Thursday, August 16, 2012

NOIR CITY X: THREE STRANGERS (1946)—Introduction by Eddie Muller

It seems like only yesterday that Noir City's shadow lengthened across the continental United States to include an edition in Chicago, Illinois, alongside its already successful traveling road shows in Hollywood, Seattle and Washington, D.C. When Eddie Muller and I first discussed the trial run in Chicago, he framed it in exactly those terms. "Quite honestly, Michael," Muller admitted to me at the time, "repertory cinema these days is not only a year-by-year thing; it's a month-by-month thing it seems. The economy of the festival circuit is such that you can't really count on anything at this point." Launching into its fourth year this coming weekend, it appears that Noir City can count on the Windy City to happily clutch its shadows close to its vest. Venued once again at the Music Box Theatre, Noir City: Chicago runs Friday, August 17 through Tuesday, August 23, 2012.

Noir City: Chicago kicks off with Jean Negulesco's Three Strangers (1946), summarized as a "fantastic tale" wherein "the verities of fate are explored", namely how the fates of three strangers entwine with a mysterious Chinese idol and a winning lottery ticket. "Deeply cynical, gloriously atmospheric, never on DVD, and almost lost in 35mm", Noir City proudly presents this forgotten classic in a brand new preservation print funded by the Film Noir Foundation (FNF). Now seemed as good a time as any to revisit Eddie Muller's introductory comments to the screening of Three Strangers in San Francisco earlier this year.

Enthused to show off "the wares" of FNF in his Noir City X introduction to Three Strangers, "Czar of Noir" Eddie Muller discounted the circulated misperception that Three Strangers was intended to be a sequel to The Maltese Falcon (1941). Muller reminded his audience that John Huston (along with the soon-to-be blacklisted Howard Koch) wrote the script for Three Strangers before he wrote the script for The Maltese Falcon. It took a while at Warner Brothers for Three Strangers to enter production, but once they cast Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre in the film—which included a mysterious idol that figured into the plot, much like the black bird—Warners decided to market the film exactly as if it was a sequel to The Maltese Falcon. Three Strangers starred Geraldine Fitzgerald as well, who was John Huston's first choice to play Brigid O'Shaughnessy in his version of The Maltese Falcon. Three Strangers was, therefore, a bit of a reunion for all those folks, although the film ended up being directed by Jean Negulesco and not John Huston.

Three Strangers is a classic mid-'40s Warner Brothers production, dripping with atmosphere and mystery and one of those noirs, Muller distinguished, that's really about how you can't escape fate. "We love the noirs about people who self-destruct," he admitted, "but we also love the noirs about how fate screws you no matter what you do."

Increasingly over the years and no less at Noir City X, people have repeatedly asked Muller how the restoration of a film actually works and how much it actually costs. "There is no set answer," Muller explained, "and Three Strangers is a perfect example of that." Noting that another entry in the line-up, The Great Gatsby (1949) was at the festival "through the good graces of our friends at Universal Pictures", Muller stressed how much he cherished FNF's relationship with Universal Pictures because of the way in which they took it upon themselves to make a new print of The Great Gatsby at their costs. Things were really different at Warner Brothers with Three Strangers. Although Three Strangers was scheduled to be eventually released on DVD, there was no 35mm print of the film that was screenable. So FNF told Warner Brothers that they would actually pay for a new print because of the success of Noir City, and the big audiences they've drawn in San Francisco and four other cities, where the ticket revenue from these screenings will actually underwrite the cost of the Foundation making a new print, so that—as Muller wryly chided—"we don't feel totally embarrassed by the fact that we are paying for a print that's owned by one of the world's biggest entertainment conglomerates, okay?"

The newly-struck print of Three Strangers will reside at the UCLA Film and Television Archives as part of the Film Noir Foundation collection. The rights to the film are still owned by Warner Brothers, of course, but Muller thanked Ned Price who runs the archives at Warner Brothers for graciously allowing the deposit of original materials at UCLA so that a new print could be struck. "What you are seeing today is the second answer print of Three Strangers shipped to San Francisco for the Noir City X screening," Muller said, adding: "If Eddie does not approve of this print, there will be changes made."

The exquisite program guide to Noir City X—a collector's item, if ever I've seen one—offered the following trivia with regard to Three Strangers: "John Huston wrote the original story for Three Strangers in the mid-1930s, predating his film of The Maltese Falcon, but not Dashiell Hammett's 1929 novel. Huston wrote in his autobiography, An Open Book, that the inspirations for the story were a wooden Chinese figure he had purchased in an antique shop and a discussion he'd had about Irish Sweepstakes tickets.

"Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre costarred in nine films. Greenstreet was known as the 'Fat Man', Lorre as the 'Little Man,' and they typically portrayed characters different in the extreme, much as they were: Greenstreet was larger than life, cynical, and dignified, occasionally jovial; Lorre was nervous, serious, and occasionally devious.

