LFF 2013

Should Truth Always Prevail? Acclaimed Documentarian ALEX GIBNEY about THE ARMSTRONG LIE

Known for his gripping, deeply insightful documentaries, Academy Award winner ALEX GIBNEY is one of the most accomplished non-fiction filmmakers working today. His 2008 film, TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, received an Oscar for Best Feature-Length Documentary, a Best Director nomination from the Director’s Guild of America, as well as a Writer’s Guild of America Award for Best Screenplay. He also received another Academy Award nomination in 2006 for ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM, which also won the Independent Spirit Award and the WGA Award, and he served as an Executive Producer on the Academy Award-nominated NO END IN SIGHT (2007).

Alex-Gibney

Alex Gibney

His new documentary, THE ARMSTRONG LIE, follows one of the most fascinating stories in the history of sports, the extraordinary rise and  fall of former cycling champion, Lance Armstrong. Embarking on what he believed would prove the ultimate comeback story, Gibney started by turning his cameras on the sports hero, his teammates and trainers in 2008-2009.  But once Armstrong admitted to using performance enhancing drugs in early 2013, the film emerged as a riveting insider’s view chronicling the collapse of one of the greatest legends of our time.

The following interview was taken on October 16 at Filmmakers Afternoon Teas, Mayfair Hotel as part of LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013.

Dana: Why Armstrong in the first place?

Alex: Well, I had an opportunity, a famous producer Frank Marshall and a guy from Sony, Matt Tolmach, were developing a fiction film on Lance Armstrong and they couldn’t get the script rights so when Lance wanted to come back they thought of making a documentary and asked me if I would direct it. And I thought that that would be a pretty interesting film, following a champion as he came back, and what interested me about Armstrong, even with the rumours of doping that we all knew even back then, was his will. So I was interested in making that film.

Dana: When you found out everything that happened suddenly, what was your first thought, that you had been lied to or that the film was a lie?

Alex: I was pissed off, not so much that I’ve been lied to, I’d certainly been lied to before, but I felt that I’ve been used. That I was used as kind of a prop and promo campaign, and that did piss me off. But remember this happened over a period of time, it wasn’t like there was a lightening bolt that came down and suddenly it was like: “Oh my God, everything’s changed”. Bit by bit by bit stuff came out and Lance for a long time responded as he always had, which was: “bullshit”, denial, so I had time to work it out. And was I pissed off?Yes I was pissed off but I wasn’t shocked.

the-armstrong-lie-posterDana: What do you think of him?

Alex: On a day to day basis, I like him. I like hanging out with him, I’m interested in talking to him but I also recognise that I can’t always trust him.

Dana: How challenging was it to change the initial film into the final version?

Alex: It was hugely challenging. I think the only way it was going to work was for me to became a character in the film. I had to become the person to whom this had happened. So that I could explain it all in its many levels. And also I stood in for the fan or for the cancer survivor who felt that they invested so much in this myth that Lance had created and now they were disappointed. From a filmmaking standpoint it was hugely complicated because it involved fracturing the narrative, going back and forth in time, in 1999, before that, 2009, the present, pre-Oprah, post-Oprah. It was a very complicated story in that sense. And the only way possible to make it I think was telling it through the first person.

Dana: Michele Ferrari was quite a cue, how did that interview come about, was it just a question of building trust?

Alex: He wouldn’t do the interview unless Armstrong gave his permission and Armstrong did. And I think that was all part of a campaign at the time which was: 2009 – I have nothing to hide, come take a look. So I was surprised that I got the interview with Ferrari but I was pleased.

Dana: How do you think Armstrong felt when the truth came out?

Alex: Well it came out over time. I think Armstrong was probably surprised that the old tactics didn’t work. Let’s remember, he’d already accused his critics? many times in the past, he always defeated his enemies by attacking them or sometimes slandering them and he tried to do the same thing here but it didn’t work this time. Why?Because the level of details was so enormous that his story was no longer believable and I think that was a blow to Armstrong and suddenly, while he always had enemies and critics he also had millions of fans and suddenly his fans started to run for the hills.

