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Roland Emmerich's "2012": On DVD in 2010!

Judging by our conversation with him, producer-director Roland Emmerich doesn't seem megalomaniacal. In fact, he seems so down-home and unassuming, that you just want to grab him, a beer — being the good German that he is  — and sit in rapt attention as he tells how he's destroyed the world ... again.

Emmerich, of course, is the great manipulator who has ravaged cities and continents thanks to the wonders of cinema. He destroyed New York via his remake of Godzilla (1998) and had the world's capitals blasted through an alien invasion in Independence Day (1996). The 54-year-old former painter and sculptor has ravaged this planet in other ways; he even had it frozen under sheets of ice when he produced and directed The Day After Tomorrow (2004).

But now he's gone all out shuffling all the continents into the oceans; in 2012, newly out on DVD, it's not just the cites or mankind he attacks — he entirely redesigns the configuration of the planet. Based on the myth of the Mayan calendar's 2012 prediction, the Teutonic-accented Emmerich came to New York to tell a bunch of journalists how much fun it is to destroy us all. Well, not quite all of us; stars John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Amanda Peet survived on screen and the off-camera experience as well.

Q: Had you studied the Mayan calendar prior to doing this film?

RE: I've had a project about a gentleman named Gonzalo Guerro, one of the first Spaniards who set foot in the Yucatan and encountered the Mayas after being shipwrecked. But he went native. He was the only guy who went native and fought his people.

Because of that, I had studied Mayan culture so I was very aware of it. When Harald [Kloster, the co-writer and co-producer of the film with Emmerich, and its composer]and I had an idea to do this movie, Harald said, "We have to incorporate the Mayan calendar into this a little bit." it was Harald's idea to call the movie 2012.

Q: Do you give any credence to the Mayan calendar?

RE: The Mayans were very exact people. They had a calendar, and had created these cycles. There are only five cycles, and the last one ends on a very exact date: the 21st of December in 2012 [A.D.]. It's the only culture in the world which has a prophecy like that.

This is the only culture that gave an exact date and even set a time of day. [It's] like a miracle. But it's [one] day, and with the rise of this day, time ends. They don't even say "destroy" [but] obviously, it does [mean] the earth gets destroyed.

Q: What do you believe?

RE: I think if you look at disasters, what is really important for people? Their first thought is the people they love. Sometimes we get so carried away with silly things, like my car, the house, clothes. We should actually live each day like it's the last.

Q: So was it a little slap to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to have him die in the destruction of California?

RE: I don't know where these ideas come from. We felt that every politician should be in the ark. The Pope too — I dare to kill my own people. [Emmerich is Catholic.] But the Arnold moment, or why Arnold [didn't get on the ark], I cannot tell you anymore. It's too long ago.

Most of the time, Harald and I talk — Harald is Austrian [like Schwarzenegger], you know — we talk about things and ideas, and most of the time we laugh a lot. We have terrible fun in what we do. It's hard, showbiz, [so] we have fun with it.

I know certain things that I can explain to you exactly where they come from. For example, the Sistine Chapel came from the discussion that certain art can be taken off the wall and put on the ark. They cannot put the whole ceiling away. So I said, "This looks so great. We can have [the portion where] God creates Adam and have a crack [between the fingers]. It pretty much tells the people that God will not help you."

Q: Was that the first thing you thought of?

RE: Yeah. One of the first images I came up with — and I was really excited when I told Harald about it — I said, "I see water coming over the Himalayas, over the roof of the world." That was, for me, what this movie should be.

Q: What kind of budget did you have and did you ever go over budget?

RE: Nope. We stayed in budget. I learned from [fellow 2012 producer] Larry Franco, our money guy, that we pretty much came in on budget, which is rare. But the budget was already big. It was $200 million.

I always stay in budget, or as close as I can. There's always one or two million [left over].

Q: How did you decide to pick off your characters? Why were those people picked for death and others weren't?

RE: Well, most of the time, it's the economy of the story. Tamara (Beatrice Rosen) didn't have anywhere to go because she lost Sasha (Johann Urb). But whatever she was as a character, at the end, she would have been unfinished, in a way. And you have to kill some people, otherwise it's not serious anymore.

Gordon (Tom McCarthy) is not a bad guy, and he saved their ass because he flew all these planes. But he could not be anywhere on this boat. And then Yuri (Zlatko Buric), the Russian guy — OK, he's a terrible guy, but it's also not good to make him totally terrible, so he sacrifices himself for the twins. A lot of people said to me, "Why didn't the twins die?" I said, "They are children."

Q: You have rules. No kids?

RE: Yeah.

Q: What are the other rules?

RE: Animals. You have to be [kind to animals]. It was mainly a nice little thing, because this girl's best friend was this dog. To be really cruel, you have to have the twins go away with the dog, because it's actually their dog. And then [she] reunited with the dog, which worked well with the story. And then she gave Yuri the finger. In movies, it has to work like that.

Q: The cliffhanger with the Rusian twins — where will they go?

RE: You know you cannot ask. Maybe one line, "You're one of us" kind of thing. But it would have been awfully cheesy.

Q: What about Woody Harrelson's character [radio doomsayer Charlie Frost]? What were you trying to say?

RE: It's great. We realized through the Internet that there's a lot of crazy people [who] believe in a lot of crazy things about 2012. So we thought, we have to have a character like that.

