The Theory of Everything: Q&A with Screenwriter/Producer Anthony McCarten and Actor Eddie Redmayne
By Ron Gordner, DC Film Society Member
The Theory of Everything (James Marsh, United Kingdom, 2014) is a new film biopic on the life of young Stephen Hawking, the brilliant Cambridge physics graduate student who developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and was not expected to live more than two more years after his diagnosis. The movie is based on the book or memoirs of his first wife Jane Hawking whom he met and married in Cambridge and who is played by Felicity Jones. Redmayne captures all the nuances and progression of the disease during the film, reminiscent of Daniel Day Lewis’ starring role in My Left Foot and will probably be nominated for best actor Oscar. The film was directed by James Marsh who also directed such films as Man on Wire and Project Nim. The 32-year-old actor, Eddie Redmayne, who plays Stephen Hawking was joined by screen-writer and film producer Anthony McCarten attending a special screening of The Theory of Everything at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History on November 6, in Washington D.C. The event was also sponsored by the Smithsonian Residents Program and also had students and members of the American Physical Society present; it was followed by a reception. David Kaiser, a physicist at MIT who also attended the premiere, commended the portrayal of science in the movie. "I think the film was really beautifully crafted,” Kaiser said. “It gives us a glimpse of the inherently collaborative and communal process [of science]." He also moderated a discussion and opened the questions up to the attending audience members.
David Kaiser: Anthony, can you begin by telling us how you got involved or latched on to this story and the process it took to get it made?
Anthony McCarten: I guess my first interest was when I read Hawking’s ground- or space-breaking book The History of Time in about 1988. I, like many others, thought here is someone using another part of their brain to ask questions like: Is there a God? What is the nature of time? How was our universe born? Etc. So this man in a wheelchair speaking through a computerized voice about breaking intergalactic news. Then in 2004 I read Jane Hawking’s emotional memoire: Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen.. and was struck by this deeply affecting love story which I had not expected. I thought I must get the rights to the story for a film so I took the train down and knocked on Janes’s door and said, “Don’t be afraid, I come in peace,” and then described how I wanted the rights to her book. As a measure of my charm, I must tell you it took me eight years until Jane relented and said yes I could have rights to the book and later Stephen also agreed to the film.
David Kaiser: Eddie, this is an enormous undertaking. I wonder what scared you about taking on this role and film?
Eddie Redmayne: At first, I was wildly terrified. I had mixed feelings. I did that thing you do when you sometimes apply for a job and try to act very confident when applying. So you pretend you know what the film needs, etc. then when you get the part a second later it all comes crashing in; you may not know what to do. There were many elements for me I needed to learn. First was science. I gave up on science when I was about 14 years old, because I was completely useless, so that was a bit daunting. Next was to be true to ALS and people who suffer from that brutal disease and to show the specificity of the disease progression. Thirdly it is the responsibility and problems of playing someone living and who is considered an icon. Jane, Stephen and Jonathan really allowed us to enter their world for a few months and the fact that they would be seeing the film about their lives and judging it as the ultimate reviewers. So you can imagine I didn’t get a good night’s sleep for about nine months until Stephen saw it.
David Kaiser: I read somewhere you compared it to going for a Ph.D. and I must say you nailed it (applause).
Audience Question: What was the reaction from Stephen and the family?
Eddie Redmayne: I was actually rehearsing for another film when we showed him the film and said to Stephen, “Let me know what you think” and now he only uses one muscle below his eye which he can use through his glasses a sensor for communication… and when he wants to communicate a sensor brings up an alphabet and he chooses each letter. So you can imagine it takes even longer than shown in the movie to comment. On the way into the screening his iconic computer voice said, “I will let you know what I think, good or otherwise... (laughter)
Anthony McCarten: We also had a problem of getting Stephen into the theatre. The makeshift ramp that was made wasn’t very good, so he had to be picked up and taken in and his upgraded wheelchair was set in the middle in front of the screen. I could see when the lights came up that there were tears running down his cheeks, so apparently whatever we produced on the screen brought back some memories or had a profound experience on him. He liked the film and agreed almost immediately to allow us to use his computer voice in the film, which replaced our earlier approximation of his voice that we had been using. We knew it had a kind of American accent but our original voice lacked the Swedish bounce that his real computerized voice has. I guess it’s possible he was crying because we got his voice so wrong (laughter).
Audience Question: What research did you both do on ALS?
Anthony McCarten: In writing the screenplay I tried to stick to Jane’s book and the pressures that being a caregiver placed on her. So it was a bright functioning guy needing no help to one needing one walking stick, needing two canes, needing a wheelchair, next an electric wheelchair, then losing his voice, and finally the computerized voice which I put into the script. Eddie did an incredible job to flesh out the minutia of the progression of the disease.
Eddie Redmayne: The day after I got the part I went to an ALS clinic in London called the Queen Square Neurological Clinic (National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery) and a specialist Dr. Katie Siebold and her researchers and clinicians and nurses who educated about the progression of the disease introduced me to about 30-40 patients with various stages of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). They were incredibly generous in inviting Felicity and myself into their homes to see how the disease had progressed and also how it had affected the caregivers and family members. In ALS you have upper neurons and lower neurons so if an upper neuron goes there is a rigidity and if you lose the lower neurons it is more of a wilting. ALS is a combination of those processes and how it manifests itself in each individual is very specific and different to that patient. Also there is really no documentary footage of Stephen before the 1980’s when he was already in a wheelchair, so it was an investigatory process using some still photos of Stephen in his youth and taking them to Dr. Siebold for help on his physical look at the time. A picture of their wedding even has Jane and Stephen holding hands but his hand is on top and really has wilted. That was 1963 so we tried to piece together what his physical progression or stages of the disease and affected muscles would have been at various times. There’s also an amazing youtube video when you see Stephen doing a zero gravity experiment in space that was the only time he was shown really out of the wheelchair. In that video when he is floating you can see what parts are more rigid and others more lax. So we approximated what his decline would have been and I worked with a dancer for four months to try and recreate the specific stage he was in at various time periods.
