Tag Archives: American independent film

Suture: Interview with Scott McGehee and David Siegel

Suture 1

Format: Dual Format (Blu-ray + DVD)

Release date: 4 July 2016

Distributor: Arrow Video

Directors: David Siegel, Scott McGehee

Writers: David Siegel, Scott McGehee

Cast: Dennis Haysbert, Mel Harris, Sab Shimono

USA 1993

95 mins

Black and white and enigmatic, Suture was one of the most singular debuts of American independent cinema at the time. Jason Wood talks to directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel about identity, improbable gestures and ‘Ring of Fire’.

Jason Wood: What was the starting point for Suture? The synthesis of film noir and avant-garde cinema suggests that you are both keen cineastes, but the film also expresses an interest in issues relating to identity and wider philosophical concepts.

Scot McGehee/David Siegel: More than anything, Suture grew out of the films we were watching together at the time: some Japanese art films from the 60s, and also American paranoid thrillers, and every twin film we could get our hands on. We were thinking a lot about identity as a construct, and how film constructs identity; and certain narrative tropes started interesting us: hypnosis, twins, amnesia. Out of that stew, the basic plot sort of emerged fully formed.

Was it always your intention to have Clay and Vincent portrayed by actors who were black and white? Your tone here is often quite playful, but it also introduces an interesting take on racial politics that was considered quite potent for its time.

Clay and Vincent being portrayed by actors who were black and white was an idea we had while we were writing. It was an idea that we started out loving but not taking completely seriously. But it stayed in our heads. The humour of it, the ways in which it let the story be a little out of control. And the more we lived with it, and the more we worked on the script, the less we could imagine doing the film any other way. People tried to talk us out of it, of course.

The cinematography by Greg Gardiner is striking. How did you come to work with him and what instructions did you give him in terms of the look and tone you wanted to achieve? Was it always your intention to shoot in black and white?

We decided while writing that we were making a black and white film. More specifically, we decided we were making a black and white Scope film. At the time, we couldn’t think of one that had been made (in the United States, at least) since Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979). All the Japanese films we had been watching were black and white Scope, and we loved the look of it, and loved the idea of using a very graphic wide-screen frame to shoot a fairly intimate drama.

Greg Gardiner was one of many people who interviewed for the job, but he talked to us from the beginning as though we were already working together. And though he hadn’t shot many films at that point, he’d had a very successful career as a gaffer. That experience was very appealing, because the light in the movie was something we hoped could really contribute to the emotional feel of the story. We spoke with Greg a lot about shooting the film in ‘white and black’, trying to capture a world of confidence and analysis rather than a more traditional ‘noir’ world of mystery and shadow.

One of the other aspects of Suture that most impresses is Kelly McGehee’s production design and the general use of locations and interiors. Can you say something about the buildings in which you shot (Vincent’s apartment is particularly striking) and what sense you wanted these locations and mise en scène to communicate?

We shot the film in Phoenix Arizona at a time when the city was very depressed financially, so the central downtown area was quite eerie and deserted, but it still had that crisp, clean, arid feeling of a desert city. The location we used for Vincent’s house was a vacant Savings and Loan office. We shot many of our interiors in vacant office spaces, which had a nice anonymous quality and were available at a very good price. We wanted the film to exist in a psychological space more than a realistic one, so the gestures could be big, graphic and improbable.

We had worked with Kelly on both of our short films, so we all kind of grew up together and our creative collaboration was already a number of years old when we began Suture. And she had been involved in the thinking for the film as we were writing, so a good deal of the design foundation had been laid long before we ever got to Phoenix.

The final face-off between Vincent and Clay is brilliantly realised. Was this a difficult sequence to execute?

Most of the sequence is fairly straight-forward shooting, with the exception of the last overhead shot in the bathroom. That’s an image that we’d written quite precisely into the screenplay. Despite our low budget, the bathroom was the one set we insisted on building, just to be able to realise that shot. To do it, we had to fix-mount the camera on scaffolding about 20 feet above the stage, rigging it quite precariously in a way that didn’t allow for any direct looking through the viewfinder. It wasn’t until the video tap was attached that we could actually see the shot: Vincent walking towards Clay, separated by the shower curtain, each with his gun drawn. We were both kind of flipped out by how intact the original written shot had remained, and how connected we both still felt to it. It became this very emotional moment for us, and is still one of our fondest production memories.

The song ‘Ring of Fire’ plays a prominent role. You use both the Johnny Cash and Tom Jones versions. What was the thinking behind this?

Johnny Cash is The Man in Black. Tom Jones is a Welsh soul singer. We loved both versions of the song, and liked the pun of the car-phone bomb transforming Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’ into Tom Jones’s version, much as Clay was about to become Vincent. Chalk it up to the juvenile sense of humour of first-time filmmakers, but it all felt right. In the end, we probably paid more for the rights to the various versions than we actually earned making the movie. But it still seems worth it.

Steven Soderbergh came on board as an executive producer. What function did he perform and how beneficial did it prove to have his name attached to the project?

