Tag : film
Tag : film
Victoria Wilson is most recently the author of A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940.
Author: Victoria Wilson
Subjects Discussed: Stanwyck shifting from being known as “Frank Fay’s husband” to being the dominant breadwinner in a matter of years, when Frank Fay was a washed-up actor spending Stanwyck’s money, Jimmy Cagney taking his inspiration from Frank Fay, Stanwyck learning how to simplify her acting, Fay’s alcoholism, Stanwyck’s initial hatred for Hollywood, Fay being ahead of his time, Frank Fay as the origin point of standup comedy, Stanwyck’s early fractious relationship with Frank Capra, the frustration of endless screen tests, Meet John Doe, Ladies of Leisure, Stanwyck’s defiance and resentment, how Fay helped Stanwyck get her big break, Stanwyck’s near-affair with Capra, difficult actors, Stanwyck’s aversion to parties, Stanwyck and class distinctions, how Stanwyck closed the iron door on a lot of people, Stanwyck shutting out Mae Clarke, Clarke and Cagney’s grapefruit, Stanwyck’s conservative politics, anti-Roosevelt actors, Republicanism vs. modern conservatism, the gold standard, Stanwyck becoming more discerning with her politics with Robert Taylor, Stanwyck’s acts of generosity, unemployment during the Depression, Stanwcyk’s literacy, being an autodidact, Stanwyck and Katharine Hepburn, how Stanwyck cultivated her modernity, how Stanwyck networked, reading a book at a party, Stanwyck’s shyness, Frank Fay’s attempts to kidnap his adopted son, how Wilson tracked down Dion Anthony Fay (Stanwyck’s son) in the pre-Internet age, mysterious investigators, sinister methods of finding sources, Stanwyck’s clothes, motherly love, when Stanwyck accidentally wore a dress backwards, the moral assaults on unmarried Hollywood couples living together, Clark Gable’s forced marriage to Carol Lombard, how Stanwyck and Robert Taylor were encouraged to marry, the Hays Production Code’s hold on the private life of actors, Stonewall, Olivia de Havilland’s resistance, Stanwyck teaching younger men how to act, Stanwyck’s relationship with Robert Wagner, Joel McCrea, Stanwyck identifying herself as the masculine presence in relationships, what contributed to the dying years of the Stanwyck/Taylor marriage, Stanwyck’s monogamy and possible affairs late in the Taylor marriage, Harry Hay, a secret anecdote from Anthony Quinn, Stanwyck’s involvement with Gary Cooper, Stanwyck’s unexpected nude appearance before a crowd at a surprise birthday party, what conditions cause a biographer to trust a source, Stanwyck and Joan Crawford, Al Jolson’s assault on Stanwyck, editorial forensics, determining authenticity, how Wilson used her editorial background to determine the accuracy of a fanzine report on Stanwyck, the balance between facts and imagination, Wilson’s set of rules, avoiding movie star biography tropes, the difficulty of getting Richard Chamberlain to talk, the differences between today’s media-trained actors and yesterday’s more open actors, Robert Stack, when actors once drove to their own screenings, building trust with sources, Wilson’s formidable fanzine collection and her efforts to preserve it, some details about the second Stanwyck volume, the end of the studio system, Stanwyck’s willingness to work in television, and how talent makes you larger than the time.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: So let’s talk about Ruby Stevens, aka Barbara Stanwyck. She had one of the most formidable work ethics I think I have ever read about of any Hollywood actress of that time. I mean, she worked after she fell down the stairs, her right leg shorter than the left during Ten Cents a Dance. She toiled through that. She toiled through a painful leg injury that she had in Ever in My Heart. She would run lines with other actors when she was completely exhausted, after a long shift.
Wilson: Ed, I’m happy to say that I can see you’ve read the book.
Correspondent: I have read the book. Yes. She kept her costume and her makeup on, even when she was asked to go home for the day because she figured that a director would ask her to work. So my question — and this is a good way of getting into her origins here in Brooklyn. How did this work ethic originate? I mean, I’m wondering if she had some sort of incident in her early showgirl days or her early Broadway days where she may have flubbed a line and she figured that committing everything to memory and also always being there was going to be the absolute advantage that she would have over everyone else. So I was hoping you could talk about this and unpack this incredible ethic that she had.
Wilson: Well, let me see if I can unravel this mystery. To begin with, Stanwyck knew — what she did learn — you’re right in that she did learn in being in shows on Broadway and being in other kinds of shows. Revues. Which she said. She could always be replaced. And she understood that. But what she got, well, it wasn’t really one specific incident. I think, given the childhood that she had, the most important thing to her, speaking of Baby Face, was for her to be able to get out. She wanted to get out and she didn’t want to go back to that. And her sister brought her into her world — the sister who was an actress and who was a dancer, etcetera etcetera. She loved her sister. And she loved that world because it allowed her to escape in her head what the circumstances were of her life. And that world, that theater world, that world of working actors was her way out. It was her road out. And combining that with a need to understand that she could be fired or replaced at any time, over time she and the people who she admired were serious workers. And I think it all combined to give her that work ethic.
Correspondent: Well, I’m wondering. Obviously this book only goes up to 1940. Did this particular work ethic ever dissipate in her later years?
Correspondent: Never. Wow.
Wilson: And at a certain point in the early ’50s, when she absolutely could not get a job, it was a torment to her. Because it was an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. And that was what you did. And it didn’t matter if it was 90 degrees and she had on all this makeup. At one point, Mitchell Leisen said, “For god’s sake, loosen that corset.” “No, you may need me.” And when she had to do a scene over again because another actor — there’s a story, again, in Volume 2, when she’s making Clash by Night and Marilyn Monroe keeps screwing up the line. And she has to pack that suitcase. She unpacked that suitcase in exactly the way that it had to be packed before the prop men could get there. But it was all perfect. And that was another thing that interested her about radio. Because the voice had to be perfect. And it had to be so modulated to express everything that had to be expressed. But she had that discipline.
Correspondent: I alluded in this question to the fact that she would memorize the entire script, transcribing it out multiple times, and she would know not only her lines, but everybody else’s lines. And this Marilyn Monroe story you mentioned, which is in the next volume, has me curious about the level of tolerance she had for other actors. I mean, she was pretty brutal on Joel McCrea, which I’ll get into later on. But I’m wondering how this method originated and why knowing every single angle like this was essential to her. And also, in light of the fact that she did a lot of improvisation, how that worked into this steel memory. This almost military-like work ethic which we’ve been discussing here.
Wilson: Well, actually, she didn’t do improvisation in terms of veering away from the script. She was absolutely disciplined about that. But I think that there’s one word to describe why she did what she did and that word is fear. Not something that people associate with Barbara Stanwyck, but there was a lot of fear around her and, over that, there was the overlay that drove her. And I think that she thought she needed to get it perfect. I mean, at the beginning, she was thrown by the way these movies were made. And she wanted to be in command, in control, so that she could be able to pick it up at any point and also I think she got something out of the fact that she knew everybody else’s part. But I do think, at the heart of it, it was fear.
Correspondent: Fear. This is interesting. Because I was kind of curious about these early Broadway days. She has great success with The Noose. But I’m wondering, given that it took probably another decade or two for her comedic instincts to really come out in, of course, The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire, I’m wondering how that particular play reinforced certain acting tics or certain acting methods. Were you able to find out anything through your very meticulous research about what that play did to get her going and to get her adjusting?
Wilson: Well, now that’s a very interesting story. Because what she has always done — and the thing about working with Barbara Stanwyck for fifteen years is that she was not a liar. She was honest. I’ve caught her in a couple of inventions, which were self-protective. I suppose most lies are.
Correspondent: Such as what? What were those particular lies?
Wilson: Well, she said that she could not have children because she was a bleeder. Okay, let’s put it this way. If you’re a bleeder, you’re not doing your own stunts. You’re not riding horses the way she rode horses. You’re not taking falls the way she took falls. You’re just not doing that. She had an abortion at a certain age and it was a terrible abortion. And she couldn’t have children.
Correspondent: At twelve?
Wilson: (pause, unanswered) So there’s that. I mean, but other than that, in another few instances, she was somebody who basically was straight up honest. Steel true and blade straight. And so what I started to say was in The Noose, she always reported that it was Willard Mack who taught her everything she needed to know for that play. But it wasn’t just Willard Mack. It was Mrs. Harris. Mrs. Renee Harris, who was the widow, the last surviving person, which I write about, to get off the Titanic as it was sinking, who was the person who spotted her and who gave her the larger part and who worked with her until Willard Mack came back from New York, where he was looking for another actress and had sent up Francine Larrimore, who was going to take the part. Once Willard Mack came back to work with her to join the show, and said, “Alright, you can do it out-of-town until we get to New York,” he was the one who worked with her and really just taught her everything. And, you know, I write about what happened to theater after the First World War, where it became much more naturalistic. The Noose itself, written by Willard Mack, was an attempt to be more naturalistic in terms of showing the realities of how people talked and how people in nightclubs talked and how lowdowns would talk. It was like this was supposed to be the real thing. And that’s what he was interested in capturing. It wasn’t artifice anymore. Or melodrama. I mean, the play is somewhat melodramatic. It is still of its time. But I do think that it was a combination of Willard Mack and then, when she goes to make burlesque, unless I’m getting ahead of you.
