Talking Movies

April 30, 2018

On Urbanity

Prefacing my attack on Legion last month I noted decorum was important, and that urbanity was important as a stylistic and aesthetic goal, and noted one could stretch to call it an ethical goal too.

What then is urbanity? When I was writing for the University Observer I used to think our house style was aiming for the droll elegance of the New Yorker.  I’m not sure anybody else did. I’m not sure I would even have been able to pin down where I got that notion of the New Yorker from, possibly a refracted Dorothy Parker vibe from the Gilmore Girls. Having recently, deliriously enjoyed James Thurber’s The Years with Ross I think that I wasn’t far off in my peculiar sense of the magazine’s house style. Although it may have been just Thurber himself rather than the New Yorker writers en masse in possession of that style. Certainly the current New Yorker writers are en masse in possession of a house style, and the deployment of it by Gladwell, Gopnik & Co can be maddening in its repetition.

The New Yorker film reviews these days mostly overshoot urbanity and instead sound jaded, and snobbish. Richard Brody’s review of Ready Player One is a recent particular lowlight. Brody seems to have the shakiest of grasps on the commercial realities of movie-making, and indeed how movies are remembered by non-critics. His notion that a blockbuster themed around 1980s nostalgia should chuck The Shining for Jim Jarmusch’s oeuvre is tragicomic; once you stop laughing in astonishment, you realise he’s serious, and then need to lie down. But how should one write film reviews? I went from writing a movie column for the University Observer titled ‘Fergal’s Guide to Misanthropy’ to reviewing for InDublin. In thrall at the time to Hunter S Thompson I wrote reviews in a style that I would now never countenance. Hunter S Thompson is a great stylist, but he is not urbane.

It doesn’t matter that Hunter S Thompson is not urbane, because he is Hunter S Thompson. But it matters a great deal when people who are not Hunter S Thompson are neither urbane nor Thompsonian despite their best efforts. And those best efforts usually betray fierce labour as they attempt to do the Gonzo style without being the man who was Gonzo. As I wrote more and more film reviews for InDublin I began to appreciate that reinventing the wheel with snark and wildness each time was not sustainable. So, as I have recounted before, I turned to an earlier mentor, Michael Dwyer. I pored over his 300 review in an effort to understand how it worked, and especially how he could write so many reviews with such apparent ease; given their clarity and simplicity. I adopted my interpretation of his technique as my model.

Initially though the interpolated technique was all structural. It was only over time and ever more reviews for Dublinks.com and Talking Movies that the mature style revealed itself; borrowing a structure from Michael Dwyer had seamlessly led to an Augustan style. Films were reviewed without hyperbole over their strengths or hysteria over their weaknesses. As a result they could be reviewed with astonishing speed; my review of Prometheus took 26 minutes from first keystroke to published post. It wasn’t vitriolic, like so many reviews, it maintained an even keel. But it had taken 5 years to get to the point where that review could be penned in 26 minutes. What one looks for in urbanity is the appearance of effortlessness concealing much effort; the sprezzatura of Castiglione so promulgated by WB Yeats as the ideal of lyric poetry. Which brings us back to James Thurber…

Thurber’s droll story ‘The Bear Who Let It Alone’ concerns a bear that gets too fond of honey mead at the local bar:

He would reel home at night, kick over the umbrella stand, knock down the bridge lamps, and ram his elbows through the windows. Then he would collapse on the floor and lie there until he went to sleep. His wife was greatly distressed and his children were very frightened.

But our hero sees the error of his ways. He becomes a teetotaller, and a physical fitness freak, and boastful of how the two are connected:

To demonstrate this, he would stand on his head and on his hands and he would turn cartwheels in the house, kicking over the umbrella stand, knocking down the bridge lamps, and ramming his elbows through the windows. Then he would lie down on the floor, tired by his healthful exercise, and go to sleep. His wife was greatly distressed and his children were very frightened.

The simplicity of the gag makes you feel like you always knew it just after you first read it, and of course belies what must have been careful paring and paring by Thurber to get it just right. That is the key. It appears effortless; elegant, graceful, simple; and it took much effort to make it appear so. Thurber was in a contract with himself as much as the reader not to let go of the piece until he’d finely chiselled it to perfection and then polished it to remove all trace of the chisel marks. And it’s that determination to do oneself and others justice that I argue can move urbanity from aesthetics to ethics. To write urbanely is to do more, to be beneficent.

