have over men.
AD: Yeah, it’s all about sex in a way. What John is so instinctively clever about is that every kind of invention is really about sex or power. So, to create Rachel or somebody you talk about, but also somebody who is also in danger and in jeopardy… I didn’t really invent that, I kind of refined it. I was very careful to stay pretty close to the instant messaging transcripts, so all those characters come right from the source. So, John was kind of preternaturally clever in understanding that Mark is going to fall for both the damsel in distress and the sex, and this is going to be too alluring for him. Each time he loses Mark’s attention, he has to up the stakes to invent something even bigger. So finally, he invents the spy woman, and again the relationship is very kind of sexual. It’s funny in that there are so many ideas there and a film can only tackle a few without getting too dense. You’re right, that’s so interesting.
BK: At the movie’s end it is said that only so much can be revealed about these two boys because of their age, and they were ordered to never contact each other ever again. Since the making of the movie, has there any other news about these two boys?
AD: No, and it’s so disappointing. When I was doing screenings in London, I was so hoping that in the audience was one of them. I was so hoping that one of them would come out. I always imagined it was going to be John. My interpretation of his character was that he was kind of very proud of what he did. I tried to capture that when he’s proud of that scar. And I felt as though Mark might be more humiliated by the whole thing and that he might well disappear and use the anonymity of the court much more than John. But I felt that John would continue being a con man which is why I do that thing at the end where he’s still conning. That felt as though the con man as a character… We know now as grown-ups that they use people and that they always have to romance us and exaggerate, so the con man as kind of archetype, it’s hard to break that. But sadly, I never found out about them, and I really wish I could. Remember that film “The Fighter” that Christian Bale was so good in as the messed-up boxer? At the end of the movie you get this real satisfaction that you see the real guy (that his character was based on). I’d love to have been able to do that because it just kind of completes the circle, and it also nails down that this extraordinary thing you just saw is real. I would’ve loved to have done that. I would’ve loved to have been able to show pictures of them now. It would’ve been very satisfying to do that but no, not a glimpse.
BK: This is not a story you could easily make up. It definitely feels like it came from real life.
AD: I know, it’s too extraordinary isn’t it? Sometimes during the filming, I was going, “Oh man I wish I could put ‘based on a true story’ several times through the movie because otherwise people are just going to think I’m crazy to expect people to believe this.” But since I made this film, there was a big event here in America with that Heisman Trophy winner with that Hawaiian name. It just shows you what people will believe like Christianity or something like Mormonism. People believe what they need to believe, I think, at every kind of level. It’s almost as if the internet is like a new country or a new landscape, and I’m a bit surprised that there aren’t more movies about it. One of the things that occurred to me is that I think maybe studios are scared of films where the danger is all going to happen on the computer. I know that was certainly true for myself when I was trying to get financing for the movie. They said, “Oh is it all going to be on computer?” That’s why I kind of invented that thing where often times they are talking, so it doesn’t feel as though it’s all written onscreen. I’m just a bit surprised there aren’t more films coming out (on this subject).
BK: Yeah, it’s been a while. If you look back over the years, it’s kind of been an ongoing theme here and there like with movies such as “WarGames” from the 1980’s.
AD: Oh yes Ben, you’re absolutely right. I had forgotten about that.
BK: It’s interesting to see how technology has evolved over time. Even back then it was a threat, but technology is even more of a threat today than ever before.
AD: Right, right. I think that there was one moment in the film when the police are interviewing Mark’s parents in his bedroom and his dad says he just sits on that thing and points at the computer, not understanding that the computer is a door. It is a door to a place that the dad knows nothing about. That wasn’t kind of forefront in my mind as a parent or anything. It wasn’t meant to be a cautionary tale. It was meant to be a roller coaster to be honest. It’s really true that parents don’t quite understand that this technology is a back door, so who knows what?
BK: How did you go about casting the actors in this movie? They are all really good and very natural.
