jamiattenberg

Jami Attenberg II (BSS #494)

Jami Attenberg is most recently the author of The Middlesteins. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #172.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Dodging the slings and arrows of families.

Author: Jami Attenberg

Subjects Discussed: Chapter headings with weight listings, why Edie wasn’t the first Middlestein to emerge from the Attenberg brain, finding the structure in The Middlesteins, The Corrections, how imagining alternative universe versions of the self is helpful in creating three-dimensional characters, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, why it took so long for Attenberg to write about where she came from, the virtues of getting older, why it took nine years and four books for Attenberg to write about Judaism, the two books that Attenberg threw away, the aborted Antiheroine novel about a comic book artist, the inspirational qualities of breaking an ankle, pop-up books, the aborted Upstate novel, the problems with territorial novels, being message-oriented, attempts to get rid of bullshit, turning forty, writing a chapter in the first person plural, Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, Nick Hornby, unspoken statute of limitations concerning style, hearing fictional people gossip in the background, when agents find certain chapters to be too much of a risk, Benny’s mysterious and sudden hair loss, the long Richard chapter, how to sympathize with a bastard character, being protective of characters, leaving someone who is sick, balancing hope with hopelessness, emotional life vs. assessment, using the word “like” too much, Marilynne Robinson, when small domestic issues feel big in fiction, research into vascular surgery and Chinese cooking, exploring the unknown, asking mom for help with Yiddish, Attenberg’s new historical novel, writing a draft in four months, being a fast writer, spending too much time on a book, overthinking fiction, Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel, having no idea what’s going to happen, why Paul Ryan is an evil man, the horrors of National Bohemian Beer, what people drink in Baltimore, Joseph Mitchell’s Mazie as inspirational force, getting into the head of a real person, Instant Love vs. the fictional characters that inspire Attenberg now, how much “me” a novelist needs, Attenberg’s expanding worldview, and efforts to control life.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I was curious not only about Edie’s fluctuating weight over the course of time and how time shows the perception of that, but also Benny’s hair loss. And not just because I’m bald. The fact of the matter is that you have this character. He balds all at once. Which suggests that there’s some Hapsburg-like problem within the Middlestein genotype. But I’m wondering. Was this a way to level the gender playing field in any way? Or was this a way of showing that anybody in this book could have her physicality or her place in the world just change on a dime?

Attenberg: Yes. That sounds really good.

Correspondent: (in melodramatic voice) How did it come about, Jami? (laughs)

Attenberg: I know. You always make it sound better and really important. You have a way of heightening things.

Correspondent: You’re saying you’re not important? I would disagree with that.

Attenberg: I think that Benny — I don’t know. It might be a really personal thing. Like all the men in my family, they all go bald really young.

Correspondent: All at once like that?

Attenberg: No! Not at all.

Correspondent: (laughs) I mean, it’s really one hell of a fate.

Attenberg: It’s like that psychic obvious emotional disturbance. He doesn’t really deal with things as he should in the time that he should. And he keeps things inside the family. And so that’s how it gets manifested. The hair loss. So it’s not really like a tough metaphor to get.

Correspondent: What about the long Richard chapter? This was one of my favorite parts of the book. Because he leaves Edie. And at that point, I’m thinking, “Well, this guy is a total bastard.” And then you have this long sad chapter of his efforts to date and who he gets involved with. And I then felt extremely sorry for him. And my feelings for the character changed over the course of this twenty or thirty page stretch. We were talking earlier about how a lot of the book was dictated by instinct. And I’m wondering. How much of the other side of Richard were you aware of in advance when you were working on this chapter? Or was this chapter a way for you to not view him as “Ah, this guy’s an asshole”?

Attenberg: It is a really good question that you ask. Because I actually had to write my way into feeling sympathetic for him. So you actually were with me on the journey. By the end of the book, I actually — I don’t know if I love him. But I like all of them. I was just trying to understand them all really deeply and understand all their imperfections. Again, when I say it, it just sounds so obvious and not complicated in the slightest. But people are flawed. And we need to understand why they’re flawed. And these people feel very real to me, even though I don’t know them. By the end of the book, I felt that I knew them. And I’m very protective of them actually. I’m a little terrified of any bad reviews. Like where they judge these characters. I’ll be like, “I’ll be the judge of them! Nobody else can!”

Correspondent: The books aren’t your children. The characters are your children.

Attenberg: The characters are my people. Yeah, I was trying to understand how somebody could do that. And how you could leave somebody who was sick. People do it all the time. And I know people who’ve done it. And I also know people who have gone back when they find out that people are sick. At some point, you have to be able to take care of yourself, I think.

Correspondent: But it seems to me — I’m wondering if you ever actually got a definitive answer to that question in exploring the other side of his character. Because people may leave someone who’s sick, but they may not even know why they do it.

Attenberg: I think he did the best that he could for himself. I don’t think he could be with her anymore. But it didn’t work out perfectly. But you just don’t get everything that you want. I don’t think there’s a lot of loose ends necessarily in the book. It’s not unfinished. There’s hope in it, but there’s also a little bit of hopelessness. You can’t have it all. You just can’t have all. Sorry, I’m getting strangely emotional about this. Because I haven’t talked about the book before. Not really, but I’m just…

Correspondent: I have yet to make anybody cry on this program.

Attenberg: Oh no! I’m not going to cry.

Correspondent: This is not a Mike Wallace kind of thing.

Attenberg: Because this is the first interview that I’ve done. So I haven’t really thought about this. Because so much of it is instinctual. So you don’t.

Correspondent: Where does thought apply when we’re talking about instinct? Obviously, assessing what you have done is an awkward thing for any author to do. But how does it play into the writing process? How do you assess what you have written? Or do you leave it and let it have its own emotional life?

Attenberg: No. I’m just starting to be able — by the way, I’m appalled at my use of the word “like” in this interview. I hear it like every five seconds and it’s making me crazy.

Correspondent: Do you need me to edit it out? (laughs)

Attenberg: What? Can you just do all the ums and all the likes?

Correspondent: We can just put a really strange sound where you say “like.” Auggh! Or something like that.

Attenberg: A little honking noise or something.

Correspondent: But seriously, back to this idea of, like, emotional life and analysis or assessment or intellectualizing something. I mean, does that play into any part of your writing process?

Attenberg: I’m so much more of a visceral writer than I am a cerebral writer. But I’m getting better at being a cerebral writer. Just the fact that I even thought about structure in the way that I did for this book makes me just think it actually is exciting to me. Because it’s just a step forward for me. I’m strategic. I’m getting to be more strategic. The more I read, the more I write. I treasure the fact that I’m a visceral writer. That it’s such a pure emotional — like, I’m on a quest for the emotional truth at all times. Again, everything I say sounds so pretentious. But I’m really trying so hard to be responsible to people’s emotions. Even if they’re fictional.

Correspondent: Maybe a way to answer this. Because we were talking before the tape was rolling about you reading Marilynne Robinson. And I’m wondering. What is it about her work right now that speaks to you as a writer? I mean, you mentioned that you were reading her for some future project. What do you draw from her? What do you take from her that is of value to you in evolving as a writer?

Attenberg: Well, she writes about faith. And since I’m writing a book about a character right now who’s finding faith, I was interested in that. But I think she’s someone who can just write about things that are very emotional and small and personal and domestic, I guess, but makes it feel really big. Like apocalyptic almost. I’m interested in the little moments, in making the little moments feel bigger. Am I answering this question? Sorry.

Correspondent: No, no, no, no. Don’t worry about it. Look, honestly, if you were to provide an insufficient answer, I would probably pester you. Or pester you politely. Or nudge you or what not. So in the acknowledgments, you mention your research into vascular surgery, Chinese cooking, and the magical powers of cumin and cinnamon. So I’m curious. What topics in this book required no research at all? And do you need to sometimes explore the unknown to push yourself further as a writer? Is this something that was part of the whole process of exploring faith? Getting older and so forth?

Attenberg: I mean, I had asked my mom for help on a lot of the Yiddish words. I will say that. Like I remember them from my youth. But I didn’t know when certain things were going to be appropriate. I was just talking about it. So the book that I’m working on now is a historical novel. And then The Middlesteins is more present tense, but also set in the world that I grew up in. And I visit there once a year and see a parents, who still live there. Who are still happily married and not morbidly obese. I should just clarify that. They’re not these characters. But it was whenever I stepped away from The Middlesteins — and I wrote it really fast. I wrote it in four months. The first draft was four months. Whenever I stepped away from it, I could come back to it fairly easily. Because I always knew where it was located. So little things that I had to research ended up informing it and being really delightful and helpful. But I didn’t have to do a lot of research on it. Because it felt really familiar. The book that I’m working on now is a million times harder. Because it’s set in an unfamiliar location. It’s set in an unfamiliar time. Everything about it is new. Everything has to be invented. And it’s just really hard for me to put myself in the room. That said, once I get there, it’s a really wonderful place to be.

Correspondent: Everything has to be invented? I mean, there’s a lot of documentation for a particular time.

Attenberg: Yeah. But it doesn’t feel like anything familiar to me for some reason. Yeah, I mean, I could look at pictures of things.

Correspondent: So you need a certain amount of familiarity with any kind of novel.

Attenberg: For it to go like super fast. Yes. I don’t need it. But it was certainly much more helpful. Like I admit. I think this book is going to take me a year to write for a first draft. Like it’s hard for me to imagine just flying through it. But I love it. I love it. I’m like very struck by the character. The narrator. And it’s fun to write first person. I haven’t done it in a while. But The Middlesteins was, I don’t want to say it was an easy book. That’s not true. Because I really thought very deeply about things. But it came out of me very easily.

Correspondent: How important, do you think, is it to maintain a certain amount of speed? Do you have any frustrations of any part of the process going slower than the norm? Or anything like that?

Attenberg: No.

Correspondent: Do you accept the pace that it is?

Attenberg: Yeah. I have always been a really fast writer. I think it’s because I have a background maybe in advertising. Or I’m a fast thinker. Or whatever. But I’m learning that it’s good to slow it down. I’m learning that your senses — like, I think you can spend too much time on a book. I actually do believe that. Because I know people who overwrite. And I’m like, “You know what? Sometimes somebody just walks across the room.” It’s totally fine for them to just walk across the room and not experience eight emotions while they do it. And you don’t need to know how their foot fell on the floor. Sometimes you just have to get that character across the room. So I think that you can overthink things. But I’m pretty into just getting to the heart of the matter. Getting to the story.

Correspondent: When was the last time you overthought any piece of fiction that you were working on?

Attenberg: I’m overthinking it right now a little bit. I have to admit. I usually write 1,000 words a day. And I’m doing 500 words a day. And it’s like pulling teeth. Even though I love it. I love writing. And I love this book. It’s because it’s inspired by a real person, I think. That’s part of it. And I want to be respectful of her. Even though I never met her. She died before I was born. Twenty years before I was born. And I don’t know very much about her.

Correspondent: Do you fear knowing too much about her?

Attenberg: Oh yeah. I mean, it’s inspired by one of the characters in Up in the Old Hotel. Did you ever read that?

