Monday, October 29, 2012

NORTH SEA, TEXAS (NOORDZEE, TEXAS, 2011)—The Evening Class Interview With Bavo Defurne

Bavo Defurne was born in 1971. He is a graduate of the St. Lukas Art School in Brussels, and an artist, photographer and filmmaker. He worked as an assistant director on experimental filmmaker Matthias Mueller's shorts Alpsee (1995) and Pensão Globo (1997) and as a set decorator on many films, including Peter Greenaway's The Baby of Macon (1993). He then established himself as an exciting new talent with a sequence of critically acclaimed award winning shorts, including Particularly Now, In Spring (1995), Saint (1997), Sailor (1998) and Campfire (1999). These shorts examined his regular themes of gay love and loss, the body, and the power of nature and silence. North Sea, Texas (Noordzee, Texas, 2011) is his debut feature.

As officially synopsized at the film's Belgian website: "Pim lives in a run-down house in a dead-end street somewhere at the Belgian coast, together with his mother Yvette Bulteel (better known as Yvette Mimosa, local accordion starlet). Life here smells of cold French fries, cheap cigarettes, vermouth and stale beer. Mother Yvette uses her fat Etienne with his lousy grey Fiat as a driver for the nights she has to 'perform'.

"As a kid Pim dreams of a better life, imagining princesses and beauty queens. But when Pim turns 16 he dreams of Gino, the boy next door, instead. Ever since they were children there has been this tension between them. Now Gino is Pim's motorcycling hero. Cold mockery, little humiliations and tiny bits of hope make up Pim's life. No wonder he sometimes flees to his dream world.

"Then one day Yvette leaves with young, hunky Zoltan, the boy from the fair. When Yvette leaves her son alone in the empty house, Pim seizes the opportunity and his dreams become half-truths. Pim moves to the neighbors' house to live with Marcella, his 'second mum'. And with Sabrina, Gino's sister, who circles longingly around Pim. He even sleeps in Gino's bed! But Gino's off romancing and living with a girl from across the border. Dreams never come true. Or do they? On a rainy day Gino returns."

North Sea, Texas premiered at the Montreal World Film Festival where it picked up the FIPRESCI prize for best first feature and the Silver Zenith for Defurne. As reviewed by Variety's Alissa Simon, "The pic benefits from an artful combination of naturalistic performances and attractively stylized visuals, aided by judicious use of an evocative score. The isolated seaside location (unspecified in the film but shot in Ostende) practically becomes a character itself, with gorgeous shots of crashing waves, blowing reeds and empty sand dunes employed lyrically throughout."

Here on The Evening Class, Michael Hawley reviewed the film when it screened at the 36th edition of San Francisco's Frameline Film Festival: "North Sea, Texas has gorgeous widescreen cinematography, eye-catching 1970s art direction, nicely observed moments and fine performances, but the storytelling and tone lean toward overly languid." Hawley is not alone in his critique. At The Guardian, Henry Barnes deems Defurne's debut "engaging, if placid" and writes, "Defurne makes a point of shunning social realism and presents lonely, horny Pim's story through a fog of polished-to-a-glow stylishness. North Sea, Texas looks beautiful, is acted brilliantly, but it's hard to get a hold on when Pim's drifting by in a dream world."

I'm less distracted by the film's dream-like "languidity" and more focused on what seems to be a deliberately cadenced affirmation—dare I say fantasy?—of a love between two boys gently formed from its own organic sense, its own integrity, arising from the chance proximity of being friends living next door to each other, evolving through puberty into recognition and self-awareness, towards a sensual potential for commitment. And all of this without the overworn coming-out narrative tropes that emphasize anguish, guilt, shame and self-laceration. North Sea, Texas admirably skirts such negativities to provide its affirmative coming-of-age fable. Truer to the gradual process by which Pim and Gino become themselves and discover who they might be to each other, languidity strikes me as an appropriate and sensual choice that aptly captures the desires and frustrations of their teenage years. Theirs is not a love story that accidentally happens—it's meant to happen—and Bavo Defurne takes his time and exercises a light touch in capturing the integral rhythm of that meaning; that fantasy of tween love as destiny.

My thanks to Marcus Hu of Strand Releasing—who picked up the film's U.S. distribution—for offering the opportunity to speak with Bavo Defurne during his Frameline appearance. North Sea, Texas opens November 2, 2012, in New York City at Clearview's Chelsea and in Los Angeles at Sundance Sunset (venues subject to change). It opens December 7 in San Francisco and Berkeley at Landmark Theatres.

[This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!!]
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Michael Guillén: Bavo, I first became aware of North Sea, Texas at its U.S. premiere in the World Cinema program of the Palm Springs Film Festival, earlier this year. Straight off, I'd like to winnow out the geographical pun within the film's title?

Bavo Defurne: The film is placed in Belgium where it faces the North Sea; the sea between Belgium and England. "Texas" comes from the name of the bar where Pim and his mother go. This combination reflects how this is a world of its own.

Guillén: I presume the Texas Bar was in André Sollie's original children's novel This Is Everlasting (Nooit gaat dit over, 2004)?

Defurne: Totally. In Belgium, just after the Second World War, people were proud of America for helping liberate Europe. Texas, cowboys, and anything American became hip. It was hip to call your bar Texas. There was even a Texas Bar in my village. So there was a Texas Bar in the book, yes.

Guillén: You started your career as a maker of short films, which achieved international recognition. Can you speak to the value for you of starting off with short films? And when you knew you were ready for a full-length feature? What was involved for you in that transition from short to feature-length?

Defurne: I've made many short films, four of which have been compiled on a DVD for Strand Releasing (Campfire). I've shown these short films to a lot of audiences. It's nice to make these little pieces of art to share with audiences. The industry, however, doesn't really consider you as a "real" filmmaker, I would say. The value of making a feature-length film is that it has opened a lot of doors that were not open when I was a shorts filmmaker. The problem with short films is also that you can't really go as deep to develop complex characters; you're always limited to a sketch. What I really enjoyed about making a feature-length film was that I could add characters and that the film was much more than just a boy in love with his neighbor. Of course, that's what the film is about, but it also tells a tale about single mothers struggling to give the most to their kids, and about a sister who discovers that the boy that she loves is in love with her brother. So a full-length feature provides the opportunity to tell a more complex story and that's what I really like.

Guillén: I've pushed Campfire to the top of my Netflix queue and, in the interim, have watched the teasers on your Vimeo channel. Immediately apparent from watching the Vimeo teasers is why many critics have compared your work to such wide-ranging influences as Pierre et Gilles and Sergei Eisenstein. But who do you feel has had the most influence on your filmmaking vision?

Defurne: There's no one in particular. I'm a bit like a sponge. I absorb a lot and it comes out mixed. When I make a film, I put ideas, images and feelings together that have never been put together in this particular configuration, y'know? I love films by Terrence Malick or Carl Theodor Dreyer, but I also love Pedro Almodóvar. These films are all around me and I am in the middle of them. I absorb them and I give something back that is a mix of these influences.

What distinguishes North Sea, Texas from a lot of coming-of-age movies is that—yes, it's a film about first love—but it's really about the other world. It's not really about ache or rejection; it's about love. There are a lot of films that show how teenagers live depressing lives—and I'm sure there are a lot of gay teenagers who have a hard time—but my urge was to make a film that shows the happiness of first love. Too many coming-of-age films become obsessed with negativity and I think it's a good thing to show audiences—whether gay or straight, old or young—more than negativity. Do you know what I mean?

Guillén: Absolutely, I agree. And that's very much why I enjoyed your film. I'm pushing 60 myself but I can still look back and remember what it was like for me at 14 or 15 growing up in Idaho and I recognized similar elements to my own upbringing in North Sea, Texas, namely an atmosphere to how I learned about myself.

Defurne: Oh wow, thank you!

