Thursday, May 26, 2011

How Do You Disappear a War?

Part 1:  The Making of Amigo

     John Sayles talked to me about the challenges of making his latest independent feature, Amigo, during a recent stop in Santa Barbara to promote his novel, A Moment in the Sun.
     Although best known for the 17 independent feature films he has written and directed under his own production company, Sayles is also an accomplished author.  He won an O. Henry Award for his short story, "I-80 Nebraska, m.490-m.205," before he ever wrote a screenplay, and his first novel, Union Dues, earned a National Book Award nomination in 1977.
     Like many successful filmmakers in the USA, Sayles got his start working for the king of low-budget productions, Roger Corman, penning the screenplays for Piranha in 1978 and Alligator in 1980.  He won critical acclaim his first time out as writer/director with Return of the Secaucus Seven in 1979, which he financed with his earnings from the Corman films.
     Thus began a lifelong pattern of earning money as a successful writer and script doctor in Hollywood, then using it to finance his own independent films. Over the next 30 years Sayles went on to earn critical acclaim as writer/director of independent features like Matewan, Eight Men Out, Passion Fish, Lone Star, and the Secret of Roan Inish
     Amigo is a historical drama and fictionalized account of events that take place when a US Army unit occupies a village during the Philippine-American War. The film stars Garret Dillahunt, Chris Cooper and D.J. Qualls.  While the novel, A Moment in the Sun, is a sweeping historical epic that follows as many as 45 major characters in the US, Cuba and the Philippines during the period, Amigo is set on a village scale.  

MD:  How did you develop an interest in the historical events that provide the background for both Amigo and your novel, A Moment in the Sun

JSIt really came from running into this phrase, the Philippine-American War.  I was doing research for my last novel and I came across this reference.  I’d never heard of the Philippine-American War.  Asking some of my Filipino-American friends about it, they said, “well, I know that it existed, but it was not taught in our schools in the Philippines.”  How do you disappear a war?  Why is it not taught in America?  We won the war.  We’re usually “hey, we won the war!”  Why aren’t we proud and celebrating this thing?  And that got me intrigued about it, and then what I saw was there were a lot of things going on with the psyche of America right around 1900.  The rednecks can take over the South again.  We don’t care if black men can vote.  We’re not going to stand behind them.  Our Constitution says they can, but you can take that right away.  That was the end of Reconstruction.   
     We had been imperialists before, taking over Indian nations and Mexican lands, but we’d never gotten on a boat and taken over somebody else’s country and said, “you people will thank us for this..."  That happened in a very short time, where we went from the anti-imperialist people who protect the little guy and broke away from those decadent Europeans to being the people who say it’s time we played with the big guys.  We need an empire, too.  It happened in a matter of months and that’s what the big arc of the book is all about as seen through these other characters’ lives.  

MD:  You said that you financed Amigo yourself.  What were some of the challenges you faced to stay within budget for a period piece like this?  

JS It’s going to be a little over $1-1/2 million, and you multiply that by three for the United States if you shot it here.  They’ve got real great crew people there (in the Philippines), and good actors and stuff, and we were able to tack onto them.  I realized… that if I can tell a micro-history and set it on a village level, the construction costs will be there, but we’re making it out of what they made it out of back then.  We’re making it out of rattan and palm thatch and bamboo.  All of that grows out of the ground here.  You take a bolo (knife) and you cut it, and you tie them together and you got a hut.  You do that 20 times you got a village.  That’s what our set was.  95% of the movie was shot on a set that we made on the edge of a rice field.  We bought the rice crop out, and that was very good for the farmers because they got rid of the middle man.  We bought it for what it would have been sold on the market.  We didn’t even use all of the rice.  They got half of the crop back to sell again.  So they were happy  we were there, and a lot of them became extras in the movie. 
     I was thinking about the scale when I wrote the screenplay, and what’s going to cost money and what’s going to be hard work and cleverness, which is kind of how I started with Return of the Secaucus Seven.  I had the budget before I knew what the script was... I had $40,000, and back then, that was probably like $200,000 is now.  It’s still not much to make a movie, but I said, “what can I do well for this?”  This is the story I would like to tell, period or not. 
     And finally, the technology helped.  We shot this on a RED camera.  It looks great and saved us a lot of money.  I shot it in six weeks, which is actually a week more than I had on Honeydripper.  I only had five weeks on Honeydripper.  I’ve actually shot movies in four.  Every time you cut a week, you cut a big hunk of money.  You have to put people up and rent the equipment for another week and the other.  You have to keep churning and plan things really well. After 16 other movies—this was our 17th—you get more out of six weeks than you did when you started.  You learn how to plan things and to have a Plan B.
     I went on the set while it was being built, and the only power tool there was a chainsaw.  Everything else was people tying things in bolos—knives and bolos... The chainsaw was there with a guy in his sneakers or flip-flops standing on a log ripping planks out of cocoa in between his feet, scaring the hell out of us.  The Philippines, I’m afraid, is like a walking OSHA violation.  We would talk to the guys, and they would say, “sure, sure,” and then you walk away, and they’d go back to the way they were doing it before.  Luckily nobody got hurt.  