PG Wodehouse once wrote “The man who can go into a patch of rough alone, with the knowledge that only God is watching him, and play his ball where it lies, is the man who will serve you faithfully and well”. One might advance a similar notion when it comes to urbanity. Consider Mark Zuckerberg’s painfully laboured non-apology apology for the Cambridge Analytica flap:

“I’ve been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again. The good news is that the most important actions to prevent this from happening again today we have already taken years ago. But we also made mistakes, there’s more to do, and we need to step up and do it”

A billionaire, surrounded by expensive lawyers and media consultants, who can take five days (which I like to imagine were spent brainstorming on a luxury houseboat moored in the dead centre of Lake Tahoe), to write and/or approve something as inelegant as that italicised sentence… Well, I opine, in identical manner to the man who cheats at golf, a man capable of writing like that is capable of anything.

John McGahern is the endpoint of the notion of urbanity as an ethical goal. His description of fictional Leitrim farmer (and, as Graham Price persuasively has it, dandy) Jamesie sitting in Ruttledge’s passenger seat on their way to the market I have characterised in my Irish University Review article ‘Competing Philosophies in That They May Face the Rising Sun’ as a Stoic benediction: “He praised where he could, but most people were allowed their space without praise or blame in a gesture of hands that assigned his life and theirs to their own parts in this inexhaustible journey”. That may be the ideal of urbanity I wish for in journalism. How it got muddled together with Thurber’s New Yorker drollness in my head is a puzzler, but there it is. Socrates said that nobody would willingly commit evil. An evil-doer is in possession of imperfect information. Nobody sets out to write badly, paint badly, compose badly, or to direct a bad film. In reviewing one should try to nudge where possible, and always offer solutions when identifying problems. One should only eviscerate if something is positively harmful, and even then try to do it with a light touch. A bad review done with urbanity is a judo flip. Identify what is obnoxious, and, if possible; and it is surprisingly often possible; see how the work can be read against itself, so that it is condemned out of its own mouth.

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November 25, 2011

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part II

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

Deja Vu
I’m finding it impossible to work up any enthusiasm either to read Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel The Help or to see its very successful film adaptation. The reason is that The Help is what I like to call a ‘self-evident proposition’ work.

JEFFERSON: Isn’t liberty a great thing?
ADAMS: Um, yes. Were you expecting a different response to that question?
JEFFERSON: No, I just wanted to check that it was indeed a self-evident truth.

Having seen trailers, clips and interviews I feel like I’ve already seen the movie and read the book.

THE HELP: Wasn’t racism in the Deep South in the 1960s awful?
AUDIENCE: Um, yes… obviously – got anything else to add?
THE HELP: Isn’t inter-racial class-divide-crossing female empowerment just swell?
AUDIENCE: Get out…

I praised Emma Stone when I reviewed Superbad for InDublin in 2007 but I’m not about to watch predictable platitudes just to boost her to a well-deserved A-list status. Especially not when the platitudes are wrapped in another faux 1960s package, hot on the heels of Mad Men, Pan Am and X-Men: First Class. I’m a bit of sick of people caricaturing a decade they weren’t around for to make themselves feel enlightened.

The Horns of Desolation
I had the misfortune to stumble across the final scenes of Troy some weeks ago. My Delaney sketches can be traced back to one colour piece in the 2004 Christmas issue of the University Observer where I poured as much scorn as 908 words could hold on Troy. A poorly scripted mess that is stunningly disrespectful of one of the founding texts of Western literature and brought to botched life by a mixture of hammy or simply ill-judged performances Troy is a film that few people will ever watch again willingly. Which leads to the intriguing idea that any work wasted on it could be salvaged for use elsewhere. James Horner scores the fall of Troy with blaring horns and trumpets that bespeak desolation and the fall of an ancient civilisation, and I knew the melody they were playing very well. But I hadn’t seen Troy since 2004 so I couldn’t know the music from Troy itself. I seemed to associate the music with another film entirely but oddly also particularly with just such a scene of a culture being traumatically destroyed. And then it hit me, it’s the music from Avatar! The assault on Hometree and then the final battle – it’s the same horns of desolation. Horner, by association of ideas genuinely composed the same melody and orchestration again, or, (as I hope) directly lifted music he’d composed and foolishly thrown away on a much loathed film and re-used it on a much loved film.

March 16, 2011

Interview with Jeffrey Katzenberg

In a blast from the past here’s the full transcript of an interview with Jeffrey Katzenberg I did for InDublin.ie in November 2007 for the release of Bee Movie.

Jeffrey Katzenberg started his producing career at Paramount in the 1970s before moving to Disney with his mentor Michael Eisner in the 1980s. They oversaw an artistic renaissance at the House of Mouse with Katzenberg overseeing The Lion King among other hits. An acrimonious falling-out saw Katzenberg strike out on his own in the mid 1990s, establishing the Dreamworks film studio with Steven Spielberg and music mogul David Geffen, and heading up the only real rival to Pixar’s dominance of CGI animation. His legendary drive and persistence lured Jerry Seinfeld out of semi-retirement to write and star in Bee Movie, one of the last films released in 2-D by Dreamworks Animation; which from 2009 switched all its output to 3-D with Katzenberg himself acting as one of the principal evangelists for the new format.

