NYFF: The Social Network Press Conference

[This is the sixth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

“It’s fundamentally the same application for myself. It became clear to me after my first reading of the script that, uh, there was going to be, uh, the version of this person, my character in the film, that he wasn’t sort of the hero, so to speak. And, but, no one sits behind a – you know, I obviously, I’m not, you never play anything sitting behind a laptop, you know, twirling your moustache. I think that, like Jesse said, it doesn’t matter – that’s the beauty of this film to me. Uh, just that you really get to pick, uh, sort of who you side with. And I had a friend who recently screened the film and said to me, I thought it was really telling things, as soon as he walked out, he said, ‘You know, I don’t agree with anyone in this movie. But I don’t disagree with this movie.’ Speaking about all the characters, I think that’s what, what kind of makes the dynamic of these three characters tick. But, uh, I feel like you defend your character. No one believes what they’re doing is wrong in life and, and, and so I feel like….”

The above incoherence, which demands a sentence diagramming army led by a Patton-like grammarian, did not come from Sarah Palin. These words were uttered by Justin Timberlake on Friday morning, who appeared at the Social Network press conference in dorky eyeglasses (prescription or ironic aesthetic?) and didn’t seem to understand that, for once, the event didn’t center around him.

“I feel like you’re looking at me,” said Timberlake after Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield had offered thoughtful remarks on how they felt empathy for the real-life figures they were playing, “and you want me to add what they said as well. I also have empathy for other human beings, thank you.”

It is safe to say that a man who is set to turn thirty in a few months — indeed, one who has been at the receiving end of several hundred interviews — should have a better ability to speak. But as both the film and the press conference demonstrated, Timberlake is at his best when he is given lines to recite or rudimentary causes to champion.

“I don’t have a personal Facebook page,” said Timberlake later, when a reporter asked all on stage (save moderator Todd McCarthy) about their Facebook presence. “But it is nice to know that, through the world of philanthropy, for instance, that you can send out a message and, for instance, raise money for free health care for kids. I mean, it’s a fantastic thing.”

“I’ve heard of Facebook the way I’ve heard of the carburetor,” answered screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, “but I can’t pop the hood of my car, point to it, and tell you what it does.”

Indeed, the presence of Sorkin at one end of the stage and Timberlake at the other suggested a deliberately arranged spectrum of intellect. Perhaps an inside joke from the fine folks at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. But that speculation wouldn’t be fair to the three men sitting in the middle (much less Todd McCarthy, sitting to Sorkin’s right): respectively, Fincher, Eisenberg, and Garfield.

On playing Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, Garfield noted that Saverin seemed “warm, yet kind of reserved.” There was very little documentation to go on, which granted Garfield some wiggle room to invent.

“I had minimal to go from,” said Garfield, “which was actually quite liberating. Even though I did try to find him in a very obtuse and uncommitted way. But it would have been really interesting. Because, of course, if you’re playing someone who really exists, and who is living and breathing somewhere, you kind of feel a massive sense of responsibility to not ruin them on screen. Because we’re all human.”

Eisenberg confessed that he had developed a greater affection for Facebook honcho Mark Zuckerberg while doing press for The Social Network.

“You have no choice,” he explained. “It’s impossible to disagree with a character that you’re portraying. We shot the movie for about five and a half months. And they were very long days. And you’re spending a lot of time working to defend your character’s behavior. So even if the character is acting in a way that hurts other characters, you still have to understand and ultimately sympathize with that character. It’s impossible to play it any other way.”

Sorkin stated that he didn’t think his script was about Facebook, pointing out that he “thought it was a movie that has themes as old as storytelling itself.” He then compared his work to Chayefsky, Shakespeare, and Aeschylus, pointing out that he hoped the deal with friendship, loyalty, and class – the same themes that these masters did. “Luckily for me, none of these people were available. So I got to write about it.”

Fincher viewed The Social Network as an opportunity to dial his pyrotechnic style down.

“There’s no problem in sublimating your desire to show off if what you’re presenting is something that you think is going to take,” said Fincher. “I mean, originally, the script began. It was in black. And you hear the voices over the black. And I kind of wondered, well, why don’t we just see the Columbia logo and start hearing them then? And hear the jukebox and hear all the people talking and let people know, ‘Pin your ears back, man. You got to pay attention.’ Because if we can start over the trailers of other movies, that’s what I want. And at one point, we talked about the notion of putting the credits over that opening scene. So it was like jukebox, cacophony, people, burger plates, two people talking over each other, and unit production manager. Information overload.”

