Category: Interviews Page 1 of 7
“The Front Runner,” starring Hugh Jackman and directed by Jason Reitner, was the favorite film I saw this past 54th Chicago International Film Festival. It reminded me of “The Candidate” directed by Michael Ritchie and starring Robert Redford, which I reviewed 46 years ago (1972). In fact, I still have a button that says, “All the Way with Bill McKay” from the Showcase Cinemas in Milan, a gimmick given out to those who attended the film. Reitman acknowledged, in the Q&A following the film, that “’The Candidate’ was our North Star” during shooting of this film about the 1988 presidential race of Colorado candidate Gary Hart. “The Front Runner” also reminds of Beau Williman’s “Ides of March” with Ryan Gosling.
Hugh Jackman plays Gary Hart, the candidate, and the film follows the rise and fall of Senator Hart, who was considered the overwhelming front runner for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination until the story of an extramarital relationship aboard a yacht called “Monkey Business” doomed his campaign, causing him to drop out. I was immediately reminded of how dangerous “front runner” status can be. I thought back to the Howard Dean campaign and the “sleepless summer” of 2004, which I covered for www.blogforiowa.com. [Each candidate, Hart and Dean, shot himself in his own foot, so to speak, although Dean’s “scream heard ‘round the world” was augmented by the Kerry forces, who arranged for it to be replayed constantly in a never-ending loop, discrediting that former “front runner.”]
The movie, which runs 113 minute and opens wide November 21st, considers many aspects of the disclosure of Hart’s dalliance with a beautiful blonde (Donna Rice). Although the event happened 30 years ago, it is timely today. As Chicago International Film Festival Artistic Director Mimi Plauche said, onstage, “This is about 4 ‘P’s’: Power, Politics, Privacy and the Presidency.” She asked Director Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air”) how he managed to focus the film, since it contained many topics?
His answer was, “The way in became an ensemble. Everyone had a different point of view. A.J., the reporter for ‘The Washington Post’ (who Reitman conceded was a composite of at least two different reporters) had a certain point of view. Irene Kelly, played by Molly Ephriam, had a certain point of view. I go into every film with questions. I came to the movie with questions. It’s kind of fun to have differing points of view.”
Asked how he came to make this film, since he was only 10 years old the year that Hart ran for President (1988), Reitman said he had heard about the race on a podcast and became fascinated with it. Plus, he said, he always looks for an ending, and this story had one.
Reitman also said, “I’ve always wanted to work with Hugh Jackman. Ever since I saw him in “Logan,” for which I think he should have been Oscar-nominated, I’ve wanted to work with him. Jackman is the most decent human being I’ve ever worked with on a set. Every day, so that he could get to meet more of the cast and crew, he’d bring scratcher tickets and personally hand them to everybody. He had a huge spiral notebook of research on Hart.”
Talking about film, in general, Reitman said, “If the theory of film Is that it is purposely messy, what is relevant? What is important? We were going to throw a lot at you in this film. It was not improvisation. It was controlled madness.”
Of the opening scene, [which sees Hart conceding to Walter Mondale at the 1984 convention], Reitman said, “That was a two and one-half minute shot with a lot happening. Your ears tell you where to look. Steve Morrow wired everybody, so you had lots of people talking. Sometimes, we’d hand someone a magazine from that year and say, ‘Read this to your seat mate and explain it to him.’ That’s your dialogue.”
Acknowledging the contributions of his Director of Photography, Eric Steelberg, Reitman said, “I’ve worked with Eric since we were 15. We do photo-boarding. We take stand-ins and go through every shot and frame on the actual location and shoot pictures. It’s like storyboarding, only with real people and lens directions. When we’re done, you can flip through the book of pictures and see the movie-to-be.”
To what extent were people instructed on how to behave?
“Our North Star throughout was Michael Ritchie’s ‘The Candidate’ (Robert Redford, 1972). We established real rooms where people were doing their jobs. All the extras were assigned in advance. We gave them photos of reporters on a bus in the eighties to show them how it really was. We used real film from campaigns. We wanted it to feel as live and messy as possible. When we saw film of James Carville eating popcorn out of a coffee filter because they’d run out of paper plates, we said, ‘We’re using that.’ From a technical point of view, this is the most obsessive movie I’ve ever made.’”
“My producing partner since ‘Up in the Air’ has been Helen Esterbrook. We both voice our respective points-of-view. It was odd that people alive then didn’t remember Donna Rice at all and talked about her as though she were an object. Even in the last few years, there’s been a shift in how we view Monica Lewinsky and that situation. We made an early decision on how to portray Donna (Rice). Halfway through the movie you meet Donna (Sara Paxton) and she’s alone. Sara kind of just took the weight of the whole movie on her shoulders in her scene and did it with great poise.” Reitman said that, in meeting all the real participants, he “felt oddly more responsible to Andrea Hart,” the college-aged daughter, but also remarked “I felt a responsibility to be decent to all the characters.”
It may be this decency on Reitman’s part that leaves the audience with a few alternative versions of Hart’s story involving Donna Rice. In one, Ms. Rice flew up to spend the weekend with Hart in his Washington, D.C., town house. In the other, Ms. Rice and another couple they had been out with for the evening entered his town house but departed via a back exit after about an hour. A major plot point on Hart’s part is that the reporters staking out his town house didn’t cover the back door. The seasoned campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons, Oscar winner for “Whiplash”) says, “It’s not ’72. It’s not even ’82,” noting how public perceptions had changed. That remark is certainly timely today.
Reitman then told a true story he had heard from Joe Trippi, the legendary campaign manager who took Howard Dean to front-runner status early in the presidential race of 2004 and who recently master-minded the Alabama campaign of Democratic Senator Doug Jones. [Jones became the first Democrat to be elected to the Senate from Alabama since 1997.] Trippi confirmed that Andrea Hart, Gary’s daughter, had to be sneaked out of their Colorado house while lying flat on the back seat of a car with a blanket concealing her presence there. To make it even more convincing, someone sat on her legs and waved at the throng of reporters.
Noting that the primary/caucus system was established in the mid-seventies, to take the selection of a presidential candidate out of the hands of power brokers in smokey back rooms, it then became the press’ duty to report on the candidates. Reitman said, “The responsibility fell on the shoulders of journalists after the backroom broker system died.”
Asked “Has American gotten the leader it deserves?”, Reitman admitted that he’s not a fan of the current occupant of the Oval Office, saying, “It just kills me every day, but I’m a Canadian. I have an escape plan!” (Laughter).
The comment is made in the film, “Someone will dredge up something you said 15 years ago and pretend it encapsulates your entire life.” In light of the recent Kavanaugh hearings, this rang very true. We also learn that 64% of the public polled felt the stalking of Hart by the Miami Herald was irrelevant and unseemly.
