‘The Dark Knight’ is the Best Comic Book/Superhero Movie Ever Made

The Dark Knight poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2008.

OK, let’s just get it out of the way: “The Dark Knight” is fucking brilliant! It is a triumph not just of action and direction, but also of acting and characters. This is not simply a story of good guys versus bad guys, but of flawed human beings whose childhood scars have long since formed them into people who can never lead a truly normal life (whatever that means anyway). How thrilling it is to see a movie which actually lives up to the hype. I was desperately trying to control my expectations before going in, but it was hard to with all the glorious reviews it has been getting. How relieved I am to see that all these reviews are more than justified!

No longer burdened by the traditional origin story, “The Dark Knight” thrusts us right into the action with a brilliantly staged robbery sequence. Christopher Nolan has said “Heat” was a big inspiration in this movie’s making, and it does have the look of a Michael Mann movie. It also allows the Joker, the Caped Crusader’s main nemesis here, a truly inspired introduction. Unlike other movie villains who are interested in money and power, the Joker really has no discernable movie other than creating total chaos. This makes him the scariest kind of villain as he has nothing to lose while everyone else does.

We catch up with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as his alter ego of Batman is beginning to take its toll on him psychologically. Like Peter Parker in “Spider-Man 2” or Clark Kent in “Superman II,” he is starting to tire of the role he is playing, and he yearns to spend his days with the love of his life, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes), as she represents the best chance for him to lead a normal life. This is even more so as Batman is now seen more as a vigilante and a danger to Gotham City, despite all he has done to clear the streets of the crime which nearly consumed it. This is made all the more complicated when the Joker gets everyone’s attention by saying he will kill one person a day until the Batman takes off his mask and reveals who he really is to the world. Naturally, the public blames Batman for what the Joker’s actions, and this adds to his desperation to rid himself of his alter-ego. But while Bruce may be able to live without Batman, can Gotham City?

Of all the Batman movies to date, this one gives us a Gotham City totally rooted in reality. All the previous installments have presented Gotham as a place of gothic buildings and ominously dark colors which come to consume the spirits of those living there. This is not the fantastical city we have seen in the past, but instead a city like others we know which are forced to deal with high levels of crime and corruption. As a result, the look and locale really add a lot to the story and the characters in it, and this makes everything seem more dangerous and precarious as a result. To do this I think is a brilliant move on Nolan’s part and, along with this summer’s “Iron Man,” it helps to completely redefine how a comic book movie can be cinematically realized.

I saw “The Dark Knight” on opening day with colleagues from my day job, and some of the people I work with have lived in the rougher parts of Los Angeles for a long time. They definitely saw some of those rougher parts in this movie, and when we exited the theater, one of them said, “Gotham is even worse than South Central!” To quote a line from “Pulp Fiction,” that’s a bold statement!

Bale now effectively owns the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman. Before him, it was Michael Keaton who gave us the strongest portrait of this character. With Bale, you get a Batman and Bruce Wayne with different levels which he plays ever so effectively. Bruce goes from being a swinging playboy to a fighter of crime in no time at all, and even when he comes off as a cad, you still care about and root for him because it seems like no one can take care of crime the way he does.

The one person Bruce believes is the one who can relieve him his Batman duties is Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a lawyer with a big ego and endless integrity which he vows never to relinquish. If “The Dark Knight” does not make Eckhart into a star, nothing will. It should have happened already last year with Jason Reitman’s “Thank You for Smoking” where he played a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, but this one should do the trick. Seeing Harvey’s transformation to strong district attorney to a tragic figure when he becomes the villainous Two Face is devastating. Eckhart makes you believe in him as a public servant, and when it seems like so much has been taken away from him, you feel tremendous sympathy for him while even as he makes which may forever destroy his valiant reputation.

By the way, his changing into Two Face was one of the movie’s best kept secrets throughout its advertisements. His transformation to this sinister character is hideous in its look and a brilliant mix of both makeup and technology. It is a face burned to where an eyelid is missing as well as part of the lip and gums, and it is a shocking visual when we first see it.

