May 9, 2014

Hormones, angst and cul-de-sacs: the myth of the American suburb has been as inspiring to young directors as it was traumatic for their characters. Gia Coppola’s debut Palo Alto, based on stories by James Franco (who also stars as a lascivious girls soccer coach), follows in this tradition. It’s a lineage that, for the twenty-seven year old filmmaker and granddaughter of Francis-Ford, is especially close to home. Many critics have already commented on how Palo Alto, with its slow-motion shots of sprinklers and Blood Orange’s ethereal soundtrack, echoes the dread and dream of The Virgin Suicides, which was Gia’s aunt Sofia’s first feature. In this conversation, the young director talks about the high-school experience, how her Hollywood family has responded to Palo Alto, and which James Franco film is her favorite.

There have been a number of films about American teenagers in suburbia. Palo Alto wears some of these influences on its sleeve. What did you want to add to the genre?
The movies I love about teenagers—American GraffitiLast Picture Show, my family’s movies, even John Hughes—I wanted to see that again. Films about teenagers today are unreal. Everyone’s hair is perfect. The actors are older. The way they talk doesn’t feel realistic. They’re missing something real.

There’s also greater realism in the plot structure. Your film is picaresque and meandering, like a suburban summer.
I’ve always liked the structure of American Graffiti or Diner or even I Vitelloni. They are vignette, ensemble pieces. You’re just going through the characters lives. So I used those as reference points when making a movie from the short stories.

Do you think being a teenager is different today—worse or more angst-ridden—than it was when some of the older films were set?
I showed this film to older relatives. I was really nervous about the explicit content. But they were like “Oh, come on. We went through that too.” So I think the emotions and growing pains are always there. Maybe today there is the whole cyber reality of social media. But I didn’t want to get into that—it’s another story. Then there’s the specificity of California. Things are more spread out. Getting your license is such a big deal. Hanging out in a parking lot—that’s what you end up doing.

There’s a darkness to the suburbs in your film.
James [Franco]’s book was pretty dark to begin with. I like that in movies. I enjoy working with that. It was a fun challenge for myself as a woman. I had to get over certain sensitivities and feel a bit more masculine.

Some of the dudes’ conversations are really real.
That was in the book. But I remember my guy friends constantly coming up with “Would you rather” games.  Still I couldn’t write that. It was in the book, and then we worked from there with the actors to make it as real as possible.

How did you and James Franco meet?
We met super randomly. We ran into each other one afternoon and then later that night we got introduced. He’s always interested in what younger people are working on. I was talking to him about my photography and we stayed in touch. We wanted to work together somehow. When he presented the idea of adapting his book, Palo Alto, I was excited. And even more excited that I connected with the book when reading it. I had just finished college so I felt like I had enough separation to appreciate those awkward teenage years. He was like “choose the stories you like” and he took me through it so I didn’t feel intimidated.

Whose idea was it to cast him as the creepy soccer coach?
That was my idea!

How did he react?
He’s like my favorite actor. I really wanted him to be in it. But he couldn’t play a teenager obviously. And that character was hard for me. It was really easy to make it over the top. He brought a lot of subtlety to it. I secretly really wanted him to do it and eventually just asked. He would tell the other actors and me about the inspiration behind the stories. He’s also a director, so whenever I got stuck I would ask him for help.

What’s your favorite film that he’s been in?
That’s a good question. I love Freaks and Geeks and Pineapple Express. He’s great in Spring Breakers. He’s good in everything he does because he’s totally fearless. I saw him in Of Mice and Men and I thought he was amazing in that. I really enjoy all the different things he does.

You come from a big Hollywood family. How have they reacted to you deciding to make films?
They’re my family so they’re excited. They’re going to be supportive no matter what. My grandpa [Francis Ford Coppola] is very excited. He says this is the fifth generation to go into the film industry.

And now that you’ve completed your first feature—how does it feel?
It’s bittersweet that it’s all coming to a close. But it’s exciting to show it to the world. I never dreamed it would be in a movie theater. I just thought we were making this small film. I was just happy to be creative and collaborate with everyone. It’s beyond my wildest dreams.

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May 2, 2014

If a more serious Jim Jarmusch made a film about a teenage nun in 1960s Poland the result might be close to Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida. Shot in square, black and white long takes, Ida is named after its cloistered but wide-eyed heroine  (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young nun-in-training released from her convent after learning she was born Jewish and given up for adoption. Alone in Warsaw she meets her only surviving relative, a jaded, boozed-up Stalinist judge, lent a mischievous charm by Agata Kulesza, who also happens to be Ida’s aunt and a nighttime hedonist. Together, the odd-couple take a road trip across the Polish steppe in search of their past.

“I wanted to make a film about very universal themes,” Pawlikowski told me during his recent trip to New York. “There wasn’t a journalistic reason for talking about that period in Polish history. But I suppose I wanted to make a film about the world I knew as a boy, a world I experienced very vividly.” The 57-year old director, best known for his work in documentary, was born in Poland but left when he was only fourteen. He lived first Germany, then Italy, and finally England, where he was based until his recent return to his native Warsaw.

As for Ida’s minimalist look? “This is less a story film,” Pawlikowski said, looking something like a modern Samuel Becket in sunglasses. “It’s more of a meditation. I wanted to make something to look at, to take in and absorb. I didn’t shoot it narrative-style. It’s quite lapidary.” The off-kilter framing and ruminative long-takes give the vacant plains, as well as the pale faces of the cast, a ghostly yet refreshing sublimity.

