london film festival

Veteran Filmmaker BERNARD ROSE about Tolstoy, TWO JACKS, Two of his Favourite Directors and Two Lies They Tell in HOLLYWOOD!


I still remember the day  I first discovered a Bernard Rose film. It was Ivans xts, I randomly picked up a DVD copy at the Birkbeck Library and not being familiar with the filmmaker I had no expectations of it. To my great surprise, five minutes into the movie I was completely hooked, totally absorbed. I hadn’t seen anything like it before, it felt so raw, so fiercely authentic, it almost made you wonder “Is this a film or is it all happening right this moment and someone is broadcasting it live as I watch”?!!

Four years later I got to meet the director BERNARD ROSE in person at the screening of his new film, TWO JACKS, which had its London premiere at RAINDANCE FILM FESTIVAL in September 2013. Starring Danny Huston, Jack Huston, Sienna Miller and Jacqueline Bisset, Two Jacks has the same authentic, hyper-real quality that I so admired in Ivans xts. Also, both films are based on Tolstoy stories and interestingly enough, both films are set in LA. Do they work, you might ask? Yes they do, and Bernard kindly explains how…

This interview was taken on October 1, 2013 at Apollo Cinema, Piccadilly Circus, London. Julia Verdin, the producer of the film, was also present and contributed some very interesting insights.

Dana: I was very fascinated with this film, as with your previous Tolstoy adaptations, and I was trying to deconstruct what the fascination consists of…What are your thoughts on that?

Bernard: It’s a bit of a difficult one because obviously if I didn’t think it was interesting, I wouldn’t have made it. I don’t know, for me what is interesting about all these films is that they have an unusual mixture, it’s something that is very intrinsically Russian, transplanted to a very American setting. All of my Tolstoy adaptations are set in California, even Boxing Day which ends up in Colorado. The films are all set in LA, but they are all based on stories that are set in Russia. So they all have this strange cultural disconnect in a way. Russian culture is fate- and death-obsessed I would say, and American culture is absolutely the opposite, it’s in total denial of death and disbelief that there is such a thing as fate. The American credo is that you can form your own future, you can visualise your future and everything will come to you. So in a sense they are polar opposites.

Dana: This makes the film a sort of cultural paradox then.

Bernard: It is a paradox yes. Because both positions  are wrong in a sense, the Russian fatalism and the American optimism are both fantasy, they are both illusions, the truth is somewhere in between. So I think there’s an interesting thing that happens when you combine those two things, it makes the story seem different than if you did it in Russia or even in a German setting. And there is this element of improvisational looseness that is part of the story. One of the things I always liked about Tolstoy is that his style is very casual. Unlike say Dostoevsky who is meticulous, literary, intricate and with a very complicated style. Tolstoy is very simple, very direct and sometimes his literary style is almost a little bit slapdash, it’s not really great writing, even in the original, or so I’m told, I don’t read Russian. So this direct, unvarnished, unfussy style produces an odd texture…


Director Bernard Rose

Dana: In terms of content and form, you take a classic story and you shoot it in a cinéma vérité style…

Bernard: Right, and I think this is how Tolstoy viewed himself, as a realist. In many ways Tolstoy is a precursor for Hemingway who also had a simple, direct style. But what is brilliant about Tolstoy’s narrative tricks is that although his stories always seem simple, humanistic, he would always come up with a magic trick and land on a sort of grand spiritual plane almost effortlessly because he had that kind of mind as a storyteller. He was always looking at the bigger picture.

Dana: And I think this is what you managed to convey with the film, there is a sense of doom about it.

Bernard: Yes, there is a sense of doom and yet also a sense of something grander…

Dana: Yes, and maybe uplifting, I really loved the last scene…

Bernard: Which is not in the book by the way.

Dana: Why did you add it to the film?

Bernard: Because the end of the story is a little inconclusive, Tolstoy sort of rushes through it.The story ends with the son’s attempt to seduce the daughter and he kind of fails, he gets discovered and then there’s a sort of very fast epilogue which says basically what happened to him, that he fell out with his friend and they left town. Which didn’t seem like a very satisfying conclusion. So the third act is my invention and I got the father scene from the end of War and Peace.

Dana (cheekily): In one of your interviews you said you haven’t read this novel!

Bernard: (laughing) I’ve read parts of it, I haven’t read it all the way through. So at the end of War and Peace there is this little domestic scene with Andrey’s son, Andrey of course is long dead in the book and his son is there and this ghost just appears behind him and puts his hand on his shoulder.

Dana: A very nice “touch” for the final scene in Two Jacks


Danny Huston in Two Jacks

Bernard: Yes but it’s actually the end of War and Peace. Which not many people realise […], people think the end of the book is when Pierre goes off with Natasha, which is the end of the story but not the end of the book.

Dana: And in your film this scene is perfect because it tells us a lot about the father-son relationship, the fact that their personalities are so alike.

Bernard: Yes the scene works.

Dana: Technically speaking, despite its deliberately amateurish style, I paradoxically find no fault with this film, do you?

Bernard: It’s very dangerous to analyse…Because one of the things with doing a film in this manner, and with all the films in the Tolstoy series, is that they are deliberately imperfect technically, not because I try to make them that way but just because these are the circumstances of how it happened. And I think that if something is perfect, it’s dead.

