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Interview: Michael C Hall for Open Magazine

Darkly Dreaming Dexter: Michael C Hall, the fascinating serial killer of Dexter, the hit American TV show, talks about dealing with his inner dark passenger, on and off screen

If you are a fan of American television, you are a fan of Dexter, period. The show, about a police blood spatter analyst who leads a secret double-life as a serial killer, has captivated the collective American consciousness since it launched in 2006. One of the highest rated cable shows ever in the US, Dexter has got its lead actor Michael C Hall—who plays Dexter—a Golden Globe award, a Screen Actors Guild Award and multiple Emmy Award nominations for his portrayal of a man who, incapable of human emotion, turns his homicidal urges into meting out justice to other murderers.

In an interview over the phone from Los Angeles, Michael Hall talks about Dexter’s ‘Dark Passenger’ and his own deliberations on life and death: Excerpts:

Q Having earlier done five seasons of Six Feet Under, which dealt with the morbid as well, what was it about Dexter that attracted you?

A Initially, I think it was the challenge of breathing a sense of authentic life into a character who claimed to be without the capacity for authenticity, or life. I think playing a character that wasn’t affable or relatable or attractive enough for viewers to understand or identify with, or even root for, was a challenge that I welcomed as an actor, and was excited about, personally. Because after playing someone like David Fisher (Six Feet Under), who struggled with a sense of self-loathing and… a sense of being a doormat in his relationships, to play Dexter who is, ultimately, a man of action and a very decisive character, was an appealing change of pace.

Q You’re known to be a method actor. So was the preparation for Dexter? Did you practise murdering dolls and stalking people?

A Oh yeah, I did a bit of that! I was living in New York and followed some people around, just to see if I could do it. I, of course, didn’t follow them into their homes (laughs)… but yeah, it just gave me a sense of that lone wolf, [the] solitary place that Dexter spends a lot of time occupying.

Apart from this, there were some books that I read by FBI profilers who dedicated their careers to identifying the characteristics of serial killers. I imagined that Dexter himself would familiarise himself with things like that. I read transcripts of interviews with different serial killers, I sat down with the head of the Blood Splatter Analysis Department of Miami-Dade County and got a sense of what he did. Ultimately, though, I think it was a character that required an imaginative leap, you know, unless you are willing to commit felonies to see what it’s like. But, it’s not really my inclination to want to do that, so I didn’t think that would really serve me in any way.

Q Were you worried about the responsibility that comes with playing a ‘likeable’ serial killer? There have been stories of life imitating art—how do they affect you?

A Yeah. It’s (pauses)… yeah, it’s a very troubling thing to hear that someone used the existence of the show to sort of contextualise some darker impulse that they might have. But I in no way think that the show is an instructional manual or advocating force for serial murders, or anything like that. I think it’s more a meditation on the nature of morality, family, love and the male psyche. The fact that people see it that way or use it to justify murderous impulses is certainly troubling, but at the same time, I believe, in this case specifically, and even generally, that to censor something because of an individual viewer’s association with it is fundamentally wrong.

Q Did it surprise you that people like Dexter so much, given the fact that he is a criminal? Personally, do you at all judge Dexter? Do you look at him as a vigilante, a hero, a sociopath or even just a little crazy?

A Yeah, I knew going into the show that Dexter was only going to work if people managed to like and identify with the character, and that was sort of the fundamental tonal and performance-wise challenge that we were facing. I thought it would appeal to a certain taste and to a certain viewer. As far as the number of people it’s appealed to, or the different kinds of people who found something to like, it wasn’t something I necessarily anticipated, so it was a pleasant surprise. But no, I do not think that it’s my job or my inclination to judge the characters I play. It’s not something that I really struggle against doing, something I’m not really inclined to do. I’m more inclined to just understand what’s motivating them and act in accordance to that.

Q Does playing Dexter ever get to you? How do you offset the ‘Dark Passenger’ after the show ends? Do you have a routine like watching mindless comedies to get over it?

A Mindless comedies are nice, exercise is good, hot showers are great, vacations and travelling is always nice. So, just getting some distance from the day-to-day constant preoccupation with the character does the trick for the most part. Because, yes, the show does get to you, to a degree… probably, in subtle ways that affect [not] just my mood. Simulating someone who feeds on impulses that dark, and manages a level of stress… takes its toll on the subconscious. But I guess that kind of goes with the territory if you are an actor.

Q What have you learnt about life and death in the past decade, given that both Six Feet Under and Dexter have had these as their central themes?

A I don’t really know how much there is to learn about death, except that it’s inevitable. But as far as life goes, both Dexter and Six Feet Under have been very significant and enriching parts of my life, and I’m thankful for that… it’s definitely cultivated in me a sense of gratitude—gratitude to be working with talented people, gratitude to be working in general, and telling a story that I feel strongly about, probably the biggest thing.

Q You also underwent treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma—successfully—during Dexter. Did that, in any way, change the way you play Dexter?

A Well, you know, when something like that (Hodgin’s lymphoma) happens, you wonder, ‘Did I will this to happen in spite of myself?’ or ‘Am I behaving in ways or treating myself in ways, whether in my habits or in my mind, that contributed to this happening?’ And I was encouraged by most people to believe that wasn’t the case, but maybe it helped me do a better job of putting my work down when I was done with it (chuckles).

Q As a producer on the show, you must be involved in the writing of the show. Do you see Dexter having a happy ending?

A Yeah, I’m a part of that conversation (writing), but I appreciate the fact that if a television series is successful, it’s a miracle of sorts, in as much as it requires so many people to do their jobs well. So I trust our writers and the process that they go through to come up with what happens and I don’t aspire to write the show. I think I ought to weigh in, in terms of how things happen, if there’s a story development that I feel has been executed in a way that doesn’t honour my sense of Dexter’s identity, I might talk about different ways to get there. But, thankfully, we have [such] amazing writers that I can primarily focus on doing my job as an actor.

And as far as the ending is concerned, I do fantasise about a happy ending on Dexter’s behalf, you know, because it’s something that he perhaps deserves, though I honestly don’t know if that’s the way it’s going to pan out.

Q Will we ever see Dexter as a movie?

You know there’s been talk about that possibility, but I struggle to see it being worthwhile. I mean, if somebody can put something in front of me that was compelling, I would be excited, sure, but I have trouble imagining it.

Q Have you ever used Dexter to your advantage… scared someone off in real life?

A Yeah, if anybody cuts me off in traffic, I just give them a little glare and they usually back down. (Chuckles) No, I try not to use that, I try to be responsible.

Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on January 26, 2013
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/international/darkly-dreaming-dexter
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Interview: Aasif Mandvi for Open Magazine

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World: Aasif Mandvi, ‘Brown Correspondent’ of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show that airs in America, on satire, pop culture and bigotry

Aasif Mandvi is everywhere. He’s on your television screens as The Muslim Correspondent or The Brown Correspondent on one of the most watched political comedy shows in America, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. In 2012 alone, he was in four movies—Premium Rush, Ruby Sparks, The Dictator and Dark Horse. He is now back to his first love, theatre, starring in a brave new play on racism in America, post 9/11, called Disgraced. And although he’s been around for 20 years now, having worked with the likes of Robert De Niro (Analyse This), Bruce Willis (Die Hard with a Vengeance) and in blockbusters like Spiderman 2, it looks like he’s just getting started. Named as one of the most influential global Indians by GQ magazines, Mandvi gets serious about comedy in an exclusive interview:

Q Since you started working on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, you’ve been widely acclaimed by the American press as a representative of the ‘moderate Muslim voice’. Do you think of it as a responsibility now?

A (Thinks) Let me answer the question in this way: having been raised as a Muslim in America, after 9/11, in some way, I was politicised, because you couldn’t help being politicised at the time. Then I got The Daily Show, which is a huge platform, of course, and because of my role in it and because of my ethnicity, I get talked about on both sides of the fence. On the show, I satirise something that then has its effect out in the world, as it makes some people get up and use it as a way to represent the Muslim community. And this stuff that I satirise isn’t entirely created by me; there is a team of writers that works on it along with me. So even though I understand—and this is important—why I’ve been called that, and I understand the need of a representative, and I also understand why it’s happening to me, I can’t worry about it and I can’t think about it. Because that’ll limit you as an artiste, or a writer, actor or creator… if you worry about it.

Also, (chuckles) I reject the notion of being the face of any kind of ‘moderate Muslim’, because I shouldn’t be the guy representing Islam anywhere at all, you know. I’ve been inside more bars than I’ve been inside mosques.

Q Clearly, the community thinks different. You received the prestigious Freedom of Expression Award from The Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in 2011 for your ‘comedic body of work that has played a significant role in exposing anti-Muslim bigotry in America’.

A The CAIR award is certainly an honour, but it’s also absurd (chuckles), if you know what I mean. I mean, it’s more of a reflection of the lack of moderate Muslim voices in society as a whole that I was given the CAIR award. You know, when I got the CAIR award, a Syrian composer, Malek Jandali, was also given it along with me. And he was given it for composing and performing a song (Watani Ana), which served as a backdrop for the Syrian revolution, at a rally in Washington DC. His parents were beaten up brutally by Assad’s security forces in Syria as retaliation. It’s a very tragic story. So he was getting the CAIR award for all that, and I was getting it; and I do sketches and I do jokes. I don’t want to sound full of it here—I greatly respect the fact that I was given the award and I’m extremely grateful for it—[but] I just think it speaks about the larger vacuum of moderate Muslim voices within society, that they gave me the award.

Q But don’t you think that your satirising the paranoia against Islam on The Daily Show has helped alleviate the ignorance of Islam in America?

A See, I think that in terms of what I do on the show, and because at the end of the day we’re a comedy show, there’s a certain level of catharsis that has been achieved, about the fact that I get up there and I say stuff that lands on people. But the reality is, that as far as America goes on a larger level, only 3 million people are watching The Daily Show every night. Compare that to the 22 million people that watch Fox News, for example. So has the conversation about Islam changed? No, not really. Because, for being a highly acclaimed, highly received and highly critically placed show, The Daily Show has a very specific impact on a particular section of society, but there’s a whole slew of people in America who never watch it.

See, when 9/11 happened, there was a definite conversation about what is Islam, who are Muslims, and what is the Quran? But in the 12 years since then, Americans have taken this curiosity and politicised it. The mainstream media and politicians have turned this curiosity into fear. So now, unfortunately, most Americans think that they know the answers. That they understand Islam. And the answer is that you have to be afraid. That Islam is dangerous. That it means ‘jihad’. And unfortunately, as we go into the future, this politicisation and sensationalising of the entire relationship of America with the Muslim world will only take us back a few steps instead of forward. I mean, when Obama came to power and they started calling him a Muslim, it was supposed to be a demeaning thing and was supposed to undermine him; that if he were a Muslim, it would somehow be bad. And that’s the unfortunate trajectory the American consciousness has taken after 9/11, and it’s a tragedy.

Q What do you think the role of pop culture should be in changing this?

A Now here’s where I reverse the same argument: 3 million is still a relatively large audience that The Daily Show reaches. And satire, by nature, helps get a certain level of influence within the zeitgeist and collective consciousness. So I think if pop culture keeps at it, there is an actual effect of change [that] shows like The Daily Show can have by [getting] people to think in ways they haven’t thought before otherwise, and to [experience] catharsis.

But on the other hand, it can all only change to a certain extent. For example, we once covered a protest against the proposed construction of a mosque in Tennessee, two-three years ago. I interviewed the leader of the opposition, Laurie Cardoza-Moore, and her reasons for trying to close down the construction was that… it was a mosque. So while that segment generated a lot of conversation, ultimately it didn’t matter and the construction was shut down. So again, the conversation has gone from a dialogue to basically shutting down and burying the conversation altogether. But, you know, even if there are times we lose, we are also on the winning side a few times, so we’ll certainly keep at that.

Q You’re now doing a serious off-Broadway play about racism and cultural identity in America called Disgraced. Is that also an attempt at keeping the conversation alive?

A Yes, doing the play was a no-brainer for me. It is brilliantly written by a Pakistani-American, Ayad Akhtar. Apart from the fact that there’s probably never been a serious role or play like an Othello on the New York stage for South Asian American actors, especially Muslim actors, I really thought it was the best thing written about this conversation in a long time. It’s honest, brutal, brave and very provocative. In theatre, people sit in a dark room with the actors on stage and are forced to wrestle with their own personal demons and prejudices, so it’s a very different beast than a political comedy at 11 o’ clock at night on Comedy Central. People have come out of Disgraced crying or in deep conversation or deep thought, you know.

I come from a much more liberal and secular Muslim family than the protagonist of the play, Amir Kapoor, who comes from a very conservative and traditional family with much more dogmatic opinions and a dangerous perspective of things. But I could still relate to him in many ways, specially to the disassociation from the culture and the clash of East and West values. I understand the difficulty in trying to find your identity and in growing up as a South Asian in America, especially post 9/11. And so I thought it was important for me to be a part of such a play, and I hope it is making people uncomfortable.

Q A while ago, in an article on Salon.com, you wrote, tongue-in-cheek, about the ‘whitewashing’ phenomenon in Hollywood, where America thinks of South Asian actors as White actors in Brown makeup. Now that we seem to be breaking out of the stereotypes of a cab driver, infotech engineer or a deli owner, do you think this is changing?