"Joan Lorring (Icy Crane) was born Mary Magdalena Ellis in Hong Kong but was forced to flee with her family to San Francisco during the '39 Japanese invasion. She found work on the radio in Los Angeles, which quickly led to movie roles including a Best Supporting Actress nomination in 1945 (at age 18) for The Corn Is Green, opposite Bette Davis. She reappeared with costars Greenstreet and Lorre in 1946's The Verdict."

Of related interest: In his essay for Turner Classic Movies, Jeff Stafford describes Three Strangers as "an atmospheric melodrama with film noir shadings." At her site Self-Styled Siren, Farran Smith Nehme gives good thought to applying an auteurist lens to the career of Jean Negulesco. PopMatters says of Three Strangers: "Life as a gamble and a shell game, a world of fate and superstition misread as destiny by those who project their obsessions and character across its face. As for the overall darkness of its vision, well, what can be said about a movie in which Lorre plays the most sympathetic character?" Movie Legends has a great photo gallery, from which the bulk of images for this entry have been taken.

The film's theatrical trailer:



Muller introducing the film at the Seattle edition of Noir City, notable for his ever-eloquent defense of 35mm restoration and preservation:

 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

FANTASIA 2012: CITADEL (2012)—Q&A With Director Ciarán Foy and Producer Brian Coffey

In recent years, the tendency of horror films to hybrid with comedy has gained a huge fan base but I can't claim to be one of them or, rather, my initial amusement has dissipated as the horror comedy hybrid has become way too much the norm and an obvious low-budget (if not downright lazy) strategy at genre filmmaking. As much as I enjoy genre hybrids—and the complex if conflicted emotions they purposely induce—I sometimes hunger for pure fear and dread from a film that doesn't shy away from its thirsty roots in terror. For me, I especially prefer terror that arises from an encounter with something inhuman or subhuman, something monstrous. As Mario DeGiglio Bellemare explained to me, the word "monster" comes from the Latin word monstrare, meaning "to show", and is cognate with the English word "demonstrate", meaning "to show clearly". So monsters are not just evil creatures; they show, reveal and point to something. But what are they pointing to? And what is the need within me to have them point to something I can barely stomach? As if there is pleasure in surviving what I might be shown, especially if it is—let's say—something alarmingly revealing about class structure, socio-economic pressures or an unfounded trust in the touted tenets of civilization, including the way we raise and educate children?

Film after film at Fantasia, I found myself alternately amused, entertained, sometimes laughing out loud, sometimes grossed out and groaning, sometimes cheering on battle carnage; but, never truly frightened. Not until I caught the Canadian premiere of Ciarán Foy's debut feature Citadel (2012) [IMDb / Facebook] whose murderous feral children—perhaps not considered "monsters", exactly—nonetheless enflamed many of the fears I've developed as I've grown older. I walked back to Le Nouvel Hôtel after watching Citadel with one eye looking over my shoulder, nervous, insecure, and fearful that I might be mugged. I felt helpless and vulnerable. That hadn't happened to me in quite some time and certainly not with any other film at this year's edition of Fantasia. As Joe Leydon nailed it at Variety, Citadel "skillfully taps into primal fears and urban paranoia." It is "intensely suspenseful."

Leydon also states that Citadel "will be especially nerve-wracking for any parent who's ever doubted whether he or she could overcome immobilizing fear and spring into action to defend an endangered offspring. Foy exploits that cruel doubt with ruthless efficiency in this impressive debut feature." At FEARnet, Scott Weinberg writes: "Citadel employs simple and effective horror tropes in service of a film that has something a little bit angry to say about crime in low-income neighborhoods, but says it in a frank and starkly entertaining fashion." Quiet Earth claims that "Citadel is one of those films that works not because it has a groundbreaking setup or movie monster (it doesn't), but rather because it fully explores its main character's conflict."

Remember the brutal street gangs kicking old people to death in Stanley Kubrick's Clockwork Orange (1971)? Or the elusive red-hooded dwarf child in Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973)? Or the deformed children in David Cronenberg's The Brood (1979)? Or the demon delinquents in Heartless (2009)? Foy successfully resurrects a familiar fear of the threat posed by youth gangs and infuses it with agoraphobic undercurrents and paranoiac tension.

With a strong central performance by Aneurin Barnard—last seen as the squire in Ironclad (2011)—a grating metallic sound design, a digitally weathered palette, and a refusal to submit to tough love as remedy, Citadel suggests a real horror to fear in the socioeconomic climate of today's world.

Citadel has won multiple awards on the festival circuit, including the Midnighters Audience Award at South by Southwest 2012, the H.R. Giger Narcisse Award for Best Film, the Silver Méliès for Best European Fantastic Film, and Special Mention from the Mad Movies Jury at Switzerland's Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival 2012, Best First Irish Feature Film, Galway Film Fleadh, and—most recently—Best Director for Foy and Best Actor for Barnard at PiFan (Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival).

