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Documentarian Christian Frei Welcomes "Space Tourists"

Having been familiar with documentary director Christian Frei's work from War Photographer, I wasn't sure what to expect with Space Tourists, his film about the post-Soviet effort to finance Russia's Space Program. By selling seats to very rich tourists of the extraterrestrial, the Russians have kept their shuttle flying while NASA is being forced to discontinue the American program.

Frei follows Iranian-American multimillionaire Anousheh Ansari the co-founder and former CEO of Telecom Technologies, who on September 18, 2006, became the fourth space tourist, and first woman space tourist — as she goes through ersatz cosmonaut training on her way to becoming the world’s first female space tourist; the footage she shoots on board the International Space Station (ISS) is some of the most intimate, breathtaking imagery we will ever see from outer space.

As Ansari launches into orbit, Kazakh villagers gather the precious scrap metal from the jettisoned rockets, while a Romanian space enthusiast works on his low-tech spacecraft. The 98-minute Space Tourists suggests that while the pomp and pageantry of the space program may have died out with the 20th century, the human mysteries have only deepened.

Born in 1959, in Schönenwerd, Swiss filmmaker Frei is mostly known for his films War Photographer (2001) and The Giant Buddhas (2005). Both deal with topics and themes more or less linked to war and intolerance.

Frei studied visual media in the Department of Journalism and Communication at the University of Fribourg. He made his first documentary, Die Stellvertreterin (The Representative) in 1981. Since 1984 he has worked as an independent filmmaker. He also works regularly with Switzerland's  German-language television network, Schweizer Fernsehen DRS. His previous film, War Photographer was nominated for the Oscar. Frei brought Space Tourists to the Sundance Film Festival, where it made it US Premiere in the World Documentary competition.

Having seen the film, I decided to talk with him about this unusual doc, not expecting him to win the directing award at Sundance this year. Thankfully, it did and so FilmFestivalTravler has this exclusive interview with the filmmaker behind Sundance's top documentary for 2010.

Q: When you look back at the things you’ve done, do you see a consistent thread?

CF: This is a hard question for me. When I choose subjects, and people sometimes do not believe me, but this is a very unconscious thing. I’m just at certain moments convinced this is my next film.

I have never stopped any project; I have never dropped out of any film project. It was always like, “I want to do that.”

Q: What was the thread between the Fidel Castro-related film Ricardo, Miriam y Fidel to War Photographer to the Buddhism film?

CF: I never go like, "I want to go in this direction, probably something about war." No, it’s always the other way around.

Being in Cuba I met this wonderful daughter of a Cuban revolutionary telling me an incredible story. First, she told me that she wants to leave with her family for Miami, but then she told me about her father being some important key of the success, so I knew this was a film.

And with War Photographer I was sitting in a plane, it was just pure coincidence, I was buying a Stern magazine, 12 pages of Afghanistan, black and white, done by James Nachtwey. It knocked me out; I really felt, wow this is incredible, this guy is really focusing on new aspects of war. Then I read the article and after reading it I was convinced, this is my next film.

And then I ended up learning about the Buddha from that. Probably one thing for sure, I don’t think I would ever do a film about [this breakfast cereal].

With Space Tourists, this is for sure, I wanted to do something a little bit lighter. Not totally, but not a comedy, but at least I think it’s something with which you can laugh a little bit. There are funny sides in it.

Q: It's ironic that you’re dealing with this futuristic technology in places that look like they're right out of Soviet realist movies or something that stepped out of the '50s. The
s reminded me of the photographic team that does images of industrialist sites —  Bernd and Hilla Becher. You have people that have $20 million and they're trusting post-Soviet technology.

CF: It's a paradox, which is of course interesting.

Q: The way you blocked out the movie, you have these distinct sections and elements. How did that evolve?

CF: The biggest problem was because I think the structure is not that complicated. For me, it's simple: You have this main arc, the beauty of this journey. And I feel it’s a beauty; you have this beautiful dream and I wanted of course to also show the absurdity, but it’s a beautiful journey.
Then you have the ground stories, and I needed kind of a guide there and I worked with Jonas Bendiksen because he was living in this region for seven years, he was discovering this crazy story of the space junk collectors, so he was an obvious guide for the ground story.

Then the tricky thing was to get this Romanian guy to fit into the film because that’s kind of a new element. But it’s like a third act sometimes; you can add something, it’s just a little bit tricky.

Q: We have the history of their secrecy, but how does that fit into today’s modern world when they’re trying to sell the tourism to finance their flights? That’s a key issue with your film: the irony of it all.

CF: Space has been propagandized. The space race was about propaganda. It was a very expensive tool. It was about exploration, too, I mean the oldest aspects are true, too, but for me it was interesting to discover that side.

I am a child of the Switzerland that is not neutral in this sense; we are totally between East and West. When I was 10, the Americans went to the moon and I was glued to the TV. One of the reasons why I wanted to make this project is what about the other side of the space race? What about Sputnik?

This whole shock in the Cold War, then the first woman in space; all the successes on the Communist and the Soviet side, what’s left? Because of course the instinct of a documentary filmmaker is to find the economy behind phenomenons.

If I were to do a film [about] the rollercoaster I would not just film the passengers and the adrenaline; I would film the system: the workers, the problems, the struggle, the competition.

So I tried to do the same here, but it's obviously, believe me, not easy. Space is so much linked to military and secrecy. I mean [the Kazakhstan city of] Baikonur [named Leninsk until late 1995] is full of all these rocket launch pads [the West once believed would] destroy the world. So obviously you cannot just go there and film around. Years ago you couldn't even dream of going there with a camera; it didn't exist, it [literally] wasn't on the map.

So I was very proud to have access but it was not easy. Also because it's so expensive, I think that's why, also, NASA controls the message. That's why all the space and rocket fuels look for me a little bit the same: very techno-oriented, rocket-oriented, success-oriented. Which is all true, it's a challenge, it’s very dangerous, but look at the film — it’s a very simple economy.

