Feature on Filmmaker Hal Ashby

February 17, 2011 § 1 Comment

Okay, this entry isn’t an “interview” per se, but a feature.  Unfortunately, the amazing Mr. Ashby passed away when I was just a teen. But I DID interview the following Ashby collaborators and devotees for this piece;  Dustin Hoffman, Sean Penn, Jeff Bridges, Randy Quaid, Noah Baumbach, Robert Towne, Norman Jewison, Bud Cort and Bruce Dern.

These incredible people loved Ashby and so were kind enough to give me their time to sing his praises. Please enjoy. He’s one of my favorites.

It was a grey Friday morning in 1978, Malibu still wrapped in fog and damp, the sun yet to burn off the gloom. A longhaired, lanky man in jeans and an unkempt beard was standing barefoot in the wet sand, staring intently into the surf with a bemused grin. He was looking for something out there, and the grin was a sign that he’d found it.

Hal Ashby had by then already established himself as a maverick director and editor, a consummate outsider who had helmed cult classics Shampoo, Being There, and Harold and Maude (which celebrates it’s 35th anniversary this year), as well as incisive social and political explorations such as The Last Detail and Bound For Glory. He’d won an Oscar and had been nominated for several others, and as a director he would eventually lead his actors to a total of ten Academy wins.

With a reputation for adventurousness and a stubborn dismissal of studio authority, Ashby had unwittingly fashioned himself a kind of Hollywood outlaw, a lone ranger whose dedication to his work had won the loyalty of some of the great performers of the time. His co-conspirators included Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, Peter Sellers and Julie Christie, Jon Voight and Bruce Dern.

It was Dern who standing beside Ashby in that pre-dawn mist of 1978, looking hard into the same water.  The two were on the tail end of production of Coming Home, a raw and ragged exploration of the Vietnam War, starring Dern, Voight and Jane Fonda. The film would go on to garner a total of three Academy Awards, but that early morning the project was still in incubation.

Ashby and his cast were moving toward the film’s climax, a high action culmination involving a car chase and more than a few helicopters. But something wasn’t right, and as the final hour approached, Ashby, in his usual freewheeling, seat of the pants form, had decided to experiment.

“We had been out late, talking,” remembers Dern, “Hal had a feeling that the ending wasn’t going to work, that the movie he was making was supposed to finish in a different way. He didn’t know quite what he wanted, but he knew he needed to push things.”

Ashby, a plan germinating, convinced Dern to meet him a few hours later – in costume – just to see where those things might go.

“He didn’t tell the studio,” explains Dern, “or any of the other actors. I showed up at the beach and it was just the cinematographer and Hal with his hair blowing in the wind. It was freezing. And Hal told me to go into the water. My character had always been scripted as breaking down in the end, but it had been big and violent. Hal wanted to end it quietly and poignantly. So he asked me to take off my military uniform and walk naked into the water. And that’s what I did.”

Ashby spent the weekend frantically editing a rough cut of the film. On Monday afternoon he presented it to the rest of the cast and crew.

“I remember when the film ended, there was this complete silence,” says Dern, “because no one had known he was changing the ending. He’d done it all on the sly. So there was this stunned silence. Then Jane Fonda turned around and looked at Hal and I and said ‘You two bastards have just made our film into a masterpiece.”

Working parallel with Scorsese, Altman and Coppola, Hal Ashby was an integral part of the revolutionary crew who carved out the new cinema of the 1970s. He is also, in some ways, the most neglected. Despite a prolific output that includes some of the era’s finest work, there is a staggeringly small amount of recognition. People know Hal’s movies, but they rarely know his name.

“He wanted the films to come before himself,” explains Dern, “The importance was in what the films said. He always had an intense desire to expose the real truth of things.”

“A lot his characters are people who are being oppressed, by society or the government, and they’re standing up to it in their own way,” continues Randy Quaid, who would work on three of Ashby’s films, most notably The Last Detail, “They may not win, but they at least make an attempt to stand for something – to stand up for themselves.”

For two decades, Ashby elaborated, in various ways, upon these themes of truth and individualism. With Harold and Maude, he created a love story that exists far beyond the confines of societal norms. In Bound For Glory Ashby traced the true-life story of folk hero and activist Woody Guthrie. The Last Detail and Coming Home are character studies that expose the hypocrisy of militaristic control.  Shampoo is a scathing indictment of the vapidity of Hollywood high society. And in Being There, Ashby and his star, Peter Sellers, fashioned one of cinema’s great characters, Chauncey Gardener, a simple-minded man, whose utter innocence transforms him into a kind of demi-god – a man who exists so far outside as to be nearly ethereal.

“In a way, Hal was Chauncey Gardner,” says scribe Robert Towne, who would work on several films with Ashby, including The Last Detail and Shampoo, “ he had an innocence to him, a child-like quality. There was something about him that was pure.”

Ashby first arrived in Hollywood in the early 1950s, via a long, rough road. The son of a Utah dairy farmer, his childhood had been colored in the dulled shades of the Great Depression, a poverty that had eventually worn his father to the point of suicide. Hal had been twelve when he’d discovered him in the barn, dead of a bullet wound to the head.

By age 17, Ashby was on his own, fleeing the constraints of a conservative Mormon household and too many bad memories. He worked odd jobs in Utah and Nevada and by the time he reached L.A., at age 19, he had been married and divorced and had established what was to become his lifelong world view – the perspective of the quietly defiant outsider.

“His childhood was no sweet treat,” says Sean Penn, who met Ashby in 1981, “But he had a lot of joy in him, despite what had happened. I think he’d experienced so much as a kid, anything he was experiencing in Hollywood was just small potatoes. So he’d always be laughing, and he had perspective about what was important.”

The years in Utah, the religious restraint, the grueling day-to-day of the farm, the tragedy of his childhood, had transformed Hal into a young man with a strong social consciousness and a total disdain for authority. In Los Angeles he found a stark and seductive contrast to what he had known before, a lushness and experimentation that suited him well. He had stumbled upon a place where he could defy the conservatism of his upbringing and begin to establish his own identity – both philosophically and aesthetically.

“He was a rare bird,” remembers Dustin Hoffman, who would work with Ashby in the early stages of Tootsie, “way before there were hippies, he dressed the way he wanted to dress. I remember thinking that when I first met him – oh my god, look how long his hair is!’ If you didn’t know what he did, you would guess that he was a poet or that he is a painter. He had that feel to him.”

Just after arriving in Los Angeles, Ashby found a job working the printing press at Universal Studios. It wasn’t long before his distinctive look and easy charm nestled him snugly within inner loop of assistants and mailroom clerks looking to work their way up. Making up for time lost to his rural past, Ashby fell quickly in love with film, both the end product and the complexities of the process. He began lingering in the editing rooms, keeping the nightshift company and ingratiating himself until he was finally asked to step in and try his hand.

Working as an assistant editor for numerous studios, Ashby found a mentor in Bob Swank, who edited films for Hollywood stalwart William Wyler.  It was during his tenure with Swank, that Ashby would first meet Norman Jewison, an up and coming young director who would play an integral role in Ashby’s future.

“I was a huge admirer of William Wyler, so I’d gone in to talk with Swank and there was this long-haired, crazy looking guy there, who was helping to edit these incredible movies,” recalls Jewison, “We bonded immediately. Hal was always a little outrageous and we considered ourselves brothers in some way, renegades. We were both very political and liberal and we knew exactly what kind of projects we wanted to make.”

When Jewison was offered his fifth film, 1965’s The Cincinnati Kid, he persuaded MGM to hire Ashby on as editor.

“I said, ‘how about you be my editor?’ and he just smiled and said, “Man, I’d love that,’” laughs Jewison, “so I told the studio, ‘if you hire me, you hire Hal’. I was willing to put myself on the line for him, because he was brilliant and I knew it.”

