Thursday, September 13, 2018

Interview: Nicole Holofcener on The Land of Steady Habits

In films like Lovely and Amazing and Please Give, writer-director Nicole Holofcener's characters talk and talk, taking the temperature of the relationships that both provide them emotional support and serve as yardsticks to measure their personal growth or stagnation. Holofcener's sly observational humor helps make her dialogue feel like conversations with an old friend—honest, engagingly gossipy, and studded with thought-provoking insights—and ensures that, while bad things may happen to her flawed but well-meaning protagonists, her films never slide into mawkishness.

Her latest, The Land of Steady Habits, is in many ways a typical Holofcener film. Anders (Ben Mendelsohn) is a middle-aged family man who finds himself living alone, trying to construct a new life and mend a frayed relationship with his adult son (Thomas Mann) after leaving his wife (Edie Falco) and retiring from his lifelong career. The film is also a departure for the director: the first of her six features that isn't based on an original Holofcener script (she adapted the screenplay from Ted Thompson's novel), the first not to center on female characters, and the first that doesn't feature Catherine Keener, Holofcener's fictional alter ego ever since Walking and Talking. I spoke with Holofcener this week about escaping the “chick flick” ghetto, what Mendelsohn has in common with Keener, and her plea for older actors.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Interview: Andrew Bujalski on Support the Girls

The finely tuned bullshit detector that keeps writer-director Andrew Bujalski's ego in check, nudging him to sprinkle his conversations with self-deprecating demurrals and constant reminders of his own blind spots and vulnerabilities, is part of what makes him such an excellent chronicler of our inner lives and times. The New York Times's A.O. Scott called Bujalski's first feature, Funny Ha Ha, “one of the most influential films of the '00s.” Each of his subsequent films has been very different from the others—and from nearly every film imaginable. His work seems to exist outside genre and screenwriting dogmas, featuring characters who feel like people you'd encounter only in life, and plots so subtle they barely register as such.

Bujalski's films also share a slyly comic humanism that finds both pathos and humor—often at once—in everything from the most banal of conversation to the profoundest of emotions. His latest, Support the Girls, is about a Hooters-like sports bar called Double Whammies and the women who work there. And at the center of the film is Regina Hall as Lisa, the harried, insanely competent, and warmly caring manager who protects and defends the waitresses whose prominently showcased breasts are the sports bar's main attraction by making sure it lives up to its promise of being “a family place.” I talked to Bujalski about what places like Double Whammies tell us about American culture, finding the essence of the film in the editing room, and filmmaking as a balancing act between order and chaos.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Interview: Raúl Castillo on We the Animals

After moving in 2002 from his native Texas to New York City, where he soon became a member of the prestigious off-Broadway LAByrinth Theater Company, playwright and actor Raúl Castillo spent a decade or so playing supporting roles in film and television. Then came HBO's Looking, in which he starred as the boyfriend of the neurotic lead character played by Jonathan Groff. Castillo's soulful performance as Richie brought the actor a new level of attention. This year, the actor made a notable appearance in Steven Soderberg's Unsane, and last fall he finished work on what he calls “the first Latino superhero film,” El Chicano, in which he has his first lead role.

This week, you can see Castillo in director Jeremiah Zagar's We the Animals, a Malickian tale of a loving but volatile family told from the point of view of one of three young boys (played by Evan Rosado, Josiah Gabriel, and Isaiah Kristian). Castillo is magnetically tender and explosive as Paps, the young father of the family and the sun around which his wife, Ma (Sheila Vand), and children revolve, even when he's an absent presence.

I recently spoke with Castillo about working with young nonprofessional actors in We the Animals, finding his character in Looking, and what Groff taught him about being number one on the call sheet.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Interview: Rob Reiner on Shock and Awe and the real source of fake news

Rob Reiner has acted in, written, produced, and directed almost every genre of film and TV show, but his wheelhouse is humane, sharply observational, and subtly unconventional comedy. He was deeply involved in at least three classic comedies: his own This Is Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride and Norman Lear's All in the Family, in which Reiner played Michael “Meathead” Stivic, the liberal son-in-law of Carroll O'Connor's Archie Bunker.

