Sunday, July 30, 2006

QUINCEAÑERA—The Evening Class Interview With Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland

Quinceañera gracefully maneuvers a dance between tradition and innovation, cognizant that without such a dalliance, neither can exist. Traditions are furthered through innovation just as innovation requires tradition as its source. Capturing the heart of this dance, codirectors and real-life partners Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland won Audience Favorite and the Grand Jury Prize for Drama at this year's Sundance Film Festival. They enthusiastically sat down with me in the Mark Hopkins Ambassador room to talk about their successful indie film.

Michael Guillén: You guys, you've made a lovely film, so much heart in this film. Let's talk about the heart of it and how it got started: I understand you had a neighbor who wanted you to photograph her quinceañera? I wanted to know what it was that you saw in that celebration that pulled you in to subsequently shoot a feature?

Richard Glatzer: Yeah, we did photograph our next-door neighbor's quinceañera and we were amazed by the ceremony, by the months of preparation, by the fact that all these teenage kids with teenage hormones and teenage energy were taking it so seriously; were learning these formal waltzes and so on. We were amazed once we saw the day how it was a kind of contrast of very old traditions with contemporary Los Angeles. That was interesting. I think we were also amazed by what a communal kind of thing it is because people padrino and madrino [i.e., godparent] different aspects of the quinceañera so that a very poor family can have an elaborate day….

Wash Westmoreland: Lots of donations through the padrino/madrino….

Richard: Yeah, someone will say I'll take care of the details, I'll take care of the dress, I'll take care of the food, or whatever. The community comes together to make it this magical day for the girl turning 15. At that point we didn't really think about making our own film about it. It did seem very cinematic to us. I remember saying to Wash, "This should be a movie" but didn't really think we were going to be the ones to do it. But a few months later we were sitting around, it was New Years Day 2005, and we were talking about our block and our neighborhood and how fascinating it is that there were such different cultures door to door, one right next to the other, and that it would be a really fertile ground for a film. Within two hours we had our characters. We had the idea of two teenagers coming of age, Magdalena and her cousin Carlos. We just found ourselves really compelled by the idea of kids who were rejected by their immediate families and had to form a kind of outsider family with their great-uncle. Wash should talk about the great uncle.

Wash: The great-uncle to me is the heart of the movie.

MG: Yes, he is.

Wash: I think the way Chalo González played that character is just incredible. He's 81 years old and this is his first starring role. He brought this lifetime of experience into that part. From the writing point of view, the inspiration for the Tio Tomas character was actually my great-uncle who was a Yorkshireman who was a single, great-uncle. He was my grandmother's twin. He just had this great attitude. When I was around 11 years old, he came and actually moved in as a parent to cook and clean and look after us. He was a non-judgmental mentor. He didn't care—I was having problems coming out sexually and all that kind of adolescent stuff—and he just didn't care. He was very non-judgmental. He was just accepting. And so when we thought of these two kids being thrown out of their houses for sexual reasons, we thought the third piece of the puzzle is the Tio Tomas character and he'll be the glue that makes the new family stick together.

Richard: I got to know Wash's great-uncle and the film was dedicated to him.

MG: I loved the scene where his back is to the camera and he says to Carlos, "Are you seeing your special friend? I'm glad you have a special friend." That was such a throwaway epiphany! Beautiful. Absolutely beautifully staged and beautifully filmed, beautifully enacted, I was so impressed.

Wash: We tried to keep a lot of the very deep felt emotions in the movie, not to overplay them, not to spoon feed them to the audience, but just to allow the characters a dignity in how they express those emotions. I think what Tio Tomas is saying to Carlos is this unconditional love he's giving him, and he's just letting him know that he knows and it's fine. But he does it in the most offhand way and I think that's what gives it its emotional power.

MG: Well, all the quinceañeras are in town. There's an exhibit out at the deYoung, which I'm sorry you don't have time to see, it's Cheech Marin's Chicano art exhibit, the largest Chicano art collection in the United States. In that collection is Carmen Lomas Garza's painting Quinceañera. [I show it to them.]

Wash: How fantastic!

MG: Like your film, it's full of pink dresses. I wish you could make it out there to see it, but, I understand you're on your way to Denver this afternoon?

Wash: Yeah. I would love to see it. We obviously made our film called Quinceañera but now we're hearing the word a lot. There seems to be this kind of bubble right now. It seems to be like every time you open a newspaper there's an article about it or there's a new magazine that's just started called Miss Quince Años. Initially, when we thought of calling the film Quinceañera, we thought, "Well, Latino people know what this is but the majority of white Americans won't know what this is. So it's time to teach them. Let's put this word in the popular lexicon and let's give white girls quinceañera envy." It's really an amazing tradition and it's here in America.

MG: Which leads me to ask you about the reception for this film. Quinceañera is down the middle. People either really love this film or they just don't get it and think it's inapplicable. That's the critique that—as a Chicano—gets on my nerves when I read, "Who's going to care about these characters?" Who is going to care about these characters?

Richard: When you make a film, you make it because you're attached to the story and you want to tell your story. Of course, we're hoping by making this film to break down the barriers between cultures. That's the real motive behind it for us. I don't know what the reaction is going to be. We've had a great response so far from the Sundance Film Festival and from a lot of the critics.

MG: Yes, congratulations on that, by the way.

Richard: I do think when the film was up for distributors to buy it, that there was a certain amount of concern that the Latino public can't accept a film with a gay component in it. We thought that was a racist, stupid, antiquated approach. We don't know. I don't dare generalize about the Latino public because I'm not Latino. But I'm thinking things are changing. They have to be. Post-Brokeback Mountain, is this such a subversive thing to have in a film about a Latino community? I don't think so.

Wash: It's interesting as well, we moved into a Latino community as a white gay couple and we thought, "Oh, are people going to be keeping their distance?" No one was. We were accepted on our street, which was a very nice thing. No one made a big deal out of it. I feel the film addresses the issues in a way that's not in your face. A lot of people can go see the film and go along with the story. There's certainly a mirror in Carlos' storyline between the homophobia of his parents who reject him in the Latino community and the coded racism of the white gay couple. Through these storylines these issues have been brought out. We want to put those issues out there for people to talk about and discuss. And yet, if a piece of art works it's meant to create some friction and it's meant to have some detractors because that's what you're trying to do; you're trying to question people's attitudes and shake things up a bit.

Richard: If everybody were complacent with the film, you'd feel like, "Maybe we're not touching any material that has any charge to it."

Wash: We wanted to make a sugarcoated subversion.

MG: You needn't worry, there's a lot of charge to this movie and, you're right, it's not in your face; it's in the back of your mind. I walked away from this film irritated by some things. One of them was exactly what you were talking about, Wash, the "coded racism" of gay people. As a gay man myself, I've been at that dinner party one too many times. [Laughs.] The gentrification process, which is usually attached to gay men, this was a stickey wicket. I know some critics have moreorless insinuated that there is a reverse discrimination in cinematic representation going on in your film. This is as intriguing as it is troubling for me. I recently interviewed Larry Clark of Wassup Rockers where the same criticism has been levied. What is your response to that critique that you have caricatured white people and glorified Latinos?

Richard: The white gay couple in the film are not the most positive people on the planet….

MG: But they're real.

Richard: For us they're very real. If you listen to their dialogue, especially things that Carlos overhears the other side of their door, you understand the parameters of their relationship. There is an economic disparity between them. One is working and paying the bills, the other one only works intermittently. They've bought a house that they can't really afford. There's a lot of friction because of the economics of the situation. They also have certain parameters in their sex life where it's okay to have threeways, it's not okay to have separate affairs. Carlos falls into this spider's web of different conflicting emotions.

Wash: But we're not saying white people bad. We're saying these people are in a situation and they're economically blinkered and they're also emotionally blinkered as to what Carlos's needs are from that relationship. Also, Carlos's parents are equally blinkered because they're not giving him any outlet to express his sexuality. They've thrown him out of the house because they've found out through Google where he's been going on the Internet. There's no Latino good white people bad.

Richard: There's a whole range of characters in the Latino community in the film and there are people like Carlos's parents who are narrow-minded and also some of the girls in Magadena's group turn very nasty once they found out she's pregnant. We've been accused of turning all the Latino characters into saints but if you look at the film that's hardly the case. There's also some white characters—there's a woman who appears near the end of the film who is a white liberal trying to be much more open and understanding than the couple that Carlos gets involved with. So we don't feel it's a legitimate complaint about the film.

MG: I don't think it is either and I must commend you for tackling the two themes: the coded racism and the eroticized fetishism of young Latino males. My story is very similar to Carlos's. I left home at 15. I entered the arena of love hoping to get the support I had not received from my family and was consumed by a subculture that used me up and didn't really care about my particular needs. Carlos's realization when he overhears the couple and he realizes the guy doesn't love him was heartbreaking because he's been used.

Wash: Yeah, he's been used.

MG: …and I found that very touching.

Richard: Thank you.

