the traveler's resource guide to festivals & filmsa FestivalTravelNetwork.com site part of Insider Media llc.
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.
At 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.
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.
When 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?
If any movie suggests both the pleasure and torture of solitude, it’s J.C. Chandor’s NYFF main slate entry, All Is Lost. Only such a seasoned actor as the 77 year old Robert Redford could propel such a simple narrative — of what happens when marooned at sea in a boat that may never reach land — and offer insight into this character’s trauma with a nary a word of dialogue or other- character exchanges.
But the dynamic actor/producer/director is the ideal person to handle such challenges. He’s won Oscars, launched the bedrock film festival Sundance, fought for noble progressive causes and been a longtime sex symbol as well. For all those accolades, nothing really prepared the physically fit elder statesman for this unique role.
In addition to being the only one actor in the film, Redford has no dialogue, and only a few spoken lines. Because of this, the shooting script was only 31 pages. Being shot within the confines of a sailboat and liferaft, the film was technically difficult so, if for nothing else, it joined the ranks of other water-drenched films such as Jaws.
Ironically, though the movie offered few words it provoked lots of questions and conversation — enough so that Redford made an appearance at a press conference before its premiere at The Film Society’s Walter Reade Theater.Q: Did you ever think, “I’m going to be totally alone on the screen for an hour and a half, just as the guy is alone in the boat.” Was that scary or not?
RR: No. For me, it was very quick. I didn’t know J.C. I only knew him from a film that I saw at Sundance called Margin Call, which I liked.
When I got the script from J.C., it had a lot of things that I was very impressed with. There was no dialogue. It was bold.
I’m attracted to that -- being alone, having no filter of dialogue. As an actor, you can be completely absorbed in your character. The silence would allow the audience to come in with you and be part of your experience.
It was also detailed in a way that I felt this person really knew what [he was] doing. It was, “Okay. As long as the 31 pages are very well defined, that’s great, suggesting that you have a very strong vision.”
What is interesting for me, on a personal level, is you’re in one of those rare situations where you go on drive and instinct and put yourself very quickly in the hands of someone else because you trust them.
These days, there are so many players in the kitchen. You have agents, publicists, trainers, all these characters who can sometimes get in the way of the direct relationship between you and the artist you are going to be working with.
So when we met, I was already inclined, I just needed to know he wasn’t nuts.
This all happened really quickly, and we didn’t have a lot to say to each other because I was inclined to go with it and trust him. I’m glad I did. Q: Did you discuss the details of your character's backstory with director JC Chandor? RR: I went through the normal motions that an actor would with a director about what’s on [his] mind or anything you want to talk about with the story.
He was pretty evasive. He told me not to worry about fundamental questions, which I wasn’t happy to ask anyway. I just thought that I had to.
There was a reason why -- it was because what he had on the page is all he wanted. Once I hooked into that, I liked it a lot. Getting that freedom was really great.
Another thing that was attractive was that the plot was existential, which meant that you could allow space for it to be interpreted by others. An audience can come in and decide which way they felt.
They all know something but there is something missing. Whatever effort he’s made in his life, there is something missing. Maybe this journey has something to do with him trying to figure that out or accomplish something that fulfills a need that wasn’t satisfied. I like that.
The final thing that I like is that he was not a super human. He was not a super hero. He was not a super sailor. He was a good sailor, but not one of Mary Ellison’s crew members. A good sailor but not a perfect sailor.
I had space to work with and did some improvisation, because once things got really bad, then there were things he didn’t know to do. He had to go on instinct. He had to learn on the job, so to speak. I found all of that very interesting.
Q: Can you talk about the research you did for the role, in any nautical sense? Have you ever had to put your own survival skills to the test? RR: I did some research, but a lot of it wasn’t really necessary because it was so detailed and filled out by the writer.
I’ve had to apply survival skills a few times in my life, On film, the closest is a movie that I made a long time ago, Jeremiah Johnson, which was a character in the wilderness who ran into similar situations [such] as this. And he had to learn.
That’s probably the only research [I’ve done]. I was guided by the detailed writing of J.C. as the sailor. Q: You grew up in southern California so did you deal with the water? RR: I grew up in Santa Monica, California, in a lower working-class situation. For me, the nearest thing to recreation was the ocean because it was nearby. I spent a lot of time in the water and surfing. The time I spent in the water was near the shore, not in the deep sea.
