Interview: Ben Affleck on the Sweet Nostalgia of ‘Argo’

When Ben Affleck set out to direct a movie about the untold true story of an unlikely Hollywood rescue of American foreign service workers in revolutionary Iran, he ended up making more than a very good movie. He made an homage to 1970s America.

Using period costumes, footage, and even camera techniques, the movie feels very real to anyone who remembers those times.

“I’m the age of the kid in the movie so I definitely identified with the child and with the father,” Affleck told a small group of reporters in Washington DC this week, “But really when I went into that room and saw all the action figures, Star Wars and stuff, it really hit me: This is my childhood. I got really fastidious about sheets and everything.”

Things have changed since that time, but Affleck remembers it with a warm nostalgia.

“I think there’s something remarkably innocent about that era. We think of the 70s as being slightly debauched, but [they had] none of that technology… There was something kind of sweet about it. Sweet about the answering machine. You just leave the house and that’s it. No one can find you until you come home. Put a quarter – or a dime – in the phone slot. I found something sweet about it.”

As director and main character with a fully 70′s shag and beard, he certainly captured the time. From posters on the wall to boxy cars to phones with cords, the film not only depicts the late 70′s, but feels like them.

His story is more than that, though. The beginning of the film shows the tense and desperate actions of US Embassy employees as Iranian revolutionaries storm the compound and take Americans hostage. Even as the mob breaks through windows and doors, they shred and burn, inform and simply wait.

The new part of this story is that six employees escaped to the street and found refuge in the house of the Canadian Ambassador. Affleck plays CIA agent Tony Mendez, who hatched and executed a hair-brained idea to smuggle out the Americans posing as a Canadian movie crew.

It was just crazy enough to work. With the help of Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and a bigtime director (Alan Arkin), Mendez set up a phony movie company in desperate need of exotic locales.

Truth be told, the setting and story turned out to be a little too real. The Embassy scene eerily reflects the events in Lybia last month. The unanticipated connection turned the film into a greater homage.

“I was kind of stunned, naturally, to see that the material I looked at for research from 30 plus years ago all of a sudden looked exactly like what was on TV,” Affleck said. “I expected the movie to be resonant…but it ended up being more of an homage to our clandestine service and our foreign service folks who, as illustrated by these tragic events, do a lot, sacrifice a lot, put themselves in harms way, to go overseas. Our foreign service folks are doing a lot, making a lot of sacrifices for us.”

Review: Beware! Don’t be ‘Taken’ Too

Liam Neeson and Maggie Grace, grimacing over the shoddy script they must use in ‘Taken 2′

Listen to me very carefully. We don’t have much time.

In your theater there is a movie. Some very bad men have made this movie. They may be good husbands, good fathers, maybe even good actors. But they have made a movie so bad, so utterly devoid of suspense but so full of unintentional hilarity that it will stand forever in the annals of bad, bad movies.

Listen. Are you listening?

At your theater there will be a ticket counter. Walk to it. Casually. Do not attract attention. Hold your wallet in your right hand. This is important. Hold it tightly.

Walk to the counter. Avoid eye contact with the clerk.

Listen. This is vital.

THIS IS NOT A GAME!

Buy a ticket to a movie. Buy a ticket to any movie. Buy a ticket to any movie except Taken 2.

If it all goes wrong, if somehow you are discovered and they are on to you, if they come for you and make you buy a ticket to Taken 2, I want you to drop everything and run.

Are you listening?

Drop your wallet. Drop your cell phone and your keys and your iPod. Kick off your shoes, throw off your jacket. Strip down to your skivvies if you have to. Run to the nearest Canadian embassy. You’ll be safe there.

This is vitally important. It is too late for me. But there is hope for you.

Canada.

It may be cold and filled with aggressively nice people, but no one will make you watch Taken 2.

Liam Neeson has no power there.

He has no power in Taken 2, either, despite dispatching a regular stream of indistinguishable bad guys. Members of an extended – vastly extended – Albanian family, these thugs have taken offense to the previous well-deserved killing of their villainous son/grandson/brother/cousin/nephew/cousin-once-removed/next-door-neighbor-related-but-we-don’t-talk-about-how.

You see, in Taken, an actually good movie, Neeson’s Bryan Mills tracks his kidnapped daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) across Paris, slaughtering any human slime that gets in his way, including this one Albanian dude who seems to be related to each and every other Albanian on earth.

