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FORT BUCHANAN – the darling of NDNF 2015. Interview with its creator, Benjamin Crotty

fort buchanan poster

FORT BUCHANAN, the feature debut of American-born, Paris-based writer-director Benjamin Crotty marks the arrival of something rare in contemporary cinema: a wholly original sensibility. Expanding his 2012 short of the same name, Crotty chronicles the tragicomic plight of frail, lonely Roger, stranded at a remote military post in the woods while his husband carries out a mission in Djibouti. Over four seasons, Roger (Andy Gillet, the androgynous star of Eric Rohmer’s The Romance of Astrea and Celadon) seeks comfort and companionship from the army wives in the leisurely yet sexually frustrated community, while trying to keep a lid on his volatile adopted daughter, Roxy. Shot in richly textured 16mm, Crotty’s queer soap opera playfully estranges and deranges any number of narrative conventions, finding surprising wells of emotion amid the carnal comedy.

Below is an interview with Benjamin Crotty @MoMA, March 28th 2015

Dana Knight: You’re the second American filmmaker I spoke to recently, the first one being Eugene Green, who lives and makes films in France. What is it like to work under the French system?

Benjamin Crotty

Filmmaker Benjamin Crotty

Benjamin Crotty: I think Eugene Green has lived there for quite a long time, I think he might be a French citizen now. I lived in France for 12 years and my experience is exclusively European, I don’t have an American comparison. I was born in the U.S. and when I moved to France I hadn’t really started making film work. At this time I was a painter and only really started to become interested in making movies while I was in France. And I really came at it from an artist’s perspective, I was quite autonomous. And it’s only with this project Fort Buchanan, this is the first project where I was involved with French public financing.

Knight: So you actually have no experience of making films under the American system.

Crotty: No. Actually I’ve  just finished the first draft of an American script and I’m just starting to get an idea of how it works. But it seems very very different. When you’re working under the French system there’s a lot more support and subsidies than there are in the U.S. so that’s a good thing for me!

Knight: The French don’t have Kickstarter though!

Crotty: They have something similar called Kiss Kiss Bank Bank.

Knight: That’s a hilarious name for a funding system!Who ever said the French don’t have a sense of humour!

Crotty: Yes. And I heard that Kickstarter is just starting now…

Knight:  Fort Buchanan is a very unusual creation. What inspired it?

Crotty: There’s a short-term and a long-term inspiration for Fort Buchanan. The long-term one – I grew up relatively close to an airforce space and I remember being quite intrigued by it, by its community feel. This place was a bit cut-off and as quiet as a bubble, they had their own schools and stores. When you’re a kid, that’s like an alternative reality, which is very interesting for kids! And I also made a short film that deals with the Iraq war, my little brother was in the army in Iraq.

Fort Buchanan mostly deals with the spouses of those in the army, it’s about the domestic side of war. This is something I became interested in after seeing this show on Lifetime TV, it’s like a soap opera about army spouses. I was very intrigued by this cultural object, it’s a weird hybrid of soap-opera and war drama.

Knight: Why did you decide to borrow the dialogue from TV? In cinema, this is unheard of. Most TV dialogue has this directness and quality of being “on the nose”, whereas film dialogue is supposed to be sparse and subtle and full of subtext…

Andy Gilet

French actor Andy Gillet

Crotty: I’m a big fan of Éric Rohmer’s films, the star in my film Andy Gillet was the star of Éric Rohmer’s last film. A funny thing is I grew up in Washington State, Buchanon, a town where there were no art house cinemas. But they did haveÉric Rohmer films in the Public Library and I remember watching them when I was a kid. Back then I did not know about art cinema, so I thought they were like French “blockbusters”. And Éric Rohmer’s films have a particular vocabulary, very dense but I thought these films were representative for France, I thought this is how people probably speak in France!  So there was some shock when I grew up and realised that was not the case! That’s also when I realised what auteur cinema is. I also started to ask myself what role this particular way of speaking plays. So that’s where I got the idea of constructing this film with building blocks that are from a common culture.

Knight: This way of constructing a film has no precedent in cinema, has it?

Crotty: Perhaps not. But appropriation is a very common strategy in contemporary art so there are a lot of precedents in art.

Knight: Were you fascinated with the dialogue on this  TV show?

Crotty: I was. I didn’t watch it that frequently so when I did watch it, it had a really high impact on me. A lot of TV dramas really cut to the chase and the dialogue is very honed. In some respects I find it to be very beautiful in its efficiency. And it’s written by writing teams, so I suppose they peel away any unnecessary particulars and the words become like an arrow.

Knight: How about story and characters? Are they yours or have you deliberately borrowed plot lines and character traits from TV shows also?

Crotty: It’s kind of a mix. For the character of Roger, there’s no character like Roger in TV. But most other characters are like a snowball, or combinations of other characters. So I created the structure and the characters and then there was a questions of finding bits and pieces of dialogue for them.

Knight: This is very interesting because the film doesn’t give the impression of being made of all these disparate elements. The film feels very “organic”, everything gels so well.

Crotty: Yes and it’s important to emphasise that. When I speak about the film it sounds like this is a very complex cultural object but I find it to be quite a simple film actually. There’s a difference between my interest in construction and the actual experience of watching the film. So yes I think it’s quite an “organic” film for a viewer.

Knight: With this kind of dialogue, the acting ran the risk of being quite mannered but it is not, how did you achieve that?

Crotty: I think when you start watching  the film there’s a period of confusion and either the viewer is really turned off by the film or you accept it. And if you accept it then everything else appears quite natural and harmonious within the overall frame of the film. But it’s a credit to the actors also.

