Interview: John Cameron Mitchell of “How to Talk to Girls at Parties”

Posted on May 23, 2018 at 8:00 am

I had a wonderful time interviewing one of my favorite people to talk to, writer/director John Cameron Mitchell of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and the new release “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” based on the Neil Gaiman short story. The full interview is at rogerebert.com, and here is an excerpt.

Lately I feel like for a lot of young people, at least let’s say millennials, there’s such a weird storm of 9/11 followed by economic collapse, followed by the Internet and social media saturation that serves to kind of douse youthful rebellion. It all kind of paralyzed them into thinking that nothing can really change. First of all, it was terrorism, then it was an economic rug being pulled out from under them, coming out of college, not having a job, suddenly feeling old because you have a $100,000 loan or at least $20,000 and then the Internet which gives you a false feeling of accomplishment because you’re zipping around on it but not doing a whole lot on it. Of course some people certainly use it as a very good tool but for a lot of people it is just an equivalent to worry beads, just to check, check, check and post, post, post and selfie, selfie, selfie. That’s the worst example, of course, and there are plenty of people who use it as a tool in a good way but it can serve to make young people not necessarily the vanguard of any change in the last 15 years. There might be rebellion but it isn’t directed rebellion in any way.

There’s no mass movement possible anymore because of digital culture. The last real musical movement was grunge. After that, everything was atomized; sliced and diced. Porn got sliced and diced into what fetish you were into and boys are saturated with porn before they have sex. So, when they have sex they are imitating it rather than just being it or trying it and girls are kind of just going along with it, and then sexualizing themselves whether they want to or not because that is currency. It is an imitation of porn and it didn’t feel sui generis, it felt quickly commercialized. Even sexual top or bottom became a capitalist kind of thing that you have to be if you’re on Grindr and it was important to decide so you can present yourself with all the things people used to find out about each other when they got to know each other established up front. So, everything started becoming quantifiable and sellable.

Capitalism does that but now it is done in a very efficient way because of digital media, so that serves to dampen the young person being at the vanguard of actual change as opposed to surface rebellion. The old people got scared about things changing became punk and they voted Trump in and they are welcoming him smashing all tradition. They don’t care anymore that he is inept. They are watching it burn. They didn’t believe that he wasn’t going to be corrupt and or that he’s going to drain the swamp. They just saw someone going in there like a child has got the controls. It’s like, “What’s been happening so far sucked, so might as well do this throw a monkey in the driver’s seat,” and some of them are still enjoying it; it’s kind of mindless punks as opposed to any focused punks.

The new possible kind of punk that I can see coming is like the Parkland teenagers. These are the post-millennials. They are coming up in high school with Trump in office and they can’t believe it and they’re getting shot up and there is one thing that they can do, maybe stop the NRA. That is one issue I think is going to hopefully be the beginning.

I think punk changes for every era but we know it when we see it and usually it’s about smashing up stuff so that new stuff can grow.

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Bobby Kennedy for President: Interview with Dawn Porter About Her Netflix Series

Posted on May 18, 2018 at 8:32 am

Dawn Porter’s four-part Netflix series, “Bobby Kennedy for President,” examines the life of one of the central political figures of the 1960’s. In an interview, she described the process of collecting the extraordinary and surprisingly intimate archival footage and her interviews with people who worked closely with Bobby Kennedy and are still deeply moved by the experience.

They say that history doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes. I felt like there was a lot of rhyming in this series, which takes place during the politically tumultuous 1960’s. What parallels do you see going on today?

We’re in a really confusing and chaotic era right now where people are choosing sides. The country is never a hundred percent united but it certainly feels as if we are more divided than we have been in recent years. It’s unsettling and I think that it is very similar to the middle through late sixties the series covers. I think the big difference is there was more confidence in the leadership and people felt acutely behind one candidate or the other and so there was confusion and chaos but I don’t know that there was the same amount of fear but more anger I think than in the 1960’s. There was more activism then and I think we’re seeing a more resurgence of that activism, now so I think that’s actually a good thing.

People say today, “oh goodness, it’s never been worse,” but we had the Vietnam War, a huge racial divide, poverty like in the Deep South, assassinations happening routinely, you don’t want to do a misery comparison but you could certainly say that things were as bad or as serious. That’s when we really do value leadership and Kennedy stepped into that role.

