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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.



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.