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A Visit With Israeli Director Eran Kolirin

Eran Kolirin is the director and writer of The Band's Visit, a fable about the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra's star-crossed visit to Israel to perform at an Arab Cultural Center.

Kolirin's debut feature swept Israel's Ophir Awards and had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. It was also Israel's official entry for the Best Foreign-Language Oscar—until it wasn't.

Film Festival Traveler catches up with Kolirin and finds out why getting lost can sometimes be a find.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
EK: The inspiration came from an image I had of the commander and also from Journey to Israel, a book by Ali Salem, an Egypt playwright who came to Israel and wrote about his experience.
Q: Did such an Egyptian band ever visit Israel?
EK: No. The one official cultural exchange was in 1981: the national Egyptian dance group.
Q: How does The Band's Visit connect with your early experience of watching Egyptian movies on Israeli TV?
EK: For me it's a nostalgic thing, it connects with a personal nostalgia and also with a nostalgia for a more naïve Israel, at least in the eyes of the child that I might have been back then. Egyptian movies were the soap operas of my childhood, like the old Hollywood cinema of big love and big gestures--bigger than life.
Q: Common human foibles unite the Arabs and Israelis in your film. Are you saying something about the path to peace?
EK: No, I didn't finely tune myself in that way. I didn't think about those mistakes as something that unites Arab and Israelis, just as I didn't write from any starting point that they were different and needed to find a path that connects the two. Small or big human mistakes are the basic things for any human drama; it's not interesting if they don't have those mistakes. It's what instinctively draws me to even architecture or scenery, if there's a mistake in the place.
Q: From your opening disclaimer that the band's visit "was not that important," to Dina's remark that there is "no culture" in her town, to the characters' small moments of self restraint, you strike a modest note that lets us envision breakthroughs on a higher level. Talk about how the film aims high by aiming low.
EK: I wanted this kind of tension running throughout the movie as something very high and very low. So a character might sit in a shwarma or shiskabab restaurant but would speak about a poem or art, in the same way that there'd be a contradiction between something stupid and reciting an old Sufi poem in the roller disco. The idea was to bring those elements together in every frame so the simple tones of the film would exist and give something which is high. Eitan Green, a screenwriting mentor I had a lot of conversations with, said you should write simple and aim for the complex.
Q: The band has long managed on its own, and proud band leader Tewfiq is loathe to call for help. Are there other institutions that you're alluding to here?
EK: No, I was writing from my own self. A very simple man that I am I would never ask for directions, and would never be the one to stop the car and admit I'm lost. It's about getting lost and about something that could happen once you're off your formal self and off your road and your usual expectations. This mistake was essential for the flowers to grow.
Q: Do I detect a note of fatalism?
EK: I wrote this because of hopes and dreams, and part of it is this hoping that you could go wrong and find a better way by choosing the small road and not the big road. But I cannot say that by making a mistake you will find the right path.
Q: Language—and an error in interpretation--launches the characters on a path to closer mutual understanding. Is the fussed-over language of diplomacy unequal to the task of peacemaking?
EK: I would say that the emotional side of things is also important, when the conversation becomes feelings and not a conversation of commerce, as in: How much do we give, get and put in? It may be that what is very obvious is getting lost from the language of diplomacy and commercial conversation.
A lot of people in Israel are frustrated by the peace process. They want to meet people from the other side, but it's considered a weakness. There's this constant pressure to ask, What can we get for ourselves out of an agreement?  It's more like a divorce agreement than a marriage agreement. The film explores the feeling of wanting to connect with the region to people you don't know and are apart from, of having a yearning for peace and also of being a part of what can make it happen. The question of how and why are important but they don't stand alone. In recent years I have the feeling it's become more about the negotiation. Something is lacking from this conversation. It seems (the emotional) element is forgotten.
Q: From Simon's unfinished concerto to singing Summertime around the table to Khaled's us of Chet Baker to flirt, how does music serve as a means of communication in your film?
EK: All the characters have a deep emotion deep inside of them they cannot express, something they cannot call in its name. Each could have had another life, but they cannot go back and take another turn in the road. They are all living inside of themselves, but are unable to express this feeling. In the film when they get to this point of being unable to express this feeling, this is where the music comes in for me. Silence also takes it, or hand gestures take it.
Q: Itzik advises Simon not to reach for grand themes in his concerto but to stay with realistic nuances, as in the room where his child sleeps. Who else can benefit from this advice?
EK: This was about myself. I had trouble finishing this script. For me it was a kind of a self-reflexive thing, and I could only finish it when it wasn't from the perspective of the great concerto. It's about letting go. This also reflects a lot of questions about the concept of finding a final solution, including in the relationship between nations. It's all in the here and now and not necessarily in the grand finale--not trying to solve all the problems in one stable solution.
Q: One of the funniest scenes is Ronit Elkabetz's Dina splitting open a blood red watermelon with the aggression of a fighter and independence of a man but with the sultry sex appeal of a self-possessed woman. What are these Egyptians thinking while watching their Israeli hostess rip open this watermelon?
EK: How would I know? I just told her to open the watermelon and let them look. These are men observing a woman.
Q: Personal storytelling, and not political reporting, is a hallmark of Israeli cinema in recent years. (Instead of discussing politics, your Arab and Israeli characters chat about their personal lives.) Is there such a thing as the Israeli New Wave, and if so, how does The Band's Visit complement the trend?
EK: I don't know if I can draw a line and say there's a New Wave in Israeli cinema. You cannot draw a line of aesthetic approach. For me the movie is a political movie, and it's only in the way that it deals with the political question that is different. First and foremost I set out to write characters that have their own lives and personal pains and personal truths and hopes, and these things come before the political agenda. It's also a realistic approach since for me, since what moves me first when I meet someone is the personal and not the political. I feel uncomfortable when I feel expected from the world to treat characters in the films just as a political idea and not as a human being first and foremost. Politics is in the background, but first a character has his mother, his family, his job. Politics is important but it's not the first thing that drives you.
Q: Dina's empathy and warmth thaws band leader Tewfiq's rigidities so he is able to accept her hospitality. What compelled you to explore this basic act of kindness?
EK: Hospitality, like getting lost, is going to disappear from the face of the earth. With all those GPS devices out there no one will get lost, people will always get to their hotels. This world is changing. In writing this script I was asked how come she takes them in? In a more dramatic script or a more classic Hollywood script, something would prevent her from bringing them in. But it didn't fit for me. I thought she'd take a very simple human decision on the spot. It worked, you believe it, because of the woman she is. Because of her character she was able to make a very simple decision of: Why not? I think there 's a kind of genetics in the very basic idea when you start writing a script, and it doesn't work when you try to force a formula. If you listen to the script enough you see it's her truth. This was in the grain of the script and I couldn't change it even if I wanted to. It's about following what it dictates for you, you cannot dictate to it. In this case it was the more gentle and simple approach. Let's take them in.
Q: Khaled's pointers to the shy and romantically inexperienced Papi at the roller disco brought welcome comic relief. Tell us about your use of comedy in this bittersweet drama.
EK: I'm not the kind of man who'd only talk with wine in his hand and talk dogma. I would also say something with a smile. It's an instinct for me. I never tried to put a joke inside. I just tried to make a situation accurate according to a certain tone of the movie. Sometimes the situation has something basically funny, with a kind of awkwardness or tension, but I never thought, "This would be funny."
Q: Has the film been shown in an Arab country?
EK: No, it hasn't. It was invited to the Abu Dabi film festival, but was disinvited at the last moment. Why exactly I don't know. The papers said it was coming from political pressures in the Arab world.
Q: Do you believe your film's Oscar yanking was politically motivated?
EK: I don't know if it was political. More it was a big establishment that has their own strange rules and they apply these rules without a lot of interpretation but rather cause they're big.
Q: Did you ever think to cast Egyptian actors?
EK: In the beginning I wanted to cast Egyptian actors, but in the early stages it was clear I could not. Sasson Gabai, the Israeli actor who plays Tewfiq, comes from Iraqi family and knew Iraqi Arabic. We had lots of translators, including a dialogue coach from Alexandria, who worked with the Palestinian and Israeli cast.
Q: What can you tell us about Pathways to the Desert, your next film?
EK: Nothing yet!

