Chris Weitz Talks Family and A Better Life

Chris Weitz could have parlayed his success as the director of Twilight: New Moon into an even bigger film. Instead, he used it as an opportunity to make a small, intimate drama about a Mexican illegal immigrant called Carlos, who does back-breaking work to provide for his resentful teenage son, Luis, while trying to keep him out of the gangs in their poor East Los Angeles neighbourhood.

On paper, A Better Life looks like an odd fit for the man behind American Pie (with his brother, Paul), About a Boy and The Golden Compass. It is, though, Weitz's most personal film to date, reflecting not only his feelings as a father, but also as the descendent of a Mexican maternal grandmother whose beauty took her to stardom in Hollywood, and into a marriage with a Jewish film producer from Bohemia; and, less obviously, of assimilated Jews that fled Germany when Hitler came to power.

In the film, a crisis forces Luis to see for the first time what his father has given up and how he will never again experience his homeland and culture in the same way. This is essentially an “accelerated” version of something that Weitz went through. Except that in his case, it wasn't until after his father, John, “passed away [in 2002],” says the director, “that I really began to understand the aspects of history and his background that had haunted him.” Although he admits that he didn't actually think about his own dad as he was making the film, he says: “It's interesting putting the pieces together right now, talking about it.”

Born Hans Werner Weitz in Berlin in 1923, John was the son of a wealthy textile manufacturer. Awarded the Iron Cross after being wounded on the Eastern Front in the First World War,  Weitz says his grandfather had “every reason to believe that everything was going to be fine”, as Germany descended into economic and political chaos.

In 1933, however,  he packed John off to be educated in England, at The Hall Preparatory School in Hampstead, and then St. Paul's School, and, finally, Oxford University. When war broke out, he was interned temporarily in a camp near Liverpool.

His parents accepted in the meantime that there was no future for them in Germany, and escaped to America as refugees. When their son joined them, “There was nothing,” Weitz sighs, the family business having been “sold for a pittance” in the rush to leave. “There is a country house in East Berlin that has been going through a legal process for 15 years, since the Wall came down. But it will probably never be returned to the family.”

At least America gave John a way to “strike back” at the Nazi regime. He joined the Army, and because he spoke fluent German and looked ayrian, he was recruited for undercover work by the OSS - the precursor to the CIA – and became one of the first people to enter Dachau after its liberation. “He told me a story that I will never forget,” says Weitz. “He talked about seeing the gas chambers and this little glass window so that the operator could see that the people had died, and described seeing taped under that glass window a picture of the gas chamber operator's daughter. That image, I think, affected the rest of his life.”

Though he went on to become a highly successful fashion designer and author in America, Weitz's father never forgot where he came from or what had happened. “The story of his later years was really the story of his trying to come to grips with with his German heritage,” says his son. “He did believe in Germany, he did believe in it as a country. He had dealings with German resistance members, and that, I think, saved the country for him in his mind.”

Nevertheless, he found it difficult to comprehend how the German “intellectual cultural elite could subscribe to the gangsterism” of the Nazis, says Weitz, and wrote books about Ribbentropp, “who had essentially been a champagne salesman”, and Hjalmar Schact, Hitler's banker, in an effort to understand. “I think it was easier for him to understand how the veteran of the First World War trenches, who had seen the hyper-inflation and lived in poverty, might join the Nazi Party. But how was it that these people had joined?”

Weitz doesn't think his father ever resolved the question for himself. And the way he coped with it was, he admits, “quite strange”. “He had a correspondence with Reinhard Spitzy, who was Von Ribbentropp's private secretary, a Nazi. Of course, de-Nazification might have been a political cleansing, but it didn't mean that everybody who had been in power during that period fell out of power. So he spent his life coping with that.”

Despite his conflicting feelings, Weitz says his father presented himself in later life as a man who was at peace with Germany and the Germans. He had even received orders of merit from the German public, partly as a consequence of his work towards reconciliation. The filmmaker was therefore surprised when, about a year ago, his mother sent him a letter that John had written around the Dachau period, containing “a great deal more anger than I had ever experienced, in terms of his expression towards the German people.”

In it, his father talked about how Germans living near the concentration camp were expelled from their homes so that soldiers could be billeted, “and he was certainly pleased to be part of this conquering army that had come back through,” says Weitz. “He was in his twenties, and I think to have been kicked out of his country and to have seen the aftermath of these massacres, and then to have won back possession of his country, literally, was a tremendous shaping experience for him.”

In a recent interview about A Better Life, Weitz said that he realised when he had a son that it was the responsibility of parents to teach their children that beauty is always present in the world. Was his father still able to do that for him, I ask? “It's a very deep question,” Weitz says solemnly. “Certainly he was haunted by [the past] and brooded upon it and struggled with it. But at the same time, he felt that he did still love life. And, actually, [England] had a great part in that.”

He explains that when his father went to school here, he had been “treated like a human being, having come from a country where he was a second-class citizen, or not even a human being. Because of that, he retained, for the rest of his life, a love for this country.”

As we come to the end of the interview, Weitz looks across at a poster for A Better Life that's been propped up against a wall, and falls silent. He then returns to the subject of his roots.

“So yes, I'm the son of a refugee,” he says, “and it took me a long time to understand the differences between his experiences and mine, and how much he'd sacrificed and given up to make life better for me, and for the rest of my family. Which is sort of the theme of this movie.”

A Better Life opens today

A version of this story appeared in the Jewish Chronicle, 29/07/11


Christopher Smith Gets Radical With Black Death (2010)
British horror director Christopher Smith pours contemporary anxieties into his bleak medieval horror movie, Black Death

Christopher Smith's films have been a treat for gore-bores ever since Franke Potente (Run, Lola, Run) found herself up against a deranged killer living in the depths of the London Underground, in the Bristolian director's gruesome 2004 debut feature, Creep. But while there is plenty of grisliness to slaver over in his steadily growing oeuvre, Smith's movies are more than just the sum of their dismembered body parts – and often more than just straightforward horror movies.

His sophomore effort, Severance, might have starred Danny Dyer (to be fair, he's actually quite good fun), but underlying its story of weapons salespeople being hunted by masked psychos during a team-building exercise in eastern Europe, was a sly, blackly comic commentary on the absurdity of the war on terror.

The point is that Smith, whose favourite horror films include the classics The Exorcist and The Shining, has always consciously tried to do more than just scare people. In everything he has done, says the former EastEnders writer, he has “always ended up finding a kind of subtext that becomes really meaty. But that's what all the best movies do,” he enthuses. “In Invasion of the Bodysnatchers – brilliant movie – it was Communism. And when I watched Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde again recently, really it's about being a drug addict or an alcoholic and coming back and not realising that you've beaten-up your wife when you were drunk. I think all those stories are classics because you understand that subtext, but it's not in your face.”

Likewise his latest and most sophisticated film to date, Black Death, might be set 600 years ago, but after inheriting the project, with Sean Bean attached, from film-maker Geoffrey Sax (Stormbreaker), Smith reworked Dario Poloni's screenplay and turned it into something with striking, though not heavy-handed, contemporary resonance.

In it a young monk, Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), who is torn between his devotion to God and his love for a young woman, joins a mission to capture a necromancer that a bishop believes is using black magic to protect a village from the plague ravaging the rest of the country. What follows is a dark tale of innocence corrupted as the monk's liberal religious views, influenced first by the mission's fundamentalist leader, Ulric (Bean), then by events in the village, get twisted into something far less forgiving and uncompromising.

