Blumhouse Television’s new Hulu series “Into the Dark” is providing an unique opportunity for genre directors to produce new work. The anthology horror series launched in October, with the plan to have a new entry released each month tied to a holiday. However, unlike other anthology series, each episode is actually feature-length, which means that Blumhouse is producing one new horror movie every month. October’s Halloween-centric “The Body” allowed director Paul Fisher to expand on his short film of the same name, while cult genre filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo’s Christmas-centric “Pooka!” premiered today to rave reviews.
The next entry in the series, IndieWire has learned, comes from a filmmaker familiar from the festival circuit: Sophia Takal, the director of “Green” and “Always Shine,” helmed the all-female horror movie “New Year New You” for the series. The 85-minute feature will premiere on Hulu on December 28.
The all-female cast includes “Assassination Nation” and “The Bad Batch” star Suki Waterhouse, in addition to Carly Chaikin (“Mr. Robot”), Kirby Howell-Baptiste (“Killing Eve”), and Melissa Bergland (“Winners & Losers”). The plot centers on a group of old high school friends who reunite in a house for New Year’s Eve, where they’re forced to confront traumas from their past.
Takal said she was approached by Blumhouse about the project in the early summer, with a script by Adam Gaines that she revised, and shot the project in 15 days between July and August. That’s a concise shooting schedule, even on microbudgets. “It was a really, really fast process,” she said. “I had a great crew around me. Even though it was chaotic, we didn’t feel like we lost anything.” While the tight schedule had more in common with the television production process, it provided Takal with the opportunity to step outside the safety zone of directing projects that she originated.
“This was my first time working as a director-for-hire,” she said. “I was nervous I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to the project, but they trusted me.”
Takal’s previous features have followed the traditional route of arriving on the festival circuit and searching for distribution. “Green,” in which Takal starred opposite her husband Lawrence Michael Levine, premiered at SXSW in 2011; “Always Shine,” a tense thriller starring Mackenzie Davis and Catlin FitzGerald as old friends whose years of resentment come to a head during a vacation, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016. It opened in New York that fall.
While “New Year New You” won’t be released in theaters, the Hulu arrangement means that Takal’s movie will be available for a national audience a matter of months after wrapping production. “It’s been great to make a movie and know it’s going to premiere,” Takal said. “You don’t have to wait an entire year for it to go to festivals and then get released.”
Takal’s prior movies have been layered psychological thrillers about women whose envy and resentment for each build to suspenseful showdowns. “New Year New You” hails from that same tradition. “It’s in the vein of hysterical women horror movies,” Takal said, “but it’s really a satirical takedown of the loathsome internet culture of today.” Among the updates that Takal added to the script was the decision to make one of the characters a “social media health and wellness coach.” She described the plot as centering on “a crazy, scary, murderous New Year’s night,” and was keen on the timing of the release. “It’s fun that over the holidays, if someone’s sitting at home visiting their high school friends, they can watch this,” she said. “I think so far this is the most accessible movie I’ve made.”
Takal did receive notes from Blumhouse and Hulu during the editing process, but they found that part of the process more constructive than what she had dreaded. “It was my first time working with producers other than my friends,” she said. “I’d assumed, as a female director, people would undermine me and no one would trust me, but everyone was really supportive. Their notes are so helpful. They’re not annoying executive notes.”
Ironically, Takal was attached to the project months before Blumhouse Jason Blum faced immediate backlash for his comments in an interview where he addressed the company’s failure to hire women directors for any of its horror projects. “We’ve always been trying,” Blum said. “There are not a lot of female directors period, and even less who are inclined to do horror.” He later apologized for the remarks.
Blumhouse announced plans to produce a thriller from “Mudbound” director Dee Rees earlier this year, but a source close to the project said it was still in the writing stage, which means that Takal’s movie is the first Blumhouse original directed by a woman coming to market. When Takal noticed the Blum comments in October, she said, they ran counter to her own experience with the company. “It just didn’t seem like how they really feel,” she said. “They’ve been so supportive of me and have been so assertive about talking to a lot of different directors. To me, they’re great for women.”
Following the typically resourceful Blumhouse model, Takal shot the entire movie in a single house — a beachfront abode in Santa Monica previously occupied by Cary Grant. The company introduced her to cinematographer Lyn Moncrief, but also allowed her to bring her “Always Shine” composer Michael Montes. “I definitely riffed on movies from the seventies, and referenced a lot of scary movies from then with the cinematography and editing,” Takal said. “I felt like it was a great way to get my feet wet in the world of directing other people’s ideas.”
The Golden Globes are not the Oscars, but an Oscar contender who scores big at the Globes certainly doesn’t hurt from the extra attention. The 2019 Golden Globes nominees are no exception. “A Star is Born” was a contender from the moment it hit the festival circuit, and its Globes attention further confirms its ongoing popularity. But what about “Vice” — a movie that has yet to be reviewed, and seems likely to divide critics and audiences? And where do these nominations leave blatant snubs, like “Cold War” and “First Reformed”? Meanwhile, do “Green Book” and “BlacKkKlansman” have similar momentum? In this week’s episode of Screen Talk, Eric Kohn and Anne Thompson discuss a number of major Globes categories and whether or not they’ll have any impact in the weeks ahead.
NOTE: This week’s episode was recorded before Kevin Hart stepped down from hosting the 2019 Academy Awards.
You can subscribe here or via RSS. Share your feedback with Thompson and Kohn on Twitter or sound off in the comments. Browse previous installments here, review the show on and be sure to let us know if you’d like to hear the hosts address specific issues in upcoming editions of Screen Talk. Check out the rest of IndieWire’s podcasts on iTunes right here.
After the release of “Boyhood,” IFC Films co-president Jonathan Sehring reached a turning point. He agreed to finance Richard Linklater’s ambitious 12-year filmmaking project in 2002, just two years after he began overseeing the independent film production label at AMC Networks. With “Boyhood” completed in 2014 and nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars the next year, Sehring began to consider a new chapter.
“I couldn’t figure out what to do that could surpass that,” Sehring said. “‘Boyhood’ was the pinnacle.” On November 28, it was announced that Sehring would depart IFC after 18 years — and a career that included more four decades at the parent company, where he also helped launch the Independent Film Channel in 1994.
Sehring’s legacy features many key moments for independent film in the 21st century. Under his guidance, the company pivoted from production to distribution; pioneered a day-and-date VOD release strategy that saved the business; and launched the popular IFC Center in the West Village, which continues to thrive. IFC also fostered audiences for a range of international filmmakers, seeded the industry with many influential executives, and a built a library with more than 1,000 titles.
“The people who worked here are some of the best people in the industry,” Sehring said. “IFC is in a great place. I’m really excited to see what it does.”
Sehring shared his plans with an inner circle months in advance. This included AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan as well as Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Olivier Assayas, and Cinetic Marketing head Ryan Werner, a former IFC colleague. The timeline was unclear, and with the company’s 20th anniversary around the corner, Sehring had started to talk to Sapan about plans for that landmark occasion in 2020. “I hope it still goes on,” Sehring said.
Sehring began contemplating the prospects of distribution after the company produced Kimberly Peirce’s landmark drama “Boys Don’t Cry,” which sold to Fox Searchlight after its Sundance premiere. “We were thrilled, we got paid a lot of money, but all the credit for the film went to Fox,” Sehring said. “They did a great job distributing it, but the people who made it didn’t get any credit.”
The next year, the company brought a handful of in-house productions to Sundance, including the early Kerry Washington vehicle “Our Song,” none of which landed distribution. “We were sitting on a few great films,” Sehring said. “It was great films not selling that made us do this.”
“Boys Don’t Cry”
As the distribution arm took shape with future Amazon Studios marketing director Bob Berney in charge, IFC continued to produce new work. In 2001, the company took Mira Nair’s “Monsoon Wedding” to the Venice Film Festival, where it sold to USA Films, but IFC acquired Alfonso Cuaron’s “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” which went on to gross over $33 million worldwide in theaters.
But the real shift took place in 2002, when IFC released “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” a $5 million rom-com set within the insular Greek-American community that went on to gross $368.7 million worldwide. “We saw that a movie, that didn’t cost a lot to make or promote, could capture the audience,” Sehring said. “That movie opened everyone’s eyes about what you could do with an independent film.”
IFC went on to acquire new work from major filmmakers, from A-list auteurs to rising stars: Assayas, Abbas Kiarostami, Miranda July, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Gaspar Noé, and Todd Solondz are just a few of the directors with multiple titles released by IFC. He was also keen on some of the genre efforts supported by the IFC Midnight label, including “The Babadook” and “The Human Centipede,” both of which became small-scale cultural phenomenons.
Sehring noted that IFC released the first features from both African-American directors whose later films won Best Picture (Barry Jenkins’ “Medicine for Melancholy” and Steve McQueen’s “Hunger”). He also estimated that IFC released 100-125 films directed by women — but then he backtracked, recalling an experience in the early ’80s when, as a Bravo executive, he organized a week-long women’s film festival. “We did the TCAs and I got reprimanded by every woman on that panel,” he said. “They said, ‘We’re filmmakers, not just a gender. It was a real learning moment for me as a twentysomething guy. I was an idiot back then.”
In 2006, the company needed a new model. Studio specialty divisions, such as Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent, were making it harder for IFC to compete. “It was at a point where we were considering either closing up shop or doing something different,” Sehring said.
So the company launched Festival Direct, one of the first VOD platforms to make recent festival hits available to Cablevision subscribers. Sehring credited Cablevision CEO James Dolan for kicking off the idea. “Jim wanted more activity, and newer movies, on his VOD platform,” Sehring said. “Between that and looking at how expensive it got to release independent films at that time, that’s why we came up with that model.”
The IFC Center
Ken Loach’s “It’s a Free World…” was among the first Festival Direct titles. The approach later benefited many independent filmmakers whose work would otherwise struggle to find an audience in a traditional release, such as Joe Swanberg, whose “Alexander the Last” premiered at SXSW and IFC VOD simultaneously in 2009. Long before Netflix and other SVOD giants entered the fray, IFC began experimenting with theatrical windows. Today it still alternates between traditional platform and day-and-day releases, depending on the titles.
“It was always frustrating, when I was growing up, to read about movies playing in New York City that I couldn’t see,” Sehring said. “This was a combination of the technology changing and trying to get the financial model of indie films back to a place that makes sense.” A dozen years later, Sehring said VOD contributes to a large portion of the company’s profits, but remained elusive about specific figures. “I’m not really sure who that benefits,” he said.
In 2008, a trio of specialty divisions closed up shop — Vantage, Warner Independent, and Picturehouse, run by IFC veteran Berney — while IFC held on. “A lot of those divisions are gone for all the right reasons, because the economics didn’t make sense,” Sehring said. “At the end of the day, it’s a business. If you’re going to take the art part of the business, which is really independent film, you still have to apply business rules to it, and you’ve got to make money.”
Sehring watched as the independent film world adjusted to the VOD space. He recalled how Killer Films producer Christine Vachon pushed back on the model. “Initially, she hated the idea,” he said, “and then she had her baby, and said, ‘We couldn’t out on a Saturday night, but it was so great to turn on VOD and not have to travel across town.”
Ironically, IFC’s ambitions in the VOD space coincided with the launch of the IFC Center, which continues to thrive under the management of senior VP John Vanco. “Brick-and-mortar is not going away,” Sehring said. “The IFC Center is the hub of everything we do.” The theater doesn’t exclusively house IFC titles, but provides a key launchpad for certain releases, especially day-and-date ones in need of extra visibility. “It’s an expensive to take a movie to market,” Sehring said. “Movies are ultimately a communal experience — and if you can’t have that, there are other options.”
He took a shot at Netflix for relying on its algorithm to promote the vast library of titles while only singling out a handful of A-list work for awards attention. “Ted [Sarandos] said we embraced the day-and-date strategy and they took it a further step,” Sehring said. “I think they missed their ability to give a profile to every film. It’s great they can do that with Alfonso Cuaron, Ava DuVernay, and the Coens, but there are a lot of movies Ted says you can discover, and there’s probably a better model there.”
He hinted at the possibility that IFC was exploring new opportunities for curation in the VOD space, but declined to go into specifics. “You’re asking me to reveal our company’s secrets?” he said, and laughed. “I can’t do that.” Sehring insisted that IFC remained a profitable entity. “It is financially successful,” he said. “I can say that with a huge smile on my face. We’ve been profitable for six or seven years, including overhead, allocations, everything.”
“The House that Jack Built”
As Sehring winds down to his last day December 31, he leaves the company in a relatively strong year. While IFC hasn’t been a heavyhitting acquisition entity in recent years, its 2018 has plenty of highlights. These include box office hit “The Death of Stalin,” Paul Dano’s directorial debut “Wildlife,” which the company acquired out of Sundance, and the country music biopic “Blaze,” directed by Ethan Hawke. Most recently, IFC generated headlines for clashing with the MPAA over its release strategy for Lars von Trier’s “The House That Jack Built.”
Still, the company’s future remains a question mark. Sehring’s co-president, Lisa Schwartz, was elevated to the role in 2006 from a business development position. Schwartz has been known to clash with staffers over the years, and has not been widely accepted into the broader independent film community. Longtime acquisitions director Arianna Bocco is reportedly well positioned to take on Sehring’s role, but no successor has been named as co-president.
Sehring said he was staying out of those conversations. He had no immediate future plans, except to spend time with his wife in England, where they recently bought a home. He will not attend Sundance next month. “I like to tell people that they just trotted me out for photo opps, and that’s it,” he said. “The people who love cinema are still here. I don’t see any change happening. I think IFC Films and the IFC Center is just getting bigger.”
Reflecting on the big picture, he considered the defining factor that allowed IFC to survive under his watch. “I love the whole independent film world,” he said. “It really for me as much about the people I’ve worked with as the films. People do it for the love of the art and cinema, not for money.”
As an art form that tends to reflect the anxieties of its times, the movies were practically invented for 2018. While 2017 was a queasy moment in the wake of the 2016 election, much of the year’s highlights were produced prior to that jarring cultural shift; in 2018, cinema became a vessel for a society in the grips of its worst identity crisis in modern history. The best movies interrogated a world at odds with itself, grappling with moral quandaries and personal values, while channeling these struggles into bracing works of art. Consciously or not, this popular art form provided intimate alternatives to the explosive intensity of national headlines. Questions of identity, behavior, and personal responsibility became a central motif.
This is what movies do best, on their own terms: bursts of ideas and experiences that reflect or refract the moment of their conception. They often do this in exciting ways liberated by the expansive possibilities of the medium, which remains freer and more pliable than television so long as it’s produced outside the clutches of risk-averse Hollywood. Of course, it would be crass and short-sighted to discount studio product entirely this year; by its own standards, there was plenty to celebrate, from the progressive allegorical sophistication of “Black Panther” to the sharp, innovative techniques of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” Yet the most original and satisfying project produced by a studio was dumped by it — Alex Garland’s twisty sci-fi thriller “Annihilation” — and celebrating some moderate uptick in quality commercial product is a bit like clapping for a baby taking its first step. Progress is progress, but at the end of the day, the baby’s still just a slobbering infant.
Fortunately, there’s a lot more to celebrate about the medium as it pertains to the 2018 release calendar. Time and again, this mantra bears repeating: Anyone who thinks this was a bad year for the movies simply hasn’t seen enough of them. Each time out, this list gets a bit longer, as the year in question provides a handy excuse to extend the limitations by one entry. (Last year’s 17 best movies of 2017 would have been a struggle this time around.) And yet it still doesn’t feel long enough. This critic has been writing top 10 lists and variations thereof for over a decade, and this one was the trickiest to date.
