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When an established award-winning director like Ridley Scott makes a space movie — something associated with serious drama — humor isn’t expected from its star. Yet in The Martian, where Matt Damon stars as American astronaut Mark Watney who’s been accidentally left behind on Mars after a mission disaster, humor humanizes the situation.
At first, no one knows he’s alive so what would seem to be a totally despairing situation is relieved by Watney’s incredibly determined instincts to survive until he can let them know back on Earth he’s alive.
So from the moment this film screened, first at The Toronto International Film Festival and then debuting in the USA at the 2015 New York Film Festival, it made an impact, proving to be more than a proto-documentary.
Based on 2011's eponymous novel by Andy Weir, the film -- scripted by Drew Goddard (who at first wanted to direct it himself) -- is the ultimate survivalist story conceived by the smartest science nerds in the world.
As helmed by this veteran director -- who established himself as a master of sci-fi by doing both Blade Runner and Alien -- authenticity was at the heart of this feature. If audiences didn't buy it, then the film would never succeed.
To insure that, the cast is loaded with Hollywood's A-list of thoughtful movie stars such as Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, and Jeff Daniels; and it was shot on one of the largest sets ever built.
In rooting for the hero, one has to believe in human intelligence and ingenuity -- as the most “uplifting” film of the year, it defied expectations of an award worthy film. Yet it culled an enormous list of nominations including various Oscars.
The Martian is sort of radical for a Hollywood film where the only antagonist is the environment itself -- there are no real bad guys -- so audiences see the conditions he fights as obstacles we can survive with the right knowledge.
Sir Ridley discussed the film several times in NYC and this Q&A is culled from several of those conversations.
Q: What went into the decision to make this survival movie feel like something so effortless even though so much effort went into it?
RS: That’s what we do. [It’s from] experience. Effortless? When you get a screenplay from a gentleman like Drew [Goddard] it’s like [having] the blueprint of a building or the architecture of what I’m going to do, so I can trust it and get on with everything else.
It’s trust in the script which was so good. My only significant question to Drew was, “This is pretty comedic, right?” I hoped he wouldn’t look at me and say, “No, it’s a drama.” But it is a drama that’s actually pretty funny. But it’s organically funny because it comes out of the cause and effect of the situation.
Q: You must get offered a lot of space movies after having done Alien. What made yo cast those aside to work on this one?
RS: I don’t get offered a lot, actually. And they stopped offering them to me because early on I realized a good script isn’t going to land on your desk because you have to develop your own material. So if you go off and develop your own material people kind of get used to being turned down, so they say, “Fuck you” and never send you anything.
So you’ve got to make sure you don’t run out of work. This one actually landed on the desk because--you tell the story better. It landed on my desk, I read it and went, wow. My first question to him was, “Why aren’t you doing this?”
Q: Matt Damon was already attached to it when you got into it?
RS: I auditioned for Matt.
Q: How does Sir Ridley Scott audition for anyone, let alone Matt Damon?
RS: He says, “How many takes do you do?” I said, “Two.” He goes, “That makes you twice as better as the guy I worked with recently.” I can’t repeat that one. When I repeated it, Clint got really pissed off!
Q: You told Matt Damon how much work he was going to have to do?
RS: Well, Clint gives one take, and Matt said, “Can I do another one?” and he said, “Well, if you really must waste everybody’s time…” So, I give him two.
Q: When did you realize that you only had to do one or two takes as a director? You’re known as a director who moves incredibly fast. This was shot in something like 72 days. That’s really quick for a movie like this.
RS: Tell that to Fox. It could’ve been 130 and I would’ve gotten paid twice as much. No, we’re really fast, and it’s to do with the superlative team I’ve got. It’s probably one of the best teams in the business. You find them out over the years, and the great thing is that they come back for more punishment, which means they’re vaguely enjoying themselves in the process.
On top of that, you’ve got a really great cast that worked most certainly on track because it was an ensemble cast, which means there’s no one with a particularly big part in it — except for Matt Damon. And everyone else -- this cast is fabulous — and they came in to play these individual roles as an ensemble, which is really nice, as a nod to the screenplay.
Q: As a working director, you must trust your instincts more than ever at this point.
RS: You better, or I should’ve given up 10 years ago.
Q: Was there ever a time where you didn’t?
RS: No. I did, I think, 2,023 commercials, both in New York, France, Los Angeles, et cetera. In those days, I could do -- on a good year — 150 commercials personally. So, today they think they’re busy if they 20 commercials -- any commercial makers in the room? If you’re only 12, go find another job.
We learned. It’s the best school I could possibly had, because there was no film school when I was 20. There’s no film school at that point. i found my way almost accidentally into doing advertising, and was lucky enough to catch the wave, the beginning of serious advertising in the UK. At that moment, they’re completely enamored by the Madison Avenue Mad Men era.
We started to do it pretty well, and so I enjoyed the actual wave of some of the best advertising ever. I did Steve Jobs’ commercial in 1984, that was one of the 2,000 I’ve done. By the time I’d do a movie, it was pretty easy.
Q: Many have commented that this is a more upbeat, humorous movie for you, done in the style of films you make. Even some of your darkest work, like The Counselor, can be humorous at times.
RS: That’s because you’re intelligent. There are so many silly people out there that actually, you look for humor in everything you possibly do. Even in Alien there’s humor. When he said, “Stop complaining,” “I like complaining.” There’s a lot of humor. I’m always looking for humor, If you can, because that’s part of life, of people, who they are.
Q: Did this feel different when you finished your cut and screened it for the first time? Did this feel like it was landing differently than everything else you’ve made before?
RS: No. Funnily enough, this landed better than anything I made before. So I think it’s partly due to the screenplay.
The cast did enjoy themselves, so everybody was enjoying themselves doing it. It’s a danger, because if you’ve got a comedy, and everybody’s laughing their ass off thinking it’s funny, the danger is that when you get the cut, it’s awful because everybody thinks you’re doing this great piece of work. You’ve got to always have that position in the back of the room, looking at it with a cold eye, saying, “Is this right? is this wrong?” You learn to do that.