Wash: Thank you very much. Yeah, in the film everyone's talking about the hot real estate market and we wanted to say, "Well, what's it like from the point of view of the renters?" Similarly, hot Latin guy, threeway, sexual excitement, what's it like from the point of view of the plaything who happens to have emotions and happens to need mentoring? Carlos is a new type in that he has gained all his information about sexuality through the Internet and online, which is how I think a lot of people do nowadays find out about their sexuality. Before he actually physically comes into contact with any gay people, he's developed very much a sense of himself just through this new technology. So when he goes into that white gay party for the first time, he's seeing this huge culture clash with different parts of who are the gay community. He doesn't identify with the mainstream gay style and he doesn't participate in any of these real estate conversations and he's very much outside the mainstream gay culture. Yet, he needs some kind of mentoring. He needs someone to reach out to him and show him that it's okay to be gay. In the end he finds out from his cousin who's pregnant and from his uncle. That's where he gets his acceptance from.

MG: Who came up with the peanut butter line?

Wash: [Laughs.] I think that was one of mine.

MG: That was very funny.

Wash: Emily said that line and afterwards I said, "Oh, we never really talked about this. Are you okay with saying it?'' And she goes, "Yeah, I'm fine. I don't really understand what it means." I was like, "Okay."

MG: This was another thing that was intriguing to me. When people think of Latinos, they mainly think of Roman Catholic; but, the statistics are that actually more Latinos are becoming evangelical because of its conservative allure. I thought you guys accomplished this Roman Catholic overlay on the evangelicism very well. Was that difficult?

Wash: The family that came from Mexico were Catholic and it was in L.A. that the storefront church became the main focus for the parents' generation. Tio Tomas's generation, the older people in the family, would still be more identified as Catholic. I think that's happened to a lot of Latino people coming to America. There's a growth in storefront evangelical churches in Los Angeles that have a visceral appeal to people and have taken people away from the Catholic Church to be evangelical. We wanted to show that change too as a result of different generations.

Richard: Also, the church that we shot our neighbor's quinceañera in is the church in the film and it's her family who runs that church, they are evangelicals, and we were very taken with that mural that opens the film and recreating what we saw. We decided to make that family evangelical and, as Wash said, then have Tio Tomas be in the Catholic faith.

Wash: Our production designers brought in lots of crosses and virgins and Guadelupes to hang up and they were like, "No, no, no, no!" We realized that was a misunderstanding. There is no direct iconism in evangelism. In this particular evangelical church, they have no iconism at all. Whereas, of course, Catholicism is completely steeped with iconism.

MG: It was an interesting tension. The scene where the father says there is no such thing as a pregnant virgin and Tio Tomas clutches his medallion of Guadelupe was especially poignant for me because—as an aficionado of Chicano iconographic studies—the Virgin of Guadelupe has been one of my main focuses. One thing I wanted to present to you and where, again, I must commend you is that—within my own studies—you have taken the legend of Guadelupe one step forward and given it a unique cinematic inflection it has not had until now. Most people don't understand that the Virgin of Guadelupe is based upon ancient Nahuatl goddesses—Tonantzin and back to Coatlicue. The floral pattern on her robe—the nagvioli—is an ancient Nahuatl symbol connecting her to Coatlicue, who was a pregnant virgin who gave birth to their solar deity Huitzilopochtli. When Coatlicue's family found out that she was pregnant, they were furious, just like Magdalena's family was furious. This is all in the mythology. This is ancient Nahuatl mythology.

Wash: Amazing!

MG: I was watching this movie thinking—not only did you deal with some sensitive issues about teenage pregnancy and a young Latino gay boy—but, you had this plot line that probably no one would have expected about a virgin pregnancy, which I was fascinated with, precisely because it links into this ancient tradition and a continuity of image. The fact that Guadelupe's wearing a sash means she's en cinta, she's pregnant. It isn't just that she's the Virgin Mary giving birth to Jesus, this is a Nahuatl overlay on Christian teachings.

Richard: The same way the quinceañera goes back to Aztec times.

MG: I was wondering if you were conscious of that? Sometimes I think the imagery is so strong that—even if you just use it—energies are invoked by reference and invited through the imagery, even if you don't know.

Richard: It was very important for us that Tio Tomas be Catholic to work that imagery in there. We couldn't get it in terms of Magdalena's house or church or that whole evangelical aspect of her life. So for us it was very important to have the Virgin of Guadelupe even though I can't claim to have this knowledge of Nahuatl history. We definitely wanted that image; it was very strong for us to have that there, to have Tio Tomas in a casual way be able to refer to it.

Wash: We thought there was a great comparison between Magdalena's situation, where she's been rejected from that family, and the situation of the Virgin of Guadelupe who's being worshipped by the family. We thought there was this amazing situation.

MG: That they weren't listening to their own teachings.

Wash: Yeah. Exactly.

MG: That was a powerful scene when the father reconciles with the daughter.

Richard: What we think is so interesting about that is that they both are persisting in their beliefs. They haven't come to an understanding.

Wash: They just decided they're going to reconcile but they don't have to see things the same way.

Richard: It's almost like she's the more mature one who allows him to have his belief.

MG: She is the more mature one. Emily's performance in this film is just this side of brilliant for being understated and so heartfelt. How did you find her?

Richard: She just came through the door and blew all those 19-year-old Beverly Hills girls out of the water. We were encouraged to cast somebody who was 18 years old so we'd have more time to work, not just six hours a day on the set, which is all you're allowed with a 15-year-old. Certain people—I won't say who they were—were taken by a slicker acting style and we saw Emily and we thought, no, that's the real thing and that's the kind of acting we like that's understated and very interior and very felt. We kept bringing her back because she was a 15-year-old girl who only had on her resume that she played Cleopatra in a school play and she had to carry the damn movie, so we wanted to know that—and we loved her superficial toughness, we loved the fact that she's from El Monte and has that East L.A. thing—but we wanted to know that emotionally she had that kind of depth that she would really have a relationship with her father, that she would really care about her father, that she would feel romantically about her boyfriend and so on. So we put her through her paces. We drove her a little bit crazy. She always jokes about how we would criticize her posture and try to get her to lower her shoulders and threatened to hook her up with a ballet teacher. In a way we couldn't believe what we had found. We couldn't believe she was as good as she seemed. Once we were in production . . . I mean, thank God, she was so amazing. We had no time. If she was fluffing lines and she wasn't getting emotionally to the core of every scene quickly, we would have been in trouble. But she was one or two takes per scene.

MG: You should be proud that you've helped launch and further both of their careers.

Richard: We are.

Wash: We feel that we made three discoveries. We feel like we discovered Emily Rios and Jesse Garcia and we rediscovered Chalo González who gets his first starring role at age 81. It's on those three performances that the whole movie rests.

MG: Your next project is Lot's Wife?

Richard: We love doing things that are different and Lot's Wife would seem to be more connected to this film and another project we have is less connected and we want to make both of them. I don't know which one we'll do first. Lot's Wife is basically about the current state of America under Bush and about immigration in this country. It's a romantic triangle. Again, it's political the way this film is political, just people living their lives, not giving big political speeches but their lives are affected by politics. It's the story of a Russian trophy bride who meets a rich American through a Russian dating service and comes to live in this gated community and she goes to an English class and meets an illegal Mexican and falls in love with him. So it's about what is the real America? What does the American dream mean anymore? Why do people come to this country and what do they get by coming to this country? That's Lot's Wife. The other thing we want to do is a film about Colette, and we want to make a film about 19th century France and are looking for the time machine to take us back there so we can do our research.

MG: Wonderful. I just interviewed Amos Gitaï yesterday and our discussion was so revelatory for me because he was talking about the Israeli-Palestinian situation and how—in his films—he's trying to show that we are all displaced. No group can exclusively claim that distinction. Quinceañera also seems to show that. It celebrates this incredible intersection of various cultural influences meeting to create a new world, a new space. I thank you so much for your time. Congratulations on the film.

Cross-posted at Twitch.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

QUINCEAÑERA—The Evening Class Interview With Emily Rios and Jesse Garcia

I showed up at the Ritz Carlton for my interviews with the team from Quinceañera wearing my new Steve Barretto "Brown Jesus" t-shirt that I picked up at the deYoung's Chicano Visions exhibit. Jesse Garcia found the t-shirt "awesome" and Emily Rios found it "cool" and they were both disappointed that they wouldn't get to be in San Francisco long enough to check out the exhibit themselves. They were scheduled to fly out mid-afternoon to Denver after a full day of interviews and photo shoots. I was glad I'd brought the exhibition catalog with me so I could at least show them Carmen Lomas Garza's painting Quinceañera, which I felt they should see and which they much enjoyed. All the Quinceañeras were in town!

Michael Guillén: Emily, Jesse, I appreciate the two of you taking the time to talk with me because I'm so proud of both of you. I love this film. What a film with heart! I'm Chicano myself and I'm so pleased to see this representation. You're both—well, not so much unknowns anymore—but you came out of nowhere and this little sleeper hit took Sundance by storm and has been impressing people all over the place. Could you tell me a little bit about your backgrounds and we'll go from there?

Emily Rios: Both of my parents are from Jalisco. I'm joking. Background? As far as acting-wise, you mean?

