I’m talking to Greta Gerwig hours before the premiere of Frances Ha. The film’s star, radiant in an orange dress, seems nervous. Or perhaps that’s just her trademark awkwardness––part of her immense charm (and craft) as an actress. At twenty-nine, Gerwig has made a name for herself playing young women who are often optimistically adrift, both lively and heartfelt at once, and either too self-conscious when they’re supposed to be less, or not enough when they’re supposed to be more.
So on the surface, her role in Frances Ha, which she co-wrote with director Noah Baumbach (who not-so-secretly became her boyfriend during the project), is more of the same. But despite the well-worn premise (post-college artsy girl doesn’t know what to do with her life, can’t find an apartment in New York, grows jealous of her best-friend, visits home, couch-surfs, goes to Paris), Frances Ha sings. If Godard remade Vivre Sa Vie in Fort Greene, this is what it might look like. Here, Gerwig and Baumbach have both embodied and transcended much of what they’ve been striving for in their prior films. Here, the actress explains why she never reads anything about herself (including the recent New Yorker profile), what it’s like for everyone to think you’re on drugs, and why (as she puts it) she’s not not ambitious.
Does the premiere for this film feel different than the premieres for your other films?
Let me explain. I was surprised by the amount of buzz this has been generating.
Does it feel that way to you?
It feels that way to me.
Oh, good. Because I really try not read things or look at things. I find it makes me self-conscious in a way that’s destructive. It’s like a combination of an ego trip and horrible deflation at the same time. Like, ‘I’m awesome…and terrible.’ To feel both. ‘I’m ugly and hideous…and beautiful!’ It’s like the worst combination. It’s just too much at once.
But you must be happy the film is getting a lot of attention.
I’m glad it’s getting buzz because I care about it so much. But it seems like, in this world, it almost seems like movies are a dying art. There are so many released, but it’s so easy to get lost. I’m glad it feels like people are actually caring about it because after it was on the festival circuit for a while, it felt like, ‘How are we going to shut this down and open it back up in 6 months?’ So I hope people see it. I mean, I love it.
I think it’s great. It will last, too.
Yeah. I mean, it does feel different in a way. I’m much more invested in this movie than I’ve been in any other movie that I’ve participated in. Partially that’s because I co-wrote it. Partially it’s because––it just feels like the closest thing to what I want to make.
Does the role feel close to you? To who you are?
In some ways it does. In other ways it feels like an invention. It feels like the best part of what I’m capable of as a creator and as an actress. It feels like the full extension of my talents at that moment. You can get hogtied or hamstrung by limitations in movies. But I felt like I was stretched by this role, and that felt really good. Sometimes when you allow yourself to be bigger, the more resonant and true it is.
In the writing, who approached whom first?
Noah approached me. After Greenberg opened, he asked me if I was interested in collaborating on writing something because he wanted to do something very small.
He wanted to get away from the glitz?
Yeah. He was like, ‘How small can I do this without losing my ability to make as good of a film as I can?’ That was the idea. He knew I had written plays and the screenplays for movies I had largely improvised in. But I think there was a real sense that we would work well together.
I don’t want to make you self-conscious, but have you read your New Yorker profile?
No. I did look at the picture, though.
Did you like the picture?
The picture was nice. But no. I didn’t read it. I understand it was nice and that I seem like I’m on LSD.
I was waiting for them to trot out words like ‘spacey.’
Yeah. I always get that. Everybody my whole life has thought I’m on drugs. When I first heard that, I was like, ‘I’m going to really act like I’m not on drugs now.’
The film is so great with awkwardness in general. It’s like the line where Frances says she likes things that look like mistakes.
Yeah. I do like things that look like mistakes. That’s true of me. I really love precise things that look like mistakes, but when you think about them, they couldn’t possibly have been because of how the entire thing was constructed. When I acted in high school, I would try to cultivate those weird moments, the moments when you don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s what I was always looking for. But I wasn’t actually on drugs.
Well, that’s our cultural shorthand for anyone whose just isn’t on the same wavelength.
I’m definitely not. You know those personality tests where they tell you if you’re an INTP or whatever? I remember I took one and my personality was like “sees things as part of a cosmic whole.” “Might have religious inclinations.” Things that were sort of like, ‘This person is a little crazy and might think that they’re a prophet,’ which I don’t see as wrong necessarily. (Laughs)
You’re on drugs without being on drugs.
I feel like I’m capable of experiencing very intense emotional landscapes. And that has helped my writing and acting because I feel like part of what I want to do when I make things is transmit that intensity of experience to the viewer in some way. I have moments every day where I have this sense of like, ‘I’m alive right now.’ Which totally is druggy. I realize that, but it’s completely… I’m straight, you know.
Was the personality test right? Do you think you’re a prophet of our generation?
No, no! I didn’t mean it like that! (Laughs)
Greta declares herself. Oh shit.
But you’ve been so good at turning the stuckness or frustration that’s pretty endemic to a lot of people’s twenties into art that’s really exuberant and beautiful. Are you worried that you’re success might actually prevent that kind of alchemy from happening?
I do worry about that. But I don’t feel like I’ve hit that point yet. I think something can happen where if you become too successful––or too visibly successful––it interferes with your ability to…Well I spend a lot of time just wandering around New York City waiting for things to reveal themselves to me. And you need to be able to be really anonymous to do that. It’s important to me to feel connected to what people’s lives are and what people’s everyday-ness is.
Would you say that you’re ambitious?
Certainly. I’m not not ambitious. So there’s a part of you that’s always striving to make your presence solid, to be a thing people know about. ‘Ah, yes. Greta Gerwig. I know exactly who that is.’ Because it relieves you from the anxiety of having to explain yourself, which I think is…that’s something difficult.
Frances is always fumbling over those kind of dinner-party explanations in the film.
Yeah exactly. She doesn’t see herself as the world sees her. It’s not like ‘this is what you are and everybody knows it and we all see what you are.’ That kind of solidness can cut you off from the experience that 99.99% of the world has, which is that there is a disconnect. So I feel like it’s important to me to maintain it somehow.
I read something about this recently. I really like Flannery O’Connor. And she said that every story she writes is about grace. But grace is not something you experience. You can experience the after-effects of grace, but grace itself is this thing that’s unaccountable for. I think that’s kind of always what I’m trying to. I’m trying to gather these moments of grace. And you have to be quiet to do that, and part of trying to be successful is not being quiet. So there are these too opposing forces. But I think—I hope—I’ll be able to stay on the quiet end of it.
Michael Shannon is lounging in a Grandfather chair at the Waldorf Astoria—his burnished Derby shoes propped on an antique coffee table. The thirty-eight-year-old actor, dressed in a three-piece suit and with his career in full gear, seems to be in a ruminative mood. “Shit, I hope people see this movie,” Shannon tells me. He’s referring to The Iceman, a biopic of sorts about the real-life 1970s contract killer who was also a loving husband and father. It’s a role, in its spiritual paradoxes, tailor-made for Shannon. The Kentucky-born, Brooklyn-based actor has become famous for his portrayals of men trying to do right despite their demons. As we talk, I realize Shannon’s trademark intensity belongs as much to the man as his characters. There’s something almost late-Brando to his introspective wandering mind. At one point in our interview he asks me if I want a cupcake and it sounds as if he were baring his soul. “My picture’s on it,” he says, and when I take the red-velvet pastry there he is—goatee, suit and gun—the painted icing on the cake. Here, Shannon shares his thoughts on everything from hedge funds and Heath Ledger to the Oscars, his upcoming role in Man of Steel, and finding viral-fame as a Sorority ringmaster.
Do you like playing good guys or bad guys more?
Neither. I just like playing guys. I mean, I like playing multi-dimensional people—people that have a sordid life full of questions and contradictions and struggles. Kuklinski [“The Iceman”] was obviously a demented man who did a lot of sinister shit. But if I look back at my CV, my characters are not necessarily bad people or people who do bad things. As an artist you can just land in the zeitgeist a certain way. People say to me, “I love Boardwalk Empire. You’re so good on that show. I hate you.” And I don’t understand it! I look around at the other guys on that show and in comparison, I’m really not that bad. I mean, if you look at Harrow. How many people has Harrow killed?
Your character in The Iceman is like an extreme version of your character in Take Shelter. In that you just have to protect your family. You’ll do anything for them. So you do such despicable things, but in the name of family. That seems to be your bread and butter.
