Interview: Natalie Portman on “A Tale of Love and Darkness”

Interview: Natalie Portman on “A Tale of Love and Darkness”

Posted on August 31, 2016 at 3:44 pm

Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman wrote, directed, and stars in “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” based on the international best-selling memoir by Amos Oz. It was a pleasure to speak to her about the challenges of adapting the book and directing a child actor.

What do we learn from the troubled but tender relationship between Amos and his mother?

The film and the book are very much about what happens when expectations don’t line up with reality. And I think that a lot of the things that they might tell young people about what happens once you have a job or once you go to college or once you get married, these things are like the way to happiness or something, once you’ve got to those realities and you achieved those whether you call them goals or expectations and then they are different than you expected them to be, and then dealing with those differences can be one of the most challenging things in life.

In the film, the child’s father is fascinated at the derivation of and connection between words, possibly because it takes place at a time when modern conversational Hebrew was being invented.

It’s a really fascinating time in history because not only was this country of Israel being created by a group of refugees, which I’m not sure has happened before, but also they were revising the language as you said, a language that has been spoken purely in a religious context, in a Biblical or liturgical context for hundreds of years and then all of a sudden it needed to be used for everyday usage and needed to be updated rapidly. And so it’s really fascinating seeing how they came up with new words, what they drew from. Ohad talked about his uncle in the book who was one of the architects of modern Hebrew, creating new words, from biblical words and he created the word for “shirt” and he says in the book, “If my uncle hadn’t invented the word for shirt we would still be saying, ‘I put on my coat of many colors this morning.'” And it’s really amazing how they introduced these new words and got them really accepted into everyday usage. And what an exciting time to be a writer, too, because you could literally invent your language as you were inventing your story.

Copyright Focus World 2016
Copyright Focus World 2016
You began acting when you were very young and now in this movie are working with a very young actor. What did you learn from your experiences as a child performer that helped you direct this actor?

I think the most important thing was that when I was a kid I felt that everyone on set made sure that the environment felt like playing more than working and I wanted to repeat that for Amir because the film is quite serious in tone. The atmosphere should always be positive for him so I really tried to make sure that everyone was very calm on set and between takes we would goof around and make jokes and not have it be a stressful environment for him.

You have worked with so many outstanding directors, very different directors in terms of their approach and their style. What were some of the things that you tried to take from your experiences and use as a director?

I have been lucky to work with so many people who I admire so much and I took a lot from many different directors I worked with. From Darren Aronofsky, I saw how he worked with each actor really individually. He would do different things with different actors to elicit their performances from them which I thought was really smart because everyone needs something different. And from Terrence Malick, I saw that you don’t have to play by the rules at all. You just need to make movies the way that you make them and the way you want to tell them. And then Mike Nichols just always always says, “Keep reminding yourself what story you are telling, where you are in the story and claim the big moment.”

What do we learn from the scene at the end that gives us a glimpse of the main character as an adult?

The book actually deals with many different time periods including the present. I felt that it was important for me to show where he ends up because he did and end up fulfilling his mother’s dreams in a way by becoming this pioneer by becoming a writer. After all of her storytelling, somehow his mother’s absence turned him into the man he became. He was so influenced by her but also he gave himself his own name. Ohad means strong in Hebrew and it.s part of remaking himself.

How did you use your character’s clothing to tell her story?

I actually was lucky enough to have the great designer Alber Elbaz who formerly designed at Lanvin for the past ten years and is originally Israeli also. He did all of my costumes for the film. We really wanted to tell a story through the wardrobe. I like this European elegance that they had but also poverty. They don’t have a lot and she’s wearing the same clothes over and over again. But they’re beautiful clothes that she had from Europe. She had three outfits. Also the clothes helped tell the passage of time. We go from a more 40’s silhouette to a more 50’s silhouette which helps us understand the time that has gone by.

What were you looking for in the movie’s score?

