Category Archives: Kvells

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

Real, Funny

Flipping through the index in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls — a book about the rampage of sex, drugs and revolution in Seventies Hollywood and Hollywood in the seventies — one discovers that “Mazursky, Paul” has only two page numbers after it. (Scorsese alone takes up six lines.)

At the time, Mazursky’s status as one of the decade’s reigning directors was an item of popular and critical consensus, but by the early nineties, the tides had turned. The Pickle (1993) was panned, and Mazursky’s subsequent efforts, though intermittently wonderful, did not live up to the work of his New Hollywood golden age. These days it seems like many cinephiles and even some critics have simply forgotten Mazursky’s films, full stop.

But back then (way back), in the American cinema’s most formidable post-war decade, Mazursky was untouchable. So much so that Time magazine critic and Film Comment Editor Richard Corliss could confidently predict:

Paul Mazursky is likely to be remembered as the filmmaker of the seventies. No screenwriter has probed so deep under the pampered skin of this fascinating, maligned decade; no director has so successfully mined it for home-truth human revelations…. Mazursky has created a body of work unmatched in contemporary American cinema for its originality and cohesiveness. 

Mazursky’s pictures were explicitly, almost aggressively, enmeshed in the here and now (or from the vantage of decades passed, the then and there). Remember the psychedelic brownies? The suburban orgies? Remember the gurus, the shrinks, and the Rodeo Drive fetishists? They’re all there. Chronicling these shifts in the cultural ethos, Mazursky has preserved the changing passions of the American middle class in a kind of comic formaldehyde. The films were prescient, honest, and always hilarious.

Nearly forty at the time of his directorial debut, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), Mazursky was some ten years older than the fresh batch of younger iconoclast directors. That fact understandably clashed with the then-popular image of directors as studio-lot rebels and insurgents of style. Mazursky, by comparison, seemed like an old-fashioned romantic and unreconstructed classicist. Like Frank Capra, he had an open heart but a satirical squint. Like Jean Renoir, he never let jokes get between him and the hard truths of his characters. And unlike most New Hollywood filmmakers, Paul Mazursky, part hippie, part father, had perspective andtendress. There was no other Hollywood writer/director with such a generous admiration of human foible, no other American auteur so shrewdly attuned to the cockeyed truths of how we love.

How could such an accomplished film-maker have slipped by?

Please continue reading reading excerpts from my new book, Paul on Mazursky, at Altscreen.

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.

Tres Malick

With Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life winning the Palme d’Or and playing to sellout crowds, the film world’s collective boner has risen, once again, to zero acknowledgment from the film’s maker. Perhaps it’s time to reach for the light, prop up against the headboard and give this relationship some fresh consideration. Are we in love with Malick, or the idea of him?

The Tree of Life is Malick’s fifth feature in 30 years. Combined with his now-legendary refusal to speak to press or make himself publicly available, this meager output, regarded by many as Vermeer-like in its scarcity, has made Malick something of a mystic to cinephiles — the Wizard of Oz of Texas. Critics are drunk on his Kool-Aid. Writing about Malick, their language fogs with the flabby vagaries of cult followers and Brentwood yoga instructors — “meditations,” “spirit,” “energy,” “poetry.” Malick is not a poet. Whitman is a poet. Malick is a filmmaker.

He can be a very good filmmaker. Badlands — as thin as a blade of grass and no less perfect — is one of the strongest debuts of its era, and to watch it again is to admire the young Malick’s conviction of voice and his restraint in deploying it. In Badlands Malick refuses to shout above his material. His gorgeous sunsets and dewy glades, largely confined to the periphery, wordlessly evoke inner wildernesses of youth, vacuity and grace, rarely upstaging the story they so desperately need to keep them from shrinking into postcards. The alien beauty of Sissy Spacek, strange and wholesome, naive and austere, is perfectly suited — as it would be in Carrie, three years later — to this broken dollhouse America. Hers is the face of Malick.

This continues at L.A. Weekly.

Talking to Schickel about Talking to Scorsese

Conversations-with-directors books can go one of two ways: Either the directors want to analyze their work, or they don’t. Those who do either obscure the films with trivial esoterica or — as is the case with Martin Scorsese, in Richard Schickel’s new book, Conversations With Scorsese — illuminate their choices with a pragmatic instinct verging on the intimate, as though they were discussing not shots and lenses but their own biography.

Click here to read my L.A. Weekly interview with Schickel about his interview with Scorsese.

