Stan Lee: A Marvelous Legacy

©2016, Rubin Safaya and Cirqus Media.

The Man of the Hour at THE ROAST OF STAN LEE. Image ©2016, Rubin Safaya & Cirqus Media

Since Shel Dorf and others founded the San Diego Comic Con in 1970, the popularity of science fiction, comic book, and special interest conventions (commonly “Cons”) has grown immensely.  This past weekend, the Sheraton Dallas became host to the MARVELOUS NERD YEAR’S EVE convention.  Included among the myriad discussion panels, photo ops and meet & greets was  the celebration of Marvel Comics’ founder Stan Lee’s 94th birthday and several New Year’s Eve parties.

At a press conference on Dec. 29th, Lee opened, “What can I tell you that you don’t already know?”

The son of Romanian Jewish immigrants, Stanley Martin Lieber was born in New York City in 1922.   Not by coincidence, some of his beloved characters, ranging from Spider-Man to Captain America, call New York home.   Among his personal heroes, Lee counts Errol Flynn, who rose to stardom with Warner Bros. 1938 picture, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD.  Apropos, Warners’ Robin Hood was perhaps the first cinematic franchise.  The following year, Lee toiled as an assistant at Timely Comics which would by 1960 become Marvel Comics.  In addition to rejecting the Comics Code Authority, Lee took a page from Campbell and, in stark contrast to Action/DC’s Superman, introduced us to relatable characters with a flawed humanity.

Whereas Lee and his creative partners at Marvel once held sway at the bleeding edge of the counterculture revolution in a manner not unlike the works of Melville, Godard, Truffaut, Cocteau and others of the French New Wave, the evolution of the Marvel Cinematic Universe today, wholly owned by Walt Disney Studios, seems to have succumbed to what Kael called “The Numbers”.   In terms of box office alone, Marvel Cinematic Universe has pulled in $10.7 billion in a decade, compared to the $35 billion STAR WARS franchise that now spans 40 years.  One can feel the pressure… none of which is heaped upon Lee who casually dismisses the Cinematic Universe as a responsibility/property from which he is far removed.

Fandom in the twenty-first century has moved beyond examining the struggles of the white, Jewish immigrant in Protestant America.  As Washington Post contributor Michael Cavna noted in 2015, social media has shifted the dynamics of fandom to a point of gender parity, partly because nerd culture is pop culture.  Whatever the reason or catalyst, here we are and yet I find myself loathing the fifteen minutes or so of CLERKS star Brian O’Halloran’s misogynistic jokes at Stan Lee’s Birthday Roast.  Did he look out into the crowd to see the diverse audience to whom he’s playing?

Full disclosure: I’m the kind of nerd who had the Star Fleet Technical Manual schematics of every starship designed for the original series.  However, I never understood the individuals who failed to see the forest through the trees.  Gene Roddenberry’s STAR TREK was always about the human story.   Science fiction and comics, especially Marvel comics, were always a vehicle for getting social commentary past media and government censors in times of social oppression.

The ongoing backslide of social discourse has led us to this moment:  A narcissistic egomaniac whose own biographer deems a sociopath is now our President Elect.  He wants to roll back every bit of progress women and minorities have made.  Not so much out of any long-term vision for this country as bullet points to boast to his already-captive audience of intellectually bankrupt devotees.  As I chatted casually with STAR TREK screenwriter David Gerrold, I wondered, what role will conventions play in the twilight of the Republic and the dawn of new fascism?

When asked what his greatest wish at 94 was, Stan Lee replied, “To have a 95th!”  That’s something to fight for.  So is inclusiveness.  So are the values that elevated Marvel to prominence.  The arts and entertainment have always been vessels of social commentary, and to abrogate that responsibility is to resign ourselves to the belief that we, as humans, as fans of fiction, cannot live up to the ideals of our heroes… be they Captain America or Errol Flynn.

 

Harmony Korine: Trash Humpers

"Harmony Korine" Drawing by Douglas Pollard

Dressed all in white and with a smile, Harmony upon meeting me asked if I’d ever added an “I – A” to my last name.  Thus began our what was actually a pretty normal conversation for two filmmakers to have.

Cinemalogue: What time did you come in?

Harmony Korine: Well I’ve been filming rum ads in Central American, so I didn’t get in until late.

C: Wait, you were doing rum ads?

HK: Yeah.

C: What company?

HK: The company’s called Havana Rum. I don’t think they sell it here. Oh no, sorry! It’s called Havana Club.

C: They wouldn’t if it’s Cuban, I guess.

HK: Well it’s a French-Cuban company.

C: Wow, have you heard about the screenings here, they have been touting another story, say you were in dream therapy, I don’t recall the details. But it was a much more dramatic story then Rum Commercials. Do you attend your screenings?

HK: Well I haven’t been in a while, but I’ve been to a couple. Cause it’s pretty fun.

C: They played you opening night against “Kick-Ass,” and I was able to go.

HK: Oh you went the first night! I heard about that, yes.

C: Really? What did you hear?

HK: Well that’s all I heard. I never even heard of “Kick-Ass,” but that it was a big movie.

C: My friends were going to “Kick-Ass” and I waited in line with them and got in, and I just started feeling sick from the morning and it was crowded. So I left, I don’t know, because…

HK: You didn’t want to see it! I don’t blame you.

C: It had a weird feel and I just it might start everything off sort of dirty or wrong, or sourly. And I was already not feeling well so, that coupled the thought of seeing Nick Cage’s hair for the first time on screen.

HK: It’s just another superhero movie.

C: Well anyway, so for whatever reason, I, at the last moment, hurried over to see your film. And I was the last badge holder to get in, before the tickets folk were let in. The only seats were in the very front two rows, which actually was really great. So I got to sit with the ticket holders who’d been waiting in line for some time, and the turn-aways from “Kick-Ass.”

HK: Oh no, those people probably walked out.

C: I had a real trooper next to me, apparently she was a city council person, and the kid next to me kept whispering “this is amazing” over and over again. While the woman one the other side of me held her hand to her mouth as she witnessed the death of the dream. It was I can only imagine both a terrifying and profound experience for her.

HK: For sure, that’s what I was hoping for, I know it’s not going to happen, but to show it in some kind of school situation.

C: You know, I could see the reception for it there to go quite well actually.

HK: I know it’s sounds weird but, eventually before I started making the film, I was hoping to make a movie that, it was my dream to make a film that somehow could connect with the tween set. You know what I mean, like the Miley Cyrus, like the Jonas Brothers.

C: There is actually a woman running around with a cardboard cut out standee of Miley Cyrus trying to get filmmakers to pose with it.

HK: Really that’s funny, well I know that they like things with like novelty, and that maybe somehow they’d be seduced by the kind of insanity of the situation.

C: I know that last year there was a field trip day at one of the venues, and they had both a retirement community and a high school group there on the same day. They had the buses and everything all over the parking lot. Anyway, I saw a pretty provocative film, called “Afterschool,” and the elders openly refused the film. I assume based on the themes being presented. Most of them left before the film was over, but the kids staid. While I don’t think they got the film, they stuck around and watched until the credits were finished.

