Archive for June 2011
From Clash, June 2011
A mother’s will forces two Canadian twins to search for a father and a brother that they never knew existed in this high substance, Radiohead approved film. They return to Lebanon, the land of her birth, and slowly discover the horrifying untold story of her earlier life. Centred on a neutral examination of nation’s civil war, Incendies tackles a cycle of hatred fuelled by tribal feuds, politics, religion and ideology. The grand scale of the issue is given a compelling emotional punch by switching that context onto the experiences of a single woman – a mother who, it seems, her children never really knew.
Incendies is by no measure an accessible view; the politics, as in the reality, are borderline incomprehensible, the pacing shifts gear at will and the semi-linear plot takes sometime to hit the essence of the story which, despite its depth, is inherently about a search for a missing person. Director Denis Villeneuve utilises repeated mirror images to emphasise how the horrors of conflict echo across generations to come, all the while cleverly placing narrative hints which only later reveal their full magnitude. This essential, intelligent film is as gruelling, harrowing and surprising as they come.
From Clash, May 2011
Paul Giamatti’s career has been a slow-burning affair. After establishing himself as a strong supporting actor in films such as Saving Private Ryan and Man on the Moon, Giamatti was well into his thirties before his talents earned major attention with lead roles as a merlot hating wine connoisseur in Sideways and a depressed comic book creator in American Splendor. Despite a succession of film and television awards (including an Oscar nomination), his highest accolade to date came earlier this year when he won a Golden Globe for Best Performance for his title role in Barney’s Version.
Spanning forty years in the life of the contradictory alcoholic and romantically inconsistent Barney Panofsky, the film demanded the full range of Giamatti’s acting ability. “Part of what’s attractive about the character is the extremes of it,” says Giamatti. “He can be a total bastard and then actually very kind.”
The physical transformation required was also demanding with make-up artist Adrien Morot spending over three hours a day working on the actor’s most elaborate metamorphoses. “I wanted to look a little more alcohol bloated,” explains Giamatti of his collaboration with Morot.
“One of the main techniques in acting drunk, especially in this where he’s such an intense alcoholic, is that you’re working as hard as you can not to appear drunk,” he states soberly. “So right off the bat you set up a tension within yourself that gives you an off-balance feeling.”
Featuring alongside Giamatti in the film are a trio of leading ladies (Rosamund Pike, Rachel Lefevre and Minnie Driver) and notable talent from Canada’s film industry (David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan and Paul Gross), but it’s his scenes with Dustin Hoffman that are most memorable.
“What’s amazing about him is that he’s still learning,” he emphasises. “He’s completely open and still trying to get it right. He’s completely all about not being complacent.”
If Dustin Hoffman is still learning, there’s no hope that any of us will master anything.
Previously quietly composed, Giamatti roars with laughter: “Ha ha, it’s definitely a sad commentary for everyone else!”
This month sees Giamatti on our screens twice more: as a moonlighting wrestling coach in Win/Win and with a cameo in The Hangover 2. Of the latter, he’s been sworn to secrecy and will only reveal that he “plays a colourful character.” Given that it’s Paul Giamatti we’re talking about, we can hardly expect anything less.
A final raid on the archives for now. Here’s the text that accompanied a photo-based feature on Steve Barron which featured some pretty amazing images from each of these projects.
Steve Barron, the mastermind of three of the most defining music videos of the Eighties, returns with Choking Man. Balancing psychological realism with a fantastical edge, Choking Man focuses on the lives of the immigrant workers employed in a New York City diner. Barron tells Clash more about the film’s inspiration as well as looking back on his body of work.
“I was sitting with my son in a diner and I felt strongly that I wanted to work in the New York indie field,” says Baron, citing the similarly toned Raising Victor Vargas and The Station Agent as examples. By law, all New York restaurants need to have a graphic demonstrating the technique behind the Heimlich Manoeuvre on show and that image dominated Barron’s inspiration.
“At the same sort of time we were looking in the kitchens and at the immigrant world over there and thinking about the illegal immigrants who come over and work as busboys or as dishwashers. It seemed that there was a real quiet, internal life that was going on with these people that didn’t look like they felt like they belonged in America. But nor did they belong in the places they came from; they were caught in this little trap and were also pointedly very anonymous to most of the American public. So we put the two anonymities together.”
