In Your Hands: 2005

Considering the state of Dogme in 2005

It’s now ten years since the Danish film-makers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg produced the Dogme manifesto, a series of rules that stripped film-making down to the bare bones. There could be no artificial sets, no special effects, no stories set in the past or the future, and no music other than that played live on set — and the diktats of the manifesto soon filtered through to other areas of Danish cinema.

It all sounds rather serious but, in fact, says the director Annette K. Olesen, a lot of the films made in her native Denmark in the past decade have been comedies. Her Mike Leigh-inspired Minor Mishaps, for instance, was written by Kim Fupz Aakeson — “the funnyman in Danish films”.

Olesen called on Aakeson again when she was asked to make a Dogme movie, but this time both were determined to “shift gears”. The result is In Your Hands, a tough and uncompromising story that asks a lot of questions but refuses to provide any answers. In it, Anna (Ann Eleonora Jørgensen), an inexperienced and idealistic priest, takes up a post at a prison for women, where a new inmate, Kate (Trine Dyrholm), is apparently performing miracles. “There’ s something about her and God,” says one prisoner, claiming that Kate cured her drug addition. Though she is both fascinated and threatened by the cell block saviour, Anna turns to Kate for help when her unborn baby is diagnosed with a chromosome defect whose consequences cannot be predicted.

“The highest criterion of success as an individual in our society is to be in control and to be able to predict your life,” says Olesen. “What we really wanted to explore is the fact that if you want to control every square millimetre of life, you cannot submit to anything because it’s equal to giving up control.”

While submission in the film has the positive effect of, for instance, letting love in, it also leaves the door open for betrayal and disappointment. But that, Olesen seems to be saying, is the chance we all take in our relationships.

Ironically for a film with a priest as its protagonist, In Your Hands feels more like an existentialist drama than a religious one. There is no moralising, the characters have to make their own choices and live with the consequences.

“I’m very happy that you say that,” says Olesen, “because we’re not telling people to go to church. We talked about this film in a very existential way, so you can probably say we’re more related to existentialists than theologians.”

Thus we see Anna struggling to reconcile her faith in God and His unconditional mercy with the demands of a society that emphasises personal responsibility and perfection. Should she terminate her baby because there is a chance it may be handicapped? And if she does, will she be able to live with the knowledge of what she has done? Anna’s anguish as she weighs up her choices forces us to consider the profundity of such a decision and underlines the difficulty of trying to live up to the expectations that society has created.

“We want life to be perfect, and it ain’t,” concludes Olesen. “None of us is going to go through life without suffering, somehow.” 

Originally published in The Times, 2005

Open Water: 2004

Swimming with Sharks

“I never thought anyone would see it. I wouldn’t have taken my clothes off if I ever thought it was going to be distributed,” jokes the actor Blanchard Ryan, about Open Water, the film she agreed to co-star in that is now one of the most talked- about movies in America.

Financed and crewed entirely by the husband-and-wife film-makers Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, the ultra-low-budget movie maroons a scuba-diving yuppie couple (Ryan and Daniel Travis) in shark-infested waters, following a tour guide’s incorrect head count, then stays with them as they slide steadily down the food chain. And yes, those really are the actors bobbing up and down in the ocean, 20 miles from land. And yes, Steven Spielberg, those are real sharks circling around them.

Open Water is a sort of Jaws for the Fear Factor generation; except that, unlike the game show, it has characters you actually care about. In fact, the film is so effective at making you identify with its imperilled protagonists, you actually begin to feel wet, cold and threatened yourself. It is a disturbing experience, to say the least, and the dread evoked by the film lingers way beyond its refreshingly downbeat climax. Adding to the horror is the knowledge that Open Water was based on (although inspired by is more accurate) a holidaying couple’s actual disappearance off the Great Barrier Reef in 1998. When Kentis and Lau, who are recreational divers, decided to make a digital film, over which they would have absolute creative control, this story seemed like an ideal fit.

“We live in New York and a lot of digital features are shot here,” explains Lau. “So we were thinking, ‘What could we do that would push the format into an area it hadn’t been before?’ Once we decided this story would be well suited to this medium, Chris wrote a script. We knew we were going to work with unknown actors and that we were going to have to work with live sharks.”

