Monday, February 6, 2017

A Test of Faith

Faith is a virtue that can help us get through some difficult times in our lives. But what happens when our faith seems to come up short in a critical situation? Do we abandon this doctrine or do we maintain our fundamental beliefs?

That is one of the principal questions asked in Martin Scorsese's latest film Silence. Based on the 1996 novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo, the film covers the journey of two Jesuit priests in the 17th century that travel to Japan to find Father Cristovao Ferreira, a fellow Jesuit who wrote a letter detailing the tortures that local Catholics had to endure in Japan, where Buddhism was the only religion that was allowed at that time. The two priests, Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) are emphatic with their elder Jesuit that they need to find Ferreira, who has disappeared and is rumored to have renounced God. Despite the elder's warning that this journey would be meaningless as well as dangerous, Rodrigues and Garupe know in their hearts that they must undertake this mission, as their Jesuit beliefs tell them they cannot abandon one of their own.

Scorsese has reportedly been trying to make this film ever since the novel was released; the wait was certainly worth it, as he has made one of his finest and most personal films. Much of the story deals with Father Rodrigues, who is captured and must witness the torture of local Catholics who look to him for spiritual enlightenment. His captors are unwilling to bend as far as allowing Catholicism to endure, but they are intelligent people that cater to the priest's will. They do not mean to harm him, he is told, but unless his followers renounce their Catholic beliefs, they will be tortured and in some cases, put to death.

This message holds the principal meaning in the film. Rodrigues is driven by the fact that his Jesuit education tells him to stay strong at all times, even in the face of unspeakable horrors. Yet, he is told repeatedly that his faith - in this case, his silence when asked to influence local Catholics - is the root of the problem. If he stubbornly refuses to change his beliefs, then that behavior will mean death for others. Is his devotion to God worth all the suffering that will take place?

Scorsese treats this story with intelligence and subtlety, both in the screenplay that he adapted along with longtime collaborator Jay Cocks, as well as in his direction. His work here is extremely fluid, a departure from some of more innovative camera tricks (such as the signature tracking shots as in Raging Bull and Goodfellas) he has employed in the past. In Silence, Scorsese take a more relaxed approach to telling his story; as he features numerous panoramic images that highlight both the beauty of the seaside as well as the foreboding nature of the jungle. In this regard, he is immeasurably aided by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who delivers a palette of cool blues and greens, along with deep browns. Prieto, who worked with Scorsese on his last film The Wolf of Wall Street, and has also been director of photography on such films as Argo, Babel and Brokeback Mountain, is one of the most talented directors of photography working today, and his compositions here are often breathtaking in their beauty, while some shots are heartbreaking in their impact.

At two hours and forty minutes, some will find this film to be overly long; I did not have that problem. The question of Catholic guilt, especially presented in this light, is a complex and troubling one, and cannot be treated on a surface level. Andrew Garfield's performance is first-rate, as he gives us a man that is obsessed and outraged, yet one who must keep his feelings to himself at critical times (we hear his thoughts in voice over narration at several moments in the film). His appearance, especially later in the film, when he has grown a full beard, is Christlike; Garfield embraces this and answers his enemies in a restrained, religious fashion. Together with his Oscar-nominated performance earlier this year in Hacksaw Ridge, Garfield has become a leading contemporary actor; it's nice to see his star on the rise.

There is a marvelous moment in Silence that delivers a significant message in a beautifully elegant, visual manner. Rodrigues is on his knees, drinking water from a local spring, when he sees his reflection; suddenly his face is transformed into that of Jesus and then back again to his own appearance. Just then, the face of one of his captors appears in the water next to his; all of this takes place in a matter of a few seconds. These images seem to connect Rodrigues with both God and his enemies; perhaps in their worship of a higher being, the priest and his conqueror are not so different after all.

Silence is a superb film, the work of an accomplished filmmaker that wants us to examine our beliefs, while presenting a story with a timeless message - are our convictions unshakeable? Can we look beyond our own creed to help others?

