Sword of Trust
A likable throwback to the kind of rambling, character-driven 1990s indie comedies that the U.S. film industry barely releases to theaters anymore.
This year, the staff at RogerEbert.com had the opportunity to speak to dozens of filmmakers, actors, critics and other people of interest. From Oscar winners like Woody Allen to Kevin Spacey to those in the Oscar race this year like David Oyelowo, Richard Linklater and Eddie Redmayne, it was a great year of conversations. Below you'll find links to some of our favorite interviews of the year along with some of the best quotes of 2014.
The challenge is not to do it too obviously. For my money when I go and I see something I want to have to lean in a little bit to see what's going on with the characters as opposed to be shown what's going on with the character or told what's going on with the character. So I try to be as settled as possible and sometimes that means asking the cameraman, "What lens are you using?" so you kind of know how close they are and if you want to play, you know, the character is nervous and they're not wide enough to see your hand twitching. Then you know to use a piece of your body that is in the shot. You can modulate it in different ways. With anger that is something pretty obvious to see and it becomes a little trickier to hide. Fear or being unsure is something that I like to kind of put in characters. And there's different ways to show that. There's certainly a dramatic way to show that and also a comedic way to show that. This character was certainly an important one to try to inject as much vulnerability and doubt as possible because he is the opposite of that in his veneer. To try to strike a palatable balance I needed to look for the opportunities to show that crack, so that the audience would gets on board with him and not hate him.
I think it’s that I grew up with such a passion for film that I feel in a way I was raised by movies. That is why I liked watching the documentary, because it was so emotional for me. And to finally be a part of it, after so much of my life was spent dreaming of being a part of it. To finally, like, “I get to meet so and so and I get to work with that person and this actor and that director.” It’s like the biggest gift I could ever have. I just don’t want to stop.
I've kind of done it all. Yeah, it's like what else is there? If it were the early '70s, I would be trying to win an Academy Award. But that system is so fucking crazy right now, I can't even imagine what that requires. So I'm not worried about that. I'm loving exploring television. My brother and I made a show for HBO and that form, creatively for me, is great because I'm new to it and I have a lot to learn. I think we made a great first season of TV, but I also think I can make a better second season. I'm just getting better at the form. That's a way to keep myself vital. I like working with young filmmakers because they bring me new things and bring me enthusiasm. Working with Charlie [McDowell] was like working with a version of my brother and me when we were making "The Puffy Chair." I look for that vitality in my collaborators. I don't want to be that filmmaker who had 10 great years and then just made a bunch of crap because they got out of touch and rich.
It’s interesting. I think people are different from what they imagine themselves to be. I think of that Millennium thing. Back home, they were charging 100 quid to get into a bar on the night of the Millennium. Everyone thought this would be the biggest party we’d ever have. Almost everyone went home and spent it with their family. It was just a very bizarre thing. It’s like what people do on a plane when it’s coming down. They say the most clichéd lines in the history of the world. I think when people are faced with death—and John based this on the five stages of grief—there are various forms of bargaining and depression and anger, but the acceptance is an extraordinary thing.
It’s changed so much. Films that I made back in those days would not be made by a studio. But this whole independent thing, that’s brought with it this incorrect notion that, “Oh, anyone can make a movie.” Remember camcorders? Anyone can make a movie. You can make a movie on your iPhone. And the preponderance of film departments at universities has just exponentially exploded. But the fact that you can make a movie much cheaper now is a good thing. But it has a downside, too.
When I started, I was really drawn to the role. I had a strong idea of the characters I found interesting. And I was really proud of some of the work I did but it was often in the hands of other people and the end product was disappointing. And you give so much and it’s not how you imagined it would be. I have a real sense of how I like to work, but I did consciously realize it’s not about the size of the role or the character as much as I want to be on the set with those people—to learn from those great directors: Bennett Miller, Clint Eastwood, and I’m about to work with James Gray and Ben Affleck. These are the best filmmakers in the world. Being around them, even in a small part, you absorb some of that brilliance. Also, to be a part of that energy that creates a film like “Foxcatcher” or “American Sniper,” brilliant films, I would make the tea on those sets.