Q: It felt like Matt Damon and the crew were like a band of filmmakers trying to make a movie -- solving problems along the way. Did it feel that was the case — kind of metaphor for filmmaking?
RS: It’s a metaphor for good filmmaking. There’s a lot of guesswork and confusion. Everyone has their job on the floor, and if you’re a director, that’s what you are. You walk on the floor in the morning, you’ve got to have anywhere from 50 people — and in my case — 500 people to 700 people, all turn and say, “What are we going to do?” You better know what you’re going to do. And you’d better be running by nine o’clock with five to 11 cameras.
Q: You’re making two movies a year — two very large-scale movies in a year.
RS: I wish. I cross over more in prepping now in Sydney.
Q: You’re already prepping. What does prepping look like in terms of getting to the day? What does the crew get from you — from prep to start shooting on the day?
RS: There’s key personnel. Lighting, camera is very important to me. Design is very important. Set dressing is incredibly important as well and so is wardrobe — incredibly important. Makeup and hair become extremely important in certain kinds of movies. They’re all keys. Oh, and head of construction. I run a film like a company, like a corporation.
And when I begin, I always have Monday morning meetings. Everyone’s sitting around the table, all the key heads with their few bits, it’s about 40 people around the table. And I’ve got, “Okay, page one, problem? Page two, problem? Page three. You’ve got a problem. What’s the problem? Have you talked to engineering?” “No.” “Well, bloody do so. Page four.”
Q: You’re a boss.
RS: You have to be. So, by the time you’re through the third week, you should be running like silk because people don’t talk to people for help, because either ego gets in the way, or something’s not being constructed, which case you gotta have his head slapped. And by the time you’re running, everything’s flying.
Q: You're a nuts-and-bolts sort of boss -- it’s a business. At the same time, you’re known as a maker of the most beautifully composed shots with incredible art direction. With Blade Runner, Alien, and The Martian — you’re an artist leading the set, not a nuts-and-bolts boss who’s just making sure everybody’s doing their jobs.
RS: You hide that, you don’t let that out. I never talk to an actor about what shots I’m going to do. Never. I used to do that when I was doing live TV; and I once caught an actor rolling his eyes. Never talk about what you do, talk about what they do, what they’re gonna do. You are a boss, that’s the very terminology, you better be a boss.
Q: When you get on set and are working with Matt Damon every day, and he’s the only actor there, does he really need that much work at this point?
RS: Well, he’s on set with only 500 people that could actually get him a cup of coffee. The only asshole he’s got to talk to is the guy on the other end of the walkie-talkie who wants to give him two takes. He’s sitting there, sweating it out in this space suit, the temperature on the set is about 40, so he’s the only warm guy in the room, he’s doing all right.
But I always work with many cameras and this instance, I didn’t need more than four. I learned way back when that an actor, when he comes in, if he’s worth his salt, her salt, have come fully prepped with their own ideas.
The key thing is to let them run the ball initially, to show you what is in their mind. So, I’ll come in with the geometry of the scene saying we’ve got to hit this, that, and that, and we’ve got to hit this point right.
And I say, “you want to do it?”
At a point, I noticed that way back when, you always got the best takes in take one or two. Any actor worth his salt comes in prepped, so locked and loaded, that when you talk to him or them, they’re going to say, “For fuck’s sake, shut up, let me do my take. “
Don’t get in my head. “I’ve got a plan!”
There’s nothing worse than a wedding speech. Don’t talk to me before I do a wedding speech, I’ll try and change it. So, it’s very important to just let the actors fly. I sometimes will go, wow, because what you’re looking for as a director, in parentheses, I never thought of that, I’m sitting there waiting to get surprised. If the surprise is great I’ll go out and give them a big, fat kiss and ask them if they want one more take.
Q: When it comes to the actors doing a scene that’s mainly dialogue or actors just working -- say it’s Matt Damon alone -- do you see how he blocks it out in his head and then you think about how you’re going to shoot it? Or do you have your setups and then he’s going to play in that?
RS: I don’t do formal rehearsal anymore, and my formal rehearsal is, well first of all, The Counselor, it was all about dialogue. The whole thing is dialogue. Therefore, it was essential [to] sit down and group them into their groups in the scenes that they’re doing and separate them. So, I spend all day with Javier Bardem’s and Cameron Diaz’s scene, and Javier Bardem with Michael Fassbender.
And you sit at the table with a cup of coffee and just chat and they start talking about who they are. Once that starts to evolve, talk the scene inside out. And in the scene there are targets, milestones, emotion, funny, real emotion, tears maybe. And I say, “You’re happy, want to move on?”
Never read it. Never read it. I know what they’re going to give me. I never say, “Right, do you want to read it?” or Michael might say “I just want to try something, can I read it?”
“Yeah, read it.”
[We’ve] gone through this tactic, [we’ve] talked our way through the movie, so that the actor is a virtuoso of themselves. He’s the best violinist of himself, better than me. And therefore, the key is to cast really, really well. I’m a very good caster. If you can cast well, that’s going to come with a whole bundle of stuff, both emotional, technical, creative. They’re going to do a lot of work on my behalf, having talked about it at the table.
Q: Sir Ridley Scott knows his shit. You are an incredible multi-tasker. While making this movie, were you in preproduction, working on scripts for several other movies?
RS: Well, yeah. You have to keep things moving, and you keep things going in the background. There’s a lot of television. I do four TV shows. “The Good Wife” is not mine, it’s Julianna Margulies', but it’s our show, she’ll have seven years of that. “The Man in the High Castle” has just gone out, we’re doing “Mercy Street” which has just gone out.
I’m doing a show right now with Tom Hardy about the East India Company in 1813, when slavery was an industry. So, we do a lot of that, and they ask me to read stuff occasionally or say, “Here’s the cast, what do you think?” I get in that far…
Q: You do these things while you’re in production or while you’re in production on a movie like The Martian, do you just have to laser in?
