Indie films

CONTEMPORARY CUBAN CINEMA:THE PROJECT OF THE CENTURY BY CARLOS MACHADO QUINTELA

The Project of the Century, the second feature film of the Cuban filmmaker CARLOS MACHADO QUINTELA, is a rich, playful, sophisticated postmodern work, a subtle critique of Cuban society viewed though the prism of three generations of men. After a warm reception at Rotterdam Film Festival 2015 where it picked up the Hivos Tiger Award, Quintela’s feature film spent a year on the international festival circuit before it arrived home at Havana Film Festival in December 2015 where it received the Megano Award from the National Federation of Cine-Clubs Cuba.

The following interview with CARLOS MACHADO QUINTELA was taken during Havana Film Festival in December 2015

 Dana Knight:The Project of the Century is a work of great irony, an irony that is sustained by the fragmented narrative and the multiple narrators you deploy. You introduce the story by typing on the screen: “This story takes place in the Electro-Nuclear City in 1980”. Then you immediately jump to 2012. Then you go back and forth between these time frames many times. At some point, the grandfather takes over the telling of the story by introducing other characters: “Mira, Natalia”, Mira, X”. In the courtship scene with Marta, it’s almost as if Benjamin the fish is telling the story, you place the camera behind the fish bowl and we get the fish’s POV! This is a rich, sophisticated, playful postmodern work, a subtle critique of Cuban society viewed though the prism of three generations of men: Otto, the 80-year old grandfather, Rafael the father and his son. You treat your characters with much tenderness but the general outlook is very ironic, can you comment on that?

Carlos+Machado+Quintela+Swimming+Pool+Photo+ylCJeu0IBM0lCarlos Quintela: The irony starts in the title – The Project of the Century – it’s supposed to be a great film because it has this great name. So pretentious, like the project itself! I call it a “radioactive film”, by which I mean an altered state of things, if something is radioactive, it is different, it is an altered state.

At this moment the waiter comes over with a lemonade for Carlos and mineral water for me.

Knight: Is that blue lemonade?

Quintela: Yes, radioactive lemonade!

Knight: So fitting!

Quintela: That’s the meaning of radioactive that I like: something altered, something changed. For example, the engineer, Rafael, the father, he worked in the Nuclear City, he went to study in the Soviet Union and then he returned when everything collapsed. So he has to design his life again: he is an engineer but now he can only find work as a farmer, if he’s lucky. So he is in a way radioactive, he is doing something he is not prepared for. Also the Nuclear City is “radioactive”, although the nuclear plant did not explode like Chernobyl, it is socially radioactive, everything changed, it is a place that is abandoned.

Knight: What was the initial creative seed for this film and how did it evolve from there? Was it the Nuclear City itself that served as inspiration for the film, you wanted to build a story around it?

Quintela: I studied screenwriting at the film school in San Antonio and I have a friend who studied there too. He started writing a script, a story about three male characters who live alone and he developed the first draft but the story doesn’t have a landscape, just three characters in an apartment, the story can work in any place in theory. At the same time, I had a little car and was driving around Cuba and one day I saw the dome of the Nuclear City from a distance. It looks like Taj Mahal! It’s a strange view, an alien view, even in in Cuba!

nuclear city

Knight: So you did not know about the existence of this place until you discovered it by accident…

Quintela: Exactly, there are a lot of people who don’t know about that place, they want to erase it from people’s memory.

Knight: Because its failure is a big national shame?

Quintela: Exactly, it’s a big shame, the big project of the Revolution, of the 80s, when people thought that Cuba would jump to a very advanced technological level. […] And generally speaking, there are a lot of projects that fail in Cuba. The underground in Havana for instance.

Knight: There is an underground in Havana?

Quintela: Yes there is, they built all the tunnels and then they stopped. But the whole structure is laid out. They even prepared the drivers of the trains. That’s another story!

Knight: Maybe the subject of your next film!

Quintela: I don’t know, but it’s a really good story!

Knight: Going back to the Nuclear City, where in Cuba is it located exactly?

Quintela: The Nuclear City is 300 km away from Havana.

nuclear city 2

Knight: Who lives there now?

Quintela: A lot of people still live there. They worked at the plant and they were given state apartments in the city, “usufructo” as we call them. […] When everything collapsed, a lot of people left the City, some left Cuba, a lot of people committed suicide in that place, those who were lucky found a job doing something else. Some people stayed in Russia when everything started to shake. I showed the film in Moscow actually and met some Cubans who stayed there after the collapse of the Soviet Block.

Knight:So you developed a fascination with the Nuclear City, you probably did a lot of research about it…

Quintela: Exactly. This was six years ago. Also while studying at the film school, we had a workshop near the Nuclear City, in Playa Caballos, next to the bay. We stayed there for a week and worked with a theatre group from the Nuclear City. They are the workers who play in the film. And also the fat lady. Well, not the fat lady

Knight: Marta!

Quintela (laughing): Yes, Marta.

Knight: The courtship scene with her is hilarious, with the grandfather asking her how much she weighs out of the blue! I’m curious now, how much does she weigh exactly?

Quintela: Probably 180.

Knight: Then the grandfather was right!

Quintela: Yes he was! And almost all the people who appear in the film, I met them during that week.  It was an opportunity to visit the place every day, to talk to the people who live there.

Knight: So there is a community there, if they even have a theatre group…

Quintela: Yes, exactly. They created that theatre group because there were a lot of people who committed suicide and doing theatre provided a little bit of relief. It’s almost like any other city in Cuba.

the-project-of-the-century-f11 (1)

Knight: How do they live there now, what do they do?

Quintela: There are some people who raise animals in their yards, some people work in the hotel across the bay. Some people work in the cigar factory. Probably the rest work in Cienfuegos, they need to cross the bay every day then take a bus.

Knight: You’re actually showing this commute in the film.

Quintela: Yes, the scene on the ferry.

Knight: So you met these people from the Nuclear City and they told you stories about what is like to live there…

Quintela: Yes, they told me the story of the place, what happened there. Because even if I’m Cuban, I’m like a tourist when it comes to this place, I’m an outsider. That’s why I did not want to work in a realistic register, I don’t know that place, for me it’s surreal. […] So I used the spirit of that place and added in other elements and I made like a milkshake, but I can’t pretend I know what it is like to live there.

Knight: I like the metaphor of a milkshake for your film. It’s a blend of so many things!

Quintela: Exactly, I stole a little bit from everyone!!

Knight: But all the elements go very well together, the film is cohesive despite its fragmented, disrupted nature.

Quintela: I guess so. And it’s a hand-made film. Low-budget. I made it with the machete, cutting everything that I needed to cut. Of course, I’d love to have a machine gun but I don’t have it and I don’t want to wait for the machine gun. But if I continue making films, I’d love to work in comfort some day. If I am to sum up your idea about irony, a lot of irony comes from this way of working. Everything is extremely “naked”, you see everything, you see all the sewing in the film, it’s like a project.

Knight: And there’s also the ironic contrast between the past and the present, the past with its high ideals and the present with its crumbled dreams and low expectations.

obra_grandfather

Quintela: Definitely. And there’s another irony expressed through colour: the past is in colour but that doesn’t mean it’s great!

Knight: The past is in colour yes but it’s a sort of faded colour, a vintage look. Actually the brightest colour you have in the film is the boxing sequence from the 2012 London Olympics.

Quintela: Exactly. The modern time, the time of the film. But it’s different if you see it from the Nuclear City. And it’s in colour because the Cuban boxer wins a gold medal!

Knight: The brightest, shiniest thing!

Quintela: Exactly. But a gold medal that sadly doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t bring any “colour”. And the rest of the film is not completely black and white, it’s like taking a brush, putting it in the can of paint and spraying it onto the canvas, there are some colours there.

Knight: Formally, it is a very challenging film. Immediately after introducing the story, you cut to a small square frame where you show an aerial shot of the Electro-Nuclear City. And you repeat this stylistic device throughout the film. This obviously begs the question: why? I came up with my own interpretation of it.

Quintela: Please, I want to hear it!

Knight: For me, the small square frame represents the ideological discourse of the day, the way any ideological discourse shows you only a narrow portion of the picture, not the entire picture. In other words, the small square frame is the literal, visual translation of the way ideology “frames” reality.

Quintela: That’s a really great interpretation, thanks, I love it, it’s my treasure from this interview because I did not think about that. And it’s probably because I live inside the small square. Of course I can look at it and examine it, I understand the square but it’s in my veins in a way. It’s in my blood, I live in the square so I can only see things from that perspective.

Knight: You use the small square frame for the Cuban cosmonaut who says that his space travel is all due to the Cuban Revolution and to socialism. By the way, is the cosmonaut real or is that mock footage?

Quintela: He’s real, he really went to space, he’s like a star in Cuba, a hero, the only Cuban who went to space! He became famous, imagine, a Cuban in space! That’s why the film starts with him, it’s a huge step, it’s an utopia made possible.

Knight: And it’s all thanks to the Cuban Revolution!

Quintela: Exactly. And he’s not only Cuban, he’s a Black Cuban! Because there were two Cubans they were preparing to go to space, a white Cuban and a Black Cuban. So in the end they chose the Black Cuban because politically it’s more important.

Knight:  It’s a stronger political statement.

Quintela: Yes, a Black Cuban is more “Cuban” in a way. And his mission was really strange, I did not want to talk about that in the film because people would probably laugh: his mission was to prove that in space the sugar could survive! Seriously, you can research this on Youtube. Now he’s in charge with foreign travel, if a military soldier wants to travel, he is the one giving you permission.

Knight: It’s so ironic how things turned out! But going back to the mockumentary idea, you do have mock footage in your film, the interviews with the nuclear plant workers for example.

Quintela (laughing): No, everything is real!It’s true, there’s no mockumentary in the film. People do get that impression but no, everything is real. The footage is edited but it is real!

Knight:But it sounds so perfectly like the official ideological discourse written by someone and given to them to read out and perform!

Quintela: Yes and no in a way. It’s not written by anyone, that’s how they spoke in that day!

Knight: And the women in the Dia de la Muher sequence from 1986? I immediately noticed the 70’s style haircuts and earrings. Those are real women from the period too?

Quintela: Yes. But remember 80s in Cuba is like ’69, ’71 in the States, we are a bit behind!

Knight: How about the last woman in that sequence?She is filmed from behind and her behind introduces us again to the Nuclear City where you resume the film. That is your addition, right?

Quintela: No, that’s also real footage! The cinematographer shot that for Women’s Day! I really love that footage, that’s why I used it.

Knight: This is the big surprise of this interview! I was almost sure that is mock footage, that you mix real footage with fake footage! How did you get your hands on this material?

Quintela: It was tricky! I needed to find someone with access to it, I had to pay for it.

Knight: But it belongs to the national archive, right?

Quintela: No, it’s from someone who has his own place. Probably they have to destroy it. And there is more.

Knight: Footage they never used probably. The rushes.

Quintela: Exactly, they shot it but never showed it on television. The media is a really closed circle in Cuba, that was footage for a meeting probably, to talk about something.

Knight: That’s just amazing. But going back to the stylistic device of the small square frame within the frame, what was your reason for using it?

Quintela: The reason I used the small square is because I could not resize the archive, I couldn’t put it at the same resolution as the rest of the film. Because it would have broken the consistency.

Knight: So basically you chose the small frame because it looked better!

Quintela: Not really. When I work with several materials, at some point I want to use another layer, then I need to find the correct size. I started in black and white, at the beginning the whole film was in black and white. But I changed. Why?

Knight: What’s the answer to that?

Quintela: I changed because I did not want manipulate the archive too much, someone gave it to me and I wanted to use it like that. If the film is The Project of the Century, and I wanted to capture the irony of that, I can’t be afraid of using rough materials.  If I use rough materials I need to use them like that, I can’t polish them and make them more fancy. After that I needed to find the right size, so I tried different sizes and in the end I chose that size. But I never thought of its ideological meaning, I only wanted a difference between the two timeframes, the two narratives. I never asked myself about the empty black space, that it could mean something else, I only thought about what is inside.

Knight: I don’t think I’ve ever seen this device in any other film, have you?

Quintela: I don’t remember, no. I watch a lot of films where everything changes at some point but not the size, no.

Knight: Another ironic element that is totally unintentional I bet is the fact that your three main characters living in the Nuclear City form what is called a “nuclear family”!

Quintela: Yes! The three generations living under one roof!

Obra grandson

Knight: Normally you have the women as well but in your film the women are absent, they all left. It’s still a nuclear family nevertheless. And fertile ground for intergenerational conflict!

Quintela: Yes, that is very common in Cuba!

Knight: So it’s not a coincidence that one of the first scenes in the film is a fight: the young son beats up his father off screen. In other words, the young generation is angry towards the older generation, the Cuba of the nuclear dream!

