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Premiering at the 27th annual Tokyo International Film Festival this October, Disney’s latest animation spectacular Big Hero 6 posits a near-future city of San Fransokyo where technological possibilities can transform kids into superheroes, especially when the enabler is teen tech prodigy Hiro Hamada.
Hamada’s older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) has convinced his slacker brother to forgo robo-fights and street betting for a coveted slot at the exclusive university he already attends; Hiro is psyched. To meet the admission requirement, he develops a remarkable nano-tech device. His presentation demo is witnessed by both the school’s dean, professor Robert Callahan (James Cromwell), and an unscrupulous billionaire Alistair Krei (Allan Tudyk), who wants to whisk Hiro and his invention away from the school. As the Hamada bros leave to enjoy his victory, an explosion in the building ensues.
When this death-dealing disaster catapults Hiro into the middle of a mysterious danger, he springs into action creating the super-powered team, Big Hero 6, out of his pals: adrenaline junkie Go Go Tomago (Jamie Chung), neatnik Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), chemistry whiz Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) and fanboy Fred (T.J. Miller). In turn, prodigy Hamada establishes a special bond with his late brother’s creation, the plus-sized inflatable med-bot Baymax (Scott Adsit), and transforms it into his crime-fighting partner.
As the first non-live-action project based on a Marvel Comics property, the director and producers — part of the Disney animation team behind mega-hits Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph — turned to 19-year-old actor Ryan Potter to voice Hamada. Born in Oregon, he spent part of his childhood in Tokyo; then the seven-year-old’s family returned to the States. Something of a prodigy himself, fluent in both Japanese and English, Potter began studying White Tiger kung fu, a discipline pursued since age eight, while also handling drums, baseball and skateboarding.
In 2010, the 15-year-old began acting after he got a leaflet in kung fu class announcing that Nickelodeon was looking for teens to star in Supah Ninjas, a new martial-arts series. After auditioning, Potter landed the role of Mike Fukanaga, an American teen who discovers he comes from a long line of ninjas. Following its 2011 debut, Potter became one of Nickelodeon’s popular young stars, accruing features in teen mags and making appearances in the network’s Worldwide Day of Play special and its reboot of the ‘90s game show Figure It Out, among others. Though Nickelodeon renewed Supah Ninjas for a second season in March 2012, Potter also began a recurring role on Fred: The Show, playing the best friend.
Besides acting, the precocious Potter founded a charity In 2011 — Toy Box of Hope — which holds an annual holiday collection drive for children in Los Angeles area homeless shelters and transitional living facilities. During its 2012 event, Potter said of the organization’s efforts by explaining, “[W]hat we want to do is provide bedsheets, jackets and toys to [homeless shelters], so these kids are like, ‘Wow, someone cares, there’s hope.’” Potter reportedly planned to expand Toy Box of Hope to include a “Birthday Party Box” program.
In June 2012, he also became one of the youngest celebrities to lend support to California’s No H8 Campaign in defense of same-sex marriage. To explain his involvement, the then-16-year-old officially stated: “I know what it feels like to be bullied and I will not tolerate the thought of anyone, for any reason, being bullied. It starts with young people, and can end with young people. As we learn to embrace our diversity, we become stronger, more tolerant. The differences are beautiful. The differences matter. It’s what makes life an adventure.”
Winning the audience sweepstakes, Big Hero 6 made nearly $50 millon in its first week -- and provided a fascinating take on near-future versions of modern maker technology and bionic adaptations for the human body.
But Potter is blowing up well beyond both television and film appearances and plans to transform his acting successes into much more. As he engaged in this breathless one-on-one phoner during this film’s junket day, I wondered what next I will be discussing with this skilled-beyond-his-years talent.
Q: You’ve got this great starring role in a big feature film — but it’s animated! Girls aren’t going to see you in the flesh!Ryan Potter: I know, and I actually love that; I get to fly under the radar.Q: Were you recorded digitally with motion capture?RP: We didn’t use any motion capture for this. I went in and did a bunch of recording sessions and I did get very physical in the booth. I would run around and jump around, throw myself around, to create that physicality, that energy. But they animated everything afterwards, so they animated to the voice and the physicality that I created in the booth.