A Well, I think while the conversations on Islam may not be improving, South Asians, in general, are becoming a part of the American conscience now. Although I don’t think we have broken out of stereotypes entirely, I just think that as time has gone by, the new generation of South Asian comedians, writers and actors are a part of the American existence. Be it Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn or Mindy Kaling, there are certainly a lot more South Asians on TV and in movies than there used to be since I started in the business back in 1991. So yes, America is changing to that extent. But does that mean that Hollywood is comfortable casting South Asian actors without accents? No, it’s not. I just did an Owen Wilson-Vince Vaughn movie called The Internship, where my character has an Indian accent.

But it’s a very different kind of thing at play here, because there are people with accents. There’s nothing wrong with playing a cab driver or a deli owner or even a terrorist, because those people exist and are real. It basically comes down to the writing. Are these written as one-dimensional jokes for White people, or are they written with some level of nuance, sophistication, thought and an arc or story of some kind? And that’s what’s really changing for South Asian actors, you know. The writing and the roles are getting better, not that the characters now don’t have accents.

Q Apart from movies, you are also writing a book about your experiences in the US.

A Yeah, it’s been in the works for some time now. It’s a series of essays and short stories about my life growing up in England and working in America. It’s semi-autobiographical with anecdotal stories along the way, which are funny and amusing and relevant in some way, but some that are also serious. Then there are a few movies lined up, and there’s Disgraced and there’s The Daily Show. At some point in the future, I may be creating a TV show for CBS. I actually don’t know exactly where I am going from here, but I would like to continue writing, acting, and creating more stuff and putting it out there, and hoping it lands on people in a way that makes them feel. But I don’t have a larger agenda or a political one, and the only reason it’s working or has worked in the past is that (chuckles) I never had a plan B either.

Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on January 5, 2013
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/international/looking-for-comedy-in-the-muslim-world
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).

Interview: Robert Carlyle for Open Magazine

It is not easy, or even appropriate, to put actor Robert Carlyle in a box. He is a method actor who once lived homeless on the streets of London to prepare for a role, and whose penchant for anti-hero roles has resulted in some of the most stunning contemporary performances in British cinema, not least that of the psychopathic Begbie in the cult film Trainspotting. His portrayals of the regular Joe have given the British underclass a much-needed voice and the rest of us cinematic gems like the Oscar-nominated The Full Monty. This Bond villain from The World Is Not Enough is a Bafta winner, an Emmy nominee and possibly Scotland’s most respected export after Sean Connery. An actor who is known to let his work speak for himself and rarely ever interacts with the media lets his guard down in this conversation:

Q You play a faded rockstar in California Solo. I believe you were in a rock band yourself, early in your life. Do you ever look back and imagine what life would have been like, had you become a rockstar?

A You know, to be honest with you, I do look back on those days, as we all do, thinking ‘what if’, but never think of life as a rockstar because (laughs) I wasn’t really any good. I do enjoy music, and while I have a few close actor friends, most of my friends are from the music industry. Some of them, like the Gallagher brothers [of Oasis fame], are very well known and famous, so I kind of live life vicariously through them sometimes (laughs).

I go to a lot of gigs and concerts and I always watch from the side of the stage to get close to the feeling of what it may be like to stand there in the fog, in front of 20-40,000 people. But as I said, I played music for a very brief time in my life, for just a year-and-a-half, when I was 17 or something. And I thank God that it was in those days before iPhones and cameras, because then there would be evidence of my singing somewhere (laughs). I did it just to enjoy the anarchic quality of it all, to be honest. I didn’t have too much skill, but I was a bit of a rebel and music was a way to have my voice heard and live like a rockstar, you know? But eventually, I realised I can really go all out as an actor too, and I didn’t need music anymore to try and make people notice that I had something to say.

Q On California Solo, you worked with a relatively new director, Marshall Lewy. How do you judge a director, especially one who is not very experienced? Isn’t it a gamble?

A I think that’s true, it is quite a gamble. I saw some of Marshall’s earlier work, but even after that, you can’t really tell how the film is going to turn out. But as an actor, you have to be prepared to take that sort of risk, because otherwise you become too safe. Everything becomes the same then, and you just go through film after film and character after character as an echo of the previous part you played. So you take these chances. For instance, when I first worked with Danny Boyle on Trainspotting, that was a gamble (chuckles), and that turned out spectacularly. And then there are times when it all falls flat. But you know, there’s a saying in the UK that I abide by: ‘If you don’t buy a ticket, you don’t win the lottery.’

Also, the fact that the film is low budget always appeals to me, because I think then you have a chance of creating something meaningful, as opposed to big budget films, which are exciting but don’t really talk to the viewer. So that is what attracted me to California Solo too. As for Marshall specifically, he wrote the script with me in mind for the part of the former Britpop rocker. When I got the script, I noticed that there were certain ways in which the character of Lachlan [the protagonist] reacts that are similar to how I would react, or at least people who I know in real life who are like the character would react. Also, Lachlan is an everyman who has ended up on the wrong side of the tracks in life like loads of people who have had chances that passed them by. He is not necessarily a bad guy, he’s just got a bit of a bad break, and that’s something I found very interesting.

Q And how do you judge a script?

A I think, first of all, the character has to speak to you in some way. And then, if this character is behaving and reacting in the way that he should, and if he’s not going off on a tangent, not doing anything only for effect or only to please the audience, then I start thinking about it seriously. Even after this step, it’s quite an intense process for me actually. I go up and down a script for two days and two nights or so, and try and find any weaknesses in there. If it seems good, then you think there’s a chance that this is going to work.

But ultimately, for me, particularly in the low-budget world, it’s always been about a script that is trying to show people a mirror to themselves or their own souls. If I take the example of The Full Monty, Peter [Cattaneo] had not directed anything before. But there was something about Simon Beaufoy’s script that just spoke to me and I thought, therefore, it would speak to the rest of the public too. So I think it’s about having something essential, something a little more than fluff. A good script is beyond just shadows and light, you know, it’s about the human persona and about characters who reach [out to] society, and touch the lives of people who are watching.

Q You come from the school of method acting and go to great lengths to prepare for a role.

A Yeah, I believe so, but a lot has changed over the years. In the early days, when I got the part, I would try and live it quite literally. I would take it home with me and be the part for the time of the shoot. The best example of that would be when I did a movie called Safe, where I was playing a homeless person. I’ve never been homeless and never lived on the streets, so to get into the character, I went and lived on the streets of London for about a week, with absolutely no money on me. It was a hell of an experience and I can still remember every day and every night of it even now. And it really did help me as an actor, so for quite some time, I would use similar techniques, like going to the place that the character came from, living like him, trying to understand his job, his relationships, and so on. If the character had an accent, I would speak in that accent for the entire time of the shoot.

