The Illusionist: An Interview with Writer/Director Neil Burger
By Lee Lederer, DC Film Society Member
Following a screening and Q&A at the E Street Cinema for Film Society members of his new film The Illusionist writer/director Neil Burger was interviewed August 4 at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Georgetown.
Lee Lederer: In your first film Interview with the Assassin, about the man who claims to have shot Kennedy from the grassy knoll, you sort of leave it up to the audience to decide whether or not he might be telling the truth. And in The Illusionist again, to some extent, you leave it up to the audience to determine whether what the Chief Inspector concludes is true or not, and also whether or not the magician possesses supernatural powers or is just very clever. As the writer and director of the film, did you have in your own mind the answer to those questions and whether you did or not, how did that affect the way you went about making the film?
Neil Burger: Yes, I think I have to have the answer to that question when I make the movie in both cases, whether the man in Interview with the Assassin is telling the truth, or whether Eisenheim really possesses powers or not, and that very much informed how I am going to make the movie, and which way I am going to tip the balance of this question, this thematic question. On the other hand, I try to walk a very fine line in both movies between what’s true and what’s fiction, or what’s truth and what’s a trick. That’s important to me just to kind of explore those issues of truth and illusion, and really the unexplainable, and how you navigate in a world where truth becomes this subjective concept, where you can never quite nail down the truth to a certainty.
LL: But you won’t tell us what you concluded?
NB: (laughing) No, I wouldn’t tell you, no it’s a secret.
LL: You seem to like to opt for open endings, which not only encourages but requires the audience to participate. Is that part of your filmmaking philosophy?
NB: It is. Some people would think open endings would be frustrating, but I don’t think in my two movies they are. I think actually they are provocative, and that in a way they help bring the film experience out of the theater with the audience. Because I think in both movies people come out of the movies talking about it, and discussing it, and debating and arguing over them, which I think keeps those issues and themes alive in their mind. It becomes then a true exploration of the subject matter.
LL: I ask that question because when Americans see a film with a mystery they tend to like to have it all neatly wrapped up at the end. Do you think your approach is more European than American in this regard?
NB: I think it is more European but I think that American audiences get it too. It depends on how you do it. If you just leave it open and don’t answer the question, well then that’s either badly done or annoying. But I think in this case, it’s left open but it definitely leans toward one particular solution but it doesn’t nail shut or shut out the other options or other possibilities.
LL: Could this film have been made about an American magician in an American setting, or--and I know this is based on a short story which takes place in Vienna in 1900--was the European context essential to the film in your view?
NB: Well when I was adapting it I actually considered should I be updating it, should I be transferring it to the United States to make it more accessible somehow. But somehow the issues involved--issues of power--needed to be in a European setting because at that time power could become something very personal for somebody who was in the Royal Family. And it was just a time of upheaval in a certain way, yet Crown Prince Leopold has a very personal stake in power which is very different than the kind of power issues that would happen here. And also I wanted the movie to inhabit the realm of dream and mystery. The film is true to its time but it’s not about that time. It’s trying to take place in some sort of other world, using the details and informed by the history, but not particularly about the history. And I wanted a sort of exoticism which seems to work better in that kind of setting.
LL: In your film Interview with the Assassin, you raise the issue of what is truth and what is not, and in The Illusionist the similar question of what is truth and what is illusion. Do you see a relevance in this issue beyond the film which goes into our daily lives, to quote the slogan on the posters for The Illusionist that “nothing is what it seems”?
NB: Yes, I think there are two things of relevance. On the political side, there’s a relevance of how do you live in a world where truth becomes something that is subjective, where everybody has their own version of the truth, where there’s not an objective factual sense of truth. And certainly you can apply that today to what’s happening in Iraq and how we got into Iraq. I am certainly wanting and willing to believe the President when it comes down to issues of war, that they were telling the truth. And everything sort of becomes something different. Or if you think of the O.J. Simpson trial or something like that where everybody has their own version of reality and willing to believe their version of the truth and just how they wanted to see it. So I think it is very much an issue of today. But then there’s a spiritual level to it as well, this issue of how you deal with the unexplainable and the incomprehensible, and with something that you can actually never quite get the answer to--which is the mystery of existence, why we’re all here, and that’s a different sort of take on it than in Interview with the Assassin, hopefully a kind of expansion of the idea in this movie, of the more spiritual side of this.
LL: At one moment in the film when Eisenheim is at the police station, he talks to the crowd assembled below and says to them everything they saw was a trick, an illusion, and that his only purpose was to entertain them. Do you as a filmmaker see your role mainly to entertain the audience or are there other purposes as well?
