Interview: The Digital Effects Geniuses of Halon Entertainment on “Pacific Rim: Uprising” and More

Posted on August 8, 2018 at 8:00 am

Copyright Universal 2018
In big summer movie blockbusters, the actors are not the only stars. Equal billing should go to the visual effects brainiacs who make us believe in dinosaurs and skyscraper-sized robots called jaegers, aliens called Kaiju, and a prehistoric 75-foot long shark called a megalodon. At San Diego Comic-Con, I had a chance to talk to Peter Chiang (visual effects supervisor at DNEG) and Ryan McCoy (previs/postvis supervisor), and Brad Alexander (previs/postvis supervisor) of Halon Entertainment about their work on “Pacific Rim: Uprising” and a little bit about this week’s “The Meg.”

First of all, tell me the difference between what a previs and a postvis and visual effects supervision.

PETER CHIANG: I was on the production side so I supervise the film. I sit with Steven DeKnight and work out all the visual effects aspects of the film.

BRAD ALEXANDER: And so previs is where we come in at a very early stage and work with the director to translate the story in a very loose form using 3D animation and edit with as much constraint that we can put in as far as the lens used and how we’re actually going to get the shot.

RYAN MCCOY: After that, we take the film or movie so the principle photography happens. What we get back is a bunch of shots about a character reacting to a monster on a green screen but there’s no actual monster there.

They’re looking at a tennis ball, right?

RYAN MCCOY: Right, reacting to a tennis ball, so we have to make the tennis ball more frightening so that when you look at it in the context of the edit it makes sense and you get what is going on. That’s when postvis comes in. We’ve quickly put together a mock-up of what the final would be like and then the scene goes through iterations real fast without spending a whole lot of money so they can figure out if the scene works really quickly.

BRAD ALEXANDER: Postvis is almost a scaled down version of what a final visual effects shot is, probably it’s maybe 1/100th of the effort put in to convey what needs to be there.

PETER CHIANG: It’s a bit more than one percent. I think Brad is just being modest.

When the actors are looking at the tennis ball have they actually seen drawings of what it is they’re supposed to be looking at to help them create their performance?

BRAD ALEXANDER: Yes, on set we have the art department do amazing visuals to support that idea and we’ve already worked out really how high the robots are and so we’re counting floors on the building to talk to John Boyega and say “Hey, look, it’s going to be roughly about that high and he’s going to come at you from that way,” We do little tricks like we set up balloons and markers. We will put up two weather balloons and tell them to go A to B at a certain time. You’ll see him go like this and we go “No, no, no, no; he’s going to go like thiiisss” .

BRAD ALEXANDER: Or you fly a drone

I was very impressed with the believability of the weight and gravity that your Jaeger and Kaiju characters have and the physics of moving them around. What goes into making that work?

PETER CHIANG: We looked at a lot of things. We looked at lot of oil tankers and large objects moving. And so there was a tug of war constantly between physics and keeping the sequence alive and exciting. I think if we portrayed it in real physics people would have gone to sleep, because it would have taken a long time for that robot to walk down the street so there was a payoff. But even then we had to slow them down so on the set we would say to John and Cailee , “Hey look, you’re moving too quickly, you’ve got to feel like you’re lumbering a bit to slow him down”

BRAD ALEXANDER: At the very beginning when we were doing previs before we had the opportunity to work with Peter a lot of our shots and sequences to me personally just felt like they were moving so fast. It was frustrating. Coming from an animation background, you need to show weight. You need to show secondary motion. You want the plates to jiggle when you have a lot of mass. We kind of got cut off in the beginning phase of doing that and we had to send it off and let it go and then it’s kind of like I bowed my head and prayed to the Gods that someone would fix it. And then Peter came in and they actually fixed it so I think we found a middle ground that worked.

RYAN MCCOY: Yeah often in previs it’s hard because we have to cut down on all of the nuances of the animation and just the lightng and the contacts with the ground and a lot of those little things. That last five percent that polishes it off and makes the photo real is often what really gives it the weight that’s necessary. and so sometimes it can be challenging where it kind of looks okay in previs and then you do it in a final scene and when you see it, it’s like, “Oh well, that’s crazy.” So often what we have to do is put in a little extra work on some of those shots to really get it to sell, to start to understand how that weight would really work and how it would move and just the physics of it.

I was also impressed with the personalities of the different characters, particularly Scrapper who had a believably junkyard feel. I know some of that is from the sound guys but some of that is what you do.

