October 24-November 2
Arabian Sights: Contemporary Arab Cinema
The 13th Annual Arabian Sights Film Festival offers a diverse selection of the newest, most provocative, and inspiring films from today's Arab world. All films are Washington DC premieres with subtitles in English. The Arabian Sights Film Festival showcases films that demonstrate the range and commitment of directors, several of whom will be present at their screenings, and who invariably manage to tell moving stories while exploring the issues facing their region.
Highlights include the Jordanian film and winner of the Sundance Film Festival's World Cinema Audience Award Captain Abu Raed with director Amin Matalqa and producer David Pritchard attending. Captain Abu Raed is the first film to come out of Jordan in 50 years and is also the first film from Jordan to enter the 2008 Oscar race. From Palestine comes Slingshot Hip Hop, an Official Selection of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. A Q&A with director Jackie Salloum will follow the screening. Slingshot Hip Hop is a documentary on Palestinian hip-hop and youth culture. The film spotlights a vibrant hip-hop scene where artists discover the forum and employ it to express themselves and their perspectives on occupation, dispossession and poverty. The film follows several artists, including "Dam," a group of Palestinian artists and activists from Israel who have seen commercial success in Europe, "PR" (Palestinian Rapperz), who have developed their hip hop art forms in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip, and soloist Abeer and the group "Arapeyat," who are redefining gender roles and shaking traditions. "Dam" will perform live with singer Aheera at the Hard Rock Café.
Other titles include 33 Days, In the Heliopolis Flat, The Island, Life After the Fall, Out of Coverage, Recycle, Under the Bombs, Waiting for Pasolini and The Yellow House.
Screenings are held in two locations: Landmark's E Street Cinema (555 11th Street, NW) and The Goethe Institut (812 Seventh Street NW). The festival begins October 24 and runs through November 2, 2008. Tickets are $10 per person unless noted otherwise. A ten-film pass is available for $85. Film Society members will receive a discount; watch your e-mail for details. For more information call 202-724-6813 or visit the website.
The Cinema Lounge
The next meeting of the Cinema Lounge will be on Monday, October 13 at 7:00pm. The topic to be discussed is "Love Chemistry: why does it work sometimes and not others?"
The Cinema Lounge, a film discussion group, meets the second Monday of every month at 7:00pm at Barnes and Noble, 555 12th St., NW in Washington, DC (near the Metro Center Metro stop). You do not need to be a member of the Washington DC Film Society to attend. Cinema Lounge is moderated by Daniel R. Vovak, ghostwriter with Greenwich Creations.
Last month at Cinema Lounge
On September 8, 2008, we discussed "Summer Review/Fall Preview." The evening began with questions about the upcoming release Towelhead (2008), directed by Alan Ball. Then someone stated that Eagle Eye (2008) did not look like it was going to be good, especially since the woman's voiceover on the trailer was annoying. There was an eagerness for one person to see the movie Terminator Salvation (2009). Another was interested in Frost/Nixon (2008), with someone else interested in W (2008) by Oliver Stone.
One person complained about The Dark Knight (2008) because it was too long. Another disagreed, saying, "You could only sleep through that movie if you were on meds or had some serious issues." Most people thought Gotham City looked too much like Chicago. Also, why did Katie Holmes turn down a role in that movie for Mad Money (2008)?
There were complaints that Ben Stiller was over-publicized in the credits of Tropic Thunder (2008). There was a similar compliant with Julie Delpy in 2 Days in Paris (2007).
Interestingly, five of the six people in the group had seen The Bank Job (2008), with everyone loving the film. Speed Racer (2008) was considered to be a victim of too much CGI. Flawless (2008) was rated as pretty good. People were disappointed in Stop Loss (2008) and The Incredible Hulk (2008), believing the Hulk was more of a reboot.
The funniest comment of the night was that "Someone could stomp on your foot and take $10 and save you more pain than watching The Happening" (2008), a film by M. Night Shyamalan. Someone else laughed, adding: "Smoke the plants; burn the forest," regarding the same film.
A topic arose about whether or not actors have "minutes on screen" in their contracts. There was no consensus on it, though. As the evening closed, there were comments about how target marketing has changed some media outlets. For instance, Disney now is all about Tween girls. MTV is about 16+ kids.
Two New Films by Wayne Wang
By James McCaskill, DC Film Society Member
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (Wayne Wang, USA, 2007) is, according to the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival catalogue, "a film of precise, carefully orchestrated scenes, privileging quietness over emotional fireworks, simple observation over fussy camera movement. Cultural touchstones act as key narrative instigators, for example, the daughter's lack of a wok indicates to her father that something is wrong in her life. Wayne's vision of America as an alienating, unfriendly place of almost agoraphobic spaces between houses and people is compelling and allows much of the film's emotional life to remain unspoken. Wang is aided immeasurably by gifted Chinese-American character actor Henry O as the father, Mr. Shi. His subtle use of body language and restrained delivery make the film's emotional clashes all the more rich and profound."
A Thousand Years is not rushed. Mr. Wang does not rush the storyline as he takes a look at the small everyday tensions between the father and daughter. The film is well paced, building to a dramatic dénouement.
Mr. Shi finds his daughter Yilan too quiet, living in a nondescript apartment complex and leading what seems like an empty routine existence. To learn more about her, he goes through her things while she’s at work – listening to a CD on her bureau, looking in a drawer. In the evening he cooks up multi-course dinners for her, and tries to engage her in conversation. Yilan remains cautious; she doesn’t want to share her private life with him. His prying and lecturing are becoming a nuisance.