David Kaiser: I want to comment how extraordinary this is, especially considering that many of the scenes were shot out of chronological order, so you had to remember what the stages were for each shot. I wanted to also remark on how well you captured his gradual weakening or loss of his voice even before the tracheotomy had caused the complete loss of it. I had seen footage in the 1980s and 1990s when he would speak and others near him would translate what he was saying.
Eddie Redmayne: We also had speech therapists as consultants on the film to help with that feature. They taught me the anatomy and biology of the loss of his voice. Stephen asked me if I was going to play him before he obtained the voice machine and I said Yes. He said that his voice had become very slurred. We didn’t want to have to put in subtitles and in life he had students who would study months with him and translate for him early on. Jane was the best translator. I took that information back to the director since it was one of a few things Stephen commented on and James and Anthony weaved in a scene where Jane does the translating for the audience before he has the computerized voice. There exists some Horizon film footage showing him speaking early on where the speech was incomprehensible to most people.
Audience Question: Eddie, I believe you also went to Cambridge. How did that reference help you in the role?
Eddie Redmayne: I actually read History and our college was next to the Engineering one and and I remember commenting like a Bohemian on how these poor Engineering students probably were going into boring classes at the time (laughter). I did apologize to Stephen for not being a scientist.
Audience Question: This is really a finely woven story of science and love. How did you go about showing it?
Eddie Redmayne: Anthony wrote such beautiful words and Stephen also came out then with his book The Brief History of Time and also I’ve known Felicity for years and we both worked together in theatre in London. So we already had an established friendship and were very protective of our roles and would challenge each other. Anthony wrote the many aspects of love: young love, passionate love, and then also the boundaries of love and the failings of love.
Anthony McCarten: Yes, the architecture of the film was that at the beginning there was youth and physical love, and then of course lessened physical love and the decreasing use of words at all. The break up scene may have less than 60 words used. At the beginning of the scene you have marital triumph and by the end you realize they really aren’t husband and wife any more. Most of this up to the actors to show it nonverbally. So the cosmos of their faces must show this wordless narrative and I think Eddie and Felicity did it beautifully.
Audience Question: How did you recreate Stephen’s look and progression in the film?
Eddie Redmayne: Again, we talked about the research done and I wanted a three-dimensional character so I did meet Stephen five days before shooting and looked at every photo and video possible for preparation. We didn’t shoot in time sequence, so it was important to find that stage at that time period to display. Also I wanted to capture his sense of wonder, humor and really mischief that I saw also. I have a poster of a joker and a pack of cards in my room and that symbolizes Stephen’s absolute power to hold court in a room. He emanates that power and the fact that it takes him time to communicate and we wait throws us off balance and gives him a chance to use his sense of mischief he does so well.
Audience Question: What kind of emotional toll did the film take on both of you?
Anthony McCarten: Well for me it was a ten year journey from the beginning of the idea until I got Jane’s approval so I felt there is a real risk here that she could at any time dump the project. So for a good part of the early part of the project I was very anxious. When it was done it was very challenging and probably painful for them to watch at times. Neither ever asked me afterwards to change anything, to soften or vulgarize or dampen anything down, so I feel extremely gratified and lucky to tell their story. Everyone on the set had a real sense of moral purpose and was on the same page to make the film as truthful as possible. We were so humbled by the material.
Eddie Redmayne: It was interesting because I just finished another film in North Carolina where everyone lived almost together as a family in the area until we finished shooting. In this film which was shot in London, I live in London so I would go home at night which was a very different dynamic. So my regular friends would be there to go out and eat or whatever and it broke up the effect of the film on me somewhat, but it was a chance of a lifetime to do this role.
Audience Question: There is some ambiguity in the way the end of the relationship happens. Is he releasing her or has he just found someone else to share his life?
Anthony McCarten: I love the word ambiguity, or do I? (laughter) I would instead use the word layered for that moment. Many of these possibilities are there but none are totally there without the others, so they are all co-existent. I think there is an element that he is setting her free. I also alert you to the sentence she says as she crouches at his wheelchair… “I have loved you” using the past tense which is very telling and breaks the narrative mood and tells you that the relationship has played itself out. James set aside a whole day to do that scene.
Eddie Redmayne: I agree. I have heard audiences with different reactions to that scene saying how could she have said that, and others saying how could Stephen have done that? I mean for 25 years their lives were so ingrained in each other that the possibility of even thinking these words and that there was a life outside it. I think Elaine had fallen for him at this time. I hope you would feel it was a layered more than ambigous scene.
Audience Question: How did making the film change your life?
Eddie Redmayne: Gosh, that’s not easy. There was one patient in the clinic when I visited with his wife that nearly choked to death the night before and the first thing he said to his wife on coming downstairs from his room the following morning was… “I wonder what death-defying act I can do today?” (laughter) The idea of that humor despite a shortened life sentence is extraordinary. He said every minute he has after his diagnosis or that moment is a gift to him so it was very embolding to me that when we complain about minor issue daily here is someone who really lives each moment to the fullest. That was something I really took away from this experience.
Anthony McCarten: I also want to remark that knowing this was going to be shown tonight before a group of cosmologists, correct me if I am wrong, there are something like 500 billion stars in the Milky Way, and the number of possible galaxies in the known universe ranges from 170 billion or in a German simulation 500 billion. If you accept the German calculation that would mean that for every star in our Milky Way there is a corresponding galaxy. So I’ve learned that we are really, really small. (laughter). So the metaphor is that when I see a story like Stephen and Jane’s, I say to myself, “Stop whining Anthony!”
