“I’ve always been, since my early, early days, a silent film fanatic, or aficionado, or whatever you call it.”
After a successful career in the tech world, lifelong silent movie fan and President of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival Rob Byrne decided what he really wanted to do with his life: restore movies. So in 2006, at a point when, in his own words, “I could go after and do what I wanted to do,” he moved to Amsterdam for two years to attend the master’s program in film preservation at the University of Amsterdam. After internships at several different archives, he received an award from the Netherlands Filmmuseum (now the EYE Film Institute) and Haghefilm to restore the 1923 Pola Negri film The Spanish Dancer. He’s now back in San Francisco and building a legacy as an independent film restorer and preservationist. His restorations of the Douglas Fairbanks features The Half-Breed (1916) and The Good Bad Man (1916), the three-reel When the Earth Trembled (1913) and the San Francisco-shot The Last Edition (1925) all premiered at SFSFF over the past few years.
Byrne’s most recent project is one of the most important restorations of the last decade: the long-assumed-lost 1916 Sherlock Holmes starring William Gillette, the definitive Sherlock Holmes of the stage.
Keith Baxter was a struggling young Welsh actor when Orson Welles tapped him to play Prince Hal in the 1960 stage production of Chimes at Midnight in Ireland. Like Welles’ earlier Five Kings, this massive production brought together elements of numerous Shakespeare plays, in particular Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II, to chronicle the education of a king, and like the earlier production is was commercial failure. But Welles was still determined to make his production. As Baxter related in a 1988 interview, “on the last night, coming back to England, he [Welles] said to me on the ship, ‘This is only a rehearsal for the movie, Keith, and I’ll never make it unless you play Hal in that, too.’” Welles was true to his word and Baxter, in his first major screen role, starred opposite Welles in a cast that included John Gielgud, Jeanne Moreau and Margaret Rutherford.
Mr. Baxter, now eighty-two years old and a grand old man of British and American theater, was in New York City to introduce the American debut of the new restoration if Chimes at Midnight on Friday, January 8. Before the event, he granted a few interviews. “Ask me whatever you want to ask,” he said with a bright enthusiasm as our phone conversation began.
Sean Axmaker: You starred as Prince Hal in the 1960 stage production of Chimes at Midnight with Orson Welles in Ireland. You were the only member of that production (besides Welles) to appear in the film. Was there any change in the way that you played Hal and in the relationship between Hal and Welles’ Falstaff between the stage production and the film a few years later?
Keith Baxter: Well not really, you know. The thing is that Welles discovered me when I was out of work, washing dishes, so it was a wonderful opportunity to play on the stage with him. And, how can I explain? He really loved me and I really loved him. I don’t mean in any sexual sense. I mean because he’d given me a whole opportunity to play a wonderful part with a great actor instead of washing dishes and being out of work. So of course I felt a tremendous debt towards him. And he was wonderful to act with. He didn’t direct the play in Dublin, it was directed by an old friend of his who had discovered him when he was a teenager in Ireland [ed. note: Hilton Edwards]. Because when we started rehearsing Welles wasn’t there for two weeks, he was in Paris working on his film of The Trial, so we rehearsed without him and then he arrived. And of course we were all mightily… not in awe of him, well yes, in awe of him, whatever, and it was quite clear that he liked acting with me and I was a source of light.
Roberto Perpignani quite auspiciously made his official debut as professional film editor on Bernardo Bertolucci‘s feature debut Before the Revolution (1964). He went on to work with Bertolucci on The Spider’s Stratagem (1970) and The Last Tango in Paris (1972) and became the longtime editor for Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, a collaboration that begin in 1972 with St. Michael Had a Rooster. Perpignani won the David di Donatello Award (the Italian equivalent of the Oscar) for film editing three times, twice for Taviani films—The Night of the Shooting Stars (1982) and Caesar Must Die (2012)—and in between for the international hit Il Postino (1994). But it was Orson Welles that started his career as a film editor, first on In the Land of Don Quixote, a series of short documentaries that Welles made for Spanish TV, and then as one of his primary assistant editors on The Trial. Perpignani cut the film at a makeshift editing bay in the abandoned train station Gare d’Orsay in Paris, where Welles was shooting in another section of the station, and worked on the film practically up to its debut in the final weeks of December, 1962.
I had the great honor of meeting Perpignani when he came to Seattle to introduce a screening of Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem at the Seattle Art Museum, a 1999 event co-sponsored by the University of Washington. He graciously agreed to sit for an interview the next day. “I’m sorry my English is terrible today,” he remarked. “Worse than usual.” Perhaps, but it was certainly better than my Italian, and he had help translating some phrases and words from a professor of Italian Studies at University of Washington, who hosted the interview at his home. It’s with some embarrassment that I confess that in the years since I lost that man’s name, for he was essential in making this interview happen.
Jonathan Romney is a film critic for The Independent and a regular contributor to Sight & Sound, Film Comment, Screen International and other publications. He’s also a filmmaker and most recently he wrote and directed L’assenza, a twenty-minute short about an everyday guy named Martin (Stephen Mangan) who watches an obscure Italian film (called, of course, L’assenza—“The Absence”) and spots an extra who bears a remarkable resemblance to him. He laughs it off with a joke but curiosity becomes obsession and as he watches the film again and again, the ill-at-ease extra seems to become aware of Martin’s observations.