NB: First of all, what you said is also just essentially another form of misdirection. Eisenheim is under no obligation to tell the truth. And as a filmmaker, I am under no obligation to tell the truth necessarily. Film is an artifice. It’s art in the way it traffics in deceit to a certain degree, creating these fictions. On the other hand, I actually, as a filmmaker, do really feel the obligation to be honest. Honest emotionally and honest in how you deal with people and with the subject matter. That's my first obligation. And it seems often the best way to explore the themes one is interested in is to create an entertainment, or not so much an entertainment as create a new experience for the audience. And somehow there’s hopefully an energy in that experience that resonates with the ideas behind the movie.
LL: Eisenheim is tricking us, people in the audience, and you, as a filmmaker, are also tricking us, leading us to draw conclusions which later finally might not be true. Do you see the filmmaker as something of a magician, comparing yourself to Eisenheim, to what he’s doing?
NB: Eisenheim in a way is more than just a magician, he’s the figure of the artist. So in that sense I do identify with him. And certainly as a magician, as I said before in answer to your other question, there is a sense of creating an artificial situation or creating an experience that seduces the audience, and in effect by that seduction misdirects them so before they realize it, somehow the truth has emerged. As an analogy to that, the magician misdirects you, showing you something over here in one hand so that they can make the trick, the solution, the truth, if you will, of the trick appear over here in the other hand.
LL: There’s the tense rivalry between the Crown Prince and Eisenheim, and the passionate love affair between Sophie and Eisenheim, but it seems to me the absolute crucial bonding, where each one has to have a profound understanding of the other, is between the Chief Inspector and Eisenheim. How did you go about obtaining that result?
NB: You’re right, that is the key relationship in the film and the one that excites me the most in a way. The movie is a kind of cat and mouse game between the two of them, a battle of wits. And the way I approached it was that Eisenheim sort of embodies the spiritual and I had to make sure that the Inspector embodies something more material, almost corporeal. He’s a police detective and he’s interested in getting the answers, to exposing secrets. He’s a smart guy and he thinks he has the answers to everything. But he never quite nailed down what Eisenheim is doing. And yet he kind of respects Eisenheim for that. There’s actually a real mutual respect. They come from similar backgrounds, lower class backgrounds, and they’re both trying to make their way in this world where there’s some freedom for them to make their way, but then there’s a real ceiling as to what they can do and accomplish, really be in their lives. And I don’t think they ever forget that.
LL: In that regard, I like the line early in the film when the Chief Inspector talking about the Royalty tells Eisenheim “There’s no trick they haven’t seen.”
NB: (laughing) That’s right.
LL: While your first film has some seasoned actors in it, it was a low budget independent film while The Illusionist is relatively lavish. It was filmed in Prague and features two prominent actors, Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti. What was it like to take on a project of this scope and did it change your approach to filmmaking?
NB: Well, it’s very different from Interview with the Assassin but, no, because I had written it, and I wrote it to direct it, I kind of knew how I would do it all the way along. Also I had a long career doing TV commercials which are relatively high budget and where you are working in all sorts of different situations. So I felt like I was ready for it. But dealing with those actors, and dealing with a kind of a more emotional story also, you kind of want to get into the eyes of these characters and of these actors. What’s incredible about what they do is obviously how they transform themselves and make themselves really inhabit these characters. But also what they give of just their own humanity, and to get in there and capture Paul Giamatti’s eyes and Edward Norton’s eyes, you get everything, or you get so much more from them. Amazing.
LL: I know from the short story on which the film is based, “Eisenheim the Illusionist” by Steven Millhauser, you had to create the characters of the Crown Prince and Sophie, and greatly expand the character of the Chief Inspector. Were these changes already in your first draft of the screenplay or did it take time to evolve?
NB: No, that’s the way I structured it. Before I even started writing, I was attacking how am I going to adapt this beautiful short story. It was not quite a movie, or it would be like a really experimental movie. How I am going to make this into what is going to be a two hour movie? So those were those the key changes I had to make and creating that love triangle.
LL: During your Washington visit, you have been answering questions from journalists and audience members. Is there any question you would like to have been asked but haven’t or something you particularly wanted to say about your film?
NB: Well, I have occasionally mentioned it but never really been asked about it, but to me the role of the magician is to remind us of the mystery of existence and to inspire awe and wonder at that mystery, and that’s why I think magicians are important. It’s not really their role, but I think that’s why with a magic trick, it’s like actually there’s something more to it. There’s that feeling you get when you see a powerful magic trick, that sort of hair raising sense that nothing is what it seems, or perhaps there’s some other kind of powers. You know it’s not true and you know there must be some method to it, but that momentary feeling of being slightly rattled, I think that feeling is related to the feeling that we get when we look up at the stars at night and think what’s on the other side of that? Where do we come from, how are we here, where are we going, those fundamental existential sort of questions.
The Illusionist opens in the DC area on August 18.