And then on the other hand, at one point, we said, we have to explain what the theory is. Earth crust displacement — how do you describe this in scientific terms? Then all of a sudden, I said, "We can have him tell the audience how this whole thing [works]." And we came up with a little YouTube film he made. And that was such a clever way to do that, I think, because normally the scientists explain it to you and it's a little bit boring. But here, the people have fun with it, because it's a sarcastic way to do it. It's science and movies, it's always a little bit forced.

Q: He talks about the religious [aspect].

RE: He also explains to us why politicians will not tell us, because they say, "What will happen?" And he was right. The stock market crashed, pandemonium in the street, people will kill each other. And he thinks there are spaceships anyway, which I think is funny because they're not. They're just regular ships.

Q: How much free will did you give Woody to do his stuff? I know he improvised quite a bit here.

RE: Yeah, but it's good. John Cusack and everybody in this movie improvised. You want to have your actors contribute because it makes it come alive. And that's why as a writer, especially, you want to have good actors.

Q: You like to show presidents and scientists. Why are you so fascinated with them?

RE: I make movies [set] in America and when something really, really big happens, the president naturally has to be involved. I lately saw a movie from Fox, The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), and they so avoid the president, it's kind of comical. It just doesn't work.

Q: You've gotten pretty good at destroying the earth. What are the rules?

RE: Well, I always like saying the pictures have to be super-impossible. Only when it's impossible [am] I interested in doing it. And that's always hard to explain.

One of the first things I saw in my mind when we were talking about the earthquake scene is [that] the ground needs to open up. And I just realized what that means. It's a little bit of when the bottom falls out under your feet.

I'm terribly afraid of heights. I'm always trying to put my fear in these movies. And the other thing I've talked about, is water coming over the roof of the world. And then, have a monk witness that and strike his bell one last time. These images come to Harald and me and we get terribly excited, because we feel these movie scenes.

Q: Any other rules?

RE: Well, the characters help you a lot — people from all walks of life. These movies are so expensive that they have to work for pretty much everybody. Every audience member has different people he likes in the movie and follows them. For young people, for men and women, everybody finds some sort of access.

Old people will like [President Wilson, played by Danny Glover] or Harry Helmsley [Blu Mankuma] and Tony [Delgatto, played by George Segal], as these two jazz musicians. Young people get relatable [characters as well]. Kids get wrapped up in our two kids. You create all the characters so everybody has some sort of figure to identify with.

I'm always saying that I'm a person who doesn't like superhero movies. I like some of them, but I can't really relate to superhero. I have trouble with fantasy stories. And then famous books aren't an option for me. I write my own stuff.

There's very little left in the big movie genre of what you can do. So it's science fiction or disaster movies. You know yourself, look at what is the most successful movie of all time: Titanic. And the great thing is also, with a disaster movie there's no sequel. I hate sequels.

Q: Well, speaking of sequels, the word is that you're interested in making a TV show called 2013.

RE: Well, that's different because that's something like Lost, which has a totally different feel to it. It's more a little bit of [the 2009 film] District 9. These ships show up in Africa, there are some survivors and they're not happy people because they were left behind. Now how do you start off a new society? That has nearly no visual effects. It's all about characters and what will the future bring, hold for us.

Q: 2013 is going to happen pretty soon after this movie comes out. Do you have any actors or places in mind?

RE: No. We just made a deal with ABC, and we're very happy about that. I'm already discussing with the people who write it, and tried to help them with what this could be.

The original idea is from Harald, me and [2012 executive producer] Mark Gordon. Mark is big on TV. Harald and I had an idea that everyone should do a TV show, because there were a lot of things that we couldn't incorporate into 2012 and it was so interesting.

What happens after all of this? We couldn't be riding the script. We had to end it at one point. We left at where they just discovered Africa is still existing and has risen a couple thousand feet, but that's it. And we ended on a really, really small note about a little girl who overcame her fear in a way. It's a very small way, which is very important and ends in something very personal.

I think a sequel is silly. There are certain sequels that work for me. But to make a sequel for a disaster movie, the people would expect a certain kind of visual effects. But [for 2013] there would actually be only what's happening between people, and that you can do a TV show week after week.

Q: What would you like to see happen in 2013?

RE: It's not the bright happy future everybody was envisioning. It's the same old problems.

Q: What do you expect people to walk away with after seeing this film?

RE: First of all, I am very conservative in that way, because I said they should have fun. A movie of this kind, I want people to enjoy it and have fun watching it.

And then, the great thing that I learned lately — I tried it first in The Day After Tomorrow, that in these big movies, you can pack some sort of message that you believe in. And that's what they should take away from all this.

Q: When you planned this particular apocalypse — as opposed to your other apocalypses — you've destroyed certain buildings several times in your movies. Did you say, "I'm not going to destroy the White House [again]," or can I find a different way to destroy the White House?

RE: When we had the idea, I said, "Harald, I'm not going to do it. I cannot destroy the White House again. I don't want to repeat myself."

Then Harald rightly said, "Look, Roland, this is such a good idea. We heard inklings that other people were working with something similar, even also with the title '2012,' [and] we said, somebody else will do it. Do you really want to not be the person to do it? Look at your movies. You're perfect for this. Just come up with something new. Make this your crowning achievement."

I personally know how most visual effects came along. I know that I don't have to use any models anymore. I can do whatever I want. So out of that, what other images? It has to be very original, otherwise you don't do it.

