Interview - Writer-Director Miranda July on 'Kajillionaire'
- Written by Matthew Toomey
Kajillionaire marks the third full length feature film for writer-director Miranda July. It’s about to be released in Australian cinemas and I was lucky to chat with Miranda about the production…
Matt: The first time I think I heard the name Miranda July was back in 2005 when you made and starred in You and Me and Everyone We Know. It’s hard to believe 15 years have passed. Do you look back on that film fondly?
Miranda: This year, the film became part of the Criterion Collection so I was forced to watch it. It’s sort of torturous because I don’t generally watch my movies after I’m done with them. I think enough time has passed now that I forgive myself for whatever I didn’t know at the time.
Matt: Kajillionaire is such an offbeat story. Where did the idea come from? Was it inspired by something?
Miranda: I watched Mission: Impossible, the TV show, a lot when I was a kid. It was like every single night with my big brother. I feel like I’ve always had that language of reversals and high anxiety and where nobody knows who’s good and who’s bad.
I had all that in my back pocket and so when these characters came to me one morning, this family of con-artists, the great challenge was how to develop them using “my emotional language” like me as a mother and a daughter.
Matt: The characters here are very distinctive. I’m not talking about just the 4 leads but also the supporting players – like the crying office landlord. How do you approach that? Do you have that vision from the very start when writing the screenplay or does it more evolve through the casting process?
Miranda: I’m a fiction writer and so I err on the side of thinking I can put it all on the page. My scripts are always long because I try to explain every part of these people. It’s then kind of a miracle when you meet the right actor and suddenly, there’s the soul of a person who has lived this whole life. I love that. That collaboration is like magic.
Matt: An interesting attribute to these characters is their paranoia around things like earthquakes and flying on planes. How did that weave its way into the screenplay?
Miranda: I’m calling from Los Angeles right now where there could be an earthquake at any moment and I have grown up with that fear living here in California. It’s always an interesting barometer of a person’s broader anxiety levels here. How much are they actively thinking about earthquakes or are they more like Gina Rodriguez’s character and going “YOLO, what are you gonna do?” That was a really helpful metaphor.
Matt: It’s an interesting performance from Evan Rachel Wood who takes on such a deep, monotone voice – different from what we’d normally see from her on screen. Did that take a huge amount of effort on her part? Where did that come from?
Miranda: She revealed that to me during our rehearsal process. She started talking with a deep voice and she said that was her original voice and that she’s trained it higher with a vocal coach because she’s a singer. When she did that, I could see right away that she’d drop into the character of Old Dolio. I felt lucky that she’d never used that voice for anything else.
Matt: Two accomplished Oscar nominated actors – Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger. How did they come on board?
Miranda: I wrote a very heartfelt letter to Richard. I thought he was the best possible person for such a shifty character that we have to believe. There are points where we need to trust him and then points where we’re shocked by him. I have a long history of trusting Richard Jenkins characters. He came in with something that works to his advantage and he’s also quite funny in the movie too.
With Debra Winger, it’s almost cheating to cast her because she adds depth to any role she’s ever done – a deeper layer that probably wasn’t there in the script.
Matt: Without giving too much away, I’ve got to ask about the bubbles in the office. Was that an easy visual to pull off?
Miranda: It was very easy to write which was my job. The greatest thing about filmmaking is that I got to work with these incredibly skilled effects people who figured out how to do that. We did a million tests and I still look at them on my computer. There’s a lot to getting bubbles right. Sometimes they were too heavy and they slid down the walls too fast.
Matt: This film premiered back in January at the Sundance Film Festival and since that time, the entire cinematic world has changed due to the impact of COVID-19. How has it affected the release of this film?
Miranda: Yeah. It was supposed to come out back in June. When COVID-19 took hold, I guess all I had to work with was massive disappointment but then people started seeing the movie and I realised that the most essential thing was still there – the movie was connecting with people. Things that seemed very personal to me, like the anxiety of the “big one”, I’m pretty sure we’re in the “big one” right now. These weird things in the movie weren’t so weird anymore because the world has become so strange that they’re now accessible.