Guillén: Mythologist Joseph Campbell frequently asserted that people are constantly looking for the meaning of life, when actually what they want is an authentic experience of life. You have insinuated that authentic experience as an interiorized one, which the character Pim reflects. In terms of what is authentic, why is the interior life more authentic to you than, let's say, a socially realistic document that is authentic by way of exterior detail?

Defurne: I can't really say why, but this is exactly what I'm interested in. I'm much more interested in an inner world than an outer world. If you want to see the outer world, then open your eyes and look out your window; but, what I want to show people is something about what you see when you close your eyes. That's a world that fascinates me much more. That's why I wanted to be really close to my characters and their emotions and to reflect them in quiet, contemplative scenes where, let's say, Pim is walking or standing in front of his mirror. This goes together with what I said earlier: I didn't want to make another film about the negativity of the outer world. In North Sea, Texas there's no disciplinary school master or bullying school mates or fathers who are against the main character's burgeoning gay sexuality. Several film journalists have described North Sea, Texas as a coming-out film, but I would argue it's not. Pim doesn't "come out". Pim is a young boy who is quite sure about who he loves. He doesn't question who he loves. North Sea, Texas is much more about the inner romantic struggle the characters have. It's emotional, internal, and has little to do with their neighbors, people on the street, or people in their school.

Guillén: It's less a "coming out" narrative than a story about how a young person becomes himself.

Defurne: Totally. Except for Casablanca, a film is rarely shot chronologically. To help my young actor Jelle Florizoone play Pim in the various stages of his development from a kid to a young adult, I had a "code" with Jelle. I told him that Pim would go from princess to prince to king. Any time Jelle would struggle with a scene, with who he was within a scene and how he should play it, I would say, "Remember, Jelle, you're a princess now. Remember, Jelle, you're becoming a king." Jelle was only 14 when we made the film but in the film he had to show the growth from 14 to 17. He had to know what this transformation was all about, which is what the film is all about, a princess becoming a prince becoming a king. At the beginning Pim is weak and fragile, he's experimenting, but by film's end he's stronger than his mom, stronger than the boy he adored, very strong and self-assured indeed, and that's what I liked about this character.

Guillén: That's a lovely way to code this character. Within that context, one of my favorite moments in the film, one which had a visceral effect on me as an audience member, was precisely the moment when Pim transforms from the "princess" at the window with his arms outstretched to the slightly-older prince. This shift from the younger actor Ben Van den Heuvel to Jelle Florizoone who then carries the rest of the film was beautifully accomplished.

Defurne: But there are other subtle changes as well. For example, the character of Pim early in the movie would never fight with and hit Gino (Mathias Vergels) and, thereby, become stronger. Pim in the beginning would never drink a beer, which he does at the end of the film. All of his mementos from being a princess, he eventually burns. It's a story similar to a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. A caterpillar has to go through a lot to become a butterfly.

Guillén: I admired how the film showed how the young Pim fetishized desire by collecting mementos of key sensual experiences that he kept hidden in a shoebox. These experiences seemed more borrowed, even stolen, than freely chosen. For me, this is what marked Pim's transition from a young man who is longing to live life to the young man who takes the necessary steps to actually begin living life.

Defurne: That's completely correct. As you mentioned, he burns all the mementos in his shoe box and seeks to forget them. He doesn't want to live like that anymore. This was something I had to explain to my younger actors. First, I had to explain what "fetishism" meant in a way that a 14-year-old would understand. "Well," I told Jelle, "Pim loved someone and—because he can't reach that someone—he takes things that relate to that someone and ends up loving the things in place of the person." That's what Pim's fetishism is about. It's always interesting to work with young people because sometimes when you explain something like that, it suddenly makes sense for adults.

Guillén: I have to admit that I did the same thing as a young man. When I couldn't reach someone I love, I would secure something of theirs and obsess over it.

Defurne: A lot of young men do! I did too. So did the writer who wrote the book. A lot of people come up to me after a screening to tell me stories about what they collected. It's different in each case but always interesting. I could write a book now about what young people in Europe or South Africa collect from the people they adored when they experienced their first love.

Also, North Sea, Texas is not an autobiographical film, even though I wanted to make a film that a lot of people would feel as autobiographical. Gay or straight, young or old, I hope everyone can in a way relate to what happens in the movie. I remember some weeks ago in London a man came up to me and said, "Well, my first sexual experience happened when I was 28 and so I am not like the kids in your movie at all but I feel happy to have seen the youth I never had." I thought that was heartbreaking in a way, that this man was a virgin at 28; but, on the other hand, I was happy to have shown him a youth he had never had. That's one of the things I hope this film can do. We've all been through development and have had sad and interesting moments in our lives, but watching a beautiful story like North Sea, Texas might help. It's not a film that's 100% sunshine, but there's hope in it and that's important. What excited me when I first read the source novel was that André Sollie was 60 years old and this was his first and only novel, written no less than five years ago.

Guillén: Fascinating. As I mentioned, I'm pushing 60 myself and—having lived a full, rich, sensual life—I now look back at my early innocence to when I started. I'm finding myself not so much nostalgic, not so much wanting to do it again, as I am proud of how fully I've lived my life starting from that innocent place. I've tried to be honest and authentic. I did what I had to do to enter life. Then, as I entered life and matured, my concerns became adult concerns and I put away childish things. But now that I'm older, now that the fire is less blaze and more ember, I find myself looking back to my youth with considerable fondness for where it all began.

Defurne: Me too! I'm now 41 and I have to admit that I couldn't have imagined this story myself. The relationship toward the parent is cynical but mild at the same time. It's critical, but still there's a love for every age and every character in this movie. Even the mother. You could say she's a bad mother because she's always drinking in the bar. Everyone in this film has their positive and their negative sides. Even Pim can be bitchy, unfriendly and a pain the ass. That's a present I can say I got from the novelist. I don't know if this is a story I could have made up now at this time in my life. Maybe in 20 more years I could make up such a story? As you say, these are insights that come from age.

North Sea, Texas is situated at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s. So it's more about that generation, maybe? But I hope it transcends that. I hope it opens up to young people today and that 16-year-olds like the film too, so that it's not specifically for either 16-year-olds or 60-year-olds, and that everyone in the audience can get the main themes out of it. That fascinates me.

Guillén: Mythically, North Sea, Texas circumambulates around the authentic moment of first love, the original time, or what the ancients used to term illo tempore; in our cultural tradition, the Garden of Eden. First love is really the Garden of Eden and every time you fall in love after that is an attempted return to the Garden of Eden.

Defurne: You never forget first love. It's the most pure expression. When you get older, yes, you fall in love again but you also have a job, and you also have a household, and you also have a social life. But when you're so young, you live in a small world that's seen through a kind of tunnel vision. This tunnel vision is at the same time claustrophobic but also very beautiful and so pure. That's why the film is what it is. It's a film that inflects a hermetic world, a world that's on its own, and a world that you experience by going within and not, as I said, by looking out the window.

Guillén: One of the ways by which you captured that hermetic feel is through the film's impeccable art direction and production design.

Defurne: Kurt Rigolle was my main production designer. He, with all the rest of the crew, helped me and my producer Yves Verbraeken—with whom I work a lot—to create this particular world. I'm very glad that Anton Mertens, my director of photography, and everyone who didn't want to make their film, wanted instead to make this film with its specific aesthetics and the specific rules of this world that motion pictures inhabit: rules about color, about form, about rhythm. I'm really happy that the crew went with that and respected that also.

Guillén: It's my understanding that a lot of the precedent for the film's style came from the novel, which visually provided the cues you needed?