Seen in Munich and Coming Here Soon: Mutual Appreciation
By Leslie Weisman, DC Film Society Member
This year's Munich Film Festival (a full report of which will be in next month's Storyboard) had a particularly strong American Independents section representing all points of the cinematic spectrum, from the absorbing and factual (Wrestling with Angels--Playwright Tony Kushner) to the highly imaginative and innovative (A Scanner Darkly, currently playing in DC). And then there were films whose captivating quirkiness at first seems innovative, but upon closer reflection, follows quite effectively in the existential filmic footsteps of Rohmer and Cassavetes.
“If John Cassavetes had directed a script by Eric Rohmer,” writes Joe Leydon for Variety.com, as quoted in Filmfest München 2006’s colorful and comprehensive Katalog, “the result might have looked and sounded like Mutual Appreciation.” Released in 2005 and coming to the Avalon later this month as the August "indieWIRE undiscovered GEMS" film engagement, Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation--named one of the top 10 films of the year by The New York Times and Film Comment, among others--accompanies Gen-Xers Alan, Sara, Lawrence, and Ellie as they tread the well-worn, post-graduation “How-do-I-follow-my-dreams-and-pay-the-bills” path. As with the equally celebrated Funny Ha Ha, Bujalski’s first film, Mutual Appreciation was inspired by the lives of his friends, who play the lead roles.
Briefly, Mutual Appreciation follows twenty-something Alan, an aspiring rocker whose band has just dis-banded, in search of a gig in the Big Apple. Along the way, our latter-day Candide doesn’t find answers--indeed, he might find common cause (mutual appreciation?) with Gertrude Stein, who on her deathbed, receiving no reply from the agonized Alice to “What is the answer?” iconically added: “Then, what is the question?” But he does find ways of seeking them, from friends and strangers and from the situations they alternately create and are caught up in. Shot in 16mm black and white in a way that will remind anyone who has ever shot home movies of the sense of power and inebriated exhilaration tempered by self-doubt the experience can bring--Hey, look what I shot! (But, aarrggh! look what I missed)--Mutual Appreciation has the seemingly contradictory ability to invite us into the lives of its characters while keeping them firmly at arm’s length. We see them at their silliest and most embarrassing, and at their most openly wounded. But we are always observers, making their pain certainly no less real--their fumbling, stumbling inarticulateness makes us all brothers and sisters under the skin--but yet somehow less personal.
Which brings us back to Rohmer, whose filmic language has been artfully deconstructed by Tamara Tracz in Senses of Cinema: “Running throughout his films is a powerful sense of the unknowable nature of people and their lives. Everyone has his reasons, as Renoir teaches, but in Rohmer's world, we may never know exactly what they are.” As for Cassavetes, he himself has done the deconstructing, as quoted by Ray Carney in Post Script: “Most people don’t know what they want or feel. And for everyone, myself included, [it’s] very difficult to say what you mean when what you mean is painful. The most difficult thing in the world is to reveal yourself, to express what you have to...”
In Mutual Appreciation, Andrew Bujalski, with a telling combination of script and improvisation, has managed to express our inability to express what we have to. Mutual Appreciation has a one-day screening at the Avalon Theater on August 23 at 8:00pm.
Walking on Sunshine: Twenty Minutes with Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
By Adam Spector, DC Film Society Member
Even though Little Miss Sunshine marks the feature debut of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, they can hardly be called rookies. The husband-wife team directed music videos for REM, Smashing Pumpkins, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Weezer and the Ramones, just to name a few. They’ve also done documentaries, commercials and episodes of the HBO cult hit “Mr. Show with Bob and David.” They waited for the right script to move into features. With Little Miss Sunshine, it’s clear they made the right choice. Sunshine drew raves at Sundance this past January so much so that Fox Searchlight paid more than $10 million for distribution rights. The film opened in select markets last week, earning mostly stellar reviews. It opens in the DC area this Friday, August 4.
In many ways, Little Miss Sunshine follows in the great American tradition of the road movie. Dayton jokingly called it “the thinking man’s National Lampoon’s Vacation.” In the film it’s the Hoover family taking the trip from hell. For the Hoovers “dysfunctional” would be a step up. Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a failed self-help guru who is nearly bankrupt. His wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) is on her second marriage and is just trying to hold everyone together. Her brother Frank (Steve Carrell) is a gay Proust scholar who attempted suicide after his lover left him. Sheryl’s teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano) reads Nietzsche, won’t talk, and hates everyone. Grandpa (Alan Arkin) snorts heroin, loves porn, and uses language that would make some sailors blush. Finally there’s Olive (Abigail Breslin), a sweet but insecure eight-year old who desperately wants to be a beauty queen. At the last minute Olive gets into the “Little Miss Sunshine” kids pageant, prompting the Hoovers to head to California in an old VW bus.
Dayton and Faris, working off a script by Michael Arndt, take the characters beyond the quick descriptions I just used. They get rich, nuanced, performances from the cast. The result is a sharp, funny film that’s also warm and poignant. A couple of weeks ago Dayton and Faris sat down with me to discuss their film and their careers:
Adam Spector: What attracted you to this script?