The partnership was tremendously rewarding for both men. With Ashby on board as his editor, Jewison fought for scripts that echoed some aspect of the social issues the two were so desperate to explore. One of their most poignant collaborations was In the Heat of The Night, a taut drama exploring racial tensions that would win Ashby the Oscar for Editing in 1967.

By the late Sixties, Jewison had realized that Ashby’s skills could go far beyond the editing room. When another project called him away from a film he had been asked to direct, Jewison suggested that Ashby step in, providing his friend with yet another a catalyst.

“I always knew that when he got the chance to direct”, admits Jewison “he would prove he was a much finer director than I was.”

The film, a small, tightly scripted exploration of racial inequality, called, The Landlord, was the perfect fit for Ashby. With this directorial debut, released in 1970, Ashby would lay a foundation for what would become his few definably trademarks.

The gritty documentary feel and framing of The Landlord would mark all his future films, lending his work a distinct visual intimacy. He would eventually find a like-minded cinematographer and frequent collaborator in Haskell Wexler, who helped to define a verity style that matched the mood of Ashby’s films. The two developed a loose, informal way of shooting that lifted the veil from the characters and brought the audience directly into the fold.

“He was always pushing for technical innovation,” remembers Quaid, “On Bound For Glory, he used a Steadicam- for one of the first times ever. In fact, the inventor of the Steadicam was the camera operator on that film. He was never afraid to break out and try new things.”

Ashby was also natural storyteller, in the manner of the folk musicians of his childhood. He spoke of real things – those small moments that culminate in catharsis. There was an underpinning of unaffected earnestness, an honesty – that would thread through each and every one of his projects.

“You take something like Harold and Maude, which in the hands of a lesser director might be a difficult film to make,” says Quaid, “You have a love story between suicidal young man and an older woman who loves life. You have the humor in that and the pathos, and the real human emotions between these two people. That movie particularly epitomizes the essence of Hal – and his philosophy.”

Ashby’s outlook was in direct contrast to many of his contemporaries. Instead of brash ego, there was an easy-going humility. On set, he was soft-spoken, mellowed. He embraced Seventies counter-culture whole-heartedly, in the tone of his work and particularly with his soundtracks, which often featured music from rock innovators such as Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones.

Ashby also relied on marijuana for both inspiration and as a method of subduing the frustrations that came with studio-filmmaking. This openness to experimentation with drugs would eventually lead Ashby down a darker path, but for many years marijuana was a helpful, rather than harmful, vice.

“The first day I was on Last Detail,” remembers Quaid, “I got the hotel and went to Hal’s room and I remember someone came in with a huge garbage bag filled with grass, saying, ‘ I got the supply for the movie!’.  That was the way Hal was, but somehow it never affected his work.”

“It didn’t alter him,” says Hoffman of Ashby’s marijuana use, “ He never appeared stoned. It was a counter-culture badge  to him and a kind of self-medication. He knew all the different varieties, and could talk about it like some people talk about wine.”

Hoffman laughs.

“I remember doing work on Tootsie and I was up at his place at the beach and Hal was smoking. And I said,  ‘Hal, I just gotta ask you this. Have you been smoking a long time?’ He said, ‘Oh, yeah. Yeah. Years and years and years.’ I said, ‘Did you ever stop? I’m just curious.’ And he said, ‘A few years I ago, I did this experiment and stopped smoking for about a month.’ And I said, ‘How did you feel?’ And he just looked at me, thought about it, and said – very matter of fact.  ‘About the same!’ Then he took another hit.”

Ashby deliberately stood outside convention, both in his style and his attitude. And in many ways, Ashby’s characters would consistently mirrored Ashby himself.  His suicidal Harold and life-affirming Maude were two distinct aspects of his own personality. He embraced Woody Guthrie’s defiance, understood the pathos and desire that propelled Warren Beatty’s Shampoo character to lonely isolation. And perhaps most resonantly, Ashby was a willing innocent, searching always for ways to maintain Chauncey Gardner’s stubborn naiveté.

“In Zen there’s the Beginner’s Mind, the childlike, innocent, open mind,” remembers Jeff Bridges, who worked on Ashby’s, 8 Million Ways to Die, “and that was Hal.”

“He had such a special sense of humor, an irony and a buoyancy to him,” says Jon Voight, who starred in two Ashby films, Coming Home and Looking to Get Out, “and he was totally unique. Not of this earth, in some ways. He was the definition of a true individual.”

This combination of individualism and naiveté seemed to have endeared Ashby to his collaborators, in particularly, his actors, who saw him as both nurturing and protective.

“He was always inclusive,” recalls Quaid, “After a few takes, he’d say, ‘well, I’ve got what I want, do want to try anything else?’ He was always encouraging you and not walking away from a scene unless you were both satisfied. And you just want to give your all to someone like that.”

“He worked in an observatory way”, explains Hoffman, “He loved actors and, I think, his actors probably loved him as much as any director they ever worked with.”

“I always wished I could have worked with him,” says Sean Penn, “I remember hearing a story once about the first day of filming on The Last Detail, and Randy Quaid was really giving it all, he was nervous, he was pushing it. And Hal apparently said, ‘Take it easy Randy, you don’t have to do the whole movie today’. I always loved that. That ease he must have had.’”

By all accounts, Ashby was not a dictator on set, but rather a kind a maternal figure – able to step aside to allow his films to grow of their own accord. On Shampoo, he engaged both writer Robert Towne and star Warren Beatty in open, give and take collaboration.

“Hal was the easiest guy to talk to,” remembers Towne, “It wasn’t always so much what he said, but it was him being there – it tended to make you think better. I remember not wanting to work anymore on the script for Shampoo. Then Hal and I took a drive and by the time we got from Ventura to Mulholland I had more to say about the script then I’d ever dreamed possible. I don’t know what he said, but I was suddenly inspired. He could do that to you.”

“Hal would create a route to follow,” says Voight, “ but he’d let the story tell itself. He’d never push for an effect or an emotion that wasn’t naturally coming out. Which made for a lot of very naturalistic behavior.”

Unlike many of his contemporaries, there has never been an easy label for Ashby, no pigeonhole to place him in. Coppola has his grandiosity, Scorsese his streetwise precision. Altman is the rambler, the improviser, Allen the clown, De Palma the sensationalist.

The thread sewn through Ashby’s oeuvre is much less tangible. There is that distinctly documentary visual take and the inherent vulnerability of his characters, but his films can take the form of slapstick comedy, high drama, even action flick, with equal ease.

“He didn’t need to stamp his name on things,” explains Hoffman, “He was totally uninterested in a movie saying ‘an Ashby film’.  He wanted the work to be at the forefront.”

“There is no trademark to his work, except for Hal’s heart,” says Penn, “He didn’t want anything to take away from the story, not even himself. I think he needed his scripts to speak some truth to him first. And when they did, it was that truth that was most important to convey.”

By the mid-Seventies, Ashby’s reputation was firmly established as both a brilliant director and a virile opponent to studio interference. He was a glorified outlaw, willing to fight for his vision, or a stubborn thorn in the side of the industry, depending on whom you asked. Ashby guarded his films like a lioness over her cubs. He was notorious for erupting into obscenities at executive meetings and for lashing out at anyone that attempted to sully the purity of his creations.

“The studios were basically frightened of him, because he was their total antithesis,” says Hoffman, “As sweet as he was, he was a tough guy. You could not move him if he felt the enemy was in the room. And the enemy was anyone who was going to make him compromise what he felt was the truth of what he was doing.”

“At times I was just running interference for Hal with various people,” recalls Jewison, “ ‘will you talk to him? He’s locked us out of the cutting room!’ To both of us, the freedom of the individual artist was most important- it was more important than money or anything else.”

“He wanted to protect what he felt was important,” continues Hoffman, “what he felt was pure, untainted. One of the reasons he was feared so much by the studios, was because he wasn’t concerned with success or failure, but was only driven by what he felt was his sense of truth.”

