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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?
As if it were perfectly titled for her, actress Megan Fox made her film debut in Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen starring opposite Lindsay Lohan. Following that appearance, Fox won the lead female role, Mikaela Banes, in the 2007 live-action movie version of the classic cartoon, Transformers. Based on the many toys and cartoons of the same name, Fox played the love interest of Shia LaBeouf's character, Sam Witwicky.
Reprising the role in the sequel, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the brassy brunette clashed with exacting director Bay, making remarks comparing the demanding filmmaker with Adolf Hitler. Subsequently she was fired from the next film.
She went on to be title character in Jennifer's Body, written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody. Along the way, this sex symbol married actor Brian Austin Green, had two children, and did a little image adjustment.
Though she's never been demure, the 28 year-old Tennessean has matured and regained producer/director Bay's approval enough to be cast as intrepid flesh-and-blood reporter April O'Neil against four gigantic mutant ninja turtles and sensei rat.
She is the most human creature in Bay's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles motion-capture version (now in theaters).This TMNT reboot brings the wildly successful, iconic characters to the screen in a live action edition executive produced by Stephen Spielberg.
Recently, Fox came to the Soho Apple Store to discuss her work as O'Neil, how it feels to be working with Bay again, and what she would like to see from women in action films. Between a moderator and serious hard-core fans, Fox gave this audience an energetic, spicy take on on her own love of these characters and this film.
Q: Why is this project so important to you?
MF: I was a child of the '90s, and was a super-fan of Secret of the Ooze and Vanilla Ice, and all things that went along with it. I grew up on these movies, and loved them. They were treasured.
I campaigned really hard to get this movie, because I thought it was going to be the best movie of summer 2014, and it is!
Q: As a superfan, what are the important ingredients that you wanted to see in the new interpretation?
MF: You want to stick with the traditional Turtles as much as possible, because we all love them, and we don't want them to be too different. You have to keep their personalities intact, because obviously that would be a sin to deviate from that.
You have to have Splinter. Once upon a time, Splinter was human, so some people wanted to see that. I did not. I grew up with rat Splinter. And you've got to have Shredder. I wanted to see Krang, and maybe we'll see him in the future.
Q: The movie and the cartoons were both equally formative for several generations of fans. What was your first interaction? Was it the ooze and the turtle rap, and that whole thing?
MF: Yeah, it was "Go Ninja, go Ninja, go!"
Q: It's a great movie, but there is no ninja rap. Were you disappointed?
MF: Well, we have Wiz Khaleefa and Ty Dolla, who did the soundtrack, "Shellshocked". "You're about to get shellshocked."
Q: Obviously, with that original trilogy; you had guys in suits. It's a little different this time around.
MF: Yeah, the foam suits. It was Ernie Reyes Jr. in a foam suit.
Q: Obviously, using techniques today -- performance capture is in blockbusters like this. How was it working with these athletes and actors in those suits?
MF: We had four really talented actors, they were perfectly cast. They were in motion-capture suits, they had helmets with cameras in their eyes all the time. They all wore platform shoes, you know, like those emo/goth shoes, that have the thick soles. They looked ridiculous, and I feel like they had it much more difficult than I did.
It was easy to interact with them. They were four really talented actors who worked through all of that, which was a challenge.
Q: Given your filmography, you have accumulated a very interesting skillset, thanks to the Transformer films. Obviously you had to interact with...
MF: Yelling at nothingness?
MF: "Oh no, we have to get it to the dagger's tip, now!" Remember, that line was in the movie. I've done these movies before.
For me, they're the most fun to do because they're the kind of movies I like to watch. Whenever I'm in a hotel room, I'm going to download Thor or Spider Man. These are my favorite films, so I feel privileged to be in them. I had a good time making them.
Q: The timing got a little weird because you got pregnant right around the time when you were shooting.
MF: We think it's one of the turtles.
Q: It would obviously be Michelangelo, if it would be any of them.
MF: If I was going to one-night-stand it, I think it would be Raphael. Right?
Q: Why is that, exactly?
MF: Raphael is the big bad boy. Not the kind of guy you want to have a relationship with.
Q: Is Michelangelo the one you marry?
MF: No, Leonardo's the one you marry. You definitely date him, but you don't marry Mikey, because he's not going to remember your anniversary. But Leo will. Leo is like the stoic - the good one, the leader, Prince Charming.
Q: Obviously, you couldn't do everything you wanted. Part of the appeal to do this film would be to get back into your physicality, mixing it up with the guys.
MF: I tried to do as many stunts as possible. There was some wire-work, you can't do that when you're pregnant. That wasn't possible. But I had a really amazing stunt girl, and a really amazing stunt team, when I couldn't do stunts.
Q: Do you have a new perspective on the Turtles, not only as part of the franchise, but as a mom? Do you think any young kids would get into the Turtles?
MF: Yeah, but my kids are still babies. The oldest one's not even two. But it was in the back of my mind when I took this.
I think that one day, once he's older, he'll be able to say, "My mom's April O' Neil." That's kind of badass. Or, he'll be mortified and super-embarrassed. I'm not sure which, because I was also bent over by Transformers, and he might not appreciate that as much.
Q: You shot this partially in New York City. The Turtles are features of this city. Did you have a favorite set or a favorite shot?
MF: I guess shooting on the rooftop, because you could see all of New York City.
My favorite scene of this movie? There was this elevator sequence, where the Turtles are on their way to engage in a battle with Shredder, and they have to ride in an elevator for a long time, and it's very tense. They start beat-boxing and dancing; it's a really funny sequence. It doesn't sound like it now, but trust me, when you see it, you'll love it.
Q: With the stamp that Michael Bay puts on films, you know what you're getting. Is that a comfort level for you, returning to this film, knowing what he's going to demand of you?
MF: I think Michael doesn't make small movies, that's for sure. So I knew that it had the backing, and the drive behind it, to make it something that we all [would be proud of].
I think there's a comfort in him, because he does know what he's doing, in terms of this big, giant spectacle type films. He's a genius, with his eye. He's [a visual] genius.
I wanted it to be something in theaters, where people would actually see it. -- where it wouldn't fall straight to the SyFy channel, or On Demand. I wanted people to be able to see it and love it, because I was such a fan also.
Q: It must be awesome to see the finished product. What you experienced on the set is much different. Did you tear up a little bit, watching this one?
MF: I do. I tear up. There's a scene, I think you saw some of the footage, where Sensei is going up against Shredder, and he's losing, and the brothers are trying to save him, and I cry. There's a speech, given by Raphael at the end, and I cry every single time, and I've seen the movie four or five times. It's very good, guys.