The music was an amazing part of the film to do and to learn. It’s actually really surprising to me how hard it was because I really love music and I’ve always known very specifically the kind of music that I want. But the problem with this film, the music that I felt fit emotionally, when you put it next to the actual emotion on the film, it kind of doubled the emotion and was too much. And so I realized that you have to actually had to go against, and again, it can’t be the exact same emotion you’re going for. I worked with a really close friend, the composer Nick Britell who was amazing. He would just sit with me and try hundred different things because I really needed to hear it to make sure it was right. He wrote so many beautiful pieces for the film. I’m so proud of the work that he did and he added immeasurably to the film.

What do you want this film to tell people about Israel?

I don’t intend to be educational on this film. It’s really very much about a family. But I think if there’s anything that movies can do it is that they can remind us that people and places that we might not know about or that we might have preconceived notions about or even prejudices against, they can make us relate to someone as a human and hopefully you just see them in a different way. A movie can help you relate to the emotion and it might of someone that you might never meet your whole life.

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Interview: Keegan DeWitt

Interview: Keegan DeWitt

Posted on August 30, 2016 at 3:23 pm

Keegan DeWitt is a versatile and sought-after composer who has worked on a remarkably wide range of television and film projects. Keegan DeWitt is a versatile and accomplished composer, who has strengthened many stories across film and television. This October, his music will heighten the drama of HBO’s highly anticipated series, “Divorce,” starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, and Molly Shannon. He wrote the scores for eight Sundance Film Festival selections including the current release “Morris From America,” starring Craig Robinson. I was very glad to get a chance to talk to him.

Music is a very important part of the storyline of “Morris in America,” with key scenes including rap and electronic music. How do you approach that?

It’s easy because Chad Hartigan and I have been friends since we were teenagers. I work with some really interesting people but it is great to be able to work with a close friend, especially because Chad and I grew up talking about movies and getting excited about movies. So the process of making a movie with somebody you went through that with is that much more rewarding. And this was one especially cool. One day Chad has this idea of, “Let’s figure out a way to make an international co-production in Germany with Americans and Germans,” so I was like “Okay,” and next thing I know, me and him are riding bikes across the park in Berlin to go to the production office and score the movie which was so great.

And then musically, it’s a tough double-edged sword in that when we sat down, we had to make so that when people watch it they will have no idea this is a score. We really wanted it to feel like the hip-hop stuff was totally authentic, real hip-hop. And the EDM with exactly the same. And so on and so forth.

Copyright 2016 Keegan DeWitt
Copyright 2016 Keegan DeWitt

And then when the score stuff happened, it just was like breathing in the film and it all felt really organic and at no point did you notice it. That’s an especially tough gamble when it is such a music-centered film and there is a ton of music in there.

It was a fun project in that I had to roll up my sleeves and go, “Okay, how do I do each of these types of music?” It was also hard because there are racial implications in it as well, just like Chad as the writer and director creating this narrative. I felt this huge spotlight on myself to not be just a white person imitating hip-hop.o for me I was really encouraged when I sat down to write like that when he’s 14. But I clued into what first got me really excited about hip-hop when I was a teenager which was the melodic stuff like De La Soul and Del the Funky Homosapien and people like that. The hip-hop that the character Morris creates is sort of goofy, like a goofier hip-hop that somebody who is coming from a slightly more naïve innocent place like Morris could get into. And so for me that was my little slot in the door. I was like, “Ah, I got it.” I could sneak in with this because this is authentic in my experience and I also think it could be authentic to Morris’ experience.

And we also thought that it was an important thing to choose hip-hop that was somewhat fun so that we weren’t trying to comment on or make things seem gritty. The thing that I thought was so rare about the script is actually like it’s just so thick with love and curiosity and all those things. And it’s like Chad said, “If you want that really gritty dark person, go see every other movie about what it’s like to be a bad teenager.” I think that’s really true. And I am always drawn to what somebody wants to do something that’s like very pop. And so I was excited to be able to do that on this as well. And then on that note also to make the electronic music feel scary too. We tried to make it really loud and aggressive so that when he’s walking up to that club on that night you feel that rock in his stomach that you would feel if you were stepping up and could just hear the pounding music from inside.