Mr. Shi cannot understand what is happening. He comes from a generation where parents remained part and parcel of their children’s lives, as long as they lived. The only person he feels close to in this cold new universe is Madam (Vida Ghahremani), an elderly and vivacious Iranian woman living with her son and his family. They begin to meet regularly on a local park bench. Since they can’t speak much English, they end up conversing in a mix of their own language and a smattering of English words. The miracle is that they seem to communicate easily, in stark contrast with the inability of Mr. Shi and his daughter to communicate.
Wayne (named for Hollywood star John Wayne) Wang has had an amazing career. From his first feature film, Chan is Missing (1983) to the box office success Joy Luck Club (1993) that led to major Hollywood films Maid in Manhattan (with Jennifer Lopez, 2002), Because of Wynn Dixie (about a dog named for the Southern chain of grocery stores, 2005) and Queen Latifah's Last Holiday (2006) and now returning to films that hark back to the immigrant's journey with A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Princess of Nebraska (USA, 2007).
With these two 2007 films Mr. Wang returns to his roots, exploring quietly the generational and cultural shifts a Chinese immigrant finds in the modern USA. Wang said, "I felt I should go back to something smaller, more personal, something about the Chinese-American community. Walking around Chinatown now you feel how the community has changed, which has to do with the new immigrants and how China itself has changed."
Princess of Nebraska, like A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, is based on a short story by the exceptional San Francisco Bay area author Yiyun Li. Where Thousand Years is quiet and restrained Princess is kinetic and energetic, far more experimental and untamed that its companion film. The story line has Chinese immigrant Sasha (Ling Li) in San Francisco seeking an abortion while fleeing her college in Omaha, Nebraska. The openness of San Francisco provides situations for Sasha to rethink her abortion and her future. Not just experimental in filming, Mr. Wang is experimental in distributing this film. It can be seen free on www.youtube.com/ytscreeningroom after October 17.
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers opens on Friday, October 3 at Landmark's E Street Cinema.
The Lucky Ones: Q&A with Director Neil Burger
This Q&A with director Neil Burger took place on September 15 at Landmark's Bethesda Row Cinema. DC Film Society director Michael Kyrioglou led the discussion. The film opened in Washington on September 26.
Michael Kyrioglou: Where did the idea come from for this project?
Neil Burger: I had been working on The Illusionist and was out of the country for six months. When I came back I had that shock of re-entry--what should seem familiar seems foreign. I was looking at the country through fresh eyes. And as a filmmaker I wanted to do something very different from The Illusionist. I liked The Illusionist but it is involved with aristocrats and arcane matters of magic. So I wanted very much to do something about the here-and-now and had this idea of people taking a road trip across the country, a snapshot of the country now.
MK: Were the characters or storylines inspired by people or created by you?
NB: The whole cultural and political situation was in the air. Originally the story was about two guys taking a road trip across the country, just trying to have fun. Then I brought in a friend of mine who's a novelist, Dirk Wittenborn, as a co-writer. We started to expand it from there and realized that we needed most importantly a female character. Next we changed one of the male characters to someone a little bit older, the Tim Robbins character. It's certainly not a cross-section of the country by any means, but they do different things. Cheever [Tim Robbins] is a sort of forgotten American, a guy getting the shaft. TK [Michael Peña] is arrogant and a know it all. Using characteristics from people we knew, we made them into full characters.
MK: We hear about this on the news and quite a few films and plays are directly related to the current events and the camaraderie of the soldiers.
NB: The movie is about people serving their country while the rest of us back here are aware or not aware, in various degrees, of their problems, lives and sacrifices. The conventional wisdom of Vietnam is that when the soldiers came home they were mistreated by the populace. Now this is different; they are welcomed home. But throughout the movie people are saying, "Thank you for your service." Most of the soldiers we talked to say they prefer "welcome home" rather than "thank you." So we decided to use that. People mean well but it's sort of empty. This doesn't mean that "thank you" isn't genuine or a valid thing to say. This country was built on people who give selflessly while others are more self-centered going on about their business. There seems to be a disconnect. So it was just an interesting thing to learn about.
Question: How did you choose the specific actors and/or characters?
NB: We wrote the characters; we looked for actors who fit those molds. Colee [Rachel McAdams] was naive but open and a feisty fighter. For the TK character, we looked for a guy who was African American or Hispanic or some kind of minority. Michael [Peña] was in Crash as the Mexican-American locksmith and he is a good actor. You look for an actor who has the characteristics of the character you want him to play. And Michael is a sort of driven guy, very distinctive, always wanting to be the best. He was perfect for TK, who is a kind of know-it-all.
Q: Did you screen this for military personnel?
NB: We haven't had a purely military personnel screening but we have screened it a few times in California. There were a number of people there who either were in the military, had been in the military, or had brothers or sons in the military and the reception was good. They understood what we were after. We also had military advisors who worked on it.
Q: Why don't the characters talk about what happened in Iraq?
NB: I can't speak for all soldiers, but most of the people we talked to just want to come home, find their family, have some decent food and have a good time. To me it is less about the Iraq war than it is about America. And that's why I did it as a road trip. The fact that they are soldiers is important and puts finer points on everything. But what their particular experience over there was, is less important than the fact that they were serving their country and sacrificing themselves for some kind of greater good while the rest of the country marches on obliviously.
Q: The encounters with people they meet captured the awkwardness. Did you talk to the military for research?
NB: I know a few people that were in the military and began with them; I got names, and names from those names. I know a documentary filmmaker who had interviewed a whole host of people and so I was introduced to people that way. And my co-writer knew people as well. We were looking for anecdotal evidence, their experiences. And we also took our own road trips. We went across the country back and forth a few times; so we weave all that in. The soldier element worked to have the actor be respectful and true to their experience. To me the Iraq war is just a small part of the American experience. As my co-writer said, the Iraq war should be just a flea bite on America but if you're not careful a flea bite can become infected and kill you. It's just one symptom of something larger and that's what I was interested in. So I was interested in being true and respectful to the soldier but I was also more interested in them as just regular Americans.
