Shaul Schwarz & Christina Clusiau – Trophy

January 15, 2018 by  
Filed under Interviews

In the documentary film “Trophy,” filmmakers Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau turn their cameras on the hunting industry and take an in-depth look at why hunters and environmentalists are at odds when it comes to finding the best way to conserve wildlife species. One of these hunters featured in the film, Philip Glass, is on a personal journey to hunt the Big Five (buffalo, leopard, elephant, lion and rhino). Glass considers himself a conversationalist because he says the money he spends on hunting goes back to local communities to help conserve the wild animals. It might sound like an insane theory to some anti-hunting activists, if it weren’t true. Many times, the hundreds of thousands of dollars hunters spend on hunting big game is spent on protect the same animals being hunted for sport.

During an interview with me last year at the South by Southwest Film Festival, Schwarz, Clusiau and Glass talked to me about the controversial subject and how hunting elephants and rhino is actually helping conserve their species.

As documentarians, I’m sure you followed the story wherever it led you, but how did the it evolve for you on a personal level? Did you notice your own opinions changing?

Christina Clusiau: When you start making a documentary, it’s really about what you’re interested in, what you’re curious about and how it affects you. But as time goes on, it becomes about the characters and the lives that are involved. It also becomes about the viewer. It’s interesting to go through that process and hand the film off and let it have legs. In turn, you’re changed not only from your own perspective, but it also changes you in how other people are receiving the film.

Something loved about this film is how balanced it is. When it comes to documentaries, especially ones about the environment, they can be very one sided in my opinion. Was that a goal from the very beginning – to present a case for both sides and let the viewers decide?

Shaul Schwarz: I love stories that challenge me. I think I was always taught as a journalist to be very open to the other side. It seems so basic, but we are living in strange days where everybody likes to scream their own thing and not listen to anybody else’s voice. I think in this film, we prove that we need to give the viewer a chance to listen and to see what different sides think, especially with “environmental docs.” Not to mock them because there have been some great ones out there that have won the Oscar, but they’re usually very one sided. That’s the honest truth. We made it a point to make you question things and look deeper and not tell you how to solve things.

Are you worried that some viewers might find it frustrating that you’re not giving them the answers? You see a documentary like “The Cove” and by the end of that film viewers understand what the filmmakers are trying to say without question. With “Trophy,” you leave it up to the viewer to do the work.

SS: I’m not worried. I’ll be happy if they [see the film] and are challenged. I think [the film provides] some solutions to each problem. We try to guide you to make up your own mind. I think if you come into the film one way, you’re not necessarily going to come out of the film the same way. I think that goes for both sides. I think some hunters will come in and they’ll leave scratching their heads and think about what they just saw.

CC: There’s not one simple solution. It’s much more complex than that. I think we really learned about the complexity that is within these worlds. We went in with one notion and left with another. I think it’s important to show that it’s not so simple.

SS: If someone told me three years ago that they were going to propose that the way to save rhinos is to cut their horns off and legalize the trade [of rhino horn], I would’ve thought they were nuts. But I don’t think that now. If we can get away from the idea that only one side has all the answers and talk about solutions, then we’re taking huge step forward.

CC: It’s such a polarizing subject for many people, so to get these two side to talk is most important. Maybe through these conversations, there will be some creative solutions that come out of it – solutions that maybe people didn’t think were viable before talking about them. Maybe there is a way to bridge the sides.

What about you, Philip? As a hunter, did you come out of this film with more of an understanding about the other side and their concerns about big game hunting?

Philip Glass: I really enjoyed hearing from the ecologist in the documentary, who is a middle-of-the-road kind of guy. I know my side, the hunting side, and I know the anti-hunting side, so hearing that middle-ground figure was interesting. That opened my eyes. I think what Shaul and Christina were trying to do with this story was to create this conversation among these different groups of people. That was very cool to me to see that happen.

