Tilda Swinton on Playing a Vampire in ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’

This image released by Sony Pictures Classics shows Tilda Swinton in a scene from “Only Lovers Left Alive.” (AP Photo/Sony Pictures Classics, Sandro Kopp)

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is in regards to a press day which took place back in 2014.

Scottish actress Tilda Swinton is not just an excellent actress but a unique one as well. She doesn’t invite easy comparisons amongst her peers because she stands out in a way few other actresses do. She is lovely in the way she portrays a character, lovely in the way she moves onscreen, and, as we learned when she appeared at the Four Seasons Hotel for the press conference on “Only Lovers Left Alive,” she speaks lovely about her work and of the vampire she portrays in this film.

Written and directed by acclaimed independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, “Only Lovers Left Alive” tells the tale of two vampires who have lived through countless centuries and, as the movie starts, have reunited after being apart on different continents. Swinton plays Eve who remains optimistic about the world’s future even after all she has seen, and her lover Adam is played by Tom Hiddleston (Loki of “Thor” fame) who is more pessimistic about where things are heading. You might mistakenly dismiss Jarmusch’s film as just another vampire film, but it proves to be much more than that as it deals with love and death in equal measure.

Everyone was understandably interested in what attracted Swinton to the role of Eve, and she went out of her to explain what her favorite characteristic of Eve was.

Tilda Swinton: She has this perspective, that she doesn’t sweat the small, the medium or the big stuff, and that she’s full of wonder. She’s always looking up which feels to me pretty much the prerogative of people who have lived that length of time.

This film also marks the third time collaboration between Swinton and Jarmusch. She previously appeared in “Broken Flowers” and “The Limits of Control,” and off-screen she is really good friends with the filmmaker as well. We all wondered what kind of direction Jarmusch gave Swinton on this particular movie. This led Swinton to discuss the number of years it took to get “Only Lovers Left Alive” made, and how this length of time benefited both her and Jarmusch.

TS: We talk all the time. Whether we talk about anything that’s pertinent to the making of the movie, I don’t know. We’re friends now and part of the reason that I love to work with him is it means that I get to hang out with my pal for longer than if I wasn’t shooting with him. This one was another long gestation. It was seven or eight years since now when he first rang me up and said, Hey there, let’s make a vampire film. So that means a lot of conjuring, many breakfasts when I was flying through New York saying so where are we, many moments on the phone and many conversations in dark corners about where we were going to go next over the years. When we came to shoot, the lovely thing about those long developments is that when you come to shoot, it’s just grace. You’re so relieved to finally be putting it down and you’ve also had that length of time to talk about it. You really don’t need to talk about that much.

One truly unforgettable thing about Swinton in this role, or in any other role she has played thus far, is how beautifully she moves. The physicality she shows off from moment to moment is incredible, and we all wanted to know how she came up with it. The fact she’s playing a vampire here makes her performance all the more fascinating as a result.

TS: We talked a lot about what it would be if you were that unsocialized because they’ve kind of been lifted out of human society, and very quickly we started to talk about them as lone wolves so we talked about them as animals. When we were putting together the look, we ended up filling those wigs with yaks’ hair and wolves’ hair, and there’s a heartbeat in the film that comes up and down in the soundtrack which is actually a wolf’s heart. So, I thought a lot about wolves when we were thinking about how Eve would walk about. If you’re not in the pack, if you’re alone at night, you can take your time. You can pick your rhythm. The music is very important life blood, but also the camera, the move and the feeling of the movement is always very important to Jim, and this one particularly because of this passage through these two different wildernesses.

After watching “Only Lovers Left Alive,” many wondered about the relationship between Adam and Eve and how they have lasted so long as a couple. At the start, they reside on different continents before they reunite. We asked Swinton what she did to create the really comfortable long-term bond between Eve and Adam. In the process, she brought up one of Jarmusch’s main inspirations.

TS: One of the first bits of sand in the oyster for Jim, which he immediately told me about on that telephone call eight years ago, was this book by Mark Twain, “The Diaries of Adam and Eve,” which is so delightful and playful. It’s sort of fictional or maybe not diaries of the original Adam and Eve which spells out very clearly that this is an enormous love affair between two opposites. That was a foundation in stone for us that they would be in it for the long haul, but completely different. That I find really enticing, to show two people really loving each other, but not being like each other at all. So, we talked a lot about that and that was fun because that feels really human, playing with that. Also, as you notice, we wanted it to be about a marriage in which they talk as long relationships do. There’s a sort of tradition of showing people coming together and then the end, and you never really see them actually living it out and living the ups and the downs and talking it through. We really spent a lot of time wanting to get that tone of two people who were family. It’s a long, long marriage. They are family, and that’s why they still dig each other even though they are so different and he is so tricky to live with and she is such a space cadet. They have this communication thing going and they really like talking about stuff. We really wanted to show that it felt like it was something we haven’t necessarily seen before.