The film-makers left the actors auditioning for the fictional roles of Susan and Daniel under no illusion as to what this would mean for them, recalls Ryan. “I was told we would be swimming in the water with a shark, or several sharks — I didn’t know then that there would be 50 of them and we were going to be in a gigantic feeding frenzy — and that there would be nudity for sure. So, going back for a second audition, you were pretty much tacitly saying you’re okay with everything, and we never really discussed it again.”

Despite a nagging feeling that she should turn down the role, Ryan says the script, her faith in the film-makers and the chance to work with her friend Daniel Travis convinced her it was too good an opportunity to pass up. Her mother, a “kind of Waspy and conservative” Bostonian, was worried about the nudity, while her father was “furious” about the sharks. “Still is,” says Ryan. “I said, ‘Dad, we had the best people and we were safe,’ and he’s like, ‘Who asked the sharks? Did they say they wouldn’t bite you?’ He’s grouchy about the whole thing. At the end of the day, you just have to take your own counsel on these things.”

Ryan was apprehensive, nonetheless. “I’m not a very physically courageous person,” she reveals. “I don’t like to fly, I don’t like trains and buses, and I don’t trust other people driving.” She has a genuine fear of sharks, moreover, and never swims in the surf, where most attacks happen, or without a mask and tank. “Part of the attraction of this was that I would be able to say I had done it.” She also fantasised about Open Water being the “coolest thing anyone has ever seen. I thought, ‘Yeah, I’d be willing to risk my life if I could come out of it looking really supercool’”. She laughs, “Instead, we ended up just looking really stupid.”

Before filming could start, Ryan had to be recertified for open-water diving. She spent six weeks with a trainer to prepare herself for the physical strain of working in the water for up to 14 hours at a stretch and familiarised herself with the characteristics of the reef sharks they would be swimming with over two days in the Bahamas. Perhaps unwisely, given her personality, Ryan also researched the testimonies of people who had survived being lost at sea: “It wasn’t good. You read all these stories and it scares the hell out of you. It’s never as if anyone goes, ‘Oh, it wasn’t that bad. It worked out fine.’ It’s all just horrifying.”

However, let’s not get too carried away here. Although Open Water blurs the line between reality and artifice, it is just a movie at the end of the day. Ryan and Travis were not drifting aimlessly in the sea, but tethered to a boat by fishing line. Moreover, at the end of a day’s shooting, they would return to a nice resort, where Lau’s mother and Kentis’s father were looking after the film-makers’ six-year-old daughter, and would either eat a home-cooked meal or go out to a restaurant.

Furthermore, Kentis had a day job as a cinema-trailers editor, so they were only shooting on extended weekends or on his vacation time. “This was not one gruelling thing where they were marinading in the sea for a month and a half,” he says. Nor, contrary to reports, was the production considered so dicey that no insurance company would touch it. “I know where that story came from,” he groans. “Before we went to the Sundance film festival, Newsweek asked me something about insurance and I made a joke about how nobody would insure us. When I read it, I thought, ‘Oh my God, he’s saying we didn’t have insurance. He didn’t realise I was joking.’ So we’re still hearing about it because of my idiotic sense of humour.”

Whatever the level of actual risk involved, Ryan still feared she might not get in the water with the sharks when the big day arrived. It did not help that one of her hands had been bitten down to the bone by a barracuda earlier in the shoot. “They always say you shouldn’t have an open wound in the water, so that made me a little nervous. But I thought, ‘Oh, come on, either your number’s up or it isn’t.’” If Ryan had backed down at that point the consequences would have been awful. “Chris and Laura were spending their own money, I think about half the budget of the movie was spent on these two shark days, and if I hadn’t done it, I would have ruined their entire life. I just hoped that somewhere inside me I could find it in me to get in the water and do what I promised I could do. But I was really scared, and I had many freak-outs.”