At the risk of revealing too much about myself, or my political views, I think The Iceman is an allegory for what’s going on in the world. There are a lot of people in the world who make a living and get their paycheck based on the misfortune of other people. And then they go home and they have their family. They pay all their bills. They make dinner for their whole family, and then they tuck in the kids, kiss them on the forehead and say, “I love you, goodnight.” And that’s not disingenuous. That’s for real. And this is a very extreme version of that: a guy completely warped by circumstance, like a knotted tree.
When I heard that you were in Man of Steel, my first thought was that you were going to play Superman. I thought they were going for a darker vision.
You know who I really want to play?
Aquaman. If they ever make a fucking Aquaman movie, I want to be Aquaman.
In Mud, your first appearance is in a wetsuit—
Yeah, I am like Aquaman! I want to take that one step further and start talking to the sea creatures.
I think you should get an Oscar for your sorority video. That shit was hilarious. I can just watch it on repeat.
Have a party, a kegger.
How did that video come about?
Well I did the LA press junket last weekend. I flew out on Friday. I got off the plane. Went to the hotel, dropped my luggage off. And then my publicist came and picked me up and said, we’re going to Funny or Die and you’re gonna read this letter. I’d never heard of the letter. I didn’t know anything about it. I never went to university. I never belonged to any fraternity or sorority. It’s not my terrain at all. They had the letter all written up on cue cards. I read it off cue cards. Some people think I memorized it. I didn’t memorize it. We did about seven takes and then I went back to my hotel. And the rest is history. They edited it all together and put the music on there.
Have people called you up about it?
Yeah, I mean my friends, lots of texting all this and that. You know there are people who don’t like it. Not everyone’s in favor of it. I looked on Funny or Die. I’ve got a lot of die votes.
Because it’s offensive?
I don’t know. You gotta think that anyone who visits Funny or Die is prepared to be offended, but it seems to be doing pretty well. In terms of something that I’ve done, standalone, kind of by myself, it’s definitely the most popular thing I’ve ever done.
You had a lot of small roles before you really broke out. When was it that someone really realized you could carry a film?
Honestly, the first person that really let me do that was Jeff [Nichols] with Shotgun Stories. That was his film before Take Shelter. He asked me to do that. He asked me to be the lead.
I just interviewed him a few days ago—
He’s a fucking moron.
I’ll put that in.
Yeah, put that in the interview. I’ve been saying that every time someone brings up Jeff.
So he just called you out of the blue?
He first sent me the script for Shotgun Stories. And I thought it was one of the best screenplays I’d ever read in my life. It just blew my friggin’ mind. I was like, this kid’s a genius. And I talked to him on the phone and he was like, “I don’t have any money. I can’t pay you anything. I’m putting all my money into the film and the camera. That’s where it’s all going, because I’ve got to shoot anamorphic.” And that’s when I knew I loved this kid. So many kids would have been like, “screw it, I’ll shoot it on video, I just want to get it made.” Jeff was stumping me but I was like, this kid’s got balls.
The New York Times called you the foremost interpreter of uneasy, American manhood. Or something like that.
Yeah, Brantley in the Grace review. That was awfully nice of him.
You’ve come a long way. Now what?
I just hope I stay uneasy, because if I get easy, I’m screwed. One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about my career is how much of a surprise it’s been, so hopefully it’ll remain that way. I mean, I never know what to expect. Right now, I’m in a period of incredible volatility. I try not to think to much into the future because there’s so much that could happen––or could not happen, or might happen.
You work like crazy now.
Yeah, I’m kind of a broken treadmill that won’t stop, which is fine by me, because I like what I do. But it’s impossible to prognosticate the future at this point. I feel like in a certain I’m kind of at a plateau. I don’t know what more I can expect, unless I own a movie studio or something.
I thought you deserved the Oscar for Take Shelter. Have you people told you that?
Some people have. I mean people say lots of things. People say I should have gotten one for Revolutionary Road. And I’m like look, Heath Ledger was great in The Dark Knight. Who am I to discount that? And they’re like, yeah but he’s not here anymore. I said, so what? He still deserved the award.
Was Heath Ledger an inspiration for your role in Man of Steel?
Oh, definitely. I thought Heath gave a very virtuoso performance. But having said that, General Zod and the Joker are very different. General Zod really isn’t a malevolent human being, or not human being. I should say malevolent Kryptonian. He’s very pro-Kryptonian. He’s mad because some really nasty shit went down on his planet. Unfortunately, his job is to protect the planet and that didn’t work out so well. So he’s just trying to make up for it.
In The Iceman you go through so many hairstyles. Beard, no-beard, goatee, slicked back hair. Which was your favorite?
Honestly, my favorite was when I didn’t have any facial hair, because that facial hair is hard to work with.
If Terrence Malik and Steven Spielberg had a kid he would be Jeff Nichols. The eerily talented, Austin-based filmmaker can be both philosophical and entertaining at once. His first two films, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, helped launch Michael Shannon’s career, and his latest, Mud, is poised to resuscitate Matthew McConaughey from the rom-com stupor he’s been stuck in. The film follows two Arkansas boys who come upon a boat magically suspended in a tree––but what could be their own summer hideaway turns out to be the hiding place for a sunburnt, snake-tattooed outlaw (McConaughey). If Nichols’s first two films were filled with dread and darkness, Mud is leavened by the clean boyish faces of its heroes (modern day Hucks and Toms) and the poignant (rather than smug) charm that McConaughey brings to his performance. There is a humility that runs throughout this film and belongs as much to its characters as its director. When I meet Nichols in his SoHo hotel room I find a down-to-earth, generous Southerner––more at home in jeans and white tube socks than anything fancy. Here we talk about the evolution of his work––as well as of the American South and of his new muse, Mr. McConaughey.
What I find so impressive about your work is how much soul you put into each project. Each film feels like it needed to be made. Where does that need come from?
That’s a whopper of a question. If I’m going to be really honest it started when I was in high school. I just thought going to film school would be cool. I didn’t know anything about it. But I went to film school and realized I liked it, I had a knack for it. And one thing led to the next.
So it just sort of happened?
I don’t know. It’s weird. I don’t want to say that “I was meant for this,” or anything. But there was always an arrow pointing me forward. I guess it’s only now that I’m starting to look back and examine my path. For these past three films I’ve just been like, ‘Let’s get them made.’
Mud has a lot in common with Take Shelter, but it’s also a departure. This is a much more hopeful film.
It’s got a different tone to it. But you know what’s funny? I wrote this and Take Shelter in the same summer. Or at least that’s when I finished both scripts. I mean writing is a strange term because how long do you carry a story around inside you? That’s writing too I suppose.
So they gestated together?
They’re both reflections of my personality. It’s interesting to see people respond to Mud as some sort of answer to Take Shelter. For me they’re just two sides of myself I was trying to express. In Shotgun Stories, it was about the death of one of my brothers, which luckily never happened, but I imagined it. Take Shelter was about the fear of settling down and becoming a father and the world unraveling. But with Mud, I reached back and thought about what it was like to get my heart broken for the first time. And that whole cycle of love and first love. And I don’t remember it being a dark time.
Take Shelter presents a view of a crumbling world where your immediate family is all you have. And Michael Shannon portrayed the anxiety of a father so effectively. But Mud is a story about strangers helping strangers. So it wasn’t just a lighter tone but also a whole new idea about who you should care for in the world.
That’s interesting. It’s a great way to look at it. Because, in a way, if you think about it, I have just created a new family with my wife and my son. Take Shelter was about that. But first love…that’s a time when you actually step outside of the comfort zone of family. You’re taking this heart that has possibly been protected or not protected by your family and kind of giving it a test run. That’s what first love’s about. In order to evolve and grow and make another family, you have to eventually step out in the world.
And that’s something that binds all men together.
Certainly. And that was more conscious than the other point. I was like ‘Let’s look at romantic love through the eyes of men.’ Because so often it’s, you know, chick flicks and things like that. This felt like an interesting way to look at love and romantic love specifically. It’s really not about sex. There’s no sex in the movie. It’s about men dealing with their feelings for women. And how we get those things passed down to us from our male mentors.
Rom-coms been Matthew McConaughey’s bread and butter for a while now. Every other movie he was in seemed to have Sarah Jessica Parker or Jennifer Aniston. And then Mud reminded me of something I’d forgotten, which is that he can actually act.
You know, I started the script with him in mind. This was way back in the late ’90s, when he was in films like Lone Star and Dazed and Confused. We forget about Frailty and I’m even a fan of Reign of Fire. I think that’s an overlooked film. I just wrote the part in his voice. It was easy to sit on set and hear him reading his lines. I just thought he was right for the part.