“This kind of film has a certain kind of audience,” the director said. “I think everywhere there are some people who have a craving for simplicity and silence. The world is so hectic and out of control, and films especially. Audio-visual culture constantly fights for your attention, tries to grab it and keep it. It’s noise and colors and movement, cut-cut-cut.” The director made a chopping motion, while outside the hotel room where we spoke, the midtown traffic was whizzing by.

Ida, which won the FIPRESCI prize at Toronto and opens today in New York, is anything but noisy. The film works like a visual tuning fork, clearing a space for quiet contemplation and a hushed innocence.

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March 14, 2014

British director Roger Mitchell’s new film, Le Week-End, follows an aging couple as they revisit Paris for the first time since their honeymoon. But instead of the black-and-white Godard dream they remember, they encounter an unaffordable metropolis that has moved on without them. Even if the movie’s themes—the disappointments of growing old and the difficulties of staying married—are on the somber side, Hanif Kureishi’s buoyant, often hilarious script and Mitchell’s light touch turn Le Week-End into a winning, heartfelt dramedy. Plus there’s the fantastic acting. Lindsay Duncan gives a scintillating performance as a still-sexual still-free spirit, but Jim Broadbent is even better as her doting husband, a professor with a repressed creative side who has taken the tapered idealism of his generation personally. Jeff Goldblum rounds out the trio of performances as a successful and hepped up American writer—looking oddly like Malcolm Gladlwell—who has decamped to Paris. Here, Mitchell and Broadbent discuss the genesis of the film, how the 1960s shaped their generation, and why any relationship that lasts more than a week starts to get complicated.

You’ve worked with Hanif Kureishi on a number of projects. How does your collaboration work? Does he write the screenplay and then send it to you when it’s done?
RM: Not at all. It’s very collaborative. The last film we made was called Venus. When we were promoting the film we were traveling a lot and talking about what we might do next. We came up with this idea of the trip to Paris. So we did the trip to Paris.

You and Hanif?
RM: Yes. Of course we stayed in the shitty hotel, we didn’t stay in the deluxe hotel. But we went to all of the places they go to. We bickered. We couldn’t decide on a restaurant. We made lots of notes. That was the genesis of the film. And that was like seven years ago. Since then we’ve been passing it backwards and forwards whilst doing other things. He’s been writing books, I’ve been making films. It took quite a long time but it was worth the wait.

There’s such a bittersweet mix to this film. It can be both very serious and very funny about relationships.
RM: We were thinking of it as a snapshot of a marriage. A very particular marriage. And yet it is also about any relationship. Any relationship that has been going for longer than a week. (Laughs) Because after that any relationship will have that mix of love and hate, irritation and adoration. No attempt is made to smooth out the shape of the story. They can be really loving with each other instantly after being at each other’s throats. At least from my experience that’s a special human behavioral characteristic that is not often portrayed in fiction. Because fiction likes to knock off the rough edges and make shapes a bit clearer. Of course in the chaos of a real relationship those shapes aren’t so clear.

It’s also a generational portrait. Having read so much about the 1960s I can very quickly imagine what the characters would have been like when they were younger. Were you able to draw on your own experience of that time?
JB: I wasn’t like him. I wasn’t an activist in any way. But obviously I knew and was close to loads of people who were. It was all in the zeitgeist of the time. It was very easy to tap into my own memories of the period. And maybe even my slight guilt of not having been more at the heart of the revolution.

What drew you to the part?
JB: I love all the mixture between being quite distant and aloof and quite needy. And all the contradictions in between. Being quite selfish and guarded. Yet actually thinking at the end the best way is to be absolutely brutally honest with yourself and with others. The role was very rich.

I wanted to ask about the scene when he is listening to Bob Dylan on an iPhone or iPad. Throughout the film there’s a certain flavor of nostalgia or pessimism about the fate of the youthful hopes of the 1960s. Is that something you discussed with Hanif?
RM: I think pessimism might be too strong a word. But I know what you mean. There might be a sense of revisionism, of revisiting that period of youth. And I think that’s always poignant. And sometimes it’s disappointing to review your life and particularly your earlier idealism through the prism of your actual nowness. But I think Jim is right. Jim and Jeff Goldblum’s character don’t see eye to eye about this. Jeff Goldblum’s character is much more flippant about what happened in the 1960s. Whereas I think Jim’s character took it very seriously. He would argue that lots of those epic battles that were set in motion in the 1960s have actually been won. In terms of civil rights, gay rights, gender equality. There are lots of battles that haven’t been won. But I don’t think the film is trying to say that all that was a chimera.
JB: One thing I did recognize in the film––I can think of a number of people who I went to school with or grew up with who peaked in their early 20s. And they were the stars of their generation. We always wondered what they might end up doing. And many of them didn’t do a lot. There is a recognition that my character was one of those. He really had a great deal of potential.
RM: He’s been ground down by the educational system around him. Hanif and I went to the least prestigious university in Birmingham and met the one guy there who teaches philosophy. And it was very salutary to talk to him. He literally said I feel like I’m cranking the handle and people roll off the end of the year with meaningless degrees they didn’t really earn.

Do you think the film will appeal to young people?
JB: It remains to be seen really. I mean everyone has parents. So maybe they’ll get a glimpse of their parents.
RM: I think if they go to the cinema to see the film they’ll really like it. It might be a problem getting them there. There’s no attempt to capture any particular demographic. People have asked us if this is a sequel to Marigold Hotel. Is this an attempt to woo the older generation? Not at all. For us it’s meant to appeal to everyone. The film is very youthful in its way.

