Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Kent Jones on Hitchock

Prominent film critic Kent Jones was in Chicago this past weekend for a screening of his new documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, which was shown at the 51st Chicago International Film Festival. The film, which opens in theaters in early December is brilliant, a superb look not only at the details of the famous interview in 1962 between Alfred Hitchcock and French director François Truffaut, but also an examination of several scenes from Hitchcock's finest works, as analyzed by such notable current film directors such as Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, David Fincher, Arnaud Desplechin and several others.

Per agreement with the film's distributor, I cannot post my full review until the film's theatrical release, but I was able to conduct a brief phone interview with Jones. While technical issues on my end precluded me from transcribing the entire interview, I can give you some highlights.

I mentioned to Jones that I thoroughly enjoyed the musical score by composer Jeremiah Bornfield; subtle, quiet and edgy, the music recalls the spirit of Bernard Herrmann's finest work for Hitchcock without ever borrowing from it.

"That's interesting, " Jones commented, after thanking me. "We purposely didn't want a Herrmann-like score for this film. I was looking for something like what Johnny Greenwood wrote for There Will Be Blood. "But I'm extremely pleased with Bornfield's score."

I asked Jones, about his beginnings in film- did he go to film school? "I did, but I didn't stay very long- film school and I weren't meant to be," he replied. He mentioned, however, that he was stirred on by the tv documentary series in the 1970s, The Men Who Made the Movies, produced by film critic Richard Schickel. "It influenced me greatly," he told me. "I discovered there was such a thing as a director and an editor."

I asked Jones, who has just turned 55, about his first viewing of a Hitchcock film. "It was a 2-D print of Dial M for Murder," he replied, which he saw in college. Later on, his mother took him to see old prints of such Hitchock classics as The 39 Steps and Psycho.

In Hitchcock/Truffaut, there is a sequence in which Martin Scorsese describes one particular shot in the film Topaz (1969), in which a character turns his head a little to answer a question. Scorsese points out the slightly overhead angle of the camera so that we, the audience, can see this person's eyes faintly shift; for Scorsese, this shot tells us that we know the character is lying. It's a remarkable piece of analysis by Scorsese and of course, a marvelous, subtle piece of directing by Hitchcock.

I asked Jones if he thought that any evaluation such as this was being taught in film schools today. "I can assure you that it is not being taught in film schools," was his reply. I mentioned that this sort of analysis was not something the average film goer would pick up on. Jones agreed, but added, that Hitchcock, "was doing something that wasn't going to be noticed. It's just a fabric of what he was trying to achieve." Excellent scrutiny by Jones, as well!

I also asked Jones if he interviewed everyone he wanted to for commentary in this film. He said basically he did, except for Brian de Palma, whom he had asked, but opted to decline, as there is a new documentary coming out about him; thus de Palma was reserving his comments. When I asked Jones as to why he didn't talk to Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, who has written at length about Hitchcock's films, Jones basically told me that del Toro's work is in print for anyone to read.

Jones concluded the interview by stating that he is not into the idea of Hitchcock's perversity, as was suggested by critic Donald Spoto in one of his books (written, incidentally, after Hitchcock had passed away.) "There is so much moralizing throughout the culture today," Jones stated. "People love to point the finger." He continued on this topic by saying that "these conversations about women - they're not real issues in the film."

Clearly, Kent Jones admires the art of Alfred Hitchcock; his documentary is solid proof of that. It's also arguably the finest film ever about the great director. I highly recommend it - congratulations, Kent!

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Man Behind the "Madnesses"

Jeremy Carr (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Writer/director Jeremy Carr was in town recently for a showing of his first feature film Other Madnesses, which was screened at the 51st Chicago International Film Festival. The film is the story of a New York City tour guide named Ed Zimmer (James Moles) who may or may not be imagining evil deeds taking place in the immediate world around him. Reminiscent in some ways to Taxi Driver, this is a highly effective film about an individual and his private hell, stylishly directed by Carr.

I sat down with him for a one-on-one interview to learn about his experience in the movie business, the realities of making this movie and if he was influenced by the film Taxi Driver, when he made this work.

Tom Hyland: Are you from New York?

Jeremy Carr: I grew up in New Jersey, the town of Westfield, nearby New York City. I went to school at Boston University and attended film school there. Afterwards I moved to New York City, thinking this was going to be temporary, this will be a pit stop on my way to Los Angeles and I ended up staying in New York for sixteen years.

