So you’re back in Montreal —
“Oh yeah! Driving in, I got a very warm feeling because I remember when I was doing “Shivers” in 1974, I would ride my motorcycle between Toronto and Montreal every weekend. I’d end up on the Décarie, and dodging all the trucks… So it brought back a lot of old memories, you know? I mean, I’ve been here since, but my strongest memories were because my first movies were made here.”
Do you think you might shoot a film here again?
“Absolutely, sure. I love Montreal and I have the most fond memories of working here as I was just starting out as a filmmaker. Everybody was very kind to me, the French Canadian filmmakers were very supportive and it was really quite lively and lovely.”
I actually wrote something in Voir last week about how we should embrace you as one of our own —
“Well, I feel like I’m a Montreal filmmaker, I mean, I certainly started that way. And you know, in those movies, those early horror films, I always made sure it was Quebec: you saw the word, you had people speaking québécois or speaking with québécois accents when they spoke English. I never hid, I never tried to pretend it was America, for example. I always said, this is Montreal we’re shooting.”
About “Eastern Promises”, which I loved, it’s kind of your Christmas movie, right?
“(laughs) If I were ever gonna make one, this is about as far as I could get. Well, in “Rabid”, also, it’s Christmas time. Because remember, in the mall, there’s a chase and we shoot Santa Claus!”
After “A History of Violence”, which was one of your biggest hits–
“Second I think, still, to “The Fly.”
— was there a sense of trying to remain in the same vein?
“No. I know it sounds unbelievable, but it’s a complete coincidence. It’s not a coincidence that I wanted to work with Viggo again, because I loved him and we got along very well. There were many other projects that I almost did, but it didn’t work out, the financing fell through… So it was really by accident that the timing was like that. It wasn’t as though I said, that was a good success, I must do another. Because, really, creatively, this movie is very different. It takes place in England, there are no Americans. People who loved “A History of Violence”, part of the reason is that they felt it really was saying something about America, the characters were American and in the heartland of America. And the violence was very American, with a lot of guns. This movie, there are no guns, it’s all Eastern Europeans in London. Almost all the characters have accents when they speak English. So creatively, it’s really very different, even though, of course, you could say they’re the same genre, they’re both sort of gangster movies in a very general way.”
The thing I thought was interesting when taking the two movies together is that “History” is kind of about this ordinary guy who turns out to be a killer, whereas “Eastern Promises” is about a killer who’s, well, not ordinary, but reveals shades of humanity.
“It’s true, but the thing is, when you’re making a movie, you can’t photograph an abstract concept and, when you’re an actor, you can’t play the role of an abstract concept. You have to play the role of a real person with a name, who comes from someplace, who learned his language someplace… You do your research, like, what kind of shoes would he wear? What kind of car would he drive, what kind of gloves would he wear, what would his tattoos say? And how strong would his accent be, where did he learn English, did he learn it from Russia, did he learn if from English people? For each character, you ask the same questions. So you’re working with these very practical, physical details. You can’t really work with the abstract things, even though you know, when you make the movie, that if it really works, if it comes alive, that it will provoke these kinds of abstract connections and thoughts.”
About the tattoos, it feels very essential to the story.
“Yes. And yet, it wasn’t in the original script. It mentioned that the character had tattoos, that he probably got in prison, but that was all. But then Viggo sent me a book called “Russian Criminal Tattoos”. I read it and I went whoa, this is incredible material, all about this subculture of tattooing in Russian prisons that goes back to tsarist days, you know, before the Soviet Union. I never knew anything about it and it’s not in the script. I said to the writer, when we do the rewrite, we must incorporate this because it’s a fantastic metaphor. It’s as though the script was waiting for this.”
Another thing I thought was really intriguing, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it depicted it so vividly as in your film, is the link between sexuality and the gangster world. Usually, it’s always men in suits, you don’t think of them as sexual, but in your film it comes out really–
“Yeah, that’s right. I think that even though people deny it or aren’t aware of it, there’s always a sexual component in violence… Sometimes very perverse and strange, but… These people, as you can see… Vincent Cassel’s character is gay, he’s in love with his driver, but there’s no way he could admit that to himself. It would be like a death sentence, because it’s such a macho, control culture that, if you’re gay, you’re considered totally weak and should be destroyed. You’re right, I too cannot quite remember ever seeing anything like that in a movie.”
It’s almost as if, to prove that they’re real men, they have to treat women like, like meat.
“That’s exactly true.”
So it goes into the human traffic in a way I’d never really thought about.
“And it’s interesting that the Armin character is destroyed because of his attitude towards women, really, which he would never even think was an important or dangerous thing.”
At this point, a studio rep warns me that my time up, so I can’t help but ask about the brutal bathhouse brawl which has Viggo Mortensen kicking ass in the buff:
“That’s the combination of me and Viggo. When we were doing the choreography for the scene, at one point he said, it’s obvious that I have to do this naked. I said, great, good, and that was it, there’s no more conversation. We knew that the level of reality in the film was such that if we suddenly did this thing that was kind of coy or cute, it would betray the reality level that we had established in the rest of the movie.”
And it makes him so much more vulnerable–
“That’s right, because this is like the shower scene in “Psycho”: you’re wet, you’re hot and you’re naked, and there are people with knives who want to kill you. So it’s a very vulnerable moment. It makes this a completely different kind of scene.”
And going back to the tattoos, it shows them in all their glory…
“Especially when there’s blood on them!”
“Bonjour, ça va?”
Oui, ça va! Vous parlez français?
“No, just “bonjour” and “ça va”… Let’s do it in English!”
Ok! So where are you calling from?
“From Los Angeles.”
Do you still go back to Australia a bit?
