Tilda Swinton talks ''I Am Love''

Here is my story about Tilda Swinton's collaboration with director Luca Guadagnino on the making of the awesome I Am Love, which opens Friday. I really like the way the story looks on the front of today's Tropical Life section, which was designed by Juan Lopez.


Shia LaBeouf admits the last ''Indiana Jones'' movie was a dog

During a session of interviews at the Cannes Film Festival to promote Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, actor Shia LaBeouf told the Los Angeles Times that even though Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull grossed nearly $800 million worldwide, he's well aware the movie far fell short of its precursors.

"You get to monkey-swinging and things like that and you can blame it on the writer and you can blame it on Steven [Spielberg, who directed]," LaBeouf told the paper. "But the actor's job is to make it come alive and make it work, and I couldn't do it. So that's my fault. Simple."


LaBeouf said he wasn't the only cast member who felt the movie was a disappointment. "We [Harrison Ford and LaBeouf] had major discussions. He wasn't happy with it either. Look, the movie could have been updated. There was a reason it wasn't universally accepted."

As to whether his frankness will get him in trouble with Spielberg, who has cast him in several films (and is executive producer on the Transformers franchise): "I'll probably get a call. But he needs to hear this. I love him. I love Steven. I have a relationship with Steven that supersedes our business work. And believe me, I talk to him often enough to know that I'm not out of line. And I would never disrespect the man. I think he's a genius, and he's given me my whole life. He's done so much great work that there's no need for him to feel vulnerable about one film. But when you drop the ball you drop the ball."

LaBeouf's honesty is refreshing - and somewhat shocking in an era when no one ever admits one of their previous box office hits was not all it could have been. Now if only Michael Bay would man up and admit Armageddon and Bad Boys 2 have been major contributors to the decline of modern civilization, global literacy and simple human decency, that would be real progress.

Harry got a gun


On the surface, Harry Brown appears to be a British counterpart to Gran Torino -- another tale about a solitary widower and former soldier living in a crime-infested neighborhood who gets fed up and decides to clean up the streets in ways the police cannot.

Many critics have drawn comparisons between the films since Harry Brown opened in U.K. theaters last November and has been gradually opening around the United States (and in South Florida today). But filmmaker Daniel Barber, making his feature-length directorial debut, begs to differ.

``Gran Torino is really about race. It's not about the true problems of youth, which is what Harry Brown deals with,'' Barber says. ``Gran Torino is also a much softer and more sentimental film, which is probably why a lot more people went to see it. It's also somewhat comedic as well, with Clint doing all that grunting and his groaning.

``The reason why they're being compared so much, I think, is because the actor at the helm of both films is an elder statesman. Michael Caine is the British Clint Eastwood. In England, we grew up with Harry Palmer [The Ipcress File] and Jack Carter [Get Carter] the way Americans grew up with Dirty Harry and The Man With No Name. Both actors have an iconography that they carry around with them and is used effectively in both films.''

But unlike Gran Torino, in which Eastwood's character figured out how to put away a gang of street thugs without firing a shot, Harry Brown fights violence with violence, shooting and stabbing his way through the packs of hooligans that terrorize the citizens of a depressed London suburb. Harry does what the police are legally prevented from doing: He doles out justice the way the protagonists of Death Wish, Rolling Thunder and The Outlaw Josey Wales did, mowing down bad guys -- many of them teenagers -- with abandon.

Unlike the giddy kick you felt watching Uma Thurman embark on her ``roaring rampage of revenge'' in Kill Bill, though, the violence in Harry Brown is ugly and horrifying, even when committed for the common good.


``I like to play old men who are proactive, instead of just sitting around having people feel sorry for them,'' Caine says about his decision to star in the film. ``This was a very good script with a very good part for me. But the film also felt like a wake-up call to England and the authorities. This is where we are, and this is where we're going. There's never been an actual case of an old guy killing young people like this. But if you don't do something, it will come to that.

``I had seen a lot of documentaries about old people living in these estates [Britain's equivalent of housing projects] and how they're afraid to leave their homes. Little old ladies can't do their shopping, because they're afraid to go out. Eighty percent of the people who are living in these areas aren't out to hurt people: They're afraid of being hurt.''

Read the rest of my story on the making of Harry Brown here.

How to travel when you have an Oscar in your luggage

My interview with Juan Jose Campanella, the director of the Oscar-winning The Secret in Their Eyes, ran in Sunday's paper (you can read it here). I had hoped he'd have the statue with him so I could hold it, but he had locked away in the hotel safe, so I asked him how he travels with it.

Photo_1268084323096-1-0  "I carry it in a Club Monaco bag, wrapped in bubble wrap," he said, adding that he carries it on the plane with him and never lets it out of his sight. When he put the bag through the X-ray machine, the airport security officer told him "Sir, we're going to have to inspect your Oscar" with a perfectly straight face.

Campanella also told me the Academy never ships Oscars to recipients by mail or FedEx or any other means, to prevent thievery. Winners must pick up their statues in person, which meant that the Spanish producers of the film, who received an Oscar of their own, had to fly to Los Angeles to get it.

