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Interviews

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.

Baz
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
val
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.
Web: www.iaac.us

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: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/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: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brad-balfour

 

Acclaimed Doc Director Robert Stone Reviews Our Earth Days

In light of the on-going ecological crises we seem to face daily, it was not only a massive task that veteran doc director Robert Stone tackled by making his latest film, Earth Days, but it was crucial for a movie like this to have come out this summer (it debuted as the closing night film for the 2009 Sundance Film Festival).

The film documents the history of environmental activism from its roots nearly four decades ago through the eyes of some of its key participants. To Stone, the modern ecological movement began with the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, and is moving on to a new and hopeful phase today. To illustrate such a globe-spanning movement, Stone chose to focus on a small set of its crucial players and thinkers.Employing interviews, a strong historical reference and beautiful scenes of Earth's natural riches, Stone draws on his own personal commitment to the subject to propel his film forward.

Stone's witnesses includes former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall; biologist Paul Ehrlich; Congressman Pete McCloskey; astronaut Rusty Schweickart; writer Paul Ehrlich and Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand, among others.

Q: Your film is at the center of all those films that covered the panorama of ecological issues; it looks at the roots of it all.

RS: A lot of what people are talking about are symptoms of a larger problem. What I tried to do is to step back and look at the root causes of it. All of what's going on now has a context and a back-story. If you just look at each of these little crises that these various films represent or book, it's almost like throwing paint at the wall. And what I'm trying to do is step back and put this all in context so you can understand what's going on now.

Q: It's almost like you're there at the core of it all and every other feature or story emanates out from here.

RS: Exactly. The root cause of all of it is that there's too many of us, and nobody talks about that anymore.

Q: How did you choose the specific people you focused on? There are a lot of others you could have used as well. Orville Schell is one who comes to mind but these people provide an interesting set of choices.

RS: A film dealing with a subject of this magnitude had to be grounded in personal narrative in order to work. So I wanted it to be personal stories that would carry the film forward. The fewer people you have the more personal the story's going to be. I thought nine people would be the maximum the film could carry.

There are three main characters in the film and the rest are sort of secondary. With each of them, their personal life stories mirror the journey of the film. You see them in their childhood and they undergo a personal change which mirrors the changes that happen in the society at large. Also, taken together they represent the different strands that came together to create the [environmental] movement. I wanted the film to be a personal story, not one where the subject dominated it and you just have this brief chorus going on, just interviewing experts. They're experts but it's also about their personal experiences.

Q: Were you conscious about environmental issues from an early age?

RS: My mom read [Rachel Carson's] Silent Spring to me when I was eight years old so that had a pretty profound effect on me. Then [the original] Earth Day absolutely was a big turning point. I grew up in a college town and was really exposed, even though I was a young kid, really exposed to the demonstrations against the war and the political activism. Though I wasn't really a part of it, I saw it.

When the environmental movement came along with Earth Day, it was like a children's crusade in some way--kids got involved and that was our revolution. Kids have a natural understanding about the environment and a fascination with nature in a way that grownups don't, I think. When you're a kid you're interested in animals and the world, so the environment is something that children immediately glom onto. I certainly did.

Q: You picked some of my cultural heroes; Stewart Brand has been here since The Whole Earth Catalog came out. It was like the internet on paper--"this is the coolest."

RS: It was. He ended up becoming a real pioneer of the internet, but that's been his whole thing from the beginning.


Q: Former Arizona Congressman and, later Secretary of the Interior Udall (under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson) was really fascinating. What was it about him and the others that you felt A) were really important to you, that focused you on them, and B) why did you think they'd still resonate to people now--for the historical context or because you want people to see the continuum culturally?

RS: Each of them plays a different role. Authors Paul Ehrlich and Dennis Meadows wrote two of the seminal books that had an enormous resonance in the culture and the whole debate. Though Rachel Carson's dead, she's in the film. Those three books: Silent Spring, The Population Bomb and Limits to Growth are the three seminal books, so those guys are in it.