The movie has a strong cast with actors who ably fit the roles they have been cast in. Maggie Gyllenhaal fits the role of Rachel Dawes much better than Katie Holmes did, and she makes it all her own by creating a character who you can believe is not easily intimidated by the criminals she prosecutes. When she is caught between with Bruce and Harvey, Gyllenhaal believably makes her character seem like anything other than a pushover.

Michael Caine returns as Bruce’s loyal butler and silent partner in justice, Alfred. Caine is always a welcome presence in any movie he appears in, and the moment where he compares the Joker to another criminal from his past is a strong one as he makes it clear to Bruce and the audience what kind of nemesis he is facing up against this time around.

Morgan Freeman is also back as Lucius Fox who is to Batman as Q is to James Bond. The moment where he stares down an employee making a threat against him and Bruce Wayne is a brilliant piece of stone faced acting which reminds us of why we love him so much as an actor. Even as a supporting player in the movies, he remains a force to be reckoned with.

We also have Gary Oldman back as one of Gotham’s few incorruptible cops, James Gordon. In the past, Oldman has given us some of the scariest and deadliest of villains we could ever hope to see onscreen. Since then, he has moved on to portray the good guy, and while this may seem like a bland choice for an actor like him to make, he succeeds in making his goodness and unstoppable nature in getting the bad guys very appealing. There are not many other actors I can think of who could pull this off, and you come to truly respect the kind of man Gordon is through his terrific performance.

But then there is Heath Ledger in what sadly became his final completed onscreen before his shocking death. There was a lot of talk, before “The Dark Knight” came out, of if he should be nominated for an Oscar and perhaps even become the first posthumous Academy Award winner since Peter Finch in “Network.” Some like Terry Gilliam have found this to be utterly annoying and simply see it as Warner Brothers’ way of juicing up the excitement for this movie so it can have one hell of an opening weekend. While this criticism is certainly justified, I now count myself on the bandwagon for Ledger getting the damn Oscar as he took on a role already made famous by Jack Nicholson and others, and he more than succeeded in making it his own. This seemed unthinkable when it was first announced he would playing the Joker, but Nolan was correct in saying Ledger was “fearless.”

Seriously, Ledger’s performance is a work of art. Whereas Nicholson made us share in his gleefully sadistic nature as the Joker to where we couldn’t deny we were endlessly entertained, Ledger gives us a Joker who is a viciously terrifying psychotic and one to be feared whenever he is onscreen. God only knows what depths the actor went to in order to play this role, but it is easy to see why he lost a lot of sleep over it. His Joker is indeed the scariest of villains as he has no real motive for doing what he does. This guy is in it for all the chaos and anarchy he can get out of Gotham, and he couldn’t seem to care less about money and power. Ledger makes his Joker a live wire, and the tension when he is in a room with one he is taunting is so thick, you need a heavy-duty chainsaw cut through it. There is no real back story to this Joker other than a story he tells about his daddy cutting his face to explain why his face is scared, but then again, can you really be sure he is telling the truth?

Seriously, I would put Ledger’s Joker on the same level with Hannibal Lecter from “The Silence of the Lambs” as well as Robert DeNiro’s Max Cady from “Cape Fear.” I would even go as far as to put him on a pedestal alongside Ben Kingsley’s ragingly raw performance as Don Logan in “Sexy Beast.” I love a bad guy who totally gets under our skin to such an effect to where it feels like he or she is reaching out of the screen to choke you. I get such a fiendish delight out of this, and Ledger’s performance makes it seem like it has been so long since we have had a truly unnerving villain show up on the silver screen.

While we revel in the brilliance of Ledger’s performance as Joker, it makes his loss seem all the more tragic because he succeeded in completely disappearing into the character he played in the same way Marlon Brando and De Niro have in the past. We were tragically robbed of an actor who would have easily become one of the greatest actors of his generation had he lived. His role as the Joker is one hell of an exit, but it feels so unfair that he now has to join the ranks of actors like James Dean who left us way too soon.

