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Nowadays you've got your sparkly vampires and your fast-running zombies and, who knows, maybe the next Frankenstein's monster will be all-digital. But director Joe Johnston's The Wolfman, a remake of the 1941 Universal Pictures classic The Wolf Man, goes old-school: Fog-enshrouded moors and ancient castles in 19th-century England. Johnston may be known for his special-effects hits Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) and Jumanji (1995), as well as the cult-classic actioner The Rocketeer (1991), but he also directed the critically acclaimed October Sky (1999). So The Wolfman, starring Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt and Hugo Weaving, has what you might call a good pedigree.Long delayed — it was originally announced for release on Nov. 12, 2008, under original director Mark Romanek, and bounced around various dates until settling on Feb. 12, 2010 — it comes at a time when audiences may well be as starved for werewolves as they've proven to be for vampires and zombies. If nothing else, it's the culmination of star and producer Del Toro's longtime dream of starring as the tragically cursed Lawrence Talbot. The new film, like the original, finds Talbot returning home to England to reunite with his estranged father (Hopkins here, Claude Rains originally), encounter Gwen Conliffe (Blunt here, Evelyn Ankers originally) and — though he's presumably a man who's pure at heart and says his prayers by night — becoming a werewolf.We spoke one-on-one with Johnston and Hopkins, interpolating their transcripts into a single interview. For Maitland McDonagh's "Miss FlickChick" review of the movie, click here.
Q: What do you think makes this movie, The Wolfman, distinct from other werewolf movies?AH: It's an action-packed movie, and the wolves are ferocious and have great speed. I did see the Claude Rains one many, many, many years ago, but I always prefer to do something — especially if it's a remake — blind. I'm not going back just to clear my mind and ensure my performance is not like Claude Rains. Q. What do you think makes the time right for a werewolf movie?AH: Well, I don't know. If I was a psychologist or a marketing expert I'd know. Everything seems so action-packed, everything is CGI — not that this is very old-fashioned; there's CGI in it. But I guess this generation wants that speed. You've got all those other films like Spider-Man and Iron Man, and I suppose it's that the fashions change. I'm in [the upcoming Marvel Comics] film called Thor, directed by Ken Branagh. I play [Thor's father] Odin. I play a god. And it's nice to play a god! I'm kind of amazed because Marvel Comics are so widely read that people know more about my part than I do about it.Q [to Joe Johnson]: And you're working on the Captain America movie, which is scheduled to come out first,JJ: We're in soft-prep on that; we don't start shooting until the end of June so I'm putting most of my time in The Wolfman still. [As of late December 2009,] we're still doing ADR ["automated dialogue replacement" or "additional dialogue recording," the standard practice of dubbing soundtrack dialogue that was recorded inaudibly or changed after shooting wrapped]. Emily Blunt is on a picture in New York and she was unable to do her ADR this week [as scheduled]. So we're sort of scrambling because she can't do it until January. She only has four hours worth of ADR, but it's going to be a race to finish now.Q: I heard Gene Simmons of the band KISS is doing the werewolf screams?JJ: Well, he did some howls and we are using some of the material he did, processing it and adding to it and morphing it into howls, but I've sort of turned that over to the sound guys; I'm not exactly sure how much of it they're still using. It was entertaining; the best part was just to watch Gene Simmons howl — that was a blast. That you don't get to see every day.FL: Was it your idea? Are you an old KISS fan?JJ: We'd had an opera singer in, because we wanted a pure tone for the howl that we could then manipulate. And it was just too pure, too clean. We wanted sort of raspy, worn-out pipes, and Gene Simmons supplied them. It was our sound designer's idea. Q: Now, you inherited The Wolfman from director Mark Romanek [who directed 2002's One Hour Photo], and also you had another writer, David Self, come in to rewrite [Se7en screenwriter] Andrew Kevin Walker's draftJJ: Yes. David actually came in before I started. Andrew's draft was probably too violent for an NC-17 rating; it went a little over the top in my opinion.FL: Too violent for NC-17?JJ: Yeah (laughs). it was just way out there and I think everyone recognized, including the studio, that as much of a taste that the fanboy audience has for that kind of thing it was probably [appealing to] a very limited audience. It was too violent, too gory. David came in and he put the relationships back into the script; he really made them interesting and strong and tragic and romantic. I think Andrew Kevin Walker should be very happy with what David did to his first draft. He made it a script for a much broader audience, I think.Q: When Romanek left, there were some heavy hitters that were interested in directing it – Martin Campell, Frank Darabont, Brett Ratner. What was it about your work that tipped the balance in your favor?JJ: Well, I don't think it was anything about my work, necessarily. I came in and I told them what was wrong with the script. And I said, "Here's what you need to do if you're going to make this picture for around $100 million in 84 days — you've got to do this, this, and this," and I think [the studio] recognized that I had made three or four movies of this size and that I knew what I was talking about. And I didn't pitch myself at all; I said, "If you guys want to hire me, here's my number," and I left and I got a call a couple days later saying, "When can you be in London?" I think I'd convinced them that I could make the picture relatively under budget and relatively on time. Of course, after I signed on we added 17 pages of script, so all bets were off at that point. It's one of those things, when you come in on a project like this and you've got three weeks of prep, in many ways it is liberating because you have to trust your instincts, you have to shoot from the hip, you have to sort of hit the ground running. Sometimes when you have all the prep time in the world and you're given all the money and everything you want, you can have this vision that basically is cast in concrete. And what happens is, when you get on the set and things start to go wrong, you have this death-grip on your vision. At some point you have to recognize, "OK, I have to be flexible about my vision because what I thought I had, I don't have. I've got something different, so how do I adapt to those changes?" Especially in a case when you've only got three weeks of prep you have to be able to do that.Q: Why on earth would a big studio give you only three weeks of prep?JJ: I think because they had already spent so much money and they had gone down this road with Mark Romanek and said, "We have to start shooting the movie at this point." I think a lot of it involved possibly actors' contracts and a release date. Fortunately for me, Mark Romanek made a lot of good choices. He cast some great actors [note: Del Toro, Hopkins and Blunt were aboard by this point], I was able