Knight: How did you work with them?

Crotty: We shot the film in 15 days, a very short amount of shooting time but it was spread out over a period of a few years. Because of this long time in between shoots, we had quite a lot of time to get to know each other. By the end I had a pretty good familiarity with the actors, what they can and cannot do. And it was a bit different for each one.

Knight: Was it fun on the set? I imagine this being quite a fun film to shoot!

Crotty: Well, I think it was really fun for the actors but I was pretty stressed! As my producer said at the Q&A, although this film just finished, it feels quite melancholy because I’m sure I won’t be able to make a film like this again. There’s something quite naive about the way we made this film and I don’t know if it could be reproduced. But yes it was a lovely experience, for sure.

Knight: Was the seasonal structure inspired by Rohmer also? Or was it simply a way of putting it together? The narrative is quite loose and digressive but the seasonal structure lends it unity.

Crotty: Yeah but also when I was working on the film I was interested in creating something that wasn’t focused on the individual psychology of the characters but more on the group psychology. So I was thinking a little bit of animal documentaries where you follow a herd of animals from one season to the next. It seemed like a good way to follow this group of people! For instance, in the summer portion of the film they all go to Djibouti, it’s almost like a herd migrating! And I was also a little bit interested in Medieval ideas of “humours” , [each season being connected to certain human characteristics], with summer being more sexually motivated. It was also a way to structure the desires of the group and to counterbalance the pop nature of the writing. I also like this medieval way of structuring time compared to contemporary seasons on TV or episodes. It’s a different way of structuring emotions and time.

Knight: I’m also curious about your influences. You come from an art background so you obviously think about film differently than someone who went to film school. Your film reminded me a bit of Hal Hartley’s films.

Crotty: I’be been told this but I’m actually not very familiar with his films […]. I certainly watch a lot of movies but my thinking about films comes more from contemporary art strategies. In our day and age, films have usually a touch of realism. The character of Travis who is the protagonist of the last part of the film – he is someone who comes back from the war and has a really tough time adjusting to domestic life and ends up killing himself by jumping off a tree. So if you were casting this character in a film with a realist vein, you would probably choose someone who looks like a father and soldier, someone strong and a bit older. But the actor who plays Travis is this poetic, tragic-looking boy. So this is counter-intuitive casting. And this is something that in contemporary art practice is very common, it is very common to play around with these things. And the sense of play and playfulness is perhaps really important in the film.

Knight: You also play around with gender stereotypes, you turn gender stereotypes up-side-down. There are some incongruous scenes, such as the daughter hitting her father at the beginning. And having Roger be the tragic romantic figure whereas the female characters are pragmatic if not a bit predatory.

Crotty: Yes, totally. When I watched TV shows like Modern Family or shows in the US where they try to bring in a gay character, it makes you wonder what is the end game of homonormativity in culture. The Roger character is a very empathetic character but also quite funny, he is also conservative in a way that is difficult for gay men in our culture to be: he never had premarital sex, he dropped out of school to have a child, things that don’t normally happen to a man.

Knight: But he’s also quite convincing in this role!

Crotty: Yes, I even see aspects of myself in this character and also aspects of men and women that I know.

Knight: Considering your fascination with TV dialogue, would you considering writing for TV in the future?

Crotty: I would certainly consider it, for primarily financial reasons! But I don’t have much experience…I know that in the US there are a lot of TV channels and that creates a lot of opportunities. Channels like HBO for instance – you can offer something quite extreme on these channels because people subscribe to the entire channel whereas with a film you really have to cater to a large audience and that means taking higher risks. But that could change, I don’t know if that will continue or not.

The Kindergarten Teacher: Art Won’t Save the World in Nadav Lapid’s Daring Second Feature

The Kindergarten Teacher is the latest work of Israeli auteur Nadav Lapid. As astounding as his 2011 film Policeman that hailed Lapid as one of art cinema’s most promising newcomers, The Kindergarten Teacher is a precisely conceived and intricately photographed film about a young teacher who becomes obsessed with the poetry of a 5-year-old pupil and sets out to protect him from a father and society that are too superficial to appreciate him.

The Kindergarten Teacher premiered as a Special Screening in 2014 Cannes’ Critics Week sidebar, was most recently shown at NDNF 2015 and will have its theatrical release in NYC on July 31 at Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

Below is an interview with Nadav Lapid taken at !f Istanbul, February 2015.

Nadav_Lapid

Israeli auteur NADAV LAPID

Dana Knight: This was one of the most beautiful and intriguing films I saw at !f Istanbul and they have a very strong line-up here! I know there’s an autobiographical element to your film, the poems in the film are actually your poems, the child-poet character being inspired by your own experience with poetry at age 5.

Nadav Lapid: The poems in the film are poems that I was reciting when I was even younger than the kid in the film. The first poem called Hagar, was a desperate love poem to the older sister of a friend of mine. I was 4 and a half and she was 7 years old. And it went on like this for 2 years and a half. Twice a week, I would start walking back and forth and declare that “I have a poem”.

Knight: That’s amazing. Who was writing them down?

Lapid: My nanny, she was an actress, she inspired the nanny in the film. But when I was seven I stopped and for two or there months I didn’t write any poems. Until I recited the last one, the Separation poem, which is also the last poem in the film. This was probably also a separation from poetry, I don’t know. But since then I never wrote a poem in my life.

Knight: Why do you think you made the decision to separate from poetry at such a young age?