I remembered that as a kid, after we visited the White House, we drove in the Chesapeake Bay somewhere, where they have all the warships. They had just inaugurated the JFK Aircraft Carrier [USS John F. Kennedy (C67)], and I was terribly impressed with how big it is.

I don't know how that clicked, [but] we knew there had to be a wave. I said, "I can have this [aircraft carrier] crashing into the White House." Because we knew, in one of the first waves, we had to put objects in which are gigantic, to show how big the waves are — maybe tankers or warships. This is how you think.

I was doing a lot of reading then on the Kennedys, so I said, "Oh, let's [do] something ironic." And then we came up with this image that JFK returns to the White House [literally].

For more by Brad Balfour:



Director Spike Jonze Goes "Where the Wild Things Are"

Even if you missed seeing the the Morgan Library exhibit of Maurice Sendak's drawings and text from his classic children's book Where the Wild Things Are, or director Spike Jonze's cinematic interpretation, released in theaters last year, you can now see it on the newly issued DVD. The Wild Things, one might say, have come home to roost

Whether it be his few features or his music videos, Jonze has never done things quite as expected. This is the guy, after all, who created Being John Malkovich (1999), a film about someone discovering a portal that gains access to the inside of the quirky actor's head. Jonze also directed the award-winning film Adaptation (2002), which is ostensibly about a screenwriter struggling to adapt a book to film but it is much more quirky than that.

Now Jonze has taken one of the finest example of children's fiction as art — with about as many words and pages as would make a 10-minute short — and transformed its premise, about a disobedient young boy's retreat into his fantasy world where strange, benignly monstrous talking creatures exist, into a full-length feature. Using the book as a platform, Jonze and co-scriptwriter Dave Eggers delved into a 9-year old boy's lonely, disaffected brain and came up with a surreal look into how such fantasizing helps a child work through problems.

When Jonze came to the Apple store in Soho to preview Where the Wild Things Are, the event was worth attending considering simply for the fact that Jonze approaches doing a live interview as uniquely as he does making a film. In this case, rather than sit with one interviewer and be grilled as to the what and wherefores of his movie, he brought cast and crew members on stage to discuss the filmmaking process before a small audience and expose everyone to the special dynamic that made this picture. The following Q&A is pulled together from that event and my own questions.

Q: What motivated you to make this movie?

SJ: I always loved the book, but I also didn't know how to do it. I didn't know what I'd bring to it. But there was a point where I started to think about the wild things and wild emotions, who the characters of the wild things were. I started writing them as really complicated characters with very complex performances, and then fleshing out who [the child protagonist] Max was. That was the key to it — being really open, and I could go anywhere with that.

Q: What was it like to collaborate with its creator Maurice Sendak?

SJ: It was amazing. At first I was not really excited about it but then I was also nervous, because his book means so much to everybody and I could only make what the book was to me.

Basically at the beginning, Maurice early on said, "You can't worry about any of that. Don't worry about what I think. Don't be overly reverential to the book. You have to take this and make it your own and make something personal."

His only rule was not to pander to children, and make something honest. He really pushed us and has always been so supportive of us, and it's been an amazing friendship. He's a producer, but he's so much more than that —  he's our mentor and our friend.

Q: You said that this was six years in the making. How did it come to you, and what those six years were like?

SJ: I guess the first couple was [spent in] writing the script. I had moved to San Francisco to [write] with [noted author] Dave Eggers, and then after that it was probably about six months or something of trying to get it made or get it financed. We were at one studio and going into another one, and then it was about a year of making the costumes and going and shooting in Australia, and then about a year and a half of editing and then a year of visual effects to do all the faces. So there are a lot of different sets, and each one probably took twice as long as we thought it was going to be.

Q: How did you and Dave get together on this?

SJ: I've known Dave for awhile, and I loved his writing and I've loved him as a person. It seemed like he was my first choice.

Q: What do you do to start out a day?

SJ: Normally, we'd get to a set, clear it and then it would just be the actors and we'd rehearse it and then block it out. And then Lance [Acord, the director of photography] would come and be watching and we'd start to figure out where to put the camera.

This was a whole different film. It was such a complicated thing [that] it couldn't be that loose, but we somehow tried to keep it loose. We were most of the time at really distant locations, where we'd have to go in and set up a little village of tents. There'd be huge anxiety when I'd show up in the morning and see about 40 trucks and I'd be like, "Oh, this movie's too big."  

And the art department was really big, too. It was basically K.K.'s [Barrett, the production designer's] idea at the beginning [that] we were going to art-direct nature — we were going to go into nature and use it as a canvas. So he would go into a forest that had been burned out, and put in ground cover and put in saplings for color.

Then in places where we wanted it to look like the forest came right into a desert, K.K. would build for us on that location so the camera would be able to move through the trees into the forest.

Q: What kind of feeling were you going for?

SJ: One of the things early on that Thomas [Tull, the executive producer] mentioned to us as he was scheduling it was that he was afraid we would run out of cover sets. A cover set is where you go when it rains, and since there's so much of the movie shot outside, we ran out of cover sets early on.

When Lance and K.K. and I talked about it, we [decided] if it rains that day, or if there's a storm or whatever, we would embrace that and use that weather as part of the texture of the film to add to the wildness of the island and the location.

Q: What were challenges in making this film and finishing it with the studio?

SJ: We brought the movie to Warner Brothers, and they were very encouraging and very excited. They sent us off to Australia, but it was during editing when they started to see what the film actually looked like and felt like. I think they were surprised by the texture of it and the emotional intensity of it.

