Beast Interview

Beast is a new action-thriller from Iceland director Baltasar Kormákur.  I recently had a chance to speak with Kormákur and one of the film’s stars, Sharlto Copley, about the project…

Matt:  The long, continuous shots stand out and they do a great job building tension in key scenes.  Can you take us through that thought process?

Baltasar:  That’s exactly why I used it.  I wanted to create a more immersive, claustrophobic feeling with you being stuck there with the characters and see things coming at you.  I didn’t want to cut to them and tell audiences what was going to happen.  I started with the shot where the lion attacks for the first time and hits the window.   That’s where I started the thought process in the prep.  I was thinking about that shot and how we could make the most impact.  I then started to work that throughout the film with some quieter scenes in between to give it a better flow.

Matt:  Are the longer takes more difficult to shoot?

Baltasar:  Way more.  You need a crew who is totally with you and actors that are ready to work it out with you.  The first few takes are always going to be awful but you have to be shooting the whole time because you don’t want to miss “the one”.  I think it’s very rewarding once you get it.  There’s a shot in the beginning which is 5-6 minutes which is CGI lions interacting with characters – it’s a lot of prep but it was a great high when we got the shot.  We’ve seen films in this genre but we haven’t seen them shot like this and so I wanted to take the idea of a blockbuster and add a different taste to it and see if it would work. 

Matt:  Action movies often fall into the trap of having characters do dumb things to prolong the story but here, I really liked their smarts and the rational way they speak and go about things.  Was that all part of Ryan Engle’s script?

Baltasar:  Some of it was.  I did work with Zack Snyder as well who isn’t credited.  Being there on the ground in Africa helped inform so much of what you do and say in the end.  The singing in the car was just made up while we waited for the next shot.  I was “hey guys, that’s family, let’s use it.”  Ingmar Bergman said something that’s always been close to my heart – “the more you prepare for a scene, the more you can let go of it and meet what is presented to you on set.”  It’s never going to be as you imagine in your head. 

Matt:  Idris Elba is very good – a role that requires him to be physically strong but also emotionally vulnerable at times.  How did he become involved with the project?

Baltasar:  It was very early on.  He loved it because it was different from what he’d done previously.  He was the right choice for me because of exactly what you said.  There aren’t many movie stars of that calibre who have that mission as actors.  He also has a physicality which you can believe in the end.

Matt:  Shartlo, You’ve made movies across the globe but getting to shoot a big Hollywood production in your home country – it must be pretty cool?

Sharlto:  It’s fantastic.  You get very few opportunities to do it.  This one was very personal to me with the poaching theme and wildlife stuff.  I love being in the bush, being in the wild.  It’s something I wish I can do more of.  They said I can play a character hosting Idris and his daughters and in real life, you can basically be the guy from South Africa that hosts everyone from Hollywood, and you can stay in a game lodge where you’d be normally be paying $5,000 a night and stay for a month and half and do safaris on your off days.  I was like “are you kidding me?”  Of course I’m going to say yes.

Matt:  Baltasar Kormákur has crafted some wonderful long, continuous shots in this movie.  Does that make the rehearsal and shooting process any different from the perspective of the actors?

Sharlto:  It really does.  I’ve never done anything like that before to that degree.  There’s a scene where I engage with the lions which is 7 minutes long and we spent a day rehearsing it.  You then get three chances to do it right at the end of the day.  It’s a totally different way of working.  I love the freedom of being able to mix it up and change lines.  We had to do that up front in the rehearsal – “what if tried this, what if I tried that?”  We’d nail it down during the day.

Matt:  Without giving too much away, you’re playing a badly injured person throughout much of the film.  Is there a secret to doing that?  I must say that I felt your pain at times.

Sharlto:  On the days when I wasn’t working, I would ride a mountain bike through the safari park by myself.  It was the craziest thing I’ve ever done and I was terrified all the time.  When I got back, the fact I was still alive would be the most unbelievable feeling.  You’re reminded of how vulnerable you are and many humans won’t experience that – being in the wild with nothing to protect yourself.   A buck could lose it’s cool and panic and kill you… let alone the things like lions that are designed to kill you.

