Category: Magnolia Pictures
Taglines: One guy can ruin the perfect relationship.
At 29, the most long-term relationship Sasha (Leighton Meester) and Paige (Gillian Jacobs) have ever been in is with each other, using their co-dependent friendship as an excuse not to venture out into the dating world alone. But when Paige meets nerdy Tim (Adam Brody) and starts to get serious for the first time, the nature of their friendship begins to shift. Fearing she’s being cast aside, Sasha tries to keep their relationship the same, but does growing up also mean growing apart?
Life Partners is an American comedy film directed by Susanna Fogel and co-written with Joni Lefkowitz. It is Fogel’s feature film directorial debut. The film stars Leighton Meester, Gillian Jacobs, Adam Brody, Greer Grammer, Gabourey Sidibe, and Julie White. The film premiered on April 18, 2014 at the Tribeca Film Festival in the Spotlight section. The film was released on November 6, 2014 on demand platforms, and in select theaters on December 5, 2014.
Set in Minneapolis, Minnesota, principal photography began in April 2013 and lasted 19 days. The film was primarily shot in Glendale, California and Eagle Rock, Los Angeles. Some scenes were shot at Griffith Park and at Long Beach, California during the Long Beach Lesbian & Gay Pride. Other scenes were also filmed in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Minneapolis skyline and a few Minneapolis landmarks are also shown in the film.
We’ve all had a best friend. Especially for women, this relationship is as intense as any romantic partnership we will ever have. She’s the person we share our innermost fears with, the person who drives us to the emergency room, the person we bring as our date to weddings. Particularly nowadays, when people are encouraged to take their time in committing romantically, these quasi-marital friendships can last well into our 20s if not 30s, and are a huge part of the Zeitgeist.
It’s surprising, then, how rarely these friendships are accurately portrayed in American films. In mainstream romantic comedies, we’re treated to the “comic relief sidekick” friend who is unflaggingly supportive of the movie’s protagonist (and overly interested in her love life). And we’ve seen the onscreen frenemy who will stop at nothing to sabotage her “best friend” through broad set pieces that sometimes literally involve hair-pulling. But what about that person you love more than anyone in the world…but still talk about behind her back and find yourself subtly one-upping when you’re feeling insecure?
That person you love so much that it kills you to see her making mistakes and why doesn’t she just listen to you when you tell her how to fix her life? That person who drives you so crazy with her passive-aggressive crap that when you complain about it to the guy you’re dating, he can’t help but ask why you’re still friends with her because he just doesn’t get it? It’s that friendship my cowriter Joni and I set out to study with this film, in the tradition of films like Nicole Holofcener’s Walking and Talking that are unparalleled in their realism about female friendship and its absurd amazingness.
Just as we believe there’s a dearth of honest films about female friendships, we also feel a need for films about gays and lesbians having relatable experiences in a diverse world. Joni and I identify differently (she’s gay, I’m straight) and we wanted to represent her community without focusing a narrative on “coming out” or emphasizing the politics of her sexuality in a way that would make the film niche. On the contrary, we wanted to universalize it. Not only did we want to show a platonic gay-straight friendship where neither character is romantically interested in the other, but in executing the script as a director, I strived for accessibility.
In casting, I sought actresses who were widely known and broadly appealing to play lesbians, like Leighton Meester who lends so much credibility, nuance and heart to a role that could not be further from her role on GOSSIP GIRL. As for her straight counterpart, I tried to avoid the plight of the generic romantic comedy heroine by casting Gillian Jacobs, an actress known for her quirky personality and cult comedy fanbase.
As far as my aesthetic approach to directing this film, I aimed for a combination of real and slightly elevated. I’ve always admired directors like Cameron Crowe who combine naturalistic writing and performances with a real sense of style that lends an element of wish fulfillment, fun and entertainment. With this in mind, I tried to encourage moments of spontaneity and raw emotion, while still delivering the scripted comedy and avoiding an overly improvisational or haphazard feel. I approached production design, costume and music with this same philosophy in mind, always aiming for a combination of real and slightly elevated.
With all that said, my hope with LIFE PARTNERS is to deliver a female friendship comedy that resonates and entertains, hitting that sweet spot between a “film” and a “movie” as it explores the universal theme of friendship…along with some related themes (sexuality, women at the center of their own narrative, to name two) that deserve more of a spotlight.
“Leighton especially was really fun to transform from this gossip girl to someone who was representative of the lesbian community and who wasn’t passing as a lipstick lesbian. She doesn’t have a lot of money, she is thrift shopping her stuff or is inheriting it from different people or had it since college and I think making that evident was incredibly important, so we did that. Everything she wears is from a thrift shop or borrowed – it was a beg borrow and steal kind of movie.”
“Your mid to late 20s are such a hard time to dress yourself because you don’t have the money to be the professional you want to be but you need to look professional and that’s something PAIGE has really nailed that SASHA hasn’t figured out. PAIGE is really reveling in being this young lawyer on a career path, and even in her casual wear, you see that.”
The rest of the team came together quickly but efficiently and in April 2013, the 19-day shoot began. Set in Minneapolis, LIFE PARTNERS was shot entirely on the east side of LA, primarily in Glendale and Eagle Rock.
The strong relationship between Leftowitz, Fogel and Mollick extended to their cast and crew, their relaxed professionalism creating a sense of ease and comfort for anyone on set. Fogel’s supportive and good-natured attitude as a director proved incredibly impactful. Meester elaborates, “She’s really ahead of what a lot of people are capable of at her age and especially for somebody who is directing their first feature, I’ve never seen someone be so humble and confident, creative, in tune, and collaborative.” Jacobs adds, “It’s one of the calmest sets I’ve ever been on and for a first time director, that’s really an accomplishment. Everyone seems happy to be at work every day and everything went smoothly. I’ve worked on a lot of movies this size where that is not the case and I think Susanna sets the tone, so it’s been really great.”
Even when Meester & Jacobs had an evening shoot in an unheated pool, playful shrieking and humming the Super Mario Brothers theme took the place of any potential complaining. Their immediate bond didn’t go unnoticed.
“With this the friendship connection between the girls is so important, you’re kind of just taking a gamble,” says Fogel. “You have meetings with each one and if you feel like they would like each other, you just roll the dice on that, but we’re glad they ended up really clicking and becoming friends.” Lefkowitz continues, “I’m sure by the last day they were speaking another language. On day one, everyone was a little nervous and tense but seriously, by day two, they were humping each other before every take, we were like ‘WHAT is happening?’ – we’re just so lucky we found two people with such an odd sense of humor, like Gillian would come to set in a tree costume and they would make crazy videos, they just thought the same weird things were funny and made the same weird voices when they would rehearse their scenes. They related to each other in that weird way and that’s just luck that they were both the same brand of abnormal.”
Jacobs adds, “This movie is all about our friendship and you don’t really know when you meet each other what you’re actually like and turns out she’s a freak like me, so it’s been awesome…we both realized we were goofy weirdoes early on. It’s fun to have someone like that, where you can be as weird as you want to be. The whole crew was kind of like that on this film so it was a fun, silly environment for us.”
The last day of shooting, which took place at Griffith Park, production bought a food truck for the crew and Brody brought in more cupcakes from his favorite bakery than a small independent film crew could possibly eat. It is worth noting not a cast or crew member was absent at the wrap party where karaoke was involved and shirts featuring an inside joke from set printed on the front were disseminated among the group.