Dana: Something Godard believed as well, he used to kick things around on the set to make it look less perfect.

Bernard: You have to. On this note, Isabella Rossellini told me a story, when she was married to Scorsese, at the time he was making Raging Bull. She said that he was cutting a scene in Raging Bull and he was  happy with it but he was very depressed, so she asked “What’s the problem, Martin?It’s a fantastic scene”, “Yeah, he says, it’s fantastic, but it’s perfect and that means it’s dead. But I don’t want to change anything, because I really like the way it is”. And he was confused as to what to do and eventually he arbitrarily snipped a frame out of the middle of it to make something imperfect about it.

Dana: There is something about imperfection that is so deeply human, I suppose, is that what it is?

Bernard: Yes. And when somebody tells you earnestly “I’m a perfectionist” what they are really saying is that they are an idiot (laughing). It means they are impossible to deal with, they are control freaks, they are horrible, get as far away from them as you possibly can! (laughing)

Dana: But in a sense Hollywood is all about perfection.

Bernard: Yes but in a sense the idea of perfection is an absurdity because perfection already clearly exists everywhere. So the idea that a piece of art can be perfect, is something that a tweaker would say. […] People have said Stanley Kubrick was a perfectionist. I don’t think he was a perfectionist, his work is full of really interesting mistakes. I think he knew very well that things couldn’t be perfect, he just tried to hedge his bets as much as possible. But he wasn’t a perfectionist, there are other people who fall under this category. But look at their work, it’s incredibly sterile, it’s not interesting at all.

Dana: And probably by doing take after take after take Kubrick was trying to capture something, rather than achieve perfection…

Bernard: In fact he kept them going until they were bad and he would use the bad take…So it was a form of insanity rather than perfectionism!

Dana: You have a long, winding, fascinating career behind you, what is the most important lesson you have learnt along the way?

Bernard: One of the most important lessons I learnt is that you can only make the films that you can make, you can’t make the films that people would prefer you to make. Because I simply wouldn’t know how to do them and if I tried to do them it usually ends in tears very quickly. Unless you’re doing something you feel really aligned with and very confident about, you can’t do a good job. For me, I can’t do it at all. Sometimes I found myself in this situation, trying to write a screenplay for people, and I start up thinking “Great, it’s a fabulous job, it will be fun to do”…

Dana: Are you writing screenplays for other people to shoot?

Bernard: Not necessarily for other people to shoot but studio projects or other people’s projects, or stuff that I’d thought I could get into…And when I actually got into it, I just didn’t know what to do with it, that happened to me, you can’t finish it. Or if you do finish it, it’s terrible. And then they are always really unhappy.

Dana: What’s life in Hollywood like?

ivans_xtc poster

Bernard: Well, it’s pretty much like in my movies…some of the time (laughing). Funnily enough I just gave up my apartment in Los Angeles, I’ve always liked LA just as a place, I think it’s an interesting place because it is very isolated, on one side there’s thousands of miles of water and on the other side there’s thousands of miles of desert, it’s really in the middle of nowhere. And yet it’s a huge metropolis and people there are very insular and inward-looking, and I think that’s an interesting combination. And I have a life there, a lot of people I know, like Julia (Julia Verdin, the producer of Two Jacks) for example, so I like being there. But I think increasingly I barely interact with the businesses there, and I don’t think anybody does, because it’s almost impossible to shoot a film in California now over a certain budget because it just doesn’t make any sense. Even a tiny film like this, you kind of need your head examined  to do it there. If you do it here you get tax rebates and investors can get tax rebates, the financial incentives are enormous, and they exist in other places in America but I don’t want to live in Louisiana, not because it’s a horrible place, I just don’t want to live there […]. When I first went to LA, you’d get up in the morning, or get up early or shooting, you’d be on the freeway and there’d be wagons and trailers and grit trucks and you’d see them all, and trains going down on the freeway…Now it’s all gone, they don’t shoot anything there anymore, except TV shows, and not many of them either…

Dana: And you’re not interested in TV shows?

Bernard: I might be but all the dramatic TV show are shot in Vancouver or New York or other places. They are not shot there. The only things they shoot there are talk shows and reality stuff. There’s a real danger of the infrastructure of the place falling apart because the production there has gone down so much, it’s become almost financially impossible now to make a film there, unless it’s a really tiny film. And there’s a lot more opportunity in Europe. At the moment the ideas I have are more European-based, so I think I’m going to spend more time in London and I’m going to try and do some stuff here. There’s a bigger film I’m going to make next year, and there’s some little films I’d like to do as well. I made a film in Germany last year, which was fun, in Munich and Vienna.

Dana: Which one was this?

Devil's ViolinistBernard: It was called The Devil’s Violonist. It’s about Paganini, it premieres in Munich on the 24th of October (2013) and we have a premiere in Vienna on the 28th. Two Jacks is opening in LA soon.

Dana: You have so many films opening. And you have another one in the London Film Festival.