Movies Without Accents: MIAAC Film Festival Director L. Somi Roy

In Today’s Special, a food comedy co-written by Aasif Mandvi, The Daily Show funnyman plays an aspiring chef who gets the American girl by mastering Indian cuisine. He cooked up the right festival. Opening the 9th Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council Film Festival (MIAACFF), Mandvi’s saga joined with other selections from India and the Diaspora that mix East and West.

MIAACFF 09 featured five days of premiere screenings and Q&A, industry panels and networking parties attended by filmmakers, talent and suits. From opening night’s red carpet and gala held on November 11th to closing night’s awards ceremony which took place on the 15th, the media had Mira Nair, Shabana Azmi, Rahul Bose, Sarita Choudhury, Deepti Naval, Madhur Jaffrey, Sharmila Tagore, Shyam Benegal, Kalyan Roy and other Bollywood and independent Indian stars to keep their bulbs constantly flashing. 

As for one of the brightest names on the marquee -- The Mahindra Group -- the $6.3 billion company behind the festival is a leading manufacturer of multi-utility vehicles and IT services, to name two of its market sectors. Also powering New York’s annual Indian film bash is the Indo-American Arts Council, founded by Executive Director Aroon Shivdasani to advance Indian and cross-cultural art forms in North America.

Last year’s festival served up British director Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, which went on to win eight Oscars and whet Western appetites for South Asian cinema at a time of growing Indian power in Hollywood and beyond. MIAACFF's 2009 run reaped the windfall. Not only did its 44 fiction features, documentaries and shorts premiere to packed New York houses, but its FILMINDIA seminars kept football fans away from the Iowa vs Ohio State competition for the Big Ten championship.

