Interview: Maps to the Stars Screenwriter Bruce Wagner

maps-stars-68541Bruce+Wagner+Maps+Stars+Premiere+52nd+New+n7eilrZCgAzlFor over two decades, novelist and screenwriter Bruce Wagner–writing from Los Angeles, the epicenter of “corrosive” pop-culture excess–has been using Hollywood and our celebrity culture not so much as satirical grist but as a doorway toward greater spiritual understanding. Think of it as seeking Nirvana by passing through the hottest flames of Kardashian Hell.

Wagner’s written nine novels, including Wild Palms (a serialized graphic novel that was turned into TV mini-series in 1993 by Oliver Stone), 1996’s I’m Losing You (the film version of which Wagner himself adapted and directed in 1998), and 2012’s Dead Stars.

Like his novels, Wagner’s recent screenplay for David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars is set amid Los Angeles and the Hollywood culture and is populated (by way of several interwoven narratives) with a variety of desperate, damaged individuals seeking not just fame and fortune, but some sort of redemption. Directed with sun-bright detachment and unsettling naturalism, it’s another terrific, boundary-pushing work of cinema from Cronenberg, following 2012’s Cosmopolis.

normal_Mia_Wasikowska_003John Cusack plays Dr. Stafford Weiss, a successful New-Age Spiritualist Guru-huckster whose wife Christina (Olivia Williams) manages the lucrative career of their teenage son Benjie (Evan Bird), a famous child actor just out of rehab.

Benjie’s mysterious (and literally scarred) older sister Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) has just returned to town, and her attempt to find closure with her family hooks her up with both relatively grounded limo driver Jerome (Robert Pattison) and high-strung, aging actress Havana (Julianne Moore). Additionally, there are a couple ghosts on hand–Benjie is haunted by the spirit of a young fan who died of cancer, and Havana is taunted by the ghost of her actress mother.

I spoke with Wagner a few weeks ago by phone about the screenplay, the toxicity and spirituality of popular culture, and how he works to find illumination between its sacred and profane extremes.

Maps to the Stars opens today in select cities and is available on demand and iTunes.

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6d75fac4-deda-11e3-_701884bSome may be confused about how Maps to the Stars is or is not connected to your 2012 novel Dead Stars. Which came first, and is one an adaptation of the other?

Bruce Wagner: Maps to the Stars was a script I wrote over 20 years ago and showed to David Cronenberg 10 or 12 years ago. He wanted to make it and flew to New York and met with Julieanne Moore a decade ago, and she wanted to do it. But at that time, David wanted to shoot the entire film in Los Angeles, but the cost was preventative. So he went on and did A History of Violence and other movies.

Then a few years ago, David was at Cannes with Cosmopolis and showed this script to Robert Pattinson. Robert signed on, and Julianne was still available, and that was how we were able to get John Cusack. The financing was such that we were only able to have one American star, but by that time Julianne had duel citizenship, British and US. We adjusted things so that we only shot five days in Los Angeles. And David, at 70, with his long career, had never shot a film on American soil, ever.

Map-To-The-StarsDead Stars is confused with Maps to the Stars for obvious reasons, starting with their titles, but Dead Stars was an absolutely corrosive book that I wrote a few years ago, and none of the characters in Maps to the Stars are in Dead Stars. However, Maps to the Stars is very much an apotheosis of all of my novels—it contains the sacred and profane, people in extremis, which is generally what I’m drawn toward. But Maps is really a family melodrama, a fever-dream of a movie.

You’ve mentioned how writing Dead Stars was a sort of cleansing of toxins for you. Do films like this act as a sort of cultural cleansing? Flushing out the worst of our toxic celebrity obsessions?

Wagner: It was certainly cleansing for me when I wrote it, but it may be more toxic for viewers than cleansing [Laughs]. I’ve always maintained that I write about the sacred and the profane. If one only writes about human depravity, then that in itself is a depraved act. It’s bad faith. So I really do work toward if not redemption, then some kind of light or illumination in everything I write.

maps-to-the-stars-2Maps to the Stars is no different—it begins as a kind of corrosive, almost anthropological essay about show business, but it ends in a far different way, a liberation for the doomed characters. Mia Wasikowska’s character, who’s schizophrenic and mutilated from a fire she was in as a child, turns out to be the most sane character in the film–she wants to break a cycle of bad faith that her parents began.

The movie is not really a commentary on or exploration of the morays and manners of Hollywood as it a kind of excavation of the human spirit. It’s a look at the worst and best of us. People may find that hard to believe, but that’s really where I write from. I like to expose the worst of our inclinations and juxtapose that with the best of our intentions.

In that sense, it seems to echo Greek tragedy, where a child like Orestes, Electra, or Antigone sacrifices him or herself to put an end to their parents’ cycle of sin and violence.

Wagner: Very much present for me was this notion of sanity—Agatha gets sane when she throws away her medication. One gets a sense that she has not fully escaped the cycle, but she does perceive that she must smash that template. I think that what she does is noble.

MTTS_STILL-17.jpgAlong those lines, it sometimes seems that celebrity and fame form our modern culture’s most powerful mythology–an as such, it almost functions as our present-day conduit toward spirituality.

Wagner: Of course Warhol said everyone will be famous for 15 minutes, but I think the new model of that mantra is that in the future–which is now–everyone will be famous all the time. I think fame has a really interesting place in our being human. The desire for acclaim is not new—the attention one calls to self. An old Buddhist text said that the desire for acclaim is so strong that in many ways it’s a more difficult hardship to overcome than poverty or disease. This particular Buddhist text I was reading said that even the most reclusive of cave monks will have the desire to be known the world over as the most reclusive of cave monks.

I’ve always written about extremes–extreme poverty and extreme wealth, extreme fame and total anonymity. Those poles illuminate for me, so I’ve always thrown myself headlong into the abyss of both ends. Both of them are bottomless pits. I and David wanted Maps to the Stars to be entertaining, so there’s a lot of humor in it. But at the end of the day, its not funny. We were thrilled that Julianne was nominated for a Golden Globe, but it was under comedy or musical.

Bailey's Quest-445.cr2Our movie is difficult to categorize because it begins as a kind of corrosive and raucous comedy, but by the end it’s a full-blown tragedy. I don’t make comments about Hollywood or show business—I try to observe the human comedy and tragedy. And because I was essentially raised in this town, it’s my backdrop; an extraordinary laboratory to observe and record human behavior.

But this movie is not anecdotal. I don’t write as a memoirist, I try to write as an artist who draws on deeply unconscious things. In many ways, I’m every character in the movie. I’m John Cusack’s character, the megalomaniac New Age spiritualist; I’m the young man, the prodigy and drug addict; I’m Julianne’s character, the desperate actress who is losing her grip and  feeling the death of her career – I’m all of those.

Since I spend most of my time studying and thinking about popular culture, I sometimes wonder if I ascribe too much cultural (and even political) influence to it. But I do keep wondering what impact all this pop culture we’re all immersed in now 24-7 on the Internet and cable TV is having on how we view, understand, and interact with our world.

maps-to-the-starsWagner: We give as much attention to Bruce Jenner’s transition as we do to a Jordanian pilot being burned alive. It all becomes part of this insect-life-like news cycle, but that will have to sort itself out. I don’t see the times we live in as being better or worse than any other times, it’s just a new time in which everyone is linked in a way that is almost absurdly collective.

I think we’re in the middle of a storm right now, and you can’t really assess the damage or be hopeful until there’s a pause in the storm. But we’ve always been in this storm. One always has to keep in mind that the world is composed of dualities. Our universe is constructed with a night and a day, and if you settle into that equation, then the mess in between the extremes gets a little easier to deal with because it’s more dreamlike. Everything informs this equation of opposites, and most of the time we live in the spaces between those opposites.

Interview: Red Army Writer-director Gabe Polsky

Gabe_PolskyMV5BMjIxMDYwMTg3M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDQ1NzQ0MzE@._V1_SX214_AL_These days, Russia and the West seem to be more at odds than any time since the end of the Cold War. Which makes Gabe Polsky’s terrific new documentary Red Army all the more relevant and fascinating.

No, it’ not (directly) about the actual Soviet-era military, and yes, it’s about hockey, and no, you don’t need to know or like hockey to appreciate it.

Red Army looks at the Soviet Union’s HC CSKA Moscow hockey club of the 1980s, which, due to its alignment with the Soviet Army, was often known as the “Red Army” team. It’s also the Olympic team the United States famously defeated in the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics–the “Miracle on Ice.” (That match’s outcome, so patriotically triumphant in America, is shown in the documentary from the other side, with the dejection of the defeated Soviet players.) The film introduces us to the history, style, and interpersonal ups and downs of the Soviet hockey team through the eyes of its legendary captain Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov.

Polsky has been making films for years with his brother Alan (including producing Werner Herzog and Nic Cage’s awesome Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans and co-directing the recent indie The Motel Life), but this is his first time directing solo and his first documentary,

I sat down with Polsky last month in Chicago to talk about Red Army, his own personal connections to the Soviet Union and hockey, the nature of sport as a conveyor of culture and the beauty of Russian hockey compared to the North American game, and what film making advice he got from Werner Herzog.

Red Army is playing in theaters in select cities.

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46It wasn’t until after I’d seen the film that I learned about your very unique, personal connection to the subject.

Gabe Polsky: My parents are from the former Soviet Union Ukraine–they came over in 1976, so I grew up in the Glencoe suburb of Chicago. It was the end of the Cold War, and it wasn’t that cool to be the son of Soviet immigrants, so I was trying to assimilate.

I was a very serious hockey player—I wanted to play at the highest level; I was very competitive. I got my hands on a VHS tape where I saw the Soviet Union play hockey for the first time. It was mind-boggling and confusing. I was thinking, Why don’t we see more of this, why don’t we play this way? It was the most creative demonstration of sports I’d ever seen. It was amazing, and they were dominant. They’re passing ten times more and weaving – it was beautiful, like art.

redarmySo I got curious about my own background because I wanted to know more about this team and how they came to be. And I was confused—we live in such a free society, but why is our hockey so confining and limiting and aggressive and sort of dull? Whereas they live in a terrible, brutal society, but their hockey is free and open.

I went to Yale and played hockey, was a political science major. As I started doing films I did some research and realized the story of the hockey team was really the story of the rise and fall of the Soviet Union—it was a very deep and profound story about not just hockey but friendship and betrayal and the nature of patriotism.

It’s about Russia and its relationship with the West in the past and the future. It really puts a face on who the Russian people are and their experience.

We tend to see sports as entertainment, but they are so deeply woven both into and out of our culture and values.

Polsky: It’s exactly the same as with the arts—the idea that sports communicate ideas to us just like movies do. It tells us about the society and the individual. When you look at an individual and see how they play sports, you can tell a lot about who they are as a person. It’s the same with a team—they’re always communicating ideas. The Soviet leaders knew that, that you can communicate a lot of things through sport—it’s like poetry, reading between the lines.

red-army-hockey-photoAmericans don’t usually think of Soviet Russia and think of creativity and artistic beauty.

Polsky: In sports and in hockey in particular it was a creative revolution. That’s so important to look at and study. We go to sporting events because we want to see something amazing, something magic, like collective passing and beautiful movement, which doesn’t exist in American hockey.

That’s why people don’t like American and Canadian hockey—there’s nothing interesting to watch, there’s guys hitting each other, you don’t know what the hell is going on. When you watch this movie, it’s self-evident that these guys were masters of the game.

The film really captures the cost of perfection, the sacrifice of time and family life.

Polsky: They do it by choice, but if you want to be great, you don’t’ really have a choice. It’s a competitive world—you’ll never be great if you’re being forced to do anything. These guys loved it, but at a certain point they looked at the guys in the NHL and thought, “These guys are making tons of money, they get to go out at night.”

RED ARMYWhen doing the interviews with Slava Fetisov and his teammates, you seem to run up against the stereotypical Russian stoicism.

Polsky: Absolutely, but you can also use that as a strength in the film. They can be hard, but you can push that and get things. Not everything has to be verbal—it can be what they don’t say and how they react to things. That is who they are. You gotta work around those issues and use it to your advantage.

Post-Cold War, we Americans tend to have such mixed-up impressions of the Russian people and their culture.