Correspondent: No. I’m hearing you.
Wilson: When she goes to make burlesque, she’s working with Arthur Hopkins, one of the great directors and producers, who also was very involved in naturalism. And again, he helped her strip herself down and simplify her work. And then, of course, who does she end up with and who was she in awe of? Long before she met him? That was Frank Fay, who was as simple and unadorned as a performer as you could possibly be.
Correspondent: Yeah. Well, I’m wondering. She is operating off of fear, as you say. The book regrettably does not get as far as Double Indemnity, where Billy Wilder basically cajoles her into the role by saying, “Are you a mouse or are you an actress?” So it seems to me that she was still driven by fear in terms of what her range was likely to be. Is that safe to say?
Wilson: Well, I don’t think — look, when you’re asking me that one question, I say she wrote it down because of fear. She did this because of fear. I mean, yes, in a way, it was fear. But it was fear coupled with a whole range of other emotions. And one of them was determination to get the hell out from where she came, to make sure she never had to go back there. So I think that it wasn’t just fear.
Correspondent: Well, in terms of developing a range, when do you think she became aware that she could more than either cry on stage or be a very physical performer? I mean, did she know this fairly early on? Based off of what I mentioned about Billy Wilder, it seems that even after being nominated for Stella Dallas, she still didn’t realize what she could do. Or did she?
Wilson: No, she did. Because it was earlier, before Stella Dallas. I mean, people didn’t know this, but what I discovered and what I put together is that it was Zeppo Marx, who basically said, “You can do comedy,” and who pushed her roles in those minor movies where it was Breakfast for Two or The Mad Miss Manton, which was later. But it was those. The Runaway Bride, which was supposed to be a kind of Frank Capraesque, It Happened One Night, which, believe me, it wasn’t. But it’s an interesting movie for a lot of other reasons. Where she tries to do a kind of screwball comedy. And she was terrified of that. But she tried it. And the one thing she understood was, if you’re going to do just one thing and you’re just going to play it, you’re screwed.
Correspondent: It’s also interesting, this period where she’s at Columbia, where she’s about to jump to another studio. But, of course, she has to fulfill her contract. And she is quite adamant, even during the Great Depression, about sticking for that $50,000 figure. And I was curious about that. I mean, money was certainly a drive for her to act in the pictures. But how did that interplay with this range that you say she knew she had and that was actually urged on later by Zeppo Marx, who was her manager.
Wilson: Well, I don’t know at that point, when she was fighting for that contract at Colubmia Pictures, for that raise, that it was about her range. It was about her…
Wilson: Well, I think it was about her looking at Constance Bennett and Ann Harding and seeing what they were making and saying, “I can damn well do that too.” I mean, the thing about her is that she didn’t have — from a very early age, there was nobody who was really fighting her battles, except for Ruby Stevens. And even after she married Frank Fay, he says to her — one days, she’s upset — he says, “You can tell me. I’m here for you.” It wasn’t a natural impulse for her. It wasn’t the kind of thing that she could rely upon a mommy or daddy. She had no mommy or daddy. And so when you do that, which is the perfect training for her in terms of the choices she made in Hollywood, which was living outside of that studio system as much as she could. And then, by that point, she could rely on Frank Fay. And she could see what she was doing. She could see the response. She could see how her career was building. And I think she just said, “Screw this. This is what I’m going to do.” And I also think that there’s something to be said about the bond that she had with Frank Fay, which basically was a bond that brought them together and excluded the rest of Hollywood. Because they were excluded and they became isolated and more isolated and this reproduced itself. So I think her attitude was “Screw this. I don’t need you. We’re onto ourselves and we’re going to be just fine.”
Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell are the co-authors of The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, a book which documents the making of The Room. Bissell previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #449 and The Bat Segundo Show #450.
Subjects Discussed: Ideal Hollywood standing positions to check smartphones, being addicted to technology, how Sestero and Bissell collaborated, Tommy Wiseau’s vernacular, how the Wiseau philosophy is applicable to real life, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s unanticipated influence on The Room, Wiseau’s thoughts on Fight Club, why Sestero put up with Tommy Wiseau for so long, Robin Williams vs. Tommy Wiseau, Patch Adams, a melodramatic video that Wiseau photographed and sent to an insurance company, the blind and reckless Hollywood producer attitude, Brad Pitt, the unspeakable display of Tommy Wiseau’s ass, Wiseau’s philosophy on shooting sex scenes, Bon Jovi’s reluctance to collaborate with Wiseau, getting music for The Room, composers hired by Tommy Wiseau, shooting The Room simultaneously in 35mm and HD, Wiseau’s curious innovations, Citizen Kane, being the first person to build a private bathroom on set, Hitchcock’s aversion to shooting on location, The Birds, Wiseau’s cinematic influences, “Cinema Crudité,” Wiseau’s Berlin Wall of personal involvement, occupying a territory (and a life) that is half invention and half real, Wiseau’s mysterious past in Europe, incidents from The Room pulled from real life, the Bay to Breakers race, Wiseau’s efforts to cash out-of-state checks, The Room as Wiseau’s secret autobiography, Wiseau’s fixation on James Dean, Giant, actors who dye their hair, A Rebel Without a Cause, Marlon Brando, whether Sestero’s involvement in The Room made any dents in his acting career, the challenges of conveying incomprehensible dialogue, the advantages of knowing people named Tom, penetrating into the great mystery of Mark’s disappearing beard in The Room, being nicknamed “Babyface” in acting class, being photographed being shaven, the film set as a surveillance state, crew members on The Room who worked simultaneously on Terminator 3, Wiseau’s fixation on youth, The Room as a parallel identity for Wiseau, parallels between The Room and Grand Theft Auto, The Room video game, and Bissell’s open letter to Niko Bellic.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I’m curious about how you guys both wrote this book. There are large chunks of dialogue between Greg and Tommy Wiseau. And it’s often so specific that I can’t imagine how you could get it that specific after several years had passed. So I’m wondering. I have to assume much of it is invented. Tom, you happened to share Tommy’s name. Did you two talk to each other in a dark room? You with the Wiseau accent? How did this come about? The dialogue in this book? To flesh out the big important story behind The Room.
Bissell: Well, Greg and I recorded all these chapters. We have like thirty hours of tape.
Bissell: And Greg is an actor. Greg has a very good memory. And I would ask him to dig back into his memory. And he would do these conversations as clearly as he could remember them. And he knows Tommy so well that he could get those Tommytastic little grammatical flubs. I did very little of the dialogue. It kind of came out of Greg as he remembered the tenor of his conversations. That’s how it was recorded. And that’s how we transcribed it.
Correspondent: Was there any severe trauma, Greg, in this sense memory?
Sestero: Yeah. Actually, that’s off to a very good start. I do have a very good memory for better or for worse.
Bissell: And you’ve taken a lot of notes over the years.
Sestero: Yeah. And with Tommy, he’s so unique that you don’t really forget. As you can tell with the movie. People quote it all the time. You don’t really forget the way he speaks. There’s a very signature way of saying things. And it was such an unforgettable experience that I just remembered almost everything. And it came to me very quickly. I told stories about my experience to many people. So they were very vivid. Very clear in my memory. And the dialogue — I read excerpts of it to Tommy. Chapter Four. “Tommy’s Planet.” And he was shocked. He’s like, “My God! That’s exactly what happened. You remembered exactly what I say. Good job.”
Bissell: (laughs) You have to say it like he would say it.
Sestero: (in Wiseau voice) “My God! Good job!”
Correspondent: So he was consulted for all of the dialogue in this. I mean, he is a control freak, from what I gather.
Sestero: Yeah. I went over a lot of things with him about his past. And I traveled with him and I had gone to the places that I spoke about in the book. And he was very clear on stuff that he was comfortable with me putting in. His background, his retail career in San Francisco. But I knew he wouldn’t want me to talk about certain things. And I left that up to him. And I cut those things out. And the dialogue. Yeah. That’s the way he speaks. Basically verbatim. Especially when I traveled with him when I was writing the book on tour. And I was interviewing him. And it reconnected me with the way he talked. So a lot of that dialogue is straight out of how it happened.
Bissell: You also note that in the film, the film is a constant recycling of the same six or seven pieces of language. And when I’ve interviewed Tommy, he says those things. He wrote them. He says them. They kick around in his head. And so one of the real pleasures was, as Greg was remembering back and recreating these conversations, I would notice that those phrases would slip in. And I was like, the great thing I like about it is that a real avid Room fan will be reading these pre-Room scenes. And then suddenly boom! There’s a phrase from the movie. You’re like, “Oh my god!” Like when he asks Greg about how to get into SAG, he’s like, “Well like now that you are expert, how do you get into the SAG?” And then in the film, he’s like, “It seems to me that you are the expert, Mark!”