RS: No, I have to. I get up early and I sit there and I’ll talk with London, I’ll talk with LA. You know, if you keep up to speed every day, it’s only 15 minutes. If you let it go for a week, it’s a nightmare. So, I just keep it up and go on set. I believe the key is to be prepped for what you’re doing so I can walk out that door. My prep is an old friend of mine I knew in England, and he always had the brains at school, and I was seriously non-academic, and I saw him like, 20 years later, 30 years later, he said to me, “Hey Ridley, are you still pushing a pencil?”
And I said, “Frankly, I am.” My whole life is drawing. I draw everything. Once I’ve gotten a script, I draw everything about the way the film’s going to be, so I’m filming it on paper. It won’t be stick figures, it’s really is--I studied art school, so I’m a very good draftsman, I can draw really fast, and I’ll be going through it, and if I get stuck on a scene, it’s a bit like having a blank sheet of paper in the Olivetti typewriter. I’ll just draw the room, draw the thing within where you’ve got to be, and then I’m already moving, and I’ve started to film it on paper. I walk in in the morning, and I’m set.
Q: If you’re drawing the script as you’re reading and get to a scene where you’re stuck, and don’t know how to draw it, does that indicate a problem with the scene itself? Sidney Lumet always said that when he was shooting, if something bored him or if he didn’t know where to go while watching the actors, that meant that there was something wrong with the writing and he had to fix that.
RS: I’m glad that you picked Sidney Lumet, because I think he’s one of the great unsung directors in American cinema history. Remarkable, and not ever acknowledged enough in my opinion.
Q: So understated...
RS: He’s incredible. I always admired everything he did. So, he would plan location hunts, walk around a few months prior, say, “Right. The chair’s going to be there, mic’s going to be there. Going to walk in there. Next!” It’d already been in his head. Two months later he’s got the chairs there, lights there. But I still think he was special with actors. Something happens and I think that some actors...
I thought you were going to say “doesn’t it not leave any room for your actor to come and make suggestions?” which is a good question, it’s a good question. Be sure that you know what you’re going to do, because i have done that with actors. Any actors in the room? So, I have enough actors, and they say, “Let’s show you what we’re going to do,” so I go, “Okay, action,” [humming noise] and it usually ends up with two people standing at either end of the room talking to each other.
And I say, “Cut,” and the star said to me, “That was fuckin’ boring,” I said, “That’s right.” So, I’ve got a good intuition about geometry and leave the performances to them.
Q: Geometry is in the momentum, essentially.
RS: Movement, if it’s required. No movement if it’s not required. That only comes from experience.
Q: Besides Sidney Lumet what other filmmakers are you inspired by?
RS: Oh, you know, a little bit of the best of them. Kubrick, Kurosawa, interesting Scandinavian director, The Seventh Seal. All of his social stuff later was incredible. They were all in the days when I was trying to get-- I couldn’t get going.
I didn’t make a film until I was 40. So, those filmmakers out there who are still 30 have got a long way to go. I hadn’t made a film until I was 40. But, I saw a lot of cinema. And it was nearly always visually-oriented.
Orson Welles was a master of everything. As a director, he was interested in the lights, in the suits, as well as the words and the lighting...the whole thing. I always thought that those are the best films, that live longest.
Same with David Lean. David Lean was a kind of master. Kubrick was that, Kurosawa was that, Ingmar Bergman was that, and if you can get that and take that all on board because you love it, love the details, I love the details. God’s in the details, as well as the performances.
Q: If you could ever travel to Mars, would you do it?
RS: Are you kidding? No way. I think the beauty about filmmaking is you get to go where it takes you. The 16th century, or you know, the future, or the present. I think that’s the journey. Yeah, I don’t need to do it.
Q: We see Damon’s character has lost some weight and there's a reference to his family. Did you write more of that and decide to pull back a bit, to not go that far into the depths of his despair?
RS: No. I got in more on the fact that once the guy was into a self-learning curve which I sort of relate to The Right Stuff. The Right Stuff is fundamentally the definition for courage under pressure, courage under fire, courage when you’re in a steel tube and you’ve got cobblestoning…
He’s talking really cool, he’s about to break up...and that’s where the Chuck Yeager Right Stuff came out, because I think every air traffic controller’s cadence was super cool, any pilot was super cool, and I think it’s partly to control your emotions when you’re against the gun. And the Matt Damon character could have taken the pill and killed himself. There is a pill, they don’t let you hang out there and say, “Oh, God, what am I going to do?”
You could always walk outside, and it would be horrible. But you could take the pill, it would just put you to sleep. But then he realized he had to stay alive and do his job. By doing it, as he finds the inspiration to stay with it, that takes over and that takes over for the fear. I always think the guy who’s not brave, who’s terrified, does the job. The guy who’s not terrified is just fuckin’ crazy.
Q: What happened when NASA read the script?
RS: I discovered also the book had become a bit of a secret reader in NASA, I called up and said, “Can I talk to somebody?” I got the head of NASA. “Are you guy from the movies?” I said, “Yes,” and he said, “Oh, we like your science fiction movies. We really like the space suits, what are you doing next?” I said, “Well, we’re doing this thing…” They were right into it. They showed me everything. Their habitat, their new space suits, which almost look like Teletubbies. I said, “We can’t do that,” He said, “We don’t like them either,” but they shared everything.
I would go to Pasadena and walk around the back lot, it’s pretty casual, a lot of flip flops and long hair. As opposed to NASA’s dress code, ties...because they’re putting human beings in space. These guys in Pasadena are putting machines into spaces. So I walked around the back and what’s that thing. The land...the crawler… Pathfinder. There’s a Pathfinder lying in a garage...
The doors opened and I fully expect to see a ratty old Volkswagen, but it’s a bloody Pathfinder lying in there, amongst Coca-Cola cans and rubble. That’s it? “That’s it.” We copied that. Everything you see is absolutely copied.
Q: How important are awards to your filmmaking?