I think the movie is what it is and we all love it and are proud of it. The studio was like, they had expected a boy and then I gave birth to a girl, and maybe she was a wild child of some sort. But they've learned to love the baby, and we share the duties and I'm not stuck with always breast feeding at home by myself, and it's nice.

Q: Casting the character of Max must have been a real process.

SJ: Lance Bangs found Max [Records] for us in Portland, Oregon. We'd been looking everywhere and it was getting down to the wire, so we started [calling] friends that live in different cities. We started looking in smaller cities or smaller areas.

We were thinking of looking more at artistic cities, like Austin [, Texas] —  we had a friend in Austin  — or a friend in Athens, Georgia; Amherst, Massachusetts;  Lance in Portland. Lance started putting kids on tape there.

We thought [Max] was really beautiful, but we didn't know what his acting ability was because he'd never acted before. [Catherine Keener, who played Max-the-protagonist's mother] was shooting Into the Wild in Oregon. So she went and met with Max on a day off.

The great thing about him and his family is they're not stage parents in any way. They were nervous about this whole thing. Max's dad [Sean] came down to LA and we did the final audition, and we cast Max. When Sean got the call, I think he was sleepless for three nights wondering, "What are we doing?"  

I think that in the end they did it more as a family experience. All four of them moved to Australia and said let's do this as a family experience, as opposed to some career move for a 9-year-old. I think that because they're so levelheaded, their son is really levelheaded.

Even though he's 9 years old, in the middle of 150 crew members all paying all this attention focused on him, he really looked at it like he was there to do his job, just as the lighting person was there to his job or [costumer] Casey [Storm] was here to do his job. He had amazing humility, and I think he's a real soulful kid, which is partially why he's so great in the film.

Q: Did Max have a passion for film and drama?

SJ: He is a very deep, thoughtful kid, and also he saw everything that was going on. He had a front row view to everything.

I think it's a testament to kids — you think, oh, they don't see that, or they don't understand this — but they see everything and understand everything.

Me and Lance were like mom and dad fighting. I think he even said that, like, "Mom and dad are fighting."  He was watching us all and seeing the adults stressing out trying to make this thing.

The way we worked with Max was [that] we took him really seriously. Obviously we were protective of him, but we also demanded of him what we demand of any actor:  to be real, to be present, focused, and take it seriously. Max did take it seriously. Whenever the time was tight or whatever [we] needed, I said, "Max, we gotta focus here," and he would go from being a kid and playing and running around to being focused and listening.

We couldn't always stage what was happening behind camera. There'd be something like a Wild Thing throwing another Wild Thing, or something that we needed the camera to be close on Max and we need his reaction to that. But we couldn't always stage these things, so we'd come up with something else.

We had a little kit [for] whenever we'd have an idea to say, "Thomas, we need some fire extinguishers," and Thomas just kept collecting this kit. It was like what you'd put on a play with in your garage. So we'd be doing these little plays behind camera with light sabers.

One day we had Natalie [Farrey], who runs our office, sitting in a chair crying, and Max came into the set and then the light faded upon her. It wasn't hard for her to cry, because we were down there in Australia and it was a really hard shoot on everybody and she probably cried once a week anyway.

Q: Even though it was a long and hard shoot, did the process bring out the inner kid in you?  

SJ: I don't know... did it? The inner kid was what the script came out of, but I don't know. We all moved to Australia together and everyone brought their families.

Basically, the philosophy was: if there are lots of kids around, they can go anywhere. They can go in any of the trucks — go make something in the art department truck, or go put the wolf suits on, or get fake blood from the makeup trailer, or go into one of the sets and make a movie. The idea was like summer camp — this is your set.

But also, [it was for] Max and all the kids on the set to have this group to play with and hang out with. The idea was [that] the set was open for the kids to come whenever they want. Max was there every day with some other photo doubles that played Max in the movie. So there [were] always at least four or five kids, and then on a good day there were probably 15 kids, when everyone's kids would come.

Q: When the picture wrapped, how did everyone feel on that last day of shooting; did you feel you really made something amazing or were you just excited to start editing?

SJ: The big one was in Australia where all the kids [were there], so it was pretty amazing. We let the kids direct the last shot.

Q: Were there any scenes in the film that you had to take out for running time? Was that hard for you?

SJ: Oh, that was hard, yeah. It's all hard to take out because you're so attached to it.

Eric [Zumbrunnen] and I are slow editors and we take a long time. Our first movie took nine months to lock picture, and then Adaptation took 13 months to lock picture. This one took 20 months to lock picture.

Every time we'd finish a movie, we're like, next time we're going to work a lot faster. We're going to be looser and we're going to let go of stuff more. I haven't been able to do that yet. But next time I will, Eric.

For more by Brad Balfour:


Tim Burton & Johnny Depp Transform "Alice in Wonderland"

Visionary director Tim Burton and consummate actor Johnny Depp are almost the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of fantasy filmmaking: Depp brings to life the characters that emerge from Burton's magically twisted mind. But with this new film, based on the legendary novel by Lewis Carroll, Burton and his favorite cohort Depp fashion not quite an interpretation of the surreal tale so much as they're booting up a whole new fantasy franchise.