Q: With the little twists at the end, how did you feel when you read the script?RP: There were rewrites constantly, and there were definitely some scenes, like one of the ending scenes. It was very emotional, and you could feel that in the room. They’re like, “Oh, here we go, this is a very emotional day. Are you ready?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I’m ready to go,” and we’d be in the booth for a couple hours at a time. We almost had to leave the booth, trying to crack jokes or tell funny stories as much as possible, because the mood of the room definitely did go down for some of those scenes.When I was in the booth and was going on with the lines and had to keep doing them over and over, it was tough for some of the engineers who came in to sit there recording all day long. I’d see them on the other side of the glass tearing up and some of them crying, and it was just as emotionally draining for them as it was for me.
Q: Did you meet your fellow voice cast members in the course of doing the recordings?RP: I met the cast for the first time last week during the cast dinner. It’s so bizarre because you work on this film for a year and a half with your cast mates, but you don’t get to see them. And the way the film comes together, it really doesn’t sound that way. It sounds like we were all in the booth at the same time.I met Maya Rudolph [voicing Aunt Cass] very briefly, and she was a blast to work with. She is a phenomenal, phenomenal lady, and she is so funny.
Q: She’s so funny in person.RP: She was just killing me. We recorded for maybe 20 minutes, but that was it. [Other than] that, I was by myself in the booth the entire time, and I met the rest of the cast last week. But we clicked immediately.We had been working on this project together for a year and a half, and when I met Scott [Adsit] — who plays the voice of Baymax — I was like, “Hey, Scott!” and he was like, “Hey, Hiro!” and I was like, “Oh, hey, Baymax!” and it didn’t feel like we missed a beat.I was trying to introduce myself, but he already knew, and I already knew. Scott and I picked up immediately, and it didn’t feel at all like we had to tell each other about ourselves because we already knew so much.
Q: You did the live action television series Supah Ninjas for Nickelodeon where you used your martial arts training. How did you apply your martial arts knowledge to this character?RP: It’s interesting because early on in the process there were a lot of lines like “Strike” or “Kick” [in the script] and they didn’t quite know the actual terms. So I was able to go in and say, “That’s actually this; that strike is that; that kick is this.”So early on they took my word for it, but they brought in the martial arts consultant for the rest of the film. I’ve done stunts before, so I’ve done rigging, and I’ve sparred, and I’ve done grappling, so I know the physicality that Hiro [Hamada] goes through in this film. He is very active; he’s being thrown around, he gets lifted up. So I know what all those sounds really sound like in real life, and it came very easily to me.
Q: You can do the most amazing stunts and not get injured doing animation. Were you ever injured in the process of doing stunts or martial arts?RP: At my martial arts school, I got my bumps and my bruises, but [for] stunts, I worked with a phenomenal fight coordinator, Hiro Koda. It was awesome to work with him because he really did want me to do more and more. So when I trained with him and he got me into the harness and onto the wires, he taught me everything I know now. He kept me safe throughout that entire process, and he was phenomenal to work with.
Q: So you’re Nisei — second-generation Japanese in America, right? I should have said, “Kon’nichiwa [hello]” earlier, and I’ll say, “Hajime mashite [nice to meet you],” now.RP: I am. I’m half-Japanese, half-Caucasian.Q: Do you go to Japan and visit relatives? What have you learned from your grandparents and their experiences?RP: I actually grew up in Tokyo. The city they created is very familiar to me; I’m very familiar with Japanese culture and Japanese pop culture. That was my childhood. I moved here when I was seven years old.I go up to San Francisco on holidays and spend time with my family there, but whenever I go to Japan I enjoy every moment. I try to go back there every year or so. It’s a phenomenal place, and I absolutely love it. It’s not my second home; it is my home. Whenever I go back I feel very connected with Japan.
Q: Have you seen a lot of anime and read a lot of manga [Japanese comics]?RP: Oh, yeah. I grew up with [Hayao] Miyazaki films [such as the Oscar-nominated Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, and The Wind Rises] and I grew up with Weekly Shōnen Jump [comic magazine]; I grew up with [the anime series] Dragon Ball Z, [and director] Satoshi Kon films like Paprika.Q: Really, the late anime innovator Satoshi Kon?RP: Satoshi Kon is without a doubt one of the top three animators of all time. His work is so under-appreciated. His work has inspired so many films here in the US that have gone on to do so well, and there was really no credit given. In Inception [Christopher Nolan's 2010 sci-fi thriller], there’s a lot of scenes from Paprika in it. It was kind of a nod — “Hey, that was a great thing you did” — but they didn’t quite give the acknowledgment. And Satoshi Kon is on par with Walt Disney and on par with Miyazaki [among others].
