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A Spirited Q & A With “Night Catches Us” Director Tanya Hamilton

A Spirited Q & A With “Night Catches Us” Director Tanya Hamilton (photo)

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As a way of celebrating this year’s nominees for the Spirit Awards in the weeks leading up to the ceremony, we reached out to as many as we could in an effort to better understand what went into their films, what they’ve gotten out of the experience, and where they’ve found their inspiration, both in regards to their work and other works of art that might’ve inspired them from the past year. Their answers will be published on a daily basis throughout February.

If you didn’t know Tanya Hamilton was a painter long before she ever studied filmmaking, you’d probably guess it roughly 15 minutes into her debut film “Night Catches Us.” In her Spirit Award nominee for Best First Feature, Hamilton does something extraordinary with what is ostensibly a period piece about two former Black Panthers trying to find their way in the years after the movement’s dissipated — she turns the ordinary into art. Told in glances as much as words, the story is one deeply rooted in history and yet isn’t inhibited at all by it, and surely not in the way its main characters are.

02192011_TanyaHamiltonNightCatchesUs.jpgThat past is brought to the fore when a picture of Marcus (Anthony Mackie), Patricia (Kerry Washington) and her late husband Neal falls from the pages of a comic book that Patty’s daughter (Jamara Griffin) flips through, which coincides with Marcus’ return to Philadelphia for his father’s funeral. Neal’s death hasn’t been explained to his daughter, nor does Hamilton seem to be in a rush to share it with the audience, letting it linger as just one of the many aspects of a time that’s largely uncertain. Neither Marcus or Patricia are entirely the idealists they once were — they can’t afford to be — though each are still headstrong in a world where there still isn’t racial equality.

The true beauty of “Night Catches Us,” aside from the elegant cinematography of David Tumblety and musical flourishes from The Roots, is how it presents such complex emotions in such a simple way. Having two of this generation’s finest actors in Mackie and Washington certainly doesn’t hurt, but the film is particularly striking in the way it drops in archival footage, bits of animation, and static shots of the working-class Philadelphia neighborhood where it’s set to capture the essence of the era without overwhelming the story at hand, which is akin to a tale of two lions forced to consider captivity. Whether its characters can ever break free is the central question of the film, but in terms of its own independent spirit, “Night Catches Us” answers with a resounding yes.

Why did you want to make this film?

I’m very interested in that section of time. I think that period of history is so interesting and there’s something tragic and romantic and kind of beautiful about that whole Black Power era. It’s not my history, but I was definitely interested in how the idea of revolution in a way might affect these people and I was trying to figure out a way to look at it from the aftermath of the movement and to look at it from this very mundane, ordinary perspective.

What was the best piece of advice you received prior to the making of the film?

The best piece of advice probably comes from my husband who’s a fiction writer and really encouraged me to focus in on the minutiae of the world and also to look at the small moments rather than anything big and dramatic. That’s something that I’m very inclined to be interested in anyway, but also, it’s something that I kept with me throughout making the film, both how I directed it and how it was cut and sort of visually.

What was the toughest thing to overcome, whether in a particular scene or the film as a whole?

It may be a very cliché answer, but I think it was money. It really does dictate so much of what either gets done or doesn’t get done. Maybe a nicer answer is I had to cut the screenplay down from 125 pages roughly to some place in the eighties. And that was obviously because of money. We had a very tiny budget to shoot it and so it was tough to have to do that, but in an odd way actually, I think it was good. I made some mistakes — I can see them — but in general, I think the film ended up being stronger because of it.

What’s been the most memorable moment while you’ve traveled with the film, either at a festival or otherwise?

I had a woman come up to me, I think, in Chicago who was probably in her seventies and was just such a regular working woman and she said that she liked the film a lot. She felt there were some problems with it, but overall she liked it. And I appreciated having this woman who is part of a demographic…these kinds of movies don’t always speak to that kind of demographic. I think the movies sometimes can also be narrow in their scope. And I appreciated that this woman came to see it and it resonated with her and I appreciated that she was honest to say she thought there were problems with it, but that she connected with the characters in the world. I felt very heartened by it.

What’s your favorite thing about your film that’s largely been uncommented upon?

I love the visual language of it a lot. I love the work that David Tumblety, who shot it, did – I think he’s an artist. I think as artists we were both able to work really well together and I love the way it looks and I love the small visual moments. That kind of goes back to that minutiae. I love many things about it, but I love the language a lot.

What’s been the most gratifying thing to come out of this film for you personally?

I think that probably the most gratifying part, beyond getting to work with people I really like a lot and building a little bit of a quasi-creative family, is that I got to show the film to so many people across the U.S. and that I was able to have so many conversations with ordinary people and the varied arc of the people, whether it was the kind of people who are very much part of the audience for movies like this or people who are completely not in any way. I loved the scope of that. I loved hearing what they had to say, positive and negative, and I think it broadened my sense of what an audience is and how important an audience is, which is something I didn’t actually, frankly, recognize before making it.

What’s been your favorite film, book or album from the past year?

I have a four-year-old, so I sadly don’t ever get out to see movies anymore. That’s sort of pathetic. Maybe a book is more appropriate and it’s a book I had not read before and found really fascinating. It’s a book called “The Intuitionist” by Colson Whitehead that is a marvelously brilliant book, a metaphor about race and politics and I really liked it a lot.

“Night Catches Us” is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. The Spirit Awards will air on IFC on February 26th.

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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…

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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. 

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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-Craft

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?”

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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).

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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.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.