Valerie Faris: I think, right off, the writing. We loved the writing and the economy of it. The characters all appealed to us. I felt like I could relate to everyone in the story at some point or another and I hadn’t read a script really up to that point where I liked all the characters. I was interested in all of them. I didn’t care that much for the story.
Jonathan Dayton: That’s the ironic thing. What attracted to us to the story, it wasn’t the story.
VF: Their voices, I was interested in them. As I was introduced to the teenage son, he’s reading Nietzsche and he’s not speaking. I liked this character. I wanted to see this character. I felt like the first time I read the script I wanted to see it realized. I felt like it was ready to be taken to the next plane...
JD: I felt like I wanted to be with these people for two hours ... It’s so rare actually that you read a script and think “Oh, I actually like these people.” You may find fault with them, but you enjoy seeing what they’re going to do. So many times you read a script and you just feel like “Why are they doing this? Are they dumb? Don’t do that.”
VF: When they’re sitting around the dinner table (at the beginning of the film), by the end of that scene you had to make people feel like “Oh God, how are these people going to spend the next three days together.” Setting up each character, I think the script does a really good job of doing that in a very simple way. Without them explaining themselves. That’s another thing I can’t stand.
AS: A lot of exposition?
VF: Yeah, Sometimes when you meet somebody you know instantly so much about them...
JD: Audiences are pretty smart and I don’t think you need to...
VF: ... bore them with all of that.
AS: Regarding casting, you’ve said that you got your first choice for every part. Steve Carrell may be a surprise to people. Greg Kinnear is also more known for comedic roles but he’s done some dramatic work. Steve Carrell has never really done anything like this before. What made you think he could pull of a role like this?
JD: He’s one of those performers who, no matter what he’s doing, brings an intelligence to his work. Even if he’s playing the dumbest weatherman ever there’s still just a real...
VF: ... freshness.
JD: He’s always interesting. He takes what could be a dismal role and makes it fresh and funny.
VF: I think he was so happy to not have to do things really big. He’s so used to people saying, “Can you give me a little more? A little bit bigger.” We had really admired his work and thought he was so funny and everything. You can tell from “The Daily Show” that there’s a good guy in there. And then meeting him we felt like he gets this movie, he loves this character. We’re on the same page about the way we’re approaching this. We’re going to play it very straight and very real.
JD: At the time it wasn’t as if we thought, “This guy’s going to be a big star.” But we did feel like for these people who know his work, wouldn’t it be interesting to see him do something different?
AS: You think he’s going to surprise a lot of people?
JD: Yeah, that alone was going to be worth noting, but since shooting the movie, obviously his star has risen exponentially. I still hope people come for the same reasons. Not because he’s a big star but because it’s fun to see someone do something different.
AS: It seems like many child actors are mugging for the camera or trying really hard to look cute. Abigail Breslin didn’t do that. She seemed so natural. Was that one of the reason’s you selected her?
VF: Yeah. She’s very natural ... she’s that way in life. She’s very comfortable talking to adults or kids. The great thing was, at the pageant, she played with the other kids. They did “Patty Cake.”
AS: Even though they seem to have come from two different worlds.
VF: She was right there sitting on the floor talking, sharing. You know it was never like “I’m the star.” She’s a kid. She is very smart and she’s a great listener. You watch her and it’s sort of like you’re watching some miracle take place. And we all got used to it but I know we’ve worked with child actors before on commercials and, even if you’re just doing 30 seconds, it’s hell if they can’t act.
JD: The first thing that goes with a child actress is the ability to be un-self conscious. Most children, when they go on camera completely lose all ability to be natural. Her gift is to be able to forget that she’s being filmed and that she’s doing anything other than play. I don’t know how she looks at it, what her process is, but she’s just natural and that is a gift.
AS: You’ve mentioned that you had a week of rehearsal before shooting. Were there any things that happened during rehearsal that you added to the movie later?
JD: There were lots of things, little things. We had them go on this field trip where we gave Toni and Greg $300 and said “OK, today you are organizing a family trip and we’re not going to tell you where to go.”
AS: In character?
JD: Everyone had to be in character all day.
VF: And the end destination is the house. We wanted it to end at the house so they could get a feel for where we were shooting.
JD: Val and I and the cameraman went with them in this big van. We didn’t have the bus but we had a giant passenger van. Greg drove and Toni navigated and Paul couldn’t talk.
VF: He was writing on the pad at one pont “Grandpa smells.” (laughs)
JD: There were little things. We went to lunch at this café that was connected to a bowling alley. They went bowling and at one moment Paul started playing with the straws ... and we thought that would be a perfect way to end the dinner scene.
VF: Paul taking a shot at Richard.
JD: Little bits of behavior.
