Interview: Third Person Writer-director Paul Haggis

Paul+Haggis+Third+Person+Premieres+LA+IAVDNomvzOYl third-person-posterPaul Haggis spent two decades in the trenches writing for sit-coms like Diff’rent Strokes, One Day at a Time, Who’s the Boss, and Facts of Life and TV dramas such as LA Law, thirtysomething, and Walker Texas Ranger.

But ten years ago, Haggis broke out big as a film writer, with back-to-back Best Original Screenplay Oscars for Million Dollar Baby and Crash (which he also directed).

Since then, he’s written more scripts for Clint Eastwood (Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima) and the rebooted James Bond franchise (Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace) as well as written and directed In the Valley of Elah and The Next Three Days.

Haggis’ latest film, Third Person, returns to the multiple plot-line structure of the Oscar-winning Crash, with three seemingly separate stories unfolding in three cities:

  • In Paris, an author (Liam Neeson) tries to write while juggling the emotional needs (and tragedies) of his ex-wife (Kim Basinger) and current lover (Olivia Wilde).
  • In Rome, a shady businessman (Adrien Brody) is drawn to a gypsy woman (Moran Atias) and her dark (and sometimes darkly comic) quest to ransom her daughter back from a crime lord.
  • And in New York, a once-popular actress (Mila Kunis) struggles to find even menial employment and regain custody of her son from his artist father James Franco.

I spoke with Haggis a few weeks ago in Chicago about writing about the writing process in Third Person; his own approaches as a writer and director; and writing about broken, “impossible” people struggling with love, forgiveness, and redemption.

Third Person opens today at select theaters. Read more »

Edge of Tomorrow: Cruise, Again and Again

edge-of-tomorrow_tom-cruiseI once reveled in mocking and deriding Tom Cruise for the obvious reasons: the shallow All-American Super-Jock swagger; the intense self-deprecatingly positivity; the mish-mash of film choices from soggily pretentious Oscar-lickers (Born on the Fourth of July, Rain Man, The Last Samurai) to cloying, image polishers (A Few Good Men, Jerry McGuire) to silly popcorn pandering (The Firm, Mission Impossible, and of course Interview with the Vampire).

Even when the actor took otherwise admirable steps to try something relatively daring with Eyes Wide Shut and Vanilla Sky, it still felt like the ridiculously handsome and charismatic quarterback slumming it in the theater department’s avant-garde spring production. (Like Glee’s Finn, without all the overdosing.) (To be fair, Kubrick reduced Cruise to a prop, but Kubrick reduced nearly all his actors to props.)

In the midst of this came the one truly brilliant Tom Cruise performance—the only post-Risky Business role that shows actual acting ability, as opposed to the usual wind-up charm masquerading in dress-up costumes as “Serious Acting!”

That was in P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia, and of course the irony there is that Cruise is so genuinely good in it because he appears to show us a glimpse of what I suspect is the Real Thomas Cruise Mapother IV: A vicious, insecure huckster constantly attacking at full speed to hide the dark emptiness within. In other words, his best came from simply letting slip the carefully constructed mask for a moment.

(The Runner Up would be his hilarious–and once again, I suspect self-revealing–Tropic Thunder cameo as a profane mad-dog studio exec.)

And of course there was the whole Scientology thing that frankly became so entwined with Cruise’s career and persona that it was impossible to tell if he was an actor who benefited from a made-up, sci-fi, long-con “religion” or a made-up, sci-fi, long-con “religion” spokesman posing as an actor to boost his sales of L. Ron’s starter kits. Read more »

Maleficent: Witches Be Crazy

maleficent-posterLast summer, upon surviving The Lone Ranger, I felt I’d finally come to some sort of Zen-like epiphany about these giant Disney marketing events masquerading as “movies”: They aren’t really films at all; not in any classic sense of what cinema is, what it means.

My weary separate peace with these packaged, pre-sold, cross-promoted, brand-leveraged, multi-quadrant, ledger assets hinges on the acquiescence that it’s okay to give up and just accept them as some sort of “promotional entertainment.”