Q: How much of a relief is it, from a fan perspective, when you saw the finished product. Because, again, you knew in production, that they're changing this and they're changing that. But it's got to be a great source of relief when you know at the end.
MF: You never know until you see it -- it's completely out of your control. But I saw it, and I was really blown away by it. The 3D is incredible, so definitely see it in in 3D, if you have a choice.
I am super relieved, and I'm very proud of it. This is the most proud I've ever been of a movie I've been a part of. I'm happy!
Q: When you shot this in 3D, did the 3D cameras add a whole another level of complexity?
MF: I don't know things like that. I just put on my jacket and run around!
Q: The jacket is important. The April O' Neill outfit is important. What do we want to get right about this character? Why is she a cool female lead? She's really the eyes and ears of the audience on this one.
MF: It's important not to sexualize April, because if we had done that, it would have jeopardized the audience's relationship to her.
In her mind, she's trying to be Anderson Cooper. In the whole movie, she's trying to get people to take her seriously, to believe that she's trying to be a real journalist.
Q: Do you see any of yourself in the character April O'Neil.
MF: I think I relate to April in that she is not afraid in what she believes in, even though people are telling her she's crazy. Even though people are telling her that she's wrong, she still pursues what she thinks is correct. I have some of that same spirit, as well.
I hope there are no children in the audience, but I've been described as "someone who could give two fucks". April's a little bit that way, as well.
She only gets rescued by the Turtles, that was important to me. Because in most movies, the female needs the help of a stronger, more capable male, and that doesn't happen in this movie. The only thing that happens is she needs a ride from Vern, but that's because she doesn't have a driver's license; it's New York City.
Q: And Vern is played by the always talented Will Arnett, Are you a big Arrested Development fan?
MF: I am. I think he and David Cross on that show are like hall of fame iconic.
Q: You mentioned Krang. Obviously this is a potential franchise -- what would you like to see in the sequel?
MF: There's been talk of Krang, of Bebop and Rocksteady. Of course, there's Casey Jones.
Q: Do you have somebody in mind?
MF: If I were not in this movie, and if he were available, which he's not, I say Andrew Garfield would be a really good Casey Jones..
Q: The importance of a strong female character that is not rescued by a guy -- there's been a lot of conversation about this in recent days.
There really aren't any superhero films with superheroines, even the Marvel films. Do you feel it's time, it's just a matter of time, before we see more of those? What's your perspective?
MF: Do you think I would answer as anything but yes? No, it's not time for women to be in [superhero] movies. Let's take it back 50 years. Here's what I can tell you. It doesn't really answer your question, but it's the answer I want to give you.
They should make a Danger Girl movie, and they should make a Gen13 movie. And then -- I wasn't super into this -- a real freaky audience would go see the Sailor Moon movie, so they should make that also.
If I were a producer, I would make so much money, because I've got my finger on the pulse.
Q: Are you ever going to be a producer?
MF: I don't know what I'm doing.
Q: You're busy with your family, sneaking in work when you can; you've got a full life. Do you have a plan in mind, what the ideal career looks like in the next few years?
MF: No. I'm impulsive. I'm not a planner, I'm not a pragmatic. I can't make lists and circle everything off; I can't do that. I just fly by the seat of my pants. I'm an adventurer.
Q: Everyone is in talks for True Detective Season 2, and everyone seems to be doing HBO shows. Would you like to be in any HBO shows, or anything like that?
MF: I don't watch a lot of TV, I don't have a lot of time, and when I do, I watch like reruns of The Office, to be honest. Or Ancient Aliens, you have to be a genius to appreciate that show.
I don't watch a lot of HBO. I guess I would do it, if it were filmed in Los Angeles, especially, because I have kids, so I'd like to be able to stay close to home.
Q: You said that you campaigned heavily for the role of April. Was there another universe you might campaign for, or any other iconic roles, like the Marvel Universe, or DC comics?
MF: If they were to make a Gen13 movie, I would pursue that pretty hard. Actually, isn't Sidney the one in Danger Girl, that is the brunette with the green eyes. I'd probably pursue that, as well. I've always loved Poison Ivy, but that happened already.
Q: Do you see yourself in a sequel of the Ninja Turtles?
MF: I definitely see myself in the sequel, coming to you in the summer of 2016. I would love to do it!
Q: What has been the most dangerous film, like a scene that you shot that was dangerous as a stunt?
MF: In all of my career? I had a humorous answer, but it would have turned into a terrible news story, if I said it out loud.
Actual stunts... there was a scene in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, where we're in the desert. I don't remember the exact amount of gas, it was something like a 100-gallon gasoline bomb that was going off -- the biggest ever, in film history. And we actually had to run as fast as we could, to avoid being burned. And we looked, and the special effects team were like three football fields away.
It was me, Chi, and Josh Duhamel, who were the only human beings who were anywhere near the explosion. I guess that was the first time I've seen both of them terrified. We were all really scared, because we didn't know what was going to happen when they called "Action!"
Q: Who would you like to work with in the future?
MF: It's a good question. I don't often think about this. I have always been partial to Christopher Walken. I like him! He's really good.
Q: Who has inspired you along your career -- besides the Ninja Turtles -- especially female actresses in the past that you looked up to?
MF: It's a good question, because I consider myself a leader, and not a follower -- not to say that I haven't been inspired. I just feel that I'm a truly bizarre individual, and there h
aven't been many like me, thus far, in Hollywood.
You'd have to take it way back. Ava Gardner was notorious for being a real broad, speaking her mind and doing what she wanted, and that was sort of inspirational to me.
That's the best answer I can give you.
Q: What is your advice to aspiring actors?
MF: You will always have a great many, many, many haters, and you have to be able to survive that, and keep your head up, and protect your own self-image. It's difficult.
The main advice I give is, you have to make sure that you're not over-sensitive, and that you don't seek validation through the opinion of others. Because if you do, this dream will eat you alive.
Boseman & Taylor (Photo by B. Balfour)
Though by no means a perfect film or conventional biopic, the recently released Get On Up wrangles with the complicated life of one of pop music’s pioneers and enduring legends: James Brown, the GodFather of Soul.
If any artist deserves biopic immortalization, it’s the ultimate funkmeister, the late James Brown. When he died On Christmas Day 2006 of congestive heart failure, the 73-year-old star had built a musical legacy both historically and stylistically, defining a whole style of music and dancing as well as having gained — and lost — a financial and professional empire.
The kaleidoscopic nature of the Get On Up press conference offered a look into the making of this film, not unlike the film itself. Held at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, it illustrated the ups and downs in Brown’s life story with the same energy and drive that Brown himself had.
