Thursday, October 30, 2008

So Much Halloween Goodness!

MJ before he got really scary...and I'm not just talking about the video.

I've got my own thing going on for Halloween this year (which of course involves as many scary movies as possible!) - but if I was going to go out and hit a theater, I would have a tough time making a decision.

The NW Film Forum is showing a special 25th Anniversary screening of Michael Jackson's iconic Thriller video at 7:00pm - which I'm sure stirred a Zombie interest in most of us 80s kids who hadn't experienced Romero yet. In addition to the video, they've got the hour-long "Making of Michael Jackson's Thriller", which is worth it just for the interviews. Plus- music and drinks. It's really the perfect way to start your evening - and it's only $9 (or $10.22 if you buy online with Brown Paper Tickets).

And over at SIFF Cinema, one of my personal favorites is playing at 7:30pm: Tod Browning's Freaks (not to be confused with Alex Winter's Freaked,AePwhich is almost so bad it's good, but has nothing to do with horror). This 1932 black and white classic is seriously one of the creepiest movies ever made. Do yourself a favor and check it out - you'll be chanting "One of us,AePone of us,AePone of us,AeP" all night, which will only add to your Halloween experience. You can buy tix here for the 7:30 show on Halloween, or here for the Sat. 12/1 show - also at 7:30.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

World of Echoes

(Matt Wolf, US, 2008, HDCAM, 70 mins.)

The things 
that I like 
seem to be 
so different.
They're not 

the things 
that every-
body likes.
--Arthur Russell

***** *****

It's tough to
be ahead of your time, even if, in retrospect, Charles "Arthur" Russell wasn't doing anything all that unusual. He sang, composed, produced, and played the cello.

There's nothing overtly strange about his music, except that it's ethereal
without entering the more recognizable realms of ambient or new age. And
intimate, without qualifying as singer-songwriter fare. It's accessible, in
other words, but not commercial. And there you have it: the kiss of death.

You also have the makings of a cult artist, and that's where Wild Combi-
nation begins, i.e. at the inauspicious beginning, when Russell was a reg-
ular Iowa kid, playing in the school orchestra. He could be a million other
kids doing the thing they enjoy the most (Russell's mother also played the
cello). He could've become a classical musician, but fate had other plans.

His parents, Chuck and Emily Russell, who come across as clear-eyed and pragmatic, describe Arthur as an inquisitive young man with a severe case of acne (you can see the scarring in photographs). After his father discovered pot paraphernalia in his bedroom, they fought, and Arthur ran away. The year was 1967. From the look on Chuck's face, it's clear he regrets "bouncing" his son "on the floor."

In archival footage, Allen Ginsberg recalls meeting Russell in San Francisco, shortly after he arrived. At the time, the aspiring musician was a commune-dwelling Buddhist. "I had a sort of crush on Arthur," Ginsberg acknowledges, referring to him as "delicate," "youthful," and "oddly reticent." Russell often accompanied Ginsberg's readings, an association that continued after he moved to New York in 1974.

In NYC, Russell strove to combine his interests in folk, avant-garde, and proto-punk. He also moved into the same East Village tenement as Ginsberg and Richard Hell.

Just as he was experimenting with different musical forms, like the big band, he was "transitioning," as one observer puts it, from straight to gay. (Hence the inclusion of Wild Combination in the 13th annual Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.)

Russell's James Les Gros phase
If Russell wasn't known to the world at large in the '70s, he was making his mark in Manhattan: directing performances at the Kitchen, sitting in with the Talking Heads, and working with Robert Wilson. Phillip Glass describes him as "one of the more eccentric of our music community." Other speakers include critic David Toop, musicians Jens Lekman and Ernie Brooks (the Modern Lovers), label head Will Socolov (with whom Russell formed Sleeping Bag Records), and partner Tom Lee.

As proto-punk gave way to punk, new wave, and post-punk, Russell turned to...disco, garage, and house. Granted, his approach wasn't exactly mainstream, but it was definitely, yes, accessible, and to confuse the public further, he recorded under a variety of pseudonyms, but couldn't take direction well and nor did he "play well with others." Stress and strain aside, it was all for the best, since Russell was always meant to be a solo artist, and it's in that configuration that he recorded the singular songs for which he's best remembered today.

All of this history and commentary would be interesting enough, except Brooklyn director Matt Wolf's feature debut is more than just a by-the-numbers biodoc about an obscure artist, since the 24-year-old has managed to unearth an impressive array of rare and unseen audio and video material.

