Saturday, September 20, 2008

Lost in the Suburbs: Part Two

A Chat with Alan Ball (click
here for part one)

"Towelhead is a
crude, but scath-
ing portrait of
suburban life."

-- Stephen Hol-
The New
York Times

***** *****

This is a side note, but in the Publishers Weekly review, they
describe Vuoso as creepy. I'm curious as to your take. To me,
his actions are creepy, but as a person, I wouldn't define Aar-
on Eckhart's character as creepy. Is he creepier in the book?

No. In the book, he's a little more aggressive.

In the same review, they describe him as musclebound.

I know in the book, she likes his biceps when he's wearing a t-shirt, but
I don't think he's musclebound. He never struck me as a bodybuilder.

That might be a slight misinterpretation, be-
cause a bulkier person would make him seem more
threatening--more obviously like a predator.

[Ball takes the same approach as Todd Solondz, i.e. "sympathy for the devil."]

Dylan Baker in 1998's Happiness

I felt it was important for Vuoso
to be attractive in a way that a
young girl would find physically
attractive. And part of his appeal
is that he's sexy, but I didn't want
to make him overtly macho or a
bodybuilder or anything like that.

In the book, he's more aggressive, and I guess in the movie he's not quite
as--I mean, it was always important to see him as a human being and to
understand why she finds him appealing, because he's handsome and
sexy and charming and at the same time, I wanted there to be some vul-
nerability, so that's also part of the appeal, because all the other men in
her life don't show any vulnerability. You know what I mean? So I guess
there's a very slight gradation. I still don't think he's creepy in the book.

And it's a tough balancing act, because he does change. It's nice
to see he's not--he could be two things. He could be one thing at
the beginning and one thing at the end, or one thing all the way
through, and he's actually a constellation of things. Each scene
brings out a different side. Eckhart handled that really well.

Absolutely. It's a brave performance. One of the reasons I want-
ed to cast Aaron is not because of all the ethically compromised
characters he's played, but because of his role in Erin Brockovich.

That's interesting. I wasn't thinking about that at all.

He's such a good guy in that movie, and I wanted to
see that side of him, and he did it. He brought that.

Yeah, he's great. I tend to forget he's in that film, because he
looks so different. I was wondering if at all, and you've already kind of answered this, but if you were thinking about In the Company of Men, which is how he first came to my attention. If he had done anything before that, I'm unaware of it, but after that...

Exactly. That was his first thing. I certainly think he was good in that, but
I wanted the more vulnerable, softer, charming Aaron and not the, the...

He was really scary in that.

Wasn't he?

Why did the title change from Nothing Is Private to Towelhead?

Well, when I wrote the script, it was called Towelhead, and we took
it to every studio, every mini-major in town, and everybody passed.

Because of the name?

I don't think it was because of the name; I think it was because
of the story and the subject matter. I mean, I actually heard from
my agent that the heads of some of these organizations said, "I
can't possibly make this movie--I have daughters!" [laughs]

That's kind of funny.

Yeah, hello? So I thought, okay. Then we starting looking for an in-
dependent way to finance the movie, and we found this company, Indi-
an Paintbrush, and somewhere along the line, I just got gun shy, and
thought, well, it's too controversial, blah blah blah... I myself am not
Middle Eastern, and I can't possibly call a movie a word that is a slur.

And there are worse words in the film.

Exactly. So we tried to come up with another name, and No-
thing Is Private
is the one we came up with, and nobody could
think of a better title. I mean, at some point, somebody even hir-
ed a consulting firm, who came up with pages and pages of tit-
les, and so that's the title we had, and we took it to Toronto.

It still shows up that way on the Internet Mo-
vie Database. It may be that way for awhile.

And then an independent bought the movie, and they said, "We want
to change the title back to Towelhead," and I said, "Okay, I just assum-
ed people wouldn't want to call it that." Then I called Alicia, and said,
"If I get any flack for this title, I'm gonna blame you." She said, "Well,
go ahead. Feel free to do that, because I am half-Egyptian." [laughs]

It's funny, because Nothing Is Private sounds like the
title of a Catherine Breillat film. She did Sex Is Comedy,
Anatomy of Hell
, etc. which, actually, your film...