As a little kid, I remember going in and out of the water, I would look out and saw the vast expanse of the sea. I was hit by how vast it was and what’s out there. That’s a lot of water to be messing around with.
Then while we were working, that vast expanse of ocean was as far as you can see. It was endless. The horizon ended, but what was underneath you was this vast depth of miles and miles of deep sea. And you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. It’s just you.
I asked J.C., “So much of this is going to be grappling with the physical part of the storm. Can he at least have some moments to think? Just a respite, or a moment for the character to just be.” Q: J.C. said the crew worked for three months getting this thing ready. How did you physically prepare for this — was there anything that you yourself did? RR: No, there was no research. There wasn’t a lot of time to prepare. J.C. and the crew had been there and done such a fine job prepping. It is an independent film -- very low budget, which means very little time.
All I had to do, which was actually helpful, was just to be there and go with what came.
I trusted myself in the water, but I didn’t know what was going to happen in the water. To fall overboard and be twisted and turned and so forth, I wasn’t afraid of that. The same thing that attracted me to play this character with no dialogue, is that [I] just had to be with [myself] as that character, dealing with the things that come moment to moment and be as honest as [I] can about it. Q: Right before the storm arrives, our man decides to shave, which is a wonderfully endearing moment. What did you think of that when you first read the screenplay? RR: I had mixed feelings about it. I like the eccentricity of it but I wanted to understand it. When I got to understand it, I really liked it a lot.
That scene is bizarre and I’m sure a lot of people will find it weird and off-putting. What I like about it was that the character is confronted over and over again with the choice of either panicking or dealing.
Sometimes, to avoid that, you try to reduce yourself to as much normalcy as possible, even if it seems weird or "off". Shaving in that crisis moment was a chance for our character to re-align himself and to keep things as normal as possible. I like that.
I think what this film satisfied for me was the larger philosophical question. At a certain point where things seem impossible, where all is lost and there is no chance to survive, when all the odds are against you, when you look forward and see things are impossible, [some people] give up. For whatever reason, others just keep going. There is no other reason than that. They just continue because that’s all there is to do.
Q: at the very beginning, the boat is destroyed by garbage floating in the ocean. You do a lot of work for the environment. Is there any hope? RR: This question seems to be moving in the direction of environmental considerations. I did not think about that. When it was happening, I thought, “Oh, that’s what’s on these carriers.”
But I was too busy trying to survive. I was too busy dealing with the fact that water was rushing in.
That’s what I really like about what J.C. has constructed here. He works in films how I like to work in films. Whatever it is for you, he’s completely okay with. I like that a lot.
With films that have been in my control, I always like the idea of ending with a question mark. I like the idea of the audience having to come up with [answers] on their own, without having everything spelled out and put into their face. That brings the audience in.
When it's all said and done, I think this film belongs solidly to J.C. It’s his vision. His attention to detail I thought was really great, because there was so much detail, so specific that it stood on its own. I was there to fill that out.
The Coens, Isaac, & Goodman
Written and directed by Oscar winning brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis offers a glimpse into the life of singer-songwriter Davis (Oscar Isaac), who navigates New York's folk music scene during the early 1960s. With original music produced by Oscar/Grammy winner T Bone Burnett, the film details the permutations and confabulations of this music scene as huge transitions come into play that will not only affect the music but the world at large.
Laden with a sterling cast that includes Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Garrett Hedlund and John Goodman, the film is built less around a flowing narrative and more of a set of interconnected vignettes that offers a kaleidoscopic experience of that time and place. The film not only offers a sterling set of songs, but a well-played shambling performance by Isaac of a man in perpetual collapse.
Isaac, Goodman, the Coen brothers and Burnett took the Walter Reade stage at the 2013 New York Film Festival press conference for Inside Llewyn Davis and gave all involved a unique performance. What a preview not only for the premiere of this film, but for a special concert of music inspired by the film that was to be recorded and released as a concert film in its own right.
The following Q&A is modified from an appearance before the press preceding the premiere.
Q: During the film’s genesis, when did you two and T Bone Burnett come up with the film’s songs? What’s the story behind the music?
Ethan Coen: A couple of the songs were specified in the script as we were writing it and what might go in a couple places, but certainly not most of them.
T Bone was the first person we sent the script to when we finished it. Basically, that conversation just started as soon as we were done with the script and knew that we were going to do the movie.