World of Echo (1986)

His recreations are also unobtrusive, which is to say, they rarely draw attention to themselves as fictional re-enactments. And the entire thing is pleasing to the eye and saturated with the otherworldly results of Russell's obsessive labors (he worked on the title track, “Wild Combination,” for five years).

If Wolf’s portrait sounds more like a rock documentary than a gay film,
that's because it starts out that way and plays as such most of the way
through. Then, during the last act, it changes, just as Russell changed
and just as the people around him changed through knowing him.

To say more would be to say too much. Suffice to say, I found the
ending quite moving, since Wolf suggests that the legacy of Arthur
Russell (1952-1992) lives on as vividly in the nooks and crannies
of New York as it does in the corn fields of Oskaloosa, Iowa.

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

Coda: Russell’s World of Echo was re-released by Audika in 2004.
Whether intentional or coincidental, the next release in Audika’s
Russell reissue series, Love Is Overtaking Me, hits the streets on
10/28 at the same time Wolf’s movie is making the rounds.


Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell plays the Harvard Exit
on 10/22 at 9:45pm. For more information about the film, please click here;
for more about the SLGFF, here. The Harvard Exit is located at 807 E Roy.
Images from All Music Guide, Deep Movements, and Sleephouse Radio.

12/7 update: click here for my review of the Plexifilm DVD.

Monday, October 20, 2008

"Waiting For Fluffy" an interview with Peter Sollett, director of Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist. Track 3

*note this piece is by Matthew Rovner.

I think this is one of the first times I've seen gay teens in a film who are completely comfortable with their sexuality and the straight characters take that as a given.

Something that I learned on this film is that sometimes the most political thing you can do is just be casual about who people are. And it seems to me really kind of a progressive and modern thing to just have those characters defined by who they are, they're friends of Nick and music aficionados, and not defined by their sexual orientation. None of the other guys are defined by their sexual orientation so why would these guys be?

But, we never really witness any intimate moments between the gay characters.

Well, there was one gay kiss in the film that we actually cut out because it was just slowing things down and it didn't advance the story at all. One of the characters kisses a stranger in the club because he was just excited and the guy's cute, but it confused people because they were like "Oh, is that the guy he's going to be spending the night with?" but of course it wasn't. It was a misdirect.

What was it like to direct from someone else's script (Lorene Scafaria) and someone else's source material (Rachel Cohn & David Levithan)?
I found it really liberating actually. Because there wasn't this connection to my pre-visualization of the scene. When you write something you imagine it a certain way and then maybe a year or two or five later, you get to shoot it and you try to get it to be exactly what you imagined. But in this case, I didn't really have that kind of dedication to what I had seen in my imagination, which is really freeing. I think it opened me to be a lot more collaborative, which is cool.
Speaking of collaboration, I noticed that you worked with the same editor, Myron Kerstein.
Myron's a tremendous collaborator and he's an amazing editor, he's an amazingly talented guy, and I was lucky to have him. He was involved with everything. Every choice involved with telling this story that happened after we shot, he was essential to. He's just a whole lot more than an editor to me, he's a prized collaborator, and a genius with music, and a really dedicated professional. And, we have similar taste in things, which really helps. He does a pretty good job of anticipating what I'm going to like, what I'm not going to like, and what the audience is going to like more importantly [laughs]. Yeah, I look forward to working with him again.
Let's talk about the cinematography. You were working with Tim Orr last time and this time with Tom Richmond. What was different about their styles?
Well, they're both very excellent and I'd work with both again. They have different approaches, but these are also, to be fair to them, radically different films to shoot. Vargas was a lot of natural light on 16-Millimeter and we wanted it to look naturalistic. And for Nick and Norah, there are bars and clubs, all at night. The street needed to be lit, everything needed to be lit. So it was a different experience. I haven't shot the Vargas style with Tom or the Nick and Norah style with Tim. I guess Tim comes from a little bit more of a naturalistic place. On Vargas, he'd walk into a location and turn off all the lights to see where it comes from naturally and just try to enhance what was already there. Tom on the other hand, would make choices such as "this club is gonna have this look", "we're going to choose these colors and contrast with the colors of the previous club" so it was a little bit more stylized. I think Tom's films tend to be darker than Tim's, moodier and a little grittier, actually. And I know that sounds maybe a little backwards because Tim shot lower budget, higher grain film. Tim makes things look really glorious. And Tom finds what's beautiful about the messiness or the dirtiness and goes with that.
What was it like working in 35-Millimeter this time as opposed to Super 16?
Good question. It's harder. [laughs] Those cameras are huge and when you decide to move a camera a couple inches you've got three guys coming over to move it and it takes time, that's ten minutes. And that's not true on 16-Millimeter, the DP (director of photography) grabs it and slides it over. It was sort of like switching to large format filmmaking from small format filmmaking. It was a learning experience.
Do you have a preference?

