Grandma: Q&A with Writer/Director Paul Weitz
By Ron Gordner and Brian Payne, DC Film Society Members
A preview screening of Grandma (Paul Weitz, 2015) was held on Wednesday night, August 19, 2015 at the E Street Landmark Theatre. Director Paul Weitz was present after the film screening for a question and answer session moderated by DC Film Society Director, Michael Kyrioglou. Grandma is the story of Elle (played by Lily Tomlin) who is breaking up with her girlfriend when her granddaughter Sage (played by Julia Garner) shows up needing money. The film opened in DC theatres on August 28, 2015.
Photo of Paul Weitz by Brian Payne
Michael Kyrioglou: How did this project start, since you are the writer and director and how did Lily Tomlin get involved?
Paul Weitz: She is a wonderful actress. When we were filming one scene in one of my earlier films Admission, she was actually making sausage out of the raw meat. She learned how to do it. I said, “Lily, we are really not filming all the action but filming mostly the action on your face, but she continued to do it. I realized then how wonderful she was in Nashville and other Altman films and was really underutilized. After Admission came out, I was freaking out about that film and went to a little café and was trying to write something new. I just kept hearing Lily’s voice in my head and started a story about a grandmother and her granddaughter who shows up being pregnant and wanting money for an abortion. And once I heard Lily’s voice, it wrote itself. I didn’t tell Lily I was writing it at first. I invited her to lunch one day. She was eating a steak salad and I thought I’ll spring this on her and hope she doesn’t choke on that steak. Now in retrospect, she says she was in early on. That was not really the case. I had to twist her arm for quite a while to do it.
Michael Kyrioglou: What if she turned you down? Did you have someone else in mind?
Paul Weitz: There was no second choice. I had written myself in a corner. So for months I felt like a stalker getting her to do it. We did have months before the shooting to go over the script. I also wrote it from what I thought was her character and voice, but she added more to the character than I could have ever tried to do since she knew the historical periods, being gay, and really she was the primary audience for my writing the film. I wasn’t thinking about all the nice things that have happened with the film, like it’s being the closing film for Sundance Film Festival. At one point I wrote her a note and said, “Lily I really wrote this film for you, and would hate to have someone else play it.” She finally said, “OK, dammit I’ll do it.” I think she was always going to do it but had to come to terms of actually doing it. Also her agent told me to start casting it as if she was doing it, the other characters, so I had the feeling she would accept the role. I cast Julia as her granddaughter and Lily loved her.
Michael Kyrioglou: Did the script stay set or did you allow her or other actors to chime in and change it?
Paul Weitz: She definitely chimed in. The scene where they go to the abortion clinic and the little girl punches her in the face. I have seen other films with similar plots like Juno or Citizen Ruth and thought it was hard to make this scene distinct. I was hanging out with Lily, trying to get her to talk about her life. She told me one night she was in Las Vegas with her partner Jane Wagner walking outside. They saw a little girl and Jane asked her where she was going and where her parents were and the little girl punched Jane in the face. So we added that to the scene with her permission.
Michael Kyrioglou: I know the focal point of the movie is not Elle’s relationship with Vi, but thank you for presenting this relationship on the screen as any relationship would be. It’s nice to see that relationship and her angst. It’s nice to see the changes in our culture as we slowly move along.
Paul Weitz: In a funny way, I think is the focus of the movie. How do you get past grief? When you lose someone close, it does seem like a betrayal to let go of it. I think instinctively that’s what is happening and why Elle is sometimes so bitter or crotchety, but she is really trying to hold on to this thing. For the pictures, I had a friend, Jacquelyn Winston, a brilliant young adult writer allow me to use some of her photos. And the Marcia Gay Harden character says, “I loved my two Moms,” so we have this progressive family. I was thinking when she was a kid, she probably took a lot of crap at school for having two moms, I mean kids still do. I thought that helped develop Marcia’s character as being tough because she needed to be with her history. I love the scenes when she is alone with her granddaughter and also remembering Vi and the full bodied laugh that everyone knows is Lily’s.
Audience Question: Can you talk a little about your connection to the poet Eileen Myles who is quoted in the beginning of the film?
Paul Weitz: Yes, I have Lily being a poet also. I asked a friend, Nick Flynn, whose memoirs I adapted into a film, what women poets should I read around this time? He said Eileen Myles. I like her poetry and it’s really edgy, funny and bleak at times. She is also a lesbian poet and her poetry is gripping. I asked her if I could use some poetry for the film. She wasn’t crazy about it being used for a film called Grandma but when I told her it was for Lily Tomlin and what the film was about she came and saw the film and was complimentary. She felt that Lily’s character was like a cowboy walking off in the distance at the end, like a weird version of Shane.
Audience Question: Elizabeth Pena died soon after making this film. Was this her last film?
Paul Weitz: Yes, sadly, she played the owner of the café. She has played leads in many films also. Her death was a great shock to us and I don’t know if this was really her last film that will be released or not. We shot last summer and it was Elizabeth’s idea to jump over the bar of the café and go after Lily, so she was totally vital at that time.
Audience Question: How did the scene with Sam Elliott evolve?
Paul Weitz: That was strange because I wasn’t sure what was going on. He says, “When you smile you show your teeth and it’s like the only part people see when you're dead. It makes people uncomfortable." It started like a Pinter play, as a random error of menace, but then it became clear to me what it was about. It becomes a drama then more than a comedy. My brother worked with Sam on a movie called The Golden Compass so I have a lot actors’ addresses and phone numbers. Chris called Sam and Sam is always good at playing a character that doesn’t show all his cards. Later his character is more stripped down. I like the way the movie shows the time loop and how we can see the emotions of someone when they were 21 years old, even if you are 70 something. He still was somewhat in love with her.
