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Director Raoul Peck is not your typical filmmaker. Even though he has established a solid set of credits such as making the 2000 documentary “Lumumba” or his fictional 2005 narrative, “Sometimes in April,” the Port-au-Prince, Haiti, born Peck has had his share of political experience as well.
From March 1996 to September 1997, he was Haiti's Minister of Culture. He’s currently also chairman of the French National Film School. A citizen of the world, Peck has lived in the United States, Berlin, Paris and elsewhere. At eight years-old, Peck’s family fled Haiti’s Duvalier dictatorship and moved to Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where his agronomist father worked for the United Nations.
Born in 1953, this director and writer (Seven Stories Press published “Stolen Images,” Peck’s 2012 book of screenplays and images from his four major features and documentary films) lends his experience and gravitas to make “I Am Not Your Negro,” his award-winning, Oscar-nominated documentary, worthy of the many accolades being bestowed on it.
The film premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the People's Choice Award in the documentary category. And now, it's a nominee for 2017's Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, shared with Rémi Grellety and Hébert Peck. Based on groundbreaking Black author James Baldwin's unfinished manuscript “Remember This House,” it explores the history of racism in the United States through Baldwin's recollection of murdered civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Through actor Samuel L. Jackson sonorous voice, Baldwin’s words come alive as Peck illustrates the interconnection of these important historic figures. An American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic, the late scribe established his fiery views through such works as the non-fictional 1955’s “Notes of a Native Son,” and “The Fire Next Time,” and the novels “Go Tell It on the Mountain”, “Giovanni's Room”, “Another Country” and “Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone.”
Peck intends to continue his exploration of political thinking with “The Young Karl Marx (Le jeune Karl Marx),” his long-planned narrative feature Starring August Diehlm, the film explores the relationship between Marx and Frederick Engels as they develop their ideas about communism. It will premiere at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.
The following is an edit of this exclusive Q&A — recorded earlier this January.
Q: What was the rationale in the timing of this film? It certainly coincides with a very interesting set of events in this country.
RP: I was fortunate that I was able to make the film I wanted to make. Even those [that were] brought to me, I made sure that they were exactly what I wanted to make. You don't [just] go into film.
You don't even know if it's going to take three years or 10 years [so the timing might be coincidental]. The only thing you know, is, it better be fundamental. It better be strong. It better be original and whenever it comes out, so be it. [As long as] you are right in the way you do it, whatever the time... I'm not a journalist, so I'm not after whatever is the color of the day.
Q: What's a journalist to you?
RP: Well, a journalist has to report whatever or reflect whatever is in the actuality. Of course, you have some journalists who can sit back a little bit more and have a bigger picture which is rare. [Nowadays], it’s about the tweet.
Q: In essence, you're giving life to this Baldwin test. You can still be a journalist because you're finding all this footage and other material and at the same time, your responsibility is ultimately to his words.
RP: Of course, but I’m also an artist. If I make a work, I want to make sure that 30 years from now, somebody will watch the film and be able to get the same emotion. That's why I have to tell a story. I have to create characters. It's not deducted. It's not just that I choose the words and put them out there and when you read them, you say, "Oh my God, it's incredible." I create a complex system where I play with you as well. As a filmmaker, we are great manipulators.
I choose to manipulate you, but to make sure that you understand how I manipulate you. I just bring you the story. I just get you into the story. Why would not I do that when Hollywood does that the whole time for other purposes?
I don't sell popcorn. Hollywood does. But it's fair game. I make sure that I give you something that you will carry with you and that, again, 30 years from now, it's a whole story with its own beginning, middle and end. I need to create that reflection.
Q: You've just figured out a way to have us experience it because we never experienced the actual book. Not that I'm over-emphasizing Baldwin over your own creativity. It's your dialogue with Baldwin.
RP: But it was also conscious for me to set myself in the background because the project was, from the beginning, to put these words in the front row. The words have helped me throughout my life, words that are urgently needed today. That was part of the problem. I didn't want any talking heads in the film. Nobody is an intermediary.
It's rare in documentary to also say, "The voice will be Baldwin's voice. We're going be inside his head." The exercise for me was always to make sure I'm inside his head. I am him. It's not about me. My job as an actor would be, “Let's go into character.” Make sure that I'm always in character every minute of this film.
Q: Was Samuel L. Jackson always your choice to voice Baldwin and was there work that needed to be done for him to get that voice down? It's far from his normal, sometimes histrionic, Sam Jackson sound.
RP: It was the result of many experiences I had, including my own films. One of my first films when I was beginning was a documentary on Patrice Lumumba where I used many voices until I decided I was going to do the voice myself. This is something I understood very early on and I never used the term "voiceover" or "narrator," because once you use them, you’ve lost one of the most brilliant instruments in a film.
What you have to create is a character. When you go to somebody and say, "I want you to be the voice,” you're not asking them to read a paper or to interpret a paper. I was asking Samuel Jackson to do his work as an actor, to be the character and that's what I asked of him. I said, "I don't want to hear your great voice. No, I want you to study the character."
Q: He embodied that voice better than ...
