Made To Be Free: An Interview with Damián Szifron, Director of ‘Wild Tales’

Made To Be Free: An Interview with Damián Szifron, Director of ‘Wild Tales’


Argentine director Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales
comprises six shorts, most dealing with the theme of revenge. They’re
not simple vigilante fantasies, but stories of people who’ve been pushed
too far by bureaucracy, road rage, or the lack of money. Both in content
and structure, the film resembles Jia Zhang Ke’s A Touch of Sin,
which Szifron swears he’s never seen. (That said, his sensibility is
far slicker.) The director has a background in TV, which shows: the
episodes of Wild Tales also resemble a memorable anthology
program. If it’s far from the Lucrecia Martel, Lisandro Alonso and
Matias Piñeiro films that are more commonly shown in North American
film festivals, Wild Tales offers a kind of mainstream
filmmaking that’s still intelligent and politically minded. No wonder
Pedro Almodovar hopped onboard as a producer.
Steven Erickson:
You’ve gone back and forth between TV and film. Do you think each
medium has its own advantages? Which one do you prefer? 
Damián Szifron:
Now TV is a very well-recognized place to work, but before, people thought
of it as something lower. The same thing happened with filmmaking. When
it started, intellectuals thought of it as a circus spectacle, lower
than the theater. Of course, you have different advantages. You can
spend time with characters in television. What I truly love about Mad Men
is that it’s full of scenes they would leave out of a film: long
silences. So you can get closer to literature in television than
filmmaking. It’s a more natural place to develop long situations. But as
a moviegoer, the possibility of being in a theater with a big screen in
silence with no interruptions is something I love. I’d say I prefer
film, but I see a lot of advantages in TV. 
Erickson: Is Argentine society as corrupt as you depict in Wild Tales
I would say it is. You have a lot of corruption there, but you have a
lot of corruption here. I would say the system that rules the world is
corrupt. In Argentina, you have some situations you probably don’t have
here. The episode of the rich father that tries to defend his son from
going to jail describes our society more than yours, but the rest of the
film could happen anyplace. 
There was a case of a teenage boy who killed several people while
driving drunk, and he was acquitted because his lawyer argued that he
was so rich he didn’t understand the consequences of his behavior. 
See, you have a different kind of corruption. I like that story!
Terrible. They should make a film about that. Good lawyer!
Erickson: In the press kit for Wild Tales, you’ve talked about how capitalism numbs people and the film as a response to that. Do you see it as a political film? 
I think it is. It’s not that I intended it that way. These characters
are not conscious of how the system works. They just live inside it
and feel the pressure and depression that it causes. Probably, we all
know that it’s not designed for our benefit but for the benefit of a
very concentrated group of powerful people. I think every time you pay a
tax and see that it’s used to save a bank or buy weapons, you
understand and see it clearly, but you just go on working and buying.
You lose a lot of time doing things you’re not interested in. Very
few people truly like their work. A lot of people waste their lives. I
think that causes a lot of suffering and depression. Some characters
explode. You read that in the newspapers. This is a film about them. 
Erickson: Do you think you’ll return to the notion of a feature made of shorts? 
I might do another one. I truly like the format of this film. It made
me a freer writer in a way, because sometimes you envy the way musicians
or painters can wake up one day and work on a different piece of art or
music. As a screenwriter, you have to live with the same characters and
universe for 6 months to a year. I was able to jump from character to
character very quickly. I enjoyed that freedom. I could do another one,
but it’s not the next thing I’m going to do. 
Erickson: Are any of your stories based on actual news events? 
No, but I know where the beginning of each episode comes from. Mostly,
it comes from my real life. For example, I remember this character who
was a loan shark that used to bother my family. So I invented the
character of the politician that goes to the bar, thinking of him, but
the rest, of course, is fiction. I was driving my car and got into a
discussion with another driver, and the guy insulted me. He went away
very fast. That was real, but then I imagined what would happen if the
asshole had a flat tire and this huge, muscular guy came across him. I
stopped in the middle of the desert just to write that story. The tow
truck took my car several times in places where it wasn’t clear you
couldn’t park. I went to discuss the fee, and I had to stand in line,
and then when it ended, I had to stand in another line. The bureaucracy
is perfectly designed so that you get tired and just pay. They could do
it faster and better and create a space where you can talk, but they
prefer that you shut up and pay. That’s the abuse of power. That
connects all the stories: the reaction towards the abuse of power. The
fictional part is the blow-up. I’ve been at weddings where everyone knew
something that the bride or groom didn’t know. I’m sure we could all
feel blame for characters who hurt us during our lives. I know where the
idea comes from. 
Erickson: Wild Tales began as a series of short stories. Are they adapted directly to film? 
I knew they were for the screen, because I think in terms of music,
acting and images. I like the elements of filmmaking. That’s the natural
space for me, rather than literature. But I didn’t know they were going
to become a film that soon. I thought I was writing something for the
future. But I felt the power of the whole thing when I finished it. When
I gave it to other people to read, their reactions were so enthusiastic
I thought, “I should do this first.” 
Erickson: Do you think the kind of loss of control you depict is becoming more common, or is it still a fictional element? 
Szifron: It’s a fictional element. I think you experience this film as if you were watching an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents or Amazing Stories.
There’s something fantastic about it, even if it doesn’t have
supernatural elements, but you experience it in that way. As fiction,
it’s all over the place. You can find these characters in real life in
Argentina, but also here. 
Erickson: It interests me that your film has ties to certain Asian films, not just A Touch of Sin but some of Park Chan-wook’s films. I think you’re dealing with something very universal about the world as it is now. 
As a filmmaker, you capture some things that are in the air and belong
to your generation and time. You turn these things into something that
connects with audiences. If you succeed, you’re talking about some very
real issues. But the themes behind the stories are eternal as well:
betrayal between men and women, the competition between two men, a man
against the system. I can imagine these stories in any country, in any
language. The desire to react against injustice is something we
experience very often because we are made to be free. We are animals in
the same way that a dog or bear is an animal. If you put a dog in a
cage and bother him with a stick and don’t feed him well, he will bite
when you open the cage because he’s defending his own territory. We’re
being bothered in that way too, as a species. You can expect reactions. 
Erickson: Do you feel at home in the Argentine film scene? Wild Tales feels a lot more mainstream than the Argentine films that typically play festivals. 
It was the biggest film ever in Argentine history. The amount of people
that saw it in Argentina was huge. I like the word “mainstream.” I want
to connect with a large number of people. Of course, I don’t like Transformers, but if I think back to the movies I adore the most, they were all, in their way, very popular, like The Godfather, 2001, Vertigo, Jaws, The Exorcist, The Apartment,
you name it. In their times, those were huge films. I think
filmmaking’s a popular art. If you think of a theater, there’s a lot of
seats that have to be filled. Of course, I do like a lot of smaller,
arthouse films, but I don’t have an issue with the concept of the
Erickson: Are you also influenced by earlier Argentine directors like Leopoldo Torre Nilsson? 
Wow, you know about him. I like him, but the ones that truly made an
impact on me were Leonardo Favio and a guy who died young, Fabian
Bielinsky. They were both filmmakers who combined industry with art. 
Erickson: I’ve seen one Favio film, Juan Moreira. 
Szifron: Why did you see that film? I’m curious. 
The director Matias Piñeiro programmed a series of his favorite
Argentine films in New York last year. He chose that one. 
Szifron: I know him. Yes, I heard about that. 
Erickson: My favorite film out of the series was made by an Argentine director in Paris, Hugo Santiago: The Sidewalks of Saturn

Szifron: You should see his first film. That was very good, but you should see Invasion. He made a third film, The Night of the Centaurs,  and in fact he has a new film coming this year.

Steven Erickson is a writer and
filmmaker based in New York. He has published in newspapers and websites
across America, including
The Village Voice, Gay City News, The Atlantic, Salon, indieWIRE, The Nashville Scene, Studio Daily and many others. His most recent film is the 2009 short Squawk.

Anthony McCarten and the Art of Trying Harder: The Screenwriter of ‘The Theory of Everything’

Anthony McCarten and the Art of Trying Harder: The Screenwriter of ‘The Theory of Everything’

nullWriting a
film about one of the most brilliant men on earth can’t be an easy task. The Theory of Everything, though, not only showcases Stephen Hawking, but even more so his wife Jane. When I
sat down to chat with screenwriter Anthony McCarten, I wasn’t surprised that he
had a compassionate and introspective attitude towards every topic we
discussed. I thought, this man was made
for storytelling.
McCarten, though, was quick to stress just how much work
it requires: a theory Mr. Hawking might agree with himself. Telling the best
stories and revealing the most exciting secrets comes with the greatest


After McCarten and I discussed our favorite teahouses in
London–yes, he’s very British–we got down to his beginnings. “I started as a
journalist.” This is where McCarten first learned a little about writing. He
recalls the first story he ever wrote: “We used to put these stories in vacuum
cylinders, and they used to shoot across the room to the sub-editor.” He remembers
her, surrounded in clouds of smoke as she crossed out and filled in an array of
articles. “She wrote some stuff on it and she put it back in the vacuum
tube. I opened up the little cannister,
and it was all entirely crossed out, with just the words, ‘Try harder’.”

This stuck with McCarten. I point out how elusive that
statement can be. We’ve all heard it before, whether from our third-grade math
teacher or our adult boss. He specifies what it meant to him.

“Be more ambitious.
Do your homework. There’s no easy way around this. We live in an age of, what course can I sign up for and in 24 hours
become a screenwriter

He’s got a point. But McCarten didn’t learn
screenwriting quick. He’s been in the business of writing for many years,
working also as a novelist and playwright. I brought up his most successful
play to date, Ladies Night. It had
eight sell-out national tours of Britain and has been translated into twelve
different languages. McCarten laughs, “It’s been everywhere! It’s been done on
an ice floe in Greenland!” He’s kidding: “No, but almost.” But
that success didn’t come until after he had a number of other plays produced.
He shrugs: “But no one went to them. Commercial success and quality are not
necessarily allied.”

He compares playwriting to his work as a screenwriter,
discussing that although plays are built upon dialogue, the two crafts aren’t
dissimilar. “It’s the same game, but it’s different tools from the toolbox.” McCarten does point out that he finds novel
writing is the most “meditative, most prayer like.” He’s
had the best experiences with screenplays when he’s allowed to also reach that peaceful state.
Luckily for McCarten, he’s developed a way to enter this meditative state regardless of location: “I was born to a very
large family, one of 7 kids, I grew up with carnivals and chaos all around me,
so I can write anywhere.” He wrote his last novel entirely on a dining car on a train
in Germany, enjoying the sounds of the car and people around him.

So, how did McCarten, who’s clearly already made a name for
himself in the British literary scene get involved with The Theory of Everything? As it turns out, winning the approval of
Jane Hawking wasn’t as easy as one may think. 

McCarten read Jane Hawking’s book, Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen in 2004 and was already
“hyper-aware of Stephen Hawking and the dramatic potential of his story.” He
realized “this is God’s gift to a storyteller.” McCarten attributes that to the
uniqueness of Hawking. “When that voice comes out of the computer…. it’s the
voice of God himself! It has an enormous power.” A relationship story centered on
a man like this excited him.

“Love stories are all
about obstacles.”

Approaching Jane required some guts, more than just reaching
out to an editor or agent. “I had to do something more outlandish,” McCarten
reveals. “I stalked her!” He went to Cambridge and showed up at her door. Her publisher
had set up the appointment, but she had never met McCarten before. I had to know
what pitching Jane Hawking was like: “I sketched it out
roughly on the train. It was three movies in one. I wanted to give equal weight
to all those three threads.”

“I used a clumsy
image of a triple helix, of these three threads complementing each other. The
threads would be this one of a kind love story, with all the little unorthodox
changes in course. The second thread would be the physics that would tell us
something about the birth of time and the nature of time. The third element would
be the horror story of Stephen’s physical decline.”

This was his pitch, and McCarten is thankful the script never
changed much from his original idea. “I wanted the story of the career to be
just as important as the care. I wanted the woman’s story to be just as
important as that of the iconic man.” To his relief, Jane was convinced of his ideas,
enough to tell him to write a draft of the script. “That began the
process of me winning her trust.” 

