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Alex Kurtzman Interview

The Mummy had its Australian premiere not long ago and while he was in the country, I had the chance to speak to director Alex Kurtzman about his film.

Matt:  You’ve had the chance to write so many big-budget action blockbusters.  How did this opportunity to direct finally come along?

Alex:  I’ve had the great privilege to work with a lot of amazing directors and they’ve been very generous with me.  I got to stay with them on set and see them work and watch their styles.  At a certain point, I developed a strong itch to do it myself – to take what I’ve learned and apply it to something.  I knew I wanted to do a project that I was passionate about and I have loved the Universal monsters for a long time.  When the studio came to me about The Mummy, I was very excited to throw my hat in the ring and they fortunately said “yes”.

Matt:  Have you always had a love for action movies?  Are there films that you look up to and use as a kind of benchmark?

Alex:  For sure.  I love all kinds of movies.  In terms of action references, I grew up in the era of Lethal Weapon and Die Hard.  Those were particularly exciting because they were so rooted in character.  They were big ideas that had small human stories.  The action films that I tend to be drawn to are very similar.

Matt:  Take us through a shootout scene.  There are parts in the film where we see guns being fired, bullets hitting walls.  How do you pull that off and make it look so realistic?

Alex:  For the scene you’re talking about, we shot that in Namibia which is an amazingly beautiful place.  We built that entire town in the middle of the African desert where there’s absolutely nothing.  You’re importing enormous amounts of things.  Those buildings were all rigged to explode, collapse and reset within 10 minutes which was amazing to watch.

We had the most incredible designers and stunt folk working.  It’s a lot of planning which is the short answer.  We spent a lot of time choreographing the sequence in advance and going down to every detail.  There’s real explosions going on and so the actors and crew have to be safe.  What looks very chaotic on screen is very kind of controlled.

Matt:  I’ve seen all kind of stunts in movies but one that freaks me out above all others is an underwater scene – where someone is swimming around trying to find air.  We see that in this film with what does look like Tom Cruise.  Is there any level of danger at all when pulling off a scene like that?

Alex:  The water stuff is extremely dangerous because you’re going so deep and because you have to oxygenate correctly.  There are divers all around and Tom Cruise likes to do everything practically so there are no stuntmen there.  We were in a very large water tank.  If you don’t rise to the surface correctly then you can really hurt yourself.  The actors have to train and learn how to use rebreathers for a long time.  It’s exhausting work but hopefully it gives the audience a really exciting and scary experience.

Matt:  Special effects seem to be able to do everything these days but was there stuff here that you couldn’t pull off?  Anything that was simply too much for the visual effects guys?

Alex:  The fun about working with Tom is that’s never really allowed to be a thought.  You’re always asking yourself how you can deliver something for the audience that they’ve never seen before.

In the case of the plane crash sequence, Tom was excited about doing it in zero gravity and so we shot it over the course of a few days in a real plane called the Vomit Comet.  You fly up towards space at the speed of a rocket and then you free fall for 22 seconds.  In that 22 seconds, as you’re plummeting towards earth, we’re rolling the camera.  The audience is seeing actual people tumbling through a plane that is going straight down.  You see all the movement that you could never achieve with cables or CGI.

Matt:  I have to ask where the sound guys came up with all the spooky mummy noises.  It sounds like a mix between a strong wind and someone screaming.

Alex:  I’ve worked with a team over the last couple of years that are unbelievable.  Our mixers, Christopher Scarabosio and Paul Massey, have done everything from the Star Wars films to Pirates of the Caribbean.  They really know what they’re doing.  We spend a lot of time developing sound.  It’s one of the key emotional experiences than an audience has.  They may not be aware of it but it impacts them massively.

We spent a huge amount of time thinking about Sofia Boutella’s voice and what we wanted to do with it.  We put whispers behind it and augmented it in certain ways so that it had a very creepy effect but still found grounded in reality.

Matt:  This appears to be part of a bigger universe of films that perhaps we’re going to see more of in the near future.  Can you tell us what else is in the works?  Are you in the loop about where the storylines are going next?

Alex:  Yes.  I am very much in the loop.  The next film we’re going to be doing is Bride of Frankenstein.  A lot of people involved really love these Universal monsters.  Bill Condon will be directing.  He’s a massive lover of James Whale and he directed Gods & Monsters which makes him the perfect director.  He just did Beauty and the Beast and he’s such a brilliant, talented guy.  I’m a huge fan and I’m excited to work with him.  I think the idea is to take each of these monsters and give them their own film.

Matt:  Do you have certain plot points that you were told to include in The Mummy knowing that they’re going to be expanded upon in future films?

