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Wong Kar-Wai on “My Blueberry Nights”

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04032008_wongkarwai.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

A master of impulses, images, textures and moments, Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai (“In the Mood for Love,” “Chungking Express”) surprised many at last year’s Cannes Film Festival (where, in the past, he won Best Director for 1997’s “Happy Together” and presided over the jury in 2006) with his first English-language film. A luscious, dreamily romantic slice of road trip Americana, “My Blueberry Nights” features the acting debut of singer-songwriter Norah Jones, whose soul-searching wanderer Elizabeth may be on her way to iconic status, if only for that kiss — asleep in a diner with blueberry pie on her lips, love-struck proprietor Jeremy (Jude Law) cleans her face with his. Besides being shot in this country, the film also gave the acclaimed auteur a chance to be surrounded by different personnel: Rather than working with his longtime cinematographer Christopher Doyle (“2046”) — who went off with Gus Van Sant to shoot “Paranoid Park” instead — Wong broke in a new lenser, Darius Khondji (“Se7en,” “The City of Lost Children”), and an exquisite supporting cast: Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz, David Strathairn and Chan “Cat Power” Marshall. A somewhat intimidating interview thanks to his exalted career and ever-present sunglasses, Wong was gracious enough to sit with me in New York to discuss his new collaborators, “Ashes of Time Redux” and why his latest wasn’t called “My Key Lime Nights.”

I saw “My Blueberry Nights” in Paris a few months ago, a version that was apparently longer than the one hitting U.S. theaters. What’s different about the new cut?

It’s not much shorter. When we discussed it with the Weinstein Company, I think from an American perspective, there were a lot of things that could be [left] unexplained; it’s understood already. We took out some [exposition] that was obviously self-explanatory to the American audience.

You seem to have a predilection for working with singers-turned-actors, like Leslie Cheung, Faye Wong and Tony Leung. Does this have anything to do with how Norah Jones became your lead?

No, no, the thing is, the process is actually different. I didn’t create the role looking for actors to play it. Actually, the whole project happened during the summer a few years ago. I met Norah in New York, and somehow, we had an idea to make a film together. For both of us, it’s something we haven’t done before. For her, it’s to be in a film. For me, [it’s to] shoot the film in this country, in this language. So, then I created the story. Basically, for the role of Elizabeth, I took a lot of reference from her own spirit and character. She’s the first [facet] to that character.

You co-wrote this with crime novelist Lawrence Block. How did your collaboration work?

I’m a big fan of Larry, and especially his books [with his popular private eye character] Matthew Scudder. Our collaboration is more like the business in his book, because we’re very secretive. We didn’t talk much; we didn’t meet much. I explained to him about my idea and then he would just say “Okay.” A few days later, he’d come back with a draft. We’d meet in a restaurant, and then I took it home and have my comments. We’d meet again, I’d pass it to him, he’d take it home, and a few days later, he’d turn out another draft. It’s like a spy story. It’s not like a director’s and writer’s session. It’s more like he’s a contract killer and I’m the agent, something like that. [laughs] We always deal in envelopes.

04032008_myblueberrynights2.jpgWas the process of making your first English-language film on American soil that different from what you’ve been accustomed to?

The process is not that different except there are certain rules to be respected, like the union regulations. Creatively, for me, because it’s not my own language, my vocabulary and references are limited. I realized that, at the very beginning, you feel a certain stiffness, a [self-consciousness] about this process. Later on, you just think, “Well, you have to stick to what are the most essential things.” It’s like a telegraph because you’re very economical in all these words and expressions, and it also opens up yourself to… you need to collaborate with your crew, so basically, I’m sending telegraphs, and they have to fill in all the blood and flesh and details.

You say “essential things” as if everyone knows how to make a film like Wong Kar-Wai.