MG: Acting-wise, yes. Is your family actually from Jalisco?

Emily: Yeah. As far as my acting, on top of my resume was Cleopatra in the high school play. So I don't have a lot of experience. I did commercials here and there. I did one short film. I did some extra work on a music video. That's pretty much all my resume consists of. I didn't have too much experience.

MG: How did they find you?

Emily: I had an agent and a manager at the time. My agent called me and said, "Hey, y'know they're auditioning people for this independent film called Quinceañera" and I was like, "Okay, cool." I auditioned and I got extremely fortunate.

MG: They were fortunate.

Emily: Thanks.

Jesse Garcia: We were all fortunate. I did a casting workshop in Atlanta probably four years ago with this casting director that was casting the movie, Jason Wood, and I was on the Nosotros email list—it's a Latino networking organization in L.A.—and I saw this casting for Quinceañera and I read the breakdown of it and Carlos and was like, "Ah, this role seems really cool." I emailed Jason and I said, "Hey man, I'd love to read for this if you guys are still looking for the part." They brought me in and I did all right.

MG: Now that you have done this film and you have done so well in it and it's been doing so well, has it changed your lives? Have you been on a whirlwind publicity tour?

Jesse: Publicity's been pretty crazy. Yeah, this junket thing is new for both of us. I've been acting for about six years now and I've done some other short films and other independent films that have done okay. I was in HBO's Walkout that came out earlier this year about the 1968 high school walkouts; Edward James Olmos directed it. I've done some other things so I was kind of proud that—outside of Chalo González—I was one of the more experienced actors in the leads. But this is completely new and it has kind of changed our lives to where we're flying around the world and dealing with press.

MG: Is it fun?

Jesse: Yes! We're having a good time. It's exhausting. [Exaggerating] It's exhausting!!

MG: I bet. They should put you up in a nicer place, don't you think?

Jesse: [Laughs.] I know, right?

Emily: Yeah, like, what is this?

Jesse: Yeah, c'mon.

MG: Jesse, is your family also from Mexico?

Jesse: My dad's from Durango, Mexico. The state of Durango. My mom is from Wyoming. Her and I were born in the same town in Wyoming—Rawlins, Wyoming.

MG: I know Rawlins. I used to work there.

Jesse: No kidding?!

MG: My step-father was a sheep shearing contractor so we would go up into the hills a lot and station ourselves in little towns in Wyoming and Montana.

Jesse: Wow. I've never even met anyone else that's even heard of it or lived there.

MG: I know it. It's a good thing you got away.

Jesse: [Laughs.] Right. Everyone would say that. My family's still there. Everyone's still there. My mom's Spanish and Mexican and other. We still don't really quite know what all of our genealogy is—I think that's the word, isn't it?

MG: Yes, it is. What was so beautiful to me about Quinceañera—because I've studied Chicano art and film for a long time—what was challenging about the film and why I think it's an important film, is it explores many marginalized areas. Just like what you're saying about your genealogical background, there are no real clear definitions here. And one of those vague areas that was most intriguing to me is that—though it has a Catholic overlay—the film actually has an evangelical base. My understanding is you were both brought up evangelical?

Jesse: No, we were both brought up Jehovah's Witnesses.

MG: Was the Catholic inflection anything you were familiar with?

Jesse: Vaguely. I mean, they're all Christian religions so I was vaguely familiar with it. I never really studied too much of anything. I grew up Jehovah's Witness. I stopped practicing a while ago. I wanted to pick different things from different religions that I thought applied to my life and apply them. But I think it was a more Evangelical theme in the movie where nothing was clearly defined.

MG: The reason I ask—and I'm going to talk to the directors about this as well—is that I've studied for many years the "story" of the Virgin of Guadelupe. I was impressed with your assignment, Emily, that you had to depict this young girl who was a virgin, but pregnant. What a complicated idea to get across! I loved in the film when the dad was saying there was no such thing as a pregnant virgin and the Tio clasps his medallion of the Virgin of Guadelupe. Because the Virgin of Guadelupe, as you know, was en cinta and—after years of studying her—I'm aware most people don't know that the floral designs on her robe are ancient Nahuatl symbols that link her back to the Nahuatl goddesses Coatlicue and Tonantzin. It's a progression of goddesses. So I'm very proud of you, Emily, because you are in a line of representation of that story. You are the most modern inflection of that story. Did you study that legend much? Did it work into your interpretation of the role?

Emily: Not at all. I had no idea. I'm somewhat familiar with the Catholic religion just because of my extended family, a lot of them are Christian, a lot of them are Catholic, I don't even know. I have no idea of the background to Guadelupe or the Virgin Mary. I don't even know if they're the same person. I have no idea about that religion. I was born into a family of Jehovah's Witnesses and that's the only thing I've ever been exposed to in my entire life. The only thing I've ever taken from other religions is what I've heard and what I've seen. It's nothing that I've researched or known about. I learn as I go along. Like you're just giving me a whole insight about the background of Guadelupe and her robe. I had no idea there was any significance to it whatsoever.

MG: Yes. It's actually quite profound. The name of the flower on her robe is nagvioli and it comes from the Nahuatl tradition in the Valley of Mexico. It's a specific reference to fertility and their solar deity Huitzilopochtli. Coatlicue was a pregnant virgin goddess who gave birth to Huitzilopochtli. Over the years and through various cultural contacts it transformed into the legend of the Virgin of Guadelupe. I'm proud that your performance in Quinceañera has continued the legend and that I have one more citation for my thesis. [Laughs.] I'm really pleased about that. As Jehovah Witnesses, then, did your families have any objections to the roles you were playing? Because both of your roles were edgy.

Jesse: Right. Well, I don't practice anymore. My parents, they still practice occasionally, but, they're very supportive of whatever I want to do. They actually came and saw the film at Sundance since they live so close. Everyone came down and saw it at the last Friday night screening and really loved it. They enjoy what I do. As long as I'm happy doing what I want to do, they're cool.

MG: I have to ask you a very pointed question: do you actually have a tattoo that says travieso [troublemaker] on your abdomen? My readers will want to know.

Jesse: [Chuckles.] No. It's tattooed on my soul.

MG: I thought that was hilarious and sexy. So, Emily, are you actually from Echo Park, the neighborhood in the movie?

Emily: I grew up in a city similar to Echo Park in El Monte, it's in the San Diego Valley, but, not Echo Park.

MG: Because the gentrification issues were interesting and are ongoing concerns as these cultures collide, as gays move into Latino neighborhoods. I was likewise impressed with your complex representation of a young gay cholo, Jesse. This film has had a mixed reception, partly based on those issues. Some people like it a lot, like me. If I would have been at Sundance I would have been jumping up and down. And other people don't like it. And that range of reaction is curious to me. Is it a cultural bias, do you think?

Jesse: I hear that too. It's kind of surprising and it's kind of not at the same time. The teen pregnancy and the gay issues can be very hush hush in Latino culture because it's not something you really want out there, y'know? But I think that once more people start to see this movie for what it is and the positive social issues that it brings up and how to deal with things, that people may eventually open up, especially those skeptics who are not supporting the movie because of the gay issue and the teen pregnancy, especially Latino culture. From what I hear they don't want to bring these issues out into the wide open because they think it's shaming the Latino culture, which is naïve because it's actually probably going to help kids and people who have these issues going on to deal with certain things, you know what I'm saying?

MG: Exactly. I'm always concerned for queer youth because it's a difficult time fraught with hazard. Both of your characters' stories, they're heart stories, to be ostracized from family and to be marginalized and to have to survive. I had to. I left home at 15. You have to survive and often there's not anything or anyone out there to help you. In the story of Quinceañera you had this wonderful tio played by Chalo González. What was it like working with him?

Jesse: That man's magical, man.

MG: Yes, it comes right across.

Jesse: He's so amazing. I met him by chance at one of the Nosotros networking meetings and he goes [imitating Chalo], "I just got this lead role in Quinceañera." "Dude! I'm in Quinceañera too, man! Wassup?!" Then we started talking. When you watch the film, the way he's in the film that's the way he is in real life. He's a charming charming man and his stories are amazing. Nobody can tell a story like he does. His life story is unbelievable.

MG: I understand he got his start in films breaking up a fight?

Jesse: Breaking up a fight with Sam Peckinpah in a bar in Tijuana. Some friends of Sam Peckinpah's in L.A. told him to say the wrong things to the Mexicans across the border to buy him a drink.

Emily: He ended up insulting them.

Jesse: Then Chalo went in and separated them and figured it out and everyone started laughing and he goes, "Hey, man, my name's Sam Peckinpah. Thanks a lot."

MG: You've commented on how natural an actor Chalo is, but, you're all natural actors. Emily, your performance is so understated. It was a pleasure to watch your face.

Emily: Thank you.

MG: Sometimes you'll see actors and they're using tricks. They are so obviously acting. With you it seemed like these things were really happening to you. Can you talk a bit about how you developed the role?