The films that took the 2009 MIAAC Award were:

Best Short Film Award: Good Night by Geetika Narang
Best Documentary Film Award: The Salt Stories by Lalit Vachani
Best Actor Award: Aasif Mandvi for Today’s Special
Best Actress Award: Tannishtha Chatterjee for Bombay Summer
Best Screenplay Award: Two Paise for Sunshine, Four Annas for Rain, by Deepti Naval
Best Director Award: Joseph Mathew-Varghese for Bombay Summer
Best Film Award: Bombay Summer, by Joseph Mathew-Varghese

Distinguished programming encompassed a Kashmir sidebar, MIAAC @ NYU panels ranging from Queer Bollywood to The State of the Indian Screenplay and a student competition presented by Cell Phone Cinema Professor Karl Bardosh.

Film Festival Traveler caught up with MIAAC Festival director L. Somi Roy for a briefing.   

Q: What does this year’s festival say about current trends in Indian filmmaking?

SR: It has no accent. In the past you had a lot of immigrant filmmakers, but now we have an Indian-American cinema that sounds homegrown. The filmmakers in their 20s and early 30s were born here. Their parents came as engineers and doctors, under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. It was a big brain drain, much to the chagrin of their own parents, who grieved, “Is that why we gave them an education, for them to leave?”

Now the American-born children of those professionals are coming into maturity and occupying important roles in society and culture. They’re starting companies and making movies. And many of them have a sense of their culture and heritage. So was that such a brain drain after all?

Q: So now a generation later they’re coming back to the fold.

SR: Yes, and they’re speaking as Americans, with a new interpretation of what it means to be a global Indian. This is what our festival is ultimately about.

Q: How does that translate onscreen?

SR: There’s a sense of pioneership. For instance, one young filmmaker is coming to the Indian school of filmmaking through Snoop Dogg.

Q: If it’s possible to generalize from a cinema as varied as Hindi, Bengali, Tamil and other regional strands, how would you describe the basic vocabulary of Indian cinema?

SR: It tends to telescope content with a certain poetry and lyricism -- and emotiveness. We have a certain amount of idioms of genre, like the song and dance sequences associated with Bollywood.

Q: Will Indian song and dance cross over like, say salsa?

SR: What makes a billion people plus respond at some visceral level? Now Indian film still seems alien to us, but this will change. Just as Hong Kong martial arts cinema entered the American film language – think The Matrix – so too American film language will be Indianized. But Bollywood is too localized. It’s just one quarter of the Indian film industry, and most years it’s not even the largest segment. What we’ll see more and more is that narrative conventions are going to cross over, and cultural myths are going to be incorporated into the film idiom. We’ve already seen this historically.

Q: What’s an example?

SR: It took an Indian filmmaker to make a song-and-dance sequence a strategic device to advance a plot. The great Tamil Nadu filmmaker S.S. Vasan was the first guy to use song and dance for the purpose of story. Until Chandralkha, which he did in 1948, musicals were just song and dance sequences. What Indian song and dance did was to make the Busby Berkeley sequence serve a narrative function. That was the beginning of the crossover of cinematic language.

Q: What’s the magic formula for Indian productions targeting US distribution?

SR: The short answer is, I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows. I put together the FILMINDIA industry panels because I wanted to know, myself. So I rounded up people from different backgrounds: talent agents, tax advisors, media executives, accounting professionals from KMPG and people with legal backgrounds. The whole purpose of doing these panels was that it’s a space we need to provide for. Those were the first panels of their kind.

Q: In wooing American audiences, should Indian films embrace the spectacle and melodrama they’re broadly associated with, or adopt a more Western aesthetic and narrative?

SR: The second panel of the day was called Success Stories and Changing Formulas, but the whole conversation that led to that particular panel was something I was talking about with (William Morris/Endeavor agents) David Taghioff and Suchir Batra for a long time.

When I first started speaking to William Morris, in October 2008, we hadn’t yet premiered Slumdog Millionaire. That happened November 8th [2008]. Flash forward to January, when Warner Bros released Chandni Chowk to China. It was obviously a film that had been produced before the success of Slumdog. It became old formula by the time it hit the screen. What Slumdog proved was the opposite approach.

Sony, Fox and Disney had all opened studios in Bombay, and the basic strategy was to produce films using Indian producers to capture part of the Indian market. They weren’t making films to capture the global market. But by the time Chandni opened you could make a subtitled film with Indian content that could capture a big global market. So now the whole mantra for Indian producers and everyone is, we got to think all this afresh.

Q: What are the caveats?

SR: Just because it’s of a particular genre doesn’t mean it will be good. It’s not enough to plug in a formula.

Q: So you’d agree with New York writer/director Sri Rao, who advised aspiring filmmakers in the FILMINDIA audience to create stories they’re passionate about and not get bogged down in stylistics?

