Category: In Conversation

In Conversation with Lynne Ramsay

Lynne Ramsay is a Scottish film director and screenwriter who specialises in visceral films with themes of guilt and death. She has been described as one of the best British filmmakers of her generation. Despite this lofty praise, Ramsay is one of the most down to Earth people I’ve had the pleasure of talking to.

Her latest work, You Were Never Really Here, is a gritty thriller based on a novella by Jonathan Ames. “A friend of mine is really into his genre films. He works with a lot of really interesting filmmakers like Jacques Audiard and so he sent me this novella. I read it in 85 minutes which is probably the same length as my movie. They didn’t have the rights to it so I started writing it on spec to see if it would work out.”

“I had a draft in about four weeks and I was getting into it but it’s a very pulpy, B-movie kind of novella. Ames wanted to make this dime novel but the character was unusual. We talked about the script but he was never prescriptive, the only thing he said to me was he wants it to have the feeling of a page turner and I wanted that too.”

From beginning to write the script purely as speculation to the finished film, there were many twists and surprises “It was strange for me with the script because there was a bidding war at Cannes and I was like what this isn’t even finished yet. Then Amazon bought it and then we were in Cannes the next year it was so fast.”

“Sometimes when you’re under the gun you have to kill your darlings a little bit. I knew I had 29 days to rewrite and prep, it was a nightmare. I don’t think I slept but I think that’s why it’s a bit of a hallucination. It was also super hot in New York, never shoot in summer in New York it’s totally brutal. There was something about going there when I had previously lived in a village with no cars, it was driving me mental. You shut your eyes and it’s just noise. I think that really went into the sound design. I hate to say it but some of the limitations actually brought around brainwaves when you have your back against the wall but it would be nice to have a bit longer time though.”

Part of what made it possible to prepare the script in under a month was the length of the book, at just 96 pages. “With my last film, We Need To Talk About Kevin it was a huge book and was armchair edited. In order to get the money and edit it, we had to cut huge parts of the book out and it was so forensic. For this one, it was about 70% from the original book though it is quite different. Obviously, I would never want to do a straight adaptation.”

The main performance in the film is Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Joe. Phoenix was haunting in his role and ended up winning Best Actor at Cannes but his collaboration with Ramsay began quite unusually. “I think it was a first for both of us. I’ve never not met the actor before but I knew I wanted him to play Joe before I wrote the script that I didn’t even have the rights to. I think I was telepathically willing him to be in the movie because he’s quite choosy. He arrived as soon as we, the crew, arrived, and I was terrified. I had six weeks to look at 90 locations in New York which takes weeks and he was building up and becoming this beast. It was exciting how it evolved really.”

“No-one recognised Joaquin that much, which was great, they thought he was a construction worker or a bum. I remember someone throwing some coins at him when he was on the floor tying his shoe. That meant we could run and gun in a way, there wasn’t that crowd with iPhones or anything. I saw French Connection at this screening in LA and was blown away at how they shot it, without permits! It was just really inspiring because the car chase in that is one of the best car chases ever.”

During this time in New York, she found out her film was going to be in Cannes, just one year after her script was purchased by Amazon. “I got this call from this French company saying I have a meeting in London for four hours. I put two days aside in the schedule I had to shoot stuff in New York and I was just thinking ‘oh my god he’s not giving us the rest of the money to make the film’. He just said to me ‘it’s in Cannes’.”

“It was a lovely thing to hear but I had my head in my hands. Cannes is quite a brutal place and I was still only writing the script, it was kind of surreal, a bit like this film was telling us it was going to be crazy the whole way through. I edited this one in half the time of We Need To Talk About Kevin but it had the same frenetic energy that the prep and the shoot did. Sometimes a film tells you what it’s going to be and it just felt like a nervous breakdown the whole time in the coolest possible way.”

In order to convey the feeling of a nervous breakdown, Ramsay turned to sound. “The sound is like music. It’s subconscious. You don’t know why it works but it does. It stirs you or takes you into a dream. For me I worked on the sound really early, I never understand why some people only think about the sound at the end. With this is was very much the opposite, we’d do a cut and then do sound so that the sound could inform the cut.”

“After that, we’ll get a piece of music from Johnny Greenwood and it wasn’t like that’s the exact place you need to use it. You were looking at the pieces and it was a bit like a puzzle. Joe Bini, the editor, and I were getting all these pieces of music and they were amazing. We took them and put the right piece to the right part of the picture and then cut the picture to the music. It’s not a very conventional way of doing it but that works for me. If you ever watch a non-mixed film you instantly know, it’s a different experience. We were premixing ours the whole way through.”

With a runtime of 90 minutes, Ramsay keeps this film lean. As a result, it never drags, and just as Ames wished, it truly feels like a page-turner. That said, there were quite a few scenes that didn’t make the cut. “It was never really a long assembly but you could have made a Harold and Maude type film with the stuff with Joe and his mum. There was so much good stuff, some amazing scenes.”

“I was constantly thinking that it could be a different film, this hitman living with his mum, a totally different tone. Plus his takes were all so different, sometimes he’d do something funny and other times you’d just think what the hell was that. You just have to let this animal loose. Like in that scene with the drug dealer he really did punch that guy and we were all shocked. Luckily the extra was pretty cool about it. It’s the same improvisation with the scene where he’s singing on the floor of his house with the agent.”

