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Tuesday

It's The Way Of Life For Emilio Estevez

STEPHEN APPLEBAUM, The West Australian, April 24, 2012



As the undisputed leader of the 80s Brat Pack, Emilio Estevez had fame, money and power. Catapulted to stardom by films such as The Breakfast Club and St Elmo's Fire, he could get almost any movie greenlit. To the Brats, it seemed like Hollywood needed them more than they needed Hollywood.

This wasn't true, of course, and by the mid 1990s, Estevez was all but washed up as a movie actor.

As a result, he knows what it is like to have to seriously take stock of one's life and figure out what's really important. Which is one reason why The Way, Estevez' follow-up as writer- director to his 2006 comeback film, Bobby, seems so heartfelt.

In it his real-life father, Martin Sheen, plays Tom, an uptight ophthalmologist, whose son Daniel (Estevez) dies in a storm while trying to walk the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage across the Pyrenees in northern Spain.

When he goes to collect the body, instead of bringing it home Tom has it cremated and decides to complete the journey in Daniel's memory. En route, encounters with other pilgrims (based, Estevez has said, on characters from The Wizard of Oz) force Tom to reassess his relationship with the son he'd believed was wasting his life, and his own choices.

The impetus for the film came from Sheen. A former altar boy who reconnected with his faith in the 80s, he floated the idea of taking a couple of digital cameras and making a documentary about him on pilgrimage. Estevez was interested, but thought it would be better as a drama. "I said 'Let's create something here. It's an opportunity. Let's not blow it'," he recalls, in the bar of a Berlin hotel.

Although he doesn't share his father's devout religiosity, Estevez, 49, describes himself as spiritual. "And out of that, and a celebration of humanity, I consider myself pro-life - but in the true sense of pro-life - and the movie celebrates that," he says.

Underlying The Way is the realisation that "all the crap we have encumbered our lives with, and that certainly doesn't fit into a backpack - like the second car, the bigger TV - doesn't make you happier."

Whether by accident or design, this taps into the kind of self-reflection that has been forced on Americans and people elsewhere by the global economic downturn, and that Estevez experienced personally when his career nose-dived.

This was the result of bad choices in making some dismal movies and appearing in others - Wisdom (with Demi Moore), three Mighty Ducks films and the movie The War at Home.
Meanwhile, his high-profile two-year marriage to singer Paula Abdul had come to an end.

"She was a bit of a diva," Estevez says. She was also a star, while his fame was fading - a situation later reflected in the relationship between his put-upon husband/manager character and Demi Moore's boozy singer in the movie Bobby.

"I know something about carrying someone's bags and about being handed the camera when there's a photograph," he'd reflected when we met to discuss that film. "Before that, I had been on the other side of the camera. It was an interesting shift."

With his film career in a slump, Estevez moved into directing episodic television, which didn't have the same cachet then that it has today.

The decade leading up to Bobby was tough, he says. He borrowed money, bet on horses, sold signed trading cards of himself.

"I was doing anything I could. My brother (Charlie Sheen) had given me an original Keith Haring painting and I sold it. I thought 'Well, it's worth three house payments, or that's child support'.

"Truly, I was doing whatever I had to do."

Estevez was to some extent following the example of his father, whom, as a child, he'd watched go from starring in Badlands and Apocalypse Now to appearing in films made for video and cable.

"He said yes to movies he should never have said yes to," Estevez says. "Stuff that was downright embarrassing. But yet I understood it, because he had mouths to feed and people outside of the family that he was committed to take care of, and I admire that."

The Way was partly his way of thanking Sheen, who turns in an engaging performance as a man opening himself up to the world and embracing the joy of simply being alive.

This, perhaps, reflects Estevez' journey, too. He had it all and lost it but now seems content with his lot. He talks warmly about making his own wine and about turning his backyard into a micro-farm, where he grows vegetables and keeps chickens.

The former Brat may no longer be the hot property or industry force that he once was, but Bobby and The Way suggest that Estevez still has some good years ahead of him as a filmmaker.


Monday

From The Vault: Robin Hardy, Neil Labute, And The Wicker Men

The Wicker Man: Caught in the crossfire

Mess with a classic and you'll get burnt, so the director Neil LaBute is ready for the inferno when his 'Wicker Man' remake hits cinemas.


By Stephen Applebaum, The Independent, 2006

Even before the cameras rolled, Neil LaBute saw trouble looming over his Hollywood "re-imagining" of the British cult classic The Wicker Man. The playwright and film-maker had already run into controversy with his adaptation of AS Byatt's Possession by Americanising the leading male character. Now he was risking the wrath of Wicker Man fans by replacing the Scottish pagan community led by Lord Summerisle (an imposing Christopher Lee), of director Robin Hardy and writer Anthony Shaffer's film, with a matriarchal society off the coast of Maine.