Correspondent: No, I haven’t.

Attenberg: It’s by Joseph Mitchell. Oh, you have to read it! You have to!

Correspondent: I have not read Joseph Mitchell. I know. I know.

Attenberg: Oh my god! YOU have to.

Correspondent: I know. There are gaps, I’m afraid.

Attenberg: And also because it’s reported. And you’re somebody who reports. Oh yeah. It’s totally for you.

Correspondent: I know. I know.

Attenberg: Maybe you’re afraid to read it. Are you afraid?

Correspondent: No! I just…I’ve never gotten around to it! I read a lot!

Attenberg: It’s so good.

Correspondent: I read like 200 books a year or something. So…

Attenberg: I think it’s important for you to read it.

Correspondent: I know. Other people have told me this.

Attenberg: The next interview.

Correspondent: I will read it next year. How about that?

Attenberg: Promise? Alright. I want to hear how much you love it. So anyway, that was one of the characters in the book. She — see, I’m almost more excited talking about the book that I’m working on now…

Correspondent: Sure! We can do that.

Attenberg: …than The Middlesteins. Not because I’m not excited about it, but it’s in such a no man’s land. Because I don’t know when you’re going to put this on the Internet. But I have two and a half months left to go until the book comes out. As of right now.

Correspondent: It’s going to go up in two and a half months.

Attenberg: So it’s going to go up in two and a half. So right now, I have no idea what’s going to happen. It’s August in New York. The publishing industry is dead. Everyone’s like on vacation somewhere.

Correspondent: We don’t even know what’s going to happen politically.

Attenberg: Politically.

Correspondent: Ryan has just been announced as VP. So for those who would like to travel in time with us. (laughs)

Attenberg: I know! It’s freaking me out.

Correspondent: Because what else is going to happen? This has been a crazy cataclysmic year, news wise.

Attenberg: I don’t even have anything to say about Ryan. Because I’m really stunned by the whole thing. Like he’s like a horrible evil man! He’s a terrible person.

Correspondent: I should point out that, when you said “horrible evil man,” you had this huge, huge smile on your face and this great delight and glee in your eyes. Just to be clear on this. (laughs)

Attenberg: (laughs) He’s just like the worst human being ever. And it’s interesting to read all the coverage today.

Correspondent: Oh man! What if something happens to Ryan in the next two and a half months? And this goes on. And we’ve been talking about him. And we’ve called him a horrible evil man. And it’s actually proved. And he’s disgraced or something. And then Romney has to choose another VP candidate.

Attenberg: There’s not going to be any disgrace. This man is a robot.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Attenberg: He’s such an evil robot! He’s been living a perfect unassailable life since he was like born basically. He’s like Satan’s spawn! I mean, I think he’s really been sent here to destroy all of us. I think. God, and the glee from all the commentators. They’re losing their minds over this. Because he’s so evil. Gosh, anyway…

Correspondent: Okay. I have a very important question. Probably the most important question I will ask you. And that involves National Bohemian Beer. It’s a rather notorious Baltimore specialty.

Attenberg: Yes.

Correspondent: Fifteen years, you could not even get this in draft. And they only recently put in kegs. In 2011. So I’m curious if Kenneth’s adventures late in the book was a way to atone for any notorious carousing experiences in the Baltimore area that you might have had. To exact retribution, perhaps, on the Pabst Brewing Company.

Attenberg: (laughs) No! I was just thinking about Baltimore. Because that’s where I went to college. But I’m really surprised that you know so much about this. How do you know so much about this? Or you from there?

Correspondent: I’ve been to Baltimore a few times, but, no, I just know this.

Attenberg: You just researched this.

Correspondent: National Bohemian is a terrible beer. And it’s only a Baltimore beer.

Attenberg: Natty Boh. That’s what we used to call it in college. Because he lived in Baltimore. That was the beer that you drink in vast quantities. Whether you wanted to or not.

(Photo: Jesse Chan-Norris)

Categories: Fiction

davison2

Peter Davison (BSS #493)

Peter Davison played the fifth incarnation of Doctor Who! But he also delivers numerous charming performances in A Very Peculiar Practice, All Creatures Great and Small, At Home with the Braithwaites and The Last Detective.

Play

(Many thanks to Roger Bilheimer for his great help in making this improbable conversation happen and to Yashoda Sampath for consulting on extremely pedantic Who matters in preparation for this talk.)

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Stumbling around his motel room for a celery stick.

Guest: Peter Davison

Subjects Discussed: Whether Davison is a PBS manifestation or a corporeal entity, why Davison tends to avoid psychotic roles, the BBC’s austere costume policy, Davison’s cricket skills, the thespic advantages of keeping your hands in your pockets or behind your back, working with Roger Daltrey, film vs. TV continuity, Davison’s secret aspirations as a pop singer, “Doctor in Distress,” working with the same writer and director for A Very Peculiar Practice, single directors vs. many directors on television, Peter Grimwade’s mysterious ousting as director on Doctor Who, the regrettable deficiencies of “Time Flight,” the inside story on “No, not the mind probe,” when directors don’t even notice line delivery, the live theater approach to doing television, working with Peter Moffatt and Graeme Harper, how Who directors are chosen and how this affects acting and production, why Davison left Who, the slim advance notice that Davison got in relation to stories, the importance of humor in Doctor Who, conflicts with John Nathan-Turner, the problems with having an American companion, Davison’s creative input on Who, the difficulties of playing the Doctor, problems with Season 20, being confronted with the blank slate of virtue, John Nathan-Turner’s middling efforts to make companions more interesting, mew Who vs. old Who, theories that Rose as the most important character in the new series, Mark Strickson’s frustrations, holding up wobbly sets and flimsy production values, acting when the wrong set was lit, whether any virtues and production techniques have been lost from old Who, the disconnect between what’s inside your head as an actor and what’s on camera, Davison having to change appearance after Doctor Who, the burdens of Who, Tom Baker, choosing variegated roles, and Davison ensuring that he’s not defined by notoriety.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You know, I always wondered if you were a manifestation on PBS. But now I actually know that you’re corporeal. You’re here.

Davison: (laughs) I have the same feeling myself sometimes.

Correspondent: Oh you do? How do you distinguish between that? I mean, when you go and perform a role, are you in a fugue state? Do you know who you are when you’re playing it? Do you summon some abstruse emotional energy?

Davison: No. What happens with me is a form of — it sometimes has to be very quick — osmosis. You start off with a blank page and, as you get familiar with the script, the character is joined to you. Like barnacles or something.

Correspondent: I see Tristan off your shoulder right now.

Davison: Exactly. And you do start, depending on the parts you play — you bring them home with you sometimes. If you are playing a bit of a psychotic character, it can mean trouble at home.

Correspondent: But you haven’t really been playing much in the way of psychotic characters.

Davison: No. I think that’s a good thing. (laughs)

Correspondent: I mean, you’re too nice a guy? Have you had a great desire to chew the scenery like that?

Davison: You know, every so often. I have made a career of playing fairly nice guys. And I’m very happy doing that. But every so often.

Correspondent: Very nice doing that.

Davison: Thank you very much. But every so often, you just kind of get a feeling. You just want to be play a nasty character. And fortunately, usually when those feelings come about, one comes along that you like and you’ll accept it. I played a bit of a bad guy recently in an episode of Lewis, which is a British detective series.

Correspondent: Oh really? How evil were you for this?

Davison: I was pretty nasty, actually. I was very much a…

Correspondent: You pushed ladies downstairs? Widmark style?

Davison: I kill people.

Correspondent: You kill people?

Davison: And make them disappear. But in a nice and charming smiley way.

Correspondent: So I’m going to have to ask you about one of the reasons why you’re here. Doctor Who. And I”m going to try and do it through a few unusual angles. There’s one thing I have noticed. I know that when Tom Baker left, he took his boots with him. And during the early run of Doctor Who, you’re wearing what I guess is your own sneakers. Is that true? Is that safe to say? Does the BBC actually allow you your own? Did they actually make shoes for you? Or did you have to come in with your own footwear?

Davison: Oh no, no, no. You have proper costume fittings and people sit down for long periods of time and discuss what you’re going to wear. And I think they were pretty much off-the-peg shoes. But the BBC did pay for them.

Correspondent: Oh, okay.

Davison: And the rest of the outfit.

Correspondent: So you can wear them home.

Davison: Well, no. They wouldn’t trust you to bring it back in the morning.

Correspondent: Oh really? Well, what input did you have into the design of the Doctor’s costume? How was it like for you? I mean, how strict were they? I know you’ve said in other interviews that there were some bizarre union restrictions in which lights went out at 10 or something.

Davison: Oh, the whole thing in those days was a very complex procedure. I mean, I had input into my outfit. But it was very much not in specifics. The producer said, “We’re looking for something that’s more youthful and slightly more energetic and sportier.”

Correspondent: Cricket says youthful.

Davison: And I thought cricket fitted the bill exactly. So I suggested the idea of a cricket outfit. If I’m honest with you, I would have chosen a more off-the-peg look. It was a bit too designer for me. Because the idea with the TARDIS is a room somewhere in the depths of the TARDIS in which is a whole range of clothes. And when the Doctor regenerates, he simply goes into the room and he goes, “Ah, there’s this bit here. I’ll try this on here.” And he comes out with a kind of thrown together outfit. With my outfit, it just seemed like it probably wasn’t sitting around on a peg, which is what I didn’t like about it. On the other hand, I thought it had a very good style to it. I was very happy with it in the end.

Correspondent: You showed off your cricket skills in “Black Orchid.” What were your cricketing skills before that? Or was that pure acting?

Davison: No, no. It wasn’t. I’m not bad at cricket.

Correspondent: Really?

Davison: Compared to most actors, who are pretty rubbish.

Correspondent: You’re not going to name names.

Davison: I could actually, but I won’t. But in one of the scenes there, you can clearly see me actually bowl somebody out. Which I was very fortunate that they were able to get it into the shot. So I wasn’t bad. I was very happy to do that.

Correspondent: While we’re talking about physicality, I have to ask. So I watched a good deal of the Doctor Who run yet again — after many, many years — that you did. And the one thing I noticed is that you kept your hands in your pocket or behind your back quite a bit.

Davison: Yes.

Correspondent: And I’m wondering if you were just a spastic guy or a guy who gesticulates. If this was an effort to try to prevent yourself from doing that on camera.

Davison: (laughs)

Correspondent: Because sometimes you have your hands in your pocket and they’re clenched in there like you know your hands are going to go free. So what of this?

Davison: Well, I don’t know where it first came out. I think probably it just came out of — I played a role before Doctor Who in All Creatures Great and Small.

Correspondent: Yes. That’s right. Tristran.

Davison: Unfortunately, Tristran, I think, is described as forever having his hands in his pockets. So that became such a kind of…

Correspondent: The Davison crutch?

Davison: Yes! A Davison crutch. Absolutely. But I think it just carried on a bit. And probably it shouldn’t have done. On the other hand, I have to say — you know, I did a series about three or four years ago with Roger Daltrey. You know, of The Who.

Correspondent: Oh yeah.