Depp, of course, is the movie star that won't get sucked into being a movie star, so he always refashions himself as much as he refashions characters to be an expression of his own convoluted psyche. And Burton is a master of rebooting a franchise — look at what he did to restart the Batman series in the 1990s. The former Disney animator has gone from being everybody's favorite eccentric to the ultimate mainstream player, transforming a literary classic into a high-concept, 3-D tent-pole success. And on the heels of what Avatar did in skewing audiences toward new digital technologies, Burton's Alice in Wonderland  helps confirm that 3-D is here to stay.

Q: Because it is such a massive project, what made you want to step into the world of Alice in Wonderland  in 3-D?

TB: It was [just] that — that Alice in Wonderland in 3-D seemed like the world that Lewis Carroll created, with the kind of trippiness, size and spatial elements. Then I started thinking about the world of Lewis Carroll, and not so much about the films and things, but I knew more about it from listening to music and bands and other illustrators and artists that would incorporate that imagery into their work. It made me realize how powerful the material was. If it were written today it would be mind blowing today, so the combination of the medium and the material just seemed really right.
Alice In Wonderland Press Conference
Q: This is not the Alice in Wonderland that we're used to; you've put your own stamp on this.

TB: There have been so many versions and for me, I’ve never seen a version that I’ve really liked. I didn’t feel like there was a definitely version that we were fighting against. Also, I liked what Linda [Woolverton] did with the script; she almost treated this story as how the Alice material has affected us, at least for me.

It's the story of someone using this kind of imagery and this kind of world to figure out problems in and things in their own life. What’s fantasy and [what's] reality, and how they’re not separate things, they’re one thing, and it’s how we use those things to deal with our issues in life. I don't even know what I’m talking about.

Q: What was your reasoning for shooting this in 2-D and converting it?

TB: Because all the techniques we were using, there's no point in shooting it in 3-D when there's nothing to shoot. We were using so many different techniques; we had live action, we had animation, we had virtual sets.

When we did the [3-D] conversion from [The] Nightmare [Before Christmas] (1993), [production designer] Ken Ralston and I looked at things that were shot in 3-D and things that were shot in 2-D conversion and it’s like anything. With all of these tools you can see good 3-D, bad 3-D, good conversions, bad conversions. So we always do it was 3-D so we did all the proper planning so that when we got to that stage, when we got the elements finally together, then it was just another piece of the technology. In fact, that was probably some of the easier technology than the other elements that we were dealing with.Johnny Depp

Q: Is this the seventh film you and Tim have done together?

JD: I think so, somewhere around there.

Q: When he came to you and said I want you to be the Mad Hatter, what was your reaction? Why did you want to play that character?

JD: To be honest, he could have said Alice and I would have said yes; I would have done whatever character Tim wanted. But certainly the fact that it was the Mad Hatter was a bonus, because it was a great challenge to try and find this guy and not just be a rubber ball that you heave into an empty room and watch it bounce all over the place. To find that part of the character but also a little bit more history or gravity to the guy.

Q: There’s a tragic nature to the Mad Hatter that you bring out in a way that's never seen before in Alice in Wonderland.

JD: There’s the whole Hatter’s dilemma really, which was where the term "mad as a hatter" came form. The amount of mercury that they used in the glue to make the hats and everything was damaging, so looking at it from that perspective of this guy, who is literally damaged goods, physically damaged, emotionally a little obtuse, and kind of taking that and deciding that he should be, as opposed to just this hyper, nutty guy, he should explore all sides of the personality at an extreme level. So he could go from one second being high falutin' and a lot of levity and then straight into some kind of dangerous rage. It was interesting trying to map it out.

TB: It being a Disney movie, we decided not to focus too much on the mercury poisoning aspect (laughs). It didn't translate well to 3D.

Q: In a way you could say your whole career of being Johnny Depp has been like being Johnny in Wonderland?

JD: My whole experience on the ride since day one has been pretty surreal in this business. I'm still completely shocked that I still get jobs and still am around. But I guess more than anything it has been a kind of Wonderland. I've been very lucky. Does that answer your question?

Q: Did you dream that it was going to be this way when you started?

JD: No, not at all. I had no idea where anything was going, but it’s almost impossible to predict anything like that. I had no idea. I felt like after I’d done Cry-Baby (1990) with John Waters and Edward Scissorhands (1990) with Tim that they were going to cut me off right then. I felt at that point that I was on solid ground and I knew where I was going and where I wanted to go, and I was sure that they would nix me out of the gig. But luckily I'm still here.

Q: You've collaborated before; how did you view how your your professional and personal relationship would be affected by sharing Alice in Wonderland?

TB: I don't know; I couldn't really look at him during the shooting because he looked like a scary clown. We didn’t make much eye contact during the shoot. I always love working with Johnny, from Scissorhands on, for many reasons. He likes to play characters and be different things, he doesn’t like watching himself, which I love because that makes it a lot easier for me. Each time we do something he’s always trying to do something different, and it’s great when you know somebody and they keep surprising you.

Q: Do you feel the same way?

JD: Yeah. Each time out of the gate with Tim the initial thing for me is to obviously come up with the character, but then you start thinking there's a certain amount of pressure where you go, "Jesus, will this be the one where I disappoint him?"

So I try really hard, especially early on, just to come up with something that's very different that he hasn’t experience before, that we haven't experienced together before, that would stimulate and inspire him to make choices based on that character. I try not to embarrass him, basically.

Q: You've created many wonderful characters; when you start developing something new, like the Mad Hatter, do you look back at your own work and make sure you don't repeat anything?

