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Ewan McGregor Gives Up the Ghost

Ewan McGregor Gives Up the Ghost (photo)

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It’s been a while since we’ve heard actor Ewan McGregor (“Trainspotting,” “Moulin Rouge!”) speak in his native Scottish accent, yet so much remains enigmatically unfamiliar about his nameless character known simply as “The Ghost” in director Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer.” Adapted by former journalist Robert Harris from his own novel, this fantastically nutty political thriller stars McGregor as an apolitically minded punch-up artist assigned to finish the memoirs of a suddenly disgraced former British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan), currently stuck in American exile while awaiting war crime charges for his use of “heightened interrogation” procedures. Like many a Hitchcockian everyman ensnared by conspiracy, McGregor’s “Ghost” soon realizes through his own cat-killing curiosities and investigation that he has every right to be paranoid. I met McGregor at the Waldorf Astoria to discuss government corruption, Polanski’s eccentric working methods, the longest he’s ever felt trapped somewhere, and why he’ll likely never read this interview. Out of respect to both McGregor and one of our greatest living auteurs, I chose not to bring up Polanski’s current legal matters and house arrest.

“The Ghost Writer” is such a gonzo political thriller, but the plot twists turn so naturally. Do you think anything as sinister or thorny as what’s in this film could happen in real life?

I think it is happening. The story is obviously pushed right into the realms of fictitious, novel-y type material with the idea that [MAJOR SPOILER REDACTED]. That’s far-fetched. One of the “ghosts” that Harris talks about when he talks about the novel is that British politics — as a government that makes decisions on behalf of the people of the British Isles — might be a ghostly idea because it’s so wrapped up in American politics now that we’re somehow linked. That’s quite a serious accusation on his part, and on Polanski’s part, as the filmmaker. But it’s not as far-fetched as we might think.

02192010_GhostWriter2.jpgSo you’re cynical about politics?

I’ve always been really uninterested in politicians and the acts of the Houses of Parliament, or government as an idea. But I’m interested in politics in that I’m a member of the world, and I have strong feelings of right and wrong, but I can’t get into the ins and outs of it. I find politicians so desperately boring. I don’t trust them and don’t believe in them.

Especially in my country, they’re always getting caught cheating the taxpayer out of money. They get allowances for houses in London, where they’re all supposed to represent their constituency. So they stay with people they know and charge the government for this rental and just pocket the cash. That’s our cash. There are people who should feel society’s not operating correctly, know how to make life a better place for the people of their country, and enter into politics to make their vision come true. I just don’t believe that’s what happens. They get in there and start trading off their political ideals: “I’ll move for you on this, you vote for me on that.” They’re trading their ideals to climb the rungs of power, and that’s unforgivable.

Does power inherently corrupt, even with the best of intentions?

No, because honest people are honest people. You know, they have spin doctors. They have people whose job it is to take facts and make them more palatable for the people. They should be fucking ashamed of themselves to actually have a spin doctor, never mind to actually call them that. [laughs] For us to accept that that’s the case, that we’re going to be told things that are sort of true, so that they’re palatable for us to listen to, is a disgrace.

What about ghostwriters? Are they being deceitful by manipulating someone’s image, or are they simply punching up copy?

I don’t think it’s deceitful because ghostwriting is obviously going to be okayed by the person they’re writing on behalf of. If it’s done properly, it can be quite effective. It’s a skill to be able to interview someone and be able to write in their voice. Since we started all this press, it was interesting to listen to [Robert] Harris talking about ghostwriting. He has quite a slant on it, that there’s an element of failure in The Ghost. Even if he’s written successful books on behalf of other people, the nature of not having your name on that book is kind of a failure.

02192010_GhostWriter4.jpgHow would you describe Polanski’s tastes and on-set demeanor?

He’s very persnickety about everything. He’ll spend 20 minutes arranging the books on the bookshelf that are deep out of the focus in the background of a shot. If you shoot a shot, and then the weather changes a bit, a lot of directors will shoot anyway and just [color-correct] it afterward. But he’ll only shoot if the rain’s exactly right, the clouds are right, the sea looks rough enough. He’s a total perfectionist. Sometimes he can nitpick over how you’re saying lines, but it’s always driven towards making the film the way he saw it.

I can imagine, and I asked Robert if this was the case, that he gets up on his feet and acts out all the parts as they’re writing lines of dialogue in his living room: “Maybe she’ll say this,” and he’ll act it out. Whenever we’re on set, I think he’s going back to that model. He’s often sitting with his head in his hands, or you’ll ask him a question and he’ll suddenly just go quiet for ages. Everyone just stops and waits for him to come out with what he has to say. Olivia [Williams] asked him one day what it was he was doing when he did that, and he said he’s trying to remember how he saw that scene when he wrote it with Robert, so that he can answer how he wants it.

Whenever we had a change of location or a new actor would come in, Polanski would really slow down to get into the new part of the story. When we started the exterior stuff at [Tom Wilkinson’s character] Emmett’s house, it’s not that complicated a scene — I pull up in the car, go up to the gate, look through the mail, go back to the car, back to the gate, and speak to Emmet through the [intercom]. We spent all morning looking at different scenarios, trying different positions for the car, and we didn’t shoot anything until after lunch. I quite like that he takes his time because often the pressure of filmmaking is that people don’t, and then you pay for it later because you didn’t make the right decision at the time.



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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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.