Thursday, March 05, 2015

THROWBACK THURSDAY—The Greencine Interview with David Cronenberg & Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises, 2007)

(Originally published on the Greencine website, October 2007.)

David Cronenberg has long been fascinated with the liminal properties of human skin. He recognizes the body as a site of potential transformation. In his earlier films (Shivers, Rabid, The Brood), he rendered horror as a venereal process of invasive and rabid infection. Over the course of his filmography, he has charted the body's intimate liaison with technology (Videodrome, The Fly, Existenz) and has intelligently underscored the transgressive (and often horrifying) elements of physical change.

In recent years, his approach has become more psychological, if not more naturalistic. He no longer needs to configure agencies of change as parasites erupting from within, bursting through the liminality of the skin. With calm exactitude and a stern eye, he suggests that the propensity for violence within each individual is the truest source of transgression, albeit hidden and disguised beneath the skin, if not within the constructions of biography. With A History of Violence he stunned audiences with how thin the veneer of civilization truly is and how the past will hunt out and reveal you. In his most recent effort—Eastern Promises (2007)—he collaborates once again with A History of Violence leading man Viggo Mortensen to notate inherent violence (the marketing slogan says "sin") as marked on the skin through a criminalized system of initiatory tattoos. Intrigued by this driving narrative metaphor, I met up with Cronenberg and Mortensen at the Ritz Carlton during a recent visit to San Francisco. Our conversation necessarily contains some spoilers, so please be wary.

* * *

Michael Guillén: I don't want to appear too pandering, David, but I have to admit that—though I interview directors all the time—you have been on my top-five wish list for a long time.

David Cronenberg: Thank you.

Viggo Mortensen: Probably number five. [Laughter.]

Cronenberg: We don't want to say.

Mortensen: Who's number one?

Guillén: I like Guillermo del Toro quite a lot.

Cronenberg: Oh, but I do too! He's a good friend, a terrific guy and very funny.

Guillén: I can actually say that I've grown up with your films, David. I've been watching them since Shivers [aka, They Came From Within, 1975]. So there are some basic general themes I've long wanted to talk to you about.

Cronenberg: Okay.

Guillén: I was a student of the mythologist Joseph Campbell. Joe, at a very early age, taught me to compare mythologies and gave me an assignment at one time, which was to study all the creation myths. One common theme that I found, which interested me, was the culpability of human skin. The reason for this being that humans are said to be created from earth, where the surface of the earth—in many of these ancients myths—is the skin of a vanquished race. Either Tiamat in Sumerian-Babylonian mythology or the Titans in Greek mythology or—if you want to get scientific about it—the slag of celestial explosions. Inherent in the human skin is this hint of ancient conflict or violence.

Mortensen: Except for Lithuanians. They're not a part of that. [Chuckles.]

Cronenberg: He's alluding to my background.

Guillén: It seems to me in your films there is this awareness of the culpable liminality of human skin and—though I know most people describe your films as horror or sci-fi—I don't really think of them as being limited to those genres. For me, your films are more archetypal, psychological. They follow mythic templates. Especially moreso in your recent films like A History of Violence and now Eastern Promises, where these themes have become truly sophisticated and subtle. In Eastern Promises tattooed skin becomes primary and significant. Could the two of you talk about where that metaphor came from?

Cronenberg: Sure. Of course, when you're making a film you don't think thematically. You're thinking very physically and pragmatically and emotionally; but, not in abstract ways because—as I've said many times—you can't photograph an abstract concept and an actor can't play an abstract concept. You have to get very specific, even though it's by being very specific that you can then be universal, in other words. Each character has to come from some place. He has to have a name. It's only in allegory that you get a character who plays an abstract concept; that you get a character who plays pride or humility or shame.

When it comes to the tattooing, it wasn't really very prominent in the original script that Steve Knight and I wrote. It was alluded to but it wasn't developed in a full way. It was actually Viggo doing his research—we had already agreed we were doing the movie—who came up with a book called Russian Criminal Tattoo, which is a fantastic book, quite mind blowing really. It was about the whole tattooing subculture in Russian prisons. That immediately triggered off for us the substance behind his character Nikolai Luzhin, where he would have come from—or at least pretended he came from, of course, as it turns out—and that whole kind of life that he had and that whole ritual structure based on tattooing as identification, certification of your identity, authentication.

I sent that book and a documentary that Viggo found as well called The Mark of Cain (2001)—which is really fantastic, shot in Russian prisons with prisoners showing their tattoos and describing what they mean and so on—I sent that to Steve Knight and said, "This will blow your mind." As if the script had almost been waiting for this last piece of the puzzle to become the central metaphor of the movie and to make everything gel around it. As I say, we were already launched on making the movie but this wasn't originally in it.

Guillén: It's interesting that you bring up a documentary entitled The Mark of Cain because—lapsed Catholic that I am—that's exactly what I thought of. Of course it's obvious that the mark God laid on Cain is the original tattoo.

Cronenberg: That's right and that documentary, of course, alluded to that as well.

Guillén: In Eastern Promises there's a reference to "forced" tattoos. What's meant by that?

Mortensen: There's a caste system, not just in Russia but in prisons in this country as well. If you're a pederast, if you're a child molester, if you're a homosexual; there are certain kinds of crimes in Russian prisons that count against you and that limit you in the hierarchy in the prison, no matter how loyal you might be, how tough you might be, how much of a survivor, how much of a good fighter you might be, a good thief or whatever….

Cronenberg: Basically, to cut to the chase, they force you to have tattoos that identify you as such.

Mortensen: They hold you down and tattoo you. Or if you're a stool pigeon, they'll tattoo a rat on your forehead.

Cronenberg: So these are tattoos that you have not agreed to have. They will hold you down and put them on you. It's like someone stamping something in your passport saying, "Do not allow this person to come into the country."

Mortensen: Or you're forced to wear a yellow star or something; but, it's on your body.

Guillén: Within the structure of the film, then, do you feel that the strategy by which Nikolai gains his stars is a forced tattooing?

Cronenberg: No, not at all.

Mortensen: That's a great honor.

Cronenberg: That's something he would aspire to. It's something Nikolai would desire. When Semyon [Armin Mueller-Stahl] says, "It's time you joined us", Nikolai says, "Thank you, Papa." It's like becoming a made man in the mafia. It's becoming accepted as "one of us", a man to be trusted, and this is indicated by these stars on his chest and on his knees; that's his mark of acceptance and authentication, that he's a guy to be trusted. Now, if he should end up in prison again, he would have great status in that prison hierarchy because of those stars. In those prisons if you fake a tattoo, if you just put those stars on and they find out, it's not very nice what happens after that.

Mortensen: You get killed or the old school guys come up to you and say, "On your finger it says you were in St. Petersburg Prison; but, I happen to know you never were there. Get rid of that tattoo. I'll give you 20 minutes and we'll be back and—if it's not gone—"

Cronenberg: "—we're going to take your finger off or your hand so that you won't have that tattoo."

Mortensen: So you burn it off, you cut it off, with whatever you can find.

Cronenberg: It's pretty brutal.

Guillén: Nikolai's Mephistophelian contract in Eastern Promises is handsomely and elegantly measured, even though it's quite troubling and disturbing. Despite the violent things that he does, I don't think of him as a criminal and I'm conflicted about feeling that way. You've successfully made his moral dilemma one we can empathize with, albeit reluctantly. He's redeemed somewhat by his secrets.

Cronenberg: He is assuming the role of criminal as a chauffeur to Semyon's son and has to then be witness to crimes. You see him cutting the fingers off a corpse because it's something he does. He's helping his boss, his commander Kirill (the Vincent Cassel character). So he does commit criminal acts. If there was a bust of that crime family, he would definitely be busted because it would be obvious that he had at least witnessed crimes that he didn't report. He would have to have committed some crimes himself—

Mortensen: —to fit in. …What you can say in a broad sense about all the characters, not just mine, but Naomi Watts's character, Armin Mueller-Stahl's character, even Vincent's character, is that—like in A History of Violence and like in most of David's movies—like in life, once someone makes a movie thoughtfully and intelligently as David does and most directors don't, people are never what they seem at first ever and you never really get to know them fully. At the end of Eastern Promises, you wonder what else there is to my character and other characters and you wonder what's going to happen. Tomorrow is going to be complicated. What's going to happen to these poor people?

Guillén: The final image of Nikolai is unsettling for being enigmatic. You say it's an honor for Nikolai to receive these tattoo stars, you say it is something he would strive for, and yet it is likewise repulsive and horrifying. When he reveals them to Yuri [Donald Sumpter], Yuri winces and recoils.

