Interview: Kelly MacDonald and Marc Turtletaub of “Puzzle”

Posted on August 7, 2018 at 8:00 am

Copyright 2018 Sony PIctures Classics

In the midst of the summer blockbuster season, a quiet film about a neglected wife who does jigsaw puzzles is getting a warm reception from critics and fans, with special praise for an exquisite performance by Kelly MacDonald as Agnes in her first lead role. I spoke to MacDonald and director Marc Turtletaub about the film.

There’s a timeless quality at the beginning of the movie as we see Agnes getting the house ready for a birthday party. We don’t know if it is set in the past or just today in a place that has not changed very much over the decades. It’s a surprise when one of her gifts is an iPhone because until that moment it could have been taking place in the 1950’s or 60’s.

Marc Turtletaub: Yes, it was intentional. You do it in the production design and the cinematography. Those early scenes are shot in silhouette and there is a lot of smoke being blown into the room by the cinematographer. It creates an atmosphere in which it feels almost like Agnes, the central character, is stuck in time, and she is as a character. She’s in the house she was raised in, in the house where she took care of her father, the one she raised her children in and so we wanted to create a sense in the environment that it was almost from another era.

It’s not only in the cinematography but it’s the production design and the costume. I spent way too much time picking out a dress for Agnes that would meld into the wallpaper we were picking out so you’d get the sense that not only was she stuck in time but that she was almost unseen in part of the environment.

Kelly MacDonald: There is a book, The Yellow Wallpaper, and that’s exactly what happens to her as she disappears into the walls.

MT: And in Garden State where it’s a complete match. We didn’t want to go that far. We did have a reference though, Bonnard. I was at a museum and I saw some of his work and I was so taken with how the study had a woman in front of the background and they melded so perfectly I went, “ That’s it, that’s what I’m looking for.”

Kelly, you had an unusual opportunity and challenge because you created the character without any words for the first part of the movie.

KM: I’ve always been interested in what it would be like to be in the silent era like Lillian Gish and just solely rely on expressions. So this was like my opportunity. I hadn’t realized when I read the script quite how much of the film has Agnes on her own. I just find those scenes were quite lonely because I got used to being around boys and family and everything and so there was a bit of that but I did quite enjoy just being able to express things without words. Quite often I’m trying to get rid of extraneous dialogue anyway. I’m happy without words.

Your character solves the puzzles very quickly. How did you make that look so natural?

KM: It brought back how much I like puzzles. So I was doing them when I would finish work for the day. I stole a couple from work and I would go back and decompress by doing puzzles. It’s very Zen and relaxing.

And I’d be presented with the prop of the day puzzle and then I would start to find a spot and take the best side that I wanted to work on and then place them on the table and try and remember where I put the pieces I’d be using. It was good brain training. And then I would start do it as fast as possible.

You were acting with one of my absolute favorites Irrfan Khan. Did you consult one another on the chemistry between your characters?

KM: I don’t think we really did discuss it. It was just suddenly he arrived as a fully fledged oddball. The first scene we filmed together was when I tell him I know he is an inventor. That was a good introductory scene to do actually because it was quite a long scene and we got to be face to face. I got to be awkward and he got to be just sort of bemused by this strange woman. When I think of him in the film I think of him in that doorway just being so physical and brilliant and just compelling I think.

There are a number of literal reflections in the film. What does that, well, reflect?

MT: I think of one that probably stands out most of all to me and it’s about it’s the moment where Irrfan Khan’s character Robert talks to Agnes about how active her mind is and the fact that she has nowhere to express it, no one to express it t. He sort of nails it and says something to her that no one has ever said to her but at the same token he actually listens to her. He can be a bit of a mansplainer but he also sees her in a way that maybe no one except her eldest son somewhat sees her.

There’s this wonderful moment after that where we hear Ave Maria and then she walks off and she goes down the street and we set it up so that as Kelly walks you see her reflection in the windows of the stores. And then she stops in front of one store and she flips her hair up and she puts it on top of her head and she pulls it behind her ear. As soon as I read it, that’s the visual I had in my mind. I wanted to see her looking at herself maybe for the first time in years as a woman and thinking about being more self-conscious.

We wanted to show different images (I call them portraits) of her at different stages of the movie and some were more successful than others; that was a successful one. I think another successful one is some of the reflections in the train and we just tried to capture Agnes at a different point in time to see how she’s evolved during the course of the movie.

Marc, You have an unusual career path for a director. What does being a CEO teach you that helps you as a director?