Bernard: Yes, SX_Tape, opening on the 12th. But see that at your peril!It’s scary, it’s disturbing, it’s a horror film. I like to make horror films every now and again. You might not like it, it’s very experimental, it’s done completely from the point of view of this guy filming his girlfriend, so you never see the lead guy until the final shot, there are no objective shots at all and there’s no cutting, whatsoever. I mean there is cutting but there is no intercutting, you never cut from one shot to their reaction and then back to the action. It’s just whatever he’s shooting, and then the next bit he’s shooting, and then the next bit he’s shooting. It’s like a sausage, all these shots follow one another and sometimes they leap forward, so whenever there is a cut it’s always one minute later. And sometimes it is an hour later. It was very experimental.

Dana: A very interesting concept. Did it originate with you?

Bernard: Actually it wasn’t my screenplay but I thought the concept was really interesting. Basically I improvised the film because it’s meant to be just what comes out of somebody’s canvas, I just improvised it really, it was fun to do.

Dana: When you give an interview, is there a question you wish you were asked but was never asked, an aspect of your work that critics always missed?

Bernard: Perhaps one of the things that nobody ever really spotted is that when I’m shooting a film I don’t rehearse it, I never say to the actors “Come in the door, you stand there and you stand there and I’ll shoot it”. I just say “Let’s do it”.

Dana: You just put the actors on the spot…

Bernard: I just say “Let’s go”. And if I don’t like it we’ll do it again. And then I just shoot them and I shoot something else, I don’t say this is a wide shot, this is a close-up, this is on you and this is on him.

Dana: So they don’t know…

Bernard: Well, I don’t know either.

Dana: Does it all happen while it is being filmed, without any preparation at all, total spontaneity?

Bernard: Exactly. No one knows what it is going to happen … And then obviously when you do it again, and I do do it again, I shoot with different cameras but I very rarely, in fact never shoot the same shot twice. So it’s a little bit different. But it doesn’t look like it when you see it cut together.

Dana: It just flows.

Bernard: It flows. And I shot the Paganini film the same way. It was unexpected and I don’t think you can tell when you see the film finished.

Dana: Somebody said that to really master technique is to be able to hide the technique entirely.

Bernard: That’s right. The moment something is preordained it is not organic. For me one of the most influential directors was Pasolini and the other one was Cassavetes. And in very different ways.


Pier Paolo Pasolini

With Pasolini you feel like he never shot anybody doing a scene. You feel like he was always just filming whatever they were doing. And especially all his films set in various ancient worlds, whether it was Oedipus or Arabian Nights, or his Gospel films. He did that better than anybody else, there was this sort of almost documentary quality to it, even though of course what you were looking at was a full-scale biblical or Arabian reproduction, tons of art direction, costumes, but you never got that sense, it felt very very real, he somehow tricked you into really believing it. This is why people really loved his Gospel movies, because it felt almost like a documentary, he had a different way of looking at something that was incredibly clichéd. I really like the way his films were shot, with this disrespect for the machinery, which of course was also an incredibly intelligent style because Pasolini was also a hyper-intellectual and a poet. He used to divide cinema into two kinds: poetic cinema and prose cinema. And obviously he saw himself as a poet, and he was a poet. And he had that quality I really liked.


John Cassavetes

And Cassavetes has a similar style but he comes from a very different place. All he cares about is the actor. There are no performances in Pasolini’s films, they are all just figures, and he would loop them with somebody else probably. But with Cassavetes it’s all about the actors. My favourite Cassavetes film is Opening Night, it’s a really interesting movie because it’s really about how an actor develops a role, it really shows what she goes through, she’s just not satisfied, she’s willing to push everybody’s buttons, push them right near the edge, even to the edge of madness, but in the end she’s amazing. He really captured some of them, and he was part of it, he was an actor himself and he knew all that stuff. And the performances that are in the Cassavetes pictures are so much more free and powerful than the performances that you see even in really good films of the same period with really great actors. At the moment you have a situation where everyone is grinding through the same scene from three different masters and three different directions, and you have medium shots, and long shots, and tracking shots and close-ups, but by the time you get to the close-up all you have is a bunch of exhausted actors. And that’s how film ended up what it is. To me that’s a completely waste of time, I’ll start with the close-up and maybe at the end when I’m bored I’ll shoot a wide shot. And I never understood why people do it the other way around, it’s completely idiotic.[…]

Dana: Talking about trying to capture this sense of reality, some filmmakers choose to work with non-actors, would you ever consider that?

Bernard: Well I have worked with non-actors.Danny wasn’t an actor when he did Ivan XTS, he was a director. And some other people in that film weren’t actors, they were basically playing themselves. In 2 Jacks they were mostly actors but a lot of them were playing actors. The cops are real policemen.

Dana: But for the lead performances you’d rather work with actors probably?

Bernard: It depends. On The Devil’s Violonist I cast a real violinist because it’s so difficult what he has to do, to play Paganini for real. There was no way I could do that with just an actor. Depends on the part and what skills people need. When you have someone doing a professional job, it helps if they know what they’re doing.

Dana: What’s your take on the main character in Two Jacks? I find him utterly fascinating but I don’t feel I have a very good handle on him, he’s very mysterious, elusive…

Bernard: What I liked most about the book is that the older Jack is outrageous, he behaves badly, he does terrible things all the time. But he has a moral compass, he gets the guy’s money back, he leaves Diana’s bed in the middle of the night and he goes back in the morning but she doesn’t know, and he kisses her. So he’s not exactly moral but he has a code, whatever it is. And he’s dashing, like a 19th century cavalry officer. Whereas his son, he’s trying and he doesn’t get there, he’s just demanding, he’s just difficult. So in the film I contrast the two of them.