No matter how much the industry is changing, as television continues to fight for dominance in the media landscape and theatrical exhibition faces an eager firing squad of home viewers, movies continue to deliver thrilling new ways of seeing the world. Here are the highlights that give me hope.
18. “Paddington 2”
Believe the hype: Critics wouldn’t go gah-gah for a live-action/CGI-animated film about a talking bear and the British family who loves him unless it was really something special. The “Godfather: Part II” of the “Paddington” franchise delivers a delightful window into a resilient attitude in dark times. Poor Paddington, unjustly tossed behind bars on trumped-up charges, manages to galvanize his prison mates and chart a path forward. Director Paul King’s rich visual palette transforms the storybook quality of Paddington’s misadventures into the unexpectedly delightful synthesis of Wes Anderson and Tim Burton, but this candy-colored odyssey takes most of its cues from Paddington himself, whose adorable features provide the ideal vessel for his innocent attitude. For once, CGI provides an emotional foundation for a story — this fantastical being epitomizes the good-natured outlook that the world desperately needs. It’s the best superhero movie of the year.
17. “Vox Lux”
Natalie Portman, “Vox Lux”
Brady Corbet’s riveting pop fever dream chronicles the rise of a celebrity singer through multiple eras, from pre-9/11 teen stardom to the bitter monstrosity she becomes later in life. Corbet’s sophisticated narrative begins with a jarring tragedy, as Celeste (portrayed in these early scenes by the extraordinary Raffey Cassidy) contends with her newfound status as a famous survivor and faces the corruptive powers of industry eager to gobble her up. The movie then shifts to years later, as Celeste has exploded into adulthood — and she becomes Natalie Portman, fierce and resentful, equal parts “Woman Under the Influence” and “Black Swan.” The actress’ best performance in ages is a wondrous meta gambit that syncs with Corbet’s other wry narrative devices, including the brilliant decision to cast Cassidy in a second role as Celeste’s daughter, and a fascinating climactic dance sequence driven by the propulsive attitude of original Sia compositions and Portman’s dance moves. Her exuberant gyrations have a whole lot more to say about the outrageous cultural forces fueling modern stardom than anything in “A Star Is Born.”
16. “We the Animals”
“We the Animals”
The surface plot of “We the Animals” is as simple as they come, and it’s not the source of its lyrical power (the same could be said about the Justin Torres novel that provided its inspiration). Above all else, director Jeremiah Zagar portrays the experiences of an adolescent boy coming to terms with his dysfunctional family and his emerging sexuality as a swirling cyclone of nostalgia, brutal arguments, and bittersweet pontifications. As Jonah, newcomer Evan Rosado exudes the confusing emotions of a child growing into his otherness, apart from the family unit that surrounds him. Each moment contributes to his developing perceptions of the world — telling glances and a ruminative voiceover transforms the movie into a poetic variation on the coming-of-age formula less fixated on exposition than the haunting beauty of growing up.
15. “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
Melissa McCarthy has shown the potential for a role that deepens her screen presence for some time, but her brash, rambunctious performances have been restricted to broad comedies that usually fall short of exploring what such a character might be like under more realistic circumstances. At long last, she’s landed the right opportunity with “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”, director Marielle Heller’s charmingly melancholic comedy about real-life writer-turned-criminal Lee Israel, who forged some 400 letters by dead celebrities and pawned them off until the FBI caught up with her scheme. A lonely, infuriated New York woman prone to turn her luck around no matter the cost, Israel provides the ideal template for McCarthy to project her talents onto a more sophisticated plane, and — complemented by a top-notch Richard E. Grant as Israel’s partner-in-crime — she rises to the occasion.
At first, “Border” is the story of an ostracized woman named Tina (Eva Melander), who works at a remote Swedish port where she sniffs out contraband, and long ago accepted that she was ostracized because of her unusual appearance. But this is not your average ugly duckling story. As the movie charts a path to her burgeoning self-confidence, it arrives at a sex scene so unexpected and ludicrous it instantly transforms the movie into a dark fairy tale. Iranian-born director Ali Abbasi’s sophomore effort (following 2016’s “Shelley”), co-written by the author of the Swedish vampire novel “Let the Right One In,” builds out such an unusual premise that it risks devolving into quirky inanity, but Abbasi grounds the narrative in an emotional foundation even as it flies off the rails. As it does, “Border” becomes a complex, gender-bending examination of identity politics with Melander’s spellbinding performance at its center. This unusual, unpredictable love story is one of the year’s great conversation-starters.
13. “Support the Girls”
“Support the Girls”
Burn Later Productions/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
Regina Hall is astonishing in Andrew Bujalski’s touching look at an earnest woman who manages a sleazy Texas breastauraunt where many things go wrong over the course of a single hectic day. Bujalski’s typically subdued, character-based storytelling takes on a new volume of warmth and sensitivity with this striking examination of surviving difficult times through unbridled empathy. That might sound cheesy in some circumstances, but Bujalski’s such a wizard when it comes to scripting authentic dialogue that “Support the Girls” may as well be a documentary. Hall’s manager juggles each new challenge with a steely resolve that makes her one of Bujalski’s greatest characters, the indefatigable creation of a filmmaker who excels at exploring the nuances of human behavior.
Even before Nicolas Cage does a line of coke off a shard of broken glass in “Mandy,” the movie has entered batshit insane territory. Panos Cosmatos’ followup to his wacky debut “Beyond the Black Rainbow” is another stunning dose of psychedelia and derangement, this one folded into the constraints of a woodsy revenge thriller, but that’s mainly an excuse for Cage to unleash his most psychotic extremes. Cosmatos gives him plenty of opportunities in this hypnotic midnight movie, which veers from astonishing, expressionistic exchanges to gory mayhem without an iota of compromise. For years, Cage has swung wildly in search of gonzo material; at long last, he’s found a movie willing to match his intentions. And yet “Mandy” is more than simply a vehicle for Cage’s seething screen presence; it communes with the fragility underneath all that rage by transforming it into a vehicle for genuine grief.
Viola Davis in “Widows”
A visual artist whose movies have dealt with starvation, sex addiction, and slavery, Steve McQueen has never been considered a safe commercial bet. That just makes “Widows,” his bracing, moody heist thriller about women who finish the robbery their husbands started, all the more satisfying: McQueen has made a first-rate genre exercise — led by a defiant Viola Davis in one of her very best roles — that doubles as a treatise on race and gender, juggling dramatic payoff with heavier themes. “Widows” embraces its trashy, melodramatic twists while deepening their potential. If all escapism looked like this, America would get smart again.
Right after Thanksgiving, as awards season gains traction and top 10 lists start being posted everywhere, the Sundance lineup arrives to provide a sneak peak of what’s around the corner for next year. The 2019 program is one of the most ambitious yet: The slate of 112 features just announced from 152 countries contains a range of promising new work, much of which was surveyed in IndieWire’s Sundance wish list. While there are plenty of familiar names in the program, however, this year’s Sundance already looks markedly different from previous editions, in large part due to the way fewer big titles pop out as the obvious sources of hype. Instead, there’s a cohesiveness to a program bursting with potentially compelling new work that reflects a fresh sensibility overall.
That’s a testament to new programming director Kim Yutani, a Sundance veteran who replaced longtime programmer Trevor Groth earlier this year. While Groth excelled at luring some of the festival’s biggest breakouts over the years, Yutani has drawn on her experience at niche festivals like Outfest to look for opportunities to give the festival a cohesive vision.
While festival programmers are often forced to invent talking points to explain their disparate programming decisions, Sundance 2019 actually has several unifying ingredients. Yutani used her background as a shorts programmer to track many talented filmmakers poised to make a big impact with their features this year, from Pippa Bianco (with the disturbing teen thriller “Share”) to Lulu Wang (“The Farewell”). “So many of my relationships with short filmmakers have been instrumental in leading up to this moment,” Yutani said.
“Kim has proven an understanding of taking a refined approach to festival curation as opposed to movie by movie, what plays for audiences,” said festival director John Cooper, who oversees the final selection. Yutani added a few new members to the programming staff, which achieved gender parity this year, and described her experience programming the 2019 festival as the result of many experiences she has gleaned over the years focusing on various sections of the festival, including LGBT and short films. That allowed her to consider the big picture in piecemeal. “It’s been an adjustment to step into this role, but also exciting,” she said. “Now is the time when everything falls into place.”
Here’s a look at some of the biggest takeaways from the lineup released so far, with some input from Yutani and Cooper.
World Cinema Steps Up
Sundance has spent the last several years trying to build up the reputation of its world cinema competitions, despite being so closely associated with American independent film. Sales agents have been wary about premiering international titles at the festival, as opposed to more globally-oriented festivals like Berlin and Cannes, but the current world cinema competition is its most promising one since the festival launched international sections over a decade ago. “We got every single film we wanted,” said Yutani, who drew on her experiences traveling to international co-production markets to draw in notable international films, several of which also surface in the Premieres section. “We’re very tuned into the notion of representing the world we live in, and not just with the American gaze on it,” said Cooper. “To have bigger conversations about that you have to have international cinema.”
Notable foreign titles at Sundance this year include the Colombian feature “Monos,” director Alejandro Landes’ look at a hostage situation gone wrong, which includes a score by “Jackie” composer Micah Levi. From Brazil, Gabriel Mascaro — whose expressionistic rodeo drama “Neon Bull” was a festival breakout two years ago — returns with “Divine Love,” which explores a religious woman who helps couples avoid divorce while struggling with her own marriage. Then there’s British filmmaker Joanna Hogg (“Exhibition”), who has been appreciated in her own country for ages for her innovative deadpan character studies but has yet to break out in North America. That may change with “The Souvenir,” the first of a two-part feature project starring Tilda Swinton and her daughter, Honor Swinton Byrne in an intense drama about a film student in a relationship with an enigmatic man. “I feel like Sundance is such a great place for her to be exposed to a wider audience,” Yutani said.
However, Yutani was even more psyched to single out “We Are Little Zombies,” which she viewed on a trip to Tokyo earlier this year. The story of siblings who deal with the unexpected death of their parents by forming a rock band, the movie draws on writer-director Makoto Nagahisa’s short film, “And So We Put the Goldfish in the Pool,” which won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize in 2017. After seeing the new movie, “we just felt like there was no way we aren’t showing this,” Yutani said. She and Cooper were also keen on U.K. selection “The Last Tree,” which revolves around a British teen of Nigerian descent forced to contend with a sudden lifestyle change in London. “I thought it was going to be a certain kind of movie by the first third and then it switched and then it switched again,” Cooper said. “There are films that I’m dreading to watch and then I love when they totally engage me and turn me around.”
Underrepresented Stories Take Center Stage
Sundance has been a haven for African-American filmmakers long before the cries for industry diversification reached a fever pitch, with everyone from Ryan Coogler to Lee Daniels unleashing prize-winning titles in Park City. The current lineup has plenty of promise on that front. Cooper and Yutani said the very first film they accepted for 2019’s program was “Luce,” the latest feature from Julius Onah, tackling very different material than his last film “The Cloverfield Paradox,” which premiered on Netflix out of nowhere earlier this year. Onah’s promising new work stars Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as a couple who adopt a teenage son from Eritrea whose future is compromised when new information about his past comes to light. “It’s exploring that grey area of what people choose to believe,” said Yutani. “We were so intrigued by it.”
Joining Onah in the U.S. Competition, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” suggests a spiritual sequel to Barry Jenkins’ “Medicine for Melancholy,” with another Bay Area tale of an African-American man contending with the gentrified landscape of the city. Produced by “Moonlight” supporters Plan B and A24, writer-director Joe Talbot’s debut is likely to be a major breakout at the festival. “There’s a freshness to the filmmaking in this that’s exciting,” said Cooper. “It’s really about the American dream.”
The programmers didn’t skimp on Asian-American stories, either. One of the most intriguing of these is “The Farewell,” the debut of Chinese-American director Lulu Wang, which stars “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Ocean’s 8” scene-stealer Awkwafina as a woman who travels back to her native China to visit her ailing grandmother. The charismatic rapper is ripe for a complex vehicle to take advantage of her screen presence and every indication about this production suggests she’s found it. “This is such a personal story, based on the director’s own family, and you can feel that in the texture of the film,” Yutani said. (Awkwafina also surfaces in the cast of NEXT selection “Paradise Hills.”)
Actress Awkwafina attends the world premiere of “Ocean’s 8” at Alice Tully Hall, in New York
Another major entry on the Asian-American experience, “Ms. Purple” finds director Justin Chon graduating to competition after his beloved “Gook” was a discovery in the NEXT section two years ago. The story revolves around a karaoke hostess in L.A.’s Koreatown contending with a range of family issues. “I’ve never seen a film like this, and Justin in only the person who could’ve told it,” Yutani said. “There’s real authenticity in a lot of the films we chose this year.”
Women Dominate Competition
For the first time in history, Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic Competition is dominated by women, with 53% of the entries. “We didn’t track this quite as intensely as we do in the world we live in now,” Cooper said of previous editions. “We are always programming with parity and representation in mind. I think that the truth is that it was a pretty organic way we ended up here. We chose the ones that were moving, interesting, challenging for the competition.” Nevertheless, “when you’re fine-tuning the program, you really look at those numbers.” Promising entries from women directors this year include the aforementioned “The Farewell,” Pippa Bianco’s “Share,” and “To the Stars,” an Oklahoma-set period piece from Martha Stephens, whose “Land Ho!” was a NEXT breakout. But one female-directed competition entry will be generating a lot of attention right out of the gate…
Shia Gets Personal
…and its name is “Honey Boy.” Director Alma Har’el has been generating enthusiasm on the festival circuit for years, with innovative poetic documentaries like “Bombay Beach,” but she steps into narrative feature directing mode with another intriguing riff on real life: Shia LaBeouf’s personal story of the falling out and reconciliation he experienced with his father, with the actor playing his dad and Lucas Hedges playing LaBeouf at different points throughout the movie.
If it sounds like a meta gimmick, just wait: “It’s a very raw movie,” said Cooper. “There’s a truth to it that most people don’t do when telling their own stories. It’s very brave. I have so much respect for Shia for making this film.” Yutani added that Har’el — making her Sundance debut — has been on the festival’s radar for years. “Her vision is so complimentary to Shia’s story and the work that he’s expressing here,” she said. “This was one of these films that we unanimously loved.”
Documentaries Capture the Moment
Sundance remains a launchpad for some of the biggest non-fiction achievements of the year (summer breakouts “RBG” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” both launched in Park City. This year’s offerings are an especially timely bunch. Buzzy titles include Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s “American Factory,” which revolves around the efforts of a Chinese billionaire to employ Ohio factory workers in an old General Motors factory, and seems poised to cast a new light on blue-collar struggles. And as American journalism continues to struggle with the “fake news” dilemma, “Mike Wallace Is Here” promises to use the story of the iconic broadcaster to put honest reporting in the context it deserves — while “Jawline” will show how much the media landscape has changed. Liza Mandelup’s documentary focuses on 16-year-old Austyn Tester, who live-streams virtually every moment of life in rural Tennessee to an active fan base while dreaming of ways to escape his surroundings.
Of course, no documentary will generate more attention leading into Sundance 2019 than “Untouchable,” Ursula Macfarlane’s look at the rise and fall of Sundance regular Harvey Weinstein. As Weinstein’s trials continue to unfold, this portrait will help bring additional context to his crimes, and fuel debate about his actual impact on independent film at the very festival where his career took root.
