Helen Mirren: An audience with The Queen

Ahead of the Oscars, double Golden Globe-winner Helen Mirren talks about her award-winning performances as Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II.
Venice, September 2006

As a young woman you were always very anti-establishment. Now you’re not only playing the ultimate establishment figure, but you’re also a Dame. Do you now feel like you have become the establishment?

“That’s my great fear. I don’t want to be a part of the establishment as such. That’s not my role as an artist. You have to hold yourself apart because our job, as artists, is not to arbitrarily attack the establishment, I don’t say that, but if that need comes to step up and do it. You have to kind of hold yourself apart. But as you get older, inevitably life [smiles] pulls you into it because the younger generation look at you that way. You become the establishment just because you are established, and the younger generation are going, ‘Yeuch, get rid of them.’”

Have you ever met the Queen?

“I met the Queen very briefly, for about 20 seconds, at a polo match - the first and last polo match I’ve ever been to. I was invited to have tea with the Queen, with about a thousand other people, and me and Chloe Sevigney were taken over to meet her. I had the impression that everybody has when they are meeting the Queen in a slightly informal situation: she is absolutely charming and very twinkly and very easy and very natural. I did use that in the beginning of the film, before the tragedy of Diana’s death, to show this person with a sense of humour and kind of ease about her.”

Did she know that you wanted to play her?

“She did because I wrote to her. I got an answer from her secretary saying, ‘The Queen has read your letter with interest.’”

What did you write?

“I said, ‘I’m sure you’re aware that a film is going to be made and I am playing your Royal Highness. I understand that this is intrusive, especially as the film deals with these very difficult two weeks.’ This is more or less, not verbatim. I’d already done a lot of research at that point, so I already had a feeling. Through my research I had this growing feeling of respect for her. So, I just said, ‘All I can say is that I will do this as honestly as I possibly can and try and reflect the person that I have come to respect.’”

When you looked at yourself in the mirror, dressed up, did you think, ‘Oh my God, I really look like her’?

“Yes, I used to take myself a little bit by surprise. But I really looked like her when I was acting her. I didn’t particularly look like her when I was just being myself. It was when I took on the character and my head went back and the look came that I started looking like her. So when I looked at myself in the mirror, I’d think, ‘I don’t look anything like the Queen. I look like Helen Mirren in a wig.’”

Was there any intention in the film to reflect on where Blair is today because he seems to be in the position now that the Queen was then?

“Indeed. Although I have to say when we started the movie, it wasn’t quite as extreme as it is now. And I love that line, ‘This will happen to you, Mr Blair. And it will come quite suddenly.’ That’s very much Peter [Morgan screenwriter].”

Do you think Blair admired her power because it’s as if he has also now become monolithic, distant and deaf to the public?

“You know, I can’t say anything. That’s maybe what you want to say. I have no idea.”

But you’re a Labour supporter and during the election in 1997 you were vocal in your support.

“Well, I was a supporter of change. And Blair was a wonderful, and he still is, orator, and a great politician. No question. All the resources that a politician is supposed to have, he’s got - including an ability to dissimilate [Laughs]. He’s a brilliant politician. It was time for change, so might as well be him.”

What research did you do to play the Queen?

“I had just done Elizabeth I in Lithuania, I was exhausted from that, but I had to go to the South of France. I went with this big bag of tapes and I spent my whole time just watching tapes and reading biographies. One that I found really, really valuable in particular was the book that was written by Elizabeth and Margaret’s nanny, Crawfie [Marion Crawford]. She had them from about the age of five, even younger, and she was with them through the abdication of their uncle, through their father becoming King, the move to Buckingham Palace. When the girls got to be 16, 17, 18, whatever, she was let go, because she no longer had a job. She wrote this book and it was terrible. The monarchy saw it as the most appalling betrayal, because it was the first time they’d ever confronted anyone going public about what happened in the private life of the royal family. In fact the book is very, very sympathetic, totally uncritical. But it really does show the world that they lived in and she does talk about Elizabeth’s character as a young girl. I found that book totally invaluable because I found myself gravitating very much towards Elizabeth before she became Queen, really up to the end of the Second World War. It wasn’t like she was born and this is going to be the next Queen. Her uncle was King and if her uncle had children there was no way she was going to be Queen. And even when her father became King, her mother and father were young enough to have more children. So if they’d had another child and it had been a boy, she would not have been Queen. So for a lot of her young life she lived without that understanding and that was the person I wanted to look at. Get that Queen thing away from her and just look at the little girl.”

Did you see any similarities between the two Elizabeths?

“Well, I think monarchs have to believe that God wants them there and they are, in general, God fearing or religious. I think if they don’t believe that God wants them there, the whole thing falls apart a bit. And, you know, there’s this thing of how ego plays out within the role of monarchy. In Elizabeth I’s case the ego was so enormous it was incomprehensible. It was like an Everest of ego. And Elizabeth II, there is no ego. It’s very strange. It’s as if she’s let go of ego. It’s like when you pass through vanity, through ego, into another place, which is the place of no choice. I can’t comprehend what that must be like.”

Would you compare her with an actor that has to play the same role throughout her career?

“No, it’s way beyond acting. It’s being, not acting. And I do know that the Queen has an absolute abhorrence of performing. She finds it, and always has, very difficult to, you know, smile the way actors do on the red carpet. Smile and wave. She’s not good at that. And I don’t think she sees it particularly as her role to act. She is being. It’s a far deeper than acting.”

The Queen deals with her grief by putting her energies into the grandchildren. Did anything in your own experience inform the way you played these moments?

“Not really because I’ve never experienced anything like that. I mean I can understand from a human point of view that of course your energy would go towards protecting your grandchildren, especially in a world that wants more anything to eat those children alive. What the public wanted was Harry and William to come out and fall on their knees and sob and say, ‘My mother! I’ve lost my beautiful mother!’ They wanted that photo opportunity. It was disgusting. Some people to this day say, ‘Why didn’t they cry?’ You know, fuck off. I say beware of people crying on television. These guys who come on and cry about their wives missing, usually they’re the ones who have killed them. Why do people think crying in public is a sign of emotion? It’s very often a sign of lying.”

What is your interpretation of the scene where the Queen goes to look at the killed stag?

“That was a scene in the script that I loved the most and I thought really heightened it into being more than documentary, more than a cheeky look behind curtains. It gave it a poetic quality. I think everyone who sees that sees their own symbolism. I know that Jamie Cornwall, who plays the Duke of Edinburgh, absolutely saw that as Diana. Saw the death of the stag as the death of Diana. This magnificent wild creature cruelly killed. I didn’t see that at all. My interpretation was that it’s the loss of a generation and a way of life. Not of a monarchist way of life but a way of Britain being. I felt like that because I felt like that when my mother died. What killed me was the loss of that generation. We are losing that generation who experienced the depression, the Second World War, the deprivations of the post war in Britain, and then presented my generation with a National Health System, with an education system that allowed me, a girl from a working class economic background, to have a college education, and gave us this incredible modern world.”

How important to you was becoming a Dame?

“Becoming a Dame was to do with my family, with my Mum and Dad, and the world that I grew up in. They were both dead by the time, and that’s the sadness in getting something like that - usually you’re much older and your parents are dead. But I accepted it for my parents.”

It’s the 25th anniversary of The Long Good Friday this year. Bob Hoskins said he was always embraced somewhat by the underworld after appearing in that film. Was it the same for you?

“Well certainly in the East End, yes. In fact, my mother’s side of the family did come from the East End and, actually, I had had an uncle, not a blood relative but an uncle by marriage, who was an East End gangster. So I had had tenuous connections with that world [laughs] anyway. But certainly for a long time afterwards - it’s only just dissipated - I had incredible credibility in the East End. Any East End pub I went to into, any taxi driver, I had great, great cred. It was great. But I’m not saying they were necessarily gangsters, they were just East End people.”

One of your relatives used to be the butcher to Queen Victoria, didn’t he?

“Yeah, my mother’s grandfather was a butcher, so they came from that East End. I didn’t know a lot about my mother’s side of the family, actually, until quite recently. A journalist, needless to say, investigated it, unbeknownst to me, and did a whole thing on it. I knew that my family came from the East End but then I discovered that actually we came from West Ham. It was brilliant. I actually sent him a letter saying, ‘Thank you. That was great.’ He sent me all the research material.’”

So, you’ve played the Queen. What now? What about a very sexy role?

“[Laughs] Well I just did do a rather sexy film called Shadowboxer. I get to make love with Cuba Gooding Jr. It was fabulous.”

That’s a dark, violent film. What attracted you to it?

“It was the director, he persuaded me. Lee Daniels [producer of Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman]. He calls it a homo-ghetto-euro-movie, because he’s very gay and very black. So, you know, I thought it would be cool to do a movie with a gay black director. And it was fantastic. Macy Gray was in it, Mo'Nique - so I was in this wonderful American black world that was just fantastic.”