Again, like the “try harder” goal, gaining someone’s trust
can be equally as abstract. How do you actually do it? McCarten reveals
that for him, gaining trust for a project means, “You prove it on paper. In the
end it’s not the pitch, it’s the work you produce.” When Jane finally read his
draft, she could tell that it wasn’t all talk. After that, McCarten and Jane started
to make progress. Up until then. McCarten explains that Jane’s autobiography
had been unflinching. “Some of the press in England can be a little malicious
and gave the book quite a hard time. They don’t want to hear that side of the
story. They don’t want to hear that it might have been hard work looking after
Stephen.” But for McCarten, that’s exactly the element of the story he wanted
to bring to life.

As McCarten got deeper into writing the script, and one
about a man he greatly admired, he admits, “It brought out the best in me. It
required nothing less than my best shot.” But his greatest worry wasn’t
capturing the Hawkings’ voices as much as it was that they would never be
heard. He wrote on the film for years without a guarantee it would be made.
“That was the scary thing. It would have been like a creative death or
something.” It would have been the script that slipped through his fingers.

Fortunately, it didn’t. Before we got to the details of
shooting the film, I had to know how McCarten crafted such a massive story. The
characters are just as complex as the concepts. Starting within his helix idea,
McCarten knew the beats in all three threads of the story. He carefully allowed
each thread, the love story, the science and the physical decline to naturally
weave together. ”It was really painterly in the approach, a little magenta, a
little bit of blue, a little bit of yellow and in the juxtaposition of these
elements, something else was born.” He found parallels between the expansion of
the universe and the growth of Hawking’s mind, “the black holes
being contractions of the universe and then his body collapsing. It was like
adding two chemicals together and getting a third reaction.”

These mirror images are prevalent in the film and powerful,
without being heavy-handed. Time is also something that connects all three
threads and serves as a throughline. “The theory of everything: another phrase for
that is the unifying principle, and the unifying principle of this whole entire
script is time. It’s implicit in his doctoral thesis in the beginning of it.”
Hawking, from the beginning, is living at a different speed, experiencing time
differently than the characters around him. “Although we’re very much
intellectually driven to look forward, the heart is a bit of a time traveler
and it’s just as alive in the past as it is in the present.” Upon a closer look,
time travel is even mentioned in the dialogue, Jane ascribing her love for
literature to it.

McCarten reveals that the concept of time travel was
implemented in more than just the dialogue. ”Everyone on the team tried to
embody it in their own way. I know that the cinematographer, Benoît
Delhomme, did a great job of finding cosmic elements that would, without
rupturing reality, give you a sense of timelessness.” He did so with lighting,
keeping a stronger light on Stephen because he was the sun. In the visual and
emotional language of the film, everyone orbited around him. McCarten laughs, “Everyone
was trying to dial up the inner poet.”

So much of the film did rely on the visuals, more so than
usual, given the protagonist is losing his capacity for words. Although
McCarten comes from a playwriting and novelist background, he was excited to
work on a project not so reliant on word play.

“I wanted to work
with the restrictions almost Stephen had, taking away the primary tool in my
toolbox which is dialogue and working with almost nothing.”

A scene with Stephen and Jane comes to my mind. He tells her
he’s moving to America and their marriage is basically ended. So much is communicated,
with such little speech. McCarten agrees that it’s one of the scenes he’s most
proud of. “By the end of the scene they’re no longer husband and wife, and to do
that with almost no words was one of the great challenges and joys of writing
this kind of material.” While developing that scene, he scraped away the
dialogue till there was almost none, having each word communicate multitudes. When
Jane says, “I have loved you,” it’s a single line that changes their entire
relationship so far.  McCarten knew that in
order to earn this moment, and have it prove effective, he had to plant the
seed early on. He began with Jane and Stephen as a “witty, young couple and at
the end almost incapable of movement. They would be the polar opposite of each
other. I thought that central architecture would be really fascinating to play
with and I thought, the less dialogue I use in the end, the greater the
dramatic reward.”

McCarten’s construction of the script and the characters is
indeed elegant. Still, I was curious where he
was in the story. Every writer leaves an imprint of themselves on any
project. At first, McCarten explained that it’s more that “in between the known
points, they’re like stars in the sky, there are these vast empty spaces, and
this is where you have to use poetic license.” 

“It’s distilled
through what I think is appropriate for them, but they’re not there to give me
the exact words. I call it inspired speculation.”

McCarten never had the guarantee that he would get it right,
that these inspired moments would prove affective. But when Jane Hawking saw
the film and said, “I feel like I’m floating on air” and Stephen sat through it
and his “nurse wipe[d] tears from his cheeks,” McCarten was relieved, having a
realization he must have done something right:
“95% of the dialogue is just my best shot at what they might have said!” He admits,  “That’s you, that’s
your personality. You can’t write a character more brilliant than yourself. It’s
just not physically possible.” He brings us back to where we began, with his
first piece as a journalist. Whatever he’s working on, whether sending it
through a vacuum tube to an editor or onto a screen in front of Jane and Stephen
Hawking, McCarten still repeats that phrase to himself,  “Try harder!”

Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for CraveOnline, Paste, Flaunt, and Complex Magazine. She is also Senior Editor at The Script
Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed
Shakespeare nerd. @atwwalloway

Oscar Isaac Talks About Pragmatism, Morality and Putting Yourself On the Line in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR and Beyond

Oscar Isaac Talks About Pragmatism, Morality and Putting Yourself On the Line

nullOscar Isaac is perhaps one of the most exciting men in film right now. After showcasing both his singing and acting chops in Inside Llewyn Davis, he’s since landed roles
in Mojave opposite Mark Wahlberg and
Garrett Hedlund, Apocalypse in X-Men: Apocalypse
and then of course that tiny movie no one is excited about: Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

But meanwhile Isaac has also been making quieter, if not
more in-depth movies.  J.C. Chandor’s (All is Lost) A Most Violent Year showcases
Isaac in the title role, playing Abel, an ambitious businessman in 1981 New
York City. Jessica Chastain, with whom Isaac attended Juilliard years back,
plays his wife Anna, the daughter of a gangster and the Bonnie to Abel’s
Clyde.  Isaac plays Abel with a precision
far different than messy Llewyn who loved cats and twiddled on his
guitar. Abel is pristine, determined, and elusive in his motivations. 

Press Play had a chance to sit down with Isaac in LA this
week, just a few days after the Star Wars
trailer set out to take down computer servers across the planet. But we
were interested in getting into the details of Isaac’s incredibly crafted
performance in A Most Violent Year. Sporting
a mustache, with the charm of Llewyn and the introspection of Abel, Isaac chatted
building character and the fine line between morality and pragmatism. 

MA: The last
thing I saw you in was Inside Llewyn
where you’re playing a character always asking other people for help.
Abel is always fighting against that. Are you more like Abel or a bit of both

OI: The thing with Llewyn was that he was not
happy asking for help.  But he’s in a What the hell else am I
gonna do? Can I bum a cigarette?
kind of situation. With Abel, yes, he’s going to do things on his own, but there’s that constant fear that all of ithis could fall apart at
any moment as well. When you’re playing somebody, the guy’s a millionaire,
clearly he’s affluent, he’s doing great, got a great little family, moving to a
bigger house, it’s kind of hard to find a reason to root for the guy. J.C. said that often, with a lot of these dudes who end up growing so much, there’s
at least two or three moments in their life when they just go all in. They risk everything. This movie starts with Abel being like, ‘We’re risking everything right now.’ That intensity, the pull
between I’m risking everything, I could
lose everything at any minute
and at the same time the singularity of
vision, I know what our goal is and I
know how we can get there
, being unflappable. Those two things
happening at the same time.

MA: Playing a
character with that constant conflict must have required physical work. This
man has this anxiety in his gut the entire time. His goal is not to show people
that. How did you start building Abel? Did you manifest that anxiety and build
on top of that?

OI: It was a very
dense script.  Obviously he’s very
formal. He doesn’t use contractions. He speaks very formally. As an actor you
have a choice, you’re like I want to make
it more human and talk like I do
. I chose to lean into the formality in a
way almost like a memory of your grandfather. I would ask [J.C.] all these
questions–"What’s he feeling here, what’s he going through?"–and he would say, "The hair’s going to be amazing." And I’d be like, "What?" [Laughs] Then, "What’s
going on inside…?" He’s like, "The suits, you got to take a look at the suits!"  I would get so frustrated! I even wrote him, "I don’t
care about suits. I don’t care about the hair! I need to know what’s going on
inside!" And then at one point he said, "The suits are not about fashion, it’s
a suit of armor."  Suddenly that hit me
in a much different way. As an actor, that’s completely actable.

MA: He was
telling you to take the physical avenue in.

OI: Yeah, to a certain
extent, and also he was saying I have to find my emotional way in. It can’t really be about what he wants me to
express in this moment. You realize everything is about presentation.
Everything is about calculation. This is war and this is his suit of armor.
That influenced how I wore it. It wasn’t wearing a suit to look cool. It was
wearing a suit because it was his armor and his way of defense against other
people. Even the way he’d sit, come into a room. He wouldn’t really have
angles. He always squared off at everyone.

MA: I remember
one of the only times Abel sits back is when he’s at the table with all of the
gangsters. You’re trying to have power.

OI: Yea. Finding
those moments of very calculated movement. He counts two not like this [Isaac
hold up his pointer and middle finger], but counts it like this [he holds up
his thumb and pointer] because that’s a much more aggressive form of two.
Little things like that, building all those physical things.

MA: What about
with his wife?

OI: Then with
her, not being afraid to soften it completely. Something that I didn’t even
realize until I saw it all together, how often I grab her face with both hands.
That happens a lot and I wasn’t even aware of it. You do so many different
takes and there were some takes where I didn’t do that. But to see that that is
a motif that runs throughout it. Everything else is so much about standing back
and keeping everything close to the chest and not letting anybody in and then
the moments that he’s with his wife it’s the opposite physicality. It’s those
little things that subconsciously, when you’re watching it, stick.

MA: I like that
Abel exists in this gray area, where he’s not quite an upright citizen and he’s
not quite a gangster, he vacillates between the two. When you looked at the
script, especially now knowing it was super dense, did you navigate his emotions
by when he dips into either side of the spectrum?

OI: Well first it
was about constructing what the spectrum is. What are his extremes? Where is he
coming from that gives him a sense of context? One of the early things was to
build a backstory, because he doesn’t reveal any of that.

MA: None of it.

OI: None of it. It’s
only present and future. He says that toward the end: "You can only look forward,
you can’t look backwards." There is something about this immigrant story where
you burn your past. You re-invent yourself. He’s definitely someone who
ascribes to that. The idea that he’s so against violence, well, where does that
come from? Why is that the case?

MA: Why is he clinging
to his morality? That was my question.

OI: Mine too until
I realized it’s not morality. It’s pragmatism. I found out about Bogotá,
Columbia in the late 50s, which is when he would have left. It was a time of the
civil war. It was called La Violencia, the violence. Horrific violence was
happening. Men, women children, it was mayhem. He fled from there. He has an
incredibly intimate experience with violence. He comes to this country,
reinvents himself, but finds that violence keeps coming after him. The idea of not
getting a gun is not because I’m afraid of guns, it’s not because I think guns
are wrong, it’s because it’s impractical, it’s stupid and it’s exactly what
they want me to do. If I get a gun, even if I get one legally, and someone
tries to break in, I’m going to shoot somebody. What happens if I kill
somebody? Do you think that I’ll be able to get in bed with a politician down
the road, with the DA? They’re after us for any little any thing. It’s the
dumbest thing that you could do right now, to get a gun and kill somebody, even
if its protecting someone, because it’s not the long view. That’s what he is.
He’s someone that has very specific goals, very specific strategy and if he has
any genius at all it’s that he has the confidence in that vision. Even though
he’s scared shitless that it’s all going to fall apart, he thinks If I can manage these little disasters, I
know this is going to get us to where we need to go

MA: At the end of
the film, when something extremely tragic occurs, do you think that Abel admits
to himself that power is worth the fatalities? What is happening for him?