The banality of, for example, this third seat in the Soyuz [spacecraft]. It’s not in the film because it's a little bit too complicated to explain, but the third seat was always a wild card.

Q: Had it always been there?

CF: Oh, yeah, and they used it, for example, to take the Cuban guy up there. I wouldn't say these were space tourists, but you know what I mean. So to discover that finally, after decades of announcements of, "Just wait a few years and you can lift off with you family, and the dog, and the children, and instead of going to the beach you step into this wonderful, comfortable…."

You know, all these announcements, and now it’s a reality and it's such a banality. It’s just an economic fail, it's a fascinating history but it’s a history of futuristic inventions, not at all. It’s interesting, of course, and it’s a documentary subject all of a sudden, but it was not easy. At the beginning I thought I would never get there.

Q: How  did you find half the places where you shot?

CF: I'm so persistent.

Q: You have that one scene with this decaying rocket and there's this old, ancient, decaying apartment building. How did you find it?

CF: It's there, but nobody wants you to film it. For example, when I arrived in Baikonur, I arrived three weeks before liftoff. They were waiting for us at the airport and almost shouting, "What the hell are you doing? The media are supposed to get in three days before liftoff, what are you just doing here?"

Because we had all the necessary papers they couldn't send us back, and they were like, okay we are just here and it’s okay. And then I discovered ways to film, for example, all these houses and all these leftovers of the former successes, like the Buran program, where 40,000 people were forced to leave.

Q: Because they wanted the security right?

CF: Well, no, Buran stopped because it was just too expensive. Gorbachev just said at a certain moment, "This is too much." That’s how the Cold War was finally won; it was just getting too much for them [to afford monetarily]. At a certain moment when the Soviet Union collapsed, two Cosmonauts in the Mir [space station], with their little ukulele instruments, were afraid that there would never be another shuttle picking them up. It's really true; it's not in my film because it's another story, but it's really dramatic.

Q: Focused on this whole Soviet side of it, it's not the picture we all have of space travel and the space program. You're sort of showing the failure of a government-run program on one level.

CF: I don't know if it's a failure. There's so much success in it — it's still operating for Western companies in terms of bringing up satellites.

Q: What kind of computers did they have?

CF: That, they do have. The Soviets don't change anything if it's working, so that'’s why the Soyuz itself is still around. The whole computer system they use in the Soyuz is DOS, but it works.

Q: You’ve got rich people coming to the Soviet Union to fly in spaceships that are basically run on DOS or whatever, and they’re willing to spend $20 million to go out in space because the Americans won't let them. They're privatizing their military to make money. So you have these curious ironies — it's almost like a science-fiction story only it's really happening.

CF: Exactly. But sometimes reality is more absurd or more like outer space than outer space, it's true.

Q: Were you a science-fiction fan?

CF: A little bit but not too much.

Q: Did you notice this whole idea of the beauty in the industrial decay, like with the photos?

CF: Through the topic I hoped to get access to this world, which is a hidden world, it is a forgotten world almost. There are some films but there aren’t too many. This thing is as big as Switzerland, well Switzerland is small, but I mean it's big for a launch pad. You drive for hours sometimes to get to the next launch pad and there are 17 of these launch pads.

Q: It was in the Soviet Union; now it’s a whole other country, Kazahkstan.

CF: It is paid by the Russians. It's an enclave: They pay several billions a year to keep it and the Kazakh want the military out. So it's complicated for the Russians; it's full of history.

Q: It must have been fascinating to get into the mentality.

CF: It is, of course, the key in every documentary film: Everything you film is not only local, it's very concrete and it's dependent on what you anticipate. So you have to know the culture, not only the language. You must translate much more than the language to get access to a culture, to a system.

One of the advantages with the subsidy system we have in Europe is I can just be more patient. Like with space, yes, of course, it was difficult because after being allowed to research it and being out there with these guys and without the camera and looking up in the sky waiting for rockets to fall from the sky, they suddenly told us, like, three weeks before we wanted to shoot that, yes, we can do that, but they will stage the whole work of these guys for us with their military people and secret service members.

One aspect that is not that much in the film because of this problem is that of the rocket and the boosters; they are monitored by the Russian Federal Space Agency, because if there’s something only a little bit wrong with the trajectory, they want to know what problem it was.

And they take out one secret part which they don't want the Chinese to know about. So I was kind of depending on these guys, and they’re telling me, "This is the way you shoot it, we stage it. We want it to look how it should be." And then I told them, "But it's not how it was,” and they were like, "Yeah, we know. But we want it to be presented how it should be."

This is the Russian way of dealing with the media. You cannot argue and say, "It’s not reality," because they’ll say, "Yes, of course, it's not reality. But it should be that way." And then you're lost. This problem was huge, so I told them no, I [wouldn't] take this off. And I tricked them; I said I needed six months.

This [next thing] is really nice — this is a cultural [evolution] that [today] you can do things which four years ago were huge and the[even] CIA needed several hundred people [to accomplish]: With Google Earth, we discovered that exactly during this time they changed the mapping of this steppe, because before it was very challenging because there was nothing. But for some reason they changed it and with really nice resolution. So we printed out the whole region, which was finally a map of [great] size; my assistant needed his parents' huge living room for it. It was like 10 meters by 10 meters.

Then you could see this little sign of tracks, because there are no roads, there's nothing, it's flat. The drop-zone is around 40 to 10 kilometers &,dash; not that big. So we came from the south. Because the drop-zone during a launch itself is also in Russian territory, it gets Russian territory for these two days, so we stayed like four kilometers out of this zone.

Q: So you avoided the Russian zone.

CF: Exactly. They saw us.

Q: They couldn't stop you.

CF: Somehow we cooperated. I cannot tell you exactly how because there’s money involved.

Q: You should have been making a movie about how you made this movie.