By the end of the Seventies, Ashby’s battles with the studio higher-ups had essentially paralyzed him. He had come of age as a director in an era that condoned, even nurtured this kind of rebellion, but the times were quickly changing. As the decade came to a close, studios began functioning in an entirely different manner, the age of the blockbuster, just beginning to transform Hollywood entirely.

More and more often, Ashby began to see himself blockaded. Doors closed all across town. Projects withered on the vine. One of the biggest blows came in 1981, when after working with Dustin Hoffman over the course of two years developing Tootsie, Ashby was suddenly taken off the project. Columbia, citing legal issues, fired him just weeks before they were scheduled to begin shooting.

The incident coincided with a particularly trying period of Ashby’s life. His relationships were feeling the strain of his total commitment to his work and a cocaine addiction had also surfaced, only momentarily, but long enough to sour Ashby’s reputation further.

“ He had an obsession with film to a point that went beyond anything I had seen in anyone,” says Norman Jewison, “it destroyed five marriages and it destroyed a lot of relationships. Let’s face it, Hal could be very abrasive when he was opposed or when people tried to change the colors in his painting.”

“Anything he made, he had to fight for tooth and nail to create,” remembers Harold and Maude star Bud Cort, “I was with him to the end and saw him become progressively more and more hurt by the business. It wasn’t possible to corrupt Hal, but it was possible to break his heart.”

Exhausted by near constant confrontations with the studios – arguments over final cuts, legal hassles and irreparable differences of opinion, Ashby helplessly watched as the bridges burned. Inevitably, these clashes took their toll. In 1982, while shooting The Rolling Stones concert film, Let’s Spend the Night Together, Ashby collapsed on set. Sick, fatigued and becoming more and more embittered by his inability to communicate with the studio moneymen, Hal retreated to his Malibu home.

“He’d been beaten,” remembers Bruce Dern, “they just wore him down.  All he wanted to do was make films, but suddenly there was no one who would let him do it.”

Essentially blacklisted by the same studios he where he had created such endearing classics, Ashby struggled to find work. He succeeded occasionally, shooting a music video for Neil Young, a few TV productions and finally, a film -1986’s 8 Million Ways to Die.

“Working on that film was in some ways a bittersweet experience,” remembers Jeff Bridges, “The studios didn’t trust him. That was frustrating for us, because we loved him and we knew that he could produce a true masterwork, because he’d done it many times before. But he didn’t get final cut.”

“He may have lost of the trust of the studio, but never of his actors,” Bridges continues, “He was fearless in his vision and he made you fearless too. He had the biggest creative balls of anyone I’ve ever known.”

8 Million Ways to Die would be Ashby’s last film. Soon after it’s release, he was diagnosed with cancer.

“He was still Hal, even when he was sick,” remembers Hoffman, “I remember staying with him at John Hopkins in Baltimore where he was operated on. After the surgery he tried to get out of the bed. He said, ‘Come on! Let’s get out of here. Let’s go get some crab cakes!”

“He was laughing to the end,” said Dern, “I’d go to see him while he was sick and the first thing he’d say is, ‘Dernsie, tell me something funny.’ He was trying to hold onto that joy he always had, despite the fact that he wasn’t done yet. He didn’t want to die.”

Ashby would succumb to the disease, after a long and arduous fight, on December 27th, 1988.

“The remarkable thing about Hal and his work, is that it’s still so relevant,” says Towne, “the films don’t age. The behavior is natural and nuanced and it doesn’t strive to hype any particular effect. I think that’s why Hal continues to impress people, to move them.”

In the 18 years since Ashby’s death, his films have managed to both retain their charm and seduce a new generation of admirers. Johnny Depp sites Ashby as one of his favorite directors. Squid and the Whale director Noah Baumbach has vocally praised films like The Last Detail and Harold and Maude.

“You look at those films, you read those scripts,” says Baumbach, “ and you can’t believe they actually were made. They were so honest and simple and human. There’s no tricks or explosions, just people relating to each other in a very true way. A script like that would just never be made today. It would be just too good.”

Director Richard Linklater, who is in the early stages of development on Last Flag Flying, a sequel to The Last Detail, calls Ashby – “the ultimate Hollywood Outlaw”.

“He had what I always felt was the ideal career,” says Linklater, “he told the stories he wanted to tell. And he was pure. You look at his work and that purity comes across.”

“I was just starting out when I met him,” remembers Sean Penn, “I was mentored by him. I spent time at his house, watching movies, talking movies, He took me under his wing and ultimately, that experience of knowing and loving Hal, was huge. He had more impact on me than any other filmmaker.”

If you look close, you’ll see his influence – everywhere. Young filmmakers are continuously striving to capture that freewheeling aesthetic, his quiet insistence on truthfulness.

“There are films out every year that pull from his inspiration,” says Bud Cort, “And I can understand why. He was not an egotistical director, which is rare and he was so good to his actors that it inspired endless creativity. He was giving birth to his actors every single second.”

That nurturing, the playing of midwife to the creative process, survives, still vibrantly apparent in nearly all of Ashby’s work.

“What was stronger than his films, was his soul, his strength,” remembers Hoffman, “When he was protecting the truth, he was a warrior. He was beautiful, sweet, loving, but also ferocious – a ferocious angel.”

Originally published in Premiere Magazine

Interview with Filmmaker Monte Hellman

February 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

There was a certain moment, as the Sixties dream dissipated into the Seventies, when narrative filmmaking flowed with a defiant realism, a truer than life, stranger than fiction battle cry that shot through the studio sludge. Its safe to say there were few directors at this time with a purer sense of the slow unfolding of the day to day than Monte Hellman. The films he has given us capture a moment where experiment was embraced, when possibility spread its arms wide.

“It’s interesting,” reflects Hellman today, “because anyone who is honest will tell you that at the time, no one knew that what they were doing was anything special. I just made the movies that I could with the opportunities I was given. There was a certain amount of necessity that resulted in invention, but other than that, we were just doing the best with what we had.”

Hellman earned a drama degree from Stanford and a film degree at UCLA’s   moviemaking program. His first real job was with Roger Corman, a producer who had carved a lucrative niche out of B horror films and biker flicks. Corman knew the public’s taste, but he also had a keen eye for young talent. His roster of employees, writers and directors for hire, would boast many artists who would go on to revolutionize filmmaking. Peter Fonda, Jonathan Demme and Francis Ford Coppola are a few examples of moviemakers who honed their chops under Corman’s guidance. Hellman directed his first film for Corman in 1960; a micro budget gore fest entitled Beast From Haunted Cave. In the following years he would helm several other Corman projects, including Creature from The Haunted Sea and The Terror.

“It was training ground,” Hellman says of his initiation, “trial by fire. You were handed a script and a strict budget and expected to deliver in what was a basically impossible amount of time. You learned everything the hard way, but you learned it very quickly.”

In 1964, for the war film, Back Door to Hell, Hellman was paired for the first time with another Corman protégée, 27 year old actor and screenwriter Jack Nicholson. The two traveled to Philippines to make the film, an adventure that would serve as catalyst for a lifetime of friendship and collaboration. The result of their partnership was a series of cinematic experiments, films made for no money, but with true heart.

“We started to deviate from the norm,” remembers Hellman, “ but as long as we brought the film on budget, it was tolerated. And when the films began to be received fairly well, at least critically, that gave us even some freedom to take what we were doing even farther, to put our own mark on the material.”

The duo took the long held traditions of the Western genre and modernized them, transforming those themes into broad existential meditations, which reflected the self-exploration of the times. Ride the Whirlwind (1965) and in particular, 1967’s The Shooting – shot in the dust of the Utah desert, took the ethos of the cultural revolution and deposited those ideas amid a familiar filmic structure – the myth of the lone cowboy and the violent pioneering of the west. Nicholson starred in both films and wrote the latter, and Hellman, as director, found himself suddenly awash in international accolades, in the unexpected position of auteur abroad, B-list helmer at home.

