Interview: Glen Keane of “Over the Moon”

Posted on October 23, 2020 at 11:54 am

I’ve been a huge fan of Glen Keane for as long as I can remember.  As a Disney animator, he worked on classics like “The Rescuers,” “Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Tangled,” and “Pocahontas.” And now, for the first time, he has directed an animated film, the gorgeously designed and heart-warming “Over the Moon.”

You have probably seen Keane as a child. His father, the legendary cartoonist Bil Keane, created the Family Circus comic panel, based on the Keane’s own family and with the distinctive round shape. The comic is still run by Keane’s siblings.

Copyright 2020 Bill and Jeff Keane

Keane gave a virtual interview to Critics Choice members this week. He told us about having his father work from home, drawing Family Circus, and how much it inspired him. When he was very young, his father told him, “I am a cartoonist, but you are an artist,” which made him feel, he said, as though he had just been knighted with a sword. His father gave him a book to get him started, called Dynamic Anatomy, which got him started on understanding how to draw the human figure. One day, when he was about 8, some kids on the school bus made fun of him for drawing nude figures, the classical images of the discus thrower and The Thinker. He said at first he was uncomfortable being laughed at, but then he thought about how much he liked drawing and he said, “I’m different! I like it!”

“Over the Moon,” inspired by a Chinese legend, is the story about a young girl who builds a rocket ship to the moon so she can meet the moon goddess. Keane said that the stories he most loves to tell are about “characters who believe the impossible is possible.” “Over the Moon’s” Fei Fei was “the ultimate.” She has the science and math skills to think through the engineering challenges and the faith that the moon goddess is really there.

Copyright Netflix 2020

I asked about the most important element of character design. He said, “They exist before you design them. It’s a weird thing, but that has been my experience. Like the Beast. I had hundreds and hundreds of drawings of him, but I would look at them and think, ‘I don’t recognize him.’ I like the buffalo head shape, the lion’s mane, the boar tusks, the cow ears to make him friendlier, and then suddenly — that’s him. I felt like he was looking at me. It’s a revealing of the character. For Fei Fei, I wanted to see that intelligence, that spark, thinking her way through things, but also that faith.” He said he focuses on the hair — making a joke about compensating for his own lack of hair. But it is always a symbol of the struggle of the character. “For Rapunzel, her hair was irrepressible, uncontainable. For Pocahontas, it showed the spirit moving in her. For Ariel, the hair always looked like it was floating in the water. Tarzan was like a wild animal with the dreadlocks. And for Fei Fei, her chopped off hair is a constant reminder of that chaos in her life. That design choice dictated so much, too. hHer eyebrows had to be really bold and strong. And if you’re going to make a mistake in design, don’t let it be in the eyes. They are the windows of the soul.”

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Keane told us about his first assignment at Disney, one brief scene in “The Rescuers” of a character named Bernard sweeping the floor. But he couldn’t get it right. “I thought I was single-handedly going to destroy Disney’s reputation. Pencil points were breaking off.”

Keane asked Eric Larson, one of the “Nine Old Men,” the legendary Disney animators of films like “Pinocchio” and “Cinderella,” for advice. “I thought Eric was going to give me some kind of a formula.” Instead of guidance on the movement, Larson asked, “What kind of a guy is Bernard? Does he care about his job? Of course he does! He wants to sweep up every speck off that floor.” “Within seconds he was the character,” Keane told us. “I realized that sincerity was make-believe. That’s been the thread for me in everything I’ve done, to live in the character, to believe in it, the passion of becoming something you can see and feel in your heart.”

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Interview: Aaron Sorkin on “The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Posted on October 14, 2020 at 8:00 am

Copyright Netflix 2020

Aaron Sorkin answered questions from a small group of critics about “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” premiering this Friday, October 16, on Netflix. The all-star cast play the eight men accused of conspiracy and incitement to riot at demonstrations during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. The highly unpopular Vietnam war and the frustration with candidates who seemed old and out of touch, the fury at the loss of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy earlier that year, led several groups to send protesters to the convention. Mayor Richard J, Daley called in the National Guard and gave the local police orders to “shoot to kill.” The battle between the police and the demonstrators became very violent and many were arrested and injured.

In the film, Nixon’s new Attorney General, John Mitchell (later sent to prison himself for crimes associated with Nixon’s re-election and the Watergate scandal) orders the District Attorney to bring charges. Among the eight defendants (later reduced to seven when one’s case was separated), the two characters that are the focus of the film are the flamboyant, outspoken Abbie Hoffman (Sasha Baron Cohen) and the quieter, more traditional Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne).

Sorkin told us that he first met with Steven Spielberg in 2006 to talk about the film. Spielberg asked Sorkin if he would be interested in writing a film about the Chicago 7. Sorkin said “It sounds like a great idea; I’d love to do it,” then “as soon as I left his house I called my father to ask who the Chicago 7 were.”

