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Interview: Mira Nair #Profile #OpenMagazine #QueenofKatwe

Mira Nair: Breaking the Colour Code

Mira Nair’s new movie is a daring rejoinder to racial prejudices

Note: This piece was written by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoonfor Open Magazine. An edited version of the piece can be found here: https://goo.gl/bhuR62
““Irresistible” is one of those adjectives that critics should handle with utmost care,” reads the very first paragraph of the review of Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe, by the New York Times’ chief film critic of over a decade, A.O. Scott. “But if there is anyone out there capable of remaining unmoved by this true-life triumph-of-the-underdog sports story, I don’t think I want to meet that person.”
It’s been a month since the tenth feature-length live action film of arguably the most accomplished and feted international director of Indian origin, Mira Nair, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the festival’s artistic director Cameron Bailey spoke of how the world has been catching up with Nair’s stories. Bailey went on to proclaim that Nair’s time is “now”, and ever since, the accolades for both her and her new film haven’t stopped.Being a four-quadrant-pleasing inspirational Disney biopic of an underdog chess prodigy, Phiona Mutesi, from the slums of Kampala, Queen of Katwe may not be the standout movie of Nair’s remarkable career that counts, among its many highlights, the Oscar-nominated Salaam Bombay! and the screen adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s beautiful exploration of one’s roots, The Namesake. And yet, it is, by all means, just as important as every other story Nair’s chosen to champion through her distinct cinéma vérité style of filmmaking.Because this is the year in which the American film industry is still reeling from the embarrassment and backlash of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, where all 20 acting nominees at the Academy Awards were white, for the second time in a row, since 1998. It is also, lamentably, the year where US Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric against anyone who isn’t a straight, white, American male, has managed to sway a significant part of his highly-educated first world country into advocating for him.In such a time, so fuelled by class divide, prejudice and racism, here’s a film by the most successful of the ‘Big Six’ American film studios at the moment, featuring an all-black cast led by a 16-year-old debutant non-professional actress from Uganda, set almost entirely in Africa, and directed by a woman filmmaker of Indian origin. In any other year, a film like this would have been an anomaly, but in 2016, when the world seems to Benjamin Buttoning itself into a de-evolved, Neolithic version of itself, the very fact that Queen of Katwe was made, is akin to a miracle.

But that’s exactly what attracted Nair, never been one to shy away from challenges, to the story in the first place. “If you see Africa on any screen, even within Africa or without Africa, it is always to do with dictatorship or beastiality or child soldiers and violence; it has nothing to do with the kind of everyday life in Africa,” she says, over the telephone, in a conversation that took place minutes before her film’s European premiere at the BFI London Film Festival.

“I think it’s so important to break the ignorance, the myopia, and the, sort of, terrible tropes and stereotypes that exists about other places in the world today. Even in India, there is massive racism against African students. There is so much importance given to the colour of our skin, and there’s caste prejudice that we’ve been carrying on for years, that the government stokes every moment, you know. A film like this hopefully makes you realise that the Nigerian student down the street is not a hustler or whatever the world may tell you that he/she is, and that’s important to know right now.”

Lending a voice to those who don’t get much of a say has always been one of the prevalent themes of Nair’s movies. From tackling the pandemic of child abuse in Monsoon Wedding to the rising Islamobhobia in her last film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Nair takes pride in giving a platform to the disadvantaged, the marginalised as well as the misfits, while ensuring that their portrayal is not bleak, but instead, spirited. Nair calls it the “life-ist” attitude that she has seen as the fundamental component of the human condition, irrespective of where she’s set her film.

“This attitude, this embracing of life fully… the emphasis on how much you can create with your life, regardless of how little you may have, has always inspired me,” Nair says. “The struggle to just achieve you are by people considered outside of society, is a tale I have tried to tell since Salaam Bombay!, because there’s dignity and joy that you never see or hear of.”

When a Disney executive with Ugandan roots, Tendo Nagenda, brought her a cut out of a sports magazine that had profiled Mutesi, asking her if she’d be interested in making a film on her, Nair knew this was a story she needed to tell. Mutesi’s story took place barely 15 minutes away from her house in Kampala, a city she calls home since the last two decades (she met and married her husband Mahmood Mamdani, a Professor at Columbia University, New York, in Kampala), but it was opportunity to authentically portray a people she has come to love, that jumped out at her.

So if Queen of Katwe tick marks the genre sports film, it also firmly shines a light at the vivaciousness and compassion of the Ugandan community, beyond just the colours of its streets, the hip hop music or the vibrant camerawork (by 12 Years a Slave cinematographer Sean Bobbitt). The story of Phiona, she points out, is not just the story of how “genius can be found everywhere”, but that of the entire community that lived her dream with her, and for her, “because that is how life is lived in Kampala.”

“It’s not an individualistic life or a one person show. It takes a mentor like Robert Katende, a mother like Harriet Mutesi, it takes a street, a family… it takes a village to make a genius. It’s this prismatic view that I find interesting. I also think the world is ready to see on screen what the world is off screen – the multiplicities, the diversity, the inclusivity, and the humanity – which I love to film. Because I am certainly never going to make the reductive formula sports film that is expected of me,” she laughs.

Having grown up between Rourkela and Bhubaneshwar, then studying in Delhi University and Harvard University, and then, having found her calling in Hollywood, shuttling between her three homes in New York, New Delhi and Kampala, Nair is a global citizen, if ever there was one. So presenting an all-encompassing world in every story she illustrates on screen, is not just important to her, but in some ways, obligatory.

“If you are truthful and all-encompassing, whether you are watching Uganda in Queen of Katwe or Monsoon Wedding with the Punjabiyat of it, or the streets of Bombay in Salaam Bombay!, even if that world is far away from your reality, you will eventually see yourself in that truth too. You relate because you either know the feelings I have tried to portray, or you could know them.”

It was hence critical to Nair to have cast actors from the same streets that she tried to paint this honest picture of, if Queen of Katwe was to work. Madina Nalwanga, who played the lead role of Phiona, grew up not far from Katwe, in the streets of Kibuli, where she sold corn for a living, and was found through a dancing troupe she was a part of. All the other kids were non-professional actors too; a strategy that had helped her put together a magical cast during her debut in Salaam Bombay! as well.

“Children are like the maps of life in the way they move their hands or bodies,” she says tenderly. “I had no interest in taking an upper class child and teaching him or her how to bathe with half an inch of water. My interest, on the other hand, is actually being educated by a child, to show us the world that he or she is coming from. So when we found the kids, I distilled the roles according to their strength and their fun, so even the audience would feel a sense of familiarity on seeing them.”

“Morever,” she points out, “there’s a real alchemy that happens when you put together a kid from reality opposite a legendary actor like David Oweloyo (who plays Phiona’s coach Katende) or Lupita N’yongo (who plays Phiona’s mother Harriet), or Naseeruddin Shah in Salaam Bombay!. Because when you have a pure non-actor and a pure actor, they both have to meet at a point of purity, you know.”

It is this commitment to break out of the trappings of traditional Disney fare that gives Queen of Katwe the characteristic Mira Nair stamp, which the director gives full credit to the studio for not trying to “sanitize”. Because if the film plays out the conventional soaring, uplifting sports film tropes, like the sports metaphors that Katende uses to explain life itself (“Find your safe squares”), there are enough unpredictable and unexpected moments of genuine emotion derived from the “barbarity and brutality of living in the slums,” as Nair puts it.

The filmmaker points out specific examples of scenes where Phiona, when she first goes to the Church where the other kids are playing chess, is called a ‘pig’ and has to fight to eat the complimentary porridge by her own. Another scene, where Phiona, on beating a boy at chess, asks out aloud if she was allowed to win by him, is an example of the “familiar female diffidence” that is still rampant in so many women, according to Nair.

“These are not unique attributes, you know,” she explains, “These things happen to all of us, and that makes us think and believe that we are pretty much the same people, no matter where we are. I don’t like sugar coating this, but yes, I do like to tell it all in a way that you have mazaa (fun) also. Because if you feel the mazaa, you feel the pain too.

“That is how I make movies – I don’t want a harangue; I don’t want to be lectured to. So I have shaped the film like a human heart and the rhythm of it is like an accordion. It expands your heart with laughter, because the kids would do that to me with their finger snapping and their sounds that were so full of sassiness; and in the next moment, you’d see the reality of eating, where you are fighting for a bowl of porridge.”

A turning point in the movie, for Phiona, comes through when a kid she’s playing with explains to her why chess matters to her. “In chess, the small one can become the big one,” she says, referring to the chess rule wherein a pawn can become a queen if it makes it across the board to the other side. Phiona makes this her motto, deriving courage from it, and giving it her own moniker that ties back with the movie’s title: “queening.”