Oscar winners are also required to sign a contract giving the Academy the right to buy back an Oscar, if a former winner has fallen on hard times and wants to sell it, for the princely sum of one dollar. That prevents Oscar statues from popping up on eBay or being sold on the collectors' market. So if you want an Oscar, you're just going to get it the old-fashioned way: Earn it. 

Youth in Revolt: The Making of ''Kick-Ass''

This story ran in Sunday's Herald, but I am reposting it here for posterity's sake, since stories on the main site sometimes disappear forever.


The controversy around Kick-Ass began with the film's R-rated trailer, which hit the Internet in December and showed a masked little girl shooting grown men in the face and using a certain four-letter word most adults rarely utter.

The trailer turns out to have been just a small taste of the deeply subversive movie. Kick-Ass, which opens Friday, is about ordinary kids who don homemade costumes and venture out to fight crime, just like superheroes in comic books. The only difference is that teenager Dave Lizewski (played by Aaron Johnson), the film's eponymous hero, has no superpowers whatsoever. The first time he squares off against bad guys, he is stabbed in the stomach, hit by a car and spends months in the hospital recuperating.

That scene is the first of many in which Kick-Ass upends everything you knew about comic-book superheroes, who traditionally triumph over villains by taking the high road. Realism trounces fantasy. Being on the side of the good and lawful just isn't enough: You need a machine gun or a shotgun or at least a sword or two to make a difference.

``Someone asked me `Is this movie a spoof? Is this a parody? What is this?' '' says director Matthew Vaughn, who raised the movie's budget (estimated at around $35 million) through private investors after every Hollywood studio turned him down. ``And I said `This is a post-modern love letter to comic books and superhero films.' I just felt like comic-book movies were getting a bit generic and stale, and it was time to do something fresh -- but, at the same time, not throw the baby out with the bath water.''


One of the major differences between Kick-Ass and traditional comic-book movies such as Iron Man or Spider-Man is that the filmmakers did not have to figure out how to make their characters relatable to the present day. The film was shot while writer Mark Millar and artist John Romita Jr. worked on the books, and the last installment of the eight-issue series was published in January.

Millar, a chief writer for Marvel Comics who is known for hyper-violent, aggressive books, pitched the idea behind Kick-Ass to Vaughn before a single panel had been drawn (one of Millar's previous series, Wanted, had been turned into a big-budget Angelina Jolie film in 2008).

Markmillar  ``This is the first comic book adapted in the last couple of decades that is first-generation,'' Millar says. ``Even Watchmen was 23 years old when it got turned into a film. The comic book is of the now, which is part of the reason why the movie feels so fresh and daring.''

Millar says one of his creative inspirations was a documentary interview with Quentin Tarantino in which he praised the 1931 classic Frankenstein.

``Tarantino was talking about how when that movie is funny, it's really funny, and when it's scary, it's really scary. He did the same thing in Pulp Fiction, when you're laughing at John Travolta and Samuel Jackson chatting in the car, and suddenly his gun goes off and the guy's brains are splattered all over the back seat. I always try to do that with my comics, too. You only have 22 pages to tell your story, so every line has to mean something. You try to get the maximum emotion out of every bit of your construct.''

But although Kick-Ass was a hit in print, the comic was not universally beloved.

``The book sold a lot, but a lot of people complained about it,'' says Michael Avila, a contributor for newsarama.com and msnbc.com who specializes in pop culture. ``Millar comes up with great ideas and gets the attitude just right, but the downside is you don't always like his characters. That's why Kick-Ass is one of the few comic-book movies that actually improves on the book. The movie does to the comic book what Francis Ford Coppola did to Mario Puzo's The Godfather.''

The script for Kick-Ass, written by Vaughn and Jane Goldman, differs from the comic in small but critical ways. For example, the character of Big Daddy, a masked vigilante who raises his 11-year-old daughter Mindy to become a ruthless crime fighter named Hit Girl, is somewhat twisted and deranged on the page. In the film, Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) is still nuts, but his relationship with his daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz) is tender and touching. Yes, he gives her a butterfly knife as a birthday present and teaches her how to use riot gear by shooting her in the chest. But they are hugely likable psychos, in a Bruce Wayne kind of way.


Although Hit Girl is a supporting character in Kick-Ass, she has, because of her age, become the film's breakout persona -- and the magnet for much of its controversy. Children will automatically be drawn to her, but the R-rated movie is not kid friendly, one of the key reasons Hollywood studios initially passed on the project.

``Matthew and I were very keen to avoid any sense of deliberately provoking or shocking the audience,'' says Goldman, who previously collaborated with Vaughn on the much-gentler 2007 fantasy Stardust. ``One thing that kept coming up in our conversations is how young Hit Girl is. But it's precisely her age that makes her such a fascinating character.

``For me, as a female screenwriter, I found the idea absolutely exhilarating: Here is a strong, female anti-hero, but she's not sexualized,'' Goldman says. ``She's not there for guys to get their rocks off. She's genuinely dangerous. It was never our intention to shock people by having a kid killing people. If anything, we toned certain things down from the comics. But this was never meant to be a movie for children.''