Heading towards the film’s festival run, Fogel & Lefkowitz ruminate on how far they have come. “There’s so much that we reflect on and write about that comes from our friendship and how much we’ve changed over the years,” says Fogel. “We always mine our own lives and experiences for stories, but when we met we were both so different. Joni wasn’t out of the closet yet and I was a weird insecure pretentious indie rock person. We evolved into grownups together and we will continue to do that over the next few decades. Having met right after college and now being in our 30s and making this big leap to this next phase of our careers is exciting to do together.”
Directed by: Susanna Fogel
Starring: Leighton Meester, Gillian Jacobs. Adam Brody, Mark Feuerstein, Julie White, Abby Elliot, Greer Grammer, Kate McKinnon, Beth Dover, Gabourey Sidibe
Screenplay by: Susanna Fogel, Joni Lefkowitz
Production Design by: Matt Luem
Cinematography by: Brian Burgoyne
Film Editing by: Kiran Pallegadda
Costume Design by: Courtney Hoffman
Set Decoration by: Danielle Laubach
Art Direction by: Nicolas Kelley
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexual content.
Studio; Magnolia Pictures
Release Date: December 5, 2014
Pioneer is set in the early 80’s, at the beginning of the Norwegian Oil Boom. Enormous oil and gas deposits are discovered in the North Sea, authorities aim to bring the oil ashore through a pipeline 500 meters deep. Petter, a professional diver, is obsessed with reaching the bottom of the Norwegian Sea.
Along with his brother Knut, he has the discipline, strength and courage to take on the world’s most dangerous mission. But a sudden, tragic accident changes everything. Petter is sent on a perilous journey where he loses sight of who is pulling the strings. Gradually, he realizes that he is in way over his head and that his life is at stake.
Pioneer is a portrait of a Norwegian deep-sea diver in the early 1980’s, set within the thriller genre. I’m drawn to stories told through the protagonist’s point of view. In “Pioneer” I looked to create a character that is searching for a truth, which threatens his ability to comprehend reality. Thus the distinction between paranoia and conspiracy is at times blurred. True to the genre, the film has a protagonist and a number of potential antagonists.
In terms of genre, we aimed to reinterpret the American 70’s thriller. Growing up in the 70’s, I was heavily influenced by films such as “The Conversation”, “Chinatown” and “All The President’s Men.” These films inspired not only my aesthetic approach to filmmaking, but also my interest in genre films. I believe genre films can be used successfully to explore character dilemmas for a wider audience. I wanted to reinvigorate the approach I used in my first film INSOMNIA, by directing a character driven thriller.
To me, much of filmmaking is about giving an audience the physical experience of going somewhere different. In “Pioneer” we wanted to convey the physical and emotional impression of what it’s like to work at the bottom of The North Sea. Inspired by research, we aimed to contrast the claustrophobia of the diving bell and helmet diving with the enormity of the clear, dark sea. I took great inspiration from the way sci-fi movies deal with infinity and scale. We also aimed to make the sea blacker than the traditional notion of blue sea.
As PIONEER is inspired by real events, the film also has an historic aspect. I grew up in a country that had discovered enormous oil and gas resources that we didn’t know how to utilize. Experiencing the change in our national mentality through the period of blooming wealth served above all else as my inspiration to direct PIONEER. To me, it’s ultimately a story about the ways sudden wealth changes you.
Q & A WITH Director Erik Skjoldbjærg
How did the project land on your desk?
Erik Skjolbjærg: The producer, Christian Fredrik Martin, came to me several years ago. He had heard of the idea of North Sea divers from two Norwegian film graduates, Kathrine Valen and Cathinka Nicolaysen. The angle that appealed the most to me was to depict the pivotal moment in our history when we had discovered oil but didn’t know if we could secure the resources. I grew up in the seventies and I remember that those were totally different times. I was interested in showing how we managed to secure those resources to become a rich nation. Another key element is that my first film, “Insomnia,” was a thriller told from the main character’s point of view and I wanted to explore this type of thriller again.
You share the writing credits with no less than four people, including the Swede Hans Gunnarsson (Arn) and Norwegian Nikolaj Frobenius (co-writer of Insomnia). What were the major challenges in the writing process?
ES: I started working with Kathrine and Cathinka. We did a lot of research. It was like a filtering process. We soon decided we would take all researched material and mold it into a thriller. The challenge was huge. After working on a few drafts we turned to Hans Gunnarsson who has lots of experience working on different genres. He helped develop the lead character of Petter (played by Aksel Hennie.)
Then I collaborated with Nikolaj Frobenius who helped build the plot into the thriller genre. The research was complex because the pioneering oil period is something that not everyone wants to be associated with. There is an ongoing conflict between some of the divers and the government, who are supposedly responsible for some sort of neurological traumas that the divers suffered after the experiments. So the subject is still controversial in Norway. The case is currently under review at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
We spoke with the divers and researched various events and accidents that took place. We used all of this as a template for our film and condensed it into a simple story for the audience to follow. But a lot of elements are based on reality.
There are two aspects to the story: a heroic aspect with divers wanting to push their limits, and a darker side of human exploitation and sacrifice linked to the financial ambitions at stake…
ES: Yes we decided to show today’s audience what it must have felt at the time. The divers then had a mentality similar to people doing extreme sports today. They were adrenaline junkies who wanted to push their limits. At the same time, we tell the story from the point of view of a diver who discovers the power struggle between the Norwegian government and the international oil community about who is to control the oil.
In terms of casting, was Aksel Hennie in your mind when you wrote the script ?
ES: Yes he was. Aksel was very involved from the very start. Besides the fact that he is a very emotional actor, he has a screen presence and understands the process of filmmaking. He was a fantastic collaborator throughout the film.
Was it difficult to nail down the three US actors?
ES: It’s hard for Scandinavian films to attract US actors in supporting roles. The only way to do it is if you wait until just before the shoot. Wes Bentley came in four weeks before shooting, Stephen Lang two weeks before and Jonathan LaPaglia one week before. It was truly nerve wrecking.
Claustrophobia and paranoia are portrayed in most of your works and in this film again. How did you work with your production designer and cinematographer to create those feelings?
ES: Basically the film shows that in the seventies, there was a lack of concern for security, unlike nowadays. All technical equipment of the time is no longer in use. We had difficulty finding sets such as gas chambers and diving ships, so we ended up building it all. Our gifted production designer Karl Júlíusson has done major sets for Kathryn Bigelow so he had the experience and the authority to deal with this challenge on a Scandinavian budget. Similarly the costume designer Anne Pedersen did a great job.
Then, as the film is a co-production, I was working with an international crew and ended up taking on Swedish cinematographer Jallo Faber. It was one of the best creative choices I ever made because I really think that our idea to recapture the seventies feel in Scandinavia was the right one. We also did research on industrial diving. We decided to create claustrophobic spaces and infinite spaces because that’s the reality for North Sea divers. We looked at top shots and angles from above because the film is about people at the bottom of the sea and at the bottom of the hierarchy. We were also inspired by sci-fi movies that deal with infinity and scale in an interesting way.
In terms of location shoots, I think you went to Iceland to shoot some underwater scenes?