Cronenberg: He's gone over a line. There's no coming back in a way.

Mortensen: The unspoken thing from Yuri is, "Well, we'll make use of you as long as we can but there may be a point where you're totally on your own and there might be a time when we are on the wrong side of the fence from each other completely and I can't vouch for you and won't know anything about you. If I have to, I'll arrest you."

Guillén: One of my favorite lines in the film is when Nikolai says, "You play with a prince to do business with a king." That line is Shakespearean.

Cronenberg: Yes.

Guillén: Which leads me to ask about the dynamic between Kirill and Nikolai. You mentioned earlier that—if you are a homosexual—you would have no chance to advance in this hierarchy and yet, somehow, there's this tension being posed that—as Nikolai assumes the role of Kirill's father—he's subverting the old patriarchy with a more accommodating patriarchy. How did that energy come about?

Mortensen: It was practical on one level.

Cronenberg: Yeah. It's obvious that Kirill is in love with Nikolai. He can't really admit to himself that he's gay because he would have no credibility. As the son of the boss, it would be an embarrassment to the whole organization. Nikolai knows this and uses it. He manipulates Kirill for his own purposes.

Guillén: But not without affection.

Mortensen: Well, there is a certain tenderness and that speaks to the thing of you never fully know. You don't really know how close they actually are.

Cronenberg: That's exactly right. Kirill is a floppy, irresponsible, crazy kid and Nikolai's like the responsible brother and there is some kind of strange affection between them; but, is that only manipulative? You don't really know. It's hard to know how genuine that is. Nikolai would be capable of portraying that without it being true; but, you don't know. And it could be both. It could be manipulative and genuine at the same time because, of course, in relationships that happens too. Semyon, of course, represents the old school, the old Vory, with a rigid—as you say—patriarchal understanding of the way things work.

Mortensen: That's why he is so devastated when Nikolai finally says, "This is what people are saying." He probably knows the truth about Kirill; but, hearing it from Nikolai confirms his worst fears. He's not very happy obviously.

Cronenberg: And the truth is, of course, if Nikolai takes over or supplants Semyon, we don't know where that will place Kirill who is the true prince. Is he supplanted totally by Nikolai? Or does Nikolai still have to be the man behind the throne?

Mortensen: Making Kirill feel like he's in charge.

Cronenberg: Like he's the boss.

Guillén: That's how I read it. Again, referencing Shakespeare, Nikolai seemed like Iago behind Othello.

Cronenberg: But still manipulate him emotionally in every other way because Nikolai's much more calculated and controlled as well about those things and about people. It puts Nikolai in a very interesting, strange place in his life.

Guillén: Clearly the scene everyone is going to be talking about in this film is the bathhouse sequence, which is such a brave and committed scene for both of you to have taken on, but especially you, Viggo. The violence in that scene is fiercely naturalistic and I felt you upped Guillermo del Toro's half-chelsea from Pan's Labyrinth. Just when I thought I had seen it all with the rip of Guillermo's half-chelsea, this bathhouse scene comes up. How did you structure the violence? What are you wanting to say about violence? Are you texturing the violence through the audience's vulnerability?

Cronenberg: Yes. The nudity in the scene is really about vulnerability; it's not sex. Most nudity in movies has a sexual aspect. Not that this doesn't maybe have some of that as well; but, it's much more sublimated. I've only recently been talking about it—because it just occurred to me—that it's like the shower scene in Psycho. You're naked, you're wet and there's some people with knives who don't like you. This is a very vulnerable kind of thing that people can relate to. Of course it's all set up properly because of the tattoos that you meet there, so people can see the tattoos and see that it's all legitimate, and then it goes quite wrong. I said to the stunt coordinator and the camera man, "This is not Bourne-like impressionistic cutting away where you don't see anything. Violence is physical. It's all about bodies. It's about the destruction of bodies. And I insist on that as the reality of this. And I want to see it all. This fight scene has to make physiological sense. It has to make mechanical sense. It has to make body sense."

If an audience is seeing a movie to live another life—which I think is one of the attractions of seeing movies; you get to be out of your own life and live some other life that maybe you wouldn't ever really want to live but you're curious about—so, I'm saying if you're a Nikolai in the movie, then you're going to experience this; I'm not going to throw it away, do it off camera, and do it frivolously. All the hard work and the difficulty of killing someone, if that's what this character has to do, I want you to feel it and see it.

Guillén: I saw the film in an audience of jaded critics who were all squirming around like earthworms on a hot griddle.

Cronenberg: Then it worked! That's great!

Monday, March 02, 2015

SVFF 2015: GIRL FROM GOD'S COUNTRYThe Evening Class Interview With Karen Day

Photo courtesy of Afghan Women's Justice Project
A San Francisco native who used to dance with the San Francisco Ballet, publishing—as she states on her website—is in Karen Day's DNA. Her great uncles, Robert and Edwin Grabhorn, founded San Francisco's historic and internationally-lauded Grabhorn Press in 1920. Her career spans ten years of multimedia projects, but writing remains her primary passion, coupled with the purpose of giving voice to those who lack the opportunity to speak for themselves. There's ironic relevance that she has now given voice to the remarkable trials of silent cinema pioneer Nell Shipman in her latest documentary Girl From God's Country (2014), which will have its premiere at the fourth edition of the Sun Valley Film Festival (SVFF).

Day describes herself as "a journalist prone to dangerous enthusiasms." As she also writes on her website: "As a photographer, filmmaker and writer, she makes a habit of ignoring the punitive warnings of military dictators, Christian and Islamic fundamentalists, the most recent Republican administration and her Jewish mother. Consequently, her career includes house arrest in Myanmar, lunch with Dr. Anthrax in pre-war Baghdad, fashion reprimands from a warlord in Kandahar and happy hour with the Dalai Lama in Manhattan. She graduated from the University of Colorado with a BFA and a healthy dose of skepticism toward authority. Wary of overly-earnest appeals from rock stars, politicians and Sally Struthers, her professional pen and camera focus on the human element in every story, whether the subject is war-torn refugees or Hollywood celebrities."

She is also an animated friend and it was my complete pleasure to lunch with her at Boise's Juniper to discuss her upcoming Sun Valley premiere.

* * *

Michael Guillén: When did you first discover Nell Shipman and what was it about her that compelled you to create this documentary, Girl From God's Country?

Karen Day: I write children's books about Idaho history with the First Lady of Idaho, Lori Otter. I've written Ida Visits the Capitol, Ida Hikes Idaho (which is all about the state parks), Ida Visits 150 Years of Idaho History (which was about Idaho's Sesquicentennial, made in partnership with the Idaho Historical Society). Ida is a 15-year-old character but the books are written for fourth and fifth graders. Lori Otter has put out about 60,000 of these books. She gives half away and sells half to be able to republish. They're all about Idaho heritage. I also wrote one for Sun Valley about their mascot (a little Persian horse) Little Clyde: Horsing Around in Sun Valley. Needless to say, writing these books has taught me a lot about Idaho.

I was at the Idaho Historical Society looking through every single county's chronological history when I discovered a photo of Nell Shipman. It was that magnificent head shot with the wolf fur collar. It became clear to me that she had bought a bit of fame up in Northern Idaho. I asked myself, "How could this woman exist nearly 100 years ago as an independent female filmmaker and I've never even heard of her?" I mean, there are only about 100 people in Idaho who have made and make movies. Idaho is such a small turtle pool where a few things rise to the top, so that's why it was incredible to me that I'd never heard of her before.

I then found out by talking to Janet Gallimore, the Executive Director of the Idaho Historical Society, that the archives—through Tom Trusky and Alan Virta—were at Boise State University and I thought, "Wait a minute. How could I be an independent female filmmaker making films in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa and this woman, Nell Shipman, had busted all these walls to do it up in the Idaho wilderness?" That's when I met Stephanie Bacon, who has succeeded Tom Trusky as the head of The Hemingway Western Studies Center, which housed the Idaho Center for the Book and the Idaho Film Collection. I explained to her that I had become intrigued by the figure of Nell Shipman and they opened the archives to me. I realized this woman had not received the recognition she deserved for all she had done and the legacy of her contributions.

I found a personal letter of Nell's in the archives, which I've included in my documentary, where she had applied to the Motion Picture Home for the Elderly to seek assistance. Even though she had written over 100 films, they said they couldn't recognize any of her films because they were done before the existence of the Screenwriters Guild and the Actors Guild. They said they couldn't help her, even though Nell was living on $3 a month at a dude ranch dependent on the kindness of strangers. That's how she died. And it wasn't just her. There was quite a trajectory for several women filmmakers between 1897 and 1925 that—as I started to do the research—had all been buried once Wall Street got involved with Hollywood.