Joel Coen: We were thinking specifically about Dave Van Ronk when we were writing the script. Lots of the songs in the movie are songs he sang or were associated with him or that he recorded, so some of those songs were there from the beginning. And then we do what we always do with T Bone: “There’s this part of the story. What’s going to happen here?”
Q: After you were cast as the title character, were there any songs you brought into the conversation?
Oscar Isaac: I think I brought in “Green Rocky Road” — the one I played in the car. Because it wasn’t in the script, the big song for me was the one I play for F. Murray [Abraham].
On that one, there was some time when we weren’t sure what it was, and I was looking at a bunch of different songs as well. So it was a surprise when that one ended up being the one.
Q: John, you didn’t sing in this film.
John Goodman: [jokingly] I did, but internally. My interior monologue was scored.
Q: How do you pick the subjects in your films — is failure more interesting to write about than success?
JC: The success movies have been done, haven’t they? From a story point of view, it’s less interesting. In fact, I don't even know how to start to think about that one. How do we pick our subjects?
EC: We just talk about whatever; it just comes out of a conversation. Picking a subject implies there's something really specific we're picking, but it's kind of not like that.
We talk about whatever, and in the case of this movie, it was a scene, the Village, the folk revival and the possible ideas about a character. It’s a very, very, very vague conversation that got progressively more concrete.
Q: John, your character, Roland Turner, appears in the scene where Llewyn takes a road trip to Chicago to see if he can boost his music career there. Do you represent some kind of siren?
JG: I thought that was understood. I must work harder.
EC: John’s last couple of movies were Homeric things. We kind of thought of it as an odyssey in which the main character doesn't go anywhere.
Q: An actor portraying Bob Dylan makes a small appearance at the end of the movie. Given so many of the traditional songs compared to Dylan, who wrote his own material, what about people performing other people's material versus original material? Can you talk about that contrast in the movie?
JC: That's a big subject and goes to the heart of what folk music is, in a way. It's the cultural moment we were talking about that was specifically on our minds when we were thinking about the story, because we wanted to do something that was set in the scene before Dylan showed up. We weren't that interested in the period.
He came onto that scene and he changed it. He was such a transformative figure and people know more about that, so it seemed less interesting to us.
But that’s right; there's a big difference. There were people writing songs and singing them before Bob Dylan showed up. But the era of the singer/songwriter, there was sort of a pivot that was happening right around there, in terms of traditional folk music and people who were writing their own stuff. Dylan was one of the big catalysts of that.
There was an obsession with a certain kind of authenticity in traditional music that people who were involved in this early folk revival were very concerned with, and that had sometimes both interesting and ironic repercussions and aspects to that.
That was interesting to us. Yeah, we were thinking about that. It’s a big, big subject.
Q: Oscar, do you have anything to add about Llewyn Davis' struggle with his authenticity in being a musician and what you brought to the character?
OI: The idea of the guy who's trying to be authentic and only play his old songs as the culture around him and the scene are moving on from that. If they're moving on, what he is supposed to do, if playing old songs is how he feels he's most true to himself? What’s interesting is that, in a way, these folk singers were like curators, like DJs that would collect these songs and present them.
And when you started collecting records, it was like, “I’ve got the original there. Why do I need you to sing it to me? I want to hear new stuff.” And that kind of became the new movement.
Of course, Dylan came around and synthesized what the Beat poets were doing, and traditional music, and made this new thing, and people got jazzed about that.
Q: There’s a scene in a coffee shop when Llewyn wrings water out of his wet socks. When during the process of making the film did you come up with that image?
OI: It was in [the script]. And there was a little picture too. What’s cool is that every day you get your sides -- the words you have to say for the day, your lyrics -- and at the back of the sides, they have the storyboards printed out, which is a great way for everybody to understand what’s happening. Not everybody does that.
I do remember the picture of the wet shoe. It seems like, “What’s a horrible thing that you can have in a diner, in a place where you’re stuck? A cold, wet foot.”
JG: I mainly read their scripts for the pictures.
Q: In this film, the atmosphere is pretty bleak, and everyone looks really washed out. The sky is always grey, except for when Llewyn sees his father. Why did you make those color choices?
OI: It was actually a warm winter, so we were rushing around trying to get these bleak shots, but there were leaves coming in the trees. We actually had to fake a lot of that.
EC: We [filmed this] two years ago, so we were fighting the oncoming rain to keep the bleakness. Actually, in most of the shots, it supplied snow. If you look, you can see blooming trees where there shouldn’t be.