Lapid: I have to add I have no concrete memory of the moments I was reciting the poems. For me, there are the texts and the stories but I don’t remember myself doing this activity. But I have a kind of vague but also clear memory of my decision to stop. For me it was a question of following my instinct. It was also around questions of manhood, Israel is a very viral society. At the time I was being influenced by Israeli concepts of manhood and poetry didn’t seem like an appropriate activity for young Israeli men – too sensitive, too fragile, too exposed. But there was also this survival instinct, in a way being too sensitive is like going against a certain spirit that exists in society. […] And people who are sensitive […] understand that in order to be a dominant part of society, they should envelop their sensitivity with a certain toughness and roughness, etc. Not long ago I was interviewed for an Israeli radio programme about literature and I was talking with a poet about my decision to stop writing poetry. Since I decided to quit poetry, I never wrote another poem in my life. And today I can’t imagine myself writing poetry. I published a few novels. And she said that for her this talent is a kind of gift that you get and once you give back a gift, you’re not going to get it back.

Knight: But you incorporated the poetry in your films.

Lapid: Yes that’s true. During the years, I knew about the existence of these poems but this episode ended for me with a bitter taste, it was a kind of failure in a way. I didn’t want to hear about these poems too much. It’s only now, after 30 years, that I decided to look at them again.

Knight: In the film the poem called “Parting” anticipates an actual parting. Both a parting from poetry and also from the teacher.

Lapid: Yes, in the film the poem function as a declaration of parting, the kid tells the teacher and us how it’s going to end.

Knight: If poetry is under siege from contemporary society, and considering that poetry stands for art in general, is art also in danger?Or cinema for that matter?

Lapid: Totally. This may be my way to attach myself to this childhood experience today but poetry stands for every artistic activity that insists on containing contradictions and complexity, something that is not easily read or interpreted. Art lives a little bit on this strange dimension between strange and arbitrary and at the same time – essential and really important. Poetry on one hand is almost nothing, you turn your head and the poem is gone, on the other hand it aspires to talk on the deepest levels of existence. And this also applies to certain films, films that are in danger of being marginalised. If poetry or a certain cinema become marginal, ask yourself: will that cinema survive and should it survive? In a way, one of the powerful things about poetry is that a poet sits at 3am in front of his computer and writes some words on a piece of paper, it’s extremely personal, it’s very small but at the same time it speaks to all humanity and it becomes an existential hymn of people all over the world. It’s something very small and very big at the same time. And the same thing happens when you make certain films. Not in a studio in Hollywood, I’m talking about small, intimate films with a small budget and a small crew […]. These films talk about humanity in a much more sensitive way, they are small but universal and ambitious.

But there’s a moment when the marginalisation of such art starts to penetrate also the art itself. I’m thinking of films like Persona. The time when they were done became the symbol of a generation. But when Persona is shown to 35 addicted cinephiles at Lincoln Center, you ask yourself: this art should be intimate but also not intimate. If it’s only intimate, it’s almost like writing to a drawer…

the-kindergarten-teacher poster

Knight: Something that surprised me about the story world is the subtle but pervasive cruelty that defines the relationships between characters. For instance, the relationship between the teacher and the child starts as one of protector/victim, the child being the victim who needs protecting from society. But these dynamics are turned around at the end: the teacher becomes the victim of the child who gives the impression of an instinctive seducer…

Lapid: I agree. This cruelty is based on the fact that… sometimes people are just mean or cruel one to the other because of jealousy. But it’s as if each one of them is following their own “agenda” (we say “melody”), without a real capacity to be open to the others. Very often this “melody” is in contradiction to the others, or the characters just don’t connect. In the Kindergarten Teacher, the teacher really looks for a slight gesture of grace, of affection, of thankfulness from the kid but he is very ungenerous with her. He gives her so little and she grasps each small gesture, each gaze, each word that he gives her, and then he’s closed off again. Maybe it’s because he’s enjoying this disposition, his seductive power but maybe also because he has his thing, he’s egocentric. But then each one of them is egocentric. In a way there’s no real dialogue between them. Even when two people in the film are talking, each one of them gives an essential and existential monologue. She goes to see the kid’s uncle, she talks about herself, he talks about himself. When she goes to see his father, she talks about her view, he talks about his view. When she talks with the nanny, the nanny is completely preoccupied with herself. Each of these characters are preoccupied with their own declaration of existence. What people are doing in the film: they pretend to be talking to each other but in the end, they are standing in front of the camera and give their declaration of existence. They declare themselves all the time. And these declarations, quite often, are in contradiction. It’s very rare that they really communicate.

Knight: The camerawork is very suggestive of this, you generally frame characters separately rather than grouping them within the frame. How did you conceive of the film style for this film?

Lapid: There’s something in the film that is a bit off all the time. We observe the kindergarten teacher and we observe the kindergarten teacher observing the universe, especially the kid. And I try not to make everything about separation.  There are sequences in the film where in one shot you pass from the subjective look to the objective look, from the inside to the outside where everything is mixed.

I generally use long, complicated, elaborate sequences and shots. But the idea of doing this with twenty five 5-year old kids looked impossible. When we started rehearsing with the kids, I realised it was impossible to contain or to control them. Secondly, it wouldn’t be interesting. If you make a film about kindergarten, kids should be not only a story element, but a material element, an essential element, on the screen not only in the script.