Queening can aptly be used as a term to describe the swagger of the women in the movie. Because Queen of Katwe isn’t just an inspirational sports film that would empower the young Phionas of the world to dream big and then chase those dreams down; but for Nair, it is also a feminist movie inspired by, and dedicated to the Harriets of the world, because without their pluck and persistance, there could be no Phionas.

Says Nair, “I don’t ever want to make a female character who gives up on life. Even the real Harriet is a formidable ‘Mother Courage’, someone who became a teenage mother but refused to let her children follow her path, as best as she could. She struggled so deeply in her youth but resolved that she will stand up for her children.”

“That’s the tenacity that Phiona has inherited too. She’s lethal and resolute in chess, and that comes from her mother’s life, struggles and courage. And these are the women I like depicting on screen: who are as complicated as we all are, and inspiring in their own ways.”

With virtually no wrong moves in her film career spanning three decades, be it through her feminism or her movies that feature protagonists embracing life with all the curve balls it throws at them, or through the film school she’s started in Kampala, the Maisha Film Lab, that has been galvanizing African youth through its motto, “If we don’t tell our stories, no one else well,” perhaps Nair’s endgame too, has been “queening” all along.

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Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on October 21, 2016
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/cinema/mira-nair-breaking-the-colour-code
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: JOSH RADNOR #QNA #HUFFINGTONPOST #2015

‘There’s a kindness deficit going on everywhere’

Note: This QNA of Josh Radnor was done by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoon) in October 2015 for Huffington Post. An edited version of the piece can be found here: http://goo.gl/q8bWih


Josh Radnor, most famously known for playing the affable ‘Ted Mosby’ in the cult TV sitcom, How I Met Your Mother, truly came into his own as an artist in the last few years. He’s made two films as a writer-director (Happythankyoumoreplease won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and Liberal Arts received much critical acclaim), he’s starred in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play, Disgraced, he’s written pieces for The Huffington Post, LA Times Magazine and Indiewire, among others, that exude positivity, and has also given inspirational talks the world over. He was in Mumbai recently for one such talk, where he used his fame as an example to speak about why we need to be ‘contagiously good’ with kindness.

In an exclusive hour-long interview, he spoke about why he believes so strongly in kindness and hope, and discussed acting, writing, direction, and of course, How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM). 


You wrote a wonderful piece in The LA Times Magazine (http://www.latimes.com/style/la-mag-oct052008-rules-story.html) on the importance of being kind. It’s interesting that you are using your fame to talk about not any big, worrisome issue or cause, but about something as elementary as kindness.
I think that there’s a kindness deficit going on everywhere, in some way. I think we’re hurting a little bit, and a simple word or a kind gesture from someone can really alter the course of someone’s day or someone’s life. Because of that, I feel that we underestimate the power of kindness, and how every word, thought and action is consequential. I think I also wrote in the piece that unkind words were kind of like air pollution. It’s almost like people writing mean stuff on the internet… they don’t realise that it actually goes somewhere and affects people emotionally. Words have a kind of charge or a heft, that what comes out, goes around, and you can feel it.
So well, even if I worked in finance or the Silicon Valley, I’d still be talking about kindness. It may have something to do with growing up in the Mid-West, which is a nice place (chuckles), but I think, more than that, it’s about how when I’m kind, I feel good, and when I’m not, I don’t feel good. So, in some ways, being kind is like a beautifully self-serving thing, because I would rather feel good about myself and what I’m contributing to the world, rather than just being reckless and serving my ego all the time, which, I find exhausting, you know.


We’ve seen how you’ve carried these ideas into your writing and direction as well, but the roles that you’re taking on as an actor after HIMYM are all complex in their own ways. Is there a line that you draw about the kind of roles you take, so you stay true to your philosophy artistically?
Yeah, certainly. But it’s not about not choosing a, say, violent role, it’s more about how I may not respect what it’s saying to the world. I think we become the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. I know this in my life that I want to be careful about who I say I am. So, I feel like, if we say we’re greedy, horrible, angry creatures, we become that, and I’d rather not be that. I don’t want to participate in things that make me feel bad about humanity, or that perpetuate certain lies about who we are. I’m certainly interested in playing complicated people but I turn down a lot of stuff that I feel like, is… (chuckles), assaultive of our better nature.
Like I said in the other Huffington Post piece (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/josh-radnor/why-i-chose-happythankyou_b_830205.html) that we spoke about before the interview, there are so many other people who are on the case of how horrible we are, and I just feel like, as a creator of things, I want to take people through the dark woods of the Joseph Campbell stuff, but I want people  to come out of the other end, emerged and transformed, and awakened to some new aspect of themselves that they didn’t know before they went on that journey.


In the same Huffington Post piece, you wrote about how there is snobbery about films with so-called ‘lighter’ ideas, like kindness, and how the darker stuff is always seen as more real and ‘sophisticated’. Do you face that challenge whenever you try to make something similar?
Oh all the time, all the time. I mean, it’s interesting because, both my films very applauded at Sundance, and embraced in the world, but there‘s a certain kind of critical snobbery that takes over. I always ask myself that question: why do we consider that which is dark ‘sophisticated’, and I think it has something to do with this suspicion that underneath everything, we’re actually bad. I was talking to a friend the other day, and telling him how I think, it’s the exact opposite; at our core, at our core-core, at the deeeepest base, I think we’re divine. I think we’re good. And I think there’s all this other stuff that’s on top of it that we need to get rid of, so we can get back to that core principle.
I just feel that it’s a different way of conceiving of the world, and conceiving of the uses of art, and what, I sometimes think, are the misuses of art, which reinforce these ideas that we are these terrible, horrible, Darwanian creatures who just are wired to maximize self-interest. I just think that’s a lie. I feel it’s actually brave in such a cynical society to tell stories where people are risking the charge of being called ‘sentimental’, which I think is ridiculous, because in today’s age, if the critic feels something, if they feeeel something, if they get provoked emotionally, they call it ‘sentimental’ (chuckles). But I go to the movie so I can feel something, so I can transform myself, right? So I think that there needs to be a distinction between sentiment and sentimentality. Sentiment is great, it’s a full feeling. Sentimentality is something manipulated, it’s a lie. It’s a false, cheap, cliché. I feel like I don’t make those kind of movies, because I’m trying to make something real and honest and have the characters experience something that makes the audience feel something. I try not to apologise for that, although maybe I just did apologize for that (laughs). I try not to, though (chuckles).


In both your films, there’s always some wisdom being passed on by someone older to someone younger, and sometimes, the other way around. How did this become a theme for you? You’re also doing this in your own life now with your talks and columns.
Someone pointed out to me after Liberal Arts that all my films have mentorship in them, and they were right. There’s a whole web of mentorship in them, and I think it’s because I had very good parents, I had very good teachers, but also because I like learning. I like learning from people. And people have said things to me at very tender moments that have altered the course of my life. And, because of that, I find it to be a very dramatic moment, when someone has just the right words that you need to hear and it’s almost as if, you know, God has taken over their mouth and is speaking to you. You know, they are speaking to you what you need to hear. So I’ve really loved the teachers I’ve had. And I really love the opportunity when I can be a good friend or a mentor to someone, and that’s certainly a theme of what I do. But there’s also another theme.
You know, it’s interesting, I spoke at Cambridge the other night and I read this article someone wrote about it. She was a little glib and dismissive of one particular thing that I said. Someone had asked me if I had any advice for college students, and I essentially said what I had said in Liberal Arts, which is that this is the only time you get to do this, and if you don’t appreciate it now, you’re going to be haunted by the fact that you didn’t. The writer used a term like a ‘tacky cliche’ and I was kind of thrown by it, I thought, ‘No! It’s a cliché because it’s true!’ If you aren’t present in this moment, you’re going to be nostalgic and you’re going to realise that you weren’t awake for one of the most special times of your life. I was telling my friend this the other day, that I’m not like a sunny optimist all the time, I actually battle some real melancholy, but I’m trying to (chuckles) stay on the side of working towards transforming rather than getting stuck in some rut…  or (pauses), a feeling of hopelessness. I mean, that’s maybe the worst feeling… hopelessness. So be grateful, you know. And that’s what both the movies are about – pay attention to your life and be grateful.