It’s just something that happened. It’s like New York has a way of pulling you in and keeping you there. 

TH: What did you do for 16 years in New York?

JC: Initially I came out of film school and I wanted to keep making films. In school, I had made several short films. At this point, I was shooting a film in 16mm and came out of film school and the reality was that I had to get a job, so my first job was at Miramax. I started out as a temp at Miramax and worked my way into a job in their post-production department. So it gave me a sense of what was going on in the industry and how a film company actually works. It allowed me to meet a lot of interesting filmmakers.

TH: Is that still owned by the Weinsteins? They now have their own company, right?

JC: Right. I believe the Weinsteins sold it. I think there is new ownership.

TH: The question that I’m sure you have been asked a lot and will be asked a lot is “were you influenced by Taxi Driver when you made this film?” Tell me about this film. Is any part of this autobiographical? What about the main character Ed? Is he based on anyone you know or is he a composite of people?

JC: Sure. The impetus for the story came from my own experiences. I lived in New York City for sixteen years and at that point, I had been living there about eight years. It was a combination of things. One, was I kept a journal and I would write down anecdotes about things I observed in the city. Usually bizarre things, things that I thought were strange or surreal, or creepy. I would collect those little anecdotes.

At the same time, I was going through a period in my life where I was having really bad recurring nightmares. So I started researching lucid dreaming, how to use lucid dreaming to overcome nightmares, which was a technique that I picked up from a book called On Lucid Dreaming by Stephen LaBerge. It actually really helped me. It helped me figure out how to become aware and conscious while I was dreaming, and I was able to stop the bad dreams from happening.

TH: Did the dreams start in New York?

JC: Yes. Mostly I think it had to do with my general state of paranoia of living in the city, surrounded by people all the time. Coming close to getting mugged a couple of times. Mostly having these dangerous moments that I compiled, but I worked through it using this dream therapy.

That’s when I started writing the screenplay. I had this idea for a character not like me, necessarily, but going through a similar thing I was going through, having recurring dreams and wondering what that means. I wanted to take it to the extreme level of what if you started to think your dreams were more than fantasies, what if they actualy signified something? What if you had a character that was becoming unhinged and thinking that the dreams were premonitions and were somehow important to his life, and they were like puzzles and he needed to understand them, what they mean and what to do about them.

So that’s where I started from and your question is about Taxi Driver. I consider myself a bit of a cinephile and I do watch a lot of films and I went to film school and I certainly love that movie. I would say I wasn’t super conscious… it wasn’t as though I was writing an updated version. I felt like I thought I had a good first draft of the script, I remember having a moment where I questioned, “is this too much like Taxi Driver? Am I doing anything new? Is there anything new I am bringing to the table?

What I decided what I really liked about the story was that it did have sort of a nod to Taxi Driver, but it felt more contemporary. The character felt different to me. The character of Ed, unlike Travis Bickle, who was a Vietnam vet, Ed Zimmer is college educated, he’s sort of a college dropout. But in the movie, I like this idea of being a more educated and post-9/11 Travis Bickle, if that makes sense.

And that puts a new spin on it and obviously, once we started filming, you start pointing the camera and you find really interesting locations in New York City in all five boroughs. What I wanted to do was contrast, thing such as Times Square, the Statue of Liberty and all the iconic landmarks of NYC and contrast that with the seedier moments you might find in the Bronx or in Brooklyn or in Staten Island. Once you start doing that and point the camera at those places, you can’t help but feel, is this the Taxi Driver vibe?

TH: I like the idea of having Ed be a tour guide on a bus, so he’s everyman, so those fears and nightmares become more real. Also the fact that he’s seen all of the city, he’s seen all the sickness; he’s not some advertising agent working in an office on Madison Avenue.

JC: Right, well, he’s seen both sides that the tourists aren’t seeing. And it’s through the eyes of a tour guide that he spends all day talking to tourists, saying, “on your left is the Empire State Building and he says “New York City is the greatest city on earth” and he repeats it as it’s a mantra. “The greatest city on earth. The greatest city on earth.”

And then we see him go home at night. It’s anything but the greatest city.

