INTERVIEW: Chad Hartigan, writer/director of “Morris from America”

21 08 2016

In case you haven’t noticed from talented actors committing major blunders or fouls in an interview, the press process is long and grueling. I’ve sat at many a roundtable where journalists ask the most basic questions that were probably answered in the press kit (that the same interviewer probably chose not to read). In many ways, I almost cannot even blame talented filmmakers for getting frustrated right off the bat when beginning an interview.

That’s not what happened when I sat down with Chad Hartigan, writer/director of “Morris from America” – in case you thought that’s where my lede was heading. Quite the contrary, actually. He had a level of respect for my questions due in large part to the fact that he himself spent many years doing writing about film himself on the site In Contention. Hartigan was also just three hours removed from the rapturous premiere of his latest film in front of the largest auditorium at the Sundance Film Festival, which didn’t hurt either.

But search “In Contention” here on my site, and you’ll see just how formative that site was for my opinions and writing style in the early days of Marshall and the Movies. Hartigan served as their box office writer, a hat he wore on the side while pursuing filmmaking. We got to talking about both sides of his persona and how they didn’t really collide in “Morris from America,” a sincere and hilarious coming-of-age comedy about a black teenager (Markees Christmas’ Morris) and his widowed father (Craig Robinson’s Curtis) trying to acculturate in a small German town.

Chad Hartigan Sundance Award

Read the rest of this entry »

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INTERVIEW: Actors Tyler Hoechlin, Ryan Guzman and Blake Jenner of “Everybody Wants Some!!”

22 04 2016

I should have known to just throw out all my pre-prepared questions when I walked into the interview suite to the sight of Everybody Wants Some stars Tyler Hoechlin, Ryan Guzman and Blake Jenner in a full-on body pile on top of the film’s executive producer, Steven Feder. The ten minutes with the actors that followed were among the wackiest, zaniest and most unpredictable I ever expect to have with talent – and I loved every moment of it.

Not that I ever doubted the authenticity of the team-building fostered by director Richard Linklater, but it was abundantly clear after this interview that there was no fakery up on screen. They banter about like siblings but with little of the rivalry and power jostling that normally comes about in such a relationship. As I quickly learned, Jenner’s status playing the film’s protagonist, freshman pitcher Jake Bradford, made him no more or less valuable than older or more experienced actors like Hoechlin and Guzman, who respectively play senior hotshots McReynolds and Roper.

Chalk it up to me being the last person at the end of the press day, or perhaps because my standing as a 23-year-old guy just out of college himself made me a closer demographic match to a peer than most journalists grilling them, but the traditional model of interviewer/subject transaction seemed to fly out the window. I did my research prior to our sit-down yet never found any examples of the guys seemingly so loose and unfiltered. The conversation started off about Texas (since we were in Houston, Linklater’s birthplace) and wound up in tangents of good-natured barbs, obscure pop culture references and the occasional song lyric. So just like any other gathering of multiple twenty-something dudes, in other words.

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I’m sure you’ve heard this all along the press tour, but Everybody Wants Some really could be anyone’s college experience anywhere. But as a native Texan, it struck me as being very specific and accurate about this state. When you all were developing the characters and the atmosphere with Richard Linklater, did he want them to be true to Texas?

TYLER HOECHLIN

I don’t remember that being a thing because I don’t know if I even thought about that. I thought of my guy being an out-of-state guy, to be honest.

RYAN GUZMAN

I thought of my guy being a Texas guy.

TYLER HOECHLIN

But it never weighed on the film. We never talked about, “This guy’s from this part of Texas.” Maybe he did with certain guys in particular.

RYAN GUZMAN

Like Bueter [the nickname for Will Brittain’s character, Billy Autrey], for instance. He might have talked to him about that.

TYLER HOECHLIN

But it wasn’t something where we all sat down individually and said, “This part of Texas is you.”

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RYAN GUZMAN

But we love Texas.

BLAKE JENNER [after a beat]

Texas Am I.

[Hoechlin and Guzman erupt in laughter]

TYLER HOECHLIN

What was that?

BLAKE JENNER

I am Texas, Texas am I.  You’ve never heard that saying?

TYLER HOECHLIN

No, not at all.

BLAKE JENNER

I guess I’m just spiritually older than you guys.

[Interviewer’s note: I’ve never heard this phrase in over two decades living in the state of Texas. The Internet was not helpful, either. Sorry, Blake.]

What did you take away about Texas, either from playing your character or just from shooting the movie here?

RYAN GUZMAN (with a put-on drawl)

Y’all got some pretty ladies out here. I do like it.

BLAKE JENNER

You guys have some great, great Mexican food. I’d never had breakfast tacos before. I got to go to ACL and see Eminem, which was really cool. I really enjoyed that experience.

RYAN GUZMAN (overlapping)

Really good music out here.

