Howard Berger: Escape to Narnia

Special-effects wizard Howard Berger escaped the bloody world of horror features to breathe life into the fantasy fauna of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

For special-effects artist Howard Berger, working on Andrew Adamson’s child-friendly The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was like a dream come true. A fan of monsters ever since his mother read him Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are (a film version is being prepped by Spike Jonze), Berger was now called upon to design, build and breathe life into a vast menagerie of mythological and fantastical beasties to populate CS Lewis’s parallel universe.

As the man who had helped Quentin Tarantino realise his gruesome riff on Hong Kong martial arts movies in Kill Bill, and George A. Romero resurrect his decaying hordes in Land of the Dead, Berger says it was a relief not to find himself up to his armpits in fake blood for a change. “I think I brought a bottle that big of blood,” he says, suggesting a tiny vial with his thumb and forefinger, “which is the smallest amount I’ve ever had on set. I’m used to 400 gallons or whatever. It was nice not to hear on the radio, ‘Howard, we need more blood on the set.’”

Despite the high gore quotient on Kill Bill, Berger still loved working with Tarantino. “He forces you to look outside the box,” he enthuses. “In fact you’re so outside the box, you don’t even know where the box is. But I never want to do another blood effect. I’m sick of it. I hate the feel of fake blood all over me.”

He is also sick of Hollywood, to some extent, and tries to work outside LA whenever he can. The filmmaking ethos in Hollywood has changed, he claims, and it is no longer a team effort. When Berger got the call from Adamson to work on The Chronicles, he was languishing on the set of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. “I really disliked that movie,” he says candidly. “It was a great example of a director letting an actor do whatever he wanted, with no regard to the enjoyment, I guess, that the book gave me or my kids. We just sat in the theatre and went, ‘That was painful. I’ll never see that again.’”

If the film disappointed him, the set experience was even worse. “Because there’s such a strong delineation between departments now in Hollywood, we basically just sat on set for months, waiting,” says Berger. By the time his team were asked to bring on the deadly viper, they were bored stiff. “We had more fun playing Frisbee on the Paramount lot,” he snipes.

Worst of all, in his view, was the way the child actors were treated. On Chronicles, he says, Adamson worked in a way that took the emotional welfare of his young cast into consideration. For example, he broke the traumatic scene where Lucy and Susan, played by little Georgie Henley and Anna Popplewell, weep over the lion Aslan’s dead body, into small chunks of time rather than shoot for entire days. “We would shoot for a couple of hours,” explains Berger, “and then Andrew would say, ‘You know what? That’s enough for today’, which was a magnificent change. Because if we were shooting in Hollywood, it would be like, ‘Just keep shooting, they’re fine.' And then off to the mental ward they go.”

Is that how the children were treated on Lemony Snicket? Berger will not be working on the sequel, so he lets rip. “I thought the kids were treated atrociously,” he spits. “I was offended. The way they seem in the movie, which to me is bored beyond belief, they were bored beyond belief on set. They were going out of their skins, as I was too. You had a director who was yelling in front of children, who was taking six hours for a set up, and just letting the children sit around on set. It was mind numbing. Really terrible.”

Turning his fire on the studios, Berger believes that part of the problem is that they will often hire directors who are “child-like” to direct their family films. “That, to me, means that they’re immature, have no attention span, and don’t have a clue. And it’s true. It’s like I was sat on set and this guy’s ‘childlike’: he’s sat in the corner playing Game Boy and you’ll go, ‘What about the next shot?’ and he’ll go, ‘Hold on, I’m almost at level 10.’”

No one has a bad word to say about Adamson. The laid back New Zealander, and recent father of two, won the hearts of everyone around him, including the kids, who were impressed by how much he mucked in with everything. “To say Andrew got his hands dirty is a total understatement,” says newcomer William Moseley, who plays Peter, "because he was doing everything.” He even “crouched down and became a beaver for a while,” remembers Popplewell, laughing.

Berger cannot wait to get back to Narnia. If this adaptation of the first of CS Lewis’s seven Chronicles takes off, then Adamson et al will reunite for Prince Caspian. For Berger it will be another chance to spend time among the monsters and make his childhood fantasies a reality. But does this hankering for family fare really mean that the man whose recent credits include the make up effects on Frank Miller’s Sin City, Serenity and Cursed is done with gore for good?

“Well, you know,” sighs Berger. “I just did this thing called Masters of Horror and there was a lot of blood, and I just sat there and went, ‘I told myself I wasn’t going to do this. I just did Chronicles of Narnia. Why am I covered in blood again?’”

Old habits die hard, it seems; especially when they’re in your blood.
First published in The Scotsman

© Stephen Applebaum, 2007

Luis Mandoki: Innocent Voices

Suffer the Little Children

300,000 child soldiers are fighting around the world at any one time according to Amnesty International. This statistic is staggering but gives no insight into the trauma experienced by children caught up in war, or its lasting impact. And it is not just the kids who fight that suffer, but any child who lives surrounded by the violence, danger, and constant fear of death that war brings. Children are often its forgotten victims. The Mexican director Luis Mandoki therefore hopes that his acclaimed new film, Innocent Voices, will help us remember them.