That’s also possibly one of the things that Ted Mosby taught the audiences. I loved Ted and found it amazing how he was probably the only sitcom character I’ve seen whose ‘quirk’ is empathy. He cared, felt and had compassion. And that seems to be something you’ve brought to the role.
I used to feel like he was closer to me when I started, because I was trying to find these points of identification with him, but as the show went on, I started growing in ways that the character was not. So I’ve used this before – I’ve just said that he was like my annoying younger brother (chuckles). Like we’re definitely related (grins), and he sometimes drove me crazy, but at the end of the day, I loved him, because he was such a great guy.
You know, my acting teaching at NYU used to say that a character is a 50% meeting of you and 50% of the character. So there was 50% of the stuff that the writers were doing and 50% was stuff that I was bringing to it. And then, the writers start paying attention to who you are, and then they write that in, so it becomes like this weird, interesting dialogue between you and the writers, about this character. You know, for instance, Jason’s character, Marshall, was envisioned, and you’ll notice in the pilot, that he’s afraid to open the champagne bottle. But then they got ahold of Jason Segel, who’s not afraid of anything (chuckles). So they started making him a different character, because they suddenly had the actor. So similarly, I don’t feel like Ted, but I lent Ted a lot of myself, if that makes sense.


Did any of the ideas perpetuated by Ted or the show shape who you are as a person?
Ted… not quite, no (chuckles). I mean, maybe I’m being dishonest with myself, but I think he was a better example of a friend than he was as a romantic kind of a guy. I mean, he gets so much credit for being this great romantic, but sometimes I think he was actually crazy, and a little obsessive, in a really unhealthy way. Like a lot of people cite this ninth season speech, where he talks about love, you know… ‘Love means doing anything for a person, no matter if it kills you’, and I think, like, ‘No! It doesn’t!’ That sounds like insanity, calm down (grins). But I thought he was one of TV’s great friends; he was a really loyal person.
As for the show, well, I think the biggest thing that it gave me was that it taught me to be publicly vulnerable. Because it’s a very hard thing for a man to be that vulnerable in our society, and some people don’t want to see that, and others are longing to see that. So, it taught me a certain kind of emotional bravery that I don’t know I would have had had I not been forced every week. And I remember that same acting teacher at NYU thought that I was an incredibly, technically proficient actor, but he thought that I didn’t I wasn’t connected to my emotional life. And I couldn’t think of a better teacher for that particular thing that I needed to learn than HIMYM.


I want to end by asking you a fan question, which you may have been asked already a hundred times. It’s been over an year since HIMYM ended, do you look at the ending differently now? Do you feel it could have ended in some other way?
(Chuckles) Yeah, I mean, I wasn’t the creator of the show, I didn’t write on the show, so I was serving the show as an actor, and I know, certain people act like I, (laughs), you know, had something to do with it or wrote that, and I obviously didn’t. But I also stand by thee vision of it and I think, ultimately, the show will age quite well. I think it’ll be interesting how we feel about that in 10 years versus right now, and I think some of the sadness people felt was just sadness about the show ending. It’s just hard to let go of something that you love like that. I also think if you look at it from a kind of meta perspective, it’s like the whole pilot episode was not about the mother but about ‘Aunt Robin’. So the DNA of the whole show was in that pilot episode. ‘I thought we were talking about Mom?’ ‘No, we’re talking about Aunt Robin!’ That’s what the whole show was.


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Note: This piece first appeared in The Huffington Post on October 26, 2015. An edited version can be found here: http://www.huffingtonpost.in/nikhil-taneja-/how-i-met-your-mother-tau_b_8387438.html
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© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Mark Lijek Interview: Real life Argo hostage! #MidDay #Argo

The Best Bad Idea They Had

Mark Lijek, one of the actual hostages who escaped from the midst of the Iranian revolution in 1979 in what was then termed as the ‘Canadian Caper’ and is now a brilliant motion picture, Argo, gives us an account of what really went down

Note: This piece was written by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoonfor Mid-Day. An edited version of the piece can be found here: https://goo.gl/qVX153
It didn’t seem like a good idea at all. Rescuing six American diplomats – Bob Anders, Mark Lijek, Cora Lijek, Joseph Stafford, Kathleen Stafford and Lee Schatz –from right under the nose of the Iranians in the middle of a revolution, in which 52 other American hostages had been captured, for what went on to be 444 days, was a proposition that bordered on the impossible. And when CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez suggested creating a fake Hollywood science fiction movie, posing as its producer on location scout to the exotic Middle East, flying in solo to Tehran and flying out with the six Americans pretending to be his crew…. the proposition turned ridiculous. But then again, some propositions are so ridiculous, they can only be a success.

Iran Calling
Born in Detroit 1951, Mark Lijek, who now lives a happily retired life with his wife, Cora Lijek and his two children in Northwest, Washington, was only 27 and newly married, when he was “asked to volunteer” to the trouble region of Iron as part of the United States of America’s Foreign Service. “In hindsight, it was probably stupidity that made me take it up,” he chuckles. “But truth be told, it was my very first assignment, and I got the offer in November 1978, when there was no real indication that there would be any danger.”

 

Mark Lijek at the time
Mark Lijek at the time

By the time Mark landed in Tehran in July on 1979, he realised that he had been terribly wrong. The ruling monarch of the Pahlavi dynasty, Shah Reza Mohammad Pahlavi, had been overthrown and religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, had come to power. Armed gangs, called the “revolutionary committees” had taken over every neighbourhood. It was the US government’s confidence that American diplomats wouldn’t be in danger that made Mark and his wife, Cora, carry on in Iran. But within four months of Mark’s posting there, on November 4, 1979, the American embassy was attacked.

The attack and the escape
Mark vividly remembers the day. “We only had 2 US Marines guarding the 26 acre compound which formed the two buildings of the American embassy. We got fortunate on two accounts – one, the tourist visa section, where we were holed up, was shut that day, and two, our building had direct access to a back lane, where visa applicants would normally line up. I suppose the protestors assumed there was no one inside, but even then, people climbed into our 2nd floor bathrooms through a ladder, as the only marine with us pushed it the ladder away and threw a tear gas bomb. As we blocked the entrance through coat hangers, our generator went off and we were in total darkness. We then smelled smoke and heard people on our roof, and it was the most nerve-wracking moment of my life. When we realised that no help was coming, we got the permission to escape through the back entrance.”

After this dramatic escape, for the next six days, the five Americans (Lee Schatz joined them later) changed several locations to escape being caught. “It was too dangerous to stay with the Brits, because they were attacked themselves,” Mark recalls. “We moved in the day, trying to pass off as Iranians, because there were roadblocks and checks at night. I remember one night we didn’t sleep at all expecting to be attacked any moment but the guard of the compound managed to convince the revolutionaries that there were no foreigners where we hid, and we had a narrow escape.”

This is when the Canadians came to the rescue. Anders had a friend in the Canadian embassy, John Sheardown, the Canadian Chief of Immigrations, who graciously welcomed them to take refuge in his house. Bob Anders, Lee Schatz and the Lijeks stayed in the Sheardowns’ residence, while the Staffords’ stayed at the house of Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor.

79 Days of Confusion
Finally having got a place to hide, at first, having no other choice but to wait to be rescued by their governments, the houseguests had a “pleasant time” thanks to their Canadian hosts. But then days turned into weeks, and weeks into months and there was still no sign of a rescue. A scary realisation crept amongst them: “If the negotiations between the US and the Ayatollah regime would have worked out and they would have released the hostages, we couldn’t have gone with them because in the eyes of the Ayatollah, we didn’t even exist,” says Mark. “By suddenly turning up, we could have put the negotiations as well as the lives of the hostages in danger. Plus, every day we stayed with the Canadians, we were putting them in danger too. In the meantime, an American businessman who had escaped independently, and who knew about us, revealed it to the press. Luckily for us, the news didn’t get picked up by the media at large. So it had become clear to us that we would need a rescue independent of the outcome of the hostage negotiation, and fast!”

The real hostages
The real hostages

Their prayers were answers on January 26th when CIA infiltration expert, Tony Mendez walked in, under his cover name, Kevin Harkins, and told them that he would get them out of Iran, and all they had to do was pretend to be Canadians from Hollywood! “Tony suggested other options like posing as teachers or oil engineers, but we loved the Hollywood idea only because it was too flamboyish,” says Mark. “People from Hollywood live in an unreal world and think of themselves as special. So it was actually believable that they would go to a country in the middle of a revolution to shoot a movie. The other reason we went with the plan was because Tony had detailed it out elaborately, and his eyes would lit up when he spoke about it!”

The Rescue
The day before the escape was spent by the six in preparing the background of their new identities and mastering the Canadian accent. Everything seemed in place, until the actual day of escape arrived, and multiple dramatic moments had them skipping their heartbeats. “Several things almost went wrong,” chuckles Mark. “Tony Mendez overslept, the immigration officer almost held up Lee because his moustache was longer than that in his passport, we didn’t have immigration forms and could have been caught had the officer there decided to check them. And after we managed to pass every check, we realised our plane had a technical malfunction and we had no option but to wait with bated breath!