JD: Definitely at a certain point, especially because I've played English a number of times, I've used an English accent a number of times, so it becomes a little bit of an obstacle course to go, "Oh, that’s teetering into Captain Jackville."

So you've got to really pay attention to the places you've been. But that's the great challenge is that you may get it wrong, or there's a very good possibility that you could fall flat on your face. But I think that's a healthy thing for an actor.

Q: Was there anything in Alice that technologically you couldn't do yet?

TB: We were just using all different technologies, so they're all out there. People go purely motion-capture, purely animation. Everything's a new tool, you always have limitations, you can do more, it’s all great, and I never try to focus too much on the technology. The fun of it for us is the artistic thing of it and feeling like we're making a movie and not get too involved with technology.

Q: If the next project involves donning a suit with dots for the cameras like they did in Avatar would you do it?

JD: I don't know; what color is the suit? It's black? Well it matches my eyes. I don't care, I'll put anything on, it doesn't matter to me. Obviously. Look at me.

Q: Of all the characters and all the movies you have worked on which ones have been your children's favorites?

JD: My children's favorite, and it's funny because they've seen it but they have a difficult time watching it because it's their dad and they make that connection, but Edward Scissorhands is by far my kids' favorite. They connect with the character and also I think they see their dad feeling that isolation, feeling that loneliness. He's a tragic character so I think it's hard for them. They bawl.

TB: For me, my kids don't really like my movies. (reconsiders) I can't say that. [It's that] they're too young. My son's getting older but since I don't really know what I do I can't really describe to him what I do so he doesn't really know what I do and so, whatever.

Q: One of the great earmarks about a really great happy dance — which you did in the film is that it's completely unique to the person. So is this one part of your own personal repertoire.

JD: No. The happy dance was something that Tim had a very curious vision for.

TB: Listen, he's injured himself, he cannot do it today. It has to be the right circumstance, the right music and everything else.

Q:  What were your personal preparation for that a lot of mirrors?

JD: No.

TB: Smoke and mirrors, yeah.

JD: I tend to avoid mirrors at all costs. We had to treat that like a stunt.

TB: You wouldn't question Fred Astaire like this would you? (laughs)

Q: You seem to be going through the entire canon of 19th-century fantasy literature.

JD: I’m hoping to do [Fitz Hugh Ludlow's autobiographical 1857 book] The Hasheesh Eater next.

Q: What's the attraction to that era's literature to you as an artist?

JD: I just adore it. From certainly J.M. Barrie, and the wonderful characters he created, to Lewis Carroll, and even French literature, or Edgar Allan Poe. Like Tim said about Lewis Carroll, you open those books, you open [Charles Baudelaire's 1857 book of poetry Les Fleurs du mal, a.k.a.] The Flowers of Evil, and begin to read; if it were written today you’d be absolutely stupefied by the works. So it’s this incredible period where the work is ageless so I love all those guys. It’s my deep passion, those great 19th-century writers.

Q: When did this book enter your life and was the proper English an influence to your understanding of it? And how did this book influence you?

TB: I’m from Burbank so we never heard about Alice in Wonderland except through Disney cartoons, the Tom Petty video [for "Don't Come Around Here No More," 1985), and the Jefferson Airplane [who recorded the 1967 Carroll-inspired hit "White Rabbit"]. It's interesting because that's what made me realize the power of it.

I got my introduction much more through other illustrators and music and culture and writers, and the imagery would come up in other work. And then soon you start to delve into it and realize just how powerful it is and that's why it remains that way.

Q: Can you want to add to this?

JD: I have a thing about long necks too. It's funny, even though you can't quite place when the book or the story came into your life, I do remember vaguely at roughly five years old reading versions of Alice in Wonderland. But the thing is the characters; everyone knows the characters, and they’re very well defined.

Most people haven’t read the book but they definitely know the characters and reference them. Ironically, it was maybe only a year prior to Tim calling that I had reread Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and what I took away from it was all these very strange little cryptic nuggets that he’d thrown in there and I was really intrigued by them and fascinated by them because they were asking questions that couldn’t be answered almost, or making statements you couldn’t quite understand, like "I am investigating things that begin with the letter M."

That took me through a whole stratosphere of possibilities, and doing a little research and discovering that the M is mercury. And, "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" those things just became so, so important to the character. And if I read the book again today I’d find 100 other things that I missed last time, so it’s constantly changing.

Q: And what is happening with The Tourist? What have you enjoyed about working with Angelina Jolie?

JD: I haven’t done anything yet.

Q: When does that start shooting?

JD: I think Tuesday next week.

TB: But how do you think it's going to go?

JD: I think it'll be swell.

Q: What did you like about the part that made you want to sign on?

JD: I like the [original] French film a lot, and my friend played the part. I thought I might be interesting to explore this character. You never know what’s going to happen. I suspect there may be a few paparazzi in Venice.

Q: We heard there’s no Keira Knightly or Orlando Bloom in the next Pirates. Is it going to be more Jack Sparrow?

JD: Yeah, there's no Keira or Orlando in there. I don't know, I don't think we'd ever throw too much Jack Sparrow in there, I think there will be a little bit of everybody.

Q: You were wavering after Dick Cook left. What reassured you?

JD: One thing that I found very reassuring was a very good conversation with Dick Cook, who is someone I admire greatly. That helped a lot. And also knowing that we're coming at it from a different angle at this point; Rob Marshall totally knew to take a new story.