ES: We had the Finnish underwater team from Matila Röhr MRP Productions. They said the clearest water you can get with sand at the bottom is in a lake in Iceland where you have water from a glacier being filtered by lava sand that comes into this underwater trench. It’s incredibly clear and perfect for underwater filming. We shot other underwater scenes in Germany.
The film opens in Norway and has been selected for Toronto. Are you anxious to see how the international audience will react to this Norwegian tale of underwater heroes and conspiracy thriller?
ES: Above all, the film takes people where they have never been before, on an epic adventure. We’ll see how people will react in Toronto, but signs are that there is an audience as the film has been pre-sold to several territories including the US and Japan.
What’s next for you? Any interest to go back to Hollywood where you have a name as the creator of Insomnia that was eventually remade by Christopher Nolan?
ES: I have several projects. Among those is a script that I’m developing with Bjørn Olaf Johannessen, who wrote Everything Will Be Fine for Wim Wenders. Our project is based on Gaute Heivoll’s novel ‘Before I Burn’, itself inspired by the true story of a pyromaniac who started dozens of fires in Southern Norway in the summer of 1978.
As for Hollywood, I’ve been there. If the proper project comes along and I can work freely on it, then I will consider it. I’m always open to explore new things. We’ll see in Toronto!
Written by Annika Pham
Directed by: Erik Skjoldbjærg
Starring: Wes Bentley, Stephen Lang, Aksel Hennie, Stephanie Sigman, Jonathan LaPaglia, Ane Dahl Torp
Screenplay by: Nikolaj Frobenius, Hans Gunnarsson
Production Design by: Karl Júlíusson
Cinematography by: Jallo Faber
Film Editing by: Jonas Aarø, Frida Eggum Michaelsen
Costume Design by: Anne Pedersen
Set Decoration by: Louise Drake
MPAA Rating: R for language.
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Release Date: December 5, 2014
A critical favorite at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it took the Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard, this wickedly funny and precisely observed psychodrama tells the story of a model Swedish family—handsome businessman Tomas, his willowy wife Ebba and their two blond children—on a skiing holiday in the French Alps.
The sun is shining and the slopes are spectacular but, during a lunch at a mountainside restaurant, an avalanche suddenly bears down on the happy diners. With people fleeing in all directions and his wife and children in a state of panic, Tomas makes a decision that will shake his marriage to its core and leave him struggling to reclaim his role as family patriarch.
Director’s Statement – Ruben Östlund
Force Majeure has its origins in a question I have long been fascinated by: How do human beings react in sudden and unexpected situations, such as a catastrophe? The story concerns a family on holiday that witnesses an avalanche and the father runs away, terrified. When it is over, he is ashamed because he has succumbed to his primal fear.
This particular story came about from an anecdote that I found impossible to forget. Some years ago, a Swedish couple—friends of mine—were on holiday in Latin America when suddenly, out of nowhere, gunmen appeared and opened fire; the husband instinctively ran for cover, leaving his wife unprotected. Back in Sweden, she could not stop, after a glass of wine or two, telling the story over and over again…
My imagination fired, and I began to research other true stories like this one – stories of distress and emergency, of passengers during the sinking of ships, of tourists stricken by tsunamis or held hostage by hijackers. In such extreme situations, people can react in completely unexpected and exceedingly selfish ways. It appears there are scientific studies on the subject – that in the aftermath of a catastrophe, a hijacking or a shipwreck, a large number of the survivors divorce.
It also appears that, in many cases, men do not act according to the expected codes of chivalry. In life or death situations, when their very own survival is at stake, it seems that men are even more likely than women to run away and save themselves, which may be the chief cause for those divorces. This made me want to explore the notion that a man is supposed to be the protector of his wife and family, the societal code that says he must not step back in the face of danger.
From here, I arrived at the concept of an existential drama in a ski resort, something that appeals to me greatly. Ski holidays contribute to the feeling of having full control over one’s own life. Like most European ski resorts, Les Arcs, where FORCE MAJEURE was shot, was built in the 1950s to receive middle-class families consisting of an executive father (sometimes working) mother and two kids. The father is supposed to muck in, the fully equipped open-plan kitchens in the ski apartments giving the mother a chance to do things other than cooking, like ski with her family, or relax.
Ski resorts are meant to be cozy, as the advertising shows—we can imagine the woman relaxing, her husband playing with the kids. Vacation is a time when the Western middle-class father “pays back” the family for his absence. It is an opportunity for him to devote time to his children and take care of them. But in Force Majeure “Civilized Man” is confronted by “Nature.” The characters experience this drama, and the father, Tomas, must face the savage part of himself, because his instincts lead him to save himself and abandon his children and his wife. He must face the reality that he, too, is subject to the forces of Nature, and that he has failed to conceal his most basic human impulse – the survival instinct.
After the panic of the avalanche, our characters manage to raise a nervous smile, get back onto their feet and brush off the snow. But although no physical damage has been done, the family bonds have been shaken to their core; slowly, they will begin to ask themselves questions about the roles they believed they played so well, they will have to deal with this new image of Tomas, who did not act as was expected. Tomas himself must also reconcile his actions with his self-image, and his wife, Ebba, must admit that her husband and the father of her children abandoned them at the moment when they needed him most.
This particular situation illustrates the wider existence of specific mutual expectations between the members of a family, even if these assumptions are seldom voiced. Each person has a role to play and one expects the others to perform according to their given role. Perhaps unconsciously, most people expect the mother to take care of the children on a daily basis, whereas the father has to stand up when a sudden threat is coming. Yet nowadays a man very rarely has to stand up and protect his family.
He has no practical opportunity to express this kind of action, because there is so little physical danger in Western middle-class society. But everybody still expects it from him—he even expects it from himself. That interests me, this expectation, as does the fact that it is disconnected from reality – that statistics show a man is more likely than one thinks to abandon his family in a crisis. Investigations of catastrophes at sea have shown that the percentage of male survivors is higher than that of female survivors.
The avalanche scene in Force Majeure is genuinely frightening. It was shot in a studio where a part of the restaurant terrace was reconstructed in front of a green screen, composited with footage of a beautiful avalanche shot in British Columbia and with digital snow mist added to the scene. During the post-production of this and some other shots, I applied effects and/or camera movements using Photoshop and After Effects as I had previously done with PLAY and INVOLUNTARY and most notably in the short film INCIDENT BY A BANK, in which all the camera movements were created during the editing process.
FORCE MAJEURE takes place in a majestic visual environment that I wanted to enhance further through CG, “rebuilding” mountains and portions of the hotel complex to create a truly sensational feeling. Of course, as was the case in my previous films, digital work remains completely invisible, leaving audiences without any clues that the environments have been touched.
We shot the film with anamorphic lenses, using the ARRI Alexa camera, after cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel and I had done a variety of tests. These lenses lend a more cinematic feel to the film and allowed us to achieve a truly epic sense of framing in the mountain environment. They also bring us closer to the characters than in my previous feature film PLAY; we were able to get close-up shots whilst still having some background to work with.
The structure of the film follows a regular ski week schedule—first day, second day, third day—until the family goes back to the airport on the fifth day. The family dynamic is developed on the first day, with the gorgeous setting, the mountains, and the great weather. The incident with the avalanche then occurs on the second day. On the third, fourth and fifth days, we see how the family is trying to handle the consequences of the avalanche. This five day structure will allow us to repeat several elements of each day’s routine—daily breakfast, brushing teeth at night—in order to follow the evolution of the family’s behavior before and after the incident.