An “Alien” at Midnight
However, the “fun” factor of this year’s nonfiction offerings sits outside of the festival’s documentary sections altogether. “MEMORY – The Origins of Alien” finds director Alexandre O. Phillipe returning to the midnight section, where “78/52” — his playful dissection of the shower sequence from “Psycho” — first took off. His new movie is a similarly-minded deep dive into a cinematic phenomenon: the origins of Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” the complex mythological roots of the story, as well as its long-term impact. “It just needed to play in midnight,” Cooper said. “It has all these fun clips of horror movies and people talking about gore.”
NEXT Breakouts As Usual
Sundance’s NEXT section has been its most exciting program in recent years, where it has delivered future successes ranging from “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” to last year’s “Searching.” NEXT is essentially a platform for offbeat or innovative storytelling that might not be quite the universal crowdpleaser that competition demands, but could find its footing as a discovery. This year’s lineup includes a few familiar names, but only to people who are really tracking outré American cinema. Alice Waddington’s debut “Paradise Hills,” about a woman who uncovers the dark secret of the high-class family she’s forced to live with, was written by Nacho Vigalondo the cult director of “Timecrimes” and “Colossal.” Then Daniel Scheinert, one half of the directing duo behind Sundance hit “Swiss Army Man,” returns to the festival with “The Death of Dick Long” — another unusual-sounding story about a dead guy, this time in small-town Alabama, and two men who try to cover it up.
But Sundance programmers are especially keen on making sure people see “Give Me Liberty,” the debut of writer-director Kiril Mikhanovsky. The movie revolves around a race-fueled riot in Milwaukee, where a medical transport driver attempts to help both an elderly Russian family attend a funeral and assist a young black woman with ALS. “This is the one that should be the breakout of the section,” said Cooper. “It’s one of those films that’s such a delight to see in our programming season. It’s a film that’s so authentic and you just don’t know what’s going to happen from scene to scene. We wanted to position it the right way so it doesn’t get lost.”
Movies Will Sell, and Buyers Will Be Hungry
Despite all the changes this year, Sundance is still a major marketplace, and buyers attend in the hopes of finding a good reason to open up their wallets. Whether heavyhitters like Netflix and Amazon decide to spend big or boutique outfits like A24 and Neon beef up their slates, they’ll have plenty of options. Cooper singled out “Blinded By the Light,” the latest from “Bend It Like Beckham” director Gurinder Chadha, as having real potential in the typically commercial Premieres section. The 1987-set movie deals with the cultural impact of Bruce Springsteen’s music on an angst-riddled teen. “It’s going to be a real crowdpleaser,” he said.
He was also keen on seeing the reaction to “Velvet Buzzsaw,” the latest from “Nightcrawler” director Dan Gilroy, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo in a satire of the L.A. art world. “It just spoke to me in some crazy way,” he said. “It’s hard to make a parody of the art world, because it’s such a parody of itself, but those actors make it such a fun romp, and it’s a horror movie on top of that.”
Every year, some faction of the film industry declares that the sky is falling, while another one shoots for the stratosphere. In 2018, Moviepass floundered and FilmStruck went kaput, but distributors continued to snatch up new titles on the festival circuit with some measure of success. From hot Sundance buys like “Sorry to Bother You” and “Searching” to late-in-the-year slate additions like “Vox Lux,” plenty of visionary storytelling that began the year without clear release plans found welcoming homes. Nevertheless, the sheer volume of new movies premiering at festivals throughout the year guarantees that plenty of highlights either slip through the cracks or scare off risk-adverse distributors.
To qualify for this list, a movie must have premiered within the calendar year, but not have secured any form of North American distribution, no matter how much it deserves otherwise. Memo to distributors: It’s not too late.
Oscar-winning director Orland von Einsiedel (“The White Helmets,” “Virunga”) has excelled at exploring international conflicts around the world, but this project has a far more intimate focus. The movie revolves around von Einsiedel and his family reeling from his brother’s suicide and hiking across the United Kingdom as they work through their collective devastation. Equal parts personal essay and group therapy session, “Evelyn” is also an effective window into exploring the reverberations of suicide and the capacity for a family to recover from immeasurable grief on a universal scale. —EK
Sales Contact: 30 West
9. “The Weekend”
Fresh off the success of her first studio film, the winning YA adaptation “Everything, Everything,” filmmaker Stella Meghie delivered another winner with this energetic and slim new rom-com. Bolstered by star Sasheer Zamata, who charms in a tricky role, Meghie’s amiable chamber piece ably balances prickly people and nutty situations to put a fresh spin on the genre. Zamata stars as Zadie, a fledgling stand-up comedian who dedicates most of her act to sharing mortifying details of her three-year-old breakout. Zadie is still not over it, and it’s easy to see why when we soon meet the object of her affection and obsession: long-time pal Bradford (Tone Bell), who is taking this “let’s stay friends” thing to wild new limits. Thanks to what amounts to a totally bonkers plan, Zadie, Bradford, and Bradford’s new lady Margo (DeWanda Wise) end up spending the weekend at Zadie’s own parents’ bed and breakfast, where their awkward peace is made even stranger by the arrival of lone guest Aubrey (Y’lan Noel). What unfolds isn’t predictable in the slightest, but funny, smart, and zippy as anything. As the rom-com genre stages a steady comeback (thanks to both studio offerings and a big push from Netflix), “The Weekend” offers a twist on the genre with a sparkly leading lady to match, an appealing package for any distributor eager to get back in the business of fun, flirty movies that appeal to everyone. —KE
Sales Contact: UTA/CAA
Argentine director Benjamin Naishtat has become one of Latin America’s most intriguing new voices. His first feature, “History of a Fear,” was an allegorical apocalyptic movie about the country’s deep-seated class issues; he followed that up with the equally suspenseful and strange “El Movimiento,” a black-and-white western that dealt with the nation’s history of oppression. “Rojo” is his most ambitious narrative to date, the ‘70s-set tale of a successful lawyer whose world begins to unravel after a testy exchange at a restaurant.
In the bizarre opening sequence, this awkward encounter takes a grim turn that involves one dead body and a couple forced to keep it a secret. But that’s just the starting point for the twisty noir to come, which also involves a shady real estate deal and one very nosy detective (the great Chilean actor Alfredo Castro) trying to make sense of it all. Not every loose end finds a clean resolution, but that’s sort of the point in this lush, at times dazzling period piece, as Naishtat chronicles a society steeped in obvious roads to corruption so often left unexplored. Though not to all tastes, it’s an impressive step up in scale for the director and the kind of movie that could help him uncover some new audiences intriguing by his enigmatic storytelling. —EK
Sales Contact: Luxbox
7. “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael”
Robert Garver’s portrait of Pauline Kael is the ideal introduction to the most significant American film critic of the 20th century, and long overdue. Years in the making, the movie provides a sweeping overview of Kael’s impact, how her riveting and often quite personal prose evoked both fervent admirers and terror among filmmakers in her crosshairs. The documentary balances testimonials from Kael’s peers with tributes from major directors such as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, guaranteeing that anyone curious about Kael’s impact on film criticism will get the full picture, and fans of her work will gain a whole new perspective on her legacy. —EK
Sales Contact: Cinetic
6. “Ray & Liz”
“Ray & Liz”
Rob Baker Ashton
For years, photographer and visual artist Richard Billingham’s work has derived an autobiographical depth from the quasi-gothic photographs of his parents, a dysfunctional pair who raised their son in ’60s-era British poverty. For his mesmerizing debut, Billingham translates that project into a cinematic tapestry of dark, emotional storytelling with a series of vignettes. The movie tracks Billingham’s alcoholic father (Patrick Romer) and foul-mouthed, chain-smoking mother (Deirdre Kelly) as they endure a series of hardships and poor choices that tear the family apart. Billingham’s movie becomes a fascinating collection of memories in moving image form, some more unsettling than others, all in service of a poetic look at what it means to grow up in squalor and spend a lifetime reeling from it. While at times disturbing, “Ray & Liz” is also frequently beautiful, proving that even difficult moments can take on a profound lyrical depth with time. —EK
Sales Contact: Luxbox
The last thing the world needs right now is another movie about a thirtysomething man whose existential crisis is solved by having sex with an 18-year-old girl, but leave it to the great Mia Hansen-Løve to mine grace, sensitivity, and tremendous nuance from such a nauseatingly familiar premise. An elliptical story of self-rediscovery and the strangers who can make it possible for us, “Maya” follows a withdrawn French war reporter named Gabriele (the handsome, bird-like Roman Kolinka) as he’s released from ISIS captivity, and retreats to his childhood home of Goa in order to center himself and rediscover his purpose. There in the coastal India state he meets the wide-eyed title character (first-time actor Aarshi Banerjee), and something instantly sparks between these two strangers — an adult who is retreating from the world, and a teenager who is just preparing to fling herself into it.
You can imagine what happens from there, but Hansen-Løve is less interested in the sexual element than she is in the context around it. The closer Maya and Gabriele come to each other, the more rootless they feel, and the more Goa reveals itself as a part of the world that’s unstuck in both time and tradition. There’s a stilted quality to this low-key love story, and not even the director’s cool mix of Indian and Euro pop soundtrack cues can settle it down into a comfortable groove. “Maya” is an off-kilter experience that never allows you to get settled, but it sinks deep under your skin because of how adamantly it refuses to get stuck in place. It may not be the best of Mia Hansen-Løve’s films, but it’s watchable and beguiling in a way that should delight audiences hungry for transportive international fare, or are champing at the bit for new work from the director of “Eden” and “Things to Come.” —DE
Sales Contact: Orange Studio
4. “American Dharma”
Errol Morris excels at interrogating morally complicated men, from Robert McNamara to Donald Rumsfeld, but he’s never ventured as far to the dark side as he does with “American Dharma.” Confronting Steve Bannon in a cold, empty room for the duration of this unsettling portrait, Morris presses the alt-right icon to justify the racist ideology behind the machinations that propelled Donald Trump to the White House.
Morris consolidates Bannon’s evolution from conservative media maverick to the architect of the Trump campaign into a slick overview. However, those details are less compelling than Morris’ tendencies to interrupt Bannon’s self-mythologizing in search of the truth. “American Dharma” delivers a suspenseful and upsetting showdown between one man confident of his cause and another mortified by it. At this divisive moment in the country’s history, it’s a welcome attempt to wrestle with alt-right lunacy and combat the extremist with a healthy dose of rational thought. Audiences may be wary about watching Steve Bannon talk for a feature-length period, but this movie may be the first real window into what it takes to talk back. —EK
Sales Contact: WME
3. “Happy New Year, Colin Burstead”
British director Ben Wheatley is known for twisty dark comedies enlivened by flourishes of violence, from the murdering couple of “Sightseers” to the slapstick feature-length shootout of “Free Fire.” With “Happy New Year, Colin Burstead,” Wheatley takes the mold of bumbling anti-heroes from his earlier works and positions them in a more familiar commercial context — a dysfunctional family gathering for the holidays. Structured around a busy New Year’s Eve party that goes wrong every which way, the movie evades specific twists in favor of hectic snapshots: The ever-reliable Neil Maskell (the conflicted murderer of Wheatley’s “Kill List”) stars as the eponymous Colin, who gathers multiple generations of his self-hating relatives to a posh castle for a seemingly well-intentioned reunion.
“Happy New Year, Colin Burstead”
Instead, various festering rivalries and resentments immediately burst to the surface, all unfolding with Wheatley’s trademark naturalistic dialogue. The result is an Altamanesque cringe comedy by way of “The Celebration,” with Colin alternately trying to bring the family together and tell everyone off while his siblings (some more estranged than others) and neurotic parents attempt to make sense of the whole affair. The movie combines a glorious anarchistic streak with the genuine pathos of a broken family desperately to heal its many wounds.
Ironically, while “Happy New Year, Colin Burstead” is at once Wheatley’s warmest, most accessible work and the hardest sell to U.S. audiences introduced to his work through the more wackier genres he used to smuggle in sophisticated narrative techniques. The new work is a richer network of character studies closer in approach to the textured storytelling of German auteur Maren Ade than anything Wheatley has done before. Broadcast on BBC and available in the U.K. on the network’s streaming service, the movie deserves to be seen beyond the insular British market as it shows just how much Wheatley has evolved as a filmmaker while retaining his own delightful voice. —EK
Sales Contact: Goalpost Film
2. “Amazing Grace”
Aretha Franklin hardly says a word in “Amazing Grace,” but she sings with an energy and conviction that has powerful resonance nearly 50 years later. As a record of the church music from Franklin’s youth, cascading off the walls of the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, “Amazing Grace” is soulful ear candy. But Franklin’s sweaty, impassioned delivery, which galvanizes her audiences with an electric charge, extends her awe-inspiring musical convictions beyond religious euphoria. It’s a rousing portrait of creativity as a unifying force.
Left unfinished for decades due to technical glitches, the lively concert documentary on Franklin’s landmark 1972 gospel recording provides the full picture of her largest commercial hit in real time. The project was abandoned shortly after the production by director Sydney Pollack; in recent years, it was completed and restored, but Franklin’s estate blocked multiple attempts to screen it on the festival circuit. It’s ironic that Franklin had to die for “Amazing Grace” to finally reach audiences, because it consolidates the essence of her legacy into 87 minutes of pure celebration.
Sales Contact: WME
1. “Black Mother”
Khalik Allah’s 2015 breakout “Field Niggas” was a dreamlike assemblage of impoverished Harlem faces, drifting through the after hours in slo-mo set to their philosophical lamentations. His latest feature, “Black Mother,” is a challenging and profound deep-dive into Jamaican identity that rewards repeat viewings and confirms the aesthetic of a visionary filmmaker. As with “Field Niggas,” Allah’s approach has the immersive qualities of installation art, even as he stuffs a preponderance of evocative visuals into some semblance of narrative structure.
Khalik Allah’s “Black Mother”
The three trimesters of a woman’s pregnancy provide a loose framing device as Allah careens through an 87-minute collage of Jamaican faces from multiple generations, as voiceovers share tidbits of history, racial struggles, and personal philosophies, fusing them together with spiritual fervor. There’s almost no music on the soundtrack, but the meandering testimonies take on a rhythm of their own — it’s oral history as art, and at a moment where filmmakers are clamoring for better representation onscreen, it’s a no-brainer that this dazzling cinematic poetry deserves an audience. —EK
Most first failures stop careers in their tracks, and many early successes lead to nothing for lack of financing. But there are success stories of another kind we rarely hear about. Journeys through back alleys and down long treacherous roads that lead to a sustainable career.
I am a producer specializing in micro-budget production. I first met writer-director Henry Barrial in 2000 when I was an executive at Next Wave Films. We were giving finishing funds to exceptional low-budget features, which included Chris Nolan’s “Following.”We invested in Henry’s feature film debut, “Some Body,” a $3,000 drama shot on Canon XL-1’s with a two-man crew and no script. When it was accepted into Dramatic Competition at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, we repped its sale to Lot 47 Films, which ultimately released it theatrically in over 15 cities. A remarkable result for an improvised no-budgeter made out of necessity, several years before anyone had coined the term “Mumblecore.”
That story usually goes: director comes out of nowhere, beats the odds by getting into Sundance, and then becomes a household name. But it didn’t work out that way for Henry. Lot 47 went belly up before they released the film on home video and all the original deliverables vanished like the company’s principals. Then the producers of Henry’s follow-up film, “True Love,” a Sundance Screenwriters Lab project, walked away in pre-production when they couldn’t raise the $2 million dollars to shoot it. That’s when I jumped in, now an independent producer, and pulled Henry back into micro-budget filmmaking, a place he never really wanted to return to, and certainly didn’t want to stay.