Phoenix punching an extra isn’t the only problem Ramsay had with her extras in New York. “Well, there’s a thing called a tier system in New York. If you shoot something super low budget then you can use who you like but after a certain kind of budget, you have to use a union like SAG extras. You can’t even speak to them there’s this weird system where only the assistant director can. I had this experience with We Need To Talk About Kevin with SAG extras where the shot was down a street in New York and I was saying ‘why are these extras all walking so slowly’, it’s because they all wanted to be on camera for ages. So I was getting into trouble for telling these guys to hurry up.”

“I also remember with Kevin I had to get quite a few waivers because there was a kid that just hung out on set in a Halloween scene. There was a SAG guy who was telling me I can’t just pull someone in like I can do in the UK. I got fined by SAG that day for making a girl cry, but she loved it, she came up to me and went ‘that was the best experience of my life’. It was because I was telling her to really feel the emotion.”

At Cannes Ramsay also won Best Screenplay for her film and it drew comparisons to similar iconic films such as Taxi Driver and Léon: The Professional, something that meant a lot to her. “Just to be mentioned along with those films is amazing. What was great was when I was in Paris on the radio. They did a trailer that was dubbed and asked me about my film. Afterward they played an old clip of Paul Schrader talking about Taxi Driver saying almost the same things I did. It was weird was I thinking along the same lines as him?”

“I was talking to someone recently about the film Five Easy Pieces, a character study of Jack Nicholson. Maybe it’s a bit of a cliche but where are those movies these days, with the real conviction behind them. There’s such good television these days I think we need to elevate the movies. The cinema needs to be a spectacle and not just a marvel one.”

“The first time I went into the cinema and felt like I was in a complete other world. When I came out I was still in it for another couple of hours. That was with Blue Velvet when I was 15. I went with my boyfriend at the time and had to lie about my age because he was a bit older than me, but then he found my school bus pass. Half the audience walked out of that film because they didn’t get it, and they really didn’t. It’s quite a scary film. The way Lynch uses sound, like in Lost Highway, I think it’s very inspirational. You can only get that feeling by being in the cinema.”

Looking forward, Ramsay isn’t quite sure what her next film will be. “I’ve no idea, a comedy. I’ve been thinking of a few things for a while but you don’t finish a film when it’s finished anymore. It gets a release and then you have to go here and here and then talk about it and try to explain it. I’m used to being behind a camera not in front of one you know. I know people who have been doing screenings and such a year after. The thing that makes me feel the best as a human being is just creating stuff so it doesn’t feel that great talking about it, but I think it’s all a part of getting it out there.”

In Conversation with Andrey Zvyagintsev

“There were several radical comments, even from notable figures in the political sphere, suggesting that certain artists ought to go out on to Red Square and ask for forgiveness from the entire Russian people.”

1500 miles from Moscow, director Andrey Zvyagintsev is held in a much higher regard. His latest work Loveless, about a divorcing couple whose son disappears, won the Jury Prize at Cannes, and his Q&A after our interview at HOME is completely sold out.

We meet in a stylish little bar adjacent to a cinema. Myself, joined by Elizabeth acting as translator, and Andrey, joined by his producer, Alexander Rodnyanksy. Andrey had a matter of fact appearance, wearing a plain grey t-shirt, blue jeans, and brown shoes.

Andrey is a calculated man. As he was asked each question he paused to ponder it for a few moments, formulating his answer. When at last he gave his responses he spoke with such assurance that, although I couldn’t understand a single word, I was gripped.

Alexander, on the other hand, had his chair facing slightly away from us, as if he could not be less interested. He spent the entire interview fixated on his phone, seemingly unable to reply to the wave of notifications faster than they came.

I became doubtful of his participation in the conversation yet, sporadically, he would lift his eyes to look over to Andrey, or Elizabeth, or myself and contribute as if he was sat on the edge of his seat as I was, hanging onto every word. Alexander has mastered the skill of appearing oblivious and I was amazed.

Growing up in Novosibirsk, Russia, Andrey can pinpoint the exact film that sparked his love of cinema, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura. He described seeing it as a turning point in his creative destiny, which changed his beliefs of what cinema, and its language, could be.

“I came out of the cinema and it was as if I couldn’t move – I was in the street with my friend, and he was chattering away, saying, “come on, hurry up, let’s go!”, but all I could say was “Yuri, be quiet, just give me a minute…”

I’m convinced, but it’s just my opinion, that Tarkovsky [the revered and influential Soviet director] was heavily influenced by Antonioni. He never spoke about it, but I think it’s obvious from his films, because the 1960s were a time of renaissance for cinema, all over the world, and the event of the appearance of neorealism, in particular, Antonioni’s Italian brand of neorealism, was like an underground explosion. It had such an influence on everything.

This started Andrey down a path he still travels today. His directorial project was a small project for TV of three twenty five-minute short films. “In the year 2000, Dmitry Lesnevsky [an influential Russian TV and film producer and entrepreneur] suggested I make a series. I decided that I would film each of the three screenplays that the producer had given me with different cameramen — I wanted to play with the style and try things out with different ensembles.”