So, now that you’re working on the new “Divorce” television series, how is it different to approach a TV series versus a movie?

I was lucky on “Divorce” because it’s HBO so it super creative and artistic to begin with. And also with this show, because everyone loves Sarah Jessica Parker and Sharon Horgan the creator, there is just a reverence for them in the work they do that there is a lot of space and a lot of grace for the creative process. When I got there they pretty much shot two-thirds of everything and we really got to spend like three months just being creative.

I don’t think it’s often on a TV series that we are a month into postproduction and it feels like hanging out on a Saturday evening. We are all just talking about music and I would play them little things and they would get excited and be like, Oh, what’s the name of that type of drum?” Yeah, the Bodhrán, okay. Bodhrán, let’s go crazy on that and experiment with that. So we did like a whole week of crazy Bodhrán music and then did crazy flute music because that show is really like in the 70’s and Jethro Tull and stuff like that.

I’ve been really lucky in that way. I’ve done other stuff where you jump in and you are just creating music and you are like, “I hope that makes sense.” But with this, we really did get to begin almost as if it was a movie and go through each episode and really choose to be adventurous. I was just really lucky, especially for a relatively younger composer, to be able to be in a room that’s got that many talented people. It was an opinionated room for sure and it was a competitive kind of “Can I meet these expectations?” But that’s always exciting as long as the people are really intelligent and excited as they were.

The thing that I know that SJ fought for and resonated with me was that it’s really important that as an adult so often things can be super dark or super sad and then in the same moment totally farcical. We had to figure out ways to mix extreme happiness with awkwardness or extreme sadness with moments of real tenderness or even silliness. And so I tried to make sure that I represented all ends of the spectrum and even if I would stay on the silly side of the spectrum, there was a real humility and a real intelligence to it and then it if was sad, it still felt a little bit like off kilter, a little bit ridiculous.

Thomas Haden Church is so good in the show. He’s so funny and has such heart. One minute he’s sabotaging Jessica Parker’s life but in the other minute he’s like this dad whose family is falling apart and he’s desperately trying to keep it together. So as soon as I walked into it I knew this is an intelligent project and I really had to make sure that I continued to meet that in terms of not giving them a cue that included all of the moods and emotions.

Do you compose on the piano? Or a computer keyboard?

My main instrument is piano to compose on but this was a crazy experience in that one day we were talking about me maybe going into the project and then the next week I was flying of the New York and literally composing in the post-production office. I was just trying to be a ninja with the computer as much as I could. So there are lots of saxophones and organic things that I try to really add some humanity. And every night I would walk to the subway and be calling a bunch of people that I know all over the United States to be like, “Hey, can you send me a voice memo of you playing this theme on the saxophone but sort of make a long?” And every morning I would be getting email dispatches from players around the United States that I would then bring in and chop up and have to work on the slide to get things together.

I always say I could divide it and these two camps; the people who are great with computer and the people who are purest with real instruments. And I’m always fascinated by what if you send me a really crappy recording of your saxophone where so it feels really gritty and interesting and breathy and then I’m going to take it to the computer, re-pitch notes of it, cut it in half, slow it down, put it in double time and then once I do that with five different instruments at once it’s this really cool mix of both of those things.

I always try and remember a limitation is not a limitation. It’s like a gift, it’s a creative gift. So this thing was like how do I compose music that I have to audition in high-pressure circumstances with like 15 minute turnaround times in a production office in Greenpoint on a laptop? It’s time to treat this like it’s a scrapbook and I’ve got a bunch of scissors and paste.

Then we sit down with Sharon and SJ and everyone. It was this challenge of one group wanted a lot of the Bodhrán because it was chaotic and interesting and crazy and the other one was flute music and I was sort of jokingly at one point, “Do you realize that when you mix Irish drums with flutes you’ve got ‘Braveheart.’ I turned the flute into a saxophone because it’s got a little bit more comedy but also when used right that sound can be very emotional. So I tried to kind of leverage all of those things together and take it one notch off of what makes sense.

