Calvary: Q&A with Director John Michael McDonagh and Actor Brendan Gleeson
By Annette Graham, DC Film Society Member
Enthusiastic applause greeted director John Michael McDonagh and actor Brendan Gleeson after an advance screening of Calvary at Landmark's E Street Cinema. Note: There are a number of spoilers in this Q&A and we don't recommend reading it until after seeing the film, which opens on August 8.
Moderator: Brendan Gleeson needs no introduction. He's had a long career and is familiar to all of us. The director, John Michael McDonagh was screenwriter before he became a director; he wrote Ned Kelly (2003). His 2011 film, The Guard was another collaboration with Brendan Gleeson. A very different film but just as good.
John Michael McDonagh: It was bleaker.
Moderator: Was it okay that we laughed during this movie? It's a serious subject.
Brendan Gleeson: My demise was hilarious. (audience laughs).
John Michael McDonagh: I always find his demise hilarious. I thought the laughs would end with the scene between Brendan Gleeson and Domhnall Gleeson when he goes to visit him in prison which is midway of the movie. When we screened it at Sundance, the laughs ended there. There are so many dark scenes, people want some relief. Whenever there's any attempt at humor, people still want to go with it. So, yes, I was quite surprised that the humor worked as long as it did.
Moderator: You have the best lines in the movie. Some of the best moments are when people say things to you and the camera goes over your face. Half of the movie's greatness is just the way you play in your face. It's very subtle. There are moments when you are the funny guy but also moments responding to others.
John Michael McDonagh: The script it was written in a deadpan way. I do storyboards, there are going to be reaction shots, closeup deadpan reaction shots. I went over it with Brendan; there are going to be reaction shots, deadpan. So Brendan knows that going in.
Brendan Gleeson: A lot of what this man has to do is to absorb. It was quite taxing to do this film because the natural thing is to respond when you're under constant attack like that. In some scenes, James does respond, just casually shooting out a few lights at the pub (audience laughs). Actors sometimes forget that listening is equally as important as speaking and sometimes more interesting. And I remember working with a director and asking was I going to get the screentime. I don't have the lines but I'll do it if I get the screentime. Just because the line is there doesn't mean that is all you get. It is difficult for people to get that kind of work where a director or writer understands and knows. A lot of times an absorbing experience is important driving the story forward.
Moderator: The first 5 to 8 minutes of the film you have fewer lines but the camera is always on you.
John Michael McDonagh: The first 3 minutes is a masterclass in acting. (audience applauds).
Moderator: What kind of research did you do?
John Michael McDonagh: I didn't do any research. I hate research.
Brendan Gleeson: I was brought up a Catholic so I knew all this stuff essentially. A few minor things, the mass. Even the idea of wearing the garb. That has gone out of fashion. To get too obsessed with the immediate detail would have been a mistake.
John Michael McDonagh: I was an altar boy. My brother was a choirboy and actually sung before the pope. The guy who directed In Bruges sang before the pope. He was 11 and he was really homesick and he was ringing up my mum and wanted to come home. Only you guys know that.
Moderator: The two guys making some of the blackest comedies around today--one was an altar boy and one was a choirboy! Brendan Gleeson wears old fashion garb. You are using this as part of the plot. He is from a world that is dying.
John Michael McDonagh: In my mind it was a great visual image. The character is saying, " I'm not going to be one of these contemporary priests who are wearing shirts and trousers and trying to be normal..."
Moderator: ... and they look like accountants.
John Michael McDonagh: Yes, and they look like accountants. He says, "I'm going to be a throwback to an old style priest. I'm going to wear this soutane and when you look at me you can see I'm a throwback to an old style priest.
Brendan Gleeson: He is unashamed; it's a late vocation so when he makes the decision he is unashamed of his commitment to it. That is central to it. He's not going to merge into the populace. He wants to be a very particular figure representing kindness and goodness more than anything else. But obviously that means wearing the uniform that has been besmirched by the scandals and coverups. So he is nailing his colors to the mast.
John Michael McDonagh: This harks back to The Guard. At the end Gerry Boyle gets out the uniform that makes him feel better, to a time when he was an honorable person.
Brendan Gleeson: An interesting thing about that soutane. When I was in wardrobe fitting it was the most bizarre moment for me of the entire experience. I found as I was putting on that suit of armor that I was expected now to stand up for a kind of decency and goodness. It was the most bizarre thing which I wasn't really expecting. I felt I had been brought back to a period of my childhood when things were simple when there was goodness and badness. It's comparable to a samurai and after that you are the protector of what you believe in. I loved the fact that I didn't have to merge.
Moderator: Who killed Bruno?
John Michael McDonagh: One of the characters has a bandage on his hand after the dog was killed. If you see the film again... (audience laughs).
Moderator: I have seen it twice and it is better the second time.
John Michael McDonagh: There are a lot of things going on in the film, once you already know this. You go back and see the early scene when Chris says, "Hope we don't get locked in. We'll have to make love to keep warm." That's a man who has been abused. and he is saying something out loud to a priest. When you see it again, there's a lot of that sort of thing percolating through.
Audience Question: In the scene when you are giving communion you see the killer. Was that intentional?
John Michael McDonagh: No. (audience laughs). But you are lining up the suspects.
Moderator: You see people's different reactions in the scene where the church is burning.
John Michael McDonagh: When the church is burning, Chris isn't in the bar for a long period of time. Everybody else is in the bar.
Audience Question: How have Irish audiences reacted? What might they understand that we as Americans wouldn't?
John Michael McDonagh: It's been a divisive film. In Ireland they expected "The Guard 2." It did really well but I don't think audiences left with a spring in their step. I don't see this as being a particularly Irish film. What is Persona? Is is about two Swedish women? Is Tokyo Story about a Japanese family? What is this film about? It is just about an Irish community. It's about human beings and the human condition. That's the way I approach it. I'm a little bit annoyed that Irish critics view everything from their own parochial viewpoint. To me it's a universal film and should be seen in that way.