We’ve gone from assuming all Cold War Russians were cold, cruel Communist robots to assuming they’re all corrupt, greedy criminals or macho thugs like Putin.

So it’s powerful and instructive when Fetisov speaks of the “pride and soul” of Russia and how he longed to get back there.

Red-Army-Archive-24-copy-940x622Polsky: Even now, today, this movie is just as relevant. People don’t really know who Russians are—we read all this crazy stuff in the media, but we don’t know who these people are, their experiences and how they live and their history. This movie brings to light this history and the people and what shaped them on a human level.

Slava laughs at how we Americans assume these things. He gets very upset because he is a politician, when we assume that we’re always right about everything, that we know everything. I’m wondering what other people in other countries think of us, of America. Do they look at us too like these aggressive gangsters?

There are so many challenges and issues and problems in Russia. It’s gotten terrible, the relationship between the US and Russia. Slava wants to help out and achieve stability and for his country to thrive and for people to be happy. He’s gonna do whatever he thinks is right to achieve that.

MOV_RedArmy_2458_0You produced Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans and now he’s a producer on your documentary. He’s such a master documentarian—did he give you any tips?

Polsky: Just from his work. You don’t have to talk and get specific tips, but it would be a crime not to say that he was influential, just through his work. I borrowed from him mentally. I appreciate film makers who get at very deep truths in strange ways, like Herzog.

I showed him the film and he was one of the first people who was just immediately supportive and appreciative. He said this was a very special movie and deep—he kept saying that, “deep” – he’d say, “it’s about men and friendship.”

Obviously from a guy like that who doesn’t bullshit, I was really taken by that. He said if he could help, let him know so I told him I’d be honored if he’d be an executive producer and guide me through the distribution process.

Screening Of Polsky Films' "The Motel Life"Honestly, people weren’t immediately supportive; some festivals weren’t. That was really hard on me because I thought I’d made a great movie and really put my heart into it and I know it’s great. I humbly say that. And for some reason there were a couple festivals that dismissed it.

Werner said, “Don’t worry, it’s an insane grotesque world.” He once said, “You can’t be a film maker if you don’t understand the heart of men.” I know it’s a simple thing, but really it’s the essence of what a good filmmaker is. That’s ultimately what this movie is, about the Russian soul of men.

Interview: Black Sea Director Kevin MacDonald

black-sea-poster Kevin+Macdonald+Black+Sea+Screening+NYC+vvFO02svu-xlThe old saw that January is a new-movie wasteland, a dumping ground for studio rejects and misfires, is slowly eroding.

Sure, in January the crap-to-cream ratio is still tilted toward crap, as any scan of the Cineplex marquee attests.

But each year there seem to be a few more small, genre gems–well-made little films that probably would not have stood a chance against the blockbusters of summer or the holiday event and prestige flicks.

Black Sea is one of this year’s worthwhile dead-of-winter genre flicks. Written by British playwright Dennis Kelly and directed by Kevin MacDonald (Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland, The Eagle), the action-thriller stars Jude Law as a present-day commercial submarine captain who, after getting laid off from his underwater salvage job, gathers a crew of British, Australian, and Russian submariners. Their secret heist mission: Head to the Black Sea and use a dilapidated Russian submarine to search for a lost German U-Boat supposedly full of Nazi gold that sunk during WWII.

As directed with a sharp eye by MacDonald and featuring a terrific multi-national cast that includes Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, Black Sea is that rare genre film that respects its genre’s tropes but never lazily leans on them; that aims for authenticity and character-driven narrative logic without sacrificing genuine tension and thrills.

Another writer and I sat down with MacDonald earlier this month to talk about Black Sea, the Russian response to the film, and how to shoot a low-budget submarine movie on a real submarine.

Black Sea is playing in select theaters.

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black-sea-leakYou just got back from doing press and a screening of the film in Russia? What did they think of it?

Kevin MacDonald: There’s this massive antipathy against the West right now due to the whole situation with the Ukraine. They’re very anti-Western, so it was interesting watching this film with them. It’s a big market for the film because we have all these Russian actors in it—three of them turned out to be some of the biggest stars in Russia, which I hadn’t quite realized.

The actors were very sensitive—when I cast them, they didn’t want to play stereotypical criminal Russian characters in Western films. But I pointed out to them that in this film they aren’t as bad as the Brits… or the Australians. The Russian press was all over me about Russian stereotypes. They didn’t like the fact that the sonar operator was wearing a fur hat with the red Russian star in the middle—they said, “That’s such a stereotype!” But actually I didn’t want to use that hat, the Russian actor wanted to. Blame him! [Laughs]

There’s a little oddity about this film. The place they go to pick up this submarine and bribe an admiral to get it is Sevastopol, which is the main city in Crimea, which has been taken over by the Russians since we shot the film. There was quite a lot of sensitivity about that, since the character was supposed to be a Ukrainian admiral. We were going to go back there later and get shots of a real submarine in the Ukrainian navy submerging, but we couldn’t go back because of the invasion—the Ukrainian Navy ceased to exist.

22267801_Still_Black Sea_3Despite our Western ideas about Russian corruption and greed, in your film the Russians turn out to be some of the more honorable characters.

MacDonald: They have more in common with the Brits than they don’t, because they’ve all been sailors their whole lives. But it’s more because they’ve all been thrown on the scrapheap.

These are blue-collar working-man guys with skills that are no longer needed or wanted. I think that happens as much in Russia, even more so than it does in America or Europe. It’s more about the 99% and the 1%. What drives this film’s characters isn’t just about getting rich, it’s about wanting to get back at these fuckers, at the bankers, at the guys who screwed us over and made us lose our self-respect.

It’s not the most noble of causes, going after the gold.

MacDonald: What interests me is that as characters they are very flawed because they’ve been warped by their anger at the system. If the film is about anything in the end, it’s about how instead of worrying about getting rich or getting respect, you should pay attention to your family and be a good dad.

black_sea_2-620x413That’s why we didn’t want to personify the evil corporation. You can’t point and say, “That’s the guy behind it all who’s getting rich.” It’s about what greed and wanting desperately to get your self-respect back do to individuals.

Society values rich people, so that desire drives these characters, but you have to realize that isn’t necessarily true. It’s more complicated than going off and getting rich. It’s about how money and greed destroys you, whether it’s gold or whatever. That applies to these men as well as the bosses. It’s probably unhelpful in terms of making a mainstream movie – there’s no clear villain. The villain is within.

That’s part of why I love sea stories and films—when you put your characters out on a ship, you strip away all the societal noise and isolate them, so themes and issues like that really scream out.

MacDonald: That’s one of the reasons why I got Dennis Kelly the playwright to write this, because there’s something theatrical about being on a boat or submarine where you’re in one place and you have to account for everyone in that place all the time. It gives you a very intense social interaction under pressure, observing human behavior under stress in a different environment.

The other thing that’s interesting that I only realized as we were about to start making this film was how many other submarine films have the idea of the Captain Ahab character, who starts off or goes crazy. The idea of that single-minded obsession that starts to endanger everyone’s lives when they start behaving irresponsibly. Something about that myth sits so well with this genre.

media_black_sea_20141002It’s much harder to rationally, reasonably resolve conflict when you’re always in each other’s faces with nowhere else to go.

MacDonald: You can’t say, “Let’s  all go have a good night’s sleep on it and come back to it in the morning.” [Laughs]

Or go take a nice, calming walk outside.

Having never been underwater in a submarine, I can’t imagine how much you must have to mentally block out the idea of where you are, how close to death you are.

MacDonald: Jude actually went on a Royal Navy nuclear submarine for five days. There’s something about being in that confined space, underwater, somewhere where you as a human being shouldn’t be. You can only exist thanks to technology, so that technology becomes part of you, as important as an arm or a finger.

It intensifies everything, it makes emotions and anxieties concentrated. I think that’s one of the reasons why a drama on board a sub is so fantastically intensified and tense. Almost anything that happens on a submarine has a tension inherent to it because of where you are.

thumbnail_1201Every genetic, instinctive bone in your body is screaming, “I don’t belong here.”

MacDonald: It makes you really want to trust your crew. You weren’t born into a crew, but you are reliant on them and them on you, and if something goes wrong, you’re all going to die. But of course when that great of a trust is necessary, it makes you start to think, “Can I really trust him?” The seed of doubt is there and the paranoia sets in.

Did any of that claustrophobic anxiety from the characters in the story spill over into the actual film shoot? You worked with a very small crew…

MacDonald: This isn’t a very big, expensive movie. The crew was not large. Not many people would be foolish enough to make a low-budget submarine movie. [Laughs] We shot for two weeks in a real submarine, so that was a tiny crew of just six or seven down below, then makeup and hair and stuff were up above on a platform, floating offices with toilets and stuff.

We were shooting in corridors in that real submarine and there’s just no room at all, you have four people just crushed in next to each other. That definitely changed how the actors felt—they understood what it was like to be in that situation.

But it also affects what you can do with the camera and how you can move the actors. A lot of the tools you’re used to having as a director, you just can’t use. That really frustrated me while shooting, but I realized as I was cutting the film together that it has the benefit of making it feel real. You know that camera has to be there because it can’t be any further out because there’s a metal wall. That contributed to the sense of tension and claustrophobia.

black sea 2So when we moved on to shooting on the sound stage, I had designed the sets so we could move the walls out, but I decided not to do that. I tried it the first day, removing walls and moving the camera out and around, and it just felt so completely wrong—it was obvious to everyone instantly.

So we put everything back and treated the set like the real submarine. You couldn’t cheat. The environment totally dictates how the film feels in terms of film making.

Did you do any story boarding?

MacDonald: I did for the big underwater scene. That was the first time I’d done story boarding and pre-visualization. It’s so difficult filming underwater. You can’t really communicate with the actors, so it’s much easier to just show them the visualization and say here’s the shot I want to get.

The other thing we played around with a lot through trial and error was how often we’d see CGI shots outside of the submarine. At first we did lots of complicated camera moves around when showing the sub in the water. But again that felt wrong because we were so restricted inside the submarine, so we reduced the complexity of the camera movements even when we did have the complete freedom to do more, like with outside shots of the submarine.

Of course there’s something artificial when you’re going for naturalism inside the submarine and then suddenly the camera is outside the submarine and you think that’s impossible—the camera couldn’t be there.

3514206044But you desperately needed those shots in terms of the rhythm of the editing and storytelling, you needed those moments of pause. In a regular film you have those interstitial moments, those shots of houses and trees, that act as pauses.

I remember talking to Danny Boyle about what was the hardest thing about making a science fiction film like Sunshine. He said when you do a sci-fi or space movie, you realize you’re given nothing for free.

Normally you make a movie and you say, “Oh, look at that sunshine streaming in, isn’t that lovely?” Or leaves, or people in the background—all that stuff you didn’t plan and didn’t pay for. But when you make a movie in space or underwater, you have to create every single thing. It was novel for me—I’ve never done anything like that.

I always complain about too much CG because the actors never feel fully emotionally committed to a green screen, but what you said is true, too—if the CG camera movements are too inventive and impossible, a voice in the back of your mind is saying, “Well, this couldn’t really be happening.” It further disconnects you from the fictional experience.

MacDonald: I think that’s really true—that’s one of the problems with CG. When anything is possible, nothing matters.

The eleven-year-old in us loves to see it, but…

MacDonald: But it doesn’t truly connect psychologically. It’s not true.

download (2)I love how in Kelly’s script we not only get to know the characters, but their actions and motivations logically drive the plot progression.

MacDonald: It’s definitely an unusual genre film—there’s a lot going on, a lot of things that wouldn’t be in a normal genre film, in terms of the writing.

Dennis is very good writer—his series Utopia is a big hit in Britain. He’s got a way of taking bits of reality—like Hitler and Stalin in 1941—and creating a plausible story based on a nugget of truth. He takes that and builds something. Then he adds in conspiracy and mythology and Nazi gold and combines it all, truth and mythology and fantasy and genre.

It doesn’t follow any one genre. There’s the submarine genre, the horror-movie whatever, a bit of Aliens in there in terms of the look, and there’s a morality tale as well, like Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It’s got bits of all these things. That’s what I loved about the writing—he’s so free with grabbing bits and influences, but it’s not post-Modern in a Tarantino way. It’s more messy and human.