SR: Sri is right. Look at Slumdog Millionaire and The Darjeeling Limited. No one would consider Darjeeling an Indian film in the way that Slumdog is. I was in India in January 2009, and everyone was saying, “How come it took British Danny Boyle to make a great Indian film?”

The emotional placement is with the Indian character. You worry, you’re scared for, you exult with an Indian character. That’s what makes an Indian film, not three spoiled middle class characters rambling though the Indian landscape. Darjeeling took pomo to a new level. No one was sympathetic, just snide and distancing and snarky. People didn’t relate to that. So just having an Indian landscape doesn’t make it identifiably Indian.

Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge has the conventions of Bollywood written all over it. Or take Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers, by Russ Meyer. It’s an action-exploitation film with large-breasted women, but it’s Bollywood in spirit in the sense that the melodrama is overstated, very situational and plot driven and less motivational.  

Q: Are you a fan of Bollywood cinema?

SR: Now it’s become a guilty pleasure, an addiction. Even someone like me, a Tibeto-Burman from Manipur on the Burmese border, can follow a Hindi film – or what you would call Hindi film, even though it’s not Hindi, but rather Hindustan, which is a mixture of Hindi and Urdu. The reach has to be as wide as possible. So the plot lines are fairly recognizable, the story is predictable, the music provides the emotional anchoring and the dance provides the joy and visual pleasure of watching a popular Hindi film.

What makes it popular is precisely the fulfillment of expectations. The villain who is twirling his mustache is about to rape the hero’s sister, and at that moment you hear the musical cue and you know the villain is going to come barging through the door. But the catharsis is in the deliverance of that fright, and that fright comes just when you want it. You crawl into each other’s arms, and that’s when you enjoy it. It’s not that different from a slasher movie. The telephone rings; you know that the murderer is behind her. That’s not unique to Indian film, but to popular entertainment.

Q: So is outsized drama, perhaps more than song and dance, the secret to Bollywood’s success with mainstream U.S. viewers?

SR: A friend of mine from Kentucky said he wept uncontrollably with his roommate watching a Bollywood film on television. When I asked him which one, he said, “Oh, I don’t know, we just wept and wept.”

Maybe the future appeal of the popular Indian film might in the three-hanky film, the melodrama. Bollywood will not have the action virtuosity of the Hong Kong film, but in terms of emotional placement – you know, the woman who decides to throw herself in the lake so that she can be reunited with her lover who has been forbidden to her in this life -- we enjoy that moment.

Q: To paraphrase James Carville, “It’s the emotion, stupid.”

SR: I don’t want to make fun of it and simply say that an emotional response is all a popular film is about. We just showed Well Done Abba. (Director) Shyam Benegal uses song and dance conventions, but in his own way, because he’s a film artist and not just a hack. The female character has a fantasy of a boy and a girl flying over her village -- it’s ridiculous! -- and the second song sequence is of a woman in the back of a truck. Both sequences have the familiarity of the genre, but it has been interpreted by an artist. It was wonderfully received.

Q: So the kinetics stay.

SR: One of India's leading film critics, Chidananda Das Gupta, says the importance of song and dance routines is that they give a place for your eyes and ears to rest. So Hindi cinema’s contribution to Western culture may be in its use of song and dance to grab the viewer emotionally, like Alan Jay Lerner put song and dance into My Fair Lady.

Q: Looking ahead to the next three-to-five years, what are your goals for MIAAC?

SR: When I first came to MIAAC last year, I came with a few stated objectives. One of them was to expand beyond a Desi audience to a more mainstream audience. MIAAC speaks to both a New York/U.S. audience and to an Indian audience. I want the festival to represent what the two cultures are going to be three-to-five years from now.

This is where programming comes in. If we are able to frame and present Indian cinema with the kind of characters and conventions we have, we should be able to shape people’s perceptions. But not by putting Bollywood films together with Satyajit Ray. It’s not just about presenting the best of the culture.

The films will reflect their own culture and politics and history and nation. High art by definition can travel across cultures very easily. It’s the culture that has your own clothes that’s more of a challenge.


Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council Film Festi
Nov. 11th
- 15th, 2009

The Indo-American Arts Council
517 East 87th St, Suite 1B
New York, NY 10128
Phone: 212 594 3685
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Opening Night Screening:
Paris Theatre
4West 58th St., New York 10019

Opening Night Gala Benefit Screening & Dinner
Metropolitan Club
1East 60th Street

General Screenings
The Quad Cinema
34 West 13th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues

Closing Night
Walter Reade Theatre

Lincoln Center
165 W 65th St.

Actor Woody Harrelson Delivers The Messenger

While actor Woody Harrelson has been characterized as a stoner, he's been no slacker lately, having worked hard on three movies that came out this November virtually back to back -- films that might help get him beyond his past. From starring in the hit television show Cheers to a film like White Men Can't Jump, Harrelson created such iconic characters that he's had a hard time escaping from them. No matter how well he immerses himself into characters unlike himself, he has struggled to get audiences to see past those cynosures with which he saddled himself.

