The 64th Berlinale kicks off tomorrow, and the masses are already foaming at the mouth in anticipation of Wes Anderson’s latest super-stylized celeb-stuffed spectacle, The Grand Budapest Hotel, which makes its debut amid the wintry splendor of Potsdamer Platz. Or maybe everyone’s just hoping to catch a glimpse of train wreck-du-jour Shia LaBoeuf in a mask, which he’s promised to wear to the premiere of Nymph()maniac: Volume I (long version) in an effort to generate hype for his upcoming performance piece. Bong Joon-ho’s crazy-popular futuristic action thriller Snowpiercer arrives hot on the heels of allegations that Harvey Weinstein was planning to dumb it down for U.S. audiences; meanwhile, magicien du cinéma Alain Resnais, at the age of 91, is still making movies. Other highlights include Sundance holdovers like Boyhood and the Zellner brothers’ Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter; two films from promising newcomer Josephine Decker; and a short by Dustin Guy Defa, whose feature Bad Fever blew us away at SXSW back in 2011. Below, the ten films—all, with the exception of Snowpiercer, having their world premieres here—we’ll brave the crowds for.
NYMPH()MANIAC VOLUME I (long version)
dir. Lars von Trier
Competition (out of competition)
You’ve seen the Nymph()maniac O-face posters, and you’ve probably come across the O-face homages put together by the major film critics from Denmark and Poland. We’ve seen the edited version of the film, which Lars approved (but did not cut himself), and it’s hilarious, engrossing, disturbing, and, of course, sex-filled—though not particularly sexy. So what can we look forward to in the “long” version? More sex, apparently, though hopefully not more footage of Shia LaBeouf perfoming cunnilingus; there’s only so much of that we can take.
dir. Bong Joon-ho
The internet went batshit when it was revealed that that Harvey Weinstein, who secured the rights to the post-apocalyptic Snowpiercerfor the the English-speaking world, was planning on cutting about 20 minutes from the film in order to speed up the tempo, potentially sacrificing some of the more cerebral material. Bong, screenwriter Kelly Masterson, and stars Tilda Swinton, Chris Evans, and John Hurt—as well as just about everyone else—were not pleased. Fortunately, the director optimistically told U.S. audiences to “have faith” back in November. Berlin viewers, fortunately, will be treated to the full version.
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
dir. Wes Anderson
You’re either into Anderson’s hypercontrolled aesthetic or you find it revolting, but you’re bound to be a fan of at least one of the bajillion luminaries—Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Mathieu Amalric, Saoirse Ronan, and we’re going to run out of space if we keep going—populating his latest, which is set in yet another hermetically sealed bizarro-universe. And let’s be honest: We could spend all day staring at that glorious poster, which also reveals that Futura is no longer Anderson’s font of choice! (It’s all about Archer Bold for this one.)
LIFE OF RILEY
dir. Alain Resnais
Nonagenarian auteur Alain Resnais (who directed Muriel, Last Year at Marienbad, Hiroshima mon amour, and other flicks you watched for that French New Wave seminar back in college) continues to investigate the interaction between cinema and other forms of art; here, he reimagines a stageplay by Alan Ayckbourn, marking his third adapation of the British playwright’s work.
dir. Claudia Llosa
Peruvian director Llosa won the Golden Bear back in 2009 with The Milk of Sorrow, a powerful magical realist portrayal of her homeland, and this year she’s back in the competition with a flashback-driven drama about a family dealing with mental illness on a remote farm. Shot in the gorgeous frozen wasteland of central Manitoba and powered by the likes of Jennifer Connelly, Cillian Murphy, and Mélanie Laurent, we think she’s got a pretty good shot at taking it home again.
SHE’S LOST CONTROL
dir. Anja Marquardt
Berlin-born, New York-trained Anja Marquardt sets her bold, kickstarter-funded feature debut in the cold chaos of Manhattan, where the young Ronah (Brooke Bloom) earns her keep by working as a “sexual surrogate,” a therapist of sorts who helps men overcome their inhibitions. This isn’t just about “the girlfriend experience,” though—Ronah goes way deeper into her clients’ personal lives, which is when things really start to get tricky.
THOU WAST MILD AND LOVELY
dir. Josephine Decker
Brooklyn-based performance artist/filmmaker/actor Decker starred in, among other films, Joe Swanberg’s Uncle Kent, Autoerotic, andArt History; here, she turns the camera on him for this intimate, handheld erotic thriller set in rural Kentucky. Though her debut feature, Butter on the Latch, premiered at the Maryland Film Festival last May, it’s also having its international premiere here in Berlin—which is a pretty big deal for a new director. We’re excited to see what she’s all about.
dirs. Rebecca Chaiklin & Fisher Stevens
What happened to Occupy Wall Street? Now’s better than ever to revisit the anti-corporate fervor among the sleeping bags and makeshift lodgings in Zuccotti Park and the movement that gave us terms like “the 1%,” spurred copycat efforts all over the planet, popularized “human microphones,” and made “occupy” into an everyday word. Chaiklin and Stevens followed several protesters long after the chaos died down, chronicling their relationships as well as the protest’s aftermath and legacy.
TWO MEN IN TOWN
dir. Rachid Bouchareb
Oscar-nominated French-Algerian director Bouchareb (Outside the Law) transposes José Giovanni’s 1973 critique of the French judicial system to the high desert of New Mexico, replacing the original protagonist with a Muslim ex-con (Forest Whitaker) who wants to start afresh, even though he’s got a pissed-off sheriff riding his tail (Harvey Keitel). The film is the first in Bouchareb’s English-language trilogy that promises to take on the U.S.’s complicated relationships with Mexico and the Arab world. Also stars Ellen Burstyn, Luis Guzmán, and Brenda Blethyn.
TWO FACES OF JANUARY
dir. Hossein Amini
Berlinale Special Gala
The directorial debut of Iranian-British screenwriter Amini (Drive, The Wings of the Dove), an adaptation of a never-before-adapted Patricia Highsmith novel, takes us to a stylized version of sixties Greece where wealthy vacationers Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst encounter an American tour-guide played by Oscar Isaac—and get themselves into a Hitchcockian mess of sorts. We’re looking forward to checking in on Mortensen’s post-Lord of the Rings career, as well as seeing how Isaac and Amini fair together with Refn out of the way.
The Croisette’s aswarm with frenzied badge-wielding journalists; the starstruck hoi polloi are already setting up their step ladders in front of the Palais to ensure the choiciest views when the bigshots finally step out onto the red carpet. Fittingly, the 66th Festival de Cannes opens with Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, which we have zero interest in seeing because it’s already playing in regular theaters. So what now? Guzzle rosé and mingle on the inflatable couches in front of the Grand Hotel till dawn, or wake up at dawn to haul ass to those morning screenings? We’re pretty pumped about this year’s lineup, and below are our top picks among the premieres. Some of these films might get some major boos (people really do “boo” here) and some just might be the best movie of the year. Who cares—we want to see them all.
The Bling Ring, Dir. Sofia Coppola -Un Certain Regard
Plenty of hype encircling this one. It’s about stealing expensive stuff from the houses of materialistic rich celebrities, which of course gives us all a little schadenfreude, and it busts out Emma Watson’s first major “adult” role, which really just means it’s now totally cool to start putting salacious photos of her on the cover of every magazine. Real-life “bling ring” victim Paris Hilton, always a good sport about this sort of thing, even makes a cameo.