Hellman took what opportunity he was offered and ran fast, making sure to bring some of favorite talent along for the ride. We have Hellman, in part, to thank for some of Nicholson’s finest writing and performances, as well as for providing a showcase for the riveting talents of the late, great character actor Warren Oates. Oates was undoubtedly one of the finest of the era, still waters that ran impossibly deep. Hellman recognized Oates’ unique magic and framed it gracefully, allowing Oates, with his haggard hangdog face and ragged voice, to inhabit his characters completely, lingering on those unforgettable features with an unbridled curiosity. Oates starred in some of Hellman’s most defiantly unconventional work, including what is arguably his masterpiece, 1971’s Two Lane Blacktop.

A road movie with minimal dialogue, Two Lane is the story of a race across America between two good-looking hippie kids (balladeer James Taylor and The Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson) and a life-worn middle-ager played with aplomb by Oates. Exploring the generation gap with a subtle and stubbornly unromantic eye, Hellman created one of the most fascinating reflections of the times, with Oates adding grit and spine to the film’s pop star casting. In later work, such as the Western, China 9, Liberty 7 and the brutal drama, Cockfighter, Hellman would explore an evolving masculinity, with Oates serving as his personification of gender complexity.

Since the Seventies, Hellman has continued to maintain a hard won individuality, a tougher than nails defiance of Hollywood expectation, most notably in his executive producer capacity for Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs debut. He is currently working on several new projects, including a horror film, a Western and a supernatural thriller.  He’ll also be honored guest at several international retrospectives of his life’s work.

“It’s been a real pain in the ass sometimes,” admits Hellman on getting his films made, “but you keep going, even when you know how hard it can be. You keep going, because, let’s face it, there’s nothing else like it.”

 

Interview with Musician Jack White and Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch

February 9, 2011 § Leave a comment


Hailing from Akron, OH, Jim Jarmusch first began making films amid the distorted wail of the late 1970s post-punk chaos. Fueled by the anarchic, stick-it-to-the-man energy emanating from the stage of CBGBs and the streets of Iggy-era Detroit, Jarmusch chose a 16mm camera over a battered Fender guitar and directed his spit into the face of Hollywood glam.

Funded by overseas cash, Jarmusch managed to work autonomously, subverting the studio system from the outside in and a producing a series of films which joyfully abandoned traditional storytelling in favor of eclectic, self-reflective moments, narratives linked at times only by esoteric ponderings and wry humor.

Eager to explore his own obsessions, Jarmusch’s work has been continuously inspired by a wide range of personal passions, his fascination with music perhaps the most resonate.

As a result Jarmusch has been responsible for some of the best soundtracks of the last two decades -the lonely poetry of Deadman was held aloft on the haunting guitar work of Neil Young, Ghost Dog shimmered with RZA’s urban Samurai menace. Music provides the landscape for his films, the background and the setting and at times, the stage as well. On numerous occasions he has populated his stories with musicians rather than actors, casting everyone from Lounge Lizard John Lurie in Stranger Than Paradise to the grizzled Tom Waites in Down By Law.

Jarmusch’s newest film, Coffee and Cigarettes is a collection of shorts culled from the last decade of his career, a sly sampling clearly reflective of his own particular aesthetic. Bound by the narrative echo of black coffee and burning cigarettes, the movie is a scrapbook of sorts, featuring a who’s who of Jarmusch-approved icons. Tom Waites and Iggy Pop banter in a Northern California dive, Bill Murray discusses the effects of caffeine with Wu Tang’s RZA and GZA and in one of the film’s finest segments, a deadpan Jack White delivers a monologue on the 19h Century inventor Nikola Tesla to mildly-impressed fellow White Stripe Meg.

 

Mean- So, do you actually have a Tesla coil?

Jack- I don’t as of yet, but I’m trying, I’m trying my damndest to get one. I’m trying to work on that in my ten minutes of spare time.

Mean- Don’t you have minions to do that kind of thing for you?

Jack- No, actually, I don’t have any minions yet either. I’ve got to get some of those as well.

Jim- Where do you get them? I’d like some of my own. Can you find those at “Minions R Us”?  “Yes, I’d like the really short ones that can hide behind the couch when I don’t need them.”

Mean- “Minion” would be a good name for a heavy metal band.

Jim- Yeah, Minion Dominion! So what have you been up to? You’ve been in Nashville a lot working on Loretta Lynn’s record right?

Jack-Yeah, it’s coming out next week. We’re shooting a video for it next week as well, just kind of simple thing shot on the front porch of her house.

Jim- Well, you recorded it pretty simply, the songs that she wrote.

Jack- Yeah, we did it really traditionally.

Jim- so a simple video, a front porch video, seems appropriate.

Mean- How did you two meet?

Jim- Well, we were in Vietnam together.

Jack- Yeah ,that first time. That was rough.

Jim- We first met in NY because I was a White Stripes fan. I got to go backstage and meet you guys.

Jack – You tried to go backstage.

Jim- That’s right I tried, but there were minions preventing me. But I took care of them and I fought my way back.

Jack – Those were actually Meg’s minions.

Jim- That’s right, Meg’s Minions, they were protecting Meg. The Megnions.

Jack- Meg and her Megnions.

Jim- She deserves to have Megnions.

Mean- I’ll sign up for that job.

Jim- I’ll be a Megnion too.

Jack- See- she’s already got two more minions than me!

Jim- But anyway, we were talking about doing a video together. Jack and I are both Nikola Tesla fans and we wanted to do a video. Jack had a beautiful idea where he was going to play Tesla in the video. And I forget what happened, but we didn’t do that.

Jack- It was too expensive.

Jim- Yeah, we couldn’t figure out how to reduce our epic idea to reasonable record company prices.

Jack- Philip Seymour Hoffman was going to play opposite me as Thomas Edison and execute an elephant. Which Edison actually did, trying to disprove Tesla’s theory of alternating current.

Jim- We even had the actual footage of the elephant execution, which was very grisly and upsetting. So we were trying to figure out how to do it, but-

Jack But Meg wanted a couple million to appear in it and –

Jim- Yeah, well, she’s worth it, but the record company didn’t see that way. So then we were just hanging out. I remember Meg and Jack came by my office once and Jack was looking at all my Tesla books.

Jack- I stole one actually.

Jim- I wondered where that went! Then we did Coffee and Cigarettes for fun. I tricked them into agreeing to do it somehow. I put some drugs in their coffee- “You are under my power!”

Jack- We thought we were gonna star opposite Robert Mitchum, that he and Jim were making a film.

Jim- Yeah, they fell for it too, the suckers.  But anyway, I don’t know. To me, music is such the perfect form of expression, I’m a huge White Stripes fan. I get so much energy from seeing them play and when you find out that people whose work you love are also incredible great people, that’s always exciting. I just fell in love with these two crazy creatures and now they can’t get rid of me. I’m trying to get backstage every time they play. They send guys out looking for me- ‘Don’t let that white-haired guy in!’ But I get back there anyway. I have my ways.

Jack- You have your Jimions.

Mean- Jack, how do you feel about film? Do you feel in some ways the inverse of what Jim feels about music, are you inspired by film?

Jack- Absolutely. When I came out of high school I was really, really into the idea of becoming a director, working in film in some way. I started doing it as a job, PA work on commercials, car commercials. I figured that was one way to get my money back from the Big Three. And I was amazed at how hard it was. To me, it’s the most difficult art form, in my mind. It’s so hard to get all these people together and somehow get your idea through the people’s heads and somehow have your vision emerge intact. I don’t know how Jim does it. It was really fascinating being part of it, working with Jim and on Cold Mountain. It’s hardest thing in the world to make a great film, it’s really, really difficult. To me making some three-chord rocknroll song seems so easy in comparison. I mean, the actors, the lighting, the sound-

Jim- Hey, take it from me, it’s just as hard to make a bad film! To me, film’s a drag because it takes two years for me to make a film from start to finish and Jack can sit down and play a song right there in front of you and it goes right into your soul or your heart. It seems so much more direct. Music is so magical and film, I don’t know.