This issue is complex enough, but during the film you decided to start quoting Bible scripture to support the reasons why you hunt, and I almost screamed at the screen like, “No! Why do you want to make this more complicated by adding religion to the conversation!?”

PG: (Laughs)

I bring this up because, as the film shows, there are people who believe that rhino horn can cure many ailments and diseases. Do you believe that?

PG: I don’t think rhino horn has any medicinal qualities at all, but if what is going to save their species is to cut off their horns and sell them, then we have to come to terms with that. But, no, I think [that belief] is crazy, but it’s been around for three or four thousand years, so we’re not going to change their minds.

Right, so what I’m getting at is that some people might think you’re crazy when you paraphrase scripture and say that “man has dominion over animal.”

PG: Sure. Some people don’t believe that. Some people say any hunting is abusive and wrong. But that’s simply just not the case.

After all this, do you still plan on killing a rhino?

PG: Yes, certainly.

So, where does it end for you? I know you’re passing these interests on to your son, so if he came to you and said he wanted to hunt big game, too, would you be in favor of that?

PG: I’d be for it, but I don’t know if I would pay for it. (Laughs) But that is going to be up to him and what he wants his personal journey to be. My personal journey is not just hunting the Big Five, but also hunting in the wildest places in the world – hunting in the most remote places in Africa and Asia. What is my end game? As long as I’m able physically and financially, I want to go all around the world.

SS: I think it’s important for people to go into this film to not get too caught up on how their feelings are different from whoever else. Let’s say all these hunters are completely crazy, out of their mind, barbaric. They should be asking, “How can I use that to help conserve animals?” That’s an interesting question. If you rule that out completely, I think you’re wrong. If you buy into it completely, I think you’re wrong, too.

So, Philip, for people that don’t understand, how does killing that elephant we see you kill in the film help conservation?

PG: That elephant was not a trophy. I paid all that money and went over there and did that hunt and just took a picture. I didn’t take anything home. That’s always the argument used again us: You want that trophy for your wall. But I didn’t do that. I gave them all the money and the meat and the tusks because it was their property. I didn’t even get to choose the [elephant]. I think that is the greatest example of conservation because I didn’t get anything out of it. I gave them the money and [hunted] the animal they requested according to their biologists.

CC: I think it’s really utopian from a Western perspective to think that if we just left these animals alone, they’re just going to exist and exist and exist. I think in today’s world, it doesn’t work like that. There’s so much loss of habitat and so much human encroachment, so the solution to conserve may not be in your mind to kill something to conserve it. It may not be the way you want to think about the world. But in reality, in certain areas and certain places, the wildlife itself is their only source of revenue. If there is not an economic value on an animal, no one is going to want to look after it. If you’re in one of these places and a lion comes in and eats your goats and that’s your only source of revenue, you’re going to want to kill that lion. In some of these remote areas, that could really be their only source of livelihood. So, they have a hunter come in to hunt that lion. The money that the hunter brings in actually provides a lot more than just the trophy itself. In the Western world, we have this perspective that the lion is Simba, the elephant is Dumbo. Maybe that’s not the way we should be thinking about these things.

SS: To be clear, we’re not advocating that hunting is the only solution. We’re not saying that. I don’t think most hunters would claim that. It’s a complex effort, specifically in Africa. This idea of, “Just leave it alone,” is uneducated.

Melissa Leo & Josh Lucas – The Most Hated Woman in America

March 31, 2017 by  
Filed under Interviews

In 1964, Life magazine called Madalyn Murray O’Hair, atheist activist and founder of American Atheists, “the most hated woman in America.” The year prior, O’Hair was involved in the historic U.S. Supreme Court case that declared Bible reading unconstitutional in American public schools.

Thirty-two years after the landmark ruling, O’Hair, at the age of 76, along with her son Jon, and granddaughter Robin, were murdered and dismembered in San Antonio, Texas, after an attempt was made to extort money from O’Hair’s organization.