While the film suffers from a variety of limitations — some possibly imposed by Brown’s family — director/producer Tate Taylor (The Help) uses a challenging screenplay by the brother duo of Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth to envision the life of Brown as a tale of determination at the expense of all else.
Employing a touch of madness, Brown takes control of his life and career in this drama with such manic force that he has affected many generations beyond his own life. Instead of a more accurate version of Brown’s life, warts and all, this film glosses over or compresses actual events and incidents into a structure that serves Taylor’s rendition of this mythic figure.
Attending this press conference were the uncanny star of 42, Chadwick Boseman, who plays Brown, and Nelsan Ellis, who plays his best friend and long-suffering second, Bobbie Byrd. Also on the podium: Dan Aykroyd, who plays his mentor/manager Ben Bart, as well as Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer, who plays the madam who was the young Brown’s early supporter.
Rolling Stones founding member Mick Jagger (one of the film’s producers), director Tate Taylor and veteran producer Brian Grazer were also on hand answering questions.
Q: You were involved in this film for a long time. What was it like to prepare the movie, to partner with Mick Jagger on it and finally get it to work?
Brian Grazer: Working with Mick Jagger is one of the greatest thrills of my life.
I read about James Brown about 16 years ago, and I thought it would be amazing to make a movie about James Brown. I transitioned from that point to convincing James that I should make his life story into a movie, and then I owned the rights for about 12 years.
During those years I would have to renew the rights, let James Brown direct me, hire different screenwriters, once upon a time a different director. But it was a long, tedious, arduous process, and when James Brown died, I lost the rights and then they became even further complicated.
Mick and I knew each other before, but a year later he had an opportunity to read the script, and ended up with the rights. [We decided] we would do [this film] together and it's been a fantastic process.
Mick Jagger: Sounds rather arduous. It was much easier for me than Brian. Brian did all this work in the long distant past, and obviously it was very complex. It was much simpler for me because I was asked by a business associate and friend if I would make a documentary about James Brown and I said,“Let me think about that.”
I woke up in the morning and said, “Let’s do a feature" and he said, “What a good idea" but of course, being Hollywood, there already was a feature — there’s always a feature. Whatever you can think of, there's always a feature about it. Then I learned of the script and I learned of Brian's previous involvement, so that's the short version of how I got involved.
Actually, in Hollywood terms, from the beginning of my involvement to this point of having the premiere of the movie on August 1st, it's been a relatively short time. Brian had done all this hard work in the beginning, but since we started the second part of the journey, it's been really quick in Hollywood terms.
Q: Could you explain exactly what you did — were you involved in casting?
MJ: We had this project and had this script, which is really quite a good script. But we inevitably were going to leave the script alone. So we talked about how we could make it better, more relevant, more exciting.
Then Brian and I had to convince the studio that this was a movie that should be made. This is one of the difficult parts. Before you can start casting people, you have to know the studio will give you the money.
So after we had successfully done that, Brian and I talked about casting. We were very pleased to get Tate on board very quickly, and he was very enthusiastic. You never go quite as fast as you want, so it really helps to have someone like Tate who really wants to get going.
We talked about casting all the different roles, and I had the first say in these things, but we were all involved in these areas. It was a very good experience.
Q: Since James had an entrepreneurial spirit, what business that he had created surprised you?
Chadwick Boseman: The most surprising venture was the James Brown Food Stand. I don't know if you all know about that one. It was part of him wanting to recycle money within the black community before it goes outside of the community — to build. It actually was a genius idea. It obviously is not still around, but that was the thing that was the most surprising for me.
Dan Aykroyd: I would say nothing that James did entrepreneurially would surprise me. He was so broad-ranging in terms of his understanding of business, how to handle people, how to handle money, how to balance a book, how to make a tour more profitable than any other artist, and he extended it into the radio stations and the merchandising. He just got it, and he got it from a very early age.
Q: Octavia, your character was one of the few people in James' life who really stood by him and believed in him when he was a kid. Did you channel anyone in your life to get into that character, and why did you want to tell this story?
Octavia Spencer: There was very little channeling that needed to take place in order to understand what she was providing for him.
James Brown was definitely a music icon, and for those of us who are barely forty — that would be all of us — there was so much about the man in front of the music that I realized with the whole idea about him, I knew so little about him as a person. We know how the story ends, but perhaps not how it began and maybe a little bit of the middle.
I was really intrigued by that and the fact that you have this icon in Mick Jagger, this icon in Brian Grazer, and the genius of Tate Taylor; I really had to muscle my way in there.
Q: Mick can you recall when you learned of James Brown, and how that influenced you as a performer?
MJ: My recall of it is about 50 years ago and it’s not perfect. Will you forgive me? But it was a very exciting show.
James Brown was at the Underneath The Stars Festival, but there were many people at the show that were interesting to me for the first time. I'd never met Marvin Gaye before, for instance. I got the opportunity to chat with him. There [were] a lot of us on the show. It was a pretty crazy day.
I'd seen James Brown before one time, at the Apollo, and James was a bit annoyed about not being the last on the show. I was the only one that met him before, of all the people working on the show, including the producers of the show. I have no idea who they were.
I was the fall guy, because I was like 20 or something, so they said, “You go talk to him, you know him, you go call him out." And when you're 20, you say, “Sure.” Now it’s “That’s not my job, that's your job.”
Of course it didn't work. It might have somewhat assuaged him, but it played out and it was what it was. He did this amazing performance and we went on after, but in the end I don't think it really mattered. We had to work harder, and he worked harder, and maybe it was a better show because of it.
Q: How do you go on after James Brown? Did it influence your stage performance?
MJ: He influenced me a lot. Amongst a lot of other people, he influenced me in lots of ways. I could never do the dance routines like James, and I never spent the time and effort that Chad had to do to do the fantastic job that he does in this movie, because I didn't want to be an imitator of that.
But the thing about him that impressed me, as with other people that I was influenced by at the time -- Little Richard being the other one, who is in this movie as well -- was how to interact with an audience, the most important thing.
I’m sure that Chad got some of that into making this movie because James was all about interacting with the audience. It wasn't just your performance, it's about their performance too. It's about how they perform and they react and you react to them, the interplay between the both of you.
Q: What were the challenges in portraying James Brown?
CB: The entire thing was a challenge. When I looked at the role, the reason I was a bit… I was scared, there was no part of it that was just straightforward, easy, like, “you’ve done that before.”
A lot of people will say, “Where you're from, South Carolina” — but [I'm] from the low country of South Carolina, and it’s different. It's just not the same thing. I’ve spent quite a bit of time out of South Carolina.
We went down to Augusta to meet the family, and it’s pretty much on the border between Georgia and South Carolina. I stayed there a little bit longer, and just drove around, saw the family and soaked up as much of it as I could before we started. This was right before we started.
