Interview with Olivier Assayas

April 24, 2006

    Clean, the eleventh feature from French director Olivier Assayas, follows a widowed heroin addict as she tries to regain custody of her young son. It marks another departure in style for the French director, whose previous films have ranged from Demonlover, a caustic look at Internet pornography, to Les Destinées Sentimentales, a generational epic centered around a porcelain factory.
    Assayas wrote Clean for Maggie Cheung, the Hong Kong movie star who briefly married the director after appearing in his Irma Vep. Assayas considers Cheung one of the world's great actresses, but her roles have rarely shown her full abilities. "In Hong Kong films, she was like Jackie Chan's girlfriend, the girl next door. And even when I made Irma Vep, I hardly knew her. I used her as a Hong Kong movie star, not as the actual person she is. She's made a career being someone else, not herself."
    Cheung, who grew up largely in London and who speaks English fluently, may be familiar to viewers here for her work in Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love and Zhang Yimou's Hero. Assayas felt she deserved a different type of role. "She's always been split between two cultures. I thought she needed a part that would take her more into her Westernized side. She always complained that Nathalie Richard got the better role in Irma Vep, and I kind of agree with her. I owed it to her to make a film that would not look at her from the outside, but from someone closer to who she really is."
    Slight and soft-spoken, Assayas becomes passionate and voluble when talking about film. But he hemmed and hawed when asked about his current relationship with Cheung. "During the shooting, we were close," he finally allowed. "In terms of working together, we functioned much better than in real life." Cheung won the best actress award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival for her part, but has suggested since then that she might give up acting in film.
    Instead, she has started to explore music seriously. Assayas gave the story an indie rock setting in order to allow Cheung the chance to play a musician. "Maggie liked the notion of singing, but felt it was totally out of her reach," Assayas said. "But we were able to work with David Roback of Mazzy Star, and she was so comfortable that she's thinking of making a record with him."
    "For me, music is our contemporary poetry. It expresses emotions faster, in a rougher way, than film," Assayas said. "But showing the music world in films is very dangerous because it's so easy to get it wrong. I kind of protected myself by deciding that every part of a musician in the film was going to be a real live musician."
    Assayas also shot the music live, a decision that kept his cast and crew on their toes. The dense, jittery scenes that open Clean capture both the excitement of performing and the drab, listless world musicians can feel trapped in. The director's next project, a Sonic Youth concert film, continues his long interest in rock music.
    Asked how he adapts his style to different projects, Assayas asserts, "I think you have to reinvent your way of functioning with every film. I never really know where I am going, or what style the film will be in. I usually start filming extremely scared." He credits his crew with helping him establish a comfortable working atmosphere. He has worked with the same editor, Luc Barnier, on every one of his films, and with cinematographer Eric Gautier on his last five projects. "I can't overstate the importance of their work, because I never rehearse the actors. I don't do readings. I'm trying to keep everyone totally spontaneous, to use the first take. But we rehearse the camera very precisely, we design the shots and then we adapt them to the actors."
    Despite its deceptively simple look, Clean turned out to be Assayas' most complicated shoot. "Finding the balance was very difficult. Finding the right cast, the right music, the right settings–every day was a new problem. For instance, Alan Bates was supposed to be Maggie's father-in-law Albrecht. But three weeks before shooting he had to drop out." (Seriously ill, the actor died a few months later.)
    Assayas sent the script to Nick Nolte, but with severe misgivings. "Call Nick Nolte three weeks before the shoot and ask him to play in your film, it's an independent French film, and you're not going to pay him any money, any relevant money? It was a miracle he agreed."
