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. 

Dance Academy: The Movie

Dance Academy is the latest film to transiting from the small screen to the big screen and I recently spoke with director Jeffrey Walker about the experience…

Matt:  You were directing episodes of Neighbours, Home & Away and Blue Heelers when just 22 years of age.  Given how tough it can be to break into the director profession, what’s the secret?  How did you open the door so young?

Jeffrey:  I had an extremely unusual set of events that played out.  I started acting as a 7-year-old in different television shows and films in Australia.  I developed a real love for the camera and all things behind the scenes when I was about 13-14 years of age.  I then started to make little short films on the weekends.

When I finished high school, I hadn’t decided what I was going to do with my life.  I had a wonderful producer, Jonathan Shiff, who took me under his wing and he trained me for two years as an on-set shadowing director.  At the end of that, he thought I was ready so I got my first job directing an episode of Neighbours when I was 20.  I know I’m very lucky and extremely grateful that bizarre set of events occurred.

Matt:  I think you’ve been directing episodes for more than 20 different TV series across a whole mix of genres – All Saints, City Homicide, Angry Boys, Rake and Modern Family.  Do you look back on your older work?  Has your style changed a lot over the past decade?

Jeffrey:  I haven’t look back out of fear as to how terrible some of the early stuff might have been.  Given that I’d spent so much time on sets as an actor over 10 years, I had a good knowledge of running a set.  I’d watched enough terrific directors to learn from what they did scene-to-scene.  What I didn’t have at the age of 20 was a unique voice.  I didn’t have anything that I could infuse on stuff I was working on.  When I did develop a voice, I started to feel that a bit more of my DNA was in the final product and those things are more fun to rewatch.

Matt:  I know you were involved with the Dance Academy TV series but this is a rare chance for you to direct a feature film that will be released in cinemas.  What are the major differences between the two mediums?

Jeffrey:  As a director, to be able to zero in on one particular story is great.  In television, you’re given a single episode or a series of episodes and you don’t get that total sense of storytelling.  I’ve always seen film as a director’s medium and TV as a producer’s medium.  With film, a producer will still help you come up with a lot of creative ideas but you have to go out there and execute it.  No one is going to be leering over your shoulder telling you how we make this show.

Just before I started Dance Academy, I worked on another film with a similar budget called Ali’s Wedding that’s due to come out a little later in the year.  I did an enormous amount of learning on that and I was able to use that experience to come in and hopefully make the best choices I could on Dance Academy.  I’m now experiencing the release of a film for the first time which I’ve had no experience in whatsoever.  My native terrain has been television for such a long time now and it makes this both exciting and terrifying at the same time.

Matt:  How did this film come about anyway?  The show finished up in 2013 and I admit it wasn’t something I was expecting to hear from again?

Jeffrey:  The amazing thing that has sustained with Dance Academy is that it’s never stopped being on air.  It’s had big sales overseas and there are major territories such as the U.S. that only discovered it a couple of years ago.  Oddly, it’s still as relevant as it was when we made it.  The interest is not just there from the fan base in Australia but there are 10-year-olds coming to it now from around the world.  That wide audience is the major reason that we were able to come back and revisit it.

The great gift of this film is they didn’t resurrect these characters as 15, 16 and 17 year olds.  We see them now in their 20s and they have new dilemmas that hopefully our maturing audience can relate to.  Their struggles are real for young people trying to find their identity in life and we’ve tried to dramatically explore that.

Matt:  You have been involved with the TV series but how do you get your own insight into this world and these characters?  Do you talk to a lot of dancers?  Do you have contacts with the Sydney Ballet Company?

Jeffrey:  When I did the TV series for the first time, I knew extremely little about elite ballet.  My sister was a dance teacher who had grown up through dance schools but I had no idea except for the fact that the characters were extremely relatable to me.  I felt a kinship from being an aspiring actor and that gave me a sense of the pressures these characters went through.  When you’re pursuing something at an elite level, your entire identity is wrapped up in that.  When you wake up in the morning, you’re a dancer.  You’re not just a dancer when you step on stage.  You’re a dancer from the moment you wake up.  I felt that as an actor and I now feel that as a director.

With the film, we wanted to explore what happens when that’s taken away from someone.  What’s left of them?  How do still feel you have a contribution to make if you don’t have that passion? 

In terms of just spending time immersed in the world of dance, I’ve done that a great deal over the last few years more out of choice and enjoyment than what I had to do at the start of the TV series.  Back then, I spoke with choreographers and dancers about what it’s like.  Many of them come out and say “oh, it’s just a joy” but the reality is that it’s hard.  You’re in pursuit of a completely unobtainable dream for perfection with your entire life as a dancer.  That’s a hard thing to reconcile and it’s another theme I wanted to explore.