Audience Question: After seeing another teenager in movies like Juno being pregnant, it was nice to see the culture changes in this film. Is there something happening in Hollywood with how the industry is dealing with abortion issues?
Paul Weitz: The answer is no. It was my own perspective on that aspect of the movie. I feel we dehumanize the people involved in these situations, which I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to be fake, nor bring too much humor to something like this. Sam’s character seems still wounded by it. It’s interesting that films like Fast Times About Ridgemont High, which was primarily a comedy also had an abortion subplot. I was trying to remember if there was controversy at that time.
Audience Question: What was the casting process for Sage as the granddaughter?
Paul Weitz: I didn’t consult with Lily. I wanted this to be bare bones. I had seen a movie called Electric Children that Julia was in and was pregnant again but thought she got pregnant from listening to a rock song, so an immaculate conception. Julia reminds me of a star from the 1930s or 1940s like Garbo or Jean Harlow but is really a quirky person. When Lily and Julia met they really took to each other.
Audience Question: Did Lily Tomlin like the movie?
Paul Weitz: Yes, she did and she’s getting a lot of attention for doing it. It’s funny because I was nervous. I screened it in my office for Lily and Jane Wagner, her partner who had written The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe for Lily, so I was very nervous. I also had Sam there who is married to the wonderful actress Katherine Ross from The Graduate. Afterward, Lily laughed and said to me, “You know I should have thought of that 50 years ago, playing myself.” She and Jane were very gracious about it and now very happy to have done it.
Michael Kyrioglou: What have been audience reactions to the film so far?
Paul Weitz: The first time we screened it for the public was at Sundance in front of 1200 people, which was fun since it played as a comedy. Also the audience seems to be with Lily to get over her sorrow and misanthropy and her problems with her daughter. The audience is laughing and feeling things because of the perspective of the character.
Audience Question: What is the difference between making a film like this and making a studio film?
Paul Weitz: I don’t mind making a film for a smaller budget. I probably made my worst film which had a budget of over $100 million. The budget for this film was just under $600,000. I like to have small films and actors like Lily, Sam and really DeNiro who actually want to go back to films like when they were young and want to lose themselves into a low budget film. Lily also experienced new thrills working with different actors for the first time. It gave her and us a new jolt of excitement each time. Also the studio films are more concerned about films that are easy to understand.
Michael Kyrioglou: What was your shoot time on this compared to your usual film?
Paul Weitz: There were 19 days and I had staff who had worked on low budget films. I had the same amount of time with the actors as I think I would have had on a larger budget film. So I had more than enough time.
Audience Question: Where was the film shot?
Paul Weitz: I shot most of it in Los Angeles. The office scenes with Marcia Gay Harden were filmed in my office. Her treadmill desk was in my brother’s office (laughter). I asked Marcia if she would try the treadmill desk and she said sure. Our offices also served as make-up rooms. We also used some places in my house.
Michael Kyrioglou: Marcia Gay Hardin got her start in this area if you didn’t know it. She did theatre in Olney probably until the mid to late 1980s when her career took off.
Grandma is currently showing in DC area theaters.
Wolf Totem: Q&A with Director Jean-Jacques Annaud
By Annette Graham, DC Film Society Member
A preview screening of Wolf Totem (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 2015) was shown August 20 at AMC's Georgetown Theater in IMAX and 3D. The discussion was moderated by Tom Vick, film programmer at the Freer Gallery. The film is based on the 2004 semi-autobiographical novel by Lu Jiamin, a young student sent to Inner Mongolia during China's Cultural Revolution. The film is the first Chinese production by a non-Chinese director. Although not yet official, it's widely reported that the film will be China's pick for the Oscar's Best Foreign Language Film.
Tom Vick: Isn't this an official co-production between China and France?
Jean-Jacques Annaud: Yes, it's 80% China, only 20% French. The movie is shot entirely in China, 100% shot in Inner Mongolia, within the borders of the Republic of China.
Tom Vick: What attracted you to this story and how did you come to direct it?
Jean-Jacques Annaud: My French production partner called the best trainer in the world, Andrew Simpson, who specializes in wolves and foxes and hyenas. He said, "I know why you are calling me. You are calling me because Jean-Jacques is going to film a beautiful book from China called Wolf Totem and I've been waiting for this phone call." My friend called me and said, "I found a Canadian and he is convinced you are going to make this movie." I read the novel; it's beautiful, very exciting, with many layers. I had hardly finished when some charming people from Beijing visited me in Paris and offered me the movie. "Why me?" They said, "We have seen your other movies. We aren't sure how you make those movies so we would like to invite you." I said yes and it took me seven years, from 2008.
Tom Vick: It took a long time to make the film partly because the conditions of shooting in Mongolia using actual Mongolian wolves was probably very difficult and maybe very rewarding. Could you talk about the process of shooting the film?