BRAD ALEXANDER: The art department works very fast when they build their models and the model that they initially gave us looked like someone had taken a bunch of engine parts and panels from airplanes and whacked everything together. It wasn’t ribbed at all and I had to figure out — where are the joints going to go on this thing? Are there any gears that I can use as an elbow? Where are the hips going to be? I had to figure a lot of this kind of stuff out and then change some stuff around. Then I pass it off to the art department and say, “Can I move this? Is that okay?”

I think my favorite thing in this movie was that you got to play around with scale in such a dramatic way. We thought the last movie had very big creatures and big robots but now we’re in a whole other level. But you have to keep them all in the same shot, so how did you do that?

RYAN MCCOY: Wide lenses — put the camera really low with the wide lens and go back.

If I came over to your house is there anything I would see that would show that you worked on this project?

BRAD ALEXANDER: I got a Gypsy model from the first film and I had that on my desk the whole time. I have a little shelf in my house that has a little thing from a lot of the movies that I’ve worked on, my memento things.

Some people have pictures of their families…

BRAD ALEXANDER: I have robots.

RYAN MCCOY: Robot children.

PETER CHIANG: I love the toys. I’ve got all the toys; got the four main robots and Obsidian and Fury.

What are the qualities that make somebody very good at doing previs?

RYAN MCCOY: Being close to their inner child. Being able to embrace it while still being mature.

BRAD ALEXANDER: I think it’s generally a skill set. If you are as a 3D artist I think gives you the most to bring to the table as a previs artist because if you can rig a model, animate two effects, you could do everything and that opens you up to most work that we can give you.

RYAN MCCOY: Yeah for previs and postvis we really want filmmakers. We want people that understand storytelling not just people who know one skill particularly well. Alot of schools focus on just perfecting one specific craft and making a character feel very fluid in movement or whatever really is making one image look really beautiful and that’s all great — we need that too — but you can’t tell a story if you don’t know how you cut to one shot and all of a sudden it feels jarring and strange because you crossed the line or this is a weird framing of this creature or you don’t know what lenses are or how to use them effectively. There are so many tools.

BRAD ALEXANDER: Ultimately it’s film language and it all boils down to the composition, screen direction, and all of that kind of stuff.

What’s your next film coming out?

RYAN: He and I worked on “The Meg.” I have no idea if this is going to be good but it was a hell of a lot of fun to make. The whole end scene is what we worked on. And we did the whole ending of “Aquaman,” so that was quite a big endeavor.

Those scenes are underwater, which must be another challenge of physics calculations.

RYAN MCCOY: It was, I feel for Industrial Light and Magic, trying to make that come to life and I can’t wait to see what they do with it. it was a lot of fun to do previs for it because of the vastness of what was going to be told and it was just this big collaboration to try to get it into a really good shape so that it was really exciting. Yeah, the whole thing was fast and really fun.

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Interview: The Miseducation of Cameron Post’s Chloe Grace Moretz, Desiree Akhavan, and Mathew Shurka

Posted on August 7, 2018 at 3:42 pm

Copyright FilmRise 2018
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.

Copyright FilmRise 2018

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.

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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: John David Washington of “BlackkKlansman”

Posted on August 6, 2018 at 8:00 am

Former pro football player and “Ballers” co-star John David Washington stars in Spike Lee’s new film, “BlackkKlansman.” It is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, the first black law enforcement office in Colorado Springs, who infiltrated the Klu Klux Klan over the telephone in the 1970’s. In an interview, Washington talked about playing someone who is pretending to be what he is not, rocking a 70’s look, and his dream role in a Shakespeare classic.

Was Stallworth really so inexperienced that he accidentally gave the KKK his real name?

Exactly. He was just trying to make a name, he was ambitious and he was in the moment very emotional and he had a brain freeze. I asked him several times what really happened, and after like the third week of asking he said the same thing, and I was like, all right, that must be the real story.

Your character is basically lying to everybody, not just to the Klan but also to the girl he likes, who would not spend time with him if she knew he was a cop.

He was a man that believed in what he was doing. He was this sort of Jackie Robinson police detective. I can’t imagine what that feels like, being in that community being the only person that looks like you. So I think he had to build up this sort of defense or shield he had to protect himself so maybe getting into these characters helped him be able to do his job more fluidly. If he exposed too many emotions or trusted too much that could compromise how he does his job and the integrity of it, What happened with the love interest, though, that’s when he started to break that wall down and because of not just her and her passion and her beauty but the cause.

