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Zoe Kazan Q&A for “Ruby Sparks”

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

Playwright, actress, and screenwriter Zoe Kazan has been seen — or not seen — in blink-and-you-missed-them indie films such as “Meek’s Cutoff” and “Happythankyoumoreplease” as well as in small roles in more mainstream fare such as “Revolutionary Road” and “It’s Complicated.” But the 28-year-old Los Angeles native is also the granddaughter of famed director Elia Kazan (“On the Waterfront”) and daughter of scripters Nicholas Kazan (“Reversal of Fortune”) and Robin Swicord (“Memoirs of a Geisha”), which just about makes her Hollywood royalty.

And now, perhaps inevitably, she’s written her first movie, “Ruby Sparks,” a romantic comedy directed by “Little Miss Sunshine”’s Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris in which Kazan co-stars with her longtime beau, Paul Dano. She plays the title character, a young woman who is literally dreamed up by Dano’s previously best-selling but now struggling writer, Calvin, and comes to life once he commits his dream to a page. An instant love affair is born.

But there’s a hitch: Whatever Calvin types, Ruby becomes, a convenience that tempts him when their romance isn’t rosy. The film is both magical and realistic, lovely and heartbreaking — a noteworthy debut.

Kazan talked to me about melding fantasy with reality, the tough parts of relationships, and how sometimes you just want a big piece of red meat.

Olszewski: What’s interesting about the film is that it’s clearly a fantasy, yet its themes are so grounded in the routine challenges of relationships.

Kazan: It was really important to me that the movie does have its fantastical elements. It’s basically all a big metaphor, so we just wanted it to feel real. That was something that Jonathan and Valerie and I talked about really early on, to feel absolutely that Ruby was a real person.

Olszewski: Not a Manic Pixie Dream Girl?

Kazan: That’s not my favorite term. I was never looking to do that. I wanted her to feel real so that when he starts to tamper with her, [you] feel the moral impact of that.

To me, the magic in the movie is just a way of talking about what really happens between men and women in terms of control in a relationship, and how do you love the real person and not just the idea of a person? I think that when you meet someone, you necessarily fabricate all kinds of ideas about them because you don’t know them yet. And then sometimes you have a rude awakening.

I think that is a really hard lesson to learn. When you realize I can’t pick and choose. I don’t get a multiple-choice person. The person they are is like this pearl inside of an oyster shell. You can’t discard the shell and take the pearl.

Olszewski: This is your first screenplay. How much control did you have over it once you started filming?

Zoe Kazan: Paul and I are both executive producers on it, and I think Jonathan and Valerie were really open to us collaborating and having a lot of input, which was great. Once we got them to say that they would direct it and got their enthusiasm on board, then I didn’t need to retain any control because they were making exactly the movie that I wanted to make.

Olszewski: Obviously Calvin’s typewriter is a noticeable prop. Was that important to you?

Kazan: It was important to me. I really wanted to tie him into his house. I wanted to isolate him as much as I could, and the typewriter you can’t bring out into the world the way that you can bring a laptop.

Also, a typewriter is only for writing, while a computer is an outlet to the rest of the world — Facebook and the Internet and porn. People can spend their whole lives in front of the computer and they’re not lonely. But in front of the typewriter it is just you and the page. So I really wanted that physical thing, and I wanted Ruby to come out of paper and not gigabytes.

It’s also a romantic writing instrument. It’s what Hemingway wrote on. And there’s this [theory], I forget where I read it, but the way people think changes based on their writing utensil. You can actually see the difference in the meter and how long sentences are. And there’s something so percussive about the typewriter. You’re hearing its voice come back at you as you write in a way that’s just not true of a computer no matter how hard you hit those keys.

Olszewski: Did you feel any pressure with your family background to get into film?

Kazan: You know, I think if anything my parents wanted me to do something else. That seems to be the common line in Hollywood, like, please don’t go through what we go through. My parents are really successful and they still go through bouts of not being able to get their movie made, or having things fall apart or the wrong director comes along, and they take their name off the movie because it is unrecognizable to them. It’s actually just a really terrible profession. I wouldn’t want my kids to do it. But at a certain point you’re, like, compelled. I’ve written from the time I could hold a crayon, and as soon as I knew what acting was, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. And I’m a pretty single-minded person, so it really didn’t feel like a choice.

Olszewski: Do you have a preference between writing or acting?

Kazan: To me it feels like two sides of one coin. Though for a long time I thought that I didn’t want to write professionally. It was just something I was doing for myself. And at this point, obviously, that is no longer the case.

I think doing both sort of takes the pressure off both. If an acting job doesn’t come along for a while, I have something else I can do. Or if I decide that I don’t want to write for a while I just don’t have to, I don’t have to make my living doing it.

Olszewski: You were born in L.A. and now you live with Paul in New York. I remember your character in “Happythankyoumoreplease” was really anti-L.A. Do you feel that way?

Kazan: Definitely not. I’m with a veteran New Yorker. Paul was born and bred and probably will die in New York. He loves it, and I really like it, too — don’t get me wrong. But I really get homesick for L.A. and I don’t get to spend a lot of time there. I keep saying I think I shot the movie in L.A. partially because I was homesick.

I feel like L.A. gets a really bum rap the way it’s depicted in movies. It’s this place where it’s all about the movie industry and everybody is so shallow. I grew up in a very normal L.A. I feel much closer to nature there than I do in Brooklyn. The beach is right there, and the mountains, and there are great hikes. I find myself living in a healthier way there.

Olszewski: In the movie, Calvin repeatedly bristles when he’s referred to as a genius. Is that something that’s happened to you?

Kazan:Oh, no! I just really hate that word. I think people have gifts, but I feel [success] has so much more to do with what you love and how hard you’re willing to work at it. I really believe in self-improvement. My own feeling about myself is I know that I’ve gotten better the more work I’ve put in. The whole concept of “genius” is, I think, a way of actually belittling what somebody accomplishes, like, “They were just born with this genius.”

It’s a word that was thrown around with my grandpa, and I always felt, yeah, but he was also incredibly hard-working and incredibly driven and passionate. It feels like a way of excusing people’s success. And [in the movie], it’s another way of isolating Calvin. It’s another way to make him feel lonely, by praising him, putting him on a pedestal.

Olszewski: Was it challenging to work with Paul?

Kazan: We met doing a play together five years ago, so the first Paul I met in some ways was “Working Paul.” So I knew how it was to work with him as an actor and I had a lot of confidence in him and a lot of excitement to do that again. But it was much more tense to play a couple. Having the whole movie resting on our shoulders. I think we were very tired and like underfed and overworked for two months. You do 12-, 15-, 16-hour days and you get to this point where you think, “I need steak.”

Interview: Steven Soderbergh on Magic Mike

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

Steven Soderbergh knows what women want — and, conversely, what most dudes don’t. His latest feature, Magic Mike, is an, ahem, intimate look at the world of male strippers. Obviously, the very subject potentially alienates a large segment of the population. Obviously, this is not what a director aims for.