2 Jacks Huston actors

Scene from Two Jacks, from left to right: Jack and Danny Huston

Dana: But the son is also very young, you don’t know what he’ll grow into.

Bernard: Yes he’s very young. But at the end you realise that that’s it, he got kicked…

Dana: There’s still a smile on his face though…

Bernard: That’s it, he realises that that’s the point!

Dana: And he’ll come back.

Bernard: He will come back. They are like those guys, they would come to town, they would do stuff and they would leave, like some sort of troubadours in that era. And they were considered very dashing, they were like old movie stars, in a small town, in provincial Russia, where the book is set. For me the important thing is that the old Jack is someone with panache.

Dana: There’s also the subtle allusions to John Huston, the famous Hollywood director and Danny’s father…

Bernard: This is very interesting as Danny was saying very insistently at the Q&A that the character isn’t at all like his father. And I think honestly that’s not true…

Dana: Do tell us!

Bernard: I think his mother gave him a hard time : “That’s not John, John would never be like that”! And probably Danny went “brrrrrr”!

Dana: But the old Jack is a very likeable character in a way, he’s very charismatic. And yes he is doing all those terrible things…

Julia Verdin: But he’s got the charisma to make you forgive him!

Bernard: One of the things that are interesting about characters in the movies, and Jack Nicholson’s career was built this way, is that audiences like characters that do things that they would never dare to do, they like characters to be outrageous, to get away with things that they would possibly balk at…

Julia Verdin: And the interesting thing about charisma is that it’s something you can’t buy or manufacture, you’ve either got charisma or you haven’t, and that’s why the younger Jack is struggling. His father had a charisma that made him who he was whereas the younger Jack is desperately trying to get the same charisma but he just can’t pull it off. He hasn’t kind of grown into himself yet, in a funny way.

Bernard: That’s right, and that happens with men a lot, they can come across as shrill and brash and when they are a little older, they can grow into it. To some degree, Danny was like that, I knew Danny when he was a lot younger, and he did sort of grow into himself, quite a lot.

Dana: I think Danny Huston is perfect for the role, he’s very charming and he totally steals the show. And I think Two Jacks is a very captivating film, congratulations.

Bernard: Thank you, it’s lovey to hear that you like it. Because I think it’s an unusual movie, it doesn’t have a great issue, it doesn’t force a great melodramatic climax on anybody. In some ways  it would be easy to just pass it by. And I think that it really works as the final part of all these films, it kind of reflects and is a mirror to Ivans xts but in a very different way. Ivans xts is very harsh and real and it’s about the really dark side of Hollywood, whereas Two Jacks is much more about this other side, where there is glamour and appeal. […] In Hollywood there are two lies people tell you, I won’t tell you what the second one is but the first one is “I’ve got the money!”

Dana: Can I guess, the other one is “Your script is great!”

Bernard: No, no, I can’t tell you the other one!

Dana: I heard someone say that the feedback almost anyone gets in Hollywood is “Your script is great, I love your script”.

Bernard: That’s right, but the moment someone tells you “I’ve got the money”, put on your shoes and run, that just means they are trying to steal some money from you. People who have the money tend to say “I’d like somebody else to pay for it”, that’s what they tell you, they don’t want to tell you they have the money. […] And Hollywood is full of people like that. Someone said that LA is the only place in the world where you can die of hope!

Dana: And it’s probably what makes Hollywood fascinating. I can tell you’re equally fascinated with Tolstoy and with Hollywood, hence bringing the two together.

Bernard: That’s right. Hollywood is very fascinating, and we certainly think of it like a magical dream-like place where something incredible happens. And the truth is a lot of what we think of as Hollywood never happened there, it was just happening somewhere else. The first job I ever had, in 1980, was gofer to Jim Henson on the Muppet Show, and that was happening here. But that was more “Hollywood” than anything I have experienced since, in a real sense. One week we’d have Gene Kelly on the show, next week it would be Diana Ross, it was classic Hollywood, fantastical, glorious. It was just wonderful. But it was happening in Elstree in ATV’s Studio, it wasn’t happening in Los Angeles!

Dana: One last tricky question, why do you make films?

Bernard: Well, I’ve always done it my whole life, I’ve never done anything else, I don’t know how to do anything else, I don’t know how to stop if I could!I just can’t imagine doing anything else. And I certainly don’t do it for the money, as I’m often doing it without being paid, film is a bit like having a very bad drug habit, in fact it’s worse than a drug habit, it’s more expensive than heroine, and it will ruin your life just as badly!

Dana: So you wouldn’t encourage anyone to start a career in film…

Bernard: I think you should only do it if you can’t do anything else, otherwise don’t do it!

You might want to take Bernard’s heartfelt advice or not but DO listen to this amazing track from the sumptuous drama THE DEVIL’S VIOLINIST performed  by DAVID GARRETT, the record-breaking German pop and crossover violinist and recording artist.

