Interview: Armando Iannucci of “The Death of Stalin”
Posted on March 15, 2018 at 2:29 pm
“The Death of Stalin,” based on the graphic novel by Fabien Nury, is a scorching satire about the flurry for succession following the unexpected totalitarian leader of the Soviet Union. For rogerebert.com I spoke to co-writer/director Armando Iannuci about the parallels between this film and his HBO series, “Veep,” about the accents of this actors and the only one to change his accent to suit the character, and about what the movie has to say about today’s politics.
Do you see the story as something like “Veep” with guns? I get the feeling that if the characters in “Veep” had the chance to kill people, they would.
You might think that at the start, but once there’s a threat of being killed, it just turns into something else. The comedy is more based in paranoia, craziness. In “Veep,” the characters’ biggest worry is being found out. The worst that can happen to you is maybe they will be embarrassed or you may lose your job and go into lobbying. It’s temporary. But for these characters it is “if you are found out, you will be dead,” and it turns them into gibbering, frozen with fear, paranoiacs, every one of them. It turns them into stories that are timeless like ancient Rome or Shakespeare’s history plays or “Game of Thrones” or “The Godfather.” It’s the war for succession, kill or be killed. You have characters who tell themselves, “I’m good, but I may have to kill people so that my goodness can survive.”
The movie places an African and an African-American in opposition. “I’m an African-American male born in the 1980’s in Oakland,” he said, “and there’s a dynamic between being African and African-American that’s very interesting.” This is a key element he explored in the film, with African characters from the fictional country of Wakanda, which has never been colonized or even had any trade relationships with western countries, and African-American characters, who reflect the stress of living in a country still confronting racial divides.
“The question for me is what does it mean to be African? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself since I first knew I was black, since my parents sat me down and said, ‘You’re black and that’s what this means. You’ve got to navigate the world in a certain way.’ That’s the conversation every person has had to have because of the way the world works. If you don’t have that understanding you could be in a situation that costs you your life,” as Coogler’s first film, the fact-based “Fruitvale Station,” showed. “Nobody who was telling me what being African means had ever been there. My parents had never been, my grandmother had never been.” So it was essential for him to spend time in Africa, researching the cultures that Wakanda would represent.
“The African culture the world knows best is the African-American culture,” he said, citing the worldwide dominance of hip-hop. But working on the film and spending time in Africa helped him realize that the African culture he thought was erased by bringing Africans to the United States as slaves was much more intact than he thought. “I grew up thinking the African culture had been taken away from us, that it was lost. But the truth is, we didn’t. We hung onto it.”
And as the mother of a costume designer, I was especially excited to speak to Ruth Carter, whose costumes play such an essential role in the film. She talked about the African inspirations for the traditional tribal attire of the Wakandans, and the way African patterns are even reflected in the iconic superhero suit.
Actual African fabric as we know it is Dutch and Dutch-inspired and brought to Africa. Africa liked it and adopted it so all of their African fabrics come from Holland or from China. Wakanda was never colonized, so I didn’t want to use them. Every time I started to use the African fabrics I felt like it was not this movie so I created my own fabrics, based on the sacred geometry of African art. Usually it’s a checkerboard or it’s pyramid shapes or it’s striations of horizontal and vertical strikings so I use that and we created prints. Lupita’s green dress in the casino is one print that we created based on the Nigerian kente cloth. We just extracted the line work and we printed the fabric the same way we printed T’Challa’s superhero suit.
Once I get the illustration of the super suit I can’t change it; I can’t give him a Shaft coat, all of a sudden. I have to stay within those confines because they have already been working with merchandisers and all kinds of other people. The one thing that I did do which was my contribution was the Okavango pattern, a triangle shape.
That fabric is completely made up. The triangle is definitely a big part of African artistry. It’s a mystery within the African culture what that triangle shape actually means and everybody has their own theory. So the panther suit was printed with that triangle shape all over it so that when you’re looking at it, it’s this superhero suit that has this Wakandan language traveling through it; veining throughout it, and you also see an Okavango pattern and which makes it feel like he’s in the place of Wakanda, he’s in Africa and he’s an African king and gives it texture.
Vanity Fair posted a scene analysis with Coogler explaining what was going on in one of the film’s striking action sequences.
More commentary about this brilliant, groundbreaking new film coming soon.
