Exclusive Interview with Ron Shelton about ‘Just Getting Started’

Just Getting Started Shelton with Jones and Freeman

When I first looked at the poster for “Just Getting Started,” I was very happy to see the following phrase on it: written and direct by Ron Shelton. Shelton is responsible for creating some of the best sports movies such as “Bull Durham,” Tin Cup” and “White Men Can’t Jump,” and he has a true gift for creating fantastic dialogue and getting wonderful performances out of his actors. Somewhere along the line, he stopped making movies to where I wondered where he was and what he was up to. Now we know.

“Just Getting Started” takes place at a luxury resort in Palm Springs, California called the Villa Capri. This resort is managed by Duke Diver (Morgan Freeman), a man with a mysterious past who is determined to make sure his residents will never ever stop partying or having fun. But while Duke is the life of the party, his ego becomes threatened by the arrival of Leo (Tommy Lee Jones), an ex-military man who wastes no time in battling Duke for the top spot of Alpha male at the Villa Capri. Things get even more complicated when a new resident, the beautiful Suzie (Rene Russo), arrives at the resort, and the two become determined to gain her affections in an effort to prove who is the better man. But once Duke’s past comes back to haunt him, he and Leo are forced to work together in an effort to stay alive.

It was a real pleasure talking with Shelton, and he spoke about what brought him back to the director’s chair for the first time in over a decade, how he goes about directing a comedy, and of what it was like to have Freeman and Jones go against type and play characters who are not so serious and eager to have fun. Shelton also talked about Glenne Headly who passed away recently, as this was the last movie she appeared in before her death.

Just Getting Started movie poster

Ben Kenber: I was very excited to learn you were directing another movie. This is your first feature film since “Hollywood Homicide.” What was it about this story which inspired you to get back in the director’s chair?

Ron Shelton: Well I had three or four movies which fell through at the last second, so it’s not like I suddenly decided to get off the couch and direct. I have been writing steadily and developing TV things and trying to finance features. In the independent world, there are so many moving parts to the financing that if one piece falls out, the whole thing falls apart. So it hasn’t been for lack of effort, and now I have a couple more I think that are gonna go. It won’t be such a dearth of time between them, and I got some other projects I’m working on. This one came together financially, that’s why this one got made.

BK: What inspired you to write this particular screenplay?

RS: Southern California where I grew up, and maybe you grew up, in the winters and Christmas, to me, I’m used to it. You go to the beach and play golf. But people from cold climates come out here and they are just like appalled; this doesn’t count as Christmas. And I started saying to half the world, this is Christmas, this kind of weather. What’s wrong with it? When the Nativity happened, it was probably more like Palm Springs (laughs). Then I remembered driving to Palm Springs at Christmas and there were dust storms and Christmas trees were blowing off lots down the street and Johnny Mathis was being piped in, and I thought, yeah, this was a good backdrop for a movie, so that’s where the backdrop came from. And then basically, the Duke Diver character is based on a hustler a producer and I knew who was a good hustler. He wasn’t a criminal hustler, but he was a guy everybody loved, and nobody ever knew what he did for a living or how he survived. So, I kind of turned that into this character, and the whole thing fell together.

BK: The characters played by Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones and Rene Russo, they are not all they appear to be at the start.

RS: Right, exactly.

BK: Your movies take place in the real world which we all understand and complain about more often than not, and they also contain fantastical elements which you can only find in the realm of fiction. How much of a challenge is it for you to balance those two elements out?

RS: It’s what I prefer to do. What I couldn’t imagine is a movie set in outer space or in the future or time travel or Death Stars blowing up or toys that turn into monsters or Transformers. That doesn’t interest me. I’m interested in human behavior whether it’s tragic or comic, and all of my movies, however disparate they are, are about how people behave. I just think that’s the most exciting thing to observe, and I tend to like movies about human behavior and not special effects. That’s just me. I’m in the minority obviously when you look at the box office results out there. I like to take the audience into a world they never would go into except for a movie whether it’s playground basketball (“White Men Can’t Jump”), minor league baseball (“Bull Durham”), or the political world of Louisiana politics in the 1950’s (“Blaze”). That’s just what interests me. It’s as simple as that.

BK: I fear many people will consider “Just Getting Started” as a movie about old people, but it really isn’t. It’s more about how no one ever really acts their age and how we roll with the punches.

RS: Well you don’t go to a retirement home to die. You go there to party. Everybody onscreen is not looking back and reliving their loses which everyone has, looking at their high school yearbooks, or thinking about what might have been. Everybody there probably is divorced or widowed, and all they are doing is looking for what’s next in their life. I’m 70. When you get to 70, that’s all you’re doing. I don’t think of myself as old. I can’t hit a golf ball as far, but I’m a better golfer. Morgan’s 80 and Tommy’s my age. We’re all about moving forward, working more, discovering things about ourselves, and that’s really what I think interests me. Most people I know who are my age, whether they are in the movie business or not, are not looking back. They are looking forward and looking forward to tomorrow. That’s all it’s about.

BK: I love how you cast Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones in these roles. Both are known for playing dramatic roles with a lot of gravitas, so seeing them let loose here is a joy because we don’t see them often in comedic roles. When it comes to directing actors to be funny, do you let them play the joke or play the scene?

RS: Play the scene always. Never play the joke. I’m not a very good joke writer anyway. I try to write behavior and interchange and exchange that’s humorous or that’s real and based on behavior, and I just say play it. You’re the actors, play it. Don’t ever look for a laugh. Don’t ever worry about where the punchline is because there’s probably not a punchline, and that’s the way we do it.

BK: That’s great because a lot of movies today, filmmakers just like to play the joke and that doesn’t work.

RS: Right.

