Interview: Upgrade Writer-director Leigh Whannell

UpgradePosterLeigh Whannell, Corbett TuckWriter-director Leigh Whannell (co-creator of the Saw and Insidious series) takes a side step from the torture and supernatural horror genres with his latest film, Upgrade–an homage to the gritty sci-fi action films of the ’80s the filmmaker grew up on in Australia.

Upgrade follows Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), a hands-on DIY guy living uncomfortably in a near-future world of “smart everything” digital “helpers.” But when a tragic attack leaves Grey paralyzed from the neck down, he agrees to the implantation of new chip technology that acts as a bridge to let him move his body again.

The problems start when the chip’s AI starts to make its own decisions and overrides Grey’s  control–giving Marshall-Green the opportunity to do some impressive body acting and the film a chance to show off high-energy fight scenes. The result is a taut, entertaining Terminator-style helping of cyber-techno fears and good ol’ ultra-violence action.

I sat down with Whannell in Chicago a few weeks ago to talk about Upgrade, but also Chicago’s film history, his writing process, and the role of the subconscious in David Lynchian dream-logic creativity.

Upgrade opens today, June 1, in theaters everywhere.


Do you get to Chicago often?

Leigh Whannell: I wish I did. Before I had kids, I used to do this thing where I would fly to a random city when I was a script and just book a hotel room, and I would just stay in the hotel room all day writing and then go out at night. And the first draft of this script for Upgrade was written here in Chicago. I was here for a week staying at a hotel on this street [Michigan Avenue].

And I loved it. I don’t know what it is, but I think it’s a combo of things. Chicago kind of reminds me of Melbourne, where I’m from. And also, that classic thing where it feels like a more approachable New York City. It feels like New York, but you don’t have that constant feeling that everyone is thinking, “Get the fuck out of my way,” the way they do in New York.

But also, in a weird way I kind of grew up with the city, because growing up in the ‘80s watching so many seminal films set in Chicago. So, in a weird way coming here is like this nostalgic trip, like I’m coming home or something.

untouchablesunionstationWhenever I’m in Union Station’s Great Hall and I see those stairs, I think…

Untouchables! I have the same thought when I look down [LaSalle] street that ends at the Board of Trade, the final shot! And right now [in an office overlooking Michigan and the Chicago River], it’s like I’m the dad in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off.

Every film shot in Chicago uses this corner.

It is the Eiffel Tower of Chicago! Countless movies that I love, like The Fugitive, that great sequence. It’s an interesting feeling to be like somewhere that you’ve never been before, yet you feel weirdly familiar with it.

Before you go to a hotel to write, how much of an outline or plan do you have for a script?

Usually what I do is, I have an idea for something, and most ideas I come up with, I think about them for a day and realize they’re terrible and file them away. The ones that stick are the ones that I can’t stop thinking about them.

If after a week I’m still kind of obsessing on it, then I know I’m onto a good thing. That was the case with Upgrade. I’ll kind of start planning it out and get it to the what I call the “notepad stage,” where you’re just writing all the ideas out in a notebook. It’s actually my favorite stage of screen-writing. Once I get to the end of that, and I can sort of see the rough outline of the movie in those notes, then I would book the hotel. I guess the idea is to sequester myself away and write, write, write, write.

upgrade_logan_marshall-green_courtesy_bh_tiltThe nice thing is I’ll go out walking around the city at night. Usually whenever I’m writing a film or make a soundtrack before I start writing; download a bunch of tracks that I feel are evocative of whatever I’m writing about and I’ll just be constantly listening to it. When I’m writing I want to try and live in the movie or like watch the movie in my mind.

I remember walking around Chicago the middle of winter, and I had the headphones in and be walking along, Chicago is such a great Gothic city, and I remember one night I was walking along a street with the elevated train was overhead and steam coming out of the street grates, and it just couldn’t have been more of a noir movie set, especially to my Australian eyes. I was listening to different pieces from the Zodiac soundtrack. So walking down those Chicago streets and listening to that music, I was already in the movie.

I’ll also take photos of a bunch of different things. I think Melbourne is the closest Australian City to Chicago in terms of feel. Australia is a very sunny place, not exactly the type of place that suggests noir. But at least for Australia, Melbourne is the grayest, coldest city; it has these old Victorian buildings. It’s not really that cold and grey at all, but compared to the rest of Australia it is. If you watch Upgrade, I was trying to make Melbourne look like Chicago with a lot of those wide shots of the city—I really had Chicago in mind.

You work in genre a lot, and this film has that feel of an ‘80s independent-spirited science-fiction film noir. When you get the initial notion for a film like Upgrade, do you have a specific plot or thematic idea or do you just kind of grab onto more of a visceral, visual, or tonal feeling?

I usually start with the concept; that’s usually the first thing that comes in. Then once you have a concept you can’t stop thinking about, you figure out what the movie is. In a lot of ways, it tells you what it wants to be like. It’s like making a Lego wall; each brick you add creates a picture.

upgrade-movie-logan-marshall-green-2-600x400With this movie I started off with the idea of quadriplegic who has had an operation where the computer chip was installed and this person was now able to move. And then that suggests the idea of what if the computer chip said, “well I’m in control of everything from the neck down. So really I’m in charge of more than you are.”

And all of a sudden that just this Pandora’s Box of movie possibilities because I had this picture in my mind of somebody watching their body do something and going, “What?!”

Each new idea blends into 10 little ideas, and then each one of those 10 little ideas, in the best case, scenario creates 10 more. It sort of jellyfishes out into this thing that you hope is a movie. Now that I’m watching this guy who’s a head on a stick watching himself do things, I’m applying that to fight scenes and thinking, “Okay what if you were watching yourself murder somebody?” Or what if what if you were watching yourself torture somebody and you didn’t agree with what you were doing but you couldn’t actually do anything about it.

Everything starts wrapping itself around the notion in that notepad stage, where you’re like, “Okay now the story needs a reason to exist. What’s the forward momentum?” So that’s a fun process when it works.

IMDB tags Upgrade as “body horror.”

That ultimately is the horror part of it, that you are just along for the ride. I mean in a lot of ways it’s the ultimate nightmare isn’t it? I always think of the ending of Being John Malkovich. That idea that that you were sitting inside of your own body but not able to dictate what you were saying or doing. For me that’s the ultimate nightmare, the loss of control.

upgrade-movie-2018-image3_origI guess this happens with people who get sick are starting to lose motor function. I’ve known people in my life who were suffering from MS or ALS, and that loss of control to any human being is tragic, it’s a terrifying thing to face. So that’s the body horror element. But when you make a movie you have an idea of what it is but then when the audience sees it they really decide.

Even when we made the first Saw movie, James Wan and I were pretty sure we’d made like a locked-room thriller. And then when the movie got released the audience was like, “No this is a visceral gory horror movie.” And it’s almost like we didn’t even realize that the gore elements of the film—which in the original were not frequent, very small. But for some reason, the audience grabbed onto them.

I’ve noticed with Upgrade that some of the Cronenberg, body-horror influences like guns inside arms, people grab onto that. Maybe it’s visceral, and the visceral is the first thing that’s going to arrest someone’s attention. I feel like in this case other people are telling me that the film is body horror, rather than me saying, “This is what I’m doing.”

You look at Cronenberg’s films from the ‘70s and ‘80s, where there are so many strong, reoccurring themes and fears, and wonder how much he knew upfront at the time what he was pouring out again and again in those films, or did he only see the pattern later, when looking back at his body of work, so to speak?

Well, without knowing him or reading an interview with him, my guess would be that he just spewed it out. That that he kept returning to his own neuroses and anxiety, and it’s in hindsight that you’re able to do an autopsy and say, “Oh, okay.”

upgrade-movie-logan-marshall-green-4-600x400I’ve just recently noticed with me an interesting first-hand example. Every film I’ve written involves some kind of illness. Hospitals are always there, there’s either a terminal illness or some condition. And that was not by design.

In the first Saw film, the guy has cancer and is in this hospital, and then in Insidious he’s in a coma, and this film has plenty of hospital scenes. I think that I have this really unconscious fear of hospitals and sickness, more than a fear of death. Because death is just the lights going out.

Before I wrote the first Saw movie, in my early to mid 20s, I was sick for a while. I was suffering anxiety, but I didn’t know it—in my early 20s I didn’t know anxiety was even a thing. All I knew was my heart was racing and I was having migraines and I’d be in these really weird situations where I would start feeling dizzy. It was really messing me up because that time of year life is supposed to be when you’re at your healthiest.

I remember going to a hospital and I never even been in a hospital before. Now I’m sitting in one and getting a CAT scan and that really bled into my work. I think that that experience really has become something that is informed my writing. It’s there. Even in films that I’m writing right now, I can see it coming back. It’s always coming back, this fear of hospitals and fear of sickness.

When you get into a creative space and you’re heads-down, working away and get in the zone or in a fugue state, you’re not entirely in control of your own thoughts and creativity. If you’re thinking consciously, “I need a powerful scene or idea; I need something really emotional here,” your mind reaches back onto that shelf of your subconscious and says, “Okay, here’s our number one fear, or thing that bothers us, or is really intense for us.”

leigh-whannell-upgrade-movie-600x400I like that expression, “the fugue state,” because I really do love approaching this stuff—creating, writing—from an unconscious state. The best-case scenario for me would be if I could write the film while I was asleep; just pour out pure unconscious “bleeaah.”

And I read this book by David Lynch, and he’s all into transcendental meditation. His big thing with creativity is that you have to plumb your subconscious, because all your ideas and all your fears and anxieties are there. I think that really obviously really works for him because his films do follow this dream logic. They feel very sub-conscious, there’s nothing linear. I love reaching into that muck. If we picture our subconscious like a swamp, I love getting in there and grabbing stuff and pulling it out.

And that term “fugue state” is great—don’t apply a formula to it, just let it all go. The first draft of a script, a lot of people say make it the “vomit” draft. I don’t think, I just write. And then the rewriting is analysis, where you dissect and go, “Well, that was terrible.” But if I could really achieve that fugue state for the first draft of a script, I would love it.

It really helps your films stand out from the weekly parade of artificial “date-night” horror or action films pre-planned and plugged in to appeal to teenagers on date night. Under their genre trappings, your films all feel very personal. You pull out and tap into things that don’t feel pre-tested.

updateThat’s definitely the case with those films. I just saw the film Hereditary recently at the Overlook horror film festival in New Orleans—Upgrade was playing there. Everybody’s talking about Hereditary, and it’s a great horror film. It feels very much like what you’re saying; it feels like the writer’s worst fears just kind of vomited out onto the paper.

It’s not market-tested, it doesn’t follow any sort of streamlined logic, it’s not wrapped up with a bow. One plus two does not equal three in this movie. It feels so primal, even though you know that it took time to make it, and obviously he hasn’t shot the first draft, it feels like that; it feels like a dream. So that’s definitely what I try to do.

In regards to David Lynch, the fun thing is taking that unconscious stuff and squashing it into the box of a story. Someone like David Lynch doesn’t bother with that part—he just presents you with the dream, and you’ll figure it out later. Whereas I can’t help but put it in a story. I guess it’s the movies I grew up with, but I do love telling a story. Maybe one day I’ll have the guts to make a total dream-logic Lynchian film that people have to figure out for themselves, but right now I like telling stories.

Last summer’s Twin Peaks revival had a pretty big story box. There was a lot of room in that box.

Yeah, it ended up just being The Story of Dougie. [laughs] I was like, “Wow, this Dougie thing is really going all the way to the end of the river.”

I love both kinds of work. I like the idea of a tightly structured story with a logic to the story that has to be hammered out. But I also love when things between the story points are poured from dreams.

913ulmgI think you’ve just nailed exactly what I love about movies; when you said that you take a tightly structured story and then within that within the gaps of that story you have have fun and do something that’s different.

For instance, with David Lynch, my favorite stuff of his—and I’m a big Lynch fan—is when you feel some of those more commercial parameters around him. Like in the first season of Twin Peaks; it still has all the Lynchian stuff, and it’s still very original and quirky but it also tells this story that you can lock onto and identify with. I love Lynch when those conditions are imposed again. When he’s given free rein to go crazy, it’s not as interesting to me as when the screws are on; The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks.

So I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head for me when it comes to what I love, which is creative filmmakers who are forced to work within the box. I love that. And somehow, they make that box interesting. Whereas when they’re completely off the chain… okay, it’s cool, but… [laughs]

Interview: Hailiee Steinfeld, Star of The Edge of Seventeen

edge_of_seventeenhailee-steinfeld-the-edge-of-seventeen-photo-call-in-beverly-hills-10-29-2016-4In 2010, 13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld made a strong first impression (and nabbed an Oscar nomination) for her work in the Coen Brother’s True Grit remake.

Six years later, the young actress, model, and singer has a dozen more feature films on her resume–including Pitch Perfect 2, which also served as a launching pad for a very successful second career as a pop singer.

Steinfeld’s latest film, the smart and emotionally complex coming-of-age film The Edge of Seventeen, has garnered the 19-year-old actress another round of rave reviews. Written and directed by newcomer Kelly Fremon Craig (and produced by James L. Brooks), The Edge of Seventeen follows Nadine (Steinfeld), an intelligent, sensitive, frustrated, and awkward young woman trying to navigate high school, new romances, friendships, a family still off-balance since the death of her father years back, and her own self-sabotaging attitudes.

