Chris Weitz – Cinderella (DVD)

September 25, 2015 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

In the live-action adaptation of “Cinderella,” Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Chris Weitz, 45, (“About a Boy”) takes a classic fairytale and creates a more contemporary story without losing the magic of the original 1950 animated film. The newest version features actress Lily James (TV’s “Downton Abbey”) as the title character, an orphaned young girl who finds herself sharing a home with an evil stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and two equally awful stepsisters. During a phone interview with me to promote the recent DVD/Blu-ray release of the film, Weitz, whose grandmother was Mexican actress Lupita Tovar (“Drácula”), talked about creating a character much more independent than the one in the original animated movie and shared his thoughts about the Disney princess culture and whether he thinks little girls should idolize these types of characters.

Talk a bit about taking this very well-known fairytale and reinventing it. Where do you even begin?

I think the trick was to present a classic version of the story. It’s not ironic. It’s not postmodern. We also didn’t want to tell it in a way that a contemporary audience would think of Cinderella as a doormat. She puts up with a lot of stuff, but she doesn’t run away from home and she doesn’t hit her stepmother. In other movies, that’s something characters might do. Also, we wanted to ask, “Why does she love the prince?” In older versions of the story, it’s just kind of an afterthought that she would love him because he’s a prince and he’s good looking and charming and all those things. That’s kind of not keeping with how people view romance these days. We wanted to give a good reason why someone would fall in love beyond status. We wanted to tell a story of resilience as opposed to reaction and to show what it is like for two people to really fall in love.

Yes, I really loved that you gave Cinderella more control of her own life in this version. In the original Disney cartoon, I don’t like the fact that the prince is the ultimate goal and that marrying him is the only way she will find happiness. She’s more independent and strong here. Is that what you hoped to have come across?

Definitely. I think a lot of that is Lily James. She really pulls it off in terms of being able to present this character whose actions are very restrained in some ways. She doesn’t have a scene where she tells off the wicked stepmother, but Lily still manages to do that without seeming like a goody two-shoes. That’s really impressive. That’s definitely what we wanted, but it wasn’t something that was necessarily a foregone conclusion.

How do you feel about the princess culture in general? Do you have an issue with little girls idolizing these types of characters?

I think it’s a double-edged sword. Obviously there are aspects to [the princess culture] that seem to be very old-fashioned. But I think you can take the real estate of the princess story and use it to emphasize really important aspects of emotional development like resiliency and decency and honesty. Cinderella is not aggressive or hostile in any way. This is a story about getting through loss and difficult circumstances with dignity. There’s room for that story. I think it’s good that there are other types of stories, but there is room for this one, too. And I just want to point out that in this story Cinderella is never a princess. She is an orphan and then a queen. By the time she marries the prince he is the king. In the animated film she becomes a princess, but in this film she is ready to rule.

A few years ago, Disney said they were not going to make any more princess-themed films. Do you think that is possible for a studio that has such a strong following when it comes to these types of movies?

I think before there were princess stories there were fairytales. Those are kind of evergreen. The Disney princess industry is a huge industry, obviously. I think it would be a difficult thing to move away from that because it’s something people care about so much. But maybe the way things are going to go is to reexamine the idea of these princess stories in more modern ways.

Disney introduced audiences to their first Disney princess in 1937 with Snow White. Almost 80 years and 13 princesses later and we still don’t have a Latina princess. Earlier this year Disney announced they were working on a new Latina princess named Elena of Avalor who will be featured on the cartoon “Sophia the First” and will later get her own animated spin-off TV show. Is that enough?

You’re pointing to an issue that is in American pop culture, especially in movies. It’s something I really care about. As you probably know, Latino audiences, per capita, buy more movie tickets than any sector of society in the country. I don’t think it’s ever quite enough until it is. It’s good that there will be a Hispanic Disney princess-type character, but I want to see more. I also think Latino audiences should demand that as well and examine their film-going choices before they put down their money.

Personally, are more live-action adaptations of these animated Disney films something you’re excited about? We’re going to get quite a few over the next few years.

If you’d asked me this about 10 years ago I would’ve said I had no interest whatsoever. (Laughs) But now that I’m a parent, I really think it’s important that there are movies children want to go see and that parents won’t want to shoot themselves in the head while watching. So, yeah, I’m very much in favor of it and hope I can keep my hands in it as well and continue to work with Disney.


Patrick Brice – The Overnight & Creep

March 21, 2015 by  
Filed under Interviews

In the first two feature films of his career, director/writer Patrick Brice finds a way to create comedy out of uncomfortable circumstances. In “Creep,” a freelance videographer (played by Brice himself) answers a vague ad on Craigslist about helping a guy shoot a video. The job becomes a lot more sinister than anticipated. In “The Overnight,” a husband and wife (Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling) and their young son accept an invitation to dinner and a family “playdate” at the home of a well-to-do couple and their kid. The evening, however, doesn’t play out like anyone imagined.

During an interview with me at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival, Brice, who earned his BFA in Film from the California Institute of the Arts, talked about what he looks for when he writes comedy and what his goals are as a new filmmaker. “The Overnight” is currently playing in theaters. “Creep” can be found on VOD platforms.

How do you approach comedy as a writer? Your two most recent films “The Overnight” and “Creep” have comedic elements, of course, but there’s a dark sense of humor to both of them.