“I actually live here, but I do go back. So I’ll be back there at Christmastime, to see the folks… And I actually shot a film there recently. It’s an Australian film called “Rogue”, I think it’s coming out here in October.”
About “Feast of Love”, I —
“Where are you from?”
I’m from Montreal.
“Yeah? I have to go to Montreal, I’ve never been.”
Oh you should, it’s a great city.
“So, the question…”
Right. In “Feast of Love”, there’s a debate going on about whether love is just “nature’s trick to bring more screaming babies into this world” or if it’s “everything, the only meaning in this crazy dream”. What side would you say you are more partial to?
“Is it just a biological drive, or does it exist on a spiritual level… I think both. Contemporary culture would have you believe that sex is the most important thing in the world, but that sort of nihilistic view devoid of any sense of love or compassion is not particularly fulfilling. So I would say that love is the thing that we crave. Perhaps physical passion is what drives us, at least initially, but maybe we’re really confused and what we really really really want is love.”
So you do believe in romance and true love?
“I don’t believe that there’s only one true love, ultimately your relationship is with yourself. But when you choose to commit with somebody and spend your life with them, I think that’s one of the most beautiful things.”
I also found interesting the saying in the film about how the gods were bored so they invented love, then they invented laughter so they could stand it. Do you agree with that too?
“Yes! We get very entangled in our passions and they seem so serious to us, and it’s so interesting having this narrator who’s more experienced and has lived longer than most of the characters in this story, because he’s seen it all before. There’s so much of it that we do or that we think is important that has been done before and will happen again, it just kind of repeats itself in a cycle of life through the generations. It is funny if you can sort of sit back and look at it, while you’re in the crisis or whatever it is that you think is breaking your heart. That gives you some kind of perspective, in order to live with this, I guess.”
Regarding movies in particular, do you think that love stories should be dramas or comedies?
“I got this question a lot when I did this Woody Allen movie that was half tragedy, half comedy… There’s a part of me that feels much more engaged in the dramatic version of life. Laughing at it is much easier to tolerate but somehow, without taking it as seriously, it seems to mean less. Personally, at this stage in my life, I like the drama.”
Ok, so you saw my follow-up question coming about “Melinda and Melinda”, which is one of my favorite movies of the last few years, I thought you were amazing in it and–
“Oh, thank you!”
I thought that in “Feast of Love”, there’s some kind of connection with that performance. In the scenes with Greg Kinnear, it’s more light and comedic, but then your character has this darker, self-destructive affair with a married man.
“That’s interesting… I hadn’t put it in my mind that way, but I had felt that the character’s connection to Greg Kinnear’s character was in that lightness, what she liked about him was his innocence and that was what attracted her to him, that she could find her own innocence through him in a way. The other relationship was sort of, yeah, you know, self-destructive, intense, passionate kind of thing, like a compulsion. It was more serious in a way, and in some ways, more who she intrinsically was.”
It’s a very complex character. She says at some point that she has impossibly high standards and that she’s down to looking for an absence of disqualifiers —
“Well, she’s become, I think, perhaps because of in some ways being unfulfilled, she has developed a cynical edge… There may be something that you really want, but it might appear to be bad to you, so you try to pick a more kind of even road and it feels somewhat like a compromise. Ultimately, you kind of have to follow your nature: if you’re an intense, crazy person, that’s just what you’re gonna have to be.”
You must not have problems like that in your own life, you’re the Queen of love, after all! [Ed. Note – Radha means “Queen of love” in Hindi.]
“(laughs) Exactly! I’m definitely an advocate of love, it wouldn’t be in my nature to just marry somebody for security.”
But do you think your name has an influence on your life, or it’s just something that was picked for you by your parents?
“Well, I actually picked it myself when I was a kid!”
“Yeah, I changed it, but that’s a long story… What was I gonna say? I’m sure it does have an influence in your life, I’m hoping it’s a positive one. What’s your name?”
“What does that mean?”
It’s American. American names don’t mean shit.
“(laughs) It must have some kind of meaning! You should look it up… It may answer some questions. (laughs)”
Another thing that I found surprising in the film is the amount of nudity. Usually, Hollywood movies are more —
“Modest. Yeah, I don’t know if they were necessary, they were certainly interesting… And I do think in one scene, the scene where we break up, it works really well in that you see two people in the bedroom as they would be in the bedroom, no one’s hiding under the sheets. This is reality, and I think that creates a sense of vulnerability, having us both in that state intensifies the scene on some level. Also, there’s a truth to it. It was something that we agreed to experiment with. It did feel uncomfortable, but it also was kind of liberating in a way. You kind of use your clothes as a mask in a way, and if they’re not there, that’s just you, you know?”
What about this being an ensemble piece, how do you approach having all those other storylines beyond your character’s?
“Everyone has their own story, and each story expresses some different aspect of the theme, which is love and communication. There’s a story of youthful, idealistic vision of life, then there’s the thirties kind of complexity and all the anxiety that goes with taking responsibility for taking lifelong choices and having some sense of what that means, and then there’s a story of being abandoned, and then there’s a story of being with somebody with so long, and the deep kind of friendship that occurs in a relationship of 50 years. So you’re given the complete menu for the Feast of Love.”
Thanks for wrapping this up so neatly!
At this point, we’re interrupted by a publicist who tells me that I have time for one last question so, geeky little boy that I am, I ask Mitchell if she intends to make more genre flicks like “Silent Hill” and “Pitch Black”:
“To be honest, I quite like sci-fi and horror and sort of the fantasy aspect of those kinds of movies, but my heart is more with films within the naturalist tone, that are exploring relationships or humanity and concepts like that. That’s closer to me, but it is fun to imagine things, to create a story that could only come to life in a movie.”