Through his gonzo character Tallahassee, Harrelson helped propel Zombieland on to be an unexpectedly huge commericial success. The mega-feature 2012 is a sci-fi blockbuster (having been created by blockbuster director Roland Emmerich), and though Harrelson only provides a supporting role, his character plays a crucial part in moving the story forward.

But it's with The Messenger , that Harrelson tests himself and shines. The 48-year-old former Ohioan plays Captain Tony Stone, a hard-assed soldier who has chosen to deliver death notifications to the families of soldiers killed in Iraq. When it debuted at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival early this year, it garnered Oscar buzz even then. That only amplified its powerful message, that we can best understand the sacrifices being made by our troops by seeing it through the eyes of those who have been most affected -- the families of fallen.

Q: These three movies coming out deal with death in one way or another. Did you notice that commonality and what do you think about that?

WH: I hadn't really thought about that commonality until now. I guess that's kind of true. [Zombieland] is not really dealing with death as much as just it's post-apocalyptic and the end is nigh for everybody. I hadn't really thought about that, no.

Q: The end of the world is a death in a way.

WH: Yeah, that's true.

Q: When you deal with films that deal with death, how does that make you think about it, talk about it or accept it?

WH: Well, the most confrontation that I've had with death is when people told me about close people to me passing and it's one of those things, of course I guess that we've all had where it's an impossible task. The person can just deliver the news and get out of the way.

There's nothing more horrible than losing someone you love. Even losing yourself is not as big a deal as losing someone that you love. In the context of this movie, it was really intense because, thanks to Oren [Moverman, the director] as well as Ben [Foster, his young co-star who is his fellow notification officer] -- they really helped make the whole scenario seem real.

It was very emotional for me. [While] I was playing Captain Tony Stone I had to be stoic, but in reality, as soon as they'd say cut, I'd just start bawling. I was so moved by those experiences.

Q: So what sold you on the idea of doing it?

WH: I thought it was one of the more beautiful scripts I'd ever read; really powerful, full of emotion and humor. It was one of those things after meeting with Oren where I thought, "Well this guy is a sharp customer." He was so prepared and just on top of everything. I thought he could make a good movie here, but I didn't expect him to knock it out of the park the way he did. I love it.

Q: You talked to some of the soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital and to a Notification Officer; was it hard talk to them or ask questions about their experiences?

WH: With every person I've met that's done notification--which is quite a number now because there's people I've met since who have seen [the movie] and not just the people I talked to before -- there's no real way to describe it. You're walking in and breaking someone's heart; there are certain protocols that they obviously have in the Army and in the rest of the military, but I don't think there's any easy way to do it.

In this case, they just say, "The Secretary of the Army regrets to inform bop, bop, bop." For all of those guys, it's the hardest job in the Army. Even people in combat or the people I'd met at Walter Reed who've lost their leg, arm or whatever, when I tell them what the movie is about, they go, "Oh, God. I'd much rather go back into combat than do that." Nobody wants that job.

Q: In the context of a million Iraqis who have been killed based on an invasion that was based on lies about weapons of mass destruction, what do you feel about the film? And did you know that there are now more soldiers from there that are killed by suicide than by combat?

WH: I hadn't heard that statistic. Well, my feeling for quite a while was always more concerned with the victims of war. I was getting images because I wasn't just going to the standard press and so I was getting images from the first day of the Bush War II.

I saw all kinds of horrifying images, of children, that nobody in the United States was seeing unless they really went kind of a different route, but people in Europe were seeing them, I think. So I have a great deal of sympathy for them and always thought of the war as the biggest cost being for them. Perhaps that's appropriate.

So It's appropriate to be anti-war or pro-peace, especially when wars are being fought for resources and land. But the big missing piece to my whole philosophy or understanding was to find out what's going on with the soldiers, so having spent time with these soldiers and hearing their stories was really a great thing for me because it really made me start to care for them. Before I had always just lumped them with the war at large.

Now I do support the troops and think that a part of supporting them is not getting behind the concept of having to send them into harm's way for resources, for oil, etc. But I didn't know about that last thing, the suicides. That really makes me sad.

Q: In a way, your character had to set himself aside to deliver the notifications; is this a role where you put aside your beliefs or philosophies to play it?

WH: Definitely. With this film, I can never imagine being a soldier. I never would've have imagined it if I hadn't played this part. I never would've really gotten into the mindset of it and I don't do well with authority. There's a lot of reasons why I think I'd make a lousy soldier, but it's nice to try to fit your mindset into another framework.

I did this movie, Battle in Seattle. I didn't play a protestor, which would've been obvious I think, but I played a cop during the WTO [riot]. That was the backdrop of it, the whole WTO thing in Seattle. I find it intriguing to try and explore the thoughts and mindset of another [kind of] character.

Q: It must have been tough to imagine yourselves in these roles.