Alex:  Not so much in The Mummy.  The intention was to open the door a crack but not to overwhelm the audience with too much information about it.  You want to wet the audience’s appetite and get them excited about the things coming up.

Geoffrey Rush Interview

It was shot here in Queensland and it was a pleasure to catch up with Geoffrey Rush to talk about his returning performance in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales…

Matt:  Looking through you resume, you’ve made a lot of films but you’re somehow avoided sequences and big franchises with the exception of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.  Did you think this series was going to be as big when it started out back in 2003?

Geoffrey:  The four previous films have done extremely well financially and there’s a massive fan base out there.  Even I get fan mail from places as unlikely as China, Russia and Slovenia.  I’d hate to imagine how much Johnny Depp gets.  They write about such detail in the plot and it’s great to get that positive feedback.

There was a recent screening of this new film at CinemaCon in America and the press were saying “it’s just like the first film” and I thought that’s kind of good.  Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, the two directors, they are young enough to have been in college when the first film came out.  Their working model was to capture the original spirit of the whole idea of telling this story.  With the development of technology over the past 15 years, the 3D visual effects in this are really pushing the envelope.

Matt:  How does it work getting you back on board for these films?  Are you contractually obligated?  Or do you look at a script and then sign up?

Geoffrey:  There’s no contractual obligation but there’s a kind of lure for me because Barbossa started out as a “spat out of hell” villain in the first film and I thought that’d be it because I got shot.  Gore Verbinski then phoned me up and said they were going to do all these amazing things in parts 2 and 3 and said they were going to use some voodoo magic to bring me back to life.

In the next one I was a politician and then I started working for King George II and now I’m obscenely wealthy.  Barbossa is the king of the sea – he’s kind of a corporate pirate.  That is until Javier Bardem’s Salazar comes back from the Devil’s Triangle after being in underwater purgatory for 25 years.  His aim is to eliminate every pirate on the planet.  The stakes are very high.

Matt:  Is it easy slipping back into the character of Barbossa given you’ve played him several times or do you looking to do something a little different each time?

Geoffrey:  There are little shifts because of the way he keeps surviving.  We’re all about 20 years older in this story.  Barbossa is ruthless and he runs with what is most opportunistic for him.  He feels different each time but once I get the costume, the wig, the hat and the monkey, it springs into life.

Matt:  You have such a distinctive look in the film with the beard, hair and weathered face.  How long did you spend in the make-up chair each day?  What do you do to pass the time?

Geoffrey:  It’s about a two hour job which isn’t too bad.  On screen, it’s only me, Johnny Depp and Kevin McNally who have been in all five films.  The make-up teams, costume designers, camera operators, the stunt guys… a lot of them have been with the franchise since 2003.  It’s a big boisterous family reunion each time and we love to catch up and chat when getting ready.

Matt:  I was reading this film has a budget of $320m USD which makes it one of the most expensive films ever made.  You’ve made a lot of smaller films but does it feel different being on the set of a film like this with so much being spent?  Are the snacks a lot better?

Geoffrey:  I don’t know how accurate that figure is.  It’s certainly triple figures.  It’s definitely huge.  There are parts where we’ve got 12 to 15 galleons all converging on each other.  In the first film, we went out to sea a lot.  We’d go 30 kilometres off shore every day for several weeks.  For this film, we were on a backlot on the Gold Coast and all of those ships were on extraordinary hydraulic machinery so that they could create the dark, brooding, ugly seas that Salazar exists in.

In terms of playing the scenes, it feels the same.  I remember Johnny saying to me on the first film that while we’re just doing dialogue in a ship’s cabin, it’s no different from an independent film.  You just have to play the scene and make it work.

Matt:  Was it nice to be able to shoot the film in Queensland?  Any sites we should try to keep an eye out for?

Geoffrey:  A lot of it was studio bound.  They shot around The Spit on the Gold Coast and also up in the hinterland.  We then spent about 2 weeks up in the Whitsundays doing some location filming.  I don’t know whether you’ll be able to spot any locations because the art department did such a good job.  I walked down to the beach and went “my God, this looks like the Caribbean” and then you’re told that 40 palm trees were put in last night to make it look more Caribbean.

Matt:  You get to work alongside a young Queenslander who many have tapped for bigger things – Brenton Thwaites.  Did you get to spend a lot of time with him during the process?

Geoffrey:  To an extent but it was more off screen than on screen because our characters don’t overlap that much in the plot.  He was certainly around playing his guitar and he’s a very fine young man.  His co-star, Kaya Scodelario, plays this brilliant young 18th century scientist.  She’s a funky young actress and I really like the storyline those two share.