So it’s about the combination between the camerawork that is very elaborate and planified and people who don’t always respect the camera, they have their own order, either they get too close, or they stand in the middle. A little bit like the communication, the camera wants one thing but they either go with it or against it, they each have their own music. And this created a contradiction. A little bit like the poetry: turning an unclear, wild thing into a very well-constructed framework. So this decided the style of the movie

Also, I wanted to avoid the cliche of poetic films. There are films about poetry with very “poetic” shots. In the editing, the film is always moving between high and low. For instance in the fantasy scene with the nanny, you see the sea behind her, it’s very sublime then you see the sidewalk.

Knight: Talking about working with children, where did you find the child who plays the main character? His performance is quite extraordinary.

Lapid: The child is very young. […] Normally you would choose an older child who looks younger. But we decided on this child who celebrated his 5th birthday during the shoot. Generally at this age, there’s something that combines a huge imaginative and verbal capacity and unsteadiness on a physical level. The child can recite sublime words and almost fall when walking to and fro. I like this because this is the contradiction, he is a walking paradox. The difference between what he says and his face or his body or his height.

We found this kid in a gym class in a small suburb of Tel-Aviv. He comes from a middle-class family, his mother works in a bank, his father is an engineer. They have nothing to do with art, theatre and the kid never acted before. For me, he had this combination: on one hand, he’s not the cliche of a strange kid. He’s a normal kid but at the same time you feel that he’s troubled, he’s secretive, he’s busy in his mind. Working with him was quite easy […]. He had a real talent for grasping the emotional situation in each scene. […] So we didn’t talk about the script that much. Usually I don’t talk with actors about the script, we talk about scenes. I like it when actors have their own will and don’t care about the script, the script is my problem.

Knight: You want your actors to just inhabit the characters, without trying to convey an interpretation of them?

Lapid: Exactly, just inhabit the characters. There are 1,000 scenes in the life of a character, and only 50 are being shot.

Knight: There’s also a lot of humour in the film, I’m thinking of the poetry class and the discussion about the poem’s possible meanings. They all come up with different interpretations and they argue about it. Also the poems themselves: they come across as something deep and suddenly there’s a casual, throw-away line such as “or something like that”. It’s funny, I liked the light touches in the film.

Lapid: Yes, the French call that “décalé”. As if the script stands suddenly aside, two meters from what you see.

Knight: There’s an ironic distance.

Lapid: Exactly, there’s a distance that has been created. For instance the poetry classes, one might see it as a bit of a joke. When the teacher talks about the poem Hagar and says that this is the poem of someone who saw so much beauty. And we know it’s the poem of a 5-year old kid and what has he seen? So yes, it’s a bit ironic but this is also the strength of art, of poetry. We have this tendency to make a psychology of art all the time. But art is this wonderful, mysterious thing. The fact that someone who lived all his life in Manhattan can make an unbelievable film about a young, Black girl who lives in Nigeria. People can go to all sorts of places that they have never visited personally in real life. You see this total disconnection between art and autobiography.

Knight:  To end on this note, where does it all come from, art and inspiration and creativity? You are in the best position to try to explain this mystery. Where did the poems come from?

Lapid: When you ask this question, you ask the question of the kindergarten teacher. And this was also my decision because the film could have centred on this kid-poet. But the film focuses on the kindergarten teacher, the one who doesn’t have the words, who doesn’t have the poems, who cannot write, who has all the intentions, all the means and the will but doesn’t have the thing itself. That’s why she has to raise the question. It’s an excellent question that I think we’ll never have an answer to! Where do the words come from? In a way, the film is the fantasy of any art lover: to be able to sit with say, Nuri Bilge Ceylan while he’s making Once Upon A Time in Anatolia and trying to understand where the shots come from. Here, she suddenly has the opportunity, she has a small Borges…

Knight: Under her apparent control… It’s just that he’s not under her control at all.

Lapid: Exactly. But at least she can physically observe him while reciting the poem and she can try to stimulate creativity in him: the scene where she gets him to look at the rain, where she smashes an ant to evoke cruelty. She sees him when reciting the poems but she doesn’t have the answer. But art is a mystery. […]

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.

NEW DIRECTORS NEW FILMS 2014 – ALBERT SERRA and the Paranoia of Cliché

serraALBERT SERRA graduated from Barcelona University with a degree in Spanish and Comparative Literature before embarking on his cinematic career with Crespià, the film not the village. He made his international debut with Honour of the Knights, a reworking of Don Quixote which he wrote, directed and produced. The film received its premiere in the Directors’ Fortnight at the 2006 Cannes Festival and was named one of the best films of the year by Cahiers du Cinéma. It has won awards at festivals across the globe due to the originality and purity of its distillation of Cervantes’ novel: two lone figures walk in silence and commune with the landscape. Serra’s next film, Birdsong, tells the story of the journey of the Three Wise Men. It was filmed in black and white at locations in northern Europe, with the same actors, it screened and won awards at many international festivals (including Munich, Toronto, Vancouver, Mar del Plata, London, Rotterdam and Los Angeles). After completing this trilogy, Albert Serra was named one of the 15 key directors of the decade by the magazine Film Comment.

His most recent film, Story of my Death, won the Golden Leopard at the 2013 Locarno International Film Festival.

story-of-my-death posterThe following conversation is part of a Q&A with the Catalan filmmaker that took place at MoMA, New York City as part of  NEW DIRECTORS NEW FILMS 2014.

This festival has described you as a master of “cinematic antiquity” and certainly choosing Casanova and Dracula as subject matter would lend itself, in a romantic way, to that idea, but you’re a young man so why would this designation fit?