Should Truth Always Prevail? Acclaimed Documentarian ALEX GIBNEY about THE ARMSTRONG LIE

Known for his gripping, deeply insightful documentaries, Academy Award winner ALEX GIBNEY is one of the most accomplished non-fiction filmmakers working today. His 2008 film, TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, received an Oscar for Best Feature-Length Documentary, a Best Director nomination from the Director’s Guild of America, as well as a Writer’s Guild of America Award for Best Screenplay. He also received another Academy Award nomination in 2006 for ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM, which also won the Independent Spirit Award and the WGA Award, and he served as an Executive Producer on the Academy Award-nominated NO END IN SIGHT (2007).


Alex Gibney

His new documentary, THE ARMSTRONG LIE, follows one of the most fascinating stories in the history of sports, the extraordinary rise and  fall of former cycling champion, Lance Armstrong. Embarking on what he believed would prove the ultimate comeback story, Gibney started by turning his cameras on the sports hero, his teammates and trainers in 2008-2009.  But once Armstrong admitted to using performance enhancing drugs in early 2013, the film emerged as a riveting insider’s view chronicling the collapse of one of the greatest legends of our time.

The following interview was taken on October 16 at Filmmakers Afternoon Teas, Mayfair Hotel as part of LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013.

Dana: Why Armstrong in the first place?

Alex: Well, I had an opportunity, a famous producer Frank Marshall and a guy from Sony, Matt Tolmach, were developing a fiction film on Lance Armstrong and they couldn’t get the script rights so when Lance wanted to come back they thought of making a documentary and asked me if I would direct it. And I thought that that would be a pretty interesting film, following a champion as he came back, and what interested me about Armstrong, even with the rumours of doping that we all knew even back then, was his will. So I was interested in making that film.

Dana: When you found out everything that happened suddenly, what was your first thought, that you had been lied to or that the film was a lie?

Alex: I was pissed off, not so much that I’ve been lied to, I’d certainly been lied to before, but I felt that I’ve been used. That I was used as kind of a prop and promo campaign, and that did piss me off. But remember this happened over a period of time, it wasn’t like there was a lightening bolt that came down and suddenly it was like: “Oh my God, everything’s changed”. Bit by bit by bit stuff came out and Lance for a long time responded as he always had, which was: “bullshit”, denial, so I had time to work it out. And was I pissed off?Yes I was pissed off but I wasn’t shocked.

the-armstrong-lie-posterDana: What do you think of him?

Alex: On a day to day basis, I like him. I like hanging out with him, I’m interested in talking to him but I also recognise that I can’t always trust him.

Dana: How challenging was it to change the initial film into the final version?

Alex: It was hugely challenging. I think the only way it was going to work was for me to became a character in the film. I had to become the person to whom this had happened. So that I could explain it all in its many levels. And also I stood in for the fan or for the cancer survivor who felt that they invested so much in this myth that Lance had created and now they were disappointed. From a filmmaking standpoint it was hugely complicated because it involved fracturing the narrative, going back and forth in time, in 1999, before that, 2009, the present, pre-Oprah, post-Oprah. It was a very complicated story in that sense. And the only way possible to make it I think was telling it through the first person.

Dana: Michele Ferrari was quite a cue, how did that interview come about, was it just a question of building trust?

Alex: He wouldn’t do the interview unless Armstrong gave his permission and Armstrong did. And I think that was all part of a campaign at the time which was: 2009 – I have nothing to hide, come take a look. So I was surprised that I got the interview with Ferrari but I was pleased.

Dana: How do you think Armstrong felt when the truth came out?

Alex: Well it came out over time. I think Armstrong was probably surprised that the old tactics didn’t work. Let’s remember, he’d already accused his critics? many times in the past, he always defeated his enemies by attacking them or sometimes slandering them and he tried to do the same thing here but it didn’t work this time. Why?Because the level of details was so enormous that his story was no longer believable and I think that was a blow to Armstrong and suddenly, while he always had enemies and critics he also had millions of fans and suddenly his fans started to run for the hills.

Dana: Has he seen the film?

Alex: No. He sent his representatives to see it and so far he hasn’t seen the film, I hope he will. We gave him the opportunity to.

Dana: Have you spoken to him since making the film?

Alex: The last time I spoke to him was when, there were some bits that I went to him with while making the film, because he had some interesting information about UCI and sponsors but the last time I contacted Lance was when I told him it was going to be called the Armstrong Lie.

Dana: And what was his response to that?

Alex: I don’t think he liked it but he accepted it. I heard from other people that he said: “I’m ok with it. I did lie”. In some ways Lance is honest, in some ways he’s not so honest.

Dana: As a filmmaker, are you glad about everything that happened, because you now have a much more interesting film than the original one…

Alex: That was a different film. This one is much more layered and frankly much more like the themes of all my other films. So in that sense while I was hoping to do something different, I ended up being back at base camp for me as a filmmaker.

Dana: What has been the biggest challenge in making this film?

Alex: The biggest challenge in making the final film was to find the structure for it because it was so intricate and complicated in terms of understanding what had gone on before and how to present to the viewer a sense of going back in my experience in 2009 and seeing with the eyes of today what I’d seen in the past. And at the same time recreating my feeling in the past so you could see how I would become excited and enthusiastic about Armstrong only to realise I’d been deceived.