We shot “True Love” for $50,000 and it just missed getting into Sundance. Our next film, a sci-fi thriller that Henry wrote called “Pig,” was also meant for a seven-figure budget, but I convinced (coerced?) Henry into making it the only way I knew how, on a micro-budget with money we put up ourselves and also raised on this new thing called Kickstarter.
“Pig” ultimately played over 35 festivals and won 10 awards before getting a domestic deal with Kino Lorber. Henry had been attached to a script for many years written by the deceased filmmaker Joe Vasquez, and with the success of “Pig,” those producers decided they too could make “The House That Jack Built” on a micro-budget. I was asked to join as a producer when they got into post with absolutely no money. We again raised funds on Kickstarter and the film went on to premiere at the LA Film Festival, win eight awards, and get a small theatrical distribution.
With four reasonably successful features under his belt, Henry again tried to get his next project, a clever horror film called “Final Girl,” made on a “real” budget. For the better part of 2014, we waited for financing to come through, but watched it collapse time and time again. Neither of us could take on other film work, and with two kids at home and a wife working during the day, Henry was forced to do what a lot of middle-aged men were doing at the time: He started driving for Uber at night.
When Henry had “Some Body” at Sundance, one of his champions was a woman named Lynn Auerbach, who was Associate Director of the Feature Film Program at the Sundance Institute. “Some Body” was based on the actual life experiences of lead actress Stephanie Bennett, who co-wrote and co-produced the film with Henry. What drew Lynn to “Some Body” was its striking naturalism and authenticity. This was not a film that seemed designed; it felt lived in. Henry was adamant that no moments could feel false. Actual people in Stephanie’s life were cast to play themselves. Not a single line of dialogue was written. Stephanie was persuaded to leave nothing hidden or unsaid — everything that happened in her real life was up for analysis and laid bare (often literally) in the film.
Lynn once told Henry that to follow up “Some Body,” he should quit his job and become a bus driver for six months, and then write a film about a bus driver. She believed that the majesty of everyday life was worth portraying on screen. Without realizing it, Henry did just that with his most recent feature, “DriverX.” He didn’t drive a bus; he drove a Prius. Lynn wouldn’t live to see Henry’s “bus-driving film,” (she died in 2004), but I’m sure she would have been pleased with the direction Henry took in early 2015, when we decided to turn his late-night Uber experiences into our next movie, and yes, make it on a micro-budget. Henry, once again, was pulled back into the mud of no-budget filmmaking.
We literally willed this new film into being, helped by 0% credit card offers, 400 Kickstarter backers, a few overly-supportive friends and family members, and a very talented and selfless lead actor named Patrick Fabian, (“Better Call Saul” supporting player Howard Hamlin), who played our driver.
More about unmet life expectations than Rideshare driving, “DriverX” deals with a 50-something man’s existential crisis, after he is forced into a new employment environment. His crisis comes into clearer focus when he drives around millennials, the generation superseding him, who now expect people like him to take a figurative back seat.
The heart of “DriverX” comes from the same inspiration as Henry’s first feature — real life — though the two films are very different. Henry has steadily developed his craft over the last two decades. With new cameras and equipment and no-budget tricks, we were able to make an ambitious film (night driving scenes, numerous locations, over 50 speaking parts), on a paltry budget. But at its core, “DriverX” is Henry returning to what moved him in the late ‘90s, going back to that advice from Lynn Auerbach, confronting the reality of your life and putting it on screen.
Festival audiences have connected with the film, seeing themselves in the main character’s struggle and will to persevere, despite the challenges of life confronting him at every overpass.IFC Films’ Sundance Selects is releasing the film in theaters and On Demand beginning November 30, almost exactly 18 years to the day Henry found out “Some Body” was accepted into Sundance.
Legendary UCLA professor Howard Suber says that the #1 quality his most successful students share is “Perseverance.” This certainly applies to Henry. The lesson in “DriverX” becomes the lesson of “DriverX”:never give up, learn to accept the road you’ve found yourself on, no matter how bumpy or twisty it may be, and if truth and authenticity are your guides, you’ll always find your way back home. These are lessons that many of us filmmakers can apply, when success proves to be more elusive than what we usually read about.
After Yorgos Lanthimos scored an Oscar nomination for “Dogtooth,” his jarring suburban thriller about a family that keeps its children cut off from the outside world, he made the rounds in Los Angeles. Nothing stuck. “I was going around, meeting all these people, being stressed out going from one studio to another,” the Greek filmmaker said. “You don’t really know if they appreciate your work, or if they just want to meet you because your film is hot now.”
It took a couple of years, but Lanthimos ultimately figured out a better solution for bringing his oddball visions to a wider audience: He left impoverished Greece and settled into the robust artistic community of London, developing commercially viable English-language projects while requiring that A-list actors approach him on his own terms. That’s the secret ingredient that has allowed Lanthimos, nearly a decade after “Dogtooth,” to make his biggest and most accessible commercial movie to date without an iota of compromise.
“The Favourite,” a twisted black comedy set in the British royal court of the 19th century, finds Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz bickering and scheming to obtain the affections of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) as their peculiar love triangle cascades into a knotted maze of seductions and gnarly physical altercations. The project was initially brought to Lanthimos by producer Ceci Dempsey following the success of “Dogtooth” nine years ago, and while the filmmaker outsourced the screenplay to Tony McNamara (whom Lanthimos hired to update Deborah Davis’ original take), “The Favourite” is a delightful consolidation of Lanthimos’ recurring themes: the corrosive effects of power and greed that transform obsessive people into grim punchlines of their own making. He’s the rare awards player unwilling to make concessions and celebrated for exactly that.
Viewed alongside the director’s other English-language projects, the dystopian deadpan offering “The Lobster” and the outlandish home invasion horror of “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” Lanthimos’ “The Favourite” forms an inadvertent trilogy of Hollywood alternatives. All three movies deliver riveting, unpredictable narratives, but the familiar faces invite new viewers into the unique thrills of Lanthimos’ ever-expanding universe. Not since the emergence of Lars Von Trier has a filmmaker managed to disturb and thrill audiences in equal measures while broadening his profile at the same time. “I just try and decide what I’m interested in and what excites me,” he said. “I don’t worry about how it’s going to be perceived.”
Lanthimos tends to shy away from explaining the meaning behind his work, or assess its widening appeal, but his decision to develop projects on a bigger scale has stemmed from a careful negotiation of the opportunities at his disposal. As a film student in Greece in the nineties, the non-existent film industry forced him to keep his ambitions low. He enjoyed Bruce Lee movies and spaghetti westerns, but there were no arthouses to expose him to a wider set of possibilities. His sensibilities emerged from other experiences.
“I never thought that I would ever actually get to make films,” he said. “Being from Greece, it wasn’t really a reality.” He developed a close-knit group of film-savvy friends and found work making commercials; he directed hundreds of them during the first decade of his career, honing his technical instincts. “I did a lot of shit,” he said. “It was a period in the early nineties where old newspapers were giving out gifts with the paper, so we’d do these cheap commercials for coffee machines that they would give subscribers, crazy things like that.”
He also scored more serious work, collaborating with choreographers on filming dance performances, and directed some theater, both of which would inform the offbeat physicality and behavior at the center of his movies. “After all that, I think at some point it became more apparent that I would want to try and make a film at some point,” he said.
His solo directorial debut, 2005’s “Kinetta,” was made with a skeleton crew and a cast of three actors; the wandering plot involves three residents of a hotel who attempt to create homicides for enigmatic reasons. The movie provides the first rough glimpse of Lanthimos’ aesthetic — a disturbing self-contained world that adheres to its own logic, sounds ludicrous on paper, and somehow remains credible as it plays out onscreen. “It was really naïve how we approached it, and we hadn’t done it before,” Lanthimos said of his first production. “But with that, we proved that it’s possible. We became even more thirsty to do it, so we kept making films.” The project brought Lanthimos into the film festival world, and as “Kinetta” turned a few heads in Toronto and Berlin, he suddenly became aware of a bigger universe where his movies could exist. “I didn’t even know what this thing was and how it worked, and who were all these people that were selecting films for festival,” he said.
Back home, he made “Dogtooth,” which became the discovery of Cannes in 2009. “We never imagined that we could make films any other way, other than how we started,” he said. “We didn’t expect the success.” Rather than waiting to see how all the hype would play out, he continued to work within the constraints of the Greek film community. In 2010, he produced and acted in “Attenberg,” Athina Rachel Tsangari’s loopy portrait of two best friends contending with isolation and mortality. During that production, he met his future wife, actress Ariane Labed, who was already a fan of his work. “I was very impressed by him,” Labed said. “He has faced many obstacles, and never gives up.”
As “Dogtooth” gained momentum internationally, Lanthimos dove into his next project, “Alps,” a bizarre and immersive thriller about people imitating recently deceased individuals to help their relatives mourn. It found supportive audiences in Venice and Toronto a few months after “Dogtooth” lost the best foreign language Oscar, and Lanthimos found himself back in a familiar place.
“Alps” got a cursory release in the U.S., but faded shortly afterward. “It fell through the cracks as another small Greek film with no money,” he said. Though he and Tsangari enjoyed some modicum of media coverage as the leaders of the so-called “Greek Weird Wave,” they never embraced the term. “The weird wave was a product of the financial crisis in Greece, when an outrageous austerity was imposed upon the people of Greece,” said Jimmy DeMetro, who runs the Hellenic Film Society in New York. “It is only natural that filmmakers tried to understand what happened and why, and it was equally natural that they should turn to exaggeration to comment on what they and their entire country was experiencing.”
But the label never did much for the directors back home. “No Weird Wave film has met with box office success in Greece,” DeMetro said. “Greek audiences have not turned out to see these films.” On average, he added, the country produces 20-25 features per year, and only 11 have been sold for U.S. distribution since the release of “Dogtooth” in 2009. The bulk of the country’s national product — mostly broad comedies — doesn’t travel. But Lanthimos’ capacity to find a profile beyond that insular world has sunk in. “If Lanthimos has had any effect on Greek filmmakers, it is to endorse the notion that films should aim at the international festival market rather than local Greek distribution,” DeMetro said.
After “Alps,” Lanthimos fled to the U.K., where actors flocked to him, and his output took off. Cate Blanchett expressed interest, as did Rachel Weisz, though it took her some time to come around on his screenplay for “The Lobster,” where she acts opposite Colin Farrell in a bizarro future where being single is a crime. Nicole Kidman was keen on embracing his unorthodox approach for “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” and he wrapped production on “The Favourite” before the Kidman project even hit Cannes.
“The Killing of a Sacred Deer”
Lanthimos said he never writes projects with specific actors in mind. “I don’t want to be limited by that, and you don’t know if they’re going to be available,” he said. Much has been made about his unusual rehearsal process on “The Favourite,” when he gave experimental commands to his cast as they ran through the screenplay. “By the end, we all knew the script by heart because we had said the words over and over without really any intention behind them,” Stone said, during a Q&A for “The Favourite” at Telluride. “It was a very interesting way to learn that we were safe with each other, we could rely on each other, and we knew what we were saying when we started to shoot. It resembled nothing of what we actually shot.”
Lanthimos has embraced the freedom to bring his non-traditional methods to a grander scale, fusing several artistic disciplines into a single package. While critics and audiences struggle to categorize his work, there has always been a method to the madness. “I did have a lot of years watching and appreciating dance and theater and all of those kind of things, and it has informed the way that I work with actors and the way I approach things,” he said. Lanthimos’ movies take outrageous swings that in lesser hands might throw off the tone of his stories, or simplify them.
In “The Favourite,” Weisz’s Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough, engages in a baffling contemporary dance to please her queen — but the endeavor never collapses into Zucker brothers-level parody because the actors play it straight, and the filmmaker compliments them with a consistent environment. Lanthimos recruited Argentinean choreographer Constanza Macras to develop the sequence. “I knew that physicality would be very important in order to create this film in a way that would feel like its own world and it wouldn’t be like another period piece that people speak and walk in a certain way,” he said.
That was also the reason why he wanted a new writer to tackle Davis’ script, which had been floating around since the nineties. “The initial script was very historically accurate and there was a lot of information about the politics of the time,” he said. “I really wanted to make it much more focused on these three women, that’s what was most interesting to me — their relationship with politics and power, and how their relationships affect the much bigger picture.”
As he kept talking, the typically press-shy Lanthimos found his way to a bigger picture. “I wanted to make all that quite simpler so that it’s a film that feels relevant to us today, so you could imagine this happening anywhere in the world or anytime or place,” he said. “Pare down the politics so it’s easier to understand the repercussions that come from the decisions that these three, or the actions that these three women take.” Look hard enough and there’s an actual morality play lurking at the center of Lanthimos’ cinema. For Stone, “The Favourite” presents “this constant dance between who is really in charge among these three people,” she said. “It was fascinating to explore that.”
Lanthimos has been chiseling away at a few scripts, including another one with McNamara, but hasn’t settled on his next move. When he finishes a new draft, he reads it out loud to Labed at home. “That’s when I understand certain things,” he said. Labed added that the influx of budgetary resources and stars hasn’t shifted his formula. “It simply gives him more tools to create his vision,” she said. “It is not going to change anything. I don’t think he creates with a bigger audience in mind.”
And yet, with his Greek days behind him, the audiences keep coming. “Lanthimos’ success is bittersweet for many of his colleagues in Greece,” DeMetro said. “He confirms the notion that makes them feel somewhat uncomfortable, that only when a filmmaker leaves Greece does he stand a chance to achieve wide attention and recognition.” But even if the language has changed, and the demand for his work ticks upward every year, his approach hasn’t shifted. “It’s hard for me to find a script that’s perfectly suited to me, so even if it’s a good script I’ll still have to work on it with someone and shape it, making it the film that I want to make,” he said. “So in that respect, I prefer to do the stuff that I’ve generated anyway.”
He would much rather hide behind the veneer of his work. “I’d make the film and let it speak for itself,” he said. But with “The Favourite,” he had grown more comfortable with the pressures of awards season. “If people like the film, great,” he said. “If we’re nominated, great. If we’re not, fine.” He was eager to get back to developing new ideas. “I work on things and whatever feels ripe, you go ahead and make it,” he said, “and then, you move on to the next one.”
Fox Searchlight releases “The Favourite” theatrically on November 23, 2018.
Julian Schnabel emerged from a giant elevator in the lobby of his West Village home, and gestured to a large black frame adorning the wall above his doorman. Jagged white lines stretched across the dark canvas. Schnabel created the cryptic work “Tower of Babel,” in 1978, a year before his first solo show and his arrival as a major New York artist. “I’ve always been interested in painting things,” he said, almost too matter-of-fact for his own good.
Schnabel lives surrounded by his work, in the sprawling, pink-encrusted condominium he’s labeled “Palazzo Chupi.” Hiding behind dark glasses and an unkempt beard as he wanders his home in an oversized sweatshirt, the frazzled 67-year-old looks as though he’s receded into his creativity in other ways. It’s no wonder that “At Eternity’s Gate,” the new movie he’s directed starring Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh, comes across as Schnabel’s most personal project: It works overtime to put viewers inside the tortured artist’s mind, commune with his creativity, and emerge enlightened by it. As a painter who became a filmmaker but still mostly paints, he has spent his whole life preparing for this.
“It’s almost like making a movie about everything,” he said. Schnabel’s impressionistic approach foregrounds Dafoe’s face as Van Gogh wanders the French countryside with an easel, finding catharsis to his alienation and despair in the opportunity to capture nature — and himself — from new angles. The usual dark turns arrive, from the off-screen ear splicing to the painter’s enigmatic suicide, but they’re paired with a broader window into the artistic process. Much like Schnabel’s profound “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” which depicted the experiences of a man with locked-in syndrome, “At Eternity’s Gate” transforms the outline for a standard-issue biopic into an immersive exploration of subjectivity.