RS: That’s a big question. Well, everything’s a war, really. People say “you like Westerns?” but I’ve never done one. Almost everything’s a Western isn’t it? Man against the environment, man against, you know. Who is it that said there’s only seven stories? Is that true? No. But war to me is not--it’s only interesting because you’re taking human beings into a situation that’s entirely unrealistic, and you’re dealing with that, and you’re dealing with how they’re going to function in that environment.
One of the things I did in war is obviously something I did called Black Hawk Down, because I’d done The Duellists, and I’ve done -- The Duellists was interesting because it was about mindless--the great thing about The Duellists is they’d forgotten at the end of it what the argument was about, which is kind of wonderful, really. But Black Hawk Down was a real thing, no more than celebrating a certain kind of soldier, who will go in there, for the right reasons, not oil, none of this, it was actually fundamentally to stop genocide.
And that’s why they were put in there, and Bill Clinton came in two weeks later and yanked them, because he did not want to get stuck with a Vietnam. We got stuck in northeast Africa. And he pulled the guy out and the army was furious. But I just love the dilemma. It’s a pocket war, and for a good reason. There’s never a good reason for war, that’s one of the best reasons.
There was a good reason for the second World War, it’s a bloody good reason, because this lunatic called Adolf Hitler doing shit. And you do look at these people in history and think, MI5 or MI6 went to Wilt Chamberlain in 1936, don’t quote me on the date, and had said, “This Chancellor is going to be a huge problem. We think we should do something about it.” He says, “What do you mean?” He says, “You know what I mean,” He said, “That wouldn’t be gentlemanly, would it?”
Three years later, he walks into Poland. You know what I’m saying? That’s an extreme way of looking at things, but sometimes you can save the world a lot of problems.
Q: Except for possibly dying on Mars, there’s no villain in the film and that’s refreshing. No one at NASA is slowing things down for his own bureaucratic reasons. The closest to that is Jeff Daniels' character, who is doing things for the right reasons, to a degree. In the beginning there’s a line, a guy says, “I just lost my best friend, I don’t want to lose my commander,” which is a great way of setting up who he is, and how human he is.
RS: He says it’s not about one person, and the other guy says, “Yes, it is.” That’s the key, that one guy.
Q: You never succumb to having a corporate villain or a villain on the ship in the narratives going on within the film. Were you tempted towards that? It was not in the novel so you could stay away from it?
DG: Yeah, and consciously I made a decision to push it even further, because Jeff Daniels’s character in the novel is more as you described, to give an antagonistic relationship... one of the things that excited me about the book was the aspirational quality of the piece. I kept saying early on, the villain circumstance. Everyone else gets to be a protagonist.
RS: Mars is the beautiful monster, killing you 16 different ways in three seconds. He almost falls in love with Mars. That’s why we used the music at the end, it was Bowie, going off on his long drive, a kind of ode to Mars, in a way, because of its beauty. Would he go back there? No bloody way.
Canadian humor -- an oxymoron?
Not really, especially if you've attended the recent mini-festival, Canadian Cool, celebrating the comic cinema from up North.
Opening the festival was a documentary titled, Being Canadian -- a celebration of all things Canadians and the Canadians that love being so even if they live down south. It features interviews with the likes of SNLer Mike Myers and Dave Letterman sidekick, band leader Paul Shaffer.
Its roots lie in Los Angeles. When Canadian Robert Cohen moved to LA to become a comedy writer, he quickly realized that his American friends and colleagues knew nothing about his homeland of Canada.
After years of frustration, the 48 year old director embarked on a personal quest, nearly traveling from one end of Canada to the other, to prove that being Canadian is more than maple syrup, Mounties and “Oout and Aboout.”
Being from Calgary,Cohen is the pride of the Canadian Rockies with more than 20 years of work in sitcoms, sketch comedy, variety, improvisation, animation, and films. His feature film contributions include the Austin Powers films, all three Shrek films, Dodgeball, Madagascar; Tropic Thunder, and Anchorman 2. Cohen’s comedy writing stints include The Ben Stiller Show (for which he won an Emmy), Just Shoot Me!, The Big Bang Theory, The Wonder Years, Saturday Night Live, MADtv, and The Simpsons.
Rob also works as a commercial director and has produced/directed pilots and short films for MTV, Comedy Central, and HBO; eight episodes of the critically acclaimed IFC series Maron; studio feature campaigns for Paramount, Sony, Warner Bros., and 20th Century Fox; a music video for Aimee Mann; and multiple promos starring Tom Cruise, Ben Stiller, Mike Myers, Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, and Robert Downey Jr. Rob’s turn-ons are honesty, cold pizza, and moderately short bios.
As the visual inspiration for Bart Simpson’s best friend Milhouse — whom he still bears a striking resemblance — he really established his pop-culture credibility.
But none of this has assuaged his frustration so as a misunderstood Canadian, he made this film and established himself as Canada's unofficial ambassador.
Q: Now that you’ve raised the media profile of Canada, are the Canadians going to give you a plaque or some special reverential position?
RC: I will happily accept it, but so far nothing has come through on my email [laughs].
Q: As long as they don’t require you to eat hockey pucks.
RC: Well, I’ve done worse.
Q: Do you think this movie will help reposition or redefine Canada as sort of a not-America, or as not an also-ran, but in redefining Canada in a positive light, will people realize that the real actors are in Canada, and the real directors really come from the North — and do you get more Canadian financing than we down in America get?
RC: Well, the goal was never to redefine anything. It started with me trying to solve a problem I’ve been dealing with since college; and my producers are here, what they’ve been dealing with their whole life being outside of Canada… but hopefully at the end of the movie, it just shows how cool Canada is now; that it’s really coming into its own. It’s a country that’s just -- no pun intended -- very cool.
Q: The funny thing is, Canada has produced some of the better television shows, and we Americans steal from them all the time. You have a duty in your future part two, to let us know it.
RC: if you join me in making part two, we’ll do it [laughs].
Q: When you made your wish list of those you wanted to interview for this film, how long was it? You said before that only one person refused, but there’s a lot more people that were on it and in the film when you start to add up the list.
