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Interviews

Architecture & Design Film Festival

Ten years ago New York architect Kyle Bergman began designing his dream project: the Architecture & Design Film Festival. It would take another five years before his vision was transformed into reality. Now the fifth annual ADFF (October 16 to 20, 2013) spans more than 30 films -- selected from 250 submissions -- and towers over other domestic film festivals devoted to its theme.

Over five days at New York's Tribeca Cinemas, festival-goers can armchair-travel as far as Moscow, Helsinki BendingSticks LR 525and Buenos Aires and as near as Brooklyn, Cape Cod and North Carolina to explore issues in architecture, population, scale and urban planning. Curated by Bergman and Laura Cardello, the slate highlights the work of urban designers such as Jan Gehl and William Whyte, iconic architects including Antoni Gaudí, Richard Neutra, Tadao Ando and Paolo Soleri, and leading creatives such as fashion designer Paul Smith and environmental artist Patrick Dougherty.

Beyond the Q&As accompanying most screenings, ADFF rounds up architects, designers, industry grandees and filmmakers for solo and panel discussions. In New York, the Festival coincides with marquee architecture and design expo Archtober. ADFF also travels to Los Angeles and Chicago. (Information is posted at adfilmfest.com.)

FilmFestivalTraveler.com snagged Bergman for a quick chat in between screenings at the Tribeca Cinemas.

Q: What's your "design" for the Festival?

KB: The Festival is about creating a dialogue about design, and film is a great way to bring the professionals and non-professionals together. It's good for business, not just for an architect in the sense of economic business, but good for design and good for people. With better designed things in life -- in urban places, in buildings, in products -- it's better for humans. And really this is about making things better for humans.

Q: How does this inform your programming?

KB: We program the festival to be interesting to a wide variety of people, not just the design community -- but for people interested in design.

Q: What's an example?

KB: My Architect is a film that reaches everyone. One of the reasons it became so widely known is that it's really a son's search for a father, who happens to be Louis Kahn, a famous architect.

Q: What are your selection criteria?Sagrada

KB: Some of (the submissions) are really interesting from a content perspective, but they don't have the human quality, or they're not going to be broad enough for a wider audience. We try to focus on films that are interesting across the board. A real goal of the festival is to up the design conversation. As architects, if we're just speaking to ourselves, it's not nearly as interesting. If it's a broader conversation, it's much more exciting.

Q: How have the themes of the submissions changed since the festival began?

KB: There are more and more films focussing on the creative process of design. One of the films we're showing is Sagrada: The Mystery of Creation. It's not so much about the Gaudí building itself, but about Gaudí's process and about the people who are building it now, given that Gaudí is not here. So it's really trying to look at how things are made, what the inspiration is, who the people are who are making those kinds of decisions and whom they're for.

Q: These issues get a workout in the documentary The Latin Skyscraper, about the secret history oflatinSkyscraper the Barolo Palace in Buenos Aires. What's your take on this unusual story?

KB: It's a film about historic preservation. It's looking at the reasons why this building was created and what the connection is between Dante's The Divine Comedy and the architects and the people who commissioned the building. That film is like CSI meets an architectural film. It's really like a mystery that's being solved.

Q: These days the word "design" extends beyond aesthetics to encompass solutions for the planet. Got any films about the environment?

KB: Not this year, just because we didn't get any films submitted with that perspective. But we had a film last year about biophilic design. It's about, How do we learn from nature? It's not just about using environmentally sensitive products, which is a good thing, but what is really environmental?ADFFlogo

One of the most environmental things you can do is build things of beauty that are meant to last. A design that lasts 100 or 500 years is inherently sustainable. If you build something that's only going to last 30 years, even if it's with green products, that's not really sustainable. The Acropolis is green, regardless of the material it's made of.

Spike Jonze, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, and Olivia Wilde Give Life To "Her"

Phoenix, Jonze, Johansson, Mara & Wilde

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is tired of trying to meet girls in near-future Los Angeles (which looks a lot like modern day Shanghai). He’s a sensitive guy who works for a company that composes personal letters for people incapable of expressing that kind of intimacy at a time when your computer tells you how to behave and when to do so.