AD: Yeah, they’re terrific. It was just a normal process really. It started by trying to get real people cast. I really like Shane Meadows’ films like “This is England” and he always tends to use real people. But I quickly found that the script and the ideas and the characters were actually too complicated for real people to kind of be able to layer it, and so I went back to more conventional casting. It took a while. It took a lot of backwards and forwards with like 40 or 50 kids. Jamie was a stretch because that boy had to shave every hour (laughs). He’s got a real heavy beard. While everybody else would be having lunch, we sent him off to shave again.
BK: Much of the movie looks like it was shot handheld.
AD: That was intentional. There was a limited budget, but also it felt that the film would be best served if it looked very realistic because the story is so unrealistic. I felt if I shot it as realistically as possible, not quite documentary but very handheld and very real, I thought as though that would create a tension within the story.
BK: I liked that because you watch this movie and it just washes over you. It does feel like you’re being invited into these kids’ private lives in a way you wouldn’t necessarily be invited otherwise. In some cases, people might view this story as being rather convoluted, but it is based on a true story and the realism of it aids the movie very well.
AD: Oh good, I’m glad to hear you say that.
BK: Well thank you for your time Andrew, it has been very interesting to talk with you and I thank you for your time.
AD: Not at all. I appreciate your liking this film. Independent films need help; they need champions so it’s really great that you’re supporting independent films. It’s also easy to just go for the big studio films, but then I think we lose something. I’m a big fan of all kinds of movies. Along with everybody else I’ll be there watching the Superman or the Spiderman and I’ll be there on the first day, but equally I just love independent cinema and I love the way it deals with often times more grown-up ideas. It’s all great.
BK: I agree. My hope is that independent cinema goes through another renaissance really soon.
AD: Oh, I know, absolutely because you see films like “12 Years a Slave” or even “American Hustle” and they are very independent in spirit and they do so well. So, it just feels as though we don’t just want to watch tent pole movies. It’s just not enough because that’s too simplistic and sometimes you feel as though all you are is a consumer. You’re just consuming a kind of product. And with big movies they have less and less dialogue because they travel more easily like a “Transformers” movie. There’s not any dialogue in them anymore because that way they can just export it all over the world, and you just feel like a sucker sometimes.
“U Want Me 2 Kill Him?” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.
“May in the Summer” may look like the typical romantic comedy on the surface, but it’s really much more than that as it delves into a culture many of us have not seen. Cherien Dabis who wrote, directed and stars in this movie as May Brennan, a sophisticated New Yorker and an acclaimed author who travels to her childhood home in Amman, Jordan to prepare for her wedding. But shortly after reuniting with her sisters and her divorced parents, May begins to question whether she should go through with the marriage after experiencing a number of familial and cultural conflicts.
It was a pleasure talking with Dabis while she was in Los Angeles. While she talked at length about her movie, she also described just how much Jordan has changed from when she was a child. In addition, she spoke of the challenges she faced of acting and directing at the same time, what she was proudest of being able to capture onscreen about Jordan, and she talked about how actors Bill Pullman and Alia Shawkat came to be cast.
Ben Kenber: What I really liked about “May in the Summer” is that it gives us a unique look into a culture that most people have seen from a distance, and in some cases a rather biased distance. How was it for you capturing Jordan on film?
Cherien Dabis: It was great. Jordan’s a country I know very well. I’ve been traveling there since I was a kid. My parents are Palestinian and Jordanian and I was born and raised in the US, but we would return to Jordan almost every summer. For the last three decades I’ve watched the country grow and change so much that it’s been really shocking the amount of growth and change. I knew I always wanted to do something there because what I find really particular to Amman specifically is that it’s not only become super westernized, but it’s also quite Americanized. There’s a lot of American schools popping up, there are a lot of young people who are speaking English with an American accent, there’s so much American culture and American products; there’s fast food chains and Starbucks. So it’s just the side of the Middle East that I didn’t think people would find really surprising, and I wanted to feature that and to be able to feature the country and parts of the country that I’d been going to since I was young and places where I really discovered myself. It was really, really cool.
BK: You both acted in and directed this movie. Initially, you were looking to cast someone else in the role of May, correct?