But then a very strange thing happened. (Chuckles) Fame sort of knocked at my door and it became impossible for me to do such things. I couldn’t go to the bar and be Danny the labourer. So that entirely changed my approach to acting. The approach then became more cerebral in a way, and more self exploratory. Rather than living like the character externally, I then started to live him internally. I would get inside the guy’s head and try and tap into his emotions, his feelings, his pain, and try and see the world through his eyes for the period of the shoot. I would try and tap into him and react the way he does. In California Solo, for example, Lachlan is a guy who is best described as ‘comfortably numb’—he has gone from the guy who would be performing in front of 20,000 people to a guy who now has absolutely nothing going on in life. His life has had such a deadening effect on him that he has now become comfortable in his numbness. So I tapped into that emotion throughout the shoot.

Q What about the process of playing Rumpelstiltskin in the TV series Once Upon A Time? You seem to be absolutely relishing it.

A I do, actually, even though it is one of the most intense roles of my life. The character of Rumpelstiltskin is so well-written, dynamic and otherworldly that I’m so glad to have got the chance of doing it my way.

There’s the fact that this guy is 300 years old and he has met so many people in his life that he’s lost to who he really is now, so I didn’t want to give him a normal persona. So he disguises who he really is by taking on different characteristics of people he’s known, every time. But there was something missing, and I found that in my six-year-old son, Pearce, who I once heard making this incoherent sing-song voice (sings it out). And that was it! I injected this childlike quality to Rumpelstiltskin and it became the X-factor it needed.

Q You seem to enjoy playing the anti-hero. What fascinates you about such characters?

A I think, as my career progressed from the late 1980s and early 1990s, I realised that the parts I gravitated towards were those of the anti-hero. And that’s because I have always liked giving a voice to people who didn’t really have any, whether it is the character of a lower-class construction worker like Stevie in Riff-Raff, or whether it’s Gaz, the unemployed steel worker from The Full Monty. And by giving them a voice, I was able to show the audience that everyone’s got a story and no one and nothing is in shades of black and white; everyone’s got shades of grey.

I did, eventually, go through a time when I kind of struggled with this decision and didn’t know if it was the right thing to do. But then I came upon this idea in my mind that an actor is like an artist who paints on canvases. So, in a sense, these characters would be like a series of self portraits, because artists, as they paint themselves through the years, reflect changes in society through these portraits. I realised that I would be doing the same, so I shouldn’t be afraid of this or run away from it, and I should instead embrace this, because there was nothing pompous or highbrow in trying to give people a voice.

Q Have you considered taking up direction? Speaking with you gives me the sense that growing up, you would have been the kind of cinema geek who was far more interested in directing than acting.

A Yeah, I loved cinema while growing up and for the longest time, wanted to be a director. My father loved the movies too and would take me to a cinema three-four times a week, as long as there were cowboys in the movies (laughs). He loved Westerns, and so do I. I directed a few things as projects in drama school and I didn’t think I was confused about being an actor or director. And then, I met a wonderful man called Ken Loach, who put me in front of a camera in Riff-Raff, and that changed everything for me, everything. I realised I enjoyed it a lot.

And you know, it’s funny you asked because I am currently trying to adapt a book called The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson for a movie that I hope to direct next year—and I say ‘hope’ with my fingers crossed. It’s a quirky, interesting dark comedy about a barber who (laughs) accidentally kills two or three people but didn’t really mean to. The reason I took so long to think about direction is that I respect the business too much, if you know what I mean. Direction is a very, very tough job and takes an awful lot of your time and braincells, so if you don’t find something that talks to you, it’s never a good idea to get into it. I was offered several movies, but I didn’t want to do anything half-heartedly or something I didn’t love. And I love this script.

Q You have had a wonderful working relationship with Danny Boyle, having made fantastic movies like Trainspotting, The Beach and 28 Weeks Later with him. Anything you learnt from his style of direction that can come handy?

A I love Danny. I love him professionally and as a person, and you know people don’t think that I am an emotional guy because I play such psycho characters (chuckles), but I actually couldn’t stop crying after seeing Slumdog Millionaire. Danny’s directed the film so beautifully. And he’s not only a brilliant director, he’s exactly the kind of guy you would speak to for advice when you are doing your own film. Ken Loach and he are the guys I’ve learnt most from, and although I hate to use the word, they are most like ‘mentors’ to me. Danny will do anything to make you comfortable.

I remember, during Trainspotting, there was a funny scene that we had to cut quite a few times because there was a lot of noise in the background, and that came from Danny laughing. He couldn’t stop because he really was into it, you know? When he talks, he would always say, “We are going to do this film this way” instead of “I am going to do the film this way”. The overwhelming thing I have taken from Danny is the realisation that you can’t do it alone, that it’s always about the ensemble and that you can only be brilliant when everyone else is. The art of collaboration with actors and the crew, in as encouraging a manner as possible, is something I hope to use too.

Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on December 1, 2012
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/cinema/self-portraits-by-carlyle
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).

Interview: David & Brandon Cronenberg for Open Magazine

Christopher Nolan may be considered a god by every comic book fanboy who has ever had an opinion, and Nolan’s last movie in the much hailed Dark Knight franchise, The Dark Knight Rises, may be considered his supreme creation , but Canadian auteur filmmaker David Cronenberg seems to think differently. For the director, who has himself been considered a god by genre fans for decades now, a superhero movie, by definition, “is a comic book for kids, adolescent in its core”, and he believes that people who think The Dark Knight Rises is ‘art’, “don’t know what the fuck they are talking about”.

Cronenberg made these remarks to a website, NextMovie.com, off the cuff, during an interview about his new film Cosmopolis, adapted from Don DeLillo’s book of the same name. Almost as soon as the director of cult ‘body horror films’—like The Fly, Shivers and Videodrome—said it, his comments were picked up by other websites and newspapers, and like all other things inconsequential to human intelligence, went viral on the internet.

A veteran of over a dozen iconic films in a career spanning more than 40 years, Cronenberg has had enough experience with such pitfalls of celebrity status. But for the past 32 years, another filmmaker has observed the trappings of his fame, up, close and personal—Brandon Cronenberg, David’s son. And this subconscious stimulus over the years has metamorphosed into Brandon’s first full-fledged movie, Antiviral, which premiered at the 2012 Cannes International Film Festival alongside Cosmopolis, the very first time a father and son both had a movie showcased at the festival.

‘David’s son’ is perhaps not the best way to begin speaking about Brandon: the young director is not your typical flagbearer of Hollywood legacy. In fact, till the age of 24, he didn’t even want to venture into filmmaking. It’s not that he disliked the art form; he admits to spending most of his waking time in creative pursuits like writing, illustrating and making music. “I was put off by the idea of getting into films because people just assumed that I must want to get into films since my father is a filmmaker,” says Brandon. “But eventually, I realised that it was not a good idea to avoid them just because I was annoyed by people, especially since it was a medium where I could collect all my interests and do them together. (Laughs) And maybe, I also needed a job by then.”