Going through a divorce after being dumped by estranged wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), the heartbroken Theodore at first becomes intrigued with the new, advanced operating system called Samantha that speaks to him — literally. Voiced by Scarlett Johansson, Samantha promises to be an intuitive and unique entity in its own right.

Once initialized, his OS, a bright, female voice, is insightful, sensitive and surprisingly funny, so he's not only fascinated by her, he falls  in love with… Her. Though Phoenix’s performance is surprisingly subtle and touching, the real surprise in director Spike Jonze’s intellectually challenging film is Johannson as the voice, which makes decidedly unique and provocative decisions on its own.

Having had its world premiere at the 2013 New York Film Festival, Spike and company — Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, and Olivia Wilde — took to Walter Reade’s stage and conducted this press conference after a preview screening.

Q: What sparked the idea for Her?

spikeSpike Jonze: The initial spark was an article I saw online, where it linked to an instant message -- you could have an instant message with an artificial intelligence. It may have been called Alice Bot. It was 10 years ago

I had this buzz of, "Wow, I'm talking to this thing. This thing is listening to me." And then quickly it devolved into this thing that wasn't intelligent; it was just parroting things it had heard before. It was a clever program.

I didn't really think about it for a long time. Then I eventually thought about a man having a relationship with an entity like that, but with a fully formed consciousness. I thought, "What would happen if you had a real relationship?” And I used that as a way to write a relationship movie and a love story.

Q: What were all your initial responses to the script?

Joaquin Phoenix: I liked it.

Amy Adams: I also liked it. I think I met with Spike before I read the script, so I was more into Spike's vision. It was compelling.

It was at a time where I was really busy, and I had a baby, and I was like, “I don’t have it in me to do a film right now.”

But every time I met with Spike, I couldn't say no because his vision was so beautiful, and it was in line with the kinds of issues I was dealing with.

That’s the great thing about this film: everyone finds their own pieces of issues in it. I just couldn’t say no. I had to work with Spike.

JP: You could’ve said no, Amy!

AA: I couldn’t. He looks very sweet, but he’s very insistent.

SJ: It was more like I would pretend I’d be about to cry if you said no, and you felt too guilty.

Rooney Mara: I really liked it too. I actually had to beg Spike for the part. I didn't have the option of saying no. I had to beg you for it.

Olivia Wilde: I loved the script. It worked. Everybody else was already in place. It’s interesting.

I loved that this supporting role was another piece of the puzzle that Spike needed. I wanted to be able to make it work the way it needed to work for the story.

I wanted to figure out what Spike needed to serve the story, to make it complete. [I wanted] to create something for Theodore to bounce off of, to then fall in love with Samantha. It's the experience that pushes him into this deep love.

Spike and I read for an hour-and-a-half and had so much fun with it. Even after that experience, I thought, “If that’s it, that’s already great. I already love this experience.”

Getting to go to China for a week and getting to hang out with these guys was pretty amazing.

Q: This is a very specific and detailed near-future world that you created with your longtime production designer K.K. Barrett, combining Los Angeles with the exteriors in Shanghai, right?

SJ: The initial idea was to try to make this a future L.A. that felt nice to live in, where the weather is so nice, and there's great food, and you have the mountains and oceans.

But even in that setting, you can feel very isolated and very lonely. I’m making this utopian future [where] to feel lonely in that setting is even worse because it’s a world where, seemingly, you should be getting everything you need. It seemed like an interesting setting.

I met the architects who did Lincoln Center and the High Line -- Liz [Diller] and Rick [Scofidio]. I got the opportunity to go to their office and talk to them.

Liz had gone to film school before she became an architect, so she was very interesting to talk to because she came from a storytelling [background].

This was when I was still writing the script, so I was still trying to figure out what it was. I remember asking her what the future could look like. She asked a simple question: “Is it a utopian future or dystopian future?” It’s the basic question that made it concrete.

I started [telling her] these ideas I was imagining. I had this idea that it would look like the colors from Jamba Juice. She said, “OK” and started giving ideas and talking about stuff.

Q: Joaquin, what were some of the challenges of acting opposite someone who isn't there physically?