BLAKE JENNER

I was living on Elizabeth and South Congress, which was a nice spot to check out some art shops and bookshops. I just like the culture you got out here.

RYAN GUZMAN

Hell yeah.

TYLER HOECHLIN

I really like the feeling of originality in Austin that’s really just kind of its own thing. The music scene, the art scene – it is its own special place.

RYAN GUZMAN

I had planned to go back to where I was actually born, but it was like six hours away from Austin.

BLAKE JENNER

ROAD TRIP!!!

That’s the thing people don’t realize about Texas – other people say “the next town over” and for us, that’s six hours away.

RYAN GUZMAN

Yeah.

BLAKE JENNER

Oh, and the barbecue. I went to Salt Lick, and it’s the most incredible barbecue I’ve ever had in my life.

I know the working title for the movie was That’s What I’m Talking About, which I didn’t think much of until I saw the movie again and noticed how many times you all said the phrase. Literally, I think every character had at least one moment where they said it. If you’re allowed, can you elaborate a little on what “that’s what I’m talking about” means to the movie?

TYLER HOECHLIN (looking over to studio personnel)

Are we allowed to talk about that?

BLAKE JENNER

Now that it’s not the title, it’s just slang. It’s common language between them.

RYAN GUZMAN

I think it started becoming ingrained in us. Like we would just spout off, “that’s what I’m talking about,” without even realizing we were saying the title.

TYLER HOECHLIN

I don’t know what more we’re allowed to say.

BLAKE JENNER (curling up, in a soft voice that slowly takes on a German accent)

They beat us. They beat us. They beat us. We don’t talk about it.

TYLER HOECHLIN (as Guzman joins in on the “They beat us”)

You can ask the next one, they’ll just keep going.

[Interviewer’s note: A source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, later added: “It was a VERY popular phrase, but it was also used in Dazed and Confused. It was a phrase one of the characters in Dazed and Confused used a lot. So there was a tie-in to that. But part of it was like, oh, they say it so much that to name the movie after it would be a cliché. Rick liked the idea of a song, like Dazed, as the title.”]

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Watching the film again last night, I was struck by how much more endearing these guys in 1980 are than your average 2016 bro, even though the characters in the movie are probably a little bit more crude and open about how they feel about women. Have you brought anything back from the period to be a little more … chivalrous? [Interviewer’s note: was reaching for a different adjective and the wrong one came out – was aiming for something more in the ballpark of genial or sociable.]

TYLER HOECHLIN

Chivalrous? From these guys?

RYAN GUZMAN

I have never actually thought of those two things together, chivalry and this movie.

TYLER HOECHLIN

No, I can’t say I took anything from McReynolds on chivalry.

RYAN GUZMAN

Yeah, definitely not Roper for sure.

BLAKE JENNER

Maybe just like a little piece of knowledge we took back from into present day?

RYAN GUZMAN

Well, you know what, living in the moment. I think we can all agree on that…

BLAKE JENNER

Yeah, that’s what I was going to say. I just didn’t want to be the first one to say it.

Living in the moment for sure. Everything was so disconnected in the best way back then. You were with your boys, and those were the only people you were with. There were no cell phones, no Facebook, no Twitter, so this movie is a cool message to live in the now.

RYAN GUZMAN

You actually had a reason when you were together to talk about your lives rather than just tweet about everything or Snapchat everything.

BLAKE JENNER

That’s all we do now, we talk about SisQó.

RYAN GUZMAN

Where did he go?

BLAKE JENNER

Where did SisQó go?

RYAN GUZMAN

Look up his Snapchat.

BLAKE JENNER [singing lyrics fromSisQó’s “The Thong Song”]

I like it when the beat goes / baby make your booty go!

Everybody-Wants-Some-Blake-Jenner

Blake, that final creeping grin on Jake’s face in the film reminded me so much of the face Mason makes in the last shot of Boyhood.

BLAKE JENNER

The birth of a psychopath…

Was that coincidence or was it written into the script?

BLAKE JENNER

No, that was actually written into the script! I just didn’t want to make it a gimmicky kind of thing or, like, “This is the checkpoint at the end of the movie!” It feels pretty natural the way we shot it, me, Temple [Baker, who plays fellow freshman teammate Tyrone Plummer] and Rick that day. But yeah, that was part of it the whole time.

The movie is so much about living in the moment and embracing the joy of the present, but were you ever thinking about what happens to your characters after the movie ends? Like, is McReynolds going pro, is Jake planning to hone in on a single girl and a single identity?

TYLER HOECHLIN

We’ve thought about it recently because we’re trying to figure out how to convince Rick to do a sequel.

BLAKE JENNER

Or a mini-series. Any series.

RYAN GUZMAN

At the time, we were talking about this whole “Mac & Cheese” thing (an affectionate power couple name for the bromance between the two characters played by Hoechlin and Guzman) for a little bit.