Did it take a lot of persuasion to drag Seinfeld out of semi-retirement?
Well, it depends on how you would, what you think a lot is… (laughs) Because the thing that was interesting about it is that it took a very, very long time because I actually started approaching him about doing an animated movie when he was doing his TV show so you know that’s probably a good 15, 16 years ago I first approached him. He was always really incredibly accessible, you know I’d pick up the phone and I’d just call you know, I didn’t really know him: I’d introduce myself and he’d take the call and he’d say ‘Hey, uh, what’re you thinking?’ and I’d sort of pitch him the idea, he was amazingly polite – always said ‘No’. (laughs). And then, uh, I went to see him about 4 years ago, I actually went to see him in his office. I took, I had a story that I pitched to him for an animated movie and I took some drawings and some pictures and stuff that I had the artists put together. And, uh, he actually thought about it for a little bit and then he said ‘No’. Ha! What I could tell is, at least it planted the idea, it was something he really –he thought he understood why he could have done that movie and ultimately decided not to cos –the thing I came to learn about Jerry is he really doesn’t think of himself as an actor, in sort of the traditional sense – obviously he does act but he doesn’t think of himself as an actor. He explained to me that he’s never actually said somebody else’s words. The TV show, he did stand-up comedy. The TV show, he had collaborators that worked with him; you know he was a writer on the show. Then went off to do his stand-up work again, so pretty much his whole life he’s written his own work. And so that was really the breakthrough that I came to understand is he was never going to do someone else’s animated movie, he was never going to act in someone else’s animated movie. What was going to work for him was when and if there was an idea that interested him that he could do. And that’s what happened.

Are Dreamworks still a subversive studio?
Hope so, we’ve sure been trying, and sometimes we get it more right than others. But I think what has become, and hopefully will continue to be, a signature of Dreamworks animated movies is Number One: they’re sophisticated films, that have complex stories and complex characters that are interesting and appealing to an adult audience, they have parody and satire, they are a little irreverent, they are a little subversive and really – There was this wonderful great mission statement that Walt Disney had ‘I make movies for children, and the child that exists in all of us’. And 14 years later at Dreamworks I can say ‘We make movies for adults, and the adult that exists in every child’. And that literally has been our approach. And even for Jerry, coming in to be a part of this, he kept saying to me ‘These are films that, I’ve never done anything for kids – my sense of humour, my sensibility’s not for kids’ and I said ‘Don’t worry about that, we’ll take care of that –  the animation of the movie, the visuals of the movie, you’ll see – they’ll get this movie, you don’t ever have to talk down to them.’ And I think when you talk with him, one of the great surprises for him is, how blown away he is by how much kids like this film and he never once felt like he had to tone something down or dumb something down or make it less complex. People kept saying ‘Are kids going to understand what it means to go to court? To sue, a trial at the centre of all this’. Well they get it, whether they literally understand it or they just in general get it  – ‘Yes, somebody took something away from the bees and now someone decided the bees can have it back’ – yeah, they get it, they get the general aspect of it and that’s enough. {As an example, at the screening children laughed at Chris Rock’s line about just needing a suit to be a lawyer as he was already a bloodsucking parasite}Well, you’ve got bloodsucking parasite, they get it.