Technology, for Fincher, represented the double-edged sword of “more options” for today’s filmmakers. He noted that a regatta sequence that appears midway through the film, containing approximately 100 CGI environmental shots, was shot on July 4th. This was less than two months before Fincher needed to have the movie locked for prints.

“The way we make movies has changed radically in the last ten years,” said Fincher. “I mean, I’m able to be in two or three different places at once. I have video tests of rehearsals that are happening in Uupsala right now that are being downloaded so that I can look at them when I go back to the hotel room. So that I can say, ‘This is how I want my parade float to appear on Sunday morning.’ I mean, obviously, that’s a great thing.”

Sorkin stated that he and producer Scott Rudin aggressively courted Facebook in an attempt to secure Zuckerberg’s cooperation on the film.

“Mark ended up doing exactly what I would have done,” said Sorkin, “which was decline. We also told him at the time that, whether they participated or not, we would show them the script when the script was done. And we would welcome any notes that they had. So we did give them the script. And their notes largely had to do with hacking. That there was a little bit of hacking terminology that I’d gotten wrong unsurprisingly. I know that there was a rumor a day or two ago that Mark had been spotted at a screening. I doubt it.”

Fincher was later asked about whether anything was sensationalized or sexed up for the movie. He gave the floor to Sorkin, who replied, “None.”

“I’m not going to sell any tickets by making this statement,” said Sorkin, “but I have to tell you that there is less sex in this movie than there is any two minutes of Gossip Girl. Nothing in the movie was invented for the sake of Hollywoodizing it or sensationalizing it. There are, as I explained, because of the three different versions of the story that were given not just in the deposition rooms, but there was a lot of first-person research that I did with people who are characters in the movie and people who were close to the event – most of whom were speaking to me on a condition of anonymity. And there were a lot of conflicting takes. So there are going to be a lot of people saying, ‘That’s not true. That didn’t happen.’ Just as they’ve been saying that since 2003. The work that I did was exactly the same as the work that any screenwriter does on any nonfiction film. When Peter Morgan writes The Queen, he’s going from fact to fact to fact. But Peter Morgan wasn’t in Queen Elizabeth’s bedroom when they were talking about their daughter-in-law. Moreover, and more important, people don’t speak in dialogue. Life doesn’t play out in scenes. There’s work that the dramatist does. But nothing was invented. Certainly nothing was sexualized in order to amp up the temperature on the movie.

The conference concluded with a chunky, pipsqueaked hack journalist — in desperate need of a haircut and elocution lessons — asking a question about whether The Social Network represented a “departure” for Fincher.

“Because it doesn’t involve somebody aging backwards or because it doesn’t involve serial killers?” replied Fincher, who offered a look as if he had just learned of a last minute dental appointment set for the next morning.

The hack journalist foolishly continued with his inane inquiry.

Fincher sighed. Then he said, “You know, I’d like to give it a lot of really deep thought, but I probably won’t.” He politely presented the hack journalist with the boilerplate answer he so desperately coveted. Then the conference came to a close.

NYFF: Nuremberg / Holocaust Survivor Ernest Michel

[This is the first in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

During Thursday’s press conference for Nuremberg — the only film of the Nuremberg trials commissioned by the United States Army (and subsequently banned from being shown in theaters by the U.S. government) — Holocaust survivor Ernest Michel began the proceedings with a short statement. Michel was the first Holocaust survivor to turn journalist and cover the war trials. What follows is a transcript and an audio file.

Richard Pena: Is there a statement that you wanted to start out with, Michel? I see that you have something there on your left.

Ernest Michel: Yes. But before looking at my notes – because I didn’t trust myself to speak without any notes – this is the second time I’ve seen this film. And I still do not believe that I survived what you saw on the screen. I can’t believe it.

I arrived in Nuremberg on November 20, 1945 to cover the Nuremberg War Crime Plan. I was not just a newsman. I was also a survivor. I went through all of that that you saw on the screen. And I cannot for the life of me understand what saved me and what made it possible for me to come back to life. Seven month before I arrived in Nuremberg. Seven month before I escaped from the last concentration camp. I spent all together five an a half years in the camps. First, forced labor camps. And later on, extermination camps.

I was twenty-two years old when I arrived in Nuremberg. I was kicked out of school at sixth grade because I was Jewish. Never been back to school again. I came to the United States five month before the open of the Nuremberg trial. How I got to the trial is another story and I won’t bore you with that.

I had no job. I had no training. I had no money. I had no family. I was all by myself. And here I was, in Nuremberg, as a special correspondent for the German news agency DANA. Not for American papers. Not for any other papers. For the – for German newspapers. And I sat there in the gallery. The press gallery. There was Edward R. Murrow. Walter Cronkite. Who I got to know. They interviewed me. They couldn’t understand how a survivor was sitting here as a reporter at the Nuremberg trials. I had to pinch myself. This was really me. And if I get a little nervous, a little shaky, I…I saw this for the second time. I don’t know whether I can take it to sit…to sit…to see it again.