Hart felt, “I care about the sanctity of the process, whether you do or do not!” He did not feel that the press had the right to report on his private life (“Should I sacrifice my privacy?”) Hart also said, “Judgment, like character, needs to be measured in the full context of a career.” And, later, “Politics is on the verge of becoming another form of sport. I’m an idealist and I want to serve my country.” One could point to JFK, Jr.’s ill-fated magazine “George,” which was published from 1995 to 2001 as embodying this idea that politicians were, in essence, becoming celebrities even all those years ago.
A different point-of-view is articulated by campaign worker Ann Devroy (Ari Graynor of “I’m Dying Up Here” on Showtime). Speaking to a female journalist, she says, “He (Hart) is a man with power and opportunity. As our potential next president and as a journalist, you ought to care.”
THE AXE-THROWING SCENE
Asked about one particular campaign scene, where Candidate Hart ends up at a logging site and must throw an axe at a bull’s eye, Reitman said that the cast and crew had a pool on how many takes it would require for Jackman to hit the bull’s eye. The faux candidate stepped up and hit a bull’s eye with his first throw of the axe. “Then he did the wolverine pose,” said the director, adding, “It took about 8 more takes because the rest of the cast didn’t get it down.” In the film, a spectator says, “This is a first. He might just actually throw away his campaign.”
Reitman acknowledged that, “You look for stories that can be a prism: public life versus private life” and this is definitely a relevant and interesting one from 30 years ago. The real Gary Hart is now 81 and has been married to his wife, Lee (portrayed by Vera Farmiga) since 1958.
Acclaimed Director William Friedkin came to the South Lamar Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, on Saturday, May 12th, at 7 p.m. with his 70 minute documentary “The Devil & Father Amorth.” It screened to a packed house that came as much for the Q&A that followed as for the dry examination of the Vatican’s exorcist, whom Friedkin described as “the most spiritual man I ever met.”
The film, shot in 2016, was the first time an actual exorcism was allowed to be filmed, but the permission came with restrictions: only Friedkin could be present. No cameramen. No lights. And little action, as it turned out, except for the exorcism of a 31-year-old Italian architect named Gabriela Amorth, who had been unsuccessfully treated 8 times previously. The actual exorcism, on May 1, 2016, was filmed by Friedkin using a small handheld camera and what he termed a GoPro, which, he said, is often used with drones. He certainly has experience in actually shooting scenes himself, as he proved during the shooting of “The French Connection” when he wrapped himself in a mattress in the back seat of a car driven at 90 mph and shot on the fly through the streets of New York City, (with no formal permissions to do so).
Amorth was 91 at the time of the filming and Friedkin said he did not set out to film an exorcism. “I had no intention of making this film. I was in Lucca, the birthplace and home of Puccini, getting the Puccini prize for filming his operas. I was just there for 8 days in Lucca and I learned that the Leaning Tower of Pisa was only 30 miles away. From there, you could get a direct flight to the Rome airport, a one-hour flight.” Friedkin said he sent an e-mail asking if it would be possible to meet with Father Amorth, the world’s most famous exorcist, and he received the tentative yes, with conditions. Graydon Carter of “Vanity Fair” magazine (the recently retired publisher) urged Friedkin to go to Rome and interview Amorth and write an article for the magazine.
Friedkin did, in fact, write a 6,500 word article for “Vanity Fair” and shot the film we saw this night, which was far from the fiction of “The Exorcist.” He stressed that the Vatican has a very “hush hush” policy about exorcisms, so there really is no way to find out the truth of whether they work or not. But, after observing the 9th such attempt to rid the pretty architect of her demon, this film, dedicated to William Peter Blatty, who died in 2017, was the result. Asked if he thought Blatty would like the film, Friedkin said, “I think he would love it, which is why I dedicated it to him,” but he also noted that Blatty thought Amorth was a charlatan.
With 62 million people in Italy, 500,000 of whom ask for an exorcism to be performed annually, Blatty is not as quick to throw out the idea of an exorcism being ineffectual. Far from being an agnostic, as Wikipedia says he once was, Friedkin professed to believe in Jesus and said, “Who is anybody to say there’s no God? We don’t know. There are so many myths in the Bible, but there are billions of people who believed Jesus Christ was the son of God, because emotion trumps logic every time.” Friedkin went on to cite non-believers like Christopher Hitchins, who spoke out against the canonization of Mother Theresa, but, asked if he would banish religion and replace it with rational thinking if he could, he repeated,“Emotion trumps reason every time. It’s why you have religion. You cannot banish religion.”
During the Q&A, in addition to sharing that Father Amorth was an avid critic of the Vatican, but never experienced blowback from the Holy See because he was so popular, he was asked about the state of filmmaking today.
Said Friedkin, “They’re not for me,” of today’s movies, calling them spandex movies. “There’s never any real danger or real suspense. It’s opium for the eyes. There’s very little being done that I like.” He did, however, cite “A Quiet Place” as one of the few movies he’s seen that he liked very much.
When asked if anything weird or supernatural occurred during the filming of the 1972 classic “The Exorcist” Friedkin recalled how he received a phone call at about 4 a.m. from his D.P. (production manager) saying, “Don’t come to work tomorrow. The set burned to the ground about 2 hours ago.” Friedkin said that insurance did pay for the catastrophe and that some theorized that a pigeon (there were birds flying about in the area and on the set) may have flown into a light box, but, he noted, “there was a watchman sitting outside” and he thought the entire set burning down was unusual. “I did not make the film as a doubting Thomas,” he said. “I made the film as a believer.”
The chatty Friedkin (whom the interviewer/moderator referred to as “Billy,” which struck me as odd, since the man is 82) probably would have stayed and talked to us for hours, or so it seemed, but the staff needed to clear the hall for the influx of theater-goers coming to see the original “The Exorcist” on the big screen.
Meeting William Friedkin in person (and giving him a copy of “It Came from the 70s: From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now“ was a real thrill for me. The man has made 15 films in 53 years and given us such classics as “The French Connection” (he was the youngest director to win Best Director at age 32 and the film also won as Best Picture), “The Exorcist,” “Sorcerer” and many, many more. I hope he continues to thrive in life.
The film ended with film of the funeral of the subject of the film, 92-year-old Father Amorth, who caught pneumonia and died very shortly after this documentary was made. The testimony of various psychiatrists and psychologists and the news that the very condition of being possessed is now termed ‘disassociative personality disorder- demonic possession’ was mentioned several times. Said Friedkin, “After I filmed it, it occurred to me that I should take it to 2 or 3 of the best brain surgeons in the world and let them debunk it. The psychiatrists now recognize demonic possession, although they’ve removed a few disorders from the books, like homosexuality and narcissism.” He noted, with a nod to the current political climate, “I guess they feel that everybody from the top on down in this country has that.”
