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For actor Wes Studi, being a Native American has been a driving force for his career — whether in terms of the characters he has played or the issues they have addressed. Usually his performances are charged by a strong, almost arrogant stance, as if expressed by a man who is proud to have not only survived but thrived.
So it was no coincidence that he was cast an the tribal leader Eytukan in director James Cameron's Golden Globe-winning Avatar or as bounty hunter Sam, the lead character in Kevin Willmott's The Only Good Indian. From his Dances With Wolves days with fellow Native American Graham Green, Studi's become a go-to guy for authentic characterizations. And though he has often played parts that had nothing to do with his heritage, his passion and commitment have made him immediately recognizable.
Vietnam vet, sculptor, musician, author and activist, Studi caught the attention of Hollywood and the public in director Kevin Costner's 1990 Oscar-winning Best Picture Dances with Wolves. He's appeared in more than 50 film and television productions, including Last of the Mohicans (1992), Geronimo: An American Legend (1993), Streets of Laredo (1993), Mystery Men (1999), The New World (2005), Seraphim Falls (2006), Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee (2007) and Comanche Moon (2008). He recently starred as Tony Hillerman's Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn in a series of PBS specials produced by Robert Redford: Skinwalkers, A Thief of Time and Coyote Waits. Before this opportunity to join the blue-skinned cast of Avatar, he played General Linus Abner in last year's NBC series Kings.
Born in Norfire Hollow, Okla., this fit six-footer exclusively spoke his native Cherokee language until beginning school at age five. A professional horse trainer, Studi began acting at The American Indian Theatre Company in Tulsa, leading to his shot in Hollywood. But Studi and his wife Maura Dhu never became Californians; they live in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and perform in the band Firecat of Discord.
In Avatar, he plays a character who comports himself with a dignity becoming of the values and strength of the Na'avi tribe he leads — the one that resists the human invaders who threaten to destroy his community's way of life. In the upcoming indie The Only Good Indian, he takes on a very different character, that of an Old West Indian who is stalking his own people — in this case, children who as being taken from their tribes and forced to be Christianized around the end of the 19th century.
Q: Each of these films have their own little pleasures and difficulties. What were they for each?WS: The pleasures of course were working on a huge blockbuster— and I don’t think I’m premature in saying that’s the case with Avatar. But of course, it had many difficulties. That world's language, for one, was fairly difficult in that it’s a made-up language. It also remind[ed me] that all these things were a very real thing to my ancestors. And then, in a way, we’re reminded that indigenous cultures many times fall under the manifest destiny of those who would gain something from our suppression. So it’s always a difficult and sad reminder that life is not as equitable as it could or should be.Q: By becoming a successful actor and getting to be in a movie like Avatar — where you are able to convey a message in a variety of ways — is that part of the way you turned your anger into something positive?WS: Right. Exactly. That’s the whole thing in that you can't allow the anger to hold you in a state of mind that would prevent you from doing anything positive about it.Q: Avatar's native characters have some characteristics like those of the indigenous peoples of Africa, but they seem so connected to Native American traditions — the relationship with plants and animals, especially to the horses. Did you have an opportunity to infuse some of your own experience or ideas in the process?WS: I think a lot of the research had been done on the part of the writers themselves already. But yes, I could certainly relate to what was on the printed page, and I think they had a good understanding of the situation from a general viewpoint. And the idea that Native Americans are perhaps more connected to nature is reflected in the Na'vi connectedness of the tree and the roots that expand everywhere. And it’s a Native American premise to life that everything is connected and that we’re all related in one way or another and it's a matter of cause and effect. You know the old story about the flapping of a butterfly in China has an effect on things that happen in Maine or someplace. It’s all an interconnected being that we're a part of.Q: How did you get involved with Kevin Willmott, director of The Only Good Indian?WS: I had met a couple of his producers, Scott Richardson and Greg Hurd, earlier. Then they got in touch and said they had a script that they'd really like me to consider. I was working on Avatar at the time. I took a look at it, and sure enough, it has a story that totally piqued my interest because of the content. So we made arrangements to actually do it, and the rest is history.Q: How long was the shoot and how close was it to where you live?WS: It’s actually about a nine-hour drive from where I live, but I was commuting from Los Angeles because we were shooting Avatar at the time. I had about a nine- or 10-day break from Avatar when we got started on the first part of the script in Wichita. Then I had to go back and finish up Avatar, and came on back to Kansas and we finished it within a matter of, I think it was a seven- or eight-week shoot.Q: What were the challenges with The Only Good Indian? WS: I'm at a loss to see it from the outside. I'm a product of those kinds of policies that led to the kinds of physical and emotional abuses that occurred during the transition from the 1800s into the 1900s. It’s always been a reality to me; it exists at all times, it didn't just go away. And I’m at a loss to see it from the perpetrator’s side of the whole thing. I can only see it from our side of the fence.Q: In The Only Good Indian, you had a more direct influence by being the executive producer. At what stage did you do that?WS: The intriguing part of the whole story to me, which I was part of bringing forth, was the idea of the vampire and how it spreads itself and continues to just grow and grow and grow when it's either accepted and/or adhered to. When we first see me, I am totally working toward becoming that which is the oppressor. [I have] decided that the old ways are of no use, and so why not, if you can't beat them, join them. I have known many people like that throughout my life, and I wanted to be able to show that this kind of effect can be rampant. It’s like that Stockholm syndrome thing, in that we become one with our enemies, our oppressors. That is a reminder that we need to stick with the strength of that which we at one point believed in.Q: You've been a carrier for your culture and other times had roles that were not necessarily reflective of that culture. Is it still hard to not be typed? Do you feel that it's important to be able to play those characters rather than let somebody else who didn't come from that culture?WS: It's [important] to me to be able to play those other characters, because even then I've continued to carry the banner. And that’s not just with American Indians. Actually, what it comes down to is that it’s brown people; it’s the fact that we see some brown people on screen. It’s a matter of people of color is what it really comes down to, and anytime a guy like me winds up in a film like this, it's very good for people of color.Q: Good thing you mentioned color because they were blue in Avatar.WS: It’s still a color, isn’t it?Q: So when you saw Avatar completed, were you amazed, were you glad, did you have a whole different emotional experience? WS: I was overwhelmed by the technology; I really was overwhelmed by the amazing 3D of it all. The story, yes, absolutely — I think it’s a very old story, but this time told in a technologically new way that makes it even more acceptable for audiences. It’s a great pleasure to be a part of something that is not only technologically advanced to the point of amazement, but also one that carries a message that it does and acceptance of one group by another.Q: How is it to have all those things stuck on you? And were you able to play that character while playing with the other actors, or do you do that individually?WS: No, you play with other characters. The only thing that you have to be careful of is the camera that sits right in front of your face and the light. But once you become accustomed to that, it’s acting in the grand old fashion.Q: Are you upset when your character dies in movies?WS: Well, of course I'm upset when he dies. I would rather have lived to see a sequel. Many times it’s a matter of providing the drama of a death that adds to the film. I've died many times in film and television.Q: At least you get to play the leader; that’s something. You were the sage, or you’re the great father or whatever.WS: But in The Only Good Indian, I live. And live gloriously, at that.