For Vaughn, the main appeal of Kick-Ass was in taking familiar comic-book tropes and placing them in a realistic setting, then standing back to see what happened.

``There isn't a single thing in this movie that couldn't happen in real life,'' Vaughn says. ``That was my rule. All the costumes were made of materials that could be bought on the Internet. Big Daddy's costume is made up of French riot-police gear. You can go online, search for jet packs and find a guy in Mexico who makes them. You can buy the bloody thing online! When it came to Hit Girl, I told the fight choreographers I wasn't interested in going too over the top. With a few things she does, they said `Look, there's only a one-in-a-thousand chance this could actually happen if we did it for real.' But that was good enough for me, because there is still some reality to it.''


The strict adherence to realism inevitably drew an R-rating, because teenagers swear, they occasionally do drugs, and if they leaped off a roof wearing a cape and thinking they could fly, they would plummet and land in a bloody heap.

When Spider-Man or Superman dispatched muggers or drug dealers, they usually delivered them to the authorities, bruised but alive. In Kick-Ass, the heroes quickly discover the only way to stop the guy coming at you with a gun is to shoot first.

``I've always thought there was a very thin line between bravery and stupidity,'' Vaughn says. ``Depending on how you look at it, those soldiers in World War I climbing over the trench and running toward the machine guns were very brave but also very stupid. That's also what Kick-Ass is: He's brave in one way and stupid in another. He's also naive and optimistic. It takes a little bit of all of that for heroes to be created.

``To show that, though, you have to go all the way. I've always felt movies should be either PG or R. PG-13 is this sort of no-man's land. Films can imply some pretty horrible violence without showing it. I think The Dark Knight was darker and more violent than Kick-Ass in a psychological sense. When the Joker started playing with his knife, it made you look away from the screen. In Kick-Ass, you're laughing at the violence and enjoying it for its silliness. You're not thinking ``Eeww! That's disgusting!' ''

The primary challenge facing Kick-Ass now is to reach the adult audience that will best savor its humorous exploration of the nature of heroism. The ordinary moviegoer who isn't plugged into the comic-book world and just glances at the film's poster in a theater lobby could dismiss it as a picture for 12-year-olds. But its wry sense of humor and cheerfully gory violence is intended for a more-mature, sophisticated palate.

Romita, the famed comic-book artist who drew the Kick-Ass series (and served as a consultant on the film), admits that blood is a selling point of either incarnation of the story.


``We went a lot further in the comic than we did in the film,'' Romita says. ``I'm getting older, and I'm raising my son, so I understand the questions the movie raises. At what point are we going too far? Conservatives say the bar has been raised too high, and society is falling apart because we have no morals. Liberals say let's progress naturally and be the arbiter of our own affections and let the individual be the bar. I think both sides are right.''

Despite the marketing challenges, Kick-Ass generated a bidding war after Vaughn previewed some footage at last summer's San Diego Comic-Con, with many of the bidders the same people who had originally turned the film down. Lionsgate was the eventual victor.

``I never really sat down in a room and discussed the project with anyone, because they all said no right away,'' Vaughn says. ``The violence and Hit Girl were always concerns. What made me laugh is that after the studios saw the film, they were all like `God, we want more Hit Girl!' I'm so glad they all said no the first time around, because I don't think the movie would have turned out as well without that.''

Kick-Ass opens Friday, April 16 in South Florida.


Some critics really, really hate ''Kick-Ass''

Matthew Vaughn's Kick-Ass, a cheerfully gory comedy about comic-book obsessed teens who decide to become superheroes, won't open in the U.S. until next Friday. But the movie is already playing in Australia, where several family groups and at least one critic has taken mortal offense to the R-rated film's sense of humor.

Richard Wilkins, the entertainment editor for the Aussie TV channel Nine Network News, has gone ballistic on the film. "I can't possibly encourage you to go and see this overhyped, inappropriate sensationalism that glamourises kids with guns," Wilkins said. "I just think it is wrong ... so wrong."


"The film is inappropriate — it's excessively violent and there's nothing particularly clever about it," Wilkins said, adding there was no way he'd let his 14 year-old son watch it. "I don't want him seeing kids with guns and knives, killing people randomly and hearing young children say the sort of language they use in the movie."

I've written a big story on Kick-Ass running in Sunday's paper that addresses the inevitable controversy that will greet the film (I will post it onto the blog over the weekend). But the short version is: The movie is rated R for good reason. And compared to the violence in other R-rated films such as Repo Men, Kick-Ass is as offensive as Toy Story.

LayerCakeBluray  At the end of my interview with director Vaughn, I told him how much I appreciated his 2004 debut Layer Cake, a fantastic action picture starring a pre-007 Daniel Craig as a cocaine dealer trying to retire. Layer Cake is one of those movies that never found the audience it deserved, but Vaughn told me he's already mulling a follow-up.

"I've had an idea of doing a sequel set in Miami. I always thought it would be amazing if Daniel Craig showed up there to take on the Miami drug underworld."

Cast Al Pacino as the baddie and you've got yourself a smash hit.




The making of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"

I haven't read Stieg Larsson's blockbuster novel The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but Herald Book Editor (and film reviewer) Connie Ogle has. So it made more sense for her to interview director Niels Arden Oplev about his film adaptation, which opens in South Florida on Friday.