Another side of Reiner, his commitment to social justice and democratic values, is front and center in his latest directorial effort, Shock and Awe. Reiner also stars in the film as real-life Knight Ridder editor John Walcott. Shock and Awe shows how two of Walcott's reporters, Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay, exposed the lies behind the Bush administration's rush to war with Iraq after 9/11—and how their stories were drowned out by a tsunami of press coverage that unquestioningly amplified the White House's official story. The film is fierce in telling the history of the leadup to war and at capturing the journalists' irreverent patter and the smug prevarications of the Bush administration's cabinet members. I recently talked to Reiner about the real source of fake news, the surprising new urgency that Shock and Awe took on after the 2016 election, and why he wanted to change his name when he was eight years old.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Interview: Debra Granik on Leave No Trace and tuning into people on the margins

Debra Granik's social-realist films, which are concerned with people living on the margins of mainstream American culture, are full of engrossing and enlightening details. And like her 2014 documentary Stray Dog, about a burly Vietnam vet, Ron Hall, who's all about creating nurturing communities, Granik's three narrative features to date focus on individuals leading hardscrabble lives. The first two, Down to the Bone and Winter's Bone, catapulted Vera Farmiga and Jennifer Lawrence to stardom. Her latest, Leave No Trace, which centers around another veteran, Ben Foster's Will, may just do the same for Thomasin McKenzie

The 17-year-old New Zealand actress plays Tom, the severely traumatized Will's teenage daughter. Both live off the grid outside Portland, Oregon, until authorities arrest Will for squatting illegally in a public park and attempt to re-acclimate him and his daughter to “normal” society.

Last week, I talked with Granik at her publicist's office in New York. Animated, sincere, and intensely committed to her every word, she spoke of the importance of kindness, why her films tend to launch female actors into stardom, and what she, a liberal Northeastern artist, has learned from her work about how to connect with likely Trump voters in America's heartland.

We just accept that films like yours will play at festivals and art houses and won't garner big audiences even when they get great reviews, but sometimes I wonder why. Do you think it's because most people don't want to watch stories about people who are living in poverty or on the margins of society?

I think so. One of the things that's hard to argue with, and I think about this all the time, is that the main way we see the word “movies” is as entertainment, right? If one is going for escape or time out or relaxation, to see social realism is—if you're living it, or even if you're from a very different sort of social class and you've just never felt at ease with the way the economic culture is structured, on top of everything else you deal with, it can be hard to go seek that. It's not really entertainment any more.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Interview: Toni Collette on Hereditary

With a strong-featured, hyper-expressive face whose wide-set eyes don't appear to miss a thing and a joie de vivre that she radiates in person as well as on screen, Toni Collette imbues all her characters with a grounded sense of realism as well as layers of emotional nuance. Ever since she captured international attention as the endearingly open-hearted title character in Muriel's Wedding, she's been in constant demand, playing a wide range of parts—from warmly nurturing, realistically harried moms in films like The Sixth Sense and Little Miss Sunshine to The United States of Tara's title character, a woman with dissociative identity disorder who's fighting to keep herself and her family together while coping with an evolving cast of alter egos.

Collette has been exceptionally prolific in the past year or so, appearing in 11 films and two TV series since 2017, with three more films currently in post-production, but her tour-de-force performance in Hereditary stands out even in that tsunami of output. Always intense and increasingly desperate, Collette's Annie is our guide into the bloody heart of darkness that's writer-director Ari Aster's debut feature, a psychological horror film about a mother who keeps losing the people she loves in ever more macabre catastrophes.

