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The directors of “Undefeated” tackle high school football

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“You keep doing the right thing. And good things will happen to you.”

Those are the words of high school football coach Bill Courtney to his team, the Manassas Tigers. Based on the incredible power of “Undefeated,” the film about Courtney and the Tigers, one has to assume that its directors, Dan Lindsay, and T.J. Martin, have been doing the right thing for a loooooong time. The film premiered at last year’s South by Southwest Film Festival, where it was quickly scooped up for distribution by The Weinstein Company. Now it’s nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary before it even opens in theaters this Friday.

The documentary category at the Oscars is always fraught with controversy. This year’s nominations have been particularly contentious thanks to snubs of terrific films like “The Interrupters,” “Senna,” and “Project Nim.” Regardless, “Undefeated” is a worthy Oscar nominee. The film, which bears obvious similarities to the television show “Friday Night Lights,” packs as strong an emotional wallop as any of the series’ best episodes.

Manassass High is located in North Memphis, Tennessee, one of the most economically depressed parts of the country. Its students are not only playing for pride, some of them are quite literally fighting for their future, like star offensive lineman O.C. Brown, whose unique physical abilities could land him a college scholarship if he could only get his grades up. His teammate Montrail, a.k.a Money, has the opposite problem: he’s an exceptional student, but he’s too small to play college ball and probably too poor to afford a good school any other way. And then there’s Chavis, a player who missed all of last season after he was sentenced to a term in a youth detention facility because of anger management issues.

These guys might sound more like the Bad News Bears than the Chicago Bears, but Courtney’s positive influence on these young men and their community over the course of a single remarkable season is nothing short of inspiring. Not to get too schmaltzy about it, but the world portrayed in “Undefeated” — where good deeds are rewarded in kind — is the world we all want to live in. And to know that this is a documentary, which means this is the world we actually live in, makes your heart soar.

During our conversation, Lindsay, Martin and I talked about how the project developed, why they chose to focus on O.C., Money, and Chavis instead of the traditional subject of football stories (i.e. the quarterback), and whether they ever received one of their own motivational Bill Courtney pep talks.

I’ve read that your original plan was to make a film specifically about O.C. Brown. How far into the process did you decide to widen the film’s scope and what spurred the decision?

Dan Lindsay: It happened after our first trip to Memphis to look into the idea. On that trip we met Bill Courtney, and his dynamic personality convinced us right away that he would be a part of the film. And then when he told us the stories of the previous five years and the amazing anecdotes of things that had happened in the past, we realized that really was the story: the team trying to break [Manassas’ 100-plus year] playoff jinx. That seemed like the perfect setup for a beginning, middle, and an end.

T.J. Martin: It opened up in scale after meeting Bill, but the approach of the film never changed even as it grew. From day one, we knew we wanted to make something more vérité. We were much more interested in things unfolding in front of the camera and less anecdotally.

We fought making a traditional sports film for a long time. The season gave us a nice spine, but we still thought a lot of the film would take place off of the field. Then we realized that it was undeniable how much drama was taking place on the field, and on the practice field, and so forth. About three games in, we realized if we were going to make a sports film we better make the best damn sports film there is.

It’s a damn good sports film, but it may be the only football movie I’ve ever seen where not only are the quarterback and the running back not the main characters, they don’t even have speaking roles. Was that a deliberate choice or was that simply how the finished film evolved in the editing room?

DL: That was our own stupidity, not a deliberate choice. [laughs] No, but it is funny; about halfway through the season we were like, “Oh man, we should probably be talking to the guys who are scoring all the touchdowns.”

[laughs]

DL: But it was always about the characters. We set out to make a documentary that would make you forget you were watching a documentary. We needed characters who had potential for a dramatic arc. They wanted something, and either they were going to get it or they weren’t. That was our focus. We did realize that people were probably going to be interested in who this great quarterback is. But it was never our intention to make a rah-rah football film, so those guys never seemed as important to us.

TJM: For lack of a better term, the way we “cast” our characters, besides trying to find whoever had the most potential for dramatic change within a short amount of time, was to pick people who were going to interact with each other and with the team. We did follow a couple of other storylines that were extremely compelling, but they didn’t make the final edit because we didn’t want to make a series of vignettes. We wanted it to be a really tight narrative where every scene propels the story forward.

Your subjects are so incredibly comfortable on camera. I’m sure a lot of that had to do with the way you guys built a relationship between you and then team. But watching how remarkably relaxed — and how incredibly open and honest — these young men are on camera, made me think about the world of YouTube videos and camera phones. Teens today think it’s totally normal to have a camera pointed at them. Do you think you guys benefitted from that?