Jack- The trick is disguising how much work actually went into it. It’s just not something that happens easily. I think the trick is making it look easy, that’s the hard part.

Jim- In film, you play this game, you get people to watch these shadow plays on the screen, the whole procedure is ridiculous. I always think if aliens watched you making a film, they’d be thinking- “what the hell are they doing? They’re carrying this heavy outdated equipment-“

Jack- That’s so funny! I always think the same thing! I always think that! If aliens and turned on television they’d be like – “why do you guys watch each other?”

Jim- Yeah. I mean “what are you doing? You go through all of this to recreate life and it’s all fake! Why don’t you just walk outside! Then you corral all these people into a room and project all these fake images?” The aliens are like, “What the France? What are they doing?” Well, we’re earthlings, we haven’t quite figured it out yet.

Mean- The evolution is happening, slowly.

Jim- Or time’s running out, depending on how you look at it. I mean, really, don’t you think that if earth were some alien’s high school science fair project, they probably got a really bad grade. Like , a D+ for trying. “Interesting, but not really happening.”

Jack- I can’t believe you said that! I think the same thing!

Jim- But Jack was really great to work with. He had to deliver a monologue in the film, a mini-lecture on Tesla and electricity.

Jack- The hardest thing was to pretend to lecture Meg on anything. I’d never done that before. She’s usually lecturing me. You know when I was watching the movie, I was really amazed at how good Meg was.

Mean- she’s really intriguing to watch. She reminds me of a silent movie star, she’s got these expressive, dreamy eyes.

Jim- Me too, I agree. She’s really subtle. She understands. Hey, what did you think about Jimmy Fallon playing you on Saturday Night Live?

Jack- That was trippy! That was funny. I don’t know where he got that voice for me, but it cracked me up.

Jim- I liked it when he jumped up on the couch and played the guitar and was doing all my favorite Jack White moves. Hopefully he’s coming to the premier of the film, so if you didn’t like it, I was gonna say we could take him out in the alley and pummel him!

Jack- Or have my minions pummel him.

Jim- So what kind of stuff are you listening to lately?

Jack- I just went to Japan and got a lot of traditional Japanese folk music and that’s pretty interesting stuff. And I’ve been listening to a lot of country doing the Loretta album.

Jim- That’s quite a range.

Jack- Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask you, you know how you have the painting of Lee Marvin in our scene? Is that because you look like him?

Jim- Well, you know we have this secret organization called The Sons of Lee Marvin. Tom Waites is in it, Nick Cave. You could become an honorary member.

Jack- I thought maybe it was a joke you were playing.

Jim- No, I’m, a huge Lee Marvin fan and we have this secret society. But to be honest with you couldn’t really be a full-fledged member because you’re not ugly enough. But I love Lee Marvin and I had a painter make that painting of him for the film so you could have Lee presiding over you. I have a great story about him actually. Some director, I think it might have been John Boorman, was with Lee one night and Lee was really drunk and he insisted that Boorman let him ride on the roof of his car. He wanted him to take him home on the PCH on the roof of his car. And he couldn’t be dissuaded so Boorman was like, “aah, what the hell.” So he’s driving up the Pacific Coast Highway with Lee Marvin on the roof of his car and the cops, of course, pulls him over. They walk up to his window- and the cop says to him- “Excuse me sir, but are you aware that you have Lee Marvin on the roof of your car?” That’s a true story. Lee Marvin.

Jack- Did he and James Coburn ever do a movie together?

Jack- I don’t think so, but they should have. They should have been brothers. Just like you and Johnny Depp should be brothers. Lee and James should have been brothers, that would have been the coolest thing. I love Coburn too. Those Flint movies!

Jack- And Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

Jim- They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

Jack- No. No they don’t.

Originally published in Mean Magazine

Interview with Designer/Director Tom Ford

February 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Born in Austin in 1961, raised in Santa Fe, Tom Ford left the west for New York City at age 17 and the rest is, as they say, history. A denizen of the waning heydays of New York’s Studio 54, Tom Ford talked his way into his first fashion job with relative ease – despite the fact he had a degree in Architecture and absolutely no experience designing clothes. From club kid to Parsons Institute grad, Ford also had a brief but hugely successful career as a commercial actor, starring in several national advertising campaigns, which paid his way through college. Ford moved to Paris soon after to work in the press office for Chloe – a job in the lower ranks of the fashion world which left him with a new obsession – designing clothes. Ford would go on to resurrect both Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent with a combination of great designs and a series of well-executed creative campaigns, most featuring nudity and sexuality – fashion ads where the fashion was absent and only bare skin remained. As a result, Ford (who notoriously posed for a Vanity Fair cover flanked by a stark naked Keira Knightly and Scarlett Johansson), is known as an edgy, sensual designer – savvy about manipulating the media to his advantage. None of these skills, however, seem to have come into play in his second career in cinema. As a film director, Ford is subtle, classy and understated. His take on the Christopher Isherwood novel, A Single Man, is a gracious and elegant debut, the work of a man who knows what he wants and how to get it…gently.

Q: What made you choose this story and this era (the early 1960s) to explore in your first film?

A: It’s set in the early Sixties, although I think it was really the Fifties until Kennedy was assassinated, at least on the surface of things. I love this era of clothes and cars and design, architecture– and it felt contemporary when I first read the story – although I do think we’ve come a long way since then. I also think that Christopher Isherwood was way ahead of his time. One of the things I always loved about his writing is the matter of fact way he treated homosexuality. Most of his stories and novels were autobiographical and so there is usually a gay character, but not necessarily as the center of the story. And the gay character is always treated as a human being. The relationship between George and Jim in this story, I felt it was very important to depict that in a very matter of fact way. They are simply two people who are in love with each other. I didn’t want this to be a gay story; I wanted it to be a human story. And really, the more that we realize that love between two people – is love between two people, the better off we’ll all be.

Q: Were there things about the story that connected with you personally?

A: I think anyone with a long-term partner, and I’ve been with my partner for 23 years, anyone with a long-term lover, if that lover dies you could easily see yourself in a situation where you couldn’t see your future and you would be living entirely in the past. It’s about that loss. But the film isn’t about death, it’s about life. It’s about living in the moment and appreciating the small things in your life that sometimes just go by without you observing and understanding your connection and understanding of the universe and understanding that relationships with other people are what really matter. The beauty at the world starts to pull at the character of George, in his loss he’s finally connecting, he’s finally looking at people and he’s responding to them in a different way. For me this film is about life instead of death, although loss is at the center of it.

Q: So there was a connection with this character for you.

A: George is a character that keeps himself together by keeping his outer world in order. This is a man who exists and gets through the day by this order. On the worse day of his life, he’s polishing his shoes; he’s putting on his tie. He’s being held together by the surface and the order of things. It might seem silly to point this out, but Christopher Isherwood was a Virgo, and for Virgo’s – it’s all about precision and order and I am a Virgo as well. This is a man whose inner world and outer world are connected and he feels if he can keep his outer world together than he won’t collapse inside. George has a veneer but just inside is a romantic guy who is suffering so much and it’s all just below this perfect surface.

Q: Tell us about choosing your actors. Sometimes its difficult for a first time director to attract talent like Julianne Moore and Colin Firth. What made they want to join in?

