Clint Eastwood, Danny Boyle, Kristin Scott-Thomas Discuss Films
The Santa Barbara Film Festival
Makes My Day and Everyone Else’s
By Ronn Levine, DC Film Society Member
As regal and pretty as all the socialites she plays, Kristin Scott Thomas sits on stage, as clips of her first big film role in Under the Cherry Moon–in all its black-and-white, Princian splendor–flash on screen.
"Prince gave me my first role," she says. "My agent asked me to come to this rehearsal; halfway through they gave me the lead. I was in love with Prince. I’m still in love with him." But watching the clip brings a funny face and she’s asked what’s wrong. "You don’t want to really go back [in time]; but you do want to step in and tell [yourself] how to do it better."
It’s late January 2009 at the Santa Barbara Film Festival and we’re inside the historic Lobero Theatre–built in 1873, restored in 1924 and a 1940s haven for stars like Ingrid Bergman, Clark Gable, Igor Stravinsky and Tyrone Power. Hollywood beckons an hour south, the Pacific Ocean sits down the trolley-carred street, the mountains loom behind us, and I’m having an English Patient moment because Kristin Scott Thomas and Ralph Fiennes are in the room.
Photo from the Santa Barbara Film Festival website
Santa Barbara has to be one of the best and most accessible film festivals for any east-coast cinephile to attend. Reasonably priced tickets–even for the star-studded tributes–plenty of star power, pretty beaches, sunshine and 70 degrees await. And it’s in the proverbial dead of winter! As Clint Eastwood says later in the week at his tribute, "I came here to present last year, had a good time and am glad to be back."
While the new films and excited directors power the festival–including a spirited interview with director Danny Boyle following a Slumdog Millionaire showing (see below)–the tributes light it up. Penelope Cruz and Kate Winslet were feted on the first weekend, quite the coup considering the Oscar results to follow. Kristin Scott Thomas and Clint Eastwood get their due mid-week, and David Fincher and Mickey Rourke soak up the applause on the final nights. The tributes are handled Inside the Actors Studio-like, with one questioner–either eccentric and impressive SBFF Executive Director Roger Durling, or in Eastwood’s case, a film auteur like Leonard Maltin.
At Scott Thomas’s tribute, Bitter Moon follows Under the Cherry Moon on the clips parade. "I always wanted to work with Polanski," she says. Four Weddings and a Funeral shows up with that wonderful scene of Scott Thomas at a wedding being questioned by an older woman. ("Are you a lesbian?" "Good Lord, what makes you ask that?") "It was a clever script by Richard Curtis," she says. "All those great actors [in the ensemble cast] gave me the [credentials] to do comedies."
But still, she laments and jokes about being typecast as an upper crustian, such as in Gosford Park. "Here I was so excited to be asked to do a [Robert] Altman [film] and I open up the letter and the part is Lady Sylvia McCordle!" Still, she treasured the experience. "With Altman, you had to create your own dialogue in the background. Then switch to the script when you moved front. During one scene he got real upset. ‘One of you is the weakest link.’ he said. Everyone was giggling, but it was much better after that. In another scene, Ryan Phillippe had to seduce me with warm milk and we couldn’t stop laughing. [Altman] then got very serious. ‘Stop that!’ he said. ‘Just do this.’ It was loose but you had to behave.
"I’ve been fortunate to work with the most amazing co-stars. Kevin Kline (Life as a House), Ralph Fiennes, Woody Harrelson (The Walker)–they surprise you, never the expected."
Interestingly, Scott Thomas probably would not have qualified for this honor save for two recent hit French films, Tell No One and especially last year’s I’ve Loved You So Long, for which she won many awards. "I’m allowed to do other things in France," she says about the country where she has lived most of her adult life. For I’ve Love You So Long, where she plays a woman who has just left jail after 15 years, she says, "the first thing the director said to me was, ‘We’ll have to make you ugly.’ I looked at him, paused and said, "Okay.’ I just wanted to play it honestly. I didn’t want to give anything away with my face. I wanted it to come out naturally."
At the end, Fiennes walks onstage to present her with the festival’s Cinema Vanguard award. He recalls his first meeting with English Patient director Anthony Minghella and Scott Thomas. "You could see right away that she was talented, beautiful and [bleepin’] brilliant," he says. "I guess she had looked at my stuff, which included Hamlet and other classical work. ‘Oh, so you’ve done some real acting,’ she said. She is always completely present and can reveal and hide at the same time. In this business, one doesn’t always keep up with their co-stars, but with Kristin and I there is genuine affection.
