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Interview: Writer/Director/Editor Brett Haley on Sam Elliott and “The Hero”

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Copyright 2017 Northern Lights
Sam Elliott played a small but very significant role in writer/director/editor Brett Haley’s last film, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” starring Blythe Danner. The experience inspired Haley to create a lead role for Elliott, based very loosely on his own experience as an actor who has appeared in many westerns and has an iconic image. I interviewed Elliott about the role, and then I spoke to Haley about how it came about. “We became close on the set of ‘I’ll See You in my Dreams,’ and then we really became friends doing promotion for the film and I just knew that I really wanted to work with Sam. I knew that I just admired him as a person and a friend and also an actor and I just really wanted to give him a performance platform essentially and let him do something that we’ve never seen him do before. Of course, he is playing an actor that is known for roles that Sam in real life is known for, so there’s a weird sort of meta thing happening. But I don’t think he’s doing in this film what he’s done previously in other films. I think he shows a incredibly sensitive and vulnerable and humorous side that will be new to his fans. We wanted Sam to play an actor and so it would be hard to avoid the fact that he would be known for his voice and his western kind of status. So we use that in the film to play against and but then we go much deeper into what it means to be known for only one type of thing.”

Lee, the actor Elliott plays in the film, is neither as successful or as stable as Elliott is in real life. In the film, he is something of a has-been, with an estranged daughter and an ex-wife (played by Elliott’s real-life wife, Katharine Ross). Lee very much wants to be cast in a particular role, and in one of the movie’s highlights we see him prepare for an audition by reading lines with his friend and drug dealer, played by Nick Offerman. “We see him be an amazing actor when he’s rehearsing for the audition,” Haley said, “but the way he behaves in the actual audition and his carelessness with his life shows a lack of discipline and professionalism that I think is part of being a good actor. Auditioning and acting are two very different skills. Being a great actor doesn’t always mean that you’re good at auditioning. Auditioning is a whole separate skill. Even the most amazing actors blow an audition because of the pressure or because something is going on in their life. And being a good professional is a great thing but people like Marlon Brando and Orson Welles who are some of the greatest movie stars and actors ever, you could say that they were not always the most professional but I don’t think that makes them any less of an incredible actor. Being difficult or not having a good work ethic, these are human qualities that I don’t think have anything to do with being an actor. It’s really fun to see that Lee still has some gas in the tank as a performer, even if he does not have the discipline to handle the audition.”

Lee is invited to accept a lifetime achievement award from a group of western fans. He brings a much younger woman named Charlotte (Laura Prepon) and they get high together on the way there. “The event is something that’s meant to be seen as initially as disappointing, certainly not the Oscars or the SAG or the Golden Globes. It’s a small society of people that want to keep the western alive, that still love the western. Because Lee is on drugs, he becomes more open to the love that these people have for him, he accepts it. Having fun with it and not taking it so seriously and just being in the moment allowed him to then embrace the love of his fans and understand that it does mean something in the end to be loved by anyone, to be remembered even if it is for just one movie.”

I asked him about the unusual combination of writing, directing, and editing. “They’re all the same basic idea, shaping the story. You’re writing when you write it and you’re writing when you shoot it and you’re writing when you edit the film. You’re rewriting all the time. You’re always working on honing the story and making the elements work. That’s been part of my process since I was a kid making movies. I’m certainly thinking as I film of how to protect myself in the edit.”

Actors who have worked with Haley have said that they appreciate his flexibility in giving them a chance to try different approaches. “That’s all you’re doing as a director to a large degree is collecting material so you have options. You can’t be too set on getting it just one way. I’ve learned over the years you need to get as many ways as you can because you could be wrong and I like being able to play with it in the edit and have fun with it. I know what I want but I also think my actors will do their best when you let them bring their own interpretation to certain things. But I certainly think that we’re all on the same page before we get on set. That’s a really important distinction, so it’s not like they’re doing the scene in a completely different way that I would initially want. So by getting on the same page and then on set we are able to play and try new things and experiment.”

Haley said it was “a real treat” to have Ross play the role of the ex-wife. “Katharine is an icon in her own right, an amazing actor and an amazing woman. To have a real life married couple who play exes made it a lot of fun to play with because there’s a lot of history between Sam and Katherine and I think you can see it come across off screen. I think it was a little weird but also fun for them to play a couple with a lot of history and their real life experience informed a lot of the great work that goes on between them.”

Interviewer: As a writer you kept a lot of information away from us, you know I often think that’s the difference between an independent film and a studio film is how much they feel that they have to explain to you and you didn’t give us a lot of information about what happened in that relationship or what happened in a relationship with our we have a general sense of his not being there but how do you decide sort of where to, how much information to give the audience?