Jean-Jacques Annaud: Like any producer in the world, people said, "Of course you are going to use dogs." I said No, I would use Mongol wolves. Canadian wolves are very different, black and white, blue eyes. Wolves in Mongolia are the color of lions, with green or hazel eyes. Of course we realized that there are no trained wolves in China or anywhere else. I had to convince the producers to invest in three years of training. Why three years? Because we had to get the wolves when they were babies. Then we had to make a luxury motel to accommodate a pack of wolves, then we had to wait three years for them to grow up. So the next year we aquired another pack to play the younger wolves, which are not the ones you see most, because their eyes are not as intense as the grownups. Then we had a third group for the babies. All wolves around the world are born between the last week of March and first week of April. So we had to carry them a whole schedule according to the growth of the wolves. There was one that was a better actor. (everyone laughs) In a group of people you always have someone who is better on screen. This one strangely enough became very special. He became whiter and whiter by the day. We could not match him with any other wolf. Therefore it was good for the story because it was the same wolf. And it was good for the relationship with the actor who invited this wolf to sleep with him. I avoided going into his room. It was one more difficulty for us because we couldn't work the wolf more than three or four hours a day. Like a child, he would get tired. In this kind of movie, you have to make sure the animals are happy to be in front of the camera. They have to want to be there. They want to enjoy the experience. If one day, one wolf is unhappy, you lose your entire show. It's why we invested so much time and money to build that compound for them with private accommodation, private bedroom, private dining room, private poopoo room, also a playing ground and a training ground. Each of those enclosures cost about $200,000 because we had to build very high fences four meters high, about 50 feet. And also 45 feet inside the ground, because they dig. The big danger was that one wolf would escape and go after a flock of sheep, and could be shot in return. So we had to be very careful. Another problem was that herdersmen around us wanted to get those wolves to get better dogs--to mate them with their females. So we had to protect those wolves and had warnings all day and night. It was entirely shot in Mongolia in different places. But those places were far away and we had to build four more of those compounds, exactly the same. So each wolf would have its same accommodation. I'm very grateful to the China Film Group that they understood the need of doing that and investing all this money way before the screenplay was finished. It was a great gamble. My trainer closed his ranch in Canada, moved to Beijing and lived three and a half years with his wife and the crew and then stayed another one and a half years with us in Mongolia.
Audience Question: What happened to the wolves used in film?
Jean-Jacques Annaud: They were all Chinese and are ecstatic because they got Canadian passports. (audience laughs) They all live in Calgary in the mountains, in a beautiful ranch created for them by Andrew Simpson. He's a very emotional man, this wolf trainer. He has such a personal relationship with animals and insisted that he take the wolves back with him. And he got permission. I think it's the first time that the Republic of China gave permission to animals born in China which are a protected species to go out of the country. My friends from the embassy would know. I think it was also to make sure a group of wolves would keep genes for the future. That's my impression. I don't know; I didn't talk to the agriculture department in China. It was difficult but we're very grateful that we could do so.
Audience Question: Horses are intuitive and intelligent. Why they would run into a frozen lake?
Jean-Jacques Annaud: This happened many times and in many places in the world. Wolves use strategy, depending on where they live. Either they would push the cattle to a very rocky place or to marshes. This is a strategy they have had for centuries and centures. In Mongolia this is a strategy they use, always in the same place. The locals know they will get food--gazelles, sheep, or horses. That story is not specific to this area. It happened many times. There are several books about this, about how those animals get frozen--it's a reaction when they get into a cold place and the wind is such that they get frozen. There are paintings in Poland and France about the Russian retreat of Napoleon of this sort of thing. Of course we didn't freeze real horses. They are statues, half statues. They were made in China with a group of sculpture. It was a long process. It was inspired by painting by French painter [Théodore] Géricault who spent time painting horses. It was all storyboarded like the rest of the movie and all shot on location. We put the horse statues on the frozen lake and for a whole night we all took water bottles and had the icicles done. It integrates well with the frozen lake. It was very cold when we shot it; about minus 40.
Audience Question: What are your distribution plans?
Jean-Jacques Annaud: Each country has its different target. Here in America it's a subtitled movie. In most places, people aren't familiar with looking at a movie and reading subtitles. In many countries the movie has been dubbed--in German, French, Italian, Spanish. If you go to Argentina you will see it with Spanish voices. I check those versions and they are very good. Here, I'm not entirely sure about the marketing. I don't know what exactly Columbia is planning to do. I'm happy to see that we have an IMAX version, in 2D and 3D. IMAX has a special quality. I'm familiar with IMAX, I was the first one to use IMAX 3D. I started the whole rage with Wings of Courage (1995). It was the first [dramatic] movie filmed in IMAX 3D.
Audience Question: Why did you choose to shoot it in 3D?
Jean-Jacques Annaud: It's shot in 3D with 3D cameras. Everything in small places was done with a 3D camera. With adult wolves I couldn't use the 3D camera because they could see themselves in the mirror and then they would get angry. For the adults I had to use long lenses therefore I converted that. We had 2,000 people in China Film Group that worked for one year on the conversion. People believe 3D is good for big landscapes. That's wrong, 3D is good for proximity, for things close to you. After 30 feet it's already too deep; you almost see in 2D. It's only people in front of you that you see in 3D. With baby wolves, all that is in 3D. But for the big landscapes, I didn't lose my time. I had a devoted crew that worked for a year in China. I checked each image, everything with them, It was a long process but conversion between 2D and 3D can be wonderful if you have the time and money. It's very expensive.
Audience Question: Do Mongolians speak Mandarin Chinese among themselves? What language do the actors speak?
Jean-Jacques Annaud: Most of the movie is in Mandarin with a Beijing accent because the two main characters are from Beijing. And the official is a famous stage actor in Shanghai. All the other actors are Mongols. Some Mongols like the old man, in reality in the story was a man who learned Mandarin and speaks Mandarin with a Mongol accent. I made sure that it was strong enough but understandable to a Chinese audience. The young woman is the only person on screen that is not Chinese. She is from Ulan Bator. I saw a lot of good looking Inner Mongolian actresses but I preferred that woman. All the other actors are from Inner Mongolia. Everybody in Mongolia speaks Mongol between themselves. Some of them didn't speak a word of Mandarin and I needed to have interpreters from Mongol to Mandarin, from Mandarin to English to French to me. But it was wonderful, it was so incredibly friendly. We speak the language of cinema. So when a crew member sees me taking my viewfinder, they already had the right equipment. It was important to have the actors give the right intonation. Because of the location, because of the wolves, there was something very special in that shoot and it went smoothly.
Audience Question: What language did you expect that we would think they were speaking?