Brendan Gleeson: It's not just about the church. It's about how it's more and more difficult in the world generally to believe that authority figures carry the weight of authority with any kind of morality. People feel deserted and lost. I found it interesting in Ireland. I was a little worried that it would be rejected out of hand. There are very specific types of people. A friend went with people of late middle age. The woman who would have been very Catholic at one point in her life heard someone saying, "We got more than we bargained for there." Other people expecting a shootout get a shootout. For me it's an intelligent appraisal. In terms of culture, everybody knows those authority figures.... I don't thing it's an especially Irish thing. People don't believe in anything. People are defensive about it. The audience really took it on board as a series of questions.
Moderator: There is a juxtaposition of beautiful places in Ireland with this hint of terrible things that happen in this beautiful place. Was that intentional?
John Michael McDonagh: Yes, the landscape shots. The landscape doesn't care. We're going to be dead and gone and that landscape is still going to be there. Which I guess is a depressing thing.
Brendan Gleeson: It's like Monument Valley.
John Michael McDonagh: Monument Valley doesn't care.
Audience Question: Could you tell us about the character of Fiona? How did you find her and who else did you consider?
John Michael McDonagh: Kelly Reilly. I liked her in lots of film roles for a long time. I left it late to cast her role. And she has red hair! And we offered it to her and she accepted. An instinctive decision turned out to be a great casting decision.
Brendan Gleeson: Her presence in life is equal to her presence here except not suicidal.
John Michael McDonagh: In the early draft all those scenes were there. Brendan said, "There are lots of great scenes with the Fiona character. Can we expand them?" I did that and they became some of the most moving scenes in the film. They were all there in the initial draft. The final phone call wasn't in the first draft. Brendan said, "I kind of miss her when she goes. Is there any way we can get her back?" I thought that he would ring someone before going down on the beach. He would ring her wouldn't he? So now we have what is one of my favorite scenes. It's an emotional scene with modernity. She's got the big Dublin backdrop and he's got this old crumbling ruin behind him. We have emotion and visual dialogue. That came out from our discussions.
Brendan Gleeson: I found myself teary after the first draft. I got to know my character from the scenes with her. John has a particular facility for writing scenes of tenderness but avoids it at all costs. You have to tease it out of him.
Moderator: What about your collaboration with Brendan in The Guard?
John Michael McDonagh: We started collaborating on the editing of The Guard. I've never been to film school, so the editing of The Guard was my film school. I showed Brendan cuts of the movie and he kept giving me good notes. That's when I became more confident that Brendan would give a performance based on what was best for the movie.
Brendan Gleeson: This is what happens when you don't have a good side.
John Michael McDonagh: I became confident that he would make the best decision for the movie. When I wrote the first draft and sent to Brendan, I was so confident that he would do what was best for the movie.
Moderator: Freddie Joyce, the man that Father James goes to visit in prison is played by Brendan Gleeson's son. How did that casting happen? What was it like to work with him?
John Michael McDonagh: I was worried about it. I thought it would take people out of the movie. A lot of people don't know it is Domhnall. My brother showed up and after the first few takes he said, "I thought this was supposed to be a comedy."
Brendan Gleeson: Domhnall and I talked about it. There came a point in talking about it when I realized that it wasn't helping. And we moved apart and prior to shooting I didn't see him for three days. Even on the day of the shooting we kept apart; we didn't talk. But it reminded me afterwards that it was like two friends who spar together and then have to get into the ring for real. There comes a time when you have to get into your space and look after your own things. The room was set up in a very particular way with all this space around.
John Michael McDonagh: We come straight in for the big master shots.
Brendan Gleeson: It was great to know him again afterwards.
Audience Question: What did you want music to do for the film?
John Michael McDonagh: This time I wanted to use pop songs that were strange or were a little odd. Songs that the audience wouldn't know, or going back to melancholic versions of them. I'm happy to have no score at all but I know that isn't going to help the movie. I'm always worried about scores that are over-emotional and that is helping a scene that shouldn't need help. I'm always second guessing myself in that way. I would never use a song that has been used before in a movie. I'm trying to find something that people would remember from childhood. In my next movie I want to bring back Glen Campbell.
Moderator: So many directors use music as a crutch to get an emotional reaction.
John Michael McDonagh: ... that they haven't achieved in a scene.
Audience Question: Why was the rest of town so unsympathetic to the church?
John Michael McDonagh: People in Ireland are very very angry and people around the world are angry about what has happened. I was doing press in Australia. There's a line where Chris O'Dowd says, "There are bodies buried back there, buried like dogs." While we were doing the press tour it came out that they did throw kids into unmarked graves in these orphanages. All those things are still coming up. I think a lot of Americans have an idealized view of Ireland. As far as I'm concerned, the Catholic church is finished in Ireland. People are not going to church every week, they're not doffing their caps to the priest. That's all finished. You have to remember that the government colluded with child abuse and so did the police force. They all colluded with it. So it's all finished. Whatever you think about Ireland, whatever you think about the church, whatever you think about child abuse--they all colluded. Every form of authority in Ireland colluded with it. And it's finished.
Brendan Gleeson: There's a huge difference; I've been thinking about this. There is a huge thing that has to be taken into consideration. The separation of church and state is very clear here. Religion has always been in a particular place and politics have been in a particular place. And sometimes they cross. But when the Irish state was set up, the Catholic church had a special place in the constitution. It was that mixing of church and state, it was the mixing of responsibility with those orphanages, people leaving responsibility up to clergy, clergy being unregulated. It was a whole series of things. The church was given a lot of authority and responsibility. When it all came crashing down, people got immeasurably angry about it. I don't agree with you that it is finished. I think it will be a long time before it's actually ever over in Ireland. It's funny how people are; dismiss it at your peril. Faith will always be there in various guises. It's also the banking thing where we blew it; you had a similar thing here. The medical profession, all these groups with authority betrayed the people. That's why the anger was there. It's not entirely representative about what happens in a village. The church was going to be full and people would emerge. John decided that it's better to have just those people there. There is anger across the spectrum. Some priests have been accused of pedophilia in the wrong. That's where the germ of the notion of writing about a good priest came. I had a good experience with the Christian Brotherhood when I was in primary school. We decided to have a good man at the center of it. And the banker character, that is true of what happened. Everywhere you go, people attack him and have a legitimate argument.