He does not overdo the exposition and backstory in his films. “I think about it in terms of how people actually talk to one another in real life. People don’t do monologues about their backstory when they’re seeing their ex-wife or their daughter or ‘let me list all the ways I was terrible to you’ or ‘you remember that time I was bad.’ I know that audience is a really smart and I think they understand what could have caused the rift between them. It’s clear that he was an absent guy, a selfish guy and I think that’s all they need. I think that the more specific you get when it comes to a back story it just becomes sort of a cheat, it’s telling the audience how to feel instead of letting them just simply feel. I always tend to go for the more subtle approach and let the actors’ faces tell the story rather than my words or some kind of exposition do the work.”

Haley was sensitive to avoiding the usual dynamic of a movie relationship between an older man and a younger woman. “I thought it would be interesting to see this character that Laura I think brilliantly plays, be more of the pursuer. He’s not really sure if he can trust her or not you’re not really sure what her intentions are with Lee. I wanted to play with that. I wanted Lee to be weirded out and cautious and just not comfortable with the situation and I thought that was a really fresh take. That’s what Mark Basch and I like to do. We like to take those cliches and we like to turn them into more honest and more appealing circumstances and characters. So it was a challenge to get right but I’m very proud of that relationship and how it comes off. It goes in very surprising places. It’s not as simple as beautiful young woman, old guy ending up together; it’s a lot more than that.”

Transformers: The Last Knight

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of sci-fi action, language, and some innuendo
Profanity: Strong language, many s-words and crude insults
Nudity/ Sex: Brief crude humot
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/fantasy violence, fire, guns, explosions, chases, characters injured and killed, reference to suicide
Date Released to Theaters: June 21, 2017
Copyright 2017 Paramount

It is time to stop the madness. I only wish this was called “Knight: The Last Transformers Movie.” I am as happy as anyone to see robots transforming into cars and cars transforming into robots and I freely admit to tearing up once when it appeared that Bumblebee might have been mortally wounded. I’m very fond of Sir Anthony Hopkins, and I’m also very fond of Mark Wahlberg. But this big, loud, dumb, dull, nonsensical dud of a movie is two and a half excruciating hours long.

Wahlberg returns as inventor-turned-renegade Autobots protector Cade Yeager. The government has set up a special branch of the military to get rid of all of the transformers, making no distinction between the honorable Autobots led by Optimus Prime and the evil Decepticons led by Megatron. We see in a prologue set in the time of King Arthur that the Transformers go back more than 1000 years, when Merlin, who turns out to have had no magical skills at all, was given the “weapon of ultimate power,” a staff that enabled Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table to win some battle with the help of a pretty impressive three-headed dragon. The staff and an amulet that is somehow connected to it will be the McGuffins that everyone will be looking for despite the fact that we never really find out what they can do.

Sure, the stunts are fun, and I especially enjoyed seeing Wahlberg leap from drone to drone like he was a stone skipping on a pond. But without a clear idea of the stakes there is no heft to them; it’s just pixels.

And the dialog — I can’t say which is worse, the painful attempts at banter (there’s an intended-to-be cute but isn’t at all riff on the homonyms “chaste” and “chased”), the exposition-heavy portentousness (“Where in Hell is your so-called magician?” “He will be here, Lancelot.” “Why do we tell ourselves these stories? We want to believe we can be heroes in our own lives.” “Do you seek redemption?” “Only a direct descendant of Merlin can wield this instrument of immense power!”), or the faux meaningful (“You are more important than you can possibly imagine”). If someone has to be spouting off idiotic explanations, though, at least most of it is in the beautifully husky Welsh voice of Sir Anthony (though his character’s ripping a page out of an antique library book is the most disturbingly violent act in the film).

Not much makes sense in “Transformers: The Last Night.” I’m not talking about why a robot would smoke a robot cigar-type sense. We expect that going in. But why would a robot want to eat a car?
And I’m talking about the basic elements that are necessary to connect to what is going on. How do you kill a Decepticon? Sometimes robots blow apart and sometimes they just come back together like in “Terminator 2.” How do we know how we are supposed to feel if we don’t know what the impact/import of a hit is? That all-powerful weapon? We never understand what it can do and it doesn’t seem very powerful after all. What is the point of Tony Hale spouting off about physics? I will note that one completely deranged moment was actually quite fun, when a C-3PO rip-off (acknowledged as such!) turns out to be the source of the dramatic organ music in one scene: “I was making the moment more epic.” A bit more deliriously loopy stuff like that would have been a step in the right direction.

What is the point of all the jokes about how a professor at Oxford should be looking for a husband? (Or a wife?) What is the deal with way too many daddy issues? Everyone in this movie seems to be a daughter looking for a daddy or a daddy looking for a daughter. As for this daughter, I’m just looking for a good summer stunts and explosions movie. Still looking.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi/fantasy peril and violence with chases, explosions, swords, guns, and monsters. Human and robot characters are injured and killed. Characters use strong and crude language and there is some dumb sexual humor.