For me it’s just a chance to indulge in my own taste. I’ve always found a lot of humor in darker situations that, when put in a movie, would incorporate a lot of narrative tension. It’s not a stretch for me coming up with this stuff in both of these movies. It’s a chance to play in different sandboxes, whether it’s a found footage horror movie or a flat-out comedy. Both of these movies have that kind of same comedic sensibility. Making “Creep” was a lot of fun because that was an improvised film from a 10-page outline. We made it in a short amount of time. It was just [actor] Mark [Duplass], me and a movie camera. Having that experience of discovering a film during the process of making it was helpful going into “The Overnight.” It was just a matter of listening to and following my own instincts.

You wrote both “The Overnight” and “Creep.” When you’re writing a screenplay, how do you like to work? Do you have to lock yourself away from everyone and everything to get it done?

I think it’s hard because there are so many more distractions nowadays. Committing to a project that takes more time is difficult. It’s taking a leap of faith going into writing a script. The scriptwriting process, unless you’re Superman, is going to take a few months. It’s going to be something you devote a lot of time to. You have to be your own critic while you do it. For me, it’s hard to get rid of all the distractions and get to that point where you can write something. I usually start with an outline then do a sort of brain dump and structure the script from that point. There are certain beats you have to hit. I want to make sure I’m hitting them in the outline phase before going into writing the script. It’s harder to work around the script once it is fully formed.

As someone who is new to the industry, what is going on in your head when you start getting calls that actors like Adam Scott and Jason Schwartman want to be in your movie?

I did not think I was going to be able to get performers of that level. It was all a nice surprise. It’s nice that all of them read the script and responded to it. Each person we offered the part to said yes. It was hugely validating as a writer to have these guys respond in the way they did. It’s not normal. What helped is having Mark Duplass as a producer and his track record with these kind of movies and the way he makes them and puts them out in the world. It can be enticing for an actor, for sure. Once we met with each other, it was a really fluid process. Because we shot the movie so quickly, we had no rehearsals. The creation of the tone and any discussions about character stuff all took place in maybe one or two individual meetings with the actors. It was cool because it almost made it feel like we were creating a play. The film has that feeling to it.

You’re talking about the tone of “The Overnight” coming from a natural place. Did that include some of the more uncomfortable sexual scenes that happen? How did you confront those scenes?

For us, everyone was super professional. It was such a small crew and production that we were all on the same page from day one. It was never really uncomfortable. I think all that discomfort kind of existed in the movie through the characters and the performances. I think the last scene of the movie – not to give anything away – is kind of an intense scene. I think everyone was sort of nervous about that and leading up to it. But once it got to the point where we had to shoot the scene, it was just a natural thing. We were able to craft a moment like that to feel as real as it could. It wasn’t like we were forcing anything. Anything we felt was forced was tossed away.

What about the uncomfortable nature of “Creep?” Would you feel disappointed if someone came out of that film and thought of it as a straight horror movie instead of one that had comedic elements sprinkled throughout?

I guess people are going to react to both of my films in different ways. I think there is a lot of different factors involved like where people watch the films. “The Overnight” is quite fun to watch in a theater. “Creep” is something that is going to be discovered at home at this point. It is definitely a creepier and more uncomfortable experience watching it at home. One thing I’ve realized making these movies is that a lot of filmgoers are just masochists. They love that feeling of getting toyed with a little bit. I think both of these movies kind of do it in a way that’s really inclusive. If you give into the conceit of either of these movies, there’s a strong likelihood you’re going to have a good time. If you approach either of these movies saying, “Impress me” or “I’m not buying it from the get-go,” they’re not going to win you over. With that said, for the people who like this kind of thing, I think they both are a lot of fun. My goal is to make something that is entertaining and fun to watch. That’s my No. 1 goal as a filmmaker: to make something that is engaging and feels new for people. If that involves creating the potential to make people feel uncomfortable, then I’m willing to take that risk. At the end of the day, if you want to make something that feels new, you have to put yourself out there.

When is the last time you laughed at something in the theater that maybe others didn’t think was necessarily written with comedic intentions?

It’s funny because I was just thinking about this the other day. I don’t do that too often, but I remember going to see the movie “Jackie Brown.” I was probably 13 or 14 at the time and I went with my dad and his girlfriend and my grandfather. The moment when Robert De Niro, out-of-the-blue, shoots Bridget Fonda in the parking lot, my grandfather, who is not an outgoing guy or anything, just burst out laughing. That moment is seared in my memory. Maybe it’s something that influenced what I would be doing later on. It was a horrible thing happening in the movie, but maybe it could be funny, too. It’s this unexpected element. I love that moment in the movie.

When it comes to comedy, do you think people are too sensitive nowadays? Do you think all issues and themes should be fair game to joke about or is there a line that shouldn’t be crossed?

I feel like everything is up for grabs, for sure. But I also feel like it depends on where you’re coming from and how you’re handling the material. If I feel like I’m in the hands of someone who is being thoughtful about what they’re putting out there, even if it’s something grossly offensive, there is a strong likelihood I’m going to respond to it. If it’s something that is gross or negative or a joke at someone else’s expense, I’m not going to appreciate it as much. I feel like all the humor in “The Overnight” exists to push boundaries. It’s there to serve the story and characters at the end of the day. It’s obviously there so I can be goofy and have all this ridiculous stuff in the movie, but at the same time, if you’re not with the characters on this journey and if you’re not buying it, it’s just not going to work for you. I try to be thoughtful and cautious when it comes to that kind of stuff, even though this is a movie I could see potentially being way too awkward for certain people. For anybody that is willing to give in a little bit, I feel they will have a good experience watching it. It’s fun to watch people cackling and cringing.

