Olivia Newman Interview

Based on the popular novel, Where the Crawdads Sing arrives in Australian cinemas this week and I recently had the chance to speak with director Olivia Newman about the project…

Matt:  Delia Owen’s book was first published in 2018 and so this is a very quick turnaround for a film adaptation.  How did the project get moving so quickly?

Olivia:  The producers will know more but from what I understand, Reece Witherspoon picked it for her book club and Elizabeth Gabler from 3000 Pictures reached out and asked if she wanted to turn it into a movie.  They then attached Lucy Alibar to write the script and worked with her on that.  I then became attached to direct in the summer of 2020.

Matt:  We see the name Reese Witherspoon in the credits as one of the producers.  How was she most of use to you in terms of the project?

Olivia:  Reece is wonderful.  She is incredibly smart and has years of experience making movies.  She’s got an amazing production company, Hello Sunshine, producing so much amazing content.  At the very first meeting, she said one of her missions was to help filmmakers take that leap from their first small film to something with a higher budget.  This was going to be my first studio movie and she said “how can we help support you in making the transition?” and I felt hat support from her and our other producer, Lauren Neustadter, all the way through the process.

Matt:  I’ve admired David Strathairn for a long-time and he so often elevates films through his supporting performances.  How did you get him involved with this?

Olivia:  I’m right there with you.  I’m a huge admirer and fan of David Strathairn.  He was our number one pick to play Tom Milton.  There was no one else we could imagine in the role.  He read and loved the book and when he got sent the script, he gave me a call, we had a chat, and he said “I think I’d really like to do this.”  It was such a thrill.  We all felt we were in the presence of a legend whenever we were shooting scenes with him.

Matt:  The two leads are Daisy Edgar-Jones and Taylor John Smith.  You want great actors but with a film like this, chemistry is really important too.  How much did that come into play with the casting?

Olivia:  That’s everything.  We were casting this during the pandemic and so all of our auditions took place over Zoom.  That made it really hard to read chemistry.  What I decided was if we can feel the chemistry through the screen, then we’ll know there’ll be chemistry when they’re together in person.  What struck me about their reads together was how much they were listening to each other and reacting.  It felt very genuine and easy.  That embodies Tate and Kya’s relationship perfectly in that there’s an immediate easy with one another because they share a love of the marsh.

Matt:  The story is spread across multiple years with the same lead actors – Daisy Edgar-Jones and Taylor John Smith.  How do you approach that as a director in terms of slightly altering their look and mannerisms across that timeframe?

Olivia:  There were lots of conversations about how to age them.  They’re young actors and so their skin doesn’t take to ageing makeup as well as older actors.  There was a lot of thought which went into ageing over time.  When we first meet Daisy, she’s a teenager and then we spend time with her in her 20s.  I loved what our head make-up artist did.  She looks very young and fresh as a teenager.  Daisy also did a lot of work on her physicality to span the ages.  The tenor of her voice changes and it’s slightly higher when she’s a teenager.  With the dialogue, she speaks slightly differently when she’s a teenager and so you’re able to track it in very different ways.

Matt:  So much of the film looks like it was shot in this tiny wooden cabin in the middle of nowhere.  Where did the production take place?

Olivia:  We shot in and around New Orleans.  We found a lagoon and we built Kya’s house right there.  It was important that we could shoot interiors and exteriors at the same time.  We didn’t want to be on a stage and we wanted to easily move the camera from inside to outside.  We took advantage of the landscape which had the breathtaking lagoon and these wild oak trees and then we brought in more greens and built out the surrounds to make it feel very remote.

Matt:  I’ve always admired the work of composer Mychael Danna going back to his work on The Ice Storm.  What were the two of you trying to elicit with your use of music in the film?

Olivia:  The Ice Storm is one of my favourite films and it’s the reason that I first thought about Mychael.  What I love about The Ice Storm is that it’s a film set in a very specific time and place – suburban Connecticut in the 1970s – and yet the score gives it this feeling of universality and timelessness.  There’s a fabel-istic quality to it and that’s what I wanted for Crawdads.