DL: I don’t think we ever really thought about that. For us, the approach was to build a relationship. But I will say one of the reasons we got excited about the film after that first trip to Memphis was we were getting that kind of honesty right away. I can’t say what to attribute that to. Honestly, I think part of it is some of these guys were just happy to be able to express themselves and tell their stories. I know Money especially doesn’t really have a lot of people in his life who are asking him those kind of questions about his hopes and fears and stuff. I think our interest alone helped us.

Our age really benefited us, too. We’re both in our early 30s, so we weren’t unbelievably far removed from high school. We were able to relate to the kids in that way but we weren’t too far removed from the coaches either. It put us in this spot where we could relate to both the coaches and the students.

When a character like Money is going through hard times, how hard is it to just stand there with a camera and not go over and give the poor guy a hug?

TJM: It’s extremely difficult. In vérité documentaries, you’re really watching the relationship between the filmmaker and the subject. We didn’t want to be “objective” or not grow close to the subjects; we wanted an intimate film, so we did develop a pretty close relationship with our subjects. To watch them struggle with certain things in their lives, to watch them go through obstacles, and to know that in your own opinion they might be making the wrong decision, was extremely difficult. At the same time, that’s not our judgment call, and we always needed to remind ourselves of that.

With that said, Money went through some really tough times while we were there, including a lot of stuff that’s not even in the film. There were definitely times where we’d take him out to lunch, without the cameras, and give him an opportunity to vent and kind of figure out where his head was at. And that’s an opportunity to remind him that we care about his well-being.

DL: To answer your question directly, there are also times where you do give the guy a hug. We understand the line between filmmaker and subject, and we respect that, but at the same time it’s impossible not to get close with these guys, and sometimes it just happens. After [a crucial game], I was following Bill and he broke down, and I was like “None of this is necessary.” I put down the camera and we talked and I gave the guy a hug. You can’t help that. Or if you can help it, I think you end up with a very — I don’t mean this to be judgmental or anything — but a very sterile film. As an audience member, you can feel when a filmmaker is removed to that extent.

I spent part of my vacation in Memphis last summer, and I was unprepared for how hard the recession had hit the area. How familiar were you guys with Memphis and its problems before you started the film?

TJM: I personally didn’t know much about Memphis before going there. We did as much research as possible in advance, but we kind of had the same experience: when we got to North Memphis, we felt a stronger and more urgent need to tell this story. Dan and I have done a fair amount of traveling, and neither of us had seen poverty on that level in this country before. We never set out to make issues-based films; we always wanted to make more of a human interest piece. But the one thing that is pretty rare to find in communities like this is a film that celebrates the potential, the opportunities, and the good along with the bad. A lot of times in these communities, specifically communities like North Memphis, if there’s a media presence, they’re there to sensationalize a story about violence in the neighborhood or something like that. And we saw this more as an opportunity to celebrate the stories of the people who live in these communities.

As we see over and over in the film, Bill Courtney is a master of the halftime pep talk. Did you ever find yourselves on the receiving end of one of his pep talks?

TJM: [laughs] Definitely. In postproduction, we found ourselves on the receiving end of those pep talks ever day. And little does he know that’s what got us through nine months of post-production: listening to these amazing speeches by Bill. That actually gave us hope to go into the editing room each day when we were only 25 hours into a 500 hour logging session.

DL: We both still talk to Bill all the time. He always wants to know about everything going on in my life and he totally does it to us. [laughs] “Dan, you gotta embrace this moment!” Every once in a while I find myself getting kind of worked up when he’s talking to me. It’s an ongoing pep talk from him to me.

“Undefeated” opens in limited release this Friday. If you see it, let us know what you think on Facebook and Twitter.

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As the Spoof Turns

15 Hilarious Soap Opera Parodies

Catch the classic sitcom Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures Television

The soap opera is the indestructible core of television fandom. We celebrate modern series like The Wire and Breaking Bad with their ongoing storylines, but soap operas have been tangling more plot threads than a quilt for decades. Which is why pop culture enjoys parodying them so much.

Check out some of the funniest soap opera parodies below, and be sure to catch Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

1. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman

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Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was a cult hit soap parody from the mind of Norman Lear that poked daily fun at the genre with epic twists and WTF moments. The first season culminated in a perfect satire of ratings stunts, with Mary being both confined to a psychiatric facility and chosen to be part of a Nielsen ratings family.