And yet: “I think it’s not for men,” Soderbergh admits in a deadpan voice. “We have edited together the full-length versions of all the routines [for the DVD]. They’re pretty disturbing…it made me really uncomfortable to watch them.”

He’s aware of the possibly box-office-eating problem. “It’s been a concern that…the movie was so driven toward the female audience, that there would be nothing in it for [men],” the director says. “And of course I knew that that wasn’t what I wanted to do. Some of the issues the male characters are going through are issues that all men confront. Men tend to define themselves by what they do. And so if you’re dealing with the characters trying to figure that out, then there’s something there for guys, too. The trick, I think, is getting them to come.”

Thong-rocking aside, fumbling your way toward your path in life — while avoiding the subversive pitfalls of the club scene — is Magic Mike’s predominant theme. The film, based on the real-life experience of star Channing Tatum (who shares a producer credit), is about Mike (Tatum), a 30-year-old stripper/”entrepreneur” who works odd jobs besides taking off his clothes in order to save money to start a custom-furniture business. Other than sleeping around a bit (Olivia Munn co-stars as his regular booty call), Mike is generally on the straight and narrow, focused on his future even if he’s the star at Tampa’s Club Xquisite and has perhaps worked there a tad too long.

“I wanted to make sure there were a lot of conversations in the movie about money and work because I feel like, for most people, these are issues that dominate their lives, especially lately,” Soderbergh says. “So we were always looking for ways to bring that conversation into the film….I think this issue of what you’re willing to do to be paid is interesting. And at a certain point, when Mike starts to feel that what he’s doing is undervalued, he has to make a decision about whether he can accept that.”

Of course, Tatum eventually did quit, though his tenure wasn’t nearly as long as his character’s. He cites the drugs and debauchery that sinks Mike’s protege, the Kid (played by I Am Number Four’s Alex Pettyfer), as part of the reason.

“I was 18 years old,” Tatum says. “I really enjoyed performing — it was my first performing job. I really like to dance. But I didn’t really love taking the clothes off at the end. And the world in itself was just a very dark world. I don’t think we even scratched the surface of really how dark that place can get and how slippery of a slope it can actually be. This was probably the most palatable version of this movie. Otherwise, you wouldn’t want to see it twice. You’d just think, ‘OK, I feel dirty now.’”

“Palatable” doesn’t exactly do the film justice — Magic Mike is pure fun, a testament to the fact that, really, male strippers can’t be seen as anything but ridiculous. (Regarding the difference between male and female strip clubs, Tatum does an excellent impression of a typical customer of the latter, hunched over and emitting a low mutter like “hehhhhhh…”) Soderbergh says that he didn’t sense any sort of competition among his crew of dancers (which also include Matthew McConaughey, Matt Bomer, Kevin Nash, and Joe Manganiello), who, it must be said, put on an excellent show. (Though Tatum’s co-stars readily admit his dancing dominance: “Chan’s in a dancing movie,” Manganiello says. “The rest of us are in a dry-humping movie.” Tatum adds, “I just respect these guys for jumping into the thong with both feet.”)

“I think the fear of doing it just bonded [these] guys very quickly,” Soderbergh says. “They’re all sort of jumping out of the plane together. As soon as I saw the routines for the first time, I knew we were going to be fine. Because they were funny. They weren’t dirty. They were fun.” As far as wardrobe malfunctions, Soderbergh says that McConaughey had to improvise a “tuck and roll” after overzealous extras tore the string of his undergarment.

The director also praised his cast’s ability to physically relate to the camera. “In my mind, a movie should work with the sound off,” Soderbergh says. “You should be able to watch a movie without the sound and understand what’s going on. That’s your job, is to build a series of chronological images that tell the story.

“I also like to stage scenes in which you see a lot of people in the frame at once. And so physicality becomes a really important part of that aesthetic. You need actors who understand how to use their bodies….So their sense of knowing how to dance with the camera needs to be pretty pronounced. In this case, I think everybody fell into that very quickly and understood what I was trying to do.”

And was it difficult to work with the costume department in choosing what revealing outfits his dancers would wear? Not really, Soderbergh says. “I know what I like.”

Kinyarwanda

Saturday, December 10th, 2011

In Kinyarwanda, first-time writer-director Alrick Brown’s Crash-like drama about Rwanda’s 1994 civil war, a boy no more than 4 or 5 is sent to a merchant to get his father cigarettes. He comes across a rogue militia, its members shouting about guns and where to find the “cockroaches.” They’re Rwandan Hutus, and they’re talking about the country’s other principle ethnic group, the Tutsis. The boy tells them that he knows where the weapons and roaches are — and brings them to his home, popping in a tape of a violent movie and looking around the house. “There are the guns,” he says, pointing to the TV. “And there are the cockroaches.” Yes, they are bugs skittering across the floor.

His parents are naturally terrified, but the militia just leave. Others are not so lucky in Kinyarwanda (the title refers to the area’s primary language), though the squeamish need not worry. The film — the first made entirely by Rwandans and shot in 16 days — is more about how to heal the strife than exacerbate it, and Brown rarely shows bloodshed. Instead he looks at the people involved and tells their stories (these six intermingling mini-tales are based on true ones), personalizing the horrific massacre that took approximately 800,000 lives.

The person you’ll likely remember most is Jean (Hadidja Zaninka), a sweet young woman who’s enthusiastically received when she arrives at a party. (Her sometimes-beau, Patrique (Marc Gwamaka), serenades her with “Islands in the Stream.”) When Patrique walks her home late at night, they encounter a militia with guns trained on kneeling Tutsis. They’re waved off, but when Jean arrives at home, the house is a bit too quiet. She wanders around in excruciating silence for a while, a smile on her face from the night’s festivities. Then she finds her parents dead.

We’ll see Jean again, both in the present (retreating to a mosque to hide with other refugees) and in a flashback (her parents, one Tutsi and the other Hutu, were arguing when she said she was leaving for a party and forbid her to go). But there are other characters of note: “Brother Cockroach” (Kennedy Mpazimpaka), a particularly hated and hunted Catholic priest. The Mulsim leader (Jean Mutsari) who opens his mosque to the refugees and has an interesting conversation with his Christian peer about how neither religion can be celebrated or vilified, for there are good people and bad people who subscribe to each. A “re-education camp” in which Hutus admit to their crimes and ask for forgiveness. Their stories, brief as they are, are some of the most powerful, with each participant confessing his “number” — i.e. how many he killed.

It’s probably best to know some history going in. But what’s perfectly clear is the nightmare that enveloped this country for 100 days and claimed 800,000 lives. Brown succeeds in giving faces to these numbers—quite strikingly, in fact, with tightly framed shots that capture characters’ every expression, and a wavering camera that reflects the period’s volatility. Whatever you know of the genocide when Kinyarwanda starts, Brown ensures that his snapshot is a powerful one.

Interview with Red Riding Hood’s Catherine Hardwicke and Amanda Seyfried

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

In Catherine Hardwicke’s “Red Riding Hood,” the titular character of the classic fairy tale is no longer referred to as an item of clothing: Her name is Valerie. And she’s all grown up, torn between the man she loves and the man she’s been arranged to marry, her emotions further taxed as her town battles a werewolf.