I talked with Collette this week at the New York office of A24, Hereditary's U.S. distributor, about the advantages of aging and how she's learned to protect herself from the afflictions her characters endure.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Interview: Jodie Foster on Hotel Artemis

Though she's a two-time Academy Award winner (for The Accused and The Silence of the Lambs), Jodie Foster has always been a bit of an outlier in Hollywood. As a child actor, her precocious self-assurance, intelligence, and self-described “gruff” voice made her something of an anomaly when she played bright young things in family-friendly TV shows like My Three Sons and films like Napoleon and Samantha. Then, in a run of emotionally complex roles in darker fare, most notably as a 13-year-old prostitute with a riveting mixture of childish innocence and world-weariness in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, the actress's knowing gravitas found a worthy showcase.

That pattern has more or less held throughout Foster's career, as she has alternated between intelligently crafted TV shows and films like Spike Lee's Inside Man and lush melodramas or slick genre movies in which her nuanced, stubbornly realistic performances stood out like an elegant dive into a kiddie pool. Foster is now at the core of an ensemble cast in writer-director Drew Pearce's Hotel Artemis, a dystopian fantasy set in L.A. in a not-too-distant future in which the hotel of the title serves as a secret, members-only hospital reserved for criminals who pay an annual membership fee.

Last week I spoke with Foster, who plays the nurse who tends to the troublesome group of tenants, about Hotel Artemis and other things, including the time she was attacked by a lion, the memorable afternoon she spent with Toni Morrison, and the alternate lives she kicks herself for not having led.

You're quoted on IMDb as having said that you're better suited for independent films as a director and producer, and that you think you're best in mainstream films as an actress because your style of acting is too “linear” for indie films. First of all, did you actually say that?
I think I did, but I'm always cursing myself for the stupid things that I say in print. I don't think it's wrong, but I do think that indies are different now. The theatrical world and our viewing habits have changed so much that, increasingly, real story and narrative is found on cable and streaming.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Interview: Rachel Weisz on Disobedience

Less remarked on than the Me Too movement, but at least as important to the women of Hollywood, the unspoken rule that sidelined generations of actresses after they had reached 40 or so is unraveling fast. A radiant 48, Rachel Weisz is at the forefront of that change, living the kind of life that had traditionally been possible only for male actors. Still building her family with husband Daniel Craig—the baby she's due to have later this year will be the first for the couple, each of whom has a child from a previous relationship—she's starring in films by auteurs like Yorgos Lanthimos and Paolo Sorrentino.

Weisz helps make sure those roles keep piling up by developing scripts like the one for Sebastián Lelio's Disobedience. After deciding she wanted to star opposite another woman, she read all the lesbian literature she could find in search of a love story and eventually discovered Naomi Alderman's 2006 novel Disobedience, which she tried to get made for almost a decade.

At the start of Lelio's film, Weisz's character, Ronit, leaves her bohemian life in New York City for the Orthodox Jewish community in London where she grew up, to attend her rabbi father's funeral. Once there, she encounters Esti (Rachel McAdams), with whom she'd had a passionate affair that scandalized their community. The two women are drawn to each other again, causing both to question the way they're leading their lives. I talked to Weisz earlier this week at a hotel in Tribeca where she was promoting the film, which was about to screen at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Interview: Andrew Haigh on Lean on Pete and the Appeal of Passive Characters

Yorkshire-born writer-director Andrew Haigh specializes in stories about ordinary people experiencing emotional tsunamis that upend their sense of self. His latest, Lean on Pete, is about a lonely 15-year-old, Charley (Charlie Plummer), who sets out on an impulsive road trip after what's left of his already precarious family life evaporates, leaving him alone except for the quarter horse he bonded with while working in a D-level racing circuit. I met with Haigh at the offices of the film's distributor, A24, where we talked about why he prefers passive main characters, the importance of being melancholy, and how Lean on Pete finds a new way of exploring a theme that runs through all of the director's work: our struggle to feel less alone.