“Then in March 2000, almost exactly 18 years ago, I met Mikhail Krichman [cinematographer]. It was a complete coincidence, a friend of mine introduced us, and we’ve worked together ever since. I gave up on the idea of making three features with three different crews only thanks to the fact that I delegated the first of the three to Mikhail. After the forty days of filming, I knew I didn’t want to work with anyone else. I knew that I had found a creative partner.”

Their collaboration has spanned several feature-length films but none had an impact quite like their fourth film, Leviathan, about a Russian fisherman who tries to stop a corrupt mayor from seizing his ancestral home.

“On one radio station, the presenter put out the question of whether people considered the film “Russophobic”, despite never having seen it. 48 per cent of people who called in said yes. The reaction in Russia was certainly unambiguous, but there were more positive appraisals and enthusiasm too.”

The Russian authorities, having previously supported Andrey’s work, radically shifted their position after seeing Leviathan. Vladimir Medinsky, Russian Minister of Culture, criticised the film for portraying Russians as a ‘swearing, vodka-swigging people’. He noted that not a single character was positive and suggested that Andrey’s work was motivated by ‘fame, red carpets, and statuettes’ rather than reality. Medinsky went as far as to propose new guidelines to ban moves that ‘defile’ the national culture.

“I suppose things may well get worse. Recently it has been getting more and more difficult to maintain artistic and creative property, an artistic view on life and art, to pose difficult questions and a complex view of reality to your audience. Inevitably curiosity and attraction to the work wins out, without a doubt, this tendency exists all over the world. But I think that’s how it will continue to be. Platforms like the festivals in Cannes, Venice, Berlin, which support this kind of film and provide an outlet and a springboard for it, are very important. In Russia, put simply it’s very difficult.”

Despite the polarised reaction to Leviathan, they weren’t worried about the reception for Loveless. “I knew that Loveless would be divisive in some way, but the thing I couldn’t have predicted was the degree to which it would radicalise people’s opinions.”

“A lot of people were expecting after they had seen Leviathan to queue up and watch another “Russophobic” film. Some people couldn’t shed their opinions towards Leviathan and so they came to see Loveless still saying, “bah, this director has no love for his characters, no love for people at all, no love for Russian people at all”.

“Of course, Leviathan paved the way to Loveless having such a broad audience. And for many people, their interest in Loveless was dictated by their initial experience and views on Leviathan. You could call me a representative of Russian cinema, but I wouldn’t know what to do with that.”

“Taking on a title like that, I would be concerned that it might change my behavior. No one dictated to me what to do to make these films successful. I don’t carry out anyone else’s intentions. I’m not a representative of Russian cinema — that’s the last thing I need to think about. If that was the case, then I’d have to fulfill some kind of imposed role — I’m not interested in that.”

Andrey recognises that his cinematic future may one day lay outside Russia, but that isn’t something he is against. “Today we were walking around the city, and I was thinking we should make a film about Manchester. Maybe a comedy with the Manchester United team! But seriously, if suddenly an idea came to me that was relevant, fresh, and had to be in some other language or in a different country, and felt relatable to me and a natural next step, there wouldn’t be any obstacles in my mind.”

“I’ve already had a little experience on a project in New York where I was the only one who could speak Russian. I had an assistant who acted as a translator for me so she managed the communication. During the scenes with dialogue I wondered whether I would be able to interact with the actors, whether their language would just go over my head, but ultimately, I realised that in principle it was possible. So I wouldn’t see any obstacles there. There’s only one obstacle, and that is to find good people.”

Our conversation ended by asking Andrey whether he was in the process of starting another film. “I have plans, but it’s difficult to talk about it, not just because there are few details at the moment but because I don’t definitely know what the next step will be. I’ve already taken enough of a break, we finished the film in May last year – I’m ready for the next film.”

“It was something of a forced break really, because the awards season started, then winter came around, and now the awards are going on until the Oscars on 4th March. We’ve all just been thinking about that date, and now it’s not far off.” “It’s a good thing you’ve hung in there,” Alexander chipped in, “you’re a survivor.” With characteristic wry humour, Andrey laughed back, “No, we won’t survive, that’s for sure!”

In Conversation with HOME’s film programming team

By reaching out to all demographics of its area, independent arts organisations are a wonderful way to build community in large cities. Here in Manchester, we have HOME, a place where film, theatre, art, and dance converge. But how do film societies work, and what do they do?

A core element of building a film society is its programming, which involves developing an audience through the venue’s choice of films and events. Independent arts organisations such as HOME work on a basis of consent and consensus between the staff and the audience, meaning that the films and events put on must reflect the audience’s taste by finding a balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the old and the new, the popular and the obscure.

It is that balance that the film programming team attempt to perfect with every season though multiple facets.

A crucial one is the lengthened running time in the cinema or a slower turnover of what gets screened. HOME’s Cinema 5 allows there to be a rotation of films, a room able to seat around 40 people, and is a unique space that allows opportunities to approach artists through Q&As (although these can take place in any of their cinema rooms), which is a step towards making the cinema goer’s experience an immersive and enlightening one.

Being a part of a large city, the people working at HOME take it upon themselves to reach out to different demographics/communities in the area It is important for any film society to develop an ethos surrounding their film programming. HOME Mcr has done so by limiting the amount of Hollywood/Blockbuster films, ensuring that a certain number of films are UK/World cinema, showcasing a proportion of documentaries and animation each film calendar, but also by making sure each season to programme a film which reaches out to a certain community in the area. For example, hosting half of the Jewish Film Festival, discounted tickets for students in Manchester, a £1 ticket scheme for people from an impoverished background, or hosting a workshop in January for creatives with disabilities.