Q: And there’s the great manga artist Katsuhiro Otomo, creator of the sci fi series, Akira — which became an incredible anime.RP: Otomo — oh, absolutely. These guys have shaped my childhood.Q: Once the idea of acting and doing Supah Ninjas was introduced to you, did you always want to do both? Were you ever torn with doing more martial arts and not pursuing the acting?RP: This isn’t to play down people who pursue acting… For me, I do acting just as a fun job. It is a phenomenal job, and I have fun doing it, but I relate more to my martial arts, to my baseball, to my film study. There are more facets to my life that I relate to.I love acting — I love doing it. It’s a lot of fun, but for the longest time, I wanted to become a firefighter. I still do want to become a firefighter. You never know; I may go to film school and not like film school, and then go learn to firefight.
Q: You should talk to Steve Buscemi. He was a firefighter before he became an actor.RP: Yeah, and Steve Buscemi, without a doubt, is one of my top three favorite actors of all time. I love his work and he is an inspiration to me.Q: If you were a director, what would you do?RP: I would want to do music videos, actually, because I have a love of music, and I feel like I’d be too much of a critic of my own music if I were to produce or create or whatever it is. I’ve always been a very visual and very creative person; I’ve always had to be hands-on. Combining my love of music with my need to create, music videos are the perfect combination of the two.
Q: What’s your favorite music… or artist?RP: My favorite musician has to be Prince, without a doubt. Prince is, I think, one of the greatest artists of all time. A lot of this younger generation doesn’t know about Prince, and it kind of blows my mind. This man mastered so many instruments by the age of 13. He’s very under-appreciated, but there is a generation that idolizes him.Q: So what are you doing next?RP: I’ll continue to promote Big Hero 6 and do the other things that come from Big Hero 6, but I’m working on putting together a portfolio and going to film school.
Reese, Margaret Nagle, Sarah Baker, & Corey Stoll
Nashville, Tennessee, might seem as remote a place from the African nation of Sudan as one could imagine. Yet given the fantastic journey of thousands of Lost Boys (and girls) who came to the United States in the 1990s — after an arduous walk from their homeland across 1,000 miles to Kenyan refugee camps fleeing a bloody civil war — it doesn’t seem so strange. And since many of them were settled in places like Missouri, experiencing drastic cultural contrasts became the norm for them.
As a story initiated by this civil war, the upcoming film The Good Lie encompasses the stark contrasts that came out of that conflict. It tells of the tragedies, but also of the determination and hope that drove these young people to survive as well. Filmed in Atlanta, Georgia, this feature draws on the collective experiences of the survivors of that war as they came to this country through various Christian charities. Having stirred audiences when it screened at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, The Good Lie recently premiered in Nashville — hometown of one of its stars, Reese Witherspoon.
To best aid in telling of these four survivors’ remarkable experiences, established actors such as Oscar winner Witherspoon, Corey Stoll and Sarah Baker joined with actors of Sudanese descent — Ger Duany (Jeremiah), Arnold Oceng (Mamere), Kuoth Wiel (Abital) and Emmanuel Jal (Paul) — to present a composite tale of four who not only walked those miles but grappled with the traumatic cultural conflicts adjusting to a new life in the cold American midwest.
Based on real-life events (compressed by screenwriter Margaret Nagle), Oscar nominee Philippe Falardeau directed Witherspoon to play Carrie Davis, a brash American woman assigned to find jobs for her young Sudanese charges who have won a lottery for relocation here.
Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the 38-year-old actress spent her childhood in Nashville, where she went from a high school cheerleader to attending Stanford University as an English literature major. After a year, she left to pursue acting.
Proud of her "definitive Southern upbringing," Witherspoon gave her character "a sense of family and tradition" and taught her about "being conscientious about people's feelings, being polite, being responsible and never taking for granted what you have in your life."
Witherspoon landed her first feature role as the female lead in The Man in the Moon in 1991. She went on to star in such films as Freeway, Cruel Intentions, Pleasantville and Alexander Payne’s 1999 hit Election, for which she earned a Golden Globe nomination.
In 2001, her career ratcheted up with the breakout role of Elle Woods in the box-office hit Legally Blonde, and then in 2002 when she starred in Sweet Home Alabama, which became her biggest commercial film to date. The following year saw her return as lead and executive producer of Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde.
By 2005, Witherspoon had received worldwide attention and praise for her portrayal of June Carter Cash in Walk the Line, which earned her an Academy Award, Golden Globe, BAFTA, Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role and the Critics Choice Movie Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
Now married to agent Jim Toth, Witherspoon has three children, two from her previous marriage to actor Ryan Philippe. After something of a hiatus, she now has several films being released this year, including this one and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice.