TYLER HOECHLIN

We decided, as character research, we were just actually going to move in together. So Ryan and I actually live together now. So, yeah, we’re researching for “The Mac & Cheese Show.”

RYAN GUZMAN

He says “living together,” but he just orders me around. And I just clean the house.

TYLER HOECHLIN

It’s not my fault you let it happen.

BLAKE JENNER

You’re like the robot maid in the Jetsons.

RYAN GUZMAN

Yeah, I don’t know why I wear a bustier.

BLAKE JENNER

What’s her name, Rosie? Is that the maid?

TYLER HOECHLIN

You’re Rosie Jetson.

RYAN GUZMAN

I’m Rosie Jetson. Cool. That’s what I planned to be when I came out to L.A. [in a soft, hokey aspirational voice] “What do you want to be? I want to be a Rosie Jetson! A star.”

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Whatever it takes to make the dream work!

RYAN GUZMAN

I’ve heard worse.

BLAKE JENNER

With Jake, I think he’d get to know Beverly a little more and maybe make his mark over the next couple of years on the team. Do his best to become a leader like McReynolds and Finn and all those guys.

RYAN GUZMAN (put out)

And Roper, I guess.

BLAKE JENNER

No, Roper is going to jail. Roper is being imprisoned.

RYAN GUZMAN

Yeah, me and Jay Niles and Coma. All for different reasons.

BLAKE JENNER

Coma for public intoxication.

RYAN GUZMAN

Mine’s for a prostitution ring.

BLAKE JENNER

And Jay Niles flipped out at a mall. He was working at a kiosk. “TOO PHILOSOPHICAL FOR THIS KIOSK, MAN!”

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I’ve heard you all talk a little bit about the casting process and how you each auditioned for multiple parts, and I think it’s interesting the way the cast came together with some of the older, more experienced guys getting the upperclassmen parts and the younger guys along with the fresher faces playing the freshmen. Beyond how it provides some degree of realism on screen, do you think that the characters’ place mirroring the actors’ place helped the bonding process off screen, too?

TYLER HOECHLIN

I don’t think anybody’s history ever came in.

RYAN GUZMAN

Yeah, it was more so just getting together and figuring out how to work this thing out. From day one, we all turned into brothers. There were certain things like, “How was Jennifer Lopez’s butt?” That was one of the first questions. But nothing from our history came into play.

TYLER HOECHLIN

I remember walking into the production office, and I had no idea who had been cast yet. I saw, I think it was Juston [Street] and Austin [Amelio] were there, maybe one or two other people. They didn’t say we were going to meet the cast; they didn’t say anything. So I showed up and met them, and it took me a minute to go, “Oh, ok, I had no idea you were too!” We just got to know each other from a base normal level and just became a team.

RYAN GUZMAN

It was instant love the first second I saw Blake Jenner…

Blake Jenner (singing the song by Gary Weaver)

Dreaaaaaaam weaver!

RYAN GUZMAN

…since that first question.

BLAKE JENNER

What was the first question?

RYAN GUZMAN

I can’t say it.

BLAKE JENNER

You can’t say it? Oh, the length. Yeah.

RYAN GUZMAN

We both equaled out to two inches.

[Entire room bursts into laughter]

TYLER HOECHLIN

On that note…

On that note, don’t just sit here and laugh. Go see “Everybody Wants Some!!” It’s now playing just about everywhere. 





Dr. Strangelove and American Fascism

6 03 2016

In recent months, I have grappled frequently with the idea that a form of fascism may be rising in America. Recent events have surprised me, as they have shocked others. But the other day, I remembered a paper I wrote nearly 5 years ago in a Cold War literature class, and it reminded me that I should not be surprised at all. Stanley Kubrick gave us a pretty great idea of how America would fall prey to fascist ideals, albeit in a more existential and oblique way. Here’s the text of that essay, unaltered from its original submission in November 2011.

During the Cold War, America was ostensibly fighting the Soviet Union. However, in his 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove,” Stanley Kubrick makes the case that while locked in this battle, the country was still plagued by the remnants of fascism lingering from World War II. Through the proceedings of the United States government with former Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove in the War Room, Kubrick shows that in the efforts of President Merkin Muffley and his advisors to prevent a state-executed nuclear holocaust, the country falls prey to fascist ideals.

America was so committed to destroying fascism in World War II that they were even willing to ally with the Soviet Union, a nation with a conflicting political ideology. At the war’s outset, both countries feared the rapid expansionist policies of Hitler. But as the clash continued, they also grew to fear the Nazi’s dehumanizing and barbaric applications of technology to commit genocide sanctioned by the highest-ranking officials of the party, including Hitler himself. The two countries ultimately forced Nazi capitulation and dismantled the fascist government, writing the history of the war as if bringing Hitler to his demise was tantamount to destroying the most perniciously evil being on the planet.