Q: The army women were outstanding and realistic. People really do say "Thank you for your service."
MK: Michael Peña had served in the military and Rachel went to a training program for a few weeks.
NB: We wanted to do it right. Rachel went to boot camp for two weeks just to have that experience. No one knew who she was. She just went through and did it. Tim did the same thing with a reserve unit, just to have the experience and be as true as possible.
Q: How did you choose the stops [along the trip]?
NB: The reason we chose the stops we did--particularly Vegas: It used to be that the mythology of America was the West. You would go West. That's where you would find what was precious and truest about America. Whether true or not that's the myth. That West seems to be embodied by Vegas in a weird way, kind of a plastic version of the world. You see them driving by the Pyramids and the Statue of Liberty. So that seemed to be the place they should go. And if they are going there, how are they going to get there? If you're trying to get somewhere in a hurry, you don't take a scenic byway like you sometimes see in road movies, you take the Interstate. We wanted to get there as fast as possible. That's the way I wanted to do the movie, on the highways and all. Then it was: how would they get there. So we took that trip and on our research found what we thought was interesting and evocative along the way.
MK: Was there anything particular you were trying to say with the accident on the highway when the pipe goes through the windshield? It was startling.
NB: One thing that was driving the story when we were writing it (originally it was called "The Return"), was the idea of luck, especially with TK. He kept on having these close calls. Then when he finally gets his "virility" back, he's suddenly not happy about his luck and believes his luck has run out.
Q: There is a scene with Muslim people in a car. You try to read what's in their faces, forcing the viewer to wonder what they are thinking. Was this intentional?
NB: Yes it was intentional, that scene where the Middle Eastern looking people are driving by and you, the viewer, have to confront your own feelings. From talking to people who've been over there, really what they do all day is drive around, on patrol, driving past people who make them nervous. You get a sense that some people are going to be okay and that some aren't. Transposed to the US it's a completely different thing. There's all kinds of people here. Are they innocent? The characters are suddenly on alert, suddenly all their experiences are brought back.
Q: Did you consider different ways of ending the movie?
NB: The ending was encapsulated in the initial idea. They were always going back. They needed to go back and continue on with their duty.
Q: When you come up with a story concept how do you decide on a genre to tell the story and how does that influence the story?
NB: I come up with a lot of different story ideas and only a few of them make it to being a script or a movie. The best ideas start with a beginning, middle and end, all in the initial idea. The ending we have was always going to be the ending. But it doesn't mean that things won't change. Sometimes you come up with ideas that are great beginings for a movie but then have no way to be resolved. But with the genre, it sort of comes, you realize while you are writing it. Is it drama-ish, comedy-ish, a road movie? You become aware of what the conventions are in a road movie and decide to push in those directions or ignore them and go in other directions.
Q: How do you decide if your idea is good?
NB: If you haven't seen it before or if you've seen it before but have a fresh take on it, then it's worth making. It somehow speaks to you or speaks to the times. When we started writing, we wanted to write a love letter to America, warts and all. But what we ended up doing, is more a love letter to the three characters, who embodied what's best about America, who ultimately give themselves so selflessly. And they change, they learn from their mistakes and they grow and change in the best ways. They're looking for family and find that their friendship is the strongest bond.
MK: Will the many changes in the indie landscape affect how you work? [Companies folding or being merged with bigger companies].
NB: A lot of money is involved. Making a film costs a lot, so you are beholden to the financiers. I had final cut on the movie, but still it's a controversial subject. Because it has the Iraq word, suddenly everybody was terrified of it. Some studios are not so filmmaker friendly.
Q: It was hard to think that the Tim Robbins character would go back.
NB: Some things are based on what we learned about people. We drew him as a guy who is a little embittered in general. He did have his wife and kid, two things that meant something to him. And when he came home that all fell apart and he was left with nothing. He has a meaningless existence. So he felt and what he ultimately does is find meaning in the ultimate sacrifice, to give to his son, keep his son away from the war and give his son the best he can, by essentially sacrificing himself. There are people who do such things and I was interested in what that journey might be.
Trouble the Water: Director Q&A
By Ron Gordner, DC Film Society Member
The directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessin did Q&A sessions after Friday, September 26th evening and some Saturday, September 27th, 2008 screenings at the E Street Landmark Theatres. Trouble in the Water won the Grand Jury Award as best documentary at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Also in attendance after the 10:45 am Saturday screening were the subjects or stars of the documentary, Kimberly Roberts and her husband Scott. She also had her infant daughter, Skye who was born at the Park City Hospital, during the Sundance Festival, not long after she had seen the first screening of her film, on Monday, January 21, 2008. It just happened to be Martin Luther King Day also.
The directors thanked Amnesty International and Trans Africa organizations for co-sponsoring or partnering on this film, who handle poverty and socioeconomic issues in Latin America, Asia, and Africa and other third world countries. They also mentioned that people in our country can be so disenfranchised also and be treated poorly. We want to prevent this from happening again. Also thanks to Danny Glover as an executive producer for having seen the film and getting behind the film and making sure it made it to theatres. Danny is on the board of Trans Africa, and when everyone was saying I don’t think this film will be screened in theaters, Danny said it was an important film and got behind it to have openings in a number of cities. They also thanked Kimberly and Scott for sharing their powerful story and their vision as the New Orleans’ residents documenting a true account of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, with complete honesty and openness, and keeping it real.
Question: How did you begin this project and connect with Kimberly and Scott?
Kimberly: A week before the storm I got the camcorder for $20 on the street and just began playing with it. The day before the storm, I began to play with it, learning how to film, start and stop it. I didn’t know how to use it that well, and am still learning, but when the storm hit, I wanted to document the storm, what happened to our house and family and the neighborhood for history. When we finally left New Orleans and were brought to Alexandria, Louisiana, we saw Carl and Tia’s van and heard they were film makers and stopped to see if they were interested in our story.