This Q&A is culled from a recent press conference and Reese’s introduction at the film’s Nashville premiere.
Q: This film has some great Tennessee connections such as Producer Molly Smith, who has quite a bit of credits to her name, Alcon Entertainment’s Fred Smith, who started a transportation company in Memphis that's changed the world (FedEx). And, obviously, a local girl who's done really well.
RW: I’m so glad to be here and represent Tennessee. Thank you for being here to support us. It's so good to see you all in Nashville. It's so exciting. I'm so used to seeing you in Los Angeles or New York.
Q: What was it like to show your film here in Nashville where you grew up?
RW: This theater [The Belcourt], where the premiere was, brings back so many memories for me that I was getting emotional when I got here. I've seen so many films here with my family. It's such a great thing to have a premier in Nashville, and to have any of my movies, ever, in Nashville.
Q: This is a spectacular season for you with this movie, producing, all the awards talk, and even popping up with Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice. Have you had a goal to do something like this?
RW: It wasn't planned. I think for a few years I was a little bit lost as an artist, not being able to find what I wanted to do — not making choices I was ultimately very happy with. What kind of started this whole string of things was just getting back to wanting to play interesting, dynamic female characters.
I made these movies, and they all seem to be coming out within three months of each other. I'm in a little bit of a traffic jam right now. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all of them, and see them for their different qualities.
Q: How do you feel to be back in the Oscar buzz spotlight?
RW: It’s so nice; it’s so sweet to be getting [attention] for it. I’m excited that everybody’s liking the films I’ve been in lately.
Q: The Good Lie is a surprising film with an amazing story, told with such humor and compassion.
RW: I read Margaret Nagle's script, and was so moved. I just knew I couldn't not do it. Margaret did such an incredible job. You could tell that there was so much research involved, because when I started watching documentaries, it was completely accurate. Every story you've heard [about] the Sudanese refugees is somehow in the movie or in the script.
I remember when I met Philippe Falardeau, the director, the first thing he said to me was, "This movie isn't about you. And I just want to be really clear about that."
I've never had a director say that to me before but it made me happy, because I didn't want to make a movie where it was just a white American girl coming to save African people.
My character [Carrie Davis] is without family, just as emotionally distraught as they are. I thought it was such a beautiful opportunity to talk about [how] family is where you find it. The film is incredible.
Q: How did you arrive at Carrie's look? Was it written on the page, or did you have any input on that?
RW: Molly called me and told me she wanted me to be a brunette, and I was like, "All right." I've done that before. We worked with the hair and make-up people. It's always nice to sort of depart from yourself. I was covering all my post-baby weight, too.
I'd just had a baby, and I was still nursing and taking care of him. That’s the reason why I didn't know if I wanted to make the movie. You know how your brain gets confused, right after you have a baby? I was really confused.
Q: What was in the message of the movie that spoke to you and made you want to do it?
RW: I felt that there are so many times when you don't appreciate your life until you see someone else's perspective on our privileges and the opportunities that we have, whether that's education, or health care, or just food and running water.
One of my favorite scenes is when [Ger’s character] is running his hands [in the water], turning the water on and off, after they'd walked through the desert without water or food.
I thought it was a great message also for families. I think it's really great to take your kids to this movie. It brings up a lot of integral conversations that we should all be having. I'll take my kids!
Q: It must have been an incredible challenge for you to play a character where you don't know the backstory to the other characters. You have to discover it along the way. What did you learn about south Sudan in general?
RW: I came from a place of not knowing, so other than a random newspaper article or something, I knew very little about the story.
A lot of the things that I learned were from talking to Emmanuel and Ger. Sometimes we'd be doing scenes and I'd say, "Well, did that really happen?"
Ger would tell us about being a young boy and walking all that way, and what it was like. It's hard to even conceive.
And then at the very end of the film, we got to go to the Kakuma Refugee Camp.
Even though I didn't shoot any scenes there, I didn't want to just do the part in Atlanta and be done and go home to my life. I really wanted to see what the experience was like, so I took my teenage daughter and we went.
Q: Your daughter hasn't experienced that sort of poverty before, so what was her experience like? How did it help her perspective on the world?
RW: Well, she's a wonderful, socially conscious girl. Even if you read a million books on a situation, you don't understand it until you see it yourself. I was very lucky that they organized for her to be there, because she is a little young to be off on these trips.