The Edge of Seventeen also stars newcomer Haley Lu Richardson as Nadine’s best friend, Blake Jenner as her seemingly perfect older brother, Kyra Sedgwick as their somewhat-lost mother, Woody Harrelson as the only teacher who seems to both get and tolerate Nadine, and the fantastic Hayden Szeto as one of her would-be paramours.

Several other writers and I sat down with Hailee Steinfeld a few weeks ago in Chicago to talk about The Edge of Seventeen, her fast-rising singing career, and her own take on teenage angst.

The Edge of Seventeen opens today in theaters everywhere.


edge-of-seventeenYou’re still technically a teenager yourself, so what does a coming-of-age film like this mean to you and your generation?

Hailee Steinfeld: What makes this film universal is that forms of communication change, the way people dress changes, but friendships and relationships don’t. Growing up doesn’t change. It doesn’t matter where you are or what you do, being a teenager is being a teenager. Anyone has moments where you wake up and say, “What the hell am I doing? What’s my purpose? How do I fit in? Why am I not fitting in?” Trying to figure out who you are and what life is. That’s so prominent during your high school years.

Social media is at the center of the Earth these days for my generation. What I love about this film is that social media is not at the center of the film, but the film is honest about how much social media affects us in terms of relationships and friendships and trying to find validation through numbers of followers or likes.

I was in school until about sixth grade, then I started home-schooling, so I didn’t get the quintessential experience of being there, but this film is more about growing up rather than a teen or high school movie.

Since you were home-schooled, do you approach playing a high schooler as something of an anthropological study?

Steinfeld: Being in school until the sixth grade, there was a reason my parents pulled me out, because of social issues. It gives me anxiety, sitting in a classroom. We made this movie in a real high school, sometimes when it was in session. And when the bell would ring, I literally could not see in front of me because there were too many people in the halls, and I can’t breathe. I truly believe that being in a classroom is not for everybody.

hailee-steinfeld-the-edge-of-seventeen-image-2-600x337You must get a lot of teen-age type scripts. What was it about this one that caught your eye?

Steinfeld: The fact that it’s not a teen movie. This movie is a coming of age story about a girl who goes from thinking that she has everything figured out to realizing she does not, and then realizing that is okay. She becomes a young woman and has this underlying strength that comes through that I think every young woman has. And it is just a matter of discovering it and when; it’s there. We all go through similar experiences where we’re trying to figure everything out from girls and boys and ourselves and parents and siblings and even how to get to school that day… All those little things affect this one person and affect us all. I think that this movie so seamlessly nails so many moments that lead up to some sort of breakdown and then understanding; I feel it catches everything. That’s what drew me to it.

John Hughes’ films are often mentioned when describing this film. Did you grow up with any sort of connection to those Hughes films?

Steinfeld: I did feel pretty connected to those films. I felt like everything from the language to the way you dress to spending that extra time in the bathroom in the morning in the mirror trying to get your hair right because that guy is going to be at school today—those moments are real. We have all been in high school. Teens drink, go to parties and get in trouble and are growing up and figuring it out. So with those movies I felt connected to the fact they felt so real and honest to me. I remember watching Sixteen Candles and praying that would never happen to me. I feel like you can sympathize with those characters in those moments, and I feel like this movie has so many of those moments.

Nadine has some of those painfully awkward moments, like texts sent to boys that go horribly wrong.

Steinfeld: My character is somebody craving human connection and love and conversation. She says what is on her mind, and then obviously talks big talk and gets herself into a situation. She just wants somebody to understand her. So she gets herself in these situations that girls get into where they think they know what they want, but we try to backpedal and figure it out.

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEENThe film also explores the idea of what it means to have a best friend and the ups and downs of the relationship between Nadine and Krista (Haley Lu Richardson).

Steinfeld: One thing that is so beautiful about their friendship is that it has literally been since day one, and they both have similar family issues, and I think they find a lot of what they are lacking in each other. And I think a best friend breakup could be just as horrible as a romantic break-up, and when she goes through that it’s horrible.

For me, I am lucky enough to count my number of best friends on one hand. I have learned that it is a good thing. And to have those people that you feel you can go to for anything no matter where you are in the world and you can call them and they will pick up—that is hard to find, and when you do, it’s so special. In terms of what makes that, there are so many things and I think we all have that person that we feel we can trust and go to and talk to, and when they feel the same way, that is when you know that it is an unbreakable bond.

The whole cast is so varied and excellent, including Kyra Sedgwick as Nadine’s mom, Hayden Szeto as another of Nadine’s romantic interests, and Blake Jenner, who plays your brother.

Steinfeld: I’m proud to be part of a generation with so many talented actors. Blake was awesome; so devoted and generous to work with. I have experienced working with people where when the camera is not on them they have done their part and are done. But with Blake and Haley Lu Richardson and everyone in this movie, there were moments where we were in emotional scenes and they had the respect and generosity to not be done when they were done. Blake was so giving and present and so amazing to work with.

screen-shot-2016-07-18-at-3-15-53-pmAnd how was it working with Woody Harrelson as Nadine’s teacher?

Steinfeld: It was so much fun. I’ll always remember working with him—he’s just amazing. One thing I loved was we developed so much banter on our own, personally, that it came through on screen. Kelly would let the camera roll forever as we went off on tangents that were either absolutely amazing and funny and we’d be trying not to laugh, or it’d be completely horrible and we’d try to bring it back home and it wasn’t going anywhere.

In recent years your singing career has become almost as big as your acting career. What different things do you get from the two disciplines?

Steinfeld: I started singing around the same time that I got into acting. It became much more of a side project when the acting was a full-time thing, and I would record covers to get the feel of being in a recording studio, and I would write with family friends who were producers and artists themselves. And it really became a matter of timing in terms of how I could time it out when people would take me seriously. And I kind of secretly always hoped that it would happen through a movie, and Pitch Perfect 2 came along at the perfect time for me, because I wasn’t ready for it years ago.

But it happened after Pitch Perfect 2 that I signed a recording deal with Republic Records and within six months I had my first single out, which went platinum in record time. It was insane! And everything has been so crazy since then. But as an eight, nine or ten-year-old, the idea of performing and entertaining people was of interest to me and whether that meant onstage or in a commercial, I wanted to do it. And the fact that I get to do both is amazing.

You show a terrific range of emotions in the “Rock Bottom” video.

Steinfeld: That is one of my favorites. With “Love Myself,” I had a harder time coming up with what the story looked like. And having never made a music video before it was awesome to make one where it was like a beauty thing. It was like, ‘Here I am singing from rooftops. This is my first music video ever. This is what it wants to be.’ And with “Rock Bottom,” that song to me is like every relationship I have ever been in where you love the person so much and you hate them at the same time. And you just want to love them and also smack them across the face. Anyway, getting into details…

So that video, I really wanted it to be as visual as that song sounds. And having those highs and lows of a relationship where one minute everything is amazing as it could be and the next it switches and that person is gone, and you don’t know where to turn to or where to go and what to do.

And making that video I worked really closely with the director, Malia James, and pulled up a folder on my computer that I had for months been putting stuff into that reminded me of the song. And she had so many of the same photos in her folder. We had never had a conversation before or really spoken in-depth about what I wanted to do, and she was on the same page. So making that was really awesome.

hailee-steinfeld-the-edge-of-seventeen-image-1-600x401With films and music, you have so much going on all the time now. What do you do to step back and get away from it all?

Steinfeld: I’ve learned to really enjoy doing absolutely nothing; moments where I’m at home and I don’t leave my bedroom, and I’m just in there listening to music, watching TV, on the phone with friends. Being home is Recharge Central to me. Taking time for myself, really. Just turning off.

You haven’t done a ton of teenage films, but are you ready to sort of “graduate” from that stage and move on?

Steinfeld: I hope I’m not 25 and playing 15, but I’ve had this conversation with my parents that, “I’m growing up, I’m getting older, I don’t want to be stuck in this teenage thing.” But this film is so not that. Any time I have the honor of playing a role as complex as this one, regardless of the age, I’ll do whatever I can to do it. But I’m turning 20, and I’m very excited to explore what kinds of roles come with that.

What do you hope kids will take away from film?

Steinfeld: I hope kids and people will watch this movie and feel like, “I’m not alone.” I hope they can see themselves in this movie or somewhere in this story.

It wasn’t that long ago, but knowing what you know now as you near 20, what would you say to your younger, teenage self?

Steinfeld: I would stand far enough away so that I wouldn’t slap myself, but I would say that everything is going to be fine. It is crazy that when you are in the moment it’s the last thing you want to hear. Even now I have moments where I will go to my mom when I feel like it’s the end of the world and I don’t know what to do, and she’s like, “Hailee, relax.” I am like, “No! I’m not going to relax.” It’s things that we never want to hear but which we need to hear. And I think it is going back and telling myself that it is a matter of time before you realize that this is just a moment of time.

Interview: Whit Stillman, Writer-director of Jane Austen’s Love & Friendship (Lady Susan)

Film Premiere of Love and Friendshiprs_506x749-160330170802-634.Love-and-friendship-movie-poster-tt-033016From his first feature film, 1990’s Metropolitan, through Barcelona (1994), The Last Days of Disco (1998) and even 2011’s Damsels in Distress, Jane Austen’s influence on writer-director Whit Stillman has been obvious.

His films’ fascination with the manners, aspirations, and behaviors of hermetic social circles; his characters’ tendency to constantly explain and justify their motivations; and a smart, precise gentility laid over their sometimes misguided quests for material solvency and romantic happiness.

Stillman has finally made an actual Jane Austen film, though keeping with his studied idiosyncrasies, it’s an adaptation of a little-known, previously unadapted Austen novella, the epistolary Lady Susan, written early in the author’s career around 1794 but published posthumously in 1871. Stillman had been leisurely writing his adaptation for more than 15 years, finally seeing it onto the screen now, retitled Love & Friendship (though unrelated to the other early Austen epistolary novella of that name.)

Kate Beckinsale is terrific as Lady Susan Vernon, a society widow notorious for her scandalous affairs and on a search for a new husband. Her latest target is Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), brother of Susan’s sister-in-law, Catherine (Emma Greenwell). As usual for Austen, the story contains several constantly-shifting romantic plots, with multiple suitors in orbit around Lady Susan, including the buffoonish Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett).

sevignybeckinsale-xlargeSusan’s management of past, present, and potential mates is supported by her American friend Alicia (Beckinsale’s The Last Days of Disco co-star Chloë Sevigny).

The film’s fantastic cast also features Justin Edwards as Susan’s own brother, Jemma Redgrave and James Fleet as Catherine and Reginald’s parents, Stephen Fry as Alicia’s disapproving husband, Jenn Murray as the wife of one of Susan’s past (and future?) dalliances, and Morfydd Clark as her often-mortified and forsaken daughter, Frederica.

I sat down with Stillman—a genuine cinematic hero of mine—in Chicago last month to talk about his evolving relationship with Austen’s works, adapting Lady Susan into Love & Friendship, a few delightful, very Stillman-esque detours into chatting about my shirt, the NFL Draft in Chicago that weekend, and the pros and cons of still using Blackberrys.

Love & Friendship is playing now in select theaters nationwide.


Ross McDonnellAre you tired of talking about Jane Austen yet?

Whit Stillman: Not at all. I can talk about Jane Austen until the cows come home.

What exactly has been your background with Austen’s works throughout your career?

Stillman: It relates to finding this material because I was depressed and lovelorn in the middle of my sophomore year of college, and I was about to drop out and go to Mexico for half a year and learn Spanish.

In that weird period, I picked up this book by an author I’d heard of named Jane Austen, and read it, and thought it was terrible, and told everyone she was over-rated, terrible, terrible. It was Northanger Abbey, a parody of Gothic novels, and I’d never read the Gothic novels she was making fun of. Fortunately my sister’s a very good reader and so Sense and Sensibility eventually fell into my hands, I liked it, and I read Pride and Prejudice and loved it, read all of Austen and loved it all.

Finally in 1999 or so, I’d been through all of Austen and decided to re-read Northanger Abbey and see if I still disliked it. After college, I’d worked in publishing and worked on books by Victoria Holt and other Gothic novelists, so I knew by then what they were. And that time I got it, I liked Northanger Abbey.

Ross McDonnellIn the back of that edition were various fragments of Austen’s work, including Lady Susan. So thanks to going back and re-evaluating Northanger Abbey I discovered something I liked much better, which was Lady Susan. The novella is a whole piece, but it’s unfinished in the sense that she would have done other drafts and finished out the conclusion better. She rounded out the ending, but it’s not fully thought through. It ends like a mini-bio for a movie studio.

Much has been made during your career of the Austen-like sensibilities of your own, personal films. Is that accurate?

Stillman: Oh definitely. It was totally an influence. Metropolitian actually has the beats about Jane Austen. Some people have detected a Fanny Price nature to the Audrey Rouget character and her situation, for example Audrey’s objection to the True or Dare game.

(At this point Stillman randomly veered the conversation off into a discussion of my favorite pinstriped button-down shirt—of which he has one exactly the same, both of them given to us by our sisters; of his quest for a laundromat around Chicago’s Magnificent Mile; of the roving packs of geared-out NFL fans roaming Michigan Avenue; and mention of a weekend once spent in Columbus, Ohio, during an Arnold Schwarzenegger body-building competition.)