Yes, it was God ordained for me. When I first read that script I felt God told me “You are going to play Martin Luther King in Selma” and I wrote it down on the 24th of July 2007 because it was a shocking notion that as a British actor, who had only just moved to America at the time and hadn’t done at the time really any Hollywood movies so to speak. This was not something that I was looking to do. I’ve never looked at Dr. King and said, one day it’s going to be my destiny to play him. But once the knowing, the spiritual knowing, had lodged inside of me, it never left me. God in his mercy had orchestrated that it took seven years. And in the seven years, because I knew that it was in my future, I started the process of studying. Even though other directors along the way attached to film didn’t necessarily see me as King, I started that work.
And that work involved finding the human being. One of the blissful things of not being from the country is that I didn’t carry the weight or the deification that you alluded to. I knew him as a great human being who had done extraordinary things, but I never approached him as an icon. I always thought of him as a human being because my entry point was my faith and the fact that I shared his faith as a Christian. And I could see in the way he lived his life, which is what I aspire to do, that his spiritual convictions reflected what he did as a preacher, as a political figure, as a husband, as a father. He tried to have sacrificial love dictate what he did. That is what I hold on to.
I’d say I’m an instinctual human being. (Laughs.) Every time I use my brain, I fuck up. Maybe the thing that you wouldn’t think about me is that technique, discipline, and work ethic are huge in my book. There are a lot of talented people, unique people, and being able to execute that through technique and work ethic…
I was lucky enough to meet Stephen five days before filming. There were very specific things he told me. But the overall thing that I gleaned from that meeting is that he just emanates humor and wit. And there is this glint in his eye. And his smile properly lights up the room. What was interesting is that as the muscles stop working, they don’t necessarily just go. They actually stop in a place that is rigid. Even though, in theory, muscles had stopped working. For me, they were working at double the rate because you are using muscles you have never used before.
Wes’s beauty is that he gets everyone making the same movie and it never feels rigid when you make them. It’s specific but not rigid. The thing that I love about working with Wes is that’s he’s not obsessively trying to accomplish his vision to the point where it becomes cold. He always has a smile on his face and is open to ideas and mistakes. He sets up a world where those things can play out, and it’s a blast. David and Wes are both so different and both so similar.
Man, if you’re going to see our movie, you’re going to see our movie. There’s nothing opening at all like our movie. It’s not like "Are you going to see Godzilla or X-Men?" "I don’t know. What’s the next thing I’m going to go to stoned? Probably the thing I can get to first." The reason I will see one of those over the other is LITERALLY according to my pot-smoking schedule. Whereas our movie; if you want to see it, you’re going to go see it.
I SO do that. But I don’t think of it necessarily as "mountains." I like to think of things that are "firsts." It’s exciting to me to do something maybe that no one else has done or no one has done in that way. How we’ve done "House of Cards." Me deciding to distribute this film? Never done it before. Last night on Jimmy Fallon? Doing barbershop quartet. Never done that before. Even doing "Call of Duty"? A first. That’s very exciting to me. Being the first American to run an institution like the Old Vic. "Firsts" are fun.
Anytime they are talking about your movie and Academy Awards, it’s good. Tilda Swinton (a supporting Oscar winner for 2007’s “Michael Clayton”) told me something at the Governors Awards. She said, “The great thing about an Academy Award is that it is always bigger than one person or one project. Bigger than anything. It’s like a gold star on a cereal box. When you go down the aisle and see that star, it gets chosen—whether it’s better or not.” I love my movies. It’s like giving birth to something. I am proud and honored to be a part of them.
Gordon always used to paint with light. He'd do the fundamental lighting, and then he'd say "Ok, I've got the lighting basically done. Now I'm going to paint for a while." He would put a streak of light here, a touch of reflection there, a little suggestion of a glimmer there. We had a great opportunity to do that in "Manhattan" because we were filming in black-and-white, which is always very beautiful. And we were also filming in anamorphic [widescreen photography], which at the time was only used for bigger pictures, more adventurous pictures, less intimate pictures. It was for war pictures, things with more action in them. And we took the position that the wide-screen, which was usually used for battle scenes, or westerns, would create an interesting tension with intimate scenes. And Gordon's way of working was..he always wanted me to direct the scene the way I wanted to direct it.
Gordon would watch, and would say: "You're gonna need something here, you're gonna need something there." And I'd say, Yes, but I want to get a shot of this, a shot of that...He'd say, Don't worry, we can do that. But there's a couple of essential shots you're gonna need in this. The script girl would then mark down all the shots we were gonna take. And we'd kick 'em off one by one. After a while, Gordon and I discovered the power of working in masters together. As far as back as "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy," we started working more and more in masters.