2. IKEA Heights

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IKEA Heights proves that the soap opera is alive and well, even if it has to be filmed undercover at a ready-to-assemble furniture store totally unaware of what’s happening. This unique webseries brought the classic formula to a new medium. Even IKEA saw the funny side — but has asked that future filmmakers apply through proper channels.


3. Fresno

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When you’re parodying ’80s nighttime soaps like Dallas and Dynasty , everything about your show has to equally sumptuous. The 1986 CBS miniseries Fresno delivered with a high-powered cast (Carol Burnett, Teri Garr and more in haute couture clothes!) locked in the struggle for the survival of a raisin cartel.


4. Soap

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Soap was the nighttime response to daytime soap operas: a primetime skewering of everything both silly and satisfying about the source material. Plots including demonic possession and alien abduction made it a cult favorite, and necessitated the first televised “viewer discretion” disclaimer. It also broke ground for featuring one of the first gay characters on television in the form of Billy Crystal’s Jodie Dallas. Revisit (or discover for the first time) this classic sitcom every Saturday morning on IFC.


5. Too Many Cooks

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Possibly the most perfect viral video ever made, Too Many Cooks distilled almost every style of television in a single intro sequence. The soap opera elements are maybe the most hilarious, with more characters and sudden shocking twists in an intro than most TV scribes manage in an entire season.


6. Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

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Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace was more mockery than any one medium could handle. The endless complications of Darkplace Hospital are presented as an ongoing horror soap opera with behind-the-scenes anecdotes from writer, director, star, and self-described “dreamweaver visionary” Garth Marenghi and astoundingly incompetent actor/producer Dean Learner.


7. “Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive,” MadTV

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Soap opera connoisseurs know that the most melodramatic plots are found in Korea. MADtv‘s parody Tae Do  (translation: Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive) features the struggles of mild-mannered characters with far more feelings than their souls, or subtitles, could ever cope with.


8. Twin Peaks

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Twin Peaks, the twisted parody of small town soaps like Peyton Place whose own creator repeatedly insists is not a parody, has endured through pop culture since it changed television forever when it debuted in 1990. The show even had it’s own soap within in a soap called…


9. “Invitation to Love,” Twin Peaks

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Twin Peaks didn’t just parody soap operas — it parodied itself parodying soap operas with the in-universe show Invitation to Love. That’s more layers of deceit and drama than most televised love triangles.


10. “As The Stomach Turns,” The Carol Burnett Show

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The Carol Burnett Show poked fun at soaps with this enduring take on As The World Turns. In a case of life imitating art, one story involving demonic possession would go on to happen for “real” on Days of Our Lives.


11. Days of our Lives (Friends Edition)

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Still airing today, Days of Our Lives is one of the most famous soap operas of all time. They’re also excellent sports, as they allowed Friends star Joey Tribbiani to star as Dr Drake Ramoray, the only doctor to date his own stalker (while pretending to be his own evil twin). And then return after a brain-transplant.

And let’s not forget the greatest soap opera parody line ever written: “Come on Joey, you’re going up against a guy who survived his own cremation!”


12. Acorn Antiques

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First appearing on the BBC sketch comedy series Victoria Wood As Seen on TV, Acorn Antiques combines almost every low-budget soap opera trope into one amazing whole. The staff of a small town antique store suffer a disproportional number of amnesiac love-triangles, while entire storylines suddenly appear and disappear without warning or resolution. Acorn Antiques was so popular, it went on to become a hit West End musical.


13. “Point Place,” That 70s Show

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In a memorable That ’70s Show episode, an unemployed Red is reduced to watching soaps all day. He becomes obsessed despite the usual Red common-sense objections (like complaining that it’s impossible to fall in love with someone in a coma). His dreams render his own life as Point Place, a melodramatic nightmare where Kitty leaves him because he’s unemployed. (Click here to see all airings of That ’70s Show on IFC.)


14. The Spoils of Babylon

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Bursting from the minds of Will Ferrell and creators Andrew Steele and Matt Piedmont, The Spoils of Babylon was a spectacular parody of soap operas and epic mini-series like The Thorn Birds. Taking the parody even further, Ferrell himself played Eric Jonrosh, the author of the book on which the series was based. Jonrosh returned in The Spoils Before Dying, a jazzy murder mystery with its own share of soapy twists and turns.

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15. All My Children Finale, SNL

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SNL‘s final celebration of one of the biggest soaps of all time is interrupted by a relentless series of revelations from stage managers, lighting designers, make-up artists, and more. All of whom seem to have been married to or murdered by (or both) each other.