The movie could deter audiences in search of a conventional payoff, but it represents a welcome bounceback following Schnabel’s poorly received 2010 Palestinian drama “Miral,” and it’s especially impressive given the wealth of movies and books on Van Gogh stretching back through the previous century. “People might think they know how to do it better,” Van Gogh said. “Well, this is my version of what a movie could be.”
Above all else, “At Eternity’s Gate” fixates on the fragility of a restless creative mind, and Schnabel lives in the confines of that struggle in rather hyperbolic terms. His private kingdom two blocks from the Hudson is filled with room after room with high ceilings to accommodate the many vast works of art arranged across the walls. He collects art, but much of the work on display is his own output. “If I don’t sell them, I can keep looking at them, and maybe learn something from them,” he said.
Schnabel’s paintings are often large-scale works with jagged, messy patterns strewn across more familiar patterns. He looks like a creature made up of the same elements that comprise his work — somehow larger than life and intimate at the same time, affable and guarded, full of himself but worried he might give away too much. “Whatever you’re gonna make, you gotta make it for yourself,” he said. “The elements or the use of the material has to speak to you. I’m always surprised when people make paintings that are so predictable.”
“At Eternity’s Gate”
Back in the elevator, he checked himself in a giant full-length mirror. The doors opened to a dramatic floor with four rooms splintering off in different directions. He pointed to a massive floor-to-ceiling tapestry from the late 17th century (“Nobody gets near it, really”), which sat on a wall opposite a rectangular pink canvas — one of his own works from a few months back. “I’ve been painting on these materials that I found that were covering a fruit market in the jungle in Mexico,” he said. “The sun burnt it.” He ran his hands across the jagged exterior of the piece. “I see the surface like skin,” he said.
He passed a blurry Jeff Elrod painting and entered another expansive room, where he stood next to a giant wax sculpture of himself. “It’s me sitting on an empty box,” he said, looking up at the eerie greyish figure, which had started to melt. Essentially a giant candle, it was a gift to Schnabel by fellow artist Urs Fischer, and Schnabel was encouraged to light up a wick inside the head whenever he felt inspired. (A similar work was on display at the Whitney Museum earlier this year.) Asked if he could pose for a picture next to the work, Schnabel nearly darted behind it. “Oh, you wanna post this?” he said. “I don’t know, I’m not really…it’s such a weird thing, because I want people to go see the movie and you want me to talk about that, but I have no Instagram, no social media.” And then: “Take a picture if you want.” He drifted back towards the elevator, pointing out at a 1985 Warhol on his way out.
Julian Schnabel shows off Urs Fischer’s wax sculpture
Back in the elevator, Schnabel began to ruminate on his artistic ambition through the years. “I think most young artists should never listen to anybody else,” he said. “You know better than anyone what you need to do. You might think an older artist knows better than you, and is smarter, and they may be, but nobody knows better than you do what you need to do for your own picture.” The elevator doors opened to another entrance, and he paused. “Most older artists are gonna try to get you to conform to the standards that you set out to destroy in the first place,” he said. He opened the doors to a largely vacant space.
On the far wall was a giant plate painting, similar to many Schnabel has made over the decades, with cracked materials forming the base of the work, over which he had painted a convincing portrait of Dafoe as he appears as Van Gogh in the movie. Two other smaller versions of the same painting appeared on adjacent walls. “Van Gogh used to make paintings of his paintings,” Schnabel said. “There’s more than one painting of 15 sunflowers because he’s painting the exact sunflowers in another painting, except they’re another color. He did that a lot. So I did it for the movie.” So what now? “I’m gonna make another one off that painting,” he said.
A red curtain blocked the view of the next room. He stood at the entrance and peeked in. “I can’t see what the fuck is going on in there,” he said. “I hate when there’s surprises around here…” He trailed off. “No. No. No,” he said. “There’s a painting on the floor. Why don’t you give me a hand for a moment?” We grabbed two sides of a curved wooden canvas and hauled it into the room, where painting materials were strewn around a messy desk on top of a poster for “At Eternity’s Gate.” Finally, Schnabel sat down on a couch at the center of the room.
“I think everybody that’s from the Western world is probably bottle-fed some concept of Van Gogh as a painter,” he said. “And probably Picasso. You don’t know what they do, but you know you’ve heard the names. …I’m from Brooklyn. I had no art education. Probably the first impression of a painting that I remember was the painting of ‘Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer’ by Rembrandt. So you have impressions when you’re a child, and then you become a painter. Then you engage in the materiality of it and the way things are put together. You break everything down to all of the elements. And the more I do it, the more surprised I am at how difficult it is to watch anything.”
“At Eternity’s Gate”
Looking at Van Gogh’s paintings, Schnabel recognized the technique, and grew frustrated with the artist’s reputation as a mad man. “I thought he was quite sane when he was painting,” Schnabel said. “Those paintings are not paintings of madness. They’re paintings of sanity.” At one point during the production, he shot 19 minutes of footage featuring Dafoe wandering the wilderness with an easel, but he pulled back from making the experience too off-putting. “I like to push the boundaries about as far as I can,” he said, “but at a certain moment, you don’t want people to say, ‘Well, I’m not in the movie anymore.’”
With his paintings, Schnabel resists interpretations; as a filmmaker, he’s keen on inviting people in. He made his 1996 debut “Basquiat” as a tribute to his late friend, but the acclaimed work proved to be a seamless transition. “As a painter, I’d been looking at a rectangle for a long time,” he said. “It’s my ecstasy and my pleasure to be involved in that practice, and it is outside a community of people that are going to give you an award for it or not.”
The Musée d’Orsay recently organized a showcase of Schnabel’s work, marking his first Paris exhibition in 30 years. The new show allowed him to pair some of his favorite creations alongside older work from the museum’s collection. He whipped out his iPhone to share some pictures. “So Van Gogh’s self-portrait is hanging next to my painting of Tina Chow,” he said. After flipping through a few more highlights, he got around to the point. “If you look at his painting, it’s the mirror of you,” he said. “The movie, in a sense, is a mirror of you, as well. I’m trying to reboot people’s perceptions.”
He was nonplussed by earlier interpretations of Van Gogh’s work onscreen, from last year’s animated “Loving Vincent” to Robert Altman’s “Vincent and Theo,” in large part because they hewed to conventional approaches. For “At Eternity’s Gate,” Schnabel wanted to deconstruct Van Gogh while introducing viewers to his work from a fresh perspective. “If you want to make a painting, paint something because it didn’t exist before,” Schnabel said.
But he conceded that moviegoers needed more context. “They can’t just sit here and go, ‘What’s that?’” he said. He looked across the room. “Sit over here,” he said. Schnabel looked at a recent painting of his on the opposing wall, a broad swath of pink with a blues shape stretched across it, and a smaller yellow rectangle hovering at the top.
“You know, what is that?” he said. “I’m fine with that. People can look at it and they don’t need an explanation. But when you go to the movies, usually you want to know what happened by the end.” He shrugged. “I guess the movie is kind of more radical than other movies that are out at the moment,” he said.
The door buzzed. “What time is it? I need to go,” he said. A few moments later, fellow painter Dan Colen walked in. A contemporary of Dash Snow, Colen often paints large-scale works that bring to mind some aspects of Schnabel’s style. He admired the movie. “Most of my painting is about hovering between abstraction and figuration,” Colen said in a phone conversation later. “This movie allows us to consider abstraction at the same time as narrative, creating a more open-ended experience. …This is what I relate to. He constructs that ambiguity between narrative and pure visual splendor on the framework of Van Gogh’s mental erosion. It’s very cool that Julian takes that on.”
Colen noticed a through-line in Schnabel’s film work. “It’s not that different from Basquiat,” Colen said. “These are people who were so important. The biographies often can help generate excitement around an artist’s work and help a wider audience relate to it, but that same kind of energy can backfire. My biggest struggle as an artist is trying to communicate the experience of the process to my audience, which is impossible to do in a literal way. A lot of the movie is about Julian’s intimate relationship of putting paint onto a canvas.”
Schnabel himself wrestled with how much of his own experiences come through in his work. “I mean, why does anybody make a movie? Or why does anybody make a painting?” he said. “Why does anybody make anything? One is to make it for yourself. The other is to share it with other people. If you’re going to show it to somebody else, then a whole other set of variables comes in.”
Eager to move on to his appointment with Colen, Schnabel opened the door and pressed the down button on the elevator. “The impulse of why to do this work engenders many different kinds of personalities, ambitions, and reasons,” he said. “Jean Renoir said the problem with the world is that everybody’s got their reasons. Anyway.” He paused as the elevator doors opened, and his reflection stared back from within. Finally, he said, “I think that this film is probably the closest to where form and content have converged for me.”
CBS Films is now playing “At Eternity’s Gate” in select theaters nationwide.
If you’re debating whether to see “Green Book” or “Creed II” over Thanksgiving weekend, Screen Talk co-host Eric Kohn has some advice: Go see “Widows” instead. Steve McQueen’s complex heist movie pulled in a mere $12.3 million in its opening weekend. As Kohn and Anne Thompson discuss in this week’s podcast episode, McQueen’s movie deserves much better than that.
Of course, there are many other appealing options this weekend, including “The Favourite,” which continues its path through awards season, as does “Green Book.” But that movie’s once-obvious Oscar potential is now in doubt, as Kohn and Thompson discuss later in the episode. Thompson provides some highlights from being in the room at the Governors Awards, and they both give a few additional suggestions for titles worth checking out in the days ahead. Kohn also shares some thoughts on the new Showtime series “Escape at Dannemora,” and the episode closes out with a look ahead to next week’s big awards developments, with the Gotham Awards and the New York Film Critics Circle vote right around the corner.
You can subscribe here or via RSS. Share your feedback with Thompson and Kohn on Twitter or sound off in the comments. Browse previous installments here, review the show on and be sure to let us know if you’d like to hear the hosts address specific issues in upcoming editions of Screen Talk. Check out the rest of IndieWire’s podcasts on iTunes right here.
While activists nationwide mobilized to get out the vote for the midterms, some of the luminaries of the country’s film community came together for a very different cause. As news that Warner Media would be shutting down classic film streaming platform FilmStruck by the end of November, efforts to reverse the decision erupted across the country.
After an online petition surpassed 25,000 signatures in a matter of days, some of the most prominent filmmakers in the industry sent a joint letter to Warner Bros. Picture Group chair Toby Emmerich to help save the platform. The directors and actors imploring Emmerich to help included Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan, Damien Chazelle, and Leonardo DiCaprio — but ultimately, three men drove the efforts to gather signatures for the letter: Edgar Wright, Guillermo Del Toro, and Rian Johnson.
So far, the attention has yielded some promising developments, including Criterion’s new plan for its own streaming platform in 2019, and reports that Warner Media may develop a new version of FilmStruck as part of its larger streaming ambitions next year. But with the entire future still unclear, the filmmakers have taken to elaborating on their mission.
Del Toro was in the process of evacuating his home in Thousand Oaks as forest fires consumed the region while organizing the letter, and the environmental duress led him to contemplate the FilmStruck situation in broader terms. “Much like people care for the carbon footprint and the duplication of natural resources, we are living in a massive deforestation of film culture,” he said via email. “Archival life is vital for films, especially classics, indies, and [international] film. Thousands of movies are not nor have they ever been available in home video and curatorial efforts are vital.”
When Wright first heard that FilmStruck was shutting down, he said in a phone interview, his first reaction was “that sucks.” He had grown used to FilmStruck’s careful approach to curating selections from its collections, which included both Turner titles and Criterion’s venerated library. “It’s like a cool library or that video store clerk who knew what to recommend the curious film fan,” he said. “Whether you live near a great rep cinema or not, platforms like FilmStruck did a great job of creating a library of great cinema; old, new, classic, cult, well-regarded and overlooked.”
Wright first took action after hearing from longtime FilmStruck presenter and Turner Classic Movies host Alicia Malone that Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese had already made appeals to Emmerich on behalf of the platform. Wright, who had worked with Spielberg on the screenplay for “The Adventures of Tintin,” sent the Hollywood heavyweight a note.
“I emailed Steven, and said, ‘Is there anything we can do? Because I know for certain that we feel equally strongly,” the “Baby Driver” director said. “Steven actually said, ‘You should write Toby.’ He’s someone we’ve all worked with.” Wright, who’s currently working on a documentary on British rock band Sparks, quickly touched base with peers Johnson and Del Toro to split up the efforts of reaching out to more names. Johnson squeezed in efforts in between production of next project, “Knives Out.”
It didn’t take long for the letter gain traction, and it was first published in Deadline on November 12. “To be honest, if we had more time, that list could’ve been three times as long,” Wright said, noting that everyone from Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy to “Florida Project” director Sean Baker reached out to him after the letter ran to add their names. “It’s like your favorite library going away.”
As a contractor for Turner, Malone was one of the first people outside of FilmStruck staff to hear that Warner Media planned to pull the plug on the streaming platform by the end of November. “I surprised myself by getting more emotional than I thought I would,” she said during a film criticism panel at the Key West Film Festival over the weekend. “Not because of I was losing a job, but because of the wider implications of losing a service like FilmStruck. Not all theaters play these movies, so if you’re in the middle of the country, it can be really difficult to see independent films. Also, what gets lost with each iterations of technology? How many films end up falling by the wayside? How does that affect that we study, and how does that affect the film canon?”
Wright noted that FilmStruck’s curatorial approach provided a welcome contrast to the options on Netflix. “It’s not controversial to say that Netflix has a pretty pitiful classic movie selection,” he said. “That’s because, as they got more successful, studios started to pull the libraries and hatch their own platforms. So FilmStruck was doing something beyond just being a content provider; curation and context is important.”
Avid cinephile Del Toro said he maintained additional accounts with Fandor, another streaming platform with substantial classic film offerings, as well as accounts with Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon. “I travel so much, so I have about two or 3,000 movies in the cloud, but some obscure selections are only available in one platform or another,” he said. “I have my physical media — I keep buying Blu-rays and keep DVDs — but I think streaming makes it easy and pleasurable to consult a film.” He had contributed introductions to several FilmStruck titles. “They listened to the users’ needs and desires,” he said.
Wright pointed out that the programing decisions on the platform provided the antithesis to Netflix’s recommendation algorithms. “As far as Netflix is concerned, I only like standup specials, apparently,” he said. “The key thing that FilmStruck was doing was having a place where you knew things had real quality, and they were also historically interesting.”
It remains unclear just how much of a long-term impact these efforts will have, but Wright said he hoped they underscored the value of supporting platforms that archive work in an ever-changing distribution market. “If you are not with a big studio, it’s really difficult to keep indie films in a good condition,” he said. “Many filmmakers are finding that their titles lapse out of circulation and essentially vanish. We shouldn’t assume that everything is out there forever.”
Malone was still processing the rapid impact of Wright’s efforts after she got in touch with him. “He really rallied the troops, got behind the cause, and that really helps,” she said. “I don’t know if that will change anything, I hope it does, but I’m excited about the conversation that’s there.” Her new book, “The Female Gaze,” surveys 52 films from female directors, and many of the titles are available in FilmStruck’s library. “Often, the films that get forgotten about or pushed aside are movies made independently or made by people of color or female filmmakers,” she said. “That has huge implications.”
