Movie Interview: Penelope Cruz

Cruz control

Federico Grandesso talks to acclaimed actress, ‘Spanish Enchantress’ Penelope Cruz. First published in Together Magazine, reproduced here with their kind permission.

FG: You grew up in your mother’s hairdressing salon, so you must have learned something there about what beauty means to women. What memories do you have of this experience?

Penelope Cruz: I always regarded it as my first acting school, in fact, because I really came to understand what the women were after, and it wasn’t merely a question of a hairstyle. The women often arrived in a certain mood, and left feeling more confident, closer to their own personal ideal. For me, it was enthralling to sit in the corner, pretending to work when in fact I was actually observing the women’s behaviour. They often revealed very intimate aspects of their personalities, because they very felt safe in the salon. It was always lovely, especially at the end, when they looked in the mirror and you could see that they felt good about themselves.

If someone slipped into your bathroom, would they find a lot of beauty products?

Yes, I think I definitely have too many! [laughs] The problem is that I spend so much time in airports, and it is difficult to avoid the temptation of duty free!

Lancôme chose you to appear in their advertising for their Trésor perfume – what are your favourite Lancôme products?

I have used Lancôme products many times over the years, and I love the perfumes Trésor and Poême – often, I wear both. These scents evoke many memories for me.

Did you always want to be an actress?

In the beginning, I wanted to be a dancer. And then I started to enjoy going to the cinema, and to love the films of Pedro Almodóvar. I found an agent, I started to go to auditions, and then I began landing roles. I said to myself ‘Maybe this will work for me, after all’, and I haven’t stopped since.

You have had the same agent for almost 20 years – loyalty must be important to you?

The loyalty works both ways – Katrina Bayonas has also remained very faithful to me.

When you began as an actress, who were your great sources of inspiration?

Meryl Streep – I always asked myself ‘How can she be so talented?’, and I think that there is still really no other actress in her league.

How do you select your roles? What do you look for?

Variety. I do not want to play myself, nor to play the same character twice.

Is it important for you to remain close to your roots?

Very important. My family lives in Spain, my principal language is Spanish. I will never stop working in my own language, even though I have had many opportunities to travel and work in other languages.

Do you spend much time at home?

Quite a lot of time, yes, but I am also in the United States a lot, and I prefer New York to Los Angeles, because you can walk around NYC a lot, which is impossible in LA.

How do you manage to remain anonymous in New York?

It is possible – it all depends on the kinds of places that I visit, and I prefer the quiet spots.

What else do you want to achieve in your career?

I would just like to continue to learn, to find characters that touch me and allow me to touch other people.

Movie Interview: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

A Thai’s take

Apichatpong Weerasethakul won the 2010 Palme d’Or for Loong Boonmee raleuk chat (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) (2010). Way back in 2010, on the day before the Cannes award ceremony, Federico Grandesso had the chance to talk to Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the soon-to-be recipient of the biggest prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Originally published by Together Magazine, reproduced here with their kind permission.

FG: How would you define your own cinema?

I make films for myself and to express my personal feelings. I believe that when I make movies, I have to make sure that it is through my movies that I really express myself, not through writing or talking to you.

How hard was the shoot for Loong Boonmee raleuk chat?

The difficulties came with trying to explain to the actors, some of whom were non-professionals, exactly what I wanted. Not only the actors, but the crew members too, because the film divides into six reels, and each reel has a different tone, a different style of lighting, acting style and camera work. To explain and achieve this was quite complicated, to tell the actors, ‘Okay, be natural, but not natural, like old-style acting’. Communication was difficult – I just asked the actors to recall movies they had enjoyed, and what they remembered about them. Movie making is a magic profession, and it is changing all the time. We worked as a family unit and, sometimes, we changed the script overnight. I think perhaps this gives the process fluidity.

What are your thoughts on the civil war in Bangkok, which involves the Red Shirts supporting the deposed Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra?

It’s a class war, and it’s very complicated because it’s not only about underprivileged people voicing their concerns, there are also tycoons and politicians involved. It’s not as simple as poor versus rich, it’s more about power. It’s very hard for me to fathom, because it shows how we’ve been manipulated by the media since we were young, and this situation has forced us to rethink our beliefs and morals.

Do you believe in reincarnation?

It’s a possibility, but I cannot say 100 percent until there’s another level of scientific proof. I think that we don’t know very much about the workings of the mind – I believe in the power of meditation and I think that meditation is science. There is a progress to science, from Einstein onwards, and I believe that the next step is going to be anti-gravitational. After this will be the mind, I hope.

What is the message of this movie?

Relax! Open your mind up and just let the images flow. People are different, they cannot be forced, and there are going to be those who shut off and those who share the sentiment. Me too, sometimes when I watch a commercial movie, I don’t understand it.

What is so special about northeast Thailand?

I grew up there and it’s a place that is pretty harsh. For the agricultural community, the soil and the weather are not so good, so many people migrate to Bangkok, Chiang Mai or Phuket to join the labour force. People tend to look down on the poor, because in Thailand there is a big class difference, and that has contributed to civil unrest. The area is under-represented – this movie is unique because, if it was shown in Bangkok, few people would understand it because of our local dialect. In 2008, I had to work on an art project and I travelled along the Mekong river to see the differences between now and the past, an era that is very special to me. My parents are doctors, and they moved there when there was nothing. As doctor, after you graduate you have the choice where to go, and they chose this crazy area – they were really idealistic.

Are your films screened in Chiang Mai?

In Thailand we don’t have art-house cinemas, we have only multiplexes. Even I wouldn’t go to see my movies in that environment; the public expects different kinds of films there. One of my ambitions is to open an art-house cinema in Chiang Mai.

Is there another genre that attracts you?

Science fiction. I have envisaged a project called Utopia, and it’s about a snow landscape, it’s set in a nondescript time and involves the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek, which is abandoned in the snow. Also, I would like to see old-generation female science fiction actresses such as Brigitte Bardot or Jane Fonda to explore this landscape.

