Interview: Sophie Barthes of ‘Cold Souls’

Posted on August 21, 2009 at 10:00 am

One of my favorite films of the summer is “Cold Souls.” Paul Giamatti plays an actor named Paul Giamatti who is anxious and depressed as he prepares to play Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. When he reads in the New Yorker about a place that stores souls, he decides to try it. The immensely inventive writer-director Sophie Barthes has concocted a world just slightly off-register from the one we know and Giamatti’s literal and spiritual journey is funny and provocative and always surprising. So was talking to Barthes.
I have some bigger questions, but I want to start with one small one. We see Paul Giamatti rehearsing “Uncle Vanya” under very different conditions — with his own soul, with a borrowed soul of a Russian poet, and without any soul at all. How did you and he work together to create three very different versions of Vanya?


That was the trickiest part of the film in terms of acting but we were nervous for different reasons. He thought he could act badly but not play Vanya well. I could certainly imagine him playing it well but thought it would fall flat to play it badly. It shows you how modest and humble he is. We had both seen “Vanya on 42nd Street,” and he knew his version would not be like Wallace Shawn’s. He doesn’t like rehearsal much. He is very intuitive. But when it came time to do it badly, for those we took time and rehearsed them. I said, “Let’s not make it robotic, but let’s be the opposite of whatever is called for. Confidence is something Vanya doesn’t have, so show confidence. Take directions very literally.” On the DVD extras we will have some other versions. In one he starts to mimic the wind, taking the direction he is given very literally. The one he does with Elena, he did unconsciously a William Shatner interpretation.

That is the beauty of working with such a talented actor. He is not someone to talk about technique and method. You roll the camera and he delivers and he is excellent — in a different way — in the first three takes.
I read an interview where he says he is always being asked to play the anxious man.


Directors keep asking him to play the anxious man because he is so good with it, so vulnerable, such a sad sack, so funny. Jerry Lewis says that comedy is a man in trouble. That’s what Paul is. He always looks like he is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. He is very human and vulnerable and has the skills of a comedian. He can go from total slapstick to very melancholic. As a film-maker he is like a grand piano. You can play any note and he gives you this performance. We didn’t know how to choose from the takes. They were all interesting in a different way. He can do deadpan and ultra-emotional.
One of your other actors, David Straithairn, who plays the man in charge of the soul storage, was in a role that was quite different from his usual characters.


David was a bit anxious. He has not done much comedy and this is a melancholic kind of comedy. How much larger than life should this doctor be? It was very different from “Good Night and Good Luck.” But he and Paul had played in a Chekov play together and had chemistry like old buddies on set, very playful.
One of my favorite moments in the film is when Paul looks into his own soul. One of the images he sees is of a toddler, walking and crying.

It is a completely absurd moment and it came about by accident. We had a part in the movie that was a dream I had a long time ago about a baby factory where babies are manufactured. I’m going to put that in another film because it did not work out this time. When the casting agency came with the babies I was expecting four or five month old babies. But they brought toddlers who could walk, so we gave up on the factory idea and used the set next door with the white space.
Tell me about shooting in St. Petersburg.


Russia was a very surprising and pleasant experience. We had heard it was tough but from a logistical point of view the crews were super-professional and we never had a problem. Aesthetically, we decided not to shoot it as a postcard and turned the camera the other way.
Now a bigger question, maybe the biggest. Paul Giamatti is very distressed in the film to find that his soul looks like a chick pea. What would your soul look like?


My soul would change every day, maybe liquid. I go through all those moods.

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Directors Interview

Molly Ringwald Remembers John Hughes

Posted on August 12, 2009 at 1:38 pm

Molly Ringwald has a touching tribute to John Hughes in today’s New York Times. While she had not spoken to the very private writer-director for 20 years, she and co-star Anthony Michael Hall spoke on the phone about the way he had influenced and inspired them both.