    The actors' differing backgrounds challenged Assayas. "Maggie's not a technical actress. She knows everything about technique, but ultimately she has to become the person she is playing, she has to find her character's emotions from the inside out. Meanwhile, Nick, he's very accomplished, very professional, but he is worlds apart from Béatrice Dalle, who's like this totally intuitive actress. Then there's Martha Henry, a great stage actress, but someone used to a certain style of direction. You have to find a slightly different way to speak to every single actor."
    Filming took place in Canada, Paris, and London, entailing three separate production crews. On top of shooting chronologically, Assayas staged several extremely complex shots, including a beautifully calibrated hand-held journey through three different levels of a rush-hour Paris train station. "Nick was in that shot, and afterward he asked the trainee who was giving him his cues how many assistants we had to control the crowd. We had to tell him, well, it's not exactly our crowd, we have like ten extras and that's it."
    Assayas could have staged the scene in an easier setting, but he would have lost the sense that his characters were trying to connect with each other and with the world around them. "Sometimes in film, the more difficult the logistics are, the more it helps or carries the actors. You put actors like Maggie and Nick in this kind of cinema verite setting that they've never really been in before, and it gives them extra concentration, perhaps extra emotion."
    Assayas needed almost a dozen production companies and distributors to finance Clean. "We could only find a third of the budget in France. The money there comes from TV, and you can't sell Maggie Cheung and Nick Nolte to French TV. They mean zero, nothing, to them it's like making a movie with unknowns, kids or something."
    The vagaries of an international co-production led to unexpected frustrations. "I was going out of my mind when we were in Canada. I'm staging a scene in a record company. It's an office, people are supposed to be on the phones, but if this guy speaks, he is no longer an extra, he becomes a part player, and it becomes very expensive. A ten-second pan would end up costing a fortune. The union people tell me, 'They are very good at lip synching, so just let them fake it.' It's awful. I could not understand the logic of it."
    Complimented on how discreetly he treated a scene in which Nolte learns about the death of his son, Assayas reveals that he actually shot a much longer version of it. "Nick was great, it was a great moment, and it remained in the cut for a long time. But movies are like music, and your instincts tell you when it has to be softer, when you need to slow it down. From the moment I took that scene out, everything just kind of flowed."
    The film is surprisingly ambivalent about drugs. Assayas is unwilling to condemn addicts outright, feeling that they are taking drugs because of an inner pain. "Drugs are anesthetics, they relieve you from something, but they also disconnect you from the world. Addicts shut themselves off, and if they're lucky enough to get the chance they then have to reconcile with themselves and with society." This empathy is the ultimate strength behind a film that easily could have turned sordid.
    Assayas' tolerance and discretion has been a hallmark of his films, as has his respect for his audience. It may be why critics tend to underrate his work, that and the fact that his films deliver such cinematic pleasure. The son of screenwriter Jacques Remy, Assayas started out writing for both television and the Cahiers du Cinema. He is keenly aware of the history of cinema, and is equally at ease with the classical style of Les Destinées, which was based on a famous novel by Jacques Chardonne, and the loose, improvised, hand-held look of L'Eau Froide (Cold Water). He's directed a documentary about Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien, and in Irma Vep managed to pay tribute to both Tsui Hark and Louis Feuillade.
    The director doesn't see himself as a moralist, but his films so far have addressed society's basic issues with concern and compassion. Demonlover drew criticism for its treatment of sex and violence, but Assayas says he was trying to represent the potential dangers in pop culture. "Sex and violence, brutality, it's not something I'm emphasizing or nurturing, it's something I'm struggling against every day. But studios, commerce in general, are using it as a kind of key to attract teenage boys. The way it's taking over is disturbing. It's not like we're immune to it."
    "Mainstream filmmakers do not respect audiences," he said. "When you make films, you only know one part of the world. I always feel that the audience knows more than I do, that they can be very receptive to complex films." Assayas' optimism is strikingly evident in Clean, a film that finds hope within the most demanding settings.