Interview: Vangelis Vitalis

During the recent 38th Brussels International Independent Film Festival (FIFI), Picturenose had the pleasure of chewing the cud with New Zealand Ambassador-Designate to the European Union, NATO, Belgium, Bulgaria, Luxembourg and Romania Vangelis Vitalis. Very proud of his country’s affiliation with this year’s festival, Vangelis took time out of his busy schedule to explain just why he feels this kind of cultural link-up is exactly what his job (he began in his post in August 2011) is all about.

Picturenose: So, Vangelis, a very warm welcome to the festival – I have to say that your press opening night was first class, and the lamb on offer, mwooah! 🙂 But I imagine that this kind of event is about more than just promoting what New Zealand is already very famous for, and it ties in very well with the recent declaration by EU High Representative Catherine Ashton about strengthening the ties, both business and cultural between the EU and your home country, don’t you think?

VV: Absolutely – little still, comparitively speaking, of New Zealand’s culture, is known to the wider world, and being able to showcase some of the vibrant talent that is there to be enjoyed across the cinematic spectrum in our country, in the auspices of this excellent, long-standing festival, is simply a marvellous opportunity.

A brief biographical resume at this point – Vangelis studied politics and economics at Auckland and Harvard. He has worked at the OECD Secretariat and in a range of roles with the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Most recently, he was New Zealand’s Deputy High Commissioner to Australia (2009-2011) and, prior to his posting in Canberra, Vangelis was New Zealand’s chief negotiator, leading the team that concluded free trade agreements (FTA) with the 12 members of ASEAN and Australia (in 2008-9) and separately with Malaysia (in 2009). He was previously a senior New Zealand negotiator at the WTO and worked on the economic modelling for the New Zealand-China FTA Joint Study. Vangelis was also New Zealand’s lead negotiator on the investment chapter of New Zealand’s FTA with China, as well as the trade and labour and trade and environment instruments concluded with China alongside the FTA.

At the OECD, Vangelis was the Chief Adviser to the OECD Round Table on Sustainable Development (2001-2004) and was a member of the International Economics Expert Group advising the OECD Ministerial Task Force on IUU Fishing (2004-6). He also worked as part of a team developing a partial equilibrium model for the Russian Ministry of Agriculture to assess the impact of WTO accession on the sector. He is currently Chair of the OECD Committee on Trade and Environment and has chaired the OECD Global Forum on Trade and Climate Change.

Vangelis has published extensively, including on the economics of sustainable development, trade and agricultural reform and the relationship between trade, innovation and growth.

Vangelis speaks German, Greek and Russian and is a fanatical supporter of the Wellington Phoenix, Olympiakos and the New Zealand All Whites football teams. He is married and has three children.

So, your résumé more than speaks for itself, Vangelis – and the résumé of New Zealand film today, do you think that it has gone through a similarly slow upward curve to widespread appreciation, as was finally enjoyed by Australian cinema after being known for years for nothing more than exploitation?

It’s a fair question, and I believe that it’s one that is frequently raised, because many people believe the Australian and New Zealand cultures to be very similar. Well, they are in some ways, but I think that the relationship between the white New Zealanders and the native Māori population, for example, is very different from that between the native Aborigines and the rest of the Australian population, and that this informs a great deal of the cultural melting-pot in our country. As far as exploitation films are concerned, New Zealand has produced its share over the years, but I think the fact that it took somewhat longer for the larger, international studios to become interested in our country’s possibilities than they did in Australia’s case.

And the future? Do you see the influence of directors such as Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings I-III) and the fact that New Zealand is clearly now so renowned as excellent for location shooting as being the way it will go for your country’s film industry, as much as for the home-grown films on show at festivals such as FIFI?

Well, all I can say is let’s hope so! External investment in New Zealand is obviously very much to be welcomed, and if this means that world-beating talent can stand four-square with our own films, then so very much the better.

Vangelis, thank you very much for your time.

Interview: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Federico Grandesso had the rare chance to chat with Wallonian cinematic maestros Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne at Cannes, where they won the Grand Prix for Le gamin au vélo (Boy with a Bike) (2011).

In notable recognition for Belgian cinema on the Croisette, the brothers lifted the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 1999 for Rosetta and in 2005 with The Child and, prior to this year’s success, their film Lorna’s Silence was awarded Best Screenplay in Cannes 2008. Their latest work, Le gamin au vélo, explores familiar territory, with a young boy, Cyril (Thomas Doret) who’s abandoned by his father and left in the responsibility of unqualified childcare provider Samantha (Cécile De France).

FG: How were you influenced by Italian neo-realism cinema?
JP & L: I really don’t know if you can find Italian neo-realism in our films, but in this movie you do find the bicycle and a boy. When we were young, at the age of 16, Jean Pierre and I saw some Italian movies by Rossellini for example, and for sure these movies influenced us a lot. To give you an idea, these were remarkable movies such as Rome, ville ouverte (1945), Paisà (1946), Allemagne année zero (1948), L’amore (1948), Les Onze Fioretti de François d’Assise (1950) and Europa 51 (1952). We also loved Pasolini – these masters were and are very important to us. But it’s up to you to say if you see this influence in our movies.

How did you work on the different characters?
We wanted to show the story of a boy who is alone in the world who meets a woman, and the big question is whether this woman will be able to save him, and whether the boy will accept her love and allow himself to be saved. As far as the motivation of the woman Samantha (Cecile de France) is concerned, when she meets the young boy Cyril for the first time, he suddenly embraces her very passionately. It is at this moment that Samantha understands that the boy will change her life too, and she has to decide whether to offer her love to help and save him.