Davison: He played a part. And we were having this scene together in the pub. And we’d do a shot on him where he was doing his lines talking to me. And then we’d do another shot from another angle. And the continuity person would keep coming up to him, going, “Uh, Roger, you raised your hand in the air on this shot. And you put your hand on the drink in this shot. And you put your hand in your pocket on that shot.” And he got into such a terrible state. And nothing was ever said to me. And he said to me, “How come you’re so good at this?” And I said, “Because I never do anything with my hands.” (laughs) By the way, it’s a great advantage to put your hands in your pockets. Because no one comes up to you and says, “Ah! You did this with this hand here.” I think I probably overdid it.

Correspondent: Well, how rigid were the script supervisors, or continuity, during the BBC days in the ’80s and the ’90s? Were they really as anal as they are now? Or what?

Davison: You know, in my experience — and I’ve had a relatively tiny experience in film — but in television, they’re absolutely spot on. You rarely — you do get mistakes. But I’ve seen more mistakes in movies — in editing and things where people’s positions and hands and props and which hand they held their things up in — than I have done in television. They’re pretty good in television. Maybe it’s something to do with the fact that the actors in television are doing a lot of things. They’re fairly disciplined, I think, TV actors. And maybe film actors somehow are, shall we say, maybe less disciplined. Maybe more inspirational. Maybe more original in some areas. But less disciplined. And I certainly notice more mistakes watching the average film than I did in watching TV.

Correspondent: So I have to ask. We talked cricket beforehand. I had heard some sort of rumor that you were pursuing a career as a pop singer roughly around the time of All Creatures Great and Small and even while you were playing Doctor Who!

Davison: How? Where did you hear that? (laughs)

Correspondent: I have my sources. And I was hoping to go ahead and, before they continue on the Internet, to actually get the hard journalistic truth. Did you have pop singer aspirations?

Davison: I did. Well, I’ve always written songs.

Correspondent: Oh you do?

Davison: Yeaaaaaah.

Correspondent: There are loads of tapes hidden in your basement?

Davison: Loads of tapes. And I still have a little mini-studio in my house.

Correspondent: Really?

Davison: Yeah. And I still do stuff. But I think I’ve rather given up the idea of becoming a pop idol.

Correspondent: But do you still record?

Davison: Actually, I do still record stuff. And there was a time — I suppose it was about that time — where I thought, “You know, I’d be really good to just get a band together,” and not use my name. I didn’t want to try and sell it as Peter Davison doing it. So I’d just get a band and just get some songs together and just see what happens with them. If one wasn’t pushing it from a point of view. Because I think it’s a kiss of death. Actors saying they’re in a band. So I just wanted to do it from an entirely different angle.

Correspondent: Or in the case of Doctor Who, “Doctor in Distress.” It was disastrous.

Davison: Absolutely. But it came to grief, for a bizarre reason, that musicians have a completely different lifestyle to actors. It seems like they would be very close, but we would do things like we would call a rehearsal session. Seven o’clock in the evening. So I’d be there at seven o’clock. This was just rehearsal. Seven o’clock in the evening. And then at about 11 PM, the bass player would turn up. Then at about 1:00 in the morning, the lead guitarist would turn up. And at about half past two, we’d actually get enough people there to actually start rehearsing. By which time, it wasn’t long before dawn was breaking. And I was exhausted! ‘Cause I’m not used to it. Musicians just have this idea, you know. “Aw yeah, let’s just do a little bit of jamming for a couple of hours and then let’s get down to it.” So I realized really — although I loved doing it, I didn’t have the mentality of a musician, of a band member. I was a bit too conformist even for that. I thought actors were fairly unconformist.

Correspondent: Well, A Very Peculiar Practice, I know, that you had basically one writer and one director through a good chunk of the run. Do you prefer that kind of constancy as an actor? As a performer? That this is actually better for you? Do you get nervous if there’s a constant shuffle of directors?

Davison: It depends on what it is. I’ve done a couple of series where the same director has directed all the episodes. I did a series called A Very Peculiar Practice. One director. All Creatures Great and Small, The Last Detective — you’re right. We had different directors coming in actually for most of the episodes. But you still have the same crew coming on every week. You have a certain amount of consistency. It’s just — it’s horses for horses. Series television, I think, is quite good to get varied directors in. Because it just gives it a different spark. A different style to the episode. Whereas if you’re doing a serial, I think it’s important to have, at the most, two directors. Ideally one director. ‘Cause they know exactly what they’re doing.

Correspondent: Speaking of directors, I’m hoping you might be able to provide some light on this rumor involving Peter Grimwade. Director of “Earthshock” and “Kinda.” The story goes — at least promulgated by Eric Saward — that he actually snubbed John Nathan-Turner, didn’t invite him to a party. And then Peter Grimwade eventually was just doing writing for the show. Do you have any insight as to why he stopped directing? Because he was really good.

Davison: Um, he — I think Peter was very talented. He wasn’t — I didn’t think he was that great a director really. As far as the actors were concerned. He probably had good ideas.

Correspondent: Aha. More of a visual director.

Davison: I probably undervalued him, to be honest with you. I didn’t have any say on whether he did any more or not. But he didn’t inspire you with great confidence about what he was doing.

Correspondent: Really?

Davison: As a director. Although I think he was a very talented writer.

Correspondent: Even “Time Flight”?

Davison: Well, “Time Flight.” “Time Flight” was unfortunate, you see. Because “Time Flight,” I think, could have been done very well. But we had no money. The sets were probably the most dreadful sets that Doctor Who had ever had to put up with. And we literally shot England before humans…

Correspondent: Pleistocene. Exactly.

Davison: In Studio 8 of the BBC. With a little model of Concorde sitting on the back of the…and it was just…

Correspondent: And the color separation overlay as the airplane leaves. It was amazingly…

Davison: Catastrophically bad. You felt very frustrated by the fact that there was just no money. The monsters were lumps of polystyrene moving around the set. But I think the actual script itself wasn’t bad. But the realization of it was hugely disappointing.

Correspondent: So it seems to me to make a good Who story, you really need to have good direction and good acting in order to sell the illusion. What do you do when you’ve got a guy like Paul Jerricho delivering “No, not the mind probe!” in absolutely horrendous delivery in “The Five Doctors.” “No, not the mind probe!” Which is a very famous…

Davison: Yes, I know.

Correspodnent: How do you as an actor deal with this?

Davison: (laughs) Well, I think you have to use your instinct and not be led astray by the director. Sometimes, I’m always very, very wary of “Give me a bit more! Give me a bit more!”

Correspondent: (laughs)

Davison: You think, “Oh no! I’m sure that’s not right! I’m sure it’s not right.” But I’ve learned now that you have to make a decision as to whether you’re going to trust the director or not. Who are you going to trust? Do you trust yourself more than the director? And it’s a difficult thing to do.

Correspondent: Did anybody even say anything when he delivered the line that way? I mean, it’s so remarkably bad.

Davison: You know, a lot of directors, I’ve discovered, barely even notice.

Correspondent: Really?

Davison: Visual directors. I’ve worked with a lot of directors where I’ve said entirely the wrong line, entirely the wrong line. Stumbled over it and then I hear the click going, “Okay, let’s move on! Great! Let’s move on!” You’re going, “No, hang on a bit. I said the wrong line!” And they’ll go, “Oh, did you?” They don’t notice.

Correspondent: Wow.

Davison: There are some directors that listen. And I love those directors that listen. Because they’re what you might call actors’ directors. Who are really concerned with what you’re giving as an actor. And you trust them. So if they say, “That’s fine. Let’s move on,” you go, “Okay, that’s fine.” Other directors you know are just looking at the picture. They barely notice. Until they sit down. But you know. They will sit down in the cart and go, “He said it like that? And we let him get away with it?” You don’t know. I mean, when you’re on the floor and you hear someone say, “No, not the mind probe,” you don’t quite know how it’s coming over. Upstairs they should have known how it came over. They should have said, “Let’s go again.” But I think there’s panic. There’s rush. There’s not enough time to get the thing done. They think it will be fine. And it’s very often not.

Categories: Film

tcboyle6

T.C. Boyle V (BSS #492)

T.C. Boyle is most recently the author of San Miguel.

Play

Since Mr. Boyle has appeared four previous times on this program (Show #10, Show #70, Show #273, Show #385), we felt that it was essential to include him in Bat Segundo’s last stretch. This is the fifth and final conversation with T.C. Boyle.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Remembering his disastrous Diana-themed wedding ceremony to Doris.

Author: T.C. Boyle

Subjects Discussed: On being alive, the “Swiss Family Lester” article in Life, the advantages of working with scant details, not wishing to violate historical rules, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, the quest for quotidian atmosphere on an island, constant description of the wind, imagining what it’s like to live away from everyone as a fantasy, visits to the Channel Islands, rough seas, Boyle’s ineptitude as a sailor, the mysterious rangers who live on San Miguel Island, people who camp on the Channel Islands, why anyone would want to lay down $10,000 on a questionable capitalistic venture, comparisons between East is East and San Miguel, underplayed racial tension in San Miguel, Japanese fishermen who visited the Channel Islands, muting the irony, working within deliberate limitations, writing about a location that is starved of art and culture, staying original and avoiding the tendency to repeat, “Birnam Wood,” writing realistic stories without irony, Boyle’s tendency to use women as characters despite his efforts to write about men, carryover from Talk Talk and When the Killing’s Done into San Miguel, using character more as a writer, how Boyle’s stories have changed in the last fifteen years, the forthcoming Stories Volume II, John Updike, refusing to make adjustments to stories, “This Monkey, My Back,” the Ransom archives, academic methods of cleaning the house, the difficulties of giving up elements of the past, letters that Boyle didn’t give to Ransom, the morality of burning love letters, hiding financial disclosure, seeing writers of the past on TV and radio, George Bernard Shaw, Boyle’s insistence that society won’t exist in 100 years, Jack Kerouac’s disastrous appearance on Firing Line, whether author appearances and legacy even matters, the desire for literary gossip, literary biography, Carol Sklenicka’s biography of Raymond Carver, Blake Bailey, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, San Miguel as the obverse experience from Boyle typically playing joyful god towards characters, keeping San Miguel confined to the island, human efforts to control nature, despair, being a nature boy, having a sense of isolation, Thoreau living in nature, Alcatraz and Angel Island, writing fiction in isolation on a mountain, using the Internet with iron discipline, fiction which emerges from America in a glum economic and political state, Brian Francis Slattery’s Lost Everything, having a more muted view in advanced age, maintaining a clean conscience, the amniotic fluid of civilization, the addictiveness of handheld devices, the usefulness of smartphones, Occupy Wall Street, whether the experience of nature is lost on most people, biologists who have praised When the Killing’s Done, the recent shutdown of California parks, simulation as a way to confront reality, the 1935 film version of Mutiny on the Bounty shot at San Miguel, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” Lord of the Flies, Francophilia, language and civilization as a coping mechanism, spinsters, the surprising hope near the end of San Miguel, Boyle’s next novel about violence, deviation during a novel, how newspaper paragraphs turn into stories, and fiction vs. journalism.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I found this [handing over printout] — this “Pictures to the Editor” article from Life. I thought that you were just making this up, this whole “Swiss Family Lester” thing. But lo and behold, I found this. And I’m sure you found this before you had the Life reporter show up in your book. And this leads me to wonder. Because I was surprised by how skimpy this article was. I mean, I look at these photos and there’s plenty of information there for a writer of your sort to draw and infer and so forth. So this leads me to wonder. How much research do you need for something along these lines? Is it helpful to not have as many details? Or to just have a picture like this?

