INTERVIEW: Matt Porterfield

porterfield

Matt Porterfield’s latest feature, I Used To Be Darker, opens theatrically in New York City on Friday, October 4 at the IFC Center and a week later in L.A. at the Sundance Sunset 5. It’s already screening in Baltimore, MD at The Charles Theater. Filmmaker Onur Tukel recently spoke to Porterfield.

I loved Matt Porterfield’s I Used To Be Darker.  It’s easy to say that.  It’s poetic and understated, features beautiful photography by Jeremy Saulnier and incredible performances by its lead actors, Kim Taylor, Deragh Campbell, Hannah Gross and Ned Oldham.  The sound design is rich but economical.  The editing is tight.  It’s flawless.  But well-made movies don’t impress me anymore.  I need to connect with what I’m watching.  I very much connected with I Used To Be Darker.   On the surface, the film is about divorce.  Kim, a singer/songwriter, has just left her husband Bill, and their daughter Abby is not happy about it.  Bill isn’t happy either, but he’s also bitter because he abandoned his own musical ambitions to provide for the family.  When Abby’s cousin Taryn arrives to their home unexpectedly, we’re allowed to observe their lives for a few days.  I’ve never gone through a divorce.  My parents stayed together and I’ve never been married.  Still, the idea of getting hitched terrifies me. I make films, I paint, I draw and write stories.  I don’t know if I do these things well, but they keep me going.  And I’ve always feared that being a husband or father would take time away from doing these things.  Art takes commitment.  Marriage takes commitment.  I imagine doing both is exceedingly difficult.  And that’s the main reason I found I Used to be Darker so intriguing.

Onur Tukel: Were your parents artists, musicians?

Matthew Porterfield: Both of my parents were teachers and my dad is a novelist and playwright, also a poet — largely unpublished — but he’s been writing his whole life. He taught English at a junior high school in Baltimore and he’d wake up every morning at 3am and type on his Royal typewriter for several hours before he had to go into work. In the 70s, he staged some work and was a big part of the avant-garde scene in Baltimore. He had a couple of plays staged in London and New York. He’s never had any of his work published but he’s still going. Every day. Read more

Interview with “Something In The Air” actor India Menuez

India Menuez in "Something in the Air"In her first scene in Olivier Assayas’ new film “Something in the Air,” Leslie, 17-year-old daugher of an American diplomat, is sitting on the grass with some other young people in a park in Italy. It is the early 1970’s. A man is playing the Phil Ochs song “Ballad of William Worthy” on a dobro guitar. Leslie introduces herself to a painter, Alain (Felix Armand). She then kisses him on the upper lip, takes his hand and leads him away. Impulsif! Leslie speaks to him in English and the sudden change of language, along with her striking beauty, heighten this remarkable introduction of a new character in Assayas’ marvelous portrait —a self-portrait in many ways— of activist student life a few years after the Spring ‘68 events that radicalized so many French youths.

It’s also a stunning entrance by the (now) 20-year-old New York actor and artist India Menuez. India’s credentials are almost a four-decade update of the flower child artist she plays in the film: graduate of an alternative high school in New York, member of the “Luck You” Chinatown-based art collective, frequently featured in style blogs and one of Papermag’s “Beautiful People of 2011.”

This summer India will play a rebellious teen in Brooklyn indie filmmaker Dustin Guy Defa’s latest feature, “Sweet Lover.” Defa (“Fever Dream”) says his team auditioned her and, “we fell in love with her. She is an intelligent and genuine actress.” “Something in the Air” opens in New York this Friday, May 3, at the IFC Center. Read my review of the film here.

India Menuez

Photo by David Swanson

Herbert Gambill: I see a lot of similarities between the students in this film and the preoccupations of students today—a renewed interest in political change, collective work, questioning values, a frustration over the delayed arrival of a better world that earlier generations seemed to think was on the horizon. I’m very curious to see what people who took part in Occupy Wall Street will make of this film—will they be heartened by it?