Clean. Good. Neat. A simple premise, well performed, tapping into a father’s deepest fears.

Then, in this film, for reasons that seem foolish at best, Mills takes his daughter and conveniently single again ex-wife (Famke Janssen) to, of all places, Istanbul for a little trauma recovery time. Before you can say “Hagia Sophia,” those pesky Albanians have hoods over Mama Bear and Daddy Bear’s heads are are gunning for little Goldilocks too.

Now it’s her turn to save the family.

Mills has managed to smuggle a phone into the dank, weirdly deserted Turkish warehouse in which he’s chained, and gives Kim directions in a sort of play-by-play style.

Some of those directions run like this: “Listen. This is important. I don’t have time to explain but I do have time to give agonizingly detailed instructions. [Ok. I put that part in.] Get out of the car. Walk through the bazaar. You will emerge on a street. Turn right. Go two blocks. There will be a set of stairs. Climb them. Look for a red door. Go through it. Look to your left. There will be a taxi stand. Run to it.”

Seriously. I am not making this up. You might want to bring a notepad to keep up. Or maybe Google Maps. Heck, even Apple Maps. Maybe it’s better with Istanbul than with New York City.

Better yet, however, are Daddy’s other instructions to little Kim. He’s a security expert, so he has a convenient stash of weapons available. His brilliant idea to determine his location is to have her…wait for it…THROW A GRENADE out of her hotel window.

He hears her throw, counts the seconds until the boom, and knows how far he is.

Not just once. That would be too easy.

So there’s little Kim, merrily running along the rooftops of Istanbul, lobbing grenades in random directions.

Now it is Istanbul. Heaven knows they’ve had their problems over the course of centuries. But I’m thinking someone might, oh I don’t know, notice?

Someone might just object to an American teen, all decked out in hipster flannel, BLOWING UP THEIR ROOF.

Not in this movie. Nobody bats an eye.

I could go on about the wild laughter that filled the theater when a bad guy menaced mommy with what, to the naked eye, looked to be haircutting shears, giving the impression that he just wanted to give her some light bangs, maybe a little definition around the face, as she squirms and squeals in terror.

Take my daughter if you must, but don’t touch the hair!

Or how little Kim crashes a stolen taxi through a gauntlet of United States Marines with fully automatic weapons AND their flimsily constructed guard house to arrive safely in the US Embassy.

I could go on and on.

But there isn’t time. Resist, I tell you. Resist! Once they have you in the theater, there is no rescue.

If there was any logic in the world, this is the movie that would inspire mass riots.

For Lance Reddick, School Failures in ‘Won’t Back Down’ are Personal

Lance Reddick at the New York premiere of “Won’t Back Down.”

Most of the time, taking a role is a matter or business for actor Lance Reddick. The tall, otherworldy man has come into his own in such TV shows as Fringe and Lost, and especially critic-darling The Wire. He does steady work in Hollywood and has earned the right to consider a part with an eye to if he wants to play the character and how it will build his career.

Won’t Back Down, a story of parents fighting to save a failing school, was personal.

Reddick’s life wasn’t always Hollywood glamour and big roles.

Back in the days before The Wire, Reddick was just another struggling actor and musician living in Baltimore, raising a son and a daughter with his wife. The schools where they lived were failing. They couldn’t afford to move into the ritzy school districts, nor could they afford private school.

He had grown up in Baltimore. The son of two teachers, although his father later became a lawyer and public defender, Reddick was raised with an appreciation for education. However, his mother, who taught music in the public schools, knew the schools too well to send him there. He attended the Friends School of Baltimore and went on to study music at the Eastman School of Music and drama at Yale.

So when it was time for his daughter to go to junior high, Reddick dutifully filled out the financial aid forms for a private school, he told me when we sat down recently in DC. The process was complicated, they missed deadlines, and their application was refused. He kept calling, he kept trying. Eventually the school stopped taking his calls.

“It killed me to have to send her to the local junior high,” Reddick said.

She was lucky to have a father who cared. In fact, when Reddick landed a dream role in a Broadway play, he commuted three hours a day until he could move the family to a home in a good New York school district rather than move in to an easier but less academic district.

His story has a happy ending. He was able to get son and daughter into specialty high schools where academic success was expected and both went on to college.

“But I don’t know what would have happened if they hadn’t made it in,” he said.

