Posts filed under ‘Interviews’

Interview: Denzel Washington talks American Gangster

Denzel WashingtonCritically acclaimed and professionally lauded, Denzel Washington has taken home two Oscars and a stack of praise for performances in films like Training Day, Malcolm X and Remember the Titans. In 2004 he worked with Tony Scott on Man on Fire, following up with Deja Vu last year. And with the release of American Gangster he marks his first association with the other Scott brother, Ridley, in a true-to-life tale as drug-dealer Frank Lucas, pursued in 1970’s America by Russell Crowe’s Detective Richie Roberts. The film, released in the UK on November 16th, is Certified Fresh, and Rotten Tomatoes caught up with Washington to find out more.

This is a really big film and it’s an interesting and twisted character that you play, what about him drew you to it?

Denzel Washington: Actually, it was as much about the two characters. That one man appears to be so straight and honest in his police work is so dishonest in his private life. Another man who seems to be so dishonest in his work life is so honest in his private life. And how these two guys came together and actually, to this day, are still friends. I thought it was an excellent opportunity to work with a great actor again and, actually, a great filmmaker. To be in my home town!

Frank Lucas is really a bad guy, but he has this integrity and honesty in his private life, as you say, how did you find that in yourself?

DW: As he said to me over and over, he said, “Denzel, it’s a dirty business and if you choose to be in it you’ve got to be dirty.” There are no nice heroin dealers, they don’t make it, and they end up on the sidewalk. You’re dealing with crooks all the time; it’s just a den of thieves. As he said to me many a time, he said, “I would tell you once.” I said, “What if they just slipped up?” He said, “I would tell you once.” That was his reputation. You just didn’t cross Frank Lucas; you didn’t get the opportunity to cross him.


American Gangster

What were your scenes with Russell Crowe like?

DW: We had one big scene together and it was just like good music, you know, it’s seamless. We started doing this whole business with this coffee cup. Maybe I slid it to him first, and he’d slide it back and start knocking it off the table. It was just a good chess match.

You worked with him years ago, what was it like getting to do that again?

DW: Well he’s a bit more famous now! He was very eager then and he still is; still intense. He’s a family man now; he has a beautiful wife and children. And just his life experience had grown, you know, he’s been through a lot. Professionally, you’re so in the work that none of that matters. You just get on with it.

He has a history with Ridley Scott, they’ve made several films together now and I would imagine they have something of a shorthand. Did you feel a bit left out when you were discussing scenes?

DW: No, not at all; It’s a collaboration. All of our names are up there and I didn’t feel that at all. But getting the opportunity to work with Ridley was great. Ridley’s intense and he’s obviously a brilliant director. He knows what he’s doing, he’s a great shot-maker and he knows what to do.



November 16, 2007 at 6:07 pm Leave a comment

Interview: Brian De Palma Goes To War With Redacted

Brian De PalmaBrian De Palma fans beware: his most recent film will make you think that the veteran director has — to borrow a line from Full Metal Jacket — been “born again hard.” Redacted is a war drama centered on the rape and murder of a fifteen-year-old Iraqi girl at the hands of American soldiers. Based on true events and told in documentary fashion, the movie uses a collage of digital media to portray the heinous crime up-close and personal, giving audience members every reason to look away but also, by doing so, asking us why it’s taken so long to cringe.

De Palma’s film presents the conflict through every facet available to us, the civilian viewers. His patchwork story expertly addresses the Iraq conflict on its own terms, using the war’s own visual language: a soldier’s video diary is interwoven with a French documentary about military check points, which gets mixed in with Arab TV broadcasts, security camera footage from the army base, internet blogs by wives of the enlisted, webcam chats, recordings of judicial inquisitions, clips posted online by terrorists, YouTube rants, and a slew of still images (which ultimately give real-life footnotes to the fictionalized events). The complex style of Redacted feels like a Google search for “Iraq, war crimes.” This hyper-abundance of accessible media shows that the horrifying war is not just taking place on the ground in Iraq, but also, literally, in the terrain of cyberspace; a place where everyone with a homepage is a resident, and where the rules of engagement are still being written.

Yet despite this daring strategy, the response to Redacted has been ambivalent. Critics, who currently give the film a 57 percent Tomatometer rating, point to flaws in the dramatic logic and a few misjudged performances. But similar problems plague most movies, and these mistakes do not detract from the emotional impact of Redacted or tarnish the film’s craftsmanship in any way. When was the last time you saw a movie with a fifteen-minute shot, handheld, at night, that exposes the true nature of every main character? To disparage Redacted for technical reasons is to miss — or, perhaps, to willfully avoid — its rich, textured, and honest depiction of how the Iraq war is being waged for an audience.

Checkpoint tedium in Redacted

In short, De Palma has made a movie that could only exist in the 21st century, about a war that could only be waged in the 21st century. Whatever missteps in direction he has taken do not indicate a flagging talent but instead reveal that, in this warp speed wireless world, the direction has yet to be defined. If we don’t fully understand Redacted — in other words, if it’s a difficult film for us to read — then that’s because the narrative language remains incomplete. But by risking a new filmmaking vocabulary, De Palma has begun to create the cinetax.

Rotten Tomatoes recently spoke with Brian De Palma about modern warfare, surfing the web, and how video games might just be the vanguard of storytelling.

People who attend Redacted expecting to see a “Brian De Palma film” are going to be surprised by how different it is from your previous work — I certainly was. What about this subject matter made you alter your style so significantly?

Brian De Palma: I discovered the form while I was researching the material. I was approached by HDNet to make one of their 5 million dollar movies, on anything I wanted. The only requirement was that it be shot in high definition, and I thought that was great, if I could figure out something that would work best in that medium. When I read about this incident that was so similar to the events in Casualties of War (1989) I did some research on the internet and I came up with all these unique forms where people were expressing themselves in relationship to this incident, and the war in general. That became the shape of the movie. It was a unique way of presenting the material in a format that was interesting to me because it’s a whole new way of creating a storyline in this kind of fragmented mock-documentary. My initial idea was to use as much real material as possible, but of course the lawyers told me I couldn’t use it because it was too close to the real case, so I was forced to fictionalize everything. I relied very much on the characters in Casualties of War, not knowing much about the actual soldiers except for the prime instigator. There wasn’t much information about them. They were all being prosecuted while I was making this movie.