In FORCE MAJEURE we follow Ebba and Tomas in their journey, see the evolution of their feelings and their perception of events, witness them struggle to get back together, and share their sorrows and their hopes. The appeal for the audience is much more connected to emotion than in my previous, more conceptual films.
In the final scene, as our main characters return to the airport by bus, the tourists find themselves standing on the side of the road not only because of the bus driver’s recklessness, but also because they let their fear get the better of them. As they walk down the mountain on foot they see the bus drive off safely, and a slight sense of collective shame arises. Yet, as they walk, this slowly transforms into a feeling of solidarity. Their social masks have crumbled away and they actually share a strong moment together.
Directed by: Ruben Östlund
Starring: Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren, Brady Corbet
Screenplay by: Ruben Östlund
Production Design by: Josefin Åsberg
Cinematography by: Fredrik Wenzel
Film Editing by: Jacob Secher Schulsinger
Costume Design by: Pia Aleborg
Art Direction by: Josefin Åsberg
Music by: Ola Fløttum
MPAA Rating: R for some language and brief nudity.
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Release Date: October 24, 2014
Taglines: I was 17 when my mother is dissapeared.
Kat Connors (Shailene Woodley) is 17 years old when her perfect homemaker mother, Eve (Eva Green), a beautiful, enigmatic, and haunted woman, disappears – just as Kat is discovering and relishing her newfound sexuality. Having lived for so long in a stifled, emotionally repressed household, she barely registers her mother’s absence and certainly doesn’t blame her doormat of a father, Brock (Christopher Meloni), for the loss. In fact, it’s almost a relief. But as time passes, Kat begins to come to grips with how deeply Eve’s disappearance has affected her. Returning home on a break from college, she finds herself confronted with the truth about her mother’s departure, and her own denial about the events surrounding it…
Q & A With Gregg Araki
White Bird in a Blizzard is adapted from a novel by Laura Kasischke. What made you decide to make this story into a movie?
Gregg Araki: A producer friend and collaborator of mine, Sebastien Lemercier, recommended the book which I read and fell in love with. I was instantly struck by the novel’s lyrical and poetic nature. It really haunted me and reminded me of what I had liked about Scott Heim’s novel Mysterious Skin: softness and beauty within the violence.
What was it about the book that moved you the most?
Gregg Araki: It’s difficult to put into words but you instinctively know what movies you need to make. Laura’s storytelling style is impressionistic and also very visual and cinematic so it lends itself perfectly to the filmmaking process. The feminist aspect of her viewpoint also appealed to me as I have always been heavily influenced by feminist film theory.
White Bird is the story of a young woman, Kat Connors, who is taking her first steps into her own sexuality just as her world is turned upside down by the sudden disappearance of her mother. But the novel isn’t a generic suspense thriller – it’s more measured, introspective, a beautiful and haunting portrait of a broken American family. Kat’s mother, Eve, is an archetypal suburban housewife – a woman whose place in the world has been prescribed for her by society. She dutifully manages her household but it slowly turns into a prison. Eva Green, who plays Eve, and I were both really compelled and fascinated by this tragic component of her character.
What did you change in the story to make it your own?
Gregg Araki: Adapting the novel for the screen, I started by moving the story from Ohio to Loma Linda, California, a suburb near L.A. which is similar to the one I grew up in. It’s helpful for me to have inside knowledge of a location and its atmosphere, in order to create the world of the film.
The book is divided into four distinct chapters chronicling the years between 1986 to 1989, for the film we’ve shifted a bit later to the late eighties/early nineties – a period that, culturally and especially musically, has always fascinated me. As anyone familiar with my movies knows, the music of that era which is used in the film – Depeche Mode, New Order, The Cure, Cocteau Twins, etc. – that music was a huge influence and inspiration for me as a young artist, so the film pays homage to that.
What was involved in adapting the novel?
Gregg Araki: A filmmaker has the advantage of being able to tell a story through images – and Laura’s novel was full of beautiful, cinematic imagery to start with. I always work with a storyboards so I can put the images which are playing in my head onto paper for others – the crew, the actors, etc. – to see.
It helps me make the imaginary real. The world that Laura created was rich and very vivid – the snow in Kat’s dreams, the gloomy interior of the Connors house, it was all there in the book. I always find it’s easier to work from something that exists, because the story, characters and images are already there. All you have to do is hone and sculpt them into a 90 minute format.
This is your second book adaptation, after Mysterious Skin. Both films feature a certain softness, an intentional romanticism. It’s almost as though adapting someone else’s work tames your style…
Gregg Araki: You could look at it that way I suppose. But at the same time, both films explore my usual stylistic and thematic concerns – dreams and the surreal, sexual coming of age, people who are outsiders in society, etc. For me, adapting someone else’s work usually means finding a voice that I empathize with, which really strikes a chord in me. Scott Heim and Laura are both clear examples of this.
Then, in making the book into a film, it’s about staying true to that voice while enhancing it with my own authorial vision. With a film like Kaboom or Doom Generation, which are original screenplays I wrote, those films are more like my imagination running wild, not in service of another author’s voice and point of view. Despite their seeming difference in tone and surface, the films which are my original ideas and those I adapt from other sources fit together.
The narrative structure relies heavily on Kat’s dreams. How did you work with these dreams?
Gregg Araki: The dreams Kat has of her mother lost in the snow give us an insight into the emotional bond between them as well as illuminating what is going on inside Kat’s head. My films have always been influenced by surrealism and filmmakers like David Lynch so the way Laura utilizes dreams in the book definitely appealed to me. It really gave me a pathway into the story.
White Bird In A Blizzard unfolds almost entirely from Kat’s perspective – it’s told from a very feminine point of view…
Gregg Araki: It’s not the first time I’ve made a movie centered on a female protagonist – Smiley Face (2007) and even in The Doom Generation (1995), a significant part of the action is seen through Amy Blue’s eyes. From my days in film school, I’ve always been interested in the feminist perspective which is why Laura’s sensibility is such a good fit for me.
This film also seems to take a different approach to one of your favorite subjects – adolescence.
Gregg Araki: Adolescence is a time of change and transition, where nothing is stable or certain, and teenagers live a life that is a big question mark – so naturally they make compelling dramatic subjects. However, I’m in my fifties and not particularly interested in dragging out my adolescence in my movies. Throughout all my films, my perspective of this period of life has changed significantly over the years.
In White Bird, the crazy rock ‘n’ roll side of adolescence is virtually non-existent. Instead, the film focuses on Kat’s troubled and dysfunctional family and as a result it’s much quieter and more serious. There’s a big difference between this movie and Doom Generation, made 20 years ago. While Doom is very wild and chaotic, White Bird In A Blizzard is more controlled, introspective, classical almost in structure and tone.
There are some characters, like Kat’s close friends, who seem to represent the outcasts of the world: the overweight Afro- American, the gay best friend…
Gregg Araki: In the book, Kat’s friends were two white girls. My movies have always been about outsiders, those who don’t really fit into mainstream American society. That’s why I changed these characters as I envisioned Kat and her friends as misfits who create a world unto themselves. They are perfectly content living outside of the norm, apart from the middle of the road “popular” kids, because they have each other.