How was the adaptation process for you, especially working from an epistolary novella.

Stillman: We had to kinda keep the letters out of the movie, though there are a couple big letters scenes. But we couldn’t have people just writing and reading letters. Which was part of the reason I didn’t do this as a straight-ahead project, but just did it in a very relaxed and happy way over a decade; work on it, put it aside, come back to it.

l_f3The first thing was to do a long rough dramatization of everything and then not look at the novel anymore, but just look at the scenes I’d written. So sometimes I’d take two or three letters and shuffle them together to make different scenes.

For example, I had to invent the Mrs. Cross character because Alicia can’t always be with Lady Susan geographically, so I gave a lot of the material to Mrs. Cross, who becomes her own character with her own story. And so the different threads of a film like this come about. You have to have a character for a certain reason, to support the material, and then that character develops their own story.

Does writing a literary adaptation put you in a very different creative headspace than working on a more personal film?

Stillman: For one thing, there’s not that horrible period where you have nothing, or just bad stuff. The creation of a film starts with an idea, a notion of a time period or characters, and you get really excited about the idea, and sell it to others if you need their support to write the script. You can’t wait to get started, and then you try to start, and you struggle with the blank page, and you get some ideas, and they’re bad ideas, and you write bad stuff. It’s really bad.

For me, there’s a bad year of getting started on something. You write bad stuff and it’s awkward to throw it out, and you wait around to get some good ideas that maybe do come or don’t come. Until eventually you get the voice and autonomy of the characters, the characters have personality, and they sort of pick up the weight and put it on their shoulders. That’s when it becomes a little more fun.

1c923623-0a27-47d6-b030-8b1b054f4d94If you’re adapting something that’s good already, you don’t have that horrible thing. But you have other problems: the problem of making it your own, of having it take flight a little bit, because an adaptation can be a little bit leaden.

With me, this didn’t really take flight with certain characters until super late. I had a British theatrical producer [Trevor Brown] who was going to help me turn it into a movie, but he went off to do better things over time. But he kept saying, “Oh, Frederica is the key, there has to be more Frederica,” but I just couldn’t think of much stuff for Frederica. There’s just one letter about her and Reginald. And then I thought, maybe Frederica doesn’t have to be that big in the story; maybe she’s sort of the McGuffin, the pot of gold, the treasure that’s stolen or given away.

It was only when the script started to catch fire and change with the Sir James Martin stuff that I also started to get good Frederica ideas, like her visit to the church to discuss the Fourth Commandment with the young curate. So Frederica started getting scenes, and Charles Vernon started getting some. So finishing this adaptation of the existing work and starting to have characters come alive and actors come on board at the last minute, it started to change.

With Sir James Martin, Tom Bennett is so great, so funny, but how to you gage and guide that sort of silly comedic performance to make sure it works within the overall tone of the film?

LandF_day20_100_R21462313831-001Stillman: The only struggle was when we added sound to the dancing scene. It makes me slightly queasy that maybe we’re pushing Sir James too hard by adding his laughter to the dancing scene, but it seems to be working. I think it’s okay—in that scene we’re really pulling the Sir James lever hard, but then he goes away for a while. But that was a point where I felt we might have been pushing the “funny Sir James” stuff too far, by corning up the dancing scene by having his giddy laughter in there. But I think by the final film we’d turned it down.

Lady Susan herself seems to be one of Austen’s most uncharacteristically unsympathetic protagonists.

Stillman: She’s an evil character, but I’m not sure evil and unsympathetic are always the same. She’s funny and honest, which makes her evil a little more engaging. In the film we can make her even more engaging.

She seems to share with some qualities with characters in your other films.

Stillman: It’s true there is a through line. Someone was talking about the Chris Eigeman in the first three films and this character. There is pattern in the films with these sort of egotistical, extraverted group-leader characters. That would include Violet Wister in Damsels and Lady Susan Vernon in Love & Friendship. You have to have a sparkplug character who makes things happen.

img_4788They also seem to share a habit of constantly explaining their motivations, rationalizing their sometimes dubious behavior.

Stillman: To thine own self be true. Actually I think their charm is self-awareness. Even if they’re doing bad stuff, they’re honest and self-aware about it. That’s one of the things I find really bad, is when people not only do injuries to others, but then lie about the others to justify it. It’s not bad enough just being bad to someone, but then lying about it. That is a real pattern.

(As the interview wound down, we chatted about the fact we both still use Blackberrys, and Stillman politely and warmly walked me to the elevator. He really does have impeccable manners.)

Interview: Touched with Fire Writer-director Paul Dalio and Star Luke Kirby

Touched_with_Fire_posterdalio and kirbyWriter-director Paul Dalio’s first feature film draws directly from his personal experience with being both bipolar and a creative individual.

Touched with Fire takes its title and thematic inspiration from Kay Redfield Jamison’s 1996 study Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, in which the psychologist examines how the works of many artists, musicians, and writers–including Van Gogh, Tchaikovsky, and Byron–were fueled by their struggles with bipolar disorders.

The film follows two poets, Carla (Katie Holmes) and Marco (Luke Kirby), who meet in a treatment facility and whose opposing natures not only draws them into a passionate romantic relationship but also dangerously stokes each other’s mania–much to the concern of their doctors and family. (Touched with Fire also features Christine Lahti as Carla’s mother and Griffin Dunne as Marco’s father.)

As a student at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Dalio’s artistic exploration of his past experiences with bipolarity and creativity drew the attention and support of both his film professor, Spike Lee (an executive producer on the film), and his fellow student and future wife, Kristina Nikolova (also a producer and co-cinematographer on Touched with Fire).

I sat down in Chicago last month to talk with both Paul Dalio and Luke Kirby (recently seen in Rectify and Show Me a Hero) about making Touched with Fire.

Touched with Fire opens this week in select theaters nationwide.


73a44045c897a28aece5878e5181d3a023661d37.jpg.cfIt must challenging to show on screen a mental state and its perceptions; whether it’s bipolar mania and depression, or hallucination, or a drug trip.

Paul Dalio: Absolutely. Fortunately, I had a lot of time to prepare; first with a look book, then working with the creative departments. It was a three-month pre-production period with just the creative departments and really getting the specifics right.

The great thing about film, the power of film is that you can really affect all the senses and put the audience into the skin of the characters. When you get all the departments on the same page, and you’re all creating from the same place, you can just saturate the senses. So the viewers are experiencing digitally, aurally, what it’s like so they’re not distanced from the characters. They’re not watching a mania from the outside—they’re inside the mania, inside the skin of the characters.

As an actor, Luke, does playing those sorts of extreme emotion states come with dangers, pitfalls?

Luke Kirby: Probably? But that’s why we do it. The great gift actors are granted with film is that it can all go into an editing room. [Laughs] So it’s not your fault! And hopefully they’ll have the wherewithal when they’re in the editing room to get the right stuff on screen. For me with this work, the biggest pitfall would be to be too concerned about going too far. So for me, I put that on Paul….

Dalio: Thank god, we had that trust…

Kirby: He was the barometer for whether or not what we were doing was authentic, or if it felt like it needed a nudge. So I was grateful this film was in Paul’s hands.

fieldDalio: As a first-time director, I was grateful that he trusted me. That I could let him go as far as he wanted and try everything. And then for him to know I would catch him if he was going into something that wasn’t truthful, and that in the editing room I’d keep it pure, and authentic, and real.

But when putting these emotions on screen, you probably have to go a little bigger in order to convey them to the audience in the span of a two-hour film.

There’s always that balance between naturalism and the very heightened artifice that defines “art.” The film itself focuses on creativity, especially poetry.

Dalio: Fortunately mania is already big. [Laughs] It’s big enough for anything; authentically big.

Kirby: I love naturalism, love it. I don’t know that it’s truer to life. Naturalism at some point just becomes an aesthetic versus a real behavioral observation.

How did you balance that heightened reality without playing into stereotypes and preconceptions about bipolar behavior?

Kirby: Well, it’s so personal to Paul and dear to his heart that for me it was very clear that he was going to be holding close to that. There’s a creative flow—you can’t get motion if you’re worrying too much.

landscape-1455306526-elle-february-2016-mad-for-each-other-01Dalio: I saw Luke had it when I met him. It was clear that he could take that leap. I wouldn’t put anything on the screen that wasn’t authentic, or heightened so that I could show something, even if it wasn’t “true.”

The most important thing for me was to be really authentic, but bi-polar is one of those things with heightened experience and heightened extremes. Luke had that in him when I met him, and I knew that he would go further and further in an authentic way because he’s a very authentic actor. He puts a lot of emphasis on the internal experience and building the character internally in a strong way before even going in front of the camera. So everything he did was authentic.

While I can give him feedback from the outside, truth is in your intuition. And he had a strong intuition and he was truthful to that. Once he made the imaginary leap with his already existing emotional range beyond the norm and pushed into that heightened manic state, while he might be off here and there, he had a barometer of truth in him through his intuition as an actor. It was very much connected to his senses, and so clearly written all over his face and body and behavior. So much of that I didn’t need to push out, it just happened.

One of the film’s strengths is that unlike, say, I Smile Back (where the viewer immediately sees and feels that the main character is behaving in self-destructive, harmful ways), in Touched with Fire, we’re drawn into Marco and Carla’s worlds and asked to explore and understand both their driving forces and philosophies as valid and sympathetic—as well as the legitimate concerns of their parents, doctors, and the “outside world.”

primary_TouchedWithFire_1Dalio: For the same reasons I wanted the audience to experience things through their skin and see the beauty of the world through their eyes, I wanted the audience to be with them in every single way.

Part of that are the choices they make. And you cannot be with the characters if they’re making choices you wouldn’t make. You have to at least be in their skin and empathize with them.

I thought it was very important for reaching people are bipolar, for them to experience it and say, “I know what that’s like, and I know I have to make those choices.” Then when I bring them to the resolution, they can decide for themselves if that’s truthful, but at least they’ll have a chance of having their truth aligned with mine if I took them through a journey they could relate to.

I also thought it was important for the doctors and parents out there in the audience to be able to see what they’re going through and understand why they make those choices. So they are able to talk to their patients or kids in an intelligent way. That’s also why I show the doctors and parents as well-intentioned people. The obvious stereotype is to make them villains who are stopping these kids from loving each other, but that’s not helpful, and it doesn’t allow or invite the doctors and parents in the audience to see themselves in those characters, and to allow them to see themselves through their children’s or patients’ eyes.

The film actively paints Carla as “sun” and “light” and Marco as “moon” and “darkness.” Luke, did you approach Marco as the “darker” character, the more cautionary tale?

thumbnail_23688Kirby: I was definitely drawn to his audacious attitude. His situation or condition, the fight in him was very real to me. There was something a little childlike in him that excited me. I wasn’t really aware of the cautionary tale aspect.

As a night owl myself, his connection to the moon was more about the beautiful lunacy than the dark elements. I think magic is very present in the night because the world goes quiet. If you have an imagination, you can really be free to be with that and not have life interrupt.

I just read a book called Waking Up to the Dark by Clark Strand that’s all about how civilization includes more light due to technology like cell phones and becomes more dependent on light. From his experience, he is making the argument for the importance of having dark in your life. He wakes up in the night and goes for walks. He was a monk for a while, so he’s very spiritual.

Because the film is so successful at showing the truth of bipolarity, it also creates its own challenge in how to find its own narrative conclusion. At one point, you bring the real Kay Jamison into the film to offer advice about how she herself found that balance between mania and creativity.

Dalio: Marco’s nature is to defy that balance—they have to live out their own consequences and compare those consequences with what they were told, to find those truths for themselves. The truth is there’s many Marcos out there who would watch that scene, and they would say, “Oh, Jaminson couldn’t face the storms.”

If Marco on screen was to say “Kay Jaminson was right—that’s the way we have to live,” the Marcos out in the audience would say, “Oh, he couldn’t face the storm—but I would be able to face it.” You need him to crash in the storm and reach the belly of the abyss in order to get out of it and stay out it.

20160217_fire02_33Knowing from your own experience that the struggle with real bipolarity is an ongoing thing,  how did you approach writing an ending for the film. How did you bring it home to a conclusion, since a feature film can’t be 40 hours long?

Dalio: [loud laughter at Luke] He knows the original script! That’s not far off!

But you can’t have a nice, neat ending, and yet as a work of art itself, the film has to offer some sort of cinematic closure as the lights come up, right?

Dalio: Absolutely. The creative process was authentically wrestling between the beauty and the darkness. I wanted to show all the love that they had and all the torment the love brought out, but also authentically allow these characters to live out their relationship with these drives that brought them together and made them shine brighter and brighter until at some point it would naturally burn so bright that it would fall into the ashes.

And then try to find within those ashes some resolution, some truth that wasn’t forced, that wasn’t didactic, that wasn’t trying to tie things up in a neat bow, but was truthful. And in that truth find some kind of message that would be a help to people who watch the film.

I set out with the editing to keep the film in the frame of the four seasons, because bi-polar runs with the seasons, and Carla and Marco’s relationship ran with the seasons.

bipolar-movie-touched-with-fire1There was a thing about repeating the cycle, and they had to break the cycle. The cycle is that in the summer the mania runs wild and reaches peak saturation, and then crashes in the fall, and you go through a winter depression, and then spring comes again and invites you with that warm invitation to rise too high. It’s so hard to resist the temptation. But though the film’s structure and editing, I wanted to show them have the full seasonal cycle and then break the cycle.