OI: That’s the
thing. The idea of pragmatism was helpful and the idea of shying away from the
morality side was helpful in the way that I was able to get to that place. Those
things weren’t active. I don’t know how you act morality. A strategy is
actable, strategy I can get behind. What got me there was thinking about
sociopathic behavior and sociopaths in business and how often great business
men share those characteristics which is a lack of empathy and a lack of
sincerity and seeing humans as commodities. I think you’re absolutely right.
This [other character] is such a problem. He’s such a danger to [Abel’s]
business. He’s completely expendable. To be able to shut off your emotions so
drastically, I think that the only way you can do that is if you have some of
these sociopathic qualities.

MA: That’s stuff
you think Abel has had from the beginning?

OI: I absolutely
do. At the one end of the spectrum it’s, What
do you do for me as far as attaining my goals? Do you help me attain my goals?
If you do, then you’re a human. If not, you’re completely expendable.
the other end of the spectrum, which is, I
will do things the right way. There’s a path that’s the higher, smarter path, and
there’s the lesser one
. That’s the other end of the spectrum.

MA: That’s a
spectrum you have to deal with as an actor. J.C. has described Abel as being
this man that sees, in a moment of crisis, that when you’re the most scared is when
you take the biggest risk and reap the greatest reward, or fail. Can you think
of a specific moment as an actor where you’ve been in the same position as

OI: Really, you
should be in that position every time they say, ‘Action.’ You’re willing to
risk looking horrible and failing, failing big. You risk showing yourself too
and really going there. That’s one of the hardest things to do in any art is to
risk failure and put yourself out on the line.

MA: You’re doing
that with your next projects. Do you have hopes and fears around risking your
personal life and privacy?

OI: Yeah, that
definitely plays into it because I’m definitely someone that’s private. I’ve
never been interested in celebrity. Sure, as these films are way more high
profile, you become more visible. That’s definitely something that you are
sacrificing to be able to, at least for me, do the thing that I love, which is
to make movies and play characters, do these meditations on these lives.

Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for CraveOnline, Paste, Flaunt, and Complex Magazine. She is also Senior Editor at The Script
Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed
Shakespeare nerd. @atwwalloway

Talking with Ted Melfi About Saints, Compassion, and Survival in Hollywood

Talking with Ted Melfi About Saints, Compassion, and Survival in Hollywood

nullTed Melfi has been in the movie industry for years. He’s worked in
commercials, produced shorts and started Goldenlight Films, a production
company, with his wife Kimberly Quinn. St.
though, is his first major feature film. He snagged Bill Murray as
his lead after finding him through a 1-800 number and, soon after, the
Weinstein Company came on to produce. The cast is incredible, the story is accessible,
and, from my experience, the audiences are responding. Watching St. Vincent at the Grove Theater in LA
on a Friday night, no one left during the credits. They rolled, Bill Murray
danced to Bob Dylan, and everyone stayed put, in awe. I whispered to my friend,
“People love this movie.”

Bill Murray plays
Vincent, an unemployed drunk in Brooklyn who loves to curse and make other people
feel inferior. When a single mother, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her son
Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door, Vincent takes the opportunity to
make some extra cash by babysitting Oliver. Although Vincent is initially
distant, surrounding himself with gambling, booze and a Russian prostitute Daka
(Naomi Watts), he and the boy soon form a bond. When Oliver is asked to pick a
saint at school, he insists that Vincent, who most view as a nightmare, is
actually a good guy, even a saint.

I met with Melfi at the Weinstein offices in LA. Walking
into the conference room, surrounded by hit movie posters, stiff chairs
and a massive glass table, I was immediately comforted by Melfi’s warm smile
and firm handshake. He was vulnerable right off the bat, confident but sincere.
I soon was convinced
that if I were Bill Murray, I’d say “yes” to this guy too.

Melfi got his start producing in a way that is both
unlikely and believable. He worked in an
Italian restaurant in Studio City. A guy walked in one day and started talking
about a story he had: “It’s about this African American kid back in the Midwest
trying to find himself as a writer.” Melfi was compelled by the story. The man offered Melfi
his script and asked if he had produced. He said, “yes,” with an apron on. Melfi had never produced before.

Thankfully, LA is about faking it till you make it. He spent
the next few months raising $600,000, and they were shooting the film weeks
later. Melfi knew,  “This is what I’m
going to do with my life and I’m 23.” 

He went on to write and shoot projects with his wife
Kimberly Quinn with their production company Goldenlight Films. Melfi completed
seven indie movies where he produced and wrote, but he refrained from
directing.  Meanwhile, he was writing
things on the side and trying to get agents all over L.A. All of his films were
released, but in today’s industry, that doesn’t mean you’re making a good
living. After eight years of producing, Kimberly said he had to get a real job.
She suggested commercials, having worked on a plethora of them as an actress.
Eventually, Melfi made specs and got lucky with MTV. He made a commercial
starring Ron Jeremy about pizza and porn and shot it for $1,200.  MTV bought the commercial for $10,000, and it
launched his commercial career.

Melfi doesn’t proceed to make fun of his Ron Jeremy venture
or discount his work in commercials, as many “artistic” filmmakers might. “I
love commercials,” he says. “I love telling stories in a short amount of time.”
He’s working on about “two a month” at this point in his career and assures me
“they all have their good spots.” Once Melfi established a life with a
consistent income for his family, he decided to get back to his first love, writing.

After completing a few screenplays, all praised by his
agents but none landing, Melfi wrote St.
The story has an extremely personal origin for Melfi.  His brother passed away at 38 with an
11-year-old daughter–the mother was not around. “My wife and I adopt her and
take her from Tennessee to Sherman Oaks, California. She gets this homework
assignment in her world religion class: find a Catholic Saint that inspires you
and find someone in your real life that mimics the quality of that saint and
draw a comparison.” Similar to the saint Oliver chooses in the film, she
chooses Saint William of Rochester, and then chooses Melfi himself. “It was,
like, healing for our family.” Ted couldn’t stop thinking of it, but knew it
would transform into the characters that soon became Bill Murray and Oliver.

Coupled with the personal experience of his daughter, Melfi
chose to base Vincent on his father in law. “My wife’s father was a Vietnam
vet, drank too much, smoked too much, gambled lied and cheated.” He stopped
talking to Kimberly when she was 9 and never spoke to her again. One day, she
decided to write a “Dear Dad” letter in attempt to re-connect.  Sure enough, he called soon after and they
talked for hours.  “He became her saint,
she became his saint. They reunited and became father and daughter for the last
10 years of his life. He realized he had value through her, and that’s what
Oliver does for Vincent.” Right there is the kernel of the project for Melfi, “It’s
about value.”

Upon learning the project is so personal, I’m curious how
Melfi actually approached writing the script. “The drawing board for me was to
sketch out the general structure and then to back away from it as far as I
could.” Vincent is 70, creating a generation gap between the drunken veteran
and Melfi, resembling Kimberly’s father more closely. Ted doesn’t write with
actors in mind, but people. 

“I think that the
most connected writing in the world is connected to something true and honest,
no matter what that is. Every character I write is based on something, some
personal part of me, someone I know, someone I’ve met. It just makes it clear
to my mind.”

Getting back to the crux of the story, value, I wondered
what was unresolved here. Was Melfi writing this as a form of catharsis, was it
out of a need to tell his audience, or perhaps himself, that they possess
worth? Melfi describes his experience with Jeff Kitchen, taking classes with
the screenwriting guru and learning a specifically helpful technique. “You
start any project with a question: what do I want to leave the audience with?”
With St. Vincent, it’s “every human
being has value.”

Melfi describes drawing arrows down from that point: how
will that happen? “You start to go backwards in time and all the sudden you get
to the drunk meets the kid.” After
the movie’s release, Ted has received many texts, tweets and emails, all saying
the same thing: “I cried.” He’s seen it for himself. He realized that perhaps
the reason they’re crying is because that last element landed. “That technique
has some value! He references Paul Thomas Anderson, saying that with all his
films he has an intention, whether or the movie is your taste or not.

You can fuck it up
shooting it, writing it. We fucked a lot of things up but we didn’t’ fuck that
concept up. It’s the intention that you have as a writer or director that made
that so.”

Still, Melfi hasn’t answered my question: did he need to
tell himself he had value? “Yea I
think everyone does. I think I’m a pretty good person. I’m in my forties, it
kind of happens later! Your value gets chipped away over time and the next
thing you know, you’re 65.” Melfi points out that everywhere people wonder is this it? They’re seventy, living on
retirement or social security, their kids are gone, what’s left with life? He
admits he’s thankful for his wife and family and feels valuable, but I wonder
about Kimberly’s father. “He spent his life trying to find his value and
ultimately I think life can be a lot for people. It was so much for him that he
bailed out.”

This sense of isolation compares to a moment in the film [spoiler!]
where Vincent sits next to his wife, who at this point, is just a box of ashes.
He’s broken, and when Oliver offers comfort, Vincent pushes him away with wit,
then anger. Melfi suggests, “The instinct is to push away because no one wants
to feel vulnerable, because if the dam breaks, the river is going to flow. And
it does not stop.”

This avoidance of vulnerability is fueled by Vincent’s
history as a veteran. “War is disgusting and disturbing and they’re there for us.” But when these veterans get home
that “one man’s life means nothing” doesn’t quite translate. Behaving in battle
like your life is meant for sacrifice, but having a family tell you they need
you can be confusing and propel one into that same isolation Vincent gravitates
towards. Melfi admits that our country and culture don’t take proper care of
veterans.  They’re the “bravest men and
women on the planet.” The audience may write Vincent off in the beginning of
the film, as do the characters surrounding him in the story. He’s crude, rude
and mean. But he’s also a war hero.

“You peel back the skin of the onion and start to go, this guy is amazing.” It’s the same
situation with Maggie, who Melissa McCarthy plays with both strength and palpable
weakness. She’s a hardworking mother stuck between work, a divorce and an
innocent son. “That mimics most closely to what life is. You don’t know a shit
about anyone. One day something will happen and you’ll go [makes a gibberish
noise and shakes his head in stupor].”

Melfi believes this compassionate philosophy, believing
people are more than they may appear. He still, though, must function as a
filmmaker in a town where not many are willing to let their appearances
crumble. “Los Angeles is a tricky town. I’m from New York, and in New York ‘Fuck
you’ means ‘Fuck you.’ A New Yorker will sit down and tell you his whole life
story.” LA, on the other hand, is about separation. “I don’t know how I survive
here. I have a family and I get out of here as much as I can.” Melfi is able to
pull back those layers of the people around him, eager to get his hands dirty.

“I’m an instigator
and an aggravator. I ask questions people don’t want to ask. I’m fascinated
with people. I think it’s what we’re here for.”

He believes we’re all one; his favorite film being It’s a Wonderful Life. St. Vincent has
the same message, telling people they do
matter; they can make an impact.
Recently, Melfi noticed two ladies talking outside a screening. One of them
says they cried, which was a marvel, given she’s on anti-depressants and can’t technically shed a tear.

“God forbid, there’s an emotion in a movie! It’s sentimental
and schmaltzy! What the fuck are you going to a movie for? If you don’t want an
emotion just go see action films…even Spiderman,
they have emotions! Go see those movies because you have lost sense of what art

“Art is a catharsis. You
are supposed to go and get fucking mad and laugh and cry and have every
emotion. Otherwise, there’s no point to art. We might as well make network TV.”

He and I agree that much of that type of programming isn’t
connected to anything real. It’s a product. As much as St. Vincent could be called the same, released by the Weinsteins
and with a Hollywood cast, it’s not. If it turned out to be, that clearly wasn’t
Melfi’s intention.

“My generation and everyone below is now in a world that’s
disconnected. We have this illusion that social media, Twitter, texting these
things are connecting us more. Instead of dealing someone on the human level,
we don’t have to do that anymore. Human beings were designed, from the earliest
days as cavemen, to read faces, to fall in love with someone, to fall in
hate…to get them. We’re not emotionally connected. Entertainment has followed
suit. It has very little humanity.”

Melfi is taking a risk painting religion in a positive light,
if making a film that’s sentimental as opposed to cynical wasn’t enough. “My uncle
was a priest. My aunt was a nun. My mom was a nun.” He reveals a scandalous
love affair between his aunt Patty and uncle Tom who fell in love, got married,
and then were kicked out the church. It’s been 50 years now.  “Tom is the coolest mother on the planet.
He’s kind of the inspiration behind Chris O’Dowd’s character and a new look at
religion.” O’Dowd plays Brother Geraghty, Oliver’s teacher in school.  “I wanted a positive depiction of what an
honest Catholic priest would be today, where he has to embrace every religion,
and no religion, and try to get people to understand that God is whoever you
want him to be at this point in your life. If you find my particular God, okay,
if you don’t, okay, but you should learn the values of being a good person and
living some of your life for others.”