Another big relationship Eve has is with playwright Christopher Marlowe, played here by John Hurt. In the universe this film takes place in, Marlowe has been proven to be the real writer of William Shakespeare’s plays, and he at one point ends up calling Shakespeare an illiterate at best. When Swinton asked about how she and Hurt established the rhythm of their characters’ relationship, she pointed how this relationship differed between the one Eve has with Adam.

TS: The relationship with Marlowe is a very precious part of the film for me. Honestly, partly because it felt very close to my own experience having a very close relationship with, in particular, Derek Jarman whose disappearance from the building I had to witness. But him being a partner, a different kind of partner for her, he’s her neighbor and he’s her companion in a way that Adam isn’t. It just felt completely alive and fresh. I just know that relationship inside out, and John does too and he was the perfect dance partner to play that out with. Our references are kind of similar. He feels like family and we just put that into the film.

One of the great joys of watching “Only Lovers Left Alive” is realizing it is not a “Twilight” wannabe. Then again, we should know Jarmusch is the last kind of filmmaker to follow current trends. The characters of Adam and Eve are unlike any vampires we have seen, and their love affair is proof of how opposites attract. While Eve is more optimistic and lives to celebrate each and every period of Earth’s history, Adam is far more cynical about the present day. We all wondered how Eve could stay so upbeat even when in Adam’s company, and her explanation of why was both fascinating and amusing.

TS: Well, he’s very young. He has yet to learn. He’s only 500 years old. She’s 3,000 years old. She seen it all and she knows that survival is possible if one keeps one’s eyes open and takes it all in. It’s not like she’s recommending a journey one space away. She talks about witnessing the Inquisition and the Middle Ages. She’s witnessed all the holocausts there have been, and yet she’s still seen humanity and spirit and nature survive those things. So, she knows that as long as one keeps looking up and as long as one keeps breathing and keeps one’s perspective, survival is possible. She’s got her priorities right. I love the fact that what Jim’s looking at here is how one goes on living, how one goes on loving, how one goes on renewing and, as they say, rebooting one’s sense of wonder and engagement. It feels strangely radical and unfashionable; the very fact that they are trying not to be young, but instead they are trying to survive youth.

Another thing that stood out to me is how the fact Adam and Eve were vampires really became secondary to the story. After a while, you don’t see them as vampires but more as a loving couple dealing with the trials and tribulations of life. Also, Adam has a heartbeat which is something we usually don’t expect vampires to have. Swinton explained this was done intentionally.

TS: We were slightly messing with the form. We’ve all seen a lot of vampire films and we like the idea of disconnecting some of the myths, some of the tropes and then also inventing some new ones. So, we’re hoping that all the vampire films from now on would involve these gloves that we actually put out there in the first place. I think we all felt the same that being vampires, very evolved vampires, very humane, virtually vegetarian vampires is secondary I would say to the idea of them being immortal and being lovers in a way that only lovers can really be immortal because they live on in each other’s spirits.

Another big question was why Detroit and Tangier were chosen as the main locations. Both prove to be major characters as they come to inform Adam’s and Eve’s individual worldviews. Detroit, which is better known these days for its problems more than anything else, suits Adam’s sensibilities perfectly while Tangier appeals to Eve in a whole other way.

TS: Detroit was always going to be a very important character in the film. My sense is that Detroit was like the Emerald City for Jim, so for him it’s really a love story to make a film there. Tangier was a kind of newer idea. There was a moment where we were going to make it Rome, and for all sorts of reasons Rome sort of detached. And then we wanted very much to making a home on the African continent, and then it became Tangier. Tangier seems to be such a natural home for her. It’s a different kind of wilderness. It’s packed full of people from all corners of this particular planet and probably others and from all particular centuries. It’s got that sense of all corners of time and space, end and start in Tangier, and you can also walk around Tangier at night and cause absolutely no ripples at all even with a massive, great wolf’s hair wig on and fantastic pants. It’s just a sort of hot spot of spirit, and it felt like a very nice partner to this relatively unpopulated Detroit where people are rare and relative to empty windows and grass and wolves. Once we settled on Tangier that really felt like the right place for her.