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Looking Out for Number One

The Founder is a cautionary tale about the American Dream in all of its guises. Come up with an original idea, develop it, and you can be a success. But the real victor, at least according to this tale, is the individual that follows up on someone else's accomplishments by making them his own. That may be a brutal message, and if the film doesn't quite have the hard edge it needs to be totally satisfactory, it is an entertaining, fascinating work that does a fine job of detailing the remarkable narrative of Ray Kroc, who would become one of the 20th century's most famous entrepeneurs.

The film opens in 1954 with Kroc (Michael Keaton), a marginallly successful businessman from Arlington Heights, IL, selling his MultiMixer machines that could mix five milk shakes at once, from his car. It's not easy to get restaurant owners to listen to his pitch, so when his secretary tells him over the phone that he received an order for six of these machines, he is dumbfounded. Believing this was a mistake, he calls the owner of the restaurant about the order; it so happens that this is a hamburger shack in southern California called McDonald's, named for the two owners, brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch). Mac tells Kroc during this call that indeed the order for six MultiMixers was an error. "Better make it eight."

Kroc, now disbelieving, drives all the way to California to see this restaurant and meet the brothers. He parks his car, drives up and orders his food, which comes to him in about 30 seconds. He's never seen anything like this, and he introduces himself to Mac, who gives him a tour of the inner workings of the immaculate kitchen, with its specialized ketchup and mustard dispensers, along with its assembly line-like organization. He tells the brothers that he wants to buy them dinner, so he can learn how their fast-food operation came about.

Their meeting is one of the most best parts of the movie; good ideas lead to one failure after another, but their persistence paid off with their most recent concept. During this sequence, we see a flashback scene of how the brothers planned out their kitchen, as they drew plans in chalk on a tennis court and had future employees move around, as they performed their various tasks. It's wonderfully choreographed - Mac calls it a "burger ballet" - and it is very well edited and photographed.

It's this persistence the brothers displayed that impresses Kroc; at the opening of the film, we see him listening to a recording of a lecture by a famous speaker about the power of staying positive. Kroc tried that on his own and met with little success; now that he has heard the brothers' story, the light bulb goes on in his head. Here is his chance at the big time!

I won't reveal any more of the plot, except to say that Kroc manages to take the idea of the brothers' restaurant and franchise it; yes, everyone knows how successful McDonald's became in the latter decades of the 20th century, but if you think you know this story, you don't. One step at a time, Kroc enlarges the scope of McDonald's, much to the chagrin of the brothers.

As Kroc, Keaton is marvelous. At times proud and focused, at other times unsure and nervous, his portrayal of Ray Kroc is multi-dimensional and is the center of this film. Keaton probably should have received an Oscar nomination for his performance - how the Academy loves actors that portray real-life people - but I'm guessing that the film was either under-promoted or was released much too late. Or it may be the simple fact that Keaton is the type of actor that doesn't emote; his strengths as an actor - especially when he is listening and not speaking - are more subtle than many performers that do receive award nominations.

I also want to single out the performances of Lynch and Offerman as Mac and Dick McDonald, respectively. Lynch is best known to most of us from his role on the Drew Carey Show television series, and he delivers a quiet performance, that ranges from good natured and trusting to regret. Offerman, (he was a featured performer on the tv series Parks and Recreation) truly nails his performance, as the more dominant and passionate of the two brothers. His scene with Keaton late in the film when they discuss final agreements on a contract, is evidence of his skill.

The movie is beautifully shot and lit by cinematographer John Schwartzman, who handled similar duties for director John Lee Hancock's last film, the underrated Saving Mister Banks. Schwartzman is an advocate of shooting with film, but agreed that one of the latest digital cameras (ARRI ALEXA) would work extremely well for this project, and he was right (I thought it was shot on film- the movie looks that good). His images of the American landscape early in the film are lovely, and he revels in the bright yellows and reds of the McDonald's logo, along with the bright blues of the American sky, capturing a beauty that at times is in contrast to the questionable behavior of Kroc. A snapshot of Schwartzman's expertise occurs during a brief scene when Kroc drives up to see a newly designed McDonald's restaurant; note the reflection of the golden arches on the windshield of Kroc's car. It's a mesmerizing, haunting image that shows how a talented director of photography can combine lighting and overhead composition to realize a visual that is stronger than the sum of its parts.