Admittedly thrilled to be invited to Fantasia's sixteenth birthday party, Ciarán Foy described his first feature film Citadel as "half psychological horror half autobiography", insofar as when he was 18 he suffered a vicious and unprovoked attack by a gang of youths. He was beaten with a hammer and threatened with a dirty syringe against his throat. That trauma left him with a severe case of agoraphobia, which he battled throughout his early 20s. Citadel is his story about his eventual recovery from that trauma mixed with his nightmares and paranoid imaginings.

Asked to delineate where Citadel fits within a recent spate of films out of the U.K. dealing with violent hooded gangs (Heartless comes to mind), Foy answered that he didn't "set out to make a hoodie film"; he was merely referencing what he had directly experienced. Hoodies just happen to be the dress code of these delinquent gangs. His attack happened more than 10 years ago and it's taken more than five to get Citadel off the ground, so it's also not like he's patterning the film after any recent trend in horror. That being said, Foy admitted that David Cronenberg's Brood was a major influence on the film.

Citing the oft-stated admonition never to work with babies on a set, Foy said that he and his team did everything you're not supposed to do with a low-budget independent film. They had gangs of kids to deal with. Two twin boys were playing the baby girl, both of who got ear infections after a couple of weeks of shooting. They had been shooting for a week when all of a sudden the snow hit, making certain locations inaccessible. They had never had snow in November. "You combine all those elements that would make a shoot chaotic and stressful anyway, and then you put babies into the mix," Foy grinned, "Which made it interesting."


Asked which parts of the film specifically reference the working out of his earlier trauma, Foy said it was contained primarily in the first half of the film where Tommy (Barnard) is fearful of leaving the house. This reflected a period of his own experience where he was housebound purely out of fear. It was a threshold he couldn't cross. He had to force himself to go out the door. He couldn't even look out the front door without panicking. The front door became a monolith that scared him shitless, even just to look at it. There's a lot of him in the house scenes in the movie. Serendipitously, it was the letter from the National Film School saying he'd been accepted that actually helped him to get out of his house and it wasn't until he took advantage of free counseling at the school that he identified he had been suffering from agoraphobia.

When the counselor used the word "agoraphobia", it kicked off the DNA of Citadel, and Foy visualized Tommy's victimized body posture. The counselor said her research suggested that a pedophile could enter a room and identify a former victim based on minimal cues from their body language. Similarly, street thugs or would-be predators can almost see their victims' fear. As a filmmaker, he started wondering, "What if that were literally the case?" Which he found to be a creepy concept.

Other remnants of his experience filtered into the film in indirect ways. There was a bit of his Dad in the priest (James Cosmo, Game of Thrones), insofar as he's a grounded "pull yourself together" kind of guy. His dad had never heard of agoraphobia either and would often ask Foy, "What's wrong with you?" Some of his mother was in the character of the social worker Marie (Wunmi Mosaku), through her sense of empathy, understanding and altruism. In gist, Foy wanted to make a movie that was something of a love letter to his experiences and where he was in his own mind as a frightened 18-year-old. The voice that kept telling him the kids who attacked him needed to be understood capsized under the shock of his own experience, which instead affirmed, "No. They're something to be truly feared."

Foy settled on the film's strong one-word title after its initial working title Fortress of Fear, which Foy knew was terrible, so he reduced it to Fortress, completely forgetting about Stuart Gordon's 1993 film of that name. He went to the thesaurus to look up other words for fortress and found citadel, which reminded him of city, and he felt the word could equally represent the mind, or the tower block apartment within which Tommy barricades himself.

As to the difficulty of lead actor Aneurin Barnard maintaining a state of fear throughout the film, Foy said they didn't actually have rehearsal. During the "rehearsal period" they spent most of the time just talking in depth about what he had felt at certain moments in his experience and what Barnard's characterization of Tommy should be feeling, down to the sweaty palms and stinging eyes. As research, Barnard attended agoraphobic groups based in Glasgow. Foy and Barnard developed an honest in-depth exchange on set rather than through rehearsing scenes.

When the snow hit and they were scrambling to find new locations, and everything got thrown into the mix, the shooting became more like, "Let's forget about all that; let's just get the shot." In other words, an odd sense of panic. Barnard never had the chance to come down from his permanent state of anxiety, which ended up being a blessing in disguise for the film, which Foy feels whenever he watches the film. Producer Brian Coffey added that Barnard would also run for about an hour and a half to two hours each morning before arriving on set, basically exhausting himself in effect to maintain that sense of constant exhaustion in his portrayal of Tommy.

Key to insuring that audiences would care about his characters, Foy admitted, "I'm a geek at heart and I've always been a horror fan. When people talk about fear and terror, it's directly related to how you care about the main character. If you feel awe and wonder about a main character, it doesn't matter what the special effects are: you will feel awe and wonder about that main character. In a similar way, it was paramount that audiences connected with Tommy and identified with him. That became a challenge in the casting as well. I needed someone with an emotional range within that age—Aneurin was 21? 22?—and I also needed someone who visually from the moment they stepped on screen you could empathize with." Foy had worried that because Tommy was a reluctant hero that people might lose patience with him and start complaining, "Pull yourself together." But that's where the priest comes in and incorporates the voice of the audience. "Caring for a character is something I would like to see more in horror films because when you really care it escalates the fear and dread."

