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For another 70-year old, kicking it out on stage for three July nights at 54 Below under the banner of “A Little Bit Broadway, A Little Bit Rock ‘n’ Roll” might seem like a daunting task. Yet given Micky Dolenz’s uncanny history, it’s not surprising. Produced by label exec Van Dean —directed by Dean and Dolenz — and under Michael J. Moritz, Jr.’s music direction, this show demonstrates a love for both Broadway stylizations and rock ‘n’ roll without comprising either form.
In three intimate concerts on July 7th, 10th and 11th at 7 pm, the singer/multi-instrumentalist includes some of the Monkees greatest hits, a few songs from previous musical roles and rarities he’s rarely performed before from shows he loves. Having seen an intimate rehearsal before a small audience, the raw performances — with an insider’s look at the process of refinement suggests that “A Little Bit Broadway, A Little Bit Rock ‘n’ Roll” will more than please; it should arouse a demand for it to be extended here and beyond New York.
But this eternal Californian has the experience having starred as a kid in the television series, Circus Boy, to being the drummer and lead singer of the hugely successful rock ‘n’ roll band, The Monkees, which originated from the classic ‘60s TV show of the same name. It debuted on NBC to incredible success where ratings remained high for two seasons. Then Micky and the band starred in their own feature film, Head, a 1968 psychedelic romp co-written by a young Jack Nicholson, becoming a cult classic.
Ultimately, The Monkees sold over 65 million records, toured the U.S. and much of the world many times. Dolenz has also starred in musicals on Broadway, the West End, and in national tours including: Disney’s AIDA (Broadway), Pippin, Hairspray (West End), Grease, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Tom Sawyer, and more. Besides two solo albums (Remember and King For A Day) and a memoir, Dolenz recently appeared in the world premiere of the new play Comedy Is Hard (Ivoryton Playhouse) by four time Emmy winner Mike Reiss (The Simpsons).
After all this eternal Monkee has the endurance to not only survived being a rock star — a mega-pop star at a time when excess and self-destruction was the norm — but proven to be an incredible multi-hyphenate in ways that few singers or actors rarely are. The veteran Californian has had a comprehensive career encompassing not only a range of musical styles, but creative activities as including directing, writing, producing a bit of design and furniture making as well.
Of course being best known as a Monkees — transforming the faux band into a crack quartet capable of world tours and songwriting performed as well as the studio musicians who initially backed them on their songs — raises all sorts of good questions and more. But when you’ve had such a remarkable career as Dolenz has had, while remaining a friendly, and thankfully for this interviewer, open subject, it garners great Q&A material. And it didn’t hurt that we discussed it all in such a fine restaurant as Midtown’s Palm.
Q: If all these digital tools had been available to you when you did the band, how different would it have made things? Are you glad that you came out of a world that had that sort of naive experience of rock and roll?
MD: That’s a good point. I suspect at the time there was somebody that would ask me, “Can you imagine what it was like when there was no recording, or you were recording on a wire recorder or a wax cylinder?” Up until the ‘50s there was only mono [monaural]. My first tape recorder was mono.
I remember when stereo came along, and the first stereo albums [came out]. I remember clearly my father saying, “This is [in] stereo,” and I said, “What do you mean?”
He put it on our home system, a big vinyl thing. It was a sound effects kind of album, and it had a train going from left to right. We were like, “Ohhh, wow….” You could hear the bass over here and the guitar on the right.
So the recording process was much more difficult [then] than it is today. It was expensive, it took a long time, you didn’t have the options, you didn’t have the editing [available]. You had to do all your work before you got to the session.
That’s why the musicians like the Wrecking Crew, who of course you must have heard of — have you seen the documentary? You should, I’m in it.
Denny, the guy that made it, his father was Tommy Tedesco, the guitar player. And he has taken 20 years to get that thing off. I am so glad they finally got the recognition that they deserve. Because everybody, as you probably have heard by now, used the Wrecking Crew — the Byrds, the Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas, the Association — everybody.
The reason was not that these people couldn’t play. But playing live, and playing in a very, very —as I said — expensive, now rather sort of primitive, environment, was a very different gig. And these studio [cats], that’s all they did. They could keep the dynamics the same, they could read the charts and just knock it out in one or two takes. But these people also never went on stage. They never played live, except for, I guess, Glen Campbell, who is the only one I can think of.
Q: They never toured.
MD: Oh, no. They’re not live performers. When you are onstage live, you’ve got to perform. They were not performers. They sat there like this [demonstrates] and played. They read the docs and played.
Q: Has anybody ever proposed making — not so much a documentary but a feature film — like this Beach Boys movie, Love & Mercy, about the Monkees? The Monkees story is so unique. It’s fascinating how ubiquitous the name “Monkees” is known no matter what generation someone if from. A lot of people don’t really get the uniqueness of the story. In those days they would create a manufactured band, but the people were interchangeable. Here was a created band that actually became an organic whole; no one ever thought was possible.
MD: Mike Nesmith used to say it was like Pinocchio becoming a real little boy. Well, at the time, nothing like that had happened. Now, of course, you have it happen frequently. I think the closest thing that has come along in years is “Glee”. They go on and perform, but it was a TV show about an imaginary glee club. And “The Monkees” was a TV show about an imaginary band.
Q: You guys got to contribute and take it even further because you actually put your own wacky personalities to work in it. Would you want to have a movie like this made?
MD: Well, there actually have been a couple of little things, television things. VH1 did one years ago called Daydream Believer. Not bad, not a bad film. There has been talk about it. You know, I am so close to it, I’m probably not the person to ask because I am too close to it, really.
Q: It’s also interesting how most of you stayed in touch. You had that group with David Jones and have toured with Peter Tork…
MD: Well, we had our own solo careers, but it does tend to always come back to that, yeah.
Q: Like seeing you and Peter playing together at the Rockers On Broadway.
MD: A two-dog monkee.
Q: In this current show, you revisit your own personal history and reflect on it with this musical expression. What led to doing it?