Melfi is encouraged about Pope Francis: “He’s going to make
it tangible for other generations who have shunned it. “ Melfi believes this action
is developing the view of religion and encouraging a freedom to find a personal
relationship with God. “I personally have seen enough of the Catholic Church
getting beat up. Everyone does a big ‘X out’ on religion because they have an
experience. Most people nowadays haven’t even had an experience; they have a
perception. They have no idea.”

Melfi’s mission is so pure; I wonder how he preserves it. It
is Harvey Weinstein after all. “Everything you do in life is a collaboration.” Although
Bill came with the project, Weinstein wanted a second and third big star in the film. Melfi
fought for Melissa, she even volunteered to audition, and Weinstein convinced
Melfi to make the prostitute Russian and cast (poor guy!) Naomi Watts. “I
fought when I needed to fight, and you collaborate when you need to collaborate.
Be open to being wrong. Directors get stuck in I’m an auteur, this is my baby, this is my vision. To some degree
that’s a trap. I come from the script is
the boss
.” Melfi was once a stage actor, which could explain his dedication
to text. 

“When the script is
good, the best thing a director can do is get out of the way.”

Melfi has multiple scripts about children seeking father
figures, a subject matter that also ties into St. Vincent’s quest for value.  It’s not until the last minutes of our conversation that Melfi reveals, “My dad disappeared 19 years ago and I never saw
him again. There’s a deep part of me that will always wonder what happened to
him.” Melfi goes to therapy, and he explores his own personal life outside art.
He’s no Lars Von Trier, who openly puts his painful, demented catharsis on
screen. Melfi just wants to create stories. “My favorite filmmakers are
personal filmmakers, Alexander Payne, Spike Lee, Frank Capra, even Steven Spielberg.
He’s telling great stories.”

Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for CraveOnline, Paste, Flaunt, and Complex Magazine. She is also Senior Editor at The Script
Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed
Shakespeare nerd. @atwwalloway

Walking Toward the Flame: An Interview with Robert Greene About ACTRESS

Walking Toward the Flame: An Interview with Robert Greene About ACTRESS


Documentarian Robert Greene’s evolution has been astonishing. His second and third features, Kati with an i and Fake It So Real,
are immersive portraits of his half-sister during the period leading up
to her high school graduation and a team of amateur wrestlers,
respectively. They’re accomplished films, but they don’t prepare one for
the skill shown in his latest film, Actress. Depicting Brandy Burre, an actress who appeared on The Wire
but gave her craft up to became a homemaker, it comes as close to
Douglas Sirk as it does to Frederick Wiseman. Using devices like slow motion and
saturated color, Greene follows Brandy over a troubled year in her life,
as her relationship with her partner Tim crumbles and she tries to get
back into acting. His next film will integrate fictional devices even
further, as it tells the story of an actress (Kate Lyn Sheil) playing a
news anchor who committed suicide on air in the ‘70s.
Greene recently ran a (successful!) crowdsourcing campaign to raise money for the music rights
so that Actress could be released on November 7th
(Note: I don’t think Actress
is the kind of narrative film for which spoiler warnings need apply,
but readers should be forewarned that this interview discusses its final
Press Play: At what point did it become apparent that Actress was as much a melodrama as a documentary? 
Robert Greene:
That’s an interesting question. Brandy is my neighbor. We’ve known
each other for years. We have kids the same age, so that our friendship was
based more on children than on being grown-up friends. When you’re
friends with other parents, it’s often through what your children are
taking you to, like parties. From the beginning, my interest in Brandy
as a subject grew before the story became so dramatic. She’s a theatrical
human being. The basic premise was, “What happens if you make an
observational documentary about an actor?” What is the effect that has?
Maybe she’ll be overacting. That has aspects of melodrama from the
beginning. That could’ve found its way in different forms. One of my
original ideas was just to show her performing acts of wife-ness, and
motherhood, and showing instability and fragility in these performances.
Then that could’ve taken us anywhere. Before we knew where the movie was
going, we thought about staging things and revealing they were staged.
The actual events in her life gave us the grounding I needed. All the slow motion stuff was shot in camera as slow motion. There’s a
technical difference between doing that and adding slow motion effects later.
The scene where Tim walks in behind her as she’s putting makeup on was
done when I had the camera around, and I just liked the framing, so I
put it on in slow motion, but it’s as observational as anything else.
The miracle of the film, I guess, is that the things that were happening
matched my instincts from the beginning. 
Press Play: Were there any aspects of her life that she hesitated to let you film? 
Yes. As she says in the movie, she has a real love/hate relationship
with the camera, as most actors do. I think she was hesitant about the
whole thing and also wanted to embrace it. I think Brandy’s the type of
person who, if she feels hesitant, will walk towards the flame.
That’s her natural instinct. A lot of actors go, “If I’m scared, do it.”
The whole concept of stage fright is fascinating. Actors get stage
fright,  but they wouldn’t be on the stage in the first place if they
just succumbed to it. There’s this love/hate relationship with the
spotlight. You sense that tension, hopefully, throughout the film. It’s a
totally natural response. My instinct was to protect some things. I
knew that a portrait of Brandy was never going to be a sweet,
no-blemishes depiction, because that’s not the type of human being she
is. She’s tough and prickly. I knew there was always going to be an edge
to it. At the same time, I never put in fights that she and Tim had,
and she appreciated it. It’s all true, but like all documentaries, it’s
my version of the truth.  
That scene with the bruise over her eye creates some expectations
in the spectator. When I first saw it, I thought that Tim had hit her,
and I didn’t completely believe her story that it was an accident. Is
that kind of question something you want viewers to ask? 
The reason that scene is in there the way it is—I would prefer not to
spoil it if possible—is to elicit that reaction. When I first saw Tim
after it happened, he said “I didn’t do it” jokingly. The whole movie
is about her stepping out of line in some ways. It’s about her testing
the boundaries of what’s OK. The response that a fair number of people
have is that she deserves to be swatted down. I don’t think most people
think she deserves physical violence. But the fact that it happened and
that we could play with that expectation and the viewer could think
about where they stand with Brandy’s decisions was fascinating.
Hopefully, by this point, the viewer is thinking about the layers of
reality around everything. Is she acting? Is she being authentic? Is
this real? All these things that are happening in every scene pay off.
You don’t know what you’re looking at. It’s totally true that she did
fall out of a car. But the fact that you don’t believe her is an
interesting way that women are often viewed. The whole film is about a
woman with a radically specific take on her life, by a filmmaker with a
radically specific take on her life. It puts you in a position where you
have to think through some things and judge, as we often do. When
people go through breakups, we judge people, and the film pushes that
last scene to some extreme point. I’d like viewers to cycle through all
their thoughts. Who hit her? Is she lying? Is this a role she got when
she walked through the ABC building? Is this some stupid metaphor the
director came up with to describe her plight? In thinking through those,
hopefully you’re thinking about your own take on the image of a bruised
face. Beyond that, this is something documentaries are often afraid to
do. Forget observation! Go for expression! The image of a bruised face
should mean something, even if it’s a complex thing and seems like a
stunt at first. Also, it’s the last thing we filmed. It’s literally the
end of the story. 
Press Play: How do you think your interest in performance developed? It’s nascent in Kati With an i, blossoms in Fake It So Real and Actress and is developing even further in your next film. 
I was probably 14 when I heard this cliché that there are 17 words for
snow in the Inuit language and became completely obsessed with language
and the way words function in culture. Similarly, the idea of social
performance, that we’re always performing identities, is something I got
fairly obsessed with. I think it’s probably because I am a person who
went to 15 different elementary and middle schools. I moved all the
time, often having to run out in the middle of the night because my mom
couldn’t pay the bills. There were schools where I’d be the poor loser
kid. There were schools where I’d suddenly be the smart kid or the cool
kid, although that was very seldom. By the fourth grade, it was clear
that I was taking this role on. It troubled me, because I’m not the
person who was cool five days ago. I find it fascinating. I don’t think
it’s a dead end. In Actress, the goal of talking about
performance is to show that these are traps. The role of wife, mother,
or filmmaker is only part of the truth. We’re supposed to “do the right
thing” all the time, but it’s often filling what Joshua Oppenheimer, in
an interview I did with him recently, called “unacknowledged social
scripts.” So that’s fascinating to me. The documentary camera—specifically, an observational camera—held by someone who’s attentive
to behavior can detect these layers and reveal what makes up society. In
Kati With an i, you have a girl who says she’s getting married
and going to college, but she’s just repeating back what society tells
her to say. What does that mean and why? In Fake It So Real, these guys are creating escape fantasies for themselves and creating art out of it. Actress
is a step forward from that. It’s about how you get out of that role.
Because Brandy has a master’s degree in acting, I knew she could bring
something more to it. Who knows how many more times I can explore this? I
just think there’s something in the non-fiction form that allows
you to see things clearly, if you’re patient.
Press Play: Kati With an i and Fake It So Real both depict your relatives, although I don’t think the films mention that. Did that make the filming easier? 
Greene: It does. I think I appear very briefly in Kati With an i,
and you see me hugging Kati very briefly with a camera. You can put two
and two together and figure out who I am, especially because I say in
the credits that I appear. I didn’t feel the need to say that Chris
Solar is my cousin in Fake It So Real. But it does make it
easier. It’s simply that these are films I could get made. I’ve never
raised any money upfront to pay for a movie. That’s changing now with my
next film. I was supported by a company I used to work for, 4th Row
Films, who could give me equipment and help pay for travel expenses if
necessary and buy tapes for my DIVX camera. There’s no big sum of money
upfront. At the same time, I’m not interested in my personal take on the
stories. I had Sean Williams shoot Kati With an i because he was
looking at my half-sister in a way that I never would have. It was much
more interesting. That movie wouldn’t exist if I had shot it. Chris Solar
was the “in” for this world in Fake It So Real, but it’s an ensemble piece. For Actress,
I’m looking out my window now at Brandy’s house. It’s obvious that’s
the only way this could have been made. It’s very pretentious to call
out John Cassavetes as an influence, but we made a grown-up movie about
grown-up themes in each other’s homes with a similar “go for broke,
let’s see what happens” aesthetic. The next film stars a friend of mine.
I was hesitant to make Actress because I didn’t want to keep
making films about people who are close to me. But in the end, the movie
took hold, as they tend to do. I don’t care about the idea of objective
distance from your subject. Hopefully there’s something explored here. 
Press Play: Is it frustrating to have a distributor for Actress and an opening date locked in, but still have to raise money for the music rights? 
Greene: It’s frustrating in some sense, but I’m lucky to be able to do it. Basically, the Cinema
Guild is great, but they don’t pay money. They help you get your film
out there, and hopefully if all things click in some beautiful and
magical way, Actress could be one of a hundred documentaries that
succeeds. I hope that could happen, but I don’t expect it. I’ve seen
the movie connect with people that aren’t just cinephiles. I’m hoping it
continues and we’re working hard to make it happen. 4th Row Films paid
for The Rachels and Colleen and several other songs in the film, and
the posters, with no money raised upfront. It eventually got to a point
where it wasn’t sustainable. They’ve supported every one of my films,
and I felt like I couldn’t ask them to do it anymore. They believed in
these songs. We’d been working for months to get the quotes on those
songs down. The original price was much, much higher. We had several
choices. Do we cut these songs? We got the prices down to a manageable
level where I didn’t feel like it was an obscene or absurd amount of
money. The choice really was to cut the songs or raise the money this
way. At the same time, it’s an effort to preserve the vision I had for
the money. For a movie that was made for no money, you would never
assume you would use that music. I feel lucky to be able to fight for my
vision. Cutting those songs would physically hurt me. I usually think
“Don’t fall in love with a song in a rough cut, because you’re gonna
have to cut it.” This isn’t that case. This is a case of expressing
something through music. One of them is the love song that Brandy and
her boyfriend have. It’s their song. It would kill me to cut that song
or use some cheap alternative. So it’s frustrating, but thank God I have
people around who think it’s worthy. 
Press Play: In Kati With an i, you used a song by the Red Jumpsuit Apparatus. Were there any similar issues? 
No, they loved it. It’s a different ballgame. They’re a big deal in
certain circles, but they’re not Harry Belafonte. They don’t have legacy
costs built in. Colin Blunstone and Belafonte are owned by Sony. I used
a Guided By Voices song in Fake It So Real. Those were manageable costs: in the hundreds, not thousands and thousands. As crucial as that song is to Kati With an i,
I probably would’ve had to cut that scene if I couldn’t afford it.
Here, it’s a case of believing strongly that the film deserves that
moment. I’ve always cringed at crowdfunding, but this film’s done and
ready to go. The only thing we had to do is a fun, behind-the-scenes
clip of the Red Jumpsuit Apparatus watching that clip on the DVD of Kati With an i. I flew down to Florida to shoot it. That was a slightly bigger cost than the cost of the song, but it was worth it. 
Press Play: Do you think Actress will be the performance for which Brandy will most likely be remembered? 
Greene: She’s in what I consider to be the greatest television show of all time, The Wire, and she’s pretty great in it. I think she’s extraordinary in Actress.
How many movies are going to be able to shed a light on all that she
is, like this movie? It would be presumptuous to think that’s the
answer. The sky’s the limit for her. She wants to act in good stuff, but
she has to pay the bills. She has to work the same balance we all do,
between art and commerce. When people see her in this movie, she’s going
to be able to choose some very interesting things. On the one hand, how
could another role be as fully Brandy as that role? On another, who
knows what’s going to happen? I would like to be one of her memorable
roles. I think that’s a better way to put it. 
Press Play: Do you consider it a feminist film? 
Greene: Feminism is basically “Do women deserve equal treatment?” Yes, obviously. 
Well, it goes beyond that. You explore several examples of
sexism, like the scene where Brandy talks about the lack of a
diaper-changing board in Tim’s restaurant and that the only roles
available for her are the “wife or girlfriend.” It gets into the
specifics of how women in their thirties are treated, both in Hollywood
and in the larger world. 
Absolutely. From the start, it was clear that we could make a film
about a woman in her thirties. When I heard the story about her being
passed over for parts because she’s in her thirties, that was the first
time I felt like I had a movie, because I’ve constantly heard those
kinds of stories but couldn’t remember seeing them in a movie. I
consider it a feminist film, in some ways radically so. Tim is
deliberately marginalized. He’s an aloof person—that’s just how he
conducts himself. This is a magnified version of himself. It’s radically
her perspective, about a woman in her situation. At the same time,
hopefully the film doesn’t stop at feminism or a political perspective
on womanhood. I want the viewer to think about exploitation but also
about Brandy exploiting herself, the camera exploiting her and all these
levels of intricacy. Hopefully the experience is complex enough that it
goes into spaces that are sometimes troubling and upsetting and moving.
It’s sometimes hard to talk about politics and art. Obviously, I have my
core beliefs, but I think art is best when it’s troublesome and pushes
against stuff. Did I want to make a film that confirms that it’s hard to
be a woman when you’re repressed creatively? Yes, I wanted to reveal
that. Hopefully it doesn’t stop at that statement. 
Press Play: That also ties into the ending. 
The ending is a provocation, but it’s tied into non-fiction filmmaking.
That’s what happened. My job was to say “Shit! In some ways, this has
to be in the movie. “ Along the way, a lot of filmmakers get rid of
things that are messy or don’t fit in some ways. To me, I want to work
with serendipity and things we happened upon. That’s our job, that’s
what the form demands. It absolutely does speak to a feminist 
perspective. You could take the image of her face with a bruise out of
context and use it as a feminist provocation, but hopefully there’s also
more going on. 
Press Play: Your next film sounds like your most complex narrative yet. Do you think you’re moving closer to fiction? 
Greene: I’m gonna do what a lot of documentary filmmakers do and move into fiction, royally screw up. That’s my goal. 
Press Play: I said “move closer to fiction,” not make a fiction film. 
It’s a joke that Alex [Ross Perry] always says:  ”You’re going to be a
laughingstock in no time. Why don’t you make a comedy about an actress?”
I think with Actress it’s not fiction I was interested in, but
filmmaking, aesthetic choices that touched on the reality of the
situation. With the next film I find myself continuing to step back and
say, “I make non-fiction partly because I’m not that good of a writer. My
talent, if I have any, is in balancing, capturing and directing
reality, rather than creating scenarios.” That’s how I would describe
fiction. I’m much more interested in finding a chaos in reality which
you can swim in. Only because that’s what I’m good at and feel
comfortable doing. When I think about the new film, I think I can do
whatever I want with fiction, but the more documentary it is, the better
it will be because that’s what I’m good at. I’m good at observing
people’s behavior and putting these unspoken things into movie contexts
in ways that other people can sometimes miss. Not to compare myself to
the Maysles brothers, but they were great at taking sensational things
out of reality. If they tried to write those things, they would be
failures. At the same time, I love working with Alex and editing things [such as Ross Perry’s film Listen Up Philip] and working in the
fiction realm. I can’t imagine that I’m not going to challenge myself to
try it at some point. But I think the potential for formal
boundary-pushing is higher in documentaries.   
Press Play: How did your column in Sight and Sound come about? 
Greene: I wrote a few things for Hammer to Nail,
and then they reached out. I write from a filmmaker’s perspective about
documentary, which means that I’m talking about camera, editing and
performance. These are things that don’t find their way into mainstream
writing about these films. I started saying things that found some
small audience. Then, Nick Bradshaw at Sight and Sound was
expanding their online presence. It’s amazing to have that monthly
deadline, even if I’ve tip-toed it. It allows me to flex a muscle, and that’s
very satisfying.    

