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Álex de la Iglesia Puzzles Over “The Oxford Murders”

Álex de la Iglesia Puzzles Over “The Oxford Murders” (photo)

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This interview originally ran in June 2009.

Álex de la Iglesia always has to be the odd man out. At the American Cinematheque’s Recent Spanish Cinema series last year, de la Iglesia’s thriller “The Oxford Murders” was the lone English-language film shown, serving as a linguistic break from Goya winners like Jose Luis Cuerda’s “The Blind Sunflowers” and Agustín Díaz Yanes’ “Just Walking.”

The film’s also a departure from the wild comedies de la Iglesia has become known for, like the cutthroat salesman competition comedy “El Crimen Ferpecto” and the theme park-set spaghetti western “800 Bullets.” (If you haven’t seen either, we won’t be offended if you run out to rent them now.)

Thanks to the questionable state of “Oxford”‘s one-time American distributor ThinkFilm, the screening was a rare opportunity to see the Elijah Wood-John Hurt thriller on a U.S. big screen — up until now. And while reaction from parts of the world where the film did get a theatrical release was mixed, “The Oxford Murders” is an undeniable reaffirmation of de la Iglesia’s status as one of the world’s most inventive filmmakers, both visually (exemplified by a particularly breathtaking tracking shot of the streets of London) and as a storyteller (demonstrated by his application of philosophy to Guillermo Martínez’s literally by-the-numbers tale of a professor and a student who go after a serial killer guided by mathematics).

During his excursion in Los Angeles, I sat down with de la Iglesia to talk about this film and his next (“The Yellow M”), philosophy and dismembering fellow director Alex Cox.

How did you become interested in adapting Guillermo Martínez’s book for the screen?

It’s strange because at the beginning, I read a bad review in a Spanish newspaper, so I remembered thinking, “Maybe it’s a good novel.” [laughs] And I read it and my first idea was it’s impossible to make a movie with this novel because it’s only mental, there’s no action. Everything happens in the brain. Maybe one year later, Gerardo [Herrero], my producer, called me and told me, “I read the novel, I loved the novel, I bought the novel. It’s the Guillermo Martinez novel. What do you think?”

And suddenly I felt that this was a challenge for me. How can I tell the story visually? It was a real exciting exercise for me and an English movie with English actors — it was like an exam. [laughs] Can I do it in a real way? Can I make a British movie? I enjoyed doing it and I think the results are really positive.

08032010_oxfordmurders2.jpgThis film is also a departure from the dark comedies you’ve made with a far more serious tone and a darker color palate. Did that make it more challenging?

That was my idea, to make something different. I don’t like the filmmakers who become [set in their ways]. I really wanted to do something different, but when you see the movie, suddenly you feel that it’s not so different than the other ones. The plot [of “The Oxford Murders”] is very similar to “800 Bullets.” You have a child that suddenly goes to a strange place, trying to find his father, and his grandfather helps him, trying to find his own past.

In “The Oxford Murders,” it’s the same thing: a young guy goes to London, a strange place like [the theme park] in “800 Bullets,” and in this place finds some kind of master, some kind of Gandalf, who helps him and trains him to know something about life. It’s really similar.

Since “The Oxford Murders” takes place on a college campus, it seems like you were finally able to make use of your degree in philosophy, which is particularly evident in the opening scene where Elijah Wood’s character Martin confronts John Hurt’s professor Arthur Seldom over Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy of mathematics and language. Was that also part of the film’s appeal?

Well, in the script, we changed mathematics for philosophy, so [the characters] are talking about philosophers. In the novel, Guillermo talks about Wittgenstein, but we wanted to make the part bigger because for me, he’s the great thinker. I remember studying philosophy and not understanding anything about [Wittgenstein’s sole book] “Tractatus.” I read it when I was 18 years old. And Wittgenstein worked on “Tractatus” when he was in the first World War, not in the middle of battle, but in the trenches.

So Wittgenstein is perfect to understand the plot in the story [about the imprecision of applying logic to reality], as is [German theoretical physicist Werner] Heisenberg. Heisenberg says that it’s impossible to understand a phenomenon because when you study the phenomenon, you change the object, the position, the way the electrons work. So it’s like Elijah’s character. [SPOILER AHEAD!] [By his mere presence,] Elijah changed the phenomenon, changed the murders. Not only changed, but provokes the murders, so he’s a killer because he’s trying to study, trying to know what happened in this house with his grandmother and his sister. It’s so beautiful.

06162009_oxfordmurder9.jpgI love your films for your appreciation of the macabre, but I also worry that you spend much of your time thinking about plotting out the perfect murder after seeing films like “El Crimen Ferpecto” and “La Comunidad.” Why is it a recurring theme?

I love murders. [laughs] I love murder and mystery movies. It’s a beautiful genre for me. I love the whodunit movies, trying to find out who is the killer?

Obviously, you also love Alex Cox [the director of “Sid and Nancy” and “Repo Man”], who has appeared in both of your English-language films. [In “Oxford Murders,” he plays a researcher who goes insane and attempts his own lobotomy.] How did you meet?

I met Alex Cox in Mexico. He was working on “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” because he was the first filmmaker [around 1997] and suddenly he lost the project. Alex was very excited about this movie and we were friends. I love his work. I think he’s one of the best filmmakers and it’s a shame because Alex is not working in the way I love to see. I would like to see more movies from Alex Cox.

[I wanted him in “Oxford” because] it’s like another “Perdita Durango” [de la Iglesia’s first English-language film], so I work with Alex Cox because I love Alex Cox.

Did you enjoy cutting his legs off in the film?

Yeah, it’s so beautiful, huh? I remember people said to me during the movie, “you don’t [want to] cover the body with the sheet?” And I say, “No, no, naked, naked! I want to see the body!” [laughs]

“The Oxford Murders” opens in select theaters on August 6th, and is available on VOD.

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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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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.

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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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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….

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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.

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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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