Interview with Paul Greengrass

April 23, 2006

A day after screening his latest project for studio executives, director and screenwriter Paul Greengrass spoke by phone about United 93. It is the first feature film to deal directly with the events of September 11, 2001. Told in approximate real time, the film follows United Airlines Flight 93, scheduled to fly from Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco, but hijacked soon after take-off. It was the fourth plane in a scheme that resulted in attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the only one that failed to meet its target. Instead, it crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after a struggle between passengers and their hijackers.

Greengrass, a British director who started out in documentaries, is acutely aware of the controversies surrounding his subject. But he points to a long tradition of movies dealing with sensitive issues, and feels that it is time for filmmakers to address 9/11. "Political violence has been the dominant theme of my films," he said. "I've had a lot of experience with the subject, and I hope my work speaks to my seriousness and responsibility as a filmmaker. I just felt that I wanted to make a contribution."

Best known in the United States for Bloody Sunday (2001), a documentary-like look at one of the worst days of violence in the conflict in Northern Ireland, the director had been planning an adaptation of Alan Moore's graphic novel Watchmen. When that project was postponed, Greengrass gave himself a week to come up with a 9/11 story.

"The meaning of Flight 93 had nagged me for years. What is unique about it is that its take-off was delayed by a mere quirk of fate. So by the time the passengers faced the ordeal of the hijack, at around half-past nine, 9/11 was substantially over. It was moments before the third plane struck the Pentagon, and the first two planes had already hit the World Trade Center.

"We on the ground still didn't know what was going on. Obviously, there was some coordinated act of terrorism. But who, why, what? We had the luxury of being able to be in shock. But those passengers didn't. In a sense, they were already in the post-9/11 world. They had to face that crucial question: What do you do? How do you respond? And they only had minutes to decide it."

Examining that response became the crux of Greengrass's script. "But before you could think about making a film," he cautioned, "we needed to know what the families involved felt about it. The families of the victims of political violence suffer a particularly difficult grief. They have to come to terms with the boundaries between the public and the private. It's a complicated emotional road. So we met every single one, in person at their houses."

Greengrass expected a certain amount of resistance, but instead found complete unanimity. "I never imagined there would be such a strength and extraordinary generosity towards us. But one of the things these people understand is how easy it is for us to continue our lives unchanged. Of course 9/11 has changed the world, but in our day to day lives we don't want to admit that. We don't want to admit that we are still facing a tremendous problem. These people have experienced it firsthand, and they wanted the story told."

With the families' approval, and the support of Universal Pictures, Greengrass was ready to proceed. "Then it just became a question of assembling a coalition of people who share your concept, something similar to what I'd done in Bloody Sunday. I cast basically from the New York theater community because this wasn't going to be about 'movie stars.' We also cast a lot of professionals, real airline pilots, for example. It's like an experiment in filmmaking–you gather together for a couple of months with all the known facts and try to create a 'believable truth' about what happened. It was an inspiring experience."

From a twenty-page treatment, he worked up a ninety-page blueprint of facts, culled in large part from the 9/11 Commission Report. "To make sense of what happened on the plane," Greengrass decided, "you had to interweave that story with the air traffic control environments. You couldn't explore that in an unstructured way, you had to include a great amount of detail."

Bloody Sunday was dense with information, and Greengrass promises that United 93 will be as well. "I welcome an element of confusion because it's part of what makes a film feel real. The 'fog and friction of war,' something all military commanders understand. Remember, confusion is one of the prime goals of any political violence, and in a fast-moving, chaotic situation, things are not always clear."

Greengrass worked with the added burden of portraying the events in real time. "We followed the time line of the 9/11 Commission, but as you rehearse you don't stand with a stopwatch and say, 'Well, now you're two minutes slow or three minutes fast.' But essentially we did play it in real time. The skein of real life has got a different tempo than screen life, which is more processed, more compressed. This is a different time register, it has a slightly less formal feel to it."

The director worries about how Muslims will respond to the film. "I and the four actors who portray the terrorists had a special burden creatively, which we discussed many times. We had to put as much effort into exploring their motivations as into anything else. Because you begin to understand things when you look at their behavior. You see very clearly that 9/11 wasn't aimed at us. We were not the real audience. This was designed to wake up the Muslim world, not us. They were going forth into the devil's world to strike a mighty blow, to light a flame that would awaken the Muslim world from a thousand years of slumber, cowardice, what have you. Five years on, you have to wonder if they haven't had a measure of success."