Quintela: Yes they fight and it’s a symbolical fight. […] But when I write I don’t think of the meaning, I think of the characters and what they go through. But of course their actions mean something. And that fight is meaningful, of course, but for me the son is beating up his father, not what his father represents. But in a way of course, it’s impossible to separate the two. Because what he represents is inside him. That’s why the first line of dialogue of this family is “Sorry, I apologise”. That was a conscious line. The film starts with the “fumigatores” but in the original script the story starts with a fight. And it ends with a fight, it’s like a never-ending story, that’s something that happens in Cuba every day, a lot of families have conflicts like this. I’ve lived with my grandma all my life and although she’s not like the character of the grandfather in the film, we still have a lot of discussions that I would gladly avoid, for example she keeps telling me I’m weak! But it’s impossible to not have these discussions. And in the film the fight scene is really bad, that’s why it’s mostly black.

obra fight.jpg

Knight: However, things become quite funny in the next scene when the grandfather picks up a fight with the grandson and it’s actually the father who comes to his rescue now.

Quintela: Yes, the family dynamics change almost immediately. The grandfather is like many people I met at the Nuclear City, it’s the generation who grew up with the Revolution. Cuba is extremely divided. If you want to know about contemporary Cuban history, you need to know a lot of aspects: Cubans from Cuba, Cubans from Miami. You need to put together a lot of pieces.

Knight: A lot of disparate fragments? The reason why the film is so fragmented I guess…

Quintela: Exactly, a lot of disparate fragments and mix them together. The family in my film is the kind of family who never says directly: I love you, I care about you. If the grandfather wants to say that, he would say it to his grandson and the grandson would say it to the father, everything works like that. Because they are in a battle all the time and it’s impossible for them to escape from that. […] It’s also impossible to understand Cuba in one frame, because one frame is not enough for such a complex country. And neither is a whole film. I think in general families in Cuba are not like the family in my film. The family in my film is like that because it is the result of an utopia. Everything collapses around them and that penetrates the family. And they are becoming that kind of family as a result.

Knight: What is interesting is that the men stayed put, they stayed with the utopia, whereas the women left, the women are absent in this film. The men only allude to the women and there are some insinuations there…Someone says something about the grandmother for instance but the grandfather doesn’t want to talk about her. Also the son doesn’t want to talk about his novia either, the red-haired skinny wife with soft hands whom the grandfather declares “unfit for marriage”! So women are either absent and/or no good in this film!

Quintela: Yes, exactly.  When the film starts with the fumigatores, there is that discussion about the Cold War and how the Russians and Americans were competing in the space race to prove who has the biggest dick. And that’s a problem that men have, they want to prove that all the time! And Cuba is so small but wants to pretend that it’s so big, so good, we are so special. No, we are not so anything, we are just like the other Latin-American countries. And I think compared to men, Cuban women are stronger and they know how to find a way to do things.

Knight: Less conceded with ideals, more concerned with the practical aspects of life.

Quintela: Exactly. And failure for a man is deeper. You can see that in the archive footage, this is “the project of the century” and there are a lot of men working on this project. Women are behind.

Knight: There is no talk of women, no interviews with women in that footage.

Quintela: Actually a lot of women worked on that project too. And there were interviews with women too but I took out that footage.

Knight: To make a point?

Quintela: Yes.

Knight: The soprano’s song was another startling sequence. I interpreted the lyrics “I love you and I hate you but I can’t live without you” as your ode to Cuba, the “you” in the song is Cuba.

Quintela: That’s exactly what it is! And that’s the flavour of the film. Because I feel like that. And I think everyone in Cuba has that kind of love/hate relationship with our country. As a citizen, there are a lot of things that I hate, if I made you a list it would be so long that I prefer not to talk about that at all! But as a filmmaker and screenwriter, I love everything that I hate about Cuba!

Knight: Because that hate and anger feeds your creativity.

Quintela: Of course!

Knight: Going back to the film, I want to talk about the scene with the neighbour who shows up at the door and says: “I want to speak with the owner of this establishment”. Who happens to be the grandfather! I was very surprised by that line, he said “owner”. So what is the situation of private property in Cuba now?

Quintela: Yes he said owner but the problem is that in Cuba, probably like in Iran, there are a lot of layers when you talk. For example, in general, if you’re looking for a job, probably you will take a job not because of the salary, but because of what they call “the search”. The “search” is what you can steal from that place! If I work in a restaurant, probably I don’t need to buy food, because I have access to food. And this person who works in that place survives because of that.

Knight: I understand.

Quintela: They don’t say “steal”, they say “search”. But it is theft, they are stealing from that place.

Knight: But everyone knows and it’s accepted. Or not?

Quintela: There are some people who accept that and there are people who don’t. And that’s connected with the economy and the State and the government: if you don’t pay me, I rob you. It’s like Robin Hood but on a personal level, everyone is a Robin Hood! So when the neighbour says “owner”, he actually means “usufructo”. That means that the State gave you that property to use but it’s not yours. So the State gave them that apartment because they worked in the Nuclear Power Station. Also, the State gives these properties to men but not to women, what do you think of that?There are some women who own private property now but not in those times! And if they get divorced, the woman doesn’t get anything!!

Knight: That’s very unfair because communist societies in general seemed to embrace gender equality!

Quintela: Yes, but only in theory. I think Cuban women are very strong but Cuban society is extremely machista. […]

Knight: Interestingly, you’re subverting this machismo entirely in the courtship scene with Marta. She is the man in that scene, she arrives on a motor bike…

Quintela: She sits like a man…

Knight: Yes and you entirely reverse the scenario: it’s usually the man going to the woman’s house and bringing cake/sweets, no? So you subverted gender expectations in the film deliberately.

Quintela: Yes, she is the only woman in the film and she needs to be powerful. And also she is a relief for Rafael although she doesn’t solve anything. Love is something temporary, like an injection, a drug, but that’s it, after that pain continues. And also she realises during the dinner that he is not so strong and that’s why in bed she wants him to pretend he is Russian. It’s really sad.

Knight: But very funny at the same time!And he takes that really well, I had a lot of admiration for him in that moment!

Quintela: Yes, he wants to pretend to be strong at least!

Knight: The film is full of humour in places you don’t really expect. But going back to the scene with the neighbour, there’s a lot of irony here in terms of outcome, we expect one thing but something else happens. What inspired that scene?

Quintela: The mood of the Nuclear City. When I spoke with Daisy, one of the people who lives there, she said something I really liked and could connect to even if I’m from Havana. She said that the Nuclear City is “a bit alive and a bit dead at the same time”. And I like that idea. Every character in fact has an issue or dilemma they cannot solve, because it doesn’t depend on them: the young son has a broken love relationship that he cannot fix because it doesn’t depend on him, his father, he’s probably the one who suffers more because he belongs to the disappointed generation, I call it “The Generation of Fear”.  The Cubans who stayed in Cuba in general are really kind and resigned and they are unable to say “This is shit”. If they want to criticise something, they don’t criticise openly. They suffer more and they apologise a lot, like the father in the film. It’s really sad. And his problem is that he cannot bring back the Nuclear Power Plant, he cannot do anything. And the problem of the grandfather is that he hates everything, he fights with everyone, probably he’s the honest person in the film, he talks directly with each of them, but his problem is that he cannot die. He wants to die but he cannot die, he returns. […] So his apparent death is more related to the feeling of the Nuclear City.

Knight: How difficult was it to make a film like this in Cuba now?

Quintela: The making of the film was complicated, it is a low budget film and in Cuba you plan for something and then everything changes, every day you have a big surprise! But you need to work with something that doesn’t change. And the film is imperfect but on the other hand it’s not Batman! Also the story and memory of that place [the Nuclear City] is full of mistakes, which means it’s not coherent. So instead of fighting all the mistakes that happened during the making of the film, I started using these mistakes in the film. For example, the grandfather’s calendar from 1986 when Chernobyl happened, the one displaying the image of a pretty Japanese woman: you might have noticed she has a smeared eye in that photo. This was an accident, the guy who was in charge with bringing us that poster smashed it! So things like these. But sometimes it is too much! And the look of the film is the look of a project, the film is a documentary in a way, if it were a film  it would have started with a fight and ended with a fight, but it’s a project, it’s not “done”, it’s imperfect.

Knight: Also the ending is very ironic, you refer to the film as a “cinematic activity”: “This cinematic activity ends here”. At 100 minutes on the dot!

Quintela:That’s very communist, that’s the way communists speak. In Miami it’s the same, it’s very funny. Obviously Miami is very different, the ideology is different but the way Cubans use the Spanish language, the grammar and everything, is very communist-like. And yes, the film is 100 minutes and editors say 90min is the ideal length. If I had more time I would have polished it more. I actually have another version, perfectly done, not like Batman but more Hollywood-like! But I don’t like it, it looks too well-done, it’s the standard size though, 90 minutes. I would love a balance between those versions but I don’t have the time for it.

Knight: What did you take out in the other version?

Quintela:I polished the scenes a little bit more. But the film looks less Cuban. So I prefer this version, it’s more faithful to the story of the Nuclear City, and also to Cuba. And I realised that I don’t need to hide the machete, I don’t need to hide the sewing, I don’t need to hide anything, it’s my world, it’s like that. When you close a door here, it doesn’t sound like New York, it’s a different sound here. Everything in the film is hand-made. The sound designer on the film is not Cuban so I had to explain all these things to him.

Knight: What are you going to do with this other version, is this the one you’re going to show in the US?

Quintela: No, we’ll probably erase it!

Knight: There’s a striking statement that the grandfather makes in the film while talking to his grandson. He says, referring to his son: “All that shit they filled his mind with”. He’s directly referring to communist ideology here.

Quintela: Claro. And he’s also talking about money: you were not supposed to think about money in those times but now everything changed and everyone wants money. To give you an example: I bumped into a teacher from high school six months ago and he told me about some work he did for someone. But he was unable to say what was the price of what he did. He does not know how to say: “You need to pay me this”. Because the mentality is: why should I pay for something if I can get it for free? And the problem with Cuba is: in theory this could work but not in practice. I also supported the Revolution at the beginning, the first 5-6 years. When I talk with my grandma about those times, I realise from the way she speaks that she fell in love with those ideas. And I would love to fall in love with that lie too, at least she had something to believe in! It’s complicated!

Knight: What year were you born in?

Quintela: In 1984.

Knight: Right at the time of the Nuclear Project!

Quintela: Yes, I’m a nuclear child, I used to play football with Chernobyl kids. After Chernobyl a lot of Russian families settled near Santa Maria in Tarara. It was healthy for them to be near the sea but most of the Chernobyl kids died. Now there’s a Chinese city there now, they learn Spanish there.

Advertisements

THE END OF THE TOUR Opens in NYC July 31th (press release)

THE END OF THE TOUR 

EndOfTheTour

THE END OF THE TOUR tells the story of the five-day interview between Rolling Stone reporter and novelist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), which took place right after the 1996 publication of Wallace’s groundbreaking epic novel, “Infinite Jest.”  As the days go on, a tenuous yet intense relationship seems to develop between journalist and subject. The two men bob and weave around each other, sharing laughs and also possibly revealing hidden frailties – but it’s never clear how truthful they are being with each other. Ironically, the interview was never published, and five days of audiotapes were packed away in Lipsky’s closet. The two men did not meet again.

The film is based on Lipsky’s critically acclaimed memoir “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace” about this unforgettable encounter, written following Wallace’s 2008 suicide.  Both Segel and Eisenbeg reveal great depths of emotion in their performances and the film is directed with humor and tenderness by Sundance vet James Ponsoldt from Pulitizer Prize winner Donald Margulies’ insightful and heartbreaking screenplay.

THE END OF THE TOUR opens in NYC  July 31st at Angelika Film Center and at AMC Loews Lincoln Square

ABOUT THE PRODUCTION

“The truth will set you free.  But not until it is finished with you.”

~ David Foster Wallace, “Infinite Jest”

In the winter of 1996 two ambitious young men, strangers to each other, set out on a five-day road trip, during which, it turned out, each was nervously, thrillingly, even defiantly, trying to decode who he wanted to be.  One was the young, unseasoned Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky.  The other was David Foster Wallace, the 34 year-old literary rock star suddenly being hailed as the most brilliant writer, and cultural observer, of his generation.

jesse_eisenberg

Jesse Eisenberg

At the start of the trip, Lipsky was hunting for that great revelatory confession that could make his career. He wanted Wallace to share his exuberant ideas on our pop-culture-saturated world – on everything from television addiction to technophilia to the phenomenon of hyper-connected loneliness – but he also was looking for something more.  He was looking for the flaws, he was looking for a big story, maybe he was looking for a kindred spirit. 

The two jockeyed and joked and left behind a trail of junk food wrappers.  They talked movies, girls, songs and the weirdness of modern life.  But by the end of the tour something else happened:  a flash-friendship, as potent and conflicted as the closest of comrades, sparked.  It was layered upon all the envy, insecurity, aloneness and mistrust of contemporary relationships.  Yet it also had the one thing that Wallace had sought most of all:  the essence, as he once put it, of being “radiantly human.” 