Q: It must astound you when you look at it from the other point of view, the incredible arrogance. Is there ever a point when you can understand what was the thinking? Or is it just that you can only be angry about it?WS: No. It's actually a curse to be able to understand that our people were somewhat imperial in their movements at times. I'm Cherokee, and there were times when social expansion was something that is needed by a cultural group or a national group. I can understand that to a certain extent, but the arrogance of it is something that amazes me. And to use the use of religion or belief systems that contribute to the attitudes that came up with manifest destiny, that kind of thing, as well as the need for fuel that is apparent in Avatar. All of these things come to mind. And while it’s amazing, it’s also a very sad thing that we actually can allow ourselves to become a part of something that is destructive to others.Q: When you work on movies like these, do you get angry? Or do they make you feel that now you’re at a point where you're able to get the message out?WS: In a way, that was the case with the story of The Only Good Indian as well. Anyone in other places who gave a shit probably didn't know what was going on in the West at the time. Just as we may be a planet removed from what was happening on Pandora, anyone who was of any social conscience probably was unaware of what was going on out West as we portrayed in The Only Good Indian.Q: Do you find that this movie was raising consciousness of people that might not be aware of it? WS: I like to be able to raise people's consciousness, yes. And to remind that those of us involved in the receiving end of the oppression, we have a duty. What they really make up is a prophecy of, "Why should we continue to do what we’ve always done? Can't we do it in different ways?"
Like the characters that Sigourney [Weaver] and Zoe [Saldana] play, in that research is one thing, and perhaps that would lead to a better kind of conciliation between the two groups if it wasn’t just the out-and-out use of "might is right." It’s something that, unfortunately, we as a human race haven't really learned up to this point.Q: So what was the best experience that came out of each movie? I guess you didn't have to shoot Avatar on location.WS: All the locations were in the computers. One day before we started work, the actors were standing around there waiting, and James Cameron came walking up. I saw his shirt and I thought, "Boy, I like that shirt he’s wearing." I said, "James, wow, that’s a great-looking shirt, I really like that," and he just took it right off his back and said, "Here, have it." And I still have the shirt.Q: And working on The Only Good Indian?WS: I think it was learning to ride the vintage bike. It really is just a bicycle with a motor installed and a leather drive. We had to find a real one we could use for long shots, but the one that I rode was actually built to the specs of the original bike. Its drive was a leather belt, and you know how leather reacts to heat, it stretches out. It was very hard to always be able to take off on, so we had to have another one built that worked off a different principle. I don’t remember any funny anecdotes about the whole thing, but it was a pleasure to work on throughout.Q: That subtle hit to Hollywood in The Only Good Indian: "Now I’m going to move to Hollywood and play a cowboy." One of the great pleasures of making this film seems to be that irony. WS: Absolutely. Irony is one of my favorite aspects of life.Q: You've been able to play a Native American in a lot of different contexts. Do you feel that there are still other kinds of roles that you want to do and stories that you want to tell?WS: There are more — perhaps more to the point, the kind of stories I would like to be able to tell. What I’d really like to say is that these, if you will, "Indian Wars" have never ended. They’ve been a continuation ever since we first met, ever since the creation of the United States. It's been a continual warfare and a struggle to exist for most of the nations here in the United States, and it continues to this day. I don’t really see an end to it because it’s always a clash of cultures and interests here in this wonderful nation that we live in.Q: Were you surprised to find somebody like Kevin Willmott wanting to make a movie like this?WS: Kevin surprised me a little bit, but no, I think he has a mindset that agrees with my own outlook on life. Sometimes it’s a matter of the better alliances to make in terms of what kind of story you want to tell. I think it was a great meeting of the minds and I think we both learned a few things from one another that can help us with our individual struggles in life.Q: You’ve worked with, it seems, every major director that has touched onto the subject in one way or another in the last 20 years, so you must have probably one of the best surveys of directors. Who has inspired you?WS: I don't know about inspiration, but I’ve taken away something positive from each and every one that I’ve ever worked with, I believe. I think one of the great pieces of advice I ever got from a director was from Walter Hill. He [told] me, "Talent is a wonderful thing, and it’s something to be used and abused in every effort of storytelling. However, one of the things that we all need, those of us that are making movies, what we really need is stamina — emotional, physical, and stamina of the soul as well."