Totally. He was great. But I have to ask: was it an inside joke when he takes off his shirt?
No! It’s so frustrating.
I just heard people joking about that in the theater. Granted, it was a press screening.
I mean, I thought about it on set. I was aware that people were saying these things, but I had written this really great scene! I found this book called The Brief History of American Superstition, and it was A through Z, and just listed all these different superstitions alphabetically. Under ‘W’ there was ‘wolf’s eye,’ and I thought that Mud was the kind of guy who would have a wolf’s eye on the sleeve of his shirt. So the moment was perfect for him to finally abandon that. By the time he finally does take off his shirt he’s prepared to die, he would take off the one thing that would protect him. I just thought that was a cool point and I wasn’t willing to lose it because people would make fun of him for taking his shirt off. It was a calculated risk or gamble, but…I don’t know, man.
In five years, people won’t even think to see it that way. You know what I mean?
Yeah, and I really don’t care. But it’s funny. It’s the difference between working with actors and movie stars. Michael Shannon is a great actor. He’s a great actor. But Matthew McConaughey’s a movie star, and if there’s a celebrity attached to it and a persona attached to it…I took advantage of a lot of that. It’s part of what makes it an interesting role for him.
A friend of mine from Arkansas gets annoyed when people forget that even trailer parks in Arkansas have the internet, for example. That was something I really appreciated about both Mudand Take Shelter, bringing the modern into a more classic setting.
Well, you just have to be honest. We all have opinions about what we think the south is and it’s an affectation. I’ve done it. I’ve fallen into the trap, as well. But, as filmmakers, it’s really easy to say ‘Oh, I want him to drive this truck, not that truck,’ and ‘I want him to listen to this music, not that music’ and wear Chuck Taylor Converse and not these shoes. But you have to be willing to open your eyes and go down to these places and see what people are wearing and doing and talking about. I mean I still didn’t 100% follow my own rule, but it’s enough that I’ve protected myself against at least the most extreme abuses of it.
In all three of your films there’s this question about what it means to be a man in a modern America.
The way I thought about that with Mud was different than with Take Shelter. There’s a way of life in the south that I think is dying. There’s an accent that is dying because things just get kind of homogenized. We have Home Depots and big box stores. I think there’s kind of a dying voice in the south. I don’t cry about it. It’s just evolution. It’s what’s happening. There was one way of life in the south and 25 years from now the south will still be there, but it will be a different way of life. The film is all about transition, about adolescence and going from one period of life to the next. The south that my dad talks about from growing up very poor in rural Arkansas is so different than the south that I’m seeing today. I realized that at the end of making the film, ‘Oh, the whole damn thing’s about transition.’
I spoke to director Henry-Alex Rubin about his new film Disconnect the day after he became a father. It was something of a surreal phone conversation––with patchy reception––but of a piece with the film’s focus on technologically-mediated relationships. In the grand tradition of Traffic and Babel, Disconnect follows an array of characters at once: an ambitious reporter (Andrea Riseborough), a male stripper (Max Thieriot), an overworked father (Jason Bateman), an Iraq vet (Alexander Skarsgård), an ex-cop (Frank Grillo), and plenty others. What all of these people have in common––other than being in the same movie––is that technology is busy both defining and fucking up their lives. Online peep shows, online gambling, online stalking: it makes you wonder if we should even bring children into this world. Obviously, the film’s director thinks we still should––and on the phone he’s a spritely conversationalist, still flustered from his newfound fatherhood. Here, Rubin explains why he’s not a technophobe, how to make IM’ing cinematic, and what he did to get Jason Bateman and Alexander Skarsgård to show their soft side.
So I hear you’re a father now.
I am. I’m a dad.
This happened yesterday? Thanks for taking the time to talk.
Sure. But I did nothing. I just stood there while my wife pushed. And then it just popped out. They kept saying “Dad’s gotta be there. Dad’s gotta help with the breathing.” I did nothing––just stood there useless.
Did the prospect of fatherhood impact the way you saw the themes of Disconnect? A lot of the film is about parents worried about what their children are doing online.
Not really. I was already in post-production when I knew I would be a dad. It may have a bearing on the next movie, though. They say that once you have a kid you start cringing at foul language. We’ll see about that.
What attracted you to the script?
First, it seemed like a documentary I’d be interested in making if it were only possible––if I had access to an underage porn performer and a journalist who is exploiting him. Or to a couple of punk kids who were cyber-bullying another kid. Those stories sounded like an interesting documentary to me. So there was that. Then there was the third story––about a couple who loses their identity. That prospect has definitely crossed my mind on the web. When I buy an old LP online for example, who sees my information? Where does it all go? So all of the stories in the script seemed relevant to me. They’re touching on––but not answering––questions we are asking ourselves. If you are a parent how much do you control your kids online? How much do you check your phone? Do you put it on the table when you eat dinner with your family?
How often do you use your phone?
I’m on my phone pretty much all the time. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone my age or younger––I’m 39––who doesn’t check their phone semi-obsessively and feels a need to read texts or emails instantly as they come in. In the past we didn’t feel the need to do that. So something has changed our behavior here. Don’t get me wrong. I love technology. This is not an anti-technology movie. The movie just explores these questions. How do we communicate with one another in this new technological environment?
A lot of people have been talking about how this technology is changing storytelling. Like how do you make a text message conversation cinematic? You guys came up with one answer to that question.
I looked at a few movies to see what had been done before. One called LOL would have these corny, cartoony texts pop up on screen. And I remember thinking it looked fake. But I also started thinking what the real version would look like. I mean first of all, texting and IM’ing are here to stay. So filmmakers have to deal with and represent it somehow. Even though it’s icky and not cinematic. But if you do massive close-ups I think that’s interesting. You feel like you’re in their heads. I tried that, I don’t know how effective it is, but I wanted to give it a shot.
Well, it’s definitely a new kind of shot––the IM close-up. Has the press been on your case about the film’s message?
You know it’s very tough to sell a movie. You often are forced to reduce it to a sound bite. So you’re movie is about how you hate technology. It’s about technology and how it’s killing us. And you scratch your head and ask––gosh is that what I made? The writer literally took stories from the news and just reformulated them. But they’re straight out of the headlines––the massive online porn business that nobody really talks about. But it makes a lot of money. There’s a new kind of live show, this peep show thing. Dorm kids do it, housewives do it. It’s a whole industry. And then every week there’s a new headline about kids getting trouble doing something online. The other day kids got convicted for posting naked pictures of a girl. That’s so new. The technology is affecting our legal system. States are still drafting legislation about this new technology. I just wanted to explore these issues. And on a whole other level there’s a lot in the film about loneliness––and how all of us are trying to reach out and feel more full. And I think that’s an age-old human desire.
What about title? You can either pronounce it as a noun or a verb––a command.
That’s 100% right. But I think we were a bit more interested in the noun. The human disconnect…but certainly the title works both ways.
Do you ever feel the need to unplug for a day or two?
Absolutely. And it seems like a silly thing. But people should try it! I’m loathe to turn into the poster boy for disconnecting your phone. Because that’s’ not me. I’m more guilty than anyone about being on my phone the entire day. You know, Marc Jacobs was in a movie. And he was telling to me how he made his bedroom a completely device free space. I thought that was really interesting.
The film follows a relatively new tradition of intersecting plotlines––films like Babel and Traffic. Were these in your mind with the project?
This film is an emotional thriller like Traffic. I love that film. What Traffic did for addiction and the war on drugs, I wanted to do that about communication. Andrew who wrote the script says the idea for the film came to him when he was at the dinner table with four friends and all four of them were on the phone. And that’s when he got the light bulb.
You worked with an ensemble cast. Which of the actors surprised you most on set?
I liked all the actors but the one who surprised me most was definitely Jason Bateman. Bateman was a gamble for us. Here I am––first time director who’s only made documentaries. But I also grew up watching Jason Bateman and I wanted to put him in the movie. I always thought he would make a great dramatic actor. So I held my breath, but then he just blew me away on set. He did such a nuanced job. Even just when we’re filming his eyes. When he’s talking over IM––that scene could put you to sleep. But somehow watching Jason and what little he does with his face, he’s able to suck you in. He can do a lot with a little wince.
Both Jason and Alexander Skaarsgård show a lot of emotion. How did you open them up so much?
Both Jason and Alex came ready to be vulnerable. Which was something I was excited to explore in the film. You have all these lost, lonely people. When they finally get their buttons pushed hard enough for the emotions to come out, what happens? Alex is so statuesque; it’s hard to think of him having feelings. But most people who know him know he’s a brilliant, sensitive performer.