Amanda Seyfried, blessed with a fairy-tale face, plays Valerie and here talks with her director about the look of the film, its modern touches, and why Valerie is far from a damsel in distress.

OLSZEWSKI: What drew you to the project?

SEYFRIED: I actually didn’t read the script before I met with Catherine. She just had crazy visuals to show me.

HARDWICKE: When I read David [Johnson's] script, I thought, Finally, I’m going to get to create a whole world. We started by going back to the heart of the story. It’s about woods. We looked for big, rustic logs. We were looking for an architecture that added to the paranoia of the village. We put a wall around the buildings, and lookout towers, and sharp points so you felt that fear was baked into the DNA of the buildings themselves.

SEYFRIED: The set couldn’t have been better. I definitely felt like I was transferred back to some other time and it really helped in the moment, especially with all these supernatural elements — like when I had to stare at a piece of wood, pretending that it was a wolf that was going to eat me.

OLSZEWSKI: Catherine, why did you choose Amanda?

HARDWICKE: Amanda’s the only person I thought of for this part. One time she spoke at an autism benefit and she just drew me in. It was quite amazing. So I’ve been watching her in all these other parts and I saw she could be funny and charming and sexy, and I’m like, “Man, that chick can do anything!” And I also thought, “What big eyes you have!” [laughs]

SEYFRIED: “Who’s got the biggest eyes in the business right now, between 17 and 25?”

OLSZEWSKI: How did you prepare for your role?

SEYFRIED: I separated from the usual damsel-in-distress that’s in most fairy tales. She’s not in distress at all. She’s a young, strong female that’s realizing her sexuality and trying to navigate through her young adult life in this medieval village. She’s the heroine in the movie, and that was really attractive. Because I like playing women who just have no fear.

OLSZEWSKI: Valerie seems like a 21st-century woman transplanted into a different era.

SEYFRIED: Yeah. We added majorly contemporary elements to it, like a love triangle and the coming-of-age aspect. It’s very contemporary, how she was dealing with her parents and the man she loves and the man she was betrothed to. And [Hardwicke] knows how to work a good coming-of-age story. [She] obviously is connected to that youthful kind of essence.

OLSZEWSKI: Why did you drop “Little” from the title?

SEYFRIED: Because my breasts are too large. [laughs] It also can’t be that coming-of-age story if it’s a child. It’s this girl who has all this tension and turmoil and questioning and [is] developing into this young adult. Also, it makes for a more exciting story because you add that sexuality and romance to it.

OLSZEWSKI: Yet the gist of the story remains.

HARDWICKE: That’s the thing with fairy tales. You actually do confront your dark side, or your impulses, or your sibling rivalry. You admit that they exist and then you work through them and conquer them and come out living happily ever after, having learned something. That’s one reason why fairy tales keep having traction and meaning.

Jason Statham and Ben Foster on The Mechanic

Thursday, April 21st, 2011


While filming The Mechanic, Ben Foster wasn’t about to let something like vertigo — or even the possibility of death — prevent him from doing his own stunts. Particularly one of the movie’s most stunning: a free-fall off the side of a 450-foot building that he performs with his co-star, stuntmaster Jason Statham.

“I’m not partial to heights,” Foster says. “But it’s the great thing about working with a real athlete like Jason, where I’m always striving to lift my own game, or physical bravery, or whatever that is.” (Director Simon West has a term for it: “They get so macho on those sets. ‘If someone’s jumping off [the building], we’re all jumping off it!’ So we’ve got these shots of them going down and Ben’s looking terrified — and it’s real fear.”)

Foster elaborates: “It was absolutely crushing! Because you don’t start at the top — they drag your ass up, they put you in a little harness, they hook you up to this wire. And then they say, “OK, you ready?” and one of the riggers came up and said, ‘Well, that’s not how you do it.’ And other people are saying, ‘We gotta go! We gotta go!’ and he’s saying, ‘You gotta loop it the other way.’ And it’s like — bup bup bup bup [indicates going up] — ‘What do you mean?! What other way?!’

“And it’s four minutes, roughly, to the top, and the physics of it is that the wire turns so you start to spin. And — my heart’s racing just talking about it — there’s a certain moment when you say, ‘Fuck this, get me down, no! No.’ And we get to the top and the camera operator says, ‘Let’s go.’ So you just give in. You think, ‘OK, so the thing’s not hooked up right. What’s gonna happen? You’re done.’ There’s no way around it, you know, you’re done. So there was a moment of comfort in that.”

Statham wasn’t exactly feeling Foster’s pain. “That stunt was particularly fun because I got to do it with Ben. He’s a man who’s very fearful of heights. So to see someone’s face quivering in the wind [laughs]…but he was very brave. Those kinds of situations are full of adrenaline and they’re very exciting to execute. You always question whether they’re safe. There’s no guarantee that something can’t go wrong, so there’s always a thrill to it.”

The Transporter star wouldn’t have it any other way. “I hate green screen, personally, because there’s nothing that can allow you to experience the full adrenaline of dropping down the side of a building unless you actually do it. To pretend you are, flailing your arms, is so fake to me. It’s good to excite the heart. And I always work very closely with the stuntmen. I’m very involved from start to finish. You know, my opinion counts for a lot since I’m going to be the one doing them!”

Despite his initial fear, Foster eventually caught the bug. “The first time you’re thinking, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t do this, I shoulda let the stunt guy do this.’ But the second time you wanna go up again. Then it’s the best ride in the world. It’s the greatest job in the world. It’s an addiction. ‘Do it again! Drop me! Let’s go! Faster, drop the thing faster!’”

Intense physical training is obviously a must when actors perform their own stunts. “There’s no drinking in the bar every night and waking up hungover,” Statham says. “We do a lot of martial-arts training, a combination of everything — punching, kicking, kickboxing, jujitsu. It’s not specific to a certain martial art; it’s movie martial arts, and it could incorporate any array of moves. We’re not trying to portray a guy who did kung fu all his life.”

Statham’s experience as a competitive high-diver and adrenaline junkie (”I was always throwing myself around, doing silly things”) as well as actioner-veteran gave him an edge over Foster, who got hurt while filming a brutal fight sequence with a much taller, much bulkier actor. “The night before we started shooting the bulk of it, I got injured, terribly, doing a very small stunt that I shouldn’t have allowed myself to do,” Foster says. “I just did a fall — fell on my shoulder, it snapped. Didn’t say anything on set, thought I’d just kinda shrug it off. Woke up the next morning, shoulder’s up to here [raises it to his head]. It’s not a phone call you want to make to production.

“So they sent me to the doctor for the [New Orleans] Saints and he pulled out a big syringe and gave me about five shots. And I felt really good. So I was like, ‘Let’s do this, we’re ready, my arm’s back.’ And an hour before we were ready to shoot, the shoulder went back up. Doctor comes to set and he’s just laughing. He’s like, ‘You know, I work with the Saints and they’re a lot bigger than you. But I’ve never given anyone this much.’ [The arm] wasn’t quite operational so we just re-choreographed the scene so everything was reversed.