Matt: What are you working on at the moment?
Miranda: I’m writing a novel. I’m glad I’m not trying to shoot anything right now because that would be much harder. I’ve also found myself taking on the role of teacher for my 3rd grade child that takes up a big part of each day.
Interview - Director Shannon Murphy on 'Babyteeth'
- Written by Matthew Toomey
It’s been a longer wait that anticipated given COVID-19 but Babyteeth is about to arrive in Australian cinemas. I had a chance to see the film back in March and it’s stuck with me since. I recently spoke to director Shannon Murphy about the production…
Matt: One intriguing development is that COVID-19 led to the postponement of many big Hollywood blockbusters and that’s allowed a lot of smaller films into cinemas, particularly here in Australia. Do you see that as a positive and hope people might be buying tickets to Babyteeth instead of heavily marketed blockbusters like Mulan and Tenet?
Shannon: Yeah, I do. I actually just went to the cinemas here on the Gold Coast to see the Icelandic film A White, White Day and it was in this massive, amazing cinema at the Home of the Arts and the surround sound was incredible. There were probably about 20 of us there and they spaced us all out well and it was a really beautiful cinema experience. Cinema is coming back alive and it was a good feeling.
Matt: Let’s go back to the origins of this project. Babyteeth is based on a play from Rita Kalnejais that was first performed in Sydney in 2012. Did you get to see it back then?
Shannon: No, I didn’t actually. I’d directed at the Belvoir St Theatre before and it’s where I began my career and it was unusual for me to miss a play there.
Matt: So how did this cinematic adaptation come across your radar?
Shannon: It was brought to me by producer Alex White and executive producer Jan Chapman. They’d seen the play at Belvoir and loved it and knew immediately they wanted Rita to turn it into a screenplay. They’d been working on it for about 6-7 years and when it was finally sent to me, it was ready to go and incredibly well crafted.
Matt: Wow, that’s worked out well. You’ve come in just at the right time and avoided the long lead up?
Shannon: Yeah, I can’t complain. I now feel a bit spoilt and I want that to be the same case for my second film.
Matt: There are so many people out there that would love to be making movies but it’s a tough industry to crack. As someone who has now made short films, TV shows and now their first feature, what lessons can you share with budding filmmakers in terms of how you broke through?
Shannon: Staying true to your cinematic personality and tone is really important. Even back with my early theatre work, my sense of humour was always quite left of field and my work was always very physical and I kept experimenting with how far I could push all of that. I made very different choices and continued to challenge myself with what projects interested me and why I wanted to make them. I didn’t want to get stuck in any areas where I wasn’t still expanding myself. That’s helped me to keep growing.
Matt: Eliza Scanlen really looks to be another Australian name to watch with her performances in Sharp Objects, Little Women and now here in Babyteeth. I’m sure a lot of people would have been interested in the role so what stood out most with you in casting Eliza?
Shannon: She was so original that it actually terrified me. She auditioned for me a few times and I remember going “I just don’t know who she is?” She came in and every time she was a different person. There was one audition where she was doing some crazy stuff and I took her outside and I said “this doesn’t feel like the girl I met in the café for coffee six months ago”. I told her to come back in and relax and be herself. She walked in and did it again and I was like “there she is”.
She’s got so much range. We ended up sitting down together and crafting the character from scratch because she can do so much and she’s very smart and dedicated. For example, she learned the violin in three weeks. Yes, there’s Veronique Serret who is amazing playing over the top of her in the actual sound mix but she really worked so hard to make all her bowing look excellent. Not a lot of people would do that.
Matt: There are some really good conversations in the film – particularly those shared between Eliza Scanlen and Toby Wallace. How did you and Rita approach that and create authentic teenage dialogue for the movie?
Shannon: Rita was really conscious of that and had paid a lot of attention to teenagers that she’d met. You have to do that research to actually understand the psychosis of what people are saying and talking about. Also, once you give the script to actors in a room, they’ll tell you if something doesn’t feel right. I have to say in this case that on the whole, they really believed it and we only had to tweak a few small things.