I went on this quest to find out why—once Tom Trusky died—Nell and her great films had fallen back into obscurity (except in Canada). Why had she not been profiled on PBS? That question led me into the archives where I researched for six months. It led me to meeting Nina and Lani Shipman, Nell's granddaughter and great-granddaughter, both actors, to learn about Nell's son Barry Shipman and his archives, also at BSU.

Then to New York where I met Jane Gaines who's been running the Women Film Pioneers Project for 20 years. In the film, Jane explains that when she started doing her research she had a few names like Alice Guy Blaché to start with, but from Blaché there was a 50-year jump to Ida Lupino. By the time she moved to Columbia 15 years later, she had pages that were three feet off the ground. She had intended to publish the information but now there was too much. That's why her research went digital as an online resource just last year. Looking at that resource, I discovered there was an entire generation of women filmmakers—beyond the great estate of Alice Guy Blaché—from Czechoslovakia, from Russia, the first Hispanic American female Beatriz Michelena in 1911! Jane gave us access to so much.

Guillén: Isn't that a key insight of women's studies? That history has been written by heterosexist males who have purposely erased the feminine record to accentuate their own? Have most of your films focused on women's issues?

Day: No. I bill myself as a humanitarian journalist and filmmaker. If you look at my website, my focus is to give voice to people who can't speak for themselves and don't have the opportunity. I have to admit that—compared to the work I've done in Afghanistan, Iraq, the South Sudan, or Uganda—I had to talk myself into this project. It was so compelling that I couldn't not do it, but I realized that it felt like a luxury. Was it really going to save someone's life? It wasn't until I educated myself about the cultural context and the impact of how this gendered disparity has perpetuated into the present day that I realized, even now, it was influencing my nine-year-old son's perception of women. I realized it was about giving voice to this generation of women filmmakers of the silent era, let alone all the women today who don't have opportunity to speak for themselves due to gendered disparity. It's just like Patricia Arquette protested at the Academy Awards®: "Pay us the same!"

I didn't willingly go into this film because it felt a bit self-indulgent to do a project about anything Hollywood-related, compared to the work I'd done overseas that was trying to—and had succeeded—in making a difference in people's lives on a humanitarian basis. But then I realized it was the same thing: I was giving voice to these women and their work, paying tribute to them, and also giving voice to this problem about gender disparity. There's really no documentary out there about the subject. We just happened to create it by profiling Nell Shipman. That's the beauty of it. In trying to pay tribute to Nell Shipman through this documentary, she will have no idea of the impact she's going to make and how her story is pertinent to what's happening to women right now and the keystone of shifting awareness.

But one of the things I tried not to do with this film was to make it a feminist manifesto. This is something I've struggled with. I wanted it to be a character-driven story because Nell is an incredible character who led an amazing life, right? She lived in the wilderness and that's all so cinematic. We did re-enactments of her incredible life. Much of what she did was dangerous. She fell through ice that was 4 below. She ran the rapids of the Salmon river without a boat. She drove dogsleds.

Even Geena Davis, who's launching the Bentonville Film Festival with its focus on women in film, addresses the fact that—even though there's a gender bias when, say, Hollywood directors are setting up a scene—at the same time, it's an old boy's club and the only way women can get ahead is by working with them. You bang at the door by continuing to do great work, by voicing the problem, hoping these films will find their audience.

Guillén: Tell me about the Bentonville Film Festival. I've not heard of it.

Day: It's a new film festival that Geena Davis just started this January, sponsored by Walmart, and to be held in May in Bentonville, Arkansas. It's to give voice to women filmmakers, screenwriters and minorities. Interestingly, we were already addressing these issues of gender disparity in Girl From God's Country before Bentonville was even announced.

Guillén: Your focus on gender disparity in Girl From God's Country is timely and speaks as well to the social responsibilities of cinema, which some might argue took more risks during the period of the silents.

Day: It was Nell who led me to that when I was sleuthing out what happened to her, and other women filmmakers like her.

Guillén: Do you, offhand, know if Nell's films in the collection out at BSU are in any condition to be shown?

Day: The films that Tom Trusky remastered, we worked on them as well. I had a special after effects editor work on them, a woman (I struggled to find female crew members all the way through). Some of those films are compromised, but they tell beautifully a story of what Nell was up against technologically, even with crank cameras.

Guillén: Speak to me of the value of making this documentary with an all-female crew?

Day: The all-female crew for me was about showing the progress independent film has made. I used videographers from all over the United States; they weren't hard to find. I had enough connections. But here in Idaho?—you know this—I was challenged to find qualified female videographers. I hired two independent cinematographers, both from Ketchum: Meredith Richardson, who works for ESPN, and Whitney McNees. Neither had shot a documentary before. This film allowed me to be a mentor, which was fabulous, and it was their opportunity to learn about history and their obligation having this power with media. This was how the 10-minute short Finding Nell came about. It came from their experience. I'll never forget how last year, in February, after we'd been working on the film for a year, Meredith was shooting at the X-Games, Whitney was shooting at Sundance, and they both sent me pictures. There were tons of camera people but they were the only women behind cameras at both events. They began to come to consciousness that—not only were they the only women shooting—but they had an obligation to do great work. Dance backwards in heels? We can do it!

Girl from God's Country-Short from gcg productions on Vimeo.

Which reminds me of when Meredith and Whitney were helping me film an interview with Stephen Gong, the Executive Director of CAAM.

Guillén: I know Stephen! He's in the film?!

Day: Yes. And I want to go on record how much I love Stephen Gong. In the film, you'll see his interview—of which I could have made the whole damn documentary about him—but, we were talking about the Chinese American female filmmaker Marion E. Wong and her film The Curse of Quon Gwon (1916). He was talking about how you have to empower women's voices. Anyway, he finished his incredible—it was really a soliloquy—and there was complete silence and then Meredith and Whitney suddenly started clapping. When we were finished shooting, I told Stephen I would gladly polish his shoes! He's so articulate about minority voices that are not being heard.

Guillén: He's a great guy, has steered CAAM well, and worked previously for the Pacific Film Archive at UC Berkeley.

Day: People really stepped up to help us make this film because we didn't have a lot of money. Stephen introduced me to Greg Mark who was a professor in Sacramento whose great aunt and great grandmother were in this first Chinese American film, The Curse of Quon Gwon, which was saved by his family in three generations of women's basements in Oakland. He had the 35mm film converted and gave us the rights to use the film in our documentary. So what started out to be Nell—and I knew her life was a mirror of this generation—opened the floodgates to all this fabulous footage. We got the Zora Neale Hurston Family Trust to give us the rights to the usage of the only footage Zora ever took as a documentarian filmmaker.

Guillén: What will a woman's eye behind the camera bring to the table?

Day: Often women, even when they're portrayed in a role of responsibility—let's say, a doctor performing brain surgery—often their dialogue is about their relationship to whatever man is alongside them, instead of actually talking about saving the person's life who is beneath the scalpel in their hand. From my point of view in this film, I wanted to make sure that—though the film is character-driven—it didn't look like we focused solely on women's emotional states, their relationships, the challenges they had as females. I wanted a more human picture, especially as a woman being conscious of how we're often portrayed at less than our maximum potential when we're seen on screen.

I'm committed to people learning about these great women and—not only how they overcame greater challenges than women face today—but how the element that doomed them continues to run the machinery today. I hope the film becomes a tool to make positive change.

Guillén: Do women have more power behind the lens than in front of it?

Day: Much more. But of course, we both know a woman cinematographer has never been nominated for an Academy Award®.

Guillén: When I met you last year at the Sun Valley Film Festival, you were just starting to secure the funding to make the film. It's been a long journey for you. Can you speak to the key moments in that journey? You started out with a Kickstarter campaign?

Day: We made it: $27,000. That was my third successful Kickstarter campaign. Now I can actually say that I have several people that believe in what I do and how I'll go to any end to deliver. The first half of our funding came privately from two key figures: Karen Meyer, here in Boise, and Eileen Barber who owns Keynetics. Eileen is very active in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) for women's empowerment. The next chunk of money was the $27,000 from Kickstarter, but you actually walk away with $25,000. A friend gave me an additional $5,000. Then one of my executive producers Tracey Goessel, who runs the Silent Film Preservation Society, and whose husband manages the Bing Crosby Archive, came in at the last 10 hours of our Kickstarter campaign. We still needed to raise $10,000. All of a sudden I got this note from Tracey, who I'd never met, saying: "I can see that you need this to get over the top." I went to meet her. She has the largest personal collection of Pickfair memorabilia in the world. You should see her house! It's fantastic! She told me, "I just want to support people who know how great these silent stars are." Tracey recently helped remaster Douglas Fairbanks's The Thief of Bagdad (1924). We've been talking about taking Girl From God's Country to Pordenone, even though it's not a silent film, because it has so much of Nell's silent footage incorporated into it, and it pays tribute to her and other silent cinema pioneers.