By installing such initiatives, HOME has seen results and proven how important programming is within the building of a film society’s audience and their loyalty to the organisation. There is a real creation of community, and the volunteers within HOME help this community function and thrive. Film societies depend on a large staff of both employees and volunteers, who either indirectly or directly tend to the audience’s experiences, by greeting the audience, introducing them to the concept of HOME or simply talking about the event they are about to or have just seen.

Places like HOME make it their duty to prevent certain films from falling into the abyss, or not being widely shared with future generations – planned well in advance, “States of Danger and Deceit” had been in the making for over a year in order to coalesce with the one hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. This is when the idea to showcase a retrospective of European thrillers came up. Senior Visiting Curator for HOME and Film Studies Professor at the University of Salford, Andy Willis expressed his personal concern that some canonical, pivotal films of his generation had never been heard of before by his film students.

At the centre of the film team is the Film Programmer for HOME, Rachel Hayward, and is pivotal to the smooth running of each film calendar. Her role involves a lot of public relations, connecting and creating links with people in the industry, as in Arts organisations, the employees are all trying to share the art, whether that be theatre, paintings, or films. “Everyone tries to help each other,” Rachel explained, when talking about the process of putting together a film season for HOME, locating often niche material and obtaining the rights to showcase it.

HOME’s Artistic Director Jason Wood started off as a filmmaker, but after co-directing three films, realised “it was going to be quite hard to make a career out of”, then moving on to work in distribution. At Entertainment Film Distributors, Jason worked on releasing independent films, including Paul Thomas Anderson’s first two films, and Se7en by David Fincher. Progressing to work in exhibition at Picture House cinemas for ten years as programming manager, he then joined the team at Curzon Artificial Eye as director of programming for five years, and during this time began to write film articles, notably for Sight & Sound and The Guardian.

What appealed to Jason about Curzon, in the beginning, was that “they were a cinema which showed almost exclusively independent films, not many of the Hollywood blockbusters”. It was when “they wanted to go much more mainstream with their programming”, partly due to financial benefits, that Jason knew he couldn’t work with them anymore.

Previously, Jason had been involved with the Cornerhouse in Manchester and their film programme, and gradually developed much more affinity with their agenda than that of Curzon’s. The opportunity then came up at HOME for Jason to take on the role of artistic director, in “a cinema that was truly a space for independent thought and filmmaking.”

What Jason, Rachel, and Andy work towards developing at HOME is a “film programme led by culture, not by commerce”, showing films that might have an alternative point of view from the mainstream or an urgent commentary regarding race, class, gender and/or sexuality. HOME has “proven that you can show a film programme which is led by culture and not just a need to make money”. In fact, as HOME’s cultural led programming has been so successful, other venues have reached out to the programming team to programme their venues as well, such as the Art House in London.

The people behind places like HOME are truly committed to the idea of culturally led entertainment and have shown what the cinema-going experience can be like if you treat your audience with respect, sensitivity, but also financial inclusion.

In Conversation with Andy Serkis

To play performance capture roles you need to study every movement of the creature you are to become. You need to put in painstakingly hard work and have a meticulous eye for detail. Andy Serkis has been at the forefront of this for over 16 years, a longevity that deserves overwhelming praise. But he is hanging up his performance capture suit for now in favour of sitting in the director’s chair.

It’s early on Friday, October 27, in Media City, Salford. Andy is bearded, in a black leather jacket and jeans. A radio interview completed, he strolls into the cafe, the strain of tirelessly promoting his debut film, Breathe, visible under his eyes. Yet the moment our conversation began he perked up dramatically.

From playing The Fool in a stage performance of King Lear to Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: there are few who could make such a transition. Serkis has a versatility that very few actors possess. Not only that but is renowned for being one of Hollywood’s nicest men, with a true passion for film.

‘I love the power of the shared experience. Watching people go through an experience together and being totally transported by characters in whatever world they exist in. That you are moved and educated and changed by something that is an emotionally powerful experience.’

16 years ago was a different world, franchises and universes were few and far between and CGI was in its infancy. People were skeptical when Lord of the Rings was announced, the 1978 animated version still leaving a sour taste in their mouths.

Serkis wasn’t interested in the role at first. Three weeks of voice work for a CG chapter in New Zealand, ‘it sounded dull as hell. There must be a dozen good roles in this film.’ Then he started looking at the book and his opinion flipped, ‘Oh my god, this is amazing, he’s the best character in it’. Serkis auditioned and the rest, they say, is history.

There have been very few moments in cinema where you witness the birth of a star: Natalie Portman in Leon: The Professional, Tom Cruise in Top Gun, Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In the Fellowship of the Ring when we meet Gollum the audience can’t help but ask the question: who the hell is that? His movement and acting seemed so innovative yet so natural.

2001 seems a far cry away from today. Just like The Lord of the Rings is a far cry from Breathe, his directorial debut. ‘When you’re telling a story as a director you are also creating the world of the story and how you choose to frame it.’ he says, pausing to take a sip of water, adding ‘In terms of is it naturalistic or documentary style or cinematic or poetic? You’re making all these choices.’