Exists in the same universe.


More to come...

Towelhead continues at the Harvard Exit Theater (807 E.
Roy St.). For more information, please click here or call 206-
781-5755. Images from OutNow! and Siegel Productions.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Must-See: The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T

How are they gonna get out of this one?

Wait a minute. A film co-written and designed by Dr. Seuss?? From the 50s?? With fantastic sets and costumes?? And musical numbers?? With an evil piano teacher (that's "T" for Terwilliker!) who enslaves 500 kids?? ARE YOU KIDDING ME??? Yes. It's all true. And what's also true is this: this film is simply amazing and a definite must-see. Don't be fooled by the image I put up, this thing was shot in glorious Technicolor. I just had to show everyone what the evil henchmen look like, because they crack me up.

I haven't seen this in WAY too long, because I stupidly do not own the DVD. No matter - it's better to see it on the big screen anyway, so I'll be dragging myself out of bed tomorrow to get to this early showing. I know it'll be hard, but get yourself out of bed too, throw down some coffee, and go see this!!!

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T plays tomorrow - Saturday, September 20th, at 10am. You can buy tix online from SIFF here. $7 for adults, and only $2 for kids.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Lost in the Suburbs: A Chat with Alan Ball

When I heard that writer/director Alan Ball was coming to town for this year's Seattle International Film Festival, I knew I had to speak with him, even though I hadn't yet seen his purposefully provocative directorial debut, Towelhead.

Due to a variety of issues, I watched the film in three parts on three different days, kind of like a television series...which seems fitting, considering his background.

Ball honed his chops by writing for TV's Grace Under Fire, Cybill, and Oh, Grow Up.

After penning the Oscar-winning screenplay for 1999's American Beauty, he created HBO's Six Feet Under (2001-2005)--and won an Emmy for directing the pilot.

Ball adapted Towelhead, which premiered at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival as Nothing Is Private, from Alicia Erian's semi-autobiographical novel, and launched his second HBO series, True Blood, with fellow Academy Award winner Anna Paquin, as vampire-loving psychic Sookie Stackhouse, on 9/7. Earlier today, the network renewed the show for a second season. Despite his lofty credentials, Ball ranks as one of the more gracious subjects I've had the pleasure to interview.

I have to ask the obvious question: Have you been to Seattle before?

I've been to Seattle twice, once to shoot location work for Six Feet Under, the second season, because Nate [Peter Krause] lived in Seattle before he moved to Los Angeles in the world of the show. When he came back, he was picking up a body and driving it home with his sister, Claire [Lauren Ambrose].

You actually shot in Seattle and not Vancouver.

Absolutely. There's a shot that has the city skyline with the Space Needle, and we shot in a funeral home. We shot in three different places. That was the episode where Lili Taylor's character [Lisa Kimmel] was introduced. Then, prior to that, I had been here years ago. A friend of mine was doing a play at--what's the big theater?

The Seattle Rep?

She was doing a play at the Seattle Rep, and I stayed with her for about a week.

A lot of my questions are actually about adaptation, and unfortunately, I haven't read the book, but more so than that, I hadn't even heard of it and this is the first I've heard of the author, so I did some reading up on her. While talking to other interviewers, do you find that you're mostly talking to people who've read the book or people who haven't?

Both. It's about an even mix, I think. This was the first time I adapted something. And actually, the new series I'm doing for HBO is an adaptation of a series of books.

They seem to be extremely well known.

[Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire Mysteries, i.e. Dead Until Dark, etc.]

They're very popular. She [Harris] has a huge fan base. I read Towelhead before it was published. My agent had a copy of the manuscript, and I bought the rights to it.