We had brought the film to a rough-cut state and were in the process of trying to raise money when we met Steven. We knew someone who knew someone who was close to him, and that person managed to convince him to come to a screening. The screening turned out to be a technical disaster: reels projected out of order, the wrong gate in the projector. Afterwards, Steven suggested we meet for coffee the next morning, and we were sure we would get a polite, collegial brush off. Instead, he told us he had spoken to his accountant about mortgaging his house to help us finish the film. The accountant had apparently talked him out of that scheme, but Steven adopted us anyway, and stuck with us for months as we continued cutting. We finally raised the finishing funds through a contact of his in France. He was an invaluable and tireless supporter, and a true friend.

Is the climate in which you made Suture very different to the one in which you currently find yourselves working? Looking back on the experience, what do you most recall about the making of the film and its critical and commercial reception?

The whole experience of making and releasing Suture was a series of firsts for us. Reviews, festivals, publicists. Though it didn’t perform well at the box office in the US, we had been to Telluride, Cannes and Sundance. It was all gratifying and fresh, and ultimately it opened doors to people within the industry who were interested in helping us make more movies. Looking back, we can see that we were lucky to have had that first experience within an independent film world that was considerably smaller than today (and friendlier, in a way). No independent film had made $100 million at the box office at that point (or anything even close), so the expectations were lower and the approach to independent filmmakers was, perhaps, less restrictive.

Neither of us had gone to film school or had any real training or apprenticeship in the film business. We had only made two short films when the production began, and so, often, we found ourselves learning how to do things only one step ahead of actually doing them. Sometimes less than a step. But the people we worked with during the making of the film, and the people who helped us get it out into the world, were for the most part incredibly open, generous and collaborative. Looking back on Suture, we find it hard not to remember how much fun we had.

Jason Wood, Artistic Director of Film at HOME, Manchester, will introduce a screening of Suture at the ICA on 7 July 2016.

Interview by Jason Wood

Watch the Suture Arrow Video Story:

This review was first published in the aummer 09 print issue of Electric Sheep Magazine.

Cine Books on the King of the B-Movie, British Horror Oddities and American Independents

Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen and Candy Stripe Nurses

Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman, King of the B Movie
By Chris Nashawaty
247pp. £19.99


X-Cert: The British Independent Horror Film
By John Hamilton
Hemlock Books
244pp. £17.95

Directory of World Cinema American Independent 2

Directory of World Cinema: American Independent 2
By John Berra
Ed. Intellect
320pp. £16

Christmas came early for me this year. I received a copy of Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen and Candy Stripe Nurses, which is one of those fantastic coffee-table books that can only be described as ‘lush’. The book is not only beautifully and lovingly put together, but is one of the best and most pleasurable overviews of the formidable Roger Corman’s film career in print. The last few years, especially since Hollywood finally deigned to give Corman an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, have seen his critical star rise and rise. But film fans already realised long before academics did that Roger Corman is a figure of brilliance and wonder in the firmament of American cinema. Without his initial support and chance-taking on novice directors and actors – and the skinflint budgets of Arkoff & Nicholson of American International Pictures (A.I.P) – we may never have had the future pleasure of the company of Joe Dante, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorcese, Monte Hellman, Ron Howard, James Cameron, Haskell Wexler, Jonathon Demme and dozens of other directors, writers and actors from the ‘Corman School’. There are substantial interviews and commentaries from these directors, who uniformly speak in praiseworthy, sardonic and anecdotally apt terms of their mentor. When first-timer Ron Howard complained – as many directors had before and after – about the impossible shooting schedule, the small crew and the desperate need for a bit of cash for some extras to shoot a crowd scene, Howard recounts that Corman put his hand on his shoulder and said, ‘Ron, I’m not going to get you more extras. But know this: If you do a good job for me on this picture, you’ll never have to work for me again.’

Abrams have produced a book that is a cornucopia of visuals – poster art, stills and on-set photographs – and unusual for most coffee-table books, includes many pages of informative observation. I am a bit smitten with Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen and Candy Stripe Nurses and consider it my book of the year in the category of film-publishing delectables. Stephen King has called it ‘Fantastic – a treasure trove’ and who am I to disagree? On an interesting note, it has recently been announced that ‘ex-student’ Joe Dante is to make a biopic about Roger Corman, who is now in his mid-80s, and the great man is going to take a cameo role.

In my last column I waxed lyrical about the book Offbeat: British Cinema’s Curiosities, Obscurities and Forgotten Gems. And now with the publication of X-Cert: The British Independent Horror Film comes a volume that can stand proudly beside it as another informed enthusiast, and inveterate viewer, of films from the ‘wrong side’ of the British cinema-tracks takes us on a journey there. This time the book concerns the other world (and other-worldly) domain of lesser known and barely remembered British horror films. And these films are not ‘independent’ in the American indie sense, but independent in terms of vision (very blurry in the case of some), finance, studio backing and producers. John Hamilton has obviously done his homework here – not in theoretical but in historic and cultural terms – with lively notes on each film’s anatomy, plot and reception. At the end of each entry is a clever segue into the next, which serves as a great aid to continuity and chronology. Not to be missed for fans of the genre or those interested in films that critics like C.A. Lejeune of The Observer and Dilys Powell of The Sunday Times denigrated and dismissed from their imagined ‘quality British cinema’ agenda. But now the cinematic undead rise from their celluloid tombs, and are being heard because John Hamilton has given them voice. Recommended.

