Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing - Metro

My story about The Act of Killing in today's Metro newspaper

Film opens in the UK on Friday


Jake Scott, Director of Welcome To The Rileys, starring James Gandolfini: "The Critics Fucking Eviscerated Me."

Jake Scott’s childhood sounds like the stuff of a film fanatic’s fantasy. As the son of Ridley Scott, he got to play an astronaut in Alien, during a school summer break, and to drink beer with Stanley Kubrick in the editing room on Blade Runner. When he took the step of directing his own feature film, however, things went horribly wrong.

The story of two 18th-century highwaymen, played by Robert Carlyle and Jonny Lee Miller – both hot off Trainspotting – 1999’s Plunkett & Macleane was to critics like a fox is to a pack of hounds. They pounced on its visual excess and MTV-style ticks, and tore it – and the young director – to pieces.

Although he was already a successful music video director, with promos – for R.E.M., Cypress Hill, Tori Amos and The Rolling Stones, to name a few – under his belt, Scott found himself being framed as a product of nepotism. Twelve years later, with his second feature, Welcome to the Rileys, about to open in the UK, there is still a hint of hurt in his voice as he recalls how the attacks got personal.

“[The critics] fucking eviscerated me. I got disembowelled and it was horribly vicious… They referred a bit too much to my father and the silver spoon,” he sighs. “People think it’s easy but [Dad’s] a tough Northern bastard. In school holidays, he wouldn’t give us pocket money, and said, ‘You’re bloody working.’ So I did actually work hard growing up. I worked on camera crews. I worked in the art department. I did everything that everyone else did, sometimes more. So you just think, ‘Wow, they’re really not liking me.’”

Because of his experience he was concerned for his sister, Jordan, when she released her directorial debut, Cracks, in 2009. She’s “really vulnerable and delicate… and I was really worried that the same thing was going to happen to her. But it didn’t, thankfully. They were really kind.”

Not that the critics had got everything wrong about his debut. “To be honest, I wasn’t ready to make a film at that point,” Scott says. “And the reality is I didn’t feel very good about Plunkett, either.” 

Unfortunately, this realisation hit him while he was still cutting it. “I kind of knew then that it wasn’t going to be that good. So I was like, ‘Shit, I’d better get another film right now.’” He pitched for American Beauty. But “Mr Mendes got it, and did a better job on it than I probably would have done at the time.”

Plunkett left Scott unable to get another film off the ground at home, and for the past 20 years he has lived in the US. His plan was to “make a film in the States and hopefully then I’d be able to come back when I had redeemed myself”.

It took ten years before he finally got something into production, although “it wasn’t for lack of trying, man,” he says wearily. “And I kept trying, kept trying, kept trying.”

He got close to making an adaptation of David Lindsay-Abair’s play Kimberly Akimbo, about a girl with progeria (a rare genetic condition wherein symptoms resembling aspects of ageing are manifested at an early age), for Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks, to the point where he’d lined up a cast of Zooey Deschanel, John C Reilly and Lucy DeVito, and had prosthetics made by Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London). However, the project was scuppered at the last moment.

“Tonally, it was very close to Juno. And when that came out, I was in despair,” he groans. “I thought, ‘My God, I’m going to have to go and become an art teacher or something.’ Which wouldn’t have been bad.”

When Ken Hixon’s script for Welcome to the Rileys came along, it felt like a perfect fit. Plunkett had failed partly, Scott suggests, because he hadn’t found his own voice, and he’d discovered, mid-flow, that in trying to do an action-adventure film, he wasn’t being true to himself.

“What I have realised, as I have gotten older,” he says, “is that in some ways those experiences [growing up on movie sets] hinder you. Because you meet young film-makers and they really had to roll their sleeves up, and really struggled, and didn’t even go to film school, but they have a very clear point of view. Unfortunately, when you have a life like mine, you’re kind of fucked.”

“I’m the eldest son, I have one brother, and for me, and maybe it’s just my problem, the issue has been about finding a way to step out of the shadow and find your own language and your own point of view.” Welcome to the Rileys is his attempt to “make something that was truthful to me, as a person”. 