Emily: It's so funny when people ask me that because I really wish I could give you an answer and I wish I knew the answer to it. I really don't know anything I did different than I wouldn't do in my regular life. When you're in school and you're doing the school play, you'll be messing around backstage with your friends but when you get on you know your role, you know your lines, you know what you're supposed to do, so you just go out and perform it. I thought it was just as simple as that. When you get out in front of a camera, you just basically know what you're supposed to do. I always say I've never had any acting experience but then I started thinking about it now and I'm just like, okay, well, I was in these school plays, and me and my friends would be messing around since we knew each other for so long and we had such a long rehearsal process and this is live so we have to get it down in one take. I mean, there is no messing up. You have to take it all down at once. So it's like, okay, once you build up your acting experience in theater and stuff, it's like you know you got it's a one-time and one time only. Maybe that's how easy it was for me. I just went on and took the best direction I could from the directors and performed to the best of my ability. But there was no research done. There was no preparation I needed to do for the role. I just feel I related to the character on a lot of different levels so I don't feel like I had to act too much. It wasn't a natural-acting thing, it was just a natural ability that I was able to connect with the character and feel her and her emotions and what she was going through. I just tried to come out and perform it to the best of my ability.

MG: Well, it was a job well-done. Is it leading to anything new? Are you working on anything new?

Emily: Yeah. Especially my next big thing in late August with Paul Rodriguez, Jr. He'll be shooting his first film and we'll be working together in Venice Beach.

MG: Can you tell me a little bit about it?

Emily: It's called Vicious Circle. I can give you a little background on my character: I play this lead singer in a rock band who is a hardcore drug user and epileptic and it's a very intense character.

MG: You're good kids being asked to play these bad kids!! What's up with that?

Jesse: I'm a baaaad boy! [Laughs.]

MG: How about yourself, Jesse? What have you got coming up next?

Jesse: I just shot a guest star on The Closer. That will be coming out August 25, episode 11. I did a movie in Mexico, a small part in Mexico called Boy Immigrant. Patricia Riggen, she's the director. America Ferrera and I play a brother and sister and we cross the border and try to smuggle this boy across so I can make some extra cash for my college. It's a small part. It's about this 8-year-old boy who's trying to find his way across the border to L.A. from Mexico after his grandmother dies to find his mom who's been in L.A. for about four years. It's a story about immigration and the family and the struggle. Then I've been cast in a few more movies that we're waiting to get off the ground. Just kind of finalizing things before we shoot. One movie, Looters, kind of an action dark comedy that Maya Pictures is doing, the same production company that did Walkout. A few other ones. I've got my hands in different pots stirring around. Trying to make me some tasty soup.

MG: Well, good!! I'll probably be following your careers from hereon in. When I was reading the critical response for Quinceañera, something got my goat: this idea of reverse discrimination in cinematic representation. Some of the reviews I read said, "They're so unfair to white people. They're so unfair to gay people. They've glorified the Latino image and made sketches of the others." I was recently talking to Larry Clark about Wassup Rockers where the same criticism was levied. Do you have any reactions to that criticism, other than it's just plain stupid?

Jesse: [Laughs.] It is just plain stupid. And I don't think anything was glorified in it. I think everything that was in there was very real. The two gay men, the gay couple that are in the movie, those guys, they're kind of depicted as pseudo-villainous and kind of preying upon this younger guy….

MG: But he seduced them.

Jesse: Yeah! Yeah. We all seduced each other. It's not like Carlos didn't want to be there. Those guys are real. Those guys exist. It's characters like that that people don't want to see because they don't want other people to know that there are actually predatory guys out there like that, y'know what I'm saying? And then the Latino culture worry that there's a gay cholo or a teenage pregnancy, they don't want to see that either because that's too real. This movie is honest and real and it tells things how it really is and people kind of get scared of that.

MG: I also thought it was an unfair assessment because the Latino characters aren't by any means saintly—other than the Tio who is like a wonderful saint and the heart of this movie—but the character of the father is obviously a conflicted man. I loved the final reconciliation scene where he kept trying to make it a religious event. [Laughs.] That's a wonderfully-played scene. This is where I commend you as an actress, Emily, because it isn't like you had to drum these things over our head. You just said them like a kid would say them. "Dad, it wasn't that." I really liked that.

Emily: Thanks.

MG: So what are your hopes for this movie?

Emily: I hope for it to get the reaction it deserves, like it's been getting. I hope once it finally opens in the theaters and for the public audience to be able to go see it and to see it for the film that it is regardless of who's in it or who isn't. At Sundance in the beginning nobody knew about our film and nobody wanted to go see it, but once the buzz started going around, everybody wanted to come and see it. Which is fine. Everybody wants to go see the Jennifer Aniston movies, and Justin Timberlake, and whatever was at Sundance, which is understandable because, y'know, they've got these named actors in there. I just want them to see the film for what it is: a realistic film that's something that we're living in our everyday life and I want to expose the world to a different culture and another side of the world that I don't think they're exposed to and have no idea what's going on. I want to expose them to a whole 'nother world that's just right around the corner from where they live.

MG: And yourself, Jesse?

Jesse: I want people to come and watch it. I want them to have their own opinion whether they like it or whether they don't. I would like them to come away with a sense of satisfaction, having seen a movie where I could compare it to eating a wonderful meal, a meal where you eat in a restaurant in an environment so nice and everyone with you is unbelievable and you want to go back to that restaurant and you want to eat something else and want to try something different. Having left this movie you want to see what happens afterwards and you want to see what happened before and you want something to talk about afterward, whether you liked things about it or you didn't. But you still have a sense of satisfaction when you left. The people that are very skeptical about the movie, whether they admit it or not, they still have a sense of satisfaction because that's what got their minds stirring, you know what I'm saying? I want people to enjoy it and make their own opinion and have something to talk about.

MG: You two are being paired together a lot for publicity purposes. There's a lot of photography work being done with you two. Are you two friends or is this all just professional?

Jesse: It's mostly professional. We don't really get along.

Emily: This is the acting coming into play.

Jesse: I've been using the word magical a lot lately but we got along together right away. It's cool. It's not like either one of us look at each other as older or younger. We kind of just saw each other as equals right away and just had fun.

MG: The tension that you develop in the film is lovely. It's sensual and it's lovely to watch. The peanut butter line. Where'd that peanut butter line come from? Was that in the script?

Emily: Yeah, that was in the script.

MG: That blew me away. I thought, how could they say that? [Laughs.] Regarding publicity, what do you think of all the hype and press? Is it hard to handle? Is it hard to keep centered?

Emily: It's hard to keep awake.

Jesse: Actually, it's fun. It's fun and as an actor—I think I can speak for Emily as well—we go into a movie especially as new actors wanting to act and not knowing what to expect afterwards. After something like Quinceañera where it's very successful, now we have a social responsibility to meet the press and talk about the movie and have an opinion about the movie and life and the issues that sort of relate to it and things of that nature. It's fun. It's educational. And it was very unexpected too. You see it on t.v., but you don't really think it's going to happen to you. It's interesting. I'm having a great time.

MG: At Sundance, when the buzz started and you saw that the film was becoming popular, would you guys go to your hotel room and rev up? What was that like?

Emily: I had left pretty early on in the festival. I was there for a couple of days. I was just really happy with the reaction but I mean I was so naïve to everything. I didn't know about Sundance so I thought everybody got the same type of buzz that we were getting. If not, a lot of people got a lot bigger buzz. But it was really cool to see people who'd be walking down the street and we'd overhear them. They wouldn't even know we're standing right there next to them. They'd be like, "Oh, what'd you think of Quinceañera?" "Oh my god, it was so great." "It was good, right?" "Yeah, it was so good." It was a lot of fun. It was cool. To overhear people's reactions and the way they got the film, and what they took out of it and whatnot. I don't know what I would take from [the Sundance experience]. I wasn't jumping up and down and going crazy. I guess I really didn't know what a big deal it was.

MG: That naivete probably protects you in a certain way. I know in my youth it was a protection. Well thank you both so much. Quinceañera is a wonderful project, you both did a great job, and I look forward to monitoring your careers over the years. I hope to get to interview you for your next!

Cross-posted on Twitch.

Friday, July 28, 2006

GUILLERMO GÓMEZ-PEÑA—El Corazón de la Missión

My thanks to Sherry Koyama and The LAB for letting me take part in the inaugural tour—El Corazón de la Missión—with Guillermo Gómez-Peña and La Pocha Nostra. Gómez-Peña brings his "border spectacle" to the heart of the Mission, with an 80-minute audio tour aboard the Mexican Bus. Consummate wordsmith, Gómez-Peña recontextualizes language—one might say disembowels it—to pull out its steamy entrails. His prophecies from there are anyone's guess. His perceptions of the Mission—even a Mission you might know very well—are singularly if not startlingly unique. Embarking and disembarking at La Galeria de la Raza, Gómez-Peña asks important questions: why is the Mission so much warmer than the rest of the city? Is it because of the 700 taquerias? Is it because Latinos have more sex?