“Joe (Stafford) also almost got us caught. He was never happy with the plan because he thought it was our moral responsibility to wait till the other hostages are released, and he felt that having fake Canadian passports bordered on espionage. So he didn’t bother to change his appearance, he would call all of us by our real names and at one point, he even started reading a Farsi newspaper at the airport, though his cover wasn’t supposed to know the language! I remember Tony hit him in the shin to get him to act normal, as we were just moments away from escape.”

But the ridiculous had already worked: The plane was repaired

Mark Lijek Today
Mark Lijek Today

sooner than they thought, and the six, along with Mendez, waited for it to cross the Iranian airspace, before they could order Bloody Marys and raise a toast to themselves. “Even then, we didn’t really celebrate much, because for all we knew, the Iranian sitting next to us could be the Tehran Police Chief!” laughs Mark.

All these years later, Mark, who went back to the Foreign Service even after the rather inauspicious beginning, believes that the only reason they all managed to pull it off was because they pretended that it was a game. “We had no other choice, really,” he chuckles. “It was the best bad idea we had.”

 

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Liked/disliked the piece? Leave your comments below!
Note: This interview first appeared in Mid-Day on December 23, 2012
Link: http://www.mid-day.com/articles/the-best-bad-idea-they-had/193738
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THE KEVIN DILLON UNEDITED INTERVIEW #JOHNNYDRAMA #ENTOURAGE #FILM

Note: This interview was taken by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoon) for The Sunday Guardian. An edited version of the interview can be found here: http://goo.gl/KQfxP7.

INTRODUCTION
Entourage is among my all-time favourite shows and I’ve even got a HUGE framed Entourage poster in my house. Pretty much like everyone else, two characters in Entourage stood out for me: Ari Gold and Johnny Drama. But while the world, understandably so, fawned over the cult Ari Gold, I’ve always loved Drama a lot more. Drama has heart… he’s a guy who’d live and die for his friends, and no matter how often he keeps hitting rock bottom, he has the tenacity of never giving up! 

And all credit for making Drama such an awesome character goes to the inimitable Kevin Dillon. Easily one of the most underrated characters on TV, Kevin really *should* have won an Emmy in the three-times he was nominated (and lost to Jeremy Piven/Ari Gold). Nevertheless, back when I was working with Hindustan Times five years ago, I spent a LOT of time chasing down Kevin for an interview. And it did happen, in October, 2010, at the end of the seventh season of Entourage, and it was an AWESOME, long, 45-minute interview that had be gushing like a fanboy. (Check out that comprehensive interview on all things Drama and Entourage here: https://tanejamainhoon.com/2014/01/26/kevindillon/)

So when the Entourage movie got a release date, I knew I had to try and speak to him again, for two reasons: a) I’m *STILL* a Drama/Entourage fanboy, and b) I want to do my part in spreading the word about what, I’m already damn sure, is going to be KICKASS: The Entourage Movie! So I reached out to Kevin’s super sweet agent, Lisa, who I’ve also had the opportunity to meet when I went to LA a few years ago. And Lisa promptly connected the dots and got me another 20 minuter telephonic interview with Kevin, in the middle of the mad press tour he’s been at. 

This is, again, Kevin’s only second India interview, and the only Entourage movie interview done in India so far. So it’s, as they call it, an EXCLUSIVE! As expected, it was super fun talking to Kevin again. He remains just as sweet, fun, and fantastic a gentleman to talk with, although he sounded really exhausted with all the press he’s been doing. Still, he did remember our previous interview and how much fun it was, and even remembered where he was when we spoke! What a guy. Speaking with him always feels like ‘VICTORY!!!!!!’ Check out his interview as the cover story of The Sunday Guardian, out in papers today. Here’s the link again: http://goo.gl/KQfxP7

 

Kevin Dillon
Kevin Dillon

‘If the movie does well, we may do a second one!’ 

Three times Emmy-nominated Kevin Dillon, who played the lovable Johnny Drama on the cult HBO hit show Entourage, is back as Drama in the Entourage Movie. In his only India interview, he talks about the best and worst part of playing Drama, the chances of a sequel and the criticism that the movie’s ‘misogynistic’. 


The Entourage film took some time to happen! The show ended in 2011 and it’s been a long four year wait.
The first time we even thought about doing a movie was  when the Sex in the City movie came out and did really well. We all thought, ‘Hmm, maybe we can get a movie as well, you know, sicne we’re a HBO half hour comedy too (chuckles)’.  And by the end of season 8, I was pretty confident that we would come back to do a movie. But then, a couple of years went by and I was starting to wonder if it was really going to happen. Thank God Doug Ellin finally wrote the script! I believe it was Mark Wahlberg who cracked the whip on him and said ‘Hey Doug, you’ve got to write the script. Now’s the chance… the door’s closing. So if you don’t do it now, it’s not going to get done.’ Finally Doug wrote a script and he wrote a good one!

How was it being back with the boys? I know you got really thick with the guys during the show; Kevin Connolly and Jerry Ferrara were the Best Men at your wedding too. So the reunion must’ve been fun.
You know, it wasn’t a big reunion because we’re such good friends that I had been seeing these guys all along. We still talk to each other all the time, go out to dinner, hang out; so it wasn’t like we hadn’t seen each other in a while. But what we hadn’t done is that we hadn’t acted with each other in a long time, so to just act with the guys, was great. We’ve also got a certain pacing to the way our dialogue is, it’s really fast and really snappy. It was kind of cool to get to bounce the lines around like that you know, I’ve done other shows, and it’s not the same thing.

It’s good seeing you all back! You guys have been having a blast during promotions too. I saw the Ellen Show clip, where you all played ‘Never Have I Ever’. It was funny to see that Kevin Connolly seems to be more of a player than all of you. (Link: https://goo.gl/tRB7NT)
(Laughs) Yes, yes, he actually won that. I mean, we didn’t expect that to happen. We didn’t know she was going to do that (Laughs). But I guess it was funny and yeah, Connolly’s a lot of fun, and he likes to go out, and party and have some fun, so… (chuckles). The promotion’s been a good time. It’s been good fun, but it’s been exhausting, you know. We’ve been all over the place; we’ve just been trying to push this movie.

You sound tired, man.
(Chuckles) I’m exhausted! I’m jet lagged too. So we flew in from LA and the next morning we’re doing press. So I’m absolutely shot, I’m really shot. But it’s been fun hanging out with the guys again. 

I’ve read how the first scene you guys shot was at a yacht with lots of gorgeous women. How distracting was it to start off the movie with that all around you? How’d you guys get back into the rhythm?
(Chuckles) Yeah, I mean it was a pretty amazing scene to start with. On a big giant yacht, with beautiful, naked women pretty much everywhere. And you know, it was a little distracting in the beginning but you’ve come there to do your job and you carry on! It was a fun scene.  (Pause) I’ll have to say that this job’s always been the best job I’ve ever had. Playing Johnny Drama, with all his layers, is great. But doing the movie was better than ever. It made me appreciate how great the show was, how much fun I had while I was doing it, this was as much fun as you can have while working on a show or on a movie. I think all of us guys just had as much fun as we could possibly have while filming.

Yeah, Johnny Drama’s such an iconic character. How easy or difficult was it to get back into his shoes? Do you have a routine that helps you get into character as Drama?
Well, I took a little time to prepare, so I watched some episodes from earlier seasons, just to kind of get back into the vibe, by seeing some of the things I did as a reminder. But I’ve played this guy for 8 seasons, so once I started bouncing the dialogue with the other guys, it, kind of, came back pretty easily. He’ so much fun to play, and he’s got a little bit of Machismo, you know what I mean?  There is a certain walk that Drama has. I have a walk for him that’s different than the way I walk and it’s the way he kind of swings his arms around and my chest gets all puffed out, it’s what I call ‘the Johnny Drama walk’. Once I get that down, I work on his talk. He also has a different way of speaking, where he, kind of, ‘deep notes’ a lot, you know. I drop to a deeper tone than normal (does the tone).

Entourage
Entourage

What was the best part of getting back to playing Drama?
Uhh… I think the best part is that the character is so much fun. He’s a total nut job, he’s got a lot of issues, he’s got a lot of insecurities, but what he has is that he has a lot of drive, and he’ll do whatever it takes to be famous. He just wants to be famous! But the part I love most about him is his heart, because he’s got a really big heart. He loves his brother, he loves his friends and he’ll do anything for them. And that’s what Entourage is also really all about. 

