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Danny Boyle on “Sunshine”

Danny Boyle on “Sunshine” (photo)

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It may seem peculiar that Danny Boyle would fancy himself an optimist, considering his films cover unsettling topics like heroin addiction (“Trainspotting”), screwing over friends (“Shallow Grave”), and a flat-out, zombie-like apocalypse (“28 Days Later”). “The scenarios pick themselves,” claims the beloved British director, who strives with each new film to make “the biggest challenge possible to that human spirit.” That’s clearly the case in the bleak future portrayed in “Sunshine,” Boyle’s foray into the intelligent, philosophically curious realm of classic science fiction. Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne and Chris Evans star as crew members of the spaceship Icarus II, who are on the ultimate suicide mission to save planet Earth in 2057: to reignite our dying sun, they must drop a bomb the size of Manhattan onto its surface. Getting there is easy, but coming back? Well, let’s just say the Icarus I never made it home, and if you studied your Greek mythology, things aren’t faring well for the wings of its successor. When talking with Boyle about his latest film, the topic of science makes him wild-eyed and giddy, making it hard to believe he didn’t try out the sci-fi genre sooner. [WARNING: Minor spoilers follow!]

Some of the early “Sunshine” reviews use a descriptor that I’m not sure I agree with: “metaphysical.” The film melds science, spirituality and existentialism, but would you call it that? Or are the so-called metaphysics found only in the inexplicable, third-act reappearance of Icarus I’s Captain Pinbacker?

People think Pinbacker is a figure from horror, like a cinematic figure. What we were trying to do was make something that… like, when you get to the surface of the sun, it’s not a tea party. Nobody’s going to sit down, have a debate, and politely serve tea. Anything goes because nobody knows the rules. Nobody knows whether we’d freeze in time, or stretch, or bend. So we thought, what would happen if you exposed yourself to this energy like he’s done? What makes him up? You’re space, basically. Everybody says you’re water, but you’re not. You’re basically empty space held together, so you’re solid to me. What if Pinbacker had been exposed, so that all his protons and neutrons had been reorganized? He was literally shifting in front of you. It would be a challenge to the mission in political terms, because he’s a fundamentalist and believes science is wrong now; we must bow down to God’s will, and nature must take its pitiless course. He’s not only a challenge to that, but to Cillian’s sanity about what is possible, whether he can keep his sanity and do his job: deliver the science.

Do you see Pinbacker as a tangible, or are we just experiencing him through the panicked perspective of crew members who can’t get a grasp on who or what he is?

Exactly, they can’t. I don’t know if you can define that, whether it’s him or that whole Wittgenstein thing: do you exist when you go out of the room, or do you only exist when I see you — and the same for you to me? [laughs] That’s how Cillian and Rose see him, but they’re the only ones that actually see him. In their minds, that’s how he exists, certainly. So, in a way, he is metaphysical. His voice is real, he speaks as a human, and his fundamentalism is representative of something on Earth that we understand now: there are people who regard our attempts at science as being futile, that we should actually go back to the villages and wait for God. [laughs] And, you know, that is a human voice. It’s a contradiction to the science, but physically, what he represents is something meta.

You’ve said that science is arrogant. I presume you mean scientists, specifically?

They’re extraordinary. We had this one guy who was the sweetest man, but fuck me, arrogant? You think you get arrogant people in the movie world? [laughs] It’s just extraordinary, I love it. That is science, really. It has to have this incredible idea that you can travel to the sun — this thing indescribably greater than anything we can imagine — and they don’t just think they can change it, they will it. That’s the level of arrogance they have. You can also read it as audacious, if you want to be more positive about it. And you want science to be audacious because that’s how we find a vaccine for malaria, y’know? That’s precisely why we progress, because we won’t go back to villages. For whatever reason, whether good or bad in the short-term, our dedication to cities, progress and science in the long-term is astonishing. That’s the path we’re all on together, apart from the Taliban. It will enhance and maintain life given us by the start. That’s a good thing, I think.

Speaking of progress, why aren’t there more sci-fi films today that are actual science fiction, rather than just action movies set against futuristic backdrops?