If the violent crime in 1995 is not something you’re familiar with, the recently-released Netflix drama “The Most Hated Woman in America” revisits the life of O’Hair and explains how she became one of the nation’s most outspoken leaders of atheism and how that led to her death at the hands of convicted felon David Waters.

The film stars Academy Award-winning actress Melissa Leo (“The Fighter”) as O’Hair, and actor Josh Lucas (Hulk) as Waters. During an interview with me at the South by Southwest Film Festival earlier this month, Leo and Lucas were more than open to discussing the admiration they both have for O’Hair and the religious freedom she fought for her entire life.

“I can’t imagine what this country would be like if every person educated through the public-school system had been indoctrinated over these years in that way,” Leo, 56, said. “We would live in a Christian nation, and that would be very terrifying to me.”

While some would argue that O’Hair attempted to force her own beliefs on others, Lucas, who describes O’Hair’s story as a “phenomenal mess,” thinks she was helping protect all religions.

“She was telling everyone that they have the right to do whatever they want,” Lucas, 45, said. “That’s what this country was established as and that’s what this manic struggle from an ideological perspective has been ever since. This country has always been at war with itself in that way.”

For Leo, the answer to how the U.S. was established is an obvious one that should not be ignored. It’s an ugly history that this country will never heal from, Leo said, unless it is recognized a lot more than it has been in the last 500 years.

“It will always go back to the genocide of the first nation’s people, on which this country is based,” Leo said. “White people came here seeking religious freedom. There is a contradiction there that, until it gets spoken about, will never change and only worsen.”

As for his own personal religious beliefs, Lucas said making “The Most Hated Woman in America” has challenged him to question his relationship to God, spirituality, and humanity, especially during a transitioning political climate that is currently instilling fear in people nationwide.

“The world order is changing,” Lucas said. “It has led me to ask myself more directly about who I am and what I want in my life. What I keep coming back to is that human beings are both divine and diabolic at the same time, which is exactly what these characters are in the film.”

Leo hopes an introduction to these characters, especially O’Hair, will reignite dialogue about religious freedom in the U.S. Whether you agree or disagree with her belief system, she would like people to realize that O’Hair transformed this nation for the better.

“She had the kind of flaws most people have” Leo said. “If she had been less vilified as ‘the most hated woman in America,’ maybe she wouldn’t have had to say, ‘OK, I’ll show you that I am!’ I think Madalyn got in her own way, but no more so than most human beings.”

O. Wilde, J. Johnson, R. Livingston, A. Kendrick – Drinking Buddies (DVD)

December 11, 2013 by  
Filed under Interviews

In the improvised dialogue-heavy and ultimately scriptless indie romantic comedy “Drinking Buddies,” which was just release on DVD and Blu-ray last week, actors Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde star as Luke and Kate, two co-workers at a brewery who spend a lot of time flirting with each other despite both having significant others.

During interviews earlier this year at the South by Southwest Film Festival where “Drinking Buddies” made its original debut before hitting VOD platforms and theaters later in the year, the cast (Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick) and director (Joe Swanberg) of the film sat down to talk about the pros of shooting a movie without a script and what it was like wetting their whistles in Chicago.

Your characters drink quite a lot in the film. How close do you think they are to actually being alcoholics?

Olivia Wilde: Oh, we’re above the level [of alcoholism].

Jake Johnson: Yeah, we’re definitely alcoholics.

(Everyone laughs)

Joe Swanberg: You know, I didn’t realize how much [the cast] was drinking until I started editing the film. It didn’t feel, on a day-to-day basis, that it was that much.

Olivia Wilde: Yeah, that’s the first sign of alcoholism – when it seems alright to have [alcohol] for breakfast. (Laughs) A few people who saw the movie felt like we had purposely made a movie about young alcoholics, which I thought was really interesting. It certainly wasn’t intended, but I guess some people see more layers.