In the most darkly brilliant of marketing feedback loops, they are driven by and then exist solely to perpetuate brand identity: namely that “Disney Magic.” Which of course, in turn, strengthens the corporate bottom line across all fields of merchandizing, broadcasting, and theme parking.

Look here what I went and wrote last summer about The Lone Ranger:

They are large. They are aggressively marketed spectacle. They are amusement rides built around merchandizing shelves. They are corporate ambition wrapped in franchise dreams. But they’re not bad films, because they’re not really films.

In trying to sub-categorize these behemoths, I’m desperately hoping to work some sort of mid-life end-run around the creeping cynicism that has all but engulfed my enjoyment of just about any expensive studio action-adventure-fantasy “entertainment” that revolves around big-star stunt casting and an overdose of hollow CGI “dazzle.” Read more »

Interview: Cold in July Writer-director Jim Mickle

MV5BMzg2MzM2NTk5M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjcwNjc4MDE@._V1._CR5.1875,2.622161865234375,801,1192.9090881347656_SY317_CR19,0,214,317_AL_cold-in-july-poster1-405x600Last fall I chatted with writer-director Jim Mickle about his cannibal-family horror film We Are What We Are.

As we discussed the style of that film, Mickle (who comes off incredibly nice and intellectually and artistically curious) mentioned that his next film was set in the ’80s and had a very different, more neon, visual palate.

That new film, the thriller Cold in July, is out now and it’s terrific; another great cinematic growth spurt for Mickle, who with his writing partner Nick Damici, also made 2010’s acclaimed vampire film Stake Land.

Based on the 1989 novel by Joe R. Lansdale, Cold in July weaves the taut Texas tale of quiet family man Richard Dane (Dexter‘s Michael C. Hall) whose shooting of an intruder in his home makes him the target of the dead man’s vengeful father, Russel (Sam Shepard), himself a newly released felon.

But little in Cold in July is exactly what it seems, including the film itself. As he struggles with having killed another human, Dane’s understanding of the incident widens to eventually include political and police corruption, a gruesome crime ring, and Don Johnson having a ball as a charming and colorful good ol’ boy bounty hunter named Jim Bob. Meanwhile, the film serves up a solid mix of humor, tension, and, yes, some horrific violence.

When I spoke again with Jim Mickle a few weeks ago on the phone, we talked about the appeal of Lansdale’s novel, getting into an ’80s thriller Southern Fried Noir groove, and working with veteran actors like Hall, Shepard, and Johnson.

Cold in July opens today in select theaters. Read more »

Interview: For No Good Reason Director Charlie Paul and Producer Lucy Paul

For-No-Good-Reason-poster1Lucy+Paul+No+Good+Reason+Portraits+Toronto+0KixNey0u7xlMost Americans know English artist Ralph Steadman through the splatter-mad satiric illustrations he did for Hunter S. Thompson’s books and articles, most famously 1971’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

That was certainly the case with me when I attended a Steadman (splatter) signing in London in 1986. But from there I came to love Steadman for his acidic political, social, and artistic radicalism–almost in spite of his place in the HST Gonzo mythos. Here was an artist who kept moving, searching, and changing, all while still poking, prodding, and attacking.

The new Steadman documentary For No Good Reason from husband-and-wife team Charlie (director) and Lucy (producer) Paul naturally explores the expected debauched Thompson tales, but it also focuses on Steadman’s work as a political and social cartoonist-commentator in the ’60s before and the ’90s after the Hunter adventures.

no-good-reason4Best of all, Charlie Paul set up a digital camera above Steadman’s work table a decade ago and collected, frame by frame, stop-action documentation of the artist’s controlled-madness painting and drawing style.

The result is a fascinating look at how Steadman creates intricately layered artistic order and meaning out of what often starts as a wild splash of ink on the page.