You purposefully set the film in the late Eighties. How does this context impact the tragedy that befalls this family?
Gregg Araki: Women like Eve Connors grew up in the Fifties and Sixties – a time before the major societal and cultural developments of women’s rights and feminism. These women were taught from a young age that their place was in the home. Eva Green and I discussed this idea at length when we were talking about Eve. Someone like Eve would have been greatly influenced by the icons of that period: Jackie Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor, and all of Hitchcock’s heroines who were the incarnation of the feminine ideal in their time.
These women would have all been role models for Eve, so she lives to project the image of the perfect wife and mother. One of my favorite scenes is the montage of an impeccably dressed Eve cleaning her house – which we intentionally shot and lit so it looks like one of those old TV commercials glorifying the happy, perfect housewife.
You mentioned Hitchcock, who wasn’t known for being a feminist. Kat’s mother seems more like a character from a Douglas Sirk melodrama…
Gregg Araki: Sirk is definitely a reference. And I guess you could say Hitchcock is almost more like the “anti” reference – since his women are systematically trapped, victimized, and even murdered as they are idealized and put on a pedestal. With White Bird, I wanted to show how the “paradise” of suburban America could turn into a sort of living hell. My set designer, when he first read the script, said: “Wow, that’s the story of my family!” [laughs]
The dilemma of the Connors family, beyond the story’s more extreme dramatic elements, is actually a pretty common one. The foundation of the American Dream is that everyone is supposed to have the same dream but the reality is that there is a lot of unhappiness, a lot of secrets and lies and hidden tragedy. Laura’s novel really eloquently points out that the American Dream doesn’t necessarily work for everyone.
It reminded me in a way of American Beauty (Sam Mendes – 1999) and The Ice Storm (Ang Lee – 1997), portraits of the American middle class that explore the darkness lurking beneath the seemingly perfect facade. Hollywood doesn’t really make that kind of movie anymore.
Kat is played by Shailene Woodley who has recently achieved international stardom as the heroine in the teenage saga Divergent (Neil Burger – 2014). Was this iconic element helpful to you?
Gregg Araki: I first discovered Shai through her heartbreaking performance in The Descendants (Alexander Payne – 2011). Coincidentally, she was a big fan of Mysterious Skin and I’ve known her manager, Nils Larsen, for years. He insisted that I meet Shai and we hit it off instantly. This was years before Divergent came along. She read the script for White Bird, loved it, and immediately signed on.
Shai actually reminds me a lot of Joe Gordon Levitt, who I worked with on Mysterious Skin. They are both incredibly talented and creative individuals who take their art very seriously – they’re not in it for fame or money or any of the bullshit. They both also have really great parents so they’re more centered and secure in themselves than some young actors who don’t have that kind of solid upbringing.
The role of Eve is a departure for Eva Green as she portrays a character who is significantly older than she is in real life. It’s a role unlike any we’ve seen her play before.
Gregg Araki: Eva’s performance in the movie just blew me away. Because the Eve character ages from early 30s to 40s, we debated casting an older actress and making her look younger with makeup and effects but I couldn’t get Eva out of my mind. I’ve been a huge fan of hers since The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci –2003) and I was so excited for the chance to work with her. She and I were both very wary however of using prosthetics and “old age” makeup to make Eve look like the weary, older housewife she is in the film’s later half because that always looks so fake and terrible.
In the end, we barely touched her face, the makeup artist just very subtly enhanced what was already there. The rest is all Eva – she just miraculously became this entirely different person, her posture, body language, her very essence changed. She just kind of withered away. When I first saw her in character, wearing that sad grey sweater, lurking in the doorway, I was stunned because in real life Eva is one of the most gorgeous, radiant people I’ve ever met. She is literally like Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo, this otherworldly kind of presence.
In fact, Eva was only 32 when we shot the film, which is funny, because Shiloh Fernandez, the actor who plays Phil, Kat’s teenage boyfriend, was like 27 at the time; they could date in real life and no one would bat an eye. But the scene where the two of them are flirting is genuinely unnerving and creepy because they are both so skilled at making us believe those characters. The entire cast – Shai, Eva, Shiloh, Chris Meloni, Gabourey Sidibe, Tom Jane… I just feel incredibly blessed for the opportunity to work with such an amazing ensemble of actors. It really was like a dream come true.
White Bird in a Blizzard
Directed by: Gregg Araki
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Shiloh Fernandez, Gabourey Sidibe, Thomas Jane
Screenplay by: Gregg Araki, Laura Kasischke
Production Design by: Todd Fjelsted
Cinematography by: Sandra Valde-Hansen
Costume Design by; Mairi Chisholm
Set Decoration by: Ryan Watson
Music by: Harold Budd, Robin Guthrie
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content / nudity, language and some drug use.
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Release Date: October 24, 2014
Each night, when Ben falls asleep, his Crayons jump into their magical Crayon Box that transports them to their home in Color City, a world of dazzling hues, soaring fantasy and the whimsy of childhood. This land is fed by an enchanted rainbow and waterfall that provides the City and its citizens with color.
When YELLOW, our timid heroine, is accidentally left behind in Ben’s room, she inadvertently awakens two Unfinished Drawings: KING SCRAWL, a huge, powerful, mute monster — and GNAT, Scrawl’s motor-mouthed, overactive sidekick. In search of color for themselves, they follow Yellow to Color City, causing panic and concern. If Scrawl and Gnat can claim the waterfall for themselves, Color City will fade, and along with it, our lovable crayon characters will disappear.
It’s up to Yellow and a motley crew of Crayons, bodacious and brave, BLUE, meticulous, fussy GREEN, satirical RED, pessimistic BLACK and overanxious WHITE to save the day. Meeting with fantastical creatures and fun adventures along the way, Yellow discovers she has more courage and strength than she knew and learns to believe in herself and to count on the support of her friends. Replete with valuable life lessons, this enchanting story will entertain and inspire in a stunningly rendered and utterly unique animated world.
About the Production
The Hero of Color City is an original production by Exodus Film Group. Founded in 2001 by John D. Eraklis and Delbert Whetter, the Venice, CA based company started out doing VFX and work for hire engagements while searching for original IP to produce.
The Hero of Color City was brought to John by his college friend Mick McCormick. John and Mick were good friends in the theater department at the University of Rhode Island. Mick hounded John to read a script written by his brother about a box of crayons that came to life.
The script sat on the shelf unread for several months but Micks persistence finally convinced John to read the draft. To his pleasant surprise, it was fun and well-written with great characters and witty dialogue and a heartfelt message about the power of a child’s imagination.
It was about this time that John had partnered with seasoned animation veteran Max Howard on the animated feature, Igor. Max shared John’s enthusiasm for the film but felt it could use the benefit of some additional writers. After several different teams of writers, John felt the script was strong enough to begin to approach distributors. It was around this time that Magnolia began making waves in the motion picture distribution space with its groundbreaking day-and-date release model by releasing content in theaters and on VOD/home video simultaneously.
Considering The Hero of Color City is geared to a very young audience, Magnolia’s day-and-date release model was particularly appealing. Many of these younger kids aren’t ready to sit through a feature length film in the theaters and, even if they do, they want to watch the film again almost immediately. Exodus knew that by partnering with Magnolia they could allow parents to access the film on multiple platforms almost immediately.
