Fiction vs. truth: interview with Neruda filmmaker Pablo Larraín and star Luis Gnecco

Chilean auteur Pablo Larraín is a busy man, but as gracious as a man under extreme demands of his time and energy could ever hope to be. It’s early September, 2016, at the Toronto International Film Festival, and I now have the impossible task of trying to talk to Larraín and actors Luis Gnecco and Gael García Bernal about Neruda in six minutes or less at a crowded restaurant in the downtown core at lunchtime. It’s hard trying to get anything out of someone in six minutes. To try and get something out of three people in less time than it takes most people to decide what they want to eat at a restaurant is impossible.

I know this isn’t entirely the fault of any of the men at the table with me, and I’m sure they would much rather their lunch be conducted at a somewhat more leisurely pace, despite their consideration towards trying to fit in as many interviews as they can. I’m also put more at ease with the situation since I had already interviewed the recently prolific filmmaker earlier this year for his film The Club. But in the months that passed between that interview and this one, things had changed.

Larraín was not only on hand at TIFF to promote Neruda – now Chile’s official selection for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars – but also for Jackie, which would go on to win the Platform jury prize at the festival and drum up considerable awards talk for star Natalie Portman. On this afternoon, in the midst of promoting two high profile films, I’m amazed he’s still standing, let alone finding time to even have a working lunch amid the film festival craziness.

“In order to create something with any sort of balance, what we try to do here instead of telling you who he was is to do an anti-biopic.”

I also know that I can only scratch the surface of Neruda’s subject matter in such little time. Given how well spoken and articulate Gnecco and Larraín are about the film, I don’t even have enough time to ask a question of Bernal, who kind of chuckles at the end of our time, but completely understands that things are a bit off the rails at the moment. It actually might be for the better that I didn’t ask anything of Bernal because his role in this retelling of Chilean poet and senator Pablo Neruda’s time in exile following World War II is a bit of a mystery.

Bernal plays a Chilean gumshoe (whose father was the chief of police) hot on the trail of Neruda following the poet’s attempted escape from persecution. It’s a completely atypical sort of biopic where Larraín and Gnecco are more interested in tearing down the myths surrounding the Chilean icon. It presents sometimes hard to take truths about Neruda being a flawed man and places them inside the structure of a classical, stylish noir thriller. Although much time is spent with Gnecco’s Neruda, the film comes narrated and told from Bernal’s skeptical perspective, leading to a balanced, but less than laudatory portrait of a man who could be seen as both a compassionate genius to some and a cowardly hypocrite to others.

“Neruda is just such a complex figure” Larraín remarks about his film’s unique approach to the history and biography of his film’s main subject. “We were just saying, and it’s terrible to kind of say this, but he created such an aura about himself that you could only make a really Nerudian film about him. It’s more about the people around him than about Neruda himself. Here was a man who was an incredible poet and politician, and he loved life. He was a collector. He loved wine. He loved to travel. His life was full of objects and things one wouldn’t normally associate with him, but he was also an expert on crime novels, which is something not a lot of people knew about him. He was able to describe Chilean culture through poetry written in our own language, so there was never an outsider’s view in that respect, but he was always looking outside himself for inspiration, if that makes any sense. He was a Communist, a diplomat, beloved, and an enemy of the state. So how do you put someone with all of these elements into a single movie? The answer is that it’s not going to happen. (laughs) You would never make it. Once you realize that, it’s revealing and you have a lot more freedom. This is kind of the only way to deal with that. You can’t put Neruda into a box. You just do it with freedom and love for him. In order to create something with any sort of balance, what we try to do here instead of telling you who he was is to do an anti-biopic. The whole point is to display the friction between these two characters, but to get the viewer to question where this friction is coming from, which is something the movie lets on as it goes along.”

“Pablo said that Neruda was someone whose history was invented in part by the fiction he created and the fiction that surrounded him. You can’t create a legend without some fiction.”

For Gnecco, the opportunity to portray such a potent literary figurehead and cultural icon in more than a strictly sentimental light was perfectly in line with Larraín’s aims. To hear the actor talk about his performance, it sounds like the storytelling choices being employed were less of a choice, but the only correct decision.

“It’s really the only way to play this character,” Gencco begins. “It’s the only way to play any character, really. You need empathy to play the character, but sympathy is in the eye of others. You can’t give an account of any life that you haven’t lived. That’s something common to all of us, not just actors. This guy here [points to Larraín] and I had the same drama teacher, and he taught me that fiction is what we create to deal with reality, and many times that can be a lot more powerful in an artistic way than realism can be. There are proper rules to life, and there are proper rules to characters in fiction. There are more rules to proper fiction than there are in trying to create a realistic exercise to try and grab this character. For me, this Neruda that we create in this movie, is more alive and more valid than real Neruda. The proper, real Neruda must be analyzed through another tool. If you want to write about the real Neruda, you might be a journalist, a writer, another poet, but you should analyze that person through another discipline. But if you want to create something from this impossible to grasp person, you must do it through fiction.”

Luis Gnecco in a scene from "Neruda."
Luis Gnecco in a scene from “Neruda.”

It’s a daring approach, and while Larraín and Gnecco share the same sentiment that this was the best way to tell the story, some within Chile have been critical about the film’s playful approach to history. Gnecco understands the criticism, but insists that Neruda is more of a film about how history is created than how it actually played out.

“For me, that’s really special, because in Chile, in my country, we have this rejection towards such fiction,” Gnecco says about the film’s reception back home. “To Chilean audiences, this movie has been very uncomfortable. People have loved the movie, but as many people who love the movie, there are a lot of critics question this fiction. It’s something we Chileans aren’t used to fictionalizing our important figures. As an actor and an artist, there’s something special about the way you can approach someone from that perspective. Pablo said that Neruda was someone whose history was invented in part by the fiction he created and the fiction that surrounded him. You can’t create a legend without some fiction. That’s an artistic operation that Neruda himself would have done. I actually never realized that when I read the script, but I realized it as I was playing the part. We really had to find that. Even the first draft of the script was a rather straight biopic. Gael’s character wasn’t even in there. Pablo and I found that through looking at a new way to try to encompass a figure that’s hard to capture. It was a patient operation, and we decided to focus on the Nerudian world more than on the character as everyday people saw him.”

Breaking the mold: an interview with Lion star Dev Patel

It’s September during the Toronto International Film Festival and as he sits in a hotel room, actor Dev Patel still looks uncannily like the character he portrayed in the film he’s in town to promote. The day after the world premiere of Lion, the genial British-Indian actor still sports a longer than normal mane of hair than most audiences are accustomed to seeing and several days worth of facial hair growth.

It’s not that he has suddenly fallen in love with the look of his character from Lion, but just a sort of serendipitous coincidence that the project he’s currently shooting – Hotel Mumbai, a film due out next year looking at the 2008 Taj Mahal attacks – required a similar sort of character look.

“Actually, for the film I’m shooting now I look a lot more unruly,” the charming actor chuckles when asked about his uncanny resemblance to the picture of him on the poster next to his chair. “I tried to tame the look as best I could today for the press without ruining it for the rest of that shoot.”

Although the 26-year-old actor who rocketed to stardom after starring in Danny Boyle’s sleeper hit Slumdog Millionaire still has quite the career ahead of him, physically transforming himself into someone vastly different from his own appearance is something that’s still new to him. For the debut feature of television and commercial veteran Garth Davis, Patel was finally given the chance to fully immerse himself in a role mentally and physically, and go beyond standard acting techniques and tricks.

Lion (which was the runner-up for 2016’s TIFF Audience Choice Award) tells the inspirational and heart-wrenching true story of Saroo Brierley, who at the age of five got lost in India and separated from his family. Accidentally boarding a train and beginning a thousand mile journey away from his home, Saroo essentially became an orphan via a language barrier and no way to get in touch with his mother. Saroo (played as an adult by Patel) would be adopted by an Australian family (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) and raised in Tasmania. He would grow up, go to a good school, and develop a healthy relationship with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara). But memories of the family he left behind in India begin to creep back into his mind, and when Saroo is introduced to the (then new) technology of Google Earth, the young man begins the almost impossible, overwhelming task of piecing together the journey that took him from his hometown to his new life.

“Saroo was a really happy charismatic man who found this girl, fell in love, and they were dating, but there’s a single moment where he sees the jalebis [a deep fried Indian sweet] again for the first time and he’s hit like a bolt of lightning by this sensory experience.”

Patel, sipping on a coffee, explains that the part of Saroo came to him at a time where roles requiring more of a transformation were starting to come his way. To play Saroo, the actor would have to bulk up, learn an Australian accent, and change a lot about his everyday appearance. The chance to play a leading role in Lion actually came right about the time he was finishing up what was – to that point – the most physically demanding role of his career.

“I was shooting a film just before Lion called The Man Who Knew Infinity, and I was just a little string bean of a person because I was playing a character in that film who had tuberculosis and couldn’t eat any food,” he says about the radical transformation and adjustment he had to make between the two projects. “That character was rationing, and he was a staunch Hindu vegetarian on top of that, so I was wafer thin. If you sneezed, I would have fallen over. (laughs) Around that time, I auditioned for Lion and got the role, and me and Garth spoke about it, and a script like this sort of demands you to go to a certain place and tells you what the character needs to look like. We both agreed, and I wanted to completely change for this movie. I wanted to look, feel, and sound like someone who had spent most of their life as an Aussie, so when Saroo goes back to India, I would look like an alien to that land because that’s really what happened. I called up my manager and said, ‘Don’t send me anything these next eight months because I’m going incognito.’ (laughs) I trained and I ate until my liver basically got foie gras’d. For me to hold all that weight on after not having a lot of it, and the physical training, and then the dialogue coaching, that was the most difficult part of getting ready for me.”

Outside of eating a lot, trying to master an Australian accent and make it sound subtle, and growing his hair out a bit, the hardest part of nailing down Saroo as a person was to convey the character’s often internalized nature. While most actors jump at the chance to play a character going through an existential crisis that causes them to withdraw from those around him, Patel at times found the challenge somewhat daunting. Describing himself off screen as “a bit of a hyper person,” internal performances were also something new for the actor, but through Saroo’s real life story, Patel was able to transition into such a headspace with remarkable fluidity.

“Saroo was a really happy charismatic man who found this girl, fell in love, and they were dating, but there’s a single moment where he sees the jalebis [a deep fried Indian sweet] again for the first time and he’s hit like a bolt of lightning by this sensory experience,” Patel says about how a key scene in Lion provided him with a major signpost as a performer. “As a child, having a big vat full of those was his dream, but slowly from there those pleasant memories become haunting, and he becomes slowly riddled with a sense of guilt. For a man his age that’s still young, he shouldn’t be feeling this guilt because he’s already living and has lived this incredible life. He’s got a loving mother and father and a great partner, but it’s because he’s living so well that he has this guilt. He realizes that he’s the product of not one, but two loving mothers, and the other loving mother in India is searching for him with his brother and sister every night. That idea creeping in just takes over his existence, and that’s what made him shun the privileges that he has. That puts him in a tough place sometimes because he becomes less supportive as a boyfriend, and he was already in a position where he was kind of the son who was holding his family together in Australia. He was the fibre that was holding a lot of things together, and he’s slowly fraying.”

“Sunny and I spent a lot of time together. We just wanted to feel like we were one. Garth wanted that, too, so we really bonded as much as we could. Garth had us lie in a field and listen to music together. Those little things were so important because through those moments we could actively create our own memories.”

It should also be noted that Patel’s screen time in Lion might be a bit misleading if one were to judge the film based on the poster with his face on it. In fact, the star of the first hour of the two hour drama is newcomer Sunny Pawar, who plays five year old Saroo. Davis’ film spends a lot of time documenting the struggles and confusions this boy faces in his quest not only to find his former home, but also safety and shelter.

The shooting schedule of Lion offered Patel a chance for an experience some actors are rarely afforded. Although Patel had met with Brierley twice previously over dinner to discuss his involvement in the film and he had read Saroo’s book (the primary source for Luke Davies’ screenplay), it was more valuable to him as a performer to watch behind the camera as Pawar and another group of young actors played out this man’s childhood experiences.

“I would just get behind the camera and watch the kids do their thing,” Patel says about being able to join the shoot early to get a sense of what Saroo’s childhood was going to look like in the finished film. “Garth was so good with these children, and when you’re five-years-old you have no idea what acting is. At that age, you’re just completely reacting to what’s around you. Sunny, and Abhishek [Bharate], who plays the older brother, and Priyanka Bose, were great. Abhisek and Priyanka had both been on camera before, and they were of an age to really understand these things, and together they created a unit with Sunny. When Garth would yell cut, he would keep the camera rolling because that’s where we got moments like when Sunny gets tired and he puts his head on Abhishek. You see that, and those moments are raw and real, and that’s where a lot of the beauty comes from. He’s a real patient filmmaker, and that’s where the reality comes from.”

“But Sunny and I spent a lot of time together. We played around a lot. He used me at one point like I was a jungle gym, just climbing all over me. He would love it when I threw him into the air and catch him. He loved doing that, but he loved doing it with me because I’m pretty sure I was the tallest person on set. (laughs) We just wanted to feel like we were one. Garth wanted that, too, so we really bonded as much as we could. Garth had us lie in a field and listen to music together. We would play hide and seek in the leaves. Those little things were so important because through those moments we could actively create our own memories. Later in the film when I’m cold and alone, I have something honest and true that I can recall, so you’re not in the moment as an actor staring at a blank screen and trying to pretend. You actually have something you can call upon. I could hear the sounds of the leaves. I could hear Abhishek playing with Priyanka. I had real memories, and that was a key for most of the shoot.”

While some of the child actors in Lion have previous acting experience, Sunny did not, with the young man getting the part as a result of a lengthy casting process. This wouldn’t mark the first time that Patel has played the older version of a younger character, as he shot to prominence doing just that in Slumdog Millionaire, a film that also utilized then unknown child actors. In the case of Slumdog Millionaire, the young actors had trust funds established for them that they could access when they turned sixteen and filmmaker Danny Boyle and the film’s producers did everything they felt they could to ensure the well being of kids who were still living in slums, but controversy and backlash swirled – particularly in India – following the release of the Oscar winning film.

“Every young actor dreams to play a role like this, especially me, a young Indian dude from London. This stuff doesn’t come around every day with this kind of cast and these kinds of filmmakers. It’s truly special, and I knew it when I read it.”

Davis and the team that produced Lion have established similar measures to make sure that Sunny – who still doesn’t have a passport, making festival appearances for the young man to promote a film he’s starring in even harder – has as safe and happy of a childhood as possible. Patel looks back on the lessons learned from what happened with the younger cast members from his first big break quite thoughtfully, and explains how the filmmakers behind Lion have learned from past missteps.

“I think in the case of Slumdog the real issue was the press, and that’s the God’s honest truth behind it,” he says about how the young stars of that film weren’t prepared for the kind of exposure they would get from the success of it. “The film became catastrophic for some of these kids, but the media in India were particularly brutal. They were turning up to the doorsteps of these kids. They weren’t living in gated communities, and they were just saying the most terrible things and trying to twist the minds of these kids. You shouldn’t be exposed to that at such a young age. Things were put in place. They were given homes. They were put in schools. This film, Lion, is doing the same thing. A trust fund has been set up for the kids. They’re going to be put up in English language private schools. And I think from what happened with Slumdog, we knew that people were going to be asking us on something like this, ‘Well, where are they?’ That’s leading to us choosing festivals a bit more wisely, I think. This is not normal for a young child to experience, and we must remember that. We’re in an industry where adults experience such invasions of privacy all the time, but we’re trying to keep them as grounded as possible. They will get a chance to enjoy some of the more pleasant things about the experience, but primarily we want to give them as normal an upbringing as possible while being in this big movie.”

Patel admits that it’s hard for some to avoid comparisons between Lion and Slumdog Millionaire and their sometimes closely related depictions of childhood poverty in India, despite the more sombre and forlorn tone of the former and the exuberant, stylized tone of the latter. Even he couldn’t avoid thinking back to the project that kickstarted his career as an actor, but not because of any perceived similarities, but because he was afraid that his first big success was going to overshadow his attempt to land the role of Saroo. It was only after a lengthy audition with Davis and an unconventional, but strangely convenient final request from the director that he thinks he was able to prove himself as worthy of joining the production.

“This is not normal for a young child to experience, and we must remember that. We’re in an industry where adults experience such invasions of privacy all the time, but we’re trying to keep them as grounded as possible.”

Slumdog actually worked against me in this case,” Patel says. “I think Garth and everyone else really wanted to see if I could disappear into a role like this. The audition process was all about that. It was a bit of a test for me. It was great because after all that I went on set with the confidence that I had really earned my part. We had this connection after we did a six hour long audition. After we had left and the sun had gone down, Garth said, ‘You know, I just want you to do one thing: I want you to scream. I want you to go crazy and just let it all out. Exorcise your demons.’ And I thought, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ He said, ‘I’m just going to put some music on, and you don’t have to if you don’t want to.’ And I’m just thinking in my head, ‘Well, I better do this even if I don’t HAVE to.’ (laughs) And can you imagine that you just met this guy on this day and he wants you to just lose it on a whim. Playing a role within the lines is kind of safe, you know? It’s another thing to tell someone, ‘Go insane right now and start crying. Lose your shit.’ And so I just said, ‘Okay, but can we at least close the curtains because it might get messy.’ (laughs) Then he put on this song that I had been listening on the way down there, and it was the Gustavo Santaolalla score from Babel, from the deportation scene in that film, and I listened to that a lot before that and it was just what he ended up playing in that moment. It was really serendipitous and the emotions just came flowing from it. That was great, but he was literally seeing if he could break us and put us back together again. It was about being comfortable enough with each other to be so emotionally raw and naked.”

Naturally, such a conversation about Patel’s career to this point takes a turn to talking about how someone with his ethnicity might be typecast if they aren’t careful about the projects they pick. The actor credits Lion with giving him a chance to break through as an actor and not just as an actor with Indian heritage. He’s grateful for the opportunity, and it has given him a chance to reflect on a career that finds him transitioning into more character based leading roles and fewer clichéd Indian stereotypes.

“Every young actor dreams to play a role like this, especially me, a young Indian dude from London,” he says warmly and enthusiastically. “This stuff doesn’t come around every day with this kind of cast and these kinds of filmmakers. It’s truly special, and I knew it when I read it. I was allowed to explore a space and embody a character that’s far, far away from the usual cliché that we get fed about brown people. It broke the mold for me in every way with the accent, the physicality, and I was in front of a laptop not trying to program a robot or expounding information in a newsroom, but I was sitting there surfing a history and looking for depth, and for me that was completely exciting in every way. And that’s important to me, and why it’s a gift to get a script like this and to try and smash it out of the park. A movie like this wouldn’t have been able to be made ten years ago. Slumdog Millionaire opened doors not just for me, but to the industry. There were no names in that, no clichés, half of it was in Hindi, and it almost went straight to DVD. That’s the climate we were in ten years ago when no one thought a film like that or like Lion could work. I’m still riding that wave and seeing it, and things are changing. You see television and film becoming more and more diverse. There is still cliché, but you can’t blame the actors for that because without that, some actors don’t work. I feel, for me, it has been sometimes been about taking on those clichés sometimes to break the mold. You have to be in the mold to break it sometimes, and often that can take a lot of small steps. Even in The Newsroom, I started out at the I.T. guy, and more and more Aaron got to know me, the more he thought the character should be cooler. Slowly, that tiny role became a lot more around the third season. There’s definitely a change coming; not overnight, but it is coming.”