We're also hoping to hear back on a grant we've applied for to cover the expenses of hosting the screening here in Boise, the screening in Los Angeles for Geena Davis to benefit her institute, and also a screening up in Sandpoint at their historic Panida Theatre (which is over 100 years old).

Guillén: What advice can you give to young Idaho filmmakers who are trying to find grant money? How does one go about finding what's available? Are there resources where one can hunt for specific types of grants? How does that work?

Day: Well, in Idaho you have to be transparent about that. There's not much. That's one of the reasons I'm having the benefit screening of Girl From God's Country at the Egyptian Theater. It's to establish the Nell Shipman Grant for Emerging Filmmakers. I did approach the Idaho Film Collections at BSU to pick up the responsibility for the grant but they didn't want the ongoing responsibility. The difference between myself and a young filmmaker, however, is the fact that I have a history of producing purposeful media. I've got a long track record now. When you're a young filmmaker and you have a vision and you have passion but you don't have anything behind you, people are less likely to invest in you in a big way. And if they were in Hollywood, they might be young, but they'd feel more like a 1,000 years old in terms of the torture they'd be put through.

Guillén: How did you get started as a filmmaker?

Day: I was a print journalist and an independent producer for NBC Nightly News and for various news outlets in the Third World, often war zones. I found out that the stories that were not being told were about women and children in those areas. They're the ones I could maybe do a 30-second spot on, but they preferred I get the exclusive into the $100,000,000 Taliban detention center. I couldn't give away a fabulous story about the women and children that were incarcerated for moral crimes in Afghanistan and how our imposition of rule of law in the Sharia 1000-year-old culture was sending more women to prison with their children, which was what my TED talk was about.

Guillén: Congratulations on that, by the way!

Day: Thanks! It was on my bucket list. I got started in filmmaking for exactly those stories about women and children that I addressed in my TED talk, the ones that were the most disenfranchised, needing to be told, but I had no other way to start telling them. Yet, I wasn't able to sell this beautiful segment I produced about the women and kids in Afghanistan. I sent it straight to Harpo Productions, along with exclusive footage from the last three days before U.S. troops invaded Iraq where we went to the sites where weapons of mass destruction had allegedly been seen on the aerial satellite photos; but, there was nothing there! I provided 100 hours of footage to Oprah, but she said, "The troops have already crossed the border." I was so angry! I said, "That's it. I'm not doing this work anymore." Harpo wasn't interested in the footage. Nobody was interested in the footage. Everyone was on the war boat, right?

I came back to Sausalito and was on my way to Cuba on a cultural exchange with Deepak Chopra and I said to the woman who was organizing the exchange, "I'm done with risking my life for this war zone crap. It doesn't matter. Nobody wants to hear the truth. I just want to meet the Dalai Lama and go meditate." At that moment she took the picture on her desk, turned it around, and it was a photo of her arm and arm with the Dalai Lama. She said, "I just helped repatriate 1,000 Tibetans here in San Francisco. I can introduce you to the Dalai Lama."

Photo: Steve McCurry
I went to Cuba and one week later I was in Dharamsala. I traveled with the Dalai Lama for three months and made my first documentary. I worked on Ethics and the World Crisis (2009) for San Francisco-based Link TV. That's how I got started making documentaries. I learned from that project. I was traveling with Steve McCurry—the famous photographer from National Geographic who took the portrait of the Afghan girl with the green eyes—who was on assignment to follow the Dalai Lama for three months for a National Geographic story on Buddhism. We had this incredible opportunity to be next to His Holiness and I saw the hunger for people to know these stories that weren't being told.

There is part of me, I have to admit, that feels that—after coming from writing—filmmaking is a luxury in storytelling. That's why I'm attracted to silent film because of its visual storytelling. When you have to rely on words, there's that magic when the muse comes through, but with filmmaking there is a luxury to being able to be behind the camera and show people the magic. Americans are lazy and they want to be shown more and more in shorter and shorter amounts of time. They want to experience the magic and go on to the next experience of magic. They're gluttonous. If you have a story to tell, being a filmmaker is a gift. And what a gift! What I haven't hooked into is film for pure entertainment's sake. I don't know if I can make a film like that because I've come to filmmaking from a different way.

Guillén: But entertainment, as a value, shifts. Documentaries are on the rise, I think, because (primarily adults) are entertained by information. So never say never. Tell me how you're feeling about attending this year's edition of the Sun Valley Film Festival.

Day: Ethics and the World Crisis, the film about the Dalai Lama, opened the Sun Valley Spiritual Film Festival years back, and that festival has gone the way, but now we have the Sun Valley Film Festival in its fourth year. I've had films in SVFF for three years in a row. I opened the first SVFF in 2012 with Between the Earth and Sky that I made with Harvard regarding the doctors in South Sudan at the time South Sudan had become the newest nation in the world.

Then I spent a year making From the Ground Up, which premiered at SVFF last year.

So this is my third year with a film at SVFF. I'm excited for Idaho and my two local cinematographers who were born and raised in Ketchum. This is a triumph for Idaho, not only as an ambassadorial statement regarding female filmmakers, but as an ambassadorial statement for the state itself. The film discusses why creative people choose to live here. Wherever I travel—New York, Paris, Africa—they ask where I'm from and when I tell them Idaho they always ask why? That's what Girl From God's Country addresses and I believe the film will serve as a cultural ambassador of what's best in the state, and why an individual like Nell Shipman would have come here, or me, or you.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

SVFF 2015: ZERO POINTThe Evening Class Interview With Gregory Bayne and Christian Lybrook

Early on when I arrived in the Treasure Valley and set about to familiarize myself with Boise's local film production scene, I accepted an assignment to survey same for Fusion magazine. I approached Peg Owens at the Idaho Film Office to steer me towards the individuals who she felt best represented Idaho film production. Unfortunately, both Fusion and the Idaho Film Office have since bitten the dust, but the article still exists out there in the ether as a reminder of my first steps into the community.

One of the main names on Peg's list—confirmed by others as a "must" interview—was Gregory Bayne (A Person of Interest, Jens Pulver: Driven, Bloodsworth: An Innocent Man), considered one of Idaho's key filmmakers for having successfully mounted numerous crowdfunding campaigns, achieving cross-platform distribution deals, and authoring a popular advisory column on DIY filmmaking at Filmmaker magazine. (His most recent advice on learning how to tell stories through editing documentaries has been published at No Film School.) Along with profiling Bayne in my Fusion survey, I likewise talked to him about his ongoing Bloodsworth documentary for The Evening Class.

Christian Lybrook came to my attention through his short film Crawlspace (2011), which had been accepted into a shorts program at the inaugural Sun Valley Film Festival (SVFF). The trailer he presented at a pre-SVFF Boisecutters meeting intrigued me enough to ask for a screener, and to follow-up with an Evening Class interview with his talent and—with his second short film The Seed (2013)a Fandor Keyframe interview with Lybrook himself.

For the past two years the two filmmakers have been collaborating on the pilot for their web series Zero Point (2015), which will boast its SVFF premiere at The Magic Lantern on Saturday, March 7, 3:50PM. Though George Prentice at The Boise Weekly all but snubbed Idaho filmmakers in his overview of SVFF, opting instead to highlight the festival's spectacular dimension, Jessica Murri balanced out reportage at The Weekly with a shout-out to Zero Point, as did Dana Oland for the Idaho Statesman. With Zero Point squaring up to be one of the most anticipated local projects at SVFF, I felt it was time to have the two over for pancakes and coffee to have an informal discussion on the series.  (Photos courtesy of Gregory Bayne.)

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Michael Guillén: First and foremost, congratulations on Zero Point being accepted into the Sun Valley Film Festival.

Gregory Bayne: Thank you.

Christian Lybrook: Thank you.

Guillén: These days I'm interested in narrative seriality, as are many other film writers. It's become a trending topic in film academic circles: why are audiences shifting to web content, serial narrative content on cable, and away from the theatrical experience of movies? Zero Point is a proposed web series and I'm hoping you can talk a bit about why you decided to move in that direction? And, once you decided to do so, how you developed the story and the project? Is it developed through a whole season at this point?

