The filmmaker and actor tried something different for his third directorial outing: a genre film. It’s paid off, and could carry him all the way to the Oscars.
Nine months after John Krasinski debuted “A Quiet Place” at SXSW to the best reviews of his career, eight months after opening in the number-one slot at the box office, seven and a half months after crossing the $100M threshold, and six months after Paramount Pictures confirmed a sequel, he can’t believe he’s still talking about the thing.
The reason, of course, is a good one: distributor Paramount Pictures is giving the film a full awards campaign, one that has recently been bolstered by top 10 designations from AFI and the National Board of Review. Still, this is not how the actor-filmmaker (who has also found the time to start filming his second season as the star of Amazon’s “Jack Ryan” series) expected to spend his December.
“Absolutely not, unequivocally no,” Krasinski said. “I’ve never done the awards season thing for anything. This is very new to me. You actually get to have this relationship with your movie all over again … this is more of the emotional side of it, because you get to talk to people about it.”
That means more than just his audience. Fellow filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson — whom Krasinski refers to as his “number one, a stratospheric director” — recently hosted an awards event for the film, which was enough to make Krasinski’s head spin. “When he was talking about our movie and raising a glass to our movie and [wife] Emily [Blunt]’s performance and my direction, I had a complete out-of-body experience,” Krasinski said.
His hiring for the gig was unexpected. Krasinski’s first two films, “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men” (2009) and “The Hollars” (2016) each debuted at Sundance, and were acquired by IFC Films and Sony Pictures Classics, respectively. Neither made a dent at the box office. He wasn’t even looking for a directing gig.
“A Quiet Place”
Initially, Michael Bay’s production company Platinum Dunes approached Krasinski only to star in “A Quiet Place.” When they tried to gauge his interest in making the jump to genre, he proved a tough sell. He’s been open about his initial lack of interest in the genre space, chalking it up to not growing up as a horror fan. Instead, he turned to the emotional center of the original script by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, a family holding on to each other at the end of the world.
“I connected to the idea of family,” he said. “When I did the rewrite, I thought, ‘I can make this an entire metaphor for parenthood, as long as I keep the metaphor going every single page, every single scene,’ and really drill down on what it is personally that I’m connecting to about this story. … One of my favorite compliments was, somebody saw it with their husband and then they immediately brought their high school-age kids back to see it, because it was a family experience.”
Still, Krasinski didn’t resist the film’s unabashed genre elements. While horror films are often pushed aside during the awards conversation, with recent standouts like “Get Out” or “Hereditary” earning the hammy designation of being “elevated horror,” Krasinski isn’t bothered by such labels. Being a genre guy made him a better filmmaker.
“I think this idea of ‘elevated horror,’ people coin different phrases, and that’s great, but the truth is it’s a type of storytelling,” he said. “My best answer for that is actually stealing from a friend of mine who gave me the best advice about genre movies, which is: Genre is a wonderful place to deal with things that are bigger than the story itself.”
Pointing to a film like “E.T. the Extraterrestrial,” which used genre packaging to tell a story about the impact of divorce on kids, he said: “I think that when people are talking about elevated films, I think that’s probably what they’re talking about, is the idea that there’s more going on than just trying to scare you.”
His resistance to labels also extends to the recently announced (and currently retracted) Academy Award for Best Popular Film. He’s not a fan of the idea, because he’s eager for films, no matter the genre or box office take or whatever other quantitative judgement can be slapped on them, to compete on an even playing field.
“I certainly would be happy with any kind of nomination from anything, because it’s such an honor and we’re totally blown away that we’re even in the conversation,” Krasinski said. “But at the same time, would I be more proud by getting nominated for Best Picture flat-out rather than Best Popular category? Yeah, if I’m honest, because all of my heroes in all of the movies I loved have been judged by that, so I always want to be judged by the same. I think we should all be judged on our merit.”
He added, “If what you’re saying is tapping into that bigger conversation about bigger ideas and you’re making people feel things, then we’re all in the same pool. That’s why we’re all going to the movies. If you start culling out certain sections of film and saying, ‘We’re celebrating this separately,’ where does it end?”
“A Quiet Place”
After the awards race, Krasinski will continue talking about “A Quiet Place”: He’s confirmed that he’ll at least write the sequel, if not more. “S>ometimes I wish I wasn’t a realist, I wish I could be a little more romantic about something,” Krasinski said. “But I try to see everything from every angle, and I certainly understand when a studio has a hit like this, they’re gonna want to do another one. I gotta give Paramount a lot of credit for making sure that it’s good enough. Long before I was gonna do it, they still wanted my ideas and my consultation, because they really respected the audience’s response.”
While Krasinski is tight-lipped about his vision, he does offer that it will further expand the world seen in the first film. There are hints built into “A Quiet Place” about where its followup might go, including a scene that follows Krasinski’s character, Lee Abbott, as he dutifully lights a nightly signal fire and is greeted with more in the distance. More people, more stories.
“The idea of the sequel was hard for me to consider, because most sequels are about the bringing back or celebration of a villain or a hero,” he said. “In this one, the world is the star. I thought that was really interesting, that there is not necessarily one person that you need to follow or explore with, because the whole world’s going through the same thing.”
As daunting as the idea of a sequel may be for the filmmaker, Krasinski is turning to some old tricks to make it work, expanding out his influences and tapping back into what made this whole crazy idea work in the first place. He’s started working on a new list of films to help inspire the second film, just as he did with “A Quiet Place,” which he’s said was influenced by films like “Jaws,” “Alien,” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” Now he’s working on a new list.
“It’s sort of an amalgamation of horror movies, but also filmically and cinematically, other movies that have nothing to do with horror,” he said. “It’s mixing all of the film experiences.” It worked the first time.
“A Quiet Place” is currently available on DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming.
It may not fit the mold of a usual Oscar nominee, but “Paddington 2” deserves serious Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor consideration.
It shouldn’t feel like a crazy idea to suggest that “Paddington 2” should be a serious player in this year’s awards race. Yes, a sequel hasn’t been nominated for Best Picture since “Mad Max: Fury Road” in 2015, and a “kids’ movie” hasn’t made the cut since “Toy Story 3” in 2010 (or “Hugo” in 2011, depending on your definition).
True, “Paddington 2” came out in January — a month that belongs to the previous year, so far as the Oscar season is concerned — and yes, the story of a computer-generated bear trying to retrieve a pop-up book for his aunt (also a computer-generated bear) might look a little silly next to a sweeping historical epic like “Roma” or a zeitgeist-destroying love story like “A Star Is Born.” While there’s no denying that Hugh Grant brilliantly reinterprets the music of Stephen Sondheim, it’s hard to compete with Lady Gaga forever transforming the soul of Jackson Maine. Hard, but not impossible.
Consider its pedigree: “Paddington 2” is the “best-reviewed film ever.” (Okay, technically it just has the most reviews of any 100% Fresh movie on Rotten Tomatoes, but The Guardian’s dramatic headline speaks for itself.) When it was released in Britain late last year, it garnered a trio of prestigious BAFTA nominations, including Best British Film. It was edged out by “Call Me by Your Name” for Best Screenplay, while Grant competed for Best Actor in a Supporting Role alongside the likes of Willem Dafoe and Sam Rockwell; Grant even won that same category at the London Film Critics’ Circle Awards.
While it’s too early to know if American voting bodies will have the same decency as their colleagues across the Atlantic, it’s safe to assume that “Paddington 2” will at least pop up on some top 10 lists over the next few weeks — in fact, this critic can guarantee it. As the saying goes: “Paddington looks for the good in all of us, and somehow he finds it.” Lucky for us, looking for the good in “Paddington 2” is a pleasure, and finding it is a breeze. A witty, heartfelt, and visually inspired tale of love and belonging (that also functions as a politely scathing rebuke to Brexit and the xenophobia that made it possible), the film has already been minted as a bonafide classic.
And yet, Warner Bros — which distributed the film in the U.S. after the collapse of The Weinstein Company — doesn’t even have a For Your Consideration page for it. The studio even made one for “Ready Player One,” a movie that would barely merit consideration on a gas station’s DVD rack. This shall not stand. Justice must be served. And court is now in session. Here are seven Oscar nominations for which “Paddington 2” deserves to be in the running, if not at the head of the pack.
1. Best Picture
Here’s the thing: The “prestige” films of 2018 provide the Academy with a golden opportunity to shake things up and forever redefine what it means to be an “Oscar movie.” While relatively conservative fare like “First Man” (and ultra-conservative fare like “Green Book”) is still chumming the water, the conversation is dominated by left-field contenders; not only will this be the first time that a superhero movie has ever been nominated for Best Picture (“Black Panther”), it will also be the first time since “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” that a foreign-language film (“Roma”) has a legitimate shot at winning (“Amour” is a masterpiece, but it was never much of a contender). “The Favourite” is a very different kind of period drama, while “A Star Is Born” — however crowd-pleasing it might be — is still a musical directed by the star of “Limitless.” Bradley Cooper crushes painkillers with a cowboy boot! Andrew Dice Clay watches YouTube! Alec Baldwin hosting “SNL” might honestly be the most normal thing that happens in this entire movie.
So the question isn’t “Why ‘Paddington 2’” so much as it’s “Why not ‘Paddington 2?’” For one thing, it’s hilarious, full of brilliant physical gags that bridge the gap between CGI and the silent era. The chase sequence in the first act nods to Harold Lloyd, the prison bits in the second pay homage to Charlie Chaplin, while the locomotive grand finale is a wonderful tribute to Buster Keaton; “The Artist” won Best Picture for much less. For another, “Paddington 2” is an inclusive and beautifully moving parable that has something to offer to people of all ages, and ends with a moment that can reduce grown men to tears. And it’s not as if Americans didn’t see it. While the film’s $40 million domestic haul represents less than 18 percent of its $227 million worldwide gross, that’s still considerably more than recent nominees like “Call Me by Your Name,” “Phantom Thread,” and “Moonlight.”
2. Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Grant)
Hugh Grant would be a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actor, provided that anyone bothered to fund a campaign for his performance. (There’s still time!). As washed-up actor Phoenix Buchanan — an aging legend of the West End reduced to hosting carnivals and starring in dog-food commercials — Grant not only gets the best role of his career, he also gets several of them. When Phoenix discovers that Paddington has found a pop-up book that doubles as a treasure map, he busts out his old costumes, dons a number of ridiculous disguises (a knight, a hobo, a very attractive nun), and puts on the performance of a lifetime in order to steal the book and frame Paddington for the crime; it’s like watching all six of his characters from “Cloud Atlas” squeezed into a single preening narcissist with a dastardly plan.
The villainous part does a brilliant job of playing up Grant’s slightly misanthropic reputation, and the former rom-com star (himself a few years removed from his heyday) seems to be having the time of his life. He relishes in every ridiculous moment, radiating the self-obsessed desperation of a faded star who’s desperate to return to the limelight. Of course, all Phoenix really wants is a captive audience, and the mid-credits scene in which he finally gets one makes for the year’s greatest showstopper; in the world of “Paddington 2,” even the most selfish of people can redeem themselves by spreading the love.
3. Best Special Effects
These days, photorealistic computer-generated characters are easy to take for granted. Contemporary viewers might be as unimpressed by the sight of a talking bear as any of the characters in this movie. And yet, it takes tremendous craft and artistry to make us ignore such tremendous craft and artistry. Paddington is a marvel of digital animation — the rare 3D cartoon that feels as expressive as the hand-drawn characters you’d find in a Disney or Studio Ghibli classic.
The trick is in how the special-effects team allows Paddington to walk the line between a wild animal and a hyper-polite Londoner; he might be the only bear in the world with a side hustle as a window washer, but he still cleans the glass by rubbing his butt against it. Even when he’s an incarcerated little cub fixing marmalade sandwiches with Brendan Gleeson in the kitchen of a maximum security prison, he’s still an ursine creature with four paws and a hard stare that could shake a serial killer to their core. The seamless effects work maintains that balance at all times: As much as this is a bear-out-of-Darkest-Peru tale, Paddington’s wide eyes, his fixed resolve, and his marvelously animated fur always leaves you feeling like he belongs wherever he goes.
4. Best Score (Dario Marianelli)
Dario Marianelli — who won an Oscar for “Atonement,” and is long overdue for another — delivers some of the best (and most deceptively challenging) work of his career in “Paddington 2,” composing a score that manages to be colorful but never cloying, sensitive but never saccharine, and always as buoyant and bright-eyed as Paddington himself. The glockenspiel in the score’s main theme endows the movie with an appropriately fanciful attitude, and Marianelli’s ability to expand that energy to a number of different sounds (samba, military, even religious church choir) does a marvelous job of expressing Paddington’s resourcefulness and/or resiliency. It’s all there on the soundtrack’s opening song, a fluid medley of all the fun music to come. However, perhaps the most impressive part is how little Marianelli repeats himself, as his score for “Paddington 2” is entirely different from the one he wrote for the previous installment; it’s deeper, richer, and more vibrant in every way.
5. Best Costumes (Lindy Hemming)
Lindy Hemming deserves a Best Costume Design nomination for Hugh Grant’s amazing selection of cravats alone. Phoenix Buchanan’s various disguises are brilliant for how they reflect his character, prioritizing form over function no matter how urgent the circumstances. Phoenix doesn’t simply dress up as a knight in order to hide out in the Tower of London, he dons a radiant suit of armor flecked with rich blues and reds so that he can stand out from the other piles of scrap metal. Phoenix doesn’t throw on a dour habit to slip into the nunnery; he wears a form-fitting frock that allows him to move with a holy grace; it’s even reversible, allowing him to transform into Pope chic at a moment’s notice. Phoenix’s best outfit might be his own checkered suits, bringing a certain Dickensian aplomb to his brief performance as a bearded homeless man.
It’s tough to compete with Paddington’s signature jacket and hat combo, but Hemming’s work gives the rest of the cast a fighting chance. Sally Hawkins’ outfits radiate a strong maternal warmth (she wears that thick red cardigan like it’s a superhero cape), while Hugh Bonneville often feels as though he’s silently screaming about the blandness of his white-collar work attire, as Mr. Brown is desperate to shake off the tedium of his corporate job and return to his free-spirited “Daddy Cool” days. And let’s not forget the most fashion-forward prison outfits in film history, which combine the precious charm of Wes Anderson with the oppressiveness of a penal system. Even Paddington’s dear Aunt Lucy is runway-ready in this one, sporting a comfortable winter coat that accents the color of her fur, and looks as comfortable as a sip of Sleepytime tea.
After more than two decades in Hollywood, the actor tells IndieWire he has hit upon a formula for professional satisfaction.
Ben Foster only knows one way of working. After working in Hollywood for over two decades, the rare child actor who managed to find his way to a compelling adult career has been reaping the rewards of long-term commitment. In recent years, that has included an Independent Spirit Award for his turn in “Hell or High Water,” a continued relationship with his most cherished directors, and a sustained level of intensity that might exhaust other actors but only seems to keep Foster more tuned in. He buries himself in performances to a point where, as he describes it, he’s not even acting in a traditional sense.
“For my job, the goal is to learn the thing, and then do the thing, and do it, and do it, and do it over and over until I don’t think about it,” Foster said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “You start building a world where you don’t have to think so much. It’s the only way I know how to do it.”
It may not be the most suitable approach for every film — and over the course of 22 years in the business, Foster has dabbled in all kinds of projects, from an “X-Men” installment to the 2001 teen rom-com “Get Over It” — but Foster’s world-building approach has yielded his best, most satisfying work. His latest film, Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace,” allowed Foster to once again gets to disappear into a role.
The movie, which debuted at Sundance this past January, arrived in limited release over the summer, and has somehow managed to sustain the rare 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes in the interim. The story finds Foster playing single father Will, who lives off the grid with his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie, who recently earned an Indie Spirit nomination for the role). Suffering from PTSD and eager to exist outside the normal realms (and all the normal people who populate them), Will and Tom’s lives are built around their isolation, one threatened when they’re accidentally spotted by a stray runner.
For an actor like Foster, who adores being immersed in a role, it seemed like a dream gig. If nothing else, it allowed him the chance to apply his desire to “learn the thing” in literal and practical ways: he eventually adopted primitive skills, as well as escape and evade techniques. He learned how to build a fire, how to dig out a tent, how to find food. He didn’t just want to do all that stuff, he needed to do it for his work.
On the set of “Leave No Trace”
And then there was filmmaker Debra Granik. Foster says he was an early fan of Granik’s work — he pointed to “Down to the Bone” as a marker of Granik’s “impressive” filmography and her ability to get in sync with her actors, all things that appealed to him. From their earliest meetings, Foster says it was clear that he and Granik would be able to work together in pursuit of a shared vision.
“The [filmmakers] that I’m drawn to are much more interested in collaborating,” Foster said. “In those [first] meetings, you try to create a shorthand or understand what the filmmaker wants to accomplish, what questions, avenues they want to explore, and can you share a working language? There’s nothing worse, well, there’s plenty of things worse, but it’s a drag to go to work when you’re making different movies, and I’ve found myself making different movies than the filmmaker. I found myself halfway through saying, ‘Well, I guess we didn’t understand each other.'”
Foster doesn’t name names when it comes to those films that were the product of such misunderstandings, preferring to reflect on the things that have worked. “My first film was with Barry Levinson,” he said, referring to “Liberty Heights.” “I’ve been a lucky fella in that department, and I’ve been really fortunate recently to work with some smart people. If you can go to work and someone can provoke a question that stirs you up a bit, that’s great. That means something’s gonna end up on film that feels true, and not a waste of time, or a lie. There’s less betrayal.”
The actor might have been even more sensitive to such betrayals when it came to “Leave No Trace,” as the film arrived at a pivotal point in his personal life. Foster and his wife, fellow actor Laura Prepon, had just learned that they were going to have a baby when he started reading the script. It all clicked. “Reading this script and coinciding with the news that we were gonna have a daughter months after completing this film, everything felt very charged,” Foster said.
“Leave No Trace”
For Foster, someone who often gets labeled “intense” or “crazed” in his work (both of which have been added those terms as part of his IMDb biography), signing on for the film and the experience it would entail seems to have been an easy decision. Not that it was necessarily an easy process, as the material that Grankik and co-writer Anne Rosellini adapted from Peter Rock’s novel “My Abandonment” contains heavy themes.
“We talked about the unseen scars of war and different coping mechanisms,” Foster said. “These are things that have touched my life by having friends in the military, and I felt like I could ask these questions in an emotional way that I haven’t before, so that was exciting. … Further than that, trauma is trauma, and war doesn’t get to own PTSD. Understanding that if you live long enough on this planet and you make it to a certain age we’re gonna experience things that go unresolved, leave a mark. We need to find ways to cope. We don’t do it so well sometimes.”
One thing that leaves a mark on Foster: his work. He doesn’t shake roles off, and he doesn’t seem to want to. “It’s like a breakup,” he said. “It’s three months of, we’ll call it an intense love affair, where it’s physical, and it’s mental, and it’s every day, and all night, and then it’s over. … It feels like falling in love and breaking up. Sometimes it’s a good breakup and sometimes it rips your heart out, and you think about it, every song reminds you of that person. It’s supposed to hurt a little. If it worked well, I think it’s okay to sit with that.”