Defurne: Totally. André Sollie, who wrote the novel, is actually a professional painter in the first place and a poet in the second place. He's a novelist only in the third place. So you can see that his world is visual. Sollie is the one who as a little kid made drawings of everyone. He was a bit of Pim in the sense that he created his own world. I needed to respect the beauty of that world and that's why I didn't want the film to be too slick or generic. It needed the visual poetry. I didn't want to kill that. It was the main reason I wanted to make this film and why I think it's different than other films. André had seen my short films. It was exciting to discover that there are these iconic moments in life that reflect coming of age, like two boys on a Suzuki 380 GT motorcycle, or the sharing of a knife in a tent. Those iconic elements were already in my short films, such that André was happy when I wrote him for permission to make a movie out of his book. It helped that he liked my movies and that we were like soul mates. He's very happy with the finished film as well. Of course, as the filmmaker you need the freedom to make your movie and get away from (and not be a slave to) the material. In this case, I stayed very true to the book. I must admit I didn't change a lot. So I guess you could say I haven't been very creative in changing the material. I didn't feel the need there.

Guillén: Well, some might argue that it takes a lot of creativity to be true to the intent of a novel through the medium of film. Your film has brought the novel to life and has served to intrigue me to hunt out the novel itself. What more could a novelist ask from a filmmaker adapting his work?

Obviously, in terms of the "iconic moment" of young love that you referenced earlier, you have a good eye for casting young men who fulfill their iconic function. Jelle was central to grounding the film through his shy introversion; but, I was likewise intrigued by how perfectly cast Pim's objects of desire were: Matthias Vergels was lanky and sensually precocious in the role of Gino, and Thomas Coumans had a lithe electricity as the traveling carny Zoltan. How did you find these actors?

Defurne: It wasn't easy. We worked with many casting directors. For the roles of the young boys Pim and Gino, we auditioned a total of 220 boys. It was a long and quite hard casting. I must say we did find Gino very early in the process, after only about 10 boys we already had him and never found anyone better, but then we needed to find his match, which in some ways made it even more difficult. Also making it more difficult was that a lot of boys didn't dare play the roles, or weren't allowed by their parents. That was painful and openly sad because I had crying young actors calling to say their parents wouldn't allow them to act in this movie. I felt a lot of the dreams of these young boys who wanted to be actors had been broken by the parents.

But by the end of the casting process, just a few weeks before shooting actually, Jelle auditioned and we knew in a second—the producer, me and the casting director—that Jelle was Pim. The key to that was not only that he was specifically like Pim—though in real life he's a bit different—but, in his real life, Jelle had a big, important background as a professional dancer. It gave him and Matthias Vergels, who was also a professional actor, the freedom to be their characters on set playing their roles, while at the same time I gave them their freedom to be themselves the moment I said, "Cut!" I didn't probe into their private lives. I didn't ask, "Who do you love?" or "What are your sexual experiences?" I avoided that. I avoided talking about my personal experiences, about my personal life, and we used all our time in preparation talking about and living the lives of Pim and Gino and living the love between these fictional characters. Their professionalism really helped.

Guillén: I took note and was touched by your dedication in North Sea, Texas to "all the kids whose parents wouldn't let them take part in this film." That was a lovely acknowledgment on your part.

Defurne: I won't go into detail about private cases, but there were cases that really touched me so much. When I was that age, I didn't know if I would become an actor or a fashion designer. At 14, I didn't even know being a filmmaker could be a profession. But these dreams are so beautiful and as a human being, not a filmmaker, I was deeply touched by seeing boys of that age cry because their dream has been cut short. I couldn't really help in any way because it was a casting after all, not only of the kids but of their parents as well. While I was auditioning the kids, the casting director was auditioning the parents and checking whether or not they were supportive of the project, believed in it and shared the dream of their children to act in it. If some of the boys weren't fortunate enough to have supportive parents like that, I hope they will still see the movie and see the dedication and realize there is still hope for them and that maybe in three to five years they'll be able to live their lives. Fourteen is not the end of the world. You can still pursue a career at 20. I have a friend who's 40 and changed his career to begin acting. It's not a trauma. Life will get better. And that's what I wanted to tell them actually.

Guillén: The portrait of the two mothers was nuanced and compassionate. Pim's mother Yvette (Eva van der Gucht) competes with him, whereas Gino's mother Marcella (Katelijne Damen) has a deeper sense of what will fulfill both Pim and Gino. Can you speak to the importance of profiling the mothers, their characterizations, and how you cast these two actresses?

Defurne: Well, in French you would say la maman et la putain, the mother and the whore, which is perhaps a bit exaggerated in this instance; but, Pim's mother is never home, she's always in a bar, she's always drinking, she doesn't care after her kids, and she never cooks for them. But what's interesting is that Gino's mother is the opposite: she's always home, she cooks, etc. I tried not to judge them. I tried to understand both of them.

I don't think Pim understands his mother. He wants a perfect mother. That's why he's so attracted to the family life of his neighbors where Mama is home and doesn't come home drunk. Children can be simple in their dreams sometimes. Even with Pim's mother where you could say, "Oh, she's a whore; she's always got a boyfriend," I tried to give her her own dreams, hopes and aspirations. When I worked with Eva on that role, she asked me, "Is Yvette a good accordion player or does she suck on the accordion?" I told her, "I think she's a virtuoso." She could have been a big star. Maybe, if she would have lived in Paris, she would have been like Edith Piaf; but, now, she lives in a little shithole somewhere on the Belgian coast. No one cares about her. I wanted to also give her a dream and a reason for being who she is. Her story is what moved me so much in this novel and so—though the film is not an autobiography in the sense that it's about me—whenever I direct a character I always find my key to that character, my relationship to them as human beings with their flaws and their qualities. Everyone has flaws and qualities and I can recognize myself in each and every one of them. In every silly or quirky person in the film, I try to find my relation to them.

Guillén: Marcella's death bed sequence was notably poignant. In a world where gay youth are often rejected by their parents and families—which is such a sorrowful situation—North Sea, Texas exhibits so much hope in that sequence where Marcella clasps the hands of the two boys together, which confirms their love for one another. I want to thank you for that affirmative ending.

Defurne: It's already in the book but I like that too. That scene shows that a lot of parents can't express their love. They can't say, "I accept that you're gay." Maybe they don't really want to talk about it? Maybe they don't have the vocabulary? Maybe their upbringing and education made it taboo to talk about it? But silently they discover there is nothing wrong with their gay children. Silently they accept that their love for their children is universal, whether they're gay or straight, they're still their kids. But they can't really say it with words. That death bed sequence is a scene without words so you can almost make anything of it, but personally I think that she knew it all the way but didn't want to say it, didn't want to make a scene or a drama out of it. Her last words are worthless almost by doing that, by showing the two boys that it's okay that they love each other. That scene moves me a lot. It moved the sound man during shooting. The actors had microphones on their bodies and after shooting he told me we wouldn't be able to use the sound because everyone on set was so emotional and the hearts of the actors were pounding so loudly. But isn't that the magic of cinema? That the emotion is so human that it affects the whole cast and crew? It goes straight to the heart, physically.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

FCN 2012: PREVIEW—By Michael Hawley

The San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) reaches the mid-point of its 2012 Fall Season Wednesday night with their fifth annual French Cinema Now (FCN) series. The line-up for this year's seven day, ten-film celebration could be summarized thusly: three crowd-pleasers, five feature directorial debuts and two new works from a pair of arthouse notables. Here's a closer look at what's in store at Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinema from October 24 to 30.

FCN 2012 keeps it light on opening night with Noémie Lvovsky's Camille Rewinds, a comedy that puts a time-traveling French spin on Coppola's Peggy Sue Got Married. While Lvovsky has directed six features going back to 1994's Oublie-moi, Camille Rewinds represents her first effort as both director and star. Lvovsky the actress is best known stateside for her remarkable supporting roles, of which we've seen plenty in recent months. She appeared in three films at the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) (Guilty, 17 Girls and Farewell, My Queen) and played the bordello madam in House of Tolerance, which SFFS screened this summer. Camille Rewinds premiered in Director's Fortnight at Cannes and won that sidebar's SACD Prize for best screenplay, which was co-written by Lvovsky. Reviews have been generally kind, with warm praise for the film's winning performances and 1980's art direction. Jean-Pierre Léaud and Mathieu Amalric appear in cameos and Yolande Moreau (Séraphine) plays Camille's mother. Noémie Lvovsky is expected to attend FCN opening night.