“But it was great fun. We got our asses kicked.”

Clint Eastwood and Peter Morgan on Hereafter

Thursday, April 21st, 2011


Clint Eastwood nearly died when he was 21. And when faced with the possibility of meeting his maker, his thoughts naturally turned to…hunkering down with a cold one.

“I was in a plane crash off the coast of Northern California in the wintertime,” Eastwood says at a press conference for his new film about the afterlife, Hereafter, starring Matt Damon, Cecile De France, and Jay Mohr. “As I was going into shore, I was thinking about my demise. But I also saw some lights in the far distance. I said, ‘Somebody’s in there having a beer and sitting next to a fireplace, and I just want to be in there, so I’m going to make it.’”

Eastwood believes that that determination pulled him through, but that “there was no sense of fate out there.” And that’s the agnostic approach he and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Peter Morgan took toward Hereafter, a film that weaves three stories about a near-death experience, a fatal accident, and a resistant psychic to fashion a theory about what may happen to us after we die.

Morgan’s research admittedly wasn’t all that thorough: He’d read a book. “It was about a woman in her mid-30s who had lost her younger sister to cancer,” he says. “And she didn’t want to give up any idea that [they] might be able to connect again. She, as well as I, come from a tradition of, as it were, ‘irreligious enlightenment.’ I don’t have any religious beliefs in an afterlife. We have so much understanding of what goes on prior to birth and so little understanding of what goes on after death.”

Eastwood continues, “Most religions seem to ponder the afterlife. But I thought this was interesting because it wasn’t really a religious project. It had a spirituality about it, but it was not necessarily tied in with any particular organized thought.”

Morgan’s hesitation to research the topic further came from his experience while writing The Queen. “As soon as you typed in the words, ‘Princess Diana,’ ‘death,’ and ‘conspiracy’ into the Internet, it’s a very short step to UFOs and dolphins and stuff,” he says. “If you [search online to] see what’s been done on [life after death], you’re very quickly in a community of…strange people.

“And later I thought, I don’t want this to become a film in which we have the answer, like we’ve got a scoop here. Because that’s not what the film is. The film is really a story of inquiring, of curiosity, and a feeling of incompleteness, of living with mystery.”

That open-endedness is partly what drew Eastwood to the project. “Yeah, it raises a lot of questions,” he says. “But that’s where it ends. You pose the questions, and then it’s up to the audience to meet you halfway and think about it in terms of their own lives and what experiences they might have had.”

One of Hereafter’s plot threads uses the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami as a launching point. “I thought an unusual aspect of the script was taking actual events and placing them in a fictional story,” Eastwood says.” (Morgan also incorporated the London bombings of 2005.) “[Filming] the tsunami was very difficult to do. I kept having fantasies of huge hoses and thousands of gallons of water running down the streets and what have you. I figured it would be prohibitive, but with computer-generated [imagery], you can go ahead and do it. Even though water is probably the most difficult thing to do with CGI.”

Eastwood combined live shots with carefully planned computer effects (”If you don’t pre-plan CGI, it’s the most expensive thing in the world”) for an opening sequence that’s breathtakingly intense. “[We shot in] different places. Cecile was in a tank in London for nine hours without getting out too much, and she had to have skin replacement afterward,” he says with a laugh. “Then we went to Maui and shot in the ocean and on the streets of Mahina. We had to plan every single shot, and that’s normally not the way I shoot. But it worked out rather well.”

Another challenge was working with children, an aspect Morgan incorporated into the story because he wanted the viewpoint of someone “less articulate.” This plot line involves twin boys, one of whom is hit by a car and killed. After the usual auditions, Eastwood decided to go with nonprofessionals.

“We auditioned about three or four sets of twins, and they looked great, but there was a lot of ‘acting’ going on,” he says. “The interesting thing with child actors is they’re natural actors — they’re imagining, they’re out in the yard playing. Unfortunately, once they’ve been ‘organized’ into acting and then [there's] a stage mother sitting there saying, ‘No, do it this way,’ a lot of bad habits have been instilled.

“And so when I looked at kids for this picture, I picked the two [George and Frankie McLaren] that were the least experienced. In fact, they had no experience. They said they’d been in some grammar-school plays, but…I doubted that. I just figured I could pull things out of them without them knowing it. They had the right faces that said they’re from the right neighborhood. They had certain elements that these [characters] needed to have. So they didn’t have to get in there and act like something they weren’t.” To better the odds of getting exactly what he wanted out of a scene, Eastwood interchanged the twins, filming both playing the part of the living brother.

Regardless of Hereafter’s tough logistics, Eastwood claims it’s the easiest film he’s ever made. And he has no desire to quit directing anytime soon. “I was always sort of shocked” when great directors retired, he says, citing Frank Capra and Billy Wilder as examples. Wilder “stopped working in his 60s.” (He actually made his final film, Buddy Budd at age 75.) “And I thought, God, that’s amazing. Here’s a guy who’s bright and lived well into his 90s and didn’t work. I never could figure that. Your best years should be at a point when you’ve absorbed all this knowledge.

“There’s a Portuguese director, Manoel de Oliveira, who’s still making films at over 100 years old,” Eastwood continues. “And I plan to do the same thing.”

Clint Eastwood and Peter Morgan on Hereafter

Friday, November 19th, 2010

Eastwood, de France on set

Eastwood, de France on set

Clint Eastwood nearly died when he was 21. And when faced with the possibility of meeting his maker, his thoughts naturally turned to…hunkering down with a cold one.

“I was in a plane crash off the coast of Northern California in the wintertime,” Eastwood says at a press conference for his new film about the afterlife, Hereafter, starring Matt Damon, Cecile De France, and Jay Mohr. “As I was going into shore, I was thinking about my demise. But I also saw some lights in the far distance. I said, ‘Somebody’s in there having a beer and sitting next to a fireplace, and I just want to be in there, so I’m going to make it.’”

Eastwood believes that that determination pulled him through, but that “there was no sense of fate out there.” And that’s the agnostic approach he and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Peter Morgan took toward Hereafter, a film that weaves three stories about a near-death experience, a fatal accident, and a resistant psychic to fashion a theory about what may happen to us after we die.

Morgan’s research admittedly wasn’t all that thorough: He’d read a book. “It was about a woman in her mid-30s who had lost her younger sister to cancer,” he says. “And she didn’t want to give up any idea that [they] might be able to connect again. She, as well as I, come from a tradition of, as it were, ‘irreligious enlightenment.’ I don’t have any religious beliefs in an afterlife. We have so much understanding of what goes on prior to birth and so little understanding of what goes on after death.”

Eastwood continues, “Most religions seem to ponder the afterlife. But I thought this was interesting because it wasn’t really a religious project. It had a spirituality about it, but it was not necessarily tied in with any particular organized thought.”