There was no part that was easy. Sixty percent of my fear was from the dancing. 30% of it was the caricatures that have been projected of him, and trying to get past what people think they know. But I don't think there was any easy part [even the other 10%].
Q: Tate, how was it reuniting with Viola Davis, who was Oscar-nominated for her work in your film The Help.
Tate Taylor: It's always a joy to work with Viola and I'll sum it up this way:
When Viola comes to work and there's a certain scene that you know she's going to do, you notice that people in the production office happen to be on the set that day — the accountants, the Teamsters, for some reason they are all walking around and it's a little more crowded. Then she starts to work and it's much like live theatre. Everyone just watches.
I am so fortunate to have her trust and to be able to work with her, because she really is a treasure, one of the greatest actresses on the planet. So to get her in anything I can do is a sheer joyous, joyous bonus.
Q: And Chadwick, what was it like working with Viola, especially in the very powerful scene where James meets his mother?
CB: I’ve worked with her more than once. It was exactly what he said. Once we started the scene, I wasn't thinking, "Viola's in it" or anything like that. It was such an intense scene for me. It felt like she had set up our relationship — she didn't talk to me.
We had a meeting the night before when the scene was being revamped because we both had problems with it. That scene changed. When we were in that meeting, Viola never really talked with me, she only talked with Tate. I assumed that she didn't want to build a personal relationship, she wanted that distance to be there — and it was, when she stepped into the room.
I knew it was over when she took that drink and she gulped it down and I was like “Oh my gosh!" I never really got up. We shot her side in the footage of me standing in that scene first, and then once I sat down, I don't think I got up for six hours.
They brought my lunch to me and I was still sitting in that same seat. They turned the cameras around and shot my side, because I didn’t want to leave the energy and tension that was being built between us. It was a very, very intense moment of filming.
Q: One great thing about the film is that it has a broad swath of James Brown songs, a lot of the best there is. We all have a memory of a James Brown song that affected us or when we had the experience of hearing him or seeing him live. Can you all talk about a song or songs that you remember or an experience of hearing James Brown and how it first hit you or affected you?
OS: I remember being on 22nd and Lehigh Avenue, and someone was playing, "I'm Black and I'm Proud.” I can't remember how old I was, but I'm pretty sure I was not out of [kids] school. What I remember, a guy was at the stop light and the music was blaring, and I remember something in me stood a little bit higher. I puffed my chest out at that song. That was the first James Brown feeling that I really remember.
Nelsan Ellis: "I'm Black and I'm Proud".
CB: Mine is the same, actually. I think that would be it. I'll always remember James Brown playing, being part of the soundtrack of my life. But if I had to pick one, it would be "I'm Black and I'm Proud".
TT: For me it's one song that brings up a memory. Primarily it was my mother's. She was a single mom and she loved James Brown and he was on her record player a lot. As a child it shaped me.
When we started filming the movie, she brought me all of her James Brown records. I had forgotten that she used to play them. They had her maiden name and her dorm room at her college on them, where it said, "Please return to this room."
And it made me think about her challenges, and James's challenges, and it was kind of cool that she listened to his music. She never said that was the reason, but I wanted to use all of them for that reason.
Q: Mick, do you have one?
MJ: The "Live at the Apollo" album was my real introduction to James Brown. I loved every tune and knew them all backwards -- all the intros, the segues, the instrumental segues. What was odd, though, was I had never actually seen him perform, but I had imagined the whole thing in my head, so I played his record to death.
Actually when we were prepping the movie, Chad and I played the very long track called "Lost Someone" where he interacts with the audience on that. That brought it back to the first time I ever played it.
CB: I had that song on Repeat for days, just listening to it over and over. I would leave it on in the crib and come back and it would still be on, because I wanted to walk in and have that playing while we were shooting this movie. There's something about it...
MJ: There's something about it — it’s so emotional, and also you can hear all the audience interaction. It's such a great [number].
BG: When I was in high school I was in a low-rider car club [laughs]. I'd plug in the 8-track, and literally it was the Rolling Stones, Little Anthony and the Imperials, and James Brown. And James Brown's "It's a Man's World" I loved and it resonated [with me]. It had that reverb sound and it would go on and on and on. So I loved that, and I loved "I'm Black and I'm Proud.”
Jill Scott: Well, I'm a child of the '70s and we were a James Brown household. But what really resonates with me is the stuff of the '90s — “Living in America". I love all of the early stuff, but what I like is that his music transcended age groups, and he was able to stay relevant throughout. So those are my two for right now.
DA: I'm a little older than the kids, so we can really get down to it. 1968, Montreal, Canada. The building is gone now, it's called the Esquire Show-Mar. You sat at the bar and the performers would dance along the bar. So during his performance, when Chet Daniel drops the cape on James Brown in "Please Please Please” — [it breaks your heart] — that was a seminal moment for my six friends and me.
We squeezed into one of my friends' mother's Mustang and came down from Ottawa to see the show. There was James Brown's boot heel this far from our beers, dancing up and down the Show-Mar. With a full band, yet they had to pack them on this small stage, the horns, the rhythm — everybody in the band saw early on that I loved them.
Q: What was it about your characters and performances that will stay with you for the rest of your career?
CB: First off, I had to try to get rid of James Brown after each shot. I had to. That was a process that I found I would have to keep. I think there's definitely the responsibility to yourself to be the best that you can be, and the responsibility to your fans that follow you. There's a certain quality that I think he always felt that you should have to pay to see him. I wouldn't take it that far.
If you were seeing his show, he would get his hair done again before he came out because he felt like you should feel like you're seeing "James Brown". He didn't put a cap on like we do today and try to get out before people can catch you. He wanted you to have that experience of seeing him in all his glory.
And there's something to be said for that. It's not just you performing onstage or onscreen, it is a connection that you want to make with people. Before, I would probably be that person who would put on a cap and leave. But I do feel like I can take a bit of that away in some other things.
DA: I would say that I took with me the wisdom, advice, gentle urgings and the bandwidth tuning of our terrific director. I'm going to remember how he directed me in this movie and it's going to help me with maybe lesser talents as I go forward.
OS: I would second that. I would also say that every job is different, every group of people, every character is different, but your process is usually the same once you learn how to do it. You have to make sure that you do the work to ground the person in reality so that you aren't building some sort of caricature or the performance doesn't ring hollow.
You have to connect to the piece, and you can't play your character then judge in some way. So when I read that I ran a brothel, I thought, “Great” because back in 1950, what were her choices? So I thought, “What a great enterprising young woman”, and I was happy to play her.