Director James Ponsoldt and stars Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel bring this unlikely story to the screen with raw, gripping emotion. At once tender and rollicking, the film is not just the story of genius colliding with the force of celebrity or of a reporter chasing his first elusive story. It also evokes the feeling of life in these times – our tricky relationship with success, our longing to connect and our wish to cut through the never-ending information bombardment to what is essential and true. 

segel, jason

Actor Jason Segel

The screenplay is by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Donald Margulies, based on David Lipsky’s memoir “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself:  A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace.” Academy Award® nominee Jesse Eisenberg (THE SOCIAL NETWORK) is Lipsky and, in a moving departure, Jason Segel (FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, JEFF WHO LIVES AT HOME) portrays Wallace.  

Ponsoldt says it all ultimately came down to the actors linking up with each other in a way that lights up the screen with fundamental human drama.  “I’m so excited to share these two beautiful performances with the world,” he offers.  “I don’t think audiences have ever seen Jesse and Jason like this before.  In exploring the few days these two writers spent together at a major moment in both their lives they bring a depth of emotion, an honesty and a level of vulnerability that is riveting and very moving.” 

ponsoldt

Filmmaker James Ponsoldt

Two Davids At a Divide

THE END OF THE TOUR is anything but a biopic.   It might even be an anti-biopic. 

Says director James Ponsoldt:  “Biopics have a tendency to flatten out and reduce the complexity of a life. I usually have a fierce aversion to them.  THE END OF THE TOUR is more like a snapshot of two lives taken over just a handful of days. The script is largely if not entirely based on the actual recorded conversations, so the veracity isn’t really debatable. But then Donald Margulies transformed that into great drama. It begins as a story about how a journalist approaches an elusive subject, but that story gets further complicated by ego, insecurity, jealousy, vulnerability and admiration. Ultimately, it becomes a kind of platonic unrequited love story.”

He adds:  “We’ve all had the experience of a brief encounter with someone we’ve admired from a distance – whether professionally or a relative or an artist you get to meet – where this person has taken on all this meaning, all this emotion, yet they are a stranger and what you get is never quite what you expected, either in terms of who they are or how you react to them.  This is a story about that moment, and it’s also a story of a man looking back at it years later, so it’s about memory, about something that was lost and about a kind of regret.” 

Screenwriter Donald Margulies felt similarly.  He had no interest in writing a life summary or trying to unravel the inner workings of David Foster Wallace’s expansive mind on the screen.  “I deliberately didn’t want to do something meta,” he says of the adaptation.  “I didn’t want it to be about how clever I could be in terms of translating this, or about any kind of artifice.  It was about trying to tap into the universal essence of these five days in these two lives.  That, for me, became a much more potent entryway than a cradle-to-grave biopic. Here was a kind of adagio dance between two men about art and ego and success.  That’s what made it compelling and alive.” 

The film isn’t a biopic, but it would not have existed if not for the complicated, accomplished, tragic life of David Foster Wallace.  Few novelists achieve household name status anymore, but Wallace was different. 

His books hit people with a force that turned many into obsessive fans.  Dog-eared copies of his gargantuan novel “Infinite Jest” became an unspoken bond among those who felt it reflected their massively fragmented yet thirsty lives.  His books, stories and articles had their own tour-de-force style. Lined with footnotes, complexly plotted, linguistically inventive, and filled with a hyper-modern (and often hilarious) manic energy, they challenged readers to give every last iota of their attention.  But they also moved people with their era-defying sincerity and searching.  In his disarming honesty about his own insecurities and despair, in his unabashed mix of ecstasy and sadness, Wallace allowed his readers to feel a little less alone. 

Wallace was not another modern ironist. On the contrary, he saw irony as poisonous and fought against the tide of cynicism.  He was going after a kind of writing that might combat alienation, not merely reflect it.  As he put it in a 1993 interview:  “We all suffer alone in the real world. True empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with their own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.”

At the same time, Wallace had a dexterous mind that consumed knowledge – from mathematics to Americana – with equal-opportunity voracity.  As New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani wrote:  “Wallace can do practically anything if he puts his mind to it.  He can do sad, funny, silly, heartbreaking and absurd with equal ease; he can even do them all at once.”

Says James Ponsoldt: “Simply put, David Foster Wallace sparked change in popular writing in our time – something that happens maybe once in a generation.  He’s like Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Tom Wolfe, or Jack Kerouac before him.  He gave a voice to the things a lot of people are struggling with right now, one that was hugely creative and funny and had a personal impact.” 

Raised in the Midwest by professor parents, Wallace started out life as an athlete and promising tennis player.  It was while double majoring in philosophy and English at Amherst College that he wrote his first novel, “The Broom Of The System,” as his thesis.  This was followed by the story collection, “Girl With Curious Hair,” then the 1,079-page “Infinite Jest” – the title of which referred to a movie so outrageously entertaining it led to the apathy and death of its viewers.  He would go on to publish “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” “Oblivion” and “Consider the Lobster,” as well as journalism, including a profile of John McCain.  (His unfinished novel “The Pale King” and his poignant 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech “This is Water” were published posthumously.) 

Wallace was known to have battled against bouts of severe depression throughout his adult life. Following an unsuccessful medication alteration, Wallace committed suicide in Claremont, California, where he was a writing professor at Pomona College, in 2008. 

His death shocked those who had felt so close to his words.  Among the grieving was David Lipsky, who, unknown to most, had interviewed Wallace 12 years earlier, just as Wallace’s career was entering hyperspeed and he was discovering the highs and lows of fame. 

Lipsky was then a fresh-faced writer at Rolling Stone.  He was also a fledgling novelist, though the superstardom Wallace was grappling with had eluded him. Lipsky had published a short story collection and a novel, “The Art Fair,” that was named a Best Book of the Year by Time Magazine.  He would go on to write on such diverse subjects as junkies, gay teens and life at West Point (in the acclaimed book “Absolutely American”), but in 1994, he was still searching for a subject he could sink his teeth into…and he thought Wallace was it.  Rolling Stone was not in the habit of putting novelists on the cover but Wallace was as rock and roll a quantity as any writer could be.

Lipsky’s interview was never published.  But, after Wallace’s death, he was compelled to pull his tapes and notes out of storage.  When he played the tapes back, in his own effort at coming to an understanding, he was surprised and stirred by what he found. 

He revisited those five incredible days in “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.” A kind of catharsis for Lipsky, it became a fan favorite, considered one of the more insightful peeks into Wallace’s mind and what he meant to others. The Atlantic called it “funny, profound, surprising and awfully human” and Library Journal called it “A glimpse into the mind of one of the great literary masters…many fans of Wallace’s writing come to think of him as a friend – by the time they have finished Lipsky’s moving book, they will undoubtedly feel that even more strongly.”

But was it translatable to the screen? 

An Interview Becomes A Road Movie

Could a story about two men riding through the Midwest talking about life, art and their insecurities be full of drama, tension and momentum?  The filmmakers of The End of The Tour set out to find an answer to that riddle that would do something unexpected. 

It started with the screenplay adaptation.   As a playwright whose “Dinner With Friends” won the Pulitzer Prize, Donald Margulies is known for crackling dialogue and sharp interpersonal dynamics in original works for the stage.   But when producer David Kanter, Margulies’ long-time manager, gave him a copy of “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” with a note that said, “Take a look; there may be a play in it” Margulies didn’t see it as a play at all.  He envisioned it on the big screen – as a funny, poignant but definitely kinetic road picture. 

“I was excited about it as a story of two American writers – one of whom happens to be David Foster Wallace – out on the American landscape,” Margulies explains.  “The story contained a convergence of themes that have long-captivated my imagination:  the mentor-protégé relationship, the journalist-subject dynamic, the way men forge friendships or don’t forge friendships, the search for legitimacy – and all of it surrounded one of the great minds and social observers of our time. It was exhilarating.” 

It also presented an enticing creative challenge as Margulies took to the dense verbiage of the Lipsky-Wallace conversations with the chisel of a sculptor.  In their rapid-fire exchanges, he found a dramatic structure that explores the full arc of a friendship, and recreates the feeling of those fleeting moments in our lives that shake us in some profound way.

“The challenge for me as a dramatist was to take this incredible treasure trove of material Lipsky gave us – these 300 pages of rich, pithy conversations between two incredibly articulate guys trying to outsmart each other – and carve from that a structured narrative,” he explains.  “It became my task to make this a living, breathing organism and not just a re-creation of an interview.  That was part of the great joy of it.  It was a task of mining all the subtext and conflicts and bringing it back to the essence of the book’s title:  Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.”

The film is very much about two men constructing themselves, both on the level of image and at a greater depth, but Margulies’ approach completely avoided the cutesy and po-mo – to echo Wallace’s concerns about how he might be portrayed.   On the contrary, Margulies’ screenplay was direct, human and very intentionally unembellished.  The whole idea, Margulies says, was to tell a story that could fascinate and move audiences who may have never heard of David Foster Wallace.   

“I wanted to write something universal and, at its heart, this is the story of two men that is full of drama and surprises – and it happens to be the case that one of those men is a real, larger-than-life figure,” says Margulies.  “At the same time, Lipsky’s interview allowed Wallace to present some of his ideas in a very accessible way.  Wallace’s books are not easily adaptable to the screen, but I hope that in watching the fascinating dynamic between these two men, people will be drawn to the work itself.” 

Margulies rediscovered the breadth of Wallace’s writing himself while writing the screenplay.  Though he’d read some of Wallace’s work, he did not tackle “Infinite Jest” until he started his research.  “My appreciation and sense of sadness only deepened,” he says of that experience.  “He was a kind of prophet in many ways and I was so moved by the terrible loss that our culture suffered. Wallace’s writing voice had this uncanny ability to sound just like that voice residing in a lot of people’s heads so his work became that much more personal. Yet, I’ve also been surprised by how many people I encounter who don’t know Wallace at all, which only intensified my passion for this project.  There’s a new generation who might start to seek him out.” 

Certainly, some of Wallace’s questions about how writers grapple with, and chafe against, success hit close to home for Margulies. As one of the nation’s most revered playwrights, he’s experienced life on both sides of literary strife.  “Critics love to discover talent but once you’re already anointed you become a different kind of commodity and there are different expectations,” he observes.  “It’s no longer about the shock of the new.  It’s about what you’re doing now and whether it is like what you were doing before and that can become quite an obstacle for an artist.” 

Another potent thread in the story that intrigued Margulies is the uneasy mix of bond and mistrust that can develop between a reporter and a tough-to-crack subject, especially one brilliant enough to run interference.  He was put in mind of Janet Malcolm’s classic book, “The Journalist and The Murderer,” in which she explored the fraught ethics and psychological darkness of journalism by probing the back-and-forth between writer Joe McGinniss and convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald. 

“I’ve always been intrigued by the counter-transference that goes on between journalists and their subjects,” says Margulies, who previously wrote about Iraq war correspondents in his play “Time Stands Still.”  “There’s a whole undercurrent going on between Lipsky and Wallace where you never know if Wallace is humoring Lipsky, putting him on, threatening him or complimenting him.  It’s all part of the power dynamic, and even in a single scene there are many shifts in position.”    

The subtly mounting emotional tension of the script would require a sensitive director.  Margulies had a hunch about who that might be – one that would bring the mentor-protégé theme full circle.  He sent the script to James Ponsoldt, who had been his student at Yale.  Now on the rise as an indie film director, Ponsoldt’s SMASHED and THE SPECTACULAR NOW had brought a closely observed approach to the topics of drinking and teen angst that made them seem fresh again.   

As it turned out, Ponsoldt was already a huge Wallace fan.  But more so, his former teacher’s script riveted him.  “I’d already read and greatly admired Lipsky’s book, but Donald’s script just knocked me out – it was deeply, deeply moving,” he recalls.  “He had created this fragile, beautiful, compact thing from what Lipsky had done.  It was just profoundly intelligent and compassionate, and refused to be reductive in any way. It’s my favorite thing Donald has ever written, and I say that as a big fan of his plays.  Donald managed to transform this epic, multi-day conversation into something that has a real heartbeat, that is tense with conflict, that has emotion that creeps up on you.”

For Margulies, the satisfaction went beyond the pleasure of finding the right director for his script.  “It was such a moving ‘Mr. Chips’ moment for me,” he muses.  “The synergy in bringing together my life as a writer and my life as a teacher was incredible. I can’t describe how deeply gratifying this experience has been.” 

The gratification was magnified when he saw the finished film.  “It felt uncannily like what I wrote,” Margulies concludes.  “It was all there in its prosaicness – and I think the lack of pretension in the way James captured the story is really going to captivate people.” 

James Ponsoldt On Friendship, Fame and Legacies

James Ponsoldt brought a long personal history with the work of David Foster Wallace to THE END OF THE TOUR.  Indeed, he says taking in Wallace’s appealingly conversational but mind-jangling work became part and parcel of his own coming-of-age.  “You could say that one of the most complicated, meaningful relationships I had in college was with ‘Infinite Jest,’” he laughs.  Ponsoldt followed Wallace throughout his life, and even had lines from “This is Water” read at his wedding. 