HK: Really, now was that for “Trash Humpers?”

C: No, a film the played at SXSW last year, called “Afterschool.”

HK: I expect a 10 to 15 percent walk out from my film.

C: I think you might’ve got it at the first screening.

HK: I hope so, its just that, the thing is that you can make the argument that it’s not actually a movie, in the traditional sense. I wasn’t sure that calling it a film was the right thing to do, it was it’s own thing. It’s more like an artifact or a found piece of footage, but it should feel more like something that was discarded. Like it was buried somewhere in a ditch, it was meant to work more in that kind of, watch it and there wasn’t any kind of formal narrative.  Do you know what I mean? And I’m starting to believe that this idea of movies and films is starting to change, and this traditional kind of three-act structure, beginning middle and end and lasts two hours, that’s starting to maybe be an old idea. That maybe, there’s something else out there.

C: I don’t know, there is something different that’s been happening for a while though now, which is how we perceive entertainment. The means to procure a quick laugh or tear comes from, well at first America’s Funniest Home Videos, but then now with YouTube and “treadmill humor.” These situations created an accessible opportunity to audiences to bring their own stories or experiences to these very, very short vignettes. So for whatever reason they just went with it, they didn’t stop to think wait I have to think here! That was what it was and people accept that.

HK: Which is strange because that is what was in my mind when I was making Gummo, that’s what I felt at the time very strongly about, a specific direction that was exciting. There was a fragmentation or a collage element to it, that was poignant.

C: As a teenager, I watched that film with my mother…

HK: Gummo?

C: Yeah.

HK: You watched it with your Mom? [laughs]

C: Yeah, I had just found IFC or whatever and I taped all these movies and I showed her. She didn’t like it at all. At the time, I’m not sure I liked it either because I was in a phase where I was obsessed with finding movies that we could both like. It always made me very nervous because she didn’t like it and I used get really weird if someone were to bring it up. Because she was so mad at the film. [Harmony laughs] Around the same time this girl I liked, had a picture of the boy with the accordion, and she though he was really cute. So I thought I’d try and learn to play the accordion. Which never occurred, but that was how I remember that film.

HK: Really? [laughs] I never heard that. How did that turn out for you?

C: Well, I didn’t learn how to play the accordion. It was not a successful story.

HK: Oh shit.

C: Back to Trash Humpers though, it has a similar sort of approach to the scenes.

HK: I wouldn’t even call them scenes, I mean, like when we were editing them I started out calling them scenes and then, I stopped. They are just moments, you know, like in a home movie, it’s just a collection of moments. Trash Humpers was more about documenting that action.  We never did anything twice, there was no kind of coverage, you’d never go to a close up. It was only, it was about, you would wake up in the morning you’d have a group of people, you’d have a camera, and start to walk through the woods. You would come out the other side and you’d see a strip mall. You’d throw a rock through a window. You would film that, you would walk to a house, a street light, you would hump it. Hump the mailbox. You would knock on the door, and then walk in the house. And it just became a kind of documentation of vandalism. Once I figured that out in my mind the structure of it, the look of it, the feel, and that it was more like an artifact. Then I thought to myself, there really could be no right or wrong. Are there mistakes in home videos? You know what I’m saying? It is what it is. And so then the editing process was more like picking a moment, think of it starting and ending randomly. And that there is never attention paid to a bigger moment. Like you wouldn’t necessarily pay more attention to an amateurish shot or you would to someone being killed. Its all the same thing, its all part of the same thing.

C: There is definitely the sense when you’re watching the film, and I’ve seen quite a few other films that are share this sense, that when you are watching the film on a surface level, the cuts seem to occur arbitrarily or randomly. I think there is a way to watch Trash  Humpers, and presumed this, but I really do not think that mentality could last the duration of the film. It’s the opinion of the walkout or what have you. For me, that sense I’m talking about is an increasing comfort that I feel with each consecutive cut. You it isn’t [in a crazy voice] “well let’s cut here to and what the heck.”

HK: That’s a very good observation, it’s made to look like that, but it’s not necessarily like that.

C: You couldn’t create the feelings. I mean you might, I guess… it might be interesting to watch footage like that in this way but, I don’t think…

HK: There is a manipulator, there is a maker behind it.

C: That is what I appreciate the most about it. It’s capturing amusement, the [Humpers] aren’t filming anything that doesn’t entertain them. The character of the camera operator looks for that. I mean sometimes they are less then excited about the performer they are watching, but they still pay very close attention. They are very polite.

HK: They are self contained. They just think of things in opposite terms. You know what I mean? Because all they want to do is bad, but they want to do it beautifully. Do you know what I mean? They kind of want to turn vandalism and destruction and chaos into something that’s transcendent and beautiful. So like the thing where people go to sleep they’re awake and vise versa. They’re just living a life in terms of philosophy only everything is opposite.

C: It really is a sweet and tender movie in a lot of ways like that. It doesn’t end on any sort of negativity, unless negativity is projected upon it. It leaves you with not a sense of cruelty but quite the opposite, it is intimate and sweet. It comes back to what I was saying earlier the woman next to me is terrified as it concludes. When the guy on my right is and has been “on the level” or whatever the whole time. Yet in some way I help but think her experience was far superior to his. I can’t imagine what her day was like the next morning.

HK: That’s interesting, I mean, it is interesting, because I wonder if movies today still have that kind of effect. Like when I used to watch movies like Tati’s films there was always the possibility that it could change the way you thought about life. Or it could cast a kind of a glow on you. Now there’s so much information out there I wonder if people could still be shocked or if people could still be moved in that way. In that very deep way, in a way that is difficult to articulate. That’s very exciting to me. That someone, you keep making films, because you want people to be moved in someway that’s inexplicable. In a way that’s difficult to articulate in words, and the movies are necessarily about liking or disliking. They’re about changing, they’re about going through you, and they’re experiential. Like where you, where you’ve been emotionally altered. Its not exactly like you know why, like a life experience.

C: Its very interesting because I think a lot of writer and a lot of directors work very hard to get that out of actors and their plots. Just like the people in the film its that turn around, but only it is with the viewer where we are creating a sense of dramatic conflict, desire and expectation. That’s one thing that is really important in Trash Humpers, and whether or not it works on people is that it can change how you expect the next sixty minutes of your life.

HK: Yeah, yeah, yeah, its like that thing, and I’ve said it before. I’ve never been concerned with or I’ve never desired, I’ve never been obsessed with making perfect sense. The idea that you would create a perfect nonsense. That’s something that is much more exciting to me.

C: As we are talking here, I sort of wish I had been angered by the film in some way. Just really upset with you, even though I’m happy I’m not. I was frustrated with the film and disoriented by it, but I liked that feeling. In a lot of ways the fact the I reacted so diversely to the moments of the film, was pretty inspiring. There is a quote that says you don’t go into a theater to think, you go there to be thought for. That’s sort of a rule of thumb for all your films though isn’t it?