VF: Alan came up with the idea of doing something in the car. We wanted a game. Some kind of game for him to play with Abigail.
AS: The popcorn?
VF: The popcorn. He was playing around with that in rehearsal.
JD: We had this solid foundation with the script and then it was really a matter of: How do you bring it to life? How do you just add details that made it feel like your own life? These little bits of behavior and the actors brought it all really... It was our job to go, “Oh, I like what you’re doing there. Let’s bring that to the movie.”
AS: Along those lines, is that why it was important to you to shoot in sequence?
JD: Yes. These actors are skilled enough to be able to make those shifts, but there’s nothing better...
VF: Certainly helped us, I think especially for Greg’s character, because he has the biggest movement.
AS: He changes so much.
VF: We could easily have done it out of sequence. We knew the script inside and out. But it was really nice to feel that. It’s interesting how what’s happening in the film affects the feeling on the set. I really felt it was so incredible to end the shoot with the dance sequence.
AS: That was a perfect catharsis.
VF: It was such a high point for everybody...
AS: There’s one particular scene where Dwayne has a real devastating blow. You expect there to be a lot of dialogue and there isn’t. His sister comforts him with a real simple action, very quiet. Was that in the script or was that something you came up with later?
VF: I don’t think there was anything written. She came down and I think there was really just her presence that had gotten him to eventually change his mind and come back up. But what was so incredible was doing it with those two actors. All we told Abigail was just to go down, sit with him, and comfort him. And then when she came down there, when she sat, when she put her head on his shoulder. You know, we didn’t tell her to do that. I remember thinking, “Oh, my God.” It’s those kind of instincts that she has. I think that’s what we loved about the script. You didn’t need words to do that, to really know what was going on in the scene. It was so much more beautiful. Just put it out.
JD: Emotion is so much more vivid when you have those moments of truth.
VF: You’re going to project onto it all the feelings that you’re having. It’s nice not to be told what you’re supposed to feel.
AS: One thing that struck me when I was reading the press notes was that you had made your bones doing music videos. When you think about films from music video directors you think flashy visuals, quick edits, and your film is anything but that. Were you consciously trying to go in a different direction?
VF: But our videos were not that either. Our videos aren’t fast cutting, flashy. They’re pretty conservative in that. So I think we’re inclined that way anyway. We’re sort of anti-short attention span directors.
JD: On the Little Miss Sunshine website there’s a link to a bunch of our videos under "Dayton/Faris fans click here"). The fact is that we were going to be labeled as video directors doing a feature. What’s always important to us is to do whatever feels appropriate for the project we are working on. One thing that attracted us was that it didn’t feel like a music video director’s movie.
VF: It felt like our kind of movie more than anything we’d ever read. I think the funny thing is this movie is probably more representative of the kind of work we love and that we want to do than a lot of our videos.
JD: I think the music video influence was more the soundtrack that we chose. We really loved this and (the band) DeVotchka and the music plays an upfront role. We really let it play loud.
VF: We really didn’t have a lot of music.
JD: No. In that scene with Dwayne you were talking about, we let it be perfectly silent.
VF: Our editor , when we first saw the rough cut of the movie, the rough assembly, she put music in there and it was really...
AS: Overdoing it?
VF: There were some places where she had music and we were like, “Oh, man!”
JD: I think the thing that’s really important is that we do trust the audience to meet the film halfway. We don’t want to spoonfeed people. We know that people can feel plenty of emotion without having to clobber them.
VF: I hope it doesn’t do that. There’s still places where “Oh, we don’t need music right there.” But for the most part we tried not to be too manipulative.
AS: You’ve been doing plenty of interviews promoting Little Miss Sunshine. What do you hope people will take away from those?
JD: I hope people will take away from the press that this is hopefully an emotional movie that is more than just comedy. But that you’re going to be on this roller coaster ride where you’re invested in this family, you care about them.
VF: We do.
JD: And just really strong performances. There are great actors doing great performances all the time. But I do think that it’s pretty rare when six actors all work together as well as these people.
Little Miss Sunshine: Q&A with Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
By Annette Graham, DC Film Society Member
A preview screening of Little Miss Sunshine was held at the AFI Silver Theater on July 10 with both directors taking questions from the audience after the film. The AFI's Murray Horwitz moderated.
Murray Horwitz: How did two people direct a movie? Did you fight? [The directors, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton are married and have three children].
Valerie Faris: It's more boring than that.
Jonathan Dayton: Most of the time we agree. If we disagree, the one who feels strongest about it wins out.
VF: We are a family, as long as we like each other. It's a family thing to do.
JD: Many of our arguments happened at home. We have to explain it to the kids that we are working. [The kids are 10 year old twins and a 13 year old.]
MH: This is your first narrative film. After you were finished, was there anytime when you said, "See, I told you. I was right?"