Hmm. I prefer the experience of making a 16-Millimeter movie. I like the intimacy of it, I like how easy it was to hand hold. It's crushing weight to have a 35-Millimeter camera on somebody's shoulder all day. I mean that's really hard work, holding that beast and making the operating look elegant. So 16 is definitely preferable. But, by that same token, if I could make a movie without a camera I would. If you could just do it with the actors and have it somehow be recorded, that would be the best.
Did you find that you had more complicated technical challenges this time around?
Yeah, I mean but we also had more help. Vargas cost $800,000 and this cost $8,000,000. So at ten times the budget you get some more hands and some more experienced hands. So it was nothing I felt directly. But I learned when to ask for a Steadycam shot and when not to. [laughs] I'll tell you that much. One of the things I've learned in film is asking for a Steadycam shot in a crowded room is, you know, really time consuming. Because inevitably people are bumping into it, it floats in the wrong direction. I had to learn about things like that for the film because we didn't have any of those gadgets the first time around. So, that stuff was interesting.
What were some of the other things that you learned this time around?
Well you know, things like night exteriors. We didn't have anything like that on Vargas. We were shooting this movie when it was supposed to be spring, but it was actually winter. And it rained pretty much every night, and it can't rain at all in the movie. So with giant lights on cranes we had to learn how to hide the rain.
I didn't notice any rain in the movie.
Oh god, it rained non-stop. One of the tricks is not to backlight the rain, you have to front light the scene if you want to hide the rain. And it's the same with vapor from people's mouths, you know, what happens in the cold weather. We had to learn how to hide that too because we didn't have the money to remove it digitally later.
So there were people constantly drying actors off?
Yeah. We had people drying off cars, and trying to dry the street, and drying car windshields, and hanging giant flags over the actors and things like that. Thank god it worked out.
What was it like to get up day after day to shoot at night on the streets of New York City?
It was a little surreal to be honest with you. It was a little disorienting. At first we were all just very tired. And then things started to get weird. After months of waking up at one o'clock in the afternoon with a two PM call time and seven AM wrap time, people start to get a little slap happy. You feel a little disconnected from the world. It's weirdly isolating in a way. It was like going someplace else to make a movie. It was as if we all took a trip to Ohio to make a film or something like that, you know what I mean? We were occupying a space that nobody else was really occupying.
Did you preview Nick & Norah?
Yeah. We did. We did it three times and it was pretty cool. I really believe in that process, I know that a lot of directors find that to be torture. But with this kind of film, made for a mainstream comedy audience it was really an asset. Because you find out what's working and what's not and you fine tune the thing.
Is Nick & Norah performing as you had hoped?
Yeah. I'm thrilled, I didn't think it was going to get this much of a reception, I have to say. So it exceeded my expectations. You know, I had an eight million dollar budget and it made that by the end of its second day in release. So, I'm thrilled about it. It's doing well critically. I'm proud of the way it's done.
You know, I was surprised that after the critical success of Raising Victor Vargas (2003)-I believe it received a 96 out of 100 on the "tomatometer" [Peter laughs]-that there would be this five year gap between that film and this one. What took so long?
Well, I was trying to make movies. There were scripts that came in the mail from studios and agencies, and that was great and thrilling and exciting. But I was a little bit shy about making a studio film; I didn't really know how to do that yet. And I thought: "Victor Vargas went very well. Eva, why don't we do what we did last time and write another script and sort of follow a similar process?" And that's what we started doing. We took a year and wrote a script very thoroughly. We got great producers, we set it up at a studio, and then they developed us for a year, year and a half. And then they decided not to make the movie. And that took up a lot of time. After that I started getting involved in things that I hadn't written to see if I could try to find another way to make another movie.
What was the project that didn't get made?
A comedy about a guy who's misdiagnosed with cancer. For a couple weeks he thinks he's dying. It's about how he copes and ultimately it that has a positive, transformative effect on him. But, not at a theatre near you, currently.
Do you think you'll have a better chance of getting it made now?
Yeah, I think I would have a better shot at making it now. But at the same time, the studios have contracted in such a way that now nobody's making films like that. And I don't really know how to make that movie inside the system either. From what I can tell, the result of all these labor disputes in Hollywood is that if the studios are going to say yes to a film right now it's going to be a film that's worth risking exposure to a strike. And they're only going to risk if there's such a guaranteed giant upside, say a super-hero film or something like that. Otherwise, why would they take a chance? They're running the risk of having a film shut down.
What filmmakers have influenced you?
Well, I do love Bergman and Cassavetes and Fellini. I think those are my main guys. Although Truffaut's gotta get in there somewhere because of The 400 Hundred Blows (1959). This film actually, although there were shades of those guys, this really had more to do with John Hughes and Cameron Crowe. People like that. And I love those films too. I don't think of them as people who made me necessarily want to make movies. I think it was discovering things that seemed foreign and learning about them that got me really excited in the first place.
I saw that you're teaching at Columbia University. How is that going?
I love it. It's a way to be around filmmaking that is completely sheltered from the commercial concerns of Hollywood. A very pure place to spend time and talk about how to approach yourself through movies. It keeps me really enthusiastic about the possibilities of that.
click here to skip back to Track 1
click here to skip back to Track 2