Further inspired by a couple of people he knew with “mild autism or Asperger’s” and “acute social inactivity”, the idea being Choking Man took shape “under the umbrella of communication.”
Eager to do something that differed in feel from other films, Barron was also keen to show that first impressions can provoke a mistruth. “Choking Man’s bully, for instance, you might look at yourself later and say I judged him, but that’s not quite how he is. Because I think that’s what you do in life, you see people, form an opinion and sometimes that can be quite wrong.”
Completed for just $400,000, Choking Man also highlights a magical score from Phillip Glass associate Nico Muhly.
Michael Jackson: Billie Jean
“I remember the moment that I realised what an amazing performer this was, and that was obviously when he started dancing. When I did the ideas for the video and presented the storyboard, the manager said to me, ‘He’s been doing some practising in front of the mirror, so maybe leave a chorus or whatever you think to some dancing.’”
So with two blank frames in the storyboard, Barron hatched a plan for Jackson (“A lovely, mild, soft-spoken, very personal, amiable, shy character”) to utilise his new found skills. The original plan was for each paving stone to be triggered into light by Jackson’s famously fleeted feet, but budgetary restraints limited them to eleven slabs now prompted by an electrician’s swift reactions rather than the King of Pop’s swift movements.
“I saw the most incredible performer I’d ever been in the room with, dancing this dance on his toes and everything we all know now. But then I’d never seen anything like it. To see it in front of my eyes…” Barron pauses, still lost for words twenty-five years later. “Literally the eye piece steamed up, which was pretty hard to do in those conditions. As soon as I cut, the whole crew just erupted into applause.”
A-Ha: Take On Me
As hard as it is to believe now, Take On Me had twice failed to set the charts on fire when Barron was approached to make something a little special to help make it a hit. The song’s original performance video was extremely dull, so Barron’s insistence on a decent budget and plenty of time was bound to be an improvement.
“The image that came to my mind was that animated hand coming out of the table reaching for someone. I did a lot of videos through those years and not very often did the idea give me goose bumps like that did. I knew I was onto something, but I don’t remember much fuss about that video at the time aside from a few awards.”
The video, of course, is now as definitively Eighties as Back To The Future or Rick Astley, helped in part by parodies stretching from Family Guy to the recent version with lyrics explaining the video’s plot. As Barron surmises, “These videos are filled with naïve hope and expectation but some of them really work.”
Dire Straits: Money For Nothing
Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler hated music videos. Steve Barron was given the task of persuading him to make something palatable for the MTV generation. His lengthy pitch appeared to be falling on deaf ears, but Knopfler’s girlfriend loved the idea so much that Barron’s task was fulfilled.
“I wasn’t even sure that was a big hit song. I’m not a very good A&R person!” he laughs. “But I liked some of the Dire Straits stuff and that wasn’t the one that got me. It grew on me with the video, it kind of put it in context and gave it a spirit. It was obviously already there, but I hadn’t related to it.”
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
“It was mainly a great experience. But it was a struggle to get it made,” says Barron of his film adaptation of the comic book and TV franchise.
That struggle encompassed many things; Barron’s preference for it to be animatronically based rather than the studio’s desire for animation integrated with live action, a struggle for funding and a lack of interest in releasing the film that spread as far as The Jim Henson Company. Henson’s Creature Shop had created the actual turtles but the Company deemed it too violent to release – understandable considering their projects around that time included Labyrinth and A Muppet Family Christmas.
But New Line Cinema paid $2 million for it and the film reaped $135 million back from the box office alone.
Another from the Clash archives (August 2008): James Marsh on his film Man On Wire which would win a BAFTA the following year. Marsh’s next documentary Project Nim is out in August.
On August 7th 1974, Phillipe Petit completed one of the most dangerous artistic statements in history when he tightrope-walked between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Director James Marsh discusses Man on Wire, his new documentary that examines the incident.