MD: I was asked. [laughs]. The Broadway producer Van Dean, who also owns Broadway Records, resurrected that. We met a couple of years ago. He is from Connecticut and he was doing a benefit for Sandy Hook, for the kids. He got in touch with me and knew I had done some Broadway stuff. I did the benefit for him, sang a few songs.
Then about a year or so ago, he got in touch with me and said, “There’s this club called 54 Below, and we have recorded a few acts there for the record company. We’d be interested in talking to you about it.” He had come up with the idea, he knew I had done Broadway, and of course, knew I had done rock and roll.
He said there was a Monkee tune Neil Diamond wrote for us called, “Little Bit Me Little Bit You”. So he said, “We’ll play off of that and call it, “Little Bit of Broadway, Little Bit Rock and Roll.”
It intrigued me. I said I could really be into that. I had been doing a lot of theater, and of course I had had all those hits. It took us about a year to pull it together, just to get the dates from 54 Below. And to get the band, and [musical director] Michael Moritz, and VMD to get his band available.
Q: So that’s the regular band he works with?
MD: Yeah. He has lots of musicians that he works with, and these are, I think, [the] core people. And really that’s how it happened.
I wasn’t available last year because I was on tour. And then this year, he said “Can you do it in July?” I said “Yeah”. We wanted more than one date because if you are going to record a CD, too risky. So we waited until 54 Below came up with three dates, and here we are. Simple as that.
Q: It was brilliant that you invited people to your rehearsal the other night, having an audience there. Did that help you in certain ways?
MD: Yeah, it’s why I requested it. It was my idea. I could not have gone onstage cold and never having sung these songs [before an audience. Not the Monkee songs, because all the Monkee songs and those stories I have done a million times. It was the half-a-dozen [or so] Broadway tunes, most of which I had never sung before in front of an audience, ever. Ever.
No, I would say out of all those Broadway tunes, there is only one that I have sung, and that’s “G W Washburn,” because it was a Monkee hit and that’s the cross-over tune. But all those other songs, I’ve sung around the house, I’ve sung at auditions, like “Don’t Be the Bunny”, which I mention. But no, I have never sung them before an audience before, or told any stories about them in front of an audience.
So when we started rehearsing, I said, “I can’t go onstage at 54 Below on opening night never having performed these songs. So that’s what that rehearsal was last night, and tonight is just to get me comfortable with singing those songs and telling those stories in front of strangers. I told some of them in front of my family, but I have never sung any of those songs in front of [strangers]. Last night was the first time I have sung “Pure Imagination”, “Don’t Be the Bunny” or “Evening Cellophane”.
Q: Obviously, it was very effective. It has a complete freshness. It’s interesting to think of these choices you made, and also to hear you sing in these different voices — to see how someone who sings rock and roll can re-interpret a Broadway song, or how you use your Broadway background. I loved you singing your mother singing Billie Holliday — that was great.
You talk about being a public person and a private person, and where the lines are between public and private when you are exposing yourself. But rock and roll is hyper-intensive. Even when you are interpreting someone else’s song, you have to throw yourself into it in a physical way that is not like a Broadway song.
If you hadn’t been a Monkee, would you have still gone into rock and roll, or music, or would you have been an architect like you had originally planned after you had been a child star — in the tv series Circus Boy?
MD: If I hadn’t gone into that audition [for the Monkees], I would probably be an architect, and we wouldn’t be sitting here.
Q: Or you would have invented some kind of technology.
MD: I don’t know. It’s a good question. It’s kind of moot, unless you believe in parallel universes. Like the thing I mentioned last night [at the rehearsal].
The showbiz thing has always [been in my life] but there’s the showbiz, and there’s my real life. I got it from my parents, who were also like that. My father was an actor and he was off the boat from Italy. We never lived in the Hollywood-Beverly Hills-showbiz-y kind of world, ever. No friends from that world, really. We lived out on little ranchettes in the [San Fernando] Valley and had horses, chickens, all that.
So it was like, Daddy went to work, and came home and cleaned the pool. I would win my first series, “Circus Boy”. I would go do “Circus Boy”, come home and clean the pool. So I’ve got to credit them mostly with — as much as you can have in a showbiz world — a very down-to-earth family life. Very down-to-earth, very no-nonsense. They never pushed me into the business, never like the traditional stage mom type, “Eyes and teeth, honey, eyes and teeth”.
They did just by virtue of the way they acted. I noticed very early on that there is a difference between the person and the persona. I don’t remember them saying this to me in so many words. But I remember when I was ten years old, I saw my father on the set playing an evil Mexican general killing people, and he would come home and tickle me on the living room floor. So even from very, very early on, I got that that was the character, that was the act.
[Otherwise,] I am a very private person. When I’m home, I’m in my shop — I have a workshop, a wood shop. I have a business. My daughter and I have a family business called Dolenz & Daughter’s Fine Furniture. We make heirloom furniture. So I have always had that side of me.
Q: Do you think that helped you in maintaining your sense of authenticity?
MD: It must have, I guess. One of the things they did I think was very smart was after “Circus Boy”. It was a big show, a very popular network prime time show. But I was 12 or 13, so they took me out of the business entirely — back to school, public school. No showbiz, no acting.
So I missed that whole post-childhood success craziness — the disappointment, “They don’t love me anymore, Mommy.” Growing up and going through puberty is tough enough. But having that kind of “You’re a has-been at 13” is what I believe messes up kids like that and has done in the past.
We have even seen it recently, with the kid from Star Wars — the little kid who played Anakin [Jake Lloyd]. Because you don’t know who you are, you don’t know what happened, and all of a sudden you’re a has-been at 13.
So my parents wisely took me out of the business entirely. And I really didn’t get back into it until the Monkees, 10 years later.
Q: So with this process of putting this show together, and these different lives, do you have any reflections?
MD: Yeah. Finding and choosing the songs for the Broadway section was really an interesting process. I had assumed that this started with songs that I had sung in a show like “Forum”, like “Grease”, “Aida”, “Hairspray”, “Pippin” — we could have started with those. But none of them worked.