I saw the film for a second time this week and, again, it made me cry so much! What was the mood on set, was it as heartbreaking shooting the film as it is to watch it?
“We had a really great time making the film, and there was a lot of joy in making the film. I think because, in the end, it is a love story, there’s a lot that kept us going.”
It’s true that there’s a lot of beauty and grace but…
“It’s still sad, yeah!”
You were 27 when you made the film, which is the age I am right now, and I couldn’t imagine making such a mature, wise film.
“Well, you’re doing something with your life, obviously. (laughing) I couldn’t imagine being a journalist at 27…”
Still, it feels like it’s a film made from someone who’s 60 or 70, looking back on life.
“I don’t know. I think that in a way, if you’ve had any kind of relationship that’s lasted a few years and been through some trials and difficulties, it’s easy to imagine the inevitability of getting older and what love might look like in 44 years. I don’t have an actual sense of it cause I haven’t lived it, but I feel like I have enough experience thinking about love that I made a connection to it.”
Is this what attracted you to the Alice Munro short story?
“Yes, I think it is. I was really interested in this idea of what unconditional love could mean at the end of a very complicated, full life, at the end of a real marriage that wasn’t this idyllic, romantic life, that there were struggle involved, and betrayals and failures.
Love stories are usually just about the beginning, they end when the couple gets together but that’s not the end – for all we know, they break up six months later! Your film shows that true love is long term, wouldn’t you say?
“Mmm… It’s strange, because whenever we talk about love in the context of oh, these people have been together forever and ever, we want to imagine that life has been easy or that all that was difficult was the decision to be together. But I don’t know anybody like that, I think that the only sort of true romantic ideals are ones that something really tested.”
The film is often described as an “Alzheimer movie”, but it’s so much more than that. It’s not a disease-of-the-week movie, it’s about the nature of memory, the toll of time… Was that in the original story or was this something you pushed towards?
“That was very much in the story, in a way the film concentrates more on the disease than the film even did. But to me, the film was never about Alzheimer’s disease. Basically, I felt that it’s really about memory, about love and about guilt. It’s not really about the idea of what Alzheimer’s disease is. It’s an important metaphor in the film, but I don’t think it’s its heart.”
The structure of the film is very interesting, the way it plays with chronology.
“I wanted the structure of the film to kind of mirror the fragmentation of memory that Fiona is experiencing. But also I thought that, knowing that we were going somewhere so strange with Grant, it would give the film a kind of momentum and forward movement that it needed.”
Another thing that makes the film work so well is the long history we have as moviegoers with Julie Christie. We’ve seen her young, we’ve seen her through her life, so it’s all the more affecting to see her aging and ailing like that. Did you want to build on that history?
“To a certain extent I was aware of it. I was really determined not to play half the film in flashbacks, and it helped to have an actor that we’re so aware of when they were young that we already have this kind of subconscious feeling of her when she was young, so we didn’t need to see that over and over again to describe it.”
It’s kind of the same thing as if you would be in a film like that in 50 years…
“(laughing) Maybe not to the same extent!”
With Grant (Gordon Pinsent), it’s almost the most difficult character, because he’s aware of all that’s going away.
“Exactly. I think that when Alzheimer’s disease happens, it’s probably harder the longest for the people who love the person who’s slipping away, who are still aware of every moment of it.”
So in making the film, we’re you going through the point of view of the husband character?
“For me, it was definitely through his eyes, I was definitely interested in telling the story through his eyes. It’s something also that struck me about the original story, it was so interesting that she took on the male point of view, it was very precise and quite honest but also very apathetic to have.”
The visual approach is sober, yet with some poetic touches. What did you want to achieve with the look of the film?
“I wanted it to be quite simple and elegant, but I felt that the light was very important and I wanted every frame to be infused with very very strong winter sunlight. I worked very closely with my cinematographer, Luc Montpellier, in terms of defining the look of the film. ”
It’s a very Canadian movie in the way it shows winter, it seems like an endless winter, both in the beauty of it and the coldness, which works with the themes.
“She alludes to it a few times in the short story, and I remember thinking ‘God, I would so love to capture this on film.’ You know, cause it’s a landscape I’m so in love with. But it was really cold, it was about minus 35 some days!”
I also loved the music in the film, especially the Neil Young songs. Was that to make it even more Canadian?
“It wasn’t consciously to make it more Canadian, but I was writing the script while I listened to Neil Young and to K.D. Lang’s album where she covers his songs, so it became really important to use those in the film. It really set the tone for me.”
I think for a lot of people, after watching the film, the first thing they’ll wanna do is go listen to old Neil Young albums and cry some more.
There’s a line Fiona says at some point that I thought was interesting, about “multiplexes showing American garbage.” It doesn’t seem like a random reference!
“(laughing) No, it’s not random at all! I think this is a constant struggle to get small independent films seen when American blockbusters are constantly crowding them out. I’m a little bit surprised actually by how great a shot we’re getting, I’m really thrilled and amazed that this film is being given a chance to be seen. I feel very lucky about that.”
Atom Egoyan is an executive producer on the film – was he an influence in your work?
“I think he has been, because doing his films like Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter was really pivotal in my life, so yeah, he’s been a huge influence. He’s also been very supportive of me since I started to make my own films. But I was surprised how much I had to relearn the process from scratch, because I think that every filmmaker has to kind of reinvent the process for themselves. I had to go back to the drawing board and figure out who I was as a filmmaker.”
On the flipside, when you act in another film, do you think you’ll have a different view of the process?
“I think I will, I learned a lot from these actors, they were so unbelievably devoted and so helpful to me. I think I know a bit more about how to serve the process a little bit better.”