CD: Yeah, I didn’t write the role for myself. I spent about a year looking for someone to play the part and I wasn’t finding someone who I felt was really authentic to the culture and language, but also someone who really embodied the spirit of the character. At the same time, I kept getting people, like random people, who would suggest that I consider myself for the part. It was really shocking to me that people kept saying that to me, but enough people said it that I just finally was like okay, this somehow feels like I am meant to do this. I am meant to consider this, that maybe this is part of my journey. I think ultimately that’s what I found. I very hesitantly put myself forward. I put myself on tape, I watch myself back and it’s always such a trip to do that for the first time. It took a little while for me to find a sense of objectivity or at least as close to objectivity as I could, but I saw something there that was raw enough that felt like I could work with it and that embodied the spirit of the character and what I had been looking for, and I surprised myself a little bit. So I called myself back, I made myself go through this rigorous casting process only to discover that wow, I think I might be able to do this. It was kind of an amazing journey and one in which I kind of paralleled May in a way. May is on this journey of self-discovery, and by putting myself in the film I was also on a journey of self-discovery in having to make myself vulnerable just like the character in the film. And when I realized that I was like oh God, now I really have to do it. It really feels like the right choice for the film, but it was a tough one to make given all of the hats that I was wearing.
BK: In terms of acting, did you have someone looking out for you when you stepped in front of the camera?
CD: I did. When I made the choice to do it, I brought on someone who became a very good friend. He’s an acting teacher in Brooklyn and he became somewhat of an acting coach to me. So I worked with him for about a year and a half before making the film, and it was great because my training was really about getting as much experience in the skill of acting and directing and not back and forth in directing myself. It is a very specific skill and I wanted to have as much experience in it as I could before getting to set, and it was really important that I did that because I would’ve been a mess if I hadn’t. But he came to set and he was there for me. He was sort of my eyes and by then we had a short hand because we had been working together for so long, so it was really great to have them there.
BK: I really loved how the Dead Sea looked in this movie. It’s just beautiful to the point where the name seems a little contradictory considering how lively the atmosphere out there seems.
CD: Right, and yet strangely appropriate given what’s on the other side of the Dead Sea. It’s (Palestine) so close. The Dead Sea’s so small and narrow, and the other side of the shore is the West Bank. It’s sort of shocking when you’re standing there looking out and you’re at a resort where there are these really beautiful infinity pools and spas and food and drinks and people partying by the pool. It’s a very contradictory paradoxical experience, and that was something I wanted to capture in the film.
BK: What would you say you were the proudest of being able to capture in this film about Jordan and its culture?
CD: That’s a really good question. I think the surrealism almost of being in a place. I have not seen that yet in a film, and I do think that what sets this movie apart from other Middle Eastern films, or Middle Eastern themed films, is that it really explores family. It’s a story about family and it’s a story that’s really relatable about relationships, and it looks at divorce but through a wedding. In some ways, it’s a sort of a divorce drama disguised as a wedding comedy. So it’s this really relatable film that’s set in this really specific part of the world, and it shows a part of that world that we don’t ever really get to see. The surrealism of that world I think is really interesting. Being in a place like Jordan which is just surrounded by conflict is at times really surreal because you can find yourself living this totally seemingly normal existence where you are going to cafés with friends or going out to dinner. You’re just going about your work, your life and you’re interacting with family, and then a fighter jet flies by and it rocks your entire world and you suddenly remember where you are and you remember that anything could happen at any moment. It gives you this incredible sense of perspective on your life where suddenly what you’re going through is not so bad and your problems seem really trivial and you remember the greater suffering in the world. I think it affects you in your life and your choices and who you are in a way that’s very unique to that part of the world, and that’s something I really wanted to capture and I think that’s something that’s there in the film. It’s something that I don’t think you get to see very often.
BK: We see a number of women in “May in the Summer” wearing a full hijab (a veil which covers the head and chest). Is it something that’s still imposed on women in Jordan or is that something women do by choice?