JS: I really would watch people and get to know their idiosyncrasies. My mother was in an abusive relationship early in her life, and she took us away from that. I couldn't quite understand why she stayed. I have been able to learn some things about that particular kind of woman -- the level of love.
Someone would easily say it's foolishness to stay with someone who is abusive to you. But what I learned about DeeDee is that there is a love that's greater, wider and more powerful than anything I as yet understand in this life, and I will always take that with me. I will always take that with me.
Do I want to be in an abusive relationship? Of course not! But I understand it better as I go on in this life, absolutely. And DeeDee still loved James. Period. I think I do, too.
NE: I'm kind of schizophrenic in that I take a little piece of every character I’ve played whether I like him or not. I take him — or her — with me. I also think you can't judge the person you play, so I learn from the humanity of the people I play, especially the individual character in mind.
Q: How much did you know about Bobby Byrd when the script came to you and how did you prepare for the role?
NE: I knew nothing about Bobby Byrd before the script. I didn't know who Bobby was or that he even existed, so I had to do a search to find out who he was. Man, I fell in love with the dude and I'm very proud to have played him.
Q: You have Bobby Byrd, PeeWee and all the other members of the band -- but why was there no Fred Wesley? Were there legalities or what?
TT: There was. With a story as vast as James Brown, his whole life and the people involved in his life, it's a frustrating embarrassment of riches of all the people that you wish to have in your film.
There was actually a scene where we met Fred Wesley. But unlike a novel, [where] you can have a 700-page book, you can't have a seven-hour movie, and we had to make tough choices.
What really reigned supreme for me and the story is protecting what we didn't know about James, and where an audience could learn versus what they knew. It was hard at times, but we were following that guideline the choices of what we kept in became pretty easy.
Q: Chadwick, Nelsan, and Dan, throughout the movie you demonstrate great chemistry in your friendships. What do you attribute that to?
NE: Mr. Boseman is a great actor, and he's such a generous actor so it was easy to [act] with him.
CB: It's my first time working with either of them. I've been a fan of Nelsan for years. I watched him in True Blood and in roles in movies, so I already knew it was going to be a good chemistry. He seemed to work from a place that was so truthful, and I felt like once we got over the dance rehearsals, there was like [rapport] because we were both feeling similar pain. We went through a hell together.
Dan Aykroyd is a legend, so it was a pleasure to have him on this movie because of the enthusiasm he brought to it and also because he knew James Brown. He was super-cool off set as well. And when I was onscreen with him, it was the most fun. I had so much fun working with him.
I definitely felt like this was an interesting relationship that James Brown had with Ben Bart -- “Pop.” I remember reading in the autobiographies and biographies that he called this white man “Pop.” And the more I read about it, the more I understood the friendship. There was a friendship, and there was a mentorship that Pop had for him. It was easy to have that with Dan because he gave so much.
DA: He’s straight-up lying because he's an ace of an actor. He's a great actor. You get on the set and you're in it together. You're an actor, you face yourself, you're there with the director, in a common environment of creativity, and you just do the work.
It's not hard to love Chad here, for this and of course, for his past work. He did an incredible job in 42, another breakthrough movie about what we should be thinking about in this country at all times.
And he's an enormously lovable and extremely talented man, and my affection in real life for him I think translates in the movie. I think you can see it, because Pop really gave his all for James Brown and they had a really great friendship.
MJ: This is a bit more than a generic biopic, really. So it stands out from that genre a little more. I don't think it's really got anything to do with social networking or being online or being on Twitter or anything else. Either you are compelled by this movie or not.
And I find this movie is compelling, telling the story of this guy, a story of adversity, telling a story of how he's being single-minded, how he's almost obsessed with making himself into somebody from nothing, and the price he has to pay for that. There's always a price to pay for this one single-minded drive to be somebody, and you pay for that in some way. I think this movie shows the price you pay for it.
This is a compelling story. It could have been a fictional story. You could have written it as a fictional piece. The fact that it's about someone who is no longer alive obviously makes it more interesting, but it's the compelling nature of the story.
Q: What do you feel is James Brown's enduring legacy in the music world?
MJ: As someone said earlier, people from all different backgrounds and all different age groups, they all love him. So he's obviously of interest to a lot of people. You would say that he's the most sampled, free, hip-hop artist and all these things. He is all those things.
His actual recordings are still loved and they are still played on the dance floor in various forms or another, wherever you go, and all these different people from all over the world -- all different countries, all different groups, all different cultures -- they all know him.
I've been on tours where we have actually played a James Brown song. Other pop bands you’d think wouldn't relate to James Brown, but they all know that music. They can play those numbers. It's all part of musical history. So if you want to be a musician, this is part of the canon, you have to know this. If you don't know this, you're not complete.
For musicians, and for dancers alike, he's made this huge lasting contribution which goes on. And hopefully, I think, this movie does his legacy justice.
TT: I can't speak the language of music. I get a little embarrassed when people ask me specific questions about notes and bars and downbeats. It's just not in my head. But what I loved, that Chad and I discovered when we went to speak with his daughters -- and this is reflected in the Cold Sweat rehearsal -- is that they said, "Daddy didn't talk music. He didn't read music."
I don't think he ever tried to. He spoke about music from what feels good, and he would explain emotionally to his band. He would utter sounds and say, “Do this, do that.”
And that's really cool. It came from the heart and a feeling, and he may not have had a profound way to articulate it or say it in ways that big musicians would understand, but he made it accessible to me. It made me realize that everybody can do something, they have a right to do something, if they feel it.
DA: As far as connecting with this generation and the next generation, once this movie comes out, it's going to be on iTunes, people are going to be emailing each other YouTube clips of dancing and singing from the movie. You're going to have young people really connecting to this and sending each other their favorite clips.
I think this next generation will really get it about James Brown and I hope this next generation comes out the door, puts their laptops and texting aside and come and spends an hour and a half with us in the theater.
To see The actual James Brown on film see this series as outlined in our preview.
James Franco & Scott Haze
The long journey to bring Cormac McCarthy’s controversial novella, Child of God, to the screen has taken the film from first being screened at last year’s New York Film Fest to finally getting a distributor and landing in cinemas.
From its first screenings at NYFF 51 to its pending theatrical release, the first has stirred polarizing reactions. Given that film details the deteriorating conditions of a thoroughly alienating and mentally disturbed young man made homeless, it’s not typically audience friendly. The added weight of Franco's rep, good looks and charming smile coupled with the arch prose of literary luminary Cormac McCarthy (No Country For Old Men, The Road), makes this worthy of attention for that alone. But Franco mines McCarthy’s story for some pithy thoughts about humanity and depravity while showcasing a taut performance by lead Scott Haze as Lester Ballard.