Antiviral is thus a fitting culmination of Brandon’s unsolicited affair with the culture that forced him to think this way: it is a horror film about a man who satisfies the needs of the celebrity-obsessed by transferring viruses from sick celebs into the bodies of their fans. “I’ve grown up in a culture where Robert Pattinson’s dog cannot go out for a walk because the paparazzi is constantly taking pictures of him, so I wanted to satirise this way of life in a slightly exaggerated way,” Brandon explains. “And I used viruses to depict this obsession because in a certain sense, after sex, illness is the most intimate you can get with someone—it’s something that comes from someone else’s cells and penetrates your cells.”

Being fiercely his own person, and keeping as far away from his father’s shadow as possible, Brandon put Antiviral together almost entirely on his own. It is a surprise, then, that he chose a genre film to make his debut, least of all a genre that his father is an undisputed master of. “It occurred to me, of course, that I would be compared to him,” Brandon says, although rather reluctantly, “but I don’t want my filmmaking and choices to be defined by his. This film is representative of what’s interesting to me, and of course, having grown up with him, our aesthetics have overlapped, but I don’t want to deliberately avoid something because I’m worried about what people would say. So I pay as little attention to his career as possible. It would be paralysing for me to spend all my time trying to do something he hasn’t done, not only because he’s done so much, but also because that would mean not working from an honest place.”

While there may be a few dissimilarities in their cinema and their outlook towards it, this honesty towards the craft is certainly something that Brandon has picked up from his father, David, who has, through his enormous body of work, remained true to the indie spirit and sensibility that characterised his early work. So when he thought it was time to move on from the genres that his work has been considered textbooks for, David went straight ahead and started dabbling in others, and very successfully at that. “I’m not deliberately avoiding genre movies, but I didn’t believe there was a point in going on with them,” David says. “I don’t want to do something that I have done before… I’ve only worked on a film as long as I found a unique idea or concept that I could make my own, and that, in some way, says something about the human condition.”

The movie adaptation of Cosmopolis, a book that had so far been considered unfilmable, is another manifestation of his continued interest in tackling this subject, and just as honestly, although in a way that is distinctly different from anything he has ever attempted. The film is set in the discernible future, where a 28-year-old billionaire businessman rides a luxury car across Manhattan, contemplating his past, present and future as a financial collapse wrecks Wall Street along with everything he’s believed in.

“I’ve enjoyed observing the human condition in all its complexity, along with the themes of human technology and human invention,” David says. “So, in Cosmopolis, I explore capitalism… When you start thinking of money as technology, it makes sense, because then, it’s not so much capitalism but human creation that you cannot control. Money, and hence capitalism, is a Frankenstein’s monster that we invented but cannot seem to be able to control. It’s not as though it’s a tsunami or a natural force—you can fix it if you want to, but you pretend it’s out of your hands and you allow it to take a life of its own. And I like exploring this phenomenon in different ways.”

But whether it is him being a proud father or because he genuinely believes it, David doesn’t think Brandon’s movie has any similarity to anything he has done. “It’s understandable that people are comparing Antiviral to my early films but that’s only because they are both [same] genre films,” he says. “In fact, I think he held on to his own much more in his first movie than I did in mine. He has a very good visual sense as well as a great sense of humour and that has made its way into this film, which I think is terrific.”

David excitedly goes on to mention the fact that it took him 20 years to get a film to Cannes but his son’s very first film found a nomination in the Un Certain Regard [‘a certain glance’ or ‘a particular outlook’ in French] category.

“Antiviral is very cinematic, and that’s because Brandon has a very innate understanding of things like the relationship between the camera and dialogue… and I was happy to hear from people I know on the set that he knew exactly what he wanted,” he says.

Brandon, of course, developed this cinematic sense not only in a film school but also from the sets of his father’s films. “In film school, you learn in a very artificial environment, so the main thing I picked up from my father was a sense of filmmaking in the real world, and a sense of the actual process,” says Brandon. “But I don’t have enough perspective to say how similar or different I am [from] him.”

And at the moment, this is the big difference between father and son, both proud men: first-time filmmaker Brandon is hesitant in speaking too much about his father, since his sense of pride and honour don’t let him be identified as his father’s son, but filmmaking legend David is effusive in praise of his son because nothing would make him prouder than being seen as his son’s father.

So, while Brandon only says that his father liked his film, but doesn’t remember a “good quote” from him, David distinctly remembers a good quote and readily provides it: “Brandon and I have always been close throughout our lives and have always been in sync in our thoughts on movies. Though I knew that he’d make a good film, it was only when I saw the film that I realised that he really did have it in him. And so, the first thing I said to him was, ‘Brandon, you really are a director.’”

Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on December 15, 2012
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/cinema/the-proud-cronenbergs
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).

Interview: Hannah Simone for Open Magazine

She could have fell, fell out of the sky;/She could have fell right out of the sky./Who’s that girl? (Who’s that girl?)/Who’s that girl? (Who’s that girl?)’

The answer to these lines, from Hey Girl, the catchy theme song of the Golden Globe- and Emmy Award-nominated American TV sitcom New Girl is, “It’s Jess.” Zooey Deschanel, who plays ‘Jess’, the show’s lead actress, doubles up as singer-composer of the song, and sings this answer herself.

But for many fans of the show, for the local American media fraternity, for the international desi Indian community, for hot-blooded males forever on the lookout for their next pinup girl, for young hip females eternally in search of their next style icon, and for the ever-curious social media enthusiasts at large, the refrain could very well refer to the other ‘new girl’ on the show—the stunning, funny and gifted young actress of Indian origin, Hannah Simone, who has come right out of nowhere. And if reactions on the internet are anything to go by, she has been stealing hearts of audiences and critics alike.

It is a testament to Hannah’s talent that within a year of moving to Los Angeles to follow her dreams on a much larger platform than her earlier country of residence, Canada, could provide, she secured a hosting gig on a reality show WCG Ultimate Gamer on the cable channel Syfy. Immediately after, she won a parallel lead role on Fox’s New Girl, as Cecilia ‘Cece’ Meyers, Jess’ childhood best friend and an upcoming model. The show is only in its second season, but Hannah has already landed herself a part in The Usual Supects and X-Men director Bryan Singer’s digital series, H+, and a role in Oscar-nominated director Spike Lee’s remake of the 2003 South Korean film Oldboy.

“My life right now is probably the best example of a dream come true,” says Hannah with a slight, throaty laugh over the phone from Los Angeles, where she now lives. “When I was in school in India and was doing these little theatre productions on stage, if you told me that this is what I was going to be doing a few years later in my life, there’s no chance I would have believed you.”