The story is a great read and touches on everything from the changes the story underwent on the way to the screen to the film's most gruesome scene, which led some people to send me angry e-mails after they saw the film at the Miami Film Festival last month based on my three-and-a-half star review.

"`In the U.K. and the U.S. there's been a stronger reaction about the rape scene than there has been in Europe,'' Oplev says. "Certain critics, both male and female, seem to have gotten thrown off by the graphic violence against Lisbeth. They've not really understood the rape scene is made to make the audience uncomfortable. It's of vital importance to me that it not be entertaining."

Check out Connie's story here.


Leonardo DiCaprio talks ''Inception'' and addresses those rumors of a remake of Michael Haneke's ''Hidden''

Shutterisland  I had a brief - way too brief - telephone interview with Leonardo DiCaprio this week to discuss Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, which I am not allowed to talk about yet, or else Paramount Pictures will go all Travis Bickle on me.

I was able to ask DiCaprio all of three or four questions before my time was up. When he was being yanked off the phone, I hurriedly asked him what he could tell me about Inception, which looks awesome and mysterious and is the summer movie I am anticipating the most, now that the Footloose remake has been canceled.

"It's been kept under wraps very intentionally," DiCaprio said. "[Director] Christopher Nolan and the studio want to keep the concept under wraps. Essentially, it is about a group of people who are able to access the minds of people in power and manipulate them, as well as access information they are hiding in their dream state. The movie works on multiple levels of reality, and I'm really looking foward to seeing how Nolan puts that giant jigsaw puzzle together."

Hidden-cache-poster-1  Then I thanked DiCaprio for his time and pulled the old trick of sneaking one last question into my goodbye, asking him if there was any truth to the rumor he and Scorsese are planning to collaborate on a remake of Michael Haneke's Cache (Hidden).

"We have nothing set," he said as he was being literally pulled from the phone by a publicist. "I don't really talk about anything until it might actually be true."

That sounds like a big maybe to me.

Jeff Bridges talks ''True Grit'' and ''Heaven's Gate''

Gg-10-jeff-bridges  Jeff Bridges came one step closer to fulfilling his Oscar destiny by winning the Best Actor prize at last night's Screen Actors Guild awards for his performance as a run-down country singer in Crazy Heart. Here's a link to my interview with Bridges, which ran in today's paper.

I normally don't like writing actor profiles based on telephone interviews, because you miss so much of their personality and presence if you're not in the room with them. But Bridges' youthful voice and speaking manner are so distinctive, I immediately felt like I was riding shotgun in his car when he called me Tuesday afternoon while he was driving to Santa Barbara.

At the end of the interview, I asked Bridges about his upcoming one-two punch of Tron 2.0 and True Grit, both due in December. He didn't have much to say about Tron other than it was a lot of fun to make and everyone was great, blah blah blah yawners.

Truegrit  True Grit starts filming in March. Here's what Bridges said when I asked him how it felt to be taking on one of John Wayne's most iconic roles (and the only one to win him an Oscar): The tough old coot Marshal Reuben J. Cogburn.

"I'm not thinking of it on those terms. I get my direction from [Joel and Ethan] Coen, who aren't really thinking of it as a remake of the John Wayne movie but as another version of the novel by Charles Portis, which is a wonderful book and was very big when it came out. That's really what the Coens are referencing, and that's what I'm doing as well. I'm not really going to study The Duke's performance or anything like that. I'm just looking forward to working with Matt Damon and Josh Brolin. It's going to be a wonderful team."

I also asked Bridges how he felt towards that gigantic flop Heaven's Gate (which he co-starred in) all these years later.

Bridgesheavensgate  "Over 50 percent - maybe it's as high as 80 percent - of the moviegoing experience depends on what kind of baggage the audience is bringing in with them and what kinds of reviews they've read. A movie like Heaven's Gate was doomed, because of that initial hysterical review [written by Vincent Canby in The New York Times] that ruined other people's experience of seeing the movie. Everyone saw it through the filter of this critic's eyes. He was supposed to know what a good movie is and he missed it."

Jason Reitman: Flying high, exceeding expectations


But of course being the son of a famous director has lots of perks. What did you expect?

``People presume so little of you -- they naturally assume you're going to be so bad -- you actually don't have to do that much to impress them,'' says Jason Reitman, 32, son of Ghostbusters creator Ivan Reitman and director of Up in the Air, which opens Friday. ``I can't tell you how often, early in my career, people came up to me after seeing one of my movies with this wide-eyed look saying, `You know, that was pretty good!' They talked to me the way you would talk to a child born without hands who had painted a painting with their feet.''

Even though his famous last name may automatically have lowered the bar on expectations, Reitman has not taken the cushy road to a filmmaking career. Before he directed a feature, he honed his craft the same way no-name novices do, making short films and entering them in festivals.


``I was perfectly aware of what people were presuming I would be, so I worked very hard to prove that wrong,'' he says during a recent promotional visit to Miami. ``I wanted to experience the Darwinian nature of film festivals like everybody else. I wanted to succeed on my own merits. I wanted people to look at my short films and know I have a reason for sitting at the table.''