Boyle: Yeah, I wonder. That’s a great question, Ed. The first section of the book about the Waters family allowed me a little more freedom to invent. Because the diary from which I was working was fifty pages or less. Very fragmentary and only took up a six month period. With the Lesters, since they were very well known and were featured in Life Magazine and on radio shows all across the country, it was a little more difficult. Because I didn’t want to violate the actual events of history. But I think the two stories, in my mind anyway, blended fairly well.

Correspondent: So if you have to go ahead and abide by the rules of history, as a fiction writer you have to invent. I mean, does this get in the way?

Boyle: Yes. Well, this is a question with any of the historical novels. And I’ve written many, many historical novels and stories too. You don’t have to abide. You can do, for instance, what Philip Roth did in The Plot Against America. You can change anything. There are no rules whatsoever. You can have aliens come in in the middle of a realistic story. But usually when I’m giving historical elements, I love the true story so much that I want to give it to you. And usually it’s so bizarre. Like for instance, Stanley McCormick from Riven Rock or Alfred Kinsey or even Frank Lloyd Wright. The people I’ve written about. In this case though, I was trying, as you know, for something totally different and, as a companion piece to When the Killing’s Done, to give more of an atmospheric, moody, quotidian kind of approach to what it might have been like to be someone living on this island solely.

Correspondent: But then you have situations like constant descriptions of the wind. There’s a lot of wind in this book. This leads me to ask, well, what do you do to keep that original? I know that you are devoted to original prose, original description, and not wanting to repeat yourself. What do you do to keep that fresh?

Boyle: Aw shucks, Ed. I’m just flying by the seat of my pants. Everything works organically. And if it’s windy, it’s windy. You know, the book begins — for those who don’t know — with a series of very short chapters. This is a naturalistic book about people living on an island. And each one introduces a new element. And one of those elements is the fog, for instance. One is the wind. Many of them describe elements of the house: arriving at the house, the kitchen, the bedroom. It’s a way of my going deep inside these characters to imagine what it would have been like to live apart from everyone. I mean, this is a fantasy that so many of us have. Why the Lesters were famous in their day. Simply for living apart from the entire world on this island, in sole possession of it, during the Depression. When everybody else was lined up on the streets looking for a job.

Correspondent: Did you make any visits to San Miguel? I know you did that for Anacapa for the last book. Did you take in the terrain to know how to write about it? Especially when there are really no remnants of the homes, the domiciles, or even the sheep that actually appeared over there.

Boyle: Indeed yes, Ed. I made a single trip to San Miguel. Now I’ve made many, many trips, of course, to Santa Cruz and Anacapa, which were the setting of the previous book. As you know from having read San Miguel, this island is the farthest out and the most buffeted by the weather because of the currents. It’s not protected by Point Conception. It’s right off of it. So it’s getting everything coming down from the northern current from San Francisco, rumbling with the southern current coming up from Los Angeles and San Diego and spinning around in the Santa Barbara Channel. So it’s very, very rough seas. I’m told that I write very well about the seas, particularly in When the Killing’s Done, which opens with a shipwreck, as you remember. But I’m not a good sailor and my stomach doesn’t like being at sea. Especially in rough seas. Now it’s an hour and a half across to Santa Cruz in rough seas. But it’s four hours to San Miguel. And once you get there, you must stay in a campground for several days before the boat will come back to pick you up. I used a very, very simple stratagem to avoid this. I flew out. I flew out with the ranger, who is the sole person who lives there in the sole building on the island.

Correspondent: Well, that’s not exactly cricket if you want to mimic the experience.

Boyle: Well, of course, I have had the experience of going across the Channel many, many times.

Correspondent: Those extra hours, Tom.

Boyle: It’s true. It’s true. I never actually hung my head over and vomited. But I’ve been close on several occasions. I should say too, when I went to visit the ranger, I brought my son with me. I brought Marla Daily, the local historian who turned me onto all of this and published these diaries. And it was wonderful. Because the ranger himself is a historian of the place. And so is she. So I got to spend a full day with them looking at the rafters that were left in the ground of the old Lester house. There’s just a few remnants left. A little midden of cans and stuff. And just really get a sense of all of these places I had read about. And distances. And to walk all the trails. But what most intrigued me was that as you fly in, the beaches there — you’ve seen it probably on Walt Disney and the Discovery Channel — it’s a huge breeding ground for the elephant seal. And you see them, hundreds of them, lying below you like giant inflated sausages. And as soon as I got off the plane, I said to Ian, “Look, maybe I should be talking to Fish and Game instead of you. But is it a violation if I mate with one of the sea elephants?” And he didn’t miss a beat. He said, “You know, that’s a violation on every possible grounds.”

Correspondent: How long did the ranger live there? I mean, did you get to know him fairly well to get a sense…

Boyle: Well, I spent a day with him. A day and a night with him. He has to retire. He’s only like fifty or something. But they rotate them out. And I think he has to retire soon. But he’s been there for some years. And he’s not there permanently. I mean, he has relief. Because even people who like solitude might go a little nuts out there.

Correspondent: Well, as you depict in your book.

Boyle: A further statistic. In Santa Cruz Island — the big one, four times bigger than Manhattan, right across from Santa Barbara, you can see it right there — there is a public campground. And you can take this boat out and you can camp there. And I was told by the ranger there that some days, like a July 4th weekend, there might be as many as 300 people camping in that campground. On San Miguel, there are 300 campers per year. So it’s pretty remote.

Correspondent: It is a park, I understand.

Boyle: It’s part of the National Park. Yeah. All the Channel Islands are, with the exception of Catalina.

Correspondent: So if the ranger gets rotated out, and if you are only relying upon a fifty page diary or scraps or, in the case of the third part, considerable media attention — although that’s accentuated by the fact that suddenly they have electricity, suddenly they have radio and so forth — what do you do to mimic that experience of being trapped on an island? Do you go ahead and spend a week eating nothing but lamb? How does this work?

Boyle: I’m just using my imagination, of course. Again, in this one as a companion piece for When the Killing’s Done, which is so vibrant and wild and deals with a current ethical concern about how we treat animals and who has the right to do it and who owns the turf, here I wanted something much more muted, to give a kind of experience of what it must have been like. Because this is a fantasy of everybody. One of the memoirs — the one by Elise, Elizabeth Lester — is called The King of San Miguel. Herbie was the king. Who else is the king? It’s just him, his wife, and two kids.

Correspondent: Who wants to be the king?

Boyle: That’s another question. Who wants to be the king? And I think what intrigued me about the first diary, Marantha, and then the Lester book is that there were these tremendous correspondences between the two families, who were in sole possession of this. One in the 1880s and the other in the 1930s. Here are men who have a vision and really don’t take into consideration the costs on their wives. I think this is particularly true in the first one: Marantha’s story. Here was a woman. Upper middle class. Living in an apartment in San Francisco. Convinced by her husband to buy into this ship ranch. To buy essentially this island and live there and, of course, they make their living in the most essential way. They shear the sheep and sell the wool. What could be simpler? A life in nature. But everyone isn’t suited for that.

(Image: Teri Carter)

Categories: Fiction

SHERMANSMOON

Ross McElwee (BSS #491)

Ross McElwee is most recently the director of Photographic Memory.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Stepping away from the memories.

Guest: Ross McElwee

Subjects Discussed: Walker Percy’s “certification,” Heidegger’s Alltäglichkeit, whether social media and YouTube can capture the essential quality of “everydayness,” patterns and layers of meaning discovered through the act of filming one’s life for decades, whether or not people have the patience to sit through a two and a half hour movie these days, how McElwee’s cinematic voice has altered with Photographic Memory, the use of Ken Burns-like music for a photographic montage, why McElwee decided to look backwards instead of tackling the present, problems in passing on the McElwee legacy, Adrian McElweee plugged into technology at the expense of conversation, patriarchal dissing, the imprecision of father-son parallels, the godfathers of the cinéma vérité movement, recreating the moon shot from Sherman’s March, the pernicious influence of the YouTube confessional, Time Indefinite as the obverse of Photographic Memory, filming a tumor for 72 seconds, why Marilyn Levine was not included in Photographic Memory, whether removing a family member from a film offers the truth about a dynamic, divorce, preserving privacy while remaining transparent, meeting Josh Kornbluth in Six O’Clock News, McElwee making “fiction films,” the middle ground between fiction and truth, Tolstoy’s maxim about novels not revealing everything, Andy Warhol’s Empire, why Charleen Swansea hasn’t appeared in McElwee’s recent films, a rare McElwee complaint about irrelevance, compartmentalizing the home environment and France, an adamant yet insignificant moment about a dish which caused Our Correspondent to question its significance, the future of documentary filmmaking and reality TV, Catfish, whether the marvel of the everyday will be informed by seducing the audience over questions of truth, the hidden rat at the motel in Bright Leaves, marveling over quotidian details, Steve Im in Six O’Clock News, conversation vs. dramatic evening news elements, when it’s easier to have conversations with strangers, the virtues of sitting still in one place, apocalyptic elements in McElwee’s films, being informed by lingering anxieties about the end, the harmful effects of smoking, confronting your own mortality, how Adrian’s presentation has transformed in McElwee’s films, fishing, the world divide between those who have kids and those who don’t, periods in life when kids are delightful, whether most people remember the last names of all their lovers and roommates, McElwee’s early attempts to write fiction, being inspired by limitations, how libertine digital shooting has impacted documentaries, and the dangers of not being selective enough when making am ovie.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I’m sorry I didn’t wear my Opus shirt. I couldn’t find one. I don’t think they even make them anymore. I was expecting you to come in and film me or something.

McElwee: Well, that can be arranged. I’ve got a little camera right here. (picking up iPhone)

Correspondent: Oh, I see. Well, I’ve got mine right here. (picking up Galaxy) So I know you wrote an essay on Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman, which is very interesting. Because I’ve seen your films and they really make me think of what Percy said about “certification” in The Moviegoer, which of course is taken from Martin Heidegger’s notion of Alltäglichkeit, “everydayness” in Being and Time. This idea where we go about our lives, we’re always sort of reflecting on what the meaning of this is. And he said that it was essential. So I’m wondering. How can the video medium, which you have actually gravitated to for the first time with this film, and social media in our present landscape take into account this notion of everydayness? I mean, this film almost seems to be an argument for and against it. So what of this?