Interview: The Big Short Writer-director Adam McKay

tbs_1-sht_teaserNew York premiere of 'The Big Short'The Big Short sneaked up on me. On us all. When awards season began, it wasn’t really in the conversation.

After all, here was Adam McKay, the filmmaker behind (admittedly awesome) Will Ferrell comedies like Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and The Other Guys, and co-creator of the Funny or Die website co-writing and directing an adaptation of Michael Lewis’ 2010 non-fiction book about the devastating collapse of the housing bubble in 2008.

I even skipped the first press screening back in November because I was busy, and while the film looked intriguing, it didn’t seem vital.

I was oh-so wrong. Not only is The Big Short extremely, must-see vital, but it’s one of my favorite films of 2015.

(Update: The Academy now agrees, nominating it for Best Picture, McKay and his co-writer Charles Randolph for Best Adapted Screenplay, Christian Bale for Best Supporting Actor, and Hank Corwin for Editing.)

Like Lewis’ book, The Big Short focuses on three groups of investors, all of them outsiders or oddballs in some way, who, for various reasons (not always altruistic) bet against the housing market. Bale plays Dr. Michael Burry, a socially awkward California hedge fun manager who first susses out the fatal flows in the mortgage-backed security bubble. Steve Carell is Mark Baum (based on Steve Eisman), an angry, crusading Wall Street hedge fund manager who can’t stand seeing the system continually cheat the little guys, and who teams up with Ryan Gosling’s Jared Vennett (based on Greg Lippmann), a more morally pragmatic bond salesman. And John Magaro and Finn Wittrock are two younger hedge fund managers trying to get their feet in the door with the help of their retired, cynical mentor, Brad Pitt’s Ben Rickert (based on Ben Hockett).

the-big-short_0McKay’s smart, highly entertaining, and always infuriating film comes hard at the banking industry and Wall Street with a dynamic, irreverent, often profane and darkly funny ferocity. Even though the three groups never actually meet, overall The Big Short has the desperate precision and immediacy of a heist flick, only with much higher, more real stakes for the global economy.

I sat down with McKay in Chicago in early December to talk about The Big Short.

The Big Short is in theaters everywhere.


I’m sure everyone asks you about making an issue film like this after years of making comedies. But what are some of the things you don’t get asked that you’re dying to talk about?

Adam McKay: Yeah, everyone asks me what it’s like to go from comedy to something more serious, and the answer is not that exciting. The truth is you’re still making movies. I still used a little bit of improv. I love all kinds of movies, and I’ve written different kinds of movies, and done rewrites on films you’ve never seen my name on. To me, the most intriguing part of this movie is just, “Why did these guys see it and no one else saw it?” That’s the part I could talk about for hours.

bigshortbale900And that they did so with all this general tide of greed-fueled delusion pressing back against them.

McKay: Completely. You look at that chart of housing prices and how flat it is and then it just goes “whoosh” upwards, and anyone can look at that and say, “Oh shit, we’ve got a problem.” Then all you have to do is ask the next question—I argued with a guy from the Wall Street Journal about this—which has to be, “How many of these mortgage-backed securities are out there?” And you’re there. And no one did that? I’m fascinated by that.

To me, the movie is about more than banking. It’s that question about how an entire society can go willfully blind, and then why do certain kinds of people see it—these outsiders who obviously aren’t part of the herd? To me, that’s really the core of the movie. A lot of people want to talk about the financial aspects and where we’re headed. But that question to me is the big, meaty center of this movie. And I’d apply that to the Iraq War as well and a lot of the stuff that goes on in D.C. with gerrymandering or not funding the 9-11 rescue workers. Where’s the conversation about that?

You have that poolside scene in the film with the Securities and Exchange Commission employee saying the SEC is too underfunded to fully investigate or prosecute irregularities and fraud. Meanwhile today, the head of the Federal Election Commission is saying the same thing about being too underfunded to prevent campaigns and super-PACs from colluding in the post-Citizens United landscape. So it comes down to whether elected representatives are actively working to defund these efforts because they go against theirs or their backers’ interests.

AR-AL617_FILM_G_P_20151210130412McKay: How are average Americans walking around okay with restricting people from voting? Literally the pillar of democracy that all of our grandfathers fought in World War II to protect. I don’t care if you’re right wing, Tea Party, left wing, that is the center of America. And they have found a way to disenfranchise millions of voters. That question is intriguing to me.

All of this gets at a sort of righteous anger and furious indignation that flows through and energizes the film, especially as embodied by Carell’s Baum.

McKay: What’s funny is that the puzzle pieces, the actual parts of the engine of this movie, once you put them together, there’s just anger there. It’s not even something you have to try to do. Baum is angry and does think the whole system is bullshit. Burry (Bale)  is the guy who loves the comfort of numbers, so when the numbers don’t make sense, he’s thrown off—he almost had to have surgery, his stomach was so upset.

So you see these guys, yeah, they’re expressing anger and anxiety and tremendous amounts of fear, especially the young guys, but it’s kind of built into the DNA of the story. The one part I added where maybe I gave a little extra jab of the knife was in the end when Baum said we’ll be blaming poor people and immigrants, and then the film does that little “But he was wrong, we put everyone in jail… Naw, just kidding!” I definitely put a little whip cream on it with that. But other than that, it was all stuff that happened and real characters. The truth is that the real story is beyond infuriating, and there’s no other way to really tell it.

BigShortBaleIt’s interesting that when your various protagonists start to see that the whole system is rigged, Burry finally responds with anger because he can’t stand to see the numbers manipulated. But by that point Baum just has that resigned defeatism of, “Well, of course they are.”

McKay: Exactly. I always got the sense from the real Dr. Burry that he found a lot of peace and comfort in the certainty of math. He told me that heavy metal, speed metal is modern classical music—he loves the symmetry of it; he loves just swimming in the comfort of numbers. And when those housing numbers didn’t make sense, it ripped him up. On top of that, everyone around him hated him and wanted to sue him. To this day he’ll tell you it was the worst time of his life.

And on the other hand, you have Pitt as the wise, sad hermit on the mountain.

McKay: That’s how I described it to Brad: The old gunfighter picking up his rusty gun again. Or his old samurai sword for one more go at it.

103240148-bigshort.530x298In Michael Lewis’ book and your film, what’s fascinating is how all these systematic failures still come down to the actions of individuals. Not one person, but many, at the very ground level, making decisions based on fear or self-preservation, or just an unwillingness to go against the herd.

McKay: I like to think Lewis even goes further—what he loves to do is find some new idea that happened, good or bad, that we didn’t notice coming about, that changes everything. Then from that change you get that individual going, “Ah, my hands are tied.” It’s all because of this one thing, the mortgage-backed security, which, in fairness to [its creator] Lewis Ranieri, was not a bad thing. It got mutated.

I love how Michael Lewis finds these ideas, like, “You know, the passing game got more popular, so the left tackle got paid more,” or, “You know, baseball doesn’t have a salary cap, which is weird, since all the other sports do, so it forces these guys to go to a Yale statistician, which then changes the face of baseball.”

So in this case, the billions they started generating from exotic derivatives changed the face of banking and also gave them enough money to start lobbying Congress seriously. They basically bought our government, and so ratings agencies aren’t doing their job, the SEC is asleep at the wheel; Congress, the Fed, all asleep at the wheel.

I noticed all the Barry Bonds clips throughout the film. In Twilight of the Elites, Chris Hayes uses baseball as an example of an institution collapsing under scandal and corruption.

McKay: I always thought Major League Baseball was a perfect metaphor for what’s happened to our government and our financial system. If you look at it, it’s the same exact dynamics—baseball destroyed itself and will never be the same again because of what it did. It was all short-term fixes to get the home run numbers up. They moved the fences in, all the journalists knew they were doing steroids but none of them reported it out of fear of losing access to the players, and they damaged that game maybe beyond repair. I used to be a giant baseball fan, but the historic record—which is the foundation of baseball—is forever damaged. So yeah, I definitely made a point of putting Bonds in there.

bgs-01810r2.0The film also does a fantastic job of using catchy celebrity appearances to entertainingly explain otherwise dry or complex concepts.

McKay: For some reason, the second I read the book I had that idea of doing those little explanatory vignettes. The idea came out of once again this question of, “Why didn’t anyone else see this?” And then I started thinking about our culture and how much time our culture spends talking about pop culture and who’s dating whom and celebrities.

And I wondered what would happen if that pop culture actually gave us information, so I just wanted to spool that through the movie, like the Ludacris video and the iPhones and Facebook thumbs-up and then go to these pop celebrities like Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain and beautiful Margo Robie in a bath tub. This is the aesthetic and the values of pop culture, but actually telling you really salient information. I liked that contrast.

I knew there was no way to write all that information into dialogue between characters. It’d be really clunky, like, “So wait a minute, you’re telling me the CEO…?” “That’s right!” If you have to do that, you’re just dead in the water. I felt like Lewis’ book was so alive that it allowed for a little fraying of the edges and breaking the fourth wall.

Out of all those, what idea was the hardest to present in layman’s terms?

McKay: Collateralized debt obligations were really tough to explain because they’re so fucked up, so toxic that you could spend an hour talking about CDOs.

25-big-short-lede-pittAnd your film makes clear that these are intentional complexities designed to confuse and obfuscate.

McKay: But when you strip away all the language that’s confusing, it can be pretty simple. I practiced over and over again, trying to make this simple—I understand what you mean about the complexity. But the basic story is this guy created mortgage backed securities and they started making billions and billions of dollars. It was a great idea. But they ran out of good mortgages, so they started putting shitty mortgages in. The End.

That’s the entire the movie. And yes, there were CDOs created to cover the losses, and then synthetic CDOs became this contagion that spread all over the world, which made it worse and worse. But really the entire story is just that simple.

Your director of photography is Barry Ackroyd, best known for his hand-held cinematography on white-knuckle Paul Greengrass films like United 93 and Captain Phillips.

McKay: That was a very big choice that we made. There’s some really great Wall Street movies made over the years, like Margin Call—I really love Margin Call, Wolf of Wall Street, the original Wall Street is really good and holds up surprisingly well, aside from the giant cell phones. We wanted to show the other side of Wall Street. I wanted to show the guys who were anxious and had bad clothes and haircuts. When you talk to these real people, this whole ride was very stressful and upsetting. I never wanted cool, calm phone calls. I never wanted that sense of marble walls and stationary shots. I wanted to go inside these moments, and no one does that better than Barry Ackroyd.

You can have a scene that’s just a phone call with Christian Bale and Barry Ackroyd will shoot it so that you feel every ripple of emotion. I’ve heard some people say that it’s disconcerting, and I do use stable shots sometimes. Whenever I show Lawrence Fields, his chief at Scion Capital, I shot him a little more stable. I did mix it up. But it’s supposed to be disconcerting. These guys were wrecked. Two of them were having panic attacks because of this. One of them almost had half his colon removed. One guy went into almost a suicidal despondency. And two of the guys ended up quitting the business. Even though they made a fortune, none of them are tap-dancing about it to this day.

the-big-short-brad-pitt-steve-carrell-ryan-gosling-christian-bale-book-michael-lewisI was reading Lewis’ book on Kindle, and it has this feature that shows you which passages numerous other readers have highlighted. I began to notice that despite all the shocking and infuriating information in the book, most of the highlighted passages were of bits Lewis included to show the kind of blindly ambitious thinking that got us into the mess. Readers were highlighting things they saw as advice for how they could beat the market themselves.

McKay: Oh, that’s the most depressing thing ever. Our poor country. We’ll get back on track someday, we will.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Star Wars

Final-Poster-of-Upcoming-Star-Wars-Film-ReleasedStar Wars, nothing but Star Wars,

Give me those Star Wars, don’t let them end.

Star Wars, if they should bar wars,

please let these Star Wars stay.”


The return of Star Wars this past month to theaters, social media, box-office record books, the pop-culture landscape, every advertising tie-in imaginable, and seemingly many of our very lives and existences splits my psyche right down the middle of its vast, troubled heap of conflicted and paradoxical multitudes.

I’m a lapsed/recovering/relapsing Old-school Star Wars geek; the same age as J.J. Abrams; and sharing the same “When I was 11 years old, my parents took me to see…” personal mythology as so many Gen X geeks, nerds, and fan-things. (An origin-story scroll automatically regurgitated in countless posts, blogs, and reviews lately.)

And if we’re gonna go the whole “Hi, my name is Locke, and I’m a 49-year-old Star Wars man-child” route, I’ll admit that in recent years I have taken to downloading a handful of Star Wars  novels (usually dealing with the darker, Sithier side of the Force and the Empire). Reading these usually-poorly-written, now-non-canonical, books has acted as both a late-night palate cleanser between headier literary endeavors and a regressive middle-aged hit of the sort of fizzy comfort drug that formed a huge and heated part of my youthful identity, filling so many of my junior-high notebooks and so much of my daydreaming pre-pubescent head space.

oscar-isaac-as-poe-dameron-in-star-wars-episode-vii-the-force-awakensSo yes, that 11-year-old part of me still loves to talk about Star Wars, as I have been for the past few weeks online and in person with other geeks. In addition to pondering Big Questions like Who are Snoke and Rey?, we’ve been pouring over The Force Awakens and joyfully bickering and bantering about ultra-nerdy things like… Why, when one jammed, did neither Rey nor Finn notice the Falcon also has an upper gun turret? Or why would the Resistance send mostly X-Wings to attack the Starkiller Base’s weak point when everyone knows—despite Poe’s badass, midnight-black ride—they’re primarily cover and protection fighters? (You want to bomb something, you send your bombers, your Y-Wings! #YNoYwingLove?) And is BB-8 totes adorbs or just a pandering, R2-ursuping, trophy-droid created to sell new toys?