WH: There were two types of roles that I always felt I didn't know if I could play them, one being a cop, and the other being a soldier. There's something very interestingly complex about trying to take on a role of a guy who's hard core. The Army's his family, he's a lifer, he's just as gung ho as they get, longs to be in combat. So part of that was intriguing but challenging to a hippie peacenik from Hawaii. Well, I'm from Texas, but I live in Hawaii.

Q: How do you feel about a war movie that's not really a war movie where it has more emotional impact than an out-and-out war movie?

WH: I feel great about it. I think the response that we've had to this movie has been incredible. Also the response by soldiers has been amazing, particularly -- Oren might've told you -- the Vietnam vets who have responded. It's incredible. Tim O'Brien [author of the Vietnam War novel, Going After Cacciato has seen the movie], loved it and had a real emotional response. That's great.

I know that it's going to be a hard movie to sell because people don't want to go see something that at least, on the surface, is so depressing. But I do think that it's actually a very uplifting and hopeful movie in many ways. There's a lot of intense stuff in there but it's one of those things where if you're not prepared to feel something or get emotional then this is definitely not the movie to go see.

Q: What have been some of the reactions of the Vietnam vets?

WH: They really just felt connected, particularly with the notifications, to the families. It brought up a lot of stuff that had maybe been dormant for a while.

Q: Did you go out and see any of the war films along the way, particularly the late director Hal Ashby's films?

WH: I love Hal Ashby [director of such classics as Coming Home, The Last Detail, and Harold and Maude]. He's one of my favorite directors, but now, so is Oren. Actually, Oren and I are going to do another movie together, Rampart.

Q: Did you talk to Oren about his experiences as a soldier in the Israeli conflicts?

WH: I think his whole vantage point really helped our character development a lot. He's a guy who's actually been in war theaters, as they call them. I think he's one of the greatest directors I've worked with.

I keep referring to him as a young Hal Ashby and yet he's got his own vision. It's not like he's Hal Ashby but I think his vision, and the way he managed to create a film that is shot very uniquely, as with that nine-minute scene between Ben and Samantha Morton, it's just breathtaking that he was able to shoot this thing the way that he did. I think his own sensibilities coupled with his experience in Israel, or really in Lebanon, that really helped him a lot.

Q: Did that help you in prepare; didn't you only have a week to prepare for the film due to working on another movie, Bunraku, that you were shooting in Bucharest before this?

WH: Yeah. He really helped with that. I had asked him. I was coming in a few days before we started shooting and feeling really at sea and was actually scared to death that I was going to botch this thing. I asked him to give me the background of Tony Stone and he sent a couple of pages that were really helpful, stuff from his past. He also had me go to Bucharest with my Class A's and my fatigues.

So I'm walking around Bucharest in Army clothes, boots, people are looking at me like, "There's an actor who wishes he was in the Army." It was that and he sent me a book called The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien which also helped, and a couple of other books [as well].

So while I was there, even though I was working intently on this other thing, I was thinking, "Okay, there's something, a big focused thing that's coming up." I really wanted to focus early on and then once we got there he took us to Walter Reed and that was just an incredible experience because for me this whole thing has been a journey of the heart and an opening to what's going on with those soldiers.

Q: Has this film change your opinion in any way?

WH: There have been a number of people who've seen it who have talked about the fact that prior to seeing it, they looked at the war more statistically, more in terms of numbers and figures. Particularly in the United States, other than recently with the President, we tend not to really show the cost side of war. It's a good thing that it helps people look at the war that way and maybe have a discussion about it.

Q: What do you hope people will take away from this?

WH: Certainly their Coca-Cola cups and whatever they have in the theater; it's best not to litter.

Q: People are now talking about this as an Oscar-worthy role. How does that make you feel?

WH: I guess it's better that they talk about it than don't but I can't get all emotionally charged about it. I don't think there's any actor who wouldn't want that kind of thing. To me, I'm just happy that the film turned out great and I honestly mean I think I did an okay job.

I don't know that it's award worthy but I do think that Ben did an Oscar-worthy performance. I think his performance in this is so seeringly beautiful and so calculated and perfectly rendered, and I can tell that although I have seen others who've maybe done as good I've never seen anyone more fully commit to any part than him. He just completely immersed himself in the character.

Q: Would it change anything for you if you did win an Oscar because you've been nominated before?

WH: I'm always more interested in what kind of reaction I'll have when I lose. It's easy to be a winner [laughs].

Q: You seem to be making some interesting choices. Battle for Seattle was a great film; Zombieland was a big hit. Did you expect that?

WH: No. I didn't when we made it. I really thought that this was so swinging for the fences but the odds of it were just astronomical. But the first time I saw it was in Orange County with a huge audience, a thousand people and it was like going to a rock concert. It was incredible, the response. Then I thought, 'Yeah, this thing is going to do okay.'

Q: Will that happen with another genre film, Defendor?