Remixing the elements: interview with Antibirth director Danny Perez

It’s typically best to know as little about a film as possible before going to watch it. With that in mind, my conversation with director Danny Perez, whose film Antibirth screens at the 2016 Toronto After Dark Film Festival on Wednesday, October 19, 2016, contains a few spoilers for the film. This mind bending, genre mashing, psychedelic treat tells the story of Lou (Natasha Lyonne), a drunken stoner who finds herself seemingly pregnant after a blackout drunk evening with her friend Sadie (Chloë Sevigny). Lou can’t figure out how she could be pregnant, as she knows she hasn’t slept with anybody in weeks, but since she can’t remember the last party she was at, she figures it has to be from that night. As Lou and Sadie try to find out what happened to her that evening, Lou becomes incredibly sick. She’s starting to see and hear things, and it starts to become apparent that this is anything but a normal pregnancy.

That’s as much information as you should really know before seeing Antibirth. I can guarantee you that you’ve never seen something quite like this, even if all the pieces do feel a bit familiar. If you’ve been heading out to genre film festivals for any number of years, it’s safe to say that Antibirth may just be the definition of a perfect genre festival film. It checks all the boxes of what you would want from a festival film, and manages to become something you won’t soon forget. Read on if you don’t mind finding out a little more about the film, but I would recommend just going to watch it first and coming back to hear what Perez has to say about the film.

“The movie is supposed to be a meltdown theatre dream freakout.”

When I get in touch with Perez about a week before his film screens at Toronto After Dark, he’s actually walking through the desert around Joshua Tree National Park shooting a video and getting ready for an outdoor screening of Antibirth. It’s a fitting location for the twisted film, as well as part of the inspiration for Perez while writing the film. “My older brother is in the Marines. When
I came out here to visit him, he told me they had a lot of problems with the Marines at night on the weekends because you’re out here in the desert and there’s nothing to do. These are 18 to 22-year-old guys, so they would just get into weird drugs and whore houses and massage parlours on the weekends, and I felt that was a really interesting duality. The harshness of the military with the reckless abandon of partying in the desert.”

Antibirth is set in a military town, with Lou living in a rundown trailer inherited from her father, who served himself. It provides a background for the events that take place, but it’s something that you may not fully realize on a first viewing. There’s a lot going on in the film and multiple viewings will allow audiences to really grasp all the little details, something that Perez explains was the plan all along. “Everything is very intentional, it’s very calculated. It’s very intentional as far as all the different references and devices butting up against each other. There’s a lot going on in the sound design and the music and the TV stuff and I know the narrative isn’t super clear as far as a big explanation at the end but there’s actually many hints and touches throughout the movie. The information is there, it’s just kind of organized and displayed in a different way.”

Every detail seems important, including those moments on various television sets throughout the film that Perez spoke about. If you can catch all those tiny moments, the bigger details are basically explained in the smaller ones. “I like to have a little bit more of an ambiguous atmosphere.” Perez says about the way the film tells its story. “Really the whole movie is about consumerism and consumption and the shitty stuff that our culture has done to ourselves as far as our bloated state, but the visual parable or the analogy I’m using is of pregnancy.”

“I definitely knew the whole time, regardless of what the narrative exposition or climax was going to be, I knew that I wanted to have a really harsh left turn at the end of the movie.”

Trying to sum up Antibirth can be difficult, although Perez has had plenty of practice from pitching the film. “When I was trying to sell it and pitch it around Los Angeles, I kept telling people it’s The Big Lebowski meets The Fly, because everybody wants this comparison, they need a ‘this meets this.’ I’m definitely of the mindset that everything has been done before and at this point we’re just reconfiguring and remixing the elements to try and make something new. I’m not so proud or naive to tell you you’ve never seen anything like this before. I can point to every scene in the movie and be like yeah, this is a reference to this, this is a reference to The Fly, this is a reference to this experimental filmmaker that I like. It’s all stuff I could easily point you to. I’m just playing with stuff that I like and trying to make something new.”

While the narrative of the film can be a bit difficult to follow at times, Perez knew exactly where he wanted the film to wind up.”I definitely knew the whole time, regardless of what the narrative exposition or climax was going to be, I knew that I wanted to have a really harsh left turn at the end of the movie. I like movies like that that will kind of hit you over the head with something really intense at the very end and leave you shell shocked in a way. It’s hard to sell those endings to both actors and producers and stuff, but I knew I wanted the movie to end with a punch to the audience’s face and leave them wanting more.”

Perez succeeds spectacularly on that point, as Antibirth may have one of the most insane endings in film, but it doesn’t work for everybody. “I mean I obviously didn’t make this movie with too much concern for commercial reception. I’ve been surprised at the reaction. Some people really love it, love the ending, and some people really hate the movie and are just like ‘I don’t get it, I don’t understand it, I feel like it’s just weird for weird’s sake.’ I like leaving people confused and or pissed off. If you’re pissed off at the end of Antibirth, you’re probably going to remember this more than some other movie where you’re like ‘Eh, it was okay.’ I read some reviews and they’re like ‘It doesn’t make any sense’ or ‘It’s messy,’ and it’s supposed to be messy. The movie is supposed to be a meltdown theatre dream freakout. It’s not supposed to be neat and clean.”

Respecting the experience: interview with The Other Half director Joey Klein

Speaking to filmmaker Joey Klein, it is clear he brings a great deal of respect to his work. His debut feature, The Other Half, tackles the serious subject of mental illness, featuring one protagonist that has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Films that take on mental illness often do so with very little consideration for the flesh and blood people who deal with mental illness in their daily lives, either their own or that of a loved one. This is something that Klein took great pains to avoid.

Klein adamantly believes that “if you are going to take on something in a movie, there are people out there who survived that genocide, or have lost someone who wasn’t supposed to go or is very mentally unwell. As a filmmaker, there is first and foremost a respect you have to pay to the people who really know about that because it’s just a movie. My favourite movies have saved my life a little bit, and I hope, in the best case scenario, that my movies do that a little bit. That would mean the world to me, but it’s still just a movie. There are people out there who really know what it is like to experience these things, so the respect needs to be paid.” This dedication to respect for real people is evident in every aspect of The Other Half.

“The more I wrote Emily, the more I felt that for what I was doing it might be a cop out or unfair or untrue to not define her illness.”

Klein began writing the screenplay that would become The Other Half almost a decade ago as a kind of personal therapy exploring grief over time. He felt that for his life “it’s not true that time heals all wounds. It’s a trope that’s used as a fancy way to tie up a film. The films I’m alluding to use very serious subject matter as foils to set off a rom-com, or a dance off, whatever it might be, and that’s disrespectful.” In the case of The Other Half, Klein never set out to write about mental illness or specifically bipolar disorder. These themes evolved organically. He found that as he wrote, “it kind of evolved into me writing about different sides of my life, my experience and my personality which came out in the two main characters, Nicky and Emily. When I began writing Emily I was heavily influenced by A Women Under the Influence [by John Cassavetes, 1974]. I loved that movie and I was fascinated that they don’t quite define her illness. But the more I wrote Emily, the more I felt that for what I was doing it might be a cop out or unfair or untrue to not define her illness. Then my dad, who is a medical doctor and was collaborating on the scripts with me, suggested that I was writing bipolar disorder without even knowing it.”

With his dad’s suggestion in mind, Klein began to do research and found that he did appear to be writing Emily as bipolar. To present a respectful depiction of her illness meant doing much more research. Klein himself isn’t bipolar and doesn’t know anyone who has the illness, so it was integral to learn as much as he could to present an accurate portrayal. He read books and consulted his sister who is a psychiatrist to make sure what he was writing remained truthful to those who actually suffer from bipolar disorder. He also found that YouTube was an extraordinary resource. “It’s sad the way it is, but if you put something to do with bipolar into YouTube there’s all kinds of testimonials. There’s one video I found where a woman was in a manic fit and she was taping herself. She is such a beautiful human being and it was very helpful in deepening little moments and making sure, on a micro level, that everything was specific.” Klein kept researching until it was time to film, “always having that nervous feeling of ‘did I do enough?’”

In addition to the respect that Klein pays to those with mental illness in The Other Half, his respect for art and artists is also evident. Both Nicky and Emily have strong artistic inclinations, him as a musician, her as a painter. As with the presence of bipolar disorder in the film, Klein never set out to specifically make his characters creative people—it just made sense as he was writing. He describes their inclination towards the arts as “a part of how beleaguered they are. It’s not a metaphor, but to me, they’re just such sensitive people, so beleaguered, but with such full, open hearts. I guess to me that is what an artist is. I was just thinking about the way in which they could be full flesh people that I could love, that I could go back to all the time. To me, that is a musician. That is an artist. I love what they are willing to do for the world.”

“My favourite movies have saved my life a little bit, and I hope, in the best case scenario, that my movies do that a little bit. That would mean the world to me, but it’s still just a movie.”

It was important to find collaborators who could bring that passion and respect to the screen. Klein found these qualities in his two lead actors, Tatiana Maslany and Tom Cullen. They brought their hearts and souls to their performances. Klein describes watching them work as a kind of religious experience. “When you see all the takes that these guys did that are just on the digital cutting room floor where they just completely bled, ripped open their rib cages and poured out their souls for this, that’s a whole new thing. I’m not a religious person—I’m probably an atheist—but to me, that’s holy and religious and spiritual. For me, those are the highest stakes.”

Once Maslany and Cullen came on board, Klein was able to start exploring his script on a human level. He describes working with them as “playing with geniuses. They bring all of themselves to what they do. They are so smart. They give you so much on story and script and character before you’re even working.” This made his job as a director easy. Klein comes to directing as an actor and brings the same respect to directing as he did to screenwriting. He describes acting as “fighting for something” or to quote an old cliche, “acting is reacting.” Once he had two actors who would give as much of themselves to the project as he had, all he had to do was give them their fight.

The process of making The Other Half comes full circle—from respecting the real people who experience what the film portrays to respecting the people who bear their souls for the camera. As Klein explains, “[as an actor], I’m not a toy. I’m not a robot. We’re not aliens and we ain’t mystifying. We just need something active and fightable. Something that’s about process and not results oriented.” This is a bold statement in a world that is obsessed with results, but it is an idea that makes The Other Half stand out from other films. An unyielding respect for the people, the story and the process.

That’s life: interview with Things to Come filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve

French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve has never shied away from heady philosophical concepts in her career before making her latest effort, Things to Come, but it’s the first one to directly deal with characters well versed in philosophy. For some, that might be challenging to create a balance between character, story, abstract concepts, and a healthy dose of politics, but Løve needed to look only as far as her parents to create the grounded centre for Things to Come. Both of her parents had backgrounds in philosophy, so the 35-year-old filmmaker grew up in such a culture of rational and irrational thought and wanted to see it depicted correctly for a change.

“In the few films where you can see philosophers or philosophy teachers, I think most of the time, if not always, they’ll look and act like they’re pretty disconnected from the world,” Løve says during an interview this past September while promoting the film at the Toronto International Film Festival about how she sees many cinematic depictions of philosophers as inaccurate to what she witnessed while growing up. “In the world that I grew up in philosophy was a part of life, and it wasn’t disconnected from anything in life. Even more than just having parents who were philosophy teachers – which means they were used to dealing with young people who were just starting out their lives and figuring out who they wanted to be – I would see how they would deal with editors and publishers, and I would see how they would deal with things beyond the ideas they had about philosophy. My mother really always had her feet firmly on the earth more than anyone else I knew, and I was interested to try to make this portrait of a woman that would capture this balance in her quest for truth.”

“Today, people are very much black and white, especially in films. Everything has to be oversimplified. You have to be sure that the audience gets the point. That makes everything so stereotyped.”

Things to Come, which netted the filmmaker the Silver Bear at Berlin earlier this year for Best Director, stars Isabelle Huppert (in a year chock full of noteworthy performances from the iconic French actress) as Nathalie, a collegiate philosophy teacher whose mid-life crisis is expressing itself as a war between the heart and mind. At school, she’s taken to task by fellow students who see her as betraying her left-wing roots by not supporting them in full while they protest and stage walk outs and picket lines during a dispute directly tied to retirement benefits. Her marriage of 25 years to a fellow philosopher (Andre Marcon) has crumbled. Her mother (a hilarious Edith Scob) makes increasingly vexing demands on Nathalie’s time, and Nathalie’s now grown up kids are going through life changes of their own. Nathalie’s chief source of comfort and intellectual stimulation comes from a friendship and flirtation with the much younger Fabien (Roman Kolinka), who was one of Nathalie’s star pupils and has transformed himself into a radical leftist writer living on a commune with like-minded philosophers, budding politicians, and students.

Nathalie’s life has a lot going on in it, and her profession as a philosopher means that her ability to see all sides of an argument makes navigating the ups and downs of life sometimes overwhelming. Løve admits that if so much were to happen in her own life, she would have trouble making sense of it all, but building the film around a character as grounded as Nathalie helped to make sense of it all. It’s a character whose personality is based more or less directly on that of Løve’s own mother, who she credits as being the most grounded person she’s ever known.

“Nathalie is almost the definition of a true philosopher, but she’s also a pragmatist,” Løve begins while talking about how she’s vastly different from the protagonist of her latest film. “The character in this film is a lot more pragmatic than who I am and who I used to be, and I kind of enjoyed writing a pragmatic character that was a lot more like my mother. Having feet on earth is what I always lacked. It’s something that I missed as a child. I always felt so much more melancholic than my mother was, but I watched her strength and how she related to concrete things while balancing her ability to think about all these philosophical ideas. My mother lived in a world of ideas, but she was never disconnected from reality. She was always obsessed with ideas, but she always knew how to make them a dialogue that would play out in everyday life. I like that balance. People can see fights or tension in that, but that shows a lot of strength to be able to go from abstraction to the concrete world. For me, making films has a lot to do with that, too. It’s always about trying to explain the most invisible of sensations, trying to get closer to invisibility in terms of exploring not only ideas, but also feelings and things we can’t say with words. But most importantly for me, making films is about capturing reality.”

“My mother really always had her feet firmly on the earth more than anyone else I knew, and I was interested to try to make this portrait of a woman that would capture this balance in her quest for truth.”

“When I was eighteen years old, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life,” she continues, referring to her early pre-filmmaking years when she worked as an actress, film critic, and writer and how that sense of listlessness made its way into Things to Come. “I knew to some degree that I wanted to write, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with that. Writing wasn’t a good thing for me, though, because unlike my mother, I always felt totally disconnected. I had trouble staying involved with reality while I was writing. It was almost like a sickness. Anything that dealt with material things was a problem for me. It took me years to figure out how to deal with things like that. I still don’t really know how to look at my bank account properly or navigate the internet. I still have that disconnection from reality, and making films is a way for me to reconcile with that. I’m always looking for the invisible, which is something beyond reality and a lot like philosophy, but through film I can integrate myself into reality. If I’m not dealing with something invisible to our everyday reality, I just can’t get interested in reality. And what I mean by reality, I have to stress that I mean the material world. When you make films, there are still material things like money, and equipment, and people, and time, and I never imagined when I was only writing that I could navigate any of that. It’s only through film that I find myself able to do that. I’m always looking through that lens for something else, and I think that film really helps me cope with that. So far, I have always shared this connection between what the film is about and why my life’s work is about.”

Løve’s ability to navigate difficult constructs and arguments in various artistic ways makes her the perfect choice for a film about characters going through complex crises of the mind and heart. It was important for her that the character of Nathalie has clear boundaries with regard to her politics and personal beliefs, some of which would obviously run counter to what audiences and the characters around her in the film would expect or assume about the protagonist. She believes deeply in left leaning philosophies, and at one point she was a lot more radical than she is at the start of Things to Come, but she has learned that most political and social arguments comes with nuances that are often lost for the sake of rhetoric. This balance between rhetoric and nuance is something that has fascinated Løve for quite some time, and one of her main reasons for wanting to make a character drama as complex and rich as Things to Come.

“It’s always about trying to explain the most invisible of sensations, trying to get closer to invisibility in terms of exploring not only ideas, but also feelings and things we can’t say with words. But most importantly for me, making films is about capturing reality.”

“I didn’t try to make the audience know exactly where she is as a philosopher or what she believes in,” Løve muses when talking about how many films today don’t put enough faith in their audience to understand subtleties, and how nuance is something that’s dying in cinema. “I could have, but for me it was a clear choice from the start to not try to explain or make sure the audience exactly pegs her. I knew that could bring some confusion at some points; the fact that she’s not too clear about her relationships, especially that towards gauchisme, or leftism. She has a background in that, but she has clearly taken a distance from it while still understanding the tenets of it. She can understand and criticize, and she has a nuanced point of view. What was important to me was to assume her point of view and not be ashamed of her nuanced point of view.”

“Today, people are very much black and white, especially in films. Everything has to be oversimplified. You have to be sure that the audience gets the point. That makes everything so stereotyped. For me, it was really challenging to present this different kind of main character with a well rounded, sometimes conflicting, but nuanced point of view. I think nuance is very rare. It’s not rare in books, but it’s definitely rare in film. If a film is seen as political, as some have seen it, that’s because it’s nuanced. It’s not about saying how leftist she is or that she’s on the side of young people or against them. It’s always more complicated than that. I know where she is inside, but the character doesn’t need to show that. She never needs to prove to anyone that she’s a good person. The big challenge was not being afraid of showing a character whose definitions in terms of her politics are really hard to define.”

“The thing at the beginning of the film with the student strikes was something that a lot of people in France would tell me showed Nathalie as someone against the strikes, and they thought it was a weird choice,” she explains about how a building lack of narrative nuance in films have led to some audiences in her home country incorrectly identifying Things to Come as an staunchly political film. “Just because she’s upset that these striking students won’t let other students in, it doesn’t mean that she’s against the strike itself. She just thinks that it’s more important to let the people who want to learn and want to study do that. That’s what her job is all about. I think some other filmmaker would have shown her powerfully breaking this strike, and I could have done that, but this was how I wanted to show this. I don’t think that she’s not showing solidarity with the students means that she lost faith in her ideals. She’s just more skeptical. You can have even the most radical of ideas and not agree with the reasons why people make the decisions that you do. That’s something that’s really hard to say in France these days, so I’m taking the chance that people in Canada can understand that. (laughs) In France, today it’s almost impossible to say in the papers that you can have political ideas and feel like you’re connected to the left, but still not totally be in tune while students strike. It’s hard to say that, but that’s where Natalie is.”

“Nathalie is almost the definition of a true philosopher, but she’s also a pragmatist. The character in this film is a lot more pragmatic than who I am and who I used to be, and I kind of enjoyed writing a pragmatic character that was a lot more like my mother.”

“I wanted to be free to show things as they are, and if I show people how nuanced and complicated things are, I shouldn’t be afraid if people don’t get it. Since my very first film, I have made this personal statement within myself to always believe that. I always believe that an audience is smart and they can understand and accept even the subtlest of nuances, and that I don’t need to simplify things because someone else might think the audience is stupid.”