Steven Erickson is a writer and
filmmaker based in New York. He has published in newspapers and websites
across America, including
The Village Voice, Gay City News, The Atlantic, Salon, indieWIRE, The Nashville Scene, Studio Daily and many others. His most recent film is the 2009 short Squawk.

Margaret Nagle’s Long Path to THE GOOD LIE

Margaret Nagle’s Long Path to THE GOOD LIE

nullWhether immersed in a discussion with Margaret Nagle or in her film The Good Lie, one seems to forget the
materialistic obsessions of our culture. Nagle is no stranger to the industry,
with Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for her work as well as multiple WGA
wins. She’s battled with studios, executives and all the other elements that a
female writer has to wrestle with in the business. Her career is expansive,
encompassing writing on Boardwalk Empire,
the critically praised TV Movie Warm
and recently creating Red
Band Society
on Fox. But within the spectrum of her work is a common
thread: humanity. Many of her stories, The
Good Lie
included, explore survival. Whether an audience is watching kids
cope with cancer in The Red Band Society or
Sudanese refugees wrestling with America in The
Good Lie,
it’s impossible not to put our culture’s trifles aside and focus
on a much more visceral exploration of humanity.

It’s not often a film breaks down humanity to the basics.  The Good
is not a story about selfies, iPhones or materialism. It’s about pure
survival. It makes you wonder, do we
really need all this crap to survive?
Nagle gets to the crux of this
question with her story about the Lost Boys of Sudan. The film centers on
Jeremiah, Mamere, Abital, and Paul, a close-knit group of friends who, after
fleeing their country, grow up in a Sudanese refugee camp. 13 years later,
they’re among the lucky few who are posted on a list in the camp, given the chance
to move to America and start a new life. They meet Carrie (Reese Witherspoon),
a woman in Kansas City who helps them get settled. She takes them around to
grocery stores and factories, introducing them to the managers and hoping to
find them employment. Eventually, with her encouragement and persistence, they
find jobs. But the more they become immersed in American culture, the harder
their battle is to preserve their past culture and morals. Jeremiah (Ger Duany)
is scolded for offering a homeless woman food from the grocery store where he
works, even though he’s headed to dump it in the trash. The wasteful nature of
Americans baffles him. Paul (Emmanuel Jal) is tempted with pot by his
co-workers and struggles to maintain his work ethic while building new
friendships. Each of the characters must decide what principles to preserve and
which to sacrifice in order to build their new life.

The film took 11 years to make, with Nagle being attached to
the project, then fired, then re-attached. She never, though, lost her
emotional connection to the film. Despite an apparent difference between Nagle,
a white woman from the US, and a group of Sudanese refugees, their childhoods
possess a similar sense of survival. Despite the public, presentational
environment of our interview (we’re sitting outside Arclight surrounded by
movie-goers) Nagle soon revealed some private, intimate facts. Not only does
she only have her own tale of endurance, taking care of her disabled brother
for years, she admits that writing the film has helped her see that there is
salvation for herself and others. Freedom from guilt and healing can begin,  the catalyst being the act of sharing. Lucky
for her, that’s the beauty of film.

“I was selling purses out the trunk of my car,” Nagle states
matter-of-factly, popping a fry in her mouth. She worked a number of odd jobs
but found time to do her own writing in-between gigs. Two of her purse suppliers
were guys from Senegal whose grandfathers were from Sudan. They were going
through an adjustment, learning American culture, and Nagle became close with
them. Around the same time, she heard about the open assignment at Paramount
about the Lost Boys. She’d never been paid as a writer and just had a spec
script. Nagle is a fighter. Her agent assured her that better known writers
were up for the open assignment and that she should pursue other options. But
after urging her agent countless times, she finally got a meeting.  Soon after, she got the job. Nagle and then-producer
Robert Newmyer traveled the country and pitched the story to The Lost Boys
themselves.  They went to Atlanta, Phoenix,
San Diego and Kansas City twice.  She
wanted to create a fund for their education and knew that making a film about their
community would raise awareness. Nagle, most importantly, also wanted the Lost
Boys to “sign off on the story.” When Newmyer died of a heart attack soon
after, the Lost Boys all drove across the nation to speak at his funeral. Nagle
recalls that they said, ““Bobbie Newmyer was a Lost Boy. He was one of us.”

Nagle spent the next few years trying to get the script
made, even being fired from the project at one point. The studio wanted a
bigger-named writer. But the script eventually landed in the lands of Molly
Smith. Smith’s father had adopted a Lost Boy and put him through college. Six
months after the movie was shot, the Lost Boys told Nagle they “prayed for
Molly.” She was the producer needed to get the project jump-started.

Nagle is adamant many times throughout our chat about how
much research she did, stating that it kept the project strong.  She does “immersion writing” where she learns multiple
levels of a story. She reads every article she can on a subject and is
enthusiastic when discussing her process, clearly passionate about getting into
the psyche and circumstances of her characters. Nagle doesn’t want to meet the
people she’s writing about until she’s made a lot of decisions. With The Good Lie, she used a number of videotapes
of documentarians who couldn’t finish shooting in Sudan. The environment is
extremely volatile and many filmmakers have had to choose their own safety over
the completion of their projects. But this movie is not a documentary. The more we talk, it’s clear that the
project’s continuation isn’t only due to Nagle’s work ethic. I ask her again
what about the story kept the project
going. “Because it’s about such courage. It’s about sacrifice and the ending is
a surprise.”

Although the film is distributed by Warner Brothers and
showing at Arclight, it’s still independent in spirit. The budget was 15
million (okay, so right at the ceiling of what’s considered an indie). All the
children in the film are children of Lost Boys. Even the main actors have
backgrounds that are shockingly similar to their characters’ backgrounds. Many
of them have lost family members and have had to flee their homes. Nagle speaks
warmly about each of them. Kuoth Wiel, who plays Abital, auditioned on her cell
phone “in the library at school. She was born in a refugee camp in Ethiopia.
She walked from Ethiopia to Sudan several times, back and forth.” Emmanuel Jal,
who plays Paul, has a big lion scar on his leg. In the film, Paul has a similar
wound on his arm. Nagle finds it coincidental. “Just so happened I had Paul
have it on his arm. He had a really, really bad life over there.” Ger Duany was
discovered by David O. Russell and appeared in I Heart Huckabees. He was
the first actor Nagle met for the film. Like his character Jeremiah, Duany is
writing his own book on transcendence. He has told Nagle that “religion can make
people do really bad things,” but that it’s how he survived. Arnold Oceng, who
plays Mamere, was raised in London after his father was killed. Nagle recalls
that he “never talked about it, ever” and “felt tremendous survival guilt.”

