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Thomas McCarthy on “The Visitor”

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04102008_thevisitor1.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

Though he’s the writer-director of the acclaimed 2003 dramedy “The Station Agent,” Tom McCarthy is probably not the first face you associate with the film (Peter Dinklage was the bigger breakout, no pun intended). But that doesn’t bother the New Jersey-born McCarthy, who has had his own share of on screen recognition (more on that later) since he began acting in film and television in the early ’90s. (If his name still doesn’t ring a bell, then you certainly didn’t watch the brilliant final season of HBO’s “The Wire,” in which he co-starred as the morally skewed Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Templeton.) McCarthy’s second feature behind the camera is “The Visitor,” a poignant and lightly funny drama about a widowed and utterly disillusioned economics professor named Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins, “Six Feet Under”) who discovers, on a business trip from Connecticut, that a Syrian percussionist and his Senegalese girlfriend have been living in his New York apartment. Rather than kick them out, Walter allows them to stay, filling the void in his life through this act of kindness until a police encounter pulls the rug out from under them all. I spoke with McCarthy about his new film, liberal guilt, and why he’s incapable of acting and directing the same project. [Warning: Minor spoilers follow.]

There have been so many films about stolid white people brought out of their shells by spirited people of color. While writing the script, what were your intentions to avoid a rehash?

I think you’re always, at least I am, writing away from what would be considered a cliché. At the same time, as you’ve pointed out, there are only so many stories. Eventually, you’re going to find yourself in the vicinity of a story that’s been told, or a cliché that’s been overused. It’s always about getting back to the characters, trying to keep it as honest as possible, and not manipulating the story, characters’ actions, or the audience in a way for purposes of some emotional payoff. If you stay true to characters in that, you’re staying true to what happens in life.

I had a journey, an immigration stance on this movie, that’s not too different from Walter Vale’s. I stumbled into it as research, got very involved in the story of a Nigerian guy, became very close to him, and got emotionally connected to his fate. I think those kinds of things happen all the time. Unfortunately, for some stories, they get manipulated in a way that reeks of something not quite real.

What kind of research put you in the path of this Nigerian gentleman?

It was someone I met when I started visiting detention centers, more out of curiosity than research. I didn’t know necessarily that it was going to be a story point at that time. When you go to visit, you are assigned visitors. You don’t know these people, you just sit across from them — much like Walter does with Tarek in the movie — and have conversations. One time, I was assigned this Nigerian man, and we kind of hit it off, so each time I’d go back, I’d visit with him specifically. He was a guy who was in detention for three-and-a-half years and was really, at this point, just trying to get deported. He wanted to go back to Nigeria; he didn’t want to stay in this country any longer. He didn’t believe in it. He didn’t trust it. But he couldn’t get deported because they didn’t have all his paperwork, so it was one of those things where I kept visiting him, trying to do what I could with as little legal knowledge as I could, and you know, you get very involved. I’d find myself visiting him on holidays, or leaving Manhattan early from work situations to go see him. You know, it’s someone you care about.

04102008_thevisitor2.jpgDon’t shoot the messenger, but I thought a lot about something a colleague said after we saw “The Visitor” together. He called it a “liberal guilt” movie. Being a white man telling a story like this, are you damned if you do, damned if you don’t?

Yeah, I think you are damned either way. If people want to pigeonhole a movie like that, they can, but all I would say is, I’d like to have a conversation with that person. And not out of… look, it’s a movie. A lot of people have different opinions, but I don’t know what the “liberal guilt” is. I would offer, in fact, that by the end of the movie, we find out that the lovely Arab woman broke the law and did it knowingly. Her son should have, for every right, been deported. They don’t have a leg to stand on, and she admits that. Why does she do it? That’s the question we have to ask ourselves, and can we do a better job at how we’re handling these situations. So yeah, I understand immigration, and I would venture to guess more than most American citizens do right now, because I spent a couple years researching it and listening to case after case after case. Do I have liberal guilt? Yes, absolutely. Why do I feel guilty? Because I quite honestly don’t think our country is doing the best we could. I think liberal guilt leads to a lot of great change, whether it’s for race or sex or whatever. I’m all for liberal guilt, so I take that as a compliment. [laughs]

As an “actor’s director,” what do you bring to the table? How do you work with actors?

That’s a good question, and maybe my actors are better placed to answer that question. I would offer that one of the advantages of being an actor first — more than I’ve been a director — is that I’ve worked with a lot of directors. I’ve had an opportunity to test-drive directors and realize what works and what doesn’t. Quite honestly, it’s something actors talk about a lot: “Oh, how did you like working with that director? What’s he like? Oh, really, no kidding?” It’s common green room talk for actors. It’s water cooler talk about how certain directors operate. By the time I’m ready to work with my actors, I have at least a pretty good feel for what will help them and what might possibly not be able to help them.