RP: I had a shortlist of three or four names. Of course there is, I would say, a marketing aspect in it, in the terms that if this film will have a chance, I better have a big name attached to it. I had three names of very famous black actors. At the same time, it was not a random choice. I needed people who have some sort of personal street credibility. People who take a stand in their life. People who have taken on issues in their life, in their society, in their neighborhood or whatever, and people who have the voice of a real person. Samuel Jackson is one of those people. When I asked him, he was first on the list and because you can't ask all the three, you go to number one and then go to the second, if the first one say no. He was at the my top list and said, "Yes" and that was great.
Q: He did an amazing job.
RP: I didn't have to give him much direction beside what I just told you. I want you to feel whatever you're saying every single minute of it. When we were recording, that's what happened. Sometimes he would say something and even before I say it, he say, "Okay. I know. I know I'm doing it again" because it's like music. You know when it's not the right note.
Once you understand the whole concept, you're just playing the notes. It's like jazz and you are improvising. I can't tell him, "Sam, at the end of the phrase, I want you to lower your voice in a way to show some sort of ..." How do you say it? "Some sort of emotion, so that I can use it for the next segments.” No. He has to feel it.
Q: He understood it intuitively.
RP: When you are in character, whatever you do is good.
Q: He definitely channeled Baldwin. At least he had the reference of other audio to know whether he was on the money.
RP: The words are very powerful.
Q: The fact that you chose something at the end of Baldwin's life, we have an overview of his whole universe. Even though you say it was a happy accident that it is now available to us at this point, and in light of Trump's election, it's never been more relevant.
RP: It's not just a “happy accident.” There is a story. It's mainly a political decision when 10, 11 years ago, I said, “It’s time to go back to Baldwin because of everything I've been experiencing around me.” It's about the canonization of Martin Luther King, Black History Month, the Martin Luther King Day, the new Black bourgeoisie who is looking at this from a distance.
There’s the black artists who look at this from a distance and once in awhile when the anger is too much, they say something… But where are all the powerful organizations? How come this money doesn't go to create a powerful organization? How come we still are begging for “Oscars Not So White?”
This film comes out of all this. It's not like a decision of, "I should do this." No, it's the result of many years of confrontation, of experience, of my own work. I didn't just start making political films.
Once you go into that, whenever you finish, it's not important because you know that the fundamental issues are not going to change. I knew it was not going to change because of eight years of Obama.
Q: That it’s not going to negate 400 years of…
RP: It's not the way countries change. By the way, Baldwin himself, there was a sentence in the film that we cut out but a journalist was asking, "What will it [mean] for you when this country will have its first black president?" He said, "It's not a matter of who's going to be the first negro president. The real question is what country is he going to be the president of?" That's the real question.
Q: They're not going to let it go. They're not going to let it go so easy.
RP: Exactly. What it means is you need to face the reality, not the reality you think or not the story they told you, not the image that Hollywood fabricated. You have to be able to deconstruct everything all the time. It will never finish.
Q: Do you think that your political experience makes you a better filmmaker?
RP: There are people who can... Their whole life is politics and they have a one-sided view and that's it. But so far, yes. Because politics was never dogmatic for me, politics was never about a party or being... I was never in a party. I supported certain parties. I worked with a certain party and went into politics the way we understood it, as a collective process. I didn't go in as an individual who wanted to be a politician. I was asked to participate in a collective. It was a very important moment where we were really needed, and I did it.
Most of my work is about power. It's like you have been working with sharks all your life. Then one day, someone offers you to be able to live inside the shark. So you say, “Yes.” I wanted to go there. That's what happened. I was taking notes everyday and seeing how power functioned. What I saw in Haiti as a minister, that's what I saw in Bill Clinton's cabinet, or in Sarkozy's cabinet. There was a similarity you can't even imagine. Once you have people in a position of power, you see how they can abuse [it] — that also comes with it.
Q: Do you think that what we have with Barack Obama is kind of thesis, antithesis. And then, we're going to see a synthesis? That's the Hegelian dialectic.
RP: I would hope that the world is so scientifically constructed, and that would mean the world would be without human beings, who are never predictable. I'm very curious to see how far the backlash will come from this new president, but again, we are entering a process. We're not entering a definite period of events. Every day, there will be a new item, new decision, new obstacles that will ultimately write the meaning of the whole history, including the resistance that it will provoke.
History is not a passive thing. It's whatever we will put on the table. Obama is a perfect example [of that]. If the people who elected him were half of the time also on the streets, 400,000, or one million demonstrating for healthcare, the healthcare bill would have passed in much better condition. It's because again we became consumers of our votes. We vote. Then, we go home.
Q: What this movie addresses, what Baldwin is addressing, is that kind of thing. Who am I? Where do I fit in? Have I done enough on the streets?
RP: He gives you all the necessary things you need to build an organization when you say, "I was not part of this. I wasn't part of that. I didn't do fundraising." He's giving you the layouts.
That's what you do, and organizing is not something you do for fun, it's not something you just do out of anger. Anger will just bring you so far. The rest is politics, organization and structuring.
Q: How much did you methodically follow what he wrote or how much did you edit in your own terms?
RP: Well again, as a filmmaker, it's of course, a total construction. First of all, in "Remember This House,” what I took primarily was the idea of bringing those three men together, and telling of their friendship and telling about their death, about how he felt about their deaths, about their roles and how he saw them as human beings and their family. For me, that’s the red line of the film — that structures the film. The beginning of their relationship, they fight together, they are coming closer, their assassination. Those are the four big blocks.