Whilst the setting is El Salvador during the country’s 1980-92 civil war, the film-maker reveals he had a different arena in mind. “I made this film,” he explains in heavily accented English, “because it tells you what’s happening inside the lives of children inside the schools and inside the houses while the bombings in Iraq are happening, even though it takes place in El Salvador.”

Written by Oscar Torres, who based his screenplay on his own experiences, Innocent Voices is a people’s take on war seen through the eyes of an 11-year-old called Chava. Like all children, he just wants to play. However, his is a childhood marked by the murder of friends, fire fights, bombings, and the knowledge that when he turns 12, the army will try to conscript him. Torres actually avoided capture and stayed with the FMLN rebels, on and off, for six months. When he was 13, he fled to the United States and settled in LA.

Mandoki, who has a string of Hollywood films behind him starring the likes of Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, Jennifer Lopez and Meg Ryan, met Torres when the Salvadoran was appearing in an AT&T commercial Mandoki was directing. “I was fed up with the kind of movies that I was doing,” he recalls, “so when this script came I read it, and it was like a wash over. There was no doubt that was my next movie.” He did not know then how much of a roller coaster journey he and Torres were embarking on.

As they worked on the screenplay, it became clear that Torres’ psychological and emotional wounds were far from healed. He had initially wanted to tell the story of the music that inspired him during the war, but Mandoki was more interested in the story of Chava. When he pushed Torres to put more of his life into the piece, the writer’s unresolved feelings about the past made him resist.

“War doesn’t end when it ends,” Mandoki reflects. “It changes people and war survivors carry that war for the rest of their lives. Oscar didn’t know if leaving was the right thing, because he abandoned his family; because he abandoned people that stayed to fight. So there was this guilt.”

The process was forcing Torres to confront thoughts and emotions he had repressed. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Chava picks up a gun and points it at a child soldier. But instead of shooting he drops the weapon and runs away. When Mandoki asked him if he had ever pulled a trigger, Torres brushed the question aside. The director persisted but got nowhere. “I grabbed a chair and launched it against a wall and said, ‘Fine, if you don’t want to go the full way, fuck you.’ And I left the room and got in my car.” Mandoki returned an hour later to find Torres sobbing. He asked him again why he would not talk about not firing when it was such a heroic act.

“Oscar said, ‘I feel really bad about it because I almost killed another boy, and that’s something that’s always haunted me.’ I said yeah, but you didn’t. And then his face changed again and he said, ‘But I should’ve, because that kid killed my friends and other people. I also feel like a piece of shit because I left.’ He couldn’t stop crying, he was very emotional, and then I realised why he’d resisted, because once you go in there, all this stuff comes out. So we spent hours just talking about it.”

Incredibly, Torres’s original screenplay did not include the round-ups of boys by the army. It was only when Mandoki asked him why children were hiding on roof tops that he told him it was to avoid capture. He had not thought it was important. “For him that was every day life,” says Mandoki, “and as we started talking about that, I was surprised. I didn’t know about it. I started researching it, through UNICEF and Amnesty, finding out that that problem was real then, but it’s also real today."

The film damningly implicates America in the training of child soldiers in El Salvador, and both writer and director believe that this partly explains why the film – Mexico’s entry for the 77th Oscars - received little support in the US, despite a strong reaction when it was screened at the United Nations.

“Children were born to play, not carry guns. And I think we need to become aware that all the children of the world are our children,” says Mandoki passionately, “and that we need to stop the craziness, and the crazy world that we’re creating for them.”

Clearly for both him and Torres, working on Innocent Voices has been a life altering experience. Mandoki was effectively counsellor and collaborator, but says the movie was just as therapeutic for him. “You realise how tough life can be. We have it easy and sometimes we take it for granted. Touching on a story like that changes you.”

Mandoki laughs that his agent is now frustrated because he has been turning down projects that he would have done in the past. He was due to direct an adaptation of The Winged Boy, for example, but dropped out to film the left-wing candidate Lopez Obrador during his campaign for the Mexican presidency. When Felipe Calderon won the July 2, 2006, election by a whisker, Mandoki produced footage of alleged vote rigging.

The director now believes that the questions he was driven to ask himself about his life and work making Innocent Voices led him to the documentary. “Now it’s hard to find something that means something,” he says. “So the dilemma is now in terms of which way to go. What I do know is that something has to hit me. It’s like you found your own power in terms of what you can do and how you can give something, and you’re not willing to settle for less.”

Originally published in The Big Issue

© Stephen Applebaum, 2007


Tommy Lee Jones: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Tommy Lee Jones directs and stars in a tragically relevant Western penned by Amores Perros screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga

After a long career in front of the camera, craggy-faced Hollywood veteran Tommy Lee Jones has directed his first cinema feature, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. “It was a lust for creative control,” states the laconic 59 year-old, who also takes starring and co-producing credits on the film. “It’s good to be the king,” he adds tersely, mustering a rare smile. “He’s a man of few words,” Jones’s co-star, Barry Pepper, tells me later. “He’s not a guy who talks just to hear himself speak.”