One thing that came out of the evening was that Blatty’s book was sheer fiction, because Blatty couldn’t find any way to break the church’s policy on letting anyone witness an exorcism and the only two reported ones in this country occurred in the 1922 in Early, Iowa, and in 1949 in College City, Maryland, which is the one that “The Exorcist” was based on. Said Friedkin, “The church does not really want people to know that there are people out there who have gone through it (an exorcism) and it has not been successful.” He described his own emotional experience while witnessing Gabriela’s exorcism as “terrifying” saying, “The fits come and go, like epileptic fits.” He also shared the fact that John Paul II was an exorcist in Poland before he became Pope and passed on 2 cases to Father Anorth when he ascended to the top position in the church hierarchy. And, said Friedkin, his life was threatened for the only time in his 82 years when Gabriela’s boyfriend demanded all the film he had shot of the exorcism back and Friedkin refused, causing her boyfriend, a member of the sinister Pyramid Cult, to threaten to kill him and all of his family. (Friedkin did not return the film.)
As a parting thought, Friedkin said, ‘There is a far deeper dimension to the Universe. If there are demons there must be angels.”
“Galveston,” based on the novel by Nic Pizzolatto, World Premiered here last Saturday (March 10th). Although I was assigned Red Carpet duties for “Galveston” and Ben Foster, its star, was supposed to attend, along with Elle Fanning, it would have meant missing out on an interview with the screenwriters for “A Quiet Place.” I saw it at the end of the festival, instead, without Ben Foster or Elle Fanning.
The brief plot summary for “Galveston”: “After surviving a set-up by his criminal boss (Beau Bridges), a hitman rescues a young prostitute and flees with her to Galveston, Texas, where the two find strength in each other as dangerous pursuers and the shadows of their pasts follow close behind.”
The novel the film was based on (“Galveston”) was written by Nic Pozaletti, novelist-turned-screenwriter who wrote 22 episodes of television’s “True Detective” series. Directed by Melanie Laurent, she also scripted it, and it wasn’t as strong as the source material. Producer was 74-year-old Jean Doumanian, better known for producing many of Woody Allen’s best-known films, [before he sued her over “The Jade Scorpion,” when she announced that he had 2 days to find alternative financing and Allen said she had been skimming]. [Interestingly, Doumanian also had a brief, troubled tenure running “Saturday Night Live” in 1980-1981 before Lorne Michaels returned. The credits for “Galveston” read “Jean Doumanian Productions, in association with Storm Outside.” Low Spark films appears as the company that helmed this and, later, when a motel used in the production is named Emerald Shores Motel, it is noteworthy that the company mentioned is Emerald Shores LLC. It is also true that the Motel’s desk woman, Nanee Covington, is well played by C.K. McFarland.]
Nobody can put sheer intensity and emotion onscreen better than Ben Foster, the Fairfield, Iowa, native who has studied Transcendental Meditation since the age of 4. Foster dropped out of high school in his freshman year and flew to Los Angeles, based on the strength of an audition tape, to be cast at 16 in a TV show called “Flash Forward.” He never looked back and came to the attention of the public, in general. for his superb work in “Hostage” with Bruce Willis, playing a character named Marshall “Mars” Krupcheck, in 2005.
By that point, I was watching him portray Russell Corwin on “Six Feet Under” (2003-2005) and admiring his acting intensity. Of this quality, he has said, “That is source, that is art, that is spirituality. And meditation is a way to defy fear and experience that source.” It seems to have served him well. He has racked up some impressive roles in films like “The Messenger” in 2009, opposite Woody Harrelson, portraying Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, whose task it is to tell soldiers’ families that their loved one has died in combat. Before that, there was Charlie Prince in “3:10 to Yuma” in 2007 and “Alpha Dog” as Jake Magursky in 2006.
Foster, selected in surveys when very young as an actor to watch, has said, “The heat around young actors burns out. Natural ability and magnetism only get you so far. The rest is hard work.”
Foster’s co-star in “Galveston,” Elle Fanning, is another young actress who knows all about starting young. Fanning began working on film as the younger version of her older sister, Dakota, at the age of 3, in “Taken” and “I Am Sam.”
Only 19 now, she was just as intense as Foster in her scenes as a young girl from Orange, Georgia, trying to escape a troubled past that included sexual abuse by her stepfather that results in a child, Tiffany (played as a child by Tinsley & Anniston Price and also by Lili Bernhart as a 23-year-old). She upped her game because Foster brought out the best in her, perhaps.
The acting in this film is over-the-top good.
The plot , script and direction: not so much.
The overall tone and setting of gritty reality was done well, and the costume design by Lynette Meyer to portray Elle as a trashy young thing was excellent, although to dismiss her character of “Rocky” as “a prostitute” is to shortchange that character. She is more an innocent with no other way to support herself than a true professional lady of the evening.
Rocky (Raquel/Fanning) shows up in the plot when Roy Cady (Ben Foster) is sent to rob a house which, in reality, is a set-up by his evil boss (who runs a laundromat), Stan Pithco (played by a decidedly portly and greasy Beau Bridges). When Roy manages to survive the hit, he notices a pretty girl in a red dress tied to a chair. Almost on impulse, Roy cuts her loose and takes her with him— not as a hostage, but more as an act of mercy.
The script, in fact, spells this out in dialogue between Fanning and Foster, when she asks why he is kidnapping her. He responds, “I saved you. Be clear on that.” Later, Foster goes to the wall for the young girl and her sister/daughter (think “Chinatown”), telling the now-grown-up Tiffany, “All this time I was your friend. You weren’t abandoned.”
There is a story line that involves Cady’s incorrect assumption that he is dying of lung cancer, his drinking (“You look like hell and you smell like it, too”) and his altruistic act(s) in defense of “Rocky”, whose real name is Raquel Arceneaux (Elle Fanning). Never do we get the impression that the 40-year-old and the 19-year-old are sexually involved, (although they do have one memorable date that might have led down that path, had the path been slightly longer.)
There are storms and rain and approaching hurricanes throughout the film (think Shakespeare) and the end made very little sense, except as it evoked a literary novel. By the denouement, the entire film will leave you marveling at the acting while feeling like you really need a stiff drink to recover from the many godawful things that have just happened to the characters.
I enjoy watching Ben Foster work. He has the same ability that Michael Shannon has to completely dominate the screen with his intensity. Elle Fanning also has come a long way from previous films. She did a stand-out job opposite Foster. Maybe his excellence brought out the best in her?