Dana: Where did you stand with him at the beginning anyway?Were you a fan?

Alex: I didn’t know that much about him, or about cycling. I told him the first time I met him: “I know you ride a bicycle and that you’re good at it. That’s about all I know”. But I’ve come to a lot of subjects that way, I was interested in him because of his will. And I assumed from the beginning that will was both an inspirational thing and something that was also quite dark.

Dana: Does he come from a position of arrogance, he can sometimes strike viewers in that way.

Alex: He certainly does and he rubs a lot of people the wrong way as a result.

Dana: What did you learn from this film and would you do it differently if you had to do it again?

Alex: I hope I wouldn’t have to do it again. I guess what I learnt from this film was one of the most amazing things about this story, I talk about the Armstrong lie as if it was a big secret that was suddenly exposed.  But it wasn’t really like that. It was a secret hiding in plain sight. Hundreds of people knew that Lance had doped, not just a small number, and a lot of critics had come forward with the evidence. But it was the power of the myth that Lance created that was so enormous that no one wanted to believe any of that stuff. And in fact everyone realised that they could make so much money, and the cancer survivors realised that they can have so much hope from this story that no one wanted to believe that it wasn’t true. That was the most amazing thing to me.

Dana: On this note, do you think truth should always prevail, considering how powerful and beautiful this story was, and important for some people?Is truth more important than anything?

Alex: Almost.  Truth is very important and I can think of times where a little truth is not necessary to tell within a certain context but in an essential way, truth is very important.

“I cast my actors for their imagination” – Director JAMES PONSOLDT about THE SPECTACULAR NOW

spectacular_now BIG                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  The third feature film from US indie filmmaker JAMES PONSOLDT, THE SPECTACULAR NOW  is a bitter sweet comedy drama that captures the confusion and insecurity of adolescence in a way that no other teen movie has ever done before. Or at least that’s how it felt to me.

Spectacularly fresh and original, the film was released in the US in August 2013 and we are excitedly waiting for its release in the UK.

Below is an interview with the director taken on 11 October 2013 at Filmmakers Afternoon Teas, Mayfair Hotel, as part of the LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013.

Dana: How are you enjoying the festival?

James: I love it, I’ve always wanted to come to this festival, I grew up with those wonderful BFI books, like the best movies ever, I was always aware of the BFI, so it’s always been a dream.

Dana: Is it your first time at the festival?

James: Yes, yes.

Dana: But you made other films…

james ponsoldt pic


James: I have made other films and they played internationally, I had one last year that played in Toronto, in Zurich, but never at the London Film Festival, no…

Dana(cheekily): Why, they didn’t accept your films in the festival before? 

James: No, I don’t know, a lot of times it was just scheduling, Smashed, the film I had last year, it was a Sony Pictures Classic release worldwide and it came out in the US in October last year so timewise it didn’t quite work out. In this case there is an American distributor, it already came out in the US and Disney is releasing it internationally so they were fine with it, a lot of it is just scheduling.

Dana: Your film is the sweetest teen film I ever saw and it goes against all the stereotypes of the genre. How did you come up with such lovely and complex characters? I know the film is based on a book but does it all come from the book?

shailene woodley

Shailene Woodley

James: Oh, thank you. Well, Tim Tharp wrote the novel, he wrote a beautiful book, but a lot of it comes from the collaboration with the actors. The book was the inspiration and that’s the spirit of it but the way I work with actors, I cast them for their imagination,  because I find them to be very interesting people, not only because they look the way I imagine the characters look. So when I cast Shailene Woodley or Miles Teller, I’m casting them because I believe they would make the characters more interesting than I would. And that they will disagree with me, I mean Shailene Woodley knows more about what it is to be an 18-year old girl than I do. So we had many many conversations long before we shot, sitting with the script, talking about the characters, talking about them and who they are, what they found compelling, what they found that needed work, or that they would never say. So the script evolved and changed. Before we shot I even had the actors have conversations with the production designer, or the costume designer, and even the characters’ bedrooms reflected in some ways the taste and vision of the actors, in addition to me. So it was really a collaboration of all of us, everybody’s fingerprints are on it. But it got better because the script is just a pile of paper, you know, but actors are what makes something human, and you can either micromanage actors and make them do exactly what you want, in which case you’ll get something, but if you cast brilliant actors and allow them to be free, because they are artists in the same way that a cinematographer or composer is an artist. So it was really the actors, and a great book and a great script that…did the trick.

Dana: This is your third feature, what challenges have you encountered this time and how did things go on the set?

James: Ultimately we had a small budget and not a lot of time so it was a sprint. We planned a lot because we knew that when we are actually shooting, we’d have to go through this many pages every day and if we didn’t get a scene we wouldn’t be able to go back…And the goal ultimately is to plan and plan and plan so that on the day you can be spontaneous and free and throw all that out of the window, you don’t want to be aware of your watch but you have to be. But I think everybody goes through that. Otherwise we shot in my home town of Athens in Georgia, which was wonderful. And we also shot in August in Georgia, which meant that it was over 100 degrees each day and humid, and thunderstorms, and the weather was crazy, and everybody’s sweating and hot, it was pretty brutal as far as the weather, but it was really a lovely set though.The crew worked together very well, the actors were all wonderful and we were all on the same page.So it was a real pleasure.