Some critics have criticised Dreamworks for casting mega-stars in their films rather than taking Pixar’s approach, do you think Dreamworks may have been too focused on star-power in voice-casting in something like Shark Tale?
No, cos that’s never what we’ve done. I’m hard pressed to understand that. Are you saying that Robert De Niro’s not a great actor? Or Will Smith is not a great actor? Or that Jack Black is not a great actor? Or Renee Zellweger is not – I mean these are the people that were in this. They’re all Academy Award winning, they’re the finest actors in the world. So, it sounds a little bit like sour-grapes to be honest with you. The fact is that I’ve grown up in Hollywood, I’ve spent my whole career there, I’ve worked with these artists and the greatest artists for my entire career and, I’ve been very successful at getting them to work in our movies and the truth is I’d rather have Ben Stiller, who’s a genius and funny and does great improvisational work and Chris Rock than some unknown. So what’re you going to tell me? That there’s a better comedian or a better comic actor in the world today than Ben Stiller? I don’t think so. Who? Who? I think everyone always looks to find some way to be critic of the moment, and I’m okay with that, I’ve lived my whole life with that, it comes with the territory and the fact is I believe that one of the signatures of a Dreamworks animated movie is, for the adult audience, there are going to be among the greatest actors and comedians in the world acting in these films, and they add a level and a dimension to it and Jerry Seinfeld is a perfect example – there’s no 6 year old who knows who Jerry Seinfeld is, or cares, they know he’s funny. They don’t know who he is but they know he’s funny, and whoever he is, and wherever he’s come from – but for those people who watched that TV show for 20 years – to hear him back in a film, to hear his comedy and his sensibility is like this long lost friend coming back into your life, it’s a joyful experience. I love that as an aspect of our films, I think it distinguishes us and makes it different from everybody else’s, and with due respect to whoever those critics are, and you say Pixar except the first Pixar movie which you know was made on my watch while I was at Disney – I actually made that first film and put them into business, and financed them – who was in the first Pixar movie? {Double Oscar-winner Tom Hanks and Tim Allen} Yeah. Uh-huh. So, they’re  – Tim Allen was in the no 1 rated TV show produced by our studio Disney at the time and Tom Hanks was under a long term contract at Disney at the time making multiple movies for us – both of which did this as a favour to me. I didn’t see anyone at Pixar saying ‘No, no – we don’t want them’. (Laughs). {I think the example critics like to give is Craig T Nelson for Mr Incredible, as he wouldn’t be a marquee name} Was he any more of an actor than Robert De Niro? It’s confusing to me. You know what, it’s probably the nature of competition is that the grass is always greener on the other side – someone’s always able to criticise someone on it. You know, I tend not to do that, I don’t like to go there, I’m very happy for our success. You know, our success has never been dependent on somebody else’s failure. So, I don’t have any malice to them. I have 10 years invested in the Disney company and have great, great friends who still work there doing great work there so I look forward to being able to see their movies when they come out so I get inspired by the work in their movies and it pushes me to want to do better work. As opposed to feeling critical about it I’m happy to tell you how much I like Ratatouille, how amazing I thought the animation was, how beautiful I thought the cinematography was, and I could go and on and on telling you how much I admire about the movie. I don’t find in any way, shape or form that that is demeaning to me or to your company, or to the movies that we make or the artists who are at work here. I don’t feel compelled to knock anyone else.

Do you think 3-D will endure this time rather than being a fad like in the 1950s?
I do, because what we’re all doing is not a gimmick and it’s not a trick, cheap exploitative bell and whistle theme park attraction. We’re all engaged in what is a new technology, a new level of tools that exist on the film-making side of the business, a new set of tools on the exhibition side of the business – these two things converging together at this moment in time are going to allow us to make an amazing new cinema experience that when people see this in their local movie theatres they’re never going back again – this is as revolutionary as when movies went from black and white to colour 70 years ago. And not only do I not think that it’s a momentary fad but I actually think we can sit here 10 years from now and you will see that the majority of big films being made, big entertainment films will be made in 3-D and exhibited in 3-D. I think 2-D movies will be around, they’ll still be made, they’ll still be shown but they’ll tend to be smaller films, they’ll tend to be art films, to be more personal movies but the bigger event populist films are all gonna be made in 3-D. {So the likes of Cameron, Jackson, Zemeckis and Spielberg will all shoot 3-D, but there’ll still be 2-D films?}  Yeah, and I think there will be and I think there’s an art to 2-D film-making and that there will be film-makers who will choose that but as I said I think you’ll see that the core centre driving force will be 3-D. And it will actually be the first real innovation in the movie theatre experience in our lifetime. And when you think about what’s happened in your home. Flat screen TV’s, High-Definition and now HD-DVD and HD-TV, stereo sound coming in – the In-Home experience has innovated in the last decade in ways that are so astonishing, meanwhile the movie theatre experience hasn’t at all. And this is now an opportunity for an exceptional innovation in the theatre experience that is going to get people to get up and get out of their house, you won’t be able to sit in your home and watch a film like this. You know, you saw the current generation in Beowulf which is incredibly impressive, putting aside the movie, whatever your feelings are about the film, the 3-D presentation in that film is dazzling. And what we’re doing is yet a whole other generation ahead of what they’ve done, and so when people see it  – you know there’s that wonderful cliché, picture’s worth a thousand words, well I’ve got a new cliché for you, a 3-D picture’s worth three thousand words. It’s pretty indescribable. {And even the appearance of the glasses has greatly improved} I agree. {Spielberg has loudly lamented the move from old-fashioned film to digital, is he won over yet?} I don’t think he would be lamenting so much today and the reason is that I think Steven who obviously is an amazing and probably the most amazing artist, looks at the aesthetic of film itself, and what happens in that chemical process, and the emulsions and how light filters through that, and I think that until recently he felt that there was a real difference in the feel, the textures of what happened with film versus digital. I think today he would say to you ‘I think I’ve seen now the technology of digital has finally innovated to a place where you can actually deliver the same quality experience, the same textures and feelings and sensibility that you could with film’.