Where is Peachfuzz (the werewolf mask in the movie “Creep”) today? Do you keep it in your closet at home?

Yeah, I have it in my closet! It’s going to probably come out next month. We’re going to do a special screening for the movie and will bring the mask. But, yeah, it lives in my closet.

Have there been any requests to mass produce the mask? I know with a horror movie like “The Babadook,” people were requesting the studio to produce that handmade pop-up book and they obliged. Maybe Peachfuzz will get the same reaction.

If there is a demand for it, we could probably make that happen. I love the mask. It’s goofy but is also really scary under the right context. I love that duality.

Bret Easton Ellis – The Canyons (DVD)

November 27, 2013 by  
Filed under Interviews

Novelist Bret Easton Ellis (“Less Than Zero,” “American Psycho”) has a lot to say about a lot of issues. Sure, it’s true that sometimes his comments are considered by many to be tactless, but when Ellis speaks (or Tweets), he gets peoples’ attention.  Whether it’s getting banned from the GLAAD Media Awards earlier this year for his insensitive Tweets about gay characters on “Glee” (Ellis is gay himself), or his sexist messages the year before about Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”), Ellis is rarely subtle in his approach.

The same could be said this year when Ellis, 49, tried something he had never done in his career before by writing his first screenplay that was not adapted from one of his novels. In “The Canyons,” which was directed by Paul Schrader (“American Gigolo”), Ellis tells the story of Christian (adult film star James Deen), a young Hollywood producer, who learns his girlfriend Tara (Lindsay Lohan) is having an affair with one of his actors.

Recently released on DVD Nov. 26, “The Canyons” was not well received by critics when it was released on a limited platform this past summer. But don’t bore Ellis with any of those piddly details. He couldn’t give a shit what you think anyway. During my interview with Ellis, he talked about his preference to work outside the Hollywood sphere and why he thought a film as critically-acclaimed at “Fruitvale Station” was just plain terrible.

Did it feel liberating as a writer to work on a project where you could start from scratch?

It felt liberating as a writer to write a script the studio was not going to fuck up or that development executives were not giving you any notes on and where you’re only collaborator was the director, who actually liked the script. So, in fact, I was actually writing the script for a filmmaker whose work I was very well versed in and kind of shaping it for his sensibility. It was the first time where I felt unburdened by anyone else’s opinion. The only opinion I had to worry about was my partner, which was my director.

You definitely seem like the kind of writer that would flip out if someone was looking over his shoulder all the time.

I would say 90 percent of the time, if someone did that, the script would become worse. The script is usually best when it’s turned in the first time. The development process is really dangerous because more often than not, it ruins the movie. That’s slowly moving away though because the only way people are getting movies made these days is by making them themselves. The studios are becoming obsolete because they have the same 30 writers working on all the movies. It’s different now in terms of how movies are made.

I know you consider yourself an outsider from the Hollywood industry. You make smaller movies. As you look in on what’s happening in Hollywood, are you relived that you‘re not part of it? Disappointed?

I think it’s twofold: I’m disappointed in the fact that the Hollywood I grew up with is gone because they’re not making those kinds of movies anymore. Most of the people my age feel the same way. Even younger people feel the same way. I have filmmaker friends in their early 30s, late 20s who wish that the great auteur-driven movies of the 70s could still be made by studios today. But that is so gone and never coming back. I never wanted to get into that system anyway. I grew up knowing how terrible the studio system could be. So, I’m disappointed on that level. On another level, I’m really relieved that we’re in this transitional phase. We’re learning how to start over again. There are tools, cameras, lenses and ways to make really good-looking movies for almost nothing. What’s going to happen next is the question. Everyone is going to be making movies, but are any of them going to be any good?

That means a lot more independent films in the future. Do you think mainstream audiences are going to be receptive to that?

I think there’s going to be a point where there will be a lot of independent films, but there’s still going to be “Man of Steel 2” and “Jurassic Park 6.” You’re probably going to end up going to a movie theater and spend $75 to see a movie in a giant IMAX and get a gift bag with it. Then you’ll have the other movies that you just download and watch on your computer or TV. I think that’s really where we’re heading.

Which is something you were OK with in terms of having people see “The Canyons,” correct? You were open to them seeing the film at home, which is why it’s one of those movies that opened at limited theaters but also on VOD the same day.

I’ve seen “The Canyons” in many variations from the first rough cut all the way to the final color-corrected print and every time I have watched it on a computer screen. “The Canyons” was not built for theatrical distribution. There was never going to be enough money to promote it that way. It was always going to be something you could download and watch on a device.

As an author first, where do you see the original storyteller’s place in cinema today? Are you a movie fan yourself, or do you find movies one of those necessary evils that sort of complements the written text?

I love movies, but I’ve been very disappointed with them in the last couple of years. I think American movies are kind of at an all-time low. The conversation has shifted over to television. I don’t necessarily think the content is more interesting. I’ll watch shows that catch my interest, but it’s very, very different than the movie-going experience. I go to a lot of movies. I still have that habit entrenched in me since I was a kid. I really can’t get rid of that. I just love the fact that you can drive to the theater during a lunch break and just watch a wall of images. That relaxes me somehow. I feel refreshed after that. But it’s been a rough year in terms of American films. I don’t know where they’re going. Some people say we get all the good movies in 8-weeks in November and December. So, that’s kind of depressing, too.

So, who do you like? I’m a big Paul Thomas Anderson fan. Is he someone you can get behind?