Sestero: Yeah. You can’t invent stuff with Tommy. He’s just this character that exists. So to do him justice, you need to quote him verbatim. And that was my goal with it. Is to be as exact as possible.
Correspondent: Has the Wiseau vernacular helped you in the course of your adult life? Has it allowed you to, I suppose, be more forthcoming in certain ways? When talking with family or friends or therapists?
Sestero: Yeah. It definitely has.
Correspondent: Do you have any examples you can offer? I mean, if you go to sleep at night, do you sometimes hear that Balkan voice lulling you?
Correspondent: Encouraging certain nocturnal dreams and associated emissions?
Sestero: Definitely nocturnal. I do have many laughs about what Tommy would say in this moment. And I’ll even think like him sometimes.
Correspondent: Think like him?
Sestero: Yeah. Like what would he say? There’s one thing I really find. He’s always going. He’s always grabbing things and bringing things places. And I’d just be standing there and watching him. He’d be like, “My god, do something! Don’t be Statue of Liberty!” And so I’ve noticed myself carrying posters and getting really busy during this time. When somebody’s standing there. “Will you help me?” And I’ll think, I say, “Could you help me?” But Tommy would be like, “My god! Do something!” So it’s funny. I’ve understood him a lot more in the last few years what he says. But the way he communicates is so funny that it just makes him the character that he is.
Correspondent: One thing I didn’t know until I read this book was that The Talented Mr. Ripley was a huge influence on The Room, which I had no idea about and which makes complete sense in hindsight.
Bissell: It’s the source text.
Correspondent: The source text. Tommy and Greg. Tom and Dickie. And as you point out, it gave you the flu when you watched it the first time, without Tommy, for about two weeks.
Correspondent: This was fascinating to me. I’m wondering if you have actually gone back to the original source, Patricia Highsmith, and tried to mine those novels for deeper insights about Tommy or your own life or how you became friends with him and all that.
Sestero: Yeah. I actually started reading — I’ve read the entire Ripley series. Yeah, they’re very similar characters in ways. The difference is, I think, that Tommy, deep down, he’s a genuine person. He’s charismatic. While Tom Ripley has a dark streak. He’s just not comfortable with himself. So there are fine lines of the way they operated. But it’s amazing.
Bissell: It’s the longing.
Sestero: Yeah. And it’s the core. When Tommy watched The Talented Mr. Ripley, what it did to him, how it really got a rise out of him like no other movie that I’d seen when I’d watched it. Like we watched Fight Club and he’s like, “My god! This is so boring.”
Correspondent: (laughs) He was bored by Fight Club?
Sestero: Yeah, I know, right? He was like, “I do better acting in class.”
Correspondent: Wow. Even with Meat Loaf and the cool editing?
Sestero: Fight Club‘s one of my favorite movies. But The Talented Mr. Ripley is — it has that element. He lit up. And that’s what he wanted to make.
Bissell: When Greg revealed that to me, and I didn’t know that until it actually came out in our interviews, I was like, “Stop the fucking tape.” And we actually stopped the tape. And we sat there and we talked through all of the correspondences. You and I just started bringing up things from the movie.
Sestero: It all started to happen!
Bissell: It all started making sense. Oh my god!
Sestero: Peter. There’s a character named Peter in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Matt Damon. It’s all his fault. Mark Damon. The all-American guy.
Bissell: And we both read Strangers on a Train when we were working on this book. That’s the reason we talked about that book a lot. So there’s a weird Highsmithian quality.
Correspondent: Except there have been no murders thankfully.
Correspondent: Unless you did a criss-cross thing.
Bissell: Well, there was that one vagrant you and I hunted for sport.
Correspondent: Greg, it seems to me that with this Los Angeles apartment, the repeat playback of Tommy’s audition tape, the phone calls when you worked as a salesman at Armani Exchange, that you were either remarkably patient with Tommy or, well, you enjoyed being walked over. And I was really curious about this. I mean, even accounting for the whimsical follies of being a young man, what do you think kept you coming back to Tommy Wiseau? I mean, what was it? Was he just extraordinarily charismatic? Or did you just overlook some of these qualities?
Sestero: Yeah, I think youth obviously comes into play. But there’s just something about Tommy that was different. And I felt like an outcast with my family. And Tommy made me feel like I belonged to something. And I couldn’t really let go of the fact of the L.A. experience that I had when I first got there, the excitement of it and thinking that really I would have never had that. And even if that’s all it was, I never would have had that. And it was really because of him. So that bond really became strong. And it was really difficult. I mean, obviously, I thought about saying, “My god, I’ve got to just get out of this.” But anytime I tried to flee or tell Tommy what I thought or got emotional, and said those things, he would always retreat and come back and be like he didn’t mean to make me feel that way. So it was tough to leave somebody, especially in the book when he disappeared. When I saw him outside that acting class, just standing away from everybody, I felt for him. Because I felt the same way in a lot of ways. Except that I fit in more. But I understood what he was going through. So it’s hard to let someone float off into despair, knowing that you can make a difference. I always felt at the end of the day that I’d rather make a difference, to make someone feel better, than be self-aggrandizing. I guess this is all about being selfless than being selfish. I mean, obviously, I look crazy when you are able to look at the experience from the outside and see all these problems. It’s easy to just leave. But sometimes when you’re in it, you want to do what’s right hopefully and help that person.
Correspondent: Well, he probably gave you more approval than Robin Williams did on Patch Adams. Who knew that Tommy would have more solicitude than Robin Williams? Who I thought would exude that kind of thing being a wild and crazy guy from San Francisco.
Sestero: Yeah. Tommy’s a force and he challenged me to say, “Don’t be a chicken. Go for what you want to accomplish.” And I just never really forgot that.
Correspondent: Okay. I wanted to ask about the mysterious $6 million that financed The Room. There are allusions to a string of shops. The TSW Corporation so intrigued me that I actually did a business search at the California Secretary of State, finding nothing in relation to this.
Sestero: Really? (laughs)
Correspondent: I didn’t. So I’m wondering, Tom, what investigative acumen did you bring to this project? To really track down the Wiseau mystique? The unknown trail that people have been thinking about and conjuring up all sorts of theories about over these many years.
Bissell: Everything I know is in the book. And at a certain point, I have no idea how he amassed this fortune. I don’t think you really know either.
Sestero: I know he works around the clock. I know he had retail shops. I’d been there. I know he has those things. I know he owns a lot of real estate.
Bissell: He owns real estate.
Sestero: And that’s as far as it goes. I did research and interview people, but really I wanted him to tell his story and let the readers decide what was there.
Correspondent: Is there any way to get that video he sent to the insurance company? Because the way it was described was rather extraordinary.
Sestero: It was extraordinary.
Bissell: I’ve seen it.
Sestero: When Tom watched it…
Bissell: It’s incredible.
Sestero: …his reaction was that he put his hand up and he was just like, “Oh my god.”
Sestero: What have I gotten myself into?
Correspondent: Basically, just to tell our listeners, he had all this classical music over it apparently and also he recruited people to say good things about Tommy. So that he could get the insurance money. (laughs)
Bissell: And there are these really mournful shots of these burned blue jeans, scorched.
Correspondent: Blue jeans? Really? (laughs)
Sestero: They actually didn’t even look that bad.
Correspondent: (laughs) The insurance company went for this?
Bissell: I don’t know.
Sestero: I don’t know.
Bissell: All we have is the tape.
Sestero: He’s a relentless retail guy. In fact, right now, he’s even designing an underwear line and a jeans line.
Correspondent: Is he really?
Sestero: He’s going all out.
Correspondent: Are you going to be one of his models?
Sestero: No. I’ll delegate that to somebody else.
Correspondent: Tom, do you need some additional income?
Bissell: I don’t think the world needs to see that.
Bissell: But I will say the line that I’m happiest with in this book is: “In discussing Tommy’s background, the simplest answer is the right answer. But with Tommy, there doesn’t seem to be a simplest answer.” That’s the astounding thing about him.
Sestero: Yeah. You think you know something. And then there’s just a trail of mystery that you’re lead down. And after knowing him for fifteen years, there’s still a lot left to know.
Correspondent: But if you think about it, the creative financing that he brought to The Room is really no different than the creative financing that is behind most Hollywood projects.
Sestero: That’s true.
Correspondent: I’m wondering if, for some reason, he inhabited that same kind of blind reckless instinct that we usually associate with Hollywood producers who hope someone else can cook the books. And really that’s why he was able to get The Room made. Just because that’s the way it is in L.A.
Bissell: It seems like he read a how to make a movie book, but skipped every other paragraph. Because some things he obviously did right. One of his quotes is “How they do so in Hollywood. We no different from big studio.” So he clearly believed he was doing things according to studio procedures.
Correspondent: He was following some of the guidelines.
Sestero: Yeah. His interpretation for The Room was that he was doing it like the big sharks. The billboard, the equipment, the green screen. He thought that’s how a high-end Hollywood production does their movie.