Tilda Swinton remains one of the best and most fascinating actresses working today, and she will continue to be as long as filmmakers are smart enough to give her free reign. She has been able to go from making independent films to studio movies with relative ease, and she still has an endless number of great performances to give. Some actors might get stifled when going from the indies to a film with an enormous budget, but this doesn’t look like it will happen to Swinton anytime soon.

TS: It’s all endlessly fascinating. It’s just a different caliber. It’s like getting a finer tooth to it. It’s only relatively rare because I come from a kind of cinema that grew out of the art world. Working with a sort of naturalistic grain is something I’ve rarely done, but when I have done it, I’ve really enjoyed it and found it just a special atmosphere. For example, in something like “Michael Clayton” or even “We Need to Talk about Kevin,” that sort of realism, just trying to spin the realism, has been really interesting. Maybe I’d always want to spin it, but to spin it with that kind of naturalistic grain like deep cover. It has been very interesting although I’ve done it very seldomly. It’s all fun to me. It’s all dressing up and playing whether it’s dressing up as a corporate lawyer or dressing up as someone of 96.

More power to you Tilda!

PLEASE CHECK OUT THE EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW I DID WITH TILDA SWINTON FOR WE GOT THIS COVERED DOWN BELOW:

WHILE WE ARE AT IT, CHECK OUT TILDA’S REACTION TO ME COMPLETING THE 2014 LOS ANGELES MARATHON THE DAY BEFORE THIS INTERVIEW:

When Kenneth Branagh First Discovered William Shakespeare

Kenneth Branagh, the director of movies like “Thor” and “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is best known for bringing the works of William Shakespeare to the silver screen. With movies like “Henry V,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Hamlet,” he has succeeded in opening up the works of this famous playwright to new generations of actors and artists. Considering how passionate he is as an actor and filmmaker about Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies, I always wondered what his first experiences of reading and performing them was like. He gleefully told us about his introduction to Shakespeare when he visited the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica back in 2011.

Born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Branagh said his family had no interest in Shakespeare, and that there were no books in the house. Then the family relocated to Reading, Berkshire where Branagh said he got bullied a lot. As a result, he withdrew into himself and became fascinated with literature, and he soon found himself developing a love for words. He even recalled buying his very first book, but his father didn’t understand why he was so excited and asked him, “What did you buy that for? Why not just go down to the public library?”

His first exposure to Shakespeare came in a class where everyone read from “The Merchant of Venice.” Branagh remembered being terrified to perform it out loud, and he also freely admitted that he “didn’t understand the language.” But regardless of his fear, he ended up surviving the experience and was soon bitten by the acting bug.

When he did a school production of “Romeo & Juliet,” Branagh recollected how the director played “You Are Everything,” a song sung by Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross. When the song was finished, the director told everyone, “The song was about sex, it’s a mating call. Now that you know what ‘Romeo & Juliet’ is about, open up your text and let’s read!”

Through all the yelling and screaming during the rehearsal, Branagh said the play was actually not hard to understand. It came down to this gang hating that gang, of two young people in love, etc. From there, the words of the Bard enthralled him like nothing else, and he has since made vastly entertaining movies which clearly reflect his infinite passion of Shakespeare’s literature.

Kenneth Branagh said that he would like to do more Shakespeare in the future. While he is a number of years off from playing “King Lear,” but I would love to see him adapt another Shakespeare play in the future like “Macbeth” or even “Twelfth Night.” He even portrayed Shakespeare in the 2018 film “All is True” which he also directed. We still have “Death on the Nile,” the sequel to his version of “Murder on the Orient Express” to look forward to, but hopefully he will tackle one of the Bard’s favorite texts sooner rather than later.

‘Hamlet 2,’ A Most Unusual and Unexpected Sequel

WRITER’S NOTE: Eddie Pence selected this as his Video Vault pick on the August 15, 2020 episode of “The Ralph Report.” But while the host of the podcast, Ralph Garman, was not particularly crazy about it, I think it is better than Garman gives it credit.