Serra: Not only that, I think what is against this idea of antiquity is nonprofessional actors. Also in my previous films, about Don Quichote, about the three wise men of the Bible. In this one it was more by chance as I don’t want to waste time explaining the plot. So I thought let’s use a plot that everyone knows in our Western culture. From this point I can really work on what I love. Time is quite important in my films, and this is quite a sophisticated work compared with the previous oneS, which were more contemplative. In this film, the contemplative side is still there but the film is much better with a little bit of narrative, even if it’s abstract.

The subject of the film is something that everybody understands: the trouble with the century of light, rationalism, sensualism, the century based on communication. Slowly this century is confronted with and has to face another world, that is darker, more violent, more romantic. For me the important thing was to deal with these two subjects and link it with pleasure.

The origin of the film was a commission. A Romanian producer asked me to make a film on Dracula, but I wasn’t interested in Dracula at the time. Not even now. For me it wasn’t an interesting subject. But later I was reading Casanova’s memoirs and I thought why not? why not make a film about that, since they share the same subject in different ways, they are both linked with pleasure, desire, why not ask where is real pleasure, where real desire is satisfied, where social pleasure ends and real pleasure starts, or where this real pleasure ends and calculation starts. Where this calculation ends and fatalism begins. These two different approaches to pleasure, this was the real goal.

So you take on corporeal desire and the desire for the body but you mask it behind these costumes, these layers and layers and layers of costume. So is it a challenge for you and for the audience to unmask these layers of desire behind the façade of your filmmaking, which is also incorporating the set design, the costume design?

Serra: It’s difficult to answer this question. But that’s not all, also you have to link it with non-professional actors because in this case the truth of the film will come from the people I work with. It was a real and realistic search. For example, there is mystery in the film. A friend of mine at the end of the film said: “It’s a film about hypocrisy”. I didn’t  understand what he was talking about at that time. But then I realised it was an interesting point of view because you never know what the characters are thinking, what are their real worries, their desires, what they are looking for. But this is also linked with the way I work, very strange, because I don’t know anything about what is happening in the film. In a sense it’s like a Warhol film, I don’t judge what they are doing while I am doing it, I simply shoot and focus on what I like. And that’s going on, going on, going on…and I really don’t know what I am doing when I am doing it.

Godard said: there are people who are shooting with the camera and other filmmakers who are shooting with the projector. But the projector doesn’t record. So you can shoot what you have in front of you, in front of the camera or you can shoot what is behind the camera, what is in your mind. I prefer what is in front so I’m very sensitive to that.

But you chose nonprofessional actors and you also chose to give them instructions rather than have professional actors who may have taken your script and run with it in their own way…

Serra: No, that’s not true, no instructions….

story of my deathSo what did they have when you engaged them and gave them a script?

Serra: No, it’s like a performance, I don’t care about my own thoughts. And I never saw the faces of the actors when I was shooting. Obviously I don’t have any monitor or any camera or any screen, I never check anything, I never look at what’s happening. But I’m not the only one, the Drive director, Nicholas Winding Refn does this too. A journalist friend of mine was on that shooting and he said: “he’s all the time with the headphones on, listening to his own music”.And Warhol, have you seen Chelsea Girls? What is he doing, he’s talking on the telephone with the actors.

That’s quite informative but at the same time language is extremely important to you. 

Serra: This is true but I think the beauty of the film is in this strange point that you never know when the performance ends and when some kind of script starts. All the people ask me: are the dialogues improvised?Because there is some mystery. And I was very proud of this question because usually when you have some historical, philosophical content, you always feel the presence of the scriptwriter behind. Here I like the fact that the actors are quite wild and you never know what is actually improvised.

But you knew with these actors that they knew the language…

Serra: You never know…you can imagine but…I am an actor also of the film, I’m always on the same level as the actors, I have the same information. This is the point: I am an actor also when I am directing. I am playing my own role, it’s part of the shooting of cinema. I don’t know if at the end of the script we can see this point but for me I decided to make cinema just to live a different life, at least at the shooting. Then, ok, life is mediocre, we cannot escape that. But at least on the shooting, you need to be able to live a different life. And with different values that will not be allowed in real life. So putting yourself as a filmmaker on the same level as the actors, on the same level of information, is important. Even if I have the general concept of the film inside my head, it’s quite general and I try to forget it.

I have to confront you a little bit, because you started this conversation with the challenge that this is not mediocrity, this is excellence, which we happen to agree, but you just insinuated that perhaps mediocrity could have inflicted the process. I see a discrepancy here. 

Serra: The idea is to have purity of perception, of time, space, actors, the beauty of small gestures, a small sentence. Just to rediscover the beauty of this quotidian thing that our daily life has completely destroyed, because we get used to it. And for this reason, professional actors are not better, it’s a performance, you can’t describe in any other way. Obviously it’s a closed concept, it’s a closed film, it’s a feature film, it’s not life.But at the same time I try to keep this real mystery and it’s the only way I found to create mystery in the film. If someone knows another way, ok, no problem. But the only way I found to create mystery with the actors was this performatic way of working. And I think it’s the future of film because otherwise it’s boring. Because it’s in the middle:something that is being recorded or it’s being filmed, and it’s a concept, but at the same time it allows you a beautiful point of view, if you are focused on what is in front of the camera and not on what is behind. And now the film is showing in a museum.

story-of-my-death-001The film is a gorgeous work of art, particularly in the last section: every shot was like a painting and the lighting was extraordinary, it was like Rembrandt. Can you talk about the cinematography and the lighting?