Well, Owen Wilson was saying to me that with each movie I seemed less relaxed. He said you're getting tenser and tenser with every movie. I feel that and I kind of want that. This is not our time to be relaxed. We can have fun, but we need to stay fast and focused. We work very fast, and I like that. But as soon as the whistle blows and the day is done, we all go back to the same hotel together. It was a very small hotel in this case, a place called the Hotel Börse and we occupied the whole place. The ground floor had a kitchen and a breakfast room and a couple of other spaces. There was a space by the front desk and that was where we did the makeup. People would come back from the set and get out of their costumes, because they'd put on their costumes in the hotel, and take a shower. After a break people would come down to the lobby and have a drink and relax. And as soon as dinner was said to be close to ready we'd move into the next room and sit down for dinner. We had a friend of mine who had come to Germany to cook for us. He's Italian, but his wife is German, and it was a very god set-up for them. But anyway, then we had two or three tables in this room. If it was a salon, it was a salon where there wasn't anybody that was presiding over it and holding court, it was just everybody very relaxed. A lot of people who are friends with each other, an lot of people who have worked with me, and a lot who have worked with each other in other places. Ralph had worked with [Dafoe] and Harvey Keitel and Fisher Stevens in all these different configurations. The main thing was that it was totally relaxing and fun, and we still talked a ton about we'd just done and were going to do the next day.
Asked me if I anticipated that I would have to explain crowdfunding to Earth. As I’m sitting here explaining financing, you’re nodding because you’re savvy and you write about this. I was naïve or stupid enough to not know that the onus would be on me to explain what we just said to EARTH. You and I can talk about this and we’ll get it but there was SO MUCH misinformation and, shockingly, by entertainment journalist blogger folk. I was like, “Guys, gals, report on it. It’s an interesting debate. But report on it correctly.” Google what Kickstarter is. Don’t ask about equity stake. You KNOW there’s no equity stake. If you took 30 seconds to Google Kickstarter.
Listen, someone writing something negative about me who is not a fan of me on Twitter is one thing. That linking to a blogger with 15 thousand followers whose title says “Entertainment Writer”? I was baffled at how irresponsible it was. There is a debate to be had. Let’s have that debate. But be informed. Don’t go into the debate with your facts all wrong.
I like that you said that because that was certainly the hope. Sometimes I get worried that—no, worried is the wrong word, because if people enjoy the ending, then that’s great. But I had always thought, when writing the film, that the ending had always veered a little more on tragic than triumphant. In terms of a lot of responses to the movie, at least from what I’ve seen, the ending seems to be interpreted as a little more triumphant than tragic. Again, that’s not something that I’m upset about. If anything, it makes the movie more enjoyable for people, but it has been a really interesting thing to observe. I had always intended it to be a pretty dark ending.
Yeah. When we did "Twelve Monkeys," we did a scene where Bruce [Willis] saves Madeleine [Stowe] from being raped. And he beats them senseless, brutally. I took it far beyond what you'd normally see in a film, and it kept going and on and on. And in the end, he's weeping, he's crying because it's so painful for him to lose control. It's that mixture that's so interesting: he has the ability to be violent when necessary, but he hates himself for having succumbed to it, and couldn't control himself. I don't know...I just don't see enough results of the violence when I watch it, especially when I watch hyper-violent films. It's funny, I'm thinking about Snowpiercer, but in Oldboy, there's the hallway fight. But something about that scene that's so graphic that it wasn't real anymore. It's a very fine thing.
I was down in Atlanta last weekend for this thing called DragonCon, which is great fun, and is just a big costume party. But there were all these people dressed as military, which always bothers me. It makes me crazy because it's become a fashion statement. If you're going to wear that stuff, then you have to kill, and be killed. It's a very different world. I don't know...violence is a thing that bothers me so much because it's so prevalent in movies. So much of it is cartoon violence, but it's not as funny or as entertaining to me as when Tom and Jerry were doing violence.
I'll tell you, I feel quite good when the films come out, because the important thing to do is not to confuse whether something is good with whether it is well received. They are two completely different things. And if you're worried that one equals the other, then I don't think that's healthy. For me I know one isn't the other. All I care about I whether it's good. Whether it is well received or badly received is irrelevant to me. What's relevant is that I think it's good. And if I think it's good then there will be other people out there who will also at some point find it and think it's good too. And that's okay, and if it takes a month or ten or fifteen or twenty years, that doesn't matter. I think it's important to put something out there truthfully. So I don't follow the criticism. The divisiveness of the reaction? I'd rather that than a consensus of "Well, I didn't mind it."