You’re going to be on the jury at the next Cannes Film Festival, what are your feelings about that?
“I couldn’t be more excited about it. I think it’s such a dream job to watch great films and talk to really interesting people about them, so I’m absolutely thrilled”
Well, that about does her. It is kind of a dream job, watching a great film like Away From Her then talking about it. The film opens today May 4th in limited release, then it goes wider on the 11th, including here in Montreal. Don’t miss it!
So I saw the film and liked it a lot, I was surprised.
“Tell me why you were surprised!”
Because of how it played in Toronto and made a scandal. I thought it would be much more lurid and sensational, but it’s actually quite thoughtful and sober.
“Oh good! I’m glad you thought that.”
How do you feel about the way the film was hyped?
“Well, I think that the initial knee-jerk reaction to news of me having made the film was because people thought it was something else. They thought it would be a sort of liberal fantasy, some sort of liberal wet dream, that I was somehow revelling in the moment of the assassination of President Bush or that this film was somehow cheering an event like that. That obviously led a lot of people to condemn it without having seen it. Of course, the irony to me is that one of the things the film is about is the danger of a rush to judgment.”
Especially since even though the film is critical of the Bush administration, when he gets shot, you actually feel bad for him. You show it as the human tragedy that it is.
“That was the intention, I’m glad you felt that.”
That wasn’t mentioned in any of the reports from Toronto; I heard that people cheered when Bush got shot.
“That’s not true! That’s complete rubbish, anyone who sat in that cinema will tell you that actually what was interesting about all those screenings in Toronto is that you could hear a pin drop. Nobody cheered, nobody clapped. Quite a few people after it told me that they found it incredibly moving at the moment that he was shot, which I’d always hoped but wasn’t quite sure that we’d achieved.”
One of the things I found amazing about the film is that you often can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s staged. You used special effects, right?
“Sure, but the process began really with choosing the archives and trying to find little bits of archival footage that I could build the film around. The process was then about making the archives our own, either through adding a character into the back of a shot or… The protest footage, for example, I filmed at several protests in Chicago: one to coincide with President Bush coming to town, another to coincide with the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. So for some of those protests I had some of my actors there and around on the street, but then separately, I also staged my own protest with 400 extras. It was about trying to do everything possible to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction.”
At times, you forget that it’s fake. You feel like you’re watching any post-9/11 documentary, except that Bush gets shot. Did you write all the talking heads material or were some of them real experts?
“Yes I did, they’re all actors. The piece is entirely fictional, but every single twist and turn of the narrative is actually inspired by a true story, by real events that have happened over the last five years. One of the hardest things about making a film like this is to make those interviews and quotes feel as realistic as possible. We were at great pains to try and track down the real life counterparts to the characters in our film. For example, for the secret service agent character, we actually had a former member of the presidential protection detail who sat on set advising us, similarly for the forensics experts. And then for some of the other characters, some of them are deliberately reminiscent of people who’ve worked with President Bush. So like, the speechwriter obviously, some of the things she says may remind people of perhaps Karen Hughes a little bit.”
In the general style of the film, I sensed a kinship with the documentaries of Errol Morris. Was that intended?
“I think Errol Morris is a terrific filmmaker and that his films have a very particular pathos and gravitas. On some level it is the case that I wanted the film to feel reverential, that it was made in quite a composed and respectful sort of way, so in that respect I guess there is a similarity. But it wasn’t intended as a deliberate homage to him, but he does make very elegant documentaries. The key thing was to make a film that felt appropriate, to try and imagine a world in which this has happened and try to imagine the style in which a film like this might be made.”
When you were writing “Death of a President”, a year or so ago, did you worry that news events would change?
“One of the definite problems with making a film set in the near future is the danger that you will be overtaken by events, somehow you’re offering hostages to fortune by saying that the world stage will move in one direction or another. One of the things that was very reassuring was that on the day the film opened in the U.K., North Korea announced that it had completed its first nuclear test and there was President Bush on television making some very similar remarks to the ones he made in the speech featured in the film. At least we’re getting some things right, I hope.”
Another thing I liked is that even though it has the form of a documentary, it feels like a political thriller at times.
“Good! I mean, the assassination was a dramatic device and I hope that the film works as a political thriller and a murder mystery. I wanted to find a dramatic framework for exploring some of these anecdotes from the prosecution of the war on terror. The key ingredient to any thriller is that you set this sense of suspense and fear and one of the things that I was trying to do was to explore this climate of fear, both on a political and social level, since 9/11.”
One of the consequences of 9/11 that you depict well is how, after the assassination, both the government and the media rush to find a scapegoat, preferably Muslim and related to Al-Qaeda.
“Well, I think in quite a few cases, the administration has been very quick to arrest someone with not altogether compelling evidence and declare them as a terrorist mastermind. There has been a sense that the administration has actively been looking for poster boys for terrorism. They want to be able to hold up the picture of somebody and say, ‘This is what we’re fighting, the battlefield is here and now, it’s in Chicago.’ The administration very much wanted to present this sense that we’re at war because that has allowed them to do many other things which I think under normal circumstances would never have gone by without comment or without remark.”
Don’t you think it’s funny how with JFK, they were trying to sell the single shooter version but it felt like a conspiracy, but in your film, they’re trying to convince people of a conspiracy when it’s actually one man?
“There’s definitely an irony there. I hope what the film does on some level is a very extreme form of manipulation of the media, in some way it toys with the idea of the conspiracy theory, but in a different way.”
It’s weird that it used to be that the government was like, ‘We don’t want you to be afraid, it was just that one guy, forget it.’ And now it’s like, ‘Be afraid! There all these people who are after us!’