MD:  When will we be able to see Amigo?
JS:  It’s going to be at the New York Asian Film Festival before it opens here (in Southern California), and if you want to go to Manila, it’s going to open the fourth of July.  It’s really not going to show until August... and mostly we’re heading for cities that have a large Filipino-American population first.  It’s a company called Variance, and we’re basically paying them to distribute it.  They’ve done these kind of very narrow-cast distributions before, where they start with all of the Indians, or the Japanese or the Koreans in the States, and then they let it go out the art theaters if that’s appropriate.  That’s what we can afford.  We may make eight prints or something like that, which is kind of how we started.  Our first couple of movies did that.  It’s like a road show.  You move from territory to territory with those eight prints.  Now more of the theaters are showing digital, so you just make a good digital, and then it gets beamed up and beamed down.  

Cooper Resabal's blog, Baryo Amigo HQ, chronicles the filming of Amigo in Bohol, Philippines. 

Amigo releases in the USA on August 20.   

Part 2:  The Craft of the Storyteller
Part 3:  The Future of Independent Film

Thursday, May 19, 2011

In Love with a Fantasy

Midnight in Paris

     Midnight in Paris both celebrates and skewers the romantic ideal of the City of Lights. Filmmaker Woody Allen populates his latest outing with a variety of wonderful characters, each in search of a utopia rooted in their own fantasies and illusions.
     The director's latest neurotic alter-ego is Gil, played by Owen Wilson in the typically verbose style of Allen protagonists.  Gil is a Hollywood hack writer who believes that he was born too late and would much rather live in the romanticized era of Paris between the wars.  When his fiance's parents invite the two of them along on a business trip to Paris, Gil jumps at the chance, hoping that the sights and sounds of the great city will inspire him to finish the novel he has struggled so hard to write. 
     Trouble develops when Gil's fiance, Inez (Rachel McAdams), runs into her former college crush, an arrogant intellectual named Paul, played by Michael Sheen.  Inez has much more fun hanging out with Paul, while Gil prefers to walk the streets of Paris in search of literary inspiration.
      On one of his pedestrian excursions, Gil discovers a place where he is magically transported back in time to the Paris of the late 1920s on the stroke of midnight each evening. On the first night he is whisked away to a party by Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and begins a nightly adventure hanging out with a "who's who" of the leading artists and intellectuals of the time, including Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, Salvador Dali, and Gertrude Stein, among others.

     All of these famous people are played as virtual caricatures by actors who appear to be having as much fun hamming up the roles as we are watching them.  Adrien Brody positively steals his scene in a cameo as a rhinoceros-obsessed Dali, while Kathy Bates dominates as "Gert" Stein. 
     Gil falls in love with an artist model and Picasso paramour named Adriana (Marion Cotillard), only to find his romantic notion of staying in the period with her dashed by Adriana's own obsessive desire to be transported back to la Belle Epoque of 1890s Paris.  Gil learns an important lesson.  When we stop imagining that some other place and time is better, we may well find that our golden age is the one we're living in right now. 
     The storyline of this film is simplistic and the camera's lingering focus on Parisian street scenes is positively dripping with romantic self-indulgence.  In spite of that, if you are a lover of Paris or the great artists and intellectuals of its history, it's really going to be difficult for you to hate this movie.  So screw it... go see it.  It's every bit as good as Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona and a helluva lot more fun.
     Midnight in Paris opens nationwide on May 20. 