The trial, which was filled with colorful characters and memorable confrontations, exemplified and embodied many of the conflicts of the era, between old and young (this was the era when the term “generation gap” was popular), between tradition and upheaval in resolving issues of civil rights and social justice.

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It was front page news around the world in 1969 but not generally remembered today. “I had to go to school on this,” Sorkin told us. That included the many books on the trial and the 21,000-page trial transcript. But most valuable to him was the time he spent talking with the late Tom Hayden, one of the leaders of the group. “In my head, the film organized itself into three stories that would be told at once: the courtroom drama, the evolution of what was supposed to be a peaceful protest into a riot, a violent clash with the police and the National Guard, and the third story, one that wasn’t in any of the books or the trial transcript, and that I would only be able to get from Tom, was the relationship between Tom and Abbie , two guys on the same side who can’t stand each other, who each think the other is doing harm to the movement, but in the end they come to respect each other. I turned in the first draft and the next day the Writer’s Guild went on strike.”

So, everything was on hold and the film kept getting “kicked down the road for a while, until two things happened at once. One was that Donald Trump got elected. And he was holding big rallies where he would say of a protester, ‘In the old days they would have carried that guy out of here on a stretcher; I’d like to punch him in the face and beat the crap out of him,’ being nostalgic for 1968, and by that time I had directed my first film, ‘Molly’s Game,’ so Steven said, ‘The time is now and you should direct it.'”

“We thought the film was pretty relevant when we were making it last winter. We didn’t need it to get more relevant, but obviously, it did.” He spoke about seeing tear gas and nightsticks used at the Black Lives Matter protests “with Donald Trump in the role of Mayor Daley. We couldn’t believe our eyes; it was chilling, it was shocking.” He said he had been asked whether he made changes in the script to reflect the current conflicts, to make the parallels more explicit. “The answer is, not a word, not a frame. Events in the world changed to mirror the script…Ultimately, I feel like the film has been on a 14-year crash course with history.”

The only part of the story that could not be found in a book or the trial transcript was the relationship between Hayden and Hoffman, so that became the heart of the story. There was another key point he learned from Hayden that becomes significant in the film, which I won’t spoil here. “It’s a personal story. Most of the conflict in the story is about ideas, but it gets more personal than that. I was coming at these people and at this event with next to no knowledge at all…Coming at this with no preconceived notions turned out to be a blessing. I had a hard time getting fully on board with Abbie Hoffman…I found his antics counterproductive, the way Hayden does. I wanted to have my cake and eat it, too. But I wanted him to be a hero. Tom and Abbie kind of balance each other out. It’s a reflection of the Democratic party today, the intramural friction between the left and the further left, between people who want incremental change and want to work within the system and people who are tired of incremental change and want revolution. I have respect for both of those points of view and I have respect for both men as well as the others, and I thought that was an argument that belonged in this film and that the tension throughout between the two of them that was leading to an explosion in the third act was helpful for the film.”

Sorkin talked to “smart people” of the era, not necessarily involved but with strong, principled views about the issues and who was right and who was wrong, “to see how much of other people’s intelligence I could borrow and inject into the film.”

He talked about the challenges of shooting riot scenes on a budget, with help from the real-life locations, like Chicago’s Grant Park, which allowed them to blend new footage with archival images. “I don’t want to be glib, but the tear gas was helpful, too, having all that smoke, we could camouflage certain things, make it look like more people there than there really were.”

THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (L to R) KELVIN HARRISON JR. as Fred Hampton, YAHYA ABDUL-MATEEN II as Bobby Seale, MARK RYLANCE as William Kuntsler in THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7. Cr. NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX © 2020

Sorkin talked about what it is appropriate to change in a story based on real life. “There’s a difference between what you are doing and journalism, just like there’s a difference between a painting and a photograph.” He gave an example from “The Social Network,” where in real life Zuckerberg drank beer, but Sorkin thought a screwdriver was “more cinematic.” Director David Fincher disagreed, and in the movie it is beer. Here, one departure from the real story was the look of the courtroom itself. The real-life courtroom was an unprepossessing mid-century design that “looked like a middle school multi-purpose room.” The grander one in the film better suggests the power dynamic in the force of the US government being brought to bear on the protesters. “Real courtroom scenes aren’t as entertaining and snappy and dramatic.” And the real trial went on for almost six months. “Your inner compass has to decide what’s an important truth and what’s an unimportant truth — and if yours is broken, the studio legal department will be glad to help you out.”