How about any specific techniques, though? I ask this as I’ve often had a difficult time interviewing actors about what they do beyond process, process, process.

I hear you. I think to address what you just said, actors who work a lot and are pretty good, the more years they work, they start to let go more and more of their process, right? I mean, a guy like Richard Jenkins is just so damn good, or I was just working on a film with Tom Wilkinson. Both of these guys, you don’t think they’re doing anything. You’re watching them, and you’re like, “They’re not even acting.” [laughs] Then you watch them on film, and they’re some of the most compelling actors working today. That’s just because their craft, or whatever word you want to assign to that, has become second nature. It’s not something that they’ll readily talk about because it’s diffusing that in some weird way.

But to that end, so many directors out there who go to film school — and learn all the tricks and trades of the camera — they aren’t used to communicating with actors in a way that actors learn. Many actors are trained, right? They spend their lives working with coaches in a way that they develop a language, that doesn’t just say, “Okay, do it this way. I’m going to demonstrate how you should act in this moment,” because then you’re sort of playing a quality. But maybe it’s reminding them, “Hey, remember where you’re at right now. Remember that you’re a guy who, in the first 10 minutes of this movie, wants nothing to do with anybody. And right now you’re asking these people to stay in your apartment. That’s probably not the easiest thing, and you better have a reason for wanting to do that.” If anything, it gets the actor thinking, and a camera picks that up. A camera picks up an actor processing information and making a decision, and that’s the beauty of film. That’s something you don’t see on a stage quite as easily.

04102008_thevisitor3.jpgYou have yet to act in a project that you’ve directed. You haven’t felt capable of doing both, why not?

Actors have a reputation for being coddled on-set, because if you’re a director or producer worth your salt, you want the actor to be thinking about nothing else but the role. You want them to be in a little bubble and when the camera starts rolling, they stay in that bubble. [laughs] You don’t want them thinking about money, food, lunch or getting home. You just want them to be gliding in and out. You want that effortlessness to the performance. I think I understand and appreciate that. Quite honestly, I’m a mess when I’m directing. My mind is going in a million directions. I’m thinking ten steps ahead, ten steps behind. I am the writer, I’m constantly evaluating the script and the dialogue, and to shut all that down and try to find this calm place to act… I really just marvel at the people who do it, and do it well. That said, I don’t think there are many who do it well.

Since one of your greatest advantages as a filmmaker is your ability to work with actors, how would you describe your directorial style? What do you think makes a Tom McCarthy film, even three films from now that you haven’t yet made?

[laughs] I don’t know, because I hope it will continue to evolve. Not to dodge the question, but I’d almost hesitate to answer that. You know, in interviews — we were just talking about this last night — you have to provide answers. Sometimes in doing so, it’s not like you’re manipulating the truth or anything, but you’re providing sound bites, and I’d never want to start believing those sound bites about any part of the process. Whether it’s acting, writing, or directing, it’s ultimately much more complex than what you can boil down to three- or four-sentence answers.

So I don’t know if I have a style yet. I’m anxious to make three more films, look back on it, and say, “Ah, there’s my style.” It’s like careers, right? People are like, “How did you forge this career?” You don’t forge a career, you look for the next job. You scrap and you scrape, and if you’re lucky enough, you have a career to look back on, and then you can say, “There it is.” [laughs] I think my style is something I’m still developing with the cinematographer and production designer, people I’ve worked with on the first two films. I will refrain to answer that question until after film number five.

Now that the series has ended, what was it like acting in the greatest television drama in history?

You mean “Boston Public”? [laughs] Yeah, it was great. It’s funny, David Simon called while I was editing my movie and offered me the role. I couldn’t resist because I loved “The Wire” so much, but I remember my agent and I thinking, “Oh, this could not come at a worse time.” It may have been a little bit grueling, but it was such a pleasure to work on that show, and when you’re working with writing of that caliber, you just have to show up and participate; the rest takes care of itself. It was a hell of a job, and I was really proud to be a part of that show.

As a director, you have so much more artistic input on a project, but you’re far more identifiable as an actor. Is it strange being more widely recognized for “The Wire” than say, writing and directing “The Station Agent”?

It’s great, I love it. The thing I like about my career comes from not being famous. I usually get stopped by people who think I work at their company, or we went to school together, or I mowed their lawn when I was younger. They rarely put it together that they’ve seen me on television or a film. I don’t mind that, actually. Especially as a writer, when I’m doing my thing there, or researching, it allows me to disappear a little bit more. But it’s always fun when people appreciate your work and let you know.

]Photos: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman and Thomas McCarthy on set; Jenkins and Sleiman; Danai Jekesai Gurira and Hiam Abbass – “The Visitor,” Overture Films, 2008]

“The Visitor” opens in limited release on April 11th.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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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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