Asides

“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 PONSOLDT

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

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.

MORE…

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.

LOVE, MARILYN – Interview with LIZ GARBUS

blonde-diva-love-marilyn-monroe-simle-Favim.com-302754 IF…If somebody asked you what Marilyn Monroe was really like, how would you answer them? And if you’re lost for words and can’t imagine what her inner world looked like, this film will help with shedding some light on that.

One of my favourite documentaries at London Film Festival 2012, LOVE, MARILYN is showing in UK cinemas until Wednesday 27 November, only one week left so don’t miss out…

Based on a bunch of recently-discovered personal documents that Marilyn left behind and drawing on a wealth of well-chosen film clips, archive footage and recent interviews with people who knew or worked with Marilyn, this is a truly mesmerising film in which the voices of a stellar cast – Glenn Close, Lindsay Lohan, Uma Thurman, Marisa Tomei, Viola Davis – mix to recreate one of cinema’s most fascinating movie stars.

Below is an interview with  LIZ GARBUS, the Oscar-nominated documentarist who put the many pieces of the mysterious puzzle together.

Dana: Where did this project start for you and what did you think of those documents when you saw and read them for the fist time?

Liz: The project started for me with the documents that were found. I made a film called Bobby Fisher Against the World and the producer of that film was an advisor to the Monroe estate which was entrusted to the Strasberg family. And much of it had been catalogued and archived and filmed but there were two boxes that were discovered in a storage closet, letters, notes, poems, and finally they decided that they should bring them out to the world. And my producer was helping them figure out what to do with them. And so when I heard about them I said: “Oh, I’d be interested in making a film”. And I wasn’t someone who was so interested in Marilyn Monroe but I wanted, you know, you hear about these documents and they started telling me about them and the kinds of things she was saying, and I found them irresistible, I found them really interesting.

Dana: How do you explain the phenomenon that was Marilyn Monroe?

The filmmaker Liz Garbus

Liz: I explain it in terms of female sexuality and femininity at a time in the US of the great repression, it was the gray flannel suit of the1950s, when sexuality was bursting, it was trying to come out, and what happened is that it came out in the form of Marilyn Monroe. If you look at Marilyn next to Jane Russell, her co-star in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, at Grauman’s Chinese theatre when they are doing their entrance, Jane is wearing this big 1950 poodle skirt, with a big collar and Marilyn, every contour in her body is showing, which I think is a metaphor for the generational shift that was happening at the time, but I think it’s naive or overly simplistic to say Marilyn was an early feminist. But what she did do was discuss sexuality…you know there were these nude photos that emerge of her, we are all familiar with nude photos today, then it was less frequent, but instead of doing what the studios wanted her to do and deny them and say it was somebody else, she decided to go out there and give an entry and say “Yeah it was me, and I did it because I needed the money”. She dealt with sexuality in a very frank way, that I think had an indelible mark on the culture and I think dying young and beautiful and that mythology around that tragic life story, the little girl who achieves everything and then at the height of it all dies, I think that is our modern myth, that’s our Cinderella story that has endured in our culture. And because she created it at this very particular moment, it was incredibly powerful.

love_marilyn_filmposterDana: As you say, she’s got a very iconic image and we’ve all got a perception of her, how does this film go about changing that perception?     

Liz: The perception I had of Marilyn before making this film was not incredibly deep, she was an image, a subject of still photography, I didn’t even think of her as an actress in her movie roles, I think I thought of the types of roles she played, the dumb blonde who was maybe a little wise but I didn’t think of her necessarily as a human being or as an actress, I thought of her as more of a model and an image, and with this film, in using the documentary letters that she left behind, provides the flesh of that person, and the viewers will judge for themselves whether it’s something new and different. For me it was, for me looking at her as a working woman who was having trouble balancing the demands of family and work, that’s a struggle that is relatable to modern women. That was the way I related to her that I didn’t expect to. So I think that there are things that are in the documents that I found that were different than what I expected, maybe it will be for viewers as well.

Dana: There seems to be a great focus on Marilyn this year. How would you say your film compares to or complements My Week with Marilyn in terms of the portrayal that they put forward?