But (and you knew I had a galactic “but” coming), there’s an older, grouchier, cynical part of me that wants to holler (as have, in the past, George Lucas and Mark Hamill), “It’s just a movie, people!” Yes, it’s a very fun and entertaining movie, and yes it is the highest-fastest-biggest-mostest grossing whatever in box-office history, but still… settle.

share_1200x627The Force Awakens is “good”—if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be talking about it. It’s “good” in the way it had to be, as in “better than the Prequels.” It’s “good” in precisely the way Lucas himself described it after his first, bittersweet, visiting-privileges, court-mandated custody-viewing: “It’s very much the kind of movie [the fans have] been looking for.” Mee-yowch. Hours after my first screening, I described Abrams’ The Force Awakens as “A great DJ doing a masterful remix of all your favorite old tunes.” Weeks later, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes—another grown-up fanboy with both geek cred and realistic adult perspective—put it more succinctly and aptly: “It was like an excellent cover of a song you love.”

I often use “hack” on a higher level than most. For me, hackiness—a solid grasp of the visual and kinetic basics without any pesky thematic creativity or visionary insights–can be elevated, through diligent craft and skill, into something that can, for a bit, replicate mastery. (For example, I’ve often described Ridley Scott as a masterful hack.) Abrams, too, is a hack, but a super-charged one—a hack who really and truly works at perfecting his craft and delivering absolutely pleasing, almost note-perfect artificial entertainment.

Abrams’ high-functioning hackery certainly works to a large degree with The Force Awakens. For the most part, he and screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) keep things moving along at a dazzling clip. The storytelling is relatively clear and logical (if you give them a pass on the whole “Where in the galaxy is Luke Skywalker?” McGuffin), neatly stuffed with both action and humor without feeling frantic or spastically desperate as so many of these films do these days.

star-wars-force-awakens-han-solo-chewbaccaThis is still a film for young people, but to his credit, Abrams gets the appeal of the original films (as well their Saturday matinee cousins, the Indiana Jones movies): We kids loved them because they were aspirational, about grown-ups having (mostly) grown-up adventures and making (mostly) grown-up wisecracks. This time around, there are no poop jokes, no cutesy Muppets or alien Teddy Bears. And best of all, for what I believe is the first time in his cinematic career, Abrams positions characters near ledges, cliffs, and precipices yet at no time succumbs to his go-to “action” move of having someone dangle off something. (Fall, yes. Dangle, no.)

The Force Awakens is also the first time in the franchise’s history that a Star Wars film has featured uniformly solid performances from its actors, including Harrison Ford’s don’t-give-a-shit weariness (even if we all know it’s not acting but just Ford’s innate, exasperated Ford-ness), and the earnest enthusiasm (and thespian chops) of Star Wars newcomers Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, my beloved Oscar Isaac, and especially intense Method-man Adam Driver. Even Carrie Fisher—whose lack of performing work in recent decades couldn’t help but raise concerns—was terrific in her small parts, giving Leia wonderfully sad and honest human warmth during the few minutes she was on-screen.

star-wars-force-awakens-06_612x380Abrams has claimed he didn’t want to make a “fan-fiction” film, but as a life-long Star Wars super fan himself, how could he not? For better or worse, like so many of us, his core sense of cinema and cinematic storytelling (not to mention his perception of what the Movie Industry is for: blockbuster popcorn-escapism) was shaped by Star Wars when he was a young teen.

And so, at its best and worst, Force Awakens unspools as if someone filmed 12-year-old you playing with all your Star Wars toys and LEGOS, acting out all your favorite scenes, and then added several-hundred-million-dollars-worth of special effects. (It offers up so much fan service, Disney should have charged by the minute. And I say that as a fan who was completely satisfied with the service and probably would have paid the fee.) Always a skilled impersonator/impresario, Abrams gets the base-line, inner-kid, adventure-time, entertainment appeal of the original Star Wars trilogy–and of course has nothing new whatsoever to say about or do with it.

The only Abrams-esque ploy I found irksome in The Force Awakens is that in his desire to make the kind of Star Wars film he (and commutatively the rest of the fanverse) remembered and craved, Abrams jumps the film and its old and new characters through multiple narrative hoops in order to get back to the status quo of A New Hope in 1977. (While, as many have noted, rewarming ANH’s plot.)

It’s a lazy cheat we’ve seen used repeated to varying effect in 2015 with Terminator Genisys, Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed, and Jurassic World. By “going back to the franchise’s roots” with films that are technically narrative sequels but feel a lot like remakes, studios and filmmakers both pander to older viewers while sprucing up and tricking out creaky properties for younger generations.

star-wars-force-awakens-script-lawrence-kasdanThe problem is that in order to get back to zero (or back to “Episode IV”) Abrams tosses into the trash compactor any potentially interesting character or political growth in the 30-some-year interim.

What he and his inner-youngling want is a ragtag Rebellion fighting the mighty Empire, with a new young apprentice from a remote desert planet squaring off against a literal Darth Vader cosplayer. The first three films were all about restoring The Republic, and yet Abrams quickly and conveniently blows up the New Republic much as he blew up the planet Vulcan in Star Trek, choosing to simply wipe off the board any pesky narrative complexities he doesn’t feel like playing with.

We never understand what the New Republic was or how it functioned, while the relationship between the doomed Galactic government and General Organa’s Resistance is also fuzzy, other than Abrams wanted to bring back an underdog Rebellion. As for the evil First Order, it’s intriguing how it differs from the Old Empire: angrier, more hateful, more ideologically fevered, and younger-skewing—more like the upstart Nazi Party than the old-guard German Army. Palpatine’s Empire wanted power; Snoke’s First Order seems more interested in purity. (At least Abrams puts his Triumph of the Will visual reference where it belongs, with the bad guys, rather than A New Hope’s Riefenstahlian Rebel celebration.)

Unknown5-1088x650Technically, it’d be the First Order that’s the small, outlawed, hunted resistance force, trying to claw out a foothold against the bigger, better-funded New Republic. Yet, on-screen The First Order looks exactly like the Old Empire, with bigger, cooler toys. (No idea how they funded all those technical upgrades—are there Galactic Koch Brothers out there?)

We’re still dealing with a murky, holographic Big Bad with a giant planet-killing weapon in what feels like a very small galaxy. (Where everyone who matters happens to be related to each other, and you can watch the destruction of a distant solar system from your front porch.) It’s still all TIE-fighters and Stormtroopers and at least one Star Destroyer.

(I like to pretend that’s the First Order’s only Star Destroyer; the only one they could afford. “Do NOT bring it back all banged up!” However, as the Village Voice’s Amy Nicholson astutely pointed out, now that thanks to Finn we know Stormtroopers are people—brainwashed child-soldiers, in fact—doesn’t that make it harder to casually dismiss killing them with adventurous glee and smug jokes about their wretched aim? When Finn makes his escape, isn’t it likely he’s turning around and blowing up fellow Stormtroopers he’s known and trained with since youth? After all, it was a similar death of a comrade in the opening sequence that spurred Finn’s defection.)

star-wars-the-force-awakens-star-destroyerSadly, the same goes for the original characters. Granted, later sequels may (one hopes) provide more emotional layers to what Luke and Leia have been going through personally since Jedi, but given the current cinema’s lust for all things young and fresh (I’m looking at you, BB-8), I’m not holding my breath.

Luke, Leia, and Han are all given short, thin script-service as to why they each essentially abandoned any personal growth they’d experienced throughout the Original Trilogy, but it feels like a cheap and dismissive way of setting the characters back to their earlier incarnations, with a few extra wrinkles and lots of movie-thin sadness and regret. It’s the emotional version of blowing up the New Republic. (Though the humans got off easy–poor R2 was literally turned off between films, left under a dust cover while that upstart hussy BB-8 rolled around stealing everyone’s hearts.)

All that said, The Force Awakens is still a swell entertainment that should be treated as an enjoyable theatrical escape. Yet it means so much more to so many people, from hyperventilating fans to ecstatic Disney accountants. I’m happy for my friends of all ages and generations who’ve been rolling in satisfied, holiday-season bliss over this new film, especially those who get to share it with their young, impressionable children. And as one of those 11-year-old super Star Wars fanboys in 1977, I know much of the current Star Wars mania is born of fans’ desire to experience that youthful happiness again—whether they first felt it in 1977, 1983, the ‘90s, or the ‘00s.

John-Boyega-in-Star-Wars(Even as jaded as I am after years of writing film criticism and attending press screenings, I found myself abnormally excited for The Force Awakens preview a few weeks ago; double-checking my alarm before trying to sleep, and approaching that morning’s commute with the sort of over-preparation and back-up planning usually reserved for getting to the church and/or maternity ward on time. Though at my second viewing of the film a week later, with my 10-year-old nephew in tow, I nodded off a few times—as usual, during the big “action” scenes.)

Let’s be honest, we live in a cultural age increasingly devoted to shallow wish fulfillment, often rooted in our formative fantasies. Fans over 25 love The Force Awakens because, as Lucas noted, it’s carefully constructed to give them exactly what they want—of course they (sure, “we”) leave the theater high on the experience. And because that “want” includes the desire to feel 11-year-old awe and joy again, when the authenticity or value of that “high” (or this movie) is questioned, super-fans naturally revert to a prickly and defensive pre-teen temperament, stomping and yelling as if someone was trying to yank their toys out of their hands. (As a teen, I remember my indignant rage when I eventually ran across New Republic critic Stanley Kauffman’s 1977 sneering, dismissal of Star Wars as “a corny, unexceptional film for men who miss adolescence” – Sputter! Gasp! How dare he?!)

1-JJKathy-NO-LOGOI enjoyed Force Awakens quite a bit, maybe even—in the dark, warm post-coital afterglow of the final credits–loved it for a bit. But in addition to my generation’s sometimes crippling addiction to nostalgia, I know what my Star Wars love amounts to these days: pure hobbyism, every bit as pleasingly obsessive but no more important or noble than meticulously building model trains, collecting stamps, or painting Napoleonic tin soldiers.

It’s good to love things, but behooves us all to know why we love them, especially things so carefully and perhaps cynically constructed to make us—or rather our loud, needy inner child– love them. If Risky Business taught us anything, it’s that while it’s fun and exciting to fall in love with a sexy call girl, never forget she was sent to steal your heart—and your crystal egg—by Guido the Killer Pimp. This pimp just happens to be sporting mouse ears.

Our nostalgia for Star Wars is real; our ongoing, growing jones for well-made escapism is real; and as I’ve said, The Force Awaken’s entertainment value is solid. But beyond that, as a society we crave things like Star Wars for more than just the fun of two hours in the theater: We embrace the idea of a communal culture, a shared mythology; things we can all love and talk about and enthuse (or “squee”) over. (Preferably something other than terrorist attacks and climate disasters.)

kylo-ren-star-wars-force-awakensWhile Star Wars certainly has its own hard-core, insular fandom (says the guy currently reading a crappy novel about the construction of the first Death Star), it’s also probably one of the most broadly inclusive, ubiquitous cultural touchstones of our time. (I’ll gladly entertain challenges from The Bible, The Beatles, and Harry Potter, the latter of which tends to dominate the imaginations of the under-30 crowd.)

All that has led to a self-perpetuating Event Euphoria this past month. We needed to see the new Star Wars because we were so excited about it. We were so excited about it because we needed to see it. (As I’ve often said, hard-core fandom is more about the communal act of being fans of something than the thing itself.) Masterfully spurred along by Disney’s carefully timed release of teasers and trailers and the months-in-advance ticket sales, it all quickly reached a tipping point where enjoying the very “shared-event” nature of the thing became almost as thrilling and satisfying (not to mention nearly mandatory) as the thing itself.

Abrams and Disney also did an impressive job of leveraging amped-up spoiler-fear to great advantage. Abrams has always been nutty about spoilers (press screenings of his second Star Trek film took place not weeks or days in advance, but literally the same night the film was opening on limited IMAX screenings), but Disney made it work beautifully in service of The Force Awakens’ box office.

starwars5669d2535a572_-_h_2015By stressing how important it was that no one “spoil” the new film’s “big secrets,” the studio rallied the already whiningly obsessive anti-spoiler crowd into a fervor, so much so that many fans’ blogs trumpeted the “spoiler-free” nature of their fawning reviews. It’s a tried-and-true method of driving early box-office sales, re-purposed for the know-it-all Internet age: “You have to get out and see Star Wars right away in the theater before someone spoils it for you!”

(As always, I note that if knowing in advance a few fairly predictable plot points—or seeing the film on anything less than super-size IMAX 3D—somehow ruins or even diminishes your film-going experience, then maybe the film itself wasn’t all that worthwhile in the first place.)

