Fifty Minutes with Alex Gibney
By Adam Spector, DC Film Society Member
Remember Enron? You know, the big company that went belly-up. The executives got rich while the employees and shareholders got the shaft. That Enron. Seems like so long ago. Alex Gibney brings it all back in his new documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, based on the book by Fortune magazine reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. Gibney borrows the Enron slogan “Ask Why” and asks why Enron was able to fool so many people for so long, and why the company fell apart. His film shows how, through a practice called “mark to market,” Enron declared profit estimates as actual profits, driving their stock prices higher. Enron Chief Financial Officer Andy Fastow created shadow companies to hide Enron’s debt. Through testimonials from former Enron traders and videotapes of Enron’s shareholder meetings, Gibney paints a picture of a corporate culture gone awry. Appearance triumphed over substance. Think only Enron employees and shareholders suffered? Think again. Gibney uncovered Enron’s role in the California energy crisis. He plays chilling audiotapes of Enron traders casually asking their subsidiary California power plants to shut down.
For all the weight of its subject, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is a fun, engaging film. While Gibney takes what happened seriously, he has also spoken frequently of his film as a black comedy. He focuses much of the film on Enron founder Kenneth Lay and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Skilling. Through this character study and the humor, Gibney’s film makes its points without preaching.
Shortly before his film’s premiere in Houston, Gibney sat down with me and other interviewers for a roundtable discussion. Questions from the other interviewers are marked “Q”.
Adam Spector: I’ll start with the obvious. The Enron slogan was “Ask Why.” Why did you want to do this?
Alex Gibney: So that other people would ask why [laughs]. I wasn’t sure it would make a movie until I read Peter and Bethany’s book and that convinced me that it would make a film. Obviously I knew about the important themes but I wasn’t sure that a story that seemed to be so much about numbers would translate. But Bethany and Peter’s book convinced me that it was a story about people, and in some cases about good people gone wrong. It’s a story about pride, arrogance, avarice; juicy stuff worth delving into. And the other thing about the book that I liked was the tone. It seemed to be black comedy and I tried very hard to get that tone into the film. Ultimately Enron was a human tragedy but there was a lot that was funny about it and yet there was always an undercurrent of moral outrage in that comedy, so I wanted to see if I could duplicate that on film. I thought that it would be a dramatic story and that by telling the human story you can get at the heart of the larger social problems.
Adam Spector: Your movie focuses on the “mark to market” accounting practice. It seems to me to be risky at best, dishonest at worst. How was Enron able to do it openly for so long and be so successful?
Alex Gibney: Two reasons. One was that “mark to market,” as I understand it, is actually a very conservative form of accounting for certain businesses. For example, if you have a portfolio of stocks and they’re marked to market, it means they’re always marked according to the price of the stock that day, so day-to-day, you get a very accurate accounting of what that portfolio is worth. The problem came in the case of Enron--they had these energy contracts that were over ten years in duration--so they would estimate what money would be brought in during the course of those ten years. But they were allowed to “mark” or book that profit that very day. Along the way they were supposed to adjust and the SEC was supposed to check up but nobody really wanted that. So what ultimately happened was that Enron created this enormous gap between the amount of money that was actually coming in the door and the stated profits. It also created enormous pressure. It’s one thing to say in year one of a ten year contract that you’re going to make $100 million. It looks good on your balance sheet. But very little cash has come in. So how do you get that cash in and keep it going for the next quarter? You do another little deal like that. But now the gap between cash and expectations is even wider.
Adam Spector: A lot of the people who bought into the Enron mythology, who, as they called it, “drank the Kool-Aid,” weren’t stupid people. You had analysts and other people on Wall Street and the business world who all bought into this. Why was Enron so successful at being able to spin the mythology when, in the end, there wasn’t much there?
Alex Gibney: First of all they were hiding a lot from people. But people were willing to be deceived. Let’s put ourselves back in time and remember that this was the era where stocks were all going up and up and up and it was the new economy. The old rules just didn’t apply. So that was one reason. I think another reason is that Enron was just masterful at creating this illusion of success and power so that everybody wanted to be a cheerleader for that. If nobody can figure it out, well those smart guys at Enron are the ones that really know how. The last thing is what was ultimately at the heart of it: a sense of arrogance and self-confidence of the people at Enron. Tell everybody else that you just don’t get it, playing on everyone else’s insecurity so that everybody was afraid to ask the basic questions such as, “How does Enron make its money?” So in the context of the time and the fact Enron had that bluster and those magnificent strange sets, those beautiful buildings, the commercials, the executives who become big macho men and believed that no rules are the best rules. They were preaching a religion that everyone wanted to believe.
Q: Do you think Enron was all that unusual in the world of big business?
Alex Gibney: They’re not unusual. Everyone always asks, “Is Enron the exception to the rule?” I think Enron is the exaggeration of business as usual. I think Enron took it further than many people but there are companies out there that also believe, like Enron, that their job is to game the system, to find loopholes. We’re finding it out now in the insurance industry to some extent and with the over-marketing of products like Vioxx. You see it in the pharmaceutical industry: this belief that all you have to do is generate returns for your shareholders, that’s somehow OK. Nothing else matters.
Q: Why did this (the Enron success) happen at a time when the US economy was doing so well as opposed to a few years ago when everybody was in a rut and was scraping?
Alex Gibney: It’s easier to hide something like this when everyone’s making money hand over fist. This one economist said there was “excessive liquidity” in the market so with all this money to be made, pumping the stock proved too tempting for too many people. Most of the money that the executives made at Enron was through stock options so keeping the stock price rising higher was critical to what they were doing and it couldn’t have happened in a bear market. The temptation became too great.
Q: Do you think that Enron has changed anything?
Alex Gibney: I wonder. I think it has changed some rules and regulations to hold boards and executives accountable for their own financial reporting. I hope it’s changed the climate but so far I don’t think it’s changed enough.
Adam Spector: So you seem to imply that this could happen again?
Alex Gibney: Definitely. I think it could happen again the next bull market. I think that to some extent we’re seeing Enron-type disregard for ethical guidelines in industries like the insurance industry. It’s all about how you game the system, how to phoney up your books to make things look better than they are. So, yeah, I think it can happen again, certainly in California. I don’t think the rules have changed that much.
Adam Spector: It’s a core American belief that no matter how long a crime goes on, or how long it’s hidden, that eventually justice will be done. Do you think that will ever happen with Enron?
Alex Gibney: I don’t know. I try to stay away from the criminal side of it. We know the trial (of Lay and Skilling) is going to happen in 2006. Already so much injustice has been done because of how much money was made by a few at the top while many people suffered at the bottom. In terms of criminal justice we just have to see. I think the only way justice could be done in the Enron story is if we learned something from it. But if I were king of the world and if Lay and Skilling were found guilty my punishment would not be a jail sentence. I’d like to see him (Lay) be a grill man at McDonald's for the next ten years and be forced to ride public transportation and live in a public housing project. Then I think he would be a kind of example for all of how the mighty have fallen.
Q: Did you make this film for a certain audience or are you just putting it out there?
Alex Gibney: I’m putting it out there hoping that a lot of people like me who, at least at the beginning of this, were not that financially sophisticated will come to this film and say, “Wait a minute. I better understand this because it’s not just about some special purpose entity that Andy Fastow did. It’s really about how our financial system runs, which is where my retirement money is, which is where the education funds for my kids are.” So in that sense I hope everyone will go see it because the story of Enron is really about a huge flaw in our democracy.
Adam Spector: With the success of Super Size Me and Fahrenheit 9/11, documentaries have been slowly moving past the traditional art house theaters into multiplexes, reaching more mainstream audiences. Given that and given that your film has a natural hook--Enron still rings a bell with people--do you feel this is the right time for the film to come out? Are you optimistic about its chances to reach a broad audience?
Alex Gibney: I think it is the right time for it to come out because right now people have gone back, after the shock and the tragedy of 9/11, to starting to think about pocketbook issues again, also the debate on Social Security and everything else. I think that with Enron so many people knew that something happened but they didn’t know what. There’s so much of the feeling of the Titanic about that story, that a few people got off on life boats and everyone else drowned. That now is a perfect time for this film to come out. It’s time we all look at how our money is being spent.
Q: The book is pretty thick. How were you able to condense it into a two hour movie?
Alex Gibney: For every five pages I ripped out four and kept one [laughs]. Ultimately the film starts to tell you how to make it if you’re listening and watching the material. At some point we knew we were going to have to make a hugely complex story much simpler--to focus on a few characters rather than many. Also to let the narrative be skewed to some extent by what worked best in cinematic terms. Once I heard the audio tapes of the Enron traders I knew that California, relatively speaking, had to be a bigger part of the film than it was in the book. Now they (the book’s authors) didn’t even have the tapes when they wrote the book, but even if they had there’s a difference between putting something down in transcript and hearing the inflection of their (the traders') voices.
Adam Spector: How did you manage to translate very complex ideas and put them in a layman’s perspective?
Alex Gibney: Ultimately it’s metaphors and boiling it down to its simplest element. That’s why we use a lot of gambling metaphors in the film. For “mark to market” we found the images of overlapping fingers on an adding machine keys as a way of saying something mysterious and funky is going on. Wrap it up with people saying that there’s a difference between what you say your profits are and what they actually are. That, plus the imagery conveys this idea that in effect, Enron was making it up, which is what they were doing. So in its heart you dial down to what’s mark to market. It’s basically a license to make the stuff up.