Nebraska, Dir. Alexander Payne - Competition
Payne’s latest love-letter to Flyover Country comes at us in black and white, and pairs Bruce Dern with former SNL star Will Forte for a father-son roadtrip. (We’re looking forward to seeing what Forte does here.) And even more exciting: The guy who played Buzz in Home Alone is in it. Where’s he been for the past 20 years?
Behind the Candelabra, Dir. Steven Soderbergh - Competition
Michael Douglas as the spangly super-flamboyant Liberace, Matt Damon as his scorned young lover Scott Thorson. Of course the press is all going crazy about the fact that the two of them smooch, which is an incredibly boring topic. (When will we stop caring when male actors kiss each other?) We’re way more interested in the costumes, which look absolutely enthralling.
As I Lay Dying, Dir. James Franco - Un Certain Regard
Yeah, yeah, Franco takes on too much. But we can’t help but be curious about what he’s going to do with Faulkner’s dense, super-literary multi-narrator novel in its very first cinematic incarnation.
Only Lovers Left Alive, Dir. Jim Jarmusch - Competition
Tilda Swinton as a sexy vampire? That’s all we needed to hear.
Seduced and Abandoned, Dir. James Toback - Special Screenings
HBO just picked up Toback’s doc about himself and Alec Baldwin running around last year’s Cannes in search of funding for their film, which in a super-meta move will be premiering at this year’s Cannes. Apparently it takes the pulse of the current state of the film industry, and includes interviews with luminaries such as Bertolucci, Polanski, Scorsese, Jessica Chastain, and Ryan Gosling.
Inside Llewyn Davis, Dirs. Joel and Ethan Coen - Competition
Oscar Isaac’s on the rise! Here he plays the fictional title character in the Coen bros’ latest, about the folk scene in sixties Greenwich Village. (Could be a showcase for some nice tunes: Justin Timberlake, Marcus Mumford, and Isaac himself contributed to the soundtrack.) Bonuses: John Goodman plays a dude with drug issues; Adam Driver’s in it; and maybe this will redeem Carey Mulligan, whose cute, murine little face has been criticized as being “all wrong” for Gatsby’s Daisy but which seems just right for Llewyn’s mousy love interest.
Venus in Fur, Dir. Roman Polanski - Competition
Polanski adapts yet another claustrophobic theater piece to the screen—this time, David Ives’s acclaimed, spiky, two-person play of the same name—and lets Mathieu Amalric (who has a role in Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, also in this year’s competition) get nasty, psychologically and otherwise, with Emmanuelle Seigner.
Le Passé (The Past), Dir. Asghar Farhadi - Competition
After his riveting, understated 2009 drama About Elly, which sadly never received a proper U.S. theatrical release, we were happy to see Farhadi get some major recognition (aka an Oscar) with Iranian divorce film A Separation. Here he continues his look into the nature of splitting up, with Bérénice Bejo in her first major role since The Artist opposite the excellent Tahar Rahim (also in Rebecca Zlotowski’s Grand Central, screening as part of Un Certain Regard.)
Only God Forgives, Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn - Competition
We’re hoping for some pretty serious visual stimulation in this one, which finds the Danish director reteaming with his Drive star Ryan Gosling to go deep into Bangkok’s seedy criminal underbelly, with its drug deals and whorehouses and Muay Thai clubs (Gosling apparently did some serious boxing to train for the film). Kristin Scott Thomas plays his mom, who’s also the bloodthirsty godmother of a major criminal organization.
Amy Seimetz has been pretty busy—she’s Chris O’Dowd’s love interest on the Christopher Guest/HBO series Family Tree, recently co-starred in Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, and has numerous other projects on the horizon. But she’s still managed to crank out her first narrative feature, Sun Don’t Shine. Set in the seediest, seamiest version of aestival Florida ever committed to film, the low-budget thriller follows a guilt-riddled couple (Kate Lyn Sheil and Kentucker Audley) as they drive along the Gulf Coast with some pretty incriminating evidence bouncing around in the trunk of their car. Though Seimetz had just taken a red-eye from Vancouver, where she’s currently shooting episodes for The Killing, she mustered enough inner sunshine to eagerly chat with us about her sensational Florida childhood, dealing with death, and what humidity sounds like.
Sun Don’t Shine captures something about Florida that I’ve felt, but have never seen in a film before.
Before I wrote the script, I was piecing together visuals and sounds that indicated what it felt like to be in Florida in the summer. Damp, sweaty, gross. You feel dirty all the time, like you can’t take enough showers. Even getting out of the shower, you feel dirty again because the humidity just clings to you. And if humidity made a sound—and I explicitly said this to the composer, the DP, everyone—it would be this buzzy, bass-y drone. As a teenager, I’d ride around with boys who had, like, the souped-up speakers in their cars, knowing I wasn’t supposed to be there. That drone would vibrate through your body, reinforcing that feeling. You could feel it to your core.
And the violence?
Florida’s a very violent place. I mean, you can walk on the street and be fine, but nobody walks anywhere in Florida anyway. There’s an aggression that I haven’t found anywhere else. In California, it’s passive aggression. In New York, people get it out by yelling. And then in Florida it’s scary because no one says anything—they just do violent things.
Where do you think that comes from?
I think the heat makes you crazy. The crime rates in certain areas are, like, the worst in the country. I didn’t realize this until I moved away, but the end to an argument isn’t always a fist fight. And then there’s all the crime stories that come out of Florida, the strange, bizarre characters.
The face-eater, the seven people who killed that one guy.
Casey Anthony. And usually serial killers make a stop in Florida. It’s, like, on their tour. I always joke that people are either escaping to or from Florida, on vacation or running from the law. And then the kidnappings! So many kidnappings. I felt like I was going to get kidnapped all the time. My elementary school teacher told us that the men trying to kidnap you might actually like it if you screamed, so you should do something weird like blow snot in their face to throw them off so you can get away.
What were the biggest challenges in making a narrative feature?
I hate saying this, but it came out pretty easy. I did it at a time when there was a lot of death in my family and nothing, in a film sense, seemed hard. It made me fearless in these other realms. Like asking for money: All they can say is no. All you can do is make a bad movie and who cares—there’s tons of bad movies out there.
You’ve worked with Kate Lyn Sheil and Kentucker Audley before. Let’s talk a bit about how you got them involved.
I wrote the script specifically for them both. Kate I knew from Silver Bullets—we worked on that for like two-and-a-half years. She’s demure, delicate. But she’s incredibly complicated: She likes to be the wallflower, but when you tell her to perform, she goes 100%. She also has that bass-y vibration going on behind her eyes when she gets emotional. And we both love films with explosive performances by women. Kentucker I met a long time ago at SXSW; I was in his film Open Five. He’s a strange dude: evasive, elusive, alluring, incredibly charming, and looks like a scruffy young Paul Newman. And he allows ridiculous things to come out of his mouth in this natural, tumble-y way that’s very southern.
Was any of the film improvised?
There’s certain lines I needed them to say, but I wasn’t a stickler. Part of the reason I brought anyone into the project is because they’re a good storyteller. They know the tone, so they know what to do.
You shot on 16mm. How come?
We wanted to evoke a seventies feeling—I had been looking at Two-Lane Blacktop and A Woman Under the Influence. We wanted to capture this new form of Americana, of the road trip. We needed something textured that had a life of its own, and the grade of film is much more vast than digital. We were shooting at high noon and I didn’t want white skies with a well-lit face. I wanted to see a grade.
How do you feel about the film now?
I love it; it’s so personal. There are meditations on death that are directly from my life. You can be as intellectual as you want about death, but internally there’s a survival mechanism that makes you not feel it. You have to deny it to keep going, which is kind of the point of the movie: To keep going, they have to deny there’s that thing in the back of the truck. You’re supposed to let go, but when you lose somebody, suddenly there’s something that needs to be solved, a mystery. You’re supposed to stop everything and be like, “I can’t go to work right now. I have to solve why human beings die.”