RC: The list came about in a different way. We started off with friends of ours that we knew we could sit down with, and would give us some of their time. Then [we] had a separate list that was really like our dream list. Like Jeff from the band Rush, or Malcolm Gladwell, or a former prime minister.
Then as we started adding to the first list. The second list, for the most part, became more realistic because we sat down one day and thought, “Who do we really appreciate and respect and enjoy from all different walks of life?”
It wasn’t just comedy people, maybe they didn’t have to be famous, but that they would round this out so it would feel like it’s a movie about Canada, not just Canadian comedy or Canadian celebrities. So we just laid out index cards of everybody that we really would love to speak to, and started the process of reaching out to them.
Q: Was the toughest thing trying to figure out who to use of the non-celebrity Canadians that you interviewed, or the non-Canadian people in Canada that you interviewed?
RC: Again, we were really fortunate that Ben Stiller, Conan O’Brien and Kathy Griffin, who are in the movie and very American, were so on board with helping us out, but we also…
One of my producers, Colin, had some great people that helped us get people in Bangladesh and in Britain, and we shot some stuff in Japan, and so that was sort of the easy part. I know when I was in Tokyo filming people, I was trying to explain what I wanted, which was very difficult, but when I said, “Canada” they really just started laughing and smiling at me.
Q: Just like I did.
RC: Exactly. So, that helped grease the wheel a little bit.
Q: This film is a great résumé for builder for you to have your own talk show, you’re going to be on the air all the time, your face in front of the camera?
RC: Oh you know that’s my favorite thing of everything. Chocolate is number two, and that would be number one. I just love it!
Q: I don’t know, I think you might be getting offers. I think you’re in trouble now.
RC: Sadly, other people have mentioned that, but I think this is my debut and my swan song [laughs].
Q: It could also be that now people now one will ever confuse you with Rob Cohen the horror director. Or maybe they will confuse you even more.
RC: Look, that guy would be very fortunate to be thought of as a Canadian, but it’ll still happen. I need to identify myself more.
Q: He doesn’t have any Canadian roots, huh? So there you go.
RC: No, he’s all-American.
Q: When this was shown in Canada, did you have to make apologies to Canadians for the things they felt were omitted, or were there things that were included that even they were surprised?
RC: Well, the honest answer is when we premiered at Hot Docs, we were one of the opening films there, and we had two shows that sold out far in advance, with lines around the block. The weather was actually pretty cold then, not surprisingly, but people were very, very enthusiastic.
I think a lot of people had no idea we have a secret maple syrup reserve in the country, and we apologized beforehand for people spending their evening with us, but the response was great. You know, Canadians definitely always point out where we didn’t go in Canada, and that’s something I think is just based on pride more than nitpicky-ness, but overall, everybody’s been really cool.
Q: There’s a lot of great films that have come out of Canada, yours not withstanding. What would you consider the classic Canadian films that are about life in general, and particularly about Canada, because there’s some films that people don’t realize are Canadian, and then there’s [those] Canadian directors that have been emerging.
RC: I would say the two that pop into my head are that we identify as a Canadian movie is Meatballs, because it was made in Canada, directed and produced by Canadians, with a few Americans in there. But I would also say, as far as great Canadian movies, there’s Strange Brew.
Q: Sometimes Americans don’t know what North American — I should say, United States — citizens don’t know what to do about Canada. It was really peculiar that a hit Canadian movie like Starbuck — about a guy who bonds with the hundreds of his children born because he was a very effective sperm donor — could be distributed directly in the United States, yet someone still thought they had to do an American remake, Delivery Man starring Vince Vaughn.
RC: Right, right.
Q: You’ve hit on a strange thing. We Americans don’t quite know what to do with you guys, because we don’t quite understand the conflict between the French and English. It sort of adds a wrinkle to what Canada’s all about. It’s only beginning to get understood here. And I think maybe the whole phenomenon of extreme sports adds a whole other wrinkle to understanding Canada. What do you think?
RC: The thing is, you know, this whole movie is just our view of what it means to be Canadian and covers hopefully a million different topics that are very Canadian-centric, like curling and maple syrup and comedy and things like that, but I just think because we’re so close and we appear so similar to Americans that we’re never really thought of as exotic.
When people find out that Canada has a lot of its own unique cultural history, they have to take a step back and realize that we’ve been around for over a hundred years, and it is its own place, so that’s one of the things that we love to brag about, but also be frustrated about.
Q: In all seriousness, I think you may have something ongoing. Do you see something expanding from this? Maybe some kind of an ongoing web series? Or do you want to explore this in any other ways or do more docs? Or go back to doing what you’ve done in your path already?
RC: I would say we’ve already been approached by somebody that wants to expand this and do some sort of TV concept, which I don’t even--we’re not even discussing it right now, just because we’re in the middle of it. I don’t know if it’s a good or bad move, but you know, the other thing that’s been really nice is a lot of schools and colleges in Canada and the U.S. have been requesting us to come, and sort of give a crash course on being Canadian using the movie. So that’s sort of a cool benefit.
Q: You did do one cop-out. You didn’t make your way to the Northwest territories or the Yukon to prove your total Canadian journey. Did you take the soft route so you didn’t freeze your butt off.
RC: You’re so right. We didn’t visit Newfoundland or Labrador, none of it. We were wussies, basically. We intended to cover a huge area, and we’d have loved to have gone everywhere. It just mathematically wasn’t possible, but it’d just be….
Again, we were lucky enough to speak to some native Canadians and Canadians of different ethnicities and genders and leanings. We did get fortunate when we would go through larger cities, that we could get a cross-section of people, but physically, I would have loved to have been everywhere.
Q: You didn’t have any protests from Inuits; there wasn’t a lot of Inuit presence in it?
RC: No, actually, there’s at least three Native Canadians. We interviewed a lot more.
Q: If there was anyone you could have put in the movie or you weren’t able to get or isn’t alive, who would you have put in the film?
RC: I have such a respect for Lorne Michaels. If we were able to work that schedule out, it would have been a huge thrill.