Look, I’m not a fan of “The Master” and I think “There Will Be Blood” was maybe overrated, but we need people like P.T. Anderson who are true artists in American cinema. We have to have those voices out there. Even though I didn’t like “The Master” and I was bored with it and found it confusing, I was so glad it existed because he is a great filmmaker. But that kind of movie can only be made if you have a patron like [Annapurna Pictures founder and producer] Megan Ellison writing you a check. There’s no other way that movie can be made. The idea of the “auteur” or the “author of the film” who makes a series of movies that have a distinct sensibility to them, I don’t know if I see that or if those movies are that good anymore. I really can’t name any filmmaker right now that I find interesting enough based on a series of films he’s made. I guess I like David O. Russell. I guess I kind of respond to his movies. I mean, you can throw out some names if you want, but I think everyone’s work has been very erratic over the last decade or so.

Well, what about up-and-coming directors like Ryan Coogler? You didn’t have a lot of nice things to say on your Twitter account about his movie “Fruitvale Station,” which has been critically loved all year. What was it about that movie that you didn’t like?

Well, “Fruitvale Station” isn’t really a movie. I just didn’t feel like it was an experience. I didn’t really know how to process it. It’s about victims for an hour and a half and then it’s over. Oscar (the main character in the film) wants us to feel badly for him and he supposed to be a symbol for something, but I didn’t get it. I didn’t think the movie was dramatically interesting. I just didn’t know what that movie was supposed to be about. Also, just aesthetically, there were so many terribly written scenes that always double backed on each other. We’re always trying to find the best in Oscar. Ugh, and don’t get me started on they symbolism behind the dead dog Oscar befriends. Those things just literally drive me crazy. I just think it was a terrible film across the board. I think it’s interesting how a lot of white critics in this country have tiptoed around this movie and say they found it to be this powerful experience. To me it was just pure victimization cinema. I didn’t see any meaning in it.

So, at the end of the year, when “Fruitvale Station” is nominated for a couple of Oscars, do you take a step back and say, “What the hell are people thinking?” or do you think, “What the hell did I miss?”

No, because usually the Oscars are not good. Ironically, I saw that movie at the Academy and I didn’t think the response was that great. I know a lot of people here in Hollywood that didn’t like the movie, not because of race or politics, but for aesthetic reasons. I hate to get down on “Fruitvale Station,” but when something like that is so overrated, I sometimes feel that need. I don’t know if I’m ready to go there on Twitter. But, honestly, I’m very hard to please. I don’t like a lot of things.

So, how do you handle criticism of movies you’re involved with? “The Canyons” didn’t make the cut for the Sundance Film Festival or for South by Southwest. It’s not getting very good reviews from critics either.

Well, I didn’t care about Sundance or South by Southwest. I didn’t think those movies should go to those festivals. I don’t know if we would’ve gotten a distributor then because it’s not a festival-friendly movie. I knew it was going to be divisive and polarizing. Look, I’ve been getting terrible reviews since I was 21. People tend to think that “Less Than Zero” is some kind of prize-winning classic. No. About 60 percent of the reviews were terrible. They took my publisher to task for publishing the diary of a 20-year-old boy. The publishing industry is collapsing! And with “American Psycho,” the book was 100 percent panned when it was first published. So, my armor is thick. I also think everyone’s opinion are fine. If you have a negative opinion on a movie, that’s totally cool. I slam movies, too. It doesn’t mean I don’t like the people involved. It’s not personal. It’s just an aesthetic. So, I’m totally cool with negative reviews.

Can you explain what a “humanist film critic” is?  You used that term on Twitter when “The Canyons” was getting some negative feedback from critics.

It’s someone who mistakenly likes “Fruitvale Station.” A humanist film critic is a critic who is not looking at a film with an aesthetic gaze, but is looking at it based on how they feel about the subject. For them to like a movie, it has to be about a noble endeavor or it has to be about the human spirit. That’s the only art that matters to them. If you don’t have art that’s redemptive then what you’re doing is not for them. That, to me, is a very narrow way to look at movies. But I do think that is the way a majority of American film critics experience film. It is dismaying to me. I used the term “humanist film critic” because the hatred for “The Canyons” is so disproportionate to how small the movie is and how we made it for zero money. It just seems like there is a lot of anger with the ugliness of the subject matter. Critics said the movie really doesn’t care about the audience. I just think a lot of people want movies to comfort them in a way. They want to be soothed by movies. But “The Canyons” is life. It might suck, but it’s life.

Ira Glass – Sleepwalk With Me

September 7, 2012 by  
Filed under Interviews

In the indie comedy “Sleepwalk with Me,” PRI host/producer Ira Glass Glass contributes to the adaptation of comedian Mike Birbiglia’s personal story about trying to make it in the stand-up industry and having to cope with his real-life sleepwalking disorder in which he acts out his dreams – sometimes violently. Prior to the film, Birbiglia shared his story in a number of formats, including on the radio during a 2008 episode of PRI’s “This American Life,” as an off-Broadway one-man-show, and in a best-selling book.

During an interview with me, Glass, who is credited as a co-writer and producer on the film, talked about his bizarre dreams and going head to head with “The Avengers” at the box office.

Mike has told his story on the radio on “This American Life,” performed it as a one-man-show on stage, and written a book about it. What did adapting it into a film bring to the story that these other formats did not?

Well, I don’t want to pretend his story was like a crappy jalopy driving down the road beforehand and now is this fancy car driving down the road like it’s so much better, but what you can do with film is just so different. What we added a lot in the film that you don’t see in other versions is that you get to watch Mike go from being a really terrible comedian to learning how to be Mike on stage. People really responded to the story of him becoming a comedian. When he’s sad at the beginning, he’s so terrible.