Had you read her short story collection? [The Brutal Language of Love]

Towelhead was the first thing I read. My agent called me and said, "I have the manuscript. I think you should read it. I think you might respond to it, and I did...and I did. [laughs] And then I read her short story collection after that.

It sounds like she was working through some ideas she develops further in Towel-
. I should stay away from message boards, but I can't resist, and I noticed someone already misinterpreted the book by saying the character
[Summer Bish-
il's Jasira] is part-Egyptian. I guess they were conflating the novel with one of her
short stories, because I understand she's part-Lebanese, just like in the film...

Alicia's part-Egyptian. Her dad's Egyptian in real life, but in the novel, he's Lebanese.

[I meant character not author, but should have made that more clear.]

In its outline--I can't speak for the particulars--it seems like a pretty faithful adaptation.

It's incredibly faithful.

There were no major changes?


Click here for part two

Towelhead opens at the Harvard Exit (807 E. Roy St.) on 9/19. For more information, please click here or call 206-781-5755. Images fanpop, OutNow!, and Patch of Silver.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Heart in a Vise: Part Four

A Chat with Courtney Hunt (click here for part three)


When we did the short, all I knew was that there was the short. It was a great little piece, with a very, very strong couple of women. They had no name-it was "the blonde" and "the Mohawk"... Then after we had done the short and I had indicated I wanted to do the feature, well, I wasn't gonna let that outta my sight. I would call her [director Courtney Hunt]-not daily or anything, but you know, every three, six months: 'So, are we gonna make that movie one of these days?'... I wouldn't have let the project go for anything; I think it's interesting people think of it as haven given so much. I think what I gave was pure pleasure, and what is being returned on it is so amazing.
-- Melissa Leo to The Austin Chronicle

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

If you can pin it down, when did you come up with the idea for the film,
even if it was just a vague idea?

The vague notions came first. I heard a lot of complaining in film school about,
you know, women's movies: nothing happens. Nothing happens.

I know. It's frustrating.

And I was like, 'What the hell are you talking about?' As if in women's stor-
ies, nothing happens. Well, then you're telling the wrong stories, because
women go out and do crazy, adventurous things all the time. My mother
certainly did. I was so not into that, so when I heard about these women
who drive across the river, I was like, 'That's doing something.'

Leo in 2006's Three Burials
Did you read about it in the paper or hear about it in the news?
Well, my husband's from upstate New York, so I'd hear about it whenever
we'd visit his family, and the St. Lawrence is like a mile wide up there. So
we'd go up; and I started getting into the whole idea. And I found out that
Mohawk women do it, white women do it. It's quick. If you're bold enough
to cross that river, it's a quick way to make a good amount of money.
Has your movie changed things in any way? Has it brought more cops to the area?
Oh no, it hasn't changed a thing. No one even cares about this movie.
So this still happens?
Oh yeah. Well, the reservation is sovereign territory. The authorities
that are up there-there are so many. There are the troopers, there
are the [indistinguishable] police, and there are the Mounties. You've
got the FBI around, you've got Homeland Security. There are the local
town police. I mean, there's more-you can't believe what's up there.
And they're all located outside the sovereign territory?
Right, because of the Mohawk reservation, they don't necessarily stop
this sort of thing. And the relationship between New York state and the
reservation is a long standing one of, 'We're a sovereign territory, so what
are you doing over on our side of the line?' It's very much like, 'Now this
would be ours, and you live over there.' There's a respect for that boundary
on some level, and it makes for a very unique and complicated situation.
I was expecting you to say there just weren't a lot of cops
in the area, that there wasn't enough funding for them.