Redacted rings very strongly of truth, so even if you had to change the facts, it’s one of those stories that’s very familiar to people who get up every morning and read the headlines. But it goes much further than that, with all the different points of view that you include, each with its own voice. How did you develop this tapestry?

De Palma: It all emerged from my research. My first task was to get the news stories about the actual case, but since I couldn’t use the real news stories I had to fabricate ones using international correspondents who were in Amman, where we shot. So I basically duplicated the original news stories. That was the beginning. Then I read somewhere about this Los Angeles-based Spanish-American filmmaker making a movie from his war diaries to get into NYU Film School — that was based on something I stumbled upon on the web. I realized that this could provide my principle narrative. And, of course, that idea also comes out of the documentaries I looked at where there were soldiers with cameras recording what’s going on, because everyone has a camera over there. I saw all that in the documentaries. Then the attitudes, and the feelings, and frustrations, and the passion about the war, all those were expressed in the soldiers’ blogs, and in many independent documentaries that I looked at. So the principal narrative form came from Salazar’s personal diary.

Then I had all this information I had to convey about what happens at check points, because this particular unit was on a checkpoint and that’s where they saw the girl going in and out every day. There were many, many news stories about accidents at check points and how many people were killed all the time. So I had to present all that information, and I also wanted to slow the movie down. Being deployed in Iraq is incredibly boring most of the time, but then it’s punctuated by incredible, crazy violence from out of nowhere. I had to slow the movie down. That’s why I created the mock French documentary — very elegant, Handel music playing from Barry Lyndon — it slows everything down, and it gets all the statistics across about what happens when people go in and out of check points.

The pacing of the movie was extremely effective, with how you gradually build tension for the frantic violence that happens later on. It sounds like your research process was a micro version of what historians will have to do when they look back on this conflict years from now, in terms of synthesizing a gigantic amount of very specific information.

De Palma: That’s what surprises me about the people who are shocked by Redacted, or the portrayal of the soldiers, or the pictures at the end of the film — all this material is out there! It’s like they assume I dreamt this up. It’s all there. The problem is, it’s not in your mainstream media, so nobody knows about it. But if you get on your Google search engine and put any of these things in, you’ll come up with all the same devices that I used, including something like the rant of the protestor. That’s one of the few things we were able to buy, actually. That was somebody’s rant. We actually bought the rights to that, and I just rewrote it to be played, and the best person to do it was Abigail Savage. But that’s an actual rant.


It’s shocking because it’s so familiar, but it’s the stuff that you subconsciously try to forget about, you don’t want to pay attention to it.

De Palma: I think not many people are doing the kind of research that I was doing. They’re watching, you know, what happens to Britney when she takes her daughter to some play group. Those are the kind of things that dominate the web, and YouTube, and whatever. You have to dig a little deeper. But all of this stuff is out there.

There have been other films recently about the Iraq conflict, such as Jarhead and The Kingdom, but you’ve very intentionally and very effectively adopted a completely different perspective from those: the documentary perspective. Do you feel like a documentary style, for the nature of this war, is the best method for examining it?

De Palma: That’s something that I discovered. It’s not like I had a plan. In the process of researching I came up with all these unique ways of expression that are completely indigenous to the web. Nobody’s ever seen this onscreen before. I have another idea to put in this form, but things have changed in the last six months since I wrote it! There are even newer forms that people have not seen yet. There’s all of this new media going on. It’s very interesting to tell these types of contemporary stories in this form.

Straight-forward narrative filmmaking essentially would have been Casualties of War, but there’s no point in doing that again. I was quite happy with the different forms that I came up with when I researched the material. And who knows; this may be one experimental film that comes and goes, and we move on to whatever. But I feel that there’s something here, in Redacted, and I want to experiment with it more, because it’s the way that I’ve noticed my daughters take in information. They’re sixteen and eleven, and they sit on their beds with their computers on their stomachs and they browse from thing to thing to thing to thing to thing. They don’t go to the theatre and sit down and watch O’Neil for five hours. That’s not how they’re getting their stories told to them. So, I don’t know where it’s going, but it’s certainly changing.

The uncomfortable reactions to the movie must be coming from not only the disturbing subject matter, but also from the fact that it’s a new language. A normal theatergoing audience can’t quite comprehend it yet.

De Palma: Exactly correct. To me it’s almost atonal. Suddenly you’re playing atonal music and people don’t know what to make of it. That’s what I noticed when I screened it at the beginning, is people had nothing to say afterwards. Basically they were struck dumb. They couldn’t process the material. Then the first thing, of course, when you don’t understand something, you attack it. “It’s not this, it’s not this, it’s not this.” I’ll never forget the first time I saw Barry Lyndon, I just wasn’t ready to process the way Stanley Kubrick did the movie, and I reacted very strongly against it. The way he told this particular story, with this particular technique. But over the years it’s become one of my favorite movies of Kubrick’s. Once it gets you into the temporal sense, and the pictorial sense, of the period, of the piece, it all makes perfect sense to you. But when you first see it, you go, “Why all these endless shots, why these zoom-ins — what’s going on here?”

Like Redacted, Barry Lyndon is also a movie where the filmmaker imposed very stringent technical limitations on himself.

De Palma: Exactly correct.

Is there any other reason besides your admiration for Barry Lyndon for why you wanted to use the same music in your movie?

De Palma: I think what was so instructive about Barry Lyndon was how Kubrick slowed down time; using very classical, measured music, he used very elaborate pull-backs. Of course I didn’t have the beautiful pictorials that he did. You make the audience study the frame; something that I think people have completely forgotten about.


I’d like to dig a little bit deeper, if we can, into what you discovered about the language of digital storytelling. It’s such a new phenomenon, and I think Redacted is one of the few films that really prods at the edges of what’s possible — ultra long takes, handheld consumer cameras, relationships developed over the internet, everyone allowed a voice — it’s fascinating. And the other thing about digital media, which is why this war is a perfect topic for it, is the immediacy and the responsiveness of it. You can produce images like a reflex. That’s the raw nerve that this film strikes.

