INTERVIEW: Brett Haley, co-writer and director of “I’ll See You In My Dreams”

12 06 2015

The University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) has produced many a successful alumni from its film program: David Gordon Green, Jeff Nichols, Craig Zobel … and now, Brett Haley.  In the decade since his graduation in 2005, Haley’s had quite the wild ride – making short films, working as assistant to an established director, and cobbling together a debut feature on a few thousand.  Now, he’s garnering serious mainstream attention for his second film, “I’ll See You In My Dreams.”

The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it found warm audience support as well as a distributor, the upstart new label Bleecker Street.  Prior to its May 15 release, the film hit the regional festival circuit hard; I got the chance to speak to Haley prior to a very special screening at his alma mater back in April.


Brett Haley (center)

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INTERVIEW: Actress Vanessa Hudgens, director Ronald Krauss, and the real Kathy DiFiore of “Gimme Shelter”

23 01 2014

20140122-085721.jpgI came into my roundtable interview armed with questions for Vanessa Hudgens about the evolution of her career, specifically the potentially unconscious links I noticed between her upcoming “Gimme Shelter” and “Spring Breakers.”

It’s potentially a bit of stretch, but “Gimme Shelter” offers a very different angle on pregnancy than you would get from watching MTV’s “16 & Pregnant.”  And “Spring Breakers,” though it has been widely misinterpreted as condoning the behavior it shows, exposes a darker underbelly to the “Girls Gone Wild” culture of hedonism.

Choosing both these roles would be bold for any actress.  It’s a particularly surprising turn, though, for Hudgens.  She gained notoriety through the same sort of mass cultural industry mechanics that these films react against, although at least her Disney products didn’t label themselves as “non-fiction.”

It’s the truth – not this fabricated reality – that she aims for in “Gimme Shelter,” and she’s aided in this quest by the help of director Ronald Krauss and the film’s inspiration, Kathy DiFiore.  The movie tells the story of a pregnant teenage girl (an amalgamation of real women) who enters a shelter after being largely spurned by her absent father, now a rich Wall Street trader.  My opinions on the film notwithstanding, it was undeniably sobering and powerful to hear Hudgens, Krauss, and DiFiore talk about how these women on the fringes of their society have changed their lives.

Vanessa Hudgens in Gimme ShelterSo powerful, in fact, that I (and I suspect the other journalists in the room as well) felt that it would simply be inappropriate to ask questions of Vanessa Hudgens that didn’t relate to the women of DiFiore’s Several Sources Shelters.  There was a sense of weightiness and importance that came with DiFiore being in the room that put to rest any chance that I was going to dare bring up “Spring Breakers.”  (DiFiore admitted she didn’t know who Hudgens was prior to filming.)

Heck, Hudgens herself seemed to realize that she should not be the big story of “Gimme Shelter.”  She is an important vessel to bring their stories to audiences who might not otherwise hear them; Krauss called the film “hands to uplift people.”  And indeed, she hardly made a peep during our session, mostly doodling a notepad in front of her.

She did divulge that in order to secure the character of Apple, she sent Krauss an email stating “I’d love to be the Apple of your eye.”  Hudgens was the only professional actress that Krauss considered for the film, and she managed to win the part in spite of her stardom, not because of it.  DiFiore and the girls of the shelter unanimously decided that Hudgens was the best, capturing the reality of their lives as opposed to typical Hollywood “transparent” actors, as Krauss deemed them.

Hudgens in Gimme ShelterWhat’s even more impressive is that when casting was underway on “Gimme Shelter,” DiFiore was recovering from brain surgery.  She has been fighting brain cancer for over two decades and goes in for chemotherapy every three weeks.  I was struck by her unshakable faith and complete lack of fear in the face of death.  “I live with death every day, so being a good person comes easy,” said DiFiore.

After Hudgens left to go to another interview, DiFiore stayed behind in the room to further elaborate on her mission through Several Sources Shelters.  When she opened up to talk about herself and not the movie, DiFiore’s incredible compassion becomes readily apparent.  She radiates an unflappable confidence that just makes you want to be a better person.  “I’ll find out when I go to heaven,” she stated without an iota of doubt, “but I think [Mother Teresa] is the patron saint of this movie.”