Q: And you've had a chance to work with some of these directors more than once?WS: Oh yeah, I’ve worked with a number of them several times. I’ve worked twice with Walter Hill: Geronimo and Undisputed (2002). And Michael Mann with [The Last of the] Mohicans and Heat (1995). In fact, I saw Michael at the premiere; he’s wild about the film.Yeah, it’s a business of creating relationships, you know. I’d like to work with James Cameron again, and of course we practically plan on working on something with Kevin again. It’s good to work with people that you know how they work and they know how you work. It’s mutually beneficial.Q: You — and, I would say, Graham Greene — are probably the two best-known Native Americans actors working regularly. Both of you are in the two biggest blockbusters of this season — he is in New Moon, and you're in Avatar. Both films in some way draw on the value, or the importance, of being connected to this cultural heritage. Has that had some larger resonance, or did you even think about that?WS: I’m glad that Graham and I made it into a couple of films in 2009. It’s kind of indicative, I guess, of the amount of interest and influence we have in contemporary and futuristic endeavors in Hollywood. Q: That is a good thing. To think at one time they were having non-Native American actors playing Native American characters and making them villains, and 50 years later the most heroic figures in two of the biggest films of all time are Native Americans.WS: Yeah, I think it's definitely a positive move; it's a move in the right direction. And hey, I'm catching some optimism. Q: There's been an effort to have an activist African American actors' community. Do you feel that it’s the same thing with the Native American community of actors?WS: Yes, there is an American Indian community of actors, and fortunately we're getting to the point where we don’t all know each other on a first name basis anymore. I would probably be referred to as the old guard at this point. A lot of younger people are coming along these days that are beginning to make waves and that's a great thing.The doors have been opened and more and more people are deciding that they would like to step through the threshold. The activism I would leave to those who are younger than myself and have more energy to devote to that endeavor, and I applaud them for it. It’s something that's needed.Q: Are there stories that you still feel need to be told from the Native American experience, and are there stories you want to be a part of that don't involve it necessarily?WS: One of the things that I would work toward is telling a contemporary Native American story that is of real consequence in contemporary times. It's always going to be a matter of connecting with the past and thinking about the future, but we also have to work on the really great contemporary Native American story. We haven’t found it yet but that's what we're looking for.Q: Are there particular Native American stories or books that you hope to see made or that you want to make?WS: Yeah, I would like the story about a bicoastal Indian, maybe one who lives and works and functions in places like New York City or Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles — perhaps Tokyo; the world. Because that is the fact. The fact is that we are citizens of the world as much as anyone else. A story that reflects that, I think, is something that we’re really looking forward to being able to produce and throw up on the screen. And eventually, an Academy Award for Wes Studi.Q: Do you think it was always inevitable that the Native Americans were going to lose, or do you think there was a point when they could have defeated the invaders?WS: I think Tecumseh had a really good idea, to tell the truth. A unified front at that point maybe could have stopped expansion at the Ohio River Valley or at the Mississippi River, something like that. As a matter of fact, I read a book a number of years ago that was called The Indians Won, [by Martin Cruz Smith] which was a science-fiction at that point and time, but would probably put us at just where we are now. It was that coalition of Native nations had been able to stop the westward expansion and claimed an area within the confines of North America.
It was a nation divided; they were on the coasts, and then the Native Americans occupied an area in between, and we were on the point of shooting for the moon with rockets. It was an interesting story that I’d like to find again and maybe find the rights to it.Q: Do people expect you to be able to use all these Native American weapons and ride? Are you a good rider?WS: The first job I ever got out of Los Angeles was dependent on the fact that I could ride a horse, shoot a bow and a gun, and speak a language other than English, simultaneously. So I got the job.Q: Are there any other Native American languages that you speak?WS: Not fluently, no. Just un poquito Español.Q: The Only Good Indian has appeared in festivals, but this is an unusual effort that you’re self distributing it to a degree. Was there any frustration about getting it out there, or you just wanted to control it?WS: It’s really a matter of control. We don’t want to bend over as much as distributors would like to have us do. I think it’s a better choice to contain control of it on our part at this point. Q: Did you ever think of writing a book based on your experiences?WS: I think I’m probably working on my memoirs as we speak, yes. Q: You better make sure you add in this interview once it gets posted.WS: I would like to be referred to as the 20th-Century Electric Indian.
For more by Brad Balfour: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brad-balfour
Oscar alumni Joel and Ethan Coen... Oy those two, oy. What an elusive duo they can be. Like it was surprising they even sat down with us, at a roundtable no less, to talk about their latest pic, A Serious Man. But at the end they allowed no photo...? They don't want us to show their shana punim? Perhaps they are stacking Oscars like so many Torah that they want something to remain elusive about them.
After having riddled their films with the snarky sort of humor that could sometimes be tagged as Jewish -- a bit sardonic, something unforgiving yet with a heart and soul beneath the hardened crust — the Coen boys strip away the goyish drapings (witness The Big Lebowski or Fargo) and reveal their Yiddishe kop through this decidedly Hebraic film.
However tribal, it got this directing and writing sibling team yet another Oscar nom for Best Picture, and a whole slew of other trophies to boot. But ain't that the Coens! They did it in 2008 for No Country For Old Men and virtually shaped a new genre. Though called auteurs, the brothers make films that actually sell tickets and draw huge followings. No less a talent than Jeff Bridges was rallied by the Coens' directorial embrace, and he's been quite the dude ever since.
Balancing a love for black comedy with a skill for telling homage-laden crime tales, the 50-something Coens' catalog undulates between the two genres. As for this year, A Serious Man appears to be their most autobiographical comic turn, yet one that draws on their dark vision-making as well.
Opening with a sequence entirely spoken in 19th century Russian shtetl, Yiddish, the film shifts to mid-20th century America and to physics professor Larry Gopnik (Tony Award nominee Michael Stuhlbarg) who has just been told by his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) that she is leaving him for the pompous older neighbor Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). With a household full mishegosh -- there's Larry's unemployable brother nebbish Arthur (Richard Kind), pot-smoking pisher son Danny (Aaron Wolff) who's screwing up his bar mitvah lessons, and nudnick daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) kvetching about her nose more than her family's trauma -- this schmendrick fantasizes abut screwing his sexy goyish neighbor while schvitizing about his pending tenure hearing and ever-growing complications.