Serra: It’s difficult to say because I’m more focused on the actors.They are not really aware of what’s happening, there is the concept, the idea of the century of light, the 18th century, going into romanticism, the darker…

But the lighting and cinematography was the result of careful work, that was not random…

Serra: No, it wasn’t accidental but I like the fact that it looks accidental. You can never get the same kind of feeling if it’s prepared. Why? Simply because the technique in this kind of film has to follow acting, the inspiration of the actors is much more important, and they cannot wait until technique is ready. It’s always the opposite: technique has to follow the inspiration of actors, the inspiration of the filmmaker that acts like an actor. So it’s very difficult and very subtle. If you prepare it, you lose something.

But I think this is what we recognise as your inspiration because if you hadn’t thought through that, it wouldn’t have worked. So whether or not you acknowledge it, if it hadn’t worked, if we couldn’t have seen what the actors were doing, in the light that you had envisioned, it would have been a failure. But it did work so you must have thought of something in advance. 

Serra: Obviously. But the main point is that the filmmaker has the same knowledge as the actors and everybody. He’s not above everybody. Ok he has the concept, he controls the concept. He has the faith with the concept, not that he controls the concept. And yes it’s a closed concept because if not it wouldn’t be a feature film, it would be a ridiculous experimental school film. But this is not an experimental thing, it’s a feature film. So the concept has to be closed. But after that, I don’t have more information, I don’t want to have more information. Actually my way of working is that every time I try to destroy what was filmed before. When I have the concept of the film and the script, the film tries to destroy all the meanings, all the ideas that were in the concept. When I shoot the film, I try to destroy everything. Because I am scared of cliché. I’m like a paranoid who is scared of cliché. So when I’m shooting, all these ideas that were beautiful in the script, when I shoot it, if I see that something that is similar to what was in the script, I immediately think: “oh, this will be a cliché”. I became totally paranoid so I say to myself: “you have to go against that”. And in the edit it’s the same thing, I try to destroy all the meanings that were there before, because of the paranoia of cliché.  And on the post-production I am destroying what I made in the edit. For example, the film was shot in 4.3, but at the end I thought it was better in 2.35. And cinemascope is completely the opposite. But it’s ok, it’s part of the performance of the film, it’s more unpredictable. Otherwise you have a perfectly composed film. And my film is also perfect, but in a different way. Like with the actors, I shot a lot of hours, 400 hours for a 2h feature. But I’m not the only one, modern cinema has many interesting filmmakers who work in this way. Otherwise it’s boring.

You are an auteur, a torchbearer of the past generation, but you are rejecting that.

Serra: It was something that was very common in the past. And I come from the art world. Not in the sense that I studied or worked in art schools. But my main influence was art people from the beginning of the avant-garde, the attitude. Also take music for example: you can go to a live concert and say “the sound is terrible, the singer was drunk, and the people, you see them crying, it’s horrible”. But at the same time you can feel some magic, sometimes, that you cannot see in a perfect recording with a better sound, with all the time in the world, trying to do rehearsals and do it again and again and again. And we all here have experienced the same thing, that in a live concert, there is some kind of magic that you cannot achieve otherwise, despite the best sound, the best musicians, the best music studios…and then the final result is boring. And you can apply this kind of thinking to cinema. Because cinema has been academic, always. You go to art school and they say “do whatever you want, you are free, you are an artist”, you don’t need to justify yourself. But you go to film school and no, putting cows in the shooting, this will never get you good results!

Unless they explode…Another thing that seduced me about your film was the tone and the movement of the film, it seemed so controlled and so subtle at the same time. How did you manage to keep that movement in the editing room?

Serra: I edited the film myself, it took me one year and a half, so it was really really very difficult work. The edit adds something. My main goal in the edit was to create a fantasy which only really existed on the screen.  For example, in the scene where Dracula asked the girl to go to the castle, to cross the river for the first time. I shot that  scene for three hours, always making variations, I never repeat the same scene. Even if I like something a lot, I never say, “do it again”. Always some variations of the same subject, using the same words. It depends on the actors. So I have three hours of that, same dialogue, going on, coming back. Then in the edit I rewrite all the dialogues on paper. For three hours of shooting you have 24 pages of dialogue. And I start editing the film on paper. So I would choose a question from the first page and then pick an answer that is on the fifth page. And that’s because I like the poetry and lyrical aspect of that combination. Then again a question that is on page 20 and so on. And it’s really open, there are so many possibilities. And at the end when I’m really tired, I decide and I usually I keep the last version. Then maybe in the final edit I cut something. But in general I keep the whole scene.So what happened? What you see in the film, it’s the first time it exists, this dialogue was never done in reality, no one thought about that dialogue before, no screenwriter who wrote it, no actors who performed it. It means that it only exists on the screen, it’s like a fantasy. And it’s the same with 4.3 and cinemascope. OK, the film was shot in 4.3 but in the end I thought it was better in 2.35. So what you see is a new image, an image that never existed in reality. Also for the structure of the film, sometimes I edit one scene before another because I like the last frame. The physical combination of the last frame with the next frame. I don’t care about what’s happening from the narrative point of view. So in some sense, the film you see here was really born on the screen, it never existed in reality, it’s a cinematic performance. It has the values of performance in the sense that it’s really unpredictable but at the same time it has the values of cinema, the fact that in the edit, even in a strange way, somebody really controlled it and worked for having a more intense and more sensitive perception of time, space, characters. Somebody was really focusing on showing that.

What can you tell us about the music you chose for the film?