Last year's FCN opened with the delightful Copacabana, starring Isabelle Huppert as a middle-aged hippie-chick getting serious about life. She's in comic mode again with My Worst Nightmare, a new film by Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel), this time playing a snooty art gallery owner who gets turned around by a randy handyman. While I'd willingly watch Huppert recite the proverbial phone directory, reviews for this outing give pause. From Robert Koehler's dismissive, two-paragraph Variety review: "Trucking in the standard situation of an uptight, bourgeois woman letting go around a lusty, clownish working-class man, pic is dated, clunky, indifferently staged and markedly unfunny. It's not all that commercial, either, though it tries so hard to be." Ouch. My Worst Nightmare began its US theatrical run in NYC this past weekend—Bay area audiences must wait until Xmas—and the NY Times' Stephen Holden joined the pile-on, adding that the film's "one joke … yields steadily diminishing returns." Only Lisa Nesselson at Screen Daily offers encouragement: "Huppert, of course, can do control freak narcissism and insensitive bitchery in her sleep and (Benoît) Poelvoorde can personify boorish bonhomie with his eyes closed. But both actors find new riches in stock characters, making them more like real people and less like the caricatures they arguably are." I refuse to believe this won't be some kind of fun.

FCN's third unabashed crowd-pleaser, Stéphane Robelin's All Together, also began its U.S. theatrical run in NYC this weekend and received kinder notices. This dramedy closed the 2011 Locarno Film Festival and concerns five aging, 70-something friends who decide to live out their sunset years under the same roof. Jane Fonda and Geraldine Chaplin make up two-fifths of the quintet, and anthropology student Daniel Bruehl becomes a sixth roommate when he chooses senior communal living as his thesis subject. Variety's Leslie Felperin praises the film's "unfussy, ribald briskness that's characteristic of middlebrow-in-a-good-way Gallic films" and the NY Times' Stephen Holden liked how this "agreeably chipper comedy steers a careful middle ground between sentimentality and farce." This is Fonda's first French-speaking role since Godard's 1972 Tout va bien and I for one am looking forward to hearing her yammer away in American-accented French for 96 minutes.

As I've already mentioned, an unprecedented 50 percent of this year's FCN offerings come from debut feature directors, which would be of concern if it weren't for the festival's track record on spotlighting terrific new talent. (Last year's hilarious Bachelor Days are Over, for example, turned out to be one of my top films of 2011). Sharing opening night honors with Camille Rewinds this year is Djinn Carrénard's Donoma, which won the prestigious Louis Delluc Prize for a first film and was purportedly made on a budget of 150 euros. The Hollywood Reporter's Jordan Mintzer describes the film as lying "somewhere between mumblecore, Cassavettes and Abdellatif Kechiche (Secret of the Grain)" as it "follows the amorous entanglements of various young Parisians—many of non-French origin—as they cope with issues of class, religion and identity in the less-traveled byways of the City of Light." The semi-improvised, 136-minute film is said to be full of long takes, tight close-ups and dialogue so infused with slang it was released in French cinemas with subtitles. So even if you parler français couramment, expect to do a bit of reading.

Director Guillaume Brac still hasn't made his narrative feature debut because his A World Without Women is only 54 minutes long, and is therefore technically a short. Set in a seaside resort town in Northern France, the film follows the exploits of a 30-something schlub named Sylvain as he and his best friend flirt with a vacationing mother and daughter (the latter played by Constance Rousseau, who made her memorable debut in Mia Hansen-Løve's All is Forgiven). The only English-language write-up I could find for the movie was a capsule description for Montreal's Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, which called it "a comedy of gallant seduction" with "magnificent acting" and "a freshness and urgency that calls to mind the films of Jacques Rozier." As someone who fondly recalls the Rozier retrospective that graced 2001's SFIFF, I'm sold right there. When A World Without Women was released in French cinemas, it was double-billed with Brac's previous 24-minute short, Stranded, which also features the character of Sylvain (again played by actor Vincent Macaigne). That's how it will be exhibited at FCN as well.

What would a French film festival be without a heartbreaking portrait of a poor soul struggling on the margins of society? (…he asks without condescension or derision). Louise Wimmer reps the narrative feature debut of documentary filmmaker Cyril Mennegun, heretofore known as the director of 2005's Tahar, the doc which profiled a then-penniless student and future star of A Prophet, actor Tahar Rahim. In Louise Wimmer, TV actress Corrine Masiero gives a critically acclaimed performance as a proud woman who lives in her car, works at menial jobs and battles to secure herself an apartment in public housing. The film, which premiered in the Critics Week sidebar at Venice last year, is described in most reviews as being "Dardenne-esqe," which I'll take as a good sign. I'm particularly intrigued to hear that the music soundtrack largely consists of Nina Simone's "Sinnerman," which plays from a cassette that is permanently jammed in Louise's car stereo.

The two remaining FCN entries from tyro helmers—pardon my Variety-ese—are Elie Wajeman's Aliyah and François Pirot's Mobile Home. The former earned glowing reviews when it premiered in Cannes' Director's Fortnight, and is the story of a Jewish Parisian drug dealer who contemplates a move to Israel as a means to escape his troubled life. The lead role of Alex is played by Pio Marmaï, who impressed as the criminally seductive lothario in Living on Love Alone (SFIFF 2011). He's supported by director Cédric Kahn (Red Lights), making his second-ever on-screen appearance as Alex's mooch of an older brother. Critics appeared less enthusiastic about Pirot's gently comic Mobile Home, in which two immature best friends hit the road in rural Belgium. Reviews run the gamut from "whisper thin" to "pleasantly respectable" to "moderately watchable," although all praise the genial lead performances. Pirot, who is scheduled to attend FCN, is known for the scripts he co-wrote for a pair of Joachim Lafosse-directed pervy psycho-dramas (Private Property and Private Lessons). Personally, I wish the festival was bringing us Lafosse's Our Children¸ a prolicide-themed drama starring Émilie Dequenne (Rosetta) and Tahar Rahim, which received unanimous rave reviews at Cannes and is now Belgium's Oscar® submission.

"Maddening, pretentious, hypnotic and transcendent in roughly equal measure."

"At once utterly direct and infuriatingly opaque."

"Slow cinema at its rawest and most austerely uncommunicative."

Such pronouncements could only have been lifted from the reviews of one filmmaker, Bruno Dumont, arguably the only auteur represented in this year's FCN line-up. One and a half years after its Cannes premiere in Un Certain Regard, his sixth and latest feature Hors Satan is finally coming to the Bay Area, as did its two predecessors, courtesy of the SFFS. To be honest, I haven't really cared for a Dumont film since 1999's Humanité (although Twentynine Palms was great for a laugh), but his vision remains so compellingly singular that I wouldn't dream of not seeing where he's taken it next, given the opportunity. It's interesting to note that in 2012, a year signified by the death of 35mm film exhibition, Hors Satan will be the only FCN film screened in that beloved format (at least according to the Film On Film Foundation's Bay Area calendar). Compare that to last year's festival, where only three out of eleven movies were digitally projected.