CD: Both. I think a lot of women do it by choice, but for a lot of women it’s not a choice. It’s imposed on them by their families or by society or by the culture. I do think this is a movie that looks at expectations like that. Our main character is definitely on a journey of self-discovery where she’s trying to figure out what kind of future she wants. She’s trying to strip away a familial expectation, a parental expectation or a societal expectation or even a political expectation, and she’s really trying to connect with her own inner voice and her own truth. That’s the only way she can really move into her own future, so it looks at those levels of expectations.
BK: Bill Pullman plays your character’s father and it’s great to see him here. Was it hard getting him cast in this movie?
CD: Surprisingly not and I was really presently surprised by that. My producer sent the script to his agent and he really responded to the script and the role. He’s just a very adventurous spirit so he wanted to travel to Jordan, he wanted to have that experience and he really wanted to go to Petra which was amazing. He was just fabulous. The moment he arrived in Jordan he just immersed himself in the culture and he wanted to just soak it all in. He was making friends right and left and he was having dinner with people he just met on the street. Within the first day of shooting, he knew everyone’s names. He was really just a special, special person and I’m so glad that he came over and wanted to be a part of that. People appreciated him so much for being so open in the culture.
BK: Alia Shawkat, who plays your sister Dalia, is also wonderful here, and she was also terrific in “The Moment” where she acted opposite Jennifer Jason Leigh. How did you go about casting her?
CD: Well I had worked with Alia on my first film, “Amreeka.” I was a huge fan of hers from “Arrested Development.” I just loved her. My executive producer on “Amreeka” actually told me that she’s half Iraqi which I had no idea, but I was very excited by that because I’m always looking to cast very authentically. So when I found that out I approached her for a role in my first feature, and when I met her she just so was that character in my first feature. When I worked with her I just absolutely loved her. We had a great time and we became friends and we kept in touch. When I conceived of the idea for “May in the Summer,” I immediately thought of her for the role of the sister, Dalia. She just has such a similar voice to that character; witty, sarcastic and subversive.
BK: Was there anything that you wanted to put into “May in the Summer” but were not able to for one reason or another?
CD: Well there are always things like that. You quickly realize when you’re making independent films that you have limited resources and there always comes a time when you have to make really painful decisions, and I definitely did on this film. I had to cut things out that I think would’ve added a lot of fabric and texture. There were a number of sequences, one where May goes downtown and we see a whole other part of the Middle East and we see it go from the really nice sort of upper-class neighborhood to the more downtown, shoddy kind of refugee camp neighborhoods. We are more used to seeing that probably on the news, and I wanted to show that transition and a little bit more of the society and give a little bit more of the political context of Jordan and the refugee situation. But ultimately the heart of the story is this family, and I had to keep the essence of that story. When I had to make those difficult decisions, Fort Lee a lot of that texture had to be cut out because we just didn’t have the time or the resources to capture it.
BK: My understanding is there’s a film industry growing in Jordan right now.
CD: Yeah that’s right, there’s definitely a burgeoning film industry. The Royal Film Commission in Jordan is great; they’ve been there for I think about 10 years now and they help facilitate production. They were enormously helpful to us and the crews are gaining a lot of experience. Kathryn Bigelow’s last two movies were shot there and a lot of the people I worked with worked on those movies. Also, John Stewart’s movie (“Rosewater”) was shot in Jordan which was another great experience for the country. It was exciting to be a part of that, to be a part of the really up-and-coming film community.
My thanks to Cherien Dabis for taking the time to talk with me. “May in the Summer” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.
When reading the plot synopsis of “The Meddler,” I walked into it expecting a formulaic comedy dealing in stereotypes like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” did. Not that working with stereotypes is always a bad thing, but it can get old very quickly and leave audiences with not much that is worth remembering when they leave the theater. Plus, the movie’s story deals with a parent interfering in the life of their offspring at the most inconvenient time in their life, and how many times have we seen that before? We all know it will build up to that moment where the offspring will say, “Mom, I love you but will you PLEASE GET THE HELL OUT OF MY LIFE??!!” But despite this inescapable confrontation, we know everything will work out in the end.