Unlike other summer movie blockbusters, this one is not afraid to take us on a journey to the darkest and most despairing depths of its characters short-lived triumphs and endless sorrows. This is a movie about how blurred our moral and ethical boundaries can get when we are pushed beyond our limits. Many big choices are made not just by the main characters, but by the people of Gotham. What will they do to survive? What choices will they make? But more importantly, what will their choice say about them, and are they prepared to live with the consequences of their actions?

These questions hit everyone hard, but no one gets hit harder than Bruce as he finds, in order to defeat the Joker, he has to become almost as bad as him. But can he live with that? Can the others close to him live with that as well? Bruce starts to find himself boxed into a corner as the Joker continually taunts him in a ways which turn the public against him. In the end, he becomes a lot like Jack Bauer from “24” as he protects the people as much as he can, but in the process comes to pay a very high price for what he does. Batman says he is not a hero, and while his actions are heroic, he does have a point. And in order to protect what integrity Gotham has left, he has to make some hard sacrifices.

Nothing in the city of Gotham is black and white, but an endless sea of grey as people are challenged to see who they really are. No one is innocent, and everyone is guilty of something. “The Dark Knight” finds its power and tragedy in the characters who start off good, but who soon lose their way as they head down a path they can never easily turn back from. As Harvey Dent says, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Nolan is now officially one of the best directors working today, and I am thrilled he got away with making a film as dark as this one and still get a PG-13 rating in the process. He started his career off with a bang with “Memento,” and he gave us his one of the few genuinely great remakes with “Insomnia” in which he directed Al Pacino and Robin Williams to some of their best performances ever. With “The Dark Knight,” he has continued to make Batman and the world he inhabits very much his own, and he may very well have made the best superhero movie ever. Even while it clocks in at about two and a half hours, you never feel the length because Nolan fully immerses you into what everything going on.

After the movie was finished, I went right out and bought the soundtrack which is composed by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. It is a fantastic and intense score, and they easily best the work they did on “Batman Begins.” For me, this is a sign of a truly great motion picture as I did the exact same thing after I saw “Pulp Fiction” and “Boogie Nights.” I loved this movie. I LOVED IT!! I hope it makes a HUGE killing at the box office because this is the kind of summer movie I want to see more often.

As of right now, “The Dark Knight” is the movie to beat for 2008.

* * * * out of * * * *

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Soundtrack Review: ‘Grand Canyon’ Extended Edition

Grand Canyon soundtrack cover

Anybody who knows me best knows I am a huge fan of film scores and soundtracks, and James Newton Howard’s score to “Grand Canyon” is one of my all-time favorites. I knew at some point this score would get an expanded and remastered soundtrack, and La La Land Records finally came through with this limited-edition release. While he is better known for his music to “The Prince of Tides,” “The Fugitive,” “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” which he worked with Hans Zimmer on, “Grand Canyon” remains my favorite work of his as the music provides a soothing heartbeat to this movie.

The movie “Grand Canyon” came out in 1991 and was directed by Lawrence Kasdan and written by him and his wife Meg. Its story revolves around six different Los Angeles residents whose lives intertwine with one another over the course of a few days. It all starts when Mac (Kevin Kline), while driving home from a Lakers game, drives into a bad neighborhood where his car breaks down. Just when it looks like he’s about to be killed by a gang, tow truck driver Simon (Danny Glover) rescues him and the two end up becoming unlikely friends. Many called it “The Big Chill” of the 1990’s, but “Grand Canyon” more than stands on its own as it observes the lives of Los Angeles residents who are dealing with personal issues which are tearing them apart.

What I love about Howard’s score is how it combines so many different kinds of music, be it orchestra, electronics, rock, jazz or percussion, to create a film score so unique to where I have a hard time comparing it to any other. It captures the coldness of big city life while giving the characters stuck in it a sympathetic voice which understands how they feel. The “Main Titles” hooked me right away and made me feel so at ease even though I knew this movie was not going to be a fairy tale.

La La Land Records limited edition release of “Grand Canyon” includes twenty-five minutes of music not included on its original release. Soundtracks, back in the 1990’s, were limited to having only forty to fifty minutes of music on a compact disc, so a lot of great stuff got left out as a result. It’s been over twenty years since this movie came out, but the music remains as powerful as ever. In addition, there are some bonus tracks which are alternate takes on certain themes as well as some source music for a violent film which Davis (Steve Martin) has produced with an unrestrained glee.