None of them worked because most songs in a Broadway show are part of the narrative of the show. That’s why they are a Broadway show. You have to be in the show.
Q: So their integrity lies in the context.
MD: Absolutely. That’s what Broadway shows are, where all the dramatic moments don’t turn on dialogue, they turn on a song. Like the old saying: in a Broadway show you talk and talk and talk until you can’t talk anymore, and then you sing. Those big moments, dramatic moments or comedy moments or whatever, turn on a song. That’s what makes them Broadway shows.
But the downside, if you are trying to find material, then [you have to] do songs out of Broadway shows that stand alone. And we can count on a couple of hands how many songs?
Q: “Cabaret” is one of the few.
MD: One of the few, until the Beatles did “Til There Was You” — I mean, very few, because they are part of a narrative. So doing a show like this, that was the problem we ran into. They are great songs. I wanted to do a song out of “Aida”.
Q: Now that you mention it, I notice you didn’t do any songs from the shows you were in.
MD: None. Not a one. We found songs that are stand-alone. But do they also speak to my narrative? “Cellophane” is a good example. We set it up with that story about sometimes you’d like to be invisible. It worked.
That was an interesting challenge, trying to find these songs. It took me about a year.
Q: How did you go about finding them?
MD: A lot of them recommended by Michael. Two of them came out of my childhood: “Some Enchanted Evening” and “But Not for Me”, [thanks to] my mom. And actually, a couple that I had been working on over the years as audition pieces. “Don’t Be the Bunny” got me three shows.
Q: Do you ever find it ironic that you did “Pippin” and then in the recently closed revival version — which is now on the road — incorporated that circus element?
MD: I haven’t seen that version. I hear it’s really good.
Q: You did an album of non-Monkee songs, right?
MD: Yeah, a guy in England came out with [one]. He compiled all these obscure tunes from the ‘70s that I did post-Monkees on MGM. I totally forgot I had even done them.
Q: That’s interesting timing, that it is coming out now in light of you reviewing your history.
MD: It’s not a one-man show or anything like that. I’m not that interested in myself. But I do love the fact that it is incorporating the two things I love most in music, which is rock and roll and Broadway.
Q: What did you learn about yourself as a singer or performer in terms of how you interpret Broadway or rock and roll?
MD: Well, I learned that many years ago, when I started doing shows. Like I mentioned last night, “The Monkees” was a little bit like Broadway on television, a little bit like musical theater on TV, like an old Marx Brothers movie.
After we were cast, they screened Marx Brothers movies for us, Laurel & Hardy, the Beatle movies. But I remember it was heavily weighted towards that Marx Brothers idea. Not the Three Stooges, we never beat each other up. [It was] One for all, all for one.
There’s an interesting book called The Politics of Ecstasy, written by Timothy Leary. When you go back, you will find almost a chapter devoted to The Monkees. Whatever you think of Timothy Leary, I don’t know, but…
Q: Oh no, I love Timothy Leary.
MD: He got it. He mentions things like that. I don’t remember his words — the irreverent, psycho-something jello — but basically what he said was, the Monkees brought long hair into the living room. Before that, the only time you ever saw young people with long hair on television, it would be an arrest. And it made it okay to have long hair and wear bell bottoms. I mean, the kids said “See, Mommy, the Monkees don’t commit crimes against nature, and they’re just having a good time.” [sings] “we don’t want to put anybody down”.
In a very similar way, I realized years later that Henry Winkler did it with the Fonz in making it okay to wear a black leather jacket. Until then, we were outlaws. We were Marlon Brando and the Wild [Ones], and you were a motorcycle gang thug, you had your hair like that with a motorcycle jacket.
And in another similar way, I thought, was the way that Will Smith made it okay to be a young black guy singing rap music in “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air”. The Monkees did that for the hippie generation.
Q: In some ways, in hip hop and motorcycle gangs there always was a level of not the noble outlaw, but the bad outlaw. But the hippie thing was never meant to be outlaw.
MD: No — well, not outlaw, but [the show] was never anti-Establishment. We still couldn’t do or say anything about the war, we couldn’t talk about anything controversial. The NBC censors were very, very strict. In fact, there is a great story.
There was one episode called “The Devil and Peter Tork” and it [was based on] the Faustian legend. Peter wants to learn how to play the harp, and says, “I’d give anything to be able to play the harp.” The devil appears and says, “Would you really?” and he says, “Sign here.”
Peter then suddenly can play the harp, and he comes back to the beach house and says, “Hey, guys, I can play the harp!” “How did you do that?” And he said, “Well, I had to just sign this…” I say something to the effect of, “Peter! You’ve signed your soul to the devil, which means when you die you will go to hell!”
This is in the script. They sent it to NBC, to the censors, before we were shooting. The censors came back and said, “You can’t say that on network television at 7:30 at night. You cannot use the word ‘hell’.” 1967.
Well, we didn’t say it. Bob Rafaelson fought tooth and nail — he said, “It’s FAUST!”
Q: They probably said you can’t say that, either.
MD: “Who’s this Faust guy? You send him over here.”
So Bob Rafaelson fights tooth and nail to get the word “hell” into the script. And they said no, absolutely not. So if you watch the episode, when that scene comes around, I say something to the effect of “Well Peter, you sold your soul to the devil, and that means when you die, you will go to that place we can’t mention on network television.”
Q: It’s amazing what you got away with then.
MD: We slipped some zingers in there, but it was tough. It had to go under the radar.
Q: The great thing was that you had all those layers, and the characters were unrealistic.
MD: You understand that “The Monkees” was not a band, it was a television show about a band. An imaginary band. On a set.
Q: An imaginary band that had no real connection to the real world. Where was the beach house, by the way?
MD: Malibu. Which begs the question, how could we have afforded it. We had a beach house, and we never worked.
Q: It was this absurdist show. That is what was so great about it.
MD: Yes, imaginary. It was a set — Stage 7 at Screen Gems. There were two or three other shows that were trying to be high level that year — music shows. I was up for them. There was one about surfing beach boys kind of thing. There was one like Peter, Paul and Mary — that actually did go to pilot, it was called “The Happeners”.