Sunday, October 19, 2008

I Turn My Camera On: A Chat with Tia Lessin


I bought that camera the week before to record family events. I actually didn't
know how to use the camera. I didn't know what inspired me-I guess God in-
spired me-but when the storm was coming I just picked it up to show people
what was going to happen. And look what all happened!

-- Kimberly Rivers Roberts

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

During this year's Seattle International Film Festival, I interviewed Tia Lessin, co-director with Carl Deal of Trouble the Water. It wasn't just one of the highlights of SIFF, but of the entire documentary year, and this has been a great year for docs.

At the time I met with Lessin, she was exhausted after a long night at Alpha
Cine, the post-production prize she and Deal won at the 2008 Full Frame Doc-
umentary Festival. Soft-spoken and easygoing, Lessin often looked as if she was
about to drift off into dreamland. To her credit, she never did, although she kept
her eyes closed for much of our conversation-and always made perfect sense.

Though their debut has received some of the year's more glowing reviews, too many make it sound uplifting in the classic Hollywood definition of the word. I won't deny that there's a substantial degree of uplift, but this is also an angry, troubling work.

Lessin and Deal place a great deal of faith in collaborators Scott and Kimberly Rivers Roberts (the filmmakers eschew the word subjects), but cast a more jaundiced eye on the forces that would strand such decent, hardworking people in their time of great-
est need-before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina-but they never resort to pol-
emics, manipulation, or any of the other dirty tricks of the mainstream-movie trade.

Trouble the Water plays the Varsity for one week only: 10/17-23. Don't miss it.

Despite the quality of Kimberly's footage, the
rest of the film is good enough to compensate.

We had so much marginal footage between news and police footage,AePit's been a challenge, but people are pretty forgiving, I think, because the drama is so powerful.
And you have a strong narrative. So, when did you and
Carl start working together and how did you meet?

Carl and I met in 1989 in DC. As for our partnership, we were not doing film or vid-
eo work. Carl was doing investigative reporting, and I was working for a non-profit.
That's interesting. You have similarities with Courtney Hunt, who has roots in DC and wasn't necessarily doing anything film-related before she made that transition.
[Click here for my interview with Hunt.]
I didn't know that. I was a labor organizer for many years.
You and [former employer] Michael Moore must've had a real meeting of the minds.
Yeah. [smiles] The truth is that this big campaign I was working on, the BBC
came and did a little documentary about it for television, and I was more fas-
inated with them, I think, then they were with our campaign. [laughs] I was like: Really-you can do this for a living,AeP? And I've seen some powerful films that real-
ly made an impact. Roger and Me, of course, was one of them-long before I met
with Michael-and [Barbara Kopple's] Harlan County USA; some incredible stories.
And then, at a certain point, I just got the technical skills I needed and got right
in there on the ground floor, working, doing whatever I could-researching or what-
ever. And Carl was doing more traditional print and broadcast journalism and went
to Columbia Journalism School, and we got together-it's been about 15 years that we've been together as a couple-and about five years ago, we started working on projects together. He was doing more sort of AP/EBU journalism, and I found my
way into working with Michael and working on more independent documentaries,AeP
Did you go to film school?
No, I just learned by doing.
That's amazing.
I applied to film school, and instead I just went to New York. I started working
in DC, I guess, around the same time the AVIDs came out, so I knew how to,AeP
Good timing.
Exactly. I taught a lot of editors how to work on the AVID. My social"ssue background came full circle when I started working with Michael, first on TV Nation, and then we produced The Awful Truth, Bowling for Columbine, and Fahrenheit, and Carl joined on Columbine, because we realized it wasn't gonna be too much fun not to do it together.
Click here for part two
Winner of the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film
Festival, Trouble the Water continues at the Varsity Theatre (4329 Univer-
ity Way NE) through Thurs., 10/23. For more information, please click here
or call 206-781-5755. The song "I Turn My Camera On" appears on Spoon's
2005 album, Gimme Fiction. Images from the official website and Sundance.
10/24: the film continues at the Guild 45th (2115 N 45th St.) through 10/30.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