The moments that I love best are the little character bits, what they want to do with the money, their relationships with their wives and kids, and the little bit about these guys being “penguins”—awkward and inadequate on land, elegant and sleek in their environment in the water. That’s a lovely piece of writing. The ability to write and make a film that’s hopefully exciting and tense but also has other stuff going on—that’s what he’s really good at.

download (1)I don’t know how exactly Kelly constructed his script, but at least it feels like the actions and events come from the character’s motivations and the consequences of their behavior.

So often in big genre films, you feel it’s the other way around—someone decides they want this scene or that action beat and then spend all their time pushing and twisting the characters and plot to get to those big scenes.

MacDonald: Well, that’s what you do when you have a bigger budget. [Laughs]

My Not-So-Shameful Love of Wahlberg’s The Gambler Remake

250Every now and then, killing time before a screening, some of us Chicago critics will try in vain to plan a sort of group Underdog Movie Marathon/Series. (I was going to say “sleepover,” but those implications are too horrifying to comprehend). The idea is that each critic shows a film they genuinely love—not ironically as “a bad movie,” but honestly enjoy on its own merits—but that everyone else hates.

The concept usually breaks down because we’ve found no matter what woe-begotten, critically-nuked, box-office disaster you proudly haul out as your favorite movie underdog, someone else in the group also likes it, and where’s the fun in that?

I mention this because while the remake of The Gambler from director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed), starring and produced by Mark Wahlberg, is not getting completely critically stomped, it’s not all that appreciated, either.

Those who like it tend to give it a pass as a “not as bad as you’d expect” genre flick, and it’s been largely ignored at the box office by audiences who can’t get past the “Mark Wahlberg gambling movie” poster. And I mention it because I’m not sure The Gambler is a great, unappreciated gem—it might actually be a somewhat shallow, laughably preposterous and grandiose piece of overly-macho chintz that only I alone truly love.

But I do love this film. A lot. I know I might be loving it for all the wrong reasons; dazzled by its aggressive style; seduced by its torrent of smarty-pants speechifying; and perhaps personally relating to its pompous, narcissistic themes for all the wrong dime-store, bull-crap, pseudo-philosophical reasons. I love The Gambler like a Vegas show, or perhaps more appropriately, a Vegas casino: I willingly give into the illusion of depth and importance and all those flashing lights and amped emotions, even as I know all the fun is probably just covering up a seedy, hollow deception.

Producer Wahlberg put himself in the James Caan “Axel Freed” role from the 1974 version, which was directed by Karel Reisz and written by James Toback as part self-aggrandizing autobiographical ode to Toback’s own gambling addiction and part riff on Dostoyevsky’s semi-autobiographical novella The Gambler.

THE GAMBLERThis time out the character is named Jim Bennett, but he’s still a college lit teacher who romanticizes his gambling as a philosophical-literary exercise in self-determination and is in way too deep of debt to unsavory, violent underworld characters.

However, the remake is not about a man with a self-destructive gambling addiction; it’s about a smart, once-talented, over-privileged, trust-fund asshole who sees self-destruction as the only way out of the trap of his seemingly cushy existence.

That’s not much of a rah-rah theme for the Cineplex, nor do I think some supposedly “intelligent” critics even grasped it—they were too preoccupied with snarking out “Marky Mark as a lit professor” jokes or treating the film as yet another 12-step cautionary tale. It doesn’t help The Gambler’s commercial potential that the main character, Bennett, is a sardonic jerk who’s not too busy destroying himself at the blackjack and roulette tables every night to verbally slash at everyone else around him (especially his students) with his two-sided, razor-sharp self-loathing.

In fact, part of the film’s appeal is how much you want to punch Bennett in the face. I say it every week, but the more we only think of “movies” as escapism (or maybe uplifting education), we’ve become conditioned to want to “like” our film characters. Bennett is not likable, nor is he particularly admirable, no matter how hard he tries to ennoble his drive toward oblivion in lofty speeches about truth and being yourself and wanting more than complacent hypocrisy from your life.

THE GAMBLERBennett’s addiction isn’t gambling, it’s self-destruction—a cleansing suicide by Fortuna. He knows he’s not truly a genius, only an intellectual con man hiding behind hyper-Hemingway-ized “whatever” machismo. (Layered on like plate armor, at times Bennett’s self-loathing gets so thick, so humorously sharp-edged that it feels like a separate character in the film.)

He’s wasted what talent he had and can’t stand himself or the privileged economic and social status that won’t let him truly fall. He lives in abject fear of being forever suspended in mediocrity—the very words “life plan” are banal poison to him.

In both the ’74 and ’14 films, the main character hits up his mother to bail him out of his debts. In the original, mother is an earnest, caring doctor played by Jacqueline Brookes. In the remake, she’s Jessica Lange in full decadent-wealth mode, sliding from tennis courts to bank branch offices with the imperial, serpentine malice of a survivor. But the bigger difference is how Bennett loses his mother’s bail-out money: In the original, Caan’s Axel uses it to carefully place bets he’s sure will pay off, climaxing with him hitting a 3 on an 18 at a glamorous Vegas blackjack table—a stunning miracle of hot luck he crows as a cosmic coronation.

This time around, Wahlberg’s Bennett sets out to deliberately blow every last bit of Mom’s cash at a seedy desert casino, dumping it off 10 grand at a time amidst overweight dead-enders with their oxygen tanks strapped to their motorized chairs. Unlike Axel, Bennett feels no guilt over taking his mother’s money—just the opposite, he wants nothing more than to burn the loan and permanently remove her from his life.

Bennett’s obsessive gambling—or more specifically his reckless shell-game running up of debts and then more debts to pay off those debts—is the only way he sees out of traps like his mother’s money or even his own lazy talent. As fun and cool and sexy-seedy as the trip is, The Gambler is driving toward a singular point: Bennett’s careful maneuvering of himself into a corner neither his family’s money nor his over-educated bellicose charisma can get him out of.

1412622331000-XXX-GAMBLER-MOV-JY-3178--67830468The entire plot of The Gambler is Bennett working very hard to get to the point where, with all his vicious creditors watching, his existence comes down to a single spin of the roulette wheel. In what he sees as the purest method available, he lets the universe decide his worth and his fate, daring it to snuff him out or free him. So is it really gambling if you want to lose?

If all this sounds oppressively, depressingly heavy, it’s not at all. Director Wyatt is mostly along for Wahlberg and Monahan’s ride, but he has a clean, confident visual style that sometimes sports the shiny, chrome-thin decadence of false ‘80s Playboy fantasies, but stops just short of too-showy. Dancing around visual and thematic influences from films like O Lucky man, Naked, Leaving Las Vegas, and Drive, the exposition-free Gambler plays fast and smart, never slowing down to wait for the viewer as it rides a torrent of Monahan’s words; a brilliant supporting cast of character actors; and Wahlberg’s riotous smug petulance.

The Gambler is not a perfect film–it’s never as light or nimble enough to carry all those existential speeches effortlessly, nor is it always cohesive in pace, performance, or purpose. But it’s often hilarious, even self-satirizing in a dark, mean way. (There’s a wickedly funny scene with Richard Schiff in a jewelry store.) Wyatt’s sleek, Brit-pop visions of “secret” LA aside, the film belongs to Monahan’s never-ending rush of words. Each new declarative speech—spit out with easy intensity by Bennett or one of his antagonists—viciously, thematically cannibalizes the one before.

THE GAMBLERSome of those lacerating soliloquies are ranted by Bennett in his lecture hall as he muses with increasingly energetic venom about Shakespeare and Camus to disinterested students for whom he mostly musters only bored disdain.

Put aside your preconceptions about Wahlberg and you’ll find that while this may not be a great performance, it’s a fantastically entertaining one—a pale, stone-faced vampire-ape in skinny, cool, dark suits and scowling under unruly hair and perfect sunglasses, Bennett’s smarter-than-thou smirk and self-indulgent boy grin weaves beautifully in and out of hammy defiance and childish narcissism.

But the film’s best scenes of verbal daring-do are when Bennett gets his once-rich, white ass chewed up by the film’s supporting cast, especially John Goodman and Michael K. Williams, both of whom have a ball kicking the callow pretty-boy around. As Frank, a high-end loan shark who’s part leg-breaker and part Bad Buddha consciousness expander, Goodman gets the best bits—all bald head and bare-chested bulk, he’s a joy to watch as he dispenses world-weary life wisdom alongside casual, resigned threats of apocalyptic violence.

But Williams’s Neville also expertly subverts The Wire and Boardwalk Empire actor’s usual criminal-menace typecasting: his “non-standard lender” character looks at Bennett with annoyed awe, unsure whether to marvel at the magnificent bravado of Bennett’s stupidity or have the idiot killed. (“Is this some existential situations and shit?” asks Neville with a charmingly dismissive chuckle.)

THE GAMBLER(Only Brie Larson’s character—the standard wise, alluring ingénue on hand to act as a potential life preserver for the drowning man—gets left out of all the fun. Larson [Short Term 12] is a fantastic actress, but her typical sexist sidelining thanks to Monahan’s throwback He-Man posturing is the biggest strike against the film.)

The Gambler sometimes teeters on the verge of cartoonish grotesquery, but still, those words… all those wonderful, arch, posturing words. Like David Milch’s Deadwood scripts, there are times Monahan’s screenplay seems so in love with its faux-Shakespearean, pseudo-intellectual self that it feels like a ‘70s drum or guitar solo—its monologues are at first technically impressive, then run toward silly before pushing past into something like transcendence through ridiculous excess.

I’m still not sure all those strengths and weaknesses add up to anything genuinely good, or if under all the film’s lofty yapping and “deep thoughts” table gazing, it’s really just a sleazy bag of tarted-up cheap thrills—a bad undergrad paper with a sexy cover page and too much reliance on the thesaurus. But I’m a self-admitted word slut, and even though it may be my own form of self-indulgence, I do love watching The Gambler—or at least listening to it strut by.

A Mouse Goes Into the Woods and…

MV5BMTY4MzQ4OTY3NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjM5MDI3MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_I do struggle with my sometimes unreasonable hatred of Disney. My seething loathing for the Mouse does not come easy. I wrestle, almost daily it seems, with what often feels like an irrational, petty, personally embittered war on a media conglomerate that apparently provides so much happiness, and joy to so many people, including many of my friends and relatives of all ages—even at times, yes, to myself.

This is probably as good a time as any to warn you that this year, with The Avengers 2 and Star Wars 7 coming out, you’re probably going to hear me retread and rehash all my crazy-guy-on-the-corner anti-Disney rants until even those few of you who are still hanging around will be begging for me to please STFU about how Disney ruins everything with it’s perfectly cross-marketed, demographically aimed, shined and polished pop-culture gems.

But you could at least make the argument that when it comes to things like Marvel superheroes, Star Wars, the Muppets, or Toy Story, Disney is selling products that are pop-culture baubles to begin with. Don’t get me wrong—I have much love in my 11-year-old self’s heart for most of those things, but they are pretty much exactly the sort of enjoyable lightweight diversions that even I have to admit Disney does a pretty amazing job of re-imagining then re-packaging.

I hope we can all agree that Stephen Sondheim musicals do not fall into that same bucket of enjoyable fluff. I’m no Sondheim scholar or even a super-fan, but I do know why I love his music and several of his musicals: his often discordant, hook-resistant, complex song-writing subversively paints a world (often populated by misguided dreamers and creators) that is dark, introspective, and morally layered—not to mention painfully, often tragically ironic.

Disney doesn’t really do deep discord. Or complex. Or subversion. And while Disney will sometimes play at a sort of “lite” darkness (Hellooo,  Miss Malificent), it rarely does honest introspection, real moral ambiguity, and certainly not ironic tragedy. No matter which way it bends and weaves through decades of changing tastes and trends, for the most part Disney does escapism. It does fairytales.

Into-the-Woods-Lilla-CrawfordDisney also does Disney, which is to say, The Mouse likes to hang on to what it sees as all its toys. (We’ll talk about the company’s successful greed-drenched, control-freak lobbying to extend copyright periods some other time.) Disney likes to believe it runs the Fairytale Market—if someone is going to “do” fairytales, whether straight or ironically, Disney and its lawyers and money men would strongly prefer it be Disney.