CF: Yeah, it’s interesting. That's just how I work; I don't give up, never.

Q: You made the transition from this past to this present and future. You were able to resist the temptation to show a lot more about what the [spacefaring private corporation] Virgin [Galactic] is doing; you have just a little reference. But to see it through the eyes of this Russian way of approaching…

CF: I’m glad you say that because I didn't want to include too much U.S. and Virgin Galactic. First, the access there wouldn't have been easy either, and somehow I just felt this is not a film. So I just included this crazy Romanian guy; he's part of this race.

Q: And the woman is...

CF: She is very much involved in the whole thing because she was the first sponsor with her family, with the $10 million for this prize. What could I have filmed during this time? They were announcing for three years now the space tour, they had this fatal accident before, so as you can see, everything you do with technology is always a risk. It's not really interesting for me; I think it wouldn't really fit.

Q: Aren't you surprised there aren't more accidents?

CF: They didn't begin yet.

Q: I mean overall, in the history of the Russian space program, and even the American space program.

CF: It's a risk of 1% fatality. 1% is big; normally with a sport it's much less.

Q: Did you try on one of the spacesuits yourself?

CF: Yeah. They are heavy. And another curiosity was that I wanted Anousheh to bring the spacesuit to Sundance, so I asked her very politely and said I would cover all the costs, because this is a heavy thing. The cost to produce it is $100,000, I know that, and you cannot use it for any other guy; every spacesuit, obviously, is exact.

She said, "My spacesuit is in Moscow," and I asked why. "Well, because they asked me to pay another million for it." It’'s true; I swear to God. It's a rip-off; they are really over the edge.

Q: She never feels guilty for spending so much money on this indulgent dream?

CF: No. She's writing now her autobiography, and Homer Hickam [author of Rocket Boys] is the co-author. It will be released March 2 and you can read her story. It's a very honest story, and she helps people.

Q: Have you ever heard the term “future-primitive”? There’s a sort of future-primitive quality, futuristic-retro, to this film.

CF: I wanted this paradox in the poster because I wanted people to be aware of the curiosity that this is something different than the usual rockets.

Q: I thought the music was an interesting choice because it was both contemporary and yet  travelistic.

CF: Another choice was this Russian composer, Edward Artemiev. He is a pioneer of electronic music, and he was the composer of the famous films by [director Andei] Tarkosvky, Solaris and Stalker. Somehow there was an influence because I thought, I don't want Baikonur just to be presented like a deserted area that's nothing but wind and some camels. I think there was so much going on here, every week there was a rocket, so I wanted to feel this. I choose my music in the very early stage of the filmmaking; I underline the pictures with music.

Q: I believe strongly in the space program, and I believe in commercialization of space; I believe it's important that we go into space for the evolution of culture. But when you watch this movie you wonder whether it doesn't feel a little bit more absurd on some level. I had mixed feelings  about the film's ultimate conclusion, that there's this beauty of it and this sort of charm, but also this weird naïveté.

CF: I think this naïveté is my statement, because I feel, yes, what I want to say is that you cannot keep this any longer as that simple. We know now. How come it was announced for decades, and even [Stanley] Kubrick in his 2001: A Space Odyssey press kit was stating that what he's showing is the future. [I believe] it will be totally, exactly like that in 2001. Like this comfortable spaceship — he was sure that this will be a reality.

Q: He was right, but it's just not quite the right date.

CF: Come on, I mean, look at the tubes now in the ISS.

Q: You don't think that by 2050 space travel will be commonplace?

CF: I think I lost this naïveté.

Q: Because you see the difficulties.

CF: It's 40 years now. More. It was announced in the '60s and you had this climax of this fantasy.

Q: I think their problem was they were living in a fantasy. This movie is more about the reality.

CF: Yeah, exactly, but that's why I think, for example, yes, you can do space tourism in a few years, for sure. It will always be expensive to get somebody into orbit,  because you need this huge speed of 27,000 miles an hour, and you have to speed this down and you cannot do that with small computers, you need heavy things, and it heats you up so much.

Q: We need to go with the Star Trek vision; develop the transporters, take the technology up into space, build up there, and use the transporters. You're from a country that has the largest particle accelerator.

CF: 'm aware of that; I love it.

Q: The Swiss are sort of this old, conservative, classic European, and yet there's this other side to it.

CF: Switzerland has nothing; we don't have anything in the ground. We have only our brains. We have a very high level of education, for example, and a broader one than you have in the U.S.

Q: Do you want to go into space?

CF: If I were very rich, yes.... The film dreams will be bigger than the space dreams.

Q: Sell sponsorships on your suit.

CF: The Romanian guy, it's obvious he won’'t get to the moon with this. That’s why I'm fascinated by this because it's also fantasy.

Q: When you made this film, did you feel that now that you've done it you're going to continue to stay on top of it, or you want to look completely away from it?

CF: No, because I'm so slow. One of the big advantages is everything is inside me doesn’t just go away. When there's news about Cuba I have a feeling for it beyond journalistic approach, because I can smell it, I was for months living there and I know about this revolution. So when it will be over, I will be very much concerned. Exactly the same with Afghanistan and now with the space thing. I love this, that I am able to research so excessively.

Q: You get yourself really passionate about it. Would you like to see that they would finally open this up so people can see these old locations?

CF: Actually, there is some tourism.

Q: I had no idea. How about meeting the old cosmonauts?

CF: They live in Star City, for example, [which] s not in Kazakhstan, like some in the U.S. were writing. Star City is close to Moscow, Russia. [Star City] is the training center. There are hundreds of these guys living there still.

Q: So you had the chance to talk and meet with all of them?

CF: Some of them, yeah. Like the first woman in space.

Q: And the first private woman in space. It's interesting how we don't always give the Russians credit, but in that area they really had some innovations that the Americans couldn't deal with.