Serra: It’s the first film in which I use music, it’s part of the subject of the film that is this mix of artificial and ultranaturalistic. When you see these actors, you feel that it’s wild, no professional actors, but I like also the artificial side of the film. And music is part of it in some sense. I wanted to add a new layer. It’s obvious that it’s strange music, made specifically for the film. And that would be a beautiful contrast with the wildness of the actors, and of the edit, which has a raw quality. Even the image, although it’s beautiful, it’s always strange. It’s an imbalance, the values of the film are imbalanced.But this is what I like. I decided to make cinema just to live a different life. 

Art et amour du cinéma – L’inoubliable ALAIN RESNAIS vu par SANDRINE KIBERLAIN

 

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Alain Resnais

Alain Resnais laisse derrière lui une oeuvre  impressionnante : Oscar du meilleur court métrage (Van Gogh), trois César du meilleur film (Providence, Smoking / No Smoking, On connaît la chanson), deux César du meilleur réalisateur (Providence, Smoking / No Smoking) et six autres nominations dans cette catégorie, deux fois Prix Jean Vigo (Les statues meurent aussi, Nuit et brouillard), Lion d’or à Venise (L’Année dernière à Marienbad), Lion d’argent de la meilleure mise en scène à Venise (Coeurs), trois fois Prix Louis-Delluc (La guerre est finie, Smoking / No Smoking, On connaît la chanson), Grand prix du jury à Cannes (Mon oncle d’Amérique) et Prix exceptionnel du jury pour Les Herbes folles et l’ensemble de son œuvre, deux fois Ours d’argent à Berlin pour la meilleure contribution artistique (Smoking / No Smoking et pour On connaît la chanson et l’ensemble de sa carrière).

Un vrai aventurier du 7e art, un curieux capable d’adapter les thèses d’un biologiste (Mon oncle d’Amérique), un fait divers réel (Stavisky)  ou une pièce d’Henry Bernstein (Mélo).

Son dernier film, Aimer, boire et chanter (ou Life of Riley) remporte le Prix Alfred Bauer à Berlinale 2014. Décerné à un film qui ouvre de nouvelles perspectives dans l’art cinématographique ou offre une vision esthétique novatrice et singulière, ce prix est symboliqye pour l’ouvre entière d’Alain Resnais dont l’esprit avant-gardiste l’a poussé en permanence à se risquer sur des territoires inexplorés.

Dans un interview pris à Berlinale 2014, l’actrice française Sandrine Kiberlain parle avec amour de cet unique réalisateur, en nous faisant un portrait très personnel de l’homme comme du cinéaste Alain Resnais.

Que pensez-vous du personnage que vous jouez dans Aimer, boire et chanter?

Sandrine: Je pense qu’elle est fragile quand le film commence, elle est prête à vivre une nouvelle vie avec un nouvel homme, plus posé que ce George qui a l’air d’être un tourbillon,  un courant d’air, un séducteur…Et la vie va la surprendre et va la déstabiliser. En fait, ce George sur lequel tout le monde fantasme puisqu’il n’est pas là, puisqu’on ne le voit pas, va être un révélateur pour chacun d’eux. Et Monica en particulier est très fragilisée parce que : est-ce que l’homme qu’elle a choisi est le bon? est-ce que revenir en arrière serait mieux? […]

Est-ce vous pouvez me parler de votre travail d’actrice avec Alain Resnais?

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Sandrine Kiberlain

Sandrine: Le travail, ça a été d’abord de le rencontrer. Alain ne peut pas s’engager à choisir une actrice sans être à 100% sur de son choix. Moi je pensais que c’était fini, je n’aurais plus la chance de travailler avec lui parce qu’il est très fidèle, c’est toujours une famille avec Alain. Donc là j’ai l’impression d’être entrée dans sa famille. Donc ça a été d’abord ça, le rencontrer et être choisie par lui. Une fois que vous êtes choisie par lui, ce choix représente déjà son univers, représente déjà la confiance qu’il vous porte et à partir de là le travail se déroule très naturellement parceque vous êtes choisie et vous vous dites qu’il vous aime, qu’il a envie que vous soyez dans sa famille, dans sa maison. Et donc après j’ai lu le scénario et après il nous a demandé à chacun d’écrire l’histoire de nos personnages. Et moi j’ai fait un dessin. Je sais qu’Alain est très sensible au dessin, on a parlé beaucoup de ça justement, c’est quelqu’un très curieux mais qui s’inspire beaucoup de ce que vous êtes, de qui vous êtes, voilà, il a envie de vous connaitre aussi. Il n’impose rien, Alain, il veut juste être sur de la rencontre. Après il s’en fout, quoi. Mais j’ai rien lu avant, j’ai reçu le scénario, j’ai travaillé  comme d’habitude, spontanément…Il m’a dit le dernier jour du tournage qu’on était liés  par le coeur… Moi je suis d’accord.

Sur le plateau Alain fait l’impression d’un magicien.  Comment est-il dans la vie, est-ce que vous pouvez nous faire un portrait d’Alain Resnais?