It’s Wednesday night and the red carpet has returned to the Lobero Theatre for the Virtuoso Awards, honoring actors who have worked under the radar for many years before finally getting their due.
This time we are treated to shorter one-on-one discussions with Rosemarie DeWitt (Rachel in Rachel Getting Married), Richard Jenkins (Oscar nomination for The Visitor), Melissa Leo (Oscar nomination for Frozen River), Michael Shannon (Oscar nomination for Revolutionary Road) and Viola Davis (Oscar nomination for Doubt).
These actors are likeably humble and have put in the blood, sweat and tears to deserve the plaudits they’re finally getting. DeWitt showed some of those tears and a lot of gusto in Rachel Getting Married. She says that off the set, because of the intensity of the story, she and Anne Hathaway generally avoided each other. Although one particularly hard day, she did ask her, "Can you please stop yelling at me?" She was also a little intimidated by the actress playing her mother, Debra Winger. "She is so damn good. It’s like Terms of Endearment every day." She says that one memorable scene in the movie, where it was raining hard and the band still played, was supposed to be filmed in sunshine, but director Jonathan Demme decided to change it.
Richard Jenkins, tall and average-looking, is next up. His role in The Visitor emerged from a lunch two years before with writer/director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent). McCarthy called him 1½ years later to say that he had written a role for him. "I was amazed," Jenkins says. What about the drumming, he’s asked referring to the element in the movie that seems to change his character the most. "I played when I was young, but I still wasn’t very good. I just said to myself, ‘Don’t think, just play’." And about the immigration issues that the film covers, Jenkins says, "the world would be better if we all had coffee with each other." His most memorable scene may have been when he loses it in the immigration office. "That wasn’t a real office," he says, "but we did design it just like the real one. It’s a cold place."
I knew Melissa Leo’s work from her 77 episodes of Homicide: Life on the Streets (1993-97). In Frozen River, she too was made to look worn out. "I did my own makeup," she says with a smile, adding that they shot the film in just 24 days and that at first it was a short before writer/director Courtney Hunt got more funding.
Michael Shannon, who looks much better in person than he did in Revolutionary Road, says that life on the set was fun with Kate [Winslet] and Leo [DiCaprio] around. Coincidentally, he got the book it was based on from his girlfriend a year before he won the role. He says he always went on lots of auditions, but finally won a lead role in a play in Los Angeles called Killer Joe. A chorus of "I saw you in that" goes up from the other honorees. "Every decision we made in the movie felt right," he says.
And Viola Davis, so pretty and almost hard to recognize from her roles in Doubt and Antwone Fisher, is probably the most personable of these virtuosos. She says that what the audience has heard tonight–the struggles, the auditions, the small roles–"this is the fate of most of the actors out there. Depressing, isn’t it," she says smiling, appreciating her success all the more.
MAKE OUR DAY
It’s Thursday night, and you pretty much know that this is THE night. "Make My Day" tee-shirts dominate the throngs lining the red carpet in front of the Arlington Theatre, a massive also historic building with hacienda-style boxes on the sides, and a roof that looks like the sky. Clint Eastwood, tall and relaxed in a button-down shirt, emerges from a limo with his stunning wife. A minute later, Sean Penn strides in looking fit and happy.
Just before showing a mega-Clint series of clips and bringing him onstage, Leonard Maltin says that you might not be seeing your favorite film on the screen. Sure enough, I don’t see Where Eagles Dare, the great WWII movie he made with Richard Burton.
When the applause dies down, Eastwood says of seeing himself on screen, "I’m used to it now." He says he started working at Universal, making $75 a week. "Rent was only about $90 a month, so that left money for a couple beers." The stars then were Tony Curtis, Jeff Chandler, Cornel Wilde and director Douglas Sirk. Wilde told him to save so "you’re not in the sink like me."
He then went over to Italy to make three spaghetti westerns for Sergio Leone. But it took a while for them to get released, very frustrating at the time. He says he learned a lot about directing from Leone, commenting after an odd gunfight scene from A Fistful of Dollars: "You could see by that clip what the tone was like. They were good movies." When they were finally released, he became a leading man.
He says that when he read Unforgiven around 1980, "I said, ‘Okay, this will be the last Western I make.’ But you never know." That started his partnership with Morgan Freeman, who had liked The Outlaw Josey Wales and wanted to do something with Eastwood. Interestingly, he said that Unforgiven also had a powerful scene in the rain that wasn’t supposed to be. And in a memorable scene in Mystic River, "we woke up and there was snow, but we did it and it worked well."