Morgan’s hesitation to research the topic further came from his experience while writing The Queen. “As soon as you typed in the words, ‘Princess Diana,’ ‘death,’ and ‘conspiracy’ into the Internet, it’s a very short step to UFOs and dolphins and stuff,” he says. “If you [search online to] see what’s been done on [life after death], you’re very quickly in a community of…strange people.

“And later I thought, I don’t want this to become a film in which we have the answer, like we’ve got a scoop here. Because that’s not what the film is. The film is really a story of inquiring, of curiosity, and a feeling of incompleteness, of living with mystery.”

That open-endedness is partly what drew Eastwood to the project. “Yeah, it raises a lot of questions,” he says. “But that’s where it ends. You pose the questions, and then it’s up to the audience to meet you halfway and think about it in terms of their own lives and what experiences they might have had.”

One of Hereafter’s plot threads uses the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami as a launching point. “I thought an unusual aspect of the script was taking actual events and placing them in a fictional story,” Eastwood says.” (Morgan also incorporated the London bombings of 2005.) “[Filming] the tsunami was very difficult to do. I kept having fantasies of huge hoses and thousands of gallons of water running down the streets and what have you. I figured it would be prohibitive, but with computer-generated [imagery], you can go ahead and do it. Even though water is probably the most difficult thing to do with CGI.”

Eastwood combined live shots with carefully planned computer effects (”If you don’t pre-plan CGI, it’s the most expensive thing in the world”) for an opening sequence that’s breathtakingly intense. “[We shot in] different places. Cecile was in a tank in London for nine hours without getting out too much, and she had to have skin replacement afterward,” he says with a laugh. “Then we went to Maui and shot in the ocean and on the streets of Mahina. We had to plan every single shot, and that’s normally not the way I shoot. But it worked out rather well.”

Another challenge was working with children, an aspect Morgan incorporated into the story because he wanted the viewpoint of someone “less articulate.” This plot line involves twin boys, one of whom is hit by a car and killed. After the usual auditions, Eastwood decided to go with nonprofessionals.

“We auditioned about three or four sets of twins, and they looked great, but there was a lot of ‘acting’ going on,” he says. “The interesting thing with child actors is they’re natural actors — they’re imagining, they’re out in the yard playing. Unfortunately, once they’ve been ‘organized’ into acting and then [there's] a stage mother sitting there saying, ‘No, do it this way,’ a lot of bad habits have been instilled.

“And so when I looked at kids for this picture, I picked the two [George and Frankie McLaren] that were the least experienced. In fact, they had no experience. They said they’d been in some grammar-school plays, but…I doubted that. I just figured I could pull things out of them without them knowing it. They had the right faces that said they’re from the right neighborhood. They had certain elements that these [characters] needed to have. So they didn’t have to get in there and act like something they weren’t.” To better the odds of getting exactly what he wanted out of a scene, Eastwood interchanged the twins, filming both playing the part of the living brother.

Regardless of Hereafter’s tough logistics, Eastwood claims it’s the easiest film he’s ever made. And he has no desire to quit directing anytime soon. “I was always sort of shocked” when great directors retired, he says, citing Frank Capra and Billy Wilder as examples. Wilder “stopped working in his 60s.” (He actually made his final film, Buddy Budd, at age 75.) “And I thought, God, that’s amazing. Here’s a guy who’s bright and lived well into his 90s and didn’t work. I never could figure that. Your best years should be at a point when you’ve absorbed all this knowledge.

“There’s a Portuguese director, Manoel de Oliveira, who’s still making films at over 100 years old,” Eastwood continues. “And I plan to do the same thing.”

Interview With Juno’s Diablo Cody and Ellen Page

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

http://www.hollywoodchicago.com/uploaded_images/juno9.jpg

Cody and Page, current queens of the world

This year, a quip-quick pregnant teen is the new pudgy beauty-pageant contestant. The recently announced Independent Spirit Awards nominations have confirmed what fawning and inescapable press has been telling filmgoers for the better part of 2007: If you liked Little Miss Sunshine, you’re going to love Juno, a comedy about a 16-year-old girl who develops a relationship with the couple she picks to adopt her unplanned child. It’s up for best picture, as well as director (Jason Reitman), actress (Ellen Page), and screenplay, by first-timer Diablo Cody.

Cody’s previous publications include her blog, The Pussy Ranch, which has made her a most unusual Hollywood hyphenate: stripper-screenwriter. The 29-year-old Minnesotan was dulling her brain cells at an office job when she decided to sign up for a dive bar’s amateur pole-working night. The erstwhile Catholic not only fell in love with a new profession, she also began chronicling her experiences. A literary manager helped Cody turn her scribblings into a memoir, Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper, and when he suggested she write a screenplay, she sent him Juno, which she modestly describes as “a random original idea I had.”


The story in Juno is unpredictable and touching. But Cody’s dialogue is exceptional, a flurry of hip, witty words that snap and dissipate before you can accuse them of being too stylized. (“That ain’t no Etch-a-Sketch,” a clerk tells Juno as she shakes a newly taken pregnancy test. “This is one doodle that can’t be undid, home skillet.”) Juno is 16 going on 40, a Gilmore Girl who’s got a thing for ‘70s punk and references Soupy Sales. She’s imperfect, too. You believe in her.

Cody admits that Juno is partly autobiographical, and when she and Page talked to PopMatters, it was apparent the casting was right on. There’s a nine-year age difference between the two, and while Cody rocks jet-black hair and a leopard-print coat, the most notable aspect of Page’s style this afternoon is a floppy beret. But they’re relaxed together, laugh at the same things, talk music. Clearly, they dig each other. It’s a fateful pairing that might never have materialized had showing the greater Minneapolis area her body not prompted Cody to show the world her mind.


Diablo, is this what you wanted to do with your life?
I always wanted to be a writer, but I never thought from a practical standpoint that it was something I’d do for a living. I was always encouraged by my teachers and discouraged by my parents. That’s not what they had in mind. Of course, now they think it’s a fabulous idea.

I know you worked at an alt-weekly for a while.
Actually, the alt-weekly [Minneapolis/St. Paul’s City Pages] contacted me while I was still stripping. First they did a profile on me because they thought it was interesting that they had this stripper/blogger in town who was becoming kind of high-profile. Then after they did the piece on me, they asked if I wanted to start writing TV reviews. I wrote about TV frequently on my blog. I had very strong opinions, which I now somewhat regret. I had a lot of bile as a critic, let’s put it that way. Instead I worked as an editor for a while, and then all this stuff started coming together.

Ellen, what was your first response to the script?
Blown away. It was like the greatest thing I’d ever read. I became literally obsessed, you know? It wasn’t just, wow, I’m really interested in pursuing this. It thought, this has to happen. [It was] so refreshing to meet a teenage female character that’s never existed before. Incredibly unique, but the screenplay didn’t overdo the uniqueness, you know what I mean? Completely genuine. I look for roles that are whole, and honest, and that I’m going to be challenged by. If it’s stereotypical and boring and there’s no dimension it, then I’m just not going to be passionate about it and I’m going to suck.