"For me the horror is how do you take a young soul and turn that guy into a monster?” says Smith. At the end of the version being developed by Sax, Osmund wound up actually in Hell. Smith wanted a far more realistic approach.

"To me it's the story of a suicide bomber,” he says. “It's about this boy who's radicalised and how does it happen? And do we like him? And do we understand how he has become what he has become at the end?” He had considered finishing the film with a coda entitled 'Modern Day', but opted for something less on the nose. Besides, his producer, Robert Bernstein, kept telling him the film wasn't about a suicide bomber. “I was saying, 'It's about radicalisation,'” Smith recalls, “and he was all worried. But I said, 'I believe when you touch on stuff [that's real], it gives you a dirty kind of uncomfortable feeling,' which is what I believe then opens up a certain part of the brain.”

I suggest that Black Death is the part of the story missed out by Chris Morris and his co-writers in Four Lions (they should put them on a double-bill, Smith jokes in response), where the lack of context made the would-be terrorists' actions seem all the more ridiculous and abstract. It is also the part of the story that often goes unexamined in, or is oversimplified by, the media, offers Smith. “In the press they give you the impression that [suicide bombers] are brainwashed. But if you look at the suicide bombers of 9/11, Mohamed Atta was a bright boy, a university student. He wasn't brainwashed. So where was his starting block? At what point did his journey towards radicalisation begin?”

The film-maker hastily adds that he is not trying to justify any act of violence. He is simply saying that “people are doing [these things] because they feel they have to or there's no other way. But, whatever happens, they're wrong and they shouldn't do that.”

When Smith was at university, his goal was to find a way of taking “really clever art house cinema ideas and twisting them into a palatable format” for the mainstream. Black Death, with its mixture of action, mystery, theology, politics, ideas about faith and God, and the potentially corrupting influence of (any) religion, is his boldest and most accomplished step towards this aim yet. However, there are risks involved. While the film should appeal to a broad audience, he says: “I have to be careful that I don't push myself into a box where my films become more interesting but not commercial, because then you find yourself in that difficult area where they're interesting but they never make any money. People are then likely to say, 'Where's that guy that made Severance? Let's get that guy back.'”

Actually, he had planned to make a sequel to Severance in which the Americans would have been the bad guys, but the time passed. “Now that Obama's in the White House we're all back in love again and everything's cool,” he laughs. “It would've been kind of fun but that was a Bush movie.”

Instead he is writing a road movie and wants to make a noir thriller independently in the United States. There is also a “twisted little kids film” in the works adapted from the first book in Robert Muchamore's acclaimed CHERUB series about an MI5 unit that uses kids as spies. “It's characters like you would see in a Shane Meadows film but in a thriller environment,” he says.

This does not mean he is leaving horror behind him. He is justifiably proud of Black Death but still feels that he hasn't yet made his Exorcist: something really twisted and nasty but that also has substance.

"I haven't made that scary horror yet where I just feel, like, 'Wow!' I want to make that movie. I really want to scare people in a really traditional way. So I'm laying in bed at night trying to think up the idea that's going to do that.”

© Stephen Applebaum, 2011


Ryan Kwanten On True Blood And Red Hill

How did True Blood change your life, Ryan?

“I think just in the level of scripts that are finding their way to me, I guess. There's a real sense of, I think, class not just to HBO shows but anything that Alan Ball lends his hand to. He doesn't just let a half-hearted episode get anywhere near air, let alone to script point. So I have been so fucking fortunate to be part of that show. Even an optimist could not have predicted the success it would had. I think we're now, ratings-wise, bigger than the Sopranos.”

It's interesting that a lot of the main actors in the show aren't American. Is there material in the show that a lot of Americans wouldn't feel comfortable with?

“Oh I can't speak of that. But I think there's such a great mystique that Australian actors have over there, purely for the fact that if you look at the Mel Gibsons, the Russell Crowes, the Cate Blanchetts of the world that have forged such a great career over there, and paved a way so remarkably for people like myself to then want to start a career over there, we're looked at in a great light. And we work very hard. It's not surgery. We're not changing the world here. We're making our little bit of art and releasing it to the world.”

I was really referring to the fact that the show sometimes touches on taboos.

“Oh, you mean the far more liberal outlook [we might have]? Yeah, I'm sure that helps. Jason [Stackhouse] is not the kind of character I could play if I felt inhibited.”

What has been the reaction from the more puritanical sections of American society?

“I don't really read about the reactions to True Blood. It's not that I ignore it, I haven't got the time or the inclination. Both the positive and the negative, it doesn't bother me. I just go about doing my job and the rest is hearsay as far as I'm concerned.”

In your new film, Red Hill, you speak with an Australian accent. Do you feel more free working with your own accent, or a variation of it?

“This is the first job I've done in Australia in eight/nine years, because I've been living in the States now for eight years. Yeah, so the first Australian accent. But this was such a distinct character, it wasn't me. This guy didn't grow up on the beaches of Queenscliff, Sydney, and wasn't a surfer. So long as there's a way for me to get into a character, I'm good. I can't play myself. I've had to do that before and it's a nightmare. Terrible.”


“I'm not really comfortable with who I am to be honest. I feel more free to step into the shoes of somebody else. There's always an element of me in there but, you know, if you give me a script and some clothes I can do anything. But as Ryan, I'm a bit of recluse.”

Is that why you chose acting?

“It sort of chose me. It was never my intention to move into it. I sort of fell into it by accident.”

What was your intention?

“Either to be a professional sportsman or a lawyer. I've got a Business Degree.”

You said acting chose you. Did you go to drama school?


So how did you get into showbusiness?

“Purely by accident. My brother was a dancer at the time, my middle brother - he was 13 I was 15 - and I was on my way to swimming training and my mum was dropping me off, but on the way to swimming training just happened to be this acting agency that my brother was auditioning to get into. I waited in the car with a towel round my waist and goggles on my head and he went up to do the audition with my mum. Time was ticking by, I hadn't missed swimming training, so I ran upstairs and said, 'Mum, look, just drop me off and come back and get Mitch.' I guess as fate would have it, the lady came out of the audition, and she says, 'Oh, are you here for the audition as well?' I said, 'No, I can't act.' But I did it, and I got it, and he didn't.”

So the sports you were doing at the time helped you to get that.

“Oh I hundred per cent agree with that. I think a lot of actors don't have the tenacity to be able to get up from rejection. We deal with rejection so much more than any other business. Ninety-eight per cent of actors are out of work and of that two per cent working, only one per cent of them are getting paid. No other profession comes close to that. So I don't care how much of a genius you are, if you don't have the  propensity to be able to get back up every time you get knocked down, then you're not going to survive. I used my competitive upbringing and took that to what is considered to be an art form, and I think it's worked to my advantage. I'm very, very competitive.”

So after this woman came out and said you should be acting, how did it go from there?

“It was an agency called Ankle Biters. They only represent people under the age of 16. They actually folded, closed up business two months after I joined, and in the one job I had in that time they thought I had something, so they recommended me to another agency which then took me on.

“I started off on really silly Japanese commercials that had no character, so I never really got it. It was just sort of a little cheque that you'd be given and go, 'Oh, okay.' It wasn't until stories started having subtext and the roles had more for me to do that I started realising, 'Okay, there is an art form to this. It's not just about saying lines, you can create characters, different mannerisms, different characteristics.'”