Within that then, I have the liberty to go to do a lot of things that were essential for me, but which are all Baldwin's. That's where I bring [in] my own choices. That's where I get that. I knew it's part of the story. My job was to put in the layers and make the film as rich as possible.
Q: Baldwin also had the dual problem of being gay and being black in America at that time. He was always dealing with the betrayals that he felt or like that scene with the Kennedys and Lorraine Hansberry. They're there but only up to a point. You brought those things to the fore. Those things were touch points. You show the dynamic, the continuum between Baldwin and all these people..
RP: That is one of the themes of the film, but it's not the only one. One of the themes is how do you break the mythology of America? I wrote in one of my introduction, when I was living in Brooklyn, going to public school and I remember in the living room where we were with a big family, [that had] a sort of velvet rug with Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Bob Kennedy [on it].
This was like, Christic, the three brothers. I did believe in that idea. I came from a Catholic family. I went to Jesuit schools and the idea [that] we are all [part of] the same human race. I grew up with that, but it's not the truth. It's not reality. Only a part of it is true, but that's not what the reality is. The film is about deconstructing that whole thing.
That's why I do it, not only through the text ,but through the film as well. When I go into images and deconstruct them, I play with it. Black and white color, 8mm, 35mm, video and photos. It's part of the construction.
Q: The construction is very elegant; you have such an aesthetic sense.
RP: That's what I was supposed to do.
Q: This film shows a kind of a diagram of doing that.
RP: What the film does, it's a mirror. I've told audiences in discussions, "Whoever of you in this room, white or black, you can't go out now and say you didn't know. You saw it, now it's your decision. You can choose to ignore it, but you can't say you didn't know because this is obvious."
When Baldwin says, "Two worlds that never crosses." This is it. This is reality. I'm not inventing it. I demonstrate to you that it's there and how it came about. Now, you can choose. I'm going to continue my life as it is or I'm going to... as Baldwin said, "I'm going to face it." We have a long life behind us. We have seen the world change.
Q: So many people have joined the struggle just at a critical point where you need to go to the next level. I think Baldwin was also affected by that as well, with people seeming to be with you and then you lose them. You seem to getting people with you with the awards and all of that.
RP: The award things, it can go both ways. Sometimes you can say, "Wow. How come I have all these accolades?" When I made this film, it was always with the intent of taking no prisoners.
The film is a personal experience. To put the image of Doris Day next to a hanging woman, a lynching, you need guts to do that today. Any producer would have said, "Don't do that." It was a huge risk, but at my age, having most of my films behind me, that's fine with me. Having all of these accolades is like, "Oh, where did I go wrong? How come everybody is..."
I'm Not Your Negro is currently playing at the Film Forum (209 W Houston St, New York, NY).
Growing up poor in Madras, India, Srinivasa Ramanujan Iyengar earned admittance to England’s prestigious Cambridge University during WWI, where he becomes a pioneer in mathematical theories thanks to the guidance of his professor, G.H. Hardy. Not exactly the kind of storyline that seems to offer material that would an appealing drama let alone make for award-worthy film with major stars.
Nonetheless, director Matt Brown crafted a screenplay that attracted such established stars as Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons, and Toby Jones who gave his film a shot. It turned into a beautiful portrait of a mentor/student relationship that offered inspiration in a world often devoid of such inspiration.
Not only did the film win critical accolades but it's now being touted as a contender for various awards — especially since executive producer Edward R. Pressman has launched a campaign for Jeremy Irons (as the mentor Hardy) to nominated for a supporting actor Oscar. After its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and its USA debut at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York last April, it was released during the spring. The film garnered decent box office results and critical acclaim. Besides the dynamic between Irons and Patel, it offered an insider’s look into the seemingly cold, arcane world of mathematics.
But with the right writer/director behind the production such a story can prompt an intriguing narrative. and Matt Brown seems to be that creator.
Thanks to his dogged perseverance, this project finally came to fruition after being 12 years in the making. Especially since the director didn’t have that much experience, having made two features previously and no passion for math ( though he went to an alternative school in Brookline, Massachusetts where arts were the focus he did learn some math). But Brown believed in this. As he has explained in another interview, “It’s a very personal project; I wrote it in an oncology ward taking care of my brother with his wife while he was going through terrible cancer.”
Q: What led you into doing this film - did you have much interest in the mathematics, otherwise what would lead you to do Srinivasa Ramanujan’s story?
MB: I came across Robert Kanigel’s biography, the Man Who Knew Infinity, about 12 years ago. It was never about the mathematics for me, I was fascinated by the human story between Ramanujan and the journey to England and the isolation he was going through and his relationship with GH Hardy and how the two of them had to bridge the gap.
It was never so much about the mathematics in the beginning, but I came to respect pure mathematics as an art form, but I really came to understand the passion mathematicians have for their work, like musicians have for theirs. It’s something that audiences can appreciate because it’s really the human story under the film.
Q: Ramanujan’s mother had a strong influence on him growing up, particularly with regards to his religious education…
MB: Ramanujan’s mother? I know she was strong in Carnatic music. She was a singer, and he was surrounded by Carnatic music his whole life — it has intricate mathematical rhythms to it and that was probably a strong influence on him. She was also very invested in astrology.
Q: When he was in Madras, he got a scholarship to go to the college there, but he dropped out. It was briefly touched on in the film but can you elaborate on this...