Q: Was she 13 at the time?
RW: She had just turned 14. She didn't say a word the whole day. And then she really didn't talk about it until a couple of days later. I think it's definitely going to affect her for a long time, as it did me. It was amazing.
Q: What do you think she gained from the experience?
RW: Consciousness, awareness — hopefully, a feeling of wanting to give back.
Q: Why was it important for you to take her there?
RW: I think that travel is the antidote to any kind of selfish behavior -- service, really. It's not their fault, kids nowadays, we give them all these technologies, and access to things that disconnect them, so as much as you can show them of the world, it's great.
Q: Describe the experience; take us back there as it happened to you.
RW: It was really very emotional, seeing over 250,000 people displaced — sleeping on concrete slabs, and the sprawl of that many people living together. There were 12 different languages being spoken; seven different kinds of religions. There was very little health care, very little food.
We saw women giving birth on metal tables, with their infant sitting there with no clothes on. Kids that were sick, and babies like her brother's age, sitting on concrete slabs and sleeping with seven other brothers and sisters. But I think the conditions were worse.
Seeing that is one thing, but the other remarkable thing [we saw] was the joy and determination of these people to rise above [it] and have a better life for their children. They greet you with smiles and laughter and dancing. Their spirit was just incredible.
It was incredible to be there with Ger and his family — so many of his family members are there — at that very camp.
It really brought it all home to me. This is an opportunity to raise awareness, but it's also an opportunity to create change.
As I was talking to the religious leader Rick Warren, he said, "Sometimes we assume because people are poor that they're not intelligent, that they don't have anything to offer to society. But these are people who are on top of their field. They're doctors, educators, community leaders, and they've essentially been displaced."
So it's been really educational for me to learn about refugees, and their contribution to society, and how we hopefully lift more of them up out of those situations.
Q: Why do you think it's hard for us, as Americans, to grasp what's going on —the persecutions going on in Sudan? How can this movie change that?
RW: I think there's not been a lot of media coverage. A lot of people are making comparisons [of this film] to Hotel Rwanda, but it wasn't a situation that a lot of people knew a lot about. Once [you] saw the film, it makes you want to go home and look it up and get more involved.
I really like the part when Corey's character says in the movie [that] he’s so reticent to get involved. He's like, "Let's not get involved. We're probably going to get sued."
One of the things I think is so great about this story is that you don't have to be a perfect person to do something great for somebody else. The imperfections in your life actually might be helped in the process of meeting and helping and creating community for people who are displaced.
It's not just for the saints of the world. We can all make a difference.
On February 26, 2014, the First Time Fest team held a special event in tandem with Tribeca Enterprises in anticipation of the 20th anniversary of A Bronx Tale, Oscar-winning actor Robert DeNiro's directorial debut. Since the concept of the fest is to celebrate directors and their debut features, this film screening served to hail a career benchmark for DeNiro and Chazz Palminteri, its star and story creator.
Though DeNiro has since done another film as director, 2006's The Good Shepherd, he had a powerful personal connection to this story.
Though Taxi Driver really made him the figure to reckon, several of his earlier films such as Mean Streets and Godfather II really drew on his Italian heritage and life growing up in Manhattan's Little Italy.
That background served him well for appreciating A Bronx Tale and transforming Palminteri’s story into something both personal and universal.
In anticipation of the sophomore festival’s schedule from April 3rd to 7th, 2014, DeNiro’s detailed the development of this film during a discussion after this anniversary screening. And since he has a deep love for festivals — as the founder of the Tribeca Film Festival in its 13th year this April 16-27th — it also served a suitable celebration of both festivals.
This Q&A is based on the transcript of the night’s talk.
Q: Apparently Chazz decided that if he was ever going get a good part he would have to write A Bronx Tale for himself — and perform it, first as a one-man off-Broadway production. How did you come across his wonderful play that you eventually directed as your first movie?
RD: And he did, exactly. He was doing this one-man show when I was in LA and heard about it and then saw it. We started talking about my doing it as a director. It was a long process.
Q: Chazz had received offers to have the film done and turned them down. What was he waiting for?
RD: He wanted to make sure that he could play the part of Sonny in the movie. I said to him, “Well you have a lot of offers” and it seemed at the time he did. In Hollywood everyone wants something and it’s a feeding frenzy for a certain thing. At that time this was what A Bronx Tale was for movie studios the way as I understand it.