CF: It's just the bloody moon landing they didn't get, from their point of view. They were feeling even superior in the first stage of the space race.

Q: What do you feel about space travel? What do you think is going to happen?

CF: I think we will see a commercialization of space because they are discovering [minerals] on the moon, I don’t know exactly…

Q: They're talking about organic substances and also about deposits in pure form.

CF: So I think this is just the first stage of the commercialization of space.

Q: So then would you go up when you could do so for twenty grand?

CF: I'm not that sure if this will include what Anousheh is doing and will be affordable, because now I know so much about the needs and physics of it. It's also a paradox of history; look at the successes in space exploration of the last five years. Most of them were unmanned; it's the robots fascinating us on Mars with all these beautiful pictures and all this exploration. More and more, manned space exploration was more and more criticized.

Q: What's next for you? You get so intensively involved in a subject, how do you wrench yourself out of it to go on to the next thing?

CF: Now I have three important festivals behind me. I have to do some more but mostly because I want to see other people's work. I'm already working on my next subject which, unfortunately for you, I cannot tell you. But I'm in the midst of it because [Space Tourists] for me is now, in terms of filmmaking, it's past. I’m working on a short version, I will work on a DVD version, but this is not the core of it.

Q: Because you’re already now a successful documentary filmmaker with an Oscar nomination it probably makes certain filmmaking things easier in terms of access.

CF: Space Tourist wasn't easy at all. The Russians are not very much impressed. What I do is I don't often tell them I'm a filmmaker, and I'm allowed to do that: I tell them I'm a journalist from Swiss TV, because that makes access much easier. [If you say you're a filmmaker, then] you have somebody from the ministry [assigned to you] and then you’re lost. My reputation helps me to raise the money a little bit but it's still a struggle.

Q: Did you get to take back any space junk with you?

CF: I have some. I was a bit afraid at customs because I knew how much secrecy there is about.

Q: Because this is a bit lighter a subject for you, do you think it will get the same kind of attention that you’ve gotten in the past?

CF: War Photographer got the most attention. The Giant Buddhas got a lot, too, because it was in the festival circuit, and here in the U.S. my films are on the documentary channels and HBO and then on Netflix, which is also important. I'm not expecting American families to go watch these films in the movie theaters, so I would be happy for a small theatrical release in New York and then DVD and TV.

Q: Did the Oscar nomination make anything easier for you? Did it make a difference?

CF: It helps, of course, because it's such a label. And it's still a label and remains a label, and the interesting thing is people are more aware of the documentary branch, which perhaps 15 years ago no one cared about. I feel that in documentary filmmaking there's so much energy. We do have the feeling that we have a broader range of expression than in fiction.

We have mainstream documentaries now, which I like. Not all these films should look the same. It’s just important that the audience knows there’s another way of presenting reality other than through the normal journalistic narration.


For more by Brad Balfour:



Ethan Hawke Survives Vampirism to Direct a Sam Shepard Play

From vampire hematologist in the recently released Daybreakers to inspired director grappling with the first revival of a Sam Shepard play, the 39 year old Ethan Hawke has a life full of artistic endeavors that would make several careers. An Oscar-nominated actor, a film and theater director, a successful fiction writer, and a family man (with ex-wife Uma Thurman), he's a well-respected personality who is relatively unassuming and gracious in person.

In Daybreakers, Hawke plays scientist Edward Dalton, who directs the effort to find a substitute for the blood that vampires must consume, since most of the planetary population has become infected with a vampirism and is consuming humans at a rate faster than humans can be reproduced or the blood supply be replenished.

Now in previews, the Texan-born, East Coast raised Hawke directs a revival of A Lie of the Mind, Shepard's Drama Desk Award-winning 1985 play about emotionally scarred young men and the damaged women in their lives set in the West. Opening February 18, 2010, at the Acorn Theater, this production by The New Group stars Marin Ireland, Keith Carradine, Frank Whaley, Laurie Metcalf and Josh Hamilton. In a recent roundtable interview, Hawke talks about both his science-fiction/horror film and this new Off-Broadway work.

Q: What are your favorite horror films?

EH: For me, probably the biggest reason I ended up doing this movie was that [Aussie twin brothers-directors/writers] Peter and Michael Spierig have the same passion and love for movies. When I made my first movie with Joe Dante [1985's The Explorers], he was coming out of working for [director/producer] Roger Corman, and he had directed The Howling, and Piranha, and Gremlins. I was 13, or 14 years old being taught about movies by this guy who is a huge film fanatic and film historian. He’s got a Scorsese/Tarantino like brain for movies. He’s a terrific, amazing, passionate person, and very interested in the power of movies — you can make a movie like The Howling, where it's about werewolves, but there’s an allegory underneath it. He taught me about why [director] John Carpenter was brilliant. And these guys have the same passion and the same love for those kinds of movies, and they wrote a script that was incredibly original.

I’ve done one other movie that I would really call a genre movie, which was [2005's] Assault on Precinct 13, a remake of a [1976] Carpenter movie, and I love John Carpenter. They understand what the old school B-movie is supposed to be, and I thought that it would be really fun to be in one and to try to get into that mode.

Q: As a fan of horror films, were there any specific vampire characters that you drew on?

EH: The biggest one was actually things that I’d seen not work. In a lot of vampire movies — I can’t believe I’m talking about this — but a lot of vampires people start playing that they’re dead and they go dead behind the eyes or something. They become kind of boring.

If you're not the diabolical evil vampire that Willem [Dafoe] played so well in Shadow of the Vampire, it's difficult to give them any spark. That was more my big fear: how to have that haze of depression that you would imagine would come with one day being exactly like the next forever and ever, and not have the movie be boring.

Q: Did your theater chops help you with performing in this?

EH: I'd like to think so. I like to like that guys like Peter and Michael hire Willem and me because we have a lot of experience with storytelling and first-time directors don't really want to teach anybody about acting. It's one of the small benefits of getting older.