There are, of course, challenges when it comes to promoting an indie film. What did you learn about the process and how much cash do you think you really took out of the director Joss Whedon’s coffer (“Avengers” director Whedon made a satirical video about boycotting “Sleepwalk with Me” because it would hurt his blockbuster, which is still playing at theaters)?

Obviously, Mr. Whedon declared a war on us. We were shocked that such a thing could happen. He was so scared we were going to take money away from “The Avengers” and that people were going to be going to our film instead of his. It’s funny because it started off like a joke war between us and then we just learned about our first weekend grosses. Our weekend total was $68,000 per screen. That was so much higher than Joss’s opening weekend, per-screen average of $47,680. So, we trounced him as long as you don’t look at the fact that “The Avengers” was in 4,400 theaters and we were in exactly one. We look forward to earning every dollar “The Avengers” made plus one dollar. We look forward to making $5 billion and one dollars.

You started as an intern at PRI and climbed the ranks to where you are today. Was there ever a specific time during your internship or early in your career where you though maybe this wasn’t the right profession for you after all; maybe second guessed yourself like Mike’s character does in the film with his stand-up career?

Yeah, that’s definitely one of the things I related to in the story. I spent a lot of time in my 20s wanting to be a reporter and to be on the air, but I wasn’t good at it at all. I was 27 or 28 before I was competent radio writer. My parents would tell me to go to medical school. They wanted me to do anything other than this thing I didn’t seem to have too much talent for.

Stories from “This American Life” have been used as inspiration for other films and there are still more in the pipeline. Personally, what story over the last 17 years do you think would make for a good film?

It’s hard for me to answer that honestly because we have half a dozen films that are now in development. If I pick out one I feel like I would accidentally be dissing the others. But one of my favorites for sure is the story that aired a few years ago about this minister named Carlton Pearson who was a rising star in the evangelical movement. He ran this kind of fire and brimstone kind of church. But then he came to realize he didn’t believe in fire and brimstone anymore. He didn’t believe that God’s message was that there was a Hell if you didn’t accept Jesus. He started to preach it and he lost everything. It’s just an incredibly, old-school, cinematic classical kind of thing where you have this funny, super-smart guy who follows his ideals and loses everything. It would be a great part for a Jamie Foxx or a Will Smith. We’re just at the point of almost finishing the script for Marc Forester (“Monster’s Ball,” “Quantum of Solace”) to direct. It’s so exciting to be thinking about that becoming a movie. I wouldn’t be involved in a movie like that in the same way I’m am involved in this. They have an amazing director and an amazing screenwriter. I would kind of say, “That’s awesome.”

I know you don’t sleepwalk like Mike, but which one of your dreams do you think could be adapted into an interesting film?

That is a really funny, good question! What’s so sad is that all of the dreams that I have that I remember are anxiety dreams. My subconscious is so unimaginative. My dreams fall into two variations. In the first one, I dream I need to finish the radio show and I’m on deadline and I’m not going to make it. The other dream is basically the same thing, but for some reason I don’t have any clothes on.

What have you learned about yourself now that you’ve added screenwriter to your credits?

One of the nice things about learning any new craft is that you really appreciate other people who do it. There are things I notice now in movies and TV shows that I never noticed before. I’ve stopped being a civilian when I’m watching TV shows or movie and notice how short a scene is and how economically it is shot and how concisely and beautifully somebody does something and how they get a point across with just a gesture or a look. That’s really an unexpected gift. I’ve always liked movies and TV, but now I feel there is a level of understanding I have for it.

As a radio guy, what were some of the challenges of writing something you knew would have to have scenes that people were not only going to hear, but actually see?

If you’re on the radio telling a story about your girlfriend, you can simply refer to her as ‘my girlfriend’ with an affectionate tone in your voice and people will buy that you love each other. But in a film, you have to physically create an actual human being. You have to figure out how you’re going to communicate that love. I have to say, as a first time filmmaker, that was one of the most vexing problems we were working on up to the very last week of editing.

As you get ready for bed every night, do you worry about Mike?

No, I have to say, I don’t think of Mike as I lie in bed at night. Mike is worrying about himself so much you don’t have to worry about him. He does 10 times the worrying that any person would. My mind is racing when I go to sleep. Sometimes I just lie there. Usually what I’m thinking of are stupid things I said to people during the day.

The film has earned some pretty favorable reviews from film critics so far. Are you disappointed you received a negative one from NPR?

No, I didn’t even know that! NPR panned us? Those bastards! In that case, I just want to say I hate all their programs; this NPR that you speak of. I didn’t know that. They panned us? NPR?

Yeah, one of their film critics, Stephanie Zacharek, didn’t like it.

Well, I’m glad that at least it shows that nobody is on the take and doing their honest jobs and giving their real opinions and not doing any favors for anybody else. I can’t believe it. Everybody loves us and the one place we get a bad review is on NPR? Et tu, “All Things Considered?” Et tu, “Morning Edition?”

Adrian Grunberg – Get the Gringo (DVD)

July 23, 2012 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

In his directorial and screenwriting debut, filmmaker Adrian Grunberg crosses into Mexico with actor Mel Gibson for the action movie “Get the Gringo.” In the film, Gibson stars as Driver, a man who is thrown into a Mexican prison after getting involved with some mobsters. Grunberg, who has worked as an assistant director on such films as “Traffic,” “Man on Fire,” and “Apocalypto,” talked to me about his new film and his experience working with Gibson.