The team was working under the guidance of a shark expert, Stuart Cove. Tuna was tossed into the water to attract the sharks and then, when the moment was right, Ryan, Travis and Kentis, who acted as cameraman as well as director, got in the water with them. “You had to jump in on top of them,” recalls Ryan. “It was like a blanket of grey. And the minute you got in, they were all over you. So what we would do is swim and film as much as we could; then, when the sharks became really aggressive, they would haul us out and wait for some of the tuna to dissipate and some of the sharks to swim away. That was our little routine.”

While the people in the water were protected by chain-mail suits under their wet gear (their head and hands were exposed, however), Lau was hanging off the boat filming, wearing just a bikini. “She was right in an area where there was a big bucket of the bait and the tuna blood was seeping out of the bottom and creating a puddle in the water,” says Kentis. “Skin colour looks like fish belly to a shark, and the sharks pretty much assumed anything that was being thrown in the water was something they were allowed to bite. So had she fallen in, she would have been in more danger than us.”

Ryan still insists she was not expecting Open Water to play outside the art-house and festival circuits. “It was like a vacation video to us, almost,” she says. To everyone’s surprise, though, the film was snapped up for $2.5m following a bidding frenzy at Sundance, turning it into one of the most discussed movies of the year. “I am grateful I stuck to my guns and ignored the people who were telling me this was a project I should turn down,” she says. “I have learnt that the most risky thing you can do is take a job you don’t really want, because you’re almost destined to fail at something like that.” Laughing, Ryan adds: “I don’t know what my next film will be. But if there were only one word to describe it, it would be: indoors.”

Originally published in The Times, 2004

Maggie Gyllenhaal: 2005

Looking back at Maggie Gyllenhaal's early career

Maggie Gyllenhaal used to be a girl who never said no. To an acting role, that is. She auditioned all the time and would take whatever she could get, no matter how small the part. “I think I got pretty good at taking something that was about nothing, and infusing it with a little bit of life.” Having got used to working this way, it came as a shock when her daring performance in Secretary, as a self-harmer who finds happiness through S&M, suddenly produced a deluge of offers. “I very quickly had to learn how to choose what it was I wanted to do,” she recalls.

Almost overnight, Gyllenhaal became the queen of indie cinema. Her next film, the soft-centred Julia Roberts vehicle Mona Lisa Smile, therefore looked like a bizarre choice. Gyllenhaal, now 27, explains that she auditioned for the film before Secretary was released. Even so, she was allowed to do what has become her forte, and turn Giselle, a bed-hopping student at a stiflingly conservative all-female college in the 1950s, from a traditional “bad girl” into something more complex and morally ambiguous.

“That part was very different on the page,” she recalls. “It was like the character was so remorseful that she was sleeping with everybody, and oh God, she needs to cry at the end. I tried to make it someone who was enjoying her life and make no judgment about her. Just little switches you can do to make something a little bit better.”

Gyllenhaal pulls off a similar trick in Criminal, a remake of the Argentine con movie Nine Queens, released next month. She plays Valerie, a hotel receptionist whose brother (played by John C. Reilly) is trying to cheat her out of the family fortune. The director, Gregory Jacobs, wanted her to play the femme fatale, but Gyllenhaal’s instincts took her somewhere completely different.

“Whatever happens just kind of comes out of me,” she reveals. “I don’t make conscious choices. What I realised is that Valerie is performing the role of a femme fatale. That is not really an accurate depiction of any woman; it’s kind of a fantasy. What I liked is the ways I kept failing at it and I’d get angry or upset. You know, ‘These f****** shoes are killing me!’ That stuff was the most interesting to me, and the most accurately feminine as opposed to the male fantasy of it.”

Directors have not always found her easy to work with. “I suppose as long as they want to communicate it’s fine, but there are many who don’t, who think that what you do with a young woman is tell her to stand over there and look pretty. I can’t do that.”

Others, such as Tony Kushner, who worked with Gyllenhaal on production changes to the play Homebody/Kabul, adore her: “An actor like Maggie,” he says, “has a deep aversion to doing anything false and will say: ‘I don’t get this, what is this?’ She’s not intimidated by me or anyone.”