Q: What did Dick Cook say after he left?

JD: He was a perfect gentleman.

Q: Do you see Dark Shadows as going this year or is it still on the fence?

JD: No I see it going. I hope it does, I do. We worked like dogs to get that.


For more by Brad Balfour:

Actor David Rasche Stays "In the (Oscar-Nominated) Loop"

When actor David Rasche came into the room, I knew this was going to be a different kind of interview, just as In The Loop is a different kind of political comedy. The 65-year-old Rasche was supposed to be joined by director Armando Iannucci and fellow actor Zach Woods to conduct an intimate roundtable interview session. But because Rasche was early, our conversation was transformed — much like the shambolic, supposedly "secret" committee meeting organized by Rasche's character, the gung-ho American warmonger Linton Barwick (a cross between Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld) got transformed and provided a pivotal moment to the film. In a similarly chaotic fashion, Rasche spoke solo with a couple of us and provided some pivotal moments of his own before settling down with his fellow Loop-ers.

The British-produced film debuted at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival. Taking its cue from Iannucci's smart and snarky look at the inner workings of British politics, the TV series The Thick of It (kind of The Office for politicos), In The Loop follows Cabinet minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) through a series of slip-ups that gets him involved in an ever-twisting gyre of intrigue that leads to starting a war in the Middle East. Sounds familiar...

The film stars such series' regulars as Peter Capaldi (reprising his foul-mouthed communication chief, Malcolm Tucker) and American additions such as former The Sopranos star James Gandolfini as the war-reticent General Miller. Within this context, bumbling assistants and loose-tongued associates screw up and screw each other to a dry, droll, parodic effect. The film certainly doesn't view previous British and American administrations as the pinnacle of political achievement.

In light of the health care debate, with the Right stirring the pot, the film serves as a reminder that the politics of diversion, derision and destruction as expressed by the opposition party goes on. So when a film like In The Loop offers this refreshing and engaging alternative take on the inner workings of the political universe, it becomes a must-see to add perspective. Certainly, it hit some resonant note; the film garnered an Adapted Screenplay Academy Award nomination for writers Iannucci, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche.

Though Iannucci, who also produced the film, and Woods, who plays Chad, a very funny American adjunct, finally arrived, what was supposed to be a simple roundtable turned into a unusual and enlightening back-and-forth banter.

Q: Was that just the roll of the dice that you ended up playing the bad guy warmonger Barwick?

DR: Well, they made it a little bit harder in this movie [from the television show]. But that's for Armando [to explain].

Q: How did you see it?

DR: I had a few rejoinders that were excised.

Q: You did it so well. You have this way of doing it so that you don't come off as just mean.

DR: That sinister thing is there [though].

Q: Is that you or in the script? I can't believe all the things that Armando threw in there.

DR: It's terrific eh? Funny as hell. The timing was great; it's global politics. As a matter of fact, I had a friend, Mike Reiss, who was one of the producers of The Simpsons, who said that he thought there are arguably more funny lines in this movie than in any movie he can remember.

Q: But is it too complicated for Americans to get?

DR: I've been in tons of audiences like in Seattle [at the film festival]; there were 3,000 people, all Americans, and they just were howling with laughter.

Q: I saw it with critics and they didn't laugh as much as I imagine an audience would. I was angry at them in a way but I thought it was astounding.

DR: Really? I'm surprised because I have not seen that audience. The only audiences I've seen, big or small, have [been with the public].

Q: You don't even realize some of the lines are really funny until it hits you later; it's so deadpan, and you're so perfectly deadpan.

DR: It's really funny, I have to tell you, I've been involved in two international projects in the last little bit and it's absolutely remarkable what we bring to it. Like I did this Brazilian film and people are all saying "Oh, we don't like you because you did so and so and so and so," and I said, "What are you talking about?" And the same thing with this; with the British press, the Americans were almost completely ignored and all they could see is the Brits, and now here you're asking me [about my character]; we see the Americans. It's funny, what we bring.

Q: Who were you a blend of?

DR: I was going for was a combination of John Bolton and Donald Rumsfeld and Karl Rove and Condoleezza Rice. All those imperious, belittling, condescending, right? Remember all those press conferences? It was like, "Do you really have to act like that? Do you really have to be so belittling and condescending?"

Q: You added the imperiousness brilliantly.

DR: I mean all of them, like David Addington [then-vice president Dick Cheney's legal counsel and chief of staff] — do you remember him? — they were all so unpleasant.

Q: Evil, evil people.

DR: No, but as unpleasant as a person [can be]. In the hearings, talking over you, not listening, belittling your point of view, remember Condoleezza Rice? "Uh, Senator." Relax, Condi. Anyway.

Q: I was at a Times Square New Year's Eve event with a press pass and John Bolton came. No one else had a problem talking to me — Regis, Chris Rock...  But Bolton had a phalanx of security; you couldn't even get 20 feet near him, and it was like, "What the fuck?" And he did not crack a smile the whole time.

DR: They're so self-important. Same thing with Cheney; he's doing something that no American politician in the history of the union has ever done, which is breaking the silence [after a new administration has taken over] and starts screaming about, you know... And the reason is, "Oh, well, what's happening is so important, and I'm so important, I just have to." Well, you know, Dick, I don't know if you're that important.

Q: It's interesting seeing us filtered through a British cultural lens so that you see Americans in a whole different light.