India Menuez: What I understand OWS to be doing is simply creating a broad call to general action. But that makes it seem a bit pointless—which I don’t think it is—because it is a choir of many different calls, which together become a kind of magical confusing song of hope. The issues are multifaceted and each of these facets are respected in their complexity with “never white wash” sticker stamp solutions attached, which becomes part of the confusion but then again gives the movement a sense of being real. I imagine a lot of it being like an elaborate tapestry, the picture we together compose of our world, this collective society, something along those lines—a collection of complicated knots. It’s complicated. Read more

INTERVIEW: Lynn Shelton

I’ve often been told I have a face made for radio.  It’s an old joke but actually holds true in my case.  Lynn Shelton, on the other hand, probably belongs somewhere shy of an IMAX screen.  Warm, funny, easy on the eyes.  I had it all set that I was going to interview her on my radio show.  Frustratingly, that didn’t quite work out timing-wise (for the moment) but I couldn’t let the scheduled interview go to complete waste.

I was particularly interested in what life on a Lynn Shelton set was like.   Having seen all four of her feature films, and having long admired the humanity that comes off the screen, I was anxious to talk. Her characters are all written with warmth and wit; utterly believable.  There was estranged Eric (Basil Harris) & Dylan (Sean Nelson), trying to find common ground out in the woods in rural Washington in “My Effortless Brilliance”.  “Humpday” reunites old friends married Ben (Mark Duplass) & unanchored  Andrew (Joshua Leonard), who agree to make an amateur man-on-man porno even though neither man is homosexual.  In her latest comedy, “Your Sister’s Sister”,  Jack (Duplass), who recently lost his brother must grapple with his romantic feelings for his widowed sister-in-law, Iris (Emily Blunt), in spite of a one night fling he had with her lesbian sister, Hannah (Rosemary DeWitt).  If it sounds complicated —and it is— the whole thing is written and performed so smoothly that you won’t miss a step.

Filmwax: Congratulations on “Your Sister’s Sister”.  I saw it and really enjoyed it thoroughly.

Lynn Shelton: Oh great, thanks.

Filmwax:  What’s your secret in creating an environment on the set in order to get the kinds of performances you do with “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister”?

Shelton: Um, well I try to have as few bodies as possible, and really, the most important thing is the right bodies. The right people. So I’m really incredibly careful about who I bring into the crew family and just as careful as I am in casting the cast.

Filmwax: Do you mean literally who you allow to be on the set?

Shelton: Yeah, yeah. I’m talking about the d.p. (director of photography) and the sound guy.  Every single person.  I’ve been an artist all my life, and I didn’t come into my own as an artist until I discovered the collaboration of narrative filmmaking. And so, I’ve been using a lot of – I mean it was decades before I really figured out,  Like: “Oh, if you let go or let loose a little bit, open up your control freak nature and let other people into the process, like, wow! The things that can happen are pretty amazing.”

And I’ve been thinking a lot about why that is, and I think that, at its best, collaboration pushes. What’s great is when you have partners who are all pushing each other. They are all being the best that they can be. One of my collaborators recently told me that, he said: “You believed in me more than I believed in myself, and I’ve done better work because of it, and work I never would have done because of it.”  And that is it in a nutshell. I think that if everybody believes in each other, more than they even believe in themselves, then they end up sort of raising the bar.  Everybody just ends up, you know, getting the best out of each other. In order to do that, you have to have an incredibly emotionally safe environment.  Making art is a very risky venture – you’re putting a little piece of your soul out there for people to just like… you know, you’re laying yourself bare when you’re being creative. Read more

INTERVIEW with Jessica Yu

Adam Schartoff: How making “Last Call at The Oasis” from an editing standpoint?  Not just cutting it, but as a filmmaker and storyteller?

