Category Archives: Actors

Filming Osmosis: A Conversation with Declan Quinn

Chekhov is about time—passing it, mostly.

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He never cuts to the chase, only hints at it coming from a long way off. Then there’s the waiting, the sitting around and rattling on; it’s old-country mumblecore. André Gregory’s workshop production of Uncle Vanya, performed sporadically through the early nineties for audiences of a dozen or so lucky guests at a time, got that just right. As delivered by Wallace Shawn and friends, Chekhov’s dialogue was stripped of formality, stripped of pomp, played at the level of room tone at 10 p.m., after the dishes are cleared. It took them years to get there—years of letting the time pass and waiting for something to happen. Instead of having his actors master Chekhov’s people with strong preconceived intentions, Gregory reversed the flow, allowing the characters the osmosis time to master his actors. Director Louis Malle was one of the lucky few to see Gregory’s Uncle Vanya. And he wanted to film it. But how would he touch the bubble without breaking it? It was a tiptoe situation, like dismantling a house of cards and putting it back together again, and it was up to Louis Malle and cinematographer Declan Quinn—further constrained by budget, time, and the crumbling New Amsterdam Theatre—to figure out. Here, Quinn reveals how a single camera, a few bungee cords, and some very long takes combined to bring about the ghost art of minimum impact filming, and make Uncle Vanya into Vanya on 42nd Street.

Sam Wasson: How did you get involved with Vanya on 42nd Street?

Declan Quinn: Fred Berner and Alysse Bezahler, the producers, introduced me to Louis. That was it, really. Obviously, it was very exciting for me to be meeting with Louis Malle. I was a big fan of his films. That first meeting may even have been a phone call. We discussed a fairly loose approach to the thing—that he’d like to run the scenes long and shoot Super 16, and that it was very low-budget. We had to approach it in very broad strokes in terms of lighting and camera. He said we were going to be shooting in this old abandoned theater, a decadent space for a play about decadent attitudes. He gave me some ideas about a natural soft look. We went into prep fairly quickly.

SW: With a space like that—a landmark literally falling apart around you—how free could you be?

DQ: We really couldn’t attach to any walls or anything, so we had to be freestanding with our lights. We would up-light certain theatrical features, certain plasterwork and interesting details in the ceiling or along the columns around the stage. Lights were on the floor for those kinds of things, on dimmers. And then for the actors, we tended to work on the floor more kind of movie-style, where we might have a 12×12 or 8×8 diffusion with a light pushing through it or a light bouncing, and then some bigger cloths to shape the light a little bit. The good thing was we had enough space to get back twenty feet or so and create a nice, soft, general light for scenes like the beginning of the first act, where it’s supposed to be dayish. And then when we got in around the table, it became a little more enclosed, and the lighting became more closed, as if it’s coming from lanterns, from practicals. The New Amsterdam was just a wreck at the time and had been leaking for years, as we discover in the beginning of the film. It was cold and damp in that theater, a real chill that gets into your bones after a while, but it was an exciting place to work. Originally, we wanted to work up on the stage, because it would have given us a bigger backdrop, but we weren’t allowed there because there was a lot of ironwork suspended above that wasn’t safe. God forbid anything fell we didn’t want to be under it. So we staged it over the orchestra pit and what would have been the first bank of seating on the main floor. [Production designer] Eugene Lee built a bridge across the orchestra pit so that we could make entrances and exits from the stage to the area we were working in. In fact, when we started shooting, Disney came in to take photographs and start planning the refurbishing of the theater.

SW: As the play goes on, you begin to lose a sense of the theater. It gradually disappears until you’re in a kind of limbo with the actors.

DQ: We wanted to create a more neutral space, more existential, in the void.

SW: The transitions are so elegant, often imperceptible, starting with the actors meeting out on 42nd Street and following them into the lobby, into the theater, and then suddenly you cut behind them to give us the audience, and suddenly you realize the play’s on. It’s beautiful.