“Bullhead”‘s director and star steer the conversation

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The race for the Academy Awards is a high-stakes, high-pressure game. But Michael R. Roskam and Matthias Schoenaerts, the writer/director and star of “Bullhead,” a brutal and beautiful nominee for the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film, seemed downright relaxed as we chatted in their New York hotel room three weeks before the big show. The Oscars, Roskam explained, are gravy. As far as he was concerned, they’d already won.

“Buzz is good,” Roskam told me, “but if you can’t see the movie, you can’t decide whether it’s good or not. So it’s all about making as many people see the movie as you can. That’s what we’ve been doing and that’s what we’re going to keep doing, whatever happens at the Oscars. That’s the rewarding part. If we win, it’s just an extra award.”

If Roskam wins, it won’t be undeserved. “Bullhead” is an unforgettable crime drama built around a remarkable performance from Schoenaerts. He plays Jacky, a Belgian cattle farmer with a dark secret. Through years of steroid abuse, Jacky has transformed himself into a massive mountain of a man; as the film begins, he enters into a deal with a shady meat trader to pump his livestock full of similarly illegal, similarly anabolic substances. When Jacky’s new business partners murder a cop investigating their so-called “hormone mafia,” he’s threatened with the loss of his business and the exposure of his secret, thanks to the return of a childhood acquaintance he hasn’t seen in decades.

Like the brooding, burly man at its center — Schoenaerts spent a year bulking up for the role — “Bullhead”‘s hard exterior hides a vulnerable core; the film is as moving as it is monstrous. “It’s not about the bad guys against the good guys,” Roskam said. “Everybody is a bad guy, in a way. But there’s good parts in a bad guy. It’s not black and white.”

During our conversation, I was curious where this morally murky story came from and how Schoenaerts prepared for his role beyond his obvious physical transformation. We also talked about Jacky’s connection to Frankenstein and why you could never remake “Bullhead” in the United States. Roskam and Schoenaerts were charming, funny, and totally at ease throughout, like a couple of guys with nothing to lose.

Where did the project begin, with the idea of this character or with the story of this Belgian hormone mafia?

Michael R. Roskam: Let’s say that the themes, like destiny, loyalty, impotence, powerlessness, manhood —

Matthias Schoenaerts: — redemption, revenge —

MRR: — redemption, revenge, those themes were already in my system as a writer. I was working with them in my short stories and short films. That’s one part. Then in 1995, we had this hormone mafia situation. They killed a very honest veterinary inspector of the Food and Drug Administration in Belgium. He was an Eliot Ness kind of character, doing his job, by the book, while all his colleagues were corrupt and part of the scam, this whole illegal network of trafficking and illegal hormone use. We woke up one day with the knowledge that some of our farmers were gangsters, which is very original and even exotic in a way. And then of course I wanted to make this kind of film noir movie, and you need two things for a good film noir: a crime scene and a tragedy. I knew that this hormone mafia would give me a good opportunity to charm people or intrigue them.

I did some research on the meat industry and the agricultural economy, and I found out lots of things and some of those things directly inspired things that I used in the film. It’s chemistry: things start to dance and connect and the process brings you to ideas that surprise you.

Matthias, obviously your role called for some serious physical preparation. What else did you have to do to get ready to play Jacky?

MS: Well, we had six years to work on it because Michael pitched me the part six years before we shot it. After I read the first draft of the script, I had this image of a half-man, half-bull kind of figure. So I thought his physical appearance was very important in evoking a lot for the spectators, to make them see this kind of Frankenstein being. And at the same time, I knew that once I got his physical appearance I could focus more on the vulnerable part of the character, which to me was more the core. I think Jacky moves through life through a deep existential pain and that to me was the most important thing.

It’s interesting that you mention Frankenstein, because as I was watching the film — particularly during the final act — I really began to think of that story. Michael, is that a text that really resonates with you?

MRR: The archetypes of the monster and the freak, you can apply it very much to this character. Beauty and the Beast. King Kong and the girl. Even Batman. Batman is traumatized as a kid by bats, so he becomes a bat.

On a Freudian level, Jacky becomes his bully. He’s attacked by something that is bigger than him; even though it’s just another kid, he’s huge compared to him. It was a force he could not resist. So to deal with his own trauma, he also becomes a force you cannot resist, in a physical way and a psychological way. And it’s something that protects him. His body, this incredible mass of meat —

MS: — It’s like a fortress.

MRR: Yeah, and that’s why I deliberately chose not show any other interiors in his farm beyond the bathroom. There’s nothing else. We always stayed outside. The bathroom was like his Batcave. That’s the place where he can lay down in the shower and be alone and be himself and vulnerable again. He is like Frankenstein — not knowing how strong he is, being naive and even childish.