Did you achieve your aims at Dreamworks before selling it to Paramount?
The answer’s yes. I did, I think it was an amazing ride that the three of us have been on together, are still on. For the live action movie business it really made sense to be a part of a larger company, and obviously today there’s some issues about how well the chemistry is working between these 2 companies, and they’ll sort that out in the coming year and see what happens with that but ultimately separating the two companies as we have done, the animation from the live-action, was really the right thing to do for investors, the people who gambled on us, who put up well over a billion dollars, nearly almost two billion dollars to start the company, this was an opportunity for them to be rewarded. I couldn’t be prouder of what we have done and are doing and this year’s been one of the most amazing years in the history of Dreamworks – whoever’s paying the bills, whoever owns what in it, the combination of the animation company and the live action company – it’s been a record breaking year, between Transformers and Shrek and Bee Movie and Blades of Glory and the Ben Stiller movie that’s just been out and the Sweeney Todd movie that’s coming at the end of the year; it’s been a spectacular year for the company and I know that David and I couldn’t be prouder –  couldn’t be prouder of the film-makers, team of people who have achieved this success.

Is it a myth that you got down on your hands and knees to beg Leonard Nimoy to reprise his role as Spock in the 1979 film, and will you have any involvement in the franchise reboot now that its makers Paramount own Dreamworks?
No. It is true, 30 years ago I did go to New York and beg Leonard to put on his ears again, which fortunately he said yes to so it was only – it would only have been humiliating if I had done that and he’d said no. (laughs). It was just slightly embarrassing that I did it and he said yes. But JJ Abrams is really spearheading this creatively, he’s written it and is directing it and JJ is one of the true great film-makers working in Hollywood today, he’s just an amazing talent. I actually gave him literally his very first job out of college, 20 years ago – back again in my Disney years and I’ve watched him over the years just turn into an extraordinary film-maker so I think the Star Trek Enterprise both the literal Enterprise and the figurative Enterprise are in great hands. {Have you heard anything about how it’s going?} I’ve heard it’s in good shape, so it’ll be fun.

Finally, is the rhetoric of the WGA in this strike action; that their poor individuals being scammed out of money by giant studios; liable to hinder the fight against piracy?
So I guess I’ll ask you a question, do you know how much the average writer is paid? Screenwriter, take a guess – working, a writer who is working as a screenwriter, as opposed to like a hobby. {I would have no idea, $80,000?} $200,000. I have to say, yes there are issues, there are legitimate issues and everybody will try and work thru them but as someone who has worked in Hollywood for my entire professional career, been a great fan and supporter of the Writers’ Guild, done great work with them over the years, couldn’t have more admiration for writers….these are not people working hard labour for $6 an hour minimum wage. These are among the highest paid people in a union or a guild in the world. So, are there aspects of this where they should be compensated differently or more? Maybe… But please let’s not go to a place where these are downtrodden abused people. Most people in the world would happily take half what they make and consider themselves well compensated, these are not poor downtrodden people who are being ripped off, it’s just not true. Okay? {Yeah, absolutely, thanks for your time} Thank you, sir.

January 27, 2010

RIP Michael Dwyer

I was saddened to hear of the death of Irish Times film critic Michael Dwyer. Many words have been written about Dwyer’s contribution to Irish cinema, his founding of the Dublin International Film Festival, and his work in building an audience for foreign films in Ireland. I can add little to such perspectives, what I can add is a personal note on what I think he meant to me and other film fans of my generation.

As the elder statesman of cinema at the Irish Times from a ridiculously young age Dwyer was more influential than anyone with the exception of Barry Norman in forming the archetype for a whole generation of what the role of a film critic was, and what films were worthy of recognition and championing in the ongoing narrative of cinema. My own personal experience of Dwyer’s writing falls into, yes, a three-act arc. First was the period of adoring respect – the religious reading of the Irish Times every Friday to see what films were good, what films were bad, what directors deserved respect, and the continual processing of his casual asides into an expanding mosaic of just what films from cinema past and present were important and good.

Then inevitably came the teenage age of rebellion. This began for me with sneering at his (still) frankly embarrassing laudatory review of Titanic in 1998, and then found greater expression in criticising his Top 20 Films of the Year lists which seemed to take a peculiar joy in not featuring films from the Top 20 Highest Grossing Films of the Year lists. Eventually this perception of an utter disjunct between critic and audience led to a jaded boredom with his perspective and a cynical distaste for the clichés of his style, especially when writing about sex and violence in movies, which found voice in a polemical University Observer piece about the tired and tiresome predictability of critical responses to films like 9 Songs and The Passion of the Christ.