Since the haggard Ballard engages in necrophilia after finding a dead couple in a car, the extreme elements of the film add an extra layer of moral degradation to this tale of cruelty and isolation. As he further descends into serial killing, the film tests an audience's capacity to see him as a sympathetic being. Franco's rendition here tries to create a sympathetic gauze layer to a harsh and unrelenting story.
It’s not the first time the multi-hyphenated artist has generated reaction for the many projects he created, whether as a film director, producer, writer or actor. And besides the many cinematic projects this 36 year old Californian has worked on, he has written poetry, novels, created artwork, performance pieces, has his master’s degree and is presently working on his PhD.
This interview incorporates comments mades at roundtables held the week before the film’s opening and highlights spoken during the NYFF press conference with Franco via Skype.
Q: There’s this quote in both the book and the film — “Just like yourself, perhaps”— what does that mean to you?
JF: He’s a child of god, just like yourself perhaps. That’s from the book, and I put it in the movie. I had the sheriff say it. It wasn’t necessarily the sheriff who’s the narrator in the book, but he became the conscience of the film, or at least the person who knew Lester the best.
Obviously it’s a very ironic title — Lester seems like — what son of god? Like Jesus or something? He’s obviously not. But for me the point was that, even though his actions are disgusting, atrocious, and wrong, they’re coming from a place that’s very human.
I don’t even know if Cormac agreed with me. I brought this idea up to him that here is a guy that’s thrust out of civilized society, he wants what we all want, he wants to connect to another person, but he can’t. And so he resorts to extreme means to do that.
It really guided the way I made the movie. It has necrophilia, yes, but it’s not a movie that thrives on that or a gross-out movie that’s banking on the disgusting horror kind of his actions. It’s a character study using extreme actions as a way to talk about more universal things.
If you’re asking about the title, that’s the connection that, of course none of us would condone, if Lester was real. None of us would condone what he does, but within a fictional framework, he’s a monster through which hopefully we can see something of ourselves.
Q: Why do you like to work with books as source material?
JF: All directors, or artists or whatever are different and they should be. You wouldn’t want them all the same. I just saw an interview with Robert Altman talking about the same thing, that his process is not Kubrick’s process, and you wouldn’t want it to be. Kubrick makes his kind of movies, and Altman makes his kind of movies.
I went to film school, and one of the things these MFA programs teach you is to find your thing, your own voice, your way of doing things. Before film school I had written original screenplays or co-written original screenplays, and I just found for me that I somehow wasn’t quite pushing myself as far as I think I could.
It really started in film school with poems. I did that with a poem by Frank Bidart, and by this guy Spencer Reece. and I had such respect for Frank, and then when I got Michael Shannon in that movie, Herbert White, it was like, my gosh, I’ve got this source text that I have such great respect for, and I’ve got this actor I have such great respect for — I better not let them down. I better do everything I can so I don’t embarrass myself in front of Michael.
It makes me a better director when I’m working with a source text that I really respect. I’ve come to really like collaboration. When you adapt a book, you’re reading that book in a different way.
If you just read the book, you’re taking in the narrative, you’re taking in the characters, you’re understanding it in a certain way. But if you make a movie it’s really an act of translation. You have to say what did he mean here? Why is that in the book? Do I need that in the movie? Am I in line with him here? Do I want to be in line with him here? All of those questions are questions of collaboration, and that is what excites me as a creator.
Q: Not all actors do read the book.
JF: It’s also on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes it’s very important to read the book, and sometimes, if it’s a movie that’s decidedly not loyal to the book, maybe it would be better not to read it. But we knew from the beginning that we wanted to capture the spirit of this book.
Q: Was there any special diet plan for the role?
JF: I didn’t lay out a diet plan for Scott [laughs]. We just had a brief conversation very early on before we went into pre-production. He had played someone in the military, so his head was shaven and he was very built. I said I want to do this book Child of God and want you to play it, so don’t cut your hair and quit eating [laughs].
Q: So it was your idea?
JF: No, I didn’t say to Scott to starve himself. I knew that Scott was ready to throw himself into something. I didn’t really have to say much. And I was right. He took it and really ran with it. So I can’t take much credit for what he did in his preparation. That was all his kind of own volition.
Q: What was the toughest scene to shoot on an emotional level? Scott mentioned one with two dogs...
JF: Not two dogs, there were like six dogs, but two were like military [laughs].
Q: What was your reaction when this incredibly difficult scene didn’t make the movie?
JF: It’s hard for me to cut that stuff. I actually might do a class at AFI where I work with editing students and they make a new version of this movie; I just give them everything.
Q: How do you decide which projects you do? Is it determined by challenge?
JF: I wouldn’t necessarily adapt all the books that I love. But you also get a sort of little tingle or something, you get a feeling like, “Oh, I could do something with this.” Or, “I have an urge to do something more with this.” I want to engage with this, and basically adapt it. I guess it’s kind of as simple as that.
There are other things that factor into that. Does it provide some sort of technical or structural challenge, like The Sound and the Fury that Scott and I just did, where it’s lyou know, that’s a classic, it’s structurally very all over the place—are you going to take that on? And if you take How are you going to do that?
Not only are there great characters in there but, like, as a director there’s a lot of things that we have to figure out that kind of pull me in new directions as a filmmaker. So I do like a challenge that forces me to make a movie in a way that I haven’t made one before.
As far as giving my own book to somebody else, I love the collaborative process. So if I had just adapted it myself, I would have missed out on that great collaboration with Gia. I had already written the book, so I wanted to see what someone else would do that. I didn’t want just one more version of my own thing.
Q: What did Scott bring to the film that you didn’t envision when you started the project?
JF: Scott did all of his preparation. So when I showed up to the set, it was there.
Q: Do you personally identify with isolated, lonely characters?
JF: I think so. If I look at the three features I made after I went to NYU, they’re like a trilogy of isolation. I did a very small movie about the poet Hart Crane, who was sort of artistically isolated, because his work didn’t fit with the prevalent work at the time. I did one about Sal Mineo in the last day of his life. Not that he was an isolated guy, but he spent a lot of time alone that last day. And in some ways you could say he was, compared to the fame he once had, at the end of his life it was a much smaller sphere.
Then, obviously, there’s Child of God. So I didn’t design it that way, but I think that for maybe 10 years of my life I was so overzealous about the way I approached acting in movies that I did isolate myself a lot. Not that I was a Lester Ballard type, but I did spend a lot of time alone.
Q: When you first took this on, when was the moment when you thought, you’d found the angle to crack into this and translate this book into visual storytelling?