© Stephen Applebaum, 2007


Imre Kertesz: Write to life

2002 Nobel Prize winner for literature Imre Kertesz talks about the film adaptation fo his Holocaust novel Fateless.
Berlin, 2005

Did you have any reservations about your semi-autobiographical novel, Fateless, being turned into a movie?

“In the beginning I had a lot of reservations, I must admit, and then I changed my mind and decided to write the screenplay myself. Then I was able to put an end to all my concerns. So I’m happy with the outcome.”

What were your reservations?

“Of course there were some reservations on my part because a film is a completely different genre and I didn’t want the novel, and the structure of the novel, to be changed in any way. So I think this is just a basic instinct on the part of writers.”

How did you approach the screenplay in order to retain the integrity of the novel’s structure?

“Right from the beginning onwards, it was impossible to use the same language I used in the novel in the film as well, or to transform it or transfer it in any way. That was simply inconceivable. In the novel I use a rather fictitious, analytical, and kind of reluctant language which cannot be used in film in any way. So what I tried to do was to translate one layer of the story of the novel into the film. I wanted to pick up the narrative and focus on a linear development in the film, by telling the story of a person who loses his personality.”

Does the actor in the film look like the hero in the novel, or like you at that age?

“The hero in the novel doesn’t have much in common with me. I gave him a lot of my own personal history but we differ significantly in nature. And the main actor in the film, who is a boy like an angel, also doesn’t have very much in common with me.”

The boy survives by conforming to the concentration camp system. Is our ability to adapt a weakness as well as a strength? It was that conformist nature which, in a sense, allowed the Holocaust to happen, as well enabling people like the boy to survive.

“It always depends on your personal viewpoint and your personal angle. It is positive in the sense that people are simply able to conform to almost anything which helps them to survive. But you can also look at it from a negative viewpoint by saying that people are able to conform almost completely.”

Yes, the ability which enables him/you to survive also brought about the Holocaust in a way, didn’t it, because many people adapted to Nazism?

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s a very interesting question that an old English writer, Mr Sterne, once put to himself: did he use his suffering and his pain well enough? And that is also a question that people put to themselves after having gone through a concentration camp, for example. Does it contribute to your life, does it enrich your personality, or do you lose a lot? That always depends on the individual.”

At the end of the film the character expresses nostalgia for the camps. Is this something mankind needs or is it a particular nostalgia of this character?

“I think it’s generally true to say this is the case and it’s nothing unusual. If somebody was imprisoned in a labour camp for a long time, once he’s released the feeling of freedom and liberty leaves him too much space that he actually starts to yearn for those times when he was captured and when he was locked up. So this nostalgia, which refers to a written passage at the end of the novel, reflects a certain kind of upheaval of writing on the part of this young boy. Now, he’s travelling this world of confusion, this boy, on his way home. He’s full of disgust and disdain because he doesn’t understand the world anymore, and therefore he’s longing for the times when he was still locked up in the concentration camp. We, as viewers, don’t know whether he feels like going back because the feeling of upheaval is stirred by the heat of the moment, or whether this is of a more general nature.”

Are these invented emotions or did you experience these feelings?

“I personally do not remember the feelings that I had back then. But in the novel, the hero was supposed to feel homesick in a way.”

How much did you contribute to the production of the film?

“I was not involved in the filmmaking at all and I was not contributing to selecting the actors either. I think the director was more apt to do that and, honestly speaking, I’m clueless concerning the Hungarian actors and their specific features or capabilities. So I didn’t want to interfere either when the film was shot, because that’s always the wrong place to be for a writer. He’s always in the way. So I stayed away.”

Three years ago your screenplay was distributed in Vienna with the title Step By Step. 100,000 copies of it were distributed. Was it exactly the screenplay that was used for this film, or how much of it was amended and edited?

“That’s exactly the one we used. The test was not amended.”

You have talked about the “Auschwitz disease” and I'd like to know whether you consider this to be a condition which is curable? Also, has anything been learned from these events, in your opinion?

“It always depends. It depends on your individual personality. There are some people who suffer from this disease for life, simply because of the experience they have gone through. Another group simply doesn’t talk about it. And a third group of people have learned to come to terms with these events.”

Which group do you consider yourself to be in?

“[Laughs] I’m a writer, so I don’t belong to any one of these three categories, because my metabolism with reality differs significantly from the metabolism of most of the people you normally meet. I view my experience as being raw material and I process it in the process of writing. And as I go along, I get rid of this experience. You know, this is how I go on and on and on and on, until I reach a stage, as a writer, where I will have run out of raw material. Then it’s time to die. Just like the fate of Sisyphus, which I described at the end of my novel called Fiasco, there is this man standing on a rock with three gravel stones in his pocket, and he’s on his way home.”

Lajos Koltai, the film’s director, says the boy experiences a kind of beauty while spending time in the concentration camp. Do you agree with that?

“Yes, I very much share this particular view, because that is part of the whole story. Nature remains unchanged no matter what. The sun is always there, shining. There are the trees bearing fruit. Although I’m not the one who can pick them, they’re there. And the more beautiful nature, the stronger is the horror and pain.”

This film is more neutral, emotionally speaking, than Hollywood films like Schindler’s List. Do you believe that this is a better way to deal with this kind of subject matter?

“Yes, I think it really makes sense to be a bit more neutral, because if you’re too emotional you won’t get anywhere really. People keep on complaining, grumbling, but nobody wants to listen to them. That’s the problem. You have to find the right format, especially if you want to convey a message that relates to so much significant personal experience. If you want to reach out you have to find a different way. You have to stop complaining, you have to stop asking for people’s compassion, because that won’t get you anywhere.”

© Stephen Applebaum, 2007


Joe Dante: "I see it as the dissolution of what used to be the meaning of my country. It’s a sorry sight."

Unlike his President, and target, film-maker Joe Dante doesn't take prisoners. He talks about Homecoming, his contribution to the Masters of Horror series, and the real life horrors bedevilling his homeland.
London, 2006

Were you surprised by the level of freedom you were given on this?

“Well, no actually. The series this is part of is not a political series, it’s 13 episodes directed by different horror movie directors, and because there wasn’t a great deal of money or time, the trade-off was that we were promised creative freedom to do whatever we wanted. So while most of the directors took that as a sign that they could push the envelope for the graphic content of the shows, it seemed to me that it was an opportunity that I wasn’t going to find anywhere else, which was I had a whole hour to play with and no one telling me what to do. So my friend, the screenwriter Sam Hamm [Batman], and I came up with this idea of doing a piece about the war, which no one else seemed to be covering dramatically, so we managed to sneak this by everybody.”

What was the producers’ reaction when you showed them the script?

“Initially we had a short story called Death and Suffrage, which is a Monkey’s Paw type story, although the hook in the story is gun control, not the war. When we submitted that story I think the producers were a little confused and they didn’t understand how we were going to turn this into a Masters of Horror episode. But once they read the script they were completely onboard with it."

So they had no problem with the political content at all? The film deals with these issues more directly than anything else that’s come out of America, or how we often think these issues are debated in America.

“Well that’s true. And usually, certainly in the horror movie genre, the messages are coded. Usually there’s metaphors and symbols, but it seemed to me that this issue was so strong that it needed to be blunt. So we made it as obvious as we could make it without naming real names."

Before the opportunity to do this arose, had you wanted to do something about the war?

"Well I had wanted to see something done. I don’t know if I wanted necessarily to be the one to do it. But it just seemed to me that the political situation here in America is so volatile and so dire that it demanded some kind of dramatic examination and it just wasn’t getting much. There have been a couple of movies – Syriana, and Goodnight, and Good Luck, which is set in the 50s – which sort of grapple around the edges of these stories, but this big elephant in the room is this war; people are dying every day and it’s sort of shunted off to a couple of announcements every day of how many more people are dead, and otherwise people go on with their lives. That just didn’t seem right to me.”

There’s been a lot of press recently about how films like Syriana, Goodnight, and Good Luck, and Jarhead perhaps herald a return to the overt political filmmaking of Hollywood in the 70s. Do you think that is the case? Do you think it’s possible?

“No, it’s not. I don’t believe that. Jarhead is not a political film. The two George Clooney pictures [Syriana, Good Night, and Good Luck], I mean he is one of two people in Hollywood who is really willing to put his money were his mouth is. His pictures do have a point and they do have an agenda, and I think that’s great. But for the most part that’s not considered a safe bet commercially, because obviously you’re going to offend half the audience. So I don’t see a groundswell of new political films being made. There is a picture by the Weitz brothers called American Dreamz, which is a satire, which I understand has a lot of contemporary relevance, but I haven’t seen it.”

You’ve said that if you want to see what a country is really thinking, look at its horror films. Is this because they work on an unconscious level?