The Intellect imprint continues to push out its titles thick and fast, with recent additions to two of its ongoing series, World Film Locations and Directory of World Cinema. The former focusses on the role of particular international cities and their place visually, culturally and sometimes psychogeographically within the cinematic forum, while the latter concentrates on national cinemas and has provided a much-needed publishing niche for overviews of both well and less well-known world cinemas. Latin America and Turkey are two such recent additions to the series, while American Independent 2 bucks the thematic trend somewhat by focussing on American indie cinema (a typology of production type) rather than following the usual strict, national cinema format.

For more information on all recent additions to Intellect’s World Film Locations and Directory of World Cinema series visit the Intellect website.

Of course, the whole issue of ‘independent’, given the continuing practice of corporate Hollywood taking control of many ‘independent’ films in terms of distribution (and finance), is a convoluted one, as editor John Berra touches upon in his introductory overview. I have come to trust Berra’s opinions and observations (he is a recurring name at Intellect as editor and contributor) and this particular title is insightful and will prove to be referentially useful for students of film. Just as Turkey and Latin America will likewise prove to be as introductory texts to various national cinemas which we often do not hear enough about. The series usually starts off with an essay on the ‘film of the year’, which seems a curious strategy, given that by the time the book is published it is already dated, because the film festival circuit has usually already presented the one of the following year. Far better, I feel, to subsume the key film within the body of the text and not chance perceived obsolescence. As for the series on film locations, I suggest that any cinephile or traveller who wants to get a handle on their chosen destination in terms of the cinematic – and hence cultural, social, historical and political – background gets hold of a copy about the place in question before leaving home. This could well change your whole itinerary.

James B. Evans

In keeping with the above theme of Roger Corman and A.I.P, this edition of Cine Lit’s object of note is the enjoyable romp that is the memoir of Samuel Arkoff, who along with lawyer James Nicholson founded A.I.P., the company that launched – well, sustained! – a thousand drive-in screens across North America. While bunking off for an afternoon from the Toronto Film Festival to haunt the second-hand bookstores, I found a hardcover copy of the memoir, Flying Through Hollywood by the Seat of My Pants (Birch Lane Press, 1992), for the very reasonable price of $4.99. This tongue-in-cheek look back at Arkoff’s misadventures in the ‘picture business’ (the subtitle is The Man Who Brought You I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF & MUSCLE BEACH PARTY ) is an important historical document of the period, as well as an insightful look at ‘the business’. Arkoff was one of the last cigar-chompin’ independent showmen whose verve, swagger and chutzpah drove him to produce over 375 films, about which he writes: ‘AIP’s pictures have always just taken audiences out of their everyday world and transported them somewhere else. Today’s movies use their big budgets as selling points and they still don’t hit an audience half as hard as ours always have.’ Those who got their first chance with A.I.P collectively gave us such gems as: The Wild Angels, How To Stuff A Wild Bikini, Bloody Mama, House of Usher, The Thing With Two Heads, Blacula, Cannibal Girls, The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, The Trip and the unforgettable The Wrestling Women Vs. The Aztec Mummy. ‘Nuff said… SAVE THIS BOOK. JE

Take Shelter: Interview with Michael Shannon

Take Shelter

Format: Cinema

Date: 25 November 2011

Venue: Key cities

Distributor: The Works

Director: Jeff Nichols

Writer: Jeff Nichols

Cast: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastai, Shea Whigham

USA 2011

120 mins

Michael Shannon is Curtis LaForche, a caring family man and reliable construction worker, who slowly loses touch with reality as he deals with the panic that arises from a series of terrifying dreams in writer-director Jeff Nichols’s remarkable second feature Take Shelter. The film is a thrilling, genre-twisting and masterfully crafted drama, sensitively tackling what could have been lurid material in other hands, and it seems that Shannon and Nichols in their second collaboration since Shotgun Stories (2007) have only grown closer as a formidable director/actor team. What really makes this film, however, is its subtle ambiguity. Curtis’s dreams are either forebodings of an apocalyptic storm coming in, or the first symptoms of the same life-destroying paranoid schizophrenia his mother has suffered since he was a kid. In a standout performance, and supported by an equally convincing Jessica Chastain as the caring wife who is desperate to understand what is happening to her husband, Shannon portrays Curtis’s inner struggle with powerful conviction. For his part, Nichols manages not only to convey a sense of the dizzying confusion and nerve-racking tension that drive Curtis to desperate action but to build up to a climax that, depending on interpretation, is as devastating as it is peaceful.

Pamela Jahn took part in a round table interview at the London Film Festival in October 2011 where Michael Shannon talked about what drew him to the project, the difference between anxiety and mental illness, and the key to being an imaginative actor.