to cast a few more good ones, and I was able to change a few of the locations that I didn't think were great. We shot up at the home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, up in a place called Chatsworth, three-and-a-half hours north of London; [the village of] Castle Combe; and the village of Blackmore. We did a lot of stuff down in [the protected national park of] Dartmoor, on the moors" [in Devon, England]. It was just amazing, amazing country down there. The moors, you could go out there and get lost and you'd probably still be out there.AH: Actually I've been in some of those houses. The house we were filming in was this vast, baroque, very, very ancient [place]. All those houses have their ghost stories.Q: The original Wolf Man was set in what was then the present day, 1941. What do you think makes the 19th century seem right for a story like this?AH: It seems to be a darker period. There's something baroque about Victorian England. There was a dark, subterranean world in British society in that time. Beneath the polite, genteel, frigid, upright Victorian manners was a seething cauldron of sexuality and violence. I mean, read Charles Dickens — [his work is] packed with it. And it was a dark, dark, time. People look back nostalgically to the old empire, but it was a dark period in social history — tremendous poverty everywhereFL: The title of the original movie at Universal was The Wolf Man, two words. What does it signal that it's "Wolfman," one word, now?JJ: Well, I don't know that it consciously signals anything; I don't think that anybody said, "Hey, let's make it one word." But it did became integral to the character. It identifies him as an entity that's not a wolf and not a man. I think that sets it apart from the original, and it gives him his own species. He's a wolfman."Q: Did Benicio Del Toro talk about growing up with the old Universal movies and seeing them on TV?JJ: Benicio had said to me that The Wolf Man was his favorite movie when he was growing up. In fact, he said that one of the reasons he wanted to get into acting was so that he could eventually, someday, play the wolf man. I said, "Oh, come on," and he said, "Yeah, no, it's true; I've always wanted to play the wolf man."Q: Does that put any kind of pressure on you or does it make it easier to direct?JJ: No, nothing makes it easier to direct! Not speaking of Benicio specifically; he is very easy to direct, he's got great ideas. He came to the project with his own vision of what the character is and who Lawrence Talbot is. For me, on this picture, the fun was working with the actors and creating these relationships and coming up with who these characters were. I only had three weeks of prep but I could have filled those three weeks with just talk between me and the actors. Emily Blunt, and Benicio, and Tony Hopkins — it just seemed like we talked endlessly into the night by telephone about who these characters were and can I try this, and what if we did that. It was just a blast. They were probably a little bit worried that when Romanek left that, "Hhere's this new guy coming in, what's he going to be like, we thought we knew the picture we were making." I think they just wanted to be reassured that while I wasn't making exactly the same picture Mark Romanek was going to make, I was making one that they could be happy that they were in and be glad that they worked on.Q: When they were talking to you, did you get a sense of them thinking, "Gee, I don't know. It's the guy who did Jumanji and other big effects movies. Am I going to get to act?"JJ: If they had those fears they kept them to themselves. After the first week of shooting I think they saw that this was not going to be what you'd call an effects movie and it wasn't going to be a slasher movie, that there was much more to these characters and there was a lot more to the story and it was much deeper than what they might have feared and even suspected. We are all at this point very happy with the work and how it's turned out.
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Q: In November, Mark Goldblatt and Walter Murch were brought in to do some additional editing. These are just top-of-the-line guys, but two of them? And so late in the process?JJ: It was a slightly odd situation, I have to say. Dennis Virkler had done a fantastic job getting it from the raw footage to the [draft] cut but it wasn't doing quite what the studio wanted it to do, and I had my issues as well, so they decided to make a change. And when I heard that Walter Murch was available — and I've known Walter for 25 years up at Lucasfilm — I said, "If you can get Walter Murch, do not hesitate to make that happen." He is the best living editor in the world today, probably. And it just so happened that Walter was looking for a job, so I said, "Great, let's get him."Q: It's funny to think of legends looking for work, but they do.JJ: Walter just loves film, he loves editing so much. I think he was looking for something interesting to do.Q: And Mark Goldblatt?JJ: Mark was actually doing stuff that I didn't want Walter to do, because the studio said, "Can we try this, can we try that?" and I said, "Yeah, we can try it, but Walter's doing the official cut, Walter's doing my cut. I don't have any problems trying stuff; just know that it's not the movie unless the director says it is." And they said, "No, that's okay, that's fine," and since we were sort of short on time I said, "Look, why don't you hire Mark and put him down in this editing suite where he has access to the footage, and he can try what he wants. He might come up with some great stuff and we'll put it in the cut. Let Mark do his thing and I will sit here with Walter and we'll be cutting the official version of the movie.' And everybody was happy with that, and Mark came up with some interesting things that ended up in the [final] cut, and there was a lot of stuff he did that was not in the cut. Q: You've done so many movies, including some hits, and I'm wondering, especially with editing being done so late in the game, do you still get nervous or have you reached a point where you're so well ensconced in your career that you just take everything in stride?JJ: I've got my next job and I'm not going to worry about the success or the failure of the picture. I can only use my instincts and say, "I think this is the best version of that scene. This is the best take. This is the best piece of music for this scene." And I can't start second-guessing myself and thinking, "What does the audience want to see? What does the studio think is the best solution for this?" You can't start doing that, because after a while it all becomes a blur and you forget what your original instinct was. You have to say, "This is right, I'm going to stick to it," and if you do that, if you trust your instincts, then they will usually continue to be your instinct. If you don't trust them and you start wavering, you start saying, "I wonder if more people would like this than this," then I think at that point you're sunk. You just have to stick to your guns.Q. This is your first movie in a long time. What have you been doing between Hidalgo (2004) and this?JJ: I took four years off because I was so burnt out after Hidalgo and I just said, "To hell with it; I'm going to either do something else or I'm going to wait until I find the greatest script in the world." I took four years