Q: So what's up with A Lie of the Mind?

EH: I just left rehearsal. It's going [really well]; I'm doing Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind with a great company of people, The New Group. It's awesome. It hasn't been done in New York in a long time and I’ve always wanted to do it, so I'm getting a chance to now.

Q: What attracted you to directing that particular piece?

EH: It's a long story, but I got to do [the Shepard play] Buried Child with Gary Sinise [in a production by Chicago's acclaimed] Steppenwolf [Theatre Company], and I got to do [Shepard's] The Late Henry Moss, directed by Joe Chaikin [the founder of The Open Theatre, who died in 2003] here in New York.

The combination of Chaikin and Steppenwolf are two very different schools of thought on Sam Shepard and what his work is about. I was deeply affected by both of them and it made me want to try my own theories about it.

Q: Is your style of directing theater different from doing a film?

EH: Not for me. I come at all this as an actor, whether it's writing or directing, [film or theater]. I'm interested in acting and other types of directors are interested in other things; they’re interested in style or noir or horror or whatever. None of that really is, as a director, something I know enough about.

Q: Getting back to this movie, what was the best and worst thing about wearing the vamp contacts and fangs?

EH: This is going to be a serious answer. When I was younger I hated things like any kind of makeup or accents or any kind of artifice in performance. The best thing was that, as I've been getting older… The older I get, the more I’ve been enjoying it and realize there’s this whole other door[way] to performance. It’s fun; I don’t know how to explain it more than that.

The worst thing was that I loved my fangs because they were fitted to my real teeth, and I could put them on and they were really cool for parties and things like that, but my daughter borrowed them for Halloween and she took them off and she accidentally dropped them down the sink and they're gone forever. And they were pearl and they were so cool. Kids today.

Q: Did you see any parallels between Daybreakers and your 1997 science-fiction movie Gattaca?

EH: Yes, certainly. I think [the Spierigs] really liked Gattaca.The parallels really exist in the look of the film; I noticed it as we were doing it. What Gattaca did that was so smart was that there was something retro about it; it was a futuristic movie that was retro. The cars looked older, the costumes looked like they were form the past, and that seemed more realistic than spacesuits and stuff like that.

This movie has the same quality; in the beginning I imagine my character like Humphrey Bogart or something in a film noir. The combination of film noir with vampire is cool.

The [Spierigs] get the throwback of it. They didn't do the vampires with a computer; they did it with a makeup guy. I mean, they did other things with a computer but it's a little bit of a throwback. We couldn't begin to have the budget to be competitive with what people can do with visual effects today so we had to kind of embrace being a B-movie and be the best version of that.

Q: I can't imagine you had to do that scene more than once  where the human explodes —.

EH: It’s disgusting. I remember saying to Peter and Michael when I’m dripping in blood, "This movie better be good." When you understand the sense of humor of those old school genre movies, to be honest that’s what makes you love Peter and Michael. And I think what makes the movie really special is they have that old-school sense of humor.

Q: What would you do differently if you could live your life without fear of death?

EH: I would smoke all the time and I would ride a motorcycle everywhere. Other than that, I don't know what I'd do.

Q: You don't smoke in real life?

EH: No. But that was a part of me that I thought it would be funny if the character was always smoking until he turns into a human being. Then you want to live longer.

Q: Do you think you'd make a good vampire?

EH: Is that a come on?

Q: Your character is a scientist; did you do any research into hematology?

EH: I am a hematology expert. I went to med school for a year to play a vampire in this movie [laughs]. No. There’s something hysterical to me about playing a vampire hematologist. The character description is hysterical. But I didn't stay up for weeks and learn about all the blood.

Q: You weren't concerned about the coming vampire plague?

EH: No, no I wasn't. I could imagine that fear.

Q: You were one of the soft vampires who didn't really want to be a vampire.

EH: A peacenik vampire. It's a certain challenge in a movie, which I kind of like, which is to be in the middle of an action movie as a person who doesn't really want to fight. I thought there was something unique to that, that I enjoyed.

I always loved seeing Indiana Jones as the professor; I always loved that element of Raiders [of the Lost Ark] where you really felt like he didn't really want to be doing all these things. That was something I could play because I get bored of all this superhero stuff; it's more fun to watch a person struggle with violence than somebody who knows what the right thing to do is all the time.

Q: Did you think of your character as a vegetarian?

EH: I did. I thought of him as a person who worked for PETA who got forced into trying to help the slaughterhouse. He has a lot of really valid points; that whole part of the movie I love.

Q: What other things hit home for you personally with the metaphor the film presents?

EH: The movie operates as an allegory but if I talked too much about it it would be ridiculous. It’s not Schindler's List. it’s a vampire movie. It just happens to also have a great undercurrent of destroying your natural resources. Everything they're saying about the humans could go for the polar ice caps or the oil industry or the meat industry; you can insert whatever you want.

How would you feel about it if it were your own daughter? That's very relevant all the time. Nobody cares about the illegal immigrants but if it's their own child. Nobody cares about the jail system until somebody [they know] is incarcerated. That's the kind of stuff I love.

Q: The dynamic between you and your brother character offered an interesting side note. Did it intrigue you or make you think about would you turn someone vampiric if you had  that power?

EH: That's the most interesting element of the movie. That scene itself…  It's like in the original Blade movie, what really makes that movie work is there’s this one little scene that makes you care about the relationship between Wesley Snipes and Kris Kristofferson. And because of that one scene you actually care about the characters and follow the story.

In the bad genre movies you don't care about anybody and they just try to wow you with blood or heads popping off. The heads popping off isn't cool if you don't care. So I agree with you completely in the idea that one brother would feel really guilty about turning his brother, but also know that he was going to die if he didn't get turned; that’s kind of fascinating to daydream about.

Q: Have you theorized about vampires?