Sondhiem’s Into the Woods, with its book by James Lapine, came along in the late ‘80s, at a time when the Disney Fairytale Factory was on the ropes—in part because of declining creative quality on the studio’s side, but also because the American culture of the ‘60s and ‘70s had, on the backs of assassinations, Vietnam, and Watergate, steered away from escapist children’s fantasy.

In the midst of all that, in 1987, Into the Woods all-sang to Baby Boomers about what had become of them; from the fairytales of their childhoods, to the hopeful ideals of their young adulthoods, to the cold, harsh realities (political, personal, and moral) of early middle age; of parenthood and livelihoods; of living—or dying—with the choices you made in your heady, hopeful, reckless youth, and the brutally pragmatic choices you’re forced to make as an adult.

Drawing on Bruno Bettelheim’s 1976 The Uses of Enchantment, a Freudian study of the role fairytales play in mapping out our cultural and psychological contours, Sondheim’s musical also helped usher in a whole genre of fairytale deconstruction. (Though Rocky and Bullwinkle got there first 20 years earlier.) Of course, the original tales had always been dark, often even gruesome—in bringing some of that back, Sondheim not only undermined the Disneyfied versions, but also used the tales as entries into modern existential crises.

woods01_2991544bTwenty-seven years later, “adult” retellings of classic fairytales have become de rigor, even rote, with many of them churned out by Disney itself—like any conquering empire, Disney is brilliant at absorbing and co-opting the cultural forces that once aligned against it.

So by the time Into the Woods makes it into theaters today, audiences are more than familiar with post-modern revisionism of fairytales by way of projects like Disney’s Once Upon a Time, Tangled, Enchanted, and Malificent, as well as dozens of other non-Disney works like Shrek, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Ever After,  almost all of them owning their very existence to Sondheim’s decades-old musical.

When Disney announced it had hired Chicago director Rob Marshall to helm a film version of Into the Woods (with Lapine writing the screenplay), Sondheim fans and purists squealed with distrust (no doubt in an atonal minor key). Their not unreasonable fear was that Disney would “Disney-fy” the musical, strip out its sexual sub-plots, concoct a happy ending for a musical about the great lie of happy endings, and generally make the whole thing family friendly for the holidays.

Disney and Marshall didn’t do most of those terrible things—while a few plot and song points were softened for the screen, they left in the Big Bad Wolf’s leering double-entendres (though they neutered him slightly by having the character played as a zoot-suited Tex Avery cartoon by Johnny Depp, himself a once-rebellious creative eccentric now tamed into Disney’s lovable “pet weirdo”), and they kept the musical’s darker, more melancholy and introspective second act.

But while Disney maintained Sondheim’s grimmer elements on paper, the film version (directed with impressively mediocrity and inoffensive cinematic blandness by Marshall) does stack the deck on screen with charming stars: In addition to what amounts to an extended cameo by Depp, there’s Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, and of course Our National Acting Treasure Meryl Streep, as well as Emily Blunt and James Corden and youngsters Lilla Crawford as Red Riding Hood and Daniel Huttlestone as Jack.

All these very attractive, very likable folks help to not only sell Into the Woods on the lobby poster, but also provide a soothing, edge-smoothing element of audience comfort. Their characters may not all make it to live happily ever after, but the on-screen deaths of Beloved Well-Known stars never quite wound that deeply or resonate that emotionally—somewhere in the backs of our mind, we know the Star Lives On.

INTO THE WOODSAnd all these stars are good enough—they all give it their best and most of them acquit themselves nicely. A few— Blunt, Corden, and Kendrick, the latter two of whom have professional musical theater experience—are even better than good enough. (Kendrick’s “On the Steps of the Palace” is a particular highlight.)

(Depp, on his second big-screen Sondheim go-round after Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, still doesn’t have the voice or the training for this stuff.)

I don’t buy into this culturally agreed-upon delusion that everything Meryl Streep does is perfect and award-worthy and brilliant (did anyone actually watch Iron Lady?), but nor do I dislike her. As the Witch—the narrative and thematic lynchpin of the story—Streep holds the center not with voice and brass verve, as Bernadette Peters did on Broadway, but by simply being Meryl Streep, Beloved Acting Icon.

Which is The Disney Way: Everything is about casting buzz and pretty personalities and pleasant surfaces. Everything is “perfect” on paper, if not always in presentation. Which probably, more than anything, gets at my ongoing frustration with Disney—it’s not just the marketing blitzes and emphasis on branding, it’s how Disney’s corporate credo of pleasing/selling to as many people as possible as often as possible never leaves room in any of these big projects for anything messy or truly creatively energetic, original, or innovative. Disney does not fail, and so it rarely allows any creative risk, or anyone to do anything that might not appeal to nearly everyone. (Captain Jack Sparrow is the exception to the rule.) You want to cast the Witch in your big holiday musical? Then you consult your spreadsheets and go out and get the Best-known, Most Lauded Actress of a Certain Age.

into-the-woods-9All of which makes Into the Woods the film perfectly adequate, perfectly entertaining on a perfectly not-too-challenging level. Marshall, who has never impressed me as a director with much in the way of vision or originality, sets everything up and gets it all down on celluloid with a perfunctory, journeyman’s soft hackery. It suggests either he doesn’t quite understand all the layers of Sondheim’s work or that the dictates of doing a big holiday “family” film for Disney that’s intended to haul in both box office and awards hardware didn’t allow him to express his understanding. And so the cast is nice, the sets are nice, the songs are nice, and it’s all good enough.

We can wish all we want for a bolder director than Marshall, maybe someone with the mastery of sound and vision necessary to capture more of Sondheim’s spirit on screen; someone who would do more than just set up the pretty, talented actors on the impressive sound stage sets and let them sing well enough.

But there’s something else that keeps Into the Woods the film from fully tapping into the genius of Into the Woods the stage musical; something that very few film directors—be they Rob Marshall or Tim Burton—could overcome. Sondheim creates theater. His musicals are not just made for the stage, they are about the stage. In them, the juxtaposition of the first-hand reality of the theater space and the theatrical artificiality become part of the theme—when making a musical about witches and giants and beanstalks and magic cows and enchanted hair, stagecraft is not just a necessary tool, it becomes part of the commentary on the nature of the story.

INTO THE WOODSWhen you watch Into the Woods on stage, that Milky White is a stuffed cow on wheels, or the giant’s legs are obviously fake, or Cinderella’s birds are dangling on strings, or Rapunzel’s hair hides a secret rope, aren’t just funny visual jokes; they’re also part of the tapestry Sondheim is weaving about the intersection of fantasy and reality. They say to the audience, you are watching theater, and like these fairy tales we’re deconstructing, the creation of live theater is about using the absurd, silly, and obviously “unreal” to cleave into reality.

We see this throughout Sondheim’s works, whether its Georges Seurat painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” on a transparent skein between himself and the audience in Sunday in the Park with George, or Sweeney Todd’s razors squirting fake stage blood across his victims’ necks before he pulls a lever to drop them back down to the main stage floor. Sondheim is fascinated by how the audience interacts with and ingests art, myth, and, yes, fairy tales; how the creation of art shapes our perceptions of reality, and he uses the stage itself as part of that argument.

Because of that, any film adaptation of a Sondheim musical is already going to be in the hole thematically once it moves its action off the stage and onto the set (not to mention the obligatory addition of lots and lots CGI spectacle), but Into the Woods is triply hampered. First by the aforementioned fact that the deconstruction of fairytales, once daring and dazzling in the late ‘80s, is now old hat, the stuff of night-time soap operas on network TV. Second by Marshall’s inability to fan any new creative life into the proceedings.

into-the-woods-wolf-redBut thirdly because the point of Sondheim’s Into the Woods is that fairytales are important instructive tools for childhood, packed as they are with moral and cultural coding they to pass on to a new generation, but that becoming an adult means having to come to grips with how life’s realities don’t always have happy endings. That thesis is what makes the second Act of Into the Woods resonate on stage.

The second half of Into the Woods is a little shaky when it comes to forward motion and a compelling story—it’s a problem that often afflicts musicals. In musical theater, songs work best when they have a strong forward drive, a memorable point and purpose to go with a powerful tune. Songs in the first half of musicals are often gleefully aspirational or at least belt out with anguished enthusiasm the existential challenges the characters face. The second halves of musicals are usually about the characters working to resolve those plot and character conflicts, and so the songs tend to focus inward, become more introspective, less memorably propulsive. Which is why, with the exception of second acts’ opening numbers and finales, if you list your favorite songs from a dozen musicals, the majority of those songs will come from those productions’ first acts.

INTO THE WOODSWhat carries Into the Woods through its second act on stage is that tension between the fairytales we know and the very un-fairytale realities we’re all too familiar with. But that tension is mostly missing from the film, and so things start to wander and drag a bit.

Part of it is that the film doesn’t have an obvious break after the first act to help the audience “reset” for the darker second half. And part of it is that, as mentioned above, removing the musical from the physical stage also removes some of its thematic power—all those cheesy stage props like Milky White, the birds, or the giant’s wife are no longer intentionally fake, so they no longer visually support the second half’s deconstructive themes.

But also, American grown-ups’ taste in and consumption of culture and entertainment over the past couple decades years has steadily slid back into our childhoods. We no longer look back on our youth with wistful nostalgia—we simply, Peter Pan-like, never leave it. Adult culture is increasingly dominated by children’s and young adult literature and movies based on the TV shows and comic books of our childhood (including a devotion to Disney products)—in an effort to “maintain a childlike wonder,” some of us never really grow out of fairytales; we simply haul them with us into adulthood.

Shows like Disney’s Once Upon a Time, or more recently Galavant, may feature adult fairytale characters doing adult things to each other, but the shows retain a magical, dreams-come-true fantasy take on reality. We take in so much escapism in our entertainment today—and so little other than escapism and entertainment—that much of the resonance of Sondheim’s deliciously sour message is lost on us. How can we dissect fairytales from a grown-up distance if we never leave them behind?

into-the-woods-05Into the Woods the film looks and sounds very nice, but because it is carefully crafted to please, to fit inside the Disney world, it never fully takes us into those dark, dangerous, risky woods where you can both gain and lose everything.

In the end, despite Sondheim’s undeniable brilliance and those amazing songs and that pleasingly talented cast, the film plays more like an artifact than affecting art. It’s a nice little curio, a keepsake trapped inside a celluloid globe. As pretty as it is, it never really touches us.  In Disney and Marshall’s hands, with all those pretty stars out front, Into the Woods becomes just more fairytale escapism, another attraction at the Magic Kingdom.

Interview: The Gambler Director Rupert Wyatt

250Rupert-Wyatt-Gambler-Premieres-Hollywood-Part-_NT14pWeuUslI went into The Gambler with every bit of trepidation you’re probably feeling right now as you look at that poster: “Eh, Mark Wahlberg? Gambling movie? Remake?”

But I found this new version of The Gambler, sharply written by William Monahan (based on James Toback’s original 1974 script) and vividly directed by Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) absolutely riveting, more due to the script’s intelligence than its gambling scenes. (The film spends almost as much time in the classroom as it does at the gaming tables.)

Wahlberg, who produced the film, is in the James Caan role as Jim Bennett, a burned-out, self-loathing college English professor who spends every spare moment and dime gambling on cards, sports, roulette wheels, you name it.

Naturally, as in the original film, his self-destructive drive lands Bennett in deep financial trouble with various underworld figures, including Michael K. Williams and John Goodman (both brilliant), which in turns further strains his already chilly relationship with his wealthy mother (Jessica Lange). Along the way down, Bennett also inadvertently stumbles into a possibly redemptive relationship with a student (the always excellent Brie Larson).

I hope to write further at length about The Gambler in the near future, but for now let me say that even though the film is getting hammered by critics and ignored at the box-office, for whatever it’s worth, I personally loved the film a lot–it’s one of my favorites of 2014.

I sat down with The Gambler‘s Rupert Wyatt in Chicago a few weeks ago to talk about what he as a director brings to a “for hire” project like this; how the remake is fundamentally different from the 1974 original; and how you make and sell smart, challenging films in the current Film Industry climate.

The Gambler is playing now in theaters everywhere.

_________

markwahlberg_thegambler_727I have to tell you, when we had a morning screening a few weeks ago, I almost blew it off. I was busy, it was an inconvenient time, and honestly I felt like I knew what the film was going to be and wasn’t that interested.

But I went and came out of the screening electrified by how much I loved it.