English-language movies documenting society’s underbelly include such classics as the hard-nosed Last Exit To Brooklyn or the comparatively benign West Side Story. And there’s a body of work that has emerged out of England’s rock subcultures from the ’50s on up. But fewer films detail Europe’s youth subcultures, although that’s been changing — witness a French film like La Haine (Hate).
Now a youthful director from Amsterdam, Sam de Jong, adds to the canon with Prince, his richly detailed, off-kilter portrait of a teen trying to navigate his way around the pitfalls of the projects he has grown up in without losing his sense of self or family. A peculiar movie for a peculiar age, it is both a gang saga and a teen angst tale of desire, full of dead ends but also of beginnings.
Viewed through the 29-year-old de Jong’s surreal lens, 17-year-old Ayoub lives on the cusp of Amsterdam’s projects, hanging out with his three buds — two other Moroccan expats and a Dutch kid, Franky (Jorik Scholten), the younger brother of Ronnie (Peter Douma), ringleader of a trio of local toughs.
Coping with junkie father Mo (Chaib Massaoudi), lonely divorcé mother Saskia (veteran actress Elsie de Brauw), and lovely half-sister Demi (Olivia Lonsdale) — whose budding sexuality disturbs him as she falls for his best friend — Ayoub has a lot on his mind. Then there’s his crush on local bombshell Laura (newcomer Sigrid ten Napel), who seems attached to a tattooed skinhead buddy one of the gangsta wanna-be trio who ride ATVs around town like they’re hardcore Harley-bikers, committing petty crime and drug infractions.
Haunted by his father's terrible state, Ayoub can't get any traction. But he does, however, win the favor of violent, eccentric, purple Lamborghini-driving, sociopathic local crime boss Kalpa (Freddy Tratlehner). Falling in with him, Ayoub tries to stretch his status (and wallet) enough to win Laura over, but soon finds that this life is much more than he bargained for. While Ayoub fights for her heart, he realizes that before he becomes a prince he has to learn to be a man.
Though being such a novice — born in August, 1986 — de Jong has directed docs, music videos, commercials and dramas; his work has won awards, and been screened at A-list festivals like Sundance, the Berlinale and AFI Fest. Prince made it into the 2015 Berlinale where it got Honorary Mention: Crystal Bear for Best First Feature.
Raised in Amsterdam’s suburban outskirts by trained therapists for parents, he was came to understand motivation better than most. Before graduating from the Netherlands Film Academy in 2012, he and his younger brother had traveled the world informing this feature and his shorts. After making his thesis, Magnesium, it was followed with other critically recognized shorts: Marc Jacobs and Malaguti Phantom, before developing this feature. In addition to music video work, De Jong’s also a musician, formerly of the award-winning Parachute Band.
With an impressive array of cinematic techniques, Prince is a self-assured, sure-handed debut with some simple but well-drawn characters. And de Jong managed to get some boost from producing partners: 100% Halal and Vice Magazine’s production division.
This exclusive one-on-one was conducted over Skype in anticipation of de Jong’s birthday, Prince’s brief theatrical presentation and its extended life on VOD platforms.
Q: Here in the States, we have an image of Amsterdam with its quaint canals and cafes and such, but we don’t see this dark side, of a disenfranchised immigrant population — much like other communities in the rest of Europe. What motivated you to tell this story of a punk side of Amsterdam?
SD: I wasn’t trying to show a part of the Netherlands that no one knows. I just made this film because I grew up in this world. To me, the Red Light District [is] just iconography for the outside world, it’s not real life. This neighborhood is one from where I grew up, and the kids in the film, the Moroccans, are very integrated in our society. It’s similar to Mexicans.
Q: But they’re disenfranchised, too.
SD: They are, and it’s a problem. There are many right-wing parties and lots of xenophobia. But to be completely honest, when I set out to cast the roles, I didn’t really look for ethnicity. I looked for Ayoub as a guy who is vulnerable yet aggressive, and I found him to be just that guy. I also saw caucasian people for that role, so it wasn't about finding a certain ethnicity per se.
Q: Your background isn’t as dark as the kids in this movie, so why this story?
SD: It’s a combination of things. I did several short films starring the same kids from Prince and many of the stories they told me. One of the kids I worked with had a similar parental situation to Ayoub in the movie. I felt there was more to it than a short film, so I started writing a feature. The streets where we shot the movie are the streets where I grew up as well — although I lived in a more rural place, this is where I used to spend my teenage years.
I’m 28 now and looking 10 years back, lots of the things I cared about — growing up with divorced parents, longing for unattainable girls, that quest was something I was obsessed with at that age. It’s a combination of autobiography and documentary.
Q: The drug dealer/criminal character takes on a mythic quality. What was the idea in that?
SD: I was really inspired by [Federico] Fellini, the way he has the balls to make his characters larger than life and theatrical when he needs to. When you’re that age and you think about older guys, they always have a mythical quality about them.
They seem untouchable and spark your imagination. I wanted that character to not be a real person, but like a mythical bad boy that the main character looks up to. Also a metaphor to represent the Devil. It’s pretty bold and obvious with his Lamborghini Diablo, but I just wanted it to be as bold as that.
Q: How hard was it to get to use one of those Lamborghinis?
SD: Very hard, because I wrote in a purple Lamborghini but didn’t realize that purple Lamborghinis are very rare; there are only 80 in the world. And this Lamborghini just sold for six hundred [thousand]. They’re very expensive.
It was terrible. It takes a lot of time to move it around, and when you start the engine you have to drive with ear protection. We broke the window on the second day of shooting.
Q: You broke the window? That must have cost you thousands.
SD: It did. There was only one window left somewhere in a forgotten village in Italy and we had to get it over [to Amsterdam]. It was a hassle.
Q: Those Lamborghinis are almost impossible to get out of. One of the actors seemed to struggle with it in a scene.
SD: You’re right, it’s very hard to get out.
Q: Do you see this film as having a moral statement?
SD: There’s a strong moral to me, that you shouldn’t chase a consumerist-driven dream or externalize your problem like Ayoub is doing: [he] thinks that if you change your identity you’ll change your spot in life.
