Interview: Director Joseph Cedar on “Norman”

Posted on April 20, 2017 at 8:00 am

Copyright 2017 Sony Pictures Classics

Israeli-American Joseph Cedar wrote and directed one of my favorite movies, the Oscar-nominated Beaufort, and I am a fan of his film “Footnote” as well. Both are in Hebrew. So it was a great pleasure to talk to him about his first English language film, “Norman,” starring Richard Gere and Steve Buscemi. Gere plays the title character, a schmoozer and small-time wheeler-dealer who gets caught up in international politics when he befriends an Israeli government official who ends up as Prime Minister.

Who casts Richard Gere as a shlub?

I think it’s the ultimate challenge. I like it when actors act. It’s gratifying to see an actor do something that is very far from who he is or how we perceive him in other films, his persona. It’s also gratifying to see an actor do something that is genuinely difficult that other people can’t do. And I found that in what Richard was doing, it’s like watching a circus act. It’s was remarkable for me in every scene to see him just be someone he’s not.

The hair really helps create his character, very different from the more glamorous image we have.

We did something with this whole physical appearance which is subtle but changes the way he looks to an audience. More importantly, it changes the way he looks to himself. He’d come out of makeup and wardrobe and look in the mirror and he wasn’t seeing the Richard Gere he is used to seeing on a movie set. That is helpful to create a body language that was different and specific for Norman. And this made it possible for him to do things that he doesn’t normally do in movies. So we did play around a little bit with his physicality.

It was almost as surprising to see Steve Buscemi as a rabbi.

That’s less of a stretch in my mind, I think Steve Buscemi would make a great Upper West Side rabbi. He’s a New Yorker and that is in itself most of the research but I did introduce him to a rabbi and I think it was more for Steve to feel comfortable not trying to be something that’s exotic. I introduced him to someone who gave him license to basically be himself. The character he plays was something we discussed like I would discuss the character with any actor but it was more about the circumstance that he is in, the financial situation his synagogue is in and just how communities are organized at least in New York. Those were the things that we spoke about. I thought it was interesting for him and for me to be a big part of where Norman sits in the grand scheme and the big deal that he is putting together.

It seems to me that one thing that makes it possible for Norman to succeed as much as he does is that he has no social shame. Most of us would cringe at making ourselves vulnerable to so much rejection.

What’s odd about what you just said is that in a different context someone who is shameless is considered a negative thing but I think it’s actually a really positive quality not to have pride or to be willing to take humiliation. It’s something that most of us aren’t willing to do and many times we rely on other people not having those inhibitions, those blocks that we put on ourselves.

I have to really not look at Norman from the outside but be in Norman’s shoes. Norman isn’t aware that he’s doing something that is humiliating. He sees his goals and obviously he is doing things that most people won’t do to achieve that goal but he has his way of denying the insult when it happens. He thanks most people after they push him away. It’s part of what allows him to do what he does and it’s his survival tool, not really being aware of how other people see him.

I think the point for me in just figuring him out is just realizing that it’s not really humiliating, wanting something and being willing to do everything including doing every once in a while a conniving trick if it’s serving something that he thinks is good, then I respect that. The world needs people who are willing to do what Norman does.

Could Norman tell you exactly what he wants? A specific policy goal or project or just being a part of things?

Is it self-serving or is it a mixture of wanting some influence or having a position or having access to something that is good for Norman — but isn’t there also always something else or there might be something else that can be a result of that that is good?

I think it generally starts out that way but then it can get lost. Look at your Prime Minister character, Eshel. He begins as somebody who says, “No I couldn’t let you buy me these very expensive shoes,” and he ends up as somebody who has to do a lot of compromising.