Friday, May 13, 2011

War is Hell

City of Life and Death

     City of Life and Death is a dramatization of the 1937 Rape of Nanking, and it may well be the greatest anti-war film ever made.  I have eagerly anticipated its North American release since I first saw it at AFI-Fest in November 2009, and now that Kino International has acquired the rights, I'm elated that it's finally going to happen. 
     Director Chuan Lu has created a masterpiece in his balanced depiction of an event so traumatic and polarizing that it continues to drive a wedge between China and Japan some 73 years later.  Although accounts differ on all sides, it is generally believed that somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 people lost their lives during the initial six weeks of Japanese military occupation from late 1937 to 1938.  With all accusations, denials and apologists aside, there is a massive amount of historical evidence supporting the existence of a virtual hell-on-earth in that time, including civilian death and rape on a massive scale, and executions and tortures carried out on a scope rarely seen during the course of human history.

     Lu has managed to achieve a remarkable balancing act with this film.  Despite Chinese government backing and strong emotions that linger in China to this day, Lu created a narrative that treats all of its characters with respect and human dignity.  It would have been easy for him to make a jingoistic film, and while he does celebrate the heroism and fortitude of Nanking's citizens, he does it without depicting the Japanese occupiers simply as one-dimensional monsters devoid of human compassion.  
     Although it did very good box office when it was released in Lu's native China in 2009, the film was pulled from theaters following a pronounced uproar from Nanking survivors, their relatives and others.  It seems that they took offense at what they believe to be Lu's portrayal of the film's Japanese characters as not quite evil enough. 
     In fact, that is precisely what makes this film so great.  All of the characters are depicted as balanced but flawed human beings caught up in a terrible situation over which they have little or no control.  Murder, rape and mutilation are almost clinically depicted using stark black and white photography and minimal music that might otherwise drive the mood of the scenes.  Our emotions are processed solely through the eyes of the characters.

     City of Life and Death showcases an excellent ensemble cast, some who play the roles of actual people who witnessed the events.  The major characters include:
  • Lu Jianxioing (Ye Liu), a charismatic Nanking militia officer
  • Shu Yun Jiang (Yuanyuan Gao), a missionary teacher who repeatedly risks her own life to save others
  • Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), a young Japanese corporal conflicted by an inability to reconcile his Christian beliefs with the atrocities he is ordered to commit
  • Xiao Jiang (Yiyan Jiang), a beautiful young woman who may ultimately be fated to life as a "comfort woman" for Japanese troops
  • John Rabe (John Paisley), the German executive and Nazi party member known as the "Oskar Schindler of China," who saved as many as 250,000 people by using his party credentials to negotiate a protective zone within the city
  • Rabe's secretary, Mr. Tang (Wei Fan), who becomes willing to sell out his fellow Chinese to protect his own family
  • Ida (Ryu Kohata), a Japanese officer who grows to embrace his cruel and inhumane actions.
     This is a film that depicts war as it actually is--mutually destructive conflict over which the participants rapidly lose control and that ultimately leads to dehumanization and soul-destroying trauma for everyone involved.  At the AFI screening, it felt like my fellow audience members would be grateful for any positive respite from over two hours of human misery.  It came with the end credits, when we were told in summary form the final outcome for each of the major characters depicted in the film.

     Xiaodouz, the little boy who survived horrific events and escaped almost certain death many times during the course of the film, is living alive and well in China today.  A spontaneous and enthusiastic cheer rose up from the audience.

     City of Life and Death releases in the USA following a special screening in New York City on May 11.  See below for the Kino International trailer created for the current tour. 