“Well it seems to be related to turbulence. Whenever times are rough, people seem to want to see horror films. Now I don’t know whether the appeal is seeing someone who has worse problems than you do, or just that there’s a darkness to the national mood. But you have to keep remembering that traditionally the audience for horror films is young. Even in the 30s and 40s, those pictures were made for younger audiences generally. And I think partly that’s because the idea of risking death and going on a scary ride is a lot easier when you’re far away from death, when it’s not staring you in the face. When audiences get older they tend to be a little bit more circumspect about wanting to confront death every day. So I think horror movies have been, and always will be, a young person’s genre. Young males.”

Films like Eli Roth’s Hostel, which is doing very well in America at the moment, and Rob Zombies Devil’s Rejects are very extreme as they’re a throwback to 1970s horror filmmaking.

“Well they’re progeny of the Chainsaw Massacre. They’ve sprung from that particular well. There were Hills Have Eyes and Last House on the Left, in the late 70s and early 80s there were a lot of films like that; they were gore films but also torture films. I find it interesting that the rise of movies where people are tortured in horror films is now sort of a post Abu Ghraib phenomenon.”

I was going to ask whether you think there is a connection with the events at Abu Ghraib.

“I think there is. And you can’t discount the jaded factor that people have now seen virtually everything that can be done to a human being on screen, and that’s why Saw, I think, used its premise so cleverly, in that people had to do the mutilating themselves. There’s always going to be a market for this kind of thing. And, I think, as long as times are what they are, you can’t go wrong making a $5 million horror picture.”

There’s been a resurgence of zombie movies since 9/11, beginning, really, with 28 Days Later. Why do you think that has happened?

“Well, you know, these really aren’t zombie movies. Zombie movies began with The White Zombie in 1932 and they were usually West Indian zombies. They were dead natives or dead tribesmen who were used in the sugar mills, and there was kind of a class consciousness sub-plot about all of those pictures. Frankly, it’s been a pretty maligned genre. There’s been very few masterpieces, I Walked with a Zombie being one of the few. But then in 1968, when George Romero made Night of the Living Dead, which was a ghoul movie, not a zombie movie, the appellation of zombie started to adhere to the idea of anybody that was a walking dead person. So as a result with all the Italian imitations of that picture, we ended up with sort of a new genre, which is the zombies who aren’t really the original zombies, they’re just somebody who happens to be alive after being dead. So that has really taken off. There are many more of those films than there ever were of the West Indian zombie movies.”

Since Romero especially these movies have been read as political. Are they or are people just reading things into them?

“Well it’s a very malleable genre. Because you’re dealing with blank slates you can impart whatever motives you want to the zombies and the zombie masters. You got to remember there’s always zombie masters; zombies always have to work for somebody or be after somebody. Land of the Dead, which was not a very successful film here, was widely read as a political film. Critically it was quite well received but for whatever reason the audience stayed away.”

Do people want to see political films?

“I think there are always people who will appreciate political content in a horror film but I don’t think that’s the reason why the pictures are successful. They’re successful because people want to see zombie movies. 28 Days Later came out and revitalised the genre because they now moved fast, and some people complained that the reason the Romero picture didn’t work was because audiences are now used to seeing fast zombies. They don’t want to see shuffling, slow zombies anymore. I don’t know how true that is but it could be that the film was perceived as old fashioned.”

In Matinee you showed an era in filmmaking coming to an end with the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Do you think the current situation will require a new kind of film to address it, or a stylistic shift?

“No, I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of imitations of Homecoming. It’s really a fluke. It’s a fluke that it got made. It happened to come out at a time when the political situation here is so volatile that it got a lot of attention that it wouldn’t have ordinarily gotten. It was first run in Italy at the Turin Film Festival, and the audience reaction was explosive, they just thought it was the greatest thing since chopped liver. I have a feeling that it came from their surprise at seeing any American-backed entertainment that took this stand. I think they’re so used to not seeing that from America.”

There’s a lot of anger in Homecoming but is there also a lot of frustration precisely because of the way discussion about the war has been squashed?

“I think it’s even more frustrating in that it’s not just been squashed but that the majority of the public just doesn’t seem to give a shit. It’s hard for those of us who came of age in the late 60s and early 70s to conceive of the public just turning its back, as they did in Germany in 1933, to what’s going on and saying, ‘You know it’s not my problem. It’s somebody else’s problem. As long as I get my three square meals a day and I can fill up my SUV, I don’t care.’ That’s not the country I grew up in. And, I think those of us who have seen the change, are very disturbed by it.”

Does consumerism have a lot to do with it? You know, people are just happy with their lot and don’t really care what’s going on?

“Look, this is the fattest country in the world. It has more obesity here and more waste. We use up seventy-odd per cent of the world’s resources on twenty-five per cent of the population. I mean it’s a pretty unsustainable model it seems to me, in its current form. Prior administrations used to just put them on the backburner and think that they’d deal with it later. The current administration is actively undoing everything that was ever done ecologically or politically, and trying to turn the country back into what they think it should be, which is a model from like the late 40s and early 50s, which is impossible. It can’t happen. We can’t go back there. But, nonetheless, we’re currently having hearings, a new Supreme Court Justice [Samuel Alito] is probably going to get confirmed, and strike down a number of things that my generation has counted on legally. These 5-to-4 decisions are now not going to be 5-to-4 decisions anymore, and the tenuous grasp that we’ve had on civil liberties issues in this country are going to be overturned. There’s no way around it. These people have the votes, they have the majority, and they’re going to do it, because that’s been their goal. This administration didn’t come in with no agenda. Their agenda was to roll back everything that Roosevelt did and return us, I guess, to Herbert Hooverland.

“And they’re right on target. Despite their massive incompetence and their incredible stupidity they have gambled on the lack of interest in the American public, I guess, or the easy gullibility of the American public, and they’re just pushing through with their agenda and there doesn’t seem to be anybody to stop them.”

Why do you think the American press was so supine?

“I find it perplexing and embarrassing. Edward R. Murrow, wherever he is, I’m sure he’s happy they’re making a movie about him but I can’t think he would be too happy about what’s going on in this country. The press has been complicit in this takeover. I think partly it’s because the right wing were very smart in their moving into the media. Once they perceived it was a liberal media, they wanted to change that, and they have now managed to completely overturn that and the media is now largely conservative. The commentators who are supposedly not taking sides simply bring up White House talking points at every turn. It’s as if they’re all reading from the same playbook, which, of course, they are, because talking points are given out to right-wing hosts and all that. But when you watch a programme like Meet the Press, which is supposed to be a bi-partisan programme, and you see that the moderator is not only involved in the various scandals that are going on but has actively shilled for the Republican Party, it’s pretty astonishing. And the fact that people just sit back and say ‘Oh well, I guess that’s just the way things are,’ it’s astonishing to me. In my day we tried to do something about things like this.”

Was there something quite subversive about the fact that Homecoming was on TV because that’s where a lot of the manufacturing of consent went on for the war?

“Well it was on TV but it was on cable TV, which is not exactly the same as being on TV. That programme could never be aired on a network. There’s no way. First of all, in the majority of situations, you have to take notes from your producers, which we didn’t have to do, but then you have to go out and run the film at some mall somewhere and get cards from teenagers, who will complain that everyone in the movie is too old. We didn’t have to do any of that. As a result it didn’t go through the filter that all network programmes go through, which is why it could never have been on network television. Cable television is a medium people pay for, so you have a somewhat more limited audience. Showtime has a smaller audience than HBO. But originally this series was done as a series of DVDs for Anchor Bay, and I think whatever penetration this is going to make is probably going to come when the DVDs come out.”

George Clooney has said Michael Moore polarises people whereas he wanted to bring people together in debate. You, on the other hand, seem to be very much in the Michael Moore camp.

“I’m afraid so. I think what is interesting is that after his movie came out, which you might recall won a lot of awards overseas -- it’s actually a terrific piece of propaganda -- he was pretty much marginalised. He was vilified, as if the things in the movie weren’t true. You know, you look at the movie today and it’s even more devastating now than when it was new, because we know more. But that approach has been effectively marginalised to the point where you don’t even hear much from Michael Moore anymore. He’s such a lightning bolt for controversy that people don’t bring him up, which I think is a shame.”

How did you decide what to put in and what to leave out, because you seem to be taking on the Republicans’ crimes and misdemeanours one by one, and with the recreation of the banned photographs of the coffins at Dover Air Force Base, their attempts at censorship? With so much to choose from, was the problem deciding what to leave out?

“Well we were basically trying to hit as many points as we could in an hour and still have a story. There was no point in pulling our punches because we only had an hour. And we wanted to make an impression and get press, so it couldn’t be a subtle little story that goes by and people take it to their heart and say, ‘That was a well done little story.’ This had to be in your face. So it’s a very rude film that has a lot of satirical stuff in it, and it also has a lot of images that are very loaded, very powerful. When those soldiers come out from underneath those flags, it’s a very powerful image. And we’re not unmindful of how powerful it was.”

What sort of consideration did you have when you were dealing with the zombies for the families who have lost sons in Iraq or whose sons are currently serving out there?