Imagine standing atop a skyscraper almost half a kilometre high. Now imagine walking along a tightrope approximately an inch thick for fifty metres until you reach a second tower of the same height. It sounds impossible. And yet, this amazing moment of bravery is matched in the incredulity stakes by the planning needed to even attempt the actual walk.
When Frenchman Philippe Petit first saw an artist’s impression of the twin towers, he was strangely compelled to cross them by tightrope. Years later, after similar feats in Sydney and at the Notre Dame, he was ready. Having assembled a small range of accomplishes who veered from loyal friend to dedicated stoner, as well as discreetly scouting every minor detail of the towers, he was fully prepared. All he had to do was sneak sixty metres of steel cable and accompanying rigging into the tower, get their two-hundred kilogram mass up to the roof, some twenty-eight floors above the top eighty-second floor, and then rig the wire from one tower to another. All while allowing for wind and the movement of the two buildings.
Amazing, Petit not only succeeded, but crossed the gap eight times during a forty-five minutes spell of dancing above the dazzled onlookers. He was arrested, but not after capturing the imagination of the city.
An Englishman in New York, director James Marsh has created Man on Wire, a fascinating and compelling study of Petit’s tale. “A lot of people are dimly aware of the event almost like it’s part of the recent city’s folklore,” he begins. “After the towers were destroyed it took on a very different meaning for obvious reasons. Philippe Petit wrote a book called To Reach The Clouds which is very personal and subjective memoir of how he did his World Trade Center walk. The book is written from his own point of voice and what I tried to do was to broaden it out and to try to track down every person who was involved in the plotting of what was essentially a criminal conspiracy.”
The film becomes a multi-stranded narrative as similarly fascinating characters such as Petit’s best friend Jean-Louis Blondeau and girlfriend Annie Allix give their side of a fascinating and surprisingly emotive moment. “I was surprised by how much detail everyone else remembers and how important it was as an adventure in their young lives,” explains Marsh, previously best known for the Gael García Bernal drama The King and creepy docudrama Wisconsin Death Trip. “When people recall the moment of the walk itself, they’re incredibly moved and they seem to reconnect with their feelings of the time. Their friendships have been tested in really unusual ways so in that respect you can see some very strong emotions from people who no longer have the same friendships that they did at the time. That’s the one thing that surprised me more than anything else. It becomes very poignant and bittersweet.”
For Marsh, the appeal of the project wasn’t solely due to the event’s almost mythological status. “Once you realise it’s not a stunt and it’s actually a performance that someone wants to do so badly and the whole performance is framed by the possibility of death – and it’s completely illegal, it was trespassing and breaking and entering – you realise you’ve got a sort of crime story where the objective isn’t really a crime at all, it’s to give something, to do something amazing,” he flows beatifically. “It passes this test that I have of being naughty and subversive as well.”
Petit, of course, is the undoubted star of the show. Upon first meeting Marsh to discuss the project, the nimble fingered Frenchman picked the director’s pocket and taught him how to kill a man with a magazine. Interviewing him on camera proved to be a similarly tricky task. “Usually you have a certain amount of control, but that wasn’t an option with Phillipe. Within a few minutes he was running off around the room, climbing up the walls, hiding behind curtains and running out the door,” laughs Marsh with evident fondness. “So I decided to embrace that and liberate everybody from the conventions of interviews and try to capture the energy of his testimony.”
There’s a sadness that no video footage of the great walk exists, but its absence creates an enigmatic feeling that makes the story all the more astonishing. Blondeau had equipped himself with a 16mm camera to film proceedings, but after spending six hours pulling the prohibitively heavy wires into place he couldn’t even lift it. Marsh’s documentary substitutes video footage with some remarkable stills photography of the incident.
Man on Wire represents astounding viewing; its eccentric lead as compelling as the almost unbelievable circumstances, all constructed with empathy and artistry that makes it perhaps the finest documentary since Touching The Void.
“I think he [Petit] has a very good concept of danger and that’s what keeps him alive,” concludes Marsh. “But also he knows his own limits and his own talents, he’s a very ambitious man and he doesn’t recognise anything to be impossible when it comes to his art of wire-walking. He’s very attentive to the nature of what he does. He’s got a sense of his limits, but they’re pretty amazing limits.”