HK: Yeah, there is something different about this one. In someways, I don’t even know, in someways, this one might be my favorite. Just because it is very, I know know, there is something special about it.

C: Oh definitely there is definitely something special about a film that prompts people to quote for a week or so after seeing it! Every time you hear one thing mentioned from it, your mind races through the song, the laugh…

HK: Or the expression, “Make it, make it, don’t take it.” Yeah, the cackle is the thing. I think, it just happened very naturally too. I was  like, ohhh, well maybe that was it. Maybe it is thematically connective, these horrific cackles, maybe that becomes the connector.

C: How did the monologues come about, there are these, for lack of a better word, stand-up comics come about. Where did they come from?

HK: The entertainers, well, you know it is different with each. They are all people that I know, a lot of them I knew as a kid growing up in Nashville. Some of them are like comedians who tell jokes with punch lines. They are kind of like bedroom musicians or closet vaudevillian actors and something like that. I always liked that type of thing. A lot of that was different people I knew that had these types of very specific talent. And that were also, kind of, marginally eccentric. At some point the Trash Humpers, if you look at the movie, one of the things is that they are always searching for entertainment. There’s like four or five moments or scenes where they’re being given stand up routines or people playing music for them or breaking light bulbs. Whatever it is, all they really care about is fornicating with trash, smashing things, breaking things, burning things, fucking things, fellating things, and being entertained. In some ways I really love all those things too. Minus the fellating of course.

Trash Humpers opens in New York and Los Angeles in May and Austin in June. The film will then be released on DVD by Drag City Records sometime in September. I guarantee you this film’s 35mm print will play at midnights on into the ether. If it plays and you are around it is worth a watch, if only to be a part of conversation. At least that’s what a pretty honest friend of mine told someone after he saw it at SXSW.

Frank V. Ross: Audrey the Trainwreck

"Frank V. Ross" drawing by Douglas Pollard.

Audrey starts in the middle of a party, everyone is talking and there really is no time to gather your bearings before the story begins. I caught up with writer/director/editor Frank V. Ross and his cinematographer David Lowery in much the same way. So it seemed to make sense that I should speak with them five days into a festival that seems forever in motion. This was a day after the film premiered to a very vocal reception from the satisfied festival audience. Both of them were pleasant to speak to, but what surprised me was their nonchalant attitude to their filmmaking process.

Cinemalogue: So the screening went really well yesterday, what were your thoughts?

Frank V. Ross: People were laughing. They laughed a lot, when they should’ve, you know. Laughed out loud. You know, violence is funny. When the credits came up and everyone laughed and applauded, I was like, yeah okay. Good. [both laugh] I sort of welled up.

C: It was a really infectious screening.

David Lowery: I didn’t have a lot of expectations for it, it is not one of the buzzed about films.

C: One of the things about the film that worked so well was the piecing together of the cast, which made for a very strong sense ensemble in the supporting cast. It is a very big little film in that way.

FVR: The idea of the film was to have one of the lead characters be judged and then looked at through all the people in his periphery. How work friends sort of trail off into real friends, and real friends have their friends and they know him. It was just creating a strong periphery. Okay, because when you see him in his world that’s when you’re judging him as opposed to how he sees them.

C: As a contrast there is one scene where it is definitely from his perspective, when they are playing volleyball, or in other scenes when he doesn’t want to take the phone call…

FVR: But that’s half an hour into the film, and we’ve already seen the other side, and then it sort of switches over, in an ever so subtle way.

C: Really, I guess that’s because the film moves quick. While those transitions are subtle, the opening is really jarring. I thought it was mistake with the projector until the opening title came up, and then came up again, and then this other title. Is that something of a trademark with your work?

FVR: I don’t know I just like to start them and get them rolling and I felt the idea of the movie was really abstract. So I wanted to call it these two different things. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions or Goodbye Blue Monday, and everyone calls it Breakfast of Champions. Yet, the “or Goodbye Blue Monday” is such an awesome part in the book, so I just wanted to do that specifically. That was it.

C: Since so much of the film is this chaotic dialogue, it really feels like a writer’s movie. It’s very literary while at the same time, it still feels real. Was this a script that you had for a long time before you shot it?

FVR: No. I had the script for maybe three months before we shot it, I think. I really wanted to do it in October. Cause it is really pretty with all the leaves. So it’s October make or break it, David…

David Lowery: I read it in August.

FVR: And that was right after I finished it. David was on board whether we had money or didn’t have money. So it was more, let’s shoot this movie.

DL: Regardless of how much people say about the ad-libbing that goes on, this film was the script 90%.

FVR: [nods] It is, it is. A weird thing happens and [the audience] thinks that [the actors] made it up. But that’s when its like, it works. They’re like, [he has] enough credit.

DL: But that was there, word for word.

C: Last night I ran into one of your actors, Danny Rhodes, and I complimented him on what was a really nice bit of improv, but he then informed me that his rant towards the end of the film was completely scripted.

DL: That was a scene where ad-libbing caused great stress. Cause we had to re-shoot it.

FVR: The first time we shot it they tried to sort of dance around it, but [the scene] is so specific. And its such a difficult, finite rhetoric that you can’t waver. Plus if you waver it’s going to take twice as long, which is like twenty minutes.

DL: Exactly.

C: There is a sort of episodic nature to the film, don’t get me wrong, it really flows, it doesn’t feel like the film is starting and stopping, starting and stopping. In fact it is quite the opposite.

FVR: That all comes from the laying out the outline of scripting it out and everything.

C: There doesn’t seem to be a way for a film to feel so controlled and then turn around and say it was all made up on the spot.

FVR: It probably could, but I couldn’t do it. Someone could pull it off for sure, but not me.

C: Can you walk me through creating one of these scenes, because in all of them there is  a density to them.

DL: Well like for the first scene, in the garage, we would just talk about what was going on. I guess I was like, here’s how I see it happening and often times that’s how you’d see it. And then we’d shoot it.

FVR: Yep, I think we think similarly.

DL: We think cinematically very similarly. So it is more just, here’s a scene, but there were a few times where I could not understand what you wanted.

FVR: [laughs]

DL: Or where, I remember being surprised at how I envisioned something, one or two times where I envisioned something differently, and then it was, oh this is how you wanted it. It occurred to me during the screening, but I don’t remember what they are now. But the opening scene is really complex in a lot of ways, but as I remember it was really easy to shoot. We shot it really fast.

FVR: That’s how I know how to shoot.

DL: There is so much that makes sense here, but I know we talked about how Ron was always in the background. Just hanging out, and you just said that at the very beginning of the shoot. We just went with that, and that was sort of the centrifugal idea. Around which we built the rest of the movie. He’s always just kind of in the background a bit.