As usual, La La Land Records has provided an informative booklet on the making of “Grand Canyon” and its music which is entitled “Scoring the City of Angels” written by Daniel Schweiger, soundtrack editor of AssignmentX.com and Filmmusicmag.com. Schweiger writes extensively about the making of the movie and of how Howard came up with the music for it, and I’m not sure we have had as much detailed information on the creation of this score previously. Each track on this disc gets an individual write up, and it’s nice to see someone, let alone anyone, give this soundtrack the attention it deserves.

If there’s any downside to this edition of the “Grand Canyon” soundtrack, it’s that it doesn’t include the song “Searching for a Heart” by the late Warren Zevon. Usually La La Land Records is able to get all the songs from a movie’s original soundtrack, but I guess there was an issue with the rights this time around. It would have also been great to have the other Zevon song featured in this movie, “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” included as well. Mac plays it while he’s driving home from the Lakers game, and the lyrics turn out to be quite prophetic for him.

“Grand Canyon” is truly one of the unsung cinematic masterpieces of the 1990’s, and what’s sad is most people don’t know about this movie today. This proved to be my introduction to the work of James Newton Howard, and it is one of the main reasons why this movie is so great. I am thrilled to see La La Land Records has taken the time to make Howard’s score sound better than ever before. While he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for his work here (he was instead nominated that same year for “The Prince of Tides”), there’s no doubt in my mind this remains his most memorable film score to date.

This limited edition has only 2000 units available, so be sure to order yours before it goes out of print.

‘Salt’ Has Angelina Jolie Doing More Than Tomb Raiding

Salt movie poster

Looking back, the summer 2010 movie season was truly the summer of the preposterous action movie. We got the big screen version of “The A-Team” which had four guys trying to steer a parachuting tank with its turret by firing rounds out of it, then there was Tom Cruise who could do just about anything except take the time to go to the bathroom in “Knight and Day” (Jack Bauer had that problem too), and even the brilliant “Inception” employed a concept which is not at all possible (unless the military is trying to keep it a secret). And then there was “Salt” starring Angelina Jolie which runs very rapidly through a river of plot holes and leaps in logic, and it’s just as much fun as the films I just mentioned. Thanks to director Phillip Noyce (“Clear and Present Danger” and “Rabbit Proof Fence”) who keeps things moving at such a fast pace, there’s not much time to sit back and count all the inconsistencies. All we can do is hang on to the edge of our seats and revel in the slam bang action brought to us without an overuse of CGI effects.

Jolie plays CIA agent Evelyn Salt who is just about to head on home to her loving husband Mike (August Diehl) who loves to study spiders when she and her partner Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) suddenly get the opportunity to interrogate a Russian defector. During this interrogation, the defector reveals that a highly trained Russian agent will assassinate the Russian President when he visits the United States. He the name of this agent is Evelyn Salt, and the chase is on from there. Immediately thrown under a veil of heavy suspicion, Evelyn desperately rushes out of the office to find her husband before he disappears from her life forever. Never mind abiding the law or taking the time to explain herself, she wants her husband now! When a woman gets pissed, it is in your best interest not to argue with her, especially if she is a CIA agent!

Evelyn Salt is a mixture of both Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer, and this is especially the case in how she manages to evade capture or break free from highly trained agents and officers on more than one occasion. The movie really plays on Jolie’s strengths throughout, and of the kind of person the media has perceived her to be. I say this because over the years she has been treated like some seriously deranged human being who would have sex with her bother instead of a regular person which she is if anyone actually bothered to notice. Jolie plays on these perceptions throughout “Salt” as we watch her relentlessly pursue those who wish to capture and question her, and also when she changes her appearance to get closer to her objective.

I also liked how by the time she comes to meet the man who will soon become her husband, you can believe she has been fully trained to all she can do. A lot of movies would have you believe these characters were born with these skills and have perfected them since they were toddlers. With Jolie, you never doubt her even as the movie becomes more ridiculous by the minute.

