Interview - Director Celine Song on 'Past Lives'
- Written by Matthew Toomey
Past Lives is a wonderful film from first-time writer-director Celine Song. While in Australia for the Melbourne Film Festival, I had a chance to talk with Celine about the project…
Matt: The opening scene is incredible and such an interesting way of introducing the characters – looking at them from afar and being spoken about by people we never see. What was behind that creative decision?
Celine: I wanted to think of this movie as a bit of a mystery story. It’s not a murder-mystery whodunit but it’s the type of mystery which can haunt us throughout our lives – who are these people to each other… who are we to each other? It felt like the right way to begin the story.
When we come back to that same scene near the end of the film, because we have gone on the journey with these characters, the audience has many clues to help solve that mystery of who they are to each other. We can also hear the conversation and discuss that very question.
Matt: I had a chance to see this film in New York last month and it was serendipitous and I visited Dumbo the day before and took a photo of Jane’s Carousel. New York City has such a strong presence in the movie so how did you settle on the shooting locations?
Celine: I live in New York City and it’s a very personal city. The way I wanted to show New York is connected to the characters more than anything. I don’t believe every New York City film should have the Statue of Liberty but I felt it was important for these two characters to end up there because one of them is an immigrant and the other is a tourist. This makes it a very special, romantic, important place to them both.
When it came to Jane’s Carousel in Brooklyn Bridge Park, I loved the carousel being enclosed by a glass case. It’s protected from the wilderness in a glass building. There’s something about that which spoke to the story of the film. Their childhood is this amazing, fragile, protected thing and it felt like the right symbol for the film.
Matt: I saw someone post a photo on Twitter of the front steps outside Nora’s and Arthur’s apartment. What does it feel like to be responsible for an additional little piece of New York film history?
Celine: That also taps into the way I wanted to show New York. It’s the same with so many other cities but the most special places are often not the places you see on postcards. It’s the places you walk past every day, or the place where you had a certain conversation, or a place that meant something. You can’t point to that spot as a place you can find.
That’s how love and relationships work. A place or a person becomes special and meaningful because of the way we see that place or person. That was the philosophy of how I wanted to shoot New York.
Matt: I love the music score from Grizzly Bear members Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen and I’ve downloaded a couple of tracks already to my phone. It’s like a kind of reflective mix of piano and jazz. How did you all settle on what would best suit in the film musically?
Celine: I wanted a musical world that would point to the silences in the film. I also wanted to make sure the audience had room to feel something on their own terms. I didn’t want to hammer the audience with a massive string score that begs the audience to feeling something. I wanted room for the audience to find it themselves – a little more contemplation, memory, intelligence as opposed to pushing something overly sentimental. Dan, Chris and I spoke about that a lot. How do we make a very emotional score that is not sentimental and that was the guiding principle.
Matt: There are some beautiful long takes in the film. Can you explain what was behind that creative decision as opposed to a traditional, more edited film?
Celine: This movie is about ordinary people with ordinary lives. I didn’t think we could feel the moments in a “live” way by cutting back and forth too much. I wanted to be intentional about when we go in for a close-up or when we do cut the camera. The goal was to cut as little as possible.
I wasn’t thinking too much when doing it but in hindsight, I think it’s connected to my 10 years as a playwright. I’m more comfortable with the audience’s patience. It’s something you can ask of an audience if the silences and the long takes have a clear emotional content. What’s important is that the audience understands the meaning of the silences, and they can also tell their own story “into” those silences.
Matt: You have two wonderful leads in Greta Lee and Teo Yoo. Did you always have them in mind when writing the script or were there a lot of people considered as part of the audition process?
Celine: I can’t create characters if I’m thinking about what actors will play them. I was doing open auditions where a lot of tapes came in. Greta and Teo walked into the proverbial audition room which was Zoom because I was making this movie during COVID. During those Zooms, I could sense they were right for the character almost immediately. I then spent more time with them which confirmed they were the right people. I saw Greta as Nora and Teo as Hae Sung.