You’re in Christopher’s Guest’s new HBO series Family Tree. How did that come about?
He’d seen stuff I’d done and then I went in and just talked to him. That’s it. It was one of the strangest jobs I’ve ever gotten. I didn’t even audition. Well, there was a casting director involved. [laughs] But in my fairytale world, Chris Guest is going through Netflix movies and is like, “Oh, who’s this girl!”
Photo by Jeff Vespa/Contour by Getty Images.
Austrian provocateur Ulrich Seidl’s stunning, confrontational Paradise trilogy, which centers on three women in search of both loving tenderness and primal sexual validation, is finally getting a stateside release. So what can we expect? In Paradise: Love, a flabby, fiftysomething Austrian “sugar mama” travels to Kenya to pick up eager young African boy-toys; Paradise: Faith’s repressed Jesus fanatic loses it when confronted by her hot-headed, alcoholic Muslim ex-husband; and the chubby, pretty teen in Paradise: Hope parses her confusing relationship with the gentle yet lecherous doctor at diet camp. It’s intense stuff, but Seidl’s mesmerizing geometric compositions interspersed with handheld sequences featuring a loose, improvised momentum—not to mention the performances he wrangles from his professional and nonprofessional actors—keeps it from feeling too heavy-handed. We spoke with him for some insight.
Besides being about three related women—an aunt, a mother, and a daughter—who are all longing for similar things, what are the connecting themes among the films?
The idea of the relationship to one’s body, this consciousness of one’s body. In Love, you have Teresa, an overweight older woman who feels that because of her appearance she’s unable to find, in the West at least, the kind of man she’s looking for. She feels she needs to go to Africa, to a place where appearance is irrelevant—where despite her appearance, she’s still desirable. In Faith, Anna Maria uses her body to expiate her sins, to experience lust through pain. And in Hope, Melanie is an overweight young girl who’s looking for love.
How did you cast the main roles?
Casting’s a very long process for me; building a mutual trust is very important. That was the case with Teresa, played by Margarete Tiesel; that was also the case for the Kenyan beach boys she lusted after. Over two years, I visited Kenya repeatedly to build that trust with them. Also, all of my films involve improvisation. I never wrote dialogue, so it’s important that the actors are capable of improvising on set. In my experience, there aren’t that many actors who, in fact, are capable of it, who are truly suited for the collaboration.
The Paradise trilogy tackles pedophilia and class, race, and body issues, and features some pretty intense sexual sequences—not to mention a scene in which a woman pleasures herself with a crucifix. Was everyone on board, or did you have to convince anyone?
The actors who want to work with me are able to see my previous films. They know what my work is about. They just have to ask themselves whether they want to be involved. I can always tell if someone is really appropriate for the role, if they really understand my intuitions, if they’re able to open themselves. Tiesel, for example, knew from the there’d be scenes where she would be naked in Paradise: Love, where she’d be intimate with black men, and she had to ask herself if she’d be able to do that, especially given her personal background—she’s married and has a family. It was probably the most challenging role of her entire career.
What about Melanie Lenz, who plays the 13-year-old girl in Paradise: Hope?
Just like with the role of the sugar mama in Paradise: Love, there were many girls I was considering for the lead in Paradise: Hope. We visited summer diet camps all around Austria, met with girls, talked about their diet camp experiences, their family backgrounds. Up until we began filming, I was considering two girls for the lead: Melanie Lenz and Verena Lehbauer, the dark-haired girl who plays her best friend. In the end I chose Melanie because she looks more innocent. When we started filming, she hadn’t yet had sexual relations; Verena already had.
Was it difficult to shoot the scenes between Melanie and Joseph Lorenz, who plays the camp doctor? How did you make them comfortable with each other?
I wasn’t sure what would come of the interaction between the two; I didn’t know what the chemistry would be, what emotions would develop. Very quickly I saw that scenes involving a lot of dialogue didn’t work, so I chose to concentrate on longer scenes without dialogue. What was odd was that there was no contact between Melanie and Joseph beyond the set. Usually when you have two actors playing extensively together, particularly with intimate scenes, they seek each other out and spend a lot of time together away from the set as well. But no closeness developed beyond the set. Just the opposite. Melanie would go off on her own; she actually fell in love with one of the young boy actors during the shoot.
Did she and Verena know each other beforehand?
No. Prior to the shoot I’d bring all the boys and girls to prepare together, and it was during that period that they became friends. What was interesting for my work was that parallel to our shooting in a fictional diet camp, we set up a real diet camp for the kids to attend together. It really allowed them to grow together. The scenes in which you see this natural sense of trust—like the spin-the-bottle scene—that’s the result of the group spirit that developed.
So you’d just say to them, “Play spin the bottle and see what happens?” Or, “Talk to each other about how beautiful the camp doctor’s eyes are?” Those scenes were so compelling and natural.
Yes. For that scene, I told Melanie that I wanted her to talk about her first kiss, to touch upon about her notions of sex. That was the only precondition.
You wrote the films with your wife, Veronika Franz. What was the dynamic between the two of you as collaborators? Was it important to have her perspective when developing the characters?
When we collaborate, we don’t sit down and actually “write” together. Rather, I’ll write out the ideas and scenes, send them to her, and she’ll either give me her comments or rewrite the scenes and send them back to me. It’s very helpful, of course, that someone’s there giving you feedback, bouncing ideas back at you—and all the better if that other person is a woman who can give you her perspective.
Can you talk a bit about your compositions? Sometimes you work with a fixed, locked-down camera and very geometric compositions, and other times you go for a more loose approach.
It’s strange that these two approaches can co-exist in a single film: You can have very realistic moving shots, quasi-documentary, followed by artificial shots in which the people are very small elements in the composition. As a filmmaker, I have different means at my disposal for transposing the story into pictures. There’s the possibility of using various structured images, scenes that are very formally set up. And then there are other scenes that I shoot with a handheld camera. It depends what the scene requires. The striptease scene in Love, where one of the Austrian women brings a young Kenyan man to her friend as a birthday gift, involves a lot of movement; in that case, the handheld camera is the best approach.
But for some scenes, a tableaux, a more formal approach feels better. I like, for example, the scene on the beach in Love with the European women at the hotel lying on their chaise longues one side of the rope, the local beach boys on the other side of the rope, and the armed hotel security guards patrolling between them. You can capture the entire world in a single shot.
American audiences, I’ve noticed, are much more sensitive to depictions of racism than are European audiences. How do you feel these films will play in the U.S.?
I can’t tell you because I’m not familiar enough with American audiences—but I must say, even for European audiences, the film is very provocative and sensitive and really pushes the limit. Showing a woman acting in a racist manner, that’s a taboo. For some time, it hasn’t been taboo to depict men engaging in racism, but for women, it still is.
Do you ever think about how an audience will respond to your work while you’re filming?
I think it’s a quality of one’s work that you’re able to disturb the audience, to provoke them, to lead them into a sense of disquiet, make them question themselves and the values that they hold, and make them want to talk about what you’re showing. It leads to a different consciousness, a different awareness of the world. That’s my task, providing a different view of the world—not confirming what we already know.