Up until this point in the conversation, Nagle has revealed
very little about her childhood. As we become more comfortable, she opens up,
admitting she’s often tentative about explaining her childhood to people. “I
grew up with older brothers and we were on our own.” Her parents weren’t
divorced but they were “out of commission” and “high-functioning alcoholics.” Nagle
and her brother took care of their other brother who was disabled through a car
accident, leaving him a quadriplegic, with brain damage. From a young
age, Nagle, too, was forced to learn to survive. The roots are coming together
now. Nagle is Mamere, but also Abital; she had two brothers were “allowed to be
very sexist” towards her. Her parents were in denial.

The parallels are becoming clear. The film’s main character,
Mamere, is fueled by guilt.  At the
beginning of the film, as a child, he lets his brother Theo (Femi Oguns) sacrifice
himself. As the children hide in the brush, Theo rises and tells approaching
soldiers that he is the only one around. He’s then taken away and the other
children are able to escape. I ask if Nagle has been driven by her guilt over
her brother as well. She admits, “I was so scared to live my own life and leave
him behind.” Finally in Chicago as a young adult, Nagle’s therapist put her in
a group with Holocaust survivors. Although she was initially reluctant, her
therapist urged that she, too, had been through a traumatic experience and that
she was “very self- destructive” in ways she couldn’t even understand. She
didn’t agree until the group finally called her out. “You’re full of shit! What
you’ve gone through is terrible!” Eventually, Nagle was able to accept that she
had survived something. Like Nagle,
her characters struggle to not only talk about their past, but accept it.

This film isn’t about wallowing in past trauma; it’s about
liberating oneself from it. We learn late in the film that Carrie lost a sister.  When she invites Abital to live with her, she
begins to discuss how it’s affected her. Through sharing their guilt, their
pain, the characters begin to reach healing. Nagle stops after we draw the
connection: “Oh my god! I can’t believe you’re pointing this out to me!” Her
time with the group validated her pain in the same way Abital validates Carrie.
At this point, Nagle reveals perhaps the most touching moment in our talk. In
the film Mamere and his brother have a game. They draw a square in the sand and
put their hands on top of each other. It’s one of those intimate idiosyncrasies
siblings share.  Nagle did the same with
her brother. “He’d put his hand on the bed and I’d make a line in the sheets.”

It’s Nagle’s personal connection to the film, on the deepest
levels, that makes it so raw. But Nagle has more goals than just personal
catharsis. There aren’t schools in the refugee camps and Nagle stresses, “We
can’t solve the war in Sudan, we can’t change the religious differences. We can
make these camps better for the people that are living in them.” The Good Lie has been screening every
night in Washington, D.C.  UNICEF, Oxfam,
and the Enough Project have all come on board. Nagle is adamant: “How do we
turn this into policy? How do you shift things? It’s so tragic that we’re
allowing these really minor things to divide us. Jeremiah has a last narration
in the film and talks about our common humanity. We share this big world we
call home. For the future of mankind, we’ve got to come together.”

Nagle is undeniably inspiring. Nagle’s passion has again
made me note my materialistic surroundings. Why is everyone around me jamming
in the parking lot with their gas-guzzling cars to flock to see Gone Girl, about bad people doing bad
things to each other? Nagle is clearly calling for the opposite.

“The film is going to be more than just a film. I’m so
proud. I get very choked up because it’s what I wanted.”

Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for CraveOnline, Paste, Flaunt, and Complex Magazine. She is also Senior Editor at The Script
Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed
Shakespeare nerd. @atwwalloway

Tim Sutton Talks About MEMPHIS as the Doorway to Enlightenment

Tim Sutton Talks About MEMPHIS as the Doorway to Enlightenment

nullTim Sutton is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker whose first film Pavilion was part of the IFP Narrative Lab
and opened at SXSW in 2012. Memphis, his
second feature, played at the Venice Film Festival and Sundance last year. But unlike many other indie filmmakers,
Sutton isn’t splashed across social media, documenting his filmmaking via Instagram
or Twitter. So when I went to meet him at the Chateau Marmont lounge in West
Hollywood, I had no idea who to look for. To my luck, his familiar publicist introduced
us, two white wines on the table next to a shabby/chic couch. Sutton smiled,
hair half grey, round glasses and a button down. Sutton and I immediately got
to chatting about our love for New York City and how trendy Bed Sty has become.
Like Memphis, New York City can be a place for wanderers, for people searching
for internal, eternal answers. It turns out that Sutton, like his main
character in Memphis, is on a
spiritual journey to burn down structure in search of the sublime.

I should preface that Sutton isn’t as dreamy or bohemian as
his work might suggest. He’s a very humble, regular man who, like me, still
finds hanging at Chateau exciting. His everyman mood is exactly what makes his
introspective film that much more palpable. Although the themes may be lofty,
they’re grounded, like Sutton, in a very universal battle: the struggle for simple human

Memphis was lyrical,
vacillating between narrative and documentary, an intriguing portrayal of
Willis, a gifted singer in search of wisdom. But the film is just as much a
jewel as it is a challenge; the elusive story and nearly non-existent plot are undeniably
polarizing. The film isn’t easy to watch and takes an immense amount of focus
with an elusive payoff. Some may walk away feeling that their time was wasted, while
others might feel enlightened. Sutton admits, “Thirty people walked out of the
press screening” at Sundance. The film was first developed through the Venice
Biennale College-Cinema. The program cultivates and enriches projects that go
on to premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Memphis grew out of the highly respected program but premiered at the festival
to little praise.

Despite its divided audiences, Memphis continues to gain an impressive amount of steam, finally
premiering in LA last week.  It’s not
targeting mainstream viewers, but instead critics and audiences that are
interested in uncovering indie gems. Sutton is approaching cinema in an
exciting, intimate way, vulnerably and without the pressure to meet audience
expectations. He’s not concerned with resolution or moral lessons encapsulated
in happy endings.

“I’m not trying to be a rebel, to break rules, I’m just trying to find myself
in this universe and be okay not knowing.”

At the center of the story is Willis (Willis Earl Beal), a
wanderer. Sutton glows, clearly passionate, when we start to discuss the
character in detail.  He “has all the
gifts from God… and people want success for him. What he wants is elusive. It’s
glory. In a way it’s searching for identity, life, satisfaction, some version
of success.” It’s not hard to draw comparisons between Memphis and Gus Van Sant’s Last
Van Sant focuses on Kurt Cobain (Michael Pitt) in the same way Sutton
frames Willis. They let their subjects roam, unrestrained, and follow them like
a documentarian might. The films are moving portraits.

The entire film hinges on Beal’s performance, a
collaborative partnership that Sutton refers to as a “cosmic occurrence.”
Sutton didn’t go through casting directors or reach out to Willis’ agents. His
producer John Baker sent him “ a clip that was on Pitchfork of [Willis] singing
a song into a cell phone on his grandmother’s back porch. It’s nothing; it’s
for no one.” Sutton was sure, though, that he could center his film on Beal,
saying “he is living something in that song.” He admits their first meeting felt
unusual, when they met in “New York City on the Upper East Side in a Chinese
restaurant and Willis ordered a scotch.” Willis’ wife also joined the meeting,
which Sutton didn’t expect. Everything about their relationship is admittedly like Oscar and Felix, but somehow their journeys are similar. “I was writing Willis Earl
Beal’s life without knowing who he was. He was living my movie without knowing
who I was. I hate to be all like flighty about it, but it’s prophecy!”

“It’s a totally autobiographical movie.” Sutton stresses that,
even though he’s not from the south or a singer, “It’s me.”

“I’m a very spiritual person in the same way that Willis is. I believe
in brain waves and signs and nature and the power of the sun and the moon. What
is it telling me? I have no idea, but it fills me.”

Another crucial part of the film is the city of Memphis.
Sutton has a long past with the location, first traveling there when he was 21
years old. “I found the place where people like me don’t go to. It was an
astounding event. I danced all night. Something was happening there that I felt
like nobody gets to experience. It stuck with me.” Sutton encapsulates the
broken landscape, filling the movie with abandoned buildings, lush forests and
the fascinating populace itself. “Memphis is a town where some of the greatest
singers of the world came out.  Some of
them were buried in unmarked graves. There’s a curse in Memphis, as a much as a
blessing. There are beautiful trees and churches on every block, but across the
street is a liquor store and a pawn shop. The rich and the poor, the black and
white. It’s like a volcano.”

That same juxtaposition also exists in Los Angeles,
melancholia and glamour, irrefutably at its peak at the Marmont.  It’s a guilty pleasure to talk about with a
filmmaker while sipping chardonnay. But the parallels, as lofty as they may be,
are clear between Memphis and the soul of an artist like Willis.

That conflict, finding glory and happiness but also
portraying ugliness and sorrow to be a decent artist, is the crux of Willis’s
story. How does a city like Memphis preserve its culture, but escape its
poverty? Tim doesn’t provide answers, just posing the questions. There’s no big
Hollywood bow at the end, which some may find maddening and others liberating.

Tim’s search for the sublime has been in his blood for
years. I ask him about his childhood, for a circumstance he can pinpoint as the
beginning. Immediately, he refers to the story of John Henry, a book his mom
read to him and which he even continues to give as a gift. “The last image in
that is him busting through a tunnel, into an orange infinity, and then he
dies. That image took on such mystical power in my mind over the past 30 years
that it became this psychedelic story that I could make, that Willis becomes
this image; and he does. My father died when I was 9 years old. I’ve been
searching for that elusive figure ever since.”

Locating Sutton and his background firmly is just as
difficult as doing so with Willis.  Where
did he come from? He laughs, “At the
age of 25 I thought I was going to win Sundance Film Festival and be a hero.
But I did not do that.” He then set a goal to make a feature by thirty, but
life got in the way.  He worked at Getty
Images for four years in the footage department with a $200,000 yearly budget
to make pretty much whatever he wanted. “I started working with this DP and
started doing silent short films. “ They developed a language together,
learning to build a curious, beautiful world around their subjects.

He didn’t make his first feature till he was 38. By that
time, he was also a father: “I was more assured in myself as far as a leader in
an honest way.” This confidence was key in the making of Memphis, a project that, given its spontaneous shooting format,
could have gone totally wrong. But Sutton didn’t try to control his team on set
or off.  He focused on “empowering” his
colleagues instead of controlling them.

Sutton describes his hobbies as a kid, some of which inform
his current ability to work in such a fluid, trusting fashion. “I was into
soccer because it was amorphous.” For a time, he also considered being a jazz
critic. “Everyone goes their separate ways, and then somehow they all know how
to come back into a certain form and then go out again.” He is fascinated with
the idea of making something “shapeless” and “liquid.”

“In my filmmaking I’m completely in the present. I’m completely where I
probably can’t be in my real life. That’s my dream life, to be constantly in
the present.”

Memphis can be
included, rightfully so, in the current discussion about breaking structure and
the rapidly growing viewing platforms. Netflix, Apple TV, Amazon and a number
of other outlets are at the forefront of a viewing revolution: the media are no longer constrained by time. Audiences
can consume them in a variety of ways. This is exactly what makes Memphis pertinent. Sutton is not just talking about re-evaluating structure,
like every TV executive. He actually did it. “You have to be
open to the void, utter disaster. What you’re making is a living document.” He
focused more on the feelings than sticking to a standard plot, especially when
presenting his 40-page script at the Venice Biennale.

He also chose a producer, John Baker, who has worked in
documentary film. He didn’t want a “set” or actors who had “agents’ schedules.”
Instead, he found people who were ready to “glow on film.” He steered clear of
directing on set, but would prompt his actors with simple questions, such as, “I want to
know what you think about love.” Walking up to people in Memphis and talking to
them about making the film in thier city wasn’t a hard sell. Sutton told them, “It’s got to be you.”
“No one says it’s got to be you to these guys.” His film is a platform for
these people whose stories would otherwise go untold. He gives them the power
and confidence to share.