President Muffley fears even being mentioned in the same sentence as the Fuhrer, judging his own decisions against the notorious legacy: “I will not go down in history as the greatest mass murderer since Adolf Hitler.” With the development of the atomic bomb – a testament to human scientific progress yet also a means to achieve ends of Nazi proportions – world superpowers the Soviet Union and the United States began to stock up on nuclear weapons to keep the world from destroying itself. To maintain this fragile peace, they kept the world in a climate of fear as an apocalyptic meltdown loomed.

History defines the Cold War in terms like deterrence and mutually assured destruction; Kubrick, however, has a different vocabulary for the contentions between America and Russia. Through satire, he breaks down what he perceives to be the ridiculousness of such strategies to a juvenile game of comparing penis size. The drive for war is tied into the male sex drive through consistent use of phallic imagery, ranging from cigars and missiles to a fuel nozzle. Many of the characters carry sexually connotative names, including references to male studs (General Buck Turgidson), perversity (Dr. Strangelove), and aphrodisiacs (Captain Mandrake).

One character that does not fit the mold is President Merkin Muffley, whose first and last names are slang references to the female pubic region. The contrast between he and the generals is further drawn by exaggerated physical differences. While Turgidson and the other men in the War Room are big, bulky men with deep voices, Muffley is balding, timid, and nebbish and talks in higher, nasal tones. Such a characterization of the most powerful man in the country hardly conjures an image comparable to the fiery, militaristic Adolf Hitler.

At the beginning of the film, Muffley appears immune to many of the ideas of the other generals in the War Room. He can reason conscientiously in the presence of these men, taking into account the lessons of history before hastily jumping to a decision. Muffley is able to make clear distinctions even when pressured by grandiosely worded arguments:

TURGIDSON. Mr. President, we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth both for ourselves as human beings and for the life of our nation. Now, the truth is not always a pleasant thing, but it is necessary now make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless, distinguishable post-war environments: one where you got twenty million people killed, and the other where you got a hundred and fifty million people killed.
MUFFLEY. You’re talking about mass murder, General, not war.

Turgidson’s rhetoric employs an appeal to pathos, a ploy that Muffley can reject because it requires him to personally make the choice to kill millions of people. He equates such a deliberate decision with Hitler’s calculated extermination of those he considered less superior. Muffley also fears another parallel between himself and Hitler because the Nazi dictator also claimed justification for slaughter by saying it served his country’s best interests.

Dr. Strangelove (2)

However, Dr. Strangelove exposes that the President’s fear may only be of the image associated with fascism. The femininity implied by Muffley’s appearance and name suggest that he is more prone to be swayed by logical and intellectual arguments than the testosterone-fueled generals. With the world in peril, Muffley turns specifically to Strangelove for advice on how to proceed in the face of – and later, the aftermath of – the triggering of the Doomsday Machine.

Strangelove, the director of weapons research and development for the United States, is a brilliant ex-Nazi scientist bound to a wheelchair. Dr. Strangelove champions the computerization of the Doomsday Machine, claiming that it becomes all the more effective because it lacks the human element to make the decision to stop it: “Because of the automated and irrevocable decision making process which rules out human meddling, the doomsday machine is terrifying.”

Muffley initially fears the machine when informed of its existence, but once told that he would not have to be implicated in triggering it, he calls it “fantastic.” Unlike when talking with Turgidson, he is now comfortable with the idea of causing the death of millions only because the killing will be impersonal. While this development might disassociate him with the face of Nazi Germany, Muffley appears to have failed to realize that, ironically, he is advocating the use of technology to achieve similar outcomes.

The ease of lapsing into fascism is most evident in the final scene. After the bomb Major Kong rides into the ground detonates, the world is in ruins and on the brink of apocalypse. With a nuclear holocaust on the horizon, Dr. Strangelove begins to propose mineshaft survival measures that sound eerily reminiscent to Nazi programs like the Final Solution and eugenics. He encounters slight opposition from Muffley though:

MUFFLEY. I would hate to have to decide who stays up and who goes down.
STRANGELOVE. That would not be necessary, Mr. President. A computer could be set and programmed to accept factors from youth, health, sexual fertility, intelligence, and a cross section of necessary skills.

Muffley gives a tacit approval to Strangelove’s ideas by not really questioning their validity. Much like with the Doomsday Machine, Dr. Strangelove is able to allay the President’s fears by adding in the allure of technology, thus removing a sense of personal responsibility from whatever occurs. At the same time, Strangelove is enabling Muffley to commit a much more systematic extermination than the Nazis could have ever carried out because of the advanced technological capabilities of the United States without having to outwardly look as treacherous as Hitler.

Kubrick juxtaposes Muffley’s regression to fascist ideals with Dr. Strangelove’s bodily relapse back into its old Nazi habits. When asked by President Muffley if it would truly be possible for humans to survive in the mineshafts for 100 years, Strangelove’s voice gets higher and faster in excitement; he also refers to the President as “Mein Fuhrer,” a slip he quickly corrects. Soon after, his right hand begins acting up, seig-heiling Muffley against his will after exalting the values of the military.