Q: Can you tell us a little more about what attracted you to the part in Take Shelter?

MS: I worked with Jeff [Nichols] on Shotgun Stories, which was his first movie, and I really think he is unique. I can’t think of any other young director in America today who is as focused as he is and who has as distinctive a vision as he has. He showed me the script and I could relate to the material because I was having similar experiences to Curtis in that it is a story about a young father who is having anxieties about trying to protect his family and, at that point, I was starting a family myself. Obviously it wasn’t to the extent that Curtis has in the movie – I didn’t have any dreams about storms. But anybody who starts a family would have some empathy for what Curtis is going through. Other things were similar as well in that Curtis’s father had just passed away and my father had just passed away. So there was some synchronicity between what Curtis was going through and some experiences I was having in my own life, and that’s what drew me to it.

Do you know whether Nichols wrote the part with you in mind?

No, he absolutely did not have me in mind. Jeff wrote this story regardless of anything. It was a very personal story for him. He was writing about some things he was going through himself. It just happened that we were both having similar experiences. It’s funny because he didn’t intend to do a very topical movie, in the way that there are a lot of other films about people sensing an apocalypse, or the end of the world, that deal with it more directly. For Jeff, the genesis of it was all very personal.

How much research did you do for your role? Did you delve into personality disorder and mental illness?

No. I didn’t think about mental illness at all. To me this isn’t a film about mental illness. I mean mental illness is on the spectrum of possibilities because I think in our culture we’re all very aware of it and we’ve been instructed to be on the lookout for it. But I don’t ultimately think that this is what Curtis is experiencing. I have heard Jeff saying that the whole storyline is not necessarily a red herring because that would be manipulative, but that it is just not what the film is about. I don’t think anxiety is a mental illness. Anxiety is healthy. I think that people who don’t have any anxiety about anything are strange. I also didn’t want to know more about what Curtis was going through than Curtis did, because I think what’s happening to him is a mystery to him as much as to everyone around him. Part of the journey of the film is him trying to figure out what’s happening there, and I simply didn’t want to be ahead of him.

The film becomes even more interesting on second viewing when you have the ending in mind. Where you always very aware of the ending throughout the process of shooting?

I was very aware of the ending. It was actually one of the first things that Jeff thought of when writing the script. It wasn’t something that he tagged on at the end of the process, it was one of the original thoughts that he had for making this film. But personally I think the ending is a bit tricky. I think there is a big shift in tone in the movie, it alternates between a super-realistic, blue-collar, gritty everyday Americana slice of life and a very poetic and lyrical element. I think this works because it’s a film about dreams and the dreams are establishing a duality of consciousness, your waking life and your dream life. And the end of the film, to me, is not necessarily meant to be taken literally, and it’s not necessarily there to say that Curtis was right or Curtis was wrong. This is not the point of it, because the fact of the matter is that the world is in the process of destruction. That’s not open for discussion, at least not in the way I look at it. Who could argue against that? It’s more about how you deal with it. And the important thing about the end is that the family is together. That’s the difference between the beginning and the end of the movie. In the beginning of the film, you’re seeing a man standing in his car park looking up at the sky all by himself, and in the end he is standing there with his family, he is not by himself anymore.

In a weird, twisted way it almost seems like a happy ending.

Yes, I mean, that’s the way Jeff describes it. I can’t debate it in the same way that he can because it’s ultimately his vision. I only have my own interpretation of it, but he always said he sees it as a hopeful ending.

You and Nichols seem to make a very good team. You seem to trust and respect each other very much. Did you have any influence on the development of the film at any point while shooting it, or did you totally trust Nichols in what he was doing and wanted to achieve with the film?

Jeff is very thorough when he writes. When Jeff shows up he knows what he wants to do and you can’t really surprise him with a question because he’s considered every angle. He is very rigorous in his writing style and with himself. So, it wasn’t like he was asking, ‘So Mike, what do you want to do with this here’ or ‘What do you think should happen there?’ He had it all pretty well thought out, and I think the reason we are good together is because I can tell where he is going with something. It’s kind of an unspoken understanding that we have. And I really trust Jeff visually now that I’ve worked with him twice. Each time I see the film I am really impressed with the way it looks. Jeff is actually very old-fashioned, for example, he insists on shooting on film. He shot his first film 35mm anamorphic, his entire budget was just for film stock, so he basically had to get everything else for free.

So there wasn’t much of a rehearsal period before the shoot this time either?

No, because I had just finished working on the first season of Boardwalk Empire on a Friday, and on the Monday I was shooting Take Shelter. We shot just outside of Cleveland, Ohio, and I met Jessica [Chastain] for the first time in my life on the Saturday, so we had one day to hang out and get to know each other and then Monday morning we were shooting. So I was really lucky that it was someone as brilliant as Jessica, because if there had been any trepidation on the part of the woman playing Samantha, if there had been any fear there, I don’t know if we would have been able to pull it off. But Jessica just leaps into things, she’s fearless, so it really made a huge difference.