Paul McGuigan on the Gloria Grahame Story “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”
Posted on January 4, 2018 at 4:06 pm
Paul McGuigan directed “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” the bittersweet real-life story of Gloria Grahame, who was cared for by the family of her last lover in her final illness. Annette Bening is incandescent as the Oscar-winning actress, and Jamie Bell gives his best performance since “Billy Elliot” as Peter Turner, the decades-younger aspiring actor who loved her. Grahame is probably best remembered today for smaller roles in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (as Violet) and “Oklahoma” (as Ado Annie, the girl who “cain’t say no“) but she also starred in major studio films with Humphrey Bogart, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, and Robert Mitchum.
In an interview, McGuigan talked about his favorite Grahame performance and the two love stories in the film.
What is your favorite Gloria Grahame performance?
“In a Lonely Place.” is my favorite. I just love that film and I just love her. I mean that has been the greatest joy for me, to watch her movies over and over again as a part of my research for this film.
What was it about her as an actress that made her so memorable?
I think she was just very modern, she was unique and she was fascinating. She was funny, she was sexy and she was herself. She was always herself which I liked, she always made the role a part of her and that’s what I’ve always seen in Annette Bening as well. They both have that funny kind of playfulness, very similar in style. I think Gloria Grahame is when you look back at her work, which is incredible, she could go toe to toe with any of the world’s most macho guys from those days which is very few actresses could can do. She could create a woman that everyone fell in love with. She always played that kind of femme fatale.
I love the way you staged the flashback scene about how Gloria and Paul met when she impetuously asked him to come to her apartment and dance with her. It is so charming and delightful.
There were lots of scenes which were emotionally quite hard on everybody, not just the actors but the crew, so it was lovely to come across a scene that was just a dance sequence and it was kind of joyous. It was good for us all to have our hair down and have a good time. So I just talked to the director of photography, Urszula Pontikos, and I said, “just put the camera on your shoulder and let’s just see what happens.” I always had a Plan B, which was a choreographer on set that we could work with, but I just wanted to see what would happen. So what did happen is we had the song, the real song, “Boogie Oogie Oogie” by Taste of Honey. I put the song on and they just started to dance and that’s what you get. We did two takes and then Annette started to complain. She was like, “Why are you only doing two takes? I was having such a good time getting to dance next to Jamie Bell.”
What was it about that relationship that made him the one to call, even though they had not seen each other in a year, and what was it about her relationship with his family that made her want to go there to be cared for?
There are two love stories in this movie. There’s the love story between Gloria and Peter and there’s the love story between Gloria and Peter’s family. These families in Liverpool and where I come from in Glasgow are working class families. They’re very tight. They have also the kind of family that if you bring someone in and you say, “This is the person I love,” then they unconditionally will love the other person.
It’s not all wine and roses, it’s not all bouquets and flowers; there are always tensions and all that but deep down they really do have a genuine love for her. I don’t think Gloria had that in her life. Her personal life was very fraught and it was very complex and it wasn’t necessarily the environment that was conducive to taking care of someone. I don’t think she felt comfortable with anyone but with Peter’s family. She felt that they would not judge her and whatever she wanted to do, she could do it there. She just wanted to rest.
Ultimately Gloria never thought she was going to die. She wasn’t really going back to Liverpool to die. She just thought that she was going there for a few days and get ready and then she was going to go back into the play. Jamie’s character knows that she is dying. He knows she’s dying, the family knows she’s dying; the mom certainly knew she was dying but Gloria doesn’t know she was dying. but she felt comfortable within that family; she felt comfortable within that environment. It was the environment that was of safety to her and non-judgmental.
When he goes to the hotel room to pick her up, he’s quite angry at her because she hasn’t been in touch. That was an interesting starting point and then he takes her home and the first thing is the family waiting on her and she kisses them like she would kiss her own family.
What was it like having the real Peter to respond to what you were doing?
Peter was very respectful of everyone and it was great to have that resource. I said, “Let me take your story for a minute, and then we’ll give it to you back.” I wanted to keep that true kind of very, very distilled idea of memory, a very distilled notion of a love affair. I loved the way it was structured, very fluid, because that is how we remember things. I wanted to bring the audience to this love story and then color it with Gloria Grahame’s real life past and her cinematic past and shoot the film the way that maybe one of her movies would have been shot back in the day.