Eddie Redmayne: Also there is an almost sixth sense that Jane and Stephen have. There is a scene in the garden where Stephen’s head drops and Jane lightly touches his face and lifts his head while still talking. It this kind of dance between the patient and caregiver that is also very special. We were all influenced by this and his family. There was a point when the youngest son Tim Hawklng was on the set and I wanted to be very respectful if we had some scene right. Tim said yeah, we would get on Dad’s wheelchair and treat it like a go-cart and we would take swear words and put it into Dad’s voice also (laughter). So despite having this brutal disease, the family and kids went on like normal kids and decided how to live their lives. Those moments of the home video footage allowed us to capture the intimacy of the family and changes.
Audience Question: Art and philosophy often address science. Can you comment on the striving for meaning and perfection in science and the film. Does science try to find knowledge and what is the importance of philosophy in grounding the need for science?
Anthony McCarten: I don’t think I can address that comment or question. We have accidents or chemical reactions that find science. What is the hinge point that we go into the unknown, when physics bumps up against reality?
Eddie Redmayne: I think art is always striving for a perfection that you won’t or rarely will achieve it and that striving to get there is what we enjoy in acting or the arts. Knowing that doing a play every performance will be different even if you do it a whole year. Even one line may be different every time.
The Theory of Everything opened recently in DC metro theatres.
The London Film Festival
By James McCaskill and Ron Gordner, DC Film Society Members
London is the ideal setting for a world-class film festival with an audience accustomed to top international films and theatre. This year the city outdid itself with a festival that had 248 feature films shown in 17 venues through out this sprawling metropolis. The paid attendance was 163,300.
In addition to exciting films from talented directors and West End theaters offering comedy and drama, the museums had superb exhibits. London's National Gallery, itself the subject of a Wiseman documentary, had Rembrandt's masterpieces from his later years. The Victoria and Albert Museum had a wonderful exhibit of John Constable and his contemporaries that included works of J.M.W. Turner who was the subject of one of the festival's top films, Mr. Turner.
And the winners are:
Andrey Zvyagintsev, Director of Leviathan, winner of Best Film. (Photo from the London Film Festival website).
BEST FILM: Leviathan directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev
Celebrating the most original, intelligent and distinctive film making, the winner of the Best Film Award, went to Zvyagintsev’s striking film that tells the tragic tale of conflict between an individual and a corrupt system in a small Russian town. The award was announced by Jeremy Thomas, BFI Fellow and President of the Official Competition jury, who said, “We were all very engaged by the twelve films selected for Competition and really admired many of them, there were extraordinary stories and impressive images. But there was one film that we were unanimous in wanting to award Best Film, Leviathan directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. Its grandeur and themes moved all of us in the same way.”
FIRST FEATURE WINNER directed by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy for The Tribe
This award is presented to the director of the most original and imaginative first feature in the Festival and this year’s victor was the Ukrainian drama The Tribe, set in a school for young, deaf people and acted entirely in sign language. Producer Luc Roeg said when he made the award, "This year’s First Feature Winner presented a varied and interesting line-up of films from around the world but Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s, The Tribe distinguished itself as the most original and powerful of all the contenders. The young non-professional cast were all exceptional, but special mention must go to Yana Novikova. Slaboshpytskiy makes an audacious and highly accomplished debut as writer/director and has marked himself out as a true auteur. It’s a pleasure and privilege to commend the work.”
The jury also commended Naja Abu Nowar’s Theeb about orphaned brothers on a treacherous journey across the desert in the far reaches of the Ottoman Empire on the eve of the Arab revolt.
DOCUMENTARY WINNER: Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait directed by Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan.
This award recognizes outstanding feature-length documentaries of integrity, originality, technical excellence or cultural significance. Announcing the winner was jury president Sophie Fiennes who commented about the film's confronting account of life in Syria during the civil war: "The jury were deeply affected by this film. Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan’s portrait of Syria is both unflinching and poetic. It is hard to watch, because the fact of war is and should be unbearable. Bedirxan’s passionate and courageous quest to be a reliable witness, while trying to comprehend and survive her desperate situation in Homs, is profoundly moving. Ossama Mohammed’s exile in Paris, resonates with our own safe distance from this war, but the miracle of the film is how it engages us.”
MUST SEE FILMS:
Far From Men (David Oelhoffen, France, 2014). The setting is 1950’s rural Algeria. A dedicated teacher (Viggo Mortensen) in a one room school house tries to keep teaching amid the oncoming violence from the French army and Algerian guerillas or freedom fighters. He is forced to leave his school to take a prisoner (Reda Kateb) by horseback to a another town to stand trial for killing his cousin. Based on an Albert Camus story, the road trip involves many skirmishes and encounters as we slowly learn the background and demeanor of both men and the surrounding turmoil. Astounding rugged terrain captured by the cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaine and an emotional score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis complete this part thriller, part war, part morality tale.
Foxcatcher (has opened in DC). The film has three strong male leads so much so it is difficult to single out one of them for awards. Gotham Film Awards gave the three an award for their combined acting.
Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagitsev, Russia, 2014). This film was an award winner at the London Film Festival and is described above. Leviathan is going to be contender for Best Foreign Language Film.
(Director Andrew Lancaster at right).