There are two negative protagonists in the movie, the father and the drug dealer. What were your inspirations for these two characters?
We see the real father, who abandons his son because he wants to be free of obligations, then we have another man, the drug dealer, who could be a second father. He shows the boy an unknown, seductive world, but it’s an illusion – first he has to accept not being loved by his father, and this is very difficult, even though Samantha is helping him. Then the second man arrives, and Cyril is forced to accept that he’s being lied to all over again. The story of the movie is constructed around a boy who is trying to remove illusions with the help of someone who loves him.

Where did you find the inspiration for the story?
It’s always very difficult to answer such a question, but it started with a story that someone told us many years ago while we were in Japan, the story of a Japanese boy in the same situation as Cyril; the boy in this case was left by his father in an orphanage. We were very touched by the story, we spoke a lot about it, then the character of Samantha came about, and it is she who is in some way pre-destined to save Cyril. So we took out the ‘Japanese boy’, put the two protagonists together and this was the start of the story.

You both travel a lot, which are the cultures that have most influenced you?
We are deeply European, even though we are interested in other cultures. Our films are always developed in the area of Seraing, where we have worked for many years, but at the same time we believe that they are universal stories. We normally don’t travel a lot; it’s our movies in fact that have given us the opportunity. It’s true that travelling is very interesting, not for filming, but to discover other ways of living, which makes you reflect on your own daily life.

How do you feel to be back on the Croisette at this point in your careers?
We have been in Cannes previously with different films, this time we are very hopeful because the movie has been selected for the competition. We obviously feel the tension concerning the critics that we will be facing, even though, for the first time, the film will be release in other European countries such as Italy, Switzerland, Belgium and France at the same time as Cannes. In short, as directors we’re obviously very anxious, but in a positive way, about how the movie will be received.

Are you thinking about working on previously unexplored topics or genres?
We have other ideas with other scripts we have written, but we will continue working in the same direction, because I don’t think it’s our thing to do ‘genre’ movies, such as a musical comedy, a western, a ‘noir’ or a war movie. But, you never know…il faut jamais etre prophete de son propre travail! 🙂

Le gamin au vélo is now on release across Europe.

Interview: Kenny Glenaan

This article first appeared in European Voice.

Gas Attack (2001), a made-for-TV movie that recounted the gassing of a Kurdish community in the EU, is still frighteningly topical ten years on. James Drew talked with its director, Kenny Glenaan.

For Scottish director Glenaan, uncertainties about asylum policy are a part of everyday life. His grim documentary-style thriller, Gas Attack, was first screened in Brussels back in 2003 as part of the British Council ‘Image-A-Nation’ film festival.

The timing could hardly have been more topical – and its depiction of an anthrax attack against Kurdish asylum-seekers in Glasgow proved too near-the-knuckle for the city’s film licensing committee when it was premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2001. Threats of censorship and even an outright ban gained momentum at a time when attempts were being made at ‘bridge building’ between locals and refugees. In the end, the council backed down – and Gas Attack won the festival’s Michael Powell award for best new British film. Of course, no one could have guessed how prescient the story would be. In a post-11 September 2001 world, and after the US crisis involving anthrax-laced letters, Glenaan’s vision of a bureaucratic council powerless to contain an epidemic seems frighteningly realistic.

What could be the motivation for such an attack? And where does that level of hatred begin? Glenaan’s background research on Glasgow’s Sighthill estate, home to many Kurdish refugees, gave him a disturbing insight into a social time-bomb.

“It’s literally on your doorstep in a city the size of Glasgow – we didn’t have to search very hard. The word that kept coming back off the street to us from the Kurdish community was ‘we’re under siege and no one is protecting us’. There were kids getting beaten up all the time, and many of the adults we spoke to said that they felt unsafe during the day, and some simply wouldn’t leave their houses after dark. There were people getting car battery acid thrown in their faces – and some local children were shooting at refugees with an air-gun. It all seemed to be part of a gradual acceptance that the Kurdish refugees were somehow sub-human.”

Glenaan draws fine performances from his cast of predominantly non-professional actors, many from the local community, against a chilling backdrop of panic and social breakdown as the lethal epidemic takes hold, with authorities seemingly powerless to control it. The director has first-hand experience of the lacunae in government preparedness:

“As part of our research, we asked the nurses who showed us round Glasgow’s Royal Infirmary what plan of action they would have in the event of a terrorist biological attack. ‘We don’t have a plan’ was the answer. If such an attack happened in mainland Britain today, the response would be shambolic. When we asked if the nurses and doctors even had any protective clothing, the nurse opened a cupboard, where broken monitors were stored. Behind them, there were four white protection suits. And that was it for the Royal Infirmary, which is responsible for a quarter of Glasgow.”

And his attitude to immigration policy in the EU?

“I think immigration is the big story of the 21st century, and I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better – and why wouldn’t it? People who have nothing, can see something better, want to be part of that. I think it comes down to human needs that are as simple as the need for water. Scotland’s First Secretary and former Europe Minister Jack McConnel announced, before production began on the film, a government drive to attract immigrants to Scotland, as its population has been falling since 1974. But what I find very telling is that you have a cash-strapped council [in Glasgow] who, at the time the film was being made, were receiving two busloads of asylum-seekers every day from all over the country, from areas that didn’t want them. Glasgow was the only city in Britain to say, unequivocally, ‘we’ll take them’.

“Now, on the one hand you have what appears to be a fantastic, progressive attitude but, if you look deeper, you discover that if the council takes a certain number of asylum-seekers, it qualifies for a European grant. Asylum-seekers are placed in houses that nobody else will live in, because they’re shit – rising damp, high-rise blocks of flats with no nearby amenities, no shops, no swing parks for the kids. They then receive money for the flats to be repaired, with new windows, carpets, doors and locks fitted. I do believe there is a real humanity to this action, but on the other hand, the asylum-seekers are being used, in order to bring in revenue for a cash-strapped council which has its back against the wall when it comes to providing local services for all residents. Of course, when a neighbour sees all that is being done, he says ‘look at that – why do they get new windows, carpets, doors and curtains?’ And so prejudice begins because people have not been made aware of what is going on, or where the money is coming from. If EU grants are going to be awarded in this way, it would perhaps be wise to make their purpose more clearly known.”