This new world of directing can be overwhelming, but Serkis had training, working as second unit director on the second and third Hobbit films. ‘In The Hobbit I was serving Peter Jackson’s vision for the most part. I did big aerial shots, battle sequences and dramatic scenes, it was a very full-on exposure to directing.’

A large part of that work involved green screens, and often he didn’t see the results until months later. The focus was on directing people not performances. ‘Whereas for Breathe, I was very much focussing on the performances, the joy of really seeing what you’re shooting was very special.’ He could take the broad techniques he’d learnt and really focus them down.

‘Obviously on smaller scale films, you don’t have the budget and support as you do with a big studio, you have to be very creative. There are often things that can twist and turn and go wrong in a small movie and you have to roll with the punches and dance around those.’

In making Breathe, Serkis has learned a lot more about directing, and strives to improve. ‘I’d like to have more confidence in leaving the camera in and getting the shots purely from performance, having that confidence and trust in your actors to carry your vision.’

His next film, The Jungle Book, is actually one he began first. Having so many A list actors, they could only find a short window of time for filming with all of them, so the motion capture work was finished long before the rest of the film. Then it was time for principal photography, on real locations and sets.

‘In our minds we had a cut of the film so we knew how we were going to use the animals in those real locations having filmed the performances.’ In a way this is very similar to the Hobbit, in that you can only imagine the end result while shooting. ‘You don’t see what it will eventually look like till a year into post production, that was a big challenge.’

Serkis wasn’t nervous about the performance of his Kipling adaptation, as it comes so soon after Jon Favreau’s version. ‘I think it’s tonally so different from Favreau’s. Ours is a lot darker and much closer to the tone of Kipling’s original book. Rather than live action we used performance capture so it was shot on real locations. It wasn’t CG animals in a CG world.’

‘The story of ours is a lot different, as it focusses on Mowgli’s identity. It’s about a boy who’s a feral child, brought up with animals and has a sort of idyllic childhood, but then realises the laws of the jungle don’t work for him fully. Instinctively because he’s a human being he finds himself challenging that but also in the world of man, the customs and ways of man, cannot ultimately stop his instincts of, well, an animal. He has to create his own identity and that what our film is about.’

After convincing me that his version is worlds apart from Favreau’s he jibes ‘Look, we live in a culture where we’ve had three Spider-man’s in the last ten years, so I don’t think people will have a problem with watching a different Jungle Book. With any great classic work, such as Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddlestone, or the numerous adaptations of Charles Dickens, people are used to the idea of reinterpretations and new interpretations.’

A lot of his work rides the wave of technological advancements, but he thinks the industry is only getting started. ‘I think performance capture usage is still in its infancy. It’s being used predominantly in big budget blockbuster movies, because of the cost of the technology. With the rendering costs coming down and using video game engines, such as Unreal, in the filmmaking process to get real time rendering, you can now use performance capture for television and even on stage.’

The stage, where Serkis plied his trade, building up his reputation before making the leap to film, is still a big part of his life. ‘My company, Imaginarium, has been working with the Royal Shakespeare Company on an actor portraying a character using performance capture on stage.’ When asked if he would consider going back to his roots he paused, look down at his glass of water and said ‘It’s been 15 years, I’m a little bit nervous about it, but I can definitely see it happening.’

So what’s next? Well he has plenty more in the pipeline, although not on stage just yet. ‘We’re working on Animal Farm by George Orwell and that will be a very interesting challenge in seeing how we create those characters. It’s really good use of the technology because you get all of the performance of human beings but translated into, not apes as they are fairly straightforward, but quadruped animals. We have been doing this with Jungle Book but Animal Farm will be taking this a lot further because we will see the pigs transform into almost human-like pigs.’

Some films are so technologically significant that they change cinema forever. James Cameron’s Avatar the most recent example, was almost solely responsible for every cinema changing from analog to digital projection. Cameron transported viewers into a CG world so revolutionary that the world they came back to was revolutionised as a result. George Orwell’s Animal Farm will be one of those films, paving the way for a fresh use of CG.

Another of those films was 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. When all blockbusters around were hammered to fit through the same hole, Matt Reeves tried something truly different. It was essentially a foreign language film, with the language being that of the great apes, and Serkis was their leader.

As the first two of the trilogy was released, critics and audiences couldn’t believe what they were seeing, and there was discussion for a Best Actor Oscar nominations, but they never came. This year, with the release of the epic conclusion, that discussion is greater than ever before. ‘I can’t judge my own performance but there is certainly more discussion about it this year because it is a very central role. It’s also a role where there is a lot more dialogue, Caesar actually speaks and people can connect to that.’

Forever humble, he downplays the potential of a nomination, but insists that performance capture roles should get considered. ‘The process of acting is no different if you’re wearing costume and makeup or a performance capture suit with dots on your face. The performance isn’t created by someone else, it’s created by the actor, and how they manifest that character.’

‘You could say well, when John Hurt played the elephant man and got nominated for Best Actor, he was totally in disguise and it was created by a great team of artists. Their artistry was augmenting his performance, but only in the same was that digital artists are augmenting a performance. Not by changing the performance but by creating a digital mask. I’ve always maintained that what we do in a PC role isn’t different to any form of live action acting.