John Michael McDonagh: That character at the end turns out to be one of the few characters who ask for help. He's not a villain, but is a screwed up character. The doctor is trying to help his community. We can't judge the characters. The woman cheating with Chris O'Dowd. She starts sleeping with someone else. She's the town slut. Why? She's obviously a very intelligent woman with no relationship with her husband. When she says to the priest, "You are too sharp for this parish", she is referring to herself.
Brendan Gleeson: There is a confusion with the people. The absolutes are no longer taken at face value. This man is brought to task with the notion of these absolute values. People are disillusioned.
John Michael McDonagh: They want to destroy him but they actually don't want him to be crushed. They want him to be better than they are.
Brendan Gleeson: It's like every cynic. They want to be shown in the end that there is a future and romance. They fight so hard to make the words seem nasty but you know that they hope to be proven wrong in the end. I think that the people try to break this man but hope against hope that he doesn't break.
Calvary opens in DC on August 8.
I Origins: Q&A with Director Mike Cahill and Actor Michael Pitt
By Annette Graham, DC Film Society Member
A screening of I Origins (Mike Cahill, 2014) took place July 22 at Landmark's E Street Cinema. After the screening there was a Q&A with director Mike Cahill and actor Michael Pitt. Kevin McCarthy of Fox News was moderator.
Kevin McCarthy: How did you do the camera shots for the eyes? Did you capture all those eyes yourself?
Mike Cahill: Yes. We used a macro lens which has almost a one-to-one ratio. That's the entire crew in the movie.
Kevin McCarthy: So you're in there as well.
Mike Cahill: Yes.
Kevin McCarthy: How did you get Michael Pitt involved?
Mike Cahill: I had the opportunity to meet Michael at a general meeting. We're both at the same agency. When it was presented to me I leapt at the opportunity. I'm a huge admirer of Michael's work. I think he's one of the most brilliant artists working today. I love the choices he's made in films, in both the roles he has chosen to do and in the microchoices in scenes. I think he is a surprising, bold, fearless and brilliant actor. So I was eager and excited to meet him. We just sat down for a cup of coffee in Brooklyn. And I didn't have a project at the time. It wasn't like I was there to present a project. He didn't have a project to present to me. It was sort of an artist-to-artist meeting. An hour went by, us chatting. I was struck by his sense of humor and his intuitive intelligence and we just got along very well. Midway through I thought of this project for which I only had a treatment, just a 15 page synopsis. "Michael, hold on let me tell you a story." I talked through the story and he graciously said, "That's really great, you should work on that." (audience laughs) I spent the next few weeks stuck to a computer and churned out a script very quickly. And I sent it to him and we started working together.
Kevin McCarthy: Do you shoot the movie during off times of your show?
Michael Pitt: I don't like working on two different things at the same time.
Kevin McCarthy: When he first sees the eyes on the ad, is that a Hitchcock dolly zoom shot?
Mike Cahill: That was a double Vertigo shot. Hitchcock in Vertigo invented what we call the Vertigo shot. You dolly in and zoom out simultaneously. If your character is in the foreground they stay relatively the same size but the background stretches.
Kevin McCarthy: It's in Jaws when they see the shark for the first time.
Mike Cahill: It's in Jaws, Matrix, Lord of the Rings, many movies.
Michael Pitt: Ours is a double on a technocrane.
Mike Cahill: It was an opportunity creatively to do an homage to Hitchcock but also to take it one step further. It's only because of technology today. There's a device called a robotic technocrane and because of the shot and the composition of the shot and the moment in the film, it made a lot of sense to have a Vertigo shot. So basically when he steps off the bus it dollys in and zooms out and you see the reflection of the eyes on the bus window and then it 180s around him and dollys out and zooms in to make the billboard grow.
Kevin McCarthy: Do you prefer TV shows or films?
Michael Pitt: I prefer when I believe in the work. They are different. When you do TV you have more time to warm up. In a movie you have to be on your game the first day, because you only have 30 days to make an impression.
Audience Question: Both your movies are science fiction. What drew you to this particular genre? What are your director or author influences?
Mike Cahill: I like minimalist sci-fi that lives in our world with a twist. It's a great opportunity to use metaphor to get us closer to things that are important to humans like the fear of death and the pain of loss. There are so many directors I admire. [Stanley] Kubrick, 2001 is one of my favorite films; [Andrei] Tarkovsky, Solaris; [Krzysztof] Kieslowski, the Red White and Blue trilogy, the Double Life of Veronique. And Archie Panjabi, I also met her at a coffee shop in New York. Like all the actors in the film she built a backstory to her character that did not exist on the page. I sent her the script, she read it, we chatted, and in our next conversation, she said, "I would play Priya like this: Priya was once married to an Indian man, she was schooled in India, she married this man in India, it didn't work out, she couldn't have kids, she ran away, she made a lot of money and then she came back to India and started working at this NGO." These are things you don't see because they're underneath the water. But they are incredibly rich and they enrich her mannerisms and all the details of her performance. She was wonderful; I was really taken by her.
Kevin McCarthy: For the two actress with similar eyes, were contacts involved?