and I built the kids a tree house, I read a hundred books, I just stayed at home and basically played. And my kids were young at that point and we just had fun. The last year I'm thinking, "I'D better go back to work. I've got bills to pay, too, and I better start looking for something." And I could not find anything I wanted to spend a year-and-a-half of my life on. I just struggled and read script after script after script and I just tossed them in the recycle bin. When this thing came along I thought, "Well, it's not what I was looking for but there's a great story here; it's a classic retelling of this gothic horror film that I loved as a kid, so why not?" And once you make that commitment you have to just go all the way and it becomes your life. It's almost two years now.Q: I just want to ask some biographical things real quick. Your name is Joseph Eggleston Johnston II?JJ: The third.Q: Ah, that explains it. The "Texas Births" listing at FamilyTreeLegends.com, where I got this, had an asterisk by your name, but no footnotes. The asterisk key is right next to the "I" key, so "II*" must be a typo.JJ: I guess. I am the third.Q: And you were born in Fort Worth?JJ: I was actually born in Boston. I've never bothered to correct that on IMDb because I figure there aren't any film festivals in Fort Worth so no one's going to call me and say, "Hey can you come down and make a speech?"Q: And you went to California State University, Long Beach?JJ: I went to Cal State Long Beach, I went to Pasadena City College, I went to [Pasadena's] Art Center [College of Design], I went to USC. I got kicked out of a lot of good schools!Q: What happened?JJ: I went to USC when I was in my mid-30s and I had already had a career at Lucasfilm for about 10 years. I spent a year at USC and took the classes I wanted to take and had a great time. I realized I that I already knew a lot of the stuff I was learning but I didn't have a context to put it into. What film school does better than anything is it forces you to get out there and make the movie. As hard as that is by yourself, you've got to wrangle your camera and your friends to be in it and the costumes and all that stuff, and that is the true value of film school. You've got to show your dailies at 9 o'clock Monday morning and if you don't have them you're going to look like a total putz.Q: You went to work with Lucasfilm right out of high school?JJ: No, I went to work for Lucasfilm right after Cal State Long Beach. I was 25 when I started at [filmmaker George Lucas' company] ILM; I think I was the 12th employee hired. It was a six-week job doing storyboards. I bluffed my way into the job saying I knew what storyboards were; I had no idea what storyboards were! The six weeks turned into two years and that turned into the next two "Star Wars" films and the next three "Indiana Jones" films and a bunch of stuff in between. After 10 years I decided I'd had enough and I wanted to go do some traveling and spend some money that I had been saving, and George said, "You know, you should go to film school." I said, "That doesn't sound very much like a vacation." And he said, "No, but I think it would be good for you." He kept me on half-salary and he paid my tuition and he allowed me to take any classes I wanted to take. He is just the most generous person I've ever known. He's not only generous with his time and money but with his knowledge; I learned more from sitting in the editing room with George than you could ever learn in film school.Q: Were you one of the people who famously got points he gave to the early Star Wars people?JJ: What he did was, he took one point and split it eight ways on [The] Empire [Strikes Back], and he took a point and split it 10 ways on Return of the Jedi. After Star Wars we got bonuses but it wasn't splitting a point. The real payday came after Empire Strikes Back, when eight of us split one point. That was great; it was really wonderful.Q: You wrote a "Star Wars" book, The Adventures of Teebo?JJ: I did write a book, a children's book. I read it about a year ago and I thought, "What the hell was I thinking?" It's not really much of a children's book; it's sort of a teen book. I really wrote it because I wanted to illustrate it, and I illustrated everything but the cover. I was not happy with the cover, but they had to get it to press and I ran out of time. It was one of those things I sort of did for fun.Q: Is your wife in the business?JJ: She is not. She is a landscape painter. I'm hoping that she'll get famous enough so that I can retire and live off of her for a while!Q: Are either of your two kids planning on following dad into the business?JJ: Henry is 15 and I bought him a digital Handicam last Christmas and the student version of Final Cut Pro, and he has been making these little movies. I saw one the other day and I thought, "This kid's got something." When I was 15 I wasn't doing anything like this. I didn't even really pick up a camera until I was in film school, so hopefully he's got a jumpstart on me. But it's just fun to see what their instincts are at that age because it's all about what they've seen. He's learning from the films that he sees and we sort of force him to watch classic films, even when he doesn't want to. So he's getting a film education. Lottie is 13 and in the seventh grade, and I think she's going to be a writer or an artist or something. She does her own comic strips and illustrates them.Q: Finally, let's talk a little bit about the next movie, "The First Avenger: Captain America" [based on the Marvel Comics superhero created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1940 for Marvel's forerunner, Timely Comics].JJ: We are working on it; we're in prep. Rick Heinrichs is production designing and we're set up down in Manhattan Beach [California]. It's the part of the process that I love the most; we have eight or ten really talented artists, and we all just sit around all day and draw pictures and say, "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if we could do this?" It's that phase of the production where money doesn't matter: "Let's put all the greatest stuff up on the wall and [then later] see what we can afford'" FL: Were you a Marvel or a DC Comics guy growing up?JJ: I read a little bit of everything but I was a Jack Vance fan when I was growing up. I read everything [science-fiction novelist] Jack Vance wrote and I still love his work. I told [one of the producers], "I'm not really what you'd call a comic book fan," and he said, "Yeah, I know, that's why we want you."Q: Have you been looking at any of the old Jack Kirby pictures? Sam Raimi in Spider-Man had a couple of shots that were taken right from the old comic books.JJ: Yeah, I've been looking at a lot of the Captain America stuff. We're setting this in the period, in 1942, 1943 [during World War II]. The stuff in the '60s and '70s [comic books] we're sort of avoiding. We're going back to the '40s, and then forward to what they're doing with Captain America now. But, yeah, there's plenty to draw on there — there's so much stuff that's been done over the years with Captain America. Any idea you can come up with, somebody's already drawn a comic book based on it.AH: Actually, he's doing Captain America next door to where I'm going to be filming Thor.Q: Well, y'know, comic books always had crossovers.AH: Maybe I'll get a small part. Captain America's grandfather!