“Since in any horror film you naturally assume that the monsters are the bad guys, and the tradition is that when people come back from the dead they want to kill you, and they’re bad, obviously we had to turn that around, because these guys are the heroes of the movie. I’m sure it’s an offensive movie for people who have lost people in the war, but we did make a concerted effort to try to be dignified, as much as possible in the circumstances, as far as that aspect of the movie went. But there’s a point beyond which you can’t go: they are zombies and they do have to get shot, and stalk people and do all the horror movie things that people do. So, you know, it was uppermost in our minds how we were going to portray these guys, and I think we ultimately made them sympathetic.”

Where did you decide to draw the line?

“Um, I don’t remember consciously doing that. We may have. But there’s also the pressure of making the film extremely fast and extremely cheaply. It is only 10 days, and you don’t get another day, and you can only have X-number of zombies -- because that’s how many we can afford -- and you can only have X-number of bullet hits – because that’s all we can afford – so you’re constantly working with those kinds of strictures while also saying, ‘Well you don’t want to run this off the rails and you don’t want to get too crazy or too campy or too offensive, or too whatever.’ It’s a fine line. But I think it was a line that Sam and I walked unconsciously. We didn’t really have time to do a lot of deep thinking about it. It’s a very intuitive kind of a movie. It really did spring from convictions. So I think it sort of became what it became and we sort of went along for the ride.”

I guess that nothing you did could really be as obscene as the lies that sent the soldiers to war in the first place.

“Well that was kind of how we felt. When people said, ‘Don’t you think this is in bad taste?’ we said ‘Well yes it is in bad taste. But then our actors they come back from the dead, get shot, and then they go home for dinner every night. And the people in Iraq who are getting shot don’t go home for dinner every night, and I think that’s a lot worse.’”

People on some right-wing websites have criticised you for putting anti-war sentiments into the mouths of the dead soldiers, and said that what you’re doing is as bad as what you’re saying the Republicans do. How do you respond to that? Is there a significant enough number of soldiers that are anti the war for you to legitimately do that?

“Well there are. Certainly John Murtha, who has gotten a lot of ink recently, for saying that he thinks the mission is a disaster and the soldiers should come home is being smeared and vilified. He’s a Republican, he’s a veteran, he’s a respected guy, but as soon as you say something about these guys that they don’t like, their initial reaction is smear, smear, smear, and that’s what they’ve been doing. And there are a number of soldiers who don’t feel that this has been going well. Even people who may have thought it was a good idea at the beginning are looking at where we are with the casualty numbers, with the incredible cost, which, of course, we can’t afford because we don’t have any money; we’ve given it all away and we’re borrowing from China now. If they call in their loans I don’t know what we’re going to do. You couldn’t run a delicatessen the way that these people have run this country without having the Board of Health close you down. And yet for some reason these people are not being closed down, and I don’t understand why.”

Over here a former General who commanded the UN forces in Bosnia has called for the impeachment of Tony Blair. There have also been calls in the States for Bush’s impeachment. What are the chances of that happening?

“Nobody takes it seriously because the media won’t let them. The media doesn’t want to take it seriously and they just poo-poo the whole thing. But, you know, when I did this film there was no spying scandal. That happened afterwards. Everything these people touch turns to shit. The impeachable offences go way beyond their attempts to remake the Constitution. I mean the sheer incompetence with which they’ve botched everything they’ve touched is enough reason to get rid of them. I think they ought to go to jail. I don’t think they should just be impeached, I think these people are war criminals. That’s my opinion. Other people might have a different opinion. That’s fine. Let them go make their movie.”

How were you responding to the news as you were writing this? Were you adding things and taking things out as you were going along? I believe that you had the Gold Star Mom in this before the emergence of Cindy Sheehan.

“Well Cindy Sheehan hadn’t appeared but there was a very compelling figure in Fahrenheit 9/11, a woman who lost her son and had been a supporter of the war and then changed her mind, and was a real person and it was very moving. I think she stood in for a lot of people we figured were out there. Obviously where there are casualties there are mothers and so we put that character in. We had no idea that within a couple of weeks of us writing it all of a sudden Cindy Sheehan would appear and galvanise the movement. Although speaking of smears, there’s another character. As soon as she showed up, it was like ‘Let’s get her.’”

Is her son and the way they try to manipulate him in the film a nod to Jessica Lynch and the way the military tried to use her as a symbol for their cause?

“They do use people that way. They’re so cynical. When I introduced Homecoming in Turin, I very glibly said, ‘Well it’s a horror movie because all the main characters are Republicans,’ which is a cheap shot because these Republicans aren’t the same as the Republicans I grew up with. The word doesn’t even have the same meaning anymore. The actions of the people in the movie are so deeply cynical, and yet I don’t think even touch the surface of how cynical the real people are.”

Yes, you’ve said this is satire but when I looked at Ann Coulter’s website, there was very little difference between what she was saying and how she presents herself and the character Jean Cleaver in your film. For a moment I couldn’t tell whether the site was actually hers or something set up by someone like the Yes Men.

“See the pictures of her in her miniskirts? That’s her website. That’s why I think in our film we’re actually nicer to her than we really should have been. She’s one of those strange, cartoonish, by-products of all this -- a person that has found a way to say the most outrageous things so that they can get more publicity for themselves. When our character is asked if she believes all of this, she says, ‘Well, you know, you say what you have to say.’ I don’t know whether Ann Coulter is really as crazy as she seems or whether it’s just an act, but either way it’s like this sort of sideshow and it makes satire redundant.”

Exactly. When I read her material online I thought you were spot on and there wasn’t much exaggeration there.

“No, no, no, our actress is more attractive, I think.”

I read there were certain things you couldn’t do for legal reasons. Was that why you changed the names of these characters? After all, you kill them, too.

“Not at all. I think it’s distracting to name them after the real people. We named them similarly to the real people but to be able to call that character Jean Cleaver is funny. I think it’s funnier than if you used the real name. And if you do use the real name than you really do open yourself up to lawsuits because then you’re really putting words in people’s mouths, and they can say, ‘I never said that and that’s not me,’ and who needs that anyway?”

How easy was this to cast? Were there people who were put off by the subject matter? Is there still a fear among people of the effect that appearing in something like this could have on their careers?

“There were some people who we went to that didn’t want to get involved with it -- people who you would ordinarily have thought would be on the same political page -- but they would read it and just thought ‘This is just too controversial, there’s going to be a lot of complaints about it and I don’t need this for my image.’ So we didn’t end up using anybody with a big name. We just got good actors.”

Do you think what happened to Maggie Gyllenhaal, who experienced a backlash when she made comments about 9/11, has put people off?

“I don’t think it helps when celebrities are vilified for what they say. I would have thought that you could take a stand by appearing in a film like this but I also understand the downside to it. It’s not like you’re going to get a lot of money, and I don’t know how creatively satisfying it is to make a movie in 10 days, and so for whatever reasons the big names that we went to had other things to do.”

How did you and Sam work together on the screenplay because he’s said he’d never written a horror film before and, of course, you had?

“Well, I don’t know, he wrote the first Batman and that was a horror flick. Sam likes horror pictures and we had actually been kicking around some other ideas for some scripts, and then when this came up we had a couple of short stories we thought would make good episodes but we couldn’t get the rights to them, and then finally time started running out and I said, ‘Let’s just do something of our own. Let’s do something about what’s going on. Let’s do something that’s not werewolves and vampires, like what everybody else is doing.’ So in relatively short order we came up with this take on the original story, which was actually put together very quickly.”

And what did your fellow directors think of the film?

“Um, a number of them were in Turin and seemed to be onboard with it. A couple of them sort of wished they’d maybe done something more substantial than the stories that they did. But on the other hand the whole purpose of the show was to do horror stories. Mine is actually the anomaly of the group.”

After Fahrenheit 9/11 people on the right attacked Michael Moore for being, as they saw it, un-patriotic and anti American.

“It’s a very patriotic movie!”

But what kind of reaction have you had?

“Well, it depends on what side of the fence they’re on. If they tend to agree with you they think it’s good. I’ve had some people agree with me politically but think the movie is bad, and I’ve had people who disagree with the movie politically and think that I’m the worst director who ever lived. Which is fine with me you know? Once it’s out there it’s out there. The trick is getting it out there.”

Because horror is still regarded as a diresputable genre . . .

“Well that’s its strength, actually. That’s one of the reasons its’ still around. There are so few things that are still around that are actually really disreputable.”

But is one drawback of tackling a subject like this in the horror genre that the message doesn’t perhaps gets taken as seriously as it should, because horror is not a “legitimate” genre?

“Well, you know, I don’t think about stuff like that. Directors make movies for themselves. They don’t make movies for anybody else. And if they are making movies for anybody else, they’re making a big mistake, because you’re the audience. The trick is never to do anything that you wouldn’t go see. If you start taking on pictures in genres you don’t like or types of pictures that you feel above or whatever, then you might as well stop working.”

This was never going to screen in the Liberty Film Festival, and people on the Libertus website were making the point that they couldn’t make a film where they blow Howard Dean or Al Franken’s head off [Dante laughs]. But could they?

