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.”

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Black Panther: Behind the Scenes

Posted on February 20, 2018 at 8:25 pm

I was lucky enough to be able to interview “Black Panther” co-writer/director Ryan Coogler for rogerebert.com.

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.

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Women Directors to Watch Out For

Posted on January 28, 2018 at 4:06 pm

Copyright 2017 Walt Disney Pictures

Film School Rejects has an enticing list of 81 movies by woman directors scheduled for release in 2018, including one of this year’s most anticipated big-budget studio films, “A Wrinkle in Time,” directed by “Selma’s” Ava Duvernay. The topics range from thrillers (“The Strange Ones,” “Blame,” “The Turning”) to comedies (“I Feel Pretty”) to documentaries (“On the Basis of Sex,” one of two films about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg coming out this year). I’m especially looking forward to “Freak Show,” directed by Trudie Styler, “Oh Lucy!,” directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi, and “Valley Girl,” a musical remake of the 1980’s cult classic, directed by Rachel Goldenberg.

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Paul McGuigan on the Gloria Grahame Story “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”

Posted on January 4, 2018 at 4:06 pm

Copyright 2017 Sony Pictures Classics
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.

Originally published on HuffPost

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Interview: Writer/Director Ron Shelton and “Just Getting Started”

Posted on December 12, 2017 at 1:40 pm

Copyright Broad Green 2017

Writer/director Ron Shelton understands the way that people — especially men — communicate through competition that can be both amiable and cutthroat at the same time. And he knows how funny it is to watch. In his new movie, “Just Getting Started,” Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones, and a cast of great character actors play residents of an idyllic retirement community in Palm Springs who try to top each other in golf, poker, and the affections of a new arrival played by Rene Russo. In an interview, he talked about the differences between men and women, spending Christmas in the desert, and And he quoted one of his most famous characters, “Bull Durham’s” Annie Savoy.

One of the funniest characters in the film is the mob wife played by an unrecognizable Jane Seymour. What did you have in mind with the look of her character?

She’s supposed to be outrageous. Jane said she wanted to come in and have some fun, and she told me she had two different wigs; one blonde, one brunette. I said, “Bring them both and wear one in each scene.” She’s a woman who married into a criminal wealth and we wanted to have fun with it.

It’s unusual to see a movie with Christmas in the California desert, no snow, no pine trees.

I’m a native of Southern California so I grew up with Christmas at the beach. I looked it up and Southern California is on the same latitude as Bethlehem so I’ve always joked about that but half the world has hot Christmases. I was in Palm Springs one time around Christmas and it was one hundred ten degrees and there were dust storms blowing and Johnny Mathis was singing “Let It Snow” and everybody was perfectly happy so I thought it was a good backdrop for not your normal Christmas setting.

Your films often feature guys and their relentless competition, even in the smallest of ways. Why do they do that?

 Obviously if I knew I wouldn’t keep trying to explore it in dramatic ways. Honestly, I think it might be chemical. It is supported by conditioning and the world. Writers are storytellers and forever we have been exploring the why of all that without ever coming to an answer. I think on the other side of guys and that alpha male thing, guys also forget and forgive much quicker than women. All my women friends in life completely agree. Men say, “That’s over; let’s play golf, let’s have dinner, let’s have a drink.” The women go, “Oh, wait aren’t there unresolved issues?” As Annie Savoy says in “Bull Durham,” “It’s wonderful how men get over things.”

Is it different to write for older characters?

It turns out to be the same because I’m an older character and I don’t think of myself as older, so they don’t either. You and I are still thinking about what are we doing next, about doing what are we doing today, what’s my next job, my interview, my script, my movie, whatever. I’m more active than I’ve ever been. I can’t jump as high or hit a golf ball quite as far, but I think I’m a lot wiser. I don’t make as many of the same mistakes. I’m a better parent and grandparent. I wanted to treat them like people and not go to all those usual sort of go-to default reflex Viagra jokes.

They’re toasting the Christmases to come, looking ahead, not back. So are the actors. Morgan’s eighty, Tommy seventy. Nobody in the movie was under sixty except the two young kids and everybody was active and vibrant and full of energy.

You have made some classic sports movies, and of course there is some golf in this one. We don’t get those adoring portrayals of athletes you see in Turner Classic Movie films like “The Stratton Story” and “Pride of the Yankees.” Why is that?

I think we know too much. Television and iPhone and video cameras and paparazzi and confessions mean we cannot pretend that these people are anything other than the brilliantly talented and flawed people they are. Back when those movies were made there were no televised sports. People didn’t know what the athletes looked like. All I try to do in my stories is put the camera and the story where the television cameras can’t go.

Do sports build character, reveal character or both?

Both; without question. I’m a big believer in sports. It’s great training for people, I know it’s a cliché but it’s true — you learn life lessons. People ask me “what did you learn from sports?” because I went to college on a basketball scholarship and played professional baseball. I say, “you learn to lose” You never win in sports. You have good years and bad. You deal with disappointment. You learn to figure out, “How does that make me stronger? How do I put it in perspective with everything else going on in my life?” So, that’s a great life lesson. It’s what you keep in your heart and mind as you play, whether you are eight years old or thirty or sixty.

 Originally published in HuffPost

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