Jean-Jacques Annaud: I understand that you know it's a foreign language. Even in China, southern China, the movie has been dubbed in Cantonese. In Mongolia it's been dubbed in Mongol. It's available in China for a number of minority languages. There are 56 minorities. In some places in Mongolia they don't understand each other. Mongolia is a very vast country and they have such different dialects within the Mongol language. I had a consultant with me to make sure the accent was from the same region of Mongolia. But I'm not sure the Han public can understand the variation in the accent. In Inner Mongolia they speak Mongolia with a Chinese accent. They separate the words more. In Ulan Bator it is different.
Audience Question: How has movie been received in China?
Jean-Jacques Annaud: We had a surprising box office. We got magnificent reviews in China. The Minister of Culture said 98%. We were worried because it doesn't look like most Chinese movies today that are successful, either kung fu movies or romantic comedies or American blockbusters. Only 32 movies from American are allowed to go to China each year. My friends told me don't worry, it probably won't work because it's different. But it was just the opposite. We opened for New Year's Eve, and Valentine's Day and had packed houses and had to increase our market share. We started at 9% and went to 27%. We were among the 25 best grossing movies of all time in China. China is a wonderfully complicated place. Lots of people like to be reminded of that period [the Cultural Revolution], young people don't know about that period, they were curious about the wolves, about the live of the Mongols. Some people in China don't know the Mongol Chinese. I could see in Guangdong or Hong Kong, for instance, that was really a foreign movie for them. While in Beijing it's different. Mongolia isn't so far away--about one and a half hours by plane.
Audience Question: Would this be considered a docu-drama?
Jean-Jacques Annaud: I never thought about making a docu-drama. That story is the story that happened to this man who wrote this book. It happened when he was in his 20s. He waited until he was 65 to write this book. It was his first book. Most of what he says in the book he experienced. It's a novel. The fact is that I used real wolves. There are thiree shots of CGI wolves. All I did is to remove unwanted elements such as trainers in the frame to protect the animals from running to the crew or running to the horses. But I didn't add things. The few things I added towards the end--you can see the wolves were very tired. I didn't exhaust the wolves. But I modified the position of his ears and expression. In the scene with wolves hunting the horses, I had to train the horses and wolves together, running in parallel corridors. I protected them with a small fence painted in blue, then I removed that fence. But the interaction is real. I had three layers: horses, wolves, horses. Cameras in front, lateral. When you see a wolf jumping on the mane of a horse, it's a real wolf but a fake horse. Under the mane is a real steak. When the wolf gets kicked, of course it's a fake leg, and a puppet wolf. Because It's very short, less than two seconds. We had 15 of them with different expressions so in the movement you don't see it. When you see the wounded wolf pretending to recover, it's a happy wolf, it is running its fur in strawberry jam with the smell of pate. You add the sound. For that scene, we trained the horses and wolves for 6 months, we shot for 6 weeks and there's 6 minutes of screentime.
Wolf Totem is expected to open in DC theaters this month.
Coming Home: Q&A with Director Zhang Yimou
By Ron Gordner, DC Film Society Member
Coming Home (China, 2014) was shown at 2014 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September 2014. After a morning screening, the director Zhang Yimou surprisingly appeared for a Question and Answer discussion and was given a standing ovation. The film reunites the director with his star actress Gong Li from such famous films as Red Sorgham, Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern. Gong plays a teacher during the 1970’s Cultural Revolution. Her daughter, Dandan is a rising star in the Chinese ballet troupe, but her husband, Lu has been sent away for “re-education” because of his political ideals. The story concerns her family’s status because of her husband, other dramatic events, and the family dynamic years later. The film also had its world premiere out of competition at the 2014 Cannes International Film Festival. Sony Picture Classics is distributing the film in the U.S. and it should arrive in the DC metro area theatres in mid-September 2014. (Note: The Q&A may contain some plot spoilers.)
TIFF Moderator: You worked with actress Gong Li on several films but that has been many years ago, how was it to work with her again?
Zhang Yimou (through a translator): This is a very demanding role, and I believe she is maybe the only actress who could have played it. She spent much time studying the role including observing patients with amnesia so she could accurately portray the main character. I believe the she captured the essence of that character perfectly and audiences have also remarked at how well she acted.
Audience Question: Where did the idea for the film come from?
Zhang Yimou: The film was based on an adaptation of a book The Criminal Yu Yanshi by a Chinese novelist, Geling Yan. Yanshi literally means “how to recognize” so the name applies to the story of the professor who is sent to a re-education camp and his family. The original novel tells a lot more in detail about the professor’s life in the labor camp, which would be difficult to make into a film in China. I used the last part of the novel instead as the beginning part of the film and continued the family storyline. The story is built against the time of the Cultural Revolution. I grew up in that period (ranging from being a teenager to a young adult), so some of the film involves my own experiences and feelings also. This was a hard film to make due to the sensitive topic, but I hope that young people today can learn something about that period and broaden their horizons. Online I have seen many comments by young people who saw the film with their parents. After seeing the film they questioned their parents and wanted to more about the period and their own experiences then.
Audience Question: Will the film be distributed outside China?
Zhang Yimou: Yes, it will be distributed in the West also. After our premiere here in Toronto the distributors are working on plans for release in Canada, the United States and elsewhere. I am grateful to TIFF for this premiere in the Special Presentations section and the feedback we receive here, especially from the audiences. This morning I received a phone call from the leading actress Gong Li, who was sorry she could not come to Toronto but sends all her regards to you.
Audience Question: Where was the film shot?
Zhang Yimou: Most of the film was shot in the capital city Beijing, however the train station scenes are shot in an old city Tianjin, where the Japanese built the train station in 1937. It has been maintained as an historical site but is also still in use. We used the actual trains arriving, so we had to wait 3-4 hours sometimes to capture a few minutes of trains arriving. The family housing is in a dormitory area from the old Beijing Steel Factory.