“Hamlet 2” starts off with an invisible voice telling us that to be an actor, you have to live in a dream. But dreams do die however, and the question posed here is this: Where dreams go when they die? Well, if you are Dana Marschz (played by Steve Coogan), then you go to Tucson, Arizona to spend the rest of your life teaching high school drama. Being an actor myself, there is something quite scary about the fate of this particular actor who is best known for his herpes medication commercials. Here in Arizona, he hopes to pass on his love of acting to high school students, and this is the thrust of the plot which powers up a motion picture dealing with one of the most unlikely sequels ever to be created.

“Hamlet 2” was a big hit at the Sundance Film Festival, and while it didn’t quite live up to the hype in my eyes, it was still a very clever movie which kept me entertained from beginning to end. It is a hilarious look at how art can never truly be suppressed, and this includes art which was never all that good to begin with.

We meet up with Dana Marschz sometime into his career as a high school teacher, and he only has two students, Rand Posin (Skylar Astin) and Epiphany Sellers (Phoebe Strole), who really seem to care about drama and acting. His latest class, he discovers, is largely populated by Latino students who are in attendance because their other electives have been cut, and drama is the only one left. It reminds me of all those high school kids with who were in drama class because was the only one they could get an easy A in other than physical education. Dana, however, is convinced this is being presented to him as a challenge he must face with no fear. While these students may seem unenthusiastic about drama, he is determined to change their minds.

Dana’s existence is a recovering alcoholic with a wife named Brie (played by the great Catherine Keener) who drinks a margarita from a gigantic martini glass. They also have a boarder, Gary, (David Arquette) who is sleeping with Brie while Dana rollerblades to school because he cannot afford a car. His gift to the high school is plays he wrote which are direct adaptations of the movies “Erin Brockovich” and “Dead Poets Society.” Still, they get ripped to pieces by a young critic who shows no mercy for Dana’s passion. Dana’s basic cry for all the negative criticism is, “He fisted us!”

Dana ends up conversing with this unsympathetic teenage critic to seek inspiration, and he suggests to Dana that he write something original and put everything into it. Thus, he comes up with what in many ways is a completely unnecessary sequel to one of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays, “Hamlet.” There is a rather large problem though as just about every character dies at the play’s end. But Dana, still up for an artistic challenge, remains undeterred by this, and he comes up with a device to solve this problem in the form of a time machine. Upon discovering the rather racy nature of the play, the most suburban students do everything they can to keep it from being performed, but Dana ends up proving to everyone that you cannot stop art.

It’s a little hard for me to critique “Hamlet 2” objectively because Dana’s fate is one I hope to avoid. It is made clear from the outset that he is not particularly talented, and we get a montage of scenes featuring him as an actor. The funniest one is a commercial he did for Herpes medication as he tells us, “Right now, I am having a herpes outbreak. But you wouldn’t know it!”

In the process of writing and directing his sequel play, it gets banned from being performed at the high school, and Dana ends up inspiring the Latino kids to put it on at another location. He even gets help from the ACLU to keep his play from being censored. Talk about free publicity!

“Hamlet 2” is a terrific star vehicle for Coogan, and he is never afraid to make himself look completely silly. He shows no fear in portraying Dana as a complete failure both as an actor and a drama teacher. That he somehow inspired these students who have grown up in a far different environment than his is pretty amazing. But in the end, it doesn’t matter if Dana is really bad or good because he gets the play up to the excitement and infuriation of everyone in Tucson, Arizona, the city where dreams come to die. Coogan proves to be a brilliant comic actor here, and he still is all these years later.

The director and co-writer of “Hamlet 2” is Andrew Fleming, and he does a good job of not taking things too seriously. Fleming started off his career as the writer and director of the “A Nightmare on Elm Street” wannabe, “Bad Dreams” (this title tells you all you need to know). From there, he went on to direct “Threesome,” “The Craft,” “Dick,” and “Nancy Drew.” Suffice to say, he has been around for a while, and this film proved to be one of his stronger efforts.

“Hamlet 2” also features a terrific performance from Elisabeth Shue who plays herself here. In this movie, she has given up on acting and appears to be much happier working as a nurse in a sperm bank. Dana goes gaga over Shue and invites her to speak with his class, but they have no idea who she is. We all remember her from “The Karate Kid,” and she earned a much-deserved Oscar nomination for her unforgettable performance in “Leaving Las Vegas,” but over the years her star has not ascended in the way we thought it would. Still, she works constantly and is always on the verge of giving us her next memorable performance. And, as “Hamlet 2” shows, she has a great sense of humor about herself.