Well, “The Meddler” turned out to be a pleasant surprise as it is a movie made from the heart more than anything else. A lot of it has to do with the fact writer and director Lorene Scafaria (“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”) based the story on her own mother and the relationship she had with her. But while this might sound like a buddy comedy, it’s really more about the mother and it gives Susan Sarandon one of the best roles she has had in recent years.
Sarandon plays Marnie Minervini who, as “The Meddler” begins, is staring listlessly at the ceiling fan in her bedroom. We learn Marnie was recently widowed and has since moved from the east coast to Los Angeles to be closer to her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne). As the title suggests, she endlessly interferes in Lori’s life and then goes on to help others whom she feels need her assistance. But deep down she is still struggling with the loss of her husband, someone she was with for decades and who has now vanished from her life. While she looks very pleasant on the outside, Marnie is still struggling to come to terms with her husband’s death and is trying to find new meaning in her life.
What I loved about Sarandon’s performance is how she avoids the easy trap of turning Minnie into a simple caricature and instead turns this character into this wonderful human who is infinitely generous to a fault. Even as Minnie gets a little too involved in her daughter’s life, Sarandon never makes her seem the slightest bit aggravating. It’s also great fun to see her roam around The Grove as if it were Disneyland because it shows just how new to Los Angeles Minnie really is.
Sarandon also has a great foil to work with in Rose Byrne who plays Minnie’s daughter Lori. Byrne also could have made Lori, a writer for television, into a caricature, but she makes her into someone with work problems we can all relate to regardless of whatever industry we work in. Lori is enduring a lot of problems in her life other than her mother such as being dumped by her celebrity boyfriend Jacob (Jason Ritter) which still weighs heavily on her, and she is not sure how she can move on past her heartbreak. Ever since the scene in “Neighbors” where she succeeded in getting two college students to seduce one another, she has remained a terrific actress and one with very sharp comedic skills.
During “The Meddler,” Minnie is met by a couple of men who are eager to get to know her better. One is Michael McKean’s overly earnest Mark whose idea of a date is to take Minnie to the Holocaust Museum, but it’s hard to imagine anyone getting romantic over there. McKean is always fun to watch no matter what movie he’s in, and he makes the most of his limited screen time as a guy who can’t quite take a hint.
The other suitor is a retired cop turned movie set security guard who goes by the name of Zipper, and he is played in a scene-stealing performance by J.K. Simmons. While being upstaged somewhat by an awesome looking mustache, Simmons makes Zipper into a uniquely lovable guy, and he is wonderful to watch as he introduces Sarandon to his nest of chickens. We’ve seen this Oscar-winning actor go from playing a warm-hearted father in “Juno” to an insanely brutal music instructor in “Whiplash,” and this is not to mention his terrific work in the first three “Spider-Man.” But in “The Meddler” Simmons gets to play a role many of us haven’t seen him play before, a romantic leading man, and he pulls it off beautifully.
What makes “The Meddler” an especially strong movie is how genuine it is in its emotions. Not once did its story feel the least bit manipulative, and its portrait of people trying to move past the loss of a loved one feels authentic in its portrayal. Nothing ever feels cloying or artificial, and it also helps that Sarandon, Byrne, and Simmons are surrounded by a wonderful cast which includes “SNL’s” Cecily Strong, Lucy Punch (the moment where she tosses a baby shower gift aside is priceless), Jason Ritter, Casey Wilson and Jerrod Carmichael. Each actor succeeds in creating unique characters who are fun to hang out with, and watching them is a reminder of how there is never a role too small for an actor to play.
Although it deals with the heavy subjects of grief, heartbreak and losing a loved one, “The Meddler” proves to be a very positive movie which is optimistic in its view of life. In a time where many movies feature infinitely cynical characters, here’s one with a woman of a certain age (and lord knows there’s not enough of those) who is very giving and generous. Even when she appears to be more generous than anyone should be, we keep watching the movie with the hope her spirit will stay strong during even the toughest of times.
“The Meddler” was made on a low budget and on a very shooting schedule, and everyone involved succeeded in giving us something much better than we could have expected. Please don’t let the fact it is not a superhero movie keep you from checking it out.