The Lost Aviator (Andrew Lancaster, Australia, 2014). One of the surprise hits of the festival. In this documentary, Andrew Lancaster reveals the troubled life of an ancestor, his great uncle Bill Lancaster. Bill was a derring-do World War I military pilot who, like other veterans, returned home to continue his love of flying with thrilling airshows. Along the way Bill met Chubbie Miller, a wealthy American. Bill and Chubbie tried to break records by flying from the UK to Australia despite Chubbie's never learned how to fly. Chubbie had other lovers; namely Haden Clarke who was murdered. When Jim interviewed Andrew Lancaster he said, "The story had been in the family for decades. In the 1980s an over-over-the top romantic documentary was made. This was a compelling story about the family Black Sheep. As I researched his life and interviewed relatives the American branch thought him guilty and the English cousins knew he was innocent. Everyone likes to have a theory of what happened on that night." How much can we really know of our forebears? The film has a good chance of some US distribution. It will be the Opening Night film in a major US festival but I'm embargoed from revealing which one.
The Tribe (Plemya, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, Ukraine, 2014). A split decision here. Ron and most of the people at London Film Festival thought it an excellent film while Jim thought it a mash up of gangster films in a sympathy generating setting, a school for deaf students. Murder, rape, prostitution, theft. Ron thought: A controversial film with non-actors, in a deaf school, with no verbal language or subtitles, and only sign language. It is a very violent film at times and is in black and white. Young Sergey arrives at the deaf boarding school and is quickly oriented to bullies and the way of life he must adapt to survive. This was the Grand Prix winner at this year’s Cannes Critic’s Week of three awards. It was also this year’s BFI London Festival main feature competition winner.
Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, UK, 2014). One of this year's most important films primarily due to Timothy Spall's masterful portral of J.M.W. Turner, a man who was described as looking like someone who delivered coal rather than the artist capable of making such lyrical, romantic paintings. Queen Victoria hated his atmospheric impressionist style. To this date there is not one Turner in the Royal Collection while the Tate has 20,000 from this hard working artist. Fantastic cinematography gives another reason to see Mr. Turner. This film will have its DC premiere at the European Union Film Showcase at the AFI in December. See above for more comments.
National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, UK, 2014). Frederick Wiseman takes you behind the scenes of a London institution, The National Gallery. He leads you, as only the documentarian Frederick Wiseman can do, to the heart of a museum inhabited by masterpieces of Western art from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. This intriguing film is the portrait of a place, its way of working and relations with the world, its staff and public but most of it is a portrait of the National Gallery paintings. Many of the artworks shown are reproductions. Some are so fragile that they might not fare well under the hot lights needed to film. "I decided to approach the National Gallery," Wiseman said, "because its collection is one of the best in the world and covers a significant part of the history of painting, with its 2,400 works." "I watch everything, which takes 7-8 weeks. I often joke that I apply the Michelin Guide system: three, two, one or no stars. Usually about half the footage survives and I then edit it into sequences I think I can use - both in terms of picture and sound. This phase takes 6-8 months. I put together a rough cut that plays with order, rhythm and associations. That could be three-quarters of an hour over the eventual running time." This film has already had a one-week run at the AFI in November and will be shown at the West End in December.
Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, United States, 2014). One of the best films of the year and the Sundance Festival winner of both the Grand Jury prize and Audience Award. An aspiring drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) in a conservatory tries to get into the jazz band with its crazed perfectionist professor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). This is a thriller and rollercoaster ride of emotions well-acted by Teller and Simmons. Both actors and the film may be Oscar nominated. The film is currently still in area theaters.
Wild Tales (Damian Szifron, Argentina-Spain, 2014). This episodic film has one of the funnier openings Jim has ever seen. Six unrelated stories give each (road-rage, loan sharks, critics, corrupt politicians, cheating husbands and traffic wardens) story a proper roasting.
Produced by the Almodovar brothers. Szifron brings his own special touch to a a film with some of the biggest names in Argentine films. This hilarious film ends with the wedding dance from hell. Wild Tales is Argentina's nominee for foreign language Oscar.
The Dinner (Ivan De Matteo, Italy, 2014). Two brothers and their wives meet regularly for dinner. They also each have teenagers who are friends and get into some problems at school and elsewhere. Based on a Dutch best-seller, this is a fascinating character study of the two families, their personal and interpersonal relations, egos and ethics. What seems like a basic family drama becomes a moral thriller. Excellent acting from cast members Luigi Lo Casciio, Alessandro Gassman, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, and Barbora Bobulova.
Fair Play (Andrea Sedlachova, Czech Republic/Germany/Slovakia, 2014). This is the 2014 Czech Republic nominee for best foreign language film. Anna (Judit Bardos) is a teenage track star chosen to compete in the L.A. Olympic Games in 1984. Her mother Irena (Anna Geislerova), a former athlete also, was banned from competing when she supported the Prague Spring in 1968 and her father lives in exile abroad. Anna must face how to deal with her coaches insisting she take steroids like other athletes to improve her running time and the suffocating state security system infiltrating her young life. Excellent acting all around and especially from the moral and political perils faced by both the daughter and mother and how it affects their relationship.
A Hard Day (Kim Seong-Hun, South Korea, 2014). A real bad day for detective Ko Gun-su (Lee Sun-kyun), he has to attend his mother’s funeral, his team is being investigated by internal affairs, and he has a car accident coming back home that night that also has further repercussions. This is a non-stop thriller with lots of ethically challenging actions. How will Ko get through the day?
Margarita with a Straw (Shonali Bose and Nilesh Maniyar, India, 2014). Young actress Kalki Koechlin gives an excellent performance as Laila, a young woman with cerebral palsy who tries to do everything despite her disability. Based in part on some real stories and the director’s relative. In a Q&A session her aunt who is head of the Spastics Society of India admonished her niece to direct a film about real people and their stories. Laila goes to college in India but decides to go to graduate school in writing at New York University and has some new adventures there. An earnest film about young people with spastic disorders and their sexuality that has won a number of prizes on the film festival circuit.