Then there was another show that had a whole big family thing in a bus, like the New Christy Minstrels kind of thing — “A Mighty Wind”. That became “The Partridge Family” years later, I think.
Q: But the thing about “The Monkees” was the amazing, unique combination of forces that made the show — you guys, Bob Rafaelson, who later on made a movie like Head, with Jim Frawley directing.
MD: Paul Mazursky wrote the pilot, with Larry Tucker, his partner. You know Bob and Bert [Schneider] produced Easy Rider. I’m in that book, also: Easy Riders and Raging Bulls. They used Monkee money to make Easy Rider.
Q: I don’t think that confluence of forces could ever come together again. That’s what made the show transcend its origins.
MD: Well, that’s what makes any show transcend, if you look at any show, or movie, or album. It’s just that what happens is the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Bob Rafaelson, years later, even said, “We caught lightning in a bottle.”
You can look at any show — like “Star Trek”. You can’t hang the success of the show on any one thing, like William Shatner or Gene Roddenberry or Leonard Nimoy, or the sets or the dialogue or the costumes. It doesn’t work like that. You can’t reduce that stuff down in any real scientific sense. You can’t take it apart.
People ask me this all the time, and as a scientist — and I consider myself a scientist — you can’t take it apart. It’s like taking a watch apart to see how it works. It won’t work anymore if you take it apart.
And even with The Monkees, I get asked, “Are you really like that?” No, I don’t run around, twice the speed of a human, backwards. There were elements of me in that character. But they didn’t want to hire pure actors, to play a part. Bob Rafaelson and Bert Schneider knew that to grab those kids, they had to have something [else] — that’s why they used our real names.
Q: Do you ever want to direct films?
MD: I did. Nothing you heard of — it was all in England.
The one film I did here was a movie of the week for Lifetime, starring Stephanie Zimbalist, actually — a typical Lifetime movie, female in jeopardy, called Malpractice. Over here I directed TV. I directed “Boy Meets World,” “Pacific Blue”… But I did a lot of stuff in England. I had been there for 15 years.
Q: Any regrets that those projects didn’t get seen here?
MD: It wasn’t really my call. They were owned by BBC and LWT. I tried to get a couple a change of format versions over here, but they were very British shows, so I’m not sure they would have translated. Some would, but there are not that many shows that have made it over here. A little more these days, but back then it was very unusual.
Q: Besides your daughter that you are working with, you have how many other kids?
MD: Three other — four daughters altogether. Ami — who is an actress, and she still does a little bit — has now taken to what she always wanted to do, which is illustration, children’ books illustration. Even before she was an actress, that was what she wanted to do. And she is doing quite well. She lives in Canada, Vancouver. She is studying at Emily Carr Art School, which is the famous Canadian art institute, and getting a certificate in illustrating children’s books. So we are going to write a book together and she is going to illustrate it.
Then my next oldest, Charlotte, just got married to a lovely guy. They are living in Vienna, Austria. He’s been posted there — he works in the State Department, and he is there for a couple of years. She works for the Clinton Foundation, CHIA, she’s a malaria officer for five African countries. From what I gather, they advise the local governments how to combat malaria in their particular region.
The next one is a preschool teacher and photographer. The youngest one, Georgia, is the one that I have the furniture business with.
So they are all doing quite well. A couple of production companies have approached us about doing a show. But we’ll see.
Q: So what more do you want to do?
MD: I would love to do more musical theater. I’d love to be on Broadway.
Q: Writing your own?
MD: No, not necessarily. Just some great part. I have a wish list of parts that I would love to do. I’d love to do Ternardier in Les Miz. I’d love to do the Wizard in Wicked, I’d like to do Amos in Chicago. I’d love to do Wilbur again in Hairspray, if that ever comes again. I just did that in the West End for about a year, in London.
I was offered shows that I couldn’t do for one reason or another. I was offered Drowsy Chaperone. There was another show, a national tour, and I couldn’t do it.
Q: You are in good shape. What do you do?
MD: No sex, no drugs, no rock and roll.
Q: And don’t eat…
MD: Both halves of this Philly cheese steak. No, I’m pretty active. I have a good metabolism. Frankly, working in the shop — it’s not running a marathon, but we’re on our feet sometimes eight hours a day, handling lumber and machine tools. I have a full-blown machine shop.
Q: Do you have accounts, or does someone hire you to design their living room?
MD: No, it’s all handmade for orders that are on the website. It’s specific heirloom pieces — a coffee table, a hope chest, sitting bench seat…
We have one line which is Shabby Chic stuff — we have three items in that line. And then we have three items in this redwood line, and there’s a cedar heirloom hope chest with brass fittings. We’re just coming out with a chess set next week that I designed. It’s all hand-carved, hand made, we sign everything and number it and brand it.
Known for his madcap action and vivid art, 2000 AD alum and creator of the comics anthology Deadline Brett Ewins passed away on February 17, 2015 after a brief illness, at the age of 59. Ewins influenced an entire generation of comic creators through his work on Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper, and for having a hand in the creation of Gorillaz artist Jamie Hewlett’s Tank Girl. Ewin’s bizarre style lighted the minds of many comic fans, but he also deeply suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, and in January 2012 he suffered a heart attack and grievous head injuries after stabbing a police officer, for which he was arrested and subsequently released on bail.
Beyond the Longbox met with artist Simon Fraser (Nikolai Dante for 2000 AD, and Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor for Titan Publishing). Fraser had a few words on the art and legacy of Brett Ewins.
Director Roskam, Rapace, & writer Lehane
Noomi Rapace is still something of mystery to American audiences. She had been a big star in Swedish cinema, but given that there’s only a 9 1/2 million audience who speaks the language, that limited her reach. It wasn’t until she played Lisbeth Salander the lead character in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (and the subsequent sequels) that she stepped out of relative obscurity into the international spotlight. Once the English language version was released, the comparisons drawn between her performance and that of Rooney Mara shed light on Rapace’s talent.