The reappraisal came later, after I had finished writing my abrasive film column for the University Observer and had started writing reviews, when I realised just how difficult it sometimes is to sum up your reaction to a film in a short word-count. Indeed I could not possibly have hacked it as a film critic for InDublin, writing up to 6 reviews a week, had I not downloaded Dwyer’s review of 300 and taken it apart to understand how he structured his reviews – which gave him the head-start needed to make the sometimes tortuous work of reviewing seem easy. At this juncture, having cycled back to a position of mature rather than adoring respect, it was fitting that I finally met Michael Dwyer at a press screening of Youth without Youth. He was charming and talkative about the decline of Coppola and the history of InDublin and made me feel like I truly belonged to Graham Greene’s ‘mornings in the dark’ corps.

Other people have written about Dwyer’s tangible legacy but from my perspective his legacy is to forever be the voice in your head which asks, “Yes, this film is fun, but will it endure?” In a way every Irish film critic of my generation, professional or amateur, will have Barry Norman’s sardonic “…And why not?” and Michael Dwyer’s critical perspective internalised for life. And so long as we all keep hearing that voice then a part of him lives on forever in his readers.

October 27, 2009

Interview with Kenneth Branagh

I traveled to Belfast in late 2007 to interview Kenneth Branagh for InDublin about his mainstream directorial comeback Sleuth which was about to hit cinemas. Here then is the full transcript of Kenneth Branagh on Sleuth, Pinter, Caine and more…

Is it fair to say that the words ‘Screenplay by Harold Pinter’ were the main attraction of Sleuth?
It is absolutely fair to say that. I mean, it really arrested me. The call came through and they said ‘a new version of’ which is a better way of saying ‘remake’ cos I thought ‘oh dear no’, I know that original film very well and I’d seen the play not long before but then they said ‘Jude Law is producing it, Michael Caine is in it but the screenplay is by Harold Pinter’ and I’d always, always wanted to work with him. I couldn’t believe really that I hadn’t been in a Pinter play. I did my audition speeches for drama schools, the modern ones anyway, from Pinter plays, and, I don’t know, I’ve seen so many of the plays that somehow I felt I ought to have been. And also you know he’s such a modern classic, done so regularly, and I having spent some you know a lot of time, ahem, working with dead authors, I was very excited about the idea perhaps as I’d been led to believe he would be involved, that he had been very heavily involved with the development process and worked with Jude Law as producer on a number of drafts of the screenplay, that he would be in the room; and I knew that he was a very good actor and a very good director himself, it just seemed – that’s how it was incredibly attractive.
Your shooting style on Sleuth seems different. Your films have been characterised by a very mobile camera, following the actors around, creating a lot of energy on screen, whereas this film has a lot of fixed camera set-ups. Was that a response to Pinter’s style? Creating an apparent surface calm to focus people on the subtext which crackles?
Yeah, it was trying to find the style. It was much influenced by films that I like a lot, French cinema actually, recently seen films that I’ve liked a lot like Cache (Hidden), Thirteen, Lemming, those kinds of movies where the camera doesn’t move much, where the action unfolds in long takes, where the frame is very carefully constructed, so one of the things that I enjoyed doing was, for instance, when the two men come into the house for the first time and in this sort of little dance of conversational niceties that precedes the sort of meat of it, you get 10 minutes of this sort of dance and then Michael Caine sits down into what is the first close-up to say ‘I understand you’re fucking my wife’. That in the second shot, where we bring them into the house, that we’re looking at the level of a drinks table, we’re looking thru two glasses –   one is already poured with a whiskey: Caine’s character hasn’t asked Jude whether he wants one yet, he hasn’t asked him what it is, and he hasn’t chosen, and yet the idea of providing the provocation with the way the frame is set, suggesting to the audience from very early on that everything could mean something; the colour of the whiskey, the placement of the glass, the fact that he’s walking towards us the glass of a green bottle, that we don’t see their heads then, that their body language might be just as key – the way they hold the glass, all of that. I enjoyed trying to find a spare, and yet loaded, style cos that’s what I felt about his dialogue.