It has a lot to say about those in positions of power and wealth and influence and how they wield that in the world around them and how much they’re prepared to overlook in the society around them. That has not changed, and neither has the possibility of redemption. In Dickens’ time, though, it was very unusual to have a character that time travels and went through his own life. It’s almost sci-fi in a way the way he travels back. But also he’s able to go from the archetype of a really not very pleasant character, overnight he’s transformed. And that goes back in the history of theater and literature. You have these archetypes and they pretty much stay bad. The fatal flaw is ultimately fatal. The bad guy comes on stage and we know who he is and he stays pretty bad; he might learn a lesson but here there is more because there is redemption. He has a second chance. He goes through this transformation. It’s so epic and so full of hope that somewhere inside there must be good in this man and that gives us hope about ourselves and the people around us and the possibility of change.
When he was writing A Christmas Carol, Christmas celebrations were pretty austere. He wrote a book that gave you a picture postcard idea of Christmas as a time for kindness and generosity. I think the reason it resonates over the decades upon decades and never been out of print is because it actually says something about the human condition. Personally he did invent Christmas for me. I was born in India and my parents brought me into the north of England and Christmas wasn’t a thing that was always huge in my family. I didn’t really know what Christmas but I was surrounded by people in the north of England on the Scottish border where Christmas was just huge and it was a really joyous time for people. I couldn’t quite get it because it just didn’t register with me and then when I was about 10 or 11 I read A Christmas Carol and it completely clicked. I completely got what it was. So in a weird sort of way Dickens really did invent Christmas for me. We all look back and we have this wonderful image of what Christmas should be, that combination of everything we want. We want family life, we want to be around a roaring fire, we want to be roasting chestnuts, we want to hear snow falling but we also want to be good to each other in the human spirit. It’s that combination which is combined so beautifully in Dickens’ book and which we pay tribute to in our film.
Interview: RJ Palacio and Stephen Chbosky on “Wonder”
Posted on November 13, 2017 at 5:26 pm
R.J. Palacio’s book Wonder is more than a best-seller — it is a movement. Middle-schoolers and their families love the story of Auggie, a 10-year-old with facial deformity who for the first time attends school in 5th grade. It is not a story about triumphing over disability; Auggie has more than triumphed when the movie begins. It is instead a heightened exploration of universal themes. In middle school, the moment when people are most acutely aware of differences and most excruciatingly anxious about fitting in, a boy who is very different arrives. The book and the movie it inspired are about family and friendship and, above all, the importance of choosing to be kind. The movie opens November 17, 2017.
In an interview, Palacio and the film’s director, Stephen Chbosky talked about what kindness means to them and why it is so important to include not just Auggie’s point of view but the other characters’ as well.
RJ, as you’ve spoken to kids in schools, what have they told you about the impact that this book has had on their lives and the choices that they make?
RJP: I’ve spoken to probably hundreds of schools at this point and thousands of kids. It’s very gratifying and very moving to hear ten year olds and eleven year olds come up to you and say, “I want to be a better person after reading this book.” You think, “Well, you’re ten years old and you’re probably an amazing person already,” but to hear them say that is so moving. I tend to be an optimist in life and I tend to believe that there is an inherent goodness in most people. Kids to me have this wonderful urgent and earnest willingness to be noble. I think our job as parents and as educators and as teachers is to tap into that inherent wanting to be noble. I don’t know if they would call it nobility but I see it that way.
Most kids just really want to get along. They want to make other people feel better. They’re mischievous sometimes and sometimes, yes, they border into cruelty sometimes just because they’re feeling like they want to be funny or they’re navigating these uncharted waters. They haven’t had a lot of practice at being a fully realized human being yet and then as they’re growing up, when they’re ten or eleven it’s really kind of the first time that they’re actually exploring the power that they have to reach out and be friends with people and what being an enemy means. So they’re discovering all of this and as parents we can guide them a little bit. At that age what’s happening sometimes is that parents tend to step back a little bit and think, “Well, she doesn’t listen to me anymore, she’s twelve years old,’ but my feeling is that they’re still listening at that age. Maybe when they’re sixteen or seventeen they stop listening but at twelve or thirteen they might pretend that they’re not but they’re still listening.