JP: I'd like to say I trained really hard. But as an actor, I'm accustomed to walking around the house talking to myself. You rehearse all the time, so I don’t think it was that dissimilar.

Q: And the loneliness aspect of the film?

JP: I don’t know how to answer this. All I was concerned about was trying to feel natural to something that wasn't there. I think I kind of overlooked the loneliness of the character.

Q: Samantha Morton was the original voice of Samantha. How did Scarlett Johansson replacing Samantha Morton change the tone of the Samantha character and the tone of the movie?

SJ: Every movie -- at least the ones I’ve worked on -- takes a long time to find what it is, and that was part of the process of this movie.

I’m hesitant to answer that question because what Samantha [Morton] brought to the movie by being with us on set was huge. What she gave me in the movie and what she gave Joaquin off-camera was huge. And then I think what Scarlett gave the movie was also huge.

I would rather leave it at that.

Q: Why did you decide not to give Samantha an avatar or image in cyberspace?

SJ: I liked the idea of her existing the way she does exist, which is more in the ether and in [Theodore’s] heart and psyche.

OW: I would add, as a fan of that choice, that I think she then becomes your ideal; it becomes your own experience. Even if people are familiar with Scarlett's voice, and imagine her as an actress, it transforms that. I think she becomes whatever you want her to become.

If you had defined her, you would have stopped people from being able to create that for themselves. That’s one cool effect of it.

Q: Where did the Perfect Mom game come from?

SJ: I think the pressure of parenthood and the peer pressure of parenthood seemed like a funny setting for a video game for me.

Amy, you’re a parent. Do you find that kind of peer pressure?

AA: Oh yeah, it’s really intense. I think we ad libbed some of that stuff -- like “Oh yeah, I know this.”

Q: What do you think this film says about what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be intimate?

SJ: I don’t know if I can live up to the question, but thank you for that.

I was thinking about one of the conversations Olivia and I were having when we were rehearsing. It [was] about what you [really] hear when somebody says something to you.

There’s a scene where Olivia says, “When am I going to see you again?” What does she hear when he says, “I’m not sure. I’m busy.”

We were making up all kinds of stories about what she actually hears that gets her to the place where she says, “You’re a creepy dude.”

That’s inherent in everything -- not exactly hearing what they say, but hearing what you think they actually mean.

jaoquinOW: You said something really interesting yesterday about how the artificial intelligence carries no baggage. She’s pure, which makes her even more of a kind of an ideal -- romantically, of course. The difference between human and artificial intelligence is baggage.

So whereas the blind date carries an enormous amount of pain and baggage and projecting all of that on what Theodore is saying, Samantha is so open-minded and only sees the best and assumes the best. That's the difference between human and artificial.

SJ: One of the things we talked about, and what I talked a lot to Scarlett about, was that Samantha is brand new to the world, so she's like a child that hasn't learned any insecurities, any self-doubts.

[Samantha] learns through the course of the movie. She has these experiences that give her those painful situations that create those self-doubts.

I think that's when Scarlett started to understand just how hard that role would be, to try and go back to that place where you don't have those kinds of fears yet.

Q: Can you talk about why so many of the characters don’t really question the idea that a human can fall in love with an object that has artificial intelligence? Rooney’s character seems to be the only character in the movie who questions how normal it is.

SJ: Yeah, there might have been a couple of other characters along the way that questioned it but fell by the wayside.

But it seemed like Rooney’s character and Rooney’s performance delivered that message and represented that part of the population.

Q: This film has a lot to say about the idea that people expect relationships to be perfect. What was the starting point that you used to build the concept of relationships in this movie?

SJ: I guess what you’re asking is how much did we talk about the ideas of the film versus the relationships and the characters of the film. I’d say we mostly talked about the relationships and the characters of the film.

AA: Yeah, we spent a lot of time dissecting the characters and finding the truth of where they were in that moment.

SJ: When Amy and I started working together, we talked a lot about how we were meeting this character at this moment in time. She’s been trying to be all these things to her husband and to her relationship and everything. She’s imploding.