Restrained where Plunkett was flashy and kinetic, heartfelt where Plunkett was hollow, and character-driven where Plunkett was all about the plot, the film stars James Gandolfini as a grief-stricken husband whose listless marriage to Melissa Leo’s melancholy agoraphobe is saved by a young stripper (Kristen Stewart) he meets in New Orleans.

Stewart – who had yet to achieve global stardom in Twilight when Scott was advised during a drunken night out in San Francisco to check her out by Sean Penn, who had just directed her in Into the Wild – is the film’s biggest revelation.

“I met her the next day and she’s very twitchy,” laughs Scott. “But I knew immediately that she was the girl.” Her performance will shock and delight Twihards: slutty, fragile, bruised, foul-mouthed and real, her character, Mallory, could hardly be less Bella-like.

On set, Scott had three different acting styles to contend with. While the Method actor Gandolfini – “I adore him,” says the filmmaker. “He’s f***ed up. He hates himself, I think, as an actor. But he is amazing” – was very script-oriented, the more instinctive Stewart “wouldn’t follow her lines, ever. You’d have to say, ‘Kristen, the scene’s about this. Not about that.’” Meanwhile, Leo was “like a fine character actress who brings so much experience and so much knowledge and grace and kindness.”
Scott laughs. “So Jim would be punching walls. Melissa would be, ‘Oh, don’t worry about Jim.’ And Kristen would be, like, twitching in the corner. It was a madhouse.”

The results are engaging, and a huge step forward from Plunkett. But whether Welcome to the Rileys will achieve Scott’s hope of enabling him to return to the UK to make another film, remains to be seen. In the meantime, he has been tapped to direct a biopic of the tragic American singer-songwriter, Jeff Buckley.

One thing that is sure is that this time round, Scott is not taking any notice of the critics or taking it to heart when people bring up his background.

“You get judged and it’s always going to happen, and you can’t really get around that. I just now have learnt not to listen to any of it, and I don’t read press, whether it’s good or bad. And I’ve only been able to say that about this film, because I’ve only made two.”

Welcome to the Rileys opens Friday

This article first appeared in The Scotsman, 4/11/11


RIP James Gandolfini

Sopranos star James Gandolfini dies

James Gandolfini has died in Italy aged 51 Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
James Gandolfini, the actor famous for his lead role in mob drama The Sopranos, has died in Italy, according to his managers.

The 51-year-old died on Wednesday while on holiday in Rome, according to HBO and the actor's managers Mark Armstrong and Nancy Sanders.

It is understood Gandolfini was in Italy to attend the 59th Taormina Film Festival.

In a statement, HBO called the actor a great talent and a gentle and loving person.

Gandolfini played conflicted mob boss Tony Soprano in the groundbreaking HBO series that aired from 1999 to 2007. His film credits included Zero Dark Thirty and Killing Them Softly, and he appeared in the Broadway production God Of Carnage.

"Our hearts are shattered and we will miss him deeply. He and his family were part of our family for many years and we are all grieving," Gandolfini's managers said.

Gandolfini's performance as Tony Soprano was indelible and career-making, but he refused to be stereotyped as the bulky mobster who was a therapy patient, family man and cold-blooded killer.

After the series concluded with an ending that left viewers guessing, Gandolfini's varied film work also took in comedy, with Armando Ianucci's political satire In the Loop, and voiceover as the Wild Thing Carol in Where the Wild Things Are. Gandolfini also shared a Broadway stage in 2009 with Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Harden in the celebrated production of God Of Carnage, for which he earned a Tony Award nomination for best actor. He also was in On the Waterfront with David Morse.

In a December interview, Gandolfini said he gravitated to acting as a release, a way to get rid of anger. "I don't know what exactly I was angry about," he said. "I try to avoid certain things and certain kinds of violence at this point," he said. "I'm getting older, too. I don't want to be beating people up as much. I don't want to be beating women up and those kinds of things that much any more."

Sopranos creater David Chase said: "He was a genius. Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that. He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time. A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes." And Lorraine Bracco, who played Tony's psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi in The Sopranos, said: "I had the greatest sparring partner in the world, I had Muhammad Ali. He cares what he does, and does it extremely well."