I don’t know. [trails off] I guess we just made it…

FVR: Terrible answer. Its all on real locations they can only be in so many places in the house so it’s like, you’re in the front room. [acts it out] Okay, you get on the floor, okay that looks good. You know David, the table looks better here, okay good. And then you just get the coverage. You know what I mean, the actors don’t play to a camera, ever. And sometimes David would find a shot that looks so good, that it eliminated what I wanted. Like the scene where he’s eating the chips. When we shot that, we didn’t shoot any coverage. No, that’s it. I want to watch that. Or when the train is going by and all that, we just shot all the masters every time there was a train, and then when there wasn’t a train we went for a close-up.

C: What about with the ambulance? Did you call 9-1-1?

FVR: We heard it coming off in the distance. “I hear and ambulance, I hear and ambulance!” Okay, then we just waited for it. We only shot like three takes of that part because it was like, it’s got to be the ambulance. [laughs] We could sit here and wait for another one, but it won’t happen.  You know, because the reason why the answer is bad, is because we work fast and quick and instinctively. So we really didn’t second guess ourselves.

DL: We’ve gotten to a point where we can trust our instincts enough to be able to work fast and not really think about it. Now is the first time where we are actually talking about it.

FVR: I’ve never had the opportunity to not work fast. It’s how we work.

C: Even then there is a comfort here with all the chaos.

DL: There is one thing I noticed that I don’t think we really talked about, maybe we did, but, like [the material] so intensely confrontational. At the beginning and then from the cutting to the way we shot it, it was all really relaxed.

C: There was one scene where I was a little frustrated when I watched the film, at this point we discussed the philosophy behind it, but could you talk about the realtor scene with Kris Swanberg. In the scene the main characters meet for the first time in a cafe, but then this realtor comes in with a customer and sits near to them. The direction of the scene rather jarringly then places the realtor and the customer at the forefront. Both conversations remain audible, but the realtor’s is mixed slightly louder.

FVR: That was directly from the script, and I thought it was a good idea. There’s a version of the script where it’s much more typical, as far as first dates go, and I felt it was really, really boring. But I think as it is, it makes a good point about how you can BS with anyone. You know, you can talk with anyone. That it’s really easy to talk to people, but there’s other people you just feel a certain connection that doesn’t have anything to do with what you are saying. I thought it would be funny to show those people talking about relationships, but they’re just there for business.

C: It was a nice unexpected gag when they then pull out the housing listing after having this very nice conversation.

Kristopher Belman: More Than A Game

Director Kristopher Belman (left) with MORE THAN A GAME star LeBron James (right). Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

Director Kristopher Belman (left) with MORE THAN A GAME star LeBron James (right). Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

Writer/Director Kristopher Belman began filming More Than A Game while a student at Loyola-Marymount University. Originally a short film project, he acquired financing and distribution for theatrical release. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2008.


Rubin Safaya: You studied film at Loyola?

Kristopher Belman: Yeah. Actually I studied television production. It was in the film school. It was my first semester there when I… kind of… or my second semester when I started following these guys.

RS: When you were deciding a concept for the 10-minute class project, what other subjects came to mind? What made you pick this over others?

KB: Well I knew I wanted to do something from Akron, because I was born and raised in Akron, Ohio, which is where the story took place, and I just recently moved to Los Angeles. So I was actually getting a lot of flak from being from Ohio. A lot of my new friends and classmates were like, “We’ve never heard of Akron. We don’t know anything about Ohio.”

They assumed that I was a farm boy and— I’ve actually never been on a farm. But, I was determined do something from my hometown. At that point there weren’t a ton of options. There’s Goodyear, Firestone, the tire industry that’s not really based there any more… That’s kind of where it was at one point.

I’d read an article about these boys. They were phenomenal basketball players. I recognized that could be something interesting. But, you know, in a story you need subtext. You need things that are deeper than just surface-level. One of the articles I read had mentioned that four of these players had played together since fourth grade. In eighth grade they actually made a pact that they were going to go to high school [together] no matter what.

These are four African-American kids from the inner city. They end up going to a predominantly white, private school, and that’s kind of a unique decision. It’s not an obvious one by any means. I read further that that was pretty much the only choice they had if they wanted to keep playing together. That really stuck in my mind.

When I started thinking about Akron that came to my mind because, not only did I think about… what they were doing on the court, but that kind of decision, that shows a sophistication… That shows an emphasis on friendship a lot of people in their thirties and forties don’t have. When you have a more reflective look on life— you know, these kids are twelve years old. They put that much value on friendship. I thought there was something really important there, and I wasn’t sure what it would be. But at that time I only had to do a ten minute project and I’d figure it out when I got there.

RS: At what point did you realize this was developing into more than a ten-minute school project?

KB: There’s kind of two answers to that, I suppose. That first practice I had with those boys, I was really blown away by them as characters, as people. The things they were doing on the court were phenomenal, obviously, and I saw first-hand basketball I’d never seen before at that age. They were so comfortable around each other. You could tell just by sitting with them. Even for like five or ten minutes, you know, of walking into the room… You knew these guys have known each other their whole lives. They were finishing each others’ jokes. They were referencing things— stories from years ago. There was just such a familiarity, it really blew me away.

So, I right away knew, “I feel like this is bigger than ten minutes. I don’t know what it is but I know it’s better than ten minutes.”

That’s why I came back to practice that next day. I was only given permission to come to the one practice, but I decided to show up again and no one said anything. I kept following them. I was really drawn to them as characters.

As the senior season progressed, I think it was the evolution of Coach Dru who— I originally pitched the five friends as the story, and as the season progressed, Coach Dru was just rising and evolving as the central figure of the film. That caught me by surprise. I didn’t expect that going in. It was one of those unplanned miracles of sorts.

Coach Dru, because he has the life perspective and he speaks with such gravity… I [thought] Coach Dru could be the glue to hold this film together. Toward the end of the Senior season, where they were going through all these adverse situations, I saw Coach Dru as this father figure first, then coach.

RS: How did the timeline unfold from getting the initial support for a film crew to getting financing and distribution, before and after the Toronto International Film Festival?

KB: For the first five-and-a-half years it was pretty much myself—me and a camera. I did have— maybe, two or three times I would fly out one of my friends from L.A., one of my classmates, to do some camera work for me if I was doing questions or things like that. After that portion ended, I really knew… I always knew at some point I was going to need financing. I was acquiring archive footage. I was starting to gather songs I knew I wanted to use… from the boys’ time period. Visual effects, original music… Those were things I had planned, but had put off while I was figuring out the story. [It] turned out to be a two-year journey—meetings with financiers and producers, things like that—in which I had a three-minute trailer and an eighteen-page outline. They all yielded the same result, which was, “Hey, we’d love to buy the footage off you… We’d love to hire to direct the LeBron portion of the film.”

Writer/Director Kristopher Belman.  Photo courtesy Lionsgate

Writer/Director Kristopher Belman. Photo courtesy Lionsgate

They weren’t interested in the [other] stories at all. I was only interested in the team… Lebron, to me— that’s just not a feature length film. It’s the easy choice.