But, from the beginning, the director saw THE END OF THE TOUR as really being David Lipsky’s story – albeit his story of being in orbit around Wallace.  He also saw the story as a chance to hone in on a not-often explored landscape – the one that the lies within the often comically competitive yet fragile ins and outs of male friendship.   For those five days Lipsky and Wallace were a kind of modern-day odd couple, different in the particulars yet not so different at all.     

“We really don’t know what David Foster Wallace thought about those days he spent with Lipsky,” Ponsoldt explains.  “We could and did infer certain things from talking to a lot of people who knew him at the time and we had the tapes so we knew exactly what he said, but really, all we have is David Lipsky’s memories.  So the film is 99% Lipsky’s point of view and it’s purposefully colored by his biases and emotions.  My take was always that it was about Lipsky wanting something from Wallace that he couldn’t fully give him under the circumstances.  It was about a relationship that didn’t continue.  I saw it as much as being in the vein of BRIEF ENCOUNTER as MY DINNER WITH ANDRE.” 

Vital to Ponsoldt was capturing the electricity between these two men poised at the precipice of the future. “I wouldn’t have wanted to make a film about the last days of David Foster Wallace,” Ponsoldt comments.  “It was important to me that in this film we see Wallace when everything was working for him.  I thought of it almost like Bob Dylan in DON’T LOOK BACK – you have this young, brilliant guy entering the eye of the storm, who’s in the process of encountering the god of fame for the first time, and it’s just fascinating to watch it.  I definitely didn’t want it to be a cold, arm’s-length kind of film.  I wanted it to be a hangout movie with two young, smart, insecure guys who start out really almost kind of performing for each other and then start talking about how to live a better life.” 

Throughout, Ponsoldt was grateful that Lipsky was so forthcoming. “He was a great, great resource for the film and he was very clear that he wanted us to be tough and honest and not sentimental,” says the director.  “He’s under no delusions about what happened with Wallace.  They weren’t ongoing friends, though Lipsky might have wanted that.  They were two guys used to being the smartest in the room, and when you put them together in one room, things were destined to get tricky.  But they had these few days in which something special happened, at least on Lipsky’s end.” 

The risks of the film, especially the hefty weight of Wallace’s legacy, were not lost on Ponsoldt – but he used them as fuel.  “I felt like my value system was in the right place and like I could be a good shepherd for this story or I wouldn’t have done it,” he says.  “I knew what was at stake and I had a deep, deep fear of getting it wrong.  There are stories that you fall in love with and there are stories that terrify you and this one was both.  Maybe the best ones are always both.” 

While Ponsoldt says this film could only ever have been Lipsky’s story, he hopes the experience of it will lead those who are intrigued to check out Wallace’s work.  “If people really want to understand David Foster Wallace and his mind better, you should go out and read his books, because you’ll discover a whole world that’s impossible to get on screen in there,” he concludes. 

Eisenberg & Segel & Lipsky & Wallace

As the story of two strangers unexpectedly connecting, despite being natural adversaries, THE END OF THE TOUR was destined to be a performance-focused movie.  Everything hinged on finding two actors who could bring these two young men in such a dynamic, alive way that audiences would feel they were in the room with them, shooting the breeze, debating life and occasionally getting telling glimpses into one another.  It was also going to require two actors willing to be fairly naked in roles where you can’t really hide. 

Jesse Eisenberg was a natural choice to play David Lipsky.  His ability to evince both smarts and vulnerability was a known quantity, but he also came to the role as a writer (he’s written several plays, is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and the literary magazine McSweeneys, and will soon publish a book of short fiction).  Though he is also an accomplished screenwriter, Jason Segel, better known for his comic work, may have been less obvious – though perhaps no one is an obvious choice to play David Foster Wallace – but he came to the role with such an open-hearted willingness to go deep that Ponsoldt felt he was exactly the right match. 

Most of all, as a pairing, the two had an instant frisson.  “So much of the film is spent just with Jesse and Jason – it was vital that the two of them have that volatile chemistry. And they really did,” says Ponsoldt.  “They’d never worked together before, yet it was immediately clear that they enjoyed making each other laugh, one-upping each other. It felt like I was genuinely watching the beginning of a complicated friendship.” 

Ponsoldt continues:  “Beyond their gifts as actors – and they both gave incredibly brave, honest performances – they each are great writers, a combination that is hard to find.  These guys understand the life of a writer far more than most actors. They’ve both been humbled by the writing process, and they understand the frustration and loneliness.” 

Eisenberg came at the role in a very specific way.  “My goal was to make this character as emotionally rich as possible,” he explains.  “He’s not just a guy trying to get an important interview – he’s a guy with his own questions about self identity, his own anxieties and his own interesting and complicated feelings about other people.  Even in the scenes that are about very heady, substantive things, I wanted to bring a subtle emotional underpinning to Lipsky.”

He and Ponsoldt were on the same page in that regard.  “My favorite thing about James is that he approached the movie, despite it being a conversation between two men, as having life-and-death stakes,” Eisenberg explains.  “He always found the deep, deep core to each scene.”

One of the most challenging aspects for Eisenberg was turning the tables on an experience he has had over and over.  He had to become the interrogator rather than the interrogated.  “I’ve done a lot of interviews as an actor, but always on the other side, of course,” he muses.  “I’ve also done some antagonistic interviews, so this was an interesting experience because it pushed me to really think about why a journalist would want to be antagonistic and invasive.  It was a process for me to learn to identify with the journalist.  I had to come to terms with Lipsky’s agenda.” 

Donald Margulies was impressed with the shadings Eisenberg brought to the role.  “We were so lucky to get Jesse,” he says.  “He’s the embodiment of the New York intellectual and he’s got one of those constantly whirring minds and the verbal dexterity the role demands.  But I think what he brought to the role beyond that is remarkable.  His performance reminds me of Jack Lemmon’s in THE APARTMENT – it’s a comic performance but there’s so much more going on under the surface.  The things you can see in his eyes, the way he is with his subtle facial expressions, create a whole other layer. I think it’s his most mature work to date – and he and Jason were a beautifully calibrated duet.” 

Adds Ponsoldt:  “The film is tough on Lipsky.  It’s easier to feel sympathy for a tortured genius who the world adored than for a guy like Lipsky who we see being petty, insecure and overstepping his boundaries.  On some level we might judge him, but I think you see in Jesse that we’ve all been this person. Lipsky is the surrogate for us and Jesse is amazing in his honesty and his vulnerability.” 

When it came to David Foster Wallace, Eisenberg notes that Lipsky came into the interview with feelings so mixed he wasn’t sure how to reconcile them. “Lipsky’s frustrated because he knows he’s a good writer but he’s been stuck doing 500 word pieces on girl bands.  He’s also published a novel, so he’s accomplished something great, but now he’s in the presence of someone who has accomplished something far greater.  I think he comes into it spanning the spectrum from jealousy to uncertainty to admiration.  He’s writing about Wallace, but a part of him would prefer to be him.” 

Eisenberg goes on:  “Subconsciously, Lipsky maybe wants to take Wallace down a bit and find the flaws.  Here’s this guy who lives in the Midwest, wears a bandana and talks in an almost overly casual manner, yet he’s a literary hero. That has to eat away at Lipsky because he’s tried to do everything correctly.  He lives in New York, he’s in the social scene, but he’s still struggling, and meanwhile, Wallace bucks every trend, seems to puts in zero effort, and he’s becoming a huge star.” 

Though Eisenberg wanted to be true to the essence of Lipsky – he spent some time with the writer and delved into his recordings – he notes that he had more leeway than Segel to come at the character in his own way.   “Lipsky is a real person but he’s a real person that people don’t necessarily know well. So as an actor, you can make more of a personal choice on how to play it. There wasn’t the pressure on me that Jason had portraying someone who has been deified,” he comments.

He related to elements of Lipsky’s persona. “I like the way Lipsky always deflects attention from himself,” Eisenberg says.  “It’s partly because he’s a journalist but I think he’s also just a guy who is uncomfortable talking about himself.  I like that part of him. I can relate to it because part of my life is on display as an actor, so in conversations I prefer to hear about other lives and not divulge my own.  What struck me most from the interview is how uncomfortably personal it felt for both of them.” 

Yet, Lipsky is increasingly revealed as the road trip progresses, and as his mind games with Wallace shift into a momentary kinship.  This, says Eisenberg, became an organic unfolding once he was working with Segel.  “Jason was an endlessly creative and funny partner,” he says.  “He brought a levity and life to something that could have been at worst just melancholy.  It was so important to show Wallace in all his humor and generosity, to show him having fun with words, having fun in conversation.  Jason played Wallace with that wonderful, but honest spirit.  Through a lot of the film, we were isolated with each other and that created something unique.” 

Segel was equally exhilarated by the rapport.  “I found myself surprised by Jesse everyday and in every scene,” he says.  “He’s not only a brilliant actor but an amazing guy and I really feel like I made a friend for life.  When you’re doing such weighty material, that makes all the difference.  We were able to go seamlessly from joking around to really intense scenes. It had that tone of real life.”

Segel came into playing Wallace knowing there would be a flurry of expectations hanging over him, but he was able to put that aside.  Though some were surprised by the casting, Ponsoldt says he never had a doubt that Segel was the right match to embrace, yet never mimic, the towering writer. 

“I never really had thought of Jason as just a comedian,” he notes.  “He’s done comedies, sure, but I always thought of him as an actor with real depth, with expressive eyes you could read, eyes that have a mix of sadness and intelligence to them.  I saw him in the mold of a Henry Fonda or a Jimmy Stewart.  Of course, there were a lot of physical things about him that were right, too.  He was the same age that Wallace was at the time of the interview and like Wallace, he’s an ex-athlete – but more so he got both Wallace’s complexity and his charisma.  When you see interviews with Wallace at that time, you see how amiable, hilarious and in command he could be, and Jason captured that.” 

The director adds: “He also knew the scrutiny he would face and he knew what he had to do.  He took the challenge extremely seriously.  He read ‘Infinite Jest,’ he worked with a dialect coach to get Wallace’s voice down, he listened to the tapes endlessly and he talked to people who knew Wallace at that time who could give him more color and nuance.  But he never, ever tried to do an impression – he created this character as a deeper kind of expression.” 

The responsibility led Segel to undergo an intensive period of preparation, one that had a profound impact on him.  At the same time, he gained weight and even grew out his hair and beard to take on the grunge-like appearance of one of the most recognizable writers of the 20th Century. 

“I read and read and read and read,” Segel describes of how he dove into his portrait.  “Some friends of mine created a kind of impromptu book club to read ‘Infinite Jest’ and we got together to talk about it every Sunday which was really helpful.  Being introduced to Wallace’s fiction was one of the real gifts of this role for me; and ‘Infinite Jest’ truly changed my life.  I think it speaks to that particular moment in your life when you start coming to terms with the fact that some of the things you set as goals aren’t really as satisfying as you thought.  And it’s also about the reality that the only consistent relationship you’re going to have throughout your life is the one with yourself and you have to develop some kind of sustainable model to make that relationship last.”

The compulsive reading was essential to Segel making the part his own, allowing him to merge his persona with Wallace’s words in a very natural, immediate way.  “So much of the language in this film is brilliant because it comes from Wallace himself, from David Lipsky’s memories and then from Donald Margulies streamlining it all into a coherent whole,” he notes.  “It’s great stuff, but I knew that the important thing was that every word make sense to me in a personal way or it was all just going to sound like jargon.  I didn’t want these ideas to sound like that, because they’re such important ideas, so I really set out to have a visceral, internal understanding of what I was saying.” 

In Segel’s mind was always the reality that in 1996, Wallace was at the apex of his life, but those watching the film in 2015 can’t help but be aware that he would go on to take his own life.  He felt there had to be a subtle undercurrent of precariousness to Wallace’s humming mental energy. 

“In this film Wallace is at a high point, when everything seems to be clicking for him.  But I think what’s so interesting about it is that behind all the hope and promise there is this feeling that Wallace can’t necessarily escape what he’s felt in his darkest times.  As someone who questions whether human value should come from achievement, I think he has this looming sense that things to come aren’t going to be quite as easy as they look.” 

Once on set, Segel let go of all his research and analysis and followed his instincts.  There could be no other way, he notes.  “I felt a great pressure to do my due diligence and to be as prepared as possible.  But once you’ve done all you can to understand a person’s point of view as much as possible, the only thing left is simply to try to be as honest and intrepid as you can between ‘action’ and ‘cut.’” 

Ponsoldt’s guidance aided that willingness to inch right up to the edge.  “James said let’s think of this as a tremendous compression of time – in these few days, you and Jesse go through all the stages of a platonic love story. As soon as I clicked into that, I felt I understood the movie,” says Segel.  “I honestly would not have been willing to play David Foster Wallace if I didn’t feel I was in safe hands but with James, I knew I was.  It’s impossible to imagine having done this without him.”

Though Eisenberg and Segel were often alone in scenes, a strong supporting cast surrounded them, including Anna Chlumsky (“Veep”) as David Lipsky’s David-Foster-Wallace-idolizing girlfriend,  two-time Oscar® nominee Joan Cusack (“Shameless”) as Wallace’s Minnesota book tour rep, Mamie Gummer (CAKE) and Mickey Sumner (FRANCES HA) as Wallace’s grad school friends and Ron Livingston (“Boardwalk Empire”) as Lipsky’s Rolling Stone editor. 