Since that star turn, she appeared in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows as a Gypsy fortune-teller as well as the more important part of Elizabeth Shaw, a key role in the prequel to the Alien series, Prometheus. Then she co starred with Colin Farrell in Dead Man Down and Rachel McAdams in Passion.
Now the 34-year-old plays opposite actor Tom Hardy in The Drop notable not only for the fact that Dennis Lehane penned the script (based on his short story) but that it showcases the last performance of actor James Gandolfini who died short after making this film. Hardy plays bartender Bob Saginowski who is both enmeshed in a bar robbery and an investigation that draws in crazed ex-con and ex-girlfriend (played by Rapace) whom he befriends.
Recently Rapace’s director Michael Roskam and writer Dennis Lehane made appearances at several events in New York to promote their film The Drop. This Q&A is excerpted from their appearance at the Apple store and from an earlier interview.
Q: This is the first full-length feature film you filmed in New York from start to finish, right?
Noomi Rapace: Yeah. I was here a little bit on Dead Man Down, but this is different, you know?
Q: You grew up watching New York on the big screen in Sweden. What was it like being here?
NR: I always dreamed of making a movie, or being a part of a movie. There's something very romantic about it, and I remember that I fell in love with the script immediately, when I read it, but I was kind of afraid I would be flown into a studio somewhere, and not into a city far away, pretending that I'm living in Brooklyn.
And when we met, Michael said it’s crucial for you to shoot it on location. And I'm like, "Fine." I've been watching it since I was a little kid. I knew that it would create its own playground. Brooklyn is its own playground. Brooklyn is its own character in the movie, and without that, it wouldn't be what it was forced to take the time for. We gauged a lot of the things that could work... I always like to do research, and read up, and watch and listen and absorb. It made me really happy, and I loved it.
Q: The film had the best puppy in the world. He did exactly what he needed to be: a dog.
NR: It felt so much more disciplined than the actors.
Q: Cute dogs aside, what was it like getting to meet James Gandolfini?
NR: Michael and I were having dinner at Weisenkopf in Brooklyn. We were both going, "Go talk to him!" Was that in the restaurant? It's funny, because he was like... I got really shy, and I'm not really shy normally. I remember that I stood up, and I shook his hand. His hands are like three times the size of mine. And then I just sat down. He was like... his charisma is so strong. I remember, we were just like smoking for the next day.
Q: Give us a glimpse into the experience of making this film especially since it’s the last film with Gandolfini.
NR: I remember the night that I came to Michael’s house, when he was shooting that scene [in the kitchen between Tom and James — a crucial one near the end of the film]. Michael had started — he was working with James in the morning, and I was going to come in after lunch. They were waiting for me in Makeup, and I just wanted to say hi to Michael, and Tom and Jimmy, and Michael were in the middle of the scene. I got to see. I sat down next to him, and I was looking at the monitor, and I was blown away. I couldn't go. They were waiting for me in Makeup, and my PA was like waving, they need you. And I was like, "No, no, no, I've got to stay."
I couldn't leave. I just felt that it was something happening in that scene that was pure. It was so real, and it was so alive, and every day was different. It was like, there's no way I can go into Makeup. I have to see this!
Q: What it's like when you're working on multiple projects, does that help you go from one to another?
NR: I met Tom maybe two years before we shot The Drop, and we connected straightaway. He said he was a great fan of my work, and I remember when I saw Bronson, and I was so blown away. It was like, "I've got to work with this guy." And we connected, and we were trying to find something to do, and then Fox Searchlight sent me Animal Rescue, as [this film] was called then, and I loved it. I remember I texted Tommy, and said, "This could be it." Really, this is the first thing that we should do together.
Then Child 44 [a film she stars in with Hardy that will be released next year] came along, and I think we had four weeks between The Drop [and that]. But the beauty with a working relationship, when you trust each other, you can allow self to take risks. And you don't know to pretend to know how you don't know. You can allow yourself to be stupid, and to do really bad takes, and I felt that in this whole ensemble, between Matthias [Schoenaerts who plays the crazy Eric Deeds] and Tom, that I didn't feel that I had to prove anything. That I could just come in and work, and explore, and see where it was going to lead us. And that I haven't thought very much - and I love that. That's the perfect work relationship for me.
Q: This film is based a story by author/screenwriter Dennis Lehane (Mystic River). Did you get to speak much with him about it?
NR: I remember Dennis said something beautiful the other day. It was like, “Turning a novel into a movie is like having a child, and then saying, ‘Should I take that arm, or should I take that arm.’” And I can understand that.
Q: Contrast the experience of working with Tom Hardy and with James Gandolfini on this film. They’re two very different actors, and they have two very different styles in the way they approach characters, and the way they express them. Maybe you have insight into them that we don't know.
NR: Well, let me start by saying that I didn't really have scenes with James. It was most directly with Tommy, and I had a little bit with Matthias. I met him on set, and he, what made me really happy, and that I still sort of carry with me, is that when I got to know him, I realized that he was, he'd been doing all those amazing films. He did so much great work, by being in the business so long. And managing to maintain a real person -- to be so grounded, and so loving, so respectful, and so real, and not getting carried away with the weirdness that can infect our business. That is something that I still think about, with him. So that is with me not really working with him, as a person.
Q: And working with Tom?
NR: Working with Tommy, for me - I adore him, and it's quite rare that you meet somebody who you feel like you could do pretty much anything with, because you say, he has my back, and we're on a journey together. And you give each other, and then you can grow.
Q: How this character is alike or different from some of the other characters you've played, because you've played some fairly dark characters, who've gone through some pretty difficult times. Some of them are more victims, and others less victims.
NR: I remember Michael said to me, once, that Nadia -- she is like a broken angel. And in a way, I think that describes her. She's a young woman with a troubled past. She had a relationship with Eric Deeds, Matthias' character, and he's quite a complicated and disturbed man. And I think that she's strong. She has a strength. She was living something bad, really destructive, but she managed to break it and move on. Like you’re kind of forcing yourself to find your own voice, even though she's fragile when we meet her. It can be hard to leave something, even if it's disruptive and not good for you. It's safety, and it's home base. So to leave that, and go into something that is unknown, it can be more scary than to live with something that is not good for you. So to me, she's a strong person. When we meet her, she's trying to find her new self.