Rupert Wyatt: It’s a different film. It’s interesting the way people’s preconceptions of what this movie is are different from what the movie really is.

How did you get involved in the project?

Wyatt: I was working on my own thing—coming off Rise of the Planet of the Apes I was focused very much on my own work, something I’m going back to right now. It was taking longer than I hoped to get up and running, but I’d heard about this script, heard about how good it was. I live in LA, so I’m kind of in the belly of the beast—when scripts go around town and to agencies, you get a notion of what’s good or not.

This project kept coming up, and then I heard Mark was involved and wanted me to read it. He’s an actor I’ve always respected and found really intriguing, because he’s obviously a movie star, but there’s something about him I find quite alluring because he’s a very still actor. Some people read him as understated, but I love that—I think he’s like a Spencer Tracy or even Brian Cox who I worked with on The Escapist, where they really underplay things very well, but you’re still drawn to them.

So I eventually read the script and fell in love with it because it was something I could see. There were other projects I’d read that I liked the idea of and what I could do with them, but I wanted to rebuild them. But that’s hard in the case of this and those projects, where they’ve already been originated. So it’s a different aspect of one’s career. As a filmmaker, I love building things from the ground up, but on this film and Apes, I came on and worked basically as a tailor—you put your stamp on it, but it’s already been built.

THE GAMBLERTo that end, with William Monahan’s script written and Wahlberg driving the project, what do you bring to the film as the director?

Wyatt: It’s all about the transition to the screen. In this case, I wanted to do very little in terms of what was on the page with the characters and character interactions. But we did make changes with situations and physical circumstances.

For example, John Goodman’s character Frank was to first meet Mark’s character Jim at Dan Tana’s, a well-known LA restaurant. I understood what Bill was doing there, because it represented to a certain extent who he perceived Frank to be, the particular kind of old-school person who goes to Dan Tana’s.

I thought it would be more interesting and subvert the essence of that character a bit more if I put him in a schvitz in a spa. And that might make Jim more uncomfortable—it’s hot and sweaty and he’s being grilled. As a filmmaker to come in and make those changes, it’s always a very intrinsic thing to directing. But you’re still coming in and taking something that preexists and making the transition, rather than me sitting in front of blank page saying, “Okay, I’m going to put this in a Russian spa.”

The film is very stylish, but unlike so many over-styled films these days, I felt the stylism really worked to enhance the story. I also noticed how much architecture figures into the film visually.

Wyatt: It’s interesting you picked up on that, because I love LA for its diversity. I made a rule with Greig Fraser, our director of photography, that if we had a palm tree in the shot we’d move the camera. Because I just didn’t want the preconception of what Los Angeles can be, but instead seek out the more interesting parts of it.

I like to tell stories that are as inherently visual as possible, especially with a script like this that is so dense and verbose. To put Jim, who’s at a really, really tenuous place in his life, in a house that is literally on sticks, so there’s a danger of his world crumbling around at any moment, I think that is as much a part of storytelling as the language that comes out of his mouth.

the-gambler-e1415134019112The original film with James Caan feels like such a personal howl from James Toback. Did you have any trepidation about remaking Toback’s tale of his own addiction?

Wyatt: There was no trepidation in that I knew very early on from reading the script that this was not going to be treading the same ground as the original—if it had been, I probably wouldn’t have taken the job. For me the point of remakes is coming at things from a fresh angle. The fundamental difference between the two movies is that the original Karel Reisz movie is a study in addiction, born of Toback’s own experiences.

This one is much more of a quest—a guy who’s looking to get out and is using gambling as a means to escape. It’s not about a guy who’s circling the drain and unable to escape his demise. I wouldn’t have been able to tell the story of addiction in a way that other filmmakers or storytellers perhaps could have because I don’t have that personal experience.

To me, your film didn’t read as a cautionary tale about addiction but rather it’s about a process of self-destruction—Jim lets fortune decide his fate, taking all responsibility off him—the universe decides whether he lives or dies.

Wyatt: There is the great myth of the samurai where the samurai chooses the place of his own death. There’s conformity to that in that it affords the samurai a certain element of control even though it means self-destruction. There’s a great book, The Dice Man [1971, by George Cockcroft writing as Luke Rhinehart]–it’d make an amazing film—about a guy who lives his life by the role of the dice. If he rolls a two, he’ll make himself a cup of coffee—if he rolls a six, he’ll go downstairs and kill the gardener.

It takes all elements of free-will out of the equation. That to me was Mark’s character—a guy who says, “I’m going to bet my life, because all these things I have, that people aspire to have, they don’t make me happy, so I’m going to blow it all up, put it all on black. And I might die in the process, but hopefully it will be my escape valve and afford me a better life.” That to me is quite an aspirational story, even though it seems an odd thing to say. It’s a guy who’s looking for his own freedom.

goodmanIt’s such an exhilaratingly smart film and a very literary script. So how do you make this kind of film in the current Hollywood landscape and get people to see it?

Wyatt: Get Mark Wahlberg to be in it. That’s a glib answer, but I think in this day and age, especially with the new studio world, we are an exception to the rule. It’s a sad indictment on how mainstream movie-making is going, and why we’re seeing this amazing migration toward long-form television, which I think is the breeding ground of really, really interesting storytelling. It’s kind of where the novel was a century ago. Great cable TV like Deadwood or The Wire; that platform is allowing filmmakers to do things that were happening in the ‘70s in American cinema.

Whereas modern Hollywood is finding itself in this amazing crosswords where the firework displays of big tent-pole movies are now the majority, and there will be tipping point, a moment where people just turn away. There are still great films being made, they’re just being made out of the mainstream.

In some ways, what’s been afforded me with the rare opportunity to make this movie, to make a challenging film in the mainstream, is a testament to Paramount and Mark as a movie star who’s prepared to take his value and put it into something that is a tough sell. It isn’t necessarily what mainstream audiences are searching out, but hopefully we’re a breath of fresh air.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Battle of the Battles for the Battle

Hobbit_BOTFA_Intl_posterTrust me, I well know that books are not movies and movies are not books—I’m fully aware of (and fascinated by) the differences in how the two mediums tell stories and create meaning and experience.

And I also know that in this age of Internet tribalism, Hel hath no impotent, squealing fury like a fan who feels the movie on the big screen doesn’t quite match his or her version of the beloved, sacred source material. I know you’re supposed to address the film that was made, not the film you wanted made.

Which is to say that I don’t think The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies—Jackson’s final visit to Middle Earth and the closing chapter in his two-trilogy, six-film, nearly 20-year Tolkien filmmaking journey—is a bad movie. I was somewhat bored by it, but these days I’m more often bored than thrilled by big-screen CGI martial whiz-bang.

Obviously many of you are out there enjoying the film fully, dutifully enthralled by it, and most critics follow the same lines when “reviewing” films like The Hobbit—they focus on how well they’re paced, do they hold together, and most importantly for your two and a half hours and 10-plus dollars, do they entertain enough?

(Also it should be noted, critics and fangirls/boys alike have a subconscious desire, a need to like films that close out much-anticipated but highly problematic films series like Armies with The Hobbit—or, say, Revenge of the Sith with the Star Wars prequels. It’s pop-cultural survivalism: We want so much to like these closing films, to have this beloved, drawn-out, multi-year endeavor end on a positive note, that we cling with hope to mantras like “Well, it was better than the first two.” There’s too much emotional investment in the previous films and the source material, and it’s too depressing to accept that these films aren’t all that great.)

Hobbit-Battle-of-Five-Armies1As a life-long Tolkien lover, my personal problem with The Battle of the Five Armies, and the Hobbit films in general is that there is no sense that anyone involved with the films—not Jackson, his co-writers and producers Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, or the studio brain trust at Warners ever truly asked and answered, “How is The Hobbit fundamentally different from The Lord of the Rings?” (Other than one has a dragon and the other has Ents.)

Instead, in this fearful Industry age of known, bankable properties, big budgets, big spectacle, and painfully milked franchises, the only question anyone seemed to care about was, “How can we make this as much like Lord of the Rings as possible?” Give the people what they want: Action! Huge CGI battles! A couple ruggedly handsome Aragorn stand-ins! And Legolas! Legolas! Legolas!

The irony is that in the 11 years since Return of the King closed out Jackson’s first trilogy, the film business has changed drastically in part because of the success of Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series (both Warner Brothers/New Line franchises). I and so many others—including both old Tolkien fans and new converts—loved the LOTR films because not only did they make High Fantasy cool again, but they completely upended and breathed fresh, sincere life into the notion of the big, blockbuster action-adventure film. They felt honest and filled with creative integrity—made out of earnest love for the material, not the materialistic.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUGBut since then, every big film must be based on a proven popular property with instant “poster recognition;” extended into a multi-film franchise; and should, if possible, feature as many massive CGI battles and as much sweeping, jaw-dropping, eye-popping wowsa as budgetarily possible.

The success of Jackson’s LOTR films helped foster that paradigm, and now his Hobbit films feel almost solely, soullessly born of it. Victims of their forbearers’ success, they feel like product created to cash in on trends, not set them—creatively, they follow, not lead. At best, they garner an “ahh” of recognition, not the “oooh” of true surprise and delight.

It may be a few decades before all the behind-the-scenes details slip out in Industry tell-all books, so much of this is just speculation. But Jackson gave every indication beforehand that didn’t want to direct The Hobbit films himself. In part because he know what a huge, Herculean, exhausting undertaking such a thing is, but also, I think, my facetious accusations aside, because he knew he didn’t have the same affinity for the source novel as he did LOTR.

the-hobbit-bofa-4-the-hobbit-3-battle-of-five-armies-trailer-analysis-concluding-middle-earth-with-a-bangPerhaps Jackson did know The Hobbit was different, and he knew the differences didn’t play to his strengths. So he tapped Guillermo del Toro to helm the prequels, but after doing plenty of writing and pre-production designing, del Toro dropped out as years of legal wrangling over rights issues kept postponing the start of shooting.

Peter Jackson the person says he identifies best with the hobbits and would most want to live in the Shire, and I believe him. He loves his hobbits and their cozy hobbit holes—he captured the Shire perfectly in Fellowship, and the opening dinner party sequence of Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey might have worked if it hadn’t been so painfully and perfunctorily drawn out.

But Peter Jackson the filmmaker can’t quite put his trust in Tolkien’s gentle tone and doesn’t seem able to find that more fable-like gear. His instincts, so on point for LOTR, are completely off for The Hobbit, perhaps out of disinterest or distraction, perhaps due to the dictates of a greedy studio. So Jackson, I’m sure with Warners’ encouragement, began altering The Hobbit films more and more to play like a second LOTR go-‘round.

battle of the five armies headerAnd once Warners decided The Hobbit would have to be three films (and no matter what Jackson claims, I find it exceedingly hard to believe that the pressure to split two films into three did not come directly and forcefully from the studio accounting department), why did each have to be well over two-hours long? Why not make three tight, neat, effective 105-minute films?

In part, I suspect, because the longer running times make audiences feel like they’re experiencing an epic event, something bigger—and longer—than just any old run-of-the-mill action movie, and therefore not just worth their extra 3D-cash, but demanding of it.

Some of it may also be Jackson’s inadvertent ego—humble as the hirsute little Kiwi filmmaker may remain, he’s now the guy who’s made some of the highest-grossing films of all time, and that makes it difficult for others and even him to say to himself, “maybe this all isn’t completely necessary.”

(This raises the literally billion dollar question: Would del Toro have found the right, different gear for The Hobbit? Had he not bailed out, would his Hobbit films have better served Tolkien’s novel? It’s safe to assume they still would have put their emphasis on action-adventure first and foremost, and of course Jackson would still have executive produced them, but nuance is everything, and, giant robot vs monster movies aside, del Toro can be a much more nuanced, adult, and often more insightful fantasist than Jackson. He may have approached the material with a much different, more layered tone.

1415309431601_Image_galleryImage_The_Hobbit_The_Battle_of_(But of course, this can only ever be a great, lost “What if”… Given the current rate at which franchises are rebooted and remade, I suspect I may still see yet another screen adaptation of The Hobbit and LOTR in my ever-ticking-down lifetime, but I doubt it will involve del Toro.)