Assisted by the seductive adminstrations of La Missionera Alma Raddha (who tried to lure me into the men's room to sample her lilac/chipotle cream, assuring me she always carries her strap, and offering to spank me for $5, or to let me spank her for $15; pity I didn't have enough money to fulfill myself), the audio tour guides you through the 24th Street corridor to 24th & Mission, "one of the four vortices of Hell", on to Clarion Alley (which serves as a metaphorical border crossing), Mission Dolores, the Red Building at 16th & Capp ("the urban sphincter of San Francisco"), and other infamous locales in the Mission. On my tour there was even an impromptu invasion of a local immigrant bar where women were afforded the chance to dance with Latino strangers. The tour gives you more value for your money and is probably best experienced "wet" than dry (i.e., with shots of tequila).

The Mexican bus, a rolling cultural artifact in itself, was inspired by drivers who were confined by economic necessity to their buses up to 16 hours a day. To cope, they surrounded themselves with expressions of their personal lives, creating mobile "homes away from home"—unaware that they were making art. These unique collections juxtaposed cultural artifacts such as images of Cristobal—the patron saint of bus drivers— with pictures of admired film stars, wrestlers and favorite musicians. Colorful lights, lush interiors and music selected by the drivers, along with the occasional live troubadour, created a complete environment and experience for those boarding the bus. Gómez-Peña and La Missionera make this artistic expression all their own.

Call 415-864-8855 for advance reservations/ ticket sales. Prices: $20.00/WET (21+, includes tequila toasts); $15.00/DRY (under 21, no tequila)

Tour Schedule: Two tours daily, departing from Galeria de la Raza at 2857 24th Street, at Bryant. Limited seating available. Saturday, July 29: Tours depart at 2:30 PM and 4:30 PM; Saturday, August 5: Tours depart at 2:30 PM and 4:30 PM; Tuesday, August 8: Tours depart at 12:30 PM and 2:30 PM (offered as part of ISEA parallel programming); Saturday, August 12: Tours depart at 2:30 PM and 4:30 PM.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

2006 SFJFF—The Evening Class Interview With Amos Gitaï

I attended the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival's afternoon tribute to Amos Gitaï at the Castro Theater. They screened House, News From House / News From Home, and Free Zone, with Gitaï introducing each film and returning to the stage for Q&As afterwards. These three films were my introduction to Amos Gitaï's oeuvre and—considering he has made over 40 films—I felt woefully unprepared for our interview the following afternoon in his St. Francis hotel room. Further, seeing how put upon he was by well-meaning audience members who wanted him to somehow represent Israel and account for his homeland's recent bombings of Lebanon, I was determined not to belabor the politics and to focus instead on his filmmaking technique.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Amos, congratulations first of all on being this year's recipient of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival's Freedom of Expression award. Welcome back to the Bay Area. It's my understanding, however, that you're not a stranger to the Bay Area. You actually pursued a Ph.D. in architecture at U.C. Berkeley?

Amos Gitaï: Yes.

MG: It was while you were at Berkeley that you became increasingly interested in film. I'm curious what it was at that time in the Bay Area's film culture that wooed you away from architecture? Was it a particular director or a particular film?

AG: Yesterday [after Mayor Gavin Newsome's declaration that July 23, 2006, was Amos Gitaï day in San Francisco], I said that I owed this area because I spent some of the most interesting three years of my life [here]. After being shot in a helicopter in Israel during the Yom Kippur War and the difficulty of the day-to-day situation over there, [the Bay Area] was a very open-minded oasis. I saw very sensitive people, very intelligent, and it really enriched me, sincerely. Berkeley of the late '70s, all the Bay Area and Northern California in general is maybe one of the biggest oasis in this continent of a liberal way of thinking.

MG: I've long felt we're a separate country here in the Bay Area. A small one, but….

AG: Yeah, but open and so on. So it really left its imprint on me. I remember my old professor of architecture—I think it was one of the first weeks of classes in Berkeley—he walked into the classroom and in his dry sense of humor he said, "The best lovemaking is when you can do brain fucking and body fucking at the same time. Unfortunately, I'm limited just to do the brain part." [Laughs.] Coming from a much more conservative schooling system, this was a mind opener.

MG: At that time, when you were engaged in your architectural studies, were there particular architects that you respected and emulated?

AG: No, I had my own. My father was a Bauhaus architect. He came from Berlin in the '30s and he worked directly with [Henry] van de Velde and he had as his teachers Kandinsky and Paul Klee and [Walter] Gropius and all th[is] great group, which were the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus was a great school.

MG: So you already came with those great influences.

AG: Very modern, very minimalist attitude to form. My father was—in a way—my mentor on the subject of form and architecture.

MG: It interests me that your background was in architecture. When I was much younger, one of my best friends was an architect and he encouraged me to understand that, initially, architects were considered poets. They were artists. Recently there have been a few documentaries that have come out like The Sketches of Frank Gehry and others where they're returning to the premise that architects really are artists and poets.

AG: Yeah.

MG: So, after your architectural training, you returned to Israel and made your first film House?

AG: Yeah, absolutely.

MG: What a perfect segue to go from architectural studies to a documentary about a house. A house, as I'm sure you're aware, has long been known as a psychological archetype of the self—the Jungians bring it up in dreams all the time—but I liked how you used the house as more of a sociological metaphor. Can you talk a little about how you were able to take your architectural training and express it through cinematic language?

AG: The point of departure is similar. In both mediums—we like to call it mediums more than professions—we start with a text. An architect gets a text; a piece of paper with words. The words say, "We would like you to design a theater with so many seats and maybe a theater with make-up rooms and so on." These are words. Now he has to take these words and make the intellectual exercise of giving it shape, of translating it into form. That's a very interesting mental thing. What evokes in a certain form? So I.M. Pei will take maybe his Chinese background and somehow he's got a very minimalist thing mixed with modernist movement. Frank Gehry always likes to refer to his grandmother; the carp preparing for the gefilte fish. Each one will take the vocabulary that he likes but the process is still translation of text to form.

In cinema we have the same problem. We have the same question. We have a screenplay but the screenplay doesn't have a shape, it's words. Now, how would you light it? What would be the cameras that you use? What's the technology? What is the rhythm? Do you make Speedy Gonzalez editing? Would you dissect it? Would you create sequence shots, more master shots? All of these are formal questions and, finally, though we like to discuss again and again the political meanings and so on and the thematic meaning of my films, I think that a lot of them are also questions about form.

MG: Yes. Listen, I'll be frank, yesterday was my first exposure to your films. It was, however, an opportune introduction to your work, because we started with your first film House, and then we went to the third in the House Trilogy (News From House / News From Home) and then to your most recent feature Free Zone. The advantage of coming in blind—as I did—is that you can often see things clearly, undeterred by preconception. I saw the form of your films, or at least small aspects of the form. I could see that your films were shaped by sound, that you were using sound and music to bracket and bookend your films. Is that a device you often consciously use?

AG: Yeah, yeah. I love sound. As I said, I don't like when cinema [reduces] sound [to] illustration because I think image is strong enough and doesn't need illustration. For me it's a pull between equals. It's like a couple, each one contributes something to the common thing—which would be the film or the couple—but the sound is autonomous. And the best way is if the sound charges the image, if it creates a kind of angular dialectical reaction.

MG: Almost like a musical counterpoint?

AG: Absolutely, like a musical counterpoint. And then the image becomes the interpreter of the sound, the sound becomes the interpreter of the image, but there is a relation of two autonomous … a meeting of these two.

MG: House starts out with that striking long shot of the stone quarry men driving chisels into the stone to fracture off slabs for eventual hewn stone construction. Each time they hit the chisel with the sledgehammer and drove it deeper into the stone, the sound had a slightly higher pitch, which created a sense of anxiety in me. Did you know it would have that sound?

AG: I visited the stone quarries but this is really a live recording, it's direct sound, it's not being reprocessed. Even recorded more than 25 years ago, it's still wonderful. I visited the stone quarries, which are south of Hebron, and witnessed this impressive way of cutting the stone in this [ancient] manner.

MG: It was a fascinating image and a fascinating sound and a great way to start that movie. Seeing your first film House and then comparing it to your later work after you had honed your craft, I took note of the maturation of your camera style. In House the camera was hand-held but in the later documentary and in your feature Free Zone it was more of a steadycam and was very hypnotic. It looks at something for a long time and then slowly, almost methodically, circumambulates around its subject. It's camera as witness. In other films cameras are often used to effect subjectivity, to look out of the eyes of one of the characters in the story, let's say, but in your films the camera is watching the characters, observant, almost meditative on what they're witnessing. Is that making any sense?

AG: Absolutely. In the Middle East we are so much subject to—not just physical bombardment—but media bombardment. I like to say that we have the largest number of cameras per square foot on the planet [laughs], all pointing at us, looking at us. Roughly, I would say we consume something like two-thirds of the world/international news of the planet. We have been—"we" I would say collectively, Israelis and Palestinians—we have been collaborating in it, in the complete intoxication of our image. We help to produce this oversimplified vision of this relationship of Israeli-Palestinian. In a way it's a very modern war. We use images as part of it. By "we" I [mean] collectively, Palestinians and Israelis, not just one side. But the suffering of each side becom[es] the peon for the future negotiation.