Copyright 2017 Sony Pictures Classics
Copyright 2017 Sony Pictures Classics

What happens in that scene from my point of view is morally challenging. If I put myself in both these characters’ places, I don’t think I would accept a $1200 gift from someone I just met and I probably wouldn’t give a gift that is so expensive to someone I just met. So there’s something that feels wrong about the whole encounter and what makes it happen is that both sides convinced themselves that it’s okay. Eshel’s character convinces himself that by accepting the gift he is actually already returning the favor and that he is in a way giving Norman some sense of being part of an important mission or something bigger than himself by offering him a representative in this case of Israeli government, by offering him something that would make them feel more comfortable or feel better about himself. Norman is seeing this as an investment that will help him forward other initiatives that he has been trying to do and has not been successful. It’s a risky investment because Eshel may never call back or may never deliver or may never turn into someone who actually has power, but it’s worth it to him on instinct. He feels that this can work because he really needs to take every opportunity he can to get in. To have a foot in the door.

But that brings us to his downfall. Because he has that strategy or that impulse to take every possible advantage he gets into a conversation on a train that turns out to be kind of disastrous to him because it’s too revealing.

I agree with you in calling it an impulse, it’s not really something he can control, it’s what he does, it’s who he is, it’s an expression of his deepest core. He can’t hold back.

Norman does what he does on instinct. He is wired this way and it’s a survival thing more than a planned-out business scheme. It’s just how he survives. It’s his function in the world.

You live in both the US and Israel. We seem to be in a uniquely tumultuous moment. What comfort do you think people can take from watching this movie?

Hopefully there’s a lot of comfort to take from watching this movie but none of it should affect their mood about what’s happening in America. If anything the times we’re living are times that call for action. We shouldn’t take things for granted and we should try to influence our surrounding.

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Trailer: The Dinner with Richard Gere and Steve Coogan

Posted on February 28, 2017 at 3:20 pm

Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Rebecca Hall, and Steve Coogan star in “The Dinner,” based on the international best-seller by Dutch author Herman Koch. At an elegant dinner the topic of conversation is far from elegant — what to do about two 15-year-old boys who have done something terrible.

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The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Posted on March 5, 2015 at 5:55 pm

A documentary called “Young @ Heart” had a choir of singers in their 80’s performing contemporary rock songs.  The very fact of their age and experience gave an unexpectedly profound meaning to the words.  And in “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” a plot that ranges from silly to very silly still resonates, because the people in the silly situations are running out of time.  And because they are played by actors of such superb skill that they give power even to fortune-cookie aphorisms like “There is no present like the time.”  The characters in this film have more romantic complications and far more opportunities than the average teen sex comedy — and a lot more sex, too.  But their situation gives it all grace and poignance.

You could give Maggie Smith “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and she would make it sound like repartee written by Oscar Wilde. Here, she has a couple of very good insults and delivers them with wit as dry as a martini made of gin over which the word “vermouth” has just been whispered.  Just listen to her crisply explain that tea is an HERB requiring boiling water to release its flavor.  No tea bags limply dipped in lukewarm temperatures for her.  “How was America?” she is asked on her return.  “It made death more tempting.  I went with low expectations and came back disappointed.”

In the original The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a group of expatriate Brits came to India, mostly because they could no longer afford to live in the UK.  The energetic and eternally optimistic young owner of a dilapidated hotel decided to “outsource old age.”  Just as he saw the beauty of the ancient, crumbling building, he saw the grace, and the revenue stream, of people no longer valued in the place they had lived their lives.

This sequel, with all of the surviving main characters returning, takes us from Sonny’s engagement party to the family party, and then the wedding.  

As it begins, Sonny (Dev Patel) and Mrs. Donnelly (Smith) are driving through California (in a convertible!) to make a pitch for financing to Ty Burley (David Strathairn), so the hotel can expand. Burley promises to send an undercover inspector to check out the hotel. When an American named Guy Chambers (Richard Gere) arrives, Sonny assumes that he is the inspector and lavishes attention on him, ignoring another recent arrival, Lavinia Beech (Tamsin Greig of “Episodes”), who says she is checking out the place for her mother.