And you finished school, obviously.

“Yeah, I finished school and then was working on a series while I got my Business degree. Sleep was not really a priority in my life at that point. Then I was sort of called over to the States on the back of a premiere of a movie I did called The Junction Boys, which is sort of an American, Texan, high school football film, starring Tom Berenger.

“I went over on a five-day ticket and had two days in New York for the premiere and three days' holiday in LA, which is pretty much all I could afford. I don't come from the most affluent family. On the fifth day I got a call from the executive producer, who's now my manager and has been for eight years, saying, 'You might want to think about staying around. We got a great response from the film for you.' I said, 'This is a big decision. I can't really afford the money to stay.' She said, 'Oh, just put it on my credit card. That's what everyone does.'

“So I found ways of getting to stay there for two weeks and in that two weeks got a couple of bites, jobs, but I still spent my time there riding around on bikes to auditions and this and that. I have a ton of bizarre and funny celebrity stories from that time.”

Would you run into somebody on your bike or in the mall?

“Yeah, one of the funniest stories that ever happened to me was they have what they call 'pilot season' there, it's all the television shows that the networks have that they want to try and create into series, so they shoot these pilots which is the first episode of a potential series. So you can be doing up to three auditions in one day. So I had one at DreamWorks that was at the very end of one day, and I had to ride my bike because I couldn't afford a car, and so I'd put my bike on the bus and catch the bus to these auditions. I'd have a backpack with different changes of clothes for each character. One might have been a lawyer, one might have been like a hitman or a drug dealer.

“So I also pride myself in being on time but this last one I had, I was running about 20 minutes late and the bus dropped me at least three kilometres away from DreamWorks  - DreamWorks is like Fort Knox, you have to get through three levels of security to get inside. So finally I got there and there's no pole to lock my bike onto, so I just found this wood thing and I wrapped my bike chain around it and locked my bike up and ran in. I said to this lady, 'I'm so late', and she said, 'No, you're fine. Sit down.'  So I'm in a room amongst guys who look very similar to me and two seconds later this assistant comes running in and says, 'Someone's parked in Mr Spielberg's spot!' Immediately I'm thinking, 'Ooh shit, someone's in trouble here. This is good.' No one's put their hand up or owned up to it so I'm thinking, 'Someone's in trouble.' Two minutes later he comes running back in and he's now sweating. He's, like, 'It's a bicycle! Does anyone here have a bicycle?!' I was like, 'Yeah, that's me.' He goes, 'Come here!' So he's like taking me out and, sure enough, Spielberg's there in his big SUV with the tinted windows, and I had literally wrapped the bike chain around 'S. Spielberg'. It was almost like a sign of protest”

Did you get the job?


So what was your big break in the US before True Blood? The thing that made you decide to stay there?

“Well, I was never really close with my parents growing up but I think the separation has really sort of helped our relationship. So I would speak to them two/three times a week and each time I would get on the phone and say, 'You know what? Next week I'm coming home. The flight's booked.' And this would keep going on for six months. I think it got to something like nine months and I said, 'Oh yeah, I'm on the next flight home. I guarantee it.' And Mum just sort of said, 'Ryan, I think you're staying there. You've been saying this for nine months now. I think you're there. We might come out and visit you.' So it was a decision that, again, was made for me.”

Because you kept getting work?

“Yeah, little snippets would keep me there. Great jobs, though. Everything, I think, led me forward. I never felt like I was taking a step back. The first job was just one of those foot-in-the-door jobs. It let me get into this industry, find a way in.”

What was that?

“A series called Summer Land. The choices back then, eight years ago, were never really about creativity or being creatively challenged. I didn't have the power to be that picky or selective.”

You were lucky to get a job?

“If that's how you want to see it.”

And to pay the rent.

“And to pay the rent. Exactly.  I was sleeping on a yoga mat, that's all I had in my apartment. Eventually I would buy cooking utensils, things like that.”

Before going to America you actually did Home and Away, didn't you?

“I did.”

That's a rite of passage for any Australian actor, isn't it? That or Neighbours.

“Yeah, I never talk bad about it because I feel like they gave me such leeway to be able to create and to play, to take risks, to fall on my arse, to make an idiot of myself, and it forced me out, because my character was such an extrovert and I'm almost a sociophobe.”

Yes, you mentioned being a recluse earlier. You don't like being around a lot of people?

“I get really uncomfortable.”

What about your brothers? Do you get on with them?

“Yeah, I love them to death. One's a doctor, the other one's a composer.”

Do you catch up and go surfing?

“Oh they don't surf.”

We've mentioned the huge success of True Blood. Do you think the sex has something to do with it?
“I don't know. Alan Ball, he has such a feeling for what audiences want to see, to challenge an audience and make you think outside of the box. We all live our comfy lives and every now and again it's good to be challenged, and I think his previous works, and I hope True Blood, does that same thing. I think that's why it's caught on like wildfire.”

Do you shoot True Blood in Louisiana?

“No, only a very small percentage of the series is [shot there]. It's mainly LA.”

Are people often surprised to learn you're not really American?

“Yeah, people are always amazed that I am Australian. That's the most common sort of American thing. I had one guy who was still utterly convinced after I had been speaking to him for 20 minutes that I was putting this voice on for a new role.”

You're known for your ripped physique because you're always getting your kit off in True Blood. How much work do you need to do to stay slim and fit?

“I'm a bit of a masochist at heart so I tend to take it to the nth degree. A lot. I would run while shooting Red Hill. If we were doing night shoots and I was still up from that, I would go run at night.”

Red Hill's a modern-day Western. Do you like the genre?

“It's great. It's like every young boy's fantasy to wield some guns and chase down the bad guy. You couldn't ask for more.”

How did you work this out with True Blood?

“It was tough. When you want to do something bad enough, though, I think people will move mountains for you, and that's sort of what ended up happening. I don't really ask for that many favours as an actor so when I did ask for one, True Blood listened and said, 'We'll do what we can to match our schedule to accommodate Red Hill.'”

When you're not working, is there a sort of Aussie colony in LA where you all get together?

“There's an LA Australians in Film and that's a really big Australian foundation. They screen Australian films and they show old ones. It's just a good one for Aussies to get together. But, you know, I tend to think when in Rome, so a lot of my friends there are Americans. I grew up with Australians so I know Australians back-to-front. All my friends are forever coming out. Once Australians know they have an Australian friend overseas who has a house and fridge full of  beer, they're there in a heartbeat.”

So is LA your home now?

“It's my base now. My home is always going to be in Australia.”

Are you ready for another challenge?

“I hope so. I pride myself on creating challenges and meeting them and moving on to something bigger and better. Like I said, I think every job has led me to this point.”

© Stephen Applebaum, 2011

Eli Roth Discusses The Last Exorcism In Unpublished JC Story

Horror director Eli Roth talks about producing The Last Exorcism, and the different faces of evil in 21st Century America

Looking at Eli Roth's trajectory since his low-budget debut feature, Cabin Fever, you might wonder whether the Jewish master of horror had made a pact with the Devil. With seemingly breathless ease, the garrulous Bostonian has established himself not only as a successful writer, director, and, with the Hostel films especially, outrageous goremonger, but thanks to his friend and mentor Quentin Tarantino, as an actor (Death proof, Inglorious Basterds) to boot. Now wearing the hat of producer, chatter on Twitter suggests that he is likely to have another hit on his hands, with The Last Exorcism.