Dark Skies Review

Dark Skies
Director: Scott Stewart
Starring: Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton, Dakota Goyo, Kadan Rockett, JK Simmons

A low-key alien abduction chiller for our anxious, economically uncertain times, Dark Skies compounds financial stress with extraterrestrial terror, as an American suburban couple find their family's security threatened by more than just mounting bills.



From the Vault: M. Night Shyamalan on Lady in the Water

As M. Night Shyamalan's career takes another knock with After Earth, Culture Web takes a look back at Stephen Applebaum's meeting with the filmmaker for the release of Lady in the Water.
You’ve said that writing Lady in the Water was the greatest struggle of your career. Why was this film particularly difficult?

“[Sighs] I think I was purging some stuff. Bad habits, protective things, neuroses that were starting to build up in my system. I had to get them out and the only way to do that was to make something void of any protection, and to experience the freedom of that. The only thing I can say is it would be like you’re in a fight, and the whole time you’re nervous you’re going to get hit, so you lower your guard and let the other guy hit you as hard as he can. The reason that you’re doing that is to say, ‘You’ve hit me as hard as you can, now I have no fear.’ Now the rest of the fight, if you’re still standing, this other person has no power over you whatsoever.

“I remember I used to watch Mike Tyson and he was an okay boxer until someone hit him. When he got hit, I remember this as a kid watching him, the other person was dead. He was reacting out of anger, of course. But it would awaken some kind of monster in him. It was like he couldn’t achieve his full potential until he was hit, because the first part of the fight was covered with fear. He was purging fear, basically.”

I have to say that the film felt like your most personal work, like you were in a sense dissecting yourself on screen.

“Yes, yes, for sure. It was a very naked thing. Very raw. I think it’s the responsibility of all filmmakers, not only filmmakers, artists, that have been lucky enough to have an audience to risks. Take huge risks. Risk it all. Take it all. If you’re not willing to do that, ultimately I don’t think that the audience will respect you - if you are an artist. And I strive to be an artist as opposed to someone that works at Wal-Mart putting things on a shelf. It did feel that way making it. And I think probably, as time goes on, it will be a shining thing in the body of work. When there’s, say, 20 movies, they’ll say, ‘This was what was going on.’ It will be easier with time to look back and watch the movie, I think.”

But what was the nature of the fear? Where did it come from?

“A fear of what people will say. The fear of innocence. Because, you know, if someone came in here and said, ‘I believe all people are good’, you and I would be like rolling our eyes, you know? That would be our reaction to that. Now, if they said, ‘I believe all people are good and I’m going to give you reasons why,’ we’d start to listen. But that comes from strength, you know what I mean? Innocence has been thrown on the heap of bad. It’s not an admirable characteristic. It’s associated with weakness and naiveté, crazy. I don’t agree. Life is complicated that’s true, very complicated, but essentially we’re moving in the right place. Essentially, we as a world realise that killing is wrong. Essentially. These things weren’t true before. You’d be walking and there’d be heads on London Bridge, say, and you’d be like, ‘OK, let’s go to work.’ That’s the way it worked not too long ago. Blacks just got the vote in the generation of the people that are alive now. . . You know what the answer to your question is? Fear of being yourself.”

Had you reached a point then where you felt you weren’t being yourself? Why did you feel that you needed to do this now?

“There’s a children’s story, it’s a parable, about a bear that goes to bed in a cave in winter and when he wakes up a factory has been built over it. So he gets up and the foreman says, ‘Hey, get back to work,’ and he says, ‘I’m a bear’. The foreman says, ‘No you’re not. You’re a man who needs a shave and wears a silly fur coat. Now go to work.’ He’s like, ‘I know I’m a bear.’ So the foreman takes him to the manager. He says, ‘I’m a bear’, and the manager says, ‘No you’re not. You’re a silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat.’ Finally he’s taken to the president, who says, ‘You’re a silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat. Stop acting like this.’ He says, ‘I’m a bear.’ And they’re like, ‘We’ll prove to you you’re not a bear.’ So they take him to the zoo and they show him to other bears, and they go, ‘Is this a bear?’ The bears go, ‘He can’t be a bear because he’s outside the cage. He’s obviously a silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat.’ So then the bear goes, ‘Maybe I am a silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat.’ So he goes to the factory and works there for years, and then the factory closes down and everyone leaves, and he’s the only one left and doesn’t know what to do. It starts to snow, it’s cold, and he’s shivering. Suddenly he sees a leaf fall from a tree and remembers that bears, when the leaves falls, need to go to caves. So he goes to a cave and he’s warm, and he goes, ‘I am a bear.’