It’s not like he wasn’t aware of his people. He says, “Because I’m not going to give it away it doesn’t mean I’m not for the liberation of my people.” He believes that he can do on the law side and I appreciate that. He thinks, “We’re trying to do the best we can. We’re protecting ourselves and the community and that means we got to do what we got to do but we’re doing it the right way or for the right reasons.” It means a lot to have a platform like this to show such emotions and show that we care too.

What was it about or his outlook or his background that made him think that he could change things from the inside?

I can’t give too much away about his background and what motivated him because there is some deep stuff there, but there were some personal experiences that he had gone through to help motivate and sustain him and give him the stamina to take it on the chin and get to where he was. I can’t imagine being a black man in Colorado Springs in the 70’s. He had to persevere.

In “Ballers” you play a guy who pretty much says whatever is on his mind and in this movie you play a guy who keeps a lot inside so tell me how you approach that as an actor.

One’s therapeutic for sure. Ricky Jarret on the football show is more of a representation than the actual person. Ron is living and he’s alive and well and there is a lot of information in his book and I spent time talking to him so it was a different type of concentration, a different type of representation. It’s not just an idea. It’s just about this man who lived and how he lived and what he believed in.

Also I feel like who’s directing and who’s guiding the ship makes a huge difference for me too. The direction I got from Spike Lee and the trust I got from Spike Lee made this the most unique experience I’ve ever had.

Copyright 2018 Nell Minow

How did Spike Lee first talk to you about the role?

Got a text from him: “this is Spike – call me.” I called him and he said there was a book about a man who infiltrated the Klu Klux Klan. He sent the book, and I was like, “All right.” I read the book and was blown away. I called him back like, “I can’t believe this! This is incredible.” From then on it wasn’t like “So, you want to do it?” It wasn’t like, “Let’s discuss feelings,” or anything like that. He was like, “I’ll have the script for you in a couple months,” so I started doing research as if I was getting ready for the role.

What did it feel like to see yourself in that 70’s hair and wardrobe?

I loved it! I didn’t want to look like we’re playing Halloween 70’s like in films that almost are like making fun of how they dressed. I remember Spike was talking about this passionately like, “We thought we were fly. We thought we looked great,” so that authenticity really helped inform us as what choices to make based off of how we felt with the clothes we put on with the fabric and the accessories and obviously the hair and the shoes. It was great.

So when you first looked at yourself in the mirror tricked out like that what did you think?

I thought, “There he is,” and then, “Just go get it.

At one point you’re talking to the head of the KKK, David Duke, played by Topher Grace, over the phone, and he brags about being able to tell by voice who is black. How did you think about your voice in those calls?

He can speak jive or the King’s English. I have a wealth of experiences too from private school to HBCU, historically black college, to North Carolina where I spent a lot of time. All that is a part of me, how I talk and how I speak and even in my cadence; it can change when I get excited about certain things and so sometimes I have this North Carolinian cadence.

I love that he didn’t put on, he didn’t see it like putting on a white voice and I don’t know what that means either to be honest personally, but what he did do was use a certain language. There was a certain hate vernacular that helped entice hatred to him so that he can penetrate that hatred. He called them trigger words, and David Duke was so sure a black man would not use those words he never suspected.

The KKK members use those hateful terms and describe horrible acts in such a casual tone of voice, too.

It’s one thing when you’re emotional about something and you express it through a curse word or raise your voice, but like you said, this is regular conversation.

Ron’s partner, played by Adam Driver, had to pretend to be him when they met in person. How did you work with Adam on coordinating that?

Ron in the book talks about how they worked together. They would meet and make sure they were on the same page with the information that he got and what he said and once Adam’s character got it they had to make sure they coordinated to make sure they were on the same page, so we were doing the same things. We weren’t necessarily trying to sound like each other because Ron said they really did which is a huge take away for me, too. One time it was a close call but like they just didn’t pick up on him; they never did.

The movie makes it clear that the fellowship was really a large part of the appeal of the Klan. They just wanted to feel like they were a part of something.

Absolutely, it was institutional hate; it was organized. There is a camaraderie. That brotherhood I think was a part of a draw and strength in numbers. Again that’s why these trigger words, the language that’s used in this film are vulgar and a bit abrasive but it had to be; it was necessary because this is the language that is spoken and this is how he was able to get in and maintain this case and get it to where he got it to.

It took a lot of courage to do that.

I agree. One of the hardest days on the film for me, it seemed like one of t=the most authentic days, when I was really in a time warp was the banquet scene, when Ron is on security detail. I called Ron Stallworth afterward and told him, “You’re a true hero. I can’t believe you did that.” I felt like personally John in that role on that day was looking death right in the eyes several times.