A: Well, I gave them a lot of leeway. I don’t want to talk about fashion, because making the film was a very different experience for me, in terms of why I did it and why I hope to keep doing it and what sort of expression it was, but there are certain similarities. Fashion is much more collaborative than one might think. You have to have an idea and vision and you have to communicate that vision to a team of people and you have to create an environment that allows those people to give the best that they can give. I was lucky enough to have great actors and I tried to create an environment where they could perform. And to make them feel comfortable, to make them do the best they could, an environment that would make them want to give the best performance they could give.  And as far as finding the actors, I don’t want to make it sound easy, but well, it wasn’t hard. I sent them the screenplay and I sent them the part that I knew they might respond to and they did. I had sent Julianne the script in the hope that she would respond to it and she did. Colin and I have the same agent and he basically said that Colin’s schedule was impossible. So I had another cast another actor in the role. But then I saw Colin at the premiere of Mama Mia and I was just thinking, – ‘God he was made to play this role!’ A few weeks later the other actor dropped out and I sent Colin an email right away and he finally said yes. I’d like to think that the actors responded to the script.

Q: You acted as well when you were younger.

A: When I was a kid, I thought I was going to be an actor. I actually studied acting when I was at NYU and I made a lot of television commercials, that’s actually how I put myself through NYU and through college. I quickly discovered that I didn’t really want to be an actor, because I didn’t feel secure enough at that time. I remember I did Prell commercial when I was 19 and a bitchy hairdresser said, ‘Oh, you have thin hair, its all going to fall out.’ And  I remember becoming so paranoid about my appearance after that. It was traumatic and I was so obsessive from then on and I was not a good actor at all, in part because I was totally self-obsessed. I realized that it just wasn’t going to happen.

Q: In what ways do you see the style and aesthetic of this film differing from the style you created in your fashion career?

A: My career in fashion has been very much about sexuality and sex and I think a lot of people think that’s all I can do and what I am all about. This for me is a story about love, about romance. Therefore it doesn’t have that kind of nudity you might expect from me. It didn’t come from the story. What came was a sensuality that I tried to express with color and tone and set pieces. That’s what I used to help us understand what George is feeling. At the beginning of the film, George is not seeing things, he’s numb, and the colors are dulled. As he begins to see the world more clearly, really look at it – that’s when things begin to warm in the film, color-wise. It takes on sensuality cinematically. Everything heightens and the beauty of things starts to pull on him.

Q: Why filmmaking? What compelled you to begin this second career?

A: I wanted to make film and had thought about doing a film for a long time, I think its important for myself and anyone else who wants to create a film, or art, is make sure that they have something to say, that they want to share something important, express something important. And I felt that the book really spoke to me, it’s a beautiful story that felt personal to me, that touched me and that I felt I had the skills to translate the narrative to the screen and to share in some way. Film is an incredible way to express yourself and your vision, as is fashion, but you have to make sure and be confident and honest and true to yourself and say something that means something, because that is really the point of any art, right?

 

Interview with Artist/Musician Yoko Ono

February 9, 2011 § 1 Comment

When Yoko Ono first met John Lennon in 1966, she had already won critical acclaim as Conceptual artist, produced a long roster of international exhibitions and happenings, released several books (“Grapefruit” was just recently re-released by Simon and Schuster) had her first child and dumped her first husband. In the years since Lennon’s tragic death in 1980, she has continued on as an active participant in the art and music worlds, creating fascinating work at an astounding rate.

She currently has several exhibitions showing worldwide, as well as a remix album of her release “Walking On Thin Ice” which features re-mixes by Pet Shop Boys, Danny Tenaglia and Felix Da Housecat, among others.

Despite these impressive facts, however, profiles of Ono are too often relegated to her days as a Beatles bride. But, as we found out, there is more to Yoko Ono than merely John Lennon.

 

Q: I’m always interested in talking to artists of any kind, because I think that ultimately the decision to become creatively active takes some amount of courage, particularly for a woman and particularly at the time you first began experimenting with your ideas. You came from a very conservative Japanese family, which I imagine made everything a bit more difficult as well.

A: I agree that it’s difficult, but I don’t think you make a choice to be an artist. There was no decision for me. I’ve been expressing myself this way since I can remember. As a child I distinctly remember feeling that I had these great ideas and I remember just innately wanting to share them with the world. The first idea, the first art piece I ever did, was when I was four. I cut the seed of a pear in half and the seed of an apple in half in put those two halves together and planted the seed, hoping a very strange tree might grow. And I never stopped.

But I never thought, “I’m going to be an artist”. When I actually began to become successful in the art world I made it a point to say, ‘I am a dilettante, I am not a professional artist”, which is true. I never wanted to be a professional artist; I think that’s limiting.

Q: In what way?

A: You get limited by that institutional idea. I never went to art school and I never thought of going to an art school. It was just a way of manifesting these ideas I had. Ideas came to me that I needed to express. And if I didn’t express them, I would feel, well, “sick” is the only way I can put it. I think many people, really all people, feel that way. Creativity is innate and it manifests itself in so many forms. It needs to come out somehow or it destroys you in some way.

Q: So you feel that everyone is inherently creative?

A: Everyone is an artist and a genius, I think. If we don’t choose to limit ourselves then we are totally accomplished. I think people place limitations on each other and on ourselves. There is a great fear of expressing ourselves, of making that creativity happen. I think we find it to be quite scary and frightening and I think we feel, in some ways that something terrible might happen, that there is some danger in doing something you believe in. It’s very sad that things are that way. But I think it is changing.

Q: When you’re working, do you find that the idea leads you the genre best suited to manifest it?

A: For me, there are many ways are working; I do think the art leads you. For certain ideas, yes, there are certain ways to make them manifest.

Q: This is the women’s issue of the magazine. I’m wondering if there are any female artists who particularly inspire you.

A: There are so many women artists doing incredible things, I wouldn’t want to single just one of them out.

Q: It’s difficult, because talking specifically about women, seems somehow-

A: Misogynist.

Q: Exactly.

A: I know, but I think that the issue needs to be explored. Women’s place in the world is still an issue, but I think it’s getting better of course. We’re getting wiser, there’s more awareness in general. We’re having to redefine roles It’s a very male world, but we have to find the inverse of that power, the feminine power.

Q: You were at the epicenter of some of the most volatile and culturally dynamic moments of the last Century. What is your view of what is happening at the moment? Have we progressed or regressed?

A: Oh definitely progressed. I think we’ve all become wiser. You know, the kind of philosophical discussion that is happening right now, even on the level of casual encounter, is amazing to me. Even on the most basic level, let’s just say the success of self-help books on philosophy and spirituality and the availability and popularity of these publications, that’s incredible progress. At one time those ideas were only for the very, very privileged- privileged men actually. Which just shows you how wise the world is becoming. I do think that yes, it’s true that we are very unwise in some ways, we are killing each other of course but on the other hand, we are become wiser in so many ways.

Q: I do think people are becoming more and more hungry for the sort of knowledge and ideas you mentioned.

A: Yes and the kind of people who are hungry for that are the kind of people who were hungry for bread at one time. It’s only matter of time. In the Sixties, we were like newborns. Our eyes had just opened. Now we are growing, we are children. The amazing thing is that we could live in the world together peacefully, feed the world, shelter the world. We have that capability both spiritually and technologically.

Q: So what’s stopping us?

A: Confusion and fear. Without the confusion and fear we would see each other and ourselves clearly. And without the fear, we would not be afraid of being one.

Q: What are the practical ways we can attempt to make that happen?

A: We have to fight both of these elements, this fear and confusion. Confusion has become a state of mind, more of less; we’re trained to be confused. Quite simply, the people in power are keeping us down, keeping us docile and keeping us consuming with this confusion. It’s a cultural confusion and it is deliberate. And fear is a way of keeping us down as well. Fear is instilled in us by other people, ‘be very scared of that or this. Don’t move!’

Q: Right now, that seems particularly relevant. Over the last two years, fear has obviously been utilized as a method of manipulation.