DQ: That was Louis’ masterful vision of it, a conscious thing on Louis’ part. He built all that into the dialogue before the play starts. All that talk about how tired they are, so the tone wasn’t broken. He wanted you to see how contemporary Vanya was. I think he was able to make that point really well by surprising us. There’s hardly any difference between 1990 or whenever we shot it and a hundred years earlier, in Russia.

SW: All that prerehearsal talk, was that ever put down on a page?

DQ: I don’t know for sure. I know they certainly talked about it before, but we didn’t shoot many takes of that kind of stuff. It was on the fly. We were like, “Oh, let’s follow Wally on that one” or “Let’s follow Julianne [Moore]” on that one, so I don’t remember there being a script for any of that stuff—of course, until the play starts.

SW: The long takes really bring out the collaborative nature of the production.

DQ: A 16-mil camera can hold a little over ten minutes of film, so the takes would be usually a full mag, ten minutes, so we would back up and maybe overlap something if we were moving on. Say, if we wanted to pick up five minutes into the second act, we’d probably back up two or three minutes to get up to speed and then run seven or eight minutes until the film ran out.

SW: Was the decision to go with Super 16 mostly practical?

DQ: Yeah, I think that was one good reason. You had a lighter, more agile camera that could do ten minutes per load. You could do the same with 35, but it would be two to three more times expensive for the film and the camera would require a heavier support, probably a dolly or a crane, and it just wasn’t that kind of film. We thought if we could make it handheld and kind of looser and not feel too rehearsed, it would serve the project better. And I also discovered about a year or two before a way to hang the camera off elastic bands—like a long, long bungee cord—that gave a weightlessness to the camera and allowed me to go for ten minutes of moving the camera pretty freely without getting too shaky.

SW: Bungee cord?

DQ: Basically, a couple years earlier, my key grip, Kevin Smyth, had worked on a music video with a Japanese DP. He came to me one day and said, “I gotta show you something.” He was using fifty feet of surgical tubing, which is what doctors in the hospitals use for clearing people’s stomachs and stuff like that, basically a latex, thick-walled tube that has an amazing amount of elasticity. Usually I’ll double or triple it for a 16-millimeter camera and then make it as long as possible. If it’s fifty feet long, it’s more like a hundred and fifty feet when it’s elasticized. Our key grip was able to get a piece of truss and arm it over the space we were working in and counterweight it at the back, and we were able to hang the elastic over front. We just used a carabiner to attach the tubing to the handle of the camera. So we had maybe a twenty-foot drop from the truss to where the camera was hanging. I’ve used it ever since.

The interview continues at Criterion.com

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A Conversation with Theresa Russell

Theresa Russell is attracted to the very things that repel most actors.

In 1976’s The Last Tycoon, her first movie (and Elia Kazan’s last), she is unafraid of seeming to do very little. Young actresses like to show you they can act by really “acting,” but Russell, at only eighteen, knows what it means to be simple—and Kazan knows she knows. His close-ups foreground a girl of California gold darkened by knowing eyes. It’s like two different people looking at you through a single face. And just when you think she can’t possibly be that smart or strong, her voice breaks in the middle of a line like Barbara Stanwyck’s when she looks at Fred MacMurray at the end of Double Indemnity, and we forgive her everything, take the blame, and sign up for more (almost). In Bad Timing (1980), she works from the epicenter of a carnal earthquake and never once has to brace herself on secondhand, movie sexuality. Her moves are all her own. The result is something like Brando in Last Tango in Paris—too real to watch and not watch. There again you see what Kazan saw: the wilderness inside. Nicolas Roeg, her husband-director, saw it too. In (1985’s) Insignificance, their third collaboration, she plays Marilyn Monroe.

Sam Wasson: You’ve told this casting-couch story about Sam Spiegel, producer of The Last Tycoon. In the versions I’ve read, he basically threatens to destroy your career if you don’t sleep with him. You’re eighteen or so, without a single credit, and he’s this titanic power—and you reject him. With that rejection, it’s like you’re rejecting—I hate to say it—the Hollywood way.