After he furiously beats it into submission, his wayward right hand curls up under his chin in the pose of the famous statue “The Thinker” and then proceeds to choke him. This image harkens back to one of Kubrick’s central messages: anyone, even a genius that can ponder the deepest questions of humanity and existence, can be strangled by the impulses of their right side. Here, the right side is literally Strangelove’s spastic hand, but figuratively, it is the ultra-right leanings of fascism.

Even as Dr. Strangelove begins to outwardly show his fascist tendencies, Muffley and General Turgidson do not question his political motivations. In fact, they even seem to contemplate it further. While Muffley sits in pensive silence, Turgidson begins to apply his American sexually driven jingoism to Strangelove’s Nazi ideas:

TURGIDSON. We must be increasingly on the alert to prevent them from taking over other mineshaft space, in order to breed more prodigiously than we do, thus, knocking us out in superior numbers when we emerge! Mr. President, we must not allow a mineshaft gap!

Turgidson’s comment demonstrates that Strangelove’s intellectual fascism has quickly become intertwined with the American ideology. Immediately following this outburst, Dr. Strangelove gets up out his wheelchair and begins to walk, declaring: “I have a plan … Mein Fuhrer! I can walk!” His rise from the wheelchair and subsequent unapologetic reference to Muffley as his Fuhrer echoes what Kubrick views as a nascent American fascism coming to full bloom.

Dr. Strangelove

Strangelove, like the political ideology he supports, was not exterminated by World War II but only confined to a wheelchair and imported to the United States in a weakened form. Dr. Strangelove and fascism both lurk in the secret depths of the American government, waiting to attach itself to the masculine-fueled drive for war and experience a revival. In a film replete with irony, perhaps the cruelest and hardest to face is Kubrick’s prediction that the United States will one day come to resemble the very thing it fought to eradicate.

Despite being satirical in tone, Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” offers many criticisms of American culture not confined to just the Cold War epoch. During a time when an insidious enemy threatens to destroy the fabric of society itself, it becomes all too easy to look to the horizon and let the foundations of America rot. If policing communism – or any other threat – means a regression into fascist ideals, the United States may not be a savior but rather a danger to the world and to itself. In their strenuous effort not to look bad, Kubrick suggests that America may have forgotten to actually be good.

If the country cannot change its ways, perhaps the United States is headed down a path similar to the one tread by the Weimar Republic, Germany’s post-World War I government. In a volatile world shaken up by global conflict, it easily fell victim to forces that would commit monstrous atrocities.





INTERVIEW: Ramin Bahrani, co-writer and director of “99 Homes”

9 02 2016

Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” has swooped into the public imagination and awards conversation, completely changing the way we think about how movies can portray the Great Recession. Perhaps that film signals a new era of storytelling about this fraught period in American culture. The 2007-2008 financial crisis now makes for period pieces, not current events.

A cinematic history that began with “Up in the Air” gets a bookend in Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes,” a film that made an immediate impact on me at the 2014 Telluride Film Festival and landed at #4 on my top films of 2015. I have called it a “gripping look into the dark heart of capitalism” as well as an illumination of “the mechanisms through which average citizens are bamboozled into thinking the interests of corporate bigwigs are always aligned with their own.”

I had the opportunity to talk with Bahrani, the film’s co-writer and director, about just how he used a hardened real estate agent, Michael Shannon’s Rick Carver, and a desperate evictee, Andrew Garfield’s Dennis Nash, to show the systems responsible for American middle-class misery. Our conversation clarified how “99 Homes” fits in with many years of films about the recession – but also how it stands apart and alone.

Ramin Bahrani and Andrew Garfield 99 Homes

I see Up in the Air as the first film to really talk about [the recession on screen].  I do think one thing that really sets 99 Homes apart for me is that Up in the Air uses the recession as the setting and not the subject.

Right.

At the end of the day, it’s really a movie about George Clooney’s character finding human connection.  Whereas 99 Homes made the downturn both the setting and the subject.  Was that something you felt was necessary to align?

For me, it was like why go into the situation and bring a story we’ve seen a hundred times before.  Why I referenced Up in the Air is that it surprised people – they thought it was going to be one thing in terms of tone.  And that’s what true here, people think it’s going to be a foreclosure film with a sad story.  But the tone is so different from what people expected.

You’re correct to isolate a major difference because my movie is actually about the foreclosure crisis and what it meant to people as opposed to just making a romantic comedy in a situation that has to do with that.  The story kind of originated from what was happening on the ground there, the entire plot came out of the corruptions that I saw in the housing industry and the foreclosure industry.

Jason Reitman talked a lot about how when he was surveying the people who lost their jobs, it shifted the tone.  It was originally a corporate satire and eventually became more of a heartfelt drama.  Of course, he even used some of those people who had been laid off and gave them a chance to act out their experiences. 