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February 21, 2014

Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now was the first Palestinian film to be nominated for an Oscar. His latest, Omar, is the second. The film follows a young Palestinian (Adam Bakri) who, after being implicated in an attack against IDF soldiers, is forced to work as a spy for the Israelis. As with Paradise Now, Omar casts an indignant eye on life in the occupied territories. Yet this time, the Nazareth-born director betrays a newfound love of genre, turning the complex tensions of occupation (and the taboo of collaboration) into a tightly plotted espionage thriller.

When I spoke to Abu-Assad, who was in New York to promote the film, he professed his love for thrillers of all stripes and nationalities.

“I really love this genre,” the director told me in his lightly-accented English. “I follow thrillers in every tradition. I didn’t want to make a boring movie that was just a discussion about the conflict.” His references were threefold: recent American thrillers (No Way Out and The Firm); classic French thrillers such as Le Circle Rouge and Le Samurai; and the Egyptian thrillers he watched as a child.  “I wanted to make a unique fusion of these three cinemas,” he said.

As to the relation between his new film and his last: “In Paradise Now, there’s a very calm, observational style, in Omar I chose to be more involved with the characters. Also if Paradise Now had a more monochromatic, Western look, I wanted Omar to be more dynamic and colorful.” The film features numerous steadicam chase sequences filmed on-location in the warrens of Nablus.

When I asked the fifty-two year old filmmaker, who also wrote the script, of his inspirations, he spoke of the paranoia he experienced while filming Paradise Now. “The Army showed up wherever we were filming. Maybe it was just an accident. But I started to suspect that someone in our crew was telling the army our plans. Then I started to think: maybe they bugged my hotel room, so I changed rooms. Then I suspected they had bugged my phone, so I stopped using phones. That feeling of paranoia is very disturbing––it’s a nightmare, believe me. And I lived through that.”

Alongside its director’s personal experience, Omar also incorporates stories Abu-Assad heard from friends about blackmail and coercion at the hands of Israeli secret service, as well as current events from Israeli newspapers. The violent ending is in fact taken from a real life occurrence.

On the question of collaboration itself, Abu-Assad grew more contemplative. “Why is collaboration so dominant in my films? I think because it’s an important issue. As a society we should be more open about it. That way we can understand it and fight it better.”

Does he consider Omar a political film? “For sure it’s a political movie. Why? Because I’m a political voice and I have a political point of view. We are telling the story from the Palestinian side. It’s condemning the occupation. But you don’t need to make a movie in order to condemn the occupation. The movie is not about that. Every human being should condemn every occupation, not just the Palestinian occupation. The film is about love, trust, friendship. The place for political discussion is somewhere else––you can do it on a sofa with your friends. In a movie it’s boring.”

Winning the Jury Prize in the “Un Certain Regard” competition of Cannes, Omar is anything but tedious. The film manages to be both a riveting piece of cinema and a visceral testament of political fury.

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October 18, 2013

12 Years a Slave is the most important American movie of the year. Based on the autobiography of Solomon Northrup, a cultured black northerner who was duped, kidnapped and then sold into slavery in 1841, the film immerses the viewer in the everyday brutality of the Antebellum South without reserve, without mawkishness, and certainly without the postmodern slapstick of last year’s Django Unchained. The steadfastness of its vision marks a watershed in the cinema of American slavery. Here, the film’s two principal actresses––mesmerizing newcomer Lupita Nyong’O and rising star Sarah Paulson––discuss how they landed their roles, the courage it took to enter such a harrowing story, and the focus required by the film’s notoriously demanding director, British filmmaker and visual artist Steve McQueen.

Lupita Nyong’O plays Patsy, a gorgeous slave-girl befriended by Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and victimized by Master Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his jealous wife (Paulson). When I sit down with the actress, it’s startling to meet a young woman glowing with both hope and excitement, so different from her character.

You went straight from an acting MFA to playing this role. That’s a big jump! How did you land the part?
I was just about to graduate from Yale’s drama school and I was finally allowed to go out for professional auditions. My manager received the script and thought I’d be good for it. We put me on tape in New York and then they called me in for an audition in LA. Which was a very hard one-hour audition. Finally I was sent down to Louisiana to audition for Steve [McQueen]. So it was three auditions in three different states.

When Steve chose you did you he say anything about what he saw in you?
In Louisana I had a one-hour on-camera audition and then we went out for tea and he just interrogated me about my life––who I was, everything. That evening he invited me for dinner with some of his fine art representation when Michael [Fassbender] suddenly appeared and joined the dinner party. I was very surprised about that. Maybe he was doing a chemistry read, I don’t know. The next day I went back to New Haven and he called me and said, “I’d like to offer you the part.” My knees went weak. I sat on the pavement and said, “I’d like to accept the part.” [Laughs.] The next thing he said was, “There’s a lot of work to do but I think you have it in you.” And that was it. I only found out after we were done filming that I was up against over a thousand other actresses.

Obviously it was a role you wanted, but it’s an extremely intense and courageous role for you to play. In a lot of Steve’s work, there’s a deep interest in the body and opening up the body to abjection. He asked a lot of you. What prepared you for that?
I think Yale, number one. It was Yale school of drama. There is no way I would have even got past the first audition if I hadn’t done my training there. I think it opened me up to a larger existence and gave me the courage––to fail. Because that is one of the biggest lessons. Sometimes you’re going to fail and that’s okay and life goes on. But you’ve got to try because that’s the only way you can fully lend yourself to other human experiences. And then there was trust in Steve. In watching Hunger and Shame and then meeting the man, I knew that he was in pursuit of truth. He was not taking advantage of me. I knew I was in good hands. And I could allow that kind of grief into my life because I was safe. Then there was also facing the fact that this was true. This was someone’s life who tread this earth. Someone like Patsy made it possible for me to be here today. Without these people and what they endured, I would not be on American soil and having the privilege of playing this role.