Theresa Russell: I didn’t have anything to compare it to other than I knew that I didn’t . . .

SW: You weren’t going there.

TR: Yeah, exactly. If it meant the end of my career, then I don’t have a career. Okay. I always had other options. I’m good with animals. I had other things I wanted to do. I had to take that gamble because there was no choice, basically, in my mind. My boyfriend at that time, my first love—he was a primal therapist—he helped me a lot during that.

SW: This story about Spiegel combined with the movies you’ve picked all point to a quality you have, on-screen and off—zero tolerance for bullshit. Do you have any theories about how you came to have that kind of self-possession?

TR: No, I really don’t. I think I was born that way, basically. It’s slight madness, perhaps. My attitude about life in general has always been a little off, I suppose, compared to other people. It seems like the older I get, anyway, that’s true. [Laughs] But later on, I had to do shit things just to pay the bills and pay school fees, which was hard, but in some ways it taught me some good things too.

SW: To what extent do you think having a relationship with a primal scream therapist played a part in—

TR: In acting? [Laughs] Oh . . . I think I was that way anyway, but that did help in my acting, I have to say. Doing that kind of self-exploratory stuff. I think it helped me be less afraid in my work. Not necessarily in my life. I mean, my dad left at an early age, and I left home at sixteen.

SW: In your mind, does the primal scream connect to the Method?

TR: I think so, yeah. In that regard it correlated completely with my training. And it just made acting less scary. A lot of actors are afraid to go into those darker places of personal experience. Early memories, traumatic situations. That pain. So in that way, the primal scream showed me I could go there and come out okay.

SW: Let’s talk a little about Insignificance. Was this a part that immediately jumped at you?

TR: Actually, originally I turned it down. Here’s what happened. [Producer] Alexander Stewart kind of approached me before he even approached Nic [Roeg] to do it. I don’t know if Nic will even remember that, because he kind of rearranges history sometimes—like his movies [Laughs]—but that is in fact how it was. Maybe he wanted Nic all along, I don’t know, but he came in that way. I knew the writer of the play [Terry Johnson] didn’t want me to do it. He wanted Judy Davis, who had done the play in London. I think they were kind of an item for a while. So he was not happy with me doing it. Also, there had been a slew of Marilyn things going on, and Madonna was in her Marilyn phase, and I was just like, Oh, God, I just can’t even think of going there, it’s just too silly. I just don’t want to.

SW: What changed?

TR: I loved the play. I just thought it was a terrific play. But to be Marilyn seemed so daunting, and I didn’t know how I would begin to go there in a way that wasn’t a caricature—so obviously it was just easier to say no! But then when Nic wanted to do it, that’s when it got to another level.

There’s more. Read on at Criterion.

On Peter Sellers in Being There

Being There is playing at BAMcinématek Sunday May 15th.

Peter Sellers’s performance in Being There is one of the wonders of the movies. It is a wonder of personality, in its disparity to Sellers’s actual, miserable self; a wonder of skill, as a peerless feat of subatomic finesse; a wonder of cinematic history, in contrast to Sellers’ most iconic works of slapstick (which are no less nuanced themselves); a wonder of comedy, for remaining funny without trading a genuine moment for a laugh; and a wonder of compassion.

As a force of apolitical virtue, Sellers’s Chance is a standout personage in Ashby’s ouvre. Harold, Maude, Elgar (The Landlord), Buddusky (The Last Detail), and of course Woody Guthrie glean much of our support simply by playing for the right (i.e. Left) team. That is surely an asset to actor-audience relations. But in Being There, Peter Sellers, virtually a cipher, had to cook without gas. That there is wonder number six. Without lifting a finger, he protests harder and more thoroughly than Jane Fonda in Coming Home.