SC: Let me jump in for a second here and add something to that because I think it’s very profound. We all know Lord of the Flies, where kids left on their own become brutal. How many times have you heard an adult say “Kids can be cruel?” Well, kids can also be kind and there is ample proof of both and yet for whatever reason adults on some level like to emphasize how cruel kids can be. I’ll tell you a quick personal story. I have not thought of this in thirty years but I just thought of it right now. When I was in fifth grade we started to work on public speaking in school and so we would have to stand in front of the class. One kid per morning would have to lead the assembly. This girl every time it was her turn she cried uncontrollably because she was so frightened of standing in front of us all. You would think that if kids are cruel (and let’s go with that premise for a second) we would be so mean to this girl. Every month (I’m actually kind of getting choked up remembering this) we would root for her. It didn’t matter who you were. We were all: “Come on Betsy, you can do it this time” and on the last day her voice was quaking but she didn’t cry. I never forgot it…I’m having a moment right now, remembering it. That’s what kindness can do.
The story itself is extremely kind in exploring the perspectives of different characters, including Auggie’s older sister, Via, something you’ve continued, RJ, in a book called Auggie and Me. Why is that important?
RJ: In order to tell Auggie’s story from a 360° point of view, for us to understand the impact that he had on his community, on his friends, on the school, I had to leave his head and I had to go into different perspectives. His sister was the first one that I really wanted to explore. I just figured here is a girl who was fiercely protective of her brother, she’s a good girl but as just a matter of fact she has to be by necessity the one that’s overlooked a little bit in her family. She’s sort of like a self-cleaning oven. She’s self-sufficient. The parents don’t have to spend a lot of time worrying about her. They can spend most of their time worrying about her little brother who actually needs them to worry him. So I thought going to the different perspectives was a really good way of telling Auggie’s story but also having people understand that everybody’s got a story to tell. Everybody has something about ourselves that we can change or that we worry about. I wanted kids to realize that maybe Auggie’s difference is the most obvious but every single character and every single person you meet has something that they think makes them different and each has to carry their own little challenges and little burdens. We just might not be able to see them as clearly.
The story really is about friendship, set in a time when friendships become so vital and so fraught.
SC: We all know that when you’re young your friends become become your family more than in any other time in life. So it amplifies what an act of kindness can mean. When you are a kid you are much more vulnerable and so everything becomes more important and everything sounds a little louder and everything hurts a little deeper and I think that’s what’s so powerful about RJ’s story.
What does kindness mean to you?
RJ: I think of kindness as sort of a compilation of several different words — compassion, empathy, tolerance, love, forgiveness. It’s all of those things mashed up into one word which is kindness. It’s something that makes us human in a way that nothing else, though it is so hard to achieve kindness sometimes. It’s one of the most gratifying things in the world to receive and when you receive kindness from someone you’re that much more predisposed to give kindness to someone else. It’s one of the very few things that can actually spread. It’s infectious and it can grow. We’re living in times where kindness itself is almost becoming politicized and being seen as a sign of weakness when to me it’s a sign of strength. The ability to be kind to those who are not empowered or who are being ostracized or being ridiculed or being bullied takes courage.
The “precept” Auggie’s teacher gives the class quotes Wayne Dyer, who said, “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” But sometimes being right is important, too, isn’t it?Absolutely, yes, and it is a fine line. That’s why I always say it takes a lot of courage to be kind because being right is important too but I think it takes a lot of heart be able to discern when it’s really important to just kind of stay true to your gut about what is needed in life.
Given the choice we should all aspire to have both and to win hearts and minds. Whatever it is you do professionally or personally with your family, with your friends or your colleagues we all have the power we all have the capacity to some degree to affect change around us so that the choice doesn’t need to be made.
Julia Roberts is so good in this film. The look on her face when Auggie first has a friend who wants to come over has so many emotions at once. What is it like to direct her?
It’s like being Michael Phelps’ swimming coach. She is so good at what she does and she can convey every emotion at the drop of a dime, she can change her approach on the drop of a dime, too. Any director will tell you there are two performances; one is the one that the audience gets to see because you’re cutting the best moments together and you’re finding the tone and you’re finding the pacing and the music and everything else, and there’s everything else that you that you left out. She never had a bad take, she was generous to her co-stars, she made everybody better (especially me) and I can’t say enough about her as an artist or a person. Every take was perfect no matter how many ways we tried it.