While Foster admitted that has occasionally considering quitting the business, he has a hard time taking those feelings seriously. “Every couple of years, there’s a moment of an, ‘In case of an emergency’ clause, and get the fuck outta here, because this is clown town,” he said. “And then there’s an artist, a director, an actor, someone that inspires and excites. … I don’t even have a high school diploma. What am I gonna go do?”
“Leave No Trace” is now available on Digital HD, Blu-ray, and DVD.
The Japanese auteur talks to IndieWire about his Palme d’Or-winning masterpiece, and how making “Shoplifters” led him to Ethan Hawke.
When Cate Blanchett handed Kore-eda Hirokazu the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May, the “Shoplifters” director froze in place for a moment, as though paralyzed by the weight of the world’s most prestigious film award. Kore-eda had good reason to be shell-shocked. Despite emerging as the most feted Japanese filmmaker of his generation, being anointed as “Ozu’s heir” more times than he could count, and even winning the Cannes Jury Prize in 2013, Kore-eda still never thought this day would come.
The last time a film of his had been invited to screen at the festival (2016’s achingly wounded “After the Storm”), it had been relegated to the Un Certain Regard sidebar, a demotion that often anticipates a director’s irrelevance. And while Kore-eda had weathered that demotion before, his next feature — a grim murder-mystery that found him veering away from the kind of gentle family dramas that made him famous — skipped Cannes altogether. “The Third Murder” premiered instead at Venice, where it became one of the most poorly reviewed films of Kore-eda’s long and brilliant career.
Just eight months later, Kore-eda was standing on the gold-flecked stage of the Palais and receiving this beautiful gift from Galadriel herself. After a few seconds that felt like years, Blanchett motioned for the filmmaker to approach the podium, and Kore-eda was eager to accept her direction. “My legs are shaking,” he said into the microphone, exuding the same delicate sweetness that’s imbued into his movies. But while Kore-eda may have seemed uncertain about what to do while he was on stage, he knew exactly what he wanted to do after he stepped down from it: Meet Ethan Hawke.
Kore-eda, catching his breath in between screenings at the high-altitude Telluride Film Festival in early September, laughed about his newfound confidence: “Immediately after winning the Palme I flew to New York to offer Ethan a role in my next movie,” the director said with the help of a translator. “Because of the timing, it was really difficult for him to say no!” The film, Kore-eda’s first international production, is now shooting in Paris — sure enough, Hawke is playing the male lead.
In all likelihood, a wise and worldly actor like Hawke didn’t need Cannes to convince him that Kore-eda is a rare master of the form. Like any number of dedicated cinephiles, he may have been moved by the vanguard beauty of “Maboroshi,” or forever changed by the soulful imagination of “After Life,” a wistful drama set in death’s waiting room. Hawke might have been gutted by the desolation of “Nobody Knows,” the most famous of Kore-eda’s many films about the inner lives of children, or “Still Walking,” which galvanized the director’s fascination with family bonds (like many American viewers, Hawke was almost certainly deprived of Kore-eda’s less commercial work, such as his sex doll fairy tale and his fragmented drama about the aftermath of a Japanese terrorist attack).
And yet, even if Hawke had already have been the filmmaker’s biggest fan, Kore-eda still had to make “Shoplifters” before they could ever hope to work together; he needed to bring one phase of his career to a close so that he could start on another. This is the masterpiece that Kore-eda has been building towards for much of the 21st century, the staggering culmination of a cinematic inquiry that has motivated the most brilliant stretch of his body of work — the fact that “Shoplifters” won the Palme d’Or was just icing on the cake.
“People have called this a ‘culmination,’” Kore-eda said, “but that wasn’t my intention. Over the course of my career I’ve had a number of different recurring themes and motifs, and I didn’t knowingly set out to incorporate them all into this one film, but now that I look back on it I can see that they are all in there.”
Kore-eda has long been preoccupied with the various forces that do — or do not — hold a family together. “Like Father, Like Son” and “Our Little Sister” question the binding power of blood, “Still Walking” investigates the performative inertia of loss, “After the Storm” examines the stability that money can buy, “I Wish” hinges on hope, and all of them touch upon sex and memory in some way. With “Shoplifters,” Kore-eda has found a premise that allows him to touch upon all of these forces at once, and test their collective strength.
The story of a marginally employed man and his wife who live in a hovel on the outskirts of Tokyo with a pre-teen boy, a twenty-something woman, and an aging grandmother, “Shoplifters” begins when the Shibata family takes in a stray girl they find hiding from her abusive parents. But all is not as it seems, and sheltering the adorable young Juri soon threatens to dissolve the bonds of this beautifully loving group. You’d have to go all the way back to the haunted social-realism of 2004’s “Nobody Knows” to find another Kore-eda film that stings like this one — that so lucidly vivisects the loneliness of not belonging to anyone, and the messiness of sticking together. “Shoplifters” is a masterpiece.
“One of my major life realizations,” Kore-eda said, “is that having a child is not enough to make you a parent.” Family, he agreed, is an idea that you have to reaffirm every day. “I think my films reflect my own sense of crisis about that, and this film — in which the binding agent is ultimately neither the blood relationship nor the time the Shibatas spend together — brings that crisis to a head.” It does so by approaching its themes with an unusually pronounced degree of skepticism; after more than 10 years of picking apart the basic concept of family (the nuclear Japanese family, in particular), Kore-eda summoned the courage to ask his audience if it really even mattered.
In an interview conducted for the movie’s press notes, Kore-eda said that “After the 2011 earthquake, I didn’t feel comfortable with people saying repeatedly that a family bond is important. So I wanted to explore it by depicting a family linked by crime.”
When asked about that in Telluride, Kore-eda was quick to clarify that the 3/11 disaster didn’t change things so much as it reframed them: “The traditional concept of family was already being dismantled or destroyed in Japan, and 3/11 just made it obvious that was happening. I believe you can no longer interpret the true value or purpose of family based on the antiquated traditional tropes of Japanese society. In ‘Shoplifters,’ I was looking at three generations living together, because that’s typically what you’d find in a Japanese household. But I wanted to play with that, and show that even within those terms the nuclear family is undergoing a permanent change.”
Kore-eda insisted that he had no pretensions of defining what the model family should look like nowadays, only that he was interested in posing the question. “I’m not an expert on this,” he said, “but I can speak in some very specific scenarios.”
He remembered back to 2002, when he was just starting to audition children to play the lead characters in “Nobody Knows.” “At that time, all the kids we saw were living in close proximity to their grandma or grandpa or both, and you could hear it in their vocabulary,” he said. “There were children who really loved it. But based in my experience over the last 15 years looking at families specifically in the Tokyo area, that has ceased to be the case. More elderly people are living alone. It’s very rare these days to see a family where the children have that kind of close contact with their grandparents, or live in traditional family structures.”
To watch Kore-eda’s films — and certainly to hear him talk about them — it’s clear that he’s not interested in judging this perceived degradation of traditional norms. These movies don’t lament what’s been lost so much as they wonder about what’s been found, a dynamic that allows even the most devastating pieces of Kore-eda’s work to feel intrinsically hopeful (his thoughts on the ending of “Shoplifters” were too spoiler-heavy to share here, but they made it clear the director savors that bittersweet aftertaste). His films are less concerned with passing a verdict on the state of things than they are in studying the various mechanisms that bind people together, and the performative elements required to keep us that way.
Japaneseness itself has become one of those elements in these stories, or perhaps even an aspect that’s baked into them all. And as Kore-eda has emerged as the contemporary film world’s most prominent ambassador of Japanese cinema, his popularity has endowed his films with a potentially uncomfortable pressure to crystallize what “Japaneseness” means to the outside world. “I think a lot about the weight of the responsibility of being considered by some to be representative of Japanese filmmaking,” he said, scoffing at the idea that any one person could be representative of a national cinema: “There are a lot of Japanese films being made! The trouble is that fewer and fewer of them are being shown on the big screen in Europe and elsewhere.”
Kore-eda reflected on the risks faced by Japanese filmmakers when trying to sell their work to the international market. He lamented that the tail often wags the dog, in that foreign buyers are only interested in Japanese films that reinforce tired notions of what Japaneseness should be (or that people fear that’s true of foreign buyers, which leads to the same result).
“In my career, I see two tendencies that for me personally strike a balance: Family dramas have been my bread and butter, but I also have a tendency to make films that are a little experimental,” he said. “Not all of those experimental films are going to be well-received.” He cited the muted response to “The Third Murder,” which was made “outside of his forte.” However, Kore-eda insisted that he doesn’t judge his work by how far it travels: “The films that don’t get international distribution aren’t deficient in any way. Sure, I’d love to see ‘Air Doll’ on the big screen, but that’s not everything.”
The truth, as always, is more complicated. Kore-eda cited the formative experience he had with “After Life” in 1998, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival after a programmer sent the director a handwritten fax proclaiming his love for the movie. But a gala debut wasn’t enough to get the movie sold. The director sighed: “I received very blunt information from the agent saying that this isn’t the kind of film that people want — they didn’t want to see people in heaven, they wanted the kind of typical Japanese film that would be representative of a national cinema.” Emotionally inhibited parents drinking sake on tatami mats, rogue samurai wandering the countryside, geishas scuffling around the Gion, that sort of thing.
It could have been a devastating moment, but Kore-eda chose to see it as a call to action. “That process made me realize that I don’t have to make what other people want,” he said. “‘After Life’ led me to have confidence that if I make something that I love, there will be fans and critics out there who will love it also, and won’t start putting labels on it.” To his point, “After Life” now regularly appears on (American) lists of the best films of the ’90s. “I feel really fortunate that I’ve been able to find those people,” Kore-eda continued, “even when I’ve wanted to make films just because I liked them.”
While “Shoplifters” definitely falls into the “family drama” category of Kore-eda’s work, the nuance and twistiness of its story constantly reinforces the sheer power of the director’s imagination. In addition to winning the Palme, the film has been a massive hit in Japan, and Kore-eda hopes that its success makes allows him to spread his wings from here: “One of the benefits that I’m hoping to see from this is for it to be easier for me to make films with the kind of original content that I want to use.”
In other words, movies that don’t traffic in the kinds of tropes that foreign audiences might otherwise require from a Japanese auteur. And what better way for Kore-eda to do that than to make a film that doesn’t take place in Japan at all?
“This is actually a really big adventure for me,” Kore-eda said of his France-based new feature, which co-stars Hawke and Juliette Binoche as a married couple who return to Paris after the latter’s mother — a famous actress played by Catherine Deneuve — publishes a controversial autobiography. “Making a film while trying to overcome the language barrier is something that will be a huge challenge for this production,” the director said, “but at the same time, the basis for it is still a kind of family drama. It’s a film where I feel like I can dig into the question of ‘what is acting?’ ‘What is a performance?’”
Shooting under the title “Verite,” or “Truth,” it sounds like the project has the potential to knot together the two tendencies of Kore-eda’s career like never before. Interestingly, “Truth” is based on an unproduced stage play that Kore-eda wrote 15 years ago, or right before he embarked on his current string of movies about family ties; it’s as if he had to work through an entire phase of his own filmmaking before he was ready to move on and dust off some of his older ideas.
“In my career, there are three periods,” he said. “Up until ‘I Wish,’ in 2011, I feel that was the first period of my filmmaking.” That’s a pretty long first period, given that he began making features in 1991. “‘Like Father, Like Son’ was when the second period started,” he said, “and it ended with ‘Shoplifters.’ Now, I am moving into the third era of my films.”
Asked which of his films are his personal favorites, Kore-eda — in characteristic fashion — expounded upon a familiar adage until it felt new: “It’s like asking someone which of their 10 kids you like the most. You may have one child who’s just ridiculously successful and making tons of money, and then you have this other child who’s living in poverty, but they’re just so lovable.” He grew silent for a moment, and then went on: “I would say there are two children who are most similar to myself. ‘Nobody Knows’ is the film that I became a director to make. ‘Still Walking’ is special to me because I made it shortly after losing my mother. Having said that, I also have to mention ‘Like Father, Like Son,’ because that film took me to the next level, to the point where I couldn’t believe this was really my career.”
At that point, Kore-eda’s producer piped up from the corner of the room in the Telluride mountain condo: “Yes,” she said sweetly, “this really is your career.” Kore-eda smiled, stood up, and had to catch his breath all over again.
Magnolia Pictures will release “Shoplifters” in theaters on Friday, November 23.
Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s documentary about the octogenarian Supreme Court Justice nimbly dodges the “eat your vegetables” mindset.
At some point, they started showing up in costume. After “RBG” earned an extended standing ovation at its Sundance Film Festival premiere, Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary was anointed as one of the year’s biggest crowdpleasers. Subsequent festival showings proved to be just as vibrant, and by the time the film arrived in theaters in early summer, audience participation became the expectation: a gavel here, a robe there, wannabe RBGs everywhere you look.
“You have people, men and women of all ages, who seem to come together around RBG, and that’s really cool,” West said. “The other day we were at a screening in Santa Barbara and there were five women standing in the third row with complete outfits.”
Added Cohen, “Not to just festivals, even just regular screenings at theaters, almost every screening we go to, there’ll be at least one person, be it an 80-year-old woman or a six-year-old girl, dressed as RBG. Sixty-five-year-old women with their little sparkly gavels! I don’t know where they got them, but there they were.”
Such is the galvanizing power of Ginsburg’s story. “RBG” is the directors’ first film together: Cohen is best known for her moving doc “American Veteran,” while this is West’s first directorial effort after nearly two decades as a producer. Both were inspired by Ginsburg’s life and career, and hoped their film could capture the power of her work without the overweening earnestness that West described as “eat your vegetables.”
“Ruth Bader Ginsburg really laid the groundwork that has become so relevant for women who are fighting for their rights,” she said. “There’s something about her story that just makes people feel good and inspires people. Often people will say, ‘I really liked her, I thought she was great, I had no idea. I didn’t know about the cases that she argued in the ’70s, her role as a women’s rights litigator. I didn’t know about the love story.’ It’s pretty gratifying.”
The decades-spanning film provides a comprehensive look at Ginsburg’s life and the appeal for equal rights that has always been central to her ideology and work. “One of the great principles of feminism is that the personal is political,” said Cohen. “So, I think our film works that in, too.”
West added, “We wanted this film to tell the very important story about what happened in the ’70s that transformed America and the way women are treated in America, but we also wanted to tell about this extraordinary woman. The task in the edit room was to find the connections to allow you to go back and forth in time. We didn’t want to tell a straight chronological story that started, ‘Oh, she was born in Brooklyn, and then she went here…’ The idea was to really weave in the verite of her today with the storytelling.”
While Ginsburg had “no editorial control” over the film’s content, a number of scenes feature the Supreme Court Justice in the present day. Cohen said that broke another important boundary. “Of all the things that you don’t see enough of in movies, it’s 85-year-old heroines,” she said. “There’s a sense of, ‘Nobody wants to see old people’ or ‘Nobody wants to see old women.’ RBG has, of all the things she’s shattered in her life, she’s completely shattered that barrier, that an 85-year-old woman can’t be one of the coolest people in the country.”
“RBG” also addresses Ginsburg’s transformation into a pop cultural icon, the elderly woman who inspired a surprising range of memes (“Notorious RBG,” the world’s most unlikely melding of judge and famous rapper) and is hip enough and smart enough to embrace them.
“What I think is kind of cool is that when this ‘Notorious RBG’ thing happened, she didn’t have any role in creating that,” West said. “She probably didn’t know what a blog was, and then people are tweeting and memes and everything else. … She thinks it’s really a hoot. She gets the joke, she knows that some of it is funny, but she also knows that it’s a way of spreading her message. It’s the way that people who don’t pay close attention to the writings of justices in the Supreme Court are paying attention to what she says and what she believes.”
Julie Cohen and Betsy West
More than anything, “RBG” succeeds at presenting its larger-than-life subject as an actual person. “She’s no one but herself,” Cohen said. “And her determination and everything she’s done, whether it’s fighting sexism, or doing a plank, is right there on her face. And I find it really, really moving. When we watched her doing her workout, when we were in the room seeing it for the first time, we weren’t laughing, it wasn’t funny. It was beautiful. I wanted to cry. We all burst into applause at the end.”
West added, “I feel like we really learned something about her character watching that, that’s true of a lot of different aspects of her life. ‘While I’m in the midst of doing it, 100% of my focus is on that.’ And every time we filmed verite footage, I’ve never met a documentary character who was so not caring about the camera. If she’s doing a thing, she’s doing that thing.”
“RBG” the film has been doing its own thing for nearly 10 months, and as the film glides into awards season — already armed with a Cinema Eye Honors nomination, two nods from the Critics’ Choice Doc Awards, and a CCDA win for Ginsburg as one of the year’s “Most Compelling Living Subjects of a Documentary” — Cohen and West are still marveling at the kind of audience that will dress up as an octogenarian Supreme Court Justice to show their admiration and respect.
“Truthfully, the nicest thing is audiences that wouldn’t ordinarily go to a documentary film are just responding as a story,” Cohen said. “It just feels like she, as a character, really is a way in to all these big-picture issues and real people are seeing our film and are getting that. … A serious, substantive movie about constitutional law? That seems like something that people aren’t gonna want to see. RBG the person has really, I think, changed that. And hopefully ‘RBG’ the movie helps too.”
“RBG” is now available on DVD, Blu-ray, and digital platforms.
The beloved character actor reflects on his brilliant new performance, his newfound popularity, and what an Oscar would really mean to him.
Paul Giamatti watching porn is one of the most wrenchingly human things you’ll see on screen this year. This heart-rending spectacle happens just a few minutes into Tamara Jenkins’ “Private Life,” as Giamatti — playing 47-year-old theater director Richard Grimes — sits alone in a small white room in the Manhattan fertility clinic where he and his wife (Kathryn Hahn) have come in a desperate bid to conceive. His job is to produce a sperm sample. On the TV screen mounted against the far wall, an adult actor can be seen pile-driving his co-star, causing her to moan loud enough for everyone in the crowded waiting area outside to know what Richard is supposed to be doing in there. Jenkins holds on a close-up; exasperation, futility, and shame are written across Giamatti’s face like subtitles. Has it really come to this?
As the scene continues, it’s like a vintage Charlie Chaplin bit in slow-motion. In a film that beautifully exploits Giamatti’s unique genius for blurring the line between schadenfreude and self-recognition, this introductory moment crystallizes why the beloved actor is more vital than ever.
Sitting unnoticed at a table in the middle of the Le Pain Quotidien near his Brooklyn Heights apartment, Giamatti couldn’t help but chuckle at the memory, or the idea that the moment epitomizes his art: “That’s pretty fucking grim!” Perhaps, but the 51-year-old actor has often been cast as a schlubby avatar for his audience’s self-loathing, and “grim” is what he’s always done best. In person, Giamatti is a joy to be around — friendly, curious, and happy to be there. On screen, he’s the Laurence Olivier of bittersweet curmudgeons. Some of them, like his breakout role as Kenny “Pig Vomit” Rushton in 1997’s “Private Parts,” are more bitter than sweet. Most of them, however, are decent and painfully relatable men just trying to weather life’s humiliations and disappointments. “I usually play the guy who gets shit-canned,” he said.
And he plays that guy to perfection. His signature performances are like pointillistic sketches of all the little indignities that make people who they are. That’s even true of the powerful District Attorney he plays on Showtime’s massively popular “Billions.” Giamatti has a rare talent for showing viewers their honest reflection without making them recoil in horror. Watching him act can feel like squinting at the wrong end of a two-way mirror; the harder you look for someone on the other side, the more clearly you see yourself starting back.