Was there a worst part to being Johnny Drama again?
(Pause) I guess the worst part would be that I’ve just been trying hard to not get typecasted as Johnny Drama and then I’ve, kind of, stepped right back into it. You play him again and you’re starting over again. You know, I’ve had some nice offers after Entourage ended, but Dramas’s the kind of part you have to fight your way out of. People, when they see me, call me ‘Johnny’ or call me ‘Drama’. They call Turtle Turtle. But yeah, the good outweighs  the bad in so many ways. I love playing the character, I love the dialogue I get, so we’ve all loved coming back to the movie again. And in the movie, I really got lucky. Doug Ellin gave me some really good stuff to do in it, so I was really blessed with the character here.

Well I’ve read that the good stuff you’re talking about includes a Johnny Drama sex tape… of him masturbating. People are calling it ‘Full Frontal Drama’.
(Laughs hard) I know, it’s funny, it’s funny. I was just talking to someone about how Vince, like, slept with 38 girls during all the seasons of Entourage, and, of course, E gets a lot of girls too, and in fact, in the movie, E ends up getting all the girls. But what do I get in the movie? I get a sex tape to do, with myself! But it was a funny scene to watch. (Chuckles) It was even stranger watching the screening in New York with my family over there, so there’s always embarrassing moments to playing Johnny Drama. He’s an embarrassment.

We’ve all loved Drama because he’s never really changed much. But is there something you’ve got to do in the movie that you never got to do in the show?
I don’t want to give away what happens in the movie, but there is a real great pay out for Johnny Drama. Something great happens to him, something that he always wanted. I can’t give it away, but yeah, I had a really nice arc in this one, you know. It’s tough being Drama, because things are always going to be tough on him, but it’s a nice payout this time (chuckles).

So there’s over 30 celebrity cameos in the movie too including Liam Neeson, Jessica Alba, Mark Wahlberg and Pharrell. Who’d you have most fun with?
I had a good time when Jon Favreau came on. Doug didn’t have anything written for him, because a lot of these cameos come on at the last second. It’s almost like, ‘Hey, I see Mike Tyson there’ and Mike Tyson’s brought in for a cameo an hour later. Jon Favreau also came in at the last second and Doug said, ‘Why don’t you guys go workshop something, do a little improv and see what you can come up with’. And that’s what we did. We didn’t get to do constant improv in the show since most of it is scripted and that’s the way Doug loves it. But every once in a while, like in this situation, he gave me the greenlight to do a little improv and you’ll see it was a lot of fun.

I know there aren’t any Indian actor cameos in this film but is there anyone you’d like to bring in, if there’s a next movie?
(Strongly) Oh, heck yeah… heck yeah. There’s the girl from Slumdog Millionaire…. Freida Pinto, she’s beautiful. She could be good for the second one! Johnny Drama never gets the girls so I’m sure she’ll end up with Vince (chuckles). But she’s a beauty, yeah.

Let me ask you this – If a movie was made on you guys and the making of Entourage, who’d you like to play you?
(Laughs) Who could play me? I don’t know, maybe my brother Matt (Dillon) could play me. He’s close to me, we look and sound kind of similar. I’d certainly pick him as number one. There’s a lot of great actors who’d probably do a pretty decent job. Whoever would do it would enjoy it, because it’s fun playing me playing Johnny Drama!

Matt Dillon’s now on TV too, with Wayward Pines. Did you have any advice to offer him with all your experience during Entourage?
No, no! I don’t give him advice. He’s always giving me advice… he’s my older brother. You know, it used to be, back in the old days, movie actors did movies, TV actors did TV, and they didn’t really crossover. I think it’s really cool now that movie actors can do TV, and go back to movies and TV actors can do movies too. That’s great. I’m dying to see Wayward Pines. I’m waiting till all this press is done. I’ve got it all recorded so I can watch it at a go. I hear it’s really cool.

Do you ever see you and the guys getting together for a business venture post the movie?
Yeah, yeah, I can always consider doing something like that. You know, we all have our little businesses going on the side, like Jerry’s got a sandwich place, I own a couple of bars and restaurants in New York City, a place in Upstate New York, so you know, we all do, but yeah, absolutely. If something comes up, a good business opportunity, I think we’d all consider it.

Entourage
Entourage

What else are you going to be upto after the movie’s over? Kevin Connolly’s going into direction, is that something you’d be interested in too?
Not really. I love acting, not that I wouldn’t consider directing. But I’m really about acting, you know. I’d consider both TV and movies, we’ll see what happens. I haven’t been able to look at anything at the moment. This press tour’s gone on for the last couple of months, so it’s been a real grind. I’m just going to take a couple of weeks off to rest before I even think about anything. But hopefully, if the movie does well, maybe we’ll do a second one.

A sequel sounds awesome! Could there be a chance of a Viking Quest spinoff too, sometime down the line?
You know, if there was a spinoff, I always thought it would be cool to do a Drama and Turtle spinoff. I don’t think it will happen, but I always thought it could be cool. It would be tough to do Viking Quest, because Drama was younger when he did Viking Quest and now I’m older, but it’s funny you asked… I actually did have to put the Viking Quest back on for a brief moment in the movie. So you’ll see me wearing the costume again, which is pretty funny (chuckles). I always loved that whole aspect of the storyline, and all the stuff that came with up.

So you mean there’s going to be a Johnny Drama ‘Victory!’ moment in the movie?
I think, I think you can look forward to that. (Chuckles) Yes, you can!

That’s something we’ll be looking forward to! But the movie’s out all over and while the fans seem to be loving it, there’s been criticism that it’s misogynistic, and that’s a criticism the show used to get too. What are your thoughts on this?
People have to realise that this is a comedy. And it’s a comedy about five guys, so it’s going to be seen through the eyes of the guys. We’ve got realistic guy talk, and this is the way guys talk sometimes. I think it’s wrong to say that. I don’t think we shot it that way, I think we have strong female characters. Most of the women I know in my life, who’re people who’ve seen the show, have enjoyed the show, and they’ve enjoyed the movie too. So no matter what the critics say, I know for a fact that fans are enjoying it. We’ve got an A minus as far as the polls with fans coming out of the theaters have been. That’s a pretty good score.

I’m pretty sure fans of the show are going to love the movie in India too. You know in our last interview five years ago, you told me that you’d be coming down to India soon. Why haven’t you come here yet?
You know what, I’ve been too busy, I’ve been too busy, man. I do want to go to India, I just haven’t got the chance to. It’s kind of tough to, you know. There’s always something going on. I’ve got family in New York and LA, and there’s always a TV show or a movie or something else in the way. But I’ll come to India soon, I promise!


Check out the trailer of the Entourage Movie here:

The movie releases in theaters in India on Friday, June 19. Go check it out!!


P.S. If you loved Entourage and are looking for similar shows to watch, check out my ‘Shows for Bros’ recommendations piece: https://tanejamainhoon.com/2015/06/14/showsforbros/

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Liked/disliked the interview? Think I should’ve asked Kevin Dillon about Poonam Dhillon? Leave comments below! 🙂
Note: An edited version of this article first appeared in The Sunday Guardian in the October 14, 2015 issue.
Link: http://www.sunday-guardian.com/artbeat/the-ride-aint-over
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.

Interview: Danish auteur filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn #SundayGuardian #Film #Unedited

‘Art can be an act of violence’

Nicolas Winding Refn interviewed by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoon) over phone for The Sunday Guardian

Nothing about Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn is ordinary, or indeed, normal. He is a self-confessed ‘fetish filmmaker’ whose movies have raw, unflinching and ‘sexualized’ violence that often put Quentin Tarantino to shame. He has a penchant for the vile, whether it’s through the antics of his characters on screen, or through the reactions they elicit from reviewers across the globe. He’s revered by some with a staunch fandom, and loathed by some with an equal fervor. His films, from the cult classic Pusher trilogy, to the recent critical achievement, Drive, have not only catapulted him on to the world stage, but have also rewarded international stars Ryan Gosling (Drive), Tom Hardy (Bronson) and Mads Mikkelsen (Pusher II) with the career-making acclaim that’s helped them reach where they are today.

Counted, along with Lars Von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg and Susanne Brier, as one of the greatest contemporary Danish directors, Refn is colour blind and dyslexic, and holds, amongst his many idiosyncrasies and inventive style, writing with index cards and shooting in chronological order. As his new film, Gosling-starrer Only God Forgives does the rounds of film festivals in India, in his first interview ever to an Indian publication, Refn is just as intriguing as any of his movies.