Dana: Has he seen the film?

Alex: No. He sent his representatives to see it and so far he hasn’t seen the film, I hope he will. We gave him the opportunity to.

Dana: Have you spoken to him since making the film?

Alex: The last time I spoke to him was when, there were some bits that I went to him with while making the film, because he had some interesting information about UCI and sponsors but the last time I contacted Lance was when I told him it was going to be called the Armstrong Lie.

Dana: And what was his response to that?

Alex: I don’t think he liked it but he accepted it. I heard from other people that he said: “I’m ok with it. I did lie”. In some ways Lance is honest, in some ways he’s not so honest.

Dana: As a filmmaker, are you glad about everything that happened, because you now have a much more interesting film than the original one…

Alex: That was a different film. This one is much more layered and frankly much more like the themes of all my other films. So in that sense while I was hoping to do something different, I ended up being back at base camp for me as a filmmaker.

Dana: What has been the biggest challenge in making this film?

Alex: The biggest challenge in making the final film was to find the structure for it because it was so intricate and complicated in terms of understanding what had gone on before and how to present to the viewer a sense of going back in my experience in 2009 and seeing with the eyes of today what I’d seen in the past. And at the same time recreating my feeling in the past so you could see how I would become excited and enthusiastic about Armstrong only to realise I’d been deceived.

Dana: Where did you stand with him at the beginning anyway?Were you a fan?

Alex: I didn’t know that much about him, or about cycling. I told him the first time I met him: “I know you ride a bicycle and that you’re good at it. That’s about all I know”. But I’ve come to a lot of subjects that way, I was interested in him because of his will. And I assumed from the beginning that will was both an inspirational thing and something that was also quite dark.

Dana: Does he come from a position of arrogance, he can sometimes strike viewers in that way.

Alex: He certainly does and he rubs a lot of people the wrong way as a result.

Dana: What did you learn from this film and would you do it differently if you had to do it again?

Alex: I hope I wouldn’t have to do it again. I guess what I learnt from this film was one of the most amazing things about this story, I talk about the Armstrong lie as if it was a big secret that was suddenly exposed.  But it wasn’t really like that. It was a secret hiding in plain sight. Hundreds of people knew that Lance had doped, not just a small number, and a lot of critics had come forward with the evidence. But it was the power of the myth that Lance created that was so enormous that no one wanted to believe any of that stuff. And in fact everyone realised that they could make so much money, and the cancer survivors realised that they can have so much hope from this story that no one wanted to believe that it wasn’t true. That was the most amazing thing to me.

Dana: On this note, do you think truth should always prevail, considering how powerful and beautiful this story was, and important for some people?Is truth more important than anything?

Alex: Almost.  Truth is very important and I can think of times where a little truth is not necessary to tell within a certain context but in an essential way, truth is very important.

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The Girl Who Played with Fire, Got Burnt but Enjoyed It – CATHERINE BREILLAT about ABUSE OF WEAKNESS

Catherine Breillat
Catherine Breillat

The “provocatrice” of French cinema, CATHERINE BREILLAT is someone who likes playing with fire. Known for her unusual casting choices (e.g. casting porn actor Rocco Siffredi in the film Romance) and controversial films with a strong autobiographical slant, Breillat is always fierce at investigating human nature and her own often contradictory impulses, motivations and desires.

Abuse of Weakness is the consequence of a failed attempt at making another film, Bad Love, which was supposed to depict the strange, abusive relationship between a celebrity (to be played by Naomi Campbell) and her secret lover. Not able to resist her penchant for taking huge casting risks, Breillat chooses real-life con-man Christophe Rocancourt to play the role of the abusive lover. This led to the director becoming the victim of this ruthless perpetrator who swindled her of almost €1million even before starting to make the movie.

The film’s title, a reference to the legal charge Breillat levied against Rocancourt, depicts the relationship between the director and this notorious con-man in its most puzzling complexity. The reaction of the audience at its premiere at the LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013 was one of total bafflement: people did not understand how such a clever woman as Breillat could have been so naive to allow for this “abuse” to take place. Catherine herself vows that she doesn’t understand how that came to be either, hence her desire to make a film about it.