Bayne: It is. I've obviously done documentaries and feature films and there are two reasons why I preferred a web series for this project. First, there's the economics of it. On an independent level, it's no longer economically viable to make a feature film. It's really difficult. Even if you have a well-known cast, it's incredibly hard. If I'm going to do something that's so hard, I want to do something that has more depth of character, can be more interesting, and live longer.

Also, it's reading the writing on the wall and being in tune with how I view things. I like to watch television. I prefer television most of the time. I'll watch movies when I'm flying across country. So, it was while thinking a lot about what I watch, what I'm into, and wanting to do something in more depth, that I thought about this story in particular. I like apocalyptic stories; but, originally, this was a completely different story that got turned on its head. That's about the time Christian got involved.

The idea, the initial brush, for Zero Point was essentially to tell a story about the apocalypse, but not in the way it's usually told where the apocalypse happens and it all becomes about survival and suddenly everybody forgets about our 2000 years of technological evolution. It's too bizarre and I hate it. I watched the first episode of that NBC show Revolution and within the first five minutes the lights go out and then they cut to a few years later when people are farming in the suburbs. I thought, "What?! Did everyone on Earth that had any kind of technological idea suddenly die as well? I don't understand."

With Zero Point it was about how we could tell the story of an apocalypse, but tell it through character and not so much the events with their plot structure, as it were. How could we tell a story of human beings in the near future dealing with situations that could be real, like disease? And basically our being the architects of our own demise? That's essentially what Zero Point is. It's a story of how we ruin it for ourselves by not only dying off from the natural end of old age but suddenly dying off from the wrong end with our children dying.

I wanted to make a mystery that was not solved by violence. It's a scientific mystery that I believe can be just as involving. There's high tension and high stakes that can take place, and there might be brushes of that, but Zero Point is not about two cops or a cop trying to track down a killer. When the "killer" is something elusive and scientific that you have to figure out, it makes for a much more interesting story. I mean, if you look on the internet you'll find conspiracy theories about diseases transmitting from the animal world to the plant world to us. But a scientist debunked that theory, saying: "Here's the problem. In order for this thing to happen, these five things have to happen and they have to happen perfectly at this perfect time, meaning that it will never happen. I sent Christian the article and posed: "What if those five things happened?" That's Zero Point. What if those five things happened and it all actually came together and what if the disease did jump and it started killing off the youngest among us?

Guillén: So you have a narrative that will unfold over a series of episodes, which is, as I mentioned, a current trend in reception, though not necessarily a new one, as people have been interested in narrative seriality since the turn of the last century. Silent cinema explored narrative seriality, television took it on through its weekly melodramas, but it achieved a heightened sophistication with the advent of The Wire, then The Sopranos, and the rest has been history. And though it could be argued that there is sufficient action in dramas like The Wire and The Sopranos to engage audiences, what you're saying confirms that what might actually be engaging audiences with recent narrative serials is their sophisticated character development. Can you speak to why that is?

Bayne: Because it's more unpredictable. When you're writing, you intertwine plot and character of course, but the most surprising moments I've had watching television—and in some films, but mainly television—are character revelations. Not that they do something that reveals their character, as much as it fits within the guise of the character and still surprises you. When you're dealing with a 90-minute scenario, you have to tie everything up. From films in the '70s and onwards, we've programmed ourselves to tie up everything at the end of 90 minutes. The audience needs to leave satisfied. With a serial narrative there's a certain satisfaction that you want to deliver, but you can dole it out over time and people will forgive you if, let's say, this episode of The Walking Dead is more totally engaging than that episode. But that total engagement has been set up by the characters and living with the characters. It's fun and interesting to learn more and think about them.

I'd think about this when I watched movies: you have these bit players who leave the scene and I'd think, "What's going on with them when they're not on screen? What's that story?" That story could be way more interesting than what's in front of me. Christian and I constantly go back and forth on this as we're building the season arc and beyond for Zero Point. What are the stories behind the stories? Yes, it's an epic story, but let's always retain it in character and what are the little stories within those characters that we can blow up and explore and figure out why they're doing what they're doing, how they tick, and how that relates to other characters? That also allows us to spend time to take all these characters that seem so spread apart and disconnected and weave the story so that they actually are connected. That exploration would be too hard to do confined to just 90 minutes.

Guillén: When Star Wars came out in 1977, launching the era of the Spielbergian blockbuster, audiences were dazzled by the film's CGI virtuosity. It initiated a groundswell of spectatorial engagement with visual effects on the screen that superseded their imagination and—as exciting as that all was in the beginning—I suspect the long-term affect has been a weakening of the spectatorial imagination and an increased passivity among audiences. I'm hardly the first to complain that most movies in the multiplexes are catering to 14-year-old boys who want to see and feel explosions, perhaps as an honest impulse to kickstart lethargic imaginations?

These movies were never meant to be like those of my childhood—all those black-and-white science fiction flicks or sword and sandal adventures from the '50s and early '60s that—maybe had modest special effects budgets?—but moreorless relied on silver-painted cardboard and a few flashing lights and whistles to signify the future because that's all our imaginations took at the time. I learned early on that there is nothing the unconscious wants more than to be solicited to participate. So that's all by way of saying that I suspect these days imaginations are being activated by the psychological depths of character motivation and development. A good story is regaining its importance.

Lybrook: The other thing that happened was technology. You go back to Dickens and serialized content, it's not new, right? Greg and I pass back and forth Nerdist Writers Panel podcasts. They interview writers on writing and it's interesting. You listen to why studios or networks greenlight shows, why they don't, why they did, why they didn't. Ten years ago, you couldn't record a show. I mean, you could on your VCR; but, once DVR came out, it changed everything because then serialized content could be consumed back to back.

Guillén: A couple of years back, a colleague of mine Dina Iordanova published a volume with Stuart Cunningham entitled Digital Disruption: Cinema Moves On-line (2012) and I was struck by how as a viewer—especially since moving to Boise, Idaho—my viewing habits shifted away from in-theater exhibition to streaming platforms where I could devour narrative serials through binge viewing. Part of this was not only because I could, having upped my game with a large flatscreen and home entertainment system, several subscriptions to streaming channels, and—as you said, Christian, DVR recording capabilities—but because I found it easier to follow and absorb narrative continuities rather than waiting week-to-week per the old model. As someone who's getting older by the minute, binge viewing of serial format provides an option of retention that feels welcome. My enjoyment has increased in watching how stories develop and in being able to more accurately detect the curve of a character arc.

Lybrook: Technology only facilitated these changes; but, it's not the key. As Greg pointed out, the key is character. These characters are people we grow to love and miss when they're gone. I remember when The Killing got killed and it went away. I was like, "Oh my God, I've never going to see Linden and Holder again!" Then Netflix brought it back for a final season; a short run of six episodes. I remember watching the first episode of that final season and thinking, "Holder, you ol' rascal!" It was great to see them again, which is stupid to get so attached.

Guillén: No, it's not stupid. These stories inform our lives. I'm fond of a quote by the American poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser who wrote in her volume The Speed of Darkness (1968): "The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms." We fall in love with these characters because, at soul, we're compelled by other people. People are interested in other people. A good writer creates relatable characters who affect us as much as flesh-and-blood acquaintances, sometimes even more so. Again, we're talking about what engages and activates the imagination. Characters who engage us are not stupid.

Lybrook: They're not. But I say that jokingly in terms of what we invest ourselves in.

Guillén: Now, I'm not very informed on web series. Is a web series these days a filmmaker's entree into television work? Is that the goal? Can you monetize a web series? Why a web series?

Bayne: I'm not sure where the moniker "web series" was even born, but it specifies a series on the web that isn't from the studios. The House of Cards was a web series. The Amazon series Bosch is a web series. When we went to the Independent Film Week (as part of the IFP), everyone was talking about web series. Finally on Day One we said, "Don't say 'web series' anymore because nobody knows what to do with that. They categorize it in their head as a five-minute episode....

Lybrook: Usually comedic.

Bayne: There are varying degrees to how people commodify these series. You look at somebody like Andy Samberg and The Lonely Island and those guys essentially did web series, web skits, and had the "break" of Kiefer Sutherland thinking they were actually beating up an old person on the street. They were filming an outdoor skit where they were beating up an old woman. One of them was dressed up as the old woman. Kiefer Sutherland happened to see this, stopped it from happening, and then realized it was a joke. Then Andy Samberg and friends get a pilot on Fox that I don't think ever aired but then they became writers for Saturday Night Live. There's that level of it.