De Palma: It’s a great new way to deal with narrative forms. It’s like things you discover in video games; the way they tell their stories. And of course video games emulate films a lot, and television shows, with their little story sequences within the games. But there was a really big breakthrough when they started to have games where you could approach the world from any place. It didn’t go linearly. It was more like a mosaic. You could discover the story from the north, the south, the east, the west, and I said, “Wow.”

I remember when I saw my first video game where it was played from a point-of-view shot. It was Colony and this must have been twenty years ago. I was knocked out by it. I said, “Oh my God.” The players were perceiving all of this space through a point-of-view shot. And of course that’s one of the main building blocks of moviemaking; it’s totally cinematic, it doesn’t exist in any other art form. I’m always fascinated by what the video games are doing. I truly believe that the creative forces in my generation, instead of being filmmakers, they wanted to be game programmers. They’re literally creating spaces and stories. They’re constantly discovering new forms. Every six months there’s a new game where they push the envelope into something else. And this is also very true of the internet. The other day I discovered BloggerTV, where you have two guys talking about a subject, like an iChat, and it’s any topic they want to talk about, like talking heads on television, except it’s a discussion about a specific subject instead of people screaming at each. In any event, all this stuff is changing every day. And as I think about doing another film in this form, I’m constantly amazed at the new things that crop up.

Is it a coincidence that you’ve been influenced by video games, and quite often the “video game mentality” of modern warfare is cited? Is that something you brought into the film, this idea of soldiers being trained by virtual simulation and how that might affect their actions on the battlefield?

De Palma: Yeah, people say that, but the reality of on-the-ground has nothing to do with a videogame. As soon as soldiers get over to Iraq, they get it real fast. You can play every one of the most violent videogames in the world, and it doesn’t give you a clue about what it’s like to really be deployed in Iraq. A comparison is ridiculous.


As far as the actors whom you chose to portray the soldiers, none of them will be recognizable faces to an audience, but I thought all of their performances were convincing. Private Flake was an incredibly frightening character.

De Palma: It’s interesting that you say that, because that’s one of the main criticisms I get all the time, “Oh, these actors are overacting; they’re a bunch of amateurs.” Ridiculous! I mean, they’re acting in relationship to what situation they’re in. When they’re in barrage, they behave like warriors at the post, because that’s what they’re supposed to look like; that’s how the director wanted them to look, and the actors take on a personae and an acting style appropriate for that form. When they’re being filmed by Salazar, they’re mugging and confused and spontaneous, which is exactly what it’s like if you’re taking a home video. When people react against Redacted so strongly, they don’t understand the context of what the actors are doing. People are used to movies where the actors are always the same because the point of view never shifts. But when you change the form, the acting has to adjust.

So instead of a classical “character arc” you were going for a more prismatic study of people.

De Palma: Yes, but there’s still very much a sense of character progression. Flake is a little tweaked when he gets over to Iraq, but you can see him sort of changing as the movie goes forth. People just don’t understand how the form affects character presentation.

My immediate reaction after seeing the film, and what I did, was to view it a second time. In thinking about why that was, I got the notion that it was almost too much to absorb in one sitting — to learn how to view the film, and then to appreciate it at the same time — and so it resists a sense a resolution.

De Palma: The resolution is very much how I feel. I very much identify with McCoy; I feel frustration at not being able to stop the war, of being a participant in it, but being unable to do anything about it, just like McCoy can’t do anything about the girl being raped. He carries that guilt with him. The other thing we’ll be living with for decades is all of these soldiers coming back from Iraq harboring what they’ve been through. It’s going to be like Vietnam but ten times worse. And it’s going to go on for decades. I live near a V.A. hospital in California and I see these guys all the time, wandering around with that aimless stare on their faces, and of course everyone forgets about them. This is going to be going on for decades.

Redacted is in limited release this Friday.


November 16, 2007 at 6:06 pm 1 comment

Interview: Richard Kelly Tells Southland Tales of Love and Devotion

Richard KellyThe fan base that rallied around Donnie Darko has for years been anxiously awaiting the release of Richard Kelly’s second film, Southland Tales, scouring the film’s abstract website and three prequel graphic novels in anticipation of its release. And then came the infamous 2006 Cannes screening, where the film premiered to a near-historic critical harpooning. Since then Kelly has spent a considerable amount of money to augment the special effects and now, more than a year later, he’s revealed a shorter, more distributor-friendly picture. Although cameo sequences with Janeane Garofalo are now on the cutting room floor, the film boasts abundant acting talent and a cache of cultural references that rivals Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinema in sheer volume. Kelly calls it “apocalyptic science fiction film noir,” but as he explains, the film reaches ever further than that.

Southland Tales opens in the fascist, media-debased near future. Our navigators through this profligate America are an amnesiac named Boxer Santos (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), and Ronald Taverner (Seann William Scott), a cop who has unwittingly been embroiled in a secret agenda by neo-Marxist rebels. Private Abilene (Justin Timberlake) is the narrator and askew conscience of the film, whose off-kilter prophecies describe a distorted America that bears a pointed resemblance to our own. Kelly’s film is a pastiche of references from many facets of media and culture funneled as if through a funhouse mirror. CNN screens display images of technology that look like Metropolis by way of Mel Brooks. The futurist nightmares of William Gibson and Thomas Pynchon are explored with the snark of Mike Judge (Idiocracy). Philip K. Dick shares the stage with noir classic Kiss Me Deadly, as well as Repo Man, Mad Max, Satyricon, and Brazil. This wouldn’t seem so odd if it didn’t also recall so much of The Gospel According to John.

Literary and pop references aside, what Kelly has built is as much a mythology as it is a fever dream about today’s America. And though it may divide critics and take time to attract new audiences, Kelly is putting forward a work that few would attempt and none could imitate.

Richard Kelly on the set of Southland Tales

Tell me about the flag on the cover of Book 1: Two Roads Diverge. It’s also behind Mandy Moore in one of her last scenes with Dwayne Johnson. It looks like a Jasper Johns cut in half. Is that original art?