Del Toro said he was initially shocked about “the way a service and a cultural link like FilmStruck could be disregarded,” and said he was concerned about the impact of “the 21st century short-attention span” on viewer interest in classic film. Membership for FilmStruck has been estimated at around 100,000 users, and the service will likely need to garner a much larger subscriber base in whatever new form it takes. Del Toro said he vowed “not to quietly into that good night,” he said. “We have to keep the pressure on and not let this be a PR movie.”
Harmony Korine first transplanted his exuberant style to Florida with “Spring Breakers,” but his next movie is likely to cement his status in the Sunshine State. In “The Beach Bum,” Korine chronicles the quirky antics of a wandering Florida poet named Moondog, played by Matthew McConaughey under a flamboyant blonde wig. While Neon will release the movie in March 2019, Korine finished it earlier this year, and spent some time over the weekend at the Key West Film Festival sharing anecdotes from his experiences.
After Korine received the festival’s Golden Key award from Florida Keys Film Commissioner Chad Newman, I moderated an hourlong conversation with the filmmaker. Korine provided new details about his offbeat stoner comedy and shared a clip. He also explained his decision to move to Florida year-round, screened a recent short film, and revealed a snippet from a long-lost project that fans have obsessed over for years.
McConaughey Peed a Lot
As Moondog, McConaughey plays a carefree man whose ambling adventures suggest The Dude from “The Big Lebowski” stumbling into a Cheech and Chong picture. Moondog may be a stoner, but he drinks a lot, too. That presented a unique challenge for the production, which Korine shot all over Key West and Miami, with one recurring motif finding Moondog drinking and urinating off various boat docks. “A lot of the time we were just filming him drinking and peeing,” Korine said. “That’s probably one of the purest things you can do simultaneously as a human — drinking and peeing. So we wanted to tap into that, the essence of his character, someone taking in and putting out all the time. Sucking in a world and peeing it out.”
With reports of the production circulating in local newspapers, locals and tourists often noticed McConaughey in character, wandering the scene. “You’d get a crowd around the schlong,” Korine said, laughing. He declined to elaborate on the explicitness of the scenes, and demurred when asked if McConaughey wore a prosthetic or exposed himself on camera. “That, I’m not getting into,” Korine said.
“The Beach Bum”
In “Spring Breakers,” Korine sought out established cultural figures whose images he could rework, providing subversive new material for pop star Selena Gomez and Disneyfied teen stars Ashley Benson and Vanessa Hudgens. By bringing McConaughey back to his stoner roots in a post-McConaissance era, Korine said he hoped to achieve a similar effect. “I always like playing with the real actor persona, the pop persona, what’s authentic to the person, and then push it out to the stratosphere,” he said. “He plays with the idea of what people imagine him to be, and kind of takes it into another radical direction.”
Snoop Dogg Is…Lingerie
In the clip from “The Beach Bum” screened at the talk, Moondog is seen speeding to his daughter’s wedding, which is officiated by Snoop Dogg, who explains to the groom that “this family is fucked up.” The collaboration recalls Korine’s earlier work with fellow rapper Gucci Mane, who played the villain in “Spring Breakers.” Korine originally wrote the role for the rapper to play himself in the movie, but Snoop had some other ideas when he signed on. “He called me and said, ‘I have one change,’” Korine said. “I want to be called Lingerie. They call me Rie, short for Lingerie, because I’m smooth and silky. I was like, ‘That’s a great idea.’” The change did create one ripple on the set. “His clothes actually say Snoop on them in the movie,” Korine said. “I was gonna correct it, but I just liked it.”
More Fun With Cast
“The Beach Bum”
Despite McConaughey’s central role, “The Beach Bum” is actually an ensemble work, with a number of Florida locals cropping up in various scenes (some of whom showed up at the festival talk). The cast also includes bit parts for Zak Efron and Jonah Hill, but Korine was especially excited about a supporting role for Martin Lawrence, who plays a character named Captain Wack. “Martin is one of my favorite comedic actors ever and I knew he hadn’t done much in a while,” Korine said. “So when I wrote the character of Captain Wack, I was so thrilled to have him. He’s a comic genius.” Korine wanted Lawrence to drive a neon jeep covered in coconuts that Key West locals know well; its owner sells coconut water around the island. “I was going to use the coconut car, but it could only drive a quarter mile,” Korine said. “We had to replicate it. We turned it into something else, but the coconut guy was pissed.”
Korine also managed to write in another supporting role for musician Jimmy Buffett, whose relaxed tropical melodies are in tune with Moondog’s ethos. “I’ve always loved him,” Korine said. “He’s never done anything like that movie ever. I had no idea if he’d do something like that. He’s like a hero of mine. We went out to Jimmy and he’s in the movie. It’s like a dream when I see him onscreen.”
A Different Approach
While the trailer for “The Beach Bum” hints at a familiar comedy subgenre, Korine retained his unorthodox approach to the production, which was shot by “Spring Breakers” cinematographer Benoit Debie.
As with that movie, Korine used multiple setups for the same scene, allowing for more experimentation on the set and in the editing room. “I don’t really do continuity in the traditional way,” Korine said. “I’ll shoot almost the entire film like two or three times over in different ways because I never know what I’m going to like until I cut it together. It’s a very nontraditional way of cutting film and it’s always rolling. I never stop.” He distanced himself from the idea of improvisation. “It’s more like riffing off something as opposed to making things up,” he said.
“The Trap” Could Still Happen
Following the surprise commercial success of “Spring Breakers,” Korine initially had a different project in mind: “The Trap,” a very different sort of Florida-based story that at one point had Jamie Foxx and Benicio del Toro attached to star. But a series of complications arose during the pre-production stage. “This fucking thing fell apart,” Korine said. “I was like a month away from making it in Miami.” He described the project as “a gangster film … about a rapper who lives in Miami and goes to prison. It’s super violent.” After securing financing for the picture, “one of the actors had some issues, and a scheduling conflict,” Korine said. “Rather than get depressed or freak out, I needed to make something right away, so I wrote something that was the opposite of that. I felt like making a comedy, I felt like laughing, I wanted to do something that was more of a stoner vibe. And that was when I wrote ‘The Beach Bum.’”
He still thinks “The Trap” has potential. “I’m going to go back and make it,” he said. But when pressed to describe his next project, Korine diverted to an idea that lit up the room, even as his playful demeanor left his real intentions unclear. “I want to remake that movie ‘Cocoon,’” he said. Then he changed his mind and suggested that a “Children of Corn” remake was on his docket instead. From the audience, someone shouted, “‘Children of the Cocoon’!” Korine smiled. “That’s a great title,” he said.
“You Do Not Have to Give Your Soul to the Douche”
The filmmaker often juggles commercial work, including recent spots for Dior and Under Armour. Korine said the side work hasn’t really gotten in the way of his original projects. “If I shoot ads, I do like one a year,” he said. “Look, it’s different if you’re doing a douche commercial than if you’re doing your own thing. For the douche commercial, you can just be detached. You do not have to give your soul to the douche.” The Florida crowd, perhaps recognizing the potential for a Key West t-shirt slogan, cracked up. “Yeah, it’s awesome being me!” he said, and chuckled. “You can just toss some shit out there and people want to sign up. It’s a good gig to do enough work that people like. Maybe it’s not what everyone does normally, and if they see merit in a way that’s something they don’t do often.”
Korine also busies himself with short film projects, one of which screened during the Key West conversation: “Drum Ass,” a dreamlike seven-minute short featuring a handful of Russian characters in Florida as they roam through an ominous nighttime milieu and eventually drift into the fog on a boat covered in neon lights. Korine worked with “A Star Is Born” cinematographer Matthew Libatique for the project, which first screened in Paris for a monthlong exhibition of his work at the Centre Pompidou in late 2017. Korine said he was in awe of Libatique’s work. “When you work with guys like Matty or Benoit Debie, they can paint pictures,” Korine said. “You’re able to express yourself with form, with shadows, with colors, in a way that’s exciting.”
A “Fight Harm” Cameo
One project has driven curiosity among Korine fans for decades: “Fight Harm,” an unfinished 1999 project that Korine attempted after his Dogme 95 project “Julien Donkey-Boy.” The quasi-documentary was a sort of proto-“Jackass” concept in which Korine attempted to get into fights with people on the street. At the time, he was a part of Leonardo DiCaprio’s legendary “Pussy Posse” along with David Blaine, and both of them followed Korine around with a camera as he attempted to start brawls. “I thought I was like Buster Keaton, because I felt the essence of humor was tragedy,” Korine said. “A guy slips on a banana peel and falls, it’s hilarious, but the dude broke his leg.” The project fell apart after Korine was himself injured, hospitalized, and arrested. “My family was concerned,” he said. He wound up with barely enough footage for a short film. “The fights were short, and I wanted it to be a 90-minute feature,” Korine said. “It’s probably about less than 15 minutes of pure brutality.”
Over the years, speculation about the fate of “Fight Harm” has continued to percolate, since Korine has never revealed the footage to the public. (It was listed in the program for the 2017 Pompidou show, but ultimately didn’t surface there.) That changed at the Key West conversation, where Korine shared a clip from “Fight Harm” for the first time — with a twist. Asked how he could provide assurance to his fans that the “Fight Harm” footage really existed, he offered to share a clip on his cell phone. Korine then held his iPhone up to the audience, where only the first row had a clear view, while I narrated the events onscreen.
The grimy digital video footage shows a scrawny twentysomething wandering across a New York City street, loosely swaying his arms, and making a birdlike chirping sound. At one point, he throws himself at a pedestrian, who shrugs him off; then he attempts to force himself into an open car door, where he’s again pushed away. It’s easy to imagine these scenes playing out against a comical score.
Korine put his phone away. “I always go back and forth about whether the idea of it is more interesting than the actual thing,” he said. “I’m starting to come around to it.”
Neon releases “The Beach Bum” theatrically on March 22, 2019.
Three years ago, Ryan Coogler’s “Creed” pulled off an impossible gamble: It recontextualized the “Rocky” franchise by relegating its famous snarling boxer to the sidelines. As Adonis, the offspring of deceased boxer and Rocky pal Apollo Creed, Michael B. Jordan injected the franchise with fresh juice — as a sensitive, tortured soul with daddy issues to work through, Adonis made “Rocky” relevant again. Though Coogler later proved the commercial viability of blockbusters with black faces, “Creed” got the ball rolling on a comparatively intimate scale.
With “Creed II,” it keeps rolling along: This slick and involving sequel finds Adonis continuing to work through the weight of his father’s death in the ring, follows all the familiar motions revived with “Creed.” But in the context of this resilient franchise, the movie hits each beat with the calculated precision of its tireless fighter.
With Coogler still journeying through Wakanda, he’s handed the reigns to Steven Caple Jr. (Just as Coogler had only a single feature under his belt before “Creed” with “Fruitvale Station,” former Coogler film-school classmate Caple’s only prior directing credit was his understated 2016 crime drama “The Land,” which premiered at Sundance 2016.) It appears to have been sufficient training for the challenge at hand. “Creed II,” which credits Sylvester Stallone and Jewel Taylor as co-writers, contains plenty of bloody showdowns in the ring — but its central appeal lies in the quieter struggles that haunt Adonis whenever he steps away from the spotlight.
That’s no easy task: Following his victory in “Creed,” the sequel finds Adonis at the top of his game — scoring the heavyweight title in the opening minutes, while Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) barks his usual motivations from the sidelines, and his warm partner Bianca (Tessa Thompson) cheers him on. But the popularity leads Adonis to the usual crossroads: A cozy family life beckons, and while Bianca’s singing career has taken off, the disease that cripples her hearing has only grown worse. A few too many new developments arrive right on schedule, but Caple frames the conversations between this believable couple with closeup intimacy that makes their bond resonate, and establishes genuine dread when Adonis naturally feels compelled to take one last battle — or die trying.
This is familiar stuff, but “Creed II” works overtime to create the tangible suspense that the worst possible outcome might actually come to pass. It’s safe to say that no “Rocky” protagonist has never been more bruised and bloodied than Adonis becomes in this movie, but these are hectic times. The movie’s bad guy, a Russian warrior resurrected from 1980s Cold War paranoia, arrives right on schedule.
The masterstroke of “Creed II” doesn’t quite match the genius of reinventing this series in the first place, but it’s still pretty shrewd: Remember Ivan Drago? The corny Russkie meathead played by corny Dolph Lundgren in 1985’s “Rocky IV”? Since then, Drago’s become a sturdy punchline in the “Rocky” mythos. Even though he was responsible for the death of Adonis’ father, “Creed” kept the Drago references to a minimum, lest the cheesy antagonist hobble the movie’s credible emotional foundation.
But “Creed II” drags Drago back into the picture and actually succeeds in making him credible, even if it’s a bit silly. Of course, if Apollo had a kid, why not Drago, too? In “Creed II,” Lundgren returns as the forlorn boxer, still smarting from his loss to Rocky in Russia over 30 years ago. And he has a monster truck of a son, Viktor (newcomer Florian Munteanu, a robotic mass of throbbing muscles), whom he’s training for a revenge match.
Drago’s still a cardboard villain, but Lundgren goes to great lengths to make the character into a pathetic, seething object of resentment. When he surfaces for a “Heat”-like face-off with Rocky at his cozy Philadelphia diner, there’s a genuine thrill to the level of anger Drago feels after living as a punchline for decades. “That’s like a million years ago!” Rocky counters. “But just yesterday to me,” Drago shoots back, as Viktor sulks nearby.
Needless to say, the showdown’s on — but initially, Rocky wants no part of it. The breach in his relationship with his disciple establishes a clever structural gimmick at the center of the movie, and gives Jordan the opportunity to act circles around this material until it settles back into the ring. As Jordan’s stardom continues to launch beyond the stratosphere, “Creed II” is another reminder that he can guide that screen presence to genuine pathos.
But he’s not alone. The glue that holds “Creed II” together is Caple’s willingness to guide it into the terrain of a bittersweet melodrama. As his mother, Phylicia Rashad excels at conveying a parent’s knowing smile with the slightest gestures. Thompson gets a handful of scenes to suggest that some of Adonis’ rough intensity has rubbed off on her: She avoids the well-worn path of concerned damsel and actually empathizes with his struggle.
And then there’s Stallone, the sturdy anchor that keeps this series rooted in its winding path through the decades. Peering out from beneath his iconic slanted fedora, Sly doesn’t have that much to do this time around, but rises to the challenge whenever duty calls. In one pivotal moment, he gives Adonis family advice in a hospital corridor, mumbling his way to an emotional revelation. It’s one of the actor’s very best moments, and it creeps into the movie with the same unexpected appeal that “Creed” landed in the first place.
Ultimately, the bromance between these two men sets the stage for a finale that more or less operates on autopilot. Still, as “Rocky” training montage goes, this one — set in the sweltering desert heat — delivers the goods, thanks in large part to a vibrant reworking of the movie’s pivotal theme. Rocky still drops nuggets of wisdom with the casual air of a half-asleep monk. (“You know there’s only three steps into that ring, and it’s going to look like a mountain.”)
Kramer Morgenthau’s cinematography lacks the showy steadicam acrobatics of “Creed,” but the climactic battle between Adonis and Viktor still delivers a dazzling light show that dovetails right into the visceral mayhem of the battle, captured from so many angles some viewers may reel from the punches themselves. Still, while “Creed II” doesn’t suffer from as much sequel-itis as other “Rocky” forebears, the virus of redundancy lingers.
Even so, it’s fascinating to watch this series make the case for its existence. The closing moments feature a hilarious cameo that suggests another chapter around the corner as the “Rocky” EU continues its expansion, and there’s enough substance in “Creed II” to justify its trajectory. We know what to expect from these stories, but both “Creed” and its sequel invite us to forget — so we can rediscover the thrill all over again.