Miles Teller

Dana: If you were to go back and shoot this film all over again, would you do something different?I’m trying to get to what lessons you have learnt this time, I imagine you learn something new all the time…

James:Yeah, I do[…].I used to beat myself up over things, it’s very hard for me to watch a film that I’ve made and enjoy it, all I’m thinking about is the things I would change and the mistakes, so I can’t take a lot of pleasure in watching my own movies[…]. I love watching other people’s movies and I can admire the performances but it’s very hard for me to watch my films. On my first film, I’d beat myself up endlessly watching the film and thinking about what I would do differently. Now my perspective has changed, now I believe in preparing a lot as I mentioned but throwing it all out on the day, and realising that if I made the movie one week before or one week later it would be very different, it might be raining on one day, the actor might have just broken up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, whatever it is, and you can either fight those things or you can embrace them. Now I see it as the universe giving me those gifts, and fiction films and scripts are entirely fabricated, there’s all these elements, there’s lights and camera and you are trying to create honesty so I’m trying to be better by letting go of my preconceived notions of what it’s going to be and just embracing whatever it is in the moment, like if this is a scene between two people and I spill tea on you, that’s ok, maybe now you have tea on…but just embrace it because that happens in life.

Dana: This reminds me of Godard’s method of working…

James: Oh I love Godard, I love Truffaut…

Dana: And they loved American filmmakers, they loved Hollywood films…

James: Yes they did, they were great critics. I learnt so much just from watching specifically Truffaut, his Antoine Doinel films and his criticism and all the Cahiers du cinéma writing, and his interviews with Hitchcock. That’s probably my favourite time in filmmaking. And filmmakers like Agnes Varda, I just adore.

Dana: By the way, talking about film magazines, which one is your favourite?

James: I write for a film magazine in the US called Filmmaker.

Dana: I’ve read your interview in Filmmaker, you were interviewed by Craig Zobel, interestingly enough I interviewed Craig last year.

James: Oh fantastic. Craig is a very good friend, he’s from Georgia as well, you saw Compliance, I love Compliance. So I write for that magazine as well, and I’ve done interviews with everyone from Kelly Reichardt, to Paul Thomas Anderson, Francis Ford Coppola and Charlie Kaufman. So I love that one. I also love Film Comment, there’s a lot that I love, I read them all. I’m partial to Filmmaker because I write for it.

Dana: Do they pay you?

James: Yes they do, symbolically. For me, the editor, Scott Macaulay, he’s a very good friend and a great champion of films…I have such a fierce respect for film criticism, and for filmmakers that started as critics…I think of myself as part of a community that I want to engender and so when someone like Craig, who is an amazing filmmaker, interviews me, it’s him being part of a community and supporting me and it’s what I hope to do as well. I try to not have a sense of competition with other filmmakers because I believe the success of an independent filmmaker with a very personal vision is a success for everyone, it’s important to not tear apart other people but to really support them, because the moment you tear apart someone else, it makes it all the harder for you to get your movie made, so the community as a whole when it thrives it’s good for everyone, that’s how I see it.

Dana: And this was exactly the spirit of the French New Wave…One last tricky question: why do you make films?

James: Because I don’t know any other way to express myself, I would think I would go insane if I didn’t, I mean it’s like an addiction, a compulsion, I’ve always needed to tell stories. When I was a child I did cartoons, I wrote short stories, I acted in plays, I played music, all these different ways that I wanted to express myself through story, and then when I made my first short film, I realised it synthesised my love of photography and acting and music and just everything into one. It is an universal art that combines everything. For me growing up sitting in a movie theatre was like going to church, it was the most cathartic experience, it was the way I better understood myself and had very private emotional experiences but it was also the way I communicated and felt connected to other people. Sitting in a dark room with five hundred people crying together is an amazing thing. And because when I was young certain movies and certain books made me feel less alone in the world, when I was angry and confused and I found the right book and the right movie, when I met Antoine Doinel for the first time, I could see myself and I knew that someone else felt that…And I guess my hope is to make films that at least one other person would have a connection to, so that’s my hope.


Shailene Woodley on why the sex scene in The Spectacular Now is her favourite…find out more here.

James Ponsoldt shares the call sheet for the first day of the shoot of The Spectacular Now with the Filmmaker magazine…read more here.


Compliance poster

If you’re in the mood for a truly challenging emotional and intelectual experience this weekend, go and see Compliance, a film that plays in several cinemas across London including Curzon Soho, Barbican Centre, Hackney Picturehouse and Ritzy Cinema. But be warned, this film is not for the easily-offended and overly-judgemental so if you have a past history of walking out of controversial screenings, you are strongly advised to think twice about booking your ticket (there is always a Hollywood blockbuster at a different venue to delight and entertain you!).

The controversy surrounding the film is due to its honest and unapologetic depiction of the depth of human naiveté (to use an euphemism) in people susceptible of unquestioningly obeying figures of authority under duress, very much similar to what happened during the Holocaust. The writer-director Craig Zobel did not however “invent” the scenario for the film, this is a thoroughly researched movie based on true events that took place 70 times in USA during a period of 10 years.