"I learnt nothing from Possession," LaBute told me, "because I'm willing to be taken to task again." Asked why, he said it was because he "loved" The Wicker Man. "Yet, I never felt the execution was so great that it couldn't be touched. I thought, whether it's bested or not, it could be done again. It's been 30 years and I think I've got a legitimate idea about it. It's an island of women and Nicolas Cage; that sounds an evenly matched game to me."

Feted or hated, the remake - that's what it is - is unlikely to trouble the reputation of the 1973 original. "The increasing number of university courses devoted to cult film may also have boosted the film's cultural prestige," notes Dr Stephen Harper, senior lecturer in media studies at the University of Portsmouth.

Eli Roth, whose recent gore-fest Hostel paid homage to The Wicker Man, says: "It's a brilliant film that was way ahead of its time. It explored the differences in religion from every angle - from sex to death, and, ultimately, to sacrificing yourself to your god."

That clash of beliefs could hardly be more relevant. However, it was in a spirit of fun that Hardy, a Christian, and Shaffer, a Jew, conceived their story. "Tony and I were great horror-film buffs," he recalls, "and used to see lots of the original Hammers. We wondered why it was that they always centred on pentacles, garlic, stakes in hearts and all those other things to do with black magic. We thought it would be fun to go back to the religion on which all this hokey witchcraft stuff was based - the old religion - and recreate a contemporary society that was pre-Christian."

Shaffer, who died in 2001, suggested they do something on the nature of sacrifice. "I don't think a serious film on the subject had been done before," he told me in 1996. "The subject opened the world of horror and terror, but also had an intellectual content that gave us a chance to do something quite thoughtful and provocative."

In the film, Sgt Howie, a bigoted but "honest Christian copper", played by Edward Woodward, arrives on Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a local girl. An audacious sleight of hand, typical of the writer of Sleuth and Frenzy, means that all is not as it seems. "He doesn't know it, but he is the sacrifice," Shaffer said. "The islanders waltz him, and us; everything they tell us is untrue."

Hardy spent six months poring over tomes such as The Golden Bough and a Victorian collection of traditional English songs. The latter, some rewritten by Shaffer's brother Peter, provided the basis for many of the songs that give The Wicker Man its texture. The songs fill in details about the islanders' beliefs and poeticise the conflict.

"Peter had a boyfriend, Paul Giovanni, who was a good musician," Shaffer said. "He said, 'Why don't you give Paul a crack at this?' I talked to Paul and I was impressed by his enthusiasm and knowledge. He took the challenge and rose to the occasion."

When Hardy read the remake's script, he says, it cleaved closely to the original but had no obvious musical element. This vital ingredient appears to have been a problem. "Canal+ told me they had a very prestigious Italian composer who had done a lot of really important films," he reveals, "and then I was told they had fired him just a couple of weeks ago and decided to completely re-do the music. But if they were really going to try to capture the spirit of the original, I think they would have had some songs in it. And, as far as I can make out, they haven't."

However good or bad it turns out to be, LaBute's film will at least be released. The Hardy/Shaffer original had to fight to be seen after it was used, Hardy believes, as a pawn in a political battle over the running of British Lion. When the film was eventually released, it played second fiddle to Don't Look Now on a double bill. Not until Hardy took the film to America, and magazines such as Cinefantastique started taking note, did its cult status take root.

Shaffer told me he had written a sequel, which, incredibly, brought back Sgt Howie. "It's difficult to start with a hero who's been burnt to a crisp, of course," he laughed. "Regeneration could be involved, or maybe the cavalry really do arrive and he comes out badly burned. Now you have one vengeful copper, and the gloves are off between him and Summerisle. It's damn difficult to beat the climax of the first one, but I think we've done it."

Hardy has not read The Loathly Worm, as the script was apparently called, but he has heard that all the major characters return 30 years older. "I, personally, didn't like the idea of that," he says, "so I was never involved."

Hardy has now re-entered Wicker Man territory himself with a new novel, Cowboys for Christ, for which he's trying to raise film funds. A cracking read full of sex, suspense, black humour, and, of course, music, the book sticks with The Wicker Man formula by sending two young American evangelists, Beth and Steve, on a mission to Scotland to "save" the locals, only to find themselves being "waltzed", to borrow Shaffer's term, in an increasingly grim dance of death.

"I thought it would be interesting to do a film using a much more contemporary group of Christians, ones who frankly are in the news, our fundamentalist friends, and also to do a number, really, on American innocence," Hardy says. "To fit it into Wicker Man territory seemed a good way of doing that; confronting them with something that is completely strange, but which they don't realise is strange because everything outside the US is strange to them."

In the meantime, his Wicker Man looks set to cast a shadow over LaBute's release. On 3 September, it returns to the big screen at the Curzon in Soho before being re-released the following day as a three-disc DVD package. As Lord Summerisle might say: "Mr LaBute, the Wicker Man awaits."