Q: How difficult was it to get people from Enron to talk to you on camera?
Alex Gibney: Very difficult, mostly because of the legal proceedings. There were many civil suits and there was also the criminal investigations. So many people were interested in talking to me off camera because they had a lot of stuff to unburden. Very few people were interested in talking to me on camera and the ones that did had to seek counsel from their attorneys.
Q: How did you get the (audio) tapes?
Alex Gibney: It was actually the result of a small utility in Washington state, the Wahovish Public Utility District. They were being sued by Enron. “Chapter 11” was suing them for nonpayment of their electrical bills. And they (Wahovish) said “Wait a minute. You’ve been gouging us. What are you talking about?” So they used a form of legal ju-jitsu. And they used their discovery power to get these tapes from the FBI, which had them as part of a criminal investigation. These are not government tapes, these are commercial tapes. People routinely record these conversations so you can keep track of trades. There were thousands of hours. They had people go through them and make them public. We went through them and also had many, many hours to get to some of the material we ultimately ended up with. Some of them had been released on CBS, but it was probably in the context of, “Look, here are some people laughing and swearing.” Our contribution was we were able to put together some of those conversations so that you can hear cause and effect. You hear an analog trader call a power plant asking them to shut down. There wasn’t any hesitation. It wasn’t a problem. There’s actually a web site called enrontapes.com where there are many of these tapes and transcripts. There are other great ones I wished we could have used. Maybe they’ll be on the DVD extras [laughs].
Adam Spector: How did you get some of the internal videotapes? My favorite was Enron’s own parody of mark to market, where Skilling talks about a “gazillion dollars.”
Alex Gibney: Those tapes came from different sources. Some of them I can talk about. Some I can’t. We had a lot of help from the House and Senate investigative committees. They spent a lot of time subpoenaing documents and we got a number of videotapes from them. We also got videotapes from private individuals, from interested companies that were looking at what was going on at Enron. The “asshole” tape (Skilling referring to a critic) is a classic example. Enron erased the word “asshole” almost as soon as the conversation happened so I was wondering if I would ever get a copy of the uncensored tape. It took work, shoe leather. For a documentary like this the best material is the unofficial archives. It’s not what you get from NBC or CNN. It took us a long time, for example, to get that footage where Skilling gets a pie thrown in his face. That was a local television station.
Q: In terms of the music, how did you manage to keep the movie so upbeat when the story wasn’t?
Alex Gibney: Form follows content. Enron always presented this wonderful facade even when some really ugly things were going on inside and I felt that the music, in a way, should provide that same balance, that same kind of black comedy. You know it’s like the Billie Holliday song at the beginning, “God Bless the Child.” It’s got such a beautiful melody but its lyrics are about the darkest lyrics you could possibly imagine, all about how the powerful will always prevail over the weak and how people love you when you’re up and don’t give a sh-t about you when you’re down. So that has that kind of balance. Or almost sometimes using it (music) as a toe-tapping Greek chorus like that “Love Fool” song by The Cardigans: “Love me, love me. Say that you love me. Fool me, fool me. Go on and fool me.” It’s a happy, upbeat song, but it’s happening at a time when we know the stock market is telling us lies. So throughout I wanted to keep the music upbeat and cheery but with an undercurrent of lyrics that were darker. Like the Marilyn Manson song “Sweet Dreams are Made of These.” The way he sings that, man, it’s a different kind of sweet dream.
Q: What do you think of other documentary films like Fahrenheit 9/11 and how do your films fit into that?
Alex Gibney: I think it’s part of a larger trend of people going to the theater and watching documentaries and fiction films side-by-side as if there were no qualitative difference. One day you go to Fahrenheit 9/11 and the next day you go see The Aviator. I think that’s a great thing. In that sense Michael Moore’s films have all done us a great service. I’m not sure it’s just Michael Moore, but he’s one guy who’s really been successful. Super Size Me, Control Room, Capturing the Friedmans ... they’ve all been economically successful. Everyone has a different style. That’s one of the things that makes them good--each one bears the stamp of their author. But they’re also asking tough questions that a lot of the mainstream media, particularly TV news, isn’t asking. So that’s another reason people are going to the theater to watch them.
Q: Are there other reasons documentaries have been so successful recently?
Alex Gibney: Documentaries have gotten better. They’ve learned a lot of things from fiction filmmakers so they pay more attention to characters and to narrative. I think “reality” TV, which I don’t care for, has allowed people to believe they can watch stories without actors and be interested. So now people go to documentaries and realize that there is a certain amount of vitality and liveliness in the story that they can’t get sometimes in fiction films.
See below for the audience Q&A for this film with Alex Gibney, Nell Minow and Bill Mann.
Winter Solstice: An Interview with Director Josh Sternfeld
By Caroline Cooper, DC Film Society Member
Winter Solstice is a warm-hearted film about three men struggling with daily life together and apart following the death of their wife and/or mother. In his first feature film, playwright turned writer/director Josh Sternfeld takes the audience on a four-week emotional journey into the lives of these men, who will change forever following the departure of one for a new life of his own. The film, which has a simple plot and excellent character development, is inviting at every turn.
I had an opportunity to speak with the charismatic NYU film school grad at FilmfestDC in April. Here are Josh Sternfeld’s thoughts on making his first feature film.
Caroline Cooper: What inspired you to make this film? How did you come up with the storyline?
Josh Sternfeld: I was working as an assistant editor for a documentary television company after I finished graduate school, and I had an idea about a family of men. I imagined different situations involving a family without a feminine presence--how they would relate to each other and how it would work--and I combined that with my memories of growing up in the Jersey suburbs. A lot of the atmosphere and pace of the film came from those memories.
Caroline Cooper: Did you write the script prior to taking part in the Sundance Film Lab?
Josh Sternfeld: I had been working on the script for about a year and a half before participating in the Writer’s Lab. I had the characters and the story set up, but I was hitting a wall in terms of finishing it. I talked to a friend who had been to the Lab and he recommended it to me. I sent them the script and, subsequently, I participated in the week-long writer’s workshop. I met with some very good screenwriters, who told me what’s working and not working.
Caroline Cooper: Did your experience at Sundance help you to make contacts to secure backing for the film? Or did you already have backing before going to Sundance?
Josh Sternfeld: I did not have any backing for logistical support for the film before I went to Sundance, and I did not receive any backing there. But I think securing such backing depends on the individual relationship that the filmmaker strikes up with the institution. Some filmmakers who get into the Writer’s Lab also go to the Director’s Lab, and it is there where real a bond is forged [with the institution] and they shepherd you into producers and financiers. I did not go to the Director’s Lab, but I was thankful for the writing help I received. When I finished the script, I gave it to my lawyer. She started representing me after seeing my short film, Balloons, Streamers. She acted as my defacto agent through the early part of this process. She sent the script to Sound Pictures, a new company that had not previously made a film. I met with them, and that’s how it started.
Caroline Cooper: How long did it take you to write the script? When did you start shooting the film?
Josh Sternfeld: The writing of the script took two and a half years. I started writing the script about a year after I finished my Master’s. We started shooting a year and a half after that.
Caroline Cooper: Did you already have actors in mind for the parts of the main characters?
Josh Sternfeld: No. I do not think of actors’ faces when I am writing. When I finished the script and I got involved with Sound Pictures, that’s when we started talking about actors. We loved Anthony LaPaglia, who plays Jim Winters, and we tried to get hold of him for several months, but his television show was just taking off, we had not a penny to our name, and we had no feature credits. So, we switched tactics and cast the two sons, Gabe and Pete. We actually got our first two choices for those roles--Aaron Stanford and Mark Webber. So, once I met with each of them and found that they wanted to do it, we hired a casting director who knew Anthony personally. She sent the script to his house and he really liked it. Once it was known that he wanted to do it, the producers were able to raise the money privately. The process of building the cast and raising the money took about a year.
Caroline Cooper: How much time did you spend in pre-production? Did you have much rehearsal time?
Josh Sternfeld: The preproduction period was about seven weeks. We shot the film in May of 2003, and preproduction started the first week of March. Of those seven-eight weeks, there were only two days of rehearsal with the actors. Rehearsal tends to be very expensive and it’s very difficult to justify to line producers. Also, Anthony was only able to fly in about a week before photography because of his television show. We spent one day with the family members and another day with Aaron Stanford and his girlfriend in the film, Michelle Monaghan.
Caroline Cooper: How long did it take you to shoot the film?
Josh Sternfeld: Shooting took four weeks, 22 days--two six-day weeks and two five-day weeks. That’s a fast shoot, especially because we shot in 35 mm and we had a full union crew.
Caroline Cooper: Was it difficult to shoot under such tight deadlines?
Josh Sternfeld: Every day, we felt the weight of the deadline. I knew the schedule was tight, but directing is all about tradeoffs. You have to think very quickly on your feet. We could have shot on HD. If we had shot on video, we could have had more money to shoot, but then we would have had a video and not a 35 mm feature. I felt at the end of the day that the Director of Photography, Harlan Bosmajian, was so awesome that it was a good investment to shoot on 35mm.