BK: I think the trick with comedy, especially with your movies, is to play the scene and never play it like you are in on the joke.

RS:  Exactly. A lot of times an actor, not these two because they are so good, but in another movie I’d be directing, they would say this line is so funny on the page and I don’t think I’m getting the laugh out of it. I said you shouldn’t be trying to get the laugh, just play it real. Play every line real, and the laughs come or they don’t come. Sometimes you think there’s going to be a laugh in the script, and it’s a smile. Sometimes a laugh comes when you least expect it, but it’s not going to come on the punchline because there aren’t any, or they rarely are.

BK: You worked with Rene Russo in “Tin Cup,” and she looks and is fabulous in this role. It looks like a serious role for her at first, but then she pulls out the stops.

RS: Rene plays the strong woman who’s really a mess better than anybody I know (laughs).

BK: How did you direct the actors? Did you just let them loose?

RS: When a director says “action,” his work is done. It’s like you’re a basketball coach; at the first tip, you’re done. Plus, with these people, you don’t have to direct them as much as you give them a note and then get out of the way. Just help stage it and shoot it. Tommy’s note was look you’re not competing with Duke, he’s competing with you. You’re not threatened by Duke, he’s terribly threatened by you. So that’s where some of the chemistry comes from. Tommy’s toying with Duke, and Duke is fighting for his existence with Tommy. So that just needs a slightly different motivation.

BK: When you write a screenplay, you usually have a vision of it in your head of how the dialogue should sound like. What is it like when actors speak the dialogue you have written?

RS: Well then, it’s the third thing: You write one movie, you shoot another movie, and then you edit a third movie as the old saying goes. Once they have it, it takes on a new life of its own. That’s the truth. Once you’ve hired the actor and I hand them the script, I always say look, until this moment, I know more about this character than you because I have been living with this character and writing him and figuring him out. Now, it’s yours. Now you’re going to discover things about this character I didn’t even think about. So in a certain way, I’m handing this character to you.

BK: I also liked the three ladies (played by Sheryl Lee Ralph, Elizabeth Ashley and the late Glenne Headly) whom Duke flirts with, and I loved their dialogue because you expect them to not know what’s going on, but they know more than they let on. What was it like writing those characters?

RS: They were great. I wish I had more time. It was a fast shoot. We had 28 days if you can believe that. If we had more time, we could have done more with those wonderful actresses. And yes indeed, it was a shocking loss when Glenne passed. Nobody anticipated it at all, and it happened suddenly too. It wasn’t like a disease. But they were all great to work with. They were so happy to be working in a nourishing environment where everybody was having fun, and there was mutual trust and we could play. But everybody was very respectful of the script. There was virtually no improvising in the whole movie, and they were just pros. I love working with pros.

BK: I really thought the dedication you gave Glenne at the conclusion of the end credits was really lovely.

RS: Thank you.

BK: In regards to the shooting schedule you had for this movie, how did shooting it in less than 30 days affect you as a director?

RS: It’s not a shooting schedule when a movie is shot in three different cities with 80 and 70-year-old actors with about 80 locations. It’s a schedule when you’ve got sets, and we didn’t have any sets, and you’re moving the company all the time. When you’re moving the company all the time, that’s what takes time. The second unit I shot in Palm Springs because we also shot in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and I picked up a day in Valencia. So that’s a lot of movie for 28 days.

BK: Another actor I was happy to see in this movie was Jane Seymour, and she is almost completely unrecognizable here. Was this by design or was it her idea to look completely different from any role she has played previously?

RS: When she said she would love to do this, she was a late add. She said, what’s my hair look like? I said I don’t know, I hadn’t thought about that. And she said, I have two different wigs. And I said, why don’t you wear them both? We’ll just alternate them in scenes. She thought that was a great idea, and she said one is blonde and one is brunette. I said perfect, every time we cut to you, you’ll look different.

BK: How did this movie evolve for you while you were in the editing room?

RS: Well you keep finding the movie. The big question in editing was, how much should the audience know that you keep a secret? You don’t want to make it too much, and you also don’t want to say he doesn’t have a secret because when the golf cart blows up, it can’t be like, what the hell’s happening? It has to be oh, now we’re going to get to the bottom of the secret. So we were always playing with how much to share with the audience and how much not to share. That’s just a difficult kind of problem you address in post-production.

I really want to thank Ron Shelton for taking the time to talk with me. It was a real pleasure. “Just Getting Started” will open on December 8, 2017. Be sure to check it out!

Poster, photo and trailer courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.

Gillian Robespierre Sets the Record Straight about ‘Obvious Child’

Obvious Child Gillian on set

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

Obvious Child movie poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image, poster and featurette courtesy of A24.

 

Exclusive Interview with Kyle Patrick Alvarez about ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’

kyle-patrick-alvarez-directing-stanford-prison-experiment

Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment” takes us back to the year 1971 when psychology professor Philip Zimbardo (played in the movie by Billy Crudup) conducted the infamous experiment which had 24 students playing the roles of prisoners and guards in a makeshift prison located in the basement of the school’s psychology building. Things start off well, but the experiment soon goes out of control when the guards become increasingly abusive to the prisoners, and Zimbardo is unwilling to stop their brutality as he is infinitely curious to see what it will produce. Zimbardo was out to test his hypothesis of how the personality traits of prisoners and guards are the chief cause of abusive behavior between them. The experiment was supposed to last fourteen days, but it ended after 6.

What results is one of the most intense moviegoing experiences from the year 2015 as a cast of actors including Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Michael Angarano, and Logan Miller find themselves caught up in the experiment’s grip to where the line between reality and fiction is completely blurred. Whereas previous films have observed this experiment from an academic standpoint, this one observes it from an emotional one.