While we’re here in this intense place, I wanted to ask you about the long take in the middle of the film. Because that is one of the most intense and difficult things to watch as a viewer. So I can’t imagine what it would be like as an actor to perform. How did Steve prepare you?
That’s the thing about working with Steve and the culture of the set that Steve establishes. Steve demands the best. He expects the best. And everyone wants to give their best. Michael talks about a “vibration of focus” on set. It felt like everyone was taking ownership for their particular role at all times. Not just in that scene. Steve shoots everything in long shots. We always went from the beginning to the end of the scene. So that one for me as an actor was no different, to just go through it. And it was actually a favor to do it in one take because we didn’t have to do it many times. We had to be focused and get it. And believe me, I had reason to want to get it, because I didn’t want to have to do it too much. It was painful. Very, very painful.

The film depicts a world so different from your own experience––and the experience of all of the principal cast. How do you go into that world and come out of it every day?
I had rituals before and after every day of shooting. And still, in doing this film I didn’t sleep. I was an insomniac. At one point I had to take a sleeping pill because I was like, “If I don’t sleep, I’m going to lose my mind.” [Laughs.]. I was never really totally successful in leaving Patsy behind on set. There was always something that lingered, something of her pain. But the success was in trying to leave her behind. And also working with the other actors. We were in it together. As much as our characters were antagonized by each other in the drama, we were in it together and we needed each other to make it work. We took refuge in each other. We broke bread together, we had beers, we went go-carting. We had a bonding away from set. I think we owed it to the people we were playing to enjoy our freedom. And to always be reminded that we can step away from this.

Sarah Paulson plays Mary Epps, a cold-hearted, abusive matriarch. In person, the thirty-eight year old Florida-native comes across as a serious and thoughtful actress, committed to her craft..

How did Steve McQueen get in touch with you?
I auditioned. My agent sent me the script and said that they were about to cast another actress for the part, but if I wanted to be in the running I had until the next day to audition. I was in New York and the casting director was in LA so I made a tape and sent it off. Nowadays it’s not even a DVD, it is all online. You just press a button. But the next day I got a call saying that Steve McQueen was very intrigued––that was the word they used. Then I got a call two days after that saying he chose me.

Why do you think he chose you?
He said that he showed my audition tape to his daughter and his daughter was terrified of me. And that was a good indication that I might be the girl for the part. [Laughs.] I didn’t know what to make of that, but I thought, “I’ll take it.”

Does it require more courage to play a role that’s so morally twisted?
It’s funny. I have an actress-friend who read the script and said she couldn’t believe I said yes to the part. She thought the character was too horrible. I found that to be so curious because from an acting standpoint I never think about how things will end up. Will I be liked? Will I be vilified? Will I be hated? I don’t ask myself those questions. Will this be bad for my career because I’m playing a mean woman? I just thought it was an opportunity for me to do something I’d never done before. I’d never played a hard-hearted person before. So the questions I asked were about how to make her human. Or how to discover for myself her human motivations.

You said this was the first time you’d played a character like that. How different was it?
Well I’ve played people who are shut down, who are troubled. But I’d never played someone for whom coldness and cruelty was their default setting. I don’t think she’s a terrible person; I think she behaves terribly. And I came up with reasons for that. But I’d never played someone who’d always reach for the fire poker before she’d reach for the olive branch. That was very new.

Was there a scene that was the hardest to shoot––for you or for the crew?
The scene when Lupita is tied to the pole and whipped ruthlessly. It is a long scene that we’re all in. The focus changes in and out on people. The thing that I think is so great about the movie is that there aren’t constant close-ups to tell you what people are thinking. Instead you’re left with more of a mystery, the way life is. But that was a hard scene to shoot because there’s Lupita tied to a pole, helpless, and I had to stand there and be completely indifferent to it. That’s not an easy thing to do.

It’s such a long scene with no edits. Everyone has to be in character for the whole of it. What did you tell yourself before they started rolling?
I was trying to have Steve’s voice in my head, which was “Do not make excuses for her.” She is who she is. She’s a product of the time. She’s a product of her own bigoted upbringing. I don’t think she has the depth of character to challenge what she’s been taught. So she believes what she’s doing is right and just. And I had to get behind that fully. That’s the only way to get through those things is to attach yourself to your character’s commitment and then deal with your feelings about it afterwards when you’re in your trailer or hotel room. I felt the best way I could honor Solomon Northrop was to try to depict this woman as accurately as I could––in all of her horror. If I’d tried to do anything to make it more palatable I thought that would be a disservice to history.

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September 12, 2013

Alexandre Moors grew up in the suburbs of Paris, painted graffiti, went to art school, and then came to America to make music videos for the likes of Nicki Minaj, Jennifer Lopez, and Talib Kweli. Moors’ debut feature, Blue Caprice, which explores the twisted father-son dynamics of the real-life Beltway snipers, keeps the strong emphasis on style, buts puts it to new poetic, provocative, and psychologically complex ends. Isaiah Washington gives a performance of combustible desperation as John Allen Muhammed, the ex-Marine who turned his adoptive son (Tequan Richmond) into an accomplice for his cross-country killing spree. With Gus Van Sant-like rhythms and Dostoyevskian themes, Blue Caprice gives new meaning to the saying that a family is like a loaded gun. Here, Moors talks about the early influence of art school, taking poetic license with history, and America’s abiding obsession with violence.

This is your first narrative film after a a career in music videos and commercials. Did you always know you wanted to make a feature?
Absolutely. I think I’ve wanted to make films since I was extremely young. It was easier for me to go through a traditional arts education because I knew how to draw well. So I took the long way around. But it was always clear that film was the ultimate goal.