VF: We see the things we agreed on: "Aren't we glad we did that." We had so much time to plan and talk about it.
JD: We felt like Richard who waited to fulfill his dream but kept getting squashed.
MH: You've done music videos, commercials and documentaries. What affected Little Miss Sunshine?
VF: We found people who we had worked with before and, having that communication established, made the film more streamlined.
JD: From documentaries nothing is more troubling and affirming than the truth. You try to replicate that in a performance. We didn't try to go for a comedy. But we didn't chase a joke; that would be a hollow experience.
VF: We hired people more talented than us. Casting great actors made our job easier.
MH: As Jonathan Winters said, "Tell the truth and people will laugh."
MH: It's a real ensemble cast, hard to find these days. For the casting, did you get all your first choices?
VF: We did get our first choices. It was financed with a producer who had been trying to get the film made through a studio and finally decided to use his own money.
MH: That would be Marc Turtletaub.
VF: Everyone loved the script. They were an amazing group of people. We rehearsed for a week to establish them as a family.
JD: You can kill your actors by talking too much.
MH: That's a cliche of child actors--tell them once and let them go.
JD: Abigail is a veteran. She has done ten films, more than us. Our biggest job was to select the people. But then you free them up to go beyond your ambition. We created competition between Frank and Richard.
VF: It's important in an ensemble. You try to let them act together, instead of just reading their lines for a few minutes.
JD: Every actor hit their stride immediately. As in the dinner table scene, people have to listen to each other, not just talk. Abigail was a good listener.
VF: We saw her on the Leno show. She was listening, unaware of the audience--unusual for a kid of that age.
MH: Did you shoot in sequence?
JD: We shot 90% in sequence. We had a good Art Director.
VF: We had a sense of how each person saw their character. Rehearsals were most important.
MH: Greg Kinnear has been a Siamese Twin, a Bob Crane sex maniac and a disabled war vet. How did he approach his role?
JD: He was the first actor we thought of. What was great about Greg was that he took on the role completely. He wanted to like his character. He's a father. Originally Olive (Abigail) was his stepdaughter. He came to us and said it would be better if she was his birth daughter. He thought this was important for the diner scene when he tries to persaude her not to eat ice cream.
VF: It would have been easy to play his character as a joke. But he approached it differently; he believed in finding character.
MH: That dinner table scene could be an item for a time capsule at the Smithsonian--this is how an American family dinner is. You know that everyone is fully fleshed; it's a credit to the writing.
VF: We read a lot of scripts. In so many the characters aren't real; sometimes they're only there to serve a scene or a transition. We felt the characters in Little Miss Sunshine were true to life. When I read Dwayne's line, "I hate everyone" I thought, I have to make this movie.
JD: All the characters have aspirations. They were all giving people. Good writing with amazing performances.
VF: We all loved the script.
MH: The screenwriter is Michael Arndt, from the DC area.
JD: The script originally took place in Maryland and they drove to Florida. It was important to us to shoot it where there was a real pageant scene. Those were real pageant girls.
MH: Tell the truth and shoot it as a comedy. Reportedly while working in the Marx Brothers films, Margaret Dumont thought it was straight. I loved what Bill Forsyth said when asked how do you edit for laughter. "It's not a comedy until someone laughs.
JD: A film has two lives. We watched it in the editing room. It was in Sundance with a big audience. The audience clapped at the end of the dance--people couldn't hear the silence.
Question: Did you do this to show the audience what pageants for kids are like?
VF: When we first heard of it we didn't want to do anything with beauty pageants. It was important for us to be as neutral as possible with the pageant. We met the girls and mothers. It's shocking for most people. We didn't want to show the girls crying.
JD: It's not about the beauty pageant.
VF: When we met with the pageant families we explained it as taking your mutt to a dog show. Olive's character loved it. It was her dream to be on stage. She is new to it also. Her cousins got her into it; maybe she was the runner up because they felt sorry for her.
JD: We didn't need to editorialize. We thought of shooting it in Canada. But you can't fake that. We didn't direct them. We couldn't have--the hair, the makeup. Those girls have been doing those moves snce they were six months old. There's that great scene when the girl drops her smile and then puts it back. We thought that was just great--we couldn't have asked for that.
Little Miss Sunshine opens on August 4.
The Slapsticon 2006 Film Festival
By Annette Graham, DC Film Society Member
The fourth Slapsticon Film Festival (2006) was held in Arlington's Spectrum Theater July 20-23, 2006. And it's getting better each year--better organized and better run with practice and better access to rare films with many more 35mm prints this year. The Spectrum was a movie house many years ago but with the projection equipment long gone, the organizers must bring in 16mm and 35mm projectors, not an easy task. The festival's focus is on early comedy films, both silent and sound, mostly one- and two-reelers but with a few features. The comedy stars include some of the now-obscure such as Harry Langdon, Charley Chase, John Bunny and Lloyd Hamilton as well as the still-familiar--such as Stan Laurel, Harold Lloyd, Will Rogers, and Buster Keaton. More than 100 films were shown; there were special programs of Syd Chaplin films, Mabel Normand films, a morning of politically incorrect cartoons, and film tributes to Bob Hope and Ernie Kovacs. And the more obscure the better we like them. (Thankfully, there has never been an appearance by the Three Stooges!)