TH: I like how you use space, as you have that cramped apartment where Ed can barely think as opposed to the skyscrapers of Manhattan, although there is a certain claustrophobic effect to that as well.

It is, and NY has so many interesting locations. What I tried to do was to frame each scene to be a reflection of Ed’s state of mind. In large part, it’s a story about loneliness and the lonelieness of living in a big city such as New York. And even though you’re surrounded by people, sometimes it’s the loneliest place to be, because you’re anonymous and they’re strangers. I wanted to show that element that Ed lives in.

TH: I love the opening shot as well, with the lightbulb flickering in the dark apartment. It sets the tone for the film perfectly. Now when you’re making this film, how are you hiring these actors? Are these people you had known or were they recommended to you or did you work with a casting director?

JC: To backtrack a little bit, this is a truly independent movie. Very small crew. Dawn Fidrick and I produced it together. It took us eight years essentially from beginning to end. We shot for six years in the city and we did put out ads. Six years, as people’s schedules would allow us, as we would raise finds and shoot when we could. Then we would work day jobs.

One of the trickiest parts was keeping the continuity straight. James (Moles, who plays Ed) was great at that, keeping his hair a certain length. The basic part was his acting, becoming that character again and again. Not only sustain that role for that long period of time, but we were shooting out of order – you don’t shoot in continuity. We would talk about it a lot when we were preparing to do a scene. He had a real knack for keeping in mind where his character was on the arc. For example, his character is a different personality by the end of the movie that he was at the beginning of the movie and there’s a whole range in between. I give him credit. I didn’t know if he could do it, but James could pinpoint where he was in that spectrum. He would ask me to remind him where that scene falls in the story so he could know emotionally where to be at that point.

He comes from the theater, which really helps. His background is a stage actor, so I think for him, doing that sort of mental preparation. He likes to rehearse a lot and work on a scene.

TH: I thought that Natia Dune, who plays Lucya, was great. How did you happen to hire her?

James had become a friend by this point, as I had seen him do some theater work. To answer your previous question, Ed Zimmer is an amalgam of different people, James a little bit, maybe myself a little bit. Also Crime and Punishment plays into the story, so I wanted that Raskolnikov in the character, that sort of paranoid Russian character and then I’ve done tons of research on true crime. It’s something I’m fascinated with. This sort of ties in more with the kilers in the story. Researching from everyone from Ted Bundy to Jeffrey Dahmer, pulling from their personalities.

But Natia Dune is someone I met from doing auditions. I auditioned 200, 300 actresses and she just rose to the top.

Jeremy Carr (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

TH: As far as Ilya Slovesnik who plays the stranger, how did that character come about?

JC: That ties in with the Crime and Punishment angle. As you know, Ed becomes obssessed with reading the book Crime and Punishment. When I was writing the script, I was sort of obsessesd with Crime and Punishment and that’s how it came into the story.

I had this idea that when Ed is reading Crime and Punishment he would be also walking around Times Square observing things. He sees a prostitute working on a street corner. He sees a sign in the window that says, ‘just one buck.’ All these little things that are clues to what’s going to happen later. The film is very subtle.

It all kind of works together. In a way that he’s connecting things and elements of Crime and Punishment keep resurfacing in real life.

And one of the things… this character called the Insepctor that Ilya Slovesnik played.. when I was writing it, my approach to writing the script was that I didn’t want to follow the standard three-act structure, like the old way of writing screenplays. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I wanted to take a more novelistic approach to it. So let me start with this character and the dilemnas he’s having and the nightmares he’s having and doesn’t know what to do about them and let me just follow him around and see what he does.

So the story begins with that problem and we just follow Ed on a strange journey that just sort of meanders about. I wanted it to feel more realistic. I kept asking myself.. I didn’t want this to be a genre, horror type movie in the sense of having things jumping out at you to scare you. I didn’t want to fall into those tracks. I wanted it to be more character driven than that.

That’s how I got to the third act. I felt like we needed to turn the pressure up a little bit. We need to have a reason why Ed would abandon this vigliante mission he is on. I felt that the cliché would to be to intrdocue this cop character, somebody that is trying to capture him. I felt it would be much more interesting to have a stranger, this mysterious character turned up and statred talking to him and stalking him. And we don’t really know who he is and Ed doesn’t know who he is. And it would feel as though he stepped right out of the pages of Crime and Punishment.