“Get the Gringo” was released on DVD/Blu-ray July 17.

How did your first film as lead director come to you?

I met Mel about six or seven years ago on the set of “Apocalypto.” I was his first assistant director. We struck a friendship. We had a similar way of thinking. We liked each other. The movie was originally Mel’s idea. When he got this idea to put a gringo in a Mexican prison he called me.

Did you learn anything from Mel Gibson as a director on the set of “Apocalypto?” What was your experience with him on that film?

I certainly did. I think part of the mutual liking between Mel and I was that we both have a similar way of working. We are both hands on. We are very vocal. We like to run around on the set. “Apocalypto” was amazing. It was a once in a lifetime experience. I learned a lot from Mel. That film will always have a special place in my heart.

And now you are directing him in “Get the Gringo.” Was it what you expected?

I was a fan of his before I was in the movie business. He was always there to help. I think it was very impressive how he tackled his character and humanized him. I don’t think there are many people who can do that.

Were you disappointed the movie didn’t get a theatrical release?

Not really. Well, the movie had a theatrical release outside the U.S. Mel decided to go a different distribution route. It was a gamble, but at the end I think it was a smart gamble.

Do you think Mel is someone who can rebound from his latest off-the-set problems? He’s lost a lot of supporters over the last few years and it seems to be affecting his professional career.

It’s hard to know. I don’t know how people are going to react in the future. But the Mel I know is really a cool guy. I think he has a lot in him to give us as a director and an actor. I think it would be a shame to lose out because of things that shouldn’t be.

James D. Solomon – The Conspirator

April 29, 2011 by  
Filed under Interviews

Imagine writing and researching on a single topic for an entire 18 years. That’s one major thesis paper we’re talking about there.

For screenwriter James D. Solomon, his 18 years of hard work has cumulated into “The Conspirator,” a historical film that tells the little-known true story behind the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

As the first film released by the American Film Company, a production house committed to creating historically accurate American films, “The Conspirator” stars Robin Wright (“Nine Lives”) as Mary Surratt, a boarding house owner and the lone female convicted and executed for taking part in a conspiracy to kill Lincoln. James McAvoy (“Atonement”) plays Fredrick Aiken, a young lawyer who reluctantly defends Surratt for the crimes she is accused.

During an interview with me, Solomon discussed the responsibility he feels telling this story and where the truth really lies in a historical event that took place almost 150 years ago.

You’ve been working on this film for 18 years. Do you remember what interested you about this story back when you started writing it in 1993?

Everyone thinks they know the story of the Lincoln assassination, but it turns out most of us don’t. When I started this in 1993, I had no idea there were multiple attacks the night Lincoln was assassinated. I don’t think many people do. That’s what first caught my attention. What sustained my interest after many rewrites is this extraordinary mother and son story. That story is what fascinated me. I think “The Conspirator” is one of the most remarkable American stories hardly known.

Were you already a history buff going into this project? Did you think a film like this would only resonate with people who had an interest in the topic?

I think this is an extraordinary human story set against the backdrop of one of the most tactful moments in American history. I think that makes it a timeless and riveting story. I don’t see it limited to history buffs in any respect. I approached it as a journalist. I knew long ago I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I started working in news rooms when I was in high school. The change for me was that when I started I was reporting on a story that happened 130 something years ago – now 146 years ago.

I can’t even imagine how much research you’ve done over the last 18 years. Can you talk a little about that?

I looked at as many primary sources as possible. There are press accounts. There are some first-person accounts of what took place, but it’s limited. Then I looked at diaries of individuals who were in similar circumstances whether it was a union officer or a woman who ran a boarding house. I did not show a draft to anyone for three years as I researched and wrote and rewrote. This was a story no one knows wrapped in a story everyone knows.

Did you feel any responsibility in telling this story as accurately as possible?

I did. It’s an important story, so I was very careful in researching and portraying events as they occurred. First and foremost, history is not a progression of events. History is people – mothers, sons, elected officials – caught up in moments sometimes beyond their control and making decisions. To me, that is a very relatable story.

Was there ever a point during your research when you came across contradictory information? If so, how did you decide what to include and what not to include in the script?

That’s a very good question. Let’s just take for example Mary Surratt’s guilt. When I first started this script back in 1993, the portrayals of Mary were that she was a martyr, that she didn’t know what took place at the boarding house, and that she was innocent. More recently, the portrayals of her are that she certainly was part of some conspiracy and may have very well known about the conspiracy to kill President Lincoln.  Now, the truth is somewhere in the middle. The facts both camps have used to determine guilt or innocence have not changed a great deal over the years. The testimony hasn’t changed. Fundamentally, many of the facts are still the same, but those interpreting the facts have a different point of view. As scholarship increases and more people become interested in this subject, there will be facts that are unearthed. That will increase and expand our understanding of these circumstances and of the context.

I know there were many advisors who came on board to help with the film. How were they able to add any authenticity to the script based on their expertise?

They provided us with very helpful insights. One of the advisors was retired Col. Fred Borch. There is a line in the script where Fredrick Aiken says to his mates as he is considering whether or not to apply for a rite of Habeas Corpus, “If John Wilkes Booth were tried in this way it would be wrong.” That line actually comes from Fred. It’s something Aiken would have said. There’s no way I could know if that was really said because there’s no transcript, but it is consistent with what Aiken’s approach is and helps us understand just how unfair this trial was. My goal was always not only to faithfully portray the facts as we knew them, but the emotional truth behind them. I spent an enormous amount of time working on that.