In the years since his 2015 feature “Cemetery of Splendour,” Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul has traveled a lot, presenting shorts and installation pieces around the world. These days, he’s plotting his first movie outside of Thailand, the Colombia-set “Memoria,” with Tilda Swinton and Jean Balibar attached to star. On November 19, he will receive the annual FIAF prize from the Federation of Film Archives. In the midst of all this activity, Weerasethakul was also invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in 2016 — but voting for the Oscars has little appeal to poetic auteur, who won the Palme d’Or for “Uncle Boomnee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” in 2010.
“They’ve been sending me these DVDs and movies. A lot of them,” Weerasethakul said in a Skype interview from a shorts festival in Europe. “I confess that I don’t watch many.” Last year, he tried voting using AMPAS’ online system, but missed the deadline by one minute. Now, he’s lost patience with the workload, and the fees.
“I’m totally going to quit it,” he said. “I am no longer interested in watching them. They charge you $350 or $400 for membership.” (Current AMPAS membership fees are $450 a year.) “To me, that’s really terrible, because as a foreign member, I don’t get any benefits besides these DVDs, which is a job,” Weerasethakul said.
AMPAS members in the United States have access to the Academy’s library and archives, in addition to screenings and other events. “If I lived in the States, I’d understand,” Weerasethakul said. “It’s stupid for me to pay. This amount is a lot to me with no benefit except to help the American film industry. They should waive this fee for foreign members. I was willing to vote and watch these movies, but I feel less and less motivated now.”
His relationship to America is an odd one. Weerasethakul didn’t have commercial ambitions, instead finding a kinship in the American avant-garde films of Bruce Baille, Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas, and Andy Warhol. His work explores Thai history and spirituality through a playful, meditative lens, but the arthouses experienced his work as boundary-pushing fairy tales. Though he was celebrated on the festival circuit beginning with his 2002 feature “Blissfully Yours,” his languid, dreamlike narratives found a much bigger audience after “Uncle Boonmee” scored the top prize at Cannes, where Tim Burton headed the jury. (For those in attendance, it was clear that Burton would be swayed by the first shot of red-eyed ghost monkeys.)
“Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”
After the festival, studio offers drifted Weerasethakul’s way, but he shrugged them off. “People asked what genre I preferred, so I said horror,” he said, and laughed. “I knew that it wasn’t going to work out because I have to write my own scripts.” He expressed admiration for Burton, as well as some of the other major names he’s encountered in the festival circuit. In 2008, he served on a Cannes jury that featured Sean Penn and Natalie Portman, among others. “I feel that they don’t represent Hollywood either,” he said. “We’re the same, we love cinema, and have very broad interests.”
Balibar also served on the jury that year, forming the relationship with Weerasethakul that lead to his decision to cast the actor in “Memoria.” Swinton came to him as a fan of his work. The movie revolves around a character who suffers from “exploding head syndrome,” a real-life psychological condition in which a person experiences loud noises when falling asleep or waking up. Weerasethakul was already researching a story in Colombia when he experienced the syndrome for a brief period, and decided to write it into the script. Swinton’s character, a Scottish woman traveling Colombia, “experiences this symptom and tries to find the source of this sound,” Weerasethakul said. “With this symptom, she becomes an insomniac.”
The filmmaker spent three months traveling Colombia, passing through the cities of Medellin and Cali before settling on Bogota and Quindío region as the setting for his story. “I was first attracted by the Amazon jungle, but afterward, but I was more attracted to the city and the people’s memories,” he said. “This film is developed from the time that I spent there visiting certain towns. In the end, it became a very simple film.” He has been gathering stories from various locals and working them into the script, which is close to finished, and hopes to shoot in August 2019. “It’s about the issues of the memories of the people there in Colombia,” he said, “and also the landscape.”
“For fiction features, it’s too complicated,” he said. “It’s too risky to talk in a very personal way with my name on the film. I really need to be able to talk about the military dictatorship, for example, and I can’t.” Nevertheless, he has benefited from associating with younger filmmakers and programmers in Thailand, who have inspired him to open his studio space for a screening series starting in December. When he receives the FIAF prize, the ceremony will take place at the Thai Film Archive, which continues to preserve his varied output.
“As I get older, I feel that I have to share more and learn more from younger people,” he said. “There is real optimism in the Thai film community, even though I’m not optimistic about it.”
Apichatpong Weerasethakul on the set of “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” (2010)
Anna Sanders/Eddie Saeta/Gff/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
In between features, art projects keep him busy. A traveling exhibition of his experimental video work entitled “The Serenity of Madness” began traveling the world this summer. For “Cemetery of Splendour,” he devised the interactive theatrical experience “Fever Room,” a multi-screen installation piece featuring characters from the movie. He hopes to craft something similar to complement “Memoria.” “I feel like it’s less layered with the feature because cinema has so many rules you have to follow,” he said. “You have to sit still in the dark. But visual art has fewer rules.”
When the offers for bigger projects subsided, Weerasethakul settled back into a routine of tackling his own projects. His latest short, “Blue,” was shot in his backyard. “I’ve been trying to find different ways of presenting different moving images,” he said. “It’s been slow. I don’t live in Bangkok, so I’m really far from the action. I’m more like a hermit in the mountains.”
A little over two years ago, Chloe Zhao was in the badlands of South Dakota, working with a crew of five people and no professional actors, shooting real-life cowboys. The end result, “The Rider,” changed her life.
Her naturalistic Western, about a rodeo rider named Brady (Brady Jandreau) who suffers a debilitating head injury, won the top prize at Cannes’ Directors Fortnight section in 2017 and scored distribution with Sony Pictures Classics. It landed a Best Film nomination from the Independent Spirit Awards in early 2018, before it even hit theaters, and closes the year out with a Gotham nomination in the same category. And Zhao suddenly found herself in the unlikely position of fielding studio offers, one of which she accepted — Marvel’s “The Eternals,” a superhero movie about immortal beings.
So much has happened that Zhao, who grew up in Beijing and moved to the U.S. as a teenager, still can’t process it. “We made this film without anybody knowing about it,” she said in a phone interview. “I was very nervous because I wasn’t sure how people would react to someone in a cowboy hat.”
This has been a crucial aspect of “The Rider” that has allowed it to linger as a critical favorite in year-end discussions over a year after it first generated heat: As America reels from one of the most divisive chapters in its history, and artistic communities recede to cosmopolitan bubbles, one of the year’s most celebrated breakouts presents an unorthodox collision of worlds — a Chinese immigrant sets her gaze on the nation’s oldest genre, and finds renewed intimacy in its depths.
To that end, Zhao has become the ultimate cause celebre of the film community, and “The Rider” provides an antidote to Trumpian ignorance even if its existence predated the concept. She may be a long shot for Best Director in this year’s Oscar race, but the degree of admiration she found from contemporaries supersedes the value of any potential trophies. Above all, the movie represents a kind of collaboration at odds with the current historical moment.
“I think ‘The Rider’ became the type of film it is because of a man and a woman, because the two of us wanted to work together and understand where we were coming from,” Zhao said.
The movie presents its sweeping, empty landscapes and wistful characters as hovering in a perpetual state of melancholy, as Brady contends with the possibility that he must turn his back on horseback riding for good. In his insular world of yawning skies and windswept fields, divorced from politics, the endless cascade of media and technology, the idea of retiring from his field comes like a death sentence. Zhao burrows into that aspect of Brady’s struggle to reveal a man coming to grips with emotions he’s suppressed his whole life. The simplicity of his milieu has made it easy to ignore the big questions. “The Rider” depicts the process of waking up to the wider world for the first time. “There’s a feminine and a masculine side to everyone,” Zhao said. “There are times that we don’t feel comfortable showing one of those.”
Sony Pictures Classics
Zhao’s movie gained currency by the end of 2016, as the results of the presidential election drove conversations about the influx of conservative voters in rural America. In South Dakota, Donald Trump took 65 percent of the vote. “I think it’s a shame that people never paid attention to the heartland,” Zhao said. “After the election, people have been paying such negative attention to it. I’ve seen Brady connecting with audiences at Sundance, at SXSW, in France. I don’t know what it could, but for me, humanizing a person in a cowboy hat is righting the boat a little bit.”
Zhao never approached the movie in political terms. She first came across Jandreau while working on her directorial debut, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” on a Native American reservation. She was drawn to his James Dean-like features, which seemed at odds with the tenderness he brought to his relationship with animals.
“I just couldn’t stop saying I want to make a film about Brady,” she said. “I didn’t have a message I wanted to convey. I just wanted to put him on screen, somehow.” The reception to “The Rider” around the world has reverberated on the Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota Reservation, where Jandreau grew up. (Members of his family, including his father and his sister, also appear in the movie.) “The community is very moved by it,” Zhao said. But Jandreau receded from the spotlight after the initial wave of attention at festivals. “I hope he has a career as an actor, because I think he’s incredible,” Zhao said. “But when these people they go home, they forget about going to Cannes or Sundance or any awards. They jump straight back to the corral. They have horses to train.”
Zhao herself approached the wave of interest from studios with caution. “‘The Rider’ got a lot of attention when a lot of people were looking for female directors,” she said. “I had to make sure when projects were offered to me, that it was actually because they wanted me. It wasn’t really difficult for me to say no until the right project came around.”
She managed to shoot an under-the-radar project with Frances McDormand this year, but declined to offer details about it. As for “The Eternals,” she insisted that despite the weighty expectations of franchise filmmaking, she settled on an opportunity consistent with her experience to date. “When I grew up in China, I didn’t really have a lot of access to film,” she said. “The first creative storytelling I encountered was Japanese manga. I wanted to be a manga artist for the longest time. I didn’t draw very well. But comic books and animation were always a passion of mine. It wasn’t a huge part of the dialogue at film school. I was very curious to get into that.”
She cited Werner Herzog as a key influence on her filmmaking approach (“I often ask myself, ‘What would Werner do?’”) but fellow Chinese immigrant Ang Lee has been her gold standard for ages. “Ang Lee’s career has been very inspiring to me — how he’s able to bring where he comes from to all the films that he makes,” she said. When she was a film student at NYU, Lee visited to give a lecture, and she was too shy to approach him.
“I’m still learning about this process,” she said. “As directors, our voices are being heard more than ever before, but we need to be seen as individuals. It’s going to take time.”
Aretha Franklin hardly says a word in “Amazing Grace,” but she sings with an energy and conviction that has powerful resonance nearly 50 years late. As a record of the church music from Franklin’s youth, cascading off the walls of the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, “Amazing Grace” is soulful ear candy. But Franklin’s sweaty, impassioned delivery, which galvanizes her audiences with an electric charge, extends her awe-inspiring musical convictions beyond religious euphoria. It’s a rousing portrait of creativity as a unifying force.
Left unfinished for decades, the lively concert documentary on Franklin’s landmark 1972 gospel recording provides the full picture of her largest commercial hit in real time. The project was left unfinished for decades; in recent years, it was completed and restored, but Franklin’s estate blocked multiple attempts to screen it on the festival circuit. It’s ironic that Franklin had to die for “Amazing Grace” to finally reach audiences, because it consolidates the essence of her legacy into 87 minutes of pure celebration.
Anyone seeking a more definitive look at Franklin’s better-known hits, or the context surrounding her fame, will have to look elsewhere. “Amazing Grace” strips away the back story to revel in the music responsible for Franklin’s definitive sound. As a complete work of filmmaking, it has some gaps; as a concert film, it delivers in spades.
Franklin isn’t the only late talent receiving her due with the movie’s completion. A young Sydney Pollack, just a few credits deep in his directing career, stepped behind the camera to capture Franklin’s dynamic nostalgia trip on ABC’s dime. But it’s hard to tell just how much Pollack contributed to the final product, considering the amount of work needed to piece together the archival materials: Ace editor Jeff Buchanan (“Her,” HBO’s “Barry”) has assembled the footage into vibrant overview of the two-day recording session, in which Franklin mostly stood at a podium while Reverend James Cleveland backed her up as emcee.
As he tells the crowd early on, Franklin could sing “Three Blind Mice” and take it to new heights. Instead, she careens through a catalog of church staples, backed by the Southern California Community Choir and an audience eager to stand up and join in. The Reverend reminds the audience that they’re participating in a religious service, but its ramifications are nondenominational.
As Franklin powers through spectacular renditions of “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” “Give Yourself to Jesus,” and the propulsive “Amazing Grace,” she stretches and compounds syllables into a holy melodic wail. The entire album unfolds like a single incantation, and the crowd becomes as much a participant as the woman leading it forward. The camera frequently cuts to a diverse audience ready to partake in the party. “When it’s coming your way, get in on that,” the Reverend encourages the audience, as if choreographing the final product.
That’s the ultimate root of the movie’s spellbinding power. In a key moment — one of the few opportunities to take a breather from Franklin’s songs — her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, takes the stage to salute his daughter while acknowledging the complex ramifications of her stardom. In a stern monologue, he acknowledges the possibility that the black Christian community felt she had strayed too far from its traditions. His retort to that argument leaves his clammy daughter gleaming with a new layers of tears. “If you wanna know the truth,” he says, “she has never left the truth.”
Therein lies the conviction of “Amazing Grace,” a revelation illustrated exclusively through performance: Franklin universalized the conceits of her community through the framework of the commercial lens. Fred Rogers softened the televangelist image for generations of children learning about feelings, and Franklin turned those feelings into a national mood, by transforming the communal spirit of the African-American churchgoing experience into popular culture.
“Amazing Grace” provides just enough insight into this phenomenon to make you wish it dug a little deeper into the context of Franklin’s decision to make the album at such a pivotal moment in her career, after multiple Grammys and fame that guaranteed her stature as a legend-to-be. Franklin’s a remarkable stage presence, but remains an enigma as an individual. Despite a few mic problems and false starts, her creative process never takes the foreground, but the results loom large. She hovers at the front of the room, and occasionally from a piano bench, as if music were the only language in her grasp.
By the finale — a showstopping rendition of “Climbing Higher Mountains” — she has taken on superhuman proportions. The audience leaps to its feet, levitating along with her, and the documentary becomes a testament to a kind of spiritual catharsis often absent in a society steeped in angry rhetoric. It may be a relic of the past, but “Amazing Grace” has arrived right on schedule.
“Amazing Grace” premiered at the 2018 DOC NYC festival. It receives an awards-qualifying run in Los Angeles on November 20, and New York on December 7.
Ever since his shocking Oscar-nominated feature “Dogtooth” made the international rounds, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has been in the sightlines of many actors intrigued by his surreal, unusual narratives and his subversive black humor. This was first evident in his dystopian comedy “The Lobster,” in which beguiling performances from Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, and John C. Reilly showed the potential for Lanthimos’ deadpan style to unlock new potential among well-known faces; it continued with the nightmarish thriller “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” which brought Nicole Kidman into Lanthimos’ expanding universe. With “The Favourite,” Lanthimos’ wacky queer love triangle set in the halls of the British royalty, Emma Stone and Olivia Colman embrace the devious energy of Lanthimos’ unique approach.
But there’s one major actor who has been eager to work with Lanthimos long before he made inroads to English-language productions. “Cate Blanchett was the first one that reached out,” Lanthimos said, in an interview with IndieWire from New York, while promoting the upcoming release of “The Favourite” and recalling the immediate aftermath of “Dogtooth.” “I’m still in contact with Cate, and we are trying to do something together.”