As for director Hancock, overall his work is fine, as he presents this story in an understated tone; it would have been easy to make this film heavy-handed. But while he succeeds at that level, he does tend to underline a few too many scenes (as in the restaurant when he spots a beautiful woman that will become his next wife) and does tend to dawdle a bit at times. Hancock's last film Saving Mister Banks was one of my favorites films of 2013, and if The Founder is not quite at that level, it is a very good film nonetheless.

As we walk away from The Founder, we can't help but think about the brothers, and how their hard work has become nothing but a footnote in history. Fortune may favor the bold, as one character famously quotes in the film, but perhaps it also rewards those who bend the rules a bit. While I wish the film had a tougher screenplay that focused more on that aspect, The Founder does has enough strong points in its overall approach to make this a highly entertaining look at not only a big slice of American history, but also an insightful view of capitalism, in all its good and bad realizations.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Gene Wilder - A Gentle Comic Genius

Gene Wilder, 1933-2016

"Yea, but I shoot with this hand." - Gene Wilder, as The Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles (1974)

How nice to see the tremendous outpouring of sympathy for Gene Wilder, who passed away at the age of 83. You don't often see this for a comic actor; in fact, it's one of the few things in recent news that has seemingly united Americans across the board.

Why has that happened? There are two main reasons, in my opinion. One, he was truly a class act, not only on the screen, but also in real life. It was well known that he married Gilda Radner, who died a mere five years later, the victim of ovarian cancer. Wilder, without much self-attention, began to become involved in ways to promote cancer awareness. He help found the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Research Center in Los Angeles and was co-founder of Gilda's Club, a support group aimed at raising awareness of ovarian cancer. While other celebrities have done some kind acts over the years, few did it with so little fanfare as Wilder.

With Zero Mostel in The Producers (1968)

"I'm in pain and I'm wet and I'm still hysterical." - Wilder as Leo Bloom in The Producers

The second reason why there has been so much love for Wilder is the fact that people were truly impressed by this man. Here was a comic actor, one who was absolutely brilliant. Maybe it was the fact that he played lovable losers or charming dreamers, but we could identify with this man onscreen.

He was a first-rate comic actor, easily one of the finest of the last fifty years. I wouldn't think it to be an exaggeration to list him alongside Chaplin or Keaton as one of the best cinematic comic performers of all time. Could anyone even think that about the so-called comic actors of the past two decades, many of whom emerged from Saturday Night Live? Many of these actors were marginally funny on television, and their film careers have rarely been an improvement. Chris Farley, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey? People know who they are and they sometimes delivered some mild laughs in the cinema, but would you put their movies on a list of all-time great comedies? I couldn't imagine! Meanwhile, Wilder starred in The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Yes, Mel Brooks was the primary creative genius behind these films, but he needed actors to flesh out his best roles, and Wilder created performances that are simply unforgettable.

Then there was his arguably his most beloved performance as the title character in Willie Wonks and the Chocolate Factory (1971). It's been years since I've seen this film, but it's hard not to remember the charm and subtlety he lent to this role. What little boy or girl wouldn't love to be escorted around this wonderful fantasy world by this lovable, kind man?

Gene Wilder, R.I.P.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Haskell Wexler, R.I.P.

Haskell Wexler (1922-2015)
Photo ©Tom Hyland

Haskell Wexler, one of the 20th century's most talented and influential cinematographers, passed away on Monday at the age of 93. His son Jeff, told CNN that his father died peacefully in his sleep.

I met Wexler once, at a special evening at the Chicago International Film Festival in 2011; I wrote about that memorable occasion in this post. At 89, Wexler was engaging, direct and humorous; let's hope we're all that lively if and when we get to that age.