Did you worry conservatives would scream propaganda because of director Robert Redford’s liberal political stance in his own life?

Let me answer it this way: If someone told me it was going to take 18 years to get my movie made, but that Robert Redford was going to direct it and that James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson, Evan Rachel Wood, Danny Huston, Justin Long, and this extraordinary cast were going to star in it, I would have signed up for that.

I’m looking forward to seeing more projects from the American Film Company, but do you think the majority of moviegoers feel like me? With the stresses of everyday life, do you think people care about history?

I do think people care a great deal about history, but their history. The more we connect emotionally with our past and the more relatable the individuals are, the more it resonates with us. When it’s events and not people it’s harder and more abstract. In “The Conspirator,” I wrote about a moment in time and in the center I found an extraordinary human story.

Phil Johnston – Cedar Rapids

March 4, 2011 by  
Filed under Interviews

While screenwriter Phil Johnston’s script for the comedy “Cedar Rapids” made the 2009 Black List (a list of the year’s most popular, unproduced scripts in Hollywood), the distinction should have come with an asterisk. The list, which included future Oscar favorites like “The Social Network” and “The King’s Speech,” was released in the very early stages of the film’s actual production.

“It was a great honor and I’m really glad people enjoyed the script, but it was even better to have the movie in production,” Johnston told me during a phone interview last month. “There’s always that existential question: If you write a script and no one reads it or no one makes a movie from it, are you really a writer? It’s very complicated.”

In “Cedar Rapids,” Johnston’s very first feature film, small-town insurance salesman Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is chosen to represent his company at a insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa after his boss dies from an autoerotic asphyxiation accident.

During our interview, Johnston discussed why insurance agents make good superheroes, why the film was not shot in the state of Iowa, and revealed his secret boyhood crush he didn’t even realize he had.

Out of all the cities in the entire United States, why write a movie set in Cedar Rapids, Iowa?

I worked in Western Iowa for three years. I spent some time in Cedar Rapids and so I had some great affection for the Midwest. Physically, Cedar Rapids had those bad floods in 2008. I wanted something that an insurance agent might be able to look to as a place where they could be a hero. For Ed [Helms’] character, Tim Lippe, he saw these floods as a terrible thing, but he looked at insurance people working in the trenches like firefighters and police officers helping people out.

The idea that an insurance agent could be a heroic character had never crossed my mind, but it made complete sense when Tim explains it from his point of view.

Yeah, the idea started with this character living this very sheltered life and has never left his town or taken too many risks. Thinking about what that character would do, I settled on insurance because he’s a guy who sees people who have taken risks or whose lives have gone badly. For Tim, insurance is this noble calling. It’s like this safety net.

Death by autoerotic asphyxiation isn’t a common occurrence in most comedies these days. Were you disappointed when you saw it pop up in “World’s Greatest Dad” in 2009?

I really liked that movie. (Laughs) I really thought that was a gutsy move. I don’t think “Cedar Rapids” will be remembered as an autoerotic asphyxiation comedy – at least I would hope. (Laughs) I think there is still room to grow in the autoerotic asphyxiation genre. Dare to dream.

I know you had Ed Helms in mind all along for the lead role in this movie. What had you seen from him in the past that led you to write something specifically for him?

I had breakfast with Ed about three years ago and we talked about this idea I had. I had this outline and a sort of general idea. I pictured him in it because I knew he was funny from “The Daily Show.” But I knew him as a sweet guy, and on the “The Daily Show” his persona was more of a jerk. In real life he is a really nice person. I knew the character needed to be someone who had a Jack Lemmon or James Stewart quality to him; someone that always looks on the bright side. There’s something about Ed where I never feel any kind of cynicism coming from his persona. I was very fortunate that he liked the material a lot. When we were putting the movie together, “The Hangover” came out. His star really rose after that. I was sort of like a perfect storm.

Did you pull any of the scenarios that happen in this film from your own life? I’m wondering if you had a boyhood crush on one of your teachers like Tim does.

That particular one is not, but there are some scenes from the script that are directly pulled from my life. The scene in the swimming pool where John C. Reilly’s character has a trash can over his head and walks into the pool fully clothed happened to a friend at a party once. He didn’t end up masturbating in the pool though. That part I added. You know what? Now that I’m thinking about it, my first grade teacher was kind of hot. I’m just now remembering that.

Do you want to give a shout out?

(Laughs) Mrs. Ann Leonard. If you’re out there, give me a call.

Were you disappointed the film could not be shot in Cedar Rapids, Iowa?

Place is a huge part of my writing process, so it was a bummer. It was interesting from a moviemaking standpoint because we had a production office set up in Des Moines, Iowa and we were going to shoot exclusively in Iowa, but there was a scandal with the Iowa Film Commission where they stopped their rebate program. Tax incentives got shut down. We were four weeks away from principle photography and the producer had to find a new location. We moved the whole production from Iowa to Michigan in four weeks. While it would have been great to shoot the movie in Iowa, I think the fact that it got made at all is a minor miracle given that huge speed bump in front of production.

What’s going on with your next film “Reply All?”

I’ve turned in a draft. That’s the one I’m working on with Zach Galifianakis. It’s a DreamWorks movie. I’m in the very early stages of the script and making changes. I’m hoping that one goes into production later this year. It been a really fun process working with Zach.