Perhaps the most powerful thing about Things to Come on an emotional level, however, is watching the dissolution of Nathalie’s clearly once happy marriage. Although Løve still balances the philosophical and the tangible in the sequences between Huppert and Marcon, it’s another situation where the filmmaker’s real life experiences in watching her own parents coloured the film. It’s just as nuanced of a plot thread as anything else in the film, and one so close to the real life experiences of many who have fallen in and out of love over long periods of time might not want to revisit with an analytical mind. For Løve, such moments are just a part of life.

“It’s pretty much about what time does,” she gently chuckles when asked how audiences prove divided over what to think about Nathalie ending her marriage. “I think sometimes people are surprised that Nathalie doesn’t try to make this man stay, and when he leaves she lets him go. People sometimes have this reaction that she never really loved him, and I don’t think that at all. I do think that some couples after so many years find themselves going in different ways. They grow apart without even noticing. Even those who can be close intellectually or spiritually erodes because they don’t take care of that connection or take it for granted or just forget about it sometimes. That’s what time does, and my films always deal a lot with time. This relationship is full of that and the way that feelings can vanish or get lost in everyday life. I’ll admit that’s a rather sad outlook or conclusion (laughs), but that’s something that has always fascinated me. This is the kind of couple that everyone looked at and thought they would always stay together. We all know those couples. We all might find ourselves in one of these couples at some point. That’s what happened to my parents. They’re such an obvious couple, but one day suddenly it all stops, and it takes a while to realize that’s what happened and that it was headed that way for a long time. Lots of people experience that, and I see it in life all the time. That’s not even philosophy. That’s life.”

The grieving process: an interview with Manchester by the Sea actors Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams

Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams are two of the most celebrated actors of this generation, but they’re very quick and often able to humbly place the success of their latest film – Manchester by the Sea – onto filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan, one of the most celebrated screenwriters working today.

“To pull off what Kenneth does with his screenplays does take some work in getting used to,” Williams marvels during an interview conducted at TIFF about Manchester by the Sea, in which Williams and Affleck play an unhappily estranged, once married couple. “The dialogue he creates is deceptively naturalistic, but the dialogue is still really structured. When there are overlaps in the dialogue, you see it written out side by side, and when you interject into what the other person is saying, that doesn’t just take preparation and memorization, but also a firm knowledge of how these characters interact.”

“Everything was on the page, 100%, so when there’s a script like that, the challenge isn’t to make those words your own, but to make the idea of the words your own,” Affleck adds in gushing admiration of the Lonergan penned script that drew them both in immediately. “You know, to kind of paraphrase something in the way that you think feels the most realistic or how you would say it. I think sometimes that can be harder, but ultimately the results are almost better.”

In the film, which has been garnering raves from audiences and massive critical and awards season attention since its debut at Sundance back in January, Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a long suffering Boston area building superintendent who suddenly becomes the unlikely guardian of his teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges, in a star making performance), after the passing of his brother (Kyle Chandler, glimpsed in flashbacks as Lonergan cuts back and forth between past and present) following a lengthy illness. Lee uneasily takes on the responsibility and is unsure of what to do, preferring to be a loner after a gutting tragedy found him divorced from his wife, Randi (Williams, also seen mostly in flashbacks), made him a pariah in his old hometown, and left him a wounded, broken shell of a man.

The character of Lee isn’t an easy one to play, forcing Affleck to internalize a lot of simmering emotions in an effort to make Lonergan’s vision free of unnecessary melodrama. When asked if stories about showing up to set often in a depressed, stand-offish state like his character were true, Affleck freely states that they are, and not because it was part of some sort of method acting process, but because Lonergan’s often painfully realistic tone demanded it.

“If you’re just showing up on set and chit-chatting and having fun with something like this kind of film, that’s not what’s satisfying about making movies or seeing the final product.”

“It’s true, and I think with this kind of role that’s something that most actors would say about the experience of playing someone like this,” Affleck says about staying largely in the same headspace as Lee throughout the shoot. “I don’t think there was anything special about my level of commitment or anything like that, but just kind of the thing that you have to do. You have to go there, show up on set with the right feelings, and prepared to shoot the scenes how they have to be. I’m honestly just not good enough to be able to show up, be in a great mood, say ‘good morning’ to everybody, check in with everyone, read the paper, then walk into the scene and be this believably gutted guy who’s carrying around all this devastating guilt and self-loathing. I really had to start way back in pre-production and just slip into my own worst feelings and stay there as long as I can.”

“Kenny cast this movie – not only Michelle, who’s kind of the summit of this mountain – but everyone else with really good actors who were often just in one or two scenes. Everyone was going to be awesome, and if I was going to be the main character in a film like this, to show up and just walk on set giving less than 100%, you’d really look like a jackass, and I would never want to do that to Kenny and everyone around me trying to make this really emotional film. I guess the answer is, yeah, this was a hard movie to make, but that’s also what I like about making movies. If you’re just showing up on set and chit-chatting and having fun with something like this kind of film, that’s not what’s satisfying about making movies or seeing the final product. It’s great to be someone else and live some character’s life, even if that means playing out tragedy. It’s sort of a slow descent into that character. It’s a weird analogy, but it’s kind of like going to the gym, and you start warming up into something before you do your heavy lifting. You spend an hour sweating after that, and then you slowly come out of it, but the whole time… You know what, forget that analogy. (laughs)”

For Williams, whose character is decidedly a supporting role, but one that has to impact the film around her in a small amount of screen time, her preparation time was longer; something that the three time Oscar nominee was grateful for.

“Just before we shot the film, I remember vividly this story about a house fire in Brooklyn,” she says of the moments when she first started to form the character of Randi after being offered the part. “It was this Hasidic family who left a hot plate on accidentally and they had nine children, and the mother was in a similar situation to what Randi experiences. I remember seeing the reports of what she was saying at the time and what her state of mind could have been. It’s so strange for me to be a voyeur on someone else’s pain. You’re trying to lift something from that and take it more broadly, but it made me feel very uncomfortable to be making notes on something like that, so I kind of stopped. I always want things to be as truthful as possible, so I actually ended up talking and researching more about how this [life changing event] that Randi experiences would have happened and what she might have witnessed. I looked more into the specifics of what her situation would have been like, and less into the experiences of others. I think it’s necessary to fill things out like that for a viewer to an extent, and you can have a million thoughts on something, but at a certain point you get into things that just aren’t in the movie.”

“Kenny didn’t really tell me that something was ever too much or to ever hold back, and he has a lot of faith in people. He never said to do less or do more, which is great when you have to play this character that’s only in a few scenes, but has to make a big impact on the story.”

“There’s this incredible distance that grows between these two people,” she continues, “and they have to evolve in different ways, and you don’t need the specifics of how they move on to see that they’re processing things differently. I looked more into the specifics of what happened and what it must have been like to witness that. I never thought of Randi as half of a person, though. It’s a small part, but as soon as I knew as I was doing it that I had to come up with a whole person to play, and since I didn’t have to shoot very much, I had more than ample amount of time to prepare and think and wander and research, which is a luxury that Ken’s film provided me with that most other films don’t, and he totally understands the need for something to feel truthful because that’s how he wants to write and direct.”

In a rarity for films dealing with families trying to make sense of sometimes inherently senseless tragedies, the emotions of Manchester by the Sea grow more internalized as the film goes on, with everyone almost being brought to a level similar to the one Lee finds himself at from the start of the story. Quite often, the dialogue will become sparser, or quite often seemingly inconsequential conversations about irrelevant topics will mask a deeper pain. Whenever Lee is confronted with a harsh truth that he doesn’t want to hear or any sort of setback, he lets out a softly painful, interjected “Oh…” before trailing off. Lonergan’s film is one of light touches that allow actors lots of room for exploration, and Affleck and Williams both credit the filmmaker’s strengths as a writer and director for them to be able to perform as well as they do here.

“I think, and not just to bang Kenny’s writing drum over and over, but the better the words are, the better the pauses are,” Affleck says about Lonergan’s commitment to narrative realism. “If it feels like you’re watching real people getting real information that they have to process, then you’re sort of getting people’s attention to want to see what those reactions are. If you’re detached as a viewer and you don’t care, then the pauses are meaningless. It’s a very emotional movie for the actors, though, and hopefully for the audience because there’s a lot of conflict. But those conflicts aren’t petty, even if they seem on the surface like they would be, like arguing over a pizza. You can have something like ‘Eat the pizza,’ ‘No, I don’t want the pizza,’ ‘Eat the fucking pizza,’ (laughs), but you know deep down that this isn’t an argument about pizza, although that’s what it is on the surface. All of that stuff is about really big things and a huge tragedy, but it’s not done in a melodramatic way. Kenny’s very resistant and almost allergic to sentimentality, so no matter what, he’s going to find his way through those landmines. It keeps things feeling very real, and that extends to all of those moments where the viewers and the actors have to read between the lines.”

“I know for me, Kenny didn’t really tell me that something was ever too much or to ever hold back, and he has a lot of faith in people,” Williams adds about how Lonergan made her feel comfortable going to emotional places with a character that people in the real world often don’t want to experience themselves. “He never said to do less or do more, which is great when you have to play this character that’s only in a few scenes, but has to make a big impact on the story.”

“I’m always sensitive to movies that are set in an area around where I grew up and that I feel like I know very well, but it might be that we might just overvalue the specificity of a thing, but it’s more impactful when you have material like this where you can step back and realize that people are people everywhere.”

“His direction is way more than that,” Affleck continues off his co-star’s point. “I’ve had directors who have said the ‘do less, do more’ thing, and that just isn’t helpful at all because it’s not specific. In any line of dialogue there are so many things you could do less or more of. With Kenny, he talks about what’s going on in the scene the way someone like you might talk to a sister or brother about your problems. When he talks about a scene, he talks about it like a real person and tells you how to relate to it in real ways. His direction was more like advice that someone would give a close friend. ‘Well, why do you feel that way?’ ‘What if you just tried being nice to them?’ ‘What if you did this?’ ‘What if you did that?’ It was never about being bigger or smaller. I think that’s a rarity and something you don’t run into with a lot of directors who don’t understand their material as well as Kenny understands his material. Sometimes with some films you need that outside-in approach of doing less or doing more and you find out a lot that way. Kenny is more of an inside-out director because he knew all of these characters and the actors playing them. That said, it’s an interesting thing to talk about because the film ends up being full of these restrained performances without losing – at the risk of me sounding cheesy – the emotional impact or punch of it. He wants everything to go to the point of being too much before he finds a way to contain it. He never wanted it to be melodramatic.”

In a bit of somewhat appropriate typecasting, Massachusetts native Affleck once again plays someone from his home state. It’s an image that the performer has been able to shake with his performances in a number of productions where he hasn’t played a Bay Stater, but one that he likes to good naturedly poke fun at from time to time in much the same way this his brother Ben or Manchester by the Sea producer Matt Damon often do. In reality, Affleck had never been to the titular community, and to his shock, neither had Lonergan before the filmmaker started putting this story together. And yet, the film retains an authentic sense of place and community while creating a story that can resonate with people regardless of their geographical location. Affleck says there’s plenty of credit to go around for the film’s sense of authenticity and culture, and the balance between the cultural specifics and more universal emotions that work in tandem.

“Kenny’s very resistant and almost allergic to sentimentality, so no matter what, he’s going to find his way through those landmines. It keeps things feeling very real, and that extends to all of those moments where the viewers and the actors have to read between the lines.”

“I grew up in Massachusetts, and I certainly knew this type of person, but for some reason I had never gone up to that part of the state for one reason or another,” he jokes. “It’s all very familiar, and not very different from anywhere. It’s a working class community of families, and one of the things Kenny does so well is that it doesn’t matter where it takes place because it becomes so universal. Whether it’s something like You Can Count on Me in upstate New York, or Margaret and it’s New York City, or its the characters in Manchester by the Sea, it never feels like some alien life form that’s being studied when they suffer a tragedy. It’s relatable all the time, and I don’t know how he does that, because at the same time that it’s hard to create something that emotionally resonant, it’s also so specific. It’s accurate, authentic, and it feels like Kenny actually grew up in a place like this, knew what the accents and personalities were like, and then I was taken aback when I got to know him and thought, ‘Motherf**ker, he’s never even BEEN to this place!’ (laughs) And yet it’s written like he spent his whole life there. He just knows, and he’s a smart guy.”

“And I’m always sensitive to movies that are set in an area around where I grew up and that I feel like I know very well, but it might be that we might just overvalue the specificity of a thing, but it’s more impactful when you have material like this where you can step back and realize that people are people everywhere. Also, a lot of that can be attributable to production design and costumes, which were great here and those departments sometimes never get their proper credit for more intimate films like this. If those things are off, then things start to feel off. But these houses really look like they’re in New England, and not somewhere in Miami or Southern California. Michelle actually spent a lot of time with the people in that area, and she was one of the people who really advocated for this film to have the appearance that you see in the film, right down to the jeans and haircuts. But those details are so true and what make people recognize these areas, and even if you don’t know the area, the details make you know the people.”

Teen spirit: an interview with The Edge of Seventeen filmmaker Kelly Fremon Craig and producer James L. Brooks

Producer and filmmaker James L. Brooks has a remarkable eye for talent and great material. A titan in Hollywood, Brooks has been responsible for some of the most memorable films and television shows of the past forty years or so. Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, As Good as It Gets, The Simpsons, Bottle Rocket, Broadcast News, Terms of Endearment, and Big were all productions that Brooks helped shepherd either as a producer, writer, director, or combination of two or more of the above. His track record speaks for itself, and the attachment of his name and expertise to the teen comedy The Edge of Seventeen certainly signifies a vote of confidence in first time director Kelly Fremon Craig.

For her feature debut, writer-director Craig tells the story of a typically Brooks-ian protagonist: jaded and somewhat sullen small town Oregon teenager Nadine, played by Hailee Steinfeld. Nadine still finds herself in a state of emotional suspended animation following the sudden death of her father several years earlier. Her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) has been trying her best to move on and has begun dating again. Mom seems to vastly prefer her more athletic and academically inclined older brother, Darian (Blake Jenner), which further drives a wedge between the family. Nadine’s already tenuous social life gets torn apart further once her best friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) starts hooking up with her brother, sending her emotions spiralling out of control.

“We talked about this for the first time a few days ago, and I couldn’t actually remember at what point if Kelly had said ‘I want to direct this’ or I had a moment where I realized she had just become the director of the movie,” Brooks chuckles when talking about the sheer amount of confidence he had in the first time filmmaker to make her vision of The Edge of Seventeen a reality. “She remembered that she was trying to say to me that she would kill anybody who would try to direct this that wasn’t her. Now that’s obviously a joke, but she was always trying to figure out how to ask me if she could direct it, and I think I always saw it as a naturally given thing. Her learning curve on this is one of the best and most amazing that I’ve ever witnessed. Kelly impressed me as a person first and foremost. It’s so funny because I often say that when you do a movie, you try to tell the truth and you just say that to yourself over and over again, but at a time when the meeting between us was over and we had talked about the first draft and I had really been agonizing over my own involvement – and when I agonize about myself I tend to be world class about it – she turned to me and said ‘No one will ever work harder than me.’ It was unusual to hear that, but it was an instinct in her that was the truth, and it was the truth because she has an enormous amount of talent. I don’t know if she knew she had this in her the entire time, but it was always riding in her and time allowed it to all come out, and it’s still coming.”

“Talking with a bunch of teenagers all across the states for hours and hours and just being a fly on the wall for their conversations yielded so many beautiful little details that are impossible to make up unless you see them first.”

“I was ready to make a pitch for myself, and James said that he always thought that the voice of the film was very specific to me and that he always thought I should direct it. I was just shocked. I was so shocked that I think I actually asked him to put it in writing,” Craig adds with a laugh.

Craig’s confidence and strength of voice and vision shines through in the characters of her film. The Edge of Seventeen feels like a film packed with realistically drawn teenagers instead of the stock archetypes most films of the genre tend to foist upon viewers for the sake of broad laughs and tearjerking moments. Steinfeld’s Nadine is understandable in her frustrations, but sometimes borders on becoming unlikeable and underhanded. The jock of an older brother has far more maturity than his outsider sister. The best friend character is torn between her duties as a friend and the desires of her own heart. The crusty, sarcastic history teacher Nadine often finds herself confiding in (played by a dryly deadpan Woody Harrelson) doesn’t offer grand advice, but offers support, laughs, and a necessary ear to her pleas for guidance. A nerdy, artsy student (Vancouver native Hayden Szeto) isn’t as socially awkward as one might expect. It should go without saying that it was important for Craig and Brooks to set her characters apart from the established cinematic norm for teenage characters.

“Jim was the first and only person that we sent this film to, so there was never any concern for me that someone was going to turn these characters into stereotypes, but certainly in my career before this, that was always a concern of mine and something that I felt was happening,” Craig says about maintaining the integrity of her characters. “I think that’s just kind of the rule, you know? It’s always easiest to do the paint-by-numbers thing and there are so many entities in this system that want to push you in that direction. When I met Jim, it was such a relief, but it was also so discombobulating because instead of saying the usual producer things like [in a gruff manly voice], ‘Your second act crisis needs to be bigger!’ and blah blah blah and stuff like that, James said that the most important thing I had to figure out was: ‘Kelly, what do you want to say about life with this film?’ That was the first time a producer had ever said something to be that was actually life altering. I will never approach anything I write in my life again without hearing that or starting from that point. What is it that’s churning in me that I need to explore?”

Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson in a scene from The Edge of Seventeen.
Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson in a scene from The Edge of Seventeen.

Craig certainly said what she wanted to convey about teenage life in the film, but Brooks also suggested that she go out and research and observe modern teens to make sure that the tone was right. Craig, whose teen years are now behind her, saw this opportunity to go back and lend The Edge of Seventeen an air of modern relevancy to be indispensable.

“That was one of the greatest gifts that Jim gave me with this, the ability to go out and research. Jim and I both thought that to some degree we had to take a more journalistic approach to the script; to just go out and talk to some people and make sure we were getting all these details right. And that was another thing I learned. I don’t think I could ever make a film again without doing an intense amount of research because that was what made such a huge difference between the first draft of the film and the second draft. Talking with a bunch of teenagers all across the states for hours and hours and just being a fly on the wall for their conversations yielded so many beautiful little details that are impossible to make up unless you see them first. I think that just reinforces a responsibility to these people to get things right and to pay respect to how complicated it is being a teenager. It also shocked me just how much is the same about being a teenager, or even being an adult. I really felt that we were all living part of this sometimes messy life and world together. Some things have always been a certain way and always will, and that sometimes takes the sting out of your own painful experience. There’s a quote that Jim says frequently, which is that the purpose of art is to make you know that you’re not alone, and I hope that’s what the film does.”

Brooks adds, “When people talk about older people in movies, they often talk about them as people who are over the age of about twenty-five. So with older people revisiting themselves and having a resonant human experience when seeing something like this is gratifying. And in this film you can see people who can relate to being a teacher or the mother of a teenager, all while being reminded of what it’s like to actually be one. There’s a scene that I think is so great in the film where Kyra is trying to figure out how angry she wants to be in this text that she’s sending to her daughter, and you can see that character’s entire world change when she considers her entire life in almost a single moment. That has to resonate not only with mothers, but with everyone. Those kinds of moments are the kind that you can’t make up because we all know how real they are. It’s great that this film hits home in that way.”

“One of the biggest assets all of us had on the project was Hailee. She was just masterful, and she never knew how generous she was being.”