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Interview: Father Leahy on “Benedict Men”

Posted on September 30, 2020 at 11:45 am

copyright quibi 2020
Athletic competition is endlessly fascinating, not just because of the talent and skill but because no one becomes a champion without character and values: determination, courage, and the kind of teamwork that requires respect and responsibility. And because we love stories about underdogs who never give up and come from behind. Basketball superstar Steph Curry understands that, and so he is the producer of a superb new documentary series on Quibi called “Benedict Men,” the story of a small Catholic high school in New Jersey run by Bendictine monks, most of the students Black and from families struggling financially, with a basketball team that is consistently the state champion.

I spoke to Father Edwin Leahy about the school, the basketball program, and the documentary.

What defines the Benedictines? What makes them different from the Jesuits and other Catholic orders that run schools?

The Jesuits were created by St. Ignatius to be at the disposal of the holy father, the pope, to go wherever they needed to be in the world to evangelize. We on the other hand are the oldest order in the church because St. Benedict existed/lived in 480 or 530 more or less 540. The fundamental difference is that we take a vow of stability so we are vowed to a place. We have other vows as well but that is the distinguishing mark, that we don’t get moved around. We live in the same place for our lives until they carry us out of the church as they say in Spanish in pajamas of wood, in a box. We’re here to stay and that’s our great strength, it’s also our great weakness because if we don’t get vocations to come to our house there’s a problem because there’s no place else you transfer people in from.

So you’ve been at St. Benedicts for a long time.

I went to school here as a high school boy. My father wanted me to go to an all-boys school so I applied here. I got rejected and my father was not to be put off, he talked to the pastor of our church and the pastor interceded and I got in provisionally. The joke turned out to be some of the people who rejected me wound up working for me.

When I got here I loved it; I could take you to the place in the building where I stood the first and second day I was here. I was a 13-year-old at the time and I knew I was home; I have no idea why but I knew I was home and I belonged here and here we are fifty something years later.

I entered the monastery community here in 1965, professed vows in ‘66, took solemn vows in ‘69, was ordained a priest in ‘72. I’ve been living here in Newark at the abbey at St. Benedict’s Prep since 1969.

The school closed in 1972 after 104 years because of racism and we lost 14 men from our monastery; they went to another place and we were stuck with trying to live a community life with no common work. So, we decided we would try to do something in education which is what we had always done and what the city desperately needed. I was dumb enough to say I would try to do it in 1972 and I’ve been doing it ever since. For 48 years I’ve been doing this and loving it.

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We learn in the film that your school motto is “What hurts my brother hurts me.” How does that apply in the competitive world of sports?

It applies in every level of our operations here. It is the ability to understand the other’s struggle and the other’s sufferings. It’s hard to create community and it’s hard to create teams if you can’t understand each other’s reality and each other’s sufferings.

You see in the series it gets rough at the end because of difficulties in giving up “what I want” for “what we need.” That’s the nature of community because if you live in community you’ve got to give up what you want for what the community needs; not easy to do and none of us can do it consistently.

We have a tendency that we do it and then we slip, then we do it; that’s basically our life. Our Father Albert describes the life in the monastery this way. When people ask him what do monks do, he says, “We fall down and we get up, we fall down and we get up; we fall down and we get up,” and that’s life basically. So, the hope is there are more of us on our feet than there are on the ground at a given time, and then we can help people up. That’s it. That’s the secret and that’s what we try to do in this place in school all the time. That’s what you have to do on a team. If you can’t do that it’s hard to be a success.

I was surprised to see how many decisions at the school are made by the students. You give them a lot of leeway and a lot of power.

Our job here as adults is to prevent them from making decisions that will either physically hurt them or long-term hurt them. We’re not going to let kids make decisions because they can’t see 10 or 15 years from now that are going to damage them. So anything short of that, they decide it.

Remember, this place has to be re-created every year. In a company the CEO usually has the job for several years but here the CEO changes every year because there’s a senior year group leader who runs the place and he graduates and leaves. Well it’s early in the year one year and they decided that kids had worked really, really hard and they were going to have only half a day at school and at 12:30 they were going to be over. But we go from kindergarten to grade 12.

They tell me this and I said, “That’s a bad idea,” and they said “No, no, no we’re going to do it, we want to do it, we think it’s a good idea.” I said “I think you’re making a bad mistake, here’s why. First of all, you can’t let the little kids out without parents’ permission.” They said, “They’re going to stay all day.” “Oh, okay so that’s fair the little kids are going to go all day with the older kids having a half day; how is that fair?” “Well, we’ll figure out another way to do something for them.”

So, I said, “If something goes wrong when the middle school kids get out, who’s going to explain it to the parents?” I thought I got them to back off but they sent an email saying that school was going to be over at 12:30. I had about 15 minutes to pull this thing back. They pulled it off. They got in touch with faculty members and called the whole thing off and then we found another day down the road when we could give them the whole day off and not half a day and inform parents and all that but it took hours of discussion.
If they’re going to make it without adult advice they had damn well better be right because no parent is going to go after the 18 year old senior group leader; they’re going to come after me.