I think, because they give the award so late in a career, that this is the first time a Nobel Laureate has worked on a film since Bernard Shaw’s screenplay for Pygmalion. Was he an intimidating presence? Did he stand behind your shoulder muttering ‘I wrote three dots, he’s only giving me two’?
No, he wasn’t. I mean there was a bit of kerfufflage before we started that, where – I think maybe it was to do with Harold’s 75  th birthday, maybe that was it, a number of extremely important celebrations of his work, one of which involved a documentary for Channel 4 in which I think he rather bridled against the kind of popular myth of the orchestration of the pauses in his work, his ultra-precision and deliberation and insistence upon absolute adherence to his pre-planned structure, but I found him to be a very JOLLY collaborator, I found him I found him to be somebody who as he said explicitly on our first meeting ‘I like being part of a team’ and that seemed to be a typical remark of a writer, but also in his case, a man of the theatre – someone who started out as an actor and also a very fine director. So he’s very much in tune with the creative process. He, and Michael Caine, their ages seemed to drop once in the rehearsal room. They had that enthusiasm, I’ve seen it in other people, Robert Altman’s another example of somebody who   –  I worked with him when he was in his late 70s, when I saw him by the camera he seemed to be – 25, and so it was with these two. So Harold did not carry the aura of his…beatification.

So he was happy to let you be the one in charge of interpreting his ambiguities?
He left a lot of space. We did ask questions and he was happy to answer them, where he felt it was pertinent to do so. Sometimes. But, to give you an example of where, as it were the Pinter question mark, that I think is a very positive part of this entertainment, was there. I remember in rehearsals saying to him, ‘So, uh, Harold can I ask, it may seem banal, when Maggie rings up at the end of the movie, [during the very intense scene between the two men], she calls twice, I mean what is she saying?’ and he said ‘Well, who says it’s Maggie?’ ‘What? But I mean he’s talking to her!’ ‘We hear him talking. He appears to be talking to someone. It may appear to be Maggie. But he could easily have contrived for the call to have occurred. There may be no-one there. I don’t know is the answer. There It Is…’ I understood actually that once he said that actually, once we worried less about offering Jude some literal off-screen responses or scripted piece for Maggie it began to be quite interesting – about the way, particularly about the way in which in that third act, we were unsure as to whether Michael’s character was providing a provocative but phony suggestion that he was gay and wished to share his life with Milo, and whether Milo was responding in kind, appearing to indulge it, be surprised by it, and then sort of meet it halfway but in fact was involved in an even more super-subtle attempt to humiliate the other so for me, when he did choose to speak to add further ambiguity it was always interesting.

Michael Caine has said that he played his character as suffering from morbid jealousy. Could you talk a bit about that?
Yeah. We had to have, what you might call a sort of playing centre, some basic position that on the surface of it might simply be a jealous or revengeful husband. But when I discovered this condition, and numerous and specific examples of what in this very grotesque, intensified version of jealously were clearly true, .i.e. the specific notion that this condition would encourage someone to pursue the ultimate revenge, of trying to have an affair with the lover of the adulterous partner, a tremendously sort of twisted and destructive act, and sort of very calculating and unbalanced and unsettling, at least sort of rather surprising and unusual. It seemed to release Michael, it seemed to just – there was plenty to read about, medical experts to support, ‘oh no, this is’ – if you want to put it crudely it’s jealousy really at the max. It seemed to allow all sorts of things to happen, .i.e. for him to be ABSOLUTELY cool, calm and collected – because its manifestations often involved the ability to wear masks, you know sort of social and public masks that were incredibly convincing. So it allowed him to be even more naturalistic, even more throwaway, even more kind and gentle where he was supposed to be, even funnier where he was supposed to be, knowing that he could reach with an intensity that he gives full value to at the end of that first act where he says ‘I’ve always wanted to have a conversation with a hairdresser. A hairdresser that’s fucking my wife. My wife is mine – She Belongs To Me’, and he seems to then reveal that morbidly jealous side which practically shows him as a kind of caveman, and so that, it seemed to open us access to both superficial ways of playing things and also a sort of central feeling of an atavistic rather primitive individual.

It also moves it away from Olivier’s dangerous eccentric, that this film is not a playful gun game of plot twists it’s a full on Comedy of Menace. I mean I almost cheered when you started with a Pinter pause at the start when they first meet, because it indicates this is the real deal, this is full on Pinter – two men battling for control.
I remember the first time we previewed it and we got a laugh on that first moment of just, and it was a nervous laugh, at the end of it – is there a mistake? Did something just happen? It almost felt live. ‘I’m Milo Tindle’ long pause ‘Oh yes’. But much longer than that.

