David Lowery on “A Ghost Story” — The Costume, the Pie, the Story of Grief

Posted on July 17, 2017 at 12:35 pm

My interview with writer/director/editor David Lowery is on HuffPost.  He explains the mechanics of the surprisingly complicated ghost costume worn by Casey Affleck through the film, and the already-legendary scene of Rooney Mara eating an entire pie.

It definitely started with Charlie Brown. We initially thought that were going to take a childlike image of a ghost, the Halloween costume that everyone knows from Charlie Brown and finds some pathos in it. But to find that pathos we really had to develop that symbol, that image that costume to a degree we hadn’t expected.

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Interview: Zoe Lister-Jones, Writer/Director/Lyricist/Star of “Band Aid”

Posted on July 6, 2017 at 7:07 pm

For rogerebert.com, I spoke to writer/director/lyricist/star Zoe Lister-Jones about her film,

“Band Aid,” made with an all-female crew.

Why did you insist on an all-female crew?

First and foremost, I just wanted to see what it would feel like to make art with other women and exclusively so. It’s so rare that there are even a handful of women on a crew, let alone an entire crew made up of women. So I just thought that it’d be really interesting to see how that lent itself to the creative process. And then I also was very aware of the under-representation of women on film and TV crews and I wanted to create opportunities for women in departments where they are very rarely afforded them.

How did that affect the production?

It was amazing. It exceeded my expectations and expectations were already pretty high. It was just a really distinct energy and everyone who came on set immediately acknowledged it. All the extras who came on set for the first time would be like, “Whoa. This is really different and cool.” It was just a very calm and patient and gracious community of people making work together. It really did give a communal energy to the work. And it was on top of that just super efficient and productive which is maybe the biggest takeaway.

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Read My Interview With “Baby Driver” Writer/Director Edgar Wright

Posted on June 29, 2017 at 11:44 am

In my interview for rogerebert.com, “Baby Driver” writer/director Edgar Wright talks about how the songs he picked shaped some of the most intense and brilliantly choreographed action scenes of the year and where Baby (Ansel Elgort) got his endless supply of sunglasses and mp3 players.

The songs inspired the movie and some entire scenes are completely dictated by the music. Songs actually dictate what the action was. ‘Bell Bottoms’ is a good example because it has maybe two and a half minutes of buildup to where the actual rock really kicks in. I listened to that track about 22 years ago and straight away thought: ‘Oh, this is the guy sitting outside. The other guys have gone into the bank and then while he’s singing along with the music he is looking at what’s happening in the bank. And then they get out and that’s where the chase starts. The song has these amazing little anchor points of where hero moments are going to happen.

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Interview: Writer/Director/Editor Brett Haley on Sam Elliott and “The Hero”

Posted on June 21, 2017 at 10:00 am

Copyright 2017 Northern Lights
Sam Elliott played a small but very significant role in writer/director/editor Brett Haley’s last film, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” starring Blythe Danner. The experience inspired Haley to create a lead role for Elliott, based very loosely on his own experience as an actor who has appeared in many westerns and has an iconic image. I interviewed Elliott about the role, and then I spoke to Haley about how it came about. “We became close on the set of ‘I’ll See You in my Dreams,’ and then we really became friends doing promotion for the film and I just knew that I really wanted to work with Sam. I knew that I just admired him as a person and a friend and also an actor and I just really wanted to give him a performance platform essentially and let him do something that we’ve never seen him do before. Of course, he is playing an actor that is known for roles that Sam in real life is known for, so there’s a weird sort of meta thing happening. But I don’t think he’s doing in this film what he’s done previously in other films. I think he shows a incredibly sensitive and vulnerable and humorous side that will be new to his fans. We wanted Sam to play an actor and so it would be hard to avoid the fact that he would be known for his voice and his western kind of status. So we use that in the film to play against and but then we go much deeper into what it means to be known for only one type of thing.”

Lee, the actor Elliott plays in the film, is neither as successful or as stable as Elliott is in real life. In the film, he is something of a has-been, with an estranged daughter and an ex-wife (played by Elliott’s real-life wife, Katharine Ross). Lee very much wants to be cast in a particular role, and in one of the movie’s highlights we see him prepare for an audition by reading lines with his friend and drug dealer, played by Nick Offerman. “We see him be an amazing actor when he’s rehearsing for the audition,” Haley said, “but the way he behaves in the actual audition and his carelessness with his life shows a lack of discipline and professionalism that I think is part of being a good actor. Auditioning and acting are two very different skills. Being a great actor doesn’t always mean that you’re good at auditioning. Auditioning is a whole separate skill. Even the most amazing actors blow an audition because of the pressure or because something is going on in their life. And being a good professional is a great thing but people like Marlon Brando and Orson Welles who are some of the greatest movie stars and actors ever, you could say that they were not always the most professional but I don’t think that makes them any less of an incredible actor. Being difficult or not having a good work ethic, these are human qualities that I don’t think have anything to do with being an actor. It’s really fun to see that Lee still has some gas in the tank as a performer, even if he does not have the discipline to handle the audition.”