Your work is usually about people finding themselves through relationships with other people, but Charley finds himself by relating to a horse. What was it about this story that compelled you to film it?

I think even [in my films about] people finding themselves through other people, it's about people essentially feeling very alone in the world, and they're desperately trying to find a way to not feel alone. If it's in the case of Weekend or 45 Years, it's through relationships, I suppose. But this was dealing with a similar thing, just in a different way. We all exist in a state of aloneness, and we find ways to not be like that, but they can very easily fall apart and we can fall back into aloneness again.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Interview: Laurent Cantet on The Workshop

A latter-day neorealist working in the tradition of Roberto Rossellini and Robert Bresson, writer-director Laurent Cantet mixes professional actors with nonprofessionals to explore forces like class, race, and gender through fictional narratives. His latest, The Workshop, is set in La Ciotat, a seaside town in southern France whose once-thriving shipyard closed a generation ago, after years of struggle between the owners and the workers. The film gets its title from one of its main activities: a multicultural group of young people from the area, including the angry and alienated Antoine (Matthieu Lucci), participate in a novel-writing workshop taught by a Parisian writer named Olivia (Marina Foïs). As the class progresses and we learn more about the nationalistic, anti-immigrant propaganda Antoine is soaking up online, the violence the students are working into their story threatens to spill over into their lives.

Although he won the 2008 Palme d’Or for The Class, there’s no hint of egotism or self-importance in Cantet, who started our interview by pouring me a cup of coffee. Despite the filmmaker’s frequent frustration at being unable to find the exact word he was searching for in English, he was urgently articulate about his work, which he clearly does as much to educate himself as to encourage his audience to question their own beliefs.

I love the way your films explore social issues through fictional narratives.

I’m always interested in showing the complexity of our world. What’s always difficult is making a film that deals with reality without being too…dialectique?

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Interview: Andy Goldsworthy on Leaning Into the Wind

Director Thomas Riedelsheimer, who documented some of English artist Andy Goldsworthy's work with naturally occurring materials in 2001's Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time, explores an even wider range of Goldsworthy's works in Leaning Into the Wind: Andy Goldsworthy. Some are as ephemeral as the “rain shadows” that Goldsworthy often makes, lying down as a light rain starts and then getting up, leaving a crime scene-like shape of a body on the sidewalk—which the rain then fills in. Others are as lasting as the monumental project Sleeping Stones that Goldsworthy created by having huge slabs of stone fitted together and then having an oblong depression just wide enough to hold a human body hollowed out in the middle of the block.

As he pointed out in our interview, Goldsworthy's art crystallizes the intense exploration of the world that artists have always done, taking as its subject something that's usually part of the process. On the phone from his home in Scotland, Goldsworthy spoke easily and generously about Leaning Into the Wind and his work, often laughing or expressing enthusiastic wonder as he talked about the role photography plays in his art, pissing off the security guards at Fox News, and the sculptural nature of farming.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Interview: Oscar-Nominated Editor Tatiana S. Riegel on I, Tonya

In her 30 years as a film editor, Tatiana S. Riegel has cut five films for director Craig Gillespie, starting with 2007's Lars and the Real Girl. Her work on Gillespie's latest feature, I, Tonya, has earned her an Oscar nomination for best achievement in film editing. Reigel talked to me by phone from Berlin, where she's working on the early footage of director Fede Alvarez's The Girl in the Spider's Web—starring Claire Foy, Vicky Krieps, Claes Bang, and Lakeith Stanfield—as it's being filmed. In a conversation studded with references to intuition and instinct, Reigel talked about how editing a film is like attending a dinner party, what she learned from her years as an assistant to Quentin Tarantino's longtime editor, Sally Menke, and why it's not easy for women to find a place at the editing console.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Interview: Lee Unkrich talks Coco and Dia de Muertos