Matt:  Dance movies are a staple of American film culture.  There’s iconic stuff like Flashdance, Footloose, Dirty Dancing and then more recent stuff like Centre Stage, Save the Last Dance and the Step Up franchise.  Do you look back on films like those when trying to come up with something of your own – to see what works and what doesn’t?

Jeffrey:  For me, the film that was the game changer in that genre was Black Swan.  It introduced a thriller element to a genre that I thought was exhausted.  Even though this film is aimed at a teenage audience, I think many people will be surprised that it doesn’t play out as expected.  I remember in Black Swan watching director Darren Aronofsky take the camera in hand-held mode and stay with the dancers on the stage so you can hear them breathing and the hard sounds of pointed shoes hitting the floorboards.  That changed the way I looked at making a dance film.  I realised you didn’t have to conform to the clichés of the genre and you can shake it up.

Matt:  There are scenes in this movie shot in New York City and in particular around Times Square – one of the busiest places in the world.  I’ve always been curious to know – what’s the process for being able to shoot in a public location like that?  Can you just do it?  Or is there a lot of planning and paperwork involved?

Jeffrey:  It was described to me in two ways.  There’s the way Sam Raimi does it when he makes Spider-Man and there’s the way I do it with Dance Academy.  You turn up with a skeleton crew and it’s so busy and chaotic that no one cares that you’re even there.  We were always permitted but we couldn’t disrupt traffic and we always had to be using steady-cams or hand-held cameras.  You can’t have anything like cranes that would obstruct views.  It’s “guerrilla” style which makes it noisy and hard to work.  You ultimately choose the shots in the edit where you have the fewest passer-bys who are looking at the camera and there’s also a lot of looping of dialogue.  It’s hard but hopefully the results for the audience make it all worthwhile. 

Matt:  Just like the TV series, there’s a big soundtrack here too.  What was the process behind picking the right songs for the movie?

Jeffrey:  There were three key tracks that we reached out to get – one each from Sia, Flume and Taylor Swift.  Australian films have notoriously low music budgets when compared to the United States.  Our producer, Joanna Werner, had to be as hard edged as she could in going to the representatives of these wonderful artists and describing how we loved their songs and thought we had a fantastic way in which they could be used in the film.  There were barriers but ultimately we did get a lot of positive answers.  I hope that audiences don’t get the sense that they’re watching a small film with a small music budget.  We think this provides a big cinema experience.

Matt:  I’ll finish up by asking what are you working on at the moment?

Jeffrey:  I’m in New York doing the third series of a show called Difficult People where Amy Poehler is one of the executive producers.  She’s a funny but also a beautiful, smart, gentle person.  I’ve directed nearly all the episodes across 3 seasons. It’s got Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner in the leading roles and it’s been a heck of a lot of fun.

Josh Gad

He’s appeared in films such as Pixels, The Wedding Ringer and Jobs and voiced characters in films including Frozen, The Angry Birds Movie and A Dog’s Purpose.  I recently had the chance to speak with Josh Gad about his role in the live action remake of Beauty and the Beast.

Matt:  What was your first reaction when you heard about a live action remake of Beauty and the Beast?

Josh:  My first reaction was “oh God, it better be good”.  That movie, as I’m sure it is with many others, was a pivotal part of my childhood journey.  I was 10 years old when I first saw the movie in a theatre in South Florida and it left an indelible impression, specifically the songs which are now iconic.  Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin became the soundtrack to my childhood.  Being able to bring those songs to life, given that they were so influential on me, was a thrill.

Matt:  How do the singing numbers work?  How much time is spent on rehearsal and getting your voice down pat and in sync?

Josh:  We rehearsed the choreography for 5 weeks and recorded the song over 2 days.  The problem was that Luke Evans and I both come from musical theatre and we’re perfectionists when it comes to singing.  You can record something but to do it out of context and not match the physicality of what you’re doing doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the greatest results and so we insisted on singing it live and not lip syncing.  A lot of the flourishes in the song were actually moments that we recorded on the day of shooting.

Matt:  So it wasn’t all done in a studio?  It was done like Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables?

Josh:  It was both.  Some moments were in a studio but others, like when we’re dancing, were done as part of the shoot as it brings a different quality and energy to the vocals.

Matt:  How easy was it shooting the scenes themselves when you’re dancing and jumping all over the place whilst trying to sing at the same time?