Matt: It’s very jolting the way the film cuts between certain scenes – in terms of both the music and the visuals. What was behind that creative choice?
Shannon: When I completed my studies at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, I did my honours on the work of German director Bertolt Brecht and his techniques. I was drawn to those techniques in my theatre work and that has translated into cinema in that I love the ability to sever moments before they go where you expect them to.
Also, the cumulative effect of that over time and breaking the fourth wall in different ways helps give you a greater emotional release at the end because you’ve earned it and you’ve been able to intellectualise and emotionally connect throughout. When you get that balance right, it can have a greater impact on the viewer and hopefully the film will sit with them longer as a more memorable experience.
Matt: I noticed a lot of facial close-ups in the film. Am I overthinking that or was that a conscious decision on your part?
Shannon: It definitely was. I was talking a lot with our amazing cinematographer, Andy Commis, about how unlike other Australian films which was about the landscape, for us, the landscapes were these characters’ faces. It was about these four people and how they were dealing with an incredible crisis. It was very much a deliberate decision.
Matt: To finish up, is there anything you’re working on at the moment? What might we see from you next?
I’d love to make another feature film sooner rather than later but the next project for me is a TV show called The Power which is based on the novel by Naomi Alderman and is produced by Sister Pictures who made Chernobyl. It’s about what would happen in the world if women could electric shock men, similar to what electric eels do to each other, and if women become the more dominant, violent genre, how does that shift the world?
Interview - Director Leigh Whannell on 'The Invisible Man'
- Written by Matthew Toomey
The Invisible Man is the latest movie from Australian director Leigh Whannell (Insidious: Chapter 3, Upgrade). He was recently in Sydney as part of a publicity tour and I had a chance to chat with him for 10 minute about the project…
Matt: You’ve been writing movies for a long time with your good friend James Wan. How have you found the transition to directing over the last few years with Insidious: Chapter 3, Upgrade and now The Invisible Man?
Leigh: I’ve loved it but I was terrified about directing for a while. In hindsight, I’ve now released that directors deliberately tell their worst war stories to discourage people from taking up directing so they don’t have as much competition (laughs). Director friends would tell me how hard and stressful it was. When I finally did direct, I found it stressful at times but it’s also really fun and I’d love to keep going with it.
Matt: You have a lot of experience in the horror-thriller genre and for me, it’s one of the toughest to create movies that feel original and don’t rely too heavily on clichés. Do you have a secret that you apply?
Leigh: There’s no real secret. If there was, it’d be too easy. It’s more abstract. The only rule… if I have one at all… is to just follow my gut. You have these creative instincts and sometimes you distrust them. You’ll have a good idea and then you’ll agonise for days thinking you can make it better. I often find that the first ideas I have are the ones I come back to.
Matt: Correct me if I’m wrong but is the first movie where you’ve adapted a source material as opposed to coming up with something original. How was that challenge?
Leigh: Yeah, it is. It’s been an interesting movie because while it’s based on the classic character, I diverted a lot from the original novel so it still feels new. I wanted to modernize the character and make a film that was unpleasant and suffocating to watch. Something that would make the audience so tense that they’d want to leave the theatre. That was my goal for the film.
Matt: I often wonder how directors settle on a first scene. Do you ease audiences into the movie or do you go with a big start? The first scene here is incredibly tense and tells us this isn’t going to be a goofy, lightweight monster movie. How’d you settle on that approach?
Leigh: I decided to drop the audience right in the middle of the story. As you said, films will often spend time establishing characters but for this particular film, I wanted the audience to be tense without necessarily knowing why they were tense. Horror films often have a couple of scenes that are scary and the filmmakers will let you off the hook for a little while. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted every scene to be relentlessly suffocating in some way. I’m not sure if I achieved it but that’s what I was going for.