The character has such a unique onscreen presence, and he exhibits both human and animal characteristics. Even his breath, the way we constantly hear him huffing, he almost sounds like a snorting animal. Matthias, was that in the script, or was that an idea you guys collaborated on together?

MS: That’s an example of things happening while you’re playing. It was just a very natural consequence of what happened to me. I gained an enormous amount of weight and I just felt heavy, and I was breathing like a whale.

MRR: If he would try to sneak up on you, you could hear him coming.

MS: [laughs] I was snoring so badly when I slept, it was crazy! I couldn’t avoid it. It would have been harder if someone had told me “Can you please not breathe like that?” I would have been in trouble.

Your character delivers some incredible looking headbutts in the movie. They look very real and very painful. What’s the secret to delivering a good on camera headbutt?

MS: You just shoot it on the day that it’s the other actor’s last day on set, and you do it for real.

MRR: [laughs]

MS: No, no that’s not true.

MRR: The actors are pretty trained but there was physical contact.

MS: We have a stunt coordinator who sets it all up with the camera. But the headbutts, that was also something that just happened during shooting too. It felt natural at points in certain scenes, instead of pushing someone, to just go at them with my head. It just happened naturally, it wasn’t conceptualized. The first time I did it we realized we had to do it again somewhere else in the film.

There’s a lot of discussion in “Bullhead” about coincidence: one character says they don’t believe in it, but there does seem to be an awful lot of coincidence in the film. Michael, I’m wondering where you personally stand on that issue.

MRR: I’m intrigued by destiny and coincidence. It’s a big subject in my short films as well. In the Greek tradition, if destiny exists, there is no coincidence. If you don’t believe in destiny, you have to accept that it’s coincidence. But it’s very hard to deal with that because it takes the purpose out of life, that you can’t control it. So if you control it, then you might control your own destiny, but then you believe in it, which you can’t. I love to play with that. It’s the roots of religion, what we’re doing and where we’re going. Is someone taking control of this or are we doing it ourselves? Or is it both? Sometimes people protect themselves by saying “I don’t believe in it.”

MS: Basically, you believe in it when it suits you. When it doesn’t suit you, you stop believing it.

All right, last question: has making this film exposing the corruption and dirty practices in the meat industry changed your own meat eating habits?

MRR: I just keep eating meat. The whole growth hormone discussion is a difficult one. In Europe, it’s illegal. In America, five types of growth hormones are legal to be used on cattle. Sometimes I think I’d rather eat meat and know exactly what chemicals are in it than eat so-called “hormone-free” meat, and not being truly sure.

MS: Basically nowadays everything is so manipulated. Fish is manipulated. Vegetables, fruit, everything.

Michael, you said there’s five hormones that are legal to use on cows in the United States. It’s suddenly dawning on me that this whole story about deceit and violence and death would have never happened in the U.S. because you could just put these hormones into the cows.

MRR: Yeah. That’s an important thing: you can’t remake this movie in the States.

[laughs]

MS: You’d have to make it about chemicals in vegetables.

MRR: Right. The legume mafia.

“Bullhead” opens Friday in New York, Los Angeles, and Austin, TX. If you see it, let us know what you think. Tell us in the comments below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

Separating fact and fiction with “A Separation” director Asghar Farhadi

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As I was packing up my briefcase after our interview, director Asghar Farhadi made one request through his interpreter, Sheida Dayani: quote his words precisely. He’d been misquoted before, he told me, and he didn’t want it to happen again.

This struck me as an interesting request, since Farhadi’s superb film, the Spirit Award and Golden Globe nominated “A Separation,” is all about misinterpretation. It begins with an Iranian couple, Nader (Peyman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), as they try to get a divorce, then follows their family as they deal with that decision’s fallout. Without his wife at home, Nader is forced to hire a caretaker to look after his bedridden father; later, the caretaker leaves the father unattended, and there is an accident. The case ultimately goes to court, where it becomes a matter of he-said, she-said. Both sides present wildly different interpretations of the events. It’s up to a judge to determine who is right and wrong; from the perspective of the audience, it’s already clear the answer isn’t so black and white.

That’s exactly how Farhadi wants it. “You can make a film in a way that when the audience leaves the theater they leave with certain answers in their head,” he told me. “But when you leave them with answers you interrupt the process of thinking. If instead you raise questions about the themes and the story, this means that the audience is on its way to start thinking. I like that better.”