Carter’s abstruse new feature, Maladies, in which the multi-hyphenate James Franco plays a mentally ill thespian named (surprise) James, reunites the actor and the mononymic artist in their first film project since 2009’s quasi-meta-doc Erased James Franco. A bold addition to the Franco’s-Reflections-on-Franco genre, Maladies premiered at the Berlinale in the wake of the fuss he kicked up at Sundance, where no one would shut up about his man-on-man BDSM featurette Interior. Leather. Bar. Carter’s film, which employs extensive voiceover and stylized speech patterns, is set in a Grey Gardens-y Long Island beach house populated by the unhinged Franco, a cross-dressing Catherine Keener, and a moon-eyed, nearly mute Fallon Goodson. We chatted with Carter at the festival about his friendship with Franco, his interest in queer sixties culture, what he learned about collaboration from making the film, and why viewers that don’t get his work are “fucking lazy”—and welcome to call him for clarifications.
How did you meet James?
I had this film idea, which ended up being Erased James Franco, of having an actor revisit and reinterpret every piece they’ve ever done. Which is kind of a tall order, because you’re asking them to do something they might not want to do, for some nobody. James collected my paintings—I knew him through that. I sent him this crazy long email describing the project, and he said yes. We have a good friendship, and I think that’s all anyone could ask, or hope for.
How did you and James get started on Maladies?
We started it together, but then I just ended up writing it entirely. I wrote the main character for him, and then Catherine and Fallon and David Strathairn and Alan Cumming all came on. We shot it in December 2010; it took a while for it to come out into the world.
James collaborates a lot with other artists, but whenever a new project with his name attached comes out, the masses tend to focus on him. Were you concerned that Maladies would be dismissed as another “James Franco” thing?
Well, it’s hard to get around the fact that I wrote and directed it, so I wasn’t too worried. To have James as a person, friend, and really talented actor be part of it is, like, fine with me. Also, I’ve been working long enough that my ego isn’t that fragile; I’m not twentysomething, I’m fortysomething. As you get older you don’t really worry about that. It enriches the experience to work with people that are huge. You know, the vortex of James Franco or Catherine Keener—I’m not too worried about being sucked into it.
The main characters are artists. How much of yourself do you see in them?
James once told someone about the film, “I play myself and Catherine Keener plays Carter.” I hadn’t thought about it, but he’s totally right. Or the other way around: James plays me, and Catherine plays James. Also, a lot of moments in the film came from my life, like where James tells Catherine about a cross-dresser that had a hard time in his neighborhood growing up. That was an illustration of someone I knew in my neighborhood, in Harlem.
How did Catherine get involved?
She fell out of the sky and said yes! Well, no, actually, James suggested her. They’re friends. When I talked to her on the phone, it was love at first sight.
And Alan Cumming? Same with him?
Nope. It sounds weird to say that I just met him at a party and asked him to be in my movie and he said yeah, but that’s what happened. His diner scene is my favorite, because he’s kind of hidden, and you’re like, “Is that Alan Cumming?” And then he just kind of goes away.
Tell us about the look of the film.
I wanted it to be set in the early sixties primarily for Catherine’s character—as a transvestite cross-dressing person—because I’m interested in people living gay lives in the closet in that time period. And you need a lot of stuff to make something look “period.” So whatever we could do in the short time frame we had to make that happen, we did.
This is your first narrative feature. What were the biggest challenges and surprises?
Having to work with a lot of people. Which I don’t … do. Or hadn’t. I had to learn how to, like, deal with other people in my face. I mean, I’m not complaining—it was great to learn about other people and what they’re going to do to my work, and then, subsequently, our work, to lift it to this final product. It’s really different than being alone in the studio. I’m really lucky to not only have directed, but written a movie and gotten almost all of what I wrote on paper to the film.
So no one really intervened on the final product?
Not as far as the story goes, no. This is really vain, but I don’t think they’d know how to, because it’s such a weird and open script and a personal and poetic thing.
Are you planning on making another feature?
I learned a lot from this experience and I’d hate not to parlay it into something else. It’s a skill set that’s hard to come by. I could do another really great movie—I have one written in my head, half-written down, set in the same time period. Catherine will be the main character. If you know someone, it’s easier to write for them. I don’t know how you write a movie and think, “Oh, I don’t know who’s going to do this.” Or you hear people say, “I’m a screenwriter! I’m a developer!” But how could you write a screenplay and not want to direct it? How do you just give it up or sell it to someone else? I don’t get that. To me it’s much more, like, I have to do the whole thing. Otherwise, why would I bother?
More like a purity of vision than an ego thing, then.
And on the flipside to that—and this isn’t necessarily about Maladies—if you’re working with a director, you should really listen to them, give them as much as you can, and not get in their way. It’s gonna work because it’s theirs—they know what it should look like. Otherwise you have a shitty product that’s like, hackneyed and weird. Which happens in a lot of movies.
Do you ever think about how your work is going to be received?
No. Not at all. Except for when you come to things like this, and you’re like, “Oh, shit. People are, like, seeing it, and they’re gonna write about it, and blah blah blah.” But no, even in my studio, I never, ever care. Well, I shouldn’t say I don’t care, but I don’t think about the other end. Though maybe I did a little bit in Maladies in that it’s a narrative, and I wanted people to be, like, “I’m glad I’m here watching this; it’s not too out there.” But that’s it. I’m just so happy I was able to make this piece of art, that it exists in the world. But beyond that, would I be bummed if people didn’t like it?
Or, more accurately, would you be bummed if you didn’t feel people were getting what you were trying to say?
I would be disappointed because they’re fucking lazy. I can’t stand that. And that’s a lot of people. I mean, fine, people are lazy and you gotta expect that, they wanna have the answers to everything, they want things sealed up tight, and that doesn’t happen in a movie like this. But, you know, fuck ‘em. If they want to know why James dies in the end, or what mental illness he had—they can ask me. They can email me. But otherwise, yeah, it’s disappointing. And it’s not about their attention span; it’s that their willingness to go somewhere is really thin. Some people are good at it, and it’s great. But those that aren’t—well, it’s like, “That’s not my problem, it’s yours. And you’re missing out.”
You’re speaking a pretty rarefied filmic language, though, and I don’t think viewers will always get it—not out of laziness, necessarily, but rather because they’re not used to this sort of thing, not sure what to make of it. So when you say, “If people don’t get my movie, they’re lazy,” could you also argue that as the filmmaker, you have a responsibility to make your art at least somewhat accessible to them?
I don’t think this is a difficult language; it’s a very tight narrative. The characters are definitely accessible and likable. It’s not a very trying picture for an audience. Also, the word “responsibility” bristles me, because I don’t think I have a responsibility to anybody.
Did you ever think, though, that whatever you made—no matter how honest, true, or pure —is not something everyone would be able to understand?
Of course I thought about that. And not only me, but every fucking person that’s working on this movie has thought about it. But you don’t have to like the entire movie. There are things you can take away, that seep in like a sponge, like a scene or a phrase or something. And if that happens 10%, 20%, or 80% of the film—if you’re lucky—that’s a success, to reach someone.
Will how people respond to Maladies change your approach to your next feature?
I hate that I’m saying yes, but yeah. I know it’s pretentious to speak about myself in the third person, but, “Carter, you just learned that people are gonna sit down and, like, watch this, and maybe you could give a little more, make it a bit less challenging, work a little harder on the narrative.” But without compromising anything.
Have you sat in on the public screenings yet?
The response at the premiere was amazing; people really loved it. I was told that they just kept clapping. At the Q&A, there were a lot of questions about mental illness; they want to know what illness James has. But it’s really just a stylized idea of someone who’s ill, and it’s also not really the focus of the movie—I’m more interested in Catherine’s situation. But I think people are too shy to talk about that, or they don’t know how to.
