hillary Weston

New York City-based Film and Culture
writer. Senior Editor of BlackBook Magazine. Editorial Director of the BlackBook Tumblr.
I HEAR YOUR VOICE ALL THE TIME.
Even taken out of its context, there’s a phrase Sam Shepard once said that has always stuck with me, existing on the tip of my subconscious: 
She refers to her past as the time before she was ‘blown away.’
It’s a sentiment I have long carried with me, one that acknowledges a definable moment of impact that delineates the end of everything which has come before, a line drawn in the sand that clearly marks everything else as after. It’s a realization that has come with time and reflection, looking closely at the person I used to be, and understanding there was a particularly vulnerable period in which I was exposed to just the right alchemy to open me up to a place I’ve never visited. And that place was Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. In the ensuing years, Wenders’ film has become a state of being for me, a state of the heart which I return to time and time again to search for myself.
Paris, Texas was a mythological film for me before I had even seen it in its entirety. I dreamt about it before the credits ever rolled. In my sophomore year of college I took a class called “Broken Homes in Literature and Film” in which we were shown clips from the film and discussed them in relation to the Raymond Carver and Richard Brautigan we’d been reading. That was months before I bought the Criterion edition, but I spent the intervening time watching those clips on repeat, staring at stills, and imagining a film that I began to believe would never quite live up to all the expectations I had built up around it. Around that same time I happened upon a tattered, old collection of Sam Shepard’s plays in a bookshop on St. Marks and decided to shell out the $2.50 for it. Before I knew it, I had spent my Saturday night in tears on the couch completely enamored with the seamless juxtaposition between Shepard’s cowboy mouth and battered heart. By the time I finally did get my hands on Paris, Texas, I was hypnotized. 
There are few sensations—outside of falling in love—like the ineffable feeling that comes when a work of art truly and utterly captures you. There may be no articulating the exact feeling, but you know it when it’s there and it begins to live inside you. And with Wim Wenders’ films—whether it’s his existential poem of mortality Wings of Desire or his inventive documentaries—there’s a central theme that runs beneath them all. In his 2011 ode to Pina Bausch, Pina, she says:
What are we longing for? Where does all this yearning come from?
And it’s those words that capture the essence of Wenders‘ films— work filled with an aching sense of yearning for something which you cannot quite articulate but know as your own. Wenders once told me that Pina taught him more about men and women than the entire history of cinema without a single word, through his films—and namely Paris, Texas—he has done that for me.
Paris, Texas is actually an amalgamation of both Wenders’ sensibilities and those of writer Sam Shepard—whose Motel Chronicles inspired Wenders to write the first iteration of the film. “This film, more than others, grew from my dreams…It started with dreams of collaboration,” Wenders once said. “For a long time I wanted to work with Sam Shepard…our love of the road…his love of the west, to me, was almost a reflection of my admiration for America…he’s held onto something that most of the Americans I know today have totally lost.” (“Wim Wenders, Hollywood April ’84”)
Wenders, who grew up in post-war Germany—”where the only world I knew was destruction”—looked at the vast west of America and its stillness as a utopia. But for Shepard, the west was all he’d ever known. It’s the world he was raised in and even as he traveled to New York and found success in a world far from that which he came, all those vast western landscapes and rough-tongues remain deeply ingrained in his writing. Together, along with Wenders’ pastiche fascination of the west, and the pair’s mutual affinity for work that operates just on the edge between dreams and reality, the two were able to create something remarkably profound and beautiful. 
Paris, Texas feels out of time and place, out of reality. As in a dream, when we find ourselves existing in the middle of a moment without questioning its origin, so begins Paris, Texas—the story of Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), a man found wandering through the sweeping desert—having been missing for four years—whose reappeared without a single explanation for where he has been. In his absence, he left behind left his young son Hunter, who now lives with his brother Walt and his sister-in-law Anne. Assuming Travis is dead, the two have been raising Hunter as their own, until the day Walt gets a call that Travis has been found and is now under the care of a German doctor practicing in the middle of the desert. He travels to find him and upon finally tracking him down, brings Travis back home to Los Angeles where he’s reunited with his son. After a few days attempting to reacquaint himself with civilization, Travis decides to embark on finding Hunter’s mother Jane, who has also left without a trace—save for the name of a bank in which she deposits money for Hunter.
The narrative arc of the story continues when Hunter—once reluctant to his father’s advances—decides he wants to join Travis on the road to find Jane. But it’s the small, tender moments of the film, along with Wenders’ melancholic use of mise-en-scène that comprise of its true essence, carrying far greater dramatic weight through mood and feeling than words. The real characters of Paris, Texas are the lacerations of the soul and the “demonic attachment for a man and his only woman” (Motel Chronicles). 
Back when Paris, Texas was merely a film I’d constructed from fragments of my imagination, I always believed that I knew what it was about, was sure I understood the poetic words hanging in its vacant space, and thought I felt the aching beauty of it all. I loved it in the perverse and wonderful way you can only love something unattainable, cherishing it like a worn-out photograph that lives forever in your back pocket and has seen the world even when you could not. But it wasn’t until recently that I’ve felt I truly heard what it was trying to tell me and the what it could teach me about coping with the pain of love and the longing for that which has no name.
Perhaps this is so, or perhaps that’s simply a testament to the ways a film can live alongside you like a companion, growing with you and teaching you more as you reflect your own life back. With Paris, Texas, it’s not only about seeing it, but about the echoes it leaves behind. Yes, you can appreciate the flickering neon lights in the distance and the pastel skies cast against the browns and greens that rise in the landscape—the ode to still life Americana that once was and may never be again—but if you can’t feel the yearning in its silences or recognize the weight that comes with looking love in the eye and knowing you must let it go, you haven’t allowed yourself to fully succumb to what lies at its core.
While back in Los Angeles, after dinner one night, Travis, Walt, Anne, and Hunter sit down to watch a montage of old home video footage from a family vacation on the coast when Hunter was only a toddler. But as the Super 8 starts to roll, you realize that what they’re watching isn’t just old footage, but rather the physical manifestation of memory—an artifact of a moment lost to time. We all collect these artifacts and build monuments to love, whose essence is shroud in a pink cloud of impressions upon the brain. When we peer back into those memories that haunt us—the ones that we cover up in the daylight so that we can press on and live—they flash and burst forth with more power and more sensation than most any present moment can. It’s all those impressions of moments that Travis remembers: the way Jane lifts her arms as she twirls on the beach or her pink lips puckering or her blonde curls cascading on his neck. Her skirt bellowing in the breeze.
It recalls the end of a poem in Motel Chronicles:
Your pink lipsYour arms upstretchedI can’t breathe without youBut this circle of ribsKeeps working on it’s own.
And through these home movies that play out like images stuck on the walls inside us, Shepard’s words echo without a bit of dialogue. Jane is introduced to us as a memory, appearing on the screen from a more perfect past. Hunter, having seen the videos before, now watches them through the desolate look on his father’s face. We begin to understand for the first time that it wasn’t a lack of love that led Travis to escape, but rather the immense power of love and burden that comes with chaining yourself to someone else’s heart. 
Living through romantic woes of my own, I’ve become cognizant of just how vivid those memories can be. I’m often paralyzed by the power they hold over me, and the lucidity with which I can recall all those small, intimate moments, like scenes from a film unspooling in slow motion before my eyes. Like Jane dancing on the beach, it’s the sensory elements that haunt me. I’ll never remember the words uttered, but I can describe to you the exact color of the air or the precise curvature of our bodies’ shadow as we slow-danced in the dark. Revisiting these moments time and time again—bringing their full sensation back to life—therein lies the pain.
After watching the home movies, Hunter asks Anne if he thinks his father still loves Jane, saying he could tell by the way he looked at her, while still knowing, “that’s not really her. That’s only a movie of her a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Seeing those movies act as the spark that ignites Travis’ desire to search for her. When Hunter and Travis hit the road to go after her, they find her working in a peep booth parlor—run by John Lurie—where men can pay to sit and interact her through a one-way mirror in various settings. The men can see her, but she cannot see them. So, when Travis walks in one afternoon and she begins her usual act—brilliantly vibrant yet still harboring a palpable sadness— it’s only their voices that interact, their bodies separated, both physically and literally, by a glass of tarnished memories. She’s placed in a sparse motel setting, a place both Shepard and Wenders know so well, harkening back to their mutual love for transient spaces and the effects they have on our ability to assume an identity. Jane tries to illicit a reaction from the man on the other side of the glass but Travis remains silent. “I know how hard it is to talk to strangers sometimes. Just relax,” she says. “I don’t mind listening, I do it all the time.” But it’s as if even the mere presence of her is too much to bear, and he leaves. 
The next day he returns, but this time he picks up the phone, turns his back to her, and begins to tell a story. He details their relationship, from beginning to end: ”I knew these people…They were in love with each other…He was kind of raggedy and wild. She was very beautiful, you know?” He expresses the adventure and excitement they found in being together and how they ached to be in each other’s presence to the point where he’d quit working just to be with her. But as his story progresses you see how that tremendous passion unraveled them both, how quickly love can turn to resentment, even violence. The primal act of falling in love shakes the core of our foundation and forces most of us to submit to our emotions in a way we find frightening. What fractured Travis and Jane’s love came from the larger existential questions that linger men and women—an insular battle with self-destruction that caused a rift too large to patch. One of life’s most painful truths, although we refuse time and time again to admit it to ourselves, is that love is not enough. It may be the most profound and astonishing thing two human beings can share in this crumbling world, but it cannot fill all the gaps that rest between our bones or mend the wounds that will never heal. No matter how hard we try. 
By the end of Travis’ speech, we’ve gained more insight into their relationship than could have ever been gained otherwise. We don’t need to see their past played out before us to understand the intensity of the time they spent together or how it left scars that may never fade. As Travis talks, Wenders intersperses shots of Jane, slowly awakening to the identity man behind the glass. Finally, Travis asks her to turn out the light so that she can see him. He tells her that Hunter is waiting for her at the Meridian Hotel, Room 152.
She pounds on the glass asking him to stay. 
And then it’s her turn, finally, to voice the words she’s been carrying with her. She sits on the floor—her back to him. “I could hear you, I could see you, smell you. I could hear your voice. Sometimes your voice would wake me up. It would wake me up in the middle of the night, just like you were in the room with me.” Working in a parlor where she spends her days entertaining anonymous men is a way for her to exorcise that yearning for Travis and to feel like she has a place to put all the love that has stored up inside her. “And now I’m working here. I hear your voice all the time. Every man has your voice,” she says. And no matter the time that’s passed, how far gone he’d gone—how she learned to live in the absence he left behind—every man that walked into that room carried a piece of Travis. 
She presses her face to the glass, he looks directly at her—their reflections mingling in one another’s, evoking the Cesar Vallejo line quoted Shepard’s Day Out of Days:
Never did far away charge so close.
But instead of trying to force them back together or even appear to her physically, Travis chooses to escape yet again. He leaves Hunter in a hotel room where Jane later finds him and embraces him as their blonde locks blend together like two lost parts of a whole. Although Travis has chosen to remove himself from their presence, he isn’t abandoning them—he’s freeing them. In bringing Mother and Son together he is allowing them to exist, with each other, in a way that he knows he’d never be able to. Speaking to Travis’ decision, Shepard noted that “even pulling together the broken pieces of the past isn’t enough.” What’s shattered inside Travis is something so deep that he needs space to discover and deal with unrestrained by the emotional expenditure that comes with love, relationships, and family. Rather than stay with Jane and Hunter and allow life’s cyclical nature to rear its ugly head and corrode their family from the inside out once again, he chooses to be alone instead. That, he ultimately decides, is better than hurting them even more.
I pray for a breakfrom all thoughta clean breakin blank spacelet me hit the roadempty-headedjust onceI’m not beggingI’m not getting down on my knees I’m in no condition to fight. - Sam Shepard
Still, for the aching sadness of it all, there’s a hopefulness in the reunion that Travis has given them. Jane and Hunter now have a new beginning in which Travis’ shadow may always loom somewhere above them, but it won’t act like a weight on their lives—every man will no longer have his voice. 
Earlier on in the film when they’re are looking through an album of old photographs, Hunter asks Travis if he could feel that his parents were dead. “I never felt like you were dead. I could always feel you walking around talking, someplace,” Hunter says. But whether it’s actual death or metaphorical death, when you love someone that strongly, their presence never truly leaves you. Those pink impressions are burnt upon your brain forever. Shepard and Wenders both create hyper-sensitive realities in their work, where love is synonymous with pain and yearning and is always complex, mirroring to the broken world in which we live. 
My whole life has felt propelled by a deep longing, always desperately searching—but for what? And if I ever found it, would I even realize its presence until after it was gone? Yearning for something which you cannot name or feeling inextricably linked to a place you wouldn’t even be able to pinpoint on a map is as confounding as it is exhausting, and like Travis and Jane, its easy to look at love as a way to fill the saudade that rests over us. But its the falling that’s easy, love is what kills us. Yet when plagued by this existential ache, the affections of another person can only dull it. As I’ve come to understand what it truly means to fall prey to this kind of love myself and care for someone with the most fervent and unconditional passion—only to have to say goodbye to that love, knowing it could be no other way—have I finally heard the cries of Paris, Texas. I now see that the heartbeat of Wenders’ film isn’t just found in its overwhelming beauty, but in its desire to understand those screams that live inside us and how far we will travel to fathom their voice.
*Originally published in Issue #4 of Bright Wall / Dark Room*

I HEAR YOUR VOICE ALL THE TIME.

Even taken out of its context, there’s a phrase Sam Shepard once said that has always stuck with me, existing on the tip of my subconscious: 

She refers to her past as the time before she was ‘blown away.’

It’s a sentiment I have long carried with me, one that acknowledges a definable moment of impact that delineates the end of everything which has come before, a line drawn in the sand that clearly marks everything else as after. It’s a realization that has come with time and reflection, looking closely at the person I used to be, and understanding there was a particularly vulnerable period in which I was exposed to just the right alchemy to open me up to a place I’ve never visited. And that place was Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. In the ensuing years, Wenders’ film has become a state of being for me, a state of the heart which I return to time and time again to search for myself.

Paris, Texas was a mythological film for me before I had even seen it in its entirety. I dreamt about it before the credits ever rolled. In my sophomore year of college I took a class called “Broken Homes in Literature and Film” in which we were shown clips from the film and discussed them in relation to the Raymond Carver and Richard Brautigan we’d been reading. That was months before I bought the Criterion edition, but I spent the intervening time watching those clips on repeat, staring at stills, and imagining a film that I began to believe would never quite live up to all the expectations I had built up around it. Around that same time I happened upon a tattered, old collection of Sam Shepard’s plays in a bookshop on St. Marks and decided to shell out the $2.50 for it. Before I knew it, I had spent my Saturday night in tears on the couch completely enamored with the seamless juxtaposition between Shepard’s cowboy mouth and battered heart. By the time I finally did get my hands on Paris, Texas, I was hypnotized. 

There are few sensations—outside of falling in love—like the ineffable feeling that comes when a work of art truly and utterly captures you. There may be no articulating the exact feeling, but you know it when it’s there and it begins to live inside you. And with Wim Wenders’ films—whether it’s his existential poem of mortality Wings of Desire or his inventive documentaries—there’s a central theme that runs beneath them all. In his 2011 ode to Pina Bausch, Pina, she says:

What are we longing for? Where does all this yearning come from?

And it’s those words that capture the essence of Wenders‘ films— work filled with an aching sense of yearning for something which you cannot quite articulate but know as your own. Wenders once told me that Pina taught him more about men and women than the entire history of cinema without a single word, through his films—and namely Paris, Texas—he has done that for me.

Paris, Texas is actually an amalgamation of both Wenders’ sensibilities and those of writer Sam Shepard—whose Motel Chronicles inspired Wenders to write the first iteration of the film. “This film, more than others, grew from my dreams…It started with dreams of collaboration,” Wenders once said. “For a long time I wanted to work with Sam Shepard…our love of the road…his love of the west, to me, was almost a reflection of my admiration for America…he’s held onto something that most of the Americans I know today have totally lost.” (“Wim Wenders, Hollywood April ’84”)

Wenders, who grew up in post-war Germany—”where the only world I knew was destruction”—looked at the vast west of America and its stillness as a utopia. But for Shepard, the west was all he’d ever known. It’s the world he was raised in and even as he traveled to New York and found success in a world far from that which he came, all those vast western landscapes and rough-tongues remain deeply ingrained in his writing. Together, along with Wenders’ pastiche fascination of the west, and the pair’s mutual affinity for work that operates just on the edge between dreams and reality, the two were able to create something remarkably profound and beautiful. 

Paris, Texas feels out of time and place, out of reality. As in a dream, when we find ourselves existing in the middle of a moment without questioning its origin, so begins Paris, Texas—the story of Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), a man found wandering through the sweeping desert—having been missing for four years—whose reappeared without a single explanation for where he has been. In his absence, he left behind left his young son Hunter, who now lives with his brother Walt and his sister-in-law Anne. Assuming Travis is dead, the two have been raising Hunter as their own, until the day Walt gets a call that Travis has been found and is now under the care of a German doctor practicing in the middle of the desert. He travels to find him and upon finally tracking him down, brings Travis back home to Los Angeles where he’s reunited with his son. After a few days attempting to reacquaint himself with civilization, Travis decides to embark on finding Hunter’s mother Jane, who has also left without a trace—save for the name of a bank in which she deposits money for Hunter.

The narrative arc of the story continues when Hunter—once reluctant to his father’s advances—decides he wants to join Travis on the road to find Jane. But it’s the small, tender moments of the film, along with Wenders’ melancholic use of mise-en-scène that comprise of its true essence, carrying far greater dramatic weight through mood and feeling than words. The real characters of Paris, Texas are the lacerations of the soul and the “demonic attachment for a man and his only woman” (Motel Chronicles). 

Back when Paris, Texas was merely a film I’d constructed from fragments of my imagination, I always believed that I knew what it was about, was sure I understood the poetic words hanging in its vacant space, and thought I felt the aching beauty of it all. I loved it in the perverse and wonderful way you can only love something unattainable, cherishing it like a worn-out photograph that lives forever in your back pocket and has seen the world even when you could not. But it wasn’t until recently that I’ve felt I truly heard what it was trying to tell me and the what it could teach me about coping with the pain of love and the longing for that which has no name.

Perhaps this is so, or perhaps that’s simply a testament to the ways a film can live alongside you like a companion, growing with you and teaching you more as you reflect your own life back. With Paris, Texas, it’s not only about seeing it, but about the echoes it leaves behind. Yes, you can appreciate the flickering neon lights in the distance and the pastel skies cast against the browns and greens that rise in the landscape—the ode to still life Americana that once was and may never be again—but if you can’t feel the yearning in its silences or recognize the weight that comes with looking love in the eye and knowing you must let it go, you haven’t allowed yourself to fully succumb to what lies at its core.

While back in Los Angeles, after dinner one night, Travis, Walt, Anne, and Hunter sit down to watch a montage of old home video footage from a family vacation on the coast when Hunter was only a toddler. But as the Super 8 starts to roll, you realize that what they’re watching isn’t just old footage, but rather the physical manifestation of memory—an artifact of a moment lost to time. We all collect these artifacts and build monuments to love, whose essence is shroud in a pink cloud of impressions upon the brain. When we peer back into those memories that haunt us—the ones that we cover up in the daylight so that we can press on and live—they flash and burst forth with more power and more sensation than most any present moment can. It’s all those impressions of moments that Travis remembers: the way Jane lifts her arms as she twirls on the beach or her pink lips puckering or her blonde curls cascading on his neck. Her skirt bellowing in the breeze.

It recalls the end of a poem in Motel Chronicles:

Your pink lips
Your arms upstretched
I can’t breathe without you
But this circle of ribs
Keeps working on it’s own.

And through these home movies that play out like images stuck on the walls inside us, Shepard’s words echo without a bit of dialogue. Jane is introduced to us as a memory, appearing on the screen from a more perfect past. Hunter, having seen the videos before, now watches them through the desolate look on his father’s face. We begin to understand for the first time that it wasn’t a lack of love that led Travis to escape, but rather the immense power of love and burden that comes with chaining yourself to someone else’s heart. 

Living through romantic woes of my own, I’ve become cognizant of just how vivid those memories can be. I’m often paralyzed by the power they hold over me, and the lucidity with which I can recall all those small, intimate moments, like scenes from a film unspooling in slow motion before my eyes. Like Jane dancing on the beach, it’s the sensory elements that haunt me. I’ll never remember the words uttered, but I can describe to you the exact color of the air or the precise curvature of our bodies’ shadow as we slow-danced in the dark. Revisiting these moments time and time again—bringing their full sensation back to life—therein lies the pain.

After watching the home movies, Hunter asks Anne if he thinks his father still loves Jane, saying he could tell by the way he looked at her, while still knowing, “that’s not really her. That’s only a movie of her a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Seeing those movies act as the spark that ignites Travis’ desire to search for her. When Hunter and Travis hit the road to go after her, they find her working in a peep booth parlor—run by John Lurie—where men can pay to sit and interact her through a one-way mirror in various settings. The men can see her, but she cannot see them. So, when Travis walks in one afternoon and she begins her usual act—brilliantly vibrant yet still harboring a palpable sadness— it’s only their voices that interact, their bodies separated, both physically and literally, by a glass of tarnished memories. She’s placed in a sparse motel setting, a place both Shepard and Wenders know so well, harkening back to their mutual love for transient spaces and the effects they have on our ability to assume an identity. Jane tries to illicit a reaction from the man on the other side of the glass but Travis remains silent. “I know how hard it is to talk to strangers sometimes. Just relax,” she says. “I don’t mind listening, I do it all the time.” But it’s as if even the mere presence of her is too much to bear, and he leaves. 

The next day he returns, but this time he picks up the phone, turns his back to her, and begins to tell a story. He details their relationship, from beginning to end: ”I knew these people…They were in love with each other…He was kind of raggedy and wild. She was very beautiful, you know?” He expresses the adventure and excitement they found in being together and how they ached to be in each other’s presence to the point where he’d quit working just to be with her. But as his story progresses you see how that tremendous passion unraveled them both, how quickly love can turn to resentment, even violence. The primal act of falling in love shakes the core of our foundation and forces most of us to submit to our emotions in a way we find frightening. What fractured Travis and Jane’s love came from the larger existential questions that linger men and women—an insular battle with self-destruction that caused a rift too large to patch. One of life’s most painful truths, although we refuse time and time again to admit it to ourselves, is that love is not enough. It may be the most profound and astonishing thing two human beings can share in this crumbling world, but it cannot fill all the gaps that rest between our bones or mend the wounds that will never heal. No matter how hard we try. 

By the end of Travis’ speech, we’ve gained more insight into their relationship than could have ever been gained otherwise. We don’t need to see their past played out before us to understand the intensity of the time they spent together or how it left scars that may never fade. As Travis talks, Wenders intersperses shots of Jane, slowly awakening to the identity man behind the glass. Finally, Travis asks her to turn out the light so that she can see him. He tells her that Hunter is waiting for her at the Meridian Hotel, Room 152.

She pounds on the glass asking him to stay. 

And then it’s her turn, finally, to voice the words she’s been carrying with her. She sits on the floor—her back to him. “I could hear you, I could see you, smell you. I could hear your voice. Sometimes your voice would wake me up. It would wake me up in the middle of the night, just like you were in the room with me.” Working in a parlor where she spends her days entertaining anonymous men is a way for her to exorcise that yearning for Travis and to feel like she has a place to put all the love that has stored up inside her. “And now I’m working here. I hear your voice all the time. Every man has your voice,” she says. And no matter the time that’s passed, how far gone he’d gone—how she learned to live in the absence he left behind—every man that walked into that room carried a piece of Travis. 

She presses her face to the glass, he looks directly at her—their reflections mingling in one another’s, evoking the Cesar Vallejo line quoted Shepard’s Day Out of Days:

Never did far away charge so close.

But instead of trying to force them back together or even appear to her physically, Travis chooses to escape yet again. He leaves Hunter in a hotel room where Jane later finds him and embraces him as their blonde locks blend together like two lost parts of a whole. Although Travis has chosen to remove himself from their presence, he isn’t abandoning them—he’s freeing them. In bringing Mother and Son together he is allowing them to exist, with each other, in a way that he knows he’d never be able to. Speaking to Travis’ decision, Shepard noted that “even pulling together the broken pieces of the past isn’t enough.” What’s shattered inside Travis is something so deep that he needs space to discover and deal with unrestrained by the emotional expenditure that comes with love, relationships, and family. Rather than stay with Jane and Hunter and allow life’s cyclical nature to rear its ugly head and corrode their family from the inside out once again, he chooses to be alone instead. That, he ultimately decides, is better than hurting them even more.

I pray for a break
from all thought
a clean break
in blank space
let me hit the road
empty-headed
just once
I’m not begging
I’m not getting down on my knees 
I’m in no condition to fight. - Sam Shepard

Still, for the aching sadness of it all, there’s a hopefulness in the reunion that Travis has given them. Jane and Hunter now have a new beginning in which Travis’ shadow may always loom somewhere above them, but it won’t act like a weight on their lives—every man will no longer have his voice. 

Earlier on in the film when they’re are looking through an album of old photographs, Hunter asks Travis if he could feel that his parents were dead. “I never felt like you were dead. I could always feel you walking around talking, someplace,” Hunter says. But whether it’s actual death or metaphorical death, when you love someone that strongly, their presence never truly leaves you. Those pink impressions are burnt upon your brain forever. Shepard and Wenders both create hyper-sensitive realities in their work, where love is synonymous with pain and yearning and is always complex, mirroring to the broken world in which we live. 

My whole life has felt propelled by a deep longing, always desperately searching—but for what? And if I ever found it, would I even realize its presence until after it was gone? Yearning for something which you cannot name or feeling inextricably linked to a place you wouldn’t even be able to pinpoint on a map is as confounding as it is exhausting, and like Travis and Jane, its easy to look at love as a way to fill the saudade that rests over us. But its the falling that’s easy, love is what kills us. Yet when plagued by this existential ache, the affections of another person can only dull it. As I’ve come to understand what it truly means to fall prey to this kind of love myself and care for someone with the most fervent and unconditional passion—only to have to say goodbye to that love, knowing it could be no other way—have I finally heard the cries of Paris, Texas. I now see that the heartbeat of Wenders’ film isn’t just found in its overwhelming beauty, but in its desire to understand those screams that live inside us and how far we will travel to fathom their voice.

*Originally published in Issue #4 of Bright Wall / Dark Room*

Excerpt from Issue #4 - Hillary Weston on Paris, Texas:


"…The men can see her, but she cannot see them. So, when Travis walks in one afternoon and she begins her usual act—brilliantly vibrant yet still harboring a palpable sadness— it’s only their voices that interact, their bodies separated, both physically and literally, by a glass of tarnished memories. She’s placed in a sparse motel setting, a place both Shepard and Wenders know so well, harkening back to their mutual love for transient spaces and the effects they have on our ability to assume an identity. Jane tries to illicit a reaction from the man on the other side of the glass but Travis remains silent. “I know how hard it is to talk to strangers sometimes. Just relax,” she says. “I don’t mind listening, I do it all the time.” But it’s as if even the mere presence of her is too much to bear, and so he leaves.
The next day he returns, but this time he picks up the phone, turns his back to her, and begins to tell a story. He details their relationship, from beginning to end: ”I knew these people…They were in love with each other…He was kind of raggedy and wild. She was very beautiful, you know?” He expresses the adventure and excitement they found in being together and how they ached to be in each other’s presence to the point where he’d quit working just to be with her. But as his story progresses you see how that same tremendous passion unraveled them both, how quickly love can turn to resentment, even violence. The primal act of falling in love shakes the core of our foundation and forces most of us to submit to our emotions in a way we find frightening. What fractured Travis and Jane’s love came from the larger existential questions that linger between most men and women—an insular battle with self-destruction that caused a rift too large to patch. One of life’s most painful truths, although we refuse so often to admit it to ourselves, is that love is not enough. It may be the most profound and astonishing thing two human beings can share in this crumbling world, but it cannot fill all the gaps that rest between our bones or mend those wounds that will never heal. No matter how hard we try.”

Excerpt from Issue #4 - Hillary Weston on Paris, Texas:

"…The men can see her, but she cannot see them. So, when Travis walks in one afternoon and she begins her usual act—brilliantly vibrant yet still harboring a palpable sadness— it’s only their voices that interact, their bodies separated, both physically and literally, by a glass of tarnished memories. She’s placed in a sparse motel setting, a place both Shepard and Wenders know so well, harkening back to their mutual love for transient spaces and the effects they have on our ability to assume an identity. Jane tries to illicit a reaction from the man on the other side of the glass but Travis remains silent. “I know how hard it is to talk to strangers sometimes. Just relax,” she says. “I don’t mind listening, I do it all the time.” But it’s as if even the mere presence of her is too much to bear, and so he leaves.

The next day he returns, but this time he picks up the phone, turns his back to her, and begins to tell a story. He details their relationship, from beginning to end: ”I knew these people…They were in love with each other…He was kind of raggedy and wild. She was very beautiful, you know?” He expresses the adventure and excitement they found in being together and how they ached to be in each other’s presence to the point where he’d quit working just to be with her. But as his story progresses you see how that same tremendous passion unraveled them both, how quickly love can turn to resentment, even violence. The primal act of falling in love shakes the core of our foundation and forces most of us to submit to our emotions in a way we find frightening. What fractured Travis and Jane’s love came from the larger existential questions that linger between most men and women—an insular battle with self-destruction that caused a rift too large to patch. One of life’s most painful truths, although we refuse so often to admit it to ourselves, is that love is not enough. It may be the most profound and astonishing thing two human beings can share in this crumbling world, but it cannot fill all the gaps that rest between our bones or mend those wounds that will never heal. No matter how hard we try.”

(Source: brightwalldarkroom)

In 1970, Charles Eames gave a talk at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. In the audience that day was a 24-year-old man starving with passion, eager to be inspired, and ready to give the world a taste of all that stirred inside him. That young man was the now-iconic writer and director Paul Schrader, who has attributed Eames—the architect, problem-solver, and all around Renaissance artist—as the reason he was able to become a filmmaker. After seeing him speak, Schrader was compelled to write an article on the artist, and as he said in Kevin Jackson’s Schrader on Schrader & Other Writings, “even the notion of an article was a rouse because I sensed that here was this person standing by a door, and if I approached him, he would open that door for me.” And fatefully, he did. Schrader conducted the interview, which wound up expanded farther than he could have anticipated, after visiting Eames’ famously thriving workshop in Venice and never wanting to leave.
It’s impossible to forget one’s first life-altering inspiration, the initial exposure to a new idea that makes the heart leap and changes everything that comes after. With fresh eyes, there’s a new tune to the world as you see the emotional, psychological, and physical power of art to stimulate and create something beyond your own convention. And having been raised in the staunch Calvinist world of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Schrader was brought up on the notion that sex was strictly for procreation, movies were the devil’s work, and “ideas were the provence of language.” He was taught that emotional and spiritual feeling was to be expressed strictly through words—Eames opened his mind to the belief that “images or an object can be an idea,” and that there was a “visual logic to life.” 
After spending his early twenties writing film criticism and aspiring to make films of own, Schrader was hovering around Hollywood, unsettled by the films presented to him. What he saw were pictures that “exalted idiosyncrasy and the cult of personality,” focusing on me and not we, highlighting the importance of individuality as a means of understanding oneself on a greater level. However, through his time spent admiring Eames and learning from his work, Schrader came to find a person who exposed him that to the idea that the cult of personality was in fact ephemeral, flowing from one person to the next, uniting humanity with a deeper kind of likeness.
Schrader claims it was that sentiment, combined with the thought that “images are ideas,” which overturned his world. The article he wrote on Eames would be published in Film Quarterly in the Spring of 1970, and was titled “Poetry of Ideas.” The focus was on Eames’ short films created with his wife, Ray, and how they exemplified something entirely unique to the cinematic tradition. Amalgamating science and technology to convey their own means of communication, Schrader said the films possessed a “unified aesthetic with many branch-like manifestations,” and that they had a “cerebral sensibility” seldom seen in the medium.
Classified as his “toy films” and his “idea films,” Eames revealed both the “definitive characteristics of commonplace objects” and “introduced a new way of perceiving ideas into a medium which had been surprisingly anti-intellectual.”   Since his earliest work, Schrader has been a writer and filmmaker who has unified both an intellectual sensibility through prose with aesthetically-rich ways to convey narrative ideas.
Jackson noted that Schrader’s “most mature films—following Eames—aspire to the condition of poetry.” But whereas Eames’ response to being referred to as a filmmaker—and someone Schrader had taken a cinematic interest in initially—was,”Who me, film?”, Schrader has always been obsessed with an “evangelical impulse to preach” his ideas to an audience. It’s his cri de coeur, he’s said, “that need to just lean out the window and yell.” And with his first major directorial work in five years, The Canyons, premiering this week, it’s compelling to look back on the beginnings of his career to understand the director he has become today. Below are some of Eames’ short films that inspired Schrader and changed his world. You can read the article in its entirety HERE, and check back later this week for our extended thoughts on The Canyons and what Schrader had to tell us about the already notorious film.  
A Brief Look Back on Paul Schrader and the Man Who Overturned His World, Charles Eames

In 1970, Charles Eames gave a talk at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. In the audience that day was a 24-year-old man starving with passion, eager to be inspired, and ready to give the world a taste of all that stirred inside him. That young man was the now-iconic writer and director Paul Schrader, who has attributed Eames—the architect, problem-solver, and all around Renaissance artist—as the reason he was able to become a filmmaker. After seeing him speak, Schrader was compelled to write an article on the artist, and as he said in Kevin Jackson’s Schrader on Schrader & Other Writings, “even the notion of an article was a rouse because I sensed that here was this person standing by a door, and if I approached him, he would open that door for me.” And fatefully, he did. Schrader conducted the interview, which wound up expanded farther than he could have anticipated, after visiting Eames’ famously thriving workshop in Venice and never wanting to leave.

It’s impossible to forget one’s first life-altering inspiration, the initial exposure to a new idea that makes the heart leap and changes everything that comes after. With fresh eyes, there’s a new tune to the world as you see the emotional, psychological, and physical power of art to stimulate and create something beyond your own convention. And having been raised in the staunch Calvinist world of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Schrader was brought up on the notion that sex was strictly for procreation, movies were the devil’s work, and “ideas were the provence of language.” He was taught that emotional and spiritual feeling was to be expressed strictly through words—Eames opened his mind to the belief that “images or an object can be an idea,” and that there was a “visual logic to life.” 

After spending his early twenties writing film criticism and aspiring to make films of own, Schrader was hovering around Hollywood, unsettled by the films presented to him. What he saw were pictures that “exalted idiosyncrasy and the cult of personality,” focusing on me and not we, highlighting the importance of individuality as a means of understanding oneself on a greater level. However, through his time spent admiring Eames and learning from his work, Schrader came to find a person who exposed him that to the idea that the cult of personality was in fact ephemeral, flowing from one person to the next, uniting humanity with a deeper kind of likeness.