Alas, time marches on and so-called "progress" prevails. Even Agnès Godard, whom many consider Europe's greatest living cinematographer, has done the digital deed with FCN's closing night film, Ursula Meier's Sister. The results are pretty damn impressive, or at least they were at a press screening I caught at San Francisco's Variety Screening Room. (Godard talks about the experience of shooting digital in a recent NY Times profile). Sister is Meier's awaited follow-up to Home, a delightfully weird fable about a family living spitting distance away from a super-highway. While that film's final act disappointingly descended into aimless absurdist melodrama, her latest is rock solid and reality grounded. Kacey Mottet Klein, who played the rambunctious kid in Home, is now a cagey 12-year-old thief named Simon who steals and re-sells expensive ski equipment from a luxurious mountain resort. He does it to support his aimless and slighter trashy older sister, played by Léa Seydoux (last seen here as Marie Antoinette's reader in Farewell, My Queen). In the many ski gondola trips Simon takes to and from "work" each day, Meier and Godard make magnificent metaphorical use of the physical space separating the high altitude haves of the ski resort and the have-nots living in the dingy town below. X-Filers take note—Gillian Anderson has a significant supporting role as a foreign tourist. Meier is expected to attend FCN's closing night and anyone who experienced her generous, forthcoming Q&A for Home at the 2009 SFIFF knows this isn't to be missed. Sister is also scheduled to open at the Sundance Kabuki on November 9.

Cross-published on film-415.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

FOUR (2012)—The Evening Class Interview With Joshua Sanchez

As synopsized by Juan Caceres in his indieWire interview with Joshua Sanchez for the premiere of Four (2012) at the Los Angeles Film Fest earlier this year, "Joshua Sanchez, a native of Houston, Tejas graduated from Columbia University's MFA Film Program with several internationally screened short films under his belt along with the HBO Films Young Producer's Development Award. His feature debut, Four, based on a play written by Christopher Shinn, participated in the Tribeca All Access program at the Tribeca Film Festival and after a few false starts and delays, Joshua cast Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Treme), Emory Cohen (Afterschool, TV's Smash), Aja Naomi King (Blue Bloods) and EJ Bonilla (Mamitas, Don't Let Me Drown) as his "Four". Once in the can he was able to complete the post production when he became the recipient of the Jerome Foundation's Film and Video grant." Adding his favorite New York bands to the soundtrack "as icing on the cake", Four has had a robust presence on festival track since its L.A. premiere, where Four won Best Performance in the Narrative Competition. It also recently won the top prize for Best Narrative Feature at the 16th annual Urbanworld Film Festival in New York. It was likewise featured in the lineup for San Francisco's 36th annual Frameline Film Festival, reviewed here, and it was at that time that I had the opportunity to talk to Joshua by phone. After expressing my regrets at not being able to join him at Frameline to celebrate his screening in San Francisco, Joshua and I launched into discussing the film.

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

* * *

Michael Guillén: I'm impressed with Four, Joshua, as you know. I consider it a remarkable first feature. Straight off, I'm intrigued with the process by which a shorts filmmaker graduates to a full-length feature. Can you speak to the value of starting out with short films and when you knew you were ready to transition to feature-length?

Sanchez: Short films are the first little steps when a filmmaker's becoming a filmmaker. I started out making experimental work, skateboard videos with my friends, and music videos of musicians and bands that I liked. At the same time, I was studying film in college. All of those experiences were a laboratory to start thinking about what I wanted to do with the medium of making movies. For me, it was like testing the boundaries of being a storyteller.

As far as to when I knew I could graduate to being a feature filmmaker, I'm not sure there's a clear answer to that. I just knew it was a step I wanted to take. I wanted to find the material that suited me best, something I felt close to, something I felt I could add something to. A lot of the story of Four, and a lot of the situations in Four, I feel close to. It felt like the right story, and the right group of people to work with at this time in my life. Every filmmaker has to decipher those kind of things for themselves. For me, it was like Kismet, all the right situations.

Guillén: Are your short films available?

Sanchez: Yeah, you can see them online, most of them on my website.

Guillén: Having worked now both in shorts and feature-length films, any thoughts on the difference between the two lengths?

Sanchez: Honestly, short films are harder in their own way. To do a truly successful short film and have people walk away feeling gratified and fulfilled as an audience in a very short period of time, you have to be economical and choose what you put on the screen. For me, that has always been a bit restricting, though not in a bad way. You just have to be so selective about what you're doing when you don't have that big a palette to work with. I don't really know, but I think sometimes people work better in that kind of environment, whereas some people work better in longer methods of storytelling. I loved the short films that I did and—to a certain degree—they were successful; but, what they probably showed was a progression towards working with a bigger body of work.

Guillén: It's my understanding Four took five to six years to accomplish? What were some of its most notable fits and starts? What role did Tribeca's All Access Program have in furthering the project? And what was involved in securing the Jerome Foundation's Film and Video grant for post-production?

Sanchez: Most feature films at this level of indie production have a lot of fits and starts mostly, y'know? For me it was a challenge—as well as an educational process—to learn how the business works and how projects like this are put together. I've worked with a number of different teams of people over the years and it just happened that the producer I ended up working with, Christine Giorgio, had a similar scope in terms of what we felt we could accomplish with this film and that ended up being the thing that worked. Assembling the right group of people was another big challenge. Also, the forest setting in Hartford, Connecticut where we originally wanted to shoot ended up costing too much money so that changed the dynamic of what we were doing and changed the scope of the movie that we were going to make.

As far as Tribeca All Access, it was an important step in the right direction. We did that fairly early on in the process. It's a good program to introduce young filmmakers to financiers, producers, sales agents, and people in the business who are trying to help filmmakers get their projects off the ground. They've been incredibly supportive of the project even to this day and that lends a positive reinforcement to what we're doing. For me, personally, their program made me start to think about how to pitch a project, how to talk about it with people, and how to share my vision with people in the business. The Jerome Foundation grant happened because we applied for it. We had a solid package to show them within their guidelines. And we got it!

Guillén: Your's is also, as I understand it, one of the first independent films to utilize Kickstarter for initial seed money and, more recently, to secure money to traffic the festival circuit with the finished film. Can you speak to your Kickstarter experiences? What is the relationship between social media and your filmmaking?

Sanchez: Yeah, we were pretty early on in the Kickstarter process and one of the first films that was successful at raising a certain amount of money there. It was exciting for us at the time because none of us knew if it could really work. We hoped that our Kickstarter campaign would be successful, but the precedent hadn't really been set yet for anyone to raise money in that form. So it was sort of a shock for us, as well as a learning process, because we discovered—not only could we do it and do it ourselves—but we could also build an audience that way. The cool part about crowd funding is that you get a lot of other people involved in what you're doing and, once they become involved, they want to tell their friends about it and they want to help you achieve your goal, not just financially but with the film in general. That was a really big learning process for me in terms of the future of film marketing and how a new filmmaker can utilize technology and social media to leverage their film to an audience. That was really great; but, I think it's changed a lot since we did it. Back then—which was only about two years ago—it was easier to put a project out like that and have it be a novelty for people that they could fund a movie. Nothing had ever existed like that. Nowadays, anyone on Facebook is probably bombarded by ten Kickstarter campaigns at once, which makes you feel obligated to support a friend or someone you know who has supported you. In a way it's a good thing but you have to work a lot harder to differentiate yourself from all the other people who are doing that.

What's important is to set a reasonable amount of money that you're trying to raise on Kickstarter and to realize you can't raise everything on it, and also to have it be a project that's legitimately worthy of people's attention and support. We recently did a smaller Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to be able to go to some initial film festivals. We're amazingly lucky because it's not easy to pull off two Kickstarter campaigns. I'm happy that we were able to do that but I think it's going to be our last foray into Kickstarter with relation to this project. It helped that there was a significant amount of time between the two campaigns.

Guillén: How did your relationship with playwright Christopher Shinn come about and what was involved in selecting Four out of his body of work for a filmic adaptation? Why did this particular script speak to you?

Sanchez: I met Chris about seven years ago. I had seen one of his other plays Where Do We Live when it was playing at a theater in New York City. I loved that play. It felt unique. His voice was like no one's I had heard before. To make a long story short, I was writing at that time for an arts magazine and they asked me to interview a playwright or screenwriter of my choosing, so I wanted to interview Chris. I sought him out. We're about the same age and have a similar background with similar interests. We became friends right off the bat. While researching for that interview, I read Four and immediately felt I could visualize it in my head. I felt that—if the right circumstances were to come about—Four would be a terrific feature film; something I could lend myself to as a director. The process started like that. There was a long back-and-forth of us discussing whether or not it was something that could happen or should happen.