Liz: Well, it’s very different, that film is based on a week, one moment in her life whereas this film deals with a much longer span of time, not her whole life but really the period that the documents come from, which is her adult life, pretty much, and they talk a lot about acting and her fears, they talk a lot about love and her struggles to balance that, include men in the life she had that was so complex and busy and public, […] and of course they are overlapping because they are about the same person. But I think one thing that happens when an actress plays Marilyn, even as superbly as Michelle Williams has done, you are always comparing her to the real person, so you’re watching Michelle in which ways she is and isn’t Marilyn. And whilst she is superb, she is not Marilyn, nobody is 100% somebody else. So the approach I took in the film is, we had a cast of actresses but none of them were playing Marilyn, what they were doing was using their own experiences as actresses working today to bring to life Marilyn’s experiences. They had insights into them that even I would rather document twenty times, they would understand that this was a note about an acting technique that to me it seemed like maybe it could have been from a dream or nightmare but it was about technique, they could understand these notes in a way that was unique and profound, so I think in the reading of them you do feel something more of Marilyn’s experience. And because they are not playing her, you’re not looking at them and saying “Oh, how was Uma Thurman like Marilyn, how was she not like Marilyn”, you’re just listening to the words and maybe feeling them more because you’re not constantly comparing.

Dana: Why do you think contemporary actresses relate so much to her, for instance Lindsey Lohan among others, is it to do with putting on the sexual character aspects of it?

Liz:  Yes I think it has to do with who Marilyn was sexually in our culture and that she was vulnerable yet powerful at the same time, things that are an incredibly powerful cocktail, that combination, and I think people like Lindsey have embraced that. And Marilyn died young and beautiful and she is the subject of much gossip and social speculation that never goes away, and the fact that people think there’s no definitive answer there which I don’t think is as as mysterious as everybody does, but it keeps the myth going. And she really is about the myth of celebrity, she really is about that eternal feminine vision and people wanted to buy into that.

Dana: What do you think of the way the industry relegated her to the category of “sex pot”/“dumb blonde” during her acting career?

Liz: I think that’s very unfair, you don’t create a figure that is so enduring if you’re stupid, she was very carefully crafted, there’s a biographer who talked about how she read the Times magazine, like she knew that in Italy there was this kind of busty, sexual female figure that was being embraced. So she adapted things from other cultures and she very deliberately created a new type of American figure. And that was quite brilliant. Maybe that’s giving her more credit, maybe some of it was quite instinctive but you don’t create that by accident, something very new and very different…And in the film we include a lot of her press conferences, and you see the way she talks to the press, she’s so clever, she handles the press so well, they are all trying to ask her these little zingers  and she deflects them very gracefully like a great politician. Her public persona was incredibly well calibrated and she was a master at it.

Marilyn with bookDana: I read somewhere that she really liked to be photographed around books, is it true?

Liz: Well, I think that’s a bit of a cliché around actresses, they all like to be photographed with books but she was quite a reader, I mean everybody says she was, and I think that was part of the image she wanted to project.

Dana: What were some of the challenges involved in the making of this film?

Liz: Stylistically it’s very different than anything I’ve made before, and I haven’t seen a film like it, which is fine, we’re all filmmakers and are creating films, I was doing something that was risky, I had a whole bunch of different actors reading fragments, thoughts and ideas, and you had to edit them to become cohesive, yet still relish their fragmentary nature. I mean they are not meant to be a narrative, they are meant to illuminate moments in time and brief thoughts, some of them pleading, so the goal was to respect that as well as providing the viewer with a cohesive narrative, that’s a balancing act.

Dana: As far as editing is concerned, you’re pulling so many different cuts for this film, the letters, the performances, home videos, how difficult an editing process was it?

Liz: It was difficult, there’s always a time in editing, especially with a documentary because you don’t have a script, where you’re like deep in the woods and it’s very dark and you don’t know how you’ll find your way out, and because I’ve made some films, I’ve now come to embrace that period of like “okay, this is when it’s all happening, I know this feels like I’ll never find a way out but this is what has to happen” so I was there and I knew I would get through it and you have to constantly tell yourself that, sometimes all of a sudden there is a break and you find that things that won’t work, they work.

Romanian filmmaker RADU JUDE about EVERYBODY IN OUR FAMILY, Descartes’ Error and how filmmaking is like “going blindly in the dark”

Ro Film FestFor those who don’t know yet, the ROMANIAN FILM FESTIVAL IN LONDON is fast approaching. Already in its 10th year, this is an unmissable event for everyone familiar with the unparalleled series of critically successful, award-winning, iconoclastic and socially-conscious films coming out of Romania for the last 10 years or so.