Jose Rivera – Letters to Juliet

May 14, 2010 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

There is a lot to live up to when the first script you ever write is nominated for an Academy Award. Call it beginner’s luck if you’d like, but screenwriter Jose Rivera knows the hard work it takes to make something like that happen.

In 2004, Rivera, who worked as a playwright before adding screenwriting to his repertoire, earned an Oscar nomination for “The Motorcycle Diaries.” The film was an adaptation of two books – Che Guevara’s “Notas de viaje” and Alberto Granado’s “Con el Che por America Latina” – about Guevara’s road trip with his best friend across South America in the 1950s.

In his new film, Rivera, 55, has co-written “Letters to Juliet,” his first romance for the big screen. The film tells the story of a young American girl vacationing in Verona, Italy, who helps a woman search for her long, lost love after she discovers a letter she wrote 50 years prior.

During an interview with me, Rivera, who is of Puerto Rican descent, talked about what still makes letters a special way to correspond with loved ones and what he has experienced writing his own love letters.

What was the experience like writing your first romance for the screen?

It’s my first film romance but definitely not my first romance ever. A lot of my plays tend to be romances. When I was first approached by the producers to write this film I didn’t know anything about the “Secretaries of Juliet.” When I heard about it, I was amazed. It seemed so old-fashioned. I was fascinated by it.

With email, texting, and video conferencing, people don’t write as many letters as they used to 15 years ago. Why do you think there are still some people that write letters?

Well, I write longhand when I write anything from screenplays to plays. I like the feel of pen and paper together. I think people still write letters for that reason. Also, it’s something slower and more thoughtful than an email. Personally, I love to get letters from friends. It’s pretty rare.

It’s very interesting that you write everything longhand.

Yeah, I’ve always done it that way. It’s better for me. I tried writing on a computer but it’s not the same. The computer is too slick. When I write longhand, I have to think about every single word. It’s a deeper process for me.

You must have a great transcriber.

I’m very lucky to have a wonderful assistant, so whenever I finish a draft longhand she is one of the very few people that can read my writing.

Were you able to go to Verona to work on this script?

No, when I got the job, I asked the producers if they could send me to Verona for research and their response was, “Well, that’s what the Internet if for.” So, I didn’t go to Verona to write this, but I had been to Verona years ago. I remembered it very well because it’s a very memorable place.

Were you disappointed because they wouldn’t send you?

(Laughs) Well, you know, I was disappointed because I wanted a free trip to Italy. But it turned out fine. The Internet has a lot of information and photographs. It’s not as great as being there, but it still worked out okay.

Did the meaning of your script change when you found out (real-life husband and wife) Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero were cast as the lost lovers?

Chemistry like that is either there or it’s not. You can’t manufacture it. I had written the script originally for someone like Vanessa Redgrave – a very beautiful, aristocratic, older British woman. It was definitely written for someone of her stature and talent. Beyond that I didn’t know who was going to play Lorenzo.

You’ve adapted screenplays from books and even newspaper articles. What was it like to sit down and have to start the writing process with nothing in front of you other than your research?

It was fun. It was very liberating to come up with the story and the adventure she goes on. I was glad to do something that was very original. I really liked the characters.

What is the biggest different between writing screenplays and plays?

A lot of it is the same. You’re dealing with character and conflict. A lot of those fundamental things are the same. The craft and tools are different. You really have to understand how camera fit into the world of your story. Film is a very visual form. You have to think in images. On the stage, you have to think in the spoken word.

There are so many strong Italian names you could have chosen for the mystery man in this film. Why did you decide on Lorenzo Bartolini?

I just love the name Lorenzo. It’s very romantic sounding to me. My original last name was different than the one in the film. But Lorenzo has this romantic hero quality to it.

Have you ever written a love letter? Can you tell me the experience writing it and what kind of response you got?

Yeah, over the years I’ve written many to different people. It’s a very private and personal thing. You are completely vulnerable on paper. Out there somewhere in somebody’s shoeboxes there are letters I’ve written. I would be really interesting to reread them after all these years.

So, some of them worked out and some of them didn’t?

(Laughs) Yeah, mostly they didn’t work out.

Since I’m a journalist, my wife expects a love letter or a poem from me every so often. Does yours expect the same thing?

Yeah, I don’t know what she expects but I do occasionally write her poetry especially when we’re apart. She’s an actress, so she travels and I travel with my work. It’s nice when were away to be able to express ourselves like that in our letters.

Are you the kind of person that goes through “what if” scenarios in your mind like Vanessa Redgrave’s character in this film or do you like to live in the present?

I don’t like to live in the past. I don’t like to dwell on things that could have been. I don’t have those regrets that her character has. Her character is lonely and I think that makes you look to the past.

You hit a really high point in your career when you were nominated for an Oscar for “The Motorcycle Diaries.” Was it challenging to have to start working again knowing that people might expect you to live up to that work?

It’s interesting because it does create expectations that everything you write is something that’s going to be nominated for an Oscar. I don’t put those expectations on myself, but I definitely feel them from people I work with. They turn to me for an Oscar-worthy script for their film. It’s a tough challenge to have to live up to that. I don’t mind it, personally. My feeling is that every movie is different and every movie has it own challenges. I’m going to deal with the challenges of this story and do the best that I can with this story. If it wins an award or something, great, but that’s not my goal.

I’m sure it’s still pretty neat to have the words “Oscar-nominated screenwriter” forever connected to your name though.

(Laughs) It’s very interesting. I think it’s great. I was the first Puerto Rican nominated for a writing award. I carry that with pride.