Richard Kelly: That is original art by my friend J. Kelly. He did that art as a collage right after 9-11. I was over at his house and he did it over a couple nights. It thought it was pretty powerful. I said, “That’s the movie I’m getting ready to make! That’s Southland Tales! That’s what it’s about. That painting.” So it became an icon to the film.

One of your prequel graphic novels is called The Mechanicals. This is named for the improv group? Tell me a bit about them.

RK: They’re an eight-person comedy troupe that I stumbled upon a few years ago. They used to hang out at Barney’s Beanery and we used to go drinking together. Abby McBride who plays one of the porn star girls — two of the girls are mechanicals, Starla, the girl who stalks Dwayne on the beach with the gun is a Mechanical, the Asian kid who gets shot on the toilet is a Mechanical. They’re spread all throughout the movie. I just thought their comedy was brilliant. I used to run around with video cameras and do little sketch comedy stuff with them over the years and they became good friends of mine and they were all struggling so I thought, I’d give them all parts in the movie and name the third chapter after them.

Seann William Scott in Southland Tales

The toy soldier crawling on the LA street, was that a reference to the toy monkey in Rebel Without A Cause?

RK: No, that’s funny you would mention that. I stumbled upon that toy soldier when I was doing research in Venice and it was raining the morning we shot that and we stuck the soldier on the pavement and we got this great shot and it was absurd, it was trippy, disturbing funny and brought up all these emotions looking at this toy soldier on the pavement. I thought it was emblematic of the futility of conflict or war. It may be Justin’s character a little bit: A mechanical pawn the government is using.

Johnson’s character as well.

RK: Yeah, alone on the wet pavement in Venice. It’s one of my favorite shots in the movie and it’s something we did as a whim that became something significant.

This film is so packed with references. Why did you feel a need to construct your film with such thick references? Do you think that’s become a tool for critical division?

RK: Well, you talked about that painting: Resolved, the American flag divided in two. That’s a piece of collage art. He [J. Kelly] has taken newspaper headlines and images from American history and he’s embedded them into a collage and I wanted this film to be like a big piece of pop art and if you think about the way we use product placement in the movie, the way we use pop culture and music, we sort of put them into this kaleidoscope blender. I think at its base level I see it more as influenced by Philip K. Dick or Thomas Pynchon or Raymond Chandler — apocalyptic, science fiction, film noir. That’s where it’s rooted stylistically. If you go to LA, you’re surrounded by pop culture faces and products and billboards. LA is a collage. It’s like a gigantic messy collage with everything flowing together. And I wanted it to feel like LA. Not only that, the fragmentation you see on CNN and the news screens and quad screens, that’s the way life feels and I thought the movie should be reflection of Los Angeles life and it all came together that way.

When you construct a collage you ultimately affect the modern values of the pieces you cut up to build it. I wanted to ask a question about rewriting the last line of T.S. Elliott’s The Hollow Men. Initially I thought this was about spin but now I’m seeing it differently.

RK: Flip flopping T.S. Eliot’s last line in The Hollow Men was an absurd statement. [The original goes] “Not with a bang but a whimper.” Me, [I think] that’s T.S. Eliot having a premonition about global warming. The whimper is us slowly drowning ourselves over many hundreds of years. This is the flip-flop of that [notion] where it all ends on the fun party weekend before the election in 2008. It all happens just the day after tomorrow — just right around the corner. The idea that “with a bang” is Hollywood blockbuster hero Dwayne Johnson is your guide through that final three days. It felt comedic and it felt like an inversion of the poem was the right way to go.

It also seems to be a good tennis fellow for your Road Not Taken reference. It seemed to me as if you were saying “we took the road more commonly taken, and here we are.”

RK: The Road Not Taken really is the one where we all vote, take a stand, make a difference and try to solve the energy crisis together. That’s the ‘road not taken’, unfortunately.

The aspect of the film I found most challenging was the acting. You’ve wrangled some adept talent here but their performances sometimes broach the realm of camp, which I should qualify can be ambiguous if not easy to confuse for poor performance. As deliberate as I understand the performances were, could you explain Timberlake’s histrionics and Johnson’s Monty Burns impersonations?

RK: (Laughs) It’s funny you say “Monty Burns.” Dwayne was playing Boxer Santeros but he’s also switching into Jericho Kane, renegade cop: The Ralph Meeker character in Kiss Me Deadly. And he studied Ralph Meeker’s lowering voice. That became Jericho Kane and he’s a schizophrenic [living] between those two identities. It was a deliberate discussion had with each actor to understand the role he was playing and the whole greater mystery was a lack in my mind. With Justin it was all about – he’s this doomsday prophet who’s a famous guy who’s been drafted and disfigured by his best friend in Iraq and now he’s been put on this perch in front of this big alternative fuel center to guard it. [He’s] a terrorist in the Santa Monica Bay. And he’s dealing this underground drug. The elaborate mythology the audience has understood, Justin was able to latch onto that, in a way. Like you said, it was all very deliberate. I was just trying to capture the humanity beneath any of these eccentricities they developed.

Do you feel that could be a future vehicle for camp?

RK: Yeah, but the characters are all sincere, even when they’re acting eccentric. What the actors were trying to do was remain sincere in their moments of eccentricity. Dwayne is really terrified when the woman pulls the gun on him at the beach. He had an absurd facial expression but he was terrified and really is schizophrenic and thinks he’s the cop trying to talk her down with the gun. I think one of the more important things to understand about Dwayne’s character is he is schizophrenic and he is playing this ridiculous cop character. He’s researching the role to get into character.

JT bringing apocalypse back.

The film involves a lot of parallel texts: TV, news, the plot of the underground, the plot of the right wing, Boxer’s story, the script he’s carrying around. And all these texts blur into each other and share details. Tell me why you felt this blurring was important to involve in your apocalypse satire?