Intriguingly called Turning the Page, the festival is sure to delight audiences with the UK premiere of many daring films starring some of the most popular and beloved figures of Romanian cinema:  actor Victor Rebengiuc (Japanese Dog), actor and director Horatiu Malaele (Happy Funerals), actor Bogdan Dumitrache (When Evening Falls On Bucharest Or Metabolism), actors Dragos BucurAlexandru Papadopol and Dorian Boguta (Love Building).

Exciting new films by directors Stere Gulea (I Am An Old Communist Hag) and Adrian Sitaru (Domestic) will also screen in the UK for the first time. Be quick and book your ticket here.

And in anticipation of this year’s Romanian Film Festival in London, I dug up an older interview with Romanian filmmaker RADU JUDE taken at London Film Festival 2012.

In the manner of most Romanian films that rarely follow a formula and are bound to surprise you in one way or another, sometimes going off at a tangent to explore unexpected themes and previously uncharted territory, so did this interview veer a bit off course but I find it even more insightful  for it.

As I hadn’t yet seen Radu’s new film Everybody in Our Family when taking this interview, I had to keep the discussion to a generic line and improvise my way through it. And with my delightful interlocutor finding some of my questions “a real pain”, this is the amusing digression that ensued:

Dana: What attracted you to this particular story, what provided the inspiration for this film?

Radu-Jude

Romanian filmmaker RADU JUDE

Radu: It’s a mixture of many things and I don’t think I can explain in one single way, it’s a mixture of things coming from my life, from the lives of people around me, from stories I encountered while researching the film, from the imagination of me and Corina Sabau, the co-writer, so it’s a mix of all these things, and on the other hand I think this question is really really a pain, because nobody asks you “why did you choose me to make an interview?”…

Dana: But I know, I know why I chose to do this interview (laughter)…

Radu: (laughing) No but…why…who cares?

Dana: As a filmmaker I imagine you have a wealth of ideas to choose from…

Radu:Well yes, and at some point one idea is more appealing than the other, for many reasons, maybe you think that you can maybe become rich after making a film like that, at the end of the day I don’t think it matters, what triggers the film … But I hope I wasn’t offensive, I was just making an observation, because everybody wants to know what is the origin of a project. But who cares?

Dana: I’m very interested in the creative process and the choices involved in it…

Radu: Because you’re writing a screenplay…

EverybodyinOurFamilyPoster2

Everybody in Our Family

Dana: Maybe, yes. And the process itself: how do we choose an idea, how do we choose anything in life, a career…

Radu: …a wife, a husband…

Dana: Exactly…

Radu: Well, can you explain how you choose a husband?

Dana: Are you implying it’s something a bit random?!?

Radu: Yeah, I think it’s always random…But just to finish, regarding this film, there is a book I read by Antonio Damasio, he’s a neurologist, the book is called  Decartes’ Error and in it he demonstrates that any decision that a person makes is a mixture of what we call the rational mind and of the emotional side.

Dana: I thought you were going to say it’s entirely emotional, it’s not rational at all, which would be a compelling argument to put forward, that we’re actually using reason to justify decisions that have an entirely emotional basis.

Radu: No, of course, the two are connected, you cannot be emotional at all without being rational, and the other way around, it’s about stability.

Dana: Going back to the film, tell me about the filmmaking process, how long did it take?

Radu: It was 22 days of filming, then 2 months of editing, then one month of sound mixing and another month of… so 6 months in total.

Dana: What were the challenges you encountered?

Radu: Well, the most important and terrible challenge is my lack of talent and my lack of abilities…

Dana: (!!) Which doesn’t show…

Radu: Well it shows, it shows for everybody…

Dana: What do you mean? I only heard good things about your film…

Radu: Yes but the film would have been better if I were more talented and more intelligent and full of qualities…

happiest-girl-posterDana: And I really liked your previous film as well, The Happiest Girl in the World.

Radu: Maybe that one was better…

Dana: What is making a film in Romania like?Was it difficult to get funding for this film?

Radu: Well, I think it is difficult to get funding everywhere for an arthouse film, and I think this shows really that cinema is…maybe not dying but is somehow in an artificial life, because you cannot keep it alive with only public funding and European Union money or extremely low budget private funding. But the real challenges of the system of public funding in Romania, the system is not working as well as it could and with this new government things are going to be worse and worse and worse, I’m sure about that…

Dana: So are you a bit pessimistic about the future of Romanian cinema?

Radu: Well, I’m not sure I am pessimistic, I think some people will get a chance to make good films but regarding the institutional side of things I am pessimistic, yes.