I originally selected this film for Red Carpet duties because I met Foster once before, in Chicago, when he appeared there with “The Messenger” in 2009. He is nothing if not intense, but he is also a good interview and not at all like the almost psychopathic types he occasionally inhabits onscreen. Then the opportunity for interviewing the screenwriters from “A Quiet Place” loomed, in conflict with those duties, so I finally caught the film today at its last showing, and I’ve given you Elle Fanning’s comments (above).
Perhaps Foster will mellow even more as his daughter with Laura Prepon (“The Hero”) approaches one year old this August, and his years (2014 and 2015) with Robin Wright (Penn), 14 years his senior, fade into oblivion.
See “Galveston” for the acting, but don’t try to make too much sense of the ending, nor of the scenes with Roy’s former African-American girlfriend, Lorraine (Adepero Oduye), which could have been omitted completely without harming the plot.
This is a French person’s script and take on life in the South (shot in Savannah, Georgia and elsewhere in Georgia with many references to Austin, where Pizzolatto was once a bartender). That could account for some of what I found unsatisfactory about the film. My roommate was a French major in college, so, one year at the Chicago Film Festival (she accompanied me), we watched nothing but films that were in French with English subtitles. Fun for her. For me? Not so much. [ If you’ve watched many French films, you’ll know what I mean.] I think the movie might have been better served in the Director/Writer area by utilizing a more-experienced U.S. director of either gender .
Two documentaries showing at SXSW deal with the difficulty of being an athlete and hanging it up (i.e., retiring). Those two are “Time Trial” by Finlay Pretsel of Scotland and “Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes,” directed by Robert S. Bader. Cavett is 81 now and traveled to Austin with the documentary.
Scottish director Pretsel shot film of Scottish bicyclist David Millar’s final attempt to qualify for the Tour de France after a 2-year suspension for doping. It was shot, colorfully, from the point-of-view of the cyclist. We learn that Millar got his first road bike at 15 and, while he only wanted one win at the Tour, he has competed there 12 times.
Millar won in 2003, but was later shown to have used drugs. He was banned for 2 years for using EPC. He has felt himself a cheat since that time and this is a story of redemption.
Millar’s trial is Pelleton, a tough gig and, ultimately, Millar is cut from the tour by Charlie, the team leader, and we see him shedding tears in a moment of extreme vulnerability. I, for one, felt he had the look of a haunted man, and I wondered if Lance Davenport looks this way when you meet him.
The director of the bicycling documentary said, “I feel like I’ve had this in the back of my mind for many years. The only UK cyclist in the Tour de France—the best Scottish cyclist ever.” He did share with us that he considered the film to be capturing “this bizarre sport in a microcosm” and that the rest of the crew that Millar rode for and with was not that supportive.
At the end of the colorful documentary, Pretsel was to take questions, but he was down the hall watching “Heredity” so the bicyclist, himself, got up and said, “Oh, well, I can talk about the film.” He was 37 when they shot the documentary and is 41 now. It was very late this night; Millar had the haunted look of a man who could benefit from counseling as he said, “I’m a very twisted human being.” He added, “I wish there was a film that existed of me winning.”
When I asked what he plans to do now, at 41, his cycling career over, he said, “I hope to do things that are worth telling stories about.”
In the Dick Cavett/Muhammad Ali tapes we also see a champion—-the only fighter to ever to win the Heavyweight Championship crown three times—who is loathe to stop fighting when he should. Cassius Clay’s early history is portrayed, and then the documentary moves on to the friendship between Ali and Cavett that developed because, as Ali said, “You’re the only one who ever asks me on when I lose.”
After one particularly brutal beating, Ali’s cheeks are as round and bulbous as a chipmunk’s. He is a gracious loser, giving credit to the fighters who have bested him. He calls Cavett his “main man” and the two are shown at Ali’s training camp, where, at one point, Cavett even dons green trunks and dances around in the ring.
There is also a notable tape where Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali are both on Cavett’s show together and they literally pick him up, physically. All-in-all, the appearances, shown together like this, are like a time capsule of the sixties and the turbulent era of the Vietnam War, which Ali opposed. When Ali converted to Islam and would not fight in Vietnam, he was stripped of his title and lost years of his fighting career, after which he was no longer “floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.” I saw him on campus at the University of Iowa when he was not allowed to fight, and the Union was jammed with students like me who had come to hear what this icon had to say.
Both films treat the difficulty of a pro athlete adjusting to hanging it up forever. However, regular human beings also have to hang up their cleats at some point, in terms of giving up their day jobs, jobs which have also defined them. The thing that helps make it more palatable for a professional bicyclist or a professional fighter has to be the tremendous paychecks some made during their heyday, not to mention the adulation of the crowds, which we see in both documentaries.
The downside is that a sport like boxing can doom those retired from it to diseases like Parkinson’s Disease, which Ali suffered from during the rest of his life. The film is a powerful argument for more stringent protection for athletes in all contact sports. The image of Ali lighting the Olympic torch, arm shaking visibly from the effects of the debilitating disease, is both touching and historic.
I’d recommend the Ali/Cavett documentary to anyone who was alive in the sixties and remembers them, or to anyone who wants to learn what was happening in this country during that turbulent era.
Veteran CBS newsman Dan Rather, a Houston native, came to the First Baptist Church in Austin at noon on Saturday (November 4, 2017) to talk about his new book “What Unites Us.” His appearance was part of the Texas Book Festival, which is one of the largest and one of the most prestigious literary festivals in the country, featuring 250+ nationally and critically recognized adult and children’s authors, 20+ venues (including the State Capital), 80+ exhibitors and live music.
Later in the day (4:00 p.m.), Rather’s spot would be taken by Tom Hanks, talking about his new book of short stories, a compilation united by his love for collecting old typewriters.
But at noon on Saturday, November 4th, Rather sat down with an interviewer and answered questions:
Q: When did nationalism become essentially white nationalism?
A: I think the sixties spawned this. It was a very difficult period. I do think that, coming out of the sixties, as an “experienced skeptic,” the tragedy of President Nixon and his appealing to Southern state white racists was not a good thing. Remember: Nixon was successful. He was re-elected two times with overwhelming majorities. He proved that you can win if you appeal to white supremacists. We’re now paying the price of what started in the sixties.
We need to pause and take a deep breath. Our national motto is “E Pluribus Unum”: “Out of many, one.” We can make it work.
Q: The slogan “make America great again.” It seems to be asking us to go back to the fifties. Is that true?
A: There’s no going back to the 1950s and, by the way, the 1950s were not that great (laughter from crowd). We can’t do it. Those who try will not succeed.
Moderator: “You’re literally whistling Dixie, Dan.” (laughter from audience). There’s a perception that all this started on January 20th with President Trump’s Inauguration. Is that right?