In Won’t Back Down, Reddick plays the husband to Viola Davis’s Nona. Nona and Charles moved to a failing district full of big dreams of making a difference. Nona still teaches at the local elementary, but life and an uncaring system have almost extinguished the fire inside of her. When single mother Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) approaches her with a hairbrained idea to take over the failing school, Nona cannot imagine anything changing. But for both Nona and Jamie, their children are trapped in the school. Private schools are out of their reach. Precious slots in a functional school go to someone else in an excruciating lottery.

It’s make the school succeed or fail their children.

Anyone who is a parent knows that there is really no choice there.

So when Reddick was approached about playing the supporting part, he had some qualms. He usually likes bigger roles. But the quality of the script and the subject matter won him over.

Not that it’s easy. In the movie, as in real-life controversies about schools, the teachers’ unions take a lot of heat for protecting teacher benefits over kids’ success.

This portrayal makes Reddick a bit uncomfortable.

“Look, I am able to make a living because I’m in a union,” he said, referring to the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG-AFTRA) that negotiates for actors’  pay scales and working conditions.

Still, something has to change, he says. As a son of Baltimore and a black man, it makes him angry that so many failing schools are in African-American communities. It’s not just an ethnic issue, he says, but it certainly has ethnic overtones.

Most of all, he hopes the movie will inspire people to hope again, to believe the system can be changed. After all, the kids being left behind can’t wait.

 

‘The Words’ Stutters

Like its main character, an author played by Bradley Cooper, The Words wants to be profound and timeless, but cannot arise above basic hackery.

A movie about literary aspirations should at least have a coherent plot, something The Words sadly lacks.

The film opens as Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) opens his book reading at his flashy author event. He is reading from his acclaimed novel The Words. An adoring fan (Oliva Wilde) soaks up every syllable and lures him into a wine-soaked discussion of his work and life.

In his novel, which is then acted out on screen, a young aspiring author named, improbably, Rory Jansen taps away his life on his computer. He lives with his adored girl (and later wife) Dora (Zoe Saldana) in a postage stamp Brooklyn apartment, subsisting on love and dreams. Rory devotes himself to becoming a good writer – or, barring that, at least a published writer. Accumulating rejection slips and bills, he does not let the dream die.

Cooper and Saldana, a real-life couple, have the kind of easy chemistry that makes their romance and optimistic life entirely believable. Cooper’s acting is fully convincing, and he has the best role in the film.

As an author, Rory is good. But not quite good enough. He lives in the space between almost achievable dream and hopeful reality.

When Rory finds an old briefcase with a manuscript in it, he recognizes in the anonymous pages the greatness he lacks in himself. The choice to take credit for the book happens in barely recognizable stages. He passively flows into plagiarism rather than actively pursues it.

And the living is fine.

Accolades, awards, and wealth follow in the book’s wake. Only Rory knows it was never his, and even he half believes it is.

But shortcuts have a way of catching up to those that choose them, as they do with Rory. An old man played by Jeremy Irons shuffles into his life. The old man has his own back story, one that is told in yet another story within a story within a story. His insufferably cliche tale involves love and death with a French girl (a beautiful Nora Arnezeder) in the wake of World War II.

As internal conflict-driven tales go, Rory’s is not bad, really, and it even became briefly interesting as Rory faces the responsibility for his actions.

However, the way the movie is structured, the audience is painfully aware that Rory and Dora and the old man and his French beauty are fictional characters. Their story is an allegory or morality tale.

The real story should lie with Clay Hammond and his slightly menacing, scarily sexy fan.

Here the movie falters, offers a brief resolution that resolves nothing, and leaves you wondering what just happened.

It’s a shame, too, because the set up of Rory faced with the choice of whether to right his wrong was the only fresh and interesting part of the film. As person after person makes the case for him to let matters lie, the only one with clear moral vision that his actions were entirely wrong becomes Rory himself.

It was briefly refreshing to see that kind of clarity and conflict on the screen, a man perhaps choosing an extremely difficult moral absolute over seductive and convenient moral ambiguity.

But, alas, as they say in literary circles.

As quickly as the moment comes, it fades back into surface-deep moral philosophizing between the real author and his grad student groupie, ambiguous answers, and a veneer of sexual attraction that confuses everything. Rory is interesting. Clay Hammond is a pretentious bore.

Too bad it wasn’t Rory’s movie, after all.

