Guillermo del Toro on “Roma” — One Amigo Pays Tribute to Another

Posted on January 24, 2019 at 9:02 pm

Copyright 2018 Netflix

They are called “The Three Amigos” — three Mexican directors who have risen to the top ranks in Hollywood and world cinema, all Oscar winners, Guillermo del Toro for “The Shape of Water,” Alejandro G. Iñárritu two years in a row for “Birdman” and “The Revenant,” and “Roma” director Alfonso Cuarón for “Gravity.” He’s now the front-runner for up to four Oscars this year for “Roma.”

I love what del Toro wrote on Twitter about “Roma.”

10 personal musings about ROMA.

1) The opening shot suggests that earth (the shit-infested ground) and heaven (the plane) are irreconcilably far even if they are joined -momentarily- and revealed, by water (the reflection). All truths in ROMA are revealed by water.

2) These planes of existence, like the separation within classes in the household cannot be broached. The moments the family comes “closer” are fleeting… “She saved our lives” is promptly followed by “Can you make me a banana shake?”

3) In my view, Cleo’s “silence” is used as a tool for her dramatic arch- that leads to her most intimate pain being revealed, by water – again- after the Ocean rescue: “I didn’t want her to be born” Cleo surpasses and holds her emotions in silence until they finally pour out

4) One key moment, precisely crafted is Cuaron’s choice to have Cleo’s water break just as the violence explodes and her boyfriend breaks into the store holding both a gun and a “Love Is…” T shirt. The baby will be stillborn.

5) In every sense, ROMA is a Fresco, a Mural, not a portrait. Not only the way it is lensed but the way it “scrolls” with long lateral dollies. The audio visual information (context, social unrest, factions & politics / morals of the time) exists within the frame to be read.

6) It seems to me that the fact that Cuaron and Eugenio Caballero BUILT several blocks (!) of Mexico City in a giant backlot (sidewalk, lampposts, stores, asphalted streets, etc) is not well-known. This is a titanic achievement.

7) The Class stratas are represented in the film not only in the family but within the family and the land-owning relatives and even between Fermin and Cleo- when he insults her in the practice field.

8) ROMA cyphers much of its filmic storytelling through image and sound. When viewed in a theatre, it has one of the most dynamic surround mixes. Subtle but precise.


9) Everything is cyclical. That’s why Pepe remembers past lives in which he has belonged to different classes, different professions. Things come and go- life, solidarity, love. In our loneliness we can only embrace oh, so briefly by the sea.

10) The final image rhymes perfectly with the opening. Once again, earth and heaven. Only Cleo can transit between both. Like she demonstrates in the Zovek scene, only she has grace. We open the film looking down, we close looking up- but the sky, the plane, is always far away.

And the great ending of Gravity… The studio was pressuring Alfonso to “show” helicopters in the sky, coming to rescue Sandra Bullock’s character. He said “no”. Emerging from the water was the triumph, touching the earth-standing…

The studio then said: “Ok what about hearing the helicopters?” Alfonso, once more, said “no”. The studio then suggested adding a radio giving her coordinates, promising help. Alfonso said “no”. Once more an ending made of Air, land and water.

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Directors Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Interviews About My #1 Film of 2018, If Beale Street Could Talk

Posted on January 7, 2019 at 8:00 am

Copyright Annapurna 2018
I had the great pleasure of speaking to two of the people behind my favorite film of the year, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” breakout star Kiki Layne and writer/director Barry Jenkins, who adapted the film from the James Baldwin novel.

My interview with Ms. Layne was for the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. She spoke about the support her character gets from her strong, devoted family.

The love in that family is just so, so powerful. We see the beauty of having those people to lean into and having those people around that are nurturing you and nurturing your growth. Tish has some growing up to do. Her family encourages that but it’s not all, “You’ve got to get over this.” It wasn’t that type of energy. It’s just like, “Hey, this is a situation that you’re in but really we’re all in it together,” and I think that was the beauty of the family dynamic in this film.

And I spoke to Barry Jenkins for rogerebert.com. He described the one scene where he augmented Baldwin’s story.

Another one of my favorite scenes is the one where they’re in the loft with the young landlord after so many rejections. It is so delicate and charming.