The rule is: do not do for kids what kids can do for themselves. So, here’s another example. 152 years we’re an all-boys school, last year two Catholic schools announced they were closing. One was a girl’s academy, the other was a co-ed school.

The girls unbeknownst to me came over here and they had a meeting in the boardroom and they decided that they were going to have a girls division here at St. Benedicts. I’m standing at dismissal time outside my office, outside the trophy room which is where everybody walks by; it’s like Times Square, everybody goes by there to go out the door. So, I’m standing there and one of the leaders, one of the guys, comes out and he says, “You got to come to this meeting.” I said, “What meeting?” “Oh there’s a meeting in the boardroom.” “What are you talking about? I don’t know anything about a meeting.” “Just come in.”

They grabbed me the arm and dragged me into the meeting, I sit down and it becomes obvious to me in about two seconds that the meeting is just about over. I wasn’t being called in to participate in any decisions; I was being called in to be told what was going to happen and that I had to have girls division. I said, “We can’t have a girls division. (1) we’ve never had girls and (2) we don’t have any space.” “Well, let’s figure it out.” I put every roadblock up in the world that I could think of and nothing; they ignored me, none, zero, none of them worked. I couldn’t stop them and to make a long story short, we now have a girl’s division here; created completely by the girls and our guys. I had very little to do with it; it’s amazing.

It’s been a great blessing to have the girls here. It was all created by the kids; they did the whole thing.

What do you want people to learn from watching this series?

I want them to better understand the struggles and the suffering of not just basketball players (these kids happen to be basketball players) but the struggles and sufferings of our brothers and sisters of color in urban America. To have to put all your energy, your effort, as a 16 or 17-year-old as our student C.J. Wilcher said, “to try to help my family,” is not right; it’s just not right.

To have people living in poverty and some living in misery in the midst of the first world is a disgrace to the country. So, I hope people get a sense of the sufferings of kids and the anxiety that some have to live with. Even some parents fall into this. They begin to treat their kids as assets instead of like their children and that’s a disaster. There are a million people in the world that could be their kid’s basketball coach or could be his agent, but there is only one person in the world that can be his mother and only one person in the world that

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George Takei: Standing Up to Racism Then and Now Online Tonight 8pm Eastern

Posted on April 13, 2020 at 2:06 pm

George Takei: Standing Up to Racism, Then and Now

Facing History writes: Amid these unprecedented times, we recognize that coming together as a community is as important as ever. We invite you to gather your family, grab some snacks, and join the Facing History community for a special series of engaging and thought-provoking online conversations about what it means to face history now.

For the first conversation in this series, actor and activist George Takei will join us to discuss his family’s wrongful incarceration during WWII, and the anti-Asian racism on the rise today.

Register to watch for free.

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Interview: Anthony McCarten, Screenwriter of The Two Popes

Posted on December 20, 2019 at 7:22 am

My interview with screenwriter Anthony McCarten (“Bohemian Rhapsody,” “The Theory of Everything”) about “The Two Popes” has been published by the Association of Women Film Journalists. An excerpt:

Sometimes history is made by groups of people in labs or courtrooms or legislative bodies or battlefields. Sometimes history is made by two people talking to each other quietly. We hear those stories less often. It may be that what makes those changes possible is keeping them secret. Perhaps that is what makes imagining them so irresistible. That is what screenwriter Anthony McCarten has done in fact-based films like Bohemian Rhapsody, The Darkest Hour, and his latest, The Two Popes.

For the first time in nearly 700 years, a pope (Sir Anthony Hopkins as the more conservative Pope Benedict) resigned instead of serving until death. That made it possible for him to play an unprecedented role in encouraging and supporting the choice of his successor, Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce as the first pope from the Americas).

Copyright Netflix 2019

In an interview, McCarten talked about what “great directing” by Fernando Meirelles added to the film, and why this is his “most adventurous” film…..Minow: In some of your other films based on real-life characters you had tremendous amounts of information about what went on even in their private moments. You had correspondence and diaries as well as a lot of documentation of their public moments. But here you really had to imagine conversations that no one knows anything about.

McCarten: You’re quite right. This is probably the most adventurous of the films I’ve done. There’s some artistic license but, I hope no less responsible than anything that I’ve done and ultimately, hopefully, no less truthful. These conversations that I imagined are based on deep research. In fact I did so much research that there’s an accompanying nonfiction book that you can buy in all good bookstores which shows how I really went into their pasts and looked at all the circumstances surrounding the resignation of Pope Benedict. It’s essential in all these ventures that you get it right as much as possible and in this particular case it is literally sacred ground. So, it cannot be careless and it cannot be flippant in any way. It has to be embedded in known truths. In fact, even when I create these long dialogues between these two, those dialogues are reflections of their stated positions about the future of this 2000 year old institution.

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