John brought the project to Tom Quinn and Eamonn Bowles in Cannes of 2006 and they jumped onboard. It was on the flight home from that Cannes that John overheard a young actress talking to a fellow passenger and thought “that’s our Yellow!” It was Christina Ricci. Soon after arriving back in Los Angeles, she accepted the role.
After a false start with production in 2008, the film resumed in earnest in the fall of 2012. Exodus had partnered with an up and coming Indian based animation studio called Toonz. Although this was to be their first US theatrical feature, Toonz had demonstrated the ability to deliver high quality animation. This, coupled with the addition of animation veteran Frank Gladstone as director, assured the look of the film would be of the highest caliber for a movie geared towards a younger audience.
The next challenge would be the music. Original songs and score play and integral part in animation and The Hero of Color City is no exception. John’s close friend and world-renowned composer Basil Poledouris had passed away, leaving a void in the production. It was at this time that Exodus reached out to Basil’s daughter, Zoë Poledouris-Roché, and her husband Angel Roché Jr. Zoe had been working with her father since she was a child. At the age of 9, one of her melodies was featured in the film Conan the Barbarian. However this would be the first time that Zoë and Angel would be entrusted with a theatrical feature. They rose to the challenge, and the score and original songs for this film are nothing short of fantastic.
In keeping with Exodus’ tradition of partnering with philanthropic organizations and missions in connection with its animated films, John joined with Sheila Michail Morovati, founder of the Crayon Collection, to promote and raise awareness of the Crayon Collection’s global initiative to repurpose and donate gently used crayons to elementary schools and organizations that help children in need.
Owen Wilson and Jessica Capshaw, supporters of the Crayon Collection, lent their voices to characters in the film and appear in a special PSA that Exodus / Toonz produced to benefit the charity that will appear at the end of the film and in marketing initiatives, with the hopes of raising national awareness and to further expand the program across the country.
The Hero of Color City
Directed by: Frank Gladstone
Starring: Christina Ricci, Owen Wilson, Rosie Perez, Elizabeth Daily, Jessica Capshaw, Tara Strong
Screenplay by: Jess Kedward, J.P. McCormick
Production Design by: Philip A. Cruden
Animation Department; Erin Humiston
Editorial Department: Josh Gladstone
Music Department: Erik Brena
Music by: Zoë Poledouris, Angel Roché Jr.
MPAA Rating: G for all audiences.
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Release Date: October 3, 2014
Set along the tumultuous Arizona-Mexico border, Frontera, starring Ed Harris, Eva Longoria, and Michael Pena, follows Miguel (Peña), a hardworking father and devoted husband who crosses the border illegally and is wrongfully accused of murdering the wife of a former sheriff (Harris). Miguel’s pregnant wife (Eva Longoria) lands in the hands of corrupt Mexican “Coyote” smugglers as she tries to help her husband, while the ex-lawman investigates his wife’s death and unearths evidence that could destroy one family’s future.
FRONTERA examines both sides of the complex issues of immigration and human trafficking that deeply affects both the U.S. and Mexico. It shows that a border might divide two countries, but can’t divide humanity, for good or bad, we are all part of the problem and the solution.
Though the events that take place in FRONTERA are fiction, they are inspired by the reality that exists in this region and affects the people who live there. Neither my co-writer Juan Luis Moulinet nor I, have delusions that there are any obvious solutions to these issues. When Luis and I started talking about making this film, we were both adamant that we did not want to lean the narrative toward one side or the other.
We wanted instead to illuminate and focus on the humanity from the point of view of the characters on both sides. Our most ambitious hope is that in some small way, the story of Frontera might raise questions and serve as a reminder that there are human beings on both sides of the line being affected by these issues every day. Perhaps the only thing that is truly obvious is that something must be done to improve the situation in this region. Perhaps instead of focusing on the politics of who is right or wrong, we might re-double our efforts to concentrate on working together to find solutions to this complicated and challenging issue that has led to so much suffering and injustice on both sides of the line. – Michael Berry, Director and Co-Writer
Directed by: Michael Berry
Starring: Ed Harris, Eva Longoria, Michael Pena, Amy Madigan, Aden Young, Michael Ray Escamilla, Marilyn Rising
Screenplay by: Michael Berry, Louis Moulinet
Production Design by: Mark Alan Duran
Cinematography by: Joel Ransom
Film Editing by: Larry Madaras
Costume Design by: Daniela Moore
Set Decoration by: Edward McLoughlin
Music by: Kenneth Lampl, Darren Tate
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence including a sexual assault, and brief strong language.
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Release Date: July 31, 2014
Acclaimed Irish director Lenny Abrahamson follows up his award-winning films Adam & Paul, Garage, and What Richard Did with an offbeat comedy about a young wannabe musician, Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who finds himself out of his depth when he joins an avant-garde pop band led by the mysterious and enigmatic Frank (Michael Fassbender), a musical genius who hides himself inside a large fake head, and his terrifying bandmate Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal).
Written by Jon Ronson (The Men Who Stare At Goats) and Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Men Who Stare At Goats), FRANK is based on the memoir by Jon Ronson. It is a fictional story loosely inspired by Frank Sidebottom, the persona of cult musician and comedy legend Chris Sievey, as well as other outsider musicians like Daniel Johnston and Captain Beefheart.
About the Film
In the world of alternative music, The Soronprfbs are the ne plus ultra of outsiders. A brilliant, ramshackle, barely functioning band, they are built around the eponymous Frank (Michael Fassbender), an unstable yet charismatic musical savant, who at all times wears a large, round fake head with crudely painted-on features – like Daniel Johnston hidden behind a cartoon smile. His closest musical collaborator is the forbidding Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal); part caretaker, part jailer, Clara is the antithesis of all things mainstream. The band is completed by Nana (Carla Azar), a Moe Tucker-like drummer, and Baraque (Francois Civil), a beautiful Frenchman who plays bass.
Into this mix comes replacement keyboard player, Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), after the band’s original keyboardist is hospitalized following an attempt at drowning himself. In his head, Jon’s is a true creative, a maverick musical force; in reality he’s a very ordinary young man trying to escape his hum-drum, small-town life. For Jon, this is the break he’s been waiting for, his chance to climb through the looking glass and into the world of artistic collaboration, real music-making, and rock ‘n’ roll adventure that he’s always dreamed of. But he discovers (and perhaps has always suspected) that he lacks the one thing he needs to make his dream come true – genuine talent.
Desperate to belong, but hopelessly out of his depth, Jon becomes more and more infatuated with the enigmatic and talented Frank: if only he could understand him, what makes him tick, how he goes to those furthest, creative corners; if only he could ‘get inside that head inside that head’.
From a lakeside cabin, where the band spend 18 months – and all of Jon’s savings – recording their new album, to the stages of South by Southwest after the band becomes a viral internet sensation, FRANK tells the story of Jon’s struggle with Clara for control of Frank, his rise to power within the band, and how, ultimately, he comes close to destroying the thing he’s come to love.