Josh:  It’s not an easy process but it’s a process I’m comfortable with because so much of the work I’ve been blessed enough to do has been musical orientated like Frozen or Book of Mormon.  I come from that background and my first big break was on Broadway doing a musical called Spelling Bee and so I sort of love it.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to finally bring those skills to the big screen because they are few and far between.

Matt:  So how did Bill Condon find you for this project?

Josh:  Bill and I actually worked together years ago on the pilot for HBO called Tilda with Diane Keaton that sadly never saw the light of day.  We both really loved working with each other.  He called me about Beauty and the Beast and I was like “yes, sign me up”.

In the original movie, so much of the comedy from the LeFou character comes from cartoon conceits.  He’s so physical and he’s the butt of every joke like where he’s getting his teeth knocked out, he’s getting thrown across the room multiple times by Gaston, and animals sit on his head.  That’s not something that I thought would be really great to play in a live action version.

So for me, it was about giving him a humanity.  If LeFou was as dumb as a box in the original movie, what if we made him dumb as a fox?  That means that he’s not quite as dull and a fool as people would imagine.  He’s actually got a conscience and he calls into question this blind faith he has in Gaston along the way.  That added a really interesting dynamic to the whole enterprise.

Matt:  What stands out for me watching this film are the visuals – the castle and the surrounds are incredible.  Since it’s almost impossible to discern the difference these days, how much of what we see is real and what is not?

Josh:  It was all practical when it came to the sets.  When I tell you that Disney spared no expense on creating this environment, it’s true.  Bill felt that it was important, especially in a film that requires so much digital trickery, to put the characters in an environment that was real and tangible because you want to ground the other elements.

Matt:  The costumes in the film area really great and you’re working alongside Oscar-nominated costumer Jacqueline Durran (Anna Karenina).  Do you have a lot of fun with that part of the process?

Josh:  It was so, so, so brilliant working with every single department on a film like this because they all bring their A-game.  The costumes are gorgeous but so are the sets and the hair & make up.  You just feel like you’re doing this grand, incredible, epic film that is a homage to something you grew up with.  To bring it to life with an all-star crew, you pinch yourself every day coming to work.

Matt:  The film has an amazing cast and a lot of them you wouldn’t have had a chance to work with before.  Who surprised you?  Was there someone you got along really well with?

Josh:  You can’t be surprised at the level of that cast.  Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci… these have been idols of mine growing up.  What I was surprised by was working alongside Emma, Dan and Luke was how well-rounded all of them are when it coming to the singing, dancing and other elements that they aren’t necessarily known for.  That to me was a great joy to collaborate with them on. 

Matt:  What’s it like seeing the finished product?  Are you amazed sometimes by how it all comes together on screen?

Josh:  Sometimes?  Try every minute.  It’s stunning and amazing.  For instance, Dan Stevens was wearing a onesie with his face sprayed with thousands of dots for motion capture and then all of a sudden you see this living, breathing beast on screen and your jaw is on the floor.  The audience are saying “how did they do this?”  I was there and I still don’t know how they did it!

Matt:  What are you working at the moment?  When are we going to see you next?

Josh:  I just wrapped production two weeks ago on Murder on the Orient Express which is directed by the amazing Kenneth Branagh.  That’ll be out at the end of the year and it has an incredible cast including Johnny Depp, Dame Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Willem Dafoe, the list goes on and on.  It was such a thrill and I feel the movie will have a David Lean quality to it where it feels like a breath of fresh air.  It’s a different type of film to what audiences usually get.  It’s a murder-mystery set in the 1930s.  I then have a smaller film coming out with Chadwick Boseman and Dan Stevens again which his directed by Reginald Hudlin called Marshall.  That should be out in October.

David Stratton

He’s been reviewing movies since before I was born and so it was a privilege to sit down with legendary Australian film critic David Stratton and talk about his life’s work and Aussie cinema as part of the release of David Stratton: A Cinematic Life.

Matt:  I have to ask since it’s going to be talked about for a long time to come – did you see the debacle to end this year’s Academy Awards?

David:  I didn’t because I was on a flight from Perth to Brisbane.  I saw a glimpse of the disaster on the news.  I felt sorry for Warren Beatty because he looked like he wasn’t sure what’s going on.  It was obviously a big stuff up.

Matt:  Are you a big fan of awards shows?  Do you watch them?

David:  I do watch them.  I always watch the Oscars and this was the first time that I’d missed them in a long time.

Matt:  You’ve spent so much time interviewing actors and filmmakers.  What’s it been like on the other side of the fence as you’ve been doing publicity for this film?

David:  Exhausting.  No, it’s been stimulating because it shows people are interested in what we’ve done with this documentary.