I still believe that the Hughes films of which both and I were a part (specifically “Sixteen Candles” and “The Breakfast Club”) were the most deeply personal expressions of John’s. In retrospect, I feel that we were sort of avatars for him, acting out the different parts of his life — improving upon it, perhaps. In those movies, he always got the last word. He always got the girl.

Ringwald gave one of the best performances of the 1980’s in “Sixteen Candles” as the girl whose family was so caught up in her sister’s wedding that they forgot her birthday. At a time of life when most people are protective, internal, and very concerned about looking cool, Hughes coaxed her to show her vulnerability but also to create a character who knew who she was. Ringwald writes about how he gave her confidence.

John saw something in me that I didn’t even see in myself. He had complete confidence in me as an actor, which was an extraordinary and heady sensation for anyone, let alone a 16-year-old girl. I did some of my best work with him. How could I not? He continually told me that I was the best, and because of my undying respect for him and his judgment, how could I have not believed him?

Thanks to Laine Kaplowitz for bringing this to my attention.

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Tribute: John Hughes

Posted on August 7, 2009 at 8:13 am

John Hughes, writer-director of some of the most successful and influential films of the 1980’s and 90’s, died yesterday at age 59. Fellow Chicagoan Roger Ebert has a thoughtful tribute, calling Hughes “the creator of the modern American teenager film.” Ebert said:

He took teenagers seriously, and his films are distinctive for showing them as individuals with real hopes, ambitions, problems and behavior.

“Kids are smart enough to know that most teenage movies are just exploiting them,” he told me on the set of “The Breakfast Club.” “They’ll respond to a film about teenagers as people. movies are about the beauty of just growing up. I think teenage girls are especially ready for this kind of movie, after being grossed out by all the sex and violence in most teenage movies. People forget that when you’re 16, you’re probably more serious than you’ll ever be again. You think seriously about the big questions.”

I would add that he showed teenagers with real abilities and understanding as well, and that was what made his characters so believably multi-dimensional. Whether an exaggerated farce like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or a more realistic love story like Pretty in Pink, his teenage characters were self-aware and capable, often more capable than the adults around them. Even the child in Home Alone managed to take care of himself and outsmart the bad guys. So did the star of the underrated Baby’s Day Out, even though he could not walk or talk.

Adam Bernstein of the Washington Post has an astute assessment of Hughes’ contribution:

Apart from some Depression-era fare, movies for and about young people tended to depict them as cheerful, all-American entertainers (Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in the 1940s) or moody, troubled and mumbling (James Dean in the 1950s).

Mr. Hughes struck an entirely new direction when he arrived in Hollywood in the early 1980s after a career that included stints as an advertising writer and a joke writer for National Lampoon. He created films that were distinguished by the very ordinariness in which he captured teenage life: the mini-dramas over class distinctions, peer pressure, serious (and often unrequited) crushes and classroom detention. He set most of his films in suburban Chicago, where he grew up and which he considered “a place of realities” in contrast with the glamour of Los Angeles.

In his films, Mr. Hughes reversed the long-standing view of caring parents and their clueless offspring to create an entirely new caricature of savvy teens and self-involved and hopelessly uncool authority figures, whether parents, principals or receptionists. Mr. Hughes’s young protagonists spoke in perceptive ways peppered with the latest slang, and despite all their differences, they were unified by their need to survive without any help from their elders.

Dana Stevens of Slate has a fine tribute to Hughes but the most touching memories come from Alison Byrne Fields, who wrote to him as a teenage fan of “The Breakfast Club,” and then wrote to him again to object to the form letter response to the first one. They corresponded for two years. He encouraged her and made it clear how important it was to him to hear from exactly the audience he wanted to reach. They spoke by phone once some years later.

John told me about why he left Hollywood just a few years earlier. He was terrified of the impact it was having on his sons; he was scared it was going to cause them to lose perspective on what was important and what happiness meant. And he told me a sad story about how, a big reason behind his decision to give it all up was that “they” (Hollywood) had “killed” his friend, John Candy, by greedily working him too hard.