Q: What were your bar mitzvahs like? Do you remember the passage you had to read?EC: God no.JC: No.Q: So what was the experience like for you guys? Did you read just the [Haftorah]? Or did you read from the Torah too?EC: You didn’t read all the Torah portions. One or two; I can’t remember.JC: But it was pretty typical, conservative congregation, circa 1967. I don’t know what they do now, to be honest with you. I mean I’ve been to a few in New York; they’re not that different. There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary...I with I could say something interesting happened.Q: You didn’t feel the competition to see if you got more presents than the other kids? EC: Yeah, with your peers you compare what the haul was.Q: And between the brothers as well?EC: No because there are three years' difference, so not so much. As in the movie, we each got a kiddush cup from the Gift of the Sisterhood.Q: Do you still have them?EC: Joel has his. I don’t know what happened to mine.Q: You love using local actors rather than the better known New York/LA ones. How do you think that added to the feel of the movie?EC: Midwestern Jews is a different community, is a different thing than New York Jews, LA Jews. It’s just different. It’s the whole Midwestern thing. It isn’t just about a Jewish community. The geographic thing is kind of specific, so that was important to us.JC: That area happens to be a place where you can find lots of good local…it’s not true everywhere. But you can find lots of very, very good local actors there. So there’s a practical reason as well as an aesthetic reason.EC: Yeah, it’s a largely local cast. Sari Lennick, who plays the wife, she’s great, she lives there. Ari Hoptman, who plays the head of the department, all the kids were local.Q: What about Michael Stuhlbarg -- he's like a local New York actor known in theater, but another unknown in general.EC: Well Joel knew him, slightly. We’d both seen him in a few plays, and you knew him from the project, right?JC: Yeah, I knew him from stuff he’s done in theater and from the Second Street Project.Q: Are you involved in that as well?JC: Well I’m not but my wife [actress Frances McDormand who has starred in several of the Coen's films] has been involved with it for 20-something years.Q: They went up to your place in the country?JC: Yeah. How did you know that?Q: He's one of the Second Street Project guys. Do you have any more theater projects coming up [for example, Ethan had a set of three one act plays, Offices, directed by Neil Pepe and produced by the Atlantic Theater Company]?EC: Yeah maybe; I don’t know. Yes, hopefully. But nothing definite. Q: From growing up Jewish, and having friends and family who are Jewish, you learn a lot of cultural Judaism . But you also had a lot of authentic religious Judaism in the movie, really hardcore Jewish, insider information. How much of that is from your educational experience or did you have to research a lot of it?EC: We didn’t do any research per say. Once the script was written, when we started actually making the movie, there were a couple of people who kind of were our Jewish technical advisors, helping us with language and liturgical stuff with the service and whatever. And of course a raft of translators for the Yiddish beginning of the movie. A raft of dueling Yiddishists; everybody had an opinion about what form of Yiddish we should use.JC: We actually did have one problem we brought to a fluent Hebrew speaker, which was we had the specific problem of wanting to have a Hebrew expression, or translation of, “help me” that was exactly seven letters long. So that’s something that we came up with ourselves. We wanted it to be a phone number. That was the main thing really.EC: There was a cantor and a rabbi as well, Dan Sklar, who helped us with that, and with a lot of stuff.Q: So where did this fractured story come from?JC: It’s always a really hard question to answer because you don’t really know, is the truth of it. You start to think back on it and you impose more order and rationality on it than actually occurred when you were thinking it up. I think it just came from, we had an idea a long time ago that maybe we would do something.We were thinking about short films years ago and there was a particular rabbi in our town, not our rabbi, who used to meet with bar mitzvah kids after the bar mitzvah and he was sort of a sphinx-like Wizard of Oz type character, and we thought that might make an interesting short movie. This was years and years ago. Somehow that idea found its way into this story. And there was another part where we were thinking it would be interesting to do something set in 1967 in that community. Then part of it came from thinking about the music of that period, and the combination of Jewish liturgical music and cantorial music and the Jefferson Airplane, we thought that was sort of interesting. Just a bunch of different thinks.Q: Out of all their songs, why “Somebody to Love”?EC: It could have been any of a number of songs I guess, we just kind of focused on that early because it’s so much of that time. I mean that time really specifically, not even just ‘60s but spring of ’67, it’s just so much of that, so smacks of the time. And also we use the lyrics, they kind of pay off in the end in a way that it became clear it was useful.Q: Were you big Jefferson Airplane fans?JC: Not particularly. I mean we listened to them. I wouldn’t say we were big Jefferson Airplane fans though.EC: But obviously they were a big Top 40.JC: Yeah we did listen to them on the radio.EC: There was also, the rabbi’s rap at the ending with the kiddush cup, that was verbatim from our bar mitzvahs. It was the same thing every Saturday. Rabbi Arnold Goodman.Q: One thing that underlies the film is this feeling of cultural shift. Like the Jewish neighborhood with the goyim moving in there was a shift. And as you pair the liturgical music to the Jefferson Airplane. there's the cultural shift of the ‘60s. What did you feel was important to say about that, particularly in a Midwest city like your hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
It’s also a mistake to say that the Jews were in any way a majority of even that community. I mean, we grew up in a community that was predominantly non-Jewish, it’s just that the Jews were a big and significant minority, and the community itself is one that is fairly cohesive. The Jewish community was part of what was sort of bounding your experience. But yeah, you’re right, that idea of, well the way we had sort of talked about it is sort of the idea of the post war thing where populations, in terms of minorities in the cities, were shifting, and also culturally things were shifting, and that was sort of interesting. I don’t think we thought a lot about it but we liked that period in a general way for that reason.Q: Was it like a Levittown situation which is widely regarded as the archetype for the explosion of postwar suburbs throughout the USA?EC: I guess a little bit. There were big developments that were being put up out in the suburban tracts of drained swampland or prairie. That’s kind of how it was.JC: Yeah, it was a little bit post-Levittown, but the same thing.Q: You portray the Hebrew school as obviously a torturous experience of learning Hebrew. I don’t know if either of you went to Hebrew school, but were you engaged by anything from your Hebrew school or Jewish educational experience? EC: Yeah that Hebrew school, that was it for us. After regular school you go to Hebrew school.JC: Hebrew school was something we desperately tried to get out of for years and years and years, but it was a requirement.Q: Your film moves Jewish issues to the center of the story. Is there a connection between this and the Yiddish Policemen’s Union, the 2007 detective novel by author Michael Chabon?EC: That’s kind of a coincidence too that the producer Scott Rudin acquired that novel and then just hired us to write the script. Since we know and had done a movie with Scott I think we were the obvious choices for him. No, it wasn’t design on our part.Q: Do you think you’re going to help people better understand the Jewish experience or do you think you’re going to confuse them further?JC: Well it wasn’t really our intent to have people understand the Jewish experience exactly. It’s just a context for a story that we found very interesting because of our own direct experience with so much of where the story takes place and the kind of community and family that it takes place in. But you’re always trying to being specific, whether it’s about your own experience or whether it’s a context that you don’t have any experience in whatsoever. That kind of specificity is important for the story, and it becomes part of what the story is about, absolutely.Q: In this film, Larry’s neighbor is seen hunting with his son. In No Country for Old Men, Josh Brolin is seen hunting at the beginning of the film. Is this a coincidence or do you guys have a love for hunting that you like to put into your films?JC: No, it’s just a coincidence. Josh hunting antelope at the beginning of No Country for Old Men, we didn’t write that story; that’s in the book. EC: The next door neighbor is just, hunting is a goyish activity.JC: In the Midwest in that period; a lot of hunting.