I know that you did a lot of research and went down to Florida to survey the situation for yourself.  Did that change the film in your head when you got on the ground?

I didn’t go down there with the script; I went down there to find the story. I try to stay open to the location and the people I meet to let that inform the story. I was surprised by what I saw. I had no idea real estate brokers carried guns. I had no idea there was so much violence, so many scams. It never occurred to me that there were scams like that on the ground. So that started to inform the script.

Of course, I’m using non-professional actors in the film, but I have a history of doing that. I make features where every single person is a non-professional actor; I made three films like that. So here, I weaved that into the story – we use a real sheriff who actually does evictions. When Andrew [Garfield, who plays protagonist Dennis Nash] knocks on doors, every other one is a real person. Every other one is an actor, but Andrew never knew who was who. He never knew what the people were going to say or do. I didn’t tell him what was going to happen, he just would knock on a door and then something would happen. He would have to deal with it.

99 HOMES

Are there any other post-recessional films that 99 Homes might have been in conversation with or in response to?  At Telluride, you said, “I wanted to make this film because no one else had made it.”  Anything you thought was particularly good (or, up to you, anything bad)? Was there anything 99 Homes needed to issue a corrective to?

I don’t want to say that because I think every filmmaker should make whatever film they want. I just knew this was a story that had never been told. I like stories that have never been told. I like in a world I’ve never been in – I have a history of that.

We know the Faustian story, that is archetypically true and we can connect to it. But we didn’t know the world of foreclosures. I didn’t know that world, and the audiences like going to worlds that they don’t know about.

In terms of films, I was very much looking at movies like The Hustler, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, On the Waterfront, The Grapes of Wrath, All the President’s Men.

Is 99 Homes a continuation of At Any Price at all? I wouldn’t say they are siblings – maybe cousins?

Yeah, I think there’s a sense of that. I was conscious of it. I’m probably going to make the same film over and over and over again in a different setting. Somehow, The Age of Innocence, GoodFellas, and Mean Streets are all still Who’s Knocking at My Door? [Martin Scorsese’s first film].

I’ve found that most movies that tackled economic concerns post-recession tended to focus on upper-middle class white professionals losing their security cushion, but 99 Homes actually shows the people losing their homes and moving into motels. This tone-deaf depiction does not seem to be the case in Europe – the same day I saw 99 Homes in Telluride, I saw the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night, which does a similarly excellent job of distilling the political into the personal.

Why do you think 99 Homes feels like such a rarity in American cinema –  do you think it’s a supply or demand side problem that’s leading to the glut of these movies?  Is it too hard to get movies financed about working class Americans, or is the older, affluent arthouse crowd only interested in seeing movies about people like themselves?

I don’t know, maybe you know more about that. The movie was extremely easy to get financed. I presented the script and the actors to my financiers, and in 24 hours they all said yes because they are desperate for stories that are actually about something AND happen to be really thrilling. The script was a page-turner, and it was about something.

Actors are desperate to be in something that are about real characters and real moral crisis. Exciting stories where they can connect to other actors as human beings. Not as General Zod and Spider-Man. I can tell you, Michael and Andrew don’t want to do this General Zod, Spider-Man thing. They want to be real people in films. I think audiences want to see them.

I can’t tell you why filmmakers don’t make them. I don’t really know. Again, I just think filmmakers should make whatever film they want. I’m sure the thing – this movie is showing a system. The real villain is the system, not Michael. The film industry is also a system, where certain people claim things to be true. Like, “Audiences want such and so thing.” I don’t believe that. But I think some filmmakers feel like they have to write certain things.

But I don’t believe that either. I think artists and filmmakers should make what they want. They want to see stories about real human beings, and actors want to be in stories about real human beings. No one wants to act in front of a green screen. It’s boring as hell; I can tell you that.

Ramin Bahrani & Michael Shannon 99 Homes

A lot of these movies have also used a “bad apples” framework to depict corporate executives, which condemns individuals like Gordon Gekko but not necessarily the system of power that enables them.  But in 99 Homes, it’s not just Rick Carver we should hate – it’s the entire system, which he points out is completely rigged.  How important was it for you to have him shine a light on macro level corruption?

The real heavy in any situation is a system – it’s not just one person. There can only be so many Iagos. Otherwise, you’ve just been begotten by the system you live in.

It’s not like real estate brokers as children told their parents, “I can’t wait to grow up and evict people.” Nobody had that dream. Nobody had the dream to be an executioner in a prison, but we live in a country that has capital punishment. We live in a country that is so rigged that these guys’ jobs became doing these foreclosures.

And if Shannon [who plays real estate agent Rick Carver] didn’t do it, somebody else would. And that would mean he’d be out of a job. Out of a job means no money. No money means no rent. No rent means he and his family move into a motel.