Only time will tell what happens at next year’s ceremony. For now Serkis is sneaking his way into more franchises, as Supreme Leader Snoke in Star Wars and as Ulysses Klaue in the Marvel Universe. ‘They approached me for the Avengers. It was because at Imaginarium we were working on the performance capture for the Hulk, with Mark Ruffalo and for Ultron, with James Spader. I also worked physically with Mark Ruffalo to embody the Hulk to greater effect, that was with Joss Whedon. Then Whedon approached me and said ‘Look Andy I’ve got this role and I’d love you to play it’, I couldn’t turn that down.’

From the trailers to next year’s Black Panther, it seems his character is among the main cast. To wrap our time together up I asked Serkis if this was it for Klaue, or whether he survives to be seen again. In return I got a coy smile, ‘I can’t really say that, but I can say he certainly makes his presence known.’

In Conversation with Kevin Everson

Kevin Jerome Everson, fresh from a mid-career retrospective at London’s TATE Modern, travelled up to HOME to screen a selection of his short films with producer Madeleine Molyneaux. Viewers were treated to multiple UK premieres as well as a Q&A, hosted by HOME’s Artistic Director Sarah Perks.

Born in Ohio and based at the University of Virginia, Everson is an award-winning artist and filmmaker and is regarded as one of the most important and creative filmmakers currently working in the USA. Despite this though he remains humble, ‘I’m just from a small town, I just make things and I’m fascinated by people who want to see what I do.’

Art as an opportunity only caught his attention at college. There he studied photography, printmaking and sculptures, before that he was ‘just a big dumb jock’. Since then his films have screened at festivals such as Sundance and Toronto International Film Festival and are praised for their unique style, combining scripted and documentary elements with an obvious formalistic approach. The focus is almost entirely on the African-American experience within the working class whilst abstaining from any generic socio-politcal commentaries.

The 1996 Guggenheim Fellowship winner exhibits a strong sense of labour in his work, ‘I’m very privileged to be an artist, so I try to find artistry in the everyday lives of workers.’ One film in particular, Company Line (2009), centres around a group of city employees battling the snowy conditions to grit the streets.

‘I make films for the subject matter not the viewer, so I’m conscious about how they look and what they say. I find the people who are the best at what they do, and capture them doing it.’ A large section of Company Line is riding along with a particular snowplough driver, watching him at work. There are deeper remarks about 20th century African-American migration to the northern US present here too, depicting a class seldom mentioned let alone seen on film.

The town shown, Mansfield, Ohio, is Everson’s home town and the film was used as part of a trilogy about the first three black neighbourhoods in America. In the early 1970’s the land they lived on was purchased and all the residents in that neighbourhood were scattered all around.

There are more unusual films in his catalogue too. For example Rough and Unequal is a 16mm project where he used a telescope to capture the moon and stars. Commissioned specifically for an exhibition at the Franklin Museum of Art, it was designed to have an effect on the art space as a whole, changing the audiences perceptions of all the pieces on display throughout its runtime.

More recently his 2017 work Brown and Clear that was shown at TIFF divided audiences. It takes place in a bar and shows a man filling up empty bottles with alcohol for the whole 7 minutes and 40 second runtime. Naturally this would immediately turn off a subset of viewers but the variety of techniques utilised make this an intriguing watch.

The story behind the film is similarly intriguing. Everson was visiting a relative and came to the pub he ran. Instantly he was looking at his surroundings for potential subjects. He noted that ‘it was all of questionable legality’. After going back home he decided to drive the eight hours back to film the relative at work.

Medium to close shots are intentional to mask the location and identity to avoid any police trouble. There are numerous interpretations to the underlying meaning of Brown and Clear, one member of the audience suggested that it ‘was a comment on alcoholism’. Everson himself agreed with this adding ‘where I’m from you didn’t get all the fancy alcohol choices you guys have, it was either brown, like bourbon or brandy, or white, like vodka or moonshine.’

Working with a colleague at the University of Virginia, he also makes period films about the history of African-Americans. ‘When we show them in front of the school where there are people of European descent they get upset but they’re not in it. Whether it’s positive or negative they want to be at the centre of it’

Although his art is focussed on the African-American experience, it is unavoidable that it would be primarily shown to white audiences, whether that be at a film festival or a gallery. The main objective though is to spark discussion about the social, political and economic condition present. ‘I never know what people will think when they watch my films but I just try to be consistent. If not then fuck it, i’ll just film more tomorrow.’

In Conversation with Neville Pierce

Having seen the marvelous short comedy “Ghosted” (review here) at this year’s Lift-Off film festival we approached director Neville Pierce. His career consists of many facets, from journalist to screenwriter to director, and shares with us some very interesting and honest insight into the world of film journalism.

It was during his time at Bournemouth University that Pierce first developed his interest in journalism, and more so in writing about film. Being naturally good at storytelling, “spoken or written”, it is this that drew him to the art of reporting. Whilst studying journalism more generally, Pierce religiously read the now extinct magazine Neon which led to him to pushing himself to try, based on the mere logic that “Someone has to write for movie magazines – so why not me?”.

Starting off as the logical next step as a part of his journalism degree, a week’s work experience turned into two months working at the North Devon Journal. He recalls that the journalists there “were mostly only recent graduates themselves, but at the time seemed much older and wiser (and sexier) than I could ever aspire to be”.