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Alicia Keys Stops Wearing Makeup — Good!

Posted on August 30, 2016 at 12:36 pm

Singer-songwriter-actress Alicia Keys has announced that she is not going to wear make-up any more, even in performance and on television. In the midst of the over-the-top as always VMA awards on MTV Sunday night she looked fresh, natural, and comfortable. Her spontaneous a capella song from the podium matched her unretouched look.

Women are bombarded with a lot of messages about what is wrong with the way they look, mostly from people who want to see us things to make us look and smell “better.” It is great to have a counter-message from Keys that tells us it is possible to feel happy the way we are.

She says she was inspired by showing up for a photo shoot ready to be made up and photographed, and then the photographer asked if he could take her picture without makeup.

“I swear it is the strongest, most empowered, most free, and most honestly beautiful that I have ever felt,” she wrote.
“I hope to God it’s a revolution … ‘Cause I don’t want to cover up anymore. Not my face, not my mind, not my soul, not my thoughts, not my dreams, not my struggles, not my emotional growth. Nothing.”

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Spike Jones and Margaret Qualley Make a Knock-Out of a Perfume Commercial

Posted on August 30, 2016 at 8:39 am

Margaret Qualley (daughter of Andie MacDowell) stars in a new commercial for Kenzo Perfume, directed by Spike Jonze (“Her,” “Being John Malkovich,” “Where the Wild Things Are”) and it is wonderfully, deliciously, deliriously nutty.

The choreography is by Ryan Heffington (Sia’s “Chandelier”) and the song is “Mutant Brain” by Sam Spiegel (Jonze’s brother) and Ape Drums​.

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The Greatest 55 Women Characters in Movies: Alliance of Women Film Journalists

Posted on August 29, 2016 at 4:21 pm

On my friend Susan Wloszczyna writes about the top female movie fictional characters of all time, according to a list released by the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, a group I am proud to be belong to. I was especially honored to be asked to write about three of the characters:

#8 Nora Charles (Myrna Loy in the “Thin Man” series)

Movies love to tell us stories about falling in love: the rush of emotion, the fear of intimacy, the exquisite romantic thrill. And it is not hard to find a movie about the agony of love, the anguish of betrayal, the pain of loss. But it is very rare to see a movie about being in love, and almost impossible to find a single film, much less a series, where the lead characters are a married couple who do not just love each other and support each other – they get a genuine kick out of each other. They make marriage seem sexy and fun.

Only one couple in movie history fits that category: the witty, glamorous, but down-to-earth Nick and Nora Charles in the “Thin Man” series of six films about a debonair detective and his society wife. Myrna Loy played Nora opposite her 14-time co-star William Powell, and there has never been a better on-screen match for impeccable comic timing and romantic chemistry.

As the first film begins, they are near-newlyweds. After marrying the wealthy Nora, Nick has retired from detecting and they seem to be living a life of champagne and caviar. Nick is asked to help an old friend find her missing father (the “thin man” of the title, not Nick). Nora is a game girl, whatever is up, whether it is matching Nick by downing a half-dozen martinis or hosting an elegant party for low-lifes and crooks. “Oh, Nicky. I love you because you know such lovely people,” she says, and she means it. She is confident in herself and their marriage. When she sees him hugging the girl he is helping, she is not at all jealous – they make faces at each other over the girl’s shoulder, communicating to themselves and to us their instinctive understanding. Their relationship is never in question.

Dashiell Hammett based the character in part on his long-time love, playwright Lillian Hellman. She described Nick and Nora as “maybe one of the few marriages in modern literature where the man and woman like each other and have a fine time together.” And we have a fine time watching them.