Mike Cahill: That's a trade secret. I can tell you: if it sounds like photoshop, it smells like photoshop, it's probably photoshop. (audience laughs). It's an incredibly complex visual effect. We tried contact lenses. From the script stage, the character of Sophie had very specific beautiful sectoral heterochromia eyes which is a fancy word meaning multiple colors in a single iris. You can intuitively understand that a person had very recognizable eyes but when you have to visualize that, the translation to the visual is very difficult because there needs to be something you can hold on to. Astrid [Bergès-Frisbey] has those very wonderful specific eyes that are blue-green on the inside and brown on the outside with black dots within. I wanted to keep it as precise as possible with Kashish, for her to have the same eyes because she has dark brown eyes in real life. We initially tried contact lenses and it was ridiculous, it looked so silly. We did these hand painted contact lenses. That was the cheap version, $100. And we shot in 4K on RED and when you see it, it just looks silly. Then we had to create a digital effect. Eyes are the most challenging thing to do in visual effects. Polar Express is a perfect example of "the uncanny valley." So I had this theory of a way to bridge the uncanny valley which is to shoot Astrid's real eyes, not have a digital effect, but to take her real eyes, shoot them under the same lighting conditions, rotoscope those eyes, basically cutting them out of her face, and motion-tracking them and preserving the reflection. It's not animated but is literally motion-tracked. Like Another Earth, that's motion-tracked to a star. When you jiggle the camera, it stays in the appropriate place. So no matter where her eyes move, the other eyes stay. It's very tedious and very time consuming and there's more than 200 shots.
Audience Question: What was your prep work like?
Michael Pitt: We got some time workshopping in a lab. I was really involved from the beginning, from the ground up. That was certainly helpful. I approach developing a character the same, but every project is different, every actor works different, every director works different. For this character I was basing the character's philosophy on someone like Richard Dawkins. For mannerisms I based a lot of them on Mike's brother Hugh who is a molecular biologist. I wonder if he noticed that.
Mike Cahill: I don't think he noticed that.
Michael Pitt: Don't tell him.
Mike Cahill: When my mother first watched the film, she thought Michael was my brother. She said, "Did you put your brother Hugh in the movie?" "No, that's Michael Pitt." Michael really built his character from the ground up. When we would go in the laboratory and Michael would say to the scientist, "Just do the most mundane thing that you do." He would absorb those mannerisms and those little specific details. That was very important for this film because scientists are often portrayed as cliche, stiff. And here we really wanted to capture the reality of a scientist, and that spirit of being a PhD student whose priorities put discovery above everything else. He did a marvelous job.
Audience Question: In the coffee shop you had an iconic shot of the National Geographic. Was that photo an inspiration?
Michael Pitt: Good eyes! That's sort of an Easter egg in the movie. When he's in the diner he's searching for Sophie. It's no accident; nothing in the frame is an accident. He sees on the wall a National Geographic cover that says "found." It's a photo of Sharbat Gula holding another photograph of the June 1985 cover of National Geographic taken by Steve McCurry. That whole story was very inspirational for this film. I used to work at National Geographic. I was really inspired by this story, the photograph of that Afghani girl with striking green eyes. Steve took that photograph one day in a refugee camp and off she ran just 10 seconds after he took the photograph. He didn't know what her name was or anything and it became an iconic, very famous photograph. Seventeen years later they tried to find her. They could only guess what her face would look like if they aged it scientifically but they certainly knew what her eyes looked like. This is when I started to learn about biometrics and the fact that everyone's eyes are unique. Your eyes stay the same your entire life. Even if you are an identical twin you have different irises from someone else. I thought It's such a beautiful story. Eventually they found Sharbat Gula. There were several people who were candidates saying, "It's me." The first few women didn't have matching eyes. Then eventually Sharbat Gula was found. I thought how incredible it was to look for someone based just on their eyes. Iris biometrics has grown since the 1980s and has become more and more popular. In India in particular there is a national iris scanning program. That clip at the end is a scene based on reality. There are a billion people in India and so its quite plausible that someone like Salomina would have her eyes scanned.
Audience Question: Could you tell us about the scene with the guy in the elevator?
Mike Cahill: It's a red herring, a literary device to distract you. At the midpoint of the film one of the main characters gets sliced in half by an elevator. So if we are ever going to show an elevator in this movie again, how do you get your audience to not think of the elevator as a death machine? So you have to do all the bells and whistles of a red herring to distract so that you don't even think about that. Then when he comes in with the little girl your mind is running with so many thoughts--this is uncomfortable--and in a way it hijacks your brain as a red herring would do so that we can achive that final moment.
Audience Question: Did the scientist change his beliefs?
Michael Pitt: I don't want to answer that question. What I love about this film and what Mike did with this film is that sometimes it's not what you say, it's what you don't say.
Mike Cahill: I think when he looks into little Salomina's eyes in the hallway and you see the closeup of his eyes I think you see a man who has changed. I think you see the full landing spot of an arc, wordlessly.
Kevin McCarthy: How did you get to Hollywood and making movies?
Mike Cahill: I feel very humble. I've made two films, both modest. I'm really grateful to the Sundance Institute that screened both films and I'm grateful to Fox Searchlight, one of the few indie major studios putting out thought provoking films, for showing my work. We're not making tons of money or anything.
Michael Pitt: I'm still waiting for a check. (audience laughs).
Kevin McCarthy: Your film is playing nationwide.
Mike Cahill: It's a position I'm incredibly grateful for and continue to hope you come to see movies like this. That means the world to me. I don't take anything for granted.
Audience Question: What did you see as your relationship with the camera in telling the story?
Michael Pitt: We use the camera to film the actors. (audience laughs).