Were you comfortable with the dialogue?
Like in any process, at first I was really excited, and then I was really anxious and scared because I didn’t want to screw up her brilliance. I’d never really done a comedic lead. But I think the dialogue was one of the most amazing things [about the script]. It felt organic, it felt fluid and rhythmic, and it was just about owning it and not forcing it. And luckily I got to work with Jason Reitman, who’s so good at establishing tone.

Did you know who Soupy Sales was?
CODY: I always wonder about that line because I think, no way would any teenager reference Soupy Sales. But it always gets a laugh. I’m always aware of my own failings as a writer. I’m not even quite sure who Soupy Sales is… he’s like an old vaudevillian comic, right? Ellen, did you have to look that up, or did you just go with it?

PAGE: I had no idea it was even someone. Sorry.

Diablo, where do you pick up your slang? I mean, I think I talk like a 15-year-old, but there were phrases in this movie I’ve never heard before.
I just make it up. I felt very free writing the script because I’d never written one before. So I thought, you know, I’m not even going to bother writing something formulaic. I want to be noticed, I wanted to do something fresh and new, so I’m just going to go crazy with the language.

How long did you work on it?

A couple months. I tend to write pretty quickly. I don’t write frequently; I write in bursts. I’ll sit down and write a script in two months and then I won’t pick up a pen for six months. I write every day, but I don’t work on screenplays. I’m not super-prolific, I’m just fast. If that makes any sense.

[This was, quite frankly, stunning. Forget about Cody’s seemingly offhand decision not to write a script that sucks. (Can you imagine a world in which it were just that easy for every scripter, from television to movies to plays, to “not even bother writing something formulaic?”) She already has other projects in development, including Jennifer’s Body, a horror-comedy with Reitman; a “response to Superbad” entitled Girly Style; and a television series, The United States of Tara, that’s being produced by Steven Spielberg. Cody also found time to do a rewrite on a Steven Antin-directed film called Burlesque. Consider that her book came out only two years ago: I’d call that super-prolific.]

Will the writers’ strike affect any of your projects?
CODY: The Writer’s Guild has allowed me to promote [Juno], which is great. [Reitman and I] wanted to start Jennifer’s Body soon, in February or March. The strike complicates things. The script is finished, so technically they could go shoot it, but I don’t know. I feel like I would rather not be on strike when the movie’s filming. Wait, I could be misquoted there. I’m completely in favor of the strike. Absolutely. I just meant that it’s an awkward position for a writer if they went and filmed one of my scripts and I was not able to contribute at all because of the terms of the strike. That’s a weird situation.

Did you have input as Juno was filming?
Yes. That’s not typical. But I’m working with a lot of the same people on Jennifer’s Body, so I feel like they would allow me that freedom again.

Diablo, you recently moved to Los Angeles. Do you feel it’s changed you?
I’ve been there about six months or so. Very weird place, and it has affected me. It didn’t initially. Initially I was just an outsider and I was enjoying myself, enjoying the sunshine and the excitement. And I still do enjoy those things, but I feel it’s very difficult to sustain a sense of normalcy living there.

Ellen, do you live in L.A.?
No, I live in Halifax. I’m away a lot, but that’s where I have my pillow… I don’t really want to be in a car, so why would I live there? Good sushi, and I have lots of friends down there, but not for me.

You’ve been doing a hell of a lot of promotion for this film.
CODY: I’ve enjoyed it. [But] it’s difficult to bring something fresh to all the interviews.

PAGE: Of course, you hit points when you’re [exhausted], but, boo-hoo, you know? We made a film that people like. I’m just grateful that I get to be an actor and pay my electric bill. It’s pretty ridiculous.

Diablo, have you been asked, “Who are you wearing?”
Oh yeah. It’s actually like pulling teeth with us. Neither of us likes getting dressed up. I really hate it, actually. The last event I went to, a friend of mine bought a dress and a purse for me because she knew that I would just re-wear something, or put on something at the last minute from Forever 21. And so I put it on and I got asked what I was wearing, and I was like, “I don’t know. My friend bought this for me.” People worry.

Are you a big movie fan?
CODY: I love horror movies. I love big comedies. Those are usually the two things that I gravitate to. Lately I’m becoming a little more of a cinephile. I’m watching stuff that challenges me. I’ve always loved movies, but I love movies. I took a film class in college when I was like 19 and I thought it was the most boring thing ever. Which is funny in retrospect, because now I’m fascinated by that stuff. Now I want to see 8 1/2. When I was 19, I was like, What the hell? I thought we were going to watch Jaws. This is a film class. We should be watching great films!

PAGE: I’m the same.

CODY: You like that stuff, though. Your favorite movie is 400 Blows!

PAGE: I mean, I love Truffaut, but I don’t like Godard, and I’m not going to pretend I like Godard. I also love Snakes on a Plane. That was one of the best movie-watching experiences I’ve had in a long time.

CODY: Juno, in a way, is Snakes on a Plane meets Truffaut.

Do people in the movie business want to engage you in lengthy discussions about “cinema”?
CODY: People don’t actually want to talk film with me, because they assume I know nothing. And they’re fairly accurate. People seem to think I know more about music.

The music in Juno was great. I thought it fit the character.
[Cody points at Page, who reportedly recommended the movie’s main artist, the Moldy Peaches, for the soundtrack.]

CODY: I looked up CocoRosie last night.

PAGE: Did you like it?

CODY: I did like it, it’s a little: deet, dee dee deet… kind of cute and quirky.

PAGE: Yeah, but they have one song called “Honey or Tar,” and it’s this soft, beautiful song. But when you listen to the lyrics, it’s about this girl raping her boyfriend in her mind.

CODY: Okay. I’m going to download that one.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston’s Jeff Feuerzeig

Thursday, April 27th, 2006

He’s a singer-songwriter who not only can’t sing but can’t really play
his guitar, either. For most of his life, this performer has believed
that he’s Casper the Friendly Ghost, and he now lives with his elderly
parents because of extreme psychosis. Henry Darger–like, he’s made
hundreds of drawings on such themes as good vs. evil, including a
series of pictures of ducks that he refers to as “my armies in my
battle against Satan.”

You’d probably label this guy an outsider artist. But then, outsider
artists don’t usually end up on MTV, as Daniel Johnston did at the age
of 24, when his manic depression was in full swing.

“Yeah, even the New York Times, just a couple years ago, was writing
about Johnston as the poster child for outsider music,” says director
Jeff Feuerzeig, in Washington to promote his new documentary, The Devil
and Daniel Johnston
. “Well, it’s really a pleasure [for me] that
recently the Times featured him on the cover of the Arts & Leisure
section because he was just selected by the Whitney Biennial,”
Feuerzeig continues. “Now they had to change their tune. Now he’s a
fine artist—which is what Daniel always was. He studied art. He went to
art school. Outsider artists don’t do this.”