When you think about the folk scene, you think about New York in the winter. You don't want to see it in the summer, when the city's green. Basically, the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan is kind of that look, and that weather is part of that.
Q: Joel and Ethan, when you first discussed this movie, were you thinking about filming the movie in black and white, like a D.A. Pennebaker documentary? Why did you decide to film it the way that you ultimately did?
JC: That’s interesting. That was an early idea. It’s very difficult to make black-and-white movies nowadays. But that aside, just from a broader, stylistic point of view, we were sitting down with [cinematographer] Bruno Delbonnel, who shot the movie, trying to figure out all of those things.
We found ourselves starting with that idea, but then as we started to break the script down into specific shots, we realized that so much of what we wanted to do from a shot point of view just didn’t lend itself to that.
There’s a bit of a residual idea of that in the coverage in the coffee house. The first shot in the movie starts off with a hand-held shot, actually.
EC: The first shot is actually a very long take, which we could afford to do because all of the performances were so good. It was a quietly hand-held take.
We thought, “All right, we’ll do it at the beginning of the movie, and it’ll feel vaguely good when it comes back at the end.” But it kind of fell away from the rest of the movie.
JC: We started thinking, “We want to follow this cat down the hallway.” You can’t really do that. The idea of doing that, from a visual point of view, or how you design the shot, is sort of antithetical to making it look like a Maysles Brothers documentary. That transition wants to feel controlled.
So those types of things were starting to push us away from that as we started to discuss the idea of what the movie is going to look like.
EC: Also, it’s connected to the other thing: that kind of slushy, gray, New York -- not literally monochrome, but that de-saturated look. That seemed to tug away from that idea of black-and-white vérité idea.
Q: You said in a New York Times interview that you were thinking about switching to digital. Is this going to be the last movie you shoot on film?
JC: It’s possible. I’m not wildly enthusiastic about the idea. This movie was shot on film for a number of reasons. One of them was we were working with a DP that we only had done one short thing with in the past. Bruno also had not shot anything with a digital camera before; he’d done everything on film. We discussed it. We thought it would be one more complicating factor in a new relationship … It was one extra step too far.
I am glad we shot it on film. But you know, it’s all a hybrid thing now. You shoot on film, but it all goes into a box, it all goes into a computer and, of course, gets heavily manipulated.
Still, there is something that looks different between movies that are shot on film, even though they are finished with a DI [digital intermediate], and movies that are shot with an Alexa or some other digital camera. Even the projected is DCPs [digital cinema packages]. But that’s what’s happening. It’s probable that the next [movie we make] will be shot digitally.
Q: This film is the first time that the Coens and John Goodman have worked together in a long time. Why was this the movie to reunite John with the Coens? Do you guys have a sort of shorthand in working together?
EC: We just knew that John would understand it. John turned us on to Charles Portis, the novelist who wrote True Grit. His other novels are contemporary, but all of his novels have an old gasbag character, kind of like John's character in the movie.
JG: The shorthand part is hard to describe, so I won't try. It's something we've always fallen into, I think, since Raising Arizona. They asked me to do a take one time while I was driving an automobile.
I said, "Oh, you mean a Spanky take?" They knew what I was talking about. I knew Spanky from the Little Rascals. Those kinds of little things that help make the day go ever so much faster.
JC: We were also doing a shot in Barton Fink where John was answering the door. Ethan said to him, "John, we have a little bit more ropey snot in our next take," and John said, "I'm your man!"
JG: I think it was, "I'm your boy!"
EC: We asked John to hit a mark, so we said, “John, you Everett Sloane over to that mark.” John knew what we were talking about.
Q: Your films are often anchored in a specific time, place and scene. This time it’s the early ‘60s folk scene. Do you have a list of stories tied to specific times or places that you want to do or are interesting to you?
JC: It's hard for us to imagine stories abstracted or divorced from a very specific locale. I couldn't imagine us doing a story that could happen anywhere or just in a generic city. It's hard for us to get any traction or start anything that way.
Why we were thinking specifically, “Let’s start here in New York in 1961 during the folk scene,” I don't know. We listened to a lot of music, and we were interested.
We got a number of books, including a memoir written by Dave Van Ronk about that period that got us thinking about it. That was one of the things stimulated it.
EC: The scene got us going, but then I was thinking there was this character who seems to fit in that scene. And as much as his concerns are his tortured relationship to success and the whole idea of what you asked about: making new crap out of the old crap.