Mike Cahill: You are on to something from the beginning. He says, "When I was a young boy I realized that the camera is designed exactly like the human eye." That is saying, "This is something that is born out of our cellular structure through evolution and here's a thing born out of human endeavor." And they mirror one another. They are the device that is delivering this entire story to us. One of the things you want to do as a filmmaker is to bring the audience close to your protagonist and you do that through camera work and POV. The film is 100% through his point of view. Michael is in every single scene in the film. He dominates where the camera is. There's only one moment where we leave that for a half second and that is in the laboratory when we are with Sophie. That's the only moment when we break POV for a second. There are techniques we experiment with to heighten the filmmaking of the storytelling. One was the idea of visual deja-vu and the idea that deja-vu comes from compositional repetition. It will trigger a subconscious feeling of deja-vu. And we exploited that for the hallway in India where the hotel room and elevator is in conjunction with Sophie's apartment and elevator, all similarly laid out. So when you get to that India moment, you're not supposed to consciously think this, but our camera movement is the same and we took great pains to create the space precisely, to slowly trigger a feeling in your spine like why have I been here before. It's supposed to come on like a tsumani, slowly approaching the shoreline.
Audience Question: What sort of roles are you looking for?
Michael Pitt: What I'm interested in doing is trying to design a career that is different. That's usually the basis of all my decisions. Have I seen this before? I feel that actors tend to worry about choosing interesting roles, difficult roles, dark roles, edgy roles, and I want to inspire peope to be fearless in their choices. I want to be fearless. I did enjoy playing with the character of Dr. Gray, it wasn't something I had done before. After I play a role I have to shed a lot of things about the role. This was a great role because there were things I didn't shed. Some actors I looking up to tend to do things that aren't understood in the moment they are doing them.
Audience Question: Did you originally plan for the film to end as it did?
Mike Cahill: There were some scenes that took place after he walked out the door. But when I looked at the edit it just felt like it needed to end there. There was a scene outside, pulled up in a cab. Same with Another Earth.
I Origins opened in the DC area on July 25.
The 100 Foot Journey: Q&A with Producer Juliet Blake and Actor Om Puri
By Annette Graham, DC Film Society Member
The National Geographic Society hosted a screening of The 100 Foot Journey (Lasse Hallstrom, 2014) on July 30. The great Indian actor Om Puri stars with Helen Mirren in a story about an Indian family who buys a restaurant across the street from Helen Mirren's one-Michelin-star restaurant. At a Q&A after the film, producer Juliet Blake and actor Om Puri answered questions from the audience, moderated by Gregory McGruder, Vice President for Public Programs at National Geographic.
Left to right: Om Puri, Juliet Blake, and Gregory McGruder at the National Geographic. Photo by James McCaskill.
Gregory McGruder: How did you get involved with the creation of this film?
Juliet Blake: Five and a half years ago I read the book which is not published in the states yet. It was only published in India and a friend of mine in New York who is a publisher had the galleys of the book in her apartment. She had previously represented Richard Morais, the writer. I read it and I fell in love with it. A few weeks later I got on a train from Washington to Philadelphia. I met the author and begged him to allow Mark, my husband, and I to buy the rights to it. That's how it happened. The rest has been an amazing journey. I was at the shoot for every single shot of the movie except the piece where Hassan is coming back to Saint Antonin.
Gregory McGruder: There is an interesting aspect to Richard Morais's book. You went to him and optioned the book for a movie but...
Juliet Blake: My husband actually optioned it. The book itself is very different from the movie. I know there are people here who have read the book because when I lived in DC I was part of a book club and I insisted that everyone in the book club read it. So there is a little coterie of people who know the book quite well. Richard Morais is a financial journalist and he was living in London. He became friends with Ismail Merchant, a wonderful filmmaker and also an incredible cook and a very brilliant man. Richard learned how to cook Indian food with him and he said to me, "I don't know why you've never made a movie about food." And so Richard set about writing the novel, his first novel, but sadly Ismail died before the novel was completed, so he wasn't able to make the film. But I think he would like it.
Gregory McGruder: You've made 250 films and you have the most wonderful basso profundo voice. How did you get involved with this film?
Om Puri: I was very happy and thrilled when I got the script. My agent sent me the script. Steven Spielberg production, Oprah Winfrey, Lasse Hallstrom is the director, and Helen Mirren will be the co-star. So I couldn't be happier than that.
Gregory McGruder: You gave Helen Mirren quite a run for her money as an actor. I understand you are not a dancer?
Om Puri: I am not.
Gregory McGruder: So she was leading you in that scene.
Om Puri: Yes.
Gregory McGruder: I understand that you are also a cook and you cooked for the crew during the filming on location.
Om Puri: I did. We were shooting five days a week. So I had two days to myself to cook and feed some of the unit members.
Gregory McGruder: What's your favorite dish?
Om Puri: I cook mainly vegetarian but I do cook chicken also. All kinds of vegetables and lentils and an Indian bread stuffed with potatoes, cauliflower, peas or cheese.
Audience Question: Who was the caterer or food stylist in the scenes with Indian food?
Juliet Blake: We didn't use food stylists on this movie. We used real chefs and we had several. We had people in India when we shot the beginning of the movie which we actually shot right at the end. They were real chefs, and in France. There are four kitchens and four restaurants in the movie. Each one of them had a set of real chefs. At the end of the movie we brought in Floyd Cardoz who is a very well known Indian chef but lives in America and had restaurants in New York and is actually just opening a restaurant in Mumbai. We brought him back to France to do some pick-up shots. Because we insisted on using real food throughout the movie and you know how real food sometimes doesn't look that fabulous. So we re-shot a couple of the dishes; the pigeon dish "a la Hassan" was a re-do by the wonderful chef Floyd Cardoz. So we used real chefs.
Gregory McGruder: What is your favorite dish from the film?
Juliet Blake: I really love Indian food. Om has been staying with us for the last few days and is teaching my husband some wonderful new vegetarian dishes. The food was amazing in the movie. I don't particularly love molecular food. Each restaurant in the movie, and every element of food in the movie is a different aspect in Hassan's character and life as he moves through the film.
Gregory McGruder: Tell us about the parallels between Hassan's life and your own life.