How did art school influence your filmmaking?
Most of all it helps you develop an eye and a taste.  You study painting, other people’s work, for years. Yesterday I screened Blue Caprice for the NYU film students. It was very interesting to talk to them. I was telling the department chair that I was always a little skeptical of film school. Film is the sum of all arts: music, theater, architecture. It’s everything. It seems like learning filmmaking can be a shortcut. You have to start further away.

And music videos? Did it feel like a big jump to work on a feature?
The first day of the shoot, the first thing I noticed was the energy of the crew, the energy of the actors. It’s totally different. Especially on a low-budget film, everybody was there for art. We were there to make an art object––not a commercial product. With music videos, you’re there to sell records. So the energy with the label is very different. Because Blue Caprice was a low-budget film, it was a labor of love for everyone. There was a beautiful, collaborative spirit on the set.

The film begins with a montage of actual news from the D.C. sniper case. It then flashes back to a very stylized, personal account of the two shooters. How constrained did you feel by the historical record?
When the real killing happened I was not in the country. So I was not infected by all the media coverage. I didn’t know how big of an impact that story had on so many people. That really allowed me to tackle the subject without fear or preconceptions. My screenwriter, Ronnie Porto, had many reservations about doing this film. He knew the scope of what we were doing. I kept telling him we weren’t doing a huge thing. We were telling a small story about a father and son jogging in the woods. We had a small entry point. But nonetheless we tried to learn everything we could about the case: court records, medical diagnoses about their mental health, everything. We knew as much as we could before we started to write. But then it was about choosing which facts to include to tell the story we wanted to tell. I was always clear that this film is inspired by a true story; its not a biopic or a minute-by-minute reconstruction of their odyssey.

Both characters are sociopathic. But in other ways their dramas are universal. And there’s a sense that the story belongs to a post-9/11 America, traumatized and eager for revenge. Do you see the film as pointing to larger currents in the culture?
I saw these characters as archetypes.  The only preparation I asked of Isaiah Washington was that he read Notes from the Underground by Dostoyevsky. But when we were writing, we integrated little points of contact with the culture at large. Washington’s character embarks on this insane war against the entire country. But I think at heart his bigger problem is with god. It is an existential pain. And that’s how I saw his delusional quest. I took out many of the political elements involved. But obviously the film is also a commentary on a very particular problem America has with violence. And the breeding of violent behaviors.

I wanted to ask you about race. We’re almost trained to expect that a film with a black cast will make a statement about that. And yet Blue Caprice really isn’t about race at all.
What was very interesting was that when I was editing the film, I was in this workshop called IFP (Independent Film Program). We had many programs and discussions and people were like “You’re a white man and you’re making a film about two African-Americans. They’re gonna come at you for that.”  I told them I thought that was silly. And it turned out I was right. To this day, at screenings, it has never come up. People recognize that the issue of race is irrelevant in the film. In the real case of the snipers, John [Allen Muhammad] was a big reader of Malcolm X and Farrakhan. He mentioned many times that his war was to liberate black people. But when you look at the people he killed, they were mostly black. I had disdain for his political opinions from this point on. His discourse on this issue didn’t make sense. And Lee, growing up in Antigua, told his parents he never experienced any kind of racism in his life until he met John. So yes, it was a conscious idea to leave race out of the film. I’m glad that people can accept that. For me, it’s a film about two human beings and that’s it.

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September 6, 2013

There is something innately fascinating about watching a character, apparently normal, go completely to pieces. Such is the case for Lindsay Burdge’s portrayal of a troubled high-school teacher embroiled in an affair with one of her students in Hannah Fidell’s A Teacher. What makes Burdge’s performance so fresh is both the novelty of the provocation––the inverse of Lolita––and the tenuous composure she brings to her role. Her steeliness is all the more disturbing for what it hides, which we only glimpse in the uninhibited sex-scenes between student and teacher––themselves generating a certain amount of discussion at this year’s Sundance and South By Southwest festivals.  Here, the twenty-eight year old actress talks about how she was able to connect with her character, the broader difficulties of modern womanhood, and why guys only grow up in their thirties.

Your role in A Teacher clearly demanded a lot of courage and complexity. What prepared you for it? It’s a very impressive performance.
When I was younger I studied acting and I always intended to be an actor. But I never pursued the business side of things. Only in the past few years have I been really going for it. I’d worked with Hannah [Fidell] before. When she came back to Brooklyn from Austin, she got in touch and told me about this idea she had for a film. She wrote the part for me. It was tailor made for me in that sense.

Do you see yourself in the part?
Definitely. There was a lot that was exciting about playing Diana. The hook for me was her obsession. I’m a very obsessive person. On any given day I’m obsessing about something. It’s always something. And also how she completely loses perspective. I can totally lose perspective too. It’s a nuanced situation that she’s in. I related to every––well not every––but many parts of her situation.

Including the attraction to younger men?
I happen not to be attracted to younger men.

Older men?
Um. I’m more likely to be attracted to older men than younger men. But not in a way that’s taboo. Not in a way that it’s like, “Whoa!” Although when Bored to Death was on TV I did regularly have dreams that Ted Danson and I were an aging couple. I think that’s fair! [Laughs]

Do you think your character in A Teacher represents something unique to our generation?
Something I love about Hannah is that she’s specifically addressing the situation of women today, which is complex. Not all women certainly. But many are working on their careers and they end up pushing off getting married or having children until later. Meanwhile men their age seem to be––well there’s that scene in the film where she meets two guys at a party. And they come across like overgrown children. They’re boys. Okay so they have chest hair but that’s the only difference.