“That’s exactly what they are doing. There’s always been a desire to present Al-Qaeda as very powerful and very organized, something which perhaps others might take issue with. I think there’s no doubt that Al-Qaeda is a very serious threat and terrorism is something which obviously needs to be dealt with. There’s no question that a lot of the measures that have been taken in the aftermath of 9/11 were absolutely taken for the right reasons and many with good effect, but not all. I think there’s just a danger that the politics of fear can cloud people’s judgement.”
DEATH OF A PRESIDENT opens October 27th across North America.
Here I am, nervous as hell, waiting for a call from the man himself, Kevin Smith, to talk about his brilliant Clerks II.
Hi, I’m looking for a Kevin.
Speaking – wait a second, I’ll put you on speakerphone…
Yeah, I hung up on Kevin Smith. Thankfully, he was kind enough to call my stupid ass back!
Hi, this is Kevin Smith.
Hey, I’m so embarrassed. I’ll try again and I’ll take my time…
Yeah, I’m here.
I’ll get on with the interview now!
Yeah, let’s go.
For starters, I loved the film-
Thank you, sir.
One thing I noticed is that it’s kind of a throwback to the 1990s and the early films of Richard Linklater, Cameron Crowe and yourself, obviously.
Was that something that was intended?
I think by virtue of the fact that you’re doing a sequel to an early ’90s film, it was gonna be unavoidable to some degree. Particularly because the subject matter you’re dealing with are dudes that are stuck, you know, at some place in their life that they haven’t gotten out of in quite some time. So it was probably a foregone conclusion that it would have this ’90s feel to the whole thing. It was probably accentuated even more so by virtue of the fact that we used a lot of ’90s musical artists. You got some Alanis Morrissette, you got some Smashing Pumpkins, you got Soul Asylum, Talking Heads… There’s no current piece of music in it, really, so I think it takes you right back to that place in the early to mid-90s when we first came out with “Clerks”.
You mentioned that it’s about arrested development basically. Do you think that’s something specific with this generation?
Yeah, I mean, it feels like our parents were of a generation where they got out of school, they got married, then they got jobs, particularly our fathers. They didn’t sit around and talk about, ‘this job is not fulfilling to me.’ They just took a job, you know, it wasn’t about fulfilment, it was about earning a living. Our generation, while not the first to kinda explore this philosophy, was certainly the most vocal about it. Like, we seem to be kind that are like, ‘I’ll play the game but I’m gonna play it by my own rules. I’m gonna get me a job that’s fulfilling to me, but in the meantime I’m just gonna work in this job for the time being. And what you find out is that sometimes the ship doesn’t come in, you know, sometimes you’re kinda waiting for that moment where you figure out that you’ve grown up and it doesn’t necessarily always come to pass.
I thought that they ended up pretty well at the end of the film.
Yeah, it does kinda work out for them, but there is that ambiguous closing shot where we kinda pull back and you get the feeling that maybe this isn’t exactly what they wanted.
I think it ties with the relationship stuff as well, because there’s a sense of being afraid of change there, too.
In terms of the relationship stuff, when you’re dealing with these long-term male friendships, I’ve always felt that they’re almost marriages, you know? Really, you’re just one cock in the mouth shy of being gay. It’s almost a romantic relationship to a large degree. And there is separation anxiety. It happens when one of you goes off and gets married, and suddenly life’s gonna change irrevocably for the other person. I dunno, it’s the kinda thing I like to write about, like, dudes in these almost emotional romantic relationships.
I thought that the last speech that Randal has was more moving than “Brokeback Mountain”.
It’s too kind, sir. That’s high praise, thank you.
And with the women as well… I was sceptical at first that Dante would have two hot women going after him, it’s a bit “Archie”.
Yeah, it is very Archie! That’s why Rosario Dawson deserves an Academy Award for this movie, she makes you believe she would actually fuck Brian O’Halloran.
I was surprised you didn’t go for the “Archie” reference, you know, because of “Chasing Amy”.
I know, I felt we’d kinda made the “Archie” reference already. But there is kind of this Archie undertone to the whole thing where you’re looking at the guy and going, why him? If I was a chick, I’d go for Randal.
Yeah, for sure. You mentioned Rosario Dawson, she does kinda steal the film from the regulars. How did you come about casting her?
Um, her name was one on a very short list that Harvey Weinstein had given us, cause he was like, ‘Look, I understand that you gotta cast Brian and Jeff as Dante and Randal, and Jason Mewes and you as Jay and Silent Bob. But you gotta give me some face to put on the poster that people outside of your family will recognize.’ So, he gave me the list of like, 6 actress names to kinda go for. And I was kinda hesitant to do it because I didn’t wanna put anyone in the movie that was more well known than, say, Brian or Jeff. Cause I didn’t want that feeling of people looking at the flick and being like, ‘Well, there are two dudes that we haven’t seen since the first flick and someone really famous.’ I felt like it might rip you out of the reality of the flick. So we chose Rosario Dawson’s name cause we were like, this chick is the least likely on this list to say yes to do the movie. So let’s go to her and when she passes, we’ll tell Harvey, ‘See? Nobody wants to do the movie, let us cast an unknown.’ And ironically, she turned around and said ‘Yeah, I totally wanna do it.’
And we were flabbergasted, you know. I was a huge, huge fan of Rosario from “25th Hour” and I thought she was great in it. And I never expected in a million years that she would hitch her rising star to our fading star. So when I met her at rehearsal for the first time, I kinda got to know her and I figured out what it is about her, like, why she would say yes? It’s cause she’s not one of these careerist actresses that, like, decide that they’re gonna do this movie because it will lead to this movie and it’ll lead to working with this director and it will lead to an Academy Award. She just does movies because it’s a subject matter she’s interested in. She picks the movies she does based on stuff that strikes her fancy. So you can sit there and talk to her about “Johnny, the Homicidal Maniac”, which is this little b&w independent comic, and she can quote lines from it verbatim. It’s always amazing when a girl knows anything about comics, let alone independent comics, let alone a girl that looks like Rosario.