Matt:  When were you first approached about it?  Did you think your life would ever be put up on the screen like this in such a way?

David:  No.  The original idea was not my life but rather my reflections on Australian films.  We didn’t want to tell a history of Australian cinema.  We wanted to originally make a 3-part documentary for the ABC which would reflect and comment on some of the most important Australian films.  That changed, as these things do, and it’s ended up becoming a cinema film with a different title.  There will still be an ABC series later in the year.

Matt:  One of the things I like about the film is that it celebrates Australian cinema as much as it celebrates your life and work.  Was that always your intention from outset?

David:  That’s the director, Sally Aitken.  She deserves full credit for that and I didn’t even know what she had in mind.  She did it very cleverly and skilfully.  It was only when I saw the film for the first time that I realised how she had extrapolated links in my life and some of the Australian films I’m so fond of.  I don’t think that element will be in the TV series so the two are going to be rather different.

Matt:  Having been part of the Australian film landscape for so long, is it harder to be critical of Australian films given you know so many of the people who worked on them individually? 

David:  It is hard.  You don’t want to hurt the feelings of people you admire but we can’t always make a good film.  I’ve given negative reviews to people I’m quite friendly with and I think that upset them initially but it was all right later on except for Geoffrey Wright which is referenced in the film.

A good example is the late Paul Cox.  I was a good friend and I love most of his films.  I didn’t like one of his later films and so I phoned up to warn him before we went to air that night with At The Movies.  He said “that’s all right, you have to call it the way you see it.”  The morning after he called and said “you really didn’t like it!” but we remained friends of course.

Matt:  I have to talk about your run on The Movie Show with Margaret Pomeranz.  I assume you both saw films together but did you talk about your views before going on air?

David:  We didn’t always see them together.  Sometimes we saw them separately.  It depended on the circumstances but we never talked about them before going to air.  I think that was one of the reasons the show worked.  We were often surprised by each other’s reaction.

Matt:  You’ve had the chance to travel the world and attend numerous film festivals.  Which ones stand out?  Which festivals should I be putting on my bucket list?

David:  Venice.  It’s the only one I’m still going to regularly and I’ve be going since 1966.  It’s a great festival.  Maybe the films are better in Cannes and the organisation is better in Berlin but Venice is Venice.

Matt:  I was astounded in the film to hear that you average seeing about a film every day on average.  Do you have holidays?  Can you detox and not watch anything for a couple of weeks?

David:  On this tour, I haven’t managed to see a film every day but I wouldn’t exactly call it a holiday (laughs).

Matt:  Do you ever get star struck with any actors and filmmakers that you’ve had the chance to interview?

David:  Not really.  They’re ordinary people.  Some are very relaxed and easy to get on with.  Some are more self-important.  The Australians in particular are very easy to get along with.

Matt:  What do you think of the state of film criticism at the moment?  There are fewer paid, published critics but a lot more people putting opinions out there though blogs and social media.

David:  I think that’s the way of the future.  There are fewer people getting paid to review films.  There was a time when The Courier Mail had its own Brisbane based critic (Des Partridge) and now they take reviews from Melbourne.  That’s the trend throughout the country.  Filling that gap are people blogging with their ideas and while they may not be always informed ideas, they’re ideas those individuals want to express and I think that’s a great thing.

Matt:  You clearly spend a lot of time focusing on film.  I’ve always been curious whether you branch out and have much time for TV or live theatre?

David:  Not as much live theatre as I’d like to.  It’s always a question of time.  I live in the Blue Mountains and it’s always a hike to get into the city and back again.  That limits evenings at the theatre.  I only watch political things on television.  Insiders on a Sunday morning I wouldn’t miss for anything.  Q&A is riveting television and Media Watch as well… that’s the television I enjoy.

Matt:  There are some big names in the film that we see speaking very highly of you on camera – the likes of Nicole Kidman and George Miller.  What was it like seeing it for the first time?

David:  It was very touching.  I met Nicole for the first time when she was about 15 years old and making her first film.  I remember going on a junket for a film that her boyfriend at the time was starring in.  He was doing all the interviews and she wasn’t in the film so she was just hanging about.  We had a long conversation about the history of movies to fill in the time.  Since that time we’ve been friends.  George once told me off camera that he thought if I hadn’t shown his first short film at the Sydney Film Festival in 1971 that he might still be a doctor.

Matt:  I’ll finish up by asking – do you think about legacy and what will happen to all your reviews and other collectables when you’re gone?  The great Roger Ebert passed away several years ago but so many of his reviews can be found online and there’s also a review website named in his honour.

David:  No, I haven’t but I should.  I have no idea.