Disney is, of course, the undisputed master (or shall we say, Supreme Leader?) of harnessing (or shall we say “exploiting”?) this sort of genuine enthusiasm. Cartoon mouse aside, the majority of the Disney Empire is built on co-opting the “magic” of existing tales of our cultural childhood–from fairy-tale princesses to The Muppets and the Marvel heroes, and now the cosmically dysfunctional Skywalker family–and then selling the newly-Disney-branded “magic” back to us.

harlotFor all their faults—and they are legion—the Prequels, like the Original Trilogy, were technically and creatively independent films. George Lucas was an awful director of actors and writer of dialogue, but, for better or worse, he was personally passionate about making those films exactly the way he wanted. Maybe in hindsight that wasn’t such a good thing—Lucas isn’t the first cultural visionary whose vision eventually ran him aground—but at least we knew who and where those films and their ideas were coming from.

As much as Kathleen Kennedy’s present-day Lucasfilm insists it’s its own entity and not just another Disney subsidiary, and as much as Abrams says he was given complete creative control of The Force Awakens, Star Wars, as both a corporate and creative entity, now exists outside the parental protective walls of Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch. As such, it’s subject to the same laws of commerce and shareholder satisfaction as any other franchise commodity—something you can be sure Kennedy and Abrams consciously or subconsciously never forgot.

The-Resistance-Star-Wars-7-Force-Awakens-X-WingAnd while Lucas saw his Skywalker Saga as a closed narrative with a beginning and an end, Disney doesn’t invest in limited experiences; it wants something it can keep producing for decades, even centuries (with all the copyrights viciously extended). So you can expect the Skywalker Family to keep cycling through the same rise-and-fall tales of seduction and redemption in perpetuity, a la a daytime soap opera. A hundred years from now, Rey and Finn’s (or Ren and BB-8’s) great grandchildren will still be struggling to resist the Dark Side’s siren call.

Abrams love of Star Wars is clearly real and personal, but The Force Awakens is still him playing with someone else’s toy—a toy his rodentian overlord sees as yet another fiscal acquisition (albeit, an enormous and enormously lucrative one) to fill the theme parks and store shelves next to the princesses and Pixar characters, the Muppets and Marvel superheroes.

Like the fish in the old “what’s water?” joke or the frog in the slowly-warming pot, we may occasionally notice when the level the flood of Star Wars marketing, merchandising, and media noise gets a little too loud and pushy and starts to feel less like a reflection of all that childhood fantasy and more like a full-blown exploitation of it. But for the most part, we swim in it so much, so deeply we barely notice it.

Star-Wars-Force-Awakens-Rey-Finn-BB8-runningWhen I was 11, I went bananas at any random media mention of Star Wars, from editorial cartoons featuring Vader and the droids to special guest appearances on The Donnie and Marie Show. I assume kids today would scoff at such archaic limitations—these days, Disney rules their worlds from dawn to dusk, inundating them non-stop with Star Wars imagery and iconography cross-promoted over every imaginable medium.

Entertainment Weekly recently gushed that the new Force Awakens players like Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, and BB-8 “somehow already feel iconic.” Well of course they do—Disney has been working overtime for the past year to make damn well sure of it. (After all, when hasn’t iconography depended on a good marketing drive?) Much as at the height of the Empire’s rule, this holiday season Stormtroopers were everywhere, shilling everything from luxury cars to light-and-dark-side makeup, while BB-8 was equally ubiquitous, the new droid’s very existence generated by the need to sell new toys. (My saddest holiday sight: A retail toy shelf the day before Christmas stacked with unsold R2-D2 toys; the BB-8s long-since sold out.)

When Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, its larger mission was to build a franchise that supports a licensing empire—after all, merchandising sales for youth-related films more than triple their box-office profits, but you gotta have the beloved film first. No matter how you shake it down, Lucas’ Star Wars films exist because he wanted to tell those stories. Disney’s Star Wars films (including the upcoming side-story “Anthology” movies, carefully worked into the next four years’ theatrical release schedules) exist because they are a good corporate investment.

star-wars-the-force-awakens(This Christmas, 2015, it was wistfully amusing to remember how in 1977 it didn’t even occur to Lucasfilm and Kenner to make any Star Wars toys until after the film was a massive summer hit. That lag led to the infamous Early Bird Gift Certificate mailer we young fans got that Christmas of ’77 telling us our toys would be coming soon —“Wow, really? A piece of cardboard under the tree?! For me?! Yes!!” The actual Luke, Leia, R2, and Chewie figures arrived in a non-descript cardboard box a few months later. Such a quaint and innocent merchandising oversight would never happen again.)

Because of all this, no matter how much I may enjoy watching The Force Awakens on its surface and spending geeky hours pondering the goofy minutiae of its continued world building, underneath it all, I still see the film itself as a construct of corporate will; a simulacrum of a beloved cultural artifact, like Abe Lincoln in the Hall of Presidents. Star Wars fans’ Event Euphoria experience of the past month may be real and rooted in genuine emotions, but we should never forget that Disney has very carefully orchestrated the experience, making sure it happened.

star-wars-force-awakens-kylo-renI know many friends who feel nothing but gratitude for the corporation having done that, for Disney and Abrams having given us fans this cinematic gift. And there are many others who snap that we should stop overthinking things and enjoy a fun movie. But I can’t shake my natural distrust of corporate entertainment. Like most, I like a little escapism, but get nervous when indulgence becomes insistence, funded and forced on us by a giant multi-media entity that reaps billions from selling that very escapism.

Or in other words, “I have a bad feeling about this…”

Interview: Nasty Baby Director Sebastián Silva

nasty-babyad_125756455After a while watching mainstream, independent, and art-house films, one of the most pleasant things is being genuinely surprised by a film when it turns out to be more than you expected in ways you didn’t see coming.

Without spoiling that sense of discovery for others, Chilean writer-director Sebastián Silva’s latest film Nasty Baby offers just such an experience. I only mention it because on the surface and for its first third or so, Nasty Baby feels like a fairly predictable and conventional bit of cinematic navel-gazing about the lives of Brooklyn hipster artists.

Silva himself plays semi-autobiographical lead Freddy, a performance artist living in Brooklyn (his latest project–involving him dressing and acting like an infant–is spot-on self-indulgent and misguided) while TV on the Radio’s lead singer Tunde Adebimpe (Rachel Getting Married) plays Freddy’s partner Mo.

In their quest to start a family, Freddy and Mo have enlisted Freddy’s best friend Polly (Kristen Wiig) as a surrogate mother, and the first part of the film follows the trio’s efforts, doubts, and emotional mishaps along the way to parenthood. Nasty Baby also stars Reg E. Cathey (House of Cards) as a neighborhood resident whose life becomes entangled with Freddy, Mo, and Polly’s.

But the final third of Nasty Baby introduces shifts in plot and tone that powerfully change the film’s overall focus and introduce strong, compelling new themes without feeling arbitrary or artificial.

I sat down to talk about all this with Silva last month in a hotel restaurant during the Chicago International Film Festival.

Nasty Baby is currently playing in select theaters and is available on demand.


Crystal_Fairy_&_The_Magical_Cactus2013’s Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and now Nasty Baby are unique in that unlike your other features, their performances were created primarily through guided improvisation.

Silva: I’ve only made six features, but those two were made with outlines. I remember when I heard that Gus Van Sant shot Elephant and Gerry only with outlines, I thought, “Oh my god, that’s my dream—when I ever going to be able to do that, and who would ever trust me with an outline?”

It happened with Crystal Fairy in a way I did not plan. We were going to shoot Magic Magic, so we had a delay, and Michael Cera was in Chile, so I thought, “Why don’t we shoot something else?” I had that story because it had happened to me a long time ago. So I talked to my producer friends in Chile and said, “Listen, Michael is town and I have this story, and Michael can play me…” But I just didn’t have time to write a screenplay. I didn’t plan to do an outline-only film, but I just didn’t have enough time.

I’d assume it helps a lot to have made several conventionally scripted films, so those skills are internalized, before trying an unscripted film. Can you trust yourself more?

Silva: I’m dangerously self-confident sometimes. I don’t care about failure; I have that working for me. If the movie sucks, I don’t really care so much. But definitely having made The Maid and Old Cats, and Life Kills Me as full-scripted movies, I developed a good sense for acting.

And I was working with very smart people. Improv is sort of a myth. I’ve never made a mumblecore movie, which is a different kind of creature—I don’t think Nasty Baby and Crystal Fairy are mumblecore. I feel their stories are very fleshed out in terms of a storyline. In every scene the characters have to give very specific information. It’s not at all just, “Let’s see what happens.” We know what we need to do and what information needs to be said. What I don’t care about are the specific words used.

nasty-baby_0There are very specific locations where they are talking about certain things, like talking about making a baby while standing in a plant nursery. Everything is very planned out like that. The way we do it, honestly, we start with a 25-page outline for Nasty Baby with all the actions without scene headings or dialogue.

But we know what has to be said alongside what actions. We talk about it with the cast and crew before we shoot, then we do the first take, which is usually pretty messy. Without written dialogue, you don’t know how long the scene will run.

The second take is better because you can correct some things here and there, and then the third one is usually great. Then you start repeating the third take content over and over like a regular movie. They don’t need to repeat the exact same words, but by that third take you’ve found the general timing.

So basically, it’s very similar to a regular movie with a full-length screenplay—the only difference is that you write the dialogue with the characters on the set. I’m a foreigner, so I’m not going to try to put English words in the mouths of native English-speaking Americans. I’ve seen foreign directors come here and direct big Hollywood movies and the dialogue is fucking stupid. You know it was directed by a foreign person who has no idea what the characters are saying.

Kristen is such a good improv actor—she’s so smart and funny and charming. Only she could make up the things she says in the movie, so I give her the freedom to do that.

thumbnail_23142Trusting your actors to keep up with the improv has to be a huge factor. If you have a weak player, I’d think it could bring down the whole team?

Silva: It has happened. I won’t tell you who or when—it wasn’t a constant thing, but there are days that actors are just not inspired. So on those days I don’t ask them to do what they cannot do. If an actor can only give me one type of thing on one day, then I will keep it minimal. Some people some days are just more quiet. You’re in a bad mood, not as talky. It’s natural human inconsistency, but you don’t force your actor to do something he cannot deliver that specific day.

So I think this way of shooting movies has also opened my eyes to never pushing actors to do things you can see they’re struggling with and not delivering. Then it would be forced. They’re human beings, so they can do fucking whatever it makes sense for them to do at that moment. It won’t be contradictory. And it if is contradictory, even better, because people are bags of contradictions.

That idea of humans and their lives as naturally self-contradictory gets at that balance in a film like this between pure naturalism and realism and still making a creative, artistic statement.

Silva: For me, it really depends on the movie. For Magic Magic, pure realism doesn’t even exist—it’s a fable about losing your mental capacities. Same with my first movie Life Kills Me which was a very irresponsible essay about death.

la-et-mn-But then there are these other movies where I’m trying to make my audience believe that this is something that happened in real life. For these movies, the more real elements I have, the better I feel about it. I try to curb my creativity as much as possible—I don’t want to be “creative,” I don’t want to dress the sets. We shoot in real locations.

For example, I shot at my real neighbor’s house, and Mark Margolis is playing my real neighbor Richard. He looks like Richard, he’s wearing Richard’s clothes, and living in Richard’s apartment, and we didn’t change one picture in that apartment. Why would I? That’s the character I’m trying to portray, so why add something “cool” to make it quirky and cute? If that’s the reality I’m trying to portray, why get creative on top of it? If I want to portray real things, if I can get the real things, so much better.

There are some documentaries that sort of fictionalize reality. In Nasty Baby and Crystal Fairy, I do the reverse process—I try to bring as much reality as possible to a fictional story. It is fiction—there is a written screenplay treatment with a moral tale. They’re very flushed out moral stories, but I’m trying to make them look as real as possible, so I use my neighbor’s apartment, I use my cat, I use my apartment, I use myself, I use everything that can be real.

maxresdefaultg[Waiter brings several plates of breakfast food, including eggs, fruit, sausages, and waffles.]

Silva: Oh my god, what is all this? Did you order this?

Um, no, I don’t usually order huge breakfasts during 20 minute interviews.

Silva: Well you must help yourself and eat some of this.

[Despite how good it all looks, I politely decline, having been given the “wrap it up” signal from the publicist.]

By the third act, the film has come together nicely to examine how friendships, relationships, family, and community overlap and inform one another.

Silva: The parental aspect came later in the production of this movie. There are different subjects in the film that combine in a very random way. For me, the movie started out about a gay couple in a gentrified neighborhood that ended up doing this extreme thing at the end of the film. The parenting thing came into it after because I’m 36 and all my friends are fucking compulsively reproducing. In this specific neighborhood in Brooklyn it’s crazy—there are strollers everywhere.

So I wanted to put it out there and question why do people have children and how far people are willing to go for their children. How having a child changes your perception of and relationship with your neighborhood, your community. That changing dynamic plays into Freddy’s motivation and actions in that final part of the film.

nasty-baby-sundanceHow much are all those themes thought through before you start, or do you let them evolve during shooting and editing?

Silva: I always know—I never embark on a project where I don’t know the ending. I do care a lot about the moral outcome of my stories. Nasty Baby is a very special case because it’s the only movie I’ve made where I don’t know what I’m saying. I don’t know what I’m leaving my audience with. I don’t know what to feel about these characters and their actions and behaviors.