“I've been joking that last summer Inglorious Basterds was my Jewish movie and this summer's my Christian movie,” chuckles Roth. “It's very different from anything that I have done in that's it's truly a psychological thriller. It's actually PG-13 [15 in the UK], so it's much more at the creepy end of the horror spectrum.” This is ironic given that in 2002, Roth was bemoaning the state of the American horror movie. “The problem,” he said then, “is that it has been so castrated and watered down that everything’s either PG-13 or the R-rated movies have no R-rated nudity in them, and they’re not scary.” He helped to change that with Hostel in 2005 - the gruesome film for which the media coined the phrase 'torture porn'. By contrast, The Last Exorcism has no nudity, no gore, and very little on-camera violence. But, as numerous tweets testify, it is skin-crawlingly creepy, with an atmosphere of dread that lingers after the lights go up.

Shot as a faux documentary, it follows a preacher who invites a camera crew along to film him exorcise a girl in rural Louisiana whose deeply religious father believes she is possessed. The twist is that Marcus Cotton lost his faith years ago and has been faking exorcisms ever since. The film will be his confession. However - surprise, surprise - things do not turn out the way he expects. “I think what's so cool is that we really made what I think is a very different kind of film,” enthuses Roth. “What is really fun is that it's the reverend saying, 'This is all nonsense, I have been cheating people and I feel terribly, and I'm going to show you how it's done to end the practice of exorcism once and for all.' And, of course, he encounters this girl he believes is crazy, but then it's revealed that maybe she is actually possessed.”

The idea of demonic possession has fascinated Roth ever since he watched The Exorcist aged six. The film's graphic depiction of possession rocked the scientific outlook he had inherited from his psychoanalyst father. “If someone was acting like another person, it was a mental illness,” he says. “Then I saw The Exorcist and I went, 'What the hell is this? You never taught me about possession.” His parents' response, he recalls laughing, was to tell him not to worry. “They said, 'That's for Christians. We're Jews. Jews don't believe in the Devil.'” Young Eli did, however, and he was terrified. “I went, 'I will be the Devil's test case for possessing Jews. Trust me, if the Devil possesses anyone, it will be me.'”

In a way, he was right. Reflecting on his three films today, he says they're all about possession of some sort. In Cabin Fever, a flesh-eating virus effectively possesses the bodies of a group of campers, while in the Hostel films, torturers control the bodies of their victims. “That was the essence of what made possession so very scary to me as a child: the total loss of control to another force, something coming from inside you, from within, and owning your body.”

This is a fear that many appear to share. In America, forty-two per cent of people believe in the Devil, claims Roth, while the last decade has seen an upsurge in the number of people claiming they are possessed. So great has the problem become there and elsewhere, that in 2008, at the same time as the producers of The Last Exorcist were looking for funding, the Vatican announced the establishment of a course for the training of exorcists at the Regina Apostolorum.

Even so, it was not the rising rate of exorcisms that Roth was aware of when the script came to him, he says, but the rise of religion. Seventy years ago, we knew what evil looked like, he suggests. “But today evil is not just in terrorism, it's in Wall Street, it is in greed, there's just this general sense that evil is on the rise and the only way people feel like they can take control of it is by countering it with religion and exorcism. Forty-two per cent of Americans believe in the Devil. Like they say in the movie, 'If you believe in God you believe in the Devil.' It's very real and very relevant.”

In The Last Exorcism, a charade turns into a clash between a believer and non-believer. Who is right and who is wrong is left for the viewer to decide. The film makes a case neither for nor against the existence of God. Whatever differences of opinion the film's makers might have had, they agreed that  they had to make sure that the film answered story questions but didn't try to answer the bigger, “larger-than-life” questions. “Who are we to do that?” asks Roth. The result is an intelligent, creepy film that can be discussed, argued about and interpreted. “Someone told me it was a metaphor for Democrats and Republicans: they both want to help the US but have opposite ideologies and it's going to destroy the whole country because of it. That was certainly never our intent but that's what they got out of it," he says with pride. "So it's wonderful when you make a film and it really can actually reach people on many different levels.”

But does this mean he has left the gore behind him? Roth laughs.

“Have you seen my cameo [as the emcee of a wet T-shirt competition] in Piranha 3D? I love gore.”

© Stephen Applebaum, 2011

Revisiting Tetro And A Life In Film With Francis Ford Coppola

Francis Ford Coppola discusses getting personal with Tetro, revelations about his childhood, and the truth about Apocalypse Now 

Why did you use black and white for the present and colour for the past in Tetro?

“I don't understand why people ask me why it's in black and white. Films are in black and white and they're in colour, it's just a choice that you make to tell the story and make it feel like you hope it will feel like. It scares me that we live in a world where, all of a sudden, everything has to be the same. Where it all has to be colour because some television executive said that. I feel like I'm living in a gulag or something. It's black and white because it felt like a good decision, and because the movie looked right to me in black in white. Then, since my movie was in black and white, and I wanted to make clear that the writing of Tetro was in the past, I made it in colour. I associate colour with when you see home movies. Of course, the colour in that is more like a hand-held camera, and the black and white is very steady, like fixed frame, because it's the most beautiful kind of cinema when the camera's not always moving. Otherwise you get, like, sea sick.”

Have you been able to make your films the way you wanted to make them?

“Pretty much after The Godfather I was able to do what I wanted, and I got to make Rumblefish in black and white. But I think when you choose the style of the movie, it serves the theme or the story, and one of the questions is, should it be in black and white? Should the camera move? What should the lighting be? Mine was probably the only film in black and white [when it screened] in Cannes, and I worry about that. It's like because Steven Spielberg is so esteemed he could make Schindler's List in black and white, but no one else is allowed to do it. It's like a law.”

Were there any films that you made in colour that you'd have liked to make in black and white?  

“No, I did what I wanted because I was so fortunate after The Godfather that I had that power. Of course, I couldn't have made one – maybe I could've – in that period when I was a slave, from age 40 to age 50, where they gave me the script and I was grateful. Every Friday I would write an email or a fax to the head of the studio saying, 'Thank you for my cheque.' I did that for 10 years because the cheque was going to mean I could keep my home.”

When you came to the end of that 10 year period, there was about another 10 years, between The Rainmaker and Youth Without Youth, when you didn't make any features.

“But I wrote Pinocchio and we totally prepared it. We were going to go to the most beautiful studio in the world, Pinewood, and make that. And that might have been very successful, because it was very much the beginning of what became a Pixar-type of family entertainment. I was ready to go. I had the deal with Columbia, and then another studio just said, 'We own it,' and then there was two years of a legal battle, which I won, and which they had overturned – suspiciously.

“I said, 'This is hopeless. You can't win.' So, then, I said, 'I'm just going to write the most personal, ambitious, probably self-indulgent, grandiose project I can think of,' and I began to write Megalopolis."

What happened to that?