Finally, when I was able to get that financing, after about two years of meetings, and I partnered up with Harvey Mason, Jr., as a producer… He was the one that saw what I was trying to do. I think it was because he wasn’t in the film world that he took that chance. He’s a music producer. He wanted to roll that die, I guess. That’s when I was able to take a crew back and do these reshoot interviews, and hire a visual effects artist.

That was all pre-Toronto. We premiered [the film] at Toronto last September. We didn’t change the film from Toronto to last night. I can’t say that. We swapped end-title songs. We got this song from Mary J. Blige… other than that, the film didn’t change…

RS: You were pretty firm on preserving the film as you had it…

KB: Yeah.

RS: In the process of filtering the film down to a cogent narrative, what difficult decisions did you have to make—sequences you had to leave out for flow—which you wish you hadn’t had to cut?

KB: Corey Jones was a player. You see him on the court a lot. He was the one who started in front of Willie [McGee] that Senior year. That decision to start Corey over Willie was a pretty big part of Willie’s back story. It certainly was a big part of the team dynamic. Unfortunately it wasn’t possible to work Corey into the film. We tried several ways of integrating his story, but it really bogged down the narrative. I really credit Scott [Balcerek] with forcing me to make judicious decisions. Scott was my editor. He has experience in not just documentary but narrative feature. He’s worked on high-budget and low-budget. He’s got a wealth of knowledge and we collaborated a lot. We tried using parts of Corey to explain him a little bit and give him a little bit of life, but at the end of the day we decided if a particular character or story beat doesn’t drive forward the other characters or the main story—this quest for championship—then we had to cut it loose.

The reality is, as important as Corey was to the team, he wasn’t really a part of their story off the court. That doesn’t take away anything he did for the team. But, if it was a perfect world, it would have been nice to give him a little bit more credit.

RS: The film doesn’t focus on race much, except for the decision to go to St. Vincent’s. Did you set out before-hand to make this about something other than race, or did the footage dictate that?

KB: There are areas where faith is explored. There are areas where race is explored lightly. There’s some of the controversies we go into with LeBron. At the end of the day, every decision that was made, whether it be from the aesthetics, whether it be from how we did the visual effects or how we chose to edit or score the film, it was always from, “How do we make sure this can reach a broad audience and not just be for documentary fans, not just be for sports fans?”

I felt there were themes in here that everyone could relate to, even if they’re not basketball fans. I thought these messages were important, but I’m always a fan when messages are in film and they’re subtle. You can see them, and interpret them… but you don’t have to hit people over the head with them. I felt like, with race… that was a conscious decision early on. Even as early as freshman year… they felt accepted. While there weren’t a lot of black kids at the school, at that point that didn’t matter. We kind of shed that color cape right there. They felt like they were equal. They felt like they belonged. It didn’t make sense to go into it any more. I thought that was important. That was a… revelation that LeBron himself said. Sian [Cotton] said, “The African-American community looked at us like we were traitors.”

RS: When you were bringing this story together, what documentaries, films or other literature provided guidance or inspiration?

KB: Films that inspired? Murderball. It’s about sports but has so much subtext. I can’t tell you how many times I watched that. SpellboundGo Tigers… There’s a narrative film, City of God. The way they introduce characters. I was blown away by that. You’d meet a character. They’d go into his backstory. It was like… [in] a minute and a half you learned everything that was pertinent to understanding how that character related to the story. The filmmakers seamlessly went back into that main story. That’s really how we approached these backstories. When we sat down, me and Brad Hogan (the co-writer), we drew out this eighteen-page outline… We watched City of God three or four times and said, “How do we make sure these characters are introduced in points that have specific A-story anchors? How can we seamlessly insert them back in?”

RS: When you started this did you have any idea that where these kids would go?

KB: I knew they’re special and that they’d find success. I didn’t know LeBron would be last years MVP. Willie’s getting his master’s [degree] now. They’re all special kids and they have a great foundation in their friendship. There’s no doubt in my mind that they’re all going to be very successful. They’re always going to be friends. I’ll say that without a shadow of a doubt.

Rubin Safaya’s review of More Than A Game can be read here.

Neill Blomkamp and Sharlto Copley: District 9

San Diego, California - July 23, 2009:  Sharlto Copley and Director Neill Blomkamp at a Comic-Con advanced screening of TriStar Pictures' sci-fi thriller DISTRICT 9. Photo By:  Matt Young/SPE, Inc.

San Diego, California - July 23, 2009: Sharlto Copley and Director Neill Blomkamp at a Comic-Con advanced screening of TriStar Pictures' sci-fi thriller DISTRICT 9. Photo By: Matt Young/SPE, Inc.

I had the wonderful opportunity to interview first-time feature writer/director Neill Blomkamp and Sharlto Copley, who plays Wikus Van De Merwe, of TriStar Pictures’ upcoming sci-fi motion picture, District 9.

Instead of throwing them the conventional questions, I wanted to touch upon the social themes of their film, and the experience of getting producers to back an unusual take on Apartheid and racism. It puzzled me that Mr. Blomkamp kept stressing that this is a science fiction film, and not just an allegory to apartheid… as if to suggest that the young director, just 29 years old, hasn’t quite grasped the magnitude of the social commentary he’s unleashed or the impact it will have on the ongoing dialogues about race relations.

If you are on a slower connection, you can view a smaller (320×240, 15MB) video of this interview by clicking here.

A full review of the film will be published when it opens Friday, August 14.

Alive in Joburg, the stunning film short that District 9 expands upon, also written and directed by Neill Blomkamp and produced by Sharlto Copley:

Interview with Deepa Mehta

©2005, Fox Searchlight
Deepa Mehta, director of Fox Searchlight Pictures’ “Water.”

Deepa Mehta was born in Amritsar, India, in 1950. She emigrated to Canada in 1973, where she continues to reside (in Toronto). In addition to “Water,” she has also directed “Fire” and “Earth,” which together form a trilogy of sociopolitical discourse examining the past and present of India and thus its future progress.


RS: How do you think this experience of living in two cultures has shaped how you interpret Indian culture and history?

DM: I spent my formative years in India. I went to school there… went to university there, worked there. I got married there. A large chunk of my adult life, formative years especially, I feel… are Indian. Anything as far as my work is concerned I think it’s influenced by the west, more stylistically. The west has made me feel less Indian. I spent six months in India [when] I got married. I feel that India is a part of me now. It isn’t a country that I feel distanced from… or look at it in any way that’s pejorative.

RS: You’ve done several films. Some, including “Water” have created a lot of discussion. How do you think the [two] cultures have reacted to you?

DM: You know, it isn’t how much is this mass culture reacting to me. There have been some people, Hindu extremists, who haven’t reacted well to me at all. Similarly there have been people who have been extremely supportive, and also happy, in a way, that I’ve done the films that I’ve done. You can’t just say, “How has India reacted to you?” That’s one billion people… It doesn’t work that way.