Matt:  And what was it like to work with Javier Bardem?

Geoffrey:  He’s fantastic because he emerges onto the set having spent 25 years under water and he’s half crustacean.  In every line of dialogue, he had squid ink oozing out of his mouth.  It was quite a thrill.  I got to know him back in 2001.  We were both nominated at the Oscars that year – I was for Quills and he was for Before Night Falls – and so we hung out a lot during the award season.  Also, his wife Penelope Cruz was in the last film and so he was on set a lot for that. 

Matt:  What are you working on at the moment?  What will we see from you next?

Geoffrey:  I’m currently on the National Geographic Channel playing Albert Einstein in a 10-part series called Genius.  After that, I’m just waiting for the phone ring.

Gurinder Chadha Interview

Her directing credits include Bend It Like Beckham, Bride & Prejudice, and Angus, Thongs & Perfect Snogging.  Her latest film is Viceroy’s House and it was a pleasure to speak with Gurinder Chadha.

Matt:  You’ve made such a wide away of films up until now.  Where did the inspiration come from to tell this particular story?

Gurinder:  This is a grand, epic, historical, costume drama but it’s also a very personal story.  It’s about the last days of the British Empire in India and during those last few months when Lord Mountbattens were the last Viceroy of India.  India ended up being partitioned and my ancestral  homeland ended up being on the wrong side of the border.  It became part of Pakistan and my family ended up leaving as refugees.  Growing up in London, I therefore never had an ancestral homeland of my own that I could go and visit. 

That said, I never wanted to tell this story because it’s a big story.  40 million people were displaced – the biggest forced migration in human history.  Over a million people died.  I appeared on the television show “Who Do You Think You Are” a few years back and as part of that, I ended up going to Pakistan.  I was very touched by the warm affection I was greeted with and I also realised how much people had suffered in the same way as my own family.  I then decided that I wanted to make a film about the partition but given 70 years had passed, I wanted it to be more healing and more conciliatory than some of the more aggressive films that had been made previously.

Matt:  I have to confess that I didn’t know about the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.  Is that a common reaction as you’ve taken this film around the world or am I just hopelessly ignorant?

Gurinder:  No, you’re not hopelessly ignorant.  As the film says, “history is written by the victors.”  There are versions of history that we have been told and taught at school.  My film focuses on the history which is not the version that I was taught at school and not the version that the British Empire wanted to put out at the time.  The film is based on top secret British documents that do tell a very different story of what happened.  It’s even an eye-opener for a lot of British people. 

Matt:  A lot of what we see in the film are meetings behind closed doors and important items being discussed.  How easy was it to research the film?  How do you know what is depicted is a fairly accurate reflection of what took place?

Gurinder:  Paul, my partner and writer, read about 20 books, we interviewed a lot of academics, and we met people who had actually been there at the time.  The film is actually based on two books in particular.  The first is ‘Freedom at Midnight’ which is known as the seminal book on partition.  After that, another book came out called The Shadow of the Great Game that was written by Narendra Singh Sarila.  He was a former ADC to Lord Mountbatten in 1948.

In 1997, he was in the British Library writing a book on the Maharajas and an Indian librarian came up to him and said “sir, I think you should look at these documents that have just become available.”  Narendra being a diplomat understood immediately what this woman was showing him.  The documents told a very different story to what we knew and so Narendra ditched the book he was working on and then wrote The Shadow of the Great Game.  

Matt:  How much did you learn during the process?  Did your opinion about the events and their aftermath change at all?

Gurinder:  Absolutely.  I had a particular history I’d be told that in 1947, Lord Mountbatten was sent to India with the task of handing India back but when he got there, we started fighting with each other and so Mountbatten had no choice but to divide the country.  I was at a reception at Clarence House and I met Prince Charles and I started to talk to him about the fact I was making a film about his uncle and he was very interested.  He said “do you know about the Narendra Singh Sarila book?” and he also mentioned a few other things.

The documents Narendra found talked about how partition wasn’t a reaction to events at the time but was more of a political act that had been concocted at Whitehall for specific reasons.  That’s what the film is about and I don’t want to give too much more away.

Matt:  There is a balance in the film where you try to show the viewpoints of both sides – those who wanted a single India and those who wanted it partitioned into two countries.  Was that always your intention and was it easy trying to find that balance without looking like you were trying to favour one particular side?

Gurinder:  I worked very hard to make a film that was as balanced as possible.  We had a very heated political situation where everybody was working to their agendas and everyone was “right” in their own way.  I wanted to present everyone’s position and then show how it was the little people who got squeezed.  That was my intention.