But you know, she’ll talk about how her greatest career regret was getting cut out of “The Devil’s Rejects”. She had a cameo in the Rob Zombie movie last year where she got to be killed by Doctor Satan. And she was like, ‘I was so bummed that I got cut out because I love Rob Zombie and I love horror flicks.’ And you just realize that she’s a real person, just one of the boys. Also she doesn’t put a lot of importance on playing the Hollywood game, she just likes to do stuff that she’s interested in. So I was like, I gotta know, why did you say yes to be in this movie, what was it? And she was like, ‘I always wanted to see a donkey show.’
Speaking of which, how did you get away with interspecies erotica?
You know, I’m still trying to figure it out. I really felt like the MPAA, the ratings board, was gonna turn around and be like, ‘You’re out of your mind. We’re not gonna give this movie an R, we’re gonna give you an NC-17. Or even worse, we’re not gonna let you release it at all with any sort of MPAA tag on it.’ I was pretty surprised that they let it ride. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that like, yeah there’s a big donkey show in the movie, but at the end there’s a 10 minute speech of a dude who’s trying to tell his friend that he loves him. I guess it softens the blow of the donkey show, you know? There’s lots of sentimentality in the movie and I guess it tempers the edge of your stuff.
Even more shocking than that, I was surprised by how well directed the film is.
Oh, thank you.
I always knew you were a great screenwriter, but even you would say that you’re not the best director in the world.
No, totally, I’m horrible.
But this film I thought was really well crafted.
Thank you. We really kinda gave it our all this time around. There was a big conversation between Dave Klein, who’s the DP, and myself cause we were like, one of the uncredited stars of the first movie is its look and the fact that it looks so shitty and grainy and b&w. We were just like, should we do that again? Do we intentionally try to make the movie look bad so that it matches the other movie? And then we decided that would be kinda stupid and disingenuous because the only reason the movie looked that bad in the first place was because we had no money, it was low budget. So we figured, we got money this time around, let’s actually go the other direction and try to make the movie look as good as we possibly can make it look. Basically bring to bear everything we learned over the course of the last twelve years of making movies.
Well, it worked. I would even say that your film’s poetic, something I would never have associated with your work before. Like the Go-Karts or the Jackson Five scene, those are some beautiful moments.
Aww, I so appreciate that. The Jackson Five scene was like a way to, like, of course I knew I had to have a moment where he’s trying to express to her that he’s falling in love with her. I could’ve gone the “Chasing Amy” route and written two pages of a speech for him to deliver. But then I was like, maybe this time I’ll show and not tell, and give a visual representation of what I feel it’s like to fall in love and it just seemed to work out.
Are you familiar with the work of David Gordon Green?
It made me think of that, I thought it was as good-
Right on, man. Hey, did you just write a review for the movie online?
Yeah, I did.
I read that fucking review, sir! That was an excellent review!
Montreal Film Journal?
Yeah, the Montreal Film Journal. I read it today cause I looked at the Rotten Tomatoes page and that review is up there. Oh, sir, I loved that review, I can’t thank you enough. I thought that was phenomenal.
No problem, it came from the heart.
Thank you for that killer review. That made my day. I read that this morning when I got up and, I’m so not bullshitting you, that put a spring in my step
We went on to talk a bit about his internet presence, his infamous dislike of “Magnolia”, and the commentary he recorded for the “Road House” DVD that’s coming out on July 18, but I’ll leave it at that: Kevin fucking Smith visited this website! How cool is that?
CLERKS II opens nationwide Friday, July 21. Go see it, it’s the funniest movie in years!
There are few things more exciting in the life of a film writer than being told by a publicist that you’re gonna get a call from Heather Graham to talk about her latest movie. Especially when you’ve loved her for years, notably as Roller Girl in “Boogie Nights”, Felicity Shagwell in “The Spy Who Shagged Me” and now as Pippa McGee in “Cake”. Here’s the transcript of my interview with this most adorable actress.
Hey, it’s Heather.
How are you?
So you’re releasing “Cake” in Canada this week-
I think it’s next week.
Oh, next week, for sure. I think you shot in Toronto, how was it?
It was very fun, we had a great time.
Have you shot in Canada before?
I have, yeah.
Actually, yeah. I’ve worked in Montreal, in Vancouver, in Toronto.
Oh, I’m in Montreal, what did you shoot here?
Well, I had a very small part in this movie about Dorothy Parker, a long time ago.
Ok. You worked as executive producer on [Cake], what does that entail?
Huh, you know, it just entails, like, working on the script and casting and, you know, lots of different aspects of the film. More creative for me and less of the actual business stuff.
So did you basically cast yourself?
I did, yeah. I thought I was a good choice.
I think so too, you carry the movie very well. So you play Pippa McGee- that’s a funny name, where did that come from?
I think Pippa comes from Pippi Longstocking, cause I think that [producer] Miranda [De Pencier] and [screenwriter] Tassie [Cameron] and I, we all had a big thing about Pippi Longstocking. So Pippa’s a version of Pippi.
That makes sense. It’s a very independent, aggressively sexual character. I find that many of you characters are kinda like that. I wanted to ask whether it was directors that saw you like that or you that picked those parts, but since you cast yourself… Is that something you can relate to?