Caroline Cooper: What was the best experience and biggest challenge in making your first feature film?
Josh Sternfeld: The most exciting experience wasn’t really one day, so much as a feeling I had when the cameras were rolling on a scene that I knew was working and there was this palpable energy on set that even the crew could feel that something is going on between the actors that is legitimate and emotionally valid. The most difficult part of filmmaking is maintaining focus and concentration on the aesthetics when simultaneously you have to deal with multiple managerial headaches. A good director understands that you cannot bring the anxiety of A to B.
Caroline Cooper: Did you edit the film as you were shooting? And how long did the postproduction process take?
Josh Sternfeld: We hired an awesome editor who started work when we started shooting. She wasn’t really editing during the shoot, but she was going through the footage and pulling select takes and going through my script notes. We started editing in force after we finished the shoot [in June]. I learned a lot from the editor; she had really wonderful ideas about changing the pace of things to give contrast. Cutting the picture took nine weeks, and there was four-five weeks of sound editing. The film was done by October of 2003.
Caroline Cooper: When did you premiere the film?
Josh Sternfeld: We premiered the film at the Tribeca Film Festival in May of 2004. We loved premiering it in New York because I’m from there, as are the producers. We received great feedback. The script had been circulating around New York for a year, so people were excited to see it.
Caroline Cooper: How do you feel about participating in the DC Film Festival?
Josh Sternfeld: I did some research into it and my friends said there is a lot of tremendous local support for this festival and a vibrant film appreciation community here, so I’m ecstatic. It’s always exciting to see how people from other cities and parts of the country react to the film. I’m flattered to have the opportunity.
Caroline Cooper: Tell me about Allison Janney’s character, Molly Ripkin. Her relationship with Jim Winters was always an implied romantic relationship; you didn’t want to take the relationship further than you did? They had one dinner and then Anthony revealed his past in the car--that in itself was a fairly big scene.
Josh Sternfeld: No. I didn’t think it would go further because of the duration of the film. This film is a very accurate reflection of the script, so a lot of the decisions about how far subplot would go were determined at the writing phase. That being said, you don’t always know why your instincts as a writer take you in a certain direction. I just knew that I was always paying rigid attention to what I actually thought would go on given the emotional circumstances. I questioned just how much things would converge in four weeks between Anthony’s character, whose anxiety and loneliness were unleashed when his son decided to move out, and the women down the street, Allison’s character, five years after the death of his wife. Both Anthony and Allison were conscious of this. I’m glad you caught the fact that he revealed his history after only meeting her three times; that scene is indicative of intimacy.
Caroline Cooper: I really liked the fact that your plot was simple and there was strong character development in your film. Will you continue that trend in your next film?
Josh Sternfeld: I just finished another script that does have a more complex plot; it’s a darker story about class war disguised as a rural police drama. It’s a challenge to write a film that has more labyrinthine twists and turns and maintain the focus and attention on the emotional vitality of the characters. It’s harder to do because the script has to become deeper. A particular scene, instead of doing one or two things, now has to do five things. There are so many things that have to become compacted into a scene that it becomes challenging. But I’m excited by the challenge.
Caroline Cooper: Who are some directors who have influenced your work?
Josh Sternfeld: To be honest, I’m inspired by individual films: Tender Mercies, Five Easy Pieces, Kramer v. Kramer, Rocky. There was a lot of emotional immediacy to dramas from the 70s; however, they did not sacrifice their entertainment value.
Caroline Cooper: Do you think film school was helpful to you?
Josh Sternfeld: I don’t think you have to go to film school, but I’m glad I did it. I doubt I had the motivation to learn without the cocoon of an educational environment. New York University and Sundance are institutions which can assist, but they do not decide whether you are going to succeed. You decide.
Caroline Cooper: What advice would you offer to budding filmmakers?
Josh Sternfeld: I would tell anybody that if you want to write and direct movies to involve yourself with projects that you feel a deep and lasting personal connection to because it’s going to take a very long time for you to make the film. Write something that you are positive you will still love in eight months.
Winter Solstice is scheduled to open in the DC area this month.
Audience Q&A for Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
By John Suozzo, DC Film Society Member
On April 18 at Landmark's Bethesda Row Theater, DC Film Society members had the opportunity to ask questions of Alex Gibney, director of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, as well as Bill Mann from The Motley Fool and Nell Minow, co-founder of The Corporate Library. The film opened April 29.
Q: Can you give us an update on the characters since you finished the movie?
Alex Gibney: The only news is that there is a trial starting this week on Broadband. One of the executives, Ken Rice, has already pleaded guilty but many other executives will also be on trial in Houston.
Bill Mann: To me, the Broadband thing was one of the first indications that something was wrong. They were talking about being able to wire into any home in the country inside a day. Any expert will tell you it takes 30-90 days and Enron was saying it could do it in a day. It should have been a clue that something was wrong and this was in 1999.
Q: What does the movie say about American corporate enterprise and our crazy cultural and economic values? Enron wasn’t the only company guilty of this.
Alex Gibney: I couldn’t agree more. I think one of the reasons I wanted to make this film was to address what I perceive to be a pervasive cultural problem. Enron was certainly not alone in terms of what it did. It was part of the corporate climate in general. We’ve seen that now in the insurance industry and others.
Nell Minow: I think it says a lot more about human nature than it does about American culture. I think one of the great things about the movie is that it’s not about numbers--you don’t have to be able to read a balance sheet--it’s about human beings who are tremendously fallible. If this were a miniseries, there could have been separate chapters on the Board of Directors, the accounting firms, the law firm and the regulators--all of whom were not doing their jobs. There was plenty of blame to go around. I think it’s very important to note that Bethany [McLean] was not a journalist. Her magazine, Fortune, had been throwing valentines at Enron. But Bethany came from Wall Street and said, “I know how to read numbers and these don’t add up.”
Bill Mann: I started out as a journalist in 1999 and when you were writing about stocks you could do no wrong, because every thing positive you wrote about any company turned out to be true. I think the real bad guys here were the professions that were supposed to stop this sort of thing. You saw what happened to that analyst, John Olsen, who said something negative and was pulled [from analyzing the company]. They fixed their problems in ways that were fairly aggressive but we should have seen through it.
Nell Minow: I knew something was wrong about the company in 2000 because the company was tied for last place in director stock ownership. Wendy L. Gramm, who was my boss at OMB, said she didn’t hold any stock because it would be a conflict of interest. Hmm! If that was the case, why was she on the Board?
Alex Gibney: The short answer is there was too much perfidy and corruption to fit into 2 hours. Wendy [Gramm] pushed through a regulation that was very advantageous to Enron late in 2000. She also ultimately resigned from the CFTC but only after she was hired by Enron and was paid a million-dollar bonus.
Q: Wasn’t the law firm’s first duty to its client, Enron?
Nell Minow: You’re right that any law firm, until very recently, was somewhat limited in what it could do. But it still could have given them better advice. The Board of Directors waived its Conflict of Interest policy 3 times, which you just don’t do, and the law firm okayed it. The law firm was just raking in the cash and not giving the company good advice. Also, they needed to ask themselves who is the client. The client is not the CEO; the client is the shareholders.
Alex Gibney: At the end of Bethany’s book there is a chapter called “Isn’t anybody sorry?” The law firm said it was the accountant’s fault, the accountants said it was the lawyer’s fault, the lawyers said it was the CEO, and Ken Lay said it was Andy Fastow’s fault. No one wanted to take responsibility. There was a complete lack of accountability.
Bill Mann: Accountants are not supposed to help companies violate accounting practices and lawyers are not supposed to help companies violate the law. They are officers of the Court, first.
Q: I’m an employee at a company similar to Enron. We could not find out about directors’ sales of company stock for some time. Has new legislation shortened this reporting period?
Alex Gibney: A lot of people said that Ken Lay’s stock sales were made because he had margin calls. But as we see in the film, at the very end Ken Lay was down to his last $20 million! But he also had what we call an ATM approach, where the company would loan him $4 million in cash and he would pay it back in stock and because it was an internal transaction, it didn’t have to be reported for about six months. So it never gave people any sense about what was going on within the Board of Directors.
Nell Minow: He also took advantage of another loophole that if you submitted a handwritten report of the stock sale, you had extra time to report it.
Q: I work for a telecommunications firm and they have done stuff far worse than Enron. Is anybody investigating them or making a movie about them?
Alex Gibney: Well, we made the movie about Enron because Enron happened to be at the right place at the right time.
Bill Mann: I don’t know what to say about that except whenever you see a bull market, you can be sure there is also a Bull Market in scandals as well.
Nell Minow: They also say that when the tide goes out, we see who’s swimming without a suit.
Q: What ever happened to their idea to trade weather futures?
Alex Gibney: Enron had a weather business and would probably defend it to this day. They explored the possibility about insuring clients against weather because the power company would raise its rates if there was extreme weather. But to ensure those rates Enron would have to create derivative upon derivative to protect that outcome, a scheme very much in the Enron tradition.
Bill Mann: This gives a whole new meaning to Blue-Sky statutes.
Q: How close was Ken Lay to becoming Secretary of Energy?
Alex Gibney: You’re asking the wrong person. I’m not that close to the Bush Administration. I know he was considered for Secretary of Energy. He was also considered for Secretary of Commerce and was apparently much closer to receiving that appointment than Secretary of Energy.