I expressed my interest in how he had differentiated the children within his story. Based on his own trauma, and as reflected in the script, certain of the children were presented as undeniably violent and dangerous; life-threatening. But then there is the effort to save certain of the other children, the baby, and Danny the blind boy, who came across as an inbetween character needing to be saved. I asked Foy what he was trying to say by way of these different kinds of children? "I wanted to have someone who would show the stages of childhood, from Elsa who is completely innocent, there's nothing wrong with her, to the extreme cases who are beyond saving, and then Danny in the middle to suggest that this would have been the route Elsa would have taken had she not been found. The hoods—as we called them on set—don't obviously represent real kids. Coming from where I was as an 18-year-old to now, there are of course so many socio-economic reasons why things are the way they are; but, when it happens to you, you see nothing but pure evil. Horror gives you permission to create a creature that allows you live out a fantasy that feels uncomfortable and wrong."

I followed up by asking him to talk about how he developed the film's grating sound design. Steve Fanagan was his sound designer and worked with tomandandy, who scored what Foy considers one of the creepiest scores ever: The Mothman Prophecies (2002). Foy had a short window to work with them and they cross-pollinated the sound design with some of the music. He added that it was a pity that the theater was not equipped to handle the full surround sound of the film, which he swears sounds even better.

Numerologically, the number three is ever present in Citadel. Near where Ciaran grew up in Dublin, there were three tower blocks, which kicked off the presence of trinities in the film. "You have Tommy, Joanne and the baby at the beginning. Then you have Tommy, Marie and Elsa. Then you've got the Father, son and the holy weird boy. Then you have the three numbers on the door, which represent the three towers and one of them was going to fall. There's no DaVinci Code thing about it but it was fun to give the film some more unity, or a rhyme as it goes along that works subconsciously."

Thursday, August 09, 2012

FANTASIA 2012: CRAVE (2012)—The Evening Class Interview With Raleigh Stewart

Charles de Lauzirika has anointed Raleigh Stewart the "hero" of his directorial debut Crave, not only for being the film's associate producer and digital effects supervisor but also the designer of the film's imaginative end titles. Following the Q&A session at Crave's Fantasia sold-out world premiere, Stewart and I took a moment in the lobby of the Salle J.A. de Sève to discuss his work on the end credits.

[This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!]

* * *

Michael Guillén: Raleigh, can you talk a bit about how you came up with the concept for your end titles and then linked them into the film?

Raleigh Stewart: It was a big challenge. I was looking for a hook, reading the script over and over again, and I actually had a whole other direction already designed, but then as I read the script again—specifically the scene where Aiden (Josh Lawson) was looking out the window and staring into the pinwheels reflecting in his eyes—I recalled that they were referred as whirligigs.

I'm the son of a couple of hippies and I remember going to folk art festivals and Mom always had these whirligigs at home, these rudimentary kinetic sculptures, and I always thought they were really cool. I thought, "Wouldn't that be an interesting, whimsical way to depict some of those horrible scenarios in the movie as whirligigs?" The prototype was Josh Lawson's bludgeoning. I modeled everything in 3D, rigged it, lit it and sent it to Charlie. He flipped out and absolutely loved it. He said, "If you can do this 15 more times, let's do it!" I was over the moon and thrilled and got right down and drew everyone out, figured out all the mechanics of all the riggings, and most of those could actually work practically. I'm actually going to make one now that it's all said and done.

Guillén: They are some of the most inventive end credits I've ever seen.

Stewart: Thank you. I had a lot of fun doing them and, hopefully, we'll see them on Art of the Title.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

FANTASIA 2012: CRAVE (2012)—Q&A With Director Charles de Lauzirika, producer Raleigh Stewart, production designer David L. Snyder and Actor Josh Lawson

Crave [IMDb / Facebook]—the sold-out SRO Fantasia world premiere of the long anticipated feature directorial debut from regular Ridley Scott collaborator Charles de Lauzirika—stylishly depicts Aiden, an alienated crime scene photographer (Josh Lawson), teetering on the verge of vigilantism. Described by Lauzirika as a mix between Walter Mitty and Travis Bickle, Aiden spends a lot of time in his own head entertaining violent and sexual fantasies that counter an otherwise disempowered existence. Sound familiar? When Aiden becomes attracted to Virginia (Emma Lung), the thin line between love and hate—let alone fantasy and reality—begins to unravel.

Of the one-week sampling of films that I had the pleasure of watching at this year's edition of Fantasia, Crave surfaced as an awakened giant. I predict a robust film festival run and an attractive distribution deal in the near future and it will be heartening to see Lauzirika's debut feature make great strides in festivals to come.