Juliet Blake: I'm a daughter of immigrants. I grew up in a family where the food was very Jewish and very German. When I read the book, I really felt the book was not just about a young Indian boy, I thought it was about all of us. As a child I was very wary of the fact that when people came to my house they had goulash and apple strudel.
Gregory McGruder: Where was this?
Juliet Blake: In a tiny little town in the north of England, where there were very few Jewish families and my family certainly witnessed and experienced anti-Semitism. This book really spoke to me on many levels. I felt that this was a film that we could make that would appeal to many many people. At least I hope it does.
Audience Question: Could you tell us about the actor who played Hassan?
Juliet Blake: Steven Spielberg actually found Manish Dayal. I didn't know him at all. If you are a TV person you might know him from the last incarnation of 90210. He was in that as Raj. He's actually from South Carolina. He's a most wonderful actor. He has done a wonderful job on the film and bonded with Om. When Om was arriving from India, I had gone to the hotel to meet Om. And Manish was staying at the hotel and he was already there. And I called him and said, "Om's arriving in 10 minutes, why don't you come down and meet him." He said, "I can't." I said, "What do you mean you can't, what are you doing?" He said, "I'm too nervous. I can't meet him. He's such an icon." I said, "Don't be ridiculous." He said, "No I'm serious. I can't come down and meet him. I'm not ready." I said, "Okay." Finally he said, "I'll come down." So we waited for Om's car to arrive. They called me to say he's just driving into the hotel now. And Manish was a nervous wreck. I watched him touch Om's feet. And it was so gracious and so moving and it was the beginning of an amazing relationship.
Om Puri: It's absolutely true. He didn't call my name; he's to call me Papa. And he still calls me Papa. We were all like a family. Every Saturday they used to come over to my apartment. We used to go out for a cup of coffee or I would cook and we would all have a meal together. It was like a family.
Juliet Blake: Om is really responsible for making that family. Obviously he's a wonderful actor but he created that environment for the younger actors and it was great.
Gregory McGruder: This was the first film that Oprah and Steven Spielberg did since The Color Purple. You made it sound so easy. How did that happen?
Juliet Blake: It's really complicated and a very long story. I took the project to DreamWorks because I'm a huge fan of Steven Spielberg. I met a wonderful young executive there who read the book and loved it. She thought it was fantastic. She said, "They'll never make this movie here." She couldn't get people to read it initially. She said, "I think you should go somewhere else, find another partner, and bring it back to us. Because I love it so much." I did that, I went to see various people and I ended up at Harpo films. A young executive there read it, the book was about to come out in North America. They agreed that it would be good for the book and good for the future movie if Oprah made it one of her summer reading books. She read the book, fell in love with it, it became a summer reading book and together we took it back to DreamWorks. Steven got involved and has been very involved with the movie. When the first draft of the script came in I was waiting to hear from DreamWorks and they called and said, "It's really good. We're going to make this film." And that was last March. And this time last year we hadn't even started shooting yet. So it's been a very fast turnaround.
Audience Question: How tightly scripted was the film? Was there anything in the movie that was unscripted?
Juliet Blake: A lot. Lasse Halstrom who directed the movie is a really amazing director to work with. He has a television background but he also improvises a lot. We always shot the dialogue that was in the script but Lasse always used to liked the actors to improvise as well.
Om Puri: Yes. He allowed absolute freedom to the actors. He would give you a direction but he will not give you a landmark. So you have to find your way. Sometimes he would say, "Forget the script, make your own lines." He knew exactly what he wants and he wouldn't give up until he got it. Always with nice humor and very warm to the actors and encouraging.
Juliet Blake: We had lots of languages on the set because Lasse is Swedish and his DP is Swedish and some of the camera department. We had Om speaking Hindi in the movie; we had a French crew, a few English people and some Americans. So we had French, Hindi, Swedish and English at all times. It was crazy.
Audience Question: Did the actors have to do body sculpting to get the roles?
Juliet Blake: Manish thought about his character in great detail. When he arrived, he was such a dedicated actor. He had figured out when he needed to look slightly more hollow. for the Paris sections. He's not an arrogant actor but he wanted to have workout equipment. He was really diligent about what he wanted to look like in the movie. He did work out or watch his weight and have a certain image of himself.
Audience Question: Was Michelin involved in the film?
Juliet Blake: Cordon Bleu was involved a little. But who was really involved was the champagne people. We were shooting that scene and that's really good Cristal champagne. And I was sitting in my producer's hut looking at take after take after take of Om opening the champagne bottle. And at one point I thought, "Wait a second. Is this the real stuff? Because this is Cristal champagne." I went to our English props guy and asked, "Is this real Cristal champagne?" He said, "Oh yes, we have to use the real thing." I said, "I'm just going to take a bottle of this and drink it." And that's what we did. So everything is real and all of those wonderful all-clad saucepans are real, the food is real. Everybody's happy.
Audience Question: How did you find the location?
Juliet Blake: The actual village is Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. It's in the Midi-Pyrenees and that's where the scenes of the market are. The market happens every Sunday and it looks just like that. If you went to the market you would see all the same people that are in our movie. Because we used all the real people. The two restaurants are an hour apart. They're not next to each other. They're not 100 feet apart. One of them The Maison Mumbai was there and it was an old unused farm house and we took it over and built the restaurant. And across the road, we built the road, there was no road there. And across the road we built the bottom half of the restaurant and then the top was all blue screen. And when we finished shooting at that location we moved an hour in the opposite direction to shoot all the interiors of Madame Mallory's Le Saule Pleureur.
Audience Question: There were no subtitles for lines spoken in Hindi and French. What was the reason for this? Is this the way the film will be distributed?
Juliet Blake: I'm very excited that there are no subtitles. Because I'd like to think that you don't need to understand a language to understand the culture. Sometimes when you put subtitles on a movie it feels like a very independent film and this is going to have a wide release. There were times when we did put a few subtitles on, but this is the version that people will see in movie theaters on August 8. I'm delighted that we don't have subtitles. When I screened the movie last week in Boston there was an Indian man sitting at the front laughing away at all of Om's lines in Hindi. He said, "Have you any idea how funny this is?" I said, "No, but I'm thrilled that you do."