“So it’s that. The world will pound individuality out of you. They will pound it out of you until you can prove that those things that make you different are admirable and an asset. Until you prove that they will be seen as a negative and they will pound you into oblivion until you conform. Would it be much easier for me to go make, like, Mission: Impossible 4 or something? Hell yeah! It would be so much easier for me to do that. I would not be me, though, unless I could do it for the right reasons. And I promise you, if I did do a Mission: Impossible 4, it would come out in a way where everyone would be, like, ‘What the hell is this?’ [Laughs]”

So is that what you felt was happening to you at Disney when you split from them and took your script for Lady in the Water to Warner Bros? Was your individuality being pounded out of you, or at the least being questioned?

“Well, um, it’s a common thing; it’s not just a Disney thing. They were always like parents to me, they still are, and they were giving me parental advice. This is not a caustic relationship; this is a great relationship, as I have with Warner. The fallacy is that I’ve ever had a tough relationship with these people. These have all been great relationships. That’s why it was so difficult to leave. If it was a fractious relationship it would have been cake. But it was not that way. But they were being parental and parents say, ‘Don’t do this. Don’t that. You’ll get in trouble. Don’t become a rock star. Don’t be a filmmaker because it’s highly risky.’ That’s what my parents said.”

Yes, your father has been particularly difficult to please and I wondered whether what Disney was telling you reminded you of your relationship with him.

“Yes. That’s why I describe them as parental. They’re coming from a good place. They’re trying to protect. But you can’t say the things that make me similar to a man who’s wearing a fur coat are the only things. Those aren’t the things you nurture necessarily. The bear parts of me are also those things that need to be celebrated and nurtured. It’s not like, ‘We would have made $700 million off of The Village if you had done this, this and this.’ I’m aware of that. But I side with the parents in that film. So I did the movie from the point of view of the parents, and so that’s going to piss a lot of people off. If you side with the children and blow up the fucking village and get the hell out of there, and all the parents are the villains, that’s easy to understand and much more in line with the general population’s feeling. People’s expectations would be met - boom, boom, boom - and we would have two times as much gross, I guess. I totally understand that. I can’t do that. I wish I could. I told them, ‘I wish I could, I hear you, but I actually side with the parents. If I’d had these horrific things happen to me that those people have had in their lives, I’d say enough’s enough. I don’t want to raise kids in this world anymore. I have the ability to do this, let’s just go back to an older time.’ So in this fictional moral question I chose the side that I consciously knew was going to cause more problems and limit us. That’s the bear instinct. In the long run, I feel that that’s why I will still have an audience 20 years from now. And that’s why, whatever you call it, the media critics – in the United States at least – react so personally to me. So personally.”

Yes, the criticism recently has been very harsh.

“Yeah, very personally to me. Way over what’s needed. And based on no evidence at all that I am difficult or crazy, or any of those things. They don’t write anything that would contradict their premise that I have gone crazy. Warner Bros. actually likes Lady in the Water. So they’re crazy as well. We’re all crazy. The cast loves the movie so they’re also crazy. The crew loves the movie to the point where they will say it’s their favourite movie. So they’re also crazy. So there’s a lot of crazy people. I’m just not crazy. Then the crazy people acknowledge that the movie can be seen and not understood. So the crazy people seem to acknowledge the other people, but they don’t seem to acknowledge anybody else but their point of view. They can’t imagine anybody liking this movie.

“Really, go to any multiplex in the United States and there’s a contingent of people that are standing up and applauding. I’ve heard from all across the nation of standing ovations in multiplexes. Also there’s the other contingent that are like, ‘What the fuck was that? Where’s the fucking scares? Where’s this? Where’s that?’ They don’t get it. I totally know there’s a way to look at it where you don’t get it. There’s also this other way to look at it. And that’s the thing, you know? Some part of me really does wish I was one thing or the other. And my wife always says, ‘Why don’t you make one or the other?’ You know, I almost get tears in my eyes when she says that because I know she’s trying to protect me, but unfortunately I’m neither one nor the other.”