Matt: One thing that’s obvious with The Invisible Man is the great use of sound… or perhaps the lack thereof. When are you making those decisions? Is it while you’re shooting or is something refined with sound effects in the editing room?
Leigh: I think it’s all of the above. When I decide to write a screenplay, I spend a lot of time just coming up with ideas. It’s my favourite part of screenwriting – the part when you’re not writing and you spend a couple of months just jotting down ideas, going for walks, and watching other movies for inspiration. You build a collage of what the film should be. During that time, it’s usually when I decide what I want the film to sound like and look like.
As you make the film and bring in talented crew members, you start to refine that. I was working here with a sound mixer named Will Files. He’s worked on countless Hollywood blockbusters and I found he was very receptive to doing something different and outside the box. I’m glad you noticed the sound design of the film.
Matt: Another interesting element here is the visual effects – you have a character being hit and thrown around by someone who is completely invisible. How do you pull that off? Is it stunts, special effects, great acting?
Leigh: It’s a little mixture of everything. I’m a real fan of practical effects where you do something on the set with a real object. I’m not big on green screen and CGI. Yes, I use computer driven effects when needed and they’re a great tool but I don’t want everything to be like that. I want to use real locations, real people and real props whenever I can.
We had a stunt man wearing a green suit who was fighting with Elisabeth Moss and we then had the difficult task of removing him from the shot. In amongst that, we’ve got really old school practical effects from 100 years ago like using rope to pull objects out of frame. When you mix it all together, the end result is effective.
Matt: Elisabeth Moss is outstanding in the lead role. She’s a very credible character. How do you create that as a director? Is there a lot of instruction that you provide or is something that an actress like Elisabeth instinctively gets?
Leigh: It stars with the screenplay. I’m alone in a room and I have to be able to imagine this person. I often use someone I know in my real life as a base for the character. It makes it easier than creating someone out of thin air. When I met Elisabeth, she had lots of ideas and thoughts which I was welcoming of. I took the approach of collaborating with her. She’s a producer on The Handmaid’s Tale and so she’s used to having her input heard. Between the two of us, we created this flesh and blood human and hopefully when people see the movie, they feel like they know the person. You used the word “credible” and that’s about as big a compliment as I can get.
Matt: I don’t want to give too much away but the door has been left open for more movies in this franchise. Is it something you might be involved with?
Leigh: I’m not really sure. I’m very superstitious when it comes to filmmaking. So much of it is gambling. You can try to pretend you have control but at the end of the day, it’s totally up to the universe as to whether it’s a success. I have no control over whether people go and see it. I try not to think about a sequel because I’m worried about jinxing it. I guess we’ll just see what happens when the film comes out.
Matt: I’ll finish up by asking what you’re working on at the moment. What will we see from you next?
Leigh: I’ve had my name attached to a few projects but there’s nothing locked in for now. I’m looking forward to taking a break and spending time with the family. I like to let films hit me. It’s when you’re in the shower or sitting in the back yard… it’s the moments you least expect when an idea comes along. You’ve got to make time for that. If I want to be sitting on a beach somewhere and letting a movie idea hit me… then I’ve got to make time to sit on a beach. I’m looking forward to the break.
'Parasite' Makes History At 2020 Academy Awards (And Some Money For Me)
- Written by Matthew Toomey
History has been made at the 2020 Academy Awards! Parasite has become the first subtitled movie to win the Oscar for best picture in the 92 year history of the ceremony. There have been times when I thought that streak would break (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Babel, Roma) but it’s taken until 2020 for it to finally happen.
Most categories played out as expected (favourite backers were happy). The acting winners were all locks going in for example. However, it all went wild when Bong Joon Ho won best director (breaking a run of 15 out of 16 DGA winners who have won the Oscar) and then Parasite itself taking best picture (breaking a run of 12 out of 14 PGA winners who have won the Oscar).