About the Production
Acclaimed Irish director Lenny Abrahamson follows up his award-winning films Adam & Paul, Garage, and What Richard Did with an offbeat comedy about a young wannabe musician, Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who discovers he’s bitten off more than he can chew when he joins an eccentric pop band led by the mysterious and enigmatic Frank (Michael Fassbender). Frank is a musical genius who hides himself inside a large fake head, and is always accompanied by his closest collaborator and fellow bandmate, the terrifying Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal).
Written by Jon Ronson (The Men Who Stare At Goats) and Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Men Who Stare At Goats), FRANK is a fictional story loosely inspired by Frank Sidebottom, the persona of cult musician and comedy legend Chris Sievey, as well as other outsider musicians like Daniel Johnston and Captain Beefheart. The idea sprung from a memoir by Ronson, who was himself the keyboard player in Sidebottom’s band.
Ronson teamed up with his The Men Who Stare At Goats co-writer Peter Straughan and wrote a screenplay about an aspiring musician who gets caught up in the world of an oddball band fronted by an unconventional genius who hides behind an enormous fiberglass head.
The project was brought to Tessa Ross and Katherine Butler at Film4 by producers David Barron and Stevie Lee. They then brought on board director Lenny Abrahamson and his long-time producer Ed Guiney. Abrahamson worked closely with Ronson and Straughan, developing and honing the script.
Abrahamson has a track record in films about oddball characters who have the uncanny ability to engage audiences, so it was no surprise that he would be drawn to the character of Frank. But he was also very taken by the Jon character, through whose eyes the story is told.
“We laugh at Jon because he clings to an idea of himself which is so ridiculously at odds with the person we see in front of us,” says Abrahamson. “But we also recognize ourselves in him; wanting to have, maybe kidding ourselves we really do have, capacities and talents we deep down know we lack. Most of us are smart enough to avoid situations where we might have to put our fantasies to the test, but the film takes Jon on a journey where he has to do just that.”
“It’s a hard film to categorize,” continues the director. “It’s very playful in tone and has some sequences of out and out, broad slapstick. But it has subtle, darker, more moving aspects as well. Frank is both a real, complex person and a kind of cartoon character. The head, with its fixed expression becomes a sort of blank canvas on which Jon can project his clichéd ideas of what creativity is all about. Jon, himself starts as the butt of the joke but evolves into something much more than that. So tonally the film is pretty rich – funny, tender, broad in parts, quiet and moving in others.”
Producer Ed Guiney concurs: “One of the things that is really striking about the film is the way it seamlessly combines various different types of comedy. Lenny has a great facility for using humor to get to the core of the characters, and can do so in a wonderfully entertaining and often very affecting way. You can see his love of pure, old-fashioned slapstick in some of the scenes, which hark back to old-fashioned comedies. The film also has some wonderful, delicate character comedy as well as being very poignant and emotionally resonant.”
“Frank is someone who wants to hide away from the world” continues Guiney, “and the film is about how he moves away from his trusted allies and collaborators and takes a step onto a bigger stage, and what happens when he does that. The head is a barrier but it’s also a comfort and protection to him.”
After reluctantly accepting that there may be limits to his natural creativity, Jon appoints himself the band’s Svengali, hoping to give them the recognition he thinks they deserve. Jon initially believes either Clara, or else the band’s chaotic disorganization is holding the them back, but he discovers that there are other, more poignant reasons for their inability to achieve mainstream exposure.
“Jon disturbs the band’s perfect equilibrium,” explains Guiney. “He’s got more worldly ambitions – he wants to be a rock star. That desire rubs up against a group of artists who are happy making music for its own sake, so there are two opposing creative drives.”
Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy, Phil Kingston
Screenplay by: Jon Ronson, Peter Straughan
Production Design by: Richard Bullock
Cinematography by: James Mather
Film Editing by: Nathan Nugent
Costume Design by: Suzie Harman
Set Decoration by: Marcia Calosio, Jenny Oman
Music by: Stephen Rennicks
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexual content.
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Release Date: May 9, 2014
Taglines: Family is the gift that keeps on taking.
A budding novelist and her film director husband, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and Jeff (Joe Swanberg) and their two-year-old son live a peaceful existence in Chicago. But when Jeff’s irresponsible younger sister, Jenny (Anna Kendrick), comes to live with them after a breakup, things start to change. Jenny begins a rocky relationship with a baby sitter-cum-pot dealer (Mark Webber), and she and a friend, Carson (Lena Dunham), instigate an evolution in Kelly’s life, as her career and her relationship with her husband begin to grow in new directions. But are they welcome ones?
Happy Christmas is an American dramedy written, produced and directed by Joe Swanberg. It stars Swanberg, Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Lena Dunham and Mark Webber. Like most of Swanberg’s previous features, the film’s dialogue was entirely improvised.
The film premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival (where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition) on January 19, 2014. Magnolia Pictures and Paramount Pictures jointly acquired the international distribution rights prior to the film’s premiere screening. It was released theatrically on July 25, 2014 in the United States.
About Happy Christmas
No two sibling relationships are ever the same. Whether it’s a brother and a brother, a sister and a sister, or, as is the case in HAPPY CHRISTMAS, a brother and a sister, these relationships carry with them lots of memories, good and bad, along with lots of baggage. And let’s not forget expectations – plenty of those to go around.
Filmmaker JOE SWANBERG experienced all of the above firsthand not long ago, when, after buying a house with his wife, Kris, the couple received a house guest: Joe’s younger brother. Their short-stay houseguest turned into a three-month roommate. “It got me thinking about the idea of family, and what that really means,” the director says.
He and his wife had a new baby boy, Jude, so Swanberg began moving the idea forward in his mind about what it meant to have that younger sibling around. “It was the idea of young parents starting their own family, but having to take on a parental role to a younger sibling. I thought it would be funny if your house guest, who you hoped would help out with some of the parenting, actually needed parenting themselves. What if they added to your parent responsibilities, rather than alleviated them?”
Another issue raised in the film was the impact that having a child has on a couple composed of two artists, like Joe and Kris, who is a filmmaker herself. “I particularly wanted to talk a lot about what it’s like for mothers who are artists, who end up becoming stay-at-home moms instead of being able to practice their art. What feminist issues does that raise? What are the upsides and drawbacks to that? I just wanted to dig around in that territory and see what could be discovered.”
As with almost all of Swanberg’s previous films, these ideas didn’t generate a HAPPY CHRISTMAS screenplay. Instead, the dialogue was improvised by the actors. “Improvisation was something I hit upon as a storytelling method coming out of film school,” he recalls. “I was overwhelmed with the amount of bad movies my friends and I were making in school.”
He began thinking about how to get a more interesting story out of his non-actor fellow-students. “I realized that, when you’re working with non-professional actors, the only way to get interesting, realistic performances from them is to let them play themselves, essentially. To not ask them to have to deliver lines and traditional performances.” Ten years hence, he says, “I’m now working with highly-trained professional actors. But I’ve discovered I still really like the collaborative approach I get from working with actors in an improvisational world.”
Rather than write a traditional script, Swanberg creates an outline with the scenarios he envisions for his film. “So rather than me sitting in a room inventing all of these characters and writing dialogue for them, I’ve found that if I create scenarios and let the actors explore them, they’re plenty capable of filling in not only the dialogue, but also interesting character subtleties. Instead of doing something formulaic, we stare into the void together and manufacture a story out of what feels right in the moment.”