“The movie doesn’t work without these great performances,” says Ponsoldt. “Joan is one of the great screen comics we have.  She’s hilarious in this role but there’s also a real sincerity in it and Joan added so many colors.  Mamie and Mickey are phenomenal, they’re funny and challenging and the story really takes off as you watch them provoke these very smart but somewhat immature boy-men into playing more head games with each other.” 

He concludes:  “So much of Lipsky and Wallace’s interaction is talking intellectually about the difficulties of being sincere and honest….but when they go out on the tour, they meet these very sincere and honest people who are just grounded in their lives without really questioning it.”     

On The Tour

THE END OF THE TOUR is a road movie but it never leaves the Midwest, which was David Foster Wallace’s home for the majority of his life.  The Middle American landscape became a guidepost for the look of the film – but James Ponsoldt didn’t want a clichéd, folksy heartland at all. 

“It was important that the Midwestern landscape be part of the soul of the film,” says Ponsoldt.  “This is the world where Wallace was formed – a land of late night diners and the largest mall in America – and it’s full of ideas that Wallace engages with in his fiction.  Both the heights of our consumerist, technological culture and how one maintains one’s humanity in the face of that are exemplified there.”

The film’s practical locations – from hotel rooms to an NPR studio to Minnesota’s 4,870,000 square foot, mega-sized Mall of America – were essential for bringing Lipsky and Wallace into the world after their intense living-room and car encounters.  Says Jesse Eisenberg:  “It’s always great to shoot on real locations because you use the environment as part of your performance.  My favorite location was Wallace’s house because it felt so authentic.  It seems strange that this guy with one of the greatest minds in the world lives in an unremarkable suburban house – but it also felt really right.” 

For Jason Segel, the Mall of America was especially evocative.  “That location is so thematically on target,” he muses. “The slogan in 1997 for the mall was ‘The Spirit of America’ and it really is this tsunami of stuff coming at you, as it says in the movie.  There are 510 stores and an amusement park in the middle and it’s just total sensory overload.  It blew my mind to be there.” 

Wallace and Lipsky’s actual road trip took place in winter and it was important to Ponsoldt to keep it that way – but he didn’t want a frigid, icy feel.  “I really don’t like it when I see cold and snow used as cheap literary metaphors of despair,” he muses.  “There’s something about winter that can be deeply romantic on the screen and I thought that was right for this complicated love story.  You naturally have a lot of whites and greys in winter – but I also wanted to push the vibrancy.“

He did so with a crack team that includes Swedish cinematographer Jakob Ihre known for his work with Joachim Trier and who recently shot Trier’s forthcoming LOUDER THAN BOMBS; production designer Gerald Sullivan whose recent works include ROSEWATER and ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL; costume designer Emma Potter, who recently did costumes for JAMES WHITE and LOUDER THAN BOMBS; and editor Darrin Navarro, who worked with Ponsoldt on THE SPECTACULAR NOW. 

“We really wanted the film to be as warm as it could be.  Jakob and I looked at a lot of very lush films – we looked at Wong Kar-Wai’s IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE and even DOCTOR ZHIVAGO – and we talked about using very subtle things to make this world really inviting, with an intimate camera,” says Ponsoldt.  “The whole crew had a fierce dedication and there was a lot of encyclopedic research.” 

When Ponsoldt headed into the editing room with Navarro, the rhythm of the piece emerged.  “Darrin has the most wonderful gift for filtering out BS and finding those clumsy, awkward but beautifully honest moments,” comments Ponsoldt.  “He finds the moments between the moments and that’s what this film is about.” 

Adding another layer to the film is Danny Elfman’s spare and contained score.  “I’ve loved Danny Elfman from when I was a kid and he was really the soundtrack to my childhood, so being able to work with him was super exciting for me,” says Ponsoldt.  “I love that he did something more minimalist than what he usually does, using very unique instrumentation to create something gorgeous.  It’s a score that really embraces the idea of silence and he was an amazing collaborator.” 

As the final cut of THE END OF THE TOUR came into view it showed all of its many influences – starting with Lipsky’s book, then Donald Margulies’ idea-rich screenplay, then Ponsoldt’s approach of making a road movie about unrequited friendship, then the cast and crew’s visceral performances.  Along the way, somehow the film ended up becoming itself. 

“There was a kind of alchemy going on that is something rare in collaborative art,” says Margulies.  “It was very magical and mysterious and that’s what you wait for in art – to be surprised.” 

ABOUT THE CAST

JESSE EISENBERG (David Lipsky) is a playwright and actor; he can currently be seen on-stage in his new play “The Spoils” for The New Group.  Previously Eisenberg wrote and starred alongside Vanessa Redgrave in his play, “The Revisionist” and in 2011 he wrote and starred in the play “Asuncion” at the Cherry Lane Theatre (Drama League Nomination).

Films include THE DOUBLE, NIGHT MOVES, THE SOCIAL NETWORK (Academy Award® nomination), NOW YOU SEE ME, ZOMBIELAND, ADVENTURELAND, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE and ROGER DODGER.

Upcoming films include THE END OF THE TOUR, LOUDER THAN BOMBS and BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE in the role of Lex Luthor.

He is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker Magazine and the author of the forthcoming collection “Bream Gives Me Hiccups,” from Grove Press.

JASON SEGEL (David Foster Wallace) will next star in James Ponsoldt’s dramatic biopic, THE END OF THE TOUR, in which he stars as writer David Foster Wallace opposite Jesse Eisenberg. The film recounts magazine reporter David Lipsky’s (Eisenberg’s) travels and conversations with Wallace during a promotional book tour. THE END OF THE TOUR premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival to amazing reviews and will be released by A24 on July 31, 2015.

Segel was recently seen starring opposite Cameron Diaz in Jake Kasdan’s SEX TAPE for Sony Pictures. The comedy follows Segel and Diaz as a married couple who wakes up one morning to discover that the sex tape they made the evening before has gone missing, leading to a frantic search for its whereabouts. Segel and Diaz also starred in Kasdan’s BAD TEACHER, which made over $200 million worldwide.

Segel landed his first major leading role as “Peter” in Nicholas Stoller’s FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL which he also wrote. The film was released in 2008 by Universal Pictures and made over $100 million worldwide. Segel wrote a “Dracula” musical performed by puppets, which was a personal idea and passion he incorporated into the film, emboldening him to pitch his concept for a Muppets movie. He, along with Stoller, signed on with Disney to write THE MUPPETS, which made over $150 million worldwide.  Additionally, the film won an Academy Award® in 2012 for “Best Original Song” for “Man or Muppet,” written by Bret McKenzie and performed by Segel.

Segel also collaborated with Stoller in 2010 to write and co-produce the film GET HIM TO THE GREEK, where Jonah Hill and Russell Brand reunited as co-stars in a spin-off of FORGETTING SARAH MARHSALL. The film grossed over $90 million worldwide and won the Teen Choice Award for “Choice Movie: Comedy.”

In 2012, he starred in Judd Apatow’s THIS IS 40 opposite Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann for Universal Pictures. The film is an original comedy that expands on the story of Pete (Rudd) and Debbie (Mann) from KNOCKED UP as we see first-hand how they are dealing with their current state of life.  KNOCKED UP grossed over $300 million worldwide and was recognized by the People’s Choice Award for Favorite Movie Comedy, was nominated for a Critics’ Choice Award for Best Comedy Movie and was named one of AFI’s Top Ten Films of the Year.  Additionally, THIS IS 40 was nominated for a 2013 Critics’ Choice Award for Best Comedy Movie.

Segel’s other film credits include: THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT, I LOVE YOU, MAN, JEFF WHO LIVES AT HOME, GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, DESPICABLE ME, SLACKERS, THE NEW JERSEY TURNPIKES, S.L.C. PUNK, CAN’T HARDLY WAIT, DEAD MAN ON CAMPUS, among others.

On television, Segel starred as “Marshall” opposite Alyson Hannigan, Josh Radnor, Cobie Smulders, and Neil Patrick Harris on the CBS hit comedy series “How I Met Your Mother.” During the show’s nine season run, it was nominated for an Emmy® for “Outstanding Comedy Series,” a People’s Choice Award for “Favorite TV Comedy” and a Teen Choice Award for “Choice TV Show: Comedy.” He also starred in Judd Apatow’s Emmy® nominated television series “Freaks and Geeks” for NBC as well as Apatow’s “Undeclared” for FOX.

In addition to his work in television and film, Segel made his debut as a children’s book author with “Nightmares!”, published by Random House and co-written by Kirsten Miller. The first installment of his middle-grade trilogy was released on September 9, 2014 and debuted at #2 on the NYTimes Bestseller List. The second book, “Nightmares: The Sleepwalker Tonic”, will be published in September 2015. 

ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS

JAMES PONSOLDT (Director) is a filmmaker originally from Athens, Georgia. A graduate of Yale and Columbia’s MFA Film Program, Ponsoldt’s feature debut OFF THE BLACK premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.

His subsequent feature, SMASHED (2012), made a Special Jury Prize-winning debut at Sundance as well, and went on to earn star Mary Elizabeth Winstead an Independent Spirit Award nomination for her performance.

Ponsoldt’s third feature, THE SPECTACULAR NOW, was warmly received by critics and audiences alike, taking home a Special Jury Award at Sundance in 2013. Starring Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, the coming of age story was released by A24 Films in August 2013 and received nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards and Gotham Awards. The film was also named one of the top ten independent films of 2013 by the National Board of Review.

In addition to feature films, Ponsoldt has also directed episodes for the critically- acclaimed TV series “Shameless” and “Parenthood.”

DONALD MARGULIES (Writer/Executive Producer), one of America’s most widely-produced playwrights, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “Dinner with Friends” (which was made into an Emmy Award-nominated film for HBO directed by Norman Jewison) and was a finalist twice before for Sight Unseen and Collected Stories. His many other plays, which include “The Country House”, “Shipwrecked! An Entertainment”, “Brooklyn Boy”, “The Loman Family Picnic”, the Tony Award-nominated “Time Stands Still” and the Obie Award-winning “The Model Apartment”, have been produced on and off-Broadway and in theaters across the United States and around the world.

Margulies has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, The New York Foundation for the Arts, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He was the recipient of the 2000 Sidney Kingsley Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Theatre by a playwright. In 2005 he was honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters with an Award in Literature and by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture with its Award in Literary Arts. He was the 2014 recipient of the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theatre Award for an American Playwright in Mid-Career and the 2015 William Inge Award for Distinguished Achievement in the American Theater. He has developed numerous screenplays, teleplays and pilots for HBO, Showtime, NBC, CBS, Warner Bros., TriStar, Universal, Paramount, and MGM. He is an adjunct professor of English and Theater Studies at Yale University.

DAVID KANTER (Producer) is a producer and manager at Anonymous Content, a leading motion picture, television and commercial production company and talent management company in Culver City, CA.

Kanter’s films in production include THE REVENANT, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu for New Regency, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy; and BASTILLE DAY, starring Idris Elba and Richard Madden, directed by James Watkins for Vendome/Studio Canal/Focus Features.

Kanter produced FUN SIZE, a co-production with Paramount Pictures that marked the feature directorial debut of Josh Schwartz and starred Victoria Justice, Thomas Mann and Chelsea Handler; IN THE LAND OF WOMEN, a co- production with Castle Rock and Warner Independent, starring Meg Ryan and Adam Brody; the controversial Tony Kaye documentary LAKE OF FIRE which premiered at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival; and New Line Cinema’s RENDITION, directed by Gavin Hood, starring Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep and Alan Arkin.

His television excutive producing credits include the forthcoming Cinemax series “Quarry,” starring Logan Marshall-Green to premiere in 2016; “To Love and Die” for USA Network; “Law & Order: Crime and Punishment,” a drama series documentary for NBC that he co- created and executive produced; and “Stanley Park” for BBC3/Lionsgate. David currently has pilots and long-form shows in active development at AMC, Showtime, HBO, FTVS, F/X Studios, Lionsgate Television, and Sony Television.

Kanter’s roster of management clients includes John Romano (THE LINCOLN LAWYER), Andrew Baldwin (THE OUTSIDER), Donald Margulies (MIDDLESEX and the Pulitzer Prize winning play “Dinner with Friends”), Lesli Linka Glatter (“Mad Men,” “Pretty Little Liars,” “Homeland”), Ron Nyswaner (PHILADELPHIA, FREEHELD) and Andrew Fleming (THE CRAFT, HAMLET 2) among others.

Prior to joining Anonymous Content in 2000, Kanter was a founding agent at United Talent Agency and was personally involved with numerous major studio motion pictures including THE LONG WALK HOME, LEAP OF FAITH, FAR FROM HOME, THE RIVER WILD, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, STARSHIP TROOPERS, RUSHMORE, TRAFFIC and THE SPY GAME, along with many independent films. He was also involved in many prestigious long-form television projects and television series including “Chicago Hope,” “Party of Five” and “The Sopranos.”