If you were making a film about a historical figure from even a decade before you would not have anywhere near the wealth of archival footage that you had here. It was really breathtaking because there were so many scenes where he seemed unaware he was being filmed, not just giving speeches but talking to his staff, being with his family.

I used to work for ABC News and I remember a colleague there telling me that there was all this film footage that had been shot during the time period that I was interested in. So one of the things that I thought would be really effective is to allow the viewers as much as possible to experience the footage themselves, to experience the time. And so there were two things to do. You can see at the beginning there was more black and white, there was more sometimes grainy/sometimes smooth footage. This was a period that coincided with the shift in news coverage. Upstart news entities such as ABC News began shooting in film and shooting in color and sending really gifted cinematographers out to do political coverage. So you get this feeling not only of the candidates but of the era: the clothes, the cars, the light. I think that helps point you in time in a way that still pictures can’t even quite accomplish.

That is why working with Netflix was so great because we convinced them to give us investigation room. We ended up digitizing over 140 hours of news footage and one of the things I’m really, really happy about is that footage is now available to others who want to explore the period for whatever storytelling they’re doing. It was quite a project of discovery in that way but we went through about 2,000 reels of film and our archivist ended up using 100 different sources so it was quite a massive undertaking but once we got our rhythm it was really fun. All the news organizations might cover the same event but they would shoot it differently and so we could have different angles from different news organizations. But 100 percent of that material had to be licensed, so we were constantly trying to figure out what we could afford to actually use.

There was another exciting thing that was happening. It was also the era of growth and excitement about that type of verite filmmaking. So there were filmmakers like D.A. Pennebaker, Robert Drew, like Charles Guggenheim who had sent a bunch of independent cinematographers out to cover Bobby Kennedy. We used all of those sources and got outtakes from them and I even visited Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus in their office and got material from them personally. So there is also quite a bit of film history contained in the series.

I think the most powerful moment in the series is the John Lewis interview.

I wanted to only have interviews with people who worked very closely with Bobby Kennedy, who were either staffers or people like Marian Wright Edelman. We had known that John Lewis was involved with Kennedy and he agreed right away. One of the things that I think was very helpful for these interviews was we would show people footage that was material they hadn’t necessarily seen of themselves as young people and I think that that helped them go back in time and remember. John Lewis is a spectacular interview. He’s very giving, he’s a very open, very, very, very generous and Kennedy was really important to him and he wanted to communicate that. He’s also not a person who is afraid of being emotional and didn’t try and stop it and that was really quite a gift to a project like this.

What do you think is Bobby Kennedy’s most enduring legacy?

I am really moved by his curiosity, his ability to change and grow, his inclusiveness (particularly to minority groups) and this kind of resilience and relentlessness which can be a blessing and a curse but in the end I think he made it a blessing and really refused to give up on things that are too important to give up on.

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The Russo Brothers Talk: Thanos, Infinity Powers, and Their Favorite Special Effect in “Avengers: Infinity War”

Posted on May 12, 2018 at 8:03 am

Everyone knew that “Avengers: Infinity War” was going to be big. But were our expectations impossibly high? Even the extraordinarily talented brothers and co-directors Anthony and Joseph Russo, who made two of the most critically acclaimed of the 18 Marvel superheroes in the past decade, had to feel daunted by the challenge of taking on so many characters and such a complicated story. In an interview, they talked about choosing which characters would be most interesting together, who the supervillain Thanos is, which special effect they particularly enjoyed, and which superpowers they most wish they had.

People love the movie but are very shook up by some of the developments. Do you feel like the two most hated people in the whole world right now?

JR: It’s interesting that people are having this kind of emotional response. But this is a really unique experiment in filmmaking in the Marvel Universe. Ten years of storytelling spread out over very diverse franchises, diverse tonally, diverse from a story standpoint, with unique and different characters. This film represents the ending of that story and “Avengers 4” as well. So the audience is invested in the incredible amount of emotion and time and energy and passion in these characters. And the response we’re seeing to the movie is that it’s a representation of that emotion and passion that they feel for this unique experiment in cinema.