Michael Caine is having something of a late career resurgence with Children of Men, The Prestige, Batman Begins and this. Is he enjoying acting more than ever now?
He talks about a period about 10 years ago where he really said he was going to give up. He was going to give up and he wasn’t enjoying it anymore, he didn’t feel the parts were interesting enough. He was at, as it were he didn’t get the girl anymore so that part of him that as the leading man movie-star hadn’t quite morphed into the really fascinating career parts quite yet. Even though to some extent he’s always had a character career as well as his unusual but brilliant leading man career. So, he said for about two to three years, as he puts it, he ‘fucked about in the restaurant trade’. And then, I think it was Bob Rafelson with a picture with Nicholson was singular event- Days of Wine and Roses? Can’t quite remember, must be more than 10 years ago. Anyway he said that was something of a –   he enjoyed it so much he got back in the swing of it and I think he now only does exactly that which he fancies and he really did fancy this. And he had to work very hard for this, long takes, lots of dialogue to remember, great big leading man role and I think he seemed to be enjoying it hugely. And this was particularly one where his particular brand of experience means for particular moments –   and one that I would cite at the end of the first act where he fires the gun and looks at where Jude Law’s character is and we hold a close-up for, I know it to be literally 24 seconds, in profile – just him watching where he’s fired the gun which I think is a wonderful movie moment, its rather like the one you were alluding to at the beginning, it takes a long time – there’s no music – and it’s just Michael Caine reacting and I think it’s a riveting moment and very much sort of an example in a very, very subtle way of how a lifetime of experience can be channelled into something that is a piece of fine brushwork, that is wonderfully apt for that point in the picture.

To talk about your own acting career, the critics were ridiculously hostile to Love’s Labour’s Lost, which I adored I thought it was a wonderful 30s musical interpretation of the piece. But it was slated and having killed off the directing career they pointed to the performances in Conspiracy and Shackleton and Rabbit-Proof Fence and said ‘See what we made him go do instead? Good for us critics!’ Do you think that they’re wrong, that it is possible to build up a good body of work as a director AND as an actor in other people’s films?
Yes, I think so. I think it’s impossible to make prescriptive rules to cover what is quite sort of an unusual career-path, not many people get a chance to do it or perhaps even choose to pursue it when the opportunities come up. To be honest I don’t fully understand  – I would have said that my experience of the moments in one’s career where one’s REALLY been dumped on across the board tend to be the ones that do turn around. So Frankenstein, it was as vitriolic but perhaps greater in volume because it was a bigger picture, the reaction to that – and yet since it started appearing on television or DVD or video I’ve never seen a bad review for it, I’ve only seen very, very positive things, certainly is the case with the Hamlet DVD that’s just come out. Love’s Labour’s Lost, I’m hoping that will find its place at some point, I think it hasn’t quite had that sort of reassessment but I supposed I don’t understand it – people say to me occasionally ‘It’s about time you understood, don’t be too clever for your own good’ or something and I really don’t understand what that means – do they want me to be stupider, than your own good? Or, what I believe now, I absolutely of course understand with some work, everyone of course is entitled to their opinion and it may be very particular and it may not be very positive about a film, but I think it’s manifestly untrue to suggest in the cleverness argument that one is, the suggestion that one infers is that that kind of work – with its so called ‘cleverness’ – is an attempt to condescend or patronise or to advertise what somehow I am suggesting subtly is a superior intelligence, I would say that is manifestly untrue and in fact is the opposite in the sense that it is ABSOLUTELY assuming intelligence, pre-eminent intelligence, not an intelligence which requires some sort of academic track record, but simply intelligence, imagination, invention, curiosity, receptivity. Do I assume all of those things? Yes. Beyond that people like the film – they may or may not. But somehow the judgement that that kind of condescension might be at work, I simply disagree with it.
When can we expect to see The Magic Flute and As You Like It?
Magic Flute will be here in January, and will travel around, and As You Like It will be here also and doing the kind of – the truth is with both those pictures – not actually in both cases all the time but they’re tending to do, As You Like It in particular, two or three nights at an art-house cinema. Magic Flute will certainly open here in January, Belfast and Dublin, and play in various places for at least a week and I hope beyond that. The release for Magic Flute actually is pleasingly and surprisingly wide, I’ve been delighted to find out. [] Yeah, and I do recommend that they see it in a cinema because the sound mix is really great, usually these pictures being the specialist tings they are they end up being in rather good cinemas that really maximise the amount of trouble we took to try and, particularly in the case of Magic Flute, get a sort of real experience not just only of the music but the soundtrack and effects within the movie and that in itself is an unusual thing with an opera, you’ll not hear it very often in that way. Some friends I showed it to last week were commenting on what an unusual and pleasing things that was. So I hope it has a good long life in the cinema.

Just as a sort of parting shot question, do you have any plans to re-release Henry V in 2015 for the 600th Anniversary of Agincourt?
Well what an interesting idea. I had been hoping to try and twist somebody’s eyes about, twist somebody’s arm rather, about 2009 for just the 20th anniversary of when it was released here but you’ve now put another idea in my head so thank you for that. You’re welcome, thanks. [] Thanks ever so much, appreciate it

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