Yu: With this film, I wanted the big picture. I really wanted to understand how interconnected water is with issues like quality vs. quantity, and what did climate change and regulation has done. I wanted all of that.  And knowing that was the scope of it I realized I needed to tell as much of that through stories, or else people would be overwhelmed with data. And so, that was the organizing principle in a lot of ways, the stories. It’s roughly divided into the issues of quantity, quality, and then there’s the last section:  I actually like to think of it as more the psychology behind our inertia. You know, what does it take to move forward to the next step. So that was roughly how it was laid out. But as we started, we see that in these things there is a lot of overlap, in these larger headings- like terms of quality: if you pollute your water past a certain point, you have taken that water out your supply.

Schartoff:  What I’ve taken from this is that there’s really only one body of water, in a sense.

Yu: Right, its one big lake.

Schartoff: And you know, you can pollute to an extent, but whatever pollutants you put in the water are going to find their way into your body.

Yu: The other thing that is shocking is how long those pollutants remain in the water.  Chromium can remain in the water for 400 years, which is essentially forever.

Schartoff:  It’s all very overwhelming.  An expert in your film says, “we’re screwed.”  How do we counter that mind frame?  Should people take away from the film that Is that a lot of small steps that everybody takes?  Or is it about the larger picture, like the legislative steps made by government?  Or is it a combination of the two?

Yu:  I think its all of the above. That’s a really good question, because I feel like either we tend to just completely deny or dismiss that there is a problem, right? So we don’t do anything. The other thing we do is that we get overwhelmed by how big it is- so we don’t do anything![laughs] So that’s what keeps the inertia where it is. So I think where we were getting at in the film is that everything helps, mainly because most of us aren’t doing anything. So the potential for progress is huge, but that progress could be on the personal level. I mean, it always sounds banal like: take shorter showers and something about your lawn, but you look at those efforts multiplied by many people over their lifetimes- that’s pretty huge. And of course, on the macro-level the idea that we should have better regulation. We should have water policies. We should have better technologies, we should price water appropriately- these are all things that can make a huge difference and that’s the idea. There is no silver bullet, there is silver buckshot. I like that idea, that there are many little things that add up to the impact. Read more

INTERVIEW with Melissa Nicolardi

Melissa Nicolardi

Filmwax is screening a terrific documentary on February 4th called “The Pass It On Project“.  The project is a road trip to the sites of the Civil Rights Movement for a group of Brooklyn middle schoolers and it becomes a path to re-imagining their future.  I interviewed the director of the film, Melissa Nicolardi.  It’s clear that this project was a life changer for the young filmmaker as well.

Adam Schartoff: How did you initially become involved with this school?

Melissa Nicolardi: Producer Kalim Armstrong had an interest in exploring education as a topic for a documentary film. He was introduced to the teachers through a mutual friend of theirs. We were in graduate school at Hunter College together.  He knew that I also had an interesting making a film about education and he approached me about collaborating on the project.

AS:  At what point did you decide that this project was worthy of a documentary?

MN: Kalim and I immediately agreed that the project was worthy of a documentary. I used to teach middle school, and that is such an interesting age. The kids are just starting to come into themselves and figuring out who they are and how they fit into the world around them.

The 2008 Election —the election of the first African-American president— was certainly a defining moment in US history, and probably one of the first of those moments for the students in the film. The idea of watching them process that moment by relating it back to the Civil Rights struggle was very intriguing. We had a feeling that it would be transformative for them. And it was.

We also felt that the mission of the Project —as stated by the teachers— to open up a dialogue about race and racism, history and social justice in their school- was important, and the time was ripe to put that story out into the world.

AS:  What did you learn during the course of the film that was most surprising?

MN:  The most surprising thing for me was the omnipresence, the sense of closeness to the history of the Civil Rights Movement that I felt once we got down south. I grew up in the northeast and it was my first time visiting any of the cities we went to. It’s a very different relationship to the history geographically, and it was really powerful to be there where these incredibly important, fairly recent, revolutionary events took place. That’s actually a lot of what that film is about, and it was really incredible to experience it with the kids. Read more

INTERVIEW: Ed Burns

Filmmaker Ed Burns; photo credit: Adam Schartoff © 2011

Described as something of a companion piece to his 2001 film, “Sidewalks of New York”, Ed Burns’ latest film, “Newlyweds”, is a love story shot mockumentary style, about a couple, Buzzy and Katie (Ed Burns & Caitlin Fitzgerald) each in their second marriage.