Tia: We had come originally to make a film about what was happening after Katrina when Louisiana reserves returned from Iraq duty, but when we saw Kimberly’s footage and story, we knew we could add onto it to make an interesting documentary. We did includ some of the Louisiana reserves footage, but the focus of the film changed to a much larger story of how the citizens left behind in New Orleans survived and how long it took to get help.
Question: Thank you for this powerful film and showing how poverty and racism is still present today in our country. Who needs to see this film the most?
Kimberly: We want Senators Obama, McCain, Congress, President Bush, anyone in leadership, and those who failed to provide quick relief to the Katrina victims to see this film so that this kind of poor response will not be repeated again. The Mayor of New Orleans left after watching only about two minutes of the film. He thought it showed too negative a view of the city.
Question: This film is more than about Katrina, it is about anyone in poverty or struggling to survive and inspiration on how to better yourself and survive as a human being in this world despite the obstacles thrown against you, to continue and strive for something better. I thank you for a beautiful, powerful film and for just being real. Also I love your rap music and want to know where to get it or your songs on the soundtrack?
Kimberly: Thank you. How can I get your music is the number one question we get. I usually travel with CDs to sell, but didn’t on this trip. You can buy them on bornhustler.com or also on CDBaby.com. [She is known as Black Kold Madina from the 9th Ward also].
Question: How was the recent storm Gustav handled in New Orleans? Did they get things done right this time in comparison to Katrina?
Tia, Carl, and Kimberly: It was much better. The city was evacuated before the storm hit. People had transportation to leave the city and there was no looting reported. But the levees are still weak, and they barely held up and have not been replaced. People did leave this time. During Katrina, it wasn’t that we didn’t want to leave, we had no transportation, the poor, disabled, and others were forgotten. Those people who left still had to leave their jobs and homes and are still trying to get back to normal. We still have to care about our coasts, and the film is not just about Katrina. It is about poverty in this country and how people are disenfranchised. Go to our website to see other organizations to support and for more information. We have a small distributor and are doing very little adverting or marketing. Please contact someone you know by phone or email to come and support this film, if you feel it is important.
Carl: Thank you for coming out on a Saturday morning to see our film and we hope you feel it was an enjoyable viewing experience, but we hope you also think this is an important film in our election year and that you will tell all your friends to come and see it especially the first week end it plays here in DC to ensure it has a second week showing and to provide numbers to prove people think this should be seen.
Kimberly: This about putting the proper resources in our country to fight poverty and make changes, even if it means marches against poverty in DC and other cities. We need to support a platform to support better education and change poverty in our country.
Milos Forman at the AFI
By Anita Glick, DC Film Society Member
The films of Milos Forman, both Czech and American, were recently the subject of a retrospective at the AFI. On August 19 at a screening of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), Mr. Forman made an in-person appearance and graciously took questions from the audience. Murray Horowitz, AFI Director, introduced Mr. Forman and AFI programmer Todd Hitchcock moderated the discussion.
Todd Hitchcock: I am here just to get things started because Mr. Forman will take it from there. Thank you, first of all for among others, this movie. It is such a great movie to watch with a full house. But I want to make a single quick point and then will ask Mr. Forman to please fill in some details. In 1974, the studios were not biting on this project when it first went around. But a guy named Saul Zaentz up in the San Francisco area who previously had produced rock acts/musicians--I believe Credence was one of them--did. This was truly an independent production that was eventually distributed by United Artists. But there is a story to that project including buying the Ken Kesey novel, Kirk Douglas, Michael Douglas getting involved. Could you just tell us how this project came to be?
Milos Forman: In 1962, Kirk Douglas bought the book from the galleys, because the book had not come out on the shelves. He wanted to make a movie, playing McMurphy, of course. To his big surprise no one studio wanted to put money in it, and Kirk was at the peak of his stardom. So Kirk, stubborn man, he commissioned the play. This big star--for the first time on Broadway--and the play flopped. Suddenly Kirk had nothing to do. He was asked by President Kennedy to do a good will tour to communist countries, and so he did. He came to Prague, he saw some films, one of mine, there was a small party, and at the party he asked if he could send me a book and if I would read it and be interested in to make it a movie.
The book never came. For me, he was another Hollywood bullshit artist spinning the young Czech film maker's head around and when he leaves the room, he forgets. Eight years later the same book comes in an envelope sent by Saul Zaentz and Michael Douglas, Kirk's son. I read the book finally, it was the most interesting, intelligent piece of literature I had read in a long time. So of course I said I wanted it. Then I met with Michael from whom I learned Michael didn't know that his father was supposed to send me this book eight years before. Strange fate and then I met with Kirk he said "you son of a gun, I send you a book and you didn't even have the courtesy to tell me to shove it." You know I thought the same about you. Well what happened? He really did send the book but the censors at customs confiscated the book and didn't tell him and didn't tell me. But fate decided the other way and finally we made a movie.
No studio wanted to put any money into it, but producer Zaentz of Fantasy Records decided he would finance it with his company. The budget was $2,000,000. When Jack Nicholson signed up, he was not yet a really big star but he was respected in show business. So unions wouldn't do concessions any more. So the budget grew to about $4,000,000, which was still not much. At that time the average film cost $15,000,000 to $20,000,000. He went back to his company board of directors and they said no, and Zaentz said "sorry gentlemen I own 51% of the company and I say yes."
Todd Hitchcock: Jack Nicholson, who signed on relatively early helped in getting the project off the ground and his signing on lifted it further. Anything you can tell us about Jack, people would be interested in
hearing. But I would also like to hear about the casting of Louise Fletcher, who is so vital to the movie. I read this was not the easiest part to cast.