A: It started at least as far back as the 1970s or 1980s. We’re realists. We recognize when we’re wrong. After 9/11 we pulled ourselves together. Now we are at a decision point: re-dedicate ourselves to belief in the institutions, values, drive and forward movement of the American Dream.
Q: You have written your book in terms of 6 essays on such things as Freedom, Character, Responsibility, Science, Empathy and Exploration. I’d like to ask you about science, in particular.
A: We can’t move the country forward with post-truth. There are no “alternative facts.” I don’t care if you have a degree from Harvard or Stanford, it is ridiculous: 2 + 2 = 4. We know the difference between bullshit and brass tacks. Water does not run uphill: Gravity is a fact.
Q: What makes this unique? All Presidents have sometimes dissembled?
A: What makes this unique and not moral is these daily statements are not true. No President has ever told so many lies so brazenly and so perpetually. Also, his constant attacks on the free press are unprecedented. It’s a post-truth where facts don’t matter, and it’s dangerous.
Moderator: “In your empathy essay you say that we seem to have lost the power to be empathetic.
A: I don’t necessarily feel that way. We see empathy in the American people all the time: People are civil, wanting to help. These are very strong values that Americans prize, and we saw it following the recent natural catastrophes.
What is unworthy of us, as Americans, is a week-long debate about the President of the United States’ words to a grieving widow. Any decent person would have called her back or sent her a note of apology. That is the real spirit of the American heart.
Q: Let me ask you about your “Dissent” essay.
A: Yes. Dissent is being discouraged. Civil dissent in America is as American as apple pie.
Q: What makes our situation right now so perilous, in your view?
A: I want to be careful about drawing a line between Watergate and the place our country finds itself in now. Watergate was bad, but it was internal. Now, we have a foreign power intervening and interfering in our democratic process. That is an enormous difference. Also, the media landscape is different. It used to be that newspapers were important. Iphones and social media did not exist.
Q: Do you think it was better then, or better now?
A: Overall, I think it is better now to have the Internet. The Internet, when used properly, is a tremendous resource. Today, the greatest opportunity of the Internet is to educate, but a greater burden is placed on the user.
Rather ended his remarks to a standing ovation from a crowd of roughly 700 people and left the Church so that Tom Hanks could take his place at 4:00 p.m.
In her directorial debut after a lengthy career as a much-lauded actress, Academy Award winner Vanessa Redgrave takes on a cause near and dear to her heart in “Sea Sorrow.” That cause is trying to alleviate the refugee crisis affecting Europe right now, with displaced persons—many of them unaccompanied children—streaming in, 70 new people a day at a camp called Jungle Camp in Calais.
Of those numbers, 800 are children with 387 of them eligible to join relatives in the country to which they fled, but bureaucratic indifference or actual opposition dooming progress. Only Greece seems to be trying to set an example for the rest of the world, although Germany’s Angela Merkle also has done much to help and Canada’s Justin Trudeau was also singled out for praise. Donald J. Trump, of course, has proposed numerous travel bans and seems to have no core moral philosophy guiding his “executive decrees,” [other than to build a wall against Mexico and ban travelers from other lands.] Trump was not mentioned by name in the documentary, which, instead, interviewed the refugees, themselves, and those working hard against overwhelming odds to try to help them. The entire message of the 74-minute documentary could be summed up this way, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
Early estimates of the numbers of unaccompanied children entering the country in countries like Greece, Italy, Calais (France), and Dunkirk were 26,000, but more accurate surveying revealed that the number was really closer to 95,000. Redgrave urges, “Bring back the idea that we’re all humanity.” Jemma Redgrave (actress) is shown saying, “I find it unbearable that there are children living in camps who are denied any assistance. We have to stand up as parents and human beings and not accept the appalling status quo.”
Redgrave hopes the film will educate a generation and a half to the existing mandates, written and adopted after World War II, to stand up for human rights. There is a film clip of Eleanor Roosevelt addressing the United Nations during the 1945 Declaration of Human Rights, issued after the defeat of Fascism. The film comments on the European Convention on Human Rights (UNHCR, 1951) and the 1989 Rights of the Child legislation, all of which, she said, are being ignored.
It is Redgrave’s feeling that the battle must be won through the courts, using these existing pieces of legislation to force nations that have become insular and unwilling to accept these displaced populations, to do the right thing and help unaccompanied orphans and children streaming into Europe, as well as the entire families who are fleeing for their lives. Precautions against the entry of terrorists are, of course, implicit and already in place in most countries, but the lives of innocent men, women and children are also on the line.
Not only Redgrave, but House of Lords member Lord Dubs, whose own history goes back to World War II when his parents escaped the Nazis, gave the shocked audience actual data on the crisis. It was originally thought there were 26,000 unaccompanied minor children, but the real number turned out to be closer to 96,000 and 10,000 of these poor souls have completely disappeared.
When you hear stories like that of 22-year-old Hamidi, who fled Afghanistan after witnessing the murder of both his mother and his father right in front of him (he was also shot as he fled), who walked 3 months on foot with $8,000 Euros gathered from friends and relatives to finance the trip and then was loaded onto a boat meant for 40 with 80 souls (Twelve fell overboard or died on the boat).
Another young boy spent 11 hours on a boat to Bari; it took him 2 months to flee from Tripoli. These people are desperate and are treated very poorly and inaccurately by mainstream media, according to Carlo Nero. Of the 86% of refugees who entered the UK, the United Kingdom provides support for less than 1%. The words on the base of the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door.”) have gone out the window in the U.S., along with common human decency to our own citizens in many places under the Trump administration. Be careful in screening immigrants, yes, but push for the equality and dignity of defenseless refugees fleeing death and destruction in their native lands.
The opportunities for human trafficking and other such misdeeds at camp’s like Calais, France’s The Jungle are high. “Bring back the idea that we’re all humanity,” pleads Redgrave, and one short clip gives a little bit of her own childhood remembrance of the burning of the Coventry Cathedral during the blitz. (November 14, 1940, when she was just 3). She still has nightmares about approaching fire.
The biggest injustice, it seemed, was that, of the 378 children in the Calais camp known as “The Jungle” (which was torn down in October of this year), 178 had relatives who would have taken them in, under the terms of the Dublin Treaty. Said Redgrave, “It is simply a matter of political will.”
Rallies were shown with touching scenes of young refugees thanking their rescuers while wearing shirts with the message “Choose Love.” Seventy new people a day join their ranks. Said Redgrave, “They are brave young people with real courage.” No one denies the need for security precautions, but common human decency is also necessary.