United 93 avoids easy answers. "When you see the moral blindness of those four men," Greengrass says, "it makes you think about the very great difficulty we face in dealing with this kind of zealous fundamentalism. It's beyond our political discourse, it's like a flight to medieval orthodoxy, a total rejection of modernity. As a liberal, that's hard for me to grapple with."

In fact, making this film has worn away a lot of Greengrass's optimism. "I've spent a good amount of time studying and talking to people who have either fought or been in the Provisional IRA. I think I understand what motivated those men. You were fighting for truly political goals, and everyone knew that in the end a deal between the British and the Irish would have to be negotiated.

"But it's hard not to be bleak about this current cycle of violence. You can try to trace this back to the roots of Islamic fundamentalism or to Egyptian universities in the 1950s or whatever, but the truth is this is going to have a long time span. We are not going to solve it in our lifetimes. I fear it's going to be grim. But I believe the values of tolerance and diversity will win out. It's going to be our defining struggle. I think you can see that in that airplane, and I think those passengers could see it, too."

Review: Crossing the Bridge

April 11, 2006

Known here if at all as the accompaniment to belly dancing, Turkish music has a long and fascinating tradition that combines influences from many cultures. Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul offers a rock-biased but still very entertaining introduction to some of the kinds of music you are liable to hear in Turkey.

Alexander Hacke, the bass player in the German industrial noise band Einstürzende Neubauten, first became interested in Turkish music while working on the soundtrack to Head-On, director Fatih Akin's last feature. Wandering through the streets and clubs of Istanbul, he is an enthusiastic guide whose tastes skew towards the heavier side of rock. (Hacke is also responsible for the film's outstanding, if bass-heavy, sound mix.)

The first groups showcased are the closest to Western traditions. Members of the psychedelic band Baba Zula play long instrumental jams, the Replikas specialize in "civilized noise," and the two DJs who make up Orient Expressions broadcast late-night grooves on the radio. Hacke, who plays with some of the bands, seems the most engaged early on. He can be intrusive, but as the music turns more ethnic, he slips farther into the background.

In short interviews, musicians explain how Turkey, situated between Europe and Asia, borrowed for its arts. Songs built around a 5/8 or 9/8 beat (the "Turkish accent") could have antecedents in Egyptian or Moroccan music wedded to European-influenced lyrics. Archive clips show Erkin Koray, a singer-songwriter popular in the 1970s, taking Jimi Hendrix's style and turning it into something distinctly Turkish. Ceza, a hip-hop artist based in the Craze tattoo parlor, uses speed and amazing glottal control to build incantatory raps. The Istanbul Style Breakers, the world's least threatening posse, offer to combat drugs through break dancing.

About a half-hour into the film, the gypsy influence becomes apparent. The music turns amorphous, the instruments are no longer readily identifiable, and even the whirling dances are unfamiliar. The excellent clarinetist Selim Sesler shows Bulgarian and Romany strains in traditional songs. Entertainment for a wedding banquet on a rural village street is almost too foreign to comprehend.

The film steps gingerly around Turkey's Kurdish problem. A journalist explains how the Kurdish language was banned until 1990, and in the film's most carefully photographed sequence, Aynur performs a Kurdish song in a church. The street performers who make up the folkie Siyasiyabend also discuss politics, but for the most part Crossing the Bridge is firmly music oriented.

Akin saves the best for last. At eighty-six, Müzeyyen Senar is still belting out raunchy drinking songs, while 1970s pop goddess Sezen Aksu comes out of retirement to sing a hit from her "Istanbul Hatirasi" album. And Orhan Gencebay, the "Elvis of Arabesque," absolutely slays all competition. Singing and playing the guitar-like saz, he is a delightful revelation. Judging from his performance, and a montage of his film clips from the 1970s, he is ripe for a career retrospective. Crossing the Bridge could have used more identifying captions, and a little less Hacke, but it is an exciting introduction to a worthy musical world.