Well congrats on both the film and the kid. That must be a pretty overwhelming cocktail for you.
It was time. I was getting toward forty and I told myself I didn’t want to be an old dad. And you know what––it’s beautiful, it’s crazy. And still very vivid because it happened last night. I’ll tell you this, it’s better than winning any awards or taking any drugs. Just holding your child in your hands. It’s indescribable.
When I meet Francois Ozon at the Mercer Hotel he’s wrapped in a scarf, sipping coffee with a wry grin. The smile speaks to the tone of the French filmmaker’s work: notoriously sneaky and playful, twisting our suspense into curlicues as if it were silly putty. Ozon––who is almost as prolific as Almodovar or Fassbinder, and with whom he shares a certain sensibility––is in New York to promote his latest psychological thriller, the delicious In The House. The film follows a jaded high-school teacher Germain (Fabrice Luchini) awakened from his professional stupor by a talented, if disturbed, student, Claude (Ernst Umhauer). When Claude starts writing stories about another classmate’s “perfect” family, Germain takes him under his wing––and the lines between reality and fiction, right and wrong, reader and writer, all start to blur. It’s an ingenious if vertiginous ride, upping the ante at every turn. And as with Ozon’s similarly Hitchockian thriller, Swimming Pool, In The House leaves the viewer in a state of giddy disorientation. Here, the Parisian director discusses everything from his interest in Freudian pathology to his debt to the Master of Suspense—and why the French don’t like open endings.
Why do you often choose writers as main characters?
Because if I were to just show a director, I’d have the feeling that I was naked. The writer alone with the blank page––it’s similar to what I go through but it’s also easier for me to film.
Is In The House partly autobiographical?
I think so, yes. In a certain way. Not totally. When I discovered the play by Juan Mayorga, I thought it would be a great way to also talk about my own process of working. How do you tell a story? What are your different options? What is the path you decide on?
The film is very much about the fine line between art and life. This seems to run throughout your work. Do you sometimes feel you’re more loyal to your art than to real life?In a way I’m also close to François Truffaut who said that life in movies is better than life in reality. And like Truffaut, art is very important for me. Without art life would be very difficult to tolerate. That’s why I wanted to have this melancholic happy ending in the film. These two characters who need each other––who are not able to live in reality and prefer to live in fiction. I think many people are like that. I know I’m like that.
A lot of your films focus on psychotic behavior. Have you studied psychoanalysis? Have you read the work of Freud or Lacan?
Yes, of course. I read many of those books when I was a student. I love to read books about neurotic or psychotic people. There are often really good ideas for movies in them. And I also recognize myself in their behavior sometimes. I don’t think I’m psychotic; but neurotic, yes. I’m sure I’m neurotic. So there’s a part of me that’s always interested in the strange way people behave. When I did a film like Under the Sand it was important to understand how a woman could live with a ghost. And in the case of this film it’s the same thing. I wanted to the audience to be involved in the fantasies and mental realities of the characters.
You have a lot of fun twisting around Oedipal relations––exploring every possible perversion family is possible of.
This comes from my own observations and my own reality. My interest in family of course comes from observing my own family. I like to play with those kinds of relationships in my work. But I think with age my view on family is changing. With In The House, the first part of the film is very ironic and cynical about the so-called perfect family. But step by step, as my character follows the lesson of his teacher, he learns to love the family––and of course, he actually falls in love with the housewife. But there’s a love there.
You’re never quite sure if the film is a thriller or a comedy. It’s both serious and not-serious.
For me it was important to begin with a clear distinction between what is reality and fiction. But step by step I wanted to mix the two. So the idea is that it’s up to the audience to decide if it’s true or fake. So it’s up to the audience to decide.
The film makes several direct references to Hitchcock. You’re clearly a fan.
It was impossible with such a subject not to have references to Hitchcock. He’s the best story-teller of the cinema. He was the first one to have a theory of suspense, how you deal with the place of the spectator. In a sense my character is getting trained in how to tell a story the way Hitchcock would.
And of course the last shot of the film––when we see the rear view of an entire apartment building.
When I was shooting in front of that building I know everyone would think of Rear Window. But my idea was more to reference the contemporary art-world, the world of installation art. In a way, my characters have finally come to appreciate modern art.
Do you get a kick of manipulating the guilty pleasure of the audience? It’s very much like Hitchcock.
Hitchcock assumes every director is a manipulator of voyeur. And very often so is the audience. We are all voyeurs when we go to the cinema. Don you think it’s strange we enjoy so much to go into a dark room and watch on a big screen murders and sex scenes? We’re all voyeurs in this way. Maybe it helps us not become murderers or rapists ourselves. I think that’s part of the cinema. So as a director I very consciously assume that I’m there to manipulate and spy on people.
Do you hang out a lot with other filmmakers?
Not so much. I love to see the films of other directors, but I don’t have so many friends.
After the success you had in America with Swimming Pool, I presume you could have worked in Hollywood.
Yes, I had many propositions. But it’s funny, because the film was more successful in American than in France. In France I think people didn’t really like the film. It was mixed, the reviews were mixed. And in American it was very surprising for us, how well it did.
Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. Maybe because it was sexy.
Ludivine Sagnier in a bikini certainly didn’t hurt.
[Laughs] But I don’t know… I think the film was not rational enough for the French. The French like everything to make sense. I think Americans like it when you don’t know what’s fiction and what’s reality.
But the open-ending made the film.
Yes. But in France we don’t really like that. It’s rationalist culture.
Ken Loach is a legend among us. Since the 1960s, the British filmmaker—famous for both his politics and his pared-down aesthetic—has been sticking to his guns: making honest, brutal films about working class life. His latest, The Angel’s Share, is no exception. The film follows Robbie (Paul Brannigan), a young Glasgow thug trying to go legit after he learns he’s going to be a father. Almost everything is vintage Loach: from the clashes with social workers and judges to the accents so thick they have to be subtitled. What seems to be new—at least ever since Loach won the Palme d’Or for his devastating The Wind That Shakes the Barley—is a stronger dose of optimism to offset the bleakness. When Robbie, as part of a community service sentence, tours a local whiskey distillery, he discovers he has an olfactory gift, a kind of preternatural nose for scotch. The rest of the film, like the director’s most recent efforts, buoys you up to a place made all the more poignant for the hard knocks along the way. When I talk to the 76-year old filmmaker over the phone from London, I find a man who is as forthright, intelligent and as spirited as his films. Here, Loach discusses the state of British youth, the future of the political left, and why most Scottish kids can’t afford their own national drink.
I was just re-watching you early film, Kes, and it occurred to me that you return again and again to stories about young people. Whether in Sweet Sixteen or in this most recent film, The Angel’s Share. What’s the attraction for you in stories about youth?
I think it’s a very touching moment in a person’s life. It’s an age when people still have a sense of possibility but also of what’s in store for them—of how the possibilities are being closed down. And it’s interesting you mention Kes. The life promised to that lad [in the 1960s] was a life of manual labor. He would have a job, a secure job for his life. He could expect to work and he could expect a secure community to belong to—albeit a restrictive one. But at least there would have been a sense of security. What kids now have, and Robbie has in The Angel’s Share, is none of that. He won’t work. There is no job for him. You’ve got a million unemployed young people. If he does work it will be temporary, casual labor. He won’t have a job that would describe him. You know, you’re a writer and other people are joiners or machinists or railway workers or whatever, but he won’t have that. He’ll have no sense of identity through his work. And it’s a desperate situation that we’re offering the kids today. And that’s why we wanted to do the film.
I know you also just completed a documentary, The Spirit of ’45, about the creation of the welfare state in the U.K. in the years after World War II. It sounds like you’re rather pessimistic about how that social vision fared.
The politics of the years between 1945-50 was when the welfare state was created and that vision thrived. The decades that followed, the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s, saw political failure, which didn’t develop this vision but actually undermined it. So when Thatcher came to town in ’79, she practically set the country in reverse. It was an ideological war against mutual support and working together for an ideology of selfishness. And that’s when the spirit broke. In a way we’ve lived with that worsening situation ever since.
What came first for you—politics or filmmaking?
Filmmaking. Well, drama in the theatre briefly, then television and films. But we all were active in the ’60s and that was a very political time. It was sexy to be on the left in those days. That’s where the ideas were. And there were big political upheavals. The events of 1968 were very important: the student protests but also the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which meant that people who came into politics on the left were very anti-Stalinist because of that invasion. So I think if you tended to be political, as many of us were, then you were drawn toward the anti-Stalinist left. I worked with writers who brought their experience into their work and it meant meeting lots of people I hadn’t met before and seeing life that I hadn’t seen before. It was really just living in the world that made me political.