A remarkably fresh genre hybrid that resists and works against genre expectations, Crave is a slightly noirish love story with polished comic flourishes and an unnerving psychological descent. It will speak to the rage each of us feel, betrayed by so-called "civilization", and the fantasies we guiltily crave to act out.

Every single performance is spot-on, most notably lead actor Josh Lawson's sweet, sexy and ultimately disturbing portrayal of everyman Aiden, his love interest Emma Lung as a sweet and sour femme fatale, Edward Furlong as her seedy accomplice Ravi, and the ubiquitous Ron Perlman as police officer Pete in one of the most appropriately restrained roles of his career. Sound design and score add engaging texture and Raleigh Stewart's closing title credits are a whirligig collage that deserve a standing ovation all on their own.

Crave sets a bar so unique that it will stand alone and as one-of-a-kind for quite some time. I'm not alone in my assessment. Crave won the New Flesh Award for Best First Feature. As stated in Fantasia's press release: "This impressive debut captivated the jury with its remarkable production value. Its efficient storytelling and intelligent internal dialogue, generously embracing the author's personality, provided a riveting portrait of a road to madness." At his site, Alex Bowyer describes Crave as "a skillful blend of darkness and light, a movie of laughter and sorrow that defies classification and deserves great success." At Fangoria, Michael Gingold writes: "It's one of the best films to appear this year, and a wide audience should be allowed to find out why." At Entertainment Maven, Matt Hodgson terms it "both endearing and deliciously evil" and at Spectacular Optical Marybel Gervais deems Crave "an arrow straight to the heart." In his way-too-spoilerish review for Variety, John Anderson complains that Lauzirika's admittedly "accomplished debut feature is too funny and self-aware to be disturbing, but it's certainly memorable, and should find a distributor and a place in the hearts of genre fans." Anderson adds that "the film's playfulness causes the action to spike, but renders the tone more erratic."


Speaking of spoilers, the following Q&A transcript is probably not for the spoiler-wary. Consider yourself warned.

* * *

Mitch Davis—Fantasia's Co-Festival Director and Co-Director of International Programming—introduced Charles de Lauzirika as having produced "some of the best home video releases of some of our favorite films from the last 30 years, from the laserdisc period up through DVD and Blu-ray, including restorations for theatrical re-release. Almost every Ridley Scott box set—including the Alien box set that everyone loved a couple of years ago—is Charles' work. He restored Alien 3 (1992) to Fincher's original cut or as close and approximate as possible, which is pretty amazing; it's an epic labor of love. He did the Twin Peaks box set with David Lynch. He's worked with the Coen Brothers. He's worked with about everybody. He has a phenomenal career."

Lauzirika recalled that he'd been wanting to make a feature film since he was seven years old. "My Mom took me to the Hastings Theatre in Pasadena, California to see Jaws. That kind of changed my life, my world, and everything. It's been a long way. It's been a long, circuitous, labyrinthine route to where I am today."

Thanking the audience for coming out for his first feature, Lauzirika hoped they would really like it and admitted, "It's a very personal film. There is a lot of me in this, but after you've seen the film you might not want to talk to me. It fights against genre even though it's built with genre, so you might wonder during the first half of the movie, 'What kind of movie are we watching?', but then I promise you it settles in and then you'll be in for the ride for the rest of the second half."

After "the ride", Lauzirika returned to the stage to interact with his visibly elated audience. He was "numb" because it was the first time he'd shown the final version to an audience. In fact, it was the first time he had seen the film all the way through. He'd made changes as recently as the weekend before. Mitch Davis commented that the film looked much different than the screener Lauzirika had forwarded him three months ago. "Yeah, there was a mad rush at the end," Lauzirika explained, "to do some visual effects on things."

Lauzirika then invited the film's "hero" Raleigh Stewart to join him onstage. Stewart was Crave's associate producer but also digital effects supervisor and end titles designer and Lauzirika credited him with saving the film from continuity errors and issues with practical effects. All the more commendable because Stewart had never done digital effects before. Lauzirika then introduced Crave's production designer David L. Snyder, who was the art director for Blade Runner, and "last, but certainly not least" Josh Lawson whose lead performance made Crave live.

Crave, Lauzirika explained, came about as an intermediate project proposed by his producers before their initiating fundraising for a much bigger science fiction film that Lauzirika has been attached to direct for a couple of years now. He'll be co-writing and directing an adaptation of the Philip K. Dick story "I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon." Robert Lawton was his next-door neighbor at the time and had an idea about a character—"Travis Bickle meets Walter Mitty"—that Lauzirika found interesting, so they developed the project from there. The first few drafts of the script were vigilante-heavy, like an '80s Cannon Film and, though he wouldn't have minded making a movie like that, Lauzirika was going through a rocky end of a relationship that had left him torn up. He decided to take that and use it to structure the relationship between Aiden and Virginia in Crave. Aiden's emotional mourning over the loss of Virginia was just one way Lauzirika vented through the script.