Correspondent: One of the most frightening elements of The Room, which I really must talk to you gentlemen about just to clarify this, is Tommy Wiseau’s ass. It is there. It reportedly scared the editor’s wife. It is covered during the love scenes and yet we have this one Brad Pitt-like moment when he’s out of bed. And as the book puts it, “I’ve never seen anyone more comfortable naked around people who resented him.” But this still doesn’t explain something, which I had hoped to get from the book. Maybe you guys can answer. Which was the relentless soundtrack of groans and thrusting that are over all of these love scenes. They’re relentlessly noisy. And I’m wondering if there’s something about Tommy Wiseau’s relationship with his ass contributed to the kind of noise factor in these particular scenes, to say nothing of the fact that eleven minutes of the film is composed of love scenes and all that.
Bissell: (to Sestero) You had to record those groan tracks.
Correspondent: You were actually the groaner?!?
Bissell: You can hear Greg in one of the groan scenes going “Ohhhhhhhhhhh!!!!”
Sestero: Yeah, I had to sit in a video booth and do those while watching it. And I just thought, “My god. This is just painful.” And I thought, okay, let’s make it easy. Again, I didn’t think anyone would see it. So I did that. And it came out terrible. But Tommy did the same thing. I think with Tommy, he’s proud of his rear end. And that’s great. But he was trying to create a leading man moment for himself and felt good about it and he believed. He has to show his ass in this movie or it will not sell. So that’s what made him decide. He was laying on the ground inside Birns & Saywer, wondering if he should do it. And he’s like, “You know what? I have to.”
Correspondent: And it was not even a closed set. That’s what’s even more fascinating about that.
Bissell: He opened the set.
Correspondent: He opened the set. Wow. But that’s the other thing! Could he just not remember his groans? Much as he could not remember his lines?
Sestero: Well, with the groans, I think sometimes they do do those little things in post to fill them in. But his groans went really too far. Which I think make those scenes even more fun.
Correspondent: (laughs) Oh yeah? There’s groan outtakes.
Bissell: How long is that first sex scene? It’s three and a half minutes.
Sestero: So long.
Correspondent: I know.
Sestero: It was actually even longer in the rough cut. It was like a music video. It just kept going on and on.
Correspondent: But he had to find something. A song that would last just as long.
Correspondent: He couldn’t find a seven minute song that would work.
Sestero: He actually wanted to have one of Bon Jovi’s songs.
Sestero: “Always.” To be there. And I don’t think Bon Jovi went for it.
This 30 minute radio special serves as a transitional episode between The Bat Segundo Show, which aired its final episode last November, and Follow Your Ears, a new thematic radio program that will be premiering this month. It features an interview with Michael Apted, director of the Up movies. His latest installment, 56 Up, is now playing in select theaters in the United States.
Guest: Michael Apted
Subjects Discussed: How intimate documentary competes with YouTube and viral video, the creative solidity of a long-standing broadcast guarantee, the Five Guys Burgers review, whether the Up films an appeal to a younger generation, the heightened political nature of 56 Up, why Cameron’s austerity measures affected Apted’s subjects more than Thatcher, pressing Tony on his possibly racist suggestions, avoiding predictability, conflict as the stuff of drama, how Apted’s subjects collaborate beyond being in front of the camera, how Apted is a part of the Up subjects’ lives, self-editing, behaving yourself in front of subjects, efforts to include Peter and Charles, Apted’s anger towards Charles, Charles’s lawsuit against Apted, being transparent with documentary subjects, why the Up subjects didn’t have a choice, persuading the subjects to appear in each new installment, the Up subjects’ sense of ownership, Neil confronting Apted about the filmmaker not knowing anything about his personal life, whether snapshots are fair representations of people, knowing that every grimace or every emotion on camera is going to be dissected by audiences, the ubiquity of the camera (and smartphones) in everyday culture, trust, taking risks, the degree to which people lie, the skill of interviewing, doing a disservice in not being open, why Apted credits himself as researcher, carrying on the legacy of 7 Up, fact checking and corroboration, the difficulties Apted had with 49 Up, passion vs. obligation, and the textures of lives.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: So there is a big question I wanted to ask you — and, regrettably, I did not talk with you for 49 Up, but during that particular time, we were in a stage where YouTube and viral videos were mere striplings compared to what they are now.
Correspondent: And this has led me to ask you, especially with these Up films, how a movie that deals with how humans evolve over nearly six decades of their lives — does a filmmaker like you compete with something like that? Or reality television? Of which interestingly, Peter, one of your subjects, seems to be using some of the moves normally one would associate with reality television for you, of all people. So what do you do to adapt? Or do you not really change up the setup you’ve had going now for several films here?
Apted: No. You see, I think I’ve got one huge advantage over everybody. I am at least thirty years ahead of the game.
Apted: No one’s got what I’ve got. You know, and, uh, I think that’s what’s unique about it. That’s why of all the work I’ve ever done, this is to me the most precious. Because it is entirely original. And people have only copied it. No one has really come anywhere near to equaling it in longevity, nor do I think will they ever. Because as much as you talk about modern media, modern media is nothing as unpredictable, on marshy ground, can sink and dive and whatever at the drop of a hat. There’s about seven mixed metaphors in there. But the solidity which was in the broadcast world when we started, which guaranteed it at least into, say, 35 Up without any question about “Should we do this? Can we raise the money to do this in particular version of it?” has given me a running start. And I don’t think that anybody will ever catch me up. So I look at these newcomers with sort of a blase way and say, “Off you go.”
Correspondent: But aren’t you concerned with — for example, there’s — I’ll give you one example. There’s a viral video going around. It’s amusing enough. It’s a guy who is reviewing Five Guys Burgers in the back of his car. And he goes, “DAYM!” And this gets remixed over and over. And then weeks later, we see that he’s now a fixture on Jimmy Fallon.* And then he’ll be forgotten. And whatever natural exuberance he had is almost stifled instantly. And so, yes, I grew up on the Up movies. I watched them throughout my life. And it’s always a pleasure to go back every seven years. And it’s sort of like going to church, except on a seven year schedule. But simultaneously, I mean, doesn’t this bother you? I mean, how can you woo, for example, a younger generation of viewers when presently it’s really all about reducing human behavior to novelties, to something that’s kind of an ephemeral indulgence as opposed to really exploring the depths of someone?
Apted: (laughs) That was a bit of a mouthful. I don’t know. I suppose you’re right. I’ve never lost the audience. I always thought I’d give the series up if the viewing figures dropped away. And they don’t seem to have done. So whether young people are attracted to this, I don’t know. It’s almost staple stuff in teaching, you know, all sorts of sociology and whatever. You know, I don’t believe everything just disappears with the bathwater. I think people do have a sense of the past and a sense of history, especially when they cease to be teenyboppers and then become people with children and people with mortgages and all this kind of stuff. And this is the drama — this is, I call it, the heroism of everyday life of this series And I think everybody responds to that at some point. I mean, maybe nobody between the age of 11 and 25 will want to watch this. But there will come a time when they’ll discover it later on. And because it’s in a sense, without boasting, so rich because it covers so much of people’s lives, which no one else has ever covered, you know, I’m optimistic that it will stay around. So I don’t feel threatened by it. I know what you mean. About how can I attract a young audience, competing with Youtube. I mean, this is all over YouTube from the minute I practically finished editing it. So anyway, it’s a good question. But I’m not worried about it.
Correspondent: So this seems to me a far more political installment of the series than previous ones. I mean, we have Jackie, who is on disability, and she excoriates [Prime Minister David[ Cameron at one point. You have Lynn, who we see after she has lost her job as a school librarian. There seems to be a great concern, at least on your part or on the camera’s part, on capturing the consequences of various austerity programs. And I’m wondering why the film tended to shift this way. I mean, these were going on under Thatcher. These were going on under a variety of…
Apted: You’re missing the point. The point is that how does it affect their lives. I’ve never been interested in any of the series of objectified politics. Politics only appears in issues when it affects their lives. Now certainly Thatcher was doing all sorts of bloodthirsty work. But these people were very young then. And it didn’t affect them. These people are now 56 years old. Their pensions are going out the window. Their salaries are going out of the window. The future of their children and their grandchildren is going out of the window. So that’s why it’s in this film. I don’t ask them political questions. They talk about it. Because I gave up asking politics in 42 Up when I foolishly asked them about Princess Diana, who had just been killed, and I threw it out, threw it away, because I was asking them their opinions on something that weren’t organic to their life. I’m not interested in their political opinions. I’m interested in how politics determine their life. And in this generation of people living in the United Kingdom, which is going through a worse time than here and will go through an even worse time and you’ll go through an even worse time, it’s of profound importance to people’s lives. And so my films — this generation from 56 — reflect the personal effect of this political kind of fallout that’s going on. But this is the first time this has ever really happened in the series. Because I haven’t found that politics has so interested or determined or, you know, concentrated itself in people’s lives as it is now.
Correspondent: Politics is only a concern for the Up series when it is personal.