A: It’s so clear and obvious isn’t it? It’s always been like that but never in such a very obvious way. I think we are actually learning from it and that it is kind of a blessing in a way, in the sense that this is happening in such a blatant manner. It has been happening all the time and so many people were unaware, but now, there is no subtlety. It’s become glaringly obvious. Now we have to gain the power to overcome it. Any change is pushed by these extremes. It’s the opposite side of the coin. The coin has two sides, which is very interesting. We’re in the same boat, together and the opposite power is standing up and moving back and forth and there is the danger of toppling the boat. Of capsizing. But in order to balance that, we have to stand up as well; otherwise we won’t get to shore. In other words instead of criticizing the people who are being violent, who are in power, we need to put ourselves in a position to create our own power. If you think about it, they’re very intelligent, in that they just totally ignore us, they just don’t even have a conversation with us. Which is very very clever, because if they actually begin to have a dialogue with us, it depletes their energy, it weakens them. So they don’t want to do it. They take one idea and they focus all their energy on it. What we’re doing is the worst, which is that we’re standing the sidelines, criticizing them, instead of insisting on engaging them in a conversation.

Q: I think it seems safe on the sidelines and I think that in many ways people don’t bother trying to engage in that conversation because they feel their voice won’t be heard. There’s a certain helplessness there.

A: Of course. It’s very dangerous ultimately to take any sort of action. But there can’t be fear. Fear is what we have to overcome, even the fear of not being heard. But, despite what’s happening, I do think it’s much better now than in the Sixties. I think in those days, yes there was ‘flower power’ and it was time to wake up, but in many ways, as I said before, we were like embryos or just out of the womb. Whereas now, I think we have to be more mature about it. I don’t think marching and waving the flag is not going to be sufficient. It’s like waving the flag to our daddies, demanding attention. ‘Daddy, take care of us!’ No we don’t want them to take care of us, we don’t have to have them take care of us. It’s time we took care of ourselves. It’s also time to admit that we can never change our parents.

We can come together, we are coming together. On a subconscious level we are already together. Although we are refusing that idea, because, like most children I think (and we are like children) we want to independent. We cling to that idea of ‘I’m not like you, therefore I’m not with you’. That fear of being conquered is there but we have to overcome it. By being united we’re not going to be part of someone or something else – we’re still going to be definitely me and you – but on a higher level, we are going to be all together.

Q: How do we achieve that?

A: It begins on a very day-to-day level, of knowing yourself. Knowing that you are powerful, inside. Power is not something we should be afraid of. Power is great, power is energy. And in terms of energy, the most important energy is human spiritual energy and when I say spiritual, I feel like have to be very careful, I don’t mean religious, I mean the energy of the mind, the energy that exists within us. If you’re able to tap into that energy, then you’re part of the network and really, your power is absolutely limitless.

 

Originally published in Flaunt magazine

 

Interview with Filmmaker Werner Herzog

February 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

 

 

Werner Herzog has produced in staggering number of movies since “liberating” a film camera from the Munich film school over forty years ago. Though they may superficially resemble the products of Hollywood, they are strangely alive with a uniquely poetic sensibility and wholly idiosyncratic interpretation of what it is to be human.

What further distinguishes Herzog’s work from the latest sequel to roll off the assembly line is the sense that his films somehow have to be made. There is urgency to their telling. And indeed, Mr. Herzog is notorious for stopping at nothing to realize his vision.  He has hauled a riverboat over a mountain. He has directed a recalcitrant star at gunpoint. He has eaten his shoe.

All of which would make you think that the last thing he would do is make a “Hollywood” movie.

Nonetheless, that is just what he has done.  Rescue Dawn, his 52nd film, stars Christian Bale and Steve Zahn.  Though it has all the earmarks of a “hit,” it is still very much a Herzog film.   From his groundbreaking work with street performer Bruno S. (Every Man For Himself and God Against All, Stroszek) through his classic films with the wildly gifted yet clearly unhinged actor Klaus Kinski (Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo), Herzog has always celebrated the exceptional individual who takes on an impossible project.  Bale’s character in the film, an American fighter pilot in Vietnam who is shot down and imprisoned in Laos, is the latest in this extraordinary lineage.  The action-packed story is even more amazing because it is true – as evidenced in Herzog’s own 1998 documentary, Little Dieter Needs To Fly.

Q: The film is based on an earlier documentary?

A: Basically it’s the other way around . . . the feature film was always first, because it took so long to get the money together we made the documentary “Little Dieter Needs To Fly” . The documentary is a consequence of the feature film even though the documentary was made first.  Even though it was made afterwards, it came before.  It’s not a remake or anything like that.  It was unfinished business.

Q: And of course they focus on different aspects of the story.

A: Yes, the camp experience doesn’t factor in the documentary.  What is interesting of course is to know about Dieter’s childhood.  I always knew, and Dieter always knew, the feature film was the first thing.

Q: What drew you this particular story?

A: As someone who is interested in storytelling I knew right away that this was something really big.  The story is really big and the character is much larger than life.  What else do you need?  I always vaguely aware of the story from articles in the German press in the late sixties on his ordeal in the jungle but I of course got into more detail when I finally met him. I had a hunch that he still lived in Northern California.  So I started just at random, no, not at random, systematically, checking phone directories county by county.  In the third directory I found a Dieter Dengler called the number and there was an answering machine with a heavy German accent.  I knew it was him.

Q: Were you contemporaries?

A: Actually he was a couple of years older which is significant because he was already a self-reliant kid when the war ended where I was something like two and a half and was just starting to speak and understand the world.   But both of us lived through the difficulties of post-war Germany, where everything was destroyed.  We were hungry.  Both of us were starving as children for quite a time.  Both of us  grew up in very remote places, he in the Black Forest and I in the mountains of Bavaria so we had an instant rapport because of these connections.

Q: As in Aguirre and Fitzcaraldo, the jungle is once again a character in this film.  Have your feelings about the jungle changed over the years?

A: Not really.  I like the jungle against my better judgment.  You see I have always functioned well when it comes to a real physical sort of filmmaking.  I wouldn’t be that good in the sterile atmosphere of a studio.  There is a great physicality in the film.  It is much more physical than Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

Q: It’s an action movie, really.

A: Yes, it is!  And I want audiences back in a position where they can trust their eyes again.  You can tell that yes, this is done without any digital effects.  That this is really happening.  That when Christian catches a snake, yes the snake is a live snake and tries to strike at him.  That when he eats maggots you can see them wriggling . . .

Q: I appreciated his doing that extra bit for us . . . .

A: It’s more than just commitment, though.  It’s really giving the audience a basic sense of something I crave.  I have seen too many digital effects and things like this.  I am craving for a moment where I can trust my eyes.

Q: Christian Bale gives a wonderful performance overall.  He really seems to capture certain qualities of the Dieter we see in the documentary.  How did he go about preparing for the role?

A: Of course he studied the documentary and read books about Dieter.  He also met several members of the family and he did a lot of research . . . to the point where I said to him, ”Christian we are not going to imitate everything about Dieter.  That would be silly.”

Q: You start to imitate a character when he is too clearly articulated . . . like let’s say you are doing a film about Muhammed Ali.   You have to rap like Ali, you have to dance like Ali.  But in this case I said, “We have to take everything in you, Christian, that is deep and intense and somehow articulate it in a new way, not to reinvent Dieter necessarily, but it has to have something which is also yours . . . . your heart, not just an imitation.”

A: We’re sort of touching on a central aspect of your work, the search for a more poetic truth beyond the facts themselves.

A: Yes, an ecstatic truth.

Q: Is this an instance of that.

A: It is.  Somehow the leading figure and the kind of conflicts allow you to look at and to understand the heart of men.  It is a test or a trial of men and you understand some side of our . . .of our . . . of the human heart.   In a way I always hope to make films where you walk out and you have had a moment of illumination.