As I have told you before, I am a huge fan especially of your work on “Captain America: Winter Soldier” and “Civil War,” which integrated with the rest of the MCU but had a very distinctive tone inspired in part by the 1970’s cinema of paranoia films. The two most recent Marvel superhero movies were also great, “Black Panther” and “Thor: Ragnarok,” but they had very different tones from very different directors. How do you take those characters and more and make them seem as though they’re in the same movie while maintaining their distinctive personas, worlds, and storylines?

JR: We look at that as one of the great creative upsides of trying something like this. We’ve always thought of ourselves, specifically our creative processes, as sort of akin to being mad scientists. We like to take disparate elements and smash them together and see what that gives us on a tonal level. We’ve done that in a lot of our work, and this movie is the perfect setup for that process.

Like you said, we have all these different tones and styles to draw on. But primarily we look at it as our responsibility to give people our version of these characters. That’s what we love about these characters — they can morph from movie to movie. Our version of Captain America was very different than Joss Whedon’s version. Taika Waititi’s version of Thor has been very different than the previous versions.

I think audiences like that. They like the fact that each individual movie is a conceptual and tonal and narrative presentation that while it is tethered on a story level to what’s come before; its own expression on a tonal level and a style level is unique. And so we try to be very specific to what the needs of our story were in this movie and how we want it balanced, because we’re big fans of balanced storytelling. We like movies that make you laugh, make you cry, make you think, etc.

This movie was challenging to balance because it is so dark in many respects, and intense. So we use that variety of tones that all these characters bring us to give what we think is like a very complete fulfilling cinema experience, the kind of experience that we aspire to see.

In the past, the series has addressed some classic fanboy questions about power like whether Thor’s hammer is stronger than Captain America’s shield. I thought it was interesting that in this film it was more about the way the personalities work together. And it was particularly choice to put the two strongest egos up against each other, Doctor Strange and Tony Stark. So tell me how you looked at all the characters lined in front of you and thought about who would set off the most sparks against who?

AR: Tony Stark and Stephen Strange — one thing that drew us to it is exactly what you’re saying, their egos, and their narcissism. We knew that it would be hard for those two characters to exist within the same space. But I think also what we loved about that was the contrast between the two with Tony being such a man of science and Strange being a man of magic and the incongruity of those two things, their approaches and their respective powers. So that was particularly fun for us.

We spent a long time with the writers, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely exploring every possible combination before we started to lock into a story. But that was so elemental in terms of what the fun and thrill and creative upside of this film would be for us. So the Star Lord/Thor combination with the Guardians was certainly one of our most exciting ones. I have to say the Gamora/Thanos combination was one thing that we were particularly interested in. We always love it when there’s a relationship between a villain and a hero that has a personal dimension to it. That was really what excited us most about “Winter Soldier” right from when we started with Marvel. And so to be able to play with that father/daughter relationship and that villain/hero relationship in a way that had so many personal layers and so much personal complexity to it; that’s something for us as storytellers that’s very exciting creatively.

I loved the interplay between Thor, Groot, and Rocket.

JR: Thor is in a very vulnerable and emotional place of himself. He’s hiding it under a veneer disconcern. He’s trying to act like you know the his mission is to to stop Thanos, which it is, but he’s devastated with all the loss that he suffered in this film and in Ragnarok. Rocket is the most caustic and seemingly unemotional character and Groot, too, is in a very caustic and emotional phase as a teenager. Putting them together, was interesting and it is the most emotional that we have seen Rocket, the most sensitive that you’ve ever seen Rocket portrayed in that scene on the pod. That is because it’s hard not to empathize with Thor because of the level of loss that he has endured. It’s played for somewhat absurdist humor at first. But then slowly it seeps into Rocket’s heart and he makes a gesture by handing Thor that eye.

But we also do get a lot of humor out of that crew.

AR: I think that that grouping is interesting in that you know if you go back to our very early work with like “Welcome to Collinwood” or “Arrested Development,” Joe and I have a strong penchant for for absurdity and absurdist comedy. There’s a strong spirit of absurdism moving through that story line.

Well tell me a little bit about the monumental challenge of keeping so many different not just characters but different locations going at the same time? How do you even begin to remind everybody who is where and what is happening?