Those are both things that were concerns of the character in that scene -- not wanting to sell out, but wanting to perform and reach people, and also the authenticity thing. That’s not informative but compact.
“This is the greatest portrait of necrophilia ever,” James Franco was told the other day about his film Child of God.
“Thank you,” he replied to Gavin Smith, who moderated the Q&A following Tuesday’s New York Film Festival screening.
The multi-hyphenate-at-large directed and adapted the film based on the Cormac McCarthy novel with producer Vince Jolivette. It’s a disturbing portrait of a sociopath, Lester Ballard – played by an unknown and fantastic Scott Haze – who lives on the extreme outer fringes of society in the backwoods of Tennessee, where he devolves into a brute creature who craves human connection to the extent that he resorts to sex with dead women. In an understatement, Franco said he knew the film wasn’t for everyone.
The never-seems-to-sleep actor mentioned his inspiration to adapt the novel came after he read it in a class at UCLA seven years ago. It made “the hairs tingle on the back of my neck,” he said. “It was a way to talk about things that I thought were universal, this need for a connection with another, someone outside ourselves, the need to love and to be loved” but “ it told it in a kind of extreme and unusual way, basically through necrophilia.”
Adapting books into movies is not new for Franco. He’s already adapted William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” and “The Sound and the Fury” is in pre-production. He also just directed and wrote a screenplay about writer Charles Bukowski’s formative years. Franco’s movie and academic endeavors intersect. Franco is now preparing for his orals for a Ph.D. in English, specializing in American literature, so he said even more literary adaptations are ahead.
Below are highlights from the Tuesday’s NYFF press conference with Franco via Skype:
What from the McCarthy novel did you subtract or expand on?
James Franco: There’s always a question of how loyal you’ll be to the source and then in what way will you be loyal. Our approach was, yes, we love the book and we want to translate it to the screen in as honorable a way, or to honor the source as much as we can, so almost every scene in the movie you can find in the book, except for the scene where Lester shoots the stuffed animals. He doesn’t have this breakdown moment where he shoots them. That’s one of my favorite scenes.
Otherwise we stayed pretty close to the book. There’s more at the end of the book, there’s a bit of an epilogue that talks about Lester’s fate. Essentially it seemed to be the epilogue in the book was telling or relating one of Cormac McCarthy’s themes, which is this kind of recurrence of violence. There’s something inherently violent about humans, and so he will layer his books with violence, but also traces of violence throughout history. So the ending of the book talked about Lester going to an institution and meeting another man who did even crazier things, ate people’s brains with a spoon.
Talk about developing the tour de force performance of Lester with star Scott Haze, who has to exhibit the qualities of a child but also an animal.
JF: I’m well aware that it’s a movie with disturbing subject matter that’s not for everyone, but I think one thing that anyone that has eyes can’t deny is that Scott gives an incredible performance, so I’m very proud that that exists. I’ve known Scott for over 10 years. He’s a friend of a friend. The actor Jim Parrack from True Blood is Scott Haze’s childhood friend. So over the 10 years I saw Scott go through some very dark, personal things. He was kind of the friend of the friend that I didn’t really want to spend much time with. He was just kind of crazy and then he kind of came through all that and became a better man on the other side. And so, when I finally got the rights to the book, I saw that Scott was a dependable person and so I thought I can have the best of both worlds. He could draw on his dark personal experiences as an actor, but as a director I could depend on him to be a professional and not be a liability.
When I first read the book I imagined Sam Rockwell in the role or Michael Shannon has become a good friend of mine but I already cast Michael Shannon in a necrophilia role for a short film at NYU, ‘Herbert White.’ I thought let’s cast somebody people don’t know, not that anyone will think it’s really like he’s a mountain man or something, but it will just help in the suspension of disbelief even more if it’s like, ‘Wow! Who is this guy? And is he really like that?’ And then I knew if I put Scott in the role… he was in a place in his career - you see this with a lot of actors - the one role where they just go for it. They just go to extremes to prepare.
As soon as I cast him he went to Tennessee. We didn’t ultimately shoot in Tennessee but the story takes place in Sevier County, Tennessee, where I guess McCarthy lived for a while. Scott went out there and isolated himself for three months, before we started to shoot. He met the locals and learned how to operate that rifle and worked on the accent. I wasn’t with him but I guess he stayed overnight in actual caves on his own.And so when I got to West Virginia, where we ultimately shot, Scott was fully in character and as a director, I just cut back and let it be.