Below is an interview with the filmmaker Catherine Breillat taken on 16 October 2013 at Mayfair Hotel, London as part of LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013 .

Dana:My reading of the film is that, despite the title, Maud is a very strong woman who likes playing with fire, and she actually enjoys the abuse.What is your reading of your own film?

Catherine: Yes but it is because she abuses her strength, which makes possible an abuse of her weakness, because you have the two. First, she is emotionally fragile like every artist in fact, and also physically very fragile.And she doesn’t want to accept that she is physically fragile. From the first time she says :”I want to love” and I think the desire to love is part of the story, because she is in love with him. Every time they behave like adolescents, it’s part of the relationship, that’s why an abuse of weakness is pleasant, when you live that, it’s delicious, the life of someone who is handicapped becomes delicious. When I’m alone in my flat and I have to wake up and first to stand up and find my equilibrium[…]. It’s very very complicated and dangerous for me, I need concentration. I never got used to suddenly not being able to take off a book from the shelf. If I want to understand really, I just sit and cry.

Dana: But she doesn’t come across as a victim at all, and the impression of strength she gives is stronger than the impression of weakness.

Catherine: Because in my case and of course in the case of the film, to be victim is for the law and also for the reason (?). The reason is that she was a victim, but her character is to refuse to consider herself a victim, either of the stoke, or of him.

Dana: She’s very dignified.

Catherine: Yes, I think so.

Dana: If you could tell us something about the nature of this fascination she has with him.

Catherine: It was very important that he was my actor, because every director of a movie has to be fascinated with the actor. It’s even the reason why I don’t want to see them more than the first or second time. Even Isabelle, I know her very very well, but when I asked her to play the role, I just gave her the script, I had dinner with her and my producer and I never talked with her and her with me. We had no such desire.

66ème Festival de Venise (Mostra)

Isabelle Huppert

Dana: How did you work with Isabelle Huppert and Kool Shen during the shoot?

[When we started filming] the first time I saw Isabelle was for the costume and the second day we shot the photo which is on her book. It’s so fascinating to see Isabelle and Kool Shen together. And the reason I wanted to cast him, it’s because I wanted to transform him in the phantasm of the character I need for my movie. It’s the same for me, for instance a violonist needs Stradivarius but you don’t talk to your Stradivarius. In this case you can have a rehearsal, [but it is important that] actors are not considered as related to anyone but as material to make the movie. It’s a very strange relationship, it’s not because you deny them as human beings, but this is not what you need for your movie. You need the phantasm, not what they are, that’s why I don’t want to see them before, because I want to dream, and not to have too much material life with them. On the set they say my word and not their word, I don’t want to hear them with their word before. The only things that passionate me is to hear my word, to put them in my costume and in this situation, and in this place, and in front of the camera, with the anxiety, and for them and for me to succeed.

It’s also why it’s so fascinating and exhilarating to make a movie, it’s a sort of creative empathy with actors and me and my movie…The movie is mine, it’s theirs, and in fact it is abstract, it’s something […] which has its own existence, it is not a biopic but I direct my actors very strongly, […] but at the same time I choreograph all the time my scenes, in very long shot, so they have to learn the choreography very well because of the focus. If they play beautifully but I don’t have the focus there’s no film. And after, when some shot is incredible, never rehearse the scene, in my opinion. I never never never repeat the scene with the sentiment, the feeling and the emotion with them. Just the place. When I film for the first time, sometimes the first time is so beautiful, so surprising, I want my actors to surprise me and I become emerveillee by them!That is my way of making a film.

Kool Shen small

Kool Shen

Dana: The film is quite a tough watch in places. How was it for you to relive those moments on the screen, and how did you feel watching and making this film?