Watching the scene it was giving me anxiety. I know what’s going to happen and I’m still like, “Oh my,” it was tripping me out. That day was a hard day for all the actors, we all talked about it.

I heard that your dream role is Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew by Shakespeare.

I’m trying to! If you know anybody tell them I said we’re looking for funding and by God, I’ll do it. I keep the monologue on me at all times. The way when I was working on it I found him a bit of a misunderstood character. Traditionally it is played a certain way but I felt like he was more sensitive than given credit for. I felt the sensitivity that was insecurity like some mother issues coming out which I would have loved to explore through this guy. So I had this other kind of approach. That’s just me and the language.

Ashlie Anderson, whose character I have to I run after and chase, before every take we would do the scene. We would get our Taming of the Shrew on before they started to film, Ashlie, shout out to you girl; we’re partners in that.

What do you think of when you think of the KKK?

My mom had an encounter with the KKK when she was I think 7 years old in North Carolina. She snuck into a cross burning. I’m so lucky she didn’t get caught because I wouldn’t be here.

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Actors Interview

Interview: Rachel Dretzin and Andrew Solomon on “Far from the Tree”

Posted on August 2, 2018 at 8:00 am

Copyright IFC 2018
“Far from the Tree” is a new documentary based on the award-winning book by Andrew Solomon that explores the challenges families families face when they have children who in one way or another seem to be especially different and hard to understand. The movie uses Solomon’s own story as a gay man whose parents struggled to accept him as a starting point to examine other families: a mother and her adult son with Down syndrome, a teenager with autism and his parents who tried every possible therapy until one had a remarkable result, three people with dwarfism and their families, and the parents and siblings of a young man who committed a brutal murder when he was still in his teens.

In an interview, Solomon and director Rachel Dretzin talked about the lines between nature and nurture and between helping and accepting people who are different.

I remember in the 1960’s and 70’s, the authorities were still blaming “refrigerator mothers” for autism. Now we see it as entirely a matter of physical causes. Where are we in the attribution of our abilities and personalities between nature and nurture?

Solomon: Well, I think both nature and nurture can occur, and we look at a range of conditions in the film. I mean Down syndrome was not caused by nurture, but how well someone with Down syndrome is able to function in the world may have something to do with nurture. Different people with Down syndrome have different capacities, just as different people without Down syndrome have different capacities, but there’s no question that really good parents are able to bring their child to a higher level of functioning. So, certainly refrigerator mothers don’t cause autism, but mothers who are warm and engaged and supportive are able to help their children through autism. The family you see in the film devoted themselves one hundred percent to their autistic child, and ultimately were able to help them quite a lot.

So that’s what parenting is, is figuring out what their nature is and then nurturing whatever their nature is?

Solomon: Well, nurturing whatever their strengths are and helping them to realize their full potential. I mean parenting involves loving your children, it involves accepting your children, and what it shouldn’t involve is trying to transform their children because you are uncomfortable with the way that they’re different. You don’t want to have families to say “I have a child with Down syndrome and I’m going todo all of these things because I hate having a child with Down syndrome and I want to make it disappear and go away.” You recognize that it can create a lot of difficulties in life and so here is the way that we’re going to help him to be independent or self-reliant or give him as much education as we can and so on and so forth.

We all as parents have a responsibility for changing our children. We have to educate them, to give them moral compass, teach them some manners, and we also all have to accept and celebrate our children for who they are. Some things clearly need to be accepted and celebrated and some things clearly need to be changed and a great deal falls in a very funky middle. The film is really about how people navigate through that foggy middle

While we know different in theory, do we still somehow expect that our children will be Xerox copies of ourselves?

Dretzin: I think we all have some fantasy when we have children. Andrew says it in the book, I think it’s the first line, “There’s no such thing as reproduction.” Having children is an act of production. It is always a leap into the unknown and we all know it’s a leap into the unknown, so I think imagining that our children are gonna be just like us is a sort of comforting way of padding the jump.

The families in the movie have very little overlap with the book. How did you select them?

Dretzin: The first decision that we made, which we made very, very early on, was not to for the most part not to use the same stories that are in the book. Jason Kingsley is the one character in the film who’s also in the book, but his life has kind of moved into a new phase and a whole set of new experiences that were not part of the book, so that’s part of the reason we decided to include him.

Once we decided we were going to find new characters it was about really narrowing down the scope of what we were going to look at. There are twelve chapters in the book, ten of which are devoted to different identities. We knew we couldn’t do them all, so we thought about it thematically in terms of stories that would address some of the most important ideas in the book, and not necessarily repeating them.