Interesting, I sort of know why there isn’t. It’s precisely because — like “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” — fantasy is free. You can think of anything, but this kind of sci-fi is very restricted. Because we’ve only been up in steel tubes, these films tend to boil down to the same three ingredients: a ship, a crew and a signal. Until we colonize, there will always be that restriction on the amount of stories you can tell about it. In fact, it’s very difficult to make one that isn’t reminiscent of another one. They’re really closely bound together, and I learned making [“Sunshine”] how narrow a corridor it was that you’re moving in.

There may be some overlapping ideas with “Solaris” or “2001,” but it’s still more thought-provoking than some intergalactic shoot-em-up.

They’re a bit more serious. That was something that was extraordinary, was how difficult it is to get humor in them. Chris Evans got some in for us because he’s very deft at that, but it’s fucking difficult. [laughs] When you look back at those other ones, they’re very serious. The whole film passes without a laugh, some of them. You can’t have romance in them, either. We had obvious candidate roles; Cillian’s could easily have gone romantic, or Chris’ relationship. And we tried that at script stage, it didn’t work. Just laughable. They kiss, and you think “Fuck off, that’s nonsense!” They tried it in “2010,” and it didn’t work there. You watch it, and it’s slightly embarrassing and weird. We had an amazing sex scene worked out, but we didn’t shoot it [because] it was inappropriate.

But they are doing research into sex. We heard that they’d taken pig semen up into the space station to impregnate in weightless conditions, then presumably bring it back to see whether exposure to weightlessness has an effect on procreation. If they’re planning long-term space travel, that’s obviously one of the things they’ve got to know about. Do they sterilize people before they go? It’s astonishing. They’re working 50 or 100 years ahead. They have to. That’s where a lot of our information came from, like the oxygen garden. They won’t store oxygen because it’s impossible on the levels that they need; they’ll have to create it. We had a lot of exotic plants for visual reasons, but theirs will just be fern gardens because ferns are really good producers of oxygen.

[As for] the cooking thing, “2001” is nonsense: packaged bits of cellophane food and microwaves, they won’t do that. The cycle of nurturing and growing your food — gathering it, cooking it, eating it, washing up — that cycle, and the smell of cooking, is crucial to people’s sanity far away from home. Once they solve the weightless problem, which they may never do, they’re really concerned about the psychology of deep space travel. We read this really interesting book [called “Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth”] by a journalist named Andrew Smith, who had this clever idea. He tried to talk to all the people who had been to the moon. Two of them are dead now, and there are only about 12 left. They talked about going around the dark side of the moon because they’re the only representatives of our species who have ever been out of contact with the earth, and it marked them all. The 45 minutes when there was no radio contact with NASA, and all they see is eternity out there…

I had no idea what a science nut you truly are. Would you want to travel the cosmos?

Oh yeah! I’ve done weightlessness up in that plane. I’ve never done anything like it, I’ve gotta tell you. Initially, [the sensation] is just terror. Your body kicks in and goes mad. They warn you about this, because everybody’s the same. Your reaction is to start swimming like you’ve been thrown into a deep pool. Your mind and body don’t understand what’s going on, so you start kicking to get back to the surface. The first three or four times you do it, you can’t stop yourself. They warn you not to do it, but everybody’s doing it because your body’s saying, “I’m falling, I’m out of control.” Then gradually, the mind begins to understand it. Each block is 30 seconds long, we did it about 25 times, and by the end, it’s very mellow: whooooa.

If technology caught up tomorrow, and the government was ready for the first 10,000 guinea pigs to colonize Mars, would you leave this planet behind?

Wouldn’t you? The other thing they talked about in this [Andrew Smith] book was when the astronauts went to the moon, the scientists were very confident they could get them safely to the moon. But they were less than 50% sure they could get them back, yet none of them dropped out. They all wanted to go. I think, given we all have unresolved issues on Earth with people, you’d want to go. One of the pleasures of doing a film like this is that you get a perspective on your life that’s different than the everyday thing. You think, “Wow, that is really bigger than all of my obsessions and concerns.” To feel so small, it gives you a modesty. You feel like you slot in somewhere, part of a pattern. We’re all so obsessed with individualism and success, and you’re just a tiny little moment in this huge thing, y’know? To see a bit more of that would be extraordinary.

“Sunshine” opens in wide release on July 20th (official site).

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

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

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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