Piano accompaniment for the silents was provided by Dr. Phillip C. Carli and Ben Model, both of whom have many years of experience. And they worked like dogs--comedy is more difficult to play for than drama, not to mention it's often fast moving--a greater feat than you might think since they probably didn't get to preview many of the films first. One would alternate with the other, almost like a relay as they switched on and off the piano bench.
Some of the discoveries: I finally got to see Wallace Beery as "Sweedie"--Beery doing one of his more than a dozen female impersonations--of course he was lots thinner back then; the always wonderful Max Davidson in Prudence, Harold Lloyd's Welcome Danger, Syd Chaplin in The Missing Link and Glen Tryon in White Sheep which later became the basis for Harold Lloyd's Kid Brother. Three outstanding films with animals were also audience favorites: The Missing Link with an incredible chimp, Buster's Bust Up with an equally talented dog, and The Battling Kangaroo with, as you might expect, kangaroos.
So are these films still funny after all these years? The film that got the most howls from the audience was from 1905 and couldn't have been more than three minutes long. So--yes, indeed--and they need to be seen on a big screen with an audience. The organizers, presenters, projectionists and accompanists are all archivists, authors, collectors and/or experts in their field and really care about giving us the best prints and best projection. Much of the audience is from out of town. But we don't have to travel anywhere; it's in our backyard and deserves our support. I hope to see more DCFSers next year!
Calendar of Events
American Film Institute Silver Theater
The retrospective of films by David Lynch continues in August with Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lost Highway, and The Straight Story. A series of films by Michael Haneke includes Cache, Code Unknown, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, The Piano Teacher, Funny Games, and Benny's Video, with more in September. More Chinese martial arts films, some in brand new 35mm prints: The Valiant Ones, The Magic Blade, Clans of Intrigue, The Jade Tiger, The Five Venoms, The New One-Armed Swordsman, Police Story, and Once Upon a Time in China. And more of the Stanley Donen film series with It's Always Fair Weather, The Pajama Game, Indiscreet, Damn Yankees, Funny Face, Charade, and Two for the Road. Check the website for more, including African films and other great classics.
Freer Gallery of Art
The annual "Made in Hong Kong Film Festival" concludes in August with Once Upon a Time in China (Tsui Hark, 1991) on August 4 at 7:00pm and August 6 at 2:00pm; 2 Young (Derek Yee, 2005) on August 11 at 7:00pm and August 13 a 2:00pm; Divergence (Benny Chan, 2005) on August 18 at 7:00pm and August 20 at 2:00pm; and Perhaps Love (Peter Chan, 2005) on August 25 at 7:00pm and August 27 at 2:00pm. A short series "Self-Reflections: Three Cinematic Portraits" looks at films blending fiction and documentary with Ox Hide (Liu Jiayin, 2004) on August 10 at 7:00pm, Quitting (Jia Hongsheng, 2001) on August 17 at 7:00pm and Close-Up (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1990) on August 24 at 7:00pm.
National Gallery of Art
"From Vault to Screen: New Preservation from European Collections" concludes in August with Boudu Saved From Drowning (Jean Renoir, 1932) on August 12 at 2:00, A Cottage on Dartmoor (Anthony Asquith, 1929) on August 20 at 4:30pm, On the Bowery (Lionel Rogosin, 1957) on August 26 at 4:00pm and Rapt (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1934) on August 27 at 4:30pm. The Luchino Visconti series continues with Senso (1954) on August 3 at 2:30pm and August 5 at 4:00pm, Rocco and His Brothers (1960) on August 13 at 4:30pm, and Ludwig (1972) on August 19 at 2:00pm. A program on Adam K. Beckett, animator and visual-effects artist, with discussion led by Pamela Turner from Virginia Commonwealth University is on August 26 at 2:00pm. Andrew Simpson will accompany a short program of Melies shorts on August 11 and 12 at 11:00am and 1:00pm. Vicente Minnelli's An American in Paris (1951) will be shown on August 11 at 2:30pm.
National Museum of the American Indian
Two short documentaries The Art of Native Life Along the North Pacific Coast (2006) and the animated How Raven Stole the Sun (2004) are shown on August 10, 24, and 31 at noon and 3:00pm.
Museum of American History
A 35mm screening of Jim Henson's film The Dark Crystal (1982) will be shown on August 3 at 7:00pm in conjunction with the Muppets and Mechanisms: Jim Henson's Legacy exhibition that features items from the film, including details on the animatronics. Dwight Blocker Bowers will introduce the film.