I got to talk with Kyle while he was in Los Angeles to promote “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” His previous films as writer and director were “C.O.G.” in which a cocky young man travels to Oregon to work on an apple farm, and “Easier with Practice” which tells the tale of a novelist going on a road trip with his younger brother to promote his unpublished novel.

the-stanford-prison-experiment-movie-poster

Ben Kenber: “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is one of the most movies you don’t watch as much as you experience.

Kyle Patrick Alvarez: I’m finding that out, yeah (laughs).

BK: There are only so many movies you can say that about. “Deliverance” is a good example of that.

KPA: I was really humbled. When the movie first played I think the first question at the Q&A was, “Did you feel like this movie was an experiment on the audience?” I was so taken aback by the question not in a negative way, but because no one had seen the movie before. I was actually working so hard to not overburden the audience with the story. We even tempered it down a lot. They were stripping guys by the end of day one. I think by the end it’s supposed to become burdensome to watch, and I embrace it now that that’s the reaction, but I didn’t know that that was going to be the case. So the first time the movie screened I was like. okay, it is playing this way to people and I know I can just embrace that now which is good. I hope not every movie I make is like that, but hopefully the movie earns it and then people appreciate the challenge of the experience of watching it.

BK: I remember hearing about this particular experiment while I was in a psychology class in college, and we even watched a documentary about it as well. The one thing that stood out to me the most was when the prisoners started saying “prisoner 819 did a bad thing,” and they kept saying it over and over. I kept waiting for that moment to come up in this movie.

KPA: Oh yeah. I felt like that was one of the really iconic things that you hear. You can hear it over and over and over again in your head, and I think we even joked at one point that they could release a teaser that was just that over and over again. That was interesting to me. As I read the script I had all these things that seemed larger than life, and when you read about it or saw the footage you’re like oh these things really did happen. The Frankenstein walk, to me, is so bizarre and so odd, yet it’s a real thing. To try to make a film that embodies that sort of spirit was hopefully the aim.

BK: This movie is “based on a true story,” but you didn’t use that phrase at the start of it. I was glad you didn’t because this phrase has long since lost its meaning.

KPA: I kind of fought for that a little bit actually. My whole argument was that marketing is going to say it no matter what. I’m a firm believer that you want the movie to stand on its own regardless of marketing, but at the same time I just don’t know anyone that would go to a movie called The Stanford Prison Experiment and not know anything about it and not know it was based on a true thing. I talked about it when I first got involved in the film that “based on a true story” means nothing anymore. The movie I was using for an example was the one where Eric Bana plays a cop who is hunting demons in New York City (“Deliver Us from Evil”), and the trailer says it was “based on a true story.” There are demons in New York; we know this as fact, right? There are not people who hunt demons in New York. Maybe there’s someone who said he does once, but that doesn’t mean it is based on a true story. So, it just doesn’t mean anything to people anymore and it doesn’t carry any weight or value. I tried to think of some other vernacular it could be. I didn’t want it to be like this is a true story because then that says everything in it is true, which is a lie. As soon as you make a movie on anything, nothing in it is true anymore.

BK: With movies based on real events there are dramatic liberties taken, but with this one it sounds like that wasn’t entirely the case.

KPA: I think we reduced the dramatic liberties quite a bit. I think if you look at a movie, for example, like “Lincoln” which takes voting public record and changes it. I don’t mean to slam the film, I like the film quite a bit, but when they’re voting they change the numbers to make it more suspenseful. I don’t think we took any liberties anywhere near that extreme. Maybe some people who were in the experiment could argue that it wasn’t really that intense or something like that. Others may argue that the intensity comes from putting the camera in their faces or the artistic representation of it. Two of our biggest liberties are when Ezra (Miller) and Brett (Davern) escape the prison. In real life the guy really did take a panel off. He was a guitar player and took the panel off with a sundial, broke the lock and I think they tried to open a door, but a guard was there and admonished them and told them that they had to fix the lock. We added an extra couple hundred feet. When we were doing that we said that we were gonna add this chase sequence because the movie needs to breathe and open up a bit. I thought Tim (Talbott) had done a really good job with that in the script. But then when Phil (Zimbardo) comes around and the other guys, there’s a reason we never see them touch them because they didn’t. That was where we were embellishing a little bit for the sake of the narrative, but we’re not abandoning the fundamentals of what this experiment was about. Those guys did not touch them or physically harass them so we didn’t show that, and having Phil involved was a really good and constant reminder of what those fundamentals are that we shouldn’t change. The ending, when they called it off, actually Phil and Christina kind of said that they needed to call this off and they came up with a plan to do it professionally. For me, you show that and there is an anti-climactic nature to that. I think the emotions are real and that they were being felt, and we just put them in at different times for the ending. I was really interested in making a film that could hold up. If you sit down and watch the documentary “Quiet Rage,” you will go oh, that is actually pretty similar. I didn’t want to make a movie that would replace that or replace “The Lucifer Effect.” I wanted to make a film that would work in tandem with those where it would feel like you could gain something a little more emotional and different than if you just did the academia side.

BK: The actors are all fantastic in the movie and they each give very intense performances. Watching them made me wonder if the movie was an experiment on them.