Guillén: I've spoken briefly with Chris and he's already made it very clear to me that what you've done with Four is your baby. You shifted the play into new directions. For example, you mentioned earlier that you shifted the location of the narrative from Hartford, Connecticut to Anytown, USA. How did that open up the film for you? How did that serve the purpose of the narrative for you?

Sanchez: Honestly, it was a happy accident. I didn't have the money to shoot it in Hartford. I realized at a certain point that—if I were going to try to continue to shoot it in Hartford—the movie might not ever get made. I had to make a choice about how to stay true to the material but to also be able to set it in a location that would be accessible to myself and the crew so that we would be able to actually make the movie. It happened like that, but in a sense it really did open up the movie because it didn't restrict me to one specific location.

What's beautiful about the play Christopher Shinn wrote is that Hartford functions almost as a fifth character. Hartford is a specific place with a specific story. We spent a lot of time in Hartford trying to research how to get the film off the ground and it just didn't happen there for a lot of different reasons. In opening it up, it broadened the appeal a bit maybe? I would hope that the audience would be able to project their own experience of this particular place, which is not to say that if we had been able to make the film in Hartford it would have been any less powerful; but, it presented a unique opportunity for us because we started to think, "How can we set this up so that the people who are watching it will think, 'This is a place that I know, even though it's not specific enough to know really where it is on a map?' " At a certain point I embraced it and then the film became more about focusing on the characters, their situations, the material, and less the location where we were shooting it.

Guillén: You've stated elsewhere, "When I read Four, it struck me as one of the greatest tales of suburban loneliness that I'd ever read. It speaks to a deteriorating American vitality and examines characters that are caught up in their own longing and desire to transcend the situation they are in. This is the America I grew up in." That makes me wonder if you have any thoughts on what the difference might be between urban loneliness and suburban loneliness?

Sanchez: Wow, that's a very interesting question! Hmmmmm. Well, I've lived in New York City for 13 years so it's been a long time since I've lived in the suburbs. I feel that if I were to have made a movie approaching the subject of urban loneliness, it would have been an incredibly different story, which is not to say that I'm not interested in urban loneliness. It exists. For me, one of the great things of working on this project was that it did speak to an experience I had when I was a kid into my young adulthood. I lived in a town where I felt no one understood me and where I felt that I couldn't relate to other people. Not only feeling like that, but feeling like what I was inside was unacceptable to people around me. In thinking about that, probably a lot of people feel like that in situations where they don't have people around them to support them and to understand who they basically are. A lot of what makes me want to tell stories harkens back to that time when I was feeling like a lonely kid. One of the things that saved me from a dysfunctional family where I was living in a conservative, religious situation was going to the movies and watching stories that affected me so deeply that I felt, "Well, I have a chance in the world. I'm going to get out of this situation. I'm going to go out and make something of myself." I suppose on a certain level Four spoke to me in that way: that it could be a film that would have that potential for somebody. That's what we set out to do. I've made films about urban loneliness before, specifically one called Inside Out that's very much about the experience of being an isolated, closeted gay person, which is also an experience I went through. Maybe down the line I'll explore that more. I like the idea of going back into my past and trying to dig around and see what I can come up with. Creating my own story, I guess.

Guillén: Four certainly spoke to me and tracked with my own adolescent experience. I'm nearly 60 now but I can still recall when I was 14-15, growing up in Twin Falls, Idaho, which I wouldn't necessarily describe as suburban—it was more rural—but the feeling of being isolated and misunderstood were the same as yours. In retrospect, I consider the problems of identity and finding love that I experienced growing up as a young man in Twin Falls to be compounded in my first years in San Francisco where I fled to for freedom and encountered a whole new set of obstacles and restrictions to be overcome. The loneliness I felt in San Francisco was distinct from that I felt in Twin Falls.

How did Neil LaBute come on board as executive producer? Have his films influenced you in any way?

Sanchez: Yeah. I've followed Neil's work for years. I find him to be an astute observer of the human condition. During our first Kickstarter campaign when we were trying to raise money, he found out about it through Christopher Shinn and came on board like that. He took an interest in the filmic version of the play, gave us a lot of advice as far as how to get the project off the ground, and made himself available during the editing process when we started piecing the movie together. He watched a lot of early cuts and gave really good notes about how to trim the fat, so to speak. He was great to work with. He's a sweet guy and I'm a big fan of his. It was a privilege to work with him.

Guillén: Your work in Four has an actor-driven directorial style. How did you go about casting your key characters and what's your philosophy about working with actors?

Sanchez: Working with actors is important to me. Casting is everything. It sets the precedent for what I'm capable of doing as a film director. We cast this movie in a traditional way. I don't think my process of casting is traditional, but we worked with a casting director and did a number of wide casting calls in New York and Hartford to see who was out there. Casting could have gone in a non-actor direction.

We put out a wide net for most of the actors except for the part of Joe. We wanted to anchor that role in someone who was well-known who was looking for something challenging to do. Wendell Pierce was pretty high on my list of people who I wanted to work with from the start. It just so happened that he had seen a production of the play and was familiar with Christopher Shinn's work. He "got" it. He understood the material and what we were trying to do with it. We were incredibly lucky that he was available, that he wanted to do it, and did it for virtually no money instead of what he was usually being paid.

As far as working with actors is concerned, I tend to steer far away from the actual written material for a long time. I tend to want to get to know the actors as much as possible and get a sense of who they are and what they're going to bring to the role before we hit the set. The last thing I do with them is run the lines. I just block it out. There's a spontaneity that comes from being on a set that allows for a fresh aspect of their performance if you keep it a little reserved. I encourage them to do more of the internal work so that when we all get to the set my job becomes simply to provide a safe space for them to do what they need to do and to explore their characters in the way they need to explore them.

A lot of times in low-budget movies like this, you don't get much time with the actors so you have to roll with the punches and know how to bring out something, even if you don't have a lot of time or money to do it. I was incredibly fortunate to work with the four main actors who were committed to these roles. On the set there was nothing I could tell them that they didn't already know that was going to change what they were going to bring to their characters. My job became to trust them as much as possible.

Guillén: Well, you certainly elicited—and all four of your actors delivered—commanding performances. As Joe, Wendell Pierce added a necessary gravity and saliency to his character. His performance is wonderful. You've stated elsewhere that the character of Joe was influenced by your exploration of the work of novelist John Cheever. How so?

Sanchez: I discovered Cheever around the same time that I discovered Christopher Shinn. When I started to read his work, I not only got into his work but into him as a person. I read several biographies on him, including the books his kids had written about him, and all of his journals. One of the things that resonated for me first and foremost was that he seemed like a man who was constantly dissatisfied with his internal life and I think a lot of that had to do with the struggles he had with his sexuality. Anyone who reads "The Swimmer" or Falconer will be able to read them as huge meditations on the closeted homosexual. His being a literate person who showed himself off as such by being a college professor, there was something that clicked with me in reading Cheever, then reading the character of Joe, that felt real. It was like they became one and the same. Obviously, the circumstances of both men are very different; but, there's a similarity in how they're seeing the prison of life. That has a lot to do with their both being in the closet, living in one world and existing in another world in secret. That was a lot of what Cheever did. Cheever's story can be read as a very sad story. He was an incredibly gifted writer who never really came to terms with himself. That's incredibly sad. That's something Joe in the movie is also dealing with.

Guillén: All four characters are beautifully nuanced and pronounced and, as a spectator, I could relate to all of them. However—although Wendell Pierce has been singled out by several reviewers as stealing the film—Emory Cohen's sultry performance is equally commanding. I thoroughly identified with his characterization of June. It spoke to me. June was who I was at that age and I was amazed to see myself in this film. Do you see June's character as an abused kid "who cannot or will not ever see beyond his own isolation"? In other words, is he a victim? Do you see him as a victim?