Or, as with High Maintenance on Vimeo, it was a series someone on the staff liked and they kept putting it in the "staff picks" and one of the people who created the series Katja Blichfeld is an Emmy Award-winning casting director of 30 Rock. Cinetic Media got involved and then they sold the series back to Vimeo who is now releasing it as their original series. So there's that sort of thing.

One of the earlier successes was a series called The Guild created and written by Felicia Day. She was an actress who had done a lot of sci-fi work, she was a gamer, and she made little six-to-eight minute episodes for a first season. Xbox Live and Microsoft picked up the next season. They funded the series and put it out through their Xbox Live Channel. So there are all these varying degrees of web series.

Guillén: Thank you for that survey. That's quite helpful. But what about you? What are you trying to do with your web series? Are you hoping to monetize Zero Point? Are you hoping to open it out to a more developed assignment?

Bayne: We're platform agnostic at this point, mainly meaning—if Amazon or AMC came to our door, we would be like, "Yes! Thank you!" That's not going to happen. If a bit torrent or Vimeo wanted to get involved, or if we wanted to do it independently, then what we really want is to tell a great serialized story that hasn't been told. It started as 10-minute episodes, but then it grew into: "What do we want to make? We want to make TV. So why don't we just start there as opposed to making little 10-minute episodes? Let's go all in. Let's make a TV-length pilot. Then we'll start beating down doors." We have a number of scenarios we're playing with. We can go in this direction or that. The overarching incentive is we want to film a whole season. Our mantra has been: "If we can get the pilot made and it's good, one way or the other we can make the season."

Guillén: So, at this point, only the pilot's been shot?

Bayne: We've only shot the pilot, yes.

Guillén: Tell me a little bit about your experience at Independent Film Week. Were you looking for backers?

Bayne: Independent Film Week used to be the Independent Feature Film Market in New York and it has since morphed into this broader networking program for narrative filmmakers, documentarians, and writers. This year as part of their writing program, which is mainly scripts in development, they brought in a new web storytellers program. Zero Point was one of seven projects chosen for this program. They set us up with one-on-one meetings with producers and production companies, not so much distributors since—in their first year of this new program—they weren't fully dialed in to episodic content. Organizations like Sundance, the IFP, and others are just starting to get involved with episodic. Our meetings were intended to seek out potential partnerships and we're continuing to talk to some of the folks we met.

Guillén: So let's talk about the pilot, which will be premiering at SVFF. Thank you, first of all, for letting me have a sneak peek of the rough cut. I don't want to talk too much about the plot because I don't want to give anything away for those lucky enough to catch it at SVFF; but, I much enjoyed a visual stylism that I noticed again and again in your camerawork, which was of a scene commencing with a fuzzed out image being brought into focus. For me, this aligned perfectly with the narrative's thematic tone of a mystery being gradually revealed. How conscious was that? Is there a term for that in-camera technique?

Bayne: [Laughs.] It's probably just a "Greg treatment."

Guillén: You use that a lot?

Bayne: I do. Style develops over time, which you can see if you watch my movies. Mine's a weird balance because my style is striving to have no style. Part of that, honestly, is the result of the technicality of me shooting where I have a camera and I'm pulling focus. I don't have a trained focus puller so I'm doing it myself while I'm composing and doing everything else at once. It would be easy enough for me to edit all of that out, but I like it. It gives some life to the image. It also makes you aware of the camera, but not in an overly intrusive way. It also pulls your eye into the scene, literally focusing you in. So, yes, there is a bit of purpose behind it.

Lybrook: One of the things Greg and I talked a lot about, whether it was in the shooting—and Greg deserves all the credit for that—or the music, was a sense of intimacy with Embry and our characters. The style allows you to feel a little closer, because the camera work is raw.

Bayne: If you noticed, there's not any fancy 100-foot dolly shots in Point Zero. The camera work is simple. I much prefer hand-held. I don't want you to be distracted by that, but I like the frame to feel alive and immediate.

Guillén: Again, I feel it served what I saw because your female lead Embry was returning to the site of the incident, investigating, and exploring the vicinity, and the hand-held camera took you right alongside her. At one point the thought crossed my mind, "What kind of forensic experts did they have canvasing the scene of the accident who overlooked all this evidence?" But I enjoyed how you framed the action so we could discover clues along with Embry.

Let's talk about your lead actress Lisa King Hawkes who portrays your protagonist Dr. Alex Embry and who, interestingly enough, reminded me of Mireille Enos from The Killing. I think it's her red hair and the baseball cap. I was completely caught up in her fine performance. Can you tell me about her and how you found her?

Bayne: I was shooting a commercial for the Idaho wine industry with my friend Travis Swartz. I hadn't met Lisa yet. Originally, the role had been written for a male and Christian and I were debating about switching the gender. I have nothing but a roster of testosterone-driven movies and have been making male experience films for so long that I didn't want to do it anymore.  So we had been talking back and forth and were close to convinced to change the lead to a female. We thought it would open up the story in a better way. I was doing this commercial for the Idaho wine industry, which was in essence a comic spot; but, the way Travis writes, if you're doing the comedy right, you're not trying to be funny. The actors deliver it straight. Lisa was playing a river rafting guide who complains about how Idaho is only known for its wine. The bit was that we have potatoes, we have great rivers, we have all these wonderful attributes, but all anyone ever talks about is Idaho wine. Anyways, she's doing this spot as a river rafting guide and I was totally blown away. She had an amazing look, looked fantastic on camera....

Lybrook: Can I pick up the story? So I'm at work and I get this text from Greg and it's got a picture of his LCD screen on his camera and it's a picture of Lisa. I was like, "Why is he sending me pictures of random women?" Of course there was the message that said: "I think I've found our Embry." I was like, "Whatever, Greg, sure." But then he showed me some of her work and we had her come in and read.

Bayne: I started talking to her that day. I was so giddy. She seemed interested. We had her audition and cast her first and built the cast around her for the opening episode. Most of the actual season one cast is in the pilot, which was a strategic play on our part. We knew that was where we wanted to start the story but we hadn't tied ourselves into cast. Lisa's wonderful, absolutely remarkable. She's been here in Idaho for quite a while. She's a producer at Drake Cooper. We rehearsed and rehearsed. With everyone you work with, like me and Christian, you develop a shorthand. It felt nice that Lisa and I just got that right away. She really understood the character and where we were going with the story and she just devoted fully to the project and nailed it.

Guillén: I respect your decision to shift to a female lead character. With regard to narrative seriality, some of the best roles for women are being written on TV. The Killing, as we've mentioned. Top of the Lake. The Fall. Gillian Anderson's performance on The Fall is completely blowing me away. It's, perhaps, the most embodied, unfiltered female character driven by emotional damage that I've ever seen. What The Fall is saying about gender construction, gender presumption, borders on the subversive.

Lybrook: It's interesting because we've put the rough cut of the pilot out there among a trusted circle of peers and compatriots and every once in a while we hear, "Well, it's really good, I really like it, but Embry's not very likeable." That feels like a comment that would have been made 10-20 years ago. Greg had a good point: if this was a male lead, nobody would care if he was likeable or not. The audience would just go with it. That's telling.

Bayne: It's frustrating. Look at Breaking Bad. I can enjoy Walter White, but he's such an ass! Some of the things he does!

Guillén: I've long been interested in how co-directorships are negotiated. Who does what? Who's zooming who in this project?

Lybrook: I learn from others. It's a topic we spent a lot of time talking about. Cultivating our relationship and being sure to have all these conversations in advance because we both have a deep commitment to this project and we don't want something stupid to get in the way of it. When we're on set, Greg gets final word. But Greg knows that when we're there and he gets the look from me that I have something I want to pitch to him, he can either take it or drop it.

What I appreciate is that this is Greg's original concept. He happened to be talking to me about it and I said, "That's really cool. If you want any help, let me know." I was thinking I could help him write it or whatever. We didn't go into our collaboration with labels really. We just wanted to talk about the story and characters and invent this world. Greg came to me and said, "You're co-creator on this." It blew me away, honestly. He didn't have to do that. But what that means to me is that I'm a co-creator and need to share in discussion and decisions. He said I was absolutely right. Even on the smallest things, he'll check in with me or I'll check in with him.

Guillén: You wrote the script together?

Lybrook: Yes.