Q: Love to see that. What do you have after Thor?AH: Well, I don't know. There's a film that's been around for a little time called Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, for which I'm being asked to play Alfred Hitchcock. But you know, I just say, "Oh, yeah, yeah" to my agent and wait around until they make it or don't make it.
Interview transcriptions by Allie Finkel.
Not so long ago, women weren't allowed to serve in the military or on the police force. Hell, they're still not allowed to drive in some countries or even go out unaccompanied. With those thoughts in mind, director Mira Nair's telling of Amelia Earhart's relatively short life and long accomplishments resonated even more profoundly when the film played in theaters.
The biopic, starring Hilary Swank as the intrepid aviatrix — as the rare female women pilot was then called — now takes flight again on DVD and Blu-ray. Within the confines of home theaters, it may find the audience it missed on its first takeoff. The pioneering Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic; she accomplished many other trailblazing feats, promoting aviation and air travel and becoming an early champion of women's rights. She became an international celebrity and a hugely successful pitchwoman, and had a version of an open marriage. And this all happened during the 1930s, shortly before she flew into history in her famed, ill-fated attempt to circumnavigate the Earth via the Equator.Not unlike Amelia's subject, both two-time Oscar-winning star Swank and filmmaker Nair have been pioneers in their own right: Swank for winning an Oscar playing a character who was a drag king (a woman dressing and living as a man) and Nair for being an award-winning South Asian woman director competing for and getting directorial jobs that previously hadn't gone to a person of either association.Between the big smile, mouth full of teeth and unique vocal cadence, Swank fashioned an uncanny and unforgettable facsimile of Earhart. A cadre of journalists and women aviators (members of the Ninety Nines, a female pilots' group founded 80 years ago by Earhart) got to speak and hear both Swank and Nair talk about putting together this story and performance.
Whether or not you find Earhart's story inspirational (after all, we sort of know the ending), her relationship with the two men she loved — her publisher and backer, George Putnam (Richard Gere) and Federal aviation leader Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor) — makes for a compelling emotional tale if nothing else.Q: When you're making a film where the ending is known, you have to create a dramatic tension. How did you develop that tension and maintain the rhythm of it?HS: When you think you know how it ended you have to see if it really ends the way you think it ended — because there are a lot of theories, aren't there? Obviously, making a movie is collaboration and it takes a lot of people's ideas, but in the end I just try to do what I was told and what was on the page and try to bring the honesty to it.It's a big responsibility to play someone who really lived and who is as iconic as Amelia. We all have such a great idea of who she was and what she looked like, so there wasn't a lot of room for fictional license. We had to just do the best we could to do honor to that person. Under Mira's guidance and keen eye — she's an incredible visionary — we tried to navigate the best we could, and hopefully, that is on screen.Q: What surprised you about her that affected your performance?HS: I learned about Amelia from a very young age, and what I learned was what you learn in textbooks. So obviously, getting under the skin of a person that I'm playing is really important.We're all specific human beings. We know what our favorite color is, what we love; we know what we don't like. Trying to figure that out and understand a person you're portraying is very important. Ironically, Amelia was a very private person, so what she was expressing out in the world might not have been her true thoughts.One of the things that I took away from Amelia that was very inspiring and moving was Amelia's way of going about her life — the way she carried and expressed herself. She made no apologies for saying, "This is my life and this is how I see it, and this is how I want it to be done."In 2009, that's still really rare, especially for women. It's a more male-centric world, and I think that a lot of males are able to have the life they envision for themselves. So when we're talking about somebody who lived in the 1920s — when women just got the right to vote — and in the '30s, it's incredible. It's obviously a period piece, yet it even transcends what we know now. It was certainly a reminder for me to live life, and that you have to constantly look within and continue to live the life that you want to live for yourself and not for other people.I [wish] we could all be so upfront and forthright about our feelings, our emotions, our desires, and needs, and somehow manage our expectations of relationships. I look at my life and say, "I might be doing this because it was my mother's idea of my life or my friend's, or partner's idea, or whatever it is." Amelia's [life] was such a great reminder that you can live your life the way you want it, find love and experience your dreams. You can have it all. That's what I really learned.Q: What were the similarities between you and Amelia?HS: One of them is that she loved to travel, and I love to travel. I've been so fortunate in my career to travel all around the world, and part of that is to talk about the films that I am a part of. Sometimes it can be very grueling and difficult. In the last 16 days, I was in Italy and then back to Los Angeles, then Dubai, then London. then back to Los Angeles, and now in New York. [Flight attendants] actually laugh because I know them so well, and they say, "Hilary, it's illegal for us to fly as much as you fly."I'm constantly in the air and I'm constantly out promoting my films. Amelia understood that without understanding the business side of things, you can't have your career. If I'm not willing to go out and talk about the things that I'm a part of — which I in fact love, so it's not like it's difficult to [do] — then you can't have the other side of it. That makes complete sense to me.I understand the business side of it, although I really love the art side of it, and they intertwine. You try to do the best you can, and I wonder what Amelia would say. I remember her saying that it was hard, and there's a line in the movie: "I feel like I'm this white horse jumping through hoops." Sometimes