RK: I think that there’s a metaphysical quality to the way in which the news media is scripted and our lives feel scripted. In a way [when] you think about the way the war in Iraq was sold to us, almost as a screenplay. And I feel like there’s “what could have been” and “what we’re living with now.” It’s a very metaphysical thing. It’s hard to wrap it all into one easy explanation but sometimes I wonder if there’s someone out there who’s written a screenplay for our lives. And living in Hollywood, are we all living in a movie? Sometimes I feel like my life is a movie.

Are you talking about destiny?

RK: Yeah. It is about predestination. What is the destiny of our country? Are we going to be able to pull ourselves out of this or are we going to continue [like this]. Are we going to self-destruct?

The critics are really wrestling with this one but I for one hope it’s seen by a lot of people.

RK: I’m proud of it. I can finally sleep at night.


November 16, 2007 at 6:05 pm Leave a comment

Interview: Robert Redford Insists On Asking Questions in Lions For Lambs

Robert RedfordWith documentaries on the war in Iraq satisfying a need for “on the spot” journalism, Hollywood’s recent stabs at war movies have been long on crowd pleasing and short on message. Actor/director Robert Redford’s war drama Lions for Lambs puts its money where its mouth is. Maybe that’s why people are having such a hard time with it.

Robert Redford’s war drama Lions for Lambs makes no attempts to disguise itself. It’s not, for example, a family drama about a fallen soldier, or a sexy spy thriller that takes place in Iraq, or even an action film about oil and terrorism. In fact, the most polarizing thing about Lions for Lambs is its unwillingness to be anything but a film about America at war. Be it loved or hated, Lions represents an old brand of lefty awareness-raising that makes its agenda plain and its (self) criticisms perfectly clear. Ironically it’s just this simplicity of purpose that inspires division. Maybe this brand of “straight talk,” isn’t one audiences are used to, but Redford has a conviction and a plan to bring the film to young audiences. “Fundamentally and in the end,” Redford says, “this film is about the future.”

The story of Lions revolves around the fate of new recruits Ernesto Rodriguez (Michael Peña) and Arian Finch (Derek Luke). While these two soldiers are deployed to a new strategic “point” (far smaller than a base), their former professor Malley (Redford) tells their story to his present student Todd (Andrew Garfield) to caution against apathy. Meanwhile, Republican Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) exposes his confidential strategy to veteran Journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep), even as Irving’s strategy is underway.

Redford lends a loving patriotism to this “head, hands, heart” story. “It’s legitimate,” he insists, “every point of view addressed in this film.” On the theoretical side, Streep and Cruise battle over the loss of political and journalistic integrity. In the spirit of loving concern, professor and student pit new cynicism against weatherworn idealism. And as expected, the angle of action is painfully burdened with consequences that this national body can neither afford nor avoid. And this national body is the one Redford cares about. “I’m worried about my country, obviously.”

“I’ve never in my lifetime, and I’ve lived through some pretty great events — WWII, McCarthyism, assassination of a president and a vice president, Iran [Contra] and other upheavals — I’ve never seen my country in as bad a shape as it is now,” Redford said. “How it’s seen on the world stage. How we’re perceived. What one single administration can do to trash so many categories. It breaks my heart.”

Robert Redford in Lions for Lambs

“[The enemy] is not the point of the film — we’ve seen the enemy in documentaries and TV shows and many films dealing with Iraq and Afghanistan,” Redford explained. This explains why we never see the enemy; their representation “was meant to be like a concept — the enemy is the enemy is the enemy, like a rose is a rose is a rose.” Far more concerned with turning an understanding camera towards the turmoil at home, Redford chose to deal with the enemies “more impressionistically” because he “wanted to stay focused on the guys and their effort to do the right thing: see them [the soldiers] struggle against impossible odds, to stay alive and to be soldiers, not knowing what was happening. Focusing on the enemy would have been another distraction.”

Though Lions for Lambs revolves around the story of the two recruits, the larger part of screen time is dedicated to the debates of the three main stars: Redford, Cruise and Streep. In its overview of cultural debates, the film is strikingly comprehensive, but to get there, it has to do a good bit of talking. But even in its moments of self-conflict Lions is not off limits to self-criticism. Redford said when he first read the script, “I thought, ‘This could be tough.’ Talking heads in a room is not where audiences are these days. And then that challenged me. Can you make people care? That became a challenge I decided to go for.”

So how then, can a diligently sincere film that proffers engagement manage the fact that it’s swimming in speech? “You’re dealing with the very issue the film’s talking about, and you’ve got it on yourself,” he said with a recognizable gentility, proving the highest honor at Redford’s table is reserved for personal conviction.

Originally a stage play, Matthew Michael Carnahan’s (The Kingdom) script “had been around for a while, I think about a year and a half, and nobody was willing to make it.” The script is accessible but dense and makes a clear effort to both legitimize and display the sorts of arguments normally reduced to categories like “red state versus blue state.” [Read how Carnahan became politically engaged by penning Lions for Lambs here.]

Through Lions, Redford found a connection back to the politically inspired films he’s participated in throughout his career. “I’ve always tried to make diverse films but there’s usually a fundamental theme underneath all of it. I’m always interested in the political scene and have been since 1970 when I made The Candidate, All the President’s Men,Quiz Show. They’re various films that are about the power of media and so on, but times have changed so drastically since I started [making films]. It’s like there’s always a new film to be made about the new condition. [Lions for Lambs] was different because this is about what is fundamentally unchanged.”

What that fundamentally unchanged thing is, is a way of thinking. “What are the conditions that lead us into this situation we found ourselves in during McCarthy, Watergate, Iran-Contra? What’s underneath it that creates this? Not this but what’s underneath. It’s a mindset: It’s a sentiment that belongs to a certain kind of character and a way of thinking. And they don’t go away. You would have thought after Watergate that those people who did all the dirty tricks for Nixon and lied and cheated and his effort to withhold, hide and conceal the truth, and the press going out after him — you would have thought that once that high point was reached that would never happen again. It is [happening now], only worse.”