Schrader claims it was that sentiment, combined with the thought that “images are ideas,” which overturned his world. The article he wrote on Eames would be published in Film Quarterly in the Spring of 1970, and was titled “Poetry of Ideas.” The focus was on Eames’ short films created with his wife, Ray, and how they exemplified something entirely unique to the cinematic tradition. Amalgamating science and technology to convey their own means of communication, Schrader said the films possessed a “unified aesthetic with many branch-like manifestations,” and that they had a “cerebral sensibility” seldom seen in the medium.

Classified as his “toy films” and his “idea films,” Eames revealed both the “definitive characteristics of commonplace objects” and “introduced a new way of perceiving ideas into a medium which had been surprisingly anti-intellectual.”   Since his earliest work, Schrader has been a writer and filmmaker who has unified both an intellectual sensibility through prose with aesthetically-rich ways to convey narrative ideas.

Jackson noted that Schrader’s “most mature films—following Eames—aspire to the condition of poetry.” But whereas Eames’ response to being referred to as a filmmaker—and someone Schrader had taken a cinematic interest in initially—was,”Who me, film?”, Schrader has always been obsessed with an “evangelical impulse to preach” his ideas to an audience. It’s his cri de coeur, he’s said, “that need to just lean out the window and yell.” And with his first major directorial work in five years, The Canyons, premiering this week, it’s compelling to look back on the beginnings of his career to understand the director he has become today. Below are some of Eames’ short films that inspired Schrader and changed his world. You can read the article in its entirety HERE, and check back later this week for our extended thoughts on The Canyons and what Schrader had to tell us about the already notorious film.  

A Brief Look Back on Paul Schrader and the Man Who Overturned His World, Charles Eames

As a student in the spring of 2011, I attended a film critic’s panel at The New School. There was a reception afterwards filled with professors and stern-looking faces I didn’t recognize and was far too shy to approach. But after finishing my third glass of wine and grabbing my sweater, I saw a someone walk out the door whom I immediately recognized but never thought I’d see wandering the halls of Eugene Lang College. It was Paul Schrader. Having admired his films for most of my adult life, my stomach dropped and I chased him to the elevator. I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Hi!” in what I can only assume was the voice of a small child escaping my body. He turned around, looked up from his phone and said, “Are you on Facebook?” “Um, yes,” I replied. “Like my Facebook page!” he said. “I’m making a movie a movie with Bret Easton Ellis. Look, here. It’s called The Canyons. We’re making it ourselves and casting only unknowns. We’re having auditions in Los Angeles this summer.” Fast forward two years. It’s the summer of 2013 and I’m in the audience sitting behind Dina Lohan at Lincoln Center while Paul Schrader sits onstage with Kent Jones praising the performance of his leading actress—Lindsay Lohan. To quote one of Ellis’ novels, “I always knew it was gonna be like this.”
The Canyons was born of a revelation between the two masters of their craft. Having come together to collaborate on a film that eventually failed, Schrader and Ellis found themselves searching for another project. Schrader wanted to direct and Ellis wanted to write, but with their shared disappointments in the past, something had to change. “So I said to him,” Schrader told me in a recent interview, “‘Listen Bret, the stuff you do—beautiful people doing bad things in nice rooms—that’s not expensive. You write it, I’ll direct it and we’ll pay for it ourselves.” And when you think about it, for the man who has become a cinematic legend for his evocative and dark films about obsession, redemption, and strained sexuality, and the novelist known for his sinister and sexual satires filled with affluent people void of a moral compass, the two are a match made in heaven—though hell might be more apt in this case. And with The Canyons, we see the oddly-fitting mold of their sensibilities, wrapped in a tale about the underbelly of the Hollywood dream and the corrosive apathy of the 21st Century.

After deciding to make a film on their own terms, Ellis quickly turned around a script, which Schrader believed was “something he’d unsuccessfully pitched in the past” and was storing his back pocket for safe keeping. But it wasn’t only Ellis’ material that lured Schrader into the production, it was the notion of what they were doing. “You need to stir the pot but you also need to have the right elements in the pot to stir,” he told me. “This was a film where a number of things should have gone wrong and they didn’t, and despite what The New York Times says in that article, that’s kind of par for the course. Every film is a walking disaster area but now we’re done.” And stir the pot they did. To tell the story of an emotionless narcissist trust-fund kid with an affinity for sexual exploitation and the emotionally fragile woman who calls herself his girlfriend but is really more of his play-toy, they cast an unlikely but sensational pairing of porn star James Deen and idol of celebrity obsession Lindsay Lohan.
Schrader once said that he is attracted to people who say one thing and do another, that he’s intrigued by the “perverse singularity of a vision”—like Travis Bickle saying ‘I gotta get healthy’ while he continues to swallow pills and guzzle beer, or Lohan herself wanting to be taken seriously as an actress while showing up late to set every day. But in her role as Tara, Lohan genuinely shines and carries the film into a territory that seems almost too good for the sum of its parts. Tuesday night at Lincoln Center, Schrader expressed his thought that she had grown out of her ingenue days and was “wearing this new phase of her career well.” That phase being her ability to take on a brassier, tougher kind of woman, in opposition to the candy-sweet roles of her youth.

Perhaps overstating a bit, Schrader even compared her to Gena Rowlands. “It wasn’t written for her,” he told me, “but let’s just put it this way: you didn’t have to reach very far.” And although one critic likened the film to that of David Lynch’sMulholland Drive and Inland Empire, the only comparison I’d drew to the beloved director of fantastical nightmares is Tara’s similarity to Lynch’s Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks. “She reminded me of one of those girls in the movies,” says one of the film’s characters about Tara, “like she knew someone was following her.” And like Palmer, Tara is both vulnerable and scared, but wearing a mask of nonchalance and strength, quivering on the inside yet still enticing from the exterior.
But whereas Tara is capable of revealing those emotions when she must, Deen’s character, Christian, lacks any sort of humanity and depth of feeling. If Sean Bateman in Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction was Patrick Bateman of American Psycho’s younger brother, then Christian is their neglected and spoiled stepbrother, filled with daddy issues, seething with jealousy, and the obsessed with control. “I would have never believed it if you told me I would be casting an adult star,” said Schrader. “I told Bret it wasn’t going to happen. This guy’s done 2,000 films and has played a lot of pizza boys and a lot of pool boys—you can’t get that out of an actor.” But strangely enough, Ellis’ desire to cast Deen was right on the mark, his chilly yet pouty face, appearing on screen like a character in the writer’s wet dreams. “At some point I just embraced the oddness of it all,” Schrader went on to say. “The unlikely pairing of someone from the celebrity culture and someone from the adult film world seemed very, very cool and like a good idea. And like I said to people at the time, if you can’t take a chance with your own money, when can you take a chance?”

For the director, sex has always played a major role in his films. But it’s never the pleasure of the act that he finds compelling, it’s the power dynamics, suffering, and turmoil that arises from our most inherent carnal behavior. And speaking to Steve McQueen’s visceral film Shame—about a sex-addicted and emotionally stunted man—Schrader noted, “One of the arguments I have with that film is that it’s so dour. Addictions are fun, otherwise they wouldn’t be addictions.” But aside from the debauchery, violence, and sex, the people that populate The Canyons are endemic to a current generation, which Schrader refers to as “spooky.”
It’s a modern generation hinged on the dichotomy between the inability to have genuine human connection or the passion that fuels creative impulse, yet are capable of over-exposing every aspect their private lives and keeping up a charade of interest from behind the mask of a screen. Upon first meeting the cast, Schrader described the film to them as “a group of twenty-something people in Los Angeles who got in line to see a film and the theater closed, but they stayed in line anyway because they had nowhere else to go.” These are characters “who make movies but don’t actually care about movies, who hook up but don’t even like hooking up. They’re people who are inhabiting the dead cinemas,” he says, which is why he’s touted the film as “post-theatrical cinema,” and these people as part of a “post-porn generation,” interspersing the story with a motif of decaying cinemas, like a constant whisper in your ear that beckons you to never forget that all this is crumbling even as you watch it. When the film was rejected from South by Southwest this year for having a “cold, deadness to it, Schrader laughed. “Of course it’s cold!” he recalls thinking, “What did you expect?”

But the coldness and the emotional remove of The Canyons feels less dead on the inside than it feels that you’re watching something you’re simply not supposed to see. The detachment of the film has a very voyeuristic, unsettling feeling to it, as if you’re peering in on someone who accidentally left their webcam open for too long. Which is not to say that the film isn’t cinematic, it certainly has its moments—like a very well-staged neon-lit foursome that turns into a sexual power play between Tara and Christian. However, much of the film does feel like a tease, alleviating the resolve of moments that could certainly have been penetrated deeper. And when I asked Schrader if he could see his twenty-something-year-old self making this movie, he fell silent for a moment. “Oh, well who knows about that,” he said. “Like anyone who works with their imagination, you kind of stumble foreword. You don’t necessarily ever know what next year’s going to bring.”
And after suggesting last night at Lincoln Center that in the future, distribution companies will dwindle with the rise of self-distribution, it’s fascinating to think just where his career will land him. But in terms of The Canyons, yes, it may an extremely divisive film and as he has always been one for causing sensation, you may not always agree with him, but it’s still a film that anyone remotely interested in cinematic culture today should make a point of seeing—whether it be in theaters or as Schrader puts it, “Must see VOD!” So in the words of his contemptible leading character, “Just nod for me, baby.”
Heading Deep Into ‘The Canyons’ With Director Paul Schrader

As a student in the spring of 2011, I attended a film critic’s panel at The New School. There was a reception afterwards filled with professors and stern-looking faces I didn’t recognize and was far too shy to approach. But after finishing my third glass of wine and grabbing my sweater, I saw a someone walk out the door whom I immediately recognized but never thought I’d see wandering the halls of Eugene Lang College. It was Paul Schrader. Having admired his films for most of my adult life, my stomach dropped and I chased him to the elevator. I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Hi!” in what I can only assume was the voice of a small child escaping my body. He turned around, looked up from his phone and said, “Are you on Facebook?” “Um, yes,” I replied. “Like my Facebook page!” he said. “I’m making a movie a movie with Bret Easton Ellis. Look, here. It’s called The Canyons. We’re making it ourselves and casting only unknowns. We’re having auditions in Los Angeles this summer.” Fast forward two years. It’s the summer of 2013 and I’m in the audience sitting behind Dina Lohan at Lincoln Center while Paul Schrader sits onstage with Kent Jones praising the performance of his leading actress—Lindsay Lohan. To quote one of Ellis’ novels, “I always knew it was gonna be like this.”

The Canyons was born of a revelation between the two masters of their craft. Having come together to collaborate on a film that eventually failed, Schrader and Ellis found themselves searching for another project. Schrader wanted to direct and Ellis wanted to write, but with their shared disappointments in the past, something had to change. “So I said to him,” Schrader told me in a recent interview, “‘Listen Bret, the stuff you do—beautiful people doing bad things in nice rooms—that’s not expensive. You write it, I’ll direct it and we’ll pay for it ourselves.” And when you think about it, for the man who has become a cinematic legend for his evocative and dark films about obsession, redemption, and strained sexuality, and the novelist known for his sinister and sexual satires filled with affluent people void of a moral compass, the two are a match made in heaven—though hell might be more apt in this case. And with The Canyons, we see the oddly-fitting mold of their sensibilities, wrapped in a tale about the underbelly of the Hollywood dream and the corrosive apathy of the 21st Century.

c

After deciding to make a film on their own terms, Ellis quickly turned around a script, which Schrader believed was “something he’d unsuccessfully pitched in the past” and was storing his back pocket for safe keeping. But it wasn’t only Ellis’ material that lured Schrader into the production, it was the notion of what they were doing. “You need to stir the pot but you also need to have the right elements in the pot to stir,” he told me. “This was a film where a number of things should have gone wrong and they didn’t, and despite what The New York Times says in that article, that’s kind of par for the course. Every film is a walking disaster area but now we’re done.” And stir the pot they did. To tell the story of an emotionless narcissist trust-fund kid with an affinity for sexual exploitation and the emotionally fragile woman who calls herself his girlfriend but is really more of his play-toy, they cast an unlikely but sensational pairing of porn star James Deen and idol of celebrity obsession Lindsay Lohan.

Schrader once said that he is attracted to people who say one thing and do another, that he’s intrigued by the “perverse singularity of a vision”—like Travis Bickle saying ‘I gotta get healthy’ while he continues to swallow pills and guzzle beer, or Lohan herself wanting to be taken seriously as an actress while showing up late to set every day. But in her role as Tara, Lohan genuinely shines and carries the film into a territory that seems almost too good for the sum of its parts. Tuesday night at Lincoln Center, Schrader expressed his thought that she had grown out of her ingenue days and was “wearing this new phase of her career well.” That phase being her ability to take on a brassier, tougher kind of woman, in opposition to the candy-sweet roles of her youth.

e

Perhaps overstating a bit, Schrader even compared her to Gena Rowlands. “It wasn’t written for her,” he told me, “but let’s just put it this way: you didn’t have to reach very far.” And although one critic likened the film to that of David Lynch’sMulholland Drive and Inland Empire, the only comparison I’d drew to the beloved director of fantastical nightmares is Tara’s similarity to Lynch’s Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks. “She reminded me of one of those girls in the movies,” says one of the film’s characters about Tara, “like she knew someone was following her.” And like Palmer, Tara is both vulnerable and scared, but wearing a mask of nonchalance and strength, quivering on the inside yet still enticing from the exterior.

But whereas Tara is capable of revealing those emotions when she must, Deen’s character, Christian, lacks any sort of humanity and depth of feeling. If Sean Bateman in Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction was Patrick Bateman of American Psycho’s younger brother, then Christian is their neglected and spoiled stepbrother, filled with daddy issues, seething with jealousy, and the obsessed with control. “I would have never believed it if you told me I would be casting an adult star,” said Schrader. “I told Bret it wasn’t going to happen. This guy’s done 2,000 films and has played a lot of pizza boys and a lot of pool boys—you can’t get that out of an actor.” But strangely enough, Ellis’ desire to cast Deen was right on the mark, his chilly yet pouty face, appearing on screen like a character in the writer’s wet dreams. “At some point I just embraced the oddness of it all,” Schrader went on to say. “The unlikely pairing of someone from the celebrity culture and someone from the adult film world seemed very, very cool and like a good idea. And like I said to people at the time, if you can’t take a chance with your own money, when can you take a chance?”

d

For the director, sex has always played a major role in his films. But it’s never the pleasure of the act that he finds compelling, it’s the power dynamics, suffering, and turmoil that arises from our most inherent carnal behavior. And speaking to Steve McQueen’s visceral film Shame—about a sex-addicted and emotionally stunted man—Schrader noted, “One of the arguments I have with that film is that it’s so dour. Addictions are fun, otherwise they wouldn’t be addictions.” But aside from the debauchery, violence, and sex, the people that populate The Canyons are endemic to a current generation, which Schrader refers to as “spooky.”

It’s a modern generation hinged on the dichotomy between the inability to have genuine human connection or the passion that fuels creative impulse, yet are capable of over-exposing every aspect their private lives and keeping up a charade of interest from behind the mask of a screen. Upon first meeting the cast, Schrader described the film to them as “a group of twenty-something people in Los Angeles who got in line to see a film and the theater closed, but they stayed in line anyway because they had nowhere else to go.” These are characters “who make movies but don’t actually care about movies, who hook up but don’t even like hooking up. They’re people who are inhabiting the dead cinemas,” he says, which is why he’s touted the film as “post-theatrical cinema,” and these people as part of a “post-porn generation,” interspersing the story with a motif of decaying cinemas, like a constant whisper in your ear that beckons you to never forget that all this is crumbling even as you watch it. When the film was rejected from South by Southwest this year for having a “cold, deadness to it, Schrader laughed. “Of course it’s cold!” he recalls thinking, “What did you expect?”

c

But the coldness and the emotional remove of The Canyons feels less dead on the inside than it feels that you’re watching something you’re simply not supposed to see. The detachment of the film has a very voyeuristic, unsettling feeling to it, as if you’re peering in on someone who accidentally left their webcam open for too long. Which is not to say that the film isn’t cinematic, it certainly has its moments—like a very well-staged neon-lit foursome that turns into a sexual power play between Tara and Christian. However, much of the film does feel like a tease, alleviating the resolve of moments that could certainly have been penetrated deeper. And when I asked Schrader if he could see his twenty-something-year-old self making this movie, he fell silent for a moment. “Oh, well who knows about that,” he said. “Like anyone who works with their imagination, you kind of stumble foreword. You don’t necessarily ever know what next year’s going to bring.”

And after suggesting last night at Lincoln Center that in the future, distribution companies will dwindle with the rise of self-distribution, it’s fascinating to think just where his career will land him. But in terms of The Canyons, yes, it may an extremely divisive film and as he has always been one for causing sensation, you may not always agree with him, but it’s still a film that anyone remotely interested in cinematic culture today should make a point of seeing—whether it be in theaters or as Schrader puts it, “Must see VOD!” So in the words of his contemptible leading character, “Just nod for me, baby.”

Heading Deep Into ‘The Canyons’ With Director Paul Schrader

A bowl of freshly cut strawberries sits between me and filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer. We don’t touch them. Delicious fruit isn’t exactly appetizing for a conversation about mass murder—so we stick to our black coffees. Although welcoming and open as a person, Oppenheimer has made a film so chilling that, having watched it the night before, a strange aftertaste still lingers in my mouth. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the film—I did, very much. But it’s a film that haunts you well after the credits have rolled.
The brilliant Texas-born director’s latest film,The Act of Killing, exposes its frightening subjects with a generosity and candor that you’re at once drawn to, yet viscerally unable to wrestle with. What you’re hearing and seeing on screen so unnerving that it almost feels like fiction. Executive produced by documentary film legends Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, Oppenheimer’s work focuses on the perpetrators behind the Indonesian genocide that occurred in the mid-1960s, a mass murdering of communists and Chinese by the death squad leaders who ushered in a regime of fear over the nation. But rather than simply tell the overarching story of these heinous acts, he worked with these now aged and troubled leaders to recreate their crimes in a highly theatrical and shocking way. Having murdered over a million people, one of the men to lead in the atrocity was Anwar Congo, whom Oppenheimer’s documentary focuses in on.

In a groundbreaking and uniquely evocative way to approach the subject, they reenact their crimes, playing out like homages to the American films that these gangsters idealized. Having spent years working in Indonesia, hearing these men’s stories and the plight of the survivors, he gives a raw and extremely personal look into the imagination and psyche of Anwar and his contemporaries. The film exists in the dichotomy of pure evil without remorse and the denial of that villainy in order to survive, and the result is a brilliantly executed exploration into a horrifying truth never before uncovered.

A couple weeks ago, Oppenheimer and I sat down to discuss the paradox of these murders’ behavior, the distinct way he went about telling this story, and the enormous effect it has had on the Indonesian people.

It’s hard to say I really enjoyed the film, but I thought it was very powerful. What was so unnerving to me, more so than the actual act of what they were doing, was the lack of remorse, or the way they’d speak so casually about it. Was that dichotomy between seeing the act and hearing about it so nonchalantly something that drove you to want to portray this?There are two things going on, actually, in the sense that when I began this work, my primary moral commitment in makingThe Act of Killing was to a community of survivors in the human rights community in Indonesia—both exposing what had happened but also the nature of the regime of fear that had been built on the basis of celebrating mass killing. Primarily, the task or the goal was to unmask this regime for Indonesians themselves, not to expose it to foreign viewers—although the fact that it does that is fine. When I started the film, I saw the boasting about atrocities as an allegory for impunity, as exemplifying impunity, as an instance in which a whole regime had come to regard it as acceptable to celebrate atrocity—and in that sense, it was the fodder for an expose. On the other, the main character in The Act of Killing, Anwar, he was the 41st perpetrator with whom I filmed. But they were all open like that, and that scene on the roof was the very first time I filmed with him and the very second day I knew him. By the time I met them they were all boastful and all welcoming to take me to the places where they killed, showed me how they’d gone about it, launching into these very spontaneous demonstrations of how they killed. 

I was asking myself: precisely what is the nature of this boasting, why are they boasting, for whom are they boasting, how do they want to be seen, how do they think I would see them? I would film them telling these horrible things in front of their grandchildren and think: how do they want their grandchildren to remember them when they die, and ultimately how do they see themselves? And yet, I think what’s unsettling about the film in part—and what I hope viewers take from it—is that the boasting is not what it seems necessarily. At first we see it as a sign of total lack of remorse, which I think it’s not, and we also see it as a sign of immunity, which it is. When I say it’s not a lack of remorse, what I mean is—take the scene on the roof with Anwar showing the killings with the wire. Then he launches into the cha cha and there’s hardly a greater outrage that he could do in that spot. But he says he’s a good dancer because he’s been drinking, taking drugs, going out dancing trying to forget what he’s done. So his conscience and his trauma is present from the very start, and he’s trying to deny it, and so much of the boasting, it turns out, is a desperate effort to convince himself that what he did was okay.

Because how is he supposed to live and look in the mirror everyday if not?Exactly. And so then there’s a paradox there which crept on me just as I think it creeps up on viewers: the boasting and the lack of remorse is actually the opposite. It’s a sign of humanity. And this symptom of being human and finding it difficult, traumatic, and wrong to kill and knowing that it’s wrong to kill is underpinning these grotesque justifications, even celebration of killing. I’m sure if you or I had killed and got away with it, yet had the opportunity to justify what we’d done because we got away with it and because we got encouraged to do it by the state or whatever, I’m sure we would, because otherwise, like you said, you have to look yourself in the mirror and see a murderer.

But this paradox becomes tragic because having once killed and having it justified, that demands that you commit further evil, that you kill again. Because if now if I killed and I come to you and say, “It was awful, it was terrible, it made me ill, I’m having nightmares, it made me sick,” and you look me in the eye and say, “No, look me in the eye, never say that it was fine, you did the right thing.” And I say, “No, no, it was awful it made me sick, I can’t live with myself,” and you say, “No, no you did the right thing it was correct, look me in the eye.” And then out of desperation I say, “Okay, it was right,” and then you say to me, “Now kill that person for the same reason.” Well then I have to—otherwise it was like admitting it was wrong the first time. So there’s this downward spiral of moral corruption and evil that destroys Anwar, but has also destroyed a whole regime and the values of a whole system.

And even the victims and the people living in these communities. It’s so engrained in their daily lives that these threats are present and know that the people who’ve killed those they loved, and more often than not very brutally, are living right beside them. What brought you into these people’s lives?In 2001 I knew nothing about Indonesia. But I was developing experimental performative documentary methods in London in making a transition from trying to make fiction films to making something much more immediate that was more of a hybrid form. A friend asked me would I like to try to really develop those methods but in the context of film about globalization and working with a community struggling to organize a union amidst terrible conditions in a place where unions had recently been illegal. I could have been sent to Columbia, India, or a variety of places for this and I was sent to Indonesia and found myself in this plantation community. This was a community of survivors and the women workers were spraying a herbicide which was dissolving their livers and killing them in their 40s. They were struggling to organize a union so that they could get this herbicide banned and their biggest obstacle in the union had been fear. Because their parents and grandparents had been in a union and until 1965 they were accused of being communist sympathizers because of that—like the witch-hunting and McCarthyism in the states. They were put in concentration camps and then dispatched by the local army to local death squads to be killed. 

This was my first encounter with this history. Meanwhile, my next door neighbor in this village turned out to be someone who had been the manager of the whole plantation because he’d wiped out the communists there. I asked him what he meant by that and he said the union members were all pro-communist and he would beat them up  until they were unconscious and men would bring them to him one by one and they’d beat them up and then drown them in an irrigation ditch when they were unconscious. And he told this story laughingly in front of his ten-year-old granddaughter who watched as if she’s heard this many times before. And that’s when I first encountered the boasting. So I made this film about the union and then went back immediately because I felt like this was a huge story and a very important opportunity to explore how we build our normality on the basis of terror and lies and how we justify our actions with storytelling. I saw it like wandering into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust and finding the Nazis still in power. I felt this situation will demand of me whatever it requires and I will give it whatever it takes. And I don’t think I knew that I would then spend eleven years on this, but I did.

How long have you been in contact with Anwar and how did the film develop for your initial theme of wanting to expose this regime of fear?I worked with Anwar for seven years. After I made the first film, I spent a year trying to make a film with survivors. We would constantly be arrested, stopped by the military, and told we weren’t allowed to film with them. It was terrifying and we thought we wouldn’t be able to get anything done. So we talked about how we would succeed and one of the survivors said, “Josh, film the perpetrators. You met them, they will all boast like that and appear to be proud and the audience, when they see that, will see both why we’re afraid and also the nature of this regime and show Indonesians what they don’t want to see or have been too afraid to acknowledge.” I worked in close collaboration with some of those survivors but also an Indonesian crew—some were human rights activists, some were literary theory, it was an eclectic bunch—with the sense to make an Indonesian film for Indonesians. But that gradually turned into The Act of Killing.

Did it take time to build their trust and have someone like Anwar open himself up to you? Did his fascination with American cinema entice him at all to be a part of this?That may have helped with Anwar, because I’m American and because he loves American movies. He’s always loved movies because when you kill—even if you’re not a movie theater gangster like Anwar was—that execution of cutting off people’s heads, the moment of having that horrible exorbitant power makes you feel, in that moment, that you are somehow the star of your own movie and the most important person in the world.

And requires you to totally disassociated from reality from your own life.Yes, and from the community of human beings. You feel as if you’ve transcended everybody, that you’ve violated the taboo—thou shall not kill. He was the 41st killer I filmed and the first 30 I filmed were just cutting people’s heads off in batches, they were getting bus loads of people from the army and cutting people’s heads off one by one. They were not watching movies, they had no particular relationship to American movies, they were maybe drinking alcohol before so they could cope with it, and basically they were all open. But I think the method of the film and the form the film ultimately takes is not a lure get them to open up, rather, it’s a response to their openness and an attempt to try. To build their trust I simply had to be nice. 

By the time I met Anwar, I could even be fairly open about my shock. Maybe in the first couple meetings I couldn’t say “this is horrible,” but down the road I could say this is disturbing to hear and be pretty open about it. Before I met Anwar, this was my pitch and how I’d approach people, I’d say: I got your name from so and so, I’m here to find out what you did in the 60s. You participated in one of the biggest killings in human history, your whole society is based on it, your life is shaped by it, I want to understand what it means to you, you want to tell me about it, I don’t know if you want to show me what you’ve done but all of your colleagues have wanted to, and so show me what you’ve done in whatever way you wish. I want to understand what it means to you and your society, I want to understand how you want to be seen, how you see it, how you want the world to see it, maybe deeply unconsciously you see it, so show me and I’ll film the process and the making of these reenactments and I’ll combine the material. I don’t know what kind of film it will be but we’ll see. 

I think I had in mind that it would be a documentary of these men’s imaginations rather than their everyday lives. I wasn’t looking for an Anwar, I felt that I was gathering information of world historical importance and I felt like it was my obligation to record these stories, lest they should be lost as these men grow old and die. I expected to make a film with many of the perpetrators from across the region and then I lingered on Anwar because I realized in this remorse that was underpinning Anwar’s own motive for making the film, in this trauma or brokenness was the most powerful possible expose of the rot.

Where did the idea come from to reenact these killings in such a highly theatrical manner. It’s extremely jarring and allows you even to disassociate from what they’ve done because it feels almost too chilling to be real. That idea came to me out of meeting the movie theater gangsters. I was always somebody who thought that observational documentary is a myth. I feel like the idea of a fly on the wall is a lie, a fiction that we tell, a story that we tell about footage that we shoot so that the audience suspends their disbelief and appreciates the fiction that it is. If I follow you around for the day saying that I’m a fly on the wall, in fact the big event in your day is me. So in that sense, every time we film somebody we create reality with that person, and my sense is that as a filmmaker our responsibility is to create whatever reality is most insightful to the questions we’re trying to answer. And here I’m trying  to understand how these men want to be seen, how do they think the world sees, how do they see themselves and what is the nature of a whole regime built upon this? 

When I found out the army had recruited its killers from the ranks of these thugs that had this love for American movies and they started to suggest these elaborate dramatizations in the style of their favorite films, I realized, okay, if I continue doing what I said to them and allowed them to do this too, this will be the best way to answer these questions. So it came when I reached these men who actually had this love affair with American movies. And it started very organically like you see in the film. Anwar danced on the roof, I showed that footage back to him—I thought if he danced on the roof he must be in utter denial of what he did there, of the moral meaning of what he did there—so I screened that back to him to see if he would recognize some of what he’s done in the mirror of the footage and he looks very disturbed when he watches it, I think he is, and he’s very disturbed about what he did on the roof but he doesn’t dare say so.

But all he can say say is, “I would never wear white pants, I look like I’m dressed for a picnic.”And we think he’s going to say, “this makes me look bad or what have I done,” but he doesn’t dare because he’s never been forced to say anything like that—so what does he do with that feeling? He places it onto the clothes. If you think about it, what’s fueling that embellishment is his conscious from the outset and through every reenactment he stages. you of course have to be in total denial of the moral meaning of what you’ve done. So each reenactment he stages is an insistence of that denial, it’s an insistence that, “no this was nothing more than a movie.” In that sense he’s desperately trying to run away from what he’s done even though the stylization, the creation of these intimate spaces —like in the film noir scenes when it suddenly becomes quite real for him—lead him back to the horror in which he’s trying to run away. So the film therefore walks this tightrope of repulsion on the one hand, where we’re repelled by the one thing he’s done and exposing the nature of that, and then a man struggling to escape what he’s done and that’s where we empathize with a man struggling. 

Did he, or any of the men for that matter, express concern over exposing their own vulnerability on screen? I’m thinking to that scene in particular between Adi Zulkadry and Anwar where he’s telling Adi about his nightmares and Adi tells him to go to a psychiatrist. Was he worried that opening up in that way to an audience would make him look weak, even though he was still in denial of why he really should go.They’re very different men. Anwar is trying to confide in his old best friend and tell him about these nightmares. But Adi had come in saying the killing were wrong, the propaganda that the government said was the lie, we were the bad guys, and he tells all this stuff to Anwar. I took it at face value when he came in and thought this man has a really progressive perspective on this, and he tells this to Anwar and Anwar responds by saying that it’s not that easy for him and that he needs to insist on the propaganda and insist that they were right because if he doesn’t, the flood gates open. 

And his whole life is destroyed.Yes, and Adi then almost becomes troubled by his old friend’s hauntedness and responds by trivializing what Anwar’s saying. He tells him, “Oh you just have a neurological problem,” and he switches between neurologist and psychiatrist—it’s one of the funny aspects of that scene. It turns out, that’s the beginning of Adi’s arc in the film, closing down and retreating from all the progressive things at the beginnings and saying we should hide that and then Anwar starts to open up.

As a filmmaker, how do you remove yourself from the emotion of the scene you’re shooting and be present in the moment behind the camera? How are you able to look objectively at these people and not be paralyzed by your own shock or horror?At the beginning, you know that what you’re filming is really important. You’re finding out the details of how your friend’s loved ones died and as shocked as you are, you know it’s important. So you deliver and do your job and you film and you listen. Then by the time I met Anwar, I was no longer so shocked, but I never forgot my condemnation of the crimes these men committed. However, I insisted to myself, as a rule, that I would condemn the whole person who did it, because the moment you condemn the perpetrator as a monster, as a psychopath, or as an evil human being full stop, you actually dismiss a whole person, as entire life. Probably the reason you do that is to reassure yourself that you’re not like that, but the moment you do that, you close down any possibility of understanding how we as a human beings do this to each other.

Every act of evil committed in our history is committed by human beings like us, and if we care, if we make films about these issues in order to gain insight into how these things happen so we can prevent these things from happening again, we have to actually look at the reality of what happens. So I had this rule that I see Anwar as a human being and if I ever felt furious or disturbed or so angry that I couldn’t see him as a person, I would stop and take a day out or whatever I needed to and come back as one human being filming another again. That made it painful also and I don’t know if I ever liked him, but I definitely have love for him as a person. Anwar has seen the film and is okay with the film and he and I are in touch fairly regularly, even as the film is primarily embraced. 

How has Indonesia been affected by the film?It’s screening very widely in Indonesia at these big screenings by invitation or in universities. As of the beginning of April there have been 500 screenings in 95 cities and it’s getting bigger every week. Mainstream Indonesian media has started to publish really in-depth investigations of the genocide as a genocide because of the film, perpetrators no longer boast about what they’ve done because of the film, and the official story about the killings is no longer accepted by ordinary Indonesians because of it. The film has come to Indonesia like the child in the Emperor’s New Clothes, pointing at the king and saying “Look! the King’s naked and everybody knew it but had been too afraid to say it.” So it’s functioned as we wished. 

But just to go back, once you’re close to someone, you’re vulnerable to them. So Anwar would tell these awful things and it would be really painful and it gave me nightmares. When he did the film noir scenes, which culminate with him playing the victim, that was particularly horrific and it was about nine days of shooting. I couldn’t sleep throughout that and I would have nightmares and then the next night I would be afraid of the nightmares and not sleep and then have more nightmares, and so on. That cycle of insomnia and nightmares went on for about six months, but my anonymous Indonesian crew was the most important ballast for keeping me sane and vice versa, we really tried to support each other so it was bearable. 

Exposing the Nature of Evil: A Conversation With ‘The Act of Killing’ Director Joshua Oppenheimer

A bowl of freshly cut strawberries sits between me and filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer. We don’t touch them. Delicious fruit isn’t exactly appetizing for a conversation about mass murder—so we stick to our black coffees. Although welcoming and open as a person, Oppenheimer has made a film so chilling that, having watched it the night before, a strange aftertaste still lingers in my mouth. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the film—I did, very much. But it’s a film that haunts you well after the credits have rolled.

The brilliant Texas-born director’s latest film,The Act of Killing, exposes its frightening subjects with a generosity and candor that you’re at once drawn to, yet viscerally unable to wrestle with. What you’re hearing and seeing on screen so unnerving that it almost feels like fiction. Executive produced by documentary film legends Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, Oppenheimer’s work focuses on the perpetrators behind the Indonesian genocide that occurred in the mid-1960s, a mass murdering of communists and Chinese by the death squad leaders who ushered in a regime of fear over the nation. But rather than simply tell the overarching story of these heinous acts, he worked with these now aged and troubled leaders to recreate their crimes in a highly theatrical and shocking way. Having murdered over a million people, one of the men to lead in the atrocity was Anwar Congo, whom Oppenheimer’s documentary focuses in on.