How do you see the left in Europe today?
Well in Europe it’s very fragmented. There’s been a great deal of sectarianism with the economic collapse. Greece, Spain, Italy are all on the brink—Ireland, Portugal, now Cyprus. I think there’s a realization that things don’t work. The left has been doing well in many of these countries but in Britain there’s a real vacuum at the moment because the labor party, which ought to represent the left, is now very much a party of business. In other parts of the world, the left is doing better. The big advances are happening in Latin America, aren’t they?
How do you and screenwriter Paul Laverty collaborate? You’ve worked together on a number of films now.
We talk on most days: sending messages back and forth about everything from the state of the world to football scores. And out of it all comes an idea or a thought or a story that one of us has had or has come across. We first met when he had been in Nicaragua to work as a human rights lawyer. When he came back he wrote me and said “let’s get together,” so we did.
I noticed this film is much more optimistic than other films of yours—than The Wind That Shakes the Barley for instance. Do you think because the economy is so bad people need happier stories?
I think it’s just a sense of wanting to vary what you do. Everything can’t be on the same note. People will always be funny, people say these things that make you smile. Once you escape the stereotypes people are quirky and original and have a way with words. I think to be true to how people are you have to smile. I think a smile is built into most things. Even in The Wind That Shakes the Barley there were moments, just the way people are, that make you smile.
Your work is very moving emotionally. But that’s not always the case for leftist filmmakers who sometimes distrust melodrama and sentimentality to the point of distrusting emotion itself.
I think that’s how you connect to people, isn’t it? It’s how you recognize common humanity. Part of what we’re trying to say is that objective economical and political circumstances determine a great deal about people’s lives. They don’t live in a vacuum. But the consequences of these conditions are lived through people. It’s family relationships, work relationships that show the impact of society, for lack of a better word, on the individual. So I think that’s absolutely central. We try to avoid sentimentality but not be afraid to show the colorful emotions that people have.
How did you cast the star of the film, Paul Brannigan?
Screenwriter Paul Laverty, when he was doing his research was meeting lots of different people and said to me “I think you ought to meet this guy,” so we did. We had seen lots of other people and tried little things out and Paul Brannigan was always very good. We must have met ten, twelve times. I was thinking it over for a period of two or three months. And in each time he just got better and better. So in the end we thought, well, let’s go for him. He knows the life of the streets firsthand. He’s spoken about himself. I don’t want to break any confidences, but he did have a very difficult childhood and he did spend time in the young offenders center.
And the whiskey—where did that come in? Are you a connoisseur yourself?
This is Paul Laverty’s interest in the drink. It’s interesting because it’s the national drink, it’s very much the tourist image of Scotland, with the bagpipes and the shortbread and the kilts and all that. And yet it’s a drink that’s probably too expensive for most of the local people who can get a bigger kick from a cheaper drink. So we were kind of into playing with the tourist image and the reality underneath. But at the same time, I mean the lads behind the whiskey are very skilled. They’re good craftsmen, they do it like fine wine. You have to have a sensitive palate to understand it and appreciate it. And Robbie discovers he has this talent. So we just thought, well, it’s a way for him to get some financial support. Nobody suffers except the pretentious guy who spends a fortune on something he can’t taste. The story was a way of poking a little fun at it. All in good humor, of course.
Tim Hetherington was a complex, charismatic and extremely talented war photographer. Before he was killed by a Libyan bomb blast in April 2011, he had worked in Liberia, Sri Lanka, andAfghanistan where he spent a year embedded with an American platoon alongside writer/filmmaker Sebastian Junger. The result of their collaboration was the Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepo, which focused as much on the male-bonding of war—the camaraderie and intimacy—as on the brutality of combat. Fittingly, Junger and Hetherington themselves became friends. When Junger (best known as the author of The Perfect Storm) learned of Hetherington’s death, he began work on a documentary portrait of his friend. That film—Which Way is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington—premiers April 18th on HBO. Here, I talk to Junger about his and Hetherington’s work, the mixed motivations behind combat journalists, and why war, despite its horrors, can be undeniably intoxicating.
How did you first meet Tim? You said in the film you needed a camera man?
Actually I had already started shooting Restrepo and I was the cameraman. What I needed was a photographer to shoot the still images. That’s how I met Tim. I liked him instantly and our relationship got stronger by the day. Originally we were technically out there on an assignment for Vanity Fair. But we both started shooting video.
So you’re idea for a documentary was separate from the Vanity Fair assignment?
Well, my little secret plan was to write a book about a platoon in combat. I came up with that idea in 2006. And then I thought if I was going to spend so much time with a platoon I might as well shoot video. And shooting video in combat is pretty damn easy.
Why is it easy?
Because combat is really dramatic. And video cameras now are so sophisticated and user-friendly that anyone within can do an adequate job in a few days. Adequate video for a dinner time conversation doesn’t hold anyone’s interest but in a firefight it works fine.
So there was the book project and also the film.
Yeah. I thought if I was going to write a book I may as well have a visual notebook of the experience. I told Tim about my idea, that I really wanted to make a film. He said sure. I don’t think he was really committed to it until we got out there and then he realized what a great story it was. That’s when we formalized the agreement and became partners.
How long after you learned of Tim’s death did you start thinking about the possibility of this new film?
After Tim was killed I decided to interview the journalists who survived the attack. I thought I should videotape it just so I could have it. Many of them came to Tim’s New York memorial—about a month later. That was when I was also able to look at the footage Tim shot the last day of his life, which is awfully dramatic. Between the interviews and that footage, I realized there was a basis for the film. The next stop was Sheila Nevins at HBO. Half an hour after I talked to her, she said “sounds good, let’s do it”.
The film is a tribute to Tim’s talent but also his character. And those two qualities are at times in conflict with each other. At the very least he seems very ambivalent about what he does. Was that something you knew going in or did that come to you in the editing?
One of the reasons his life was complicated—but also why he was so brilliant—was that he over-thought everything. He knew that he thought too much, but it also let him get places intellectually. And at the same time it was a stone around his neck.
The opening scene of the film shows Tim formulating and reformulating answers to the question of why he photographs people. He’s very self-conscious about expressing himself correctly.
What I liked about that opening scene was that you can tell immediately that Tim was someone who could provide the kind of boiler-plate language any interviewer would be absolutely fine with. But then he realizes that the other person being fine with it isn’t enough. So he tries to rephrase his answer again and again until he finds something with real value. The first thing he said sounds fine on paper but it’s fairly hollow. And what he finally said at the end was meaningful. Tim was smart about not living up to other peoples expectations; he needed to live up to his own expectations.
Was there something about Tim that you didn’t expect to learn in the research for the film? I don’t know how much you guys talked about your past while in Afghanistan.
We talked a lot and I knew him pretty well. But what I hadn’t appreciated about him—because I knew him in the context of war—was how engaged and open he was with his subjects. Especially dealing with the young children in Sri Lanka. I mean you knew that about him—he could be very lovely and friendly to people—but I didn’t realize how he used that quality in his work to open people up and turn someone who could have been a stranger into a real person.
A lot of people have made the analogy about war correspondents that combat is like an addictive drug. This comes up a bit in the film, but not that much. Did you think Tim’s need to go to Libya was something of a compulsion? And addiction?
I think the word addiction is overused and a little strong. But I think his motivations for covering combat were similar to other journalists I know. There’s a spectrum from noble to self-serving. At the more noble end, people do feel that the tragedies must be documented so they don’t happen in darkness. That’s a very strong motivator––a noble and a true one. And journalists really do risk their lives to that end. But no one does it for entirely noble reasons. The other part of it is that combat is incredibly exciting, stimulating, meaningful––all these intoxicating things. It’s a bit like surfers when the surfs up. “Oh, we gotta get down to the beach, the surf is huge.” They want to have an intoxicating experience even if it is deadly. And finally, Tim is an ambitious man, like I am, like most journalists are. And wars provide an incredible opportunity to do good work and advance your work.
Most of your books or films have been about manly men in direct confrontation with the world. But Tim was an intellectual and artist. Was this new for you—to be looking at the role of an artist?