you feel like you're in a circus. When things become more personal, and you feel like "I'm just an actor trying to talk about my love for movies," you have to remember why you're doing it and be in touch with that.Q: As a woman, how did you relate to her open marriage?HS: It's really challenging to be that honest, even with the people that you really love and feel are suppose to love you unconditionally. It's really hard. But I think that Amelia's way of living her life was very honest and open. So when she lived her life the way she wanted, she had already expressed that's how she was going to do it. It wasn't like she was hurting anybody along the way. I respect anyone who is able to be so forthright about themselves. I think that that's a lot of what our life is about, figuring out how can we be as honest and live as honestly with ourselves and in our relationships.Q: How beneficial was it for you to see that archival footage about Amelia?HS: A lot of it is from newsreels, so it's more her public face. But there are little moments within the newsreel where she doesn't know the camera is on and you actually see her tone down her way of speaking and her physicality.She had a unique speaking pattern, which was the most challenging accent that I have done to date. I spent over eight weeks trying to learn how she spoke. There is that period way of speaking, [like] you hear [with] Katherine Hepburn, and you see all those old movies with that way of speaking, which can sound posh or upper class. Amelia wasn't that.She was a girl from Kansas, and sounded period yet different. Trying to figure that cadence out, and also not make it the elevated public persona that she put on except when needed, was quite a challenge. Thankfully, I had Mira saying, "Push it a little here, bring it back here, that's a little too much here." It was challenging to walk that line to find the human quality in it, and also to relate to it now because we don't speak like that.Q: Did you walk away from this role satisfied with your knowledge of Amelia?HS: In order to play a role, you have to dive into so many different aspects and ways. I felt [that] by the end of it, I had a pretty good idea of who Amelia was — or at least [who] we feel Amelia was from the books we were reading and the information we had — and tried to go deeper in telling the stories through the scenes that were written on the page.These roles [I have played are] all in my heart, and my life's richer walking around with Amelia right in my heart. It's wonderful. Throughout some things that I'm experiencing, I often think about what the characters I've played would do in these situations. You can't help but have that in you. So it makes for a really rich life.
For more by Brad Balfour: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brad-balfour
Looking very Julia Child-like, actor Meryl Streep, the latter half of Julie and Julia, stepped up to the press conference table in a long grey dress cut to mid-calf, wearing a string of pearls. Her screen husband, Stanley Tucci, wore a sport coat and a white open-collar shirt. At this event, held close to the original release of the film, Streep was her usual effervescent self, while Tucci performed as the snarky comic counterpoint. They both seem to have enjoyed playing these characters so much that it's no surprise that her starring role in Julie and Julia recently won Streep a Golden Globe Award and another Oscar nomination. Though Streep went on to get hosannas for It's Complicated — another film in which the 60-year-old actress plays a vibrant woman who transcends the implication of her age — and for her voice work in the animated Fantastic Mr. Fox, it's the twists and turns provided by director Nora Ephron in n Julie and Julia that makes the intertwined stories of seminal French chef Julia Child and her fan Julie Powell the best of the bunch.
The wife of a diplomat in 1949 Paris, Child wonders how to spend her days. So she tries hat making, bridge and cooking lessons at the Cordon Bleu school. There she discovers her passion and eventually creates her landmark book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, leading to a career that in the 1950s and '60s made her the first star chef on television.
In 2002, writer Julie Powell (played by the endearing Amy Adams), about to turn 30 with an unpublished novel and working aimless jobs, decides to cook her way through Child's book in a year and blog about it -- which became the book, Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. With their sympathetic, loving husbands in tow, the film undulates between these two stories of women both learning to cook and finding success through it.
Q: Because Julia Child was such a character, is there a challenge of not doing an impersonation that might veer into parody — Nora Ephron said that you did Julia for her one night after Shakespeare in the Park...MS: Well, I bet everybody in this room could do their version of Julia Child. To everybody that voice was so familiar, and then how do we know whether we're doing here or Dan Aykroyd's version of her? Everyone can pull that Bon appetit! out there. When Nora gave me the script, sometime over a year ago, I just thought that it was so, so beautifully written. It was an opportunity to not impersonate Julia Child, but to do a couple of things. For me, embodying her or Julie Powell's idea of her, which is what I'm doing — I'm doing an idealized version, but I was also doing an idealized version of my mother who had a similar joi de vivre — [is to show her] undeniable sense of how to enjoy her life. Every room she walked into she made brighter. I mean, she was really something. I have a good deal of my father in me, which is another kind of sensibility, but I really, all my life, wanted to be more like my mother. So this is my little homage to that spirit. That's more what I was doing than actually Julia Child.
ST: Well, it's pretend.Q: How did you create this organic-looking relationship; what research did you both do before stepping into their skins?MS: Stanley and I are often on opposite sides in a very famous charades game every Christmas. We've been at each other's throats like married people for a really long time, many years [laughs]. We knew each other in that way and I just sort of am in love with him from afar anyway with the totality of the man, from Big Night (1996) to his acting and directing work and in every way. So does everyone who knows him. He's just real treat to work with. It wasn't a tough job to imagine being in love with him.ST: We have to go now. We are in a hotel. Thanks for coming [laughs].