You said earlier that now, in your forties, you’re not as vulnerable as you used to be. When did our ego stop being so fragile? Do you remember when you were still vulnerable?
Yeah, and I’m sure I still am. But I actually relish bad reviews; I think they’re kind of fun to read. It’s just one person with a pen, not fifty people in a theater. And if they don’t get it? Well, I just wish I could actually call them and shed some light on it for them.
TBP AFK: The Pirate Bay Away From Keyboard, a thriller-like doc portrait of creators Peter Sunde, Fredrik Neij, and Gottfrid Svartholm, premiered at the Berlinale this past weekend; at the same moment, it was also made available online, for free. (AFK, or “away from keyboard,” is preferable to IRL, “in real life”—because the internet, after all, is real life.) The film chronicles the infamous 2009 trials, where the three Swedes were slapped with prison sentences and multi-million-kroner fines—Svartholm, in fact, is currently incarcerated in Sweden. We caught up with director Simon Klose to discuss the project, his response to Sunde’s objections to the film, whether the trio could have ever been the “Che Guevaras” of the open-internet movement, and his own unyielding belief that piracy—and remixing—begets creativity.
How did you get started with the project?
In 2008, the Swedish government decided to warrantlessly wiretap internet communications under the banner of “anti-terror.” It was really George Orwellian-1984-scary shit, you know, since we live our lives online—we thought it sucked! And the law was passed in the middle of the European football championships, so there were no politicians in Parliament. It was Berlusconi-esque the way it went down, fishy and undemocratic. A friend of mine who wrote an article about it was invited to a demonstration by Peter Sunde. So he calls me up and he’s like, “You’re filesharing all the time, do you know about these Pirate Bay dudes? What’s the story?” Because we weren’t really sure, even though there were rumors all over the internet. Were they digital hippies or crazy leftist anarchists? Psychopaths? Baby-eating Nazis?
What was the first meeting like?|
When I met Peter who told me all these crazy stories, from the Bush administration threatening the Swedish justice department with trade sanctions, to, like, the sort of sophomoric pranks that he and the Pirate Bureau were doing online. You know, buying an island to create a nation without copyright laws, stuff like that. I was fascinated. And they thought it would be cool if someone documented this stuff, and since I sympathized with what they were doing, they decided to let me hang around. I told them, “Dudes, I don’t really interview. I just wanna be a fly on the wall.”
You’d been to law school. Did that influence your approach?
Having a legal background certainly helped me understand some stuff with the court case, but I wasn’t into the copyright debate or anything like that. Rather, I was interested in the subject because I’d always sort of collected culture. I grew up copying cassette tapes, copying Stanley Kubrick on VHS. My American accent, my identity, my preferences are a result of copying culture, you know? I am what I am because I’ve copied all my life. Access to culture is good for creating more culture. Restricting culture will make it harder for people to do better culture. That’s my stance—my legal background just gave it a little twist.
Why is now the right time for this film to be released?
We’re still in the cradle of the internet. We shouldn’t be, like, “Well, we have Netflix now, we have Spotify now, it’s done.” Last year, for instance, we had the SOPA/PIPA act, which came from the very same people who convicted the Pirate Bay founders. We need to talk about freedom-of-speech implications in a context that really envisions the best for both artists and private citizens. How can we keep the internet open and still find business models for people like myself—filmmakers, musicians, and so forth? How can we keep very few, very large companies—who are rich enough as it is—from controlling the entire internet? It’s a kind of scary development that’s going on right now, so it’s really important to talk about alternatives. I was hoping my film could re-spark this discussion.
How has the response to the film been so far?
Very positive. Only two of the Pirate Bay guys have seen it—I hope I can screen it for Gottfrid in prison. Peter and Fredrik think the film’s too dark, that I only focus on a dark piece of the puzzle. And I guess I do, because to me it’s a tragedy. These people are ruining three innovators’ lives. And it’s not just a verdict against them; it’s a verdict against the 25 million people using the Pirate Bay right now. Which to me is a verdict against society. Against openness. Against transparency.
I’m looking forward to more critique from, like, people who hate the Pirate Bay. The people who don’t seem to like the movie so far are … I’m not going to say the hacker choir, but people in the scene, so to speak, who think it’s too broad without giving enough arguments and political tools to take the debate further. But I had a reason for not including too much politics. I tested my movie on my 73-year-old mother, and she understood it. And if she understands it, I’m good. I want it to be seen and understood by a broad audience.
So it was more about feelings than facts.
As soon as you mention The Pirate Bay, it arouses feelings in people: Either you hate it or you love it. I wanted to make a film that speaks on an empathic level, so it’s important that you feel something. That’s been kind of hard to see for the characters in the film, because it’s their lives. But I really hope a film that doesn’t talk about copyright conflict that much, that breaks it down to a human level, will add a lot to the whole debate. What does it look like when big business focuses on making an example of three young innovators? What does that do to their lives? How does that affect a tangible human being?
Peter posted a fairly critical review of the film on his blog.
I saw it. But you must understand, if you have to cut four years of footage—200 hours—down to 80 minutes, you have to make some creative decisions. I’ve chosen one of the gazillion stories in Peter’s private life. There are a lot of great scenes that didn’t end up in the film. So I totally feel for Peter.
One of the Pirate Bay’s biggest weaknesses during the trial, I noticed, was their inconsistency. On the one hand, they’re claiming they’re just a neutral platform for others to share files; on the other hand, they take a radical stance on filesharing, literally telling the studios to go fuck themselves.
That was a legal strategy drawn out by their lawyers. In Sweden it’s very rare that you talk about “freedom of speech,” or something. So their defense saw these bigger issues as irrelevant, not part of legal strategy. They didn’t want to deal with that. So they didn’t.
And that was the great disappointment: Everyone wanted these Che Guevaras in the three of them, right when they were in the media spotlight. People wanted them to stand up in court and say, “We believe in this, and this is the way it’s going to be!” But instead they said, “Oh, this isn’t our fault. This is our users’ fault. This is just a contact service, and that’s it.” But these are young men with a future to think about, who went for the strategies their experienced lawyers were laying out. You have to put that in context. Still, regardless of what happened in court, the sort of digital disobedience that was going on at the time was worth more for the freedom-of-speech movement and the open-internet movement than any political bloat.
Do you think Peter, Fredrik, and Gottfrid were really the best possible “Che Guevaras” for the movement?
[Laughs] Peter’s this environmentalist-socialist guy; Fredrik just wants to get drunk and hook up with chicks. And Gottfrid is super cocky, super funny. His Swedish is so sarcastic and so academic. He speaks beautifully—like a very old man—but he’s nasty as fuck, a libertarian tough guy with this dark twist and brilliant coding skills. And super well-read on all types of shit. So there’s this right-wing dude, this left-wing dude, and this drunk dude—and I’m like, “How did you guys end up together?”
They grew up in commentary fields, they grew up on the internet. But are they the right guys to fight this, to be on the forefront of a question of a generation? These three? I leave that up to the audience.
You released your film on YouTube and for download on the Pirate Bay, and you’re hoping viewers will share and remix your film.
Maximizing the spread of my film will benefit me. If more people see the film, I will get speaking engagements, I will get a platform to fund my next films. My main drive in doing docs is telling stories and changing perceptions of the world. But of course, I gotta make a buck. I think more people will buy the film if they see it for free. So sharing is good.
As for remixing: It’s the vernacular of the internet generation. It’s a language. What’s going on on YouTube is amazing, and it’s important to protect remixes. I encourage people to take my film and mash it up with whatever they can, to find new ways of showing my art, new directions, new audiences. The first version of the film has four minutes of archival footage, so it can’t be remixed, but I’m releasing a second version that you can remix the hell out of on YouTube. And please do.