Sandrine: Dans la vie il est, je crois qu’Alain aime dire, il le dit dans son film, il dit que les gens n’ont pas d’âge. Je crois que j’ai presque vingt ans de moins que Sabine, ou qu’André…et on ne le sent pas. On sent que je suis peut-être un peu plus jeune mais on est tous jeunes et le plus jeune du group c’est Alain. C’est comme si l’on était tous les matins dans une maison avec, on n’est que des enfants et on joue à Monica, Colin, Catherine et les autres. Et Alain c’est quelqu’un qui est extrêmement passionné, créatif, très très fou du cinéma. Moi quand je l’ai rencontré il était chez lui, assez fatigué et le jour où il  a pris la caméra, le jour où il était sur le tournage il avait quarante ans de moins. Parce qu’il est dans son univers, parce que c’est là où il exprime son imagination, ses rêves, et ça le fait rajeunir, ça le fait… c’est sa vie quoi. Et il a un regard curieux sur plein de choses, il veut vraiment vous connaître, il veut vraiment être surpris tout le temps, il a beaucoup de choses à raconter, il n’est pas du tout quelqu’un qui est dans son coin, sage comme un vieil homme de 91 ans, qui est posé , non, il est quelqu’un qui a un regard qui va dans tous les sens, qui est très curieux, très rapide. Il nous parle souvent des animaux et des petits lézards par exemple. Et il a un truc comme ça, un  regard rapide, entre l’enfant et le lézard, je ne sais comment dire, il est très drôle, et je pense qu’il ait une vie très riche,il aime beaucoup les autres, je pense qu’il s’intéresse à plein de choses, je pense que l’amour le passionne, les femmes le passionnent, le cinéma le passionne.

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Alain Resnais

Pourquoi aime-t-on tellement les films d’Alain Resnais?

Sandrine: C’est mystérieux, quand on tombe amoureux de quelqu’un, on ne sait pas pourquoi on tombe amoureux…C’est un ensemble, c’est presque même pas possible de dire pourquoi. Parce que j’aime ses films, et j’aime ce qu’on dégage de ses films, sa façon d’interroger l’amour, les sentiments, de traiter les personnages. Je le trouve très jeune dans sa tête, il était très subtil et très courageux dans ses films. Aucun de ses films ne se ressemblent, mais tous ses films, si on cache le nom du réalisateur, je sais que c’est un film de lui. Et c’est sa passion pour les acteurs, les actrices, le travail que Sabine a fait avec lui au cour des années, c’est incroyable.

Le film est une adaptation de la pièce de théâtre d’Alan Ayckbourn. Ca se traduit bien en français, qu’en pensez-vous?

Sandrine: Oui. Et Alain, il voulait vraiment que tout soit anglais. Pour qu’on y croit, il voulait que les cigarettes soient anglaises, que mes chaussures soient anglaises. La costumière disait, “non, on ne peut pas changer, il faut que ça soit anglais”. J’ai des chaussettes anglaises. Et peut-être que ça a l’air idiot mais c’est très important parce que  surtout on sent qu’on est anglais, quoi?Les tasses qu’on avait étaient des tasses anglaises, le service…Il avait envie d’être fidèle à l’écriture qu’il défendait, et puis je crois que c’est des contraintes comme ça qui lui donnaient une vraie liberté, avec ces contraintes-là il se permettait plein de choses, rester fidèle à son imaginaire. A la fois c’est  fermé et très ouvert, je trouve. Il est intelligent, Alain, il nous amène dans les maisons de chacun, l’ouverture c’est un peu par le dessin qu’elle arrive, par des routes, des chemins et des voitures etc…mais il ne triche pas, il a envie de raconter l’intérieur, qu’est-ce qui se passe à l’intérieur de chacun d’eux, et ce qui se passe à l’intérieur de ce couple-là, et de ce couple-là.Il a choisi le parti pris du décor, du studio, un peu par obligation au début parce qu’il n’avait pas les moyens de faire de vrais décors de châteaux, de fermes et des trucs, ça lui aurait coûté une fortune. Et aussi, il disait qu’il en avait marre des portes dans le film, il ne voulait plus voir de portes. Il disait que dans tous les films il y avait quantité de portes qu’on ouvrent, qu’on ferment, des couloirs, des portes, il voulait pas ça. Donc il a inventé autre chose mais c’est vrai qu’il en ressort un film qui tourne entre trois endroits. Mais c’est subtil, je trouve. Et il y a un travail de lumière aussi sur les saisons, le temps qui passe. On était tous dans un grand studio mais quand on voit le film on est quand même dans des maisons différentes, avec des saisons différentes. Et ça c’est que la lumière, les effets de décor et ce qu’on raconte.

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Caroline Sihol, Sandrine Kiberlain et Sabine Azéma dans Aimer, Boire et Chanter

Comment pensez-vous que l’histoire se serait passé dans un environnement français?

Sandrine: Mais l’histoire est la même en France, en Angleterre ou ailleurs. Alors, peut-être ce serait moins coloré, parce que si l’on faisait l’équivalent en  France ce serait un petit village, peut-être ce serait moins enchanté, plus sérieux en France, moins “cup of tea”, plus “un café”, voilà. Là il y a tout un truc qui chante, qui est coloré , les tissus anglais à fleurs, la campagne anglaise. Ce serait plus tourmenté  en France, plus cérébrale, plus intellectuel, plus “Madame Bovary”. Là on est plus dans Jane Austin, quelque chose de plus romantique, presque de plus adolescent, en Anglettere mais sinon cette histoire est valable dans tous les pays du monde, depuis des siècles, pour encore des siècles.

Qu’est-ce que vous attire chez les rôles que vous jouez en général?

Sandrine: L’originalité, la singularité des films, il y a des films qui ont changé ma vie, comme spectatrice. Des films de Pialat, des films de Truffaut, de Scorsese, Sidney Pollack. Le rêve pour les acteurs, c’est d’avoir tout d’un coup une histoire et un cinéaste qui ressemble à personne, comme Alain. C’est ça qui m’attire, c’est d’entrer dans le monde de quelqu’un qui a vraiment un monde à lui.

For an English audio version of this interview, please visit FRED FILM RADIO.