Audience Question: Lots of things happened during this time. Is there one or more things you want the audience to remember or take with them from seeing the film?
Zhang Yimou: You are right that many things happened during the Cultural Revolution. We don’t want to repeat it. I have many personal memories. The one thing I remember during this period was that it seemed that everyone danced. From 4 to 80 year olds, they danced in the morning or night to show their loyalty to Chairman Mao. That was 400-500 million people dancing together which was remarkable.
Audience Question: Can you tell us more about the ballet in China during this time? We see some like The Red Detachment of Women, which were very political, are they still performed today?
Zhang Yimou: Ballet was brought into China in the 1950s through Russia so these ballets were Russian style dances. However, during the Cultural Revolution Chairman Mao’s wife implemented more Western style ballets and combined them with Chinese history. She commissioned two ballets, one was The Red Detachment of Women and the other was called The Story of the Silver Haired Girl. These two ballets became very popular in China and were done many times to enjoy. Yes, The Red Detachment of Women is still being performed by the Beijing Central Ballet School. Last week they celebrated the 50th anniversary of this ballet and I attended the performance. Also the young actress, Zhang Huiwen was born in the 1990s so she did not know this style of dance. We got dancers from the Cultural Revolution period to help coach her on the movements and the ballets. The original dancers showed her how to use her eyes in the dance to deal with her enemies.
Audience Question: Are you experiencing any barriers to your creativity in China today?
Zhang Yimou: The reality in China is that there is a censorship scheme. All films and tv productions must have their scripts and final products approved. This is a reality I deal with as a director. So I can’t do anything I want, but I did use a simple story that can convey this simply and in indirect ways.
Audience Question: Was there any discussion of different endings or scenes with recognition involved. What was the decision making process that recognition would not happen?
Zhang Yimou: We get this question often and advice. However, we consulted with medical experts and we were told that her illness would be irreversible, so we have a sad ending. They go to the train station on the fifth of every month which looks on the face of it to be ridiculous, but the actress portrays how the wife is hopeful at that time to possibly see her husband again, so it is bitter and sweet. The scenes where the wife is holding a cardboard with her husband’s name are very moving. This idea came from the actress Gong Li and we used. it.
Audience Question: Can or will the film be shown also in China?
Zhang Yimou: The film has been approved by the Chinese authorities and was shown in China in May. Our production company has done an excellent job and it has had already over 10 million viewers. The film also created much discussion about the Cultural Revolution period. People talked especially about the awakening of remembering about the period. The actress’s forgetfulness in the film also sparked that the young should not forget that period. The current film industry in China is about big box office films, so this kind of small film is now rare, so I commend our production company for funding and backing this kind of film and making it a success. (Applause)
Learning to Drive: Q&A with Actress Patricia Clarkson
By Ron Gordner, DC Film Society Member
A preview screening of Learning to Drive (Isabel Coixet, United Kingdom/United States; 2014) was held on Monday night, August 31, 2015 at the E Street Landmark Theatre. The film is directed by Isabel Coixet from the Catalan region of Spain. Wendy is a successful book critic in New York, but her marriage is falling apart. She resolves she will need to learn to drive and takes driving lessons from a Sikh instructor played by Sir Ben Kingsley who is having his own dilemmas finding a suitable bride from India. Together they find the courage to take charge or drive their own next chapters of life. Grace Gummer (daughter of Meryl Streep) plays her grown daughter, Tasha. The screening was moderated by Elizabeth Blair, a Peabody Award winner and senior producer/reporter on the Arts desk for NPR News. The film opens Friday September 4, 2015 at DC Metro theatres including Landmark theatres at E Street and Bethesda Row.
Patricia Clarkson talks to the audience at Landmark's E Street Cinema. Photo by Brian Payne.
Elizabeth Blair: It’s good to have you back in Washington, DC. I remember you were at the Kennedy Center.
Patricia Clarkson: Yeeha! Thank you. It’s good to be back in DC and with my new shoes. Yes I was at the Kennedy Center about 11 years ago in Streetcar Named Desire (applause) but I have been back after that for another film or two.
Elizabeth Blair: I have to ask the obvious question, do you drive?
Patricia Clarkson: Not really any more. I was born and raised in the great city of New Orleans. My father taught me to drive at 16. He had also taught my 4 older sisters to drive, so he taught 5 teenage girls to drive and he is still alive (laughter). I moved to New York at 19, and as I became more like Wendy or New York, my ability to drive lessened and lessened. I did date a man who lived in the country for a while, so I did drive on some city and country roads. But that didn’t work out in the end; the country roads, the driving, or the man (laughter). So the great Sir Ben Kingsley had to trust in me in so many things in this film. He had to trust that my driving skills were proficient enough to get him around Manhattan. It was basically me driving Gandhi around Manhattan (laughter). So you can imagine the pressures I faced in the movie and the driving. I said, “Listen I will do the best I can and maybe my skills will improve as we go along.” Art and life will merge and carry us on in maybe fabulous ways. I think I am a better driver now because of this film.
Elizabeth Blair: Well there are a lot of metaphors about life and being in the moment.
Patricia Clarkson: Oh, yes definitely.
Elizabeth Blair: I read that you and Ben Kingsley are good friends, but during the filming that you didn’t really hang out or spend time together.
Patricia Clarkson: I am fortunate to call him a friend. We worked together before on a film called Elegy directed again by our great Catalan director Isabel Coixet also. In that film Sir Ben and I played lovers, woo, and if you want to get to know someone play their lover (laughter). Play it, don’t be it. So that required an intimate meeting, and we just got on. I also adore his lovely wife. But because we get on so well, we didn’t want to impose on the finely etched relationship of Wendy and Darwan with Patty and Ben. We didn’t want our personal friendship or relationship to bleed into the storyline, so we got a little methody in doing it. It was a somewhat lonely shoot. We kept to ourselves somewhat, and we needed to let the barriers fall when it was needed in the film and not to mix the real with the storyline. So we were very quiet on the set.