Catherine: I cried many many times and it’s still very difficult for me to speak on this subject and the character of Maud. So yes sometimes I cry. But I can say “Maud is a transposition, in a sense it’s me but it’s not me”. I don’t know, I can’t speak of Maud, I can direct Maud but my feelings are impossible, and I cry. But on the set I don’t cry. For the actors it was much more emotional than if it was just fiction because Isabelle interprets a character very very close to the director, she knows me very very well, we have been friends for more than 20 years. So yes, there was a lot of emotion  but the most important emotion is the emotion of the film. That’s why Isabelle can be an actress and not a transposition of me. She’ll never accept to interpret me, never.

Dana: Why would she never accept to interpret you?

Catherine: Because it would be “miserable”, “mesquin”, with interest… Just to become somebody in front of the same person. And I don’t like biopics, I hate biopics, it’s easier to make a biopic than to play the person who is filming you.

Dana: So when you were on set and you were directing, were you able to have some objectivity towards the character of Maud?Were you able to see her as a separate character?

Catherine: If I have emotion as a spectator, I don’t care if it is really my emotion when I was in this situation or not, because in fact I cannot remember and understand what was my real emotion in this situation. Yes for me it is also a surprise to see that and is it really true? Or just the interpretation of the script?I don’t care. If the emotion is there, if the movie is good, it’s just that. After all, yes, I am a director and my only only thought is for my film, and more for this one, because everybody knows that it’s very close to me because it is also a story for the tabloids. So it will be more shame for the director if this movie becomes a vulgar pretext to attract an audience. […]And I want to not be ridiculous. In life yes I was ridiculous to live this story. But I don’t want to be ridiculous making this movie, nor a fool of my ego.

MORE…

“All true artists are hated” – an interesting interview with Catherine Breillat in The Telegraph

Taking Sex Seriously – a very to the point article by John Hoyles in MovieMail 

“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.

GLORIA Is Glorious in SEBASTIAN LELIO’s New Film

Gloria_posterWhat are the options for a 58-year old divorcée whose job is not engaging enough to take over her entire life and whose children have long fled home and have a life of their own? To spend her evenings in front of the TV, looking after the neighbour’s cat or indulge in nostalgia and tearful memories about the good old days gone by? Maybe for some this is an option but nor for Gloria, the extraordinary heroine of Chilean director Sebastian Lelio‘s third feature film.

Winner of the Berlinale Silver Bear for Best Actress and  the Chilian entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards, GLORIA is a most engrossing character study of a mature single woman whose unbridled optimism and zest for life are simply contagious. Drink in hand and dressed in her most glamorous attire, Gloria is constantly teasing life with her heart wide open to anything that this might bring: adventure, romance, new friends, new lessons…Avoiding the all too easy, conventional clichés that surround representations of older people, Gloria is surprising, warm, genuine and very uplifting. No matter your age,  at the end of the film you wish you were more like Gloria.

In an interview taken on October 18 at the Filmmaker Afternoon Teas, Mayfair Hotel, as part of LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013, we pick the director’s brain about the film and the amazing performance that makes Gloria such a delight to watch.

Dana: How did you come up with  such an amazing character?Gloria is so brave, so strong, so inspiring, I so admire this woman and also Paulina Garcia’s breathtaking performance.

Sebastian: Thank you. Yes the film is all about this character and in a way in order to create the character I created an entire film around it. I created a mechanism for Gloria to be alive, which is cinema, it’s the complexity, it’s a narrative strategy, it’s also camera style, the uses of a narrative of “iceberg tips”, elliptic storytelling, the lack of written dialogues, there were no written dialogues in the script, so everything comes from the actors. I guess the answer for that is […] I had the intuition that it was a strong film in this lady’s world, in this character that in a way didn’t deserve a film, because she should have been like a secondary character in a normal film…but I thought no, I see a film there and we will make a great protagonist out of this forgotten character.

Dana: How did this protagonist come alive?If there were no written dialogues, I assume you worked a lot with the actors.