In a groundbreaking and uniquely evocative way to approach the subject, they reenact their crimes, playing out like homages to the American films that these gangsters idealized. Having spent years working in Indonesia, hearing these men’s stories and the plight of the survivors, he gives a raw and extremely personal look into the imagination and psyche of Anwar and his contemporaries. The film exists in the dichotomy of pure evil without remorse and the denial of that villainy in order to survive, and the result is a brilliantly executed exploration into a horrifying truth never before uncovered.

A couple weeks ago, Oppenheimer and I sat down to discuss the paradox of these murders’ behavior, the distinct way he went about telling this story, and the enormous effect it has had on the Indonesian people.

It’s hard to say I really enjoyed the film, but I thought it was very powerful. What was so unnerving to me, more so than the actual act of what they were doing, was the lack of remorse, or the way they’d speak so casually about it. Was that dichotomy between seeing the act and hearing about it so nonchalantly something that drove you to want to portray this?
There are two things going on, actually, in the sense that when I began this work, my primary moral commitment in makingThe Act of Killing was to a community of survivors in the human rights community in Indonesia—both exposing what had happened but also the nature of the regime of fear that had been built on the basis of celebrating mass killing. Primarily, the task or the goal was to unmask this regime for Indonesians themselves, not to expose it to foreign viewers—although the fact that it does that is fine. When I started the film, I saw the boasting about atrocities as an allegory for impunity, as exemplifying impunity, as an instance in which a whole regime had come to regard it as acceptable to celebrate atrocity—and in that sense, it was the fodder for an expose. On the other, the main character in The Act of Killing, Anwar, he was the 41st perpetrator with whom I filmed. But they were all open like that, and that scene on the roof was the very first time I filmed with him and the very second day I knew him. By the time I met them they were all boastful and all welcoming to take me to the places where they killed, showed me how they’d gone about it, launching into these very spontaneous demonstrations of how they killed. 

I was asking myself: precisely what is the nature of this boasting, why are they boasting, for whom are they boasting, how do they want to be seen, how do they think I would see them? I would film them telling these horrible things in front of their grandchildren and think: how do they want their grandchildren to remember them when they die, and ultimately how do they see themselves? And yet, I think what’s unsettling about the film in part—and what I hope viewers take from it—is that the boasting is not what it seems necessarily. At first we see it as a sign of total lack of remorse, which I think it’s not, and we also see it as a sign of immunity, which it is. When I say it’s not a lack of remorse, what I mean is—take the scene on the roof with Anwar showing the killings with the wire. Then he launches into the cha cha and there’s hardly a greater outrage that he could do in that spot. But he says he’s a good dancer because he’s been drinking, taking drugs, going out dancing trying to forget what he’s done. So his conscience and his trauma is present from the very start, and he’s trying to deny it, and so much of the boasting, it turns out, is a desperate effort to convince himself that what he did was okay.

Because how is he supposed to live and look in the mirror everyday if not?
Exactly. And so then there’s a paradox there which crept on me just as I think it creeps up on viewers: the boasting and the lack of remorse is actually the opposite. It’s a sign of humanity. And this symptom of being human and finding it difficult, traumatic, and wrong to kill and knowing that it’s wrong to kill is underpinning these grotesque justifications, even celebration of killing. I’m sure if you or I had killed and got away with it, yet had the opportunity to justify what we’d done because we got away with it and because we got encouraged to do it by the state or whatever, I’m sure we would, because otherwise, like you said, you have to look yourself in the mirror and see a murderer.

But this paradox becomes tragic because having once killed and having it justified, that demands that you commit further evil, that you kill again. Because if now if I killed and I come to you and say, “It was awful, it was terrible, it made me ill, I’m having nightmares, it made me sick,” and you look me in the eye and say, “No, look me in the eye, never say that it was fine, you did the right thing.” And I say, “No, no, it was awful it made me sick, I can’t live with myself,” and you say, “No, no you did the right thing it was correct, look me in the eye.” And then out of desperation I say, “Okay, it was right,” and then you say to me, “Now kill that person for the same reason.” Well then I have to—otherwise it was like admitting it was wrong the first time. So there’s this downward spiral of moral corruption and evil that destroys Anwar, but has also destroyed a whole regime and the values of a whole system.

And even the victims and the people living in these communities. It’s so engrained in their daily lives that these threats are present and know that the people who’ve killed those they loved, and more often than not very brutally, are living right beside them. What brought you into these people’s lives?
In 2001 I knew nothing about Indonesia. But I was developing experimental performative documentary methods in London in making a transition from trying to make fiction films to making something much more immediate that was more of a hybrid form. A friend asked me would I like to try to really develop those methods but in the context of film about globalization and working with a community struggling to organize a union amidst terrible conditions in a place where unions had recently been illegal. I could have been sent to Columbia, India, or a variety of places for this and I was sent to Indonesia and found myself in this plantation community. This was a community of survivors and the women workers were spraying a herbicide which was dissolving their livers and killing them in their 40s. They were struggling to organize a union so that they could get this herbicide banned and their biggest obstacle in the union had been fear. Because their parents and grandparents had been in a union and until 1965 they were accused of being communist sympathizers because of that—like the witch-hunting and McCarthyism in the states. They were put in concentration camps and then dispatched by the local army to local death squads to be killed. 

This was my first encounter with this history. Meanwhile, my next door neighbor in this village turned out to be someone who had been the manager of the whole plantation because he’d wiped out the communists there. I asked him what he meant by that and he said the union members were all pro-communist and he would beat them up  until they were unconscious and men would bring them to him one by one and they’d beat them up and then drown them in an irrigation ditch when they were unconscious. And he told this story laughingly in front of his ten-year-old granddaughter who watched as if she’s heard this many times before. And that’s when I first encountered the boasting. So I made this film about the union and then went back immediately because I felt like this was a huge story and a very important opportunity to explore how we build our normality on the basis of terror and lies and how we justify our actions with storytelling. I saw it like wandering into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust and finding the Nazis still in power. I felt this situation will demand of me whatever it requires and I will give it whatever it takes. And I don’t think I knew that I would then spend eleven years on this, but I did.

How long have you been in contact with Anwar and how did the film develop for your initial theme of wanting to expose this regime of fear?
I worked with Anwar for seven years. After I made the first film, I spent a year trying to make a film with survivors. We would constantly be arrested, stopped by the military, and told we weren’t allowed to film with them. It was terrifying and we thought we wouldn’t be able to get anything done. So we talked about how we would succeed and one of the survivors said, “Josh, film the perpetrators. You met them, they will all boast like that and appear to be proud and the audience, when they see that, will see both why we’re afraid and also the nature of this regime and show Indonesians what they don’t want to see or have been too afraid to acknowledge.” I worked in close collaboration with some of those survivors but also an Indonesian crew—some were human rights activists, some were literary theory, it was an eclectic bunch—with the sense to make an Indonesian film for Indonesians. But that gradually turned into The Act of Killing.

Did it take time to build their trust and have someone like Anwar open himself up to you? Did his fascination with American cinema entice him at all to be a part of this?
That may have helped with Anwar, because I’m American and because he loves American movies. He’s always loved movies because when you kill—even if you’re not a movie theater gangster like Anwar was—that execution of cutting off people’s heads, the moment of having that horrible exorbitant power makes you feel, in that moment, that you are somehow the star of your own movie and the most important person in the world.

And requires you to totally disassociated from reality from your own life.
Yes, and from the community of human beings. You feel as if you’ve transcended everybody, that you’ve violated the taboo—thou shall not kill. He was the 41st killer I filmed and the first 30 I filmed were just cutting people’s heads off in batches, they were getting bus loads of people from the army and cutting people’s heads off one by one. They were not watching movies, they had no particular relationship to American movies, they were maybe drinking alcohol before so they could cope with it, and basically they were all open. But I think the method of the film and the form the film ultimately takes is not a lure get them to open up, rather, it’s a response to their openness and an attempt to try. To build their trust I simply had to be nice. 

By the time I met Anwar, I could even be fairly open about my shock. Maybe in the first couple meetings I couldn’t say “this is horrible,” but down the road I could say this is disturbing to hear and be pretty open about it. Before I met Anwar, this was my pitch and how I’d approach people, I’d say: I got your name from so and so, I’m here to find out what you did in the 60s. You participated in one of the biggest killings in human history, your whole society is based on it, your life is shaped by it, I want to understand what it means to you, you want to tell me about it, I don’t know if you want to show me what you’ve done but all of your colleagues have wanted to, and so show me what you’ve done in whatever way you wish. I want to understand what it means to you and your society, I want to understand how you want to be seen, how you see it, how you want the world to see it, maybe deeply unconsciously you see it, so show me and I’ll film the process and the making of these reenactments and I’ll combine the material. I don’t know what kind of film it will be but we’ll see. 

I think I had in mind that it would be a documentary of these men’s imaginations rather than their everyday lives. I wasn’t looking for an Anwar, I felt that I was gathering information of world historical importance and I felt like it was my obligation to record these stories, lest they should be lost as these men grow old and die. I expected to make a film with many of the perpetrators from across the region and then I lingered on Anwar because I realized in this remorse that was underpinning Anwar’s own motive for making the film, in this trauma or brokenness was the most powerful possible expose of the rot.

Where did the idea come from to reenact these killings in such a highly theatrical manner. It’s extremely jarring and allows you even to disassociate from what they’ve done because it feels almost too chilling to be real. 
That idea came to me out of meeting the movie theater gangsters. I was always somebody who thought that observational documentary is a myth. I feel like the idea of a fly on the wall is a lie, a fiction that we tell, a story that we tell about footage that we shoot so that the audience suspends their disbelief and appreciates the fiction that it is. If I follow you around for the day saying that I’m a fly on the wall, in fact the big event in your day is me. So in that sense, every time we film somebody we create reality with that person, and my sense is that as a filmmaker our responsibility is to create whatever reality is most insightful to the questions we’re trying to answer. And here I’m trying  to understand how these men want to be seen, how do they think the world sees, how do they see themselves and what is the nature of a whole regime built upon this? 

When I found out the army had recruited its killers from the ranks of these thugs that had this love for American movies and they started to suggest these elaborate dramatizations in the style of their favorite films, I realized, okay, if I continue doing what I said to them and allowed them to do this too, this will be the best way to answer these questions. So it came when I reached these men who actually had this love affair with American movies. And it started very organically like you see in the film. Anwar danced on the roof, I showed that footage back to him—I thought if he danced on the roof he must be in utter denial of what he did there, of the moral meaning of what he did there—so I screened that back to him to see if he would recognize some of what he’s done in the mirror of the footage and he looks very disturbed when he watches it, I think he is, and he’s very disturbed about what he did on the roof but he doesn’t dare say so.

But all he can say say is, “I would never wear white pants, I look like I’m dressed for a picnic.”
And we think he’s going to say, “this makes me look bad or what have I done,” but he doesn’t dare because he’s never been forced to say anything like that—so what does he do with that feeling? He places it onto the clothes. If you think about it, what’s fueling that embellishment is his conscious from the outset and through every reenactment he stages. you of course have to be in total denial of the moral meaning of what you’ve done. So each reenactment he stages is an insistence of that denial, it’s an insistence that, “no this was nothing more than a movie.” In that sense he’s desperately trying to run away from what he’s done even though the stylization, the creation of these intimate spaces —like in the film noir scenes when it suddenly becomes quite real for him—lead him back to the horror in which he’s trying to run away. So the film therefore walks this tightrope of repulsion on the one hand, where we’re repelled by the one thing he’s done and exposing the nature of that, and then a man struggling to escape what he’s done and that’s where we empathize with a man struggling. 

Did he, or any of the men for that matter, express concern over exposing their own vulnerability on screen? I’m thinking to that scene in particular between Adi Zulkadry and Anwar where he’s telling Adi about his nightmares and Adi tells him to go to a psychiatrist. Was he worried that opening up in that way to an audience would make him look weak, even though he was still in denial of why he really should go.
They’re very different men. Anwar is trying to confide in his old best friend and tell him about these nightmares. But Adi had come in saying the killing were wrong, the propaganda that the government said was the lie, we were the bad guys, and he tells all this stuff to Anwar. I took it at face value when he came in and thought this man has a really progressive perspective on this, and he tells this to Anwar and Anwar responds by saying that it’s not that easy for him and that he needs to insist on the propaganda and insist that they were right because if he doesn’t, the flood gates open. 

And his whole life is destroyed.
Yes, and Adi then almost becomes troubled by his old friend’s hauntedness and responds by trivializing what Anwar’s saying. He tells him, “Oh you just have a neurological problem,” and he switches between neurologist and psychiatrist—it’s one of the funny aspects of that scene. It turns out, that’s the beginning of Adi’s arc in the film, closing down and retreating from all the progressive things at the beginnings and saying we should hide that and then Anwar starts to open up.

As a filmmaker, how do you remove yourself from the emotion of the scene you’re shooting and be present in the moment behind the camera? How are you able to look objectively at these people and not be paralyzed by your own shock or horror?
At the beginning, you know that what you’re filming is really important. You’re finding out the details of how your friend’s loved ones died and as shocked as you are, you know it’s important. So you deliver and do your job and you film and you listen. Then by the time I met Anwar, I was no longer so shocked, but I never forgot my condemnation of the crimes these men committed. However, I insisted to myself, as a rule, that I would condemn the whole person who did it, because the moment you condemn the perpetrator as a monster, as a psychopath, or as an evil human being full stop, you actually dismiss a whole person, as entire life. Probably the reason you do that is to reassure yourself that you’re not like that, but the moment you do that, you close down any possibility of understanding how we as a human beings do this to each other.

Every act of evil committed in our history is committed by human beings like us, and if we care, if we make films about these issues in order to gain insight into how these things happen so we can prevent these things from happening again, we have to actually look at the reality of what happens. So I had this rule that I see Anwar as a human being and if I ever felt furious or disturbed or so angry that I couldn’t see him as a person, I would stop and take a day out or whatever I needed to and come back as one human being filming another again. That made it painful also and I don’t know if I ever liked him, but I definitely have love for him as a person. Anwar has seen the film and is okay with the film and he and I are in touch fairly regularly, even as the film is primarily embraced. 

How has Indonesia been affected by the film?
It’s screening very widely in Indonesia at these big screenings by invitation or in universities. As of the beginning of April there have been 500 screenings in 95 cities and it’s getting bigger every week. Mainstream Indonesian media has started to publish really in-depth investigations of the genocide as a genocide because of the film, perpetrators no longer boast about what they’ve done because of the film, and the official story about the killings is no longer accepted by ordinary Indonesians because of it. The film has come to Indonesia like the child in the Emperor’s New Clothes, pointing at the king and saying “Look! the King’s naked and everybody knew it but had been too afraid to say it.” So it’s functioned as we wished. 

But just to go back, once you’re close to someone, you’re vulnerable to them. So Anwar would tell these awful things and it would be really painful and it gave me nightmares. When he did the film noir scenes, which culminate with him playing the victim, that was particularly horrific and it was about nine days of shooting. I couldn’t sleep throughout that and I would have nightmares and then the next night I would be afraid of the nightmares and not sleep and then have more nightmares, and so on. That cycle of insomnia and nightmares went on for about six months, but my anonymous Indonesian crew was the most important ballast for keeping me sane and vice versa, we really tried to support each other so it was bearable. 

Exposing the Nature of Evil: A Conversation With ‘The Act of Killing’ Director Joshua Oppenheimer

It’s the hottest day of the summer and Nicolas Winding Refn is sitting outside in a button down shirt peeling hard-boiled eggs. When I meet the acclaimed Danish director at the Bowery Hotel, he’s eating his lunch and taking interviews in the shade, not daring to remove his sunglasses and as always, keeps it cool. This is the second time we’ve met, having previously done an interview back in 2010 for Valhalla Rising—but things were different then. Not only was I quite young and on one of my first in-person interviews with a favorite director and shaking in all-too vibrant dress, but this was before the cult of Drive and the first taste of major Refn appreciation in Hollywood. 
Known for his violent, color-drenched films that serve up his fetishistic urges on a platter, Refn’s oeuvre is as stimulating and arousing as it is coldly removed from the reality of everyday life. No matter the subject, his characters exist in a world of his own creating, a heightened place where the inextricable link between death and sex is always present and gesture speaks far louder than words. His films are aggressive and carnal yet rather than giving us a stark look at that sense of grit, he slowly inches us towards that internal fire, shining a light onto the beauty in the brutal. 

With Drive, his ferocious pop fairytale, we saw a softer side to Refn—albeit still dangerous. There was a sense of romance and tenderness we hadn’t seen before in films like Bronson, Valhalla Rising, or the Pusher films. And in the process of creating that film and exposing himself to the Hollywood fantasy, he found his American leading man Ryan Gosling, whose near-silent protagonist drove us through a bloody kinetic love story with a bite. Now having re-teamed once again for Refn’s latest feature Only God Forgives, the two prove their symbiotic ability to transcend the work of the past and punch forward into the beyond.

Set in the neon-lit back alleys and seedier parts of Bangkok, Only God Forgives is Refn’s penetrating and evocative take on the Western. It’s a film so dark—both aesthetically and tonally—that when I first arrived to see the film fifteen minutes late, I found myself sitting in the isles because there wasn’t a shred of light emanating from the screen with which to find a seat. The revenge story about the connection between mother and sons, the struggle for morality, and the fear of submission plays out like a psychotropic nightmare, aided by a brilliantly visceral score from Cliff Martinez.

Starring Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Vithaya Pansringarm, Only God Forgives is a shot to the arm of pure id Refn. He employs the close-fisted anxious aggression of his pre-Drive days while taking his visual cues from a post-Drive world, completely blanketing us in the violent underbelly of Bangkok and putting a sword to our throat. Although the film is riddled with silence and languidly glides through darkened moments, Refn manages to hold us captive with his always-present sense of ecstatic desire. He plays on the dichotomy of what’s in and out of frame as well as what we do and not know is stirring in the characters’ psyche. It’s a film that warrants multiple viewings, but only because there’s a real pleasure in the experience of disappearing into his neon dreams and bloody obsessions, and as he says: that’s where the fun is.

Yesterday, I chatted with Refn about the importance of creative acts over result, the necessity of self-indulgence, and the polarizing nature of his work.

I interviewed you back for Valhalla Rising. That was one of my first in-person interviews, so it was a little weird.
Oh, cool. Well, now we get to reunite.

Back then you said you were going to make a Western in Bangkok once you made a movie with Ryan Gosling in Hollywood–so I guess that all worked out. 
[Chuckles]

You must have had some idea of what this would be back then but did your concept of the film evolve a lot from the and through meeting Ryan and collaborating with him on story and character?
Yeah, of course. Everything always mutates into something else. I very much always encourage that process and I very much like it. I don’t want to know what it is until it’s over.

You said that Drive was a film about how much you love your wife. And seeing this, is this your ode to your mother?
Well, you can certainly read anything into it—but no, it’s not my confrontation with my mother. It’s an interesting dramatic vehicle for male, masculine dangerous characters to confront their mothers much more than it is for them to confront their fathers. 

You don’t see that often in such a violent and bizarrely sexual way. I heard Scorsese say something once about all his films were about his father protecting his brother. But what was your initial spark for the film? Did it come from an image?
I had an idea of a clenched fist symbolizing the classic fight movie symbol—the clenched fist representing male aggression. At the same time, it’s an obvious phallic symbol, so the act of sex and violence in one movement is interesting. But if you were to open your fist and show the palm, it’s an act of submission. I thought there was a movie in that.

Your films all have a very primal, carnal feeling to them that’s very sexual but you never see that explicitly. It’s much more about what’s repressed like the clenched fist. Is that deliberate?Not maybe so consciously, but maybe more of this is what I would like to see and less trying to understand it.

I really loved Bronson and this felt much more in the tone of that, a very primal aggression, which that departed a little with Drive because that was more of a fairytale. But in terms of aesthetics this felt like pushing forward into the visceral.Whenever I make a film I almost make a point out of erasing all memory of it so that the next one I do bears as little resemblance. Of course if you use the same actor it’s reminiscent, but the challenge is to do something different. But for me, the act of creativity is more exciting than the actual product. I don’t really care about the end, I care about getting to the end.

Do you enjoy that collaborative process of working with an actor and molding them into someone different with each new role?Yeah, especially when it works and then we challenge each other.

You’re certainly not one for exposition. Do you aim from that to evoke what’s really at the core of the story you’re trying to tell?I like silence because it forces other ingredients to really come into the foreground—sound, music, gesture, compositions, camera angles, lighting, structure. We’re so used to the spoken word as a way to find story. 

And spoken word wasn’t really the most necessary in this film.In this one I was interested in what was not being seen.

There’s something very haunting about what’s not shown and then when you do reveal thing, they’re extremely clear and graphic—like the scene where Mai’s masturbating, if felt like a trick to show these strong images and then hide so much around it.
It creates a  mystery between the two extremes that forces the viewer to connect the dots if they’re willing to go with it. If they’re not, they’ll just be very, very frustrated and they’ll be searching and searching—but that can also be a great experience. Remember, art is about the act of creativity.

I love Cliff Martinez’s music and your films are great at amalgamating image and sound together to create something that evokes something more than words could. How did you work with him to make this score because it adds so much to the film and submerges you so much deeper into their world.
Well, especially when you have silence, music becomes such a dominating force. It’s not only there to fill in the gaps, it’s an acting partner in the storytelling. You have a lot more discussions with your composer about what you want to evoke because it now becomes a key part. That means your relationship also becomes more intimate because the composer becomes much more a part of the storytelling. 

When this played at Cannes and going forth, the reactions have certainly been divisive. Do you enjoy that as a filmmaker, because if something’s not divisive than people are apathetic about it and what’s the point of making something that people are apathetic about?
Of course there’s a great pleasure in the act of polarization. You know you’ve touched people very deep if people can love or hate you for the same reason. But it’s never comfortable when people hate you, yet at the same time, you have to understand and respect the psyche and how it works. But I like the creativity of polarization because it means opposite ends, that’s almost what the films are: extremes.

I always seek to have a very physical reaction to a film—whether it’s good or bad, I want to feel something and if it can do that, than I usually have an appreciation for it. But that transcends to all art.And that’s what it can do. It’s almost like you know how it can just evoke you into having a good time. To have a good time, there are so many other options, why would you choose this over something else? Being violated, either in a good way or a bad way, it leaves a very strong aftermath.

You talk about being a fetish filmmaker and seem more interested in expressing those desires very strongly rather than dissecting them. Would say that’s your main drive is, to put those obsessions on screen?Oh yeah. Sure, sure. That’s what the fun is. It’s not about the result but about the process.

You shoot all of your films in chronological order. What do you find that enhances?I don’t know any other way so it’s hard for me to sit down with a list, but I do believe that it helps to create a certain uncertainty and expectation and complete, utter self-indulgent element in seeing it unfold. And art is a very self-indulgent medium and is meant to be self-indulgent—how else can you create? I always take self-indulgence as a way of understanding your obsessiveness in what you do.

Where did the idea for Kristin Scott Thomas’ character emerge from?The idea that the protagonist or antagonist was going to be his mother already evokes a lot of opportunity dramatically. The fact that she was like a insect that devours everything was almost like a movie about a man who’s chained to his mother’s womb. 

When you’re working on a film, do you find it better to isolate yourself from the creative world or to indulge in it?The older I’ve gotten I just enjoy myself. The pleasure for me not the result, it’s the act of creativity and whatever that means. That’s where the fun is. 

Obsession, Submission, and ‘Only God Forgives’: A Conversation With Nicolas Winding Refn

It’s the hottest day of the summer and Nicolas Winding Refn is sitting outside in a button down shirt peeling hard-boiled eggs. When I meet the acclaimed Danish director at the Bowery Hotel, he’s eating his lunch and taking interviews in the shade, not daring to remove his sunglasses and as always, keeps it cool. This is the second time we’ve met, having previously done an interview back in 2010 for Valhalla Rising—but things were different then. Not only was I quite young and on one of my first in-person interviews with a favorite director and shaking in all-too vibrant dress, but this was before the cult of Drive and the first taste of major Refn appreciation in Hollywood. 

Known for his violent, color-drenched films that serve up his fetishistic urges on a platter, Refn’s oeuvre is as stimulating and arousing as it is coldly removed from the reality of everyday life. No matter the subject, his characters exist in a world of his own creating, a heightened place where the inextricable link between death and sex is always present and gesture speaks far louder than words. His films are aggressive and carnal yet rather than giving us a stark look at that sense of grit, he slowly inches us towards that internal fire, shining a light onto the beauty in the brutal. 

With Drive, his ferocious pop fairytale, we saw a softer side to Refn—albeit still dangerous. There was a sense of romance and tenderness we hadn’t seen before in films like Bronson, Valhalla Rising, or the Pusher films. And in the process of creating that film and exposing himself to the Hollywood fantasy, he found his American leading man Ryan Gosling, whose near-silent protagonist drove us through a bloody kinetic love story with a bite. Now having re-teamed once again for Refn’s latest feature Only God Forgives, the two prove their symbiotic ability to transcend the work of the past and punch forward into the beyond.

Set in the neon-lit back alleys and seedier parts of Bangkok, Only God Forgives is Refn’s penetrating and evocative take on the Western. It’s a film so dark—both aesthetically and tonally—that when I first arrived to see the film fifteen minutes late, I found myself sitting in the isles because there wasn’t a shred of light emanating from the screen with which to find a seat. The revenge story about the connection between mother and sons, the struggle for morality, and the fear of submission plays out like a psychotropic nightmare, aided by a brilliantly visceral score from Cliff Martinez.

Starring Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Vithaya Pansringarm, Only God Forgives is a shot to the arm of pure id Refn. He employs the close-fisted anxious aggression of his pre-Drive days while taking his visual cues from a post-Drive world, completely blanketing us in the violent underbelly of Bangkok and putting a sword to our throat. Although the film is riddled with silence and languidly glides through darkened moments, Refn manages to hold us captive with his always-present sense of ecstatic desire. He plays on the dichotomy of what’s in and out of frame as well as what we do and not know is stirring in the characters’ psyche. It’s a film that warrants multiple viewings, but only because there’s a real pleasure in the experience of disappearing into his neon dreams and bloody obsessions, and as he says: that’s where the fun is.

Yesterday, I chatted with Refn about the importance of creative acts over result, the necessity of self-indulgence, and the polarizing nature of his work.

I interviewed you back for Valhalla Rising. That was one of my first in-person interviews, so it was a little weird.

Oh, cool. Well, now we get to reunite.

Back then you said you were going to make a Western in Bangkok once you made a movie with Ryan Gosling in Hollywood–so I guess that all worked out. 

[Chuckles]

You must have had some idea of what this would be back then but did your concept of the film evolve a lot from the and through meeting Ryan and collaborating with him on story and character?

Yeah, of course. Everything always mutates into something else. I very much always encourage that process and I very much like it. I don’t want to know what it is until it’s over.

You said that Drive was a film about how much you love your wife. And seeing this, is this your ode to your mother?

Well, you can certainly read anything into it—but no, it’s not my confrontation with my mother. It’s an interesting dramatic vehicle for male, masculine dangerous characters to confront their mothers much more than it is for them to confront their fathers. 

You don’t see that often in such a violent and bizarrely sexual way. I heard Scorsese say something once about all his films were about his father protecting his brother. But what was your initial spark for the film? Did it come from an image?

I had an idea of a clenched fist symbolizing the classic fight movie symbol—the clenched fist representing male aggression. At the same time, it’s an obvious phallic symbol, so the act of sex and violence in one movement is interesting. But if you were to open your fist and show the palm, it’s an act of submission. I thought there was a movie in that.

Your films all have a very primal, carnal feeling to them that’s very sexual but you never see that explicitly. It’s much more about what’s repressed like the clenched fist. Is that deliberate?
Not maybe so consciously, but maybe more of this is what I would like to see and less trying to understand it.

I really loved Bronson and this felt much more in the tone of that, a very primal aggression, which that departed a little with Drive because that was more of a fairytale. But in terms of aesthetics this felt like pushing forward into the visceral.
Whenever I make a film I almost make a point out of erasing all memory of it so that the next one I do bears as little resemblance. Of course if you use the same actor it’s reminiscent, but the challenge is to do something different. But for me, the act of creativity is more exciting than the actual product. I don’t really care about the end, I care about getting to the end.

Do you enjoy that collaborative process of working with an actor and molding them into someone different with each new role?
Yeah, especially when it works and then we challenge each other.

You’re certainly not one for exposition. Do you aim from that to evoke what’s really at the core of the story you’re trying to tell?
I like silence because it forces other ingredients to really come into the foreground—sound, music, gesture, compositions, camera angles, lighting, structure. We’re so used to the spoken word as a way to find story. 

And spoken word wasn’t really the most necessary in this film.
In this one I was interested in what was not being seen.

There’s something very haunting about what’s not shown and then when you do reveal thing, they’re extremely clear and graphic—like the scene where Mai’s masturbating, if felt like a trick to show these strong images and then hide so much around it.

It creates a  mystery between the two extremes that forces the viewer to connect the dots if they’re willing to go with it. If they’re not, they’ll just be very, very frustrated and they’ll be searching and searching—but that can also be a great experience. Remember, art is about the act of creativity.

I love Cliff Martinez’s music and your films are great at amalgamating image and sound together to create something that evokes something more than words could. How did you work with him to make this score because it adds so much to the film and submerges you so much deeper into their world.

Well, especially when you have silence, music becomes such a dominating force. It’s not only there to fill in the gaps, it’s an acting partner in the storytelling. You have a lot more discussions with your composer about what you want to evoke because it now becomes a key part. That means your relationship also becomes more intimate because the composer becomes much more a part of the storytelling. 

When this played at Cannes and going forth, the reactions have certainly been divisive. Do you enjoy that as a filmmaker, because if something’s not divisive than people are apathetic about it and what’s the point of making something that people are apathetic about?

Of course there’s a great pleasure in the act of polarization. You know you’ve touched people very deep if people can love or hate you for the same reason. But it’s never comfortable when people hate you, yet at the same time, you have to understand and respect the psyche and how it works. But I like the creativity of polarization because it means opposite ends, that’s almost what the films are: extremes.

I always seek to have a very physical reaction to a film—whether it’s good or bad, I want to feel something and if it can do that, than I usually have an appreciation for it. But that transcends to all art.
And that’s what it can do. It’s almost like you know how it can just evoke you into having a good time. To have a good time, there are so many other options, why would you choose this over something else? Being violated, either in a good way or a bad way, it leaves a very strong aftermath.

You talk about being a fetish filmmaker and seem more interested in expressing those desires very strongly rather than dissecting them. Would say that’s your main drive is, to put those obsessions on screen?
Oh yeah. Sure, sure. That’s what the fun is. It’s not about the result but about the process.

You shoot all of your films in chronological order. What do you find that enhances?
I don’t know any other way so it’s hard for me to sit down with a list, but I do believe that it helps to create a certain uncertainty and expectation and complete, utter self-indulgent element in seeing it unfold. And art is a very self-indulgent medium and is meant to be self-indulgent—how else can you create? I always take self-indulgence as a way of understanding your obsessiveness in what you do.

Where did the idea for Kristin Scott Thomas’ character emerge from?
The idea that the protagonist or antagonist was going to be his mother already evokes a lot of opportunity dramatically. The fact that she was like a insect that devours everything was almost like a movie about a man who’s chained to his mother’s womb. 

When you’re working on a film, do you find it better to isolate yourself from the creative world or to indulge in it?
The older I’ve gotten I just enjoy myself. The pleasure for me not the result, it’s the act of creativity and whatever that means. That’s where the fun is. 

Obsession, Submission, and ‘Only God Forgives’: A Conversation With Nicolas Winding Refn

As human beings, we’d like to assume we’re equipped to cope with emotional trauma—but we’re not. Hell, we’d like to think we’re equipped to deal with the troubles that plague our everyday existence, and yet, we’re certainly not. We may not find ourselves with “saliva dribbling out of our mouths wandering into a cafeteria with a shopping bag screaming about socialism,” or washed away on Xanax audibly reenacting old memories to ourselves in public, but life is hard—and for the neurotic and anxiety-ridden, terribly so. However, there’s always comedy to be found even in the darkest moments and it’s the ability to expose yourself to that, which helps takes a small burden off the weight of existence. And if there’s one filmmaker who has always shown us the difficulties of living with a mind that never stops running—as if being chased by a large, hairy irregular verb—it’s Woody Allen.  
For nearly half a century now, his films have possessed an emotional and psychological vulnerability that work through his own past and his own neuroses, turning his movies into a means of therapy—not only for himself but for those audience members that truly invest in his work. There’s a romantic magic and witty spirit of playfulness that pervades even his most serious films, and whether it’s Annie Hall or Midnight in Paris, they serve as an exercise in psychoanalytic release—providing a roadmap to weave through life, love, and an array of disturbed interpersonal relationships. Even when Allen himself is absent from the screen, his presence is always impressed upon his characters—be they male or female—leaving his auteuristic stamp embedded between the words.  
With his latest summer film, Blue Jasmine, Allen delivers his weightiest film in years—putting to bed the shallow, slight nature of his previous work, To Rome With Love. Whereas my main argument with the latter rests heavily in his flimsy, two-dimensional portrayal of female characters, with Blue Jasmine, Allen has written a character ferocious and full of force, allowing Cate Blanchett to deliver one of the best performances of her career. From her opening line of dialogue spoken to a kind, elderly stranger on a flight to San Francisco, you see Blanchett has completely vaporized into the skin of Jasmine—tear-stained eyes, anxious cadence, and all—fully sunken into the character’s fractured psyche. In the way that you felt exhausted—both physically and emotionally—after seeing Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master—the actor’s stamina in the role a marvel to watch—I left my screening of Blue Jasmine feeling more shaky and distressed than when I entered, my own anxiety and emotions unraveled by Blanchett’s bewitching performance.   
Like a destructive force of nature that waltzes in and sucks the air out of the room, Blue Jasmine tells the story of a woman completely in the throws of a nervous breakdown. After losing her husband, her fortune, and any sense of security, Jasmine goes out west to San Francisco to move in with her adopted sister, Ginger (played brilliantly by Sally Hawkins). As a broken-down New York socialite cast into a middle-class world populated with “losers” she doesn’t find worthy of her time, Jasmine attempts to assimilate to circumstances but finds herself trapped by her own fantasies. After changing her name from Jeanette to Jasmine in college, she re-imagined a life for herself, elevating her place in society and relying on the kindness of rich men to aide in her fantastical delusions.   
With a supporting cast of Andrew Dice Clay (as the tough blue-collar ex-husband of Ginger), Louis CK (as the seemingly romantic side-jawn of Ginger), Bobby Cannavale (the brutish yet vulnerable boyfriend of Ginger), and Peter Sarasgaard (Jasmine’s unsuspecting and ambitious boyfriend), the film lacks Allen’s typical sense of romantic flair and swaps it for a substantial and darker sense of emotion. There’s no fourth wall breaking, no slapstick, no giddy romance—even the romances in the film seem slight and tragic in comparison to the greater weight of existential and psychological unrest. It’s a colder, bitterer pill of a film from Allen than we’ve seen in recent years, and as it cuts back and forth from Jasmine’s fruitful past to her desolate present, we see how one person’s life can spiral down into oblivion as the agent of her own disaster and that of those around her.   
Cate Blanchett, Louis CK & the Cast of ‘Blue Jasmine’ on Inhabiting the World of Woody Allen

As human beings, we’d like to assume we’re equipped to cope with emotional trauma—but we’re not. Hell, we’d like to think we’re equipped to deal with the troubles that plague our everyday existence, and yet, we’re certainly not. We may not find ourselves with “saliva dribbling out of our mouths wandering into a cafeteria with a shopping bag screaming about socialism,” or washed away on Xanax audibly reenacting old memories to ourselves in public, but life is hard—and for the neurotic and anxiety-ridden, terribly so. However, there’s always comedy to be found even in the darkest moments and it’s the ability to expose yourself to that, which helps takes a small burden off the weight of existence. And if there’s one filmmaker who has always shown us the difficulties of living with a mind that never stops running—as if being chased by a large, hairy irregular verb—it’s Woody Allen.  