AA: I don't think intimacy is a male or female thing. If Spike is exploring it from a male point of view, it’s because he's male. But I don't think being fearful of intimacy, or lack of intimacy, is specifically male or that is a failure in men.

And there are a lot of different reasons. It's hard to boil it down to one thing. Each person has their own reasons why intimacy is hard.

For Amy -- and I'm not talking in third-person, I’m speaking of my character -- Amy has a hard time with intimacy. Amy has been pretending to be somebody else and something she's not. It keeps her from being herself.

When you're not expressing yourself as your true self, you can never find true intimacy, because you’re always hiding. And I think that the relationship she has with Theodore is probably most intimate in her life because it's the most honest.

Q: Spike, how difficult has it been to maintain a creative identity over the last 20 years of your career?

SJ: That’s an interesting question. I don’t know if I have a good answer for it.

I guess just making a lot of mistakes, doing a lot of things along the way that didn’t feel like that was me, and learning from those mistakes, and staying on the things that felt more true to me.

Talking with Jim Mickle of "We Are What We Are"

Jim Mickle's We Are What We Are offers a hard-boiled look at a family ruled by dated religious fervor and twisted idolatry. From their human meat munching table, Mickle brings these characters to life and took a minute to speak with me about that process.

If you haven't already, take a look at our review, or read the following snippet to get an idea of our thoughts:

In 1826, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote, "Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es" (Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are). Morphing throughout time to arrive at the now common idiom, "We are what we eat," (a sentiment mostly passed down from overprotective moms encouraging their chubby kids to lay off the potato chips and eat their damn vegetables), has never been more penitent than in Jim Mickle's cannibal-horror We Are What We Are. Forced to consume a set of distressing ideologies (centered around a medieval virgin-consuming ritual) alongside their main course of human meat, the Parker family  - a sneaky riff on the uber-sterilized Partridge family - is the centerfold of this gloomy tale of distorted moral recompense and dietary wrongheadedness.

From why he doesn't like remakes, to ideas for prequels and sequels, and his thoughts on his favorite film endings of all time, Jim spilled the beans on what made We Are What We Are worth making.

Read more: Talking with Jim Mickle of "We...

Ralph Fiennes Makes "The Invisible Woman" Appear at NYFF 2013

Fiennes & Joanna Scanlan

One of the consummate actors of his generation, the English-born Ralph Fiennes has earned not only numerous awards and nominations (Oscar noms for his portrayal of Nazi war criminal Amon Goeth in 1993’s Schindler’s List and for his performance as Count Almásy in 1996’s The English Patient) but also a huge geek fan base for efforts as the evil Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter film series (2005–2011).

As the Potter series ended, Fiennes went from the reign of one brutal dark lord to portraying another when he made his directorial debut with a film adaptation of Shakespeare's tragic Coriolanus — another tale of a power hungry leader. The 51-year-old actor not only proved himself behind the camera, but did double duty playing the lead. Fiennes then won a Tony Award for playing Prince Hamlet on Broadway.

Thanks to this year’s New York Film Festival, Fiennes’ latest directorial turn, The Invisible Woman, received the special attention it deserved despite its rather obscure source material and controversial story.

Though the secret 13-year love affair between Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan —  which lasted until his death in 1870 — remained private for a long time until Claire Tomalin’s book came out, it is relevant today. Dickens’s status as the premier celebrity of his day (having written many classics such as Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol) was not without a struggle to find the balance between his public and private persona.

he Invisible Woman posterAt an NYFF press conference preceding the film premiere screening, Fiennes  conducting a revealing discussion about his passion for directing the film, playing Charles Dickens and working withe a remarkable Felicity Jones as Ternan.

Q: Few people have read the book this film is based on, which was a revelation in academic and literary circles though it hasn’t had much effect on Dickens in the popular imagination. Why did you want to make this film?

RF: I was largely ignorant about Dickens’s work and about Dickens himself. I hadn’t seen many adaptations. I hadn’t ever chosen or been asked to study Dickens.

I was handed this screenplay by Abi Morgan, which was an early draft based on the book The Invisible Woman. The story of Nelly Ternan affected me. In an early draft — which is very different from the shooting script that we finally locked [on] — it was essentially a similar structure of a woman living a life, married, running a school, and then we go back in time and learn about her past.