Bent on keeping their new relationship free of drama, the newlyweds are tested when Buzzy’s half-sister Linda arrives unannounced at their Tribeca condo. A whirligig of trouble, Linda (Kerry Bishé) upsets the balance, possibly for the better. Shot for a song around the streets of his Tribeca neighborhood, Ed Burns’ latest film is the result of called-in favors, new favors promised and a minuscule budget. There is an air of spontaneity and light-heartedness around this comedy. It shows in the making. According to Burns, the same day they went and purchased their camera and equipment at B&H photo in Manhattan, they decided to begin shooting.

On Demand Weekly’s Adam Schartoff sat with Ed to discuss “Newlyweds”. A year had transpired since they last discussed his last film, “Nice Guy Johnny” and the state of VOD.

On Demand Weekly (ODW): We spoke about a year ago when “Nice Guy Johnny” went on VOD. You were very outspoken and excited about your new distribution strategy of bypassing theatrical. It’s one year later, you’ve got a brand new movie called “Newlyweds” only days away from going on demand. How have your feelings evolved?

Ed Burns: Funny, Comcast is going to be releasing a press release soon, I heard, that says the viewership for independent film on demand has gone up 75% in the past 12 months. Read more

INTERVIEW: Sophia Takal

Sophia Takal loves movies. Loves making them and watching them. After the success of 2010’s “Gabi On The Roof in July” which was directed by then boyfriend/current fiancé, Lawrence Michael Levine, the two collaborated on the new “Green”. He acted & produced, she acted & directed.  A hit at this past season’s SxSW, the film then was shown at 2011 BAMcinemaFest and a number of other screenings around the States and in Europe. She was among Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces New Faces, and just this week was among Paste Magazine’s 20 Best New FIlmmakers of 2011.

Sophia and Lawrence have become friends and so I must add that I while both “Gabi on The Roof in July” (which is screening with The Filmwax Film Series on January 18th) and “Green” stand on their merit, I am absolutely biased. Lawrence, who directed “Gabi” and who stars in “Green” also plays a central role in the upcoming “Richard’s Wedding” (dir. Onur Tukel) in which I also have a minor role.

Adam Schartoff: “Green” is like an archetypal indie film. It’s really compelling and completely non-commercial film making. How do you suppose it would go over at the multiplex?

Sophia Takal: I don’t really know how anyone will react to this movie. I do feel like audiences must be tired of watching the same movie over and over again which is why it’s getting harder and harder to get people into movie theaters. There’s not that much stuff that feels new or challenging. I think if more films were put in front of them that were more challenging, they’d like them too. It’s just a matter of exposure.

Schartoff: You made an intensely personal film. Who do you think will respond strongest to it?

Lawrence Michael Levine & Sophia Takal at BAMcinemaFest screening of GREEN; photo credit: Adam Schartoff © 2011.

Takal: I think women identify pretty strongly with some of the themes. And I’m not just referring to the hipster women. I’ve had women come up to me at festivals, women in their 60s, who really understand the feelings behind the main character. So, that’s been exciting that more women are identifying with the movie who are not just my age or a similar background.

Schartoff: Were you always aware that this was a film that women in particular were going to strongly respond?

Takal: I forget at what point I began to realize that we were giving a voice to something that lots of women had expressed but I don’t know that I ever set out to do that. I think I wanted to explore something that other women around me were relating to. And from there I started thinking about my obligations to a larger audience. But it started off with just my own experience.

Schartoff: Do you think you achieved creating a message? A personal message?