The character was in the book but it’s one of the few places in the translation that I’ll say I felt it didn’t go just far enough for me and so as I was walking around the space I just had this thought in my head like, “How in the hell could you possibly see a way to turn this into a home?” Then I realized, “Oh, but what says love and faith more than a lover saying, ‘I promise I can do this’ and you say ‘Okay, yes I believe you,’” So that’s when we added this whole thing of how we’re going to make this into a home and then him showing where he’s going to put all these things and then I was like, “Oh, it feels kind of cute let’s just go all the way with this pantomiming with the fridge,” and when we did it, there was something so lovely about watching Dave Franco and Stephan James perform this kind of joke in a certain way which was rooted in love and faith that when we got to the roof it also seemed like, “Okay, and now these characters feel connected. How can we take it one step further?”

This idea of mothers in the film is so important. Tish has a mother and she is pregnant, Fonny has a mother, Victoria Rogers, the woman who’s been sexually assaulted, she’s pregnant. She’s not showing but she’s pregnant. It’s all this idea of mothers. I thought, “Oh, here is something that I can see uniting these characters,” and that’s when we gave Dave Franco the line, “I’m just my mother’s son.” Sometimes it’s that idea that makes the difference between us and them; not black and white but people who have been loved and the people who haven’t.

This was adapted with I think much respect and deference to Mr. Baldwin, but that was one of the places where I’m really proud of how I was able to fuse my voice and his.

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Actors Directors Interview Race and Diversity Writers

Bradley Cooper on A Star is Born

Posted on September 27, 2018 at 1:06 pm

Copyright 2018 Warner Brothers
Lady Gaga plays Ally, who becomes a star in what is the 4th or 5th version of this classic story, depending on whether you count “What Price Hollywood.” Lady Gaga herself becomes an instant movie star as already-star Bradley Cooper becomes an instant writing and directing and maybe even singing star in one of the year’s biggest releases.

I wrote about Bradley Cooper, who spoke about the film at the first non-festival screening for The Credits.

An excerpt:

Cooper said the moment that inspired the film was at a Metallica concert. “About seven years ago I was lucky enough to be backstage at a Metallica concert at Yankee Stadium. I had met Lars Ulrich, and I listened to Metallica when I was 14 years old. That’s why the character says, ‘Ride the lightning’ in Silver Linings Playbook. At the concert, I was behind the drum kit, and I could see the sweat on the back of Lars’ neck, and at the same time, I could see the scope of the audience in front of him. It was a beautiful proscenium, and that was the first moment where I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen that on film, the subjective eye that could actually be epic and personal at the same time. And that was the beginning of the idea of how we were going to shoot all of the concert sequences that you just saw. It is all subjective. We never left the stage. But hopefully, you felt the scope of where they were.”

The concert scenes feel authentic because they are. Cooper filmed at real performance spaces, including the largest privately owned music festival in the world, Glastonbury, where they had just eight minutes to shoot before a performance by the star of the last version of A Star is Born, Kris Kristofferson.

Cooper said, “I had the luxury of having worked so often on camera and on stage, so I knew what I needed from a director as an actor in order to feel comfortable enough. As Al Pacino said, ‘We’re just trying to grab a few moments of authenticity.’ It’s important to create a space so that all the actors feel completely safe but also to know that it’s going to be hard. They’re going to have to go to places that scare them. They’re going to know that I’m right there with them. I’m not on the sidelines. It’s going to be okay to fail, but they have to risk. I have no desire for them to sit here and watch something that does not mean anything, that isn’t really personal to them and to me. Everybody wants to express the deepest part of themselves to another human being and feel safe about that. It’s very cathartic and healing.”

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Pick of the Litter Directors on Five Adorable Puppies Training to be Guide Dogs

Posted on September 12, 2018 at 9:31 am

Pick of the Litter was one of the highlights of Washington DC’s AFIDocs documentary film festival. It follows five puppy siblings, all with names beginning with P, as they go through the extensive training and rigorous tests over two years to become guide dogs for the blind. Only a fraction of the dogs bred for the program have the temperament and skills for the job. We follow Patriot, Poppet, Primrose, Phil, and Potomac from birth to their ultimate place in a film that is exciting, funny, and always heartwarming.

Copyright IFC 2018

In an interview, directors Dana Nachman and Don Hardy, Jr. revealed their own favorites and described some of the behind the scenes choices and challenges.

Before we even meet the puppies, we get to hear from people whose lives have been saved by guide dogs. Why did you want to start with that?