Having been editor of the fortnightly paper The Nerve for a year, it was a natural question to ask what were his best and worst experiences in that position. To this, Pierce’s answer was an event that was simultaneously both, as he remembers “being shouted at by a columnist for editing his work – but he subsequently apologised, accepted the edit and we remain close friends, 20 years later”. If he could give his student editor self some advice, it would be to “admit your mistakes – even if only to yourself. Everything is useful – even the failures. Everything can be shorter – from articles to meetings”.

A journalist before the explosion of internet in the 2000s, his experience of journalism was quite different to that of film critics or any journalists today, the main problem being that beforehand, “People paid to read things. So YOU got paid”. A result of the use of internet for film criticism was the development of aggregated review sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, which Pierce recognises as a useful tool “if you want a barometer of critical opinion, though inevitably reductive”. He also points out that percentages will never replace an actual film review, as he might watch something a critic has not liked, depending on their taste.

As for him and his incentive to review films, he sums it up as a combination of “ego, enjoyment and earning” which I think can be said for the majority of film critics, as his response to what he wished to achieve through creating artistic content: “Buying a house”. His process to reviewing films is a unique one (this was before he was directing them), advising to “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you just told them. I was told that at school, about public speaking, but it applies to that type of writing too I think. Sometimes you can be more playful, especially if you’re writing a long, lead review – you can give more career context or make a point about theme. I always try to judge a film on what it is trying to achieve, as well as whether it is personally to my taste”.

Even critics have favourite critics. Pierce gave me this response when posed the question: “David Thomson changed the way I looked at film writing, with Rosebud, his biography of Orson Welles. His Biographical Dictionary of Film is wonderful, too. I can’t remember who said if you write about film then you get to write about everything, but that would apply to him. Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian) maintains a remarkably high standard. Robbie Collin (The Telegraph) is eclectic and insightful. Guy Lodge (Variety) has a delightful turn of phrase”.

He continued: “I am in awe of the breadth and depth of Kim Newman’s knowledge. Others who are less critics – though they do write reviews – than general film journalists would be Damon Wise (Neon and Empire), who was a big influence who became a friend. Matt Mueller (Screen International) is a fine editor and a fine man. Ditto Dan Jolin, who gave me my first bit of paid work, back at Total Film. It’s a long list, really. I’m impressed by what Joe Utichi is doing with Deadline’s magazine Awardsline. Chris Hewitt and co are very good on the Empire podcast. Jamie Graham is a very fine interviewer and informed critic – I value his opinion highly. The best all-rounder, broadcast and print, is Mark Kermode, for my money. Entertaining, informed, fluent on paper or on screen or speaker – superb”.

Getting more and more influential in his work, Pierce went from a staff position editing Total Film to being a freelance journalist for Empire. The transition from one job to the other was a noticeable one. “I didn’t have to manage people, I just had to manage my time. I didn’t have as much influence on what went in the magazine, of course, but I did have more freedom”, which lead to an obvious change of pace for Pierce and a much better quality of life.

Less of a transition of sorts and more of a variation in that field of work, Pierce described his experience in both radio and print journalism as quite different ones. “Print generally allows more depth (though not always). It also allows you to edit yourself more effectively and hide your incoherence. Radio is merciless in that regard”.

Pierce managed to obtain exclusive access as a member of press to the film sets of Fincher’s Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. “I had interviewed Fincher for a retrospective piece on Fight Club and we had got on, but when I emailed his assistant asking to visit the Zodiac set I expected to be told no – because he doesn’t generally allow journalists on set. So, really, I was incredibly surprised to be there. I also felt – and feel – he is one of the greats. So I was soaking up every bit of detail I could – for me, it’s like having the opportunity to go on set with Kubrick. I think the best set visit article – of the many I’ve written for Fincher films – was probably for Zodiac, because it was so fresh and exciting an experience for me”.

Now Pierce’s time is mostly taken up by screenwriting and directing, this did not happen over night and was a gradual shift in his career. The short version of why exactly he is in the filmmaking end of movies now is that he always “at least subconsciously, wanted to do it – and eventually the fear of failure was outweighed by the fear of not trying”.

In an industry where one’s work is constantly scrutinized, the fear of failure never dissipates. “Whether it’s articles or scripts or finished films, I don’t think you’re ever completely satisfied. You may look back years later and be able to say you think something was good – or, at least, close to what you had in your head”.

For my final question, I asked Pierce how he would describe the relationship between filmmaker and film critic. The answer was “carefully”. “I think Barry Norman probably said it best: ‘All critics are parasites – but parasites can be useful.’ So, yes, critics can’t exist without something to comment on. But great criticism can be beautiful – and definitely useful. Some critics are snide and ill-informed, of course, and that must be infuriating when you’ve worked hard to make a film (I’ve felt angry and frustrated upon reading ignorant reviews of the work of friends or filmmakers I admire), but a great many are dedicated, informed people who love cinema and work very hard for modest reward. I think I used to look down on film journalism, basically because I did it. Now I see its value much more. And it irritates the hell out of me when filmmakers are scornful of critics as a whole – especially filmmakers who are happy with critics when they love their work, then dismissive of them when they don’t. You have to take your lumps”.