So he had the piece that was given lots of attention. I said to him, “If you want to be able to play the part of Sonny, it’s going to be tricky because they’re going to buy it from you if you opt to sell it to them. At the end of the day, they’re going to want to have someone with a name to hedge their bets. And they’re going to probably come to me. So let’s just eliminate that whole process and tell me that you’ll give it to me to direct and I’ll promise you I will guarantee you that you can play that part.”
And that’s what happened. We had Savoy Pictures at the time wanting to do it and they were more likely to agree to the terms. So that’s how it started and how it happened.
Q: You hadn’t directed movies before. What made you want to do this?
RD: I wanted to direct a movie for a while and wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I realized that you always want to tell the perfect story and to make your movie your letter to the world so I’d say it’s not quite what I’d imagined as my letter to the world but it’s a movie I understood and liked. If nothing else, it’s something that I wanted to do as my first film and commit to doing it.
It was a practical move. I liked Chazz and the nature of it and all this stuff. I could at least attempt to make something special out of this material from my understanding of that world.
Q: At that point, you were coming off an amazing six-film collaboration with Martin Scorsese. Were you concerned that expectations would be too high?
RD: I didn’t care about all that. Who cares about the comparison, it was about just doing my thing. The movies that Marty and I had been doing to that point were wonderful experiences. But my doing the movie as a director with this material as it happened to be with Chazz was what it was and had nothing to do. It just happened to be of that subject that I happened to have a little bit of understanding of.
I was happy to do it and take my chances. In my world, when you want to direct a movie, you jump in and take the leap of faith of directing. Finding a director of photography and all the other people, the department heads of a film and then going ahead, moving forward and shooting it is a big step. To me, that’s what I needed to do and did.
Q: What did it take getting used to that?
RD: The first day was a tricky one because I had to work with kids on a stoop. I’ve directed kids before so I had an idea of these kids. I don’t remember now what I did but I got them to do whatever they had to do for that scene. Somehow it worked out.
Q: Seeing the film 20 years later, there’s still a confidence about it.
RD: Thank you. I remember these kids, I was like, “What am I going to do with them?” They’re all jumping around and everything. These kids to get them to do what I wanted to do, I knew I just had to let them do what they wanted to and whatever they did within the confines of what I wanted to do, the parameters. Somehow it would have to work out and that was it.
Q: How different is your process as an actor from how you direct actors?
RD: I always feel to direct actors or non-actors or anybody — I suppose it could apply to documentaries too — you have to let people be comfortable and feel free to express themselves. That goes especially with the case of A Bronx Tale because these are kids. I always intended to not have be professional actors, you couldn’t find professional actors who wanted to be part of this film.
I couldn’t do it. I had to find kids from that neighborhood who, if anything, had aspirations to be actors and singers, who understood the idea of acting for someone, whether it be for a camera or their mother or father or family member. Kids who understand that. That was my intention, to find those kids and have them be in the film. Like the boy who played my son who was 12, Francis, he said, “You want me to cry?” and I said, “Hold off.”
This was at two in the morning. He understood the meaning and reason and importance of that emotion and was ready to do it. I was amazingly surprised how he understood that at such a young age and how important it was to the film. And he was ready to do it. It was great.
Q: A number of actors have become directors. A lot of this film is about people looking at each other and being looked at. Does this come from an actor’s sensitivity?
RD: I think all actor/directors have an innate sensitivity to other artists. The actors who are being directed by them understand that because they’re being directed by other actors they’re going to give them more, unconsciously or subconsciously or whatever, it’s always there. If you have any kind of common sense as an actor directing other actors, you’re going to be sensitive to that because it’s right and you’re going to get better performances, more sensitive performances because the people working together understand each other.
Q: It’s has very funny moments and a lot of sweetness. How did you get the whole shape and tone of the film?
RD: I thought about how these were kids and, again, not using real actors, you have to use kids from that environment who understand it and can improv. But these are kids who are 14, 15, 16 and who want to be men. In that culture, they want to be grownups. They aspire to what they see before them in the gangster culture and all that stuff. You have to get kids who understand that world so you don’t worry about getting a professional kid who came from some agent. There’s nothing wrong with that but this is about real people where it’s unspoken and understood what this is all about.
To me that was the most important thing. Kids who are 13, 14, 15, 16 who want to behave and be adults and aspire to what they see around them in their culture, which is the Sonny’s culture, the gangster culture.
Q: Goodfellas dealt with the same idea.
RD: Goodfellas was about the same thing with Henry Hill. There was no difference. The characters in A Bronx Tale aspired to the same thing that Henry Hill did. It’s just that Henry Hill was in Queens and this is in the Bronx.