I’d be in that space about understanding how vulnerable we are and it therefore wasn’t a difficult stretch to imagine myself being with a lion.  I actually got chased down by a black rhino.  If they see something they don’t know which makes them uncomfortable, they just start running at it.  When they can see, which is about 3 metres away from you, they decide if they’re going to hit you.  I was trying to get off the bike so I could throw it at him, and then I tried to sound assertive by doing a Steve Irwin “no boy, not too aggressive” and he decided to turn away. 

Matt:  I like the connection you build in the film with Idris Elba and the way you both come across as old friends.  Did you know each other at all before the movie?

Sharlto:  I did not.  We hadn’t met.  We had a very similar energy.  When you have that, I think it’s much easier and I think our acting style is very open and accessible.  It was a real pleasure working with someone so phenomenally impressive.  There was a scene where he acts drunk and it was during the first take where I zoned out of my character and thought “that is a fucking amazing drunk performance… what is this guy doing?”  He’s just really good.

Sophie Hyde Interview

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is a fantastic new film starring Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack.  I recently spoke to its Australian director, Sophie Hyde, about the movie…

Matt:  When did you first become involved in the project?

Sophie:  Just over 18 months ago.  I was sent a version of the script and it was a concept that really appealed to me – an older woman who decides she just wants to have good sex for the first time in her life and she hires a sex worker.  I knew it was going to be mostly set in one room and so there was a lot of potential to explore intimacy and connection… and Emma Thompson was attached which made it a tantalising idea.

Matt:  So was Emma Thompson attached right from the very start?

Sophie:  Yeah, she knows the screenwriter Katy Brand who had written it with her in mind.  When Emma read it, she recognised the character of Nancy as someone very familiar and as an interesting woman who have never been put on screen before.  As Emma would say, she’s a character who is usually next to the person doing the interesting thing.  Katy put her in a position that was very fascinating and when anyone is in a position that is unusual to them, you start to see the layers of interest.

Matt:  Can you tell me about the way you and screenwriter Katy Brand worked together during the production?

Sophie:  The script was very early when I came in.  Katy had an original idea and had written a very funny, short script.  Before I came on, I had a meeting with them all and said what I’d like to do with it which is expand and make it a bit longer.  We added an extra meeting and some sex.  There was no sex in the original concept.  I also wanted to explore the character of Leo more.

We worked back and forth remotely for about six months.  Katy was in Germany, I was in Australia and our producers were in the UK.  My partner Brian, who was the cinematographer and editor, and I then got on a plane in the middle of the pandemic over to the UK and shot the film.

Matt:  Filmmaking is such a collaborative medium.  What do you learn as a director from working with someone with as much experience as Emma Thompson?

Sophie:  It’s a delight to work with someone like Emma who is a very smart woman but also at the top of her game.  She’s so skilled.  She’s seen a lot of sex too.  Anytime there’s a great collaboration between people, you feel like you’re in a little boat together on the ocean and you have to look after each other.  My job as a director is to challenge my actors but also to support them and make them feel like they can do the best that they can. 

What I learned from Emma is that it’s really important to show up for the things that matter to you and to put yourself on the line for those things.  Instead of thinking about things in terms of a “career trajectory”, you go after what you believe needs to be in the world.

Matt:  Thomson is so great as Nancy – a constant mix of nerves and tension and being uncomfortable.  It looks like such an exhausting role to play so I was wondering how easy it was for her and to get what you were looking for on screen?

Sophie:  Emma is so skilful that you can get anything you want all of the time.  It’s the truth.  A lot of our time together was working out the tone we were going for.  Nancy is terrified and I think Emma enjoyed playing her very much.  When Emma is inside a role, she thinks like the character.  In terms of exhaustion, there’s so much dialogue and it’s such a quick shoot, the two actors had to be ready all the time and churning out so much material in the many different ways I asked for.  Every time we got to a scene which was more physical with less dialogue, I think they were like “oh thank goodness”.