For nearly half a century now, his films have possessed an emotional and psychological vulnerability that work through his own past and his own neuroses, turning his movies into a means of therapy—not only for himself but for those audience members that truly invest in his work. There’s a romantic magic and witty spirit of playfulness that pervades even his most serious films, and whether it’s Annie Hall or Midnight in Paris, they serve as an exercise in psychoanalytic release—providing a roadmap to weave through life, love, and an array of disturbed interpersonal relationships. Even when Allen himself is absent from the screen, his presence is always impressed upon his characters—be they male or female—leaving his auteuristic stamp embedded between the words.  

With his latest summer film, Blue Jasmine, Allen delivers his weightiest film in years—putting to bed the shallow, slight nature of his previous work, To Rome With Love. Whereas my main argument with the latter rests heavily in his flimsy, two-dimensional portrayal of female characters, with Blue Jasmine, Allen has written a character ferocious and full of force, allowing Cate Blanchett to deliver one of the best performances of her career. From her opening line of dialogue spoken to a kind, elderly stranger on a flight to San Francisco, you see Blanchett has completely vaporized into the skin of Jasmine—tear-stained eyes, anxious cadence, and all—fully sunken into the character’s fractured psyche. In the way that you felt exhausted—both physically and emotionally—after seeing Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master—the actor’s stamina in the role a marvel to watch—I left my screening of Blue Jasmine feeling more shaky and distressed than when I entered, my own anxiety and emotions unraveled by Blanchett’s bewitching performance.   

Like a destructive force of nature that waltzes in and sucks the air out of the room, Blue Jasmine tells the story of a woman completely in the throws of a nervous breakdown. After losing her husband, her fortune, and any sense of security, Jasmine goes out west to San Francisco to move in with her adopted sister, Ginger (played brilliantly by Sally Hawkins). As a broken-down New York socialite cast into a middle-class world populated with “losers” she doesn’t find worthy of her time, Jasmine attempts to assimilate to circumstances but finds herself trapped by her own fantasies. After changing her name from Jeanette to Jasmine in college, she re-imagined a life for herself, elevating her place in society and relying on the kindness of rich men to aide in her fantastical delusions.   

With a supporting cast of Andrew Dice Clay (as the tough blue-collar ex-husband of Ginger), Louis CK (as the seemingly romantic side-jawn of Ginger), Bobby Cannavale (the brutish yet vulnerable boyfriend of Ginger), and Peter Sarasgaard (Jasmine’s unsuspecting and ambitious boyfriend), the film lacks Allen’s typical sense of romantic flair and swaps it for a substantial and darker sense of emotion. There’s no fourth wall breaking, no slapstick, no giddy romance—even the romances in the film seem slight and tragic in comparison to the greater weight of existential and psychological unrest. It’s a colder, bitterer pill of a film from Allen than we’ve seen in recent years, and as it cuts back and forth from Jasmine’s fruitful past to her desolate present, we see how one person’s life can spiral down into oblivion as the agent of her own disaster and that of those around her.   

Cate Blanchett, Louis CK & the Cast of ‘Blue Jasmine’ on Inhabiting the World of Woody Allen

In the January 1969 issue of Life, the magazine takes a look back on 1968,  focusing on everything from space exploration to the student dissent occurring internationally that would shake the foundation of youth culture and the political system. The article on the latter opened with a two-page photo spread featuring a French university student called “Danny the Red” aka Daniel Marc Cohn-Bendit—a young man who led fellow students in rebellion and “earned his nickname as much for his nihilism as his red hair.” He and those around him were demanding to be heard, claiming “it’s the system we’re fighting against,” as they continued to riot in the spring of ‘68. At that time, French filmmaker Olivier Assayas was just thirteen years old, but he, like so many of his peers, felt the effects of the unrest, living in the wake of what came before him, and hoping for a revolution. 
Opening with the Blaise Pascal quote: “Between us and heaven and hell there is only life which is the frailest thing in the world,” Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air takes us into a world of youth committed to the present. Going back to the year 1971, which he first explored with the poetic Cold Water (1994)—a film about the emotions of being a teenager—Assayas draws direct parallels between the two, yet where the former dealt in the abstract, Something is a more direct autobiographical look at his own memory of coming of age in that time. Paying tribute to those who inspired his own sensibilities as an artist, the film merges the person with the political, exploring the identity of youth in the aftermath of the May ‘68 and the choices that inform our maturation into adulthood.
It’s a film about the intersection of creative passion and ideological inclination, where self-discovery for the teenagers in the film, comes through their devouring of films, books, music, and art of the time—from the poetry of Gregory Corso to the music of Syd Barrett. As representation of his own youth, Something in the Air tells the story of Gilles (played by Clément Métayer), a high school student in Paris who finds himself swept up in the political fever of the times. However, his passion really lies in his art—painting, drawing, filmmaking—which becomes a struggle with the others around him. Heavily embedded in the countercultural movement, we follow Gilles through his various muses/love interests Laure and Christine (played by Carole Combes and Lola Créton), and the evolution of his maturity. And as Assayas is a believer that cinema is a place “where what’s lost may be found, where the world can be saved,” he recaptures his idealistic outlook on the world that he sought to be a part of. 
Originally titled Après mai, or After May, the film exists in the echoes of chaos, yet feels idyllic and gorgeously cinematic—but without over-sentimentalization or nostalgia. Rather, Something in the Air exposes the “places and emotions that exist in the daylight,” showing an arcane world slowing unraveling as a youth countercultural rebellion take precedence.
Earlier this week, I caught up with Assayas to delve further into his interest in revisiting youth, the painful truths of being a teenager, and staying true to what sparked his love of cinema.
Last weekend I saw a double-feature of Cold Water and Something in the Air, which was amazing, and seeing them together you notice so many similarities but also what makes them distinct yet from one singular vision. Why now did yo choose to revisit youth in this time? What has timed allowed for you to change or see more clearly?
In many ways it goes back all the way to when I made Cold Water. That was the first openly autobiographical film I made, and the strange thing is that it happened to be a commissioned work. It came from a producer that was producing a series of movies by filmmakers from various generations who were supposed to narrate their teenage years. So somehow it opened the door for the possibility of going forward and using elements from my own memories in my films. It took me by surprise; I think I probably knew what I was doing when I made Cold Water and it turned out to be a very important moment for me, a defining moment in many ways. It put me on track for whatever I made after that because it’s just a movie I made completely outside of the film industry—I did it with non-professional actors, we shot it in 24 days, and I had this freedom, this sense of capturing something in the poetry of filmmaking that I had been looking for in my previous films. After finishing the film I felt a sense of having opened the door on a period I had forgotten about, meaning the ’70s when I was a teenager, my formative years. And I said, okay through this movie half-consciously I have dealt with the energy of it, with everything that was lurking under the surface but somehow there was something about the surface that was missing. I had not dealt with the politics, I had not dealt with the art, with the spirituality—all the elements that made those years beautiful. So I stayed with the notion that one day I would make a film to compliment . 

Cold Water felt more as if it was dealing purely with the emotions of the time.
It has to do with the abstract energies that are more universal.

You’ve said before that your films happen by themselves, as if they’re fragments of one larger body. How did Something in the Air develop in that sense?
I often say that my movies happen by themselves in the sense that I write them and film them without any form of logic or strategy. I do them because they are the only thing I can make at that specific point. You’re drained and looking to somehow revive the desire to make a film, and all of sudden something pops up, and I just grab it and try to follow it wherever it leads me. But I’m so happy to be find it that I don’t question it too much.

With this film you merged both that emotional, personal side with the political landscape of the time. Gilles’ story was about his romantic obsession with his art and how he fit into the world but told through politics. Was there something you wanted to say about the relationship between those two elements?
Well it’s certainly something that was extremely specific of those years. The early ’70s in France—the way I experienced them—were obsessed with politics, it invaded the whole space. There was very little left for anything else, even when you were a teenager or a kid there were questions about your place in the world. Of course it has to do with France because of the aftermath of May ‘68; because that was a historical event, it was something that exploded like a bomb within the fabric of French society and it echoed profoundly. It was a failed revolution in many ways in the sense that it didn’t overthrow the government, there was no major change overnight, so it was perceived as a failure. But again, there was a sense that a successful revolution would be coming. And although that revolution never happened, the echo completely changed the values in French society. Kids are extremely sensitive to change, sensitive to what is happening in the present, they are like echo chambers. So yes, now it seems crazy looking back how focused we were on politics and how much we knew about politics. We really were extremely educated in Marxist theology and we knew about the social history of the 20th century. I don’t think it was good or bad but an interesting factor, and I don’t think anybody really ever made a movie that even remotely tried to capture that.

It seems like political beliefs were also a strong way of defining oneself, and even if you weren’t that absorbed in it, it was a way in which to figure out your identity and where you stood in the culture.
I see those years through a prism, in a very specific way, which is the perspective of a teenager who wanted to become an artist. So my vocation was more of a painter and then eventually film, and so I had a serious relationship to the politics which were extremely present in everyday life and present in our imaginations. There was no contradiction with becoming an artist while also hoping for a major change in society, it all went together. There was a very deep connection between art and politics, which is something that is part of 20th century history. 

Do you feel like young people today are outside of that?
I think they live in a very different world. Certainly the perspective of politics is very different. The political philosophy of the ’70s was very unique—it was utopian, it was in many ways very disconnected from reality. And today, there’s a lot of kids that believe the they can have an influence on the world and their generation.

But they don’t believe in such a grand spectrum of change?
They believe in amending things, they believe in fixing what’s wrong with society, they don’t believe in overthrowing society. Overthrowing and creating something new is exactly the kind of utopian thinking they do not want because it just sounds too abstract. 

In both this and Cold Water you show the connection between youth and nature—whether they’re in the woods or in these empty homes in the countryside, nature is present around them.
I grew up in the countryside, so my teenage years were not urban, they are connected to nature—be it nature or spring, which is also one of the deep differences between the two movies, how much Cold Water is a winter movie and Something in the Air is a spring, summer movie. There is also something that has to do with nature that was so much the thought, dreams, and hopes of the 1970s. There was this idea of leaving the city and establishing communes in the mountains and establishing some kind of utopian, agrarian community and it was part of the fantasy world of that time. And that’s something that even echoes in the music. When we think of the 1970s we think of prog rock but there was also folk rock and going back to the traditional folk—but there is this very deeply pastoral strain in the music and in the culture of that time and it’s really something I wanted to have in the film because it’s really he brighter side of the ’70s. It had a dark side but in this movie I wanted to show something to do with the beauty.

How did you go about choosing the musical elements of the film?
On one side you have the music, and that’s really as autobiographical as it gets; it’s really the stuff I was listening to at that age. Some of it has remained part of the culture and some has faded, but I used both. Often it’s complicated for me to choose the music for my films but this was not so difficult because there was something extremely obvious, that all of those songs were time capsules for me and so attached to my experiences in those years.

Speaking of music, I have to tell you that the scene in Cold Water, the morning after the party, that long tracking shot across the countryside with “Janitor of Lunacy” playing is one of my favorite moments ever. I found a clip online and have been watching it non-stop.
Thank you. It’s really something that wasn’t even part of the screenplay initially, and at some point I realized that I needed that shot. So I wrote it having the song in mind and I just developed the shot around the song.

In both films there’s also a very present element of fire, which seemed to signifying the energy of youth. Was that your intent?
I’m trying not to question it too much. I was hardly aware of it when I was writing and then when I was shooting I realized, oh my god I’m using a lot of fire in this film, there’s a lot of stuff burning up. And of course it’s connect to youth; youth is what burns. So I suppose there’s something maybe heavy-handed about it, but it happened on its own and I kept it in the film. There was something about it that was very connected to the film and the way things self-destruct and how art is not really meant to stay, it’s meant to be lived and appreciated in the moment and then eventually destroyed. 

I imagine there’s a large difference between filmmakers who grew up in this period of time and experienced what you did and then those who inherent this sense of chaos that was born out of it. Perhaps that accounts for the many romantic depictions of the era.
For some reason there’s a fixation with he culture in the late ’60s and early ’70s and you have so many different takes on it which fantasize those years. But as for myself, I was happy when the ’70s ended because the ideology, the utopian way, all this was completely cut off from reality and it was becoming oppressive. And yes, you have so many romantic versions of the period but you also have so much irony about it. I wanted to work simultaneously as a memoirist or a historian; my concern was really to try to get it right and hit the right note, which is a certain way of being respectful of the time and respectful of the hope. I was part of that story but I also did not want to erase the contradictions and what was ultimately wrong about the politics of those years. I think when you make movies about history and recent history, you have a responsibility because people will somehow trust you. People who were not there in the ’70s, their vision of the that time will be defined in part by how you are presenting it. So you have a responsibility to be serious about it and faithful. In the end, that’s why I use a lot of my own memories and details and anecdotes because I remembered them precisely and knew that it was solid and real and that in using them I could build something that was genuine. 

Gilles moves from painting and drawing to film, which feels like a repression of this passion; was his entrance into cinema more about his personal change? 
The film can be seen as a the story of a kid who starts with throwing things on a piece of paper and finishes with the same kid who understands that art is about representing real life characters and reviving real life characters. This path takes him from graphics and visual abstraction to be able to understand how the reality depicted by movies can be meaningful for him. He is trying, looking, experimenting, and he’s attracted to movies but not sure what kind of movies or how to appreciate them. He ends up confronted with militant filmmakers who have little to say to him, or he ends up doing some very basic job in the film industry—as I did in those years—and he feels completely out of place. Ultimately, the one moment when things open up, is when he’s in this experimental movie theater and he understands that through this notion, films made in the first person, something was happening that was speaking directly to him, where all of a sudden he understood that movies had this power to touch him deeply and at the most sensitive point. Then all of a sudden the whole path makes sense, all of a sudden he understands that’s what he was looking for, that’s what he was attracted to, and that’s where his path starts.

The female characters were very interesting because they represented two sides of himself. Christine gave him a love that he needed but was also very radical and strong, whereas Laure was more effervescent and was the creative impetus for everything he did.
In many ways they are archetypal of those times; they are really two 1970s types, but both of them existed, both of them are based pretty closely on real life characters. Also, when you are a boy and you’re a teenager, the painful truth is that girls are always a little but ahead you—they’re more mature, they’re already women when you’re a boy—and Christine and Laure, they go much further than Gilles. Gilles had this desire to go into movies and politics but he stays on the threshold whereas Christine goes all the way and she lives through it. With Laure, she really lives the life Gilles would love to live, she has this connection to art and to the zeitgeist but Laure is more of a muse, she’s really the poetic voice of his calling.

How did you go about finding these three?
When you make this kind of film, the casting’s pretty much the key. You have to trust kids with no experience. I did not want to work with professional actors anyway, so I really had to do what I usually do and cast individuals. I was not casting actors, I was looking for people who could be believable in the context of the 1970s, which is really the toughest part of it. We saw so many teenagers and they were interesting but a lot of them, they were so much of today, they had the energy, way of talking and thinking of today and they would were unthinkable in the 1970s. So it was a long journey, but in the end I realized that what I was looking for, what they all had in common was that they were artistic and they wanted to be artists—painters, musicians, filmmakers, writers—and they had these artistic ambitions that made them different, they had something deeper than other kids their age because they had more imagination, more of an inner life and it showed and transmitted to something the camera captured. I tried to protect them from the weight the film, of the responsibility of it, I tried to keep it as much of a game as I could. I took the weight on my shoulders. They would walk on the set and really walk into frame; I tried to make it as simple and casual as possible and somehow it protected something about their innocence or spontaneity, which was what I cared for the most.

Were you thinking about how teenagers seeing this nowadays would react and how it would impact them?
Obviously when you make films, you make films for a younger audience—that’s the movie crowd, it’s young. Especially when you make a movie like this, a movie that deals with youth, you hope that whatever your experience, you can transmit it, you can share it. And you don’t want to share it with people from your generation because they know of that, they went through it; you just hope that something from your experience can be meaningful or understandable to youth from another time and generation. I obviously had a first-hand experience on set because the actors in the film were ultimately very similar to the kids in the theater, so I really listened a lot to what they had to say. I was very careful to integrate their reaction, their view of those times and to understand what they got and what they did not get and what part of those years was meaningful for them. I constantly adjusted the film listening to the actors. There was some stuff I ended up cutting out because they just did not understand it; so much of the critical language of those times is just a foreign tongue to them. 

Was making a second film that revisited your youth a cathartic thing for you now that so much time has and you can really reflect upon it?
I’m sure that I did learn stuff on the way and I’m sure that I’ve become a little bit more aware of what I’m doing. But again, I’m trying not to be self-conscious. I’m trying to protect the naivety of a very spontaneous approach to cinema. I suppose it’s also one of the reasons why I constantly go back to movies with teenagers and young actors because, to me, it’s a way of going back.

A way of being reborn.
Yes and eventually being reborn as a different person—at least not losing touch with the desire and with the initial dream that attracted me to this art form. I just don’t want to envision myself as some professional filmmaker; I want to remain an individual who makes movies and the part of being an individual being foremost and essential. I don’t think it’s good when you get too skilled, you have to follow your instinct and intuition and you have to be daring when you can. Ultimately, technique is dangerous, that’s the way I’ve always seen it; so I always try to break that. 

Olivier Assayas on Revisiting the Passions of Youth With ‘Something in the Air’

In the January 1969 issue of Life, the magazine takes a look back on 1968,  focusing on everything from space exploration to the student dissent occurring internationally that would shake the foundation of youth culture and the political system. The article on the latter opened with a two-page photo spread featuring a French university student called “Danny the Red” aka Daniel Marc Cohn-Bendit—a young man who led fellow students in rebellion and “earned his nickname as much for his nihilism as his red hair.” He and those around him were demanding to be heard, claiming “it’s the system we’re fighting against,” as they continued to riot in the spring of ‘68. At that time, French filmmaker Olivier Assayas was just thirteen years old, but he, like so many of his peers, felt the effects of the unrest, living in the wake of what came before him, and hoping for a revolution. 

Opening with the Blaise Pascal quote: “Between us and heaven and hell there is only life which is the frailest thing in the world,” Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air takes us into a world of youth committed to the present. Going back to the year 1971, which he first explored with the poetic Cold Water (1994)—a film about the emotions of being a teenager—Assayas draws direct parallels between the two, yet where the former dealt in the abstract, Something is a more direct autobiographical look at his own memory of coming of age in that time. Paying tribute to those who inspired his own sensibilities as an artist, the film merges the person with the political, exploring the identity of youth in the aftermath of the May ‘68 and the choices that inform our maturation into adulthood.

It’s a film about the intersection of creative passion and ideological inclination, where self-discovery for the teenagers in the film, comes through their devouring of films, books, music, and art of the time—from the poetry of Gregory Corso to the music of Syd Barrett. As representation of his own youth, Something in the Air tells the story of Gilles (played by Clément Métayer), a high school student in Paris who finds himself swept up in the political fever of the times. However, his passion really lies in his art—painting, drawing, filmmaking—which becomes a struggle with the others around him. Heavily embedded in the countercultural movement, we follow Gilles through his various muses/love interests Laure and Christine (played by Carole Combes and Lola Créton), and the evolution of his maturity. And as Assayas is a believer that cinema is a place “where what’s lost may be found, where the world can be saved,” he recaptures his idealistic outlook on the world that he sought to be a part of. 

Originally titled Après mai, or After May, the film exists in the echoes of chaos, yet feels idyllic and gorgeously cinematic—but without over-sentimentalization or nostalgia. Rather, Something in the Air exposes the “places and emotions that exist in the daylight,” showing an arcane world slowing unraveling as a youth countercultural rebellion take precedence.

Earlier this week, I caught up with Assayas to delve further into his interest in revisiting youth, the painful truths of being a teenager, and staying true to what sparked his love of cinema.

Last weekend I saw a double-feature of Cold Water and Something in the Air, which was amazing, and seeing them together you notice so many similarities but also what makes them distinct yet from one singular vision. Why now did yo choose to revisit youth in this time? What has timed allowed for you to change or see more clearly?

In many ways it goes back all the way to when I made Cold Water. That was the first openly autobiographical film I made, and the strange thing is that it happened to be a commissioned work. It came from a producer that was producing a series of movies by filmmakers from various generations who were supposed to narrate their teenage years. So somehow it opened the door for the possibility of going forward and using elements from my own memories in my films. It took me by surprise; I think I probably knew what I was doing when I made Cold Water and it turned out to be a very important moment for me, a defining moment in many ways. It put me on track for whatever I made after that because it’s just a movie I made completely outside of the film industry—I did it with non-professional actors, we shot it in 24 days, and I had this freedom, this sense of capturing something in the poetry of filmmaking that I had been looking for in my previous films. After finishing the film I felt a sense of having opened the door on a period I had forgotten about, meaning the ’70s when I was a teenager, my formative years. And I said, okay through this movie half-consciously I have dealt with the energy of it, with everything that was lurking under the surface but somehow there was something about the surface that was missing. I had not dealt with the politics, I had not dealt with the art, with the spirituality—all the elements that made those years beautiful. So I stayed with the notion that one day I would make a film to compliment . 

Cold Water felt more as if it was dealing purely with the emotions of the time.

It has to do with the abstract energies that are more universal.

You’ve said before that your films happen by themselves, as if they’re fragments of one larger body. How did Something in the Air develop in that sense?

I often say that my movies happen by themselves in the sense that I write them and film them without any form of logic or strategy. I do them because they are the only thing I can make at that specific point. You’re drained and looking to somehow revive the desire to make a film, and all of sudden something pops up, and I just grab it and try to follow it wherever it leads me. But I’m so happy to be find it that I don’t question it too much.

With this film you merged both that emotional, personal side with the political landscape of the time. Gilles’ story was about his romantic obsession with his art and how he fit into the world but told through politics. Was there something you wanted to say about the relationship between those two elements?

Well it’s certainly something that was extremely specific of those years. The early ’70s in France—the way I experienced them—were obsessed with politics, it invaded the whole space. There was very little left for anything else, even when you were a teenager or a kid there were questions about your place in the world. Of course it has to do with France because of the aftermath of May ‘68; because that was a historical event, it was something that exploded like a bomb within the fabric of French society and it echoed profoundly. It was a failed revolution in many ways in the sense that it didn’t overthrow the government, there was no major change overnight, so it was perceived as a failure. But again, there was a sense that a successful revolution would be coming. And although that revolution never happened, the echo completely changed the values in French society. Kids are extremely sensitive to change, sensitive to what is happening in the present, they are like echo chambers. So yes, now it seems crazy looking back how focused we were on politics and how much we knew about politics. We really were extremely educated in Marxist theology and we knew about the social history of the 20th century. I don’t think it was good or bad but an interesting factor, and I don’t think anybody really ever made a movie that even remotely tried to capture that.

It seems like political beliefs were also a strong way of defining oneself, and even if you weren’t that absorbed in it, it was a way in which to figure out your identity and where you stood in the culture.

I see those years through a prism, in a very specific way, which is the perspective of a teenager who wanted to become an artist. So my vocation was more of a painter and then eventually film, and so I had a serious relationship to the politics which were extremely present in everyday life and present in our imaginations. There was no contradiction with becoming an artist while also hoping for a major change in society, it all went together. There was a very deep connection between art and politics, which is something that is part of 20th century history. 

Do you feel like young people today are outside of that?

I think they live in a very different world. Certainly the perspective of politics is very different. The political philosophy of the ’70s was very unique—it was utopian, it was in many ways very disconnected from reality. And today, there’s a lot of kids that believe the they can have an influence on the world and their generation.

But they don’t believe in such a grand spectrum of change?

They believe in amending things, they believe in fixing what’s wrong with society, they don’t believe in overthrowing society. Overthrowing and creating something new is exactly the kind of utopian thinking they do not want because it just sounds too abstract. 

In both this and Cold Water you show the connection between youth and nature—whether they’re in the woods or in these empty homes in the countryside, nature is present around them.

I grew up in the countryside, so my teenage years were not urban, they are connected to nature—be it nature or spring, which is also one of the deep differences between the two movies, how much Cold Water is a winter movie and Something in the Air is a spring, summer movie. There is also something that has to do with nature that was so much the thought, dreams, and hopes of the 1970s. There was this idea of leaving the city and establishing communes in the mountains and establishing some kind of utopian, agrarian community and it was part of the fantasy world of that time. And that’s something that even echoes in the music. When we think of the 1970s we think of prog rock but there was also folk rock and going back to the traditional folk—but there is this very deeply pastoral strain in the music and in the culture of that time and it’s really something I wanted to have in the film because it’s really he brighter side of the ’70s. It had a dark side but in this movie I wanted to show something to do with the beauty.

How did you go about choosing the musical elements of the film?

On one side you have the music, and that’s really as autobiographical as it gets; it’s really the stuff I was listening to at that age. Some of it has remained part of the culture and some has faded, but I used both. Often it’s complicated for me to choose the music for my films but this was not so difficult because there was something extremely obvious, that all of those songs were time capsules for me and so attached to my experiences in those years.

Speaking of music, I have to tell you that the scene in Cold Water, the morning after the party, that long tracking shot across the countryside with “Janitor of Lunacy” playing is one of my favorite moments ever. I found a clip online and have been watching it non-stop.

Thank you. It’s really something that wasn’t even part of the screenplay initially, and at some point I realized that I needed that shot. So I wrote it having the song in mind and I just developed the shot around the song.

In both films there’s also a very present element of fire, which seemed to signifying the energy of youth. Was that your intent?

I’m trying not to question it too much. I was hardly aware of it when I was writing and then when I was shooting I realized, oh my god I’m using a lot of fire in this film, there’s a lot of stuff burning up. And of course it’s connect to youth; youth is what burns. So I suppose there’s something maybe heavy-handed about it, but it happened on its own and I kept it in the film. There was something about it that was very connected to the film and the way things self-destruct and how art is not really meant to stay, it’s meant to be lived and appreciated in the moment and then eventually destroyed. 

I imagine there’s a large difference between filmmakers who grew up in this period of time and experienced what you did and then those who inherent this sense of chaos that was born out of it. Perhaps that accounts for the many romantic depictions of the era.

For some reason there’s a fixation with he culture in the late ’60s and early ’70s and you have so many different takes on it which fantasize those years. But as for myself, I was happy when the ’70s ended because the ideology, the utopian way, all this was completely cut off from reality and it was becoming oppressive. And yes, you have so many romantic versions of the period but you also have so much irony about it. I wanted to work simultaneously as a memoirist or a historian; my concern was really to try to get it right and hit the right note, which is a certain way of being respectful of the time and respectful of the hope. I was part of that story but I also did not want to erase the contradictions and what was ultimately wrong about the politics of those years. I think when you make movies about history and recent history, you have a responsibility because people will somehow trust you. People who were not there in the ’70s, their vision of the that time will be defined in part by how you are presenting it. So you have a responsibility to be serious about it and faithful. In the end, that’s why I use a lot of my own memories and details and anecdotes because I remembered them precisely and knew that it was solid and real and that in using them I could build something that was genuine. 

Gilles moves from painting and drawing to film, which feels like a repression of this passion; was his entrance into cinema more about his personal change? 

The film can be seen as a the story of a kid who starts with throwing things on a piece of paper and finishes with the same kid who understands that art is about representing real life characters and reviving real life characters. This path takes him from graphics and visual abstraction to be able to understand how the reality depicted by movies can be meaningful for him. He is trying, looking, experimenting, and he’s attracted to movies but not sure what kind of movies or how to appreciate them. He ends up confronted with militant filmmakers who have little to say to him, or he ends up doing some very basic job in the film industry—as I did in those years—and he feels completely out of place. Ultimately, the one moment when things open up, is when he’s in this experimental movie theater and he understands that through this notion, films made in the first person, something was happening that was speaking directly to him, where all of a sudden he understood that movies had this power to touch him deeply and at the most sensitive point. Then all of a sudden the whole path makes sense, all of a sudden he understands that’s what he was looking for, that’s what he was attracted to, and that’s where his path starts.

The female characters were very interesting because they represented two sides of himself. Christine gave him a love that he needed but was also very radical and strong, whereas Laure was more effervescent and was the creative impetus for everything he did.

In many ways they are archetypal of those times; they are really two 1970s types, but both of them existed, both of them are based pretty closely on real life characters. Also, when you are a boy and you’re a teenager, the painful truth is that girls are always a little but ahead you—they’re more mature, they’re already women when you’re a boy—and Christine and Laure, they go much further than Gilles. Gilles had this desire to go into movies and politics but he stays on the threshold whereas Christine goes all the way and she lives through it. With Laure, she really lives the life Gilles would love to live, she has this connection to art and to the zeitgeist but Laure is more of a muse, she’s really the poetic voice of his calling.

How did you go about finding these three?

When you make this kind of film, the casting’s pretty much the key. You have to trust kids with no experience. I did not want to work with professional actors anyway, so I really had to do what I usually do and cast individuals. I was not casting actors, I was looking for people who could be believable in the context of the 1970s, which is really the toughest part of it. We saw so many teenagers and they were interesting but a lot of them, they were so much of today, they had the energy, way of talking and thinking of today and they would were unthinkable in the 1970s. So it was a long journey, but in the end I realized that what I was looking for, what they all had in common was that they were artistic and they wanted to be artists—painters, musicians, filmmakers, writers—and they had these artistic ambitions that made them different, they had something deeper than other kids their age because they had more imagination, more of an inner life and it showed and transmitted to something the camera captured. I tried to protect them from the weight the film, of the responsibility of it, I tried to keep it as much of a game as I could. I took the weight on my shoulders. They would walk on the set and really walk into frame; I tried to make it as simple and casual as possible and somehow it protected something about their innocence or spontaneity, which was what I cared for the most.

Were you thinking about how teenagers seeing this nowadays would react and how it would impact them?

Obviously when you make films, you make films for a younger audience—that’s the movie crowd, it’s young. Especially when you make a movie like this, a movie that deals with youth, you hope that whatever your experience, you can transmit it, you can share it. And you don’t want to share it with people from your generation because they know of that, they went through it; you just hope that something from your experience can be meaningful or understandable to youth from another time and generation. I obviously had a first-hand experience on set because the actors in the film were ultimately very similar to the kids in the theater, so I really listened a lot to what they had to say. I was very careful to integrate their reaction, their view of those times and to understand what they got and what they did not get and what part of those years was meaningful for them. I constantly adjusted the film listening to the actors. There was some stuff I ended up cutting out because they just did not understand it; so much of the critical language of those times is just a foreign tongue to them. 

Was making a second film that revisited your youth a cathartic thing for you now that so much time has and you can really reflect upon it?

I’m sure that I did learn stuff on the way and I’m sure that I’ve become a little bit more aware of what I’m doing. But again, I’m trying not to be self-conscious. I’m trying to protect the naivety of a very spontaneous approach to cinema. I suppose it’s also one of the reasons why I constantly go back to movies with teenagers and young actors because, to me, it’s a way of going back.

A way of being reborn.

Yes and eventually being reborn as a different person—at least not losing touch with the desire and with the initial dream that attracted me to this art form. I just don’t want to envision myself as some professional filmmaker; I want to remain an individual who makes movies and the part of being an individual being foremost and essential. I don’t think it’s good when you get too skilled, you have to follow your instinct and intuition and you have to be daring when you can. Ultimately, technique is dangerous, that’s the way I’ve always seen it; so I always try to break that. 

Olivier Assayas on Revisiting the Passions of Youth With ‘Something in the Air’

Woody Allen’s Manhattan ends with the final line: “You have to have a little faith in people.” It’s a simple bit of dialogue, but entirely genuine and honest, holding a vast amount of emotional weight in its ease. Picking up where that sentiment left off is Noah Baumbach’s new film, the charmingly awkward black-and-white character study Frances Ha, whose leading lady stands out like a beacon of optimism, unwavering in her desire for more from life.
Throughout the last decade, modern meditations on post-collegiate ennui have become commonplace, but it’s rare to find a film that takes that tired convention and exposes it in a new light. Frances Ha not only reflects what it means to simply exist at that time in life and in that universe, but shows the beauty in the mistakes made along the way, underscoring the idea that just because something isn’t working doesn’t mean it’s broken. Baumbach has crafted a film that feels refreshing and contemporary yet harkens back to to such European cinematic masters as Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, and Jean-Luc Godard in its casual essence, reminding us of what we love so much about the filmmaking of days past.

Co-written with the film’s brilliant and versatile star, Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha is infused with a unique magic that comes from a true meeting of minds. If you look back on Baumbach and Gerwig’s early work, it’s evident that the two are cut from the same cloth—both sharing an affinity for a particular kind of character’s journey, dealing with a sense of malaise as they meander through life, yet filled with a yearning for more. And whereas many of Baumbach’s film’s tend to err on the side of the misanthropic, Frances Ha is a film that makes you want to go out and engage in life. It’s an inspired and intelligent love letter to cinema that never stops moving while we follow the endearingly strange Frances as she dances from life to life.

At its core, Frances Ha is both a journey of self-discovery and a love story between best friends. With Gerwig’s frank yet tender touch, we see a realistic look at a fractured female friendship and the mourning that comes from feeling as though you’ve lost a part of yourself to someone else. “We’re like the same person but with different hair,” says Frances of her best friend Sophie, who begins to drift apart after getting involved in a serious relationship. We see Frances caught in the wake of their relationship, but her spirited self never diminishes, only dulls for a moment before realizing her ambitions as a modern dancer and choreographer. As we wander with her through her days from Brooklyn to Chinatown to Paris, we begin to admire her boldness and realize that Baumbach cast a spell on us, making us fall in love with his star just as he did behind the camera.

Last week I got the chance to sit down with Baumbach to talk about his desire to showcase Gerwig’s talents, the inspiration engrained in the film, and the heroic moments of everyday life.

I’ve been a big fan of Greta’s for a while now. She can be so funny yet dramatic and has such great physicality. Did you know you wanted to make something that would play to all her abilities?
Yeah, that’s exactly what I wanted to do. We’d worked together before and I felt that she was all of those things. But I thought we could do something where she could be the center of the movie and showcase all that she could do.