With the score, I wanted it to feel like a story that’s been told over hundreds of years and while this particular telling happens to be set in North Carolina in the 1950s and 60s, there’s a timelessness to it.  You can imagine the story about the Marsh Girl happening in other time periods and other cultures because there’s so many universal themes.

Mychael and I talked a lot about instrumentation and drawing from the sounds of the marsh and Kya’s landscape to inform some of his choices.  I was blown away by his score.

Matt:  We cross back and forth between the court room scenes and the flashbacks to help us understand the history to the characters.  How did you balance that up in a way that felt right in the editing room?

Olivia:  Our intention going in, as it was scripted, was to have the court room and the trial playing throughout to keep us engaged in the murder-mystery at the centre of the story.  It also keeps us connected with Kya.  There were little tweaks and changes in the edit in terms of when those flashbacks occur but we were pretty faithful to what was scripted.

I worked with an amazing editor, Alan Bell, and the hardest thing was we had a 3-hour movie which we had to cut down to 2 hours.  There’s a lot of stuff which was killed in the edit but Alan did an amazing job.  We managed to figure out where we could make trims without sacrificing anything which was the heart and soul of the story.

Matt:  What are you working on at the moment?  Any other exciting projects coming up?

Olivia:  Funny you should ask.  I’m in the middle of production right now.  I am producing and directing a limited series for Apple TV which is another book adaptation – Laura Dave’s beautiful novel The Last Thing He Told Me.  It stars Jennifer Garner, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and a wonder Aussie actress Angourie Rice.  We have a beautiful cast and it’s been a joy to work on another fantastic book adaptation.

Jurassic World Dominion is the latest instalment in the long running franchise and I recently had a chance to speak to director Colin Trevorrow about the project…

Matt:  It’s nice to see the lead characters from Jurassic Park mixing with those from Jurassic World.  Was that always the intention when you started development on the script?

Colin:  For this, yes.  When we first began, it was more of a pipe dream and a possibility but for me, it took two Jurassic World movies to justify it.  Once they did come in contact with each other, our legacy characters wouldn’t drown out the new characters.  We had to make sure they had a level of familiarity and an audience that cared for them too and so when it finally happens, hopefully it feels earned.

Matt:  This is the 6th film in the franchise and obviously, we’ve learned a lot along the way about the dangers of dinosaurs and essentially “playing God”.  What’s your approach to keeping things fresh and entertaining?

Colin:  It’s a different kind of film than we’ve seen before.  It’s not just people going to an island that may or may not be safe.  Dinosaurs are in our world and that provides a new set of challenges.  For me, I thought it was important to tell a story about the greater dangers of genetic power when treated irresponsibly.

We’re all living with the consequences of choices that we’ve made as humans, specifically over the past 30 years since Jurassic Park came out, and so for us to heed the warning that Ellie Sattler gave us in the first film that now this is out, there’s no controlling this power.  I think we’re really seeing through her storyline what that means.

Matt:  Visuals effects have a big part to play in a movie like this and, for example, I remember one scene in where Chris Pratt is lassoing a dinosaur. How easy is pulling that together as a director?

Colin:  What was most important is that something was really happening there.  When Chris Pratt was lassoing a dinosaur, someone on a horse with someone ahead on another horse holding a Parasaur that he actually roped.  So what you’re looking at when the rope tightens around the neck is real.  With all the animatronics, all the puppetry, and all of the 112 sets, we wanted to make sure everything was real except for what we couldn’t make real… which was not a lot.

Matt:  The music here is from Michael Giacchino but it still uses John Williams’ iconic theme in certain places.  How do you decide when to slot that memorable tune in?

Colin:  We do it very carefully and we’re cautious about how we do it.  It is so iconic but I think it would be too easy just to hear it all the time.  Michael is such a brilliant composer that I just want to hear his score and get as much creativity out of him as possible.  Once we have it, we look at the whole thing and work out where to weave something in which would be the most emotionally effective so it doesn’t feel like we’re squandering or wasting it in any way.