EH: I know why I like vampires, and it's the same reason why all the 11-year olds like vampires. I remember the first time I spent the night over at a friend’s house, being about 11 years old, and staying up late — this is, sadly, pre-VCRs and everything like that — and on late-night TV there came on Nosferatu with Isabelle Adjani, and she was so beautiful.

What the Twilight thing has captured so completely, and Interview with the Vampire tried to do, too, is [to showcase] the sensuality [of vampires],  and that there's something weirdly sexual about vampires. But what's cool about this movie is that it's not that; it's bringing it back to an old-school horror film that has somehow turned new.

Q: You loved Nosferatu  because you thought Isabelle Adjani was hot?

EH: When you repeat it back to me it sounds so stupid [laughs]. I sound like such an idiot. I was hypnotized by Klaus Kinski and Isabelle Adjani; there was something so weird about watching him bite her neck that attacks her dreams, and has been for generations.

Q: Have you seen the other vampire stuff that’s out now like True Blood or Twilight?

EH: I’ve seen Twilight. My daughter is a huge fan so I've watched that several times. I like it.

Q: Did you watch it before doing this movie?

EH: No, that came out after we did our thing. What I was most impressed by were things like…  I like the first two Blade films, actually, a lot; I think they're really cool. It's difficult to do a genre film well; it doesn't matter if it's vampires or Dawn of the Dead or The Thing. One of my favorites is John Carpenter’s The Thing with Kurt Russell, or Escape from New York. Kurt Russell’s a good model; he was always really good in these ridiculous movies.

Q: Have you met Carpenter? He’s a great, cranky interview. I loved talking to him.

EH: Oh, no, I never have. How so?

Q: He’s unrepentant in certain things he’ll say about the state of the business. What do you think about the remakes that have come out lately?

EH: It seems like my whole career there's a whole parallel universe where everybody's just remaking things. But I think that's just throughout history. If you do it well, if you reinvent something and make it new, it's exciting, and if you don't, then it's tedious.

Q: Does making this movie influence your next book?

EH: No. But it does interest me, I would like to write a graphic novel. I love that stuff; I have a whole other part of my brain that does that so I would love to if I could work with a graphic artist.

Q: What would that premise be?

EH: I have it in my noodle and I'm not sharing.

Q: Do you have Oscar picks?

EH: I haven’t even seen enough movies. I don't think I've ever voted for anything that’s been nominated.

A Lie of the Mind
Acorn Theater
410 West 42nd Street


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Auteur Wes Anderson Brings The Fantastic Mr. Fox to Life

Making quirky films seems second nature to director Wes Anderson, so when word went out that he was doing the stop-motion aniWes Andersonmation Fantastic Mr. Fox, expectations rose fantastically. A screen adaptation of the book by late macabre children's author Roald Dahl? Bring it on.

Well, the 40-year-old auteur didn't disappoint, and he's garnered several awards and accolades as a result. His sixth feature-length film is a 2010 Oscar contender for Best Animated Picture, and it's already earned him and co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach an Annie Award for Writing.

Between Anderson's dry sense of humor and his odd stance towards dialogue and relationships, he has made Fantastic much more than a kid's animated film.

The former Texan not only used the voices of George Clooney (Mr. Fox), Meryl Streep (Mrs. Fox), Jason Schwartzman (son Ash) and Bill Murray (cohort Badger), but gave their marquee owners the freedom to incorporate their own ideas into their characters' personalities. Known for working with many of the same actors and crew, he has put that familiarity to great advantage on this demanding stop-motion project. 

Shortly before the film's release, Anderson did a couple of roundtable interviews, which this Q&A draws on.

Q: What was it like writing and collaborating on the screenplay with Baumbach, whom you worked with before as the writer for Life Aquatic and as a producer on his film The Squid and The Whale?

WA: We had discussed it a bit in America and then we met over at Gipsy House [where Dahl had lived with his family in Buckinghamshire, England]. I knew that we were going to add a section to the front of it because the book’s not that long. And so we got set to work there and we quickly realized that where the book ends, it was going to need to keep going after that. We needed to expand the cast a bit. In the book, Mr. Fox has four children and they don’t have names &mdash no identities &mdash so we reduced that to one and the visiting cousin. Then we started to come up with things like that.

Q: What was the biggest misconception you had about animation before you made this film?

WA: I thought I would make the script, record the actors, draw the shots, and then I would work with the production designer and make puppets – get everything sorted out – and then hand it over to a team of animators who would animate it. I thought that during the period  they were animating it, I might be able to direct another film and then, when they finished it, I would get this stuff back, work with a composer and finish it. 

It wasn’t like that. It’s much more time-consuming in every way then a live-action movie. There are so many decisions to be made and for two years [it took up] just every second of my life… But I loved it. I don’t want my next movie to be animated, but I would love to do another animated film [some time].

Q: Do you now prefer stop-motion films or live-action?

WA: It’s fun to me, making a movie like this; everything’s in miniature, so you’re not going to find a location, you’re not going to find props; you’ve got to build them. When you make them, you really do have complete freedom to decide every thing. And every single thing that has to be made is kind of an opportunity to add something to the movie.

I just don’t concern myself on whether its too much, whether its overkill. So for me it was really fun. I think in a live-action movie, you have different [kinds of things,] where the accidents come from different places and your location scout and you say, "You know what, we’re not going to this, we’re changing everything."

Q: In this animated film, you’re able to see the fur move and that’s intentional. Why did you chose to do it that way?

WA: Part of my idea to do the movie in the first place was not just to do stop-motion. I wanted textures like that. I wanted that real tactile feeling. A movie like [Tim Burton's] Corpse Bride for instance, every frame is animated. Our style, it doesn’t move on every frame. If you add the fur motions, it gives you kind of a rougher…to me a more noticeable stop-motion feeling.

Q: You didn’t do the voices in the traditional manner using sound booths; you actually went outside and shot it live.