This documentary-style, raw, shapeless feeling of the film
both pulls viewers in and pushes some of them away. Sutton, though, is moving on to a
new project that he hopes will shape his filmmaking further, and perhaps leave fewer
audience members behind. “Instead of being about a dream world, it’s very much
of this world and it’s based around a horrible tragedy. Pavilion was about discovery, youth. Memphis is about pure experimentation. It’s abstract. This third
film will be about executing the form in a way that’s more recognizable to

Sutton makes us wonder why we categorize new filmmakers that
come around, especially on the festival circuit. Are they dramatic directors,
dark comedy directors, or activists for a cause? Sutton proves that perhaps an exciting
new artist can’t be pigeonholed in this way. His work suggests a little bit of every genre
and every tone. But Sutton reveals, “The nicest thing someone has said about my
filmmaking is that it’s like lotion. It becomes part of your skin, something
that’s physical.”  As much as Sutton
wants his work to wash over you, he isn’t pretentious about it. His work may
resemble Terrence Malick’s, with sparse dialogue and lyrical visual sequences.
But Sutton isn’t demanding you sit and watch people run their fingers through
brush for three hours. That, or search for existential meaning in every moment. “I’m
purposely leaving the door open for people to let their minds wonder, to think
for themselves, to watch and consider, to meditate on it.”

Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for CraveOnline,  Paste,
Flaunt and Complex Magazine. She is also Senior Editor at The Script
Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed
Shakespeare nerd. @atwwalloway

METAMERICANA: Outlaw Country Goes Psychedelic: An Interview with Sturgill Simpson on His Music Videos

Outlaw Country Goes Psychedelic: An Interview with Sturgill Simpson on His Music Videos


If any album of 2014 can be said to have received
“universal acclaim,” it’s Metamodern
Sounds in Country Music
, released in May by country artist Sturgill
Simpson. A mesmerizing and sometimes bewildering mix of traditional country
sounds, contemporary philosophy, and psychedelic recording-studio wizardry, the
album’s appeal appears to cross all boundaries of age and genre. Pitchfork called it “a
surprisingly tender….vehicle for big, unwieldy ideas about human
consciousness and the nature of life”, while no less an old-media stalwart than
The New York Times called it “a triumph of exhaustion, one of the most jolting
country albums in recent memory.” NPR wrote that Simpson had “perfected the trick of distilling
classic country from many eras and moving away from it at the same time . . . [a]
trick that takes skill and affection for the history of the genre, as well as a
willingness to stand alone”; meanwhile, a television channel built to capture
the hearts of the Heartland, Country Music Television, credits Simpson with “a voice that recalls Merle Haggard,
and guitar licks that bring Buck Owens to mind.”

Other glowing reviews of Metamodern Sounds by Rolling
(“equal parts haunted, tender, and trippy”), The Austin Chronicle (“the rising rural talent….uses the genre’s classic
narratives to obscure right and wrong in the search for higher truths
”), and Record Collector (“Simpson truly scores in the ease with which he
ponders life’s bigger questions while couching them in familiar country
language and sounds
”) have helped seal the album’s reputation as one of the
year’s most acclaimed releases. And now the album has earned its author an Emerging
Act of the Year nomination from The Americana Honors & Awards, and popular
Americana blog Twang Nation calls Metamodern Sounds a “dark horse
” to win a Grammy Award for Americana Album of the
Year—a claim that’s now been echoed on the personal websites of countless fans
of Americana.

The music charts love Simpson, too. Metamodern Sounds has thus far spent
nine weeks in the Billboard Top 200, peaking at #59, and just
as long on the Country Music chart, peaking just outside the top ten. And to
top it off, Simpson just appeared on The Late
Show with David Letterman

What hasn’t yet been much discussed are the three
oddball music videos Simpson has thus far released: the first two, “Turtles All
the Way Down” and “The Promise,” from  Metamodern Sounds, and the third, “Railroad
of Sin,” from his 2013 debut album High
Top Mountain.
Simpson has been interviewed countless times this year—by
everyone from Rolling Stone to The Wall
Street Journal
, National
Public Radio
to Billboard—but
never once asked to discuss in detail the multimedia rollout that accompanied
the release of Metamodern Sounds (let
alone the sole video release from Simpson’s first album, which is every bit as
strangely juxtapositive as his videos for Metamodern
). This oversight may be attributable to the fact that the lyrics and
music of Metamodern Sounds require so
much careful attention and discussion; or, it may be that even the media
outlets now praising Simpson underestimate the scope and ambition of his
project. Certainly, on the evidence below—the videos themselves—it seems clear
that the visuals accompanying Metamodern
are as critical to the project as are the album’s ten songs.

Last week I caught up with Simpson to ask him some
pointed questions about these three videos, as well as the artistic vision
behind them. Below are links to each of the three, followed by Simpson’s
discussion of them with Press Play.

All the Way Down,” Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (2014)

Promise,” Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (2014)

of Sin,” High Top Mountain (2013)

Press Play (PP): In filming videos for a country album that’s in
many ways unconventional, what are your influences? Any favorite videos by
musicians in other genres?

Sturgill Simpson (SS): I’m a movie buff/indie film whore. Lots of
foreign [films]…lots of 60’s westerns. I someday hope to find the time and coin
to invest more of my creative energy towards the visual media side of releasing
music. I’d love to make short film videos pushing the conventional standards of
what a country music video can be.

PP: The video for “Turtles All the Way Down” features
psychedelic CGI and gorgeously styled shots of the band, but it also gives
viewers a first-person look at a virtual wormhole during the lyrics’
denouement. Do you see this idea of a short-cut between two far-flung positions
as being important to the work you’re doing on Metamodern Sounds in
Country Music
? If so, what’s on either end of the wormhole?

SS: More than anything, I believe the themes, content, and sonic palette
of the album created the wormholes and sort of formed the juxtaposition on
their own. I’m not sure how much of it was intentional, looking back now. Even
with most finite planning you never know what the final result will reveal
itself to be until it’s staring back at you. I think the album just really
shows where my head was at that moment in time.

PP: The videos for
“Turtles All the Way Down” and “The Promise” juxtapose an almost DIY ethic
(e.g., close-up tracking shots of you and other members of the band)
and a real commitment to using technology (e.g., computer-generated visual
effects) to mesmerize. Can you talk about the process of filming these videos?
How much of the concepts were drawn from your own sense of Metamodern
Sounds in Country Music
, and how much was a multimedia collaboration with
other artists?

SS: Well that’s another story in itself. My buddy Graham Uhelski directed
and edited everything. I gave him a mental outline of what I was after and
wanted to see on both songs and he filtered that through his interpretation to
get what you see. For “The Promise” we decided a single simple tracking shot
filmed inside a bleeding heart was all it needed. I knew the video for “Turtles”
had to employ inter-dimensional/thematic elements. Really I just wanted to
make it look like a live performance at the Omega Point. Our budget was next to
nothing. We put together a small team of highly talented, dedicated players and
turned an empty warehouse into a soundstage. I was introduced to a generative
software artist in New York named Scott (Spot) Draves through Dr. Rick
Strassman and his colleague Andrew Stone. Scott created an interface
A.I./synthetic consciousness software called Electric Sheep. I sent him the
album and explained the message I was trying to get across with the project. He
was sympathetic to the cause and my budget and very graciously offered his

PP: The video for “Turtles”
definitely achieved that “inter-dimensional” ambition—it’s a wild mix of
religious lighting, pharmaceutical-friendly animation, “infinite regress”
cosmological theory, and lyrics that run the gamut from Jesus to Buddha, fairy
tales to aliens. How concerned were you about trying to tie everything together

SS: That was the challenge and for me, simultaneously the source of the
excitement in tackling it.

PP: It’d be impossible
to watch these three videos without thinking about the use of color in each;
not many live-action videos are more spectacularly colored than these are, and
in each case the use of color feels not just aesthetic but rhetorical. Was
featuring transformative, blurred, and technicolor displays a particular
emphasis in putting together these videos, and if so, how do you see that
emphasis interacting with Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (and/or
earlier work from High Top Mountain) lyrically and thematically?

SS: Everybody is on drugs . . . just give ’em what they want.

PP: In addition to the
references to various drugs in “Turtles,” a lot of people have homed in on your
album’s use of the word “metamodern.” Do you think of these as metamodern music

SS: Now that’s a question I’d really much rather hear your thoughts on.

PP: The second release
from Metamodern Sounds, “The
Promise,” uses vignetting to leave us with the uncanny feeling we’re literally looking through someone’s
heart. It’s a song with a clear narrative bent, so I wondered if you could talk
about the role (if any) of narrative in that video. Did you and your team
imagine the moment you’ve captured on film as a contextualized one, or was the
concept primarily aesthetic?

SS: Nailed it. We wanted it to look like you were staring directly into a
bleeding heart or a very vulnerable love light.

PP: “Promise” also
superimposes black-and-white film-reel visual effects over a static,
“real-world” shot of you sitting on a stool; the reel effects are later
replaced by an over-saturated color palette and the same “ink” effect we
briefly saw in “Turtles All the Way Down.” Is foregrounding the different ways
reality can be framed—music, writing, cinema, photography, et cetera—important
to your “metamodern” approach to songwriting, and if so, how do you see it
playing out in the work?

SS: I believe framing reality is one of the only ways we can ever be
sure it actually exists. In that regard, I feel as though I’m still learning
who I am as an artist.

PP: Switching to the
2013 video for “Railroad of Sin”—it makes Tokyo subways and business districts
the setting for a classic rockabilly sound. It’s not a combination many would
come to organically, but it really works, so I wanted to ask you how you conceived
of it? And also the video’s epigraph—“a single dream is more powerful than a
thousand realities”—feels critical to what you’re up to. What can you tell us
about that video?

SS: I lived in Japan when I was younger for about two years. I spent my
time equally between religiously studying Aikido in Shinjuku by day and hard
partying in Shibuya and Roppongi by night. On more than a few nights, those
subways were my own personal stage coach to hell. I thought it would be fun to
return and work with some friends to capture the techno advanced world of Tokyo
against the backdrop of a high octane country song about a reckless life of
abandonment and personal disregard represented as a speeding train.

PP: A side note about
all three of these videos: the distribution channels for music videos today are
obviously a world apart from what they were in the 1980s, when you and I were
more or less coming online culturally; did the new potential for “virality”—a
strange word—play any role in the design and execution of these videos?

SS: Of course. As you pointed out, there was no such thing as “viral”
in the 80’s and 90’s video world. I knew before making these videos the only
place people would ever see them would be on YouTube. With that said, CMT
actually picked up the “Turtles” video for rotation, so go figure. That in and
of itself is a win in my book.

PP: Looking ahead, are
there plans for any additional videos for Metamodern Sounds in Country
? If so, any details?

SS: Yes. Eventually, I want to have a video or visual representation for
every song on the album so you can watch the album in order of its track
listing. This may take a year or more.

Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is
presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of
Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for
The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.

Kevin Kline on MY OLD LADY, THE LAST OF ROBIN HOOD, and His 26-Year-Old Self

Kevin Kline on MY OLD LADY, THE LAST OF ROBIN HOOD, and His 26-Year-Old Self

Kevin Kline has
studied at Juilliard, played Shakespearean icons like King Lear and Hamlet, won
two Tony Awards, been nominated for 5 Golden Globes, and, justifiably, won an
Oscar. He has two new films out this month, My
Old Lady
and The Last of Robin Hood and
gives two vastly different but incredibly inspiring performances.

In My Old Lady, Kline
plays Mathias, an American who moves to Paris to claim an apartment he’s
inherited. He soon discovers Mathilde (Maggie Smith), a tenant who still lives
in the home and refuses to budge. Her daughter Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas) is insistent
on their right to the Parisian home and although she creates initial conflict
for Mathias, she soon propels him into a journey of self-discovery and family
reflection. The film is an adaptation of
the play by Israel Horovitz, who also directed. 

Kline also plays Errol Flynn in The Last of Robin Hood. The film centers
on the scandalous romance between the aging movie star and young actress
Beverly Aadland.

Kline discussed what drew him to
these roles, the importance of his training, and his first time on Broadway.

“We think
we’ve been cursed by God; we’ve been cursed by our parents.” This line from My Old Lady really illuminates the core
of the story, moving past relying on your family. Was this an avenue for you
into the project? Did it strike a chord personally?

KK: It’s indicative
of the kind of lines [Israel] writes. [The play is] very
serious about parental curse and fate and the narrative we compose for ourselves: these merciful revelations that we find out, life isn’t what we thought, which is part of any good story. Israel
had done something unique in this particular mix of comedy and drama and
romance. You don’t get to see characters in
movies that say, ‘‘I’ve been cursed by God!” This guy is very self destructive, flagellating while blaming everyone else for all
his woes, and then eventually, strangely reconciling what he thought his past was with
his present. It was unusual, with recognizable, human characters.