KPA: In a weird way, I almost wish I had this story to make interviews more exciting about these kids became their characters and I became like Zimbardo. But the truth was I think I was actually overtly aware of that potential, and actually it would have worked so hard against us. If you ask any of the guys, they will say that they had a lot of fun. You only have two options: either go down the path where everyone has fun and everyone gets along, or you gotta push it to go really extreme. I am not a big manipulator. If an actor wants me to manipulate them I will work with that, but on this film it was one of those things where it’s like when the camera’s rolling we’re on, and when it’s off be respectful. Some guys might need more space and might want to stay in character a little bit more, but it never took on the form of the experiment. We did spend two and a half weeks in that hallway, and we were sick of the hallway. We were ready to be done. Sure, some feelings were created, but I told them everyone every day that this is like a soccer game where we all shake hands at the end. So if something is going on that you’re not comfortable with, just say it. I said that probably more to the guards than the prisoners, but once it came down to doing those few physical things in the movie the actors loved it. Nick and Ezra had worked together before so they already respected each other, and they would just run through their scenes and had such a blast. For me, in a weird way we actually worked against that, and I think consequently the actors look back on it very fondly. I also think we got, for the nature of the movie and the tight shooting schedule, better stuff from them because they just felt more invigorated. I would just love to be able to build a career out of actors having good experiences. That’s my favorite party of the process, working with actors. I admire what they do so much because I never could, so it’s honoring that by working to each person. But this is the first time I ever did an ensemble piece and it was a little more about telling them hey this is what it’s going to be like, hey it’s not going to get out of control, guards you are going to follow the script and if you want to push something a little bit more than we’ll talk about it as opposed to unleashing them. There have been previous iterations of this project where that had been the aim where they try to create this potboiler environment where the actors really lose it, but I think what you get with that is more of a machismo quality. I jokingly refer to it as the David Ayer effect. I like his movies so it’s not a slam on them at all, but he’s making testosterone and there’s no doubt about it. I actually was more interested in making the inverse of that. The set was like a frat house, but the aggression was coming from a more complicated place. There wasn’t any actual physical violence. When you look closely at the movie there is no drop of blood other than one or two moments. No one was physically hurt, and so we were really careful to honor that while still creating tension.

BK: One interesting scene is when Ezra Miller’s character gets arrested as part of the experiment. He treats it like it’s no big deal at first, but then the cops slam his head on the car and his mood changes instantly.

KPA: They really did get real cops and they said arrest these guys like they are really criminals. This is something we didn’t have the money to shoot, but they actually took them to the police station and fingerprinted them and booked them and took photos of them and everything. They really put them through this simulation and it really got to them. The cops were really putting paper bags on their heads. Someone criticized the film once saying that they used too much on the nose imagery from Abu Ghraib, specifically referring to the bags. I was like no, no, no, Abu Ghraib just did the same exact thing.

BK: It seems like certain audience members need to be reminded that the Stanford Prison Experiment took place long before Abu Ghraib.

KPA: Oh yeah. It’s one of those stories that’s too bizarre to be true. It’s hard to accept that it was true. I knew there was no way to succeed 100% on this but I tried to work the hardest to make a film that didn’t just always say, “Well it really did happen.” That’s not enough of an answer when you make a movie like this because you have to make the audience feel like it could have happened. I wanted it to be like, “Well I understand why it happened.”

BK: By the time the movie gets to day three, it feels like we have been with these guys for a month.

KPA: Yeah (laughs), that’s how they felt too. They really did not know how many days had passed. They weren’t sleeping which I think was the biggest thing. You can go 36 hours without sleep when you start to legitimately lose your mind, and I think that’s a huge part of what happened.

BK: The Stanford Prison Experiment was supposed to last two weeks, but it ended up being shut down after 6 days. Some have said that it wasn’t because the experiment wasn’t successful, but that it was too successful. Would you say that was the case?

KPA: I think once you talk about success of the experiment you start to bring into the question its true purpose and its ethics. I was really interested in pushing questions of things like that in the movie. At the same time, I didn’t want to fall into the question of, was this okay? People are still arguing the exact same things, so I figured we are never going to solve this. 40 years later people are still arguing whether this experiment succeeded or not or whether it should have never have ever been done in the first place. What we do know now is that the experiment would never be allowed to happen today. It was military financed. Partly because of the experiment, there are so many more checks and balances in place. When I first sat down with Billy (Crudup), one of the things he said was, “How could everyone be so naïve to not realize this would happen?” And I said, “Well of course, they could have because it hadn’t happened yet.” Now it’s easier for us to go, “Well, of course, it would have gone wrong. What were they thinking?” They were doing experiments like this all the time; simulations or recreations. This was just part of what psychologists were doing at the time. This was the time it just really imploded.

BK: That’s a good point. Ever since then we have a better understanding of the power dynamic between prisoners and guards more than ever before.

KPA: Yeah, and that’s why I added a line at the end when Billy is talking to the camera. He says, “There was no sense of precedent. We didn’t know this was going to happen.” I thought that was a really important element.

I want to thank Kyle Patrick Alvarez for taking the time to talk to me. “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

Exclusive Interview with Peter Strickland on ‘The Duke of Burgundy’

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He received critical acclaim for his film “Berberian Sound Studio,” and now British filmmaker Peter Strickland follows it up with “The Duke of Burgundy.” Now while the title might have you believing this is just another stiff period piece, it proves to be anything but that. It stars Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna as Cynthia and Evelyn, two women with a keen interest in butterflies who are involved in a sadomasochistic relationship. Despite what sounds like a harsh situation, Cynthia and Evelyn are very much in love with one another and enjoy playing the roles of the dominant and the submissive. But as Cynthia begins to yearn for their relationship to become a more normal one, Evelyn becomes increasingly obsessed with playing the submissive to where it becomes an addiction which cannot be easily fulfilled.

I got to speak with Strickland over the phone while he was doing press for “The Duke of Burgundy,” and we talked about how the movie is not what it appears to be. Strickland described how he achieved the movie’s beautiful look, what he wanted to see onscreen in regards to a sadomasochistic relationship, and of the challenges of shooting a six-minute scene in one take.

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Ben Kenber: “The Duke of Burgundy” is a fascinating and mesmerizing movie, and what I liked about it was that while these two women are involved in a sadomasochistic relationship, it still feels like any other relationship in terms of how it runs on routine and gets run down by it as well.