Kanter started his career in New York in the books-to-movies and television business with Curtis Brown, Ltd., the late Edgar J. Scherick and Sterling Lord Literistic Agency.

MATT DEROSS (Producer) is the VP of production at Anonymous Content, the Los Angeles-based management and production company responsible for TRUE DETECTIVE, THE KNICK, BABEL and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, to name a few. DeRoss, who has been with Anonymous for the past 13 years, has worked closely with some of the most innovative talents in the film industry. DeRoss is producing the HBO/Cinemax series QUARRY, written by Graham Gordy and Michael Fuller and starring Logan Marshall Green. His other credits include THE LOFT, a remake of the highest-grossing Belgium film of all time, and the documentary #ReGENERATION narrated by Ryan Gosling and featuring interviews with Talib Kweli, Mos Def and the late Howard Zinn. He is currently in development on a new TV series with John Lee Hancock, the writer/director of THE BLINDSIDE. DeRoss is a graduate of Florida State University. He currently resides in Los Angeles.

JAMES DAHL (Producer) is the founder and president of Modern Man Films, a Los Angeles based film and television production company. James studied creative writing and literature at the Gallatin School of New York University, and has worked in the finance and music businesses before turning his attention to creative development and production of film and TV. Modern Man Films co- produced THE END OF THE TOUR with Anonymous Content and will world- premiere the film at Sundance 2015. James enjoys membership in the LACMA LENS Photography Council and Avant-Garde communities and is an avid supporter and collector of Los Angeles based art and photography.

MARK MANUEL (Producer) is the CEO of Kilburn Media. Kilburn is a rapidly growing diversified entertainment company with operating divisions in film, television, live theatrical shows, and film and TV distribution. Mark is Chairman of Kilburn Media and Road Show Theatrical and Co-chairman of Eclipse TV and the Freemantle Corporation.  Prior to founding Kilburn Media, Mark was an executive with Lionsgate Entertainment and Paramount Pictures and was an investment banker before joining the entertainment industry.

TED O’NEAL (Producer) is a partner in Kilburn Media with Mark Manuel. He is an experienced producer and financier who focuses on strategic investments in film, television and other media-related ventures. Ted utilizes his expertise in capital placement and structured transactions to build long term partnerships with private equity groups, hedge funds, family offices and high net worth individuals resulting in a multitude of successful transactions and exits. He serves on a variety of boards and is active in managing direct investments and providing leadership. Ted is also a licensed attorney in multiple jurisdictions and practiced law at a large international firm where his work included mergers and acquisitions, finance, and media transactions. He has served in executive leadership roles for a variety of companies. Ted graduated from Princeton University with honors where he played Golf and Volleyball. He is the co- recipient of the Frederick Barnard White Thesis Prize in Architecture from Princeton University.

PAUL GREEN (Executive Producer), President of Anonymous Content, first joined Anonymous in April 2004 after having previously worked with Anonymous CEO Steve Golin at Propaganda Films. Mr. Green assists with development, financing, production and distribution of films, television projects, and digital projects. He has executive produced or produced the recent films FUN SIZE, BIG MIRACLE, 44 INCH CHEST, THE BEAVER, SCENIC ROUTE, ADULT WORLD and THE FIFTH ESTATE, along with the upcoming films LAGGIES, THE LOFT, THE REVENANT, SPOTLIGHT and TRIPLE NINE. Previously, Paul served in executive positions with Icon Productions, Beacon Communications, Propaganda Films and the Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group. Paul is a member in both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and the Television Academy.

JAKOB IHRE (Director of Photography) recently completed LOUDER THAN BOMBS, a New York based feature, directed by Joachim Trier and starring Isaebelle Huppart, Gabriel Byrne and Jesse Eisenberg.  The Swedish-based cinematographer’s films include QUITTERS, LOLA VERSUS, OSLO AUGUST 31st and REPRISE. 

GERALD SULLIVAN (Production Designer) graduated from the Southern California Institute of Architecture, (SCI-ARC). For the last fifteen years he has worked in the film industry as set designer, art director and production designer on such films as THE DARK KNIGHT RISES and THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW.  He was the Supervising Art Director on Wes Anderson’s THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, which won an Oscar® for Production Design, as well as on his previous effort, MOONRISE KINGDOM. Most recently, he was production designer on Jon Stewart’s debut film, ROSEWATER, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL and the forthcoming thriller FRANK & LOLA. 

Over the last 30 years, four-time Oscar® nominee DANNY ELFMAN (Composer) has established himself as one of the most versatile and accomplished film composers in the industry. He has collaborated with such directors as Tim Burton, David O. Russell, Gus Van Sant, Sam Raimi, Paul Haggis, Ang Lee, Rob Marshall, Guillermo del Toro, Brian De Palma, and Peter Jackson. Beginning with his first score on Tim Burton’s PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, Elfman has scored a broad range of films, including: MILK (Oscar® nominated), GOOD WILL HUNTING (Oscar®ƒ nominated), BIG FISH (Oscar® nominated), MEN IN BLACK (Oscar® nominated), EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, WANTED, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, PLANET OF THE APES, A SIMPLE PLAN, TO DIE FOR, SPIDER-MAN (1 & 2), BATMAN, DOLORES CLAIBORNE, SOMMERSBY, CHICAGO, DICK TRACY, THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and ALICE IN WONDERLAND.

Elfman’s most recent work includes David O. Russell’s award-winning films SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and AMERICAN HUSTLE, Rob Minkoff’s MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN, Tim Burton’s BIG EYES, Sam Raimi’s OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, Errol Morris’ THE UNKNOWN KNOWN, THE END OF THE TOUR, TULIP FEVER and FIFTY SHADES OF GREY.

A native of Los Angeles, Elfman grew up loving film music. He travelled the world as a young man, absorbing its musical diversity. He helped found the band Oingo Boingo, and came to the attention of a young Tim Burton, who asked him to write the score FOR PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE. (30 years later, the two have forged one of the most fruitful composer-director collaborations in film history.) In addition to his film work, Elfman wrote the iconic theme music for “The Simpsons” and “Desperate Housewives.” He also composed a ballet, Rabbit and Rogue, choreographed by Twyla Tharp, a symphony Serenada Schizophrana for Carnegie Hall, an overture The Overeager Overture for the Hollywood Bowl, and, most recently, Iris—a Cirque du Soleil show at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre. Danny Elfman’s Music From the Films of Tim Burton had its concert premiere at London’s Royal Albert Hall and has since performed the concert twenty times in nine countries. “Having a particular style is not bad,” says Elfman, “but I prefer to push myself in the direction of being a composer who you never know what he’s doing next.”

MUST-SEE-NEMA: Sean Baker’s TANGERINE opens in NYC July 10 (press release)

After screening in stunning surroundings at Rooftop Films on Tuesday, July 7, Sean Baker’ latest film TANGERINE (2015) opens at Sunshine Cinema in New York City tomorrow, July 10.

Very well-known on the independent cinema scene for the Spirit Award nominated films TAKE OUT, PRINCE OF BROADWAY and STARLET (winner of the Robert Altman Spirit Award), Sean Baker defied expectations once again with the highly innovative and thoroughly enjoyable Tangerine. A real treat from start to finish, the film premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2015 where it counted among the most talked-about titles in the festival line-up.

Set in the sun-blistered streets of Los Angeles and shot entirely on an iPhone 5S, Tangerine  follows Sin-Dee (the extraordinary Kiki Kitana Rodriguez), a transgender woman prowling Hollywood on Christmas Eve in search of the pimp who left her heartbroken. Enlisting the help of her best friend and crossing paths with a myriad other memorable characters, Sin-Dee will take you on a journey that will delight with many surprising scenes in which issues of sex, gender and race receive a refreshingly honest, exuberantly comic treatment.

tangerine

ABOUT THE PRODUCTION

Coming off of his SXSW 2012 hit Starlet, which starred Dree Hemingway as a pornographic actress who forges an unlikely bond with an older woman who once dreamed of being a Hollywood star, writer/director Sean Baker was interested in once again making a film that provided a nonjudgmental, level-headed look at individuals who are often marginalized in the broader cultural conversation. Starlet had been praised for its lack of judgment with respect to those who work in the porn industry, and Baker wanted to bring that same kind of objectivity to another subculture with his next project, Tangerine. “Mark Duplass had asked me if I had an idea for a new film concept,” Baker explained. “I had recently been at the New Zealand Film Festival where I was presenting Starlet, and I was very inspired by the kinds of films I saw.” So when Duplass – a prolific actor, director, writer and producer in the indie sphere – came calling with a request that they collaborate on a project, Baker was prepared with an idea for his subject matter.

                                                     Sean Baker

Filmmaker Sean Baker

Baker had recently befriended Mya Taylor, a local African-American transgender woman he met at the LGBTQ Center in Hollywood. “Mya was very familiar with the area and neighborhood, had vivid stories to share and also had a desire to act. She came from a performing arts background, so we knew at that point that we had found somebody we wanted to work with.”   Said Taylor, “Sean was very sweet and he was very direct with what he wanted from me. That really attracted me to his project. I’m very open the experiences that I have personally had.”

The Los Angeles neighborhood where Mya lived is close to the intersection of Santa Monica and Highland, to become the backdrop for the developing story. Explained Baker, “it is notorious for some of its underground economy, in particular sex work and drug use. So my co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch and I decided that we wanted to explore that world and, like my other films, we knew there would be an extensive research process. We told Mark we wanted to make a personal film that took place in that area. He gave us the thumbs up.”

With Duplass on board as a producer, Baker, Bergoch, and Taylor dove into researching the underground economy in their neighborhood, and they ended up befriending a number of transgender sex workers. It wasn’t long before the screenwriters began to put a story together – a story that locked into place when Taylor introduced them to her friend Kitana Kiki Rodriguez.  The dynamic between the two women was extremely appealing to Baker. “Kiki was a trans mentor and a trans advocate and she was also very familiar with that area. Mya and Kiki had this camaraderie together. There was something about it that I thought could make a perfect duo, I could see the two of them on the screen. And it was at that point that I told them I want to make a film with both of them.”

For Taylor, the offer to appear in the film was readily accepted. “At the time that I met Sean, I was going through a rough patch in my life. I had just started my transition. So to have an opportunity like that, considering the fact that I’ve always wanted to be an entertainer, I wasn’t going to turn it down.” Discussing various narrative ideas with Taylor and Rodriguez, Baker and Bergoch eventually arrived at a story that appealed to them cinematically. “Kiki and Mya said realism was extremely important to them – they wanted to show what life was like for women who work that area,” Baker explained. “But they also wanted it to be fun, a movie that they’d want to watch. So I wanted to try something a little different with this film, tonally, because I thought that approaching this film the I’ve approached my other films, in a voyeuristic, observational style would not be the right way to do this. I wanted to change styles a little bit and find a way to allow the audience to participate in the chaos of the characters’ lives.” Baker and Bergoch got to work, the script was soon written and Baker launched into the shoot.

The Story of Tangerine

The premise of Tangerine grew out of the in-depth conversations Baker and Bergoch had with Taylor and Rodriguez. Rodriguez plays Sin-Dee, a trans sex worker who has just been released from a short prison stint; Taylor plays Alexandra, an aspiring singer and Sin-Dee’s best friend. She, too, is a trans sex worker. Upon being released from prison, Sin-Dee learns that her boyfriend and pimp, Chester (James Ransome), has been cheating on her with a woman who is Cisgender female. The genesis of this narrative was borrowed from real life, as Baker explained. “Kiki told us a story she’d heard about a girl, a transgender sex worker, who found out that her boyfriend was actually sleeping with a Cisgender female. She was so upset that she wanted to actually find this girl and force a confrontation between herself, the girl, and the boyfriend. And it was something that struck me as quite dramatic. It was a launching point for us because it’s immediate drama that would take us on a journey.”

The film – which takes place on Christmas Eve – then begins following Sin-Dee and Alexandra as they go their separate ways. For Sin-Dee, the day becomes about exactly one thing: exacting vengeance upon the girl whom Chester has cheated on her with, as well as confronting Chester himself. However, a third storyline is introduced early on: that of an Armenian cab driver, Ramzik (Karren Karagulian), whose link to the girls is not immediately known. Karagulian has been in all of Baker’s films, and the two have a strong working relationship. “Karren is an amazing actor. There’s a very large Armenian community here in Los Angeles and when I told Karren I was making this film, we started discussing how we could incorporate an Armenian subplot. We ended up compiling a cast full of Armenian stars, these classic actors from the Armenian film world.” Those stars play the members of Ramzik’s family. For Karagulian, the bond with Baker is due, in no small part, to how Baker allows Karagulian to trust his instincts. “Sean always allows me to bring my own qualities to the character,” Karagulian explained. “Throughout the years we have developed a lot of mutual trust and I think as a result we are often on the same page.”

