Alex Rivera (BSS #281)

Alex Rivera is the director and co-writer of Sleep Dealer, which is scheduled for limited release on April 17, 2009.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Hoping to avoid Morpheus’s maquiladoras.

Guest: Alex Rivera

Subjects Discussed: David Riker’s La Ciudad, splitting screenwriting/directing duties, the collaboration process, the dynamics of globalization, labor and New World Order, the importance of having a heart when making a film, being the “Tin Man” to the “Wizard of Oz”, setting a futuristic story in the Third World, doing something new with science fiction, Sleep Dealer‘s lack of references to contemporary guerrilla armies, the Mayan Army of Water Liberation, intercepting a radio signal without problems, encryption, the heightened realities that come from balancing multiple narrative issues, clairvoyance in a bed of glue, machines and remote control, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, wireless vs. cables, what “looks cooler” on film, organizing specific movements, looking for actors with dance backgrounds, ambition vs. practicalities of low-budget films, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, satirical television commercials, Robocop, the “post-border spirit” of collaboration, class division, using humor and satire to discuss the evils of fascism, Starship Troopers, Brazil, on directing a first feature after 15 short films, mashups and found footage, Craig Baldwin, reusing and recontextualizing images, switching from collage to narrative, financial assistance from the Sundance Institute, the false creative ideas of being a director, sprinkling found footage from the Iraq War into the narrative, pharmaceutical company ad campaigns, shanty towns on the outskirts of Tijuana, Mad Max, hiding behind technologies, police resistance, Thomas Mann’s “principle of least resistance”, increased connectivity vs. widening economic gap, the Berlin Wall, mariachis offering to play songs, Mexico’s legacy of tradition, the “wacky prediction” of big ideas, ultimate outsourcing, machines that eat up money, the Slurpee effect, Tijuana as the city of the future on t-shirts, spoofing Independence Day, flying sombreros that blow up Congress, Nortec DJs, Urban Outfitters, donkey shows and getting drunk, Tijuana as immigration gateway, and bad puns.


Correspondent: I would put forth to you, based on how excited you were just talking about Craig Baldwin, that you still have this impulse to take other things and transmute them and rearrange them. I’m curious how you got your fix during the course of Sleep Dealer in terms of recontextualizing found stuff and found locations. Did it come back to initial objects? Or taking things from eBay and the world around us and reconfiguring for this particular world?

Rivera: First of all, I would say, for me, the notion of being a director and the notion of being creative is laden with a lot of false ideas. This idea that the artist, the filmmaker, generates this vision. The truth is we sample. We work with actors who bring what they bring. We work with locations that pre-exist. So we’re always sampling and recycling no matter what we pretend to be doing. And Sleep Dealer is a film that does recycle more than other films in two big ways: one is we’ve got found footage sprinkled throughout the narrative. There are helicopters and aerial shots that were probably filmed for some news crew. And we bought them and put them in the film. And they’re woven into the narrative. There’s footage from the war in Iraq that is recontextualized as part of this sci-fi future war. There are images of the nervous system that are used in this science fiction-y way in Sleep Dealer that were probably produced for a pharmaceutical company ad campaign. And we brought those into our narrative. And so this is a science fiction where it’s perforated by already existing footage. The other way that we’re sampling is in the locations. Because as a documentary filmmaker, I saw places that blew my minds. Shanty towns on the outskirts of Tijuana that push up against the border wall. The border wall itself running down a beach and out into the ocean. High-tech factories next to some of the poorest neighborhoods in the world. And so you see these things that look, in front of your own eyes, more bizarre, more dystopic, than anything in Mad Max. And so I got the idea that we could make science fiction using documentary strategies.

Categories: Film

Laura Lippman (BSS #280)

Laura Lippman is most recently the author of Life Sentences.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Frightened of sleazy and opportunistic biographers.