The New Girlfriend (Une Nouvelle Amie, Francois Ozon, France, 2014). One of Ozon's most intriguing films. Claire, (Anais Demoustier) devastated by the death of her best friend, makes a promise to watch over her husband (Romain Duris) and newborn child. Suffering from her own depression and a husband who is disconnected from Claire's life, she finds herself in the upscale suburban home of her friend's widower and is unable to cope with his form of grief. She is drawn more and more in a tangled web with Duris. Ozon's statements about gender, class and consumerism are evident in this film. We can't tell more about the plot and ending without ruining your viewing experience.
Queen and Country (John Boorman, UK/Ireland/France, 2014). Picking up from the his earlier film Hope and Glory, we find the youngster Bill, now 18 years old and being conscripted into the Army. A comedy/drama of Bill (Callum Turner) and his regiment mates including Percy (Caleb Landry Jones), their strict rules only, but sometimes hilarious sergeant (David Thewlis), their love lives and home lives continues Boorman’s storytelling with that extra personal touch. This film is part of the EU Film Showcase at the AFI.
Testament of Youth (James Kent, UK, 2014). This is a book-to-screen film with Vera Brittain's World War I novel making the transition. This could have been a soapy melodrama but in director Kent's able hand it comes off as a moving adaptation. Vera is a free spirited young lady in a era when ladies aren't free spirited. She overcomes her father's resistance and heads to Oxford, a safe choice as her brother goes there. She meets Roland, a friend of her brother, who ships out to the war. Vera abandons college to become a frontline nurse. One by one the valiant young men she had known in school perish. Actors Kit Harington, Taron Egerton and Colin Morgan bring a vibrancy to the memory of the ordinary heroes they portray.
Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey/Germany/France, 2014). The film is set in the hilly landscape of Cappadocia in Turkey's Anatolia, where a local celebrity, a former actor/writer, Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) owns a small hotel that, like a lot of housing here, is cut into the hillside. Those of us who have been lucky enough to visit this enchanted place recall the beauty of the stark landscape. Inspired by three short stories of Chekhov, although a lot of liberties were taken with the Russian author's works. Ceylan said, "I did not want to film in Cappadocia, because I thought the location was too beautiful for this film. But we couldn't find a hotel anywhere else that was cut off from the world, where I could place my characters away from mainstream life." Ceylan worked the screenplay with his wife, Ebru, who worked together on his previous film, the well received Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. A young boy's act of throwing a rock at the isolated actor/land owner brings a sharp dash of reality to the reclusive man. The cocoon of isolation in which Aydin has wrapped himself unravels and he is in time brought face-to-face with who and what he truly is. Coming soon to DC theaters.
Wild (Jean-Marc Vallee, USA, 2014). Adapted from Cheryl Strayed's 2012 memoir of her 1,100 mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail over the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges. The film mixes wonderfully sweeping photographed scenes of Strayed's journey with moving flashbacks that explain why she is undertaking this potentially dangerous adventure. Reese Witherspoon is award-worthy as the gutsy and vulnerable Cheryl Strayed. Coming soon to DC theaters.
X + Y (Morgan Matthews, UK, 2014). Teenage math genius Nathan (Asa Butterfield) is baffled by one equation: love. He is unable to build relationships with other people, including his mother (Sally Hawkins), and finally finds comfort in numbers. In time he is tutored by the unconventional and anarchic teacher Mr. Humphreys (Rafe Spall) with whom he makes a friendship. Nathan's math skills win him a place on the UK National team at the International Mathematics Olympiad. While in a Taiwan training camp he begins to develop unfamiliar feelings for one of the Chinese competitors, Zhang Mei (Jo Yang). These feelings continue to develop upon their return to the UK for the IMO finals at Trinity College, Cambridge. The film, based on the real life story of Daniel (only one name is used as he was so young), who has a neurodevelopmental disorder that results in math genius. Mathews says, "I always felt this story had the potential to be dramatized and that this fascinating world could be represented in a feature film." According to X + Y producer Laura Hastings-Smith, "Matthews' particular skills as a documentarian, and the insights he has revealed in his films, made him a prime candidate to become a feature director."
GOOD or WORTH A LOOK:
Black Coal, Thin Ice (Diao Yinan, China-Hong Kong, 2014). This was the Golden Bear winner at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival. A cold case or murder mystery that spans 5 years from when a severed hand is found in 1999 in Northern China among the coal on a conveyor belt. Snowy cinematography mixed with neon lighting and colors makes this a unique viewing experience. In 2004, divorced cop Shang (Liao Fan) takes a job as a coal company security guard trying to find out more information and solve the case. More severed body parts are found in the snow with ice skates. A film very violent at times including bungled arrests, chases over the snow and ice, and a very strange widowed laundry clerk who seems somehow involved. The film was recently screened at the Freer.
The Blue Room (Mathieu Amalric, France, 2014). A somewhat Hitchcockian tale based on the Georges Simenon’s 1964 mystery, sees farm machinery salesman and married man Julien (Amalric) in a dangerous but lustful affair with a pharmacist’s wife (co-screenwriter) Stephanie Cleau. The blue room of the title is a hotel room they meet regularly for their adulterous affair. A crime and a famous court case ensues in this stylish thriller. The Blue Room was recently shown in DC.
Charlie’s Country (Rolf de Heer, Australia, 2014). David Gulpilil won the best actor award in the Un Certain Regard section at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Charlie (Gulpilil) lives in the Outback with his poor Aboriginal community and has bouts with the local white police and overall with white society laws. In a Q&A session de Heer said he heard that Gulpilil was in bad health due to alcoholism and travelled to see him. He talked him into helping write a screenplay and act in this movie which helped turn around his life and give him a new purpose for living. Charlie also has to decide if he will continue to live on the fringe of white society or rediscover the strength of his own culture. This is Australia’s 2014 submission for Best Foreign Language Oscar.