Simone graduated with a BA in international relations and political science and then worked for the United Nations, in its human rights and refugees office. She has also worked as a researcher for a Canadian statesman and as a social news VJ for MuchMusic, a Canadian TV channel, for which she interviewed world leaders and discussed issues like AIDS, climate change and bullying. With a résumé like that, she could not have seen this coming.

At the same time, having first started modelling at the age of 13 in Cyprus and then earning a degree in Radio and Television Arts in Canada before moving on to theatre, VJing and acting, in a way, Hannah also had a career in the glamour world laid out.

“I’ve been really blessed to have a mother and father who would tell me that it’s fine to have several passions in life all at once, and that none of them has to fit in the same box,” says Hannah. “Because that’s essentially how life is—we are who we are, it’s other people who try to put us in a box. So growing up in countries like Saudi Arabia, Cyprus and India, I kept my eyes open to the human rights issues around me, especially women and children’s rights, and have been very involved in making people aware of the same. At the same time, I love theatre, I love ‘improv’ and I love making people laugh, and I need both these parts in my life at all times.”

Over the course of the conversation, it is evident that Hannah’s intelligence runs beyond her résumé, and it is not merely chance that in an industry that’s quick to pigeonhole Indians into exotic and accented call centre employees and models into catty and ‘hot’ bimbos, in New Girl, Hannah plays the character of a hot Indian model who defies all these stereotypes and is completely her own person—a funny, confident and loyal friend who makes decisions both good and bad.

The former VJ attributes such a role to both a sign of changing norms in Hollywood as well as her responsibility as an Indian artiste to make the right choices. “That’s one of the things that attracted me to my character of ‘Cece’ in New Girl,” she says, “The showrunners were only looking for someone funny for the role, and not someone ethnically specific, and that gave me the freedom to play the character the way I wanted to play it.”

And that is the reason, Hannah goes on to explain, that the only time the topic of Cece’s ethnicity comes up is when Schmidt, played by Max Greenfield, needs to flatter her and rolls out his knowledge of all things Indian, from Slumdog Millionaire to Deepak Chopra. “And that’s the right way to do it,” says Hannah. “Those lines are written because they cast someone Indian and not because they wrote an Indian stereotype and cast someone who fits the mould. I find that very refreshing—to be on a mainstream network comedy and not have to play into any ethnic stereotypes.”

“I also think it’s really important, for us as Indian actors, that we choose roles and play characters that are not defined by their ethnicity,” she continues. “I believe that’s precisely how we will slowly start to open up that door of being seen just as a girl or guy instead of being seen as an Indian girl or guy.”

But Hannah isn’t opposed to playing characteristically Indian roles either. In fact, on Bryan Singer’s digital series H+, she plays Leena Param, a young Indian girl who has grown up in the Mumbai slums, dreams of going to Bollywood and even has a ‘filmi’ dance sequence on the show. And in this case, it was the challenge of playing the stereotype responsibly that got her interested.

“I find that a lot of times people want to play these… Indian characters as victims,” she says. “But I didn’t want to keep perpetuating the idea that you are a victim just because you are poor. So I approached Leena as an empowered, ambitious woman who was choosing to become a surrogate in the story because she saw that as a means to taking a step up and a step forward in her life, and not because it was some kind of sentence. I was very protective of the character because being an Indian woman, living in and going to school in India, and always being surrounded by so many strong Indian women, you tend to become strong yourself.”

This strength of character is something Hannah sees in herself too, she laughs, and is among the things she believes she has inherited from the Indian side of her heritage—her father, Narendra Simone, who is originally from Mathura and is now a prolific author with over seven books to his credit. Her mother is of German-Italian-Cypriot-Greek descent.

“My father’s such an amazing inspiration to me,” she enthuses, “My proudest Hollywood moment was when I took him as my date to the Golden Globes, where New Girl was nominated, and I shared that huge moment of success with him. My father’s always been the greatest storyteller for me and has taught me how to use my imagination, which has been the basis of what I’ve learnt about acting. That, and the fact that Indians as a people take such good care of each other and [their] families, has been the core of who I am as an Indian.”

“And of course,” she adds with her distinctive happy laugh, “food, food, food, food, food! I’ve inherited my love for great Indian food too.”

Like every other Indian, she also loves “classic Bollywood films” but Hannah’s unique sensibilities are resonant in her choice of favourite Indian films too. The self-confessed Madhur Jaffrey, Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair fan is more an admirer of movies like Monsoon Wedding, Fire and Earth than of mainstream commercial ‘Bollywood’ cinema.“It’s so inspiring that Indian directors went back to their homeland to make great independent films that dealt with issues that are usually difficult to talk about,” she explains.

Ask her if she’d like to follow in their footsteps, and she chuckles, “I have no idea. Cece and I are in the same boat in that sense, because we both don’t know what’s coming up next. And that’s what I love about life, you know? My love for the performance arts and for social work will continue forever, but beyond that, I’m just excited to roll with it and live in the moment.”

And at the moment, it is a great time to be Hannah. The new Indian girl on the block gets calls for Indian projects because she is of Indian origin, and at the same time, gets noticed by the likes of Spike Lee for roles in mainstream American projects because she is TV’s latest breakout star. “I’ve strived to be ethnically ambiguous throughout my career. My ethnicity is now an advantage and I have the great fortune of playing anything,” she smiles. “It’s really the best of both worlds.”

Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on November 17, 2012
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/art-culture/who-s-that-girl
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).

Interview: Alison Klayman for Open Magazine

In November 2010, the Chinese government sent a notice to Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, informing him that his newly constructed art studio would have to be demolished since it was illegally constructed. That notice was a new low even by the dismal standards of the Chinese authorities. It was, in fact, the same authorities that had invited Ai, two years earlier, to put up the studio in the first place, as part of a new cultural hub the municipal commission had planned.

Having toiled endlessly on the project for two years, Ai was naturally expected by everyone to be incensed and to hit out at the authorities through the media or gather public support to expose the hypocrisy of the government. But Ai did something rather strange. The man, who had once famously photographed himself dropping a Han dynasty urn as a statement against the archaic value system of China, threw a ‘demolition party’.

He invited his many thousands of Twitter followers to this party, where he’d serve ‘river crab’, the name of which in Mandarin sounds similar to the name for the Chinese government ideology of ‘harmonious society’, and is often used as a euphemism for censorship. The authorities acted swiftly and put him under house arrest to stop this ‘celebration’ from taking place.

Even though Ai was not allowed to attend his own party, over 10,000 of his supporters and fans, both young and old, turned up at the studio, proudly displaying the spirit of defiance. These were ordinary people without a lot at stake, but being at the demolition party that day, even though Ai himself was absent, meant that they stood for something bigger than themselves—they stood for freedom of expression, they stood for the right to dissent and they stood for the inspiring ideology of Ai Weiwei, of being ‘never sorry’ for what you believe in.

A documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, explores this ideology of Ai and his followers, while also acting as a social and political commentary on the state of affairs in China. The film, which won a Special Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and recently premiered at the Mumbai Film Festival, has travelled to more than 25 other film festivals across the world, and has come in for high praise for both its content and the bravado of its 28-year-old director, American part-time journalist Alison Klayman.

“The funny thing here is that when I started shooting Ai, I wasn’t even aware of who he was, nor did I have any inkling that he would become such a global figure and symbol for free expression,” says Alison in a conversation over Skype from New York, where she is resting for a day before heading for the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

An aspiring filmmaker, Alison had first travelled to China for “an adventure” and then stayed back because she felt she was “just getting started”. She had already spent two years in the country learning Mandarin and doing several odd jobs, including working on a Jackie Chan movie, voicing cartoons, making fake dead bodies for a prop studio and practising freelance journalism, before a friend approached her to make a small video on the artist Ai Weiwei in late 2008 to accompany an exhibition of his works that she was curating at an art gallery in Beijing.

“In the very first week of filming him, I saw the need for a feature film on him,” says Alison. “He was such an incredible, free-thinking and powerful character to watch and be with, and there was so much more to his personality than his art, like his blog, his stance on censorship or his activism, that somewhere, I honestly felt that if more people across the world learnt about him, it would contribute in a big way to their understanding of China.”

And so, without knowing where or what it would lead to, Alison started visiting and filming Ai frequently, attempting to show Ai as not just an artist or activist, but “a product of his biography, personality and circumstances, to present a really intimate and complicated look at him, as opposed to a straightforward narrative of his life”.

Alison realised that her “art project”, as she called it at the time, had turned into something bigger when Ai’s mother visited him, and in a heartwarming moment, expressed both her pride at Ai’s actions and her fear that he may be punished for it. “When he let me film that scene, I knew that I had gotten through to him because Ai never lets anyone film his personal life,” says Alison. “I got really excited, because by that time, I had travelled to his shows and knew he was very famous, and at that moment, I had also managed to capture the man behind it all.”

The only journalist to have ever gained such access to the global celebrity, Alison believes Ai let her film his life because unlike other journalists, she never had an ulterior motive when she started documenting it. “My first questions to him were very basic, like ‘Why aren’t you in any trouble?’ or ‘How are you not in jail yet?’” she laughs. “And I think he liked the fact that I was genuinely curious to know more about him, and didn’t have any agenda in doing so. He likes young people, and he started trusting me and my intentions. He also liked the 20-minute video I had made on him for the exhibition, though he saw it a good two months later.”

It was a mere coincidence, although an uncanny one, that within months of filming Ai, in May 2009, Alison’s accidental prophesy came true. She had met Ai at an unfortunate time in China’s history, when a deadly earthquake in Sichuan province had killed an estimated 68,000 people and left around 10 million people homeless. Many of the deceased included schoolchildren, and the trauma of the grieving families was only worsened when a corruption scandal, alleging that the school buildings were inadequately engineered, erupted on the internet and in the world media.

The government ferociously denied the charges, but refused to release the exact numbers and names of the schoolchildren who had passed away. As more and more Chinese citizens protested, Ai Weiwei, along with another Chinese artist, took on the task of a ‘citizen’s investigation’ aimed at compiling a list of the students who had died in the earthquake. Ai involved many young volunteers in this task, and by April 2009, had put together a list of 5,385 names, which he published on his blog.

The government swung into action. Ai’s blog, on which he would voice his thoughts and opinions almost as often as he would breathe, was shut down. He was put under permanent video surveillance, and police officials followed and monitored him 24×7. Things became even more serious in August 2009, when, on a trip to Chengdu to testify at the trial of fellow investigator, Tan Zuoren, Ai was beaten up by the police.

“On that trip, things became potentially dangerous,” Alison recalls. “I was more scared for Ai Weiwei and his assistants and volunteers because I felt the risk for Chinese citizens was more than the risk I faced as a foreign national. Everyone used to say that Ai wouldn’t be under any danger because he had foreign support, but I always felt that he was never really safe and that incident confirmed it to me.”

Being part of Ai’s entourage, Alison too had to deal with police officials firsthand, just as bravely as the others. A particularly unnerving scene in the film shows the aftermath of Ai Weiwei’s second trip to Chengdu, in 2010, to lodge a complaint against the police officer who hit him. After officially filing his complaint, Ai invited his Twitter followers to dinner at a street-side restaurant (Ai turned to Twitter after his blog, to great effect). It was a friendly gathering but a uniformed police officer started filming the occasion and the faces of the people present. On noticing that, Zhao Zhao, Ai’s personal biographer, started filming the police officer in the act. Alison captured the tension of the two defiant men filming each other on her own camera.

“It was quite scary, but that was probably the first time I realised I had material for a movie,” chuckles Alison. “I knew that if I was doing a documentary on Ai Weiwei, it was pertinent that this stuff be included in it. Once I was doing this, I knew that I had to do this responsibly, and so I covered all these incidents too.”

Ai emerged even more rebellious and determined from the rough treatment and subsequent demolition of his studio, but by April 2011, the Chinese authorities had had enough. Ai was arrested for alleged ‘economic crimes’ and tax evasion. Ai was missing for 81 days—days which resulted in a huge public outcry across the world and led to a ‘Free Ai Weiwei’ street art campaign by his supporters and fans.

Alison, who became an unofficial spokesperson for Ai Weiwei, admits those as difficult days for her. “I only see myself as a socially aware filmmaker and not an activist, but in those days, I had to become both, although I was uncomfortable about it,” she says. “But what happened with Ai Weiwei was completely unjust and I was afraid for his life. I felt that I needed to bring the attention of the media to what was going on. I was in New York at the time and so I could speak freely because free speech in China was almost clamped by that time, for fear of a Jasmine revolution happening there.”

By that time, Alison was in the process of finishing the documentary she had been filming for two whole years. “But I didn’t want to end a film about such an inspirational figure on a defeated note. So the ending changed about a thousand times, until 81 days later, Ai Weiwei was released.”

In his release, the documentary also found a natural end to a distinct arc in Ai’s life, as a global outpouring of support for Ai sent out an unambigous message of hope, love and inspiration. In fact, within a few days of his release, over 30,000 of Ai’s fans contributed money that helped Ai pay off $1.35 million of the $1.85 million fine levied on him.

“In detaining him for 81 days and putting him through psychological torture, the Chinese authorities thought they had crushed his spirit,” says Alison, “but I wanted to end on a note that proved that there was still some fight left in him.”

Even as Ai battles the remaining charges against him in China today, bootlegged versions of Alison’s documentary have gone viral online in the country, inspiring many a Chinese citizen. “I have met so many young Chinese students in various festivals across the world and they’ve all said only one thing to me—‘Thank you for making the documentary’,” says Alison, with a smile.