Swanberg’s films tell stories by creating situations that are either autobiographical – pulled from his own life and those of his actors – or heavily based on real events. “I just let a scenario play out between people in a room and capture it on camera,” allowing the editing process to then become the writing process.
Casting for a film that will be made this way requires a non-traditional process as well. “It’s tricky with improvisation,” he says, “because I need to work with actors who are not only intelligent, but have an ability and a willingness to mine their own personal lives for material for the movie. I’m asking people to use their own real words and to use their own thought process to behave and act in these situations. Ultimately, that requires somebody to fall back on their own personal feelings about things.”
The actors have no script, so they can’t spend the traditional time creating a character and prepping for scenes. “I’m throwing five scenes a day at them that we’re essentially talking about right before we shoot. So they really have to exist in the moment.”
Casting Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) for HAPPY CHRISTMAS was as easy for Swanberg as referring back to the casting of his previous film, Drinking Buddies. The director had interviewed New Zealander Melanie Lynskey for the film, though ultimately went another direction. “I knew she wasn’t the right fit for that film, but I right away started thinking about how I could create a new project, just to work with Melanie,” he says. As Lynskey recalls, “I met with him then, and we just sat and talked about relationships and life. I wasn’t quite what he was thinking for that movie. But he got in touch with my agent and said that he wanted to do something with me in the future.”
After post production was completed on Drinking Buddies, Swanberg got back in touch. “When I hit upon the idea of a young family, and thinking about when my brother had lived with us, it just made sense that Melanie would end up being Kelly in this movie.”
Though not a mother herself, Lynskey related through the experience of a number of friends in Kelly’s position. “A lot of my female friends grew up identifying as feminists,” she relates. “Then, once a woman has kids, you find yourself in the position of a stay-at-home mother, essentially a housewife. And your instincts are saying, ‘This is where I want to be at this point in my life.’ But everything else that you’ve believed and the career you’ve built falls by the wayside. So it’s a really strange place for a lot of women to find themselves in.”
A fan of Swanberg’s films, like Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends, the director’s improv shooting method immediately appealed to the actress. “I grew up in New Zealand doing comedy improv, so that’s where my heart is. It’s something that I’m very comfortable with and very familiar with. So this was a good fit.” Swanberg felt the same. “I felt right away she was somebody who was comfortable talking about herself and her personal life and also seemed excited by the challenge of the existing-in-the-moment approach.”
Swanberg gave Lynskey some backstory to work with: her character had written a novel in New Zealand and was critically successful there, but hadn’t been a hit in America. Adds Lynskey, “The acclaim it received back home never felt real to her, because she considered New Zealand such a small place, so she kind of dismissed it. So I think her move to another country was an escape. She moved countries and fell in love and ended up in this life that she never thought she would really have. But she’s never really found herself.”
Swanberg himself plays her filmmaker husband, Jeff. “I’ve acted in some of my films, and not acted in others,” he says. “In this case, I talked to Melanie about it, and she said that she would like to act with me, which was a great vote of confidence.” In addition, the director’s baby, Jude, would be appearing in the film. “My being there playing his dad was really advantageous, because it made those interactions a lot more authentic, rather than putting a two-year-old in a situation where they had to pretend somebody else is their dad.”
Kelly and Jeff’s relationship is a healthy one, warm and communicative. “I think there’s a lot of support there,” says Lynskey. “But it’s hard when one person ends up becoming the primary caretaker for the family. It puts a strain on the relationship, even when you have the greatest partner in the world.” The couple’s growing awareness of that strain became the focus of the story. “It’s about how to manage that relationship and give each other enough space that they can be individuals, as well as a couple and a family.”
ANNA KENDRICK, with whom Swanberg already had a close working relationship from her work in Drinking Buddies, appears as Jeff’s younger, irresponsible sister, Jenny. “Jenny’s not actually anything like my brother,” Swanberg says. “But I wanted to flip those gender roles, in order to connect the women in the film.”
Swanberg designed the sibling relationship between Jenny and Jeff carefully. “I wanted them to be friendly, but not really friends.” Adult siblings, he notes, often define each other by their childhood behavior. “In his head, Jeff has essentially decided that she’s like she was in the past – irresponsible, flaky, not very dependable – broad characterizations he just accepts. He sees her get really wasted the first night and just says, ‘Yeah, this is who she is. I already know this.’”
It’s much harder for Kelly to accept, however. “They’ve known each other a long time,” Lynskey describes. “Kelly’s natural inclination is to be a support system for Jenny, because she’s come to live with them after a breakup. But that’s not necessarily what Jenny is looking for, and Kelly doesn’t know how to connect to her.”
She’s particularly upset by Jenny’s irresponsible behavior. “There’s a part of her that’s disappointed. Kelly’s a really long way from her own family, and I think she was excited to have a kind of sister figure in her life. So she had a lot of hopes for the relationship, and she’s disappointed pretty quickly when she sees how Jenny is behaving.”
Directed by: Joe Swanberg
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber, Joe Swanberg, Lena Dunham, Jude Swanberg
Screenplay by: Joe Swanberg
Cinematography by: Ben Richardson
MPAA Rating: R for language, drug use and some sexual content.
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Release Date: June 26, 2014
Taglines: Life is looking up.
Based on the acclaimed novel by Nick Hornby, A Long Way Down stars Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette, Aaron Paul and Imogen Poots as four strangers who happen to meet on the roof of a London building on New Year’s Eve each with the intent of committing suicide. Their plans for death in solitude are ruined so they mutually agree to call off their plans for six weeks, forming an unconventional, dysfunctional family and searching together for the reasons to keep on living.
Martin Sharp is contemplating suicide on New Year’s Eve on the roof of the Toppers Building, high above London’s streets. He is interrupted by a woman, Maureen, who has the same fate in mind. She shyly offers to wait her turn, until two other strangers, a young woman named Jess and a pizza deliverer called J.J., also turn up.
Martin is recognized by the others, having been a popular television personality before going to prison for a relationship with a girl who turned out to be 15. After talking things over, the four strangers form a pact, vowing to wait at least until Valentine’s Day before taking their lives.
Maureen has a disabled son she adores, but little life beyond that herself. Jess is the daughter of a politician and their relationship is strained. J.J. is an American who once played in a band, but while his three new acquaintances are suicidally depressed, he is terminally ill with cancer.
To profit from misfortune, Martin hatches a scheme that makes them the talk of London, claiming their mass suicide was interrupted by a vision. They end up on his old TV chat show, where Martin’s former co-host Penny makes her guests feel humiliated and even more depressed.
The four go off to a vacation resort to get away from London’s attention. They enjoy each other’s company, at least until a confession by one of them and the intervention of a woman named Kathy drives them apart. On Valentine’s Day, all four end up back in London on the very same rooftop.
A Long Way Down
Directed by: Pascal Chaumeil
Starring: Imogen Poots, Aaron Paul, Rosamund Pike, Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette, Sam Neill, Tuppence Middleton
Screenplay by: Jack Thorne
Production Design by: Chris Oddy
Cinematography by: Ben Davis
Film Editing by: Chris Gill, Barney Pilling
Costume Design by: Odile Dicks-Mireaux
Set Decoration by: Kate Guyan
Music by: Dario Marianelli
MPAA Rating: R for language.
Studio: Magnolia Pictures, BBC Films
Release Date: July 11, 2014