“Well they could if they wanted.”

Would anyone fund it?

“Would there be anybody to see it is the real question. The Liberty film festival is not the most well attended and popular film festival of all time. It’s true that people on the liberal side of the fence tend to be, I think, somewhat more artistically bent than people who aren’t. Funding of the arts is not really a high priority for people on the other side. What they think we think is art is a crucifix in a bottle of urine [Andre Serrano’s “Piss Christ”], and that’s pretty much as far as they want to go with it.”

At the heart of the film is the question why? Why were people sent to war? Why do you think America went to war? Are you with the people in the film seen wearing the No Blood for Oil T-shirts? Is that the statement you’re making?

“I’ll stand by anything in the movie. It’s an attempt to catch a little moment in time. I don’t know what this movie will look like in 10 years, but that wasn’t the point. People said, ‘The going to look so dated,’ and I’m like ‘Yeah, fine.’ The point is to try and catch a moment in time that is here now, and hopefully in a couple of years will be different. Everything that is in there is in service of that. Yeah, I agree with just about everything that’s in the movie. I even believe that Republicans have consciences. The lead character finally sees the errors of his ways. If I didn’t believe that then I wouldn’t have a story. So it’s not all about being bad. I’d be very curious to see what kind of a life, if any, this film will have.”

What were your thoughts as America started on the road to war? A lot of people fell into line but there were . . .

"Well a lot of people fell into line because they were lied to. Now their story is ‘Well we didn’t tell you anything that wasn’t true.’ Well you did leave out some pretty significant details, though. You know, after 9/11 they certainly had a carte blanche to do something. The fact that they took out this particular guy who, for all of his evilness, seemed to be running that part of the world in the way that part of the world needed to be run, apparently, because it was somewhat stable, if he didn’t have all that oil, you can’t convince me that they would have gone in there. Why didn’t they go into North Korea? Why didn’t they go into a bunch of other places where there are bad guys doing bad things to people? It’s because this has all been part of the plan. It’s part of the plan before 9/11.”

There were people who were talking out against the administration, though, like Scott Ritter.

“He was pretty widely discredited. And so was everybody who was saying anything. Listen, we have an administration that doesn’t hear what it doesn’t want to hear. And any time that anybody has come up and said, ‘Look, this is what is really happening and you guys should listen to me,’ they’ve been bounced out on their ear. There’s a whole raft of people that tried to blow the whistle on these guys and got cut off at the knees for it. That’s just not the way it works. They don’t want to hear anything that they don’t want, and that wasn’t what they wanted. What they wanted was, ‘This guy’s got weapons, he’s the worst thing that ever happened, he’s going to blow us up, little children are going to be turned into puddles of gello by this guy and if we don’t go and get him there, he’s going to come and do it here,’’ all that crap. So people bought it.”

It’s amazing that people bought the democracy idea . . .

“No, no, what they bought was a consistently different reason for going into Iraq. First it was the weapons of mass destruction – ‘Oh, he didn’t have any of those.’ So now it’s to bring democracy. To bring democracy? These are the people who said they were going to dance in the streets and throw flowers at us, you know? They didn’t do their homework. They were told there was going to be an insurgency. They were told how difficult it was going to be in a post-war environment and they chose not to listen, because they just didn’t give a shit. They figured ‘Well, we’ll just clean ‘em up.’ Now they’re bogged down like a new Vietnam, the have no way to get out, and they’re just constantly trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes by changing the subject. And it pretty much works. When you’ve got the media, and you’ve got that constant repetition day after day after day of the same lies, then after a while people start to think they’ve heard it so often it must be true.”

But as you remind us in the film there was gerrymandering in Florida, possibly . . .

“Possibly? The first time the guy didn’t even get elected, he got installed [by the Supreme Court].”

I was going to say possibly in Ohio.

“Possibly [sneeringly]. That’s another reason: imagine how frustrating it would be if you thought there was no way to win the election.”

Exactly. What do you think people can do if they are effectively disenfranchised?

“In 1776 I know what they did. I don’t know. I really don’t know. But they aren’t going to be able to do it without the media. Somehow they’ve got to try and get the media back.”

You’re harking back to 1776 with the final shot of the zombie fife and drum corps marching against the Stars and Stripes. It’s a warning and a call to arms.

“Yeah, and it was intentional.”

Are you in any sense optimistic about the future of your country?

“[Laughs] No! How could you look at that movie and say that I’m optimistic? It’s bleak. Bleak!”

Not a lot to look forward to then?

“Well, you know, it’s certainly ‘May you live in interesting times.’ It is that. But I basically see it as the dissolution of what used to be the meaning of my country. I think that’s what I’m watching. It’s a pretty sorry sight.”

Homecoming is available on the Masters of Horror Series 1 - Volume 1 DVD

© Stephen Applebaum, 2007


Rachel Weisz: "All the stories sound crazy."

Rachel Weisz talks bugging out with The Fountain.
Venice, September 2006

This film is preoccupied with death.

“I’ve probably been over preoccupied with death. I think about it unhealthily too much. Actually, I think I see it as an ashes-to-ashes grand recycling scheme that when we die our body goes into the soil and a tree grows and the fruit grows and a bird eats from the tree, and you go round and round and round.”

Did you bring anything of your own to the script?

“No. Darren [Aronofsky]’s not a director where you contribute to the script. I think there are two sentences I improvised.”

Who do you see as the audience for the film?

“Well, um, I think it’s a film one could see many times and get more from it each time. What I’ve noticed in responses is it’s young people that really like it. The young generation, they’re the ones that really bug out on it.”

How is it working with your partner, Darren Aronofsky? If you have problems at home is there a danger that they can bleed into each other?

”I’m sure there could have been. You know, there are stories about couples working together and it really going very well, and couples working together and it not going very badly, so we were very careful before we made the decision that we were going to have good boundaries. We just had a very, very professional relationship. It was an immense undertaking for Darren so he was really focused and didn’t have any time to listen to what I had to say about anything. He was doing his thing and I was doing mine. So the best way I describe it is I met the director and he met the actress. It was just a whole new and really exciting experience.”

Why do you think this particular project has been so important to him?

”I don’t even think he knows why. He’s the kind of director that if you ask him, ‘Why does he want to tell this story?’ he might tell you he first got the idea when his parents, who are well and live, were diagnosed with cancer. I think that’s how he first started to think about mortality in a very serious way. But it’s just the story he wanted to tell. He had the same thing with Pi - that’s the story he wanted to tell. All the stories sound crazy but I think he’s an artist and he has a need to portray the world in a certain way. So he does.”

The Fountain is released January 19.

© Stephen Applebaum, 2006


Robert Downey Jr: "I'm an American and therefore I subscribe to all things American ..."

Robert Downey Jr talks Zodiac, A Scanner Darkly and Fur.
Cannes, 2006.

Do you think this is the kind of science fiction that enlightens the present?

“Maybe. I don’t know. I’m having a tough time answering that question because the book was old and it’s this and that. I think it’s kind of about if [Philip K.] Dick wrote it during his generation, and then my, and in some cases our, generation came through, and really didn’t do all that much, and now this new generation of kids is really kind of like protected and explorative and probably not as likely to be all drug addled, I think it kind of like works generationally, you know? But I don’t think it’s like some self-important cautionary tale. I think obviously it’s all just a metaphor. That’s why science fiction is so great, I guess.”

The drug theme of the film means that it’s a bit close to home, isn't it?

“How do you feel when you ask the question you know everyone else just asked? You gotta do it, right? I got a job to do. So I’m going to give you my same pat-ass answer.”

Go on then. But you were apparently the one making jokes about drugs on set, according to your director, Richard Linklater, just now. So it’s a fair if obvious question.

“It didn’t really bring anything up because I went to Austin [Texas], I had a lot of dialogue, I went to work, I went to the gym, I came home, I studied until I fell asleep, and then I woke up, went to work, went to the gym, and came home. Now maybe the accumulative effect of that afterwards or whatever, but it was really more seeing it last night. After a while, if you’ve been an actor for, like, fucking 25 years or whatever, you have some aesthetic distance. It’s not like if I’m playing a serial killer I go home and I go, ‘Boo-hoo, there’s blood on my hands,' regardless of whether I witnessed some crime scene or something like that. But seeing it last night I really was touched by how emotionally satisfying it was and that there was that shred of hope at the end. It wasn’t as dark a movie as I had imagined.”

The look of the character is quite original.

“Why thank you [laughs]. I loved the pink slippers. There’s always some speed freak somewhere who’s wearing his mom’s slippers, in a driveway, going grrrr, grrrr. Yeah, and I liked the hat, and the glasses were fun. A fishing jacket. Any good tweaker always has to have one good jacket with a ton of pockets in it, because this one’s going to hold . . . you know, whatever. It ain’t fishing tackle.”

How did you feel when you saw the film for the first time and what had been done with the animation? Was it anything like you imagined?