Here are the major winners…
Best Picture – Parasite
Best Director – Bong Joon Ho (Parasite)
Best Actor – Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)
Best Actress – Renee Zellweger (Judy)
Best Supporting Actor – Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)
Best Supporting Actress – Laura Dern (Marriage Story)
Best Original Screenplay – Parasite
Best Adapted Screenplay – Jojo Rabbit
Best International Feature – Parasite
Best Animated Feature – Toy Story 4
Best Documentary Feature – American Factory
I outlined my Oscars bets last week and I am therefore pumped for Parasite’s win. I had $100 on it at $10 back in early December and I tipped it as the winner in my e-newsletter from 19 November 2019. It’s on a par with Susan Sarandon, Halle Berry, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Mark Rylance and Spotlight as one of my great Oscar wins. Coupled with my Jojo Rabbit screenplay win and my Globes win, it’s another healthy year of profit (my 5th straight). Here’s my latest tally…
1996 – profit of $750 – won on Susan Sarandon
1997 – profit of $300 (cumulative profit $1,050) – won on Frances McDormand
1998 – loss of $250 (cumulative profit $800)
1999 – loss of $250 (cumulative profit $550)
2000 – profit of $620 (cumulative profit $1,170) – won on Kevin Spacey and Michael Caine
2001 – loss of $190 (cumulative profit $980) – won on director Steven Soderbergh
2002 – profit of $480 (cumulative profit $1,460) – won on Halle Berry
2003 – profit of $275 (cumulative profit $1,735) – won on Catherine Zeta-Jones and Adrien Brody
2004 – profit of $150 (cumulative profit $1,875) – won on Sean Penn
2005 – profit of $214 (cumulative profit $2,089) – won on Hilary Swank
2006 – profit of $350 (cumulative profit $2,439) – won on Reese Witherspoon
2007 – profit of $1,463 (cumulative profit $3,912) – won on Eddie Murphy at Globes, Alan Arkin & West Bank Story at Oscars
2008 – profit of $268 (cumulative profit of $4,280) – won on Tilda Swinton and the Coen brothers
2009 – profit of $253 (cumulative profit of $4,533) – won on Mickey Rourke & Kate Winslet at Globes, Kate Winslet at Oscars
2010 – loss of $830 (cumulative profit of $3,703)
2011 – profit of $30 (cumulative profit of $3,733) – won on Social Network at Globes, Tom Hooper & King’s Speech at Oscars
2012 – loss of $640 (cumulative profit of $3,093) – won on Jean Dujardin at Oscars
2013 – loss of $850 (cumulative profit of $2,243) – won on Ang Lee at Oscars
2014 – loss of $72 (cumulative profit of $2,171) – won on Matthew McConaughey at Globes and Oscars
2015 – loss of $50 (cumulative profit of $2,121) – won on Eddie Redmayne at Oscars
2016 – profit of $1,325 (cumulative profit of $3,446) – won on Mark Rylance and Spotlight at Oscars
2017 – profit of $870 (cumulative profit of $4,316) – won on Damien Chazelle, Casey Affleck, Emma Stone and Mahershala Ali at Oscars
2018 – profit of $330 (cumulative profit of $4,646) – won on Frances McDormand and Three Billboards at Globes and Frances McDormand at Oscars
2019 – profit of $1,022 (cumulative profit of $5,668) – won on Rami Malek and Green Book at Globes and Green Book at Oscars
2020 – profit of $1,042 (cumulative profit of $6,710) – won on Taron Egerton at Globes, and Jojo Rabbit (screenplay) and Parasite at Oscars
May the good times continue!
A huge congratulations to Rob Eddy who has won my 20th Annual Pick the Oscars competition. No one managed 6 out of 6 (many came unstuck with Parasite winning picture) but we had 6 entrants coming close with 5 out of 6. It therefore came down to the tie-breaker question – the best picture presenter was Jane Fonda who is 82 years of age. Rob was spot on with his age prediction. Others to get 5 out of 6 were Sam Dagan, Peter Wickins, Jenny Goodman, Katie Read and Jimmy Orsag.
Make sure you enter again next year!
Well, that’s it for me. I’m off to enjoy a drink!