And who, exactly, is Chance the Gardener? Actually, a better question might be what is Chance the Gardener? An idiot, a retard? A Freaky Friday kid in grownup clothing? E.T.? It’s hard to imagine a precedent, which gives credence to the theory (totally my own, I admit) that the being of inquiry is on top of everything else a wholly original creation, a lone dot off the axis of tradition and unique on screen. I could go on, but I figure seven is a good number for wonders.

By now we know the “real” Peter Sellers – whatever that means – eluded filmmakers and journalists so completely, one could argue he went to his grave without leaving behind any record of his true off-camera self. Then again, for a man born – at least in his own mind – with a camera watching his every move, maybe there never was a real Sellers to begin with. If there is any clarity to be had in all this, I’ve always thought, maybe a touch too optimistically, it was waiting for us at the tail end of Sellers’s career, in the Being There blooper reel we’re treated to at tail end of the film.

I like to think that’s the real Sellers, laughing his mask off.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLuXod8bR0Q]

Another Year

As Another Year, Mike Leigh’s latest wonder, came to a close, I was met with a horrible feeling. I was never going to see these people again. Good people, irritating people. It didn’t matter. They were people, and I was never going to see them again.

What a master Mike Leigh is! Who else can bring an audience to pity, reject, and completely forgive a fictional character in the short space of two hours? Simply inspiring pity would be enough, but the full cycle! Continually shifting our alignment between complicity and remove, Mike Leigh, with imperceptible finesse, demonstrates (once again) his total control over his people, their stories – and utterly without bravura style – his medium.

It’s British and verbal and the camera doesn’t do much, so critics call it “theatrical,” but Another Year is unmistakably cinematic. Yes, what transpires in those long masters could be set on stage, and a hefty handful of the film’s more actorly moments stretch easily to the very back row, but what’s between those unmoving wideshots – the strategic inserts and reactions Leigh layers in like Miracle-Gro – offers, by cutting, a deepened view of the story as only the movies can. Via the well-placed close up, in other words, Leigh is refracting his people through his people. The effect is one of total knowledge.

But without the right look from the right actor, the right close-up will never be. I know audiences will leave the theater talking about Mary, Leslie Manville’s attention-grabbing character, but the person I will never forget is Gerri. Played by Ruth Sheen with paper-thin lightness and ingenuous off-camera ease, this is, male or female, the performance of the year. I promise. There is great acting that you notice and great acting that you don’t, and Another Year is bursting at the seams with both kinds, but it’s Ruth Sheen – whose work is notably devoid of juicy “moments” – who shows, once again, that the most affecting performances, like the most affecting cinema, disappear as they appear. (Johnny Depp can do a lot, but I wonder, can he, like Sheen, just be?) That right there is the real real stuff. Meryl Streep may be the actor’s actor, but Ruth Sheen, we now know, is the actor’s actor’s actor.

Hereafter

Putting aside The Outlaw Josie Wales, High Plains Drifter, and Unforgiven, terrific westerns bearing Clint Eastwood’s unmistakable air of somber, refined cool – qualities we observe in his best performances – I’m completely at ease asserting he’s the clumsiest A-list filmmaker in Hollywood. One of the greatest movie stars of all time, overqualified for iconic, forever and ever status alongside Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in the pantheon, but a wet blanket behind the camera.

Hereafter, which I wish L. Ron Hubbard was still around for, is sure to inveigle critics with its “contemplative pace” and “mood.” But don’t mistake aberrant filmmaking for vision. Don’t confuse Clint’s hand with his haunch. For all the waiting we’re made to do in Hereafter, we might as well be in a Dreyer movie (watching Gertrud at least gets you bragging rights). As in “The Golden Girls,” every new scene begins with an establishing shot; as in a student film, no scene begins until the actors have walked into the frame, and none ends until they have left it; each line is followed by a ham-handed meaningful pause wherein we are, I suspect, supposed to be absorbing a certain latent emotional complexity which, sadly, is never latent. (For more on this, see Million Dollar Baby, Invictus, Gran Torino, and Mystic River, an equally miserable film, which contains one of the most insincere cinematic clichés in all of filmdom – the crane up from a dead body/grieving person to signify the ascension of their spirit/cry to God up from the concrete and into [you guessed it] heaven. Is that really, after his eighty years in life and film, Clint Eastwood’s best evocation of that experience? It seems to be. He does it again in Hereafter.)