RS: With regard to … I’m going to jump around a bit…

DM: Don’t worry about that, Rubin!

RS: [Like Narayan’s parents,] my mother is more traditional and my father is more progressive. What’s interesting is the difference between what’s in your traditions versus what’s in your conscience. Between the Bhagavad-Gita and the Laws of Manu (the traditional basis for the practice of widows becoming Sanyasis), a thousand years have passed. It seems to me India’s philosophy and culture has always been changing. There are people who look back two thousand years ago, rather than seeing the whole of [Indian history].

DM: Hinduism didn’t start as a religion. It started as a philosophy. It’s a way of life. Whether you go from Shankara-chariya to Ramanuja… the charvaka school… the yoga school or any of the other Hindu schools of thought. You had the charvakas who were totally- who came out as a reaction to the Brahmanical [philosophy]. There has always been an antithesis or a questionmark, and Hindu philosophy has always been one that has questioned itself and realized that only by changing, by evolving, can a way of thinking, or a way of thought or a philosophy flourish. That’s the beauty of Hinduism.

RS: Right.

DM: But then you have extremists coming in and that changed the perception and people who live Hinduism, and the people who dont… from one of the most open-minded schools of thought or philosophy or religion, ever in the world, to be an extremist one. Suddenly you had the BJP on the right and the RSS. I think that when extremist forces come in, whether it’s in Hinduism, whether it’s in Islam, whether it’s in Christianity as it is right now… or even in Buddhism, what happens is first an interpretation of a thought or a religion becomes the law. It becomes exclusive, and that’s the danger.

RS: My father used to call it, “Putting your book above your god.”

DM: That’s right, absolutely. That’s the central theme of “Water”—the conflict between our conscience and our religion.

RS: I found it interesting that the name “Narayana”… Nara is connected with water. Is that right?

DM: I didn’t know that… Well, it’s nice to know if it is! [laughs]

RS: “Water,” “Fire” and “Earth,” what do they represent? What themes do they connect to in each of those films?

DM: “Fire” for me is about the politics of sexuality, “Earth” is about the politics of sectarian war and “Water” is about the politics of religion. That’s thematically, and the metaphor for the elements is that these are the elements that nurture us, without whom we cannot live and yet can destroy us at the same time.

RS: It seems to me that there is a relatively small group, yourself included, of women from India who are taking most of the chances in film making. Is my perception right, and if so, why do you think that is?

DM: I think that the perception’s a western one, because perhaps these are the few film makers that come outside. But within india, and the subcontinent there, there are really some incredibly courageous film makers who make fabulous films. The one who comes to mind is Aparna Dasgupta and she’s made a film called “Mr. and Mrs. Iver” which is about Muslims and Hindus during the height of the communal tension. She’s just done a film called “15 Park Avenue” which is about a schizophrenic young girl. Another woman… Shonali Bose who’s done another film called “Amu” which is about the Sikh riots. Mrs. Gandhi was… at the center of that. And there’s another wonderful film called “Khamosh Pani” (Silent Water) which is about Pakistan today. I know lots of film makers who I think are extremely courageous.

RS: Is there a disparity? Do women film makers tend to be willing to take more chances?

DM: No. I would say like in most other fields, especially in cinema… I know many film makers who are very courageous. There are larger numbers of them.

RS: So [my perception] is just largely a consequence of—

DM: Yes, it’s also what gets out there [internationally]. How many films from Kerala do we see here? I’m not talking about Bollywood. I’m talking about serious cinema. How many films from Assam? Gopalkrishna, Sutish Mishra… these are film makers of great passion and courage.

RS: Speaking of passion, Narayana quotes Kalidasa (“Meghdoot”). What poetry, art or other literature are you passionate about?

DM: Well, I’m such a fan of Kalidasa. I’ve never read the Sanskrit… just the Hindi translation. Tagore I’m very fond of. I just… There is this whole school—in the ’30s—of Hindi literature as personified by Premchand who I just think is brilliant. And there’s a whole school of Bengali literature that happened after Tagore and ’til about the 1950s which is really socially oriented and extremely socially relevant, and passionate. It just shows that you can be passionate and philosophical at the same time. You don’t have to be philosophical and dry at the same time. I’m very passionate about cooking. I really am!

RS: I think that runs in our blood… except mine.

DM: [laughs] You’re not a cook? Shame on you!

RS: But all the other men in my family do.

DM: They do?

RS: Yes.

DM: Does your dad cook?

RS: My dad, my brother…

DM: Does he cook Kashmiri khanna?

RS: Yeah, actually he does.

RS: The Greek composer Vangelis once stated, “I function as a channel through which music emerges from the chaos of noise.” In a likewise manner, Kael described herself as a filter. As a film maker, what is your role?

DM: I don’t know about as a film maker. But as a person, I’m naturally… very curious. If I feel I have a purpose it’s to force that curiosity.

RS: When we talk about conscience and traditions or conventions, there are a lot of conventional approaches to film making. When you are making a film, does your conscience ever conflict with your conventions?

DM: No. Never. Even though the question may arise… so far it’s never gotten to the point of a conflict. I’ve never had to make a compromise.

RS: You’ve been very fortunate…

DM: I’ve been very fortunate with my producers, with the financiers that let us do this. Fox saw “Water” and bought it… didn’t ask me to cut one thing. That’s rare.

RS: That’s extraordinary.

RS: How did the choice of casting Lisa [Ray] come about? Was there any type of conscious choice that you were looking for someone [other than Nandita Das]?

DM: Nandita was playing the original Kalyani when we first started shooting “Water” five years ago and then we were shut down. What happened was that there were many opportunities to resurrect “Water” in some form or another. I decided I wasn’t going to do that until I stopped being angry. I was really mad as hell. It seemed so grossly unfair. I didn’t want to carry that baggage of anger and force it on my script. I looked at the script for the first time after five years… four years, since we were shut down and I looked at the character of Kalyani and I felt that though the script hadn’t changed in four years, I had changed. The way I looked at Kalyani was different, or the way I wanted Kalyani to be portrayed was different. I think Nandita is a superb actress. I think, initially, what happened is I wanted Kalyani to be portrayed by a strong woman… and Nandita certainly is an actress who’s very strong. But when I looked at the script again, I thought that was a mistake — not a mistake. I wanted, this time, for Kalyani to be very vulnerable and very fragile which I thought Lisa could do justice to. So there’s no great esoteric reason in changing the actress.

RS: After the production was shut down, what did it take to get it going again? What kind of obstacles were you up against?