How would you describe your approach to acting?

It’s very instinctual. I don’t like to talk too much about something before I do it because I think it takes the spontaneity out of it. For me, the most important thing is to make sure that whatever is exciting or interesting about a scene happens in front of the camera and not off camera. The first time I worked with Jeff on Shotgun Stories, Jeff and I showed up and then the cast showed up and Jeff was confiding in me because, at that time, I had the most credits. A lot of the other people where immature and non-professional actors, or not even actors at all. So Jeff said to me, ‘What shall we do, shall we rehearse?’, and I said, ‘Don’t do anything, because probably the most exciting things these people are going to do will be the first time they do it. And the more you are trying to talk about it and make sure everybody understands everything the less likely it is that something spontaneous is going to happen’. So, that’s kind of my approach. I have a very fertile imagination. When I read things, I have a vision that comes to me, that’s just my imagination. It’s very childlike though, it’s not super-sophisticated. Children can do this, you give them the story and they can figure it out for themselves. And I think the struggle is, more than anything, to hold on to this ability and not lose it. Not to get sullied by the business of it all.

Septien: Interview with Michael Tully


Format: Cinema

Date: 2 October 2011

Venue: FACT, Liverpool

Screening as part of the Abandon Normal Devices festival

Director: Michael Tully

Writers: Robert Longstreet, Onur Tukel, Michael Tully

Cast: Rachel Korine, Brian Kotzur, Robert Longstreet, Onur Tukel, Michael Tully

USA 2011

80 mins

A highlight of this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, Septien has its UK premiere on October 2 at Abandon Normal Devices festival in Liverpool.

A resolutely strange confection meshing Southern Gothic, black comedy and outsider art, the film tells the story of Cornelius Rawlings, an itinerant sports hustler, who returns to his family farm following an 18-year unexplained absence, disrupting the lives of his already unhinged brothers, Ezra, a neat freak with a thing for Jesus, and Amis, an artist fixated on the profane. The appearance of their high school football coach throws in further dark forces and pushes the possibility of redemption into a tight spot the film resolves with a refreshingly original flourish.

Funny, awash with a warm 80s glow and constantly confounding genre expectations, the film is assured a cult following, managing the rare feat of being both compassionate and hip. Kate Taylor caught up with Michael Tully, Septien‘s writer-director, who also stars as Cornelius in the film.

Kate Taylor: Let’s start with art and the Daniel Johnston-esque illustrations that fill the film and its poster. Where did they come from?

Michael Tully: Onur Tukel, who plays Amis, did the all the original artwork himself. For three months he went on a bender and he was sending me scans. He sent me the first eight and asked if I had any notes. ‘More sandwich on the dick?’ I didn’t know what comment I could give to him, so I was like, ‘different colours maybe, mix it up?’

He’s a writer, director and obviously a super-talented artist. I met him in 2001 with his movie Ding-a-ling-Less, which stars Robert Longstreet, who plays our other brother. I fell in love with Robert and wondered why this guy was not a star. Hanging out with Onur, he had this commanding presence at the Q&A. Both Onur and I had beards at the time and I thought we should play brothers on a farm in a movie, although neither of us were actors. It was one of those kernels that just stays in your Word document of ‘Movies I Wanna Make’. It was number 800.

How did it rise to the top?

Last winter, I saw Onur in a short he’d made where he’s in front of the camera and that kernel just popped. Then I had a brainstorm with David Gordon Green over an Irish coffee at Sundance. All the outlandish things and the crazier ideas came out of that brainstorm, and something happened. I have eight scripts that are lifelong projects, and I thought, are we gonna make this one?

For the next few months, Onur and Robert and I started bouncing the story around and created this skeleton, and then fleshed it out more and completed the casting. Rachel Korine, Harmony’s wife, just has this presence that you can’t really train to have or teach. We needed a pretty girl in the movie to lighten the mood somewhat because it’s a bunch of repressed male weirdos.

Initially I wanted to keep it in a Word document as ‘things I wanna see in a movie’. Because if you shoot it, it could be boring and maybe not add up to a film. I wanted a Terrence Malick magic-hour vomit. But then Onur’s and my storyteller instincts came out. And at that point I finally opened Final Draft and tried to make a story out of it.

One of the pleasures of the film is how it sidesteps clichéd story patterns. Were you thinking about genre?

It was trying to defy genre. Lately at film festivals there’s been all these panels where filmmakers are told that they need to have a target, know their audience and know exactly what they’re making. And I thought, fuck that, let’s make something that we don’t know if it’s going to stick. So it was a kind of reaction against the system.

When our distributors in the States were putting it through Video On Demand on the television you have to check the genre box, and no one knew which box to check. Some people are calling it a horror film, some people are calling it a comedy.

In audience Q&As, the fact that the film doesn’t go far into a violent realm often comes up. I think that there’s enough negativity and violence in the world that to be able to create this sense of danger and violence without it ever getting graphic was a challenge. And it was important to try to do that. To have the sense of tension without going into ‘and now they cut his throat off.’ Who cares about that?