But art is a secondary success in the 45-year-old Johnston’s career.
He’s been performing his music to packed houses for the past 20 years
or so, ever since he was profiled on MTV’s The Cutting Edge in 1985.
His songs have been covered by artists such as the Pastels, Beck,
Mercury Rev, Bright Eyes, and Wilco. In Feuerzeig’s film, you hear
people not only call Johnston a genius but also compare him to Bob
Dylan and Brian Wilson—even when he delivers lyrics such as “Don’t play
cards with Satan/He’ll deal you an awful hand.”

Feuerzeig, a 41-year-old commerical director and filmmaker currently
based in Los Angeles, was a college-radio DJ in New Jersey and
contributing to fanzines when he first heard of Johnston in the
mid-’80s. The international underground-music community Feuerzeig was
involved in—“a couple hundred people, like a mini-Internet”—had spread
word of a “talented young kid from Wild West Virginia.” Johnston had
wandered his way to Austin, Texas, after a five-month stint traveling
with a carnival. As a woman who’d seen Feuerzeig’s film pointed out to
him recently: “He’s, like, more Dylan than Dylan. Dylan said he was a
carny—Daniel really was a carny!”

“The way he showed up in Austin was so incredible, because it was an
accident,” Feuerzeig says. “So a lot of his career was predetermined,
and a lot of it was serendipity. When Daniel appeared in Austin, he
already had his body of work created. He recorded, I don’t know, I
think there were nine of those little cassettes he recorded in his
basement from 1981 to 1983. He recorded all that in a span of three
years. He was on fire. And like Dylan, who showed up in Greenwich
Village during the folk explosion in the ’60s and captured the
imagination of all these people in just a matter of weeks, Daniel did
the same thing in Austin.”

That was partly due to Johnston’s aggressive self-promotion. He
produced his first commercially distributed album, Hi, How Are You, on
a cheap tape recorder and handed out cassette copies—adorned with his
drawing of a googly-eyed frog—to everyone he could. “While he was
[working] at McDonald’s,” Feuerzeig says, “Daniel invented viral
marketing. If you were a pretty girl or a hip Austin musician, you’d
find a surprise in your hamburger-and-french-fries sack. He’d put a
cassette in. People loved that. Obviously, the tape wasn’t very good,
but they became enamored by him, and before you know it, he not only
made the scene—he was the scene.”

As Johnston’s fame grew, so did his illness—which made putting
together The Devil and Daniel Johnston an especially formidable
project. “He can’t really cooperate,” Feuerzeig says, “because he’s
medicated. So it was difficult.”

In fact, the film might have been impossible if it weren’t for the
fact that Johnston never stopped recording—audio, of course, but more
important, video. Like the subjects of 2003’s Capturing the Friedmans,
the members of the Johnston family have recorded in some fashion nearly
all of their days, whether good or bad, for posterity. In The Devil and
Daniel Johnston, you hear fights between Daniel and his mother. You
hear Daniel’s audio diary, including some phone calls. You even see a
picture, taken by a parent, of Daniel on a stretcher being wheeled into
a hospital.

After approaching “the gatekeeper,” Johnston manager Jeff Tartakov,
about getting access to this material, Feuerzeig took four-and-a-half
years to put the film together. “In all seriousness, one of the great
archeological finds in our lifetime is the archive of Daniel Johnston,”
the director says. “Now, was it [an official] archive? No. I went to
the house, and hundreds of tapes were found, like, in a Hefty bag. He
recorded his whole life. I always knew about that—I just didn’t know
there was hours of it. And like Darger, Daniel was an obsessive artist.
But it’s almost as if we walked in, in Chicago, into Darger’s room and
found him still alive.”

Johnston, Feuerzeig says, “contributed the best ways he could,
including helping to art-direct scenes that re-created some dramatic
moments”—such as when Johnston chased a woman out of her second-story
window to try to rid her of Satan. “His mom says in the film, ‘Dan
thought he was God’s man to save the world,’” Feuerzeig says. “Holy
shit! What can I tell you? It’s apocalyptic.”

That footage was supplemented by material from those who, like the
director, have followed Johnston’s career since nearly the beginning.
“People all over the world sent me their Daniel Johnston art materials
because they trusted [Tartakov], who’s always been known to have done
right by Daniel,” he says. “So that gave me access to people like Lee
Ranaldo and Sonic Youth, who shared with me because they in turn
trusted me.”

But a music-scene connection the film didn’t facilitate was
Feuerzeig’s personal one with Johnston. “Even when we were together, I
never felt I was in touch with him. I don’t feel like I know him any
better than the day I met him,” the director says. “I always knew him
through his art and his music. Even his dad says it in the film—‘The
only way to know what’s going on in Daniel’s head is to look over his
shoulder and read what he’s putting in the thought bubbles in the art.’
And if his dad can’t get to him, how can I?”

Instead, Feuerzeig relied on his own impressions of Johnston to
guide his filmmaking. “I just grabbed all the tapes myself, and I
assembled this internal monologue that you hear in the film,” he says.
He also consulted a book by psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, Touched
With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, which
allowed him to consider Johnston’s case against those of van Gogh,
Byron, Virginia Woolf, and others who’ve shared the singer’s illness.
“All the great artists throughout history suffered from manic
depression,” Feuerzeig says.

The director says he was drawn to the project, which he partially
financed himself, because “I felt he chose me. Daniel’s art…has
touched me in such a deep way and has had a profound effect on my life.
And I saw so much in his humor. He’s a very funny guy, and he also did
a lot of comedy. I heard a lot of the same pop-culture influences from
the ’70s that I had gotten into my head—early Woody Allen, Jerry Lewis,
Andy Kaufman. I felt like he was a great vehicle to express myself
through, because I felt very connected to him.”

Regarding whether he believes Johnston is on a par with Dylan or
Wilson, Feuerzeig says, “Well, he’s singular, like they are. And he’s
created a great body of work that has affected and touched people and
brings tears to their eyes. So you tell me. It’s all subjective, isn’t
it?…When I heard Daniel Johnston’s voice, it was like a breath of
fresh air. I truly mean that—that’s what attracted me. I heard Billie
Holiday. I heard John Coltrane. The reaching to God—that’s what I hear
in that voice.

“Virtuosity is incredibly overrated in our world,” Feuerzeig adds.
“And raw, beautiful emotion and honesty is what really should be
cherished. Daniel [reflects] that. What I find off-putting is
overproduced garbage. I’ve never cried to a Coldplay song.”

copyright 2006 themoviebabe.com

The Devil and Daniel Johnston’s Jeff Feuerzeig

Thursday, April 27th, 2006

He’s a singer-songwriter who not only can’t sing but can’t really play
his guitar, either. For most of his life, this performer has believed
that he’s Casper the Friendly Ghost, and he now lives with his elderly
parents because of extreme psychosis. Henry Darger–like, he’s made
hundreds of drawings on such themes as good vs. evil, including a
series of pictures of ducks that he refers to as “my armies in my
battle against Satan.”

You’d probably label this guy an outsider artist. But then, outsider
artists don’t usually end up on MTV, as Daniel Johnston did at the age
of 24, when his manic depression was in full swing.