Your thoughts on Indian cinema haven’t ever been documented before.
Indian culture was a huge inspiration to me when I was shooting Only God Forgives in Bangkok. But the cinema culture of India is very interesting to me too, and also, I think, musically, India is a very interesting place. While Indian films haven’t directly inspired me, the whole world of colour, that flamboyant style, is inspiring. In terms of cinema, what I usually prefer to look at, and I’m not an expert at it, is to see some of the more fantasy oriented of Indian cinema. India’s fantastical films are not very inspired by European cinema, which of course, is very, very good. I mean, god! It’s fantastic! I like fantasy in the cinema of Europe too, but when I see the fantasy world of India, that’s when I really find it fascinating. Because I feel like I’ve been transported into a cultural time warp, in a way.

You’ve often spoken about your love for fantasy and the Grimm fairy tales, and there’s an undercurrent of the fantastical in all your films. Where did this stem from?
I come from a background of logic, you know. My family is Scandinavian, which is all based on logic of life and times. Religion is not part of our upbringing in any way. What changed my life radically was coming to New York when I was eight years old, and seeing new York. And for me, in 1978, it was really like coming to a fantasy world. So I think that because my life changed at a young age, I became very, very interested generally in fantasy. And when I say fantasy, I mean the language of fairy tales, myths, or fables or something that was removed from my original background, or upbringing.

And then, my mother was always very good at reading me the Brothers Grimm or, you know, obscure science fiction, when I was little. So I guess it also came a lot from my upbringing, thank god. But I do have very much of an interest in the esoteric, you know. When I started making movies, I tried to capture reality in film. I wanted to capture authenticity. But I also quickly realized that it was ludicrous, because there is no such thing, the capturing of authenticity. And I became much more interested in heightened reality, which in essence is fantasy, or fairytale, or whatever you want to call it. But something where it was removed enough from reality, so it wasn’t reality, yet at the same time, it was emotionally accessible, you know. And that is what I find much more fascinating to lose myself in.

You have admitted in the past too that your early career was about trying to make a great film, and now, you are only doing what you like to do. What, according to you, made for a great film?
Well, I guess, that’s the one thing I thought that I could try to capture, when I was young and naïve… what made for a great film? My favourite film is probably It’s A Wonderful Life. But then I also like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. So I realized you can’t capture greatness, you just have to make what you believe in, and hopefully, it works. So that’s why I say my life is in two stages – the first time I was trying to capture the ingredients, and I failed, miserably (chuckles). But, by failing miserably, I also realized that I should approach what I do in a radically different way, in order to really find a reason why I was doing it. I realize essentially all I was, was a fetish filmmaker, that throws everything like a pin up magazine.

Growing up, what was it about the movies that made you want to make a great film?
You must understand, that in the early 70s, when I was born in Copanhagen, there was only one television station. And that one television station would show [content of] maybe 4 hours of 5 hours a day, you know. So something may be for children in the afternoon for an hour or in the evening, and then once a while, maybe something in the morning. But it was very, very, very, very limited. This is before VHS, of course, or whatever they had back then. And I was too young to run to the cinema unless somebody took me. So what really changed my life was the access to American television. I suddenly realized that through television, I had the ability and the power to switch channels and see many different kinds of films that were on TV. And of course, I went to the movies when I became older, and constantly, during my teenage years, or as much as I could.

But it was really television that radically changed my life, because television became accessibility… a bit like how the internet has become a way for us to see mass entertainment because of online streaming. Suddenly, we now have full control of how we wanna see it, when we wanna see it, and what we wanna see. And that’s what I experienced, coming to see television when I was 8 years old in America. And as I said, I liked all kinds of films. Of course, being young, you are more interested in, what are called, entertainment for 8 year olds, but I always liked the cinema of the occult, the cinema of horror, the cinema of fantasy. Anything that was subliminal, I always found interesting.

So is there a reason you make films today? Is it to explore something about yourself or to explore something or somebody intangible?
Very much. I think there’s a reason I make every film. And I think the reason comes purely out of myself, you know. I’m not a political filmmaker, I don’t have a political message that I want to get across. Or a social oriented message, for that matter. That has no interest in me. I like the act of creativity, I like the act of expression, and I think that essentially art with a singular vision is what really can change the world. Every film of mine is an extension of my alter ego. Especially my last three, Valhalla Rising, Drive and Only God Forgives.  Although Bronson was autobiographical in a more direct way, in the sense that I took somebody else’s life and made my own autobiography. And I did that because Charlie Bronson is an artificial character. He’s a made up persona by Michael Peterson. So in a way, I was taking a constructed reality to base it on my own autobiography. Because you know, the first half of Bronson is about a man who aspires to be world famous, not knowing why. Which is very much how I started out.

But, like Bronson, I was very nihilistic in everything I had to do. I was destroying everything around me. I felt art had to annihilate everything, a bit like Bronson. You realize violence is a way to become famous, but of course, it had its limits, because his stage is a prison. And it’s not until his art teacher explains to him that his art can be his act of violence, and for me, that’s when I realized that I should no longer try to capture great filmmaking and, that I was becoming nihilistic about everything. I should actually just enjoy the act of creativity, and not think about the results. And that’s what Bronson did, you know. Of course the consequence is that Bronson’s stage was a prison, because that was the flip side of him achieving everything he always wanted. Whereas, I, thank God, have a wife and children (laughs) who I go home to. But that’s very much an autobiography.

So what do you want the audiences to take back from your movies? Is there a take away you have in mind?
No, except polarization. You can love it or hate it, as long as it has penetrated your mind and implanted a thought, which is a very, very personal and individual experience. I don’t have a personal agenda that I want to get across. I believe art is upto people’s own interpretation. That’s when it becomes interesting. It inspires people to think, but they have to look at it from their own perspective. All I can do is to release it, all I can ask them is to absorb it, and do with it as they wish.

Art is like weapons of mass destruction; it has the same power, you know. War and weapons of mass destruction can change history. So can art. The difference between the two is where war destroys, art inspires. Art inspires thoughts, but it has to come from a singular vision in order to speak to an audience.

That begs the question about your responsibility as an artist. Your movies have often been accused of glorifying violence in your movies. Do you ever worry if that’s the takeaway for the audience?
I think anybody who has the ability to create has the responsibility. But I do think that there’s a big difference between people feeling and seeing something violent or glorified, and being violated. I think a way to react to your responsibility is by always making sure that there is a consequence to the violence. Violence in my movies always brings destruction with it. It is never based on humour or a cartoon.  But people can be violated by the images, because they feel that it penetrated their mind, in a way that it is absorbed, and they have no shield against it, and then it becomes, of course, much more of an experience.

There’s so much more violence in other films or television than in mine, so, sometimes people get confused. They think they see more than what’s actually there. It’s the power of subliminal images, because art works as a two-way experience. Art has to plant a thought, a seed in the mind of spectator, then the spectator continues to build their own visions with it. So it becomes a two-way experience, a flow, and not just a passive viewing of entertainment, which brings nothing because there’s no thinking in it. It doesn’t inspire thoughts, or reaction, should we say.

It’s also to do with the way you design violence in your films. What are you trying to express when you design a beautiful-looking violent seen?
That’s because art can be an act of violence. Why should it not be a seductive sexual experience? The violence of art is much more shocking the more you sexualize it. That goes back to the initial instinct of art. It’s an act of sex and violence. The more you purify that, the more, the more a penetration it becomes. That’s why I always say, art is a combination of sex and violence. It’s just an endless ability how to create the equation, you know.

I’m surprised you don’t factor love into this equation. Your films are essentially about people striving for love, than either sex or violence.
Of course, because love is what makes it all interesting. Sex and violence are the ingredients. You see, in order to get to love, it has to start from somewhere else. You have to fall in love, you know. I am strong believer that the core, in terms of our interests in storytelling, lies in love. If you have love for your characters, the audience falls in love with your characters when you tell a story, whether it’s a story, or  a book or a television show or a painting. There has to be an expression of love, because I believe, like you say, that’s essentially what people want to strive for.

What about romance? Is that important to you too?
I wouldn’t call romance a pure emotion because I think romance means thought. Romanticism is great, and it’s great to make films about romanticism, but, in terms of drama, the initial ingredient of drama, is combination of the two core emotions within us as human beings, which is lust and violence, or sex and violence, or aggression and desire, whatever you want to call it. But those are very, very primal emotional instincts that have nothing to do with logic, they are purely based on instinctual needs, you know. And that’s what drama is based on. Then of course, we can alter it and create stories around it, that can end up being romantic. But romance is a process, you know. You can make something romantic, but it has to be based, primarily, on the, the idea of desire and lust.