Q: You dressed up Astoria for the movie, so what was it like shooting in that neighborhood.
RD: That block on 30th Avenue — that church — was the same as in the Bronx. Part coincidence, part design. There were abandoned stores on that block, which helped us. We could use the funeral parlor, the back part and downstairs cellar— all of that. We had all these and it was perfect. If you had to go for a reshoot, things were ready. We’d go down to the store we used before for this or that so we were very fortunate in that it was like a little backlot.
Q: There’s a deli there that still sells the “DeNiro Hero.”
RD: I go there and I get one for a nickel.
Q: The music in the film was another part of its character as well.
RD: The music is the third character, if you will. It was very important to me that we had the right music. I love the music from that period because I’m from that time. Well, I’m actually from 10 years earlier, the jazz is like eight to 10 years younger than me, but we blended those periods together. I spent a lot of time with jazz and one of the composers of the play, Barbella, we’d sit on weekends and listen to music, the obvious stuff, though I was always looking for something a little more obscure.
But at the end of the day, it was about what worked for the movie and sometimes it would be something that was so popular from that period, less popular at the moment, and then you might hear it on a commercial, but it was so right for the movie that we had to use it. You knew what was right as you went along. It was hunting, pecking and listening for hours and hours.
Q: Were any other movies models for you?
RD: No other movies at all. It wasn’t a Scorsese movie influence. Marty does his movies, I do mine. I just followed what I thought was right for the movie and it was that simple. It had nothing to do with anything before or after or anything like that. No influence.
It’s my love for movies and for music of that period, or five years after. That whole period was a little bit of fudging of time because the jazz period was 10 years later but it was all about the love of the music and the period.
Q: What did you see as some of the themes of the film — the theme of being a father for example.
RD: There was the father-son thing and that’s the bottom line. As an actor, I’d go more for father parts, then grandfather parts. As long as I’m around, I’ll be offered grandfather, great-grandfather parts.
Q: You just made a film about your father.
RD: I did, I made a documentary about my father.
Q: I guess we’ll have to wait to see it?
Q: Was that a difficult film to get off the ground?
RD: They’re all difficult. Making a movie is very difficult whether you make it for a million dollars or 50 million dollars or 100 millions dollars. They’re all difficult. There’s so many moving parts, one cannot imagine. Many people have many opinions that you have to field all the time. It’s just difficult.
It’s a collaborative effort, a communal effort, it’s complicated and you have to be able to deal with all that, take in everyone’s else’s opinion and deal with everyone else’s input and come out with the final outcome.
Q: There’s so many films that come out around this story that feel dated but this one doesn’t.
RD: I don’t know if you’re just being nice...
Q: It’s true.
RD: I didn’t think of other films. I just thought of telling this story, Chazz’s story, the story of these kids. It’s a true story. That’s how it was in those neighborhoods.
Q: At this point in independent film, you see a lot of movies trying to be hip that don’t stand the test of [history]. Maybe you just didn’t care so much about that.
RD: I didn’t care and was assured of what I was doing because it was what it was. It was Chazz’s story, a good story, a true story, a real story.
Q: Being an adaptation of a play, what did you change from it being onstage?
RD: Well it was an adaptation of his one-man show with the characters and he wrote the script and we used the script to do the movie. It was pretty simple. He added some characters and I was looking for people in certain neighborhoods like Little Italy and all around and I found someone and I said, “Chazz, where is this guy, little Mush?” and he said, “He’s in the Bronx.” I said, “Well, can we find him?” He found him, I met him and I said, “Let’s use him.”
And we did and he was great. We used real people when needed because you can’t replace real people. You cannot add an actor to recreate something that a real person can do to add the texture to what that life is about. So when you have that opportunity, you must take advantage of it.
Q: Obviously you were happy with the finished product but was there anything you would have change in it if you could?
RD: There’s always something you want to change but I was happy with what we did because I tried my best.
Q: How do you decide when and what you want to direct?
RD: For The Good Shepard, I had always been interested in that subject matter. Eric Roth had written that script and I said I want to do this because I wanted to do this subject matter and we did. I wanted to do a sequel to it but he hasn’t come up with that thing. We dillydallied with doing it for television which means we would have more time to get into the details of the intricacies of that world.