MB: He got kicked out of two different colleges, I believe in Madras. He became to involved in his mathematics that he just didn’t concentrate on his other subjects. And at that time if you didn’t have a degree, it was a much bigger deal than it is today, probably, in that you can’t find any form of employment. He really became isolated in his own world with mathematics.
Q: Due to Ramanujan’s lack of a college education, he didn’t know the concept of a mathematical proof. After Ramanujan sent professor Hardy several of his theorems, Hardy didn’t want to push Ramanujan to prove do any mathematical proofs but did he encourage Ramanujan to allow his intuition be appled to his mathematics?
MB: You’re right, it was kind of proof versus intuition in many ways. That’s at the core of the story. If Hardy had known Ramanujan would only be alive for five years, I think there’s a strong argument that suggest he would have encouraged him to go off and write theorem after theorem.
Ramanujan did so much with mathematics that they’re still trying to understand it today. It’s tragic that we don’t have more of his mathematics. Imagine what he could have done? Because Hardy didn’t know that at the time, it was important to him to learn rigor.
Rigor is an important part of mathematics and allows people to understand how they got to certain places. It’s more than proving right or wrong, it provides understanding to a process.
Also, within the education Hardy was trying to provide, Ramanujan was rediscovering entire fields of mathematics he didn’t even know he was rediscovering. He had to be caught up on a couple centuries worth of mathematics just so he didn’t waste his time rediscovering things.
Q: What was the social dynamic between India and England — obviously when he came to England, he was the outsider — how did you balance the three elements or structure in the film — his time in Madras, his adjusting as an Indian trying to survive in England, and third, of showing his serious relationship with Hardy. How did you balance those things, and the social dynamic?
MB: In 1914 there were very few Indians that would have come to England and for Ramanujan to come to England it required him to break past. It was forbidden for a Braman to cross the sea. And there were very few Indians there at the time, it was the height of colonialism in many ways. There was a lot of racism.
On top of which, when the Great War started in 1914, you had all these students from Cambridge going off to war, there was a tremendous amount of resentment that Indian students who remained on the campus during that time were safe and guarded.
There was an increased amount of resentment, never mind that as a vegetarian by faith he wasn’t able to obtain fresh egetables because of the rationing, so that made it even more challenging. He really had incredible social obstacles to overcome. It was a real story of perseverance and bravery by Ramanujan.
Q: Hardy was a highly ranked mathematicians, John littlewood was 30, David Hilbert Hilband was an 80, and Ramanujan was 100 so Hardy showed his appreciation for the work they did together…. There was an enormous amount of cooperation between them.
MB: This was a man who had discovered trigonometry at age 13 only to find out that it was already discovered.
Q: Imagine what could have been done with their relationship — it makes you appreciate their relationship.
MB: Hardy had an enormous amount of respect for Ramanujan, I don’t think he could wrap his head around how it all came to him. And they, in talking to some of the greatest mathematicians alive today, they say there’s really no better explanation than Ramanujan’s own explanation, that Namagiri [a Hindu Goddess] put the formulas on his tongue while he slept.
We can’t explain how there’s a mind that’s this incredible in the world, but you have to wonder if there aren’t more minds in the world like this that are undiscovered today. And we don’t have universal education today, so outliers like this, we have to find this kind of talent and nurture it.
Q: What was invoved in the process of putting Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel together? Their chemistry is amazing.
MB: It’s incredible, isn’t it? They had wonderful chemistry and I think for both of the actors it was an opportunity to play roles that were very different from roles they played recently. They had a lot of passion for the subject and wanting to tell the story. We’re an independent film and it’s a challenging shoot, and these actors really came prepared and made incredible performances in difficult circumstances.
Q: How much did you feed mathematical concepts to these actors — or was it all Greek to them?
MB: They’re both very well aware of the human story, the incredible story that it is, so that’s what they were drawn to. As far as the mathematics go, we had Ken Ono as our mathematical advisor, he’s one of the top mathematicians in the world. He vetted the script with me and made sure everything was right in the art department as well as in the screenplay itself. So the actors could trust the dialogue and trust me as a director.
Q: Was that part of reason that you have some Japanese associate producers involved on this project? They are a lot of good mathematicians in Japan as well.
MB: It wasn’t. It just happened to be where Ken is from. I know his heritage is important to him and is proud of it but it had no bearing on my asking him to do the film. He’s one of the top mathematicians in the world and when he reached out to be part of the film we felt very lucky and honored to have him. He’s extremely passionate about Ramanujan and his story.
Q : What does the number 1729 mean to you — its the number that Hardy recalled when he rode the taxi to visit Ramanujan at the clinic…
MB: If I ever play a lottery ticket and it’s four numbers, those are the four numbers I will play.
Q: Didn’t they use that number sometimes in Star Trek or Futurama or anytime where numbers have meaning — they been used as a reference.
MB: It comes up in mathematics, it’s called taxicab numbers. It became a small field, Manjul Bhargava was explaining that to me. It’s incredible how his mind worked that he could recognize that.
Q: What sort of experience did you want audiences to discover through this film?
MB: I hope they take away the human story and that they find it to be an inspiring film. I hope it opens up their minds and their hearts. I hope it’s a film that… There are outliers in the world, so I hope that there are other Ramanujans out there that will be discovered.