Milos Forman: When it comes to the big nurse, she should be the personification of -- physically and personality wise -- "EVIL." We were turned down by major stars who at that time did not want to be identified with someone so evil on the screen. So, one day I saw her, Louise Fletcher, she looked like a sweet nice angel, nice talking lady. Suddenly, when I am talking to her I know that it is the right face. When you see evil on a face, you know how to deal with evil, you can protect yourself but when you meet an angel you don't know what to expect and it is a big surprise it is very dramatic.
The Oregon State Mental Hospital was the only hospital that would allow filming because the book was so unpopular. Dr. Dean R. Brooks, the hospital Superintendent, made it a condition that some of the patients would be employed. All the patients in the film are professional actors except for the people you see in the background and in other cells. They are all mental patients/inmates. Jack Nicholson was always professional, prepared all his lines, generous to the other actors off set. I don't know til today if he is crazy or not.
Question: I heard that Ken Kesey never actually saw your film and I wondered if you ever met him and if he had any involvement in the film.
Milos Forman: No, I never met Ken Kesey because when I joined the project the producer and Ken Kesey were already on nonspeaking terms. He said he would never see the film and that it was a rape of the book. I have had this experience with several authors. He did not write this book out of his fantasy, he worked as an orderly in a mental institution, based on that he wrote the book. I am usually on the side of the creative people not the money people. Ken Kesey's book is written from the point of view of a psychopathic Indian. In words it is wonderful, but to see it in a realistic film, that would not be right.
Question: I understand the actors spent time with the mental patients. Can you tell us about this?
Milos Forman: I assigned a patient to every actor and told them to observe their behavior; the way they walked and talked and to try to imitate that regardless of their affliction.
Todd Hitchcock: I believe I saw in the news that the hospital is closed or is about to close. What can you tell us about that?
Milos Forman: Yes, they are tearing down the hospital. In the film they are real doctors, all of them. Dean R. Brooks, the real hospital Superintendent called me; he is 93 years old and was very upset that the building was being torn down. All the patients will be going into domestic care and he thinks it is a big mistake.
Nights in Rodanthe: Q&A with Author Nicholas Sparks
This Q&A took place September 16 at the AMC Loew's Georgetown Theater. Nicholas Sparks, author of Nights in Rodanthe took questions from the audience and DCFS director Michael Kyrioglou moderated. Nights in Rodanthe opened in the Washington area on September 26.
Michael Kyrioglou: You've written a lot of books, four of which have been made into films. How did that process get started and when was the first book optioned? How involved are you in the film adaptations and how do you feel about them?
Nicholas Sparks: It's different now than it was when I first started. The first novel I ever sold for a film was The Notebook. I sold that to the publishing house on a Monday; that was a very surreal experience because it was sold for a big gob of money. I was selling pharmaceuticals at the time; I was driving down to Hilton Head for a pharmaceuticals conference that week and was bringing my family down. We pulled over into the McDonald's off the highway with my kids and I ran to a pay phone. We didn't have cell phones back then. I talked to my agent; we talked about the book deal. She said, "Oh, by the way, the people at New Line Cinema read the book, they love it and want to make a movie about it." I'm standing here on the highway, cars are blowing by me at 60 miles an hour, I'm wearing flip flops, my kids are bouncing through the McDonalds and I'm thinking 'You know, it's a pretty strange life I'm leading these days.' So that's how I sold the first one. And they've all been different since. I sold Message in a Bottle halfway through. This one, I believe I sold it fairly quickly. It's always sold before the novel comes out, because of the scouts. The scouts wait around and see if there are any really good books, or whispers about good books. It's their job to get manuscripts to Hollywood as quickly as possible. So when I come out with a book, and there's a new one coming out in the next few weeks, we'll offer it to Hollywood. They all know and clear their weekend to read it.
MK: Are there any rules or regulations about how involved you are or what changes are made?
NS: Yes. I don't sell the films to people I don't like. I have to know that you like the novel for the right reason. I have to have faith that you'll stay fairly close to the novel. I don't want someone coming in and making Richard Gere, in this particular movie, some raging alcoholic for example. It would add something to the story maybe but that's not what I do. When you sell a novel to the film studio you waive what is called your droit moral which means that they can change anything they want. So the only control you really have is the people you work with. There's a group of producers with whom I've very comfortable and they get first dibs on my projects. I really like Denise Di Novi. She does a good job and will probably get first dibs on my next project.
MK: The director [George C. Wolfe] is a theater director. He has done Angels in America, has won many awards and has quite a pedigree. How did he get involved?
NS: Let me tell you about George. George is African American and came into this project with this vision that I think came from his 25 years of stage direction. If you look at this film, it's very much like a play: two characters and largely a single setting. When Denise [Di Novi] was working with George, she said that he was probably the only director who knew exactly where everything is in every background shot. That comes from a theater background. This is an intimate movie; it's simple but simplicity is often the hardest thing to do well. To bring you on this emotional journey is very challenging to do when you don't have so much melodrama going on all around you. So I thought George was the perfect choice for this film because of his theater background. This is his feature film directorial debut, the only other film he did was Lackawanna Blues.
Question: What scenes are shot first?
NS: I don't do anything along those lines as a general rule. I tend to be a little bit involved in the script but I don't do casting or locations. I don't do the director's job. Again, this is where that trust comes in. Denise hired these people, she picked Richard [Gere] and Diane [Lane]. They've known each other for 25 years; this is their third film together and they're also good friends. One thing you can't direct in a film is chemistry. They have to have this chemistry together. But it also has to be a chemistry that audiences like to see. You have to like them together. Very few actors fall into this kind of position. So I kind of stay out of all of those movie making processes.