It was also freeing that Brooks allowed and encouraged Craig to make something of a rarity these days: an R-rated teen flick where the protagonists curse regularly. There’s no extreme sex or violence, but The Edge of Seventeen does capture what many teens sound and act like.

“That’s how people talk!,” Craig says about the commitment to authenticity of language. “I mean, I know that’s how I talked, and I’m guessing you were probably the same way. That’s one of those things to stay true throughout the years. That liberty was key. We couldn’t have made this movie if we didn’t have this rating. It would have been a neutered, watered down version of itself. We couldn’t have done anything else.”

For Brooks, the film ties into part of his own filmmaking history. As with many of the films he has produced, written, or directed, the main character is a deeply flawed human being that sometimes does things to hurt their own well being or those around them. His films often have well meaning protagonists who sometimes fall into self-destructive ruts, and branch out into looking at the support systems these characters have in place. It was a comparison that he actually hadn’t thought that much about, but he can certainly see the similarities.

“I never thought of those connections till you made it, but now that you mention it, that certainly makes a lot of sense. Certainly, I think that’s true of most of the films I have worked on if you look at them in those terms, except for maybe As Good as It Gets, which is kind of about this almost clinically impaired monster instead of just a regularly flawed person. I think the character of Nadine here is more of a sociologically impaired person. I think you’re right that the connection is there, but Kelly is an original, and the times I have done this job for other filmmakers and not from my own material, no matter how many times that kind of sensibility might match up unconsciously, I am always drawn to originality. That’s great for me because that always clears the air for me. You’re not just circulating your own plots. You’re not seeing the world from only your perspective. To see something from someone else who’s really seeing the world well is great.”

“We couldn’t have made this movie if we didn’t have this rating. It would have been a neutered, watered down version of itself. We couldn’t have done anything else.”

Brooks also has plenty of praise to heap upon Craig’s choice of an Oscar nominated leading performer as something that made The Edge of Seventeen a joy to work on.

“One of the biggest assets all of us had on the project was Hailee,” he says. “She was just masterful, and she never knew how generous she was being. Whenever someone was in a scene with her, they weren’t with a performer, but with that character. Wherever someone else wanted to go with a scene, she went with them, and never lost the character. It always just seemed so natural. She just did her thing, and I think, for me, it’s one of the most brilliant performances that I’ve ever been around. I’m awed by it. Just sitting with her earlier today off the set and seeing that she’s just a regular person was almost like a shock for me. (laughs) Spending so many months with her talent even in the editing room was just a joy.”

“There were so many long days and nights on this project where I could tell that Hailee was bringing the magic that we really needed to pick us all up,” Craig adds about Steinfeld’s talents. “So many times I would be behind the monitor and in my chair with my mouth hanging wide open, and I couldn’t believe the effortlessness of it. Her talent is so internalized that it breathes almost on its own.”

Their majesties: an interview with The Crown actors Jared Harris and Vanessa Kirby

Veteran British actor Jared Harris could be seen as having come from acting royalty, but shockingly he has never played a member of any royal family throughout his career. Son of famed actor Richard Harris and the former stepson of Rex Harrison, Jared Harris has played plenty of important historical figures and beloved literary characters, but in the Netflix original series The Crown (which premieres all ten episodes of its first season this weekend), he gets the tall order of portraying King George VI, beloved figurehead that got England through World War II and father to Queen Elizabeth II (played by Claire Foy).

With Harris during a Toronto promotional stop to promote the series is rising star Vanessa Kirby, who plays George’s other daughter, Princess Margaret. The Crown – created by the heavyweight team of writer Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) and producer/director Stephen Daldry (The Hours, The Reader) – doesn’t expressly tell the stories of George and Margaret, and it spoils very little to say that Harris’ king dies early into the series and the show is most concerned with how twenty-five year old Elizabeth balances her new duties and responsibilities as queen with her recent marriage to the Duke of Edinburgh, Peter Mountbatten, played by former Doctor Who star Matt Smith.

It’s a sprawling and ambitious look into the inner circle of the world’s most prominent remaining royal family, with Harris’ father figure popping up in flashbacks even after George has passed. It’s as inside of a look as one can get to one of the most secretive families in the world on a fictional level, and Harris and Kirby both marvel at the balance that Morgan and Daldry were able to create between rigorous attention to detail and the emotional beats that eschew more clichéd and standard looks at the royals.

With Peter and Stephen steering the show, right off the bat you know you’re 90% there,” Harris states. “If they’ve figured out a way of doing it, you’re in really good hands. Their attitude was that they wanted it to feel immediate and fresh, and not that sort of classic Upstairs, Downstairs, stiff-upper-lip, repressed emotion thing which is boring, and a giant cliché, as well, and what’s enjoyable about this is taking that cliché and doing something new with it. There are moments where they certainly have to present themselves to the outside world in that manner, but they’re also depicted here as incredibly passionate people who are fighting just as hard for what they want in their life as we are.”

“I’m sure they all scratch their bum when they’re by themselves like anyone else does, but as soon as you add someone else to an event – say someone close to them or someone important – it alters things in a certain way. If it’s a total stranger, an act goes on.”

I think there’s a fine line with these sorts of things between it being sort of dry and factual and making something that’s farcical, a spoof, or a satire, which is what you get in sketches or other programmes,” Kirby adds. “When you see Peter and what he did with Helen Mirren when she played the queen, you see that they made the most brilliant job of it by making something with integrity and love, clearly, but also something that connects with people. Even though you’re watching the older version of the queen being the queen, there’s still something really intriguing about who she is as a human being. And I think we’re all fascinated by asking ourselves if that were us what we would do. You can’t run away or you’ll be ostracized by your family and you can never come back. They exist inside this stuffy repressed world where outsiders often only view them as cardboard cut-outs of human beings. They’re still just a family that has gone through a strange set of circumstances in their lives.”

Although the show was produced for Netflix and has episodes like most regular television shows, Harris and Kirby both stress that they’ve never worked on something with the sort of budget and scale that The Crown exhibits. That’s very fitting considering the actor’s larger than life counterparts. It was that sense of scope and scale that allowed Harris and Kirby to inhabit their roles, noting that a lot of what they needed to pull inspiration from was around them on set at all times. By that same token, the most difficult part of portraying George and Margaret was learning about the level of formality that comes from being a part of a royal lineage that doesn’t function anything like a normal family. Both had to learn new behaviours and how to act as their characters while still trying to imbue them with a sense of humanity all audiences can understand.

Vanessa Kirby stars as Princess Margaret in the Netflix series The Crown.
Vanessa Kirby stars as Princess Margaret in the Netflix series The Crown.

There are two things that are really interesting about that, just some anecdotes that really made me think about that,” Kirby begins when explaining how hard it can be learning to portray a royal for a long period of time. “One of my first days where we had Philip Martin directing a scene from episode eight where Margaret is thinking of rewriting her speech and someone comes in and talks to her, and I was sort of draped over the desk and acting what I thought was Margaret-y and acting like I didn’t want to write the speech. Afterwards, Philip came around to me and said after one of the first takes, ‘You’ve got to remember that she’s actually royal.’ And I went, ‘Oh, yeah! I forgot!’ There were definitely these parameters that we learned, and within those parameters you could be free, but we had to all learn what those were first. The other thing that was so amazing and useful was when Peter told us all, ‘Look, I want you to play this, but I also want you to play it as if you’ve got a stone in your shoe. You know, like there’s something uncomfortable that’s always adding this element of grit to it.’ It can’t always be a story about people just saying, ‘Oh, we’re having such a lovely time, and look at these sumptuous sets.’ Nothing is easy in this world and nothing comes for free. There’s a price to pay for every decision in your life, be it sacrifice, deciding to concede or to fight, and Elizabeth and Margaret have these moments all the time. And the king does to as to whether or not to tell his family that he has a terminal illness. That was helpful that Peter said that it was never going to be a nice ‘chocolate box’ version of this incredible family.

“There’s a certain decorum, and it was different if we had done it back then as opposed to doing it now,” Harris continues off Kirby’s anecdotes. “There were a different set of expectations then than there is now. How you act also depends on who’s in the room with you. I’m sure they all scratch their bum when they’re by themselves like anyone else does, but as soon as you add someone else to an event – say someone close to them or someone important – it alters things in a certain way. If it’s a total stranger, an act goes on. But in terms of playing majesty, and Stephen knows this from being a theatre director, it’s that you can’t play that. It’s all about how everyone else treats you because they’re the ones conflating that status onto you, and you mustn’t try to play it. You have to let everyone else do it.”

“They exist inside this stuffy repressed world where outsiders often only view them as cardboard cut-outs of human beings. They’re still just a family that has gone through a strange set of circumstances in their lives.”

Similarly, there’s a great challenge any actor faces in trying to get to the humanity of one of the world’s most famed, but most secretive and private families. Most of what makes for a great character on screen can’t be researched first hand through stock speeches and public appearances. Harris and Kirby both went the extra mile to portray the father and daughter, working hand in hand with the show’s producers and doing their own outside research with people who knew the royal family as more than mere figureheads. The one thing that united Harris and Kirby in their research is the temper that the Margaret seemed to inherit from George.

“One of the things that they talked about with me about the king was that he really had this filthy temper,” Harris says. “He would get set off at the most innocuous things, and the show kind of depicts how the character of Peter Townsend was able to sort of calm him down and bring him back down to centre. There’s obviously no way you can see that in any of the footage of him because those kinds of emotional showings just don’t exist on camera with someone like that. And yet, everybody who knew him said that if you wore the wrong tartan on at an event, he would get bollocked massively by it. That’s interesting to wonder where that’s coming from and what that’s about. I didn’t actually even see that in the script, and when you do all that research you really find things like that which are interesting, but also fun to do. That’s always good.”

Picking up on that,” Kirby adds, “There was a book about Margaret that I really loved called “A Life of Contasts“, and that really sums her up. In the same way that George had this huge temper, but was also the sweetest and kindest family man, I think it was those contrasts that surprised me because Margaret similarly had her father’s temper. She became known as someone who could be incredibly cutting and cold, and she could put you down with a single stare and make the whole room change. She could be incredibly demanding and bossy, but she was also the life and the soul of the family. She was the most fun one. She was a rebel, a rogue, and an exhibitionist. I fell in love with all those elements that you see to her. She’s this incredibly light and vibrant person saddled with all this sadness that comes from the loss of a father and not being able to marry the man she’s most in love with, which I think is the greatest tragic love story of that century. These people wanted to have their lives together, and I had no idea the depth of that love between them. I’m proud that the series does that for all of them.”

Good vibes: an interview with Trolls director Mike Mitchell and co-director Walt Dohrn

Trolls director Mike Mitchell and co-director Walt Dohrn would like to take credit for the unseasonably warm November weather in Toronto on the day of our interview.

“I think we brought the warmth” the cheerful and bespectacled Mitchell beams jokingly while conducting interviews out of a sunny downtown Toronto hotel suite. “Literally sunshine in your pocket.”

Spending time with the animation and filmmaking veterans, it’s hard to argue with them. Animation powerhouse Dreamworks’ Trolls (in theatres across Canada this weekend) gets by on a lot of toe tapping, positivity, and good vibes, and the film definitely seems the product of the warm hearted, gregarious, and wisecracking guys who made it.

Based around the widely loved and highly collectable dolls created by Thomas Dam, Trolls tells the vibrant, musical saga of Princess Poppy (voiced by Anna Kendrick), an upbeat, resilient scrapbooking enthusiast (and heiress to the troll kingdom) who wants to free her brethren from a band of no-good ogre types – known as The Bergen – who put on an annual holiday where they eat trolls in a bid to experience true happiness. For help in her quest to free a bunch of trolls that have been kidnapped by an evil Bergen chef (Christine Baranski), Poppy turns to the reluctant and surly Branch (voiced by Justin Timberlake, also serving as the film’s executive music producer), a constantly vigilant loner who isn’t nearly as peppy, optimistic, or fun loving as his wild haired brethren.

Just the idea of trying to make such tactile toys into a feature film seems like a daunting task, and one of the greatest accomplishments of Trolls is that the film contains so much realistic detail that young ones (and even some adults) might want to reach out and touch the screen out of admiration for the detail on display. But if one were to ask any animator what the worst detail of a character to work on would be, most would say it’s the hair or fur of whatever they’re bringing to life. When dealing with characters with such iconic hair, the animation team already has their work cut out for them, but Mitchell and Dohrn ramped up the ambition of their project to give their worlds a hand crafted feeling that almost gives off the impression of stop motion animation. The characters aren’t just hairy; they’re fuzzy. Hair isn’t just something on the heads of the heroes, but also all around them in various different uses as part of the scenery. And on top of that, Mitchell and Dohrn found something even harder to animate than hair and string.

“You know, for all the work they put into the hair in this film, it was actually the use of glitter that was the most difficult thing. The glitter was the hardest thing to do on any given day, so animating glitter is just as difficult and sometimes annoying as working with it in real life.”

“We really wanted this to look like a tactile experience,” Dohrn says of the character and set design. “The thing that’s great about these kinds of animated films is that you can create worlds that people have never been to before, and we can come up with all these ideas of how to immerse you in this world and make people feel good at the same time.”

“We wanted things to look like natural fibres. We wanted things to look handmade,” Mitchell adds. “And then our production designer, Kendal Cronkhite, went and took things even further than we could have imagined. The fire you see is made from hair. The smoke is hair-like. There’s a fog that’s almost like spun, spider webbing. The technology has gotten so sophisticated for these animated movies. You can make anything look realistic. If you wanted to create a world that looks just like our world, you could. Our challenge was always to make a world like nothing you’ve ever seen before, but kind of base a lot of it in elements that you had seen in your own world. We used surfacing, specifically, as a tool to make sure every surface was textured and sometimes even fibrous or fuzzy to the eye.”

Dohrn continues Mitchell’s thought. “And that’s something that’s key when you’re animating something as difficult to animate already as hair, and with characters whose hair was their superpower. They could turn it into stairs, ropes, whips, all these things.”

“You know, for all the work they put into the hair in this film, it was actually the use of glitter that was the most difficult thing,” Mitchell jokes about the film’s unlikely, but biggest challenge. “The glitter was the hardest thing to do on any given day, so animating glitter is just as difficult and sometimes annoying as working with it in real life. (laughs) The producers kept asking us if we really needed all this glitter in the film, and we said, ‘YES! The story doesn’t make any sense without the glitter!’ (laughs) There are a few characters in this film that are just basically walking disco balls that are naked and covered in glitter. Hair is hard, but glitter is basically a bunch of different mirrors all pointing in different directions. Glitter is hard to light in a live action film, but trying to animate it and make it look realistically lit is a whole other story.”

“For this film, the animators actually came up with two completely new technologies,” Dohrn says about the complexity of the production’s sometimes small, but noticeable details. “One was to render the hair in a different way that would make that easier to work with from scene to scene. The other was to teach a computer basically how glitter works. There were a few shots that included mirrors and glitter, and even I said, ‘I dunno, guys, these are PRETTY tough.’ You couldn’t give an animator a bigger challenge.”

“We wanted things to look like natural fibres. We wanted things to look handmade. The fire you see is made from hair. The smoke is hair-like. There’s a fog that’s almost like spun, spider webbing.”

When I compliment Mitchell and Dohrn on how the film sometimes looks like stop motion and not the usual computer generated animation audiences get, they take it as a large compliment and validation that they got something right, especially for Mitchell who has bounced around between directing animated and live action features throughout his career.

“I actually used to work a lot with stop motion, and I’m a huge fan of the kinds of things that Laika is doing right now,” Mitchell enthuses. “I worked with Tim Burton at Skellington Studios, where they did The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, and Walt and I loved puppets, particularly old Jim Henson stuff, and we really wanted to somehow use this technology to celebrate the kinds of things that are never used in CGI. When someone says that it reminds them in some ways of stop motion, I really take that as a huge compliment. We’re starting to show this film around everywhere, and besides great reactions and watching kids getting up and dancing in the theatre, people are really noticing the look of the film, and that’s usually something that average audiences never remark upon after seeing an animated film, but there’s something about this one that’s funky and weird to people, and that’s great.”

“The technology for animation today is so advanced and so perfect that we were actually trying to pull imperfections out of it to use in the film,” Dohrn says about the film’s hand crafted visual aesthetic. “You can get those kinds of imperfections with stop motion or hand drawn animation, which is something we both have backgrounds in, too, and it feels more connected to the audience and more intimate. We even went as far as to include some actual felt scrapbooking in the film that we were able to integrate into this CGI world. So we actually did have real glue and glitter sticking to us all over the place and in our eyebrows for months, and not just the digital kind. We really wanted to draw people in with the kinds of things that people can make by hand, so that maybe there will be people who will see the scrapbooking in the film and think they can go home and try it themselves. At the same time, though, it could never be distracting to people. You can have a highly stylized world with all these imperfections, but it can’t impede people following the narrative momentum. You can have some stitches on a mushroom in the background, but sometimes we would actually have to have conversations about if there were too many stitches. Too many imperfections and you start thinking about ‘the hand of God,’ and you start asking questions about who made this place, and that’s not what the story is about.”

“For this film, the animators actually came up with two completely new technologies. One was to render the hair in a different way that would make that easier to work with from scene to scene. The other was to teach a computer basically how glitter works.”

“One of the things that was so exciting was that there were no mythologies surrounding any of these characters, and that was one of the things that Walt and I really loved about being able to work on this,” Mitchell adds about how not having any backstory to the characters allowed them to take their story and style to more ambitious places. “We could create a world that hasn’t been seen because no one has really sat down and discussed the world of these trolls before. We got to create whatever animation we needed, and one of the ways that Walt and I both like to work is to solve any problems we might have through story, and we got to cater this kind of snappy, hyper animation and pace, but whenever we wanted to crank things in a more realistic direction, we could do that. I’m proud that no one has really noticed that we’ve really crammed two different kinds of animation together because as the film goes on, the characters move a lot more realistically and human-like. There was a lot of trial and error where we got to play around a lot with how we wanted this world to look and when we wanted to make things seem more fantastical and when we wanted them to be more realistic.”

But with so much detail on display in this world and within these characters, I muse to them that it must have been a challenge to make the film as colourful as possible, since the troll dolls are notoriously colourful and vivid characters. While it was hard and Mitchell and Dohrn knew they had to make a vibrant film, they said the secret to the colour palate of this world actually lied in scaling things back instead of going overboard.

“We knew we wanted this to be a colourful film, but it couldn’t ever become just a cacophony of colour,” Mitchell states about keeping things somewhat restrained on a visual level. “I’ve seen ways where people try to use a lot of colour, and it can just become assaulting and offensive, and that was something that our production designer and our animators were always aware of. For example, there’s a sequence in the film where Poppy sings the song ‘Get Back Up Again,’ and it’s a sequence where the world is just beating the crap out of her in various ways while she’s trying to remain optimistic about things, and this scene has twenty-seven completely different environments in a less than three minutes, which is crazy. That means everything is up there really quick. Every environment is a whole new world with different creatures and stuff, and to not be assaulting on the eyes in something that fast paced, we actually limited the colour palate for each landscape. Each land only got two to three colours, so you have to figure out what you wanted to do. You could use any tones you wanted, but you had to limit it to two or three basic colours, tops.”