He says he did In The Line of Fire because of the director, Wolfgang Petersen, who had directed Das Boot. "I respected him and didn’t mind that someone else was directing." At this point, the focus shifts to directing; Play Misty for Me in 1971 was his first time in the chair. "As a director, you want to create a relaxed place, allow for spontaneity," Eastwood says. "Throw inhibitions aside. I respect actors; I want to see what they bring and then you can decide what you think. Angelina Jolie [who he directed last year in The Changeling] knew what she was doing. We talked a little bit maybe. The key is don’t be afraid to jump in the water."
He says that place matters a great deal. "Mystic River, with my good friend Sean Penn over there, had to be in Boston. They wanted to create a lot or do it in Canada, but no. Gran Torino had to be in Detroit and Highland Park, Michigan." About that movie, he says, "I saw this great script about family things that really touched on good stuff. How families just want to put you away and get your inheritance. It touched on America. The car was a symbol; it was a nice car. You’d think someone could make one like that now as electric or hybrid.
The next film he’s directing will take place in South Africa this month. It will be about Nelson Mandela, when he got out of jail and was elected president. And it involves a sports team. Freeman, who Eastwood says was born for this role, will play Mandela.
Sean Penn is introduced and comes on stage to present Eastwood with the Festival’s Modern Master award. "Clint, you do it well," Penn says. "We have our political differences, but you believe in human dignity. You say your statement with clarity and purpose. You make us proud of aging."
He has a running joke about all the grunting in Gran Torino. And then Penn talks about some of the takes on Mystic River, to which Eastwood replies with a slight grin, "I’m going to have to watch it again."
NEW MOVIES GALORE
I KNOW that guy. I’m sure of it. You know how when you think you know someone, you let them get a glimpse of you so that maybe they’ll solve the puzzle. I tried that and it wasn’t happening.
We’re at Victoria Hall, yet another historic building in downtown Santa Barbara, for a screening of the documentary The Music Lesson. It’s a beautiful movie. Students from the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra are chosen to travel to Laikipia, Kenya, to meet students whose musical traditions have been passed down from tribal elders. The interaction between the students, the lessons they impart and their admiration for each other’s music form the basis of the film.
Afterwards, the director Ginny Galloway and her crew, all Washington-based, head onto the stage, including the guy that I think I know. WHO IS HE?
"It’s amazing how changed the kids were," says Galloway. "They really let their guards down–let go of their fears and got back to rhythm and the pulse of music."
She speaks of visiting the family of one of the young Kenyan musicians, and "even though it was a straw house with dirt floors, they took the same pride we do when someone visits. The only difference was they were moving the chickens and trying to dust the dirt floors," Galloway says.
Then someone asked the producer, Orlando Jones, if the musical theme drew him to the project, because of his role in Drumline.
THAT’S IT! "DRUMLINE!" I shouted at an embarrassing decibel. "That’s Dr. Lee!" Indeed, Jones played the steadfast band director in that movie which I have enjoyed many times. He said the music did draw him to the project, as well as Galloway’s desire to form an exchange program such as this for a regular part of many school systems. Galloway says that many of the Boston kids still have Kenyan friends on Facebook, a true 2009 testament to friendship. Look for this film on National Geographic Channel, she adds.
The tributes ended each night around 10 pm. About nine hours later, some of us are walking to our first film of the new day. Impressively, Roger Durling, the festival director, is on hand each morning to welcome us to these 8am screenings.
"Hello, you film addicts," he yells with a smile. "Welcome to your fix." That’s where I saw two of the best dramas of the festival.
The best is a Japanese film called Nobody to Watch Over Me, directed by Ryoichi Kimizuka. Apparently, when a murder is committed in Japan, the family of the guilty party becomes a target for violence and harassment. So when a teenage boy is accused of killing two girls, his teenage sister and parents are immediately besieged by the media and hordes of people. The police take charge of protecting the family, so the film relates the story of the sister and the police detective who must protect her. She’s only 15 so this is not a romance. It becomes a heart-wrenching tale of her growing up and his trying to make things right with his family and some past mistakes. The scenery is breathtaking, first showing the streets and size of Tokyo and then moving to a seaside bed-and-breakfast where they try to hide out.
