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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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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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