DM: Nothing. I mean, what had happened was so traumatic. The reverberations of that is what carried on. For six months I couldn’t walk around without my bodyguards. Even though they said in India, come and make it, you can’t risk that kind of stuff again… what we’ve been through. You’re talking about 125 people. You’re talking about actors who’ve had their heads shaved. You’re talking about effigies being burned. You’re talking about sets being thrown into the river, and the ones that aren’t being thrown into the river are set on fire. What you’re really dealing with is a mindless… mindless anger that is so destructive inj the name of religion which has nothing to do with Hinduism at all. These are so-called purveyors or protectors of Hinduism and this is certainly not the Hinduism that I know of. So it’s surrounding “Water,” stuff like this—which made it difficult to resurrect. It wasn’t anyone physically saying, “Don’t you dare make ‘Water’ again.” It was just a question of how do you come out of this experience cleansed so you can look at your script and look at your film and say “I am ready, and I’m done with carrying the baggage of what happened to me four years ago, and I’m going to look at it with clean, new eyes.” That’s what took time.

RS: Who is your favorite character?

DM: In the film? Shakuntala.

RS: Because—

DM: Because the film is about her, I think. It’s about the age old question of the conflict between our conflict and our religion.

RS: A lot of people see the political instability of India. I think those of us in the West, Indians who have grown up here, might not even think about the fact that India’s been independent for only sixty years. The U.S. has been independent for 230 years and there’s still things that we work on here, obviously. What do you think it’s going to require if india’s going to survive this adolescent period as an independent nation in a sustainable manner?

DM: The same thing it takes in the other countries in the world. I think it’s really important not to be so judgmental and not to be so fearful. I grew up with my parents saying to me, “Try to have confidence in yourself. Don’t depend so much on what others say about you or want you to be.” I mean, if we could just take it to a much broader plane. One of India’s real problems is, I think, it’s so scared of how it’s perceived. I find that absolutely ludicrous. If you’re fearful, what that breeds is insecurity. Anybody trying to understand something or explore aspects of a society… there’ll be aspects are not too pleasant. We get paranoid about this. I think that’s a lack of self-confidence. And, you know, yet we have sections of society which I don’t entirely agree with that talk about the pop, or nuclear proliferaion… or talk about the software revolution. There’s certainly more to life than that. If we could talk about who we are with an equal amount of confidence, and we have a lot to be confident about, and look at ourselves and say, “You know this part of me really needs to focus on me to improve,” I think then we have a hope in hell. If we want to be hypocrites about it and sweep it under the carpet, then it’s not going to take another hundred years. It’ll take another two hundred years because we’ll never deal with it.

Brokeback Mountain: Interview with Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana

©2005
Jake Gyllenhaal (left) and Heath Ledger (right) star in Ang Lee’s
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, a Focus Features release. Photo: Kimberly French

 
Films produced from Larry McMurtry’s works have garnered ten Oscars and 34 Oscar nominations, beginning with his first novel Horseman Pass By, which in 1963 was made into the film “HUD,” starring Paul Newman. Larry was previously nominated for an Oscar back in 1971 for Best Adapted Screenplay along with Peter Bogdanovich for their adaptation of Mr. McMurtry’s novel “The Last Picture Show.”

His first attendance at a Hollywood awards ceremony was for the Broadcast Film Critics awards in Los Angeles (January 9th, 2006), and his first writing award ever received in Hollywood was at the 78th annual Golden Globes (January 16, 2006), where he received, along with Diana Ossana, the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay of 2005 for “Brokeback Mountain.”

On February 4th, McMurtry and Ossana won the WGA award for Best Adapted Screenplay. They have also been nominated by the Academy of of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the Best Adapted Screenplay category for “Brokeback Mountain.” Larry will turn 70 years old on June 3, 2006.


MEGHAN WHITE: Diana, you read the short story “Brokeback Mountain” (written by E. Annie Proulx) and immediately recommended it to Larry. Was your primary intention to adapt it into a screenplay, or did that come later?

DIANA OSSANA: When I first read the short story in October 1997, I knew immediately that this was a masterpiece of a short story, with the potential to touch many, many people. And so yes, it was most definitely my intention to adapt it into a screenplay. I asked Larry to read it because I wanted him to agree to adapt it with me, and to ask him as well to option the rights together with me. We weren’t certain in what incarnation it would reach the screen, although we were fairly certain it would be an independent film with a modest budget. We never did lose faith in the power of Annie’s story or in our screenplay, even though it took eight years to get it up and going. It was worth every bit of hard work it took to get this film made. We feel very, very fortunate

MW: Would Proulx’s story have appealed to you as much if it had been a tale of forbidden love between a man and a woman?

DO: If I had read a story about forbidden love between a man and a woman that were written as powerfully, precisely and affectingly as Annie’s, the answer is yes, of course. But it was THIS story I read—Annie’s story—about a forbidden love between two men.

MW: When tackling someone else’s story, how do you approach the creative process?

DO: We approach the creative process in adapting someone else’s story much in the same way as we would adapting Larry’s and/or my own material. Larry and I are unsentimental when it comes to the adaptation process. We make the same kinds of choices no matter what the source material. When the source material is a long novel, we often find it necessary to cut large portions of the book, and many times simply create new scenes from our imaginations as well. When it’s a short story, it is even more necessary to access our imaginations in order to fill in, flesh out, and create new scenes that aren’t contained within the story itself, in order to enrich the context of the screenplay.

MW: Because you were expanding a short story to accommodate feature film length, you had to delve more into the psychology of the main characters. Who did you find the most fascinating to explore? The most tragic? Who did you relate to the most?

LARRY MCMURTRY: I definitely found the women most fascinating. I always do, even in my own works. My belief is that if one wants to find out about, access or examine emotion, one must go to women.

DO: I found each and every character intriguing, and their specific circumstances tragic in their own way. I relate to all of the characters, and didn’t really think about who was more tragic than the others while writing the screenplay.

MW: Was there one character in particular that was the easiest/most enjoyable to write? Who was the most challenging?

DO: We both found the process of adapting this particular short story a challenge in the sense that the material was written in a very specific manner, both technically and emotionally. We were extremely concerned about staying true to the tone of the story and determined not to veer off into sentimentality nor to lose the language of the characters and the time and place. We wanted the finished screenplay to be as emotionally honest and straightforward as the short story from which it was adapted.

MW: The film’s script had a wonderful element of humor, more so than the short story. How did this evolve? Was it conscious, or did it happen as part of an organic writing process?

DO: The humor in the screenplay was simply a product of the actual writing process, in developing the characters and their interaction. It felt completely natural to us, particularly during their time up on Brokeback Mountain and in the development of their emotional connection. Larry is excellent when writing humor into a script.

MW: Of all the new scenes that were written specifically for the screenplay, do you have a favorite? Was there one in particular that you struggled with writing?

LM: I am affected most by the scenes involving the women. One of the scenes I find particularly appealing is the last scene in the film between Ennis and his daughter Alma Jr (Kate Mara). No scene was any more or less a struggle than another; all of the additional scenes came from our collective imaginations, mine and Diana’s.