 

Humor, Generosity, and the Bible: An Interview with Jeff Foxworthy

With Rebecca on summer vacation with her family, Samantha Curley, the Patheos Movie intern, got the chance to interview Jeff Foxworthy about his role as host of The American Bible Challenge. 

Chicken and Dumplings. This would be Jeff Foxworthy’s team name if he was a contestant on – rather than host of – GSN’s newest show, The American Bible Challenge.

The American Bible Challenge premiers this Thursday, August 23 at 8/7c. Teams of three go head-to-head to see who knows more about the world’s best selling book of all time.

In an interview with Patheos, Jeff said there is a lot about The American Bible Challenge that is similar to other shows he’s been a part of. “Just like, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, there will be those questions that you know and some that you don’t. And when you hear the answer you’ll think you knew it all along.” So what’s different about a game show centered around the Bible?

“No one is doing this show for themselves. This isn’t about you, this is about helping other people.” Each episode the winning team gets $20,000 to give to their chosen charity organization. For example, Jeff pointed to the team of three women from Texas who dream about the 80,000 people they could feed if Minnie’s Food Pantry were to receive that money.

Foxworthy believes most people are more faithful than they let on. If the secular world could see the generosity that is the hallmark of the Christian life, he says, then they would start to see Christianity differently, too. Maybe even read the Bible differently. With this show, the Game Show Network could become the place for changing the Evangelical conversation. And Jeff Foxworthy will be at the center of it all, making us laugh and perhaps teaching us a different means of knowing God.

As a successful and gifted comedian, Jeff doesn’t know why God choose him to do all that he’s done. Aside from hosting the hit show 5th Grader, Jeff is the largest-selling comedy recording artist in history, a multiple Grammy® Award nominee, and bestselling author of more than 26 books. “It’s certainly not because of anything I did; that’s not how God seems to choose.” If not based on smarts, looks, or talent, there’s something to God’s grace that forces us sit back and laugh. Together, with each other.

Humor, Foxworthy says, unifies us. Almost all of Jeff’s comedy comes from paying attention to what happens inside his home and within his family. When people come up to him after his shows saying, “Yes, how did you know that? You must have been inside my house!” Jeff replies, “Exactly. We really are all the same.”

Team Chicken and Dumplings would include Jeff, his mom (who, Jeff says, would hate to be on TV), and Chicken Man, Jeff’s friend from the homeless ministry and bible study he is a part of in Atlanta.

This, more than anything, is the image Jeff gives us of what it means to follow God. It’s family, it’s humor, and it’s generosity. There are times when laughter is the best medicine. And times when the best thing to do with money is to give it away. The American Bible Challenge is situated to teach us both lessons as we learn to laugh, to give, and hopefully to change the way the world understands the Bible.

Review: Pro-Marriage ‘Hope Springs’ Highlights Grown-up Romance

It’s become quite fashionable to cluck and sigh at romantic comedies that end with the girl getting her guy and, perhaps, a ring.

“That’s just the beginning,” we scold, “What happens after that? What about grown-up romances? The ones that happen after ten or twenty-seven years of marriage? What about love that lasts?”

Hope Springs, opening Wednesday August 8, is just the kind of pro-marriage, grown-up romance we say we want.

In fact, quite grown-up. As in Baby Boomer.

Some might even say old.

Kay, played by the luminescent 63 year old Meryl Streep, celebrates her thirty-first anniversary with Arnold, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who is closing in on his 66th birthday. With two children recently launched into adulthood, a comfortable but not wealthy life, and an expectation of at least a decade of good health, the two Boomers should be settling into a period of freedom and adventure.

But it’s not that easy.

Kay is miserably unhappy. Arnold has been a good husband: faithful, respectful, and hard-working. Over the years, however, they’ve drifted into a sort of intimate separation, a close-knit estrangement. Although practically able to read each other’s minds on matters like what to eat for dinner or whether to turn down the air conditioning, they sleep in separate bedrooms.

They never touch, except a route kiss on the cheek in the morning. They certainly never make love.

Kay, now that the work of childrearing and career-building is behind them, wants the marriage they once had. She packs a protesting Arnold up and heads to an intensive marriage retreat at the office of Dr. Feld (Steve Carell, in a serious, non-comedic role).

That’s it. That’s the movie.

Most of the action takes place as Kay and Arnold nervously perch on Dr. Feld’s couch or argue in their rented Econo-Lodge room. There’s no shocking revelation or dramatic showdowns or attractive third party, just two former lovers trying to find their way back to each other.