Former astronaut [Russell Louis] "Rusty" Schweickart has an incredible story that's one of the great astronaut stories that's not been told. People know about the guys who landed on the moon but his is really remarkable. I'd met Rusty about 15 years ago and heard his story. I always was amazed by it and surprised that so few people knew about it.

Rusty's another example of why I chose my characters. He's a minor character in the film, but not only does he go up in space and have this amazing revelation, he comes back and puts it into practice and becomes the Commissioner of Energy for the State of California and does all these radical innovations with energy conservation. So all the characters reemerge throughout the film in different phases.

Q: I could talk to you all day about Stewart Brand. He is one of the most fascinating personalities in the world. The Whole Earth Catalog came out and changed everybody's thinking in this time when the movie starts.

RS: Yeah, that's one of my favorite people in the world. Stewart had a profound impact on me and the visual palate of the film. Originally, when I started delving into this and finding archival footage, the first thing we did was find news footage that covered the topics in the film. It became clear early on that that wasn't going to work visually for this film because a lot of what they're talking about is almost unfilmable.

The whole message Stewart's been putting forth for 40 or 50 years now is that technology can enhance our perception of the world and by enhancing our perception, is the only way we're going to get a grip on the problem. You have to understand the problem to perceive the problem before you can start to find solutions.

He's always been pro-technology when the rest of the movement was really anti-technology. He said, "Look, rockets can get us into space and that can allow us to view the world from above and get a new perspective on our place in the universe. Airplanes can lift us up in the sky. Stop-motion photography, you can look at a smokestack and it might seem rather benign; you speed it up 100 times and you see how awful that amount of pollution going into this tiny veneer of an atmosphere we have."

So we started using those simple visual techniques to not only visually depict what was being talked about, but also since so much of the film is about this change in perception that we had going from the '50s into the '70s, [it shows] a revolutionary change of perception about our relationship to the earth. So Stewart had a really profound impact on how the film actually ends up looking.

Q: You talk about pesticides, Carson and President Kennedy. How significant was the President in an environmental issue?

RS: It was hugely significant. Because she didn't have academic credentials, she was a scientist, a woman--a single woman--so at that time the pesticide industry went after her with a real concerted campaign to discredit her, calling her a hysterical woman, that she didn't know what she was talking about. They were trying to destroy the message by destroying the messenger.

Udall had given Kennedy a copy of Silent Spring. He read it and was very moved by it so he came out and publicly supported her and set up a scientific panel, a commission, to study what she had done. He ended up supporting her and backing all of her research. That really silenced the critics and it went on to become a huge international best seller. Carson and the book had a profound impact on starting the whole environmental movement.

Q: If it had been Al Gore instead of George Bush becoming President would there be a whole different perspective right now?

RS: It goes back to Reagan really. I don't think you can just blame Reagan as a person, it was a whole movement. Reagan was elected by an overwhelming majority of the American public; America adopted a very conservative ideology that was easy. It's very easy to say the magic hand of the marketplace is going to solve all of our problems because then you don't have to do anything.

Reagan basically said we can go back to a 1950s mentality and the marketplace will take care of things, and people bought into it. As Hunter Lovins says at the end of the film, "We lost 30 years. For 30 years there was absolutely no movement forward In fact there was movement backwards, and we're just now resetting the clock and getting back to where we were."

Q: Ironically, the marketplace has been the one area where there is some movement in that people are trying to come up with new technologies to try to get ahead. Even during that 30 year period.

RS: It wasn't a fair market; it wasn't a market, that's the thing. The free hand of the market actually will solve these problems if it's a real market. If when you buy a car, you're paying the full value of that car including the damage to the environment that went into making the car and all of the pollution that's going to come out of that car, that's the value of that car. If you pay that, if it's a real market, that will solve the problem. And that's where the environmental movement is going now.

Q: The irony is that if they had allowed proper market forces to allow for technological innovation, there would have been alternative energy sources years ago. But there's a sort of corporate totalitarianism; they're not free marketers; they're corporate socialists.