Blanchett has yet to speak publicly of her affinity for Lanthimos’ work, and representatives for the actress declined to comment. Nevertheless, a collaboration with Lanthimos would be a natural gamble for the A-list performer, whose stable of auteur collaborators includes Woody Allen, Terrence Malick, Todd Haynes, and Martin Scorsese. Lanthimos and Blanchett have overlapped at festivals in recent years: “The Lobster” was in competition at Cannes the same year as Haynes’ “Carol,” and Blanchett was spotted at the Venice International Film Festival premiere of “The Favourite” in late August.
“I’ve been so fortunate to work with great directors,” she told IndieWire in 2013. “In the end, I think that’s driving the conversation.”
Lanthimos added that Weisz reached out to him shortly after he heard from Blanchett — and as the cast of “The Favourite” proves, they weren’t the only actresses drawn to his work. “It was mostly women who reached out,” he said. “I don’t know what that says about my work, the work they were getting, or about male actors.” Regardless, he welcomed them into his domain. “It is true that the way the system works, you need name actors in order to put things together when you make English-language films,” he said. “I took great care in making sure that all these people reaching out wanted to be a part of it because of what the work was, not because something different might happen, and that they actually appreciated the work.”
As Lanthimos continues to collaborate with famous names, the media attention to his experimental processes has intensified. For “The Favourite,” Stone told USA Today that she was asked to “pant like I was giving birth throughout the lines,” even though her character doesn’t give birth in the movie. However, she added, “I think he just does this to everyone.”
Asked about this attention to his process, Lanthimos agreed with Stone’s assessment. “People pick up on things and sometimes they’re blown out of proportion,” he said. “It’s presented as something really strange and unique. I think it’s just that I’ve done theater, and worked with choreographers, so doing exercises while you rehearse is a standard thing. I might have a particular way that’s more humorous or more individualistic, but it’s nothing more than doing exercises and playing games to work with the actors and unlock certain things.”
Fox Searchlight will open “The Favourite” theatrically on November 23, 2018.
The Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic “On the Basis of Sex” has premiered at AFI Fest, and first reactions have started to trickle in. As awards season continues to hurdle toward the end of the year, Mimi Leder’s drama enters the conversation in the middle of a busy field. And it turns out that this one might not be a big awards contender — but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a natural appeal to its story. Felicity Jones is its star, but RGB is its brand, and that may be all it takes to help the movie find an audience when it hits theaters in December. Then again, has America experienced too much of the Supreme Court this year?
In this week’s episode of Screen Talk, Eric Kohn and Anne Thompson debate the movie, which they don’t quite see eye-to-eye on. They also dig into other highlights from AFI Fest as well as DOC NYC, both of which began their latest editions this week.
You can subscribe here or via RSS. Share your feedback with Thompson and Kohn on Twitter or sound off in the comments. Browse previous installments here, review the show on and be sure to let us know if you’d like to hear the hosts address specific issues in upcoming editions of Screen Talk. Check out the rest of IndieWire’s podcasts on iTunes right here.
With few modifications, “On the Basis of Sex” could have been made 30 years ago, and its rousing portrait of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg would be a cheesy tearjerker with purpose. Today, it’s out of touch. Like the breakout summer documentary “RGB,” director Mimi Leder’s upbeat tribute is an admirable salute to one woman’s determination against a sexist world, but the non-fiction treatment is forced into heavy-handed dramaturgy and becomes an antiquated soap opera.
The justice’s inspiring legal trajectory, as the pioneering women’s rights lawyer who challenged gender discrimination laws and eventually overturned them in a series of aggressive cases, has inspired generations. Unfortunately, released at the most divisive moments in American politics — a matter of weeks after the Supreme Court became a flashpoint for national outrage, and its longstanding commitment to nonpartisanship went kaput — “On the Basis of Sex” plays like a sunny fantasy from a more optimistic age.
Despite a formidable performance by Felicity Jones, Leder’s maudlin approach is further hobbled by Daniel Stiepleman’s blunt screenplay, which takes Ginsberg’s imminent success for granted with an annoying wink-wink approach that underserves the value of her legacy. As concerns about the 85-year-old Ginsberg’s longevity linger on a court where liberal justices have been relegated to a minority, Leder’s movie arrives with an unspoken and inadvertent aura of fear.
Still, if you’re just getting up to speed on why Ginsberg matters — then and now, with a terrifying future on the horizon — “On the Basis of Sex” does a serviceable job of consolidating the earlier chapters. The movie opens on the steps of Harvard in the early 1950s, when Ginsberg entered law school as one of only a handful of women in her class. Discrimination comes at her from every angle, from the moment young Ginsberg takes her seat alongside a male classmate who gives her a discerning look; it carries over to a dinner hosted by the hawkish dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston, all stern looks and furrowed brows), the movie’s de facto villain. Their initial showdown provides the first guilty pleasure kick of watching Jones throw shade at any sexism casually tossed her way: Asked at the dinner table to explain “why you’re occupying a place that could have gone to a man,” she fires back with a sarcastic desire to “be a more supportive wife.”
Of course, as “RGB” viewers and RGB acolytes know, the reality of Ginsberg’s household was the opposite: While Marty Ginsberg found his way through Harvard’s secondary school and suffered through a cancer diagnosis, Ginsberg became the breadwinner. Armie Hammer does a serviceable job with a woefully underwritten part as a sweet, flawless support system (while a welcome inversion of gender dynamics, it’s still a hollow characterization). “On the Basis of Sex” asks for tears early and often, as Marty lies in a hospital bed following his first scary diagnosis and the camera gets intimate with the couple’s faces. “We’re never giving up,” Ginsberg sobs. “I’m spending my life with you.” It’s a wonder an omniscient narrator doesn’t pipe in, “And she did.”
So it goes for much of “On the Basis of Sex,” which presents a series of moments in Ginsberg’s legal career built around the foregone conclusion that she’ll triumph against oppression. The music swells as Ginsberg gives up on Harvard to follow Marty to New York, completing her career at Colombia and finding her footing as a teacher after the male-dominated law firms reject the idea of a working alongside a woman. As the story hits the 1970s, Ginsberg’s enlightened daughter Jane (newcomer Caile Spaeny, an energetic presence with real potential) delivers her mom a reality check about her efforts to effect change in the classroom: “It’s not a movement. It’s a support group.”
Zing! Ginsberg knows she needs to take decisive action to affect real social change, and springs at a chance that comes from an unlikely place: The opportunity to represent a single military veteran denied government support while taking care of his ailing mother, simply because of his gender. By starting with male discrimination, Ginsberg finds the trojan horse that leads to sweeping new legal precedents, and “On the Basis of Sex” develops some intrigue around the evolution of those plans. It also provides an excuse for Justin Theroux to ham it up as the garrulous ACLU head Mel Wulf, who supplies Ginsberg with an important ally even as he distrusts the optics of a woman arguing her case in court.
Of course, she does just that, and the climactic courtroom showdown alternates between dispiriting and heated exchanges with a panel of crusty old men. While hackneyed, the movie’s concluding act provides a window into the punishing work navigated by Ginsberg. Jones bends the material into genuine pathos, even as the British actress is saddled with a loose New Yawk accent that comes and goes. (“My muthuh twold me not to give way to emotions.”) The schematic nature of the screenplay is a different story: As Ginsberg hurdles a wave of legal briefs, debate over the finer details has a wooden quality that even the finest line reading can’t salvage. Told that the prevalent use of “sex” in her briefing comes off as lewd, her aide contemplates a solution: “Maybe try a different word. Maybe…” Wait for it. “Gender?”
You think? As the movie holds its viewers’ hands to a Disneyfied climax, it celebrates Ginsberg’s story with an admirable current of optimism. It’s almost as though Leder were doing penance for the paranoid fantasies of her blockbuster efforts “The Peacemaker” and “Deep Impact,” but the irony is that those 20-year-old apocalyptic scenarios have a lot more in common with the zeitgeist than anything here.
Ginsberg’s resilience has no real historical parallel. She’s held on to her seat through three presidencies and continues to cling on during this terrifying fourth entry, enduring countless health scares (including a very recent one). “On the Basis of Sex” illustrates the roots of that resilience; as the real RGB walks up the steps in a defiant closing shot, “On the Basis of Sex” makes it clear that no fabricated drama can muster the raw power of watching the real deal in action. Long may she reign.
“On the Basis of Sex” premiered at the 2018 AFI Fest. Focus Features releases it theatrically on December 25.
In “Mandy,” Nicolas Cage goes on a wild-eyed quest for revenge, but the movie’s plot comes secondary to the experience of watching it. Director Panos Cosmatos’ follow-up to his similarly atmospheric “Beyond the Black Rainbow” is a heavy metal tone poem, replete with leather jackets, shadowy landscapes, and unfiltered bursts of rage. Much of its expressionistic power comes from an undercurrent of music that envelops nearly every moment, evoking dread and wonder in equal doses.
The “Mandy” score is one of the best of the year, a fierce emotional arrangement of mournful synth and somber guitars, interspersed with jarring eruptions of percussion — all of which demonstrate the complex vision of Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who died in February at the age of 48, shortly after “Mandy” premiered at Sundance.
Now, as “Mandy” has catapulted beyond its initial day-and-date release to become a genuine cult phenomenon, its creators have been campaigning to remind people of Jóhannsson’s legacy (and dreaming of awards potential in process). Several vinyl editions of the soundtrack have been released, and they feature the full scope of Jóhannsson’s work on “Mandy,” including the spectacular “Children of the New Dawn,” which did not make it into the final cut of the movie.
“I was really happy with his work, but I also felt in a way that we had only just scratched the surface of what we could do together,” Cosmatos said in a phone interview. “I was actually looking forward to working with him again, and going even further.”
Jóhannsson was an established Hollywood composer by the time “Mandy” came along. After collaborating exclusively on Icelandic projects throughout the aughts, he eventually developed a prestigious repertoire that included the bulk of Denis Villeneuve’s English-language work — “Prisoners,” “Sicario,” and “Blade Runner 2049” — as well as “mother!” and “The Theory of Everything,” which scored him an Oscar nomination.
However, Jóhannsson’s “Mandy” connection emerged out of his first American project, the 2013 thriller “McCanick.” That movie was directed by Josh Waller, co-founder of the genre production house Spectrevision with producer Daniel Noah and Elijah Wood. Jóhannsson had also been a client of the company’s short-lived Spectrevision Music Management, and when he heard that the company was producing Cosmatos’ sophomore effort, the composer reached out. The dark, lyrical project was a world away from the bigger productions Jóhannsson had tackled in recent years, but Cosmatos’ affinity for heavy metal resonated with Jóhannsson’s own passions.
“He was always on our minds for the film, but he reached out to us,” said Wood. “He said, ‘Man, I’m a big fan of Panos. Do you think there’s, like, room at the table for me on this movie?’” A fan of “Beyond the Black Rainbow,” Jóhannsson felt the need to plead his case. “His perspective was, ‘Holy shit, you guys are making something with Panos that is in this nightmarish, psychedelic metal world that I was born and bred on,’” Wood added.
Cosmatos had been admiring Jóhannsson’s work from afar, and said that a single cue in “Sicario” had stuck with him. “They’re descending into this valley at desk, and there’s this unbroken shot of blending into the darkness, and I just thought it had one of the truly greatest music cues in cinema history,” Cosmatos said. “I’m not exaggerating.”
Nevertheless, Cosmatos had grown used to working on a small scale and the idea of enlisting a revered composer of Jóhannsson’s stature had not occurred to him. The Spectrevision team arranged a phone call between the pair that wound up lasting several hours. “I realized we had some similar touchstones,” Cosmatos said, noting that they bonded on a shared affinity for Van Halen in particular. “I said that I basically wanted it to feel a little bit like a disintegrated rock opera, and he responded to that. We developed a kind of shorthand almost immediately.”
Jóhannsson was so eager to take on the project that he went beyond the typical workflow procedures and began composing before seeing any footage of the movie. “He was composing ideas and sketches just based on the script itself,” Wood said, “so even during the pre-production process, before they started rolling cameras, there were little bits of music, sketches, and ideas that he was expressing. It was extraordinary.”
Jóhannsson enlisted the Seattle-based experimental metal band Sunn O))) to provide the moody guitar work, not even realizing that Cosmatos had already appreciated the group’s work on the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s “The Limits of Control.” Cosmatos had listened to that song while preparing to work on “Beyond the Black Rainbow,” so it was clear that Jóhannsson understood the wavelength of his newfound collaborator. “I felt like somebody who had experience working on more traditional movie scores might actually benefit the film, because had a base to build from, and mutate from,” Cosmatos said.
Jóhannsson assembled the soundtrack in piecemeal, sending sample bits to Cosmatos via email and working from a rough cut that had no temp score, per the composer’s preference. They only met in person once, after the movie had been completed. Cosmatos described their phone calls as idiosyncratic planning sessions that reflect the undulating tones of the movie. Describing the opening sequence, which establishes the Cage character’s utopian existence with his wife (Andrea Riseborough) before a deranged cult shows up and destroys everything, Cosmatos swung for specifics. “I said, ‘I want it to feel like you’re 11 years old, and you’re in the backseat of your big brother’s Trans Am, and he’s smoking weed, and you can smell the vanilla air freshener, and the leather,” the director said. “It’s kind of scary, but it’s also exhilarating at the same time.” Cosmatos recalled that Jóhannsson paused before replying: “I know exactly what you mean.”
In the aftermath of Jóhannsson’s death, Cosmatos hasn’t revisited the soundtrack. “I’m almost afraid to listen to it in isolation, because I still have emotional strands attached to it,” he said.
The filmmaker, whose father George Pan Cosmatos was a filmmaker with credits ranging from “Rambo: First Blood Part II” to “Tombstone,” said he forged a familial bond with Jóhannsson over the course of their collaboration. “I did feel a closeness to him in a weird way,” Cosmatos said. “He reminded me a bit of my dad in a sense. He had a gruffness about him, but once you spend some time with him, you realize he’s a very sensitive, thoughtful person. Our friendship was just beginning.”
“Mandy” is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. The soundtrack is available now from Lakeshore Records.
Filmmaker Tony Kaye has always taken an incendiary approach to exposing the nation’s most disturbing problems, from the traumatizing act of anti-Semitism that opened “American History X” to his eye-opening abortion rights documentary “Lake of Fire.” While Kaye has maintained a lower profile in recent years, he continued to churn out a range of multimedia work, and the looming midterm elections have given him the opportunity to deliver bite-sized call to action.
Kaye’s new minute-long advertisement has provided exclusively to IndieWire and is currently being shared by a handful of volunteers canvassing in the state. It features Deven McNair, a professional stuntwoman, being set on fire while delivering an angry call to action. “This year, it’s more than an election. It’s an emergency,” she says. “Things are getting out of control. Republicans are giving billionaires a trillion-dollar tax cut.”
She also calls out the threats to “healthcare, medicare, and social security,” and belts out “Fire the bums!” As she falls to the ground with flames smoldering across her back, she concludes, “If you’re not burned up, you should be!” The advertisement ends with a plea to “Vote Democrat,” followed by a quote from Mark Twain. McNair is a stuntwoman “who has not worked two years,” Kaye said, “because stuntmen take away stuntwomen’s jobs by dressing as women.”
Watch the political advertisement below.
Kaye recently made headlines by announcing plans for his next film, “2nd Born,” which will reportedly feature an actual robot in the lead role. But for now, he’s focused on the midterms, and has distributed the video to colleagues who are canvassing in Texas for Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke. The advertisement was financed by Creative Management Partners co-founder Tim Case.
Kaye isn’t the only filmmaker to get invested in the Texas senatorial race. Richard Linklater recently produced several political ads for the Fire Ted Cruz PAC featuring “Bernie” actor Sonny Carl Davis trashing Cruz.