We learn some of the history of why Redgrave feels so passionately about this cause and why Lord Dubs has thrown in his efforts to assist her. An old copy of the newspaper the Manchester Guardian dated 1938 is read by film star Emma Thompson, in which average citizens write in saying they are ready, willing and able to help. Why won’t our government let us help? (Most notably E. Sylvia Pankhurst of Essex wrote, who willingly would have taken some of the refugees that were spirited out of Germany during the Holocaust in an operation known as Kindertransport.) Redgrave mused on “The Diary of Anne Frank.” The young Jewish teenaged girl who lived in hiding from the Nazis for two years in Amsterdam, wrote, “In spite of everything, I still believe people are basically good.”
Redgrave’s feeling: “You’ve got to litigate. The courts are ruling every single time that the government is wrong, but the government appeals. And that’s where we are…We people can change things, but we’ve got some very hard work to do. None of us should feel hopeless. You have to get groups of them and say, ‘This is wrong and we’re going to do everything we can to change it.’”
No stranger to controversy following her Oscar acceptance speech in 1978, her attempt(s) to do good here will, no doubt, incite further controversy, but her message, with 10 people dying a day, was, “The Greek people are showing the world how to help fellow human beings. Now, we have to tell our governments they have to step in.” She urged a common European policy be adopted.
There are some sad stories with happy endings, like that of 14-year-old David from Eritrea, whose parents both drowned on their way to Italy. He spent 9 months in Rome until the group Safe Passage found his Aunt in England and he was allowed to go live with her. “These are inspirational people and a lot of them are young people,” said Redgrave, of the volunteers. She, at 80, said she is willing to go with the film to colleges and elsewhere to help spread the word about the refugee crisis and to let a whole generation know about human rights law that is currently being ignored and violated.
The film’s title comes not only from the harrowing scenes of boatloads of refugees (and even the famous photo of a young two-year-old boy, drowned, dead on the beach in Greece that stunned the world) arriving and being helped ashore by the Greek officials, but from Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest.”
At the end of the film, Ralph Fiennes reads the scene from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” where Prospero is speaking to Miranda about how they were “Hurried them upon a boat—a rotten carcass of a boat.”
“How came we ashore?” asks Miranda.
“By Providence Divine. Sit still and hear the rest of our sea sorrow.”
Vanessa Redgrave is one of the most honored actresses of her generation. Now 80, she has been Oscar-nominated six times (winning for Best Supporting Actress in “Julia” in 1977) and may be the only British actress to have won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony, a BAFTA, an Olivier, a Cannes award, a Golden Globe award and an award from the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).
Redgrave and her 48-year-old son, Carlo Nero, who also functioned as producer on “Sea Sorrow,” Redgrave’s first directorial effort, were present in Chicago at the 53rd Annual International Film Festival both to show the audience their heartbreaking film about the refugee crisis in Europe and to receive a special Visionary Award.
Those who have followed Redgrave’s storied career will know that she has always been a passionate and outspoken proponent for many causes (she is currently a UN Goodwill Ambassador). In 1978 there was a lot of controversy after her Oscar acceptance speech, amidst criticism of her involvement in the Arab cause after her work on “The Palestinian.” Wikipedia notes that, “The scandal of her awards speech (at the Oscars) and the negative press it occasioned had a destructive effect on her acting opportunities that would last for years to come.”
Now, Ms. Redgrave, with the help of other right-minded folk, has made a documentary about the plight of those fleeing Syria, Afghanistan and other countries and arriving in Europe. Appearing in the film in addition to the testimony of actual refugees are fellow actors Emma Thompson and Ralph Fiennes.
On the Red Carpet on Monday, October 16th, before her film was shown, I was able to speak with Redgrave about her early career and the topic of the current refugee crisis. The Festival has been showing the 1966 film “Blow-Up,” directed by Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni and starring Redgrave and David Hemmings. The film was an international sensation more than 50 years ago, as it chronicled the story of a high-fashion photographer in sixties Swinging London whose camera might have captured a murder during a photo shoot in a park with an enigmatic beauty (Redgrave).
The film remains an art cinema landmark and a time capsule of the counter-cultural moment. When asked whether she remembered the sensation it created in 1966, she answered, at first, “Not really, no.”
She went on to say this about that classic film in response to questions:
Q1: “Blow-Up” was such a breakthrough in visual filmmaking. (It was said, at the time, that Michelangelo Antonioni, the Italian director, even dyed the grass for the park shoot greener than it would normally have been.) Do you remember the reaction to the film?
A1: I don’t remember. It was a huge excitement as an actress to work for Michelangelo Antonioni, to act for him and to learn what he was seeing. His approach was completely unlike the Anglo-American approach. And he was also very reassuring. He was sitting offscreen during the camerawork. At one point, the cameraman asked something about a scene and Michelangelo. said: “Don’t worry. She’ll either be able to do it or she can’t.” He didn’t know I could speak Italian, so I understood, and I thought, “Well, that’s reassuring.” I relaxed immediately and thought, ‘Well, at least he isn’t going to be mad.’”
Q2: What do you think causes the roots of fear about immigrants amongst other nations?
watch?v=U-WRhouNVmY”>http://www,youtube.com/watch?v=U-WRhouNVmYA2: “A lot of has to do with media propaganda. Remember the media is owned by certain individuals.” Son Carlo interjected, “A lot of the public has been poisoned by media articles, effectively making refugees out to be rats and it’s a disgrace that this can happen in the 21st century. And this is mainstream, mainstream media.”
Q3: There was a quote in the Palme D’Or winning film “The Square” that said, “How much inhumanity must we experience before we exercise our humanity?” Perhaps you saw it at Cannes. Comments?
A3: We must challenge our governments to act. Right now, these children are here and all alone. I don’t understand how governments can fail to act. Redgrave’s film “Sea Sorrow”, which I will comment on separately, gives the legal grounding for protecting refugees, in general, and refugee children, in particular.)
Q4: So, having been in the film industry for over 50 years, what did you learn about yourself directing this film?
A4: I learned that there was still so much I still had to try and learn. We had to work against the clock. We had to get it ready as soon as we could. It was the kindness of technicians who helped us that allowed that to happen. We had a lot of support making the film. We didn’t have a lot of money and we couldn’t have done it without a lot of generous assistance from others in the film industry who helped us (mentions Ralph Fiennes and Emma Thompson, both of whom appear.)
Both Vanessa (Redgrave) and her 48-year-old son Carlo Nero were gracious in answering questions fully At the end of our brief talk, before the movie began, she mentioned that they “might have an important meeting coming up in Rome soon,” without elaborating on that enigmatic statement.