“Yeah, it was understood that it was going to be rotoscoped and the whole thing. Some people are reacting, like, ‘Well, that was just a device, and bup-beda, b’dum, b’dum. They didn’t need to do that.’ I say, ‘Yeah, we didn’t need to. It was just what we did.’ It’s funny when you have Keanu [Reeves] and Rick involved, and it’s this kind of super-famous source material. The only character missing from any discussion is the person’s own relationship with who all those people are. It’s like, ‘I see a movie he directed, she’s in, they did and it’s from this book. And I knew that book and I love that book. I knew her and she’s a cunt.’ So it’s almost like my opinion is almost formulated by me insinuating myself. I don’t know how you do it? I don’t know how anyone gets enough distance from anything to be really objective. Scanner Darkly, obviously, is not the kind of movie that invites objectivity. It really tries to pull you in, you know?”

How did you get involved? Have you known Richard from a long time back?

“No, he called, and I was really happy. We were here last year with Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang and when we were shooting Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, Val Kilmer said, ‘Have you seen School of Rock?’ I was like, ‘No, I heard it’s great.’ He was like, ‘Oh, we’re going to watch it right now.’ He like got his kids in, my kid came over, and then when it was over, he went, ‘Okay, rewind it. Let’s watch it again.’ We were just like on this School of Rock kick. So when a couple of months later they said, ‘Oh, Richard Linklater called . . .’ I was like, ‘I know that name.’ I had seen Waking Life and kind of put all these things together, and I was like, ‘Wow, he’s the kind of guy I want to work with.’”

Richard was talking about the subversive club of people in Hollywood. Is this film subversive technically, or because of its content? Is it more subversive than George Clooney who has more openly political views?

“I don’t know, it seems like I am surrounded by a lot of limousine liberals and left-wing larrys. I don’t fucking get it. You go spend some time in an institution and tell me how fucking liberal you’re going to be. I’m an American and therefore I subscribe to all things American: our corruption, our liberalism, which is just a big, fucking, ego trip; we love a good war, we’re kind of stupid, we’ve got a lot of money, a lot of guns; we’ve got a lot of oil but we don’t, for some reason, want to waste any time doing it when we can farm it out and blame other people and invade their countries. We’re big old pigs. We’re fantastic! And we make a ton of movies, and some of them are really great, really innovative, so, you know, we’ve got the whole deal. We’re probably going to get our asses kicked and get some humility at some point. But until then, fuck you! That’s how I see it.

"But as far as being subversive, how subversive am I? I’d be perfectly happy to be opening some massive commercial movie, and then flying off doing a Nescafe ad on the cover of the fucking . . . you know what I mean? I’m not attempting to do anything. I made a bunch of choices based my own selfish, narcissistic, self-medicating ideals, and here I am, everyone going [dumb voice] ‘This is a hell of a comeback.’ You know, I didn’t give a shit before. It’s not like I’m coming back to something I’m desperate to be a part of. This is my living. If I had fifty million dollars, I would be outside fucking painting a hillside, or doing some ‘art’ movie that no-one gives a shit about [sucks in through his teeth].

“Anyway, what I’m getting at is I don’t know how subversive any American who works in the entertainment industry is. You know? You want something. You want people to say, ‘Wow, what you did over there is, dah-de, dah-de, dah.’ It’s like saying, ‘Are you a subversive soccer player with fucking Siemens tattooed on the back of your jersey?’ And what does subversive mean? You run the other way? What the fuck are we talking about here? [Laughs] Sorry. Just as a counterpoint, I might change my mind tomorrow. I’m sorry.”

Was it fun working with Keanu and Woody Harrelson?

“First of all, speaking of subversives, because he might be, Keanu, I’m like flipping through the pages in Premiere magazine, 50 Most Influential People, and I’m like, ‘Could it be my year?’ Of course not. And there he is, number like 19 or whatever the fuck it is. I’m like, ‘Shit, this is great, he could really parlay that into something.’ So Richard had this vision in this adaptation and then Keanu steps forth and suddenly there’s financing. And then Woody and I come onboard and proceed to push each other over the edge. I’m like, ‘I’m going to have a pair of scissors in my hand when I go in to rat out my friend.’ He goes, ‘I’m going to fall out of a tree.’ I go, ‘What? I’m going to walk my fingers across a table.’ [Laughs] He goes, ‘I’m going to fart and smell it and blow it at you.’ I was like, ‘Great.’ We’re so stupid. He goes, ‘But anyway, the characters.’ I go, ‘Yeah, the characters. . .’”

The bicycle scene where you think someone has conned you out of some missing gears is hilarious. Was that easy to do without laughing?

“I was dead, fucking, serious. I had five pages of dialogue. I knew this bike, I could take this bike apart and explain everything to you except the fact it’s a fucking 18-speed bike, there’s three in front and six in back. What is wrong with these people? They’re so stoned out. But I know that one. I remember smoking a joint once, and going out in my driveway, and I had like whatever fucking sports car, and I got in and I was like, ‘Brmmm, brmmm, brmm. Wait a minute, how do you drive stick? Fuck. Okay, wait a minute. I got it.’ I had forgotten how to drive stick. I was like, ‘Shit.’ I got out, and I got in like the Pathfinder, and drove away. This is what happens when you’re fucking stoned all the time. What do you think?”

And did you experience the paranoia we see some of the characters going through in the film? Did you ever experience that, or just the general paranoia that seems to exist in America at the moment?

“Yeah, there’s general, lukewarm, paranoia. It’s nothing. You know, mine would be like I’m just looking out at that boat while I’m talking and I’m going, ‘Aha, sure [eyes widening]. Oh, that’s a fucking boat, right? Noah’s Ark was a submarine built by space aliens.' It’s all that far out shit. Frek! [the most paranoid character in Scanner Darkly]. It’s so sad because you’ve twisted your brain into this place where what you’re seeing isn’t really imaginary. I think you’re just tuned into a channel where really awful shit’s going on 24/7. Like why would you want to tune into that?”

You’ve been working with David Fincher on Zodiac. I spoke to Jake Gyllenhaal a little while back and he said you were sometimes doing 80 takes. It sounds exhausting.

“It would be like this. We would do a scene and he would say, ‘Mark [Ruffalo], I really need you to hit that fifteenth word of that monologue just as you’re coming around the bumper of the 1970 Dodge Dart,’ and Mark would be like, ‘Uh, okay.’ And we’d do it, and he’d kind of get it right, but then some moth is in the light, and we’d do it again. We did it like 75 times. I’m there, he hasn’t given me any notes, so I’m really comfortable, and Mark says, ‘Fuck, dude, do we have it or not?’ He says, ‘Downey, come over here and tell me if we have it.’ Shit. Mark was, like, ‘Just tell him. Just tell him.’ So we watch these takes and he says, ‘Do we have it?’ I go, ‘Erm, no.’ Fuck. Then Mark would get it right and I'd like drop my cigarette. He goes, ‘Well, now Downey fucked it up.’”

Is he an actor’s director or more a technical guy?

“No, no, no, he’s brilliant, he’s funny and he really understands . . . it’s not like he just wanted to torture us. He just doesn’t want to have to do all this coverage. So if you want to do an eight-minute scene in one set up, then you do it like Kubrick did it. Except, you know, I don’t know if even Kubrick had the understanding that David had, because he came up with film and has probably had more experience shooting more stuff over time than even Kubrick had, and he’s seen technical innovations, he started on video, and all that stuff. We’re working on doing something together right now that a guy’s writing, an idea that we have for a show. So, obviously, I had a great experience. I’m right back in his office saying, ‘Now what do we do?’ you know?”

There’s quite a long list of films coming up that you’re in. Are you a workaholic?

“I don’t work too much. I work and then I take a break, and then they say, ‘How about this?’ I go, ‘No.’ They go, ‘Okay. What about this?’ I go, ‘Oh c’mon.’ Then they say, ‘What about this?’ and then my accountant calls up and goes, ‘What about your alimony?’ I go, ‘You know what, I love that project. That’s a project I’ll be doing for the rest of my life.’”

Can you tell me about Fur, the Diane Arbus film?

“I can. I think it’s going to be great. You know, Steve Shainberg, who did Secretary, Nicole Kidman and I. I spent six weeks in this lace make up, because he’s got hypertrichosis. It’s about an imaginary relationship she has with a circus freak. Obviously I didn’t play Diane Arbus, so I’m the circus freak. Aren’t I? [said archly] It will be fun. It’s a beautiful movie.”

Don’t take it too personally but what gives you your highs today?

“My highs today? You know what I call it? I call it appropriate rest. Exercise. And, I think, food helps a lot, too. It’s so weird. Who’d have thought.”

© Stephen Applebaum, 2006


Paul Haggis: "The wonderful thing about Clint is you can never second guess how he is going to react to anything."