“We went through a lot of trial and error,” Dohrn says. “We did lots of loose, rough paintings to just look at the colour scheme. We put on the wall our entire film so we could see all the beats and understand the colour palate from scene to scene as it moves through the story. Right up to the end, the thing we kept working on was fine tuning the colour.”

“One of the things that was so exciting was that there were no mythologies surrounding any of these characters. We could create a world that hasn’t been seen because no one has really sat down and discussed the world of these trolls before.”

But for all the visual splendour that Trolls brings, it will most likely be a film remembered by youngsters as a silly, funny musical adventure packed with a balance of original material made exclusively for the film – much of it created with the input of Timberlake, whose original track “Can’t Stop the Feeling” is already a smash around the world since dropping earlier in the year – alongside new arrangements of a plethora of instantly recognizable hits from pop charts of the past.

“Justin wrote ‘Can’t Stop the Feeling” for this film and it became a hit song before the movie came out, so I guess this guy kinda knows what he’s doing.” Mitchell jokes and laughs when talking about his highest profile collaborator on the project. “And Justin was just so excited to work on the original material for the film and help us with figuring out what songs we wanted to use to help service this story. Plus, he got to work with Earth, Wind, and Fire on this film, and that was one of his bucket list items, and I have seen few people get as happy as he did when he talked about getting to work with them.”

While Timberlake obviously shines above the other cast members as a musical superstar, Trolls is a film packed with fully capable musical performers like Kendrick, Gwen Stefani, Russell Brand, and James Corden, but when asked for a musical standout from the obvious talents on display, Dohrn points to Zooey Descahnel, who plays the teenage, lovelorn Bridget, an unlikely Bergen ally to the heroes. Although Deschanel has been lauded for her vocal talents for years and is an accomplished singer in her own right, she’s trying something a lot different in Trolls, almost to a point where one forgets she’s in the film.

“People often don’t recognize that Zooey Deschanel is even in the film,” Dohrn explains about how Deschanel’s approach to her character differed from the rest of the cast. “She really wanted to do this weird voice that she described as a cross between Cindy Brady and Marilyn Monroe hanging out in a heavy metal parking lot in New Jersey. We usually encourage our actors, as I’m sure most people will notice in the film, to use their real voices to help the verisimilitude of the characters and make them believable, so working with her on that voice was great because we all wanted her character to be something different and working with her on that was a blast. She’s also an incredible singer who brought her own microphone, and it was one that was owned by Brian Wilson. He GAVE her a microphone, and she brought it in to sing on for the film, and it was kinda awesome. It actually came to the studio in a suitcase that was handcuffed to someone’s wrist, but being a big Brian Wilson fan myself, that was the coolest thing ever.”

Man on fire: an interview with Fire at Sea filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi

I’m in a Toronto office for an interview with Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi just prior to the start of TIFF to talk about his latest critically acclaimed documentary Fire at Sea (opening at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday, October 21, 2016.), and he’s a boisterous man who’s hard to keep up with. Throughout our interview (in which he knocked over two glasses of water while excitedly and animatedly making his points), he scribbles down thoughts I had on the film.

“I make the film, so I know what I think it is about, but I never know what other people think of it until moments like this, and that’s exciting for me, hearing what people see in it because I can’t always speak for everyone else. I always learn from you guys when I do this.” Rossi says while hurriedly taking notes on his own interview, always turning questions around and asking me what I thought of moments in the film instead of commenting on many of them directly. I do have to say, it’s a pretty fun way to conduct an interview, especially when the filmmaker is promoting a rather sombre documentary.

Italian-American filmmaker Roberto Minervini, creator of films like Low Tide and Stop the Pounding Heart (who was recently the subject of a TIFF retrospective), wasn’t supposed to be a part of this interview, but at a certain point he was. Midway through my conversation with Rossi, the talk turned to how journalists interpret his work. He mentions that Minervini, who is in town only to do a profile on Rossi for Filmmaker Magazine, is the next person to interview him after me, and that he’s a bit anxious about answering questions about filmmaking from not only a great director, but also a close colleague. After expressing my admiration for Minervini, Rosi excitedly jumps from his chair to grab his fellow filmmaker from the waiting area, expressing that he would love for both of us to have a discussion with him about the interview process. Confused for a moment, but completely agreeable, Minervini sets up his equipment to record the second half of our conversation while Rossi rushes outside for a quick smoke break.

“I kind of knew he was going to do something like this,” Minervini says with a smile. “I know Gianfranco and he’s never liked doing things one standard way.”

Fire at Sea certainly isn’t a conventional film, but while it’s more austere than Rosi’s personality, it’s just as contemplative, thoughtful, curious, and fiery as the man sitting before me.

“What’s happening is a holocaust of sorts that people are escaping from, and in many cases they are entering into an agreement on a boat where they could die just attempting the crossing, and it becomes large scale manslaughter.”

Rosi takes a poetic and observational look at life on the Italian island of Lampedusa, a twenty square kilometre fishing community that in the past twenty years has seen over 400,000 refugee migrants from Africa and the Middle East pass through on dangerously overloaded boats and rafts. Of those 400,000, approximately 25,000 don’t make it to the island alive. It’s a small island in a great, big sea, but an important place for those seeking a better life.

Part of why our time together seemed so unconventional springs from Rosi’s aversion to stock question and answer styled interviews. He’s a free thinker constantly making associations in his mind and on paper at all times. As such, he thinks that standard documentary means of talking to subjects feels fake.

“It feels different because you never force someone to complain about something unless they want to,” Rosi says about how his take on documentary filmmaking differs from others. “There are so many documentaries out there that I say are ‘explaining and complaining’ films. You have someone explaining a subject, problem, or thesis, and they you show someone else complaining about it. I never asked them questions because I don’t know anything about their experiences, so what could I say that was intelligent? If they wanted to talk, I would let them.”

Rosi looks at life on the island from a variety of perspectives, predominantly those of local residents who are kept at an arms distance from what’s happening in the transitory migrant camps. Rosi keeps things largely centred on three specific viewpoints. Much of the film is spent with nine year old Samuele, a young slingshot toting man who’s completely unaware of the world beyond his own experience. The exact opposite of Samuele’s experience was the lengthy amount of time Rosi was able to spend with the members of the Italian Coast Guard, who intercept all refugee vessels and see firsthand the kinds of horrors people are escaping from, both on land and on the ships people pay almost their life’s earnings to get on board.

Perhaps most memorable of a subject, however, is the man caught in the middle. Dr. Pietro Bartolo is the only practicing doctor on Lampedusa. He’s also the only person qualified to serve as a coroner on the island, even though he has no formal training in it. As such, he has seen much of the pain and suffering experienced by migrants. He was also the deciding factor that made Rosi want to make the film.

“I don’t care about fiction, or non-fiction, or documentary, or literature, or poetry. What I care about is documenting a story in the language of cinema. I like to reinforce and transform reality. I always have to believe the truth of the person in front of me.”

Dr. Bartolo treated Rosi for bronchitis while he was visiting and deciding if he wanted to make the film about the island. Rosi was hesitant, maintaining that Fire at Sea might be too complicated of a film to make, but following a two hour conversation while being treated, Dr. Bartolo was able to sway Rosi. Dr. Bartolo’s experience and influence on Rosi proved to be invaluable, even leading to an added shoot on the film long after principal photography had wrapped. What resulted is one of the film’s most shocking and harrowing moments where Dr. Bartolo tells stories from the past decades.

“He gave me this USB key,” Rosi begins. “And said, ‘You look at this, and be sure to bring this back to me because you are going to make this film. I went home, put this in my computer, and I saw twenty years of his stories, his notes, and then I went back and decided to make the film. And after spending a year and a half making the film on about the 10th or 15th of January this year and after it was already accepted to Berlin, I thought I needed something stronger with the doctor, but I also, like I said, didn’t want to ask questions. How do I show who he is and what he has seen. I went back to him with the USB key in January, and like how you brought me to this island, I want you to bring them into the film. He started looking at things and showing things like the first time we met. I shot that in the middle of January for a film that was screening on the 5th or 6th of February.”

Rosi was also fortunate to have a lot of support from the Italian Coast Guard, who trusted the filmmaker enough to make exactly the film he wanted to make and not exploit or skew what was happening on the boats and in the camps.

“They never forced me to take any slant or position. I was completely free,” he says about his time spent with the military. “I spent forty days on this military boat, and I was able to have a very strong relationship with the commander and the crew and staff of the boat. So when we encounter death at the borderline – at this imaginary line in the sea – I wondered if they would let me film it or not. I wanted to because I wanted the world to see this tragic reality. I thought I had gotten some good footage, and when I returned to the boat while the rescue operation was still happening, the commander asked me if I got shots from the lower levels of the boat where there were fifty dead bodies. We actually didn’t even know there were fifty at the time. There were just bodies. And the commander was the one who said, ‘It’s your duty to go down and film, you know that, right? I trust you to do this, and I know you will not use it in a cheap way.’ The film was somehow built right around that moment. If you notice the last 38 minutes of the film are complete silence, almost as if its mourning, and that comes after what I saw on the boat.”

“I never asked them questions because I don’t know anything about their experiences, so what could I say that was intelligent? If they wanted to talk, I would let them.”

While Rosi balks somewhat at comparisons between his observationalist work and the likes of Frederick Wiseman, he equally feels like some viewers are reading too much into perceived visual meaning of the work. He seems happy to use metaphor as part of his cinematic vocabulary, but he’s careful not to force it, especially when it comes to telling the direct stories of refugees, something he didn’t have much time to do. A lot of the metaphor people see in scenes with these figures living on the margins of a world crisis is often inferred or an accident. To hear him tell it, the film only really has one major metaphor at the heart of it.

“What’s happening is a holocaust of sorts that people are escaping from, and in many cases they are entering into an agreement on a boat where they could die just attempting the crossing, and it becomes large scale manslaughter. But making the film meant that I had very little time with refugees. They’re only there for two or three days there, and then they leave for Italy. That’s why there’s no interaction between the island and what’s happening in the refugee camp. It’s a metaphor for all of Europe, really. There are these two worlds existing side by side that never meet.”

To this, I joke that the lazy-eye that forces young Samuele to wear an eye patch would seem to be a perfect metaphor for that sentiment. He laughs boisterously and explains that such moments are why he loves working in documentary filmmaking.

“That’s an easy metaphor,” he laughs. “If I had made that up, you probably would have thought I was a very cheesy writer. I could never have gone to a producer with that or a lot of what is captured, but it works here because reality imposes on it. You can’t force poetry and you can’t force things like that in the movie. The same thing where this young boy has this fear of the sea and he ends up right next to a coast guard boat while learning to row, that’s a strong image for those who realize what the boat is. If I tried to get this into a fictional film, people would have said, ‘What the fuck? Fuck off, man.’ (laughs) No one would have ever come to me and said, ‘How much do you want to make this film.’ And this is what I love about documentary. I don’t care about fiction, or non-fiction, or documentary, or literature, or poetry. What I care about is documenting a story in the language of cinema. I like to reinforce and transform reality. I always have to believe the truth of the person in front of me. There’s a difference between true and false and what’s real and not real, and documentary captures that.”

What emerges, metaphorical or not, is a respectful and measured look at something many in Europe and the West try their best to ignore. Many critics have said that Rosi’s delicate approach to the matter can potentially have a large impact on how countries perceive the migrant crisis. Rosi agrees that respect and empathy when approaching such subjects is necessary, but humbly stops short of suggesting that Fire at Sea will change the world.

“We are able to see death in the film without being harsh, voyeuristic, or potentially pornographic. It’s a look at a cry for help and how we accept to approach death. People are leaving their homes and their identities on this dangerous journey for a little beacon of hope and freedom. I’m never one to say that films can change the world, but I think they can create awareness.”

Remixing the elements: interview with Antibirth director Danny Perez

It’s typically best to know as little about a film as possible before going to watch it. With that in mind, my conversation with director Danny Perez, whose film Antibirth screens at the 2016 Toronto After Dark Film Festival on Wednesday, October 19, 2016, contains a few spoilers for the film. This mind bending, genre mashing, psychedelic treat tells the story of Lou (Natasha Lyonne), a drunken stoner who finds herself seemingly pregnant after a blackout drunk evening with her friend Sadie (Chloë Sevigny). Lou can’t figure out how she could be pregnant, as she knows she hasn’t slept with anybody in weeks, but since she can’t remember the last party she was at, she figures it has to be from that night. As Lou and Sadie try to find out what happened to her that evening, Lou becomes incredibly sick. She’s starting to see and hear things, and it starts to become apparent that this is anything but a normal pregnancy.

That’s as much information as you should really know before seeing Antibirth. I can guarantee you that you’ve never seen something quite like this, even if all the pieces do feel a bit familiar. If you’ve been heading out to genre film festivals for any number of years, it’s safe to say that Antibirth may just be the definition of a perfect genre festival film. It checks all the boxes of what you would want from a festival film, and manages to become something you won’t soon forget. Read on if you don’t mind finding out a little more about the film, but I would recommend just going to watch it first and coming back to hear what Perez has to say about the film.

“The movie is supposed to be a meltdown theatre dream freakout.”

When I get in touch with Perez about a week before his film screens at Toronto After Dark, he’s actually walking through the desert around Joshua Tree National Park shooting a video and getting ready for an outdoor screening of Antibirth. It’s a fitting location for the twisted film, as well as part of the inspiration for Perez while writing the film. “My older brother is in the Marines. When
I came out here to visit him, he told me they had a lot of problems with the Marines at night on the weekends because you’re out here in the desert and there’s nothing to do. These are 18 to 22-year-old guys, so they would just get into weird drugs and whore houses and massage parlours on the weekends, and I felt that was a really interesting duality. The harshness of the military with the reckless abandon of partying in the desert.”

Antibirth is set in a military town, with Lou living in a rundown trailer inherited from her father, who served himself. It provides a background for the events that take place, but it’s something that you may not fully realize on a first viewing. There’s a lot going on in the film and multiple viewings will allow audiences to really grasp all the little details, something that Perez explains was the plan all along. “Everything is very intentional, it’s very calculated. It’s very intentional as far as all the different references and devices butting up against each other. There’s a lot going on in the sound design and the music and the TV stuff and I know the narrative isn’t super clear as far as a big explanation at the end but there’s actually many hints and touches throughout the movie. The information is there, it’s just kind of organized and displayed in a different way.”

Every detail seems important, including those moments on various television sets throughout the film that Perez spoke about. If you can catch all those tiny moments, the bigger details are basically explained in the smaller ones. “I like to have a little bit more of an ambiguous atmosphere.” Perez says about the way the film tells its story. “Really the whole movie is about consumerism and consumption and the shitty stuff that our culture has done to ourselves as far as our bloated state, but the visual parable or the analogy I’m using is of pregnancy.”

“I definitely knew the whole time, regardless of what the narrative exposition or climax was going to be, I knew that I wanted to have a really harsh left turn at the end of the movie.”

Trying to sum up Antibirth can be difficult, although Perez has had plenty of practice from pitching the film. “When I was trying to sell it and pitch it around Los Angeles, I kept telling people it’s The Big Lebowski meets The Fly, because everybody wants this comparison, they need a ‘this meets this.’ I’m definitely of the mindset that everything has been done before and at this point we’re just reconfiguring and remixing the elements to try and make something new. I’m not so proud or naive to tell you you’ve never seen anything like this before. I can point to every scene in the movie and be like yeah, this is a reference to this, this is a reference to The Fly, this is a reference to this experimental filmmaker that I like. It’s all stuff I could easily point you to. I’m just playing with stuff that I like and trying to make something new.”

While the narrative of the film can be a bit difficult to follow at times, Perez knew exactly where he wanted the film to wind up.”I definitely knew the whole time, regardless of what the narrative exposition or climax was going to be, I knew that I wanted to have a really harsh left turn at the end of the movie. I like movies like that that will kind of hit you over the head with something really intense at the very end and leave you shell shocked in a way. It’s hard to sell those endings to both actors and producers and stuff, but I knew I wanted the movie to end with a punch to the audience’s face and leave them wanting more.”

Perez succeeds spectacularly on that point, as Antibirth may have one of the most insane endings in film, but it doesn’t work for everybody. “I mean I obviously didn’t make this movie with too much concern for commercial reception. I’ve been surprised at the reaction. Some people really love it, love the ending, and some people really hate the movie and are just like ‘I don’t get it, I don’t understand it, I feel like it’s just weird for weird’s sake.’ I like leaving people confused and or pissed off. If you’re pissed off at the end of Antibirth, you’re probably going to remember this more than some other movie where you’re like ‘Eh, it was okay.’ I read some reviews and they’re like ‘It doesn’t make any sense’ or ‘It’s messy,’ and it’s supposed to be messy. The movie is supposed to be a meltdown theatre dream freakout. It’s not supposed to be neat and clean.”

Luck and fame: interview with Helene Udy, star of My Bloody Valentine

While Helene Udy’s career has spanned many genres through the years, horror fans will probably remember her best for her role as Sylvia in the 1981 slasher hit My Bloody Valentine. Her iconic death being impaled at the hands of Harry Warden is an image that is hard to forget. It’s certainly not a role that Udy, who is in Toronto for the Horror-Rama convention taking place on October 15 and 16, 2016, will ever forget. “It was my second movie,” Udy says over the phone as she was driving into Toronto, “and I was lucky enough that it was my second movie with that director, George Mihalka. Basically he started my career and I’m forever grateful for that.”

It’s not always something you hear when it comes to the horror genre; that an actor is grateful for their start in the genre, but Udy’s experience is one that may be rare to come across. “We were teenagers when we did that movie and it was really at the beginning of the Canadian film movement, so it was a really exciting time in Canadian film. We became very close friends with most of the crew, as well as the actors, and that friendship has lasted throughout the years.”

“We didn’t think of [My Bloody Valentine] as a silly horror movie. We thought of it as a chance to do the best acting that we could do.”

The fact that everybody was so close on and off set adds to the film. Stories like this may be rare, but it’s usually not hard to tell when it’s something that happened on set. It translates into the film, building much more convincing relationships for viewers to watch. “If you’re in a scene with somebody that you love as a friend, and you’re acting like you love them as a friend, it’s just going to be a little more rich. There’s no doubt that our friendship is there in the celluloid. It’s stuck in there for all time, the great love that we had for each other and the great excitement that we had.” Udy explains about her experience on the set of My Bloody Valentine, and how that experience affected the final product. “We didn’t think of it as a silly horror movie. We thought of it as a chance to do the best acting that we could do. We threw ourselves into this story.”

My Bloody Valentine may be the first film that comes to mind when speaking about Udy, at least for horror fans, but she’s also worked with Canadian icon David Cronenberg with a small role in The Dead Zone. Shot just a few years apart, this experience was very different from what Udy had been through on My Bloody Valentine. “After My Bloody Valentine, maybe a year after, I moved to New York and I was working on a soap opera when I was called back to do, really a small role, but a good role, a pivotal role, on this David Cronenberg film, which was an honour. I was honoured that I had just been handed this role, it was wonderful, and that experience was also magical. It was a completely different experience. The Dead Zone was more akin to the experiences of a professional actor, so as I went on in life and continued acting and guest starring on shows and so on, that would be the professional experience that I would have.”

“I really have had a fun career because it’s been guided my desires to do this or that. My focus has never been on fame, it’s been on work.”