Peter Strickland: Yeah. Ultimately what I found really interesting was that one of them is doing that out of the purest joy. There are two levels: one level is the joy of sex which makes us happy but also the joy of feeling desired I think especially as she’s (Cynthia) feeling that she’s getting older, but only have so much mileage to that. To me the film is about anybody who’s in a relationship with someone who has different needs and how you navigate those and how you find compromise, and I think coercion leads into it somehow. To be honest I was making the movie as a way to argue that afterwards or at least have discussions about who should compromise. Should it be one person doing things to somebody else that they find distasteful? It doesn’t matter what that thing is. It could be the most basic sexual acts. Or should the other person compromise and just withhold their desires and not express themselves? I don’t have the answers to that. I’m just showing this domestic drama really.

BK: Yeah, in any relationship those questions of who’s going to compromise the most comes up. In the end when you take away the sadomasochistic elements it really is like any other relationship.

PS: Yeah, I think so. And I think that, despite some of the harshness, there was a tenderness there as well. What I wanted to do was to start the first 10 minutes like your classic 70’s sexploitation film which would serve that kind of fantasy where they are all in character where the stern mistress is the stern mistress but then somehow unpeel that, and I want to see that stern mistress in her pajamas. I want to see her snoring at night, I want to see her get her lines wrong and miss her cues just to see what ticks underneath that somehow.

BK: This movie has such a beautiful look to it. It looks like it was shot on film, but I read that you actually shot it digitally. How did you make The Duke of Burgundy look like it was shot on film?

PS: That was Nicky (Nowland, the Director of Photography). He has literally been shooting on film for many, many years and he has been shooting stuff since the 60’s so he’s got a good feel for that. We were very close to shooting on 16mm but we just didn’t quite… We could’ve applied for more money, but the more money you get, the less control you have. So, we kept the budget around $1,000,000 pounds which meant I had complete control, but the consequence of having complete control is that we had to make cuts, so film was the first one to go. Nick can talk more about it in terms of the lenses he uses which were older lenses which I think were uncoated. That haze machine is quite important for him in terms of having this very diffuse quality to the whole movie. But also during the scenes where Evelyn is having her sort of excitable moments he was using doubles and mirrors so all that is done in camera, and I think we just did a lot of trial and error just moving the camera and moving the actors. Sometimes you have two doubles crossing into the mirror and crossing into another mirror and cover that up with the haze machine, and that really has a certain tasty look that’s reminiscent of the 70’s. We didn’t want to try too much to go down that route. Now you can make film looked distressed and so on, and that was the danger of sort of being a pastiche. We just wanted to do the most beautiful job we could, and I think the production design played a huge part in that and the costumes played a huge part as well.

BK: The movie kind of looks like it takes place in the 70’s, but in the end, it could be taking place in any time period. Was it your intention to leave the movie’s time period ambiguous?

PS: I wanted it to be kind of like a fairytale in that you don’t know where it is, you don’t know when it is, and you don’t know how in the hell they make their money to live in that place. It’s all those things that fairytales have been in a sense. Hopefully, you’re not worried about social elements of class or gender. There’s no counterpoint in that sense, so hopefully you’re just immersed in the dynamic of it. What was important as well was to be open to the fact that other people enjoy these practices so it doesn’t feel like this unusual activity. It’s kind of normalizing it so it’s not about treating it like it’s this odd thing. It could be any act in that sense, it’s just one person doesn’t like it, that’s all.

BK: I also got the impression that you designed “The Duke of Burgundy” to mislead viewers in a way starting with the movie’s title. Also, with the relationship between Cynthia and Evelyn, it looks like Cynthia is the dominant one, but it turns out to be the other way around.

PS: Yeah. Very subconsciously, I knew people wouldn’t watch the film so I just tried to make it like this kind of tasteful period drama, but I think it was kind of like a perverse pleasure having one concession to a masculine presence especially given that, being a male director, you can’t avoid that element of it. I’ve seen a lot of films on that subject, not everything, but I think what often happened was they would prop up the fantasy of masochism and never show the dominant out of character. What I wanted to look at was the idea of the masochist controlling the whole scenario, and the whole paradox is controlling the situation where you are controlled by someone else. The whole paradox of the submissive controlling the dominant is that it is being dominated on her terms. It’s exploring all these dynamics I guess.

BK: One of my favorite scenes is where Cynthia and Evelyn are in bed, and you see on Cynthia’s face a yearning for something normal in their relationship. The acting by Sidse Babett Knudsen who play Cynthia is extraordinary. How did you go about directing that scene?

PS: That was a weird one. There wasn’t enough space for me in the bedroom, so I directed it from the bathroom. Normally I talk to the actors in person but there was just so many wires that I had to sort of shout to them from the bathroom. Obviously, we spoke about it prior to that. In one sense, it was quite easy to do because of the whole dynamics of it, but it was very difficult in another sense because we had to do it in one take. If you get one line wrong, you have to go again. There’s a weird kind of meta thing going on because obviously if one line goes wrong for Evelyn’s character it’s gone wrong for her, and if one line is wrong for me it’s gone wrong. Since there was this double pressure, I actually think it was quite easy to do that scene. It was quite tense because it was actually six minutes long, and even though we got it in one take at the very end it was just too long. It’s a weird thing because when you’re on set time just flies by, and when you look at it at in the edit room out of context you think, oh my god this is so long, it’s just not working anymore. So all that effort to do it in one take was just kind of wasted; we had to do it like a sort of insert cut. But yeah, that scene kind of sums up the film: to being ordered to order someone. It sounds kind of preposterous but it’s really an interesting part of human nature.

