Interview: The Miseducation of Cameron Post’s Chloe Grace Moretz, Desiree Akhavan, and Mathew Shurka
Posted on August 7, 2018 at 3:42 pm
Sundance winner “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” takes place in 1993, when a teenager is sent to a Christian “gay conversion” program something between boarding school, boot camp, rehab, and prison. Chloe Grace Moretz gives a performance of great subtlety and sensitivity in the title role. My friend and fellow critic Leslie Combemale and I spoke to Moretz, director Desiree Akhavan and gay conversion survivor and activist Mathew Shurka about the film.
I always think that one of the greatest challenges an actor can have is a part like this one where your character is so much an observer, with no big speeches.
Chloe Grace Moretz: What’s beautiful about the film is that it really is an ensemble piece. It’s called “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” but I walk through it with you guys, perceiving and understanding and taking in and comprehending this space that I’ve been thrust into. We shot the movie chronologically. We only had 23 days to shoot the movie. It was wonderful because we just walked through each beat. Because we didn’t have much rehearsal time, there wasn’t much to do other than feel and hear and listen and perceive.
Because my character didn’t have a lot of lines, all this stuff is happening to her and around her and she’s having all these projections put on her about of what she is and what her problems are. And all she says is, “I don’t think so.” It all happens in her head and it was really fun for me to play with that and depict it all through my face and my eyes. It’s what I like doing best as an actor, ever since I was a little girl. It’s always been something I enjoy, showing context and subtext in my head and having it pushed it out through my eyes, not having to vocalize it. A lot of times in life, when you’re faced with sadness and depression and anger you can’t really formulate words for that. When someone is looking at you and telling you everything you’re doing is incorrect, sometimes the best you can do is say, “I don’t think so.” You internalize that.
Desiree Akhavan: That was the character. Someone who wasn’t that talkative. An introverted, athletic lesbian, an ode to every woman I’ve ever loved. I was building a type. I’ve been asked if that was something that changed specifically through casting Chloe, because she has a strength for communicating without words, but it was just a happy marriage, when the character meets the right actor.
Mathew Shurka: It was incredibly powerful to see that in Chloe. It is so hard to turn conversion therapy into a film. All the subtleties are really clear in the film. My favorite part is when she just walks into the conversion therapy center and Reverend Rick is playing the guitar. There’s a shot of Chloe’s face. There’s doubt, there’s fear, and “where am I” and it’s every teenager. As a survivor, it read really clear to me, what was going on with her character.
We’d like to believe we are wiser now than in 1993, when this movie takes place, but how many states still allow conversion therapy?
Mathew Shurka: Only 14 states have banned conversion therapy for minors, which means that some form of it is still permitted in 36. But it’s legal for adults in all 50 states. A majority of conversion therapy programs are religion-based, but not all. This movie shows both, an actual therapist and a pastor. In reality, that’s how it goes. All of my treatment was conducted by licensed professionals. My father, who was the one who was really adamant about me going into conversion therapy did his due diligence and he wanted someone who had gone through the training of a therapist to conduct this.
They’re fighting these bills so a lot more are getting licensed as therapists to have more credibility, because they are fighting these bills. There are licensed and there are unlicensed and then the overlap who are both, pastors and licensed therapists. We say you have to choose. In the states where we passed those bills, people say, “What if there’s a pastor who wants to conduct conversion therapy?” and we say, “You have to honor and obey the terms of your therapist license.” You have to choose. You want to be a pastor and have those rights, fine, but if you’re acting as a therapist you have to honor that license.
Because these issues are still so present, did you ever think of setting the film in the present instead of in 1993?
Desiree Akhavan: We thought about it because it would have been cheaper. But no, it was always really important that they were as isolated as possible. For the dramatic stakes to be as high as possible, Cameron could not even know about other gay kids, let along see them on Instagram or reach out and ask for help. I didn’t want there to be a world outside of what they knew around them. I wanted to be loyal to the book but I also didn’t want to deal with technology and the whole host of changes that would bring to their lifestyle and personalities and their identity and their self-expression. The way kids live right now is very different from the way they lived in 1993 and it was important to keep it that way. But it is a very relevant film and when I began this process I didn’t realize how relevant it would become through the course of production.
Boots Riley is a filmmaker who made a slight detour into music, where he found great success as lead singer for The Coup and Galactic, and in teaching a high school class called “Culture and Resistance: Persuasive Lyric Writing.” His provocative, wildly funny, and remarkably assured first film is Sorry to Bother You, starring LaKieth Stanfield as Cash Green, a telemarketer who achieves great sales numbers by using his “white voice” (provided by David Cross), and Tessa Thompson as his graphic and performance artist girlfriend, Detroit.
In an interview, Riley spoke about what he learned about communication when he was a telemarketer, and when his father asked him what voice he was using after he overheard a phone call with one of Riley’s friends, and why Armie Hammer’s family history played a part in his casting as the corporate CEO.
I have to begin by asking you about Detroit’s wild earrings, like the ones that say in big letters “MURDER MURDER MURDER KILL KILL KILL.” What do we learn about her as an artist from the way she puts herself together?