They say Clint Eastwood is the last classicist. He isn’t. Peter Bogdanovich is the last classicist. Clint Eastwood is merely out of touch. He makes movies as if people haven’t been making and thinking about movies for a hundred years. Add to that Hereafter’s amateur metaphysics, and you have a film only M. Night Shyamalan could love.

At Home with Paddy

Me and Chayefsky, we got a thing going on.

Every summer, around this time, when movies sink to their absolute worst, I invite over my friend Paddy and light a flame under his ass. Then I sit back and watch. As the top spins off his head, I get that robust, crisp-mountain-air feeling of beholding a Zeus-like captain of the Judeo-Roman world, an embittered shaman touched by a most splendid and clarifying anger. It feels good; the thunder burns you up and the rain rinses you out, like a hard loofah scrub to your guts.

I am of course talking about Marty, The Hospital, and Network (Paddy won an Oscar for each; he’s the only writer on record with three for Best Screenplay), but I might as well be talking about Middle of the Night or Gideon, or any of the other plays. And in particular, I’m talking about George C. Scott in The Hospital. He is the closest Paddy ever came to himself.

At one point in The Hospital, Barbara (Diana Rigg), compares Scott’s Dr. Boch to a bear. I think that’s right. Ferocious in food, depression, and work, Chayefsky was a human bear, a kind of broken down Falstaff of the city, who split his life prowling the neighborhood for material and napping back in his cave high above 57th Street. Also, he grumbled a lot. When a friend of his, laid up in the hospital after a long stretch of open heart surgery, murmured something about wanting to see his daughter who he missed very much, Paddy looked up from his paper and said, sarcastically, “Awwww, isn’t that sweet?” It made them both laugh.

That right there is my friend Paddy. Even when you don’t want it, he’ll give it to you straight. It will likely hurt, maybe even forever, but the upshot is you’re guaranteed to come out the other end a sharper, better, unhappier man.

On Robert Duvall in Get Low

Get Low is a misshapen, well meaning, squishy-hearted half-feature that’s both too short and way, way too long. But Robert Duvall is in it.

Mr. Duvall is one of those actors that makes everyone around him look like they’re in a very good high school production of The Glass Menagerie, that is to say, ridiculous. A few scenes into the picture, it becomes clear that alongside Duvall even Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray – on his own one of the cinema’s great miniaturists – can’t find their way to the buried, haiku-essence of things. But not our Bobby. Before he opens his mouth, Duvall lets you know just where his nerve endings are, and after only a few shots-worth of his company, he manages to unfurl himself out like a map. For the rest of the picture, he goes about dropping hints – and always indirectly – to the buried treasure.

In real life, closed off people don’t tell you who they are. They hide. In movies, where we have to see inside of people, weak actors try to cheat around it. They give their astringent, opaque characters unearned changes of heart brought on, generally, by trembling strings, the love of a good woman, or the pressures of running time. This is why no one who saw Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People will ever forget it. She never once condescended to the level of her character’s “arc,” but instead built wall upon wall upon wall, until, near the end of the picture, and at the absolute precise moment, she shattered the whole edifice and – without the help of strings – there she was. Ah. Of course. It was you all along.

In Get Low, Duval is working with a similar mechanism. A lesser actor (one, say, who worshipped Daniel Day-Lewis,) would have emphasized the odd-duck, Boo Radley elements of this character, declaiming his weirdness like a missionary his religion. But not our Bobby. He reveals by showing us how he conceals. Soon the patterns emerge. A little later we begin to understand. And by the end of the picture, we may be convinced we saw something invisible.

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