The Iraq conflict posed similar challenges for Glenaan and, he believes, for all Western society.

“In a way, I’m glad that the war [proved] it’s not just a question of whether you are a Muslim. It’s about commerce, it’s about business. Anyone can get on their soap box and tub-thump away, but the question that I never hear being asked in the West is, if we want to live the way we want to live, to have all the facilities that we enjoy…the system being kept in place pays for the privilege of Western societies living the way we live.

“But, perhaps at the same time, we feel that we’re happy to give some of this up, to let other people have a slightly better life, and not be exploited as much as they are, then we can’t have it both ways, and the question of the people who are desperately seeking a better life must be addressed. Immigration brings the problem right to your front doorstep – and it has to be tackled head on.”

For Glenaan, then, that would be business as usual.

Interview: Ewan McGregor

This article, by Federico Grandesso, was originally published in Bespoken Magazine by Scabal, and is reproduced here with their kind permission. To enjoy your copy, subscribe at www.bespoken.com.

Scottish actor and icon Ewan McGregor, who was awarded Best European Actor at the 2010 European Film Awards for his performance in The Ghost Writer (2010), talks about his acting adventures.

Known across the galaxy since his role as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, Ewan McGregor has gone from strength to strength as an actor. Moving from sharp, unforgiving interpretations in Shallow Grave (1994) and Trainspotting (1996) to seductive romantic roles in Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Down With Love (2003) he has seldom been off our screens, and has worked with some of the world’s finest directors, including Danny Boyle, Tim Burton, George Lucas, Woody Allen, Ron Howard and, most recently, Roman Polanski in The Ghost Writer (2010), which was adapted from the Robert Harris novel.

McGregor plays ‘The Ghost’, the writer of the title, who lands the opportunity to write the memoirs of renowned UK former prime minister, Adam Lang (and any similarities to Tony Blair are mere coincidence, of course), played by Pierce Brosnan. But writing for a living can be very dangerous, as ‘The Ghost’ is about to discover.

Amid all the acclaim, we caught up with Ewan for a chat.

Bespoken: Does the location of a prospective movie play an important part in your choice of scripts, as you are well known as a man who loves to travel? Also, what was your best recent on-set experience?
Ewan McGregor: I have never had the opportunity to choose the locations for my movies, and no, it’s other considerations that determine my choice. Yes, I love to travel, but I do have to say that I would be glad sometimes to have the opportunity to work at home, because it can be hard to be on location far away for so long. In The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) the atmosphere on set was great because the director Grant Heslov loves to work at a certain rhythm and doesn’t go for megatakes – two or three are enough, which is good, because I have had bad experiences in the past when I have had to work for an entire day on a very short scene. I loved working with George Clooney, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey. We laughed a lot, had a lot of fun and, don’t forget, we also worked with professional goat actors, who were fantastic! [laughs]

How do you feel about your profession?
I’ve always loved this job, and my passion for what I do is actually growing. What I don’t like are the moments when you have to wait – not only when we are actually working on set, when make-up has to be done or when a scene is being set up, but also the gaps between a great movie and the next one. You have to wait a long time to achieve a perfect interpretation and, in our job, the chances to work on ambitious and interesting projects are rare. Sometimes, you have to wait for years.

Some of your fellow actors, such as Sean Penn, are politically engaged. What about you?
Not really. To begin with, I have never been in the army, but I have a brother who until two years ago was in the RAF, flying Tornadoes in war zones. My only experience of conflict was the 48 hours I once spent in Baghdad Airport. I met a lot of soldiers, and I was very surprised at how young they were, but I also left that airport feeling very proud, as these guys were doing something I could never have done. I didn’t want to stay in that place one minute more than was absolutely necessary.

Was there anything about Roman Polanski’s methods that particularly stood out?
One day on set, and we had been shooting for some weeks at this point, Roman came up to me and said: ‘I have an idea for the ending,’ and he described it to me, and I thought it was just amazing. It’s a beautiful, very clever shot, in which I don’t think the camera moves apart from following my character through a door and then it’s static. It’s a beautiful piece of storytelling, classic filmmaking, classic Polanski. You can imagine other directors needing 50 shots for the sequence in question, and he just pans the camera and leaves us to imagine what’s going on offscreen, which is marvellous.

In The Ghost Writer, you also had the chance to work with Pierce Brosnan. How was that?
Pierce is an actor I’ve always followed – there’s a handful of other actors that you wonder if one day you might work with, and Pierce was always one of those. I’ve always enjoyed watching him. My experience in The Ghost Writer was unique, in that I was there from the beginning to the end, and I was always there, ­I was always on set. I became like one of the crew, really, whereas other actors would come in and out. But for the first week or so, I was mainly on my own. I just did all the stuff with ‘The Ghost’ on my own, before Pierce arrived, and he was tremendous to work with, simple as that.