The shelter was only able to operate legally in New Jersey thanks to Mother Teresa’s help.  Quite literally an answered prayer, the Catholic icon threw her support behind the state’s DiFiore bill that would allow charities to run a boarding house.  The whole saga as narrated by DiFiore sounds like another compelling movie in and of itself, but it’s unlikely that you’ll see the story coming to a theater near you.  She’s far too humble to take center stage.

“Gimme Shelter” is the first bit of publicity that Several Sources Shelters has received in over 30 years, and DiFiore was very reluctant to let Krauss make it.  She only agreed so long as the focus would be on her work and not on her personally.  DiFiore has earned a fan and admirer in me, that much is certain.

To learn more about the real Kathy DiFiore and her Several Sources Shelters, please click the image below to be taken to the official website.


INTERVIEW: Lake Bell, producer, director, writer, and star of “In A World”

23 08 2013

Lake Bell in IN A WORLD“I like words, I’m very fond of them,” began Lake Bell.

It was easy to tell that her opening statement was no lie because Bell had no shortage of words in the 30 minutes I got to spend in a roundtable discussion with her.  Despite having landed in Houston at 3:00 AM that morning and then getting up to do morning shows at the crack of dawn, she was as sharp and clever as her debut feature film, “In A World.”  Bell proved herself to be quite the jack of all trades on the movie, serving as its writer, director, producer, and star.  And in case you were wondering if she spread herself too thin, here’s an excerpt from my review of the film:

“As a feature debut for Bell (who I only knew from her supporting turns in ‘It’s Complicated‘ and ‘No Strings Attached‘), the film is certainly promising for many great things to come.  She makes no major missteps in her finely-tuned comedy.

And if writing and directing wasn’t enough, Bell goes full Woody Allen and stars in the film too […] ‘In A World,’ despite being just over 90 minutes, manages to squeeze in more than just Carol’s story as well.  Not unlike ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’ (though without all the philosophical and existential postulating), Bell involves us in the lives of Carol’s friends and family along the journey.”

In just the brief amount of time I got to spend talking with Bell, she was able to talk not only about the basics of “In A World” but also about some of the deeper thematic and feminist underpinnings of the film.  If you watch the film and wonder if it means to sound intelligent, I can tell you with confidence that it is.  Lake Bell is a very smart writer with a lot to say about women in cinema and all other professional fields.  She’s reluctant to turn herself into an activist, however, prefacing one of her most profound remarks with “not to get on my soapbox…”

In A WorldBell was willing, though, to call out girls suffering from what she calls the “sexy baby vocal virus,” a second wave of Valley Girl-itis.  The element, now sutured into the fabric of the film, did not come into the script until later drafts.  But according to Bell, “The sexy baby vocal virus was something that I personally had been preaching to my friends about, and then I had a friend that said, ‘I don’t know why you don’t have that in the script.  It should be your protagonist’s plight.’”

To Bell, it’s more than just an annoyance.  After studying voice in school, she knows it is merely an affection.  By putting on this voice, they are also stripping away a sense of feminine empowerment.  “I felt like, as a woman,” she said, “it was evoking this feeling that women are less than, that people don’t believe in themselves.”

The good news, Bell shared, is that the “sexy baby vocal virus” can be beaten.  These women can choose to sound like Lauren Bacall, Faye Dunaway, Anne Bancroft, or Charlotte Rampling, Bell’s vocal role models.  It just requires a lot of self-awareness and determination to stop, not unlike when Bell decided she did not want to say like every other word.

The feminist critique goes far beyond this memorable addition to the plot, however.  Bell’s film takes a look at competition in the voice-over industry and the difficulties women face when trying to enter it.  Granted, movie trailers were dominated by one man for so long, the golden voiced Don LaFontaine.  According to Bell, LaFontaine’s estate owns the phrase in a world, but the royalty payments aren’t the reason why it’s fallen out of use.

“It’s considered archaic now,” she reamrked, “it’s considered outdated.  Which is why in the movie, that it being resurrected, they’ve decided to make it a thing … is kind of a fantasy for me because I want them to bring it back.  But it’s not as trendy to do it now.”

(And if you’re curious, Bell pointed out that there is only one movie trailer with female voice-over: Melissa Disney narrating the “Gone in 60 Seconds” trailer.)

Though it might seem that Bell’s own experiences trying to break into the business would provide the framework for “In A World,” the foundation was laid much earlier for her when she was a young girl at her father’s racetrack.  As she put it,

“I was always around cars, he was always racing, I was always around the track since I was a little girl – another male dominated world that’s super cutthroat.  And lots of egos swinging around, lots of colorful characters, and if anything I used my father’s interactions with people on the sidelines of the racetrack for the voice-over industry when I later wrote this movie.”