Do you regard this as a defining moment like the one when Harvey Weinstein took control of Wide Awake and the film flopped, spurring you on to write The Sixth Sense?

“Yeah, but not in the same way. Almost in a reverse way. Because that was one where I was lost and the system took advantage of me. I was searching and lost and I was fumbling. This is one where I’m not lost and the system is trying to take advantage of me. I am finding, for me, this is just my point of view, they are powerless. Because I am going to write another one, I am going to get one of the best actors in the world, and I will try to inspire someone with money to pay me to make it. I will convince them why I believe it will connect to people. I will convince them in a room. We will go make another one, then another one after that, another one after that, and then another one after that. And you can keep coming at them but eventually you would have to say, ‘He’s a fucking bear. Leave him alone. He’s a bear.’ So it’s a reverse kind of realisation. One was, ‘I need to get my shit together because I’m going to get killed in this industry.’ That’s what happened with the Harvey thing. If I was the me now, it wouldn’t have turned out like that because I would have been clear. I would have said, ‘Harvey, no.’ Look, I’ve been super, super lucky. Super, super lucky and been given a strong responsibility, which I don’t take lightly. I consider part of my responsibility to not cater, not even to my own protective feelings.”

You’ve said that each film reflects where you were in your life when you wrote it. So what mood will you be writing the next piece in?

“It’s interesting you said that because I immediately had an answer, because I know what I’m writing next. It’s funny you should say that because right now, who knows by the time you see it, but the lead character right now is undeniably faithful. He’s not doing the arc. Other people are doing the arc around him. In the middle of this supernatural dark event that’s happening, he’s the one that’s going, ‘Follow me’, and they’re going, ‘You’re crazy’. There’s a real sense of it’s all going to work out and that there’s a reason behind things that sound awfully bad right now. So he’s a man who has faith and not a man who’s finding faith, which is very different to a lot of these characters. So till you just said that it didn’t even occur to me.”

And that’s how you feel now?

“I’ve never felt so fearless in the writing, so it actually allows me to write incredible thriller-like movies, because I am not proving or giving up anything. It’s coming from faith and confidence. So you can have the great scares and the great ride and the great everything and it’s coming really great and effortlessly rather than being a struggle. Everyone’s normal perception is one for them and one for you. So you make the big popcorn movie then you go make your own personal movie, and I’ve always wanted to do both of them together. And that’s where all the problems come from. The audience goes: ‘Hey, that’s not scary enough’ or ‘It’s not popcorn enough’, and then the critics are like, ‘Oh, he’s a hack’. So they’re both looking at it through the wrong lenses. Not the joint lenses.”
© Stephen Applebaum, 2006


Writer-director Dan Mazer on I Give It A Year

After spinning comedy gold with Sacha Baron Cohen, Dan Mazer has finally struck out on his own as the writer-director of the spiky rom-com, I Give It A Year.