Oscar winning screenwriter/director Paul Haggis talks about working with Clint Eastwood on Flags of our Father and Letters from Iwo Jima, racism and Crash. London, 2006

You provoked controversy among the Christian right in America with your screenplay for Million Dollar Baby and here you are now doing a film about race relations. You have said before that you're drawn to material that is political and volatile. Why take such risks at a time when so many people are playing safe?

"Unless I'm really uneasy with what I'm writing, I lose interest very quickly. I like to write about things about which I have no answers, questions that trouble me. These things trouble me. You want to dig in and find out what something means to you. And if you do that, I think you have to take risks. I also guess I'm a bit of a contrarian. I left television when everyone was rushing to it. When Jerry Bruckheimer was going 'My God! Television! It's taking over!' I was going, 'You know what? I think I'll go into independent film.' I guess I've never been interested in taking the path that everyone else takes.”

From what you said, I suppose people shouldn’t look to your work for answers.

“I don't think it's the job of filmmakers to give anybody answers. I do think, though, that a good film makes you ask questions of yourself as you leave the theatre. The ones that are a total experience in themselves, where you leave the theatre going, "Yeah, nice film," I think are failures.”

Do you have a political background? I know that you're involved with organisations such as Artists for Peace and Justice, and The Centre for the Advancement of Non-Violence.

"I can't say I'm overly political. I'm just as concerned as the next citizen and feel that if you're concerned you have a responsibility to do something about that. So, you know, we're just doing little things here in Los Angeles to make actors, writers and directors a little more aware of what our country is doing in our name. If we can each do our little bit then maybe, eventually, something will happen.”

We've mentioned taking risks. When you were writing Crash, did you ever ask yourself whether you had the right to put the kinds of words that you do into the mouths of your racially diverse cast of characters?

"Oh completely. Every day we sat down I said, "Bobby [Moresco, co-writer], what the hell are we doing? We're two white guys. We're going to be killed. We don't have any right to say these things, do we?" He'd say "Well, if it's true, no matter how ugly that truth is, yes." I actually think that it was kind of ballsy for Bobby and me to do this. Because, you know, you write a story about the LA experience and usually it's all from our perspective.”

One of the bravest scenes for me was the one where the black couple, played by Thandie Newton and Terrence Howard, talk about black identity. Did that feel particularly risky for you?

“Absolutely. But, oddly, it's the black community that really embraced this film more than any other. And those were the ones I was most worried about. The white liberal community, whenever you talked to somebody, they’d say, 'What are you talking about? We don't have this problem. We've solved all this nonsense. Why are you bringing this up?' But I was most worried about the black reaction to it.”

Tell me about Matt Dillon’s racist cop. He’s a fascinating character because his racism is not inherited but stems from his love for the way his father’s been treated. His hatred for black people come from his love for his father.

“The inspiration for that character came from hate mail I received while working on a show called Family Law. It was about a mixed-race divorce and the letter writer said: ‘Why is it that it’s always the white people that are the villains and the black people that are the heroes? Let me tell you about my dad …’ He told me the story Matt Dillon tells about his father. I thought: ‘Wow, isn’t that interesting? You have a good man , and because something happens to him, his son learns the opposite lesson that his father was trying to teach.’ So if you think a racist father begets a racist son, who begets a racist son – it’s not necessarily so.”

Was there anything that was off limits? You don't have any Jewish or any Arab characters in the film, for instance.

“No, there was nothing off limits. I didn't have a graph and say, 'OK, I'll have two Asians, two Jews, and two Arabs.’ I didn't do that. I just followed the characters. We started with the two carjackers, because I knew them. They jacked my car [a Porsche] and I created a life for them over 10 years in my head. So I knew who they were. They were now my protagonists. They were my Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and I knew what they were going to do. So I started with them and I said, 'Well, who do they bump in to?' I said, 'They bump into me and my wife, an affluent white couple.’ I fictionalised us, took it home, and said 'Well what did we do?' Well we changed our locks at two o'clock in the morning, because they had our house keys. The guy who had come, what if he had been Hispanic and what if he had looked like a gangbanger? Would I have felt safe? I had to admit that I wouldn't have felt safe and I was so deeply troubled by that, so shamefully, that I said, 'Ooh, ooh, I want to do something.' So I just kept following the characters and when they bumped into people, I wrote about them."

Why did you wait a decade before you started writing the screenplay? You have said that 9/11 focused it for you.

“Well it did. I never actually set out to write this. I never thought there was a movie in this. I just kept asking myself different questions. Then, after 9/11, I have a black friend, he's a writer, who said, and he hated admitting this, but he felt kind of good about all these Arabs and Muslims who were now being searched on the aeroplanes, because now it was someone else's turn. I went 'Ooh, that's interesting.’ So that was one of the kicking-off points and I started to investigate it more, because I wanted it to be universal. I was interested in the deeper responsibility, the more human aspects of our fears, than the sociological aspect of it. So that was where it started.”

To what extent does the fact that LA is such a car-based society, a point which is central to the way Crash works, determine the way people there view and interact with each other?

“Very much. We are all strangers to each other. But it's not just Los Angeles. Unfortunately, it's the world now. Every time you step out of the urban centre you lose contact with anyone who looks different than you do, because we can now choose where our walled communities are. And we all do this. Every single ethnic group decides that they want to live within their own communities, whether it be Little Ethiopia, Little Italy, or wherever.”

How much do you think the racial dynamics in LA impress themselves on the way different ethnic groups are represented in Hollywood films?

“Well it depends who you talk to. If you talk to most white critics, or most white writers, directors, or producers, they'll tell you, 'It's fair [laughs], it's representational, and we're doing our best to do a bit more.' You talk to someone who's Latino or Hispanic, or a lot of black actors, and you find out different.”

Were you at all responding to the stereotypical images that we often see on screen? Was that in your mind when you were writing the screenplay?

“No, I try not to think about other films when I'm writing or directing. I guess the images that I have are pretty clear, from small instances of racism I've seen on studio lots to the LA riots. We have these riots and then [gasps ironically] we're all horrified, shocked, horrified. It's as if we live in Casablanca, you know? And then a year later we go, 'Thank God we have cured this problem,' [Laughs] and we've done nothing. Then three years later we wonder why people are still unhappy. Gosh, why? We just love to live in a state of delusion. That’s why I write about Los Angeles. It’s a lovely city. The weather’s great, you drive convertibles, there’s palm trees, beautiful women, and fabulous restaurants. But scratch that surface, and you find it’s different.”

Is the scene where a white producer tells a black television director, played by Terrence Howard, that a character is not being black enough in a scene something that you have witnessed?

“Yeah, I hadn't seen that particular scene but I'd heard about it happening. I'd seen other things like that. For example, I was on a studio lot not too long ago and I saw two white producers of a television series talking to a black director, and as I walked towards them on the studio lot, I noticed that one of the white producers was telling a joke. I couldn't hear what he was saying, but as I came a couple of steps closer, I noticed that it was a racist joke. He was telling the joke to the black director as if to say, 'See, we can do this now. We're all the same. It's a level playing field.' And before I got close enough to say, 'No you can't, you asshole,' the punch line came and the black director sort of half laughed, slapped the guy on the shoulder, and tried to walk back to the stage. Meanwhile you see the white producers walking away feeling very good about themselves and thinking, 'See, we've overcome this race problem.' [Laughs] That I found fascinating. I just asked myself, what piece of that man's soul did he just chew off and swallow to get next week's assignment? You know, just to live, just to work as an artist, or to feed the family?”

For me Crash is one of the most upfront treatments of racism in an American metropolis since Do the Right Thing. Did that make it difficult to finance?

“Oh it was terrible. No one wanted to do it. First of all I was an unknown director. I had directed for television but that's actually worse. It would have been better if I had been a complete unknown. Also, it's very hard to tell the tone of the movie from the script, because it could have come off as really preachy, or rather the characters preaching and being didactic, and the film could come off that way, which I didn't want to do. I wanted to lampoon these characters who were saying these great, wonderful things. So we took it out of the studios, no one wanted it, and we took it to quite a few financiers, and they liked the script but didn't want to do it with me as the director. And then, finally, we found Bob Yari and Cathy Schulman, and they said, 'Yeah, we'll put up a little bit of money, to get it cast.' So it took us a year and a half to get the right cast that worked for them so they'd put more of the money up. All the actors worked for nothing. We all waived our fees.”

How difficult was it finding a cast? I know that Don Cheadle played a major role in bringing people onboard.

"Don was great. Don was the first person onboard. I was terrified taking this film to Don. For one, I didn't know him; I didn't know any of these actors. He was the first African-American actor who read the script, and also I have so much respect for him. So when he came to sit in my living room, I had no idea what he was going to say. He might have just come to say, 'Listen, I just want to say what a racist bastard you are, and I want to say it to your face.' He didn't. He sat down and said, 'I want to do the movie.' I said, 'Great. What role?' He said, 'I don't care, any role.' He actually went back and forth between the role of the television director and the police detective for six months. Every week he'd phone and go, 'You know what? I changed my mind.' [Laughs] He finally made up his mind six months later. We asked him to produce the film with us largely because I knew he'd bring a credibility that I didn't have. People look at him and they know he's associated with quality films. Also, actors want to act with Don Cheadle. He's an actor magnet. He's like Sean Penn."