For No Good Reason is hosted by Johnny Depp, who has taken on the role–with genuine devotion, it seems–of the Keeper of Hunter’s Gonzo Legacy, and it features interviews with folks like Jann Wenner, Terry Gilliam, and Richard E. Grant, as well as plenty of archival footage of Steadman and Thompson. But at the documentary’s heart is Steadman’s art–the film not only beautifully captures his process but it lays out his legacy, even in the face of the artist’s own doubts.

I sat down with Charlie and Lucy Paul in Chicago a few weeks ago to talk about their film and our shared love of Ralph Steadman’s work.

For No Good Reason opens today in select theaters. Read more »

Interview: Actress-turned-nun Mother Dolores Hart

Dolores-Hart_cover0When you interview someone for an arts piece, there are numerous competing agendas at play, including:

1) What you, the interviewer, personally want to know, are curious about.

2) What you think is important for others to know.

3) What the average reader would probably find the most interesting, what will make the interview “pop.”

4) What will drive the highest readership/clicks/sales. (Hint: breaking news about new projects or revealed secrets, or a mid-interview meltdown of either subject or interviewer, or cats and nudity.)

5) What the subject is interested in talking about, what gets them excited.

6) What message the subject or studio’s publicity team wants you to help spread. (Not always the same as #5.)

So when I was offered the opportunity to talk to Mother Dolores Hart of the the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, I knew what the “story” was, the “big hook”: In the early ’60s Hart was a young, attractive actress on the rise, having famously starred with Elvis (in Loving You and King Creole), had a box-office hit with Where the Girls Are, and garnered acclaim for dramatic work in films like Wild is the Wind and Francis of Assisi.

dolores-hart-2-240But–and this is where the “big hook” comes in–in 1963, Hart answered what she felt was a higher, unavoidable calling and gave up her very promising Hollywood career and entered the Regina Laudis monastery as a Roman Catholic nun.

And so that became the story: Pretty young actress (who kissed Elvis!) becomes a nun. I even put it in the headline of this interview in hopes of getting you to read it.

Hart, now 75 and prioress of the Abbey of Regina Laudis, has been doing a promotional tour for the past year in support of her autobiography The Ear of the Heart: An Actress’ Journey From Hollywood to Holy Vows, as told to her lifelong friend Richard DeNeut.

The first half of the book is the typical Golden-Age Hollywood memoir, full of stories about Hart’s rise to fame, the mercurial personalities of producers, directors, and fellow actors, and of course, Elvis.

But the second half is set in Regina Laudis and details not just the questions of devotion and faith one struggles with when entering a religious life, but also the day-to-day life and activities of cloistered nuns, both sacred and mundane. (On the other hand, Hart remains a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.) Read more »

Interview: Blue Ruin Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier

Jeremy+Saulnier+Blue+Ruin+Photo+Call+Locarno+G7ZYQ0X29-8lBlue-Ruin-Poster-thumb-300xauto-46903At a time when we’re about to be overrun for the season by loud, dumb, nonsensical, pointless action bloat at the box office, a small, quiet, brutal film like Blue Ruin reminds us why genre still matters.

Funded in party by Kickstarter, Blue Ruin shows how something as simple and familiar as a rural revenge story can still sing out afresh in the hands of true original talent.

Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, Blue Ruin stars Saulnier’s long-time friend Macon Blair as Dwight, a hirsute homeless man whose wide, sad eyes suggest both present-day confusion and past emotional calamity. When he’s told the man who murdered his parents is getting out of prison, Dwight is driven from lost befuddlement to vengeful purpose, but never as successfully as superhuman heroes in action movies.

Blair is an impressive find in front of the camera–his Dwight is a stumbling child, both when covered in Manson-like hair and beard or cleaned up to reveal the weak chin of a department-store middle-manager.

But the film’s impressively solid, character-driven story and quietly compelling pensive tone is the work of second-time writer-director Saulnier, who simultaneously dives head-first into the revenge-thriller drama while completely subverting the genre’s often-shallow emotional tropes.