Dana: Do you have a next project lined up?

Radu: I have a next project, I have five more projects…

Dana: But no money, you’re waiting for the funding to come in…

Radu: Yes I applied to the National Film Centre although the procedure is for them to organise a contest for finance in the new year. But they haven’t organised anything yet, so it’s like…you cannot be sure of anything.

Dana: As far as directing is concerned, David Mamet says it’s all about where to put the camera and what to tell the actors. What do you think of that, and do you have a specific method?

Radu: I think Mamet meant that it is important to know when to cut a picture and I totally agree with him but it’s like telling you that writing is just taking a pen and putting words on paper. And regarding a method, come on, do I look like someone with a method, I don’t have a method, I would die to have a method, I would like to have a method, or an idea about it but filming for me is like going blindly in the dark…

Dana: That’s reassuring in a way because I think a lot of filmmakers experience that feeling…

Radu: I don’t think so, I think other filmmakers are much smarter… I have a method anyway when facing a difficult decision, both in life and in filmmaking: sometimes when you remember that you’re going to die kind of soon, it becomes easier.

Dana: So the secret is… don’t stress too much, is that the method?

Radu: Yes, don’t stress too much.

Dana: Or maybe it’s not even a good idea to have a method…

Radu: But I want a method, then I would make only successful films every year, and become rich and famous and successful myself.

cropped-movie-ticket.jpgDespite Radu’s modesty (and please don’t think it was false modesty, I could tell that he really meant what he said), when I finally saw the film I was totally captivated by it, as was the audience, which resulted in a very animated Q & A with the first question being: “What was the inspiration for this film?”!Oh no, poor Radu!

I think the reason for the fascination that Romanian films hold upon their viewers (probably more abroad than at home) is their authenticity. A Romanian film is “genuine”, it wears its heart on its sleeve and it will tell you the truth, the filmmaker will speak his/her mind through it. And this is very daring as it takes guts to tell things as they are, with the risk of coming across a bit blunt or even vulgar. I could speculate and say that this is probably due to the experience of communism that most filmmakers of the Romanian New Wave endured in their youth: after being subjected to silence and compliance with a hypocritical regime for so long, the freedom gained after the Revolution enabled them to speak out, and speak out they did. For me it is always very refreshing to see a Romanian film, the experience gives me goosebumps, and this is because the filmmakers really have something to say, they are not making a film out of ego or to show off their talents, although the thought of becoming rich or famous is alluring to everyone, as Radu ironically confesses! Filmmaking is very much a necessity in Romania, it is like therapy. Exasperated with the reality around you, you either make a film, speak out and exorcise those demons or…what is the alternative: not make a film, shut up, repress it all and… become a neurotic? Since most psychologists seem to concur that the line between artist and neurotic is a fine one…

The little girl Sofia, played marvelously by Sofia Nicolaescu

Everybody in Our Family deals with a broken marriage and a father’s efforts to bond with his five-year-old daughter in the new situation. If only he were allowed to! Because hazard (the little girl had just developed a fever) and the extreme cautiousness, when it comes to matters of health, of his ex-mother-in-law, ex-wife and the ex-wife’s current boyfriend get in the way, preventing him from doing what he set out to do. And what appears at first to be genuine and justified care on the part of his “opponents” develops and escalates into a fight of huge and hilarious proportions, in which the little girl becomes a mere tool in the parents’, and the extended family’s, game of power and manipulation.

In a very slow and minutely-observed build-up of tensions, the film traces the protagonist’s descent into temporary madness as he confronts everyone with painful truths about their existence. At the climax of the film, the tragedy turns into comedy, a sign that it reached its paroxysm and has nowhere else to go. Brilliantly scripted, filmed and acted, this movie blurts out some painful truths. But you won’t need painkillers to get through it, the film’s humour provides the buffer needed to balance out the bitterness and make it all a bit more palatable. A masterful black comedy, and it’s not just me saying it (read the Indiewire review here).

But if you, alas, missed this film when it screened at London Film Festival 2012, make sure you don’t miss other Romanian films screening at the Romanian Film Festival in London. From 28 NOVEMBER to 2 DECEMBER ONLY, hurry!

GLORIA Is Glorious in SEBASTIAN LELIO’s New Film

Gloria_posterWhat are the options for a 58-year old divorcée whose job is not engaging enough to take over her entire life and whose children have long fled home and have a life of their own? To spend her evenings in front of the TV, looking after the neighbour’s cat or indulge in nostalgia and tearful memories about the good old days gone by? Maybe for some this is an option but nor for Gloria, the extraordinary heroine of Chilean director Sebastian Lelio‘s third feature film.