Sanchez: No, I don't. June is an incredibly bright kid who has been exploring himself. I'm sure there will be a lot of people who will see this movie and question the morality of the situation between Joe and June—in particular, the morality of Joe to be able to go through with having a sexual relationship with a teenager—but, more often than not with someone like June, he's a thoughtful guy, held-back in himself as a lot of teenagers are, and in a way this particular instance that happens to him on this night is a way for him to explore his surroundings, or his sexuality. I certainly don't think that he is powerless in this situation. He's there because he wants to be there. But I also feel that he's still forming who he is going to be as an adult and I'm sure that this experience is going to have an effect on who that is and who he becomes. I never saw him as a character who was going to fall apart after this experience. He's going to go on and he's going to have a life and he'll probably be okay.

But there's a danger in my interpreting that character for the audience. Some people will feel a catharsis through their own experience of having formative sexual experiences that are totally different from the way that I see it. I would like to be respectful of that as much as possible. A lot of the work that Emory and I did on that character was really about trying to understand what he wanted out of that situation. It's a challenging dynamic between those two guys that will challenge people's perceptions about what male sexuality is, what gay male sexuality is, what the sexuality of teenagers is, and so Four is presenting a challenge to its audience.

Guillén: Emory's performance was a knockout. His was one of the most stunning representations of teenage sexuality that I've seen in a long time, probably since Larry Clark's films. I was quite taken by his work here and—as someone who saw my youth in his performance—I vividly recalled being hungry for love and looking for it in all the wrong places. So I have to acknowledge that there is an element of danger in approaching love this way; but, at the same time, I have to joke a bit about it because the truth often is that in these situations it's the teenager who is the most aggressive and determined, driven by the desire for initiation. I had to chuckle at Andrew Barker's Variety review of the film, wherein he noted that the relationship between Joe and June "might almost seem an argument for old-school Athenian pederasty." This remains a difficult subject to discuss because the socialization process by which a young gay male becomes himself is often engineered through these intergenerational experiences and that's not always given its fair due. Your treatment of these issues felt authentic, fresh and honest.

Sanchez: Thanks! I agree with you. Often times we go through those experiences but don't want to talk about it because it can be a touchy subject with people. But these things happen. I would hope that we didn't present these characters in a way that people could easily judge. All of them have their flaws. In a way, that's what we tried to capture: the duality and complexity of each of these characters.

Guillén: You succeeded. I likewise found remarkable in Emory's performance the scene where he goes into the bathroom to smoke the joint to prepare himself for the sexual experience with Joe. Up until then, I had been looking at him as a very young boy, but then—having decided to follow through with it—his character from then on had an almost immediate maturity that hadn't been evident before. His face while being fucked by Joe was one of the most expressive uses of close-up I've seen in a long time. It broke my heart for feeling so true. I can remember that conflicted energy of wanting experience and then having the experience fail me emotionally. Having to put up with it until the experience was over and then walking away from it.

Sanchez: Right.

Guillén: You have credited Larry Clark's Kids and John Casavettes' Faces as having influenced the cinematographic direction you took with your close-ups. Can you speak to why it was important for you to stylize these close-ups?

Sanchez: I watched Kids and Faces a lot because I'm a huge fan of both of those filmmakers and their films. To me, they resonated a lot because they both had that kind of immediacy of a closed time period. They both were stories that took place over a day or a night. Both had four main characters, maybe more in Kids, but kind of the same in Faces. I ended up watching them a lot and I think there was a subconscious incorporation of how those characters were shot, mainly in close-up. For us this made sense because the performances in our film oftentimes could play out long and we didn't want to stop the actor from being able to keep going and trying to do it in one take. We often did long master takes where we would be following the characters around hand-held in medium close-ups and then do cutaways from there. That became our shooting style. It grew out of attaching to the actor vs. the other way around. The actors did it for the camera. We let them do what they needed to do and it suited the material in all honesty. It needed something to make you feel that you were immediately in that situation. I felt it was a movie that would work a lot better if you felt you had just been dropped into these people's lives for a night, y'know? It played better in close-up.

Guillén: The character of Dexter, played by E.J. Bonilla, provided charismatic comic relief. Was that humor in Shinn's script or was this something you developed with Bonilla?

Sanchez: It was both really. If you read the play, the original source material, it's incredibly funny. That's part of what's great about the character of Dexter but there was a sort of lightness and liveliness about E.J. as a person that I knew would bring something interesting and special that would be, at the same time, unexpected. He honestly surprised a lot of us who weren't really sure how Dexter was going to come together. But once E.J. started to bring him to life, the character of Dexter fell into place because E.J. had such a formed vision of who this kid was. A lot of it was silly and kind of seductive I guess. Definitely when he comes on screen in the film, he lightens it up. Part of that is in Chris's writing. He tends to have comic moments in his plays, which can tackle serious subjects at the same time. That's one of the reasons I've enjoyed his work, because it wasn't so one-sided. Dexter feels very much like a guy I would have known when I was a kid. Dexter came together as a combination of E.J.'s exuberance and the character's silly but troubled soul.

Guillén: Wendell Pierce likewise adds a necessary levity to these serious events. How difficult was it to achieve this balance between the film's emotional registers, between its serious issues and its humor? Was it a rhythm in the editing that cued you when you needed to lighten the film up a bit, or were you following the momentum of Shinn's script?

Sanchez: For the most part we stayed true to the cutting between the serious and the comic and what Chris originally wrote, in the sense that it keeps the audience guessing, which is a nice rhythm to work with. You're in this situation between these two characters and then you're immediately shifted out of it and you're wondering what they're doing when they're not on screen? That said, it was a process of trying to see what worked cinematically through the structure and the rhythm of the cuts. We did a lot of back-and-forth, watching it with different people to see how they reacted to it, where they laughed, and where they felt uncomfortable. In the core of what Christopher Shinn wrote, that rhythm is there. We just took it and tried to make it as cinematic as possible.

Guillén: For a film that's so emotionally complex, I much admired the film's rich layering that created its emotional texture. In terms of sound, I was impressed with Michael McMenomy's sound design, which served to further characterization. I especially took note of his choice to layer the sound of a dribbling basketball during Dexter's love scene with Abigayle (Aja Naomi King). The melancholy of a fading high school basketball career was compressed into that sound. Can you speak a bit to working with McMenomy to further the film's narrative through sound design?

Sanchez: Yeah. I'm not sure if there's a specific method we had working on the sound design except that we had a lot of very good source material to work with. We shot in locations that had a lot of ambient noise. That particular location, the basketball court, we had lost our original location for that shoot the day before we were going to shoot it and so we had to improvise with the location, which none of us were particularly excited about. But it ended up being great and worked visually. The sounds effects that were naturally in the film helped. A lot of the scenes were like that. In one of the parking lots we shot in, there was the sound of a train that ran behind the lot. That was something we could use.

In terms of working with Michael, what he brought to it was to take the elements that we had and heighten them ever so slightly to make it feel like a film, and not just rushed noise coming at you. It was challenging. Michael is a talented sound designer and the film's sound design developed from our repeatedly watching the film together and talking about how we wanted the film to go. There was a certain atmosphere and space that I wanted the sound to have that he accomplished quite well.

Guillén: Another element you folded into the film's textural background was the work of AIDS-deceased artist Darrel Ellis. Can you speak to why it was important for you to include his work as a visual element in the film? As indieWire noted: "Ellis projected family photographs on to irregular plaster forms and photographed the results, the distortions symbolizing the turmoil within his family." Was it as comment on family dysfunction that you incorporated Ellis here?

Sanchez: When we were talking about what we wanted to do with the house that Joe and Abigayle inhabit, it was obvious that we needed to figure out what the look and feel of that house was going to be. I'm a huge fan of Darrel's work and what he did and—because one of the film's executive producers runs his estate—we gained a lot of access to his work. Because of that, I spent a lot of time with that work and knew the story of Darrel and what he was doing with his work and also his life story, which was incredibly moving.