Corn Island (George Ovashvili, Georgia, 2014). The Enguri River forms the border between Georgia and the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia. Tensions remain from the 1992-93 war that separated the two countries. Every Spring the river brings fertile soil from the Caucasus down to the plains of Abkhazia and northwestern Georgia, creating tiny islands: small clusters of no man's land. The islands are havens for wildlife but occasionally also for man. Corn Island begins when an old Abkhaz farmer sets foot on one of the islands. The old man builds a hut for himself and his teenage granddaughter, he plows the earth and together they sow corn. As the granddaughter blossoms into womanhood and the corn ripens, the old man is confronted by the inescapable cycle of life. This is Georgia’s nominee for Best Foreign Language Oscar.
The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, UK, 2014). This is Strickland's third feature film and one in which he explores a sexual relationship without explicit images. This film takes place in an unnamed European city in an unspecified time. The crux of the film is a story about all relationships and how one is expected to conform to an image the other person has of them. The Duke of Burgundy takes this to an extreme level within the context of a sado-masochistic relationship, as we see how the submissive Evelyn dominates her older lover, Cynthia. Layers are slowly revealed that gradually unfold throughout the film. The viewer must constantly reassess the roles within the relationship. A dark melodrama from Peter Strickland. A word to the wise: The Duke of Burgundy is not a person.
Daughter (Duktar, Afia Nathaniel, Pakistan/U.S./Norway, 2014). In the mountains of Pakistan two rival families or tribes have had a blood feud for some time. The aged Tor Gul, leader of a rival family agrees to end the feud if his rival war lord Daulat Khan gives his 12 year old daughter Zainah to him as another wife. Her mother Allah Rakhi had a similar fate years ago and helps her daughter escape. A thrilling road movie and a story showing the plight of some women in Pakistan is presented. This is Pakistan’s 2014 submission for Best Foreign Language Oscar.
Jamie Marks is Dead (Carter Smith, USA, 2014). Jamie Marks is dead but his spirit needs to find peace in the afterworld, a peace he could not find in this one. Based on Christopher Barzak's 2007 novel, One for Sorrow, Carter Smith has made a coming of age film in an unexpected and unconventional ghost story that is achingly sad and visually ravishing.
Labour of Love (Adityavikram Sengupta, India, 2014). A beautifully photographed and nuanced tale of a young Indian couple who work different shifts. Their daily home and work routines are almost silently filmed. Detail to the interior of their apartment and the furniture, windows, and objects is reminiscent of Claire Denis films. It seems like they are primarily together only in their dreams.
A Little Chaos (Alan Rickman, UK 2014). A landscape gardener (Kate Winslet) with a free spirit attitude upsets all others working at King Louis XIV's Versailles. She is under the tutelege of strict gardner Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) who prizes geometric order over all others. The backstabbing and gossip at court make this a film of comedy and drama. The film's greatest strength is on women and their relationships and has been called "a treat for green-fingered romantics."
Loreak or Flowers (Jose Mari Goenaga and Jon Garano, Spain, 2014). Basque directors and co-writers with Aitor Arregi tell the story of Ane, a forty-something wife beginning early menopause who is receiving daily flowers delivered from an unknown source. She tries to find who is sending the flowers and we are presented with a second story of another family deep in trauma and grief that puts her life into a new perspective.
Mr. Kaplan (Alvaro Brechner, Uruguay/Spain/Germany, 2014). At some point late in life most everyone comes to grips with their impending mortality. For 76-year old Jacob Kaplan, a transplanted Jew now living in Uruguay whose boring life and a family little interested in their fading cultural heritage lead him to decide to take an aged Germany beach bar owner who might be a Nazi to Israel for trial. The film is a study of the demons haunting those on the run from their unresolved past. This is Uruguay’s nominee.
The President (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Georgia/France/UK/Germany, 2014). The director said, "In the course of the Arab Spring several dictatorships of the region collapsed but more than 40 are still in power worldwide. Even in these countries there is a step toward Democracy. We have witnessed a great deal of violence, before and after the collapse of the old regimes. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions more have been injured or become refugees." In Makhmalbef's film a dictator comes face to face with the people he previously subjugated. He and his family have ruled with an iron hand and lived a live of luxury while the citizen's lives were lived in misery. The ousted President and his grandson cross the nation heading towards a safe haven.
Rosewater (Already opened in DC).
The Salvation (Kristian Levring, South Africa, 2014). The American Old West is visited again in Kristian Levring's gripping tale of hate, murder and revenge on the pioneer trail. In 1871 Danish soldier Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) has left Denmark and now resides on a farm near Bear Creek. Interesting yet shifty characters people this hamlet: local tyrant Delarue and laconic antiheroes Sergios Corbucci and Leone Mikkelsen. Levring gives this muddy, bloody Old West a makeover as tempers flare and lives are upended.
The Second Coming (Debbie Tucker Green, UK, 2014). Green's debut film explores the big theological question "What if". In this case it looks at the relationship between Jax (Nadine Marshall), Idris Elba and their son, JJ. Green's film harkens back to the Kitchen Sink films of social realism for which the UK excelled.
Theeb (Naji Abu Nowar, Jordan/UK/UAE/Qatar, 2014). In 1916 Arabia Theeb lives with his Bedouin tribe in a forgotten corner of the Ottoman Empire. Theeb has recently lost his father so his uncle becomes responsible for his upbringing. It is most important for the uncle to teach him the Bedouin way of life. Their lives are interrupted with the arrival of a British Army Officer and his guide who are on a mysterious military mission. Tribal law requires the uncle to assist the officer on their journey to an old water well on the road to Mecca. Fearful of losing his last relative, Theeb chases after them across the treacherous Arabian Desert. It's not only the heat and harsh terrain that might prove harmful but the threat of Ottoman mercenaries, Arab revolutionaries and Bedouin raiders. If Theeb is to survive he must quickly live up to his father's expectations.