Tell us how it was, really, to work with Polanski?
I only spoke to Roman on the phone before I met him in Germany, because he was in Switzerland at the time and I was shooting The Men Who Stare at Goats in New Mexico and Puerto Rico, and I was unable to get to Europe, so we didn’t actually meet before I turned up. That day, I was doing costume fittings when he came in, and as you know he’s an iconic man and a legendary director so, for an actor, it was quite nerve-wracking to meet him. He’s like a perfect host before you get on set, but he’s two very different men [laughs]. When you’re off set, he’s preparing you coffee and making sure everyone’s alright and then when you start working, be it on the text or actually on set, he’s very direct. His direction is not guarded or sugar-coated in any way, ­he’s really quite brusque with it. But his style is always very interesting, and it’s no coincidence that he’s considered to be a great movie director. On set, you just have to listen to him and, more often than not, in fact all the time, he is right. It’s kind of annoying, but when you follow his instructions, it’s like ‘Oh, yeah, he’s right about that.’ Actors are quite sensitive, myself included, and when I tried something out, if Polanski didn’t like it, he wouldn’t worry about hurting your feelings. But I have to say that I realized very quickly he’s like that with everybody – he directed the props guy, the painter and the set dresser in exactly the same way. In fact, all of our camera crew was Polish, he often hung out with them between scenes and you could hear them telling jokes in Polish. They were his buddies, but he was toughest with them when he was directing! [laughs]

Interview: Fabrice du Welz

Fear man

He made an indelible impression on the horror genre with his first two features, Calvaire (The Ordeal) (2004) and Vinyan (2008) but, as young Belgian director Fabrice du Welz explains to James Drew, being a cult director isn’t always all that it’s cracked up to be.

This was the second time that I had spoken with Fabrice – on the first occassion, back in 2005, I thanked him warmly for being the director of the first film to have given me a nightmare in years. The film in question was Calvaire and the fact that I was happy, nay, overjoyed to have suffered a nightmare, probably tells you more about me than you’d like to know. No matter – we horror lovers are a funny breed, and I make no apologies.

This time around, Fabrice was busy with jury duty at the excellent Brussels International Independent Film Festival 2010, but was still kind enough, between films, to enjoy a glass of blood-red wine and briefly talk terror some more with yours truly.

JD: Fabrice, your second film, Vinyan, while remaining very true to the darkness that was at the heart of Calvaire, nevertheless seemed to indicate a willingness on your part to explore different notions of ‘horror’ – at last check, you were said to be working on Coffin Island, based on Maurice Leblanc’s The Island of the Thirty Coffins. So, how’s that going?
FDW: Well, I would love to be, but the production has run into difficulties concerning budget – while I know that my first two films received critical and cult acclaim, for which I was very grateful, neither was in fact very succesful upon first release, and that tends to make studios a little edgy, you know?

But surely you are not looking to compromise on your vision of horror, are you? Please say it ain’t so? 🙂
Yes, it’s a pity with the genre, because, from a realistic perspective, America is where everyone wants to be when it comes to horror, but so many of the films that are made there tend to be aimed only at teens, which can make it difficult for directors like me to sell the genre as being a worthwhile, adult endeavour. I suppose it’s a question of facing up to realities – Coffin Island has been put on hold for a time, and there has been some interest expressed in me taking on more thriller-type projects, but quite frankly, what I am really interested in doing is a sequel, or prequel, to Calvaire – not necessarily from a ‘what happens to Marc next?’ perspective, but rather a closer look at what it would actually be like to be in a rural community like the one I depicted – what would the children be like, for example, which of course ties into some of the themes that I addressed in Vinyan.

I know you’re in to judge your next film, Fabrice, so just one more question – do you believe that there is a future in intelligent horror?
Absolutely – for me, fear is the most vibrant of human emotions,and as long as there are people, directors and writers, who are unwilling to compromise on their visions, audiences the world over will respond to that.

Let’s just hope they respond more quickly at the box office with your next film, Fabrice – many thanks indeed.

Harry Kümel

Harry Kümel (left) directs Orson WellesNo trouble with Harry

When the chance for a chat with one of Belgium’s finest directors, Harry Kümel, presented itself during the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFFF) 2010, you can be sure that Picturenose’s James Drew (JD) didn’t miss his opportunity to meet the man behind two of the most acclaimed cult horror/sci-fi/fantasy features ever made, Les lèvres rouges (Daughters of Darkness) (1971) and Malpertuis (The Legend of Doom House) (1971).

Born in Antwerp, Harry Kümel, 70, is a director who first became world-acclaimed with his sensual, erotic and really quite scary 1971 vampire feature Les lèvres rouges starring Delphine Seyrig, which became a cult hit in Europe and the United States. Released the same year was Malpertuis, which is widely considered as being Kümel’s masterpiece – adapted from the novel by Jean Ray, it featured a sadly ageing Orson Welles as Cassavius, a dying warlock who has managed to capture and keep the remaining Greek gods (trapped inside the ‘skins’ of ordinary Flemish citizens) in his fading mansion, Malpertuis. A remarkable blend of genres, the film has (not unlike Kümel himself) aged very well, hence his continuing support (and jury duty) at festivals such as BIFFF.

JD: So, Harry, is a large portion of your time ancillary to your work as a director now spent attending festivals such as BIFFF?

HK: “No, actually, in general I don’t like that kind of thing [laughs]. When I was very much younger, I used to attend festivals such as Cannes, but I quickly grew tired of the culture – BIFFF, however, is different, it’s not so pretentious. A very good friend of mine [Le dîner de cons (The Dinner Game) (1998)] director Francis Weber once said to me: ‘We all love cinema, but we detest the business of cinema.'”

You made two such pivotal fantasy films, Daughters of Darkness and Malpertuis very near the beginning of your career – are the horror, fantasy and science fiction genres still very important to you?

“Not especially – it’s coincidence that those two films came one after the other, the first one was more of a period piece, and friends of mine wanted to make small films that weren’t going to cost very much but would have international appeal, and genre films are always the cheapest films to make, so that was my choice. Since the artistic ingredients in the film are still valid today, namely sex, violence and blood and horror – if you combine these things, then as now, you are likely to have success, so that was the plan, and I looked for subject matter to fit these elements around, and these two films were made back to back. That’s why I have this reputation, but I have never particularly affiliated myself to these genres. The problem with genre films also is that there is a tendency for them to not be so well made – there are of course exceptions, such as with the work of directors such as Mario Bava, but even then the work tends to remain the realm of aesthetics. On the other hand, I do not think the genres are minor subjects, just that minor movies are frequently made in the genres.”