For me, the real villain is the system, and Michael is just a product of it. As they say in the nighttime scene on the dock, my favorite scene, Michael is talking about how he carries a gun even at 5 A.M. He’s looking over his shoulder all the time. Andrew says, “Is it worth it?” And Michael says, “As opposed to what?” And that’s the question of the film. As opposed to what? What else are you supposed to do?

You developed this movie, I presume, in 2012?                  

Yeah, I started working on the research in 2012 and 2013, then we shot in 2014.

You’re pushing it out to the majority of your audience in 2015.  Do you think all that time away from the film’s events has affected the way people respond to the film – I can certainly think of a very prominent real estate mogul who loves separating America into “winners” and “losers” and is keeps Rick Carver all too relevant?

Yeah, I know. In fact, Michael talks about Donald Trump in the film. He calls Andrew “Donald Trump” at one point in the film, and now a bunch of critics and audiences are saying, “My god, he sounds just like Donald Trump!” And it’s true, he talks about winners and losers.

We live in a country where, in elementary school, they plant the flagpole on the playground. At the top of the flag, it says SUCCESS. Winners. And from there on all the way to the bottom, it’s losers. It just doesn’t make much sense.

Characters like Trump, which I hope to God – Donald Trump, if you’re listening, WATCH THIS FILM! That kind of figure starts to get attention from people because they’re hungry. Because things aren’t working, and when things aren’t working, you start to fall into line with language like that. You start to look for people to blame. Extreme wealth inequality is only going to give rise to that kind of vitriolic language.

I hope everyone goes to see this movie, especially Donald Trump.

[chuckles] Put it down, he’ll go see it maybe!

Michael Shannon Andrew Garfield 99 Homes

“99 Homes” is now available to purchase and rent on home video.





LISTFUL THINKING: Most Anticipated Movies of 2016

1 01 2016

Well, guess it’s time to cast my gaze towards the horizon and start looking forward to a new year of moviegoing! I’ve slowly gotten better at making these lists, with more and more movies making it on my year-end top 10 list. 2015 was a bit of an anomaly as so many films got pushed back to 2016 – four out of the ten I picked last year will hopefully see release in the next twelve months.

In that period, some of my enthusiasm has dampened for “Everybody Wants Some” (then titled “That’s What I’m Talking About”), “Knight of Cups” and “Midnight Special.” But one title remains, and absence makes the heart grow fonder.

This year’s slate of most anticipated films feels rather odd, as there’s very little I’m crazily expecting. With relatively few of my favorite directors and series churning out work in 2016, I’m left grabbing at straws. Nonetheless, here are ten films that I’m very ready to see!

American Honey

#10
“American Honey” (TBD)
Written and directed by Andrea Arnold
Starring Shia LaBeouf, Arielle Holmes and Riley Keough

After “Fish Tank,” I’m on board to see whatever Andrea Arnold comes up with next. She’s one of the most vital voices working in film today, not only for females but also just in general. I really have no idea what the film is about, and I don’t want to know.

Brad Pitt:Marion Cotillard

#9
Untitled WWII Romantic Thriller (November 23)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by Steven Knight
Starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard

This team speaks for itself. I could care less that the casting isn’t even complete.

Passengers

#8
“Passengers” (December 21)
Directed by Morten Tyldum
Written by Jon Spaihts
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt and Michael Sheen

If there was no Jennifer Lawrence movie for me to look forward to, would the year be worth undergoing?

Fantastic Beasts

#7
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (November 18)
Directed by David Yates
Written by J.K. Rowling
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Ezra Miller and Katherine Waterston

Ready to geek out over “Harry Potter” again, and it hasn’t even been five years since the last one. No shame.

The Girl on the Train

#6
“The Girl on the Train” (October 7)
Directed by Tate Taylor
Written by Erin Cressida Wilson
Starring Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson and Haley Bennett

Admittedly, I thought the hype on last summer’s big book was a bit overblown. But I’m still excited to see how this team translates the story into cinema; my imagination often wandered towards I might realize this thriller on the big screen. Can’t wait to compare my ideas with their visions.

Julieta

#5
“Julieta” (TBD)
Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Starring Adriana Ugarte and Emma Suárez

Even when playing in minor key, a new Almodóvar film is always interesting. Returning to his favored territory, stories about women, might provide his best since 2006’s “Volver.”

It's Only the End of the World

#4
“It’s Only the End of the World”
Written and directed by Xavier Dolan
Starring Léa Seydoux, Marion Cotillard, and Vincent Cassel

I am SO ready to see Xavier Dolan, the exciting emerging talent of the decade, tackle his first movie with global stars. That one such star is Marion Cotillard only amplifies my excitement.

Hail Ceasar

#3
“Hail, Caesar!” (February 5)
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum

I’m ready for any new Coen Brothers movie, but this one sounds like something special. “It’s about the movie business and life and religion and faith. Faith and the movie business,” Ethan said. Sounds like everything I could ever want from a movie and more.