We live in a Facebook society where our lives are documented, Lauzirika proposed, every few minutes we're uploading our lives by way of images. We update our lives in front of potentially thousands of people. Aiden is documenting the end of people's lives. As a crime photojournalist he is trying to sell some pretty nasty photos of atrocities, which takes quite a toll on him. Coming through the lens in rather than out seemed a good way to explore Aiden's character.

The cast came together very fast for Crave. They were already in Detroit scouting for locations. David Snyder was already "on the ground" even before Lauzirika arrived. Flying by the seat of their pants to get this "low budget scrappy film" up and running, casting received short shrift in terms of timing, but, fortunately, Josh Lawson expressed interest in the script. Lauzirika phoned Lawson in Australia and what he most liked about their conversation was that Lawson got the script from a writing standpoint, not just its tone or how he was going to portray the character; but, on its own narrative terms. Lawson likewise filmed himself in a few scenes and—between the phone conversation and the taped scenes—Lauzirika knew he had his Aiden.

The same thing happened with Emma Lung. He went through a lot of people basically looking for someone who embodied Virginia. As independent filmmaking goes, he knew he wasn't going to get a multi-million dollar actress, but Lung was "absolutely terrific" in the role. "That's the thing," Lauzirika pointed out, "when you're dream casting you might say, 'Oh, I want to get X movie star' but then when you start to think about it, X movie star might not be the best person for the role. You might want to find someone who's actually right for the role, someone who's hungrier and more interesting and has different quirks. Emma had that."

Lawson noted that it was purely coincidental that both he and Emma Lung were Australian. They'd known each other for a long time back in Australia. Lauzirika commented that Lawson, to his credit, adopted an American accent during the full run of the shoot but Lawson reminded Lauzirika that he'd actually been directed "not to drop the American accent ever. Not at lunch breaks. Not at night. Not when we went out. Not on the weekends. Never." Which he never did. But then at the wrap party when he finally dropped the American accent, crew members responded: "What? Why's he talking like that? What is that ridiculous pirate accent?" And he was smiling, in contrast to his "heavy shirt" of a character.

Shooting had already begun before "Eddie" Furlong joined the cast late in the game. Furlong had a rocky history and Lauzirika considered he might be tough to work with, but Furlong turned out to be the sweetest, most professional, and perfectly cast actor, easy to work with, and willing to go through hell, dragged through the dirt covered in blood and sweat. "It was Weekend At Bernie's for him through most of the movie," Lauzirika quipped.

Lauzirika always saw the role of Pete, Aiden's police officer friend, as a good vehicle for a name actor to have as an "and so-and-so" credit. He went through six or seven names and settled on Ron Perlman as the best of the list, let alone perfect for the role. The character Pete was based on a real person, a friend of Robert Lawton's. All four characters, in fact, were loosely inspired by real people in different ways, some virtually 10%, others more, but all the characters had real people to draw upon.

Asked about the film's palette, Lauzirika admitted that the color in the DCP was more de-saturated than he would like and that we'll probably see much more color if the film ever makes it to DVD or Blu-ray. The film's cinematographer Will Eubank—who was at last year's edition of Fantasia with the international premiere of LOVE—has "an amazing sense of lenses." Lauzirika, Eubank and Snyder came up with the visual palette of the film and went for something noirish and moody but used what Lauzirika calls "the fifth character: Detroit".

"Detroit was an amazing backdrop for this story," Lauzirika stated, "it was this beautiful decay. Some people see it as this post-Apocalyptic zombie world but I actually see it as a diamond in the rough. It's a city that could use some love. And I think it could come back if they ever decided to support it economically." The film industry tried but Detroit reduced the incentive down to a point where no one seems interested in going there anymore. They'll go to New Orleans, Louisiana or to Canada "as usual." At any rate, with regard to Detroit as the setting for the film, despite its state of decrepitude, such scenes as those in the loft were shot in a building designed by Albert Kahn, one of the great industrial architects of his time. Kahn designed all the Ford Family structures. At the time, his structures looked like something out of science fiction. Glass walls just weren't done then and replacement glass for the windows had to be brought in from Germany because the U.S. wasn't manufacturing glass for industrial structures.

The building where the play in the film takes place was once Detroit's aquarium; the first aquarium built in the U.S. Though it once housed much sea life, it's now a near-ruin, empty and dry. This might not have been the most obvious choice for this location but the aquarium's proscenium worked perfectly for a theatrical production. Further, an actual playhouse might not have looked as interesting as the aquarium's green tile with the orange lighting coming in from the side. They were always looking for something unusual that would throw expectations off just a bit and whose space it was fun to re-service. They had the advantage of finding several dilapidated buildings because Detroit is in such a sad state and there were plenty to choose from; but, at the end of the day, they chose structures near each other so that they wouldn't have to move the company around unnecessarily.

One of Crave's signature elements is the intensity of its fantasy kills and Lauzirika confessed to editing out a good half hour's worth, including a scene where the audience meets Aiden's landlord who eventually gets his brains blown out. There were additional sex scenes he removed. "Really good sex too!" Lawson jokingly inserted, "I was ... terrific!"