I’ll give you an example. When we talk about the kiss between Norah and Jude, my “essential” is that there will be a kiss at that point, because I think this is the moment that Jeremy is trying to reach over the distance between them and have physical contact with Elizabeth. I have to ask Jude, “Normally, the way you would do it in my country, the guy would touch the lips of the girl to wipe up this cream before he starts kissing,” because this is the first intention — he wants to make sure she is clean and tidy. I’m not sure about Americans, what would you do? Jude said, “Well, we don’t do it this way, we just go directly into the kiss.” And most of the guys on the set [agreed]: “We would do it this way.” But all the girls said, “No, we prefer that [other] way.” So there was a debate, but we decided to stick to the original idea.

How different was your working relationship with Darius Khondji compared to Christopher Doyle? As Doyle is known for having a strong personality, did you guys clash more in comparison?

I’ve worked with Chris Doyle since my second film, almost 15 years. When we work together, we try to do something that’s not our standard old tricks. I know exactly where he’s going to place his camera, and he knows exactly where I’m going to start the scenes. So we try to do something different each time. With Darius, because this is the first time we’ve worked together, and Darius has great respect for Chris’s works, he’d always want to know, “Oh, what would Chris do [if he] shot this scene?” I’d say, “Darius, forget about Chris. You should do something on your own. I’m not going to tell you.” [laughs]

You’re premiering a re-edited version of “Ashes of Time” at Cannes. Were you previously unsatisfied with the cut that premiered in 1994? Why revisit it now?

A few years ago, we realized the master of the film was locked somewhere in pieces. So we were trying to save the film, to get material from other distributors to restore the master. But later on, when we opened this Pandora’s box, we could see a lot of possibilities [to rework it]. Basically, you have to decide: Is it only a restoration, or are you going to do something differently? This is what we plan to do next.

04032008_myblueberrynights1.jpgWith “Ashes of Time Redux,” and all of your films for that matter, is it difficult to stop tinkering with it? When linearity isn’t your primary concern, how do you know when you’re ultimately satisfied?

When it’s time to let go, I don’t look back, and I start another project as soon as possible. One thing I remind myself is that I don’t want to Photoshop my past. Today, I could do a lot of things with this film, but it’s not necessarily true to the idea that I had at that point. I just want to complete that version, because when we released “Ashes of Time,” it was not in the best of conditions, so I tried to preserve that. During the process, we also discovered something we hadn’t used or hadn’t thought of at that point. I’m trying to put these things together, and I’m really curious to see how the film turns out.

Do you ever find time to watch films?

I watched, like, five films on the plane to New York. I watched “No Country for Old Men,” which is a very nice film. “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” was also very nice. I don’t have a specific genre, “I only like this kind of cinema.” I really enjoy watching films and as long as it’s sincere, that’s fine.

As a filmmaker who has been working long enough to see the transition firsthand, what do you think about cinema in the digital age? Is the glut of new and portable media failing cinema in any way?

Well, I think all this — the digital platform — gives more chances, exposure and opportunities for art and independent films. Because I’m very traditional, I still think in terms of screens and film footage, and when I work, my final destination is to put the film on the big screen. But obviously, when I look at my son, it’s a different perspective. They have all this information on the Internet, on digital [media], so I’m sure there will be a [great] future on this platform. In a way, it will change a lot about the form, something that has been defined in the last 40, 50 years [in terms of] durations and expressions. I’m quite curious to see what is going to happen. I don’t want to be a grumpy old man or too pessimistic, because if I have a chance, I would prefer to watch a film in the cinema with an audience on a big screen instead of watching it on a cell phone. It’s a very different experience, but somehow I think this form will have its own future and life.

Lastly, what makes blueberry pie so cinematic? Why not key lime pie, or a parfait?

Actually, I found that blueberry pie is not very cinematic because the color is so dark. I had to put all this [whipped] cream and melting ice cream on it. I must say, too, it’s very challenging to present flavor on screen.

[Photos: Wong Kar Wai on set; Norah Jones and Jude Law; Norah Jones and Natalie Portman; “My Blueberry Nights, Weinstein Company, 2007]

“My Blueberry Nights” opens in New York and Los Angeles on April 4th.

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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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