Matt:  Jeff Goldblum again gets some memorable one-liners like “it’s always darkest… just before eternal nothingness.”  Is he as much of a larrikin behind the camera as he is in front of it?

Colin:  We were all living together during this movie.  Every Sunday, actors and I would sit together and look at what we were doing that week and people would bring ideas to the table.  There were a lot of lines that actors came up with themselves throughout the movie.  What I love about it is that even through writer Emily Carmichael and I constructed this story, there’s a sense that everybody is a different person and that it’s not written by the same people all the way through.   They all feel like individuals which is a really hard thing to achieve as a writer.

Downton Abbey A New Era Interview

Downton Abbey: A New Era is the second film spun off from the successful television series.  I recently had the chance to speak to director Simon Curtis, writer Julian Fellows, and producers Gareth Neame and Liz Trubridge about the project…

Matt:  I’d like to ask for your reflections from when the first episode of the TV series aired back in 2010.  What were your expectations for it back then?

Julian:  I think we were optimistic.  There was at that time a thought that period drama was dead.  Gareth Neame and I didn’t believe it.  We felt we made a good show and it would find a good audience but of course, we didn’t know we were on the edge of a storm cloud that was going to whirl all over the world.  We were proud of the show.

Gareth:  It became clear very quickly this was a kind of phenomenon.  This was back in the days when people cared about viewer figures and our ratings went up about 30% between the first and second episode.  That was unheard of.  It meant everyone who watched it came back the following week which was quite an achievement, and they’d all told their friends to come as well.  Within a week, we were part of the social conversation.  People were referencing Downton Abbey as a “thing” and not just a television show.  There was something special happening.

Matt:  The first film from 2019 made did well and took in close to $200 million USD at the global box-office.  Did that make this sequel a certainty or were there other factors involved?

Gareth:  We quickly started having conversations about the next one.  I was determined to take the Crawley family overseas because we’d never done that before and I persuaded Julian to have a script where they go to the south of France which I thought was a terribly good idea before we’d ever heard of something called COVID.  We had a window in 2020 to work on the script and I thought it was great timing because this whole thing would be finished by the time we started shooting in 2021.  Then came the second wave and with borders closed…

Julian:  We nearly shot it on the Costa del Anglesey in Wales.  There was no guarantee we could get to France at all.

Liz:  We didn’t know until the very last minute we would get to France.  We had to have two schedules running with two budgets.  We didn’t know for sure until about three weeks before we left.

Matt:  It is one of the biggest casts we’ll see in a mainstream movie.  How easy it is bringing everyone back together at the same time?  I’m sure some of the cast members have busy schedules.

Simon:  In this case, COVID helped in that there were a lot of things not being made.  It’s one of the greatest ensembles as you say and they’re all very committed to Julian, Gareth and Liz and so they all turned up.

Gareth:  It’s not without its challenges though.  As you rightly say, they’re all juggling projects and as Simon alluded to, a lot of projects were slipping due to COVID and starting later than expected.  This really did cause of issues but it’s not a day for dwelling on that.  We’re celebrating the fact we got it done and we’re very happy with it.  We hope audiences are going to love it.

Matt:  Julian, I mentioned the big cast and of course an inevitable challenge is trying to give them all their fair share of time and narrative within a tight 2 hours.  How does that play out when writing the initial script?

Julian:  You’re quite right that it’s the big challenge.  When you’re doing a TV series, actors understand they will have a decent story once every 2 or 3 episodes and in between, they’ll join in other people’s stories.  They don’t all have to fully served but in the case of a film, they do.  You can’t say “wait for the next film” and so you have to plat them all together so they all have something worth doing.

Matt:  Do the actors come to you with ideas about where they might want to take their characters?