That’s been a recurring theme in guy movies. It’s often romanticized. They don’t want to leave their teenage years behind. They can’t grow up, man up.
This is a huge generalization obviously. But in the world that Hannah and I are in, a dude doesn’t want to settle down… A dude doesn’t even know what the hell is going on until he’s thirty-five. It’s like suddenly everyone hits thirty and they’re like “I’m not what I’m meant to be! I was supposed to amount to something!” And especially in cities, in New York, LA. You come here because you want to accomplish something, you want to become something. And my character is very sensitive––like very, very sensitive––and very lonely. She doesn’t know how to live, how to connect. She doesn’t have the coping skills.

Also if her work is her life, it makes sense she’d find a partner in that setting.
And maybe it would be better if it were a teacher! [Laughs] But I can’t tell you how many women I’ve met as a result of this film, women in their thirties, a lot of them working in magazines, who are like “Yeah I’m going on a date with a twenty-five year old tonight.” I think it is a very complex situation. And then there’s the gray area that happens when you cross a line. How you deal with that.

Especially the red line of student-teacher relations. A Teacher is coming out at a time when every institution is ramping up awareness and pressure over sexual misconduct.
When I was in LA there was a case of a woman in Riverside who had an affair with four of her students and had been impregnated by one of them. It was everywhere. People were fascinated by it. It seems like you’re hearing about cases like that more and more. You wonder if it was always happening and people didn’t talk about it. But if you look online there are so many cases of it.

How have audiences judged your character?
It’s mixed. On the one hand she’s a predator. There’s no question she crosses an ethical line. As a teacher you can’t do that. But it happens so much now that to point a finger at one case is difficult. It’s not so black and white. There’s clearly something deeper going on with the person in question. That’s what the film is about.

What are your own thoughts about balancing family and a career?
I cannot figure it out. I think it’s something––I can only speak for myself. But I feel like I have two different people inside of me. At least two. One wants to move to the country, live on a farm, have a husband and babies, grow vegetables and read books. Just meditate and never think about skyscrapers or cranes or the internet ever again.

And the other person?
The other side of me wants to be a part of––well, progress, for lack of a more progressive term. I guess I feel I can’t undo what was done to me. I was raised in Los Angeles by lawyers. I grew up driving around in cars. I’ve kept myself pretty insulated from the internet and pop culture, but you can’t avoid it. And I can even get excited about it. There are cool things going on. There are people using the technology to move things forward. I think. I’d like to hope so. What’s clear is that the goal is balance. But I’m not sure any of us knows how to achieve that yet.

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August 20, 2013

In Amelie, Audrey Tautou helped define indie-charm for a generation. And talking to Tautou in her SoHo suite—the bangs-and-stripes, the spacey smile, the art-school chic—is like visiting the source, the ur-hipster living in a dream. Amelie was such a defining role for Tautou that she’s likely never to escape from it; but why would she want to? As I talk to the French actress I realize how much of the her own personality went into the role. And how much each film in her career has brought new shades of meaning both to and from that initial burst of energy. Even in her latest film, Thérèse Desqueyroux, where she plays a murderous housewife, Tautou can’t help but sneak in her trademark quirk—the smile that’s half-mischief and half-whimsy. Here, she talks about playing a darker role in Thérèse, her upcoming film with Michel Gondry, and how fame changed her life, for better or worse.

This new role as Thérèse is so much colder than what you’ve ever played before. What attracted you to it?
At the beginning it was really a desire of working with the film’s director, Claude Miller. But, as you say, I thought it was a wonderful opportunity for me to do something different. I was very flattered to realize that Claude thought of me for such a dark and complex character. To play a poisoner!

Were you a rebel as a child?
Not at all. But I don’t think Thérèse is a rebel, either. She has a rebellious spirit but she keeps her mouth shut. And that’s who I was. I’m the kind of person who’s going to yell inside but not be brave enough to really say anything to anyone.

Did you always know you wanted to be an actor?
I didn’t want to become an actress. At first I wanted to be a primatologist, to study monkeys. I wanted to dangle from trees in the jungle and escape from tigers.

It must have been a surprise.
It was a surprise. But when I was maybe 17 I did some theatre in my school and really enjoyed it. My parents gave me a gift for two weeks of theatre in a theatre school in Paris. And my teacher didn’t want me to go back to my small town. He encouraged me.

It’s hard to believe, but Amélie came out over a decade ago. With the perspective of years, how have your thoughts about the film changed?
As time goes by I appreciate more and more what this movie made me live. I’m increasingly drawn to the idea that Amélie was a miracle––but I wasn’t aware of that at that time.

People must come up to you and say, ‘Amélie!’
Oh, yeah, but this is not the problem for me.

Fame has not been difficult?
Right at the beginning, yes. It was too much. It was not something I was expecting or wishing for my life. I was so young. It was not something comfortable for me at all.

When did you get comfortable with it?
A few months, maybe. But at some point you just have to accept this new element in your life. I’ve always really tried to own my life: to work at my own rhythm and not just fulfill other people’s dreams or expectations.

You must have received many phone calls from the United States telling you to come to America.
I got some opportunities, sure. But I think I was not ready to be… I was not formatted for Hollywood, let’s say. I thought about that for my role as Thérèse: she’s not formatted to be a housewife and no one understands that. The people she’s around think they know what’s best for her, but they don’t.

So Paris is your home?
Paris is home, but actually I like New York. I worked in New York for a movie and it made me want to move here. But this idea scared my grandmother. She said to me, ‘Are you telling me that you prefer America to France?’ So, I went back home.

What else have you been working on?
The next movie is called Mood Indigo––directed by Michel Gondry. And after that there’s a movie with Cédric Klapisch: a really nice comedy.