Q: [From Nell Minow for Alex Gibney] How do you rank the culpability of the Enron officers from crook to schnook?
Alex Gibney: You mean, a schnook being a person who says “I just didn’t know”? I don’t think any of them qualify for that one. I think Ken Lay was paid at least $300 million allegedly because he was “one of the smartest guys in the room” and said he didn’t know what his Chief Financial Officer was doing? Ken Skilling--did he know what was going on in California? He had to know. Andy Fastow--there’s no question [he knew]. He pled guilty and is going to serve 10 years. Tim Belden to me was always the guy I wanted to talk to because everyone described him as one of the nicest guys in the world. People who worked for him said he was a great boss. Why then did he devise a system that almost took down an entire state? There was an obvious greed component--he was given a $5 million bonus at the end of 2000. He was also an ideologue and there were a lot of people who thought that the energy markets were improperly deregulated and it was their duty to take them down to show them that they needed to correct their market.
Q: How does Sarbanes-Oxley improve, or help prevent, this type of situation?
Nell Minow: I’m not a big fan of Sarbanes-Oxley. The Federal Government has very little to do with corporate governance. But we do now have some stiffer penalties.
Bill Mann: I would agree that Sarbanes-Oxley came out so quickly after Enron and it has forced a lot of little companies to go back to being privately owned because it is too expensive to comply with all the requirements. It probably was a bit of overkill.
Q: What is the solution to this problem?
Bill Mann: They say that if you go back to Business School today, the one thing they don’t teach is morality. It used to be they taught a thin layer of the law and a thick layer of what you “ought to do” and what accounting and law firms “ought to do”. Now I think the emphasis is on using the law to the company’s best advantage.
Alex Gibney: I agree with what Bill is saying and I think there has been a cultural trend over the past 15 years or so that when it comes to the economic sphere, normal ethical and moral standards don’t apply. It’s all about the money. It’s as if your only job is to make money for the shareholders and the people in charge own the most shares. What the leaders of Enron used to perpetuate the scandal was the fact that they portrayed themselves as “The smartest guys in the room”, and if you didn’t get what they were doing you were the stupid one. But the people who brought some balance and justice to the system were people who asked simple basic questions, like, “How did Enron make money?” and demanded simple basic answers.
Nell Minow: Arthur Andersen the person, before there was Arthur Andersen the company, once lost his biggest client because he wouldn’t go along with something he thought was unethical. And he and his company were very proud of that story and used to tell it to prospective clients all the time. So to move from that to doing anything the client wants is quite unnerving. And I think we need to think about it as teachers and parents and citizens.
Q: How would this have played out if Al Gore had been elected President?
Alex Gibney: You may not agree, but at least until the end of 2000, the Clinton administration was not that good for the California Energy Crisis. I suspect that in this one instance early in 2001 a Democratic President might have taken a more activist approach.
Bill Mann: One thing that is important to remember is that these are not stories of 2001. These stories began in the bull market of 1995. So it’s very difficult to say what would have been different had Al Gore been President--it might have blown up faster.
Q: I noticed that Mark Cuban was listed as a producer. How much did he have to do with the film?
Alex Gibney: Mark Cuban financed this film entirely. The Motley Fool may have something to say about his financials, but from my perspective he was great and interfered not one bit once the green light was given.
Bill Mann: One of the things about Mark Cuban is that in terms of the Market, he’s very outspoken and very much a free-speech type of guy. I think its very fitting that he would back a very important film such as this.
An Interview With Jonathan Nossiter
Explore the "World of Wine" in Mondovino
By Caroline Cooper, DC Film Society Member
Mondovino is an exploration into the culture and politics of global winemaking. For documentary and feature filmmaker Jonathan Nossiter, making the film was a dream come true. The film combines his life-long love for wine with his chosen profession of film-making.
In the two-plus hour documentary, Nossiter takes the audience on a journey from the centuries-old, family-owned wine manufacturing establishments in Italy and France to the multinational wine-making operation of the Mondovi family in California. Along the way, we examine the challenges faced by new winemakers in Brazil and that of an impoverished vintner in Argentina. We learn about wine marketing and brokering, as well as meet world renowned critic and self-proclaimed consumer advocate Robert Parker and the influential French wine consultant Michel Rolland.
Nossiter visited Washington in mid-March to share his thoughts on the film and discuss his love for wine with a small gathering at the Fairmont Hotel. What follows are highlights from that discussion.
Making Mondovino was meant to be a two-month project, but turned into something larger, according to Nossiter. “I got hijacked by this film precisely because I felt like I was making another fiction film.” For Nossiter, there is no difference between making a fiction film and making a documentary. “To me,” he notes “it’s a question of telling a story, finding pleasure in telling a story, and imagining that an audience can get entertained and get provoked. What’s great about the change in film technology is that now, with almost no money and a tiny camera, you can make a feature film around the world. I hope one of the joys of this film is that I can take people with me.”
In making both fiction and documentary films, Nossiter has one common objective--capturing the human experience. In Mondovino, he equates the winemakers with characters in a fiction film. “Each character seemed to be larger in life,” he says. “I was struck by the intensity of the wine people’s responses to the camera, and how each one seemed like an accomplished actor. I was dealing with people who really have something at stake, who care passionately about everything they are doing. That intensity was right in front of my lens, and I was able to get my lens right in front of their faces. This felt incredibly liberating; I don’t think I’ll make ever make a feature film again in the same way.”
Nossiter says he did not plan or organize the film in any way. “The film was pretty random, but grew out of a lot of personal experience,” he explains. Two such experiences were working as a sommelier in several Parisian restaurants as a teenager and traveling the world in his formative years as the son of a Washington Post foreign correspondent. “Because I grew up all over the world, this film is more natural to me than any film I’ve made.”
In making this kind of film, Nossiter says the director functions as a private investigator. “You don’t know yet what the crime is, but you have a series of puzzles that seem random at first; slowly patterns emerge while you are filming and editing them. I discovered as I went.”
Despite his knowledge of the wine industry, Nossiter admits that he had much to learn from making this film. “I’ve worked in the wine business for a long time in parallel with my film career, but I did not have a huge amount of knowledge of the ‘wine world.’ I had never heard of Michel Rolland. Of course, I’ve heard of Robert Parker, but I did not realize that Rolland was more powerful.”
Nossiter argues that Mondovino is not about wine-making. “I made a film set in the wine world,” he contends. The film explores this changing world in part by following wine consultant Michel Rolland as he works with customers to reshape their products to become more competitive through the process of microoxygenation. Nossiter refers to this process as the “botox of wine.”
Although Nossiter juxtaposes the experiences of the 5-8 hectare European vintners with commercial winemakers like the Mondovi family throughout the film, he cautions that his movie is not meant to portray a battle between big and small or traditionalists and modernists. “It’s not that the old French and Italian guys did things beautifully with heart and soul and all the new modern American guys and their cohorts are soul crushers,” argues Nossiter. Rather, he notes, “I tried to do a film which describes this war going on for the soul of wine as a metaphor for the war going on for the soul of everything else.”
A common theme throughout the movie is the defense of terroir, which Nossiter describes as “the idea that you make wine that has soul that expresses who you are as a person and what your place is and the history of your place.” Nossiter argues that terroir “is not reactionary, old fashioned, or traditional.” Rather, he opines, “it’s the only key to do something modern and progressive.”
Nossiter relates the defense of terroir in winemaking to the defense of terroir in films. He says that “radical filmmakers, like Cassavetes, remain radical today, 30 years after their death, because they were into their terroirs, into the history of filmmaking. That’s what allowed them the freedom to make changes that were radical, but not fake. They weren’t making changes to show that they were different, new, and hip. They made changes because they wanted to find a new way to translate human experience. Unless they knew where they were coming from and what came before them, they couldn’t do something real and human. The same thing is true with wine. So, the defense of terroir, of individuality and particularity, is not about being a traditionalist. It’s the opposite; it’s about trying to innovate, to keep something alive and fresh. The imposition of a global taste, of a homogenized style, by using technological innovation is the most reactionary thing you can do.”
In offering advice to future filmmakers, Nossiter recommends that “every aspiring filmmaker should spend six months with a winemaker. You will learn more about the craft of filmmaking from watching a winemaker exercising his craft than you will from any film school or hanging out with any filmmaker. They are trying to do what we want to do in film: bring pleasure, provoke as they try to bring pleasure, and interpret a reality larger than themselves.”
Mondovino opens in the Washington area on May 13.
Mad Hot Ballroom: An Interview with Amy Sewell, Writer and Co-Producer
By Lorraine Woellert, DC Film Society Member
Dancing can be seen as a metaphor for life, a lesson in attitude, commitment, how to lead, and how to follow, all without stepping on toes. It’s no different for the kids in Mad Hot Ballroom, a new documentary from Paramount Classics. The film chronicles the transformation of several New York City fifth-graders from three schools who vie for the trophy in a city-wide ballroom dance contest. In the process, they go from being kids on the block to ladies and gentlemen on the dance floor. Ballroom was a hit at this year’s Slamdance film festival in Park City, Utah, where first-time filmmaker Amy Sewell and her co-producer, Marilyn Agrelo, found themselves at the center of a six-studio bidding war. Ballroom debuts in New York on May 13, with a wider release May 20. Writer and co-producer Amy Sewell sat down with DC Film Society’s Lorraine Woellert to talk about the project.