Apted: Yes. Because the politics of the film are their lives. They are the political statement of the film. They’re not objective opinions. I’m not interested in opinions. I’m interested in the organic manifestation of politics in people’s lives.
Correspondent: I’m glad you brought up the Diana moments in 42 Up, which…
Apted: I thought I cut them out. Are they still around?
Correspondent: I’d heard about this. But you do leave the moment with Tony here where he’s very defensive in relation to certain racist connotations of immigration. So in a situation like that, that’s kind of a political..
Apted: Yes. But again, it’s organic. It’s about the culture he grew up in. It’s about the society that he feels has been degraded. Where he grew up, his roots have been degraded by immigration. And, you know, I called him out on it basically. And, you know, it was a pretty scary moment for him and for me. Should I ask the question? I thought, “Sod it. I will ask the question.” I think it’s the question everybody was asking. Is he racist? Or was he not? Does he have a fair point? Maybe he does. He has a right to express it. He was. People were turfed out of their habitats by a great invasion of people from other countries and whatever. And maybe he has a point. So with him, you know, the whole idea of racial integration is very, very crucial. Because it did transform the whole community that he grew up in.
Correspondent: How do you decide what questions to ask of the subjects? Is it largely intuitive?
Correspondent: I mean, clearly, you’re still getting into trouble after all these years.
Apted: It is intuitive. And it’s…it’s…I wish I could think of an amusing way to express it, but basically I assiduously do not prepare for it. I do not go back into the old films. I do not say, “Oh my god! They’ve said this in 49. What are they going to think about it in 56?” Because I’ve noticed over the generations that the films change tone. They’re not the same films. And I thought the only way to preserve that is to make each episode as fresh as I can. To sit down like we are now and talk and not know which way the conversation’s going to go and what you’re going to ask me, what I’m going to answer you. I’ve no idea. And that kind of spontaneity, I think, is kind of crucial. Because it’s not predictable. Once this series becomes predictable, then I think I’m sort of dead in the water. There’s an element of predictability built into it — i.e., the whole idea that from the minute you’re born, you know what kind of actions you have. But given that, and that’s become kind of less important — again as the series has gone on. Because English society, the society of Great Britain, has changed a lot. Social mores are much more flexible. Education’s much more flexible and all this. These people came into life at a certain period in time in the English class system, seem to be very, very strong. And there’s still a class system. But it’s changed. It’s become more Americanized. It’s more to do with money than it is where you were born and whatever. So I’ve forgotten what the question I’m answering is about.
Correspondent: No, no. I was very curious about forgetting the previous films.
Apted: Ah yes!
Correspondent: I mean, there’s this aspect too. Do you carry enough of a reliable familiarity with the material? Or do you find that the relationships, both positive and fractious, are enough to steer you into the next installment?
Apted: No, it’s both. I mean, I have a huge amount of information in the back of my brain. I mean, I know what the great iconic moments are. What each character, what’s been there, kind of a few key moments. And I know that without having to think about it. But, you know, the provocative fractious stuff that I have with them, I think that’s what gives it life. And that — you can only approach that by having a genuine conversation and surprising each other.
Correspondent: Because conflict is the stuff of drama, it should be the secret ingredient of your relationship with your subjects for the Up movies.
Apted: Yeah. It is. And, you know, there’s lots of ground for conflict. There’s an overwhelming sense of trust, which is why they’re all in it pretty much and how it continues. But on the other hand, there’s also conflict. There’s a residual anger from them, I think. Because they were — they were press ganged into it. They didn’t make a decision at seven to do this. They didn’t make a decision at 14 to do this. And then when they became adults, suddenly they were in the middle of this rollercoaster and sort of stuck with it. So there’s still an anger, I think, which I still find with them about that. But generally I think that’s been kind of now overtaken with a sort of a sense of a trust. And the trust they have in me is that if they’ve got something to say, I’ll let them say it. And I’ll answer it if I can. Or acknowledge it if they’re right and I’m wrong.
Correspondent: But Nick in this movie, he says, “This is not a picture of me. It’s a picture of somebody.”
Correspondent: He complains that he doesn’t have any control over how he is actually being presented. Suzy says, “Well, I don’t think this is presented as a well-rounded picture of me.” So it’s very interesting that your subjects seem to complain or, at least, I noticed their complaints more this time than I did in previous ones, although you have had skirmishes with them in the past. I mean, what do you do to placate them? I mean, do you allow them to see elements of the film or how it’s actually taking place? And, of course, Charles, he threatened to sue you. And he’s….there’s no trace of him in this movie. I was sort of surprised.
Apted: And do you know what his job is?
Correspondent: He’s a TV producer. I know.
Apted: Documentary filmmaker.
Correspondent: Yeah. But does that recuse him from…
Apted: No. Of course not. It makes it unforgivable. If you live by the sword, you have to die by the sword. But you’ve asked me about a thousand questions in the last twenty seconds and I’m trying to figure out — I mean, what you missed out is the point that Nick is making. He’s saying, “No, this isn’t a proper representation of me. But it is a representation of somebody.” I.e., it isn’t the details of him. But it’s some iconic representation of what he stands for and who he is. Which is what all these things can be. Of course. How can I put people’s lives into eighteen minutes? Or whatever, however long I give them? Of course it’s my judgment. It’s my taste to decide what goes in. That’s true of any film ever made. Whether it’s a documentary. The only film that doesn’t qualify is Andy Warhol pointing at the Empire State Building for 24 hours without changing the film. Everything is a cultural or judgmental decision and I make those and, if I”m wrong, I’m wrong. But all I can say is they’re all still here. They haven’t been so offended by it that they’ve gone away and dumped me, as it were.
* — Note: The broadcast erroneously referred to “Jimmy Kimmel” rather than “Jimmy Fallon.” The transcript reflects the facts, but we apologize for the on-air error.
Ross McElwee is most recently the director of Photographic Memory.
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?”
Correspondent: Or even the fact that you gravitate more towards the past instead of the present.
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.
Correspondent: In this, it’s almost like you’re the hired cameraman for Adrian’s movies.
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.
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.
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.
Andrea Arnold is the co-writer and director of Wuthering Heights, which opens on October 5 in select theaters.
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.
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?
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.
Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud are most recently the writers and directors of Chicken with Plums.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if his creative skills can be adapted.
Subjects Discussed: Adapting graphic novels to film, Natural Born Killers, sitcoms, Hollywood’s insistence on remakes, splitting duties as co-directors, the importance of preparation, fights during production, the importance of death threats to the creative process, Satrapi’s panels as white backgrounds, creating a cinematic look, separating the graphic novel from the film, when words cram up a panel, spending two years to prepare a film, research, German expressionism, limits on cinematic exaggeration, why vulgarity and bad taste is important, Who’s the Boss?, being inspired by high and low references, the importance of humor, finding a common vision, fighting over small details, being gentle with other people 90% of the time, the miracle of clashing personalities agreeing on something, Chicken with Plums‘s reduced politics from the novel to the film, naming characters after nations, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Name of the Rose, books vs. films, Erich von Stroeheim, art vs. commerce, stress, the virtues of being left in peace to make your own film, how actors provide emotional resonance, directing and finding the right actors, the freedom to telephone an actor in Europe, the importance of creating a fantastical playground for actors, and Satrapi’s tendency to choose silhouettes for the visual style.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I am extremely fascinated by the way that you adapted this movie, that you’ve adapted both of your works. In Persepolis, there’s this extended winemaking explanation for the secret parties. There’s also the increased attention to shopping with, of course, the Marjane in that saying, “One of my favorite pastimes” over and over. Which suggests something that was almost explicitly designed for the cinematic medium. Now in Chicken with Plums, you have a number of moments that take on greater life in the film adaptation. To just cite two, you have the various deaths that Nasser Ali imagines, which is only half a page in the book and which becomes this glorious montage, this wonderful set piece. And then you also have this satirical episode in California in the book take on this kind of 1950s sitcom, kind of like Natural Born Killers but a totally different style, in the movie. So my question is: do you see these movies as a way to improve upon what you laid down in the books? Or do you see them as separate entities that only film can actually create? And what do the two of you do to heighten certain moments and silent other ones?
Satrapi: No. I think a film has to have its own identity and entity. This is not that I think that the books, they are bad and that’s why we have to make the movie. And actually, you know, for myself, I never want to make a work of adaptation ever again. Because it’s very boring. You once have to think about the story in one way and then think about it in another way. But it was a reason for that. And that is that it was my idea to make Persepolis. I had a friend who wanted to become a producer, who proposed to make Persepolis, and somewhere, you know, deep down of myself, I always thought why not try something and learn something. In the worst case, we will make the worst film in the world. But at least I have learned something. And I proposed it to Vincent, who is a very good friend of mine. We used to laugh a lot for the joy of working for him. And he said “Yes!” And so we started doing it. So we made this Persepolis and obviously it got all the attention it got. And we thought that because we were Oscar nominee, now we are going to say we are going to make another film. And it will open the door to a room with billions of dollars. And they tell us, “Take all the dollars that you want and make your film.” But this is not true. Because we are living in a world of remakes. Everybody wants to make a remake of a film. We want to make the things that have already been done. Like before in Hollywood, somebody would go with a script, see a producer. Producer would say, “I would like to watch this film. And maybe, if I feel like seeing it, other people, they would like to see it.” And today you go, and I have already seen this film. It has made me lots of money. So I want to see it again. So it’s a big major difference. But in order to try something new, we had a reason, a specific reason, why we made Persepolis in animation. Because we wanted to be universal. And since that was a story, a specific story of a specific movement of the specific country, the fact of putting it in a real geography with some type of real human being, that’s what I’d been rejected from the other one. Like this geography, we don’t know. These people, they don’t know, they don’t look like us, but the abstraction of the drawing actually gave us the possibility to having a much more universal thing.