Lake Bell“In A World” came about, though, much further down the road after a few hard knocks and some serious discussion:

“From my own experience, even just in organic conversations, I remember just thinking about the words ‘in a world…’ and how fun it was.  And then the conversation went to, ‘gosh, isn’t it strange that women have never done that?’

And then the conversation blossomed into that of something a little more serious, the sort of feminist issue at bay – an omniscient voice, an authoritative voice, is almost never female.  And why is that?  And perhaps it’s just ‘oh, people are just used to the male voice, that’s just how it is.’  Well, I don’t know if that’s quite good enough.

I think it’s strange when you have female-dominated content, addressed to women, and there’s still a male selling it to you.  Especially in the movie trailer.”

Bell admits that at least tampon commercials seem to get it right with a female voice selling you the product.  But she believes that the “fear-based” movie industry is too timid to shake up the system and employ women’s voices in trailers.  She makes a reasonable argument: “If it’s a chick flick, you’re already going for the female audience […] why not have a female authoritative voice to go see the movie?”

Through no fault of Bell’s, “In A World” is being released into a climate where women’s stories are still undervalued by major Hollywood studios.  This summer, two full years after “Bridesmaids” and “The Help” were box office smashes, there was just one movie with a female protagonist: “The Heat.”  Bell said that she loved the Bullock-McCarthy buddy comedy, admitting “[‘In a World’] is nice to be next to ‘The Heat’ where there is a dearth of female-driven movies.”

Asking her about “The Heat” opened up another conversation, perhaps her most profound statement of the day.  Bell pointed out that there’s a vast double standard in the way that our society looks at films based on the gender of their protagonists.  (Yes, this was the aforementioned “soapbox” moment.)

“The word rom-com has become such a negative stamp only because even though I love a great rom-com, when it’s a female-driven movie, it’s often immediately stamped as a rom-com.  While it’s not technically a love story, it’s a comedy that has family drama and family fodder.  And there’s romance and there’s all kinds of industry competitiveness and ego bashing.

Gosh, I hate to get on my soapbox – but if it’s male-dominated and has to do with marriage and relationships and love, it’s never called a romantic comedy.  Like ‘Wedding Crashers’ is LITERALLY about weddings and people getting together.  If it were a female-driven movie, it would be considered a rom-com.  Because it’s a male-dominated movie, it’s a BUDDY comedy!”

Lake Bell as Carol SolomonSo after taking a powerful stand for women on film, what’s next for Bell?

She’s currently at work on her next feature called “What’s The Point?”  When I asked her if she could share anything, she replied, “I can’t really speak to ‘What’s The Point?’ because it’s so embryonic at this point and I think it would be doing it a disservice if I speak too much about it.  But I’ve been working on it for a year intermittently and I continue to do so.”  After my time with Lake Bell, I certainly look forward to seeing her further explore and develop her voice.  She has meaningful things to say; someone needs to give her a louder microphone.

INTERVIEW: Kevin Renick

27 01 2010

If you have read this blog with any sort of frequency over the past month, you will undoubtedly know that I have something resembling an obsession with the movie “Up in the Air.”  So when I found out that Kevin Renick, the singer of the film’s titular song, had discovered my blog and posted a link on his website to me, saying “lots and lots about UP IN THE AIR can be found at this info site,” I was ecstatic.

I perused around his site and found an e-mail address for the singer.  An idea pulsed through my head: why not humbly ask for an interview?  Much to my surprise, Renick happily agreed.  He couldn’t have been more kind throughout the process, offering to conduct the interview in whatever manner was easiest for me.  We opted for e-mail because it allowed more time for thoughtful and more eloquent answers.

We talked plenty about “Up in the Air” – the movie and his song – and also about what lies ahead for him in the music industry.  Renick’s words were incredibly profound.  Despite the spotlight that has been shined on him from this burst of fame, he remains wholeheartedly humble.  For those who do not know Renick’s story, he gave a demo tape of his song to Jason Reitman at a lecture.  The director loved the song enough to include it in the movie “Up in the Air.”  According to Renick, “Jason liked the ‘D.I.Y. aesthetic’ of my song….[and he stated that] it gave an “authentic voice” to all the people in the U.S. who’ve lost their job and their direction.”

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