Lorraine Woellert: You were inspired to make this movie while writing a newspaper feature about the ballroom dance program in city schools. What happened?
Amy Sewell: I had gone in that first day to report. I couldn’t write a word because I was very mesmerized by it all. I’m a very visual person, I can sit in New York and just watch; there are movies every day unfolding in front of my eyes. What I ended up with, after four months [of reporting], was 50,000 words. The photographer for the story also happened to be the owner, publisher, and editor of the paper. Obviously he was not going to publish a 50,000-word article. I got it down to 1,400 or 1,500 words. All the adjectives came out, everything came out. I had decided that first day it would be a better movie and I was going to head down that path. I had made that decision and was going to start doing research on how to make a movie. By the very end I was convinced there was more there to show visually.
Lorraine Woellert: So you’re credited with being the writer. How does one write a documentary?
Amy Sewell: In TV you’re allowed to snag creator credits, but they don’t have that in movies. So I thought, “I’m going to snag writer credit.” I don’t know many documentarians who don’t write an outline. You waste a lot of film footage and a lot of time if you don’t. Back in July 2003 I took a nap one day, I meditated, and I saw the movie in my head, and from there I wrote the outline. It was a basic structure. Interestingly enough it stayed true to form.
Lorraine Woellert: It struck me that a lot of the shots of the kids, even when they’re dancing, are really tight. In many of the dance scenes you see mostly faces, and not a whole lot of the movement. Why is that?
Amy Sewell: The story really becomes a story about 11-year-olds growing up in New York City, or possibly anywhere, things that they think, things they feel. The ballroom dancing became the thread that held the story together. Eleven-year-olds are beautifully strange. They’re too old to be cute anymore, cute in a sense like 6-year-olds, and too young to be cool. They’re this ignored age, where parents know they can walk down the block by themselves without getting into trouble, but they still need to be attended to. When you speak about the camera moving in and out, we realized that they’re 11, they deserve their privacy. We have 150 hours of footage where, especially with the kids from Washington Heights, the kids say a lot of intense things. It was really nobody’s business. It was the protection and privacy of an 11-year-old.
Lorraine Woellert: How accepting--or not--were the communities where you filmed?
Amy Sewell: Washington Heights, those streets are mean streets. From 4 p.m. on, you have to watch having a camera, they have lookouts on the rooftops, the drug dealing is 20 guys thick. In the beginning we were an all-woman crew. It was a little bit intimidating, but interestingly enough, they must have respect for mothers and women. We only got harassed when we had a male sound person fill in. Other than that, once rumor spread that we were doing something good about the kids, we kind of felt we had protection, and the sea of 20-person-thick drug lords would part. They’d let us go down the street.
Lorraine Woellert: Talk a bit more about giving a measure of privacy to these kids. What sorts of thing did you leave on the cutting room floor?
Amy Sewell: In Washington Heights, these kids are ushered home; they’re ushered right into their homes. Their parents don’t let them out in the street; they try to keep them home as much as possible. Each little girl probably had an uncle or brother incarcerated. Ninety-seven percent live in poverty or close to it. We didn’t want to tell another story or ghettoize the story. Poverty breeds crime, everybody knows that. We didn’t want to hit people over the head with messages or lectures. In Tribeca, higher socio-economic levels breed the freedom to get divorced. Poor women can’t leave their husbands; there wasn’t the divorce rate up in Washington Heights that you find in Tribeca. Over 75% of those kids came from broken homes. There’s one little girl, Tara; she talked about how on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday she’s with her mother, and Thursday and Friday she’s with her father, and every other weekend she switches off. And she doesn’t mind because she’s allowed to have cats with her mother, and a dog and a pet rat with her father. There was all this shuffling. It hurt. What hurt most is she didn’t recognize that it wasn’t normal. And maybe it’s not normal anymore. So many kids come from such different walks of life.
Lorraine Woellert: And what about the group of kids from the third school?
Amy Sewell: The kids from Bensonhurst, they’re almost the purest group. They’re working class. Little Michael, the funny boy--his mom Rosie is a stay-at-home mom, she cares a lot for her three kids. But they have different issues, making ends meet. The father works for the New York Post at night. They’re happier, they’re pretty satisfied with who they are. But looking from the outside in, they’re a very working-class neighborhood.
Lorraine Woellert: Nearly all the lead people on the film-the director, director of photography, sound person, even the editor-were women. It sounds like that was coincidence; you and Director Marilyn Agrelo are friends, for example. But did that affect how the movie turned out?
Amy Sewell: We had to become a very small crew in the schools. I think the fact that we were all women--it wasn’t less threatening, but I guess we were more ignored because there were more mothers hanging out in the schools.
Lorraine Woellert: I know it’s stereotyping, but you probably were less threatening, too.
Amy Sewell: I think it’s more an issue from the view of the principal and the teachers and maybe the board of education, because they still stereotype.
Lorraine Woellert: This was your first film. Where there any big surprises, things that you didn’t anticipate?
Amy Sewell: The success! We called our team the Lucy and Ethel team of filmmaking. We’re not 20 and hip. Marilyn and I are both in our 40s. I had come across a mid-life crisis. I live five blocks from the World Trade Center, where it once stood. My husband, a teacher, was telling me I’d better get back to work after raising kids for five or six years, I’ve written all my life, and I thought it’s now or never to put myself out there. I started writing a column about motherhood. No advice--who could give advice on that?--but about the weirdness, losing my identity, things that happen with kids, strange motherhood things. I was published, and that was thrilling. Then I came across this subject, and I turned to my husband and said, “I’m doing this.”
Lorraine Woellert: How did you finance the film?
Amy Sewell: I think I wrote 400 letters. To Robert Duvall because he tangos, to Oprah Winfrey, to Arnold Schwarzenegger, to Clinton. Those were the high profile ones, but also to 200 or 300 production companies, to corporations to get money. I thought, ‘Why wouldn’t they want to give me $10,000 here, $10,000 there?’ I didn’t think I was that naïve. We ended up borrowing from family. That was stressful because you can think of the holiday dinners if you lose their money. But I didn’t care. I thought if I had to go back to work to pay everybody back, I would. I said, “Marilyn, let’s just do it. It’s going to be a charming little film.”
Lorraine Woellert: So what in particular about your success was surprising?
Amy Sewell: We had two goals: to pay back the investors and to show it to the kids and their parents in the end. That would thrill me and be the culmination of everything. When Marilyn and I first met in this white minivan with 140,000 miles on it during one of our scouting trips, she said, “I want to make a beautiful work of art.” I said, “So do I, but I want it to be highly entertaining.” So we were kind of pulling each other back and forth, and it took us down this pipeline right in the middle. We didn’t want a documentary that lectured or was over-narrated.
The short answer is we didn’t expect success. We thought we were going to rent a theater, show it to the kids, maybe sell it to PBS or somebody and be on our way. When we ended up in Utah, we didn’t know. Our agents said if you get a $10,000 advance, it’s great. When a bidding war ensued in the third screening and everybody left the theater and almost trampled the kids, we thought they were being rude, we thought they were on their way to another screening. Were they bored? Did they want to get out of here? We didn’t know they wanted to bid. We had six bidders.
Lorraine Woellert: What’s been your experience with the studios?
Amy Sewell: Paramount Classics and Nickelodeon were amazing. They’ve been like big brother and big sister. They were even very sensitive about how they said things. They said, “We consider this our baby, too,” and then they stopped themselves and said, “our adopted baby,” because they didn’t want to step on our toes. And we had final creative control because of the sensitivity of the project. We still control all the other footage, so when they go to DVD, we’ll allow them the footage but we have final control over what goes in.
Lorraine Woellert: You financed the movie yourself, then, when you couldn’t get anyone to sponsor the kids’ trip to Slamdance, you even paid for that out of your own pocket.
Amy Sewell: I borrowed more money, we flew them out there. We knew this was it. We kept going further and further into debt. Even now, we haven’t been paid yet. And the music budget--music budgets fall between 1% and 20% of any movie. Ours is coming in around 45% because I refuse to give up any of the original. “In the Mood” is in there for 30 seconds. There are other great orchestras that play it, but I wanted Glen Miller.
Lorraine Woellert: What sort of feedback have you gotten from the kids, their parents?
Amy Sewell: They roared. I was always concerned that some of the parents would think we were making fun of their kids. But we’re not. They’re just funny moments. The parents actually loved those moments more. We were worried for absolutely nothing. People were very accepting because it is such a heartfelt story.
Lorraine Woellert: Marilyn Agrelo has described this film as a sort of valentine to New York. You’re originally from the Midwest-do you agree with her?
Amy Sewell: I’ve been in New York 18 years. I have insecurity about always being on the outside looking in wherever I’ve lived. I never felt like I belonged. It took me to the age of 40, which was a couple years ago, to really embrace being on the outside. I see stories other people don’t see. I finally now am comfortable in my own skin.
Lorraine Woellert: What’s next for you?