The 63rd Berlinale kicks off tomorrow with Wong Kar-wai’s action flick The Grandmaster, and soon the masses will be huddling around Potsdamer Platz, clamoring for tickets while feasting on wurst and downing bottles of Jever in the bone-chilling weather. Luckily, they’re spoiled for choice: This year’s international mix includes works by both emerging directors and beloved auteurs; a sampling of Greek movies centered on the economic collapse; three new films showcasing the grande dames of Gallic cinema (Deneuve, Binoche, Huppert); and, of course, the varied assortment of highbrow queer films. Oh yeah, and then there’s the premiere of the totally incongruous DreamWorks cavepeople comedy, The Croods (which is around, we assume, to populate the red carpet with the likes of Nic Cage, Emma Stone, and Jeffrey Katzenberg). Below, ten films—all, with the exception of Little 13, having their world premieres here—we think are worth standing outside in the cold for.
James Franco’s already kicked up plenty of fuss this year—no one at Sundance would shut up about his man-on-man BDSM featurette Interior. Leather. Bar.—but we still needed another addition to the James Franco’s-Reflections-on-James Franco genre. This fictional rumination on the multi-hyphenate artist, in which he plays a mentally ill actor named (surprise) James, reunites him with his mononymic pal Carter—director of the 2009 quasi-meta-documentary Erased James Franco.
MY WAY TO OLYMPIA
Dir. Niko von Glasow
In the wrong hands, a film about disabled athletes setting their hopes on the Paralympics could turn into a syrupy, life-affirming mess, but we can trust “short-armed” German director von Glasow (whose own physical condition resulted from his mother’s use of thalidomide). His darkly comedic, beautifully photographed 2010 doc NoBody’s Perfect,which profiled a group of charismatic adults with malformed limbs, elevated both the discussion and documentation of disfigurement—and we assume this one will, as well.
A SINGLE SHOT
Dir. David M. Rosenthal
In this backwater thriller from Rosenthal (Janie Jones), Sam Rockwell plays a thick-bearded yokel who accidentally guns down a pretty teen girl while deerhunting and gets himself into a whole mess of trouble. Bonus: The film also stars the likes of William H. Macy and Melissa Leo, just the types you’d expect to see hanging around a sinister small town.
Dir. Christian Klandt
German Cinema – LOLA@Berlinale
Klandt’s understated 2009 drama Weltstadt, about a day in the life of a bunch of pissed-off small-town youth that ends with two boys peeing on a snoozing bum and setting him on fire, revealed a sharp eye for detail; it also made the most of the director’s former GDR hometown (decaying Soviet-era housing blocks, a medieval wall where the kids meet to get fucked up). Here he takes on the tale of a pair of wayward East German teen girls, all mixed up about sex and love.
VIC+FLO SAW A BEAR
Dir. Denis Côté
Côté’s doc Bestiaire was a strange little meditation on our preoccupation with creatures great and small; his latest is a meditation on human misfits living deep in the Canadian woods. We’re hoping he’ll be able to preserve that otherworldly weirdness with his latest foray into fiction filmmaking.
PARDÉ (CLOSED CURTAIN)
Dirs. Jafar Panahi and Kamboziya Partovi
Though he’s still under house arrest and only a few years into his 20-year filmmaking ban, Iranian New Wave luminary Panahi has managed to direct another feature (2011’sThis is Not a Film, which dealt directly with the issue of his arrest, was smuggled out of the country on a flash drive stuffed into a cake). No one’s certain how he’s managed to pull off another one, but we’re continuously in awe of his risk-taking and dedication to his art.
TPB AFK: THE PIRATE BAY AWAY FROM KEYBOARD
Dir. Simon Klose
This portrait of the Swedish creators behind the super-controversial BitTorrent index, who were all slapped with prison sentences and multi-million-kroner fines, is getting released under a Creative Commons license on Pirate Bay and other sites at 5pm on February 8—the exact moment the film makes its theatrical premiere in the physical world, adding a gimmicky yet satisfying non-diegetic layer to the story.
ON MY WAY
Dir. Emmanuelle Bercot
The Berlinale is always a solid showcase for female talent, and this year is no exception: Bercot tailor-made a role for Deneuve, who plays sixtysomething woman who runs out of cigarettes, then ditches her home and her job in pursuit of another pack of smokes.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF AN IRON PICKER
Dir. Danis Tanović
Bosnian powerhouse Tanović won the 2001 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar with his scathing war critique No Man’s Land, and we’re interested to see how his multifaceted approach translates to this hibernal, atmospheric drama—based on the actual lives of the non-professional cast—about a Roma family’s struggle in his homeland.
CAMILLE CLAUDEL 1915
Dir. Bruno Dumont
Dumont’s ultra-stylized Hors Satan recently had its U.S. premiere at Anthology Film Archives, but his particular brand of slow-burn provocation didn’t always translate. Still, it’s usually a good thing when a transgressive director takes on the life of a very transgressive artist, and to that end we’re excited about Dumont’s vision of the French sculptor’s life in a mental ward—especially since it’s helmed by Juliette Binoche and populated with non-professional actors playing various versions of themselves.
When Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre set out to document Marina Abramović‘s 2010 performance in MoMA’s atrium, they had no idea that her piece was going to become such a seminal work, or that it would inspire such rock star-style hysteria among the masses who lined up to participate—in fact, they were plenty content just to hang around someone as fun and cool as Marina for the seven months leading up to her show. Their completed film tracks her decades-long career in a way that is both illuminating and galvanizing, resulting in a compelling portrait and a gift to anyone trying make sense of their own creative process. Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present gets released theatrically this week, then premieres on HBO on July 2. We chatted with the filmmakers about the challenges they encountered, their relationship with Marina, and how their initially skeptical views of performance art have shifted.
How did you get started on the project?
Jeff: I was invited to a dinner party by a friend of mine who happened to be seated next to Marina, and she started telling me about the retrospective at MoMA. I was never a big fan of performance art, but she was so charming and I was so taken with her, and I realized that a retrospective at MoMA was very high stakes. It had the makings of a great film. Matthew and I have been working together for a number of years on a big PBS series, and we had spent that prior year following a travelling circus. It was kind of like the perfect combination.
Did you pitch the idea to her at the dinner party or later?
Jeff: I told her that night that I wanted to make a movie about her and her first response was, “I was kind of hoping David Lynch was going to make that film.” I was like, “No no no— we’re much better.”
Matthew, how did you respond when you Jeff first told you the idea?
Matthew: I told him he should totally make the film—I didn’t think I would be part of it. I wasn’t convinced it could work as a film, because I’d never seen a film about performance art. Also, there was no money and I was so tired from the circus show. I didn’t know if I could take that again. But then a few weeks later Jeff called me and said she was doing this retreat upstate where she was training a group of performance artists for her MoMA show, and we thought that was a great jumping-off point.
What were the biggest challenges in the beginning?
Matthew: Neither of us had ever taken part in any of her performances, so all we had to go on was the books written about her, the essays, and the documentation of her performances—which don’t transmit the power of witnessing it in person.
Jeff: We spent a lot of time scratching our heads.
Matthew: I spent seven months almost-living with her. I didn’t really believe that what she was about to do would be so amazing because she’s, like, constantly joking, constantly fun, constantly talking. She’s not still. In her private life and outside her performances, she has this manic energy.
What were some of the questions driving the production?