MT: I’ve had a strange life, not just career and I’ve had a lot of experience in a lot of different things. What I think I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is how to collaborate. People who are leaders in whatever endeavor and become successful over a long-term learn how to encourage other people. That’s something you do as a director. You encourage others, whether you’re a parent doing that and leading your children or whether you’re running a company, you’re encouraging. You hold a vision, you know how to set a boundary when you need to but there’s so much about encouraging people to do their best. And when you have people like Kelly and (I really say this in all candor) and Irrfan and David Denman and the young people we had, it makes the job really easy.

I love the way that recognizing her gift for puzzles inspires Agnes to notice more of what is going on around her. She even tells her husband she thinks they should begin watching the news. And she notices for the first time how unhappy her son is.

KM: It isn’t that film about a sort of savant which is great. She’s good at puzzles and she is fast but it’s not the through line of the film. What it does is remind her that she used to really quite like math. It just starts this little thing inside her brain, like this little scratch, and she wants to know what life might have been if things had been just even slightly different.

I just love that. The thing I love about her is she’s kind of got Truth Tourette’s — she just says what’s in her head. She does lie in the film but she does quite a bad job of it and struggles. But when she’s relaxed she can’t help but just see and some things that she says are totally brutal.

She’s a grown woman but she’s like a child. She is being kept like a sort of child-woman and it’s quite right that she has to at some point start discovering herself.

And her oldest son completely sees his mother and what she is and who she is in a way that Agnes isn’t even aware of. but he hasn’t spoken about it and it’s when she starts to sort of change slightly in these tiny ways to normal people but to her family it’s just seismic and it’s the tremors, the after-effects that touches them all. It’s really a beautiful thing that as she’s beginning to sort of open that door inside herself.

When you’re so trapped inside yourself it’s hard to see anyone else. If you do not see yourself with any depth how can you see depth in other people? This experience gives her the ability to just recognize her son’s in real trouble and she’s a very good mom and I think it’s lovely.

MT: She frees him.

KM: And it’s not a romance film either. It’s not about who is she going to end up with, who is going to make her better because it’s her journey. She could have fallen into either set of strong arms and the problems would remain and she would still have a lot of work to do on herself.

Marc, as I look back on the movies you have produced, it seems they are all about imperfect people trying to do the best they can.

MT: I try to. That’s like all of us, right? Audiences are hungry for real people realistically displayed. Mike Leigh said it beautifully: He takes the mundane and makes it poetic. That’s what we aspire for in this movie, to have ordinary characters but their lives stand for something so much bigger.

KM: Ordinary stories that move you, When people talk to us about how this movie makes them feel, they touch their hearts, literally put their hands on their chests, and I love that.

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Interview: Drew Fellman and Jake Owens on the new IMAX Film “Pandas”

Posted on April 1, 2018 at 10:15 pm

Copyright Warner Brothers 2018
Pandas are, as someone notes in the adorable new IMAX documentary simply called “Pandas,” “the King Kong of cuteness.” Kristen Bell narrates the story of an ambitious and daunting Chinese project, to take panda babies bred in captivity and release them into the wild, to repopulate the endangered species. The Chinese panda specialists consult with an American from New Hampshire who has a similar program for bears. And we get to watch as a panda named Qian Qian leaves the only home she has ever known. I spoke to director Drew Fellman and American panda expert Jacob Owens, who worked with Qian Qian and appears in the film.

Why are humans so drawn to pandas?

Fellman: I know, it’s a mystery, isn’t it? There is so much about that that really is so unknown, part of it I think is that pandas are still so new to us. Pandas were unknown to the West until about the 1860’s and the first panda showed up in the U.S. in 1920. Once people were introduced to pandas there has been a panda mania of some sort. From the very beginning they just captured the public imagination and I think part of that was because they seemingly came out of nowhere and they’re so big and so adorable and they look so unlike any other animal. The physical answer as to why they’re so adorable is because they have the strongest jaws you can imagine so they can bite through solid bamboo and that gives them these huge jaw muscles which give them a big round head like a giant baby.

Owens: Yes, babies are cute because they have big eyes and they have round heads, they’ve got disproportionate ears; and so you look at the pandas and it’s got big black spots that look like big eyes and big ears and a big round head, also they roll around more than any other animal I’ve ever seen. They love rolling. So not only do they do look really cute, they’re also really silly goofy animals.

In the film you say that the three qualities you were looking for in finding the right panda for the release program were courage, curiosity, and climbing ability. Why were those were the key skills and how do you look for them?