Contributing to the beauty and brilliance of the LOTR films was that New Line/Warners never cared much about them as they were being filmed in the late ‘90s—they’d been budgeted cheaply (three big films for the price of one big one), had no stars, and were being shot literally on the other side of the world in the pre-Skype age, making it much more of a hassle for studio suits to pop in for meddling set visits and panic-button meetings.

That is certainly not true of The Hobbit films—Warners knows exactly what is riding on the films, exactly how important their financial success is to the studio in the post-Potter era, how much they must appeal to everyone who loved the LOTR films, and therefore how they must push the exact same market-tested buttons.

Which is why the Tolkien’s aged and embittered greybeard Thorin Oakenshield becomes Richard Armitage’s much younger, hunkier Aragorn look-alike, and the book’s bit-player Bard (Luke Evans) gets a much bigger role (and a family of adorable moppets to protect!). And while there’s no doubt women are under-represented in Tolkien’s novels, the addition of Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and her ill-fated romance with Kili (Adian Turner) feels opportunistic—whatever female empowerment is gained by showing an ass-kicking female elf is offset by the obvious effort to gin up another Aragorn-Arwen-style love story in order to pander to a desired demographic.

Hunk TalkAnd of course there’s Orlando Bloom’s Legolas. Lots and lots of Legolas; way too much Legolas in this third and final film. And always with the now de rigueur “cool Legolas fighting move,” which in each film is bigger, more outrageous, and sillier than the last, until at this point, as the elf warrior runs in mid-air up falling pieces of rubble, the effort to top previous feats simply destroys the viewer’s suspension of disbelief.

(The LOTR films worked very hard to ground the world of Middle Earth in a rustic authenticity, but Jackson has been increasingly willing to trade that realism away for cheap thrills.)

I joked about Desolation of Smaug that you come for the giant fire-breathing dragon and stay for the Laketown politics, but in Armies Smaug is dispatched in the first 10 minutes, before the title credits, and Jackson spends an unfathomable amount of the film’s remaining time fussing around with skeevy, conniving Laketown bureaucratic assistant Alfrid (Ryan Gage) and his greedy slapstick antics.

(Seriously, you get the sense that rather than The Hobbit, Jackson would have much rather have made just one Pythonesque comedy: Alfrid: The Woeful Comic Misfortunes of Laketown’s Bumbling Deputy.)

Such non-canon padding, dictated by the decision to make three Hobbit films instead of two, doesn’t just hurt the film because it’s such distracting, time-wasting side business. It’s more than just boring; the filler requires Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens to overstrain weak character motivations and plot threads until they nearly snap in order to squeeze out one more fight sequence (or dull romantic side street—I’m looking at you Kili and Tauriel).

battle-of-the-five-armiesI’m more of two minds about the filmmakers’ addition of the Sauron/Dol Guldur/White Council material—on the one hand, it’s so blatantly shoe-horned in to tie The Hobbit closer to LOTR, with more Elrond (Hugo Weaving), more Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), more Gandalf (Ian McKellan), more Saruman (Christopher Lee), more Nazgul (CGI phantoms), and of course more Sauron (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). And part of me loves that sort of sweeping, epic, mythic, good-versus-evil stuff on a grand scale.

But unlike LOTR, The Hobbit isn’t supposed to be an epic film about good-versus-evil on a grand wizard/elf scale. Tolkien wrote a quiet fairytale about how a one quiet, little hobbit has his horizons forcefully broadened and has to deal not just with dangerous adventure but horrific, pointless bloodshed and loss. It’s supposed to be Bilbo’s story, not Sauron’s.

And yet, despite the title, this final film in The Hobbit trilogy continually pushes Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins into the background. There is very little of the hobbit in The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, and the absence of Bilbo from the film’s narrative is more than just an annoyance—it robs the adaptation of everything that made Tolkien’s novel so special, so charming. Biblo’s personal tale has become, on the screen, much more Thorin and the dwarfs’ story, and even they have to step aside in its final act to make room for sexy fan-favorite Legolas and his circus-elf tricks.

HBT3-fs-346534.DNG(None of this is a knock on the actors—most of them are doing a fine job by this point, whether they’re new to the franchise or dusting off their old LOTR robes. But these days, even more so than a decade ago, the mostly British Commonwealth actors know what they’re getting into when they sign on for a multi-film blockbuster CGI action franchise.

(They know what is and is not expected of them as performers and what depths and nuances their character will, or more likely will not, have. They show up, do their thing as best they can, passionately emoting in front of green screens, and hope their performances aren’t entirely swallowed up in the spectacle. And yes, I enjoyed Billy Connelly’s bawdy Dain despite myself–I can’t resist Connelly’s lovable Scottish brogue.)

What’s most egregious is that with Bilbo having to cede most of his screen time to Thorin, Bard, and Legolas, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies ends up being much more martial; all about the battle rather than about Bilbo’s reaction to it. As in Jackson’s LOTR films, there are massive marching armies of CGI orcs, stunning martial spectacle and giant battle beats (including leaping elf warriors, walking troll catapult/tanks, and big heroic Aragorn-esqe charges). The abandoned town of Dale gets re-jiggered into a mini Minas Tirith, complete with innocent families and children under siege. And it all winds up with a big, protracted dwarfo-e-orco throw down on a frozen lake between Thorin and Big Bald Baddie Bolg (John Tui).

HBT3-fs-341051.DNGTolkien wrote The Hobbit after having fought in The Great War and seeing the futility of a senseless war fought primarily out of misguided and arbitrary alliances, historical claims, and petty greed. In contrast, Lord of the Rings was written after World War II and it is a very different book, especially in how Tolkien, post-Hitler, views the sometime need for a “Good War” to put a stop to a Great Evil whose quest for deadly power threatens the entire world. LOTR is pro-war; The Hobbit is very much not.

Like Return of the King, The Battle of the Fire Armies is, as its subtitle suggests, a war film. But where Return of the King earned its battles–the LOTR trilogy is essentially about the march to war–the massive martial excess of Battle of the Five Armies feels forced and artificial, super-sized just so it feels more like Return of the King.

In re-reading parts of The Hobbit last week, I was reminded how little emphasis Tolkien puts on wars and fighting in the novel—despite his first-hand experience, being properly British, the author politely, reservedly never dwells on the shock and horror of war. His novel doesn’t linger over exciting battle scenes, strategic details, or grand heroics—instead we hear of the entire War of the Five Armies only in hindsight from Bilbo’s sorrowful point of view.

It’s also obvious that what truly mattered to Tolkien, where his prose loved to dwell, were the many scenes of comfort and security around the hearth of a protected home, be it Beorn’s or Elrond’s, or Bilbo’s own Bag End. In his post-war adulthood, Tolkien cared more about appreciating a safe, warm peaceful place between the adventures. Of course he enjoyed weaving tales of all the heroic figures and the battles they fought to make that peace possible, but he knew better than to emphasize them over the simple pleasures of a pipe by the fireplace.

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIESThese days films—especially big “event” films—are seen as entertainment only, and in order to entertain big audiences, that means either big love or big war. (Or preferably both.)

Constant fighting and giant battles sell giant numbers of tickets, and unlike the LOTR films, these Hobbit films feel driven only by that need to sell tickets. That’s why I ultimately dislike them and mourn the wonderful opportunities they missed. It’s not so much the choices Jackson made, but why, apparently, he made them.

Tolkien wrote with sad resignation about how the Age of Man, with its increasingly industrialized world (including its warfare), was slowly pushing aside both the epic myth and magic of the elves and the pastoral simplicity of the Shire and its agrarian hobbits. With Battle of the Five Armies, it’s clear these new Hobbit films are made by and for men, not hobbits.

Interview: The Imitation Game‘s Writer Graham Moore and Director Morten Tyldum

TheImitationGame-BCpair 3During World War II, British mathematician Alan Turing and a secret team of cryptologists eventually succeeded in using an early electronic computing machine to crack the seemingly uncrackable German Enigma machine code and help bring the war to a swifter close.

In 1952, Turing, his immeasurable contribution to the British war effort still a state secret, was arrested and charged with gross indecency under Britain’s laws against homosexuality.

It is that tragic juxtaposition of Turing’s professional and private life that has made him a posthumous hero to both computer scientists as well as gay-rights activists. It’s also what drew young screenwriter Graham Moore to Turing’s story.

Moore’s script for The Imitation Game is based on Andrew Hodges’ book Alan Turing: The Enigma, and takes its name from the famous Turing test that measures how well an artificial intelligence can mimic human thought and behavior–an especially resonant notion for Turing, who not only had to mask his sexuality, but is suspected by some to have been somewhere on the autism spectrum.

Sliding back and forth in time between Turing’s war experiences, his teen years in school, and his questioning by police in 1952, The Imitation Game is directed by Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) and stars Benedict Cumberbatch in what is sure to be an Oscar-nominated performance. The film also stars Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, and Charles Dance.

Another writer and I sat down in Chicago a few weeks ago with both writer Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum about their film and both its historical and human subjects.

The Imitation Game is currently playing in select theaters and will be expanding wider in coming weeks.

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csm_The_Imitation_Game_ac48e5e39eGraham, how did you end up writing this biopic?

Graham Moore: In a lot of ways, I wanted to write about Alan Turing my entire life. I was a huge computer nerd when I was a teenager; I went to Space Camp and computer programming camp. My parents were like, “Who are you, where’d you come from, who are your real parents?”

Among nerdy awkward computer-y teenagers, Alan Turing is sort of this patron saint. He is this tremendous inspirational symbol of this sort of secret queer history of the Second World War, the secret history of computer science that has been whitewashed out of the official record.

I always wanted to write about him, and then I actually met our producers Nora Grossman and Peter Heslop randomly at a party one day after I had moved to LA and become a writer. I heard Nora talking in the kitchen, saying, “Oh, I just optioned this book,” and I asked what was it about, and she said, “this mathematician, you’ve never heard of him… “ and I said, “I know a little bit about math, who is it? and she said, “Alan Turing,” and I instantly pounced on her and began this totally insufferable twenty minute monologue. “Oh my god, I know everything about Alan Turing, please let me do this, I’ll do this for free” and so on. And she started backing away from me like, “Who is this psycho, who invited him?” They brought me on, and we started working on the screenplay, and that screenplay found its way to Mr. Morten Tyldum.

Was this your first major screenplay?

Moore: It was not the first one that I’ve written, but it is the first one to be produced. It was relatively early, and it was the first one that I had gotten really any notice in the industry. I would call my agents and say, “Hey I am going to write this story about a gay mathematician in the 1940s,” and they were like, “No, you’re not,” that it was career suicide, or that no one would make the story. But I just think it’s the most important story, and it needs to be told and it needs to be told on screen. We were so grateful after we had a couple drafts and would show it to people, and we got the movie made, which has been tremendous.

How much of the math covered in the film did you guys personally understand?

Morten Tyldum: We definitely had experts. I thought I was good at math… but… [laughs]

TheImitationGame_1106_CourtesyTheWeinsteinCompany.jpg.644x433_q100

Moore: Well, compared to Alan Turing …

Tyldum: That’s the thing, that it is incredibly complicated. I wanted to try and understand how the machine worked. So we had this lecture, and everybody who was going to explain the machine had panic in their eyes, because it’s so complicated. When they started to explain it, that panic went over to us, and me and Benedict [Cumberbatch] looked at each other like, “Holy shit…” You get real lost.

I think Alan Turing is as important as a philosopher as a mathematician in many ways. His ideas about what it means to think, what it means to be alive. He was obsessive about artificial intelligence and artificial life—I find those ideas a lot easier to grasp onto. He was a great humanitarian. Those ideas are very fascinating to me.

It’s one thing to understand it, but the other challenge is that you are trying to be accurate to the process of cracking Enigma, but at the same time make it into a thrilling, engaging scene. But the things that are in the movie are true. Enigma was un-crackable—it was brilliant, so you have to find the human flaw in the system. You have to lock onto that. That is Turing’s genius.

How does the story of Turing and his fellow code breakers reflect your own experience in making this movie?

Moore: When we were making the movie we were like this band of obsessives, very committed people freezing half-to-death in the south of England.

Tyldum: It was a small budget movie, and I think it was very relatable. We had this tremendous time pressure—we shot the whole thing in eight weeks. It became this very tight-knit family that was on a mission, because everyone wanted to do justice to this man. Everyone was super-prepared, and we had all of these phenomenal actors who wanted to come on board. They were super-dedicated, and everyone wanted the other to shine, even if they were off-camera doing off-camera acting—they really delivered great performances.