Another well-done movie is Dim Sum Funeral, directed by Anna Chi. It was refreshing to see a Chinese-American family star in a movie, although there were plenty of familiar faces like the exotic Bai Ling, Kelly Hu, and Talia Shire of Rocky and Godfather fame playing the family friend. In the film, a mother’s death in the Pacific Northwest brings four siblings together from across the world. It’s a little contrived but the ensemble cast play off each other very well. And again it’s just good to see some fresh faces on the screen without any stereotypes attached. I hope the film gets a release.
Most of the documentaries in the festival were part of a separate grouping called the Social Justice Award for Documentary Film. One of those is Rescuing Emmanuel. Len and Georgia Morris started this project in 1998 and filmed more than 500 hours. The idea was supposed to be about street kids and how they fall through the cracks in third-world countries. But then in Kenya, a young boy named Emmanuel "highjacked the film," Len Morris says. The film goes on to show how the Morrises just can’t get Emmanuel out of their heads after encountering him several times. So they set out to find him and take him to a special school/camp run by an amazing woman (funded, we learn, by a megachurch in Arizona). It’s an engrossing story that doesn’t quite follow the path you’d expect.
The craziest movie I saw is called Tandoori Love. What happens when a Bollywood film cast and crew come to the Swiss Alps to film a movie? Unfortunately, it’s fiction and not a documentary because the scenarios they set up are not as funny as what would really probably happen in such an instance. The clashing of cultures does bring some funny moments, like when the townspeople start enjoying the Indian food, but the film gets too lost on a crazy tangent to soak up its potential. It’s a shame.
Everest: A Climb for Peace is yet another film showing a treacherous climb up a famous mountain. The bind that ties here is that the climbers are from different countries, including Israel and Palestine. Of course, the heavenly scenery and life-and-death situations make it extremely watchable. I’ll never get over how average people choose to risk their lives climbing a mountain like this. The number of climbers who get killed is not insignificant. But as in those other films, some climbers do make it to the top and tug at your heart a bit.
Amar a Morir got a lot of publicity here. A Mexican film directed by Fernando Lebrija, it should tell the makers of the James Bond movies that they have found their next director. Unfortunately, that is not the movie Lebrija set out to make. The handsome son of a rich Mexican businessman runs away from a badly formed arranged marriage and encounters one of the baddest bad guys this side of Goldfinger and Blofeld, with a henchman as mean as Oddjob or Jaws–and, of course the bad guy’s gorgeous girlfriend, The only problem is that our hero can never fight back. He’s brave but a wimp. Man, what Sean Connery could have done with this role!
Sweet Thing is the story of two teenage girls outside Seattle and the friendship that they form as they encounter the early decisions of adulthood. I liked the freshness of it, but four women in front of me all said that they just couldn’t buy the girls as real characters, so I will take their word for it. Surfing was a big topic for the films, not a coincidence given our locale. I saw a film called Wave Riders–apparently one of the men who invented surfing was half-Irish. So we see amazing footage of surfing in Ireland, including off the Cliffs of Moher. Another surfing movie I saw was locally made and celebrated the first women who became great surfers. A Spanish documentary called Titon, From Havana to Guantanamera, paid tribute to the life of Cuban best-known director, Tomas Gutierrez Alea, aka Titon. Well-done and interesting in scope, the best parts for me were the real footage of Che Guevera, coming just after I had seen Che and Benicio del Toro in a Washington screening. Che advised Titon during his making of his film about Castro’s Cuban revolution. And The Watercolorist, about an artist in a crazy-neighbor-filled apartment building, was one that you can safely avoid.
Films that I did not get to see that got strong buzz include: Automorphosis, about a group of enthusiasts who change their cars into art; Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh - this got a showing at last year’s Jewish Film Festival; Empty Nest, an Argentinian film about a couple whose kids have left home; Inventing LA: The Chandlers and Their Times, about the family that owned the LA Times for many years; It’s Not Me, I Swear, a French film about a 10-year-old boy abandoned by his mother; Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, a documentary about that now-legendary concert and recently shown at the AFI Silver; Milking the Rhino, which The National Geographic will be showing here on March 16; Skin, based on a true story about a black girl born to white parents in Apartheid South Africa; Speed and Angels, about young naval aviators; Sugar, about a Dominican baseball player; and Yes Madam Sir, about the first woman to join the Indian Police Service.
OH DANNY BOYLE!
We’re back inside the Lobero Theatre where a full-house showing of Slumdog Millionaire is concluding, Jae Ho-ing into oblivion at the Victoria Terminus in Mumbai.
Danny Boyle, who in three weeks will win the Best Director Oscar, hops on stage to tremendous applause and starts telling stories.
