Interview: Writer/Director Ron Shelton and “Just Getting Started”
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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.
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.
So much of this film is about family and the importance of family and being connected to your family. A good part of my upbringing as a Mexican-American was in a multi-generational family and there are challenges when you have a household full of kids and adults and elderly people, and sometimes those challenges are age-related disabilities like dementia or limited mobility. Being upfront about those things really brings into focus the value of that family connection that even when it’s hard, the thing that you hold on to are those family relationships and the fact that you are there for each other. I love that Miguel lives in this multi-generational family and he’s got a great-great grandmother. He describes it “sometimes Mama Coco forgets things but that’s okay I still tell her everything” because it’s important to feature the hard parts of being a family. That is what makes it all worthwhile; those show us what it means to be there for each other through thick and thin.
Like you, a lot of the people at Pixar have been there for a long time, and I feel like we’ve moved through their lives with them, from the sibling rivalry to growing up, having your children grow up, retirement, and now death.
You’re absolutely right. The Toy Story films are a perfect example. The first one is about jealousy and the fear of not being the favorite, and then the third one is about saying goodbye to your kids as they go off to college. That’s exactly what was happening in the lives of our creative leadership. It’s so funny – there’s all the work we’re putting into trying to craft these stories, but if you step back there’s a fascinating college dissertation to be written about the lives of our directors and our creative leaders and how that is reflected in our films.
Interview: RJ Palacio and Stephen Chbosky on “Wonder”
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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.
Joe Berlinger on Armenian Genocide and Efforts to Suppress the Story
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The word “genocide’ was created to describe the massacre of 1,500,000 Armenians by the Turks, a century ago. And yet, the story has all but been eliminated from our understanding of the 20th century, a more devastating erasure of history than the genocide itself because it erased the story, and because it erased any hope for justice.
A new documentary from director Joe Berlinger is the story about the story, about what happened, and about the efforts to prevent what happened from being told. “Intent to Destroy: Death, Denial, and Depiction,” in theaters November 10, 2017, has three chapters: behind the scenes in the filming of “The Promise,” starring Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale, an exploration of the denial that it ever took place, and the deception that led to repression of efforts to tell the truth and creation of a false counter-narrative.
Why start a documentary with the behind the scenes of a production about a fictional version of the event?
There are a couple of reasons why. From an aesthetic standpoint, this is complex and dense history and you want to make it digestible for a modern audience. I’m not a historical filmmaker who normally does things with talking heads and archival footage. From a practical standpoint it put me in a familiar place to tell an unfolding story and that gave me the dramatic structure to then hang all of this history.
From a thematic standpoint, there have been other documentaries about the facts of the genocide itself but what’s more interesting to me, what I actually wanted to make a film about, was the mechanism of denial, the aftermath of the denial and how denial operates. There is a checkered history of movie making on the theme of the Armenian genocide in Hollywood because any prior attempt to do a mainstream movie has been basically shut down. The Turkish government complains to the State Department and the State Department twists the Hollywood studio’s arm and it drops the project. As early as 1935 that’s what happened to Irving Thalberg when he was trying to make “Forty Days of Musa Dagh” and so when I heard a film was actually being made independently financed by Kirk Kerkorian, an Armenian, so clearly this was private money but it involved a lot of Hollywood people, an A-list director, I saw “The Promise” as a historic event.
So it wasn’t just embedding with the film to get some visual eye candy of behind the scenes of a movie. It was the perfect way to express what to me is the more important aspect of the film which is not just the history of the genocide but the actual hundred years of denial and how all that happened. I can tap into that thing that I think is the most interesting aspect of this story, how the narrative has changed. In 1915 when the genocide was beginning there were 145 articles in the New York Times and it was the largest humanitarian relief effort up until that point ever mounted to help people in a foreign country. Babe Ruth’s 50th home run bat was auctioned off to raise money so it was a shining moment in American history and yet today we have lost that vision of our past because it’s been systematically repressed and a counter narrative has been put out there. So what better way to talk about dueling narratives than by making a film about filmmaking?
A really special moment in the documentary is where we see them filming a character finding all the dead bodies because it’s where all the scenes kind of come together. You have Terry George trying to present an atrocity for a PG audience intercut with the actual survivors’ testimony so that it’s real for them while it’s a movie for these people, intercut with the archival footage of the day showing those gruesome photographs just to give an inkling to an audience of what it’s really like in a way that could never be shown in a mainstream motion picture and then we have the true behind the scenes with tender moment with Christian Bale working with a child.
Part of what made the third chapter so powerful was the way that it resonates with the era of fake news, Nazis being called “good people,” fights over Civil War statues and climate change denial.
For many of these people that history is still present today and if we discount those histories, if we don’t understand what we do when we blow up Iraq and unleash the wave of the ethnic strife as a result, we will keep getting it wrong. I’m not saying Saddam Hussein should have remained in power; it’s too complex to go so deeply into that. The Armenian Genocide is like the quintessential example of history that’s not been reckoned with and accounted for and beyond that you see how techniques are used to invalidate a historical reality.
Much smarter people than me have said that the final stage of genocide is denial. It’s absolutely essential that we recognize the historical realities of a situation and I find it morally reprehensible that the United States does not recognize the genocide because we’re afraid of losing our strategic allies because they have air force bases where we can launch missions from. Even if we do lose our strategic air force bases. I just believe that we have to be accountable to our history and as Serj Tankian says so eloquently in the film genocide should not be bargained as political capital and that goes for our own reckoning with history. These are all painful aspects of history that we have not fully dealt with and that’s why we’re seeing the repercussions that we saw in Charlottesville so the lesson of the movie is that you have to respect the history and account for it and hold people accountable.