His father Ivan, who produced Up in the Air, says Jason proved he was serious about a film career a month after he arrived at the University of Southern California. The young Reitman raised $8,000 to pay for his first short by selling ads to local businesses for a calendar he distributed to students.


 ``Jason always came to my sets and hung around the editing room,'' the senior Reitman says. ``I didn't even know if he was paying attention, but clearly he was. He truly was concerned about going into the same business as his dad. When he finally decided to do it, he used a completely different approach than I did: He mastered the film-festival route and used them to get the word out on his movies. By the time we made Up in the Air, he had made two extraordinarily good and successful movies, so he had earned the right to be the captain of his own ship.''

For his directorial debut, Reitman adapted Thank You for Smoking, the Christopher Buckley novel about a tobacco-industry lobbyist that many other directors (including Mel Gibson) had failed to turn into a film.

Juno-poster  His second movie, Juno, made stars of actress Ellen Page and stripper-turned-screenwriter Diablo Cody, who also won an Academy Award for her work. Juno became a box office smash and was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director Oscars.

If any lingering claims of nepotism still secretly circulate in Hollywood, Up in the Air should conclusively dispel them. This wise and profoundly moving film proves that, famous dad aside, Reitman is the real deal: A natural-born filmmaker.

Loosely based on Walter Kirn's 2002 novel, the movie stars George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, a ``career transition counselor'' who travels from city to city, informing people that their employers are downsizing and their positions are no longer needed.

Transplanting Kirn's book to the present-day economy means Bingham is a supremely busy man -- so much in demand that his quest to rack up 10 million frequent-flier miles is finally within reach. But what is the toll of hopping from city to city, living in hotel rooms and airport terminals with no one and nothing to return to back home?

``When I first started working on this script, I thought of it as a satire, like Thank You for Smoking,'' Reitman says. ``I thought I would make a comedy about a guy who fires people for a living. It wasn't really until I started experiencing more myself -- I got married, I became a dad, and I started to really value my alone time versus my time with my wife -- that I started to think of the story differently. Life just gets more complicated as you go along, and this character and what he did for a living became more and more right for this personal exploration of my own.''


For the role of Bingham -- a character who gradually realizes his decision to lead a rootless, adventurous life has consequences -- Reitman could think of no one other than Clooney, Hollywood's reigning bachelor. The parallels between the actor and Bingham, who is constantly surrounded by people but keeps his personal life isolated, made Clooney a natural choice. But Reitman briefly feared that the character might have come a little too close to reality.

``I wrote a role that was kind of the George Clooney self-examination role,'' Reitman says. ``And when he read it, he got that immediately. He said `People are going to draw connections between this character and me,' and I knew exactly what he meant by that, and we never really talked about it much more afterwards. There was just this understanding that he knew who this guy was, and he played him fearlessly.

``Usually when you play a character that has any similarity to real life, the actor gets nervous,'' Reitman says. ``But the way that George not only runs right at it but the vulnerability he shows in this film that he has never shown before, I consider a great gift. George Clooney walks the walk more than any other human being I've ever met.''

But Clooney's admittedly terrific performance is aided considerably by Reitman's precise direction, which carefully underscores the character's alienation in subtle but exact ways. The first time we see Bingham spend a night at home, for example, the movie shows us what seems to be The World's Loneliest Apartment.

``Directing is an instinctual process. I have a feeling that I want you to feel,'' Reitman says. ``The question is, how do you get there? As a director, you learn from your mistakes as you make more movies. It becomes this binary thing where if you get the ones and zeroes right, it adds up to the right thing.

``I know for instance, that I want George Clooney's apartment to feel lonely. So I start with the idea I have in my head of what a lonely apartment looks like. They always have sad hallways with bad yellow lighting, and when you walk in there are the plastic Venetian blinds and a smattering of furniture.

``Then you start looking at locations and adding in details. There's the bad kitchen, the gray floor and the white walls. An air conditioning unit in the window? Perfect. Then when you shoot it, use a standard square shot that doesn't showcase this place at all. And you tell the actor `OK, when you walk into the apartment, I want you to have no familiar relationship with this place at all.' All those minor decisions, on their own, wouldn't do it. But when you add them all up, you feel something.''


Reitman's careful attention to detail pays off in Up in the Air. This deceptively simple tale gets under your skin and stays there in a way strangely reminiscent of a Stanley Kubrick picture -- not in tone or style, perhaps, but certainly in depth of haunting, persistent feeling.

``That's the most generous compliment anyone has ever given me in my life,'' Reitman says, laughing. ``But I'm a huge Kubrick fan, and I know exactly the feeling you're talking about. With Kubrick, you don't know how he does it. It's one thing to make people laugh, but it's another to give people that feeling -- like a wanting, when someone breaks up with you, and you feel it in your rib cage.''

Transplanting ''The Road'' to the screen, carefully


Halfway through the filming of The Road, director John Hillcoat made a difficult decision: No matter what, he was going to remain faithful to Cormac McCarthy's novel about a father and son traveling across a post-apocalyptic landscape -- even if that meant shooting a seemingly unfilmable scene involving cannibals and a fat, juicy baby.