Ron Livingston: But you guys [Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson] work in that brewery so you do drink a lot of beer.

Jake Johnson: Yeah, we drink a lot of beer.

And shots.

Olivia Wilde: Yeah, the shots were not real. They were like ice tea or something like that. It’s harder to fake beer – to make apple juice look like beer. We wanted to pay homage to craft beer brewing. We all have such a respect for it. We wanted to learn as much about it as we could, which meant participating in [drinking].

Joe Swanberg: Yeah, I mean the second you guys got into town, the first thing we did was brew beer together. I was excited to expose you guys to it. I hate movies that are set in a world where it seems like they get everything wrong. Because you guys weren’t really brewers, it was hard to find a way you guys could talk about brewing beer that was realistic, but wasn’t so detailed that it seemed fake. It was important to me that if a brewer watched this movie, nothing would pull them out of it. We shot the film at Revolution Brewery in Chicago. Craft brewing is one of the really cool things happening in Chicago right now. I looked at every brewery space there. Not only were the guys at Revolution really great and welcoming us into that world, the space is gorgeous. It was brand new. It’s huge with all these whiskey barrels around. The guys were super nice. I think they might’ve kept Jake and just hired him on as a brewer.

Can you talk a little more about the sexual tension that is portrayed in the film between the characters? Of course, there is the hiking scene with Anna and Ron where they kiss, but there’s also a lot of tickling going on between Jake and Olivia for most of the movie. Did those scenes come natural to you all?

Olivia Wilde: You know what’s funny is that during those scenes you are operating with the right side of your brain. So, you can improvise for a while and then not remember anything you’ve done. So, yeah, it was so instinctual that it’s almost like you black out. For me, that happens on stage and certainly on this film. Watching it for the first time I remembering thinking, “I don’t remember saying that. I don’t remember doing that.” During a lot of those flirtatious scenes, Joe set it up and said, “OK, make the sandwich.” We thought, “OK, what if doing anything with this person was just so much fun?” Certainly for Kate, making this sandwich [with Luke] is like her dream come true. So, for her, making this sandwich with him and having this food fight with him was like the ultimate activity! Those scenes were about the pure bliss of interacting with someone that makes you feel that way.

Joe Swanberg: Those scenes were a lot of fun to shoot because I think those are the scenes in life where you’re improvising anyway. It’s those situations where the boundaries are getting blurry and there’s no precedent for it. There’s a million situations you’ve been in during your life where there is a precedent. You know how to go to a business meeting. You know how to have interaction as a student with a teacher. But then there are those situations where you’re misbehaving and are outside of the boundary lines and you’re on your toes and you’re like, “Oh, shit. I’ve never done this before. Is this wrong?” And you start making it up.

Jake Johnson: Also, it was fun working with Olivia. So, we got to know each other through our characters. So, the times we hung out, we both had people to see in Chicago after work. So, it was like, “This was a really fun day. I’ll see you tomorrow.” So, I got to know Kate as I got to know Olivia. So, when you had a fun scene it was fun and it would carry on. And those fight scenes we got in, we would have these really intense fights. It felt bad. Then I felt bad in terms of Jake and Olivia. So, when you have scenes like that with people you really respect like Olivia and Anna and Ron, it is impossible not to react and get intimate. So, in those scenes where we’re flirting with each other, Joe would set the scene and we would just try to live in it. If you were working with someone who wasn’t that strong, it would’ve been a lot harder.

Anna Kendrick: For me when we shot our scene, it was hard.

Ron Livingston: It was harder for you than it was for me.

(Everyone laughs)

Anna Kendrick: But it was a really tricky scene. I mean, how do you make sense that this happened? (Spoiler: Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston’s characters go on a picnic and end up fooling around).I mean, what would be the circumstances where these two people who aren’t tickling each other would fall into this kiss? I remember being really happy that we got it in one take and that everybody was happy and we were moving on and wouldn’t have to spend the whole afternoon pouring over how we could make it better.