Working with Gilbert Would Kill Anybody

Topsy-Turvy is the greatest movie ever made about show business. (It took me about ten minutes to commit to that sentence.) Beneath the elegance of its composition, the vaulted locution of its characters, and its fastidious attention to psychological nuance, Mike Leigh’s story of the making of The Mikado is a relentless chronicle of production headaches. The trials of writing, casting, rehearsing, designing, financing – they’re all here – and they describe, in comprehensive detail, the unofficial DSM of making entertainment.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8TudNVuOA7s]

How unbelievably cool that I got to interview costumer Lindy Hemming, who won an Oscar for Topsy-Turvy, for Criterion. The DVD – long since out of print – is finally back.

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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Life During Wartime

Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime is that rare thing, a sequel that actually outstrips its predecessor.

I must say, I was rooting for it. I always thought Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse had been unfairly lumped into “The Films of the 90s,” an estimable category, but ultimately not fit for notable one-offs. Dollhouse was as singular as it was representative. Combining a sense of playful extroversion with a whole lot of suburban misery, the film struck a chord most black comedies of the era (and boy, there were many) did not. It was dark as hell, but illuminated from within, thanks mostly to Heather Matarazzo, the film’s slackjawed star. No matter how much grime Solondz asked us to swallow, little Matarazzo was there with a spoonful of Sweet’N Low. She was just too pathetic not to root for. Or to want to root for.

That quality was sadly absent from Solondz’s next films, Happiness, Storytelling, and Palindromes. After Happiness, a blend of Bergman and John Waters, you started to think the guy was turning into a one trick pony of shock. Then in Storytelling the horse died, then, in Palindromes, he beat it. It was enough already with the perverts. We got it.

Life During Wartime contains its fair share of dead-horse-beating, but it’s far more patient than Happiness, the film that introduced us to these losers back in 1998. The difference, I think, is that in Life During Wartime, Solondz is as interested in figuring out how his sickos cope with their shame as he is in the shame itself. Happiness, for all its empathy, was really about swinging from shame to shame and cringe to cringe. Like in a horror movie, we wanted to cry, “Don’t go in there!” or in this case, “Don’t molest him!” After a while, Wartime starts pushing up against the same difficulty, but until then, it’s a carefully balanced spinning-plate act. Right when you think a ceramic is going to slip to its belabored and miserable death, Solondz reaches out a hand and gives it a lift. Jokes keep the picture buoyant – and they’re good jokes – whereas in Happiness they seemed only to fling the muck. Oh, but enough of that. When you have Allison Janney, Michael Lerner, and (my darling) Charlotte Rampling, who needs to worry?

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Is Albert Brooks a Genius?

I’ve been thinking about Albert Brooks since he told The New York Times he has a novel in the works – his first. Days later, I’m certain Albert Brooks is the most underrated Brooks in show business history. Richard Brooks is the most overrated.

Mel and James L. have been given their kudos, but Albert, somehow, has been passed over. How to explain this? The law of averages, I think. Brooks has directed only seven films, and he’s missed as many times as he’s hit. There’s really no mediocrity to be found in Real Life, Modern Romance, Lost in America, Defending Your Life, Mother, The Muse, or Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World; they’re either crisply brilliant, full of clear, persuasive satire – or they thud. Perhaps this is why he’s scored an undeserved zero in the cultural impact department.

But they scales ought to be tipped in his favor. Real Life, his debut feature of 1979, is unacknowledged parent of the (now-tired) relay of media-savvy, wink-to-the-camera mockumentaries, the sort we like to trace back to This is Spinal Tap. While its true the genre has been around for longer than that – I think Bunuel hit on it the earliest, in 1933, with Las Hurdes: Tierra sin Pan – it’s only in the last decade that our interest in observing what the camera does to innocent people has hit its satirical stride (i.e. “The Daily Show,” “The Office,” and reality television). And it was Albert Brooks, not Christopher Guest, who saw it coming.

But more than simply being there first, Real Life said it best. With its combination of witty, “bad filmmaking” camera jokes (consistently subtle enough to come across as credible), and its patient, slow burn handle on psychological deterioration, Brooks’s movie is a comic amalgam of The Truman Show and Network. It’s obvious, watching the film, that Albert Brooks has watched a lot of television and a lot of people.

Have I mentioned Brooks has the leading role? Well, he does, and he’s dazzling in it, even more dazzling than he was in Broadcast News, a performance that earned him an Oscar nomination in 1987. Playing “Albert Brooks,” Albert Brooks, in Real Life, constructs one of the shrewdest self-parodies I’ve ever seen. And not the ironic self-parody – the one that actually congratulates the actor for having a sense of humor about himself – I’m talking about the one that levels the distinction between performer and performance. Unlike many actors-playing-themselves, Brooks invests so much intensity into his screen-self that it becomes almost impossible not to believe you’re watching the real Albert Brooks too. And in a film about manufacturing reality, that’s an essential – and indeed courageous – line to blur. Now that is spinal tap.

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