MA: So much of Mathias’
turmoil lies in the Viager, this elusive French equity-release contract. How
does that illuminate the American-European divide?

It’s an old
thing.  It dates back to the Napoleonic
era. They are still very popular. There are similar situations where you can
buy an apartment cheaply but you can’t take possession till the person dies. It
is characteristically French and says something about their culture. Mathias
says cynically, “So you’re betting on somebody dying soon?” You can also look
at it as buying a place and giving money to someone who can live out their
years there. There’s something quite positive about it, too.

MA: Mathias is an
aging man, but at the same time so much a child because he hasn’t coped with
his past.  How do you begin developing
him? Do you pull a Stanislavsky and give yourself specific given circumstances
from his youth?

KK: I think
a lot of it’s instinctual but so much of it dredges up, it’s right there on the
tip of his tongue, the edge of his consciousness. That’s easy to give voice to.
He’s got all his opinions about what his life has been. A lot of that is
spelled out in the play. Of course you had to visualize and think through more detail
about what his childhood was like, but [Horovitz] spells it out.

What enticed you about both of these roles? Both Mathias and Errol Flynn have such
psychological complexity.

It’s hard to
make a comparison but you could say both of those characters had messy lives. In My Old Lady the
psychological complexity, to be 58 and really kind of lost and trying
desperately to make some sense of his life, that was the attraction. With Errol
Flynn, this was a man who was the highest paid, most successful movie star and
now he’s at the tail end of his career, and it’s caught up with him. That
character was determined to be Flynn no matter what and was defiantly himself to
the very end. With [Mathias] there’s still hope for change, which happens. Both
of them are complicated fellows. And especially with My Old Lady there was something about that second chance, still
learning. Young people think that old people have it all figured out.  (Joking) I’ve got it all figured out, most of
us don’t!

MA: With more
robust roles like Errol Flynn or Falstaff, which you’ve played, is there a physicality
that allows you do build a character from the outside in?

Very similar
characters! Very Falstaff-ian! Flynn is very funny, very witty and a jokester
and a prankster and a life force! With Falstaff, he is a corrupter
of youth! They played by their own rules. With Falstaff you put the
fat suit on, but this appetite that Falstaff and Flynn had, enormous, sensuous appetites,
there’s another physical transformation. Flynn was a great athlete. In his youth he was a
boxer and a diver and a swimmer! He would spar with professional boxers! He
broke his back a few times. There’s physicality to that. It’s working from the
outside in and inside out, and then you meet somewhere. Because you’re shooting out of
sequence, there’s not a lot of time for experimentation.

MA: Given there’s
not that time for investigating on set, training is obviously important in films. How crucial was
your time at Julliard? What set that apart from just being on set and learning
from actual experience?

KK: Training can
be important for some actors, for other actors they don’t need it. Film acting
is not stage acting. If you’re interested in classical theatre, the training is
helpful and you have to learn to forget some of the things you’re taught in
school. You have to find your own way. Julliard provided a place to practice, although
it was very competitive. Give me an opening night on Broadway with all the
critics there any day over an acting class! But if I had just gone from
college into a sitcom, and just played the same kind of role over and over, I
would never have had the confidence to try Shakespeare or comedy! I was usually
the leading man! It’s understanding what style is and tone and differentiating
and stretching yourself as an actor. In terms of the confidence, I know how to
work with this elevated language because I’ve done it and come to a certain

MA: You made your
Broadway debut in Chekhov’s The Three Sisters.
Looking back now, what would you tell yourself on that
first opening night?

KK: It’s funny
because I remember that opening night! I was 26 years old in The Three Sisters, which may be my favorite
play in this world to this day! I was having a go at it. John Houseman was backstage, saying “Don’t do that melancholy Midwestern thing!” A half hour before I’m going
on in the first preview! I think he was saying that my Midwestern upbringing
made me bring some melancholy aspect to the character. That’s something you say
during the 6-week rehearsal process! That’s a producer for you! What advice? Don’t be dissuaded by bad reviews. I performed four plays in repertory in a period of four weeks, and was reviewed by all the first string critics during this time. Some actors
take 10 years for that horrific experience!  Don’t be too hard on yourself. One thing they
don’t teach you in drama school is how not to let a director screw you up in a
performance. That’s something you learn. Where you’ve compromised yourself. It’s pleasing the director but not me. It’s
not what I’m really here for
. That takes years to learn. You have to be
patient! It’s also what William Goldman said about Hollywood, “No one knows
anything!” No one knows. Doubt everything. And find your own way. And don’t
stop going to the theater!

Meredith Alloway is a LA local and Texas native. She is currently Senior
Editor at where she focuses on screenwriting education
and entertainment resources. She also launched her own interview show,
"All the Way with Alloway," where she scoops the latest up and coming
industry insiders. She received her Playwriting and Theatre degree from
Southern Methodist University and continues to pursue her own writing
for film and stage.

John Lithgow on Process, His Past and Playing an Artist in LOVE IS STRANGE

John Lithgow on Process, His Past and Playing an Artist in LOVE IS STRANGE

nullLithgow is one
of the most versatile actors of our time. When I learned I’d have a chance to
chat with him, I wondered how I could possibly cover the expansive portfolio of
his work. But his character in Love is Strange
is beautifully similar to Lithgow himself, who is also a painter; this made the conversation considerably easier. It turns out
there were many things I didn’t know about Lithgow, including his adoration for
painting, Alfred Molina, and how he grew up going to poetry readings on Bleecker

In the film, directed and written by Ira Sachs,
Lithgow and Alfred Molina star as Ben and George, two artists struggling to
find a home after George looses his job. They are divided in New York City; Ben
forced to crash with Kate (Marisa Tomei) and George with his friend Ted
(Cheyenne Jackson). It’s an honest film with a subtle, poignant comedy,
exploring the challenges of being an aging artist and what it means to maintain
a partnership.

MA: You’ve played some over-the-top characters and it was nice
to see you play someone simple and raw. Was that something that drew you to the
character in the first place?

JL: Very much so. Everything drew me to it. I read the script
and I just wanted to do nothing else. You read something like this, and you know
this is going to be so exquisite. Fred was already set when I was hired for it,
and I knew the relationship would be perfect.

MA: Watching the film, I felt like it was a relationship, where
you had known each other previously.

JL: We did know each other very well. We’d never worked
together. There had been a couple of odd things that had brought us together.
The real thing we had in common was a very dear friend, Ileen Getz, who passed
away of cancer. We hung out together on her hospital ward. This was about 10
years ago.

MA: What an intimate way to get to know someone.

JL: I really saw what a big heart he had, and a wonderful sense
of humor. He’s just a great stage actor. I knew it was going to be effortless,
and it was.

MA: There is that sense of humor about the script, even though
there are some dark moments. Did Ira allow the actors to include their own

JL: We talked about humor very specifically. The wonderful scene
between Marisa and me where I’m talking and she’s trying to work sold me on the
project. It plays like a sitcom scene and it’s completely real. Ben is this
wonderful character, in equal measure, adorable and infuriating!

MA: It reminded me of Harry
and the Hendersons!
 It’s the same
sort of endearing character.

JL: (Laughing) Yes! A character that comes and throws everyone
off their game! Ben is an artist, a kind of abstraction. I have this lovely
moment in the film where [George and I} are dealing with a real-estate woman.
I’m listening; I’m trying to be good. Then suddenly I drift off and start
thinking about something else. That’s an artist. An artist is always thinking
of something else. My father was like that. He had this feeling of abstraction
and I do too. I just put it to work for Ben. When I do a painting, I can sit
for 15 minutes and look at the painting.

MA: Didn’t the film use your own work?

JL: I did this collaboration with a very big painter Boris Torres,
Ira’s husband. We worked together because I joined the film halfway through the
shooting, and they had to have the paintings. So he did the paintings based on
my techniques so that when I actually painted I was painting something he had
already half done.  The only time you
really see one of my paintings is in one of the very first scenes. I walk into
the kitchen, and the camera follows me and stops on a painting of a boy on the
deck of a ship. That’s my painting.

MA: There’s a moment where your nephew’s son comes up onto the
roof where you’re painting and says, “You’re not even that good.” You say, “You
don’t mean that!” That felt like what the core of the film is, the struggle of
the artist. 

JL: I choked up even reminiscing about that scene. It devastates
me when I see it! He’s not a great artist, he’s a perfectly good artist but he’s
certainly not a successful artist. Ira spent a lot of time talking about just
how good or bad he is. He’s a nice, but not a successful, one.

MA: Do you think there’s a difference between people who are successful and people who are truly
good artists? 

JL: There’s a huge difference. I really prize and love great painting.
It’s so out of date now. It’s slightly come back in. Painting is being valued
again, but twenty years ago you’d go to art school and they wouldn’t even teach
painting! They would send you off to do a plaster caste of a racecar or
something! That’s the nice thing. He’s a good old-fashioned painter.

MA: There’s that old-fashioned element in the film. I picture you
and Alfred… I feel like I don’t know him well enough to say Fred!

JL: You can say Fred!

MA: I picture you and Fred, your younger selves, doing what you
do in this film. Did you live that life of couch hopping in New York City?

JL: Not really. I was married very young. I lived a very middle
class life. I was married at age 21, divorced at 31. I didn’t sleep on people’s

MA: Was it interesting to play a character with that lifestyle?

JL: I went to Princeton High School, when I was very serious
about being an artist. I was in a theatre family but I didn’t want to become an
actor. Every Saturday I would go into New York to take figure-drawing lessons
at the Art Students League. Those were fabulous days. I was 15, 16, 17 years
old. This movie Inside Llewyn Davis,
that was the life I lived, going to those folky clubs, listening to poetry
readings on Bleecker Street. That’s the closest I came to it. I certainly had my
years as an out of work actor but I was married with a baby. My wife was
supporting us.

MA: I have friends that are 25 living the life that your
character lives in the film, going what
am I doing with my life, I’m out of work, what is my craft?
Given I now
know you lived a different lifestyle, how did you relate?

JL: You play a part and it’s a leap of imagination. To me it was
all there in the writing. Fred and I brought so much of ourselves. Ira has a
way of reaching into the actor’s experience and putting it to work. He had a
very interesting work method. I was making a film in Calgary. Fred was living
in LA. Ira flew out and spent two days with me, two days with Fred and never
wanted us to work together. We just talked and went through the script line by
line, never wanted me to perform it at all, save it all for the actual
experience of acting with Fred. We just answered all these questions about
Ben’s backstory. The first thing Fred and I shot was singing on that piano
bench. We hadn’t done any other scenes and you think they’ve been together for
forty years. Who knows how we accessed that, but it happened.

MA: If you guys didn’t rehearse, how did you guys feel
comfortable with each other’s bodies?

JL: We were just comfortable with each other’s bodies. I wish
you could meet him. He is the most adorable, accessible man, so available,
wonderful to act with. You just feel an automatic connection with him. The
camera stops, and that connection goes on. 
He would make me laugh so hard. We would tell each other jokes and get
crippled with laughter.

MA: Are there other actors you’ve worked with that you had that
companionship with?

JL: This had been pretty unusual. I’ve had that on stage in a
lot of things. M. Butterfly with BD
Wong, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with
Leo Butz, Sweet Smell of Success with
Brian d’Arcy James.

MA: Do you think in theater there’s more of an opportunity for
that intimacy?

JL: It all depends on the material.

MA: Have you ever thought about playing King Lear?

JL: Why do you think I have a beard? I’m playing it this summer!
In Central Park! How did you-what
occurred to you to ask that? I just spent the past two months learning the

MA: Are you really? I’ve been reading the play recently!

JL: "Darkness and devils! Saddle my horses; call my
train together. Degenerate bastard! I’ll not trouble thee. Yet have I left a
daughter!" I could do the
whole role for you right now. You have to come see it.

Meredith Alloway is a LA local and Texas native. She is currently Senior
Editor at where she focuses on screenwriting education
and entertainment resources. She also launched her own interview show,
"All the Way with Alloway," where she scoops the latest up and coming
industry insiders. She received her Playwriting and Theatre degree from
Southern Methodist University and continues to pursue her own writing
for film and stage.