I only saw Malpertuis myself for the first time recently, when a remastered print was being screened in Liège. I was knocked out by its blend of cinematic and artistic concepts – as is increasingly the case with Hollywood these days, do you not feel there is a good chance that it will be remade?

“Well, it would be wonderful to remake it, because now of course we have the technological means to do things onscreen that we couldn’t do at that time, we could of course transform everything with CGI effects, you know, but I think that a new director might become obsessed with using such technology, and the resulting film would suffer for that. When I made the film, we had to find a wide range of inventive solutions for our visual problems, because we had so little means, and I think it is from such challenges, such difficulties, a certain sense of style was accentuated.”

I have to ask – Orson Welles. Tell us how it was.

“I got on with Orson very well in social life, but on set he was a very, very difficult person to work with. There was a sadness too about everything with Orson, there was the real sense that he just didn’t understand how the modern cinema of the time worked – he had an aura about him, and the problem was that in the beginning I thought I would be able to talk with him about shots and so on, but this just wasn’t the case. There was one scene I was doing that involved the star Michel Bouquet, who was at first absolutely ga-ga at the chance to work with Orson, but then I made the mistake of describing the scene in question to Orson as “Michel’s scene”. Oh dear. Seventeen takes later, after Orson was finally convinced that I had captured him as the central figure in the scene, we got a cut that Welles liked. Still today, Bouquet cannot say Welles’ name without getting angry – Orson was just like a child. A pity, but I am still very glad that I was able to work with him.”

As Picturenose is very glad to have had the chance to speak with you – thank you very much, Harry.

Ang Lee

Ang LeeAngry love

Ang Lee’s Se, jie (Lust, Caution) (2007) courted controversy with its graphic depiction of a forbidden affair in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, 1942 – the director talks to Picturenose’s James Drew about pushing emotional boundaries for art.

The battle-lines are clearly drawn in World War II Japanese-occupied Shanghai – and young Chinese woman Wong Chia Chi (a startling performance from Wei Tang) is still undercover behind them. Her involvement with a group of drama-society students some years previously has led to her involvement in an ambitious plan to assassinate a top Japanese collaborator, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) whose trust she has gained by posing as Mrs Mak, befriending his wife (Joan Chen) and then drawing him into an affair.

But the emotional transformation that Wong has had to undergo is set to bring terrible consequences…

‘HUNTER AND PREY’
Taiwanese director Ang Lee, 53, is no stranger to depicting the chains forged by emotion – his previous film, Brokeback Mountain (2005), had won him an Academy Award for Best Director, with its portrayal of two 1960s cowboys, torn by their love for each other that dared not speak its name.

Here, Lee once again took a short story as his inspiration – author Eileen Chang speaks of the man/woman relationship in her story as being about ‘the occupier and the occupied’ and ‘hunter and prey’ and this forms the thrust of Lee’s perspective: “I thought the short story was written like a movie, like a detective movie, and I think we’re relatively loyal to her writing.”

As far as the sex scenes were concerned, angry, confrontational congress that takes no prisoners, Lee had his vision clearly defined: “They were really why I wanted to film the story – what wong Chia Chi chooses to do for pariotism, the idea aroused my curiosity, stirred up my demons, if you like.”

‘DEEP, DISTURBED EMOTION’
But what did the director find the hardest to handle emotionally, the sex or the politics ? “The actual shooting of the sex was very difficult for me, psychologically – the shyness comes in trying to verbalise what I wanted to shoot, particularly when it deals with really deep, disturbed emotion, as is the case in this film.”

After the 12 days that it took to film the sex scenes (“twelve and a half”, Lee interjects), weren’t the actors emotionally drained? “I don’t know about the actors, but I’m talking about me, and yes, definitely,” he chuckles. “At a human level, it was very hard to withstand – I really don’t know where the actors went to find what they did, but it was my responsibility to ensure that there was no emotional damage. There are other directors who might be OK with it, take it easy, but I can’t.”

Lee has quickly established himself as one of the world’s best directors – his back-catalogue includes The Ice Storm (1997), but it was his Wo hu cang long (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) (2000) that is still considered as one of his greatest works, a sprawling period film and martial-arts epic that, not unlike Lust, Caution deals with love, loyalty and loss.

Lee seems attracted to self-destructive characters trying to escape the confines of a given society or mental state, be it latent homosexuals in Brokeback Mountain or even an obsessive scientist in Hulk (2003). Why?

“I think for my next film, I’m going to try and break away from that pattern, but, yes, I’ve been using that since my first movie. I believe it reflects my own life – I’m a Libra, so always looking for what I think is absolutely the right thing to do, or maybe it’s because I’m a scared fellow. I have a tendency to want to please and confirm people, but maybe I have a tendency inside to go against that…I don’t know.

“Setting up obstacles is a good way to examine, cinematically, how characters overcome obstacles, and you see some truth of humanity – maybe that’s just the way that I want to do it. I wish that I had a better way to do it – I’ll keep searching.”

We have no doubt that he will – Ang is currently hard at work on bringing Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize winner Life of Pi to the screen, which is due for release in 2011.

Originally published in Together Magazine.

Exclusive Interview: Alex Cox

Alex Cox
He was in town to lend his stature and expertise to OffScreen 2010, the Brussels film festival for all lovers of little-seen, bizarre, offbeat and intoxicating cinema. Alex Cox, British film connoisseur and director of gems such as Repo Man (1984), Sid & Nancy (1986) and Walker (1987) was on hand to present several classic Spaghetti Westerns (his favourite genre), hold a Cinema Master Class on 17 March and, of course, speak to Picturenose’s Colin Moors (CM) and James Drew (JD). Much fun was had by all, and it was also a good chance to talk with Cox about his involvement in recent years with ‘MicroFeatures’, which are films made on a budget of less than £100,000. Oh, and Magic Tree Air Fresheners and ‘melon farmers’ featured in the discussion too, natch… 🙂

JD: Alex, thanks so much for speaking with Picturenose. I suppose the first question should be whether your Cinema Master Class with students from Brussels’s RITS School for Audiovisual and Performing Arts went as well as you hoped?