Udy’s early career may have begun within the horror genre, but she was quick to branch out into various film and TV roles, including a role in the very popular television program Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. She never stopped there though, and she’s also a talented acrobat, performs as a clown, and is even a member of a punk band. There seems to be very little that Udy hasn’t done, but Udy attributes it to two things; doing what you love, and a little bit of luck. “It took me years of looking backwards to realize how lucky I have been my whole life. I never set out to be famous. I really enjoy acting and I was willing to act on a street corner in a tent, or out at a small dinner theatre in Buffalo, or on a movie. I gave up the opportunity to act in a movie to do dinner theatre because at that time it sounded more exciting to me.” Udy adds with a laugh, “I had no understanding of building a career at all, but I really have had a fun career because it’s been guided my desires to do this or that, and maybe it’s not a smart way to run a career, but I’m really happy with my career. My focus has never been on fame, it’s been on work.”

Escaping an image: interview with Danielle Ouimet, star of Daughters of Darkness

What someone remembers about the roles that Danielle Ouimet, appearing at the Horror-Rama convention in Toronto October 15, and 16, 2016, may not be exactly what she’s hoping they would be. Her movie career began in Quebec with the films Valérie and Initiation, two movies that may be remembered more for their nudity than anything else, before she gained a role in the cult classic Daughters of Darkness. Though always grateful for the work she’s been a part of, as Ouimet explains over the phone from her hotel room in Toronto, it was a challenge to break out of the image that those films left her with. “They thought I was provocative in a film and that I was in real life.” Ouimet says of her early career. “I had to fight this image that I had, and I won. It took a really long time before they accepted that.”

This is an idea that isn’t new, but it’s one that women are still trying to overcome, despite the fact that Ouimet’s career began in 1969. While Valérie and Initiation may be the start of the image she had to work so hard to break out of, they were also the reason that Ouimet was able to secure a role in Daughters of Darkness. “Because of those two films I was able to go to Cannes and I was picked up over there to do [Daughters of Darkness].”

Not only did those two films boost Ouimet’s career, but the film industry in Quebec as well. “They became the first films in the industry that made money. So the French industry of films was able to start because of those two films, Valérie and Initiation.” It helped that it was also the late ’60s, as Ouimet explains. “It was easy to do something new. It was an era that was flourishing. I said yes because I was 21 and for me it was fun and the industry was just starting and I thought it’s going to be an experience, and it’s going to be fun, and if it goes well it’s okay and if it does not, well anyway the industry doesn’t exist so I don’t care.” Ouimet jokingly says.

“If I was in a drama, I was always a mistress. I was never the wife. I was always the one who was bringing some kind of disturbance into situations.”

Her manner is light, but her experiences working on Daughters of Darkness weren’t always as easy. Cinepix, who had distributed her two previous films, decided to invest in Daughters of Darkness on one condition. “[Cinepix] decided to participate financially in [Daughters of Darkness], but they had to have me in the film. With this deal, the director [Harry Kümel] was not very happy about that. He had no way of saying no, I cannot accept this actress, mind you, he didn’t know me, which is probably why he wasn’t happy. It didn’t go very well but I had the support of every actor around.”

This was just the start of problems on set, something that Ouimet is very open talking about. “Maybe it was uncomfortable for some people, but not for the crew, and the film went well because basically we were tense all the time. The director slapped me at one time and everyone went berserk. Everyone decided that they would protect me, so they had the producer come back from Paris and say ‘hey, you cannot do this to Danielle, she’s doing a fine job, everyone likes her, so take care’ and it went well after. I’ve had the chance to talk to [Harry Kümel] and everything is okay.”

Kümel’s work continued to be a problem on the set, although it’s hard to tell in the finished product. “He wanted to make this film the best he could, and he did, although he was anxious actually. Every scene was a problem; what should I do, should I go left, should I go right and he was asking us. When you don’t know where to go, the actors are taking the place of the director and we were playing the way we wanted to do it, and of course he had to say yes or no, and basically he realized that we were taking over the film and for the best, so sometimes he agreed and sometimes he didn’t. It was done with everyone’s will to make the best film. Usually some people, some actors, let the director run the game and say ‘well I’m not responsible for that part, if it goes wrong then it’s not my fault, I did my best.’ We did participate very strongly in every scene to make it the best.”

“I had to fight this image that I had, and I won. It took a really long time before they accepted that.”

These experiences, although not always positive, were a drastic change from what Ouimet had been through in Quebec, and their film industry quickly changed from films like Valérie and Initiation, into something entirely new. “They stopped that kind of filming and they started to be stories that were closer to Quebec. Real stories, not provocative stories. Quebec is a special place where identity is very important. It was reflecting on films, and they didn’t do that well to tell you the truth. Of course when it was time to export, no one could care less about the story of Quebec. There was a lot of people that were very good in making films. They were very slow and you know, you have to think and you have to participate in a very heavy way, so I guess that we had to learn from outside countries where filming was done more for the general public. It’s still a problem because the film industry in Quebec, we say it goes around. It’s still looking for itself.”

Even though the industry was moving in a new direction, Ouimet was still faced with an image problem. “If I was in a drama, or whatever, I was always a mistress. I was never the wife. I was always the one who was bringing some kind of disturbance into situations. With time they came to me and asked me for more interesting things like hosting a show, which I’m telling you was much more interesting than getting nude in a film. For me it was like a springboard, nothing more than a springboard. I never thought that I would stay in that kind of provocative roles.”

Ouimet did leave that image behind though, even if it’s that image that many horror fans will remember so well. Her career has spanned over 55 years, including 20 years in radio, and Ouimet continues to paint and write novels as well, so there’s always something new for her fans to enjoy. Unfortunately, you’ll have to read French to get her books. After speaking to Ouimet and hearing so many amazing stories though, it seems worth it to learn the language just to enjoy even more stories from the talented actress.

Creative control: interview with William Lustig, director of Maniac and Maniac Cop

Horror fans will rarely forget the first time they ever sat down to watch William Lustig’s (who will be appearing at the Horror-Rama convention on October 15 and October 16, 2016 in Toronto) gritty and grimy 1980 feature Maniac. Starring Joe Spinell as Frank Zito, the psychotic murderer who scalps his victims, Maniac still manages to be a gory and disturbing watch over 30 years later, even if the gore wasn’t something Lustig had completely intended. “I never really thought of pushing the gore. It wasn’t something that was on my mind [for Maniac]. When I was making it, it just kinda felt right. I just felt that it fit the kind of movie I was making, which was to make like a really strong, undiluted, uncompromising horror experience. That’s what I was attempting to do.” Lustig explains over the phone from Los Angeles before he was scheduled to fly into Toronto.

That horror experience he was creating must have had an influence on many people, because Maniac happens to be one of Lustig’s films that has been given the remake treatment, something horror fans are typically quite vocally opposed to. For Lustig, it’s not really all that bad. “There’s no doubt about it. It really is an honour. I have to say it’s mixed with a tinge of, you know, ‘oh, it’s my movie’ and you feel a little bit of ‘it’s my baby,’ but you just sort of give it up and that’s it. It’s never gonna be what you want it to be, so you kind of accept that.”

“I looked at Maniac Cop 2 as a 90 minute third act and that’s how I kinda approached it.”

Remakes aren’t something new to Lustig. Maniac was remade in 2012 with the help of Alexandre Aja and Elijah Wood in the role made famous by Spinell,  and there’s been talk of a Maniac Cop remake for a while now, and with the weight of Nicolas Winding Refn as producer and John Hyams in the directors chair, we should be seeing the cult classic zombie cop returning to the screen very soon. Fans will talk about how people shouldn’t forget the original films, but Lustig has a different view of how remakes can work to help the original films. “It does revitalize the original films having these remakes made.” explains Lustig. “The truth is, Maniac, Maniac Cop, to a lesser degree but still, Vigilante, they’ve been around. They’ve never really gone out of circulation. They’ve always been out there being reissued and relicensed. They constantly get TV play, around the world by the way. Those films have achieved kind of a classic stature. Again, it does draw further attention to [the original films], but they always seem to be in circulation.”

It certainly helps that Lustig’s films have been reissued over the years, but even that can have its setbacks, as Lustig talked about the process of bringing films back to life on blu-ray. “There’s a blu-ray that came out, and it’s Maniac Cop but it doesn’t look anything like the Maniac Cop that I finished. They didn’t know how to colour correct the movie, so it’s this weird thing you look and you go ‘oh my god, this is awful, people are gonna see this.’ That’s the penalty of it constantly being released. You’re not the steward of your own film. Other people are and you’re suddenly confronted with something that doesn’t look anything like the movie, and your name is on it as director, but it doesn’t look anything like what it is you intended.”

“It does revitalize the original films having these remakes made.” – William Lustig on the advantages of remakes in the horror genre.

That loss of control was one of the defining factors in the creation of Blue Underground, Lustig’s company that releases some of the lesser known cult and exploitation titles. “It played a role because when I put out movies in Blue Underground, I always, whenever possible of course, I have instances where directors and cameramen are dead, but whenever there’s a director or cameraman, I always reach out to involve them in the making of the mastering of the film.” Lustig continued talking about the importance of including the original creators, even if the cost can be higher. “I do it and I spend the extra money. I had a director on a project we’re doing right now, Death Line, the director is Gary Sherman, we flew him from Chicago to LA to do the final colour correction on his movie. I do that because, to me, it would be foolish for me to assume that I have the eye of that director. He knows what his intentions were. I can only assume. Why not get the guy who knows.”

Speaking about the creative control of films and how they can change when passed to someone different leads back to the creation of the Maniac Cop sequels. Here, Lustig was able to come back to his creation and do some of the things he may not have been able to do in the first film. “When I did [Maniac Cop 2], it gave me not only the resources but the perspective to be able to, I felt, make a better picture than the first. What was great about part 2 was we had already told the story and now it was getting into the action and that’s what I kinda felt when I did Maniac Cop 2. We were now putting the pedal to the metal. I looked at Maniac Cop 2 as a 90 minute third act and that’s how I kinda approached it. We killed off the protagonist from the first picture, brought in new people, we kept upping it and making the action bigger and badder and more over the top as the movie went on.”

Only time will tell if the Maniac Cop remake can entertain fans the same way that the original did, but you can make that time pass a little easier by heading out to Horror-Rama and meeting William Lustig in person this weekend in Toronto.

Depression and sympathy: an interview with Christine star Rebecca Hall and writer Craig Shilowich

Rebecca Hall and Craig Shilowich have been living with the memory of news reporter Christine Chubbuck for quite some time now, but they still can’t and won’t venture a guess as to what people will take away from the film they made about her. When the star and writer of Christine (opening October 14, 2016 at TIFF Bell Lightbox) sat down over coffee to talk about the film the morning before it screened at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, both were proud of the difficult, challenging film they made and were interested to see what people ultimately take away from it.

Directed by Antonio Campos, Christine depicts Chubbuck’s real life struggles with a deep depression while working as a reporter for a television station in Sarasota, Florida circa 1974. In the best performance of her career, and the best performance from any leading actor in any film so far this year, Hall portrays Chubbuck in the midst of a major mental breakdown. She’s deeply unhappy with her job, and desperate to get her boss (played by playwright and actor Tracy Letts) to notice her so she can be in the running for an anchor position in Baltimore. When Shilowich’s screenplay first catches up to Christine, she’s living with her concerned mother (J. Smith-Cameron) and stuck delivering pointless public interest stories that are in danger of being phased out thanks to a new “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality at the network. She’s just as awkward in her personal life as she is in her professional one, harbouring a crush on her newscast’s lead anchor (Michael C. Hall) and constantly clashing with a parental figure she sees as aloof instead of supportive.

“Heroes of mine like Robert De Niro have spent their entire careers doing these kinds of roles, but women don’t get this chance so often.”

It’s a difficult film for some audiences to handle, which is why Hall and Shilowich are interested to see where the film ultimately leads viewers. Outside of a bracing and painfully realistic portrait of depression, it’s a film that comes from the viewpoint of a strong female character that isn’t easy for viewers to like. It’s hard to get financing for any film with a female lead that isn’t a horror film or romantic comedy, and by Hall’s own humble admission, she’s not nearly a big enough star to convince people otherwise via her involvement in a project. It’s another can of worms entirely to try to get financing for a sometimes bleakly comedic drama about depression where the main character isn’t only female, but also distancing and alienating to the people around her. For the film to work, everyone involved has to ride the fine line between discomfort and sympathy. It was this artistic struggle and the questioning of “female likeability” in telling Christine Chubbuck’s story that Hall seems most proud of navigating.

“It’s really hard because this is a tiny, independent movie, and it took forever to get the funding because Christine’s story is a hard one to tell,” Hall says. “Even when I was attached to do it, it still took over a year from the day I agreed to do it for the production to find any money to make the film. I do think there’s this question of female likeability that we as female performers have to confront all the time. I think Christine is a profoundly unlikeable character, but a very lovable one, and that’s the kind of role I’ve always wanted to play. Heroes of mine like Robert De Niro have spent their entire careers doing these kinds of roles, but women don’t get this chance so often. People look at a story like this on the surface and first think, ‘Oh, great! There’s a woman at the centre of this! That’s amazing!’ And then when they realize that Christine isn’t sexually viable, she doesn’t get saved by a man, and she’s weird and unusual, people by and large I’ve noticed don’t know how to respond to that. It’s hard! People who do see this do like it, and now we have to tell people about it, which I guess is the struggle of any independent film, really. We did this thing that we set out to do, and it’s not this film that has some sort of huge machinery behind it that ensure it will be seen by a ton of people, so we still don’t know what to expect from this and what people will say about it. It’s a tough one, and we’re proud of that.”

“It was really difficult to get people to understand the film, and it continues to be difficult because it defies resolution about what happened,” Shilowich adds. “It suggests a lot of what happened while still being a clear portraiture of a person. It refuses to be pinned down, and people continue to try and do that. It’s original, but also very real, and for some reason that’s a combination that scares some people away.”

“Rebecca plays Christine in such a way that the thing she’s least interested in is realizing the warning signs of a breakdown. She wants to keep it together at all times, and I definitely related to that.”

Shilowich spent a considerable amount of time in Florida talking with friends and former colleagues of Christine Chubbuck to get a sense of who this woman was and how her struggles with mental illness, depression, and anxiety led her to pull off one of the most shocking moments in television history. But while Shilowich knew that the film had to have a certain degree of journalistic integrity and tact when tackling such a subject, his initial desire to share Christine’s story with the world was a lot more personal in nature.

“What attracted me to this story was that from when I was in college from 19 until I was about 25, I went through an extensive depressive period,” Shilowich candidly states about the road that led him to Christine’s story. “I was on and off medication. I had to take leaves from school. I had to live with my parents for a few years. It was a daily struggle to just get out of bed all the time. How I sort of wandered into that period of my life, even while living it, that was a complete mystery to me. I questioned it all the time. Did it have something to do with my relationship to my parents? Was it packing up and going to New York before I was really ready to? Was it substance abuse related? It was this weird, almost pointless feeling thing where I knew something was happening to me, but I couldn’t make it go away, even though I devoted every day to trying to make it go away by trying to keep everything together. I thought at times that I had even beaten it, like Christine does at points in the movie where she has something to latch onto. I got a girlfriend. I got work. I got into producing. I got money. Things became honestly satisfying, but I couldn’t tell you which of those things made the management of my depression finally all click for me. When I came across Christine’s story, I realized something similar and kind of chilling. If you took my work away from me, what was my life going to be like? What if I was a woman in the 1970s having to put up with everything we see in the movie that women had to endure back then? I don’t know if I would have made it out of that. In a way, for me, working on this was a kind of personal exorcism of all that, and I really felt for Christine and I knew that I wanted to do justice for her. What’s so great about [Rebecca] in the movie is something I thought about while writing because I personally knew about it all too well. Rebecca plays Christine in such a way that the thing she’s least interested in is realizing the warning signs of a breakdown. She wants to keep it together at all times, and I definitely related to that.”

For Hall, embodying Christine wasn’t as personal, but just as difficult. Compared to what Shilowch was able to research, Hall’s resources weren’t as vast. Although Chubbuck’s name has become synonymous to some with a major tragedy (the footage of which has been kept largely under lock and key since 1974), her time spent as a Sarasota reporter isn’t very well documented and not a lot of footage remains of her. Hearing Hall talk about her preparation for such an immersive, complex, and emotionally demanding role is even more astounding after having seen the film. Hall disappears into her role, portraying Christine with a simmering tension; a bundle of awkward tics, neuroses, and flare ups that serve as warning signs that something isn’t right.

“We’re trying to make something human out of someone who some people out there might consign to being a monster who did this scary thing, and it isn’t that.”

“I didn’t use anything else outside of twenty minutes of footage that I had of her conducting this interview for a broadcast,” the actor says about what little she had at her disposal to work with while preparing to play Christine. “I watched that until I became close to it. The prep period was about three months for this film that took only 29 days to shoot, and when you watch something like that to prepare for a role like this, you immediately make a first impression. When you meet someone for the first time you sort of formulate something in your head and intuit a lot about them, but there’s also a lot of noise around those impressions that can inform something differently, and perhaps sometimes inaccurately. I just blanked out all other noise and focused on what I had and just sort of let it work with me, if that makes sense. And I’ve always thought that truly great acting is invisible. It doesn’t call attention to itself, and you can’t really see it happening. If you want to stand a chance of that happening, you have to internalize and swallow everything. I never consciously made any real decisions while in the character because I had swallowed who she was over and over again for three months, as it were. What happened in the moment and on set just sort of happened. I wasn’t conscious of a lot of what was happening while I was portraying her, so I never over-thought anything because I felt like at that point I knew who this character was.”

What’s most intriguing about Christine as a film, outside of Hall’s grounding, forceful performance, is that it can be interpreted differently depending on what the viewer knows in advance about Chubbuck’s tragic end. Even as a writer talking about a film I’ve seen in hindsight, I’m not exactly sure how to approach the subject. All anyone needs to know about where the film heads could be discovered by a simple Google search. Things get more complex if viewers know that a second film about Chubbuck – the metatextual, wildly different, not-yet-released-in-Toronto Kate Plays Christine from documentarian Robert Greene – has already been produced this year. If the viewer knows how Christine Chubbuck’s story ends, the film offers a great deal of insight. If the viewer doesn’t know (and by Hall and Shilowhich’s experiences thus far, not many people remember or know in the first place), the film depicts a slow descent into madness.

“I wasn’t conscious of a lot of what was happening while I was portraying her, so I never over-thought anything because I felt like at that point I knew who this character was.”

When asked about the film’s delicate tone with regard to foreshadowing Christine’s end, Hall and Shilohwich admit that there was a lot of discussion about how it should be handled, and both are proud of where those discussions and considerations took the film.

“We were very aware that this story could be read in a number of different ways, and I think most of us didn’t know the story as intimately until we were all working on it,” Shilowich says “It’s not this thing that has been out there or talked about very much in the years since it happened, but it’s becoming that way the closer and closer the film comes to being out there. All along, we were trying to have it work for the camps that both knew about her and didn’t know about her. We’re hoping that even if you know what happens, you get so engrossed in her day to day life that you forget and you end up hoping against logic and history that she’s not going to do what she does.”