Lee is invited to accept a lifetime achievement award from a group of western fans. He brings a much younger woman named Charlotte (Laura Prepon) and they get high together on the way there. “The event is something that’s meant to be seen as initially as disappointing, certainly not the Oscars or the SAG or the Golden Globes. It’s a small society of people that want to keep the western alive, that still love the western. Because Lee is on drugs, he becomes more open to the love that these people have for him, he accepts it. Having fun with it and not taking it so seriously and just being in the moment allowed him to then embrace the love of his fans and understand that it does mean something in the end to be loved by anyone, to be remembered even if it is for just one movie.”

I asked him about the unusual combination of writing, directing, and editing. “They’re all the same basic idea, shaping the story. You’re writing when you write it and you’re writing when you shoot it and you’re writing when you edit the film. You’re rewriting all the time. You’re always working on honing the story and making the elements work. That’s been part of my process since I was a kid making movies. I’m certainly thinking as I film of how to protect myself in the edit.”

Actors who have worked with Haley have said that they appreciate his flexibility in giving them a chance to try different approaches. “That’s all you’re doing as a director to a large degree is collecting material so you have options. You can’t be too set on getting it just one way. I’ve learned over the years you need to get as many ways as you can because you could be wrong and I like being able to play with it in the edit and have fun with it. I know what I want but I also think my actors will do their best when you let them bring their own interpretation to certain things. But I certainly think that we’re all on the same page before we get on set. That’s a really important distinction, so it’s not like they’re doing the scene in a completely different way that I would initially want. So by getting on the same page and then on set we are able to play and try new things and experiment.”

Haley said it was “a real treat” to have Ross play the role of the ex-wife. “Katharine is an icon in her own right, an amazing actor and an amazing woman. To have a real life married couple who play exes made it a lot of fun to play with because there’s a lot of history between Sam and Katherine and I think you can see it come across off screen. I think it was a little weird but also fun for them to play a couple with a lot of history and their real life experience informed a lot of the great work that goes on between them.”

Interviewer: As a writer you kept a lot of information away from us, you know I often think that’s the difference between an independent film and a studio film is how much they feel that they have to explain to you and you didn’t give us a lot of information about what happened in that relationship or what happened in a relationship with our we have a general sense of his not being there but how do you decide sort of where to, how much information to give the audience?

He does not overdo the exposition and backstory in his films. “I think about it in terms of how people actually talk to one another in real life. People don’t do monologues about their backstory when they’re seeing their ex-wife or their daughter or ‘let me list all the ways I was terrible to you’ or ‘you remember that time I was bad.’ I know that audience is a really smart and I think they understand what could have caused the rift between them. It’s clear that he was an absent guy, a selfish guy and I think that’s all they need. I think that the more specific you get when it comes to a back story it just becomes sort of a cheat, it’s telling the audience how to feel instead of letting them just simply feel. I always tend to go for the more subtle approach and let the actors’ faces tell the story rather than my words or some kind of exposition do the work.”

Haley was sensitive to avoiding the usual dynamic of a movie relationship between an older man and a younger woman. “I thought it would be interesting to see this character that Laura I think brilliantly plays, be more of the pursuer. He’s not really sure if he can trust her or not you’re not really sure what her intentions are with Lee. I wanted to play with that. I wanted Lee to be weirded out and cautious and just not comfortable with the situation and I thought that was a really fresh take. That’s what Mark Basch and I like to do. We like to take those cliches and we like to turn them into more honest and more appealing circumstances and characters. So it was a challenge to get right but I’m very proud of that relationship and how it comes off. It goes in very surprising places. It’s not as simple as beautiful young woman, old guy ending up together; it’s a lot more than that.”

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Interview: Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon on “The Big Sick”

Posted on June 18, 2017 at 3:45 pm

Emily V. Gordon wants you to know that her father did not cheat on her mother. You might think that he did because in the movie Gordon wrote with her husband, Kumail Nanjiani, about their romance, movie Emily’s father, played by Ray Romano, confesses that he had an affair. But Gordon and Nanjiani explained in an interview that the overall story is true, and Nanjiani plays himself, but some elements were compressed or heightened for dramatic purposes.