BK: The music score by Cat’s Eyes is wonderful and sounded very unique. What was it like working with the band on the score?

PS: I loved working with them. They are really, really, really talented and woefully overlooked. Hopefully that will change now. They come from very different disciplines. Rachel (Zeffira) comes from a classical background and Faris (Badwan) comes from this rock ‘n roll, experimental background, and they just complement each other really well. They’re completely fine if it’s not right; they’ll just keep going. The main thing at the beginning is just setting them up for the right mood and just playing the music. In hindsight, I feel a bit guilty sometimes that maybe I’ve gotten too attached to some piece of music, but I think it was setting the mood for them and discussing the instruments they would use. I remember I put Mozart’s Requiem over that long montage towards the end, and I knew I shouldn’t do it because it’s such an obvious piece of music and everyone’s used it. Then Rachel just came on and said, “I don’t care. I can just write my own requiem.” It was just an amazing piece and I didn’t miss the Mozart at all. I assume that they will be asked a lot more to do soundtracks. I bought their first album in 2011 and it just blew me away. They’re the first band that made me say, “Okay this is The Carpenters if they were doing music now without any kind of ironic take or pastiche.” I highly recommend the first album they did. I was really, really lucky that they said yes (to working with me).

BK: It’s compelling to think that the use of butterflies in this movie serves as a metaphor for the relationship between the two women, but it’s my understanding that you never actually intended that to be the case.

PS: No, not really. I’m not a big fan of putting the audience through that (laughs). For me, it was a framework for the film. Obviously, there are connections you can make, but you can do that with anything if you wanted to because of the metamorphosis and the cataloging of the insects. But there’s something about the absence of these insects when they’re emigrating and their hibernating which really added to the atmosphere of this very autumnal love story where you just feel it might be coming to an end. And that last lecture that Cynthia gives with the mole cricket going into hibernation really connected with Evelyn’s dormant desires. So, you really feel this extreme hibernation that is coming.

Thanks to Peter Strickland for taking the time to talk with me. “The Duke of Burgundy” is now available to own and rent on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital.

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 Cherien Dabis on ‘May in the Summer’

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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.

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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.

Exclusive Interview with Carlos Marques-Marcet on ‘10,000 Km’

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The thought of a long-distance relationship is frightening as it thoroughly tests the bond between a loving couple to where it looks like they are destined for disaster. One relationship is put to this test in “10,000 Km,” a romantic drama co-written and directed by Carlos Marques-Marcet.

Alexandra (Natalia Tena) and Sergi (David Verdaguer) are a loving couple living in Barcelona, Spain, but they also struggle to balance out their careers while trying to start a family. Then Alexandra accepts a one-year residency in Los Angeles which could really jump start her photography career, and Sergi has no choice but to stay in Barcelona where he works as a teacher. Luckily, they have modern technology which allows them to keep in touch on a daily basis, but what is helping to keep them together may also tear them apart.

“10,000 Km” proved to be a powerful meditation on the struggle of a long-distance relationship, and it starts off with a scene which lasts several minutes and captures the characters in their most intimate state. I got to talk with Marcet while he was in Los Angeles, and he talked about how that scene came about and how long it took to shoot. In addition, he also clarified how much of the movie was shot in Spain and Los Angeles, how he came to cast Tena and Verdaguer, and of how he kept the actors separated during shooting.

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Ben Kenber: It’s interesting to see how this relationship evolves once the two lovers are separated by continents and use technology to keep in touch with one another. Was it hard to balance out the benefits of technology with the human element in this movie?

Carlos Marques-Marcet: No. We knew from the beginning that the driving point was to portray the relationship which derives from the human element. The technology was the tool and the human part was the means somehow, so it wasn’t so much about finding a balance but trying to see how to use these tools to convey the means.

BK: The opening sequence of “10,000 Km” is amazing as it lasts several minutes and features the two lovers being intimate with one another, and then one of them receives an unexpected job opportunity. How did you go about setting the scene up?

CMM: It was a long process to arrive there. It was originally not such a long scene, but then we looked at the script and it suddenly made sense to have this very long scene where you see them together. It’s a two shot of them and you are with them, then afterwards the rest of the movie we shot over shot because they have no other possibilities. There’s a symbolic element to it, this raw thing of being with two people together that weren’t there together. The making of it involved a lot of preparation. The location was the producer’s house, so I knew where I was going to shoot. It was a combination of working with all the departments, the actors and rehearsing. It was like a dance.

BK: This scene must have taken a very long time to shoot.

CMM: 17 takes and three days of shooting. We planned it and we wanted to do it with the dollies. There was no handheld camera. We wanted it to be grounded to the ground. I think it was an interesting way of how to go about it.

BK: Natalia Tena and David Verdaguer are both terrific in this movie. What was the casting process like?

CMM: So basically, we found David about a year before shooting. I had just graduated from UCLA and I didn’t want to shoot another short. I just took a couple of scenes from the movie and shot them just as an experiment with another actress. I watched a lot of You Tube videos and interviews. I like to see how actors move and how they talk, and I was looking for another actor, not David, and then I saw him in this video he made with a cell phone of two friends. Then I saw that he was an actor and I proposed to my producers that we bring him in for casting, but then it turned out that he’s actually known as a comedian. I had no idea. He’s like a “Saturday Night Live” comedian. Actually, he’s done a lot of theater, very serious theater, but people love him for his comedic aspect. But then he came into the casting process, and it was a very long casting process with two people for hours. I like to work with the actors instead of just having them come in to read. I like to meet people. It was David for sure, no doubt. And then with Natalia, it was a last-minute thing. We were actually going to shoot with another actress and she had to cancel, and when we finally found Natalia it was like a miracle. It was very clear that they had chemistry, and they became very close friends instantaneously.