Detroit is always looking for a way to make a statement, looking for a way to talk about the world. So she uses every wall she can find, every piece of her being to say something to the world. The are earrings are just a part that symbolizes that about her and the words on the earrings are all quotes from songs.
Detroit is much more political than Cash, but she has a job that is just as demeaning and corporatist as his job, standing on a street corner twirling a sign. He is out there selling and he’s out there selling; does that bother her at all?
One of the reasons that she maybe wasn’t all the way against what Cassius was doing or didn’t leave him right away is that she’s not of the mind that the way that we get rid of capitalism is somehow going out into the woods and creating some alternative system. She knows that whatever she’s doing is going to be part of that.
And what did you learn about selling when you were a telemarketer? What was your most effective pitch?
I’ve actually been doing sales sort of stuff forever. There’d always be these 17-year olds who were hired by some company or whatever and they’d go pick up kids like me in the neighborhood when we were around 11. You go knock on doors and sell newspapers. I learned through those sorts of jobs for the wrong reasons how to listen to people and to understand that people may be saying something that the words they’re using aren’t saying. That was for manipulative reasons that I learned that but then that carried over into my style of organizing which is not to be caught up on the linguistics of someone. It wasn’t so much about vocabulary and identifying words as it was about what is the thing that we’re trying to create.
So if you call and somebody says, “I haven’t got time for this?”
You figure out through that some clue of who they are. “I haven’t got time for this” sounds like somebody is really overwhelmed with things that are going on in their life and other things they don’t want to be doing. They’re not saying, “I got all this stuff that I really want to be doing.” They’re saying, “I don’t have time for this,” so you could play off of that.
I’m sold! Do all black people have a white voice they can use?
There are some people that don’t consciously know that they do and maybe don’t have jobs where they have to have that but definitely a lot do.
I guess everybody has to code switch some time in their life.
I know when I was growing up and getting to the age where I got on the phone with my friends, I remember getting off the phone one time and my father being like, “Who was that”? And I was like, “Oh that was Joey.” “No, who was that on the phone?” I said, “I told you it was Joey.” “No, who was that on the phone here because I didn’t recognize that voice at all.”
In the movie it’s all about performance. We’re all performing in some way even when you don’t do the switching thing it’s sometimes a reaction to who you think you are and all of these things that you will perform or not perform. It might not be switching but I think the more relevant thing is that it’s all a code because we’re made up of all of these influences and all of these ideas. It’s not saying that any of it is bad. I don’t think the goal is to try and figure out how to not do that.
One of the things that I think is important is that what it puts out there is because a lot of times blackness is codified. Like “it comes from this and this and this: and whiteness it ends up because of that being like this pure thing it’s just the thing that is and everything else is a reaction. Danny Glover’s character Langston says that “there are no real white voices.” What their white voices try to convey is the sense that everything’s okay and “I’ve got everything taken care of.” To the extent that that voice does exist, it’s in reaction to the idea the racist tropes of blackness and of people of color. Through all sorts of media and culture we get told that poverty is a fault of the impoverished and that through these bad choices but no one wants to talk about the fact that capitalism demands that there be poverty; it is necessitated. You can’t have full employment under capitalism otherwise everyone would be able to demand every wage they want. You have to have an army of unemployed workers and the only time it gets talked about openly is when the Wall Street Journal is worrying about the unemployment rate going down which causes wages to go up and stocks to plummet.
It would be great if there was an episode of one of those cop shows like CSI where they figure out that they’re not going to stop crime because crime comes from people needing to eat who are unemployed. As long as we have this system we’re going to have unemployed people who need to eat.
And as your wealthy CEO you have Armie Hammer, whose great-grandfather, Armand Hammer, was a famous CEO notorious for his disregard of shareholder interests.
I think it’s really great casting historically and also he’s a really great guy and a guy that people don’t understand how much acting he’s doing because it seems so natural.
He is remarkable in the film, and so is LaKeith Stanfield.
I don’t think this movie would have worked with another kind of actor. I got notes about him which were like, “He needs to be more active,” which means like the blockbuster style of action — “I’m confused now, look at my eyebrow,” that sort of thing. We did pre-preparation so we knew what his posture was going to be like at different points of the story and everything else was more about him feeling whatever it is he supposed to be feeling and not worrying about whether he’d look like he was feeling that.
The movie features a company called WorryFree that promises to give people everything they need — a job, a place to live, food, clothes — but it is clear to us in the audience it is a sort of prison.
The point is I don’t think it’s illegal, I really would like someone to point out whether that company is illegal; if it’s not illegal it’s going to be done. And actually it’s a lot like how many places in other parts of the world that US companies contract out to work. The big thing in the movie is that it’s happening here in the US; that is the big difference.
Which is why those corporate folks are the puppet masters and we only get to vote on the puppets. We get to vote which one will be the puppet that might more resist the pulling of the strings but we know that they’re all still puppets. And so I think that my movie puts forward an idea and approach that has to do with trying to go directly to the puppeteers through withholding of labor and that we need movements.
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.
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.
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.