WH: It was made for like $2.5 million but it turned out fantastic. The direction was really good but I don't think it's going to have that kind of [reaction]. I don't think it could play like that because it's not a comedy although there is comedy in it. This thing, Zombieland, was just a lot of laughs.

Q: How close is your wacky long-haired doomsaying character in 2012 to the real Woody Harrelson?

WH: I don't think the end of the world is nigh. I do think though, ecologically speaking from what I've gleaned over the last several years of looking into it, that we're pretty much right on target. But I still have hope. I'm kind of hopeful that we're going to survive as a species.

I guess it involves some kind of intense transformation that some people think might be a mental transformation but I'm almost certain that it's a transformation of the heart that needs to take place because it's really about starting to care more about each other and our plight if you will.

Q: More as a person, since you are both an actor and political activist.

WH: I think there are probably some similarities.

Q: Okay. Are you more like Tony Stone or Tallahassee? At least you're not hoping for a zombie plague [laughs].

WH: Well, we had eight years of that.

Q: What would happen if Tallahassee had to do notifications?

WH: Jeez. I don't want to speculate.

For more by Brad Balfour:


Defiant Danish Director Lars von Trier Tackles Antichrist

However you assess the New York Film Festival, now in its 47th year, it certainly doesn't shy away from controversial films or directors. As the festival entered its final weekend, there were still several fine and provocative films yet to see such as Claire Denis' White Material and Pedro Almodovar's Broken Embraces--the closing night film.

Topping the list of shockers shown this year was Lars Von Trier's Cannes Golden Palm nominated film, Antichrist. Released this October, the film shocks with a scene of deteriorating madwoman Charlotte Gainsbourg (She) performing a clitorectomy on herself--after bashing, then jacking off, her semi-conscious husband Willem Dafoe (He) who spews semen mixed with blood.

Viewed through the prism of the horror genre, this is a disturbing tale using some of the best horror film tropes. It makes  more than a plunge into the dark sexually charged region between guilt and insanity. Addressed through von Trier's unique vision, the film truly explores madness as it slides into the demonic realm of the possessed.

During his Cannes Film Festival press conference, the ever-provocative Danish director was asked to justify his movie as stirring the ire of a lot of confused journalists. Though he wasn't called on to do so this time, he did conduct an unusual press conference at his NYFF press screening--broadcast over a huge screen via a Skype connection--prompted some journos to offer some of strange, off-kilter questions.

Q: You're often called a provocateur as a director; are you upset if people don’t walk out of your films? I didn't notice anyone walk out today.

LvT: If there are not any walk-outs then I have failed [laughs].

Q: You said you were suffering from a serious depression when you made Antichrist. Did it affected your process in writing and shooting the film; how did it affected the end result?  Was it different this time from previous films?

LvT: It was different in the way that I am normally excited. Normally I’m extremely happy about my own abilities and talent and what I’m doing. But I felt almost maybe human, so I was not excited.

What it has done for the film... I tried to bring myself out of the depression but it hasn’t really worked. But I’m very happy to see all you people in New York; if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere [laughs].

Q: Where did you get the idea for the film?

LvT: I don’t really know where it came from. The idea was to make a horror film, which I know it was not really. I think I started with that. Normally, I know what to say, but I can’t tell you [this time].

Q: This seems to be the most cinematic movie you've made in a long time. Was that intentional? Were you trying to move away from the concept of dogme (a cinematic approach developed by von Trier to exploit the low-budget aspects of digital filmmaking) and away from artificiality of the staging you used in films like Dogville?

LvT: I feel the best when I do something that does not look too much like [something I did before]. I must say, I’m not completely happy with the film. I would have wanted more of a dogme link to the documentary past. I cannot work by way backwards.

Q: You said you wanted parts of the film to be more dogme-like in their aesthetic; if so, what parts were you referring to?

LvT: There was meant to be a bigger difference between normal action scenes and the more stylized stuff. There was to be a big difference between the fixed-camera and the handheld stuff.

Q: The sound design of Antichrist recalled a lot of David Lynch’s films, and the scene where she asks him to whip her reminded me of a similar scene in Blue Velvet. Did you take any inspiration from David Lynch?

LvT: I was very very taken by Twin Peaks, I thought that was a fantastic piece of whatever it was. [laughter] The feature films; I was very happy with Mulholland Drive, but the other feature films I haven’t seen. I’m a big fan so I think I have similar things. Maybe Lynch and I share a fetish.

Q: like Twin Peaks, the film is also set in the Pacific Northwest.

LvT: It is a very naïve idea we have when we shoot in Europe that it can only look like the state of Washington. It’s only because we seem to have a common interest in replicating that. When we did Dancer in the Dark it was done in a place that had a double gallery.

Q: Could you expand a bit on the biblical connections in the film--obviously, you refer to Satan, the Antichrist, and Eden.

LvT: If the film has anything to do, it has to do with that there is no God; that is how I see it. You have a conscience toward Eden, I know, and I’m sorry for that. Normally I would have gone through this quicker, taken all that shit, but I didn’t this time. I was relatively uncritical of the script, that means that all these things stayed.