If you're a filmmaker, the only thing you can do, [is to have a] subversive attitude. You have to turn your back [on the media] and say, "I'm not going to be the United CNN, nor the Israeli television, nor the Palestinian one, nor the French, etc., etc., they're all similar images. I'm going to show you something different." And you—my public—you will decide for yourself. And then the question—to go back to what you said—the question of rhythm, this [quality] you call "hypnotic", is essential. Because you say, "I'm also going to deliver it not just by what you are saying, [but] by the way that you say it, by the form. I'm going to show you sequence shots, master shots, so that you will know that I am not cutting and pasting bits and pieces; I'm showing you a complete situation. So you can assemble the pieces in your own brain. It will maybe haunt you for some time, stay in your mind. Next time you will watch the evening news, you will still keep a trace of what I showed you and then it will make this very slow gradual work of proposing an alternative reading." So the question of form is essential to it. You cannot just say [it] by putting [forth] the good politically correct argument. You have to speak about form, about rhythm, about things which are essential, they're not just [an] ideological or political solution. You have to appeal to the subconscious of the rhythm of the way that you like to perceive these fragments.

MG: I imagine that's the artistry of it. You really do become subversively personal. I told myself on the way here to interview you that I wanted to avoid talking about current political events and focus on what is subversively personal in your films. I mean, that's not to say your films are not political. How could they not be political? That's obvious. What is political or what is subversive about them is precisely the attention paid to the human face of things and the variety of opinion.

AG: Yeah.

MG: Your films are also purposefully enigmatic. You don't provide easy, ready answers. As I was watching you interact with your audiences yesterday I was a little bit embarrassed because I thought these people—though well-meaning—were being so literal, asking simple-minded, vapid questions, and you seemed to almost get taciturn, like, "Please…."

AG: [Laughs.] That's it. You got me. [Laughs.] The questions after the first film House were the best. Also, you don't want to enter the normal polemic because—even by entering it—you kind of legitimize it. So I cut them very short and that's it.

MG: Plus it's a departure from your art, which is what you're really trying to present to people.

AG: Yes.

MG: With regard to your use of long, unbroken shots, which are actually—like I said—mesmerizing to me, you got a lot of press for the opening shot in Free Zone where Natalie Portman cries for about seven minutes. For some reason I was under the mistaken assumption that she was going to cry for half an hour and so I had braced myself to endure this woman crying. But it was only seven minutes, which wasn't too bad, and made easier by that wonderful song you used [Chad Gadya—alternately Khad Gadya—performed by the Israeli pop star Chava Alberstein], which staged the considerations that were going to be proposed in the film, readying our minds to think. I like that you challenge your audience; that you don't provide ready answers.

AG: Essentially, I think that's the place where you were born and how you grew up. I love people. I'm not into dissecting or categorizing them because I've seen people from this side or the other side being wonderful or being terrible. The division of everybody being all angelic or devilish [is something] which the evening news will change, every night they will twist it around, one night we Israeli are angelic and the others are terrible bastards and the next night it will be the other way around. I think we are both angelic and devilish and this is [the contradictory nature of being human]. I like to consider that my spectator is intelligent and will read through the images and do the work. This is the experience I like myself as the spectator. I like to interpret films. I don't like just to consume them, just to swallow them in one gulp. They demand something of me. I have to be an interpreter. Other filmmakers, they open [their film] and say, "Come Amos, you are invited. I respect that you will figure it out."

MG: The strategy then of the long take was reminding me some of Tsai Ming-Liang's work where I often think, "What am I being shown?" We are so used to rapid editing through MTV aesthetics that I suspect it has damaged brains so that they can no longer ….

AG: …have the patience.

MG: Have the patience and make their own associations. We're fed—like you said—we're continually fed so that we don't have time to do anything other than just take it in. The long shots provoke inquiry. In that long shot of Natalie Portman crying, did you give her direction?

AG: By the way, I do. There was one very nice thing that Cahiers du Cinema did. They asked me to give them for their internet site this shot that you saw with my instructions. The instructions were a mixture of Hebrew and English and they subtitled it. You can see in a way the unclean version because I speak constantly to my actors—it's a nightmare for the sound editor—but I speak to them constantly when I'm shooting. I want them really focused and, when they become too classicized, I want to derail them a bit so that they don't give me the tricks that they know to do because I'm allergic to these kind of tricks. [Laughs.] So when I see it coming, I kind of destabilize them a bit. Those who are intelligent understand that I am trying to get something really fresh and not too premeditated. The instructions are never mechanical. I can tell her, "Listen, why don't you turn your head to the left for the light" or "open the window now." When I feel that the rhythm is right.

When you finally see my film Kippur, which I did on this war episode I was in when I was shot down, I had th[ese] very big loudspeakers and I used to speak to my actors all the time so they feel a human presence. They don't feel left out there.

MG: Speaking of Kippur and the incident—which horrified me when I heard it yesterday—of your being shot down by a Syrian missile on your birthday, I understand, how did that influence you in terms of where you needed to go next? Such a horrific event could have traumatized some people to become inactive.

AG: Yeah. In this helicopter some people were killed and others were badly traumatized. Since it was on my birthday, I had the good ingredients to be just a pure mystic [laughs] or all strictly religious, or whatever, which was a big temptation. Because statistically, when a helicopter is shot while flying there are almost no cases [of] people stay[ing] alive because normally one of the bullets would hit the petrol and then it would explode in the air. The helicopter cannot even glide. It's not like a plane that, when you shoot it, in some cases the pilots manage to glide and then parachute. In a helicopter you don't have parachutes. You just fall down. In the dry language of the air force, they announced to me that this was an exceptional statistical error that we were alive. [Laughs.]

MG: But you knew it was mystical?

AG: No. I knew that I should … that if it is mystical, I should give it the meaning. And maybe the meaning is that I should tell some stories. I think that's maybe one of the first things that pushed me gradually to become a filmmaker.

MG: I loved the coda to News From Home. I was wondering if maybe you could even repeat it?

AG: It's a rabbi called the Baal Shem in East Europe and I tell the story which is I think beautiful. It really encapsulates our modern experience. In a way I think that all of us in modernity, whether we are Israeli or Palestinians, we are unrooted, we are displaced. The entire planet is composed of displaced people. We are so obsessed with ourselves. We Israeli and Palestinians, we think we are particular, but we are not. The entire humanity is displaced. People are just left with little fragments of the biographies and souvenirs of their ancestors and so on. I think it's part of this age of humanity. People have to make sense. They have to make the great new meanings into this nomadic mental existence. It's not easy. I think that cinema, for me, is a form that I can premeditate and the story of the Baal Shem it tells the story about the rabbi—it's roughly in the Middle Ages—who used to know a spot in the forest and he would go to this spot in the forest and he would light a fire and make a [prayer]. If he would have some question or some trouble he would request that it would be resolved and when he would come back, it would be resolved. A generation later the rabbi knew where the spot was, didn't know how to the light the fire, could make the prayer and he would come back and the question he asked would be resolved. A generation later the rabbi didn't know anymore the spot in the forest, didn't know anymore how to light the fire, he could make the prayer. Then his own generation the rabbi didn't know anymore the spot, he didn't know how to light the fire, he didn't know which prayer to use, but he could tell the story.

MG: I love that. Thank you. It reminds me of the poet who wrote that the universe is not created from atoms, it's created from stories.

AG: That's good.

MG: I love the storytelling force behind cinema. My favorite movie makers are storytellers. I'm so glad you used that parable in News From Home. What also really came out for me in this initial introduction to your work was your abiding compassion. By focusing on the diaspora in the final chapter of the House Trilogy and how—as you infer—all of us are essentially displaced, you come off radical. You help us understand the subsequent owners of this house had come from all over and, like you said, brought with them fractured histories, faded photos that they were happy to share in trying to piece together their lives. I imagine that perspective is not looked upon fondly by Israelis who want to particularize and emphasize their own suffering or their own plight.

AG: Yeah, I think that in this conflict in this region we are into strict ethnocentric presentations. Each group thinks that only they have reason and the other one is completely wrong. I tend to think that, first of all, it's not true. We have to acknowledge each others' attachments. Unless we do it, this will never be resolved. The political solution does not necessarily equal this recognition. We think we can find other solutions than bringing this metaphorical house to its original owners. It's now too late. I don't think we can give it back to its original owners if we don't want to create new tragedies. But we have to recognize that they have attachment to the same house. I think the recognition is important in order to facilitate a reconciliation and, without it, there will never be reconciliation. So when I say it, some of my countrymen don't like me to say that we have attachments. We feel related to this place. Each one with his own argument and own discourse and own narrative, but we both have attachments, and I think it goes through this recognition. Too much ethnocentric[ism], just being obsessed with only we are right and the rest of the world is wrong is a poison to anyone.

MG: My final question: at home I have the Golem Trilogy waiting for me to watch. It's my understanding that one of them features Sam Fuller?

AG: Yeah.

MG: What's your association with Sam Fuller? How did that come about?

AG: I don't know if you have read his autobiography? He dedicates to me a chapter. And the chapter is very sweet. We had really great relations when he was living in Paris in the '80s.

MG: You did a play with him?