Well, there aren't a lot, but all of those entities exist up there, and I'm cer-
tain they surveil and take note of what goes on, but you don't feel like there's a
huge police presence at all. And they let us shoot the bridge, the Cornwall Bridge. Homeland Security vetted us, which made me believe in America again, because
I was like, 'There totally not gonna let us shoot,AeP' Remember the whole thing ab-
out shooting footage of bridges right after 9/11? That's what we did. And I told our producer, 'Don't even bother asking. This is just going to annoy them,' and he was like, 'No, no, we should ask-this is America,' and by God, they said we could come, and so, Reed, my DP, who's a woman-and so it's Reed and I and the camera, and we went out and did it, and it was great. And it's the opening shot of the film.
Was Ray at all based on you? And I know that's an obvious
question when you have a female
[central] character.
Yeah, Ray's got a bit of a trigger temper, and I've certainly got
a pretty bad temper, and I'm familiar with the idea of women get-
ting really mad. I learned that from my mother and my father.
I have a single mother, too-and she's a nice person-but sometimes,
you have to be mean to get things done. You learn that as a kid. I mean,
I can't get as aggressive as her, which is odd, because I think I'm natural-
ly more aggressive, but it's like cats and dogs with their kittens and their
puppies-there are times you've got to do what you've got to do. And there
are times she could become, I wouldn't say scary, but a little,AePintimidating.

I remember my mother just having to be the mom and the dad, and so she'd be really tough, like, 'Whoa, where did that come from?' And so Ray has two boys,AeP
Do you?
No, I have a girl.
It's a believable dynamic, though, especially with the teenage boy. He can see
what his mom is doing for him and still resent her. I thought that was realistic.

He's a good actor.
Yeah, he's really good, and they're good together. You almost hate him for being mean, but I'm not so sure I was much nicer [at that age]. And he's good at getting that across, so you don't hate him, because if he was bratty all the way through,
it wouldn't inspire much sympathy. You've got to know where it's coming from.

T.J. opens the door for men to be a part of this movie, because
a lot of men were raised by single moms, and you can tell by
the Q&As who was and who wasn't. It's very interesting.
I have to ask about Melissa Leo, because I'm
a big fan. Were you familiar with her work?

I saw her in 21 Grams. She came to my town with it to a little film festival
there, and I talked to her afterwards. She's good in that movie. Did you see it?
She is, and it almost sets up your film, in terms of the way she looks and acts.
I actually saw her at the New York Film Festival
[for 21 Grams, the closing night film]. They did this whole red carpet thing, and she walked right past me. Frankly, I didn't even know who she was. She looked completely different, because in the film, she has no vanity; she just does her thing. And to see her dressed up... I was watch-
ing the movie, and I realized, 'That was Melissa Leo.' I had no idea. It was shocking.

I know. She's an actor. She lives for it.
I also saw Tres Burials.
Three Burials? I love that movie.
And I've seen Homicide-every episode. What you see as a viewer-I don't
know anything about her personal life-is that there's just no vanity at all.

I wish you could interview her.
I would love to if I got the chance. She was so fantastic on Homicide,
because on network TV, you just don't see any other woman like that
I know.
They tried on NYPD Blue, but they always had to glam them up too much. They would hire these fantastic actresses, and they look good, but then they would
just cut their shirts down really low. It's like, what is that? Melissa Leo's charac-
[Kay Howard] actually dressed like a detective, and she wasn't manly,AeP
[See Gail O'Grady, Kim Delaney, Bonnie Somerville, etc.]
It's like they found the line between,AePno, she's not gay, which
is fine, but that's not what her character was. Is that so hard?

You're speaking to the converted. I'm totally with
you, I totally get it. She's a little force of nature.
I didn't double-check her credits; I just know what I've seen. Is this her first lead?
No, she's had other leads, but I think this is the first film she really had to carry...
And she does.
It was on her shoulders. It wasn't like there was a male lead or a co-lead.
And Michael O'Keefe isn't a lead at all.
No. So yeah, this was her step-out lead. I called her up, and was like, 'Are you ready to carry a picture, to carry a feature?' And she's ready. I hope she gets 10 more.
I hope she gets an actress award here. That's what I thought the minute I saw
your film, but you can't predict-even at a festival like SIFF, which I've been at-
tending for years-but everybody's talking about it, which is always a good sign.