“Again, it was a really difficult script and maybe I never really pulled it off. I rewrote it, I tried, and then I went to New York, we were shooting Second Unit, which we shot, and right while we shot they hit the Twin Towers. And my film was about utopia! The message of Megalopolis was: we can make the world be a place that's exciting for people and for everyone to really enjoy life and each other – which is an absurd idea, I know. I thought if I made a film that showed that, then everyone would say, 'Right then, let's do it.' But then right as I did that, the world went to the opposite. Not only that, the other issue was the film business was becoming more and more middle-brow, and the movie had to look good, but who was going to give me the money to do a movie like that? So I stopped it and I thought, 'What should I do?'

“I didn't like the films I was doing in that period, so the 10 years you speak of was not wasted. Even other directors, if they write, need time. Except for Woody Allen, of course, who is the most amazing American film-maker because he writes an original script and he makes it every year-and-a-half and there's always something wonderful. Some of his films are really great, but the rest are good, and there's always something you can't forget in every single film. He's such an amazing talent. Who else writes his own work and comes up with it out of his mind? Other people like that, they need three years in between. Kubrick, as you know, there was eight years. My 10 years, it's not like I wasn't trying. Usually you're trying to go with your hat and say, 'Please can I make a movie?' That's what you spend the time doing.”

There's a line in Tetro – 'There's only room enough for one genius in this family'. Did someone tell you that when you were young?    

“Someone told someone in my family. That was really said to someone. It wasn't said to me. I was a jerk. I was the little kid on the sideline.”

But are you aware of the shadow that your achievements cast over your family? Your son, Roman, once told me that he took years to make his future debut, CQ, because he knew people would compare him to you.

“I don't know what to say because I was always the kind of father who really encouraged creativity. I think the generation before me, because they lived through the  Depression, they wanted the children to be doctors or to be accountants, or to be something like that. We were not a wealthy family and parents always worry that the children will be okay. So, when your kid says, 'I want to be a novelist,' in those days it was, 'Be an accountant first and then write a novel.' But with my kids, if they said, 'I'm interested in this . . .', I'd say, 'Do what you want. You don't have to worry. Do everything you love and then eventually it will be clear.'"

Did Sofia always want to make films?

“Sofia, when she was 17, said, 'I want to be a painter, and I want to write stories, I like fashion and I want to do photography' - she didn't ever want to be an actress, by the way, she did that [Godfather III] for me - 'Am I just a dilettante?' I said, 'You know, Sofia, do the things you like and one day you'll find you're very good at different things and then it will be clear what you want to do.'

“So, certainly with Roman, he's such a talented boy and when I invited him to be the second unit director of Dracula, much of the beautiful in-camera effects that were done, he did. So I always encouraged him to be a film-maker. But the other side of that is, if you were my son, I wouldn't say, 'You have to be a film-maker.' I would say, 'Come and work on my film and do the things you want. Maybe you want to be a photographer or a director.' I don't want to be the father who's like the plumber that says, 'You have to be a plumber.'"

You're known as a vintner. Does winemaking give you as much pleasure as film-making?

“You know, I love wine, and I didn't mean to make it a business, but I got lucky because Americans, who didn't really drink wine, other than the immigrants, suddenly began to realise wine was healthy and good with food, and another source of pleasure. So I had this huge success by accident. But it doesn't compete with what I  always wanted my profession to be, which was a man who writes stories and makes films of them. I don't want to be a person who writes plays and directs plays. Maybe I could, and I was trained as a theatre person, but there isn't time and if I'm going to do any creative work, I want it to be in the cinema.”

Vincent Gallo has been very outspoken about things and he's a director now. What was he like to work with?

“I didn't know his work. I had heard that there was some guy who came to Cannes and everyone gave him trouble [for Brown Bunny], and then he was very outspoken, and he was sort of unpopular and controversial. I didn't know him and I didn't have someone to play Tetro, and someone in Argentina said, 'What about Vincent Gallo?' I said, 'Well, I don't know him.' I got his movie Buffalo 66, and I watched that, and I thought it was wonderful. But everyone, even my own casting colleagues, said, 'Oh, absolutely not. He will drive you crazy. He's a nightmare. He's unpredictable', all these terrible things. I said, 'Well I would like to meet him.' I had an opportunity to spend a few days with him and I found him intelligent and really funny. He says things that are provocative but a lot of them are really funny, and that's what he means. If you take him seriously then he's a terrible, terrible, terrible person. So when I made the choice to work with him, everyone went, 'Oh my God.' We shot this film in 60-70 days and he was always there, he was always helpful, he was always intelligent, he always had something good to offer. He brought a kind of vitality to his work. He tried to be truthful. He never would say a line that he felt he couldn't really say."

You mentioned the relationship between the artist and his work, and I wondered if you knew before going down to the Philippines to shoot Apocalypse Now what that was going to take out of you, would you have thought differently? Would you have had doubts?

“It's a very good point you make. When I make a film, the subject matter and the script I write is like a question, and I don't know the answer. I really don't. This would horrify any industrial business system because they don't want to invest. It's like we're going to invest in a machine, and we're going to put millions of dollars into a machine, and we don't know what the machine does. That's what a movie is like. At the end of the film, when it's all edited, if I began by asking a question, the end of the film is the answer. And that is not like anything that conforms with a business plan, or a business model, at all. It involves risk. But my job is to be nimble so that when I catch something as a result of this very uncertain process, I can somehow land the plane.”

Is that the same with films you don't direct, like Patton?

“Well I was about 24 when I wrote Patton. Yeah, I read a lot about General Patton and I felt that he wasn't just this macho war hero. He was learned, he was from the South, and he wrote poetry, studied history, and he was profane and vulgar, and yet he was also romantic. I took a lot of contradictory things and I said, 'Well, I'll just try to do something with this.' I wrote it and Burt Lancaster was going to play it, but I guess the studio didn't like the script because they didn't invite me to continue. It wasn't like a job where they fired me. I ended my contract, they paid me, and then they said, 'Good-bye.'"

What didn't they like?

“One of the things they hated was the opening. The middle-brow is very much stuck on little details like, 'You show him as a four-star General, with pearl handles, in front of the American flag, making a speech, and then the next minute he's a two-star General, and it's confusing.' So, basically, I was fired [laughs]. Years later, when George C. Scott did it, the director liked the script so he went and made it, and that was considered probably the best opening in any movie. So what are you supposed to do? Are you supposed to do what they tell you and conform to that, or are you supposed to just do your best and put together contradictory things and make some sense out of it?”

What did you discover creating Tetro, because obviously it's a very personal work?

“I never knew that I felt that my brother had abandoned me when I was 13 or 14, which is the most vulnerable time for a boy who doesn't know anything about anything. I didn't know at that age about sex. I would never have imagined, in a million years, that the part of your body you use to pee with had anything to do with anything romantic, because I was a very romantic kid. I knew music and opera, and Romeo and Juliet, but I would never have imagined what that had to do with that. It still seems like an odd choice [laughs]. So I didn't have anybody to tell me. Once I asked my mother a question and she slapped me, saying, 'I'm going to tell your father what you said in front of his little wife.' So that's a very tricky time, 13 and 14."

So this realisation was new?

“Yes, I never realised he vanished. And he vanished for very practical reasons: my father used to sell our house and move, and he was always taking me out of school and putting me in another school. I went to 24 schools before I went to college. Honestly, six High Schools. What had happened, now I can figure it out, my brother, who was five years older than me, he was in High School and he was doing very well, so he refused to be taken out of school and he went to live with my grandmother. So, when I was aged 13 or 14, he sort of vanished, and I never understood it exactly. Psychologically, I guess I never looked at that. So here I am, almost 70 years old, making this movie, and what is it about? It's about a kid . . . [breaks off because he is becoming emotional. Tears are welling up in his eyes] It's about a kid who is trying to find his brother. And he says, 'You abandoned me.' Well, that was just a story. That was just a screenplay. But it must have been what I really felt.”