Tuesday

Ralph Fiennes: Coriolanus

Bad Bard to the bone

Bad Bard to the Bone 

 

STEPHENAPPLEBAUM, The West Australian March 1, 2012


Ralph Fiennes makes acting look easy. But when he mixed performing with his first stint as a film director, on a brutal, modern-day riff on Shakespeare's unloved and rarely staged political drama Coriolanus, it proved to be one of the two-time Oscar nominee's toughest assignments.

"It was very, very hard, and a bit mad," he says, ensconced in a London hotel room, his soldier character's beat-up body armour now replaced by a cardie and jeans. "The days I wasn't acting, I was relieved. But underneath it all there was a kind of thrill about it. It was a huge adrenaline rush."

As the eponymous battle-hardened general - whose refusal to beg for the support of the people, when he swaps the theatre of war for the bearpit of Roman politics, leads to tragedy - Fiennes is in almost every scene. He first played Coriolanus on stage, at London's Almeida Theatre, 10 years ago and the film is, to some extent, the result of unfinished business.

He wasn't unhappy with his earlier performance. But he'd felt there were sides to the Bard's rage-filled antihero that he'd been unable to convey in the theatre. "In a perverse way I love Coriolanus because he's so hard to like," says the actor who many thought should have won an Oscar (he was nominated) for his complex portrayal of a nazi SS officer in Schindler's List. "There was an interior life that I was starting to tap into but which could never be transmitted on stage where you just become someone striding around in anger, saying, 'I hate the people'."

In the cinema, close-ups allow the audience to look into Fiennes' eyes, making Coriolanus less monolithic, more knowable. We see deeper inside the man, who is at home in the masculine world of the military but emotionally stunted outside it, and, arguably, get to understand his flawed humanity better. "The moment that a man breaks the shell of his military conditioning," Fiennes says, "he's going to die." And so it goes.

The film's language makes few concessions to contemporary speech and Fiennes admits this was an obstacle when he was pitching the project. "People would go 'Um, will you be keeping Shakespeare's dialogue?' That was a big worry factor, that it would be a turn-off for audiences."

The movie's screenwriter, John Logan, shared his passion for the playwright's words, however, and they decided early on not to rewrite them. It's like "looking at a complex painting or listening to a difficult piece of music", suggests Fiennes. "It is a challenge. But I think it's a challenge people should rise to. Sorry," he adds, in a tone suggesting he isn't sorry at all. "You have to come with your ears open."

Less challenging is the modern setting (the movie was shot on location in Serbia), which is as instantly recognisable as any urban war zone seen on the news, while the film's action sequences are as dynamic, hard-hitting and raw as anything in Children of Men or Full Metal Jacket. To help potential backers understand his vision, Fiennes put together a book of photojournalistic images that reflected the story and drew parallels between the play's characters and real-life figures such as Jacques Chirac, Madeleine Albright, and Vladimir Putin.

"There was endless battle imagery that we have all seen from Iraq and Afghanistan," he recalls. He felt from the outset that the film would be a political thriller that resonated with our fractious and out-of-joint times. He wasn't thinking in terms of party politics or "isms", Fiennes says, but, like Shakespeare, in more general terms. "What I love is that what he is showing is the bigger perspective on the endless shifts of power. But this is a pattern that is particular to nowhere. It is a global dysfunction."

If anyone still had doubts about Coriolanus' relevance, they were swept aside when the film's premiere at last year's Berlin Film Festival coincided with the protests in Cairo and the beginning of the Arab Spring. Suddenly its scenes of popular unrest looked like they'd been ripped from the headlines.

"On the one hand it was odd," says Fiennes, pondering the timing. "But I think the things in Coriolanus are always going on. It's just that they're at the point of critical mass and have all come together. The world is in a state of complete uncertainty."

The economic uncertainty stymied Fiennes' first bid to finance the film in 2008 when "the big crash" sent interest in the project into reverse. Of course, he hadn't made things easy for himself by choosing a play with such a spiky protagonist. Fiennes, though, revels in portraying characters - from Schindler's Amon Goeth to the mentally disturbed lead of Spider, or Harry Potter's monstrous Lord Voldemort - that are often riven by internal tensions and not immediately accessible to the viewer. "I'm wary of this question, 'Is he or she likable?', he sneers. "I mean, f… off, I don't always want protagonists to be likable. Likable is rather deadly."

That said, playing Voldemort was particularly difficult, he admits, since J. K. Rowling had written a character that was so "creepy and evil and all-powerful and malign" that it made understanding him tough. "I was glad I had four films to try to get to the heart of him."