AG: I did a play which was an adaptation of Josephus Flavius' The Jewish Wars and [Fuller] was the narrator of it. It was the opening of the Venice Biennale. He participated in two films and we became extremely friendly. In Kippur I thanked him because he always pushed me to do Kippur after I told him my story one evening. He was such a burst of [an] independent way of thinking and a really great person. Myself, I never studied films, I only studied architecture. At this phase when I was living in Paris I tried to surround myself with people who would be my private teachers. My first DP was Henri Alekan who was the DP of Cocteau, with Chaplain, with Abel Gance, who did a lot of films of Marcel Carné, who did The Beauty and the Beast of Cocteau. My first sound recorder was Antoine Bonfanti who did 15 films with Godard. They really taught me a lot. I was doing cinema while these people were.

Sam Fuller I called and he recorded it in his book. He said he came out of a stroke and he was healing in his home. And then he said the phone rings and on the line was Amos Gitaï. Amos says to me, "Sam, I would like you to be in my next film." And Sam says, "Amos, I just came back from the hospital." And I, apparently then—I feel a bit embarrassed—I said to him, according to his recollection, "Don't worry, you have to play the role of a dead man." [Laughs.] And Sam, with his great sense of humor, he writes of this episode and of our voyage later on to Sicily and to Venice to do this play.

When I was working on Kippur, Sam told me his experience when he did The Big Red One, which was shot in Israel. He said, "When you have a question, when you do a war film and you have a question, okay you can look at some existing war films but the best is try to dig into a memory. Don't be satisfied with what is already made. And it was really good advice. On the set of Kippur—which was quite a big set—each time I kept this memory. The last years of his life he moved back to Los Angeles and he invited me to stay with him. I stayed with him a week in his home. It was great because Bravo or the Independent Film Channel showed a retrospective of his films. I was sitting in the salon with him and Christa Fuller. I watched six or seven films—Naked Kiss, Shock Corridor, and so on—and each time Sam would make for me a private—again, it was just the three of us—voiceover of circumstances where he shot each film. So it was really great.

MG: Wow. Well, that education has paid off because now you've become the educator, Amos. I want to thank you very much for the time. I'm really looking forward to learning more about your films.

AG: Thank you.

Cross-posted on Twitch.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

YBCA: NEGLECTED HORROR—10 Rillington Place

Dennis Harvey's informative Bay Guardian write-up on Richard Fleischer's 10 Rillington Place (1971)—the third installment in Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' "Neglected Horror" series—relieves me from having to be thorough in any sense of the word. I need merely concur with his assessment that this "chillingly poker-faced tale" (based upon the infamous 1948 John Reginald Christie murders in Britain, which—due to the execution of an innocent man—played a significant role in that country's abolition of the death penalty) is a "credible version of the much-disputed case." Likewise, I agree with Harvey's statement that everything about 10 Rillington Place "is astutely controlled, but two performances—[Richard] Attenborough's and [John] Hurt's—push that description into the realm of brilliance, indelibly etching the respective banalities of evil and of innocence."

Although forewarned by YBCA's capsule, my first thought after watching 10 Rillington Place was, "Why is this considered 'horror'?" To which my mind quickly answered, "Because it is." Sexual psychopath serial killers will always be respectable members of the horror genre, albeit guised in police procedurals. 10 Rillington Place is a soberly measured portrait of seemingly harmless John Reginald Christie, an ordinary middle-aged man, balding, bespectacled, suffering from chronic back pain, who killed eight times over a 13-year period. As described by Chris Wood at British Horror Films, Christie was "a deranged slaphead with a predeliction for gassing young women and abusing their twitching corpses . . . frotting the body and moaning with orgasmic delight."

"Never overly violent, conventionally frightening or aggressive in tone," David Mercier writes (at his retired site Film Judge), 10 Rillington Place "manages to chill and create enormous discomfort with such ease. By taking for granted the fact that the audience knows what is going to happen, it presents quite horrific scenes in a very matter-of-fact way, which means the audience are engrossed in what is going on, but know they are powerless to do anything about it. This is a very difficult balance to get right, but this film succeeds superbly, and creates an atmosphere where the viewer feels like they're physically watching the crimes behind a piece of unbreakable glass." He concludes that the relaxed style of the film "belies a ruthless center", which in many ways "matches the charming and wicked efficiency of Christie himself." If this sounds like Alfred Hitchcock, you're spot on. In fact, 10 Rillington Place reminded me very much of Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972). When poor Beryl Evans (Judy Geeson) is being raped and murdered upstairs, workmen are going about their business downstairs.

Being invited to a cup of tea because "the kettle's on" has never been so dangerous. The rope Christie uses to strangle his gullible victims is the same as that used for a rope chair he likes to sit in. His quiet decision to strangle his own wife because she has finally caught on to his shenanigans jumps straight to the act of his burying her beneath the floorboards. This effective ellipse reminded me of that horrific realization in Henry, Portrait of A Serial Killer (1986) when you realize Henry has actually murdered the young girl who has been so kind to him; when you realize some men just can't help their killing instincts no matter how kindly you try to rehabilitate them, or how sympathetic their victims are. Pat Heywood deserves mention as Christie's dowdy wife Ethel who refuses to acknowledge the evidence of her husband's actions, averting her gaze and plugging her ears as he drags bodies out of the apartment to hide them in an outdoor shed.

Monica Sullivan points out: "There is no attempt to explain or excuse Christie and the sheer matter-of-factness of his crimes is the most terrifying aspect of this film." I agree. What makes the murders in 10 Rillington Place so horrific is that we're never really given the backstory as to Christie's motivations. We're never given any insight. Likewise, we never know why Timothy John Evans (John Hurt) so willingly allows himself to be scapegoated and framed for the murder of his wife and child, only rallying to his own defense when it is far too late. Indelible etchings of the respective banalities of evil and of innocence, indeed.

According to the IMDb, Fleischer's treatment of the Christie stranglings was filmed on location at Rillington Place, which had changed its name to Ruston Mews after the notorious killings. However, the house that was used was not 10 Rillington Place—it was actually No. 6. The street was demolished in the year after the film's release to make way for the Westway urban motorway.

The film draws heavily from Ludovic Kennedy's book of the same name which, in turn, relied extensively on trial transcripts. Kennedy was an outspoken critic of the death penalty and used the unjust execution of Timothy John Evans as case in point. According to John Hurt, "real life retired executioner Albert Pierrepoint was a technical advisor for the execution scene. This scene was the first British people had seen in a cinema of a British hanging, and as it was still Government Official Secrets Act, no details regarding the scene was available. This is where Albert Pierrepoint came in, under an assumed name, and was able to re-create the harrowing scene to maximize the true terror of what it must have been like." Evans was pardoned 12 years after his execution and his body exhumed and reburied in sacred ground. That justice could be so belatedly cavalier might explain why this film is considered horror.

The scene that affected me the most is when Evans is sentenced to death by hanging and Christie, present in the court room, breaks into sobs of relief. Attenborough, perhaps better know for directing Ghandi and for playing the kindly scientist in Jurassic Park, delivers a powerfully understated and thankless performance as John Reginald Christie, as much a monster as anything else horror has to offer.

Cross-posted on Twitch.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

THE DESCENT—The Evening Class Interview With Neil Marshall

I first saw Neil Marshall's The Descent when it screened at the 49th San Francisco International Film Festival earlier this year. Graham Leggat's endorsement that the movie had made him pee his pants at Sundance was enough for me to risk soiling my own clothes. All throughout that memorable screening I had to keep apologizing to the young woman beside me for screaming like a little girl. I was genuinely terrified.

When I saw it again last week at a press screening I thought for sure—knowing the story and where the scares occur—that I would be adequately prepared. Not so. I screamed just as loud just as often. Every now and then the horror genre is ratcheted up a notch—Psycho, Alien, and, now, Neil Marshall's The Descent. Neil took time from his first visit to San Diego's Comicon to answer some of my questions by phone.

Michael Guillén: I have to start at the beginning, Neil, and flat out ask you where did this story come from?

Neil Marshall: Looking back at Dog Soldiers, I thought it wasn't particularly scary. It came out as a black comedy more than anything else. I still had this fundamental need in me to make a horror film that genuinely terrified people. In the same way that I was genuinely terrified by the likes of Deliverance or Alien or The Shining, all those films from the '70s that I grew up with and have haunted me ever since. There was also a need to make a horror film that took itself seriously, that played it straight. So the story emerged from that desire really.

MG: The reason I ask is I was a student of the late mythographer Joseph Campbell who used to speak a lot about mythic descent motifs so I was wondering if you had any mythic precedents to the story?

NM: No. Well, not consciously anyway. The main story that I wanted to tell was about one specific character's descent into savagery and madness and insanity and the rest of it followed on from there.

MG: It was interesting that you played with the multiple meanings of "descent", not only the physical descent into the cave, but the spiraling psychological descent into madness of one of the main characters Sarah (Shauna MacDonald). Were you also playing with the idea of lineage? I got the sense that these crawlers were horrific ancestors of ours?