Spike Lee's cinematic chronicle of the fascinating, award-winning rock musical Passing Strange — which went from an off-Broadway production at New York City's Public Theater to a limited Broadway run — airs on the Channel Thirteen series Great Performances this week.
Based on the musical developed at the Sundance Theater Lab and Sundance's Directors Lab, Lee’s acclaimed film, Passing Strange The Movie, premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. The live-show document then had a celebrated homecoming premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival and was greeted with packed audiences, positive reviews and a panel discussion with cast, director and producers. It went on to have limited theatrical exposure, became the first release through Sundance Selects video-on-demand in August, 2009, and had a DVD release this week as well.
Created by singer/songwriter Stew, and co-composed with his creative partner Heidi Rodewald, the guitar-infused musical details a young African-American man trying to sort out the conflicting cultural messages assaulting him as a teenager, Raised in a religious family from somewhere in Los Angeles, the frustrated kid (played throughout by Daniel Breaker) is suffocated by his mother's obsession on family, church and mainstream values.
Eventually, he follows in James Baldwin and Josephine Baker's footsteps and hightails it to Europe to explore the world, from outrageous Amsterdam to politicized Berlin. Misadventures with sex, drugs, politics and art ensue as his eyes are opened. While he finds himself a stranger in strange lands, he aches to find out what's "real" in life for him.
Applauded for its originality, emotional resonance, and high-octane score, Stew's creation offers a window into lives we may know about and provides some universal truths. So when Oscar-nominated director Lee turned his cameras toward the stage for this filmed performance, it was preserved in a way rare for most Broadway musicals. There is even talk of a filmic retelling being produced.
Stew's years as a leader of rock bands paid off in driving the performances of the actors and of the band, where one isn't subordinate to the other. Though the show was long, the music is awesome and stays with you long after you watch it. You walk out a performance wanting more — which thankfully can be had by repeat viewings of this film.Q: With the film we get to see things happening in front of us that would never been seen in a theater — it's something else.Stew: That’s the very advantage of film right there; it’s the close-up. Even though when you’re in theater you’re watching actual human beings, when [seeing it] in a film [like this] you get to see close ups, and close-ups are what we’re all seeing right now. So in some ways cinema is more like real life than theater, because what do we really want ultimately than to look at people’s faces and get a reaction. And in theater, if you’re in row 40 that’s not happening.Q: Talk about getting close -- singer Coleman Domingo sweats a lot and you could really see everything. Shooting in HD is really interesting — did you talk about the look of the film? SL: They were all sweating.Q: Was it always the way you wanted to go?SL: We couldn’t afford to shoot film. With shooting live performances, they get burnt with film a lot of time because at the right moment you need a magazine change. Again, we had to look at the first show during the break between the Saturday matinee and the Saturday evening show, and we just barely made it. Matt and I talked a lot about it; we just wanted to enhance the enjoyment for the audience member, and like Stew said, really give them those close-ups that really only people in the first row can see.Q: If money weren’t an issue, would you have shot in film?SL: No.Q: Did you discuss what was to be seen or was it all your vision; how much input did you guys have? Stew: All his.SL: It’s just a matter of seeing the show a lot of times, knowing the show, and knowing where the camera had to be at at crucial moments. We filmed the last three performances, there was a Saturday matinee, an evening, and we came back for the Sunday matinee. In between the two shows on Saturday, we watched a whole matinee and Mattie [Matthew] Libatique, the great cinematographer and I, and the operators, watched all together and said, “We missed some shit; we got to get it.”Q: Did you watch from different places in the theater?SL: No, we had monitors in the basement.Stew: There were about, what, 10 monitors, and we were all in this really sweaty room that they made for us to watch. And all the monitors have names of the different camera men, and he was screaming — in a very nice, funny way — he would be screaming by name, “Frank, man, you got to pull back next time! And Joey, who taught you how to shoot like that!” He was watching all of the screens at once in real time. And we never stopped and rewound; he was just yelling out and Mattie was up front and me and the actors and the band we were just looking around like, “How do they do this? How does he watch 12 at one time?” They just went over the whole entire film basically, and then we shot it again. We just felt like we were in good hands.Q: Spike, how many times did you have to see this show before you felt that you sort of knew it and knew what to shoot?SL: I think I’d seen the show, combined with the Public, about 10 times. But also the operators, everybody who was shooting, they saw it at least once. So you have to be familiar with what you’re doing; I think it would be a disservice to all of the hard work that they did if people just come up and get behind the camera without knowing what the subject matter is.Q: Thematically this production touches onto a lot of things you’ve dealt with in your work, and Crooklyn in particular; were you were conscious of that when you first saw the production? Or did you just fall in love with it and not think, "Wow, this speaks to a lot of my films as well."SL: I wasn’t thinking about my films, but I was thinking about my own personal experience. Crooklyn is semi-autobiographical and Stew and I — I’m a little older than him, but we’re still the same era — and he was growing up in South Central L.A. while I was growing up in Brooklyn.