RS: That's absolutely true. That's addressed in the last part of the movie when Dennis Hayes talks about the solar entrepreneurs as being crushed by these giant corporations who wanted to control the power industry.

Q: Pete McCloskey was a sort of liberal to moderate Republican but I didn't realize he became a Democrat. It must have been fascinating to talk with him and see his cultural and personal evolution.

RS: It's not that he's changed, it's that the Republican Party just shifted so far to the right and completely abandoned all the principles of environmentalism that it founded. And he's not the only one, there are other people I interviewed that didn't make it into the film; I interviewed Russell Train who was Richard Nixon's environmental advisor and the second head of the EPA. He's a staunch Republican was a big supporter of George Bush Sr. and everything, but he voted for Obama and is just appalled by how the Republican Party has abandoned environmentalism.

He's like, "We started environmentalism, this was our cause." Talk about conservation, this is conservative. And this corporatism you mentioned, corporate socialism, is exactly what bothers them; that the Republican Party has just shifted into this craziness. Republican environmentalists have just abandoned the party in droves.

Q: It amazes me sometimes, how could a Republican think that environmentalism is bad? I don't get it. Did you figure it out?

RS: It got caught up in the culture wars, and the Left has some blame here as well in that what you saw happening in the '70s with that initial burst of legislative success coming out of Earth Day, is that these minor, marginal environmental organizations became huge, they moved to Washington, they became these giant Washington lobbying organizations doing battle with corporate lobbying organizations. And the American public outsourced their activism to these Washington groups and they lost because they were overwhelmed by bigger forces.

I see the same thing happening now, and that's a warning of the film. Right now, the current battle over climate change, all it is being debated by Washington lobbying organizations, and how much money can you put into The Left versus The Right? Who has got the most amount of money and the most clout?

As long as that's where the movement is going, it's a recipe for disaster. That's what happened in the 1970s. Right now you almost have a complete reversal of how things were then. In the early '70s, it was a grassroots movement, with the mass public demanding change on a political level. And in the late '70s, as it is today, it became more about scientists, environmental activists, and a segment of the political class who were leading the whole thing. But they'd lost the support of the mass public who didn't understand the problem.

I think you see the same thing today. So unless you get back to it being a grassroots movement, it will be like the recent climate change bill that passed by what, three votes in Congress? With Obama in power, and the Democrats in control of the House and Senate, everybody's talking about climate change, yet with everything that we know about it, it passed by only three votes? That's not good.

Q: We have the nuttiest strain of Republicans in power that we've ever had.

RS: That's true. The film addresses this moment in time where there was a big focus on the environmental movement about perceiving the larger problem. In the case in the environment, people can get their heads around the big issue, and it's not a Republican or a Democratic issue that we need to care for our planet and that we're all in the same boat here. That's a big picture thing; when you start to get into arguing about the minutiae and the details about how we get from point A to point B it becomes politically divisive. So I would hope the environmental movement could get back to focusing on the big picture and not the minutiae.

Q: Many politicians prefer to tackle other issues because they usually resolve those issues in a short time. In order to get elected you have to solve a certain issue. Do you think that's part of the problem?

RS: Yeah, they're not going to tackle long term issues unless they're forced to do so because there's no political advantage to tackling long term issues. So again, as long as it's a battle of lobbyists in Washington it's going to be a losing battle for environmentalists. And I think the lesson of that is clear by what happened in the late '70s.

Q: Do you think that movies like yours and these other ones will help on a grassroots level? Because they don't make the larger political issues, they give it a more personal connection.

RS: I hope so. I don't think anybody can say that documentaries don't make a difference anymore. An Inconvenient Truth undoubtedly made a difference. Some films do and some films don't. My film is designed to reach as wide an audience as possible and not be a polemic. It's an effort to put this whole thing into a larger context, so for anybody who wants to really understand the environmental movement now, [they have] to understand how we got here.

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