He also told me he was glad I had gotten in touch and that he was proud of me for what I was doing with my life. He told me, again, how important my letters had been to him all those years ago, how he often used the argument “I’m doing this for Alison” to justify decisions in meetings.

Hughes was gifted as a creator of believable and accessible characters and as a writer of endlessly quotable dialog. And he was a righteous dude.

I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and always enjoyed the familiar locations and references in the Hughes movies. “The Breakfast Club” was inspired by detention at my high school (which met not on Saturday but before school, which is how it got its name). I enjoy “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and am fond of “Pretty in Pink” (though I still think Andie should end up with Duckie and Iona is my favorite character) and think that Dutch is one of Hughes’ most neglected films. I’d love to hear about your favorite Hughes movies, quotes, and moments.

Submit a question or comment for today’s Washington Post online discussion of Hughes and his films.


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Directors Tribute Writers

Interview: Max Mayer of ‘Adam’

Posted on August 5, 2009 at 3:59 pm

Max Mayer is the writer/director behind the sensitive and insightful new film, “Adam,” the story of a young man with Asperger Syndrome (Hugh Dancy) who is befriended by his new neighbor (Rose Byrne). He is an exceptionally thoughtful and engaging person and I truly loved talking with him about the film.
Tell me how this film came about.
I listened to an NPR radio show with a young man who had Asperger Syndrome, talking about his challenges, how the world seemed to him, about trying to figure out how to interact, how it felt when people nodded and smiled and he was feeling outside of the joke. I was really moved by that, and I am not that moved that often. I thought I should figure out what this is about and the more I learned the better it seemed a metaphor for human relations in general.IMG_5233.JPG
And then this guy started talking in my head. And the script began to come together.
Did you and the cast do a lot of research on Asperger Syndrome?
Yes. By chance, Hugh is engaged to Claire Danes and she did a movie about Temple Grandin . So, Aspy is spoken here.
Many people with Asperger Syndrome become extremely focused on fact-intensive subjects, and in this film Adam is very knowledgeable about astronomy. Is that a particular specialty of yours?
The spaceman metaphor happened organically. I’ve always been interested in cosmology and astronomy, but as soon as it becomes mathematical I can’t do it any more. And it is always on the list of interests for people with Asperger Syndrome. It made sense to me that Adam’s dad would have gotten him a space suit that was a prize possession, and he would wear it not for fun or to pretend but because it was utterly logical and sensible to use.
How do you project yourself into the mind of someone whose thinking patterns are so different from those of a writer, who is at the other end of the spectrum in terms of being attuned to others?
I was a psychology major at college, but it was all about rats and chemicals so I retreated into theater. I was trained as an actor to begin by interpreting the text extremely literally. It’s the first time I’ve thought about this but that was part of why it felt easy to me to write this guy. It is so easy, especially for young actors, to read sarcasm or irony or some sort of off-kilter interpretation into the text and not investigate what the words mean, and that was beaten into us at NYU, to begin with just the words. And that is how Adam speaks.
The movie treats all of its characters with great tenderness.
When I first wrote it, it was a bit bleaker, he was more clearly on his own. But the people who read it said, “You can’t do that! Why was I watching this?” Then I tried it the other way and let them get back together, but I didn’t like it and had to figure out why I didn’t like it. It was like saying “just kidding” about the rest of the movie. I did want to say something positive about their development and make it clear that they had ended up some place that was a good place for them to be.
I got so enthralled with Adam that as I started to write it Beth was a little bit of a cipher. I had to round her out and round her parents out. I wanted to make sure everyone had a legitimate point of view. The father makes the point about care-taking, to give the stronger point of view in the voice of the heel. It needs somebody that good because it comes late in the movie structurally.
Central Park plays an important role in the film.
I love Central Park. And it is like Adam and Beth. Manhattan is a rock with buildings, and then there is this romantic splash of green in the middle. As they say in the film, they weren’t supposed to be there, but they were. It’s Adam’s place, a place he feels comfortable, in the midst of an unbelievably intimidating metropolis.
Your background is in theater, so as you begin to work in movies, who are some of the films and film-makers who influenced you?
“The Last Emperor, many of Stanley Kubrick’s movies, Hal Ashby’s movies, including “Being There” — some similarity to “Adam” in that one, “Midnight Cowboy,” “The Graduate,” the way some of the music in that film is used — and “Adam” has a scene where we see the characters reacting very differently to that movie. I was also influenced by playwrights like Sam Shepard, Eugne O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Shakespeare, of course, John Patrick Shanley.
What makes you laugh?
Miscomunication makes me laugh, “Who’s on first,” Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, George Carlin.
I can tell you are a writer — that answer is very word-oriented.
Theater is language-based. But what I love about movies is that I still feel like a freshman which is really great. Movie directing is every bit as good a job as it is cracked up to be, working with the actors and finding the moments. In movies, it doesn’t have to be replicable, you don’t have to get there every night, and after it is all over you get this unbelievable time called editing. When you are in the editing room, you can make them do it over and over, make them look at what you want them to look at, you never give it over to the actors. In the theater, you can go out for a smoke when the audience comes in. But in a movie, the director has the final word.
TOMORROW: Interview with Dancy and Byrne