Matt:  In the film there’s the story within the story – and I’m referring to the relationship that develops between Jeet, a Hindu and Alia, a Muslim.  Where did that part of the film come from?

Gurinder:  In a film about division and boundaries, I felt it was important to have a love story at the core.  That then became the personification of the sacrifices that people make when choosing between love and nationhood in this case.  The story was an amalgam of people we had met as part of our research.  So they were fictional characters but through the love story, we could see the impact of the political decisions that were made. 

Matt:  I’m always curious about historical dramas about the casting.  How much of an impact does the “look” of an actor come into play when choosing them?  Do you try to cast actors that have the appearance of their real life counterparts?

Gurinder:  With famous historical figures, you have to find a resemblance.  You don’t want them to mimic people but with someone like Ghandi for example, people know him all over the world.  It behoved me to find an actor who resembled Ghandi.  It was the same with Nehru, Jinnah and the Mountbattens.  The Mountbatten’s real life daughter, Lady Pamela, is alive today and we met a few times.  She was very charmed by Hugh Bonneville but she said he was a lot chunkier than her father (laughs).

I think Gillian Anderson did a very good job of become Edwina in the way she held herself and walked and talked but she didn’t mimic Edwina.  She was definitely Gillian Anderson playing the character.

Matt:  Where was the film shot?  Did you have the chance to use the actual Viceroy’s House from back in the 1940s?

Gurinder:  The film was shot entirely on location and we ended up getting very lucky and shooting in the real Viceroy’s house.  All of our big exterior scenes were shot there in Delhi.  The house is now home to the President of India so it was quite a coup to get that permission.

The second major location where we did a lot of the interiors was a wonderful palace which is residence to the Maharaja of Jodhpur.  It was built in a similar style to Viceroy’s House around the same period.  That palace is still home to the Maharaja in one of the wings but the rest is a very, very fancy hotel.  We had to work with the hotel in order to shoot our movie.  There were certain days when we were only allowed in certain parts of the hotel but we made it work.

Our third location was the ruins of a big fort in Rajasthan that had been built a thousand years ago.  That’s where we built our big refugee camp.

Matt:  You’re working here with one of my favourite composers – A.R. Rahman whose credits include Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours.  Do you just throw the music completely over to him or did you have something in mind to guide him from the outset?

Gurinder:  When I met A.R. to talk about the film, he said that he’d vowed to never work on a film about partition.  I then tried to persuade him otherwise.  It was a very interesting process watching him work.  He saw a rough cut of the film and then he walked over to his piano and started playing a tune.  I quickly turned my phone on to record it.  In the end, that became one of the central themes in the film.  For A.R., he has to feel very emotional about the story before can start composing.  That’s what’s so wonderful about him. 

Matt:  Have you had the chance to screen the film in India or Pakistan yet?

Gurinder:  Not officially.  At the Berlin Film Festival we did have some journalists from India who saw the film.  Two of them I spoke to were very complimentary because for them, they felt it was refreshing to see a film that stood back and looked at the events of 1947 from a less aggressive perspective as to what is normally shown in India and Pakistan. 

Matt:  Is there anything you’re working on at the moment?  What will we see from you next?

Gurinder:  I’ve got a pretty full slate.  I’ve been very excited by the recent changes to television and long-form drama and so I’ve been working on a couple of big dramas set across India, Africa and Great Britain.  I’m quite excited about that.  There’s also another movie script I’ve been working on which is the closest thing to the Bend It Like Beckham world that I’ve written in the past 15 years.  I felt it was time to write something again based on the British Asian community.

Their Finest

He’s been one of my favourite actors for a long time and so I jumped at the opportunity to speak with Bill Nighy when he was recently in Australia to discuss Their Finest…

Matt:  You have appeared in so many films over the past few decades.  I’d love to know – which is the role that people seem to recognise you most for and want to discuss with you?

Bill:  It depends on their age and their gender.  I’ve got it kind of covered now.  If they’re between 13 and 27 and they’re male, it will be Shaun of the Dead or another film from the Cornetto trilogy.  If they’re younger then it’s probably Pirates of Caribbean where I play a giant squid.  If they’re my age, it’s often The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

The role that often comes up is in Love Actually and I think when I die, on my tombstone they’ll put “hey kids, don’t buy drugs… become a rock star and people will give you them for free.”

Matt:  I’ve written several reviews where I’ve described you a scene stealer.  You’re often placed in supporting roles but you often outshine the leading cast members with some well-timed wit or a key emotional scene (About Time, Pride, The Boat That Rocked).  Are you conscious of that when looking at scripts?  Do you even prefer supporting roles as opposed to lead ones?