Hopefully this interview, about Farhadi’s process, his love of writing, and even his initial dissatisfaction with his film’s English language title, will give you plenty to think about as well. Hopefully I’ve transcribed his words correctly, too.

When you’re writing, what comes to you first: the characters or the story?

The two are really inseparable. They move together, both story and character. For me, character comes from a specific condition or situation. I cannot really define a character outside that situation.

How has the reception of the film in Iran compared to its reception abroad?

The responses have been very similar inside and outside Iran. I don’t mean that everyone has the same reaction; but the diversity of questions that are raised outside Iran and the diversity of questions that are raised inside Iran are very similar.

Your daughter plays Nader and Simin’s daughter in the film. Was that your idea or her idea?

[laughs] She wanted to act, and I also wanted to make a film that she could act in. So it was both.

Did you like directing her?

I liked it a lot but there were also times that were difficult. Because she was my daughter, I allowed myself to be tougher on her. Sometimes there were people who said that I was really being tough on her. But with all the complications, we’re both satisfied with the collaboration.

Does she want to be an actress when she grows up? And would you encourage her to pursue acting as a career? I guess you’ve already been pretty encouraging.

I think she would like to continue acting but she’d also like to try writing as well. She played her first film when she was three years old. This is her fourth film.

Many of the early scenes in the film — casual conversations or small bits of information — seem unimportant, but they come up again in later scenes, and we’re left trying to remember them. How did you approach these key moments? They need to be simultaneously memorable and unmemorable.

We have the wrong impression of life. We think the very big incidents of our lives are consequences of huge dilemmas or major decisions. If we paid attention, we’d realize that the determining incidents in our lives are ordinary things. When I write or I shoot these details, I do so in a way that makes them seem very simple, like ordinary details of everyday life. I don’t want the audience to think they’re watching an “important” scene and to try to remember it as a result. This whole game of making the audience go back and remember these simple little details makes them more engaged in the film.

How difficult was it to place all of these “ordinary details” into the screenplay — and to balance things so that all of the characters are equally conflicted and compromised?

It’s a very difficult thing. What I needed to be aware of was the timing; this kind of film cannot work at a fast pace. These details are like part of a crossword puzzle — every corner is related to the other corner.

At this point in your career, what’s the most challenging part about shooting a film in Iran?

This is very difficult for me to answer because I was born there, I grew up there, and I became part of the system, so when I’m working, I’m not consciously thinking about what is more or less difficult. Perhaps if a filmmaker came from the United States and started making films in Iran, they would be more aware of the obstacles. But for me, someone who’s part of the system, it’s not very clear.

I’m sure when you travel with the film, people want to talk to you about the ending. When they ask about it, how do you answer?

I have never given a clear answer to the question; I always try to be evasive about it. I try to let it pass with some humor, or to give some non-specific answers. That’s true not just about the ending, but about all questions raised in interviews. I try not to be very specific about anything in the film. It’s wrong for a director to reveal all the things he was trying to hide in the film. That’s why I’ve always said that giving interviews about the film is usually more difficult than making the film.

[laughs] I’m sorry about that.

No, no. That’s our job.

You’ve received several awards and nominations already. What do you make of the whole Oscar race?

It makes me very happy that regular people are getting to see the film. But I’m also aware that success can bring danger. The success of one film may convince the filmmaker to try repeat his successes and get into a competition with himself. One cannot dwell on periodic successes. You have to look at it as a temporary, passing thing.

Do you have your next film already planned? Based on what you’re saying, it sounds like you’re going to make something very different from “A Separation.”


Yeah. One way to get away from all this hype is to start concentrating on my next film right away. My mind is more involved with my next project than what’s happening with this film.

Do you have a favorite part of the filmmaking process? Obviously not the interviews — we’ve established that.

Writing. For me nothing is more enjoyable thank thinking about a creating a story. Writing is like being in a world where everything belongs to you. You have full power over the characters to create whatever you want.

Does the actual shooting of the film ever get frustrating when it doesn’t quite live up to your imagination for some reason?

Sometimes it happens. When you’re writing, you have full control over everything. But when you try to bring that to action, you run into certain constraints. Not everything comes out the way you imagined.

The original title of the film was “Jodaeiye Nader az Simin.” Nader and Simin are the characters — what does the word “jodaeiye” mean? Is that “separation?”

It’s not just “separation.” It kind of gets lost in translation. You can look at it as “divorce” or as “detachment” or “chasm.”

So how do you like the English language title, then?

At first, I didn’t really like it. It seemed to me that the original title had been distorted somehow, and I wasn’t happy about that. But experience has proven that it’s a good title.