He will soon play Magwitch, the convict with a heart, in yet another adaptation of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations ("I couldn't resist having a go because it's a part that's not in my natural casting zone"), and the villain, probably ("that is classified information," he teases), in the 23rd Bond film, Skyfall. The actor is also set to repeat the "schizophrenic" feat of directing and acting with a period drama, The Invisible Woman, about Dickens' (Fiennes) affair with the young actress Nelly Ternan. He says he has been approached to direct other things, but cannot talk about them yet. Which begs the question of whether he can see a day when, like Clint Eastwood, he will give up acting for good?

"I can see why he would do that, not having to be on camera all the time, but I love being on stage," says Fiennes.

From The West Australian

Thursday

Krystyna Chiger: In Darkness

'These were terrible times': the true story behind In Darkness

 

by Stephen Applebaum

 

Krystyna Chiger, the last surviving member of a group of Jews who survived the Holocaust by hiding in the sewers of Lvov for 14 months, says Agnieszka Holland's dramatisation rings true

 

"I was young but I saw everything," says Krystyna Chiger, "and my experience has stayed with me my whole life. I remember every detail – everything – because it lives with me."

As a Jewish girl growing up in Lvov, Poland, Chiger experienced the Nazi occupation of her city and the ghettoisation, humiliation, and brutalisation of her people. Each day brought new terrors, until finally the ghetto was liquidated in a burst of breathtaking violence.

Chiger and her family escaped with other Jews into the city's sewer, and – with the help of a Catholic sewer worker, Leopold Socha – survived there for 14 months. Their incredible story is now the subject of Agnieszka Holland's Oscar-nominated Holocaust drama, In Darkness

Today a retired dentist and author of the memoir The Girl in the Green Sweater, Chiger heard about the movie only after filming was completed, because Holland had thought everyone was dead. As the last survivor, she's disappointed. But she has no qualms about the film's authenticity. "It is very, very realistic," she says. "Agnieszka did it without any beautification or exaggeration. She did it like it was."

Chiger had already witnessed many horrors by the time she went underground, during days laced with fear. When her parents went out to work, she stayed at home alone with her younger brother, Pawel; their lives were in her hands. "I was five, and I was as mature as a grown-up person," she says.
How did they survive?

"You become like an animal. You go by instinct. I learned to recognise footsteps: I knew this is German or this is Jewish or this is Ukranian.

"Sometimes, when I recognised the footsteps of Germans, I packed Pawel into a suitcase and pushed it under the bed, and then I hid behind a robe my mother left hanging in the corner. For me, these were terrible times."

Her father was skilled at finding hiding places for his offspring. Even so, Chiger says she was unaware that he and some other men were planning to conceal them in the sewer. "When they didn't want me to know something, they spoke Yiddish so I would not understand," she laughs. "Only when the liquidation came, that night, did I know."

As terrified screams and gunfire filled the air outside, Chiger stood trembling at the mouth of a tunnel leading into the miasmic blackness beneath the city. "I will never forget, I was so scared. I didn't want to jump and I was crying. Then somebody at the back, I think my mother, pushed me. My father was down already and he caught me."

She remembers weeping as he led her by the hand to the living space the men had cleared. "I kept asking: 'How long? How long?' … The darkness, the noise of falling water, this was a terrible moment." 

The siblings contracted dysentry, which lasted for the first few weeks, but eventually adapted to their environment – just as they'd had to do above ground – in order to survive. "The things we were mostly battling were the rats, but the surroundings were terrible: the smell, the dirt, the worms on the walls; it was unbelievable."

Socha, a deeply religious reformed petty thief, was paid to bring the group provisions. When the money ran out, he considered abandoning them. However, he changed his mind and continued to risk his life, and the lives of his family, for free. Chiger still doesn't know why. 

"This is a question that I am sometimes asking myself. He was an orphan, he didn't have a nice life when he was young, maybe something moved in him. My mother used to say that he was an angel that was sent by God to save us."

This belief was strengthened by the nature of Socha's death in May 1945. Soon after achieving his dream of buying a bar, he was killed by a Russian army truck while out cycling with his daughter. "The people who were witnesses, they said his blood was spilling into the sewer. For us this is very symbolic, and this is why my mother felt the way she did." 

Chiger will never forget him. "In my eyes he's like my father," she says. "I feel for him this way." Poles, she believes, see him as a kind of light at the end of the tunnel: a Pole who selflessly helped a group of Jews when so many collaborated in their destruction. She suspects this is why her book was a big seller in Poland: it was about "something good somebody did".

She hopes the film will bring Socha to a wider public, and that it will help in preventing the horrors of the Holocaust from becoming just a distant memory. She'd also like it to encourage people, especially the young, not to give up too quickly in tough times.

"If my father had given up, I wouldn't be here. He was always looking for safe places, and if this way didn't work, then he tried that way. And this is why you stay alive."

First published in the Guardian