What did you learn about yourself and how were you changed by the experience of shooting Apocalypse Now? The documentary, Hearts of Darkness, featuring footage recorded by your wife, Eleanor, shows you apparently pushed to the limits of your physical and mental endurance.

“You know, one of the things that you've got to get about the press is that you get a very skewed version of reality. I never had a nervous breakdown on Apocalypse Now! I never went nuts or any of that stuff. That's just a good story. I was 32 years old and I was financing a $32 million movie by putting my house up, because I didn't have that kind of money. So I not only had the sweat of making a movie that I didn't know exactly what it was. Like I said, when I make a personal movie, I never know what the machine is supposed to do, but I follow my gut and I follow my intelligence and I do my best. Apocalypse Now was a movie, I think, about morality."

“There's a line that John Milius wrote, 'We teach the boys to drop fire on people, but we won't let them write the word “fuck” on their aeroplanes.' That is our culture, it totally doesn't make sense. What kind of crazy contradiction is that? That's what I learned from Apocalypse Now: that a guy could go from having been blessed with the success of The Godfather and go off and make a film about Vietnam and no one would touch it. When no studio would help him, and when none of his actors would join him, he ultimately put up his own money and made the movie, and then was damned by Variety for having done this as though it's absurd, and yet everyone applauds Superman, a man in a silly suit flying around. That's Apocalypse Now. That's what it was about. So that's what I learned, that we live in a world of incredible contradictions that everyone accepts.”

Do you ever think about giving up movies and doing something else?

“Every day. I am richer than I could ever spend the money I have unless every year I lose $15 million making movies that make people nervous. So, I say, 'What am I doing this for? Why don't I just go buy a yacht and get 10 girls to [pause] sing songs and have fun?' I can [smiles].”

© Stephen Applebaum , 2011

Jesse Eisenberg Q & A: Talking Holy Rollers

The Social Network's Jesse Eisenberg talks about infiltrating a Jewish sect to research his character in Holy Rollers, and why he finds acting therapeutic

You were involved in Holy Rollers from the beginning. What was the attraction for you?

“The first thing that is of primary importance to me is that the character that I would play is dealt with in a real way and has some kind of real inner life, and something substantive to struggle with. This had all of these things in spades really, because it's coming from this very uniquely isolated world where there are specific rules and specific customs, and entering into this drug world where the rules are constantly changing and where people are acting selfishly."

What else?

“Well the other thing for me was that it was the story of this world that I was very fascinated with. I grew up as a secular Jew so I've always been fascinated with the Hasidic Jews, because I share an ancestry with them, and we share customs, but outside of that we live such different lives. On the one hand you think you can probably relate to them because you come from the same background, but on the other hand our lives couldn't be more divergent. Then, of course, there's the added strange part of it of being associated with them by virtue of having the same religion, but I don't feel any kind of kinship with their day to day experience.”

You studied anthropology at university. Did this also interest you from an anthropological point of view?

“Yeah, exactly. I was signed on to this movie two years before it got made and I was able to spend a lot of time going to their communities, going to their schools, being invited into their synagogues and their stores, and it was not dissimilar to what an anthropologist does for academic reasons. Aside from being helpful with my role and understanding how these people feel and live, it was also just really, really interesting academically.”

How easy was it to enter one of these communities in order to study it?

“Initially it was difficult because the roles we were playing were not based on the sect that seeks out secular Jews in order to encourage them to be more religious. So I was trying to infiltrate a world that I was really not welcome to. Once I realised that I could find this sect that were interested in speaking with secular Jews, I found it very easy to infiltrate their world."

Can you elaborate?

"There's a Hasidic group where they stand on the street and ask you if you're Jewish and try to bring you into their mitvah trucks. In New York during the holidays they have the Hassids on the street asking secular Jews to come and pray with them. But more than that there's schools in Brooklyn where they go every day and study and pray, and they invited me in to their school. I was able to go out to lunch with them at the place across the street from this school, the kosher restaurant that they go to, and I found this one specific sect to be really not only inviting but almost aggressive. You know, calling me all the time to ask if I would go to their events with them, because their goal is to bring secular Jews into the fold. So not only were they not suspicious or irritated by me, but they were actually eager for me to join them.”

Did you go in with any assumptions that your experience either reinforced or dispelled?

“Yeah, both. I had assumptions about their culture being isolated in a way where I might find some bigotry or sexism. And I did find that. But that's all relative, of course, because I'm coming from a different place.

“Some of my assumptions were dispelled because I found that a lot of them had very conflicting attitudes towards their religion. So just as my character [Sam Gold] in the movie doesn't feel entirely comfortable becoming a rabbi, or even being a good student, and even having some kind of conflict about the way he feels about his religion, I found that to be true. The reason I say it was dispelled was because I assumed, prior to knowing anybody in the Hasidic community, that there would be some kind of monolithic group attitude toward religion which would be a hundred per cent devout and non questioning. That was very interesting and really important. It means as an actor the character I'm playing can realistically feel that even as a Hasidic Jew raised entirely in that world, that maybe his religion is not right for him.”

Did you tell anybody in the community what the film was about?

“No. One person who I spoke to for a long time, after hours of talking,  asked me, 'Why are you so interested?' I said, 'Because I'm doing a play about a Hasidic Jew.' I didn't want to say a movie because I thought it would raise too many questions. But then I realised they don't even watch secular movies, so they're not going to be aware of this movie. The other thing is, when we were making this movie, it was frankly a bit difficult to explain to Jews that this movie was not critical of them. Our goal was to show this setting and these characters in a realistic light, and it was an uphill battle trying to describe that and make them not feel threatened by it because of the nature of the story. Most of the time Hasidic Jews in movies are used as a sight gag or caricatures, a joke in some way, and that was never our intention.”
What was your relationship to Judaism when you were growing up? Was it a totally secular upbringing?

“It decreased over time. The more we got away from my grandparents' generation that came over from Poland, the more my family moved away from being religious, to the point where it's a very small part of my life. So I went to Hebrew school when I was younger, but I dropped out before I had a bah mitzvah. It just became increasingly less important.”

Did doing this film make you feel you might have missed out, or did it have no impact in that sense at all?

“In a way I felt there's something really nice about being part of a community in that way and I kind of regretted not being more devout. Then I realised I'm part of a different kind of community, whether it be part of an American community, a theatre arts community, something like that, and it can, in a way, provide a similar sense of belonging, without some of the things that turned me off about really devoutly religious communities, which are in conflict with some of the feelings I have about gender roles and acceptance of other cultures. So it doesn't totally appeal to me.”

You studied “Democracy and Cultural Pluralism”. Does that come from the same place of feeling that you've just expressed?

“I come from a very progressive family and live in a very metropolitan, integrated community. So people who live in a very isolated way, I have trouble understanding that lifestyle. In the movie, for example, not my character but one of the other characters uses the word schvartza, which is not a really good word to describe a black person. This is a word even distant cousins of mine would use, where people are more religious. It's not something I'm comfortable with because I live in a different world. It's nice to be part of a community but whenever you're part of a community, one of the things that defines the community is who they're not, and that always rubbed me the wrong way. But it was interesting to see how loving they are with each other really.”

