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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.



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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GIFs via Giphy

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.”


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. 


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.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.