WA: Yeah, we went to a farm in Connecticut. It was actually very fun, and in the end, we got nice sounds -- of the wind blowing through the trees and things like that. Those can be added -- we have the technology -- so really, the important thing we got out of it was [that of] everybody being together. It was a good way to launch it.

Q: Why did you decide to pepper the word cuss throughout the film; where did that idea come from?

WA: At one moment we had probably three times as many cusses in the movie. It was a case of when I felt that it was overkill in the film. But, you know. I started the movie as a children’s film. It’s based on a children’s book and has talking animals. But when we were writing it, we never paid any attention to that fact.

We just wrote what we thought seemed funny. It wasn’t something like we were ever saying, “Will this work for children?" or "At what age will they understand this, or not understand this?” However, we knew it’s a PG movie and there wThe Fantastic Mr. Fox's author Roald Dahlere certain things we started to think of. Cuss... it was just a way of keeping it PG and… I guess it's pretty obvious. It was just something that we had thought of earlier on and we were enjoying it so we thought some other people might too.

Q: Despite the film being based on Englishman Dahl's book, the film has a very American feel.

WA: It’s a British film by an author who lived there and we made the film there, so for us it was meant to be a British film. But our dialogue was very American. We felt like we could be funnier and more interesting writing American dialogue, and it’d be hard to argue that it’s the wrong accent for British animals. So we just decided that we would make the humans British, but the animals [not]. Also, we had people in mind that I wanted to cast and at that point, it meant that I could use a lot of people that I wanted to use.

Q: What was your visit to the late Roald Dahl's house like?

WA: Yes, it was a long time ago, maybe 10 years ago. I had met Lizzie Dahl, Dahl’s wife, in New York and she invited me to come to Gipsy House and I knew about the place from… Dahl has this unusual thing of being someone who has written all these children’s books, and is famous among children, but has also written about himself. He has written a couple of memoirs, so it was very emotional for me, very inspiring. Also, he not only wrote the book there; it’s set there. At that point I was caught up in the book, so it was a great place to start and that’s why we ending up writing there, because it was so inspiring. You really feel his personality in the place.

Going "Up" with Director Pete Docter of Pixar

When Pete Docter, director of the Oscar-nominated animated film Up, was coming to New York City to accept an award, I got an e-mail letting me know about it: "Would you like to interview him?" Hell, yeah!

Though this year has been great for animated films, with Fantastic Mr. Fox and Coraline providing innovations in stop-motion, and Disney doing a bouncy return to traditional animation, Up provided the ideal blend of a child's sense of wonder and a snarly, craggy version of adult power struggles. As a result it got nominated, but not for Best Animated Feature — it's among the nominees for Best Picture!

The feature-length film tells of the young Carl Fredrickson, who idolizes the international renowned adventurer Charles Muntz and through this worship meets a similarly spirited young girl Ellie and they become friends. When Muntz falls from grace, accused of faking his great find -- the skeleton of the Paradise Falls monster -- he travels to South America in a blimp supposed to prove the beast was alive but is never seen again.

Eventually the two grow up and marry. Though they promise to travel together to that lost land and build a house there, distractions set in and 70 years later, Ellie dies. The lonely, grieving, childless Carl (now voiced by Ed Asner) refuses to move from the house they shared despite generous offers from a construction company that wants to tear it down. When Carl accidentally hits a worker who damaged his mailbox, he is forced to move to a retirement home. He decides to fulfill his promise to Ellie, and uses a plethora of balloons to float the house away in order to travel to Paradise Falls.

However he has a stowaway. Eight-year-old Russell, who is trying to get his badge assisting the elderly is hidden aboard; the two escape and travel to strange lands where they meet talking dogs, the now crazed Muntz and a rare bird named Kevin.

The 41-year-old Bloomington, Minn., native has been at Pixar Animation Studios for 20 years, working on the story and as head of animation for the groundbreaking CGI feature Toy Story (1995). He went on to help craft the story for the 1999 sequel; to direct Monsters, Inc. (2001); and to co-write the story for WALL-E (2008). Docter's been nominated for three Academy Awards, and has twice won the animation field's top honor, the Annie Award.

Meeting Docter and his producer Jonas Rivera offered one of those rare moments — shall we say an Up moment — to discuss in some detail his long career in a unique medium at a unique time in its history, a time that bodes well for both narrative and technological innovations.

Q: Where did this story begin?

PD: This story was a little odd. With Monsters, Inc. I remember being in the shower and thinking, "Say, we could do something with monsters that live in the closet and scare kids and why did they do that. It’s either entertainment for them or it’s their job for some."

It all extrapolated out from that concept. This one came from basically the idea of getting away from everything. The way I would explain it was everybody has a point at which they just feel like the world's too much, I just want to escape from everywhere and everybody, and that’s what kind of started the movie. And of course it evolved and developed beyond that, and it doesn’t really have that much to do with getting away from the world. It’s more of a connection to his wife, which develops maybe six months into the story workings.

Q: It's a curious storytelling process here. You have one idea and you take it along one path with the Ed Asner character and his wife. Then you add in the little kid and all he’s dealing with, then you bring these two elements together. And then the house launches. You played out this one path, then you throw in something else, and somehow they integrate. it’s amazing how that works.

PD: That’s the tricky part for sure. We started with the house flying and then we worked backwards to figure out; who is this guy, where is he going, why is he flying a house as opposed to just taking an airplane like a normal guy, and why specifically this place.

We really tried to think through logically and emotionally, and sometimes those are at odds and sometimes they’re going the same way, what is it about all these elements that work towards the central theme of the film? Really what happens in the first couple of months when you look back, a lot of the key elements are established very quickly, but you don’t really know because there’s a bunch of other things that get thrown out and other things that get added in. And from there it’s just a matter of working those pieces and massaging them so they all work together.

Q: How did it get written, evolve and how did you decide the twists and turns?