Here, we have with Chicken with Plums, of course, you have to make a work of adaptation. You have a story. You read the book. You put it apart. You take whatever you think is usable for the film, like the structure. Some dialogues. Etcetera etcetera. But then language of the cinema is very different from the language in a book, in the comic books. So you have to think cinema. And then for the highlights of the film, the question of rhythm is just as possible just by working a lot. The fact is that both of us, we like to laugh a lot. The vision that we have of the world and the complexity of the human being, the visual style are the things that we have in common, but that we work a lot. This is it.
Correspondent: So how do you two riff off each other? How do you two work together? I’m really curious to get Vincent’s thoughts on the adaptation and the creative process as well. Vincent, do you serve as a veto mechanism or anything? How do you contribute to this? I’m really curious.
Paronnaud (as translated by Satrapi): So it’s really very easy. I read the book. We see each other. And we talk about the way that we are going to make this work of adaptation. So it’s very important. Because, you know, these meetings that you have at the origins are going to affect whatever we will do later. On the set, in the way of filming, in the way of treating everything. And I work with Marjane because I love the story that she says. And my personal universe, the personal world of my own, is really the complete opposite of what she does. So it’s stimulating intellectually and artistically. Then I say all of that. Because then, you know, when we arrive on the set, we split the work. Because we have prepared it. So Marjane is with the actors. And I’m with the cinematographer. And sometimes we have lots of tension. And it doesn’t work. But most of the time, it does.
Correspondent: Oh really? So if you’re splitting it down between technical and acting, how did you two collaborate on the first film? How were the duties split for Persepolis?
Satrapi: Well, for Persepolis, it was the same. I would go and simulate the movement in front of them. We would choose the movement of the camera. The background. But all of that is so much related. Because like acting is when you are directing a film. You have to think about actors, but you have to think about the frame. So everything is connected. It’s not like you have one part of the project and the other part. So since there is connection, that’s what we were saying. You know, this work of preparation is very important. Because like that, we know what the other one is doing. But sometimes, you know, I don’t like the framing that he does. I give a direction of acting that he does not like. Most of the time, he goes, “Fine.” But sometimes it’s a fight. You know, we go out. We yell at each other.
Correspondent: How detailed do these fights get?
Satrapi: Like “Go fuck yourself.” Things like that. And in the night I pray that he will die.
Satrapi: He says that they pray that I die too. But then we sleep. And then here’s the actors. And we have forgotten. And the result of that is that we are still friends.
Correspondent: So death threats are really the best way to get the creative process flowing, I presume.
Satrapi: Absolutely. Death is always the best for everything. We have to be aware of our death. Because that will come, even if we want it or not.
Julie Delpy is most recently the writer, director, and star of 2 Days in New York.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Searching for a castle that doesn’t require too much physical exertion.
Guest: Julie Delpy
Subjects Discussed: Patriarchs who key cars, countesses who murder women for their virgin blood, aberrant and eccentric behavior in Delpy’s films, the advantages of flawed characters, The King of Comedy‘s Rupert Pupkin, domestic carapaces for odd people, mental institutions, emotionless people, arguing with people you live with, comic tension, loud family arguments in quiet cafes, characters who accuse others of raping children, anger issues, struggles to get quirky independent films made, why Chris Rock was cast, 2 Days vs. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, German film financing, David Hasselhoff, Chris Rock in a straightlaced role, how romantic comedy becomes more alive when women are uncontrollable, leveling the gender playing field in narrative by offering complex women, romantic projection, thematic resonances between 2 Days in Paris and 2 Days in New York, toothbrushes that are confused with sex toys, how blue jeans woo men, how French people take their temperature, Delpy’s obsession with finding the right toothbrush sound, Stanley Kubrick, being a hands on filmmaker, color correction, the humor contained within The Countess, how to position an actor to stand appropriately on a throne of heads, Belvedere Castle, Merchant Ivory films, creating a fairy tale narrative, how boys like “feminine” aspects of fairy tales, the scarcity of women directors, how gender has affected Delpy’s reputation, being taken more seriously, the business aspects of cinema, nerds and cinema without emotion, why Hollywood is avoiding emotional directors, cold businessmen, Delpy’s indomitable work ethic, Delpy finishing The Countess while her mother was dying, and the financial repercussions of cinema.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: What of the interesting resonances between the two films [2 Days in New York and 2 Days in Paris]? The two that struck me: the thermometer becomes the toothbrush in New York. You have the thermometer joke. And then now it’s the toothbrush joke where…
Delpy: Toothbrush. Oh yeah. Like objects being put in the wrong spot. (laughs)
Correspondent: Exactly. Or blue jeans being used to woo a man. In the first film, we have mom ironing the blue jeans.
Delpy: The blue jeans.
Correspondent: In the second film, we have the blue jeans offer on air.
Delpy: The blue jeans are where?
Correspondent: The blue jeans, when Mingus is on the air. There’s that woman who offers them.
Delpy: Oh, the jeans! I see. That’s funny.
Correspondent: So I’m wondering. I’m guessing these were accidental. But I’m wondering if there were any conscious efforts on your part to mimic the resonances from the first film. To see if they would play a little differently in New York. Or older.
Delpy: Well, that’s something. For example, I think it’s something to do with — like I’ve always been amused that Americans — I mean, in France, if you take your temperature, everyone puts it in their butt. Just…I have to tell you. Just like if you’re a toddler. You just put it there.
Correspondent: It is a French thing.
Delpy: And I’ve always been having American boyfriends find this repulsive. That French people are perverts.
Delpy: Because we take our temperature in the butt. So we are perverts because of that. I always thought that was a funny idea. I mean, the thing about the toothbrush, I have the idea that, actually, they might have done really nothing with that toothbrush and that it’s all in his mind. That they might have used the toothbrush.
Correspondent: While they were having…
Delpy: Or it’s an object that wasn’t a toothbrush. But he’s convinced that they’re perverts using his toothbrush for sex toys. But I actually believe personally…
Correspondent: The toothbrush is your Pulp Fiction suitcase.
Delpy: (laughs) It is to me.
Correspondent: It could be used for naughty purposes. It could be used for rather eccentric purposes. They could be brushing their teeth as they’re doing it. We don’t know.
Delpy: Yeah. Who knows? They might have been brushing their teeth while doing it. But he’s convinced. Or they might have used another object that sounds like that toothbrush. But he’s convinced it’s his toothbrush. It’s this projection of this idea that, you know, once you have this idea that someone is perverted, you can imagine everything. And I like to use that. That is a kind of playful thing.
Correspondent: I don’t know. The sound sounded pretty similar to my ears. I’m wondering. Did you work with the sound guy to have it close?
Delpy: Actually, that was one of the hardest things to do. To find the right sound. And the banging on the wall. So it didn’t sound too trashy. To always find the right limit between really too crass and not too cute either.
Correspondent: Well, I’m wondering how you researched toothbrush sounds vs. dildo sounds. That would be a very interesting project for a sound man.
Delpy: I didn’t turn on dildos. I only turned on toothbrushes.
Delpy: I kept it to a toothbrush. But actually I did spend a lot of time listening to many different sounds of toothbrushes. And some toothbrushes, I just didn’t like the sound. So I kind of drove everyone crazy. I’m very…when I get into post-production, with all the mixing and the sound and all that stuff, I get really super duper duper duper…kind of precise on what I want. And that toothbrush, I drove everyone nuts over.
Correspondent: Well, like, how so? How precise can you get? Is there any sort of limit that you will reach before people are driven nuts or something? How anal are you here?
Delpy: No. I will work until I get what I want. I’m not like crazy, like going like a power trip. Like it’s too show that I have the power.
Correspondent: No Kubrick, 172 takes…(laughs)
Delpy: Even though they call me Stanley all the time. (laughs)
Correspondent: And not just because you grew a beard.
Delpy: Yeah, it’s because of my beard. Not because of my talent. I’ll tell you that. Because I get a little bit obsessed. Sometimes in details and stuff like that. But then when I have what I want, I’m fine. Then I’m done. Boom. And then I never talk about it again.
Correspondent: Well, like, how many takes did you do? Just to deflate the Stanley rumors here.