As an admirer of your work, you can see what a similar sensibility you two share as writers as well. What was the initial collaboration process like—was it an easy merging of ideas?
Yeah, the writing came somewhat organically because I first approached her more as an actor. I asked if she’d want to act in something I directed but I wasn’t sure what that would be, so I asked her what she was thinking about, or things she thought could be in a movie about a 27-year-old in New York. She has such great ideas and thoughts and observations and was so funny, I felt immediately like this was a movie.

You started by writing emails back and forth?
We’d send the same document back and forth and I would respond and then she would and we’d rewrite. After a while the document started to take shape and we said, okay maybe it opens this way, and then after a while we started writing scenes.

With the love-letter-to-New York essence of the film, the music, and the black-and-white style, it would be easy for people to make a lot of Woody Allen or Manhattan allusions. Were you more influenced by Truffaut and Rohmer and the New Wave cinema that you love?
Yeah, and I always feel inspired by those guys—Truffaut and Rohmer—in all my movies. But somehow in this one the influence is clearer. There’s something about this material that it could hold a lot of potentially referential moments without them feeling heavy. There’s a moment when Frances is over for the first night with the guys and she’s saying goodbye to the girls, the three of them walk back into the room—when we shot it I realized it in the first take—and they’re all dressed so anthropologically right for now in New York City–one has a hat, one has a tie and sweeter, one has a dress—but they all look like they’re in a Godard movie. 

And the way they moved felt so choreographed, it was a magic little moment that everyone noticed and fell in love with.
Well, by take 900, that’s what you’re seeing in the movie, because I was like, oh we need to keep doing this over and over to get this walk right. And it looks so French but it was not deliberate. It was just engrained, it was in the air, in the style, and I think that was true for a lot of the movie. So in cases where I was aware of a music reference or something that I might be drawing upon, it also felt right for the milieu of the film. 

I loved the juxtaposition between Frances’ physical and mental state. Mentally she was so stalwart and unable to accept change, but physically she never stopped moving—whether that was literally in her dancing down the street or hopping from apartment to apartment.
We never articulated it but I think it was also baked into it. And the locations being chapters, that discovery informed so much because it said everything you’re saying but it also provided us with just a really great structure for the movie. And I think we were aware of all those things but leaving them somewhat unarticulated. 

The trip to Paris was one of my favorite moments because it felt entirely authentic. You make this grand gesture to do something out of the ordinary or go somewhere exciting to escape your problems or yourself but these things inevitably stay with you no matter where you go. 
That’s true, and I always liked the idea that what in another movie would have been the right thing at the right time, like she meets somebody or it would change her life, that it would be the exact opposite of that. 

She goes all the way to Paris and is late for Puss in Boots.
We had the Paris idea fairly early. But what made Paris and allowed us to keep it and put it in the film was discerning that Sophie would call her then. Initially it was just a funny idea but we needed to find the story there too. I think that helped land it for us.

With all your films you seem to want to expose the extraordinary details of everyday life in a way that we normally wouldn’t perceive them in our own memory—taking the slightest of moments and bringing out the tenderness or absolute sadness. As a director is that a theme you find yourself returning to?
I’m interested in how psychology becomes behavior. Takes Frances. What she accomplishes at the end of the movie, out of context, is relatively minor in that she takes a desk job and she finds an apartment. But in the context of the movie, it’s kind of heroic. And, to some degree, it’s always trying to find the context for these things, these little movements we make in life. Like the end of Greenberg, where he goes and picks her up at the hospital, this sort of little thing for these characters means a lot. I’m always thinking of those things as cinematic and big and I see no reason why they shouldn’t be.

Something I admired about Frances was that she wasn’t disillusioned. I feel like that’s something rare in the portrayal of women in New York nowadays. Even when things were at their worst she wasn’t depressive or bogged down. Rather, she understood that, okay for now this is the shitty situation I’m in, but it’ll pass. And because she didn’t use that disillusionment as a crutch, she was able to have her heroic ending.
And that was clear to me, that our job as filmmakers was to protect her because she was so open. I wanted to reward her too, because she was making these movements and I thought that the movie should reward her both with the cinema of the movie as we’re watching it, but also even in the ending. It always just felt very clear to me that she should get her moment.

Now, this might sound stupid, but there’s a Beckett quote that reminded me of the movie—
This sounds smart.

We’ll see. He says “That’s the mistake I made … to have wanted a story for myself whereas life alone is enough.” And that reminded me of this because it seems by the end Frances learns that she can just live and be and especially in terms of her friendship with Sophie they have this story that they tell each other, and by the end they realize that their friendship can work but real life does get in the way.
I wish I had that Beckett quote handy in a lot of interviews because I’m always stumbling around trying to say that exact thing. That’s a really good one. I think that’s absolutely true.

How was it, for you, returning to these similarly aged and similarly-minded characters as that of Kicking and Screaming? Now that you’ve had more time to reflect on that period of your own life, how do you perceive this time different and what did Greta, being someone that age, bring to it?
Well Greta was really my entree into that age group. So I wanted the movie to be about her character. Although I had a different trajectory than Frances, when I was 27 or 28, that was the period—I didn’t know it at the time—but I was about to go through great change, sort of professionally but more significantly, emotionally and psychologically. I went through a transition at that time in my life and I think I let go of a lot of ideas I had for myself that I thought would be true, or ideas of how I thought I would be, and it was difficult.  It was heard to let go of those things. But I also think that life and in experience since then, is a return to those moments—you become more ware of them and there are other events that are clearer transitions. But all this is to say that I relate very strongly to that period in time and that age. So I didn’t think twice about it or think very consciously about it, it was more oh this is very interesting to me.

Having the star of your film as the co-writer, does that make being on set much easier because Greta knew Frances inside and out?
Yeah, although essentially it’s the same. For Greta, in the same way I’ve always co-written everything I’ve directed, there’s some compartmentalization that goes on when I go to direct my own script. I somehow always have trouble remembering the lines even. I almost have kind unconscious amnesia, while also knowing at the same time that I do know this material so well, but I never take that for granted. There are times when I’ve taken it for granted and realized, you know even though I wrote this, I need to actually dig deeper as a director and figure this out better. And Greta I think went through something similar, both as a writer and an actor. When she was in it, she was so present as an actor that she could forget lines just the way she could forget lines if she hadn’t written them. And she might take time to find a moment as she might anyway, and that was the best way for it to be because that’s what you want from an actor—you don’t want them too prepared. Or at least, I don’t anyway, I don’t like when actors have it figured out. I like to figure it out with them.

What really held the film together was this love story between Frances and her best friend. That’s rare to see in this sort of woman’s self-discovery movie. She has these small romantic possibilities, but they’re of no consequence, and when she finally has that magical moment she so desired, it’s with Sophie.
We were aware that the normal assumption might be when she has that monologue at the party about wanting this moment with someone, the audience assumption would be that this would be with a guy. So we knew that we were giving it to her and Sophie, and maybe that would be a pleasant surprise. But it really came in the best way, it came very organically out of the character and the age and that time, because that was the central relationship and the central friendship. So it felt like we had to follow that and really tell that story. Also, Frances as a character has these blinders on, and until this thing is worked out with Sophie—which really means until it’s worked out for herself—she’s not going to accept any other substitutes. That means no other relationships with men and no other friends. But that was just so much of the character, so it was like well, the character’s not going to allow a romance, so weren’t not gong to force one on her.

Noah Baumbach Talks His Intensely Charming ‘Frances Ha’

Woody Allen’s Manhattan ends with the final line: “You have to have a little faith in people.” It’s a simple bit of dialogue, but entirely genuine and honest, holding a vast amount of emotional weight in its ease. Picking up where that sentiment left off is Noah Baumbach’s new film, the charmingly awkward black-and-white character study Frances Ha, whose leading lady stands out like a beacon of optimism, unwavering in her desire for more from life.

Throughout the last decade, modern meditations on post-collegiate ennui have become commonplace, but it’s rare to find a film that takes that tired convention and exposes it in a new light. Frances Ha not only reflects what it means to simply exist at that time in life and in that universe, but shows the beauty in the mistakes made along the way, underscoring the idea that just because something isn’t working doesn’t mean it’s broken. Baumbach has crafted a film that feels refreshing and contemporary yet harkens back to to such European cinematic masters as Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, and Jean-Luc Godard in its casual essence, reminding us of what we love so much about the filmmaking of days past.

Co-written with the film’s brilliant and versatile star, Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha is infused with a unique magic that comes from a true meeting of minds. If you look back on Baumbach and Gerwig’s early work, it’s evident that the two are cut from the same cloth—both sharing an affinity for a particular kind of character’s journey, dealing with a sense of malaise as they meander through life, yet filled with a yearning for more. And whereas many of Baumbach’s film’s tend to err on the side of the misanthropic, Frances Ha is a film that makes you want to go out and engage in life. It’s an inspired and intelligent love letter to cinema that never stops moving while we follow the endearingly strange Frances as she dances from life to life.

At its core, Frances Ha is both a journey of self-discovery and a love story between best friends. With Gerwig’s frank yet tender touch, we see a realistic look at a fractured female friendship and the mourning that comes from feeling as though you’ve lost a part of yourself to someone else. “We’re like the same person but with different hair,” says Frances of her best friend Sophie, who begins to drift apart after getting involved in a serious relationship. We see Frances caught in the wake of their relationship, but her spirited self never diminishes, only dulls for a moment before realizing her ambitions as a modern dancer and choreographer. As we wander with her through her days from Brooklyn to Chinatown to Paris, we begin to admire her boldness and realize that Baumbach cast a spell on us, making us fall in love with his star just as he did behind the camera.

Last week I got the chance to sit down with Baumbach to talk about his desire to showcase Gerwig’s talents, the inspiration engrained in the film, and the heroic moments of everyday life.

I’ve been a big fan of Greta’s for a while now. She can be so funny yet dramatic and has such great physicality. Did you know you wanted to make something that would play to all her abilities?

Yeah, that’s exactly what I wanted to do. We’d worked together before and I felt that she was all of those things. But I thought we could do something where she could be the center of the movie and showcase all that she could do.

As an admirer of your work, you can see what a similar sensibility you two share as writers as well. What was the initial collaboration process like—was it an easy merging of ideas?

Yeah, the writing came somewhat organically because I first approached her more as an actor. I asked if she’d want to act in something I directed but I wasn’t sure what that would be, so I asked her what she was thinking about, or things she thought could be in a movie about a 27-year-old in New York. She has such great ideas and thoughts and observations and was so funny, I felt immediately like this was a movie.

You started by writing emails back and forth?

We’d send the same document back and forth and I would respond and then she would and we’d rewrite. After a while the document started to take shape and we said, okay maybe it opens this way, and then after a while we started writing scenes.

With the love-letter-to-New York essence of the film, the music, and the black-and-white style, it would be easy for people to make a lot of Woody Allen or Manhattan allusions. Were you more influenced by Truffaut and Rohmer and the New Wave cinema that you love?

Yeah, and I always feel inspired by those guys—Truffaut and Rohmer—in all my movies. But somehow in this one the influence is clearer. There’s something about this material that it could hold a lot of potentially referential moments without them feeling heavy. There’s a moment when Frances is over for the first night with the guys and she’s saying goodbye to the girls, the three of them walk back into the room—when we shot it I realized it in the first take—and they’re all dressed so anthropologically right for now in New York City–one has a hat, one has a tie and sweeter, one has a dress—but they all look like they’re in a Godard movie. 

And the way they moved felt so choreographed, it was a magic little moment that everyone noticed and fell in love with.

Well, by take 900, that’s what you’re seeing in the movie, because I was like, oh we need to keep doing this over and over to get this walk right. And it looks so French but it was not deliberate. It was just engrained, it was in the air, in the style, and I think that was true for a lot of the movie. So in cases where I was aware of a music reference or something that I might be drawing upon, it also felt right for the milieu of the film. 

I loved the juxtaposition between Frances’ physical and mental state. Mentally she was so stalwart and unable to accept change, but physically she never stopped moving—whether that was literally in her dancing down the street or hopping from apartment to apartment.

We never articulated it but I think it was also baked into it. And the locations being chapters, that discovery informed so much because it said everything you’re saying but it also provided us with just a really great structure for the movie. And I think we were aware of all those things but leaving them somewhat unarticulated. 

The trip to Paris was one of my favorite moments because it felt entirely authentic. You make this grand gesture to do something out of the ordinary or go somewhere exciting to escape your problems or yourself but these things inevitably stay with you no matter where you go. 

That’s true, and I always liked the idea that what in another movie would have been the right thing at the right time, like she meets somebody or it would change her life, that it would be the exact opposite of that. 

She goes all the way to Paris and is late for Puss in Boots.

We had the Paris idea fairly early. But what made Paris and allowed us to keep it and put it in the film was discerning that Sophie would call her then. Initially it was just a funny idea but we needed to find the story there too. I think that helped land it for us.

With all your films you seem to want to expose the extraordinary details of everyday life in a way that we normally wouldn’t perceive them in our own memory—taking the slightest of moments and bringing out the tenderness or absolute sadness. As a director is that a theme you find yourself returning to?

I’m interested in how psychology becomes behavior. Takes Frances. What she accomplishes at the end of the movie, out of context, is relatively minor in that she takes a desk job and she finds an apartment. But in the context of the movie, it’s kind of heroic. And, to some degree, it’s always trying to find the context for these things, these little movements we make in life. Like the end of Greenberg, where he goes and picks her up at the hospital, this sort of little thing for these characters means a lot. I’m always thinking of those things as cinematic and big and I see no reason why they shouldn’t be.

Something I admired about Frances was that she wasn’t disillusioned. I feel like that’s something rare in the portrayal of women in New York nowadays. Even when things were at their worst she wasn’t depressive or bogged down. Rather, she understood that, okay for now this is the shitty situation I’m in, but it’ll pass. And because she didn’t use that disillusionment as a crutch, she was able to have her heroic ending.

And that was clear to me, that our job as filmmakers was to protect her because she was so open. I wanted to reward her too, because she was making these movements and I thought that the movie should reward her both with the cinema of the movie as we’re watching it, but also even in the ending. It always just felt very clear to me that she should get her moment.

Now, this might sound stupid, but there’s a Beckett quote that reminded me of the movie—

This sounds smart.

We’ll see. He says “That’s the mistake I made … to have wanted a story for myself whereas life alone is enough.” And that reminded me of this because it seems by the end Frances learns that she can just live and be and especially in terms of her friendship with Sophie they have this story that they tell each other, and by the end they realize that their friendship can work but real life does get in the way.

I wish I had that Beckett quote handy in a lot of interviews because I’m always stumbling around trying to say that exact thing. That’s a really good one. I think that’s absolutely true.

How was it, for you, returning to these similarly aged and similarly-minded characters as that of Kicking and Screaming? Now that you’ve had more time to reflect on that period of your own life, how do you perceive this time different and what did Greta, being someone that age, bring to it?

Well Greta was really my entree into that age group. So I wanted the movie to be about her character. Although I had a different trajectory than Frances, when I was 27 or 28, that was the period—I didn’t know it at the time—but I was about to go through great change, sort of professionally but more significantly, emotionally and psychologically. I went through a transition at that time in my life and I think I let go of a lot of ideas I had for myself that I thought would be true, or ideas of how I thought I would be, and it was difficult.  It was heard to let go of those things. But I also think that life and in experience since then, is a return to those moments—you become more ware of them and there are other events that are clearer transitions. But all this is to say that I relate very strongly to that period in time and that age. So I didn’t think twice about it or think very consciously about it, it was more oh this is very interesting to me.

Having the star of your film as the co-writer, does that make being on set much easier because Greta knew Frances inside and out?

Yeah, although essentially it’s the same. For Greta, in the same way I’ve always co-written everything I’ve directed, there’s some compartmentalization that goes on when I go to direct my own script. I somehow always have trouble remembering the lines even. I almost have kind unconscious amnesia, while also knowing at the same time that I do know this material so well, but I never take that for granted. There are times when I’ve taken it for granted and realized, you know even though I wrote this, I need to actually dig deeper as a director and figure this out better. And Greta I think went through something similar, both as a writer and an actor. When she was in it, she was so present as an actor that she could forget lines just the way she could forget lines if she hadn’t written them. And she might take time to find a moment as she might anyway, and that was the best way for it to be because that’s what you want from an actor—you don’t want them too prepared. Or at least, I don’t anyway, I don’t like when actors have it figured out. I like to figure it out with them.

What really held the film together was this love story between Frances and her best friend. That’s rare to see in this sort of woman’s self-discovery movie. She has these small romantic possibilities, but they’re of no consequence, and when she finally has that magical moment she so desired, it’s with Sophie.

We were aware that the normal assumption might be when she has that monologue at the party about wanting this moment with someone, the audience assumption would be that this would be with a guy. So we knew that we were giving it to her and Sophie, and maybe that would be a pleasant surprise. But it really came in the best way, it came very organically out of the character and the age and that time, because that was the central relationship and the central friendship. So it felt like we had to follow that and really tell that story. Also, Frances as a character has these blinders on, and until this thing is worked out with Sophie—which really means until it’s worked out for herself—she’s not going to accept any other substitutes. That means no other relationships with men and no other friends. But that was just so much of the character, so it was like well, the character’s not going to allow a romance, so weren’t not gong to force one on her.

Noah Baumbach Talks His Intensely Charming ‘Frances Ha’

"But I love him, Bob. I love him. I’m going to have to quit," Mia Farrow said helplessly after her husband, Frank Sinatra, told her that if she was not done shooting Rosemary’s Baby by mid-February that he would divorce her. She was set to star alongside him in The Detective and Sinatra refused to delay his shoot date simply because Roman Polanski’s perfectionist obsessions were pushing Mia’s shooting schedule further and further back.
"If you walk out in the middle of my film, you’ll never work again," crooned producer Robert Evans. Now in hysterics, Mia continued to cry, "I don’t care, I don’t care. I just love Frank." So to quell her sobbing, Evans brought Mia into his executive screening room and showed her an hour of Rosemary’s Baby cut together. "I never thought you had it in you. It’s as good, no, even better than Audrey Hepburn’s performance in Wait Until Dark. You’re a shoo-in for an Academy Award." Yes, the world is an entirely different place when love is involved, but the world is also a very solipsistic place when satisfaction of the ego is in full view. Devotion tends to evaporate when you realize the person you love the most stands in the way of finally achieving something great. And when the lights when dark, Mia’s pleas of, "I don’t care," turned into Rosemary Woodhouse’s "All of them witches." She didn’t hit the road and run of—just as swiftly as she made her decision, she was served divorce papers by Sinatra’s lawyer on the set. And that, according to the notorious Evans, is how this kid stayed in the picture.
The studio heads at Paramount wanted William Castle, a veteran director, to helm the film but Evans wanted Roman Polanski—bad. He knew that the young Polish director, who had made Repulsion, Knife in the Water, and The Fearless Vampire Killers had just worked with Marty Ransohoff, someone whom Evans says, “whatever he liked, I hated, and vice versa. When I heard Marty ranting all over town about what a no-talent Polanski was, I knew Roman was the man for me.”  Knowing that Polanski was an avid skier, Evans lured him over to his house with the enticement of directing Downhill Racer. “He looked at the titles of the books on my shelves. Within five minutes he was acting out crazy stories—somewhere between Shakespeare and theater of the absurd,” recalls Evans. Eventually he told Polanski that Downhill Racer was out the cards, the director’s seat had already been filled, but if he read this book by Ira Levin and liked it, his next ski trip could be billed to Evans himself. And so thus their working relationship began and Levin’s 1966 novel, Rosemary’s Baby, was set for a screen adaptation. The two got along famously, although things weren’t always easy—but what good ever comes from easy? “Fighting is healthy. If everyone has too much reverence for each other, or for the material, results are invariably underwhelming. It’s irreverence that makes things sizzle. It’s irreverence that gives you that shot at touching magic,” says Evans.
When it came to casting the film, Farrow had been Evans’s number one choice for the leading role of Rosemary Woodhouse, a naive and loving housewife who becomes trapped in a haze of paranoia and obsession once she begins to believe that a coven of witches is scheming to steal her unborn child for a human sacrifice. Polanski worried that the “ethereal quality” she possessed wouldn’t translate onto the screen, but at the end of the day Evans won the battle and 45 years later, it’s still impossible to imagine anyone else fitting the role with such a haunting presence. And for the part of her husband, Guy Woodhouse, a narcissistic actor who sells his unborn child to the devil in exchange for personal fortune, Polanski had his eye on Robert Redford. But he was taken. Naturally, Warren Beatty was upset that Evans never bothered to offer him the role, to which Evans responded, “It’s yours Warren, but you’re not right for Rosemary’s Baby unless you play it in drag.” Eventually they went with a young actor by the name of John Cassavetes who had recently starred in The Dirty Dozen. At the time, this was hardly ideal casting, but when you watch the film now with all the knowledge of Cassavetes’ maniacal demeanor and volatility matched with an endearing charm the role of Guy only makes complete sense—someone that Rosemary loves so deeply yet is so blind to.
Rosemary and Guy are a young couple who have moved into a large new apartment in the Bramford, an antiquated (and supposedly haunted) New York City apartment building. They quickly become friends with their elderly neighbors, Roman and Minnie Castevet, who are a bit eccentric and nosey, but who at first pose no danger. The Castevets invite the Woodhouses to dinner at their home and the two couples begin to spend a lot of time together—particularly Guy, acting as if they serve as a parental figure missing from his life. When Rosemary becomes pregnant, Guy and the Castevets insist that she begin to see an obstetrician, Dr. Sapirstein (also the name of Polanski’s dog), who tells Rosemary that rather than taking the usual prenatal vitamins, Minnie will make her a special herbal drink to have everyday to aid in the baby’s health. Over the first few months of her pregnancy, Rosemary suffers from extreme abdominal pain, which the doctor tells her will “go away on its own.” She begins to loose weight and her complexion pales as she craves raw meat and chicken liver—to her own disgust. She senses something is wrong and doesn’t want to lose the baby. Meanwhile, Guy’s career is on the rise since his understudy role turned into a lead when the main actor inexplicably goes blind.
Rosemary consults her old friend Hutch about her feelings of unease, and he is disturbed when he hears that her drinks from Minnie have been containing tannis root; he tells Rosemary he is going to look into what she has been consuming. A few weeks later, Hutch mysteriously falls into a coma only to regain consciousness right before his death to leave her a book about witchcraft. When Rosemary attends his funeral, she receives the book along with a cryptic message: “The name is an anagram.” She eventually realizes that Roman Castevet is actually the son of a former resident of the Bramford who was accused of worshipping Satan. This leads her to realize that her neighbors must be part of a coven of witches out for her baby and that Guy is cooperating with them in exchange for help in his career. From there, Rosemary spirals into a web of paranoia and doors with no exit. She’s trapped from that moment on, only to realize everyone in her world has sinister intentions and there’s nowhere to turn.
What works so incredibly well about Polanski’s adaptation of Levin’s work is how it avoids the pratfalls of the typical “horror” or “suspense” genre. It’s a brooding, anxious psychological horror-thriller that’s more of a slow breathing on your neck or a chilled hand grazing your spine rather than a swift jab at fright. The danger of the film is of another world: of the Devil; it’s beyond our mortal grasp and is therefore compelling in that it leaves us unable to know where to run. It’s not only frightening because of the outside powers that be, but speaks to the fear of one’s own mind. The Castevets, Dr. Sapirstein, and Guy all lead Rosemary to believe she’s the crazy one, and she is therefore trapped in a disassociated bewilderment at what reality really is. Her pregnancy also leaves her a vulnerable target for blame, allowing Rosemary to fall prey to their satanic demands.
Polanski gives us a dearth of information early on in the film, and his attention to detail allows us to get to know the characters well from the very beginning; the slow reveal of their idiosyncrasies and personal details only heighten the suspense and make their later changes even more poignant. The horror in the film comes from the normalcy of it all. Rosemary’s live goes on as usual as this thing grows inside her. This sense of waiting creates an anxiety and therefore echoes Rosemary’s growing sense of paranoia. Polanski uses interior space and blocking to create a sense of claustrophobia. The Woodhouses’ apartment, which once seemed huge and open, now feels like a confined trap that Rosemary is locked in.
But one of the most important and most chilling scenes in the film comes in the form of Rosemary’s dream. The Castevetes have drugged her with a mousse dessert and, as she falls into a slumber, a dream sequence begins that is disturbingly realistic. The sequence hops from one moment to the next, inviting in fear and sexuality from the most unlikely of sources. Voices penetrate the dream as in life they are wont to do; this is not your typical haze-lit daydream. The dream’s bizarre world that moves from a boat, where Rosemary is being publicly undressed, to scaffolding where she lies under Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, is like a surrealist manifestation of her subconscious desires and anxieties. Naked figures surround her as a creature of some kind begins to claw at her flesh and rape her. Rosemary yells, “This is no dream, this is really happening!” The voices she hears in her dream mirror the reality of what is consciously happening in waking life, as Guy impregnates her, giving us two worlds that Rosemary is inhabiting—both evil. She is stuck in the nightmare, but would reality be any better?
The pay off at the end of the film, no matter how frightening, is that it’s finally a confirmation for Rosemary that she is not insane, that all the events she has experience actually happened. It’s a successful film because it wraps you around its crooked finger, never letting you know for sure just what to believe, and therefore consuming you in the fears that Rosemary faces. Mia Farrow’s face works as a wonderful blank canvas to project your fears onto as we see the once vibrant and beautiful mother-to-be wither away and succumb to her paranoia. We never see the demonic newborn, only the look of pure, unfettered horror on Farrow’s face. It’s a choice that at first feels like a tease, but then you realize that the act of not seeing is even worse—the imagination can make of it what they may.
In an afterword to the 2003 New American Library edition of Levin’s novel, he said, “Lately, I’ve had a new worry. The success of Rosemary’s Baby inspired Exorcists and Omens and lots of et ceteras. Two generations of youngsters have grown to adulthood watching depictions of Satan as a living reality. Here’s what I worry about now: if I hadn’t pursued an idea for a suspense novel almost forty years ago, would there be quite as many religious fundamentalists around today?” Let’s chew on some tannis root about that one for a while.
Cinematic Panic: Revisiting the Devil in the Details of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’

"But I love him, Bob. I love him. I’m going to have to quit," Mia Farrow said helplessly after her husband, Frank Sinatra, told her that if she was not done shooting Rosemary’s Baby by mid-February that he would divorce her. She was set to star alongside him in The Detective and Sinatra refused to delay his shoot date simply because Roman Polanski’s perfectionist obsessions were pushing Mia’s shooting schedule further and further back.

"If you walk out in the middle of my film, you’ll never work again," crooned producer Robert Evans. Now in hysterics, Mia continued to cry, "I don’t care, I don’t care. I just love Frank." So to quell her sobbing, Evans brought Mia into his executive screening room and showed her an hour of Rosemary’s Baby cut together. "I never thought you had it in you. It’s as good, no, even better than Audrey Hepburn’s performance in Wait Until Dark. You’re a shoo-in for an Academy Award." Yes, the world is an entirely different place when love is involved, but the world is also a very solipsistic place when satisfaction of the ego is in full view. Devotion tends to evaporate when you realize the person you love the most stands in the way of finally achieving something great. And when the lights when dark, Mia’s pleas of, "I don’t care," turned into Rosemary Woodhouse’s "All of them witches." She didn’t hit the road and run of—just as swiftly as she made her decision, she was served divorce papers by Sinatra’s lawyer on the set. And that, according to the notorious Evans, is how this kid stayed in the picture.

The studio heads at Paramount wanted William Castle, a veteran director, to helm the film but Evans wanted Roman Polanski—bad. He knew that the young Polish director, who had made Repulsion, Knife in the Water, and The Fearless Vampire Killers had just worked with Marty Ransohoff, someone whom Evans says, “whatever he liked, I hated, and vice versa. When I heard Marty ranting all over town about what a no-talent Polanski was, I knew Roman was the man for me.”  Knowing that Polanski was an avid skier, Evans lured him over to his house with the enticement of directing Downhill Racer. “He looked at the titles of the books on my shelves. Within five minutes he was acting out crazy stories—somewhere between Shakespeare and theater of the absurd,” recalls Evans. Eventually he told Polanski that Downhill Racer was out the cards, the director’s seat had already been filled, but if he read this book by Ira Levin and liked it, his next ski trip could be billed to Evans himself. And so thus their working relationship began and Levin’s 1966 novel, Rosemary’s Baby, was set for a screen adaptation. The two got along famously, although things weren’t always easy—but what good ever comes from easy? “Fighting is healthy. If everyone has too much reverence for each other, or for the material, results are invariably underwhelming. It’s irreverence that makes things sizzle. It’s irreverence that gives you that shot at touching magic,” says Evans.

When it came to casting the film, Farrow had been Evans’s number one choice for the leading role of Rosemary Woodhouse, a naive and loving housewife who becomes trapped in a haze of paranoia and obsession once she begins to believe that a coven of witches is scheming to steal her unborn child for a human sacrifice. Polanski worried that the “ethereal quality” she possessed wouldn’t translate onto the screen, but at the end of the day Evans won the battle and 45 years later, it’s still impossible to imagine anyone else fitting the role with such a haunting presence. And for the part of her husband, Guy Woodhouse, a narcissistic actor who sells his unborn child to the devil in exchange for personal fortune, Polanski had his eye on Robert Redford. But he was taken. Naturally, Warren Beatty was upset that Evans never bothered to offer him the role, to which Evans responded, “It’s yours Warren, but you’re not right for Rosemary’s Baby unless you play it in drag.” Eventually they went with a young actor by the name of John Cassavetes who had recently starred in The Dirty Dozen. At the time, this was hardly ideal casting, but when you watch the film now with all the knowledge of Cassavetes’ maniacal demeanor and volatility matched with an endearing charm the role of Guy only makes complete sense—someone that Rosemary loves so deeply yet is so blind to.

Rosemary and Guy are a young couple who have moved into a large new apartment in the Bramford, an antiquated (and supposedly haunted) New York City apartment building. They quickly become friends with their elderly neighbors, Roman and Minnie Castevet, who are a bit eccentric and nosey, but who at first pose no danger. The Castevets invite the Woodhouses to dinner at their home and the two couples begin to spend a lot of time together—particularly Guy, acting as if they serve as a parental figure missing from his life. When Rosemary becomes pregnant, Guy and the Castevets insist that she begin to see an obstetrician, Dr. Sapirstein (also the name of Polanski’s dog), who tells Rosemary that rather than taking the usual prenatal vitamins, Minnie will make her a special herbal drink to have everyday to aid in the baby’s health. Over the first few months of her pregnancy, Rosemary suffers from extreme abdominal pain, which the doctor tells her will “go away on its own.” She begins to loose weight and her complexion pales as she craves raw meat and chicken liver—to her own disgust. She senses something is wrong and doesn’t want to lose the baby. Meanwhile, Guy’s career is on the rise since his understudy role turned into a lead when the main actor inexplicably goes blind.

Rosemary consults her old friend Hutch about her feelings of unease, and he is disturbed when he hears that her drinks from Minnie have been containing tannis root; he tells Rosemary he is going to look into what she has been consuming. A few weeks later, Hutch mysteriously falls into a coma only to regain consciousness right before his death to leave her a book about witchcraft. When Rosemary attends his funeral, she receives the book along with a cryptic message: “The name is an anagram.” She eventually realizes that Roman Castevet is actually the son of a former resident of the Bramford who was accused of worshipping Satan. This leads her to realize that her neighbors must be part of a coven of witches out for her baby and that Guy is cooperating with them in exchange for help in his career. From there, Rosemary spirals into a web of paranoia and doors with no exit. She’s trapped from that moment on, only to realize everyone in her world has sinister intentions and there’s nowhere to turn.

What works so incredibly well about Polanski’s adaptation of Levin’s work is how it avoids the pratfalls of the typical “horror” or “suspense” genre. It’s a brooding, anxious psychological horror-thriller that’s more of a slow breathing on your neck or a chilled hand grazing your spine rather than a swift jab at fright. The danger of the film is of another world: of the Devil; it’s beyond our mortal grasp and is therefore compelling in that it leaves us unable to know where to run. It’s not only frightening because of the outside powers that be, but speaks to the fear of one’s own mind. The Castevets, Dr. Sapirstein, and Guy all lead Rosemary to believe she’s the crazy one, and she is therefore trapped in a disassociated bewilderment at what reality really is. Her pregnancy also leaves her a vulnerable target for blame, allowing Rosemary to fall prey to their satanic demands.

Polanski gives us a dearth of information early on in the film, and his attention to detail allows us to get to know the characters well from the very beginning; the slow reveal of their idiosyncrasies and personal details only heighten the suspense and make their later changes even more poignant. The horror in the film comes from the normalcy of it all. Rosemary’s live goes on as usual as this thing grows inside her. This sense of waiting creates an anxiety and therefore echoes Rosemary’s growing sense of paranoia. Polanski uses interior space and blocking to create a sense of claustrophobia. The Woodhouses’ apartment, which once seemed huge and open, now feels like a confined trap that Rosemary is locked in.

But one of the most important and most chilling scenes in the film comes in the form of Rosemary’s dream. The Castevetes have drugged her with a mousse dessert and, as she falls into a slumber, a dream sequence begins that is disturbingly realistic. The sequence hops from one moment to the next, inviting in fear and sexuality from the most unlikely of sources. Voices penetrate the dream as in life they are wont to do; this is not your typical haze-lit daydream. The dream’s bizarre world that moves from a boat, where Rosemary is being publicly undressed, to scaffolding where she lies under Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, is like a surrealist manifestation of her subconscious desires and anxieties. Naked figures surround her as a creature of some kind begins to claw at her flesh and rape her. Rosemary yells, “This is no dream, this is really happening!” The voices she hears in her dream mirror the reality of what is consciously happening in waking life, as Guy impregnates her, giving us two worlds that Rosemary is inhabiting—both evil. She is stuck in the nightmare, but would reality be any better?

The pay off at the end of the film, no matter how frightening, is that it’s finally a confirmation for Rosemary that she is not insane, that all the events she has experience actually happened. It’s a successful film because it wraps you around its crooked finger, never letting you know for sure just what to believe, and therefore consuming you in the fears that Rosemary faces. Mia Farrow’s face works as a wonderful blank canvas to project your fears onto as we see the once vibrant and beautiful mother-to-be wither away and succumb to her paranoia. We never see the demonic newborn, only the look of pure, unfettered horror on Farrow’s face. It’s a choice that at first feels like a tease, but then you realize that the act of not seeing is even worse—the imagination can make of it what they may.

In an afterword to the 2003 New American Library edition of Levin’s novel, he said, “Lately, I’ve had a new worry. The success of Rosemary’s Baby inspired Exorcists and Omens and lots of et ceteras. Two generations of youngsters have grown to adulthood watching depictions of Satan as a living reality. Here’s what I worry about now: if I hadn’t pursued an idea for a suspense novel almost forty years ago, would there be quite as many religious fundamentalists around today?” Let’s chew on some tannis root about that one for a while.