“It Comes At Night” Writer/Director Trey Edward Shults Talks About His New Film
Length: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Writer/Director: Trey Edward Shults
Cast: Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough, Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Griffin Robert Faulkner, David Pendleton, Mikey the dog
Reviewer: Connie Wilson
Following the absolutely gut-wrenching preview showing of the film “It Comes At Night” in Chicago on Thursday, June 1st, writer/director Trey Edward Shults talked about how this, his second feature film, came to be. (the movie opens wide on June 9th).
At 18, Trey became an intern on a Terrence Malick shoot in Hawaii for the volcano scenes in “Tree of Life.” He was rooming with the film loader, who taught him how to load film inside a changing bag for Imax films. They were helicoptered to the volcano site and filmed lava erupting from the volcano.
Something caused the second unit film loader to be unavailable and Trey stepped in, with lava oozing down the sides of the volcano in the rain and the cinematographer yelling, “We need another mag!” After that, Trey quit college at 19 and, in addition to interning in Austin with Malick, was employed on a Jeff Nichols movie.
Shults spent this time studying movies constantly, making shorts, and trying to find his voice as a filmmaker. He says he has never worked on “a traditional film set” and is open to collaborating with actors. “Krishna,” which was Shults’ first feature-length film, premiered at SXSW in 2015, featured his family members, and earned him a 2-film deal with A24. It is a movie about family and, as he said in Chicago, “I knew I had to quit making movies that starred only my family members.” (Laughter).
So “It Comes At Night,” film number two, was born, after Shults had captured the John Cassavetes Award (2016), the Independent Spirit Awards Breakthrough Director Award , the Gotham Award (2016) and earned reviews that praised “Krishna” as “unforgettable,” “original” and “a ferociously impressive film debut.”
In this, Shults’ second full-length feature film, Joel Edgerton (“Loving,” “Midnight Special”), who plays Paul in the picture and also was an executive producer, helped with assembling the top-notch cast: Carmen Ejogo of “Selma;” Riley Keough (Elvis’ granddaughter who was in “The Girlfriend Experience” and “American Honey”) as Kim; Christopher Abbott (“James White”) as Will and new-comer Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Travis, through whose eyes the story is told. Said Shults, “I’m very blessed, because they are all very talented and amazing people. I went through the Hollywood bullshit casting. You fly to London and meet with someone and they say, ‘Oh! I’d love to be in your movie!’ and you fly home and then they say they have committed somewhere else.” Stelts shrugs and says that the role of Travis was cast during a Skype session with Kelvin Harrison, Jr. of New Orleans, who was 22 at the time, while Shults was 27. Kelvin is the person through whose eyes we experience the film. (When asked for his favorite scene in an interview, Harrison said he enjoyed the grim, gory sequence where Riley Keough straddles him in bed and oozes thick blood into his mouth. He also identified one of his favorite movies as the 1959 film “Imitation of Life,” about a light-skinned black girl passing for white).
The personal elements of the film came from Trey’s watching his father (from whom he had been estranged) slowly die a grim death from pancreatic cancer. As someone who nursed her father through terminal liver cancer in a town too small to have much of a hospice program, I could definitely relate. In sharing that commonality, I earned a hug from the director, who is the product of various strong female role models, including his actress aunt Trisha Fairchild, who starred in “Krisha.” Family is important to Trey and that line about trusting family first is used in the film’s dialogue.
The long, slow fade to black of his father’s death made a deep and indelible impression on the young filmmaker. He says, “I started writing and it started spewing out of me. For the people who dig it, that’s cool. It’s not about the disease; it’s about what the disease does to people.” He mentions genocide and paranoia and the struggle to survive, turned to maximum volume.
Set in a remote cabin in the woods, the survivors of an unnamed disease are trying to survive, using gas masks and barricading themselves from what is out there that might infect them or kill them. We never know exactly what that might be, but gas masks are used throughout, as are kerosene lanterns and natural light (much like Terrence Malick’s films and their emphasis on natural light.) The film’s tone is reminiscent of early Carpenter or “Night of the Living Dead.”
Dream Sequences: Q: You’re never really sure it is really a dream or reality. Is that intentional?
A: “Yes. The way we shot it was deliberate, from 240 to 275 to 30. The score is also subtly different and, at the end of the movie, the aspect ratio slowly changes and the reality/dream music is interwoven; we shot 3.0 for the rest of the film. The goal with the nightmares was a path into Travis and how he’s thinking and how he’s processing these things. (“Totally,” is usually Trey’s favorite one-word response.)
Q: What about the stupidness of horror movies, in general? What did you think was stupid in that way in your film, if anything?
A: Travis running into the woods after Stanley (the dog) is probably the stupidest thing. (He adds that he would probably have done it, too).
Q: What about the title?
A: A title hits you and then it sticks with you. At night is when my brain is most active. It’s a little gateway into how I think. (Laughs) I had this nightmare where I had cancer, but it was just in my finger, but I was gonna’ die. The title “It Comes At Night” is not literal. It is metaphorical. It’s intentional. The purpose was to put you in the headspace of the characters.”
As Trey says, “The entire theme is pretty minimal. Less is more,” he says, quoting Mies van der Rohe.“I really wanted to make the most of this toned-down setting. There isn’t an ounce of fat on this movie.” Shults mentions some of his Obsessive/compulsive tendencies (wrestling, when in high school, until a shoulder injury ruined that career) and says, “I mixed the gunshot sounds over and over and over.” Shults also said, “We didn’t do night lighting. You go in the woods with a flashlight or in your house and it’s dark and it’s totally terrifying. We wanted economical storytelling. It’s a low-budget film (shot in 5 weeks in one setting.) There is no hidden material.”
Shults tells the story of attending a screening of “There Will Be Blood” with his mother and how it influenced him, as have such diverse films as “Boogie Nights,” “Night of the Living Dead,” “The Shining,” and “The Thing.” For all of his admiration for such classic horror films, Shults says “It Comes At Night” is not a genre film.
“The movie is about the unknown and the fear of the unknown. Death is the ultimate unknown.” He tells the story of his cousin who, having been drug addicted but clean for years, came to a family reunion but relapsed while at the reunion (and later died). These brushes with death early in his life—whether a parent or a cousin—obviously have informed the young filmmaker’s work. His apprenticeships with Terrence Malick inform the first 45 to 50 minutes of the film, when the cinematography goes from cameras to dollies to zoom shots.
Some will not like the ending, because the film leaves us with questions.
Shults says, “I like questions. I know that’s what I love. I love the kind of movies where you think about them later and wonder about things. If this turns out to be one of those movies that stays with you afterwards, that’s cool.” (“Totally.”)