``I fought like tooth and nail to film that scene,'' Hillcoat says. ``I argued `This is what we've signed on for, and we're not going to shy away from a single thing.' And I won. We shot the scene. I even kept it in an early cut of the film. And then I fought like hell to take it out. How ironic is that?''

During editing -- a lengthy process that caused the film, which opened Wednesday, to miss its original release date by a year -- Hillcoat discovered that transplanting the essence of McCarthy's novel to the screen was much more complicated than simply treating it as a script, the approach Joel and Ethan Coen used when adapting No Country for Old Men.

``When you physicalize some of the stuff in the book and put it up on the screen, the movie takes on a different dynamic,'' Hillcoat says. ``My goal was always to stay focused on the father and son, and the more of that horrific stuff you have the more you take the spotlight off their emotional journey.

``I think it's true of all films: You have to work with restraint. It's so easy to get carried away. Actors love to chew up scenery sometimes, and directors get lost in special effects and big action scenes. Film is a powerful medium, and I'm always battling to find the right balance and rein in.

``At the end of the day, the movie still has enough of those chilling things: The cannibal house, the road gangs, the collapsing trees. That's enough, I think. To have any more, the movie would have become about something else.''

The-proposition  Hillcoat had interpreted The Road as a love story between father and son from the moment he first read the novel in galley form. Producer Nick Wechsler (Drugstore Cowboy, The Player, The Time Traveler's Wife) sent the Australian filmmaker the book on the strength of his previous film The Proposition, a violent and unsparing Western set in the Australian outback that Hillcoat made, in part, as homage to an earlier McCarthy novel, Blood Meridian.

``I didn't know about the connection to Blood Meridian until much later,'' Wechsler says. ``But The Proposition very much had a [Sam] Peckinpah quality, and I saw The Road as a Peckinpah movie -- men and women surviving under difficult circumstances, struggling between being civilized and being outlaws. Good versus evil. Very primal stuff. The examination of humanity and morality in The Proposition was very applicable to what I thought we needed for The Road. I had met him and gotten an idea of who he was and how he thought as a filmmaker. So when I read The Road, he was the first person to pop into my head.''

For Hillcoat, the McCarthy novel presented the chance of a lifetime.


 ``To have this kind of material land on your lap was an amazing stroke of luck,'' he says. ``And when I read it, I wasn't prepared for the emotional impact it had on me. The incredible visualization and authenticity of the apocalypse was something I would have expected from McCarthy. But the story was also so poignant and real and profound. The only thing that gave me pause was the practicality of finding a young actor who could play the son -- a boy who had a maturity and openness and didn't have any kind of show-business precociousness, because that would be the kiss of death on this material.''

Hillcoat found his ideal actor in 11-year-old Kodi Smit-McPhee. For the role of his father, Hillcoat turned to Viggo Mortensen, another hardcore McCarthy fan who from the outset understood the project's challenges.

``This is the most faithful adaptation -- not just in spirit, like Lord of the Rings was, but also in word and emotion -- that I have ever seen,'' Mortensen says. ``The challenge for me was to convey the man's interior monologue as it is described in the book without words, because film is a visual medium. You have to trust that if you feel it as an actor, and you're living those thoughts, they will come across to the audience.

``The man is thinking about his wife all the time and living with the accumulated regret of his life experience. Kids tend to accept where they are more than adults do, no matter how hard their circumstances are. Adults regret and fret about the future. To get all that stuff across was much harder than the physical demands of shooting in the cold and the wet.''


Hillcoat says he felt the mounting pressure of doing justice to McCarthy's novel after the book won the Pulitzer Prize and caught the attention of Oprah Winfrey, whose recommendation turned it into a bestseller. After the original release date had come and gone, rumors swirled that the movie was in trouble and its relatively unknown director in over his head. But Hillcoat says the delay was the best thing that could have happened.

``I knew every rifle was going to be aimed at me,'' he says. ``That's part and parcel in adapting a book that is revered. But the original release date was over-ambitious and unreachable. It was a very long and delicate editing process to get the balance of the flashbacks right, the presence of the cannibals and the pressure upon the man and the boy to constantly survive. We had all sorts of issues with birds flying into the background of shots that required special effects to remove them.

``My job was to stay focused on the task at hand and concentrate on making the best film we possibly could,'' Hillcoat says. ``We could have released the film earlier this year, but it's really not a summer movie. And I can't think of a more auspicious date than Thanksgiving for this film. We're getting something fully realized as opposed to rushed and half assed.''


Cormac McCarthy talks about Hollywood and ''The Road''

Cormac_mccarthy  Cormac McCarthy doesn't grant many interviews, but the Wall Street Journal's John Jurgensen got him to talk about The Road and the film adaptation last week.

Unlike his appearance on Oprah a couple of years ago, when he seemed uncomfortable and reticent to be there, McCarthy was relaxed and chatty this time, praising The Road director John Hillcoat for capturing the book's spirit, dismissing the widely-held belief that his novel Blood Meridian is unfilmable and revealing a few details about his upcoming book, which will focus on a female protagonist (unusual for McCarthy).