It’s an interesting point. I appreciate art but it doesn’t interest me as a subject for journalism. I made the film because Tim got killed. It ended up being about photography because Tim was a photographer; and it ended up being about war because Tim took photographs of war. But you’re right because it is fundamentally different than any other subject I’ve ever covered. Because a) it’s a biography and b) Tim was an artist. So yes, it’s new territory. But that’s what the subject demanded. The film happened because I felt a strong obligation to make it.
I first became aware of Brit Marling a year ago, when I had coffee with the writer and actress to talk about her breakout films The Sound of My Voice and Another Earth—both of which had premiered side-by-side at Sundance, making her the first woman writer/actress to have two films at the festival. Since those auspicious beginnings, things have only spiraled upward for the actress. She was cast as Richard Gere’s daughter in the financial drama Arbitrage, and appears this week alongside Robert Redford and Shia Labeouf in The Company You Keep. The film follows a group of aging radicals (played by a class reunion of all-star Hollywood boomers) reckoning with their youthful days in the Weather Underground. Marling was handpicked by Redford for her role as a young activist—a kind of next-generation heir to the thoughtful, Hollywood left.
Redford’s compliment is spot-on. On May 31, Marling and writing-partner Zal Batmanglij return with an eerily resonant political thriller of their own—The East, about a renegade Anarchist collective taking vengeance on corporate hotshots. When we meet this time to talk about her work, it’s high up in a midtown hotel. As we both acknowledge, there’s something bizarre about talking radical politics in a corporate suite, but it’s indicative of how far—and how quickly—she’s come since her breakout Sundance season two years ago.
So I saw The Company You Keep and The East on the same day.
No way. What was that experience like?
It was fascinating.
What did it make you think? They’re such interesting companion pieces.
It made me think a lot about our generation’s relation to the ’60s. It must have been crazy to work on one film and then the other. It’s like the year of political radicalism.
It’s funny because Zal [Batmanglij] and I had been researching and writing The East when I got the script for The Company You Keep. And so I had seen the Weather Underground documentary as part of the research for The East. And I had watched it and had been really moved by them, and particularly been moved by the idea that they held themselves so accountable for things that were happening in their time that weren’t necessarily happening to them. They were rebelling for their brothers and sisters in the Black Panther movement and for what was happening in Vietnam, but they weren’t actually the people who it was happening directly to. And yet they felt the responsibility to create the beginning of a—which is totally what the group in The East is wrestling with. It’s the same question. Is it okay to hurt people if you think the end leads to a greater good? And then there’s the whole idea of an eye for an eye justice. This corporation poisons us, we’re going to poison them. This corporation spies on us, we’re going to spy on them? And does it really end up leading to a better world?
If you’re so convinced of your position, what stops you from using force? When are urgent means appropriate? When is sacrifice appropriate?
Exactly. And I don’t think either movie knows the answer to that question. But it’s certainly interesting to pose it in this time when so much shit is going wrong and so much of the system is obviously broken and young people really do need to stand up and rebel. I love that young people got Obama elected and then they just went back to their normal lives. If Obama is really going to create change, that can only happen if young people take to the streets and say, we’re not reporting to work today, or tomorrow or the next day, until these demands are met. And so, yes, these movies are very interesting.
And it’s great that Redford is returning to ask these questions in his own work. You can really sense that this is film means a lot to him. How did you first come to his attention? Did you audition for the role?
I didn’t actually. Robert had seen Another Earth and Sound of My Voice at Sundance. And there was a Sundance fundraiser where I gave a talk about the experience, and what it was like and why Sundance was so important. And we met there again. I think he felt from having seen those films that I could do this part and that I would be very interested in these ideas. So he just asked me if I wanted to do it. And I read the script and signed on right away.
You must have been excited.
I was incredibly excited. Robert is an example of someone who has really had an incredible career as an artist and yet has also been very politically active. A lot of people reject actors getting involved in politics, becoming mouthpieces for political things because they feel like—oh you’re not properly educated in this world. But I think that Robert’s approach has been just to take initiative and start things himself—the Sundance Institute, those labs, and then the festival so that what came out of the labs would have an audience. And now he’s redoing cinemas so there’s a place for them to be seen—like the new Sunset Five in Hollywood. He’s not just talking about it, he’s literally going out and doing those things. If he hadn’t created that safe-haven for independent filmmaking, where would it be now? All of the auteur filmmakers we admire, many of them have come out of Sundance.
Did you ever think you would go into politics instead of movies? I know you went to Georgetown. I’m sure that must have been thrown around a bit.
A lot of my friends were doing internships on Capitol Hill. I was studying economics. I was going in a different direction. I was thinking about that recently, because for some reason I had been reading Hillary Clinton’s commencement speech, the speech she gave when she graduated from Wellesley. And I was thinking, wow, she was incredibly passionate about change and wanted to do different things. I sometimes wonder if now, it seems hard to do that in politics. It’s seems like politics is a locked-in world. What’s appealing about arts and entertainment is this idea that you can put really interesting ideas, cultural ideas, into stories and that the stories are something that everybody can take in. Everybody wants to be moved to laugh and to cry, and to feel more connected.
Your career has just blown up, but there must have been a few years when you were struggling.
Oh my god, all the time. Still. [Laughs]
When was it that you said, okay I’m going full on into this?
A couple years ago, Zal and I spent a summer traveling. We had ideas about what we wanted to do, but we didn’t know how to go about doing it. He had gone to the AFI, but how do you start directing? I was interested in acting, but how do you begin to do a job like that? There’s no linear approach. [Laughs] We felt interested in a lot of the ideas that both of these stories are wrestling with. We spent a summer on the road and—
Where’d you guys go?
We traveled everywhere. We learned to train hop. We fell in with a group of people. We went from a sustainable permaculture farm to living with different anarchist collectives.
Was this out west?
This was all over. We bounced all across the country—Virginia, Detroit, just everywhere. And it was an incredible experience. Maybe their approach is different from the Weather Underground and the radicals of the sixties in that today, instead of talking about it, they go out and do it themselves. If we think the grocery store is filled with genetically modified foods that are covered in pesticides, then let’s just go build the farm. And if we think that we shouldn’t be driving these SUVs with this gas everyday back and forth then let’s go find a job that we can walk or ride a bike to. They’re very radical in that they’re taking it upon themselves, and we were really moved by that. We ended up back in LA and started writing Another Earth and Sound of My Voice. And we made them very much in this tribal way that we had experienced by living with these groups, which is just that everyone is wearing a whole lot of hats. You’re scavenging from dumpsters. You’re getting whatever you can get for free, and you’re just making something for the love of making it.
It’s really interesting. I’ve gone through some periods off the grid, dumpster diving and the rest of it. You know, there’s this new exhibit in Chelsea that follows hobo kids. And what’s interesting is that if it wasn’t for that exhibit a lot of adults or middle-class people wouldn’t even know that subculture existed. I can imagine that with The East when you first proposed this idea—and you ended up getting some pretty prominent people to sign on—but did you have to educate them a bit about it? Did they think it was a fantasy?
It’s really true what you’re saying. It’s so interesting that you had that experience. And I really wonder what people from that community are going to think about it, because I agree with them that there’s a very interesting question of what does it mean to make a movie about this subject matter within a system. Is that it’s own culture jam or not? I don’t know the answer to the question. The script was a real litmus test for people, because people were either totally drawn to the script or not. But a lot of people were just like—I have to do this. Ellen Page was like that, for instance. I know she spent time on a permaculture farm in Oregon. And the same with Alex [Skarsgaard]. I don’t think Alex knew as much about the culture, but he was incredibly fascinated by the idea of portraying somebody who is operating in this anti-hierarchical system. But of course there is this quasi-hierarchy. How do you avoid the natural, charismatic leader that always comes up in these groups even when they’re anti-hierarchy? That was I think an interesting challenge for him.
There’s an authenticity for sure—especially the trains, the dress, the banjo. I was like, wow, it’s so weird to see this. I saw it a little bit in Wendy and Lucy. But this must be getting wide release.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens. I think it depends on how much people come out and support it, honestly, because I think it’s a different movie to decide to make. And we live in a culture where if things don’t work opening weekend, they disappear. They have these platform releases, and if they come out in New York and LA, and they do well, then they keep going. So honestly it depends on the activism of the audience. People need to go see it and say, “I want more of my entertainment to be like this.” You really do vote with your dollar now. If there’s a democracy at all, that’s what it looks like. You vote with your dollar. And then Hollywood goes, “Oh there is a space for a smart political thriller that has something to say.” But if it doesn’t do as well, then Hollywood turns around and is like, “Well, it’s back to the young adult franchise.” I hope it does have the potential to connect broadly. We certainly tried to make it in a way that puts the ideas out there.