Winner of the Berlinale Silver Bear for Best Actress and  the Chilian entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards, GLORIA is a most engrossing character study of a mature single woman whose unbridled optimism and zest for life are simply contagious. Drink in hand and dressed in her most glamorous attire, Gloria is constantly teasing life with her heart wide open to anything that this might bring: adventure, romance, new friends, new lessons…Avoiding the all too easy, conventional clichés that surround representations of older people, Gloria is surprising, warm, genuine and very uplifting. No matter your age,  at the end of the film you wish you were more like Gloria.

In an interview taken on October 18 at the Filmmaker Afternoon Teas, Mayfair Hotel, as part of LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013, we pick the director’s brain about the film and the amazing performance that makes Gloria such a delight to watch.

Dana: How did you come up with  such an amazing character?Gloria is so brave, so strong, so inspiring, I so admire this woman and also Paulina Garcia’s breathtaking performance.

Sebastian: Thank you. Yes the film is all about this character and in a way in order to create the character I created an entire film around it. I created a mechanism for Gloria to be alive, which is cinema, it’s the complexity, it’s a narrative strategy, it’s also camera style, the uses of a narrative of “iceberg tips”, elliptic storytelling, the lack of written dialogues, there were no written dialogues in the script, so everything comes from the actors. I guess the answer for that is […] I had the intuition that it was a strong film in this lady’s world, in this character that in a way didn’t deserve a film, because she should have been like a secondary character in a normal film…but I thought no, I see a film there and we will make a great protagonist out of this forgotten character.

Dana: How did this protagonist come alive?If there were no written dialogues, I assume you worked a lot with the actors.

Sebastian: Yes but in order not to write dialogue, you need to write a lot, even more, because then when you are on set you can afford the luxury of getting lost, but to get lost you need to have the map in order to get lost within a certain battlefield or territory. And concerning the actors, I have an “invasion strategy”. I invade them, I become their friend, win their hearts and then I torture them. (laughter)

Dana: And they make your film…

Actors Sergio Hernandez, Paulina Garcia and director Sebastian Lelio at the 63rd Berlinale International Film Festival

Sebastian: Exactly, by their own will…It’s a very empirical strategy but for good reasons. I love actors and I do believe that when you see a film in a way you’re seeing the artistic battle, in this case of Paulina Garcia, you see how she’s giving her fight, the fight of her life, she’s like Rocky at the end of Rocky, round fifteen, she thinks she’s going to die but she wins. So I’m much more interested in the person than in the character, I’m much more moved by the human being, the actress, the characters are like an accident.

Dana: Was the role of Gloria a projection of a side of the actress herself? I read in an interview that they are very different, the actress from the character she plays.

Sebastian: The only way to answer that is yes and no at the same time. Paulina indeed said that she would have liked to be a little lighter, like Gloria is. Gloria is the kind of character who knows how to surf life but I think Paulina is wonderful, she’s so fun to be with, she’s funny and smart, but still…The character has a lot of things from her because since we didn’t use written dialogues, she was forced to use herself. So it’s the grey area between character and actress, or human being I would say.

Dana: Is it true that you were inspired by Cassavetes’ Gloria for this character?

Sebastian: Cassavetes is one of the directors of my life and when it comes to a cinema that is able to capture the mystery, madness and complexity of being human, Cassavetes is like the Pope, he is the master, so I would like to capture that complexity also. It’s impossible not to think of Opening Night or A Woman Under the Influence, or even Gloria. Gena Rowlands was very present in our conversations, because of this energy, this woman who in a way is bigger than life, always with a drink, and high heels, and you know, “bring it on”, I love that…

Dana: It seems that Gloria wants to have a good time despite everything, she wants to enjoy life.

Sebastian: Yes, she’s laughing and enjoying herself, she’s not opaque or withdrawn. I’m so tired of these opaque, “interesting” characters that are hiding what they are thinking and you never know how they think about anything, aren’t they empty maybe? Which is OK, I just wanted to go in the other direction, this is her, transparent, in your face.

Dana: And at the same time the film is very nuanced, very subtle. Another interesting thing is that at the end Gloria finds herself on her own again, which is basically the scene at the beginning. 

Sebastian: Yeah.