Audience Question: Can you tell us how you balance the romance and laughter with serious elements such as the burning of the restaurant?
Juliet Blake: That was in the book, that the mother perishes at the beginning of the book. It happened once and then it happened again. And Hassan was not going to walk away from that. In my own upbringing when I was a child I had a teacher that was incredibly anti-Semitic. And my father turned around to that teacher and said, "This isn't going to happen to us again." And so I think that it's something that we should all gain strength from. We tried to make the movie timeless in some ways. We shot everything other than Paris on 35mm film and then we shot the Paris pieces on video, deliberately, to make it feel different and to make it feel slightly colder.
Audience Question: What was your most favorite moment of the whole experience?
Juliet Blake: One of them was the first meeting with Steven Spielberg and sitting in a room with him and listening to him talk about this project which I had nurtured for a really long time and having somebody of his caliber who'd read the book and knew the book inside out, and who'd read the script and knew it inside out and listening to him talk to Lasse Hallstrom, the director. I just sat there with my mouth wide open. It was a life changing experience for somebody who had been deeply moved by Schindler's List. And then the first day of seeing the family film together and seeing Om work, because Om Puri had been somebody that Richard Morais, the author and I had talked about from day one. And the same with Helen Mirren. I saw Helen Mirren when I read the book for the first time. And seeing them interact was amazing. As somebody said they'd met their match. They're brilliant together.
The 100 Foot Journey opens in DC on August 8.
Calendar of Events
American Film Institute Silver Theater
The popular series "Totally Awesome: Great Films of the 1980s" is in its 8th year this summer. Titles in August are Ladyhawke, The Return of the Living Dead, Willow, Top Gun, Blood Simple, After Hours, The King of Comedy, Raising Arizona, Class of 1984, Rocky III, Rocky IV, American Pop, Night of the Demons, The Apple, Forbidden Zone and Foxes. More in September.
"Harold Ramis Remembered" looks at some of the great comic's films. Titles in August are National Lampoon's Animal House, Meatballs, Caddyshack and Stripes with more in September.
With 2014 being the 100th anniversary of the start of The Great War, the AFI presents a series "Cinema and the Great War." Titles in August include Wooden Crosses, Heroes for Sale, 37 Days, The Great War, Jules and Jim, The Lost Squadron, Many Wars Ago, Gallipoli, The Long Way Home, Royal Cousins at War, The Blue Max and Comradeship. Silent films with music accompaniment in August are Four Sons with music by Andrew Simpson, J'Accuse with music by Michael Britt, and The Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse with music by Donald Sosin. More films in September, both silent and sound.
Alec Guiness was born in 1914 and this series looks at a number of his films including The Captain's Paradise, Tunes of Glory, The Horse's Mouth, The Promoter, The Prisoner, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Hitler: The Last Ten Days, Cromwell, The Quiller Memorandum, Doctor Zhivago, and Star Wars: Episode IV. A few more in September.
Mario Brava, the Italian cinematographer/director worked mostly in the horror genre. A Mario Brava Centennial of films includes Kill Baby Kill, Danger: Diabolik, Blood Brides, 5 Dolls for an August Moon, A Bay of Blood, Baron Blood and Planet of the Vampires. More in September.
"Action! The Films of Raoul Walsh Part III" presents more films by the action-master. Titles in August are The Tall Men, Captain Horatio Hornblower, The World in His Arms and The Revolt of Mamie Stover. More in September.
"70mm Spectacular" shows films in 70mm. Titles for August are Hamlet (1996), The Agony and the Ecstasy, Oklahoma!, Ryan's Daughter, Cheyenne Autumn and Around the World in 80 Days.
Special events in August include a sing-a-long for Grease on August 29, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Labyrinth.
Freer Gallery of Art
The 19th "Made in Hong Kong Film Festival" shows films in July and August. On August 1 at 7:00pm is Shanghai Blues (Tsui Hark, 1984); on August 3 at 2:00pm is The Way We Dance (Adam Wong, 2013); on August 8 at 7:00pm is Naked Ambition (Lee Kung-Lok, 2014) in 3D; on August 10 at 2:00pm is Once Upon a Time in Shanghai (Wong Ching-Po, 2014); on August 15 at 7:00pm is Journey to the West: Conquering Demons (Stephen Chow and Derek Kwok, 2013); on August 17 at 1:00pm is A Chinese Odyssey Part One: Pandora's Box (Jeffrey Lau, 1995) and on August 17 at 3:00pm is A Chinese Odyssey Part Two: Cinderella (Jeffrey Lau, 1995).
National Gallery of Art
While the East Building is being renovated, films are shown in the West Building and in other locations. Events listed below are in the West Building; other events are listed under their actual location.
On August 2 at 2:30pm is The Great Confusion: 1913 Armory Show (2013), introduced by filmmaker Michael Maglaras. On August 3 at 4:00pm is In the Shadow of the Light (Chris Teerink and Sarah Payton, 2007), a film portrait of Jonas Mekas. On August 12, 14 and 15 at 1:00pm is Sol LeWitt (Chris Teerink, 2013), a documentary about Sol LeWitt. On August 27 and August 31 at 2:00pm is Watermark (Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky, 2013).
"From Vault to Screen: Canyon Cinema 16mm" is a series of independently-made and avant-garde films from the past 50 years. On August 9 at 2:30pm is "Lost and Found: Stan Brakhage," a series of short films. On August 16 at 2:30pm is "A Minor Cinema," short experimental films. On August 17 at 4:00pm is "Art World Crossover," experimental films. On August 23 at 2:30pm is "Archival Finds," archival findings of rare prints. On August 30 at 2:30pm is "Revitalization," short films from the 1990s. On August 31 at 4:00pm is "Metamorphosis," newer films from the 2000s.