Owens: There is a lot of research that goes into this that we can draw from. It starts off with genetics and health; we want healthy individuals who have the right genetics for the places that we’re looking to release them. The next thing is looking at the behavior. We introduce novel stimuli to see how they respond. If an individual panda sees something new and instantly runs towards it that’s not necessarily the quality we need because we want them to be curious but also careful but you also don’t them to be so wary of everything that they won’t explore. They’ll need to explore their habitat, being able to find food on their own; things like this, so having in moderation being exploratory but also being cautious, being really vigilant; vigilance is a big thing always looking out for new dangers, those are the key features. And they have to climb well because they have to spend a lot of time in trees. They flee predators up trees and so being able to walk around and climb and do that well at a young age is a good indicator.

Did it feel like leaving a child at school to say goodbye that way?

Owens: Yeah, worse. As scientists you try not to get attached to the animals that you’re studying but this is very different than just strict science; this is reintroduction and release of individual animals and so we are doing all this research but then you’re also dealing with an individual and their own personality that’s unique and so you can’t help but personify and you can’t help but get very attached. You really care about them as an individual and also what they represent for the species. As a conservation biologist, I’m focused on making sure that there are individuals of species in the future. But at the same time just like anybody else, just like if you have a human child you want them to go off on their own and be able to be successful. It’s just that how you prepare them is a bit different. I don’t ever refer to it as training because I can’t train a panda to be a panda because I’m not one. So I call it conditioning or preparing, letting their natural instincts come out progressively through increasingly wild conditions and eventually to the point when they are ready to go out. We open the gate and she can make that decision when she wants to go out and when she wants to come back and, when she’s ready, just to be out fully.

What was the most important thing that the project learned from Ben Kilham, the man who has been raising bear cubs and releasing them successfully in New Hampshire?

Owens: Ben has been doing black bear rehabilitation for more than 20 years and so he’s just got a huge amount of knowledge about bears in general and pandas are bears. They are very different bears but they’re still bears. He also knows so much about rehabilitating and releasing animals. I’ve worked on reintroduction programs before with different species. People think that you should avoid all human interactions. Ben takes the opposite approach. He says there’s no real way to do that because these black bears don’t have a mom so you have to hand raise these cubs and you have to give them a safe environment to progress into the wild. Our pandas are born in captive care. Their mothers are also captive-born individuals so they don’t have the wild skills to teach their cubs. So for Ben the biggest thing is that human interaction has a real advantage, because once they trust you that provides us the access to keep on learning more about their biology, to keep on learning more about their conservation and also monitor them. I can change Qian Qian’s GPS collar just as Ben can with Squirty as you see in the film, and that’s a huge advantage because we can monitor her, we can follow her, we can see where she’s at, see how she’s doing. As technology increases we can do a lot more with that technology but if you don’t have access to them and they don’t trust you, then you’ll have to take other measures. You have to capture them in some kind of trap or use sedation and so because they know and trust us it’s a lot easier for us to do those things. Using those human interactions for those advantages is the biggest thing that I have learned from Ben in terms of our project.

Fellman: Also from the panda’s point of view is the positive interaction with the humans as opposed to being trapped or tranquilized which can be dangerous and can frighten them.

Owens: There is also the misconception that I had coming into this that if a panda or black bear gets used to one individual or a handful of individuals then they’re used to people and then they’re going to be a nuisance animal then there’s going to be a real problem and they’re not going to do well when they go out. But pandas and black bears are really smart and they can identify individual people very easily by the sound of their voice, by the smell and also by vision somewhat when you get close. It was a big learning thing for me to learn that we were wrong in thinking that this risk of them trusting a few human individuals is going to lead to touching every human. My dogs don’t do that in the States and most people’s dogs don’t do that in the States. Most animals just don’t do that.

What’s the most important thing that you want families to learn about pandas when they watch this movie?

Owens: I want people, especially families with young kids, that people around the world can work together really successfully and use their own combined strengths to work on an endeavor that’s really challenging. We’re really dedicated and I think that’s the big point — all of us globally working together to achieve a difficult goal.

Fellman: And another important message is that pandas are much more than just adorable animals; they are very smart, occasionally fierce, a bear with a mind of their own and they’re all individuals. It’s going to take a lot to create a better future for them and it’s something that’s really worth fighting for.

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Interview: Armando Iannucci of “The Death of Stalin”

Posted on March 15, 2018 at 2:29 pm

“The Death of Stalin,” based on the graphic novel by Fabien Nury, is a scorching satire about the flurry for succession following the unexpected totalitarian leader of the Soviet Union. For rogerebert.com I spoke to co-writer/director Armando Iannuci about the parallels between this film and his HBO series, “Veep,” about the accents of this actors and the only one to change his accent to suit the character, and about what the movie has to say about today’s politics.

Do you see the story as something like “Veep” with guns? I get the feeling that if the characters in “Veep” had the chance to kill people, they would.