Ron Livingston: Absolutely.

Anna Kendrick: So, I was so happy that it worked. Everyone was gathering up equipment and we were moving out of the woods to a new location and suddenly it occurred to me that I would have to tell [Luke] what happened and I immediately started crying. I turned away from everybody because I knew it was my responsibility to come up with those words. It was the scene where I would have to figure out how to tell [Luke].

Jake Johnson: Right.

Anna Kendrick: (To Jake) That’s where all the lines start getting blurry. It felt bad when I realized I would have to confess to you.

Ron Livingston: That’s where I feel this process (filming a movie without a script) is helpful. If that scene was scripted and you say, “OK, you’re going to have a picnic and you’re going to say these lines and then you’re going to kiss her,” it would’ve made it a different scene. Once you have that freedom and all you know is that you’re going to have a picnic and at some point you’re going to kiss her, it’s more honest. We didn’t want to fake it. All of a sudden it gets funny and awkward and made sense. You wait for it and then when it all of a sudden happens, it makes sense that you waited for it.

Jake Johnson: Part of the reason I hope this movie is well received is because you can see, even in this conversation, that the process [to make “Drinking Buddies”] was so weird in such a good way. (Laughs) I’m not like a 40-year-old veteran or anything, but, man, nothing feels like a Joe Swanberg movie. I say that as a complement. I mean, there was a scene where Olivia and I get into a fight and I text her later and asked, “Are we good?”

(Everyone laughs)

Olivia Wilde: Jake text, “I just need to know that we’re all right.”

Jake Johnson: This movie is weird! It’s fucking with my head!

Olivia Wilde: It’s like the scene with the bonfire. I think that was the first time in a movie where I was like, “You know, I really think I want to take my clothes off here.” It just felt like that’s what Kate would do at that moment. She would go skinny dipping. And Joe was like, “If you feel comfortable with that, go ahead. I think that makes sense in this world.” And you never know if Luke followed her in or not the next morning.

Jake Johnson: I told Joe, “You know, I think Luke follows her into the lake.” He was like, “Nah, bro.”

(Everyone laughs)

Ron Livingston: It’s like an NFL team saying, “We don’t need a fucking playbook.” It’s just different from any other kind of movie that you’ll see.

Jake Johnson: And I really hope somebody has the courage to give Swanberg $20 million. Whatever that movie is, I want to be in it. I want to see it.

(Everyone laughs)

Shane Carruth – Upstream Color (DVD)

June 9, 2013 by  
Filed under Interviews

It’s been a long while since filmmaker Shane Carruth introduced himself to the independent scene with his critically-acclaimed science fiction mind-bender “Primer,” which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004. Nine years later, Carruth, as beautifully abstract of a storyteller as ever, gives audiences his second film, “Upstream Color,” a fascinating drama, which he also stars in, about a young woman who is abducted and infected with a mind-altering worm. Later, the woman meets a man on a train who might also have experienced the same kind of bizarre kidnapping.

During an interview at the South by Southwest Film Festival this past March, Carruth talked about what he hopes audiences take from a film he considers “divisive” and how the script organically formed as he wrote it.

“Upstream Color” is now available on Netflix and DVD/Blu-ray.

As a filmmaker, how does it feel to hear someone say they probably need to see your film a couple more times before they can honestly say they were able to fully grasp every nuance you examined?

I definitely don’t count it as a negative. My hope is that people have an emotional experience the first time through and that they understand the mechanics of the world and how they work. I hope they’ve been instilled with some confidence that there is something worthwhile to explore in it. As an audience member, the thing I appreciate the most are films I can revisit and see more depth each time. The hope is that it’s not so taxing and actually enjoyable to revisit a time or two. I know that’s how I am with my favorite films. I’ll just put them on and let them stay on a loop. I’ll treat them more like an album instead of a movie.