It didn’t start out as a conscious theme, but it must be there. There must be some level of real familial language. I know this sounds like a lie, but I never sat down and said "I’m going to express this part of me." Clearly, what has happened over the past four or five films is that somehow it gets revealed. The idea that the family is this locus of support but can also hold you back and keep you down makes for good drama. It was never a conscious thing, but it’s there. It must be autobiographical.
People are desensitized to a degree. It's always great when these great movies come out and take the world by storm, like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Enter the Void." These movies that are so shocking and grab your attention. And it's really hard because you know anything is possible. You can animate anything very realistically, so sky's the limit. In terms of visual content, there's nothing you cannot create. If you can imagine it, it can be there. And these huge blockbuster tent poles are illustrating that. I think what films are lacking is the cinematic experience, the magical moments, the human connections. It's getting to the point where that's radical now, rather than the shock value of violent or sexual content. The most shocking thing you can do now is the intimate content–real character connections. And I think what's changed in my lifetime, and really significantly in my career, is the nostalgia I have for the cinema-going experience of getting in line early on a Friday morning for a movie that's playing that night, and using that commitment and love for the theatrical experience. It started dying when the multiplex started releasing the same movie on 16 screens, and buying tickets in advance, and watching them online.
We have to be willing to let people think that we are the characters that we create. People will think that I am the Liam Neeson character, and there is certainly a lot of me in him. But there’s just as much of me in Mila Kunis or James Franco or Adrian Brody’s characters. They’re all struggling with something that I have struggled with in a relationship and they are all trying somehow to get love and not necessarily give it. [laughs] There are many things Liam’s character struggles with that I, as a writer, also struggle with, such as how a story gets away from you. Maybe it is true that I only feel through the characters I create. I don’t write my journal in the third person, but that’s probably because I don’t write a journal. [laughs] You have to look at the things that other people say about you and wonder if they’re true or not. You don’t have to necessarily agree with them at the end of the day, but you have to explore them.
With Roger’s story, I didn’t know what I originally set out to do. I was just taken by his extraordinary life, and that he had had this incredible life journey that informed the way in which he wrote film criticism and that shaped the type of critic he was. If he hadn’t had this fascinating, incredible life journey, I probably wouldn’t have made the film despite admiring him as a film critic.
Film is like poetry. I needed to heal my interior child. I suffered in that town. I wanted to go back and conquer that town. And I wanted to bring that child back, and to change my past. I came there to speak with myself. I shot this scene in the place where I wanted to commit suicide—in the same rocks. That scene is complete improvisation. I was in a trance. The boy was incredible. It is completely real. I really tried to kill myself. Why I didn’t kill myself? Because something made me not do it. I travel in time to save myself. I created a relationship between myself and my interior child.
I wanted to make a film about being a kid and I knew it would reflect on being a parent too. But you have to pick a point of view. I think there are a lot of movies about parents who have kids and it’s really about the parents and it kind of negates the kids’ point of view. I wanted to do it the other way, where it’s really kind of the kid’s view of his parents. People are like, “He’s kind of a ne’er-do-well dad.” No, he’s not. He’s working. You don’t know much. You don’t know what happens off-screen. And, as a kid, that’s kind of how it is. You don’t really know what your parents do all day when they’re not there. Your own limited scope of the world is projected on them. You might like them or deal with them but you really have no idea for the longest time. That’s what makes that last scene with Patricia when he’s leaving kind of poignant. There’s a disconnect. He can’t understand what she’s going through because he hasn’t lived enough years. He can FEEL for her but he can’t fully know. It doesn’t make sense. You have your own emotional and experiential set points.
Again, the way that these films are made calls for a lot of experimentation and trial and exploration. The actors were just so good that when that scene was assembled, I realized that the other scenes that I had designed and shot to indicate and explain who these guys were to each other—the reverence and the rivalry between these guys—now seemed redundant because the actors were so amazing in that scene. I literally cut 20 minutes of scenes from the film because we got it all from what they did. I did not know going in that it would have accomplished so much but that is a testament to the actors.