La La Land

#2
“La La Land” (July 15)
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone and Finn Wittrock

Chazelle’s follow-up to “Whiplash” was going to be exciting enough. He sweetened the deal by making it a musical that reunites the magnetic on-screen duo of Gosling and Stone.

Silence

#1
“Silence” (TBD)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Jay Cocks
Starring Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield, and Adam Driver

Last year’s #2, this year’s #1. I truly cannot wait to see the film that might be Scorsese’s ultimate statement on the religious themes that have pervaded his work for decades.





LISTFUL THINKING: Top 10 of 2015 (Individuals and Institutions)

31 12 2015

The end of the year has arrived once again in its typical fashion – surprising, jarring yet oddly welcome. On this occasion, per usual, it is time to celebrate 2015 in cinema. Thanks to a number of festivals as well as generous assistance from studio and regional publicists, I was able to see more movies than ever before. This year, the tally of 2015 releases alone soared to over 200. (I came so close to reviewing them all … but would rather provide well-considered commentary instead of rushing to meet an arbitrarily imposed deadline.)

When I sat down to pen my first top 10 list back in 2009, I doubt I had even seen 100 films, so the list represented roughly the top 10% of my year. With 2015’s edition showcasing less than 5%, I feel obliged to at least mention 10 other films that left an indelible mark on me this year but, for whatever reason, fell outside the upper echelon. These, too, are worthy of your time and attention. In alphabetical order, they are:

But the ten films that stood out above the rest this year all had one thing in common: they looked beyond their characters and plots towards larger, more difficult concepts to capture. Each in their own way spotlighted (pun fully intended) an institution or a system that guides, influences and even inhibits the actions that take place. I make no secret that my two fields of study in college were film studies and sociology, and to have such an exciting slate of movies that evinces how the former can shed light on the latter was a source of great joy (again, pun fully intended) throughout 2015.

Remarkably, each work never lost sight of the individual personalities that power our emotional engagement. The human element never detracts from the issues at hand, instead providing an entry point to ponder impersonal or intangible forces. In an era where television provides a depth of coverage that has become tough to rival, these films found power in a concentrated bursts of content where every second was carefully and wonderfully calibrated.

So, without further ado, here are my ten favorite films of 2015 along with the individuals and institutions featured within them.

Read the rest of this entry »





INTERVIEW: Josh Mond, writer/director of “James White”

9 12 2015

Back at it again! I had the really awesome chance to interview Josh Mond, the writer/director of “James White,” and the big conversation is over at Movie Mezzanine. But not all our talk made the final published interview, so for those that are curious, I’ve included two more questions here that Mond answered.

But what neither this post nor the full interview includes are the periods before and after our “official” conversation, so to speak. Right when I got on the phone with Mond, he said had just finished watching the Kurt Cobain documentary Soaked in Bleach before our phone call. (Apparently, someone around his office had told him, “I don’t know why you just watched that before doing an interview,” just prior.) We talked about documentaries for a little while before I got the official questioning underway, and then returned to it afterwards.

Unlike many interview subjects, rushing out after the final question to get to their next stop on the media tour, Mond stayed on the line for a full ten minutes to keep chatting about movies. Like any other cinephile, he is rapidly trying to work through the best films from 2015 during the year-end rush. Mond’s favorite to date is “Inside Out,” though he is still filling some gaps in his viewing. (We also discussed “Amy” and “Cartel Land” among others  – I put in a good word for “Mistress America.”)

But anyways, on to an excerpt from our conversation. This came from the tail end when he got reflective on the process of releasing the film.

Josh Mond directing James White

MOVIE MEZZANINE

You’re now at the tail end taking James White around the world. Has there been anything surprising to you about the journey of putting this personal story out there for audiences to interact with?

JOSH MOND

No matter the difference in cultures and how people have been responding around the world – in America after Sundance it was super vocal and great, other countries intellectualized – there’s always been one person at the very least who shares their story with me about what they’re going through or what they’ve been through [at the Q&A or after].

It’s continuing a dialogue, and the fact that it’s connecting so much that people feel okay doing that is … you know, I made this movie to connect. It’s a very hard thing to talk about, and it’s been awesome in that way to have a real connection with human beings all around the world.

MOVIE MEZZANINE

Is it going to be weird to move onto another project and have James White on the backburner?

JOSH MOND

It’s going to be extremely weird, but what’s really cool I learned – well, I’m still learning – a lot about what it is that I like. What makes me feel connected in what I want to say or be involved in.

I’m very lucky, though, because the day after one of the last things I had to do for James it was announced that Antonio’s new film [Christine] and then this other film we mentored and executive produced [Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother] both got into Sundance. It’s cool, though, like there’s more of us, we’re a family, and we’ve got other projects going on – I have other things to put my energy and the things I’ve learned into.

But the short answer is yes, it’s a little weird.

Christopher Abbott as James White