"Broadcast Culture" is a program of three films about broadcast media. On August 10 at 4:00pm is La Maison de la radio (Nicholas Philbert, 2013), about Radio France. On August 24 at 4:00pm is Late at Night--Voices of Ordinary Madness (Xiaolu Guo, 2013) shown with Silence Radio (Valery Rosier, 2013) about radio in a rural region of France.
Museum of American History
On August 23 at 2:00pm Andrew Simpson provides music accompaniment for the great WWI classic, The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925).
Smithsonian American Art Museum
On August 16 at 2:00pm is a cine-concert: Buster Keaton in College with Andrew Green of the Peacherine Ragtime Society providing music accompaniment. Following the film there will be additional school-themed ragtime music.
Washington Jewish Community Center
The Coen Brothers series ends in August with No Country for Old Men and Blood Simple on August 2 and 3. On August 12 at 7:30pm is Kazablan (Menahem Golan, 1973), an Israeli West Side Story-like romantic comedy with Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazis. On August 19 at 7:30pm is A Place in Heaven (Yossi Madmony, 2013), a father-and-son drama spanning 40 years and 3 wars. On August 26 at 7:30pm is The Green Prince (Nadav Schirman, 2014), a documentary about a Palestinian who spies for Israel after becoming disillusioned with Hamas. Based on Mosab Hassan Yousef's memoir and winner of the Audience Award for Best World Cinema Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.
The film series "Film Captures the Great War" begins in August and runs through October. On August 18 at 6:30pm is Käthe Kollwitz – Images of a Life (Ralf Kirsten, 1986) from the GDR. Artist Kathe Kollwitz's son died in WWI; her art changed, and was labeled "degenerate." On August 25 at 6:30pm is The Lost Angel (Ralf Kirsten, 1966-71) about the sculptor Ernst Barlach whose art was denounced. Both films will be introduced by Marion Deshmukh, professor of 19th and 20th century German Art History at George Mason University.
The National Theatre
Films starring Audrey Hepburn are shown in July and August. On August 4 at 6:30pm is Love in the Afternoon (Billy Wilder, 1957), on August 11 at 6:30pm is The Children's Hour (William Wyler, 1961), on August 18 at 6:30pm is Charade (Stanley Donen, 1963) and on August 25 at 6:30pm is Wait Until Dark (Terrence Young, 1967).
The final episode from Ken Burns' series "Jazz" is shown August 1 at noon. wo films on dancers are shown in conjunction with the National Gallery of Art: on August 14 at 7:00pm is Pina (Wim Wenders, 2011) about the modernist choreographer and on August 28 at 7:00pm is Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq (2013), about ballerina Tanny Le Clercq. Filmmaker Nancy Biurski will introduce the film.
National Museum of Natural History
On August 7 at 3:00pm, August 8 at noon and August 9 at 3:00pm is the documentary Twitch, following an individual going through genetic testing for Huntingington's disease. Following the screening, filmmaker Kristin Powers will discuss the film and her decision to be tested.
Interamerican Development Bank
On August 7 at 6:30pm is the US premiere of Finding Gastón (2014), a documentary about Gastón Acurio, a chef, entrepreneur and leader of Peruvian cuisine. Filmmaker Patricia Pérez will introduce the film.
The "Avalon Docs" film this month is Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger (Joe Berlinger, 2014), a documentary about the Boston criminal, on August 6 at 8:00pm. The "Czech Lions" film for August is Burning Bush (Agieszka Holland, 2013) on August 13 at 6:45pm, about student protester Jan Palach who set himself on fire and the events which followed. This month's French Cinematheque film is Chinese Puzzle (Cedric Klapisch, 2013) on August 20 at 8:00pm. On August 27 at 8:00pm is this month's "Reel Israel" film Hanna's Journey (Julia Von Heinz, 2013).
Italian Cultural Institute
On August 5 at 6:30pm is Basilicata Coast to Coast (Rocco Papaleo, 2009), a group of musicians walk from the Tyrhennian to the Ionian Sea. On August 12 at 6:30pm is Second Childhood (Pupi Avati, 2010).
Anacostia Community Museum
On August 10 at 2:00pm is City Farmers (1996), a documentary about a successful community garden in New York City with a discussion following the screening. On August 14 at 11:00am is Life Above All (2010) about coping with AIDS in South Africa. On August 15 at 11:00am is The Panama Canal (2008), a PBS documentary shown on the 100th anniversary of the Canal. On August 17 at 1:00pm is Lobola (2013), a contemporary romantic comedy with an Afrikaner man and a Zulu woman. On August 21 at 11:00am is Pressure Cooker (2008), about high school students of culinary arts preparing for a cook-off. On August 24 at 2:00pm is New Urban Cowboy (2008), a documentary about urban designer Michael E. Arth who is trying to redesign an inner city slum. A Q&A with Michael Arth will follow the film.
On August 23 at 7:15pm is a sing-a-long The Sound of Music shown on huge screens with lyrics and a costume contest.
Films based on novels by Jane Austen are shown during July and August. On August 6 is Pride and Prejudice (2005. Films are shown outdoors at sundown; doors open to the public at 7:30pm.
International Spy Museum
On August 13 at 6:30pm is OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (Michel Hazanavicius, 2006), starring Jean Dujardin as a comic French spy.
On August 7 at 7:00pm is a program of short films starring screen legend Gloria Swanson, including Danger Girl (1916), His New Job (1915) with Charlie Chaplin, and The Sultan's Wife (1917).
Reel Affirmations XTra
On August 15 at 7:00pm and 9:15pm is Test (Chris Mason Johnson, 2013), about dancers in 1985's San Francisco. Shown at the Human Rights Campaign, 1640 Rhode Island Avenue, NW.
OUTDOOR FILM FESTIVALS
Every summer, numerous locations around the DC show films outdoors.