Delpy: Well, I ended up recording the toothbrush myself. Because I didn’t like any of the sounds. So I ended up taking a mike and going to record my toothbrush and the toothbrush I wanted to use in the film.
Correspondent: Are you hands on like that for cinematography? Or for other matters?
Delpy: Cinematography, no. Because I am not a very good — I don’t have the best visual ideas, you know? I’m not hands on cinematography. I’m very hands on sound. Music. Sound effects. Everything that has to do with sound, I’m very good. You know, I’m very obsessed also when we do the period of color correction. I get very — if I don’t get what I want, I will not stop.
Correspondent: What about placement of actors?
Delpy: Which is normal. I think it’s normal. I mean, if you’re a filmmaker, you want to get — it’s so much work to write. It’s so much work to shoot. And then you edit for three months and you work like a maniac. And then you end up in post-production. And you don’t want to suddenly have skin tones that are wrong. I mean, you can very quickly — now there’s such a scale of things you can do. It’s so large. You can go from a skin that looks sort of creamy to a skin that looks all greenish. I mean, you can do so much that you have to be really careful in color correction nowadays.
Correspondent: What about positioning an actor? Like, I think of the image in The Countess of the guy standing on top of the heads. I mean, how particular are you on something like that?
Delpy: Oh that, I’m very particular.
Correspondent: The angle of the head. Is the head just right at that particular angle? I’m just trying to get a sense of how precise you are really with these things.
Delpy: Yeah. I get very precise in scenes like that. Because, to me, I wanted it to look like a painting. Like a lot of 17th century painting I’ve looked at, based for this film. Like a lot and lot of Nordic painters. So I was really inspired by that. And I wanted it to look like that. Like something almost ridiculous, but kind of funny. I mean, the film, The Countess is not devoid of humor. I see the film as something a little bit funny at times. So it’s meant to be that way. Like even the craziness of wanting to stay young forever. I mean, she’s obviously such a pathetic character. Which makes me laugh. She makes me laugh actually. And so anyway, even this guy is kind of crazy. I mean, he’s sitting on a throne of beheaded Turks. So it’s kind of funny. If you’re dark. (laughs)
Correspondent: I thought a lot of it was funny, personally. But I’m a sick human being. But Belvedere Castle…
Delpy: But it’s meant to be funny.
Correspondent: Yes. Belvedere Castle, I wanted to ask you about this. You shot the end of 2 Days in New York at Belvedere Castle. And what happened with me when I saw the film — and this may be a terribly wonkish and pedantic question, but I feel the need to ask it nonetheless. I immediately thought, “Oh! The Bostonians. Merchant Ivory.” And the reason that I thought about that was because in 2 Days in Paris, you have this early moment where the American tourists come in and they have the red Da Vinci Code, which is almost serving as the red Baedeker tour guides that you see in A Room with a View. And so…
Delpy: Oh my god. That’s complicated.
Correspondent: And they are tourists, much in that mode, going through a city. And, of course, they come from Venice by train. So I think to myself, “Oh, there was maybe a Merchant Ivory nod there.” But I’m wondering, based off of these two things, whether emulating that sort of Merchant Ivory look and subverting it with wild behavior or astonishing developments was ever an interest of yours. And also: why you choose Belevedere Castle?
Delpy: Well, you know, I didn’t really think at all of Merchant Ivory. You looked into it like…oh my god. That’s pretty..
Correspondent: This is a problem of mine. I apologize. (laughs)
Delpy: That’s really cool. That’s really cool to read so much into something. No, I basically picked the Belvedere Castle because I wanted something high that made sense, that it was dangerous but not Empire State Building dangerous. Because Empire State Building — anyway, you can’t jump off the Empire State Building. Because it’s all blocked out. So it had to be realistic. And the Belvedere Castle is quite dangerous. Actually, if you jump, you can kill yourself. But I wanted it to be almost like a fairy tale. The film is a little bit like a fairy tale. It’s told to a child really. Because it’s told with these puppets. So I wanted this end to be in a castle. Like a fairy tale. And the princess, which is me, is saved by the prince, which is Chris Rock. But obviously the film is so not a fairy tale in its tone and everything. But I wanted it to be like a fairy tale. It ends in a castle like a fairy tale.
Sarah Polley is most recently the writer and director of Take This Waltz. The film opens in select theaters on June 29, 2012.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if the chicken cookbook or the adulterous egg came first.
Guest: Sarah Polley
Subjects Discussed: Similarities between Away from Her and Take This Waltz, the need for daily sweeping romance, whether film can offer corrective responses to romantic fallacies, a culture becoming increasingly uncomfortable with emptiness, holding onto transgressive moments in cinematic narrative until the last possible minute, designing a house that correctly reflects the socioeconomic status of characters, gentrification and other developments in Toronto, Kubrick’s complaints about Woody Allen, the line between the real and the fantastical in Take This Waltz, 360 degree shots, circular motifs, writing scenes out of order, why Polley’s male characters react to very emotional developments with total calmness, Polley’s father, subconscious artistic choices rooted in childhood, anger and maturity, cinematic histrionics, Polley’s views on marriage, relationships depicted by young filmmakers, living with flawed human beings, why Polley isn’t doing so much acting these days, becoming braver, avoiding the same tricks, numerous visual metaphors in Take This Waltz, “Video Killed the Radio Star” as adulterous metaphor, words as betrayal, using heavyweight dramatic and comic actors, and Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: There is a line that Fiona says in the car in Away from Her. “I think people are too demanding. People want to be in love every single day. What a liability.” So Take This Waltz almost carries on with the extension of this idea, of the need for daily sweeping romance. But this film, it’s almost the complete opposite of a movie like Brief Encounter, where you suggest in this case that Margot’s adulterous desires are selfish and childish. The “I wuv you” at the very end of the movie. So I’m wondering. Do you see your two films as writer and director as corrective responses to this notion of romance? And how do you feel independent cinema is doing in depicting this more pernicious side of adulterous desires? Just to start out here.
Polley: Wow. That was amazing! I do feel like Away from Her and Take This Waltz are companion pieces to a certain extent. Even though they’re completely different films. I do think they are talking about the same thing in very different ways. I think that the line that Fiona says — “People want to be in love every single day. What a liability. People are too demanding.” — I do actually feel that. I feel like we have unrealistic expectations of our relationships. That they’re going to fulfill us at every moment and, if they don’t, there must be something wrong with them and we better go out and solve that. But I think that that’s a cultural thing and that we have that notion in almost every aspect of our lives. I think that we’re a culture that’s incredibly uncomfortable with emptiness, with feeling like life has a gap, with feeling like things aren’t perfect. And so we feel that if there’s something missing, that automatically means that there’s something wrong and we need to go out and fix it and we just need to make the right move in our lives and everything will somehow feel complete. And I think we constantly get shocked and blindsided by the fact that — I think that feeling of something new and missing and that emptiness does kind of follow us around a little bit. Or at least for periods of time. So, yeah, it’s funny that you brought up that line. Because I never really thought of the connection between that line and Take This Waltz. But I do actually think that Take This Waltz is an extension of that a little bit. And at the same time, I think I probably started writing the script a lot more judgmentally of the main character Margot than I ended up. I ended up feeling at the end of making the film that I empathized with all three characters. And that there were no heroes or villains.
Polley: While some of her choices seem immature or childish or self-involved, I think that enough people are connecting to her as a character and feeling quite defensive of her that it’s making me see her a lot more sympathetically as well.
Correspondent: It’s interesting that in both movies you keep that transgressive moment — and I don’t want to spoil either film — to the last possible minute. I think it’s in the last ten minutes of the first film and, in this, it’s perhaps the last twenty, twenty-five. And I’m wondering about sustaining that need to transgress from this seemingly stable relationship. Of some years too, by the way. It’s interesting that both marriages — the first is 44 years, the second is four or five years. So I’m wondering. Are you more interested in that period before one transgresses? Within this way of looking at these long-term relationships?
Polley: I think it’s the most cinematic part of a relationship like that. It’s before something actually happens. I think, in a way, all the deliciousness of that kind of relationship happens before anything happens. Also, it was important to me in this film that Margot not be someone who takes this lightly. Like she is somebody who deeply loves her husband. She is extremely tempted and brought to life by this other person. But she’s not someone who’s easily going to betray her husband or leave her husband. It’s really difficult for her. And, in fact, that makes that other situation even more tempting and even more alive.
Correspondent: I also wanted to ask you about the house, which intrigued me in a number of ways. First of all, we see the kitchen obsession that was in the first one repeats in this one, which I thought was actually quite interesting. But there is this interesting notion of Margot almost seeking the real space while also seeking the fantastical space. Because you see this moment where they’re both watching TV in this cramped office, which as a freelancer I can totally relate to. In fact, the way we watch TV at our house is actually quite similar to that. But you also then see the scale of where she goes open up over the course of the film. It starts with the pool. And then later on, we have the loft. And I’m wondering. Because their space is not exactly — I buy certain rooms. Yes, that’s exactly how a struggling freelance writer, or even a successful freelance writer, would probably have that kind of space. But on the other hand, well, that kitchen is rather large even if you are a moderately successful cookbook author. So I’m curious about how you designed this space with this tension between the real and the phantasmagorical, or the fantastical in mind.