BK: When it came to shooting the scenes when she’s in Los Angeles and he’s back in Spain and they are using Skype to keep in touch with one another, did you purposely separate the actors?

CMM: Yeah. Originally I wanted to shoot it in Los Angeles and in Barcelona at the same time, but Natalia had some scheduling conflicts. It wasn’t that cheap to do it. I wanted to shoot it in my own house in Los Angeles, but schedule wise it was not possible. So we put them in two different apartments in Barcelona and I actually after shooting the first scene said that it would be nice if they didn’t see each other, but that lasted like two or three days (laughs). After three days I was like it’s fine if they hang out with each other. I wanted to create the feeling of missing somebody, and three days was totally enough. In the end, they were hanging out together every night playing cards, going over the lines and drinking wine, and in the morning they had to be separated. So, for them being in touch every day and then during the day not being able to be together was very frustrating, and I think that shows up somehow in the movie.

BK: When “10,000 Km” begins we see this couple at their most intimate, and they still have that intimacy throughout the movie to a certain extent. I don’t want to give away the ending, but I loved how you ended the movie on an ambiguous note. It’s not the kind of movie that begs for a solid or more definitive conclusion.

CMM: Yeah, that came about during the editing. Actually, the script was much more clear, but while we were editing there was a bunch of dialogue that we decided to take out because I felt that already through the images we could tell what was going on. Then we took it out and then for some people it became more ambiguous than it was in the script. I like it. It was not in the plan of how I shot it. I have my own vision of it, but I also like to let people imagine whatever they want.

BK: “10,000 Km” is not designed to give anyone a definitive answer to whether long-distance relationships can work or not, but I came out of it hoping these two would find a way to make things work out.

CMM: That’s a very optimistic view (laughs). We leave it so that the very optimistic people can think that (laughs).

BK: Despite the scheduling conflicts, were you able to shoot any of the movie in Los Angeles, or was it mostly shot in Barcelona?

CMM: Mostly in Barcelona, and then I shot some of the stuff in LA. There are some shots where you see my home in Echo Park with the webcam and everything, but mostly we shot it in Barcelona. We faked the LA interior in Barcelona. It was not possible to do it the other way around. In Los Angeles, you won’t find interior like you would in Barcelona. I didn’t want to shoot in a studio. I wanted to shoot in a real location so they have the feeling that they are in a house or a real apartment.

I want to thank Carlos Marques for taking the time to talk with me. “10,000 Km” is now available to own and rent on Blu-ray, DVD, 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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Leigh Janiak on Her Directorial Debut, ‘Honeymoon’

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With the horror film “Honeymoon,” Leigh Janiak gives us one of the strongest directorial debuts I have seen in a while. It stars Harry Treadaway and Rose Leslie as Paul and Bea, a newlywed couple who spend their honeymoon at a beautiful cabin overlooking the river only to see their new beginning descend into chaos as sinister forces begin to tear them apart. For a first-time filmmaker, Janiak never takes a wrong step as she generates strong levels of suspense and horror and succeeds in maintaining them all the way to the movie’s infinitely creepy conclusion.

Janiak dropped by the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California for the “Honeymoon” press day just before the movie was released. She studied creative writing and comparative religion at New York University, and then she later enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Chicago which dealt with modern Jewish studies with an emphasis on violence and identity in post–World War II Hebrew literature. It was there her interest in movies skyrocketed after she met a group of student filmmakers known as Far Escape Films. As a result, she dropped out of her doctoral studies and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career making movies.

Many wondered what horror movies inspired “Honeymoon” as well as which ones are her favorites. In regards to inspirations, her answer was a bit of a surprise.

“Well certainly ‘The Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ is the most kind of thematically influential on it,” Janiak said. “‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and ‘The Shining,’ those are kind of my favorite horror films generally. I like grounded horror where you really spend time with the characters and you get to this place of uncomfortableness.”

For myself, I was very interested in finding out how she maintained the suspense throughout “Honeymoon.” I kept waiting for the movie to make a wrong turn which would ruin everything which came before it, but that never happened. For a first time director, she really kept us on the edge of our seats throughout in a way I didn’t expect. I asked her how she managed to accomplish this feat.

“I think that the reason that works is because Harry and Rose’s characters are each transforming in different ways,” Janiak said. “So it was only challenging in so far as knowing that Rose would be on one page for her character internally and Harry is on a completely different one. We have to make them still interacting and keeping these things from one another so we recognize that as an audience we sense the unease. We sense things are going wrong with each of them even though we don’t know what and just making it feel like ‘okay enough. We know something secret is happening.’ It was just about balancing their transformations.”

After the interview ended, I asked Janiak which version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” she likes the best. There have been four different cinematic adaptations of Jack Finney’s novel “The Body Snatchers,” the most recent being the 2007 movie “The Invasion,” and she said she enjoyed the first two versions the most but the one with Kevin McCarthy, the 1956 version directed by Don Siegel, is her favorite

Here’s hoping that we get to see many more movies from Leigh Janiak in the near future. “Honeymoon” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

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Exclusive Interview with Greg McLean on ‘Wolf Creek 2’

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Australian film director Greg McLean returns to the scene of the crime with “Wolf Creek 2,” a movie which, supposedly anyway, is based on actual events. The original “Wolf Creek” came out in 2005 and introduced us to the relentless serial killer Mick Taylor (played by John Jarratt) who captures a group of backpackers and tortures them without any remorse. Now Mick is back to take on another group of tourists who make the mistake of crossing his path and have the serious misfortune of not being from his home country. If you are not a proud Australian and are not fully aware of the country’s rich history, pray you don’t run into Mick.