Anybody who has ever been involved with community theater or in high school plays will get a kick out of this film. In retrospect, the high school students were the ones who manage to get the show up and running, and this is shown here. That Dana manages to inspire these kids through his embarrassing ways is astonishing. When you are already deep into the production of a show and your director flakes out or becomes useless, you can’t just give up. As Dana’s personal life hits rock bottom, it’s those kids who pull him up from the abyss.

I also like how “Hamlet 2” got into the conflicts Dana has with the school and parents because everyone in these situations always acts in an overly conservative way. As time goes on, I get more interested in what does not offend people because it seems like we are always looking to get mad about something. Granted, you can see why people might object to Jesus Christ kissing Satan or with a song entitled “Rock Me Sexy Jesus,” a song which was criminally robbed of an Oscar nomination. But everyone in the end is saved due to the protected freedom of the 1st amendment of the Constitution. That pisses a lot of people off, but that’s their problem.

The ACLU eventually gets involved when the show is threatened to be shut down, and a lawyer comes to visit Mr. Marschz to lend her help. She is played in a kick ass scene stealing performance by Amy Poehler. Her character of Cricket Feldstein is a ball buster about protecting the production, and she makes sure everyone involved gets to put it up. Her disinterest in whether or not the play is any good (“It’s irrelevant,” she says) is hilarious, and Poehler continues to show why she is one of the funniest actresses ever.

“Hamlet 2” is a lot of fun to watch, and the play which comes out of it is a hoot as it is a quasi-musical in which Hamlet and Jesus team up to change the past. Granted, they take all the drama and tragedy out of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” but it is a little hard at times to argue with Dana who calls the play “a real downer.” In addition to “Rock Me Sexy Jesus,” there is another song called “Raped in The Face” which is Dana’s stab at the critics who keep taking apart his plays based on movies. The song title alone demands your complete attention.

All the same, I wished the filmmakers had pushed the envelope a bit more. Seriously, you have to expect some envelope pushing when one of the writers, Pam Brady, is from “South Park.” I’m not saying “Hamlet 2” had to be insidiously evil, I just wished the satire in parts was a little sharper. Or perhaps I got a little depressed with Dana’s station in life because it is one I hope to avoid in my own life, and this made it hard for me to be more objective about what I saw. Still, this comedic film has stayed with me since I first saw it, and at some point, I need to watch it again.

Shakespeare once wrote about how all the world is a stage, and he was absolutely right. We are all merely players in this crazy thing called life, and “Hamlet 2” plays with this to such an enthusiastic extent to where I wonder if another “Hamlet” sequel is in our future. Or better yet, maybe we can get a “Romeo & Juliet” sequel as young love does not have to be so infinitely depressing. Seriously, everyone deserves a second chance.

* * * out of * * * *

The Best Movies of 1998

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Now it’s time to go to take a look back at the movies of 1998, the same year when California started the ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. What else happened that year? John Glenn became the oldest astronaut to go into space, and it gave us a reason to watch the space shuttle launch on television for the first time in years. The Denver Broncos became the first AFC team in 14 years to win the Super Bowl when they beat the Green Bay Packers (I’m so glad I didn’t bet on that game). The whole controversy of President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky exploded, which the President’s enemies seized upon like teenagers going through their dads’ Playboy magazine issues while he is out of town. And, most ironically, a court in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan ruled Osama Bin Laden was “a man without a sin” in regard to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Well, we knew better.

As for myself, I was in my second year at UC Irvine and my fourth year in college. I still had a dorm room all to myself, and I was busy with school work and appearing in plays like “Enrico IV,” “The Scarlet Letter” and “Twelfth Night.” Of course, I tried to get out to the movies as much as humanly possible. Many of the movies on this list were ones I actually didn’t get around to seeing until years later, so it’s probably best I am giving you this list now.

10) There’s Something About Mary

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Bobby and Peter Farrelly gave us one of the most gut bustlingly hilarious movies ever made with “There’s Something About Mary.” I was dying with laughter while watching this, and I wasn’t expecting to. In retrospect, I should have though since this came from the same directors who gave us “Dumb and Dumber” as well as “Kingpin.” On top of having so many funny moments, the movie also has a lot of heart in the way it portrays the two main characters played by Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz. Those of you who think Diaz can’t act need to revisit this one because she is so good at playing a teenager who we later see as a well-meaning adult with a few too many stalkers.