Bill:  Sometimes it’s nice to carry the whole of the can.  The responsibility to carry a film is a big deal and it puts you in the front line in terms of popularity stakes and things like that.  At my age, I’m grateful to still be operating.  You want the part to be of a certain level but if the writing is good and the other people involved are worth working with, it’s very attractive.

Matt:  Danish filmmakers have been making a strong presence of late - Lars von Trier, Nicolas Winding Refn, Thomas Vinterberg and Susanne Bier.  Here you get to work with Lone Scherfig who I have admired since I saw An Education.  What can you tell me about her style?  What was she like to work with?

Bill:  I can tell you quite simply that she’s a sensational human being and a fabulous film director.  I tried to work with her once before and for various reasons it hadn’t come off.  I was really pleased to finally work with her on such an entertaining script.  She’s straight forward, honest and funny.  She gives you big fat gifts every day.  She’ll give you some idea about your character that might be funny or interesting. 

Matt:  It’s an interesting role in that you’re an actor playing an actor – but the one we see in the film is a little bit precious, a little bit demanding.  Do you draw on your own experiences from the industry in creating a character like that?  Have you come across similar types over the years?

Bill:  It’s funny because I haven’t really.  In any job, whether you’re a biochemist, airline pilot or florist, you will find people who are not in very good shape.  It’s not unique to the acting profession.  I haven’t come across too many other actors who are “up themselves” but I note that they were looking for someone to play a chronically self-absorbed pompous actor in his declining years and they thought of me (laughs).  No, it’s a great part.  Because it’s a film about making a film, I get to play not just my own part but also the part he is playing in the film.  I get to play drunk Uncle Frank which is good value.

Matt:  There’s often chatter about the amount of influence that studios and producers have over directors and you often see them clashing over “creative differences”.  What’s interesting in Their Finest is that we saw that level of influence being exerted by the Ministry way back then in the 1940s.  What have your experiences been in the industry?  Have you worked on many films where there is that tension between director and producer?

Bill:  In my position, I’m generally protected from that kind of friction and it takes place in meetings that I don’t attend.  I haven’t come across a lot of that.  In terms of the script, which is how it would affect me, those decisions are generally made before shooting begins.

Stephen Woolley, our producer here, is one of the great English producers of all time.  He’s made a bunch of films people will have heard of.  I’d made two movies with him back-to-back and then another one which is coming to Australia soon called The Limehouse Golem.  It’s from a book by Peter Ackroyd and its set in the 1880s and has lots of fog and lots of blood.  I am Superintendent John Kildare of Scotland Yard… I get a bang out of saying that…  and I’m working with a young English actress named Olivia Cooke who is amazing.

Matt:  I was fascinated by this piece of history – filmmakers making propaganda films to help shift public favour about wars – both within the home country and abroad.  Do you think we could get away with stuff like this today or do we live in such a cynical world that everyone would see right through it?

Bill:  Well, I think if we if we look at the current political landscape, they just did get away with it.  They have news outlets dedicated to misleading the public.  The films they used to make during World War II would spin reality in order to keep people emboldened.  They were in such a terrible situation and there was no good news to report.  They had to find a way to keep people’s hopes up.  It was propaganda but in a good way. 

It’s still scary that we get all our information from television and the internet which is unregulated and like the Wild West at times.  If people are organised, they can present a completely different version of reality.  People are therefore living their lives according to misinformation and it’s scary.

Matt:  You did a lot of theatre early in your career and you’ve since transitioned into film and television.  You were back on stage recently in West End and on Broadway with Skylight that received much acclaim.  Was that a one off or would you like to get back to doing more work in the theatre?

Bill:  It’s difficult to say.  I grew up in the theatre and I love and admire the theatre.  Every time I do a play, I stand in the wings on opening night and vow with all of my heart, mind and body that I will never allow this to happen again.  It’s scary and really hard.  Then a new script comes along which is irresistible which has a brilliant part and you sign up again.  I don’t have any immediate plans for more theatre.  I did Skylight with Carey Mulligan for a year and that’ll do for a little while.

Matt:  You’ve won a BAFTA and a Golden Globe.  What have we got to do to get you an Oscar nomination?

Bill:  In England, cab drivers already think I’ve got an Oscar.  I’ve had drivers tell me “oh I was pleased about the Oscar” and I go “thanks very much”.  I’m getting by without one but if there are any lying around, I’ll happily take one.

Matt:  What have you got coming up?  What will we see you in next?

Bill:  The Limehouse Golem should be out in around September.  I also did a film with the eminent Spanish director Isabel Coixet called The Bookshop which is based on the Penelope Fitzgerald novel and stars Emily Mortimer.  It’s coming to Australia some time soon.