     Click here for a Filmmaker Magazine interview with Lu Chuan about the making of City of Life and Death

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Italian Noir Twists & Thrills

     The Double Hour (la Doppia ora) is an Italian noir thriller that has more dangerous curves than a mountain road.  Not since Christopher Nolan's Memento has a film so effectively messed with audience perceptions of reality on a minute-by-minute basis.
     Given that this is the debut feature of writer/ director Giuseppe Capotondi, that is high praise indeed.  Like Nolan in Memento, Capotondi has achieved a very complex story structure that might easily collapse of its own weight in the hands of a lesser filmmaker.  The result proves that he is up to the task, and I eagerly await his next feature.
     Kseniya Rappoport plays the role of Sonia, an East European immigrant working as a maid in an Italian hotel.  Trapped in a nowhere job, she decides to improve her social life by attending a speed dating event. She meets Guido, played by Filippo Timi, an ex-cop with a dark past, who is currently working in private security for a wealthy client.  The two fall instantly in love and begin a whirlwind romance that disrupts their worlds in ways neither of them anticipate.  During a romantic tryst at the wealthy client's estate, the lovers become victims of a violent robbery, and nothing will ever be the same.  
     In most noir films the femme fatale is the only one who ever has control, but Sonia is a seductress whose sense of reality is suspect at every turn.  Is she seducer or victim?  or both?  This is a welcome new contribution to the genre that will keep you guessing until the very last moments of the film. 

       The Double Hour is currently in theaters. 

Saturday, May 7, 2011

On the Road Again in Italy

     Basilicata Coast to Coast is an Italian comedy about adult men becoming grownups at last.  Friends since childhood, four part-time musicians decide to take leave of their families and ordinary lives to cross the southern Italian peninsula on foot to play at a music festival on the opposite coast.  The normally 90-minute bus ride from Puglia to Calabria takes them 10 days as pedestrians, with only a donkey cart to carry instruments and supplies. 
     Tropea, a journalist whose own career has hit rock bottom and digging deeper, reluctantly accompanies the men to create a video documentary for whomever may one day care enough to watch.  During the course of the journey, each of the travelers confronts their inner demon, with comic and sometimes touching results. 

     The film has a lot to say about the clash of youthful expectations with the realities of life.  One sequence in particular follows the travelers as they enter an isolated town they've heard is populated by young, beautiful women.  On arrival the men gawk open-mouthed at a street teeming with so many hotties that it looks like the opening of a national beauty pageant (a scene that was far too short in my opinion).  When they are invited to the town's big dance that night, they arrive as excited as little boys, only to discover that the town's population of men is so large that each woman must dance simultaneously with two men. 
     The strength of Basilicata Coast to Coast is in the wonderful, quirky characters that populate it, and the actors that play them--including the beautiful Basilicata region that is a character in itself.  The film is a terrific directorial debut by actor Rocco Papaleo, who also co-wrote the script for this first feature and stars in it.  It is definitely an actor's movie, strong on character but somewhat predictable in story.  I found it to be entertaining, although it doesn't break any new ground. 
     The story may not be unique, but Papaleo does execute it effectively, and he brings it to a close that underscores the old wisdom that life is not about the destination anyway.  It's about the journey. 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Anything But Simple

     Simple Simon was this year's Oscar entry from Sweden, and many were upset that it made the early short list but not the final cut.  It's easy to see why the film has so many fans.

     Written and directed by relative newcomer Andreas Ohman, the deceptively well-constructed story is about 18-year-old Simon, an unlikely hero who has Asperger's Syndrome and needs everything in his life to follow a predictable and certain pattern.  When the unexpected strikes, Simon retreats inside his home-made space capsule and pretends to be an astronaut floating in outer space.  The only person who understands him and can coax him back to the real world is his older brother, Sam.  When life at their parents' home gets too difficult, Simon moves in with Sam and his girlfriend, Frida,
     It's not long before Simon's antics and his need for constant attention cause Frida to dump them both.  Simon is unable to cope with Sam's subsequent depression and becomes desperate to find him a new girlfriend.  As Simon is forced farther and farther outside of his perfectly aligned world, he gets caught up in a series of misadventures that are both comic and heart-warming.  He meets Jennifer and becomes convinced that she is Sam's perfect soul mate, but Sam won't be convinced.  The stakes escalate as Simon goes to greater and greater lengths to bring Sam and Jennifer together.
     Simon is well played by Bill Skarsgard, son of veteran actor, Stellan Skarsgard, soon to be seen as the villainous Martin Vanger when the Hollywood remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo releases in December.  

     This film succeeds very well as straightforward comic entertainment, but underneath its simple surface lies much wisdom about the trials and unexpected rewards of befriending someone afflicted by such a debilitating condition.  In spite of his limitations, Simon forces himself out of his comfort zone to achieve a greater purpose.  Maybe we can all learn from him.