You might think that at the start, but once there’s a threat of being killed, it just turns into something else. The comedy is more based in paranoia, craziness. In “Veep,” the characters’ biggest worry is being found out. The worst that can happen to you is maybe they will be embarrassed or you may lose your job and go into lobbying. It’s temporary. But for these characters it is “if you are found out, you will be dead,” and it turns them into gibbering, frozen with fear, paranoiacs, every one of them. It turns them into stories that are timeless like ancient Rome or Shakespeare’s history plays or “Game of Thrones” or “The Godfather.” It’s the war for succession, kill or be killed. You have characters who tell themselves, “I’m good, but I may have to kill people so that my goodness can survive.”

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Directors Directors Interview

Black Panther: Behind the Scenes

Posted on February 20, 2018 at 8:25 pm

I was lucky enough to be able to interview “Black Panther” co-writer/director Ryan Coogler for rogerebert.com.

The movie places an African and an African-American in opposition. “I’m an African-American male born in the 1980’s in Oakland,” he said, “and there’s a dynamic between being African and African-American that’s very interesting.” This is a key element he explored in the film, with African characters from the fictional country of Wakanda, which has never been colonized or even had any trade relationships with western countries, and African-American characters, who reflect the stress of living in a country still confronting racial divides.

“The question for me is what does it mean to be African? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself since I first knew I was black, since my parents sat me down and said, ‘You’re black and that’s what this means. You’ve got to navigate the world in a certain way.’ That’s the conversation every person has had to have because of the way the world works. If you don’t have that understanding you could be in a situation that costs you your life,” as Coogler’s first film, the fact-based “Fruitvale Station,” showed. “Nobody who was telling me what being African means had ever been there. My parents had never been, my grandmother had never been.” So it was essential for him to spend time in Africa, researching the cultures that Wakanda would represent.

“The African culture the world knows best is the African-American culture,” he said, citing the worldwide dominance of hip-hop. But working on the film and spending time in Africa helped him realize that the African culture he thought was erased by bringing Africans to the United States as slaves was much more intact than he thought. “I grew up thinking the African culture had been taken away from us, that it was lost. But the truth is, we didn’t. We hung onto it.”

And as the mother of a costume designer, I was especially excited to speak to Ruth Carter, whose costumes play such an essential role in the film. She talked about the African inspirations for the traditional tribal attire of the Wakandans, and the way African patterns are even reflected in the iconic superhero suit.

Actual African fabric as we know it is Dutch and Dutch-inspired and brought to Africa. Africa liked it and adopted it so all of their African fabrics come from Holland or from China. Wakanda was never colonized, so I didn’t want to use them. Every time I started to use the African fabrics I felt like it was not this movie so I created my own fabrics, based on the sacred geometry of African art. Usually it’s a checkerboard or it’s pyramid shapes or it’s striations of horizontal and vertical strikings so I use that and we created prints. Lupita’s green dress in the casino is one print that we created based on the Nigerian kente cloth. We just extracted the line work and we printed the fabric the same way we printed T’Challa’s superhero suit.

Once I get the illustration of the super suit I can’t change it; I can’t give him a Shaft coat, all of a sudden. I have to stay within those confines because they have already been working with merchandisers and all kinds of other people. The one thing that I did do which was my contribution was the Okavango pattern, a triangle shape.

That fabric is completely made up. The triangle is definitely a big part of African artistry. It’s a mystery within the African culture what that triangle shape actually means and everybody has their own theory. So the panther suit was printed with that triangle shape all over it so that when you’re looking at it, it’s this superhero suit that has this Wakandan language traveling through it; veining throughout it, and you also see an Okavango pattern and which makes it feel like he’s in the place of Wakanda, he’s in Africa and he’s an African king and gives it texture.

Vanity Fair posted a scene analysis with Coogler explaining what was going on in one of the film’s striking action sequences.

More commentary about this brilliant, groundbreaking new film coming soon.

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Directors Directors Interview Race and Diversity Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Women Directors to Watch Out For

Posted on January 28, 2018 at 4:06 pm

Copyright 2017 Walt Disney Pictures

Film School Rejects has an enticing list of 81 movies by woman directors scheduled for release in 2018, including one of this year’s most anticipated big-budget studio films, “A Wrinkle in Time,” directed by “Selma’s” Ava Duvernay. The topics range from thrillers (“The Strange Ones,” “Blame,” “The Turning”) to comedies (“I Feel Pretty”) to documentaries (“On the Basis of Sex,” one of two films about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg coming out this year). I’m especially looking forward to “Freak Show,” directed by Trudie Styler, “Oh Lucy!,” directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi, and “Valley Girl,” a musical remake of the 1980’s cult classic, directed by Rachel Goldenberg.

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