In fact, Giamatti’s screen presence so completely demolishes the difference between personal anxieties and public expression that it can be hard to know where he ends and his characters begin (a confusion he exploited for the 2009 oddity “Cold Souls,” in which he starred as a guy named Paul Giamatti who is nothing like the actor in real life). His raw and cutting turn as frustrated writer Miles Raymond in “Sideways” still feels like an open wound that will never heal, and the only possible reason why the performance wasn’t nominated for an Oscar is that everyone must have assumed that Giamatti was playing himself.
Fourteen years later, Jenkins has knowingly invited that same assumption. The brilliance of Giamatti’s casting, and what makes Richard Grimes one of the actor’s most quintessential performances (despite being a supporting role), is that the film takes place in the empty space between who we are and who we might appear to be — the no-man’s land that a veteran character actor like Giamatti has always called home. True to its title, “Private Life” is a story about the wobbly balance between internal and external validation at a time when everyone is forced to live in public, whether they like it or not. And who better to embody that uniquely 21st century unease than a world-famous movie and television star who most people don’t notice even when they’re looking right at him?
Giamatti has been a fixture in film and on television for more than 20 years, and yet he still feels like a question that nobody’s ever really felt the need to ask. He was born in New Haven, where his dad was a professor at Yale (and briefly the commissioner of the MLB). He was married, divorced, and has a 17-year-old son. He’s been middle-aged for his entire life, and always will be. He owns a TV, but only really uses it to watch DVDs. Climate change keeps him up at night, and he fears that his kid might eventually have to live in some kind of underwater dome. What else is there to know? One time, on “The Chris Gethard Show,” Giamatti curled inside a dumpster for an hour as two comedians tried to guess what was inside; that episode is more revealing about what he’s really like than anything else you’re likely to find on the internet.
“The fact that everything is out in the open these days is so bizarre,” Giamatti said. “The whole social media mishegoss is strange, particularly for someone who’s known.” Even though the actor stays away from the online scene, a benign photo of him looking sad on the subway went viral a few months ago. “Privacy is now almost like a strange choice that you have to make,” he said. “Privacy has become equated with secrecy, and that’s weird — they’re different things. Not that I have a problem with secrecy; it’s fine as long as you’re not secretly murdering people.”
For Richard and Rachel Grimes, privacy isn’t really an option. At times, it seems like everyone in New York knows about their endless run on the fertility treadmill. In one telling scene, an argument about egg donation spills out onto the sidewalk, where Rachel accuses her husband of wanting to have sex with younger women. “There’s one now!” she yells at a twenty-something stranger walking down the other side of the street. “Why don’t you go fuck her!?” Elsewhere, they find themselves sitting in silent waiting rooms, where they’re surrounded by other couples suffering through their own private sorrows. “It’s like they’re all stuck in the same purgatory,” Giamatti said. “Birth and death are very private, but we all do it. It’s specific and universal every time. It just used to be easier to get away with not telling everyone on the planet about when you’re going through it.”
Asked how much of himself he puts into his roles, Giamatti only muddied the waters. “It’s an essential question,” he said. “But, in a great way, there’s no real answer for it. It’s one of the amazing things about acting. The short answer is no, it’s not me. I don’t consciously draw from my own experiences or anything like that. But, in the universal sense, yes, I’m obviously in the parts that I play. I’m creating him; that guy is coming out of my imagination.”
Sitting across from Giamatti and watching him smile as he contemplated his craft, it was easy to think that there’s more of Giamatti in some of his roles than there is in others; that there’s more of him in a stressed but supportive artist like Richard Grimes than there is in a Machiavellian, BDSM-loving District Attorney like “Billions” protagonist Chuck Rhoades. Giamatti laughed at that suggestion. “I’d like to thinkthere’s more of me in Richard than there is in Chuck,” he said, “but Chuck must have something to do with me, because I’m playing him.”
Wherever Giamatti ends and his latest character begins, he certainly seems to relate to Richard on a genetic level. “The crazy sci-fi shit involved with in vitro fertilization is mostly reserved for the women,” he said, “but the existential part of it definitely resonated with me.” He suggested that, by the time we meet the Grimes, they’ve been trying to conceive for so long that the process of having a baby has taken on a life of its own. “It’s like ‘Waiting for Godot!’” he said. “Forget the kid, at this point these people just don’t know who the hell they are anymore.”
Giamatti likes to mix things up. In an eccentric career that’s ranged from playing John Adams in the epic HBO miniseries of the same name, to playing the Rhino in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” change has been the only constant. “I always want a different flavor in my mouth,” he said. After chewing the scenery on “Billions” for a few years, the actor was eager to downshift into a slower gear.
But Tamara Jenkins was the real attraction. “I’ve known her for a long time,” Giamatti said, noting that the filmmaker originally wanted him for “The Savages,” her acclaimed 2007 drama. “But I was shooting ‘The Illusionist,’ so she had to go with Phil Hoffman, who I’m sure was a huge letdown for her,” the actor said, joking, with a twinkle in his eye. Fortunately, it wasn’t a complete loss, as Giamatti cites “The Illusionist” as the most fun he’s ever had on a film set, beaming that the Vienna-set period piece is “the kind of thing I would have watched as a kid, and the fulfillment of a lot of fantasies I had. If that was the only movie I got to make, I would have been happy.”
Lucky for him, it wasn’t the only movie he got to make, and he’s pretty thrilled with how the latest one turned out. “‘Private Life’ wasn’t just a change of pace, it was a change of pace that was going to be under Tamara’s guidance, so I knew it was going to be something special,” he said. Giamatti no longer reads his own reviews (“the pans always hurt, and the raves are never good enough”), but this time around he feels secure about what’s on screen: “I can be brutally critical of my performances and the movies themselves,” he said, “but I just love this one. I really do. I even like myself in it, which I don’t often say.”
Asked if he still cares about winning an Oscar after being snubbed for “Sideways,” the actor put things into clear perspective. “To me, it’s like winning the lottery,” he said. “How mad can you be about not winning the lottery?” At this point, would an Academy Award even change anything for him emotionally or professionally? Giamatti doesn’t think so. “I can’t sit here and say that it wouldn’t be nice to have people acknowledge my work in that way,” he said, “but no, I wouldn’t be disappointed if I never won. Trophies are nice things, but my life is totally fine.”
Giamatti is a man of few regrets, at least so far as they pertain to his professional career. He may not love all of the movies he’s made — in fact, it’s safe to say that he doesn’t — but at least he enjoyed making them. When pressed, he only laments that he let theater out of his life, but (the rising oceans aside), remains optimistic about the future. “I’m not dead,” he said, “and I’m hopefully not dying anytime soon, so I can make up for it. When my kid goes off to college I’ll be able to get back on the stage.”
Things are looking up. Thanks to “Billions,” the artist formerly known as “Pig Vomit” is even perilously close to being cool. “I don’t even know what that means!” Giamatti said. “‘Cool’ is such a destructive thing. ‘Billions’ is very much about cool, and how dangerous it can be. A lot of people love that show unironically, which is so disturbing!” He laughed and refocused. “Someone should do like a social history of the concept of ‘cool.’ When did it start? Did it end with me?”
In his more self-deprecating moments, it grows difficult to locate Giamatti in the amorphous stream of characters he’s played; he blends in with the gentler ones, like Miles Raymond and Mike Flaherty (“Win Win”) and kind-hearted boxing coach Joe Gould (“Cinderella Man”). Wherever bastards like Jerry Heller (“Straight Outta Compton”) and Eugene Landy (“Love & Mercy”) are hiding in there, they’re harder to find. Eventually, you can’t help but reflect on why you’re so eager to look for them. What is it about movies that makes us so curious about the people who made them? Is there a reason why a guy like Giamatti, who grew up wanting to be a teacher, fell into a different profession that can inspire people to open their minds and absorb new truths about the world around them?
Giamatti was sheepish on that subject, but it was clearly something he’d thought about before. “I put a lot of philosophical weight on this work that I don’t know it could necessarily bear,” he said. “I wouldn’t have thought of it as teaching necessarily, but acting is a tool to investigate things, and it gets into really weird shit about people and life — basic, titanic questions that no one can answer.” He stopped and shook his head. “This sounds so fucking pretentious, but those questions have made it harder for me to act, because I can’t turn that part of my brain off,” he said. “And sometimes it’s like, dude, you just need to show up and be Man in a Sleeping Bag on ‘N.Y.P.D. Blue.’” He smiled and sighed and went quiet.
Then, after an unusually long pause, he went on: “I hope that what I do gives people something. The way I was raised, things had to have a larger meaning if you’re going to bother doing them with your life. My father would’ve been like: ‘If you’re going to be a dentist, that’s fine, as long as you see the larger value of being a dentist in the world. Nothing against dentists, but you know what I mean. For me, everything always needed to have a larger dimension to it, which is great, but can be tough.”
Especially, one would imagine, when millions of people have been watching you try to find that larger dimension for so long. The things you might want to know about Paul Giamatti appear to be the same things that he wants to know about himself; even after all these years, he’s still trying to figure out where he ends and his characters begin, and what there is to be gained from mapping the borders between them. If he shows us some part of ourselves along the way, that’s wonderful, even if it just comes with the territory of a job that can only be done in public. “All of those things?” he said, “they’re still tough. But I think I’ve lightened up a little.” And with that, he smiled, stood up, and went back to work.
After a brutal TIFF premiere, “Outlaw King” director David Mackenzie went back into the editing room to save the biggest film of his life.
That night was supposed to be a celebration. After more than five years of work on a rough and rowdy medieval epic several times larger than anything he’d ever made before (including his Best Picture-nominated “Hell or High Water”), and a desperate race to cut the thing together in time for its glitzy debut, “Outlaw King” director David Mackenzie had finally made it to the majestic Princess of Wales Theatre, where his latest movie had been invited to screen as the opening selection of the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
More than 2,000 critics and industry professionals — including Chris Pine, Florence Pugh, and the rest of Mackenzie’s extraordinary cast — traveled from all over the world to witness the unveiling, eager for the first look at one of the fall’s most hotly anticipated contenders. The lights went down, the Netflix logo “ba-dummed!” across the massive screen, and the audience was dropped into the tumultuous story of Robert the Bruce and the First War for Scottish independence.
It wasn’t long before Mackenzie realized he had a problem. The film wasn’t working. After the spectacular first shot — an enthralling 8-minute long-take that introduces Robert (Pine) as he reluctantly pledges fealty to Edward I (Stephen Dillane), spars with the king’s psychotic son (Billy Howle), and watches an enormous catapult rain hell on a defenseless castle in the distance — the director could feel the air seeping out of the room. The conflict was slow to come into focus. The story was split between too many supporting characters. A chance encounter between Robert and legendary folk hero William Wallace distracted from the growing tensions between the Scottish nobles and the occupying Englishmen who had seized control of their land. The film’s sweep was as undeniable as its savagery, but when it finally came to an end (some 137 minutes after it had began), some audience members felt as if they had just watched a man unite his country in real time.
The response was harsh, if not quite brutal (as of the time of this writing, “Outlaw King” has a respectable score of 60 on Metacritic). This critic called the film a “gritty but unfocused and interminable attempt to wrest the fight for freedom away from Hollywood myth, and return it to something more primal.” IndieWire’s assessment went on to say that “‘Outlaw King’ begins to feel like a full season of television that’s been squeezed in a vice.” But Mackenzie didn’t need to read the reviews to know what he had to do next. Two weeks after “Outlaw King” premiered at TIFF — and a little less than two months before it was due to bow on Netflix — the news broke that the director cut 20 minutes from the film.
“I think it was 23,” Mackenzie said when he met with IndieWire in the lobby of a Manhattan hotel just a few days ahead of unleashing the new and improved version of “Outlaw King” upon the world. “That’s a fairly sizable chunk.” He’s not wrong. The truncated edit of the movie is a significantly different experience, and a better one in every way. Clear where the previous cut was convoluted, and engrossingly character-driven where it used to feel pulled by the sheer inertia of history, the “Outlaw King” that Netflix subscribers will get to see this Friday — the only “Outlaw King” the public will ever know — is a vivid reminder that good movies are often hiding inside bad ones, like Renaissance statues just waiting to be chiseled from their slabs of stone. Often, filmmakers just need to see their work through new eyes in order to know what to cut. Indeed, Mackenzie’s process would’ve been totally unexceptional if half the film world wasn’t there to witness it.
“I wasn’t really ready, to be honest,” Mackenzie said, the 52-year-old Scotsman. “It’s just that being able to premiere the film in front of a large audience at TIFF was something desirable, so we aimed at that target. We hadn’t really put the movie before audiences in that way, so the festival was a rather big and rather public test.” Typically, a $90 million war epic might be processed through several rounds of test screenings, but Netflix’s unique distribution system has a way of leapfrogging tradition. “Outlaw King” wouldn’t have had time for such things anyway; Mackenzie only finished the TIFF cut 48 hours before its gala premiere.
Sitting through that screening must have been an exquisite form of torture for the director, who could only focus on the parts of his movie that he wanted to fix. “Yeah,” Mackenzie said, staring down at the table, “there was an element of that.” He sighed. “I felt what I felt. And then literally the next morning, I went to my producer Gillian Berrie and asked if we could go back into the edit.” Netflix signed off on the decision immediately. “Sarah Bowen, who’s our main executive there, told us to go for it. It was very simple. But I only had two weeks, so we rushed straight back into it and started cutting away.”
Chris Pine and David Mackenzie
Mackenzie was over the moon, fully aware that he had been granted an opportunity that other, more traditional movie studios would never have allowed. “I can’t tell you how glad I am that I had a chance to go back in there and not be stuck in a position where the film was rushed for a festival and that was that. That would have been terrible. It feels like a privilege to be able to completely control your own destiny on a film of this scale.”
His primary task was to smooth out the pacing. Mackenzie sensed a restlessness from the Princess of Wales crowd, a reaction he attributed to a numbing barrage of action sequences. “The film was almost too relentless, and put Robert in a position of vulnerability too often. That’s the kind of thing that can lead an audience to disengage.”
The first things to go were a battle scene, a big confrontation backdropped by a waterfall, and an eight-minute chase sequence: These are the kinds of things a filmmaker dreams of shooting, a financier loses sleep over seeing on the cutting room floor, and this critic honestly doesn’t even remember. Killing your darlings is never easy, but it’s even harder when they’re all riding horses and carrying broadswords.
But Mackenzie, to paraphrase a line from Edward I, has the courage to stand up for his work, and the wisdom to stand down from it. If it hurt the director to amputate on himself, he’s done a fine job of covering up his scars. “I didn’t know if streamlining those elements was going to work,” he said, “but as soon as I did it, it as like — snap! — this is good, this is the way it should be. I didn’t really change the structure too much, it was more about lifting out whole things and going ‘gosh, the story doesn’t collapse when you do that.’ It was quite educational, really.”
Mackenzie, whose average movie runs less than 100 minutes, has never been too proud to learn a hard lesson. “More often than not, my director’s cuts are shorter than how they started,” he said. “People have encouraged me to put stuff back into the movies, so I’m quite capable of being tough on the material. Sitting through the premiere of ‘Outlaw King’ and having a strong sense that it was playing long and all over the place kind of gave me the carte blanche I needed to be more ruthless in the editorial process” (relax, all 12 frames of Chris Pine’s penis are still in the movie).
In this case, it helped that Mackenzie had wanted to cut certain things for a long time, and just needed an extra bit of convincing. “There were all sorts of itches that I needed to scratch,” he said, “and a lot of the things I took out were things that I had my doubts about from the start — things that felt were necessary in some way, but ultimately weren’t.”
Chief among them was that scene between Robert the Bruce and William Wallace. “To be honest, it always felt contrived. Robert just accidentally encounters this guy in the woods?” And then there’s the Mel Gibson of it all. “We were aware of the shadow of that character,” Mackenzie said, admitting that “Braveheart” inspired him to cut Wallace out of his film, restoring him to a disembodied folk hero whose name is merely whispered in the wind. “To me, that feels stronger than forcing an actor to play someone who people across the world already know.”
Removing Wallace was symptomatic of the director’s larger effort to balance his film between spectacular entertainment and grounded fact. “We made an effort to be as historically accurate as possible,” Mackenzie said, reflecting on the cold and visceral wedding sequence that highlights the first act of his film. “It was important for me to try and at least attempt to serve that reality. I’ve called this an ‘anti-fantasy film,’ because I think it’s easy to mythologize the past, and it’s easy to be maximalist about some of these things, but it was important for us to serve the history and tell a decent story at the same time.”
Asked if “Braveheart” has a good reputation in Scotland, Mackenzie laughed. “Not really. It’s a funny movie, because it’s got much more of a rabble-rousing, ‘rah rah’ kind of tone, and — in this day and age — I just don’t feel it’s appropriate to be making that type of movie, to be honest. The forces of nationalism are expanding across the world, and I think one has to be very careful about that… even though I’m telling a true story about a national hero, I don’t want ‘Outlaw King’ to be taken too literally as a rallying call.”
Removing Wallace from the story, and trimming some of the action in order to imbue every drop of bloodshed with new urgency, has allowed Mackenzie to better honor the history without romanticizing the violence. “Yes, there was an occupation that forced my people to fight for the existence of their country, but I want to be honest about the material without inciting a certain segment of the population.”
Besides, a war pageant like “Braveheart” was never the kind of movie that Mackenzie wanted to make — his inspirations were more ruminative and mudbound. In fact, the First War of Scottish Independence wasn’t of particular interest to him, as he was mostly drawn to the script because he dreamed of directing a medieval religious epic in the vein of “Andrei Rublev.” He loved the visceral intensity of Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, which grabs hold of you mind, body, and soul, and never lets go.
That’s why Mackenzie was predisposed to making “Outlaw King” shorter, instead of expanding it into an episodic Netflix show; if the Coen brothers were granted permission to shrink “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” from an anthology series to a self-contained feature, surely it’s feasible that someone could do the opposite. Someone, perhaps, but not Mackenzie.
“I’m not really interested in a series,” he said, “I’m interested in films. I’m interested in something that engages you in one sitting, as it were, and doesn’t rely on narrative devices to keep audiences coming back. There’s something about TV that I find a little bit garish, because it’s trying to be addictive. So I’m not really tempted to go in that direction.”
Still, Mackenzie appreciates what Netflix made possible for him, and the director insisted that the freedom to make a film of this scale was worth the tradeoff that most people may end up watching his epic at home. “The theatrical/video thing is a false dichotomy,” he said. “It’s not as if the whole romance of the big screen is what it used to be. When it comes to most chain theaters these days, there’s not a lot of love there, and cinema manners aren’t very good.”
If anything, Mackenzie sees the streaming giant as a potential savior for the cinema experience: “I hope that Netflix buys theater chains, so that films like this might have a continuing life. We don’t have to worry about opening weekend, so there’s no reason why you couldn’t have ‘Outlaw King’ play on an ongoing business — have it run now, and then it can come back a year from now or whenever.”
Two months ago, Mackenzie wasn’t ready for anyone to see “Outlaw King.” Now, he beams at the idea that it will be instantly available to viewers all over the world. “This is a much stronger cut,” he said, shaking his head like he was trying to dislodge a painful memory. “It’s to the point where I no longer have any connection whatsoever to the cut that screened at TIFF. You know the old adage that less is more? There’s less in this film now, but you get more out of it. I think it’s a really strong movie, and I’m very proud of it.” He paused. “I slightly wish I didn’t have to deal with a previous cut that wasn’t so well-received.” As of November 9, he won’t have to.