McElwee: That’s a question? That’s an essay! (laughs)

Correspondent: Well, we do essay questions and answers here. It’s sort of similar to your films, I think. (laughs)

McElwee: It is. It actually perfectly complements my whole way of making films. Because it’s a very complex thing that you’re asking of me. And to me, filming the everyday, filming little moments from everyday life, is totally essential to understanding what life as a whole is about. I think it’s somehow not recording of any specific moment of life that leads to a richer understanding or a deeper presentation of the meaning of that particular life. But it’s the accretion of all of these things and the overlapping, the patterns, the resonances of daily moments filmed that resonate with things you’ve already seen before. And I find as I get older, as I film my friends and my family, that I see patterns and layers of meaning that would not have been there if I had just filmed them one time. So I think it’s partially that curiosity about the moment of being in the present. And that’s very, very important to my filmmaking. And yet now there’s also a kind of layering that seems to be happening de facto, which is because I’ve been filming for a long time. I’m led to putting together combinations of shots and scenes and moments that span decades. And I have the luxury of doing that now. Because I’m getting older. One of the few benefits of getting older.

Correspondent: The films have gotten shorter, however. Interestingly.

McElwee: Yeah, that’s partially because people don’t have the patience to sit through two and a half hour films anymore.

Correspondent: I do.

McElwee: Well, you’re not the typical viewer.

Correspondent: Well, the interesting thing, aside from the fact that this is shot on video, is that there are a number of surprises about this film, aesthetically speaking, where it just does not seem like a Ross McElwee film. We have, of course, the photos with the music. And I was like, “Am I watching a Ken Burns movie or am I watching a McElwee movie?”

McElwee: Right.

Correspondent: Or even the fact that you gravitate more towards the past instead of the present.

McElwee: Yes.

Correspondent: You know, if you are altering your voice to fit the needs of what is required today, is it truly a genuine McElwee movie?

McElwee: No. Well, I’m not altering the voice because of marketing. There’s no way that I’m doing that. But I think it really is a matter of becoming older. I know, for me, for having kids or at least a son who’s a different generation, I’m starting to wonder, “What is this tension that I feel with my son? And why does this seem so extreme?” And that led me to go back to my own past. And I think in doing so, I did fine. I wasn’t shooting film back then and I don’t have images, moving images, to call upon, to represent what was happening at that point in my life. But I do have still photographs. And so, yes, there’s still photographs in my film and it is the first time I’ve used them this extensively. You’re absolutely right about that. And it’s the first time I’ve used stretches of music the way that I have in this film. Music has been in all my films. It’s diegetic. It comes out of the filming itself and the filming environment.

Correspondent: But the music comes before the voice. Whereas in previous films, the voice has ushered in the music.

McElwee: Yes, that’s true. Although I do….yes, you’re right. You’re right. That’s a different way of using music. But I think I felt that these were raw materials that I had available, which represented what my life was like at that time. Therefore, I had to draw on them. And it did make a different kind of film. Of course, the other large difference was that I’m much older now. And so there’s much more to look back on. So that way does become more “historical.”

Correspondent: Much more to look back on? What about looking forward? I mean, literally. I was shocked watching this movie. Because I was expecting the cross-country quest of some kind. But, no, it really is going backwards towards events that are half a lifetime ago. I mean, why should they define who you are in the present? They certainly haven’t in other films that you’ve made.

McElwee: No. And I think it may be a one time departure. But I feel that I have now earned the right to make whatever film I wanted to make and that was the film I wanted to make. And I think it’s mainly because of what I say in the beginning of the film. It’s that I’m a little stymied by my relationship to my son. And I’m confused by the directions he’s going in. And those directions are somewhat representative of his entire generation. But I’m also smart enough to realize that my father had the same questions about me. I didn’t go to medical school. That’s so puzzling. “Why would you not want to do something that would guarantee you a comfortable and fulfilling life?” No, I wanted to become a filmmaker. What is that all about? He must have really wondered about those things.

Correspondent: But the difference between you and your father, and Adrian and you, is that we have this image you have throughout your films of your father showing how to suture up something and your brother going ahead and participating. You’ve used that repeatedly.

McElwee: Yes.

Correspondent: In this, it’s almost like you’re the hired cameraman for Adrian’s movies.

McElwee: Yes.

Correspondent: It’s not necessarily like the passing of a legacy that Adrian rejects, although Adrian also adopts the filmmaking guise. So is there really a parallel here?

McElwee: Not a precise parallel. But there’s some irony too in there. I become Adrian’s camerman at the end of the film and I think that’s meant to be somewhat humorous. People understand that. I’m doing documentaries and determined to do fiction. Not only that, but I become his cinematographer. So, yeah, it’s clearly a departure for me to go in some of the directions I’ve gone in too. But I think it’s very healthy. Why not try something you haven’t tried before? And I’ve done it. Whether I’ll do something similar again remains to be seen.

Correspondent: Going back to adjusting to recent developments of the last five or six years — smartphones, social media, and so forth — one of our first images of Adrian. He is plugged into his laptop, quite literally. He has the laptop in front of him. He has the headphones. He has this massive cafe drink with a bright blue straw. And you’re trying to say, “I need your full attention.” And he refuses this. And this to my mind — because I saw your film twice. The first time, I was horrified by this. The second time, I actually came to sympathize with Adrian a little bit more.

McElwee: Right.

Correspondent: But I initially thought, “My God, he’s a spoiled brat. Here he is. The great Ross McElwee is being dissed by his own son!”

McElwee: But that’s his job as a son. Is to diss his dad.

Correspondent: Yeah, but diss in that sort of way? I mean, not have a meaningful conversation with you? Because it seems that you clearly establish, especially when you drag out all of your old notebooks and all of your old photos, there’s meticulous ideas that you set down in your youth and he’s frivolously typing away on his computer.

McElwee: Well, see, my father through I was frivolously scribbling away in my notebooks. It’s like so judgmental of fathers to be that way about their sons.

Correspondent: Or viewers to be that way about patriarchal relationships.

McElwee: Exactly. And the other thing that you can say is, “Well, yeah, he’s busy texting and listening to some conversation at the same time. He’s multitasking and he doesn’t even hear me when I ask the question or acknowledge that he’s heard me.” But what am I doing? I’ve got a digital camera on my shoulder. Who am I to criticize him for being wrapped up in his technology when I’m also wrapped up in my technology?

Correspondent: Well, you weren’t in the camera shot. But I’m pretty sure you weren’t holding a beverage. I’m pretty certain.

McElwee: That’s true.

Correspondent: He had more distractions than you going on.

McElwee: Or he’s just more ambidextrous than I am.

Correspondent: (laughs) Ambidextrous. But I mean, you say that it’s pretty much the same thing. But I would argue, given all the additional impediments from Adrian, that it’s not. That your quest into France was a quest for the usual frivolities of falling into weird relationships. I mean, you have the image of your son next to his girlfriend and there are two laptops there. I mean, that’s a fundamental difference that disrupts the parallel. So what of this? Is there? Can you actually adopt a parallel between your own life and Adrian’s?

McElwee: No, of course. It’s never precisely the same from generation to generation. We all know that. And I think the things that you point out visually were stunning to me when I actually saw them through the viewfinder. The two laptops opened at right angles to each other at a cafe table.

Correspondent: You didn’t notice when you were filming? It’s sort of like the rat in the motel [from Bright Leaves].

McElwee: Well, I did notice when I was filming. Because I thought, “Ah! This is the image I’m looking for.” I didn’t tell them to do that. But from the minute I saw this, I said, “I’m going to film this. Because it just seems so appropriate.” But I think it’s unfair to be too critical of Adrian and his generation for being so wrapped up in this technology. Because it’s available. And I was shooting 16mm film because it was suddenly available in a portable sense. You could put these cameras on your shoulder and go into the world for the first time. That was the whole cinéma vérité revolution. You know, my dad didn’t understand any of that. He thought it was crazy. In fact, at the very beginning, so did most funding agencies. Public television. Arts agencies. Nobody got it. That this was going to be something significant. That you could take technology into the world and interact with it on its own terms. As opposed to bringing people into the studio and interviewing them. Or recreating things the way Flaherty did. Directing it as if it were a fiction film. Using people from real life. And, in fact, it took a while for people to understand the possibilities of cinéma vérité. This was before I began making films. Those guys. [Richard] Lecock and [Albert and David] Maysles and [D.A.] Penebaker. They had to fight to get their kinds of filmmaking seen and shown and produced. So there’s always a learning curve for the rest of them.

Correspondent: And I dig all those guys. But the one commonality throughout all that early cinéma vérité is that there is a concern for capturing the human as opposed to cutting reality up into a stylistic mélange that gets in the way of really grasping with life. I mean, you try to recreate that famous moon shot from Sherman’s March in this film, but we see that we have all these buildings and your monologue is there. But the moon is more insignificant on video and it’s populated by all these buildings and so forth.

McElwee: Right.

Correspondent: Clearly you’re aware that this is either fading or this is in competition with the YouTube confessional/YouTube star movement. And so forth. I mean, where do you fit in? Is there a place for you, do you think?

McElwee: In this? Yeah, that’s a good question. I’m not really trying to tailor my films for any particular generation or any particular venue. I didn’t know where this film was going to end up. It was commissioned by French television. But aside from that, I had no idea where it would end up. And even that was an obscure presentation and platform. It was a late night experimental television series. And I was very happy to accept their commission and make this film. But I didn’t know what kind of film it would be. And I didn’t feel like I could tailor it to suit any particular category or any particular audience. And so there’s a way in which perhaps I’m shooting myself in the foot by not really thinking more about where these films are destined and is there a way I can make them more accessible to the younger generation who will then download it from their computers. I just…I can’t think like that. For whatever reason, I’m just driven to make a film because I want to make it on my own terms.

Categories: Film

loveandrockets

Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez (BSS #490)

Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez are the creators, writers, and artists for Love and Rockets, the long-running and much acclaimed series celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Revisiting a moment in 1969 which sealed his fate.