“A Separation” is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. For a full list of playdates, go to SonyClassics.com.

Ten lessons for film critics from J. Hoberman

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After more than twenty years as the paper’s senior film critic, J. Hoberman was laid off by The Village Voice yesterday. Hoberman told New York‘s Daily Intel that he was “shocked, but not surprised” by the news and that it would be “disingenuous to say [he] hadn’t considered the possibility that this would happen eventually.”

The news may not have been surprising, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing. Hoberman had been a fixture at The Voice for decades, but he never coasted on his reputation; in this fan’s opinion, his recent work is as good or better than anything he’s ever written. There are lots of good film writers associated with the paper. But the place will never be the same. For film lovers, J. Hoberman was the voice of The Voice.

Of course, I’m not exactly an impartial observer of these events; as a former student of Hoberman’s at New York University, I owe the man a lot. After his class — a seminar in film criticism — Hoberman helped me get an internship at The Voice, which led to writing for The Voice, which led to, y’know, my whole professional career. So many established writers look down on younger film critics, insulting their knowledge and their taste. Not Jim Hoberman, whose former students include The New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis and L.A. Weekly‘s Karina Longworth.

Even before Hoberman helped jump-start my post-graduate life, his class was one of the best and most important I ever took at any level of my education. His insights into the craft of film criticism and his pointed but encouraging assessments of our work were invaluable. As Hoberman fans might expect, his homework assignments were often unusual. One week he ordered us to see a movie that looked terrible and find one thing we liked about it. Another time we had to write the lede of a review after watching just the first ten minutes of a film.

I still have my notebook from Hoberman’s seminar. I refer back to it often. After hearing last night’s bad news, I took it out again and flipped through it. There was good advice on every page. I’ve decided to share ten of his lessons here (I’m keeping the rest for myself).

Hopefully, I’ve followed most of them. God knows I’ve tried. But not all of us are J. Hoberman. There’s a reason he’s the best at what he does.

On the fundamentals:
“Ask yourself the question, ‘What do people want to know about a movie that they’ve never seen?'”

On plot:
“Plot synopses automatically ruin a review.”

On brevity:
“Watch for excess words. If there’s a shorter word, use it.”

On editors:
“Work with them for the good of the piece. Don’t have ego. Don’t compete.”

On interviewing filmmakers:
“If you’re thinking about it, ask them about it.”

On digressions:
“The longer the em dash, the weaker its impact.”

On taste:
“Always ask yourself why you like what you like.”

On bad movies:
“Vent your spleen. In criticism, it’s better to be angry than depressed.”

On the competition:
“Never read other critics’ reviews. They cloud your judgment.”

On deadlines:
Never miss a deadline.”

Who’s your favorite film critic? Tell us in the comments below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

This Movie Makes No Sense: “The Nutcracker: The Untold Story”

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There are good movies and bad movies.  And then there are those movies that defy easy categorizations.  The inexplicable, the incomprehensible, the indecipherable: these are the movies that make no sense.  And that’s why we love them.

Right down to the core of its conception, “The Nutcracker in 3D” — now known on video in 2D as “The Nutcracker: The Untold Story” — makes no sense. Its director, Andrey Konchalovskiy, worked on this adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” ballet for twenty years. Can you imagine spending twenty years of your life on a single work of art? You’d have to be obsessed. So here’s what Konachlovskiy had to say about his obsession with “The Nutcracker” from the film’s making-of documentary:


“When you’re analyzing the ballet, you realize there are two parts, and the first part is the story and by the end of the first part, the Mice King has already failed.  The second part is just potpourri and celebration.  There’s no story anymore.  So in a sense, it was impossible to follow the story that was written for ballet.  So when I started to think about the film in different terms, I realized it’s just a fairy tale.  And you cannot make a fairy tale with big chunks of dance.  So then I returned to the source [E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”], where evil exists.  And Hoffman’s story is much more deep and philosophical and interesting than the quite poor story of the Tchaikovsky ballet.”


Okay, so clearly he wasn’t that obsessed with “The Nutcracker.” In fact, it kind of sounds like he doesn’t like “The Nutcracker” at all. And yet he still spent twenty years trying to adapt it. His eventual solution was to remove all the ballet from the ballet and replace its “quite poor story.” Andrey, I’m sorry. When you turn “The Nutcracker” into the adventure of a little girl and an obnoxious toy fighting giant rats dressed like Nazis who dance and occasionally electrocute sharks, you lose the right to call anything a “quite poor story.” That’s just how it works.