I've always been someone attracted to visuals; it's this sensation that gives a sense of wonder and magic to films, in my opinion. When a director of photography can create the proper mood with lighting as well as depth of field (no matter how shallow or deep) it adds to the emotional power of the movie. I can list numerous examples, but few accomplished this feat as well as Wexler.

He started out working on documentary films in the 1950s, eventually finding success in Hollywood, with one of his first notable accomplishments being the cinematographer for Elia Kazan's America America in 1963. It was only a few years later in 1966 that Wexler's work would be honored for his black and white photography for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, directed by Mike Nichols. While Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton delivered searing performances, and Nichols directed with great urgency, it is impossible not to credit Wexler's work as any less important in this marvelous film. At times gritty, at times dreamy, at times stark, but always beautifully honest, Wexler's photography perfectly captured the raw nature of this work; he justly received an Academy Award for his contribution.

Wexler would work in color for most of his career; I especially loved his efforts on In the Heat of the Night (1967), directed by Norman Jewison. This particular scene, pictured above, has always been one of my favorites as far as photography, as the colors here are relatively cool, lending a tranquil setting to this moment. This serenity will soon be at odds with the characters in this scene, as Sidney Poitier, the detective, slaps the elderly gentleman for his bold statements; it's a jarring moment, one about racism that doesn't scream as such, thanks in large part to Jewison's staging as well as Wexler's lighting.

Wexler would win a second Academy Award for his color photography on Bound For Glory (1976), director Hal Ashby's at times laid back, at times stirring tribute to folksinger and activist Woody Guthrie. The setting of this film is the depression of the 1930s, and the spirit of the film owes much to John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, especially in the desolation of the land as well as the honesty and good spirit of the impoverished farmers and their families as they struggle with their everyday fate. The visuals are stunning, from a recreation of an apocalyptic dust storm that fills the screen to several scenes of Guthrie and others riding on top of trains, often to hide from the authorities. The color pallete that Wexler worked with in this film was based on earth tones, with dark browns and muted yellows; you feel at once transported to that era and its forlorn realization. 

Wexler would use Steadicam, invented by Garrett Brown, in this film for a scene in a labor camp; it is a tracking shot that lasts about three minutes, taking Guthrie (and the viewer) through a heartbreaking tour of the conditions the migrant workers must endure. While Steadicam is a mainstay in filmmaking these days, be it a multi-million dollar epic or a moderate budget independent production, this use in Bound For Glory was the very first in a Hollywood film. 

I was so impressed with Wexler's images in Bound For Glory that I wrote a separate post about it a few years ago (link here). Roger Ebert also pad tribute to Wexler's work on this film when he wrote, "there are images in Hal Ashby's Bound For Glory so striking or so beautiful I doubt I'll ever forget them." (Ebert's full review can be found here.)

Haskell Wexler was also a director, most notably on Medium Cool (1969), a documentary about the turmoil in the streets of Chicago during the troubled 1968 Democratic National Convention. This was his most successful film as helmsman; he would also become involved in Latin American politics with documentaries such as Brazil: A Report on Torture (1971) and Latino (1985). Activism was part of his DNA; Wexler would also direct films about the Occupy protests in 2011 in both Los Angeles and Chicago (his hometown); he was also instrumental in changing work laws in Hollywood after a fellow director of photography fell asleep while driving home after a 20-hour day on the set. Wexler's 2006 film Who Needs Sleep? would tell the story of his colleague.

While I was continually impressed by Haskell Wexler's work behind the camera, I was also fascinated by the man. A striking portrait of the man emerged in the film Tell Them Who You Are (2004), directed by his son Mark; here was a riveting look at how Haskell carried himself in his everyday existence, perfecting his craft, but also looking out to make the world a better place. His socialist politics were at odds with his son, giving this film an unforgettable human element, but it is the elder Wexler's strong personality and unshakeable belief in justice for all that stayed with me as I watched this film.

Yes, I'll always remember Haskell Wexler for the images he created on screen, but his faith in his fellow man will also stir my memories of this remarkable individual.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Serious - and not in the right way

Spotlight is one of those films with a serious story to tell; the problem is that is takes itself way too seriously. What could have a been an enlightening movie is instead a somber, rather dull film that preaches its seriousness at almost every turn.