I was taken by Lauzirika's introductory comment that Crave worked against genre and asked him to speak to how his resistance helped shape Crave into such a unique genre hybrid? "It's interesting," Lauzirika responded, "there's sort of the me that was in the moment when we were shooting it and trying to formulate what you just said, and then there is the me now that looks back and can see more clearly. In the moment we were approaching every day as if it were a different film because every day would be a self-contained scene: one day might be a humorous scene and the next day might be a dark scene. That was trying for us to keep our compass in terms of the tone of the film. Overall, I saw the film as a noir, but a playful noir that jumped through other genres, so therefore I didn't feel it was following any particular genre. It was becoming its own thing. I've said this a couple of other times when people have asked me—'Well, what genre is Fight Club? What genre is Taxi Driver?'—they're their own thing, and Crave became its own thing, even though those are amazing classics. Crave, in its own small way, was just trying to find its own tone, its own signature, and its own style. At the time, we were just feeling it out. To be perfectly honest, I didn't have this etched in stone before we started shooting it. We were playing with it as we were shooting.

"There were a lot of happy accidents during the shoot. If someone had storyboarded this out to the nth degree and knew exactly where every shot was going to be, they might have tried to fight even harder against happy accidents. In one case, on Ron Perlman's last day of shooting, I was leaving the hotel to go to set just as Ron was coming into the hotel. I thought, 'Why are you just now coming into the hotel?' He comes up to me and is like, 'So Charlie, here's how it's going to go down. Pete is down with the Rastifarians.' I'm like, 'What? What are you even talking about?' As Ron is saying this, I look up and notice he has this gash in his head, with stitches. It turned out he had fallen and hit his head on a countertop. He'd gotten stitches overnight and then come in. That's when he said, 'Pete is in with the Rastifarians and I want you to get me one of those black, red and green beanies. That's what Pete's going to wear to cover that up.' Some other filmmaker might have said, 'Well, we're going to digitally clean it out, we'll get rid of the wound, and clean all that in post' but, at that point, I was like, 'This film wants to be what it wants to be. Pete is now with the Rastifarians....' That's how that came to be.

"The whole film was filled with little things like that. I don't know why, but it felt right. Only if there was something grievously wrong and we were going to ruin a scene or an emotional moment, would we go against it; but, for the most part, I'd adopt these little things along the way. Again, that goes back to my experience in the documentary world where we would try to capture what we actually had in front of us."

I then asked Lauzirika if he could talk about the film's score and sound design, specifically how he collaged Adrien's self-reflection with overlapping voices. Lauzirika said they worked with several different ideas, including having Lawson in ADR voicing not only his stuff but other people's voices. "For instance, in the scene when Eddie Furlong (Ravi) is in the back seat kind of undead talking, it's the production sound of Eddie, Eddie in the ADR room, and Josh: all three of them doing the lines together but slightly out of synch with each other, overlapping. Josh basically did all the dialogue for all the other actors that appear in his fantasies and it accounts for a subtle little texture." By looping his voice with the other actors, it created an almost subconscious voice. Lawson recalled that—with the scene where Aiden bludgeons the couple at the AA meeting—she's screaming and he remembers ADRing her screams in case they wanted to later use them.

The music was done by Justin Caine Burnett who came in at the last moment. Lauzirika had another composer Christopher Drake attached to the project for months. Drake was a good friend of his. They had collaborated on some good music but then Drake had to bow out because he got a better job. Lauzirika was in London on set documenting Prometheus, just before they started shooting, when Ridley Scott pulled him over and asked how the score was going for Crave? Lauzirika replied they were just about to do the score, would be mixing soon and would then be done. Scott said, "Well, if you need any help with the music, let me know. I know some great guys." That same day Drake called Lauzirika in London and said, "I can't stay with the movie anymore. I have to leave." The next day Lauzirika had to go to Scott with his tail between his legs, saying, "You know when you offered to help? I could probably use some help right now." So Scott hooked him up with several composers who stepped in to offer guidance and advice. All of them were busy with their own projects so Lauzirika ended up interacting with their protegés. The one he got along with the best was Justin Caine Burnett who came in during the last few weeks and knocked out an amazing score.

As to what extras we might expect from the DVD/Blu-ray release of Crave, Lauzirika said that to be perfectly honest—because he has produced extras for the DVD/Blu-rays of other films—he doesn't feel like going full bore on the extras right off the bat. "That's not because I want to milk it later," Lauzirika explained, "I just want to let the film breathe a bit, let it find its audience, let it be itself before I deconstruct every single thing about it. I do these other projects and I love them and cherish every moment of working on them; but, now that it's my film, I don't know if I want to go that deep on it. But we did document every single day, everything's documented, we have tons of footage, tons of deleted scenes, all these extras if we need them. I just don't yet feel the need to come out with a six-hour documentary on the making of Crave."