I think what hooked me was the idea of someone carrying within them an unresolved relationship. Then I read Claire’s book and was smitten by the story of Nelly Ternan.

Suddenly my eyes were opened to Dickens, in all his complexity and many facets. I haven’t read every single Dickens, but I gobbled up David Copperfield, Bleak House and Great Expectations.

Q: In both this and Coriolanus, a remarkable Shakespeare film, you are the director/actor. Did you think twice about taking on that double position?

RF: I did think twice. With Coriolanus, it was very difficult doing both.

When I was invited to do this, it came with the same invitation to direct and to possibly play Dickens. I initially said, “No. I don’t think I could.”

But in the process of working on the screenplay with Abi, I got to rehearse things. I got to read, test and speak out loud in my kitchen with Abi banging away on the computer.

I suppose I became enamored of the role of Dickens in the process. Having said no and been reluctant, I then said, “I think I should play him.”

Q: In a way, the film has a double ending. It’s a bit parallel to what is said about the original ending of Great Expectations and that he had to change it. Is that what you were trying to do with the film?

RF: Well, there are two endings, I suppose. For the story of Dickens and Nelly, this is the story of how she came to be the mistress of Charles Dickens, not their life together. This wasn’t going to be a full biopic of Nelly Ternan or Charles Dickens.

It was her story, but the story I thought was dramatically the most interesting was the path that led Nelly to say to Dickens, “Yes.” The choice was in the situations she was confronted with.

ralph-The final scene between them, which sets them up in the house, that’s the conclusion of that story. The other ending is the ending in the school. I felt very strongly that we needed to have Nelly somehow give utterance to what had happened to her.

The Reverend Benham, who was played by John Kavanagh, was a real figure. Claire Tomalin writes about him in her book, and he was the only person, apart from maybe her mother or her sisters, that [Nelly] talked to. So I used the idea of Benham as someone who would listen.

She has been able to speak about it. It’s given her a degree of closure. But she goes back into her life and she says to her husband, “I am here” -- meaning “I am here fully for this continuing life with you.”

And she sits there and watches a play with her son. It’s a play co-written by Charles Dickens. I want the audience to watch her face and to engage with what she might be [thinking], which is a massive thing: her life, the future, her son, the theater where she was an actress. It’s all those things.

Felicity [Jones] -- who I’m very sorry can’t be here because she’s filming -- does an extraordinary piece of film acting in that one moment. It’s a mystery what goes through her. Her whole world goes through her face.

And then we end on Abi Morgan’s little epilogue from the play. I guess it’s better to have loved than to never have loved at all. For sure, Dickens and the memory of Dickens will always be there.

Q: The film is visually magnificent. You have incredible cinematography as well as a great design team.

RF: Yes, the design team -- [production designer] Maria Djurkovic and set designer Tatiana Macdonald. One of the things I love was that they recently did Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. We met and there was a creative love there about the period detail.

We both agreed that we wanted to embrace that specific time as accurately as possible. I did not want, nor did she, to give any kind of spin or alternative version of this period.

It’s a fascinating period of design, [with] incredible patterns and colors. Some of it is very ugly, I think. The Victorian sense of dark wood is amazing. I wanted Maria to embrace that and she loved that. She was fantastic at the details. We wanted the details.

Michael O’Conner, who did the clothes, has been acknowledged many times. The wardrobe room that he [used] was an amazing place to go, because he found many original garments which he copied and remade.

I even got to wear one original Victorian waistcoat, in the post-theater party scene in Manchester. It’s a beautiful black waistcoat, embroidered with tiny little grapes and vine leaves on the lapel. That small detail was a turn-on.

And then Rob Hardy, who lit it -- we had a very creative love affair.

Q: It’s shot on film?

RF: Yes. It’s a combination of Fuji and Kodak, I think. Compositionally, it was important how we framed it. I wanted someone who would help shoot very strong frames.

This was not going to be a camera that would rush around a great deal, but was trying to look for the strength of composition that essentially would bring your focus into the face of the subject, the human, the character.