"Waiting For Fluffy" an interview with Peter Sollett, director of Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist. Track 2

*note this piece is written by Matthew Rovner.

There's a memorable intimate scene between the characters of Nick and Norah that requires Kat Dennings to act having an orgasm. How do you direct a scene like that? was tricky, you know? And I think Kat was a little anxious about doing it because it's very intimate like you said. It was interesting shooting that scene because they fall out of frame so she wasn't on camera. And when we shot it, we shot them kissing, which is a little awkward but it's not terribly uncomfortable. They fall out of frame and we did a long tracking shot along that cable in the studio. But she didn't give her orgasmic performance then. She gave her orgasmic performance later on a quiet sound-stage. And it was challenging, she was shy. What we did was, we talked about it a bunch and then I wrote it out phonetically. I think that giving her a script made it make sense a little bit more. She could interact with the experience as she would with a scene of dialogue. And it really worked.

How does one write out an orgasm phonetically?

[Laughs] I'd think about pleasant experiences and try to write out what I heard.

Did that scene make it difficult to get a PG-13 rating?
Yeah. We had a lot of challenges with the rating. They really wanted to give us an R and we were committed to a PG-13 for the studio. And it was tough. It was a battle of inches. We sent it back to them four, five, six times. But the one thing we really couldn't lose was the thing they were most sensitive about, which was that orgasm. But we had to have it, it's the climax of the film both literally and figuratively. They consummate the relationship, that's what the whole film leads up to.
Why was it important to get a PG-13?
To the studio the rating was very important because they can market the film to a younger audience and more people can come and see the film. They want to have as good of a shot at making it as profitable a venture as possible.
On to another actress in Nick and Norah, Ari Graynor. I'm noticing a pattern in your films where at a certain point in the movie a supporting character will projectile vomit-
[Laughs] Perhaps I should make it my signature.
[Laughs] Was the scene of Ari/Caroline throwing up in the stall of a Port Authority bathroom originally in the script?
There was a scene of her throwing up, but I requested that it be...enhanced...
[Laughs] Were you actually filming in Port Authority?
It wasn't actually the Port Authority bathroom, it was on a sound-stage and the toilet was brand new. It was purchased from a store and cleaned that day. And it was filled with ginger ale, ginger cookies, and food coloring. Then they put frozen corn, peas, and carrots on top of the bowl [laughs]...And she didn't have to pull that gum out of the toilet because if you notice, her hands are out of frame when she pulls it out and it's actually just the prop master handing it to her. He washed his hands before he handed it to her...
So, not the method John Waters used in Pink Flamingos?
I love Ari, and I'm not going to have her eat shitty gum...hell no.
I wanted to talk about some of the cameos. I was happy to see Frankie Faison (Ervin Burrell) from The Wire.
He did a film that Paul and Chris Weitz directed (In Good Company, 2004); they were two of my producers. We wanted some cameos in the film, so for the day playing parts we'd go out to some actors and ask them if they were interested. And Kerry Kohansky, one of our other producers who works with Paul and Chris, suggested him and he wanted to do it and I couldn't believe it. But he was in New Jersey where he lives, so he would come in for the night and it was easy for him. He's a good actor and we were lucky to have him.
There were also some SNL actors.
Seth Meyers was also in one of Paul's films, he was in a movie called American Dreamz (2006), I met him at a dinner once with Paul. I think he's hysterical. I love him on "Weekend Update" on SNL. He seemed like a good person to ask because he was already in New York. And the writer's strike was going on, so they weren't shooting. There were all these SNL actors who are wonderful and couldn't work and they wanted to do things. And Seth told us that. So we asked him to be in that one scene and then he suggested to (Andy) Samberg to do something. He's hysterical too. And we've got Devendra Banhart, he came through a friend of mine, Kevin Barker who occasionally plays in his band...And the novelists are also actually in the movie. Rachel Cohn and Dave Levithan are in the Veselka scene, they're sitting right behind Michael and Kat. They're the other couple in the restaurant.
If you enjoyed parts one and two of this interview, you will probably also enjoy the third and final part. In the conclusion, you'll discover how it is possible to shoot on location in New York City yet be in Ohio at the same time and imagine The Breakfast Club as directed by Ingmar Bergman. If that sounds surreal, wrap your head around the idea of making a film without a camera.
To read Track 3, click here
To skip back to Track 1, click here.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

"Waiting For Fluffy" an interview with Peter Sollett, director of Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist. Track 1

*note this piece is written by Matthew Rovner.