“Outlaw King” will be available to see in theaters and stream on Netflix November 9.
In this episode of the Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, RaMell Ross refused to accepted the limitations of black cinema and created something new.
RaMell Ross knows the press notes for his first feature can be misleading: “An intimate portrait of a place and its people, ‘Hale County This Morning, This Evening’ follows Daniel Collins and Quincy Bryant, two young African-American men from rural Hale County, Alabama, over the course of five years. Collins attends college in search of opportunity while Bryant becomes a father to an energetic son.”
For a doc-savvy viewer, it’s a description that conjures a certain type of well-trod character portrait. One seen through the lens of a well-intentioned, socially conscious filmmaker, probably white, who uses these men’s lives as a way to shed light on the systemic struggle of black men in this country. And that’s not Ross, or his film.
“No one really spends five solid years with someone in order to represent their life,” said Ross when he was a guest on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast. “They come in with a specific idea — ‘This person has a really good character’ — and they chose certain things from [hours of filming every day] to represent a person. [It] becomes the representation of truth of not only the person, but the community and the African-American experience.”
Collins and Bryant experience major life events over the five years. For one character, he experiences an unforeseen tragedy that would be the second-act turning point in any other nonfiction film. However, Ross refused to use these as tentpoles to structure his film. He did not want to construct a narrative leading up to those moments, nor did he want to reduce his character’s lives to a series of major decisions surrounding these events.
“From the moment you show someone making a decision on film, you judge that moment and that starts to build your point of view of the character’s life path,” he said. “We need more stories of the African-American experience from a multiple of perspectives, especially from inside the African-American community, but stories are also pretty damning at times and they can foreclose a greater understanding of the person’s life or how they got there or what composes them as person.”
Rosso grew up in Maryland and went to school at Georgetown University and Rhode Island School of Design; he now teaches at Brown University in Providence. He initially found himself in the South when he was invited to teach a two-week youth photography class, and ended up staying the better part of a decade. While enjoying the change of pace and his work with young people, via coaching sports and teaching art, he also fell in love with the canvas it presented for his photography.
“The south is the [center] of the black experience,” said Ross. “It’s where we were put, it’s the origin of the image, from minstrel shows to flyers of a lynching, that represent what it means to be a black person. That was a great belief system to start investigating the relationship between what being black is and the reproduction of that blackness via film and photography.”
“Hale County This Morning, This Evening”
Ross’ photography creates moments of ambiguity, presenting frames that allow for multiple ways of seeing something — as he describes it, using black skin in the South as a Rorschach test. He was always drawn to moving images, but he didn’t see a model that could translate what he did with still photography.
“One photograph is suppose to have all the meaning you can possibly put in it, ‘This is the center of the universe,'” said Ross. “And when it comes to film, every photograph is neutered and it’s suppose to be proving something else. To me, to neuter a photograph of person of color in some general sense is to continue to forget the complexity of the black experience, because of the history of the black image.”
While filming in Alabama, Ross turned to books analyzing the history of the way African Americans had been portrayed in images. Even today, films about black characters cannot escape the subject matter of the characters being black.
“I intuitively knew about the problem with cinema and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s why. There’s this thing called “black representational space” that everything falls into,'” said Ross. “Once it’s in the this black representational space, everything is foreclosed to this meaning of blackness. It can’t be about a greater humanity.”
Ross wondered if there was a way for him to film by approaching each shot like his photographs — capturing something complex and whole, rather than being subservient to a larger narrative or being a portrayal of blackness itself. With Bryant and Collins, two teenagers he’d grown close to during his first three years in Alabama, he decided to experiment with the technique. Early in filming, Ross was playing video games in a trailer home with a few of his young subjects and they walked outside just as a massive storm appeared. The boys just stood and stared in awe.
“Hale County This Morning, This Evening”
“It’s something I realized quite early,” Ross said. “I’d film and I’d see the moment that I think would be used to represent a person and then I continue filming, then this magical moment would happen. And I’m like, this is kind of what life is – this is something you happen upon and if the entire film could be made of magical moments, it could be experiential for the viewer.”
Ross believed there was a way to capture the beauty of his characters’ ordinary lives, one in which they weren’t viewed through a lens of black pain, and construct a film that became a form of participatory cinema rather than an abstract art. However, when he cut together eight minutes for meetings with potential funders, all of them wanted to know more about Collins’ and Bryant’s narrative — “What was their story?” All, but one.
Joslyn Barnes, co-founder of Louverture Films with Danny Glover, helped shepherd innovative nonfiction films (“Cameraperson,” “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975”) and international scripted narrative directors like Apichatpong Weerasethakul (“Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”) and Lucrecia Martel (“Zama”). He saw what Ross was reaching for, and as she did with Yance Ford on “Strong Island,” helped surround the filmmaker with a talented post-production team that could aid him in forging his own unique path.
Ross would ultimately find his narrative inspiration in prose, Faulkner and Salinger having a particularly big influence, but it was in James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” written about the region where Ross filmed, where he discovered his structuring device. Agee’s 1941 essays accompanied photographs by Walker Evans, whose groundbreaking portraits captured the dignity in the lives of impoverished tenant farmers during the Great Depression. However, it was Agee’s words that sparked the breakthrough.
“Agee describes things in terms of light, mood, movement,” said Ross. “I really love looking at the light and the moon and trying to figure out, just looking at it through the camera.”
“Hale County This Morning, This Evening”
Ross started to look at his footage in the same way. He started to see the light and time of day as a way to connect seemingly disparate images into a fluid whole. He began piecing his film together as 11 days, sunrise to night to sunrise again. The finished, 78-minute film followed the flow of five musical movements, as Bryant and Collins float in and out of frame, their lives progressing through college and fatherhood.
To call the enthralling “Hale County” “experimental” is a mistake. In a year when Ryan Coogler showed what black superheroes could look like, and Barry Jenkins showed what the power of black love could feel like, the most the groundbreaking and important work of 2018 may prove to be Ross’s “Hale County.” Ross is a filmmaker who not only flipped the script on the portrayal of African Americans, but created his own filmic language to do it.
“I want to say documentary filmmakers are some of the most conscious media makers, the most empathetic, though sometimes empathy is the problem,” said Ross. “It’s embedded in the form of the practice itself … we’re conditioned to think about things in certain ways. A big challenge is evolving to be able to receive things with complexity, and then for us to take those risks.”
“Hale County This Morning, This Evening” is one of 15 films that are part of the upcoming DOC NYC Short List, a distinction that often correlates to being shortlisted for an Academy Award. The first Doc NYC Screening is November 9, 3:15 PM. The second screening is November 14th at 12:30 PM.
With “Boy Erased” opening this week, the busy actor unpacks his stresses to IndieWire, from getting close to tough roles to avoiding Daniel Day-Lewis comparisons, and only getting better with every part.
Lucas Hedges promises he’s not going for a “Daniel Day-Lewis type thing” with his acting, but he tends to get pretty close to his parts. With three films arriving in awards season, including leading roles in both Joel Edgerton’s “Boy Erased” and Peter Hedges’ (yes, his dad) “Ben Is Back,” plus an out-of-the-box bully part in Jonah Hill’s “Mid90s,” Then there’s the Broadway show, running eight shows a week. And the two other films he just wrapped. Hedges is enjoying his most prolific year yet, even if it all sounds kind of stressful.
“I like to believe that the second I enter into [a role] and the second I start researching it, my subconscious starts working on it and working on me in ways that I can’t be aware of,” Hedges said. “I don’t see it as that much of a jump from myself. And when I do see it as a jump for myself, that’s actually when I divorce myself from myself, which is the opposite of what I want to do.”
Since breaking out with his Oscar-nominated role in “Manchester by the Sea,” the 21-year-old actor has maintained a breakneck pace. Last year, he had supporting roles in two Best Picture nominees (“Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), both of which hit screens after he made his stage debut in the off-Broadway play “Yen.” Every time, in every role, Hedges tries to find the personal edge that can help his performance feel closer to him. It’s not always easy.
“I tend to stress out, like go crazy off of something that’s kind of small,” he said. “I’m not sure to what extent my stress actually serves me, but it definitely motivates me, I just don’t know if it’s the healthiest motivation. I like to think that I can be as productive, if not more productive if I work from a place of excitement, I think that’s always the best place to work from, but it’s not always easily available to me.”
His newest “place of excitement” is his second movie of the awards season, “Boy Erased,” in which he plays a lightly fictionalized version of author Garrard Conley, who wrote the memoir on which the film is based. As preacher’s kid Jared Eamons, Hedges is tasked with portraying an Arkansas teenager who is closeted and utterly terrified of coming out to his family, which includes his father (Russell Crowe) and doting mother (Nicole Kidman). When Jared’s secret is outed in horrific fashion, he’s sent to gay conversion therapy, where he’s subjected to emotionally damaging treatment, all in hopes of getting back to a place of acceptance with his family.
“The double-edged sword of having a story that has a real significance to a big group of people is that, on one hand, it gives me a higher power to focus on, I can take the focus off of myself and put it on to being of service to something, but it also makes me feel like I carry them on my shoulders,” Hedges said. “The idea of letting them down is terrifying. So to some extent, it both lifts me up and pushes me down at the same time, which I think mirrors the story itself.”
He conceded, “It’s just a lot of things going on in my head at the end of the day.”
One way Hedges attempts to stave off performance anxiety is to research his roles meticulously. For “Boy Erased,” he read “The Velvet Rage,” devoured documentaries about queer history, and learned more about landmarks like the Stonewall Uprising and the AIDS crisis. In self-effacing fashion, Hedges admits he doesn’t know how much that helped his performance, but it might have been enough to put him in a new frame of mind. “The more I understood the privilege of what it meant to tell an LGBTQ story, the more I wanted to go to work for it,” he said.
Even for a seemingly naturally gifted actor like Hedges, it’s work. Asked about the hardest scenes to film, he offers an answer that’s as specific as it is charming. “I’m strange, in that the ones that are probably the hardest to watch, are always the ones that I find are the ones that take care of themselves. It’s the small ones that are hard,” he said. “The really simple ones, where I walk into my room and sit on my bed, that I’m like, ‘I have no idea how to do this. I feel like a robot right now.'”
The great joy about watching a Hedges performance, however, from the swaggering and grief-stricken son in “Manchester” to the wounded addict in “Ben Is Back” to his graceful work in “Boy Erased,” is he’s never a robot. He’s alive, human, and watchable. And he’s honest.
“I think for a moment there, I thought I was the hotshot before anybody else had a big moment, and then [Timothee Chalamet] had his moment, and I was like, ‘Oh, he’s so much cooler than I am,'” he said. “I think he’s really special. I appreciate any comparison, and also acknowledge at the same time that we’re very, very different. And also, that there are so many people our age out there who are doing work that is mind-blowing, who have yet to be seen, and who possibly will never be seen.”
Hedges is not one of the unseen. Next year, he’ll star in Alma Har’el’s “Honey Boy” alongside Shia LaBeouf, who also wrote the film’s screenplay based on his own experiences growing up in Hollywood (LaBeouf plays his own father in the film; Hedges is the young Shia stand-in). There’s also Trey Edward Shults’ musical drama “Waves,” which marks a departure for the “Krisha” filmmaker.
“Ben Is Back”
“I want to work with people who I think are dope, and I think Alma and Trey absolutely fall into that category,” Hedges said. “I really like belonging to and exploring different worlds, and I think a filmmaker creates a world and an environment. I love getting lost in their worlds, so being in their movies is an opportunity to belong in a new place that I think is magical. And if you’re not a filmmaker I think is special, then it just means I don’t really want to live in your world.”
Though he admitted that working with the elder Hedges on “Ben Is Back” led to some “teenage moodiness,” he was very fond of the entire experience. “I felt like a cliché teenager, I wanted to rebel,” he said with a laugh. “But fortunately, I have a really great dad. He’s a really great person, and also a great writer, it’s easy to overcome something difficult with a good person.”
Beyond all that, the actor swears he’s trying to keep things a little bit lighter. While he said Shults’ film “has very dark aspects to it,” it also follows his character falling in love for the first time and captures “the full range of the human experience.” The Broadway play, “The Waverly Gallery,” in which he stars in alongside Elaine May and Michael Cera, also helps. “I play a character who is going through something hard, but is actually very stable and grounded and has loving parents, and for the most part, makes jokes, so that feels really nice,” he said. “I really want to do a comedy. It would just be a great time.”
As for his own aspirations, those don’t stress him out too much. “I’d love to make a movie one day,” Hedges said. “Right now, the idea of making music videos sounds really exciting to me, but I don’t see a movie in the immediate future. I mean, I’m 21!”
Focus Features will release “Boy Erased” in select theaters November 2.
Melander gained 40 pounds and spent four hours in the makeup chair everyday. She explains why she committed to a daunting transformation.
In “Border,” Swedish actress Eva Melander buries herself in the role of Tina, an ostracized woman who feels out of place in society because of her otherworldly appearance. The peculiar creature she plays in director Ali Abbasi’s foreign-language Oscar submission suggests the unholy offspring of Quasimodo and a Tolkien Orc. But that’s just the starting point for an entrancing and unexpected love story when Tina — who works a lonely job in border security, using her rat-like sense of smell — wakes up to her superpowers when she meets a fawning man (Eero Milonoff) who looks just like her.
This dark fairytale owes much to its leading lady’s remarkable physical transformation, but audiences gripped by “Border” would never recognize its star on the street.
In reality, Melander is an affable, soft-spoken, 43-year-old acting veteran who has juggled a range of stage, television and film roles for over 15 years. The blue-eyed blonde looks nothing like her animalistic creation in “Border,” and the specifics of that transformation make it clear that she’s delivered the most astonishing performance of the year. If that’s all it took to crack the Best Actress race, she would rank alongside Olivia Colman in “The Favourite” and “Roma” breakout Yalizia Aparicio as the frontrunners of the pack.
At the very least, her accomplishment deserves its own spotlight. “I had a teacher in acting school who said, ‘Your fucking personality must not stand in the way of the character you’re supposed to do,’” said Melander in an interview from her hotel in New York. “How I look is one thing, but my biggest interest in the characters I do is how they look and act. My personal issues should not stand in the way of a character’s life.”
The details of Melander’s transformation speak to the full extent of that commitment. Prior to the shoot, Abassi asked if she could gain 10 kilograms — around 22 pounds — to embody Tina’s powerful, broad-shouldered physique. She wound up gaining closer to 40 pounds, working with a trainer and dietician to build up the muscle mass of her upper body while maintaining a food schedule that required her to eat every 90 minutes. “I totally agreed that we should change my body,” Melander said. “It was like an extreme sport. Part of my brain felt like this was insane, but exciting at the same time.” It was also very uncomfortable. “You get sweaty,” Melander said. “It’s hard to sleep at night. You’re breathing doesn’t go well. But I was as committed as I get.”
The physical duress didn’t stop there. Over the course of the monthlong shoot in the forests outside of Gothenburg, Melander spent four hours in the makeup chair everyday, often starting at two o’clock in the morning. Then, she would subject herself to a 10-hour shooting schedule. She was buried in nine pieces of prosthetics, covering her eyelids, nose, and mouth, so she couldn’t fall asleep or watch television to pass the time in the chair. Only her top lip remained exposed. She began listening to meditation apps. “I was trying to move myself out of my body and go to other rooms in my mind,” she said.
Melander’s character takes her acute sense of smell for granted, assuming it’s her only useful skill, until she learns the bizarre secret behind her existence that empowers her. But even sniffing the air presented a unique challenge on camera, given the restrictions on her facial muscles. She studied videos of dogs on YouTube to figure it out. “The lip and nose move together,” she said, squeezing her face together like wrinkled plastic. “This was my toolbox, and it was covered with silicon, gelatin, and glue. I had to figure out how to work within that.”
Abbasi spent almost two years searching for the right actress to play Eva, and initially wanted to avoid prosthetics by casting unorthodox actors who looked the part. “I really tried to find people who looked different, unsymmetrical, and overweight,” he said in a phone interview. “I wanted to find this otherness in reality life, but I realized I was focused too much on looks. This movie is really about a difficult emotional journey, and I had to find the actual actor who could do that.”
Melander impressed him, he said, because she was able to convey the experience of feeling love for the first time. “She just blushed,” he said, recalling the cue during her audition session. “It was this little thing that almost made me cry. She had an inner life that the other characters didn’t have.” But then he had to confront a practical concern: “I was afraid she looked too good and was too thin,” he said.
Melander’s eagerness to transform herself came from years of contending with roles that required her to do the extra legwork. “When I started acting in Sweden, I always felt as if I had to create my own character because I didn’t feel as if they were there,” she said. “They were just written from a familiar point of view — girlfriend, wife, friend. The story was always about somebody else. I think I’m quite trained in creating characters who have souls and lives even if they’re roughly written into the story.”
She was miffed when the first casting director for “Border” (who was later replaced) called her to explain the role, and seemed hesitant to use the word “ugly” when describing Tina’s appearance. “As an actress, that has never scared me,” she said. “You can always make yourself look better. I want to see people in television and film that I see in real life, not only TV and film faces.”
It should come as no surprise that she excels at clarifying the intentions behind the movie, which finds Tina coming out to grips with herself and finding a new purpose. “If you’re a total outsider and you’ve never felt like you’ve been seen, you’re just disconnected,” she said. “This love story allows her to come closer to herself. She’s rubbed herself out. How much do we rub ourselves out to fit in? That’s something we all think about.”
In between the premiere of “Border” and its release, Melander has been enmeshed in another transformation, playing Richard III in an experimental theater adaptation currently running in Sweden. Once again, the material asks a lot of her: She appears in every scene of the two-hour production, which has no intermission, and requires a lot of tricky maneuvers. “It’s very violent, physical, with a lot of moving foam and white paper,” she said. “We’re ripping things apart, trashing things, painting on the walls. The floor is leaning and slippery. It’s kind of a wild and weird performance.” The connection to Tina is not lost on her. “Tina and Richard III both don’t have it easy, because of their appearances and the way they approach the world,” she said.
For now, Melander only has a Swedish agent, though she’s keen on exploring how her chameleonesque abilities could make the transition to English-language projects. She listed Julianne Moore and Frances McDormand as key reference points for her ambition. McDormand is a particularly apt point of comparison: The real-life Melander bears a notable physical resemblance to the two-time Oscar winner, who grapples with the same kind of tricky balance in her roles that Melander accomplishes in her latest screen credit. “I’ve always found that I can identify with the way she does serious people who have a lot of feelings inside, but there’s always a sense of humor in her work,” Melander said. “I can always see that she’s having fun. She takes care of her characters while looking at them with a little bit of distance.”
Melander has embraced her ability to attract roles that don’t resemble each other. “People don’t call me asking me to do what I’ve already done,” she said. “They call me because they’re curious about what I can create. That’s how I approach the business.” And the capacity to go unrecognized at film festivals has allowed her mingle with a rare kind of anonymity. There’s a perk to that, too. “When people don’t realize it’s me,” she said, “it’s a good opportunity to hear honest criticism.”
“Border” is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.
Directing your first feature is always a daunting experience, but Paul Dano was well-prepared after 20 years at the best film school imaginable.