9) American History X

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So much has been said about the making of “American History X” and the bitter disagreements between director Danny Kaye and actor Edward Norton. Regardless of whoever deserves the majority of the credit, there is no denying this is a powerful and unforgettable motion picture. Norton gave one of his very best performances as white supremacist Derek Vineyard, and the look he gives the camera after killing two people is a very chilling moment which is not easily erased from the conscious mind. Norton also gets great support from Edward Furlong who plays Danny, Derek’s brother, who threatens to tread down the same hateful path Derek has. Kaye, even if he didn’t get final cut, gives the movie an amazing look in black and white which captures the escalating tension of Derek’s journey from a world of hate to a place of compassion.

8) Dark City

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Alex Proyas followed up his brilliant adaptation of “The Crow” with this visionary sci-fi epic about a man who wakes up not knowing who he is, and of those who seek to capture him for their own twisted experiments. Like many great sci-fi movies “Dark City” was a box office flop upon its release, but it has since found an audience to where there’s no denying it is a cult classic. You’re along for the ride with Rufus Sewell as he tries to understand his place in a world ruled over by the Strangers. This movie remains suspenseful to the very end, and the look of the movie feels like no other I have ever seen. Jennifer Connelly also stars in the film and looks beautiful as always, and it is interesting to watch Kiefer Sutherland play a complete wimp after watching him for so long on “24.”

7) Out Of Sight

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Here’s the film which brought Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney together, and it also serves as one of the very best adaptations of an Elmore Leonard novel. With “Out of Sight,” Clooney proved without a doubt there was going to be life for him after “ER” with his performance as Jack Foley, the most successful bank robber in America. When Jack escapes from jail, he ends up sharing some trunk space with Federal Marshall Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez). “Out of Sight” also marked the beginning of a career resurgence for Soderbergh, and he got to work from a truly great screenplay written by Scott Frank. Also starring is the fantastic Catherine Keener, Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn, Dennis Farina, Isaiah Washington, and the always reliable Don Cheadle. This movie was a lot of fun, and Clooney and Lopez had such great chemistry together.

6) Rushmore

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This was my introduction to the highly creative world of Wes Anderson. “Rushmore” is an instant comedy classic with more depth to it than many others of its genre at the time. Max Fischer is an original eccentric character; a young man involved in just about ever extra-curricular activity at school, all at the expense of his report card. Jason Schwartzman is great fun to watch as Max, and Bill Murray gives a performance which damn well should have earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. With Anderson, his comedy is fueled by the sadness and isolation of his characters, and of the things they desperately want in life. “Rushmore” is filled with as much meaning as it does laughter as both Schwartzman and Murray battle over the same woman played by Olivia Williams. It also owes a lot to the late Mike Nichols’ enduring classic “The Graduate.”

5) Happiness

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Todd Solondz’s follow up to “Welcome To The Dollhouse” may very well be the most ironically titled film in cinema history. Controversy followed “Happiness” all the way to its release, and the MPAA of course just had to give it an NC-17 (it ended up being released unrated). One of the blackest of black comedies ever, it follows the lives of three sisters and the various people who are a part of their fragile lives. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a frighteningly memorable performance as an obscene phone caller, and it was one of the first real examples of the brilliant character actor we came to see him as. But the bravest performance comes from Dylan Baker who plays Bill Maplewood, a psychiatrist, husband and loving father who, unbeknownst to his family, is a pedophile. Baker ends up making you empathize, but not sympathize, with a man who we would instantly despise once we discovered his terrible secret. As unappealing as these characters may seem, Solondz makes us see ourselves in them and to where we cannot see we are not all that different.

4) The Big Lebowski

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I didn’t get to see this when it first came out in theaters, but my parents did eventually strap me down in a chair to watch it, and this should give you an idea of how much they love it. The Coen brothers follow up to “Fargo” did not get the same reception when originally released, but it has since built up an amazing cult following. Much of this is thanks to Jeff Bridges’ brilliant performance as Jeffrey Lebowski, aka “The Dude.” What could have been a performance built on stereotypes of the slackers we know in life turns out to be perhaps the most memorable character in Bridges’ long and underappreciated career. It’s an ingenious comedy with not so much a plot as a connected series of events which start with the theft of Lebowski’s carpet which he says “tied the whole room together.”