National Museum of Women in the Arts
On August 30 at 7:00pm is The Stranger Inside (Cheryl Dunye, 2001) produced for HBO about women's prisons but never released in theaters. Screenwriter Catherine Crouch will be present for questions.
Films on the Hill
Westerns is the theme this month starting with a Tim McCoy double feature on August 9 at 7:00pm: two films from the same year, director and studio Two Fisted Law and Texas Cyclone (both D. Ross Lederman, 1932). Tim McCoy, a genuine western expert, was hired to advise movie makers and ended up having a successful career as a western hero; a young and not yet famous John Wayne is in both movies. On August 16 at 7:00pm is Powdersmoke Range (Wallace Fox, 1935) boasting 13 western stars including Harry Carey in an early "psychological" western based on the "Three Mesquiteers" characters by novelist William Colt McDonald. On August 18 at 7:00pm is Bugles in the Afternoon (Roy Rowland, 1952) based on the novel by Ernest Haycox of Stagecoach fame with Ray Milland in the lead.
Washington Jewish Community Center
On August 14 at 7:30pm is Awesome: I F***ing Shot That (Nathaniel Hornblower, 2006), a documentary on the Beastie Boys show at Madison Square Garden.
The "Get Out the Vote" series concludes with The Best Man (Franklin Schaffner, 1964) on August 1 at 7:00pm and Election (Alexander Payne, 1999) on August 4 at 7:00pm. Other films in August feature TV comedies: on August 22 at 7:00pm are epidodes from "The Ernie Kovacs Show" and "The Steve Allen Show"; on August 25 at 7:00pm are episodes from "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" and "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In." See the website for more.
This is the last month for films by Helmut Käutner. On August 14 at 4:00pm and 6:30pm is The Last Bridge (1954), the winner of the International Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival; Maria Schell won the Cannes Film Festival award for best performance. On August 21 at 4:00pm and 6:30pm is Ludwig II (1955) about the famous "mad king" of Bavaria, filmed on location in and around the mad king's opulent castle Neuschwanstein; Klaus Kinski is in the cast. On August 23 at 4:00pm and 6:30pm is The Devil's General (1955), based on the postwar play by Carl Zuckmeyer, with Curt Jürgens in the lead. On August 28 at 4:00pm and 6:30pm is The Captain of Köpenick (1956) based on a true incident from 1906 in which a Berlin shoemaker, released from prison, "arrests" the mayor and confiscates the city treasury.
National Air and Space Museum
A series of four classic aviation films will be shown in August. On August 5 at 7:30pm is Hell's Angels (Howard Hughes, 1930); on August 12 at 7:30pm is Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks, 1939); on August 19 at 7:30pm is Twelve O'Clock High (Henry King, 1949); and on August 26 at 7:30pm is The Spirit of St. Louis (Billy Wilder, 1957).
The National Theatre
"Summer Cinema at the National Theater" features Billy Wilder whose centennial we are celebrating this year. Concluding this series is The Seven Year Itch (1955) with Marilyn Monroe on August 7 at 6:30pm and One, Two, Three (1961) on August 14 at 6:30pm.
National Institutes of Health
"Science in the Cinema" is a popular summer film festival focusing on science and medicine. On August 2 at 7:00pm is My Sister's Keeper (2002) about schizoaffective disorder with guest speaker Mayada Akil; on August 9 at 7:00pm is Smile (2005) about craniofacial abnormalities with guest speaker Jaime S. Brahim; and on August 16 at 7:00pm is Wit (2001) about death and dying with guest speaker Marie T. Nolan. Note that the films are shown at the AFI's Silver Theater.
Screen on the Green
Shown on a giant screen set up on the Washington Monument grounds, Screen on the Green concludes its summer of classic films this month. On August 7 is To Have and Have Not (1944) and on August 14 is Rocky (1976). Films are shown at dusk.
The "French Cinémathèque Film Series" entry this month is Me and My Sister on August 16 at 8:00pm. For the "Asian Cinevisions" series on August 9 at 8:00pm is Who's Camus Anyway by Mitsuo Yanagimachi. And the "indieWIRE: Undiscovered Gems" film this month is Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation on August 23 at 8:00pm (See above). Films for families include Close Encounters of the Third Kind on August 4, 5, and 6 at 10:00am and Back to the Future on August 11, 12, and 13 at 10:00am.
The Jerusalem Fund
A series of documentary and feature films from and about Palestine. On August 2 at 6:30pm is Wall (Simon Bitton, 2004), a documentary about the wall being built by Israel. On August 9 at 6:30pm is Waiting (Rashid Masharawi, 2006), a feature film about a Palestinian Theater in Gaza. On August 16 at 6:30pm is the feature Private (Saverio Costanzo, 2004), previously shown at Filmfest DC 2005.