Polley: So this is an interesting question. So Downtown Toronto, up until about ten or fifteen years ago in the area where these characters live.
Correspondent: Kensington Market, right? It’s sort of there.
Polley: Sort of Little Portugal, Italy. Ten years ago, when Margot and Lou would have bought that house, when it was still primarily a community of families. Generations of families would have actually been affordable with a considerable amount of debt to two fairly bohemian people. I have friends who bought houses then with absolutely no money, with a loan, and didn’t do renovations for years and years and years. And it fell apart for a little bit. But that would realistically be a house they could have bought. There’s no way those two characters could buy that house now. If the film was taking place ten years from now, there’s no way you would believe it.
Correspondent: Comparable to Brooklyn actually.
Polley: And the truth is they probably, realistically at this point in two years’ time, would have figured out the value of their house and sold it and made a lot of money. (laughs) But I think culturally it’s a weird thing in Toronto. Where there have been traditionally these downtown neighborhoods right in the urban core with pretty lovely, maybe rundown Victorian/Edwardian houses that were fairly affordable. That’s changed and it’s changing and that’s really sad. Because it means the demographics of who lives downtown is really changing as well.
Correspondent: So you have given this some thought. (laughs)
Polley: I have given it some thought. Because it is something that I noticed doesn’t quite translate. Like in every other country, people are like, “Those people could never afford that house.” And I want to go, “Yeah. Right now. But what was amazing ten years ago in Toronto was people like them could.”
Correspondent: It’s like Kubrick sneering at Woody Allen, saying, “There’s no way these people could live in these spacious apartments in New York.” Or a similar thing.
Polley: Exactly. Then it does get fantastical. To be fair, I feel that when we go to where they live in the end in this, in this giant loft space, then I think we do take it into the realm of fantasy a little bit. Although I feel like the way we designed that was as though it was like an abandoned loft on top of a building. Which again, I think those spaces were much more readily available ten years ago than they are now.
Correspondent: Well, this leads me to ask. The ending — and it’s hard to discuss without giving it away, so I’m going to do my best. But that notion of the fantastical that enters into it. When I watched this, I thought to myself, because I was so — God, you tested my morals. I was like, “Don’t do it!” I’m not going to say what happens. But when she is in that loft. And thanks for the equal opportunity, in terms of what happened.
Correspondent: I appreciated that little touch. But I thought that the movie had immediately transformed into a fantasy. And then it goes back into the real. And I’m wondering if at any point during the devising of this story if you actually did think that it was going to more of this whimsy into the fantasy. Or were you forced to combat certain feelings, the impulse to turn it into a fantasy at any point?
Polley: No. But I did want that sequence you’re talking about, where it’s…
Correspondent: Yes, the circular…
Polley: It’s a 360 degree shot that shows the progression of a sexual relationship in one shot. And there is something fantastical about that. And I didn’t shy away from that. There’s something contrived about it. There’s something strange and fantastical about it. And it is to show the passing of time in one long shot. And that was one of the first images I ever had for the film. So in a way, it’s out of place in the film. It all of a sudden breaks with the tone and the reality of the film. But I felt somehow that I could get away with it. And people disagree on that. Some people think I did get away with it. And some people didn’t.
Correspondent: I appreciated being tested.
Agnieszka Holland is most recently the director of In Darkness, which has been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award and opens in limited release on Febraury 10, 2012.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Fumbling in the dark for the Zippo.
Guest: Agnieszka Holland
Subjects Discussed: Creating cinematic environments, how to design a sewer system for a Holocaust movie, the sewer as metaphor, the difficulty of locating the right sewer, Polish sewers, technical limitations on location, managing 60 to 70 people in a tight location, the differences between canalization sewers and sanitation sewers, finding sewer experts, Montreal, Phantasm, Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal, The Third Man, cinematographic efforts to avoid the beauty of the sewers, darkness as a false beauty, avoiding candles, directing actors in real darkness, making a movie which containing numerous languages, linguistic training and actors, ovepreparing actors, the Balak Polish dialect, working with Ed Harris, importing Method acting ideas into the Polish acting community, Jennifer Jason Leigh, finding the right actors, Polish theatrical training, Holocaust fatigue, developing behavioral quirks to overcome tropes, the Downfall meme, Olivier Olivier, Holland’s experience with identity emerging as a theme in her films, Zelig, being identified as the “literary culture” director during the 1990s, Total Eclipse, The Secret Garden as Holland’s favorite book as a kid, being faithful to Henry James, Washington Square vs. The Heiress, and efforts to determine why David Simon paired Holland up with Richard Price-penned scripts on The Wire.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: This actually came up in a conversation I had a few weeks ago with the Australian novelist Elliot Perlman. We were talking about the notion of Holocaust fatigue and how some books or films that deal with the Holocaust have to now face this dilemma. I was looking at some of the reviews and some of the write-ups of this film and I noticed, for example, that A.O. Scott suggested that “the Holocaust movie has become a genre in its own right.” And in Tablet, you have Daphne Merkin suggesting that “the audience for Holocaust films is even smaller than the audience for Ukranian imports.” But on the other hand, I think one of the things I appreciated about this film, and also Europa Europa, is that you have characters who are committing adultery, who are shooting up, who are masturbating, and as a result you have behavioral quirks that almost defy these labels. So what do you do, when you’re making a Holocaust narrative of any kind, to get away from these tropes? Does it really come down to these behavioral quirks or what?
Holland: Well, you know, I think that the Holocaust is such an important event in the human history, the border point of the humanity, that I don’t think it will disappear as a subject. Even for the next generation. I think what happens really — it was too many of pretty superficial and not very good treatments of this period and of this subject, which change it to some kind of the moralistic sentimental kitsch and I think really — yeah, this kind of treatment, people have enough. It means, in the first, it was educationally important and work up some kind of knowledge and curiosity. But after, it became some kind of cliche. For me, it’s important that it’s not like, that you cannot label this as the Holocaust. It is not really Holocaust film or it’s not the film of the Polish/Jewish relationship. It’s a film about the human condition and the particular circumstances. And what you know of the human nature is able to give, to deliver the best and the worst. And that is the universal question which you can also translate to another sensitivity and another times. I think personally that the only thing which is important: if it’s artistically successful and if it’s honest. Humanly speaking and psychologically speaking and historically speaking. If it’s dishonest or bad, it’s bad. If it’s really powerful and goes straight to the heart of the people, you know, yes. I think that we, of course, had the ambition to shot into the heart of the people and the brain comes later, you know? And if after it wakes up the reflection, what it was, how it was possible, when was my nation in that, how I will act in those circumstances, that is a bonus.
Correspondent: Yeah. Well, I agree with you. But on the other hand, you as a filmmaker are competing with, for example, the Downfall meme on the Internet. Where they take that scene and put different subtitles with Hitler. “Hitler has learned this.” As a result, any serious consideration of the Holocaust now has to compete with these caricatures. Although, oddly enough, I guess you were sort of ahead of the trend with the Hitler who’s in Europa Europa.
Correspondent: But how do you deal with this? Does it really come down to creating subcultures? Behavioral quirks along these lines that defy all tropes?
Holland: Well, you know, it’s where we are today. And anyway, you know, the Internet. And you think of the artifacts and the pieces of art on the Internet and the cut-and-glue, you know, kind. It exists. You cannot do anything about it. And of course, you can answer the question, “How long the regular dramatic narrative will survive?” And if it will change to something different. Some kind of interactive games or something like that. I don’t know. By now, it still exists and you still can touch a pretty amazing amount of people with that.
Correspondent: I was always curious. I’ve been wanting to ask you this. Why are you so interested in frauds and swindlers and those who have secret identities or who are pretending to be somebody else? I mean, even in this film, you’ve got con men. There’s the pretense with the cash. Olivier Olivier — is the boy real or not? Things like that. Is this, I suppose, the result of growing up in pre-Solidarity Poland? This natural curiosity? Or is it just good for narrative?
Holland: Probably. Probably. In Polish Jewish family also, where, you know, I had to change those hearts depending upon who I am talking to. So in some way, part is my own experience. And being woman in a man’s world. And in general, I think that the people are wearing the masks all the time. So that is like the basic human problem. Who we are really in the depth of our identity and what we pretend if that real identity really exists or is just the function of the circumstances. If it’s something like the true, true, you know, true myself — someplace — and the rest is just some kind of the appearances, the true myself doesn’t exist. Everything is appearances. The question is asked in Europa Europa in a very vivid way. Because the guy had been like the Zelig — changing identities, depending.
Correspondent: And very flute-based as well.
Holland: Right. And in Europa Europa, it was paradoxical. It was that his identity was his circumcised penis. If he wasn’t circumcised, probably he will become someone else totally. And that he had to remember.
Correspondent: No greater physicality than that. (laughs)