Dan Mazer studied law at Cambridge, but from the moment that he discovered it was nothing like the American TV crime drama LA Law, he knew he had no future as a legal eagle.
“I loved that show and thought I could be like Harry Hamlin and go out and solve crimes,” he says. “Within an hour of the start of my first lecture, I realised it’s all about attention to detail, of which I have none. It’s all about scientific focus, of which I am entirely bereft. I would be the worst lawyer on earth.”
Instead, Mazer became one of this country’s best comedy writers, earning acclaim for his groundbreaking Ali G, Borat and Bruno collaborations with Sacha Baron Cohen. He has now turned his hand to directing, with the self-scripted I Give It A Year. A kind of Relate version of a Richard Curtis movie, the film injects British romantic comedy with a much-needed dose of reality, as it mines mismatched Josh’s (Rafe Spall) and Nat’s (Rose Byrne) marriage for rude laughs, sharp observations and embarrassment.
Believing that comedy comes from truth, Mazer wanted to create a film that felt relevant to his own life. He has been married to the comedian Daisy Donovan, whom he met while working on Channel 4’s controversial satirical news programme, and original home of Ali G, The 11 O’Clock Show, for seven years — “and it’s great, I love it”, he says. “But it’s really difficult.”
The first year of any marriage can be especially hard, he believes. For men, sometimes, it is as if something switches in their head and a relationship suddenly looks like a prison sentence. “Before we got married, there was some part of me that thought: ‘Oh, old Dan going out and getting drunk and sleeping with lots of women is going to be dead’. And I never did that anyway. But there’s just some part of every man, I think, that reacts against that limitation of possibility.”
I Give It A Year is possibly the first romcom to make you root for a couple’s divorce. If this sounds subversive, it is. And that is the way Mazer likes it. “I’ve always tried to do something different and not go along with the flow. My plan is to make something that feels unique, rather than fall into line with other stuff.”
He found the perfect co-conspirator in the iconoclastic Cohen. They first met at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School in Elstree, aged 11. “He was in the year above me,” recalls Mazer, “so I always looked up to him as an older boy, and trailed in his wake. But he has always been a very charismatic individual that people have paid attention to.”
Unlike the Hammersmith-born future Hollywood star, Mazer did not join the Habonim Dror Jewish youth movement. “I was brought up in Ruislip, so I was kind of a less full-on, hardcore Jew.”
The director Larry Charles felt that Cohen was on a mission that came from his background when they all worked on the Borat movie. “I don’t think it was necessarily a pro-semitism mission in any sense,” argues Mazer, who shared an Oscar nomination for the film’s screenplay. “What we wanted to do was uncover bigotry in a funny way, and one arm of that was antisemitism.”
Borat, the boorish Kazakh journalist, began mainly as a voice. “And then I remember the meeting we had where we went: ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if he was virulently antisemitic?’ The first port of call has always been to be funny. And then to derive some sort of satire from that is, I think, really important.”
Mazer was raised in an environment booming with laughter. His father introduced him to Phil Silvers and the Marx Brothers as a child, and when he was dying, they watched Seinfeld together. “We bonded over a kind of mutual love of comedy and he was incredibly funny.”
As a 10-year-old he looked forward to shivahs, because “everybody would sit round and have a good laugh at each other, which is just a really odd scenario,” he admits. “The default setting for our family was to laugh at things, and I think that’s sort of a Jewish sensibility.”
Elaborating, Mazer reveals his “weird philosophy” about Jews and humour. “We don’t really like to fight. We’re not necessarily the bravest people. So where other people might resort to violence, I think we verbalise it and that sharpens our comedic senses.” Moreover, “at the age of 13, when we’re at our most vulnerable, our least attractive, we’re forced to perform and make a speech in front of all our friends and family, which is kind of the most mortifying thing imaginable, and that hones that instinct at an early age as well, I think.”
Mazer’s and Cohen’s instincts were certainly whetted to perfection. This is not to say that everyone finds them funny. The Borat and Bruno films were steeped in controversy (the backlash included lawsuits), with some critics claiming that the film-makers picked on easy targets. Mazer is adamant that they were “rigid and diligent” about who they set up.
“The idea is that there should always be a rationale about exposing this person and that we can stand up for it and justify it in any way. We always wanted to expose bigotry and prejudice in some sense with all those people, and I think we basically did that with everyone.”
That said, he admits to having “doubts” about their use of the aged Jewish owners of a bed-and-breakfast in Borat. “They weren’t doing anything wrong and they were a nice old couple. So that would probably be my one moment where I think: ‘Did we need to do that?’”

Whether he and Cohen can pull off another Borat/Bruno-style operation, remains to be seen. Mazer certainly is not ruling anything out. “People were saying since series one of The 11 O’Clock Show: ‘You’ll never get away with Ali G any more’, and we always found a way. If the will is there, maybe we’ll find a way to do it again.”

I Give It A Year is available on DVD now

This article originally appeared in The Jewish Chronicle

Read my review of the film in The National:

Copyright Stephen Applebaum, 2013


After Earth: The end of M. Night Shyamalan's filmmaking career?

If the American reviews for M. Night Shyamalan's After Earth are to believed, the once-promising director of The Sixth Sense has made another dud.

Made for a purported $150 million, the film reportedly continues the downward spiral that started with Signs.

Have you seen After Earth yet? What do you think? Is it the movie that will sink Shyamalan's career?