Q: Talking about contrasting this character to some of the others you’ve played. like your character in Dragon Tattoo. Lisabeth Salander is a tough character who's been damaged. Even the character Prometheus has those elements in her past. You work with characters like that, and have an understanding of them and that's fascinating. You’re able to reveal the feeling behind those characters. How do you get behind the curtain with these characters.Talk more in depth about that?
NR: I guess I'm kind of drawn to contradictions. It's always more interesting to try and understand someone when they're complicated, in an inner landscape. It feels like most of my characters are a contradiction; they have souls that are like broken mirrors, you know? Depending on where you stand, you will see different reflections.
And I think that Nadia, maybe, she's a very good person. And she's a good soul — that's the angel thing that people see. She doesn't have aggression and violence in the same way as those other ones, and she's not as tough as the one in Prometheus. She has a faith; she's always connected to something that's bigger, to find strength in.
And Nadia only has herself. I think that she's the only person who can heal or cure or help someone like Bob, and start to mend something as broken as him. And I think the same goes with him and her. He's obviously, like, "I'm not going to ask. I'm not judging. If you don't want to tell me, or talk to me about it, it's fine."
And I think that's something. She’s a very normal — normal, what is that? She's also lonely, but for a girl to be lonely, sometimes your loneliness can be attractive to men, and they can find a way to use you. And I think when he was asking, and I remember thinking in the pet store, when he asks, "So are you a dancer?" And she was like...
Q: Did you do any research for this?
NR: I was doing a little bit of research on dancers in strip clubs in New York, to look into that world, because I had a feeling that she wanted to be a dancer, but then ended up in bad places, dancing for men, in situations like that. I like fighters, and I like people who are survivors, and people that are not really. I don't like this perfection, with people.
I try to use myself as much as I can, dig from myself and translate things from me into the character. With Dragon Tattoo, I can't just put on Lisbeth's clothes and now I'm Lisbeth so we can begin to work. It's more like I have to give her a place in me for the time we were shooting.
Q: Everyone is really excited about a Prometheus sequel. Can you talk about the movie? What are your feelings about it, and what do you think about it?
NR: I can't really! I can say that we are working on it, and we all want to do number two.
That it took two decades for the social science fiction book The Giver to be made into an effects-enhanced film well after The Hunger Games, Divergent, and other dystopian teen tales could be viewed either a blessing or curse.
Based on veteran author Lois Lowry’s 1993 young adult novel, the cinematic rendition is directed by Phillip Noyce and stars Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Alexander Skarsgård, Odeya Rush, Cameron Monaghan, Katie Holmes and Taylor Swift.
Set in a society that at first appears utopian, but is revealed to be a totalitarian dystopia, The Giver follows 18-year-old Jonas (Thwaites), who is about to be placed in his future job by the community’s elders. This future society has eliminated pain and strife by imposing “sameness” on everyone through a regimen of drugs, euthanasia and social engineering, along with the eradication of emotions and artistic expression.
Only one person is allowed to retain a full sense of humanity — the Receiver of Memory, a person who has all the past memories of humankind stored in him before the Sameness, in case these experiences are needed. But by gaining this knowledge, Jonas learns the truth about his society and struggles with its fundamental flaws. To acquire this knowledge, he trains with an old man called The Giver (Bridges). From the Giver, Jonas learns about pain, sadness, war, and other unhappy truths of the world and humanity. He quickly realizes that his community's peaceful state is a fragile artiface, one that is seriously flawed.
This was the book that sort of set the recent publishing trend in motion, having sold millions of copies after it was published in 1993, so one could say all the others owe it a debt. Yet to a less knowledgeable public, this film may seem to be mining already too-familiar territory, and thus has models to follow, or may seem to be just another one in a sub-genre.
The following Q&A is culled from a press conference that included main cast members Bridges, Streep, Thwaites, Rush, Holmes as well as Swift, Cameron Monaghan and Emma Tremblay. Director Noyce, author Lowry, producer Nikki Silver and screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide were also on hand.
Q: This begins with you Lois. This book came out 20 years ago. When did you think a film might be on the horizon, and was it welcomed?
Lois Lowry: It was 20 years ago, but two years after that, producer Nikki Silver and Jeff came to me. They didn’t come to me personally, [but] their people suggested that we turn it into a movie, as if it would be easy at the time. But maybe good things never come easy — it was a very long haul.
Finally the movie’s on the screen 18 years after that day. Most of the people who are here with us today would not have been a part of it 18 years ago, so good things come to those who wait.
Q: Jeff, you act as producer, and your association goes way back. Why does this resonate with you on a personal level?
JB: It goes back 18 years. I wanted to direct my father in something, and wanted it to be something that my kids could see. They were all young, now they’re all in their 30s. I got a catalogue of children’s books, and was looking at the different covers... I see this photograph of an old, grizzled guy and I thought my dad could play that part. I noticed the Newberry Award stamp on there. I said, “Oh, this might be good!”
I read it, and it knocks me out. It’s a kids’ book, but as an adult I love the story and the themes in it. I’m very excited about it, and I bring it in to tell my wife about it. Then my kids told me, “Oh, we know that book. We’re taught that book in school.” My excitement grew, and then I found out it’s also on the list of banned books, and I then get more excited. It's a little dangerous.
I said, “Oh, this is going be a cinch to get made. Over 10 million copies in 21 countries, the money guys are going to go crazy over this.” That did not prove to be true. The controversy of it being one of the banned books, and selling so many copies, being popular in school -- it freaked them out.
When we finally got the script together, it was very challenging to put this world that Lois had created in the book up on the screen, because so much of it was in the dialogue that this guy, Jonas, was having with himself.
Bob Weide was our first writer. We spent a week or so up at my place, jammin’ on the story. It was challenging, but we dug it. We took it around and the financiers were too shocked, so it took this long.
