Interview: Johnny Simmons of “The Phenom”

Posted on June 29, 2016 at 1:55 pm

Johnny Simmons has the title role in The Phenom, an exceptionally intelligent and insightful film about a troubled young major league pitcher and the therapist who helps him understand the impact his abusive father has had on him. Simmons is one of my favorite young actors and it was a treat to get to talk to him about the role. The film was released in theaters and on VOD and digital June 24, 2016.

Simmons plays a character who does not speak much and through much of the film has very little insight about himself or the people around him. “It was challenge,” Simmons told me, when I asked him about acting when the character is so subdued. Writer/director Noah Buschel “kept constantly bringing it back and pulling it back and pulling it back and I think that that’s reflective in the outcome; you see that in the movie. So on the set, it was the first film where I ever left a set early because we got done shooting earlier that we even expected. I think we left like 1 or 2 o’clock in the afternoon which if you’ve ever been on set that is just unheard of. And I think it’s because Noah knew exactly what he was going for and it’s in his vision from the very beginning. So it was hard to do at times because you are going to want do something when you are an actor and I learned how to pull it all back honestly.”

I asked what Buschel first told him about Hopper, the character he would be playing. “The one thing that was a clicking moment for me was when he said if there was an empty chair in the corner of the room that’s where you would find Hopper. Once I heard that I was like okay. He is really shy.” It wasn’t so much that Hopper was trying not to feel anything. “I think he is unable to feel. I don’t know if it’s intentional but he is certainly cut off or removed.” Simmons loved the script the first time he read it. “I felt that I knew what I wanted to do with it at that point — which by the way totally changed. But I could see where I wanted to go right away. It’s like you start reading the script and you know what’s coming because you tapped into the way the writer’s head was when he was writing it. I feel like that very rarely happens but it does happen when you’re like – I know what he is about to say. And that’s such a cool feeling.”

He felt lucky that the original start date was pushed back, which gave him more time to work on the role. “So we had a lot of time to talk about it that’s one thing. More often than not especially on a smaller budget film you don’t have any time. So we have to kind of fall into each other’s arms and just trust each other. So you always wish your last day was your first day because what you know about the experience makes you feel like you are ready to begin.”

Hopper is caught throughout the movie between two symbols of masculinity: the therapist, played by Paul Giamatti and the father, played by Ethan Hawke. Simmons said that anyone can identify with the struggle to find a role model and the consequence of learning that someone you look up to is not all you had thought or hoped. “I know that I had to figure all that out as well and I think I’m still figuring it out. I don’t know if you ever arrive at the place where you are like, ‘Oh that’s who I want to be,’ because I have been lucky and also unlucky in that I’ve met a bunch of my heroes. It happened to me on this film. Luckily on this film everybody that I met was incredible but sometimes your hero can be a letdown if you let it be because you realize that they are just human. And then that teaches you something. At first it’s a bummer because you are like, ‘Oh damn, they are human.’ I think that Hopper is kind of in that group where he is just a complete anomaly, somebody who really makes it to the major leagues and he gets the opportunity to realize that having your dreams come true doesn’t necessarily mean roses and happy love songs. I don’t know if that’s the truth for everybody but it has definitely happened to me. I have a couple of friends who have gone pro in sports and if you are off by an inch it’s an entire mind game for the next week. That’s how it works, like your whole world is based around an inch. Being an actor but your whole world turns on an inch, too. I guess the goal would be to not let it be that. Everybody is going to have their own issues that they bring to the table but for me the best thing is just giving over to whatever is there and trusting whatever is there and enjoying it. It’s so easy to become caught up by ‘I’ve got to do this’ or ‘I’ve got to do that’ and most of the times the best stuff comes from when you are not trying to do anything and when you let go. Just trust those around you and trust yourself.”

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Actors Interview Sports

AFI Docs 2016 — Highlights

Posted on June 28, 2016 at 4:44 pm

The 2016 AFI Docs festival is over and the audience award winner was “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise,” which will be featured on the PBS “American Masters” series.

This year’s AFI DOCS attendees included renowned filmmakers Judd Apatow, Ramin Bahrani, Heidi Ewing, Alex Gibney, Rachel Grady, Werner Herzog (this year’s AFI DOCS Charles Guggenheim Symposium honoree) and Barbara Kopple, along with documentary subjects Sharon Jones and Norman Lear. I was struck by the pair of films about the internet, Werner Herzog’s “Lo and Behold” and Alex Gibney’s Stuxnet film “Zero Days.” Other highlights included “Life, Animated,” the extraordinary story of a boy with autism who used Disney animated films to teach himself how to communicate (coming to theaters over the next few weeks), and “Gleason,” the story of football player Steve Gleason, who was diagnosed with ALS.