Julian:  They often come with idea but where those ideas go is a slightly different matter.  I think we’re reasonably open to suggestions but you don’t want to be blown in too many different directions.  With the TV series, Gareth, Liz and I always knew from an early stage where it was going and what the stopping point would be.  Film is slightly different but we still get together and decide what the plot will be and then I get on with it.

Matt:  I really did like the idea of the film within the film.  How did that idea come about?

Julian:  It came from Gareth because he was talking about his grandfather who was in the film industry.  At that time, he was just a young runner on a film being directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1928.  They had the same predicament that happened to the characters in the film.  As Gareth was telling the story, I was like “oooo, there’s something in here for me.”  I knew I wanted something that would bring the 20th Century into the Downton setup.  It wasn’t just men and women getting on with their lives.

Matt:  Simon, does much change in the editing process?  Do you have to tweak the way it’s all interwoven to create a fast-paced yet understandable narrative?

Simon:  I’ve always admired Julian but it was amplified on this film because he really does give everyone a journey through the two hours of the movie.  When you get into the cutting room, maybe a few beats would be changed but for the most part, it’s the movie on the page.

Matt:  Maggie Smith always seems to get the most memorable of the barbs and the one-liners.  Is that because she gets the better end of the script?  Or is it because she’s just so damn good at what she does?

Julian:  Maggie and I started together in Gosford Park 22 years ago and we then did another movie together.  I suppose we have each other’s rhythm.  She knows how to play what I write and I hope I know how to write to take advantage of her.  One of her great skills is that she can make you laugh and cry very closely to each other.  She can be very moving and then two minutes later, you’re laughing away.  That’s a real talent and a real gift which I try to give her an opportunity to display.

Matt:  Laura Haddock gets to have a lot of fun too with her role by being the “fish out of water” in terms of her voice and personality and mannerisms.  What can you tell me about her casting and extracting such a memorable performance?

Julian:  The voice thing came from the same story Gareth was telling.  She was foreign and could hardly speak English.  All the way through Downton Abbey, we found opportunities to bring in characters who haven’t had the same conditioning as the Crawley family and the servants.  They’ve come from outside that set up.  We’ve used that to demonstrate aspects of the life the Crawley household was living.

Matt:  The costumes are always great – from the formal attire to the swimwear.  How much work goes into those to make them as authentic as possible?

Liz:  A huge amount.  One of the big challenges we had this year was that our costume designer, Anna Robbins, caught COVID right in the middle of the prep and couldn’t be near her team when she was designing.  That caused quite a few missing heartbeats because there are so many costumes.  She makes full wardrobes for these characters and this time, as you know, we had the characters in the film within the film, the upstairs/downstairs nature of things, and the different look for the south of France.  It was really challenging for her and we brought on a talented co-costume designer, Maja Meschede, to help out because it’s a huge cast.

Matt:  So where too from here with this series?  Is the plan to make more movies?

Gareth:  The first big hurdle was taking a much loved television project onto the big screen.  That’s been a stony path which has not always worked for other shows.  It was a great thrill to see people missed these characters and wanted to be reunited with them.  Viewing habits change.  People who watched Downton Abbey at home went to movie theatres and bought tickets.  We successfully migrated and now we have to keep that interest.  Of course, cinema attendance has fallen due to the pandemic.  We really hope after these ghastly past two years and with other depressing, monstrous things going on in the world at the moment, people will cherish this opportunity and go back to cinema for this feel-good movie which takes you to a place you love being in.
Matt:  Do you deliberately leave things open for future movies?  You don’t have to share but do you have an idea where some of these characters might go if another sequel is greenlit?  Or do you tie up as much as you can in case that doesn’t happen?

Julian:  I’ve said good-bye to these characters so many times and back they come.  When you talk about new directions, they may be fictional but they’re still living their lives just like we do.  Things keep happening.  It’s the same for characters.  As long as there is demand and they’re audience who want to see these actors, I’m sure we’ll find things for them to do.