Elizabeth Blair: I like the way these two people from two different worlds really get to know each other and by definition are really driving their own world. Is that an important theme for you in this film?
Patricia Clarkson: Yes, there are many reasons I love this film. I have wanted to make it for a very long time. I was smitten by the beautiful essay written by Katha Pollitt in the New Yorker many years ago. I found out they were planning to make a film of it and Dana Freedman my producer and I have been interested in doing it for over nine years, so it was a long, but interesting journey. I loved the character Wendy who is flawed and complex, and maybe not so sympathetic. I liked playing what I consider to be a real woman dealing with very real and true circumstances. It’s great to play heroic persons like Susan B. Anthony, but also wonderful to sometimes just play real people. I also fell in love with the character of Darwan. It appears these are two people from very separate worlds, but what I really loved was that at the end of the day they are just two adult people. It’s a true journey about an adult friendship which interested me most.
Audience Question: There seem to be lots of women in lead roles in the movie. Were there more women than usual on the film and what was that experience like for you?
Patricia Clarkson: Yes, we are lousy with women on this film. It is a female producer Dana Freedman. We have two extraordinary men Gabriel and Daniel Hammond who became producers and who started a production company and wrote the checks. They are our knights in shining armor. We have Dana Freedman as lead producer, Isabel Coixet as our wonderful director, and the famous Thelma Schoonmaker was our editor. We have Saran Kernochan who wrote the screenplay and based on the essay by Katha Pollitt. Our set designer was female. I think craft service was female also. I was so proud at our premiere in New York when we took a photo of all the women involved in the film, and these are women that have been around in filmmaking for years. None of us were 25, 35, or even 45 years old and I’ll stop there. We are all still working in this business and and have work to do, but we all came together to make this film.
Audience Question: Do you think that made the story different in some way that there were so many women involved in the project?
Patricia Clarkson: Probably somewhere in its DNA, yes. What I think is that it was a beautiful moment to work with all these talented, gifted women.
Audience Question: Can you talk about working with Clint Eastwood and Brian De Palma and whether women or men, who are some of your favorite directors?
Patricia Clarkson: Brian De Palma cast me in my first film The Untouchables which was my first big break at age 25. I am ever in gratitude to him. He is a very shy, quiet, almost monosyllabic man. He was so kind and lovely to me. I was broke since I was just out of Graduate School and he made Paramount hire me for an extra month for doing very little, but he knew I needed the money. So I have a special warm place in my heart for him. With Clint Eastwood I did the last Dirty Harry movie. I was 28 and showed up in San Francisco to shoot with him. He was lovely. He was a one shoot wonder. He would say after shooting once, “Was that good for you? Great then let’s move on." But I learned from all these great and powerful men at the time. I also went on to work with [Martin] Scorsese and Woody Allen, Tom McCarthy in Station Agent, and Peter Hedges in Pieces of April. I’ve worked with many extraordinary male and female directors in this business. I want to continue working with them until I’m 100.
Audience Question: For the scenes of driving in Manhattan, did they block off streets for the shoot and how did you navigate just driving in New York?
Patricia Clarkson: Yes, that was me driving. Occasionally we had some streets blocked off, but remember this is not a 40-50 million dollar film, so the shooting goes very quickly. I was really driving the streets of New York with safety cars. I’m telling you the trust Sir Ben had to put in me for my driving was remarkable. I think I was towed with a rigged car once or twice. Every day I had to bring my A game to acting and driving.
Elizabeth Blair: I loved the bridge scene. I don’t think they closed off the bridge.
Patricia Clarkson: No, they did not close down the bridge for us. My stomach still turns thinking about driving on that bridge. They said, "Patty there’s just no way around this, but you have to do it." They said, “You will be between safety cars and a van with a camera. It’s just going to be you and Sir Ben in the car amid traffic going over the Queensboro Bridge.” So I said, “Sir Ben, I will somehow just get us to the other side and if we don’t make it I have had so much fun and I’m very fond of you and your wife. Do you want to call her now?” (laughter). He remained very calm and trusted me. We took a very long one shot and we got to the other side, the sound guy said, “I’m getting a strange sound, is it the car making it?” When we listened to it again we realized that the whole way over driving the first time I was making this sound…ooohh, ooh, ooh (screeching sound). (laughter). The sound man then said, "You know I like the sound and we’ll keep it."
Audience Question: I love your character roles in movies. I am curious about how you deal with the sex scenes in the script?
Patricia Clarkson: Yes (laughing), I can’t wait until my father sees this film. It’s funny because I seem to be asked to do more love scenes or nudity as I get older. The scene was sensual but also funny and with the wonderful Matt Salinger, who is the son of J.D. Salinger. I mean to have sex with such lineage (laughter). I have known Matt for years and he is a consummate actor that we came up together acting in New York. He came very prepared. I asked him not to tell me anything he was going to do, and I know nothing about tantric yoga or sex and I’ll just go with it. As we get older we should have more of these scenes because we have fewer barriers and we are more free and willing. That’s one of the things that gets better as we get older in the business. It’s about letting go in the process.
Audience Question: Does Ben Kingsley stay in character after the shoot or can he change back and forth easily?
Patricia Clarkson: He has a beautiful, mellifluous, timber in his very proper British voice. He has the ability to capture the voice and body movements easily. You can retrieve them from somewhere deep within you. He is a consummate actor and is prepared. I was so happy and danced down the Manhattan streets when he agreed to do this part for little time and money, but Sir Ben showed up on time and was ready to rock’n roll. We had no time even for rehearsal. He sets out every day to make that scene as good as he can do it. It’s about the work, not the outside distractions.