Robert Redford directs Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise in Lions for Lambs

Though Redford speaks openly against these breaches of public trust (Iran-Contra, Watergate, McCarthyism), he doesn’t speak through his film. True to that model of lefty awareness raising, Lions doesn’t lead you to any conclusions at all. “We didn’t tie it up with a ribbon. Could have been very easy to do that. You could have had a scene at the end where the student comes into the classroom and the teacher looks up and he comes in the door and you know he’s come back. We don’t know what he [Todd] is going to do but we do know one thing: he’s thinking. So therefore you’re asking the audience to think about how they feel. When Tom Cruise’s character finishes with Meryl Streep’s character he sweeps her right out the door. He’s gonna go on doing what he’s gonna do the way he’s gonna do it.”

In retrospect, the film can be read as a battle between people who act on their conscience and those who carry their consciences in tow. And, it’s worth noting, the battle is meant to play onscreen as well as in the minds of each audience member. “We can ask ourselves about 9/11 all we want: How did we get there? Did we have warnings before? But the fact is, we’re here now. We’ve got to think about how to move forward. So he [Senator Irving] has got a point and she [journalist Roth] has got a point. Then you put it to the audience and you let the audience figure out what their position is.”

Among the film’s multitude of opinions there is one thing Lions doesn’t provide. “We don’t provide the answer,” Redford said. “It’s simply meant for you to think about it, and so why not put that in front of students and see what they have to say?”

Redford’s goal with the film involves a myriad of outreach screenings to college campuses. This, Redford says, was his idea. “I said, I’d rather go to the areas and meet with groups and take time. And I would be particularly interested, because of the film and what the film is about, to involve young people, to go to schools and colleges and find out what they think.”

“There’s a general idea that young people over the last 10 or 15 years have grown more apathetic, more cynical — which I think is true — but probably for some good reason. But now it’s dangerous because if that’s the way it’s going to be for young people they’ll move farther and farther away from involvement in a system that’s getting worse and worse and worse.” This makes the possibility of engagement (to say nothing of theater attendance) among college age audiences seem all the more indigestible. But Redford explains that, love it or leave it, the question Todd asks Professor Malley (“Why would I want to get involved in a system that’s this diseased or corrupted?”) should be followed by the retort “Precisely because it is.” Because as Redford states, “You’re the one that’s going to have the future, not me.”


November 11, 2007 at 1:19 pm Leave a comment

Interview: Matthew Michael Carnahan Explains Lions for Lambs Agenda

Matthew Michael CarnahanWhile many recent films concerning Iraq have taken a political stance, writer Matthew Michael Carnahan sought to do something different. The result, this week’s Lions for Lambs, attempts to engage the audience in as non-partisan a debate as you’ll find in Hollywood. Whereas Carnahan agrees he doesn’t like the idea of war, he tries to make the case for how we can pull out, and why it is important for the American public to be less apathetic towards the war and to do something.

Carnahan is the brother of Narc director Joe Carnahan, to whom he attributes much of his success. Yet it is hard to say Hollywood has treated him like the nepotistic brother; his first film, The Kingdom (which also involved the war on terror) was an $80 million affair directed by Peter Berg, and another political potboiler script, State of Play, is currently filming under director Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland). Remarkably, Carnahan began writing Lions for Lambs as a stage play before the script fell into the hands of actor-director Robert Redford; the rest, as they say, is history. Soon the busy scribe will pen a big-screen version of The Zebra Murders, about the racially-motivated serial killings in 1970s San Francisco, and collaborate with his brother on an adaptation of James Ellroy’s White Jazz.

RT caught up with Carnahan at a roundtable in Los Angeles, touching base on the war on terror, the apathetic nature of youth, and what it means to write a call to action.

How did Robert Redford get attached to direct?

Matthew Michael Carnahan: It was really a Hail Mary. I had heard it was going to Redford and thought it would be wonderful if he even flipped past the title page. And then it came down that he had actually read the whole thing and responded to it. And then I got a message from him and saved it for as long as I could: “Matt, Bob Redford. Let’s talk about this.”

With The Kingdom and now Lions for Lambs, do you have any more projects involving political drama or the war on terror?

MMC: Nothing right now. Because I really do feel like I’m tapped out. I’ve said pretty much everything I can say. And I don’t even know if at the end of the day it’s going to make much of a difference, but just from the sheer fact that I was able to write it down and get it out there, I’ll take it. But I am writing a story called the Zebra Murders, a true story in San Francisco about a mass murder that nobody really remembers. It was lost in the Watergate, Vietnam, Zodiac kind of time. And the one I’m supposed to write after that is Guest of the Ayatollah, which is the Bowden book on the Iran hostage crisis. Which is really one of my earliest memories.

And if/when the WGA strike goes?

MMC: Who knows when I’ll get to it?

Where did the idea come for Lions for Lambs? From your own indifference or a consciousness of the indifference of others?

MMC: Both! My indifference is the thing that pushed the button. I’m the first to rant and rave about fighting a war on two fronts. I mean that’s the last thing you want to do. And here we are fighting on two fronts in a war where the only thing that separates those two fronts is a country (Iran) that might despise us more than the two countries we’re fighting in. And yet with all of that I never did anything about it.

I’m a graduate of USC and searching the channels for the SC game, and I past a news report about a Humvee that had flipped into a river. And four or five American soldiers had drowned. I thought, what an awful way to die, when you’re at war and you die in what is essentially a traffic accident. And I couldn’t get past it fast enough, because God forbid it ruin my experience of watching the game. And it hit me that I’m just as much a part of the problem as everyone I like to point the finger at.

Would you say this movie is a call to action?

MMC: I can’t really come up with a better way to put it. A call to action in so far as I wrote this down to see if it would resonate with anybody else.

But then don’t you face the same thing that that news report did, with people passing over it?

MMC: Hopefully [when] you get three of the biggest movie stars alive involved, maybe that will trump at least some of that intransigence to go to yet another movie about the middle east and the war on terror.

So then if it’s a call to action, what’s the “action”?

MMC: To make this war, and the loss of American lives… and the fact that four thousand of my countrymen…the fact that they are dying and it’s not a part of our daily lives. That it’s not a daily cognition on my part that as we are having this discussion there are people a lot younger than us fighting and dying and going through some of the most terrifying moments imaginable. Basically I just wanted us in our daily lives to become cognizant of that.