JF: The book is in three sections. What was really interesting is that in each section Lester’s behavior kind of progresses. But they’re also told in different ways. There’s a shifting distance between the reader and Lester in each section.
In the first section, there are these voices and these interstitial chapters that—they never really tell you where they’re taking place, but it’s as if a group of guys is sitting in a bar and telling stories, and some of the stories are about Lester, and some of the stories aren’t. Like there’s a story about a guy boxing a gorilla at a state fair or something. And so in that section it’s as if Lester is almost a legend, it’s almost the legend of Lester. And you’re close with him sometimes, but you’re then pulled back with these interstitial chapters.
The second section, you’re very close to Lester. It’s the section where Lester discovers the teenagers in the back of the car, it’s where Lester makes his huge transformation into the wild crazy man in the woods. But also, he makes his own kind of personal discovery of how to find intimacy. You could read it as a guy seeking intimacy or a guy seeking love and those other voices disappear in the second section. And so you’re very close to Lester in the second section.
By the third section, it kind of pulls back again. Lester is now a full-on murderer, but you’re not as close with him anymore, so you don’t know how much he’s murdering until there’s this big reveal of, oh, he’s got like a cavern full of bodies. But you don’t see him doing all that killing.
I loved that shifting distance in the book and I tried to do a little bit of that in the movie, where I didn’t do so much of the interstitial chapters. I did have voiceover early on in the movie, to give a sense that people are talking about Lester. And then you get close with him, and then by the end, again, the pulling back, I realized, actually was very helpful. Because I didn’t want—even though Lester is so extreme, and so horrible, I didn’t want to repel the audience. I wanted to shock the audience sometimes, but I didn’t want it to be a slasher film, where we’re banking on the murders. I didn’t want it to be a horror movie or anything like that. I wanted people to be able to engage with Lester as a character. And so by being able to pull back and not see every single murder, it actually made him a more watchable character. Not necessarily sympathetic, but more watchable.
Q: In the movie, there wasn’t one very controversial scene from the book involving a mentally challenged child burned in a fire.
JF: I had it in the first draft, because when I adapt these books that I love, I want to put everything in it. Inevitably what happens is, maybe I’ll do an edit like I did the first edit of the movie, and it was like way too long. And I worked with Curtis Clayton to bring it to down, because it’s so hard for me to cut things out. It was so hard for me to cut that scene out of the script. But partly it was budgetary, but what the budgetary restrictions sometimes make you realize is, well, do we need another murder? And if we have this additional murder in here of a woman and a child burned in a house, will that serve the story that we’re telling? It’s one thing to tell it in a book, it’s another thing to watch it in a movie.
The main thing that it would be doing is that would just be turning Lester into more of a monster. When I’m trying to put up sort of a smoke screen so that people can emotionally connect to him while he’s still doing all these bad things and if we put in such an explicitly horrible act, it’d be harder to keep people watching Lester as anything but just a complete monster.
Q: Was there a time when you guys finally started the dailies coming back, and seeing these things visually, where you guys were just taken aback from just seeing it?
JF: (Laughs). When we were making it — all the way through I had a really great production designer, Kristen Adams, who I work with — and they went out and built that little cabin for us to burn down. I was like, “That’s the cabin.” Then they went and found these actual caves, and it was like, “This is it, this is Lester’s home.”
The first time I saw Scott it was like, “I’ll never see Lester another way.” He just went off in that four-month cocoon he was in, he came out of it, and was basically the character I saw when I read the book. It was, for me, a really blessed experience of seeing this whole thing come to life in front of my eyes.
Q: Scott has very physically demanding scenes in this movie. What were some challenges?
JF: Scott was almost always in character. I remember there was like one lunch on the second to last day, where Scott would finally come into the catering tent and eat with us, and it was like, “Oh, there’s Scott!” I hadn’t really seen much of him because he kind of kept to himself, and he kept the accent going and everything.
One time in January Scott was running around in that skimpy outfit, and I had to keep telling Scott, “I’m not going to shoot you any more today” because he was going to go, like Lester, charge through the water. And it was so cold he was going to get sick. So I was just like, “You are not allowed to go...”
I had to say stuff like that, because I knew he was so in character that he would just do it. So there were things like that. And meanwhile the whole crew is on the side of this hill, and it was so muddy, and we were like tying ourselves to trees to kind of like shoot him sliding down the hill in the mud. So it was like mountain climbing filming that day.
Q: Did you have any trepidation about adapting the more shocking scenes?
JF: Sometimes as a director you have like a scene or a moment or something in your head that’s like the kernel or the thing that excites you about the project. For me it was that scene where he discovers the teenagers. Not because I’m into necrophilia, but because it was such a beautifully sculpted scene that showed character development through behavior. I really loved that as a director and actor and writer. So we shot that first.
The first day Scott did that scene where he discovered the bodies and did all that stuff. When you have people around that you trust, and you know on a certain level, this is make believe—we’re not really harming anyone, we’re all friends together. I’ve also learned, like, if you believe in something—If I believe in something, I have no inhibitions. I’ve done art projects with Paul McCarthy where his dirty ass is like in my face. It’s like, “Okay. If I believe in something I would do anything.”
So it didn’t feel hard to me at all. And with Scott it seemed I was just directing it, I didn’t actually do it. That’s from the book.
Q: What did you subtract or expand on from the McCarthy novel?
James Franco: There’s always a question of how loyal you’ll be to the source and then in what way will you be loyal. Our approach was we love the book and we want to translate it to the screen and to honor the source as much as we can, so almost every scene in the movie you can find in the book, except for the scene where Lester shoots the stuffed animals. He doesn’t have this breakdown moment where he shoots them. That’s one of my favorite scenes.
Otherwise we stayed pretty close to the book. There’s more at the end of the book, there’s a bit of an epilogue that talks about Lester’s fate. Essentially it seemed to be the epilogue in the book was telling or relating one of the Cormac McCarthy’s themes, that there’s something inherently violent about humans. He will layer his books with violence but also traces of violence throughout history so the ending of the book talked about Lester going to an institution and meeting another man who did even crazier things, ate people’s brains with a spoon.
Q: Scott Haze developed a tour de force performance of Lester who has to exhibit the qualities of a child but also an animal. What was it like getting that performance?
JF: I’m well aware that it’s a movie with disturbing subject matter that’s not for everyone, but I think one thing that anyone that has eyes can’t deny is that Scott gives an incredible performance. I’ve known Scott for over 10 years. He’s a friend of a friend. The actor Jim Parrack from ‘True Blood’ is Scott Haze’s childhood friend. So over the 10 years I saw Scott go through some very dark, personal things. He was just kind of crazy and then he kind of came through all that and became a better man on the other side. So when I finally got the rights to the book I saw that Scott was a dependable person and I thought I can have the best of both worlds. He could draw on his dark personal experiences as an actor but as a director I could depend on him to be a professional and not be a liability.