Originally published in Helio magazine.

Interview with Filmmaker David Lynch

February 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

For the past thirty years, the director, artist, musician, writer and filmmaker David Lynch has been mining the depths of his own murky subconscious for new images and stories, surfacing occasionally to transform his discoveries into sculpture, paintings and most often, utterly seductive cinematic dream states.

Lynch is one of those rare filmmakers who are happiest immersed neck deep in the subtle complexities of human experience. An avid student of Eastern thought, his stories tend to evolve instinctually. Lynch constructs his narratives from symbiology, meditation and his own life experiences and observations, allowing his ideas to gestate slowly and gain a life and connection of their own.

“Be lead by the ideas and act and react and feel it, feel the thing start evolving, “ says Lynch of his technique, “ but remember that it doesn’t evolve all at once, you’re just in it and you’re just in the dark as anybody else and suddenly the ideas start coming and you know what the next step is.”.

The director smiles broadly at his own words, “and knowing what the next step is, is a beautiful thing.”

Born in Missoula Montana, Lynch’s early life was extraordinary only in its utter normality. His parents, a housewife and government employee, surrounded David in a protective bubble of domestic ritual. Lynch’s typical 1950s childhood was built on the foundations of small town life and the hardworking, open hearted ethos which marked the residents of America’s still relatively untamed West.

After graduating, Lynch attended art school in Boston and Philadelphia, eventually  discovering that the most expressive medium at his disposal was film. As a young director Lynch made two impressive shorts (The Alphabet in 1968 and The Grandmother in 1970) before embarking on the seven-year journey to complete his first feature, Eraserhead.

“Looking back, you can see that a lot of the ideas were caught because you had a lot of time to spend in that world and that’s a beautiful thing,” says Lynch of his extended stay in Eraserhead’s bleakly somber world, “ but it’s important to learn how to focus and get down in there and stay in there and stay true to the ideas no matter how fast things are going”.

Eraserhead was a brooding, black and white meditation on fatherhood which cost Lynch his marriage and most of his money, but the result was an authenticity of atmosphere which was difficult for viewers to shake. The film gained immediate attention and became an unlikely launch pad for his career, landing him the director’s chair for the elegant, subtlety shot Elephant Man. If Eraserhead provided Lynch with an entrance into directorial success, “Elephant Man” would keep him there. Garnering 8 Oscar nominations, the film proved the young Lynch could work within the realm of traditional narrative without sacrificing his own unique aesthetic.

The miracle here is; not only was Lynch allowed his eccentricities (in a medium usually defined by the middle ground), but that so many filmgoers recognized something resonant in his work. By the time his 1986 masterpiece Blue Velvet was released, Lynch had established himself as one of America’s most distinctive and admired cinematic voices.

After the release of Wild At Heart (his frenetic hyper violent take on “Wizard of Oz”) Lynch made the leap to television with the series Twin Peaks, an fascinating exploration of small town vice and teenage immorality. Moody, darkly humorous and possessing what by now could be recognized as a distinctly “Lynchian” touches, “Twin Peaks” played a successful two year run and won thousand of die hard fans.

Simultaneously working on art and music projects, as well as sculpture and painting, Lynch could not keep himself away from film for long, eventually releasing the Twin Peaks prelude, Fire Walk with Me. the aptly titled Straight Story and the labyrinthine noir Lost Highway. 1999 Lynch decided it was time to make a return to television and began production on a new series for ABC. The result, a two-hour pilot entitled Mulholland Drive, was eventually rejected by the network’s executives, but the resulting feature brought Lynch back into the fray and launched the career of the phenomenal Naomi Watts.

“I don’t bear them any ill will. Not a bit. Not one little, tiny bit of ill will,” says Lynch of the network’s rejection,” they did their part, they got it started and part of their role was to say, ‘we hate this’.”

With his newest film, however, Lynch has elected to abandon studio and network interference. Buoyed by the success of his online site, Davidlynch.com, a members-only entrée into Lynch’s inner workings, short films and digital experiments, Lynch and his producers have decided to explore self-distribution with the release of Inland Empire.

Shot entirely on digital (Lynch claims to have abandoned traditional filmmaking altogether), Inland Empire is exactly what his fans have come to expect – endlessly imaginative, a feverish montage of grotesque/comedic imagery and noir overtones. Ostensibly a mystery, the film meanders along with its star and longtime Lynch collaborator, Laura Dern in a powerhouse performance.  Duel identities, Hollywood schmaltz, sexual innuendo and murder are only a few of the themes explored.

“We honestly didn’t have a clue what would happen at the beginning” he admits, “You go in the whole thing open ended and now, you’ve got to make it a whole feature with a closed end and it’s like a nightmare, if you didn’t luck out and get those ideas and make it happen. But one night they came in, from 6:30 to  7:00 wham! They came in! They knocked in the door”.

Lynch is planning to tour with the film, along with Dern, distributing the movie through his own company Absurda and 518 Media throughout December and January. This unconventional approach is perfectly suited to Lynch, who has been at the forefront of online and digital filmmaking techniques from the get go. Inland Empire is his first fully realized foray into what he hopes will be the future of moviemaking for any independent director unable to fit into the Hollywood box. The film itself is in part a love letter to the industry, to the vast and unpredictable and all consuming art form.

“It takes place in Hollywood and Los Angeles, but its not necessarily about the city” claims Lynch, “It does touch on parts of the business and parts of the city. But you pass by a lot of houses and buildings in this story you don’t go into, you pass by them. The ideas tell you where to go and when to go and how to get there. If you stay true to the ideas then you find your way.  The characters come from the world of ideas”.

Here Lynch pauses, takes a slow drag on his cigarette. His eyes get a dreamy, far away look.

“ Ideas are kind of reality waiting to happen.” He says smiling, “I love thinking about ideas, because everything in this room came from an idea. They are little sparks that show the way and off you go. You’re either building a house or a chair or making music or making a film with those ideas”.

For Lynch fans, Inland Empire is a familiar world, a soap-operatic reality tinged with a near tangible doom.  For some the journey may prove perplexing. The film rarely makes concessions to traditional narrative or simplistic story structure. Instead we get Lynch at simultaneously his most elusive and  most revealing.  Loose threads (which were perhaps meant to unravel as the failed series evolved), leave the film with a tangle of dead ends, yet this incompleteness only serves to create an atmosphere of suspense which does little to detract from the film’s whole.

“Here’s the thing,” says Lynch firmly, “ there are no rules in filmmaking or painting or any art really. There are your own internal rules, maybe, but it’s got to be created in freedom”.

For Lynch this freedom has been the foundation on which his entire career has been built. As a director he has had the remarkable good fortune of having rarely been coerced to sacrifice his own ideas for the sake of commerciality or mainstream success. He works on instinct and instinct alone and rarely makes apologies for his methods. Inland Empire at first glance, may seem a somewhat haphazard attempt, but on closer inspection the film is continuing proof of  Lynch’s adaptability.

Despite it’s unsolved riddles, the film’s mood lingers on, leaving a haunting residue which works it’s way under the skin. This is Lynch’s magic. His gift has always been to create reality through sound, image and music rather than through merely words, to form an atmosphere that is as strange as it is familiar. There is certainly no other director more adept at projecting the language of dreams onto the screen.

“Film can tell and can show abstractions” says Lynch, lighting his last cigarette and running his hands through his hair.

“It is a beautiful language and it is a language that doesn’t rely on words. So with sound and picture and timing you can make some beautiful abstractions that other human beings can feel, intuitively, just like they would feel  a dream or their subconscious or some abstraction, like going into a room and getting a feeling. That machine kicks in and makes sense of it. Film is so powerful that way.”

He pauses again and smiling, breathes out a long plume of blue smoke,

“The beauty of film is that it is a way in which  we can communicate the indescribable”.

Originally published in Dazed magazine

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