I think the idea was that it came from her research [on women and possession]. But I’m sorry about the Eden stuff, it came up and I just let it be.

Then it’s very easy since it’s [about] a man and a woman and all that. I have not worked in a way where I was thinking [of] Eden; the reason why it’s called Eden, it was a place that was supposed to be very romantic.

Q: There is the question of the guilt of the Charlotte Gainsbourg character; did she felt guilty because she was a woman of pleasure, because in that scene where she and he are having sex, it goes back and forth between her seeing her child was falling, and yet she didn’t stop to do anything.  She didn’t do anything because the pleasure prevailed. Is that the way you saw it and her?

LvT: You say that she’s not really a mother. Then you should have seen my mother [laughs]. This is nothing compared to what I’ve been through. I don’t know. I think she’s struggling with some guilt from the sexual pleasure, but I believe that from society there has always been a lot of guilt from these things.

I don’t know if she saw him falling. Somehow I felt very much like her when I wrote it. She’s struggling with jealousy but she has a lot of pressure.

Q: Were we supposed to have sympathy for Willem Dafoe’s character? As her therapist we are supposed to trust him, but soon as he changes his wife’s medication, he deserves anything bad that happens to him after this point.

LvT: One of the ways you can write it is that you take your own personality, or your beliefs about your own personality [and put them] on the people in the film--on the characters. And yes, I understand him.

We had some lines in the film where he acts more sympathetically, and then he became extremely unsympathetic, and we had to cut them out otherwise it would have been a very one-sided film. So he ends up with a lot of violence and a lot of stupidity.

Q: What about the casting of Dafoe?

LvT: Dafoe is a very very good friend. While I was trying to cast this film, he sent an email and asked if I had anything for him. I said, “Yes, thank God, you suddenly showed up.” I’d worked with him before, and working with him as a director and a good friend, so that was a miracle.

Q: The film definitely was a horror film--or at least definitely has lots of horror influences. Did you have that clearly in mind, certain antecedents that influenced you in the process?

LvT: At a certain point in my confusion I started seeing Japanese horror films and liked them very much. But maybe I liked them not so much for the horror, but thought the cultural differences, it’s interesting to see images that are definitely not from the West. I like them very much.

And yes, I’m influenced of course by The Shining, also, Rosemary’s Baby, absolutely. And for me, “Carrie” was a very good film when I saw it.

Q: What are the basic elements that turn a horror film into a classic?

LvT: I think that Psycho is a classic not because it was scary, though I thought I was quite scary. But I don’t think it’s the scary things that I remember, I remember style.

The good things about horror films is they give you room for a lot of things; room for strange pictures or whatever. And I didn’t find The Shining very scary. As with all other films, it has to do with the personality that you feel in the film.

Q: You give the audience symbolic clues, but they are also clues as to what’s going to happen. When we piece them together, we feel smart about it. Do you do this consciously, when you are in the process of creating a script and/or editing the film? In addition to the role of being creator, do you put yourself in the role of being the audience for your own work.

LvT: I believe that I am the audience, but I am, as myself, a very stupid audience. I went to university to study film and we did a lot of new things, but that is definitely not the way I work. The cinematic impact, it comes from other sources, poetry, or just some strange kind of logic that is maybe only in my head. I do not think of the connections between water drops and acorns when I write it.

Q: Are there specific coping mechanisms that society uses that you would like to see stripped away for your audiences?

LvT: I don’t think I have an agenda like that. I do films very much for my own sake, and I don’t have any idea to reflect on society.

Q: You had some interesting researchers listed in the credits, including a researcher on misogyny. In the writing or making of this film did you learn something about misogyny in yourself, in your work and how to depicted in the film?

LvT: Well it has mostly to do with the things that the female character in the film was working with. Some of the quotations. She did a very good job; I didn’t do very much. I don’t know if I learned anything about if I hated women more. I like to be with women. I don’t think the film really has so much to do with, it could have been the other way around. I of course believe that women are as bad as men.

Q: Was Friedrich Nietzsche's The Anitchrist an influence?

LvT: I don’t know enough about Nietzsche. I had this Antichrist book lying on my table for 40 years and I hadn’t opened it yet, but the title I liked. I don’t want to say anything about Nietzsche.

Q: When did you decide to dedicate the film to the late Russian director Andrei Tarkofsky and why?

LvT: I must say, [that guy] has been very important to me. I discovered him while I was in film school. I have stolen so much from him over the years that in order not to be arrested I dedicated it to him [laughs]. I should have done it a long time ago, and it’s sincerely meant; I’m a very big fan.

Q: Will there ever be part three of your USA Trilogy?

LvT: About the American Trilogy [part one is Dogville; part two is Manderlay]; that’s the problem about trilogies, there has to be three of them [laughs]. I do not have the exact idea; when it comes I will make the film, if it is possible.

For more by Brad Balfour:


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