Author: Laura Lippman

Subjects Discussed: Cassandra Fallows vs. Kathryn Harrison, writers with peculiar personalities, the memoir dictating the memoirist, Hegelian synthesis, the Quarter Pounder and Proustian comparisons, philosophical modifiers, the inauthentic self, stereotypes of NPR listeners, book smart vs. people smart, satire and gentle fun, shaking the “serious is better” notion, Thomas Pynchon, being true to voice, the problems with the word “ballsy,” writing effrontery, Janet Maslin’s overanalysis of Life Sentences, the value of the red herring, the benefits of found opportunities, the problems with plans, Portnoy’s Complaint, creating deflections for the reader, the Oz books and the Nome King, Philip Roth’s Zuckerman, overworking sentences, the joys of dashes, Emily Dickinson, smarmy memoirs, reading the entire book aloud at 40 pages per day, writing a book a year, following instructions, William Gibson, editing as “deboning a fish,” Lippman’s work ethic as a saving grace, racist perceptions, generalizations, and the older generation in Baltimore, the fallibility of memory, the purpose of memoir, Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, making stuff up, basing a novel on true crime, the ethics of taking from real-life stories, responding to email, investigative journalism and amateurism, faking it, and losing sight of the victims over the course of fiction or investigation.


Correspondent: You have, of course, Callie-ope — Calliope — and Cassandra. I read Janet Maslin’s review in the New York Times and she seemed to be really hung up on the notion that this represented some Greek mythology. But when I read your book, I immediately said to myself, “Oh! Well, this is a very funny red herring to throw the reader off.” Just as the dates that precede each particular section have no significant meaning, or very little meaning, on the narrative. And I’m wondering if little red herrings along these lines are intended to either see if the critics of the Janet Maslin streak are going to latch onto them or whether they represent a way for you to obtain this level of “just doing it” that you just described in your last answer.

Lippman: It is true that both Cassandra and Calliope show up in the narrative, show up in my writing, with their names attached to them. I did not sit down and schematically design a story in which, yes, I will create two characters named after classic figures of Greek mythology. Cassandra was Cassandra. And then I realized her father was a Classics professor, and I began to think he would have conveyed. And Calliope was just always Calliope. There’s a certain Baltimore-ness to it. But I’m a really big believer in found opportunity. And sometimes writers create their own found opportunities. So it’s an accident that the two main characters of this novel have these names that have a lot of resonance. But I’m okay when people then see the resonance and point it out. It’s like someone at a painting and focusing on a detail that might not have been the intent. But it’s in there. It is there.

My belief is that if one is overly schematic in writing, it will feel a little stale and airless. So on the one hand, I’m delighted that people come to this and say, “Oh! Cassandra and Calliope. There’s all this significance.” Well, there is for them. They found it and it affects the way they read the story. And that’s great. At the same time, I think that if I had had a plan, I think the novel would have a really contrived feeling to it. I think it would feel kind of pedantic. One of the things I didn’t plan. You know, it just comes out. You’re writing. I write trying to think about who is this person and what would they be doing and what would they be thinking at this moment. And there’s a scene in which Cassandra has sex with someone who she’s really been yearning for. And because Cassandra can’t turn her head off ever, she’s thinking and thinking. And for some reason, she starts thinking about Leda and the Swan. Which if people are really paying attention, and they’ve seen the bit about Portnoy’s Complaint in the book, that’s very important in Portnoy’s Complaint. So Cassandra, whether she knows or not, is actually channeling that book that she read as a kid, which she remembers seeing in her father’s house.

So I’m writing this. And, you know, I don’t remember every line of Leda and the Swan! And, by the way, although I’m pretty well versed in Greek mythology, I didn’t remember that Leda gave birth to Cassandra. I didn’t remember that. So I go back and I read the poem and I just think, “Oh my god. That’s hilarious!” And if I had planned it. If I had been writing to that moment steadily for days and days — “Oh, I can’t wait until the moment in which Cassandra evokes her namesake’s mother. Via Yeats in bed.” — I think it would have felt a little off.

Categories: Fiction

Carl Wilson (BSS #279)

Carl Wilson is the author of Let’s Talk About Love and reports indicate that he is loved, in turn, by the actor James Franco.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Evading the pomp and circumstance of cultural taxonomies.