"I always wanted to be a train robber when I was a kid," he says. "The scenes at the train station, that was where people were attacked by terrorists with machine guns last November. One or two million people use that station every day. It’s like the heart of the city, completely romantic. I had the great experience to watch the movie with all the Indian people after what they had been through."
The movie almost didn’t happen, he says. "When I got the script, my agent said this is about someone who wants to be a millionaire. He literally said that. The only reason I read it was it had Simon [Beaufoy’s]’s name on it. I didn’t know him personally, but I knew he had written The Full Monty, a wonderful, warm and generous film. So I’ll read the script so at least I can say to Simon, ‘I read the script.’ But after 10-15 pages–and this is no lie–I knew I was going to make it. The only previous feeling I had like that was with Trainspotting.
Boyle is happy and enthusiastic. You quickly get a feeling that if someone were to ask him about socks in India, he would connect it to some amazing story in the movie. He’s asked about the decision to use some subtitles.
"The movie was written in English, plus I had to promise the distributors that it wouldn’t be accented either," Boyle says. "They were terrified that people wouldn’t be able to understand what anyone was saying. So we got to India and started auditioning the little kids and it was obvious that they didn’t speak English well enough. So the casting director said that you should do it in Hindi and you’ll be amazed. We all laughed, but it was extraordinary the difference it made. It meant we can cast much more widely and now the words just bounced off the pages."
Boyle paused. "Then I had to make the phone call to the producers to tell them that a third of the film would be in Hindi. I’m so glad that Los Angeles is such a long way from Mumbai because they would have been here. There was this terrible silence on the phone. You can tell that they thought I lost my mind, gone completely native, that I was going to bring back a five-hour film on meditation. So I said it will be even more exciting with the subtitles. And weirdly enough, I think it is, because those subtitles give you access to those kids. So you don’t come out saying that the subtitles are great; no, it’s wow the kids are great.
"We tried to find kids that had resemblances to the older actors. Their confidence was amazing. The difference of Bollywood, from Hollywood is that all the actors are employed all the time. Everyone’s always busy. They have three or four projects constantly. So it’s a nightmare to schedule. But all the TV, movies and personal appearances give them confidence. So what happens even with the 7-year-old kids is that acting is very natural.
"We told the adult actors to try to take off of the mannerisms of their younger selves, the way they walked and things like that. Little Jemal didn’t have those protruding ears that Dev has, so we put little things behind his ears to make them stick out."
At times, Boyle sounds like one of us, just admiring the film. The fact that he can do this without seeming pompous is a credit to the earnestness he gives off.
"The film is really just a series of flashbacks," he says. "The only real-time scene is the one at the station at the end. Everything else is five flashbacks. It’s amazing how Simon has written the script. We don’t use any light flashes or sound effects or shwshhhhhhhes; it’s fluid. I think The Usual Suspects was a bit like that, where you’re completely fluid with time. So if necessary you can just pop back.
"I loved the scene where the phone is ringing from the show and finally she answers and says hello, and the host says what’s your name, and it goes back to Latika in the rain and she’s 7 years old and she says, ‘My name is Latika.’ I love that you can go back like that for just a short moment. I’d never done anything like that before. The adversity that Dev overcomes as a character, the challenges he had to go through to get there, it’s brilliant that out of the adversity comes these answers."
Boyle talks about the difference in marketing strategies. "[In America,] they released it slowly. In Britain they opened it wide. So they sold it as a feel-good movie with a very bright, happy vibrant poster. I was terrified of that because I had these scenes of people going to that thinking, ‘Oh this is going to be Mamma Mia.’ That was one of the things I was very concerned about, but it has been a big success. Whereas in America, it’s very interesting the way you sell things. Dark image, dark poster, suggests that there are complexities and mood in the film. But it gathered momentum."
Boyle gets one of his biggest laughs when he compares the love story at the heart of the movie to the one in Rocky. He says that naivete worked to his advantage, that "if I knew more [about India], I wouldn’t have done it. There’s something wonderful about trying to start at the beginning again - the naivete that you have that first time."
My last images of Santa Barbara are Jake Gyllenhaal being gently mobbed while walking into the David Fincher tribute (I went to the new Brian Wilson documentary instead; unfortunately, he did not show up as planned); a final Happy Hour talking to the interesting tall Texan who made Automorphosis ("Have you seen the car yet?"); and waiting outside my hostel to catch a 4:30am Saturday cab back to the airport and seeing all the young people coming home from the night’s activities. I bet they weren’t going to catch Roger and the 8am screening. Their loss.
To learn more about the Santa Barbara Film Festival visit the website.