MK: Do folks call and say they have someone in mind for a part and what do you think?
NS: Yes, but it's a done deal by that time.
Q: So far what is your favorite adaptation of your books?
NS: It depends on my mood. They are very different. When they come on, I watch them, because I think they are all pretty good. I don't have a favorite.
Q: I couldn't believe that The Notebook was by a male author.
NS: Thank you. I've heard that before. People come up and say, "Tell me the truth, it's your wife that's doing this, right?" This is a common misperception, that this is a rare thing. What I write is decended from Greek tragedy. They are modern-day Greek tragedies, which why there is often a tragic ending, or a bittersweet ending. But there's always an air of sadness in them. Because the role of the Greek tragedy was to be a microcosm of life, in which you are brought along on a journey in which you experience all of the emotions of life. You have happiness, frustration, anger, fear, longing, lust. But sadness is also a part of that. Greek tragedy evolved over the centuries. William Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra and he was a man. Ernest Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms, probably the classic love story of the 20th century. In modern times, Erich Segal did Love Story. Robert James Waller did The Bridges of Madison County and Nicholas Evans did The Horse Whisperer. All these are men. And now you have moi. [Audience laughs]. What I do is often confused with a romance novel. Believe me, if I tried to publish any of my novels as romances, they would be rejected. Because it is not that genre at all. Yes, there is a love element, but it is just not that genre. That is a genre that has been traditionally, at least in modern times, dominated by women. Originally, though, all romance novels--they have a long literary history, not quite as long as the Greek tragedy--go back to about the 12th century with Grimm's fairy tales. More people know Grimm's fairy tales than plays by Euripedes. But it's a very different thing; women tend to write that, Jane Austen for example. Why the breakdown? I don't know.
Q: I liked having a story about old people in love.
NS: Love is magic at any age. That's one of things I wanted to really explore in Nights of Rodanthe, the fact that if you are in your 40s or 50s and fall in love it is just as powerful as when you are 18 or 25. But is tempered by maturity and the experience of life. But that does not mean less powerful. It's a different kind of power. In some ways it is stronger because you are going into it with a little bit of reality. I vary the ages in my novels to appeal to a broad audience.
Q: Do you cry when watching your movies?
NS: No, not really. It's a surreal experience. Generally it's on a studio lot and I'm generally the only one in the room. You sit down in this big theater and the guy asks if you're ready to start. So you sit back and watch this all by yourself. Remember, I'm very close to the story. I know exactly what's going to happen. I've read it at great length 50 times. I wrote the novel in the first place. But there are moments when I get a little choked up.
Q: Does your anticipation that the novel might be made into a movie change how you write the novel? And do you have any aspirations to write screenplays?
NS: No. I'm a novelist. That's hard enough; I don't like to add anything to it. I do think about film in the following way though. But it's the opposite way you think. When I write my novels, I try to write a story that is very universal but has original elements that make it unique. I don't want to write the same novel I did in the past or novels that others have done. I wouldn't write about a National Geographic photographer who shows up and photographs cows in Nebraska. It's too similar to Bridges of Madison County. I take that same thought for film in that I would never write a love story on the Titanic. That would be a very original novel but not a very original story, because everyone knows Titanic. So that's the only way I think about film--to say that I can't do that because I've either read it before or saw it before. As for screenplays, they're not hard to do. Writing a good one is hard.
MK: Did anyone want to change the characters or locations?
NS: Bollywood called and wanted to do both The Notebook and The Wedding in India. But that went nowhere. Japan has modified A Walk to Remember.
Q: Do people in your family think the characters are based on them?
NS: Yes. They are! Sometimes it's very point blank: "I can't believe you wrote this about me." I have to get my ideas from somewhere. That said, you make up your own characters. But certain elements of characters are certainly drawn from people I know.
Q: Do you always have plot going on in your mind?
NS: Hopefully. I either have zero or one. After I wrote The Notebook, I said, "well, that's it, the well is dry. I had my one good idea and will never do anything else." Then I came up with the Message in a Bottle concept and wrote that and then said, "it's all over, I don't know what I'm going to do. I'll have to go back to selling pharmaceuticals." But then I got one more idea. So, I either have one idea that I'm working on or no ideas. But there's a lot of bad ideas. Ones that are right don't come all that often.
Q: In this story, did you ever toy with the idea of keeping Paul alive?
NS: Paul was doomed from the very first page. There's a real fine line between drama and melodrama. There's also a real fine line between evoking genuine emotion and being manipulative. A very fine line. It is my intent to never cross that line. I get accused of crossing the line, but I know the difference. What is the best way in the novel to show that Paul died? Do you have a scene like in the film? That wouldn't really work in the novel because the novel was from her perspective. Did she get a phone call? That really wouldn't work either. So the novel is a little different from the film, but the effect is the same. That was a challenge. The theme was love and sacrifice, so there has to be sacrifice.
Q: What attracted you to the genre of tragedy?
NS: I was 28 years old and decided that I was going to give myself three chances to write a novel. I had already written two that were terrible, one at age 19 and one at 22. So this time I'm going to take it seriously, I'm going to give it my all. So what can I write? There was this little story about my wife's grandparents, kind of a very sweet story. They met when they were teenagers but her parents didn't like him. They took her away, they were separated for about 14 years, she gets engaged to someone else but before the wedding she finds him, they get married and have a long and happy life. Towards the end of her life she gets Alzheimer's, he sits day after day by her side going through all of the sketches he had made of major moments of their life, and loved her with all his heart. That was my wife's grandparents. And I wrote that story [The Notebook] and it sold 11-12 million copies. So I said, "let's try that again." Then I did Message in a Bottle and they did a movie and that took off. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Had The Notebook bombed, maybe I'd be writing thrillers, who knows.
Q: When you are writing do you have someone in mind?