This part is true: Gordon met Nanjiani when she was in grad school studying psychology and he was a stand-up comic. Very early in their relationship, she suddenly became critically ill. This is probably the only romantic comedy in history to have its female lead spend half the movie in a medically induced coma. And that’s not even the couple’s biggest obstacle. Nanjiani’s Pakistani immigrant family wants him to marry a girl from their religion and culture. Gordon’s character, Emily Gardiner in the movie, is neither. He hasn’t told her about the parade of eligible girls his mother has “dropping by” the house when he is visiting his parents. Movie Emily, played by Zoe Kazan, breaks up with Nanjiani just before she gets sick, and then he meets her parents (Romano and Holly Hunter) for the first time at the hospital. The second half of the film is a different love story, between Nanjiani and Emily’s parents. “And then we get to really, really play and create these really fun people,” she said. “My parents are lovely but it would have been a more boring movie.”

“This is obviously very, very autobiographical,” Nanjiani continued. “I would say my character is probably closer to how I was then than Emily is.” “I would say your character is pretty clueless, and you’re not as clueless,” Gordon added. “We had a lot of fun arguments like: character Kumail is a lying asshole, but the real Kumail is just a liar.” “Yes, just a liar. And clueless. Judd would ask me what I thought was going to happen, what the plan was when I was dating Emily. And I was like, ‘I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it.’” Gordon, whose terrifically funny and wise book Super You: Release Your Inner Superhero reflects her training as a therapist and her insight as a writer, said, clearly not for the first time, “Not deciding is a decision. People don’t realize that not making a decision is a decision in itself.”

Nanjiani and Gordon worked on the script for three years, sending drafts to Apatow, who guided them on tempo and character. “We would write down the truth of things and then he would advise us: ‘You could really turn up the drama here, you can change the situation here and kind of make this resonate more.’ So we would show him what the truth was and then he would help us figure out ways to make it more cinematic, ways to make it more dramatic, more funny,” Nanjiani said. The biggest departure was in the portrayal of Gordon’s parents. Apatow was especially helpful in providing feedback on the story’s structure. “He was like: ‘this much will be Emily and Kumail, this much should be them separated, this much should be the hospital, this much should be the surgery.’ He just drew these lines separating each section and we took a picture of it. And then when Michael Showalter came on as director, he said, ‘Kumail in Emily’s room, that’s the center of the movie so everything has to come before come after it.’ So we moved everything around that point because that’s the point of no return. That’s when I realize that I’m in love with her and that I had made a huge mistake.”

Gordon described working with Showalter. “He’s all heart, that’s what’s great. And he wears all his emotions on his sleeve. That’s his strength in a way. He is so amazing to watch because he’s passionate and invested in the story. And he was always very open to collaboration. It wasn’t like he was ruling with an iron fist, ever. Everything felt like a collaboration. He had no ego about collaborating. That made me feel so safe and confident in giving him our story.” Nanjiani said that Showalter showed them how he was subtly using different color palettes for the different characters, even different camera movements. “And Mike is very good at guiding you between movements of the movie, with silence or just following a character for a little bit or whatever it, is he’s very, very adept at switching gears for the movie in a seamless way.” Showalter is especially gifted in casting even the smallest roles and because they shot in New York they were able to find superb performers from theater whose faces were not familiar to movie audiences.

Nanjiani said that writing the film helped him to appreciate and understand his parents’ reaction to his wanting to marry Gordon. “When people from a different culture come here you want to hold on to your own culture but you also want to be your own person. It’s a complicated thing and you do lose something going against the wishes of your parents and your culture. But ultimately it has to be a personal decision.”

Nanjiani is an experienced performer, including three seasons as Dinesh on “Silicon Valley.” But this role presented some new challenges for him, with some dramatic moments and with the difficulty of reliving some of his most painful experiences on camera.

“I hadn’t ever taken any acting classes so I started taking acting classes to sort of prepare for this. I just knew that there was this big thing coming up and it was going to be very difficult and challenging. I wanted to take some of the guesswork out of it because what I knew was comedy acting, where you can go on instinct and as long as it feels funny it works. I knew this was going to be different, especially separating the reality from the movie character and also dealing with some very painful memories. I wanted to get the tools to be able to go into different emotions because I knew that this was a very low budget movie and we had to learn work really fast. If I had to be sad in the scene knew I knew that I had to figure out how to do that like quickly.”

“And if may say,” added Gordon, “Old Kumail from the movie would not have done that. He just would have been like, ‘I’ll figure it out.’”

Originally published on Huffington Post.

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