Meanwhile, Sonny is frothing with jealousy over another arrival, a friend of his fiancee’s brother who is handsome, wealthy, and very attentive to Sunaina (Tina Desai). Evelyn (Judi Dench), who has not quite managed to move things ahead with Douglas (Bill Nighy), is so successful in her free-lance work as a scout for textiles that she is offered a big promotion. Madge (Celia Imbrie, whose lush figure prompted Helen Mirren’s call for “bigger buns” in “Calendar Girls”), is happily “dating” two wealthy men and having trouble deciding between them. And in the silliest of all of these flyweight storylines, Norman (Ronald Pickup), who is trying out monogamy for the first time, thinks he may have accidentally put out a hit on his lady friend Carol (Diana Hardcastle).  There are some nice, quiet touches, though, as we see our friends more at home in India, including interacting more with the locals for friendship, business, and romance.

The movie gently disrupts all of the happy endings of the first film just enough to allow for some minor misunderstandings, some pithy and pointed commentary, and another round of even happier endings, leaving, I hope, the possibility of a third chapter.  Fans of the first film will arrive with high expectations and come home happy.

Parents should know that this film include brief mild language and many sexual references including infidelity and multiple partners.

Family discussion: Why was it difficult for Evelyn and Douglas to reach an understanding about their relationship? What was Sonny’s biggest mistake?

If you like this, try: the original “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and “The Lunchbox”

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Clip: Richard Gere in “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”

Posted on February 22, 2015 at 3:38 pm

Now that The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is full up with its long-term residents, co-managers Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) and Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) have a dream of expansion, and they’ve found just the place: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. With plans underway, Evelyn and Douglas (Judi Dench and Bill Nighy) venture into the Jaipur workforce, wondering where their regular breakfast dates will lead. Meanwhile, Norman and Carol (Ronald Pickup and Diana Hardcastle) navigate the swirling waters of an exclusive relationship, as Madge (Celia Imrie) juggles two very eligible suitors, and recent arrival Guy Chambers (Richard Gere) finds a muse in Sonny’s mother, Mrs. Kapoor (Lillete Dubey) for his next novel. As his marriage to Sunaina (Tina Desai), the love of his life, quickly approaches, Sonny finds his plans for the new hotel making more claims on his time than he has available. Perhaps the only one who may know the answers is Muriel, the keeper of everyone’s secrets. As the big day nears, family and guests alike find themselves swept up in the irresistible intoxication of an Indian wedding.

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Interview: Nicholas Jarecki of “Arbitrage”

Posted on September 10, 2012 at 8:00 am

Documentary-maker Nicholas Jarecki wrote and directed his first feature film, “Arbitrage,” with Richard Gere giving one of his best performances as a hedge fund manager hiding massive losses who gets caught up in an even bigger cover-up when he and his mistress are in a car accident and she is killed.  Susan Sarandon is superb as his wife and indie darling Brit Marling plays his daughter and CFO of the hedge fund.  Gere and co-star Nate Parker give two of the year’s best performances.  I had a chance to interview Jarecki following a screening of the film in DC.

What could you say in a feature film that you could not say in a documentary?

I think they are actually pretty closely related arts. What you can do is create a world, whereas in a documentary you document a world.  In a documentary you shoot for a year and a half and you have got to find the story as you go along, but with a film you design the story in your mind first, and then you work with the group to unlock which you could not see alone in a room, and make it all that more sweet – so there is a real collaborative element to it. You get to make use of many different, exciting, artistic disciplines — set design, performance, music, staging, lighting, you combine all of those things. In the documentary you document reality, though to an extent you bring a stylistic component to any documentary (the good ones do in my opinion) so it is fake. Documentary is fake, too, but maybe less fake.

The music was extremely well-chosen in the film.  Tell me a little bit about it.