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Behind the Scenes Directors Interview

Interviews: ‘In the Loop’

Posted on July 23, 2009 at 7:59 am

“In the Loop” is a scathingly funny satire about politics and politicians. While it names no names of individuals or countries or conflicts, it is inspired by the British and American government in the run-up to the Iraq war. But it is perpetually timely for its take on the pettiness and thuggery of complex organizations. Think “Dr. Strangelove” meets “The Office.”

I spoke to actor David Rasche and director Armando Iannucci, who also co-wrote, when they came to Washington DC for a screening and question and answer session.

Rasche has shown a skill for deadpan comedy as the title detective character in “Sledge Hammer!” But this is not his first political role — he played a CIA staffer in “Burn After Reading” and the President of the United States in “DAG” and “The Sentinel.” He is a confirmed political junkie and was really looking forward to seeing the movie with a Washington D.C. audience.

What do you think will be special about showing this film in Washington?

Various cities have various characters but I’ve found my group here. My wife can’t wait to go to the screening and see Washington look at itself in the mirror.

How did you prepare for this role of a State Department official who is both hawkish and bureaocratic?

I’ve been preparing for this role for eight years, five hours a day watching CNN, MSNBC, and Fox. So I brought all of my ammunition to that character, and made him arrogant, self-serving, condescending and belittling and supercilious. If that reminds you of Rove, Rumsfeld, or Addington, well….

Mimi Kennedy is also very, very political, and she also spent five hours a night watching the news. She was very familiar with the terrain not just through watching the news but through her own work with Truth in Voting.

The script gave us an adversarial relationship. It told me a lot of what I thought about her. And we drew some of our performance from Washington itself. This place is fierce! People will talk to you as long as they are interested. And everyone is always like “My take on this is smarter than yours is,” or “Bob told me, he didn’t tell you??” Every moment is a contest. As they say, Washington is Hollywood for ugly people.

This is a British film that shows the contrasts — and similarities — between the UK and the US. Is there a difference in audiences or styles of humor?

There’s no difference in humor. This is a British film but it has the same two strains of DNA as in American comedy, the verbal wit and the situational.

Your character seems to believe that facts would only distract him from the truth.

I think there’s some Illinois in that. My dad was a little like that. You’d say, “Want to try this new kind of curry?” And he’s say “Nope! Nope! Nope!” I think that is just what Rumsfeld felt. He already had everything he needed. I’m from Illinois, too! I can sing the state song!

You cannot talk about this movie without discussing the astonishingly inventive invective, the avalanche of profanity and insult.

The funny thing about it is that it is volcanic but somehow innocent because of the sheer magnitude. There’s so much of it, it’s silly. This is ornate, it’s oriental, it’s unbelievable, embroidered. In London, if you have less than three c-words in a movie it’s 13 and under. One of the writers specialized in this and when they needed some sort of over-the-top rant they would ask him for it.

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