There were many things that shocked me. For instance, the GCHQ targeting of engineers at telecoms--having the individual names of people working at telecoms being in documents and those people being tracked through Facebook and Linkedin. They would get malware and that malware records their passwords and they can use the passwords to get into the networks. In general, it was the scale and the dragnet approach of targeting the communications of people who had been accused of no wrongdoing and just collecting it so that the NSA could have it. That kind of scale is the most disturbing thing. One of the documents refers to the Internet Age as the golden age of signals intelligence--that was deeply disturbing.
I love writing and directing because it's great therapy. Every project I've done there's been a personal connection. This one is really dealing with some self-worth issues, which I put into Noni—not only as an artist in wanting to have a voice and struggling to find my voice, but also on just a very personal level on the issues of suicide with a close friend of mine and trying to understand that someone could be in such a dark place. I just wanted to put out in the world the message of "Choose Life." And I hate that I was able to draw on that, but I think when you draw on something personal it makes it more truthful and more specific. And I think specificity is what people respond to.
The whole movie cost something like 15 or 20 million dollars. It’s shot on two continents, and we moved it very, very quickly, and you can see that it’s a troubled landscape. Getting from one place to the other, without the extraordinary cooperation that helped from the support of the people I worked with? I could never have done that! But they loved doing it that way. I guess what they knew about Hollywood was, take away the trailers! I didn’t have a trailer! We had one common room on wheels where the guys could do makeup, and if someone got sick they could rest. But otherwise we slept in the fields.
It is very much so. I think that all of my previous films were about the nature of love and its destructive toll on an individual, but even more, they were films of self-discovery, about people who were trying to understand who they are and what they felt about that. This is a film that begins with two men who know who they are and they face a conflict together. How they face that conflict is the story of the film and also describes their love. I’ve always thought of it as an epic story told in a New York apartment because it’s multi-generational. It’s really about all these generations, and how at each stage of our life, we know such different things. You have the older couple played by John and Alfred, and then you have Marisa Tomei and Darren Burrows who are very much in the middle of their life, trying to figure out what they are allowed [to do], what they should expect, what they have to give up. Then you have this kid, Charlie Tahan, who is discovering love for the very first time. Each of those perspectives is, to me, what makes love unique and, in some ways, strange.
"Do the Right Thing" as a screenplay might seem like a drama but he shot it almost like a comic book with a heightened reality—yelling racial epithets directly into the camera—and it would not have worked and the ending would not have been as powerful if you had spent the entire time just being dragged through the mud. Frankly, if we are going to talk about racial violence, "Fruitvale Station" and "12 Years a Slave" did that really well and I wanted to do something that hadn't been talked about or said. My focus was about identity--the issues of identity and the ways in which identity can complicate our lives. I hadn't seen that in movies, at least not through the lens of being a person of color.
I think because I believe it. I guess I maintain it because I try to take a long view of history. I came of conscious age when Robert Kennedy was assassinated, when Martin Luther King was assassinated, when the Vietnam War was going on, when we were evacuating Saigon, when the President of the United States had to resign because he lied. They were tumultuous times. Times have continued to be tumultuous. Then again, in a long view, women used to not be able to vote, black people had separate restaurants, gay people couldn’t get married…Over time, you see the power of common cause and the power of humanity. And you know that it is the natural state of being.
I had the experience other authors will recognize; you proofread something and then as soon as it’s in print, mistakes leap off the page in neon. I was very dissatisfied, and it was five years before we did another edition. I made it my goal to improve it. That’s what I’ve been trying to do over the last 40 years, constantly improve on it.
Well, it's a commonplace and I'm not sure that it may not be coming to an end even now. But we have had lately the great age of television, and far and away the most challenging things have been on television in long format. And again, I don't think these things will ever go on forever. Television has had golden ages before. And it may be that everyone's jumped on the bandwagon so that the bandwagon is sinking into the mud. But I was in England recently and I happened to go and see Gillian Anderson in “A Streetcar Named Desire, which has had tremendous reviews. I thought it was a very bad production and I thought she was not good in it. But I happened while I was there because I was staying in an apartment that had the tapes, I reviewed “The Fall,” that TV series that she did, where I think she's extraordinary. And it was a reminder that a talent like Anderson’s may be far more usefully catered to by television than any other medium.
A video essay about Mortal Engines, as part of Scout Tafoya's ongoing video essay series on maligned masterpieces.
This is the most purely entertaining season of Stranger Things to date.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...