Matthew: I was wondering who the real Marina was: Is this the authentic Marina I’m witnessing now, or is it the one that sits down in the chair? What we realized afterwards was that during those six months leading up to that performance, she wasn’t actually preparing that much. She had spent her entire life preparing for that performance.
Jeff: By the time we get to MoMA in our film, you already understand this theme of pain, duration, and time. All of these ideas that she’s been grappling with her entire life are crystal clear for you. At the actual show at MoMA, sometimes people would look at her in the atrium and be like, “What’s going on here?” Then they’d visit the sixth floor and go, “Oh.”
Did she have any concerns going into it?
Jeff: She’s pretty fearless. Also, she knew Matthew and I had collaborated on a film where we went to Iraq on an aircraft carrier for six months—a kind of a long, durational performance in itself. I think she knew we were hardcore.
Matthew: The fact that I was the cameraman and the person directing, the fusion of those two things, helped a little bit. It made Marina comfortable—she’s someone who has always directed her own story.
Jeff: It helps a lot with intimacy—when the director is the cameraman. That makes a huge difference.
How did it make a difference?
Matthew: Sometimes I would ask her for an extra hour and then take, like, four hours. She actually liked that because she liked pain, she said. She’s spent a lot of time pushing herself to the limits physically. And because I was the director and the cameraman, I got to push myself farther than I would’ve let any other director push me. I was giving up everything, I wasn’t getting paid, I was spending my own money, and I had to give everything over to it. She liked that.
The stakes were high for both of you.
Matthew: It echoed what she had always put herself through.
Jeff: Whether she was going to succeed or fail at MoMA, she was willing to take this enormous risk in the art world.
Matthew: It was a risk for MoMA too because they’d never done anything like this. There’s an unpredictable quality to her work. We were terrified, because we had no idea what could happen.
What was MoMA expecting?
Jeff: Klaus Biesenbach, the curator, didn’t expect the chair to be filled the whole time; he just thought it would stand empty for hours at a time. That space is so huge and for one human being to generate this kind of energy wasn’t expected.
Were you both at the performance every single day?
Matthew: To MoMA’s credit—we’re so grateful to them—they gave us more access than they’ve ever given any filmmakers. Usually people come in for thirty minutes, document an exhibition really fast, and leave. And they gave us fifteen days. Still, I would call Jeff all the time and be like, “I need to be there every day!”
How many hours of footage did you have?
Matthew: Aside from those three cameras documenting the performance, I think I shot about 700 hours personally.
Brooklyn-based actress Kate Lyn Sheil blew us away with her performance as an erudite twenty-something plagued by psychosexual jealousy in Sophia Takal’s Green, which screened at last year’s SXSW. This year, she’s back in Austin with not one, but four new films, including Amy Seimetz’s low-budget 16mm indie noir, Sun Don’t Shine, which premiered earlier this week. In this gritty, atmospheric road movie, which unfolds in the thick, muggy heat of the sultry Floridian summer, Sheil and mumblecore luminary Kentucker Audley play a bickering, anxiety-riddled couple on the run from … something. The film gives Sheil plenty of room to show off her range (and her impressive screaming abilities). She can transition from breathy hissing to explosive histrionics in a matter of seconds, creating a deceptively timid character that thrives on—and clings to—her own catastrophic volatility. Sheil’s got a ton of new projects in the pipeline, so we took a moment at the fest to get to know her a little better.
You’re part of a big group of relatively young filmmakers and actors that are constantly collaborating on new projects. How did you get involved with them?
I met a director through my friend Sean Williams, who’s a cinematographer, and that was the beginning. Then every time I worked on a movie, I would meet someone, then meet someone else through them. They are like-minded people who care about movies as much as I do.
Is that how you were cast in Sun Don’t Shine?
Amy wrote the part specifically for me; she and I had gotten to know each other really well while working on Joe Swanberg’s Silver Bullets, which was shot over the course of two and a half years. She wanted to do a movie with Kentucker, and one day she started g-chatting him about this recurring nightmare she was having. And it went from there.
How did you get into acting?
I’d done it since I was a kid, then went to NYU to study it. I gave it up right after college, though. I think I was getting confused—it’s strange deciding what you’re going to spend your life doing at such a young age. When I think about other decisions I made when I was 17 years old, I’m like, “You were a child.” It’s natural to back away from that at some point; it’s healthy to reevaluate. Also, I knew that I wanted to act in film, not theater, and I wasn’t sure there was a place for me; I was so into movies that were using non-actors, and I had this theatrical training background. I fell into a job I loved—I was working for a clothing designer—and thought, “Well, maybe I’ll just watch movies and that’ll be good enough for me.” But then I met these people who were struggling with the same sorts of questions as me, and it came together.
You often play characters that are consumed by jealousy and prone to histrionics.
That sort of stuff has always really appealed to me. Possession was my favorite movie for a long time; it’s just Isabelle Adjani losing her mind. Breaking the Waves, too. When I was forming this idea of what I personally wanted to do in film, I was drawn to both very, very subtle performances and completely over-the-top performances. I try to combine those two in the same role. That stuff also cracks me up: People misbehaving and flipping out is very, very funny and very, very upsetting at the same time. If there’s any sort of catharsis with acting, it’s definitely through going to extreme places.
Your scenes in Sun Don’t Shine looked so exhausting—I was exhausted just watching them. Which is good, but I imagined you doing them over and over and I wondered if that sort of thing could take a toll on you.
Fortunately there weren’t that many takes for the most emotional scenes. It also helps working with directors who are also actors: Sophia, who directed Green,and Amy, too. She knows whether you need to be left alone or prompted in some way. What also helps is being surrounded by generous people who are as engaged as you are, and who allow you to feel things.
Do you ever get nervous that you’ll start to be typecast?
Yeah, I think about that. My part in The Comedy is different; it’s not really an emotional thing like Green or Sun Don’t Shine. I watched Somebody Up There Likes Me the other night at the premiere—I have a small role—and the rest of the cast was all so incredibly charming and so good. I definitely want to work on being more charming.
Do you ever feel vulnerable exposing yourself in films?
It’s weird—the only way I know how to act is to bring a lot of myself to my characters. But I always hope they’re abstracted enough within these imaginary circumstances that it doesn’t just seem like I’m being masturbatory, or something. I’d love to do more “character work” and stuff like that, but I don’t think people really think of me that way. As for vulnerability, whenever I’m working on a movie, I love doing it and I don’t really think about the component at all. But once the movie is done then yes, it’s weird to have the experience of watching yourself but being removed at the same time, in a room full of people.
Do you feel comfortable with improvisation?
I do, yeah. But I think I prefer a combination of the two: I like to have structure, but it’s also nice to have the freedom to say things in your own way.
You’ve pretty much only done low-budget independent films until now. Would you be interested in working on something with a larger budget?
I would work on anything that I thought was interesting. I have no bias against larger movies at all; I love just as many Hollywood movies as I do independent movies. And I’m interested in anything that has an interesting part for a woman, because it’s not always easy to find those.
How do you see women fitting into the film world at the moment?
I only have exposure to a small slice of what’s being made in the world, but I think there are more people making creating interesting roles for women. On the independent level there are a lot of women making movies now, and it seems like there have been a number of breakout performances by women in the past few years. But I also feel like in recent years there’s been this shift where a strong woman is a hard and bitchy woman. In the seventies, it seems like strong women in film were sensitive but really strong, and maybe also bitchy. I just want the parts to be complex.
What would you say your biggest strengths and weaknesses are as a performer?