Shot on and around one of Jones’s ranches, Three Burials develops as a multi-layered existential drama set along the Tex-Mex border. Jones plays a cattle rancher called Pete whose best friend, Melquiades (Julio Cedillo), an illegal immigrant, is shot dead by a US border patrolman (Pepper). When the local Sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) dismisses the case, Pete kidnaps the killer and forces him to accompany him to Mexico, with his dead friend in tow.

The idea for the bi-lingual film, which was originally written entirely in Spanish by Jones’s hunting buddy, Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams), was inspired by the real-life shooting of a young Mexican by US border guards. But the divisions they are protecting, suggests Jones, are more notional than real.

“When you've lived where I live, you think: ‘What border?’” he laughs. Jones knows this part of the United States well; he grew up there and learned to speak Spanish at a young age. “There is one country there, one culture in that river valley, and it doesn’t have a lot to do with Mexico City or Washington D.C. – the Rio Grande valley has its own culture. It is a superficially imposed barrier. A sort of enforced schizophrenia. I live in San Antonio, Texas. I live in a bicultural society. My wife is of Mexican descent. That’s just who we are.”

Given this context, it seems fair to assume that Three Burials is a political statement. Absolutely, confirms Arriaga. Jones is more cautious, however. “There is an argument that every breath you take is a political act,” he says. “I prefer to let the movie speak for itself. I just like to get out of the way, personally.” He is just as unhappy with the Western tag critics keep pinning to the film. “The term has become pejorative if not epithet,” he snarls. “I don’t think it applies to our movie. Maybe people use it because the film has some horses and big hats.”

So what has he made? According to Arriaga, the film is a love story. ”Love is the main theme of all my movies,” he says. “Love is my obsession, and death. Not because of the sake of death, but because of the sake of life. Like in this case, Pete and Mike [Pepper’s character] learn more about themselves through the dead man than from any other thing.”

Indeed, Three Burials is about the common humanity of people on either side of the border, as well as their differences. Pete forces Mike to see Melquiades as a fully-rounded human being, and to acknowledge the loss that his death represents. Forgiveness and redemption are core themes. For both Arriaga and Jones, the film was a chance to shatter stereotypes.

“I’m not a real big fan of Zorro or the Cisco Kid,” says Jones. “Ethnic stereotypes are boring and stressful and sometimes criminal. It’s just not a good way to think. It’s non-thinking. They’re stupid and destructive points of view that lead to all kinds of trouble.”

“I’m happy I wrote this movie,” adds Arriaga, “because I can free Mexican characters from the stereotype. They're always banditos with these bullets crossing their chests, or something. It’s like imagining American characters in shorts and Hawaiian shirts, it’s absurd. It’s important to explore this relationship between Mexico and the United States in a film, and I’m happy to do it in this way.”

Interestingly, Pete’s way of making Mike see Malequiades as a person -- by making him wear the dead man’s clothes, drink from his cup, and so on – mirrors the way Jones made his cast prepare for their roles. It was tough going, by all accounts.

Pepper was packed off to camp in the mountains alone, and given Ecclesiastes and Mary Flannery O’Connor to read. Jones actually wrote his cum laude thesis on the Southern Catholic author at Harvard, and her work informed the film thematically.

“She has been an important influence on my creative life,” he says airily, “and I’ve read every word she wrote, two or three times, and when you mention the word belief or faith, I would offer her definition of it, which is: faith is that which you know to be true, whether you believe it or not.”

Elsewhere, Yoakam was given Albert Camus’s tale of alienation and immigration, L’Etranger, to pore over.

“Why’d I do that?” asks Jones rhetorically. “Because we were making a study of what alienation feels like and what its roots might be in materialism, and how that might contrast with a different point of view that might be happening on the other side of the river, which is also you.” So that explains that then.

Cedillo, meanwhile, grafted on Jones’s ranch, repairing waterlines, fixing fences and herding cattle. “I was getting up 6.30 in the morning and not going to bed until the sun went down.”

One day, Jones insisted on Cedillo joining him for dinner straight from work. “A lot of important key people were there, and they were all nicely dressed, and I show up smelling like cows,” recalls the actor. “I felt so embarrassed and I was very withdrawn. I felt like Melquiades.”

Clearly, it is not easy serving King Tommy. The pay-off, however, has been rave reviews, and acting and writing awards for Jones and Arriaga respectively at Cannes.

Jones plans to go behind the camera again, although he doubts whether any studio will dare give him money to direct Blood Meridian, his screenplay based on the apocalyptic novel by another of his favourite authors, Cormac McCarthy, because of the level of violence in it. He will, though, be acting in the Coen brothers’ film of McCarthy’s most recent work, No Country for Old Men.

When Tommy Lee Jones does direct again, you can almost be certain that Tommy Lee Jones the actor will also be there.

“I do everything I tell myself to do. I can read my own mind," he laughs. "So it’s a lot easier than getting someone else.”

He does have a sense of humour after all.

© Stephen Applebaum, 2007