But I know what I’m doing—I know what I’m bringing with this sudden turn in the second half of the third act. I want the audience to have as much time as possible to empathize with these characters, so when they do the things they do at the end, it’s very hard for the audience to judge or not forgive the characters. By that point, it’s hard for the audience to just say, “Oh, you fucking privileged hipsters…” That’s a very conscious decision to make the audience feel that way toward the characters.

Interview: The 33 Director Patricia Riggen

the33_1sht_main_dom_2764x4096_largeThe-33_Patricia-RiggenMexican director Patricia Riggen’s drama The 33 tells the story of the 33 men trapped 2,300 feet underground for 69 days in 2010 following a cave-in at the gold mine they were working in the Atacama Desert near Copiapó, Chile.

The men survived for 17 days on nearly non-existent food rations before being found by a surface drill, but then had to wait another 52 days before being rescued.

The film stars Antonio Banderas as Mario “Super Mario” Sepúlveda, the charismatic miner who became a news star during the live coverage of the months-long rescue process. It also features Lou Diamond Phillips and Oscar Nunez (The Office) as two of his fellow survivors; Juliette Binoche as María Segovia, the sister of one of the miners (Juan Pablo Raba) and a headstrong force in getting the Chilean government to try to find and rescue the miners when the mining company would not; Rodrigo Santoro (Love Actually, 300) as a conscientious government minister; and Gabriel Byrne and James Brolin as two of the engineers working to free the men.

Another writer and I sat down with Riggen last month during the Chicago International Film Festival to talk about the challenges of shooting the film, including working for a month inside a real mine, and telling a story where everyone knows the outcome.

The 33 opens everywhere this Friday, November 13.


33-BA-04986rYour subject is a recent story of survival where most everyone already knows the outcome. How did you and the screenwriters approach the story creatively?

Patricia Riggen: The biggest challenge is everyone knows the ending. The first thing was to try to give the audience a glimpse into what they didn’t know. The beauty of it was that the real miners were part of the project. In the past there were movies and books that never included them, so they never benefited from their experience.

This time the producers signed a rights deal with them. They were with us, and I sat with each of them privately behind closed doors, and they poured their hearts out and told me things that probably they had never told anyone. In order to get the real story, the untold story that was not reported because they didn’t share the conflicts and the things they were ashamed of with the news reporters. The news put forward their best face.

Then I made two decisions about how to proceed. Underground, shooting in a dark cave with 33 guys, how do I make it artistic? So my director of photography found Caravaggio as a reference. I knew his paintings, but when I saw them as a reference for us, I thought, “you don’t need anything to make a beautiful movie” These men are semi-naked, with beards, thin, worn, against a black background—it was beautiful.

I knew as an independent movie we weren’t going to be able to afford repeated takes—you can’t bring the drills in again and again. That’s impossible on a film this size. We were working under harsh desert conditions, so I decided to shoot it very news documentary style, hand-held, very immediate. Just grabbing what’s happening. Really following the action. We’d get on the radio and say, “The drills are coming!” and we’d set the cameras and tell the actors, “Okay, you have to grab it when it breaks through the rock because it’s only happening once.”

A11A5373.CR2When you talked to each miner privately, what were some of the things you learned for the film that weren’t well known?

Riggen: There are a couple of things that come to mind. For instance, the handling of the food box is something that they didn’t ever talk about before. There was a sense of shame around the behavior of some of them down there in those early moments. I had to conduct a little bit of a private investigation because they were worried about what the others might say. That was a very traumatic incident down there, how they mishandled the food rationing at first.

And then there were the problems later on with Mario, when he got really famous and suddenly there are book rights. Mario was strong and charismatic personality—he became famous on the news, and was getting offered financial things that he wasn’t telling them all about. For the first 17 days they thought they were going to die, but suddenly the world comes in, and the promises of fame and fortune broke them apart while they were still trapped. The impact of the world’s attention on these guys who were still going to be down there for 50 days. They were fighting, they expelled Mario from the group, but then they came back together and solved their differences. These kinds of things weren’t in the news at the time.

635736315268562061-xxx-33-fp-021-mov-dcb-74776706-5The news story in real life became as much about Chilean nationalism as the miners themselves. How did you approach that aspect of the real events?

Riggen: From the beginning, we wanted to be as faithful and truthful to the real event and the real characters as possible. We didn’t want to take this event and use it as inspiration to tell some other story. We really wanted to tell this real story. Every step of the way I really considered, “is this truthful or not?” So within that reality, Chilean are the most nationalistic people on earth. They used the flag a lot, and so it factored into the iconography of the mine event. They do their football chants. I kept it realistic and didn’t over-do it, but it’s there, it’s part of their identities.

This a much larger and more challenging undertaking than your past films. 

Riggen: Below ground, I had a cast of 33 men at all times inside a mine, and then above ground I had hundreds of extras every day, with 10 principles below and 10 principles above. There were two completely different crews in two different countries, so it was like shooting two movies completely separately, since the miners only interact with their families on the first and last day. So I shot two movies.

shootingWhere did you shoot the underground scenes?

Riggen: I shot in two salt mines in Columbia. We looked at Chile, but Chilean mines are very dangerous and very deep, so it would have been impossible to shoot in those. So we started considering a stage. But we are an independent movie with a very tight budget. With a set we would have only had about 200 feet of mine, so we would have had to shoot everything, all the action, in just two rooms. So we looked elsewhere and got very lucky because Columbia has these two fantastic salt mines. They were horizontal, so you’re still under a mountain, but you don’t go down, you go in. We were a few miles in, but at least we weren’t down.

So I decided to take on the danger of shooting in a mine. Mines are real, they’re alive, and they tend to collapse. But it gave us amazing production value. We could drive vehicles for miles and miles. We had to bring in cable from other countries into Columbia to accommodate us in there—we couldn’t bring a generator, so we had to run in miles of cable. It was like lighting a city.

Wp-los-33-pelicula-588-300x200The whole atmosphere inside a mine is very particular—you can’t eat anything, no fires, you can’t touch this or that. We had the head of the mine with us, looking after our safety. At times he would say, “Everyone move away,” and they would bring in ladders and tools to deal with a rock that was going to fall on our heads. That was the reality of our experience.

We shot in a very different style than above ground. Above ground, we shot in Chile, in the Atacama Desert, just a few miles from the original mine collapse. It was beautiful—there was nothing there, so we built everything above-ground scenes from scratch.

How did the 33 actors playing the miners react to the conditions of shooting the film in an actual mine? Could they come and go to the surface during the day?

Riggen: Oh no, no. We shot 35 days, 6 day weeks, 14 hour days inside the mine. We went in in the morning and left at the end of the day. It was tough for everyone, but really hard for the actors and crew. But I think it really informed them of what a miner goes through. There’s no sunlight, no day or night down there.Time stops when you’re in a mine. It’s dangerous and you feel the fear. But at the end of the day it was enriching for all of us, but especially for the cast to feel both what being a miner is like, but also the sense of community they formed.

We were trapped in our own way—we had to do this movie. The actors were always covered in full body make-up every day–oil and dirt–and while the real Chilean miners were always hot, our mines were cold. We had to spray them with water the whole time—the salt mine sucked all the humidity out of the air. They couldn’t eat, they were all dieting. It was hard.

the-33-_b-2-560x231In addition to the central story of the trapped men, there are also a number of other issues involved here, including the role of the government, the mining company, the safety issues, the questions of he workers’ rights, and compensation and responsibility.

Riggen: It was very difficult to figure out what story to tell. The point of view would change everything. This story could have been told from so many different angles. It could have just been about the technical rescue with the drills and the equipment failures, or it could have been about political or social issues surrounding the injustices miners suffer.

I ended up putting in a little bit of everything, but one of the things I told the producers early on was that the most important point of view was inside—those guys were the ones who endured the worst, so they have to be our first point of view—we have to experience it through them. So they would be the basis of how we see the movie, not through the government or the rescuers.

But then I didn’t want to leave out the families. Maybe because I’m a woman, people say I gave the wives and mothers that space in the story, but the truth is the women were the force behind this rescue. If they hadn’t been so strong and determined—they never gave up, they were in the government’s face the whole time. They really forced the government to act.

the-33-prayer-pictureI did want to give some attention to the rescue, because the government did do the right thing. In other countries, like Mexico, China, Russia, and Bolivia, trapped miners are sometimes abandoned, but the Chilean government did the right thing, so it was important to show that.

Finally, what the movie is about in many ways is the power of everyone coming together with the same goal and really do the impossible.

The Great Lie at the Peak of Everest

everest-posterIn recent years I’ve often used the term “spectacle” as a critical slur when it comes to CGI scenery over substance.

But there’s reason I get on my soapbox about moviegoers’ increasing addiction to grand cinematic (usually CGI) imagery, and it’s not just because a growing number of popular films spend so much time and budget on money-shot visuals and so little on characters, story, or themes. It’s because spectacle doesn’t just dazzle, it seduces. And in that seduction, it can deceive, delude, and betray.

Anymore I cringe when I hear some hack refer to Hollywood as “The Dream Factory”—not because I don’t think films shouldn’t ever contain hope and inspiration or even escapist fantasy or stress-relieving comedy. It’s because those things should always be earned and supported by strong, multi-dimensional films.

But if you let children vote for what they want for dinner, they’re gonna choose candy and cupcakes most nights. And in the past 50 years, corporate Hollywood has come to increasingly let the audiences’ box-office vote become the only voice the Industry listens to. So we’re not getting escapism and empty-calorie dreams once in a while for dessert—we’re getting them for nearly every (at least mainstream Cineplex Hollywood) meal.

We’re all aware of this when we watch a Jurassic Park or Avengers or Fast and Furious movie. Think of those as Hostess snack cakes—everyone knows what’s in them when they buy and eat them; everyone knows they’ll get a sugar rush and later a stomachache. The problem is that our steady diet of empty cinematic calories, usually in the form of awesome CGI grandeur, has numbed us to our own addiction. We ingest so much spectacle, we’re no longer consciously aware of what it does to us.

5c4ccae1-0f5f-478f-985d-d7ce8d88c9cf-2060x1236Which brings us to this fall’s Everest, a sometimes thrilling, sometimes shattering dramatization of the 1996 deaths of eight climbers on Mt. Everest due to a sudden deadly storm and a series of human errors.

The new film version is not based on Jon Krakauer,’s 1997 book Into Thin Air—in fact, it often noticeably points a finger not so much personally at Krakauer, (who, of course, was in the ill-fated climbing group) but at how the lucrative spotlight his Outside magazine article could provide, thus pushing the commercial expedition leaders to take more risks in order to avoid the PR disaster of not getting their paid charges to the top.

Everest has its strengths, including a naturally gripping second half and uniformly solid performances from folks like Emily Watson, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Jake Gyllenhall, Robin Wright, and especially Jason Clarke as Rob Hall, the New Zealander owner of and lead guide for Adventure Consultants, and Keira Knightly as Rob’s worried, pregnant wife Jan back home.

But its primary strength is also its greatest weakness: stunning, jaw-dropping images (some real moving footage, some computer-animated still photos, some pure CGI) of the top of mountain, captured in roaming, reverent helicopter shots that, of course, could not have been taken from any helicopter. Hollywood just happens to love films like Everest (and this season’s The Walk and even The Martian) because people leave the theater and set aside things like weak pacing or shallow characterizations and instead rave to friends, “Omg, you have to (pay a lot more to) see this in 3-D on IMAX!”

death-on-the-mountain-4-stories-more-shocking-than-the-everest-movie-609290And it’s true—on IMAX in 3-D those shots of the mountain from Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur, cinematographer Salvatore Totino, the visual effects team, and mountain-climber and second unit director of photography Kent Harvey (who was filming on Everest this past April when avalanche killed around 20 climbers and sherpas and shut down the mountain for the year), don’t just fill the giant several-story screen and nearly your entire field of vision, they fill your being. You gawk and gasp in the dark at how G-D big the mountain feels on the screen, as if the entire weight of the Earth is towering over you. It has such mass—historical, metaphorical, cultural, even spiritual–you can almost sense a gravitational pull at your soul from that towering, threatening mass of stone and snow set against a brilliant blue sky.

That overwhelming wowsa effect becomes both the film’s appeal and its problem. In fact, that very appeal is the problem. Because as those interested in Everest climbing in the past 20 years or specifically the ‘96 tragedy know, one of the biggest dangers in ascending the peak these days is that the route is over-crowded with hundreds of people paying sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars to guides to get them, usually in massive groups of dozens of climbers, to the top and back down during a very narrow window of weather compatibility.

635781677285450154-Everest-Review-EMGN2The first commercial expeditions to the summit began in 1993, and one of the main points of Everest is supposed to be that within a few years the combination of increased climber traffic, the relative high-attitude inexperience of many climbers, and the growing competition for paying customers among expedition companies all contributed—along with the storm, of course—to the 1996 deaths.

The film’s script by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy spends its first half hammering home (with some expository clumsiness) all the physical dangers of climbing Everest, from the shifting ice shelves and crevasses to the deadly cold and lack of oxygen in the “death zone” above 26,000 feet. And yet we’ve all known people who, if you tell them how dangerous something is, light up with a renewed desire to do it. That same effect is at work in Everest: the more the film’s characters inform us of the risks, the more thrilling the viewing experience becomes. And yes, the second half of the film—when things start to go wrong—is plenty riveting.