Here are a couple of excerpts from Jurgensen's excellent Q&A:

WSJ: Why don't you sign copies of "The Road"

CM: There are signed copies of the book, but they all belong to my son John, so when he turns 18 he can sell them and go to Las Vegas or whatever. No, those are the only signed copies of the book.

WSJ: How many did you have?

CM: 250. So occasionally I get letters from book dealers or whoever that say, "I have a signed copy of the 'The Road,'" and I say, "No. You don't."


WSJ: What was your relationship like with the Coen brothers on "No Country for Old Men"?

CM: We met and chatted a few times. I enjoyed their company. They're smart and they're very talented. Like John, they didn't need any help from me to make a movie.

WSJ: "All the Pretty Horses" was also turned into a film [starring Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz]. Were you happy with the way it came out?

CM: It could've been better. As it stands today it could be cut and made into a pretty good movie. The director had the notion that he could put the entire book up on the screen. Well, you can't do that. You have to pick out the story that you want to tell and put that on the screen. And so he made this four-hour film and then he found that if he was actually going to get it released, he would have to cut it down to two hours.

JH: Didn't you start "No Country for Old Men" as a screenplay?

CM: Yeah, I wrote it. I showed it to a few people and they didn't seem to be interested. In fact, they said, "That will never work." Years later I got it out and turned it into a novel. Didn't take long. I was at the Academy Awards with the Coens. They had a table full of awards before the evening was over, sitting there like beer cans. One of the first awards that they got was for Best Screenplay, and Ethan came back and he said to me, "Well, I didn't do anything, but I'm keeping it."

Here comes ''Precious''


The first movie Lee Daniels directed, the 2005 drama Shadowboxer about a terminally ill assassin and her unusual relationship with her partner in crime, was largely derided by critics and virtually ignored by audiences, grossing less than $1 million worldwide.

So when Daniels, who had also produced other films about profoundly dysfunctional families (Monster's Ball, The Woodsman), set out to try again, he kept expectations low. Even though his second film, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, is adapted from a highly lauded and widely read book, Daniels didn't believe many people would turn out to see it.

``I basically made this movie for my mother and her demographic,'' Daniels says. ``She was always telling me `Why are you making movies about pedophiles and killers? Why can't you make movies like Tyler Perry?' And I said `OK, Mom, I will.' So I was really thinking about an African-American audience when I embarked on this. I really didn't expect it to go anywhere but straight to DVD. I expected my mom and her churchfolk to embrace this marriage of my art into an urban setting. And it really was made primarily for her.''


Shot for a modest $10 million with a first-time actress in the lead, the movie, which opens Friday, tells the story of Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), an overweight, borderline illiterate 16-year-old pregnant with her second child by her father and living with a monstrously abusive mother (Mo'Nique) who belittles and exploits her.

Daniels says he was so awestruck by Sapphire's novel, published in 1996, that he spent eight years trying to convince the author to allow him to turn the book into a movie. But the hard work really began after Daniels secured the film rights.

``The book was not filmable, and it was not easy,'' says screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, who shaped the novel's first-person, stream-of-consciousness narrative into a story about Precious' painful and gradual emergence from her state of shellshocked detachment. ``When Lee asked me to adapt it, he told me it would be difficult not only in terms of translating it to film but in terms of the content, the language. It's written in her voice, someone who is barely literate.

Read the rest of my interview with the makers of Precious here.

Isabella Rossellini revisits ''Blue Velvet''

I spoke with Isabella Rossellini about her appearance at the Miami International Book Fair tonight, where she will be discussing her book and collection of short films Green Porno. Inevitably, the conversation turned to Blue Velvet and her indelible performance as the torch singer Dorothy Vallens. I couldn't fit most of what she said into the story that ran in the paper, so I'm posting it here.


"I like to play characters that are written well and thought-out, because it makes your job easier. I doesn't matter if it's a cartoon or a surrealistic film or a profoundly humanistic film. It's when the characters are written with hesitation that they're difficult to play. Television is written with a certain amount of superficiality, just because of the sheer quantity of writing they have to do every week. Sometimes I'll be asked to play a beautiful woman who is aging, That's not a very profound definition of a person. That's not enough for me.

"David [Lynch] wrote a very beautiful script and the characters were very clear, so you can really launch into an imaginative and creative process of acting. When Blue Velvet came out, it was very controversial. People tried to find a reason for not liking it that went beyond the film. They would say "David Lynch is evil!" or "Isabella Rossellini is getting back at her mother!" or "She's doing it to spite Lancome!" But it wasn't any of that.


"Blue Velvet really played with the tension between good and evil. Every time there was something bad, there was also something attractive about it. We don't know why we read the details of murder stories in newspapers with a certain gluttony. It's a strange aspect of human nature. [Dorothy Vallens] was a victim, but she was also a sadomasochist. She was raped, but there were also aspects of her that were very seductive. Everything is always ambivalent, and that's the story of Blue Velvet. This young man [Kyle MacLachlan] is coming of age and believes everything should either be right or wrong, but they're not. That's the core of Blue Velvet, isn't it - this acknowledgement that things are not so simple."