Dana: She goes back to square one after experiencing all these emotional ups and downs…Was that the idea of the film, to show a woman experiencing life even if it doesn’t lead her anywhere basically, the film doesn’t have the ending that you’d expect.

Sebastian: Exactly, and this is a very interesting insight because vision is a theme in the film, the glasses, whether she sees or not, how she sees other people and how people see her, she puts the glasses on, she takes them off, she goes to the oculist, being a little maybe blind towards the others, towards life, towards herself, or literally blind, whatever…Dancing without glasses at the end is such a strong gesture. For me it is very interesting what you’re saying because it’s the same social context but I would say that at the end she sees that same context with new eyes, somehow everything has changed because the vision has changed. We can say it’s the same, but in a way it’s not. It is transformed, because her vision has transformed, because vision transforms, which is the core idea for the film, when we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.

GloriaDana: What did she see at the end that she didn’t see at the beginning?

Sebastian: Well I think at the beginning she’s looking for the sources of meaning outside her jurisdiction, in men, in family, in therapies and it seems that, but the film doesn’t observe that, it seems that at the end she understands that those sources of meaning might be inside her, so maybe she’s not looking outside, she is dancing blindly but is she blind? So it’s very delicate.

Dana: That’s a very interesting reading of the film.And you’re entitled to your own reading of the film!

Sebastian: (laughing) No, but it’s just a reading, I mean I see myself as a spectator also.

Dana: What were the challenges in making this film?

Sebastian: I would say the main challenge was taking all these low-level materials, like not very sophisticated songs, a lady who’s supposedly a not very interesting character, a boring life, feelings, emotions, and all these dangerous things for an actress, and through combination and alchemy, elevate them and turn them hopefully into cinema. That was the thing, because it is much easier to work with serious issues than to be serious about cinema.

Dana: Is your method of working on this film different from your previous films?

Sebastian: No, my films always had humour and I think they have that complexity but before I made a film that was very sad, because it had to do with the earthquake and tsunami that we had in Chile, and it was impossible not to be serious. We shot only six weeks after the earthquake on real locations where people had died, and we were shooting a fiction based on real events in the real places. But it was very heavy. So very naturally I felt the need to counterbalance, to reconnect with life.

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

Sebastian: Because for me it’s the best vehicle to cross life, the perfect excuse, it’s a great place from where to think the world. And cinema is a great way to contaminate the world also with what you feel. It’s a wonderful toy.

GLORIA, this wonderful toy from director Sebastian Lelio, is playing in London cinemas now, book your tickets here: Curzon Soho, ICA, Barbican Centre and Ritzy Cinema.

How To Shoot a £1m Car Commercial On a Zero Budget

Crewed entirely by award-winning women and with everyone volunteering their time,  this is not your usual car commercial!

The Feminist Car Commercial, three interconnecting short films made to look like genuine car commercials, aims to highlight female film-making talent in the UK and to show advertisers how their marketing communications could be devised for women.

The film will get its premiere at the BFI Southbank in September 2013 before being available online. Below is an interview with the producer, Paul Atherton, taken at BFI on the 8th of August 2013.

Feminist Car Commercial Still

Dana: What sparked the idea for a feminist car commercial?

Paul: There has been a proliferation of adverts that have treated women appallingly in the past 12 month, Audi’s Proms KissBMW’s Greek Billboard AdRenault’s Dancing Girls.  But it was the Broken Heel advert by Audi that really incensed me.  Audi hadn’t used a woman in their commercials for twenty years and when they finally did they leave her lying on the street in the rain with her clothes torn and handbag broken as the car being advertised drives away and leaves her there.  This is something that wouldn’t have been acceptable a few decades ago. Mumsnet’s reaction was universal: don’t buy Audis!

Dana: Was this a commissioned project or your own initiative?

Paul:  This was completely my own initiative.  Writer/Director Amanda Baker had originally come up with an idea to pitch a commercial for women to car companies, but when we did the research we saw a much bigger problem so I thought it would make far more sense to make a campaigning film. As a campaigning film it would have been difficult to find funds, especially quickly, we went from idea to finished film in under three months, far quicker than most funders take to make a decision. And who would commission a film that challenges the very industry that fuels it?

Dana: How does one pull off a “sting” of these proportions: shooting three sophisticated car commercials on a zero-budget, something that advertising companies spend ludicrous sums of money on?