You were trying to adapt your play, The Revisionist, which was inspired by your Polish aunt's stories about the Holocaust, into a film. Are you still pursuing that?

“Kind of, but I keep getting distracted with other things and writing other things. Yeah, I guess I get distracted. And I write when I'm not working as an actor. I've just received more attention than I ever would want in the last few months. I've been too distracted, in a way.”

Has The Social Network changed things for you in that respect?

“Yeah, it's almost inadvertantly provided a more public platform than I would have wanted. It's great to be in something that's received but, on the other hand, there's only so much attention one person should get before it's overwhelming.”

I read that you've tried to cut yourself off from the mainstream: you don't watch TV, you don't have email, you don't read magazines. Is that true?

“Yeah, yeah. When I started acting in movies I became so aware of the artifice of it and the product of it that it became a little more difficult to buy into it when I was acting. So stepping out of it a little bit, not watching movies, and being a little bit less aware of the final product of the thing made it easier for me to focus on it and buy into this world that we're creating.”

It sounds like it must take quite a bit of effort to maintain that distance given the pervasiveness of pop culture these days?

“Exactly. You could get all sorts of information in so many different ways it almost becomes a chore to avoid information rather than to seek it out now. It is difficult. And I live in New York City, so when I walk outside I'm immediately bombarded with stimuli. So at least in the house, I try to keep it so there's nothing contemporary in the house.”

You suffer from OCD, so is there also an attempt  to control your environment for that reason as well?

“Yeah, that's the other thing. I'm scrutinised by so many people because I do something that's public, and to avoid me scrutinising other people and to be thinking in that way, I kind of avoid watching things or reading the constant stream of commentary on pop culture, because I don't want to believe that I'm part of it in some way. And a lot of it is so mean-spirited, anyway.”

Acting is such a public activity, what drew you to it in the first place? Do you come from an artistic background?

“I would say my family is more appreciative of the arts than in it. My father's a college professor but my mother uses a drama-based platform to teach cultural sensitivity to young doctors. And when I was younger she was a choreographer in a High School. So it's not an artistic background but people appreciate it.”

It sounds like a mixture of science and the arts.

“Exactly. It certainly wasn't difficult for me to convince my parents that I could maybe do it for a career. I didn't have the struggle that a lot of my friends had when they had to reveal to their parents that they wanted to work in the arts.”

What was the initial attraction of acting for you?

“I probably didn't realise it at the time but it was probably a way to kind of focus whatever personal anxieties I had. It was probably a way for me to direct it in a productive way rather than to just live with it and suppress it. That's certainly what it provides now. I have a catharsis every day in a kind of a safe and creative way, and that's a lot easier than holding something in.”

What do you think your life would be like if you didn't have the creative outlets?

“I don't know. I'm sure it probably generates a lot of anxiety as well but it's also a nice release.”

© Stephen Applebaum, 2011


Emily James: Telling It Like It Is In Just Do It: A Tale Of Modern-Day Outlaws

When award-winning filmmaker Emily James wanted to make a sympathetic documentary about some of the UK's climate change activists, the broadcasters didn't want to listen. So she went off and shot it independently.  Just Do It: A Tale of Modern-Day Outlaws, is the result.

This is a grassroots film. Do things like Twitter help get the word out there?

“Definitely. Facebook even more so, to my [chagrin]. I'm not a big Facebooker, but last October [2010] we ran a big push on our crowdfunding. We had a match fund from Lush, the soap people, so they would give a pound for every pound that was donated in the next three weeks. During the space of that three weeks, we had tons of traffic to the website, and the traffic coming via Facebook outnumbered everything else put together. It's really fascinating: we had an article in The Independent and I think we had a couple of hundred hits through the Independent website,  but like 500 that day through Facebook.”

Are you still reliant on donations to keep the ball rolling?

“Very much so. We've got the film finished now, so it costs just as much to release a film as it does to make one. On The Age of Stupid, that film cost £450,000 to make and another £450,000 to release. Our film cost £80,000 to make so we're vaguely trying to raise that same amount again to release it. But the truth of the matter is we'll make the money go as far as we can, and for every pound that's donated it means there's probably another person out there that's going to get to see it, or another opportunity for us to put on a free screening, or train fare for me to go to, say, Scotland, to do Q & A's, that kind of thing. So it really is about getting the word out and trying to support that.”

Did you ever consider a cross-platform release, or would the costs be prohibitive?

“Well we do intend to do an online release when the time comes. For a feature documentary it's really important to get in to film festivals and, unfortunately, all film festivals are still quite old-fashioned and won't take the film if it's been online already. Once we've got our film festivals out of the way, there's a wee chance [laughs], not a big one, that a broadcaster may take it. So we're talking to the BBC, which would obviously be our first choice, and they won't take it if it's been online also. So once that's out of the way, we do intend to release a Creative Commons version that will be available for peer-to-peer sharing and BitTorrent, all that kind of stuff.”

With regards to television, are there any legal issues that surround the film?

“We've got media lawyers that have looked at it and, from their point of view, there's nothing that they think would need to be changed. But you know what the law is like: you have two lawyers and you get three opinions. So it really would be down to the individual broadcaster and how their lawyers interpret the situation.”

Were there things you were concerned about?

“ Well the standard things are libel. So, I thought going into it, that there would be some issues with libel, that the activists would be making libelous accusations about corporations and stuff. But actually, as it happens, there's not a lot of that. Also, we use quite a lot of news footage and we're commenting on it – and our lawyers are happy with the extent we're commenting on it – but that doesn't mean Channel 4's lawyers would be. Broadcasters' lawyers tend to be a little bit more cautious, because they are protecting their client, and the deep pocket of their client. Our lawyer only has to protect us, and we don't have very deep pockets. “

Was there stuff you filmed that was potentially libelous and you left it out for that reason, because it was problematic?

“No, actually. We made a decision quite early on that we weren't going to censor ourselves. We would wait until the lawyers took issue with things and then deal with it at that point. So we put in everything we wanted to put in and were quite surprised when they gave us a relatively clean bill of health and didn't ask for any changes. Like I say, it might be different with broadcasters. I think the things that they will struggle with is just more the wider political nature of the film and how that fits into their editorial agenda.”

You question the balance of mainstream media reporting on this subject in the film. Do you regard yourself as the balance?

“Yeah, in a way. This is a question that has come up a lot: 'Emily James, where has your objectivity gone?' to which I respond, 'What objectivity?' I'm being flippant but yeah, people are concerned. Because of the nature of the subject matter there's a lot of: Is it balanced? Is it objective? That sort of thing. But I think if you look at the way news reports about these subject matters, what passes for objectivity is so grossly unbalanced that the whole question is moot after a while. So it is the case that I'm largely speaking on their side and it's a sympathetic portrait, but I do think that that basically is trying to round out the story in the public domain, as opposed to being bombastically propagandistic.”

Is total objectivity ever really possible in documentary making?

“Objectivity is quite an elusive thing to give and anybody that tells you're they're being completely objective is either lying or being self-delusional. You can aim for it. There's a lot of things you can put in practice to try and ensure that you're hearing both sides so that you're not just being swayed in one direction. That's important. But filmmaking is inherently subjective.”

But aren't you, in some ways, in danger of just preaching to the choir in Just Do It?