Takal: I think so. That’s actually one thing I feel really good about. I put it out there and didn’t pretend these feelings didn’t exist. With “Green”, I think I made it okay for women to acknowledge that they have those feelings too. I think that’s one of the great thing about film or art in general, exposing something personal and not feeling so alienated. In this case, exposing something in myself that other people don’t necessarily want to acknowledge. Maybe those things are ugly or unattractive. Read more

Maysles & Me

Filmwax's Adam Schartoff with the great Al Maysles in the offices of Film Forum; photo credit: Bradley Kaplan (c) 2011

For even the most seasoned journalist, interviewing Albert Maysles is a pretty big deal.  I met Al a while back at a NYFVC event on documentary ethics in which he was a panelist.  I saw him sitting in the front of the auditorium before the event began and introduced myself.  He immediately began to ply me with anecdotes about “Grey Gardens” and “Gimme Shelter”.  As he was talking, I realized that I should probably be recording this for my own posterity.  So I quickly reached into my pocket and took out my iPhone and hit the voice memo app.  Here’s the link to that blog post.

More recently I was invited to a press screening of Al’s latest documentary, co-directed by his creative partner, Maysles Films President Bradley Kaplan.  The new documentary, “The Love We Make”, follows Paul McCartney around the streets of NYC a couple of weeks prior to the Concert for New York he organized after the wake of 9/11.  I immediately took advantage of the opportunity by pitching an interview with the granddaddy of docs to P.O.V., they happily accepted.  That interview appears on this blog and on POV’s.   What follows is a transcript of the entire interview.

Schartoff: Well, thanks for coming downtown for this.

Bradley Kaplan: It’s our pleasure to do something with P.O.V. We should do something with P.O.V., shouldn’t we, Al? Other than them airing Salesman a decade ago. Remember that, Al? You got a kick out of that.

Al Maysles: How recent was that? Read more

INTERVIEW with Alma Har’el

Alma Har’el is a commercial and music video director whose first feature film, the documentary “Bombay Beach”, was named Best Documentary at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.

The film focuses on the impoverished but cinematic Southern Californian outpost of the same name, with Har’el giving it some context by aiming her camera, vérité-style, at a few of its denizens, including a hyperactive 7-year-old child (Benny), his family, and CeeJay, an ambitious teenager who escaped the drugs and violence of his Los Angeles home to “make it” here. Har’el also collaborated with her subjects to incorporate dance sequences, giving the film an otherworldly dimension that inexplicably feels right.

Adam Schartoff: Bombay Beach presents a real relationship between people and place. Was that something you were conscious of creating from the start?

Alma Har’el, director of “Bombay Beach”: You know, I talk a lot but I’m really not that cerebral when it comes to making art. What you’re describing wasn’t something I thought about during the process of making the film, but with some distance, yes, it is like that

When I first visited Bombay Beach I was very much drawn to something that I know from being an Israeli, from my own past. I can relate to a place on the outskirts of society where there was once a promise and turned out very violent and disappointing to many people. But it’s a place that you live as a kid that has a history that you will never really comprehend. You might not care, though people will tell you what it used to be like. And then that mythology that sort of gets build up. Benny (one of the film’s primary subjects) touches on this when he talks about having been in jail for 100 years. He might not even know what jail is, perhaps. He’s only seven. He knows his parents were in jail but he says he was in jail. He even describes it, how it has scorpions and there’s nothing to do, no food, no television. That got to me. I was grappling with the same idea about creating a mythology that is, in fact, quite broken. The thing about Bombay Beach was that it was some place that really showed that, and I wouldn’t have to say anything or explain it. You don’t need a narrator to tell you. Every frame tells a story in that place. Read more

INTERVIEW with Danfung Dennis

Danfung Dennis is a photojournalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Time and Newsweek, to name a few. With “Hell and Back Again”, a documentary that follows a Marine sergeant from combat in Afghanistan to his transition back to North Carolina, Dennis makes his debut as a filmmaker.

Adam Schartoff, P.O.V.: How long have you been a war photographer?