THE IMITATION GAMEHow did you approach the suggestions that Turing was Autistic to some degree?

Tyldum: Benedict made a very deliberate choice not to act it that way. It can be read as a type of autism, but what does that mean? First of all, we didn’t want to put a label on it because that goes against everything the movie is trying to celebrate. He was unique, and because he was unique, he was able to think unique ideas and unique thoughts that nobody else had.

Moore: Anytime you diagnose someone after the fact, it’s murky, and we didn’t want to do that. But at the same time, we heard all of these famous stories from people in Bletchley Park where he’d be in the middle of a conversation and someone said something that he already knew, he would just turn around and walk away. He was only engaged in conversations to the point that someone was giving him information—he has this voracious appetite for information. He was just a completely unique individual as Morten said; I think that’s what we were going for.

Tyldum: He was hard to work with, but he also came with a sense of humor. There are things that I wish we could have gotten in the movie, like that he was allergic to pollen. He liked to bike around with a gas mask on. He was odd, but he didn’t care.

Moore: The thing with the bike makes me think that he had this mind that was constantly moving, constantly inventing stuff, and that’s what Benedict did such a wonderful job at, showing this mind that’s going so much faster than his mouth could ever express. I remember there was something that Benedict said on day one of rehearsals. “I don’t think Alan Turing had Asperger’s; I think that he’s physically capable of understanding the thoughts of feelings of other people, I just think his mind is on something more important, he’s just thinking of something else.” But then when he gets to the more tender scenes with Joan [Knightley], when he does latch on emotionally, he is passionate and emotional and sweet and caring. It’s this full range of emotional expression.

Turing-arrestedThis is a very British story, both in its triumphs and its tragedy, but Graham, you’re American, Morten, you’re Norwegian.  Was it a disadvantage or liberating to not be British? 

Tyldum: It’s a huge responsibility. There’s part of it which is challenging because you have to really do your research, and you have people saying, “how open with emotion will he be?” because they’re British, and it’s the 1940s. And at the same time it’s nice to be an outsider, because the movie is about outsiders looking in. I think being outsiders ourselves looking in actually helps to clarify that point.

We didn’t want to be bogged down by a dusty history lesson, which it easily could have been. It could have sort of embraced the Britishness of it, but that would have been too much; it would have been insanely boring. [Laughs] I think we gave it a spark that liberated it a bit, and hopefully that will give it a wider audience.

You have that obligation to be true to what happened, which we were. And at the same time, we have an obligation to really spread his legacy wide. He deserves a big audience; the world needs to know what he did and his staggering achievements. It was important for us to have humor in it and make it a thrilling story.

We wanted to tell the story as a mystery: Who is Alan Turing? Because that’s how it is for most people, how it was for me when I came to this project. We wanted it to be a puzzle, as he was obsessed with puzzles—so you puzzle him together.

How did you both balance Alan’s personal journey with the story of how his work with others changed the course of the war?

Imitation-Game-2-Vogue-31Oct14-pr_bMoore: I think one of the things from the beginning of the process of working on it that really felt like it unlocked the story for me, felt to be the core of the story for me, was this concept of the imitation game, and the idea that in the imitation game, you have this amazing connection and inspiration between his very extremely complicated and difficult mathematical and theoretical and cryptographic work and his personal struggle.

The idea of the imitation game as he proposed it is we are only what we can convince what we are; we are human to the degree that we can convince someone else that we are human. For a statement like that to come from a closeted gay man in Britain in the 1950s is remarkable.

And that statement is the underpinning of his other cryptographical and computational work, for his computer science and AI work, and it’s a statement that I think could only have been made by a closeted gay man. I think only a man going through that could see the world in such a different way, and have such a new attitude on it. And that linking of the personal of the mathematic and cryptographic was the core for both of us.

In regards to the devastating end of Turing, what were you thinking was most important when it came to landing the story on a certain note, but dramatically respect it?

The-Imitation-Game-Lenigma-di-un-genio-primo-poster-italiano-del-biopic-con-Benedict-Cumberbatch-2Moore: Yeah, the final scene between Alan and Joan was the scene we did the most number of drafts of; I think we did 10 or 20 drafts of that. Because we knew what we were building towards, and we knew that Alan Turing’s story has a tragic end.

And we knew that we wanted to approach that sensitively and delicately and portray what happened to him and the tragedy of that; we really wanted to watch this vibrant, brilliant mind slowly be extinguished under this terrible medical treatment, under societal pressures and the public shaming that happened to him.

Tyldum: And the key thing is we wanted to make a scene where Joan tells him what we ourselves today want to tell him on his last day. That is for me the core of that scene—if somebody could sit down and say those words to him, which nobody did. “This is what you did.”

Interview: Foxcatcher Director Bennett Miller

MV5BMTQ2MjQxNjYxOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzIwODUxMzE@._V1_SX640_SY720_Director Bennett Miller has been collecting praise for his smart, restrained film-making since his debut documentary The Cruise in 1998, through his Oscar-nominated Capote in 2005, and 2011’s Moneyball.

Miller’s latest film, Foxcatcher (written by E. Max Frye and Capote writer Dan Futterman) is yet another look at real-life characters, this time the Olympic-medal-winning wrestlers, brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) and their tragic relationship with John du Pont (Steve Carell), a member of the wealthy du Pont family and a fanatical financial supporter of U.S. Olympic wrestling. Both Schultz brothers and other wrestlers lived on du Pont’s Pennsylvania Foxcatcher farm while training for the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Quietly, broodingly examining themes like the subculture and psychological currents of wrestling; Reagan-era patriotism among the super-rich; how ambition, obsession, and ego fuel the American Dream; and even the power of guns and the military industrial complex in our nation’s psyche, the film is brilliant, one of the best of the year. And while you’ll hear a lot about Carell’s astounding performance and physical transformation, Tatum and especially Ruffalo both also completely vanish inside their characters, in part thanks to Miller’s nuanced, minimalist approach.

Miller is one of my favorite directors working today, so I was thrilled when I and another writer got to sit down with him in Chicago a few weeks ago to talk about Foxcatcher and his approach to film making and storytelling.

Foxcatcher opens today nationwide.

(Spoiler warning: The following interview contains references to the film’s conclusion, based on the real events of 1996.)

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4a4d05eafce65cbc6dd983f9cffbc3a962e378b1All your films have centered on real people, real stories. What draws you to a subject?

Bennett Miller: You’d think I’d have a stock answer by this point, but I really don’t. Now that I’ve made four films, I can look back and begin to notice patterns, but going into a project I never think about that.

Looking back I’d say I’m attracted to outsider characters. I’m attracted to people who are in worlds where they do not belong, people from different worlds trying to operate together. Every one of my films has a person where he does not really belong with some great ambition. That only occurred to me recently when someone pointed it out. I’m attracted to these outsider characters.

What was it about the world of wrestling that caught your attention?

Miller: Just that it’s a weirdo sport, it’s a subculture. People who wrestle belong to a sect. I knew nothing about wrestling, I don’t know anybody who wrestles, and it just seemed like a weird, odd thing. I was of course drawn in by the story, the oddity of one of the wealthiest men in America having this sect move onto his property with some declarative goal, some huge, patriotic ambition, and it ending tragically, that was all just too much to resist.

WireAP_451032a832da43ea820f9bb936a2b228_16x9_992Of course, once I started researching and getting to know about wrestling, I realized that it’s an amazing sport, and I began to understand why it’s not a popular sport, and I think it has something to do with the fact that it’s hard to understand and appreciate.

It’s not like boxing where it’s pretty clear what’s going on, not that boxing doesn’t have its nuances. It’s really more like chess, and you have to be trained to grasp what’s going on to appreciate the sport, but you also need to learn about the fraternity and the community of wrestlers and the common virtues that they share, the absence of material reward.

You’re not going to get rich or famous off wrestling, period. Therefore the reasons to pursue this, possibly the most difficult sport in the world, have to be for intrinsic values of it, and that’s fascinating. Who does that? Not for the extrinsic award, which is more the interest of someone like du Pont, who is just going to take this sport of fraternity and virtue and try to exploit it for his own personal gain.

DuPont feels like a collector, a dilettante buying his way in.

Miller: It’s very similar to what his mother did. She had her stable of horses, and he had his stable of wrestlers, and they both compete and win ribbons.

What I love about the film is that it starts out examining the mysterious motivations behind this event, but in the end these characters feel even more unknowable to us.

foxcatcher-cannes-2014-4Miller: I do think about learning without concluding. The film doesn’t tell a story so much as it observes a story, and I think there is a temptation to make conclusions along the way, to put a point on things, and this is not that.

The film restrains itself from simplifying with conclusions, good or evil, with labels. The moment you make a conclusion about something, by definition you’ve stopped thinking.

Everything that we might know about these themes that are woven throughout this story, from class and wealth and entitlement… I didn’t want to just regurgitate an attitude about any of these things, but to look at where the rubber hits the road with these classes, and try to observe in an unflinching way something that isn’t always easy to look at. Because we want to get there and have that opinion about it, but my feeling is that if you can discipline yourself to not react like that and to look past things, then there are discoveries to be made that are otherwise obscured by the polarizing impulses.

When researching all the lurid and sensationalist stuff that was written in the media about this story 18 years ago, how did you sift out the human connection?

foxcatcher-bandireMiller: It was from talking to everybody at length, over long stretches of time. Conversations that began eight years ago and continued through the edit, with Mark Schultz, with Nancy Schultz, with Nancy’s kids, with the police who worked on the estate, with the son of John’s mother’s chauffeur who was paid to be John’s friend, with the many, many wrestlers who were down at Foxcatcher farms, who were close to Dave.

Just dozens of people, and just cultivating relationships with all of these people. At any moment I could just call them up and in certain cases, meet. I flew around going wrestling tournaments where all these guys meet.

Carell and Ruffalo are so unbelievably good, but what struck you about Channing Tatum, who’s also fantastic, that made you want him as your lead?

Miller: I offered him the part to him eight years ago after seeing A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. I offered him the part before there was a script. I saw that film, and I said, “Holy shit. This guy is electric, and dangerous, and dangerous in the way he doesn’t even realize himself, and he’s a fully realized character, who can’t possibly understand how the world is seeing him.” And it was a role that he was playing that was really not similar to Channing at all. This is eight years ago, out of the gate. He really had an extraordinary performance in that film, and physicality. I offered him the part then.

It took six years to get to day one of principal photography on this film, and in that time, other roles came along, and his career had taken a totally different path. But to be honest I didn’t really watch much of those films, but I was convinced that whatever that was in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, I’m sure it’s still there.

FOXCATCHERAnd when it was time to get the film going again and I revisited it with him, his level of commitment, seriousness, and intelligence about it was all very convincing. All of those other roles were just way-off in my periphery, I didn’t even look at it.

Mark is the center of the film, and yet he is more withdrawn and silent than Dave and John, on whom the story eventually turns. Was that a challenge?

Miller: It seemed sort of, in a way, obvious. It would have been possible to have made this film without Mark Schultz at all, it could have simply been the Dave Schultz and John du Pont story. In fact many involved with the story itself were surprised that Mark was even featured in the movie at all, much less the center of it.

But as I researched the story, it just seemed clear that this relationship between du Pont and Mark, followed by du Pont and Dave, followed by what happened, was the story. And understanding these characters through the Mark and du Pont relationship seemed to make sense. And the fact that he is animalistic and not communicative is also part of the film, it’s also part of the point, it’s another theme in the movie of male non-communication.

FRANCE-ENTERTAINMENT-CANNES-FILM-FESTIVALOne of Foxcatcher’s key creative forces is Megan Ellison, producer of True Grit, Killing Them Softly, Zero Dark Thirty, Spring Breakers, Her, American Hustle, and The Master. Was her influence on Foxcatcher different from your previous collaborations with producers?

Miller: When you work with Megan, there’s no possibility of being at odds with competing interests. If you’re working in film, you have to be financed, which means that there is a collaboration with an entity that has separate interests. Your interests cannot be identical.

Everybody wants a great movie, but that’s not the whole of it. Nobody wants to lose money, but with Megan—she doesn’t want to lose money either—but once she commits to something, the governing principle comes from her desire for it to be everything that it’s meant to be. That’s it.