Matt:  Daryl McCormack is someone I didn’t know a lot about before this.  What made him stand out for you?

Sophie:  We auditioned so many great actors for this role and we knew it had the potential to show audiences someone they didn’t know very well.  Daryl stood out because of his gentleness.  It was important that Leo could come in and present himself as a fantasy that Nancy would have chosen but at the same time, what’s really interesting about Leo is how much he can put aside his own stuff and try really hard to be what Nancy needs him to be.  Daryl is a very generous, interesting human and that layer he brought, in addition to his physical beauty, was what we were looking for.  He didn’t feel like he was fitting into an idea of masculinity that I’m bored of.  He felt like a version that is real and that I want to see more of on screen.

Matt:  We get these great glimpses into Leo when Nancy slips into the bathroom and the camera chooses to stay with Leo.  He doesn’t say anything but these are rare moments where we see him as himself and not as a character.  Can you tell me about your creative choices there?

Leo:  It was really important for us to show that Leo was performing a role for somebody.  It’s his job to be there and be what Nancy wants and eventually what Nancy needs.  I hate it in films when someone’s on their own and they’re exactly the same as they are around other people.  They’re the bits when you get to see under the surface, under the façade.  I also enjoy a character who is trying very hard to be good at what he does and that first moment with Leo alone where he’s trying to work out how to be the perfect man for her… I love watching him do that. 

In terms of Leo’s longer-term choices across the film, it’s important that we worked out who he was, and how he got where he was, and the things he had dealt with in his history.  There was a shame that had been placed on him which he had risen above, and he’d become very good at what he does despite that shame.

It was important to me is that what Nancy offered back to Leo was her acknowledging he was really good at this, and what you are doing is important – offering pleasure and release to somebody.  That feeling of being seen and recognised for your skills is what frees him.  It’s not about him being saved from a life he doesn’t want, or saving him from some trauma.  It’s what a lot of us want – to be acknowledged.

Matt:  With limited exceptions, the film is shot entirely in a small hotel room.  How did you approach that with Bryan Mason in terms of the cinematography?

Leo:  It was a set we used.  It had to be.  I asked for a neutral hotel room which was not too posh but not too cheap.  I wanted the textures to be nice and sensual.  I also wanted a giant great window and have it set during the day.  That was an unusual thing to do – neutral room in the daylight – for something that is primarily about sex.  For me, the look of the film was always about light.

We wanted to shoot into the window and see the light in every shot and watch the light change in the same way as the bodies and characters change.  We didn’t want it to be seductive in a different way or seedy or any of those things.  Also, because it was set in one room, we needed things like light to help us feel the film move and change and be cinematic.  That was a huge part of it.  In the first meeting, the sun goes down and in the third meeting, there’s rain.  These things become important in keeping the audience there in the room and in the space with them.

Matt:  I think the film does a great job breaking down the stigma of sex workers but there are people in this world who don’t believe it’s an appropriate profession.  Have you received much in the way of a negative respond to the film for that reason?

Sophie:  I’m sure there are people who are still puritans about the idea.  There’s certainly been some brilliant conversations about sex work.  I worked with a lot of sex workers to make the movie and it was important to me that they were part of the conversation – those with lived experience.  There are so many stories and so much we could be telling in this field and we’re only telling a tiny droplet of it.

I think we’re telling a story that is really interesting and connects to some of the people I met.  I was amazed at their unique skills.  Obviously, there are millions of other stories and I’d love to hear more of them.  We’ve had stories about the dangers and the history of sex work and where it’s gone wrong.  It’s still criminalised in places and it’s very much “in the dark” and secretive which means people can be mistreated.  We’re not saying that it’s all good but in this film, I enjoyed showing a part of sex work we haven’t seen very much. 

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.