Currently playing in wide release, Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist is a good natured and often hilarious romantic teen comedy. I have known the director, Peter Sollett, and his writing partner (they did not collaborate on this film) and significant other, Eva Vives, since we were teenagers. I talked to Peter about his new film via cell phone, while he and Eva were out hunting for a kitchen sink. Their quarry proved to be no less elusive than the mythical band that the titular Nick and Norah pursue-Where's Fluffy. Peter's pursuit of a kitchen sink offers a good illustration of how the priorities of teenagers differ from those of early thirtysomethings. It's all the more impressive then, that his film is remarkably attuned to the personalities and concerns of today's sonic youth. Like the films of one of his prime directorial influences, John Cassavetes, Peter's films are very natural, open-hearted, and evince a great understanding for and empathy with people. It is not surprising then, that Nick & Norah's director is laid-back and unpretentious.

Music is obviously essential to this film. How was the playlist for Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist chosen?

Basically, we were shooting in New York, while Myron (Kerstein), my editor, was in LA. He was assembling the movie every day as he was getting the film back from the lab. I had e-mailed him a pretty big selection of songs that were just out of my iTunes to start him off; things that I thought captured the tone of what I was trying to do, and we started placing things. Then, after we would shoot a scene, I'd think about how it went, and e-mail him a couple of tracks, and I would do that every day. And by the time I got to LA at the end of production and looked at the assembly, I had e-mailed him two or three hundred songs, and he had placed many of them in the movie already. He's terrific with music.

I was really surprised to hear a Chris Bell song ("Speed of Sound") in the film. And, even more surprised to hear one of his songs open the film because he's this obscure musician who recorded only in the 1970s, from an obscure band (Big Star), and his solo album ("I Am the Cosmos"), is quite obscure, and that song is an obscure song on that album. But, it sounds like it was written for the movie.

Yeah. Thanks. There were two songs that were up for that opening spot, one was the Magnetic Fields's "The Book of Love". You know: "The Book of Love Is Long and Boring/No One Can Lift the Damn Thing..." It starts like that. And that's what we were planning on, and then we found this Chris Bell song that worked much, much better. And it's cooler, you know, because it was always appealing to us to try to choose something that maybe not as many people had heard yet. It's fun to turn people on to things, you know? So we went with it, and it works really, really well. His family's been extremely cool to us and grateful that that song has gotten out there. They feel he's an unappreciated artist, which of course he is.