We were meant to release this movie last year, and we needed a few more months. I think we were all prepared to bear down and get it done, and it was Megan who made the decision that the film would benefit, despite some additional expenses, from more time to gestate. That is the mark of a producer. She actually led that. It also can be crazy-making if the competing interests of those who have a financial stake in the film are broadcasting their anxiety over creative decisions. Doesn’t mean you’re gonna give in, but I think the process is truly exceptional with Megan because your interests are the same.

Did the film change during that extra post-production time?

FOXCATCHERMiller: The way I make all of my films so far has been very similar in that it’s a process of experiment and discovery from beginning until end, and you’ve got three major periods to get it right: In the conception with development and writing, the shooting, and post-production.

Throughout all three stages, in the engineering of the film, every beat is constantly being challenged and questioned, but the initial conception of the film, the character and the spirit of it, I think remained consistent.

But how it materialized, and how it was to incarnate, is what is explored and discovered. But it really did begin with that feeling that you have for a film when you walk out of it. That’s what you get possessed with, and you’re looking for a way for that to materialize. The whole process remains fluid from beginning to end. It’s really constantly questioning, blowing it up, putting it back together.

In terms of film making, style, and storytelling, your films always seem to pull back from giving the audience what it wants or expects. Is that something you’re very conscious of and working towards?

Miller: Yeah, without a doubt. The austere style that observes but not tell. I think the other thing is boring, I really do. I don’t need to see one more romanticized version of any story ever for the rest of my life, I really don’t. I don’t need those tingly feelings. I think that we can all do with a healthy dose of disillusionment. Disillusionment isn’t a bad thing, it means enlightenment.

FOXCATCHEREntertainment is entertainment, and there is absolutely a value and a place for it, and I don’t condemn any of it, but for me, personally, what I find satisfying is to be challenged and to see something that’s provocative and truthful and is not putting me on and pushing my buttons, selling me some romanticized shtick that makes me feel sweet and tingly about something.

This is not the main reason or the motivation for this story, but a part of the added interest for me that it was a story that was covered by the media. The news trucks raced down to Du Pont’s mansion, and there were also a couple of books written about it. And the version that does enter into the airwaves has a particular nature to it. It is a sensational thing that we can consume like potato chips.

But when I started researching and flying around and meeting everybody who had anything to do with the story, I discovered, A) the aspects of the story that were completely neglected in any coverage of it, and B) the things that really only cinema can convey. Cinema can shine a light where no other medium can, and so it’s not just the story or the facts, but it’s a three-dimensional complex of art forms that can realize a story.

chilling-first-trailer-for-foxcatcher-with-steve-carell-3I’m thinking of something that one of Dave Schultz’s friends said to me yesterday at a screening at Philadelphia with Dave Schultz’s widow and the prosecutors and many of the wrestlers who’d lived on the farm.

I started getting people’s responses from the movie, and one of Dave’s really close friends said to me that he was there the day of the shooting, and though he knew the story inside and out, for him the film made it more real than what happened, because cinema is experiential.

Interview: America the Beautiful 3 Director Darryl Roberts

ATB3Poster2-1149624495827MV5BMTUzNDQzOTE5OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjE2NTAzOA@@._V1_SY317_CR17,0,214,317_AL_A couple years ago I spoke with local Chicago documentary film maker Darryl Roberts about his film America the Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments, the second in his ongoing series about our modern culture’s ideas of and obsession with beauty and our sometimes warped self-images.

Roberts’ latest documentary is America the Beautiful 3: The Sexualization of Our Youth. The film examines the effect Internet pornography and sexualized advertising and marketing, as well as things like changing standards of sexual content on television and the growing popularity of beauty pageants for the very young have on the still immature minds and psyches of the younger generation, including what Roberts sees as a rise in sexual assault, teen pregnancy, and depression and suicide.

I sat down with Roberts in Chicago last week to talk about America the Beautiful 3: The Sexualization of Our Youth. I think his new film raises serious concerns and questions that we as a society should be thinking about. However, I have issues with some of his film’s connections and conclusions, several of which I brought up with him in our interview below. (One point I did not have time to ask him about was a segment of the film that examines and praises the work of the Parents Television Council.)

America the Beautiful 3: The Sexualization of Our Youth is playing at select theaters across the country. Screening dates and details can be found at the film’s website.

_________

Pageant-Girls-p193o8rbgmsf21pll1t781oe7j6pYour first two films were about our societal standards of beauty and our obsession with dieting. How do you chose your topics and what brought you to this new one?

Darryl Roberts: I talk to and listen to a lot of young people about what’s affecting them. Either I look and see or they tell me through a newsletter I send out to several thousands of high school and college students. They respond and I hear different issues.

This one was weird. It came from a different source. I was thinking about the celebrity culture, Rhianna, Beyonce, Kim Kardashian, and I thought it must be tough being a kid today in this sexualized world that’s so different from when I was growing up. And that got me thinking about my best friend from childhood, Saveen. So I searched for him on the Internet and found out he’s a registered sex offender.

That started the process and sent my mind in a certain direction. I found the American Psychological Association report “The Sexualization of Girls.” It talked about how the amount of sexualized advertising is creating a mental health crisis among young girls. From there, I knew this would be the topic of this film.

I’m fascinated by the effect, good or bad, that the Internet, social media, and increasing online interaction is having on us as a society, especially on the next generation. But when it comes to pornography, what do you feel is the difference for today’s younger generation? Is it amount, or the type, or its availability?

darryl-robertsRoberts: I can speak from my own personal experience. When I was 15, I was strung out on pornography. Every two or three weeks I’d be fortunate enough to be home at the right time to sneak the Playboy out from under my father’s bed. You couldn’t buy Hustler, Penthouse, or Playboy in a store—they had wrappers around them.

When I was 16, I had a mustache and beard, so I could get into an X-rated movie theater at State and Lake, called the Shangri-la. But porn then was the equivalent of a Playboy movie now. I perceived it as loving and all it made me want to do is have sex with my girlfriend.

But today it’s not just the accessibility, but the “gonzo” porn. It makes you not respect women and look at them as if they’re not human. That’s the difference.

So you feel it’s an overload, a lack of self-imposed moderation in our culture today? Your film raises some very disturbing questions about the effect of pornography on an immature brain.

Roberts: When you talk about overload and all of it, what I’ve come to believe the answer is what we don’t have in America, which makes us different from Europe and Canada. You don’t see those stats with STDs and teen pregnancy, I think it’s because we’re based on this puritanical foundation. Adults and parents don’t have a clue as to what it means to have a healthy sexuality.

A teenager today is being overloaded, coming across those images with their hormones raging. They’re searching, and they don’t have a parent who can step in and lay a foundation as to what it means to have a healthy sexuality. When you search, you’re going to find something.

AR-141129942.jpg&updated=201411192102&maxw=1024&maxh=1024Imagine if, when you’re 11, you’re taught what it means to have a healthy sexuality. Then you have a personal filter with which to gage everything you see. Then some of this porn won’t be okay with you, it won’t fit into the construct of your values system. That’s how I think young kids could get through the overload and cope, but it’s not happening.

But even though the media, sexual, and pornographic landscape is so very, very different for teens today, couldn’t we also ask if today’s youth, having grown up on the Internet, are better at processing and putting it all in perspective?

Yes, some of the people in your film appear to be cautionary tales about warped perspectives, but those sorts of messed-up people have always been around. Young wanna-be starlets going to Hollywood to be movie stars and ending up doing porn isn’t a new tale. On the more positive side, some of the more-activism-minded young people you talk to in the film are incredibly aware and articulate for 12-year-olds.

Roberts: I felt exactly like you, but as I continued to think about it… and I thought what has gone wrong in our society where 12-year-old girls have to be worried about raising money for rape awareness. That shouldn’t even be in her mind.

But can’t that also be seen as positive and empowering, that young people today talk about these issues, address them, and work to fight them? I just feel like every single older generation in history has freaked out about the things the younger generation knows and has to cope with. Maybe this is a rare case of me being Pollyanna-ish, but I want to believe that the next generation is smarter and more socially enlightened about things like positive sexuality versus negative objectification and abuse. And I don’t think we can say just yet, after only 10-15 years of the Internet and social media if the negative effects are greater than the new positive effects.

america-the-beautiful-3-cali-linstrom1Roberts: I see it so clearly now, the Internet is making them less communicative with each other. For them now, texting and Facebook is like when we were growing up and meeting at a coffee shop. Their definition of a friend is electronic now, which I think makes them emotionally more distant. And think about where that’s going to keep going over the next 30 years.

I absolutely agree that humans need real, in-person interaction, that things like reading body language and learning social skills are important. But I also feel that the next generations will slowly figure that out and adjust.

Roberts: I think we’re screwed. I’m around college students all the time, and I don’t see them doing any of this soul-searching. Because our culture devalues aging, they assume their way is how it should be and our way is just old.

Oh come on, we all felt that way about adults 30 years ago when we were in our teens and 20s.

Roberts: That’s true [laughs]

I always worry when I catch myself saying and thinking along the nostalgic lines of, “Well, when I was a kid, things were nicer” and your film does do a lot of that from your own personal perspective. I know any documentary needs personal angles, personal stories to entertain and engage the viewer emotionally, but there is always the danger of drawing broader cultural conclusions from a handful of individual, emotional cautionary tales.

DarrylRoberts: As I get into these films, I really think about the past a lot because I’m seeing the struggles our youth are having. I like the personal stories.

But isn’t there a danger that we, being emotional beings, tend to believe things with our hearts instead of our heads? Emotional anecdotes feel more “true” to us than actual statistics, most of which tell us that our society, our civilization is actually improving with each generation.

Roberts: I look at statistics as being not devoid of reality, but devoid of what’s real. For example, there’s a statistic out now that teen pregnancies are on the decline. But what you haven’t heard is that statistic is going down because the age group 15 to 17 is becoming more abstinent, so on a weighted scale, they’re bringing it down. But what they don’t tell you is that from 11 to 14, that teen pregnancy statistic is rising. This is why I don’t really like statistics, I like to capture what’s really going on in a society.

My point is that as a society, I don’t think it’s wise to try to give the impression that what we’re doing, with safe sex, is working, when in reality, teen sex is rising in the youngest part of that demographic. That says something’s wrong. So the stat sounds positive, but when you look at reality, you see there’s a problem if the older people are doing it less, but the younger people are doing it more. That is a problem in our society.

But I always wonder if all the horrible things we see and hear about today on the Internet and 24-hour cable news, are they really worse than things were in the past  or are we just hearing about it more, more aware of it, and maybe people are more open about talking about and reporting once “silent” issues like harassment, rape, abuse, depression, etc.?

200568951-002Roberts: Let’s say you have 100 people who have the tendency to be a bully. Maybe in the past a third of them would actually have the balls to bully somebody. Now, thanks to the Internet, not 100 but 200 of them will just do it. Now you can be a coward and do it. Before you didn’t have a way to be a coward, you had to come out and do it. So cyber-bullying is really big now.

Maybe, but it seems as if in the past 5-10 years, everyone, including young people, have developed coping skills for dealing with online bullies, trolls, and assholes. Aren’t kids today learning and teaching and supporting each other more? Don’t many of them learn at a much younger age than we did to just shrug and ignore it?

Roberts: But some people kill themselves over it.

But depression and suicidal reactions to bullying existed before, we just didn’t hear about it all the time. People didn’t feel comfortable talking about their depression or their having been bullied.

2013-09-30-Cali2Roberts: You think it’s just the same and all the Internet is doing is letting us see it’s there? You don’t think it’s amplified?

I do think it’s amplified by the Internet—whether we’re talking about pornography or bullying–but I don’t know if that amplification is as great or as destructive as we folks in our 40s and 50s feel it is.

I know the Internet didn’t create any of this, it didn’t create bullying, or depression, or pornography. Maybe you’re right about the overload, maybe there will be long-term societal damage from that overload. But I feel like that alarm’s been raised by every older generation for eons.

And I think the next generation, the one growing up on the Internet from toddler-hood, is teaching itself to adapt to it and deal with it all in more perspective, talking about it, fighting it, and with more of a healthy dismissal of it, than maybe us middle-aged folks are.

“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
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