His 2018 Oscar nomination for Coco, which is up for best animated feature, is far from Lee Unkrich's first time at the awards rodeo. Unkrich joined Pixar more than two decades ago, as the company was transitioning from making just shorts and TV commercials to features. He co-edited Toy Story and went on, as Pixar employees do, to work in various capacities on many more films, including directing Toy Story 3. In Coco, Unkrich roots the story of a young musician whose family hates music in the visually sumptuous and intellectually rich soil of Mexico during a Día de Muertos holiday, creating the most emotionally resonant Pixar film since Toy Story 3. The film incorporates the gorgeous colors of Mexican treasures like Oaxacan alabrijes, the hillside houses of Guanajuato, and the strings of papel picado that festoon so many of the nation's walls and streets. The film also animates resonant Mexican concepts like the belief that we all die three deaths: the first when our hearts stop beating, the second when we are buried or cremated, and the third when there's nobody left on Earth who remembers us.

In a phone interview last week, Unkrich talked about how studying the Día de Muertos helped him deal with the death of his father, the challenges of making a film about Mexico when you're “a white guy from Ohio,” and the tension between family ties and individual freedom.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Interview: Rebecca Hall and Dan Stevens talk Permission

Will (Dan Stevens) and Anna (Rebecca Hall) are a seemingly happy couple on the brink of marriage when a drunken comment makes them question the wisdom of pledging monogamy-ever-after to the only person they've ever had sex with. Determined to see what they've been missing, the two embark on parallel yet steadily diverging experiments in dating other people in Permission. Old friends themselves, Hall and Stevens made the film with Hall's husband, Morgan Spector, and another good friend, writer-director Brian Crano. We talked by phone about the persistent pressure to couple up, why Anna and Will are “a disaster,” and the joy of watching Bill Irwin dance.

Rebecca, you got married a couple years ago, so it seems like you were going through pretty much the opposite of what your character in Permission is going through when you were preparing to make this film: settling down in a way that you maybe never have before. Was having just gone through your own thought process about all of that part of what attracted you to this role?

Rebecca Hall: I wish it were as perfect as that. [laughs] Yeah, I see what you're saying, but I don't think it ever occurred to me. Also, I married an actor, so there's nothing sort of settled about the lifestyle of two actors. In the two years that we've been married, we've lived in various sorts of places and been on the move pretty constantly. I imagine that even when we start a family and that chapter sort of starts, it will be the same. I'm not sure there are any kind of neat parallels, if I'm being honest with you.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Interview: Glenn Close and Max Irons on Crooked House

As Edith, the head of a dysfunctional household that almost certainly includes a murderer, Glenn Close twinkles with steadfast self-confidence and mischievous perception in Gilles Paquet-Brenner's Crooked House. In contrast, Max Irons plays it straight as the private detective hired to ferret out the killer, giving each member of an ensemble cast of colorful characters a chance to commandeer the spotlight as he conducts interviews and studies family dynamics. I met with Close and Irons (and Close's dog, Pip, who never strayed far from Close's feet) at the Crosby Street Hotel for an occasionally raucous conversation often punctuated by Close's merry laugh and by teasing banter or quick bursts of dialogue between the two actors, who have known each other since Max was an infant. (Max is the son of Jeremy Irons, who won an Oscar for Reversal of Fortune, which also starred Close.) We talked about Close's artistic family, how women have been treated in Hollywood and how that's changing, and how it felt for the old family friends to work together in two films in a row (Björn Runge's The Wife is coming out next year).

My sister-in-law, who lives in Wilson, Wyoming, has art by your sister.
Glenn Close: Tina! That's where Tina lives. Oh, how cool. She's really talented.

Is everyone in your family artistic?
Close: Yes, they are. My other sister is a writer, and my brother is an artist with metal. He has a metal shop. He can make anything happen. I love his brain! He lives in Belgrade, Montana, and he says: “I'm like what the blacksmith used to be.” People come in with parts that they can't find any more and he'll make something to replace what they lost, or he'll invent something. He's gotten people out of big trouble by just inventing things.