Author: Carl Wilson

Subjects Discussed: Celine Dion and incompatible tastes, Elliott Smith, the questioning of canonical knowledge, Paul Valery’s concept of taste composed of a thousand distastes, TV on the Radio, choosing sides when dismissing trash, defying the stereotypes of Celine Dion fans, snobbish record store clerks and zealous fans, anti-snobbery, false dichotomies and cultural advantage, culture and existing power structures, Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine, the Internet and the music industry, fans and cultural capital, Immanuel Kant and “common sense,” cultural consensus, the Beatles, questioning Wilson’s party criteria, middlebrow aesthetes in newspapers, separating the person from the artist, the relationship between vituperative feelings and meeting people, the celebrity-industrial complex, Dion’s 2005 appearance on Larry King, whether or not Larry King mocks his guests, judging a person on a handful of eccentricities, whether it’s possible to see the “real” Celine Dion, reinforcing celebrity image, whether or not personal information about an artist can affect your opinion about the art, Michael Jackson, “classic” vs. contemporary pop culture, the expiration date of scorn, that damn song from Titanic, Celine Dion in Vegas, music and emotional frames of reference, the problems with the word “social” being applied to art, Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, the problems with “hip,” coolness and judgment, the Mountain Goats, the perceived “hipness” of alt-music boosters, authenticity, “keeping it real,” and civil disagreement.


Correspondent: But look at the Beatles and Elvis. I mean, this would seem to me to confirm the ideal conditions. It would be very difficult to find someone who is a music lover who hates the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or Elvis. I mean, there’s a fairly common consensus. Even if you don’t love them, you can at least appreciate the achievement of these bands that just went in and likewise captured the popular consensus. And this is a little bit different from Celine Dion.

Wilson: It is.

Correspondent: In which there’s an artistic criteria likewise being applied. So how do you separate this?

Wilson: I mean, it’s different than Celine Dion. And it’s different than Stockhausen. Right? So look at them as poles of a spectrum and the Beatles and Elvis as being somewhere in the center of that spectrum. By the end of the book, there’s a whole essay at the end of the book about taste and different ways of thinking about it and criticism. And the thing, that at the end of this whole process of immersing myself into a different taste world than my own, was that where those big aesthetic disagreements arise, my tendency at this point is to suspect that really it’s a problem of terms. That people are arguing on a different set of assumptions than one another, but that their conclusions are perhaps equally valid. But that doesn’t mean that I think now that Celine Dion and the Beatles are equals. And it would be a whole other sort of chapter of this exploration to figure out where to find some kind of more objective set of measurements for greatness. But if you’re using populism and anti-populism hand in hand, what you do find with people like Elvis and the Beatles, and Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles — you know, they kind of win all of those contests. I’m not saying everything’s the same.

Correspondent: Then what accounts for the aberrative impulse for Celine Dion then?

Wilson: I think that there are things that are confirmed both by elite opinion and populist opinion. And in those cases, it’s kind of good to think, “Oh, well, whichever direction you come from, this gets through the gates.” What explains what doesn’t get through one set of gates and what doesn’t get through another set of gates. And so the book is more concerned with aesthetic disagreement than aesthetic agreement. And it’s a question of when we have these fights. When you’re at a party and somebody’s saying, “This is great,” and you’re saying, “This is terrible,” what are you really talking about? And my suspicion is that you’re talking about something that has more of a deeply autobiographical root than it has any connection to some objective set of markers. But that’s not to say that there might not be works of art that are more profound and universal than others.

Correspondent: But see, Carl, this is where I’m going to have to disagree with you. Because you’re applying a criteria here where if I go to a party to express a particular opinion about music, I’m immediately going to focus in on Celine Dion and absolutely damn her to the skies. When, in fact, in my case, I have not actually thought about Celine Dion in any serious capacity until I read your book. I mean, I largely ignored her. So this is why I’m a little suspicious. I mean, I hear where you’re coming from. But I’m a little suspicious of how you’re applying such a broad brush to how we have tastes and how we express those tastes at parties.

Wilson: Well, it might just be that Celine’s not the best example for you. But maybe Whitney Houston is a good example for you. I think there’s a whole category…

Correspondent: I ignore her too!

Wilson: But that just, to me, speaks to the aesthetic world that you live in — it’s well cordoned off enough from places where you might have to deal with that. But, I mean, the places where I use as examples in setting this up is, in the media, the people who are representatives of our tribe. You know, the aesthetes. Which are middlebrow aesthetes in terms of who’s writing a column in the newspaper. Celine is a very favorite whipping boy.

Correspondent: Whipping boy. Have you looked at her lately?

(Photo credit: David Waldman)

Categories: Ideas

Esther Rots and Dan Geesin (BSS #278)

Esther Rots is the writer, director, editor, and producer of is most recently the director of Can Go Through Skin. Dan Geesin is the sound designer and music composer of the film. The film is presently playing at the New Directors/New Films series, which is running between March 25 and April 5 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Eschewing intuitive sensibilities.