We have for the score the wonderful Cliff Martinez, who I did not know before I began working on the film.  We would put in temporary music,  contemporary score pieces.  Every time I would say, “What is that?  It is great!” it was Cliff.  He had been Steven Soderbergh’s composer, “Solaris,” which is just a beautiful score, “Traffic,”a lot of great film scores, and he had just done “Drive.”  It was just amazing to get to work with him and we worked very closely together, I played some piano so I drove him nuts pretending that I knew something. He was very tolerant…he said I made him write more cues for this film than his last three films combined.

I think that’s a compliment!

I’m not sure he meant it as a compliment by the end.  Then for the other stuff, it was finding the right feeling for a scene, so I just thought, “What would be in these characters’ world? What would his mistress listen to?” I love Stan Getz and that kind of stuff. So I put some of that in there, and in the car crash sequence. There is this wonderful Billie Holiday song from the end of her career.  That one was not easy to find.  My music supervisor had evaluated 1100 songs, scores, and he actually said at one point “the song doesn’t exist, you are insane, no song will satisfy you.” And I said “no, we have to keep looking,” and so we did, and I must have listened to four or 500 of them and it was the last one he found. It was number 1100. That is kind of how I operate.  Billie was expensive, so we ended up getting a great deal on that because it was one of her lesser known songs, which I even like more, it was a bit of a discovery.  We wanted something romantic, nostalgic, kind of cocoon-ish feeling of embrace, and yet had some lyrics that resonated with what was going on. Bjork does the closing credits song, and she is one of my favorite artists forever, never licenses for music for film. I just wrote her a letter and she said “yeah, go for it…” So it was great.

You cast two of my favorite young performers, Nate Parker and Brit Marling.

For both of those parts. I saw 40 or 50 people over the course of a year and Brit I met really towards the end. I met Nate very early on and then I had to do a silly process where I did not realize immediately that obviously, the part was his, so I had to go all around the world to come back and understand that it was Nate, but he would write me these great e-mails.  He would give me a book to read, I would read it, I would say, “Hey, have you read Pictures at a Revolution?” and then he would write me some five pages about the book and it was really great. Brit we met through Skype, video Skype and she told me very quickly that she had gone to Georgetown and been an economics major and then was offered a job at Goldman Sachs, so once I heard that I was like, “Really? Okay, well, can you come to New York and meet me and Richard,” and she said “when?” And I said “now.” And she left that night and showed up the next morning and we went to my loft and we rehearsed for about 15 min., the three of us, and we all kind of looked around and it was “Yeah, okay, let’s do it!” That was it. So, they were just a joy to work with. I think they’re both really gifted, emerging people, unique, you know? They have something…Britt’s got a look like she kind of looks like everybody else, but not at all, so it’s kind of the movie-star quality, and then Nate has an intense physicality, strength…Britt said about Nate that he radiates integrity.

He does, that’s what’s so unusual. You don’t expect that in his character, and that’s what keeps you interested in him.

Yeah, he brings some humanity to it.

All the other people are very compromised and in his own way he’s the most honest person in the movie which I think is great. How do you continue to make us root for Richard Gere when he keeps doing so many terrible things?

Well, it’s a combination of, obviously, Richard’s incredible performance and his incredible charisma, you know? He’s so charming…what did my mother used to say? He could talk a dog off of a meat wagon, but I think also the design of the film helps.  I’m a big fan of Aristotle, he wrote a book called The Poetics a couple of thousand years ago, which is pretty much a  manual for dramatists, and I try to follow his paradigm of a tragic hero. It’s not a Madoff where, excuse my language, but he said from jail “f*** my victims.” That to me was a sociopath, and I wasn’t interested in exploring that character but I thought, “Can we do in the Aristotelian way, a good man who was great and got a little carried away?”  And then bought into a kind of irresponsibility, but because you can sense that he was good at one point, I think you want it to work out for him.

What’s next?  Do you want to do more documentaries, now? You want to do more feature films, you want to do both?

I would say everything. I might actually even make a commercial, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. So, I like that format, the 30 second idea, to do something beautiful, find an emotion in 30 seconds. That’s interesting to me.

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