Luckily, he finds out by not wearing those shoes he got from Kalpa and just being who he is, accepting where he comes from, will make him more happy and he gets the girl he’s longing for. In a way there’s a fairytale moral to the film.
Q: Did being raised in the Netherlands give you a strong moral backbone so you are fighting against the hypocrisy?
SD: I think I’m reacting to white hypocrisy a little bit. I grew up with strong cultural awareness. My dad is a transcultural psychiatrist and my mom is a psychologist. My father had an NGO and at an early age he took us to Uganda into post-conflict areas because he helped people out with PTSD. So I came from that, but at the same time I grew up super-liberal in Amsterdam with a lot of freedom and possibilities.
I wasn’t always so socially aware as I am now. For a long time, I just wanted the fastest scooter at school and stuff like that. I try to talk about that within the parameters of Prince.
Q: How much of the story is drawn from these boys?
SD: I did all of it. There’s hardly any improvisation.
Q: Did they give you any suggestions?
SD: With the actors, I just had to control them and damage-manage them and make sure they were on the set and in the shot. With the actors I did have creative conversation, but not an equal creator conversation.
Q: You restrained yourself from being too violent, and none of the characters were all thatbad.
SD: It’s about being in between. It’s about teenagers growing up. In that case, I do like The Breakfast Club.
Q: So you’re making a John Hughes film for the modern age?
SD: Yeah, a little bit.
Q: Do they all stay friends after they choose not to kill the other guys?
SD: I think a week from the ending of the movie, Ayoub is left by Laura because she finds out [he has nothing] after all and shit hits the fan.
Q: She starts modeling and meets a nice rich businessman. Where did you find the actresses?
SD: The girls are [more professional] than the guys. The girl playing Laura is pretty well known in the Netherlands. When I went to film school she was in theater school, so we knew each other and it made sense to cast her.
Olivia [Lonsdale], who plays his sister… My girlfriend introduced her to me and she’s fabulous. This was her debut role as well, but she’s doing lots of stuff now so she’s growing into an actress.
All the boys, they’re not interested in acting, they’re back on the street and not getting into acting.
Q: What are they hoping to do or become? Hopefully not dead?
SD: I think they’re going to become like Kalpa and realize their inner gangster [laughs].
Q: What made them want to do this film? Their ego? It couldn’t have been the pay.
SD: I think it was the pay. This was a low-budget movie, so we paid them fairly less [than some films but…] But they’re used to working in a supermarket or delivering pizzas, and now they’re offered 25 days of shooting with some money per day. His mother even called me and said, “Is this money for real?” because it was so much.
He was 17 at the time and for a month’s work it was a lot of money. We had a lot of struggles on the set. They would walk off, and what kept [them] coming back was they constantly said the reason they were doing it was for me.
We were working on more projects in the course of two years, so we really built a relationship together and we did it hand in hand and decided to do this, and I guess that was a big part of their motivation.
Q: Because he finessed his character so well I assumed that the guy who plays Kalpa, Freddy Tratlehner, is an established actor…
SD: He’s a big rapper, one of the biggest rappers in the Netherlands.
Q: Is his music in the film?
SD: No, because it’s hip hop. He’s a friend of mine and we talked about the film once and he said he wanted to be in it, so I wrote him this part. It’s his first part ever. It was fun working with a friend.
Q: Your soundtrack has both a retro and contemporary quality. What does that say about you?
SD: I grew up in the ‘90s, so it’s partly my own childhood; there’s a nostalgia aspect in me using this soundtrack. It also helps because my short films used to be rooted in social realism and in this one I wanted to create my own environment, so finding music that was contemporary but also had an idiosyncratic quality really helped in making it like a fairytale, in a way.
It would be obvious to just use what’s popular and what the kids listen to, but I wanted it to be our world — the world of the film — and not necessarily their world.
With famed Academy Award winning actress Helen Mirren receiving a special honor from the World Jewish Congress in front of Gustav Klimt’s The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer 1 -- now housed at New York’s Neue Galerie and the basis of the film Woman in Gold — her role as Maria Altmann comes full circle.
The event featuring speeches by Mirren and Lauder, celebrates Mirren’s portrayal of Maria Altmann, the Austrian-American woman who won headlines for her legal battle against the Austrian government to reclaim five Klimt paintings including the painting of Altmann’s aunt, stolen from her family by the Nazis during WWII.
But then, British director Simon Curtis has an uncanny and outsized skill at revealing history — judging by the two theatrically release features he’s directed. The first, My Week with Marilyn, collated Colin Clark’s two diary accounts about his time with Marilyn Monroe— The Prince, The Showgirl and Me and My Week with Marilyn — into an award-winning film.
The second, Woman In Gold, follows the travails and triumph of Jewish survivor Altmann, who resolves to recover family possessions seized by the Nazis, among them Klimt's famous painting Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I — a painting of her beautiful aunt.
When the Nazis shipped off her family and friends off to the death camps, they confiscated their property; she fortunately fled Vienna during World War II before they caught her as well.
Sixty years later an elderly Altmann starts a quest with her inexperienced but plucky young lawyer Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) which takes them all the way from battling Austria’s establishment to the U.S. Supreme Court, and forces her to confront difficult truths about the past.
In both films, the 56 year Curtis starts with two high-profile scenarios that people understand only through broad strokes and personalizes them through carefully rendered characters. Maybe his experience in directing British actors for theater and dramatic BBC series lends itself to creating such subtle portraits.
Appropriately first screened in the Berlinale Special Galas section of the 65th Berlin International Film Festival, the film has gathered fans steadily and deliberately. But now that the Woman In Gold DVD has just been released, audiences can bring the film home for repeated viewings.
Q: Didn’t you used to work as an assistant for Helen Mirren a while back. What was that like?
SC: Well, she said I made a very good cup of tea [laughs].
Q: It’s been quite a while since you last worked with her. How did you manage to cast Helen Mirren in this role?
SC: Well you don’t have to be a genius to go off the edge and [commit] murder when you’re casting this part of Maria Altmann. There [just] aren’t as many actresses of her stature at her age .