Amy Sewell: Before this I was writing a sitcom series called “Mommy Juice”, a black comedy about motherhood. It has the charm of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” the spontaneity of “Seinfeld”, a little bit of “Absolutely Fabulous”, and the cynicism of “Sex in the City.” I’ve been writing it for about five years with a friend and we finally got a bite on it.
Lorraine Woellert: Did the success of Mad Hot Ballroom help?
Amy Sewell: Totally! The sitcom was rejected around the clock for two years, then “Desperate Housewives” came out, and I thought, “aaagh!” But that’s a soap opera. This is a very New York story about New York moms and the multi-tasking and the struggling and all the shit that goes on in the city.
An Interview with Crash actors Brendan Fraser and Michael Pena
By Amani Roberts
This interview was held April 18, 2005 at the Fairmont Hotel in a roundtable format with various interviewers including the DC Film Society. The film is scheduled to open commercially on May 6.
Q: How did you both do research for your respective parts?
Michael Pena: First I read the book, “How to be a successful parent”. Then I spent time with my
brother in Chicago who just had a baby girl recently. Spending two weeks with him really gave me great insight as to some of the little things it takes to raise a child the right way. That helped me get ready to play my part.
Brendan Fraser: I spent time in District Attorney Steve Cody’s office. Actually I spent about 45
minutes talking to him about the details of the job and described to him my character in the movie and some of the challenges my character is facing. He gave me some good input as to the overall image I should works towards - being “king for a day”. I also sat down and talked with several regular policeman on the LAPD force. This helped get some background knowledge of what they face on a daily basis.
Q: Who did you have to audition against to get the part?
Michael Pena: My first audition I was up against several hundred people. When I was notified that I made the second audition, that is when I went to visit my brother and then came back and auditioned against 10 to 20 people. After that, I just kept calling my agent every day and seeing if he had heard anything [laughs].
Q: In your opinion, what was the desired effect of the movie?
Brendan Fraser: Basically, to spark conversation and get people’s attention. We wanted to cover one of the more controversial issues in this country (race relations combined with the social class system). That is why the dialogue was as direct as it was. We didn’t want to wrap it up in a nice little box. It is designed to hit people across the face and not apologize for it at all. Based on what you saw in the movie, what was everyone’s opinion? Did we accomplish that?
[Roundtable responds to the question.])
Q: Did either of you carry any emotional baggage into the acting of the movie?
Michael Pena: In the movie, my character goes on an emotional roller-coaster with grief, sympathy, joy. Personally, I had no emotional baggage … just excitement to get into the role and really learn from my fellow castmates.
Brendan Fraser: I didn’t carry any baggage when I was acting. I just wanted to let my acting flow and not have the audience feel patronized while they were watching the movie. I really focused on not “preaching” to the audience.
Q: What was the most number of takes during your respective scenes?
Michael Pena: Don’t have an exact number but there were several, several takes per scene. Paul (Haggis) wants to get it right.
Brendan Fraser: Yes, we had several takes per scene even though we were under a 36 day deadline to complete taping.
Q: Why did you accept the part?
Brendan Fraser: This movie is going to bring about change or at least get people talking about
conflict resolution and I care about positive change. I was really into doing a movie with substantial “vitamin content” in the film. All of the funny and “happy go-lucky” movies are nice, but the films that have a chance to make an impact on people and their lives are the most important films.
Michael Pena: Once I read the part for Daniel, I really connected with it and wanted to get that part real bad. I could definitely relate to several things Daniel went through in the movie except for being married and having kids [laughs].
Q: What personal experiences with racism helped you to prepare for the movie?
Michael Pena: Well, I grew up poor in Chicago and went to a prep school, paying myown way. The other Latin kids in the school (who were well off), would pick fights with me and I had to defend myself constantly. Basically, it was a lot of miscommunication. Eventually, the Latin students found out I was a great guy. Basically, don’t judge a book by its cover. That experience helped me in this movie.
Q: Are a lot of your film choices issue driven? Why or why not?
Brendan Fraser: Yes, the majority of my film choices are issue driven. The Quiet American is another good example of a film I chose to participate in because of the issues it explores in the movie. Sometimes we (the USA) are not wise enough to cease and desist and mind our own business when it comes to world affairs. I was fortunate to grow up all over the world in a diverse atmosphere and the subject of this movie [Crash] hits home. One of the better scenes in the movie--between the shopkeeper and locksmith magnifies the problem of miscommunication in this country. In the movie, unlike in real life, the locksmith holds back.
Q: In your opinion, what is the biggest issue this country faces compared to fifty years ago?
Brendan Fraser: Conquering world disease. We are all on one planet and we need to take care of our planet.
Michael Pena: Literacy and the education of people. This will lead to less crime. Why is it that the worst student in the class makes the most trouble?
Q: Due to the intensity of the scenes you were filming, was there any need to unwind after shooting?
Michael Pena: Not really. I was prepared. I did my homework. I spent my free time talking to anyone on the set--crew, extras, cast mates--who would listen to me.
Brendan Fraser: I went home. My kids were at home and they needed to see me.
Q: Was there anything in your current marriage that you were able to use in your role?
Brendan Fraser: [laughs]. Anyone else married in the room? I see. (only one other person was). Just the ability to say, “yes dear” and also dealing with a hysterical woman crying and screaming at the same time. Good listening skills as well.
Q: Did either of you feel limited by the large and experienced cast?
Brendan Fraser: Not at all. There were no big or small parts. Every part was a good and important
Michael Pena: No. I loved it. It was awesome exposure for me. A great cast.
Q: Would you choose to portray a different part in you had a second chance to be in the film?
Brendan Fraser: No really. I was very satisfied with my part.
Michael Pena: No, except for the part of the DA [laughs].
Q: Would you have played the role that Dillon played?
Brendan Fraser: Matt Dillon had to go to a very dark and bitter place to play that role. Maybe I would have chosen to play a different version of his character.
Two With a Future
An Interview with Francesco Fei, Director of Waves
By James McCaskill, Storyboard European Correspondent
The 2005 International Film Festival Rotterdam made a special effort to highlight young, gifted international directors. My interviews in May and June will be with five skilled directors whose first films present their unique vision with authority and demonstrate their potential for long careers in filmmaking. The IFFR, through with its financial support through the Hubert Bals Fund and the sales assistance in CineMart, has a long history of finding and nurturing rising directors. Ten films with IFFR connections are being shown in Cannes this year. Two are in the official competition, Batalla En El Cuielo (Battle in Heaven, Carlos Reygadas, Mexico, 2005) and Kilometre Zero (Hiner Saleem, Iraq/France, 2005).
Francesco Fei's Onde (Waves, Italy, 2005) had its World Premiere in Rotterdam. His entry into film making is more than a little unorthodox. Unlike many "bright, young things" he did not go to film school nor do an apprenticeship--films he saw influenced his filmmaking. Fei jumped into film by making shorts that were noticed and garnered awards at Italian festivals.
Born in Florence in 1967, he took a degree in History of Cinema and began work in the music video industry, collaborating with MTV in the making of their "True Life" series. In 2004 he opted to start his own production company, wrote and directed Waves. Unlike other MTV generation directors, Fei knows how to visually tell a story and does not depend upon excruciating fast cuts to provide interest and momentum.
When I asked why he chose film, he replied, "I don't really know. When I was a child my father took me to the cinema. One that I really remember was Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey but did not understand a bit of it but the film stayed inside me, it became a part of me. I don't know how to paint and am far more creative with my mind than with my hands... A film is a work of many people. I like to make choices. I want to work with a producer who will work with me and can make similar choices. I don't look for a producer who will just give me money but someone who can help make artistic choices."
Why the English word Waves for the title? "I wanted to give it a non-Italian title. Italian titles are composed. With English in one or two words you can say a lot, i.e. Eyes Wide Shut. In Italian it would be long and complicated." The film is a love story between a girl whose face is disfigured by a violet birthmark and a blind musician. Waves refers to everything in the film. Not just electromagnetic waves but also audio waves as only vibrations can enter the head of the blind musician. It also refers to the thought waves in his mind. The film is structured like that; first one thing, then another, and a third that plays off the first. It is like that with the girl. With her it is society and the radio. The fact that they get together is only in the mind of the girl. It is a wish--something she would like to have happen. She realizes what she could have had and materializes it in her head. From the point of view of the man, he is looking for contact and she withdraws. The limits are in your mind. We always build walls. She builds them by thinking that they can never be together.... The girl has always felt that the world is a very bad place, people make fun of her disfigurement. She builds protecting walls. It is those walls that are important--not is the world good or bad. The girl is forced to act as she does. You cannot develop empathy with her. She is not a nice person. She has been hurt too many times and responds with anger at every provocation."
He continued, "When I began to write the screenplay, my narrative was to describe 'different' characters forced by their peculiar physical situation, a physical handicap more or less considerable, to live reality in a different way from normal. I have always thought that I would have been able to realize it in an interesting way just giving an expressive and narrative capability of its own to the recollections and thoughts of the character of Francesca and giving to the sounds, the spheres and the atmospheric elements that surround her story an expressive and narrative skill. Looking at the movie now that the editing has ended I realize that it is very different from the one I had imagined when I started but is very close at being what I have always hoped my first movie to be. During the editing I have truly realized the considerable narrative ability the cinematographic language has; unfortunately its expressive possibilities, basically so little explored so far, are very often overlooked by the normal cinematographic production, by virtue of the belief of not considering the viewers's thoughts as an existent and essential element." Fei continued, "With this little first movie of mine I have tried to tell a story but also what should have happened if only the main character would have succeeded in changing her mental schemes. I can't make another film like this one--mentally it is too big. I realize I have to simplify. I need to make a film that is not so sophisticated, a bit more for the average viewer. I would like to make a film about mental ideas. Near death experiences, maybe. That is hard to do. You can not be too intense. You have to have a common language with the audience."