NS: When I'm writing I work with one person, my agent. She knows all and everything about what I do. Sometimes I brainstorm with her, but less frequently than you think, and then and only then, it goes to my editors. But, no, I never write for anyone. I write for me. When I sit down, I try to write the best novel that I can that meets all the little criteria I have in my head: not being manipulative or melodramatic, being original, having universal characters, putting them into interesting situations, bringing them together in a way that holds people's interest, making the love story feel very real. After you've written so much it's tough to make an original character. You start running out of material.
Q: You are a famous author with a wife and five kids. How is your wife her own person?
NS: We got married and I waited tables and was home all the time. Then I sold pharmaceuticals and had a territory, and was pretty much home all the time. Then I became a writer which means I'm really home all the time. So this is something that my wife and I have adapted to since I was 22. My wife likes it when I do something like this [publicity tour], "I can't miss you if you don't go away." We started a Christian school in my home town, grades 6-12, which has 250 students now, and she is very involved with that. We home school three of our children and I coach track and field at the local high school and she is team mom. She's got her own things that she does. But we meet for lunch every day
Calendar of Events
American Film Institute Silver Theater
The Latin American Film Festival concludes October 7. You can still see films from Argentina, Cuba, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela and Uruguay.
The DC Labor Film Festival – one of the only such film festivals – is screening dozens of films about work and workers from around the world, including dramas, documentaries, shorts and comedies from October 9-14. This year features director Ramin Bahrani's Chop Shop and Man Push Cart. Other labor related films include End of the Line from Brazil, Nine Star Hotel from Israel, The Missing Star from Italy and many from the US such as Stop-Loss, The Promotion, Office Space, and Kabluey. Check the website for titles and times.
"Noir City DC" is a series of film noir and the first edition of the Noir City Film Festival produced by the Film Noir Foundation. Screen star Farley Granger will appear on October 25 with Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951); other films with Farley Granger (They Live By Night and Side Street) are also shown. The series includes great classics such as Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard as well as the lesser-known The Third Voice, Tomorrow is Another Day and The Prowler. Check the website for titles and times.
For Halloween, the AFI presents Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922) on October 31 at 7:00 and 9:30pm. Other Halloween movies are Rosemary's Baby, Night of the Living Dead and Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit.
A SilverDocs presentation on October 14 at 7:00pm is Secrecy (Peter Galison and Robb Moss) about the hidden world of the government's secret classified documents.
The AFI hosts several of the "Reel Affirmations" screenings October 18-24. See the Reel Affirmations website for more information.
Freer Gallery of Art
The US-ASEAN Film Festival 2008, a series of films from Southeast Asia, concludes in October with Flower in the Pocket (Liew Seng Tat, Singapore, 2007) on October 3 at 7:00pm and The White Silk Dress (Huynh Luu, Vietnam, 2006) on October 12 at 2:00pm.
A series of four films by Indian director Kumar Shahani begins on October 24 at 7:00pm with The Khayal Saga (1988). On October 26 at 2:00pm is The Wave (1984); on October 31 at 7:00pm is The Bamboo Flute (2000) and on November 2 at 2:00pm is Kasba (1990).
The Devil Music Ensemble will accompany the silent film Red Heroine (China, 1929) on October 8 at 7:00pm.
National Gallery of Art
"New Swiss Cinema" is a series of documentaries and features from members of Switzerland's rising independent film community with six area premieres. See the website for titles and times.
"Jules Dassin, American Abroad" is a two part series of films by Jules Dassin who died this year. On October 18 at 2:30pm is Phaedra (1962) and on October 26 at 4:30pm is Rififi (1955).
"Roman Ruins Rebuilt" is a film series to accompany the Gallery's new exhibition Pompeii and the Roman Villa. On October 25 at 2:00pm is The Last Days of Pompeii (Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1935) and The Last Days of Pompeii (Eleuterio Rodolfi, 1913) an Italian silent film which will be accompanied on piano by Burnett Thompson. Martin Winkler, professor of classics at George Mason University will introduce the program. More in November.
"Film Indians Now!" is a series of films and discussions focusing on the portrayals of American Indians. Four events are at the Gallery and four at the National Museum of the American Indian (see below). On October 4 at 2:00pm is Pocahontas (1995), the animated Disney film. More in November.
Other special events at the Gallery include The Last Underground (Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche, 2008) on October 19 at 4:30pm with the director present for discussion. On October 5 at 4:30pm is the Washington premiere of Derek (2008), an experimental portrait of director Derek Jarman. On October 8, 9 and 10 at 12:30pm is a documentary about Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti, Eyes on the Horizon (Heinz Butler, 2006).
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
On October 2 at 8:00pm is a program of highlights from LOOP, a festival of cutting-edge media art held annually in Barcelona. On October 16 at 8:00pm is Seven Easy Pieces (Babette Mangolte) about artist Marina Abramovic's works at the Guggenheim Museum.
National Museum of African Art
On October 18 at 2:00pm is Living the HipLife (Jesse Shipley, 2007), a documentary about rap musician Reggie Rockstone Ossei's 1994 return to his native Ghana. The filmmaker and a special music guest will be present for discussion.
National Museum of the American Indian
As part of the film series "Film Indians Now!" (also see the National Gallery of Art, above), on October 5 at 2:00pm is Club Native (Tracey Deer, 2008) set on the Mohawk reservation which has two unwritten rules: Don't marry or have children with a white man.