Authors: Gilbert Hernandez and Jaime Hernandez

Subjects Discussed: Mario Hernandez, the way that Gilbert and Jaime collaborate, the six characters speaking in the same panel with six balloons, egging each other on, growing up in a household in which Gilbert passed down comics to Jaime, The Twilight Zone, Les Miserables, Gilbert’s lack of interest in prose, magical realism, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, creating an entire character based off a certain detail, finding new angles on heavily defined characters, why Maggie’s hairstyles and weight constantly change, how the Love and Rockets run is organized, allowing space in case one of the brothers decides to go long, seeking extreme character qualities, furry culture, turning exploitation on its own head, goofing around, dealing with serious topics (in stories such as “Browntown” and “Farewell, My Palomar”), the problems in elevating superheroes, emotional areas, why Jaime returned to superheroes after a long absence, Gilbert’s frustrations with The Dark Knight Rises, balancing work on L&R in the early days while having jobs, how economic forces have affected Love and Rockets, knowing that L&R wasn’t going to be a hit comic, maintaining a realistic view to make a living, Gilbert’s tendency to work on three comics at the same time, why the Hernandez brothers find women more interesting than men, fondness for butts and curves, the responsibility to imbue all comic book characters with humanity, Jaime being terrified of women in high school, creating a universe run by women, creating stories that are mostly visual (such as “Whoa Nellie” and “Hypnotwist”), the influence of words, L&R as a comic shop with endless back issues, Jack Kirby, why superheroes still have the upper hand in comics, wrestling, following through on a story, the joys of action poses, the influence of Peanuts in the children’s stories, drawing kids with big heads, visually representing a child’s imagination, the difficulty of sizing up the anatomy of a kid standing next up to a grownup, anatomical weak spots, when visual memory works better for art than research, being lazy when drawing hands, scaling children, optical theory, forced perspectives in cinema, eyeballing perspective, vanishing point and backgrounds, Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, “An American in Palomar,” whether culture is exploited in telling a story, what the Hernandez brothers hear from academics and fans, when people co-opt L&R as the “pro-Latino comic,” Daniel Clowes, coming up with stories just by looking at a picture, the virtues of not reading all the comics in your collection, reader misinterpretations, valuing the reader’s takeaway, the inspiration that comes from willful blindness, shifting from panel to panel on autopilot, looking back at old material, positive mistakes, and keeping characters alive and material fresh after thirty years.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Let’s talk about extreme qualities in character. I think of Jaime’s Doyle Blackburn. I mean, here’s a guy who has to be as raucous and as violent just to match the wrestling and the punk rock and Maggie and Hopey. And then, of course, there’s Isabel the witch lady, where you physically change her size. Now, Gilbert, you’re more inclined to see someone like the IRS collector who dresses in a gorilla suit in “Girl Crazy” or even the forest people in “Scarlet by Starlight,” and, of course, the representation of them in the sequel to that story. So to what degree do you feel that this transgressive behavior, this extremity, needs to be predicated in reality? How important is it to stray from real behavior? And how important is it to keep it real? How do the two of you deal with things that are almost hyperreal in service of a story?

Gilbert Hernandez: Well, for me — even if I want to do a story about scientists from the future in the forest and those animal people living with them — for that kind of story, you balance how much is going to be a part of us there and then what it’s going to be like in the future. It’s a bit of a balance. And so I was dealing with scientists and these forest creatures. So for that story, I just felt like there should be a human connection in it. Like some real sympathy for the forest people. The forest people didn’t know what hit them and the scientists could care less about them. But there’s that superficial attraction one scientists has for one girl. And then I’m toying with the whole fetish aspect of that furry thing. The fans of that sort of thing are called furries. They have this fetish for sexy furry animals. I’m getting into trouble here. And so naturally I drew the forest girls as sexy as possible. So that would trip up the reader and feel really weird about being attracted to her. But at the same time, there’s that on the surface. There’s that going on. But it’s important to have the human element within those stories, that being the most important thing.

Correspondent: But you also twist that exploitative quality on its head when you have, of course, the massacre later on in that story. It seems to me that you almost want to play with the idea of exploitation while simultaneously give into various transgressive behavior and so forth.

Gilbert: Well, I just through a bit of ugly reality in the end that, yes, even though the humans are hanging out with the forest people and they treat them relatively well and everybody’s getting along on that end, there’s that drop inside a lot of people that the moment they get the opportunity to exploit people, they’ll do it. That’s more of a criticism of people than animal creatures. (laughs) Cat people.

Correspondent: Well, Jaime, how does this transgressive work for you? I mentioned some examples at the head of that last question. How much do your characters have to be steeped in reality? And when do you feel the need to stray from it?

Jaime Hernandez: When I’m bored with reality.

Correspondent and Gilbert: (laughs)

Jaime: And seriously when I just want to have fun and goof. Like that story about Izzy growing big. I just wanted to throw a big curveball just for the hell of it and see how it would fly with the reader. And I don’t know why. But when I’m doing that, I’m really not worried about ruining the reality of it. Maybe because it’s just something I grew up with in comics. That the real life and fantasy go together. Like I said, it’s all just having fun and just goofing. But I do have the responsibility of keeping the reader there. I mean, making it real for the reader.

Correspondent: But on the other hand, I look at a story like “Browntown,” which deals with sexual abuse and some very heavy topics, and I say to myself, well, I have to ask both of you — and also in “Farewell, My Palomar” — do you think that comics really need to grapple with this extreme heft in order to really matter as a medium? Are there any areas emotionally that you have not tapped and you really see Love and Rockets going further as? It has to be grounded in reality in some way, don’t you think?

Jaime: Right. Okay, so with a story like “Browntown,” there was no room for goofing. Because this is serious stuff. And I wanted to tell a real story that, tragic or otherwise, it was just really serious. And I didn’t want to almost make fun of it. Because it’s a serious issue. When I go there, I get really serious and there’s no room for goofing. In the case of Izzy growing into a giant, no one was getting hurt. So it was fun. Everyone got to go home and live their normal lives after that. But in “Browntown,” this was serious stuff. And I’m not going to mess with it.

Correspondent: So there’s an inevitable emotional filter you will have to apply, depending on the story. Depending on how people are going to get hurt or not.

Jaime: Yes. I only goof when it’s safe.

Correspondent: Well, what about you, Gilbert? Do you feel the same way? That a certain emotional tone requires a certain narrative filter to a story? That you have to be explicitly serious or explicitly ridiculous or fun in order to actually pursue a story? How does this work for you?

Gilbert: Sure. It’s the same thing. Like he said, he’s dealing with an aspect, an unfortunate aspect, of childhood that’s real for some people. All of a sudden, our brain goes into that mode. This is going to be told this way. I’m going to leave all the goofy stuff out and all the distractions out of it. Because this is how the story’s told. Even though, uncomfortably, this is still an entertaining story. You know, he wants to tell it as a story as you’re reading the story. It’s not a lesson being clobbered over your head. This is a story about characters, but it reflects on a problem that happens to children. So I approach it the same way. I have done serious things like attempted suicides in goofy stories. And I didn’t think that was right. I thought, “That’s something I don’t want to do anymore.” Because that was when I was learning. I was learning to tell stories. And in one of the first stories I did, I decided to have a guy attempt suicide. But it was in a science fiction story. And I got that uncomfortable feeling. Well, yeah, the reader looks at it like “Oh, it was a very shocking scene.” And I thought, “Well, it should have been about something. Not just gorillas from outer space or whatever.” That’s the problem I have with mainstream comics. Because they’re always trying to elevate the superhero by having drug problems and suicide attempts and stuff. And I just think that’s not where I’m at. That’s not where I want to read that. I mean, I suppose there are good stories about that in a Batman comic. But it makes me uncomfortable to read it that way. I kind of just miss the seriousness of it. Because it’s a guy in a bat suit in it.

Correspondent: Yeah. Are there any other stories that the two of you regret doing? That you would have done differently? Along these lines that you were just learning and you didn’t really understand the gravity of what that story was trying to say. Any other examples?

Jaime: Nothing really earth shattering. But there’s parts of “The Death of Speedy [Ortiz]” that I look back at, that I could have just put a little more into it. When I did it, it felt right. Years later, down the road, I look back at it and I go, “Well, maybe I could have explored this more on this part.” And then there’s a part of me that goes, “No.” But it’s been done. It’s been over. If I want to correct it, do it in a different story.

Correspondent: Is there any specific emotional terrain that the two of you have not tapped and perhaps would like to tap or would like to try? Or that is just purely verboten?

Gilbert: You know? I don’t know what that would be. It’s not there yet. We usually discover as we’re formulating a story. As we’re working on a story that’s going to build. That’s when it comes. It’s hard to think of that ahead of time. For us. Or for me at least.

Jaime: Yeah. Same here. Let’s say I’m doing a Maggie story. It’s going a certain way. And then I start to think about some serious issue. And I say, “Well, what if I turned it into this?” And I go, “Well, it’s not…it wouldn’t fit.” I would have to think about it harder. I would have to write around it. I couldn’t put the thing just…blam. All of a sudden in a story. Maggie’s having fun eating lunch and then something tragic happens. And all of a sudden, it’s wait a minute. Wait a minute. No, no. I would have to write around the tragedy instead of just throwing it in any old time.

Correspondent: Well, both of you have resisted superheroes and referring to the comic book industry for a long time until recently. Penny Century finally gets her wish to be a superhero in the early portion of the New Stories. And I’m wondering why you resisted the whole superhero, comic book, self-referential notion for so long and why you would inevitably succumb to that impulse to portray it in Love and Rockets.

Jaime: I just didn’t want to do superheroes anymore. Seriously, I just wanted to tell more real life stuff. I thought stuff I had seen in my life was much more interesting to me. And a lot of it was not being seen in comics. And I kind of took advantage of that. And I kind of outgrew the superhero thing by the time Love and Rockets came. So by the time I did the Ti-Girl story, I just wanted to have fun with my own superhero comic.

Correspondent: The allure just kind of came back for some reason.

Jaime: Yeah. It was just for fun. I said, “Hey, I’m going to do a superhero comic. And I’m going to follow through to the end and see how it turns out.” Just for fun. Like that’s what I want to do right now. Gilbert always talks about this. That Love and Rockets has always been a comic book. He could explain this better. But it’s a comic book and whatever we want to put in there, we put in. Whatever interests us. So it’s like, “Whoa! You did a really serious true life adventure. Now you’re doing superheroes! What the hell is that about?” Nothing. Other than I just wanted to a superhero story the next time.

Gilbert: And we don’t try and elevate the superhero thing in Love and Rockets. Superheroes are a fun affectation. They’re just about fun and doing nutty stuff. And if you have some characterization in there and some pathos, there’s nothing wrong with that. That makes a story, you know? But we never think — like in the new Dark Knight Rises movie, we don’t think, “Well, to elevate this, we must eliminate Batman.” He’s in it for fifteen minutes in a three hour movie. You know, I came to see a Batman movie! Where’s his car? Where’s the Batcycle? “No, no, no, this is better than that!” Well, why do I want to see something better than that? I wouldn’t go see this stupid cop movie if Batman wasn’t in it. I’m serious. This is how I feel. The stuff doesn’t need the elevation. It goes back to the movie Greystroke, with Tarzan. It was a flop. Because it wasn’t about frickin’ Tarzan. “Oh, here’s the serious Tarzan movie. Let’s get rid of Tarzan and what he does.” And this is this dumb elevation that they do in mainstream comics, where they’re trying to elevate superheroes because they just can’t let go of Batman.

Correspondent: Superheroes are inherently silly.

Gilbert: Yeah. Or fun. Or adventure characters. That’s okay with me. I’m okay with Star Wars being about nothing but action adventure. Indiana Jones. The new Avengers movie was a success because it was a matinee film about the Hulk being funny and all this goofy stuff going on. It was a lot of fun. But then they try to elevate the stuff. And that’s what keeps me away from mainstream comics. Well, here’s the new Batman comic. But we elevate it to the drug war or serious crime stories. And I go, “Okay, but where’s Batman? Where is he doing stuff?” Batman does stuff. He doesn’t want to constantly mope. He’s in costume to do stuff! So, anyway, that aside, having superheroes and doing all that stuff — Jaime’s just doing superheroes to be fun and it’s part of our comic world. I like to think of Love and Rockets as a comic store with a lot of back issues. That’s what Love and Rockets is.