Son of sports star and entrepreneur Rocky Aoki, long haired Steve strode a very different path to set in motion his own career. But becoming an internationally renown dj/mixer/producer wasn’t initially part of his plan.
A Grammy-nominated international producer/DJ, electronic dance music entrepreneur and founder of the trendsetting record label, Dim Mak, Aoki built a big business well before turning to deejaying and electronic dance production. In turn, it became an events/lifestyle company and apparel line.
Since launching in 1996, Dim Mak has broken bands such as Bloc Party, The Bloody Beetroots, Klaxons, and The Gossip through deft marketing of single and full-length album releases -- it now has nearly 500 releases to date.
Then as a solo artist, Aoki has become a force of nature averaging over 250 tour dates per year.
Aoki's second artist album Neon Future I, was released September 30, 2014 via Dim Mak/Ultra Music and features his Gold certified single "Delirious (Boneless)" with Chris Lake and Tujamo featuring Kid Ink, "Born To Get Wild" featuring will.i.am and "Rage The Night Away" featuring Waka Flocka Flame.
The second part, Neon Future II, was released on May 12, 2015 and featured collaborations with Linkin Park, Matthew Koma, Snoop Lion, Rivers Cuomo and NERVO, plus a special appearance by creative genius J.J. Abrams who voices the outro to close the album.
Aoki also Executive Produced and curated the soundtrack of The Hive -- The Nerdist's first feature film acquisition. Created by writer/director David Yarovesky and produced by Cary Granat of Scream 2 and Scream 3 fame, the film was called by Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn as "the most horrifying and disgusting love story ever."
Recently, Aoki became the subject of a documentary about his career, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, titled as such because he never seems to stop going.
Subject Steve Aoki, director Justin Krook, and producer Matt Colon talked with a trio of journalists in New York City at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.
Q: Being the focus of this documentary, how did you deal with your family, friends and colleagues?
SA: I’ve had a video crew of my own — some friends of mine would shoot these guerilla-style, YouTube-style videos for the last five years. So I always had some video team with me at some point traveling through the world. When Justin came into the fold, we were going over ideas about doing a doc which obviously wouldn’t be the same thing of what’s already out there.
What hasn’t been out there is more of a personal story that I had yet to discuss with anyone. In interviews, I don’t really talk about it. I never felt safe to talk about it. It’s more fun to talk about adventures on the road or doing on the spot things that directly connect with kids that are coming to my shows.
In this story, it was hard to open up and go into it. It took time. At a certain stage of making a movie, we crossed that bridge together. I was eventually like, “All right, you have uncensored direction and access. Do what you want.” I didn’t even see the film, after two-and-a-half years of filming until a month ago. I didn’t know how it was being edited.
Krook: I think one of the shoots that really opened things up was when we went to Japan for [Steve Aoki’s] mom’s 70th birthday. He got his mom, his sister and his brother to all go out together. Steve’s busy, and everyone’s spread out around the world, so it was kind of a unique thing. We were able to tag along on this family vacation of theirs.
Meeting the family — his mom is the nicest person you’ll ever meet — and those days in Japan really helped in that aspect. And also, for the rest of the time filming, I don’t think I ever saw Steve not working for seven days straight. It was interesting to film you when you were on personal time, because it was show after show after show.
Q: How do you feel about seeing yourself in this documentary?
SA: It is awkward for me. When I started seeing the more emotional side of things, I don’t like to show that. I don’t like showing the sad or dark. I really try to stay in a fun, spirited place. As far as the public access to who I am, I just like to show the fun side of things.
My “brand,” or whatever you want to call it, the Steve Aoki you see at live shows is fun. I’m not trying to portray anything different. But with this doc, when we get into more of these vulnerable places, it’s tough to watch.
Q: A lot of documentaries take more than five years to film. What was decided in the pre-production stage, in terms of how much access you would have and how long you wanted to film?
JK: We wanted to get it done as quickly as possible. But that said, we shot over the course of two-and-a-half years. Up front, when I first met with Steve, Matt (his manager) said we’re going to get all the access we need to make this.
Saying that and doing that is one thing, so over the course of those two-and-a-half years, we were able to dive a bit deeper. From a filmmaker’s side, we were able to able to earn Steve’s trust to tell his story and his family’s legacy.
I was familiar with Dim Mak [Steve Aoki’s record company]. I had seen Steve’s shows beforehand. So when I went out to meet him, I thought he’d be this party animal, drinking all the time. No, he’s a health nut, super-intelligent and a super-humble guy. And right then and there, when I met, I knew we were going to have a really good film.
Q: Themes of legacy and family resonate throughout the film; they're an important part of the story. Those themes spoke to you -- how did they affect the presentation of the movie?
JK: When we were talking with Matt and Steve, when we were conceptualizing the film, we didn’t want to make a documentary that was going to only speak to just EDM fans. While that is a big group of people, it’s really limiting the audience at the same time.
It’s also limiting the demographic; it skews pretty young. What we wanted to do is use the dance-music scene as a backdrop. It’s sexy, it’s fun to look at, the live performances are great.
But if we could find a universal theme that could resonate with people of all ages and all races, everyone around the world can connect with having expectations put upon you. Everyone can understand these different family dynamics — whether it’s your high-school soccer coach or your parents or your teachers. Everyone understands what it is to have expectations, so I think that was kind of the genesis of it.