“Yes, it’s amazing, the RITS is a very big film school, they have 650 students there, and the audience seemed more than willing to put up with me speaking for half an hour before asking some really intelligent, perceptive questions.”

JD: So, do you see appearing at such events as being a way of ‘giving something back’, as it were, to people who are obviously passionate about film early on in their lives?

“Er, no, I have absolutely no interest in “giving anything back” [laughs] – if these people are foolish enough to want to become filmmakers, on their own heads be it, you know? Seriously though, it’s great, because you’ve got people there who want to make genre movies, zombie movies, who want to work in commercial cinema, and you’ve got those who want to do pure art, you know? So that’s interesting, because you’ve got a chance to talk about those two worlds, the world of art and the world of commerce, how those worlds merge, and how you get into a business which is now so nepotistic, how you find your way in there.”

CM: Well, as you bring it up, Alex, are you thinking about making a zombie movie yourself? I only ask as it’s one of my favourite genres, and if you made one I’m sure it would be a pretty good effort.

“Funnily enough, I was talking about that just last night, but I was also looking at the fabulous Jess Franco poster on the wall at RITS, and I was thinking that I really want to make a Lesbian Vampire Spaghetti Western [laughs]…not so much obssessed perhaps with enormous breasts though.”

JD: And Spaghetti Westerns, it’s fair to say, would appear to be the genre that you love the most – with the current trend of revisionism in cinema, and directors such as Tarantino going back to the war-movie genre with Inglourious Basterds (2009), do you think the time might be right for another hyper-modern take on a Spaghetti Western?

“Well, I don’t actually know if there’s a market for Westerns any more, because I had a little job with the BBC a while ago, more recently than Moviedrome, providing introductions to mainstream American Westerns such as Fort Apache (1948), She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949), Wagon Master (1950) and Run of the Arrow (1957), and the reaction to the programme seemed to indicate that there’s an entire generation of moviegoers who have grown up oblivious to Western conventions – maybe they have become a little superannuated, because they seem to be disappearing. I mean, you can talk about Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), but that’s nearly twenty years old now, and what has been made since?

CM: There was The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones – I think that’s pretty much the definition of a modern-day Western, don’t you?

“You’re probably right, and I suppose the death of the Western has been predicted for a long time, and yet it keeps coming back here and there, so who knows? As always, it depends on the financing and it depends on the market.”

CM: Talking of financing, is your MicroFeatures project, in which films have to be made for less than £100,000, a political statement as well as a cheaper way of making films?

“I suppose it’s both, really – Film London announced this MicroFeatures project, in which they were going to make ten of these films a year, which was perfectly feasible, and then it was postponed for a year, and then they were only going to make one or two, and I think that it just put the wind up the British Film Council, because the British Film Council are all about Hollywood studios, trying to do co-productions with the Americans, giving Lottery money to Murdoch, and so on, and all of a sudden the idea that Film London were going to be producing ten features per year, all by local filmmakers, was deeply frightening to the British Film Council, because it’s an entirely different model, a local model. It didn’t depend on the British Film Council, it didn’t depend on bringing big American actors over, it was a completely different and specifically local approach to filmmaking. I see this as very positive thing, because essentially it’s a job-creation scheme, isn’t it? It’s a way of making many films cheaply, like the Italians did with their own cowboy and horror films, you’re creating an awful lot of work,and the profits don’t get expatriated back to the United States. I thought that MicroFeatures was potentially extremely destabilizing, in a good way [laughs].”

JD: So, you love trouble, right Alex?

“[Laughs] No, it’s not just because I love trouble, I was essentially talking about a good, old-fashioned, Harold Wilson-esque job-creation scheme, and that’s viewed as trouble-making, but what does that tell you about New Labour and the British Film Council?”

CM: Yes, it is rather telling, isn’t? A brief mention of director Shane Meadows, because he made Le Donk and Scor-zay-zee (2009), which was actually very good, and all shot on one camera in five days. So that’s obviously the sort of thing you are moving towards?

“Yes, well, the thing is they have to be done in bulk, I mean you have to do a whole bunch of them, so for that model to work, you have to make like ten five-day films, ten ‘MicroFeatures’, and then there is a sort of a work continuity, from one film to another. So, maybe they only make a hundred quid, but they make a hundred quid over and over again, and then it becomes a sustainable model, and you actually start to grow an industry.”

CM: And will you perhaps boost your own acting career as well with these MicroFeatures?

“The thing is, I don’t know if I can go on making them, because I tend to lose money at it, because making the film may only take ten to fifteen days, but then you still have to finish the film, and that takes months, and it isn’t possible to be constantly haemorrhaging money. You need to have a distribution network rather like Roger Corman had when he was making films in the fifties and sixties. That’s what we need, an alternative distribution channel, which exists outside of the American studio-dominated system.”

JD: You moved away from mainstream, you made your mark seemingly as the very antithesis of a ‘mainstream director’, and some of your political stances have disenfranchised you from the world of mainstream cinema. Do you have any regrets about that?

“[Laughs] Well, I certainly regret not having more money, I think that’s the only downside! No, not really – you don’t really think anything through when you are young, you’re just kind of jumping on stuff…things in the sixties and seventies weren’t that bad, and we kind of thought that things would naturally get better, but we’ve all had to come to terms with the fact that, in fact, there’s very little that really changes.”

CM: Repo Man, absolutely one of my all-time favourite films – was it really about nuclear war and was that all it was about? 