Darrel is an untapped genius that nobody really knows about and I thought it was a great opportunity to include his work in the film, not only because the work itself when you see it speaks to his experience as an African American gay man, but reinterpreting his past and his own family and reappropriating it into this work was such a powerful statement for me. But I also wanted it to be something that if you stilled the movie to look at a shot of it, you could ask, "What is that?" Even though it could be just something in the background for somebody else. It was a real privilege to be able to use his work. I thought that if there was anything I could do to bring his work into the public view, it would be a great opportunity. In a sense, it adds a layer to the internal being that Joe and Abigayle are feeling about the dissolution of their own family, and why that is happening. It adds an extra layer to that house and their relationship. Liza Donatelli, the production designer I've worked with for a long time, did a great job of placing that work deliberately to echo the family experience that Joe and Abigayle were having in that house.

Guillén: I respect and applaud your impulse to recover his work within your film. It's admirable.

Reading the Tribeca piece regarding the influences on the film, you referenced a monograph for an exhibition entitled "American Standard: (Para)Normality and Everyday Life," organized by Gregory Crewdson at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in 2002. You mentioned how you liked the exhibition's exploration of an "American tradition of art that explores the intersection of everyday life and theatricality." Can you expand on that intersectional tension between the everyday and the theatrical?

Sanchez: What became immediately apparent when I began working on this movie was that it was a movie that took place at night. That visual aspect of driving around in an American town at night can seem innocuous and normal; but, if you look at it through a different lens—let's say, smoking some pot, or being down and out—the location can start to seem incredibly huge in scope, particularly in the way it's lit. When I saw that exhibition, the theme of that show was pointing to a puritanical American tradition of taking an innocuous location and pointing out what makes it weird and freaky, and also hidden. That spoke to me and gave me the seed of an idea of trying to use the spaces and the shadows of the locations in the town where we were working to create something like that. All the characters in the film have neighbors, they live in houses, they go to school or their job, but their hidden lives are transgressive. I suspect a lot of Americans share such hidden lives. Another American tradition is to try to keep those things as hidden as possible, which "American Standard" spoke to. That exhibition was a visual influence and a behind-the-scenes philosophical influence. I bought the monograph and that little book served me well in the making of this film because I was able to share it with my DP and the production heads for the film to get them to—not just catch a specific visual vibe that I wanted for the film—but to give them a sense of the internal feeling I was going for.

Guillén: Along with the film's experiment with the visual theatricality sifted from everyday environments, another evident challenge whenever adapting a play is how to adjust the theatricality of the language. My first thought watching Four was how naturalistic the language sounded and, thus, I was surprised when a couple of critics complained that the language sounded stagey. How did you go about shifting the tone of the language from theatrical to natural, or again, was that already negotiated in Shinn's script?

Sanchez: Chris does have a way of writing dialogue that's naturalistic, especially if you read the play Four. There's a lot of stuttering, a lot of ums and uhs, and it seems that's important for him to capture in the language. With that said, I wanted to preserve the essence of the cadence in that language that he wrote, which was special, delicate and beautiful; but, also, to translate that into a cinematic form. To do that, often times you have to be judicious about what you use and what you don't use and how much time you're spending with these characters to—at a certain point—maximize the tension and drama of telling a cinematic story.

Language can work very differently in theater because often times we expect the characters to talk because that's what they have to work with on stage, that's what they have to tell the story, whereas with film you can use the camera to tell certain things that you can't use in the theater. Chris gave me a lot of freedom for the most part to be able to make choices with his material that would make it work as a movie. Those can be difficult decisions to make, in terms of what to use and what not to use, but in certain scenes—in particular, the initial driving scene between Joe and June—the play had a lot more dialogue in that scene than I actually used in the film. I felt it would be a disservice to the audience watching that scene if they became bogged down in a lot of talking and missed experiencing the emotion of what was happening, y'know? I had to delicately balance my love for what Chris had written with what would actually work on the screen.

Guillén: We've talked about Joe, we've talked about June, we've talked about Dexter and so I'd like to approach the character of Abigayle, played by Aja Naomi King. You stated in an earlier piece for indieWire that you were attracted to Shinn's script for Four because it inspired you to delve into "family relationships in a world where they can be hidden and shamed into a sort of habitual denial." This made me consider Abigayle's denial. Why would she not confront her father after seeing him in a car with a boy? Especially when she's bearing the brunt of caring for her depressed mother? Her backstory is less pronounced and not so evident on the surface. Can you speak to her character and what you were wanting to show in her story?

Sanchez: As far as the choice of not having Abigayle confront her father, often times family situations are predicated upon a certain secrecy. You can be trained to turn that stuff off. By the film not talking about it, it preserves the beast, the stability in a way, even though it's a kind of false stability.

Abigayle is a young woman who is struggling to be her own person. She's struggling to accept certain truths about her parents. In the course of the evening in which we catch up with her, her relationship with Dexter almost forces her to either break out of that family situation or to not. By her choosing not to, we're seeing a lot of the pain and sadness of what's happening with her family. She feels incredibly trapped. I suspect a lot of people feel trapped in the family situations they're in because they don't want to cause pain or disrupt a family member who might be struggling with something that's causing a lot of problems. If I were to have shown Abigayle confronting Joe, Four would have become a different movie. Again, what I really wanted was to drop the audience into this situation to experience what these people are experiencing. And I wanted the audience to leave the film questioning why these people are who they are. Four is not a story that's wrapped up with a little bow at the end, which is part of what makes it challenging and provocative to audiences. It leaves them with tension. It asks them to question their own lives. Abigayle represents a form of denial. She's caught in the middle of it. Abigayle is an incredibly smart and astute young girl and I would hope that she will break out of that situation but it's not for me as a filmmaker to say that's what happens.

Guillén: With that response you've moreorless answered the final question I was going to ask you. You're attentive to audience reception and respectful of what you're hoping the audience will take away from this film. Four premiered in Los Angeles, is screening at Frameline in San Francisco, moves on to open at Newfest, and will continue on the festival circuit. Based upon what you've experienced to date, has audience reception surprised you? Has it tracked with your hopes?

Sanchez: Both. For the most part, the audience reception has been incredibly thoughtful. Four is a film that weighs heavy on people after they watch it, but it's not necessarily a film that does that in a negative way. Definitely people have a lot of questions about it, but there is a certain catharsis they feel watching it. They've been entertained but they've also not been talked down to. They've been provoked to ask questions of themselves. So all in all, it's gone well. Many of the questions that audiences have had were questions I predicted people would ask and others I haven't predicted. Most of the audiences I've come across so far have been willing to have a dialogue about who the characters are and what the story is and why I would want to tell this story. I've been pleasantly surprised with how enchanted the audiences are and how much they want to be a part of talking about the movie.

It seems to me that this is such an important part of the personal experience of going to the movies. Seeing a story happen in front of you with pictures and sound and also with people is part of the cool thing about being a filmmaker and getting to go to festivals and share work with an audience. I get to take part in that experience myself. I'm a movie lover and respect the institution of bearing witness to characters and story. It fulfills an important part of our lives. Film has the potential to be an incredibly powerful vehicle. As a person who's been able to make a feature film to present to audiences, I respect that process so much. I'm sure there will be audience members who ask questions that will challenge me to think about the material in ways I haven't; but, I take it seriously to have as much of a dialogue with them as possible and to be respectful of their need to ask me questions about the material, as well as for them to question the material too.

Guillén: I, for one, Joshua, am very happy that you have put this film out there. It's a film I plan to champion throughout its course. I want to thank you for being so generous and thoughtful with your responses today and I wish you the best at tonight's screening. Again, I regret not being able to be there to help you celebrate.

Sanchez: Thank you very much. It's been fun to talk with you.