I lost my mother when I was in college. But that was just a small part of it; I just loved the work in general, not just one specific thing. The story, the whole expatriate thing, the music, the songs these guys wrote. I keep saying, "It’s a giant piece of work."Stew: Crooklyn is the only movie emotionally — and Spike, I’ve never told you this — that I really can’t get through. It’s the only film I’ve ever seen in my entire life where I actually had to stop close to the end and just be like, “Okay I’ll get back to it.”Q: Why is that?Stew: Because the same thing that he saw in this, I see in that film; it’s so close to home, particularly in that film, because, I mean, he pulls up things like TV commercials from Soul Train era, like things that hit you on a visceral, unconscious level. Like seeing The Partridge Family in a black home I know, that’s my whole story. SL: Black people watch The Partridge Family and The Brady Bunch too.Stew: Exactly. And so [with] whole cauldron that he set up in there. it’s the only film where I really had to stop it.Q: Obviously, Stew, there are a lot of things you reflect on about your life in Passing Strange. And Spike, since 2009 was the 25th anniversary of Do the Right Thing, knowing what you know now, what would you say to the person you were 20 years ago? Can both of you address this question. SL: 20 years ago? I was 26. Stew: I would say Spike Lee’s going to make a movie of your play [laughs]. No. That’s why I have a daughter; because I get to talk to a 17-year-old about my life. I don’t know what I would say really; I think I wouldn’t tell myself to do necessarily anything different except maybe… It’s very difficult to teach a 17-year-old or 19-year-old like, “You’ve got to see your grandmother,” you know what I mean? It’s hard.SL; In your play, you are talking to yourself. As a narrator, you are talking to yourself as a youth [laughs]. Wait a minute, man.Stew: Yeah, right right. I guess what I would say to him — I would make this play [laughs]! The play would be what I would say, I guess you’re right. This is why I mention my daughter, because my daughter’s 17 and she wants to be an artist, and sometimes you just want to grab them and say, “Remember all these things; these people are important.” Part of being 17 is that you don’t know, you want to go and hang out with that friend that you’re not going to even know in 6 months. You know the beauty of being a dad is that I can look at her and say, “This is your first boyfriend. Your first.”SL: That can be a nightmare though, too. My daughter’s 14.Stew: That’s why you make art, that’s why you made Crooklyn, that’s why you made Passing Strange, to say, “Hey, look, here’s what we missed; this is what it used to be like, here’s what we missed.” But you can’t shake a 17-year-old into being what you want them to be. I mean, they’re not an adult; they’re not close to mortality and all those kind of things. So, yeah, you just make a play and you hope for the best.Q: What have you learned that you would say to yourself?SL: It’s really hard for me to answer a hypothetical question like that because I didn’t write a play where I can talk to myself like that [laughs]. I’ve been very lucky because every time I was about to make a big misstep the creator or whoever would just… I’d be like, "One more step and I’m going off the cliff." and something would happen and go, “Uh uh, go this way.” At the time that would happen I’d be mad and then it would later be revealed that if I went that [other] way it could have been not a good thing. Someone’s looked out for me.Q: When you saw yourself on the stage from a whole other point of view, how did it affect you? Did it change you or make you think more about being viewed from this side or that? Do you see things about yourself that you’d say, "I want to focus on that aspect or this aspect in a way that I hadn’t thought of before with the next project?"Stew: No because I think the thing about both of us is we’ve been doing this for a while now. I think if we were 22 we’d be analyzing it to make corrections like, “Oh I think I’ll wear green next time,” or something. But I mean we kind of already know what we look good in and I know my guy in Harlem to go to get my goatee looking way better than it looks right now. When I’m [being] a Spike Lee movie. it’s real easy; you go into the salon — one of them “bourgee” black Harlem salons — and go, “I’m about to be in a Spike Lee movie tomorrow,” and suddenly the whole salon surrounds you. And then you come out looking great. So, nothing changed, and the combination we were already comfortable with ourselves, and then you get this guy who’s framing you to make you look as good as you can, so it’s all really cool.Q: Did you redirect anything? I mean, they’ve been doing it for a long time.Stew: Let me speak because he’s been very humble about this. I was definitely directed in a very particular area because there’s a moment where I get to be with the audience and kind of really sing to the audience doing the “It’s Alright” section, and that’s where the audience gets pumped up. He went into my dressing room the morning of; he waited till the morning of shooting and said, “I need you to get them on their feet.” And the thing is, nobody, including the director of the play, had ever really directed me, especially in my zone. Which my zone is when I’m not in a play anymore and I’m dealing with my crowd. I’ve been doing this for a very long time, and nobody had dared tell me anything about when I’m in my zone. And I do a pretty good job of getting the people riled up, but he said, ‘We need them on their feet; this is the shot I need.” We had a conversation about my influences and he said, “I need you to roll call.” So if you look at the film you’ll see magic marker on my hand where I’m trying to remember the things that he said. It’s all in the film; I’m like, “Is this going to show up? It’s not going to read.” I got all these notes from him that morning and to me it was kind of a moment of truth because he was asking me to do something that I had never done in two years of eight shows a week. It was a challenge and what would have happened if it wouldn’t have worked with the cameras rolling? Shit, it could have been really embarrassing.Q: But it did work.Stew: It totally worked.Q: You say in the film, "When we are in the presence of art we are taking the cure." This is a very personal journey that you bare for us, similar to what he does with Crooklyn. Talk to the cure; how does that work?Stew: I feel like art is like religion in that it offers a critique of society as we know it. There wouldn’t be a need to go to church, there wouldn’t be a need to look at artwork to me if we didn’t want to get a different perspective. Art and religion both say that the status quo is not enough; I want to get another perspective on this. Am I right?SL: You’re right.Stew: So it’s like, this isn’t working for me, I need to see somebody else’s vision of how this world could be and what’s wrong with this world and what’s right with it. That’s why we go to movies, that’s why we read books; we want to see what somebody else is thinking. Tell me something about this world I’m struggling with. So that’s what I mean by the cure; we’re looking for something else.Q: Spike, you made a conscious decision to film the play not make a film interpretation. I wonder about that decision as opposed to filming the story of the play and going to Berlin, or to Amsterdam. SL: I saw it twice at the Public, was blown away by it, and then I thought, “How would I do this as a film?” The first thing I said was, "I don't know if you could get it on film; Negroes would play Dutch and German people? That's not going to work."