Correspondent: How much does this idea of elevation plague Love and Rockets today? I mean, in recent years, comics have become this supercommodified, maintream, pro-geek, “geek is the mainstream now” type of situation. How has this affected Love and Rockets? And how has Love and Rockets over the years been affected by economics? In terms of commercial forces. Has this really been as much of a consideration? Have there been certain storylines and characters that audiences have rejected or had to make adjustments for? Anything like this?

Jaime: We really don’t think about that that much. I mean, we just do our comic and hope it won’t be bumped off the shelf. Serious. It’s that simple. I mean, we just want to do comics that we think are good and have our share of the comic store. It may be naive of me, but I really don’t think about what’s going on around me when I am doing my comic. It’s just me and my comic, and I’m just happy that I’m able to do the next issue without starving.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, how long during the Love and Rockets run were you doing this with other jobs and so forth? And what did you do to make sure that you got your pages in for the next Love and Rockets issue over the years? When you were doing simultaneous employment? Or has it pretty much been full-time most of the way?

Jaime: Right. Well, there was a time when we were starting the comic that it wasn’t really going anywhere financially. So I had to get a job as a janitor on the side. But then when Love and Rockets kinda started taking off and I started going, “Hey! I can support myself with this!” — because I was young and all I needed was an apartment and maybe a car. And just taking care of myself. I had no responsibilities. So it was easy to live pretty cheap with Love and Rockets in the beginning. And I was able to quit that dumb janitor job.

Correspondent: Roughly around when were you able to quit the janitor job?

Jaime: Mid-’80s. Like about three years into Love and Rockets. And I realized, “Hey, I can afford my cheap apartment. Hey, maybe I can even buy a car!” And stuff like that. And as I got older, Love and Rockets started to sell more. And I started to get more responsibility. I got married. And I started to think like a grown-up. But luckily, Love and Rockets was helping me get there. We were both growing together. So, like I said, in the carefree days, when we didn’t have any money, I didn’t care. I was just young and carefree.

Correspondent: Has the influence of responsibility and money adjusted your freedom on Love and Rockets to a certain degree? Or have you both felt relatively free beside responsibility?

Jaime: No. Beside responsibility, I’ve always kept Love and Rockets in its own safe pocket.

Correspondent: Compartmentalized.

Jaime: Yeah. Yeah. No matter which way my life was changing, whether I needed to buy a house or whatever, or raise a child or something like that, I always was able to keep Love and Rockets separate from that. I would be a dad and a husband, and then I would go away to my room and then I was the comic artist. So Love and Rockets, as far as art-wise, has always been left alone. I’ve always made sure that Love and Rockets was able to flourish artistically. Because nothing else could interrupt it.

Categories: Fiction

livingmar

Liv Ullmann (BSS #489)

Liv Ullmann is the subject of Liv and Ingmar, which is now playing the New York Film Festival. She has also appeared in many legendary movies.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering whether his persona is predicated upon cries and whispers.

Guest: Liv Ullmann

Subjects Discussed: Maintaining patience while living with an eccentric genius, living in other people’s dreams, how women’s expectations have changed over the last fifty years, the spate of op-ed pieces about film culture being dead, the distinctions between storytelling and lies, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, pride in belonging to the storytellers, Scenes from a Marriage, telling your story in a documentary vs. drawing upon deep emotions as an actor, pretense vs. reality, what it really means to be a filmmaker, finding meaning in people who are difficult, getting negativity out through performance, not giving up, old people who grow bitter (and avoiding this), when the life in people’s eyes fades around forty, staying alive, Søren Kierkegaard’s idea of coming to the world with sealed orders, when shaking hands can be the most important gesture in your life, why Ingmar Bergman got such emotional performances from Liv Ullmann, Bergman’s bitterness over Liv not participating in Fanny and Alexander, Bergman’s efforts to restrict cast members from partying, efforts to control other people, what Liv and Ingmar did to relax, being an introvert, Changing, keeping the quest alive for the “lost kingdom of childhood,” and being disturbed by people who lie.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Tolstoy once suggested that time and patience were the greatest of all warriors. And in watching this film [Liv and Ingmar], the great astonishment I had was how you maintained such grace and such patience with Ingmar throughout this entire run. I mean, here was a guy who locked the doors, who locked you and other cast members up, who built the wall around his house, who did all sorts of things. Didn’t let you see family and friends. Basically boarded you up. And I have to ask just from a basic standpoint, how do you maintain such patience with a figure like that? Is his genius enough to forgive his eccentricities? Were you just in a state where at that young age you were in awe of this man who was so intense and romantic? Just to start off here. I was really curious. I mean, that takes a lot of fortitude.

Ullmann: Well, you know, when you describe it, it sounds more dramatic than it really was. Because he built this house for us. And I think he had a dream that we would be there, painfully connected and really by ourselves. And that is a dream you can have when you are middle-aged, which he was. Because the world had been tiring for him. And I was so much in love that I didn’t question it. And it’s many, many, many years ago when women more easily took to that role. And I don’t think I questioned it so much as I sometimes felt, “I don’t think I could consider living like this for always.” Because I longed for things which were outside of this island. And it’s more when I look back at it, I think, “So that was the Liv I was then. And the Liv that I’m now wouldn’t let that happen.” But mostly it was an incredible time. It was five years of my life living on that island that I would never, never be without.

Correspondent: But you do say in the film, “I was trapped in another person’s fantasy.”

Ullmann: No, I didn’t say I was trapped. I said, “I think I’m living someone else’s dream.”

Correspondent: Living. Got it.

Ullmann: And why I corrected you on that is — one thing is to be trapped. Because that can hurt if you have your tale in there.

Correspondent: Sorry for the paraphrase.

Ullmann: But to live in someone else’s dream, that can be beautiful. And for long time, a dream can seem beautiful. But it’s not your dream. And if you are to live, you have to be in your own reality and/or in your own dream.

Correspondent: But surely even before all this, you had your own dreams. You had perhaps some kind of autonomy that was in bloom. When did you know that you had this independent imagination?

Ullmann: Well, maybe my dream was to live in someone else’s dream. For many women, that is a dream. At that time.

Correspondent: At that time.

Ullmann: Absolutely. But even today, I know women still are dreaming about man coming riding on the white horse. But we are talking now about fifty years ago. Or forty-five years ago. Women at that time, we had different expectations — or we thought we had — than women today. And sometimes I feel that women at that time maybe had a more realistic look at life than women today. I’m very happy.

Correspondent: More realistic? How so?

Ullmann: I think we said yes to moral life. We weren’t into Facebook and Twitters and computers. We didn’t look down at our hand all the time. We looked more at other people’s faces and things that were happening around us.

Correspondent: That actually leads me to ask you. If you have an age defined by smartphones and social media, the very intimate cinema that you made with Ingmar and that you have made on your own — I mean, what chance is there today for that to grow? To have an audience? There’s been a lot of op-ed columns in light of the New York Film Festival, in which people are arguing “Well, why aren’t there more films for adults?” or “Is film culture dead?” What are your thoughts on this? I mean, is it still very much alive? Or is this becoming a more exclusive audience? And what do you do as a filmmaker and as an actor to counter the limiting short attention spans?

Ullmann: I hope it is not dead. Because still, to sit in a dark movie house is one of the few places now that people can be and share laughter and dreams and incredible talent. Like you go and watch a ballet or opera or concert. But it’s less and less of that. Which is very sad. And we are more looking at TV and looking at lies from politicians and so. Or the computers and so. Life is more and more distorted from really who we are as human beings. And we’re living in a world of violence, of strong violence and terror. And so we really need culture. And we really need the art, the creation of people’s thoughts and who they are to remind us about who we are and why we are. And it’s harder and harder to find that out with the help of other people. And if we do it alone right now, we do it through machines, not through other people.

Correspondent: How do the lies of a narrative — because, of course, all narratives are essentially wonderful houses of lies that we open the door to — how does that differ from the lies that we have to endure in our culture? How can that offer us…

Ullmann: A storyteller is never a liar. Because, you know, it’s storytelling. And horrible storytelling — you know, it’s storytelling. And you take out from that the experience you really need, the shock you really need. You know, I’m in the middle now of reading a book. Very strange title. I cannot wait till…

Correspondent: What’s the name of the book?

Ullmann: The Pee…?

Correspondent: No worries if you cant.

Ullmann: It’s on my bed.

[At this point, the very kind publicist sprinted to the other room to grab the book.]

Ullmann: And I cannot wait til this afternoon when it is over and I will go back to that. Because it’s a lie. Because it’s a novel. But I’m getting so many thoughts about the time there was and time that is coming. And it has this strange title of….The [Guernsey] Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Correspondent: Oh yeah, yeah! I’ve heard about this. I haven’t read it.

Ullmann: It’s giving me so much joy and I have so few pages left! Now storytelling is lie. But that is real lies. But to stand on TV and say, “This is the truth.” Because that’s what they do! They don’t say, “No. Here comes a story.”

Correspondent: They say, “This is true.”

Ullmann: This is the truth.

Correspondent: If you are lying and you say that it’s the truth, it’s worse than if you’re lying, but it’s a story. So you accept it. It’s about believing.

Ullmann: And you don’t say it’s a lie!

Correspondent: Yes.

Ullmann: You say it’s a story. And I belong to the storytellers. And I’m proud to belong to the storytellers. And I feel we are losing them. Because it’s looked upon as some luxury and people want them to be quick and different and cartoonish. We’ll be lost world when it comes to who we are with our soul. What the soul is all about.

Correspondent: So you see some of the more cartoonish advancements in cinema, some of the more stylistic advancements, as very harmful for it? Is that what you would say?

Ullmann: I think, well, so many of it is harmful. And we have seen it. Because it doesn’t aspire to peace and connection and humanity.

Correspondent: Empathy.

Ullmann: It aspires to violence and to how many people can I kill within a minute. And it looks brave and strangely adventurous.

Correspondent: Yeah. I have to ask. I mean, you have put yourself emotionally on the line as an actor for all of these films. What’s it like to bare your soul for a documentary like this? Speaking of the difference between reality vs. narrative. And it’s also interesting. Because you’ve also been fortunate. In, for example, movies like Scenes from a Marriage, there is a middle ground where it actually takes on a documentary-like feel for a chunk of it. So what’s the difference as an actor? And how does this make you feel to tell your story on camera? Is that harder than inhabiting a character? What are the emotional differences here?

Ullmann: I don’t find it hard to talk about feelings and what I care about in life. And when I did this movie, I said yes only to do two days of interviews. And I don’t find that hard. It’s easier for me to be truthful than to make myself interesting. And it’s not hard at all. I find to pretend is harder. To lie is harder. Because then I’ll forget what I said in the other minute. I like to be truthful. I like to meet people who are truthful. I like when we connect that way, also because that’s the way where I find myself. I’m not different from other people. Other people have the same feelings that I have. And I think we miss that. That we are true to each other.

Correspondent: So when you pretend, it’s not rooted in anything solid for you. It’s not a memory that lasts more than, say, remembering what it was like to walk around with Ingmar and talk with each other. That that’s more of a meaningful memory and therefore that’s easier. Whereas if you’re tapping into the deep visceral guts of something, that’s something that you inhabit but that you don’t remember because that’s just the way it works for you? I’m just curious about this distinction.