You mentioned the Malick magic-hour vomit. Was there a particular reason that you shot on film?

Aesthetically I wanted it to have this timelessness, to feel like time stopped on the Rawlings’ farm in 1986 when Cornelius left. When he shows up again they’re all back in 1986. It’s not a period piece per se but we don’t have cell phones and we tried to make that feel organic, where the audience isn’t just wondering where they’ve gone. It was important visually for it to feel like an 80s film. Or 90s. A late 20th-century movie.

The other thing is, when you’re shooting a movie and the film camera’s rolling the stakes are higher, no matter what. I was trying to make this trick shot that’s very hard to do [Tully performed all of the film’s sports stunts]. Even if you’re shooting in video the sun is still going to go down, you still have to make your day, so it’s still a battle. But when you’re told ‘we have five takes, try to make this Mike’, the stakes are way higher. So when that shot goes in and the crew looks at each other, there’s a sense of unity that doesn’t happen on video.

There is a lot about shit, toilets and the return of the repressed. Where is that coming from?

Honestly, not to be flippant, but I think part of the challenge to make this movie was how preposterous a premise can we start with and make a convincing movie that people take seriously? So it’s not like the joke’s on the viewer, we want people to be genuinely moved, but we were thinking of very elementary juvenile ludicrous elements. So when the preacher emerges from the porta potty, a valid question is, ‘is he the personification of shit?’ I think Robert was the one who was the most faeces-obsessed in his contributions to the script.

Throwing these things out there but also making it sincere was a real challenge and I thought it was fun to try to do that. To say this is like an eighth-grader was asked to write a mystery story and try to make it a sincere genuinely affecting film. In the final shot I wanted people to be thinking, ‘I feel a sense of resolution and I am emotionally affected but my brain is telling me I should not be feeling this. Why am I actually moved right now?’

Interview by Kate Taylor

The Big Chill


The winter season provides American independent cinema with the ideal backdrop for explorations of characters that catch a chill no matter how many layers they wear to wrap up warm. As the languid summers of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999), David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000) and Jonathon Levine’s The Wackness (2008) are replaced by the biting winters of Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm (1997), Adam Rapp’s Winter Passing (2005) and Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River (2008), the underlying tone of American independent cinema conforms to the chilly climate suggested by the consistently snow-covered aesthetic; whether these films concern the fractured families of Bart Freundlich’s The Myth of Fingerprints (1997) and Green’s Snow Angels (2007) or the self-destructive police officer of Paul Schrader’s Affliction (1998), they all feature characters who are, to some extent, frozen in terms of their emotional stance towards the people and the world around them. When the seasonal shift is filtered through the lens of American independent cinema, affluent suburbs, small towns and trailer parks prove to be icy environments inhabited by individuals who are prone to a severe case of the winter blues for a variety of reasons; however, all attempts at hibernation prove futile, especially when confronted with familial dysfunction, personal obsession or economic desperation.

American families have frequently found themselves in the cinematic deep freeze. The Ice Storm takes place in an upper-middle-class suburban sanctuary circa 1973; two neighbouring families – the Carvers and the Hoods – struggle to reconcile the tumultuous social-political climate of the period with their comparatively comfortable existence. Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) has embarked on an affair with Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), while their children are engaging in alcohol-fuelled sexual experimentation. Ben’s daughter Wendy is less interested in improving her relationship with her father than she is in sowing the seeds of punk, ‘thanking’ the Lord for ‘letting us white people kill all the Indians and steal their tribal lands and stuff ourselves like pigs, even though children in Asia are being napalmed’ when saying grace at Thanksgiving dinner. While the Hoods and the Carvers seem to be heading for a nuclear meltdown, their fundamental failings are instead crystalised by the titular ice storm that assists with their suburb’s natural progression from emotional stagnation to still life. After encountering tragedy, Ben weeps uncontrollably, but the Hood family has grown apart to such an extent that this outpouring is clearly just the beginning of a long thaw.

The holiday season also serves to emphasise the deeply rooted differences of the dysfunctional family of The Myth of Fingerprints; Hal and Lena (Roy Scheider and Blythe Danner) live in an old house in New England; their four children visit for the obligatory Thanksgiving celebrations, but bring a lot of emotional baggage. Mia (Julianne Moore) is a gallery receptionist with artistic ambitions who is prone to making cynical statements due to professional frustration and sibling rivalry with her tomboyish sister Leigh (Laurel Holloman), while Warren (Noah Wyle) is brooding over a lost love and Jake (Michael Vartan) arrives with his overly passionate girlfriend Margaret (Hope Davis). Although a family secret is revealed and a few long-standing resentments are discussed over the dinner table, relationships within the household remain as frosty as the surface of the nearby lake.