NM: Absolutely. That's totally what they're supposed to be. They're the ancestors of the human race; an offshoot or splinter group of the human race. When we were all cave men, we left the cave and evolved and they stayed in the cave and they went the other way.

MG: I'm glad to hear I was correct in that perception. Your script is so tight that I didn't think there was any reason for something to be there that didn't have any importance. The scene where they discovered the cave paintings is what brought that alternate meaning of "descent" to mind.

NM: In the first cut of the film there was a very brief scene later on where one of the characters tries to guess what these creatures might be and suggests this whole theory. I thought, "Naw, just leave it ambiguous." The clues are there—like the cave paintings—the clues are there for people to figure out.

MG: You're characteristically attentive to the importance of dialogue and character in your films, and in The Descent particularly the script is tightly developed. It's my understanding you spent over two years working on the script with producer Christian Colson and went through 10-15 drafts until you felt ready to film?

NM: It wasn't so many as 15, it was about 8, but we did take the time over it because we were determined to get it right. One of the things that happened quite early on—I think it was in the first or second draft—we had the physical journey of the film sorted out, the cave description and the journey we were going to make, the geography of the cave. It was from that basis that we then proceeded to develop the characters, to make the characters as real and as genuine and as 3-dimensional as possible.

MG: They were sound complex portraits of women, unlike the usual caricatures of women in horror films.

NM: I think as a couple of guys it was really important to us to get it as accurate as possible and not make it condescending to women or derogatory in any way. It had to be authentic. These were strong-willed independent contemporary women that we were trying to depict. We had to get it right. I, personally, as the writer, consulted a lot of women that I know just to get their feedback on it. Hopefully, it paid off. I'm very happy with the result. Also, when I was filming it, I was working with the actresses a lot along the way.

MG: How did you end up finding the actresses? What process did you go through for that?

NM: We did a very thorough casting. In some cases—like the character of Holly played by Nora-Jane Noone—I'd seen her work in Magdalen Sisters and I just thought she was a really strong amazing actress. Once I met her, I just cast her immediately, we didn't bother reading anyone else for that role. Whereas some of the other characters, like Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and Sarah, they were the last to get cast because we met so many people and it was really important to get the absolutely right one for that part. Shauna MacDonald fought tooth and nail to get the part [of Sarah] and totally deserved it. She really brought something to it, which is both the gentle nature of the character at the beginning that's in direct contrast with the absolute insanity and lunacy of the character at the end. What a transformation she made throughout that film!

MG: That's what caused me to ask about the possible mythic underpinnings of your story. What I was thinking about was the original descent myth of Inanna going into the underworld and fighting with her sister, the Death Queen of the Underworld. One of the premises is that, in order for Inanna to return above ground, she has to become like her sister, as death-dealing as her sister. I felt that with this movie. Sarah had to become as brutal as the "crawlers" in order to get out of that cave.

NM: Absolutely, she had to become as primal, and as savage as the "crawlers", and I loved the idea. When she's standing there with the fire in one hand and the bone in the other, I just thought, "That's symbolic of her journey." She's almost becoming one of the "crawlers" in a way.

MG: I grew up being scared by Britain's Hammer Studio Films. There now appears to be a resurgence of the British film industry, horror in particular. What's your sense of that? You clearly enjoy scaring the pants off people, is this a genre you hope to remain within?

NM: At the moment I want to take a break from it for a little while. I feel like I've kind of left myself nowhere to go at the moment. I've achieved two things that I wanted to achieve with the horror film. I made a black comedy horror movie which is kind of like some films I really loved when I was growing up, the Evil Dead 2 and the Pete Jackson movies and things like that. And then I've gone and done this straight horror movie which again is an homage to the other films I love as horror movies, The Shining, Alien, The Thing and Deliverance. Now I want to tell some different genre stories, I want to explore some new territory, and then come back to horror with a vengeance next year or the year after. I have too many stories to tell and they're not all horror. But I love the genre so much that I'm not going to desert it.

MG: Well, you have certainly revitalized it. I have to be honest and say that I was screaming like a girl in this movie.

NM: [Chuckles.] That's a fantastic thing for you to say because that's absolutely what I intended to do. I wanted people to be quivering wrecks by the end of the film. Either you go into it thinking, "Well, I've got an idea of how that might happen", but you never know if it's actually going to work or not. To find out that it has worked and that people are responding to it that way is the ultimate reward for a horror director. It's fantastic. I love that.

MG: Do you link your horror film into the recent trend of "survival horror" or "torture horror"—Saw, Hostel, Wolf Creek, etc—did you have any of that in mind?

NM: Not deliberately, no. I mean I guess "survival horror" because that's a term that's been around for years. If you want to categorize it, The Descent would be a "survival horror" film, I suppose. This "torture horror" thing is a recent development. When the film was made and released in the UK, I'd never even heard the term "torture horror". I think it's only this year that it's really been talked about that much, probably specifically with Hostel more than anything. So, no, that was never a deliberate thought in my mind.

MG: The Descent has been released theatrically with two different endings; the American release being slightly shorter than the British. What necessitated the alternate ending? Is it much different from the original?

NM: It is shorter and it is very different. It puts a whole new light on the film in a way. It has a real big impact on the end of the film. So it's worth tracking down just to see what you think. But you have to see it in context, you have to watch the whole film to understand it. The reason for the change came because I toyed with the alternative ending in the UK in the edit but we decided to go with the longer version, the descriptive version and our original vision. I'm glad that I did that. It was fantastic. It's an ending that I really love. But when it was released, it split audiences down the middle. Some people loved it, some people hated it. Given almost a second chance with its release in the U.S., I thought, "Well, let's just try the other ending." We had nothing to lose in a way because the original ending already exists and is already out there so we just thought, "Let's try this" and Lionsgate was keen to go with it.

MG: That's a rare opportunity to have both endings out there like that.

NM: It is. At the end of the day it's the dvd age and I'm sure the original ending will turn up on the dvd. It's not like no one's going to get to see it if they want it.

MG: The pacing of the film—it's my understanding that the actresses were never allowed to see the "crawlers" until they were actually filmed with them? There's an exquisite slow burn and buildup of suspense. In fact, The Descent is like three different horror films. First, there's the horrible car accident and the shocks associated with that. Then the claustrophobic feel in the cave. Then the full-out rampage of the "crawlers".

NM: Absolutely. It was deliberately a three-act concept of introducing the characters and getting them into the cave. Then spend the second act just exploring the horror of the cave and caving itself, the claustrophobia and all these other elements. Just milk that for all it's worth, milk it for all the tension that we can get out of it, and just when you think things can't get any worse; let's make them worse. [Laughs.] Let's just take it even further down the descent. It was fun to do that. That was entirely deliberate.

MG: How were the "crawlers" designed? Were they an image that you had in your mind or did that come up through Paul Hyett doing the prosthetics for you?

NM: The actual construction of them and, I suppose, the physical design of them had a lot to do with Paul Hyett and his sculptors that he used. I basically took them the science behind the creatures. I said, "They're humans but they've evolved underground. They live in the pitch black so they're blind. They use their hearing to hunt. They use this kind of sonar like bats. They're going to be pretty rough and ready but they're also going to be pallid, the pigmentation of their skin's going to be gone because they never see sunlight." I put all this stuff to Paul and I also said, "I have these guys [Craig Conway and Les Simpson] I want to use as the crawlers who are really physical, theatrical actors." And he applied all his thinking to that and came up with the designs that we have. We had a whole row of heads—what I call head designs—I just went along and said, "We'll have that one, that one, that one and that one." It was great from then on. That was it.

MG: They're terrifying. Towards the final scenes Sarah is drenched in blood and she reminded me of Carrie. Was that intentional? Or do blonde-haired women always look like that when they're drenched in blood?

NM: I think blonde-haired women are bound to look like Carrie when they're drenched in blood. I was well aware of the obvious comparison but it was like, "What am I going to do about it?" I'm not going to deny that it's there; it's just there. I love Carrie. I think it's another one of the great horror films. This film is loaded—much like Dog Soldiers is loaded—with visual references to other films that people will either get or they won't. A whole new generation of kids who are going to see this film will never have seen Carrie. It doesn't matter a drop to them. They're just going to take it at face value. Which is fine but there's people like me out there who are movie geeks and we like to see that kind of stuff. Sarah's head coming out of the water is like Apocalypse Now. There's various other things along the way. Dog Soldiers is full of references to westerns and war movies and all sorts of things that no one will ever get except me. [Laughs.]

MG: Will there be a sequel to Dog Soldiers?

NM: I don't know. There's rumors of it. I'm not going to have anything to do with it myself.

MG: Finally, I understand your next project is going to be Doomsday, due out next year? Can you say anything about it? Has it been cast at all?

NM: I'm casting as soon as I get back to the U.K. but, it's all very exciting, we're going to start filming toward Christmas and, yeah, it should be fun.

MG: Well, Neil, I thank you very much for your time. I love The Descent, I've seen it twice already and I'll be seeing it again. Thank you very much and congratulations.

NM: Cheers.

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Cross-posted at Twitch, where Todd Brown has written the Twitch review. This piece has also been published at Entertainment Today.