If the Screen Actor's Guild doesn't pay attention to her, I'm going to picket! I'm go-
ing to be out there with a sign saying, 'Guys, wake up!' At least SAG, you know?
[Leo was a runner-up for best actress at SIFF,
and seems a good bet for a SAG nomination.]
You should, but she's got a fan club. We know about her; it isn't just me.
Well, you guys are cool out here, though. You know about cool things-the rest
of the country, not necessarily-although my dad saw the movie, and he loved it, because she's spirited, and they like that all across the board. All across the polit-
ical spectrum, they like to see somebody out there kicking ass and taking names.
Click here to return to the beginning
Frozen River continues at the Harvard Exit (807 E. Roy St.) through 9/10. That makes four weeks in a row-an amazing feat for an independent feature in this day and age. For more information, please click here or call 206-781-5755. Also, check out this link for Tom O'Neil's take on Leo's shot at an Oscar nomination. Images from, The Associated Press, New York Magazine, and The New York Times.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Go see Leave Her to Heaven tonight @ SIFF Cinema!


My birthday's tomorrow, but I'm giving all of you a present today. One of my favorite noirs is playing at SIFF Cinema tonight, starring glossy Goddess Gene Teirney at her bad girl best. Forget Fatal Attraction - Leave Her to Heaven is the real deal (Teirney's Ellen Bennet could take Glen Close's Alex down in 2.5 seconds).

Glorious Technicolor? Check. Swelling dramatic music? Check. Totally oblivious handsome nice guy? Check. Plain jane, innocent sister? Check. Hapless victims? Boy howdy - CHECK. Check and check. I don't even need to *mention* Vincent Price's brilliance as the snotty snubbed fiance to get you to go, do I?

Seriously people. This film is PURE GOLD. If you haven't seen it, now's your chance. If it's been so long you can't remember, you have to go! And if you just want to see it on the big screen because your DVD isn't cutting it - get yourself out to SIFF Cinema tonight at 7:30. Go, go and GO.

You can buy tickets online here.

Heart in a Vise: Part Three

A Chat with Courtney Hunt (click here for part two)

Ray (Melissa Leo) and Finnerty (Michael O'Keefe)

I wrote this film after learning about women smugglers at the border of New York
State and Canada who drive their cars across the frozen St. Lawrence River to make
money to support their kids. The risk involved compelled me to write a story, not only
about smuggling at the northern border, but also about what life circumstances would
lead someone to take such chances. What I discovered was that a mother's instinct to
protect her children is more powerful than any political or economic boundary line.

-- Director's Statement

***** ***** *****

This conversation took place while Hillary Clinton
was still a contender for the White House.

I grew up in this really, really fractured situation, which ,AeP

That's hard on a kid.

It was hard, although I knew my parents loved me. They were cool
about me, but they really didn't agree on anything. Like, I don't un-
derstand how they didn't have that conversation before they got to-
gether, but apparently, they didn't, so that's the background I grew
up with. So that intense Hillary/Obama thing has just completely
ripped me in two. But the Hillary/Obama thing aside, of course
I want there to be an African-American president. Of course!

Ray's oldest son, T.J. (Charlie McDermott)
I was going to ask about Obama because of his background in civil rights law.
Right, and yet in a way Hillary is my mother's age, and I'm just like, 'Okay,
so she's irrelevant?' She did all this work, and did she have the help of affir-
mative action? Um, no. But he, on the other hand,AeP The horrible legacy of rac-
ism is so evil. In the South, it was really bad, and I internalize all of it, probab-
ly too much. So, that was hard. The last five months-I mean, not the primary-
have been horrible, really horrible, because I really didn't know what to do.
[A few seconds of the above were lost when I flipped my cassette.]
Who were you for?
I just couldn't stand it.
Was it too stressful to take a stand either way? To me,
they both have good points. They're both Democrats, and
they're not that different. People can tell me they are,AeP

But they're not. They're policies won't be that different.
It's a visual thing; they look different, their styles are different.
You mentioned age, which people have been sort of dancing ar-
ound. There's a difference in backgrounds and generations.