Ullmann: Well, there’s a lot of things that I don’t remember. Oh maybe it was like this? And I will tell it. And that’s more storytelling. But there’s nothing wrong with that. But when I see, for example, this movie, there are things that had to do with me that I had forgotten and suddenly I see it. And I know that is the truth. And even stories that I have told about us. When I see it in a movie, a film that has been taken from other movies, I’ll say, “Oh, the reality was different.” And I welcome that. I think that is great. That my memories have now given color to things But when I see the real truth, I found it much more interesting. And for me to see this movie and to see certain things in this movie that I had forgotten, I like it. And thus the movie is a kind of gift to me.

Categories: Film

wutheringheights

Andrea Arnold (BSS #488)

Andrea Arnold is the co-writer and director of Wuthering Heights, which opens on October 5 in select theaters.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if his creator is Heathcliff.

Guest: Andrea Arnold

Subjects Discussed: Characters defined by how they observe things, working with moths, Yorkshire insect wranglers, how to get animals to behave on camera, improvisational and Method-acting sheep, Buñuel’s Land Without Bread, audiences who believe that Arnold killed real sheep, film disclaimers about no animals harmed during the course of production, talking with farmers to get historical details right, how imagination informs more effectively than the facts, avoiding plastic walls for old sets, working with production designer Helen Scott, being upset when something isn’t real, the virtues of filming in a remote place, staying in a local village, getting used to a temporary life without phones, elevation as a geographical identifier as Arnold’s films, putting a camera in a place where a human can exist, Arnold’s dislike of the dolly and the Steadicam, why there weren’t as many wide shots in Wuthering Heights, Lindsay Anderson’s if…, cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s very sturdy hands, working without jibs and gimbals, the visual authenticity of natural human movement, Robbie Ryan running down four or five flights backwards with a camera, giving a very lovely grip named Sam something to do, reading Emily Bronte when very young, the decision to add the line “Fuck you, all you cunts” in Wuthering Heights, respect for Emily Bronte, working with non-actors, being too faithful to a literary classic, finding new takes on Heathcliff, why most literary adaptations play it safe, and literary reverence.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: So there’s one really intriguing quality about your films that I have observed. Your characters are often defined by how they observe things. Of course, the obvious explicit example is Red Room, because we have closed circuit cameras in there. But we do see that in Wuthering Heights quite a bit. Often through slats. Often through little cracks. And I’m wondering. Why are you so interested in this idea of defining characters by how they look at things? Is this a way to offer a vicarious experience to the viewer? Do you feel that looking at things or what people decide to see is of greater import or greater revelation than, say, how they perform and how they act?

Arnold: Well, I don’t know the answer to that question really. Because I think when I’m writing, I don’t really think that lucidly about what I’m writing and how I’m writing it. But now that you’ve just said that to me, I realize actually what you just said is true. But actually if you’d ask me to define how I do things, I would never have said that I’m doing that. But now that you’ve just told me, I realize you’re right. And I think that I write quite instinctively. And for some reason I seem to be doing that. I’m always picking. I’ve only ever done one film where I told it from two people’s point of views, where I switch from one person to another. Most of the films I’ve done so far have been telling it from one person’s point of view. And for some reason, that feels like the right thing to do for me. It’s like I feel able to get into one person’s head. I find it more difficult to get into lots of people’s heads. Though maybe, just because I’m telling the stories from that person’s point of view and I’m going along with them and thinking about how they’re thinking and I’m trying to get inside their head, I think that may be why looking at the world from their point of view, I’m trying to get inside their head and work out how they’re feeling. Does that make sense?

Correspondent: It makes sense. It makes me ask at what point do you decide, “Oh, the camera must see what they’re seeing.” It seems to me that this would be a fairly late process in the planning. Is that safe to say? I mean, when do you think about this? Do you think about this during the act of writing the script or anything?

Arnold: I think I do think about it when I’m writing. Because I’m thinking constantly about what they’re looking at and what they’re doing and what they’re feeling. And I think that a lot of what ends up in the film is things that I’ve put on the page. I mean, even in Wuthering Heights, people say to me, “Was that in the script?” And actually no. Although sometimes, with the moths, they were in the script. The moths are in the script. The beetles aren’t in the script, but the moths are.

Correspondent: What do you do to get an insect wrangler, by the way? (laughs) I was curious about that. How do you find the moth expert among the moors and all that?

Arnold: Those moths, actually, were proper Yorkshire moths.

Correspondent: Oh they were?

Arnold: They were proper. The moths may be quite actually. Because we got moths from a man who dealt in Yorkshire moths. A Yorkshire moth expert, I guess.

Correspondent: A specialist. (laughs) There are moth specialists. I did not know.

Arnold: Yeah, there are.

Correspondent: How do you get a moth to behave on camera? I mean, you know they say the thing about children and animals.

Arnold: Moths don’t take directions. No, they don’t. You have to let them be themselves. But he gave us these moths which were in little capsules. And when we let them out, some of them died and it actually made me cry.

Correspondent: Oh.

Arnold: I guess they do die. I mean, moths don’t last very longer than butterflies, do they?

Correspondent: Don’t we all, right?

Arnold: (laughs) Yes.

Correspondent: Well, that’s interesting that you would feel such sympathy for the moths when this film also depicts a lot of sheep and a lot of rabbits — simulated, I would suspect. I don’t think this was a Buñuel Land Without Bread situation on your part. But I mean, there is quite a lot of animal violence. And I’m wondering what you also did to get that looking as real as it did and why you felt compelled to include this as a representative rough element of this great frontier of the 19th century.

Arnold: Well, I guess it was dealing with animals and having animals on the farm living and dying would be part of life. And it’s part of our life now. Only it’s a hidden part of our lives. In fact, it’s a far worse thing now in life. Because it’s all behind doors and we all pretend it doesn’t happen. And animals are factory farmed in far worse ways. They’re not roaming free and then getting slaughtered at the end of their lives. They’re living in sheds and having pretty closed out lives. So it happens all the time now and then. And I just wanted to represent that accurately. I mean, we have managed to obviously do a good job. Because I get people saying — I think at Sundance, someone said to me — somebody came after and said, “Oh, I feel so sorry for that sheep, you know.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “You killed the sheep.” And I said, “No, we didn’t kill the sheep.”

Correspondent: And he’s no doubt saying this after having a lamb chop dinner, right? (laughs)

Arnold: Well, exactly. But of course we didn’t kill the sheep. And in actual fact, I was so worried about that sheep when we did that scene. I was more worried about that sheep than anyone. I mean, we had a vet there and we had a farmer there who owned the sheep. But that sheep, I have to tell you, was the most amazing sheep.

Correspondent: Oh yeah? What made it amazing?

Arnold: He was so amazing, that sheep. Because he was so calm. He wasn’t frightened. And he did this thing. In the film, you’ll see he’s trembling. It looks like you’ve done something really bad to him. He just started doing that. It was like he knew that he needed to look. I really don’t know.

Correspondent: Really? Unrehearsed?

Arnold: Unrehearsed.

Correspondent: Improvisational sheep! Wow!

Arnold: And it trotted off. And I kept saying to the farmer, “Are you sure the sheep’s alright?” He said, “The sheep’s fine.” And actually he went off, trotted back to the herd no problem. That sheep was amazing.

Correspondent: No ague or anything?

Arnold: No what?

Correspondent: No ague or anything?

Arnold: No what?

Correspondent: No tremors or anything like that? No dizziness?

Arnold: Nope. No, no, no. It seemed completely fine.

Correspondent: Wow. There are Method acting sheep.

Arnold: Honestly, that sheep. We couldn’t have picked a better sheep. Even when we were carrying it, it was just so calm. It didn’t seem frightened. It seemed completely fine. But of course we didn’t harm the sheep. In fact, I was very very concerned about the sheep and made sure he was completely fine. But, no, we didn’t harm anything. I mean, we make it look bad. But of course no. And I’m a vegetarian and animal complete.

Correspondent: Well, we talked about moths dying. Is there anything equivalent to the SPCA* in the British Isles that you’d have to get the endorsement from?

Arnold: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: I didn’t see any endorsement on the film or anything like that.

Arnold: Well, we had animal handlers there all the time.

Correspondent: Okay. You don’t need to have the designated stamp on the credits like we do here.

Arnold: We have the thing. “No animals were harmed.” I mean, that’s what you have to have. And you have to have people who are there who endorse that and who sign something to say that. So we had all that. We had everything that you’re supposed to have.

Correspondent: So you wanted to include these animals dying on film — simulated, of course — in the name of historical accuracy. I’m wondering what research you did to know how people lived during that time. I know that there were depilatory restrictions in place. I’m curious. What did you do to know that this is actually true? Or was this largely instinctive? Was this largely trusting your gut? Was this largely saying, “Okay, well, if we don’t have television, radios, and smartphones, and we’re just living on a farm, we’re just going to live like this”?

Arnold: Well, partly imagining what it would be like to live on the farm. Partly I spoke to farmers. I talked with some of the farmers up in Yorkshire about how things would have been. And they had a lot of people up in that area who had been up there for generations, and had actually a lot of information. So I went down to a place where people dealt with animals and spoke to a lot of farmers down there. I talked to people. So I did partly talk to people. Part imagination, partly what they were telling me. For example, the way they put their foot on the sheep and stuff like that. That was all told to me, the way they did that. You know, I researched all those things. About how they would handle the sheep and stuff like that. How they would carry it.

Correspondent: Do you feel that imagining what a situation is like is going to carry more truth on cinema than, say, sticking with the hard facts or the hard details? Or going by the letter of what the Yorkshire farmers tell you?

Arnold: I mean, I think I’m somebody who, if I hear something and I believe it to be the truth and they’ve told me something truthful, I will try to hold on to that as best I can. And I incorporate that into what I’m doing. So if they’ve told me something and I’ve heard it a couple of times from the right kind of people, then I think I would do my utmost to make sure that I represent that as accurately as they’ve told me. I think I’m somebody who does actually care about those things. I mean, when I’m talking about using my imagination, I’m talking about using my imagination more to do with the emotion or to do with the way that people are interacting with each other. I’m not looking to deal with practical facts. If I hear something, it’s done a certain way. Also I have a designer I work with and she’s very like that too. And even the house which we restored. Because it was quite run down.

Correspondent: Oh, interesting.

Arnold: We restored it using all the traditional methods. And so all the people that worked on the house used old skills in order to restore it. We didn’t put plastic up that looks like thatchery. We put proper thatch up. We restored the walls to the paths they would have used. We used the right kind of wood.

Correspondent: The stone wall on the outside. Was that touched up? Or built by the cast perhaps?

Arnold: Those stone walls were mostly there. The dry stone walls, that’s all over Yorkshire. So all the people working on the house before we started filming there, they were all using old skills which they all really, really enjoyed.

* — Our Correspondent mistakenly referred to the SPCA when he clearly meant the American Humane Association, which has been adding disclaimers about animals to movies since 1940.

Categories: Film