Everest-Gallery-03Narratively, Everest is centered around three primary characters: Clarke’s clear-eyed and calm leader, Hall; Brolin’s blustery Texan blow-hard, Beck Weathers, whose swaggering Lone Star braggadocio may have gotten him in over his head; and Hawkes’ sad-sack and seemingly frail postal worker Doug Hansen, making his second and final attempt at the summit after failing the year prior. (Although he’s arguably the biggest star on the poster, Gyllenhall’s Scott Fischer, a grinning, laid-back dude guide, has mostly a tangential presence.)

(Normally I’d feel squeamish when negatively short-handing these characters based on real people, some of whom died on the mountain. But I’m not here to evaluate Everest on its accuracy, particularly in terms of the motivations and/or missteps of the real-life victims—especially when over the past two decades there’s been plenty of hand-wringing and finger-pointing among the survivors as to who did or did not do what. No, let’s be clear here: I’m not talking about the real Hall, Weathers, Hansen, or Fischer, or their real-life actions. I’m only talking about a movie and actors playing those characters as written in a Hollywood script, and what that movie is intentionally and unintentionally saying to us.)

maxresdefaultdEverest spends much of its first half making cases for why each of these men wanted to reach the summit: Weathers perhaps out of some need to pit his ego against something slightly bigger; Hall making his fifth ascent in order to build his expedition business; and Hansen seemingly in order to achieve some sort of personal goal (to feel he’s accomplished something important) and be an inspiration to young grade-school students back in his hometown. Needless to say, each of those three main characters runs into trouble near the top.

(There are *SPOILERS* ahead, in case you haven’t seen Everest, read Into Thin Air, or don’t know how to work the Google or a Wikipedia.)

The film clearly suggests that despite his yearning spirit, physically Hansen had no business being on the mountain, and that Hall tragically let both his desire to build a good ascent-record reputation for his Adventure Consultants and his personal empathy and sense of responsibility for Hansen’s situation lead him to make risky decisions that eventually led to both his and Hansen’s deaths.

everestOnscreen, Hansen’s is handled silently and disquietingly quickly—it’s almost off-handedly haunting. On the other hand, Hall’s slow, frozen fate on the side of the peak—all while still in radio contact with both base camp and his wife via satellite phone—is a drawn-out, heart-rending gut-punch thanks primarily to Clarke and Knightly’s powerful performances. (Keira frickin’ Knightley: Just plain great in everything.)

Weathers, however, miraculously survives being left for dead overnight on the mountain—awaking (frostbitten and disoriented) to somehow walk back down to camp on his own. In many ways, it’s because of Weathers’ triumphant survival—not the deaths of Hall, Fischer, Hansen, and three other climbers—that Everest exists. Weathers’ amazing story sticks a bit of feel-good uplift on the end of the otherwise horrific tale. No one these days is going to make a big film full of big-name stars just to have the last act be “and then they all died.” In general, we don’t go to the movies to be scolded—we go to be inspired and affirmed.

AA44_FP_00007R.jpgIt’s Hall and Hansen’s deaths and Weathers’ survival that lay at the heart of the deeper, existential problem with the film Everest. Everything on the script page says the film should be a searing, angry expose not just of the dangers of commercial overcrowding on the mountain, but of the arrogant, reckless need of some (often rich) people to prove something to themselves by paying someone else tens of thousands of dollars to spend weeks leading them up a mountain so they can stand for a few minutes in a place they have no business whatsoever being. This film should scream, “This is stupid! Do not try it at home!”

And yet, of course those soaring, terrifying looks at the mountain—all that 3-D IMAX splendor—undermine any such message. That’s the almost invisible effect anymore of big-screen movie “magic”: No matter what a script may be trying to tell our heads; our hearts, our souls, our eyes are being stunned and swept away by all that visual splendor. And in general, humans tend to feel and believe what our eyes and hearts (not our heads) tell us. Yes, the starkly beautiful scenery is there to remind us why climbers go for it, but in movies the images almost always commandeer the ideas.

JS71340861Hall, Hansen, and Fischer’s lonely deaths should support the argument that climbing Everest just to do it, just because it’s there, is not just foolish but wastefully destructive. Instead, the film puts an emotional beat on Hansen’s plea to Hall to help him reach the top “for the children,” to inspire them to go after their “impossible dreams.” In doing so it wraps Hansen’s death in tragic, misguided nobility instead of pathos.

Meanwhile, Weathers’ Texas-sized will to live (as personified by Brolin’s bigger-than-life presence… and head) can’t help but underscore the opposite message: There is something in the human spirit that needs to test itself against the biggest most daunting natural challenges, where the greater the danger, the richer the emotional reward.

I doubt anyone involved in the making of Everest wants it to play as an advertisement for climbing Everest. But their cautionary intentions are repeatedly subverted by the film’s staggering vistas. On the big screen there is a siren quality to that image of the mountain; so majestic, so imposing, so crystal-clear in its pristine CGI form, spread out over the IMAX. It cannot help but dare you to want to defy it. Something so daunting cries out to be conquered—even if you are paying someone else to help you become the 4,000th person to do so.

The film’s poster may say, “The most dangerous place on earth,” but the similarity to Disneyland’s motto isn’t far off: the accompanying image of the peak says, “I want to be there.” And somewhere someone will watch Everest and—despite all the death, despite the many corpses of climbers that line the route as warning signs—come away thinking, “I need to do that.”

The Hollow Weight of Black Mass

MV5BNzg0ODI3NDQxNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzgzNDA0NjE@._V1_SX214_AL_We’re all familiar with the Big Pivot the Cinematic Industrial Complex makes over Labor Day, when suddenly the theaters are no longer stuffed with superheroes and exploding action vehicles (starring Good Actors Paying for New Homes in Southern Europe), but instead begin to fill with Important Meaningful films about things (starring Good Actors Doing Serious Acting).

But whether their subject is Transforming Super-powered Race Cars or Exploring Human Nature and the Quest for Truth, the questions remains the same when approaching the new seasonal slate of films: Why is This Thing Here? Or more importantly, Why Am I Expected to Spend Two-plus Hours Watching It?

The answer to the first question is simple: To win awards. I know that sounds crass and cynical, and I know very well that many really talented and artistically sincere writers, directors, and even actors make truly amazing films because they share a desire to say something with their cinematic work—not, to get awards. (Though most will admit after a drink or two that awards are certainly nice, in terms of gratification and appreciation, but they also come in handy when lining up future passion projects.)

Film Review Black MassBut very few writers, directors, or actors (with the exception of Mel Gibson Before the Fall) make their beloved creative projects on their own dime—it takes a studio and lots of (usually overseas) financing to get Johnny Depp into a bald wig. But there’s not that much sweet hot cash to be made on a serious, grown-up movie—even the most successful ones at the box office still don’t offer a huge return on investment; not compared to the mounds of filthy lucre that can come with a big, dumb, action-adventure blockbuster smash.

So yes, when we seriously ask “why” these types of films (about things other than superheroes, cars, and dinosaurs) get made (that is, financed), it’s because a studio and financers felt there was some prestige to be gained (to help all creatives involved sleep better on their giant piles of superhero-movie cash), and these days creative prestige is measured in awards.

While we serious grownups may praise fall and winter movies for their more serious, grown-up topics, in the end, many of them are, in their own special more serious, grown-up way just as shallow and calculating as summer movies about exploding dinosaurs and aliens. Like summer movies, many prestige films have a primary purpose that is not necessarily to make the best film possible in order to really say something insightful and important. Instead, it’s to win awards.

091615_f2f_mass_640This isn’t true of every “prestige” film that comes out between Labor Day and Christmas—there are, in fact, some very good films coming out this fall that showcase the powerful creative and thematic intent of the filmmakers, and that may also happen, along the way, to get nominated for some awards. But there are others Big Serious Important films coming out that feel as if either that creative and thematic intent got lost amid the push for Award Hardware, or worse, that it may have never been fully there in the first place.

Which brings us to Black Mass, the fall season’s first Big Serious Important film. As I’m sure we all know, it tells the mostly true story of not just psychopathic South Boston gang leader James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp, doing Serious Acting in the aforementioned bald wig), but also of his too-cozy take-and-take relationship with the FBI, by way of Bulger’s childhood friend-turned-FBI agent James Connelly (Joel Edgerton). Directed by Scott Cooper from Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworths’ script (based on the book by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill), Black Mass sports compelling performances from Depp and Edgerton.

maxresdefault (6)(It also features a rogues gallery of solid and sleazy supporting actors including Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, and Peter Sarsgaard, as well as Kevin Bacon, John Morris, Adam Scott, and Corey Stoll.)

But the film also plows through and eventually stalls out amid a truckload of Goodfella-era gangster-movie familiarity. There’s a lurking sense of inevitability in Black Mass, not just because most viewers know how Bulger’s story eventually ends, but because we know how these sorts of movies go.

We know exactly what happens when the hapless goon or hopeless patsy gets in a car with the Bad Guys or when someone tries to cross the ambitious and paranoid Mob Boss on a deal. We sit and watch and say, “Oh, this is gonna be one of those scenes”—which doesn’t mean we don’t still get a lurid thrill of disgust from it, but we can’t pretend to be surprised.

maxresdefault (7)Yes, there’s a sometimes hilariously wide swath of South Bawstahn accents on display from the film’s international cast. And yes, the pile of prosthetic make up glued to Depp’s actorly noggin is equal parts effective and distracting. And yes, there’s lots of violence—some of it shocking, some of it disturbing. But as the bodies pile up (most of them under Whitey’s favorite buryin’ bridge), there’s a diminishing sense that all the violence and deaths don’t add up to anything—they feel like they’re there because they’re gangster movie tropes, not because they say much about Whitey or the film’s intended points.

Which of course gets at the larger problem with Black Mass—the reason it falls into the bucket of Awards Bait for Awards Bait’s Sake. The film doesn’t have much to say about anything other than Whitey was Evil and Depp is Really Doing a Lot of Acting About Him. To be sure, all that “evil” and all that “acting” go a long way toward keeping Black Mass engaging and even entertaining throughout most of its running time. Depp’s Bulger is all mesmerizing Dark Prince; quiet, tightly-coiled reptilian menace with those scary blue snake eyes peering out of a pale and sharp-edged face.

movies-black-mass-still-06But somewhere around the midway point, as the film’s story starts to shift from what an evil villain Whitey is to how deeply connected and corrupted the ambitious-loser Connelly is becoming, you start to sense that you’re watching it all purely as morbid entertainment—as viewing experiences go, at its core it’s no different than watching free-range dinosaurs eat tourists. And doesn’t have much more to say other than “it sucks to get eaten by a dinosaur, or a Boston criminal.”

There’s a surprising lack of human nuance and insight from director Cooper, whose previous films Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace focused on character and behavior first and foremost. Which is why I’m beating up on Black Mass (despite its undeniable watchablity) as an example of a sort of hollow increasingly prevalent Awards-Season drama. Depp clearly wanted a thick, meaty, dark and dangerous role he could sink his actor teeth into, but I’m sure he also wouldn’t mind finally winning an Oscar and laying down a new coating of Actorly Importance over his past decade’s resume of increasingly pointless Tim Burton weirdos and Disney pop-culture paydays.

black-mass-johnny-deppAnd yet, Depp still ends up playing Bulger like one of his Disney/Burton caricatures—a weirdo outsider, The Other, someone with no real connection to us average human beings. No one’s denying Depp his acting chops or his ability to still command onscreen attention (he did a fine job playing another famous criminal, John Dillinger, with much more emotional complexity in Public Enemies), but here he’s leaning just as much on the notion of Bulger as some sort of freak-show oddity or monstrous creature as he is on the hair and makeup department.

With Depp’s evil Whitey at the center of Black Mass, it seems as if Cooper and his writers are unable to wrestle the film back toward more complex ideas. In fact, the film’s focus on its fascinatingly terrible (the skull-faced and vicious Bulger) and venally tragic (the stone-faced and stupid Connelly) protagonists leaves it blind to a possible, richer, and certainly more daring and dangerous path.

I’m not going to prosecute Black Mass on its historical accuracy and lack thereof—like any biopic drama, there are quibbles to be had with the narrative shortcuts and creative liberties taken—many of them recently raised by Bulger’s literal partners in crime.

62951But I do feel the film’s obsession with Whitey the Psycho and Connelly the Fallen Agent ignores what may have been the more interesting and important story. Despite Connelly’s collusion with Bulger—turning a dumb eye to the criminal’s abuse of his position as a (mostly useless) FBI informant as well as Bulger’s murder of cohorts—there are suggestions that the Bureau itself was possibly much more complacent, even conspiratorial in later covering up its association with Bulger.

Awards Season dramas tend to focus on sexy, seductive, or sleazy “bad apple” individuals like Bulger and Connelly, while letting institutions and authoritative systems off the hook. (The exception is this season’s much better, much stronger and more powerful Sicario which bravely and exhilaratingly aims right at the System.)

black-massAfter all the acting and the killing and the darkness, Black Mass doesn’t little more than further burnish Bulger’s legendary, otherworldly evilness. Just like those summer-movie amusement park rides fall theater-goers love to sneer at, you still go into the tunnel, gawk and scream at the bogeyman at the center, and then leave the theater thinking, “Wow, what a monster; what a rush, huh?”

“While all the other arts were born naked, [film], the youngest, has been born fully-clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found scattering the seashore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erhard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.”

--Virginia Woolf