What were some of the biggest difficulties you came across in writing?

MMC: The biggest challenge was having originally written it as a stage play. And the more I started to write the military scenes, particularly the helicopter scenes, I realized there’s not a stage in existence that could do that justice. I kept visualizing the scene in Rushmore. (Laughs) And I think when you watch it, it still feels like a stage play. And whether or not that’s good or bad I don’t know. I just didn’t know how to get into those subjects without talking.

Was the Todd character [played by Andrew Garfield] anything like you at that age?

MMC: It was completely autobiographical. That Todd character is me in college. I had the idea early on… that I could do less and still get by. I wish I had a teacher that put his foot in my back side. Maybe I would have listened.

Who would you most like to see this movie? Who was it made for?

MMC: Students. And the test screenings we did all over the country at universities went extremely well. And now it’s just a matter of, can we get them in there to see it?

What do you think the response of the administration will be?

MMC: Frankly, I don’t really care. I don’t want to piss people off, just to piss them off. I wanted to talk about these questions in the most balanced way I possibly can.

Lions for Lambs hits theaters Friday.


November 11, 2007 at 1:17 pm Leave a comment

Interview: Darfur Now Producer Cathy Schulman On Getting Involved

Cathy SchulmanThe enormity of the conflict in Darfur is such that many have been numbed by its complexity and seemingly endless violence. It’s a situation that the makers of the new documentary, Darfur Now (featuring Don Cheadle and expanding into theaters this Friday), hope to help correct.

In short, the conflict involves several loosely-affiliated rebel groups that have been brutally suppressed by the Sudanese government and proxy militias. Though it’s hard to get accurate figures, it’s likely that nearly 450,000 people have been died and more than two million displaced by the fighting.

Rotten Tomatoes spoke with Oscar-winning producer Cathy Schulman, one of the producers of the project, about the difficulties in making the film, the delicate balance between activism and entertainment in cinema, and how to mobilize to end the violence.

What do you hope the response to Darfur Now will be?

Cathy Schulman: First and foremost, I hope it contributes to making a difference in the crisis itself. The reason for making it so quickly and getting it into the marketplace so quickly was in the hope it could inform people and make some noise about the film. That’s the most important thing. That’s intimately connected to what its theatrical life is too. I want the movie to perform and I want the people to love it but it was always done as an expression of activism. I don’t want people to think it’s medicinal either, I guess I should say that.

How did you get involved in the film?

CS: Don Cheadle and I had obviously worked really hard together on Crash and we won the Academy Award. If there was ever a time to use our fame and momentary fortune to give back then was the time. When you get an Academy Award, you feel like you’ve got a little gold star on your forehead and now you can really get something interesting done. Don radicalized me on the issue of Darfur, which happened during the structuring of Crash. I was sitting in a meeting listening to a narrative pitch, a story about a soldier who goes to Darfur, and it came to me like a rocket. I thought, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” How could we possibly do a fictional film about an issue people aren’t even aware of in real life? And I knew what we’d do was make a documentary about this subject matter.

In talking to various agents about this, I was introduced to [Darfur director] Ted Braun, who had come up with this notion for Darfur Now. I thought his way of approaching the material was spot on because he wanted to make a movie that was about making a difference as opposed to doing an expose, a movie that had hope. For Don [Cheadle] and I, [it] was so important to us to answer a certain question. In our own lives we ask, “Why, when we hear tragedies happening on other sides of the world, do people say, ‘Well, that’s too bad but it’s so far away and so complicated, what can possibly I do?'” So the question was can we make a film that brings the conflict closer? Make it more familiar to the people and offer a sense of sameness? So this was an interesting way to go.


Your film didn’t get all that far into the minutia of this very complicated conflict; it was more about what you can do.

CS: That was very much our goal. In regard to the humanitarian crisis nationally and internationally, the best thing you can do is gather voices and make a lot of noise at the people who can help make a difference. It’s crucially important with human interest and humanitarian issues like this that people get loud. Get educated, get loud, and say “No more.” And that’s when you can get mobilized. Believe me, we can make a difference in Darfur. There they have a situation that is primarily driven by a portion of a government that has allowed this and we can change all that by putting these war criminals behind bars, first and foremost.

In the film, you feature people like Sam Brownback and Hillary Clinton, which shows that people on both sides of the political aisle agree on the issue. Yet there hasn’t been any sort of critical mass movement. What’s the obstacle there?

CS: I think it’s the remote nature of the conflict. We live in a touchy-feely world where the closer the problem the more capable we are of coping — if at all. Not to put words in Don’s mouth, but he always says, “There’s something about West Africa. Like, if it’s there, it’s an ‘African problem.'” Like, that’s the continent where that stuff happens. People don’t take the time [to explore] and otherwise people have grown desensitized to violence. Which is one of the reasons we decided not to make a film where every other frame you’re seeing a shot of a body or atrocity of some sort or another. As you saw in the film, we only have one shot of violence, which was a very conscious decision. For whatever reason, seeing so much news or being overwhelmed with violent imagery all the time, the reaction isn’t “God, what do I do to stop that from happening?” The reaction seems to be to go cold. I think you put up your emotional barriers as an individual and think, “I can’t cope with that.” I think that’s happening on a macro level. How would you read about 2.5 million displaced people and over 200,000 people murdered in this violent way and not do something? We keep reading stuff like that in the world we live.

You witnessed these things firsthand?

CS: No, I personally did not go to Darfur. We sent a crew of five people.

So your end was insurance and logistics.

CS: Yeah, gosh. It’s taken so much to get it mounted and keep everybody safe. [It was] really hard to shoot there. Usually the problem with shooting in a foreign place is you’re trying to figure out the infrastructure and trying to deal with the lab. With this film, we had to deal with keeping our film from getting stolen, how [we were] going to house our crew because we can’t find hotel rooms because of the embargo, how [we were] going to deal with communications if we can’t bring GPSes. It was crazy stuff.



Were you constantly concerned with the safety of the crew?