Bayne: Essentially, the delineation is that anything that has to do with story is a co-creation. We're defining the season together and writing the scripts together. On set, I'm directing. I'm the one talking to the actors. But if there's anything in the casting or rehearsals or even on set, Christian obviously has my ear and anything he says is not going to be dismissed. He is the co-author of this project. And though I shot it and I cut it, even in the editing he and I go back and forth. I'll cut something together, then we'll discuss it, and he'll say this or that, and I'll say, "Oh, you're right. Okay, let's cut that."

Lybrook: It works out pretty darn well because it's nice to have a second brain. Especially when things are so lean and we don't have the full crew we would like to have, it's really nice to have someone there to go, "Hey, did we want to do this?" It's helpful to have two brains that are both empowered to be loyal to the overall vision.

Bayne: Both of us have aesthetic viewpoints. I have a very strong aesthetic viewpoint and I discussed with Christian what that is and it was agreed upon. I'm given free rein.

Guillén: So you say you're dealing with the actors, are you also dealing with the camera work?

Bayne: Yes.

Guillén: Are you both dealing with the camera?

Lybrook: No.

Guillén: Well, what do you do?!

Lybrook: I just stand around. [Laughs.]

Bayne: We're both producing this so when we get on set the delineation is that I'm directing and he's producing. He's making sure everything's running and that we're getting everything we need, everything I said I would get, and going forth from there. I'm hoping that as we go forward I won't have to operate all the time. I love operating, but it'd be nice to switch off.

Guillén: Down the line, would you switch off directing?

Bayne: Yeah, we've actually talked about that. Eventually, probably, I will.

Lybrook: It's hard to do everything. There are very few people who write, shoot, direct, and edit; who do everything in theory. I really don't know anybody who does it.

Bayne: And I don't want to continue to do it all, so..... Let's say things went gangbusters and Zero Point did go to a network. The dream, obviously, is that we're the showrunners.

Guillén: Showrunners are the new auteurs, it seems. To finish up here and to loop back to your presence at Sun Valley, how are you feeling about that? Are you excited? What do you hope to get out of that experience? What kind of feedback might you expect?

Bayne: I'm very excited. I've never been. This is my first project where I've felt it's really getting out there. We submitted to Independent Film Week and we got in. We submitted to the Sun Valley Film Festival and we got in. It's nice to have a little wind straight out of the gate with it. When I think of film festivals, I just want to have a great screening, a good audience, hopefully good feedback. It will be interesting to get that audience reaction.

Lybrook: Especially because audiences at festivals aren't used to seeing serialized content.

Guillén: That's something unique that Sun Valley has done since its inception, is to honor web content. I hope you have a wonderful experience with your Sun Valley premiere and look forward to being a participant in your audience.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

THROWBACK THURSDAY—The Greencine Interview with Béla Tarr (The Man From London, 2007)

With The Man From London (2007), Béla Tarr creates what David Bordwell might characterize as a "grave and majestic" portrait of a conflicted man gripped by a state of scepsis. Tethered to the mundane, Maloin (Miroslav Krobot)—as Tarr describes him—"lives simply, without prospects, beside the infinite sea, takes little notice of the world around him, accepts his slow and inevitable deterioration of life and almost complete isolation. Gradually his contacts shrink and become mechanical." And then something remarkable happens. Maloin witnesses a murder and retrieves a valise of stolen money. "The temptation of a new life of a different quality takes hold over him." But it is exactly a new life configured as "temptation" that thrusts Maloin into moral rupture, a questioning of all with which he has held faith. As Darren Hughes has suggested to me in conversation, the suspense inherent in The Man From London is precisely a question of faith.

Premiering at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, The Man From London then docked on North American shores at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival where I was offered the chance to speak with Béla Tarr. A reputed contrarian, I found myself uncharacteristically nervous on my way to meet him. I didn't know what else to do but to be upfront about it. I admitted to him that I was terrified of him; that I had heard he chewed up journalists like me for lunch and spit them out. His piercing blue eyes twinkled, and he laughed, put his hand on my shoulder and, in a warm, honey-thick accented voice, assured me, "Don't worry."

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Michael Guillén: Béla, when I was a young kid, I was taught that it is in the performance of your everyday tasks that your radiance shines through. Your films demonstrate this repeatedly, specifically The Man From London. Can you talk about why revealing the eternal through the everyday is such an important theme for you?

Béla Tarr: I have to go back to the time when I did my first movie, which was about a social problem. In this re-creation, which was terribly concrete, I could find something that was a little bit more than the daily life. Since that moment 30 years ago, I have always been interested in the concrete situation; but, if it's too concrete, I'm really not interested. I've just always tried to find some cosmological significance in this micro situation. It's a kind of microcosmos. I like very much Bartók's "Mikrokosmos"; do you know this piece?

Guillén: Yes.

Tarr: That's all. For me it's always important to tell you something and show something which is really eternal; but it's always happening. It's happening with us now.

Guillén: It's intriguing to me that you would use that term "microcosmos" because the same person who taught me about radiance coming through the performance of everyday tasks likewise used the term "microcosmic-macrocosmic correspondence"—or as the Taoists would say, "As above; so below"—to describe the human relationship to the eternal.

Tarr: Yes.

Guillén: I've seen three of your films—Sátántangó (1994), Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), and now The Man From London, which I've found to be the most accessible of the three. In all three, I'm struck not only by the movement of your camera but the movement of your actors and how your camera tracks their ambulations. There are long tracking shots where the actors walk some distance—distances they're familiar with—and with which the audience becomes familiar, as if becoming accustomed to the everyday routes and routines of your characters. Route equals routine, in other words, and how the route varies signifies a change in routine. Further, this abstraction is compounded by the fact that the faces of your characters are nearly void of affect. They reveal little. Which serves to emphasize that underneath there is a lot of thought and emotion going on, a lot of internalization. It seems you try to remedy this through close-ups on the face whereby glimpses are shown of the internal activity, invariably through the eyes. You do this rather than having them act out anything that reveals what's within. Why do you take that taciturn approach?

Tarr: That's really a part of the practical work. I know two kinds of directors. One who reads the script and is concentrating on the story line. That is something I never do. I'm always listening for the characters and the personalities of the actors. For me, the most important thing is to show you how they are living, how it goes for them in their real life, and how they communicate. Normally, it's mostly eye contact. If you watch someone's eyes for a long time, it's not necessary to use any words because you will begin to understand and will see what is happening. You can see what is happening inside because his or her eyes will tell you and show you. That's why I trust my actors and trust, of course, the situation because the situation has to be perfect physically, psychologically. At every point the situation has to be perfect and comfortable because, in this case, the actors are not acting anymore; they are just being. You can see the real life and you can see the real personality of this actor or the character. You can go with them. It's not necessary to tell and tell and tell. I'm fed up with this whole narrative thing because the movie—you know what?—without the narrative, the movie has a chance; you can show something. It's not necessary to tell. Do you remember the end take of the Werckmeister Harmonies? When the old man goes to the eye of the whale?

Guillén: Yes.

Tarr: Nobody can ever tell you by words what is happening in this old man and in this sad eye of the whale. But I can show you and that's enough. I trust your eyes and I trust your heart and I trust your emotions. I really trust the audience.

Guillén: Speaking of what's said with the eyes, in The Man From London there were two scenes that brought my heart to my throat. The first was when Maloin comes to take his daughter Henriette (Erika Bók) away from her abusive employer, the butcher's wife. Her anger, registered through her eyes, could have stopped a clock! Who is that actress and how did you come to cast her?

Tarr: She's Kati Lázár. I've worked with her before in Werckmeister Harmonies. She was in the newspaper office and the post office. She played the woman who selected the newspapers. She's an actress in Hungary working mostly in the theater; but, I like her very much.

Guillén: The other scene I loved was when Mrs. Brown (Ági Szirtes) realizes that her husband—"The Man From London"—has been caught up in something more than she can cope with. I don't know how you did it, maybe it's the sheer magic of the camera, but her tear as it wells in the corner of her eye glitters and sparkles. It is so beautiful and moving.

Tarr: I told her, "You have to do this process." From when she gets the news to when she understands how she's been blackmailed. How they are pushing her. That was also important. One thing is sure, we are really doing movies about human dignity, which is always being destroyed throughout the day. The challenge becomes finding actors who can show you the dignity of the character. In such a situation, you can get real human reactions. That's terribly important for me; that my actors have a strong dignity.

Guillén: There's a genuine momentum to your actors. Their actions don't appear staged. They seem to come right out of the situations they're in, from the storyline.

Tarr: From the situation, not the storyline. We never talk about the story because it's not important. We just talk about the real situation, the physical situation.

Guillén: In this situation then, where you're adapting a novel, which has its own narrative integrity, how do you work with your actors? Do you single out specific scenes or situations that have a psychological validity for their characters?