Asked if when the time came he would take care of that himself, Lauzirika stressed no, he would rather have someone else take it over to provide a different perspective. He's too close to the material.  "One day on set I lost my temper and I threw my hat at the video, I was so pissed off. My assistant was off to the side shooting me with her camera. I looked over and asked, 'Did you get that?' She's like, 'I got it.' I said, 'Good. Because I've done that to other guys and I'm glad I'm getting that treatment now. I'm going through my own rite of passage.' If it needs to be on there, I think some other documentarian should decide whether it goes on there or not."

Sunday, August 05, 2012

FANTASIA 2012: A LITTLE BIT ZOMBIE (2012)—Q&A With Casey Walker & Cast

All in all, Casey Walker's A Little Bit Zombie (2012) [official site / IMDb / Facebook] is a Canadian homegrown joint that sets you up for some stoner laughs. Featuring a deranged zombie mosquito infected from having bitten one of the undead, broad comic turns by an ensemble of young Canadian actors, and an ever-entertaining performance by one of Canada's hardest-working actors Stephen McHattie (also in Fantasia entry The Tall Man), A Little Bit Zombie has no pretensions about being anything other than what it is: a slapstick zom-com.

Lead Kristopher Turner—with a touch of Steve Carell—does a fine job as our put-upon protagonist dealing with his buzzkill fiance Tina (Crystal Lowe, the girl you love to hate and hate to date), his resentful sister Sarah (Kristen Hager), her thick-necked squeeze Craig (Shawn Roberts), a stinging zombie mosquito that won't die no matter how many times you slap it (uncredited), his developing appetite for human brains, a countryside crawling with zombies, and a vigilante duo: out-of-control living-dead hunter McHattie and his lovely assistant Penelope (Emilie Ullerup). A shout-out to a brief but always welcome appearance by Robert Maillet (Monster Brawl). Hunk Shawn Roberts steals the show with impeccable comic timing (it helps that he has the best lines); but, even eye candy can't ward off the tiresome gay jokes that deflate Trevor Martin and Christopher Bond's otherwise enthusiastic script. Perhaps if they'd written in a gay zombie mosquito I'd have been a bit more amused?

Casey Walker introduced his film by reminding his Fantasia audience that—back in 2006 when he lived in Montreal—he created "a stupid little website" called MyMillionDollarMovie.com, allegedly the world's first crowd funding website and notable for allowing contributors to buy frames of the film. He considered it "pretty fucking awesome" to be able to bring the circle full round by having A Little Bit Zombie's Quebec premiere at Fantasia.

After the screening, Walker and several members of his cast—including Stephen McHattie, Emilie Ullerup, Kristopher Turner, Crystal Lowe and Shawn Roberts—found their way to the Théâtre Hall Concordia stage to field questions from the audience. The unexpected highlight of that exchange was McHattie responding to a query about the genesis of the project by reading a few paragraphs of pornography off his iPad.

Asked about the essential difference between making a smaller independent movie in contrast to a big budget production, Walker answered, "We were really lucky because, at the end of the day, the movie lived or died with us. We had no executive producer. We had no studio. We had nobody saying, 'Do this or do it that way.' The funny was what we determined was funny. We wanted to make a movie that people wanted to watch, not one that was scientific and would generate a certain box office percentage review blah blah blah. We just wanted to have fun and we had a lot of fuckin' fun. We didn't have to answer to anyone."

With regard to working with Stephen McHattie, Walker recalled: "Stephen and I met over a couple of bottles of wine and became friends and then Stephen—doing what he does, work a stupid amount—took off and I didn't get to talk to him again until I was at the airport and he was coming in. He came up to me all sly and said, 'How's it going?' I told him it was really good with the laughing every day, getting lots of material, making our days awesome and he goes, 'I'm not going to be funny.' I sort of peed a little and thought, 'What have I gotten myself into?' On set he has a focus that calms everyone down. It made some people extremely nervous and they wouldn't look him in the eye; but, it's just that he's in the process and thinking things through. So when we did the scene where he and Emilie were killing zombies and he'd done his first line and played it straight, not being funny at all, and then I called, "Cut!", we had about 140 people on set and it took 10 minutes to stop the laughter, because he wasn't being funny. It just went from there. He challenged me every day—I don't think anyone in my life has challenged me as much as this man has—simply to make the film better. He always asked the question, 'Why are we doing this?' " Unfortunately, Walker jokingly complained, McHattie's attitude became infectious and his cast started giving him a lot of flak.

Improv from his actors embellished the script he, Martin and Bond had worked on for three years. "It's difficult making independent film," Walker explained, "because you have no time. That's the one thing you don't have. Money buys you time. A lot of times I had to get the meat and these guys would only have one take at certain things. Emilie's speech at the end is one take. Kristopher getting bit by the mosquito is all one take. But the magic these guys brought to these scenes allowed the improv to flow and made things even funnier. Stephen spit in Shawn's hand for real and so when you see him all grossed out it's because he didn't expect that."

Available on VOD on August 1, 2012, A Little Bit Zombie will be released by Phase 4 Films on DVD/Blu-Ray on August 21, 2012.