What is the future for Wave? "It is going to the April Infinity Festival in Italy. After that, it is being considered for TriBeCa. This is where the film's future starts ... or ends."
Two With a Future
An Interview with Ho Yu-hang, Director of Sanctuary
By James McCaskill, Storyboard European Correspondent
It would be impossible to interview a more animated, excited director than Ho Yu-hang. I did not need to ask him probing questions. A gentle nudge would start him talking. And why should he not be cheerful? On the day that I interviewed him not only was his film Sanctuary (Malaysia, 2005) having its European premiere at the IFF Rotterdam and the festival gave him the opportunity to meet old friends he knows from around the world. I can just hang out here and leave fund raising to my producer in Malaysia," he told me.
Ho appears to be in his late 20s. That's young to be a director with a film up for a Tiger Award. "Film making was something I instinctively knew I wanted to do. I started to do music, playing in a jazz band and kind of felt that film was something I could do." His English idioms are very mid-American, which is understandable as he got his start doing promos for PBS in Iowa. Ho was in Iowa studying engineering. "I only made one music video for a friend. No one got paid, it was fun to do. The video won a couple of awards. We used a mix of animation and live action. When I came back to Malaysia from the US it was difficult to get into film. The film industry there is a little strange so I went into advertising where I could learn technique and stuff like use of camera, lighting. I paid my dues working as a production assistant to an assistant director. I was making documentaries on the side. I could make changes and experiment. I said earlier that Malaysian film industry is a little strange. It is not an industry as most people think of a film industry. In a healthy year 20, maybe 24 films are made. Not all make money though all are commercial. The hook in most of these films is that the leads are young and rock star wannabes. Local tabloid coverage can help box office with their little scandals. We are not an industry--even our mainstream films are some what independent."
When you are hungry it shows in the films; a sense of urgency comes through. "In making Sanctuary I had a good relationship with the production company. Even got equipment for free. Just have to attach their name to the film," he said. "Very 'garage' sort of mentality. I used a friends's computer to edit. 'Can I come over and edit?' 'Yeah, yeah, yeah,' he would say. We try to refine the film as we go along. Shooting to DVD becomes an excuse to not do well as it is easy to edit. You can really indulge your passions. We have to practice some self-restraint." He went on, "Everyone thinks these films will make us money. In Malaysia we have to organize our own screenings. We don't have the critical mass interested in indie films. If you have ten bucks and go to the cinema what do you see--Matrix 3 or a low budget film? The press is on our side. We try to get them to publicize our offerings. Film clubs are also in Malaysia and show more alternative films than you will see in theatres. The clubs work to publicize and promote films."
When asked about shooting commercials, lucrative work for even mainstream big name directors, he said, "I don't shoot a lot of commercials because they are rather bizarre. Most of my commercials are not for products. I act in them so I have this strange freedom to act loopy. They last about 2 minutes and tend to be TV station IDs. Big time telecommunication may not want me because they are so strange. I have some free time to write and develop new projects. I make the audience work. I won't give them a neat package to download. My shooting styles is somewhat naturalistic. I don't follow conventional methods where you explain everything. I give out certain information because I want it known. I learned that technique from John Cassavetes' films. He makes you work through it. You find that frequently in literature. I don't want to spoon feed the audience. Not like TV shows where they tell you everything."
Ho confided, "When I lived in Iowa, I felt I was an outsider, not very tempted to become an American citizen. I could have applied for my green card and stayed there for the rest of my life. Malaysia is complicated. 100% of films made are made in Malay languages. I came from a Chinese background. I was raised speaking Chinese and went to a Chinese school. I am fluent in several Chinese dialects. It provides a rich background. That makes me something of an outsider in Malaysia also, not part of the dominant culture. Certain maneuverings go on that make you feel you don't belong. You are made to feel unwelcome even though the Chinese have been there for a couple of hundred years. Despite that I love it. I want to be where I grew up. A similar example would be Jewish people. They can be everywhere but have a strong family background. The Chinese are similar. In the film all the people speak Chinese; Mandarin, Cantonese, and Hakka dialects are spoken. All come under the big Chinese umbrella."
What does he think is Sanctuary's future?" The style of the film makes distribution difficult in Hong Kong or Taiwan. It is only commercial if it is a horror film or romance. Comedies also please an audience. On my next film my producer is interested in attracting a star, probably a Hong Kong star as it would then be easier to sell to cable channels. Having a star is an advantage."
Sanctuary's originally title was What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. It has three main characters on separate lonely journeys. Lei (Lok Bok Lei) who sells toy guns and gambles in pool halls, his girl friend See (Chua Thian See) has a boring job and her grandfather (Chin Leong Fatt) represent a Malaysian family that is falling apart. This realistic drams shows the alienation, identity and loneliness in a country halfway between tradition and modernity. "I was really happy with how the locations turned out. The message of the film is revealed in its locations. I had a lot of fun working there. In some parts of the film I found the locations and then wrote the story."
A first time director can find it difficult working with experienced actors. "I did not want to work with actors. The people in the film are not actors. I did not have any pressure. These were friends that I asked to be in the film. No casting calls. I just asked, 'Would you like to be in a film'? I used settings the actor were familiar with. The grandfather's place is where he lives. So he felt relaxed and at home." Chua Thian See is a long time friend. Lok Bok Lei is a lecturer and painter. I would work with her again. She has never acted and I think she enjoyed it. For my next film I have a family story. A producer asked for it and wanted an established star. I said 'No, I want to work with her again.' She has such an air of irreverence about her. Quite free and quite crazy. And I like her. As I said, Cassasvettes is someone I really admire. He has such creative energy and he tells producers, 'I take your money and make the film my way.' Also I like Ozu. He worked under the Japanese studio system and still did it his way. John Ford is another one. Even he felt he was an outsider."
What next for the film? "Maybe the Hong Kong Film Festival. It has already won several awards at other festivals. Freiberg in Switzerland and the Singapore film festival have asked for it."
Calendar of Events
American Film Institute Silver Theater
A series of films based on John Le Carre's books takes place during May and early June, including The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Deadly Affair, The Looking Glass War, The Little Drummer Girl, The Russia House and The Tailor of Panama. Two films from Africa shown on video include Vuga from Nigeria and Yellow Card from Zimbabwe. The Luis Bunel films continue in May with The Phantom of Liberty, Belle de Jour, The Milky Way, Diary of a Chambermaid and Viridiana. Films by Jacques Demy include The Young Girls of Rochefort, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Lola, Bay of Angels, The Model Shop, and Donkey Skin. Also, for Henry Fonda's 100th centennial year, is a series of his films and a series of films by Sam Peckinpah begins mid-May and continues through mid-June. See the website for details.
Freer Gallery of Art
A series of films by Taiwanese director Edward Yang, "Taipei Stories" includes Taipei Story (1985) on May 6 at 7:00pm; A Brighter Summer Day (1991) on May 8 at 1:00pm; The Terrorists (1986) on May 13 at 7:00pm; A Confucian Confusion (1994) on May 15 at 2:00pm; Mahjong (1996) on May 20 at 7:00pm; and Yi Yi (2000) on May 22 at 2:00pm.
The Freer takes part in "First Nations/First Features" on May 19 at 7:00pm with Mauri (Merata Mita, 1990), set in 1950s New Zealand. Filmmaker Merata Mita will be present for discussion and questions. See below for more First Nations screenings.
National Gallery of Art
The series of films by Kira Muratova concludes in May with Brief Encounters (1967) and Long Farewells (1971) on May 1 at 4:00pm and The Asthenic Syndrome (1989) on May 8 at 4:00pm.
Films by documentary pioneer Robert Flaherty begin May 15 at 4:00pm with Nanook of the North (1922), shown with The Pottery Maker (1925) and The Land (1942). On May 28 at 2:30pm is Moana--A Romance of the Golden Age (1926) and at 4:30pm is Industrial Britain (1933) shown with Man of Aran (1934). On May 29 at 4:00pm is Elephant Boy (1937). The series continues in June. On May 14 at 2:00pm is a program of films from the annual Flaherty Seminar, a week-long showcase of avant-garde and documentary film. The films include Pour la suite du monde (Michel Brault and Pierre Perrault, 1963), Study of a River (Peter Hutton, 1996); La pointe courte (Agnes Varda, 1954); and Free Fall (Arthur Lipsett, 1964).
The Gallery takes part in "First Nations/First Features" on May 21 at 2:00pm with Honey Moccasin (Shelley Niro, 1998), shown with two short films The T-Shirt (Shelley Niro, 2003) and Silent Tears (Shirley Cheechoo, 1997). On May 21 at 4:00pm is A Bride of the Seventh Heaven (Anastasia Lapsui Nenet and Markku Lehmuskallio, 2003) from Siberia, and on May 22 at 4:00pm is Radiance (Rachel Perkins, 1997) from Australia. See below for more First Nations screenings.