When I first read the book I imagined Sam Rockwell or Michael Shannon in the role, but I already cast Shannon in a necrophilia role for a short film at NYU, Herbert White. I thought let’s cast somebody people don’t know, not that anyone will think it’s really like [he’s a] mountain man or something, but it will just help in the suspension of disbelief even more if it’s like, “Wow! Who is this guy? Is he really like that?” Then I knew if I put Scott in the role he was in a place in his career — you see this with a lot of actors -- the one role where they just go for it. They just go to extremes to prepare.
As soon as I cast him he went to Tennessee. We didn’t ultimately shoot in Tennessee but the story takes place in Sevier County, Tennessee, where McCarthy lived for a while. Scott went out there and isolated himself for three months before we started to shoot…
He met the locals and learned how to operate that rifle and worked on the accent. I wasn’t with him but I guess he stayed overnight in actual caves on his own [laughs] and so when I got to West Virginia, where we ultimately shot, Scott was fully in character and as a director, I just cut back and let it be.
Q: What is your interest or fascination with necrophilia? You made a short on the subject and now this feature.
JF: It’s true there’s a weird pattern. In fact early in my writing life even before the short at NYU I wrote a script about a man who works in a morgue and has friendships with all the bodies that come in. It’s not necrophilia, it’s communing with the dead. In my personal life I’m absolutely not attracted to dead people or anything like that (laughs).
If I look at some of the other projects I directed it hasn’t been planned this way but I do deal with characters who are either isolated and/or have a very rich imaginative life and so in case of Hart Crane [from the movie Franco directed and wrote, The Broken Tower], there was a character who was isolated. His work did not work with the modernist kind of writers of the day and [he] was isolated in that way.
I view Lester the same way. Not that he’s an artist but maybe he’s a stand in for someone who is unable to fit into civilized society but he wants a connection with another so badly when he stumbles upon this opportunity; he figures out that he can have a relationship outside himself if he animates it with his imagination and so I guess for me it’s just, necrophilia’s an extreme way to show someone living in their own kind of imaginary world.
Q: You seem to be fascinated with the outcast, those on the fringe or outside respectable society. Why do you want to make these stories now, especially in this time when our society seems to be moving towards corporatization, homogenization and standardized representation?
JF: In a MFA program of any kind, art, directing, acting, one of the things you’re taught is to look for your voice, or try to find your artistic voice or your place. What can you do that others can’t do? So one of the things I found is that I’m in an unusual position. I’m in this very commercial film world. I’m in the pop culture world as a performer but I also have these interests that maybe are tangents to that world but don’t really lie in that world so maybe my thing, where I can generate a lot of energy is to bring those two worlds together.
Maybe it’s my place to bring some of these ideas into kind of more of mainstream outlet and why is it important? Making things homogenized is dangerous. We always need to question. I’m not about anarchy. I appreciate structure but we always need to question who we are and why we are and how we view ourselves and how we interact with others. These are things that always need to be constantly questioned and I think that’s one of the things that I try to do.
Q: What is the connection between your movies and academic studies?
Right now I’m preparing for my oral exams for my English PH.D, so I’m reading a lot of books I’ll be questioned on. Then I’ll move on, if I pass, I’ll move on to my dissertation and I think that will involve American literature. That’s my specialization but also the ways that these different mediums interact with each other, so, yes, adaptation from literature to film (is my interest), but also the boundaries of the medium. What does one medium do that is better than the other?
And thinking about them, transforming to another one and back as translation of medium, rather than just thinking about adaptation, which I feel is kind of a more limited view, but actually looking at them as different kinds of language.
The films that I make are also very informed by my academic work because, like I said, searching for my voice wasn’t planned this way. One of the things about my voice is yes I like to adapt great literature. But also make it feel current or contemporary in other ways. Whether it’s the technology I use or the structure of the film or that kind of film, so I guess what I’m trying to say, is yes, my academic life is informed by my confessional creative life and vice versa.
Q: Do your movies provide life lessons and if so what do you want to deliver from this film?
When you make a piece of art or film it’s not always kind of a moral enterprise. Films rest in a weird place. For a long time they’ve been mass entertainment. They don’t have to carry the role of educational tools or moralistic tools, at least as a primary function, so when I make one, and one like this, primarily I look to do a portrait, examine sides of what it is to be human through an extreme subject.
This isn’t a film that will guide you in being a better person. It’s not that kind of movie. And it also isn’t to say things should be this way or things should be that (way). But what I think it does is maybe very relevant is that it shows, here’s a person that can’t function in civilized society. He’s kicked off the farm. He goes to the cabin. He loses the cabin. He goes to the cave. He’s literally pushed farther and farther away from civilization. I think that’s a relevant topic today. The way that we socialize, at least we can say that the inner circles of mainstream communication are so bound up in technology that the way we socialize now is so intertwined with learning technological languages and social networking languages that there are many people that just give up, don’t want to do that, don’t want to engage with that. So you can say they are on the outer circles of this kind of communication.
The point of the movie isn’t to say if you don’t tweet or do Facebook you’re going to become a killer, or sleep with dead bodies, but it’s an extreme portrait of somebody on the outside. I don’t know if it’s a lesson per se but it’s a kind of a lens to look at a phenomenon that is happening in our day in it’s own forms and will continue to happen. People will be pushed outside the inner social circles.
Q: When you pitched this film to investors, did you say, “This is will work and people need to see something like this because of X Y and Z?” How did you finance this movie?
JF: When I was pitching around? We didn’t really pitch it around. Vince, my producing partner, deals with that stuff, but I didn’t have to go to anybody and say, “The world needs this necrophiliac story.” [Laughs.]
It’s a kind of negotiation between art and business. As an actor I’ve been in the biggest blockbusters, I’ve been in critically acclaimed Oscar-nominated, Oscar-winning movies. I don’t need to make a movie to kind of aim for commercial success, or even critical success. I can just make the movies that I want to make just for the sake of loving those projects. And so because of that, I’ve had to learn how to balance certain things. So, this isn’t one of the main reasons I did “Child of God,” but I can look at “Child of God” and say, “It’s a very tough subject. It’s a period piece, it’s the 1950s.”
But a lot of this takes place in the woods, and there’s not a ton of actors in this. So if we’re smart, we can actually manage a great and dark piece of material like this, and it doesn’t have to cost what recreating Boardwalk Empire costs, because we’re just out in the woods, and the trees look the same in the ‘50s as they do now [laughs].
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