Danfung Dennis, director of “Hell and Back Again”: My dad gave me my first camera when I was 13. I had studied applied economics in school but made an abrupt change to photography. I started woking in 2005 as a photojournalist. I still remember opening the book Inferno by James Nachtwey. The images were photos he shot in various conflicts over a period of 30 years. It seared into my consciousness. He was bearing witness, showing the mistakes we were making and reminding us not to repeat them. Shooting these inhumanities was a moral act on his part — images could impact people and change how they think.

Schartoff: When did you get the idea to start making documentaries?

Dennis: After a few years I felt my work wasn’t really having any impact. I felt that as a society we’ve become so inundated with still images, that they weren’t having the same impact they once did. So I wanted to take the same ideas that still images had but bring it to the new medium of filmmaking. So I brought a Canon 5D, began shooting high-quality video. I wanted to meld the ethics and methods of photojournalism with documentary filmmaking — to be an observer and let events unfold in front of the lens.

Schartoff: What kind of impact did the death of Tim Hetherington (“Restrepo”) have on you?

Dennis: Tim was an inspirational figure. He was our prince. He pioneered storytelling in so many ways. And he pushed the boundaries of film and in media in general. He was so artful in the way he made mass communication. He really inspired me and his loss was deeply, deeply saddening. In my own small way, I hope to continue his work and to honor his legacy.

Schartoff: The film is definitely not pedantic in any way but you still can’t help but read the anti-war message. Did you ever discuss the tone with Sgt. Harris?

Dennis: We actually never talked about politics. I think it’s this unspoken rule among soldiers. They were there to be professionals and to execute their orders. You’re fighting for the men around you and so you can get home. The bigger picture never came up. I never sat down with Nathan about what he thought of the war, or the film for that matter. He never saw any footage until it was finished. He trusted me to tell his story.

Schartoff: And what was your way in to “Hell and Back Again”?

Dennis: In 2009 I was embedded with the Echo Company during a very large offensive. This was a key operation to break the military stalemate that we had reached in Afghanistan. Echo Company was dropped behind enemy lines, and shortly after landing they were surrounded and attacked on all sides. The fighting was mainly focused around this pile of rubble which became known as Machine Gun Hill. That was the first day and one Marine was killed, and others collapsed from exhaustion. It was at that time when I met Sgt. Nathan Harris.

Schartoff: What were your initial thoughts about Sgt. Harris?

Read more

INTERVIEW with Jim McBride (Part 1)

The classic mockumentary 1967 “David Holzman’s Diary” makes it debut on DVD and Blu-ray today.  It hasn’t been available in years accept on a couple of websites.  It had been my intention to show the film as part of the filmwax film series and so I looked up director Jim McBride to chat with him.  He gave me a generous amount of his time for the interview.  He’s had such an interesting career that I wanted to make sure I published the interview in its entirety.  Here’s Part 1 which primarily focuses on his early career and the making of “David Holzman’s Diary and its subsequent release.  Part 2 will focus on his Hollywood years.

Adam Schartoff: Congratulations on the DVD/Blu-ray release.  People will finally have the chance to see “David Holzman’s Diary”.  The movie has a new opportunity to reach a new audience.

Jim McBride: I guess.  Maybe it was better when no one saw it.

Schartoff:  That’s a little bit nihilistic almost.  I do understand that it played at MoMA for a week.

McBride:  Yes, but I wasn’t there.

Schartoff:  No?  Scheduling conflicts or its just not your thing?

McBride: I wasn’t invited.

Schartoff:  You weren’t invited!

McBride:  Well, no one offered to pay for my plane ticket.  Anyway, it’s not an issue because I was actually up in San Francisco.  The website Fandor was doing a screening.

Schartoff:  I was already somewhat familiar with them but it wasn’t until I was doing some research on your film where I came across Fandor again.  I ended up watching it on youtube.

McBride:  You watched it on youtube? Read more

INTERVIEW with Alison Edwards

Alison Ellwood, Co-Director of MAGIC TRIP, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Interview posted on POV on June 24, 2011 (see hyperlink at bottom).  “Magic Trip” opens today at the Cinema Village in Manhattan.