I had someone from [the production company] Imagine come to the show; I had recently done Inside Man for Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, who own Imagine, and they sent somebody but they weren’t really feeling it, for them to option the play for a film. So then it went away and it moved to Broadway and the thing that was troubling to me was that, and I had this happen to me on 25th Hour where stuff is based upon the award, so we’re going to spend more money on 25th Hour if we get an Academy Award nomination. And with Passing Strange, like, well, we’re struggling at the box office so we really need to win a whole bunch of Tonys to keep this thing going. When they didn’t win those whole bunch of Tonys it was like, “Alright, it’s not going to be that much longer.” And that’s when Steve Klein, one of the producers, approached me about making sure this thing will live on forever, and we filmed the final three performances.Q: How did you empathize with theater actors in comparison with film actors? Do you see yourself writing a play?SL: My wife’s been on me years about doing it. A long time ago she said Do the Right Thing should be made as a musical. But I didn’t have to do any directing; Stew mentioned the thing I told him but writer Annie Dorsen had done a great job and she’d been with these guys forever so it was set in place, it was done. So it was just a couple things that we did structurally but it was not really done as far as directing actors.Q: Is there a difference between theater actors and film actors. Is there more of a diva-esque kind of thing with film?SL: I didn’t see any of that; they worked hard. The final Saturday we did the matinee, evening, we came back and shot the final final show which was Sunday matinee, and then we came back the next day after the show closed and shot it without an audience all the way through, stopping and starting. So people’s voices were shot, really, [by] the end.Stew: I just want to say that the distinct advantage of doing this was that he caught us at a time when we were like a really well oiled machine. He also walked into my dressing room and said, “Do you want to see the movie?” and I said, “What do you mean?” and he just kind of like flicked through a little camera and he showed me all these angles, and I was like, “Wow I’ve never seen that movie before. This is the movie I’m about to step into.” So we all walked in already knowing, it was like, I’ll say the Lakers. It was like the Lakers in Magic Johnson days where you just kind of walked out and it was like, “All we have to do is run these plays and we will win.” And that’s what we did; we just went out and we ran our plays.Q: There’s a community of an audience and actors; there's nothing like that Broadway/Off-Broadway community of New York. You showed a sense of community as much as anyone else, connecting with then you subsequently, seems a part of this, and about the themes of this show too.Stew: I can’t overemphasize the fact that each of these actors knew that the next thing they might be in, the next 10 things they might be in, were not going to speak to their souls. This was every actor on that stage’s story. This is every band member in that pit’s story. They knew that this might be it in terms of the time in their lives when they can actually give their entire souls to a story that they knew and felt and had lived every line. They all had a family, they all had the church issues, they all had sexuality issues, they all had vocational issues of what you’re going to be; “What? You want to be an actor?” That’s just as crazy as saying you want to be a musician. Crazier in some way; at least [as] a musician you can sit on the corner and make a quarter. So I’m just saying, for them, the reason why the performances to me were so intense is because they were living this; this was really their story, and that’s lucky.
For more by Brad Balfour: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brad-balfour
Sitting at a conference table almost too full with cast members of the 2009 film I Can Do Bad All By Myself -- being released on DVD on January 12, 2010 -- the mulit-hyphenated Tyler Perry came to Manhattan to offer a lively Q&A session with a broad range of press people. While his latest film is remotely based on an early play of his of the same name, Perry's feature focuses more on his on-going positive message of redemption and growth than the antics of his flippant but caring Grandma Madea character. And again, once it opened it topped the box office. Perry's films have grossed just under $400 million worldwide as of July 2009. And to add to his list of accomplishments, Perry co-produced — with Oprah Winfrey — director Lee Daniels' critically acclaimed hit Precious based on the novel by Sapphire — a movie that has won top audience awards at both the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals, was the centerpiece film at the 2009 New York Film Festival -- likely to be an Oscar contender in several catgeories.Coming from poverty and homelessness, Perry has gone on to make an incredible success of himself, first as a writer/director/producer of plays, then as the creator of films and television series. Through his female alter-ego, Madea, he became a huge comic phenomenon, and a whole industry in and of itself.Besides producing plays, film and television out his huge Atlanta-based production studio, the 40-year-old multi-hyphenate has become a media mogul and motivational speaker with various charities under his auspices. In I Can Do Bad All by Myself, Madea (Perry) catches 16-year-old Jennifer (Hope Olaide Wilson) with her two younger brothers looting her home. The big-mouthed, wise-cracking granny takes matters into her own hands and delivers the young delinquents to their only relative, aunt April (Taraji P. Henson), a hard-drinking nightclub singer who lives off her married boyfriend Raymond (Bryan J. White). April wants nothing to do with the kids, who live with their missing grandma. When a handsome Latino immigrant, Sandino (Adam Rodriguez), is sent by the pastor of their neighborhood church (Pastor Marvin Winans), he trades work for a place to live in her basement.The closer April and Sandino grow, the more she realizes the importance of faith and family. Once she's told by church elder Wilma (legendaryy songstress Gladys Knight) that her mom has died, she knows she has to take care of the kids, and reluctantly sees her life in a different light.Things come to a head — Ray and Sandino fight; Sandino proposes to April — and her best friend, bartender Tanya (hip-hop soul singer Mary J Blige), sings a song that is both the film's title and its signature statement: "I Can Do Bad All By Myself."Q: What's the key to your success especially with this subject matter.TP: I'm just a man that has used what I've learned in this life and I've tried to put it in film. I don't want to just do film to make a movie for people to see; to blow up something, to kill somebody, explosions. None of that is attractive to me because what I've tried to do with my work and with my life is inspire and motivate people because I've come through too much hell to be able to sit in this seat.I have a tremendous debt to pay so I want to just pay it forward and pass it on to other people; that's why I keep doing positive movies. This is what I know for sure; you reap what you sow. That's why I think I've been so successful; god is just blessing me and honoring everything that I'm doing.Q: Your films are based on your plays; you've been able to work out the experience before a live audience. How has that experience of working in theater educated you and what your plans are with theater going forward.TP: There's nothing like a live performance; it's immediate. And being on the circuit that I was on for a very long time doing 300 shows a year, most of them sold out, for 10 years straight, I learned a great deal. What will work and what won't work and how far I can go and how far I can't. And I'm still writing from those experiences. Everybody at the table can attest to that immediate give and take from an audience, and you take that and you go with it.Q: You have a knack for talking about contemporary issues as you do in this film with the child molestation element.TP: In writing this and talking about molestation and sexual abuse, it is very very clear to me that a lot of our own issues, including myself as a person, are a result from what