Will Smith claimed a little while ago that he was not allowed to kiss Cameron Diaz in the romantic comedy Hitch, only the Cuban-American actress Eva Mendes. You keep to this configuration in Crash, by giving Don Cheadle's character a Latino lover (played by Jennifer Esposito), although you do comment on the prejudice that still exists in America towards mixed race relationships. Nonetheless, did you at any point consider breaking the taboo and giving Don a white partner?

“Yeah. Actually no, I didn't, because I knew where I was going with that plot. I wanted him to say she's white to his mum, just to piss her off [Laughs], and that to drive Jennifer's character over the edge. Again, I didn't really do anything for effect. I just followed the characters and took them wherever they wanted to go.”

Where do you find your common ground with Clint Eastwood because politically you come from different ends of the spectrum?

“The wonderful thing about Clint is you can never second guess how he is going to react to anything. I sent him this project, the third thing we're doing together, Death And Dishonour, about Iraq, it's a really difficult story, a true story, and I thought he could have called me up and said, 'You Commie bastard. What are you getting me into now?' But he didn't. He called up and said, 'Wow, difficult material. Hard story.' I said 'Yeah, but it's the truth.' He said 'Yeah, I think we should tell it.' So, you know, I really admire him. People think they know who Clint Eastwood is but they just don't know.”

You’ve also a written a film that he’s directing called Flags of Our Fathers, about the raising of the Stars and Stripes at Iwo Jima, which sounds very patriotic.

“Clint didn’t want to make, as he put it, ‘a bullshit John Wayne movie.’ It’s a difficult film about war. It’s going to honour the men, but it’s not going come down and say: ‘Yes, we should go to war. It’s an honourable thing.’ It was a brutal, brutal battle and the toll it took on those men’s lives was something that we don’t shirk.”

© Stephen Applebaum, 2006

Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu: "You see these borders getting worse and worse between human beings, cultures, nations and neighbourhoods."

Babel: One world, dissonant voices.
London, 2006

Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu could have done almost anything he liked after Amores Perros. The director's astounding debut film - three stories set in Mexico City, all connected by one car crash - saw the former DJ and commercials director hailed as a major talent. He could probably have gone to Hollywood there and then. But instead of being sucked into America's mainstream movie-making machinery, he took Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio del Toro to Memphis and immersed them in 21 Grams, an unremittingly grim story about grief, religious fundamentalism and redemption.

21 Grams felt like an anguished howl of pain. "It was very personal to me," Inarritu says when we meet in London. "I lost a kid with my wife and that was one of the things I wanted to explore." The film, like Amores Perros, was informed by this 43-year-old father of two's belief that "to arrive at the light you have to go through a very painful or dark process". Life is a "list of losses", he elaborates. "When you are born, you lose the security in your mother's womb. You lose your friends. You lose your hair. You lose your father. You lose your job. You lose your health. You know that you will lose your life. I think it's how you confront those losses that matters." That sounds awfully pessimistic, I say. "Oscar Wilde said a pessimist was an optimist well informed," he laughs. "I think that's how I feel."

This is nowhere more evident than in the director's new film. Babel concludes what is now an informal trilogy - though only in the sense that the films all concern parents and children, he says. Global rather than local, like Amores Perros, or spiritual like 21 Grams, Babel, Inarritu says, grew out of his need to talk about the world as he has experienced it since moving to LA - four days before 9/11 - and during his subsequent travels. The film is dark stuff, predictably, with only the slightest hint of light piercing the existential gloom. But it was something he felt compelled to make, despite the various appeals made to his vanity, his ego, his wallet and his creativity by screenplays coming from Hollywood. "If I had chosen them I knew it would be the wrong decision," he says. "For me, making a film is such a difficult thing, that it's better for me if it is a personal thing.

"I have the great privilege to be in a world where I can express my own fears, my own anxieties, and whatever moves me in my work. So, my life and my films are not very separated. I cannot hire my life to be telling something that I don't care about. It was a moral kind of decision to make this film. I needed to vomit a lot of things out that really bother me because of opening the newspapers, or that I experienced by myself, things that make me angry."

The coincidence of 9/11 with Inarritu's move to LA plunged the film-maker into depression. It's not easy being Mexican in the States at the best of times, but Inarritu also has a vaguely Middle Eastern appearance. In the atmosphere of paranoia and "aggravated nationalism" that followed the attacks, he found himself being regarded as "suspicious" and "dangerous". It was "a difficult and intense phase", he says. "Living as an immigrant, as a Mexican, in the US creates a lot of questions, a lot of emotions, a lot of feelings, a lot of anxiety."

He thought about the archetypes and the stereotypes and the preconceptions that we all have about one another, which trap us and alienate us, and prevent proper communication. He thought about how these are exploited by politicians to justify policy, and perpetuated through the media. "It's so sad when you see Fox News in the United States, because they completely spoil and poison any culture or any news," he says. "They ban images. They haven't shown one single coffin or one single video of what is going on in Iraq right now."

Travelling abroad, he says, "you can see these borders getting worse and worse and worse, between human beings, between cultures, between nations, between neighbourhoods. That's something I wanted to talk about."

He started work on Babel with Children of Men director Alfonso Cuarón's scriptwriter/director brother, Carlos, and then called in Guillermo Arriaga (who wrote Amores Perros and 21 Grams) when Cuarón switched to another project. Arriaga came up with five stories, two of which - about Moroccan children, and an American couple - survived. Inarritu himself supplied stories about a Mexican nanny looking after North American siblings, because he wanted to address the subject of immigration and the tensions along the US-Mexico border, and about a deaf-mute Japanese girl trying to cope with loneliness, her mother's suicide and her burgeoning sexuality.

When he started the multi-lingual film, which takes us from California to the Moroccan desert, to Mexico and Japan, Inarritu thought he was making something about the differences between people. Gradually, though, he discovered he was actually making a film about the things which, he believes, make us all the same. A much more positive outlook, you might think. But it really depends on whether you are someone who sees the cup as half empty or half full.

In the film, an American couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett), grieving over the death of a child, are struck by further tragedy when the wife is accidentally shot on a tourist bus in Morocco. As she fights for her life in a poor village, the US government treats the shooting as a terrorist attack, turning it into an international incident. Meanwhile, the couple's children in America are fighting for their own lives in the desert after being taken to a wedding in Mexico by their nanny, only to find themselves caught up in a border incident as they try to re-enter the US. Later, the gun used in the shooting is traced back to the father of the girl in Tokyo, who gifted it to a guide after a hunting trip. Each story ends with a kind of moment of grace as people connect, or reconnect, through touch.

"I think that as human beings what makes us happy is very different and depends on races and cultures. But what makes us sad and miserable is exactly what we share," says Inarritu. "That thing is basically the impossibility of love: the impossibility to be touched by love, the impossibility to touch with love and express it. In this film those connections between characters are about that."

The paradox is that politics and prejudice, religion and culture, drive us apart. The proposed US-Mexico border wall is a tragic example of this, he says. It won't stop people dreaming of a better life. "It will just put more people in danger and they will have to risk their lives a little harder. There will be more security that will threaten the lives of all these humble people. They will not be stopped by a fence."

I ask Inarritu whether putting two blonde American kids in the same situation as desperate Mexican migrants was his way of trying to make bigots empathise with people they normally just regard as negative statistics. "It's a paradox," he says. "It seems that maybe I want to just get closer to people who agree to build that wall to make them feel in a human perspective, not in news and magazine terms, so that they can just think about that. One thousand people die in those conditions, including kids. And if they get closer to that story in a human way, and can just see that angle, maybe they can change a little bit their minds. Or they can think about whether a fence is really the answer to these problems. I think these American kids, just by the juxtaposition of images, will make them feel more the impact in it, and see that kids are kids, no matter whether they are blonde or Mexican. It's kids, you know? So, yeah, I think that can be effective."

Babel earned Inarritu the best director award at Cannes in May. It performed spectacularly when it opened in limited release in America, but rather more sluggishly nationwide. Critically, the film has been furiously debated. Some reviewers have called it a masterpiece, others a pretentious folly, deep and meaningful or well-made, but possibly signifying nothing. Some have dubbed it this year's Crash - which, depending on your view of that film, is either a good or bad thing.

I liked Paul Haggis's multi-Oscar winner, but Babel is an altogether subtler, more ambitious film, in which Inarritu draws on all his considerable resources as a film-maker to empathetically reveal not only the barriers that keep us apart, but also the ties that bind us together as a species. In a world that is in danger of collapsing around us like the biblical Tower of Babel, this surely cannot be a bad thing.

"If you see a film about human beings and not about Moroccans or Mexicans or Americans, if you see human beings and you forget about the languages and you just see a film, then I feel I succeeded," says Inarritu.

© Stephen Applebaum, 2006