In any other hands, such a film would be insufferable. However, Streep is so adept at inhabiting any role she plays, she makes the film very good. Leaving behind the strong characters she’s created in Margaret Thatcher and Julia Child, Streep makes Kay all passive passion and wounded energy, a woman lost in her own desire for something she is not sure exists. Jones’ gruff, grumpy cowboy persona is exactly right here, as he harumphs and grumbles his way through counseling.

It feels like watching a real couple.

There’s one particularly fine moment when, in the midst of an emotional and draining argument, Arnold mentions something about one of their children that they both affectionately find ridiculous. Through all the tears and growls, they both chuckle. It’s not the full-blown belly-laugh of first love, but that long-term, intimate, shorthand chuckle that says, “You are funny. I acknowledge the funny comment. Indeed, you’re the funniest person I know and we’ve been laughing at this particular thing for decades and I still find it funny, although neither one of us requires a full laugh to reinforce that fact.”

Long-time couples will know exactly what I’m talking about.

It’s one of the finest aspects of marriage, that jokes stretch out over decades and become richer and funnier over time then they ever were at the start, even as the actual laughter becomes less raucous.

Only master actors can pull off such a moment of intimacy.

Those little moments of intimacy make the audience root for the marriage to succeed. Losing them would create a void in the universe.

The film is rated PG-13 because much of their discussion comes down to sex, sexual acts, and their feelings about such acts. There are also moments of attempted or realized sexual activity, with the action shown although no Boomer nudity is shown (or other nudity, for that matter). Frankly, the acting out of sex is much less uncomfortable than hearing the two awkwardly and haltingly discuss sex. This is not a wildly explicit film, but neither is a film for children. I doubt it would appeal to children anyway.

When Dr. Feld encourages the couple, saying that even great marriages have a few rough years and they should push through, not give up, those who know that to be true will want to stand up and cheer. The movie is the strongest pro-marriage movie I’ve ever seen.

Still, with all this beauty and determination at the heart of the laudable film, there’s also an assumption at its core that makes me uncomfortable.

The question comes down to what the purpose of marriage is.

Baby Boomers – the generation of Streep and Jones and the intended audience for the film – essentially redefined marriage as an institution whose primary goal was to make the couple happy. Prior to that generation, couples chose well or poorly, jumped with both feet, and hoped for happiness. Marriage was more a matter of duty, of fulfilling a promise, of aiding society by taking care of children and parents and each other, of working together.

Sometimes this worked and sometimes it created its own brand of misery, but the definition of marriage was fundamentally different than today.

In a moment when it seems possible that Kay may leave Arnold,  she murmurs that maybe she might be happier alone than with him. Even with his gruffness and insensitivity, I found myself wondering if she really could leave this man to face old age alone, to endure the coldness of the world alone, the advancement of ill health and death alone, for something as trivial as unhappiness.

That’s a serious desertion.

This is not to say unhappiness is unimportant, only that Kay is focused on her feelings and not her duty. She focuses on her sad emotions  - which spring from admittedly valid roots – and not on a determination to do good for another human being. The elusive quality of happiness is paramount.

The Me-Generation’s tendency to self-focus feels so natural we almost forget to question it.

A supreme irony emerges here. Those who prioritize a quest for happiness most often find despair while those who prioritize serving others and doing one’s duty usually find happiness as a byproduct.

This leaves me of two minds about this very watchable movie. On one hand, it’s fantastic to watch a couple fight not just for their marriage, but for their marriage to be excellent. On the other, it pales in comparison to some of the real-life, truly heroic marriages I’ve seen.

Review of ‘Seeking a Friend for the End of the World:’ It’s the End and We Feel Fine

Lorene Scafaria, writer and director of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, had her own brush with apocalyptic loneliness.

“When 9/11 happened,” she told me when we sat down in Washington DC, “I had just moved from New York a week before it to LA where I knew nobody. I was sort of stranded out there by myself and I was just desperate for human contact, calling up old friends who I hadn’t talked to for a long time.”

The tone of the experience found its way into her script. As the movie opens, the last hope for the survival of humanity fails. A space shuttle sent to intercept an asteroid, ala 1998′s Armageddon, is lost, and with it hopes of warding off an extinction level event. The world has mere weeks left.  At that very moment, Dodge’s (Steve Carell) wife decides she cannot spend one more of her suddenly limited minutes with him and literally runs away.