Directing your first feature is always a daunting experience, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone has ever been better prepared for that particular challenge than Paul Dano. Familiar to audiences as one of the most compelling and accomplished actors of his generation, the 34-year-old New York native has spent the last two decades attending the greatest film school on Earth.
Only the Criterion Collection has collaborated with more of modern cinema’s top auteurs: Richard Linklater, Spike Jonze, Ang Lee, Paul Thomas Anderson, Kelly Reichardt, Steve McQueen, Bong Joon-ho, Denis Villeneuve, So Yong Kim, Rian Johnson, etc. He’s the only person on the planet who’s done a stint on “The Sopranos,” worked with Tom Cruise, and starred in an unexpectedly emotional movie about a farting corpse (“Swiss Army Man”).
Needless to say, Dano had plenty of experience to draw from when it came time to step behind the camera, and so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that “Wildlife” — a tender, gorgeous, and understated drama about a young boy named Joe (Ed Oxenbould) who watches his family (Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan) burn down and rekindle itself in 1960s Montana — is told with a master’s touch. Dano has wanted to direct something for decades, and it’s no accident that he’s always put himself in a position to learn how.
And yet, speaking with IndieWire as part of IFP’s “My First Time” discussion series, he insisted that he never accepted a movie with some kind of ulterior motive. “As I excited as I was to work with somebody like Paul Thomas Anderson on ‘There Will Be Blood,’ when you’re on set your focus is all on the scene at hand,” he said. “I’m not often looking at the camera position or interrogating why the director is using which lens. I’m an actor, and I do love acting.”
Judging by his upcoming roles in the Showtime series “Escape from Dannemora” and a new Broadway production of Sam Shepard’s “True West” (opposite Ethan Hawke), it’s safe to say that Dano still loves acting. Be that as it may, even a quick glimpse at his filmography suggests that he’s always been pretty selective about the acting that he does; his career has been shaped by the same intentionality that’s evident in every shot of “Wildlife.” “I’m just drawn to projects where I feel like I’m going to participate in an invigorating collaboration,” he said. “Even some of the bigger movies I’ve done have given me that. I did ‘Knight and Day’ because James Mangold is a good filmmaker, and Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise. Doing ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ with Jon Favreau and Daniel Craig and Sammy Rock? I mean, I knew I was going to get something out of that.”
He was drawn to the craft side as well. “There are times when, in a dorky way, I just get excited by working with the DP, and then the next thing you know you’re talking to Roger Deakins about Jean-Pierre Melville,” he said. “So I wasn’t necessarily studying to make a film of my own, but a love of the whole thing was a big factor in my choices.”
Despite a lifetime preparation, “Wildlife” is only a great film because Dano embraced the idea that he was challenging himself, as well. There’s evidence of that in many of the specific decisions that he made along the way, such as hiring thirtysomething “Cemetery of Splendor” cinematographer Diego García instead of calling Deakins or Roger Elswit or any of the legendary DPs towards whom he would have been too deferential on set. And there’s evidence of that in the big picture as well, especially when you consider how Dano’s maturation as a director trying to make his debut feature parallels his protagonist’s maturation as a kid trying to keep his family in focus.
Dano launched his acting career on Broadway at age 12, when he acted opposite George C. Scott in “Inherit the Wind.” Making “L.I.E.” when he was 16 began to open his eyes to what film had to offer. “I wasn’t a huge moviegoer at that point,” he said. “I didn’t know the breadth of the type of work that was out there, or the experience that you could have making it. I didn’t realize you could just go make a film with a small group of people and have it be such a personal thing.”
After playing “dorky kids who wore glasses” in movies like “The Emperor’s Club” and “The Girl Next Door” (the latter of which continues to resonate on cable TV), Dano got to play someone unlike himself, and that’s what ultimately broke the doors open. “People think the most famous movies are the ones that are most important for your career,” he said, “but for me, Rebecca Miller’s ‘The Ballad of Jack and Rose’ was something I really needed. That was when somebody believed in me as the kind of actor I wanted to be, and that made me feel like I belonged in film.”
On the set of “Wildlife”
That’s also when Dano fell in love with the movies as a medium, and became enamored by the notion of directing. He can still remember the flashbulb experiences that forever galvanized his budding auteurism: Taking a film class based around Paul Schrader’s book, “Transcendental Style in Film.” During that time, he watched films such as Robert Bresson’s “A Man Escaped,” Yasujiro Ozu’s “Early Summer,” which “really perked my senses up,” he said. “It was so empowering to know that someone could make a film like that, and that people even have permission to make a film like that. There’s movement and sound in both of those films, but I was truck by how still and quiet they were, and how that made all of the little things feel huge.” That led to a new revelation. “I found myself wondering what my voice might be,” he said. “That was it. I was like ‘oh shit, I want to make a film.’”
Fourteen years later, he finally did. Of course, the wheels were set in motion long before “Wildlife” premiered at Sundance last January, but Dano — a self-admitted neurotic who couldn’t fathom the idea of making a film he didn’t fully believe in — had to wait for the stars to align. “It was the material,” he said. “And if I had the material sooner, I would have made something sooner. There were times when I wrote down images or something, but nothing grew on its own. I got a little frustrated, like: ‘Fuck! Am I ever going to make something!?’ But then I read this book.”
Richard Ford’s 1990 novel “Wildlife” grabbed Dano from its evocative opening paragraph, and it still hasn’t let him go. More than that, the book tapped into the same visual language that Dano saw in the films of Ozu and Bresson; the imagery that popped out at him from its pages was as lucid and clean as the movies he’d always seen in his mind’s eye. “If I could be a writer,” Dano said, “I would want to write the way that Richard Ford does. There’s something so lean and spare, and from that comes complexity and poetry. That’s the form of filmmaking I really aspire to — that reflects my natural self.”
And so, after sitting with the idea for over a year and thinking it through from every conceivable angle, Dano decided to pull the trigger. He wrote Ford a heartfelt email, and the author was receptive to the idea; he even encouraged Dano to make the movie its own thing, and not feel slavishly indebted to the source material. That encouragement inspired Dano to think of a powerful new ending for the story, and it wasn’t long until he was done with his first draft… which promptly ended up in the trash.
Dano still remembers the day he confidently asked his longtime partner Zoe Kazan — a brilliant actress herself, but also an accomplished playwright and screenwriter — to read his first draft. He remembers where he was sitting in their Brooklyn apartment, and where Kazan went to digest what he’d done. Most of all, he remembers what she said when she came back. “I was thinking ‘Okay, this is actually pretty good! And then Zoe came out and was just like: ‘Actually, it’s not,’” he said. This story gets more dramatic every time they tell it, but the ending is always the same: Dano wanted Kazan to offer some feedback, and Kazan’s feedback was basically: “I need to write you a whole new draft.”
On the set of “Wildlife”
Whatever wrinkles that may have caused at the time, they were ironed out before long. “It became a very healthy working relationship,” Dano said, “and I’m so lucky I had Zoe as a proper writer, because it was my first time and I needed her help.” The two of them share the official screenwriting credit on the film.
But when Dano got to set, his wealth of experience came into play. He may not have been actively taking notes from the various auteurs with whom he worked as an actor, but he still managed to glean some crucial lessons from them.
On the subject of setting a tone, he cited Ang Lee as a favorite teacher. “As an actor, you can always feel when the crew is in tune with the project — when they’re actually excited about what they’re making — and all of the great filmmakers can make that happen in one way or another,” he said. He accepted one scene in “Taking Woodstock” just to get close to Lee. “I remember how much time he took to do this one insert shot that didn’t even feature any actors,” he said. “In a lot of films, that kind of stuff gets passed off to a second unit, but Ang knew he was going use the shot. …I remember just being so excited, being like, ‘Yeah, that’s how you do it!”
On the subject of finding his voice, Dano’s curriculum included a specific moment from the set of “12 Years a Slave,” in which the actor played his cruelest part to date. “That film was about a pretty serious subject matter, to say the least, but I remember after a certain take Steve McQueen was bouncing around like a fashion photographer, just happily shouting ‘genius!’ and stuff like that,” he said. “You need the director to be the cheerleader and the fucking force guiding the spirit of the thing, and it was invaluable for me to learn that that’s okay.”
And on the subject of earning the trust of his collaborators, Dano recalled a memory from the set of “Prisoners,” where he learned that blind support can be its own form of betrayal. He admired the way director Denis Villeneuve was willing to acknowledge when a scene wasn’t working. “To just go through with something out of fear or time is a huge mistake, because at the end of the day the film is going to be the film,” he said.
As a former child actor himself, Dano was uniquely well-prepared to direct a coming-of-age story that hinges on a make-or-break performance from a 14-year-old boy. “I was treated well as a young actor,” Dano said, “but I had to learn not to be afraid of my own voice.”
Directing Ed Oxenbould, Dano drew from his own experiences. “The most important thing for me was just making sure that he knew he was a genuine collaborator — that his voice was a part of the film,” Dano said. “The best place we can find ourselves in is a place where we’re comfortable failing, so I let him know that he should never be afraid to ask a question or say if something didn’t feel right.” Epitomizing how his work as an actor is ultimately inextricable from his grace as a filmmaker, Dano, now a new father, likened directing actors to parenting children: “It’s all them, and you’re just trying to set up the atmosphere for them to be their best self.”
Oxenbould is a revelation, while Gyllenhaal and Mulligan are both remarkable. Mulligan, as the more present of the two, is particularly hard to shake. Her frayed performance resolves into a sad and strong and immensely powerful study of reinvention; her character may be vulnerable, but the actress finds something fierce and brave in how she seizes hold of her future. Asked how he guided his stars along such rocky shores, Dano insisted that the currents went both ways. “I earned their trust by trusting them,” he said. “For me, that meant shooting fewer setups and more takes so that the actors could search and mess around and hopefully have a real experience.”
As Dano spoke about what he learned by making this film, he might as well have been describing what young Joe learns by surviving it. “It’s hard to find the balance between compromise and putting your foot down,” he said. “Discovering that compromise doesn’t always have to be compromise is so important.” Those words call to mind the movie’s indelible last scene, the one that took Dano only a few days to write, but several long years to earn. Joe, tired of being an active witness to the conflict swirling around him, asserts the value of his vision by literally stepping behind a camera for the first time. Presumably not the last. We may never know where Joe goes from there, but Dano knows where he’s heading next. He ended the conversation on a conclusive note: “I really can’t wait to make another film.”
The British actress brings both pragmatism and heart to an understated biopic. Foy tells IndieWire how her “out of the ordinary” subject inspired her and led to a rich role.
Claire Foy only really loses it once in Damien Chazelle’s “First Man.” Stuck at home, listening to her husband Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) during yet another test run for his imminent space flight via a squawk box hooked up to NASA’s own feed, Foy’s Janet Armstrong is horrified to discover that her audio has been suddenly switched off. The test has, inevitably, turned rough, and the NASA brass make the executive decision to cut off Janet and the Armstrong family, ostensibly to spare them from any possible trauma.
Janet is not having it. Frantic, she runs out of her house, gets in her car, and drives directly to NASA’s Houston base. There, she unleashes years of rage and frustration at NASA’s Director of Flight Crew Operations Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler). “All these protocols and procedures to make it seem like you have it under control,” Janet shouts. “But you’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood. You don’t have anything undercontrol!”
Chazelle’s fourth film is understandably occupied with Neil’s mission — and the emotional wounds that fuel both his work and his reserved nature — but Foy’s understated performance serves as a compelling counterpoint to similar “wife waiting at home” stereotypes. “I never had to fight for it, because it was always there in the script,” Foy said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I didn’t have to feel like I had to stand up for her, or give her a voice, or make that voice known.”
Foy undertook her own research of Janet, who passed away just a few months before the film debuted, and found a brave character as compelling as her famous husband. Early in the film, it’s Janet who assures a nervous Neil that his new gig with NASA “will be an adventure,” a notion she never seems to fear.
“She was sort of slightly out of the ordinary, in a sense that she lived every day on her own terms,” Foy said. “Even though Neil was doing this incredibly dangerous thing, I think she knew early on that she couldn’t be abandoned or left on her own. She had to live her own life in order to be able to stay in that world, in that marriage. She had to make sure that if she was left behind that her and her kids would be okay. She taught swimming, she was incredibly active in the community, and everyone said how much of a wonderful friend she was. She was able to take care of herself.”
While Singer’s screenplay provided a road map for Foy and Gosling’s work, an early rehearsal period with Chazelle allowed them to further shape their characters as they saw fit. “Sometimes, we’d do takes that we were completely on the book, and we’re completely doing the dialogue that was written,” she said. “Other times, we’d be using that as a kind of skeleton to hang on and that would guide our way through a scene, but we would kind of move in and around it.”
The real Janet was very much about communal engagement. In 1964, she founded and helped coach the Texas-based El Lago Aquanauts synchronized swimming team (she’d been a competitive synchronized swimmer in her college years), an achievement only hinted at in the film. “First Man” also doesn’t show Janet helping to form another key group — the KIT (Keep-In-Touch) group of astronauts’ wives — but her ability to support her fellow wives during increasingly tragic times is brought to vivid life by Foy.
In one scene, Janet remains at an astronaut’s funeral to help clean up as an angry Neil stomps off into the night. Later, Janet comforts another heartbroken wife as other members of their community literally turn away from her. At every point, Foy finds Janet’s humanity, and uses its to give the film an emotional center. While some audiences have complained that Chazelle’s film is too cold or reserved, Foy provides the story with its heart — much as the character does for the Armstrong family.
As Neil’s missions become increasingly public, so too do the demands placed on Janet and the pair’s young sons. Reporters take over the Armstrong family’s lawn, a photographer snaps away as Janet and the kids await news about Neil’s latest test, and everyone seems to want a word from Janet, peppering her with questions during one the most stressful time of her life.
Foy knows that experience all too well, as her visibility has grown thanks to her Golden Globe-winning work on the popular series “The Crown” and her transformative role in the upcoming “The Girl in the Spider’s Web.”
“I connected with Janet’s experience with it, in the sense that I think that the pressure on these women and these families grew and grew and grew to be the image that NASA wanted them and America wanted them to project,” the actress said. “They didn’t want the reality, which was that they were terrified, the majority of the time, their husbands would not come back.”
The actress said she was taken with “Janet’s kind of immediate understanding that she wasn’t going to give them what they wanted, she wasn’t going to play up to it, and she wasn’t going to divulge personal information.” More specifically: “She was very private, and she remained very private, and that takes huge amounts of self-awareness and self-respect to not get drawn into that kind of exposure.”
As Foy readies for a dense awards season, she’s working overtime to stay sane. Asked if she finds it easy to shake off her characters, the Janet Armstrongs and the Lisbeth Salanders and the Queen Elizabeths, and she caught herself. “I find it very easy to go back to my normal—,” she said, and paused. “It’s not a normal life, I mean, but the work stays with me.”
Composer Justin Hurwitz won two Oscars for “La La Land,” and he’s devoted every day since to writing the majestic score for “First Man.”
Damien Chazelle has never made a film without his go-to composer (and former college roommate) Justin Hurwitz. Moreover, one could argue that Chazelle has never made a film that wasn’t in some way about Justin Hurwitz.
That idea continues to hold true with his solemn but starry-eyed historical Neil Armstrong biopic, an intimate epic that can hardly be contained by the IMAX screens on which it debuted last week. Another visceral story about a man who’s caught in the grip of his own ambition, “First Man” may not focus on an obsessive musician — which, at this point, is enough to qualify it as a major departure for its director — but Armstrong’s tortuous journey from the depths of grief to the surface of the Moon nevertheless underscores Chazelle’s signature affinity for characters who are consumed by a single idea, often at the expense of their own well-being. And while it’s natural to see these movies as the exaggerated self-portraits of a young auteur, cinema is a collaborative medium, and Chazelle’s most important collaborator — himself an obsessive musician — might be an even clearer embodiment of the filmmaker’s heroes.
Only 33 years old, and already with two Oscars to his name (Best Original Score and Best Original Song for “La La Land”), Hurwitz has fast established himself as one of the most brilliant and exciting composers in the movies today. At this rate, we could be talking about the next Hans Zimmer or Alexandre Desplat — the kind of generational virtuoso who could make a fortune writing music for the next Batman saga and/or leave his mark by forging bonds with several of the era’s most famous auteurs.
We that’s not Hurwitz, who’s not big on multitasking. His work is uncompromising and all-consuming. In much the same way as Andrew Neiman struggled to balance his drumming with his love life, “La La Land” protagonist Sebastian Wilder (“Seb” to his friends) couldn’t reconcile the purity of jazz with the commercialism of pop music, and Neil Armstrong had to walk on the Moon before he could stand the thought of doing anything else, Hurwitz is all about the mission at hand.
There’s a good reason why he and Chazelle were such fast friends, and why the two of them both felt they had to completely drop out of their college band in order to work on movies full-time. Likewise, there’s a good reason why “La La Land” was the first score that Hurwitz wrote after “Whiplash,” and why “First Man” is the only score he’s written since. That output is almost unheard of among Hollywood’s top composers (Zimmer works on roughly three films a year, while Desplat juggles far more), but it works for him.
“That’s just the way I am,” Hurwitz said in an interview during a rare moment of quiet at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. “I’m very, very obsessive, and whatever I do I just give all of myself to it, even at the detriment of all the other things in my life.” When asked if he could wrap his head around the prolificacy of his peers, Hurwitz leaned back into the hotel lobby sofa and took a deep breath. “I honestly don’t know,” he said. “I admire how productive some people are. With my way of working, and how much time I think that I need, I don’t like feeling like there’s a deadline. That’s why I start on a movie when it’s in development or pre-production. I literally need months at the beginning of the process when I can just sit at the piano and search for the melodies.”
Hurwitz started thinking about “First Man” before he even began work on “La La Land” in 2014 — he finished the final mix on the film less than 72 hours before its world premiere at the 2018 Venice Film Festival. Even after all that time, he still only made it by the skin of his teeth. “There was no margin of error,” Hurwitz said, his eyes still bleary from those long nights in the studio and the festival travel that followed. “At one point, there was even talk of screening an unfinished mix and then going back after Venice and Telluride to get it right, but we ended up getting it done.”
The result, as audiences are now discovering, is one of the most complex, majestic, and emotionally lucid movie scores in recent memory. It’s also confirmation that “La La Land” was no flash in the pan, and that — going forward — Hurwitz’s music should be as much of an event as the Chazelle movies for which he composes them.
Of course, those two things are largely inextricable. While a number of filmmakers think of music as a garnish to be layered on top of the picture during post-production, Chazelle bakes sound directly into the bedrock of his stories, as though score and screenplay are conjoined twins that live or die on the strength of a single heartbeat. “That’s one of the reasons why I love working with Damien,” Hurwitz said, “because he wants music to be a voice in his movies, and that allows me to feel like I’m a storyteller, too.”
Armed with the mutual assumption that he and Chazelle are going to collaborate on each film, Hurwitz knew that he would have to rev up the engines as soon as “First Man” started to take shape. He began working on the movie full-time in March of 2017, just days after winning his first Oscar. From the start, the project was a bold new challenge. “Damien told me right off the bat that it had to sound totally different than anything we’d done before,” he said, and grinned. “Obviously, there was no jazz. The whole time the team was in Atlanta for prep and then shooting, I was back home just trying to compose the themes. We started like we always do, which is just me composing at a piano, and sending tons and tons and tons of demos to Damien. ‘How about this? How about this? Okay, how about this?’ And from Damien it’s ‘no, no, no, maybe, no, no, no…’ and so on until it’s ‘oh my God, I love that!’”