Your character is a spy and goes back and forth between the “straight” world and the off-the-grid life. I felt the film totally captured what it’s like to be in a different country or a different culture and then—just like that—you’re back home. I loved the sequences when you’re back with your boyfriend, sleeping on the floor. You feel just totally disoriented. Did you connect to that? All of this must be disorienting for you—the last couple years. What do you do?
Totally. I mean, doesn’t it feel unnatural for instance that this is where we’re having this conversation? Why couldn’t we have it outside in Central Park. And I don’t just mean so we can put our feet in the grass like I’m some tree-hugging hippie, which I probably am. It’s weird that those words have such a disparaging quality in our culture, by the way. Like if you love trees it’s a bad thing. It’s all so weird. But I agree with you. Why are we in this air-conditioned strange space talking about these ideas here? I don’t have the answer to it.
I was just talking to Antonio Campos and Brady Corbet this morning. It does seem that there is a young generation emerging that can feel as at home in alternative spaces as in a hotel like the one we’re in.
I love what you’re saying. I think you’re getting at something that The East is about, which is the millennial generation is doing something really weird. You and I both feel like we’re operating in this space, and we’re also dumpster diving and we actually don’t see those things as being that dissimilar. And Antonio Campos and Sean Durkin—their club is doing that too. And I think it’s in The East. There’s Sarah who’s a corporate spy—that’s about as mercenary and ambitious as you can get. And then there’s Benji, who’s the leader of an anarchist group living in the woods and scavenging everything. Maybe these two people are actually not that dissimilar. Benji and Sarah have a lot in common, and you could very easily see them switching positions—Benji being the corporate spy and Sarah running the anarchist group. I think what you’re saying is so interesting because our parents—or even like The Company You Keep—I’m not sure that generation was having that dualism. And I think our generation is having this dual identity where we’re straddling it, and we’re trying to figure it out.
So I noticed a big birthday’s coming up. You’re turning 30. I just turned 30.
Is it a good age?
I kind of like it.
I’m excited to turn 30.
What are your thoughts on that?
This is the funny thing. I was having this conversation with somebody the other day. Somebody was talking about the shelf life of actresses and how it’s different for guys and girls. They were saying how guys start doing their best stuff in their 40s and 50s while women start peaking around 35. And I was like, bullshit! It’s just because women have been writing, and directing and producing for less time. But they’re catching up and they’re writing stories that are interesting to both genders. I mean look no further than Bridesmaids or 30 Rock or Girls. Women are going to be doing all kinds of interesting stuff, in fact their best work, as they age. I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface. My god I hope that I manage to get better at my job.
I’m sure you will. And surviving your twenties nowadays is no easy feat.
Brutal. Oh my god, I feel like we should have t-shirts that say “I made it to 30 and I’m okay. I’m still alive”
Photography by James Orlando
Brady Corbet is no stranger to edgy material. The twenty-four year old, New York-based actor got his start with a role in the controversial Thirteen––the film about self-mutilating middleschoolers––and has since played a gleeful sadist in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and a manipulative cult-member in last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. But his latest role in Antonio Campos’s Simon Killer breaks new ground: revealing a major talent that can carry a film from start to finish.
Simon Killer follows a young, lovelorn American who travels to Paris for some soul-searching but ends up on a trip to existential rockbottom. In his nocturnal wanderings he meets a damaged prostitute and together they hatch a scheme for blackmailing her clients. Of course things don’t go according to plan. What follows is a grim ride––full of sexual perversions and more psychological violence than 70s Scorsese––but if you’re willing to stick it out, the payoff is oddly cathartic. It’s heartening to see balls-out filmmaking back on the American indie scene. And if there’s one thing Mr. Campos isn’t, it’s queasy.
As is often the case with the most risqué of artists, Campos and Corbet are, in person, affable, welladjusted, and eager to talk through the provocations behind their work. In our discussion, director and actor touch on everything from the effect of internet porn on a generation to how their Moms react to their work––and why Simon would make the perfect match for Lena Dunham’s Hannah.
Both of you are drawn to edgy, disturbing subjects. And yet you’re both quite young. What’s that like? How do you explain your work to your mom, for example?
CAMPOS: I don’t explain it. I don’t think at any point my parents sat me down and were like “Is everything okay?” They just take it for what it is, and they like the films. I know my mother wishes I made a different kind of movie.
More upbeat? With Meg Ryan?
CAMPOS: [Laughs] Not with Meg Ryan. But maybe more pleasant and more in line with what I was making when I was like thirteen or fourteen––which was more nostalgic or sentimental. But there’s no discussion. It just is what it is. At different points in my life I’m drawn to different things. For whatever reason, this is where my mind is right now.
CORBET: We should also say that we’ve got pretty hip, cool moms. I think my mother gets a little bit of a kick out of it. She’s not easily offended. When I told her what Simon Killer was about, the only question was whether she would be put off thematically by the film—by the misogyny of the character. It was never a question of explicit content. When I was growing up my mother really was concerned about films that glorify violence. She wasn’t worried about me seeing movies where people were fucking. She didn’t care. And so it was a great relief to me when she saw the film. She was incredibly moved by the movie and really thought it had something to say. So she signed off on it. Every screening that’s she’s been able to be there for, she’s been there with me.
I know Haneke has been a big influence for both of you. What was it about his filmmaking that grabbed you?
CAMPOS: There was just something so direct and effective about his shooting style.
CORBET: And economical.
CAMPOS: And economical, yeah. I guess I’ve always been interested in filmmakers who can shoot in a very economical way. I like films that can grab you very quickly and effectively but without doing much. And he did that for me. I remember seeing Code Unknown for the first time. There are a few moments, as a filmmaker, when you’re watching a film and you tell yourself––that’s it! For me, Code Unknown held a couple of those moments. My brother, who’s a writer, said the same thing about Moby Dick. For me it was Code Unknown and Clockwork Orange. There was a language they were speaking that I understood and I wanted to learn how to speak it myself. Also Haneke’s filmmaking is so cathartic for me. It lets you settle in. I like settling into movies. In films like The Last Detail or Scarecrow or Cimino’s films like Deer Hunter or Heaven’s Gate. There’s like an hour of settling in.
And then shit gets real—
CAMPOS: And then shit gets real, and it’s that slow burn.
CORBET: The thing about the most successful minimalism in cinema or music is that you have ambience that gives way to melody. So if you have 11 minutes of ambience, and then at the 11 minute mark, suddenly even if it’s a simple melody that’s birthed from it, that melody is richer, more engrossing than any melody you’ve ever heard before, because your ears have been aching for it, yearning for it. It’s like good sex: it’s the journey not the destination. In a way, when a film finally arrives there, it’s so much more powerful than it would have been otherwise.
Speaking of sex, Simon seems to have most of his interactions with women, at least at first, through a computer. Do you think Internet porn has changed the mental landscape of our generation?
CAMPOS: Probably. I would say yes.
CORBET: I would say yes, without question. It has to have shaped our desires a little bit, because they’re starting to get weirder and weirder and more creative. Whether that’s a dangerous thing or not, I don’t know. Maybe we’re a generation that’s less likely to be repressed. Because when you repress a lot desires, obviously, those things come out like a leak. Sometimes they manifest themselves in very scary and violent ways, like they do with this character. And on the flip side of that, I’m sure that overexposure can develop a sort of numbness to things that are frankly despicable and disgusting. It’s something we should be a little concerned about.
Would you say Simon is a hipster?
CAMPOS: Is he a hipster? I don’t know. I mean. [Talking to Brady] Is he a hipster?
Did you guys talk about that?
CAMPOS: No, we never talked about whether he was a hipster or not. He’s a New York City kid. He came from that universe, but he was never a hipster in our minds.
CORBET: I guess it’s a hard thing to define. None of us really know what it means. All we know is that it seems to be a bizarrely derogatory term that we call each other all the time. [Laughs]
You can’t escape from it.
CORBET: But he’s definitely a product of his generation. There was not one moment when we were not keenly aware that he was a person from right now. For us the film, in a way, I don’t want to put words in Antonio’s mouth, but it was definitely a portrait of a generation.
What was so powerful for me about the film was how it upended my expectations. I’m more used to seeing generational portraits that are whimsical and funny––like Girls, for example. With Simon Killer it’s so much more brutal and austere. No one else is really going there right now.
CAMPOS: My brother had this funny idea. He said, you know who would be really interested in Simon as a partner? Hannah from Girls. She likes demeaning herself and going out with guys that are kind of weird. After Simon Killer ends, maybe he goes to New York and ends up having an arc on Girls.