“Yeah, even the New York Times, just a couple years ago, was writing
about Johnston as the poster child for outsider music,” says director
Jeff Feuerzeig, in Washington to promote his new documentary, The Devil
and Daniel Johnston
. “Well, it’s really a pleasure [for me] that
recently the Times featured him on the cover of the Arts & Leisure
section because he was just selected by the Whitney Biennial,”
Feuerzeig continues. “Now they had to change their tune. Now he’s a
fine artist—which is what Daniel always was. He studied art. He went to
art school. Outsider artists don’t do this.”

But art is a secondary success in the 45-year-old Johnston’s career.
He’s been performing his music to packed houses for the past 20 years
or so, ever since he was profiled on MTV’s The Cutting Edge in 1985.
His songs have been covered by artists such as the Pastels, Beck,
Mercury Rev, Bright Eyes, and Wilco. In Feuerzeig’s film, you hear
people not only call Johnston a genius but also compare him to Bob
Dylan and Brian Wilson—even when he delivers lyrics such as “Don’t play
cards with Satan/He’ll deal you an awful hand.”

Feuerzeig, a 41-year-old commerical director and filmmaker currently
based in Los Angeles, was a college-radio DJ in New Jersey and
contributing to fanzines when he first heard of Johnston in the
mid-’80s. The international underground-music community Feuerzeig was
involved in—“a couple hundred people, like a mini-Internet”—had spread
word of a “talented young kid from Wild West Virginia.” Johnston had
wandered his way to Austin, Texas, after a five-month stint traveling
with a carnival. As a woman who’d seen Feuerzeig’s film pointed out to
him recently: “He’s, like, more Dylan than Dylan. Dylan said he was a
carny—Daniel really was a carny!”

“The way he showed up in Austin was so incredible, because it was an
accident,” Feuerzeig says. “So a lot of his career was predetermined,
and a lot of it was serendipity. When Daniel appeared in Austin, he
already had his body of work created. He recorded, I don’t know, I
think there were nine of those little cassettes he recorded in his
basement from 1981 to 1983. He recorded all that in a span of three
years. He was on fire. And like Dylan, who showed up in Greenwich
Village during the folk explosion in the ’60s and captured the
imagination of all these people in just a matter of weeks, Daniel did
the same thing in Austin.”

That was partly due to Johnston’s aggressive self-promotion. He
produced his first commercially distributed album, Hi, How Are You, on
a cheap tape recorder and handed out cassette copies—adorned with his
drawing of a googly-eyed frog—to everyone he could. “While he was
[working] at McDonald’s,” Feuerzeig says, “Daniel invented viral
marketing. If you were a pretty girl or a hip Austin musician, you’d
find a surprise in your hamburger-and-french-fries sack. He’d put a
cassette in. People loved that. Obviously, the tape wasn’t very good,
but they became enamored by him, and before you know it, he not only
made the scene—he was the scene.”

As Johnston’s fame grew, so did his illness—which made putting
together The Devil and Daniel Johnston an especially formidable
project. “He can’t really cooperate,” Feuerzeig says, “because he’s
medicated. So it was difficult.”

In fact, the film might have been impossible if it weren’t for the
fact that Johnston never stopped recording—audio, of course, but more
important, video. Like the subjects of 2003’s Capturing the Friedmans,
the members of the Johnston family have recorded in some fashion nearly
all of their days, whether good or bad, for posterity. In The Devil and
Daniel Johnston, you hear fights between Daniel and his mother. You
hear Daniel’s audio diary, including some phone calls. You even see a
picture, taken by a parent, of Daniel on a stretcher being wheeled into
a hospital.

After approaching “the gatekeeper,” Johnston manager Jeff Tartakov,
about getting access to this material, Feuerzeig took four-and-a-half
years to put the film together. “In all seriousness, one of the great
archeological finds in our lifetime is the archive of Daniel Johnston,”
the director says. “Now, was it [an official] archive? No. I went to
the house, and hundreds of tapes were found, like, in a Hefty bag. He
recorded his whole life. I always knew about that—I just didn’t know
there was hours of it. And like Darger, Daniel was an obsessive artist.
But it’s almost as if we walked in, in Chicago, into Darger’s room and
found him still alive.”

Johnston, Feuerzeig says, “contributed the best ways he could,
including helping to art-direct scenes that re-created some dramatic
moments”—such as when Johnston chased a woman out of her second-story
window to try to rid her of Satan. “His mom says in the film, ‘Dan
thought he was God’s man to save the world,’” Feuerzeig says. “Holy
shit! What can I tell you? It’s apocalyptic.”

That footage was supplemented by material from those who, like the
director, have followed Johnston’s career since nearly the beginning.
“People all over the world sent me their Daniel Johnston art materials
because they trusted [Tartakov], who’s always been known to have done
right by Daniel,” he says. “So that gave me access to people like Lee
Ranaldo and Sonic Youth, who shared with me because they in turn
trusted me.”

But a music-scene connection the film didn’t facilitate was
Feuerzeig’s personal one with Johnston. “Even when we were together, I
never felt I was in touch with him. I don’t feel like I know him any
better than the day I met him,” the director says. “I always knew him
through his art and his music. Even his dad says it in the film—‘The
only way to know what’s going on in Daniel’s head is to look over his
shoulder and read what he’s putting in the thought bubbles in the art.’
And if his dad can’t get to him, how can I?”

Instead, Feuerzeig relied on his own impressions of Johnston to
guide his filmmaking. “I just grabbed all the tapes myself, and I
assembled this internal monologue that you hear in the film,” he says.
He also consulted a book by psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, Touched
With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, which
allowed him to consider Johnston’s case against those of van Gogh,
Byron, Virginia Woolf, and others who’ve shared the singer’s illness.
“All the great artists throughout history suffered from manic
depression,” Feuerzeig says.

The director says he was drawn to the project, which he partially
financed himself, because “I felt he chose me. Daniel’s art…has
touched me in such a deep way and has had a profound effect on my life.
And I saw so much in his humor. He’s a very funny guy, and he also did
a lot of comedy. I heard a lot of the same pop-culture influences from
the ’70s that I had gotten into my head—early Woody Allen, Jerry Lewis,
Andy Kaufman. I felt like he was a great vehicle to express myself
through, because I felt very connected to him.”

Regarding whether he believes Johnston is on a par with Dylan or
Wilson, Feuerzeig says, “Well, he’s singular, like they are. And he’s
created a great body of work that has affected and touched people and
brings tears to their eyes. So you tell me. It’s all subjective, isn’t
it?…When I heard Daniel Johnston’s voice, it was like a breath of
fresh air. I truly mean that—that’s what attracted me. I heard Billie
Holiday. I heard John Coltrane. The reaching to God—that’s what I hear
in that voice.

“Virtuosity is incredibly overrated in our world,” Feuerzeig adds.
“And raw, beautiful emotion and honesty is what really should be
cherished. Daniel [reflects] that. What I find off-putting is
overproduced garbage. I’ve never cried to a Coldplay song.”

copyright 2006 themoviebabe.com