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Zeina Durra and Elodie Bouchez Insist “The Imperialists Are Still Alive”

Zeina Durra and Elodie Bouchez Insist “The Imperialists Are Still Alive” (photo)

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Like the unsatisfied pleasure seekers in Luis Bunuel’s “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” or later Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan,” the protagonists of Zeina Durra’s “The Imperialists Are Still Alive” are chasing a satisfaction that no party will provide as they strut through gallery openings, soirees in the backrooms of Chinese kitchens, and other dimly lit social functions in Manhattan. But in a novel twist, Durra brings an unwelcome guest to the proceedings when the leader of the pack, a visual artist named Asya (Élodie Bouchez) discovers that an ex-boyfriend may have disappeared at the hands of CIA, a concern that might seem paranoid if it weren’t for the fact that both feel the scrutiny of living in a post-9/11 America.

That might sound like heady prestige bait for most filmmakers, but for Durra, the Oxford-educated daughter of Bosnian and Jordanian parents who spent the early 2000s attending film school at NYU, it’s obviously personal not just because of autobiographical similarities but rather since it’s laced with a singular sense of humor that challenges the importance of art and the permanence of identity while carrying an air of idiosyncrasy that only could come from a perspective of an outsider looking in. In New York once more to promote the film, Durra and the French star Bouchez spoke about what it was like to make the satire, how “Metropolitan” director Stillman came in for a cameo and how it’s far from what most independent cinema is these days.

What was the appeal of making this film?

Élodie Bouchez: Zeina. [laughs] No, simply, I really loved the script, which was very well written and structured and then I saw Zeina’s first film [the 2005 short “Seventh Dog”] that I really enjoyed too and I could feel that she was a really talented director. Then I met her and decided to do this movie together.

Zeina, what made you want to do this film and with Élodie?

Zeina Durra: I didn’t want to make one of those really bad movies with an artist who really wasn’t an artist that was painting bad canvasses – you know, those kind of bad indie films. So I thought I really need a French actress and because being an artist is all about energy, I was talking to [my casting director] about French actresses and he’s goes, “Well, I think Élodie would be perfect.” And I thought that was kind of out of our league and he said, “No, I just sent her the script. Let’s just give it a try.” So that all really worked out and it was a joy to work with her. We did a lot of prep work, she learned some Arabic. We really worked on how to get the character perfect and I think that shows in the film.

ImperialistsAreStillAlive_04132011.jpgThe film ultimately says some really interesting things about art – obviously, it’s very important to both of you, but at the same time, it shows how trivial it can be when compared to real world events and there’s one scene in particular that mocks an interpretive dance troupe called Environmental Dance that attempts to bridge the two. Since you work in the field, how do you reconcile those things?

ZD: I think that’s funny because everyone has brought that up, but for me, I just wanted to show this milieu [Asya’s] in, so as a dance troupe, it’s more like it was a really painful exercise to watch and as all young artists or non-artists, you go and you watch your friends’ work or and there’s always that moment of “Well, what happens if it’s dreadful” and how do you deal with that? So I thought that’d be really interesting bonding moment for the couple in the film because it’s their first proper date. And I didn’t want it to be silly. I wanted it to be something that went a bit wrong. Like it could’ve been good, but there was just something off in it and it was ridiculously funny as opposed to silly funny.

So that was that, but then the art thing, there’s always a struggle that any artist has or anyone that’s not like a doctor in a war zone that has a conscience has, which is how do you justify your day-to-day when there’s some crazy stuff going on and you think that your work is worthless. Ultimately, it’s more complex than that because you do need people thinking out there to try and put ideas out there to inspire society and to make society a better place. I do think art is very important for that, but there’s always those quite awkward moment when there’s a tsunami in Japan and it seems like what you’re doing is frivolous when maybe it isn’t. You have to keep that in mind when you’re doing art – that it is important, but obviously you’re going to have days when you think it’s like why the hell am I choosing this really tough profession that at the same time is pretty indulgent sometimes to the rest of the world.

Was it hard to strike the right tone for this?

ZD: I think the hardest thing about the film was people didn’t get that I knew what the tone of the film was and I’d written the script. I thought Élodie got the tone, right?

EB: Yes, of course, I got the tone because for me, it was already in the writing. The scenes are surreal sometimes, but in such a funny way, and I’m sure it takes a lot of work as a writer to get to that level of certainty in the humor and knowing Zeina, I guess that this tone also comes from her personality and the way she looks at the world and the way she looks at her characters, her story and her actors.

04142011_ImperialistsareStillAlive2.jpgFor Élodie, was it an interesting dynamic on set when in a film that’s personal for its director like this, you’re playing a version of your director? You don’t want to mimic her, but at the same time, you’re playing her onscreen surrogate.

EB: Yeah, the question’s never been to mimic her. She never asked me to do that.

ZD: It would’ve been a bad film! [both laugh]

EB: [There was] some inspiration and we just tried together to put in that third person that was the character, which was [between] me and which was Zeina completely in a way to give her that kind of complexity and dynamic. So it’s more like we both worked on [a character in the middle].

ZD: Yeah, completely. I didn’t go into whether it was me or not. I just wanted to have what I had in my head and wanted to say it out onscreen.

This film is always on the move, mostly from one party to the next – was it a really invigorating shoot or exhausting or both?

ZD: It was really fun. All our actors were great and we were a fun crew and we worked really hard and there were 23 days, so it was very arduous and it was very cold, but somehow we just all cracked up the whole time.

EB: Yes, the limited amount of time that we had wasn’t comfortable, but it just gave us a great energy and sometimes we had to go from the party makeup to very natural makeup and then go back to the party makeup – we would all put a lot of good energy into making our days and that was fun.

Was this bringing back some memories of some really bad or interesting parties you’ve attended?

ZD: That’s the whole New York thing about being young and going out and for me, because I was here during 9/11 and obviously before and after, people were still doing that sort of stuff, it was always quite surreal sometimes when you were in those situations, especially when everyone was being bombed and you were living your life. There was all this parallel stuff going on, so when I watch the film, it obviously brings back memories.

ImperialistsAreStillAlive4_04142011.jpg It reminded me in a very direct way of “Metropolitan” – and in fact, Whit Stillman shows up for a cameo as a gentleman who tries to impose himself on unsuspecting partygoers while dancing. How did that cameo come about?

ZD: Vanessa [Hope], my producer, is friends with him and she basically asked him if he would — we needed like a Euro banker and she said, “Oh, Whit would be perfect. He’d love to do it.” And that’s how he came on and it was just great because his work resonated with mine because I really do love his films.

How interesting has it been to get an American reaction? It’s very much an American film and at the same time, it would seem like people talk to you about it in foreign terms.

ZD: It was a hard film in that sense because it is a very American film, but it’s not made in an indie American way and it wasn’t in the way that we shot it, like the no time and no money, but the way that the film was structured. Nor did it have the familiar American indie characters, so I think that’s probably what those people ask in a way because you don’t have the guy in the flannel with the dog living in Williamsburg. That’s the lexicon of independent cinema when there’s a lot of brown sofas and that’s the aesthetic and I wasn’t doing that.

“The Imperialists Are Still Alive” is now available on demand and will open in New York on April 15th.

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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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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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