Of course, the director didn’t leave his right-hand man to just grope around in the dark. Well, not entirely. Chazelle and Hurwitz would talk at length, but only about the emotion of the story, and the insight the music would need to provide into the film’s taciturn protagonist. It was Hurwitz’s daunting task to find a sonic articulation of Armstrong’s humanity; to build a two-way bridge between Armstrong as a pioneering symbol of American exceptionalism, and Armstrong as a grieving friend and father who had to reach the stars in order to make peace with the loved ones he’d lost to the heavens. Music had always been used to convey their characters’ innermost feelings, but this story presented them with their most wounded and withdrawn hero to date — a historical figure, no less — and their first leading man who didn’t naturally express himself through song.
Hurwitz, who knew that Chazelle couldn’t start shooting until he had a main theme and a secondary riff, was guided by a single principle: “Armstrong’s grief needed to feel like something that transcended his earthly life.” That’s when Chazelle suggested the theremin. “We wanted to use some of the spacier elements, even in the more intimate earthbound cues,” Hurwitz said, “and the theremin is just a great intersection between technology and humanity.”
After hammering out the basic skeleton of the theme on piano (a sad but transcendent waltz that was later assigned to the harp), it was off to the races on the theremin. Hurwitz watched a lot of YouTube tutorials. “I studied a lot of videos about modular synths,” the composer remembered, “and how it works to patch together all the different cables. I got a bunch of metal delivered to my apartment and just started recording them. I also recorded other elements like water and fire, and then composited them into sound that I turned into an instrument and used it throughout the film. Damien probably had the Moon sequence in mind when he told me to check out the theremin, but you can hear it in almost every cue.”
The instrument’s aching warble is front and center in the moments following Armstrong’s one giant leap for mankind, but it also sobs in the background of the track that first establishes Armstrong’s marriage with his wife Janet, like an echo from deep within the hole in their hearts. “It sounds like the human voice, so you can really almost cry with it and wail with it,” Hurwitz said. “Everything is so flexible on the theremin, so you’re always sliding and bending into the notes. It’s human and not at the same time, so it’s no wonder the instrument has become emblematic of old sci-fi films.” But the theremin didn’t just help Hurwitz connect to the space odysseys of yore; it also allowed him to move away from them. “There were definitely certain tropes we wanted to avoid, a choir of angelic voices being chief among them,” he said. “The vocal element of the theremin allowed us to achieve a similar effect in a different way.”
If much of “First Man” consistently sounds different than what audiences might expect from a movie about the triumphs and tragedies of the space race, that’s not because Chazelle and Hurwitz were just trying to show off or mark their territory. On the contrary, both collaborators felt it essential that the music defy genre and narrative expectations in order to maintain focus on Armstrong’s emotional state in the midst of his spectacular journey.
“In many films,” Hurwitz said, “launching sequences and space sequences are triumphant and glorious, as they reflect on the accomplishment of it all. Damien wanted to acknowledge that feeling of achievement, but also to use it as a window into the grief beneath the surface.” When the Apollo 11 rocket takes off, it’s carried along by a huge orchestra, “but it’s resting on top of 100 tracks of synth,” Hurwitz said. “There’s so much angst and pain in the music because of everything Neil has gone through to that point, and because of everything he’s leaving behind and the fact that he may never see his family again. He’s doing this thing for the whole world, but he’s so alone in many ways.”
At times, it feels as though Hurwitz is Armstrong’s only companion. Nowhere in the film is his score more present than in the Moon-landing sequence, a breathless crescendo that epitomizes Chazelle’s synesthesia-like approach to cinematic sound; the score is so completely bonded with the image that it almost feels as if you’re watching the music. “Damien really wanted to drive that sequence with music,” Hurwitz said, “and that’s such a bold choice to let the score operate that way because a lot of filmmakers would probably favor sound design, or have the score be felt but not heard.” In a Chazelle/Hurwitz collaboration, the score is never felt but not heard.
“That cue is from a mock-up I did over a year ago,” Hurwitz said. “It was something Damien wanted crafted before he shot the movie. Maybe it’s because we came from making musicals, but he loves knowing what the music is going to be in advance.” The director storyboarded the sequence, and the music was played on the set. “Obviously, I tweaked the music over time, but Damien and [editor Tom Cross] cut the sequence around that cue,” Hurwitz said. “And then, as I went from a mock-up to proper orchestration, I had to move things around based on what they did with the picture. We tailor our parts of the film to each other’s, and that symbiosis is what I love about our process.”
However tired he might have been, Hurwitz seemed revitalized by discussing the holistic nature of the film’s post-production, and how it allowed for everyone to work together under one roof. Hurwitz’s office on the Universal lot shared a door with Chazelle’s editing suit. “They give me a scene, and I give them back music,” Hurwitz said. “We could really see everyone’s work and make sure that the whole team was in sync.” Case in point: Hurwitz’s close proximity to sound designer Lee Ai-ling allowed him to note the specific frequencies used in the Apollo 11 launch sequence, and make sure that his low-end sounds weren’t negated by those percussive noises.
Needless to say, that was a challenge that Hurwitz hadn’t encountered on smaller movies like “Whiplash”; the $60,000 budget for “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” Chazelle’s 2009 debut, might not even cover an afternoon with the 90-piece “First Man” orchestra who Hurwitz conducted himself. It was just another part of the process for someone who, in his own words, wants to “give myself totally, totally to the movie. I want to be there for the whole thing. Damien wants me to be there.”
If working exclusively with Chazelle means that Hurwitz will only get to deliver a new score every two years, that’s fine by him. “I like the pace,” he said. “It would be so hard for me to find the type of connection that I have with Damien, so I’m very apprehensive.” He’s not opposed to slowing down — in the right context. “Maybe I could try to get it down to once a year if I found another filmmaker, but ‘First Man’ took a year-and-a-half of full-time work and I wouldn’t want to give anything less effort than that,” he said. “The important thing for me is that I want to look back and feel like I gave it everything I have.”
A year after earning his first Oscar nomination (and a legion of dedicated fans), the young actor slips inside another intimate and demanding role.
By the time Timothée Chalamet signed up to play a drug addict for “Beautiful Boy,” the role that would change his life was already in the can. It was “Call Me By Your Name” that would earn him an Oscar nomination, an invite to the Academy, an enviable slew of offers, and a fanbase so dedicated to the young star that they go by the catchy moniker “Chalamaniacs.” The actor was cast in Felix Van Groeningen’s addiction drama “Beautiful Boy” in February 2017, just weeks after Luca Guadagnino’s romantic epic debuted at Sundance, kicking off what would end up being a months-long awards campaign that forever altered Chalamet’s career trajectory.
The part of Nic Sheff offered Chalamet yet another chance to slip inside an emotional role, but Van Groeningen’s big screen adaptation of two books about Sheff’s teenage drug addiction (one written by Nic, the other by his father David, played in the film by Steve Carell) demanded that the actor further stretch himself and his talents. Filming took place from March to May, though Van Groeningen also arranged a two-week rehearsal period with the cast before shooting.
To play Nic in the throes of his addiction, Chalamet dropped close to 20 pounds, as the most intense of the film’s scenes — including a crushing sequence that sees Nic hospitalized after an overdose — required his thin frame to be even more winnowed down. For fans of “Call Me by Your Name,” it’s a jarring change from Chalamet’s turn as the romantic and impulsive Elio, whose life is changed by the introduction of Armie Hammer’s alluring graduate student Oliver.
Both films focus on pivotable times in teenage lives, but while Elio embraces love and the possibility of evolution, Nic is captivated by a wild lifestyle and the many vices that go with it, nearly destroying his young life and his family in the process. And yet both “Call Me by Your Name” and “Beautiful Boy” hinge on the bond between fathers and sons, and audiences who loved watched Chalamet alongside Michael Stuhlbarg in “Call Me by Your Name” will see that affection reflected back in his stirring performance alongside Carell.
While the subject of drug addiction has inspired a number of critically lauded films over the years, from Darren Aronofsky’s wrenching “Requiem for a Dream” to Dorothy Davenport’s lost silent film “Human Wreckage,” Van Groeningen’s film bucks Hollywood convention by way of a narrative rooted in the Sheffs’ very real, heartbreaking experiences. There are tragic films on the basis of their stories and raw ones built around performance; “Beautiful Boy” attempts to exist somewhere in between the two.
On screen, that means following a cyclical narrative that sees the Sheffs enduring overdose after overdose, rock bottom after rock bottom, trip to rehab after trip to rehab. Chalamet and Carell get dirty, too, and “Beautiful Boy” doesn’t attempt to paint either of them as reductive as “the good guy” or “the bad guy.” The film doesn’t even offer a hard and fast reason for Nic’s addiction.
As Chalamet told IndieWire in a recent interview, “You can’t really point to a why, it just is.”
That was the primary draw for both Chalamet and co-star Carell. The two actors are simpatico when it comes to their appreciation for the tough material. “It’s messy. It’s incomplete,” Carell said. “It’s not your typical movie about this subject. And I think that’s what drew us to it. I didn’t want to do the after school special of addiction. We wanted it to feel more truthful than that.”
Before Chalamet started shooting the film, he met up with the real Nic Sheff for lunch in Los Angeles. Chalamet expected that the meeting would give him more insight into Sheff off the page so that he could better portray him on the screen, but even Chalamet was thrown for a loop when Sheff arrived with an unexpected piece of family history alongside him: his kid sister, Daisy (played in the film by Oakley Bull and Carlee Maciel). “I felt like I already kind of knew them because I had read the books, but I got a chance to actually know them,” Chalamet said. “I didn’t leave that meeting feeling claustrophobic, but rather like I had been set free in some way and that I could get after it.”
It would be easy for any actor to get bogged down by the weight of playing a real person on-screen — especially a real person whose life story is as upsetting as Nic Sheff’s — but Chalamet said he felt liberated by Sheff’s own expectations. “I didn’t know what the parameters were going to be of playing him, and it would be totally acceptable if he was stringent about certain things, the way if somebody were playing you or me, we might be,” he said. “And instead he was totally open to the experience already and the idea that this was going to be made into a film.”
He attributed part of that freedom to the way that both Sheffs are, just like Chalamet and his co-star Carell, artists by trade. Chalamet, still finding his way through his craft, was more than happy to transform into something new. “They have their own creative processes,” he said. “They know intrinsically the process of doing well as an artist by doing a lot of bad around it. I find a couple of bad takes can lead into a good one.”
Amazon Studios will release “Beautiful Boy” in theaters on Friday, October 12.
Cruise’s performance in the sixth “Mission: Impossible” movie should make the Academy reconsider its long-standing bias against action films.
When a movie opens with a nuclear bomb ripping through a dream sequence, subtlety isn’t the first word that comes to mind. Nor is it suggested by an invincible spy-killing Superman in a high-speed helicopter fight, or a prologue that ends with Wolf Blitzer peeling off his own face. However, all of those scenarios seem perfectly plausible for “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” star Tom Cruise, a suicidal Energizer Bunny whose most enduring franchise increasingly feels like a series of unsuccessful snuff films.
Even before he jumped on Oprah’s couch to convey his love for Katie Holmes, this small man was known for his bigness: for yelling lines that most actors might whisper, for a smile so wide and white he could light a whole multiplex with his teeth, and for landing paychecks the size of blockbuster movie budgets (he ultimately netted $100 million from “Mission: Impossible II,” which earned $790 million worldwide and cost $125 million to make). Even his most restrained performances are defined by Cruise’s superhuman ability to contain himself; he scored an Oscar nomination for the seething anger he brought to the role of incel spirit guide Frank T.J. Mackey in “Magnolia” (a character who grows more convincing as he shrinks and implodes), while his turn as an emasculated doctor in “Eyes Wide Shut” is a marvel of repression that hinges on one man’s struggle to keep his demons and desires at bay as he tries to shut Pandora’s Box.
For almost four decades now, those have been Cruise’s two dominant modes: Larger than life and/or bursting at the seams. And while films like “Jerry Maguire” and “Vanilla Sky” forced him to plant one foot on either side of the fence, that’s a hard stance to maintain for a man who moves at a full sprint. After the embarrassment of “The Mummy” and the muted response to “American Made,” it seemed as though Cruise would be forced to make a hard decision in order to weather the storm of the post-star Hollywood landscape: Go even bigger, or embrace the arduous transition into dramatic acting.
Naturally, he decided to do both. Because that’s the thing about Tom Cruise: He may believe that Xenu is real, and that “Battlefield Earth” was a historical epic, but the one thing he doesn’t believe in is compromise. And so, in hindsight, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that his magnificent (and utterly inimitable) performance in “Fallout” is nothing less than a do-or-die attempt to fuse together his two disparate modes. He breaks down a character he’s played for 22 years and rebuilds him over the course of an epic summer blockbuster that’s explicitly about one man’s struggle to choose between saving his friends and saving the world. The resulting film immortalizes Cruise as one of the greatest action stars of this (or any) era, while also cementing his genius for emotional expression. Not only is this his best work since the late ’90s, one of the standout performances of 2018, and worthy of serious consideration for a Best Actor nod at the Oscars (hell, it deserves to win), but what Cruise accomplishes in “Fallout” is reason enough for the Academy to finally reconsider its long-standing blindness to action movie acting. Weather the storm? Tom Cruise is the storm.
Yes, we know action movie performances never get their due, and — with all due respect to Batman fanboys — the Oscar bias against blockbusters isn’t exactly high on the list of what’s wrong with our world. Quoth Don Draper: That’s what the money is for! And yet, the fact remains that Hollywood’s blanket refusal to honor these spectacles is behind some of the most inexplicable snubs in recent memory. When “Mad Max: Fury Road” rode through awards season all shiny and chrome, Tom Hardy was hardly even considered for a Best Actor nomination. Charlize Theron, whose performance as Imperator Furiosa was already iconic by the time voting began, also didn’t make the cut in her category. Gain a little weight, wear a parrot on your shoulder, or pretend to be some dead English dude, and the gold is as good as yours. Strap yourself to the hood of a post-apocalyptic deathmobile while creating a richly expressive portrait of grief and madness, and your only consolation prize is a chance to play Venom.
Cruise has been nominated twice before (“Born on the Fourth of July” and “Magnolia”), both times for roles that subverted his star quality. However, he also faces a hurdle that other action stars aren’t forced to clear: He’s Tom Cruise. And he’s always playing Tom Cruise. To some extent, his performance in “Fallout” relies on that fact. Paradoxically, the more nuanced and fleshed out that Ethan Hunt has become over the years, the more the “Mission: Impossible” movies have called attention to the man behind the mask. Each subsequent installment has increasingly sold itself on the premise that Cruise is performing the stunts you see on screen — that’s really him climbing that skyscraper, that’s really him clawing to the side of that plane, that’s really him jumping out of that other plane — and the franchise around him has reconfigured itself as a practical response to the visual dishonesty of the digital age.
Alas, an ironic side effect of this approach is believability sometimes comes at the expense of unbelievability; trusting the art tempts us to overlook the artistry. For the most part, “Mission: Impossible” movies ask audiences to flip between fiction and reality as they watched: You’re watching Ethan Hunt during the story bits, and Tom Cruise during the action scenes. With “Rogue Nation” and “Ghost Protocol,” the constantly changing aspect ratio almost became a backhanded way of flicking that switch. That was never going to fly with Academy voters, who are far more impressed by actors who poorly transform themselves than they are actors who perfectly become themselves.
But Cruise does both in “Fallout,” and he does them both well. The whole story — which writer-director Christopher McQuarrie often reconstructed on the fly — is anchored to the idea of melding Tom Cruise and Ethan Hunt into one, but the details are where it really begins to take root. Nowhere is that ambition more painfully (if inadvertently) clear than in the chase sequence along the rooftops of London. A frazzled Hunt throws an office chair through a plate-glass window, and scampers outside. A sprinting Cruise tries to leap from one building to another, only to fall short and break his ankle. But when he pulls himself back up to the roof and hobbles towards the camera, injured but still determined to get the job done, something has changed.
For the first time in this franchise, viewers can’t be certain who they’re watching. Is that Hunt, or is that Cruise? It’s obvious who slammed into that wall, but unclear who survived the impact. Illustrating why he’s one of the cinema’s great non-verbal performers, Cruise does everything in his power to blur the line. He doesn’t just grit his teeth and clear the frame, he moves with purpose. His eyes are up the whole time; his body gripped by the same desperation that got him to the top of that building in the first place.
That moment is one of the many in which “Fallout” asks you to think about the relationship between actor and performer, rather then accept them as mutually exclusive personas. The movie draws attention to a balancing act that both its hero and its star have struggled with for a very long time. Hunt and Cruise are empowered and beholden to their identities in equal measure.
Hunt once tried to be a husband and a spy, and his cold heart softened into an Achilles’ heel when he fell in love with Julia (Michelle Monaghan) three films ago. He made the irreversible mistake of giving himself something to lose and his empathy has been easy for the bad guys to exploit ever since. From the start, “Fallout” is propelled by a single question that underwrites all the others: Will Ethan Hunt ever be free to become someone else?
Cruise, whose death-defying stunts require you to know that it’s really him up there, is likewise bound to his legend. And the more times he plays this part, the easier it becomes to conflate him with the character (or vice versa). The guy was never going to be a chameleon; his energy was always too fixed to compete with Christian Bale or Daniel Day-Lewis. And he’s never deluded himself into thinking otherwise; if anything, Cruise parodied the idea in “Tropic Thunder.” The engine for all of Cruise’s best performances is not how he resists his screen image, but rather how he uses it as a shorthand to get more out of the story. The genius in his latest portrayal of Ethan Hunt is that the character’s defining crisis dovetails with his own. Sure, the spy’s dilemma is built on the backs of five other films, but it’s the rest of Cruise’s career that resonates here. Finally, in his mid-50s, Hollywood’s last true movie star is given a chance to confront the baggage that comes with that status.
And he doesn’t waste a second of it. From the dawning realization that creeps over Cruise’s face in the opening dream sequence, to the way he crumples over that sad little desk in the Belfast safe house where Hunt wakes up, the anguish of what’s at stake for both men is palpable. And McQuarrie, more attuned to what his star is doing than any previous “Mission” director, always finds a way to highlight Cruise’s performance. Sometimes, that’s as simple as shooting the actor in close-up as he HALO jumps over Paris, so that Cruise (who did the stunt hundreds of times in preparation) can convincingly pretend to be as anxious as a lesser man (like, say, a legendary super-spy) might be in that moment.
Other times, McQuarrie just makes sure that Cruise is in focus. Even in the middle of a vicious fight to the death in a nightclub bathroom — even in the middle of a movie that everyone knows will end with his character saving the world — Cruise is always exuding Hunt’s fallibility. He makes it all look so easy, but never lets us forget how hard it must be for the man he’s playing. The meta-textual elements of the piece only work because Cruise gives a head-to-toe performance, the actor distilling several decades of built-up pathos into a clenched jaw or a furrowed brow.