Matt: This film premiered at Sundance with many other films back in January, but it has really cut through and found its audience over the past months. It’s made over $9 million at the US box-office and people are talking about awards at year end. I’m sure you always knew you had a great film but at what point did you realise this was going to break out and be such a success?
Celine: I remember sitting there in the green room of the Eccles Theatre waiting for the world premiere at Sundance. In a way, I’d been making this movie in secret. I was making it just with the cast and crew. I was very nervous because the secret was about to come out and be shared with the world. I didn’t know how they would receive it and care for it.
You have a lot of control during the production but then you have to let go of all control and worry if audiences will care. Sundance helped me realize that there is an audience for the movie and there’s a world full of people who connect to the story of Nora. That is what is exciting to me. Every time it opens in a new region and audiences experience it for the first time, what I feel is that I’m not alone. It’s not just a specific feeling I had one time in the East Village. It’s a universal feeling.
Matt: What are you working on at the moment? What might we see from you next?
Celine: I’m going to keep making movies!
Interview - Director Thaddeus O'Sullivan on 'The Miracle Club'
- Written by Matthew Toomey
The Miracle Club arrives in Australian cinemas this week and I recently spoke with director Thaddeus O’Sullivan about the project…
Matt: How did this project first come across your radar?
Thaddeus: It was about 15 years ago. HBO were involved at that point, and they asked me to direct it. Subsequently, they had some legal issues with the material, and it didn’t work out. I was approached again 3 years ago. By that point, it had gone through quite a number of drafts. Kathy Bates and Maggie Smith were still interested in the project and soon after that, we moved on to the next stage.
Matt: It’s a great cast but in the lead role, you have three wonderfully accomplished actresses – Maggie Smith, Kathy Bates, and Laura Linney. How were you able to land them for what is a relatively low budget film?
Thaddeus: Kathy and Maggie were attached about 15 years ago and then Laura Linney came in when I was attached. She really liked the character and wanted to worth with Maggie.
Matt: The power of the film comes from those leading performances. Was it all there on the page from the start or did the cast have a say in shaping the great dialogue between them?
Thaddeus: Jimmy Smallhorne wrote the original script, and his dialogue was very Dublinese and of a certain period. The cast were interested in moulding that the relationships and backstories developed with a particular focus on Laura Linney. It’s her character who represents the issues that drive the film.
Laura did a lot of homework on this character and needed to know where she was with each “beat” of the story. Maggie had a very instinctive understanding of the character and she’s played many Irish folk on stage. Kathy had to do a lot of work with the accent. We had conversations going back 2-3 years and she had a dialect coach helping. She was so dedicated that it was staggering. She loved the role and wanted to give it her all.
Matt: Is that actually Kathy Bates signing during the first act?
Thaddeus: Yeah, that’s Kathy singing. They all were.
Matt: Period piece films tend to throw up their own challenges and this one is set in 1967s Dublin and the Lourdes. The style of the old-school bus is one thing I enjoyed seeing. How easy was it re-creating that period?
Thaddeus: It was the period in which I left Ireland and so it was clear to me and sort of frozen in time. It’s a period I was very comfortable with. I had a production and costume designer who felt the same way. Up until that point, Ireland had been a very conservative society and in the 1960s, things began to change. This “crossover” made it a good place to set the film – moving from one era to another.
Matt: He’s one of our breakfast show hosts – Craig Zonca is a big fan of short, concise movies which don’t overstay their welcome and this one clocks in at the perfect 90 minutes. How much does running time come into your thoughts when shooting and cutting it all together in the editing room?
Thaddeus: It only comes in when I’m doing TV series. With regards to feature film, it’s a relief not to think about it. Sony bought the film for the U.S. and they thought it was a really good length for the story. It was very lean. For me, I wanted to tell the story and not get bogged down in background and backstory. I wanted to suggest it but didn’t want it to overwhelm the film. I just wanted it to inform the characters and their motivations. We did have more backstory in earlier drafts but if I’d done that, it would have been a longer, different kind of film.
Matt: What are you working on at the moment? What might we see from you next?