I really felt that the camera had to find the optimum place to view the interior life that we were all going to try to inhabit, and get inside.

Q: You are an eloquent storyteller yourself, focusing on their faces and giving them time to develop that.

RF: I think what a person is facing tells a story.

Q: In many of the sequences, you give the audience access from an unusual perspective: not through the eyes of the character, but from behind them.

RF: I think [having] the camera literally behind them is very potent, because backs of people’s heads are a mystery. You want to know what’s around the corner from that person. If we’re behind them, we imagine what they’re seeing.

ralph-fWhen Catherine visits the Ternan home, I love the shot of the back of her bonnet. The bonnet is a thing you have to embrace during this period. It’s a piece of feminine attire. It’s protection that frames the face. It’s also got a protective armor-like quality, so I think there is dramatic potential in that.

What is the face going to show me when I see it? I like watching people whether coming towards or going away. I like this scene of Nelly coming towards the church at the end. It’s the silhouette.

The confession at the end is very important. The idea that if someone can confess and give utterance to someone who will listen, I think that’s a really important thing to do.

Nelly doesn’t speak. She doesn’t express herself much. She’s on the receiving end of this sort of fury called Charles Dickens. She has to make these choices. At last, she’s found the courage and the ability within herself to speak.

It starts on the beach. When you’re walking on a beach you confront your minisculeness and also confront your own essential humanness against the wind and rain. Maybe that is personal to me, that I think you can confront stuff on the beach when you walk.

So that’s why I like that she lived by the sea, but I wanted to explore what it meant to live by the sea. For me, the walking was a wrestling with these unresolved issues that she finds herself thinking about.

Q: In this festival, the marvelous Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence gets a revival. This film has many things in common with it. Did you see it?

RF: It was one of the films I saw, because I think that he embraces the period detail and the manners and the codes of behavior in the film.

I think some people shy away from that. I’ve seen other period films where the director was reluctant to embrace the details of the tact and manners. All these things I think say so much.

What’s going on underneath, the complicated layers of behavior and hierarchy, is dramatically very strong. All these things to do with manners and how people address each other, they are all a sort of code for all the same human stuff that we can see in modern films.

And I think what’s going on underneath in that film is sort of sexy and dangerous. He definitely embraces that contradiction.

Q: One of the most telling scenes about Dickens is one he is not in. When Catherine comes with the jewelry and the wife hands it to the mistress, is that something that was in the biography? Where did that come from?

RF: It’s mentioned in the book. There’s no proof, but it is a story that existed and continues to be mentioned in all of his biographies. Dickens indeed had a piece of jewelry made for Nelly which was then wrongly sent to Catherine Dickens, and he insisted that she give it back.

I suppose in his head, he’s thinking, “I’ve done nothing wrong. I’m not ashamed. Please return it to her.” It was always a great scene. It’s a scene that I think we barely touched, because it seems to me to read so strongly.

The proof of what a great scene it was is when Jones read it. Within seconds, what I believed to be a good scene was, in her hands, a great scene.

Q: This scene is also a meditation on fame and media, in a sense, especially given the talk about sharing Dickens with the rest of the world. What do you think of that issue?

RF: The first thing to say, that is really important for the audience, is that you see in the film what a huge star Dickens was. His readings sold out.

I think he became addicted to it. He loved an audience - not only his theater audience who he read to - but also his readership which was very important to him.

This scene is based on the reality of Dickens’s relationship with his reading public, and later on, the people who paid for tickets to come and see him read.

I think what Abi writes is that you will always be asking yourself whether it’s [a person] or the public that he loves the most. That has a ring of truth about it. In Dickens’s life, he discovered that he wanted to be an actor at one point and then he became a writer. But then he discovered that he could read his works and it was a huge success.

In fact, he made two trips to America in his life. The second trip, made shortly before his death, he came to New York and, as you know, he was a  star. But he was an ill man. His body was breaking down, but I think he needed this connection with the public.

Q: If Charles Dickens were alive today, what questions would you ask him?

RF: I would ask him whether Nelly was the model for any of the heroines in the books he wrote when he was seeing her, particularly Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend. I would love to ask him: is there any truth in this?

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