The crimes committed during World War II were the height of anything drastic and horrible that could have ever imagined in…in mankind. This is what makes the Nuremberg trials such a unique event. It was the first time that leaders of an elected country — a Western country, Germany – were committed for the greatest crimes ever committed in history. Six million of us were killed. We were eighteen million Jews around the world before the war began. And we were twelve million afterwards. I don’t know if we will ever catch up and make up for what happened.

I insisted that my byline, which I wrote for all the German newspapers, insist that it be called Ernest Michel, Auschwitz Special Correspondent, Former Inmate of Auschwitz 104995. That’s a number I wear. And I wear it with pride.

When I come to the trial, twenty-five feet away from me, second or third row, sits Hermann Goering. I never met him with the exception of one time I may have time not to tell you about. But there I was reporting from the trial. And I was told to be objective. As I said, I had no education whatsoever. I had a brief training process by DANA in order to be able to know what to say, how not to say it. “Please be honest. Straight. Directly. You are not here as a survivor. You are here as a correspondent. To tell what is happening in front of you.” And this is what I did.

My articles appeared in all German newspapers. The defendants were not allowed to read any other newspaper. So everyday, in Nuremberg, they read Ernst Michel, Auschwitz Survivor 104995. I want them to know who was in Nuremberg reporting for the German newspapers.

I was the only survivor to cover while I started in November 1945 – on the 20th November. When [Robert H.] Jackson opened the sessions. And I left the trial in June 194[6]. I couldn’t take it anymore. And then I emigrated to the United States.

The only other film that was shown in Auschwitz was a Russian film.

Sandra Schulberg: You mean in Nuremberg. Shown in Nuremberg.

Michel: In Nuremberg. In Nuremberg. I’m glad you added that.

The only other film that was shown and made by the Russians when the Russian Armies – forgive me, you know, I’m getting a little shaky, but I can’t help it. This is – my family’s there. Was there. My friends, my future, my life, anything. And yet I’m here and I’m coming. Despite my hesitation in talking about it.

This film is the only film made by the United States. And as you probably know, I don’t know if it was explained to you, the American government did not permit this film to be shown. And it is a credit to you that you took your time, your many years, to make this film available. It must be shown so that what happened to me and my generation will never happen again at any time, at any place to anybody.

It was the first time in history that a country, a government, was taken to task. You saw it on the screen. For me, the only thing I can tell you, it was the great experience of my life. There has never been anything like it. There will have been never anything like it. And it is a credit to you that the world will now see what we filmed – our American Army filmed – in Nuremberg. It’s a sight that will never, hopefully never happen again.

NYFF 2010: Ernest Michel (Download MP3)

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NYFF: Broken Embraces (2009)

[This is the second in a series of posts relating to the 2009 New York Film Festival.]

brokenembraces

There once was a time in which I flocked to a new Pedro Almodovar film with a mad and unstoppable gusto, wondering just what iconoclastic ideas Almodovar would unleash upon the screen. You never knew if you were going to get an extended rape scene brazenly challenging gender assumptions (the notorious sequence in Kika) or Antonio Banderas confronting some dormant and out-of-left-field sexual feelings (well, just about every Banderas-Almodovar road show). But then came All About My Mother, a perfectly respectable film that softened Almodovar and revealed that there was a pedestrian melodramatic filmmaker underneath the madness. Almodovar, like many filmmakers in their fifties, lost his bite. And all he had left was the lachrymose material.

And it is my sad duty to report that Broken Embraces represents more of the same. Broken Embraces may offer a film within a film (Girls with Suitcases) that bears suspicious similarity to Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Girls with Suitcases is intended to be Mateo’s masterpiece, maligned by other hands. But when we actually see the footage, even the good takes that Mateo approves of aren’t particularly funny. And Almodovar falls into the all-too-common artistic trap of having other characters comment upon how brilliant and side-splitting an alleged comic masterpiece is, without injecting hilarity into the material itself. “Films have to be finished,” remarks a character at Broken Embraces‘s close. And it’s something you do blindly. But is Almodovar really all that blind?

Here’s a filmmaker fond of staging dialogue scenes by dollying the camera from character to character, instead of panning. Here’s a filmmaker fond of split diopters. Here’s a filmmaker who gets winning performances from his two leads. Here’s a filmmaker who can make a half-decent film in his sleep. So why does Broken Embraces feel like Almodovar settling for something less? Even a moment featuring a DJ doing drugs, with the obligatory MDMA reference, feels as if it’s been directed by a guy who hasn’t set foot in a club in at least a decade.