I also asked Rossellini about the scene in which she appears naked in broad daylight on someone's front lawn, a scene that famously led Roger Ebert to condemn the film:


"David explained to me that when he was a little boy, he was coming home from school with his brother and they saw a naked woman walking down the street. Instead of getting curious or titillated or aroused, they got very frightened and burst into tears. That's what he wanted to capture in that scene.

"When he was telling me that story, I was thinking of that famous photograph of the little girl walking down the street in Vietnam after her village had been bombed. She was completely naked and incredibly helpless. I wanted to project that same helplessness, because if I had protected myself in any way, I would have conveyed that this woman still had some sense of prudishness and self-defense at that moment. But she was a woman who had just been raped; she was bruised and dazed and confused. I didn't want the controversy, and nudity is always difficult. But it was what it needed to be. You play the film; you don't play your life."



A peek inside Richard Kelly's ''The Box''


Filmmaker Richard Kelly's initial encounter with Richard Matheson's fiendish little short story Button, Button -- about a cash-strapped couple offered a million dollars to push a button on a box that will instantly cause someone they don't know to drop dead -- came not on the page, but on TV.

``As a bunch of attorneys have informed me, I am not allowed to exploit the name of a certain television program to help promote the movie,'' Kelly says with a chuckle from his production offices in Los Angeles. We, however, are free to state that Kelly first experienced Matheson's devilish little ditty as an episode of The Twilight Zone revival that aired in 1985.

When Kelly later read Matheson's six-page story, he was surprised to discover the show had taken considerable liberties with the source material (enough so that Matheson insisted his name be removed from the episode's credits).


``The story is pretty thin, but it has this absolutely brilliant conceit that was absurd and scary and kind of diabolical,'' Kelly (pictured above), 34, says. ``But it also cultivated so many ideas about greed and morality and a married couple's approach to the dilemma that this device brings into their lives. The story stuck with me for a long time.''

And the dramatically different ending of the TV adaptation sparked an idea in Kelly's mind.

``I realized the story could serve as a wonderful first act of a feature film, where the button is pushed, and the couple realizes it has far greater consequences than they realized, and they're going to be put through a much more extended psychological endurance test of some kind. The question becomes: Can they redeem themselves?''


The Box, which stars Cameron Diaz and James Marsden as the married couple and Frank Langella as their exceedingly odd (you have no idea) visitor who makes the offer, is Kelly's third film after the bona fide cult classic Donnie Darko and Southland Tales, which was so resoundingly booed at its Cannes premiere that Kelly reedited and chopped out a half hour -- and it still made practically no sense.

The early buzz on The Box was that this would be Kelly's grab at mainstream success, with a simple and accessible premise and an easily identifiable genre. But although the film's first half is exactly that -- a thriller -- its second half starts to veer away from anything resembling ``simple.'' So many conceits and complex ideas spring from that innocuous-looking box, and woe to anyone who dares run out for popcorn when the plot kicks into overdrive.

A common critical complaint about Kelly's films is that they simply try to pack in too much, overwhelming the viewer instead of engaging him. Kelly understands that criticism, particularly after the resounding failure of the endlessly imaginative but confusing Southland Tales.


``Southland Tales is an epic tapestry of a film that is about the greatest mystery of all time: How will the world end?'' Kelly says in its defense. ``It was intended to be an overwhelming mass of ideas that requires multiple viewings to decode. But there is definitely a structure to the puzzle there.

``I understand people's complaints about it being too much, though. That's the nature of my personality and the kinds of stories I like to tell. I want the audience to participate with the film and think while they're watching it, and that can alienate some members of the audience. With The Box, I'm making a mainstream film within the studio system, so I am trying to achieve as much clarity as possible.''

The Box is intentionally set in 1976 Virginia, where Kelly grew up, because there was no way to transplant this particular tale to the present day and preserve the mystery and anonymity of the curious Mr. Steward who brings the box only to the homes of married couples under 40 with a single child.


``The whole concept of not being able to find out stuff about someone you don't know doesn't really exist anymore. You can Google anyone today. There are surveillance cameras in every corner of the landscape. In the 1970s, we didn't have access to all that technology. Everyone had a land-line phone and that was it.''

The 1976 setting also allowed Kelly to weave NASA's Viking Mars probe into the story: Like Marsden's character, his father helped design the camera lenses used in that mission. But those brief shots in The Box of President Ford jabbering on TV about the ``existence of life somewhere in the universe'' are not just period details. In a Richard Kelly movie, everything has meaning. Nothing is an accident.

``There were a couple of lines in the short story that really got my imagination going,'' Kelly says. ``One of them was when they ask Mr. Steward who he works for, and he said `The organization is large and international in scope.' Right away I wanted to know `Who does he work for? Why are they contacting these married couples? Where does the money come from?'


``Writing the movie was really a process of thinking logically about why would someone pull this off. And setting the story in Virginia helped to keep it close to all these government entities -- the FBI, the CIA, NASA, the NSA. This button unit started feeling like something that might exist as part of a governmental behavioral experiment. It all started to make sense for me.''

Tomorrow, when The Box opens in theaters, Kelly will find out if audiences agree.

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