How did you arrive at Mark Mothersbaugh (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums) to score the film?
Well...Obviously he's a very successful, well-known guy. I love his scores, and he was always a dream composer for me. The film is very contemporary, and I think his sound is as well, and he seemed like a good fit. He's in a band that influenced all the other bands in the movie, Devo, and the movie's also got a tone that is very often quirky and a little off the wall, but ultimately very romantic. And I thought he would probably do both of those things. We showed him the movie and he really wanted to do it. After that, the deal was done because if Mothersbaugh wants to do it, he's going to do it...The guy is a mad scientist genius, his process is really interesting, really particular. He lives in his own world a little bit. He's got his own offices on Sunset Boulevard where he paints and where he makes music...He's a pretty amazing guy.
Did you describe to him what kind of sound you wanted?
Myron had temped the movie with the music of somebody called Adrianna Krikl...I discovered her music on the Four Eyed Monsters video podcast. And I thought it sounded great for the movie. Mothersbaugh heard that, and he really liked that it was very elementary and sort of child-like, very simple. So, he kind of took that idea and started making demos, and he would send them to me. And he would say, "just tell me the sounds that you like, tell me the instruments you like, tell me the melodies that you like." And through doing that he focused his approach, I think.
Let's talk about the actors. In your first film, Raising Victor Vargas (2003), you were working with non-professional and semi-professional actors, what was it like working with a professional cast this time around?
The professional actors...there was more of an abstract understanding of their characters. Some of them have been trained, a lot of them have a lot of experience and...they had a script [laughs]. Which is something I didn't give to the actors on Vargas. So, we could have an abstract conversation about the characters and motivations. But they both came up with good ideas, and it's my job to listen and to integrate them into the scene, into the film...It was just a different experience, it was actors who hit their marks and say their lines and improv occasionally or often. There was much more of a set plan, but it was interesting because we had the same number of days to shoot both films, so all that improvisation didn't take up as much time, we just had more complicated set-ups. You know, we were doing scenes in cars, and shots that take hours to set up. Whereas, in Vargas, we were just in somebody's living room so we could improvise all day, and get the scene and make the day.
Talk about the improvisation in Nick and Norah.
We improvised quite a bit because the actors were really good improvisational comic actors. Michael Cera is brilliant, that doesn't come as much of a surprise. But Kat Dennings and Ari Graynor are really, really funny people. They can really stick it out in a scene when they're hanging by a thread. There's a scene in the movie where Caroline/Ari asks Kevin Corrigan for a turkey sandwich. That whole scene wasn't in the script, that was something that she invented right there and then on the spot. There's a lot of stuff like that. They made a really good contribution to the film.
Michael Cera is so subtle in the film. I'm thinking particularly of that scene where he's just abandoned his ex-girlfriend, Tris (Alexis Dziena), and her lipstick is still on his windshield. You can see his face register regret or conflicted emotion, and then relief as he's wiping the lipstick off with the windshield wiper. There's no dialogue. It was one of my favorite moments in the film. When you were watching his performance on set, was it ever hard to tell when he had nailed the scene?
It wasn't hard to tell when he delivered the performance that made the point for the scene, but it was often very hard to realize, to notice, how well he had done it. And that's something in some cases we didn't know until we had printed the film and saw it on a giant screen. Because he's so subtle that there are scenes in the movie, and we couldn't see this on video, on AVID. There are scenes where the insides of his eyelids and the capillaries of his cheeks go flushed red with blood. There are scenes where his eyes water up, and you couldn't tell on video because it was so subtle. He's a pretty amazing actor, and a scene like that, that lip-stick scene, I'm glad that you noticed it. It's the kind of thing that he makes look really easy, and it's really not. He's all alone with the camera.
What were some other moments like that?
Another scene where that happened was before that sequence where he's in the car with Tris. And he's kind of whistling along with the radio and then Tris comes behind him and starts kissing on his neck, trying to seduce him. You can really see it there, because it's one of the few places where it was appropriate to hold on him in one shot for a minute or something like that, and you can see the performance unedited. He's just so emotionally available, and he expresses it so well.
Right before that scene you frame Nick in the background bisected by Tris's leg in the foreground as if Tris is Mrs. Robinson from The Graduate. I can picture the Tris character growing up to be Mrs. Robinson.
[Laughs] Yes. It was a visual reference to that and it was a little bit of a way to have fun with the scene and pay homage to an amazing director (Mike Nichols).
In the next installment of this interview with Peter Sollett, we will learn about how to direct an orgasm. And in a less pleasurable vein, we will discover the secrets of how to direct vomiting-gingerly.
For Track 2, click here.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Night Is a Friend

(Kent Mackenzie, US, 1961, 72 mins.)


Bunker Hill was then a blighted residential locality of decayed
Victorian mansions, sometimes featured in the writings of
Raymond Chandler, John Fante and Charles Bukowski.

-- Milestone press release

Better than any other movie, [The Exiles] proves that there was
once a city here, before they tore it down and built a simulacrum.
-- Thom Andersen, Los Angeles Plays Itself

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

As a title, The Exiles works in ways British expat and USC film grad Kent Mackenzie (1930-80) can't possibly have intended. On the one hand, his cinema verite feature follows the lives of Native Americans stranded in the city in the 1950s (Mackenzie initiated the project in 1957). Clearly, these former reservation dwellers are exiles, but the movie itself became an exile until Thom Andersen featured it-and dozens of other forgotten efforts-in his monumental documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself.

Now Ross Lipman of the UCLA Film & Television Archive has preserved it (the Northwest Film Forum is screening a new 35mm print), and Milestone is hand-
ling theatrical and DVD distribution, just as they did with Charles Burnett's Killer
of Sheep
, another beneficiary of Andersen's attentions. Like Killer and Burnett's
follow-up, My Brother's Wedding, both of which didn't premiere until 2007, this year marks the official debut of The Exiles, which is being presented by Burnett and
local author Sherman Alexie (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian).