There are so many twists and turns throughout “Salt” to where it shamelessly flaunts its illogic plot developments throughout to where we give up trying to figure it all out. Compared to many of Noyce’s other movies, this is easily the most kinetic action movie he has made to date even when compared to “Dead Calm” which introduced Nicole Kidman to the world. You could complain about how things don’t add up, but Noyce never lets the pace of the movie lag for a second, and we never find the time to sort through the plot and characters while we are watching. For other movies this would be a major hindrance, but for “Salt” it works to its advantage. You’re too thoroughly entertained to even care if this film is messing with our head one time too many.

In addition to the talents of Ms. Jolie, you also have Liev Schreiber as her partner and friend Ted Winter. Many consider Schreiber to be this stone-faced actor who wears the same expression in each and every movie he does, but this is probably because they have never seen him act onstage where he gives one brilliantly inspired performance after another. Schreiber holds his own opposite the formidable Jolie as he desperately works to protect his friend from those who would make her disappear, and you root for him as he gets closer and closer to getting a full idea of who she really is.

You also have Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peabody, an agent above Winter who pursues Salt relentlessly. He’s the character you want to shake around and slap in the face so he can see how wrong he is about her (or how wrong we think he is). Chiwetel has done great work over the years, most notably in Stephen Frears’ “Dirty Pretty Things,” and he makes Peabody more than your average one-dimensional government official who would foolishly believe a Russian defector over a loyal agent from the CIA.

We also have to give Noyce a lot of credit for not relying on a plethora of CGI effects in “Salt.” When you see Jolie clinging for dear life on her apartment building 12 stories up from the ground, that was really her (get ready for some serious vertigo). It all reminded me of how good “Live Free or Die Hard” was as it tried to make the effects as real as possible as the filmmakers came to realize the typical film going audience would no longer be easily fooled by CGI effects. Sometimes they are not even better than the real thing.

If there is one seriously massive complaint I have against “Salt,” it’s in regards to Andre Braugher’s role as the Secretary of Defense. Those of you who know me are fully aware of what a die-hard fan I am of the NBC cop show from the 1990’s, “Homicide: Life on the Street.” Braugher’s work on the show was beyond brilliant, and not many other actors can manipulate people through such theatrically volcanic explosions of anger. Furthermore, let us not forget his work in movies like “Glory” where he made the first of many memorable impressions. But in “Salt,” he is relegated to a role where he barely has any lines and is given far too little to do. What gives?! You want to cast Braugher in a movie, then you give him a role which is in tune with his well-known talents. Stop giving him roles which could be played by anyone.

Maybe “Salt” is more fun than it deserves credit for. But along with a pulsating music score by James Newton Howard and some tight film editing by John Gilroy and the well-regarded Stuart Baird, the movie gives you a good dose of adrenalin pumping fun which we don’t always get on the silver screen. Nitpick all you want about the events in “Salt,” it’ll still keep you on the edge of your seat throughout.

* * * out of * * * *

Thanksgiving is Gone, but the Calories Linger On

snoopy-and-woodstock-thanksgiving

Hey everybody. I am really struggling with fundraising right now and could use your help. As in the past, I am running the 2017 Los Angeles Marathon on behalf of AIDS Project Los Angeles, and I have been tasked with raising $1,100. If all my Facebook friends donated just $5 dollars, I would not only meet that goal but surpass it by a wide margin. Before reading on, click here to find out how you can make a tax-deductible donation and stick to the tax man before the year’s end.

I’m finally back in Los Angeles after the Thanksgiving holiday, a time that knows no diet plan. It certainly was a calorie-laden holiday, and my father and brother put together quite the feast. The fact I didn’t suffer much in the way of heartburn was extraordinary as second and third helpings were inescapable. But while on vacation, I wasn’t about to skimp on my marathon training, and running was of the upmost necessity after gobbling down turkey, creamed corn, apple and pecan pie, stuffing and the occasional serving of vegetables. I actually did my recovery run on a treadmill, but I increased the grade to 3% to make it more challenging for myself. My family and I were staying at a house by the ocean, and I did a lot of walking on the beaches and grassy paths which left my heart beating faster than just about anything else, maybe even sex.