So for example, there’s a lot of overlap between the themes of the Deaf chapter in the book and the themes of the dwarf chapter in the film. Both are about communities that have wrestled mightily with the question of whether cure is something they want, both are communities that have an organized empowered community that is very positive, if not celebratory, of their condition. So we decided we would do dwarfism because deafness is something that’s been looked at a lot and is further along.

Then we went out and met people. My producer, Jamila Ephron, and I spent about a year meeting dozens and dozens and dozens of families. Whether it was conferences or conventions or through different groups, then narrowing it down, then meeting them in their homes multiple times before we ever brought cameras in.

You were dealing with very intimate, often painful topics. How did you make them comfortable with you and with being so public on screen?

Dretzin: We’ve built a lot of trust. I mean, again, the film was made over a couple of years and we spent many, many, many hours with these families, multiple visits. So, in some cases the trust was there right away. Emily Kingsley and Jason, partly because they had been in the book and they knew Andrew and partly because they were just further along, they’ve done quite a bit of media before, they were comfortable almost immediately. But other families took time. It’s a funny thing that happens. You spend enough time with people and you like them enough and they like you enough, and eventually everything else just kind of goes away and people really do just relax and there are times where nobody is thinking about the cameras because we’ve been there for so long. I hope those are reflected in the film. That’s the magic moment.

There is a moment in the film at the Little People convention where they discuss a possible “cure” for dwarfism and some people are reluctant. As one of them says, “I don’t think I need to be fixed.” How do we decide and who decides whether something needs to be fixed?

Solomon: The question is whether it’s addressing short stature because it’s uncomfortable to be in the world with short stature, or whether it’s addressing short stature and these other health complications and proposing ways to avoid all of the complications that are involved. Every condition that we looked at has elements of social deficit and elements of inherent deficit. So if you’re a dwarf and you need spinal decompression, that is a biological reality, that is something that no degree of adjusting our social attitudes can address and it needs a biological response, but if you said the problem with dwarfism is that everyone stares at you and people take pictures without permission, and you can’t reach things in grocery shelves, those are all things that can be shifted and fixed, and they should be shifted and fixed and there should not be reasons for eliminating dwarfism from the spectrum of human experience.

The question is to try to tease apart the inherent problems of the conditions, and the social problems of the conditions, and to ensure that more medicine is focused on the biological issues, and that social reform is focused on the social issues.

If I had a deaf child, if one of my children was born deaf, I would get him cochlear implants because I think communication between parents and children is paramount and I’m not good at languages and I would not have become fluent in sign in three weeks, it would have taken many, many years. But I would also bring that child up around other Deaf people and learning to sign as the surest way to leave the child later on with the option. You can keep the implant on and function mostly in the hearing world, and you could move back and forth between those two worlds in a fluid and easy fashion.

Dretzin: I would just add to that that I think there’s been a kind of misconception about the inclusion of a crime story in the film that we’re trying to equate what Trevor did with being deaf or being a dwarf or any of these other sorts of conditions. It’s really in the film to show the enduring nature of parental love, and that story challenges parental love in ways that none of the other stories in the film actually can. It’s not there to suggest that we should fully accept what Trevor did or that he doesn’t meet to be fixed or anything of that nature.

I loved the music in the film. Tell me about it.

Dretzin: Well, we have two composers actually, Nico Muhly was one of the prodigies featured in Andrew’s book, so that was kind of a no-brainer. His music is beautiful particularly what he does with the autism section with Jack. You hear those voices and the buzzing and it mimics some of what is going on in Jack’s brain. Yo La Tengo was an absolute delight to work with. They came into the project a bit late because there was a song of theirs that I wanted to use and I approached them about using it. We got into a conversation about the film and they expressed so much interest in getting involved. One of the most interesting moments was actually when I screened the film for Yo La Tengo for the first time. It was a rough cut and they loved it but they thought there was too much of their music in and actually encouraged me to pull back, which was the smartest call I think that they could have made. We really had to be careful with this film not to get sentimental or manipulative emotionally because it’s such an emotional film and the music has a lot to do with that. So we really tried to pull back with the music and not overdo it, and in the end I think that that helps make the film not feel sappy.

The movie is about family members, who are often very different from one another and still find ways to support each other. But it is also about the importance of being with other people who are like you, about finding your tribe, whether you are born into it or not.

Solomon: We live in the era of the internet, I think a lot of these families find other families going through similar experiences. If you know only people who are like you you become a caricature of yourself but if you don’t know anyone who’s like you it’s hard to figure out who you are.

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