If the detached manner of Ben Hood or Hal makes them less than ideal father figures, the tough-love attitude of Glen Whitehouse (James Coburn) in Affliction is as harsh as the New Hampshire winter during which the film takes place. Affliction focuses on Glen’s son Wade (Nick Nolte), a policeman whose increasingly obsessive investigation of an apparent hunting accident is influenced by his relationship with his violent, alcoholic father, his difficult dealings with his ex-wife (Mary Beth Hurt) and daughter, and the recent death of his mother from hypothermia. While the stonily silent Hal is defined by his relative absence, Glen is notable for his sheer presence, which reaches its peak in volcanic fits of anger. Recognising his own potential for such rage, Wade keeps his true feelings towards his father, ex-wife and fellow police officers on ice, until the combination of the professional fallout from his botched murder investigation and a particularly nasty case of toothache provoke his inner demons.

The father-daughter dynamic of Winter Passing is equally chilly, if ultimately less combustible; Reese Holdin (Zooey Deschanel), a depressed actress living in New York City, is approached by a publishing agent who offers her $100,000 if she can provide a series of letters written by her father and late mother, both famous writers. Returning home as the autumn leaves are falling, Reese discovers that her father Don (Ed Harris) has taken in two houseguests – Christian musician Corbit (Will Ferrell) and literature student Shelly (Amelia Warner) – and moved into the garage. Don, Corbit and Shelly have formed a makeshift family unit as a means of collectively dealing with individual pain, but Reese initially refuses to respect their fragile yet functional arrangement; she behaves coolly towards Shelly and responds to Corbit’s rejection of her sexual advances in a condescending manner, although she warms up a little after reading the letters exchanged between her mother and father. Winter Passing frames grief as a season that will eventually change, with the characters seeking solace in artistic pursuits, heavy sweaters and warm food.

While the families of The Ice Storm, The Myth of Fingerprints and Winter Passing are able to deal with their differences amid environments of material comfort, the protagonists of Snow Angels and Frozen River exist at the other end of the social-economic spectrum. Indeed, the cold, grey skies of both films feel perpetual rather than seasonal as the wintery landscapes lend a fatalistic pall to their respective proceedings. The nondescript small town community depicted in Snow Angels is as close-knit as it is uncommunicative, with events revolving around the estranged couple of Annie (Kate Beckinsale) and Glenn (Sam Rockwell); Annie works as waitress and is having an affair with the husband of one of her co-workers, while Glenn is an alcoholic who is aiming to stay on the wagon with the assistance of religion. Glenn is trying to prove to Annie that he has achieved sufficient balance in order to see more of their daughter Tara, but an accident that echoes the tragedy in The Ice Storm sends him on a misguided path for ‘redemption’.

Frozen River is more thriller than drama but, as with Affliction, it deals with someone who keeps emotion in check as a means of getting through the day; Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) is struggling to raise two sons when she discovers that her compulsive gambler husband has disappeared with the funds she had saved to purchase a mobile home. To make the payment, Ray begins trafficking illegal immigrants from Canada to the United States with the assistance of Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a Mohawk bingo-parlour employee. Ray’s crossing of the frozen St Lawrence River serves as both a suspenseful narrative device and a metaphor for the impenetrable exterior she develops to deal with her financial difficulties, but she is unable to maintain the façade of a tough trafficker; after smuggling across a Pakistani couple, Ray and Lila backtrack to rescue a discarded duffle-bag when they realise that it contains a baby rather than bombs, and Ray ultimately surrenders to the police to prevent Lila from being excommunicated by the Indian community.

Of course, the frozen emotions of American independent cinema are not exclusive to films that take place at the time of year when the days are short and the nights are long; Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008) all deal with characters who struggle to relate to one another and bypass emotional engagement in favour of passive-aggressive exchanges or intellectual reference points, displaying a calculated coldness regardless of whether the temperature has them wandering around in a T-shirt or an overcoat. However, the aesthetic potential of the winter season has enabled certain filmmakers to fully embrace the poetic potential of their material by placing protagonists in physical landscapes that are every bit as glacial as their personalities; the climax of The Ice Storm shows a Connecticut suburban that is completely frozen over due to a sudden burst of bad weather, a truly cinematic sequence that speaks volumes about the vacuum that its characters are inhabiting without resorting to vehement verbal sparring. The best examples of this sporadic sub-genre – The Ice Storm, Affliction and Snow Angels – are as visually beautiful as they are thematically bleak, painterly portraits of people whose emotional moods are so in synch with the season that they may actually resent the arrival spring.

John Berra

Life during Wartime: Interview with Todd Solondz

Life during Wartime

Format: Cinema

Release date: 23 April 2010

Venue: Curzon Soho, The Gate, Renoir, Ritzy (London) and key cities

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Todd Solondz

Writer: Todd Solondz

Cast: Ciarán Hinds, Allison Janney, Shirley Henderson, Ally Sheedy, Paul Reubens

USA 2009

96 mins

A social satirist who returned to filmmaking with a vengeance following the studio interference that undermined his first feature, Fear, Anxiety and Depression (1989), Todd Solondz has since experienced both ends of the industrial spectrum, flirting with mainstream acceptance when Happiness was funded by a studio sub-division in 1998 and paying for Palindromes out of his own pocket in 2000. While his audience has always been relatively marginal, fledgling filmmakers have certainly been taking notes; it could be argued that the scathing high school humour of Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) paved the way for the more widely accepted Napoleon Dynamite (2004) and Juno (2007), while Happiness is an early example of the ‘network narrative’ film that has become the format of choice for independent filmmakers seeking to comment on the social-political fabric of their nation.