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Documentary Festivals

Beliefnet’s Top Movie “Miracles”

Posted on June 28, 2016 at 3:30 pm

Want to see some movie miracles? Check out this list of Beliefnet-recommended movies with inspiring stories of divine interventions. Watch for a glimpse of the angel’s wings in this delightful dance number from John Travolta’s “Michael.”

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For Your Netflix Queue Spiritual films

Interview: Gary Ross on “Free State of Jones”

Posted on June 27, 2016 at 3:37 pm

Gary Ross, best known for the first “Hunger Games” movie, spent years researching the real-life story behind his new film, “Free State of Jones,” about a group of deserters from the Confederate Army and runaway slaves who declared their independence from the legal and economic oppression of the Confederacy. You can see more about the story in the “Free State of Jones” website. His commitment to authenticity included filming in the actual locations where the events took place, including the swamp where Newt Knight (played by Matthew McConaughey) and his group hid from the Confederate soldiers. “We were in the swamp for a long time but it was worth it. We were shooting where the true story actually occurred so that was kind of inspiring.” There are several books about the historical events, but Ross reviewed the original documents. “I did a lot of primary source research. When you go to the website you will see that most of the things that we cite are not secondary historians but are primary sources. I studied for about 2 to 3 years before I ever even started writing the script….There’s a tremendous amount of original sources that survived. We use a ton of sources from what was called the OR, the Original Records of the War Between the States which is the most reliable source. And we used a lot of letters to corroborate this evidence from former Confederate soldiers they were writing about the rebellion to one another as it was going on so there’s a tremendous amount of actual primary sources that exists, I mean hundreds and you can see them on the website.” freestateofjones

The film is set in the Civil War era, but some scenes show us Knight’s descendent in a 1948 miscegenation trial. Ross said, “I think that we need to see some perspective. It was a way of almost trying Newt in absentia a century later. These issues that were necessarily unresolved. It also let us explore what happens to memory when you lose connection with your past. This is a century later and it is still going on. I think that the fact that there was in fact this real trial which was still bizarre was an important thing to include.”

He talked about seeing the jobs of writer and director separately. “I don’t see directing as an extension of writing. It is to certain degree because you are storytelling but it’s its own thing. But you are never afraid to keep writing when you’re a writer there so I actually have more flexibility on the set, I don’t see the script as such a lock or rigid thing. And directing informs your writing. When you’re directing you think of it the more cinematically, you think, ‘Are they going to be able to actually do it?’ There is less waste in the writing. There is more of a cognizance of the cutting pattern. There is more even awareness the things like sounds design, so yes I definitely think it informs how I write now.”

There are some common themes between this real-life story and the allegory of “Hunger Games.” “Individual and personal liberty is tremendously important to me and I think that this has been somethings that has been expressed through a lot of the work that I’ve done one way or another. Newt used Scripture to justify his actions. It began as an organic rebellion. It was anti-tax rebellion at the outset but it grew into a larger meaning of freedom and it broadened out into a bigger definition of what freedom was. Once he glimpsed what true freedom meant he couldn’t tolerate his wish for personal freedom and then accept unfreedom for other people so I think that Newt expanded and grew and in his worldview and that led him been an advocate for African-Americans in the postwar period.”

Ross wants to make sure that audiences see the oppression that continued after the end of the Civil War. “The war didn’t and in 1865. The conflicts of the war went to 1876. We can see this as a continuum in the fight for freedom. I think that the only movies that existed prior to these were the original “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind” so the record needs to be set straight because they are very misleading about the reconstruction era. I hope people who see this can talk about interracial reliance and interracial alliance. I think that’s tremendously important. Newton Knight as an ally of African-Americans in the postwar era is a tremendously important thing to celebrate. Only when we unite in America will we ever make true progress.

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Based on a true story Directors Interview Writers

Roald Dahl — Movies and Television

Posted on June 27, 2016 at 8:00 am

Roald Dahl was a prolific author whose books included wildly popular children’s stories like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the creepy short stories that inspired some of the best-remembered episodes of “The Alfred Hitchcock Show,” including “Lamb to the Slaughter,” with one of the great murder weapons in the history of murder stories. This week, the latest Dahl adaptation comes to screen, Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG.”

Stephanie Merry has a terrific piece in the Washington Post about the films based on Dahl’s children’s books, from Fantastic Mr. Fox to Anjelica Huston’s title role in The Witches.

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