I’m very interested in knowing about your writing process. Your interest in primal emotions translates to your writing as well. You use index cards to write, isn’t it?
Well that’s more because realized I wasn’t a very good writer (chuckles). if I approach the movie based more on what would I like to see, then I could create a story after knowing what I would like it to be visually. Like I said, it’s a bit like shooting a pin up magazine. You pose the women in a certain precision. You photograph them in a certain position that you desire. You normally don’t really know what it all means until you start having a series of images. And then you suddenly realize there could possibly be a story in this.

Is your pin-up magazine approach why you shoot chronologically too? You are one of the only directors in the world who does that.
Yes, I always write chronologically, so I shoot it that way. I basically did it because I read that John Cassevetes had done it in his film, so I thought, ‘Well, if he did it, maybe I should try it!’ And yes, it became a way for me to submit myself to the creative process. Doing everything chronologically, like painting a picture, helps your work constantly evolves. I’m not interested in the results anymore, I’m interested in the process. The results are of no interest when it’s over.

Of course, you have to be smart about it. You may have to produce yourself, and that makes it easier, because of the production cost issues. You just have to know your limitations here, but also what it brings in terms of the positive impact. For example, it’s great for the actors. You have to write with the mindset of shooting in chronological order. You can’t just do it. You have to build it into the project from the beginning that you are developing.

Do you think you’ll every attempt anything conventional before you’re done? Do everything the way everyone normally does, just to see how it turns out?
(Laughs) I hope so. (Laughs again) But I don’t know. Because normality is only interesting if you twist it.


Note: 
An edited version of this interview first appeared as The Sunday Guardian cover story on June 28, 2014
Link: http://www.sunday-guardian.com/artbeat/art-can-be-an-act-of-violence

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Interview: Canadian auteur filmmaker David Cronenberg #Firstpost #Film

2012 in Indie Cinema: David Cronenberg on Cosmopolis

Canadian auteur director David Cronenberg came out with his 20th film this year, Cosmopolis, an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel of the same name. The film, about a tumultous day in the life of a 28-year-old billionaire set against the background of a financial meltdown, evoked extreme mixed reactions from critics. Cronenberg, in an exclusive interview, told us what led him to make the film, why he chose Robert “Twilight” Pattinson as the lead, and how Satyajit Ray is important to him.

 

Your movie is the first cinematic adaptation of a Don DeLillo novel. Why do you think you have succeeded in turning a DeLillo book into a movie where no one else has?

(Laughs) Well, it’s funny you ask that because, I think that while Don’s work is very literary, his dialogue is very cinematic. So I am, myself, somewhat surprised that no one has made a movie from his work, and I’m not sure what the reason is. For me, every new novel is a possibility to translate into cinema. It won’t be the book, it can’t be the book, because the two media, literature and cinema, are extremely different. They seem to be very connected, and they are very connected, because even in the early days of sound and cinema, many of the movies made were adaptations of books and plays in particular, but they really are very different. So you have to accept that when you are going to adapt a novel, you are creating a new thing.

When you think of it, for example, even a very bad novel can do things that cinema can’t do at all, you know, like give you the idea that you are living inside someone’s head, and hearing their thoughts and feeling their thoughts as they flow. In cinema, you sort of, internalise the inner monologue. And often you find filmmakers try to get that effect by having somebody read the book while you are watching the movie. But to me, that’s an admission of failure. It means you haven’t really understood that you are creating a new thing that is related to the book, but is not exactly the book.

So, to come back to it, perhaps DeLillo is intimidating because those inner monologues, that he does, are sort of inside the head, and the abstraction, the metaphysics and the philosophy are very intense and very complex. Maybe that intimidates people. But for me, I really first went for the dialogue for Cosmopolis, apart from the characters of course. To me that was the spine of the movie and I didn’t worry about the things that were completely literary about the book and I could not even have done that. I knew the dialogues could be cinematic, so I just didn’t worry about them. In fact, DeLillo loved the movie, so he’s quite happy with it, you know.

It’s interesting you say that because you once even said in an interview, “To me dialogue is cinema”, and generally, not many filmmakers hold dialogue in high regard.

Well, yeah, I think, you know, cinema is about the human condition, really, and so much of the human condition exists as words, as conversation and as dialogue. I mean, you don’t have culture and you don’t have human society without words of some kind, and without human communication. And human condition by words gives you an abstraction. So I know that it’s easy to think of cinema as being essentially action or visual and it’s a common misconception that it is action of a very crude, physical kind, but, in my experience of cinema, (chuckles) over 65 years of it, I feel that without dialogue, without words, without conversation, without this talking, and without the human face – because I think the thing we photograph most as filmmakers is the human face – in particular, cinema wouldn’t be cinema.

You also said the characters of Cosmopolis attracted you. What was it about Eric Packer’s character that resonated with you?

For me, the whole idea that you must have a character who is perfectly sympathetic, is a very crude, and a very uninteresting kind of approach to cinema. I think the character has to be very interesting and fascinating and charismatic. I mean, he has to be somebody you want to watch and see what he says and see what he does.

So what’s interesting about DeLillo’s book is that all the way through, the characters are not particularly sympathetic in an obvious way. But by the end of the movie, you see that this character is, somewhere inside there, a very naïve, vulnerable child, who’s only going to get a haircut, but what he’s really going back to his childhood. He’s going back to the barber who gave him his first haircut. And when he’s there, you begin to see the innocence that’s there underneath the hard surface, and I think it’s a really interesting transformation and transition that you see in this character. At the beginning you think that this guy is very unemotional and hard and cold, and cynical perhaps. And by the end of it, you see that there’s a lot of emotion and a lot of vulnerability underneath there and the character turns out to be far more complex than you might have thought.

A lot has been said about your unconventional choice of Robert Pattinson for the lead role.

The thing I liked about Rob Pattinson as an actor is that he’s a serious actor. And you could lose sight of that, because he’s had this big popular success with the Twilight movies, but he is not afraid to play a character who is difficult to like, you know, because some actors are afraid to do that, because they feel it is too personal, that they themselves will not be liked by their audience, and so on. But a real actor is not afraid to play an unsympathetic character, and Rob is a real actor.

Also, I think to be an actor, you need intelligence, first of all. For example, Rob immediately realised that the script was quite funny, and most people don’t get that. Then you want sensitivity to the subtleties of the movie, in terms of what is going on in the movie, the dialogue and so on. And Rob, personally, is very knowledgeable about cinema.

(Chuckles) I don’t think his Twilight fans realise this about him, but he’s really an aficionado about art cinema. I mean, on the set I’d find him talking to Juliette Binoche about obscure French cinema, (chuckles) so you know, he brings a real depth of understanding of the history and art of cinema and all of those things mean that you have a lot of power and a lot of responsiveness from your actor as a director. It’s like driving the Ferrari instead of driving, you know, a Volkwagen Beetle. And you get that with Rob. I must also add, he’s very down to earth and very easy to work with. He’s not diva at all, you know. He’s really a sweetheart.

Cosmopolis is again a departure from anything you’ve done before. Do you ever plan to return to the body horror genre you are so loved for?

I am not really deliberately avoiding the genre but you know, it’s I just don’t want to keep doing something that I’ve done before. I feel that as an artist you are primarily interested in observing the human condition, in all its complexity and so, I, I really want the field to be wide open, I don’t really restrict myself.  It’s all very intuitive for me, you know, the things that interest me.

But in a way, I’ve been exploring the theme of human technology and of human invention in all my movies and capitalism is another example of technology. When you think of money as technology it starts to make sense in terms of what I’m interested in the movies, which is human creation… things that we create, that we cannot control.

And then when you think of it, capitalism is like a Frankenstein monster, we invented it, we created it, we humans, but we seem not able to control it. You wonder why everybody in power couldn’t get together and say, “Look, this financial problem is not good for anybody, so why don’t we just fix it, because after all, we invented money, it’s not as though it’s the tsunami or the hurricane. It’s not a natural force, it’s a human force. Why can’t we all just get together and fix it?” But of course, it takes on a life of its own and we really can’t control it.

But the movie is still not anti-capitalist, it’s more complex than that. There are characters in the movie who are anti capitalist and so on, but all the main characters are very pro capitalist, (chuckles), so it was funny and ironic when Rob Pattinson and I rang the opening bell of the NYSE, you know, (chuckles) and the people there were very friendly. They were certainly all capitalists and they were very proud of NYSE and they were very happy to promote the movie Cosmopolis because of course, that’s capitalism too, isn’t it!

What are your thoughts on Indian cinema?

To be honest, I’m not familiar enough with it to be able to speak on it. But you know, we have a huge Indian population in Toronto, and whenever there are Bollywood festivals here, there’s a lot of excitement surrounding them. I understand that there are a lot of interesting changes and that there’s a great evolution in current Indian cinema. I also know Deepa Mehta well because she’s a fellow Toronto filmmaker so I do a strong connection between Toronto and Mumbai.