DH: It’s really a life and death thing and what these dogs do is really extraordinary. So if you start there, then you can go back to the little bundles of fur and the people.

DN: It was very important to us to show what was at stake before we get to the cuteness of the puppies. It is essential to set that tone.

Your camera work was really impressive. At some points you had us at dog level. And for some essential conversations, you had us at both ends of the phone calls.

DH: It’s something we talked about from the very beginning, trying to tell it from that point of view of the dog. So we’re on the ground a lot. We’re trying to just stay in that world.

DN: Typically you see a lot of dog stuff just shooting down at the dog and we just didn’t want that. It really diminishes them if you’re coming from the upper angle whereas if you’re down low then you’re in their world and experiencing it like they do.

DH: We started with the big shoulder mount camera that is typical. It was fine when the dogs were small and didn’t move a lot but then once they got big they got faster. And they train the dogs really fast. There was no way to keep up. So we developed this little steadicam-like system, a small camera on a gimbal. And then I plug that into a monopod so then I could swing it down very low to get the dog’s eye level and then go up really high to to almost look like a drone.

And they’re inexpensive cameras so we ended up with a couple of them and so for a few key sequences Dana was shooting too. It just would all pair together well but it was a big undertaking to make this thing look like cohesive.

So much of the training of the dogs has to do with focusing their attention and not letting them get distracted. How did you get all the footage you needed without getting in their way?

DH: That was a big concern early on and we thought it would be maybe prevent Guide Dogs for the Blind from allowing us the access that we needed. We’re always going to be in the way. So that was another reason we had to develop this lightweight camera system to be able to not interrupt anything; there was no stopping to say, “Can you do that again?” We just had to keep up. But their response is interesting. They said that we’re just another distraction that these dogs have to deal with and it’s just part of life. We did a lot of the shooting ourselves so they just got to know us and I think we were just part of the training in a way.

DN: At one point one of the dogs was really tanking in some of his tasks like he wasn’t doing well and that particular dog liked Don a lot and so I think we even felt more nervous. We wanted to hang back because we didn’t want him to be out on our account. But they said, “If he can’t deal with Don being there then what’s he not going to be able to deal with if he’s with a visually impaired person?”

DH: It’s important in whatever story you’re telling to remember that the life the real events going on is more important than you.

How did you get started on this story?

DH: We worked together at the NBC station in San Francisco. We were both dog lovers and we did several pieces together on Guide Dogs for the Blind and so we always knew that they were just the tip of the iceberg. Pretty much coincidentally my mom was a newspaper reporter and she did a series in New York following a litter from birth until if they made it. We were like, “Oh well it’s great for a newspaper but so much better if it’s on camera.”

The dogs are wonderful, but the people are pretty wonderful, too, so dedicated and kind. I love their euphemism for the dogs who don’t make it all the way through the program: career changed.

DN: And some of the best parts in this film. They take it all very seriously. It’s almost a quasi Best in Show. It’s not even that you’re making fun of that. They own it. It is an earnestness that really resonates with me.

Did you each have a favorite? Were you sad for the dogs who were “career changed?”

DN: I’m #teampatriot.

Me, too!

DH: I’m #teamphil. They really say and it turns out to be true that the dogs choose. If you think of it that all of these dogs are doctors but only a few of them can be brain surgeons. They’re all like very incredible animals but only a few can do this job which is has life and death stakes.

DN: And I hope one of the things that people take away from the film too is that anybody who has a dog or has had a dog — it is a profound relationship. Even just for a regular person who has nothing wrong with them per se, it really is a life-changing relationship and we all know that.

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Directors Documentary Interview

Interview: Patrick Creadon on his Father Ted Documentary, “Hesburgh”

Posted on September 1, 2018 at 7:50 am

Patrick Creadon’s new film about Notre Dame’s Father Theodore Hesburgh is one of my favorite films of the year. Like the popular documentaries that came out this year about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Mr. Rogers, it is an extraordinary story about an extraordinary life, devoting much of its focus to Father Ted’s work on huge, complex, controversial issues like civil rights, but it also shows us how small kindnesses made a big difference in the lives of students and other individuals. And it includes an interview with my dad, Newton Minow, who was invited by Father Ted to become the first Jewish trustee of Notre Dame University and who became one of Father Ted’s oldest friends and biggest fans. The film will be shown September 4, 2018 at the Midwest Independent Film Festival.