3) The Truman Show

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It still seems criminal how Peter Weir’s film was surprisingly, and infuriatingly, snubbed for a Best Picture nomination. Jim Carrey gives a truly astonishing and powerful performance as Truman Burbank, a man who slowly becomes aware he is the star of a reality show about his life. Yes, he should have been nominated for an Oscar alongside his co-star Ed Harris, but there will always be the unforgivable snubs. “The Truman Show” has become a prophetic movie of sorts as reality shows are the norm in today’s culture, and this obsession we have over them remains very strong to this day. Andrew Niccol’s screenplay was a brilliant examination of how we might view our own life if we found out it was based on a lie, and that everything we know is actually wrong. This stands as one of Weir’s best American movies in a long and justly acclaimed career.

2) Shakespeare In Love

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While it may have gotten overwhelmed by Miramax’s Oscar campaign, there’s no denying “Shakespeare In Love” is a brilliant and highly entertaining romantic comedy. The film tells the story of how Shakespeare goes about writing “Romeo & Ethel The Pirate’s Daughter” which eventually evolves into “Romeo & Juliet.” Gwyneth Paltrow gives a most entrancing performance, and I loved watching her every second she appeared onscreen. Joseph Fiennes is perfectly cast as Shakespeare himself, a passionate writer who is hopelessly enamored with Paltrow’s Viola. I also got a huge kick out of Geoffrey Rush’s performance as theater manager Philip Henslowe, a brilliant comic creation who steals every scene he is in. “Shakespeare In Love” serves as not just a great story of how Shakespeare may have written one of the most immortal plays ever, but also as a great satire of the film industry and how it deviously profits from unsuspecting participants.

And now, drum roll please…

1) Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan movie poster

It would be so easy to put this as my top choice thanks to some of the greatest and most vividly realistic depictions of war ever put on film. Steven Spielberg’s depiction of the landing on D-Day is nothing short of amazing, and it was one of the reasons why I saw this film five times before it came out on DVD. But moreover, it is a deeply respectful salute to those war veterans who served in the armed forces during World War II. “Saving Private Ryan” is filled with great performances from a great cast of actors including Edward Burns, Jeremy Davies, Giovanni Ribisi, Tom Sizemore, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Matt Damon, and Barry Pepper among others. But it also has one of Tom Hanks’ best performances ever as Captain John Miller, a military man who leads his men to find Private Ryan and bring him back home to his grieving mother. Just when you thought Spielberg had peaked with “Schindler’s List,” he gives us yet another astonishing piece of filmmaking which shows him at the height of his powers.

Honorable Mentions:

Primary Colors – Great Mike Nichols movie based on the book by Joe Klein. It features great performances from John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Kathy Bates as well as an extraordinary cameo from Mykelti Williamson.

Bullworth – Warren Beatty’s scathing political satire may be a bit too broad, but it is a very effective indictment of how the Democratic Party let the American people down.

Elizabeth – Definitely worth mentioning for the brilliant breakthrough performance of Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth.

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas – Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s crazy novel is a true acid trip nightmare with Johnny Depp channeling the reporter all the way to what he was famous for wearing and smoking.

God Said, Ha! – Wonderful concert film of Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show which deals with the time her brother got cancer, and of how she later got cancer herself.

Hurlyburly – Film adaptation of David Rabe’s play dealing with Hollywood players and their dysfunctional relationships with one another. Features a great cast which includes Sean Penn, Chazz Palminteri and Anna Paquin among others.

Affliction – Another emotionally bruising movie from Paul Schrader which is based on the novel by Russell Banks. Features career high performances from Nick Nolte and the late James Coburn who deservedly won an Oscar for his work.

Next Stop Wonderland – An eccentrically unusual kind of romantic comedy which helped introduce actress Hope Davis to a wider audience.

Ronin – One of the last films from the late John Frankenheimer which stars Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, and Jonathan Pryce among others. It also features some of the very best car chases of the 1990’s.

Run Lola Run – Kinetic German thriller with Franka Potente that views her attempts to save her boyfriend’s life in three different ways. This was a great teaser for what would come in 1999, when movies of different kinds proceeded to change the rules of where a story could go.

The Thin Red Line – Terrence Malick’s first movie in over 20 years threatened to be more meandering than anything else, but it is filled with such powerful imagery and to where many considered it more anti-war than “Saving Private Ryan” was.

John Carpenter’s Vampires – It was advertised as a horror movie, but it is really a more of a western and the closest John Carpenter has ever come to making one. James Woods’ performance alone is worth the price of admission as he plays the most badass of vampire hunters, Jack Crow.