Thaddeus: I’m in Canada doing post-production on a TV series called Hidden Assets. We shot it in Ireland and Belgium and it’s the second series. It’s a police thriller and that’s what I’m doing now.
Interview - Director Bobby Farrelly on 'Champions'
- Written by Matthew Toomey
Champions has arrived in Australian cinemas and I recently spoke to director Bobby Farrelly about the project…
Matt: You’ve been working in the film industry for roughly 30 years now. Has your sense of humour changed much over that time?
Bobby: That is a good question. The sense of humour of society has definitely changed. We went through a spell, particularly over the last few years, where we haven’t been joking about a lot of stuff. Comedy was almost on a hiatus. Laughing is good for people and good for society.
I’m just glad to have a movie like this back out. I think it’s a great, sweet story which is very funny. We know Woody Harrelson can deliver laughs and what he’s doing here is not goofy or zany. It’s set in reality and there’s a good message behind it. It’s good entertainment.
Matt: Kingpin is one of my favourite comedies and here you get the chance to work with Woody Harrelson again. He’s an interesting character in that he’s a schmuck at times but he kind of knows it and is almost apologetic about it. What made you think he was the right lead for the movie?
Bobby: Woody is a great actor who makes it look so easy. If you look at his career, he’s made some incredible, smart choices. He’s balanced his career beautifully with big movies and small movies. He’s done Natural Born Killers, LBJ, and The People vs. Larry Flynt, and then he’s done stuff like Kingpin. He’s got a great range.
In this movie, he’s really good at playing a real person who doesn’t have to be perfect. His character doesn’t realise it but he’s someone who needs to learn a few things. He’s full of himself at the beginning and he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. When asked to coach this basketball team of people with intellectual disabilities, he learns a lot about himself and he allows those on the team to teach him a few things. Sometimes it’s more than just a sport and you can provide people with life lessons too. It’s all done in a funny, comedic way with the story serving as a nice backdrop.
Matt: I really enjoyed Kaitlin Olson here. Particularly in the early scenes, she’s so blunt and ruthless and seeing through all of Marcus’s tells. What was your advice to her in creating her character?
Bobby: I just thought Kaitlin Olson was a great actress. I’d never seen her do a big movie role because she’s been in TV for so many years. She totally blew me away with her performance. She’s super smart, super attractive, and she’s nobody’s fool. She’s so witty and sarcastic that Woody’s character can’t slip one by her. She’s way smarter than him. But she also plays it in a way where she’s vulnerable and has things holding her back. She too needs to look in the mirror and perhaps let go and not cling to the past so much. It’s a nice story arc and she handles it gracefully.
Matt: The members of the basketball team have such great, distinctive personalities. Can you tell me about that side of the casting process?
Bobby: We wanted to make sure that everyone could play basketball as a starting point. We went to recreational leagues for people with intellectual disabilities across the United States and Canada and asked the coaches if they had any players that maybe wanted to act. We were inundated with people sending in audition tapes. There were hundreds and hundreds. From that, it was a bit like making a cake. We wanted a range of different personalities and so we picked these ten and I think we did a great job with the casting. The actors are terrific and they’re such beautiful, different people. We got lucky and they make the story work.
Matt: We see it time and time again when real-life news folk pop up in movies. Here, we have them in fake episodes of Sportscenter. I’ve always wondered how easy that stuff is to organize? Do they love the idea of being in a movie or are they and the TV networks hard to convince?
Bobby: It’s a little of all of that. It’s not the easiest thing to organize. Scott Van Pelt is such a knowledgeable sports guy. We reached out to him, and he liked the story and responded. We got him. It lends credibility to the movie and Woody’s character being a minor league basketball coach. By bringing in the ESPNs and all that, it makes it more like real life.
Matt: The film is based on a 2018 Spanish film which I admit I haven’t seen. Was there much that you and writer Mark Rizzo felt needed to be changed to improve on that source material?