In an interview, Creadon, also the director of the delightful “Wordplay” (about crossword puzzles and the people who love them) and the provocative “I.O.U.S.A” (the threat that debt poses to the US economy), talked about the most important lesson he learned from Father Ted.

“I don’t subscribe to this idea that when you’re telling a story or a nonfiction story that the film has to reside in a dark edgy underbelly space; not for everything,” he said. The link that draws him to a story is passion. “Passion in other people is what is most inspiring.”

This film had a special meaning for Creadon and his wife Christine O’Malley, who co-produced it.

The Hesburgh film is an extremely personal project for us. Both of our fathers went to Notre Dame, both of our grandfathers went to Notre Dame, I went to Notre Dame, so we grew up not just in a Notre Dame family but we grew up in a Hesburgh family. Father Hesburgh is really…he really was the father of the University for 35 years. At the same time our mantra from day one was, “We’re making a documentary film about a historical figure; we’re not trying to do a puff piece, we’re not trying to do a promotional piece on behalf of the school and the family.”

In fact we were one hundred percent independent from the school and from the Hesburgh family and from the Holy Cross congregation of which Father Hesburgh was a member. We raised the money independently and we had final creative say. That was critically important because I didn’t want anyone looking at the film and thinking this is like a promotional piece for the university; it isn’t. We had the same journalistic approach to “Hesburgh” as we did for any of the films we’ve ever made but at the same time it was very personal for us. I think we do our best work when we pick projects that we really feel connected to but at the same time it was important for us to make a film for general audience, we were not making a film for the Notre Dame community, we were making a film for general audience.

Creadon said that even though he could not remember a time before he knew that Father Ted was an important figure in America, at Notre Dame, and to his own family, he learned a great deal in researching the film.

The things I knew about Father Hesburgh when we began are the following: I knew that he had received 150 honorary degrees which is in the Guinness Book of World Records, I knew that he had served on 16 presidential commissions and I knew that he was the president of Notre Dame for 35 years. I think for a lot of people, that’s kind of all they know. They don’t know why he was chosen to do all that work, they don’t know what were his qualities as a human being, what were his leadership qualities. What we found in the 18 months that it took to make the film, what we discovered, was that more than anything he had a very strong moral compass. For one he knew the difference between right and wrong always and always tried to do the right thing but more importantly I think the defining quality of Father Hesburgh is that he enjoyed bringing people together. He truly enjoyed the friendships, the diplomacy, and the finding common ground that it takes to move our society forward.

It was Father Ted’s genuine love for people that made it possible for him to create consensus on the most intractable issues.

He was a problem solver and he was very, very good with people. People liked him. Even though he was fully committed to his Catholic faith and his Catholic heritage he was one hundred percent tolerant and respectful of other people’s faiths or people who did not have a faith. He was not a, ”It’s my way or the highway” guy. He was not that way with his politics, he was not that way with his faith, he was not that way with his style of education.

It’s, “Let’s find common ground” and “Let’s aspire to be the best individuals that we can be.” That’s who Father Ted was. I have one hundred percent faith in the sense that we’re going to get through the problems today and we’re going to find our way back to each other.

Over and over in the film, we see Father Ted bring people together to solve problems through patience, endless energy, a genuine curiosity about how different people saw the world, and by setting an example of integrity and goodwill.

Remember Hesburgh was only 35 when he became president of Notre Dame. He was 40 when he was chosen to be on the Civil Rights Commission and the average age of the other five commissioners was 65. He was a kid; he was a generation younger than all of them but I think Eisenhower saw something in him and had seen his work in some other arenas and he said, “I want to get that guy on the commission.” What you come to understand is that the commission could’ve easily failed; they didn’t get along. The commissioners didn’t really get along; they were Northerners and Southerners, Democrats and Republicans.

The commission was really a reflection of the country and Hesburgh for one wanted victory. He wanted to accomplish the mission. Father Ted is almost like an Indiana Jones character. He would just go off to do these very important missions that people couldn’t figure out how to fix. He had an ability to try to encourage people to bring out their best selves. I think because of the way he lived his life he wanted people to rise to the occasion. He did that in a quiet way. He certainly wasn’t a yeller, he wasn’t demanding, he wasn’t mean spirited, he was just one of the good guys. I’ve come to understand what great leadership really looks like; it looks a lot like Father Ted.

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Directors Documentary Interview
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