DO: I found (and still find) several scenes particularly affecting—the scene where Ennis staggers into the gangway after he and Jack’s first parting; their reunion scene after four years apart; the confrontation scene about Mexico (the last time we see Jack); and the scene when Ennis goes to Jack’s home and interacts with Jack’s parents. All the added scenes were a challenge, but I found myself excited and exhilarated every morning to be returning to the script and doing the actual writing of these scenes

MW: There were some moments from the short story that didn’t make it into the screenplay or film, in particular Jack’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) recollection of a painful childhood experience with his father. Was there any particular reason for the omissions?

DO: Any omissions from the short story to the screenplay were dramatic choices. Most of what is in the short story is contained within the finished screenplay, although when we actually scripted the short story, it only amounted to about a third of the final script. We had to imagine and create the scenes that we added or fleshed out, meaning, essentially, that we had to create two-thirds of the screenplay from our imaginations.

MW: Do you feel there was any significance in Jack’s relationship with his father, and the moment when he finally stands up to his father-in-law at Thanksgiving? How important was this moment for the character of Jack?

DO: Jack’s father was narrow-minded and culturally deprived, not unlike other men who come from similar backgrounds and places. Jack, however, was clearly more open and adventurous about life and the world outside his childhood home, and what that world had to offer.

When Jack finally stands up to Lureen’s father (Graham Beckel) in the Thanksgiving scene, it is a reflection of his own emotional frustrations, not just in his relationship with Ennis, but within his life as a whole. His response to the stud duck father-in-law demonstrates that he has just about reached the end of his patience rope.

MW: When writing the screenplay, did you envision the characters’ aging process, and if so, how did it affect the way you wrote them? For instance, did Lureen’s (Anne Hathaway) physical transformation reflect the growing cynicism of her character through the years of her marriage?

LM: We did envision the characters as we wrote them, as they developed, as they aged and as they experienced their own lives. To us, Lureen’s physical transformation merely reflected her general dissatisfaction and frustration with her life, her disappointments and the realities within her marriage: that she and Jack’s marriage was, at least internally, emotionally superficial and somewhat hollow–though for appearances’s sake, successful.

MW: Larry, when expanding on the characters of Ennis and Jack, did you ever feel an echo of Call and Gus? In his review of Brokeback, Roger Ebert said that you seem to be wondering what your Lonesome Doves would have been like if the characters had been gay. Do you think this is an accurate assessment?

The movie is based on a short story by E. Annie Proulx. The screenplay is by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. This summer I read McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove trilogy, and as I saw the movie I was reminded of Gus and Woodrow, the two cowboys who spend a lifetime together. They aren’t gay; one of them is a womanizer and the other spends his whole life regretting the loss of the one woman he loved. They’re straight, but just as crippled by a society that tells them how a man must behave and what he must feel.

-Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

LM: reading this paragraph, it seems to me that Mr. Ebert is comparing Call’s emotional repression with that of Ennis’s, and relating it more to society’s expectations of them as men, rather than any notion that their sexuality is similar in any way. This seems to be an accurate assessment on Mr. Ebert’s part. Gus and Call’s bond is one of friendship, not passion.

MW: Were there any alterations made to the shooting script that you may have disagreed with initially, but reacted to differently on the big screen? How well do you think Ang Lee’s interpretation of your script honors Proulx’s original words?

LM: In the original script, we had the dialogue in the reunion motel scene and the dialogue soon after up on the mountain occurring all in one scene: in the motel. Ang wanted to divide that dialogue into two scenes, with the scene wherein Ennis returns for his things and has to confront Alma’s (Michelle Williams) confusion in between. We weren’t certain at the time whether or not it would work onscreen, but of course, it does. Ang also questioned whether the audience seeing Alma’s reaction to witnessing Ennis and Jack kissing wouldn’t be too shocking, too powerful for the audience, that their reaction would create a kind of narrative sag in the film. But we argued, convincingly as it turns out, that this scene is pivotal, and that Alma must see them kiss—otherwise, how would she know that her husband was in love with another man? Thus the scene that you see in the final film.

Ang’s translation of our screenplay up onto the screen feels very true to the tone and tenor of Annie’s short story, simply because our screenplay maintains, fleshes out, and expands the emotionally straightforward nature of her writing. Annie herself said that her writing is mainly skeletal, but that our screenplay added the flesh to the long bones of her story. We’re honored she feels that way.

MW: Diana, you were a producer on the film in addition to being a writer, and took a very hands-on approach in the filming process. How close was the set, and what kind of relationship did you develop with the young cast?

DO: Our crew was small—less than 150 people, including all support staff—and so we developed a very familial kind of interaction on set. Each person working on the film at one time or another approached me during filming and expressed to me how much they admired the screenplay, and how privileged they felt to be working on the film, which was both extremely gratifying and humbling, to say the least.

Ang worked very closely with all the actors before filming began. He interacted with each of them, one-on-one and in a very detailed fashion, in order to make certain they understood their characters’ natures and motivations. Once filming began, the actors approached me a few times to ask some additional questions about their characters’ motivations, back stories, why or why not they felt and/or behaved in a certain way. At times they had questions about specific turns of phrase in the dialogue, what a phrase meant or if it were “fish and game” or “game and fish”. One actor didn’t know what “talking a blue streak” meant, for example. I had lived with these characters for nearly eight years, and the actors knew this, and simply considered me a reliable source of information. I also worked with the wranglers and props departments concerning details of authenticity and time and place and simply served as moral support and an information resource as needed on set.

MW: For what purpose did you expand the role of Cassie (Linda Cardellini), and what part did she play in Ennis’ relationship to the women in his life?

DO: Cassie somewhat exemplifies Ennis’s continual denial of his emotional makeup, and his attempts to have what he believed was a “normal” relationship with a woman. After his and Jack’s final confrontation about Mexico, Ennis realizes that it is Jack he truly loves, and he simply cannot continue in his attempts at a relationship with Cassie, thus her confronting him in the diner about his whereabouts and her frustrations and painful realization that she’s not “the one.”

MW: What is your reaction to the film’s warm reception at various critics’ awards, and its leading 7 nominations at the Golden Globes? How do you feel about its sudden transition from dark horse to front-runner, and what are your hopes for the Academy Awards?

DO: The response to our film at the various awards shows has been immensely gratifying. We both feel incredibly, incredibly fortunate, all the way around. We never imagined, when we were writing the screenplay and trying to get the film made, that it would seep into the culture to the degree that it has, that it would enter the zeitgeist.

MW: Do you have any response to the charges by some conservative groups that the film promotes adultery and is anti-family? Do you think there will be a backlash over the film’s critical success?

DO: “Brokeback Mountain”doesn’t promote the “gay lifestyle”, or any lifestyle, for that matter, and there are no winners in its outcome. It is a tragic story about a doomed love between two unremarkable men from working-class, rural backgrounds in Wyoming. It is a realistic story, and a human story, universal in its humanity, but very specific in its detailing of the tragic consequences of a love denied.

Meghan White is a contributing editor to Cinemalogue.com. Read her essay on “Brokeback Mountain” in the Editor’s Blog.