He’s all alone for the end of the world.

A neighbor, the much younger Penny (Kiera Knightly), finds her relationship equally incapable of sustaining her through the end and desperately regrets the whims that placed her an ocean away from her beloved British family.

The unlikely pair team up, as Scafaria put it “weaving through the chaos.”

“I had fun trying to explore who they would come across and what weirdos they would meet along the way and how everybody is handling everything differently.”

The dark humor of the film comes from the combination of a lifting of consequences and a panic of approaching death.  An insurance office doggedly keeps selling insurance, utterly useless, after all, because who’s going to pay out and who’s going to collect?  An upper class dinner group shoots its first heroin, finally doing the bad things their ambition had stunted. And a Friendly’s (think TGIFriday’s) restaurant becomes far too friendly with its customers.

Scafaria polled friends to find out how they would react: “Most people I talked to sex, drugs, and rock and roll is going to take place. People are going to eat their faces off. But it seemed like the thing people mostly want is friends and family, friends and family, your loved ones.”

For Dodge and Penny, however, who are their loved ones? Dodge no longer has family and Penny is far from hers.

“For me,” Scarafia said, “In terms of what death is like, you get really surprised by who is with you. Who’s not with you is shocking, but who’s sitting next to you when the big one hits, it’s like ‘You’re there for me?’ Sometimes it’s a surprise. Love doesn’t always look like what you thought it would.”

At its heart, the love story is a metaphor for life. Time is limited and the asteroid only speeds up and consolidates the inevitable. Why waste time with bitterness, as in Dodge’s anger toward his absent father (Martin Sheen) or regrets, as in Penny’s wasted time away from her family? A life well-lived looks similar whether it’s ninety decades or cut tragically short: Love, reconciliation, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice.

This quiet, well-acted and well-written movie is one of the best of 2012 so far and it’s seemingly hopeless ending nevertheless brims with hope for us all. What more can we ask than to lie down for the last time with the love of our lives, secure in the knowledge that we have lived well?

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is rated R for language, some sexuality, drug use, and brief violence. Material is not graphic. Bad behavior is contrasted with good. Could be appropriate for older, mature teens.

Interview: Benh Zeitlin on ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild,’ Falling in Love with Louisiana, and Prehistoric Monsters

Benh Zeitlin was almost unknown when his mystical, dreamy, but powerful Beasts of the Southern Wild won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s the story of little Hush Puppy, a girl of the Louisiana Delta community called “the Bathtub.” She’s just a tiny thing, but she has a lot to deal with in the form of a sick father, rising waters, and prehistoric beasts breaking out of ancient ice and roaming the earth.


The movie plays as a love song to the wild,untamed, essence of America exhibited in the free, independent people of the Bathtub. I spoke with Zeitlin by phone and asked him what about Louisiana so drew him that he ended up making his home there. He said:

You know, it’s almost as if the move was a dissection of this intangible magnetism that brought me down there.  I made this short film called Glory at Sea in New Orleans in 2006, thinking I was going to go back to New York afterwards. By the time that film was finished, I had this whole world that had been created and I was slowly realizing I was not going to leave. I was going to stay there, which I never imagined myself doing anywhere, really. …I was trying to understand what the magnetism was that was not allowing me to leave and what it was about Louisiana that I was so drawn to.

So what was the magnetism?

That’s the movie. It’s a place populated by extremely brave people. And an incredible tenaciousness and joylessness…And fearlessness, maybe most among all those things. It’s amazing to be in such a place that is so unafraid and so kind of openhearted and accepting. I think that comes out of that type of freedom that only comes with being incredibly unafraid.

I think one of the things that is driving the reaction to this movie is the sense of freedom, of determining your own destiny, of being responsible for your own life.

That was really the kind of concept that built the bathtub. There’s this place [in the Delta], their culture is not the culture of the film. It’s a real place. It’s down at the bottom of Louisiana out in the marsh, where you drive all the way to the end of the road and you drive three miles basically through the water on the tiny little road that you see in the end of the film. It’s this place that was totally off the grid. In the 60s, there were 200 families living there. Totally self-sufficiently. It was completely French speaking. Native American island. It had its own school. The entire economy was built on agriculture, fishing. No dependence on the civilized world. Now that place because of the environmental catastrophe that’s happening there, it’s gone from 10 miles wide to 2 miles wide. You can’t grow anything there. There are no animals. The fishing has gone downhill. There’s probably about 20 families left still holding out down there. That story was the inspiration for the film and this independent way of life that’s incredibly precarious at this point on the planet. The world is aggressively trying to push this type of independence off into the water and I wanted to make a film to celebrate people that are holding on to it.