Alison insists that not only will she push this documentary and the cause of Ai Weiwei as wide and far as possible, she will also continue making other socially pertinent documentaries for as long as she can. And that is poetic, in a sense, because she is only following in the footprints of Ai Weiwei, who says in her documentary, “It is the responsibility of an artist to protect the freedom of expression. And as an artist, I’ll remain an eternal optimist about change.”

Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on November 10, 2012
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/cinema/the-spirit-of-defiance
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).

Interview: Benh Zeitlin #OpenMagazine #BeastsoftheSouthernWild

On 23 August 2012, Oprah Winfrey posted a new video on the official YouTube page of her television channel, Oprah Winfrey Network. This is what the world’s best-known talk show host had to say on Super Soul Sunday, her Emmy Award-winning Sunday morning TV show aimed at ‘nourishing the mind, body and soul’ of viewers: “You might be wondering why I would use this platform of Super Soul Sunday to promote a movie, but the movie is that special, it is that good, that when I first saw it, I…I… I couldn’t even… I had to tell everybody about it. I don’t like to namedrop, but the first person to tell me about this movie was the President of the United States. (Pause) Yes, that one.”

She went on to call the movie “emotional, spiritual, a magical realism brought onto the screen and truly a work of art” and recommended it as a “movie for [the] ‘Super Souler’, if ever there was one”.

It’s not just Barack Obama and Winfrey who are under the spell of this independently produced, heartwarming fantasy-drama that was made on an incredibly pint-sized budget of $1.8 million. Time magazine called it ‘magical’, The New York Times said it was ‘a blast of sheer, improbable joy’, Variety hailed it as a ‘stunning debut’ and noted film critic Roger Ebert declared it ‘one of the year’s best—a miraculous film that blindsides you with creative genius’.

After lapping up the Caméra d’Or award at Cannes 2012 and winning the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival,the movie, Beasts of the Southern Wild, the story of a six-year-old girl and her father in the wake of a Katrina-esque storm, has gone on to win accolades at film festivals across the world as well as the hearts of audiences and critics alike.

The movie premieres in India at the 2012 Mumbai Film Festival, and in between giving interviews to the media all over the world and frantically applying for an India visa at the last moment, director Benh Zeitlin has managed to take out some time to talk about his debut feature, which an online betting website pegs as the fourth most likely movie to win an Oscar this year.

“We never in a million years could have imagined anything like this,” smiles the young director. “The film was not made with famous actors, a big budget, in a popular genre or by well-known producers. It was something we made for the love of it, so the attention has been a complete surprise.”

Benh, who travelled with his movie to film festivals across the globe, says that people from different cultures and regions found their own ways of connecting with it. Some had faced similar natural calamities, while others related to the protagonists’ struggle for survival. But the thing they all unanimously took away from the movie was the importance of home and family.

“The movie never had a political or social message, as much as it did an emotional one,” says Benh. “It was about a feeling, about hope, that even when you have lost something, you are going to be okay. By the end of the movie, a home gets lost, a family member gets lost and a culture gets lost too, but we still feel hope because the little girl in it had the strength to survive it all.”

For someone who turned 30 only last week and was 29 at the time of shooting the film—and who looks about 24 (“People are always surprised to meet me because I look younger than I am”)—this incredible vision and maturity may perhaps be traced to the fact that Benh’s parents are folklorists, academics who study the interaction between lore and the people who use it.

“My parents study many great cultures around the world and have a very democratic view of art,” explains Benh. “They think art exists in everyday communication, in jokes, and in people who try and sell you shirts outside department stores, rather than just in museums. They believe that the highest art exists at the dinner table and in traditions and in something your grandmother makes for you, and this art is just as poetic as that which exists in the work of a Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard graduate. That sort of understanding has shaped my way of looking at and understanding the world in beautiful ways, and that’s something that will probably be found in all my films.”

It was this unconventional way of looking at the world that first inspired Benh to come up with the script for his movie. Having visited the city of New Orleans in Louisiana as a child, Benh felt haunted by its magnetism and decided to shoot his first short film there in 2008. Glory at Sea, about a bunch of holdouts searching for their lost ones in the post-Katrina debris, made Filmmaker magazine declare him one of its 25 faces of independent cinema to look out for.

The city inspired Benh to such an extent during the shoot that he shifted base to New Orleans from New York soon after, and the charming ways of the city that was catastrophically hit during Hurricane Katrina, leaving thousands dead and many more displaced, became the basis for the story of six-year-old Hushpuppy and her father Wink.

“I have always been amazed at the generosity and hospitality of Louisiana’s people,” Benh says. “Their second line parades, where people follow brass bands just to enjoy the music, or their jazz funerals, which celebrate the life lived, were the starting points of The Bathtub for me.”

‘The Bathtub’, in Beasts of the Southern Wild, is a fictional community of holdouts living on an island surrounded by rising waters—the geography of which was inspired by Isle de Jean Charles, a half-sunk tiny island off the mainland in New Orleans.

“New Orleans has seen so much tragedy but its people are incredibly resilient and refuse to lose hope or leave their home after getting knocked down over and over again,” he continues. “I felt that nobody quite understood what was so special about this place and I wanted to make a film that celebrated this unbelievable spirit of the people.”

Benh recalls an instance when a local had come in for an audition and even though she didn’t land the part, wanted to contribute in some way. Three hours after reading the script, she showed up at the place with a pickup truck filled with a variety of tools and articles that the crew would need to build their set.

It was Benh’s commitment to this never-say-die spirit of the region that made the director cast non-professional actors—Dwight Henry and the five-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis—in the lead, whose tour-de-force performances have them tipped for Oscar nominations. The two are just about as perfectly cast as could be. While it was Quvenzhané’s beyond-her-years wisdom and emotional range that won her the part of Hushpuppy, Henry was a baker whose real-life story of resilience in the aftermath of Katrina, where he was submerged in neck-deep water, was similar to that of Wink.

All these elements came together in a continuously evolving script that Benh “was never sure was perfect”, but one that viewers, especially those from Louisiana, have loved. “I’m probably happiest about the fact that the people of New Orleans are proud of the film that represents their heroism in every way.”

Hollywood has also stood up and taken notice of this beast of a movie, and, as is convention, has already started offering Benh a dime-a-dozen big-budget films for direction. But Benh, who counts among his inspirations mainstream Steven Spielberg movies and even Hindi films like Lagaan, Deewar, Sholay and Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, has refused to bite so far.

“I would love to have more money to make films and not be as hungry and desperate while we are making it,” he explains, with a laugh, “but I’m very committed to making films exactly the way I do. So even if I had all the money to make a movie, they’d still be similar to Beasts. Because, ultimately, I didn’t come here to work with the [big film] studios, I came here to tell stories that I believe in.”

Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on October 27, 2012
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/cinema/a-story-to-believe-in
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