“Yes, well, that was what was interesting for me, I mean that aspect of it – the neutron bomb in the boot, and then it kind of became an alien, a time machine, and so on. At one point it was supposed to be a nuclear bomb, and then when they opened the boot it would destroy Los Angeles, but then it changed.”  

JD: It’s very Kiss Me Deadly (1955), isn’t it?

“Yes, that’s exactly right, a homage to Kiss Me Deadly, the thing in the box.”

CM: As I say, I’ve loved the film for years, I saw it at the right time, and it was full of Punk music, a great, driven soundtrack and a lot of humour, but the only thing that’s ever really perplexed me is why the omnipresent Magic Tree Air Fresheners?

“Oh, because I had worked for a repo man driver, and he told me that every one of the cars that he had to steal, take back to his office, you’d find one of these ‘Christmas Trees’ in it, and it was true, you had guys, just like Miller in the film, who actually collected these things, you know? So it was fascinating that this was just a piece of repo ‘lore’ which we put in the film, but it was also true.”

CM: And was it you that coined the expression ‘melon farmer’ (which has even been adopted as the title for an anti-film censorship website) as a substitute for ‘motherfucker’ for the TV edit of your film?

“Yes, the first use of the expression ‘melon farmer’ was for the cleaned-up TV version of Repo Man, I think it was actually Del  Zamora  (‘Lagarto’) who came up with ‘melon farmer’, because he had been paid to revoice the dialogue, but I wasn’t on set that day –  for me, I think that on the DVD of Repo Man, they should have two audio tracks, the original dialogue and the cleaned-up version, and let viewers decide. In fact, after I did Repo Man and Sid & Nancy I was actually a bit sick of ‘fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck’, so in Straight to Hell  (1987), my next film, nobody swore once, but when the film played in the United States, it got an ‘R’ certificate, on the basis of bad language, and the only thing I can think is that it’s the way Shane McGowan talks, and the censors just assumed he was swearing [laughs].” 

CM: Thank you so much, Alex – you have made our day.

For more information about Alex Cox’s life and work, check out his website here.

Interview: John Hillcoat

john hillcoatRoad to redemption?

James Drew has the chance to talk with John Hillcoat, the director of The Road (2009), during his visit to Brussels.

There’s no way that The Road (2009), filmed by Australian director John Hillcoat (The Proposition (2005)) could ever be described as upbeat, life-affirming, or having much good to say about the human condition.

No surprise, really – it was adapted by Joe Penhall from Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel which, if anything, was even more grim than Hillcoat’s jet-black, intense and unforgiving account of the struggles of a father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi-Smit McPhee) to survive in a world blighted by a nameless apocalypse, one that has removed seemingly all animal and most plant life, in which day-to-day existence is a battle against the elements and the few other desperate survivors, some of whom have shifted their diets to their own species, just to carry on living. So what convinced the director to take the risk with such a seemingly non-multiplex-orientated source?

“I read the novel before it was published, and it just had a huge impact on me, in a positive sense, I might add – I found it to be incredibly enriching, it totally floored me, and I also have an eight-year-old boy, so I thought, I have to make this film for him, which is actually why Cormac wrote the book too, for his own ten-year-old son.”

Hillcoat’s cast seems somewhat bereft of ‘huge’ names – true, Mortensen, Guy Pearce, Robert Duvall and Charlize Theron have obviously proved their talent in numerous films, but the absence of, say, a Tom Cruise, a Brad Pitt or similar points towards real method in the director’s choice. Did he fight to assemble his own cast?

“Oh, definitely, and Mortensen in particular was actually very hard to get originally, because he had been doing back-to-back films, and was so tired that he wanted a break – his agent told me that he wasn’t reading scripts at the time, but when she saw what the material was, she said ‘Viggo, you’re going to have to look at this, mate, before you pass’, so it was like he was hoping first that he wouldn’t like the script, then he read the book, to hopefully find that he hated what we had done with it, it was like he was really looking for a way out [laughs]. But then he realized that he was so exhausted, and understood that this would be really useful for his interpretation of the character.”

And the risk that Hillcoat took in bringing such a bleak movie to life? Didn’t he (or his producers) ever have any doubts about the story’s commercial viability?

“Oh, I knew it was going to be tough, but the thing that we hung on to was that essentially, at the end of the day, what are you left with? You’re left with hugging your child, and it being enriching, and it was this ‘love story’, between father and son, that helped the novel win the Pulitzer, without which it wouldn’t have become such an enormous bestseller and one of the most translated books ever written, if it didn’t have the accessibility that this central theme offers. The reason that it struck such a huge chord is because the heart of it is about the possibility of human goodness, even in the very worst of circumstances.”

The Road, at least to this reviewer, seems to represent a dichotomy in terms of hope and absence of hope for the future as far as humanity is concerned. Does this mean that John remains unconvinced either way himself?

“Well, I’m glad you picked up that it’s around fifty-fifty, because it’s not really about hope, it’s about humanity – it’s basically asking if you take hope out of the equation, if the world as we know it is at death’s door, what’s left? And what Cormac’s novel is saying is, well, what about human kindness? Couldn’t that remain, at the very least? And that is the point – since ancient times, we have been obsessed by the apocalypse, to begin with it was about fear of famine or drought bringing an end to civilizations, in the 1960s to the 1980s we had the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, whereas now it’s like multiple choice, but it’s fear that brings out the worst in people, makes us reactionary, it makes us aggressive. In the film, it’s a moral parable, where you can see a good person, the father, slowly lose his humanity, but it’s the boy who is able to give it back to him, and it’s a simple recognition that there may still be someone like us, which is a simple notion, but one that is ultimately more enriching an idea. The story left me so grateful for what I have right now, as opposed to thinking about what I might have in the future, or what I had in the past. What is important? I think it’s up to each of us to decide, and I hope my film works on that level.”

And you can now decide for yourselves – it’s a hard road, no question, but it’s one that you should walk.

Previously published on Expatica.com.