Cinematic Panic: Revisiting the Devil in the Details of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’

"We could just make movies about butterflies and cupcakes, but what does that have to do with our actual experience in our culture?" asks Michael Shannon, whose film repertoire has tended toward much grittier fare. For years, he was hidden away as one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets, a frightening force of an actor waiting in the wings for his turn in the spotlight. But since starring in William Friedkin’s 2006 adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Bug—a role he originated on the stage in London a decade earlier—Shannon has been seeping more and more into the mainstream, infiltrating our television and cinema screens and giving us a taste of the darker corners of the pysche with performances that continue to haunt long after the credits roll.
Shannon cut his teeth in theater as a young actor in Chicago, the immediacy of the stage giving him a keen understanding of the visceral power of a potent performance. Since then, with such films as Bug, Revolutionary Road, and Take Shelter, he’s established himself as an expert at portraying the villainous and psychologically unstable, yet can slip into your everyman with ease. His intensity is tempered by sensitivity, and he’s always willing to expose his rawest emotions—skills that that lends themselves to the severe roles he embodies.

But it’s his stint on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire that has perhaps brought him the most attention, paving the way for roles in such Hollywood blockbusters as Jonah Hex and the upcoming Man of Steel. And whether he’s shuttling between studio lots in Los Angeles or hanging out on set in the backwoods of Arkansas with director Jeff Nichols, Shannon embarks on every role with the intelligence of a person not only looking to entertain, but to discover something new within himself.

With his latest drama, Ariel Vromen’s The Iceman, Shannon disappears into the role of notorious contract killer Richard Kuklinski. Arrested in 1986 for the heinous crimes he committed throughout the decade—at least 100 murders by his own count—Kuklinski kept his profession a secret from his wife and daughters, leading a double life with the cold stoicism of a seriously disturbed man. Vromen’s film takes us back to when Kuklinski and his wife Deborah (played wonderfully by Winona Ryder) first met, chronicling their lives as we seem them grow together and break apart as Kuklinski becomes more entwined with his murderous career and more removed from those he loves. In his role, Shannon is frightening, embodying the dichotomy of cold-blooded killer and family man with both physicality and emotion, delivering a visceral performance that’s filled with as much delicacy as bone-chilling cruelty. 

Last Saturday, I sat down with Shannon at the Waldorf Astoria to chat about becoming the Iceman, the need for less escapism, and working with directors who rattle your cage.

How did you get involved with The Iceman? Were you familiar with the story?No, it was a total surprise to me. I have never heard of Kuklinski. Basically, I just ran into Ariel at some events, he was an acquaintance of mine, and he said he wanted to work with me. He gave me the script and I read it and said, is this a real guy? And he said, yeah it’s based on a real guy, if you go on YouTube you can see interviews with him. I checked the interviews out and I thought he was an interesting fellow.

Did you and Ariel work closely to develop Kuklinski as a full person, because he was much different than when you see him in interviews now?The main advantage of our film, as opposed to the interviews, is when you watch the interviews, you’re seeing a man who’s at the end of the road—he’s been captured, taken into captivity, lost everything, and he’s in his final movement, as it were. Our film gives you the opportunity, even though it’s hypothetical, to see him throughout his life and his younger years. I mean, I’m not going to be able to be more of Kuklinski than Kuklinski was in those interviews, but what I may be able to do is give you some inkling of what he was like 30, 40 years before those interviews took place.

Did that help you to empathize with him or understand that he did this to provide for his family? In preparing for the role, did you connect with him in any way?It’s hard to empathize with killing. I’m not a violent person, I’ve never killed anybody. I don’t really even get into fights with anybody. But the one thing I was able to connect with, and I know this sounds absurd, was his vulnerability. I actually think one of the reasons he was such a violent person was because he was so vulnerable and so sensitive. I think he was deeply traumatized in his childhood and he developed this persona out of a survival instinct. It was the only way he could cope with the pain that he had endured as a child.

How was working with Winona, she seems like someone that would be great to have as a partner.Well yeah, the legend of Winona is a huge thing. When you meet her for the first time, it’s kind of like a kick in the gut. She’s as much a star to me as she is to anybody. I’ve watched her films and she’s a real deal movie star, no doubt. So I was anxious the first time I was going to meet her. And she just walks into the trailer with an old rock ‘n’ roll t-shirt on and some jeans and tennis shoes and you realize, oh she’s just a regular person. And she really likes rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s cool. So that breaks the ice and you get into the work. She brings a tremendous vulnerability to everything she does; she’s very delicate and very sensitive, her nerves are close to the skin, and that was essential to this part.

You take on a lot of these dark, disturbed roles. Are you drawn to this particular breed of character, or is it more of a fun exercise as an actor?It’s not fun. Doing this part wasn’t fun, it was hard. Is it essential that people see this? I don’t know. Some people say, why do you put this violent story in the world, isn’t there enough violence already? I say, this is a person who really existed and really did these things and if we’re going to understand violence in our world and our society, then we need to examine it. We could ignore it, we could just make movies about butterflies and cupcakes, but what does that have to do with our actual experience in our culture? These are brutal times we’re living in right now. Ideally, you can make films that are both entertaining and also thought-provoking and maybe even a little painful at times, because I think that’s what we’re dealing with in the world.

It’s important for art to be reflective of the world and not bypass it for entertainments sake.Yeah, I’m not a fan of escapism. I don’t understand it. People need to be escaping a lot less basically nowadays. People have too many ways to not pay attention to what’s going on around them, and that’s disconcerting to me.

You did an interview for BlackBook a few years ago and I remember something you said about film being a directors’ medium, whereas theater is where actors can test themselves. Is it a totally different experience for you, working in the two mediums, or does one really get at what you enjoy most about being an actor?Theater for me is a real meditation. You latch onto a piece of writing and you spend a lot of time with it. There’s a lot of repetition, it’s almost like a massage to me, massaging your psyche, massaging the writing itself and trying to extract the deepest potential of the story. Camera work, on the other hand, is ideally very accidental. Things happen out of the blue and you can’t really prepare for it, it’s more spontaneous. I worked with Terrence Malick on To the Wonder—I got cut out—but it was still a fascinating experience. I spent a day down there walking around with Ben Affleck and doing these completely random scenes where the camera was just going all over the place, and you never knew where it was going to be, and during the scene people would be tapping you and telling you to go over here or go over there, say this or do that. And I’ve heard Malick say, “I’m just trying to find the spontaneous, I just want something truly spontaneous to happen.” That’s his approach and there’s only one director on film that I’ve worked with where the whole rehearsal process has really felt beneficial, and that’s Sidney Lumet. But he was a master of that and that’s probably because he turned plays into films and he usually worked with scripts that were very theatrical.

Speaking of another director you’ve worked with a lot, I interviewed Jeff Nichols the other day—What a moron. [Laughs.]

He was great. I saw Mud and really loved it. But that was a very different role for you, especially compared toTake Shelter. How was working on that?It was fun, I wish I had more time with Jeff on that one. It was so fast, it happened just before I started doing Man of Steeland I really only had a couple days to go down there. I was jealous, I wanted to be more involved. I love working with Jeff, I think he’s one of our brightest hopes right now in cinema. Hopefully we’ll be cooking something up in the wintertime—our fourth collaboration. We just have to get the dollars in the bank and then we’ll be good to go.

Do you enjoy the collaborative process between actors and directors? When you’re reading a script, it is the writing that really draws you in, or is it the person who is putting their vision on it?The writing’s got to be there; the writing is the genesis of anything. But I don’t like being on a set where the director doesn’t have anything to say. I find that very frustrating. You work with a lot of directors who really just don’t have all that much to say. I’m not going to go into specifics, but even people who you probably think are like top notch legendary director type people, they just don’t have that much to say about the performance side of it. In theater, they have a ton to say about it, that’s all they talk about for four or five weeks, you talk about the performance. So when I get a director in film who can inspire you or give you a legitimate question that rattles your cage a little bit, I always appreciate it. The problem with film is that there’s so many elements, and as a director of film or television there’s so much you’ve got to keep track of, and sometimes, honestly, acting isn’t at the top of the list. 

With theater, the acting’s the essence of everything. I was watching Bug again the other day and that’s something you did onstage and on film. Is that the ideal, to be able to perform both?Bug was a fascinating journey for me, all the way from its inception in London all those years ago with the original production. And then I didn’t do it for a very long time after that and then I was doing it in Chicago when 9/11 happened—Bug was a very bizarre play to be doing when that happened—and then a few years after that in New York and then the movie. So Bug was a huge part of my life.

Michael Shannon Talks ‘The Iceman,’ Working with Terrence Malick, & the Meditation of Theater

"We could just make movies about butterflies and cupcakes, but what does that have to do with our actual experience in our culture?" asks Michael Shannon, whose film repertoire has tended toward much grittier fare. For years, he was hidden away as one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets, a frightening force of an actor waiting in the wings for his turn in the spotlight. But since starring in William Friedkin’s 2006 adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Bug—a role he originated on the stage in London a decade earlier—Shannon has been seeping more and more into the mainstream, infiltrating our television and cinema screens and giving us a taste of the darker corners of the pysche with performances that continue to haunt long after the credits roll.

Shannon cut his teeth in theater as a young actor in Chicago, the immediacy of the stage giving him a keen understanding of the visceral power of a potent performance. Since then, with such films as Bug, Revolutionary Road, and Take Shelter, he’s established himself as an expert at portraying the villainous and psychologically unstable, yet can slip into your everyman with ease. His intensity is tempered by sensitivity, and he’s always willing to expose his rawest emotions—skills that that lends themselves to the severe roles he embodies.

But it’s his stint on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire that has perhaps brought him the most attention, paving the way for roles in such Hollywood blockbusters as Jonah Hex and the upcoming Man of Steel. And whether he’s shuttling between studio lots in Los Angeles or hanging out on set in the backwoods of Arkansas with director Jeff Nichols, Shannon embarks on every role with the intelligence of a person not only looking to entertain, but to discover something new within himself.

With his latest drama, Ariel Vromen’s The Iceman, Shannon disappears into the role of notorious contract killer Richard Kuklinski. Arrested in 1986 for the heinous crimes he committed throughout the decade—at least 100 murders by his own count—Kuklinski kept his profession a secret from his wife and daughters, leading a double life with the cold stoicism of a seriously disturbed man. Vromen’s film takes us back to when Kuklinski and his wife Deborah (played wonderfully by Winona Ryder) first met, chronicling their lives as we seem them grow together and break apart as Kuklinski becomes more entwined with his murderous career and more removed from those he loves. In his role, Shannon is frightening, embodying the dichotomy of cold-blooded killer and family man with both physicality and emotion, delivering a visceral performance that’s filled with as much delicacy as bone-chilling cruelty. 

Last Saturday, I sat down with Shannon at the Waldorf Astoria to chat about becoming the Iceman, the need for less escapism, and working with directors who rattle your cage.

How did you get involved with The Iceman? Were you familiar with the story?
No, it was a total surprise to me. I have never heard of Kuklinski. Basically, I just ran into Ariel at some events, he was an acquaintance of mine, and he said he wanted to work with me. He gave me the script and I read it and said, is this a real guy? And he said, yeah it’s based on a real guy, if you go on YouTube you can see interviews with him. I checked the interviews out and I thought he was an interesting fellow.

Did you and Ariel work closely to develop Kuklinski as a full person, because he was much different than when you see him in interviews now?
The main advantage of our film, as opposed to the interviews, is when you watch the interviews, you’re seeing a man who’s at the end of the road—he’s been captured, taken into captivity, lost everything, and he’s in his final movement, as it were. Our film gives you the opportunity, even though it’s hypothetical, to see him throughout his life and his younger years. I mean, I’m not going to be able to be more of Kuklinski than Kuklinski was in those interviews, but what I may be able to do is give you some inkling of what he was like 30, 40 years before those interviews took place.

Did that help you to empathize with him or understand that he did this to provide for his family? In preparing for the role, did you connect with him in any way?
It’s hard to empathize with killing. I’m not a violent person, I’ve never killed anybody. I don’t really even get into fights with anybody. But the one thing I was able to connect with, and I know this sounds absurd, was his vulnerability. I actually think one of the reasons he was such a violent person was because he was so vulnerable and so sensitive. I think he was deeply traumatized in his childhood and he developed this persona out of a survival instinct. It was the only way he could cope with the pain that he had endured as a child.

How was working with Winona, she seems like someone that would be great to have as a partner.
Well yeah, the legend of Winona is a huge thing. When you meet her for the first time, it’s kind of like a kick in the gut. She’s as much a star to me as she is to anybody. I’ve watched her films and she’s a real deal movie star, no doubt. So I was anxious the first time I was going to meet her. And she just walks into the trailer with an old rock ‘n’ roll t-shirt on and some jeans and tennis shoes and you realize, oh she’s just a regular person. And she really likes rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s cool. So that breaks the ice and you get into the work. She brings a tremendous vulnerability to everything she does; she’s very delicate and very sensitive, her nerves are close to the skin, and that was essential to this part.

You take on a lot of these dark, disturbed roles. Are you drawn to this particular breed of character, or is it more of a fun exercise as an actor?
It’s not fun. Doing this part wasn’t fun, it was hard. Is it essential that people see this? I don’t know. Some people say, why do you put this violent story in the world, isn’t there enough violence already? I say, this is a person who really existed and really did these things and if we’re going to understand violence in our world and our society, then we need to examine it. We could ignore it, we could just make movies about butterflies and cupcakes, but what does that have to do with our actual experience in our culture? These are brutal times we’re living in right now. Ideally, you can make films that are both entertaining and also thought-provoking and maybe even a little painful at times, because I think that’s what we’re dealing with in the world.

It’s important for art to be reflective of the world and not bypass it for entertainments sake.
Yeah, I’m not a fan of escapism. I don’t understand it. People need to be escaping a lot less basically nowadays. People have too many ways to not pay attention to what’s going on around them, and that’s disconcerting to me.

You did an interview for BlackBook a few years ago and I remember something you said about film being a directors’ medium, whereas theater is where actors can test themselves. Is it a totally different experience for you, working in the two mediums, or does one really get at what you enjoy most about being an actor?
Theater for me is a real meditation. You latch onto a piece of writing and you spend a lot of time with it. There’s a lot of repetition, it’s almost like a massage to me, massaging your psyche, massaging the writing itself and trying to extract the deepest potential of the story. Camera work, on the other hand, is ideally very accidental. Things happen out of the blue and you can’t really prepare for it, it’s more spontaneous. I worked with Terrence Malick on To the Wonder—I got cut out—but it was still a fascinating experience. I spent a day down there walking around with Ben Affleck and doing these completely random scenes where the camera was just going all over the place, and you never knew where it was going to be, and during the scene people would be tapping you and telling you to go over here or go over there, say this or do that. And I’ve heard Malick say, “I’m just trying to find the spontaneous, I just want something truly spontaneous to happen.” That’s his approach and there’s only one director on film that I’ve worked with where the whole rehearsal process has really felt beneficial, and that’s Sidney Lumet. But he was a master of that and that’s probably because he turned plays into films and he usually worked with scripts that were very theatrical.

Speaking of another director you’ve worked with a lot, I interviewed Jeff Nichols the other day—
What a moron. [Laughs.]

He was great. I saw Mud and really loved it. But that was a very different role for you, especially compared toTake Shelter. How was working on that?
It was fun, I wish I had more time with Jeff on that one. It was so fast, it happened just before I started doing Man of Steeland I really only had a couple days to go down there. I was jealous, I wanted to be more involved. I love working with Jeff, I think he’s one of our brightest hopes right now in cinema. Hopefully we’ll be cooking something up in the wintertime—our fourth collaboration. We just have to get the dollars in the bank and then we’ll be good to go.

Do you enjoy the collaborative process between actors and directors? When you’re reading a script, it is the writing that really draws you in, or is it the person who is putting their vision on it?
The writing’s got to be there; the writing is the genesis of anything. But I don’t like being on a set where the director doesn’t have anything to say. I find that very frustrating. You work with a lot of directors who really just don’t have all that much to say. I’m not going to go into specifics, but even people who you probably think are like top notch legendary director type people, they just don’t have that much to say about the performance side of it. In theater, they have a ton to say about it, that’s all they talk about for four or five weeks, you talk about the performance. So when I get a director in film who can inspire you or give you a legitimate question that rattles your cage a little bit, I always appreciate it. The problem with film is that there’s so many elements, and as a director of film or television there’s so much you’ve got to keep track of, and sometimes, honestly, acting isn’t at the top of the list. 

With theater, the acting’s the essence of everything. I was watching Bug again the other day and that’s something you did onstage and on film. Is that the ideal, to be able to perform both?
Bug was a fascinating journey for me, all the way from its inception in London all those years ago with the original production. And then I didn’t do it for a very long time after that and then I was doing it in Chicago when 9/11 happened—Bug was a very bizarre play to be doing when that happened—and then a few years after that in New York and then the movie. So Bug was a huge part of my life.

Michael Shannon Talks ‘The Iceman,’ Working with Terrence Malick, & the Meditation of Theater

When it comes to matters of love, it’s often platonic devotion that proves the most intimate and carries the most weight in one’s life. It’s the love stories of friendship, the decades-spanning, unbreakable connection to someone that stays around as lovers come and go. Yes, romantic love is an all-encompassing illness of the heart, but without a best friend to guide you, life becomes less tolerable. Cinema has long been awash in tales of romantic love, of course, but it’s rare to see a tale of love between two female best friends, especially one that genuinely shows what it is like to have that kind of soul mate, without whom everything else would be askew. But with Noah Baumbach’s latest film,Frances Ha, we see one woman’s journey of self-discovery, ignited by a fractured friendship.
Co-written with the film’s star, Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha is a charming ode to cinema of days past. Gerwig’s emotionally intelligent, witty, and thoughtful touch elevates Baumbach’s filmmaking to new heights. Its anachronistic feel is not only played out in its black-and-white aesthetic, but in its sense of hopefulness. Here we have a 28-year-old modern dancer, unsure what to make of her life, feeling as though her best friend is drifting away from her. Yet she always shines with optimism—not disillusioned and broken like so many of the female portrayals we see in contemporary film and television. 

For all of title character Frances’ endearing existential confusion and her affinity for frankness, her best friend Sophie (wonderfully played by Mickey Sumner) keeps her in balance. But when Sophie begins to date someone seriously and moves to a more suitable apartment, her friendship with Frances begins to unravel. “We’re basically the same person,” Frances loves to say, holding onto their more youthful relationship well after Sophie has matured. But no matter their separation, when in the presence of one another it’s evident that love is still there between them, proving that just because the exact shape of something may change, its core can remain the same.

In speaking of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, Roger Ebert once said, “Oh, what a lovely film. I was almost hugging myself while I watched it.” And that is precisely the sentiment I was possessed by while watch Frances Ha. So last week, I was more than pleased to sit down with Gerwig and Sumner to talk about their own friendship, how some characters write themselves, and the potency of female friendship.

Mickey, how did you become involved with the film? 
Mickey Sumner: I auditioned—many times.
Greta Gerwig: It was actually longer than I knew; I wasn’t in all the auditions. Noah was with her.
MS: You were in my third audition. But I didn’t even know Greta was a part of the movie, in the movie, or had written the movie. I knew so little about it. I got my appointment, which was “Untitled Noah Baumbach Movie”—no script, no sides—and it was just go in and do it.
GG: I met Mickey when we were looking at her for Sophie and for another part, and I just remember you made me laugh really hard. Maybe because she was so stoic. She said some line and just looked right at me. I hadn’t been in auditions, so I hadn’t heard actors do it in front of me and she was so great and so funn so good at keeping her deadpan. I was like,does she not know that she’s funny?
MS: I don’t think so.
GG: I feel like you must have.
MS: I didn’t really know if it was a comedy or a drama…
GG: She just played it so straight.
MS: When I read a script, my usual approach to everything is to be really serious.
GG: That’s why it’s funny; the real sincerity of seriousness makes it funny. I don’t like it when people are pretending to be funny, it’s weird. It makes me uncomfortable when someone is doing something that I know they think is funny; I instantly don’t think it’s funny. But Mickey was just acting in the moment and it was really great. But anyways, thats how we met and became friends.
MS: How we fell in love.
GG: Yes, and then we fell in love while we were making the movie.

I really enjoyed their relationship because I feel like everyone has been on both sides of that friendship at some point.
GG: I’m glad you feel that way.

How did you begin collaborating with Noah to create the film?
GG: He asked me sometime after Greenberg opened. I was acting in another movie, I had a busy slate. He asked if I’d be interested in collaborating on a script; he said that he had a feeling we would write well together and he’d like to make a movie that’s really stripped down and bare bones,  see how small he can make a movie while still making it as good as it can be. And he also said that he’d like to make it in New York and maybe I can be in it, and asked if I had any ideas. So I sent him a list of different things I’d been thinking of in little moments and exchanges of dialogue, and he got really excited. So he said, let’s keep going I think there’s a movie there. And we just kept building out from there. 

Had you been looking to write something new?
GG: I’ve written every day since I was a little kid but I never thought of myself as a writer because no one ever asked me. I didn’t go to a kind of school that was like, what are your ambitions and are you interested in writing? It was kind of a drill and skill school where it was if we can’t test it, it doesn’t’ really matter. So I was acting in plays but I’ve always been writing and collecting things. I started writing plays in college but I felt like I had this build up of stuff, and when Noah asked me I was like—yes I have so much to say! I’m glad somebody asked! 

Was the character of Frances living inside you already?
GG: I didn’t feel like I knew exactly who Frances was—and not to sound like a douche—but she kind of told me who she was. Characters write themselves in a strange way—Sophie wrote herself too. And then when you give them to actors to embody them, it’s almost like watching your child grow up, or what I imagine it’s like because you let them live on their own with someone else. It’s a big thing. We found out who she was by writing her, but I definitely felt like I had this material pressing on my chest. And after, I felt relieved in a way that I didn’t even know I’d been tense. And now the tension has built back up again. It’s never enough.

Was this dichotomy between being physically in motion and emotionally stunted something you wanted to explore with Frances?
GG: I wanted to make her really directed and ambitious and big and totally flinging herself at the wrong thing. But she had this drive that manifests in anger or extreme love or extreme mistakes. I feel like the movie shows—it’s kind one of the tragedies of maturity but also one of the things I think is necessary for it—you almost feel her reeling herself in by the end, she becomes more self-contained. And there’s a sadness because there’s this spilling out of everything she’s doing and feeling. And going for that stuff has its own beauty, and to reel it all back in and keep it inside is necessary, but also kind of sad.

I admired Frances ability to be so external.
GG: And Sophie’s the opposite. 
MS: It was easy for me. My best friend when I was in school was the naughtiest girl— she put super glue in our French teacher’s hand lotion, you know, and I was the most well-behaved girl in school and hated getting in trouble. But we just connected on some need level; I needed her to chill me out a little bit and she needed me to control her.

I know dance is something you’ve always loved—did you have the idea right away that you wanted to incorporate that into the film?
GG: I probably didn’t know it then but I love dance and watching dance and going to dance—I like everything from a ballet class to a Zumba class. I actually kind of love Zumba class when it’s me and a bunch of like middle-aged women jamming. I get a lot of joy out of it; I get a lot of joy out of non-professions dancing. I feel like it’s really sad that the only place people really dance now is wedding receptions. Anyway, so I didn’t know it would be something in the movie but it was pretty early in the writing that I said she should be a modern dancer. Also, because I felt like it’s one of the few careers that has a real expiration date, in the way that the friendship does—it seemed to kind of metaphorically fit with what was happening and felt analogous to the powerlessness you sometimes feel as an actor being hired to do it. As a dancer it’s the same thing, you’re performing someone else’s choreography. It’s a beautiful art, but it’s an art that requires you to have someone say, “It’s you, you do this.” And that’s difficult and I have so much empathy for dancers in that way, it’s even more brutal than actors. 

I really loved this idea of seeing “your person” from across the room and how in this case that person was your best friend and not a romantic interest. I feel like that’s rarely seen and that moment was really special.
GG: Mickey didn ‘t know about that speech when we shot it.
MS: Yeah, so I don’t think I felt like I had to do a big thing in order to fulfill. Noah said, “Okay you just see Frances and look at her.”
GG: But it was emotional. It was weird because I knew the speech and you didn’t know the speech, but just looking at each other across the room when we did it, I think we both started crying and Noah and was like “Cut! Stop crying, Greta.” He was like, “Okay, you don’t need to cry right now.”
MS: But we’d also gone through the whole movie, we’d shot it chronologically, so even though I didn’t know what had happened, I felt like I’d broken up with my best friend and gone to Japan and all this stuff—it was a big moment.
GG: Because of the way we shot it, it was kind of magic the way you and I look at each other. But I remember writing it, sometimes I can have an idea but Noah can articulate it in a film. I see everything flat—probably because my background in writing is theater—so I feel everything like a fourth wall, but Noah can see it more three-dimensionally than I can. So I remember writing that she looks at Sophie talking and then looks away and Sophie’s looking at her and that this moment has happened but Sophie is the one that initiates this look. It’s like classic rom-com stuff but it’s so much more potent when it’s friend.

Had you anticipated wanting to work with Noah again after Greenberg and was it easy for you two to begin melding ideas?
GG: We didn’t do a lot of writing in the same room; we did a lot separately. He’d say, why don’t you take a crack the dinner scene or I’ll take a track at the Paris section, and we would write these scenes. I feel like when I read Greenberg, as an actor, there was something about it that—this sounds arrogant—but I did feel like, if I could write the best screenplay I could write, I would want it to look and sound like that. You could hear it. I’m very auditory—even when I read, I hear the rhythms in my head and sometimes when I read screenplays I can’t hear them. It’s like I get what they’re trying to do, yet I can’t actually hear it. But when I read Noah’s screenplay, from the stage directions to the dialogue, it was like someone pressed play. When I write, I need it to be said the way I wrote it because otherwise it doesn’t sound right. And the way Mickey did the lines, it was instantly like, yes! that’s what it sounds like. It’s almost as if you’re listening for it to drop.



Greta Gerwig & Mickey Sumner on Exploring Female Friendship in Noah Baumbach’s ‘Frances Ha’

When it comes to matters of love, it’s often platonic devotion that proves the most intimate and carries the most weight in one’s life. It’s the love stories of friendship, the decades-spanning, unbreakable connection to someone that stays around as lovers come and go. Yes, romantic love is an all-encompassing illness of the heart, but without a best friend to guide you, life becomes less tolerable. Cinema has long been awash in tales of romantic love, of course, but it’s rare to see a tale of love between two female best friends, especially one that genuinely shows what it is like to have that kind of soul mate, without whom everything else would be askew. But with Noah Baumbach’s latest film,Frances Ha, we see one woman’s journey of self-discovery, ignited by a fractured friendship.

Co-written with the film’s star, Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha is a charming ode to cinema of days past. Gerwig’s emotionally intelligent, witty, and thoughtful touch elevates Baumbach’s filmmaking to new heights. Its anachronistic feel is not only played out in its black-and-white aesthetic, but in its sense of hopefulness. Here we have a 28-year-old modern dancer, unsure what to make of her life, feeling as though her best friend is drifting away from her. Yet she always shines with optimism—not disillusioned and broken like so many of the female portrayals we see in contemporary film and television. 

For all of title character Frances’ endearing existential confusion and her affinity for frankness, her best friend Sophie (wonderfully played by Mickey Sumner) keeps her in balance. But when Sophie begins to date someone seriously and moves to a more suitable apartment, her friendship with Frances begins to unravel. “We’re basically the same person,” Frances loves to say, holding onto their more youthful relationship well after Sophie has matured. But no matter their separation, when in the presence of one another it’s evident that love is still there between them, proving that just because the exact shape of something may change, its core can remain the same.

In speaking of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, Roger Ebert once said, “Oh, what a lovely film. I was almost hugging myself while I watched it.” And that is precisely the sentiment I was possessed by while watch Frances Ha. So last week, I was more than pleased to sit down with Gerwig and Sumner to talk about their own friendship, how some characters write themselves, and the potency of female friendship.

Mickey, how did you become involved with the film? 

Mickey Sumner: I auditioned—many times.

Greta Gerwig: It was actually longer than I knew; I wasn’t in all the auditions. Noah was with her.

MS: You were in my third audition. But I didn’t even know Greta was a part of the movie, in the movie, or had written the movie. I knew so little about it. I got my appointment, which was “Untitled Noah Baumbach Movie”—no script, no sides—and it was just go in and do it.

GG: I met Mickey when we were looking at her for Sophie and for another part, and I just remember you made me laugh really hard. Maybe because she was so stoic. She said some line and just looked right at me. I hadn’t been in auditions, so I hadn’t heard actors do it in front of me and she was so great and so funn so good at keeping her deadpan. I was like,does she not know that she’s funny?

MS: I don’t think so.

GG: I feel like you must have.

MS: I didn’t really know if it was a comedy or a drama…

GG: She just played it so straight.

MS: When I read a script, my usual approach to everything is to be really serious.

GG: That’s why it’s funny; the real sincerity of seriousness makes it funny. I don’t like it when people are pretending to be funny, it’s weird. It makes me uncomfortable when someone is doing something that I know they think is funny; I instantly don’t think it’s funny. But Mickey was just acting in the moment and it was really great. But anyways, thats how we met and became friends.

MS: How we fell in love.

GG: Yes, and then we fell in love while we were making the movie.

I really enjoyed their relationship because I feel like everyone has been on both sides of that friendship at some point.

GG: I’m glad you feel that way.

How did you begin collaborating with Noah to create the film?

GG: He asked me sometime after Greenberg opened. I was acting in another movie, I had a busy slate. He asked if I’d be interested in collaborating on a script; he said that he had a feeling we would write well together and he’d like to make a movie that’s really stripped down and bare bones,  see how small he can make a movie while still making it as good as it can be. And he also said that he’d like to make it in New York and maybe I can be in it, and asked if I had any ideas. So I sent him a list of different things I’d been thinking of in little moments and exchanges of dialogue, and he got really excited. So he said, let’s keep going I think there’s a movie there. And we just kept building out from there. 

Had you been looking to write something new?

GG: I’ve written every day since I was a little kid but I never thought of myself as a writer because no one ever asked me. I didn’t go to a kind of school that was like, what are your ambitions and are you interested in writing? It was kind of a drill and skill school where it was if we can’t test it, it doesn’t’ really matter. So I was acting in plays but I’ve always been writing and collecting things. I started writing plays in college but I felt like I had this build up of stuff, and when Noah asked me I was like—yes I have so much to say! I’m glad somebody asked! 

Was the character of Frances living inside you already?

GG: I didn’t feel like I knew exactly who Frances was—and not to sound like a douche—but she kind of told me who she was. Characters write themselves in a strange way—Sophie wrote herself too. And then when you give them to actors to embody them, it’s almost like watching your child grow up, or what I imagine it’s like because you let them live on their own with someone else. It’s a big thing. We found out who she was by writing her, but I definitely felt like I had this material pressing on my chest. And after, I felt relieved in a way that I didn’t even know I’d been tense. And now the tension has built back up again. It’s never enough.

Was this dichotomy between being physically in motion and emotionally stunted something you wanted to explore with Frances?

GG: I wanted to make her really directed and ambitious and big and totally flinging herself at the wrong thing. But she had this drive that manifests in anger or extreme love or extreme mistakes. I feel like the movie shows—it’s kind one of the tragedies of maturity but also one of the things I think is necessary for it—you almost feel her reeling herself in by the end, she becomes more self-contained. And there’s a sadness because there’s this spilling out of everything she’s doing and feeling. And going for that stuff has its own beauty, and to reel it all back in and keep it inside is necessary, but also kind of sad.

I admired Frances ability to be so external.

GG: And Sophie’s the opposite. 

MS: It was easy for me. My best friend when I was in school was the naughtiest girl— she put super glue in our French teacher’s hand lotion, you know, and I was the most well-behaved girl in school and hated getting in trouble. But we just connected on some need level; I needed her to chill me out a little bit and she needed me to control her.

I know dance is something you’ve always loved—did you have the idea right away that you wanted to incorporate that into the film?

GG: I probably didn’t know it then but I love dance and watching dance and going to dance—I like everything from a ballet class to a Zumba class. I actually kind of love Zumba class when it’s me and a bunch of like middle-aged women jamming. I get a lot of joy out of it; I get a lot of joy out of non-professions dancing. I feel like it’s really sad that the only place people really dance now is wedding receptions. Anyway, so I didn’t know it would be something in the movie but it was pretty early in the writing that I said she should be a modern dancer. Also, because I felt like it’s one of the few careers that has a real expiration date, in the way that the friendship does—it seemed to kind of metaphorically fit with what was happening and felt analogous to the powerlessness you sometimes feel as an actor being hired to do it. As a dancer it’s the same thing, you’re performing someone else’s choreography. It’s a beautiful art, but it’s an art that requires you to have someone say, “It’s you, you do this.” And that’s difficult and I have so much empathy for dancers in that way, it’s even more brutal than actors. 

I really loved this idea of seeing “your person” from across the room and how in this case that person was your best friend and not a romantic interest. I feel like that’s rarely seen and that moment was really special.

GG: Mickey didn ‘t know about that speech when we shot it.

MS: Yeah, so I don’t think I felt like I had to do a big thing in order to fulfill. Noah said, “Okay you just see Frances and look at her.”

GG: But it was emotional. It was weird because I knew the speech and you didn’t know the speech, but just looking at each other across the room when we did it, I think we both started crying and Noah and was like “Cut! Stop crying, Greta.” He was like, “Okay, you don’t need to cry right now.”

MS: But we’d also gone through the whole movie, we’d shot it chronologically, so even though I didn’t know what had happened, I felt like I’d broken up with my best friend and gone to Japan and all this stuff—it was a big moment.

GG: Because of the way we shot it, it was kind of magic the way you and I look at each other. But I remember writing it, sometimes I can have an idea but Noah can articulate it in a film. I see everything flat—probably because my background in writing is theater—so I feel everything like a fourth wall, but Noah can see it more three-dimensionally than I can. So I remember writing that she looks at Sophie talking and then looks away and Sophie’s looking at her and that this moment has happened but Sophie is the one that initiates this look. It’s like classic rom-com stuff but it’s so much more potent when it’s friend.

Had you anticipated wanting to work with Noah again after Greenberg and was it easy for you two to begin melding ideas?