You can find out more about his past, current and upcoming projects at nevpierce.com

In Conversation with Kumail Nanjiani

It’s late on Thursday July 7th. Manchester is midway through a tight schedule of preview screenings and interviews, but Kumail and Emily show no signs of fatigue from their string of late nights and early starts. Nor have they lost any of their appetite, emerging from the lobby with the same enthusiasm as day one.

Just yesterday they were in London, at an event much larger than the one today. The host was Richard Curtis, CBE, veteran of the Rom-Com genre and personal inspiration of Kumail. From ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ to ‘Notting Hill’ Curtis has perfected a craft very few can replicate, creating ensemble cast films with well-rounded characters.

Oh look who dropped in

That evening, after the screening, Kumail was invited to dinner with Curtis. “I was trying so hard to keep it cool but I’m sure he saw right through me” Suddenly there was a knock at the door. I say suddenly, but Kumail said only he was surprised. Curtis just smiled, sauntered over the door, and revealed Hugh Grant — A little exposition is needed here. In his formative years, growing up in Pakistan, Kumail was fond of Hugh Grant. Mimicking his hairstyle and lack of smiling because Grant said in an interview that “smiling made him look fat” — For the remainder of the dinner he tried his best to play it cool and not embarrass himself in front of his idols, secretly taking pictures, posting them to Twitter the moment their backs were turned.

Beyond human inspirations, Kumail too found his fondness of film critical in shaping the comic he is today. Of course, elements from some will have seeped into his film, The Big Sick. In particular he mentions 1987’s Broadcast News and 82’s Tootsie. “I wanted to make a Rom-Com with real emotion and real laughs. Most just half-ass both”. The commentaries of both proved invaluable in making this film, based upon his story with his, then girlfriend, now wife. Rom-Com’s often suffer from clear-cut edges separating comedy and drama, but Kumail is weary of this. “I learned that at the peak of an emotional scene. That that moment is the perfect time for a joke. The drama and humour feed into each other”

That’s the movie you’re going to make

5 years ago, 5 years after the events of the film, Kumail and Emily decided the time was right to make their story into a screenplay. No longer raw enough to cause tears, their memory of the events was still fresh. Early on in the process they met with producer Judd Apatow (40 Year Old Virgin, Superbad). After hearing the story his vision was clear, telling the pair “your story is so unique no one could ever think of it”.

Apatow acted as a mentor during writing. They began building a skeleton of facts, each moment a bone in what would eventually become a living, breathing being. Not everything seen on the screen is true to life. A scene here, a character there, but for the most part, this is their story. With each draft they submitted, Apatow gave thousands of notes. “Each detail was important to him, every character needed depth, struggles and dreams”

Although an autobiographical film, Emily did not want to play the role and auditions took place after the three year writing process concluded. She decided against attending, not wanting the actresses to “feel weird look at who they would have to become”. The tapes were initially discouraging. Although there were many fantastic actresses, none encapsulated Emily, her sarcasm, her presence, her charm. That was, until Zoe Kazan. “She did something more than the others, she took the words on the paper and really made them her own”

He just shouted it out before I even finished asking the question

Before any financing was secured, the pair decided to keep the project a secret, especially from their families. “We didn’t want to have any awkward conversations before they were necessary, and we didn’t want to disappoint them if it didn’t come to fruition” When harvesting season came though, the fruits of a fully financed deal with FilmNation were ripe for the plucking. The Apatow name surely sweetening the deal, his name synonymous with box office success.

Shortly after Kumail approached his family to walk them through the script, pointing out the real moments from the artificial. “I remember approaching my dad to ask who he would like to play him. I’ve never seen him so sure of anything in his life. He was set on Anupam Kher. So we sent him the script and the very same day he said yes. I didn’t even expect a response. He told us it would be his 500th film. 500! I haven’t even seen 500 films”

With the cast and crew ready, leads Kumail and Zoe ready, there was just one problem niggling in the back of Kumail’s mind, the kissing scenes. “I told her (Emily) to not be on set for them as I didn’t feel comfortable making out with another girl while saying her name but they were both amazingly normal about it. Turning it on me saying it was weirder if she left. – I think most of the cut scenes were making out scenes though, so I guess in the end i must have just been real bad at it”

She told me she was gunna beat my ass

In the film, there is a scene where Kumail crashes and burns terribly in an show, his pent up feelings about a hospitalised Emily erupting, one of several heartbreaking moments. But this was not his worst experience on stage. “I got a call to do Lettermen so I quickly arranged some practice shows the next town over (Atlanta) a week before. During the set a drunk women started aggressively heckling me. Now, on stage you feel like a superhero, a confidence unlike anything you’d have normally, so I started aggressively heckling back. I thought I got the upper hand and it was over, but then she flicked her lit cigarette at me and tried to start a fight”

Fortunately the show did not descend into violence, with Kumail shining during his Letterman performance a week later. From Silicon Valley to Adventure Time, all his successes can be traced back to this, his big break. Back in present day his greatest success of all, The Big Sick, received wide acclaim during its premiere at Sundance. Shortly after, a bidding war for distribution rights took place, with Amazon Studios paying $12 million, the second largest deal of the entire festival. It will receive its full release on July 14th and I would eagerly recommend you do. It is a fantastic film and a great achievement for them both.