The title refers to a small investigative unit at the Boston Globe; the time is 2001 and a new editor named Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) has taken over. A quiet workhorse, he expects nothing less that the maximum effort from his employees, all the while realizing that he was hired to regain readership. With that in mind, he tells the editor of the Spotlight team Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) that he wants them to look into the stories of abuse of young boys by Catholic priests. There are a few reports that the paper has been made aware of, but Baron and Robinson know that they cannot get into a "he said, he said" argument with the Catholic Church; rather they must get to the root of the problem and learn the truth about the Church's dealings with the scandal in the large picture.

Thus the film starts off promisingly, as the reporters delve into their new assignment, while trying to deal with the whims of their new boss. On this level, the film has some life to it. But after that, it falls under its own weight of seriousness, as we get repeated scenes of the reporters looking up files, interviewing victims and answering phone calls. There's nothing particularly cinematic about this and Tom McCarthy's leaden, obvious direction does nothing to bring this film to life.

Make no mistake, this is an important story and bravo to the reporters at the Globe for their dedicated work in taking on the church, especially when Boston was (and remains) heavily Catholic. This could have been a gripping film, but about halfway through I couldn't wait for it to end. This is a talky film and while much of this is expository dialogue that helps explain the story and specific actions taken by certain characters, it's done in such a preachy way. There is a scene more than halfway in the film when one of the reporters, Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo, in a ridiculous haircut), argues with Robinson about the getting their damaging reports in print before a rival local newspaper gets the jump on them. It's one of those ACTING moments that you see in lesser films and here it's treated as though we were hearing about the apocalypse. McCarthy directs this scene with a sledgehammer as he fills the screen with Ruffalo's face, basically hitting the filmgoer over the head with the message that what the actor is saying is IMPORTANT. It's just too much and it ruins the moment.

When I watched this scene, I couldn't help but wish that someone with a similar approach as the late Otto Preminger would have directed it. Preminger was famous for showing us multiple characters in a scene and only using closeups when necessary. Thus, we as a filmgoer can look at the image as we wish - we're not told to look at one particular character. But in this scene, we are force fed Ruffalo's diatribe and it's all too much, which ruins the moment, as the message is not as important as the image.

We are also treated to too many of the same shots of reporters sitting in their office, asking each other questions about the progress of their work. Again and again, we get this similar scene, or else we get them talking on the phone about the investigation. They may be collecting evidence necessary to the plot, but we sit there wondering when we will see something different. This kind of storytelling hems in the actors - here we have talented performers such as Keaton and Ruffalo not being given any breathing space. We don't get Keaton's personality in this film - contrast his performance here with his brilliant work last year in Birdman. In that film, director Alejandro Gonzalex Iñarritu literally let Keaton soar; here all Keaton can do is sit in meetings and recite his lines. It's not a bad performance, but there's no substance here, as too often we listen to him utter dialogue such as "Good work" or "We can't run it yet."

At the film's conclusion, I was tired of how smug and self-important the filmmakers came across. They tried to make another All the President's Men, but failed on a large scope, as this film has none of the visual flair or subtleties of that wonderful Alan Pakula film.

If the tone of this film wasn't enough to turn me off, the final title cards surely did the trick. These mention how many other cities had to endure similar child abuse scandals; these title cards go on for a few minutes. Then we see a logo for SNAP (Survivors' Network for Abuse by Priests); talk about getting hit over the head! We got the message, already!

Finally, when I left the media screening of this film a few weeks ago, I was greeted by a woman who was a member of SNAP, who handed me her card. Honestly, I was insulted by this behavior. Couldn't I just see the film and make up my own mind?

P.S. One of the few positives I can report on with this film is the performance of Stanley Tucci as Mitchell Garabedian, attorney for the victims. Giving us a character who can never be pinned down and whose alliances shift over the course of the film, Tucci gives us a complex character, the only one in the film. He is the single actor in this work who sheds the lead boot of McCarthy's pompous direction.

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.