I’m really so pleased it did take this long though, because this is the right team. We got the right director. Casting is everything — not only the actors, but the crew and certainly our director and our director of photography, Ross Emery. Our director Phillip Noyce was like the key to the cast that we scored. If it was made earlier, Odeya wasn’t born. We would not have had Odeya with us and the whole team wouldn’t have been there. So I’m glad the gestation period was that long. Here we are.
LL: I’m just glad it didn’t take any longer, because I’m 77 years old!
Q: Bob wrote the original screenplay way back when. What were the challenges at that point?
Bob Weide: People have asked me if I felt the pressure of how loved the book is, and all those readers it has. Of course at the time I wrote my drafts, the book was only a couple years old and didn’t have a following. But I loved the book.
A book is not a movie; changes had to be made and things had to be added and revised. But all that was done with the notion of being true to the spirit of the book.
Lois and I were in touch during that time, we had phone calls and I would run things by her, and she’s very non-territorial and not precious about her words. I’d suggest what we needed to change and she said it all sound[ed] good. And as Jeff said, a lot of the book is sort of internalized [with] Jonas’s thoughts and reactions to what’s going on, and how do you put it up on the screen?
The other big challenge, without giving anything away, is in the book. Once Jonas flees the community, the book stays with him on his journey, and then goes back to the community to see how his exodus has affected the people in the community. That basically meant creating storylines.
It all felt quite organic, and years later it was honed and perfected by Michael Mitnick. One thing about our two scripts, our drafts, is that they are seventeen years apart. Michael and I hadn’t met until last week.
When I read Michael’s finished script, it really felt like a true collaboration, as though we had sat down side-by-side and wrote it out together. I read his changes and I felt it was very challenging, but we took a shot at it.
By the way, I suggested everybody should collaborate. That’s the way to do it, because [there’s] no arguing, no firing.
Q: Michael, what were some of the things you brought to the table as a writer of the drafts?
Michael Mitnick: I first encountered the book in fifth grade and the book stayed with me. What I tried to do was be invisible and hopefully be a successful extension of Lois’s voice. There are added beats into the movie, things that are extrapolations of waves that run throughout the book. But what I tried my best to do, and I know everyone did, was to both honor the book and try to make a good movie.
Nikki Silver: Michael always undersells things. Michael came in with a really big vision, to make this a movie for all audiences. Jeff talked about how we started out with this vision of just the book, and Michael really took it and created the film that we see today. Being able to take the spirit of Lois’s book, bring it all together and create a thoughtful summer blockbuster is incredible.
Q: Was there any discussion of changing the black and white visual style that shows the sameness of the society?
Phillip Noyce: No. We just wanted Jonas’s and everyone’s limited perception, and Jonas’s gathering perception of color, and structured the color scheme of the film around that. You don’t have to see black and white when you’re reading Lois’s book, but you can imagine you’re watching the events in color. But we had to make some pretty hard decisions and we laid out the film from first frame to last and then shot it that way.
Q: Meryl, this is a different part from what you've done before, playing the authoritarian Chief Elder. What hit you when the script came in?
Meryl Streep: I like to be the boss, so [Laughs] that was a good thing. I always wanted to work with [Jeff Bridges] my entire career, but I never got the chance somehow. So that was a big, big part of it.
Also, I’m a big admirer of Phillip’s films, He’s pure filmmaker with great taste to bring this to life — especially the colorless parts of it, it would take a great artist. It’s really magical.
JB: Did your kids read the book?
MS: Mine did, yeah. They had a list of required reading over the summer and it’s always [a pain] to get them to do it. But that one was put in front of the two younger ones and they devoured it.
Q: Meryl, when an actor makes a movie, it’s all about the emotions and it’s all about that intensity of emotions. Here, your character is deprived of them. So how do you still build and deliver with that constriction?
MS: It’s interesting to play people who have suppressed emotion, but I felt that the chief elder didn’t take her medication as well on certain days. Do you know what I mean? [Laughs] Because clearly, she had some deep history with the Giver, the Receiver of Wisdom, right? That was something that intrigued me about this script.
That’s sort of the point of the book. You can’t keep things in, you can’t suppress the things that make us human. It’s pointless to try.
Q: Katie, what’s the challenge of portraying a full-bodied character -- Mother (who isn't actually the mother of her kids but one assigned to this particular family unit) -- that is muted and not able to express herself in the ways that we all express ourselves day-to-day?
Katie Holmes: It was challenging. Phillip was reminding us not to touch each other, which I find to be something you just do naturally as a mother and as a human being. That was one of the things.
But I just approached it as a mother whose child is leaving the nest. That’s what kind of made the character real to me. It was interesting to play someone who has no emotion.
Q: Taylor, this is a step for you with offers coming your way. What were you looking for in a script that led you to Rosemary, the apparent "daughter" of The Giver?
Taylor Swift: It was an unbelievable concept that I would get to do this dream scenario where I have a very small role that has a pivotal part in the story. But it isn’t jumping into too deep water your first time in a serious, dramatic movie. And I get the opportunity to work with Jeff.
It was all those things put together: that it was a story that stuck with me from my childhood, by an author I really respect, and that it celebrates all the things that I hold dear, like our history, our music, our art, intellect and memories. That really had a great deal to do with why I wanted to be a part of this.
I’m seeing so many fans write me on Instagram and Twitter and letters, saying that they’re having such a tough time with life because they can’t imagine that we can experience such great pain, intense loss, and insecurity.
I wish I could tell them over and over again that we live for these fleeting moments of happiness. Happiness is not a constant, it’s something that we only experience a glimpse of every once in a while, but it’s worth it. That’s what they’ll take away from this movie.
Q: At the last minute, Jonas finds religion, specifically Christianity. Is that sort of the message of the film? That’s the last image audiences will see when they hear the Christmas music.
PN: Do you think he finds Christianity exclusively?
Q: The last song we hear is a Christmas carol…
PN: But Christmas is not only celebrated by Christians, and Christmas carols are not only sung at that time of year by Christians. I don’t think it was anyone’s intention that he could be discovering Christianity, but rather that he should be discovering home, a concept of home.