“If you look at a film like The End of the Line, I was working at Dartmouth Films when they were making it there and I was like, 'Okay, I know about this stuff.' Then when I finally got  to see the film, I've never eaten sushi since, and I used to eat it all the time. So I would have been counted as somebody who was already converted in that kind of, 'Oh, aren't you preaching to the converted?' kind of way, and yet it moved me and changed my behaviour in a significant way. So I think on the one hand, there is nothing wrong with preaching to the converted, because they still need encouragement to be better people than they are, and all of those things. And this idea that we should be constantly trying to communicate to those people who are completely unconvinced or unconvincable is also self-defeating, you know?”

So what are you hoping to achieve?

“I guess people that it's really aimed at, in some way, is kind of where I was when I came to this film, and first started meeting these people. I had made quite a few films around climate change and around the issue, and in the process I had got myself quite well informed. I had worked on a series for Channel 4 called The War on Terra, and then I had worked on The Age of Stupid, with Franny Armstrong, and I had gotten myself to a point where I was actually quite despondent about how bad the situation was and how little I could do to effect change on it and had become quite nihilistic and given up. Then I met these people who knew how bad it was and they were still managing to kind of pull together and try to do something to aim in the right direction and kind of take action. I was inspired by that, and inspired enough that [laughs] I've gone through quite a difficult process making a film about them, because I felt more people needed to hear about that. More people needed to see that attitude and that response, because otherwise we really were going to go to Hell in a handbag.”

What were some of the hurdles that you had to overcome at the beginning of this process? You did try raising money from mainstream media, didn't you?

“We did. The first hurdle I had to overcome was getting people to agree to be filmed, which is quite difficult and took quite a long time to win people round.”

How did you convince them to participate?

“The primary concern was security and whether the footage could be ever be used against them or would end up in court. So I worked quite a lot with a legal firm that works a lot with activists to try and figure out what the real risks were, how I could keep that footage out of the hands of the authorities. So that involved not keeping any written logs of what I was filming in case they found the written log and said, 'Okay, we'll take that, take that, take that . . .' Keeping everything at a safe-house so it was never at my house. Labeling the tapes in this cryptic manner so if they ever did come across them they wouldn't know what it was. And I just started going to a lot of meetings, talking to a lot of people, allowing people to get to know me, allowing people to see what type of films I had made before. They could see I was politically engaged with them. And then as they got to know me they could see that I had no intention of selling them out.”

What was the broadcasters' response to your idea?

“I started filming and we started accruing a bit of material and after a while I started approaching broadcasters. Honestly, I wasn't very impressed by the response I got to it. Which was essentially that I was too much on their side. I remember at the time thinking to myself, if I had gotten access to fantastic troop of teenage youth dancers, who were involved in some urban contest, nobody would ever go, 'I think you're insufficiently objective about them. Why don't you ask them the hard questions?' At that point I was like, 'I'm not gonna make that film. I'm not going to pretend that I don't think what they're doing is a worthwhile thing, and I'm not going to make a film that they would be really unhappy with.' So we decided that we would have to do it independently.”

You filmed them breaking the law.


The film, I suppose, implicitly condones their actions. How do you feel about that aspect?

“I suppose, on the one hand, generally the laws that they're breaking only exist in order to punish activists. So the crime of aggravated trespass, which is what they normally get charged with, didn't exist until the legal system came up with something to charge them with [laughs]. And this is part of the reason why I have chosen the subtitle, 'A Tale of Modern Day Outlaws', because I wanted to kind of point at that and say, 'Are these people really criminals?' These people are some of the most altruistic people you will ever meet in your life. People who actually are the glue of society. Time and time again I get told stories by activists about what judges say in their sentencing and stuff, and they'll be sentencing them to like 180 hours of community service, and in the same breath acknowledging that these are some of the most stand-up people that they have ever met. The irony is so ridiculous. So I don't think what they're doing really is criminal.”

Is the power of Government, of corporations, of the police now so great that it's made the space in which people can protest so small, that it's inevitable laws will be broken?

“Well that's right. The minute you step out of line, if you do anything that genuinely threatens the status quo and the system, you will have crossed a line that they can get you on.”

When you followed the campaigners to Copenhagen in 2009, for the UN Climate Change conference, how much did you know about the way the police operated? In the film their powers appear to be absolute. Their powers were pretty absolute.

“Yeah, they could pick people up and pre-emptively arrest them. Well nobody knew, because it was a new set of laws. And that was possibly part of the scariest part of it, that the Danish parliament had empowered the Danish police with this almost carte blanche [power]. They had so much power that they didn't even know how much power they had, and so the situation would evolve in a very strange way. So when they came into the Candy Factory [the activists' HQ], they'd come in going, 'Well we no longer need papers. We don't have to have a reason and we can look wherever we want.' Then suddenly they'd go, 'And we can throw all the cameras out.' And you could hear the orders like trickling down from the top and suddenly it would change, and the rules would change, because they'd go, 'Oh, we didn't know we could that too.' So they were really making it up as they went along.”


“It's sad, really, is the word, because these are rights. Things like, as a journalist, to not have your material taken away without any legal paper work. They didn't even give me a receipt for it. I had no proof they'd taken it or anything. In this country that would be completely illegal but they were like, 'It's terrorism. We can do what we want.' These are rights we fought a long time to get. I mean generations fought really hard for the right not to be detained before you've committed a crime, or to have the liberty to complain about what the system is doing and to dissent from that. To see that not just being eroded but being completely washed away in one fell swoop - .”

Ironically, all of that was ultimately ruled illegal, wasn't it?

“After the fact, the Danish court said the pre-emptive arrests were totally illegal. But it doesn't matter because they got away with it in the moment. Police in this country do exactly the same things. They do things that they're blatantly going to get slapped down for later on. Different police constabularies even take out insurance for when they have to pay fines for having acted illegally.”

One of the young activists says that the experience in Copenhagen radicalised her and made her want to look more at the power structure and capitalism itself, rather than its actions per se. Did it have a lasting effect on you?

“It's interesting because I had been to quite a few summit mobilisations before so I've been to Genoa, for example, shooting a little thing for Channel 4, and to Quebec, back in 2001. Sophie, the person who said that, she had never been to something like that before. So I maybe have a little bit more distance from it. But at the same time it was quite a harrowing experience. I think that I shared that glimmer of hope in the back of your mind that they would maybe turn it around. That, somehow, they would see reason and sign a serious deal. Or at least if that wasn't going to happen, it was still our responsibility to go there and tell them that that's what we wanted. I don't think I was dispassionately connected in that sense.”

As you said, though, that hope was only a glimmer.

“Of course you know it's a hope in the dark, but you hope nonetheless. Watching the way that they repressed the activists on the street, it was so different from Genoa. In Genoa it was like southern European, hot-blooded fascism, and in Copenhagen it was like that more Germanic, northern European fascism, which was like cold and calculated and almost with a smile on their face. That was quite upsetting and I suppose a lot of people came back, like Sophie said, very disheartened and confused. I did remember having quite a few conversations with them, going, 'Don't let this beat you down. Let it make you angry and stand up against it. Because this is the way the world works. If you push against power, power will push back at you, and you need to understand that this is the journey that you're going on.'”

Just Do It: A Tale of Modern-Day Outlaws is in cinemas from today

© Stephen Applebaum, 2011