Audience Question: Was there something about playing such a great character that you learned to use in your life or in other films?
Patricia Clarkson: That’s a great question. Yes, I did. I learned quite a bit from Wendy. My generation of women were lucky in some respects. Some could try to have it all. I didn’t always have to make choices. We are sometimes the breadwinners and have good paying jobs, although some women did not. We can have children, spouses, lovers, or try to have it all. I sometimes do not realize what I have or take in the surroundings of my life. The very lessons of driving: you have to look up, you have to be listening and be in the present, and you have to take in the world around you. You have to really be appreciative of other. A basic lesson I have often forgotten, but playing Wendy and the many incredibly emotional scenes made me reassess those things in my life. So it was a very powerful and profound time for me shooting the film.
Audience Question: What was your favorite scene in the film and also the most difficult one?
Patricia Clarkson: My most favorite moment was not about the shooting. It took me so long to get this film made. Who wants to see a movie about two middle-aged people spending much of the time in a hot, sweaty environment of a car? How sexy is that? (laughter) I honestly had a male producer who said, “Patricia, I love this film and want to make it, but we have to lose the driving scenes (laughter).” This is what I encountered or they thought Darwan needed to be 27 or be played by Brad Pitt. It was just ridiculous. It was a long journey and Dana and I did not want to infringe on the integrity of these characters or this story. We went through a lot of adversity. My niece Cassie, who is here, was a baby when I wanted to start this film and now she is a lovely young lady. I remember when Sir Ben and I were in the trailer, just the two of us. He was putting on his beard and turban and I was putting on the Wendy make-up and look and we were in preproduction. At the end of the day, I looked up in the mirror and Sir Ben had his beard on and his beautiful turban and me in my Wendy look, and I burst into tears and said, “We're really here, Wendy and Darwan are here.” That was my favorite moment. There were many difficult moments, especially shooting on the streets in New York. Many days we had only one take or sacrificed part of a scene. It was tough but worth it.
Audience Question: I loved the movie. I also think this film has similarities to your other films like Cairo Time so I’m wondering what draws you to these kind of films?
Patricia Clarkson: I think I’m drawn to these films although they are different, the beauty of the writing of both stories. I am looking for great writing and great characters, not just my character, but many of the characters in the story of film. Both films have strong supporting characters in those two films. Both films both still resonate with them and both directors, Ruba Nadda and Isabel Coixet are excellent.
Audience Question: I like films like this and others like The Lunch Box but I wondered what are your feelings about how to get more of these films made rather than the studio block busters or supernatural films?
Patricia Clarkson: Well, it starts with all of you, the audience. Go to these films and support them at the box office to make a difference. We were lucky to have these great young men and their new company Broad Green Pictures to support these films. They could have chosen any film to start their new company. So we are lucky they put their money into films like this. You need to support them. They have invested a lot of money in the film and for the advertising you will see for the film. Advertising is a huge asset. If people go to these types of films maybe it will catch on. It is doing very well in L.A. and New York where it just opened. We hope it does as well in DC and elsewhere.
Audience Question: Can you mention working on Pieces of April?
Patricia Clarkson: Pieces of April was another wonderful period in my life and working with the great Peter Hedges who wrote and directed that and wrote other films like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? He just liked me and offered me the part for little or no money but I got a lot of swag from that role and an Academy nomination.
Learning to Drive is in DC theaters September 4.
Calendar of Events
American Film Institute Silver Theater
"Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968-1986" (July 4-September 5) is a series of key films produced by African-American independent filmmakers. One title remains in September: a Spike Lee double feature of She's Gotta Have It and Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop-We Cut Heads.
"Keepin' It Real: '90s Cinema Now" (July 2-September 16) covers films from the 1990s. Titles for September are Gremlins 2, Babe, Lost Highway, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Wild at Heart, Rushmore, Ghost in the Shell, Being John Malkovich, To Die For, Ghost Dog-The Way of the Samurai and Friday.
"Ingrid Bergman Centennial" (July 2-September 13) covers Swedish, American and Italian films starring Ingrid Bergman. Titles in September are Cactus Flower, Autumn Sonata, Murder on the Orient Express, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, Intermezzo, A Woman's Face and June Nights.
"Best of Totally Awesome: Great Films of the 1980s" (July 2-September 15) brings back favorites from the past eight editions of the Totally Awesome summer series. Titles for September include Blue Velvet, Clue, Brazil, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Sixteen Candles and Heathers.
Special Events for September include a 251 minute extended director's cut of Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone) and Elektro Moskva, a program of new experimental films with live music.
A program of Italian films is shown at the AFI in conjunction with the Italian Cultural Institute. On September 12 at 4:00pm is Quiet Bliss (Edoardo Winspeare, 2014), about the closing of a textile factory and its effect on the owners. On September 13 at 5:00pm is the thriller The Italian Pastry Chef (Luigi Sardiello, 2012) and on September 13 at 7:00pm is Loose Cannons (Fernan Ozpetek, 2010).
Freer Gallery of Art
Turkish filmmaker Cagan Irmak will be present for two films: on September 18 at 7:00pm is Are We OK? (2013) and on September 20 at 2:00pm is Whisper If I Forget (2014).
On September 13 at 2:00pm is The Treasure Cave and Statues of Tehran, two documentaries by Bahman Kiarostami.
National Gallery of Art
"Titanus Presents: A Family Chronicle of Italian Cinema" (August 8-September 27) is a retrospective of films produced by Titanus. All films are 35mm. On September 5 at 1:00pm is The Sign of Venus (Dino Risi, 1955); on September 6 at 2:00pm is Banditi di Orgosolo (Vittorio De Seta, 1961); on September 6 at 4:00pm is I Magliari (Francesco Rosi, 1959); on September 13 at 4:00pm is Two Women (Vittorio De Sica, 1960); on September 19 at 2:30pm is Bread, Love, and Dreams (Luigi Comencini, 1953); and on September 27 at 4:00pm is The Passionate Thief (Mario Monicelli, 1960).