One from the archives (September 2008, to be precise). With his new documentary Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold coming to the UK this September, here’s my interview with Morgan Spurlock focusing on Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?
Having faced the might of the fast food industry with Super Size Me, where could Morgan Spurlock find a bigger adversary? Simple: he hit the road to ask, “Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?”
“We knew it was close to impossible and that the odds of it happening were millions and millions and millions to one,” says Morgan Spurlock of his search to find Osama Bin Laden. “But it’s like when you buy a lotto ticket; you don’t buy a lotto ticket and say, ‘I’m going to lose today, that’s why I buy the ticket.’ You buy it because you might be the one person who gets the jackpot.”
It takes a certain type of man to endure extreme survival training and a trek around some of the most dangerous regions of the Middle-East to chase a mission that he regards as likely to be a success as a random lottery ticket purchase. The simple fact is that Spurlock could’ve died as his pregnant wife waited for his safe return – a fact confirmed by his initial training.
“In these classes they have things blowing up around you, people screaming and blood spurting out of their wounds,” he says with adrenalin perhaps still rocketing through his veins. “They try to get you prepared for the fact that things could this bad or much worse. When you’re in there, it starts to hit you, the reality that I could be in a situation where it could be this bad. That’s when the reality sets in, big time. When you’re in the training, people start talking about wounds, like, if you get your leg blown off, here’s what you do. If you get shot in the neck, here’s what you do.”
“When I turn on the TV, the people over there are wearing masks and they’re screaming and yelling and burning things. ‘Kill America!’ That’s really not who the majority is,” he explains. “Personally, I thought we were going to be met with a lot more hostility, that people were going to be much more standoffish to us, that people were going to hate us just because of who we are and because who I am as an American. It just really wasn’t the case, people really did bend over backwards to be hospitable to us.”
Not that everyone was as welcoming. “We met a lot of very unhappy, angry people who told us that they would kill us, that bad things would happen if we kept making this film. Some of them were very calm people who said, ‘America must be destroyed, you all must be killed. You either convert to our way of living or you’ll be wiped off the face of the earth.’ But there were others that were really vicious and volatile in their conversation.”
“We were at the Gaza Strip and suddenly tanks start firing on Gaza as Kazam rockets are being fired overhead,” he offers as to an example of real physical danger that he faced during the film. “And that’s a scary place to be, right next to a tank that’s shooting. Cut to when we’re in Afghanistan and we’re riding along with the troops and there’s an ambush on the Governor’s convoy and you see one of the Taliban get killed. Those aren’t places you want to be.”
Much like Super Size Me, Spurlock uses humour as a tool with which to make a serious subject palatable to a wider audience.
“I’m a big believer that if you can get somebody to laugh, you can get somebody to listen,” he summarises with the same infectious energy that informs his film’s presentation. “With humour you can deal with a lot of bigger subjects in a way that’s much more accessible. There’s a very specific audience that would’ve seen this as a very straight, very serious documentary. By dealing with it in a humorous way, we broaden our ability to touch a lot more folks. I think the people who this film is for are the audience who saw Super Size Me. The vast majority of people who saw Super Size Me had never been to see a documentary in a movie theatre in their life and, if you liked that film, you’re going to like this film. It breaks down a lot of complex ideas into a very simple, easy to shallow format. It doesn’t tell you what to think, it’s not too heavy-handed. It’s for an audience of kids thirteen and up and for an audience of adults.”
This time around the presentation is slicker as well, as he utilises computer graphics, spoof trading cards and other novelties in order to achieve the same result.
“I’m a child of the video game revolution, that’s part of my life, so it goes from me all the way down to kids who are fourteen or fifteen who play games now and it’s their primer into a much larger Middle-East discussion.”
One chance meeting neatly demonstrated how Spurlock’s film had the influence that he intended.
“There was a kid who was probably nineteen or twenty years old who I met at the premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. He came up to me afterwards and told me how his parents would never let him travel abroad, would never let him get a passport and how they’d tell him that everybody overseas wants to kill Americans. And after seeing the film he said, ‘I’ve decided I have to get a passport and find out for myself.’”
For once, Spurlock appears to be awestruck and almost lost for words. “That’s a great response.”