At its LFF screening in London on 19t October 2012, about fifty people walked out of the screening, encouraging other people to do the same. This reaction was definitely not  due to boredom. Compliance is a taut, gripping and disturbing film that is indeed difficult to watch but out of respect for the filmmaker, take a moment to reflect on what he, and the film, has to say before you condemn it.


Dana: “What attracted you to this project, the idea of making a movie based on Stanley Milgram’s “Shock” experiment?”

Craig: “I am very interested in social psychology and when I read about the Stanley Milgram experiment I was very fascinated by its findings. This is part of a set of behavioural psychology experiments. In this case the whole experiment is about this doctor at Yale University studying people’s natural inclination to obey authority, even if they disagree personally with what the authority is saying. It’s really interesting how he did these tests, people thought they were electrocuting someone in the other room and they would say “I don’t really want to do this, this guy is screaming”. The “victim” was obviously an actor, it wasn’t really happening but they thought he was really electrocuted. And they would say “I really don’t feel comfortable doing this thing anymore” and then an authority figure would say “But you have to continue, you have serious responsibility to do so” and 65% of people would go along with this to the point that they would think they were giving lethal amounts of electric shock. So two thirds of people would do this. This experiment took place in the 60s but they redid it in 2007 and the results were similar.”

Dana:”The film is also inspired from a set of true events that took place in the USA quite recently, will you tell us more about that and how that influenced the premise of the film?”

Craig: “The true events are about a series of prank phone calls, these are not a real phone calls and the guy behind them ended up being caught but he was not convicted in the end due to lack of circumstantial evidence. So these crazy prank phone calls would lead to horrible things, consistently, and this because the people who received the call thought he was a real police officer. So the premise of my film concerns a woman who works at a fast-food restaurant as a manager, 45 years old, and she gets a phone call from the police on a Friday night when it is really busy in the restaurant and the guy on the phone says: “One of your employees stole money from a customer and I need you to question them”. And she says “Who?” and they say “It’s a young girl, she works at the front…”, “Becky?”, “Yes, Becky”. So she starts questioning Becky and Becky says “I didn’t do it”. And the policeman says “Why don’t you search her pockets? We could come there but if you could help with our investigation, it would be a really great help.” And then he asks “Why don’t you strip-search her?”. And this turns into an unbelievably crazy story as this woman strip-searched the young girl and kept her in the back room for four hours. And  similar events happened seventy times in America over a ten-year period. The most famous occurrence was in 2006 and this is when I heard about the story. And there is a case that is very similar to the one in the film although I took inspiration from other cases also”.

Dana: “The film created quite a stir at Sundance where it premiered earlier this year. Did you expect such a strong reaction?”

Craig: “Well, the interesting thing is that most people who hear about these case studies that are basically about the same phenomenon as the Milgram’s experiement,  or some of the people who watched the film , they immediately say: “But I would never do that…Not me…”. They would immediately cast themselves in the person who would not do such a thing but the fact is that two thirds of us would do it”. So for me the question was “Can I write something like this?” and yes, I can see how that would happen and still make it a film and make it interesting to watch, and follow all the other rules”.

Dana: “What were the challenges you encountered when making this film?”

Craig Zobel photo

Craig Zobel

Craig: “This is a film that I made because of the challenges involved, instead of in spite of its challenges. The film is about a pretty unbelievable subject, and you may see the film and say “yeah, you didn’t succeed at that”. And indeed it requires a pretty good performance to make that credible, because this is a kind of story that you hear and you go “How could you believe this?” So that was a challenge, making this credible”.

Dana: “Was the casting difficult?”

Craig: “Yes, partly because of the material. These roles were not everybody’s cup of tea, not everybody wants to play that. So it was a challenge to find the right people. And then the main thing was how to get the actors to have the same curiosity I had about these stories, because I think that really affected the performance. And they were pretty challenging and difficult roles because the film is dark. But for me it is about having a crew and cast that invests in the project”.

Dana: “How many shorts did you make before venturing into features?If any?”

Craig: “Not very many, I made shorts in film school and then I worked on a bunch of other people’s films. And my first film came out in 2007 and then I made this film”.

Dana: “How did you find the transition from shorts to features?”

Craig: “Well to be honest it was a bit difficult. For making this film, I got sucked into a “Hollywood development deal”- sort of situation, where you sit around talking about making a movie for a really long time and you never actually shoot one and it was very frustrating for me and made me feel like “Why am I letting people tell me how to do this?”

Dana: “Which is very similar to the actual issue of the film…”

Craig (laughing):”Exactly . So that was another challenge that I had to overcome in order to make the film. And I thought that indeed the film might be too dark and creepy and weird, or just boring and flat and not work, and it could hurt my career in some way, so I had to overcome those fears as well”.


Craig was awarded the Breakthrough Director Award at the 2008 Gotham Awards for Great World of Sound, his debut feature as a writer-director which premiered at Sundance in 2007. The film was selected  as one of the Top Ten Independent films of the year by The National Board of Review, and was nominated for Best First Film and Best Supporting Actor in the 2008 Independent Spirit Awards. His new film Compliance played at Sundance and SXSW in early 2012. Craig was also co-producer of David Gordon Green’s seminal indie hit of 2000, George Washington.