Sebastian: Yes but in order not to write dialogue, you need to write a lot, even more, because then when you are on set you can afford the luxury of getting lost, but to get lost you need to have the map in order to get lost within a certain battlefield or territory. And concerning the actors, I have an “invasion strategy”. I invade them, I become their friend, win their hearts and then I torture them. (laughter)

Dana: And they make your film…

Actors Sergio Hernandez, Paulina Garcia and director Sebastian Lelio at the 63rd Berlinale International Film Festival

Sebastian: Exactly, by their own will…It’s a very empirical strategy but for good reasons. I love actors and I do believe that when you see a film in a way you’re seeing the artistic battle, in this case of Paulina Garcia, you see how she’s giving her fight, the fight of her life, she’s like Rocky at the end of Rocky, round fifteen, she thinks she’s going to die but she wins. So I’m much more interested in the person than in the character, I’m much more moved by the human being, the actress, the characters are like an accident.

Dana: Was the role of Gloria a projection of a side of the actress herself? I read in an interview that they are very different, the actress from the character she plays.

Sebastian: The only way to answer that is yes and no at the same time. Paulina indeed said that she would have liked to be a little lighter, like Gloria is. Gloria is the kind of character who knows how to surf life but I think Paulina is wonderful, she’s so fun to be with, she’s funny and smart, but still…The character has a lot of things from her because since we didn’t use written dialogues, she was forced to use herself. So it’s the grey area between character and actress, or human being I would say.

Dana: Is it true that you were inspired by Cassavetes’ Gloria for this character?

Sebastian: Cassavetes is one of the directors of my life and when it comes to a cinema that is able to capture the mystery, madness and complexity of being human, Cassavetes is like the Pope, he is the master, so I would like to capture that complexity also. It’s impossible not to think of Opening Night or A Woman Under the Influence, or even Gloria. Gena Rowlands was very present in our conversations, because of this energy, this woman who in a way is bigger than life, always with a drink, and high heels, and you know, “bring it on”, I love that…

Dana: It seems that Gloria wants to have a good time despite everything, she wants to enjoy life.

Sebastian: Yes, she’s laughing and enjoying herself, she’s not opaque or withdrawn. I’m so tired of these opaque, “interesting” characters that are hiding what they are thinking and you never know how they think about anything, aren’t they empty maybe? Which is OK, I just wanted to go in the other direction, this is her, transparent, in your face.

Dana: And at the same time the film is very nuanced, very subtle. Another interesting thing is that at the end Gloria finds herself on her own again, which is basically the scene at the beginning. 

Sebastian: Yeah.

Dana: She goes back to square one after experiencing all these emotional ups and downs…Was that the idea of the film, to show a woman experiencing life even if it doesn’t lead her anywhere basically, the film doesn’t have the ending that you’d expect.

Sebastian: Exactly, and this is a very interesting insight because vision is a theme in the film, the glasses, whether she sees or not, how she sees other people and how people see her, she puts the glasses on, she takes them off, she goes to the oculist, being a little maybe blind towards the others, towards life, towards herself, or literally blind, whatever…Dancing without glasses at the end is such a strong gesture. For me it is very interesting what you’re saying because it’s the same social context but I would say that at the end she sees that same context with new eyes, somehow everything has changed because the vision has changed. We can say it’s the same, but in a way it’s not. It is transformed, because her vision has transformed, because vision transforms, which is the core idea for the film, when we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.

GloriaDana: What did she see at the end that she didn’t see at the beginning?

Sebastian: Well I think at the beginning she’s looking for the sources of meaning outside her jurisdiction, in men, in family, in therapies and it seems that, but the film doesn’t observe that, it seems that at the end she understands that those sources of meaning might be inside her, so maybe she’s not looking outside, she is dancing blindly but is she blind? So it’s very delicate.

Dana: That’s a very interesting reading of the film.And you’re entitled to your own reading of the film!

Sebastian: (laughing) No, but it’s just a reading, I mean I see myself as a spectator also.

Dana: What were the challenges in making this film?

Sebastian: I would say the main challenge was taking all these low-level materials, like not very sophisticated songs, a lady who’s supposedly a not very interesting character, a boring life, feelings, emotions, and all these dangerous things for an actress, and through combination and alchemy, elevate them and turn them hopefully into cinema. That was the thing, because it is much easier to work with serious issues than to be serious about cinema.