Tommy on the make
As a drum beats in the background, the picture begins with Native portraits by photographer Edward S. Curtis. Then a narrator presents a brief history of the Rez before Curtis's images give way to static close-ups of the main players: Yvonne Williams, Homer Nish, Tommy Reynolds, Rico Rodriguez, Clifford Ray Sam, Cly-
dean Parker, and Mary Donahue (all of whom portray versions of themselves).
Chanting begins as the opening credits unspool. Rock & rollers the Revels provide the rest of the diegetic soundtrack. (According to the press notes, Quentin Tarantino reclaimed the unused "Comanche" for "Bruce Willis's samurai scene" in Pulp Fiction.)
From shots of the city, including Bunker Hill's fabled Angels Flight tramway, Mackenzie narrows in on a public market, where Yvonne (an Apache) shops
for produce. An inner monologue conveys her thoughts. Pregnant, she looks
forward to raising her son in Los Angeles. She returns home to the tenement
walk-up she shares with her husband, Homer (a Hualapai), and their Mexican-
Indian friend Tommy, two layabouts who read comics while listening to the rad-
io ("The good times / the bad times" the Revels sing as she prepares chops).
Homer on the town
Yvonne believes that Homer, who shares a name with the sadsack in Nathanael West's Day of the Locust, would make more of himself if their flat wasn't a hang-
out for all of his similarly unemployed friends. It's clear that Yvonne serves as
more of a maid to the men than anything even remotely resembling an equal. The disheartening feeling soon sets in that the child will grow up to be exactly like the father. After dining, "the boys" hit the town, leaving her to clean up their mess.
While the men cavort in cars and bars, Yvonne wanders the neon-lit streets by herself. The high-contrast cinematography by Robert Kaufman, John Morrill (A
Boy and His Dog
), and Norwegian-born Erik Daarstad (Frank and Ollie) looks like
a scrappy cousin to Robert Siodmak's classy Criss Cross and Robert Aldrich's
spectacularly seedy Kiss of Death, yet The Exiles never feels like a film noir.
Just when it seems as if the narrative will revolve around Yvonne, Homer's voice-ov-
er confirms that he does have some ambition for himself. An ex-Navy man, he may be a drinker and a layabout, but he isn't a gambler, like Rico (a flashback depicts the rural life Homer left behind in Arizona). For Rico, the city represents a place to "raise all kinds of hell," and Tommy seconds that emotion. After Homer and Rico leave to play cards, he chats up the prettiest ladies in the joint, dances to the jukebox, and goes on a drunken joyride. As he states, "I don't want that regular life-you know, those poached eggs and Ovaltine and stuff like that in the morning."
Mackenzie on the set
When critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum praise The Exiles, they often mention that Mackenzie doesn't romanticize a world to which he arrived as an outsider. And it's true, but you could argue he goes too far in the opposite direction. Yvonne and Mary
aside, every person in the film is either an incipient or full-blown dipsomaniac. Then again: Lost Weekend, The Days of Wine and Roses, Leaving Las Vegas, etc. Most of cin-
ema's hardest-drinking protagonists just happen to be white. Further, the majority come from the middle class-even when their drinking leads them to the poorhouse (or the grave). One way or the other, The Exiles isn't a response to that genre.
Mackenzie doesn't judge or question why his subjects imbibe. He simply shows them doing their thing, and allows them to explain where they come from and what they want out of life (the voice-overs stem from interviews). In the timeline of the movie,
it concludes 14 hours after it began, though the production lasted three years. The result is a work of art as essential in cinematic, ethnographic, and historical terms
as John Cassavetes' Shadows, Killer of Sheep, and yes, Los Angeles Plays Itself.
In the end, Mackenzie doesn't just portray indigenous people estranged from their culture, but a lost city that lives on only in the fading memories of a rapidly dim-
inishing populace and in increasingly precious celluloid artifacts like The Exiles.
***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****
Related clicking: David Jeffers' review of In the Land of the Head-
and my interview with Frozen River's Courtney Hunt.
The Night Is a Friend was one of several titles Mackenzie considered for The
. The movie, which opened on 10/10, continues at the Northwest Film
Forum through 10/16 (Alexie leads a Q&A after the 7pm screening on 10/14).
The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine. Scheduled for late
2008/early 2009, the DVD release will include Mackenzie's shorts Bunker Hill-1956
(of which cinematographer James Wong Howe was a great admirer), Ivan and His
, and A Skill of Molina. For more information, please click here or call 206-
329-2629. Images from the official film site, OutNow!, and Roger Ebert.