Star Trek: Insurrection – Much better than its reputation may suggest, being an odd numbered Star Trek movie and all.

 

 

James Gunn Looks Back at the Making of ‘Tromeo & Juliet’

James Gunn photo

The screening of “Tromeo and Juliet” at New Beverly Cinema brought many people to the theater who were involved in its making. Among them were the movie’s director and co-founder of Troma Entertainment Lloyd Kaufman, actor Will Keenan who played Tromeo, and actors Sean Gunn and Stephen Blackheart among others. But the real star of the evening was filmmaker James Gunn who entertained the devoted audience with many anecdotes about “Tromeo and Juliet’s” making. Best known these days for his films “Slither,” “Super,” for writing the script to the “Dawn of the Dead” remake and most especially for “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Tromeo and Juliet” was one of his first jobs in the movie business.

Tromeo and Juliet movie poster

“Tromeo and Juliet” is, of course, loosely inspired by William Shakespeare’s classic “Romeo and Juliet,” and Kaufman said he and Troma Entertainment had tried to write the script for three or four years and could not get it right. It was his sister’s best friend who sent Gunn’s resume to Kaufman’s attention, and at that point Gunn had already graduated from Columbia University with an MFA in Writing Fiction. Kaufman, however, noticed something different about him.

“What caught my attention was he vomited onstage, that he was a performance actor who vomited onstage,” Kaufman said about Gunn. “I didn’t know whether he vomited because he was nervous or because it felt it was entertaining or because perhaps he had studied all the work of Terence Malick. But whatever it was, it was sort of like that moment in ‘The Producers’ when Zero Mostel sees his Hitler and says ‘you’re my Hitler!’ James Gunn was ours.”

Gunn said he didn’t actually vomit onstage and that Kaufman may have read someone else’s resume, but it didn’t matter because he got the job.

Keenan said he had not seen “Tromeo and Juliet” in fifteen years before this night and he joked that it looked twenty years old when it first came out. But for Gunn, this was part of the movie’s design.

“When we were doing the movie, I remember that I wanted it to look really dated,” Gunn said. “I used to love ‘Valley Girl’ and I loved looking back at it because it looked so 80’s. And I wanted to make this one look as 90’s as possible (it came out in 1997).”

Gunn recalled writing the first draft for “Tromeo and Juliet” in about a week and a half, and he gave it to Kaufman and assumed he was going to love it. Kaufman, however, found Gunn’s script to be “too filthy,” and this is saying a lot because Troma Entertainment movies usually revel in being filthy. Kaufman said there were about “8 scenes of urination” in the script, and Juliet was originally written to make her first appearance in a porno booth which is where the initial conversations between her and Tromeo would have taken place. Kaufman complained “Shakespeare didn’t have that in mind” when he wrote “Romeo and Juliet.”

There was also a bit said about Jane Jensen who played Juliet. She was not able to attend this screening, but Gunn talked of how he joked around with her throughout shooting. One scene from “Tromeo & Juliet” has her character’s stomach opening up to reveal popcorn and then rats and maggots. Jensen apparently had a near nervous breakdown shooting it as she had a major phobia of the maggots and was screaming her head off as the cameras rolled. Gunn recalls exactly what was going through his head at that moment.

“Wow! Jane’s acting is really good in this scene,” Gunn said. “And then all of a sudden I go ‘holy shit! I think that maybe this is real!’ And then I had that evil filmmaker moment where you go ‘do I keep filming?’”

Gunn ended up reminiscing about a review of “Tromeo and Juliet” he read in Film Threat Magazine, and he felt it captured the movie perfectly.

“They said, ‘I don’t know how to review this film because you can’t win,’” Gunn reminisced. “’If you say that there’s something stupid in here, they (the filmmakers) are going to say yeah, we meant to do that. And if you say there’s something great in here, they’re going to say yeah, we meant to do that.’ And that’s totally true! That is what it is!”

For those of us who have seen “Tromeo and Juliet,” we have to agree the review is really dead on. The movie wallows in bad taste and never apologizes for it, and it becomes all the more entertaining as a result. It was great to see James Gunn at New Beverly Cinema talking about this cult classic because his enthusiasm for this project was contagious. It’s this same enthusiasm which carried over to the movies he worked on from there, and not just “Guardians of the Galaxy.”