What is working with Michel Gondry like?
When we work everything seems to be a huge mess, but I think that he creates this mess intentionally. He wants actors to forget their control. Because I like to control everything. But I haven’t seen the movie yet. I can’t wait to see it. I think it will be completely surreal.

What do you look for in somebody you’d want to be with?
When I meet somebody I just wait for some spontaneity. I think that’s mainly what I like… I know that at the beginning people you meet don’t really act normally around you. They can be a bit uncomfortable.

Uncomfortable with you being who you are?
Yeah, you know. When you have a tiny bit of celebrity it changes your relationship with people. It doesn’t change your look on the outside, but changes how the outside looks at you. So that’s what I’m looking for. Humor and simplicity and spontaneity.

Has it been difficult meeting regular people?
No, it hasn’t been difficult. I know there will always be the little bit of ice you have to break. It’s just a question of time. For some people it takes five minutes and for some others it’s going to take three days.

You’re putting me at ease right now.
Oh yeah? But me, I’m a very simple person, you know. So I’m not playing a part or trying to pretend I’m something I’m not. And also I don’t think I try to seduce everybody. I know I won’t please everybody. There are some people who like me and others who hate me. I assume that I have integrity, that I’m not a bad person. I think that’s the most important thing.

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August 16, 2013

Niels Arestrup is an icon in France. Heir to the Depardieu lineage of meaty Gallic men, the sixty-four year old actor is less wacky than his predecessor––more restrained, severe, and in recent films, menacingly paternalistic. Director Jacques Audiard made brilliant use of this talent––playing Laius to a younger actor’s Oedipus––in A Prophet, one of the great European films of the last decade. More recently, Steven Spielberg cast Arestrup as a rural Grandfather, straight out of a Brueghel painting, in the World War One epic War Horse. In Arestrup’s latest film, You Will Be My Son, the actor plays an exacting French vintner who doubts his son’s ability to steward the family grapes.  Here Arestrup––who is in New York for the first time––talks about his imposing air, why the French are serious about wine, and what his own father thought of his decision to become an actor.

You Will Be My Son is all about vineyards and vintages. Are you a wine connoisseur yourself?
In France it’s almost like we’re born with a bottle of wine on the table. It’s our tradition; it’s something very close to us. Even when I was a young child I understood what wine was, where it came from. But now, even though I love a good bottle of wine, I wouldn’t call myself a connoisseur.  I’m much more of an amateur wine lover. And now we are always told to drink in moderation so that’s what I do.

The stereotype is that the French take pleasure seriously. To them, pleasure is not a frivolous, superficial matter. This is definitely the case for your character in the film.
Wine is part of our history and there’s a whole culture that’s developed. Yes it’s meant to give pleasure to the people who love it and love to drink it. But it’s also a great source of jobs for the people who grow and make the wine.

This role made me realize how often you’re cast as the intimidating father figure in films that are, at their root, Oedipal struggles. Where does that come from?
This is something that I’ve tried to understand myself––understand why they have this image of me. Despite the roles that I play, I’m someone who’s basically very shy. Maybe it’s because people who are shy have a reserve and a distance. And this distance can be interpreted by others as coldness.

There’s also a generational conflict in this film that hints at a larger split between the young and old in French society. Who will inherit France? Or am I making too much of this?
It’s a hard question to answer. There’s always been inter-generational conflict. The young always have difficulty understanding the old and vice versa. But I think today the distance between the young and the old is perhaps becoming bigger. Partly because of technology. Partly also because in France today there is a real mix of cultures, languages, behaviors like there wasn’t in the past. So perhaps this has made the generational gap even broader.

What did your own father say when you decided you wanted to go into the cinema? How did he react?
I think my case was more one of fatherly indifference. When I first expressed the idea of becoming an actor he kind of smiled and thought it was another one of my ideas. He assumed it was a passing fancy on my part and one day I would realize that what I really needed to do was something more serious, which for him was factory work. He was prepared to offer me a place in the factory.

I also wanted to ask about your work with the English theater director Peter Brook. He’s a legend. And this happened early in your career.
My meeting with Peter Brook was one of the most important events in my life. I worked with him on The Cherry Orchard. He is an extraordinary artist who allowed me to see so many new things.

Speaking of new things––any first impressions of New York?
You know, before you visit New York, you have a dream of a city you’ve dreamt of your whole life. It’s something imagined, something you’ve gotten from the cinema.  So when you arrive you’re shocked to find it’s a real place, like any other place. This is what was so interesting about my visit here. I suppose I was expecting an imaginary city––instead I found a real one. But I’ve only been here on a short trip. As with people, it takes time to get to know a place.

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August 8, 2013
De Palma on the set of 'Passion', courtesy of eONE Films.
From 'Carrie', courtesy of United Artists.
From 'Scarface',courtesy ofUniversal Pictures.
From 'The Bonfire ofthe Vanities', courtesyof Warner Bros.
From 'Mission: Impossible', courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
From 'Passion',courtesy of eONE Films.
De Palma on the set of 'Passion', courtesy of eONE Films.
From 'Carrie', courtesy of United Artists.
From 'Scarface', courtesy of Universal Pictures.
From 'The Bonfire of the Vanities', courtesy of Warner Bros.
From 'Mission: Impossible', courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
From 'Passion', courtesy of eONE Films.

Over the course of a fabled 50-year career spanning every genre under the sun, Brian De Palma’s most steadfast muse has remained the American fever dream, in all its wild permutations. Here, the veteran director revisits five unforgettable films from his personal archive.