In the book, there’s a memory where he experiences Christmas and celebration. I don’t think that he’s become a Christian. That’s certainly not the intention of the movie.
LL: I’ve discovered over the years that many people have given the book as a Bar Mitzvah gift [laughs]. They see it as a rite of passage, the boy taking on the responsibility of manhood. Of course, in the book he’s 12. In the movie, he’s older so it wouldn’t be a Bar Mitzvah. But certainly I never intended it to be a Christian allegory, though some people read it that way.
Q: It took so long to bring out this movie, but technically and visually, the movie’s beautiful. Visually, technically, the special effects — how did you all work this out?
PN: That’s a long story. Lois had conceived a certain type of community, which was based on her experiences growing up in military bases all around the world. One of the places that she lived in was in Tokyo just after the second World War, where she, like Jonas, would leave the walls of the base and venture out into the madness.
Another story she told us was about growing up on Governor’s Island, surrounded by water. When you read the novel, you can see those two influences.
I went for holiday in Cape Town, South Africa, and took a shot of my son on top of Table Mountain. When I was coming home in the plane, I looked at it, and I looked into his eyes as he looked out into those clouds, and I thought, wow, that could be Jonas dreaming about going to the benevolent version of Elsewhere.
That became one of the ideas that we explored, which combined two of Lois’s ideas or experiences to produce this community, one of several communities on top of a mesa, anotherd surrounded by a cloud bank that was a barrier to the outside.
Going to shoot the film in South Africa was a big decision because it meant that the quality of light, the vegetation and everything were just a little different from most of the rest of the world. So the world looks a little different. It looks a little familiar, but there’s something weird about it.
The color schemes were inspired by Lois’s wonderfully visual writing, and Ed Verreaux was our production designer. We sort of had a bake-off as to how those houses would look, starting with the military style, houses of the 1950s that Lois had imagined, and going right through to mid-21st century housing, egalitarian housing as it might be built.
We ended up with about 12 different designs, passed them around [to everyone], including to our writer. She chose the same one as the rest of us, and that ended up being the architectural style.
A lot of it, of course, is CG. A lot of the buildings are not built when we actually filmed, but were built much later, designed by Ed Verreaux, and then built by our CG team. All in the name of sameness, and creating a supposedly egalitarian world, free of conflict. So design came from Lois’s ideas, both written and ideas that she shared with us.
I could go on and on about the look of the film.
Q: Since you’ve all worked on this project so long, how has the film evolved over time or did it stay pretty true to your original vision?
JB: I came to a crossroads on my adventure with this movie. I was going to direct my father, Lloyd, in the movie. I had spent 18 years going through many, many versions of the script, working with many directors, trying to realize the vision that I had. Generally, my vision was very close with the book. The book moved me in a profound way, and I really wanted to do the book justice.
When Harvey Weinstein and Walden Media said, “We’ll make this movie, but here’s how we want to make it,” I said, “That’s different than I imagined it.” I thought about that, and I figured I got a decision here to make.
I can either say, “Bon voyage, guys, I wish you the best of luck, I’m not going to be joining you, but make a good movie,” or I could say -- this is something I do often in my life, when I get to this spot -- how will I feel when I let this go? How will I feel if I engage? I pictured myself letting it go and felt really terrible. Then I thought, "I can engage."
Usually it’s an experiment on myself to practice letting go of control, and almost use it as a spiritual exercise, getting involved. I knew that Harvey was an old-school movie maker. Look at the movies that come out of Harvey’s oven. Also, from Walden. So I figured I’m going to jump in here and just surf this wave here and see what happens. Then the casting started happening, met with Phillip and these guys. That was the big bump for me.
In the book, they’re 12, and for various reasons, some of the team wanted to make the kids older. That was really a struggle for me, to let that one go. Then I met these two, and that started to relax. And then Brenton made a great statement.
In the book, it’s The Ceremony of Twelve. And he said, “It could be the ceremony of the 12th grade,” where kids are 17 or 18. I remember going through that period with my three girls, and that was the age when they were questioning, “What are we going to be when we grow up?” That kind of worked. So it was a constant process of letting go.
Another spiritual question popped up for me. When do you yin and when do you yang? I’m mainly a yin-er. I just go surf, let it go. I came up with an interesting answer to that question: "When do you yin, when do you yang?"
You just take out that “when do you,” then it becomes, “you yin and you yang.” And I noticed, I’m yinnin,’ but every once in a while — it’s rare — I would yang, but it would just kinda come out, and that’s how I shared the project. I didn’t want to suppress that yang, but generally, I wanted to roll and take all of these different changes and different conceptions in line and let them be almost aspects of my larger self.
Q: Did you ever have a conversation about the science fiction implications of this film? Maybe the backstory led to this culture, the post-apocalyptic scenario.
NS: We had a lot of discussion about what the future was. We talked to Lois a lot about it, and what was important to all of us is that the world was headed in a very bad place. And whether the cause was ecological, whether it was world war, it’s unimportant to the story.
What’s important to the story is that we went on a very, very bad path. so we’ve tried a lot of things. Phillip experimented with a lot of ideas, and we left that to what we think are very smart audiences, to try to figure out and have their own interpretation of how we got here.
JB: I was trying to remember what my scenario was, and it went along with Nikki about something terrible happened, or our darker side kind of surfaced, and we put a stop to that by trying to perfect ourselves. This is an example of one of the things we try to get convenient. How wonderful, we have these water bottles. We can drink these whenever we can.
What a lousy idea, to have to have these. They say they’re biodegradable, but they’re not. They end up in the ocean, the fish eat ‘em, we eat the fish. It’s that immediate gratification that’s a part of being human beings. We tend to go that way. That’s a part of who we are.
One of the things I like about this movie and the book as well is that it’s not really shoving a message down the audience’s throat, but it hopefully is provoking them to ask some questions. What are we willing to do for our comfort and our safety, and what is the true cost of that as a human being?
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