PD: It started from a drawing. Bob Peterson and I — Bob being the co-writer and co-director — we just sat in a room and thought of ideas we’d love to play around with. An old man, especially a grouchy old man with a lot of attitude and passion, you know where he’s coming from. He’s going to state his opinion whether it’s popular or not, just like my grandfather.

That just seemed like a great place to start for a character. A lot of times we end up -- and a lot of people do -- with this sort of bland protagonist disease where the lead character is just this milquetoast guy; you don’t want to do anything too nasty because it will turn the audience off or something. With Carl you could sort of get away with a certain amount of attitude because you give him leeway; he’s an old man, he’s allowed to be grouchy. So we played with that.

The other thing that contributed heavily was the house floating away. That really went back to some feeling that I think everybody has, but I certainly did directing Monsters, Inc.; directing is such an interactive, people-centric thing, and by the end of the day I’m an introvert.

I’d want to go crawl under my desk and just hide and rock by myself for a little while, so floating away from everything just seemed appealing. So we combined those and worked backwards and forward as to why is this guy going, where is he going, and answering those questions.

Q: Where the hell did you come up with the talking dog?

PD: Actually the question really is, how do you buy into the story? Because anybody can come up with these weird ideas, and the beginning versions of this story were a little bit of a grab bag of cool things that we just thought would be fun. And they were, but the difficulty in making these stories is connecting them all; weaving those threads together so that this is a story that makes sense to have talking dogs.

Hopefully we did that and you’re sort of brought in by Muntz, who’s kind of the opposite of Carl. So this is the logic: Carl never actually got to go on this real adventure, to travel to exotic places and see amazing things. His adventure was relationship.

Muntz was the opposite: He went to the ends of the earth but he never actually had any relationship except for this weird, twisted one of himself and his dogs, which also kind of explains how he’s able to do all the things he's done, et cetera. So that was our buy-in [to] getting the dogs worked in.

Q: I also think what makes it convincing all the way around is also your casting of the voices. This is really a movie about these people living through these characters.

PD: Of course, when we cast the film we'd already designed the characters.

Q: And you never had actors in mind as you were designing them?

PD: Well, we had a bunch of actors in mind, and with this one, of course, Ed Asner rose to the top of the list pretty quickly. But then what happens is when we cast we start to be informed by the actor. So the writing of the character changes, the way in which they speak, the words they use, that all changes, and we try to basically write to the strength of the actor.

That certainly was the case of the kid; his name was Jordan Nagai, he’s not an actor, never done stuff before. What most animation does is they get an older woman who is an actor, who can kind of sound like a kid, like with [Nancy Cartwright's voicing of] Bart Simpson. But we really wanted to have that authenticity here and so we found this kid who just sounded very sweet and real and truthful. And we rewrote the part; it was originally a little more hyper and bouncing-off-the-walls, and Jordan is a much more reserved kid, so we adjusted that character and slid it more to play to his strengths.

BB: Talk about the wife and the little girl, or the little girl becoming the wife.

PD: The young girl was my daughter.

Q: I didn't realize that you actually used kids on some voices. To use kids is really a challenge in an animated film.

PD: I credit the editors, [led by] Kevin [Nolting]. I think they're as much to credit for these performances as some of these actors, because a lot of times what happens, and not in the case of Christopher Plummer or Asner, of course, this is more when you’re working with kids, but a lot of times you get just these little snippets where right there for three words they sounded believable and then they went off the rails, but then this other track here, if we cut that together….  So it ends up this Frankenstein mess which sounds seamless and natural, but that's the strength of the editors.

Q:  Plummer is the perfect guy to play Muntz. Was that because you saw The Sound of Music?

PD: No. Of course I remembered him from that, but there was another movie where he’s like this rugged adventurer kind of guy. When we designed the character we were thinking of him a little bit more like Ernest Hemingway; more gregarious and loud. When we cast Plummer he gained a little more refinement and education, and just colored that character a little bit.

Q: Had he done animation before this?

PD: Quite a bit. In fact, he’s done just about everything. We were recording and he did something, and the engineer said, "Mr. Plummer, can you stay closer to the mic? You went off mic a little," and he said, "Oh, no, that was on purpose; it was a trick I learned from Orson Welles in radio. He would move back away to give a proximity," and he was right. This guy has done everything; he knows his craft.

Q: The dog must have been fun to cast.

PD: Dug was Bob Peterson, who, of course, wrote the part, but he said he was channeling a dog that he used to have.

Q: And you didn't say, "Well, we've got to get a real actor?"

PD: Well, with my daughter, we cast her not because she's a great actor, but because she was available, and it was the same with Bob. He's just is so funny that by the time it came to casting we were like, "You know what? We don’t even really need to look anywhere else because this is just working great."

Q: This is a pretty trim voice cast for an animated film.

PD: That was by design, too. You're making a point of the strength of the performance by the actor. The other thing that kind of is invisible to the audience is the strength of the animation. When you really look at it this film doesn't have a ton of dialog compared to a lot of films. These animators are so talented and they've built up their skills on over 10 films now.

Q: I think the dog had more dialog than a lot of the other characters.

PD: Carl is a man of few words.

Q: Do you have your own favorite moments in Up?

PD: Yeah, I do. My favorite is probably the sequence in the beginning we called "Married Life." It’s four-and-a-half minutes of their life together. That was a lot of fun to do but kind of nerve-wracking, too, because you have to be careful when you're presenting something like that that you don't top the schmaltz-o-meter. But it seems to have succeeded, so I'm very proud of that.

There's another scene at the end where Carl gets finally inside the house, and he sits down and he goes to look through the adventure book and finds that those blank pages are full of pictures of the two of them.

I'm proud of that one, too, for much the same reason, where it's the juxtaposition of the images and Carl's face. Between that and the acting, that scene I feel like works quite well, and it's all done without dialog.

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[Photos copyright Disney/Pixar unless otherwise noted]

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