GG: We didn’t do a lot of writing in the same room; we did a lot separately. He’d say, why don’t you take a crack the dinner scene or I’ll take a track at the Paris section, and we would write these scenes. I feel like when I read Greenberg, as an actor, there was something about it that—this sounds arrogant—but I did feel like, if I could write the best screenplay I could write, I would want it to look and sound like that. You could hear it. I’m very auditory—even when I read, I hear the rhythms in my head and sometimes when I read screenplays I can’t hear them. It’s like I get what they’re trying to do, yet I can’t actually hear it. But when I read Noah’s screenplay, from the stage directions to the dialogue, it was like someone pressed play. When I write, I need it to be said the way I wrote it because otherwise it doesn’t sound right. And the way Mickey did the lines, it was instantly like, yes! that’s what it sounds like. It’s almost as if you’re listening for it to drop.

Greta Gerwig & Mickey Sumner on Exploring Female Friendship in Noah Baumbach’s ‘Frances Ha’

When it comes to cinematic preferences, I lean toward the darker side, falling for films that make me ache—in the best way possible. More often than not, it’s the more haunting, dramatic features that evoke the physical reaction I so yearn for. But on occasion, a film comes along that’s so absolutely delightful, so pleasurable in every aspect that I cannot help but find myself in a state of utter glee, completely tickled with what’s happening before me on screen. It’s a rare occurrence, but with Joss Whedon’s contemporary retelling of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, I found myself transfixed in the allure of his black-and-white world. 
Playing out as a love letter to Shakespeare’s comedic tale of a merry war betwixt two lovers, Much Ado is brimming with charisma and sensual thrill. You don’t need to be a scholar of the bard to find yourself captivated by the story, with its silky smooth and velvety jazz-filled atmosphere, you’re eased into the film in a way that’s far from intimidating. Whedon infuses a conversational style to the story that makes it more accessible than any other Shakespearean re-workings in recent memory, adding to a charm that’s heightened by its phenomenal cast of characters. 

Filmed in his own home in Los Angeles, for the director best known for hit shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer andAngel, or Hollywood blockbusters like The Avengers, Much Ado was a welcome surprise. The comedy feels like a breath of fresh air, a respite from major studio pictures that allows Whedon the freedom to let loose with a rapturous mix of refinement and playfulness. Much Ado may seem minimalistic in its production style, but that speaks nothing of the beauty with which it was shot and the wonderfully nuanced performances by its sprawling cast. 

Peppered with members of Whedon’s world, from Nathan Fillion and Clark Gregg to Reed Diamond and Fran Kranz, the film stars Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof as its main pair of lovers, Beatrice and Benedick. With an instant and palpable chemistry between the two, we see them verbally spar their way into love in the tale that goes as follows:

Leonato, the governor of Messina, is visited by his friend Don Pedro who is returning from a victorious campaign against his rebellious brother Don John. Accompanying Don Pedro are two of his officers: Benedick and Claudio. While in Messina, Claudio falls for Leonato’s daughter Hero, while Benedick verbally spars with Beatrice, the governor’s niece. The budding love between Claudio and Hero prompts Don Pedro to arrange with Leonato for a marriage.In the days leading up to the ceremony, Don Pedro, with the help of Leonato, Claudio and Hero, attempts to sport with Benedick and Beatrice in an effort to trick the two into falling in love. Meanwhile, the villainous Don John, with the help of his allies: Conrade and Borachio, plots against the happy couple, using his own form of trickery to try to destroy the marriage before it begins.A series of comic and tragic events continue to keep the two couples from truly finding happiness, but then again perhaps love may prevail.

No stranger to Shakespearean text, actor Alexis Denisof takes on the role of Benedick with a mix of humor and sensitivity. Beloved for his roles on Buffy, Angel, and Dollhouse, here we see a new side to Denisof that’s as endearing as it is hilarious to watch. So with the film’s premiere this Friday, I got the chance to speak with him about stepping into his leading role, his natural chemistry with Amy Acker, and the passion behind the picture.
You’ve been traveling around a lot with the film, bringing it to different festivals and premieres. I imagine this is a pretty amazing group of people to be doing this with.It’s very true. We are genuinely friends, so it didn’t feel like work when we were making it and it doesn’t feel like work when we’re promoting it. All of it has been a huge amount of fun and that’s the best kind of work there is. If you can make it fun, then it doesn’t feel like work.
I absolutely loved the film. I can’t remember another recent film where I found myself just grinning the entire time. Oh good, that’s a perfect way to say it.
What I loved about it was that it felt like a very indie 1990s chamber comedy, like The Anniversary Party, with Shakespeare as the vernacular. The combination of those two things is probably my ideal film. Yeah, that’s very well put. I’ve seen it a few times now and each time I get a slightly different feel and I see more of the references that Joss is inserting here and there. I love how it all pulls together even though it’s 400 year old language, two-year-old suits and ties, mid-century black-and-white, and cool jazz.
The jazz was a great element and gave it that extra bit of play.And yet somehow it all pulls together into one experience that just flies by. I normally find it difficult to watch films or television shows that I’m in because I pick them apart, but with this one, I just get carried away and remember how much fun we had making it . I think almost all of that fun is on the screen.
As someone who loves Shakespeare it was obviously enjoyable, but what’s great with this is that it feels much more accessible than a lot of other adaptations of the work. I agree. If you love Shakespeare and you’ve seen Shakespeare, I think you’ll go to this movie surprised and delighted at this fresh interpretation. I think people will watch this movie and feel good that you understood it and enjoyed it. It’s accessible and it’s fun and hip and sexy and cool, and it’s very hard not to like it. The movie is not trying to scare you off or make a statement about Shakespeare or become a polemic about the Bard, it’s just these people brought to life in a way that the directors and actors felt were right for them and creating a world that we believed in. And we tried to make it fast and fun.How did you find yourself cast in the role of Benedick? You’ve worked with Joss in the past.I have been fortunate to collaborate with him quite a few times over the years. Before Much Ado, the last time was on The Avengers, in which I had a small part. So I saw him in the middle of shooting that huge movie and when we wrapped principal photography, I got a call at home asking where was I and if he could come see me. I told him he could come over right now and I hung up the phone and said to my wife, “Oh dear, I think he’s coming to tell me that the footage we shot of me in The Avengers was terrible and they need to recast and reshoot, and wants to break the news in person.” And she told me to relax and see what he wanted to say. So it was a double surprise when he arrived and plucked the script forMuch Ado out of his pocket and said, “So I’ve got a couple weeks off and my wife has suggested that instead of the European vacation we planned, that we shoot Much Ado at my house. It starts in three weeks and we have twelve days to shoot it.” I said yes before he’d even finished the question, and thankfully didn’t have enough time to freak out. A couple weeks isn’t much time time to prep for that kind of role, and 12 days is certainly not a lot of time to shoot that kind of film, but everybody involved has worked with each other either directly or knew each other socially, and we had pretty much all worked with Joss, so we had a rapport and could work quickly with each other— that was a key element. And most of us participated in casual Shakespeare readings at Joss’s house just for fun from time to time, so that created a springboard as well and all that conspired along with Joss’s extraordinary vision for the film. 
Did he say right away that he wanted you for Benedick? He did. When he first proposed it, he said that he was thinking me for Benedick and Amy for Beatrice—for me, that’s the holy trinity: Joss, Amy Acker, and myself. I couldn’t be happier than when I’m working with those people. We just have a very special chemistry, the three of us, and it’s always challenging and exciting. We feel relaxed and free to play. If you really boil it down, whether it’s comic or tragic, it’s all play in this movie-making, television, or theater business—it’s complicated versions of playing and I think Joss and Amy and I play well together. 
The scenes between you and Amy were certainly my favorite, whether it was a dramatic moment or the many moments of comedy, you two have such a wonderful chemistry together that was befitting of your characters.I do appreciate it and I want to speak frankly about my feelings about it, but at the same time, I’m not trying to give myself compliments. I agree, I feel we have a chemistry but it’s up to everybody else to agree that the chemistry is working. I feel like in this case we hit on something special.
The film was shot at Joss’ house and on a very small scale, yet it still felt so polished and the cinematography was beautiful. Yeah, if you were just told about a black-and-white movie shot in 12 days at his house, you would immediately think it sounds down and dirty and it’s going to look down and dirty and be all that shaky camera kind of hand-held flip cam style of shooting that’s become in vogue—but it’s not that. It’s very luxurious to look at and very sensuous and sexy, and I think the black and white lets you ease into it comfortably, and the language is not intimidating. Anybody that has spoken to me about the movie, all of them have said, “It’s so strange, after a couple of minutes I didn’t realize it was Shakespeare anymore, I understood what people were saying.” So it is beautiful to look at, and I knew Joss had fallen truly in love with this movie when he told me that he was composing the score. Once he starts to hear music when he’s working on something, then it means his heart is in it, it’s taken him over. By the time he was in editing and post-production, he was having to do that on his own free time from post-production of The Avengers. So that meant occasional late nights during the week and occasional late hours on the weekend on his laptop and yet, that’s the kind of talent he is: from the moment he conceived his vision of this movie, to the final note on the bass and treble clef that he wrote, it was one fully-realized vision that was slow and extremely challenging, but nevertheless beautifully extracted from him.
My first thought when hearing about the film was that doing something like this so passionately in such a short amount of time, and so cheaply, it must have been a wonderful revitalizing breath of fresh air for him. You don’t have to know anything about movies to conceive what it must be like to shoot a $200 million movie. It’s just painstaking minutia, thousands of decisions, and many, many people involved in every aspect of the film. So a movie likeThe Avengers is a military operation, and I think he wanted to go back to grass roots and let things fly a little and get back to that feeling of being in a rip-roaring collaboration with people that he loved to work with and just see what happens. So with low or no expectations—which was what we all had—you’re free really to do whatever and that’s one of many strengths of Joss as a director: he creates an atmosphere in which you feel absolutely safe and free. I think that’s a perfect balance when you’re in a creative process—safety and freedom.
With such short time shooting and in prep, did you and Amy have a chance to rehearse a lot together, or did your relationship develop more on set?The rehearsals were grab them when you can. Amy and I called each other immediately after Joss dropped this bombshell and said, “How soon can you get together?” And the three of us would meet whenever possible before shooting began, and Amy and I would work on things ourselves and bring Joss in when we could, or he would pull us aside when he could. That was a process, and that continued throughout the shooting. If we were in a lightning turn around, we would walk off and take a look at things and map them out. And of course it’s his house, so he has the advantage of knowing every nook and cranny and has total comfort in the space, in terms of what it is and what it can do. And while shooting in a real location confines the cast and crew into small spaces—which a film stage doesn’t—a real house gives you that authenticity that supports what you’re doing. There’s something about real walls as opposed to flimsy painted canvas walls that give you reassurance, and if I open the fridge in the kitchen there’s actually milk and eggs and the kid’s lunch because it’s his house. All of that lent itself to the movie.
And just as a play, Much Ado offers itself so well to physical comedy, and with something like this where you’re able to see small details closer than you would on a stage, you were able to play more with that and it really added to the entire film. That’s a good point. Joss wanted to have a feel of live theater in this to some degree, but at the same time, because it’s film and there’s a camera, you can direct the eye more than you can in a theater. He took long takes when he could and shot things a little bit wider so that you could see everybody that was in the scene in the room. That pulls the audience into the room, and if it’s a party scene you really are in the party, and if it’s a love scene, you’re comfortably close to the lovers. This film is as close to merging film and live theater as anything I’ve seen successfully. Of course if you were just to put a camera on sticks and shoot a theatrical performance, it’s very tedious, it just doesn’t translate and it rarely works. You’ve got to get the cameras in closer and you’ve got to have cut-aways and close-ups —you just have to because the screen is a different visual medium. Somehow this is a successful merger of the two.
I feel like so many Shakespearean adaptations nowadays are either the very grand, romantic Kenneth Branagh-type pictures, or the more veiled, contemporary re-imagining of the text. This, to me, felt like the perfect merger of both those worlds.I would agree with that. We were certainly not attempting something highbrow and sophisticated, this was not a reproduction of Elizabethan theater, and we’re not attempting to present poetry to people. We wanted to get under the skins of these charters, and bring them to life, and find a journey through these relationships, and bring a real contemporary authenticity to it, but still respecting the fact that this was written 400 plus years ago. Some of it is very poetic, but we wanted to let the audience find that poetry rather than present it to them. So it’s very conversational and we took a very relaxed approach with the language. I think the roots go back to the readings at Joss’ house where we would have fun with plays and you could do whatever you want and weren’t’ necessarily cast in a role that you would ever play—but who cares, it was a reading and a glass of wine.
Did those readings happen often?Well, they were in a nice groove during the Buffy and Angel days when Joss was on a TV schedule. Now that the shape of his career has changed and there’s much more of a movie schedule to his life, it’s been difficult to get together and read the plays as of late. But it’s always a possibility and they’re always spontaneous. He’ll think of it on a Wednesday and call a bunch of people, then email a bunch of people on Thursday, and if enough people say yes, then he sends out a list of parts on Friday or Saturday, and then you show up on Sunday and read the play. I know it’s not everybody’s idea of fun…
Are you kidding? I can’t think of a better way to spend an evening.Well, clearly you would find this great, and for people who have an interest in the plays, it is fun. I think what this movie has done is take the fun that we all have in the reading of the plays and brought it to life in a very vivid way. We’ve committed to it whole-heartedly here, so now with this movie, you could like the plays or not like the plays, the movie stands on its own as the story—a complex story about two pairs of lovers clearly meant for each other but instead are quarreling and resisting each other. The other pair are on the opposite end of the spectrum and are models for Romeo and Juliet and the whole cosmopolitan political world in which they’re set, and all of the wonderful characters that weave through the whole story. The bottom line with this movie is that it’s an indie. There’s no big studio behind this, we want to get it out to people, and we’re lucky that LionsGate picked it up and people will get a chance to see it. But it’s only people like you and people who tell their friends about it that creates the demand that will give it a shot to get out to a broader audience.
Alexis Denisof on Reawakening the World of Shakespeare in Joss Whedon’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

When it comes to cinematic preferences, I lean toward the darker side, falling for films that make me ache—in the best way possible. More often than not, it’s the more haunting, dramatic features that evoke the physical reaction I so yearn for. But on occasion, a film comes along that’s so absolutely delightful, so pleasurable in every aspect that I cannot help but find myself in a state of utter glee, completely tickled with what’s happening before me on screen. It’s a rare occurrence, but with Joss Whedon’s contemporary retelling of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, I found myself transfixed in the allure of his black-and-white world. 

Playing out as a love letter to Shakespeare’s comedic tale of a merry war betwixt two lovers, Much Ado is brimming with charisma and sensual thrill. You don’t need to be a scholar of the bard to find yourself captivated by the story, with its silky smooth and velvety jazz-filled atmosphere, you’re eased into the film in a way that’s far from intimidating. Whedon infuses a conversational style to the story that makes it more accessible than any other Shakespearean re-workings in recent memory, adding to a charm that’s heightened by its phenomenal cast of characters. 

Filmed in his own home in Los Angeles, for the director best known for hit shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer andAngel, or Hollywood blockbusters like The Avengers, Much Ado was a welcome surprise. The comedy feels like a breath of fresh air, a respite from major studio pictures that allows Whedon the freedom to let loose with a rapturous mix of refinement and playfulness. Much Ado may seem minimalistic in its production style, but that speaks nothing of the beauty with which it was shot and the wonderfully nuanced performances by its sprawling cast. 

Peppered with members of Whedon’s world, from Nathan Fillion and Clark Gregg to Reed Diamond and Fran Kranz, the film stars Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof as its main pair of lovers, Beatrice and Benedick. With an instant and palpable chemistry between the two, we see them verbally spar their way into love in the tale that goes as follows:

Leonato, the governor of Messina, is visited by his friend Don Pedro who is returning from a victorious campaign against his rebellious brother Don John. Accompanying Don Pedro are two of his officers: Benedick and Claudio. While in Messina, Claudio falls for Leonato’s daughter Hero, while Benedick verbally spars with Beatrice, the governor’s niece. The budding love between Claudio and Hero prompts Don Pedro to arrange with Leonato for a marriage.In the days leading up to the ceremony, Don Pedro, with the help of Leonato, Claudio and Hero, attempts to sport with Benedick and Beatrice in an effort to trick the two into falling in love. Meanwhile, the villainous Don John, with the help of his allies: Conrade and Borachio, plots against the happy couple, using his own form of trickery to try to destroy the marriage before it begins.A series of comic and tragic events continue to keep the two couples from truly finding happiness, but then again perhaps love may prevail.

No stranger to Shakespearean text, actor Alexis Denisof takes on the role of Benedick with a mix of humor and sensitivity. Beloved for his roles on Buffy, Angel, and Dollhouse, here we see a new side to Denisof that’s as endearing as it is hilarious to watch. So with the film’s premiere this Friday, I got the chance to speak with him about stepping into his leading role, his natural chemistry with Amy Acker, and the passion behind the picture.

You’ve been traveling around a lot with the film, bringing it to different festivals and premieres. I imagine this is a pretty amazing group of people to be doing this with.
It’s very true. We are genuinely friends, so it didn’t feel like work when we were making it and it doesn’t feel like work when we’re promoting it. All of it has been a huge amount of fun and that’s the best kind of work there is. If you can make it fun, then it doesn’t feel like work.

I absolutely loved the film. I can’t remember another recent film where I found myself just grinning the entire time. 
Oh good, that’s a perfect way to say it.

What I loved about it was that it felt like a very indie 1990s chamber comedy, like The Anniversary Party, with Shakespeare as the vernacular. The combination of those two things is probably my ideal film. 
Yeah, that’s very well put. I’ve seen it a few times now and each time I get a slightly different feel and I see more of the references that Joss is inserting here and there. I love how it all pulls together even though it’s 400 year old language, two-year-old suits and ties, mid-century black-and-white, and cool jazz.

The jazz was a great element and gave it that extra bit of play.
And yet somehow it all pulls together into one experience that just flies by. I normally find it difficult to watch films or television shows that I’m in because I pick them apart, but with this one, I just get carried away and remember how much fun we had making it . I think almost all of that fun is on the screen.

As someone who loves Shakespeare it was obviously enjoyable, but what’s great with this is that it feels much more accessible than a lot of other adaptations of the work. 
I agree. If you love Shakespeare and you’ve seen Shakespeare, I think you’ll go to this movie surprised and delighted at this fresh interpretation. I think people will watch this movie and feel good that you understood it and enjoyed it. It’s accessible and it’s fun and hip and sexy and cool, and it’s very hard not to like it. The movie is not trying to scare you off or make a statement about Shakespeare or become a polemic about the Bard, it’s just these people brought to life in a way that the directors and actors felt were right for them and creating a world that we believed in. And we tried to make it fast and fun.

How did you find yourself cast in the role of Benedick? You’ve worked with Joss in the past.
I have been fortunate to collaborate with him quite a few times over the years. Before Much Ado, the last time was on The Avengers, in which I had a small part. So I saw him in the middle of shooting that huge movie and when we wrapped principal photography, I got a call at home asking where was I and if he could come see me. I told him he could come over right now and I hung up the phone and said to my wife, “Oh dear, I think he’s coming to tell me that the footage we shot of me in The Avengers was terrible and they need to recast and reshoot, and wants to break the news in person.” And she told me to relax and see what he wanted to say. So it was a double surprise when he arrived and plucked the script forMuch Ado out of his pocket and said, “So I’ve got a couple weeks off and my wife has suggested that instead of the European vacation we planned, that we shoot Much Ado at my house. It starts in three weeks and we have twelve days to shoot it.” I said yes before he’d even finished the question, and thankfully didn’t have enough time to freak out. A couple weeks isn’t much time time to prep for that kind of role, and 12 days is certainly not a lot of time to shoot that kind of film, but everybody involved has worked with each other either directly or knew each other socially, and we had pretty much all worked with Joss, so we had a rapport and could work quickly with each other— that was a key element. And most of us participated in casual Shakespeare readings at Joss’s house just for fun from time to time, so that created a springboard as well and all that conspired along with Joss’s extraordinary vision for the film. 

Did he say right away that he wanted you for Benedick? 
He did. When he first proposed it, he said that he was thinking me for Benedick and Amy for Beatrice—for me, that’s the holy trinity: Joss, Amy Acker, and myself. I couldn’t be happier than when I’m working with those people. We just have a very special chemistry, the three of us, and it’s always challenging and exciting. We feel relaxed and free to play. If you really boil it down, whether it’s comic or tragic, it’s all play in this movie-making, television, or theater business—it’s complicated versions of playing and I think Joss and Amy and I play well together. 

The scenes between you and Amy were certainly my favorite, whether it was a dramatic moment or the many moments of comedy, you two have such a wonderful chemistry together that was befitting of your characters.
I do appreciate it and I want to speak frankly about my feelings about it, but at the same time, I’m not trying to give myself compliments. I agree, I feel we have a chemistry but it’s up to everybody else to agree that the chemistry is working. I feel like in this case we hit on something special.

The film was shot at Joss’ house and on a very small scale, yet it still felt so polished and the cinematography was beautiful. 
Yeah, if you were just told about a black-and-white movie shot in 12 days at his house, you would immediately think it sounds down and dirty and it’s going to look down and dirty and be all that shaky camera kind of hand-held flip cam style of shooting that’s become in vogue—but it’s not that. It’s very luxurious to look at and very sensuous and sexy, and I think the black and white lets you ease into it comfortably, and the language is not intimidating. Anybody that has spoken to me about the movie, all of them have said, “It’s so strange, after a couple of minutes I didn’t realize it was Shakespeare anymore, I understood what people were saying.” So it is beautiful to look at, and I knew Joss had fallen truly in love with this movie when he told me that he was composing the score. Once he starts to hear music when he’s working on something, then it means his heart is in it, it’s taken him over. By the time he was in editing and post-production, he was having to do that on his own free time from post-production of The Avengers. So that meant occasional late nights during the week and occasional late hours on the weekend on his laptop and yet, that’s the kind of talent he is: from the moment he conceived his vision of this movie, to the final note on the bass and treble clef that he wrote, it was one fully-realized vision that was slow and extremely challenging, but nevertheless beautifully extracted from him.

My first thought when hearing about the film was that doing something like this so passionately in such a short amount of time, and so cheaply, it must have been a wonderful revitalizing breath of fresh air for him. 
You don’t have to know anything about movies to conceive what it must be like to shoot a $200 million movie. It’s just painstaking minutia, thousands of decisions, and many, many people involved in every aspect of the film. So a movie likeThe Avengers is a military operation, and I think he wanted to go back to grass roots and let things fly a little and get back to that feeling of being in a rip-roaring collaboration with people that he loved to work with and just see what happens. So with low or no expectations—which was what we all had—you’re free really to do whatever and that’s one of many strengths of Joss as a director: he creates an atmosphere in which you feel absolutely safe and free. I think that’s a perfect balance when you’re in a creative process—safety and freedom.

With such short time shooting and in prep, did you and Amy have a chance to rehearse a lot together, or did your relationship develop more on set?
The rehearsals were grab them when you can. Amy and I called each other immediately after Joss dropped this bombshell and said, “How soon can you get together?” And the three of us would meet whenever possible before shooting began, and Amy and I would work on things ourselves and bring Joss in when we could, or he would pull us aside when he could. That was a process, and that continued throughout the shooting. If we were in a lightning turn around, we would walk off and take a look at things and map them out. And of course it’s his house, so he has the advantage of knowing every nook and cranny and has total comfort in the space, in terms of what it is and what it can do. And while shooting in a real location confines the cast and crew into small spaces—which a film stage doesn’t—a real house gives you that authenticity that supports what you’re doing. There’s something about real walls as opposed to flimsy painted canvas walls that give you reassurance, and if I open the fridge in the kitchen there’s actually milk and eggs and the kid’s lunch because it’s his house. All of that lent itself to the movie.

And just as a play, Much Ado offers itself so well to physical comedy, and with something like this where you’re able to see small details closer than you would on a stage, you were able to play more with that and it really added to the entire film. 
That’s a good point. Joss wanted to have a feel of live theater in this to some degree, but at the same time, because it’s film and there’s a camera, you can direct the eye more than you can in a theater. He took long takes when he could and shot things a little bit wider so that you could see everybody that was in the scene in the room. That pulls the audience into the room, and if it’s a party scene you really are in the party, and if it’s a love scene, you’re comfortably close to the lovers. This film is as close to merging film and live theater as anything I’ve seen successfully. Of course if you were just to put a camera on sticks and shoot a theatrical performance, it’s very tedious, it just doesn’t translate and it rarely works. You’ve got to get the cameras in closer and you’ve got to have cut-aways and close-ups —you just have to because the screen is a different visual medium. Somehow this is a successful merger of the two.

I feel like so many Shakespearean adaptations nowadays are either the very grand, romantic Kenneth Branagh-type pictures, or the more veiled, contemporary re-imagining of the text. This, to me, felt like the perfect merger of both those worlds.
I would agree with that. We were certainly not attempting something highbrow and sophisticated, this was not a reproduction of Elizabethan theater, and we’re not attempting to present poetry to people. We wanted to get under the skins of these charters, and bring them to life, and find a journey through these relationships, and bring a real contemporary authenticity to it, but still respecting the fact that this was written 400 plus years ago. Some of it is very poetic, but we wanted to let the audience find that poetry rather than present it to them. So it’s very conversational and we took a very relaxed approach with the language. I think the roots go back to the readings at Joss’ house where we would have fun with plays and you could do whatever you want and weren’t’ necessarily cast in a role that you would ever play—but who cares, it was a reading and a glass of wine.

Did those readings happen often?
Well, they were in a nice groove during the Buffy and Angel days when Joss was on a TV schedule. Now that the shape of his career has changed and there’s much more of a movie schedule to his life, it’s been difficult to get together and read the plays as of late. But it’s always a possibility and they’re always spontaneous. He’ll think of it on a Wednesday and call a bunch of people, then email a bunch of people on Thursday, and if enough people say yes, then he sends out a list of parts on Friday or Saturday, and then you show up on Sunday and read the play. I know it’s not everybody’s idea of fun…

Are you kidding? I can’t think of a better way to spend an evening.
Well, clearly you would find this great, and for people who have an interest in the plays, it is fun. I think what this movie has done is take the fun that we all have in the reading of the plays and brought it to life in a very vivid way. We’ve committed to it whole-heartedly here, so now with this movie, you could like the plays or not like the plays, the movie stands on its own as the story—a complex story about two pairs of lovers clearly meant for each other but instead are quarreling and resisting each other. The other pair are on the opposite end of the spectrum and are models for Romeo and Juliet and the whole cosmopolitan political world in which they’re set, and all of the wonderful characters that weave through the whole story. The bottom line with this movie is that it’s an indie. There’s no big studio behind this, we want to get it out to people, and we’re lucky that LionsGate picked it up and people will get a chance to see it. But it’s only people like you and people who tell their friends about it that creates the demand that will give it a shot to get out to a broader audience.

Alexis Denisof on Reawakening the World of Shakespeare in Joss Whedon’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

The power of cinema lies in its ability to transport you into another world, into another life. You go to into a theater, take your seat, the lights dim, and suddenly you’re given the keys to embark on something completely unknown, to bid yourself adieu and leave your fate into the hands of another. You fall down the rabbit hole into a different world and for these few hours, you bear the pain and the weight of the lives of those onscreen, assuming an identity with infinite possibilities. And in the end when the credits role, you go back to your normal life. Nothing may have changed fundamentally—just because the protagonist has murdered their family, doesn’t mean you’ll soon be carted off to jail—but if the film has served it’s purpose, you’ll never walk away unscathed. 
And with Leos Carax’s new science-fiction epic, Holy Motors, by the end of the film you’re left sitting in your seat baffled by the myriad lives you’ve just walked through, in awe of the power of cinema as an experience that is sacred and fantastic.  A film that both explodes and implodes, a masterpiece of clever wit and visual wonder, Holy Motors is just as heartbreaking as it is hilarious—and you’ve never seen anything like it. Walking out of the theater, I found myself thinking, Why haven’t we seen something like this before? Where has this type of film hiding? But perhaps it is because a film such as this requires not only an incredible about of imagination and fury but a great deal of fearlessness. Holy Motors was “born of rage” by Leos after he was consistently unable to get funding for other features he wanted to make—thus becoming the brain child of a rebellious genius with nothing to lose.
Is the film a meditation on the different masks we wear as humans; is it an outcry for the takeover of technology over the organic; is it a plea for human connection; is it a virtual nightmare where our future lives only in the eyes of the screen; is it a love letter to cinema in all its forms? Or, is it simply a story about what it means to be alive in a world where human experience is on the verge of extinction? In one scene of the film, it states that, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” and with Holy Motors, how you view the beauty of the film is entirely up to your own obsessions and predilections. It may be a delicate web to maneuver your way through, but it is malleable to everyone’s own perception. There are moments when you cannot help but gaze in amazement, not only of Leos’ clever genius but of Denis Lavant, who plays Monsieur Oscar (as well as the nine other roles he assumes throughout the day), who delivers an astonishing performance in which he disappears into each of his roles with the intensity of a madmen. Lavant has a physicality that haunts, with a body sculpted like the recurring images of athletes crono-photographed by Marey that appear sporadically throughout the film. 
In its simplest form, Holy Motors is an odyssey through the body and soul that takes place over a single day in modern Paris. Monsieur Oscar is chauffeured by limousine, traveling to and from his various “appointments,” venturing from one life to the next. Throughout the day we see Monsieur Oscar transform into these differing worlds in which he plays everything from a lonesome gypsy crone on the streets, to a finger-eating troglodyte, and an assassin sent to kill his own doppleganger—just to name a few. The genre shape-shifts with every scene, never becoming static, while allowing the moments to play out in all their bizarre glory. With a cast featuring Kylie Minogue, Eva Mendes, and most notably French actress, Edith Scob, Holy Motors is a surrealist dream in which Leos doesn’t feed the audience anything and yet, the satisfaction is undeniable.
Yesterday, I was joined by three other writers and lovers of cinema to speak with Leos about the evolution of his work, the miracle of cinema, and courage as lesson to be learned.
You directed Denis Lavant now over the course of three decades, how has your process of working with him evolved over the years?Mostly it evolved between the first film and the second film. I don’t know Denis in real life. We live like 500 meters apart in Paris but we’re not friends and I’ve never had dinner with him and we don’t talk much. But I was lucky, it was a miracle to find him for my first feature. I was looking for this boy for a long time—I had to post-pone the film for a year because I couldn’t find the boy—but finally I found Denis and made it. I was aware after the film that I had not used him enough in his physical capacity. The first film I made with him was called Boy Meets Girl, which was very static. So I made a second film with him which was much more physical and then the third film and then I didn’t shoot with him for sixteen years or something. Then we made a film in Tokyo two years ago where I rediscovered him and thought he had just become much greater actor. At the time, he was great but limited. Even ten years ago we could have never made this film together. He could have played parts of it, like the motion capture part, but other scenes, he couldn’t play it—like the scene with his daughter or the scene where he’s dying. So when I imagined this film, because this film was born out of the rage of not being able to make other projects,  it was imagined very fast. I think I did all of it in two weeks. I knew the film would be shot in Paris for little money, it would be shot in digital, it would be shot with Denis, and I would not watch the dailies—that’s the only things I knew. And then those two or three scenes, I imagined them for Denis but I didn’t think he would be able to do them, it won’t be good. But I thought, Okay let’s try, and I was very surprised. I think now there’s nothing he can’t play.
Was there one of the scenes that sparked your initial idea to the make the film? I’d heard you had this image of a theater full of people and you didn’t know if they were sleeping or dead.I’m not a writer, so I don’t write a script from A to Z. I start usually with two or three images and two or three feelings and then I try to edit these feelings and these images together. There was this image of the public, you don’t know if they’re dead or sleeping. And there was obviously this limousine that had been attracting me. I first saw them in America and the neighborhood I live in in Paris is a Chinese neighborhood and they use them to get married,—strangely, because I find them very morbid, they’re more like coffins. But I was very intrigued by these limousines, I thought they were a very great vehicle for today because they’re quite virtual—they want to be be seen but you can’t see inside them and people feel very protected inside them—they play a role. You don’t buy them, you rent them, it’s like a rented life, like avatars of themselves whether they’re playing to be famous, to be rich for a day or an hour. I thought they were very interesting and they’re very cinematic.
And also, I had this image of the old beggar which is the second avatar for Monsieur Oscar after the rich banker. I pass these beggars, these gypsy beggars everyday in Paris. They’re all the same and they have their backs completely bent and I’ve always felt, how can you be more alone than them, than this? What’s left of life, they’re still alive, what’s left of life? And I thought, there’s no one more foreign in Paris more than these women, I’ll never be able to be in contact with them. I thought maybe I’d make a documentary about that, about one of these women and me: we pass each other on this bridge and I try to relate to them and then I have to go to their country to understand their story and how it happened. I always wanted to make documentaries but my fear is if I make a documentary, it will have no end, my whole life will be consumed. Because how do you end a documentary? Even a fiction film is hard to end; I end it because of money reasons but I could keep editing it and shooting it forever. So I went the opposite way: I thought, No if it’s not going to be a documentary, this one is going to be complete fiction, it’s going to be played by an actor and I’m going to put my words into the mouth. I guess I associated this idea of playing roles with the limousine and put them together. 
The movie is completely different than anything I’ve seen by you. It seemed a lot freer than your other films and I’m just wondering how not getting funding played a role for you to do something this different?The film was born of that rage. It was imagined much quicker than any other project I had. Within a few weeks. I think if it’s strong and if it feels free, it’s because of that rage and that fast process. It took us a year to find the money, I wanted to shoot it right away but it was imagined that way and shot that way a year later.
If someone were to come up to you on the street and ask you if they should devote their life to cinema, what would you say?I wouldn’t call it devotion. I don’t think you should devote your life to anything. But I feel it’s really a miracle that cinema exists, that it had it be invented. It’s an invention and no other art is an invention, it has a machine. It needs machines. It needed machines and now it needs computers. It needs motors and in french you say “Motor,” like in English you say, “Rolling,” before the director says, “Action.” So I felt very relieved when I was sixteen to discover cinema and to discover there was a land, a place, I call it an island, from where you could see life and death from another perspective or angle or many different angles. I think every young person should be interested in that island; it’s a beautiful place. But it has nothing to do with that. I like cinema, I don’t like cinephilia. I don’t care so much about films, I care about cinema in terms of place, this place where you can see. It may be arogant but I do believe that I live in this island; it’s worth living there.
Do you feel any kinship with any other French directors of your generation?No. But I’m not looking for it. I started young and as a young man I was quite alone. I came to Paris from the suburbs when I was 17, I didn’t know anybody in Paris. I didn’t study films, I had never been on a shoot before I made my own films. Asking for money was just saying, “Trust me, I can make films.” And after that, I did interviews and stuff so I guess there was just kind of pride of being alone. So I paid the price of this pride and I benefited from it, it gave me strength but at the same time, it made me really alone in the industry. But that’s my story, I can’t say it’s good or bad but that’s the way it was. I don’t really see myself as part of a generation. I don’t care about the idea of French filmmakers or Chinese filmmakers, I’m a director and sometimes it happens I was born in France but that’s it.
Nowadays where it seems like so many people are just living their virtually and without human connection, adopting these identities it felt like the film really echoed that, especially in the fact that no matter which life he hoped in and out of, no matter what he did there’s no consequence. And we’re living in this time where we can act out these fantasies without consequence, is that something you were thinking about making the film?Well yeah, the film is about our actions and the notion of experience and how important it is. Life is experience, experiencing life today, do we still want to experience? Do we still want to be responsible? Do we still want to  write our own life? I’m interested in virtual reality but it’s not something I want to impose on my life. I like to be inhabited by different worlds but I don’t like to be imposed whether it’s this world or the virtual one, I don’t want anybody to impose it on me. The film is not against anything, it’s just saying that we’re mutants and that every generation more so than any other generation, we have to fight like a mutant has to fight. It’s not nostalgia and it’s not stupid hope for the future, it’s just fighting as always. The risk is and I see it in young people, the lack of courage. We’re lacking courage. Filmmakers are lacking courage but we as people are. I think they should teach courage in school to kids–whether it’s civic, political, philosophical, poetic courage, or physical courage even. They should be taught in school because if we have courage anything is possible. 
Did it take you a lot of courage to make this movie? All your movies are very personal. They have a lot of elements that come from you. I was really touched by the father daughter scene. How much of it was inspired by your personal life with your daughter?There’s a special courage in filmmaking but I do what I can. When I make a film, it’s the only possible film I can make when I’m making it. It happens that Denis and me are the same age—he has three daughters, I have one daughter—so in films you put all your fears, all your question marks and all your fears. Obviously, I think the relationship between father and daughter is the most beautiful most possible relationship but also the closest to all the horror tales, I mean the father can be a monster very easily. That’s my fear, being a monster but it doesn’t have to  do with the actual relationship with my daughter I hope.
What do you think, in your capacity as a filmmaker, is your relationship with cinema history?Well, I started making films at the same time I discovered film, which rarely happens. Usually it’s two different times in your life. I don’t know if that’s good or bad but that’s how it happened. So I watched a lot of films from age 16 to 24, a lot of silent films, Hollywood films obviously, and New Wave films but I think I stopped watching films at the time of my second film. I felt I’d paid my depth of love for the cinema. I needed to go my own way. I never think I’m a cinephile, I never think in terms of films. I do live on this island called cinema but I never think terms of genre. People see lots of references in this film, I don’t. There are one or two but as references, I hope they serve. I think the best viewer for a film like this is someone who doesn’t know much about cinema, that’s why when I travel with the film, the further I go usually the closer I am to people who see the film in a way it was imagined which is not a cinephile. Hopefully if the film is successful, it’s about the experience of being alive today. Cinema permits us to see things like ghosts, but I don’t care too much anymore about cinema’s history.
You put humans and machines and animals all on the same level as these things that were alive—why is that something you wanted to show?I thought—now I’m saying I thought, I didn’t think anything. Now I think that I had to create a kind of science fiction world—there’s not much science in it but there’s a lot of fiction—where this job would exist, where he could travel from life to life in a limosuine. It’s not that I’m interested in actors or actors’ work and life or whatever, but it made it possible to, in a day, to have him do this. Otherwise, I would have needed a classical narrative or flashbacks; this permitted, in one day, a large range of human experiences—grieving, love, loss, joy.  And the film was born of these two opposite feelings: the fatigue of being yourself and another reinventing yourself, which you need to do a few times in your life. So I invented this science fiction world where animals, humans, and machines had a kind of solidarity to fight this virtual world where there was no responsibility. Because I like motors, I like machines, I like action. And that’s how cinema started, it’s a machine filming a horse, it’s a machine filming a man running. You still love to watch human bodies, you also like to watch landscapes or things we’ve created: buildings, cigarettes, guns, cars, but mostly we love to watch human beings and that’s action. We love to watch people walking, running, fucking. So that’s how the title came, “Holy Motors.” Holy would be the soul part and Motors would be the body: body and soul. 
Leos Carax on His New Masterpiece ‘Holy Motors’ and His Island of Cinema

The power of cinema lies in its ability to transport you into another world, into another life. You go to into a theater, take your seat, the lights dim, and suddenly you’re given the keys to embark on something completely unknown, to bid yourself adieu and leave your fate into the hands of another. You fall down the rabbit hole into a different world and for these few hours, you bear the pain and the weight of the lives of those onscreen, assuming an identity with infinite possibilities. And in the end when the credits role, you go back to your normal life. Nothing may have changed fundamentally—just because the protagonist has murdered their family, doesn’t mean you’ll soon be carted off to jail—but if the film has served it’s purpose, you’ll never walk away unscathed. 