Tarr: No, no. The script is written. László Krasznahorkai and I decide together how we want the script. I've worked with him for 25 years. Before filming, we decide what kind of situations are going to be in the movie and we write that down. On the other hand, we change things during the shooting. Several times we reduce the text, allowing more chance for the meta-communications than the verbal communication. It's absolutely necessary because several times the actors speak different languages. For example, Maloin was Czech, Tilda Swinton was Scottish, the daughter in the movie, she's Hungarian. You know, she was the small girl from Sátántangó? Now she's 22. I'm very faithful. I like to work with the same people.

Guillén: I imagine they understand what you're going for better?

Tarr: Yes, it's much easier. I don't talk too much during shooting. Maybe just something like, "Louder. Lower. Faster. Slower." That's enough. Because if you have the right cast, if you have the right situation physically and psychologically, and if they are able to be, it is not necessary to direct. I'm not directing. It just looks like a conductor. If you have good musicians and a good musical piece, if you trust the whole staff, then in this case you just say, "Okay, now." That's enough.

Guillén: Part of the artistry of your work, however, is that you have fully thought things out way ahead of shooting. You arrive to the set prepared. The sinuosity of your camera, your track shots, are amazing and require prolonged choreography. How do you set up that choreography? What's your relationship with your camera man? Do you try different things out?

Tarr: No, no. First of all, you have to know I'm terribly autocratic. I have a very strong imagination about the picture and I know very well the whole movie before we start to build the set. They build the set for what I have imagined. When I hunted for the location, it was very important for me to find the geographical conditions for what I imagined. When I found the place, then we could start to build the signal cage and put in the train tracks and the train and the boat. We put everything together and then afterwards it was very easy to build the track for the camera and it was ready.

Guillén: What is it about the long take that you love so much? You're famous for this and your long takes are sinuously eloquent. Why do long takes serve your vision?

Tarr: There are several reasons. First of all, the long take has a different tension. If you are shooting short takes your actors have a chance to escape. Short takes are terribly boring for me.

Guillén: It becomes more editing than filming?

Tarr: No, no, it's just boring. I don't feel I'm creating something. With long takes, you build together the actors and the situation and the camera movement. Building step by step is what I enjoy very much. Here is the first thing, and then you move from here, and this is the turning point, and then here comes a close-up, and then in the next moment we open the picture wide to the landscape, and then another close-up cutting this wide picture, then we move further, and finally, we will arrive to the entry. It has to be very well-composed. The technicians have to be very well-trained. Everything has to work together in a long shot. This is a special tension for the technicians, the camera crew, the actors. The actors have no chance to leave because we are watching their eyes. We are watching longer and longer and longer. That's why everybody is really under pressure. That's why you can watch something finally; what you cannot see if we do the movie in a different way, or the traditional way.

Guillén: I found it incredibly suspenseful when Inspector Morrison (István Lénárt) is deducing what's happened, replicating the actions of the opening murder sequence, which is being filmed with the same camera movements as the opening sequence. However, there's this added layer of the audience (as Maloin) watching Morrison figure it all out. When Morrison goes down to the dock, looks in the water, and then looks back up at Maloin's signal cage, you know he's got it and that Maloin (and you as the audience) have become incriminated.

Tarr: It's a similar shot but it's not the same shot.

Guillén: Can we talk about your score? The music for your movie? You have a hypnotic accordion that keeps playing the same melody throughout the film. It's as if you're purposely mesmerizing your audience through a prolonged contemplation. Would you consider your films to be contemplative cinema?

[Tarr grimaces.]

In the press notes you use the term "pure cinema."

Tarr: Yes.

Guillén: Can you explain what you mean by "pure cinema"? And would pure cinema be comparable to contemplative cinema?

Tarr: [A deep, patient breath.] I'm able to tell you only one thing. What we are trying to do is more and more and more pure cinema, which is maybe less and less and less story, less and less details, and of course, I really would like to go deeper and deeper and deeper in the human soul. I want to understand something because I'm always just discovering, discovering, discovering something, some new thing, some new possibilities in the film language. Of course, I keep some things but I'm always finding new things I can use. I really like to listen to people. I don't like the artificial anymore. I want to go in like a miner, deeper and deeper. That's what I think. That's why I think I can do it always in one way if I'm more and more simple. What we are doing, it's really on the edge. It's a risk.

Guillén: Returning to your music if we may. Most scores in films are manipulative. They signal what the audience is supposed to feel. Your music, however, is not manipulative.

Tarr: It's a part of the movie.

Guillén: It sets a tone of attention. It says, "This is where you mind has to come to in order to absorb the images that are on their way." How did you decide on the music?

Tarr: It's a very simple step. I've been working with the composer Mihály Vig since 1983, about 24 years. He's a poet and a rock musician. He's also writing something. He's a very energetic man. He's a part of my family. We are always together when we are working. Before the shooting, I tell him what we think about the movie, how we believe, and I ask him to do some music. He goes to his studio, he records something, and then he comes back to me with his disk. We listen, we choose, we discuss. Maybe he goes back, maybe several times he goes back to the studio to change something. Maybe he just changes an instrument and then he comes back. Afterwards, the music is ready and we use the music during the shooting.

Guillén: So the actors are actually listening to the music while you're shooting?

Tarr: Yes. The actors are listening, the camera crew is listening. When we watch this stupid, small monitor, we see immediately the movie. We know how it will be. There will be differences of course, because some of the actors will have to be dubbed in; but mostly, the whole staff is ready during the shooting. The post-production is a short period of time. When we finish the movie, it's ready. We cannot change anything on the editing table. We use the editing table only for a few days.

Guillén: I don't know how you'd be able to edit some of your long shots.

Tarr: No, no. We just put it together. That's why I have to know, and everybody has to know, how is the whole movie going to be? We have to know, okay, this take is going to finish in a white out and how will the next one connect and how will we do the lighting?

Guillén: The lighting in The Man From London is phenomenal; the term being commonly used is "noirish." I especially liked how you lit the night scenes with the buildings in the background illuminated from ground level. Is your lighting designer, Fred Kelemen, another individual in your production ensemble with whom you've been working with for years?

Tarr: The director of photography, the gaffer and me, this is our job. I have a strong imagination and we are always discussing the lighting. It has to be perfect.

Guillén: It's lustrous! You've perfectly captured night's luster. Throughout the film you fade to black-outs and yet you make the choice in the ending close-up shot of Mrs. Brown's face to fade to white. Why that choice to fade to white?

Tarr: Because while I was shooting her face, I noticed her face was getting whiter and whiter. So we put the lamps a little bit closer to her face and a little brighter and then finally we did it in total white.

Guillén: Not having read Georges Simenon's novel upon which The Man From London is based, I don't know whether the scene where Maloin takes the food to Mr. Brown is as it was written. Was it your choice not to show us what happens?

Tarr: Something has to happen but you don't know what, yes.

Guillén: Why that exclusion? Why not show us?

Tarr: Because I think it's much more powerful if you don't see. I'm really not an action director. I really don't know. If I tried to direct action, I would become ridiculous. What we wanted to show you was how he went into the shed and then how he comes out. The difference is what is totally important. Afterwards you can understand why he confesses.

Guillén: What I was trying to say earlier about how your characters move in your films—they carry the burden of their own truths. The gravitas is embodied. They don't have to show it all in their faces. Their bodies express the weight of who they are. This is particularly evident in Maloin's body language when he emerges from the shed. He's a different person for what has happened in there. You don't necessarily have to see what happened to know its effect.

My final question: Your casting of Tilda Swinton as Maloin's wife. How did that come about?

Tarr: She immediately said yes when I called her.

Guillén: Was it her face you wanted?

Tarr: Yes, her eyes. Her personality. I must say that, for me, she's not a Hollywood actress. You know she was working with Derek Jarman, she played Orlando, she did some serious acting in Europe, and for Europeans, she's not just somebody from Hollywood. She's really a European intellectual. She's a very clever, well-educated, intelligent woman who is full of sensibility and that's why it was totally natural to work with her. There was no question. It was really nice to work with her and we still love each other. This work couldn't destroy our relationship.

Guillén: You really helped me focus on just how beautiful and unique her face is through this movie. Well, Béla, they're signaling me to stop. This has been one of the highlights of my filmwriting career. Thank you so much for your time, your kindness, and your beautiful film. I hope it's received with an open heart and an open mind.

Tarr: I hope so too. That's important. Thanks a lot.

(Originally published on the Greencine website, February 3, 2008.)