Alison Ellwood, filmmaker and editor, has been collaborating with Oscar-winning documentary director Alex Gibney for many years now, spanning “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” (which was seen on PBS’ Independent Lens), “Casino Jack and the United States of Money”, “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” and “Catching Hell”. Their latest project, “Magic Trip”, with Ellwood taking the wheel this time around, takes us on a psychedelic road trip with Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and the Merry Pranksters, with entertaining — and mind-blowingly coherent — results. With the blessing of the Kesey family, Ellwood began excavating the remarkable trove of footage taken from the cross-country trips.

Adam Schartoff: Had you been of age at the time when “Magic Trip” took place, would you have joined the Merry Pranksters?

Alison Ellwood: If I had the opportunity I would have gotten on the bus, yes. Now, whether they would have had me is another question.

Schartoff: Why the Merry Pranksters of all subjects? You were knee high at that time, weren’t you?

Ellwood: When I first looked at the footage, it was shaky and the copy I was looking at was pretty lousy quality. There wasn’t a shot that lasted more than two seconds. It was dizzying to watch. But there was something about it that sucked me into it. I felt I was there. I felt I could smell the bus fumes. It felt very immersive and real to me.

I talked to some friends of mine, Joan Churchill and Hart Perry, to name two. They’re both familiar with the footage and told me I was crazy to take this on, telling me, “There’s nothing there.” I explained to them that I felt something special. It took a long time to wrangle it and get it to make any sense. But it was experiential the first time I saw it and remains so until this day. I hope other people feel the same way. We’ll see. Read more

INTERVIEW with Steve James

Filmmaker Steve James in SoHo; photo credit: Adam Schartoff (c) 2011

For Steve James’ latest documentary, “The Interrupters”, the director and author Alex Kotlowitz (There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America) spent a year following Eddie Bocanegra, Ameena Matthews and Ricardo “Cobe” Williams, three former gang members who have committed their lives to “interrupting” violence on the streets of a Chicago neighborhood..  Like in his prior films, including “Stevie”, “Joe and Max” and the universally acclaimed “Hoop Dreams”, James follows close to his subjects while keeping any agenda at a distance. The film has its share of dramatic moments, but in the end it is about redemption and love.

Adam Schartoff: Did you always want to be a filmmaker?

Steve James: No, I wanted to be a pro basketball player.

Schartoff: “Hoop Dreams” was a result of that, I suspect?

James: It was very personal for me. When I was in college and it was clear that wasn’t going to happen, I ended up in radio journalism. There was an NPR station there and I thought that would be kind of cool. Then during my senior year in college, I took a film appreciation class and I fell in love with film.

Schartoff: Were there any particular documentary filmmakers that you were inspired by?

James: I didn’t get into documentaries until I went and got an MFA in film. They didn’t have an undergraduate program (in film) where I went so I started taking some classes. I ended up just getting a degree. It was there, at Southern Illinois University, where I fell in love with documentary filmmaking. My teacher was very influential and it plugged into that radio journalist in me.

I love stories and it’s reflected in the documentaries I make. I wouldn’t make an Inside Job because I’m just more interested in following stories. It’s one of the reasons I don’t use experts. I want those people who are living in the world, the one I am filming, to be the experts. I’m more interested in what Ameena has to say than a sociologist who might have some brilliant things to say, by the way. Read more

INTERVIEW with Mike Cahill

Director Mike Cahill at BAM; photo credit: Adam Schartoff (c) 2011

With “Another Earth”, Mike Cahill has made his first feature film.  He co-wrote the script with Brit Marling who stars in the film and with whom he had already collaborated on some short film projects.  “Another Earth” is as beautiful and wistful a piece of cinema as you’re likely to see this year.  The film has its share of pain and regret, but like the enormous blue crystalline orb that hangs in the sky for much of the movie, there’s also much beauty and hope.  I ran into Cahill about a month ago, just before a screening at BAM.  When he learned that I was having trouble talking my way into the sold-out show, he excitedly pulled a ticket out of his wallet and handed it to me.  In keeping, when I e-mailed him a few of days ago for an interview, he didn’t hesitate to accept.

filmwax: Excited?