Again, it ties in with this idea that Ed might be imagining this and might not be – it might be real, it might not be real.

TH: You seem like a confident person, but were there ever moments of doubt over the years you took to make this?

Oh, there were definite dire moments, but time was on our side. There was no real deadline for the film. The only deadline was would the actors stick around?

JC: Time was on our side and it also allowed me to have more creative control. We had a studio in Brooklyn and we built the sets in there. We could pre-light the sets, film a rehearsal of a scene and then take that film to edit it and look at what was working, to be able to test it out. It became a really interesting process of crafting and refining the film.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Chicago International Film Festival 51 - Initial Thoughts

Chicago International Film Festival 51 - opens this week!

The longest running international competitive film festival in the United States returns for its 51st edition, starting this week in Chicago. Opening night is Thursday, October 15 with the screening of the Italian film Mia Madre, directed by Nanni Moretti. 

I have seen this film and will review it soon. Here are notes on the first three films I have seen from this year's festival:

Breakfast at Ina's - directed by Mercedes Kane. This is an uncomplicated documentary about a lovely woman, Ina Pinkney, who managed Ina's, a breakfast restaurant in Chicago's West Loop, that became a local institution. The film covers the action of the final month - December 2013 - of the restaurant, which Pinkney was forced to close due to her health; she contracted polio in her youth and still suffers today from post-polio, as she has trouble walking. 

If this film is not as gripping as it should be, it is a very good and even-keeled look at Pinkney's life, which has had many ups and downs. The most engrossing part of this documentary has to do with Pinkney recalling her marriage in the 1960s to a black man; interracial marriage of course, being somewhat of a taboo at that time. Clearly, Pinkney's experience with this matter, both in Brooklyn where she lived at the time and soon after, when she moved to Chicago, shaped some of her outlook on life. 

This is a film with a good heart, as it keeps things simple, offering us Pinkney talking about her management style, the everyday travails of running a breakfast restaurant and her future. She comes across as one of the most genuine people you'll ever meet. 

Breakfast at Ina's will be shown on Sunday, October 18 at 3:30 PM; Thursday, October 22 at 12:00 PM and on Friday, October 23 at 4:00 PM


How to Win Enemies - directed by Gabriel Lichtmann. The less said about this film, the better. This is a movie for the Facebook crowd, as the characters are two-dimensional at best, the actors are all young and look beautiful, the lighting is bright, with saturated images, and worst of all, a silly story with a puzzle. The puzzle has to do with one of the main characters being robbed of a good deal of money, but we never believe for a second that his life will be all that difficult. While the dialogue isn't embarrassing, neither is it particularly clever and it adds up to very little. This isn't a disaster, as it's moderately watchable, but there isn't much substance, style or wit to this very short (78 minutes only, thankfully) film from Argentina.

How to Win Enemies will be shown on Wednesday, October 21 at 5:45; Thursday, October 22 at 9:30 PM and Monday, October 26 at 2:45 PM.


Other Madnesses - directed by Jeremy Carr. Much more ambitious than the previous two films I discussed, this is a harrowing look at an everyday citizen of New York City and how he views the horrors of the city. That makes Other Madnesses sort of an alternative version of Taxi Driver; clearly Carr was influenced by that seminal film when he made this work. A bus tour guide named Ed Zimmer (played by a somewhat gaunt and ghoulish-looking James Moles) charms tourists with his knowledge of Manhattan during the day (he is asked several times by tourists to have his picture taken with them - a nice touch), but is haunted by his nightmares, once he is back in his dingy apartment. The question the film raises on the surface level has to do with whether his visions are real or merely extensions of his fevered imagination. The film also asks us if we would do what Zimmer sets out to do - to right these wrongs. This is the first film directed by Carr and his imagery is often haunting - the first shot in the dark sets the proper tone for this film - and he takes time to slow the story down to give us an unusual relationship between Zimmer and a female tourist he meets on the bus named Lucya (nicely played by Natia Dune). While the film does not totally come to a full resolution, it is a fascinating journey into the hellish vision of one lonely man. 

Other Madnesses will be shown on Saturday, October 17 at 9:30 PM and on Monday, October 19 at 9:15 PM.

Note that all films will be shown at the AMC River East Theatres at 322 E. Illinois Street