I sat down with Saulnier in Chicago last week, and we talked not just of our shared love of thoughtful and original-minded genre films but also our loathing for big, soulless, cruel violence-orgies like last summer’s abhorrent White House Down.

Blue Ruin is now playing in select theaters and is also available on demand. Read more »

Interview: John Turturro, Writer-director-star of Fading Gigolo

John+Turturro fadingAs an actor, John Turturro grabbed attention in the ’90s in films by Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Clockers, He Got Game, Girl 6, Summer of Sam, She Hate Me, and Miracle at St. Anna) and the Coen Brothers (Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother, Where Art Thou).

(Meanwhile, to a newer generation he may be best known for his appearances in the Transformers movies.)

However, Turturro has also always written and directed films of his own, including Mac (1992), Illuminata (1998), Romance & Cigarettes (2005), and the documentary about Italian music, Passione (2010). His latest project as writer, director, and actor is Fading Gigolo, a warm and gentle grown-up romantic comedy that also happens to be both mildly raunchy and profoundly humanistic.

In the R-rated Fading Gigolo, Turturro plays Fioravante, a quietly charming single man in Brooklyn who’s roped by his friend Murray (Woody Allen) into becoming a paid lover whose clients include Sharon Stone, Sofia Vergara, and Vanessa Paradis as Avigal, a shy and lonely, widowed Orthodox Jewish woman. (Liev Schrieber plays a neighborhood Shomrim safety patrol officer who’s jealously over-protective of Avigal.)

I sat down one-on-one with Turturro a few weeks ago in Chicago to talk about finding the film’s comedic tone, balancing the demands of the director with the needs of actors, and “artisanal” lovemaking.

Fading Gigolo opens today in select theaters. Read more »

Interview: Locke Writer-director Steven Knight

Steven+Knight+Locke posterThere’s always the danger with reductionist film making that sticking with a single character and/or  location–as in films like Castaway, Phone Booth, and Buried–will come off as more of a stunt than an actual film.

That’s certainly not the case in writer-director Steven Knight’s new film Locke, starring Tom Hardy as Ivan Locke, an ordinary man dealing over the phone with pressing matters of life, family, and job during a (nearly real-time) evening drive from Birmingham to London.

Though Locke is on the phone nearly continually with several people (including his wife and his boss), Hardy is the only actor on screen, and the film takes place almost entirely within his car.

Thanks, however, to Knight’s compelling script and its complex look at universal interpersonal themes about life, identity, and responsibility, and especially thanks to Hardy’s mesmerizing (and often unsettlingly “calm”) performance, Locke is much more than just a “gimmick” film–in fact, it’s one of the best films of the year, so far.

I sat down with Knight a few weeks ago in Chicago to talk about the film, the character of Ivan Locke and Tom Hardy’s performance, the shooting process, and the idea of “ordinary tragedy.”

Locke opens at select theaters today. Read more »

Interview: Walking with the Enemy Stars Jonas Armstrong and Simon Dutton

walking-with-the-enemy-poster-castDrawing on the real-life WWII heroics of Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum, Walking with the Enemy tells the story of Elek (Jonas Armstrong), a young Hungarian Jew who, in the final months of the war, donned an SS uniform and posed as a German officer in order to save hundreds of Jews in Budapest.

Working from his and Kenny Golde’s script, first-time director Mark Schmidt has woven an epic historical action-drama, expanding on the story of Elek (the Pinchas character) to include the larger efforts of the Budapest Jewish community and the Hungarian government (led by Ben Kingsley’s Regent Horthy) to resist the Nazi’s final genocidal attempts in the face of the approaching Soviet army.

In addition to the Irish Armstrong, Walking with the Enemy also stars English actor Simon Dutton as Miklos Schoen, a Jewish leader who worked with the Swiss government to get many Jews out of Budapest on Swiss passports.

I sat down with both Armstrong and Dutton in Chicago a few weeks ago to talk about the film and how they both approached playing real-life individuals caught up in the Holocaust.

Walking with the Enemy opens today in theaters in select cities. Read more »

“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