#33 Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday)

Ann (Audrey Hepburn) is the princess of a small, highly civilized country on a diplomatic tour. She is to be unfailingly polite and gracious, promoting trade relations with her always-uncontroversial elegance. Her activities are limited to receptions, photo ops, various ceremonies and speeches like “youth and progress.” “Everything we do is so wholesome,” she sighs.

She is a Cinderella-in-reverse, losing her shoe at the beginning of the story. She has been standing so long in a receiving line, greeting an endless line of dignitaries, that she discreetly takes her sore foot out of her high heel to stretch it, and accidentally knocks it over so she cannot find it again without revealing her indiscretion. That night, she rebels and is given medicine to help her sleep and advice to so “exactly what you wish for a while.” While under the power of the drug, she runs away and ends up falling asleep in the apartment of an American journalist (Gregory Peck).

Ann seems to have everything and so she is an unlikely heroine. But she gets our sympathy because of her wish for the simplest of pleasures – to sleep in pajamas, to get her hair bobbed, to buy an ice cream, to walk around without handlers or photographers, to talk to someone who does not know she is a princess. Hepburn, who would win an Oscar for her first lead role, is enchanting as the princess who longs for the joys of a commoner. Seeing her discover them for the first time makes us rediscover them for ourselves.

#48 Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith in “Working Girl”)

Tess (Melanie Griffith) wants to believe that being smart and working hard will make it possible for her to realize her dream of becoming an investment banker. But the sexist jerks she works for as a secretary will not take her seriously. And her new boss, a woman (Sigourney Weaver), pretends to support her but steals her idea. A boyfriend betrayal and a Valium later, she is stealing her boss’s dress, cutting off her Staten Island poof hairdo (“You want to be taken seriously, you need serious hair”), and pretending to be in the job she wishes she had.

Way too many movie heroines have destiny-changing makeovers. But there is no trying-on-outfits montage here. Yes, she looks ravishing in her boss’s glamorous cocktail dress. But it turns out she has made a mistake. Dress for the event is business attire. She is still out of place.

And yet, looking different brings her to the attention of Jack (Harrison Ford, terrific in a highly unusual supporting role). When they meet in “her” office the next day, he is as won over by her “head for business” as by her “body for sin.”

In a crucial moment, Tess is able to show that the business idea her boss has stolen is hers by owning her intelligence, hard work, judgment – and her roots, acknowledging that it was reading one of the “lower class” newspapers led her to the idea that is going to be worth a great deal of money to her company and its client. She shows us and herself that it is her Staten Island savvy as well as her Wall Street ambition that make her indispensible to Jack, to her new employer, and to us.

Wloszczyna wrote:

*Among the most popular types of characters, based on how they are primarily portrayed onscreen, few are mainly defined by their relationship to a man or a child. There are six action heroes; five journalists/writers/editors; five girls in their teens and younger; four upper-class/socialite/royalty types; two housewives, one mother and one mail-order bride and mother; two office workers; two waitresses; two teachers; two business owners; and two law enforcers.

*18 of the characters resulted in acting Oscars for the actresses who played them, with many more leading to Academy Award nominations. In other words, if you build great female characters, they will likely be noticed and rewarded.

*Only three films that produced worthy Wonder Women had female directors—the 1994 version of “Little Women,” “Whale Rider” and “Winter’s Bone.” However, 18 out of the 55 characters—almost a third—were conceived wholly or in part by women screenwriters and/or authors. “I don’t think men can’t write great parts for women, since we have many on our list,” Ferdinand says. “However, the insight that women can bring to these characters and their lives is self-evident in the results. We know when something feels true and right to us.”

We will let AWFJ’s own Wonder Woman, founder Merin, have the last word. “These characters represent our good friends,” she says. “This is a list of films that every mother will want their daughters (and their sons) to see. It could serve as a primer for a course on women’s images in film through the years.”

Be sure to check out the whole list and watch all the movies! Let me know of any you think we left out. Remember, these are fictional characters — we hope to do a list based on real-life characters like Helen Keller, Tina Turner, and Erin Brockovich next.

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