Yet, while other films that have favoured the multi-stranded structure have contented themselves with the cleverness of their interlocking story-strands and superstar casting coups, Happiness was an unapologetically raw dissection of the underbelly of suburban society, which asked its audience to empathise with such characters as a paedophile and a verbally abusive phone pest. The frankness with which Solondz discussed such sexual themes led Happiness to be slapped with the restrictive NC-17 rating by the American ratings board, but more than 10 years later the director has returned to the scene of the crime with Life during Wartime, a quasi-sequel that integrates the post-09/11 climate into an already volatile mix, with uncomfortably amusing yet unexpectedly melancholy results.

John Berra spoke with Solondz about the reception of his work to date, the realities of ‘independent’ filmmaking, and his subversive approach to the ‘sequel’.

John Berra: Life during Wartime has a melancholy quality that I did not necessarily expect from a follow-up to Happiness. I read that the film was originally titled Forgiveness and I wondered if the title change indicated an intention to engage more directly with the social fabric of the United States and make a more political film.

Todd Solondz: It is certainly a more overtly political film than Happiness and, at the same time, it’s also very oblique in the way that it is political. The original title actually was Life during Wartime, the other title came about when I thought the movie would never be finished and I didn’t want anyone to know what the real title would be.

None of the actors from Happiness return for Life during Wartime. At first, I thought this might have been a way to communicate how these characters have changed and evolved through their experiences, but some of them do not seem to have changed at all.

When you cast the same actors 10 years later, it becomes all about mortality as people get older, and that of course is a very compelling interest, but that wasn’t what I wanted the movie to subliminally communicate. I was more interested in approaching these characters from a different angle and portraying them in a fresh light, and I wouldn’t have been able to do this if I had cast the same people. That’s what made it much more interesting for me. It’s somewhat misleading to call it a ‘sequel’, because it makes people think that the movie is going to have the same kind of character as the earlier film when, as you pointed out, it’s more melancholy. It’s more of a jumping off point than a direct sequel, and more of a quasi-sequel than an actual sequel.

Sequels are usually made by Hollywood studios to follow films that have made obscene amounts of money, but you have made a follow-up to a film that had a comparatively marginal audience.

It’s very un-Hollywood to make a sequel to a movie that makes no money. It goes against the grain. But Life during Wartime is more a variation on the original. I never had the intention of making a sequel, but when you start writing, things come at you unexpectedly and you never end up writing what you plan to write.

Happiness was released at a time when American independent films were receiving a lot of media attention. Based on the controversy that surrounded the film, I was surprised to find that it only grossed $2.7 million in the United States. Was there really an ‘indie’ boom in the late 90s, or do you think it was more of a media myth?

This is a bit of a conversation; how one defines what is ‘independent’ is also something to be questioned. When the movie happened, it was financed by October Films, which was owned by Universal so, in that sense it’s hard to call Happiness an ‘independent film’. I was pleased that it made as much as $2.7 million. The distribution company that had been set up to release it had run out of money, so the movie was playing without any advertising in motion. But say we had a stronger distributor, how much more money could it have made? 10% or 20%? You’re still talking about a movie that’s only making $3.5 million. It’s always instructive when you get very excited about a movie, and all your friends are seeing it; you go and look at the numbers that Variety or the industry sources publish to tell you how much a movie made, and it’s something of an eye-opener. You will see what actually makes a dent at the box office and what does not, and the consequence at this point is that I have a new script but I don’t know if it will get made. It’s not so complicated and it’s not so expensive, but unlike the days of Happiness, the internet and television cover so many channels that it’s much less typical for this audience to go out and pay $12.50 at the box office, or whatever it is in England. That makes things a lot more difficult. You can count on your fingers how many American filmmakers are able to continue operating as ‘independent filmmakers’, making films that are not dependent on big studio corporations. You can make one film, maybe two, but not many can continue. It’s not a system that is able to support the marginal filmmaker. In France, there is a system set up to subsidise and support the national cinema and independent filmmakers, and that applies to other European countries, but there is absolutely nothing similar in America.

In 2007, Premiere listed Happiness among their ‘top 25 most dangerous movies’. It came in at number 19 in-between Gimme Shelter (1970) and Bad Lieutenant (1992). As your work strives for some understanding of individuals that would otherwise be demonised as ‘socially deviant’, do you feel that labels like ‘dangerous’ undermine what you are trying to do?

I didn’t see that article, but if that’s how people remember the film, I just have to take it as a compliment and leave it at that. People will respond to the film no matter what other people say; at the end of the day, if you are sitting alone watching the movie, you will have a unique connection to it. I’m happy if the movie has a life and I can’t control the way people will respond to the film and what they will say about it, but there are certainly a lot worse things to be called than ‘dangerous’.