As we spend more time with Ramzik, the connection between him and the women becomes clear: Ramzik is one of their most devoted patrons. “Razmik is a family man with a clear understanding of the responsibilities that come with it but he is also living a double life,” Karagulian explained. “He has discovered a personal and natural desire that is not widely accepted within today’s social norms, especially if one has a wife and child. It is also a life style that would be violently shunned in his homeland. So he has found himself trapped between two worlds and forced to live a secret life.”

While Baker and Bergoch were writing, the decision to humanize Ramzik before revealing his secret sexual predilection was a crucial storytelling decision. “It’s important to allow the audience to become connected to a character during their everyday routine, something that everybody can identify with,” Chris Bergoch explains. Baker adds, “I wanted to show the mundane parts of everybody’s life before getting to the fireworks.”

Ramzik’s “payoff” comes in a touching scene where he has a sexual encounter with Alexandra in a car wash – a scene that demonstrates the intimacy and shared history between the two characters. “Alexandra is quite a professional and knows what she’s doing, she is able to make not only Razmik but also the audience believe that this is more than just a business transaction,” Baker explained. “But that’s part of being a sex worker. But there’s another way of looking at it. There’s a lot of loneliness on the streets of Los Angeles and I wanted to show that there was history between the two – even if just a business history, still, there was a comfort level between them.”

While Alexandra is having her encounter with Ramzik, Sin-Dee ends up finding Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), the woman whom Chester cheated on Sin-Dee with. Sin-Dee physically assaults Dinah and essentially abducts her, with the purpose of taking her to Chester and confronting him. For Baker, the intensity of the scene was important to convey. “We knew from the beginning that we were going to approach that scene aggressively. It’s violent, it’s dangerous, and we wanted to capture that. It’s a balancing act – we wanted to retain the audience’s sympathy for Sin-Dee, but at the same time we wanted to stay realistic. I wanted to see how far we could actually take things without losing the audience.”

However, Sin-Dee and Dinah’s first stop is not Chester; it’s a club that Alexandra is singing in that night. It makes for a striking counterpoint, Sin-Dee and her captive sitting quietly in a nightclub as Alexandra signs quiet songs to a mostly empty room. It’s in this scene that the film dramatically shifts from a tone of edginess and aggression to one of beauty and tranquility, if only for a moment. “When we got to that scene, it almost becomes surreal,” Baker explained. “We’re almost inside the head of Alexandra during that entire scene. You know, the lighting changes, the mood changes, the composition change, and suddenly we’re seeing Alexandra very much the way she wants to be presented on stage and in the spotlight. We took that approach because you know; we wanted to find the calm in the chaos. Also, this is our way of allowing Mya to show the audience this is one her talents. She’s an amazing actress, but she’s also a singer. So when Chris and I were initially writing this film, she said she wanted to perform in it.”

For Taylor, the performance came naturally. “Shooting that scene was actually very fun, because I was in my own element. I’m sitting on stage in this red dress and I’m singing this song and it was like a natural high, I was just floating on a cloud, because I was so excited. Because the song was slow and soft like a lullaby, it took me back to a special place, and then Alexandra looks out and sees Sin-Dee sitting there. So seeing her there while I was singing, it was heartwarming.”

The heartwarming moment is the eye of the storm, however – shortly thereafter, Sin-Dee, Alexandra, and Dinah will end up in a confrontation with Chester in a local donut shop. To make matters worse, Ramzik and his family members become embroiled in the conversation, which becomes the culmination of the film’s many conflicts. Ransone recalled how shooting the chaotic scene was itself a chaotic experience. “Our location was a donut shop on Santa Monica Boulevard that wasn’t locked off, so customers would come in during the takes. There were a lot of sketchy Hollywood meth-heads lurking in and out of that place. There are so many little segments in that scene to piece together. The funniest thing was, it was Golden Globes night, and the Globes were being handed out literally five blocks away.”

Baker explains, “Chris and I wanted the film to come full circle… with the climax happening where the story begins. For me, nothing can be as exhilarating as a convergence of adversarial characters in a single location.  I have personally witnessed conflicts go down in Donut Time and because of the shop’s tight quarters, the drama is escalated. I knew it would be an exercise in controlled chaos and before the story was even broken, we knew this scene would be our climax.”

Tangerine and the iPhone

One of the most visually striking components of the film is its look, which is grainy yet also highly saturated, creating a sense of tension within the images. Though it may not be apparent upon first glance, Baker and Director of Photography Radium Cheung actually shot the film on iPhones. Baker explained that there were a number of factors that contributed to the decision. “The iPhone 5S had recently come out with its better camera. So we started thinking about how the iPhone could help us. We realized it could be good for shooting with first-time actors because it wouldn’t intimidate them and the extras that we were grabbing off the street. It allowed us to shoot clandestinely. We were able to have a very small footprint. But I wanted to still make this film extremely cinematic, so we shot with anamorphic lenses. They were actually prototypes from a company called Moondog Labs, which provided us with prototype anamorphic adapters for the iPhone. Nobody else had shot like this. And then on top of that, I was treating the film quite heavily in post to really give it its own unique look.” Cheung was also a huge fan of the first-of-their-kind adapters. “They really were great for what we were doing, as they turn the phone camera into real anamorphic capturing devices. This gave the picture a much more classical film look. We were so lucky that the prototypes were made just in time and were available to us!”

Zero Motivation wins Best Narrative Feature at TRIBECA 2014

zero motivation poster

A smash hit in Israel and winner of the Best Narrative Feature Award at the Tribeca Film Festival 2014, Zero Motivation is a unique, sharply observed, sometimes dark and often hilarious portrait of everyday life for a unit of young, female soldiers in a remote Israeli desert outpost.  Pencil-pushers in the Human Resources Office, best friends Zohar (Dana Ivgy) and Daffi (Nelly Tagar) spend their time playing video games, singing pop songs, jousting with stationery and dreaming of Tel Aviv. If this sounds boring, the film is anything but. With shifts of tone that go from slapstick to satiric to horrifying with fluid ease, and with a superb supporting cast of characters, Zero Motivation is one of the most original films of 2014.

Below is an interview with writer-director Talya Lavie taken in LA in January 2015 on the occasion of the film’s theatrical release in US cinemas.

Zero_Motivation_web_1

Dana Knight: Congratulations on a very funny, witty and refreshingly unusual “army film”. Where did the inspiration come from? I suppose it has a lot to do with your own service in the military?

Talya Lavie: During my mandatory military service as a secretary, I dreamed of making an army movie with the pathos and the epic proportions of classic war-films, but about the gray, mundane service that my friends and I had, with hardly ever getting up from our office chairs. I was inspired and amused by the idea of using envelopes, coffee cups, office intrigues, staple guns and Solitaire in order to create a female response to the Israeli male-dominated army-films genre.

Knight: Although set in the war-zone, the action is restricted to the administrative office, the sealed world of secretaries who don’t risk their lives although they could easily die of boredom. What elements of the characters’ lives were exaggerated for the purposes of comedy and which aspects are more true-to-life?

Lavie: The setting of the administration soldiers is very true to life. Although the film has some imaginary and surrealistic elements, it’s actually very authentic. The characters are not exaggerated, but they are extreme. Being in the desert area far away from civilisation can sometimes change your perspective about things. The conflicts between the characters, who are so different from each other and yet stuck together, is what makes it funny.

tayla lavie

Israeli writer-director Tayla Lavie

Knight: I think you made a very brave and risky choice in introducing the subplot of the suicidal girl into a film whose tone is generally satiric and light. How did you manage that feat?

Lavie: The film is defined as a “dark comedy”, but while writing the script, I didn’t want to lock myself into a specific genre. I put a large scale of emotions in it, and was interested in mixing the different spirits. Ultimately my greatest challenge was to maintain the specific subtle tone of the film; to balance the transitions between humour, sadness, nonsense and seriousness. I felt like an acrobat in a circus walking on a rope, trying not to fall off, while keeping the film’s free spirit.

Knight: This is an army film with an almost all female cast, which is very unusual and also very ironic. How did the casting go?

Casting this ensemble was quite a complex puzzle. I had the privilege of working with one of the most accomplished Casting Directors in Israel- Orit Azulay. We auditioned over 300 actresses and ended up with extremely talented comedians and actors.

Dana Ivgy, who won the Israeli Academy Award for leading actress for her role as Zohar, is a very well-known actress in Israel- It was her third Academy Award. The other actresses were a little less known before the film, but now they are stars. Nelly Tagar (Daffi) and Shani Klein (Rama) were both nominated for Best Supporting Actress Award (which was given, by the way, to Dana Ivgy for an appearance in another film in the same year).

All the actors of Zero Motivation were extremely devoted to it. It was nice to see that although the film is all about ranks and hierarchy- none of that existed on set. They helped each other and created a terrific ensemble.  

Knight: Could you talk about your creative process of writing this film and the aesthetic choices you had to make along the way?

Lavie: After 2 years of writing and rewriting the script, I was very lucky to have my project selected for the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors’ Labs. Beyond being a significant experience for me as filmmaker, I believe it also helped secure the funds later on.

The hardest part in bringing the project to life was, naturally, raising funds. Many of the first readers had a hard time accepting a black comedy taking place in the Israeli army, while having little mention/ excluding references to the of occupation, combat, or other aspects of the tough reality – and so had difficulty putting the film into a specific category.
But it was important for me to keep the story confined to the walls of an office, apparently disconnected from the world outside and even escapist, but actually giving an authentic glimpse into the characteristic-militaristic society from a different point of view.

Another interesting challenge was creating a low-budget army film without any actually help from the army, nor any possibility of using any of the real Israeli-army bases for filming. The assembly of all details and locations to seem like a single and specific desert base was a complex effort that required all the crew’s creativity. Also, since the story takes place in 2004, we were surprised to discover how many things had changed over the last decade, but most were gadget-related, or had to do with older computers etc. The feelings and personal stories and dramas didn’t seem to change at all.

Cinematically, I wished to keep the monochromatic palette of the army base, its grey structures, crowded offices and rundown living quarters, set against the beautiful desert scenery of the south of Israel, with its warm colors, constant changing weather, and sense of freedom.

I can’t talk about all that without mentioning the wonderful crew I had on board: Eilon Ratzkovsky the Producer, Yaron Scharf the Cinematographer, Arik Lahav-Leibovich the Editor, Ron Zikno the Production Designer, Ran Bagno the Composer and many others. And of course the wonderful cast I mentioned before.

Knight: I had the impression that the mise-en-scene was very well thought-out and that you left nothing to chance, is that correct? What is your preferred manner of working on a film?

Lavie: We rehearsed a lot, also on location. We had a very short time for the shooting so I wanted to be as prepared as possible. Years ago, before I went to film school, I dreamed of becoming a comics-artist. So I guess I’m very influenced by graphic novel aesthetics, in terms of squeezing many details- stories, jokes and information- into every frame, as if somebody’s going to pause on each shot and take a longer look at it.

Knight: The film was enthusiastically received on the international film festival circuit. How was it received at home?

Lavie: Zero Motivation was released in Israel six month ago and was very well received, much more than we could have imagined, it broke box-office records in Israel and won 6 Israeli Academy Awards (for best script, best director, best leading actress, best editing, best casting and best original score) and the Israeli Critics’ Award for best Israeli film. It has a strong effect in Israel and I’m happy about it. Now we’re very excited to have it shown in the USA. The mandatory military service is a very local aspect of the Israeli culture but it’s used in the film as a platform to tell a universal coming of age story, about friendship and about being a young woman.

Knight: What is next for you and is there anything you would like to add?

Lavie: I’m working on my next feature film, which is a contemporary free interpretation of a short novel by Sholem Aleichem, transferring its plot from 19th century Eastern Europe to present-day Brooklyn. We’re now starting to raise the budget for its production. As I learned, those things can take a while, so in the meantime, I’m very proud and excited that Zero Motivation is shown in LA, I believe it could be interesting and entertaining for the American viewer and hope that people give it a chance. I know I like to walk into the cinema next to my home and find myself in a whole different world.

“I cast my actors for their imagination” – Director JAMES PONSOLDT about THE SPECTACULAR NOW

spectacular_now BIG                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  The third feature film from US indie filmmaker JAMES PONSOLDT, THE SPECTACULAR NOW  is a bitter sweet comedy drama that captures the confusion and insecurity of adolescence in a way that no other teen movie has ever done before. Or at least that’s how it felt to me.

Spectacularly fresh and original, the film was released in the US in August 2013 and we are excitedly waiting for its release in the UK.

Below is an interview with the director taken on 11 October 2013 at Filmmakers Afternoon Teas, Mayfair Hotel, as part of the LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013.

Dana: How are you enjoying the festival?

James: I love it, I’ve always wanted to come to this festival, I grew up with those wonderful BFI books, like the best movies ever, I was always aware of the BFI, so it’s always been a dream.

Dana: Is it your first time at the festival?

James: Yes, yes.

Dana: But you made other films…

james ponsoldt pic

JAMES PONSOLDT

James: I have made other films and they played internationally, I had one last year that played in Toronto, in Zurich, but never at the London Film Festival, no…

Dana(cheekily): Why, they didn’t accept your films in the festival before? 