Viktoria (Maya Vitkova, Bulgaria/Romania, 2014). Another film with a split decision with Ron liking the film far more than Jim did. Boryana is determined to make it to the West and not be incumbered with a child in communist Bulgaria. She not only finds herself pregnant but with a child that is labeled "Socialist baby of the decade" with dictator Todor Zhivkov her godfather. Ostensibly a film about the need for love it also has political satire, humor, irony and lyricism. Ror agreed with this while Jim found the long periods of silence and equally long periods of actors staring at the camera pointless and self indulgent. This film was shown in the most recent Filmfest DC and is showing again in the EU Film Showcase in December.
We Come as Friends (Hubert Sauper, France/Austria, 2014). Sauper is on a roll with We Come as Friends coming right behind the highly acclaimed Darwin's Nightmare. His sophomore film looks at Western Society's avarice and abuse of politically fragile countries with an abundance of resources. In 2011 Southern Sudan became the world's youngest nation. Southern Sudan had an uncertain future but whose natural resources attracted a number of characters: local politicians looking for remuneration for their support, American evangelists intent on winning hearts and minds, international bureaucrats, Chinese laborers and more than a few dodgy businessmen. Sauper is a skilled filmmaker able to sift through all the data to find grand narrative of industrial colonialism.
The Wonders (Le Meraviglie, Alice Rohwacher, Italy, 2014). A family isolated from modern life and living in an isolated section of Italy attempts to hold onto their bee-keeping farm. The eldest daughter sees an odd TV talent show as her ticket out of this suffocating life. Told as a offbeat fairy tale, the film features excellent performances from the young cast members. The director's sister, Alba Rohrwacher gives an outstanding turn as the family matriarch.
Learn more about London Film Festival.
Calendar of Events
American Film Institute Silver Theater
The AFI's 27th annual European Union Film Showcase (December 3-21) (See above). is the big event for December. More than 50 films are shown from countries in the European Union, many of which are US premieres and award winners.
"Holiday Classics" film titles include The Muppet Christmas Carol, It's a Wonderful Life, Remember the Night, A Christmas Story, White Christmas, The Man Who Came to Dinner, Die Hard, Die Hard 2, Miracle on 34th Street and Little Women.
Special engagements in December are A Hard Day's Night, Mary Poppins, The Wizard of Oz and Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington DC (1980-1990).
Freer Gallery of Art
"Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien," a series of films by the Taiwanese director, continues in December. On December 7 at 2:00pm is The Puppetmaster (1993); on December 12 at 7:00pm is Goodbye South Goodbye (1996); on December 14 at 2:00pm is Flowers of Shanghai (1998); and on December 21 at 2:00pm is Millennium Mambo (2001). More Hou Hsiao-hsien films are shown at the National Gallery of Art.
National Gallery of Art
While the East Building is being renovated, films are shown in the West Building and in other locations. Please check the locations for each show.
The film series "Marco Bellocchio: Morality and Beauty" continues in December. On December 13 at 2:30pm is The Eyes, the Mouth (1982) and on December 13 at 5:00pm is The Seagull (1977). Both are shown at the National Portrait Gallery. Note that "The Prince of Homborg" and "The Butterfly's Dream," originally scheduled for December, have been moved to January and "Victory March" will not be shown.
"Also Like Life: Hou Hsiao-hsien" is a series of films by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien. On December 4 at 6:30pm is City of Sadness (1989), on December 6 at 2:00pm is Cute Girl (1980) shown with A Cheerful Wind (1981), and on December 13 at 2:00pm is Good Men, Good Women (1995), all shown at the Goethe Institute. More Hou Hsiao-hsien films are at the Freer.
"Athens Today" is a series of new films from Greece. On December 5 at 7:00pm is September (Penny Panayotopoulou, 2013); on December 7 at 4:30pm is Standing Aside, Watching (Yorgos Servetas, 2013); on December 12 at 7:00pm is Wild Duck (Yannis Sakaridis, 2013); on December 14 at 4:30pm is At Home (Athanasios Karanikolas, 2014), all of which are shown at American University. On December 21 at 4:30pm is The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas (Elina Psykou, 2013) and on December 28 at 4:30pm is The Daughter (Thanos Anastopoulos, 2012), both of which are shown at the National Gallery's West Building.
A special event is "New York's Cinema 16 Film Society: Programming for a Divided World," a discussion by film historian Scott MacDonald, author of the book "Cinema 16: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society." Following the talk is a program of short films.
National Museum of the American Indian
On December 5 at 7:00pm is The Searchers (John Ford, 1956), followed by a discussion with Glenn Frankel, author of "The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend."
"Captured Shadows: Circulating Images of Native Americans on Film" begins at 10:30am on December 6. Caitlin McGrath discussed "The Trouble with Dixon: The Wanamaker Expedition Films of 1908-1913" about the films and photographs taken at reservations by Joseph Kossuth Dixon. Film archivist Andy Uhrich discussed "Who's Hiawatha? Reconstructing Katharine Ertz-Bowden and Charles Bowden's 1904 Illustration Lecture A Pictorial Story of Hiawatha." Jennifer Jenkins discusses "The Afterlife of Film: Rereading, Repatriation, and Tribesourcing the American Indian Film Gallery."
On December 6 at 2:00pm is "Selected Works from Navajo Film Themselves," a collection of short documentaries including A Navajo Weaver (1966), The Spirit of the Navajo (1966) and Doing the Sheep Good (2013). A roundtable discussion follows the screenings.
On December 6 at 5:00pm is Drunktown's Finest (Sydney Freeland, 2014), about three young Native Americans who try to escape the hardships of life on an Indian reservation. Sydney Freeland will be present for discussion.