For me it was easy, too. Probably like most people in the world, ,I, too, have been in love with Meryl Streep for many, many years. We'd done The Devil Wears Prada together, which was really fun, and we knew each other a bit socially before that and so for me it was awesome. It was incredibly easy. [To Streep] You also make it easy because you're so comfortable. I'm always a little nervous when I start shooting and I was very nervous to play around with that.MS: We're you nervous when we started?ST: I was so nervous. I was. You made me feel so comfortable. It was nice.MS: You know what Nora did — she did what she called a costume test, but it was really sort of introducing us to our world. She took us up to the rooms which they built in the Paris apartment that she built in Queens, or wherever they were, and let us walk around in our clothes. In isolation in your Winnebago, or whatever it is, you kind of have a hard time convincing yourself that you are who you say you are. When you walk into this world and the light comes in a certain way and the landscape of Paris — a photograph but still — and here's the man of your dreams, it all came together before we had to actually [do it]. That was a big day.ST: Yes, I remember. Those actual physical elements really helped a great deal.Q: What would you have asked the people you played in this film if you had the chance?ST: I'd like to ask them how they lived so long eating what they ate. I'm convinced that they both had two livers. I'd just be curious. I can't say that I know what I would've asked them, but what I would've liked to have done is watch the interaction between the two of them in that little kitchen — either in Paris or in Boston — because to me that was the most interesting thing. When you see that kitchen — we recreated it in the film — it was so casual and really very intimate. I would've just liked to have watched that, watch them put together a meal. That would've been a great thing.MS: I would agree. I would've loved to have heard Paul's voice. Julia's is so vivid and she left behind such an articulate trail of her journey in the book that she wrote with Alex [Prud'Homme] and in My Life In France and in her cookbooks. Her voice really comes through. I would've loved to have heard him because he was a great storyteller and his interests ranged across a wide variety of topics, and I'm sure that he was sort of a really interesting person to hear.
Q: Julia Child went through so many challenges in the beginning of her career. What were some of the challenges that you both went through as you started out as actors?MS: Well, my challenge was committing to acting, thinking that it was a serious enough thing to do with my life. What are you going to do with your one wild life? I just didn't think it was… I don't know. I thought it was sort of silly and vain, acting even though it was the most fun [thing] that I had ever done. It remains that, ergo it can't be good for me. It was just deciding. I remember thinking the first time that someone said, 'Well, what do you?' and I said, 'I'm a… I'm an, uh, actor.' Then I had committed, I realized, but it took a long time.ST: I took it too seriously at first and it took me a long time to understand that you have to be serious about what you do but you mustn't take yourself seriously. That way you'll be happier and ultimately you'll be more successful. You'll be better at what you do. I think the challenges for me at the beginning… Well, it was much easier after I lost my hair, to tell you the truth. I started to work constantly once I started to lose it. So I'm thinking about losing the hair on my whole body. [jokes] That's disgusting.MS: That's going to be repeated everywhere now and come back to haunt you.Q: What were some of the best bonding experiences you had over food either on this movie or elsewhere, and if you could hang out with any character you've ever played who it would be and why?MS: Well, we bonded. I mean, I knew Stanley, but I thought, "Well, I might as well invite him over for dinner." So he came and I decided I'd make blanquette de veau, and it was not quite done when he arrived, and so he came in and completely took over in the kitchen.ST: It's untrue.MS: It's totally true.ST: We tried to do it together, but we'd had too much wine. "Why are you doing that way?"
MS: "Is that what you're going to do?" Seriously, I'm just asking. [laughs]
ST: Why do you hold it that way?
MS: "Can I just… it's okay. I can show you an easier way." Boom. It was out of my hands. He's just a great chef and I'm a cook.ST: You're very kind. It was a fun night, but we didn't eat until about 11 or so. My wife Kate came and said, "What time are we eating?" I said, "I think we'll be done cooking about eight." She [Streep] goes, "We're not going to make that."
MS: Great, great tomatoes, but my mother [had] The I Hate to Cook Book cookbook [by] Peg Bracken. Do you remember that? No. Not in your family. I remember when I was 10 going up to a little girl's house up the street and she and her mother were sitting at the table and they were doing something to tennis balls and I said, 'What are you doing?' They said, 'Making mashed potatoes.' I said, 'What do you mean? Mashed potatoes come in a box.' They were potatoes. They were peeling potatoes and I had never seen a real potato. So my mother's motto was, 'If it's not done in 20 minutes, it's not dinner.' She had a lot that she wanted to do and cooking wasn't one of those things. My food memories, I mean I think Julia Child really did change the whole. I recently found my knitting book at the bottom of a knitting bag from 1967. It wasn't a knitting book. It was a magazine that had some knitting patterns in it and it was called Women's Day, from 1967. It's filled with recipes and food ads and it's all Del Monte [brand] canned peas, Del Monte canned corn, Del Monte peas and corn, green beans, and all the recipes are, like, "Take ground meat and put in artificial mashed potatoes, layer it, top it off with tomato sauce out of a jar, put it in the oven and presto it's dinner." This is how we ate. People forget. Julia changed the way that people thought about cooking. It was great.Q: if you had the opportunity, what chefs would you like to have over, and what would you like them to cook for you?MS: Dan Barber [from the Manhattan restaurant Blue Hill].Q: and what would you have him make for you?MS: Anything that was fresh up there.Q: And Stanley?ST: My grandmother ... she was an extraordinary cook. ...But Mario Batali, I think in a lot of ways… yeah, Mario.Q: Did you do your own Julia imitation?ST: No. I never did. I would've been fired.
MS: Well, when I was in drama school I was obsessed with Jonathan Schell's book The Fate of the Earth. I've always been interested in environmental issues and I still am. That seems to me be worthwhile work, but over time I understood, just what I think from other people's work, we need art as much as we need good works. You need it like food. You need it for inspiration to keep going on the days that you're low. We need each other in that way. So, yeah. I've reconciled myself to the fact that you can make a contribution. I've even reconciled myself to the fact that even my children might choose this profession. They seem to be, and now that's okay. Really, I was pushing the sciences but it's just not going to happen.
Q: Meryl, how hard or easy has it been to stay focused with all the success you've had in recent years?