Mmmmmmmm… I guess I can, yeah. I guess so, I wouldn’t call myself ‘aggressively sexual’, to be honest, but I would say that… I guess I think the character is rebellious and unconventional and I would say that the character is sexual but I probably wouldn’t say that she’s ‘aggressively’ sexual. I mean, I would relate to the fact that she’s sexual, but not aggressively. I think in the movie we’re trying to say that she’s running away from intimacy and having sex with people, you know. I’m not sure I completely relate to that 100%. But yes, I do, sorta like being a woman and trying to figure out, you know, how do you wanna be sexually? Do you wanna get married? How conservative do you want to be? Like, how sexual do you wanna be? It can be really confusing, because you’re brought up to think, ‘Oh, you’re supposed to be demure’, and then you’re like ‘No! you need to liberated’, and it can be just very confusing trying to decide how you want to be, basically.
So do you want to get married?
Hmm, you know, I would like to in love, but I don’t really care about being married so much.
Ok, ’cause I think we find out in the film that Pippa is kinda secretly romantic. Would you say you are too?
Yes, for sure! Like, I love movies about love and romance.
I do too. Not many guys will admit it, but when I watch a romantic comedy, I almost always go with it.
(laughs) That’s funny.
That’s the experience I had with “Cake”. Even though I could see how things would turn out, I was still touched by it. I liked especially your scenes with Taye Diggs.
Oh my god, I mean, you and him in the same shot, it’s like almost too much!
(laughs) Taye’s so, he’s very sexy. I think he has a perfect body, actually, no body fat.
Was it very intense shooting with him?
You know, he is really a lovely person, very sexy. All the women were completely dying over him. He’s a really great guy, he’s really funny, he’s really wonderful.
I’m black myself and I loved that in the movie, race is not an issue. It’s rare in Hollywood movies to see a white girl and a black guy and it not being a big thing.
Right. We wanted to be more modern. In fact, the role wasn’t even written for a black guy, we just thought Taye was a great actor, so we never even addressed it.
That’s awesome. My next question, well, don’t answer it if you don’t want to, it’s a bit personal. There’s the whole thing with the dad who disapproves of his daughter’s choices in the film, and I’ve read things about how you went through kind of the same thing in real life…
Yeah, obviously I don’t want to get into details, but I can relate to feeling like, you know, having problems with my family and feeling a bit like maybe your parents don’t understand you. You wanna please your parents, but it doesn’t seem to happen the way you want it to. I think that most people can relate to that.
Yeah, there are a lot of extra layers like that in the film, beyond the romantic comedy. Another thing I found interesting is that you character is very happy and enthusiastic, but there’s kind of a sadness behind it.
God, you picked up on everything! I feel that the character’s great in so many ways, like really fun and free-spirited, but underneath it, she can’t open herself up to anyone because she feels that her dad rejected her so she feels she’s not worthy of it. She has issues about things. Even though she’s leading this fun life, there’s a certain sense of sadness and emptiness that she wants to fill through… Well, I guess in the end, she falls in love.
She needed just the right guy or something
Yeah, finding the right guy, but I think it’s also reaching that point in your life where you’re ready to deal with the things about yourself that basically stop you from being happy, you know? It takes a while to really be able to realize why you self-sabotage. And I think she just reaches the point where she goes, ‘God, I feel lonely, I want to keep the great qualities that I love about myself, but I want to learn how to grow and be more open’.
Well, congratulations, it’s a fun film, I liked it a lot.
Good, well it’s great to talk to you.
To conclude, I wanted to ask you about this TV show you got coming up, “Emily’s Reasons Why Not”. What can you tell us about it?
It’s got a vibe of “Sex and the City” a little bit. It’s about a girl who is a bit neurotic and is trying to date better guys and sorta trying to lead her life in a better way that she’s been leading it. You’re just in my mind, in sorta my crazy perspective.
I’m looking forward to it. Great talking to you. Have a nice day!
You too! Bye-bye.
CAKE opens in Montreal and across Canada on December 2nd, 2005. It should be released in the States in February 2006.
So I was at the press conference-
There was some very interesting things I wanted to know more about-
Like, you mentioned that you left Hong Kong in 1997. Did it have anything to do with the retrocession?
No, it’s just, I fell in love on that year.
Pretty big year, for you and the country.
Exactly, for all of us.
It may seem like I left because of that, since it’s the same year, but no. Also, I always had an English passport so I never really had to worry about that ’cause I thought, huh, if it gets really bad I will go back to England. But it so happens that I met Olivier, and the only way to be together was for me to go… Because I don’t think he would have survived in Hong Kong! (laughs) And me to survive in a Western country seemed to be easier, at the time.
Many actors, filmmakers around those years went West it seems.
But most of them went before. Most people would immigrate in ’93-94-95-96 cause they were so scared that it was coming, like a countdown, so they were gone. And by 97, actually, a lot of people came back because they already had their green card or passport, what they need. And then most of them were back in the country.
You mean in general or specific to the film industry?
Because there was a big wave in Hollywood of Hong Kong [actors and directors] which had a big influence…
I think that it was in general, not just in the industry. There was a lot of immigration at the time.
Why do you think you haven’t done any English or American films yet?
Because I haven’t come across a good one yet.
You haven’t met David Lynch yet.
Exactly! I have to get him to notice me.
But I’m sure he’s noticed you, he must have seen some of your films.
He might have noticed my films, but he may not have noticed that this person wants to work with him.
Cause I think he was President of the Cannes festival [jury] one of the years that-
Hmm, not in the years that I was there. But I met him in Venice, actually the same year I met Olivier Assayas, they were in the jury in Venice. We met very briefly, and there Olivier kinda noticed me, and that’s how Irma Vep came.
Would like to do more French films?