CS: The day they got on that plane to come back and they called me from the London airport — they’d gone from Khartoum to London — I’ve never felt a bigger stress reliever in my life. I had a backache for weeks that went away that day. I realized I was stressing. And the phone calls were erratic and in the middle of the night and it did make me anxious the whole time. I hated it when I couldn’t talk to them for days on end because, you know, they couldn’t get a signal or something. That would happen [and] it was terrible.

You’ve worked on a lot of films that have social messages. How do you balance the message and your duty to the audience?

CS: The most important thing is that I apply the same rules to a documentary or a social action film that I do to a narrative, fictional film for general marketing. We cannot be boring, and we have to be involving for 90 minutes. We have to be self-distinguishing and worthy of conversation so there’s something people can talk about and so that the word of mouth can live and people can say, “This is something worth seeing,” even if the subject matter might be more serious or politically oriented or socially focused. The truth is all those things are to be applied to any film I work on.

I know you went through some tough times producing Crash. Did the Oscar make it all worth it in the end?

CS: I look back on Crash fondly because the shooting of that movie and the post-production was the greatest collaboration of my career. I loved everyone I worked with and Paul [Haggis] and I had the best working experience. Secondly, there’s nothing bad about winning an Oscar, but all that is overshadowed by the financial debacle. The thing I’m sad about is instead of it being shared celebration it’s turned into this unnecessary economic battle. (A suit filed by Shulman’s former business partner Bob Yari seeking production credit on Crash was dismissed in late 2006.)

Did it change your perspective? Do you get onto projects and think, “This might have a shot because my last one did?”

CS: [Laughs.] You mean an Oscar shot? It’s funny. One of the most amazing things about winning an Oscar is that the minute you win one there’s only one the thing you want. And that’s to win another one. It’s like that whole thing your mother tells you: be careful about a goal because once you get there…

I also understand a little more of what it takes to go through that kind of a race. You can’t start a film thinking about awards or accolades. You can only start a film thinking about what it is you care to communicate or think will be interesting to audiences. The rest has to be gravy.

Darfur Now is in select theaters now.


November 7, 2007 at 4:22 pm Leave a comment

The Golden Age Director Shekhar Kapur Talks

Shekhar KapurWhen Shekhar Kapur made Elizabeth in 1998 and began his journey charting the life of the virgin queen, he picked up an Oscar nod for Best Picture and helped his crew, and lead actress Cate Blanchett, secure their own nominations. Nine years later and the story continues in The Golden Age, exploring the events leading up to the Spanish Armada and Elizabeth I’s relationship with Sir Walter Raleigh.

It was surprising to learn in the press notes that you’ve been very open in terms of liberties you’ve had to take with regards historical accuracy. How do you define the line between being historically accurate and telling a good story?

Shekhar Kapur: One of the things that I believe is that history is interpretation. One of the things I realised making the last film is that people called herthe Virgin Queen and the moment you say she’s the Virgin Queen, you’re already consigning her to myth. And myth isn’t historically accurate. Did Walter Raleigh really put the cape down or is that mythology? You just don’t know. There are certain basic facts, like the fact that the Armada existed, but according to the textbooks you’ll read the Armada was won by Drake, and yet when you interpret the facts you could conclude that the Armada was won by big freak storms, so it was won by the Gods. Which interpretation to do take?

Also if I made a film about Cleopatra today no-one would expect me to make it historically accurate because they agree that Cleopatra has been consigned to mythology. The moment you create an icon you’ve consigned to mythology anyway. Look at Diana, people are saying did she die? Did someone kill her? You’ve already consigned her to mythology. Things get very mixed up and so you interpret those things that have become more famous in the mythology of history.

The speech at Tilbury for example; I’ve always wondered if she’s addressing 10,000 men, how many of them heard it? Did the people at the front pass it on? Yet, every book you read says the 10,000 people roared with approval! It has to be myth! Did she just speak to her commanders who then interpreted it down to their soldiers? And what had changed by the time the last soldier had heard it? And did she write the speech? Did she speak it instinctively? All rulers have speech writers. Was it history or was it mythology? And who can tell?

The Golden Age

At the same time it’s potentially quite brave of a filmmaker to make your own interpretation and on occasion challenge the scholars and the writers of textbooks.

SK: It’s the only thing a filmmaker can do – history doesn’t follow a three-act structure unfortunately! And there’s a difference between people who write the textbooks and scholars. Scholars say they’re interpreting. Scholarly work on history is always an interpretation and it’s very honest. They say up-front, “I’ve looked at this and looked at this and looked at this and therefore I coalesce these one-hundred different facts and come up with this interpretation. And it’s exactly the same in film because we have to tell our story in two hours. You do the Armada in three minutes… It was a six month long battle.

You’ve mentioned this is the second act in a planned trilogy; where do you pick up the story for part three?

SK: It has become a trilogy as I go on! This film ends with her becoming truly divine. Philip [of Spain] was divine and as you can see I’m heading towards that divine battle and the elements get involved and ultimately that’s the big myth that we’re heading to in the current-day world.

What’s interesting about Elizabeth is that all the great myths that we remember as people were killed. Ghandi was killed, he was divine, Diana was killed, she was divine, John F. Kennedy was killed, he was divine. Elizabeth is the only one who stayed divine, worshipped and died a natural death. How do you deal with people saying, you’re divine, you’re the Virgin Mary, while you’re alive? How do you come to terms with that? So it’ll be an interpretation of her own divinity and her own mortality, when she suddenly become ordinary and doesn’t live forever. Because of course you can’t sleep like Michael Jackson in an oxygen chamber.

The Golden Age

Will we be waiting another nine years?

SK: I hope not, I hope that Cate will agree to do it earlier. People have said that Elizabeth was very old at that time and asked whether I’d be waiting for Cate to get that old and I’m saying no, cinematic age is an emotional age, it’s an interpreted age. If you see Cate now it’s amazing to see her in the film sitting down with drawn features. I’m convincing myself that she’s much, much older than she is. As soon as I say cut, she looks right at me and says, “What did you think of that?” And it’s ten years younger, her face. An actor will convince you of an age, and great actors are ageless as great icons are ageless. That’s cinema.


November 7, 2007 at 4:21 pm Leave a comment

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