Dwight Henry as Wink

 

To the point that you’re almost rooting for a sick man NOT to get medical care. I mean, in general, I’m pro-medical care, but he doesn’t want it. How did you create those values and make them sympathetic?

They’re very organic to the people. Dwight is very much like that, the actor playing that role, has a lot of that in him. He has this strength and stubbornness. A lot of it was an expression of him as a person. He’s such a universally beloved man in the city. He runs this bakery that is a community center almost. Everybody knows Mr. Henry, everyone loves him. I knew his natural magnetism would keep people with him even when he was doing challenging things.

It’s a perspective that really moved me and made sense to me. I heard a lot when I went down and talked to people in bars and doing interviews, you get this sort of refrain of people saying, ‘I’m made by the marsh.’ This guy was talking about how he’s sort of this exotic plant that can only spout in this one place and is fed off of the land and off of his very specific environment. If you try to uproot him and plant him somewhere else, he would die, dry up and die.

Hopefully you get a sense in the film that there’s a spiritual death that’s going to happen if these people are taken out of their environment that will be much more painful and much more tragic than the type of danger that they’re facing. It made a lot of sense to me. I think it’s true. You meet people down there, if they break their leg or something like that, go out to a hospital, and all of a sudden they have cancer. And there’s a real distrust of medicine there. I don’t think it’s invalid. I think medicine works for people who believe in it. If you don’t believe in medicine there are other things that work and that take care of you. I don’t think it’s an invalid perspective and I hope you can understand that by watching the film.

There’s been a lot written about the actors you found for the film. How did that work? Were they locals just playing themselves?

No one was playing themselves. No one had any experience acting, but they’re all acting. All of the things that are happening now, none of us ever imagined in a billion years what was going to come of this whole thing. There was a real sense of adventure going into the project, a real atmosphere, very collaborative, very much like a family going on, sort of like a Swiss Family Robinson adventure. There was a real commitment to the moment and to the experience of it. I think that was something everyone was slightly bewildered by, but it was a thrill. It was incredibly difficult, but incredibly fun challenging experience. It felt like, ‘Ok family, we’re going to go climb the mountain, here we go.’ That was the emotion of it.

And the little girl? Quvenzhané Wallis?

Out of all the performances, hers was one of the most traditional as far as directing goes. She really understands, she probably can’t articulate it, but she really has an actor inside of her. We have a brother sister relationship. We sort of treat each other as equals. I talk to her like an adult. I play with her like a kid. We’re always playing games together. The set always had to be fun in a way that movie sets aren’t normally. Before we called action, we had to play catch with a water bottle and then knock a can off the table…lit always had to stay an environment for kids. As far as the scene work goes, we talk about what her motivation is, where she has to make a transition in the scene, and she is really able to internalize those things and perform as an actor. It’s a real performance; it’s not like a trick.

What are the aurochs?

I don’t think of the film as a fantasy film, I think about it like what it’s like to be six. There’s no real separation between reality and fantasy a lot of the time. I think about them from her point of view. It’s something she believes that is coming for her. She sees herself as this morsel of food on the planet that’s going to consumed by something bigger than her, whether it’s the storms or the water or these giant predators that are coming out of the ice age to get her. It’s a sort of expression of her fear and it’s a death that she senses coming closer and closer to her father, her town and herself. It’s also something that she’s he’s trying to unearth, she’s trying to understand. It’s really her secret power, it’s the ability to understand things and to relate to things and empathize with things that are trying to destroy her in a lot of ways. Her and the aurochs have this connection of being these beings on the verge of extinction. They come to an understanding and respect for one another as these creatures that are clawing for survival on the earth. Even though the auroch has come to eat her, it sees her, it has this respect for her as a fellow survivor, as a beast, as a strong animal.

It’s not like you go in and out of the world of the imagination. You’re living her experience and her experience doesn’t draw those lines.

Beasts of the Southern Wild opens June 27.

Interview: Chimpanzee Director Mark Linfield on Falling For a Little Guy Named Oscar

Mark Linfield, co-director of DisneyNature’s lush documentary Chimpanzee, was glad to be doing press in the States after filming in Tanzania.