“I was always of the mind that people know what happened going into the film,” Hall adds, suggesting that it might be more beneficial knowing how the story ends. “To hold something like that back feels like you’re manipulating something for dramatic effect, and to me that just feels wrong. It should be about her and that time period and chunk of her life, and not the thing that happens. We’re trying to make something human out of someone who some people out there might consign to being a monster who did this scary thing, and it isn’t that. I remember those discussions about whether people know or they don’t know, and I think there are a lot of people out there who don’t know, and by the time all the press for the film comes out, undoubtedly more people will know and I think that’s good. I think if we can have a situation where people know what’s going to happen and if viewers are rooting for her not to do it when they see the film, then I think we’ve done our job correctly because then they will have cared about her.”

From page to screen: interview with X-Men: Apocalypse star Lana Condor

Within moments of meeting Lana Condor, who plays Jubilee in X-Men: Apocalypse, it’s easy to see why she was chosen for the role. Her character in the film gives off an attitude of carefree fun, but that’s actually rather subdued to the actress in real life. Condor is visibly excited to talk about her role in the film with me, and her enthusiasm is infectious. As a huge comic book fan myself, our conversation begins when Condor notices an Iron Man button on the bag I’m carrying. “I love Iron Man!” Condor exclaims.

It’s obvious she has a love for characters in the Marvel universe, but her knowledge of X-Men is something that’s only begun recently. “I had only seen Days of Future Past before I had been cast in Apocalypse.” Condor explains. “I love the Avengers, I love Iron Man, but as soon as I was cast I watched them all, all the X-Men movies and quickly changed from Avengers to X-Men, so now I’m a huge, huge fan, but I can’t honestly say I followed it a lot before I was cast.”

Without knowing much about the characters before being cast, it seemed like it could be an opportunity for Condor to bring something unique to the role, but she explains how important it was to be true to the character people know. “I think I try really hard to stay close to the cartoon and the comics, like her personality, just because her fanbase is incredibly loyal and dedicated to her character and love everything about her and if I had changed that, than obviously it would not have worked. I tried to put a little bit of my own spin on it for the time that I had, but I’m gonna try to stay really close to the comics and the cartoon because that’s where the gold is at.”

It works quite well and the moment you see her onscreen, you know exactly which character she’s playing. Some of that is owing to the amazing and instantly recognizable costume Condor wears in the film. The costume also helped bring Condor into the role. “It pulls everything together. You feel like her, you don’t feel like yourself anymore.” Condor adds with a laugh. “That jacket is my life. I want it. They never gave it to me to take home, but I love it so much.”

Lana Condor does a fantastic job as Jubilee in X-Men: Apocalypse, but we'll have to hope we see more of her character in later films.
Lana Condor does a fantastic job as Jubilee in X-Men: Apocalypse, but we’ll have to hope we see more of her character in later films.

While Condor fits the character of Jubilee perfectly, we unfortunately don’t get to see very much of her. In fact, the only hint at her powers comes in a deleted scene, which is included in the Blu-ray release of the film on Tuesday, October 4, 2016. The scene takes place in a mall, and even though it’s a great moment where Jubilee, Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) get to act like the teenagers they are, you can see how it doesn’t fit with the tone of the film. It’s here where we get a little taste of Jubilee’s powers, which is something that Condor hopes continues. “If they have more and if I’m lucky enough to be in it, I would love to see her fight and I would love to see her be epic and have bigger moments. As a fan myself, that’s what I would want to see from her. I’m hoping that that will happen in the future.”

The mall scene offered a chance not only for the characters to let loose, but the actors as well. “They changed the whole mall into completely ’80s things. They bought old antique ’80s toys. It was so true. All of the toys were from the ’80s, the arcades were all real, they all worked, they’re all from the ’80s. That was really cool because I felt like I had time travelled. I liked playing those games.” Condor jokingly adds, “It was much simpler then.”

Of course I had to find out if all the arcade machines worked, because growing up in the ’80s meant I spent plenty of time in arcades myself. “They all worked. When we were setting up different shots or like in between takes, the four of us would run over to the arcade and just play and hang out.”

Hopefully X-Men: Apocalypse won’t be the last time we see Jubilee. The character would certainly add a lighter tone to a series that has become increasingly dark, and Condor’s work with the character is so perfect. The little tease of her powers in the deleted mall scene would be fantastic to see expanded on and brought into some of the battles the X-Men must face. Only time will tell if fans will be able to see more of Jubilee in future films. For now, we’ll just have to be content with Condor’s performance in X-Men: Apocalypse.

Mutant makeup: interview with Rita Ciccozzi, makeup department head on X-Men: Apocalypse

There are times in life where some of your best work will ultimately go unnoticed. For Rita Ciccozzi, that’s essentially what her job is. As the makeup department head for X-Men: Apocalypse, available now on digital and Tuesday, October 4, 2016 on Blu-ray, it’s important that all of Ciccozzi’s hard work shouldn’t really be apparent. I sat down with Ciccozzi at Parkwood Estates, where filming on the original X-Men movie had taken place, to chat about her work on a number of films in the series, as well as how Wolverine gets those perfect mutton chops.

Ciccozzi isn’t a stranger to the X-Men series. She previously worked on X2 as well as X-Men: Days of Future Past, so returning to the mutant world wasn’t a massive challenge. As the head of the makeup department though, things sound like they can get quite busy. “We had 3 makeup departments on main unit.” explains Ciccozzi of the Apocalypse shoot, “Then we had another makeup department on second unit.”

While there were a number of cast members to work with, Ciccozzi jokingly points out that “Whoever’s not blue, we worked on them.” The work of 3 different makeup and effects teams came together to give us the outstanding visuals on display in X-Men: Apocalypse, but it’s the things you don’t really notice that Ciccozzi is most proud of. “Sometimes the best work goes unseen because nobody knows.” Ciccozzi says of her business. “An actor will go to set and the director doesn’t always know what’s going on on their face.”

Coordinating it all is a massive task, but Ciccozzi credits first assistant director Josh McLaglen with maintaining a schedule that kept things running smoothly. “Some shows, because of turnaround issues, you would be pushing, so by Monday you may start at 5 am and by the time you get to Friday you’re starting at 11 am. There was so many cast members and they all had other things going on too, so [Josh McLaglen] had to juggle schedules and make sure Jennifer was there at that time, you know. He just had so much on his plate, and it was so well run, it was great. We still started at 5 in the morning almost every day. Sometimes we would start at 3:30 in the morning.” Ciccozzi adds with a laugh.

Wolverine's chops look great, but most of the time it's up to makeup artist Rita Ciccozzi to make sure he actually has them at all.
Wolverine’s chops look great, but most of the time it’s up to makeup artist Rita Ciccozzi to make sure he actually has them at all.

That’s probably not a time of day many of us would want to be waking up at, but when it means putting the chops on Wolverine or making sure that Jubilee (Lana Condor, who also spoke with TFS at Parkwood Estates) looks like she stepped out of the comics, who could really complain. Not every makeup job is adding things though. “Sometimes you have to cover up a tattoo only to put a tattoo on top of it! There’s all sorts of work like that, or you may cover an eyebrow and put a new eyebrow on, so you may not know that eyebrow is not real.”

Unfortunately, my time with Ciccozzi is rather brief, but it’s impossible to leave before asking about the one constant through the entire X-Men series; Wolverine’s amazing mutton chops. “Those were all hand laid on.” says Ciccozzi. Although eventually Hugh Jackman would wind up growing them, so the need to add them in makeup wasn’t needed, things worked a little differently for X-Men: Apocalypse. “In Days of Future Past, he came with stubble and eventually they grew in. Two months down the road they’re his, but for the first two months I kept laying them until his grew in. On Apocalypse, we actually shot Hugh’s stuff in January and February this year. It wasn’t shot when we did the movie, so Hugh came from another job directly, so he had stubble, so I had to hand lay those on.”

It’s reassuring to know that even Wolverine needed the help of Rita Ciccozzi and her talented team of makeup artists, and you’ll be able to see all of her work when X-Men: Apocalypse hits Blu-ray on Tuesday, October 4, 2016.

An inside job: an interview with Operation Avalanche filmmaker Matt Johnson

Outspoken, jovial Toronto based filmmaker and perpetually rising star Matt Johnson is in a great mood. It’s a sunny May afternoon, the day of the local premiere of his latest effort, Operation Avalanche, at Hot Docs. It’s not a documentary, but that hardly matters to the festival or to Johnson. It’s close enough for the festival to screen it as a part of a new program called DocX, showcasing the blurred lines between documentary, fiction, and art. He lounges on an office couch seated across a conference table at the Entertainment One offices in downtown Toronto; positively beaming after another successful day of shooting on a project that once again blends reality and fiction.

A filmmaker adept in making viewers question where reality begins and the filmmaking ends (and vice versa), Johnson first made waves with the locally beloved underground, unpunctuated cult webseries Nirvanna The Band The Show (produced with co-creator Jay McCarrol from 2007 to 2009), which returned this year at TIFF – with an extra “n” in the title to avoid future lawsuits – prior to debuting on Vice’s new television network later this year with all new episodes.

The tone and tenor of Johnson’s in-joke-y series about a fictional band with no songs and little talent who desperately try to book a show at The Rivoli extends to his feature film debut, The Dirties. A darkly comic tale of a high school filmmaker (played by Johnson) enlisting his best friend Owen (Owen Williams) into helping with the production of a revenge fantasy picture against those who bullied them, The Dirties was critically lauded in Toronto (garnering Johnson the Toronto Film Critics Association’s Jay Scott Award for emerging talent) and around the world, at one point capturing the eye of filmmaker Kevin Smith, who helped bring the film to a greater audience.

Operation Avalanche (which opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday, September 30, 2016) is Johnson’s most ambitious blurring of the real and fake to date, one that has people talking for several reasons. The first is the film’s biggest talking point from a production standpoint. For his tale of a young, overly eager CIA operative and propaganda producer (once again played by the writer/director himself) and his team of fellow operatives teaming up to fake the famed Apollo 11 moon landing on behalf of the U.S. government, Johnson brought his cast and crew to Houston where they pretended to be documentary filmmakers in an effort to shoot at actual NASA facilities. Some members of NASA unwittingly add to the somewhat creepy, but decidedly irreverent vibe of the film by showing up on camera, unaware that Johnson’s playing a character in a fictional film.

“I think a lot about the Hollywood version of this movie and what that looks like. People would be cutting corners, thinking that no one’s going to know, or saying ‘who cares what the cameras look like.’”

It sounds like an insane plan the likes of Sacha Baron Cohen would attempt, but for Johnson (once again teaming up with co-writer and co-star Williams) and his crew, it was that seemingly impossible bit of trickery that united the filmmaking cadre. It was a matter of faking one film to tell the story of a highly disreputable conspiracy theory in a place where the deception was reported to have taken place.

“Our whole team likes to do things where the pitch would sound totally impossible if you were to try and describe it to someone,” Johnson says, fiddling with a marble on the conference table. “A period piece that’s shot like a documentary is very challenging, and simply because of this it seems like you should never do it. It was a good challenge for us to see if we could even make a film like this today. Even just in terms of the story, you couldn’t fake a NASA program today. You just couldn’t. Back then, NASA could control who saw something like this and who was involved. Nowadays, that’s just not possible. So you’re kind of left with this impossible movie about this impossible thing that you have to make seem authentic.”

Despite filming at the decidedly modernized NASA facilities (where some of the original Apollo era technology is still in place for tourists to see) and telling everyone that he was filming a documentary for a university project, the York University Masters student committed to the authenticity of shooting a period piece by using the technology that would have been available to Matt and his fellow CIA operatives back in 1967. Thankfully, his school shockingly had everything he needed to make the grainy 16mm handheld shooting style of Operation Avalanche a reality.

“We were always conscious about the technology that would have to be used to make something like this because we can’t just use something modern or it betrays the whole challenge of what we’re trying to do,” he says about the film’s low-fi means of production. “But going to York University in Toronto was one of the best things that could have happened for this movie because they haven’t updated their gear in so long. (laughs) They do have a lot of great, new equipment, but they never got rid of most of this stuff that they’ve had around since the fifties and sixties. They still have it! So we had all of these cameras, lights, and gear that was all period appropriate, and it was RIGHT THERE. I was a Masters student at the time, and I still am, so I could just take that stuff and we shot with all of it! The Steenbeck in the film that I edit with, that’s AT York University. That is THEIR Steenbeck and it was just sitting around there pretty much waiting for someone like us to come along and use it. Forcing ourselves to use tools like this to fake the moon landing made this so much more fun than if we used modern technology.”

Johnson admits that much like the moon landing Matt and Owen try to fake in his latest film, there was probably an easier way to produce Operation Avalanche using modern trickery and a lot more money, but the filmmaker had no intention of making a polished, high budget tale.

“I think a lot about the Hollywood version of this movie and what that looks like. People would be cutting corners, thinking that no one’s going to know, or saying ‘who cares what the cameras look like.’ But when you do a film about a famous conspiracy theory that’s so directly tied to the art of filmmaking, those are precisely the questions keen viewers are going to ask, so why make it if the answer is going to be ‘who cares?’ There’s a version of this movie that is so hack-y, inauthentic, and costs way more money because they’re going to rebuild NASA and everyone is a big name actor. I just thank God that we could make this film because I really wanted this to be sort of the antidote to that kind of mentality and that way of thinking. We still do pretty absurd things in this film that we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. There’s a car chase. I break through a wall. If you saw these things in a polished, Hollywood production, you would think it was so stupid. But because we spend so much time in small, real spaces with real people that when things go off the chain, you don’t immediately think this is all suddenly fake. I love that feeling.”

“What all great conspiracy theories do is that they take something truthful and attempt to tell the best narrative version of how that thing did or didn’t happen.”

When Johnson says that Operation Avalanche goes “off the chain,” he’s referring to the film’s shift in tone from that of a good natured, technically adroit historical mockumentary in the film’s first half to its becoming a tense, paranoiac thriller in the film’s latter half that’s more indebted to something like The Conversation than a Christopher Guest picture. It’s not the first time Johnson has done this with audiences, mounting a similar structure in The Dirties, and it’s a choice that belies one of Johnson’s favourite storytelling devices.

“This character of Matt doesn’t realize that what he’s doing is really stupid and probably won’t amount to anything, and that’s what I think Operation Avalanche and The Dirties have in common. Matt is so convinced about whatever he’s trying to do and whatever talent he has that we can follow it and find it cute and funny up to a point. Then, when it does amount to something, the consequences for what he’s doing or about to do are so crazy that the gear change is fun. In both cases it’s about being careful what you wish for. I love the Faustian bargains that both of these movies have. You get exactly what you want, and then you regret it instantly.”

Matt, the character, is someone that Matt, the filmmaker, had been thinking about for a while. To hear Johnson explain it, there’s not that huge of a thematic leap between what this unassuming renegade CIA agent does and the work of a trained killer like James Bond or Jason Bourne.

“Matt’s idea at the start of Operation Avalanche is totally selfish, so I don’t think he ever fully knows about how great of an idea it was until these consequences start coming down on him. What I’m kind of pointing at with this movie is that these are the kinds of guys that the CIA wants. I think in real life, big organizations who are willing to do crazy, immoral things that are totally not by the book, but that the organization can somehow control. They want the guy crazy enough to try to sneak an exploding cigar into Cuba to kill Castro back in the 1960s because if it works, awesome, if not, we have no idea who that was. The CIA is built on these types of guys: reckless, willing to do whatever they want, self-directed, and lacking in any moral compass.”

Johnson also spent a lot of time researching both the real science and accomplishments of NASA during the 1960s as much as he did looking into the conspiracy theory that suggests Stanley Kubrick helped to pull off the greatest cinematic hoax of all time. While his interest started with the conspiracy theory angle, the research process gave the filmmaker a huge appreciation for NASA’s accomplishments, something he hopes current and future generations pay more attention to.

“We kind of take this stuff for granted, and following the Challenger explosion, the generation who grew up around that probably had their interest in this stuff ended in an instant,” he says about how he really didn’t grow up during a time when space exploration was cool or viable. “I just came to it through writing, and honestly what got me into this in the first place was reading about these conspiracy theories about how the moon landing was faked. What all great conspiracy theories do is that they take something truthful and attempt to tell the best narrative version of how that thing did or didn’t happen. You could take something like the story of how the Apollo 11 came to be, and that’s your first act, and then you just systematically start to change everything from there. Conspiracy theories are such great storytelling tools because people bring their own baggage to them, and that’s what makes them fun to tell and fun to listen to. That was so much more interesting and intricate and sometimes silly to read about on every level, but without that I never would have learned that much about how cool NASA actually is. I really hope our generation has a new big mission, whether that’s getting to Mars or headed back to the moon or looking into colonizing a planet.”

“This character of Matt doesn’t realize that what he’s doing is really stupid and probably won’t amount to anything, and that’s what I think Operation Avalanche and The Dirties have in common.”

When Johnson, a bit of a jokester by nature, is asked if he keeps up his conspiracy theory act off screen to people that might be “true believers,” he says he approaches it on a case by case basis, just as happy to talk about the truth of the Apollo 11 landing as he is the fictional version of events as depicted in the film.

“I learned enough about the Apollo program that I could talk pretty reasonably with anyone about it if they ask me, but definitely not with someone that’s one of the heads of NASA,” he admits about the extent of his knowledge. “I couldn’t do that. I only know what I know through the conspiracies and from having spent time at NASA and through what I read while writing. But you’d be surprised how people from that generation are still really into NASA and what they were doing, and I think at first the ones who think I really am a conspiracy theorist like the character I play in my movie is, I think they want to try and take me down at first. Then, they realize that we could talk about anything because it’s just a movie! (laughs) I’m a big NASA fan now, but I had no idea before making this movie that people of a certain generation were so passionate about that because I wasn’t for a long time and I don’t know too many people from my generation that are passionate about this stuff. Obviously, I knew that part of the fun in making this was to make people believe in things that patently aren’t true. I love doing that. One of my secret joys is when somebody thinks something that isn’t true is true because of something I said in a movie. I love that, and I take great pleasure in making people think at first that I’m a conspiracy theorist, and they will then approach me in that way. Then, sometimes I’ll pretend to be one, especially if it’s someone I don’t know. If they seem into the conspiracy, then I’ll sometimes go all in with the act. If they want the truth, though, we can talk the truth.”

Now let’s get back to the other reason why people are talking about Operation Avalanche beyond the hook of how the film was made. Right around the time the film made its world premiere at Sundance in January of this year, a pair of interviews Johnson conducted with then Globe and Mail writer Calum Marsh and NOW Magazine writer Radheyan Simonpillai caused an uneasy, but necessary buzz within the Canadian filmmaking community.

In the interviews, Johnson raised several normally polite and complacent Canadian eyebrows in hopes of sparking a greater conversation about how films are produced, exhibited, and funded in this country. In the Globe piece, Johnson notes that he chose premiering the film at Sundance over a TIFF premiere, despite the acceptance of Operation Avalanche into the festival that would have happened in September of last year. He notes that he watched so many other local filmmakers struggle to get their films noticed in a behemoth festival that he didn’t wish for his film – which actually had the financial backing of a major American studio, Lionsgate – to suffer a similar fate or to be regulated to the “Canadian film ghetto” that often gets talked about in hushed tones among those in the know. A recent article about the increased size of TIFF in Variety earlier this month suggests that Johnson certainly isn’t alone in those instincts.