Guests: Esther Rots and Dan Geesin

Subjects Discussed: The importance of skin to Can Go Through Skin‘s heroine, private thoughts and feelings, vocational criteria, how story becomes stronger with ambiguity, living and loneliness outside of work, making a film that’s 100% intuitive, making decisions on gut, actors having to adapt to shifting material, working intensely with Rifka Lodeizen, working with a small crew where everybody had a say, settling on a crew of five, random painting of walls, the trust and concentration that comes with a small crew, sound designs and seasons, ambient percussion, jarring disconnects between visuals and sounds, parallel stories that come from creativity, reproducing the odors of mud through sound, wrangling rats, how a pre-existing kitchen changed the script, the difficulties of financing a loose film production, and Dutch artistic support.


Correspondent: This leads me to wonder then how the house was located. Did you, in fact, try to find a house that had the stinkiest possible odor? Or something that was possibly in disuse? And the rat. How did you wrangle the rat in the course of the shower scene? It could not have been easy to do. Since it is vermin, you know.

Rots: It’s a shame this is radio. I’m poking out my thumb now and it’s got white lines all over it. That was directing the rat.

Correspondent: Really?

Rots: He nibbled the middle bit of my thumb. It was hanging there for quite some time and biting away.

Correspondent: Wow.

Rots: That was me directing a rat. I’m not good. (laughs)

Correspondent: Did you have to see a doctor? Get shots?

Rots: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was too chewed up.

Geesin: Tetanus jab.

Rots: No, rats are not directable. They just do their own way. But that might be a natural talent as well.

Correspondent: They say that kids and animals are the toughest to direct.

Rots: Yeah.

Correspondent: But you would say that a rat is even tougher.

Rots: Yeah. And boats. Boats are also a cliche.

Categories: Film

Ursula Meier (BSS #277)

This particular discussion was conducted in French and English. Many thanks to Aurélie Godet, who kindly assisted us in our conversation.

Ursula Meier is most recently the director of Home. The film is presently playing at the New Directors/New Films series, which is running between March 25 and April 5 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Searching for a new home in Bulgaria.

Guest: Ursula Meier

Subjects Discussed: Organizing a film that required a freeway and many cars, shooting on a Bulgarian airstrip runway, the financial impact of 300 extras driving around and using a lot of gas, how Des épaules solides gave Meier the liberty to make Home, Isabelle Huppert’s box office appeal, scenarios that are both plausible and allegorical, the deliberate blurring of time and geography, keeping the internal world and the external world from crossing or merging, establishing the family with conditions of routine, noise and accumulation, knowing the territory before knowing the characters, gathering testimony from people who have lived next to a road, the importance of mental environment, anecdotes vs. fables, Rupert Thomson, Guy Debord, Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend, Hitchcock and The Birds, Agnès Godard’s self-imposed ban on cinematic references, Night of the Hunter, Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, and unifying ideas.


Correspondent: I must ask how you found this particular house and whether you had to consult some French transportation authority to get this particular freeway. What did you do for location scouting for something that was so essential to the movie? And I’m just curious if you had to broker any particular arrangements with any particular governmental agencies to get the cars. Maybe you could describe this.

Meier: (through translator) It was actually a lot of research. It was complicated to find that road. More than the house, it was the road that gave us a lot of work. We needed a large road. Like an abandoned highway. And it’s very difficult to find. Because if we approached highways that were under construction, they would quickly go into being bumped into the traffic. So it did not work. And then we looked around Europe. Firstly, the co-producing countries, France, Switzerland, and Belgium. And then other European countries. We went as far as Quebec. And it still didn’t work. Actually, if you had constructions on the road anyway, you had construction trucks going by all the time. So eventually, we tried another option, which was airport tracks. Landing tracks. And the problem there was that the landscapes around them were absolutely ugly and uninteresting. I was looking for something that would look well and, at the same time, have this abstract but real-looking quality to it. Also, we needed a road that would be long enough. You know, we couldn’t have anything that was short. Which was the case most of the time for airport tracks. Because we had all these cars. Approximately 300. With extras in them, driving them to create the traffic. And you needed them to drive fast enough. Like 90 miles per hour. So you needed a road that was long enough, far ahead so that they could break, and then re-stop.

Categories: Fiction