Almodovar certainly tries to inject his contrived story with a few interesting elements. He gives us filmmaker Mateo Blanco (winningly played by Lluís Homar), blinded by an automobile accident and denied his visual strengths. He also gives us a lip reader hired by a wealthy businessman named Ernesto Martel to make sense of secretly videotaped video. There’s the hint here of a broader moral dilemma concerning the relationship between sensory limitation and media saturation. Is Mateo really blind? When a mysterious stranger knocks on Mateo’s door, Mateo looks through the door’s eyehole. And we’re left to wonder whether Mateo is playing a role, just as the actors he once cast in his films played a role. (In the case of Penelope Cruz’s Lena, it’s an Audrey Hepburn wig.) We believe initially that the film itself may be using melodramatic elements to uproot our expectations. Unfortunately, Almodovar doesn’t quite follow through. It turns out that Mateo really is blind. And the roots of his blindness, both literally and metaphorically, are pounded home with all the subtlety of a jackhammer filling in for a clock radio at an early morning hour. Secret lovers? Check. Cliched fuck bunnies? Check. Animalistic sex scenes? Check, but the feral nature of these scenes just doesn’t ring true. Almodovar’s promising subtext subsides for an easy-to-guess storyline that is all about his father figure.

Almodovar’s strengths have worked best when there’s a natural edge and energy laced within his narrative. It’s not so much the story elements that have mattered, but the way in which Almodovar’s characters disclose wholly unexpected personality qualities at moments we can’t possibly predict. For Broken Embraces‘s first 30 minutes, Almodovar comes close to these instincts. He has Mateo (now in the self-made role of Harry Caine, a screenwriter who pretends to be a former adventurer) bed an attractive woman who has helped him cross the street. The camera dollies along the edge of a couch, eventually focusing on this woman’s raised foot and painted toenails, which fall beneath this line of demarcation upon seismic satisfaction. It’s a typical Almodovar moment: fun, perverted, and wildly improbable. One detects the indelible fingerprint of a younger and hungrier Almodovar. But this regrettably subsides to a pre-Internet flashback to the early 1990s, where Mateo falls in love with Lena, who is Ernesto’s mistress and the father of Ernesto, Jr., known in the present day as Ray X. Get it?

I was complaining on Twitter this morning about the needlessly bleak programming in this year’s New York Film Festival. I’m certainly not against depressing films, but the human spectrum also includes hope and felicity. But Broken Embraces‘s “comedy” feels stale and septuagenarian. And if Broken Embraces is the “comedy” to balance out all the heavy and esoteric dramas, then I suspect that this year’s programmers are probably humorless and terrified of letting anyone know that they enjoy ice cream. I don’t think it’s Hoberman’s fault. And for all I know, the insufferably smug Scott Foundas might even have a few decent jokes in him. But Broken Embraces isn’t comedy in the way that great films are comedy. It feels more like a Golden Girls rerun, which is strange given Penelope Cruz’s presence. It’s something you tolerate because nothing else is on. But you know deep down that Almodovar can deliver more. Let us hope he doesn’t calcify like Woody Allen.

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On October 7, 2009, the New York Film Festival held a press conference with writer/director Pedro Almodovar and star Penelope Cruz. To listen to the press conference, as recorded and mastered by Edward Champion, click on the podcast below. Almodovar answered questions in both English and Spanish, with English translation provided by Richard Peña.

Press Conference: Pedro Almodovar & Pedro Cruz — October 7, 2009 (Download MP3)

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NYFF: The White Ribbon (2009)

[This is the first in a series of posts relating to the 2009 New York Film Festival.]

whiteribbon

(This post will be updated. Review of The White Ribbon TK.)

On October 7, 2009, the New York Film Festival held a press conference with writer/director Michael Haneke. To listen to the press conference, as recorded and mastered by Edward Champion, click on the podcast below. Haneke answered questions in German, with English translation by Robert Gray.

Press Conference; Michael Haneke — October 7, 2009 (Download MP3)

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Why Can’t More Press Conferences End Up Like This?

From a press conference with Newcastle United interim manager Joe Kinnear:

JK Which one is Simon Bird [Daily Mirror’s north-east football writer]?

SB Me.

JK You’re a cunt.

SB Thank you.

JK Which one is Hickman [Niall, football writer for the Express]? You are out of order. Absolutely fucking out of order. If you do it again, I am telling you you can fuck off and go to another ground. I will not come and stand for that fucking crap. No fucking way, lies. Fuck, you’re saying I turned up and they [Newcastle’s players] fucked off.