National Portrait Gallery
On October 3 at 7:00pm as part of the "Reel Portraits" film series is Good Night and Good Luck (George Clooney, 2005) about newsman Edward R. Murrow's showdown with Senator Joseph McCarthy. Robert Griffith, professor of history at American University introduces the film. On October 8 at 7:00pm is The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941). On October 15 at 7:00pm is On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954) starring Marlon Brando.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
On October 2 at 6:30pm is Film Invisible: Abbott Thayer (2008) about the artist's life and efforts to design camouflage for Allied troops during World War I. On October 29 at 6:00pm is Breakfast at Tiffany's (Blake Edwards, 1961) an Oscar winning film adapted from Truman Capote's 1958 novella and starring Audrey Hepburn.
National Museum of Women in the Arts
NMWA also takes part in the Asian Pacific American Film Festival, see the website. On October 1 at 6:45pm is Against the Grain (Anne Kaneko, 2008), a documentary about four Peruvian artists, shown with the short film Noh-Chim (Kate Hers, 2006). On October 1 at 8:30pm is Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley, 2008), an animated feature about the Indian epic Ramayana.
Films on the Hill
Two sets of double features are scheduled for Halloween. On October 25 at 7:00pm is The Island of Lost Souls (Erle Kenton, 1933), based on the novel by H.G. Wells and starring Charles Laughton as Dr. Moreau and Bela Lugosi as "reader of the law" shown with Chained for Life (Harry L. Fraser, 1951) starring conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton from Freaks fame and inspired by events from the twins' life. On October 31 at 7:00pm is a Boris Karloff mad doctor/mad scientist double feature The Man They Could Not Hang (Nick Grindé, 1939) shown with The Devil Commands (Edward Dmytryk, 1941). Re-scheduled from September is the silent Civil War comedy Hands Up! (Clarence Badger, 1926) shown with What Price Goofy? (Leo McCarey, 1925).
Washington Jewish Community Center
On October 6 at 7:30pm is Kippur (Amos Gitai, 2000), a chronicle of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and winner of an award at Cannes. On October 28 at 7:30pm is Two Days in Paris (Julie Delpy, 2007), a comedy starring Adam Goldberg and Julie Delpy (and Delpy's real-life parents and other family members).
Love is Colder Than Death (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1969) is on October 6 at 6:30pm. Note that the film scheduled for October 8 has been cancelled.
A new series of films by Rainer Simon "Between Fiction and Reality" begins in October and runs through November 10. Rainer Simon, who will appear on October 30 and 31, was one of the most acclaimed directors of the GDR who presently teacher film in Ecuador. On October 27 at 6:30pm is Wengler and Sons, a Legend (1986), a story spanning three generations from the Franco-Prussian war of 1871 to 1945. On October 30 at 6:30pm is Till Eulenspiegel (1974) with Rainer Simon present for the screening which will be introduced by Peter Rollberg from George Washington University. On October 31 at 6:30pm is The Ascent of the Chimborazo (1989), about a scientific expedition up Ecuador's highest summit, Chimborazo. Rainer Simon will be present for this screening. More in November.
National Geographic Society
The "All Roads" film festival was created to "provide an international platform for indigenous and underrepresented minority-culture artists to share their cultures, stories, and perspectives through the power of film and photography." On October 2 at 7:00pm is The Linguists (2007) about the race against time to document endangered languages before the last fluent speaker dies. On October 3 at 7:00pm is "Under the Same Sun," a program of three films Kids' Stories (El Salvador, 2007), Weaving Life (Colombia, 2007) and La Americana (Bolivia, 2007). On October 4 at noon is "A Wave of Change," including Hawaikii (New Zealand, 2006) and Welcome to Enurmino! (Russia, 2008). On October 4 at 4:30pm is "New Warriors": Young, Gifted and Samoan (US, 2008) shown with Under the Open Sky (Mexico, 2007) and What Was Promised (Iraq, 2008). On October 4 at 7:30pm is "The Walls Between Us" including Sikumi: On the Ice (US, 2008) shown with White Mountain (Iran, 2006) and Guarding the Family Silver (New Zealand, 2005). On October 5 at noon is "Women Hold Up Half the Sky" including Keano (US, 2008), A Sketch of Wathone (Myanmar, 2006), Aydaygooay (Canada, 2007) and As We Forgive (Rwanda, 2008). On October 5 at 2:30pm is "Ancestors, Elders and Land" including Na 'Ono o ka 'Aina -- Delicacies of the Land (US, 2009), Maq and the Spirit of the Woods (Canada, 2007), Kids' Stories (El Salvador, 2007), Nikamowin (Song) (Canada, 2007), When Colin Met Joyce (Australia, 2007). The program ends on October 5 at 5:30pm with "Persian Portraits," a program of short experimental films from Iran including Slap (2008), On the Railroad (2008), In Our Home (208), The Cold Dream (2008) and Iran Has No More Pomegranates! (2006). See the Allroads website for more details.
On October 10 at 7:00pm is On the Ropes (Magaly Richard-Serrano, 2007) set in a French boxing club.
On October 18 at noon is 1776 (Peter H. Hunt, 1972) as part of the Treaty of Paris film series. On October 23 at 7:00pm is "A Salute to the National Film Board of Canada," a program celebrating more than 50 years of award-winning short films produced by the National Film Board of Canada. Hosted by animation critic and historian Charles Solomon, the program includes Neighbors (1952), Christmas Cracker (1962), Bob's Birthday (1993), and Ryan (2004). Special guests include Torill Kove, director of The Danish Poet and NFB Film Commissioner Tom Perlmutter.
On October 15 at 8:00pm as part of the French Cinémathèque series is In Mom's Head (Carine Tardeau, 2007) with Jane Birkin. For this month's "Czech Lions" is Dark Blue World (Jan Sverak, 2001) set during WWII and the Cold War.
On October 22 at 7:00pm is Journey of Man (2000) an IMAX 3-D film screening followed by a discussion with a member of Cirque du Soleil.
Sixth and I Synagogue
The Sixth and I Synagogue takes part in "Reel Affirmations." See the Reel Affirmations website.