Konachlovskiy’s desire to make “The Nutcracker” by stripping it of its inherent Nutcrackeryness makes no sense. That’s like making a Batman movie where Bruce Wayne never puts on a bat costume. Do you think Warner Brothers would give me $90 million to make that “Batman?” Because that’s how much money Konachlovskiy was able to get to make his deranged version of “The Nutcracker.” $90 million bucks. For dancing, shark electrocuting Nazi rat people.

I understand “The Nutcracker” name has brand recognition. But it has brand recognition as a ballet. Reimagining classic material has its place, but it’s a task that requires sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and a true willingness to break from precedent. Konachlovskiy tried to have it both ways. He didn’t like the ballet’s story, refused to include ballet dancing, but he still kept Tchaikovsky’s music. Even worse, he had Tim Rice (“Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King”) write lyrics to Tchaikovsky’s music and made the cast sing them as conventional musical numbers.

Well maybe “conventional” isn’t the right word. A “conventional” musical would not feature Albert Einstein — played by Nathan Lane — teaching children about the theory of relativity through a song called “It’s All Relative.” Ballet, that doesn’t work in a fairy tale. But Albert Einstein singing about physics? Perfect match!

Technically, Lane’s character is only referred to as the main child protagonists’ “Uncle Albert,” but he looks like Einstein, talks in a thick German accent, and peppers his dialogue with famous Einstein quotes like “Reality is an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” This leaves only two possibilities. One: the character really is Albert Einstein. Or, two: these children’s uncle is a schizophrenic named Albert who thinks he’s Einstein. That certainly would explain a)why Uncle Albert is the only person in the film to speak in a German accent, b)why the children’s parents seem so uncomfortable leaving Uncle Albert alone with their kids, c)why Einstein, who was Jewish, is so enthusiastically celebrating Christmas, and d)why Einstein frequently breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience (i.e. he’s clinically insane and he can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality).

Such mental illness would put him in good company with the rest of his family. His niece, Mary (Elle Fanning), suffers from similar delusions. After Uncle Albert brings her and her brother Max (Aaron Michael Drozin) a nutcracker toy for Christmas (and after he sings to them about how all motion is relative), Mary imagines that the Nutcracker comes to life and enlists her help in his ongoing war with The Rat King. The Rat King — John Turturro in an Andy Warhol wig and prosthetic rodent nose — has taken control of the Nutcracker’s kingdom. He also transformed “NC,” as he likes to be called, from a boy into a wooden toy. And he employed a rat army dressed like Nazi stormtroopers to steal children’s toys and burn them in his “smoke factory” in order to blot out the sun.

And thus we come to another crucial element of the film that makes no sense — the weird Nazi imagery. The Rat King gives Hitler-esque speeches about liquidating the human population to make way for the rats, his soldiers are garbed in black leather, jackboots, and helmets, and his smoke factories evoke clear associations with gas chambers and prison labor camps. This stuff might make a little sense if the film was set in Nazi Germany, and these fantasies were a child’s way of understanding the madness of war (a la Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”). But “The Nutcracker in 3D The Untold Story” appears to be set in peaceful 1920s Vienna — hence the appearance of figures like Einstein and Sigmund Freud, who also makes a cameo. So Mary’s imagination invented or somehow predicted the Holocaust? How does that work any better in the context of a fairy tale than a ballet?

It doesn’t. “The Nutcracker: The Untold Story” is one of the most mesmerizingly misguided films of all time. Nothing about it makes sense. If the movie is set in Vienna, and Uncle Albert has a German accent, why do Mary and Max have American ones? And why do their parents have British ones? And why are there so many rat puns in the screenplay (“You dirty rat!”)? Was it written by Arnold Schwarzenegger? Why get rid of ballet dancing and replace it with terrible song and dance numbers? And why the hell does The Rat King have a giant shark in his throne room? And why does he electrocute it at the end of his big production number? Does he bring in a new shark every time he feels like singing? “In case of goose-stepping emergency, break shark?”

“The Nutcracker: The Untold Story” is not a movie that’s “so bad it’s good,” like “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” It’s not characterized by ineptitude, at least not on a technical level. The execution of the CGI, prosthetic makeup, and production design is sharp. It’s just that the ideas underpinning that execution are so goddamn bizarre. It shouldn’t be possible to work on a single film for twenty years and wind up with this. All reality must be an illusion. There’s no way “The Nutcracker: The Untold Story” actually exists.

“The Nutcracker: The Untold Story” is available on DVD and Blu-ray. If you see it, let us know what you think of it in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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