Cast and credits

Featuring: Alexander Hacke, Baba Zula, Orient Expressions, Duman, Replikas, Erkin Koray, Ceza, Istanbul Style Breakers, Mercan Dede, Selim Sesler, Brenna MacCrimmon, Siyasiyabend, Aynur, Orhan Gencebay, Müzeyyen Senar, Sezen Aksu.

Credits: Directed by Fatih Akin. Screenplay by Fatih Akin. Produced by Fatih Akin, Klaus Maeck, Andreas Thiel, Sandra Harzer-Kux, Christian Kux. Director of photography: Hervé Dieu. Edited by Andrew Bird. Sound by Johannes Grehl. Music and sound mix: Alexander Hacke. Music consultant: Klaus Maeck. Co-producer: Jeanette Würl. A Strand Releasing presentation of a Bavarian Film International production, in co-production with Corazon International, Intervista Digital Media, and NDR, in association with Pictorion Pictures, supported by Film Förderung Hamburg and Nordmedia Fonds. In Turkish, Kurdish, German, and English with English subtitles.

Review: 95 Miles to Go

April 9, 2006

When comedians make concert films, they tend to lean on Richard Pryor's Live in Concert as a model. But most comics can't sustain their acts for the length of a feature film (even Pryor had trouble filling out his three sequels). A year or so after ending his television series Everybody Loves Raymond, Ray Romano tries a different approach with 95 Miles to Go, a documentary about his nine-day stand-up tour through Florida and Georgia. The film contains relatively little footage of Romano performing on stage. What it offers instead is a surprisingly unvarnished look at the machinery of show business.

An opening clip finds Romano performing at New York City's Comic Strip back in 1985. Already his herky-jerky delivery, with its pauses and unfinished sentences, the sense that frustration is rendering him almost inarticulate, is in place. Fast-forward sixteen years, and he is readying a short tour with Tom Caltabiano, a comedian himself, as well as a long-time friend, Everybody Loves Raymond writer, and director of the film. Joining them is former Raymond intern Roger Lay, Jr., who shot much of the footage.

Getting to the first show takes some time, due in no small part to Romano's neuroses. Shown in graphic detail, they give a good idea of where the comedian finds his material, as well as how difficult a person he must be to deal with on a daily basis. His fear of flying means that the three have to drive from city to city. He seems to prefer Subway and Cracker Barrel to more respectable restaurants. And he gives himself weird punishments if he fails to meet challenges he calls "mind bets."

Like many of his peers, Romano's comedy seems fueled by guilt and insecurity. "I'm not that funny," he tells one audience. "Inside I know I'm not quite what they think I am," he confides to Caltabiano at another point. On the other hand, he's quick-witted and obsessive, a combination that led to several Emmys in a long career. Watching him and Caltabiano work out lines and discuss audiences shows just how hard comedy can be.

95 Miles… is especially valuable for exposing the unglamorous side of show biz. The endless lines of autograph hounds ("I smell eBay," Romano says while signing a stack of head shots in a theater parking lot) might be expected, but the other demands on his time seem just as relentless. The interviews, radio shows, promotional spots for local TV, meet-and-greet's, and post-performance debriefings suck up most of the day. The rest falls victim to fans who insist on connecting with the star. It's no wonder that he spends as much of the tour as he can holed up in hotel rooms.

Of course, Romano's not complaining about his success, and 95 Miles… is too good-natured to be mistaken for an expose. The film's DIY style proves endearing, just as the constant bickering between Romano and Caltabiano underscores their affection for each other. As long as Romano's fans don't expect a standard concert film, they will find this documentary very entertaining.

Cast and credits

Featuring: Ray Romano, Tom Caltabiano, Roger Lay, Jr.

Credits: Directed by Tom Caltabiano. Produced by Caltabiano, Ray Romano. Director of photography: Roger Lay, Jr. Edited by Cheyenne Pesko. Music by Adam Gorgoni. Associate producers: Roger Lay, Jr., Cheyenne Pesko. A Schmo-Gun and Mr. Clown Productions presentation.