Dana: Is your method of working on this film different from your previous films?

Sebastian: No, my films always had humour and I think they have that complexity but before I made a film that was very sad, because it had to do with the earthquake and tsunami that we had in Chile, and it was impossible not to be serious. We shot only six weeks after the earthquake on real locations where people had died, and we were shooting a fiction based on real events in the real places. But it was very heavy. So very naturally I felt the need to counterbalance, to reconnect with life.

Dana: One last tricky question: why do you make films?

Sebastian: Because for me it’s the best vehicle to cross life, the perfect excuse, it’s a great place from where to think the world. And cinema is a great way to contaminate the world also with what you feel. It’s a wonderful toy.

GLORIA, this wonderful toy from director Sebastian Lelio, is playing in London cinemas now, book your tickets here: Curzon Soho, ICA, Barbican Centre and Ritzy Cinema.

How To Love Creative People – Interview with ZACH HEINZERLING, the Director of CUTIE AND THE BOXER

A while ago, Ideas Tap published a very amusing article on “How to date creative people” and the advice was: give them space, don’t compete, get creative with your dating ideas, don’t plan too far into the future, lower your expectations even further, etc.

All very sound advice… And then? What happens after the dating stage?Any hope for a “happily ever after” dénouement?

cutie_and_the_boxer_biggieCUTIE AND THE BOXER, winner of the documentary directing prize at this year’s SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL, offers one of the most surprising answers to this dilemma.

Imagine this “stranger than fiction” scenario: You are a super cute Japanese 19-year old girl, an aspiring artist, and you move to New York to start your art education. A few months later you meet Ushio, a very charismatic artist-provocateur,  21 years your senior. He asks you on a dinner date, sparks fly, then you go back to his place to see his art among other things. Then the following morning he asks to borrow money to pay his rent. And because you’re nice and he seems trustworthy, you part with the tiny allowance that your parents gave you to get by in New York lest poor Ushio get evicted. Six months later you become pregnant with his child, which forces you to give up your art education as the money doesn’t stretch to cover both… And you become Ushio’s full-time wife, cook, assistant…Thus began one of the most enduring romantic and artistic entanglements we ever heard of: 40 years later Ushio and Noriko are still making art, love and especially war…

Zachary_Heinzerling_Headshot

Zach Heinzerling

In an interview taken on October 18 at the Filmmaker Afternoon Teas, Mayfair Hotel, as part of LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013, the film’s director ZACH HEINZERLING tells us more about his most endearing subjects…

Dana: How and when did you first discover Noriko and Ushio, the “Cutie” and the “Boxer” of the title?

Zach: I like taking pictures and I was in Dumbo one day, this is a neighbourhood in Brooklyn that a lot of artists used to live in, art studios are still there but it’s become very posh and expensive. They have an open studio day when you can walk in and meet artists. A good friend of mine speaks Japanese, we went together and he introduced me to them. I was an art student, I’d just moved to New York and I was interested in getting to know them, they are very welcoming, they want to share their art, their art is about their lives and you get personal very quickly, which I think for a documentary subject is really interesting because you don’t have to work very hard to understand what they want to say, it’s out there and they are projecting it and drawing on it. First I made a short film about them, kind of a day in the life. Then, I just kept going over there, sometimes with a camera, sometimes not.

Dana: Did they welcome the idea of you making a documentary about them immediately or did it take some effort to convince them?

Zach: Yes they welcomed the idea immediately. Ushio is obsessed with being filmed, he’s a performance artist, his art results in paintings but it’s the performance really that is the art itself, so the idea of being watched is important for him. Noriko was more shy but with my interest in her art she really opened up for me and that became the basis for the film, it’s more her story as opposed to his.