James: No, I don’t know, a lot of times it was just scheduling, Smashed, the film I had last year, it was a Sony Pictures Classic release worldwide and it came out in the US in October last year so timewise it didn’t quite work out. In this case there is an American distributor, it already came out in the US and Disney is releasing it internationally so they were fine with it, a lot of it is just scheduling.

Dana: Your film is the sweetest teen film I ever saw and it goes against all the stereotypes of the genre. How did you come up with such lovely and complex characters? I know the film is based on a book but does it all come from the book?

shailene woodley

Shailene Woodley

James: Oh, thank you. Well, Tim Tharp wrote the novel, he wrote a beautiful book, but a lot of it comes from the collaboration with the actors. The book was the inspiration and that’s the spirit of it but the way I work with actors, I cast them for their imagination,  because I find them to be very interesting people, not only because they look the way I imagine the characters look. So when I cast Shailene Woodley or Miles Teller, I’m casting them because I believe they would make the characters more interesting than I would. And that they will disagree with me, I mean Shailene Woodley knows more about what it is to be an 18-year old girl than I do. So we had many many conversations long before we shot, sitting with the script, talking about the characters, talking about them and who they are, what they found compelling, what they found that needed work, or that they would never say. So the script evolved and changed. Before we shot I even had the actors have conversations with the production designer, or the costume designer, and even the characters’ bedrooms reflected in some ways the taste and vision of the actors, in addition to me. So it was really a collaboration of all of us, everybody’s fingerprints are on it. But it got better because the script is just a pile of paper, you know, but actors are what makes something human, and you can either micromanage actors and make them do exactly what you want, in which case you’ll get something, but if you cast brilliant actors and allow them to be free, because they are artists in the same way that a cinematographer or composer is an artist. So it was really the actors, and a great book and a great script that…did the trick.

Dana: This is your third feature, what challenges have you encountered this time and how did things go on the set?

James: Ultimately we had a small budget and not a lot of time so it was a sprint. We planned a lot because we knew that when we are actually shooting, we’d have to go through this many pages every day and if we didn’t get a scene we wouldn’t be able to go back…And the goal ultimately is to plan and plan and plan so that on the day you can be spontaneous and free and throw all that out of the window, you don’t want to be aware of your watch but you have to be. But I think everybody goes through that. Otherwise we shot in my home town of Athens in Georgia, which was wonderful. And we also shot in August in Georgia, which meant that it was over 100 degrees each day and humid, and thunderstorms, and the weather was crazy, and everybody’s sweating and hot, it was pretty brutal as far as the weather, but it was really a lovely set though.The crew worked together very well, the actors were all wonderful and we were all on the same page.So it was a real pleasure.

Miles_Teller

Miles Teller

Dana: If you were to go back and shoot this film all over again, would you do something different?I’m trying to get to what lessons you have learnt this time, I imagine you learn something new all the time…

James:Yeah, I do[…].I used to beat myself up over things, it’s very hard for me to watch a film that I’ve made and enjoy it, all I’m thinking about is the things I would change and the mistakes, so I can’t take a lot of pleasure in watching my own movies[…]. I love watching other people’s movies and I can admire the performances but it’s very hard for me to watch my films. On my first film, I’d beat myself up endlessly watching the film and thinking about what I would do differently. Now my perspective has changed, now I believe in preparing a lot as I mentioned but throwing it all out on the day, and realising that if I made the movie one week before or one week later it would be very different, it might be raining on one day, the actor might have just broken up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, whatever it is, and you can either fight those things or you can embrace them. Now I see it as the universe giving me those gifts, and fiction films and scripts are entirely fabricated, there’s all these elements, there’s lights and camera and you are trying to create honesty so I’m trying to be better by letting go of my preconceived notions of what it’s going to be and just embracing whatever it is in the moment, like if this is a scene between two people and I spill tea on you, that’s ok, maybe now you have tea on…but just embrace it because that happens in life.

Dana: This reminds me of Godard’s method of working…

James: Oh I love Godard, I love Truffaut…

Dana: And they loved American filmmakers, they loved Hollywood films…

James: Yes they did, they were great critics. I learnt so much just from watching specifically Truffaut, his Antoine Doinel films and his criticism and all the Cahiers du cinéma writing, and his interviews with Hitchcock. That’s probably my favourite time in filmmaking. And filmmakers like Agnes Varda, I just adore.

Dana: By the way, talking about film magazines, which one is your favourite?

James: I write for a film magazine in the US called Filmmaker.

Dana: I’ve read your interview in Filmmaker, you were interviewed by Craig Zobel, interestingly enough I interviewed Craig last year.

James: Oh fantastic. Craig is a very good friend, he’s from Georgia as well, you saw Compliance, I love Compliance. So I write for that magazine as well, and I’ve done interviews with everyone from Kelly Reichardt, to Paul Thomas Anderson, Francis Ford Coppola and Charlie Kaufman. So I love that one. I also love Film Comment, there’s a lot that I love, I read them all. I’m partial to Filmmaker because I write for it.

Dana: Do they pay you?

James: Yes they do, symbolically. For me, the editor, Scott Macaulay, he’s a very good friend and a great champion of films…I have such a fierce respect for film criticism, and for filmmakers that started as critics…I think of myself as part of a community that I want to engender and so when someone like Craig, who is an amazing filmmaker, interviews me, it’s him being part of a community and supporting me and it’s what I hope to do as well. I try to not have a sense of competition with other filmmakers because I believe the success of an independent filmmaker with a very personal vision is a success for everyone, it’s important to not tear apart other people but to really support them, because the moment you tear apart someone else, it makes it all the harder for you to get your movie made, so the community as a whole when it thrives it’s good for everyone, that’s how I see it.

Dana: And this was exactly the spirit of the French New Wave…One last tricky question: why do you make films?

James: Because I don’t know any other way to express myself, I would think I would go insane if I didn’t, I mean it’s like an addiction, a compulsion, I’ve always needed to tell stories. When I was a child I did cartoons, I wrote short stories, I acted in plays, I played music, all these different ways that I wanted to express myself through story, and then when I made my first short film, I realised it synthesised my love of photography and acting and music and just everything into one. It is an universal art that combines everything. For me growing up sitting in a movie theatre was like going to church, it was the most cathartic experience, it was the way I better understood myself and had very private emotional experiences but it was also the way I communicated and felt connected to other people. Sitting in a dark room with five hundred people crying together is an amazing thing. And because when I was young certain movies and certain books made me feel less alone in the world, when I was angry and confused and I found the right book and the right movie, when I met Antoine Doinel for the first time, I could see myself and I knew that someone else felt that…And I guess my hope is to make films that at least one other person would have a connection to, so that’s my hope.

MORE…

Shailene Woodley on why the sex scene in The Spectacular Now is her favourite…find out more here.

James Ponsoldt shares the call sheet for the first day of the shoot of The Spectacular Now with the Filmmaker magazine…read more here.

DIRECTOR CRAIG ZOBEL ON THE CONTROVERSY CAUSED BY HIS SECOND FILM, COMPLIANCE

Compliance poster

If you’re in the mood for a truly challenging emotional and intelectual experience this weekend, go and see Compliance, a film that plays in several cinemas across London including Curzon Soho, Barbican Centre, Hackney Picturehouse and Ritzy Cinema. But be warned, this film is not for the easily-offended and overly-judgemental so if you have a past history of walking out of controversial screenings, you are strongly advised to think twice about booking your ticket (there is always a Hollywood blockbuster at a different venue to delight and entertain you!).

The controversy surrounding the film is due to its honest and unapologetic depiction of the depth of human naiveté (to use an euphemism) in people susceptible of unquestioningly obeying figures of authority under duress, very much similar to what happened during the Holocaust. The writer-director Craig Zobel did not however “invent” the scenario for the film, this is a thoroughly researched movie based on true events that took place 70 times in USA during a period of 10 years.

At its LFF screening in London on 19t October 2012, about fifty people walked out of the screening, encouraging other people to do the same. This reaction was definitely not  due to boredom. Compliance is a taut, gripping and disturbing film that is indeed difficult to watch but out of respect for the filmmaker, take a moment to reflect on what he, and the film, has to say before you condemn it.

Below is an INTERVIEW WITH THE FILMMAKER CRAIG ZOBEL taken at the LONDON FILM FESTIVAL on 18 October 2012.

Dana: “What attracted you to this project, the idea of making a movie based on Stanley Milgram’s “Shock” experiment?”

Craig: “I am very interested in social psychology and when I read about the Stanley Milgram experiment I was very fascinated by its findings. This is part of a set of behavioural psychology experiments. In this case the whole experiment is about this doctor at Yale University studying people’s natural inclination to obey authority, even if they disagree personally with what the authority is saying. It’s really interesting how he did these tests, people thought they were electrocuting someone in the other room and they would say “I don’t really want to do this, this guy is screaming”. The “victim” was obviously an actor, it wasn’t really happening but they thought he was really electrocuted. And they would say “I really don’t feel comfortable doing this thing anymore” and then an authority figure would say “But you have to continue, you have serious responsibility to do so” and 65% of people would go along with this to the point that they would think they were giving lethal amounts of electric shock. So two thirds of people would do this. This experiment took place in the 60s but they redid it in 2007 and the results were similar.”

Dana:”The film is also inspired from a set of true events that took place in the USA quite recently, will you tell us more about that and how that influenced the premise of the film?”

Craig: “The true events are about a series of prank phone calls, these are not a real phone calls and the guy behind them ended up being caught but he was not convicted in the end due to lack of circumstantial evidence. So these crazy prank phone calls would lead to horrible things, consistently, and this because the people who received the call thought he was a real police officer. So the premise of my film concerns a woman who works at a fast-food restaurant as a manager, 45 years old, and she gets a phone call from the police on a Friday night when it is really busy in the restaurant and the guy on the phone says: “One of your employees stole money from a customer and I need you to question them”. And she says “Who?” and they say “It’s a young girl, she works at the front…”, “Becky?”, “Yes, Becky”. So she starts questioning Becky and Becky says “I didn’t do it”. And the policeman says “Why don’t you search her pockets? We could come there but if you could help with our investigation, it would be a really great help.” And then he asks “Why don’t you strip-search her?”. And this turns into an unbelievably crazy story as this woman strip-searched the young girl and kept her in the back room for four hours. And  similar events happened seventy times in America over a ten-year period. The most famous occurrence was in 2006 and this is when I heard about the story. And there is a case that is very similar to the one in the film although I took inspiration from other cases also”.

Dana: “The film created quite a stir at Sundance where it premiered earlier this year. Did you expect such a strong reaction?”

Craig: “Well, the interesting thing is that most people who hear about these case studies that are basically about the same phenomenon as the Milgram’s experiement,  or some of the people who watched the film , they immediately say: “But I would never do that…Not me…”. They would immediately cast themselves in the person who would not do such a thing but the fact is that two thirds of us would do it”. So for me the question was “Can I write something like this?” and yes, I can see how that would happen and still make it a film and make it interesting to watch, and follow all the other rules”.

Dana: “What were the challenges you encountered when making this film?”

Craig Zobel photo

Craig Zobel

Craig: “This is a film that I made because of the challenges involved, instead of in spite of its challenges. The film is about a pretty unbelievable subject, and you may see the film and say “yeah, you didn’t succeed at that”. And indeed it requires a pretty good performance to make that credible, because this is a kind of story that you hear and you go “How could you believe this?” So that was a challenge, making this credible”.

Dana: “Was the casting difficult?”

Craig: “Yes, partly because of the material. These roles were not everybody’s cup of tea, not everybody wants to play that. So it was a challenge to find the right people. And then the main thing was how to get the actors to have the same curiosity I had about these stories, because I think that really affected the performance. And they were pretty challenging and difficult roles because the film is dark. But for me it is about having a crew and cast that invests in the project”.

Dana: “How many shorts did you make before venturing into features?If any?”

Craig: “Not very many, I made shorts in film school and then I worked on a bunch of other people’s films. And my first film came out in 2007 and then I made this film”.

Dana: “How did you find the transition from shorts to features?”

Craig: “Well to be honest it was a bit difficult. For making this film, I got sucked into a “Hollywood development deal”- sort of situation, where you sit around talking about making a movie for a really long time and you never actually shoot one and it was very frustrating for me and made me feel like “Why am I letting people tell me how to do this?”

Dana: “Which is very similar to the actual issue of the film…”

Craig (laughing):”Exactly . So that was another challenge that I had to overcome in order to make the film. And I thought that indeed the film might be too dark and creepy and weird, or just boring and flat and not work, and it could hurt my career in some way, so I had to overcome those fears as well”.

ABOUT THE FILMMAKER

Craig was awarded the Breakthrough Director Award at the 2008 Gotham Awards for Great World of Sound, his debut feature as a writer-director which premiered at Sundance in 2007. The film was selected  as one of the Top Ten Independent films of the year by The National Board of Review, and was nominated for Best First Film and Best Supporting Actor in the 2008 Independent Spirit Awards. His new film Compliance played at Sundance and SXSW in early 2012. Craig was also co-producer of David Gordon Green’s seminal indie hit of 2000, George Washington.