Paul: Film is always about collaboration and this was no different.  Give people a great idea, surround them with talent and give them a message they can get behind and believe in, then you’ll find anything is possible. There are some amazingly generous people in our industry: Barry Basset at VMI, who supplied us over £1/2 Million worth of camera equipment, has been supportive of me since I entered the industry; Barnaby Laws at Panalux had worked with our amazing DP Gabi Norland before and wanted to support her, as well as the campaign; Paul Merchant at make-up supplier Charles Fox has been our award winning make-up artist and Sara Menitra‘s supplier for years; and Daniel Pagan at post house Lipsync has been a fantastic support to me since our first introduction. The key, as always, is relationships. It’s the people you’ve helped and supported that come back and help and support you.

Dana: How many people got involved in this project?

Paul: We managed to persuade just under 100 people to volunteer their time and expertise. As well as a number of industry sponsors who supplied all our kit and services.The thing that made this so special is that we created an A-list of award winners and established experience to approach and we got nearly everyone on it.But as always, we were keen to support new talent too.  So my entire production crew was made up from recent graduates and in addition we offered 11 runners their first job experience.

Fem car Com duplicateDana: I understand you also had some very prominent public figures supporting the project and that with a few exceptions it was an all female cast & crew.

Paul: The project first came to life for me when Carly Simon agreed to let us have her Oscar-Winning iconic eighties feminist anthem from the film Working Girl entitled Let The River Run free of charge. This was the equivalent of giving us between £50,000 to £100,000. Then BAFTA-nominated Natalie Holt agreed to do the original score. Sara Menitra, NY IMATS Makeup Winner 2012, Sara Chatterton, Celebrity Hairdresser,  Editor Prano Bailey-Bond & Director of Photography Gabi Norland who were both previous Underwire winners came next. The rest of our crew had worked on features from Harry Potter to the Iron Lady. Steve Moore, former Chief Executive of The Big Society Network, had just launched Britain’s Personal Best and we were one of the first projects to pledge.

The idea of an all female cast & crew came from the notion that if we were going to make something for women it should have that perspective in every department.  There had always been an absence of women in a variety of departments and the filmindustry as a whole.  Organisations such as Birds Eye View, Women in Film & Television have made great inroads to redressing that.  But I saw this as a way for us to highlight the British female film-making talent available, whilst making a point about one of the reasons it’s so hard to break in, namely how the media perceive women.

The men we had on the production crew, Frank Hellebrand – Grip, Greg Macfarlane King – Gaffer, Daniel Deighton – 2nd AC and Matthew Cresswell – DIT, very generously came on board at the last minute to fill in for roles that we couldn’t find replacement women for.  A classic example was our grip, Grace Donaldson, who had to drop out for a paid job. And as she is, if I’m not wrong, the only female grip in the world, we had no other way of replacing her.  But this clearly made our point that there are far too few women in the industry.

Dana: How long did the project take from start to finish?

Paul: The idea was sparked in May of this year (2013), I had scripts by the end of June and we’ll have it all finished by the end of August for the screening in the BFI Southbank on 3rd September 2013.

Dana: What were the challenges?

Paul: The biggest challenge was persuading our production crew to work for free for four days.  If this had been a student project, or people looking for experience it would have been simple.  But we were asking established talent, who had no need to add to their showreels (the main reason most people work for free). But once they understood the values of the project and the talent attached etc. they all generously bought in. Our props-maker Jo Shears who created the most jaw-dropping special effect of fingernails blowing away in the wind proved it doesn’t matter what the challenge is, as long as you’ve picked the right talent it can be overcome.And we had the right talent in every department.

Dana: Have you experienced any of those moments when you wished you hadn’t bothered?

Paul: Lots.  It’s undoubtedly been the hardest production I’ve ever worked on. And the catalogue of let-downs got to biblical proportions. For example, the idea was originally based around comparing ourselves to the recent Jaguar RSA “Desire” Film.  I was informed that we had access to two new F-Type Jaguars and a celebrity (which sadly never materialised), three months of negotiations with Jaguar fell at the last hurdle (three days before the shoot), on the basis they didn’t want to be seen leading a campaign for “Equal Pay” for women.  Our locations manager who was eight months pregnant when she came to us left to have her baby and we were suddenly left without locations two weeks before the shoot. We had three major crew dropouts on the day before the shoot and even the location that we thought had been secured turned out not to have been with just hours to spare. But with a great team, amazing vision and people pulling in every favour they had, we got it in the can. Our “thank you” list is likely to be the longest in cinematic history! And we agreed we’d only complete the third mock commercial in the trilogy if we get our named talent, which is what I’m on a quest to do now.