Noriko and Ushio Shinohara

Dana: Their relationship sounds very interesting, there’s a bit of dominance/submissiveness going on…

Zach: Yes there is, they’ve been married for over 40 years, she met him when she was 19 and within six months she was pregnant and basically taking care of him. He’s sort of the classical drunk, egotistical artist, the “only thing important in life” kind of guy, and I think she was wooed by that and fell in love with him for his purity but then had to sort of clean up after him.  And I think there’s an element of, you know, in Japanese culture, sticking with your spouse through thick and thin, and she suffered through most of their relationship…The film is about them now in the present and how that past affected them today. And the resentment she holds against him, but also the power that she’s trying to extract back. She is the dominant personality now, she very much wears the pants in the relationship, she’s very strong, fierce, competitive. It’s always very interesting to have two headstrong artists, when you combine them something beautiful is created, and complex, and I think that’s really what the film is about, it’s about what’s created from the two of them as opposed to either one of them individually. The tension is drama and that’s what the film is.

Dana: How did they receive the film?

Zach:He didn’t like the film. When you see the film you’ll understand why, he only really cares about his art and the film starts out to be more about him and then transitions to be more about her. And he expected the film to be more about him, for his art to be more featured. And the film is not only about art really, it’s about this relationship, and love in a way, and he doesn’t enjoy love stories. But he wasn’t critical of it, this is something I worked on for five years and we’re very close, we’re like family, so his reaction wasn’t like “You have to change it”, it was more like “I didn’t expect this”. But he’s since come to really appreciate and compliment the film and he’s supportive of the film because it’s essentially promoting his artwork which he likes. She’s always loved the film, she takes ownership of it and uses it in a way as more of a weapon in their battle…

cutie at work

Noriko at work on her Cutie paintings

Dana: What made you choose to focus more on her, is it because you found her the more interesting character, or is it because she is kind of the “underdog” and you wanted to side with her?

Zach: Yeah she’s definitely the more complicated character, she’s layered, there’s a complexity to her.  And she’s got a fascinating story, she moved to New York when she was 19, and she was kind of taken under the wing of this crazy personality and she lived in this bubble that he’s created ever since. And she’s now 60 and looking back on her life. The film’s title, Cutie, comes from this comic that she’s created, the Cutie character is basically her alter-ego, she’s created herself as this 19 year old girl with pigtails, and part of it is tied to this longing for a youth and an innocence that was taken from her at a young age and she’s trying to recreate it through her artwork and deal with a lot of her problems through her artwork. So it was fascinating, she wears her pair of pigtails today as a 60 year old woman, she has this kind of ageless beauty to her and a real strange way of dealing with things. So yes I think that her character has legs and it was also something that over the course of the film would shift and I could observe that shift…

Dana: It sounds almost like a feminist film, a woman who really comes into her own…

Zach: Yes, in her art now she creates drawings of herself dressed as a dominatrix and whipping her husband who’s in chains, she’s revenging against her husband …and she’s this cute Japanese woman so it’s crazy…(laughter)

Ushio_Zach_Noriko_at studio

Zach with Ushio and Noriko in their art studio in New York

Dana: How long have you spent with them to make this documentary and what were the challenges?

Zach: I met them five years ago so it’s technically a five year process but the film really takes place over the last two years. Early on, it was a film more about art and more of a slightly traditional style of documentary where I was using other people to kind of contextualise them and their art, historians, and their friends and curators. And then it shifted to being only them, observational in style, where they were sort of interviewing each other. But there’s no interviews in the film, it’s just reality observed, reality sculpted obviously, the editing process creating a story out of these two years where she starts to gain the respect of others and the relationship shifts from her being the assistant to her being a real artist in her own right. And the challenge was that I’m not fluent in Japanese and the film is almost entirely in Japanese. So a lot of time when I was shooting I had no idea what they were saying but I could generally understand the idea and I would just film scenes in their entirety and then get all of the footage subtitled and recover scenes from that…It’s an inefficient process but I was interested in things other than exactly what they were saying, the rhythm of the scene, or what it looked like, or what it sounded like…And I shot the film too, trying to get that kind of intimacy that’s needed for the kind of scenes that I wanted…And it took that long, it was only after three years that I started to get scenes that were natural…and to observe them in more vulnerable situations. So obviously that’s an immense amount of time, I was working on other projects throughout but the film is really as much about my relationship with them as it is about their relationship…

Dana: Are you in the film?