Bobby: They made a beautiful movie which we first responded to. We owe them a great debt of gratitude. Woody is Woody and he puts his own stamp on the character. That in itself was a big thing. Mark Rizzo wrote a script which was a little different tonally. We didn’t want to tell this story in a zany way. This version was a little more based on reality.
Interview - Director Michael Showalter on 'Spoiler Alert'
- Written by Matthew Toomey
Spoiler Alert is the latest from director Michael Showalter (The Big Sick) and I recently had the chance to discuss the project…
Matt: You’ve had a busy few years working as a director in both film and television. Has your approach to direction changed will all the additional experience under your belt?
Michael: I feel like I learn something from every project. I enjoy the process quite a bit.
Matt: How did you first hear about this script?
Michael: I read in the trades that Jim Parsons had optioned the book. I was curious about the project in terms of wanting to work with Jim. I contacted them and asked if they had a director. They then sent me the book which I read. I loved it and responded to it and I felt there was something really special there. I then teamed up with Jim and his company, and we found a writer from there.
Matt: Some movies about death tend to shy away from the heavier stuff but here, we have a lot of graphic scenes taking us inside the world of a cancer suffered… right up to the final hours and the final goodbyes. Was that a creative choice?
Michael: Yeah. That’s what so much of the book is about. It’s not whether or not someone will die, but rather how you cope with it and persevere. How does it change you and how does it change them? The movie was always an exploration of what happens in that period of time. We didn’t want to shy away from it but we also didn’t want to make it exploitative. It was a fine line we walked.
Matt: The film is based on the memoir written by Michael Ausiello. Was he involved at all with the production?
Michael: Yeah, very involved. He was on set every day and he was a producer on the movie. He was a source of information and guidance. All of the Smurfs in the movie are his. He temporarily donated them to the movie.
Matt: I was going to ask about that – how long it took to create that unique interior decoration?
Michael: He had his Smurf collection packed up from a storage house in New Jersey to us so it could be used in the film.
Matt: The early scenes of Spoiler Alert take us back to the late 1990s and we see things like business cards, and old-school cameras, and TV shows like Felicity. Were there any challenges at all in re-creating that era?
Michael: It was fun to be reminded of that. I remember when CDs were described as modern and people lamented the phasing out of albums. Now, CDs and DVDs feel so old now. I was in my 20s living in New York during the 1990s and it brought back a lot of memories.
Matt: A lot has been made in recent years about straight actors playing gay characters. I note here you’ve gone with two openly gay actors in the lead roles. Was it something you gave thought to?
Michael: It was important to me that they were. I have nothing against straight actors playing gay people and vice versa but in this movie, I really wanted to see two gay men playing these gay men. Only because it’s not as common as it should be. I’d like it to be so common that it wouldn’t even be noticeable. For the physical attraction and intimacy these two characters share, I wanted the chemistry to be increased by know they are gay men. Just like a heterosexual on-screen couple, I wanted a part of audiences to wonder whether these two are in love.
Matt: I also note a lot of other cast members, people like Nikki M. James and Bill Irwin, have a strong background in live theatre. Was that a conscious decision?
Michael: I love theatre. We shot the movie in New York and we were looking to have local actors in the movie. It’s not a coincidence they were the right people for the movie. Jim Parsons is heavily involved in theatre right now. It wasn’t discussed but I was interested in working with New York actors on this project.
Matt: Without giving too much away, there is a dreamlike, semi-cliched television show within the movie. As a director, did you approach those scenes differently?
Michael: Stylistically, we wanted it to look like an 80s sitcom. We used different colours, and had the actors act differently. I thought it was an interesting way to reveal things about the characters which were different and maybe a little surprising. It’s true about a lot of us who grew up in the 1980s that TV influences so much of the way we think and look at the world and the stories we tell. It was important to show that. Michael Ausiello, as played by Jim Parsons, is a TV writer. He’s so immersed in the stories of television and I wanted to convey that in this movie. He makes sense of the world through television in a lot of ways.
Matt: What are you working on at the moment?
Michael: I directed a romantic drama/comedy in the fall starring Anne Hathaway. I’m editing that as we speak. I hope that comes out sometime in the next year.