And with Leos Carax’s new science-fiction epic, Holy Motors, by the end of the film you’re left sitting in your seat baffled by the myriad lives you’ve just walked through, in awe of the power of cinema as an experience that is sacred and fantastic.  A film that both explodes and implodes, a masterpiece of clever wit and visual wonder, Holy Motors is just as heartbreaking as it is hilarious—and you’ve never seen anything like it. Walking out of the theater, I found myself thinking, Why haven’t we seen something like this before? Where has this type of film hiding? But perhaps it is because a film such as this requires not only an incredible about of imagination and fury but a great deal of fearlessness. Holy Motors was “born of rage” by Leos after he was consistently unable to get funding for other features he wanted to make—thus becoming the brain child of a rebellious genius with nothing to lose.

Is the film a meditation on the different masks we wear as humans; is it an outcry for the takeover of technology over the organic; is it a plea for human connection; is it a virtual nightmare where our future lives only in the eyes of the screen; is it a love letter to cinema in all its forms? Or, is it simply a story about what it means to be alive in a world where human experience is on the verge of extinction? In one scene of the film, it states that, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” and with Holy Motors, how you view the beauty of the film is entirely up to your own obsessions and predilections. It may be a delicate web to maneuver your way through, but it is malleable to everyone’s own perception. There are moments when you cannot help but gaze in amazement, not only of Leos’ clever genius but of Denis Lavant, who plays Monsieur Oscar (as well as the nine other roles he assumes throughout the day), who delivers an astonishing performance in which he disappears into each of his roles with the intensity of a madmen. Lavant has a physicality that haunts, with a body sculpted like the recurring images of athletes crono-photographed by Marey that appear sporadically throughout the film. 

In its simplest form, Holy Motors is an odyssey through the body and soul that takes place over a single day in modern Paris. Monsieur Oscar is chauffeured by limousine, traveling to and from his various “appointments,” venturing from one life to the next. Throughout the day we see Monsieur Oscar transform into these differing worlds in which he plays everything from a lonesome gypsy crone on the streets, to a finger-eating troglodyte, and an assassin sent to kill his own doppleganger—just to name a few. The genre shape-shifts with every scene, never becoming static, while allowing the moments to play out in all their bizarre glory. With a cast featuring Kylie Minogue, Eva Mendes, and most notably French actress, Edith Scob, Holy Motors is a surrealist dream in which Leos doesn’t feed the audience anything and yet, the satisfaction is undeniable.

Yesterday, I was joined by three other writers and lovers of cinema to speak with Leos about the evolution of his work, the miracle of cinema, and courage as lesson to be learned.

You directed Denis Lavant now over the course of three decades, how has your process of working with him evolved over the years?
Mostly it evolved between the first film and the second film. I don’t know Denis in real life. We live like 500 meters apart in Paris but we’re not friends and I’ve never had dinner with him and we don’t talk much. But I was lucky, it was a miracle to find him for my first feature. I was looking for this boy for a long time—I had to post-pone the film for a year because I couldn’t find the boy—but finally I found Denis and made it. I was aware after the film that I had not used him enough in his physical capacity. The first film I made with him was called Boy Meets Girl, which was very static. So I made a second film with him which was much more physical and then the third film and then I didn’t shoot with him for sixteen years or something. Then we made a film in Tokyo two years ago where I rediscovered him and thought he had just become much greater actor. At the time, he was great but limited. Even ten years ago we could have never made this film together. He could have played parts of it, like the motion capture part, but other scenes, he couldn’t play it—like the scene with his daughter or the scene where he’s dying. So when I imagined this film, because this film was born out of the rage of not being able to make other projects,  it was imagined very fast. I think I did all of it in two weeks. I knew the film would be shot in Paris for little money, it would be shot in digital, it would be shot with Denis, and I would not watch the dailies—that’s the only things I knew. And then those two or three scenes, I imagined them for Denis but I didn’t think he would be able to do them, it won’t be good. But I thought, Okay let’s try, and I was very surprised. I think now there’s nothing he can’t play.

Was there one of the scenes that sparked your initial idea to the make the film? I’d heard you had this image of a theater full of people and you didn’t know if they were sleeping or dead.
I’m not a writer, so I don’t write a script from A to Z. I start usually with two or three images and two or three feelings and then I try to edit these feelings and these images together. There was this image of the public, you don’t know if they’re dead or sleeping. And there was obviously this limousine that had been attracting me. I first saw them in America and the neighborhood I live in in Paris is a Chinese neighborhood and they use them to get married,—strangely, because I find them very morbid, they’re more like coffins. But I was very intrigued by these limousines, I thought they were a very great vehicle for today because they’re quite virtual—they want to be be seen but you can’t see inside them and people feel very protected inside them—they play a role. You don’t buy them, you rent them, it’s like a rented life, like avatars of themselves whether they’re playing to be famous, to be rich for a day or an hour. I thought they were very interesting and they’re very cinematic.

And also, I had this image of the old beggar which is the second avatar for Monsieur Oscar after the rich banker. I pass these beggars, these gypsy beggars everyday in Paris. They’re all the same and they have their backs completely bent and I’ve always felt, how can you be more alone than them, than this? What’s left of life, they’re still alive, what’s left of life? And I thought, there’s no one more foreign in Paris more than these women, I’ll never be able to be in contact with them. I thought maybe I’d make a documentary about that, about one of these women and me: we pass each other on this bridge and I try to relate to them and then I have to go to their country to understand their story and how it happened. I always wanted to make documentaries but my fear is if I make a documentary, it will have no end, my whole life will be consumed. Because how do you end a documentary? Even a fiction film is hard to end; I end it because of money reasons but I could keep editing it and shooting it forever. So I went the opposite way: I thought, No if it’s not going to be a documentary, this one is going to be complete fiction, it’s going to be played by an actor and I’m going to put my words into the mouth. I guess I associated this idea of playing roles with the limousine and put them together. 

The movie is completely different than anything I’ve seen by you. It seemed a lot freer than your other films and I’m just wondering how not getting funding played a role for you to do something this different?
The film was born of that rage. It was imagined much quicker than any other project I had. Within a few weeks. I think if it’s strong and if it feels free, it’s because of that rage and that fast process. It took us a year to find the money, I wanted to shoot it right away but it was imagined that way and shot that way a year later.

If someone were to come up to you on the street and ask you if they should devote their life to cinema, what would you say?
I wouldn’t call it devotion. I don’t think you should devote your life to anything. But I feel it’s really a miracle that cinema exists, that it had it be invented. It’s an invention and no other art is an invention, it has a machine. It needs machines. It needed machines and now it needs computers. It needs motors and in french you say “Motor,” like in English you say, “Rolling,” before the director says, “Action.” So I felt very relieved when I was sixteen to discover cinema and to discover there was a land, a place, I call it an island, from where you could see life and death from another perspective or angle or many different angles. I think every young person should be interested in that island; it’s a beautiful place. But it has nothing to do with that. I like cinema, I don’t like cinephilia. I don’t care so much about films, I care about cinema in terms of place, this place where you can see. It may be arogant but I do believe that I live in this island; it’s worth living there.

Do you feel any kinship with any other French directors of your generation?
No. But I’m not looking for it. I started young and as a young man I was quite alone. I came to Paris from the suburbs when I was 17, I didn’t know anybody in Paris. I didn’t study films, I had never been on a shoot before I made my own films. Asking for money was just saying, “Trust me, I can make films.” And after that, I did interviews and stuff so I guess there was just kind of pride of being alone. So I paid the price of this pride and I benefited from it, it gave me strength but at the same time, it made me really alone in the industry. But that’s my story, I can’t say it’s good or bad but that’s the way it was. I don’t really see myself as part of a generation. I don’t care about the idea of French filmmakers or Chinese filmmakers, I’m a director and sometimes it happens I was born in France but that’s it.

Nowadays where it seems like so many people are just living their virtually and without human connection, adopting these identities it felt like the film really echoed that, especially in the fact that no matter which life he hoped in and out of, no matter what he did there’s no consequence. And we’re living in this time where we can act out these fantasies without consequence, is that something you were thinking about making the film?
Well yeah, the film is about our actions and the notion of experience and how important it is. Life is experience, experiencing life today, do we still want to experience? Do we still want to be responsible? Do we still want to  write our own life? I’m interested in virtual reality but it’s not something I want to impose on my life. I like to be inhabited by different worlds but I don’t like to be imposed whether it’s this world or the virtual one, I don’t want anybody to impose it on me. The film is not against anything, it’s just saying that we’re mutants and that every generation more so than any other generation, we have to fight like a mutant has to fight. It’s not nostalgia and it’s not stupid hope for the future, it’s just fighting as always. The risk is and I see it in young people, the lack of courage. We’re lacking courage. Filmmakers are lacking courage but we as people are. I think they should teach courage in school to kids–whether it’s civic, political, philosophical, poetic courage, or physical courage even. They should be taught in school because if we have courage anything is possible. 

Did it take you a lot of courage to make this movie? All your movies are very personal. They have a lot of elements that come from you. I was really touched by the father daughter scene. How much of it was inspired by your personal life with your daughter?
There’s a special courage in filmmaking but I do what I can. When I make a film, it’s the only possible film I can make when I’m making it. It happens that Denis and me are the same age—he has three daughters, I have one daughter—so in films you put all your fears, all your question marks and all your fears. Obviously, I think the relationship between father and daughter is the most beautiful most possible relationship but also the closest to all the horror tales, I mean the father can be a monster very easily. That’s my fear, being a monster but it doesn’t have to  do with the actual relationship with my daughter I hope.

What do you think, in your capacity as a filmmaker, is your relationship with cinema history?
Well, I started making films at the same time I discovered film, which rarely happens. Usually it’s two different times in your life. I don’t know if that’s good or bad but that’s how it happened. So I watched a lot of films from age 16 to 24, a lot of silent films, Hollywood films obviously, and New Wave films but I think I stopped watching films at the time of my second film. I felt I’d paid my depth of love for the cinema. I needed to go my own way. I never think I’m a cinephile, I never think in terms of films. I do live on this island called cinema but I never think terms of genre. People see lots of references in this film, I don’t. There are one or two but as references, I hope they serve. I think the best viewer for a film like this is someone who doesn’t know much about cinema, that’s why when I travel with the film, the further I go usually the closer I am to people who see the film in a way it was imagined which is not a cinephile. Hopefully if the film is successful, it’s about the experience of being alive today. Cinema permits us to see things like ghosts, but I don’t care too much anymore about cinema’s history.

You put humans and machines and animals all on the same level as these things that were alive—why is that something you wanted to show?
I thought—now I’m saying I thought, I didn’t think anything. Now I think that I had to create a kind of science fiction world—there’s not much science in it but there’s a lot of fiction—where this job would exist, where he could travel from life to life in a limosuine. It’s not that I’m interested in actors or actors’ work and life or whatever, but it made it possible to, in a day, to have him do this. Otherwise, I would have needed a classical narrative or flashbacks; this permitted, in one day, a large range of human experiences—grieving, love, loss, joy.  And the film was born of these two opposite feelings: the fatigue of being yourself and another reinventing yourself, which you need to do a few times in your life. So I invented this science fiction world where animals, humans, and machines had a kind of solidarity to fight this virtual world where there was no responsibility. Because I like motors, I like machines, I like action. And that’s how cinema started, it’s a machine filming a horse, it’s a machine filming a man running. You still love to watch human bodies, you also like to watch landscapes or things we’ve created: buildings, cigarettes, guns, cars, but mostly we love to watch human beings and that’s action. We love to watch people walking, running, fucking. So that’s how the title came, “Holy Motors.” Holy would be the soul part and Motors would be the body: body and soul. 

Leos Carax on His New Masterpiece ‘Holy Motors’ and His Island of Cinema

(Source: , via bbook)

If you ever feel like you’re losing your mind, like you’re hanging by your toenails on the brink of insanity, watch some videos of Harmony Korine from the late 1990s. Not only will you realize, okay yes, I am probably selling my lucidity short, but also, if there’s anyone who can turn manic energy and a deranged psyche into something brilliant, it’s Korine. And in 1998, the absurd realist filmmaker, writer, photographer, and artist sat down with David Letterman for one of many strange and hilarious appearances on his show to promote his new novel, A Crack Up at the Race Riots. 

In his previous visits to the show, Korine had been dressed like a well-mannered schoolboy in sweaters and khakis, the words coming out his young mouth standing in sharp in contrast to the pleasant looking fellow sitting in front of you. But when he appeared this time, Korine came clad in a ratty yellow sweatshirt, scruffy-faced, and very twitchy. It was his final time on the show before being banned after Letterman caught him snooping through Meryl Streep’s purse in her dressing room. But he did love having Korine on there, shining a light on this odd specimen, a sample of youth culture to show the world before telling the very jittery Korine to “go back the hotel and take a long shower.” But the book he was there to promote was not only his debut work of fiction, but would go on to be a cult classic that perfectly encapsulated Korine’s geniusly crazed and frenetic mind, but would however fall out of print until this month, sixteen years later.

And after more than a decade and a half off the shelf, A Crack Up at the Race Riots is available again—just in time for all those sixteen year old kids who went to see Spring Breakers and walked out of the theater clutching their smartphones, faces permanently frozen in an expression of, “What the hell, man, that wasn’t like The Hangover but with chicks?!” And what you’ll get from A Crack Up is an unhinged and fragmented multimedia portrait told through slices of conversations, frantic drawings, news clippings, hypothetical lists, suicide notes, letters from Tupac, and much more, giving you a glimpse inside the mind of one of our generations most radical and bizarre voices. “It’s about a race war and it happens in Florida. And the Jewish people sit in trees. And the black people are run by M.C. Hammer. And the whites are run by Vanilla Ice,” said Korine on Letterman and well, you’ll just have to read it for yourself to find out what that all means.

With the reissue out now from Drag City, I got the chance to chat with Korine for the second time this year about letters from Tupac, schizophrenic cohesion, and replacing Barbra Streisand with John Holmes.


So why did you choose to reissue the novel now, after sixteen years?
It’s been out of print now for more than a decade and I know that people were selling it for a lot of money, and I didn’t really like that. I thought enough time had gone by that it would be good to republish it and let people see it again.

So you said recently in an interview with Little White Lies that you haven’t read a book since the 7th grade. Now how does that fit into here?
Well, I’d read a lot of joke books, I’d read the beginning of a lot of books, or certain like middle parts of certain books but just on principle I never finished the book. So technically, I probably haven’t finished a book since That Was Then This is Now. I had also read a bunch of Choose Your Own Adventure books in the early ’90s.

And you originally said that you wanted this book to be a Choose Your Own Adventure novel.
I wanted it to be the Great American Choose Your Own Adventure novel with pages missing in all the right places. 

So how did A Crack Up at the Race Riots become your version of that? Where did all these fragmented bits and pieces come from?
It’s hard for me to remember exactly how it happened because it was a long time ago and I was tripping out really, and some of the pages are even just like hallucinating or something. I just had all these ideas and I was seeing all these connections in things—micro-movements and  ideas about authorship and anti-authorship. So I was trying to write a novel that existed in the margins that had as much to do with what was undefined as what was written, that had as much to do with the whiteness around the ink, you know? And so I’d walk around and hear someone like on a bus talking to themselves or ranting to themselves or hitting themselves in the head or singing some type of opera or something and I would just write what I saw. And then I would imagine like, what if Woody Harrelson said that? Or what if that conversation those two gay vagrants on the corner were having was between John Ford and his wife? And I liked how it would transform it and turn it into something so hilarious that so much of it was about context and the shifting humor and the re-contextualizing of things. I love those Sherrie Levine photos of all the Walker Evans pictures that she re-photgraphs and I remember wanting to do that but in words, in a way that was not just an experiment or just an exercise in craft but had a heartbeat and told a story. So I did that and the process was more abstract and I started writing a lot of that stuff in my early 20s and it took place over a couple years. I would just write notes and ideas and fragments on paper and crayon on the side of my wall. And then after I felt like there was enough of that stuff around me, I tried to make sense of it and re-collage it and re-contexualize it and give it some narrative in its own way to tell a story. 

And like you said about how it’s about the white space just as much as the words, or about the context of what’s on the page, for the person reading it, it’s about their own experience with it and how they see it and how they interact with it. The pages of suicide notes with blank spaces from signatures that you have. Those pages are some of my favorites, but for the reader, it’s a participatory element.
Yeah, yeah yeah, yeah. Back then I thought that would be insane if you could write a suicide note that was like a form letter. So for someone who wasn’t creative enough, it had a blank signature space at the bottom. It’s horrifying but also, it’s funny.

A lot of the book is horrifying but also very funny. You mix dark humor with the banal, casualness of offensive things like homophobia or racism, but it seems natural because in the voice that they’re written in, you can imagine someone saying it on the street in passing to another person who felt the same way.
Which is like the way I remember things growing up.

And there are themes that run throughout that make it not a schizophrenic but a cohesive story.
Yeah, I was trying to deal with all the great philosophical strands of the American psyche. [laughs]

Back in 1997 when you went on Letterman to talk about the book, you seemed pretty passive about promoting it. When you see that now do you feel differently?
I thought it made sense of the book—like when I went on Letterman I thought I should just promote someone else’s book.

Yeah, you said that you didn’t know why someone would buy this and not an older book.
I didn’t understand why you would buy a new book, there’s so many older books that you haven’t read before. So I didn’t want to go out there and tell people to buy this book, I wanted to go out there and tell them to buy some other book. I love the idea of promoting other people’s shit for no reason.

The book originally came out just after Gummo and mainstream people seeing you on a show like that still didn’t really know what to make of you. Do you think the public perception of you has changed in recent years or do you not care?
All I wanted to do was just be great. But I never really think about it too much or spend too much time on it. I think it’s all perfect just the way it was meant to be.

And in your early interviews you talked a lot about wanting to create a new type of film. So with this book were you looking to rework the classic confines of a novel and create a new writing style?
No, because even the thing with film, what I was trying to do was develop a language and an idea that was very specific to the way I was thinking and the things I was feeling, but I couldn’t necessarily articulate it. And so it was more of a unified aesthetic, this idea that everything’s connected and that I wouldn’t try to differentiate between any of it—between the writings or the films or the actions or even like the demonstrative behavior—it was all connected. In some way it was all part of a single vision or an idea or an energy. It was like Vaudeville.

Do you a favorite section of the book?
I like all the letters from Tupac a lot, I like some of the jokes, and I like the list of rumors.

I like the list of imagined movies. Did you ever actually think about making any of those?
They were all ideas for films and I thought just the idea would be better than the film. Or like, I was writing the titles of books I wanted to write, but then when I would look at the titles, I just liked the way they functioned on their own. There’s even one page where all it says is the word “hepburn.” And that took me like four or five years to write that one page because I was trying to come up with what you’d think if the greatest novel consisted entirety of one word, what would that word be? And so I struggled with that for years and years and one day I saw the word “hepburn” and thought that word said so much, there was so much, the entire history of the world was just tangled up in those letters.

And some pages just have one word like that or something like “Robert Frost Bite,” some pages are handwritten notes, and some are more formal notes. Were you trying to create a sort of collage of different mind sets and different tones?
Yeah, yeah I was making a lot of fanzines at the time and was writing a lot of jokes and obsessed with joke books. I had all the dirty joke compilations and knock knock jokes; I would cut up the joke books. I liked the long set ups like “the guy walks into a bar and blah blah blah” or I had these books that were just lists of Hollywood mythology and specific horrible attributes of dead celebrities, and I thought those were hilarious so I would use those and add things or take them away. Like, what if I read an interview with Barbra Streisand but then you just change Barbra Streisand’s name to John Holmes or something? It becomes so much greater.

I feel like a lot of your work is taking something apart and re-appropriating it or changing people’s perception of something very set in their minds. Do you find that there’s a crossover for that in your films too?
I’d say there’s definitely a connection.

So do you think you could write something like this now, or was it specific to being really young and whatever insanity was going on in your world then?
I’d like to think that book is just so juvenile and base that it’s something I could only do back then. But I probably haven’t really grown all that much and my humor hasn’t really evolved, so it probably wouldn’t be too far off from something I’d come up with now. I’m writing another one right now though, it’s maybe a bit more centralized or something.

In the same cut-up style though?
Yeah, it’s something that someone with a head wound would write.

I can be very into that. But you did write this at a time when you were first getting to make films and produce work and it seemed like you were just sort of bursting with a million ideas. What was that time in your life like?
It was great. I used to sit in my room and think like, what if someone had a gun to your head and you had no fingers, and they said to write a book about the history of, I don’t know, prostitution, and you have three hours to push away on that keyboard—what would that look like? And then I would just try to do it. Or let’s say someone duct-taped a tree branch to your hand and then gave you a huge bowl of ink to dip it in and said that you had thirty five minutes to render your version of the Mona Lisa on this canvas. A lot of it was just playing games with myself to see where it would go.

And do you still do that?
Yeah but it’s different. I don’t really do it in that way. Now I understand things differently. There are certain things that … I don’t want to use the word refined…

How about evolve?
Well, to a certain extent there’s still some of that going on.

 Uncovering ‘A Crack Up at the Race Riots’ With Harmony Korine

If you ever feel like you’re losing your mind, like you’re hanging by your toenails on the brink of insanity, watch some videos of Harmony Korine from the late 1990s. Not only will you realize, okay yes, I am probably selling my lucidity short, but also, if there’s anyone who can turn manic energy and a deranged psyche into something brilliant, it’s Korine. And in 1998, the absurd realist filmmaker, writer, photographer, and artist sat down with David Letterman for one of many strange and hilarious appearances on his show to promote his new novel, A Crack Up at the Race Riots. 

In his previous visits to the show, Korine had been dressed like a well-mannered schoolboy in sweaters and khakis, the words coming out his young mouth standing in sharp in contrast to the pleasant looking fellow sitting in front of you. But when he appeared this time, Korine came clad in a ratty yellow sweatshirt, scruffy-faced, and very twitchy. It was his final time on the show before being banned after Letterman caught him snooping through Meryl Streep’s purse in her dressing room. But he did love having Korine on there, shining a light on this odd specimen, a sample of youth culture to show the world before telling the very jittery Korine to “go back the hotel and take a long shower.” But the book he was there to promote was not only his debut work of fiction, but would go on to be a cult classic that perfectly encapsulated Korine’s geniusly crazed and frenetic mind, but would however fall out of print until this month, sixteen years later.

And after more than a decade and a half off the shelf, A Crack Up at the Race Riots is available again—just in time for all those sixteen year old kids who went to see Spring Breakers and walked out of the theater clutching their smartphones, faces permanently frozen in an expression of, “What the hell, man, that wasn’t like The Hangover but with chicks?!” And what you’ll get from A Crack Up is an unhinged and fragmented multimedia portrait told through slices of conversations, frantic drawings, news clippings, hypothetical lists, suicide notes, letters from Tupac, and much more, giving you a glimpse inside the mind of one of our generations most radical and bizarre voices. “It’s about a race war and it happens in Florida. And the Jewish people sit in trees. And the black people are run by M.C. Hammer. And the whites are run by Vanilla Ice,” said Korine on Letterman and well, you’ll just have to read it for yourself to find out what that all means.

With the reissue out now from Drag City, I got the chance to chat with Korine for the second time this year about letters from Tupac, schizophrenic cohesion, and replacing Barbra Streisand with John Holmes.

So why did you choose to reissue the novel now, after sixteen years?

It’s been out of print now for more than a decade and I know that people were selling it for a lot of money, and I didn’t really like that. I thought enough time had gone by that it would be good to republish it and let people see it again.

So you said recently in an interview with Little White Lies that you haven’t read a book since the 7th grade. Now how does that fit into here?

Well, I’d read a lot of joke books, I’d read the beginning of a lot of books, or certain like middle parts of certain books but just on principle I never finished the book. So technically, I probably haven’t finished a book since That Was Then This is Now. I had also read a bunch of Choose Your Own Adventure books in the early ’90s.

And you originally said that you wanted this book to be a Choose Your Own Adventure novel.

I wanted it to be the Great American Choose Your Own Adventure novel with pages missing in all the right places. 

So how did A Crack Up at the Race Riots become your version of that? Where did all these fragmented bits and pieces come from?

It’s hard for me to remember exactly how it happened because it was a long time ago and I was tripping out really, and some of the pages are even just like hallucinating or something. I just had all these ideas and I was seeing all these connections in things—micro-movements and  ideas about authorship and anti-authorship. So I was trying to write a novel that existed in the margins that had as much to do with what was undefined as what was written, that had as much to do with the whiteness around the ink, you know? And so I’d walk around and hear someone like on a bus talking to themselves or ranting to themselves or hitting themselves in the head or singing some type of opera or something and I would just write what I saw. And then I would imagine like, what if Woody Harrelson said that? Or what if that conversation those two gay vagrants on the corner were having was between John Ford and his wife? And I liked how it would transform it and turn it into something so hilarious that so much of it was about context and the shifting humor and the re-contextualizing of things. I love those Sherrie Levine photos of all the Walker Evans pictures that she re-photgraphs and I remember wanting to do that but in words, in a way that was not just an experiment or just an exercise in craft but had a heartbeat and told a story. So I did that and the process was more abstract and I started writing a lot of that stuff in my early 20s and it took place over a couple years. I would just write notes and ideas and fragments on paper and crayon on the side of my wall. And then after I felt like there was enough of that stuff around me, I tried to make sense of it and re-collage it and re-contexualize it and give it some narrative in its own way to tell a story. 

And like you said about how it’s about the white space just as much as the words, or about the context of what’s on the page, for the person reading it, it’s about their own experience with it and how they see it and how they interact with it. The pages of suicide notes with blank spaces from signatures that you have. Those pages are some of my favorites, but for the reader, it’s a participatory element.

Yeah, yeah yeah, yeah. Back then I thought that would be insane if you could write a suicide note that was like a form letter. So for someone who wasn’t creative enough, it had a blank signature space at the bottom. It’s horrifying but also, it’s funny.

A lot of the book is horrifying but also very funny. You mix dark humor with the banal, casualness of offensive things like homophobia or racism, but it seems natural because in the voice that they’re written in, you can imagine someone saying it on the street in passing to another person who felt the same way.

Which is like the way I remember things growing up.

And there are themes that run throughout that make it not a schizophrenic but a cohesive story.

Yeah, I was trying to deal with all the great philosophical strands of the American psyche. [laughs]

Back in 1997 when you went on Letterman to talk about the book, you seemed pretty passive about promoting it. When you see that now do you feel differently?

I thought it made sense of the book—like when I went on Letterman I thought I should just promote someone else’s book.

Yeah, you said that you didn’t know why someone would buy this and not an older book.

I didn’t understand why you would buy a new book, there’s so many older books that you haven’t read before. So I didn’t want to go out there and tell people to buy this book, I wanted to go out there and tell them to buy some other book. I love the idea of promoting other people’s shit for no reason.

The book originally came out just after Gummo and mainstream people seeing you on a show like that still didn’t really know what to make of you. Do you think the public perception of you has changed in recent years or do you not care?

All I wanted to do was just be great. But I never really think about it too much or spend too much time on it. I think it’s all perfect just the way it was meant to be.

And in your early interviews you talked a lot about wanting to create a new type of film. So with this book were you looking to rework the classic confines of a novel and create a new writing style?

No, because even the thing with film, what I was trying to do was develop a language and an idea that was very specific to the way I was thinking and the things I was feeling, but I couldn’t necessarily articulate it. And so it was more of a unified aesthetic, this idea that everything’s connected and that I wouldn’t try to differentiate between any of it—between the writings or the films or the actions or even like the demonstrative behavior—it was all connected. In some way it was all part of a single vision or an idea or an energy. It was like Vaudeville.

Do you a favorite section of the book?

I like all the letters from Tupac a lot, I like some of the jokes, and I like the list of rumors.

I like the list of imagined movies. Did you ever actually think about making any of those?

They were all ideas for films and I thought just the idea would be better than the film. Or like, I was writing the titles of books I wanted to write, but then when I would look at the titles, I just liked the way they functioned on their own. There’s even one page where all it says is the word “hepburn.” And that took me like four or five years to write that one page because I was trying to come up with what you’d think if the greatest novel consisted entirety of one word, what would that word be? And so I struggled with that for years and years and one day I saw the word “hepburn” and thought that word said so much, there was so much, the entire history of the world was just tangled up in those letters.

And some pages just have one word like that or something like “Robert Frost Bite,” some pages are handwritten notes, and some are more formal notes. Were you trying to create a sort of collage of different mind sets and different tones?

Yeah, yeah I was making a lot of fanzines at the time and was writing a lot of jokes and obsessed with joke books. I had all the dirty joke compilations and knock knock jokes; I would cut up the joke books. I liked the long set ups like “the guy walks into a bar and blah blah blah” or I had these books that were just lists of Hollywood mythology and specific horrible attributes of dead celebrities, and I thought those were hilarious so I would use those and add things or take them away. Like, what if I read an interview with Barbra Streisand but then you just change Barbra Streisand’s name to John Holmes or something? It becomes so much greater.

I feel like a lot of your work is taking something apart and re-appropriating it or changing people’s perception of something very set in their minds. Do you find that there’s a crossover for that in your films too?

I’d say there’s definitely a connection.

So do you think you could write something like this now, or was it specific to being really young and whatever insanity was going on in your world then?

I’d like to think that book is just so juvenile and base that it’s something I could only do back then. But I probably haven’t really grown all that much and my humor hasn’t really evolved, so it probably wouldn’t be too far off from something I’d come up with now. I’m writing another one right now though, it’s maybe a bit more centralized or something.

In the same cut-up style though?

Yeah, it’s something that someone with a head wound would write.

I can be very into that. But you did write this at a time when you were first getting to make films and produce work and it seemed like you were just sort of bursting with a million ideas. What was that time in your life like?

It was great. I used to sit in my room and think like, what if someone had a gun to your head and you had no fingers, and they said to write a book about the history of, I don’t know, prostitution, and you have three hours to push away on that keyboard—what would that look like? And then I would just try to do it. Or let’s say someone duct-taped a tree branch to your hand and then gave you a huge bowl of ink to dip it in and said that you had thirty five minutes to render your version of the Mona Lisa on this canvas. A lot of it was just playing games with myself to see where it would go.

And do you still do that?

Yeah but it’s different. I don’t really do it in that way. Now I understand things differently. There are certain things that … I don’t want to use the word refined…

How about evolve?

Well, to a certain extent there’s still some of that going on.

 Uncovering ‘A Crack Up at the Race Riots’ With Harmony Korine