McLean also directed the killer crocodile horror film “Rogue,” and he is said to be a member of the unofficial “Splat Pack.” This term, which was created by film historian Alan Jones, refers to the modern wave of directors who make brutally violent horror films, and other members include Alexandre Aja, Neil Marshall, Eli Roth, James Wan and Rob Zombie. I spoke with McLean about “Wolf Creek 2” and he talked about how a sadistic psychopath like Mick Taylor can be strangely appealing, how this sequel differs from the original, and he pointed out the differences between making a film in Australia and the United States.

Ben Kenber: This was a terrific sequel, and it was great to see John Jarratt return as Mick Taylor. Mick is one of the most sadistic psychopaths ever put in a movie, and yet there is something about him which is undeniably appealing. Why is he so memorable and why are we drawn to characters like him?

Greg McLean: I think that people are generally fascinated with evil and true crime. A character like Mick Taylor represents a very interesting way of peering into a very, very dark psyche. People are fascinated with the nature of evil, and I think the appeal of a character like Mick Taylor is to really get a chance to examine someone who is completely devoid of any sign of humanity. He’s really incredibly dark and twisted, and he’s very terrifying. I think people who like horror films and thrillers and like being scared enjoy coming face-to-face with really disturbing personalities. There is a long history of really fascinating, evil characters and I think people are intrigued at how their personalities work.

BK: When it came to doing a sequel to “Wolf Creek,” was it something you had planned on doing all along, or did you consider doing it after the original movie was finished?

GM: My plan was always to see if the movie worked and people liked it. If people embraced the character (of Mick Taylor), then there will be a chance for another film. So it was always in my mind to do it, it just took a lot longer to get around to it than I thought it ever would (laughs).

BK: Regarding John Jarratt’s portrayal, did you develop the character with him or was it largely his creation?

GM: Well we obviously did the first film together so we had a background to how to approach the character and a discussion on what the character is about. We had been talking about this particular draft of the screenplay (for “Wolf Creek 2”) for a couple of years, so there were certain things we wanted to explore and certain aspects of the character we wanted to bring up, and we kept evolving it on set. Obviously John makes choices as an actor, and then some of those things are in the script and some are developed in the moment. When we got together, we just kind of jammed and came up with cool things to do.

BK: Since the script was in the development stage for a couple of years, did that make it easier for you to return to the character of Mick Taylor and the original movie’s setting?

GM: It certainly enabled us to mine the thematic ideas that we wouldn’t have had if we didn’t have such a long gestation period. We had a script a couple of years ago and it was good, but it just wasn’t amazing. I realized that there was an element to it that was missing and which was making me not want to pull the trigger on it, and what it didn’t have was a kind of somatic investigation into the character that I thought we needed to have. Then once I locked into that concept, then there was enough new information we revealed about his character that I thought it be worth making the film. We also wanted to make a different genre film. The first film is very much a first-person, true crime, real terror film whereas this one I wanted very much to explore the thriller film, and it’s more of an action film. It has horror elements, but it certainly is a different structure in terms of what kind of film that is.

BK: I agree, it does have a different structure and feels more like a road movie. Speaking of that, how did you manage to pull off the sequence where Mick Taylor launches the big rig truck into Paul Hammersmith’s (played by Ryan Corr) car?

GM: We just found a big hill and dropped the truck off it (laughs). It’s much easier to do stuff like that in Australia than it is in the (United) States. Doing things over there is still a bit of the Wild West. It’s interesting because I’m doing a film right now in Los Angeles and I showed that scene to some people and they were just like going, “Wow! How did you do that?” And there’s a shot after the actual truck hits where the fire is just actually continuing to burn the hillside, and everybody was freaking out about that. I said, “Why is that so weird?” They were just going, “Oh my god, how did you let the hill keep burning?” The restrictions are very intense. Obviously there are rules and regulations here and there are in Australia as well, but they were just fascinated by the idea of just literally destroying a truck and letting it burn a hole in the hill. We had fire brigades in the back, and we were able to just do some really crazy stuff. We also wanted to do it in a very practical way. I love doing CG stuff and we used a lot of CG for the kangaroo sequence, but some things I feel are just better to get onscreen practically because you see the texture of things and the physics of moving in a particular way that’s kind of cool.

BK: Yeah, I think that’s what I liked most about that sequence because it really did look real. In most American films, filmmakers would more likely film a sequence like that with CG.

GM: Yeah, I think that part of that is kind of a budgetary thing as well. When you have a low budget you have to find more practical ways of doing things. Digital effects, if you want them to, can be ultra-photorealistic and necessarily expensive. The other way to do it is to find a location you can do something like that and ask to just do it. For all the driving stuff in that sequence, we just closed down highways and did crazy driving on them for two weeks and got all the shots. It was great fun doing a sequence like that.

BK: Looking at those empty highways reminded me of “The Hitcher” with Rutger Hauer and C. Thomas Howell. You have this great open space, but still there’s something about it which is quite claustrophobic.

GM: Well I think the first movie had a very particular primary feed that it was drawing on, and this film to me was really about the fear of isolation in a desolate place. What most of the fear comes from is the primary idea of that which is quite different from the first film. The first film had a different emphasis which was more about the randomness of violence in the real terror that comes from believing someone is something and then suddenly seeing them transform. This one is really much more about exposing the audience to the real terror which comes from extreme isolation and being pursued by a character that is just relentless.

BK: What elements do you believe a horror movie should have in order for it to be successful?

GM: Two things. One, it needs to be based on a primary universal human fear that touches the psychic pressure point. Number two, the film has to have three, if not more, unique and believably memorable set pieces or things that people will talk about when they leave the cinema for hopefully weeks if not years, and that’s it.

I want to thank Greg McLean for taking the time to talk with me about “Wolf Creek 2.” The movie is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

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