But the highlight of his Ethan Hunt — and the moment that, in a just universe, would cement Cruise’s place alongside Bradley Cooper, Viggo Mortensen, and other more axiomatic nominees — comes at the end of the film, when the spy runs into his beloved ex-wife in Kashmir as he’s racing to defuse several atomic bombs. (We’ve all been there.) The scene that follows aches with a degree of restraint on par with the endings of “Roman Holiday” or “Brief Encounter” (or “La La Land,” at the very least), as Julia’s new husband comes up, and Hunt has to play it off like he just happened to be in the area.
Ambushed by a moment that will define the rest of his life, Hunt is suddenly forced to reconcile the disparate, incompatible parts of his identity. Does he protect Julia, or does he save the planet? There’s a breathless pause at a time when every second counts, and despite (or because) it being a beat that only Cruise could pull off, his character has finally become real enough to make us forget about the man playing him. And so Hunt realizes that he doesn’t have to choose; that he protects Julia by saving the planet. “It was good to see you.” And just like that, in one of the year’s funniest pivots, he scampers off at a dead sprint to catch the bad guy.
By that same token, being an immutable icon isn’t what prevents Tom Cruise from being a great actor. In the right circumstances, it’s what allows him to be a great actor. Big and small at the same time; subtle on an IMAX screen; heartbreakingly real and heroically ridiculous all at once. It’s just up to audiences — and the Academy — to appreciate what he’s doing.
“Shallow” is the biggest shoo-in for Best Original Song since “Let it Go,” but the likes of Thom Yorke and Kendrick Lamar make for a surprisingly deep field.
This Friday sees the release of “A Star Is Born” — otherwise known, in internet meme terms, as that movie where Bradley Cooper asks Lady Gaga to turn around so he can get another look at her. But Warner Bros. knows that people aren’t writing off its Oscar heavyweight as a joke; the studio knows that people are laughing with the movie, and not at it (for the most part, anyway). And that’s because Lady Gaga won’t let us.
“Shallow” was probably always going to be a phenomenon, but not even Warner Bros. could have anticipated that even casual fans would know the words to this soaring power-balled before they ever saw “A Star Is Born,” or that the music video they slapped together for it would amass more than nine million views in less than 100 hours. Written by Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando, and Andrew Wyatt, the song is a sublime vehicle for Gaga’s voice, and has genuine “My Heart Will Go On” potential. Needless to say, it’s already the prohibitive favorite to win the Oscar for Best Original Song, even though “Mary Poppins” surely has a surprise or two hidden up her umbrella. Not since “Let it Go” ran away with the category in 2014 has there been such a clear and obvious frontrunner — at least, that’s how it seems on the surface of things.
And yet, for all of the song’s self-evident genius, it’s not quite the safe bet it seems to be. Gaga and the rest of her gang might well find themselves being called to the stage of the Dolby Theatre on February 24, but they’ll have to triumph over a handful of killer tracks to get there (including “Maybe it’s Time” and a couple of other standouts from “A Star Is Born!”). Here are five songs that suggest the competition is a bit deeper than it seems on the surface.
1. “Ashes” — “Deadpool 2” (Written by Petey Martin, Jordan Smith, and Tedd T; performed by Céline Dion)
It’s important to note that songs don’t have to be “good” in order to win or be nominated for an Oscar; historically, in fact, quality has been something of a major disadvantage. No, all a song needs to be in order to land one of those coveted slots is loud, deeply emotional, or funny, and it helps if it’s performed by a major star who everyone wants to see onstage. God help us all: Céline Dion’s power-ballad parody from the “Deadpool 2” soundtrack somehow manages to check all of those contradictory boxes at once.
A tongue-in-cheek tribute to the humorless anthems that were often tacked on to big movies in the ’90s (kind of like Dion’s own “My Heart Will Go On,” but less organic and incredible), “Ashes” is the kind of bald-faced appeal for a Best Original Song nomination that only something like Deadpool could pull off with a straight face. Spoiler alert: It’s going to work. Complete with a chorus that Adele would kill for, and laced with knowingly groan-worthy lyrics that Dion’s soaring voice infuses with all manner of empty emotion (example: “Can you use these tears to put out the fires in my soul?”), “Ashes” is sure to contend in its category, just as its inevitable nod is sure to be the subject of a self-referential joke in “Deadpool 3.”
2. “All of the Stars” — “Black Panther” (Written by Kendrick Lamar, SZA, Sounwave, and Al Shux; performed by Lamar and SZA)
“Black Panther” was always going to be more than just another Marvel movie, but it wasn’t until they hired Kendrick Lamar to quarterback the soundtrack that some people started to realize how much more it was really going to be. Beyond the basic credibility that he brought with him, Lamar also contributed a couple of different songs to the album that he curated for the superhero phenomenon, including lead single, “All the Stars,” which has now been stuck in your head for more than 10 months. Ridiculously catchy from the moment SZA starts flexing atop a slinky trip-hop beat, the track only gets more addictive when Lamar rolls up with all of the swagger and sensitivity that make T’Challa such a natural born king.
Given how corporate this franchise is — and how small the overlap between profits and artistry can be in the Venn Diagram of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — it’s pretty incredible to hear two of the contemporary music world’s best artists come together and perform a genuinely fantastic song that was inspired by Wakanda. And while “All the Stars” might be the most broadly accessible track on the album, it’s not even the only one that could merit serious Oscar consideration; The Weeknd’s “Pray for Me” (which also features Lamar) might even be more forceful and dynamic. The soundtrack is all the more impressive when you consider how dull and forgettable the music has been in almost every other superhero movie, and it’s one of the many things about “Black Panther” that deserves to be celebrated at the Academy Awards.
3. “Suspirium” — ”Suspiria” (Written and performed by Thom Yorke)
Now that Jonny Greenwood has firmly established himself as one of the most exciting film composers in the world today, his Radiohead bandmate Thom Yorke is trying to follow suit. So far, so great. The haunting and eccentric score that Yorke composed for Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” remake is a recurring highlight in a movie that is almost entirely comprised of highlights, and makes us optimistic that Yorke and Guadagnino might forge a musical collaboration as strong as the one between Greenwood and Paul Thomas Anderson.
Unlike Greenwood, however, Yorke is a singer (his ominous falsetto is one of the most affecting instruments in the “Suspiria” score), and several of his contributions to the film meet the Academy’s criteria for Best Original Song. Chief among them: The plaintively beautiful “Suspirium,” which plays over the opening credits and sets the tone for the psychological evisceration to come. Running atop a lilting piano melody, and set to incisive lyrics that cut to the heart of Guadagnino’s remake (“This is waltz thinking about our bodies/what they mean for our salvation”), the song is as fragile and tortured as the movie for which it was written, and it only grows more unnerving once a solo flute starts dancing above the closing sections.
Yorke’s clout would force “Suspirium” into consideration even if it weren’t one of the best non-Radiohead tracks he’s ever written, and there’s no reason why he couldn’t slide into the spot the Academy usually keeps open for “alt” stars (e.g. Sufjan Stevens, Anohni, Björk). Of course, those “alt” nominees ever actually win the damn thing, but there are plenty of people who would settle for the chance to hear Yorke sing in the middle of Hollywood’s biggest night.
4. “Hearts Beat Loud” — “Hearts Beat Loud” (Written by Keegan DeWitt; performed by Kiersey Clemons and Nick Offerman)
A sweet and scrappy charmer about a widowed Brooklyn dad (Nick Offerman) who forms a band with his reluctant daughter (Kiersey Clemons) during the summer before she goes to college, Brett Haley’s “Hearts Beat Loud” is one of those movies that was always going to live and die on the strength of its music. The whole plot, such as it is, hinges on the two lead characters writing, rehearsing, and performing some indie rock together; almost everything we learn about them is expressed through the songs they create. Not only that, but those songs have to be good enough to justify a plot in which they catch fire on Spotify, and stoke enough interest for the daughter to question her dream of going to med school and becoming a doctor.
Thanks to stalwart film composer Keegan DeWitt and Haley’s hyper-winsome cast, those songs are good enough and then some. Warm and propulsive synth and guitar-driven jams that allow Clemons and Offerman to sing with their hearts on their sleeves, DeWitt’s anthems make for some of the best music that Chvches have never written. While all of the tunes are rock-solid, the standout is the title track, which chugs along on the strength of a bittersweet little hook (and the power of Clemons’ expressive voice) before popping into a full-throated plea for love and connection.
Not only is “Hearts Beat Loud” a radio-friendly hit in the making, but it’s also used to soundtrack the rehearsal montage and the climax of the film that shares its name. If only that film weren’t a tiny indie that grossed less than Lady Gaga’s hat budget on “A Star Is Born,” it might have a more legitimate shot at a nomination. As it stands, the song might still be catchy enough to get there on its own merits.
5. “The Flower of the Universe” — “A Wrinkle in Time” (Written by Sade Adu, Andrew Hale, and Ben Travers; performed by Sade)
Ava DuVernay could hardly contain her excitement when the great Sade (and her band of the same name) agreed to write a song for “A Wrinkle in Time,” and the director had good reason to be excited. For one thing, “Flower of the Universe” is the first original song that the legendary soul artist had written in more than seven years. For another thing, it’s a stone-cold knockout. A simple ballad that’s built atop a gentle strum and glazed with Sade’s inimitable voice, the tune is a proud and achingly beautiful ode from a parent to their child, and in just a few short minutes it manages to capture so much of the heart that beat inside DuVernay’s special effects spectacular. Even if “Flower of the Universe” might prove a touch too soft and gentle to threaten “Shallow” in a meaningful way, the Academy — and all of us watching at home — would be lucky to hear Sade croon this gorgeous lullaby on their stage for all the world to see.
Other songs that could factor into the race:
“Revelation” — “Boy Erased” (Troye Sivan and Jónsi)
“Gravity” — “Free Solo” (Tim McGraw and Lori McKenna)
“The Big Unknown” — ”Widows” (Sade)
“For You” — ”Fifty Shades Freed” (Liam Payne and Rita Ora)
“Finally Free” — “Smallfoot” (Niall Horan)
“Love Lies” — “Love, Simon” (Khalid & Normani)
“Turning Teeth” — “Under the Silver Lake” (Jesus, the Brides of Dracula)
The actor added Christian DeVille to his extensive list of commanding on-screen figures, turning a thirsty super-capitalist into something a little more nuanced.
As the singularly obsessive CEO of the largest company on the planet in Comedy Central’s “Corporate,” Christian Deville is one of the best roles that Lance Reddick has ever had. And even he still isn’t sure how the show made in onto TV in the first place.
“I was surprised that it got on the air. I was surprised some of this stuff got OK’d, really, because of the politics. Because it became clear very quickly to me that it was a show with a very strong point of view. It’s just really refreshing to be part of something that’s allowed to breathe and take on its own life,” Reddick told IndieWire.
“Corporate,” one of the year’s best TV surprises, follows two of the employees at Hampton Deville, an ever-growing multinational empire. Matt Ingebretson and Jake Weisman (the writers and creators of the series, along with director Pat Bishop) play Matt and Jake, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of sorts for their mega-conglomerate’s slow takeover of everything around them. As writers, they also had an idea from the outset as to how Christian Deville would help inform the company that he lends his name to.
“This big speech he gives when he first enters into the boardroom in the pilot helped us click into the idea that this character is kind of performative and likes to command a room. He drives the company in a fear-based way,” Ingrebretson said. “So I think when we wrote that scene we were like, ‘Oh, here are the possibilities of this character. This is what’s exciting about him, he’ll like grip the attention of everyone in like twist, throw ’em around a little bit.’ Hampton Deville is a company run in the way that a lot of companies are run, where it’s performance-based and if you’re underperforming, you’re out. So don’t fuck around.”
The show’s setting, distinct in its fluorescent-lit offices and wood-paneled boardroom interiors, combined with the aims of the boss lurking on the show’s edges make for an impressive showcase of Reddick’s on-screen presence. It’s something readily apparent when watching “Corporate,” but Reddick admits the show’s strange mixture of dark laughs and pointed commentary took a little while to get used to.
“To be perfectly frank, when I first read the pilot, I didn’t get it. It wasn’t until I saw the pilot, then I was like, ‘Oh, that’s it.’ For me, I did the kind of actor-y stuff and I tried to figure out, you know, I talked to, met with [the creators] a couple of times and talked about their ideas about the character,” Reddick said.
In addition to consulting with the show’s creative team, Reddick also turned to recent history and to real-life individuals who held similar positions of authority within the financial world.
“I tried to do some research about the psychology of CEOs. Reginald Johnson was a black billionaire in the ’70s and ’80s. Died very young at 50. But I read his autobiography, ‘Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun?'” Reddick said. “And also, at the time, I was really fascinated by and was reading about psychopaths, just coincidentally.”
Reddick might be most familiar to audiences from his time on “The Wire,” “Fringe,” and “Lost,” where he’s occupied various ranks of on-screen authority. More recently, in the Amazon series “Bosch,” Reddick plays a police chief, proving he can turn the act of rolling up a car window into something iconic. But in “Corporate,” with the entire globe at Christian Deville’s fingertips, there’s something a little extra at his disposal.
“I’ve played a lot of commanding characters, people who are in charge of other people. In order to do that successfully, I think you have to enjoy that. But it’s a whole other thing, feeling like there’s part of you that really wants to run the world, you know what I mean?” Reddick said. “Part of what’s scary is when you watch yourself, so much of it feels absurd, but I mean, when you talk to people in corporate life, it’s like, ‘No, what’s scary about that shit is that it’s fucking real.'”
Part of that reality comes from a realization that while Christian might have a devious smile and be perfectly able to manipulate his various minions, there’s a way to watch the show in which he isn’t the villain. For Weisman, it comes back to the idea that there’s a system that keeps all Hampton Deville employees out of happiness’ reach.
“The thing that’s funny about it is that I think [Christian] does enjoy it the most. However, I don’t think he’s ever really that happy because I don’t think he can be. I think capitalism doesn’t let you,” Reddick said. “Like, I think Christian Deville’s idea of success is infinite growth, constantly. He’ll probably try to get cryogenically frozen so he can have a thousand more attempts at it.”
Someone with this much wealth and power could easily become an outsized figure who gobbles up the entire show around him. But to hear Reddick describe the great struggle between comedy and tragedy at the heart of both show and character, it’s clear that Christian is just as trapped as everyone else.
“I think it’s a distinction between happiness and pleasure. He’s like an addict, trying to sign the next deal,” Reddick said. “He’s constantly searching for that dopamine hit. But it’s through work and success. He thinks he’s happy because he’s constantly given these hits of pleasure from his addiction to acquiring things.”
So for Reddick, the focus is on snatching the reality from within this surreal universe that “Corporate” has translated to TV. He’s a ruthless boss who also can handle quieter moments — even sweet ones, like his solo in the Season 1 finale “Remember Day,” where he serenades the office holiday party. Christian Deville is capable of some monstrous decisions, but the actor playing him never loses sight of the human foundation he’s built on.
“As an actor, whenever you play a character, unless you’re playing the devil, no character thinks that they’re evil. Nobody thinks that they’re the bad guy. Everybody’s justified in their head,” Reddick said. “Even though he’s a borderline caricature sometimes, I don’t know that in terms of personality type, he’s that different from real CEOs of multinational corporations. There’s a certain personality type, there’s a certain level of megalomania. I don’t know that you necessarily see yourself as right all the time, but you think your vision is the right vision. It’s almost like it’s God-given in your mind.”
Season 2 of “Corporate” will be on its way in due time. (When it comes, both Ingebretson and Reddick described Christian’s part in the opening episode as “fucking crazy.”) Though Reddick won’t be in every episode this upcoming season, there’s still plenty of room to explore who this guy is and what brought him to the place he’s at.
“Lance is so incredible that we want to swing for the fences with him every time he’s on screen,” Ingebretson said. “We’re very particular about what we’re using him for and try to give him the juiciest stuff on the show to do. Basically because he can do it.”
[IndieWire’s Consider This series is meant to raise awareness for Emmy contenders our editorial staff and readership find compelling, fascinating, and deserving. Running throughout awards season, Consider This selections may be underdogs, frontrunners, or somewhere in between; more importantly, they’re making damn good television we all should be watching, whether they’re nominated or not.]
The Emmy-nominated actor keeps playing men so bad you fall in love with them, so here’s how he does it.
For Walton Goggins, the worst part of transforming into Lee Russell wasn’t getting frosted tips; it was covering them up.
Don’t be misled: Goggins didn’t care much for the look (“It’s a lot to live with”). But one night during production of the HBO comedy “Vice Principals,” he went out to dinner in Charleston, South Carolina with a few members of the team, including co-star (and co-creator) Danny McBride and his director, David Gordon Green. Though it went against his set of manners, Goggins just couldn’t bring himself to sport his character’s famous blonde highlights in public.
“I grew up in the South, and you don’t wear hats inside of restaurants,” Goggins said in an interview with IndieWire. “But for me, when I wasn’t working, I want my hat, man. I didn’t want to be Lee Russell when I wasn’t working. Who the fuck would want to be that person when you’re not working?”
But the “distinguished older gentleman” who spotted him that night didn’t know anything about Lee Russell. This was 2015. “Vice Principals” had yet to debut. All that man saw was a hat on top of a head inside of a dining room.
“He just said, ‘Excuse me — young man.’ He said it so loud I didn’t know who he was talking to, and we were all at this table together and he said, ‘You in the hat,’ and I turned and looked at him, and he said, ‘Don’t you know that you do not wear hats inside of restaurants anywhere, son?’ And part of me wanted to tell him that I had cancer or something, but I just looked at him and said, ‘Yes sir, I completely understand, it won’t happen again.’ I mean, that’s all you can do.”
It may seem like the point of this story is no one should wear a hat inside a restaurant (especially in the South), but really the key takeaway is how much Goggins did not want to be Lee Russell — not when he didn’t have to be. Fans of the two-season series know Russell as a maniacal, power-hungry, sociopath; a vice principal who covets the boss’ chair so much he’ll stop at nothing to make it his own. He blackmails his competition; he spits in his co-workers’ coffee cups, then lies about it; he even burns down his boss’ house, where she lives with her children.
And yet Goggins found a way to make Russell engaging, hilarious, and even, at times, empathetic. He threw himself into a role that demanded a certain surrender, and trusted the process to produce someone the audience would become attached to and even root for (though they likely hated themselves for doing it). Goggins has done this before. Be it his sterling supporting turn in Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” or his Emmy-nominated role in “Justified,” Goggins makes bad guys fun to watch.
Goggins’ performance in “Vice Principals” drills deep into the heart of the very man he didn’t want to be, and it made the show that much better.
“I felt that way about Boyd Crowder, too,” Goggins said about his Emmy-nominated role on “Justified.” “And I felt that way about Chris Mannix [his character in ‘The Hateful Eight’]. […] It was difficult in the sense that these were two really fucked up human beings who are deeply insecure, but I think we had something to say. I don’t know that Danny was interested in redeeming them or making them good people; I don’t think he was interested in a bad guy becoming a hero. I think he was just interested in exploring who these two people were, and that’s certainly who I was interested in exploring.”
Explore him he did. Three years since he dyed his hair and started shooting, Goggins remembers “getting lost in the journey of these two men.” “Vice Principals” shot both seasons back to back from April through November 2015, and Goggins credits the writers for setting him up with great material to build from; the material wasn’t written for laughs, and they didn’t play it that way. Goggins said he and McBride took it “very seriously,” which then allowed them to react in the moment as these “deeply flawed human beings.”
“The best way I can describe it is watching a kid play,” Goggins said. “When they hold up a lightsaber, it’s a lightsaber.”