has happened to us as children. So when I was thinking about April and her, "I don't care about anybody but myself," where would that come from? And molestation is the root to so many things, so I wanted to explore it a little bit and I think that when people really see it, they get it. They understand that, "Wait a minute; is this why I'm this way?"Because it's happened to so many people, and [because whatever goes on in this house stays in this house and nothing ever gets covered], that's why I wanted to address it. I think that as people see it they'll really get it.Let me say this to everybody here; I'm speaking to people, for the most part, my base, my core audience, that everybody has ignored for years. And we are a people that exist and need to be spoken to in a way that we get, in a way that we understand. And I'm just really really fortunate and blessed to have that opportunity to do that.Q: What are your thoughts on the current status of African-American women who are not getting married at the same rates of other ethnic groups or white women, particularly because you cast another ethnic minority in a role that is the love interest for an African-American woman. Were you subtly suggesting that African-American women need to exercise other options [laughs]?TP: I want to make sure that this is clear:Hell, no! No, the thing is this: I didn't suggest anything, I didn't even know those stats. I was once accused of being anti-Semitic last time I was here doing a press conference because one of the attorneys in Diary of a Mad Black Women got an award called the Feinstein award and they said that was anti-Semitic because I named the award after a Jewish person.I don't get it. It's kind of similar to this; I'm just writing. I'm not thinking about what race a person is because I don't live my life that way. I just write the story and I thought these two would be a good look and be good for each other with his story, his problems, his issues that he's worked through, and her with hers. He could have been Tyrone Jackson, it wouldn't have mattered, but in this case it just happened to be somebody who's Latin.I had the same issue in the first two movies; a couple of critics went off because all of my heroes seem to be light-skinned. It's not something I was even thinking about, it just happened. And so I went and found some dark skinned heroes in the next one. So I will take this into consideration; next time I will make sure that the black woman finds a black man.Q: While white and Hispanic women may be on their second husbands, many African-American women have never been married by the time they are in their 30s and 40s. One reason for that is that African-American men are more likely to marry outside of their race.TP: It doesn't matter who they are or where they come from, but my point was that part of the reason that a lot of people are not married is because they have this list of what they want their men to be, have, make. And more important to the point of what Adam was making, it doesn't matter if the person has nothing; if they can bring you love and the love you need then that should be enough.Q: You do allow for some ad-libbing; not everything is scripted. Were there parts of the movie where you were allowed the cast to expand their roles?TP: Well, there is this one scene. Iit was a really serious scene where Taraji and Adam are sitting on the sofa, and we're shooting the scene and Taraji leans over and she starts to kiss him, but it wasn't in the script. So I'm looking through the script and I'm sitting at the monitor watching and I just sit back and see how long it's going to go. I don't understand how when you're kissing somebody you put your tongue in their mouth and you're supposed to be acting, when there's no camera inside your mouth to see the tongue.So the kisses went on and on and on and I sat there waiting for them to finish and they just kept kissing. I have it on video; it's a long, long, long, long, long kiss and they wouldn't stop. So I finally said "Cut" and I said, "What the hell was that? Where did that come from?" Taraji was like, "What? It's in the script." "Show it to me." So they "ad-lippped."
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Q: Being around such soulful singers and such an amazing pastor, was there ever a time during taping when you were doing the church scenes, that you literally go to church?TP: Yeah, the entire church scene is real. I had five cameras rolling because I knew the only way to capture what I wanted is to have church, so that's what we did. [Pastor Winans] actually preached a sermon and sang the song, that was it. It wasn't like we did a million different setups; we did maybe one or two, but that thing that you feel when you're watching it is real and you can't fake that. You can't cut and resetup and cut again and re-setup and try to get it; you have to get it as it happens and I was very adamant about capturing that moment.Just like in Diary of a Mad Black Woman, when she comes in that church, you feel it. It was the same way I wanted it in this situation and the only way for that to happen is it had to be caught all at the same time.Q: I Can Do Bad is one of your earliest plays. Why did you wait until now to bring it to the screen? And what sort of changes did it go through in the adaptation?TP: No rhyme, no reason. And it's so different from the play; the only thing that the movie has in common with the play is the title and Madea, that's it. It was Madea's first time on stage, I was scared to death. It was the Regal Theater, 79th and Stony Island. I had rehearsed all month the show without ever looking at a costume or putting it on, just like this. The night of the show I put the costume on and looked at myself and was like, "Oh god, what have I gotten myself into? It's sold out out there and these people are waiting."So I'm standing there and they're saying, "Go, go, go," and Brown pushed me on stage. And that's where she was born. But no rhyme or reason for it; I just thought the time was now.
Q: What are your upcoming projects?TP: I'm working on a new album with Mary J. Blige [laughs]. Not. I just finished Why Did I Get Married Too; it comes out in April . The first thing that [came] out, in November, [was] Precious.... And then it's Why Did I Get Married Too and I can't wait for you guys to see it because Janet [Jackson] went through all the stuff with Michael at the time and she needed the work so she brought everything she had into the film and she's got some scenes in here that I can't wait for you guys to see.Q: And you're adapting For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf — a challenging and highly respected play. What makes you want to do that as your first adaptation?TP: I'm writing it now, don't worry there will be no Madea in it. I know there are For Colored Girls fans who are wondering, "Why the hell is he doing For Colored Girls?" but I really really embraced the material and listened to the stories and the cast I think is going to blow people away. It is the most incredible cast of women of color, and Latin, that has ever been assembled in film. Ever.Q: Are you sticking with the play?TP: It's all of Ntozake Shange's work, her poems, but as you know, as everybody who knows For Colored Girls knows, there's no story there; it's all different vignettes. But what I did was each woman has her own story and all of their lives cross. It's kind of like Crash; none of the women know each other. They pass through each other's lives and they're all living their own lives but nobody knows that they're all on a collision course to meet each other.At the middle of the movie what happens is one of the women has just started a For Colored Girls center, where women go through this 12-step program of healing from relationships and everything. A lot of the poems happen in this center when all of these women come together. So it's going to be fantastic.I'm also working on a new play; the first date is October 4th and it's called "Laugh to Keep from Crying" but I haven't written a word yet. But it will be ready.Q: Have you cast For Colored Girls yet?TP: I have made five phone calls. We haven't made an announcement yet; the five women that I've spoken to have said yes, but it's 16 women, 16 major roles, and I can't wait to tell you. But the dream cast is pretty darn exciting and most of the dream cast has said yes.
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