Two films from the Bruno Ganz series are The Marquise of O... (Eric Rohmer, 1976) on May 7 at 2:00pm and Nosferatu the Vampyre (Werner Herzog, 1979) on May 7 at 4:00pm.
Art films shown in May are Photo-Graph: Hommage a Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (Rado Gyula, 2004); Ed Ruscha's Premium and Miracle shown in conjunction with the exhibition of drawings by Ed Ruscha; and On the Way to the Gates (Wolfram Hissen and Jorg Daniel Hissen, 2005) about Christo's Gates project. All these are shown multiple times; check the website for dates and times.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
On May 1 at 4:30pm is a film Cruisin' J-Town (1976) about the roots of Asian American popular music and discussion following the screening. A performance by jazz fusion band Hiroshima will take place at 6:00pm.
As part of First Nations/First Features is a short film Two Cars One Night (2004) and 5th World (Blackhorse Lowe, 2005) on May 19 at 8:00pm. See below for more First Nations screenings.
National Museum of African Art
On May 14 at 2:00pm is In and Out of Africa (Illisa Barbash and Lucien Taylor, 1993), about the international African art trade.
National Museum of the American Indian
A series "First Nations/First Features" takes place at the National Museum of the American Indian, the Freer Gallery of Art, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Library of Congress, the Embassy of Canada, the Hirshhorn Museum, and the National Gallery of Art. On May 19 at 3:00pm is Smoke Signals (Chris Eyre, 1998), the first major feature film to be written, directed and co-produced by Native Americans. On May 20 at 3:00pm is The Land Has Eyes (Vilsoni Hereniko, 2004), an autobiographic film from Fiji, introduced by the filmmaker. On May 21 at noon is a program of two films from Bolivia: Angels of the Earth (Patricio Luna, 2001) shown with Loving Each Other in the Shadows (Marcelina Cardenas Sausa, 2001), both to be introduced by the filmmakers. On May 21 at 3:00pm is Te Rua (Barry Barclay, 1990) from New Zealand, also introduced by the director. On May 22 at noon are two films from Mexico: Day 2 (Dante Cerano Bautista, 2004), a wedding ceremony documentary and Powerful Mountain (Crisanto Manzano Avella, 1998), both introduced by the filmmakers. On May 22 at 2:30pm are two Hopi films: Ritual Clowns (1998), an experimental video and Itam Hakim, Hopiit (1985), both directed by Victor Masayesva, Jr. who will introduce the films.
National Museum of Women in the Arts
Taking part in the "First Nations/First Features: A Showcase of World Indigenous Film", NMWA shows Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (Alanis Obomsawin, 1993), an award-winning documentary about the armed confrontation between Mohawks and the Canadian government forces during a 1990 standoff in Quebec. Filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin will be present for discussion; May 20 at 7:00pm. See below for more First Nations screenings.
Films on the Hill
The "buddy" film is now a popular sub-genre of film, encompassing comedies, cop films, war movies, westerns, etc. Here is a series of buddy films from different decades, all set in the peacetime Navy. On May 11 at 7:00pm is the first (of six) Jack Holt-Ralph Graves films in Frank Capra's Submarine (1928), one of the early examples of the buddy service film. On May 18 at 7:00pm is the first (of eight) of the James Cagney-Pat O'Brien films in Here Comes the Navy (Lloyd Bacon, 1934), nominated for Best Picture; and on May 25 at 7:00pm is Dive Bomber (1941) with Errol Flynn and Fred MacMurray. All three films received extensive cooperation from the US Navy with impressive location shooting on aircraft carriers, dirigibles, Navy aircraft and submarines.
Washington Jewish Community Center
"Snipers, Refuseniks, and Fallen Heroes" is the theme for a series on controversy in the Israeli military, including the strategic use of soldiers as cannon fodder, the refusal to serve, and the psychological make-up of shart-shooters in the Israel Defense Forces. On May 10 at 7:30pm is One Shot: Inside the Mind of a Sniper (Nurit Kedar, 2004), a documentary video with snipers speaking with remarkable openness about their feelings, consciences and killings. A panel discussion will follow the screening. On May 17 at 7:30pm is The Yom Kippur War: The Question of Glory (Nir Toib, 2004), a documentary DVD about the battle of Chinese Farm, one of the most famous and controversial war battles in Israeli history. Discussion and speaker (TBA) will follow. On May 24 at 7:30pm is On the Objection Front (Shiri Tsur, 2004), a documentary video on acts of refusal among Israeli reservist soldiers who felt they could no longer serve conscientiously in the occupied territories. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion. A series pass is available; call 202-777-3247 or order through Box office tickets.
During May is a series of films about the Vietnam experience. On May 11 at 7:00pm is Hamburger Hill (John Irvin, 1987); On May 18 at 6:30pm is The Anderson Platoon (Pierre Schoendoerffer, 1967) shown with an NBC Meet the Press Special from 1966; on May 25 at 7:00pm is In the Year of the PigIn the Year of the Pig (Emile de Antonio, 1968) shown with an NBC Meet the Press Special from 1968. More in June. See the website for other films.
As part of First Nations/First Features is a screening of Doe Boy (Randy Redroad, 2001) on May 20 at 7:00pm with the filmmaker in attendance. See below for more First Nations screenings.
The series of films starring Bruno Ganz concludes in May at the Goethe Institute and the National Gallery of Art. At the Goethe Institute on May 2 at 6:30pm is The Left-Handed Woman (Peter Handke, 1977); on May 4 at 6:30pm is Truth and Lies (Piergiorgio Gay, 2002); on May 6 at 6:30pm is Circle of Deceit (Volker Schondorff, 1981); on May 9 at 6:30pm is The Inventor (Kurt Gloor, 1980); and on May 11 at 6:30pm is The American Friend (Wim Wenders, 1976).
A new series "Thinking about the Possible: Jewish Life in Today's Germany" begins in May with Bye Bye America (Jan Shutte, 1994) on May 23 at 6:30pm and continues in June.
National Geographic Society
The US ASEAN Film, Photography and Video Festival began April 30 and runs through May 4. On May 1 beginning at noon is An Untold Triumph (Sonny Izon, 2003), a documentary on the Filipino Infantry Regiments of WWII and two short films; at 2:30pm are three short films from Cambodia, Thailand and the U.S.; at 5:00pm are four films from Indonesia, Vietnam and the U.S.; at 7:30pm are four films from Indonesia, the Philippines and the U.S. On May 2 at 7:00pm is Arisan! (Nia Dinata, 2003) from Indonesia, winner of numerous awards at the Indonesian Film Festival. On May 3 at 7:00pm is I-Fak (The Judgement, Pantham Thongsang, 2004) from Thailand, based on an award-winning novel. On May 4 at 6:00pm is Perth (Djinn, 2004) from Singapore, and at 8:00pm is I Not Stupid (Jack Neo, 2002) from Singapore. See the website for information.
On May 5 at 6:30pm Charles Guggenheim's final film Berga: Soldiers of Another War will be introduced by Grace Guggenheim and Roger Cohen, author of Soldiers and Slaves: American POWs Trapped by the Nazi's Final Gamble, the book inspired by the documentary. On May 6 at noon and 7:00pm is The True Glory (Garson Kanin and Carol Reed, 1945), winner of that year's Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
On May 13 at 7:00pm is Paris Was a Woman (Greta Schiller, 1996), a documentary about the influential American women artists and writers who moved to Paris in the early 20th century--Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Djuna Woods, and others. On May 20 at 7:00pm is The Making of Liberty (Charles Guggenheim, 1986), a documentary about the history of the Statute of Liberty through its construction in 1868 to its restoration in 1986. On May 27 at 7:00pm is a restored 35mm print of An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951), introduced by Patricia Ward Kelly who will answer questions about her late husband Gene Kelly.
Embassy of Canada
Opening night of First Nations/First Features will be held at the Embassy of Canada on May 18 at 5:30pm with a reception and screening of Atanarjuat (2001). Reservations are required.
Loews Cineplex "Fan Favorites" Film Series
A series of free classic films are offered at Loews Georgetown Theater Thursdays at 8:00pm. The theme for May is "disaster flicks." On May 5 is The Perfect Storm; on May 12 is Deep Impact; on May 19 is Twister; and on May 26 is Day After Tomorrow. “This free film series offers us a great opportunity to give back to our loyal patrons,” said John McCauley, Senior Vice President of Marketing, Loews Cineplex Entertainment. “Now moviegoers who missed out the first time around can see these classic films the way they were meant to be seen; on the big screen.” Note that although tickets are available at no cost, you need to register online.
National Museum of Natural History
The Museum participates in First Nations/First Features with The Pathfinder (Nils Gaup, 1987) on May 21 at 7:00pm. The "Festival of Greenland" takes place all day May 22 from 10am to 5:30pm and includes a selection of Nordic films: Inughuit: The People at the Navel of the Earth at 11:00am; short films at 12:30pm and Heart of Light, Greenland's first feature-length film at 3:30pm.
Reel Affirmations Xtra
If you missed Beautiful Boxer at FilmfestDC, you can catch it on May 20 at 7:00pm and 9:00pm. The screening will be held at the Goldman Theater in the Washington Jewish Community Center.