“I’m enjoying New York. It’s a different kind of jungle,” he laughed, “It’s definitely a jungle in which you can get better food. The delicatessens here are far better than in West Africa.”

To make the documentary, which opens nationwide tomorrow, April 20, Lindfield and co-director Alastair Fothergill had to chase a troop of rambunctious chimpanzees through the wilds of Africa.

Filming conditions were not ideal.

“They were absolutely atrocious,” Linfield confided, “We have filmed absolutely all over the world. [Working on] Planet Earth, Frozen Planet. The forest of the Ivory Coast is the hardest place, actually, that we’ve had to work. It’s a rain forest, but even rain forests have a rainy season. Unfortunately, the chimpanzees do a lot of amazing, interesting things in the rainy season, so we had to go there then. It’s just like being in a shower all the time.”

“Also, it’s dark. You have a canopy overhead blocking out the light. A lot of the time it’s so dark you can barely get an exposure on the camera. And it’s really, really thick. Thick. Thick. Thick vines. Chimpanzees move through it really quickly through it. There’s a chance of getting garroted by vines. There’s the usual snakes, scorpions, ants, which we’re used to.

“The other thing is Chimps move 12 miles a day, sometimes more. Just keeping up with them, because they’re brilliant at moving through the forest. that’s what they’re designed to do. Hard to keep up with them at all.”

Added to all this, part way through filming…disaster.

The baby chimp, Oscar, with whom the crew had fallen in love, and which looked to be the star of the documentary, became separated from his family. With no mother to feed him and no troop to care for and protect him, his days were numbered.

The crew was heartbroken, but also, they didn’t have a Disney, family-friendly movie with a happy story anymore. No body takes their kids to see a baby chimp die.

Then something happened which scientists have observed but never documented on film. The alpha male of an interloping tribe adopted Oscar, despite the fact they were not related, and cared for him.

“If we’d written it into a script,” said Linfield, “We would have said what are the chances of this happening? And they would have said zero. The chances of this happening are zero…absolutely unheard of. Absolutely extraordinary.”

The crew hopes families go see the movie and fall in love with chimps as they have.

“We hope they come away feeling warm and respectful toward chimpanzees as we became over the course of production. Because they’re just such amazing animals. They’re so engaging and they’re so special.”

“People are only interested in conserving things they care about. If we can make people care about chimpanzees, conservation will follow.”

Rated G, Chimpanzee opens Friday, April 20. Tim Allen narrates. The first week, Disney will make a contribution from every ticket sold to the Jane Goodall Chimpanzee Conservation Fund.

Interview: Nicholas Sparks Talks about The Lucky One and Supporting Returning Soldiers

Unlike most Hollywood screenwriters, Nicholas Sparks lives in Eastern North Carolina, which gives him a perspective hard to find in Los Angeles. “There’s a lot of active military duty in my little town,” he told me when we spoke by phone.

Because he was familiar with soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sparks wrote the main character of his novel The Lucky One as a soldier adjusting to life back in the United States. Starring Zac Efron, the movie adaptation opens Friday.

Sparks used to coach a local high school track team and many of his players went on to military service. “When they come home, they come see me, you know… ‘Hey, Coach.’ I get to see what they’re going through coming back to the States.”

“The soldiers I know, they were great at their jobs. They were great soldiers. You know what being a great soldier means. It means killing people and blowing up things. They come home and they’re not doing that.”

“Some soldiers need more help than others,” Sparks said, noting that some just need a shot at a job while others need ongoing medical and emotional care. He added that he gives veterans “extra points” when making hiring decisions. He doesn’t stop there, however. Always known as a supporter of charity, he’s adding military groups to his list. In fact, he’s organizing a fundraising weekend in North Carolina for opening weekend, proceeds going in part to The Wounded Warrior Project.

He says it’s the least he can do.

Efron plays Logan, a Marine who finds himself jumpy and unfocused after returning home from Iraq. He sets out to find the woman whose picture he uncovered in rubble in Baghdad, a happenstance that saved his life when a bomb struck just feet away as he picked it up. He finds her in a sunlit paradise of a farm serving as a doggie hotel and the rest, well, it unfolds as only a Nicholas Sparks romance can do.

The Lucky One is a story about “how love can help you move on,” said Sparks, but he also wants it to be a tribute to the men and women who answered the call and served the country, including the men and women he knows personally.


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