In a feature, you have less time to do that but it’s more grand; it like opera. It’s unresolved at this point but I don’t know if I ever do another movie. If I did five in my life, I’d be happy. If I do three, I don’t know if I’ll do another. It’s a lot of work. It’s very tough, especially if you care about it. It’s an uphill battle. It’s always about money and about budget and you have to constantly be fighting it every second.
Q: Is it hard to juggle so many different roles in this?
RD: No, the acting was small compared. Some people are directing and acting throughout and it’s not easy but it’s not impossible. It’s work. It’s difficult. Which I enjoy doing but it’s tough work.
Q: In 2014, is there anything left, the good and bad, for the real characters in this story?
RD: Oh definitely. Definitely. Chazz is not here but he would have his opinion about that of course. Where those characters are and where their positions are today and where they stand racially, absolutely. That’s another movie without a doubt.
Q: Was the two-part structure something that was also on stage or was that something that was modified?
RD: The racial thing was what it was, it was always constant.
Q: How much time elapsed since you first saw Chazz’s one man show and the beginning of filming?
RD: I’d say somewhere between five and six years but I could be off by a year or two.
Q: What took up most of that time?
RD: My getting ready to do it and Chazz finally agreeing to it and allowing it to be done. The way I remember, I could be off about certain things, but he wanted the guarantee that he could play the part of Sonny. I guaranteed him that. It was a feeding frenzy; they were after him for the thing — it’s sort of real and some of it’s illusion but the studios were after him.
I said, “Look, they’re going to try to get you to sell the script and then at the end of the day, they’re going to come after they buy it from you, you want to play the part of Sonny, but once they own it, you have no guarantee that they’re going to give it to you. If you give the script to me, I guarantee you that you’ll play Sonny and we’ll eliminate the middle men for the men who would later be the distributor so we’ll need them at the end of the day but not in the first part. I said I would direct it and we could go from there. I’d play the father, he’d play Sonny and that’d be it.
Q: What lessons did you learn making this film?
RD: It could be a low-budget film but the bottom line is you’ll feel pressure about cost and budget and it’s all connected. So you have a certain amount of time to do the movie and a certain amount of money to do it with. You may have visions to do this and that but at the end of the day, you only have this much money to do it with.
Unless you’re lucky, from a rich family that’ll give you 100 million dollars to do a movie, you’re going to have restrictions and parameters. It’s a good thing in some ways because it forces you to be creative within the constrictions you have. That’s the reality because you have to set down so many days that you can shoot the story you want to tell, whether it’s five or 35, 16 or 10 and however many hours you can shoot that in and how many set ups you can do in order to tell the story.
If you have 10 set ups a day and 10 days to shoot it, you have 100 set ups to tell that story. You have to find yourself in all those restrictions and parameters, unless you’re doing it with an iPhone and maybe you’re making an American iPhone classic, we don’t know that yet. Maybe it’s the new thing. Those are the real problems you have when you have an investor who wants a return on their money no matter what they say — they do it for the art, they do it for this — they want a return on their money.
The more money it is, the more they want the guarantee that at least get their money back. If it’s $100,000 they want their $100,000 back. If it’s a million, they want it back, maybe they’ll make a profit. It’s all very simple. That’s the bottom line of it all.
Q: How has your approach to acting changed since you were younger a taking a more dangerous, method like way of being?
RD: I don’t know what the dangers are because I’ve never experienced that. If you’re saying somebody gets too involved in their role where they end up losing themselves and going crazy, I’ve never seen that ever. Ever.
As actors, the best thing you can do, I feel, at the end of the day, actors use whatever can work for them. When they’re in there for the moment, you have to use whatever is good for you. Think about your mother who died last week or think about this or that, you can do whatever.
The two things are: you don’t hurt yourself, and you don’t hurt others. Everything else is okay. Whatever your wildest imagination is that can make you arrive at that point in that scene, that’s fine. But the rest of it is all bullshit.
Everyone has a way of arriving at that thing and no matter what they say or what lip service they give to it all, that’s the bottom line. I have great respect for all of them but that’s the bottom line. You have to choose for yourself.
When you’re in a scene, you say what does this scene mean to me, what does this character mean to me and you have to interpret it. You have to let it be personal to yourself and that’s the most important thing.
At the premiere of his debut horror/thriller Creep, director and star Patrick Brice took to the stage to put some A's to some Q's and give some context for his found-footage creeper. But Brice's film;s greatest accomplishment lies in the performance eeked from Mark Duplass. He's magnetic, unpredictable and an absolute joy to watch. From our review,
Read more: Q&A With Patrick Brice of "Creep"
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