But of course, I remember…. I mean I’ve seen the classics of the ’60s and so on, and they had a huge influence on me. You know, It’s just so intriguing to see a film from another culture in another language, because you can actually live in some other life that’s not your own, for a while, and that’s really quite fantastic. I mean that’s what the essence of cinema is. So, those films made a big impression on me.

Are you referring to the movies of Satyajit Ray?

Yes, you know, Satyajit Ray and the world of Apu. Because those were part of the, what we think of now, art cinema “with a capital A”, of the late ’50s of the early ’60s. So those movies were part of movement that had movies by Italian cinema’s (Federico) Fellini, Japanese cinema’s (Akira) Kurosawa and French cinema’s (Jean-Luc) Goddard and so on, and they primarily represented India in those days.

And it was exciting because you really felt that there was a world movement that, in a sense, where elevating cinema from just being entertainment for the masses to, an art form. Because when movies began, people thought it was just for the lower classes, and it took a while before people realised that cinema was an art form, you know. And Ray’s movies were an important part of that.

So how’s your novel going? How different is it from writing a screenplay?

It’s really an interesting process. My father was a writer and Brandon always wanted to be one, and frankly, I never thought I’d be a filmmaker, even I thought I’d be a writer. So, you know, it’s taken me a really long time to come to terms with writing fiction, but the thing about it is that I’m surprised how much like directing it is. Because you are casting it, you are choosing the costumes, you are choosing the locations, in a way you are choosing when you do a close up, when you will do a long shot, you know, or do you describe this person in detail or not. So, it’s closer to directing that screenwriting, weirdly enough.

Note: This interview first appeared on Firstpost.com on December 22, 2012
Link: http://www.firstpost.com/bollywood/2012-in-indie-cinema-david-cronenberg-on-cosmopolis-564472.html

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.

Interview: Canadian filmmaker Brandon Cronenberg #Firstpost #Film

2012 in Indie Cinema: Brandon Cronenberg on Antiviral

Canadian writer-director Brandon Cronenberg came out with a unique first film this year, Antiviral, about a man who works for a company that harvests diseases from celebrities and then injects them into paying clients.

A bizzare, surreal but a very well done and confident take on celebrity obsession, Antiviral premiered in the Un Certain Regard category at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. It has subsequently travelled across the world, winning the Gold Hugo award at the Chicago International Film Festival and the Best Canadian First Feature Film Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. In an exclusive interview, Brandon talks about making a fantasy horror film, the intimacy of illness, and his father, legendary filmmaker, David Cronenberg.

 

You mentioned in an interview that you decided to explore the celebrity obsession through illness because it’s more intimate than sex. Can you elaborate?

If you look at it in a certain way, illness is at least as intimate as sex in that, you know, it’s something that comes from someone else’s cells that penetrates your cells, and goes from their bodies into your bodies, so it is very sexual and very intimate. But I think we don’t see it that way because you often don’t know what it can do to you, so there’s a nervousness and there’s anxiety, but if you look at it in a certain way, you are passing something from one body to another body.

So if I just exaggerated the celebrity obsession phenomenon very slightly and connected it to the intimacy of illness, and talked about it with this new perspective, I thought it would be an interesting way of seeing things. So while I do think that Antiviral is a fantasy, it’s not very far-fetched in the sense that it’s sort of like our world, where we do comment on celebrity culture all the time, but it’s exaggerated very slightly, and I think that’s an interesting way of putting it.

What gave you the confidence to explore the subject within the limitations of indie budgets? How did you know the subject was good enough for your first film?

(Chuckles) Well it was the only script I had written at the time that I had the opportunity to make into a film, which is why I chose it. I mean I had a number of ideas and I’ve made some short films before, but this is the first full-fledged feature script I had written. But yeah, the subject is just something I found very interesting and I thought that the script turned out good, so I just went with it. And I think, you know, you just have to have confidence in what you are doing or hope for the best. Or else you become paralysed and can’t do anything. I fortunately had a lot of good people I was working with, so that made me more confident that we could do it together.

Apart from being a writer and director, you are also a painter and a musician. When you are writing a film, are you combining all these elements in your head, or do you tackle one beast at a time?

It’s a little of everything, I guess. When I’m writing, I just leave it open. Sometimes, I have a very specific image in mind, and sometimes I have very specific music in mind, and so I try to have as clear a sense what I want, as much as it’s possible. But when you start to make the film, everything changes, you know, because you suddenly have actors and they have their own interpretations, and it takes on its own life. So I try and be as clear in my mind as I can when I’m writing, and then I try not worrying too much if there are better things.

When I went to film school, this is actually the best advice I got at it: that at every stage of the film you look at what you have and you’ve got to make the best film you can with that. So, you know, you write the best film you can and when you have your script and when you have your actors on the sets, you look at that and you sort of shoot it in a way without worrying if you deviate too much, or if you come up with other ideas or certain other obstacles. And then you take the footage and keep looking at it at every stage with fresh eyes and letting it evolve until you have your final film.

Now that you mention it yourself, it’s curious that you felt the need to go to film school at all, since growing up with your father, David Cronenberg, one would assume he was all the film school you’d need.

I think, unless you are making a very specific kind of film, you can’t do it on your own. You are going to need to be plugged into a community, so a film school was a way of, you know, teaching yourself filmmaking because unless you have people to make films with, the process is very difficult. Film school gave me a period of time where I could meet other people who wanted to make films so we could all experiment with the equipment, and that’s why it was very important.

On the other hand, a lot of the films people make in films school haven’t really succeeded in that industry because ultimately, we’re learning in a very artificial environment. I think learning in an academic environment you can only teach yourself so much, but you actually have to learn filmmaking by simply doing it. So for me, going to my father’s sets or working on his film – I worked on Existenz in the special effects department – I think I got a sense of filmmaking and a sense of the process in the real world, and that was an advantage.

Since you’ve attempted horror with Antiviral, which is a genre done so well by your father, were you at any time worried about the fact that you’d be compared to his work?

Yeah, it occurred to me that would happen but I tried to ignore that because first of all, the film is representative of what’s interesting to me and what I wanted to do. So my filmmaking cannot be defined his filmmaking. Also, it would be difficult to do something he hasn’t done because he’s just done too much! And secondly, you know, he’s my father and we have love some of the same things, and I grew up with him, so it’s obvious our films, interests and aesthetics would overlap to a certain extent. So, for me, if I’ve got into a film, I have to worry about people as little as possible.

So is your father a proud dad after he sees your work, or does he get technical about it?

(Chuckles) Oh no, he was a very proud dad. But also, you know, in our family, I see early cuts of his films and I showed him my film, and since my mother’s a filmmaker and my sister’s a photographer, we all show each other our projects in advance.

How much importance do you give to external opinion for your film? I read that six minutes of your film was cut after its premiere at Cannes.

Well, the 6 minutes we cut was less because of outside feedback and more because we were rushing the film to get it done for Cannes, and we hadn’t had a chance to step away from it. And then we saw it again with fresh eyes, and noticed that there was obviously a part of it that we felt could change. But yes, the external point of view is a tricky thing. When you’ve tried to have a certain effect and communicate certain things, then at a certain point you need to start showing other people and seeing if they are getting what you are trying to say. Because if nobody understands what you are trying to say, then you should be worried and take that feedback back to your film. So it’s not so much trying to make everyone happy but trying to gauge whether or not the effect you are trying to have is working.

So what do we see from you next? Something lighter?

I’m not really interested in making a light film. I may do it eventually, but to me that’s not very interesting. Because I’m not interested in filmmaking just as a form of entertainment. For me, filmmaking is an art form and I’d like to do things with it people haven’t done before.

Does that mean we’ll never see you making a superhero film?

(Laughs) Well, I don’t know! I think that with a very large budget you start to lose control, because there’s too much money invested, so I think there’s sort of good middle ground where you have enough money to do what you want but you don’t want to answer to too many people and that’s how I’d like to stay. So I’m probably going to remain independent because I don’t think I can work inside the studio system unless I’m very, very established because I don’t ever want to give up control over my filmmaking.

Since you are both a writer and a director, would we see you working on projects that are not conceived by you?

I wouldn’t want to write for anyone else because if I invest that much time in a script, I would want to direct it myself. Of course, I would direct something for someone else if I found the script interesting. But I like working on a film from an early stage, so it will have to be a script that I could connect with, and it would have to be in line with my sensibilities.

Note: This interview first appeared on Firstpost.com on December 22, 2012
Link: http://www.firstpost.com/bollywood/2012-in-indie-cinema-brandon-cronenberg-on-antiviral-566363.html

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.