Based on Stephen King’s debut novel, and adapted when the writer was still unknown, Carrie (1976) follows a shy, bullied teenager (Sissy Spacek) gifted with telekinetic powers. Tying supernatural fright to the universal traumas of adolescence, De Palma’s coming-of-age screamer became an instant classic and earned Spacek a Best Actress Oscar nomination.

“At first I wasn’t going to cast Sissy. I had my mind set on another actor, someone I had been grooming for the part. But because Sissy’s husband Jack [Fisk] was the art director on the film, I decided to give her a shot. Sissy was such an extraordinarily unusual actor at the time that the studio was even reluctant to test her. Eventually Sissy did audition and her screen test blew everyone away. As for the famous climax—the dumping of the blood at prom—that was, of course, in the book. But the studio wasn’t very happy about it. They thought it was too graphic. They said, ‘Maybe you can do something else?’ Like what? Confetti? No, it had to be pig’s blood. It had to be shocking.”

With a raging screenplay by Oliver Stone, who called the film his swan song to cocaine, and a mesmerizing performance by Al Pacino as the refugee-turned–drug kingpin Tony Montana, Scarface (1983) redefined the immigrant fairytale, and remains De Palma’s most controversially brutal—and eminently quotable—spectacle of corruption.

“Some people say this film is excessive—I disagree. The script was a direct report by Oliver on the places he visited in Miami. He saw all the clubs, the coke on the tables. People were cutting each other up with chainsaws! We had a battle with the MPAA because they wanted to give it an X rating. We even had narcotics cops from Florida come to testify that people should see this film because it showed what was actually happening. On a deeper, thematic level, Scarface is about something that recurs in a lot of my films: the megalomania of American society that can lead to excessiveness, greed, and very cruel interplays between people who are desperate to stay on top. Wealth and power isolates you. Whether you’re Walt Disney or Hugh Hefner, you create a bubble around yourself. It’s that old cliché: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Pacino conveyed that perfectly. He kept his Cuban accent, on- and off-set. His sidekick in the film, Steven Bauer, was Cuban, so they were constantly speaking in that accent during the shoot. There are a lot of quotable moments in the film but my favorite is, ‘Every day above ground is a good day.’”

De Palma’s playful adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s best-selling satire cast Tom Hanks as a hapless Wall Street banker scapegoated by a scandal-obsessed New York, and Bruce Willis as the drunk reporter bearing witness to the follies and hypocrisies of a media circus. Famously scorned at the time for its departure from Wolfe’s novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) now ranks as one of De Palma’s most underrated and exuberant studies of the absurd theater of American politics.

“The opening tracking shot was a very important way into the film. It took about 27 or 28 takes to get it right. The idea for the shot actually came from observing Truman Capote stumbling into parties completely drunk or drugged-up. I had been to a lot of those parties and I thought that’s how it should be for Bruce’s character: the voyage from the parking garage up through all the different strata of New York high society until his arrival at the huge palm garden of the World Trade Center. I started out making political comedies, caustic commentaries about the state of our society. The Bonfire of the Vanities felt like an extension of that. When I read the book I quite liked it. I thought it was an acerbic rendering of a particular madness going on in the ’80s. When I was adapting it I thought I should make the central banker character a little more sympathetic than he was in the book, and Tom [Hanks] was a good choice for that. But, of course, the film unnerved everybody because it wasn’t like the novel, which was, by then, a treasured icon of the New York literary scene. I changed things to make the film more palatable but they ended up upsetting a lot of people and it got very bad reviews. Looking back, I find it a very successful picture. It just isn’t the book.”

A reimagining of the 1960s television series of the same name, De Palma’s Mission: Impossible (1996) featured a hit theme song, Tom Cruise at the helm of a sleek crew of covert CIA operatives, and a chain of set pieces including the now-famous vault sequence and the final high-speed chase atop a TGV train. The combination proved irresistible, launching a franchise and making the film one of the biggest blockbuster treats of the decade and De Palma’s greatest box-office success.

“This was the first film Tom ever produced. Because I’d produced a couple of pictures at that point, he and his partner Paula [Wagner] at times relied on my judgment. I remember that Tom was very responsive and straightforward. There were two very difficult scenes in the film: the CIA vault scene and the one atop the train. We had a jet engine creating the wind for the train sequence. You couldn’t stand up without being blown off. The shot where Tom does the flip, that’s really dangerous stuff for anyone to do. He did it twice for us, which was very brave. We were on top of that train for weeks and weeks. As for the CIA vault, that was my idea. I’d wanted to do an incredible action sequence that was completely silent. And then I had to think of all the things that could go wrong as the character tried to lower himself upside-down into this mythic vault. It was a sequence I thought about for months and months before I actually filmed it. Whatever people say, it’s always exciting to have a blockbuster. Everybody thinks you’re a genius for 30 seconds.”

De Palma’s latest film, his first in five years, orbits around the vaguely sapphic and very manipulative relationship between an ad agency assistant (Noomi Rapace) and her conniving boss (Rachel McAdams). De Palma adapted Passion (2013) from the recent French thriller Love Crime, but with its labyrinthine murder mystery centered on corruption and greed, it’s clear we’re back in vintage De Palma territory.

“I liked the relationship between the two women in Love Crime, but I didn’t like the way the flashbacks were used to explain everything. And I didn’t like that it revealed who the murderer was while the murder was being committed. Thrillers are supposed to keep the audience guessing, so in my version I kept it a mystery until late in the movie. We were very fortunate that Noomi and Rachel had worked together on Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, so that when Noomi got interested in the part, she brought Rachel along. They were game to do anything together. They weren’t reluctant to try things—they can go from kissing to crying to backstabbing so fast you get dizzy.”

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