I don’t have any desire to do films in any particular country, but I have decided to do films [that are] good, or at least I find good.
So no more action films?
Preferably not. I’ not saying that I don’t like action films to watch, you know, but to make is really, heh.
I was surprised you didn’t name Hero as one of the films you’re the most proud of.
I think it’s a great film.
It is a great film in many aspects, but not as an actor’s aspect.
Oh no? Because there’s kind of a complex thing, you’re playing one character but there’s different angles-
That’s how I felt when I read the script, but when the film was making, it wasn’t exactly what I imagined. I’m not against what it is now, but because it’s not what I imagined of course you get a bit disappointed. I thought… First of all, Zhang Yimou, his previous work were a lot more low profile.
Yeah, I guess that must have been a surprise.
Yeah, also the script is so complicated I didn’t imagine him to want to make it in such a commercial way. I mean, I think that somehow, there’s a contradiction because if it’s a really commercial film, it shouldn’t be so complicated, in what we’re trying to say. Because reading the script I felt there were many levels to the story, humanity… Just because you tell a story one way and I tell it another way, you can change a whole life, the whole world. It had many of these messages, layers and layers of messages in the script, which in the film is lost cause there’s so much we have to see visually, and it happens so fast. So it’s a bit different than what I imagined.
I had some big arguments with other critics about the ending of the film. Some people actually think it’s fascist. I don’t think so, I think it’s clear that [it doesn’t] support the Emperor and… Do you have an opinion on that?
You mean the ending like, him choosing to kill Jet Li?
No, not that part. I think that part is more like, he had to do it just for, like, image. But people think that, since the Emperor’s a fascist and Jet Li doesn’t kill him, it’s like [the film] approves [of fascism].
You know why? You know why? There’s a story behind this. We started to make the film in August , then 9/11 happened. And it was during the shooting and every day we were talking about this thing on the set. It’s natural, you know, it’s so shocking. And Zhang Yimou really emphasized, the more that we can’t see blood in the film… ‘I don’t wanna see a drop of blood in the film, I don’t wanna see any miskillings…’ And he, suddenly, his morals came above his creativity. Not above, but it came so high that, I think, his creativity had to, like, compromise with a bit of his, morals. But we all agreed, at the time, we didn’t want to make a film about killing for selfishness.
So it would be not so much a film about thousands of years ago, but a commentary about, right now.
Sure. It’s still about a thousand years ago, but because of what happened, it’s so fresh and it shocked us so much… It shouldn’t affect a story that happened a thousand years ago but at the same time we really felt violence should be, littler than possible in film. We should not emphasize or encourage violence.
So you prefer more romantic films like Wong Kar-Wai’s?
In general, yes, as an actress, and even without what we just said. With these films I get to do more of what I’m good at.
When I saw 2046 earlier this year, I was surprised at how small your part is, but from what I understand you didn’t actually shoot new material for that film, he just used some [leftover] stuff from In the Mood for Love?
No, we did shoot some new material, but not much. And it’s all used in the film! I shot like two weeks, but it was more like tests. For Kar-Wai… I mean, I shot those things once, and usually, you know, that’s the rehearsal. Even if he shot it, you know we have to go back to that scene anyway. But I never got around to go back a second time to reshoot those scenes, so they’re a bit like tests, in my mind.
Still, you’re kinda like through the whole film in spirit-
Was I? I haven’s seen the new version. I saw the version in Cannes, which is different… I have to look at it again.
I thought it was really good, and as I was saying, even if it’s just small moments, [your character] goes through the whole film.
She’s like a ghost, still lingering on.
You talked about recording an album, or at least songs. Would you like to do a musical film as well?
I wouldn’t mind, I would love that.
You have a nice voice.
Do I? Thank you! I would love to do a musical. To dance and sing in a film, oh, I would love that. But there aren’t that many great musicals – I mean, there’s not that many musicals anyway.
Well, India is making a lot of them.
Yeah, I should go there and say, ‘Can I have a part?’
A musical and a comedy are some of the things I’d like to do now, after all the depressing things I’ve done.
But the directors you’ve mentioned you want to work with, like Lynch, I don’t know if they are gonna make [a musical or a comedy]
Maybe [Jim] Jarmusch, he could. Maybe Gus Van Sant, maybe he’s tired of making depressing films too! And maybe there are a few directors out there who aren’t making depressing things.
Do you like Paul Thomas Anderson?
Cause he’s talked of making a musical, who knows!
If he’s written a Chinese part.
I think you speak very good English, I think you can play a part that’s not written as Chinese.
I hope so, because I read so many scripts that are like Centre Stage or In the Mood for Love, the women are always suffering… And in Hollywood scripts, I think, when you are Chinese, there has to be a reason why you’re Chinese. Well, Lucy Liu is getting to break that, thanks to her. But apart from that, most [people] wouldn’t cast me or offer the part to me unless they were thinking a bit Chinese.
In Clean, you were-
But that’s Europe. Europe has more things like that, like, Ok, she can be Spanish, she can be Spanish, she can be Indian, you know, it’s a person. I think European audiences also have, especially in France, people like to be more intelligent, or at least to be thought of as intellectuals, so they accept more things that are not “normal”. Americans, they’re still a bit [conservative] about how things should be. Like a film should have a climax, big fight, the baddy should die, the building should blow up, you know. In Europe they break more rules. In America, black is black, Chinese is Chinese, whites are whites, whereas there is a lot more [melting pot] in Europe.
Well, Montréal is kind of a European city.
Sure. Because also the language makes you closer to Europe, the French…
Thank you, I think I ran out of time.
Oh, they gave you the sign, I didn’t see that!
It was great to meet you.
Great to meet you too!