Some simply find Gyllenhaal confusing. She recently auditioned for a “big movie” and the director had no idea what the actress was doing. In fact, she recalls candidly, he thought she was terrible. “I said: ‘Look, neither of us is going to have a good time on this if we don’t understand each other, so let’s be really totally honest: I don’t want to do it in this boring way. Are you interested in doing it in this other way?’ And he was like: ‘No’ .”

Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex), Gyllenhaal’s director on last month’s quirky Sundance opener Happy Endings, was more accommodating. On paper, her role as a woman who sleeps with a gay man and then falls in love with his father was another “bad girl”. Gyllenhaal, though, “dared” herself to think of her as enriching both men’s lives, and Roos went along for the ride. “I think most directors would have said: ‘You ‘re supposed to be tough in this way and soft in this way.’ And I’m saying: ‘No, no, no, I’m soft in this way and tough in this way’. ” She adds: “I want to challenge the people watching (my films) to look at their life and question their ethics.”

If Gyllenhaal is at all bothered about losing work because of her desire to pursue her own vision, she does not let on. And because she gives herself 100 per cent, dangerously merging her own feelings with those of her character, it is perhaps for the best. While this approach produces authentic performances, making Shall Not Want, in which she plays a mother trying to rebuild her relationship with her daughter after serving three years in jail, has made her ambivalent about melding reality and fiction.

Though normally unfazed by sex and nudity (as is evident in Secretary), there were a couple of sex scenes in Shall Not Want which seemed fine while she was doing them, but when she got home she said to herself: “ ‘I’m never going to do another love scene again. I don’t like it. I’m acting like I’m so strong about it but I’m really not.’ And then I thought: ‘Well that’s because it was awful stuff happening to this girl.’ The way I work, what’s happening in the movie is indistinguishable from what’s happening inside of me.”

She looks down and picks at the huge toasted cheese sandwich that’s just been placed in front of her. “You know,” she says, fixing me with her big aquamarine eyes, “I get really thrilled by that kind of blurring of boundaries when I’m working, but I don’t know that it’s necessarily good for me. I am actually only just starting to recover from having made that movie.”

This blurring of the divide between self and character was partly what led to Gyllenhaal’s break-up with her long-term artist boyfriend during the making of Secretary, though one imagines it has been good news for her present beau, the actor Peter Sarsgaard. “I learnt that there are all these cultural ideas of what love should be, what it should look like, what sex should look like, what relationships should look like, what they should feel like, and I think a lot of young people especially try to fit themselves into those fantasies. I now think the much wiser thing to do is to say: ‘It looks like how it looks to me. It feels how it feels to me. And whether that’s OK with everybody is not important’. ” Crikey!

Gyllenhaal’s daring has not always impressed her family, well versed though they are in the ways of Hollywood. Her father is the director Stephen Gyllenhaal (Paris Trout), her mother the screenwriter Naomi Foner (Oscar-nominated for Running on Empty), and her younger, and until recently more famous, brother is Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, The Day After Tomorrow). All tried to dissuade her from going full-frontal in Secretary. Jake famously turned down the role filled by Michael Pitt in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, allegedly because of concerns over the nudity. Maggie sympathises with her sibling, suggesting that directors are not always as careful with men as with women. “I’m not sure that what (Pitt) did in that movie wasn’t verging on gratuitous. It’s so hard to know when you’re an actor, but he was so exposed, and I wasn’t sure exactly to what end.”

Gyllenhaal made sure she did not fall into a similar trap with her last two films in typically individual fashion. Most actresses’ contracts contain either a strict no-nudity clause or one specifying precisely which parts of their body can be shot. Gyllenhaal’s gave directors carte blanche — however, it gave her the last word on what went into the final edit.

“It’s like the perfect nudity contract,” she bubbles, “because if you’re having sex with somebody in a scene, you’re not thinking: ‘I don’t want you to see my breast . . .’ But if it ends up being a terrible movie and it’s put together in a way that feels exploitative, then I have the power to say: ‘Sorry, you can’t use any of that’ .”

You can bet she exercises it, too.

Originally published in The Times, 2005