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Interview: Johnnie To on “Mad Detective”

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07112008_maddetective.jpgBy R. Emmet Sweeney

Since the formation of his Milkyway Image production company in 1996 in Hong Kong, Johnnie To has been the most imaginative (and prolific) director of genre films in the world. Mainly known stateside for self-reflexively stylish gangster flicks like “The Mission” (1999) and “Exiled” (2006), he’s also produced a slew of hit romantic comedies (including the delirious 2002 supernatural love story “My Left Eye Sees Ghosts”). Whatever the subject, his films hum with the skill of a committed craftsman, every shot jiggered for maximum lucidity and intensity. There’s no wasted motion in a To film — every gun crack or eye-poke carries the weight of the character behind it.

To’s collaborated with screenwriter and Milkyway co-founder Wai Ka-Fai on his most daring projects, including the bodybuilding Buddhist thriller “Running on Karma” (2003), and they reteam again for “Mad Detective,” which recently screened at the New York Asian Film Festival and which opens in New York on July 18th. A knotty noir about a burnt-out cop (Lau Ching Wan) who claims he can see people’s inner personalities as distinct individuals, it shoehorns black comedy and psychological musings into its pistol operatics. I got the chance to chat over email with Mr. To about the film as well as his sublime new pickpocket tale “Sparrow” (also a part of this year’s NYAFF, and currently without U.S. distribution), and his next project, a remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Cercle Rouge.”

What’s your working relationship like with Wai Ka-Fai? He’s given a co-director credit on “Mad Detective.”

To put it simply, Wai Ka-Fai is the brain of Milkyway, whereas I consider myself the hands that handle the execution. All the ideas come from Wai Ka-Fai, although I handle everything that’s related to shooting. For “Mad Detective,” Wai and I were on the set together because the story was very complicated. We conferred with each other frequently to make sure I didn’t shoot incorrectly. Without Wai, there wouldn’t be “Mad Detective.”

How do you prepare to film a major action set piece like the final shootout in “Mad Detective,” or the long opening take in “Breaking News”? Do you storyboard every shot beforehand, decide on the blocking once you arrive on set, or both?

I don’t storyboard. Everything is kept in my head. For “Breaking News,” after initial location scouting, I planned out the sequence step-by-step while rehearsing with the cast and crew. I don’t like to plan things too early because it takes away the fun of actual shooting.

07112008_sparrow.jpgI understand you filmed “Sparrow” over a three-year period. Could you describe the production process?

“Sparrow” was a personal and fun project for me. I would shoot whenever I had ideas, be it a scene or an image. Basically we shot for three years, but it was for a few days every 3-4 months between projects. Without the Berlin Film Festival’s invitation, I probably would’ve gone on shooting! I really appreciated the actors’ patience and their ability to stay relatively the same over a period of three years.

What was your original conception for the film? Did it change over the course of the shoot?

When I shot “The Mission,” it was about a group of bodyguards. Then I made “PTU,” which was about a group of cops. So I thought it’d be fun to make another film about teamwork, but this time without guns and blood.

Could you comment on the score? It seems highly indebted to Michel Legrand’s work for Jacques Demy.

For me, “Old Hong Kong” meant a combination of Eastern and Western culture. So I thought the sound of “exotic oriental” would be perfect for the film, something similar to the score of “The World of Susie Wong.” The last scene in the film is an homage to Jacques Demy, so our composer followed that direction as well.

Your work uses the richness of the film grain to such an expressive extent, I’m curious as to what your thoughts are on digital photography. Do you ever see yourself shooting in HD?

I am a 35mm person. But recent developments in digital cameras has impressed me, like with the Nikon D3. Also, I liked a lot of what David Fincher did in “Zodiac.”

The “Bourne” films have created a bit of a stir in the U.S. for their hyperactive editing schemes. As someone who places great importance on editing, I wondered if you had seen these films, and what you think of their style?

I’m not familiar with the “Bourne” films, but I think editing is very crucial to storytelling, not simply for providing a sense of motion and speed. Too much of Hong Kong cinema has focused on that in the past and in the end, audiences don’t care about the story anymore.

07112008_johnnieto.jpgYou’re an incredibly prolific worker, and I’ve read that you’ve started preparing a remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Cercle Rouge.” What do you value in Melville as a filmmaker?

The remake is currently in development and the script is written by Wai Ka-Fai.

I think my work and Melville’s bear a lot of resemblance to each other, not just visually but also philosophically. I must admit I didn’t know much about Melville when I was young. I saw all his films when they first came out because I was a fan of Alain Delon!

[Photos: “Mad Detective,” IFC Films, 2007; “Sparrow,” Milky Way Image Company, 2008; director Johnnie To]

“Mad Detective” opens in New York on July 18th.

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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…


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.


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).


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.


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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GIFs via Giphy

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.


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.



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 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….


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.


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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