What about Sundance. You’ve both returned to Sundance a few times now. What’s your experience been like?
CAMPOS: It’s good. It’s Sundance. It’s the American festival. A lot of people there have been very good to us, I’ll say that. They were very good to us with Martha Marcy May Marlene. And I think it was a ballsy selection to put Simon Killer there.
CORBET: There was Craig Zobel’s movie, Compliance, and Rick Alverson’s, The Comedy. Also, the world section had some really interesting films.
Did you write Simon Killer with Brady in mind?
CAMPOS: Oh yeah, we developed it together, collaborated throughout. And we had wanted to do something together for a while.
Where would you guys collaborate?
CAMPOS: We were on the set of Martha [Marcy May Marlene] at that point.
But would you go to coffee shops? I’m just curious.
CORBET: Motel rooms.
CAMPOS: In a hotel room upstate in the Catskills, in between shooting and Martha [Marcy May Marlene], that’s where we were. And then in Paris we were in weird studio apartment that we were living in. Brady was living in one place, and production was set up in one apartment, and then there was my apartment. We were working out of the apartment; we didn’t go to cafes or anything.
Both of you are New Yorkers. Any temptation to move to LA?
CAMPOS: Brady’s lived in LA for a little bit.
CORBET: Yeah I lived in LA for a few years. I was a teenager. I moved here when I was 17, so I’ve been here for a minute. I’ve got a lot of good friends in LA. I’m going to LA in 10 days for a week. It’s not really my town, but it’s nice to visit.
And what’s next for both of you?
CAMPOS: Back to writing, for me.
CORBET: I have two films coming up. One I wrote with a filmmaker named Mona Fastvold. We worked with Christopher Abbott, who [was] on Girls. He’s one of our best friends. He had a small role in Martha Marcy [May Marlene]. This film has turned out very well. It’s a very, very beautiful, haunting, very feminine film. And then I just got back from Panama last night, shooting a film with Benicio Del Toro about Pablo Escobar. That’s called Paradise Lost.
When I called Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Russo to discuss his novella Nate in Venice, I was startled to find an affable gentleman on the other line. Writers (especially those living in remote states, as Russo does, in Maine) have a reputation for being cantankerous and difficult. But I soon realize that for Russo nothing could be farther from truth. The sixty-three year old novelist seems to be the kind of writer who takes an interest in whomever he’s speaking to, eager to know how any given reader (and not simply a demographic) responded to his book.
What’s curious is that Russo’s latest book, Nate in Venice, isn’t a physical book at all. The novella exists only online, as part of the e-publisher Byliner’s series of original fiction meant to be read in two hours or less. Russo’s story, about a group of aging New Englanders heading to the Biennale, not only makes for its own in-flight e-reader experience, it asks questions about how such technologies are changing the way we live. Here Russo discusses the pros and cons of e-publishing, which new writers most inspire him, and the frustration he sometimes feels with his cell-phone.
In a recent New Yorker blog-post, Ian McEwan wrote that the novella was the perfect literary genre. What attracted you to the form?
I’ve always loved the novella, but I think like most writers I’ve shied away from it because there’s nothing you can do with it. Once you got past thirty-five pages, you were in a dead zone. No magazine would publish it. And if they did it just wasn’t cost-effective. But with digitalization it’s only ones and zeros—and has nothing to do with stitching and glue. So what we’re going to see with e-books is the reemergence of a great classical form. Henry James loved to write in it; more recently Jim Harrison and Jane Smiley have written in it. But I think you’re going to see more writers taking it up.
What does the novella let you do that a short story or novel won’t?
Like a short story it restricts time and space. Nate in Venice, for example, is only twenty-four hours and a couple of Venetian streets. But unlike a short story, you can have eight or nine important characters. So you have the beauty of brevity but with room for more characters to roam around.
How do you feel about e-books in general?
I’ve been on both sides of the digital divide this year. Earlier this year, I published a small book with my daughter, who is an illustrator, and this was for print only. It was like an art object. I’m sure our publisher would have loved to do a digital version, but we resisted that. But now with Nate in Venice, I’m releasing a book that will only exist digitally. So I’m really of two minds—as a lot of writers are. I’m sixty-three, so a lot of what I feel about reading is connected to all my favorite books as a child: the paper and ink experience. But a younger generation is coming along whose first experiences are with a screen; they’re not going to have the same sentimental experiences of reading that I had.
Technology—and especially phones—play a big role in the novella. How do you see the effect of this kind of 24/7 connection on character, human relationships—the stuff of fiction?
There are two to three dimensions to this at least. I became really fascinated by this question when I was writing a movie—a script based on a Scott Phillips novel called The Ice Harvest. We made it into a dark and funny film with John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton. But between when the novel came out and when we wrote the screenplay, cell phones had become prevalent. Whole aspects of Phillips’s novel simply did not make sense if people had cell phones, so we had to reinvent huge sections of the story. That was when I realized that not only was technology changing our lives, it was changing something fundamental to storytelling as well. We had to develop new strategies.
You spoke of a generational gap earlier and that same experience applies to Nate’s experience of his cell phone.
At times, there are older people who are a little bit behind in the technology. To them these new gadgets can be distressing or confusing. There appear to be ghosts in the machine. In fact, my first idea for the story was of a ghost story: a demonic cell phone that leads one of the characters astray. I ended up throwing all of that out but kept the idea that what are supposed to be tools for communication can actually be symbols of non-communication. So many of these devices are aimed at keeping people in touch, but so much of their effect is to drive them apart. They make us less likely to seek each other out in the flesh.
And as a writer? How does the internet or cell-phone affect your daily practice?
I find it very annoying. When I’m writing—I still write in longhand—I sometimes catch myself watching the screen in the corner of my eye to see if I’ve received an email. That can’t help but ruin your train of thought. People always say you can just ignore it but you can’t! [Laughs] I think in general I have a great capacity for concentration—I don’t mind silence or solitude—but I still find it very addictive. I’m really at the breaking point, so when I’m working the computer is off and the cell-phone is in the other room.
There’s a clear allusion to Thomas Mann in the title—as well as an echo of Geoff Dyer’s recent novel. Was this happenstance?
The Dyer novel is news to me! My original title for the piece was Voice. But in the world of singles—Kindle singles—since many of them are thrillers and romances, they often have very lurid titles. At [the publisher] Byliner, everyone was afraid the title wouldn’t stand out. And of all the titles, that’s the one that stuck.
Who are the other writers you see your work in conversation with?
I was just the guest editor of Best American Short Stories and judge for the Hemingway Prize so I’ve been reading a lot of younger writers. Some of these writers, even though I’ve never met them—I feel like we’re part of the same dialogue. One is Jess Walter. His book Beautiful Ruins came out last year, which was amazing. I have the feeling when I read his work that we come to similar conclusions, make use of similar techniques. We seem to view the world in the same slant in some ways. He’s an incredibly funny writer. But there’s never a mean-spirited joke anywhere. And then there’s another young writer, Lauren Groff, who published an incredible book of short stories called Delicate Edible Birds. There’s something about the way she views her characters in these stories: the generosity with which she investigates her lives. And the astonishing pain she takes with her sentences. Lauren has this ability to write gorgeous sentences without an ounce of show-off. Usually if writers work that hard on their sentences they want to do back-flips!
Nate experiences nostalgia for the days before he was a professor: when he worked as a roofer, when he worked with his hands. I know you worked blue-collar jobs before you went to grad-school. Do you ever experience the same nostalgia?
When you get to be my age, you start looking back. I remember working road construction with my father during the summers. We worked one summer doing the on-off ramp for Exit 23 on the Albany Freeway. And there would be times when we drove by it later—we never even had to say anything about it. We were right there. When you build something tangible, when you make something, there’s a kind of no-bullshit aspect of it that I like. My grandfather was a glove-fitter. You can’t bullshit anyone into buying a poorly made pair of gloves because they’ll fall apart!
Is there a political critique to this? Nate’s brother, for instance, is a marketer endlessly spinning new prospects.
Well there’s just that element of a well-made thing that was a source of pride for Americans. It was a large part of the history of this country and certainly my family. I’m a first generation college graduate on my mother’s side and the first person to make a living really with his imagination. It’s not like I feel I’ve betrayed my family—I love doing what I do. I’ve picked up enough heavy objects in my life to know I like what I do. But that said, I think an America that makes less is less. So I do have pretty strong feelings about the ways in which we can look down on people who make their living with their hands.