We believe her as this woman that’s like herself, who has lived in Europe and then lived in California for the second half of her life. She’s an incredibly smart, talented actress, and I was ecstatic when she said she would [do the part].
Q: You have two great leads with Ryan Reynolds uncharacteristically playing this character of Rnady, but there a lot of other great actors in the film as well. Was it hard getting everyone on board and onthe same page?
SC: People just responded to the material. I called in a lot of favors, like getting [the classical British actor] Jonathan Pryce to play the Supreme Court judge. Tatiana Maslany is one of the greatest actors I ever worked with; she’s just phenomenal in [the Candian produced, BBC America series] Orphan Black. And it was thrilling for me working with all these great German actors who I hadn’t worked with before like Daniel Brühl, Moritz Bleibtreu and Antje Traue.
Q: You made such great choices in these German actors; they were a great pick.
SC: I was determined to have their parts played in German as well.
Q: How was it working with writer Alexi Kaye Campbell?
SC: Alexi did a brilliant job with the story, we had to cram a whole century into the story and Alexi did a job that fulfilling that while making an accessible and entertaining film. He was a playwright very well known in the U.K. and had done a lot of work that spanned different time periods. He was brave enough to take on what is quite a dense and complex story and turn it into something hopefully accessible and entertaining.
Q: It must have been hard to get a script with this complicated premise and narrative strands in different time periods and places to come together?
SC: I would say it was very hard. We went through a lot of drafts over a lot of years. It worked as it usually does. We met. I’d give notes. He’d go away and do another draft.
Q: With shooting in three different countries, were there difficulties in raising the finances?
SC: It was expensive to make for that reason, but both the films we made were developed by BBC Films and when I cast the leading actress, Harvey [Weinstein] and the Weinstein Company became involved. So that really took care of it. This film meant a great deal to me personally, but it also meant a great deal to Harvey personally as well. He was incredibly supportive all the way through.
Q: As the story goes, you saw a BBC documentary on Maria Altmann and that led to you making this film. What was the fascination with her?
SC: I don’t know. I’m from a Jewish family myself, and that idea of leading on with your life but still honoring the past, and the idea of this couple, Helen and Ryan, taking on the campaign, taking on the whole government, it means a great deal to me.
I was so lucky with the casting of Helen and Ryan because they adore each other. They brought some humor and wit to the film that it needed.
Q: How did your own background influence your approach to this film? How did you approach the Jewish community in order to tackle this project?
SC: My family was in Britain before the Holocaust, so I don’t have any Holocaust stories in my family, but I obviously identify with that family and community in Vienna, that powerful, happy community that was, literally, destroyed overnight, so that meant a great deal to me.
I suppose there are certainly women in my family who remind me of Maria or the other way around. I feel connected to my family’s past but don’t know too much about it. I was very struck when I read about it that Maria’s wedding was the last big Jewish social event before the Nazis arrived in Vienna. I felt that was very powerful, that sense of this mighty family and that its days were numbered.
Q: What did you discuss with Helen about the psychology of being her character being a survivor?
SC: Obviously neither of us met Maria, because she died before we started making the film, but there’s a lot on video tape and at the Holocaust Museum she is interviewed talking about it as part of that documentary Steven Spielberg made (Shoah). But also, like a lot of people that have been through something horrific, they don’t talk about it all the time. We tried to get that ambivalence. In the film she’s sometimes very keen to pursue the case and sometimes she’s keen to let it go. We wanted to get that real sort of inconsistency which would be psychologically true to that experience.
Q: Was that prickly personality we see in the movie at all in the videos?
SC: Not so much, but Randy Schoenberg, who was an advisor on the film [and grandson of the famed Austrian Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg who escaped the Nazis], knew her pretty well and it clearly was her modus operandi.
Q: What influence did you had on the visual style of the film?
SC: I was very lucky with my Director of Photography, Ross Emery, and we talked about it a lot because the film was in three time zones, but we caught the golden period that Klimt is painting in, the past in 1938, which is dark and desaturated, and the modern journey for Helen and Ryan to California and back; we wanted each to have a slightly different pallet.
Q: What were the challenges in finding the right place with the right look?
SC: More of the interiors were shot in London and none of the film is shot in London, so that’s quite a challenge. Vienna is like a dream place to film, they were very welcoming to us. It was phenomenal to be on the actual streets, it’s a very beautiful city. We filmed them on the steps of the actual art institute where Hitler was rejected, so it all has great meaning. Then we did a week in Los Angeles, and I wanted it to be non-showbiz LA, which I think we pulled off.
Q: How was it working with Oscar-wiining composer Hans Zimmer?
SC: Zimmer and [co-composer Martin] Phipps had never worked together before, but they’re geniuses. They identified with this story. We didn’t want it to be a sappy score, we wanted it to sound like a thriller to drive the film on. It was a great honor for me to work with Hans Zimmer.
Q: You have a unique relationship with one of the actresses in this film, Elizabeth McGovern given that she’s your wife. Were there hesitations in casting her in this film — she plays Judge Florence-Marie Cooper — or did you think that would keep the budget down?
SC: It was actually very problematic, because she’s in a show called Downton Abbey, and we had to make the schedule work for both. She’s the daughter of a law professor in LA, playing a judge in LA, where she’s from, so I can’t think of anyone in the world better to cast.
Q: Did you have a conversation with Helen about the fact that she’s married to a director — award winning Taylor Hackford — and you’re married to an actress?
SC: We did, actually, and we agreed that a director and an actress working together while married is a wonderful and difficult thing.
Q: It must have its daunting moments.
SC: Sometimes it’s great, and sometimes it’s unpredictable.
Q: Does Elizabeth ever give you advice? Or do you give her advice?
SC: Well you can’t go home and slag off your leading lady and she can’t go home and slag off her director. Well, she can, but I rather she didn’t.
Q: And do you have a favorite painting by Klimt?
SC: I have to say, The Woman in Gold, since we’ve [all] been looking at it for so long.
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