Mike Cahill: So excited! It’s opening week.  I’m in L.A. but I’m coming to New York tomorrow morning.  Doing a lot of running around but very excited.

filmwax:  My predictions are very good for the film.  I think it’s the right film at the right time.  Not sure what that’ll mean for you from a business standpoint, but I think a lot of people are going to be turned on by “Another Earth”.  I think it’s going to be a hit.

Cahill: Thank you for saying that. I really appreciate it.  I feel good.  There’s a lot of good energy around this movie.  A lot of good will.  The response has been really kind.  The Q & A’s have been really amazing all around the country.

filmwax:  When you’re at those events, does it feel like you’re preaching to the choir a little bit?

Cahill:  No, not really.  Someone told me that if you do a lot of Q & A’s you’re going to get a lot of the same questions.  That it’s going to feel repetitive.  It actually hasn’t at all.  New things always seem to come up, new dialogues unfold.   It all seems really organic.

filmwax:  This is in no way meant to “dis” the fanboy population but this movie really seems more geared to the indie crowd, the art house crowd, though there’s just enough in there for the fanboy element.  This leads me to my next point.  Here’s a story about redemption and second chances.  The science fiction almost, I say almost, feels beside the point.

Cahill:  It could easily have been a film without the second Earth.  It could’ve just been a drama between this young woman and the man whose family she destroyed.  And that could’ve worked.  But I wanted to use this other Earth, and all the potential it brings up and for all the questions it might evoke. When you put another earth up in the sky it forces the characters to deal with their internal struggle.  When there’s literally a second self out there, there’s no hiding. Read more

INTERVIEW with Errol Morris

TABLOID director Errol Morris; photo credit: Adam Schartoff (c) 2011

This interview was posted today on POV’s website: http://www.pbs.org/pov/blog/2011/07/errol_morris_tabloid_conversation.php

Errol Morris has been making movies for 33 years, painting fascinating portraits of normal people and extraordinary ones, from Randall Adams (“The Thin Blue Line”), who was wrongly convicted for the murder of a policer officer, to Vietnam War-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (“The Fog of War”) to physicist Stephen Hawking (“A Brief History of Time”) to the famously photographed Abu Ghraib guard Lynndie England (“Standard Operating Procedure”). His subjects have always captured the public’s fascination, but usually as a result of Morris’ singular storytelling style. Using his Interrotron, a machine he invented so his subjects could stare directly into the camera while having the experience of speaking directly to their interviewer, Errol Morris gives the viewer an seat in the room.

In his latest film, “Tabloid”, Morris has found a spectacular protagonist in Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming who became a tabloid sensation decades ago when she tried to kidnap the object of her obsession, a Mormon missionary. “Tabloid” is funny and lighter than the last couple of Morris’ films but no less intense or provocative. The movie shows the filmmaker, 63, at the top of his game and showing no signs of slowing down.

Adam Schartoff: You’re prolific.

Errol Morris: I seems to be all of a sudden! Not as prolific as Werner (Herzog). Werner is the prolific one. He cranks them out.

Schartoff: They don’t seem to be cranked out, but he is! I guess when you’re at the stage of making narrative versions of your own documentaries, you’re a busy guy. After making “The Fog of War” and “Standard Operating Procedure”, were you intentionally looking to do something lighter?

Morris: Yes. The critical response to “Standard Operating Procedure” was all across the board. There were people who liked it and those who didn’t. I felt the movie was harshly judged by many people. Whether I went looney tunes or not, I felt the movie was never really appreciated. It didn’t do particularly well at the box office. One of the things I liked about making “Tabloid” is that I consider myself a funny person. And this is a funny movie. People looked at “Fog of War” and “Standard Operating Procedure” and they said, “Errol, not funny! Not funny!” Read more