If we could connect with people, it wouldn’t matter if you’re a dance music fan or not. And I think at the end of the day, this film is an introduction to who Steve is but it’s also an introduction to the dance music scene as a whole. People who don’t know much about the scene come into it and understand it a bit more, but at the same time enjoy the film on a more emotional level.
SA: I think in the beginning, it was a bit difficult for me to decide to that. I never really did it before. I felt like if we were going to make a documentary that is telling a more human story instead of a dance story, then we might as well go all in. We might as well bring it all out, especially when we have people outside of my space making this film.
I didn’t want to make an EDM doc. They’re already out there. And also, for me, when I think about my father and my mother and the contributions they made to the culture — my father, particularly — there’s such a great story there.
As time goes by, it gets forgotten. It’s nice to bring it back to new generation that has no idea about it. The older generation, they know of him. That story stays in that bubble, but it’s nice to bring it to a new generation: the story of a Japanese person in America at a time a few decades past World War II, when discrimination against Japanese people was on red alert. He actually started a business that was part of popular culture in America. That’s unheard of.
His story is incredible. He was an ice cream man in Harlem, when he was 20s and had first moved to New York, and he got a loan to open up a restaurant. It’s kind of a crazy story. The hardship that he faced then, it’s hard to relate to now, but someone like him really opened up a lane for other Asians to be able to have that they can actually have an identity and be heard or be able to create a business or do something that can affect an infinite number of people.
So when I think about what he did, then it’s all worth it in the end to bring that back into this film and show that.
Of course, but when you see your dad [on TV], it’s your dad. But when you see Bruce Lee on TV, it’s like, “That’s my god! That’s my dude!”
JK: [He says to Aoki] But now it’s you as well. How many other Asian-Americans are huge, Top 40 artists?
Q: Even though you and your father went into different lines of work, you both have the traits of being a workaholic entrepreneur. He was quoted in the movie as saying he put work before his family and health. How do you balance that for yourself?
SA: It’s all about time management. Time management is how to use your time wisely, obviously, and understanding where you need help in certain areas and building teams in those areas to be able to build projects. I’m more of a project-based person, so I look at everything in projects and how to execute those projects requires help, a team.
Even though it says DIY, it’s really DIT: doing it together. That community-based spirit has been a thread since day one, when I was in the punk and hardcore scene, whether it was doing a ‘zine, forming a band or starting a fashion company. You can’t do it alone.
If I’m going to execute something with music, I might be the one creating the music, but I need a team to help me get it out there. So it’s all about how to delegate and know where your weaknesses are and where you can help fill in those spaces with the right people.
Q: Given that you’ve been in the music industry for so long and have a lot of influence, is there anything you wish you could change about the industry?
SA: I think one of the good things that’s happened, in terms of where the industry is going, is that the people who didn’t have a voice before, who needed these larger financial institutions to provide them with a voice for people to be heard, that’s changed.
If you don’t have the money, you can create a YouTube channel and start singing on YouTube and create a space for that and become your own star with your own crowd. Soundcloud gives you that platform as well.
There’s a lot of platforms for independent artists to have a voice and have a following and be able to get their music heard. That’s a great thing, but there is still a ceiling that is hit where you need some of these major labels, these financial institutions to break through.
And I feel like that ceiling needs to go away, more like an anarchist way of looking at what good music is. Good music isn’t always in the Top 40. That’s just the music that was paid to get up there.
There’s a lot of good music that hasn’t been heard because of these ceilings. How do we get through that? That’s the question. We’re already going in that direction, but how do we break it down even further? The artists who really have the influence have the platform.
Q: Where do you see yourself in pop culture and how does that relate to the overall message behind I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead?
SA: Dim Mak has hit 20 years as a record label. We started in 1996. I started DJ’ing in 2003, and before that, I was in bands. So I went from being in bands and touring to realizing that I enjoy developing brand-new artists and helping them get their music out there, and learning how to do that better and better.
So that’s always been my life’s blood, even through the course of me DJ’ing, I realize the weight and influence that I have could really help out artists who are, in my opinion, much better producers than me.
Q: And how do you help them? What can I do to help them?
SA: I always have something that is part of my role: How can I give back to artists and build a culture moving forward, and make it more self-sustaining, which it has become? That’s what’s exciting when you’re a part of a group that can build something that’s self-sustained, that doesn’t need or require other people’s input, other people’s money or influence. And that’s something I’m trying to help make bigger and bigger.
Once Brooklyn debuted at the 2015 New York Film Festival, it was on the path toward major award notices. There’s a universality to this story of Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) an Irish immigrant who finds freedom and self by coming to America during the 1950s. People can plug into it as a simple love story, but it’s also resonates as the journey of the immigrant that makes America great.
As a nation of immigrants, everyone has a story to tell somewhere along the lines of this film. Directed by John Crowley with a screenplay by famed author Nick Hornby, the film is based on the novel by Colm Tóibín. It showcases some best Irish talent besides Ronan including Domhnall Gleeson, Emory Cohen, Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters, with the able production team of Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey.
When Ronan set out on this journey within the film, the national dialogue about immigration wasn’t what it is today, which is now seeded with an antagonism that reminds us that every class of immigrants, at some point, faced racism or racist stereotypes about who they are.
While two-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Una Ronan was born in The Bronx on April 12, 1994, she landed in County Carlow when she was three years old. The only child of actors Monica and Paul Ronan, they tried New York City at the time of her birth but came home. Then as a teen, she ended up in Howth, County Dublin.