I don't mind the way it's played out. I just wish it hadn't,AeP There's all this sex-
ism that's being unearthed, like the 'sweeties.' Because I think Obama's a 'sweet-
ie,' too. Am I being a patronizing bitch? Well, I don't know. There's that tension.
There's a lot in the women's movement and a lot in the African-American move-
ment that we haven't talked about yet as a culture. We haven't talked about a lot
of this subtle stuff yet, and it's bringing it all up. Frankly, it was just painful to watch, and I think that he'll be great, and I think that she would've been great, and I just hope that he can pull it off. It's hard, you know. I guess,AeP Here's the deal. When
my mother was doing her thing, and being politically very unpopular in Memphis, Tennessee, I watched her just be hated because she was taking a stance people didn't like, but they picked on her because she was a woman, and I saw that hap-
pen with Hillary, and I just was like, 'That's so not okay with me,' and so it was
just really painful. So in a way, it's this sort of weird loyalty to my mother.
Well, that makes sense.
With him, I was like, 'But he's great, too.' It's like my parents' divorce-
and I was like, 'No, this is too personal!' Anyway, it was hard, it was very
hard, but you know, we have to get out of other countries and stop killing
other countries' people. And I liked Edwards, too. He talked about poor peop-
le. I don't think it's embarrassing to be poor. In this culture, though, it is
kind of embarrassing-like, it's sort of a shameful thing if you are poor.
That's something you deal with in the film, the assumptions non-white
people have about white people, because I grew up poor. I can see why
they would assume this character is richer-because Ray is obviously not
rich-or that she's lower middle class when what we see is that she's real-
ly lower class, but you make it clear that she still has advantages.

Oh yeah.
And that becomes increasingly clear to her as the movie goes on,
even though her life is spiraling out of control at the same time. It's
hard to watch as somebody is learning the lesson that 'Gee, my life
sucks, but I have advantages, and my life is so crappy right now that
they're not helping.' It's weird not to have that lifeline. I think as Cauc-
asians sometimes there are 'outs,' which you can just see statistically.

A poor white person on death row is still less likely to be executed than
the African-American in the cell next to them. That's just the way it is.

That's right.
So that was interesting. I wish more people would deal with that.
Well, I think in this country, if you're poor, you ought to be ashamed of your-
self, and you've done something wrong. What they're saying is that you'd better figure it out, so you can fix it, and get on with the American Dream. That's what Ray's trying to do. She's trying to have her version of the American Dream.
A double-wide.
Which must be pretty comfortable, so it's not un-understandable.
Yeah, they're lovely inside.
My mom used to live in a trailer, and frankly, I was a little embar-
rassed, but what can you do? It was her choice, and she was happy.

Right. I guess I wanted to validate each of these characters' points of view,
so it's really whatever shoes you're standing in, so Ray does have certain advantages over Lila, and then Lila and Ray have certain advantages over
the Pakistanis. It's like: wherever you're sitting, and it's important to deal
squarely deal with that, and there's a million little clashes every day, and I
think that's why the Hillary/Obama debate was so interesting, because there
were all these little nuances that make up our differences that are social and religious, and coming from totally diverse parents,AeP Like my grandmother, on the less liberal side of my family, grew up really poor and she raised herself up by her bootstraps and she had been what would be called 'poor white trash,' and she was like, 'I will not be that,' and she literally willed herself into the middle or upper mid-
dle class. Well, that's quite a piece of work, and it's not something I don't respect. It's something I respect. On the other hand, I have my mother over here doing this other thing, so I mean, I think I was forced as a little girl to look, to take a hard look at really divergent points of view and to sit there with that discomfort, and to
be sort of the only one who got to see all these strange, different points of view.
Click here for part four
Frozen River continues at the Harvard Exit (807 E. Roy St.) through 9/10. For more information, please click here or call 206-781-5755. Images from Sony Classics.