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DID YOU READ

Nicholas Hytner on “The History Boys”

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By Dan Persons

IFC News

[Photo: “The History Boys,” Fox Searchlight, 2006]

It’s a new spin on the phrase “no child left behind.” In “The History Boys,” based on the Tony award-winning play by Alan Bennett, a group of British teachers in the 1980s — the idealistic Hector (Richard Griffiths); the pragmatic Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour); and the ambitious newcomer, Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) — debate the purpose of art, education and history, even as they prepare eight young students of an industrial-region public school for an unprecedented opportunity to enroll at one of England’s two top universities. Nicholas Hytner, who directed the original London performance and also directs the whole of England’s National Theatre, shot the film, with original cast intact, while the play was prepping for its world tour.

You essentially have all the plays of the National Theatre at your access. What made you say, “Yes, this is the one that deserves to go to film?”

Well, I’d only done it once before, which was also with an Alan Bennett play, “The Madness of King George.” I think most plays aren’t going to gain anything different through the exploration of the camera. But this is character-driven and dialogue-driven — not a fashionable kind of filmmaking, but a kind of filmmaking that I like. It’s talky and literate and articulate. I felt that getting a camera to participate with these twelve actors as these twelve characters would reveal something more about them. And, finally, it’s just a really, really marvelous play — good writing is good writing.

Why set the film in this time period?

It’s not about the 80s. It’s set in the 80s, though to me the sensibilities are a little more contemporary. But it’s set in the 80s because that’s the last time a teacher like Hector could teach the way he does. The big debate at the center of the film is about the purpose of education, whether it’s idealistic and romantic (in Hector’s mold), about the expansion of the mind and the addressing of the soul, or whether it’s utilitarian, whether it’s about the achievement of targets, the getting of results, the getting on in life, which is the headmaster’s [Clive Merrison] version. It’s why the headmaster hires Irwin, although Irwin’s more complex than simply representative of a utilitarian education.

What happened in the 80s was that schools changed in England. The national curriculum was imposed, the target culture was imposed, and you just can’t teach like Hector anymore. To dramatize the conflict, you have to have a Hector, as well as a headmaster and an Irwin. The conflict, the debate, still rages, because teachers, parents, and kids feel that something has gone missing. You have to set the film in the 80s to show, to embody, what it is that’s gone missing.

Is there a subtlety to the class issue that might not be readily perceived in America?

It’s exactly the same [in America]. You can buy an education [in the U.S.] as you can in England. This school, though, is not a school where the education is bought. It’s a selective school, but it’s a state school. They’re bright kids, but they’re from humble backgrounds, ordinary backgrounds. It’s touched on, but it’s not important to them. For them, the class issue is only that they’ll be competing against kids who have been expensively educated and will therefore be more cultivated than them, and maybe more self-confident in interviews. But there’s no essential difference between an American private education and an English one.

Making this film character-based and dialogue-based runs the risk of turning it into a straight transcription. How did you avoid that pitfall?

There are lots of different kinds of stage-to-screen adaptations. With “The Madness of King George,” where the world of the play was England, where the central character was the king and his world was his country, there was obviously the opportunity to take the camera all around the country and give an intimate story a big, sweeping backdrop. Therefore, the experience of the film was physically more spectacular than the spirit of the play. But this felt like a different kind of movie, a kind exemplified by — I’ll mention three really great movies, not because “The History Boys” compares to them, but because they show a way of adapting from stage to screen — “The Philadelphia Story,” “[A] Streetcar [Named Desire],” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” They’re all based on plays, and the films retain the closed world of the plays, they don’t venture far and wide. What you’re trying to do in that kind of film is use the camera to get closer, to participate in the action, to get behind the eyes and under the skin. That, to me, is very cinematic. It’s not the current fashion of commercial filmmaking. Used to be — I’d be very happy to say that “The History Boys” is, in that way, a throwback.

You’ve mentioned that you and the cast essentially had a year of rehearsal in performing this play on-stage. There’s a risk to that, though: becoming so entrenched in the material that the life goes out of it. How did you avoid that danger?

It’s not really for me to say whether we managed that. It was all [the cast] as far as I was concerned, the fact that they knew themselves, each other, the material so well. There are a series of devices that I use all the time — questions to ask, new ways of looking at little things — to try and keep actors fresh over a long run. I think just the fact that they were able to do it for each other, rather than including 2000 people in the conversation, and do it in the concrete surroundings of a school was a great liberation.

“The History Boys” opens in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco on November 21, adding additional cities starting on December 8, and going into wide release on December 22 ((official site)

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.