Zach: No, I’m not in the film.

Dana: Because you mentioned the word “observational” and I was wondering whether you put yourself in the frame in the style of cinema vérité or whether your film is purely observational in the style of direct cinema?What was your approach?

Zach: I wouldn’t describe it as purely observational.Traditional cinema vérité is this whole idea that you don’t direct at all, it’s just the camera as is. […] But the genre shifted and these sort of hybrid films were created. I mean everything that happens in the movie, happened, but the order that you place it, the way that you shoot things, we use music in the film, we use animation, her comics are animated, there’s a level of me deciding which stories to tell. And even cinema vérité is subjective, nothing is observed reality, it’s always sculpted reality so I constructed it slightly more than say 60’s vérité films, but that was always the intention, you turn something into a cinematic experience to make people understand your version of the story, this is my version of their relationship. They understood that and that’s why they weren’t critical of it because they knew it was my version as opposed to the real version or…

Dana: What they wanted to project…

Zach: Yes…when you film artists, a lot of the time that’s a benefit because there’s a sort of understanding that “ok, this is my art”, even though it’s about them, they are more exhibitionists…(laughter)

Dana: This is your debut feature film and you made shorts before. I was wondering what you have lined up for the future, will you continue to make films?

Zach: I think so. I went to arts school, I studied philosophy, I didn’t go to film school but I do think I’ll probably continue making films, I’m currently writing a script for a fiction film, so my ambition is to create and construct a story. I would do another documentary, this documentary was special because the subject lent itself to an interesting and creative style of documentary, you can’t find that in every subject…

Dana: What would be the main themes you would like to explore?

Zach: I think I’m most apt to continue exploring this sort of morally complex relationship stories, smaller personal stories are what I’m most interested to catch on film…Why I like cinema is that you can approach this idea of something or someone without having to define it, you can make an audience sympathetic to a character then turn around and make them disgusted by that character. It shows how complex people can be and you can shatter people’s preconceived notions of why someone does what they do, I think that’s the most interesting thing about film, it’s very difficult to find another medium that doesn’t rely on specificity. Ambiguity is something that is sometimes scary and hard to sell but if you can make a film that is ambiguous but also engrossing, I think the audience feels perhaps changed in some way or their perspective is shifted. So it’s those kinds of films, with characters that you might not always like. I mean in this film Ushio the husband is kind of demonised at the beginning and then by the end maybe you feel differently.At the beginning, one of the lines in the film is that he is a genius and his wife is average so it’s her job to support him.

Ushio boxing

Ushio performance art

Dana: Oh no!He really said that?And you left that in?

Zach: Yeah.So you might hate him. But then there are other things that you might like about him.

Dana: Did he know he was being filmed?Didn’t he say it as a joke?

Zack: Oh yeah, he knew…Well, she wasn’t there but no, it wasn’t a joke. He laughed and the camera was on… As you’ll see in the film, there’s no place he won’t go, his life is to be as exposed as possible but the irony is that you never actually feel like you get to his core, it’s always a performance with him, he’s always kind of acting in a way, so I think that line is probably a version of acting and finding out what he really thinks. And he definitely cares more about his art than hers and he definitely thinks he’s a more important artist than she will ever be, and based on what he’s done, he was part of a 60s post-war Japanese group that’s very important in the art history of Japan, so his paintings are all over the world. But now he’s actually not selling at all, he’s not known for his work of the last 30 years, so in some ways he’s sort of this washed-up artist who’s not really relevant anymore. She is the more sort of fresh, with something to say, you know. Whether he actually respects her or not is still a question, and whether she actually respects him or not is a question…

Dana: Why are they together?

Zach: I don’t know (laughing), that’s the subject of the movie…

If we managed to pique your interest and you want to find out the secret to Ushio and Noriko’s enduring love, don’t miss out on the film’s cinema release, Cutie and the Boxer is screening at ICA and other cinemas in the UK starting today.

To book your ticket at the ICA click here.