On December 7 at 11:00am is "Selected Episodes of Images of Indians," two short episodes from the PBS program "Images of Indians: How Hollywood Wins the West" (1980) and "Images of Indians: Warpaint and Wigs" (1980).
Museum of American History
On December 6 and 7 at 11:00am, 1:00pm and 3:00pm is The Muppet Christmas Carol Movie.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
On December 1 at 6:30pm is the documentary James Castle: Portrait of an Artist (2008) introduced by director Jeffrey Wolf who will also take questions from the audience after the screening.
Washington Jewish Community Center
On December 2 at 7:30pm is The Syrian Bride (Eran Riklis, 2004) with director Eran Riklis in person.
On December 9 at 7:30pm is Zero Motivation (Talya Lavie, 2014), a dark comedic portrait of female Israeli soldiers. The film won Best Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival.
On December 10 at 7:30pm is A Place in Heaven (Yossi Madmony, 2013) shown at the Adas Israel Congregation, 2850 Quebec Street NW. Note that it will show again at the JCC in January.
On December 16 at 7:30pm is Comedy Warriors (John Wager, 2013), about five severely injured American veterans who are paired with a celebrated comedian as mentor on how to write and perform a comedy routine. Comedy warrior Joe Kashnow, featured in the film, will be present for Q&A and a short live comedy set.
On December 24 at 7:30pm is It Happened in St. Tropez (Daniele Thompson, 2013), a French comedy of manners set in Paris, St. Tropez, and New York. A reception takes place prior to the screening.
On December 1 at 6:30pm is a discussion with film clips "A New Wall in Ukraine? The Role of Artists and the Arts." Speakers are Olena Chervonik and Yuri Gruzinov. On December 8 at 6:30pm is a program of seven animation films about the Berlin Wall; see the website for titles. Both programs are part of the series "The Wall in Our Heads."
On December 9 at 7:00pm is the documentary Hitchcock et la nouvelle vague (Jean-Jacques Bernard, 2007). Bernard investigates Hitchcock's influence on French New Wave Directors Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, and François Truffaut.
The Japan Information and Culture Center
On December 10 at 6:30pm is the anime film Letter to Momo (Hiroyuki Okiura, 2012), winner for Best Animated Feature at the Asia Pacifi Screen Awards and Annie Awards and nominated for Best Animated Film at the Japanese Academy Awards.
On December 17 at 6:30pm is Chronicle of My Mother (Masato Harada, 2011). The film has won numerous awards and is based on the autobiographical novel by Yasushi Inoue.
On December 16 at noon is The Battle of the Bulge (2004) in commemoration of the 70th anniversary. The film includes footage from German and American archives.
On December 3 at 8:00pm is Last Days of Vietnam (Rory Kennedy, 2014) with a post-screening Q&A featuring retired Navy Captain Paul Jacobs (Captain of the USS Kirk during Operation Frequent Wind) and former State Department official Joseph McBride (stationed in Saigon during the evacuation). Part of the "Avalon Docs" series.
On December 10 at 8:00pm is Wings of Christmas (Karin Babinská, 2013), part of the "Czech Lions" series.
The French Cinematheque film for December is Diplomacy (Volker Schlondorff, 2014).
Italian Cultural Institute
On December 17 at 6:30pm is Cosmonauta (Susanna Nicchiarelli, 2008).
Anacostia Community Museum
On December 7 at 2:00pm is If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise (Spike Lee, 2011), an award-winning documentary about New Orleans five years after Hurricane Katrina.
On December 9 at 11:00am is Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives (Ed Bell and Thomas Lennon, 2003), first-person narratives from slave-era survivors which were transcribed and preserved by the Library of Congress. Actors Angela Bassett, Don Cheadle, Samuel L. Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, Jasmine Guy, Ossie Davis, Alfre Woodard, and others voice the narratives.
On December 17 at 1:00pm is Gideon's Army (Dawn Porter, 2013), a documentary about young lawyers in a Deep South community.
On December 2 at 7:00pm is Unfinished Business (2014) about Kenya since its independence, with Q&A afterwards hosted by Mwiza Munthali.
On December 9 at 7:00pm is Language-Lives in Portugese (Victor Lopes, 2002), a documentary about the Portuguese language and the people who speak it in Portugal, Mozambique, India, Brazil, France, and Japan. A Q&A and audience discussion follows the film.
The "Midday Thrillers" film for December is The Others (2001) on December 10 at 1:00pm.
Reel Affirmations XTra
On December 12 at 7:00pm and 9:15pm is What It Was (Daniel Armando, 2014) with a reception and Q&A after the film with director Daniel Armando.
Busboys and Poets
On December 1 at 7:30pm is Informants to be followed by a panel discussion. At the 5th and K location.
The Jerusalem Fund
On December 10 at noon is On the Side of the Road (Lia Tarachansky, 2013), a documentary about Israel's independence and the Palestine refugee problem. Lia Tarachansky will be present.
On December 12 at 6:30pm is "Suspended Time," a collection of nine short films. See the website for the film titles and filmmaker biographies.
George Mason University
On December 1 at 5:00pm is a program of short films from around the world. The titles include Yallah to the Moon from Palestine, Kamera from India, Oppressed Majority from France, Pumzi from Kenya, Destino from Spain, Niebla from Mexico and Right Place from Japan. Open to the public.
Gala Hispanic Theater Film Festival
Films from Spain, Cuba and Mexico are shown December 3-7. The opening night film is the DC premiere of Molasses from Cuba. Other films are the DC premiere of The Amazing Catfish from Mexico with lead actress Lisa Owen present, The Wild Children from Spain, Juan of the Dead from Cuba, Adventuress from Mexico, the DC premiere of Map from Spain, the DC premiere of the documentary Disrupted from Mexico. Most films have post-screening discussions and all have English subtitles.