Dana: To care deeply about something – does that provide all the motivation and drive you need to succeed?

Paul: No. Caring deeply about something is the starting point.  And you’ll always remind yourself that this is what it’s all about.  It’s why you do what you do. All my previous productions are around things that are important to me. Domestic violence, racism, prison reform etc.  I would hate to make something that didn’t have an underlying cause. But the drive, that comes from other people for me. People you can turn to when things get hard, the people who can see the silver-lining in the cloud when all you can see is the cloud. The people who will rally to your defence and stand by you no matter what. I’m very fortunate to have a lot of friends in and outside the industry that fill those roles and without them none of this would be possible.

Dana: If you had a budget for this project, what would you spend it on?

Paul: If we had a budget for this, it would in essence have just been a commercial.  We wouldn’t be making an important point and we wouldn’t have got the commitment required to make it.

Dana: Where is feminism at these days? Do you think we are witnessing a backlash? The fact that people don’t seem to be as sensitive about the issue as in the past (only one woman complained about the Renault ad if I’m not wrong?) can be interpreted as a good thing, in the sense that women got what they wanted, there is no need for feminism anymore, OR as a very bad thing, that women simply gave up the fight or don’t care anymore. What are your insights on this subject?

Paul: I think the term feminism has many poor connotations.  Usually associated with women who seemingly hate men.  I see feminism as being pro-women and not anti-men. I don’t think there is a backlash against feminism. I just think audiences, marketeers and advertsiser have just got lazy and apathetic.  We live in a society that is all concerned about spending.  People always talk about doing jobs to pay the bills.  That thinking leads to fear and to inertia. So when BMW put a poster up in Greece, containing a sultry 14-year old looking girl attached to the tagline “You know you’re not the first” to advertise their second-hand car dealerships, you know that the hundreds of decision-makers involved in that process either didn’t care or didn’t have the courage to say “that’s nuts.. noooo!”

Dana: What are you hoping to achieve with these films?

Paul: The whole point of the project is two-fold.  First to highlight what amazing female film talent there is in the UK and that we need far more. And secondly to remind marketeers that women are customers, a large customer base in fact, and not objects.  This is our version of what car advertisements should look like: creative, funny, quirky and making important points. The films are of course just the catalyst for the debate and fortuitously we have Olivia Read at DDA PR to ensure our message gets out there far and wide. We all realise without the press there can be no change in public perception and we appreciate all the support we can get in that regard , so thank you.

Dana: You’re welcome!;)…Do you intend to develop the idea into a larger project?

Paul: We have a feature script written by Rhianna Pratchett entitled Vigilia, which looks at the rise of a female movement in the UK kickstarted by a rape. So the ideas behind this project tap directly into that.  That of course will require funding, approximately £2 million, and we have some financiers lined up who I’m sure will appreciate the production values contained in this short.

Dana: I understand you suffer from chronic fatigue,  how did you manage to keep working?

Paul: Chronic fatigue is a disabling condition that often leads sufferers to be bed- or wheelchair-ridden for years.  I was diagnosed in 1992 and I was wheelchair-bound for nearly a year in 2010.  But since then, I’ve managed to survive just through what are known as “crashes”. The worst has lasted a couple of months. You’re unable to move and sometimes even to talk. It used to be terrifying but I’m used to it now. It’s ironic because all the doctors tell you to avoid stress and lead a very dull life.  But I’d rather shine for a few months and then crash for months to produce something.  Not making something would mean I’m not alive and it would be impossible to keep struggling on without that aspect of my life.

Dana:  Is it true that you are homeless?

Paul: Yes. It’s a sad reflection of Britain’s current state, that our lives are no longer our own.  In 2009 an error on my credit file which had nothing to do with me resulted in me not being able to renew my tenancy. The resultant stress caused a CFS crash and I ended up in hospital for three months and discharged to a homeless hostel in Brixton.  I was claiming benefits but there were many screw-ups and I was evicted to the streets from there in my wheelchair.  As you can imagine, friends were incredibly supportive and offered accommodation and care but it’s not their job.  I’d paid my taxes and should have had the systems there to protect me.  I therefore decided to live in my car on the Southbank, which I did for two years until the police confiscated it by mistake at the beginning of this year 2013, another bureaucratic cock-up involving a wrongly apportioned conviction at the DVLA.  I now live in a hostel in Vauxhall but as of Monday they’re trying to kick me out – on the grounds, and you’ll love this, that I have nowhere to live!