The Irish-American actress made her screen debut on Irish TV’s RTÉ, in the 2003 prime time medical drama The Clinic and then in the mini-serial Proof. She had auditioned to play Luna Lovegood in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix but it went to Evanna Lynch.
At 12, Ronan attended a casting for director Joe Wright's 2007 adaptation of Ian McEwan's 2001 novel Atonement for the part of Briony Tallis, a 13-year-old aspiring writer who accuses her older sister's lover of a crime he didn’t commit. Starring alongside Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, Ronan impressed Wright on-set who then made her the lead in his 2011 spy actioner Hanna.
Her other film roles before Brooklyn included City of Ember (2008), The Lovely Bones (2009), The Way Back (2010), Byzantium (2012), The Host (2013), and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).
Receiving two Oscar noms — this year for Best Actress in Brooklyn and for Best Supporting Actress in 2007 for Atonement, she's also snagged three BAFTA Award nominations, two Golden Globe nominations, two Screen Actors Guild Award nominations, and one Satellite Award.
From her 2015 NYFF premiere on, Ronan's been happy to talk about this role that celebrates something of her own personal histroy as filtered through the experience of an earlier generation of Irish newcomers to the U.S.A. As she explains in this Q&A conducted at a MoMA screening, it gave her a chance to look inward and learn from it -- something that helped her prepare for her upcoming Broadway debut in the revival of Arthur Miller's award winning The Cruciible.
Q: This wasn’t a typical award-oriented film…
SR: We had no idea that was going to happen. To this day, [being nominated] has been one of the highlights of this whole adventure. It’s a very traditional type of film, not exactly edgy and raw, there’s nothing cool about it.
Q: Your character has an amazing journey, but you’ve taken one as well. In the year that you’ve been on the road promoting this movie what have you learned about her or yourself?
SR: When I learn something about her it helps me. So I learn something from realizing all these layers she seems to have and it's taught me. One of the main lessons that Brooklyn, and John [Crowley] particularly, has taught me is that I could be quite lazy, just read the script and learn the lines and play a character, but I realized that the more and more I read from this that there are so many secrets that can come into the mix that you can delve into.
When we started to actually talk and share with people, that’s when we began to realize the power of development. Journalists were coming up to me, and usually it gets pretty repetitive when you’re dealing with press all the time and talking about the same thing, but with this, the reason we haven’t gotten sick of it isn’t that it’s done so well so far, but also that every journalist has had such a personal attachment to it.
Every single one has said, “I’m in a long distance relationship, so I relate to it for this reason” or, “I’m a parent who was left alone when my kid went to college.”
People are able to appreciate [this film] from different perspectives. But one of the things that I loved about Éilis Lacey and I realized more was that this is… One of the qualities I love the most about her is she’s got such a strong will. There’s a real echo in here and it goes with her little top knot.
She has a really strong sense of self and it’s important to see a female character [like that] on screen. We don’t see it much when a young man comes up to her and says, “I’m in love with you, don’t worry, let’s get married”, she doesn’t melt and go, “Ok, let’s do all the things you suggest we do.” She needs time to think about it.
It’s not that she doesn’t have feelings for him and reciprocates this love, but I like that she’s created this world for herself and she doesn’t necessarily want to compromise that straight away. So that was something that was very helpful for me to hold onto, even when dealing with press and becoming more and more apparent in the industry side of things. It’s a weird world and it’s a world that, ironically, filmmakers aren’t actually used to.
Q: She goes through an arc, committing to her immigration to the United States. How did you work out the racism and other elements into that character set a while ago.
SR: It was a while ago, but I don’t think it would have been right to look at it, and I know that’s not what you’re saying, political standpoint. It had to be incredibly personal and intimate and I think that’s why [it works] right now, because it’s an incredibly heated discussion, as it always should be, but it is right now for the wrong reasons.
To have a film where people can at least empathize with one person and apply that to the mass of people that are fleeing their homes. I was in London before Christmas doing rehearsals and I saw migrants just in the park, there was about 40 of them under a tree, it was cold and they had nowhere to go, and it baffled me. Especially Ireland, some people have had such a strange reaction to it.
We’re a nation of immigrants — it’s something I can personally empathize with and it’s something I hope the film will do, so people can look at it in a more intimate individual sense and give some heart to the stories of these people that are making the exact same journey, if not worse, right now.
Q: Did you know any Irish immigrants of that generation before or speak to any in preparation for this role?
SR: I didn’t know any before, but I’ve met a lot since and heard stories from people who ultimately went back to Ireland and who are at home [there]. There was one woman who’s actually from [Eilis'county], and, I think it was around 1951 or '52, that she decided she was going to go to America. She actually had a very good job, so she was going to go over there and going to work, which was just unheard of then. Even when my family went over, that’s what I drew from because it was their story that I grew up with.
Q: Your parents immigrated...
SR: I was born in the Bronx as I’m sure you can tell; you got that from me. My story is in reverse of Eilis. My mom and dad went over in the '80s; there was no work at home in Ireland and a lot of people say the recession back then in Ireland was worse than it is now, though it was pretty bad a few years ago.
A lot of young couples and young people left. My dad and his friend went ahead of my Nan over to New York, and then herself, and the friend’s girlfriend followed.