Family discussion: Does it matter that Cade is “chosen?” Which Transformer is your favorite and why?

If you like this, try: the other “Transformers” movies and the television series

Interview: Nick Hamm on The Troubles and “The Journey”

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Nick Hamm directed “The Journey,” an imagined story about real events. Two bitter enemies, Protestant Ian Paisley (played by Timothy Spall) and Catholic Martin McGuinness (played by Colm Meaney), the bitterest of enemies, unwilling even to sit in the same room, managed to do what no one else had done for decades — to find a way to create peace in Northern Ireland after years of bloody battles. In real life, it took years. In the movie, time is compressed into one ride to the airport, shared by the two men and listened in on by a small group of very anxious government officials. But the spirit and even the language of the film accurately conveys the enormity of the situation and the statesmanship of the two men who discovered that no religion or political dispute could justify the terrible losses of The Troubles. In an interview, Hamm talked about the film’s relevance to today’s hyper-partisan conflicts around the world.

How do you find a balance between the familiar characteristics of these very well-known men and creating real characters?

We wanted to make it as accurate as possible. Both were well known but Paisley was a pretty iconic figure in English political life, known quite widely. The conflict ran for 34 years in Ireland. McGuinness in the later years of his career should we say was very public you know so people knew who they were. It was incumbent on us not to imitate but to get under the skin of them and I think that’s what Tim and Colm really do. Tim one of those extraordinary actors who melds into the character and he becomes and his kind of extremely fascinating process that we all went through. Tim is a 5 foot 8 inch Englishman playing this six foot massive Irish guy. But when we first showed it in Ireland, people thought he was completely bang on with Paisley. We had to make this people real because what you’re watching is the nuance of human behavior. You’ve taken away the normal activities that politicians deal with on a daily basis. You’ve removed the ability to speak to the media, to have an assistant, to deal with Congress, to be in a public situation, and you put them in a private situation. You strip from them all of that then is about how they deal with the domesticity of that situation, as though we are in the back of the car with them.

It all feels sadly timely with the way we see sharp and angry political divisions around the world.

Spot on. That is what we are talking about here. We are talking about two people in real life who came together and reached out beyond their base, beyond their own constituency and risked sacrificing their own political life for the betterment of other people. That really happened and their relationship opened the door into the Northern Island peace process which really stopped people killing each other. This was not a fictionalized event. This happened. It was real and the bombing stopped, and in that sense it is a great political story. It is a unique political story.

All over we see a climate of intransigence, tribal loyalties and politicians just appealing to their base. The left is as bad as the right. There’s no condemnation of either side. They both are as bad. Both sides looks for constant reaffirmation from social media, constantly feeling that only they know the way forward, and that is the way of madness. And it’s weird how it’s grown. So the argument of the movie is: now more than ever you need leaders who can take their base and can take their constituents and can move and reach out across that divide and actually do something. We need politicians who can do that now.

So yes, it is a message but we didn’t start like that. We just started by telling this story to celebrate what they’d actually achieved. And it was in the most extreme circumstances. It takes a huge amount of magnanimity to be able to to have your political beliefs and then just understanding that other people have different perspectives. There’s no such thing as political absolute truth. Your version of a blue sky is different from my version of blue sky. There’s no society in the history of the world, in the history of civilization, in which absolute truth has survived and existed and people ascribe to it.

I went to see McGuinness before we started shooting and talked to him for a couple of hours. He talked about his relationships with the IRA and the British government and he talked about one particular journey that they took, because politicians from Northern Ireland were travelling together for years and then denying the fact that they were on the same plane, even getting off the plane at separate times so that people wouldn’t see them laughing together, wouldn’t see them talking together. Did you know at the peace talks neither party sat in the same room? I find that the most extraordinary thing. You had flown to Scotland, the British government is putting you up, you’re staying in the same hotel, but you wouldn’t even eat in the same bloody restaurant and you won’t meet in the damn room together. So when Paisley actually said he was going to fly back the British government put him on a plane and and McGuinness went with them and that was the first time that they actually started to acknowledge each other. McGuinness said that Paisley had never even acknowledged his existence before that. Two days later I talked to Paisley’s son, and he was on the plane, and he even took some film of it, but his story was completely different. And that was when I knew that no one has the truth entirely.

This week, the British Embassy in Washington is putting on a screening at the institute for Peace
I think a lot of Congressmen and Senators are coming and senators. I think it will be fascinating to see. We actually had it in the House of Commons and here we are debating a film about the nature of terror a hundred feet from wher a week later all the flowers would be piled up for the death of the policeman being stabbed and here I am in two days time going to Washington to show the movie to members of Congress and you had that terrible atrocity just happen there. It seems like a lot to ask of a movie but I hope somehow we can be a reminder of what is possible if people find that what they have in common is more important than their differences.