Talk about your interest or fascination with necrophilia? You made a short and now this feature.
JF: Okay. It’s true, there’s a weird pattern. In fact, early in my writing life, even before the short at NYU I wrote a script about a man who works in a morgue and has friendships with all the bodies that come in. It’s not necrophilia, it’s communing with the dead. And I think for me, in my personal life I’m absolutely not attracted to dead people or anything like that (laughs).
If I look at some of the other projects I directed, it hasn’t been planned this way but I do deal with characters who are either isolated and/or have a very rich imaginative life and so in case of Hart Crane (from the movie Franco directed and wrote, The Broken Tower), there was a character who was isolated. His work did not work with the modernist kind of writers of the day and (he) was isolated in that way. I view Lester the same way. Not that he’s an artist but maybe he’s a stand in for someone who is unable to fit into civilized society but he wants a connection with another so badly when he stumbles upon this opportunity; he figures out that he can have a relationship outside himself, if he animates it with his imagination and so I guess for me it’s just, necrophilia’s an extreme way to show someone living in their own kind of imaginary world.
You seem to be fascinated with the outcast, those on the fringes or outside respectable society. Why do you want to make these stories now, especially now in a time when our society seems to be moving towards this corporatizes, homogenized kind of standardized representation?
JF: In a MFA program of any kind, art, directing, acting, one of the things you’re taught is to look for your voice, or try to find your artistic voice or your place. What can you do that others can’t do? So one of the things I found is that I’m in an unusual position. I’m in this very commercial film world. I’m in the pop culture world as a performer but I also have these interests that maybe are tangents to that world but don’t really lie in that world so maybe my thing, where I can generate a lot of energy is to bring those two worlds together.
Maybe it’s my place to bring some of these ideas into kind of more of mainstream outlet and why is it important? Making things homogenized is dangerous. We always need to question. I’m not about anarchy. I appreciate structure but we always need to question who we are and why we are and how we view ourselves and how we interact with others. These are things that always need to be constantly questioned and I think that’s one of the things that I try to do.
Do you consider your movies to provide life lessons and if so what do you want to deliver from this film?
JF: When you make a piece of art or film it’s not always kind of a moral enterprise. Films rest in a weird place. For a long time they’ve been mass entertainment. They don’t have to carry the role of educational tools or moralistic tools, at least as a primary function, so when I make one, and one like this, primarily I look to do a portrait, examine sides of what it is to be human through an extreme subject.
This isn’t a film that will guide you in being a better person. It’s not that kind of movie. And it also isn’t to say things should be this way or things should be that (way). But what I think it does is maybe very relevant is that it shows, here’s a person that can’t function in civilized society. He’s kicked off the farm. He goes to the cabin. He loses the cabin. He goes to the cave. He’s literally pushed farther and farther away from civilization. I think that’s a relevant topic today. The way that we socialize, at least we can say that the inner circles of mainstream communication are so bound up in technology that the way we socialize now is so intertwined with learning technological languages and social networking languages that there are many people that just give up, don’t want to do that, don’t want to engage with that. So you can say they are on the outer circles of this kind of communication.
The point of the movie isn’t to say if you don’t tweet or do Facebook you’re going to become a killer, or sleep with dead bodies, but it’s an extreme portrait of somebody on the outside. I don’t know if it’s a lesson per se but it’s a kind of a lens to look at a phenomenon that is happening in our day in its own forms and will continue to happen. People will be pushed outside the inner social circles.
Talk about the connection between your movies and academic studies.
JF: Right now I’m preparing for my oral exams for my English PH.D, so I’m reading a lot of books I’ll be questioned on. Then I’ll move on, if I pass, I’ll move on to my dissertation and I think that will involve American literature. That’s my specialization but also the ways that these different mediums interact with each other, so, yes, adaptation from literature to film (is my interest), but also the boundaries of the medium. What does one medium do that is better than the other?
And thinking about them, transforming to another one and back as translation of medium, rather than just thinking about adaptation, which I feel is kind of a more limited view, but actually looking at them as different kinds of language.
The films that I make are also very informed by my academic work because, like I said, searching for my voice wasn’t planned this way. One of the things about my voice is yes I like to adapt great literature. But also make it feel current or contemporary in other ways. Whether it’s the technology I use or the structure of the film or that kind of film, so I guess what I’m trying to say, is yes, my academic life is informed by my confessional creative life and vice versa.
Page 8 of 22
Sign up for our weekly newsletter!