DR: Oh, yes, you do. It's a British film, from a British point of view. Don't tell Armando I said that. But I think clearly it swung that way... I don't think he knows it, maybe he does or not.

Q: The most disappointing thing for you about it was that you didn't get to be in every scene with everybody else, because there are so many good people there.

DR: They had to cut a lot. I used to be but... You'll have to ask Armando, and I don't mean to misquote him, but I think he said that he got to the end of editing and knew stuff had to go, so he cut his four favorite scenes and then all of a sudden the movie worked. I'm afraid I was in a couple of those scenes. His first cut was four hours.

Q: Without all the locations, it would have been interesting to see it with everything else taken away, and on a stage. Because there's such smart, snappy dialogue, it reminds me of a lot of those British playwrights, you know, like Alan Ayckbourn or somebody like that. It does kind of have this beautifully fluid language...

DR: Well, the story goes, as Armando will tell you, there was a special guy. No, not Tony [Roche, one of the screenwriters]. I'm pretty sure the guy was Ian Martin, who provided, oh, additional dialogue. He specialized in swearing; you know all the crazy [British] swearing? I'm serious, they call this guy up; that was his specialty. When he would say "I'm going to rake your bone and I'm going to stab you in the heart" and all that stuff. "I will hound you to an assisted suicide," I mean I don't know which ones. "What are you in a Jane Austen novel?" and all that, a lot of that stuff, specifically, that was what he was good at.

Q: Do you see a difference between British and American humor? Is there something that doesn't translate well?

DR: Except for people like [play/film writer-director-producer] David Mamet, who I think is the exception that covers both bases, Armando is funny as hell but a lot of his humor is really verbal. It's in the words, really; it's not that it's a joke but it's the combination of words. They're a little more verbal than us, don't you think? We're more situations, sight gags, stuff like that. Well, the nice thing about this, too, is there really aren't any jokes. There are no, like, jokes.

It's behavior and situation. Although I don't want to misquote Armando, but I think he said that when he went through the film while was editing and any line, no matter how good it was, if it sounded written, he cut it, because he wanted it to sound like you really were overhearing [them talking].

Q: You can't lay it on the director, it's all your fault. There are so many places where you are silent, so it's all in your look, gesture, the walk forward, or walk over here, or look at this.

DR: Tell him about how wonderful that is.

Q: You got it down with just enough of the restraint, as everybody did in this film.

DR: I've been watching those [Bush administration] guys on television for eight years. I mean, just it's appalling, appalling, appalling behavior. And it's obvious that now that we've had six months where we've learned you don't have to do that. We have Joe Biden, we have Barack Obama, and I don't see it. We have all the cabinet officers, you know, like [CIA Director] Leon Panetta —  they're not insulting.

Q: The Republicans seem like whiny children now...

DR: Absolutely. I think it was the fact that we ended up with the opposite of what they claimed. It seems to me that what we're learning is that rather than strong men, they were very weak, and when 9/11 happened they all went [weird noise] and they started doing all this kind of extreme stuff because, unlike Roosevelt and those guys who said... "Hi."

They were really weak little boys and they did all kinds of bad things. It didn't help anything, right? We're finding out about all this eavesdropping, the effect of this was like, not much.

Q: To what degree do you think we're living in a democracy?

DR: It's pretty hard to say that we are anymore. It's not that, it's when we find out the influence of the banks and corporate America; we see now that when the banks can throw $25 billion in propaganda you can't fight it. I was reading there's a new organization that's trying to counteract it, but it's really hard. When they have everybody on TV, the only news stations, it's like how can you fight it?

It's the same thing with the government; how can government regulators, when Goldman Sachs and all these people hire hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of the finest MBAs from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale to find out how to get around the laws, we don't have the money to hire people who are smarter than them to keep them from screwing us.

Q: Did you need to read a lot of stuff?

DR: I told you already: I've been watching these bastards for eight years on television, shaking my head, thinking, "Oh my god. Despicable."

Q: Whenever you see politicians they always seem so dry and boring.

DR: Well, they all aren't. Rumsfeld wasn't; he was a performer, the ultimate performer, who really enjoyed getting up there in front of people. Which was part of his problem that he got carried away and was under the mistaken impression that everything that came out of his mouth was a gold nugget and in fact, I think that was not the case.

Q: I've heard of the analogy of politics to wrestling. When you watch wrestling on TV there's so much tension and conflict but outside of that...

DR: That's why President Obama, when he frames the argument of abortion as to let us respect each other's opinions and then go from there, then the whole thing starts from a new spot. It doesn't start from I hate you and you hate me.

Q: You grew up in Chicago, right?

DR: Well, I never really grew up; I "enlarged" in Chicago.

Q: Where are you from originally?

DR: It was a joke; you didn't get it. I said I never really grew up but I enlarged. I was in Belleville, Illinois, which is downstate, but I spent a lot of time in Chicago.

Q: You've got roots on the Obama side, but there's also classic Chicago politics.

DR: Not only that but Rumsfeld is from Chicago. Oh, yeah. I know this personality type. My father was a little like that. Seriously. There's this kind of stubborn, like that last line where he says, "Well there were some pretty scary moments at some point, right?" and I said "No, there weren't." remember that? That could be my father: "No. No. No."

Q: How would you describe or define patriotism at its core?

DR: The last refuge of scoundrels. Who said that?J efferson or... I can't remember. Benjamin Franklin? [Samuel Johnson: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel"]


For more by Brad Balfour:



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