JR: Great question. It takes a lot of work and a lot of story discipline. We spent a long time in the writers room with Markus and McFeely going through various iterations of the structure of the script to try and unlock one that tracks the best. Once we committed to the script we then in editorial did the same thing over again. Because rarely does the script offer the same sort of information that a cut film will. Once you cut the film together you can sit there and assess transitions and assess which characters have been missing for too long. And so we really played with that for about five or six months with different iterations of structure until I think we lighted the one that we felt tracked the cleanest and the best. So it really just requires an intensive amount of work.

We’ve been building up to the confrontation with Thanos for a very long time. What makes him the villain you wanted to have as the ultimate threat?

AR: Right from the very beginning Thanos started to loom large in our mind because we knew the goal for this film and the following Avengers film was to provide a climax and a culmination for the entire road that we’ve been travelling for ten years. And a narrative that would somehow inolve the MCU at least to some degree in its entirety. Thanos was in a very unique position for us to find a central figure that could actually bring every corner of the MCU together in a single narrative in his quest for the stones and the fact that the stones have been so well placed throughout the various films. All of a sudden he just started to become this sort of sense central concept here.

And the other thing in thinking about Thanos was that like he had been so lightly teased up to this point in the MCU; we knew very little about him on-screen. We understood that very little about him. So for us and for Markus and McFeely, it was an opportunity to go into a very deep dive into the question of who was this guy and how is he going to end up crashing into these other characters and ideas that we’ve been playing with in this world. And as we started to sink deeper into that and realize that he was sort of like the central figure in a way, we began to fill him out as if he was a lead character and build a narrative around him in a way that you typically build a narrative around a lead character.

That was one of the most exciting parts of the creative process for us, the fact that we got to think about a villain in those terms, to put a villain in that position in the narrative. And I think ultimately that’s really what a lot of people are responding to in this film. It is a very fresh perspective to approach a movie like this from. A lot of the surprises and a lot of the shock of the experience comes from the fact that the movie was designed that way.

We couldn’t have asked for a better actor of course than Josh Brolin to play that role. I can’t think of any other actor that can embody the physical presence that that character has or the level of violence that character has within him, at the same time giving him a soul and a depth and a complexity, and an emotional landscape that you can actually read and relate to on screen. It was quite remarkable and we have to give a big thanks to our visual effects team for being able to innovate and use new technologies to translate Brolin’s performance onto a CG character in a way that I don’t think anyone’s ever seen before on screen.

I won’t ask who your favorite Avenger is, but can you tell me which of the Avenger powers you would most like to have?

JR: I always say and it’s easy because it was my favorite character growing up and I collected most of his books was Spiderman. So I think it was because I always secretly desired to go in to climb walls and swing on webs.

The special effect in the scene with the hair on his arms was absolutely fantastic.

JR: Yeah, it’s a favorite of ours, just the opportunity to physically represent the Spidey sense.

AR: It’s pretty much informed by our experience and having to make two of the largest movies ever made back-to-back; I would love to have the Time infinity stone. We could use that.

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Interview: Jason Reitman and Mackenzie Davis on “Tully”

Posted on May 4, 2018 at 8:00 am

For Rogerebert.com I interviewed Jason Reitman and Mackenzie Davis, the director and title actress of “Tully,” a new film written by Oscar-winner Diablo Cody (“Juno,” “Ricki and the Flash”).  An excerpt:

Jason, I loved your montage that so bittersweetly evokes those numbingly exhausting first months of motherhood. Tell me how you put that together.

JASON REITMAN: I’m so happy you asked about that! That’s something that was on our call sheet every single day and it was really important to us that we get that right. There are so many movies that examine and portray parenting and it often comes across as slapstick. Parenting is one of these odd taboo subjects in a time when we share our most intimate details. We will describe what medication we’re taking but we still won’t share the intimacies and struggles of parenting in a real way. So we gave a questionnaire to twelve mothers and asked them to give us anything they were willing to share about the first three months of being a parent. It was through these questionnaires that we got these odd details like putting the baby on top of the dryer and the amount of moms and dads that drop their phones on their babies. We were constantly shooting it and there was an editor who worked only on that montage throughout the film.

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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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Animals and Nature Directors Directors IMAX Interview
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