Was it a conscious decision going into writing this film that you would be asking a lot of your audience or was it more of an organic process that kept sprouting more roots?

Oh, wow. I knew something about it as I was writing it. I have to admit there was more and more that came to be because I was writing the music, the score, at the same time I was writing the script. Those were informing each other. Then we started creating the visual language and how it was going to work. There’s a lot involved. All the different storytelling elements start having a conversation with one another. This is a story about people being affected at a distance. They’re experiencing different things like attraction and disgust, but they can’t point to why they’re experiencing these things. Those are events that are happening off screen that are somehow provoking them. They can’t even speak to what those things are or the fact that it’s happening. If we start talking about this in dialogue, we’re going to break the spell. I’m not really sure where that happened, but it was gradual.

Not everyone is going to come up with the same meaning behind “Upstream Color,” which makes films like this such a breath of fresh air in my opinion. Do do you hope viewers try to dissect and find a significant meaning for them or is it enough that they watched it, thought it was like nothing they have ever seen before, but can admit they had no idea what was going on at times?

It’s hard to talk about this. The film is always going to be divisive because it’s trying something different, so some people are going to key into that early. I think those people will judge it based on what it’s trying to do. It’s not going to quite meet other people’s expectations. They’re probably not going to react well. But I always thought it would be divisive up front. What I think is interesting are bad reviews. I love reading them. There haven’t been a lot of them, but I do seek them out. What I’m finding out is if someone says, “Oh, this is too obscure, it’s too opaque” they will typically go and explain the plot beat by beat and do a really great job of it. Then I’m left to wonder, “What was so obscure or opaque about this?” I don’t think the answer is “the plot.” I think the meaning of it is nuanced. It does require drawing in the audience instead of broadcasting something out. If somebody is interested in having this experience, then great. If they’re not, then maybe we’ll catch up with one another in a few years.

There is this very bizarre link between man and animal, in this case the pig, in this film. Talk a little about that specific aspect of the film and why you decided to make that connection.

I wanted to embed the story in nature. I wanted to feel like it had been there a long time and remain cyclical. There is a plot link. I picked pigs because they’re physiologically so similar to humans. We transfer so many of the same diseases. They’re also brought up so much in our culture – whether it’s Christ casting out demons into a herd of pigs or [George] Orwell in “Animal Farm.” Pigs are not attractive. Nothing about them is something you’d want. To have a corral of them sitting around ready to be sampled for an emotional experience seemed to be appropriate.

Connection, of course, is one of the main themes I found in the film. Because no one makes films in the industry like you do and because you seem to be doing this on your own to some degree, do you feel connected to the film industry or do you feel like an outsider?

I don’t feel connected. I think we’re experiencing an interesting moment in [filmmaking] where I can do it and be far outside of it. I don’t try to burn [the industry] down, but I don’t know how to make storytelling work within those confines. I need to figure it out some other way.

Is writer Henry David Thoreau someone you read yourself since he is referenced in the film?

It’s really interesting. I hadn’t read Thoreau since high school and I didn’t like it back then. I mean, I understood it but I didn’t think I needed to spend so much time reading about transcendentalism and the minutia of life and isolation. I picked [“Walden”] for the film because I needed someone to be writing and rewriting from it. I wanted to pick a book that I thought would never ever wake them up from their suggested state. I wanted something really boring and dry. The fact it was about the natural world was good, too, because my little cycle I built was very much about soil and worms and water and life. But I didn’t realize how very fitting it was until I really started looking at it for bits of prose. That’s when I started looking at the book and realized there are these bizarre coincidences.

How important is it to you as a filmmaker to be distinct? Like if I told you “Upstream Color” reminded me of another film I enjoyed, would you take that as a compliment or not?

I’m not going out of my way to be completely different than anything else. I do believe the film is different. I do believe it’s a new ambition, but I don’t believe it’s a rejection of everything else. I feel like I found a silver mine and I want to pursue it.