Referencing a scene in the penultimate episode where Gamby chases Russell through the halls of their high school, Goggins said he didn’t have to think about the choices he’d make, even if some were improvised.
“You just turn yourself over to an imaginary set of circumstances,” he said. “I’m Lee Russell, and Danny is Neal Gamby. And if you’re going down a hallway, Neal Gamby can kick Lee Russell’s ass on any day of the week, so I just have to outrun him. […] I don’t have to think about how Lee Russell […] would run or if he would snap a mopping thing like Jaws back at [Gamby] — I didn’t think about those things beforehand.”
Crediting the trust he had in McBride, Green, and co-creator Jody Hill, Goggins said he could find things in scenes as they came to him, including an improvised line that cut to the core of both characters.
“It wasn’t there on the page, but I just looked at him and said, ‘You’re an animal. You’re just an animal! Get him out of here!’ And those tears were real!” Goggins said. “That emotion may have been expressed in a way that made people laugh, but that’s without presupposing [it]. I didn’t sit up worrying, thinking, ‘Oh I better do this here.'”
Russell said he still thinks about where Lee Russell ended up after the ambiguous series finale — “But I won’t tell you,” he added — and he’d be open to returning to the character in the future.
“Of course,” he said. “I know Danny is kind of looking at whatever that means, but regardless [what happens with ‘Vice Principals’] I don’t think this is my last collaboration with Mr. McBride. I love those guys.”
[IndieWire’s Consider This series is meant to raise awareness for Emmy contenders our editorial staff and readership find compelling, fascinating, and deserving. Running throughout awards season, Consider This selections may be underdogs, frontrunners, or somewhere in between; more importantly, they’re making damn good television we all should be watching, whether they’re nominated or not.]
“People would say, ‘It’s very brave,’ to which I thought, ‘I don’t know if it’s brave.’ It’s really good writing,” LeBlanc said to IndieWire when asked what viewers’ biggest misconception was regarding his character. “People would ask me, ‘Are you worried people will think that’s what you’re really like?’ And, well, if I do my job right, then hopefully people will think that’s what I’m really like. That’s what an actor’s job is: to make people believe. So I got past that early on because the writing was good, and I didn’t mind being the butt of the joke because the joke was good.”
For five seasons, Matt LeBlanc played Matt LeBlanc. The actor and character shared a name, a similar background (“He was on a show called ‘Friends,'” as LeBlanc put it), and various other characteristics in Showtime’s Hollywood satire, but LeBlanc said, “It’s [clear] his flaws aren’t my flaws.” He approached the role like any other character and did his best to honor what was on the page.
“It was sad to see it come to an end,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that I miss about it. That was a really fun character to play because there were kind of no rules, in a weird way. I miss working with Jeffrey Klarik and David Crane, and I miss the cast — that was a great cast to work with.”
LeBlanc also noted how “Episodes” was one of a few half-hour shows that earned its assigned genre.
“So many comedies nowadays, you go, ‘Yeah, I can tell this is a comedy, but I don’t find myself laughing.’ Whereas I think this show was actually funny,” LeBlanc said. “There was some laugh-out-loud, really funny stuff — and some stuff where you’d just go, ‘Are you kidding me? What a lunatic. Who does that?’ There was some jaw-dropping stuff.”
But what “Episodes” — and LeBlanc — really excelled at was blending the two in a way that maximized each. Take a plot line from the final season’s fifth episode: When Matt (LeBlanc) finds out his father died, he tries to expedite his cremation in order to please his mom and his dad’s longtime girlfriend, but he’s told it can’t be done. So he fills a couple of urns he “borrows” from his “props guy” with ashes from his grill, only to later find out his agent pulled a few strings and got the cremation done anyway.
It’s all a bit comical and a bit heartbreaking. Matt seems stunned into service mode where he just wants to please everyone so they’ll get off his back, but lurking under each choice is a lingering tinge of sadness. The steaks he cooks to produce the ashes remind him of his father. The show he’s been trying to come up with turns into a father/son drama. And LeBlanc brings out this complicated mix of humor that’s repressing sadness that’s colored by anger without losing the big laughs or deep sentiment “Episodes” consistently evokes.
“The stuff he deals with with his dad, even though they had a rocky relationship at best, you only get one dad,” LeBlanc said. “I think he’s faced with his mortality in a way; a loss that he’s not felt before. That really sneaks up on him, and he’s really not ready for it. […] That kind of emotion, you hadn’t seen it in the character up to that point — throughout the whole series, really — so to see him arrive at this place unexpectedly and not really know what to do with those feelings, you can see he’s really struggling.”
As one last contrition to his dad, Matt drives to the beach to spread his father’s ashes in the ocean, as he was asked. As he stares into the ocean, tears well up in Matt’s eyes. He’s prepared to do one last nice thing for his father… but then the wind whips the ashes back in his face.
LeBlanc holds that feeling until the very end; you can see the water in his eyes right up until the ashes are thrown against him and he turns away in disgust.
“[It’s] a great joke, with the wind blowing ashes in his face,” LeBlanc said. “They would take a really sort of goofy silly moment and by the end of it have something really poignant happen, or the reverse of that: They would take a really poignant, moving moment and undercut it with a really funny joke that you did not see coming — like the ashes thing on the beach.”
Herein lies not only the courage of LeBlanc’s performance, but the conviction to pull it off. Just when the audience is invited to feel something real for his character, the actor fully commits to a joke that runs alongside that sympathy. He understands the drama and comedy of the moment elevate each other, so he plays each beat all the way through. The arc with his dad doesn’t break the tone of the series; it informs the audience about who Matt is as it keeps them laughing at his unpredictable reactions to death. LeBlanc’s take on Matt is as layered as it is specific.
“He was a guy who did not take responsibility for his actions,” LeBlanc said. “He really didn’t. ‘Did that hurt your feelings? I’m sorry, but let’s move on.’ In a way he was myopic and in a way he was very open to new things.”
When it comes to this last point, one could say the same about the actor, and when it comes to “Episodes,” he’ll be remembered fondly for it.
[Editor’s Note: IndieWire’s Consider This series is meant to raise awareness for Emmy contenders our editorial staff and readership find compelling, fascinating, and deserving. Running throughout awards season, Consider This selections may be underdogs, frontrunners, or somewhere in between; more importantly, they’re making damn good television we all should be watching, whether they’re nominated or not.]
In an interview with IndieWire, Max Greenfield remembers setting a high bar for Schmidt from the start — to be the Joey of “New Girl.” Here’s how he did it.
The funniest moment of the “New Girl” finale is barely a joke. It’s an accusation, really.
As Nick (Jake Johnson) starts to pack up his apartment, unbeknownst to his wife, Jess (Zooey Deschanel), Schmidt (Max Greenfield) spots a box pushed toward the back of the closet.
“What’s in the box that says ‘gross stuff,’ man?” he asks.
“Jess’ underpants,” Nick replies.
“You have Jess’ panties in a box?” Schmidt asks, to which Nick nods.
“While I’m delighted that you have a box… labeled ‘gross stuff’… of your wife’s… undergarments, uh, I also feel like you may be lying to me,” Schmidt says.
That’s it. That’s the scene. On paper, it’s silly and fun. It provokes many questions and tells us a bit about each character. But reading the words is nothing compared to seeing it play out (which you can do right here), and that’s because of Max Greenfield’s performance.
For seven years on “New Girl,” Greenfield has been elevating his character’s scenes with impeccable precision and uncapped energy. He bursts off the screen in such a way that Schmidt has captured the hearts of fans across the nation. There are endless “best of” montages online and an even more abundant stream of gifs. Schmidt is an icon, and Greenfield helped make him one, very, very carefully.
Such a status isn’t bestowed lightly, nor with any ease. It took great writing, attention to detail, but most importantly, time and talent. There were three phases to Schmidt, as outlined by Greenfield:
The “Public Serpent”
The Married Man
Those aren’t his words, mind you, but they’re in line with the character. During the first season, Schmidt was a douchebag — a lovable douchebag, but a douchebag nonetheless. In the premiere, his main objective is going to a party as a sexy cowboy so he can sleep with women dressed up as Native Americans. In the same episode, he takes his shirt off — for no reason other than to show off his body — while talking to his new roommate’s model friend (his future wife, Cece, played by Hannah Simone). He creates “Dudesgiving” and later “Bangsgiving.” He’s sleeping with multiple women, bragging about how much money he makes, and he’s emotionally closed off from his friends.
“Those first five episodes are usually terrifying because [nothing] has aired yet and you’re not getting any feedback,” Greenfield said. “So you’re sort of just out on a rope with no net and that’s when you start to go– right around Episode 4 you go, ‘Holy shit, I might never work again after this. I’m doing something out-there shit.'”
But Greenfield made it work. Even as a first-time series regular, he showed a deep understanding of what his role was and how to approach it.
“My feeling early on was that Nick and Jess were the grounding pieces of our show,” Greenfield said. “And I knew that they could never go too big — now eventually we could go there, but especially in the beginning stages of the show, they were the grounding force. Lamorne’s character had just sort of moved in because we were lost Damon [Wayans Jr., who had to leave after the pilot to work on “Happy Endings”], and Cece was popping in and out. So in the very, very beginning it was […] kind of a three-character show.”
“And my feeling was if you were going to have these two grounded characters who were doing incredible work — just really, really good solid single cam acting — there needed to be the big explosive joke hitter. You needed that. Most shows have had them. Like, if you look at ‘The Office,’ Rainn Wilson got that in the beginning. You had it with Neil Patrick Harris’ character [on ‘How I Met Your Mother’] and Joey [on ‘Friends’] and all these other characters like that — that sort of No. 3 that hit the punchlines. I was like, ‘Alright, I’m just gonna go big on this stuff.’ And it’s paid off.”
Among Greenfield’s most successful choices was crafting Schmidt’s winsome and mysterious accent. Though it may have contributed to quite a few people questioning the character’s sexuality, what Greenfield refers to as “a machine gun cadence” was born from necessity as much as insight.
“When I first moved out to L.A. from New York, I still had an accent,” Greenfield said. “I remember auditioning for shows like ‘Everwood,’ and they were like, ‘No man, we can’t put you on this show.’ […] I remember my wife telling me at the time like ‘You have got to get rid of this fucking accent.'”
Then came “New Girl,” and he was still in the process of ditching it.
“When I would be nervous, especially in an audition, I would tend to really commit [to the new voice],” he said. “I think the way I was able to move through some of those larger stretches of dialogue [was] from me over-annunciating every word and shedding any trace of any accent, which sort of then creates its own accent.”
There were many reasons fans fell hard for Greenfield’s performance, including great decisions by the writers to amp up feelings of empathy for the former schlub. The douchebag elements were phased out along with the douchebag jar, in favor of building a character who felt deeply and craved deep feelings from others. Just look at the ever-popular “cookie scene” from Season 2: He’s pouting because Nick refuses to reciprocate the loving friendship Schmidt puts out there, and their emotional push-and-pull becomes a theme of the series (all the way through the finale, when Schmidt finds out Nick never used the foot lotion he gave him as an annual gift).
“Our show was so much about relationships,” Greenfield said. “You had the centerpiece of our show — which was this relationship between Nick and Jess — and you really had to elongate [that] and concentrate on nuance in that relationship. In order to do so, I think they really sped up the progression of Schmidt’s character.”
But not everything changed. Some of Schmidt’s early traits stuck over the years.
“Schmidt felt very unfazed,” Greenfield said. “He wasn’t jealous. He rolled through things, he’s unapologetic, and I think that was one of the main reasons why [people] love him. He owns his shit.”
Then he had a real relationship, and the second phase of Schmidt’s development began: The Public Serpent, a title borrowed from his punny Halloween costume.
“And then and then I think he met Cece’s character, fell in love, and that was really the turning point for him and it was like, I can’t shake this feeling and now we’ll spend the rest of the time with this character as he sheds his old self.”
Shedding his former skin was an invigorating process to watch, as Schmidt dug into many new layers of himself. He realized he was in love only after it was gone, and watching a despondent version of the character post-heartbreak proved as endearing as it was surprisingly funny. Even when he was contemplating morality — “Just tell me I’m a good person, Nick!” — Greenfield found fresh ways to progress his character from a douchebag to a man his dream woman would want to marry.
“You’re finding stuff and […] you see what works, and then all of a sudden you’re getting a lot of feedback and people are saying, ‘Don’t do that,’ or they’re praising certain things. And I think that starts to sort of shape the character. And at some point you go, ‘All right, I feel like we know what we’re doing here.”
Schmidt’s arc was ahead of the series’ overall curve. His peak came two seasons before the series ended with Nick and Jess getting married, as he and Cece proposed and tied the knot amidst the core relationship’s tumultuous state. In a way, his arc became the primary story driver because it was the series deepest mine — consistently, Schmidt’s arcs just worked.
“He went from this single ladies man to married with a kid — his journey has probably been the most significant of the group,” he said. “It’s been interesting to play a character on a sitcom that’s changed as much as he has.”
Now, with “New Girl” over, Greenfield is looking toward the future. He’s nabbed scene-stealing supporting roles in two high-profile Ryan Murphy projects — “American Horror Story” in 2016 and this year’s “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” — and landed praised supporting roles in the festival favorite “Hello, My Name Is Doris” and the Best Picture nominee “The Big Short.” The day the “New Girl” aired, CBS announced Greenfield will star in its upcoming comedy series, “The Neighborhood,” but he’s not worried about typecasting.
“In the beginning. I was so happy to have the job, I was like, ‘Fucking typecast me as much as you want. Great!'” Greenfield said. “But you know, the climate has changed so much in the seven years that the show has been on; there’s so much content out there, I don’t know that being typecast or pigeonholed as a certain character is even a possibility.”
But even as he moves past “New Girl,” Schmidt will always be with him — literally, in his pocket.
“I just learned how to do a .gif on my phone, and I wrote ‘Schmidt’ in, and I’m flabbergasted by the amount [of options],” Greenfield said. “You could really use one for sort of any scenario. It’s wild.”
Life finds a way, sitcom icons never die, and — as Greenfield said in the pilot — Schmidt happens. Long may he live.
The actress spoke to IndieWire about finding inspiration in Winona Ryder, classic Hollywood films, and… parrots.
A strange alchemy is at work when Maya Hawke comes on screen as a young Victorian lady in PBS’ miniseries “Little Women.” Although this is her professional acting debut and therefore technically presents a fresh new face, there’s something familiar about her. It could be that she’s portraying Jo March, a much-beloved literary figure whose struggles are readily recognizable across generations. It could also be that despite wearing a corset and petticoats, the character speaks with such a modern voice that she feels as if we know her.
Even after a cursory Google search turns up what must be the answer — that she’s the grown daughter of actors Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke — that still doesn’t seem sufficient. It’s only when speaking to her that it becomes apparent the feeling of familiarity, of knowing, stems from Hawke herself. Whether it’s acting for the camera, waxing poetic about parrots on a panel, or fielding questions by phone, Hawke has the unerring ability to connect. With William Tell-like accuracy, she conveys both meaning and spirit straight to whoever her audience might be. This creates an instant link, however temporary it is.
“You want to put out good vibes for the viewers even if so many stories that have to be told and that need to be told have a lot of darkness in them because the world has a lot of darkness in it. And ‘Little Women’ tells the truth. You have to express that,” she said in an interview with IndieWire.
“These people are very noble and are really trying to be their best selves. They have a lot of wonderful spirituality and hope that they add to the world. Every time I watch the ‘Little Women’ movies or read the book, I would always feel really hopeful about myself and about the world, and I hope that when people watch this they’re infused with that feeling too.”
Being able to create that strong emotional bridge is pretty heady stuff for an actress just starting her career, but that would explain why the first two gigs she landed would be impressive on any resume. “Little Women” is an international production of a classic novel that also boasts the likes of Angela Lansbury, Emily Watson, and Michael Gambon. But as the fictional alter ego of author Louisa May Alcott, Jo is the one whose point of view drives the story.
“What was important to find was a freshness and an energy and a sort of freedom, a sort of spirit that would captivate. When we saw Maya Hawke … there was a certain instant mischief and energy to her that was just utterly enchanting,” executive producer Colin Callender said about casting her.
“The fact that it was her first role was particularly exciting for us. It’s a risk, but it was the right sort of risk,” he said. “I loved the fact that she would come to the screen and the audience wouldn’t know her, rather than finding an actress that the audience knew from something else. So the idea that Maya came to the screen with no baggage — people didn’t have a sense of her in any other role meant that they were seeing her fresh and seeing Jo fresh — that was very exciting.”
As a follow-up to the prestigious period drama, Hawke landed a role in the upcoming season of one of Netflix’s most popular series, “Stranger Things.” Not much is known about her role except that she plays an “alternative girl” named Robin who is bored with her job. Naturally, the strange things afoot in Hawkins, Ind., will help cure her ennui.
Going from Victorian-era virtuosity to the sci-fi horror of the ‘80s may not seem like the most obvious career trajectory, but Hawke’s own sensibilities fall somewhere in between. That’s because the pop culture touchstones that speak to her are far older than one would expect.
The Making of a Little Woman
Hawke has the blood of Tennessee Williams and a Buddhist scholar in her DNA. Not that either necessarily determined her path in life, but they do hint at the values important to her family. Obviously, with two actors as parents, the desire to perform was unavoidable, even when she was a wee child.
“I was always doing plays,” she said. “In my living room, I was always playing guitar and writing songs and singing them. My dad and I would always sing together — only for friends and family, but always since I was a little girl.”
School productions legitimized what had been merely a fun family pastime before. “I was Jenny in ‘Jenny and the School for Cats’ when I was five years old. That was my first big break. Then I got to play the Artful Dodger in ‘Oliver Twist,’ and that was the most fun I’ve ever had,” she said.
“But really, the first role that I was given that made me feel like somebody believes in me, in a real way, and I had something to offer this part was I played Agave in my high school production of ‘The Bacchae,” she continued. “I was old, I was 16. But that was a moment where I felt myself as an individual, and where I felt like myself a woman and where I felt capable for probably one of the first times in my life. That was probably the biggest moment for me in that way.”
From classical Greek plays to classic Hollywood films, Hawke found most of her acting inspirations in performers in the era before her parents’ time.
“I love Katharine Hepburn. I love Liesl in ‘The Sound of Music.’ I love Julie Andrews. I love Audrey Hepburn,” she said. “I fell in love with the people that, with the women who people have been falling in love with for the last 60 years. I grew up going to the video store on 21st and 9th and picking up a movie a week. So, I fell in love with those people first and then, as I got older, I got more and more in touch with my own generation, which I’m still working on.”
Working through dyslexia as a child, Hawke first dug into “Little Women” when she as in eighth grade.
“The first thing that meant a lot to me was Jo’s bravery and how much she insisted upon being herself and not making herself small and how eventually, over time, people learned to love her for that and respect her for it,” she said. “It really inspired me, that if I kept insisting on being myself from then people would catch on.
“I didn’t grow up in a nuclear home, and the way that the family lived was really interesting to me. Marmee and Father were really smart parents and really generous and really try to help their daughters actualize themselves. It was an interesting thing to get to read about, how different families can work, also functioning families, also positive families, but different ones. And also I’ve always been a real history nerd, and Massachusetts and the Civil War and the transcendentalist movement were always really curious and inspiring to me. The book helped fill out my imagination in that way also.”