Interview: Jules Feiffer on “Bernard and Huey.”

Posted on June 14, 2018 at 8:00 am

It was truly an honor to get a chance to interview Jules Feiffer, who wrote the critically acclaimed “Carnal Knowledge,” a movie that was the subject of a Supreme Court case about whether it was obscene (they ruled that it was not). He also illustrated one of my favorite books, The Phantom Tollbooth, wrote a book about the history of comics, and many, many other books for children and adults. His latest movie is Bernard and Huey, based on a script he wrote thirty years ago.

The full interview is on The Credits. Here’s an excerpt:

Is the conquest more important than the sex for Bernard and Huey?

Conquest is major with Huey, but he also loves sex, and giving pleasure to women. Once it’s over, he’s indifferent, and wants them out of the way. This point was made more openly in Carnal Knowledge, where it’s clear that heterosexual men didn’t like women, they liked women’s bodies. And once the sex was over, and the cigarettes smoked, they wanted the girl gone, so they could go out with the guys (their real relationships), and talk about how, and with whom, they scored. Bernard would love a real relationship. He’s just too screwed up to maintain one.

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Interview Writers

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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Directors Interview Writers

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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Directors Documentary Interview Politics

Sean Karp Explains Sound Editing and Sound Mixing

Posted on May 14, 2018 at 8:00 am

It was a pleasure to interview sound editor and mixer Sean Karp for The Credits.  Here’s an excerpt:

The goal is almost for your work to be invisible, then?

The rule of thumb is: if your work is noticed you did a bad job. The point is to help tell the story, to help the film draw people in and get caught up in the story. So if people are paying attention to the sound, then you really didn’t do a good job because they’re not in the story, they’re not being drawn in. Badly done sound can be much more noticeable than a really good, smooth job. It cuts the suspension of disbelief. A really good movie is going to draw you in, so it’s our job in post-production sound to help the director or the producers achieve that in the final product; it’s all about the experience for the person sitting in the seat.

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Behind the Scenes Interview

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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