They went there to work and spent about 11 years here. I’ve taken my mom to places in Manhattan since then when they were just in the Bronx. I’ve taken her to places in Manhattan she had never been to before.
So I grew up appreciating what the struggle was like, but certainly didn’t realize the longingness and grief that came with it until I knew it. I was in a much more fortunate position than Eilis, getting a nice flat in London.
And it was in that time, maybe a year before I did the film, before I signed up and there was a year where I moved away. But it’s a completely different perspective when you’re in the middle of it and trying to overcome… We don’t know what it is.
It’s like being in this new city, now what do I do; exist in the same place? But I didn’t have a purpose there. Brooklyn gave me that. So to go back afterwards really help me to overcome all the fears I had before I left to do the shoot.
Q: You’ve done historical dramas and fantastical films. You worked with Joe Wright on Hanna to great success and then you did a fantastical film with Wes Anderson. Does it charge you to flip back and forth?
SR: I wouldn’t want to be known for anything except working consistently. That would be one of my great fears, apart from forgetting my lines, is just being known for one role. The first one I did I was 10 and a couple years later I had a taste and that was around the time Atonement came around.
I got this other action film and I knew I didn’t want to go down that commercial route just for the sake of exposure, even when I was a kid. I always felt like I had to do something that makes you feel something.
It takes me in different directions, whether it’s the action genre or a romance it means you’re stretched all the time. I feel that as an actor I wouldn’t be method or anything like that, but I learned the most working with different types of directors where I stretch myself and adapt; that has helped me learn so much. It's kind of like when you actually play a character, you’re getting to know and pick up so many new perspectives.
Q: Any secret stories you want to tell us about the shoot working with John Crowley?
SR: It’s been great [nervous laughter]. John and I almost fell out forever one day. We did so many bloody dinner scenes, over the course of two days we must have done eight dinner scenes; we ate so much. We were properly eating too, it wasn’t like in a movie where you dance around with a fork and pick it up and put it back down. I hate it whenever I see people do that. We were properly eating. It must have been the third dinner scene of the day, which is a lot.
When you’re doing a dinner scene you have to coordinate with six, seven, eight people, multiple different angles, everyone gets a bit tired and a bit angry near the end, and that’s where we were. We were also near the end of the shoot as well, and we were eating stew.
We had a fork, a spoon, and a little knife for bread. So Jane Brennan and myself, who plays the mother Mrs. Lacey, we went to eat with our spoons, and, I don’t know about you, but when I eat soup, I do it with a spoon, I don’t do it with a fork.
John came up to me — he was getting a bit grumpy, and I was getting a bit grumpy — and he was like, “Do this, do that, it’s easier for us if you’re using a fork when you eat the stew.”
I looked up at him and said,“What?”
“Just use your fork.”
“Hold on a minute.”
So we get into this huge argument about whether to use a fork or spoon, I ended up using the fork, but to me, it doesn’t make sense at all. So if I look bitter at all in that scene it’s because of the director.
Q: Using a fork makes no sense.
SR: It makes no sense! What are you supposed to do with soup? I don’t understand.
Q: You had two dashing men — Emory Cohen as Anthony "Tony" Fiorello and Domhnall Gleeson as Jim Farrell. Gleeson’s now in everything; he’s having his Star Wars moment. Each one has a distinct character with a different frame of mind, so what was it like having these two actors informing your character? It seemed fun.
SR: It was for different reasons. We started in Ireland, so we did the beginning and close to the end was three weeks. I had to fall in love with one actor then another. Domhnall has the same sort of attitude as me towards work, we had good craic. That’s not the drug [but the Gaelic word for fun].
Domhnall and I knew each other for years and there were a couple of little things we tried to do together and it just never happened.
When Irish people get together there’s a very familial atmosphere, it’s very personal and familiar with each other even if you never met them before, so it was very relaxed.
With Emory and I in Montreal, we had the girls for a few days but then it was just me and him and we had so many scenes were it was just the two of us. The scenes I shared with him were some of my favorite to shoot, dramatically speaking, because they are some of the most life changing moments for her.
And he’s wonderful, really magical. He was so committed and would have done anything to make John happy. He had a lot of integrity and I really respect that. But we work in different ways.
We’re both coming at it from very different angles and because we have that yin and yang dynamic it really worked. The characters have that on film — they’re very different from each other and come from different sorts of backgrounds — and they get together because of that, so that’s where the attraction comes from. I can definitely identify with the conflicts she has as an Irish person in America.
I’ve certainly felt that, even from being on film sets. You can kind of own your Irishness a little bit more when the person you’re with isn’t well up on Ireland or where you’re from. You can milk it a little bit. It gives her this charm and extra bit of confidence that she steps into when she meets this guy, it’s pretty instant.
Q: You brought that inner strength to your interactions with him.
SR: As soon as we met I was pulling him up on everything. He took it but he had no choice really -- to be honest. The dynamic just naturally established itself instantly. Whereas with Domhnall we had known each other for a period of time and we were very familiar with each other anyways, and that really worked for our characters because in this film Domhnall represents home and that total security to her and familiarity. It really was like life imitating art when it came to the dynamics.
Q: So romance is still cool — who knew?
SR: Who knew? Cool is cool. We had a screening and [at the time] it wasn’t necessarily the one to watch but people were intrigued by it. The response we have had from the very beginning was so amazing.
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