And while it was mentioned in the Globe piece, Johnson’s interview with Simonpillai goes into more explicit detail of how Operation Avalanche was denied funding by Telefilm Canada – the country’s largest supporter of independent film – because his intention was to always make the film not only for Canadian audiences, but to also sell it to Lionsgate. Considering that in that same year Telefilm had prominently and proudly funded Oscar nominated films like Room and Brooklyn – patently un-Canadian films regardless of their quality and artistic merit which also had major American studio ties in place – Johnson’s ire and feeling of being shunned seemed justified. In the NOW interview, he also calls out Telefilm’s continued practice of funding established filmmakers with sometimes mediocre material and diminishing commercial prospects (Paul Gross, Atom Egoyan) in favour of taking risks with new filmmaking voices. It’s a valid question: how can a national cinematic voice move forward if those holding the purse strings just keep funnelling funds into the same old projects that have been largely failing to break through for years?

“I think within ten years, I think we’re going to be looking at a very different culture of film and media in Toronto.”

Still, even talking about it back in May – before TIFF invited Johnson to premiere Nirvanna The Band The Show at this year’s festival as part of the television based Primetime program (which he accepted) and following a somewhat hush-hush industry breakfast at the Lightbox this summer – Matt seems taken aback by the response to his point of view.

“I was surprised by the reaction it got because I just assumed that people talked about that all the time,” Johnson recounts when talking about the first reactions to the latter of the two interviews that appeared in NOW. “I honestly had that sort of level of naiveté. But I guess no one does! I was in Sundance when that article was published, and then all of a sudden everybody was talking about it. Sure, I would talk about it, but that one article wasn’t really my identity like some people made it out to be. My Canadian-ness isn’t connected with what I said in some ways. I’m happy now that people are talking about it, though, because that’s really gratifying. I mean, sure, it’s somewhat symptomatic of the Canadian system, but it’s also just symptomatic of any kind of big power structure. Somehow, the way the laws in Canada have been drawn up have led us to this place. It’s not weird because if you look closely you’ll see that it happens everywhere. There are four major banks here. There are two major television networks. There’s one major film distributor, although that’s changing little by little. There are two telecommunication companies. These are big, big businesses that are never going to take the risks that a hundred smaller companies could take. The counter to that, is that if you take a risk within that system with a smaller company and the risk pays off, suddenly you’re at the top, but good luck getting noticed in the first place.”

“I’m trying to get out there as much as I can to talk about as many small policy changes that could happen at Telefilm that would change everything,” has says for hope of a brighter future for Canadian filmmakers. “I think within ten years, I think we’re going to be looking at a very different culture of film and media in Toronto. I really do. It’s coming not just from filmmakers, but film critics are coming around to this, as well. In just the past five years, I’ve noticed that Toronto critics have more of an identity now, and they seem to matter more, and they are starting to push the conversation in a new direction and that people are listening.”

With all the talk of Johnson’s views on the future of Canadian cinema, it’s hard not to joke that once again art and reality seem to collide, since Johnson’s onscreen persona is trying to crack through a glass ceiling in a large corporation in a bid to prove his own technical and artistic worth.

“That’s why it was so easy to play this guy. He’s a filmmaker. He’s a desperate filmmaker who wants to get noticed, and THAT I can play to the end of time,” he says with a big laugh. “I understand what a guy like that is thinking very well. I am the guy who would and did go undercover at NASA to get footage, so that resonance is perfect! I really connected with this guy.”

In your own front yard: an interview with Queen of Katwe director Mira Nair

With the film Queen of Katwe (opening exclusively at Varsity Cinemas in Toronto on Friday, September 23 before expanding to theatres everywhere the following week), renowned filmmaker Mira Nair was offered a great story with connections close to her heart.

Based on a true story set in the slums of Uganda, the Disney produced Queen of Katwe tells the story of nine year old Phiona Mutesi (portrayed on screen by newcomer Madina Nalwanga), the daughter of an impoverished single mother and corn seller (Lupita Nyong’o) who despite not being able to read or write learns to be a chess prodigy thanks to the support of volunteer coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). Initially, Phiona’s mother wants her daughter nowhere near the sport, fearing it will give her unrealistic expectations for her future in the slums of Katwe, but Robert instils the young girl – and other kids on his chess team known as The Pioneers – with the strength and confidence to chase their dreams.

For Nair – best known for the critically acclaimed dramas like Salaam Bombay!The NamesakeMississippi Masala, and Monsoon Wedding – Queen of Katwe offered the Indian born filmmaker a chance to do something she hadn’t done before: shoot a movie in her own backyard.

Nair has made a home in Kampala, Uganda for the past twenty-seven years with her husband, Professor Mahmood Mandani. She lives startlingly close to the very slums where the real Phiona Mutesi was raised. If that isn’t serendipitous for any filmmaker, I don’t know what is.

“From living in Kampala, Uganda for almost the past thirty years, I’ve see the everyday dignity, the abject struggle, and the embrace of life around me, and I had never seen that on screen.”

“I was offered the project by Tendo Nagenda, who was kind of Disney’s guy in Uganda and who’s a wonderful, smart chap,” the charming and thoughtful Nair says about getting involved with the project during an interview shortly after the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last week, where it was one of the runners-up for the coveted People’s Choice Award.

“He called me up about four years ago, and he was in town, in Kampala, for a family reunion. He told me he was right down the street and asked if he could come up. He came with his whole family to my house for tea about an hour later. (laughs) We took a walk in my garden and he showed me this ESPN article he had about Phiona, this kid from about fifteen minutes away from me in Katwe who went from working as a corn seller to being on her way to becoming a chess prodigy en route to the Olympics, and he asked me if I wanted to maybe make a film about her.”

“I met Phiona a couple of weeks later, ironically in New York City where I also live, because she was there playing Kasparov at Lincoln Centre. We got along like a house on fire, but before we had even met, I had more or less agreed to do it anyway because the concept of the story is so remarkable. I’ve always been drawn to stories of people that are considered marginal to society. From Salaam Bombay! onward, this has been my beat.”

For Nair, who had never seen the true Ugandan experience captured on film before, it was the rare example of a major studio production that offered her a chance to share her own impressions of the land while telling an inspirational story the likes of which rarely get told in stories taking place in Africa.

“I went to research Mississippi Masala back in 1989, which was about the Asian expulsion committed by Idi Amin, and I was working on the screenplay,” Nair says about how she came to live in Uganda and how her experiences shaped her latest project. “It was my first time there, and it was the end of the civil war, and it was all soldiers and bombed out streets. Lo and behold, that was also where I fell in love with my husband of twenty-five years now. He’s a professor at the local university, and I have lived there ever since. I gave birth there. I’ve planted many gardens there. I started a film school there, called Maisha. It’s the place that I call home no matter where I go. So in a lot of ways, Queen of Katwe was about sharing my feelings of the place, smelling the place, and understanding things as simple as the local birds or knowing where the light is going to be in the morning. It’s lovely to be able to distil your whole way of living into a story that is true and inspiring and allows people to dream.”

“From living in Kampala, Uganda for almost the past thirty years, I’ve see the everyday dignity, the abject struggle, and the embrace of life around me, and I had never seen that on screen. First, it was about the challenge of consolidating what I know about that way of life, and living, and culture, and the streets, the fashion, the style, and slang, and humour, and then to distil all that into this remarkably true story of Phiona, who is someone who refuses to accept that she has to remain in this little area that she’s told she has been born into. That was wonderful, to be able to be in my front yard and know these places so well. I knew I could take you into a world that was both utterly truthful, but also full of vibrancy. You might go to sleep hungry in this place, but you’ll dance before going to sleep. That’s what I really love: that embrace of life. It’s not about despair and suffering or waiting for some saviour from the outside to come and help you. These are the kinds of stories we see there.”

“There is not just one person alone who has this kind of ‘I’m gonna make it, baby!’ mentality. It’s not totally about individualism. It truly takes a village to understand a young girl.”

While Nair jumped at the chance to make a film closer to the Uganda that she knows instead of a more clichéd portraiture of poverty in Africa, she understands and appreciates the gamble that Disney has taken with the film. It’s a resolutely African film, despite the presence of stars like Oyelowo and Nyong’o, that’s firmly rooted in a specific culture. And while she’s keenly aware of how a film like Queen of Katwe, which features a young, black, African, female lead, can be perceived by audiences at a time when on-screen diversity in Hollywood is a major issue, she credits Disney with seeing exactly the same thing she saw in Phiona’s story: universally relatable themes that go beyond geography, race, and sexuality.

“For me, it was vital to first present this prismatic view of the world,” she says about Queen of Katwe’s humanist approach. “There is not just one person alone who has this kind of ‘I’m gonna make it, baby!’ mentality. It’s not totally about individualism. It truly takes a village to understand a young girl. First, Phiona has a great mentor in Robert Katende, who sees in her this intelligence and harnesses it until she exceeds him. Then there’s Phiona’s mother who doesn’t want to see the disappointment in her own children over the same kinds of dreams she had that she didn’t achieve. The mother tells her children not to dream, but Phiona tells her own mother that it is possible to dream, but through a lot of complexity.”

“I hope there’s a great impact in showing what’s considered by many to be ‘the other side of the world.’ Firstly, it’s not about ‘the others.’ It’s about the complexity and relatability of humanity. Phiona’s dreams and her being misunderstood by her mother during her adolescence is not the story of people from another planet. That’s how we all grow up! It’s just that the conditions in which Phiona is growing up in Katwe are different. In a way, that teaches us how to live. As the coach says in the film, living there is defined by focusing on what you have, not on what you don’t have. So if you have an inch of water in a basin and you wash your hair with it, it’ll still come out clean. When people see it and they look at this new world as something that’s not all that foreign in nature, they’ll see the vibrancy of it and the dignity of its people. If people can see it, and be inspired by it, and see that they don’t need these outside saviours, you can really look within yourself and see that you can do anything. That would be amazing.”

“I was making a film about this reality in all its flamboyance. It’s a 100% African film, but the roots of it are also so universal that a company like Disney can stand by it. Disney is so passionate about the film, even though it’s a radical step for them. They never, not once, asked me to sanitize this film. They actually embraced the truth that I was giving to them because the truth was not a despairing, suffering portrait. The fact that you can achieve your potential and that you don’t have to belong where you’re told you belong and that you can live beyond the borders of your mind, those are all universal themes. I think it’s important that nothing gets looked at like it’s a simple black vs. white issue when talking about things like this. We always see the tales of a light skinned saviour coming to help the folks of the Dark Continent, or we see the stories of the brutality and child soldiers. We’ve never seen everyday joy and everyday struggle in a place like this. That’s a very important thing. It’s emblematic not so much of a diverse film, but of a real tapestry of human life that you can see on a daily basis.”

It’s also a major point of pride for Nair that the film, which shot largely on location in the streets of Kampala and Katwe, will have a lasting impact for the community, her film school, social programs, and the lives of the young cast who play members of Robert Katende’s chess team, The Pioneers. It was important to Nair that the efforts of the Ugandan community and its immense help in facilitating the project did not go unnoticed and unrewarded.

“There are some initiatives that have already been established,” Nair says about the lasting impact Queen of Katwe will have on Kampala. “Disney has purchased a building for the chess academy in Katwe so they have a permanent home. Similarly, Maisha is finishing their school building with Disney’s assistance, and it has also become the current home of the chess academy and also serves as a community centre for different inner city programs, including a literacy program. Then, there’s an educational fund that has been established for all of the kids who play The Pioneers on the chess team up through university, or at least that’s the plan. With the children, it’s very involved, and it’s a massive undertaking to look after these thirteen children and their paths in life. It’s beautifully challenging, but also very real. We also have a plan to work with the Katwe community to see what they need as sort of a gift from us to them, and we already know that one of their main concerns was to have more public toilets, so there will be a building of a series of those.”

True pioneers: an interview with Queen of Katwe subjects Phiona Mutesi and Robert Katende

The first time twenty year old Ugandan chess star Phiona Mutesi ever saw a film in a theatre with an audience was this past week at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival at Roy Thompson Hall with over 2,000 other people in attendance. That’s quite the experience in and of itself, but Phiona was also there for the world premiere of Queen of Katwe (opening Friday, September 23, 2016 exclusively in Toronto before expanding across Canada the following week), a film based on her life and experiences as a child.

“I still can’t believe it’s real,” Mutesi beams during an interview last week in a downtown Toronto hotel conference room a few days after the premiere of the latest film from Indian born, Uganda residing filmmaker Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Mississippi Masala).

“To see your story played out like that in a theatre is just this huge wave of emotion. Everything I sat through and watched just drew me back to my own life every time. Everything was true, and it was about me. When I was first told anyone was going to even write about my life, I never thought it would be a movie. I never thought about movies. I never saw movies, so I didn’t know what movies were even about. But when I started asking people about it and people started talking about it, I started becoming excited and it started to set in. I never dreamed of anything like this, especially the red carpet part. I didn’t expect everything to be as it was. It was a huge audience, and I never expected something that large. I’ve never experienced a time when people were screaming my name. You get self-confident pretty quickly, though. (laughs) I had never even been in a theatre before, so this was all something new for me.”

Queen of Katwe (which was one of the runner-ups for the coveted People’s Choice Award at TIFF) is based on an ESPN article and book from journalist Tim Crothers and tells the true story of a nine year old Phiona (played on screen by newcomer Madina Nalwanga) and how she learned to be more than the hard working daughter of a single mother and roadside corn seller (played by Lupita Nyong’o) living in the slums of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda. With the help of chess coach and missionary Robert Katende (portrayed in the film by David Oyelowo), Phiona became a natural at chess alongside a group of fellow underprivileged children known collectively as The Pioneers.

“It was so helpful that Mira Nair was selected to be the director of this film because she knows the lifestyle in Uganda. She spent lots of time with each of the kids playing each of The Pioneers.”

Accompanying Mutesi to the film’s premiere was Katende, who has similar surreal feelings about watching their experiences and struggles unfold on screen.

“Personally, for me, it has been really emotional,” the humble and well spoken Katende says. “Right from the beginning, I was on almost every set for the film, and there were some scenes that would trigger me into tears because they would just bring me back to when these things happened. Even now, this movie triggers me almost into flashbacks where you can just see yourself back in that moment. Even in the scenes that I know aren’t exactly how it happened, they still remind me and connect to moments where I can remember vividly everything that Phiona and I were going through at that time.”

While Robert and Phiona had some notoriety following the publication of Crothers’ book, their profile has been raised now within more than just the chess community by way of Nair’s Disney produced retelling of their lives. For Katende, it wasn’t only important to portray their lives accurately, but that the film was made by someone with an intimate understanding of what life in Kampala is actually like. Enter Nair, who has lived in that particular area of Uganda for almost thirty years, making the veteran filmmaker a more than ideal candidate for the project.

“It was so helpful that Mira Nair was selected to be the director of this film because she knows the lifestyle in Uganda,” Robert says of the close working relationship he had to the film’s director. “Her home is five miles away from the slum where this movie takes place. She came and connected to us and to the community prior to the shooting and while doing her prep work. She spent lots of time with each of the kids playing each of The Pioneers. When she would come, on the edge of the slum there is a restaurant, and she would come down and sit with us there, order us lunch, and she would just talk with us and record what we said. She was always moving around the slum and taking everything in so when she started shooting she could portray every possible image of the slum.”

Nair’s connection to the film extended to her desire to shoot locally in the often chaotic slums of Katwe in a bid to preserve authenticity to Phiona’s story. Katende, who was an integral part of the production team and the resident chess advisor, says that the decision to film on location was the right one and that the vibrancy of life in the slums has been preserved despite several logistical challenges.

“They did a lot of preparation to film there, and they went through all of the local authorities to make sure everything was secured,” Katende says about how such a big budget production functioned in such a bustling inner city location. “You could never be too sure of the security in the area. We had two police people on hand so there was someone always there from them. They hired many secret service members to help out. It’s so chaotic in the slum, and the only real challenge was that we had to close some of the streets for the whole day, so people were always asking what was going on there. Some of them were really excited that we were making a Ugandan movie, and some of those people were identified to be used as extras in the film. Some of them didn’t understand.”

“To see your story played out like that in a theatre is just this huge wave of emotion. Everything I sat through and watched just drew me back to my own life every time. Everything was true, and it was about me.”

“Another challenge that was really complicated and that we can’t do too much about was the noise that comes from a place so chaotic. We had a pretty sophisticated system that would take out a lot of the noise from the background, but there were some people who would make noise deliberately so they can be paid off in an effort to not shut the shoot down. There were some people who would say they were selling music so people could listen to it, and they would raise the volume of it, and then someone from the production would ask them how much they made in a day, and then they would pay them more than a day’s wages to close it up. (laughs) It became monotonous trying to get them to quiet down and pay them off, so eventually law enforcement had to actively enforce noise pollution laws by asking to see people’s licenses. That made them close down pretty quickly.”

“The people of Katwe are really excited for it, and to just watch themselves in the movie.,” Phiona adds about the film’s impending release in Kampala in October. “They’re so happy and expecting to be in there. They can’t wait to be there.”

Queen of Katwe takes a different, decidedly un-Hollywood approach to the African narrative despite the involvement of a major studio. Nair and screenwriter William Wheeler (who worked with the director on The Reluctant Fundamentalist) tell a story of hope that comes from within the country and from the heart of its own residents rather than by way of some sort of outside saviour. For Katende, this desire to keep the narrative close to the actual experience of everyday Ugandans lends the film an air of authenticity, especially when it comes to telling the stories of young people in the country trying to better their lives despite often substandard living conditions.

“These children go through challenging moments, but I personally identify with them because I went through a similar childhood,” Robert says about how the film’s uplifting narrative mirrors his own reality. “I definitely know what they are going through. At times, these children are going through something so hard that there was no way I could experience it or imagine it. In my own life I managed to make it through my childhood without much, without a father, without excuses, without a mother, and by paying my own tuition, lobbying for subsidies, and trying to make anything happen that I could on my own. I used my life experience and testimony to encourage them, and then they see that if their coach could do it, then they could, too. Some of them were starving for up to three days without food, and since I had been in those kinds of moments, it’s really about being there for them when you almost have nothing left to give of yourself. My past has helped me so much in guiding them, no matter what situation they face. I can help because I lived through much of the same things.”

Katende’s work with The Pioneers continues to this day, and while the instructor appreciates the exposure the program has been getting and some support that has been provided by Disney and Nair, he admits that keeping his crew going in a stable location continues to be a challenge.

“The group is still going. It’s now in its fourteenth year, but now the main challenge is that because of the awareness of the organization that the film has brought to it both internationally and nationally is that there has already been an influx of children, and we’re always running out of space,” he says about the future of The Pioneers. “At one point, we were evicted and forced to move to another space, and even that space was not enough. Even the space where we shot the movie, which was one of our practice spaces, we no longer have that, and that was only in 2015. It’s all stores now. I wish we could have preserved that space almost as a promotional tool for the school to say that’s where the film was made, but that wasn’t even big enough for our space.”

While the future of The Pioneers remains constant, yet ever changing for Katende, Phiona knows exactly what lies in her future.

“I think I have found a place where I belong,” Phiona states when asked about her future beyond the world of chess. “Right now, I’m a student. I had the opportunity to go back to school, and I took it. I am completing high school this year in November when I take my final exams. Then I will be going to university for law. I want to fight for the freedom and rights of the kids in the slums. If you look in the slums, you have to ask yourself who would be ready to do that, and I think I am ready to do that.”