Access to emotions is a strength, and hopefully being present for the actors that I’m working with, which is just crucial. My weaknesses? I don’t have a very strong voice and I think there are still things that I’m afraid to do. I’m not afraid to be “big” in emotional ways, but I think I do have an innate fear being “big” in other ways. Comedically, perhaps. I love comedy more than probably anything else; it would be great to learn how to do it. I just did the SXSW acting panel with Jeffrey Tambor, which was great. It was really nerve-racking, but I went to acting school and I’ve done things like that before, just with a much smaller audience. He said some really incisive things that I agree with. He was completely right about the fact that I have to bypass my inhibitions. And he also said I needed to work on my voice. He thought that I was afraid to yell—but he also hadn’t seen Sun Don’t Shine yet.
How do you choose new projects? Do you mostly find them through friends?
Since I have mostly worked with people that I know and respect them all so much, if they ask me to do something I’m just so excited and honored. I like movies that are brave and strange. And sensitive, I guess—I think a lot things in the world are insensitive. But I don’t want that to sound sappy.
Austin filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner’s second feature, a grotesque, vivid, and penetrating dark comedy called Kid-Thing, is premiering in their hometown as part of SXSW (it already screened at Sundance and Berlin earlier this year to critical acclaim). The film follows a raspy, totally feral ten-year-old blondie named Annie (Sydney Aguirre), who spends her days running around her dad’s ranch making mischief and wreaking terror—stealing Capri Suns from the gas station, bashing a disabled girl’s birthday cake and snatching her presents, chucking refrigerated dough at passing cars, shooting dead animals and cow patties with a paint gun—until one day she discovers a mysterious well in the middle of the woods.
Given the Zellners’ signature offbeat brand of comedy, the movie’s loose, episodic structure, and the subversive nature of the material, it’s the sort of thing that could have “cult film” written all over it—but we’d like to think there’s more to it than that. We chatted with the brothers for the inside scoop.
Bullett: How did you guys conceive of Kid-Thing?
David: We wanted to do a story about childhood that wasn’t sentimental or maudlin, from the perspective of the kid, as opposed to films about children that are either directly or indirectly from the perspective of an adult, told in hindsight or with just a rosy perspective on it. And we wanted to kind of combine that with elements of a fable: Growing up, we really liked Greek mythology and Grimm’s fairy tales. I liked the way they had these dark and subversive undertones—dealing with life and death in a really abstract way—that you don’t have in contemporary children’s literature. Then we drew a lot from our own childhoods: A lot of the things Annie does were things we did as children. We filmed a lot of it where we grew up.
What aspects of childhood were you trying to capture?
D: When you’re that age, it’s so much about testing boundaries and about creation and destruction. You’re this new little scientist: You see a dead animal and you poke it and you wonder, “How did it get there, why did it die? What’s it like to be dead?” Not in some morbid way, but out of this scientific curiosity. Or you see a cow patty and you smash it. As a kid, you’re mapping out things for the rest of your life: “I push this and what happens, I say this to this adult and then how do they react? And then what do I do after that?” Once you’re an adult, you have all those things programmed and you don’t think about that anymore.
One thing I love about the film is that it centers on an impish little girl—I’ve never really seen that before. How did you come up with that, and how did you cast Sydney for the role?
D: In an early version, a boy was supposed to be the lead, but it was infinitely more interesting, complex, and alienating to have a girl, especially a tomboy. As for Sydney, she’s the daughter of a childhood friend, and she’d been in a music video we had done a year earlier for Ola Podrida. She has a melancholic character, she’s very athletic and has a great physicality, and she’s so fun to be around. She’s not an actor; she had just seen DVD extras so she knew how films were made. She also lives out on a farm out in the country, so she’s had similar experiences to Annie. Although in real life, she is infinitely more pleasant. She’s a very happy kid.
What makes the film so interesting is that it’s a very simple story centered on a very dark and complicated character—you’re dealing with the human id running rampant here. How did you explain that to someone so young?
D: We’d talk about kids at school that were loners or outsiders, and also took her own personal experiences of feeling that way, and amplified them for dramatic purposes. Some stuff you can’t intellectualize, though: Like with shooting the poop, we set up the shot and just told her what to do. We tried not to over-explain anything—most of it she could identify with. And when she couldn’t, it’s like, “Well, we were weirder kids than you are.”
N: Sydney was never like, “Oh, this is like a bad kid” or “This is a terrible person.” She got that it was just a kid being a kid. A complex kid.
There are some interesting nature vs. nurture arguments to be had here, especially since some viewers have called Annie a “sociopath.” But at the same time, her father really doesn’t offer her any sort of moral compass.
D: I don’t think she’s a sociopath. No matter how much micromanaging a parent might do, at the end of the day, the kid still has to figure things out on their own. But Annie doesn’t really have anyone to guide her, so she is even more alienated. She’s a tomboy and doesn’t get along with other kids.
Sydney’s in nearly every frame of the film. That must have been pretty intense for everyone.
D: You have to have a balance and not kill the energy. There’s timing involved; you work around her schedule. You’d wait until you let her have her Dr. Pepper and Sour Patch kids, because then there’s this instant peak. Also, we didn’t do anything she wasn’t comfortable with. This woman at a Sundance Q&A said, “You must have traumatized that poor kid.” And I was like, “Are you kidding? She had the best time of her life!” I would have died for this experience as a kid: hanging out with adults, with these safe situations of creative destruction going on. What a blast. Every kid wants to break something, you know?
What’s something she wasn’t comfortable doing?
D: She wasn’t crazy about squashing the bug, so we worked around that.
Were you scared to squash a bug on camera and get the animal rights people all worked up?
D: I would have been happy to do it because I think that’s bullshit. I mean I love animals, but it’s so hypocritical. They’re shooting some horror movie remake here, and I heard from people who worked on it that there’s a cutaway of, like, ants on the ground. You know, you can go anywhere around here and get ants. But they had to get an “ant wrangler,” and then they had two ASPCA people and all this paperwork to make sure everything was done ethically. And then all these same people go home and put down bug-traps or whatever. I mean, I don’t go squashing stuff for the hell of it, but it’s like saying that an animal’s existence is more valuable if it’s being preserved on film.
You’re both known for your “slow-burn” style of comedy, where you set up a situation and then let things play out, often in long, unbroken takes. What’s your process for directing?
D: We had a really tight script but then left breathing room for little things on location. I like putting time into the composition and kinda letting the action unfold. We like dramas more than comedies; when I think of things that make me laugh in films, it’s like a little moment of humor in a drama to let you breathe for a second before it gets back to the heavy stuff. I like Michael Haneke and the confidence he puts in setting up a shot and letting the action unfold. Also, Werner Herzog’s seventies stuff.
I’ve read a lot of criticism of your film that discusses its “cult potential,” which I feel can be a demeaning concept.
D: We don’t want to stigmatize; it’s diminishing and kind of dismissive in a way, even if it’s meant positively. We never set out to make something “weird,” and we don’t want to make something on the fringe—something quirky, or any shit like that. We just want to make a movie, period, and try meet the audience halfway, do something that is accessible to them on an emotional level. We hope that our work will have some legs in the long-term; there’s so much stuff that 40 years ago was considered subversive and now it’s as mainstream as anything.
What other types of reactions have you gotten at screenings?
D: I don’t want to generalize, but maybe younger people respond to it better than older people. A lot of older people were offended by it. And that’s interesting, because we could tell that the older people were offended because it’s about a girl. If it were a boy, it would be this whole “boys-will-be-boys” mentality.
N: It was off-putting to them. They would ask questions about the gender part of it.
D: One old person at Sundance was really angry at the movie and called us “existential nihilists” without any sense of irony or anything. Like we were on trial to her. We loved it.