Other special events this month include Alberto the Great (Carlo and Luca Verdone, 2013), a documentary about Italian actor Alberto Sordi with filmmaker Luca Verdone in person on September 5 at 3:00pm; Full Moon in Paris (Eric Rohmer, 1984) on September 20 at 4:00pm; and Rohmer in Paris (Richard Misek, 2013) shown with the short film The Girl at the Monceau Bakery (Eric Rohmer, 1983).
Museum of American History
On September 8 at 7:00pm is Lime Kiln Field Day (1913) starring Bert Williams and Odessa Warren Gray, an all-black cast silent film which was never released. Discussion follows with Ron Magliozzi, MoMa's associate curator of film and Rhea Combs from the National Museum of African American History. Donald Sosin provides music accompaniment.
Washington Jewish Community Center
On September 1 at 7:30pm is To Life (Uwe Janson, 2014), based on the story "If Stones Could Cry" by Stephen Glantz.
On September 8 at 7:30pm is Famous Nathan (Lloyd Handwerker, 2014), a documentary about the famous hotdog eatery on Coney Island.
On September 10 at 7:30pm is Labyrinth of Lies (Giulio Ricciarelli, 2014), based on the investigations that led to the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials in the 1960s.
A new exhibit and film series "Surveillance Blind" begins in September. Films include The Lies of the Victors (Christoph Hochhausler, 2014) on September 14 at 6:30pm; The Family (Stefan Weinert, 2013) on September 21 at 6:30pm with the director present for discussion; and Silenced (James Spione, 2014) on September 28 at 6:30pm.
On September 8 at 7:00pm is Two Days, One Night (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, 2014).
The Japan Information and Culture Center
On September 16 at 6:30pm is Rent a Cat (Naoko Ogigami, 2011).
The Textile Museum at GWU
On September 14 at noon is Carousel of Memories (Cintia Cabib), a documentary about Glen Echo's Dentzel carousel. On September 17 at noon is Woven Lives: Contemporary Textiles from Ancient Oaxacan Traditions (Carolyn Kallenborn, 2011), a feature-length documentary.
On September 10 at noon is a program of two short films Nine From Little Rock (Charles Guggenheim, 1964) and Wealth of a Nation (William Greaves, 1967). On September 10 at 7:00pm is On the Bowery (Lionel Rogosin, 1956), introduced by film preservationist Dennis Doros. On September 19 at 2:00pm is Thunder Road (Arthur Ripley, 1958) starring Robert Mitchum.
The 9th Annual Charles Guggenheim Tribute Program takes place September 15 at 7:00pm. Following the short film Monument to the Dream (1967) there will be a panel discussion.
Landmark's Bethesda Row Cinema
"Movie Rewind" is a new series of classic films on Wednesdays. On September 2 at 4:00pm and 7:30pm is Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979); on September 9 at 4:00pm and 7:30pm is Oklahoma! (Fred Zinnemann, 1965); on September 16 at 7:00pm and 9:30pm is the director's cut of Alien (Scott Ridley, 1979); on September 23 at 4:00pm and 7:30pm is Cabaret (Bob Rosse, 1972); and on September 30 at 4:00pm and 7:30pm is Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (Robert Zemekis, 1988).
On September 2 at 8:00pm is Runoff (Kimberly Levin, 2014), as part of the "Programmer's Choice" series. The film's director will be present for a Q&A.
The "Films in Focus" pick for September is Big Significant Things (Bryan Reisberg, 2014) on September 9 at 8:00pm.
On September 16 at 8:00pm is The Chef's Wife (Anne Le Ny, 2014), part of the "French Cinematheque" series.
The "Reel Israel" film for September is Arabani (Ali Adwan, 2013) on September 24 (note different date) at 8:00pm.
Anacostia Community Museum
On September 9 at 11:00am is Sun Ra, a Joyful Noise (Robert Mugge), a documentary about Sun Ra and his band. Discussion follows the film.
On September 20 at 2:00pm is The Last White Knight (2013), a documentary about the participants in a violent encounter in Mississippi in 1965 and their reunion 43 years later. Discussion after the film.
On September 25 at 11:00am is Prom Night in Mississippi (Paul Saltzman, 2010), a documentary about how a Mississippi high school decides to integrate its senior prom. Discussion and Q&A follows the film.
On September 27 at 2:00pm is Loreta Velazquez, Secret Soldier of the American Civil War (2013), a PBS docudrama about a woman who served in the Civil War disguised as a man. Q&A with Tracey McIntire and Audrey Scanlan-Teller of the Civil War Trust.
On September 16 at 7:00pm is the short documentary Uniquely Nasty: The U.S. Government's War on Gays. After the screening is a panel discussion with Bill Press.
Reel Affirmations XTra
On September 25 at 7:00pm is a 25th anniversary screening of Paris Is Burning (Jennie Livingston, 1990) followed by a book signing of "Paris Burning" with author Lucas Hildebrand, an audience Q&A and panel discussion with cast members Sol Williams Pendavis and Freddie Pendavis. A reception and mini-ball closes out the evening.
Busboys and Poets
On September 13 at 6:30pm is Poverty, Inc. followed by a Q&A with the film's co-producer. On September 14 at 6:00pm is This Kind of Love followed by a Q&A with filmmaker Jeanne Hallacy and the film's subject Aung Myo Min. Both are at the 14th and V location.
On September 8 at 6:30pm is Latino Americans, a PBS documentary followed by a discussion. On September 29 at 6:00pm is The Mask You Live In. Both are at the Brookland location.