This past week had me catching up on making money to pay the kind of bills Donald Trump has avoided paying for years, and this kept me from doing my maintenance runs. So, coming into this 14-mile run, I felt like I was going to fall behind everyone else in an embarrassing way. But at least this time I made it to Griffith Park before everyone else ran off without me.

On my way over to Griffith Park, I had my soundtrack and film score iPod playing on shuffle mode as I was trying to find the right piece of music to get myself pumped up. The best I could come up with was the “Helicopter Chase” theme from James Newtown Howard’s score to “The Fugitive.” Listening to this piece of music quickly reminded of Harrison Ford’s role of Richard Kimble, a doctor wrongfully accused of murdering his wife who ends up escaping police custody and going on the run in an effort to clear his name. Being someone afflicted with an infinite persecution complex, I relate to what Kimble went through even though I am not a vascular surgeon and did not kill my wife (for the record, I am not married).

Today I was planning to run at a 3:2 pace as running at a 3:1 pace was not the same as it used to be for me. But upon learning the rest of the 15-minute group was going to run at a 2:2 pace, I decided to adjust accordingly as I felt it would be nice to run with the group for a change instead of by myself.

Well, it turns out running at a 2:2 pace was the best thing for me as I never struggled for energy or “hit the wall” at any point during this 14-miler. The extra minute of walking allowed me more time to recover, and it felt good to keep up with my fellow pace group runners instead of falling behind which I have found myself doing these last couple of years.

Another notable presence on our running route was the Burbank Police Department, and a motorcycle cop did not hesitate to stop us in our tracks when he found us running on the street instead of the sidewalk. He was quick to inform us that the walking path which runs down the middle of Chandler Boulevard was built for people like us. We never got the opportunity to tell him about how running on asphalt is easier on our joints than concrete, but it probably wouldn’t have made a difference.

Following this, we saw a number of Burbank cop cars pulling one driver after another over to the curb, so clearly they were trying to meet some sort of quota. Not that I don’t support the police, but making an unscheduled and forced donation to them always feels like thievery to me. It doesn’t matter if you deserved to get a ticket or not because, who wants to pay it? A lot of people go 80 miles per hour in a 25-mph zone. Not me, but a lot of people.

One thing my pace group did get to do on this run, and it is something I always hoped we would do, was sing a marching song. One of the runners serves in the military, and he got us to sing along with him. Here’s my favorite part:

“If my chute don’t open wide,

If my chute don’t open wide,

I got another one by my side,

I got another one by my side.

If that chute don’t open round,

If that chute don’t open round,

I’ll be the first one on the ground,

I’ll be the first one on the ground.”

Hey, it was either that or something from “Full Metal Jacket,” and some of the marching songs in Stanley Kubrick’s film are not exactly appropriate for the ears of Burbank citizens.

It took long enough, but the weather is finally getting colder, at least in the morning. It was seriously frigid when we arrived in Griffith Park, but the temperature did rise as the sun came up. I think we managed to beat the heat for the most part, and we arrived back where we started just before it became unseasonably warm.

I am in the slowest pace group now as several other runners have since dropped out of the program for one reason or another, so only the coaches were still around when we returned to Griffith Park. Part of me feels a little disappointed in myself as I kept thinking I would be in a faster pace group after running so many marathons, but instead I have slowed down to where I wonder if I will ever be the svelte individual I was back in my high school days. Hey, I can dream, can’t I?

But seriously, I felt really good about changing the pace on this run. I came through it without feeling hopelessly exhausted, and I felt satisfied in a way I haven’t in some time. There was plenty of chocolate milk left over to cure me of my runner’s hangover, and I drove back to my apartment for a well-deserved nap which lasted much longer than it should have (not that I’m complaining or anything). Next week we have a recovery run, and we will need it after this one. Coach James encouraged us to do our maintenance runs on Tuesday and Thursday so we would have time to recover and to keep increasing our mileage on them. I’ll do my best, but like Boy George once said, time won’t give me time dammit.

Thanks for reading.

Exclusive Interview with Matt Shakman on ‘Cut Bank’

matt-shakman-photo

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.

cut-bank-poster

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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