Michael Bay Interview

Ambulance is an intense, entertaining action film from director Michael Bay (Bad Boys, The Rock, Transformers).  I recently had the chance to speak with Michael about the project…

Matt:  I’d love to start by talking about editing and your working relationship with Pietro Scalia.  It seems like every big action scene has been shot from a multitude of camera angles.  How do you take all that footage and weave it together into something which feels hectic but also easy to follow?

Michael:  When Steven Spielberg was lecturing to University of Southern California film students, he said “of all the directors I’ve produced, I can always tell through their dailies how it’s going to be cut. The only director I can’t… is Michael Bay.”  I have a weird style that breaks rules and I live by the theory that rules are made to be broken.

I have to be very involved with the editing.  I love Pietro.  He worked with me on 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi and he’s Ridley Scott’s editor.  He’s like a gruff Italian going “no Michael, you don’t need it, no Michael, it’s not going to be funny” and I go “Pietro, we’re going to have funny.”  He’s a fantastic cutter.

Matt:  Is there a lot of experimentation that goes on then in the editing process?

Michael:  Yes.  I could have a messy closet and lose by car keys but I know every single shot I shot in a movie.  I know it better than the editors.  When they lose it, I can find it out of a million feet of film.  I just have this bizarre memory.  I kind of know how I want it woven together but I’ll always let the editor experiment with the footage on their own.  I like to see what they do.  Then I’ll maybe pass it to another editor… and then I’ll have a cut at it… it’s like a merry-go-round.  We’ll then start watching the movie many times on a big screen and keep refining it.  Editing is always about levels – even for the directors I produce.  They think the first cut is the one but you can always go another level and it can always get better. 

Matt:  An important element to the chase sequences is that we get the high shots from above which help show us where they are and where everyone is positioned.  You using helicopters?  Drones?  A mix of both?

Michael:  We invented some new drone technology on this one.  I used these 19-year-old kids with drones and I challenged them to do something different that’s not really been done in movies.  As Spielberg said to me once – “when you show the location and the geography, it sets the action free.”   People need to understand where they are.  It’s always about the motions of the actors in the scene there because otherwise, it’d just be action for action’s sake.

Matt:  It’s a tense film but you can also see it’s very self-aware of the fact it is a movie.  One of my favourite lines with the psychologist and the question is asked “people still rob banks?” – I’ll admit it’s a question I’d thought myself.

Michael:  Believe it or not, Los Angeles is the bank robbery capital of the world.  The rob banks in different ways these days.  They don’t necessarily go to the plexiglass booths, they’ll go in back doors or use computers or blow through a wall into the vault.  They still have some spectacular robberies.

Matt:  We’ve got the big shoot out at the start and the intense car chase which follows.  How easy was it getting permission to shut down major parts of downtown Los Angeles and shooting all this in tight time frames?

Michael:  We shot this in 38 days but the gift I have as a director is that police love my movies.  On the first day, we were doing some inserts of the ambulance driving on a freeway at normal speed.  All of a sudden, 5 real highway patrol cars and 3 motorcycle cops come up.  I walk up to them and say hello and they go “can we take a picture, we love your movies.”  I then said “I would love to put you in the movie.”

To explain to your audience, to shut down a freeway in a movie costs about $300,000 USD and it takes a couple of months to arrange.  I’m like “would you guys let me include you in the movie?” and they’re like “sure” and so I ask them what they’d do on a real police chase.  They then told me how they’d play with the vehicle, go up down, we’d dog it, throw our lights on, provide blockage.  We then shut down a real freeway and they were nice enough to do it for me going 90 miles an hour

Matt:  There’s a reference to a past movie of yours – The Rock.  Is that something you got to throw in or did writer Chris Fedak put that himself into the script?

Michael:  No, that was me.  I throw in a lot of comedy here and there.  Sean Connery had passed away and he had always taken me under his wing.  I learned a lot from him on The Rock.  It’s also a commentary on these kids.  The younger generation can quote my movies better than I can.