Genre: Drama with Western roots
Length: 90 minutes
Director: Brett Haley
Actors: Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Krysten Ritter, Nick Offerman, Katharine Ross
The mythic spirit of the western, our American archetype, is alive and well at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival. I’ve seen two westerns in two days at the Festival. “The Hero,” which showed at the Zach Theater on Friday, March 10th, was the better of the two.
“The Hero” was an unusual picture because it focuses on a 71-year-old actor (Elliot) who has been playing western parts for most of his career. Now, he is in the twilight of that career, and most of his work seems to be voice-over work (primarily for a BBQ sauce). He’d like to get a feature like “The Hero” that catapulted him to fame back in the day, and he’s phoning his agent, looking for more work. And then he is derailed by a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.
There are parallels here between “The Wrestler” that featured Mickey Rourke and this plot. Both men find they have a potentially terminal illness and are dealing with that knowledge the same way. Both are initially in denial and tell no one. Both have a daughter from a failed relationship (real-life wife Katharine Ross plays the ex) and both men want to make peace with their only child before it’s too late. But the daughters aren’t cooperating much in moving towards reconciliation.
I wanted to see Katharine Ross (“The Graduate,” “The Cincinnati Kid”) after all this time, if only to see how she has aged alongside her silver-maned real-life husband, Elliott, whom we have seen in the TV series “Justified” and, earlier, as the narrator in the Coen Brothers classic “The Big Lebowski.” There is no doubt that Elliott has the best hair of anyone his age in pictures. (Robert Redford might be a close second.) Sam Elliott and Katharine Ross were in “The Cincinnati Kid” together, way back in 1969, but did not officially meet and begin dating until 1978, ultimately marrying in 1984, 33 years ago. (They have one daughter born that year)
The love interest in this film is not Elliott’s true-life wife, but Laura Prepon, who played Donna on “That 70s Show” (“The Girl on the Train.”) (Prepon announced that she is pregnant by fiancé Ben Foster in January.)
The two meet cute through their mutual drug dealer Jeremiah, played by Parks & Recreation’s Nick Offerman. A budding romance erupts, although Laura’s character (Charlotte Douglas) nearly kills the romance at the outset by making fun of romancing older men during her stand-up comedy routine.
In the film, western star Lee Hayden is going to be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by an organization known as The Western Appreciation and Preservation Guild. Since he also has just learned he has pancreatic cancer, he is struggling with the thought that his only chance at prolonging his life slightly may be a grim procedure known as the Whipple Procedure, which would remove part of his pancreas, his gall bladder and part of his small intestine. Even then, his odds don’t sound that great. And Laura actually seems interested in getting to know him better and agrees to be his date for the awards ceremony (after Lee’s estranged daughter turns him down).
Elliott does some truly fine acting in the scenes where he is auditioning for a part in a film and must speak lines as though to his daughter. Real life impinges on fictional life as he is overcome with emotion. When Lee’s new female friend Charlotte reads Edna St. Vincent Milay’s poem “Dirge Without Music” to him, Elliott’s reaction is also spot on.
All the characters play their parts well, although it was difficult to understand how Elliott’s character of Lee Hayden was so forgiving of Charlotte, after her cruelty towards him onstage during her comedy act. The elderly: one of the few remaining groups under fire; it seems it is just fine to make fun of someone for being old. That is exactly what Laura Prepon’s character does, without mercy, in her act. Yet Elliott’s character, Lee Hayden, is quite forgiving.
During the Q&A, Director Brett Haley was asked why he has made more than one film about old age. (His 2015 film “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” starring Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott, was also about an older woman facing old age, death, and being alone.) Haley first responded that this film was built around Elliott’s persona, but went on to say, “This film is about legacy…about looking back on one’s achievements. There’s something very interesting to me about older people who are toting up their achievements in life and trying to cope with the end of it all. Ageism is a problem in film and it’s a problem in society. That’s just something I’m drawn to.”
There are many beach scenes in the film which cinematographer Rob Givens photographed beautifully. Haley shared with the audience that the crew shot all the beach scenes in one day but when they went back to film they had to find a cliff for the principal actors to stand on (Elliott and his daughter Lucy, played by Krysten Ritter) because 6 to 8 foot swells had covered the beach.
One very big positive about the film, for me, was the use of Edna St. Vincent Milay’s poem “Dirge Without Music.” I asked Haley whether they had to pay the poet’s estate to use the film, and he said, ”They were very nice, and they let us use the poem for free. Her estate said, ‘Any time we can get the word out about her work, we’re happy.’” The director went on to say that, in his experience, “I think it is through music and poetry and film that we communicate. That’s what we all do. It’s why I have a recurring theme in the movie involving the Buster Keaton film clips. If I were dying and wanted to talk about death, that’s what I’d do. To me, it felt like a real thing that real people would do, and Milay is one of my favorite poets.”
Asked about Sam Elliott’s ability to roll a real joint for key plot scenes, Haley made it clear that Sam Elliott does not smoke marijuana, but knew exactly how to roll a doobie. Nick Offerman (“Parks & Recreation”) playing his drug dealer and friend Jeremiah from co-starring in a television series, was very complimentary about Elliott’s work ethic and what an honor and education it was to work with the old pro.
Said Offernan: “On the set of Parks & Recreation (Elliott had a recurring role as Nick’s doppelganger), I always tried to show up early. So, to work with a giant like Sam Elliott, I wasn’t going to show up less than thirty minutes early or not knowing my lines. It’s the same way I felt working with Michael Keaton. These guys are legends. So, one morning we’re shooting at 4:30 a.m. and I show up half an hour early, and there’s Sam, already leaning against the truck.” (laughs)
Director Haley shared that the film was originally supposed to be called “Iceberg,” which had to do with a metaphor in the film and the image of an iceberg on the drug dealer Jeremiah’s computer, but, just before shooting began, the title was changed because, “’The Hero’ is a closer portrayal of what the film is about. The title came to me right before we shot, and some of the early producers weren’t as keen on it, but I think it works.”
There are some random scenes meant to show Lee Hayden’s career in movies. In one, Elliott emerges from a small pup tent, wearing a cowboy hat. When you see him in the scene, it is unclear whether this is a flashback, a flash forward, or simply present history. Likewise, a scene where Lee (apparently dreaming?) sees a man hanging from a tree is in the film, but the message it is supposed to be sending is unclear.
OVERALL: It was nice to see a film that acknowledges that some people do live into their 7th decade of life and are not necessarily total fossils. An examination of any woman’s magazine “beautiful at any age” issue would convince you that there is no woman (or man, for that matter) who lives past 60 and could be considered handsome or beautiful. The fact that Lee is also obviously still virile (there are numerous love scenes, chastely shot) is also a gift to the AARP generation. That was unexpected and nice. Only a few films of the past decade have focused on characters in their golden years and done so sensitively. This is one of them.