MS: You know what, I didn't think about it. I really didn't think about either sustaining my career or my voice. I haven't really thought about it. I'm like every other actor — I've been unemployed more than I've been working because of the nature of what we do. We just have a lot of downtime, even though it seems like you're working, working, working. So I've never gotten used to either being working or being out of work. It's a very uncertain life and there are only a few people that would sign up to be married to someone else doing that. My husband is an artist and he understands that, the vagaries of the job. I just take it as every day is a miracle and I'm really glad that I'm still working and that people are not sick of me. Even I'm sick of me a little bit.
Q: You're now a box office star –- has that changed anything about the choices that you make now?
MS: I seem to have more choices in the last five years, in the previous five years, maybe. I really don't know why that is, but part of me thinks it has to do with the fact that there are more women executives making decisions because everything starts with what gets made and where the money comes from. I'm sure that they've had more to do with that really than I have.
Q: How do you deal with all the accolades?MS: Well, fortunately, the blogospshere supplies you with the other side of all the accolades [laughs]. Just sign on and get humble.
[Photos by Brad Balfour]
Five years ago Israeli filmmaker Shahar Cohen lacked a resume, romantic prospects and career recognition beyond "bum" when he set out to retrace his father's World War II campaign across Europe six decades prior. Cohen père, Sleiman, had fought with the Jewish Brigade, the British Army battalion that trumped the Nazis in the war's waning months, and later smuggled refugees and survivors to Palestine and formed the Israel Defense Forces. At Sleiman's suggestion, the thirtysomething Shahar — who'd had a peripatetic career as a musician and actor, dabbling in screenwriting and film editing — began considering a documentary about those real-life "inglourious basterds."
It didn't fire him up, though, and despite his lingering underemployment, Shahar wasn't particularly jazzed to make that film. But then he learned at a Brigade reunion that he may have half-siblings — "souvenirs" of Sleiman's service — in Holland. With co-director Halil Efrat, Shahar crafted a road movie of father and son's spirited ribbing while hurtling down memory lane of both asphalt and bonding.
Suvenirim (English title: Souvenirs) took Best Documentary Feature at the Israeli Film Academy's 2006 Ophir Awards, Best International Feature at the American Film Institute/Discovery Channel's 2007 SilverDocs Festival and the Golden Gate Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2007 San Francisco International Film Festival, among other laurels. FilmFestivalTraveler.com reached Shahar in Jerusalem on the eve of this year's Ring Family Wesleyan University Israeli Film Festival (January 28 - March 4, 2010), where this interviewer is a guest speaker.
Q: First things first: How's your father? SC: Okay, but he wouldn't have the strength to do the trip today as he did four years ago. He turned 87 in November. He no longer has his balance, and needs to be steadied. I see him every day and take care of him. Suddenly he became a sort of celebrity. He walks down the street and people recognize him.Q: You were blasé about doing a film on the Jewish Brigade until learning at a Brigade conference that your father may have left a "souvenir" behind. What was the exact "aha" moment where you realized you had a story to tell?SC: It was clear to me that the conference wouldn't lead to a film; it was just a bunch of old people. But then I found out about the pregnancies and thought it was a solution to the nagging issue of grandchildren. Q: It's almost hard to believe that the camera was there to capture Sleiman's revelation. SC: I was really surprised at the conference. This wasn't the first time I had heard [about his WWII philandering], but I had never fully believed him. It was as if he was waiting to talk about it till the moment it would be filmed. This wasn't necessarily a conscious thing on his part. The presence of the camera, and the fact that his son was doing a film pulled other things out of him, and led to a degree of exposure. The camera does something to people. So he must have felt it. Q: So hearing actual names of past girlfriends was what crystallized the project for you?SC: Now for the first time he mentioned names. Without talking about the girls, there was no inciting event. They provided the pretext of the film. It wasn't enough that dad wanted me to do a film on the Jewish Brigade.Q: Though your film is a documentary, it's structured like a fiction narrative. How did you get reality to cooperate so smoothly?SC: I don't come from the documentary world, neither in my studies or otherwise. I was always much more interested in feature films. That may also explain the structure of Souvenirs. I even wrote a script with dialogues for potential sponsors and also with the idea of understanding what we were going for — and which topics we would explore — in each of the places we would be in. Q: Can you give an example?SC: For instance, when we're going to meet Anne-Marie Zwart at the end, we already knew she was the girlfriend we were looking for. And when I tell Sleiman that another woman, Maria, had died early, that was just to give a fake ending, to mix in the technique of the preplanned script. We knew she was the wrong person. Things were very planned, though there was room for spontaneity. We always managed to wrest humor from the scene. I know my father very well and could anticipate what sort of thing he'd say. We didn't bring the script with us, but we tried manipulations. Q: Talk about a theme you wanted to highlight that took some engineering.SC: The idea that he wasn't such a hero, that he had tried to get out of active combat in the field. Q: And how did you stage this?SC: I knew we'd be in the Senio...Q: As in the Senio River Valley, the Italian Front where the Jewish Brigade faced down the German Army in late winter and spring of 1945, correct?SC: Yes, and I knew that we'd have something of a fight in that I'd criticize him for not really fighting. That provoked his criticism of me, to stimulate the tension between us. It kicked up his feeling of, "Who are you to criticize me?" Q: Meaning, you who had gotten out of army service?SC: Right.Q: Yet even though you left the service, you prized the idea that your father was a war hero. What was it like for you to pop his warrior hero myth? SC: In his heart of hearts he doesn't think he's a hero, but that he was part of a period, linked to a certain situation and did his little role. Q: Still, was it hard for you to reconcile the "souvenirs" of embellished memory with historical truth?SC: There's a certain duality in the film. I try to confront my father's past as a hero as I saw him as a child, and to square it with the fact that he wasn't such a hero after all like I thought. It partly disappointed me, but I also discovered that we're more alike than I thought. He too is a man of freedom who didn't go to the battle. Both generations have a different kind of consciousness. Q: How did the film change your relationship?SC: To some extent it was about function in situ. The director is the one who decides, so that power game prevailed throughout. He wanted to be the good soldier who did what was required. He had an awakening to cinema. There's something very mysterious and compelling about it. Q: So the role reversal came as much from the myth-busting as from your billing as director? SC: My father didn't come from the world of cinema, and somewhere the authority I had in my hands brought about a reversal of roles. Here he couldn't argue with the fact that I had a language that he didn't speak. He gave me a lot of credit and respect in this, and it created a reversal in our balance of power that continues till now.That's something that transcends cinema, and exists between any son and father. Some of the resonance of the film is that every son in some place takes over the role of authority. This is the crux of the film's father. People have come up to me with tears in their eyes after screenings and said, "What a privilege that you managed to do with your father what I didn't get to do with my father." The film manages a kind of closing of a circle that every son would want to close with his father. Q: Did you set out to close this circle?SC: Yes, it was an issue to give him the power to continue onward. Even with healthy older people, the moment they lose curiosity, and don't have the coach of life, this can begin to bring them down. I sought something that would give my father life. Q: And vice-versa? SC: Yes, he gave me the push in my professional career. I was pretty unemployed in the beginning of the film. His perspective at the end of the film changed and he saw that I could do something. The most important critics and awards very much made him believe in me. He trusts me more now.Q: Isn't it ironic that it took your "manipulations" to enhance his trust?SC: Most of the tension of the film is that my father is doing a historical film but the detective film is hidden from him. The film works because of this twist. In a certain sense I'm betraying him, duping him. But it let him free himself. He wouldn't have allowed himself to do it had he known I was searching out the relationships he had left behind. He, out of sacrifice for me, gave all of himself so that I would succeed in the film. He wasn't even necessarily aware of this issue not being closed or resolved in his life. He actually never really dared to talk about it beyond the opening scene. But I think he is full of gratitude for it. He won't say it in plain language, but he does say it was a dream for him to return to those places of war. It's tough for him to talk about intimate things. He's pretty closed.
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Q: And you? Were you comfortable as an on-camera protagonist? SC: Personal exposure is very hard for me. At the beginning I thought I'd only film Sleiman. But slowly with the evolution of the film we understood that the interaction between us would be the backbone of the film. It required entering very personal areas.Q: Why do you think he broke down at the sight of the Jewish Brigade memorial in Italy?SC: It was especially about longing. The memorial was like a seal, a stamp of his youth. He was a very formal man — a sports instructor and an educational figure who raised generations of Jerusalemites. When he sees something written, it's a proof for him. Suddenly he saw something written in Hebrew in Italy, and it was authorization that they were there: the thing actually happened.Sleiman is a Yemenite Jew, and he brings to bear a particular sensibility and tradition that may be different from the European Jewish experience. His grandfather arrived 130 years ago in Israel, but he still identifies as a Yemenite. Q: What was the biggest challenge for you in making the film?SC: Finding the balance between being true to the film and its success on the one hand and between my place with my father and how much I'm willing to sacrifice on the other. It was very hard to come to terms with the possibility that we'd find a family member like a brother. It was a big risk.Q: Was probing into Sleiman's relationship with your absent mother a risk? SC: More than anything it's a film about a father and son — a father who stayed with his son after divorce, which isn't typical since usually kids remain with the mother. A very specific set of relations developed with me and him, so it was very natural to enter into the issue of the mother. We shot scenes with my mother before the film and intended to shoot more afterwards. But when we came back from Europe, we saw that we had the material we needed and there was no room for more.Q: The film opens with the car that would accompany you on your journey. Talk about this 1981 Autobianchi, and why it was such an important character.SC: In the beginning you see that the car is full of dust. Though I call it my "bonboniera," it was a sign of humiliation. I take her and make of her something that we can look at. Sleiman was embarrassed about his car. But the moment he saw it renovated in Italy, which was where it was from, he understood that actually the car both symbolized our relationship and his situation. He often said the car looked like him. My resurrecting it made him think that the car's story returned to the road and was younger, just as he too returned to his youth and became full of energy. So he returns to the place where he was during his peak, and the car returns to its original home. It has a new engine just like he has a new engine. Q: Now that we're on to your technique of goosing the narrative, I wonder: did the car actually stall back at Sorek Brook?
SC: Okay, it didn't actually get stuck. Halil Efrat, my co-director, warmed up my father. He said, "I told Shahar not to use the car," so my father would get angry at me. Halil and I met in kindergarten, and our relationship is very familial. He fulfilled a very important role with my father. He's more responsible and he found his place in the world faster than I did, so for my father he's more of an authority. We exploited this to get things out of my father.Q: You and your father sing a favorite Jewish Brigade song at Sorek Brook, with the lyrics, "daddy is kicking out mommy." The tune echoes throughout the film. Is this a musical wink to the Brigade kicking out the Nazis? SC: The whole story of my mother conflates with the story of the film. The moment my father brought the film to Sorek Brook, I connected with (composer) Shai Bachar, who lives in New York. We told him to write a bunch of variations on the theme. I love it when source music mixes together with the soundtrack, and that's how we worked. I even played the flute in the film. Q: What's the update on Anne-Marie? Are she and your father in contact?SC: He would like to stay in touch with her. Just now we have a friend from Holland visiting. She saw the photograph in the newspaper about the premiere of our film, just like Anne-Marie had seen our photograph in the newspaper. She came to the screening. Now she's here; she arrived yesterday. Q: So maybe you, too, will have a Dutch girlfriend? SC: It's an option, but now we're in an encounter to see where things could go.
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