L’assenza applies a very low-key wit to the cinema of doubles and doppelgängers and drops it into the world of cinephilia, which adds a new angle on the themes of voyeurism and obsession. And Romney’s fake Italian movie, shot in creamy black and white and set to a jazz score plucked right out of the culture of pretentious elegance, is such a spot-on recreation of the cinema of sophisticated people and empty lives you’d swear it’s the real thing. “It sounds like it should be the Antonioni movie that got away,” remarked Romney in our long-distance conversation.
L’assenza made its world premiere at the 2013 New York Film Festival, played in festivals around the world, and was a nominee in the Short Film category for the 2013 British Independent Film Awards. I spoke with Jonathan Romney by phone (late night for him, early afternoon for me, thanks to the time difference between England and America’s West Coast) and communicated with producer Carey Born via email conversations.
Sean Axmaker: Filmmakers usually make short films when they can’t get a feature going or to show their talent, like a resume of sorts. What inspired you to make a short film?
Jonathan Romney: Everyone starts by making short films before they make features. And if you have an idea that is the right idea and self-contained and has its own logic, you may as well make it. I’m working on a feature at the moment but I’ve been saying to people, ‘There’s also this other short that I want to make.’ People are saying, ‘Do you really need to make a short at the moment? Shouldn’t you be working on a feature?’ But this other short had been nagging at me. Short ideas do have a way of coming to your consciousness fully formed and they demand to get out. I’d wanted to do this particular story for some time.
David and Nathan Zellner started making films together when they were kids, acting in their own home movies shot on camcorder. “I think that’s what first got is interested in making films is wanting to perform,” says David, director and co-star of their new feature Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. It premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival (where it won a Special Jury Prize for the score by The Octopus Project), was picked up for distribution by Amplify and has made stops at Fantasia and Nextfest this summer. It’s not their first feature—they’ve made four previous feature-length productions if you count a film they made right out college (it’s not available and they don’t even include it on IMDb), and that doesn’t take into account the many short films they’ve made in between—but it is poised to be their break-out film. Based on an urban legend of a Japanese woman who traveled to Minnesota to find the money buried in the snow at the end of Fargo (believing it to be “a true story” as the opening of the film insists), Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is funny, wry, sweet, and engagingly offbeat, a lovely little character piece that embraces the eccentricities of its characters without ridiculing them.
I met up with David Zellner this past spring at the Seattle International Film Festival a few weeks before they had landed distribution (he hinted that something was in the works but could not discuss until everything was final. After he introduced a screening of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter to a packed house at the Egyptian theater (and stuck around long enough to confirm that sound and image were to his satisfaction), we headed off to a nearby coffee shop and he sat down for a generous interview until he was due back for the Q&A.
In the middle of the interview, David was momentarily distracted by a man in the alley outside the coffee-shop window doing Tai Chi-like movements with an unconventional prop. “There’s a man doing Ninja moves with a fishing pole,” he remarked. “That was great! I wish I could have filmed it.” That enthusiasm explains their prolific output and their dedication to making short films between the features. Inspiration is everywhere. You just have to keep your eyes and your mind open.
There’s no shortage of independent horror filmmakers but Larry Fessenden is the filmmaker who puts the emphasis on the “indie” part of the equation. As a writer/director, he’s take the classic horror genres and turned them inside out. No Telling was his take on Frankenstein as an environmental drama, Habit, a vampire story set in the drug addict culture of New York City, Wendigo, a monster movie of myth and imagination and The Last Winter, an eco-twist on the ghost story in the culture of big oil. Plus, in addition to his own directorial efforts, Fessenden has produced or co-produced dozens of films, including Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy and Night Moves, Ti West’s The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, and Jim Mickle’s Stake Land, through Glass Eye Pix, his own production shingle.
Beneath, Fessenden’s latest, is a fish story: six teens stranded in a rowboat in the middle of the lake without a paddle while a giant man-eating catfish prowls the water waiting to eat his way through the buffet. What begins as a classic horror film, complete with teenagers who do all the dumb, reckless, aggressive things seemingly designed just to get them stuck in the water, transforms into an insidious character piece that strips away all pretense of humanity and lays bare the envy, resentment, spite and animosity they’ve been burying all this time under snarky remarks and dirty looks. Though it was made as a horror film for a cable channel, it plays more like an American indie drama: Mamet in a boat with a teenage cast and a seriously savage portrait of survivalism at all costs. On the occasion of the release of Beneath on Blu-ray and DVD a few months back, I spoke with Fessenden about the film, his career as a director and a producer, his support of independent filmmaking of all genres and why he’s still so committed to making his brand of horror cinema.
Keyframe: Beneath is the first feature you’ve directed that is not from your own script. Why this project and why the cable channel Chiller?
Larry Fessenden: As you know, I am also a producer and I went there to pitch some of my directors and just to get in with the channel. It seemed liked a fun proposition to produce a film through Chiller. They had money and they were ready to make some original features, and I went through some of the projects that I thought were interesting that we had lined up and they said, ‘Well, those sound good but we also have this,’ and they pulled out this script and I read it and I said, ‘Well I want to do this one, because I love the fish genre, I love how contained the story is, and if you guys are willing, I’d like to try my hand at it.’ I’ve never been a snob about how the work is done. I did another TV show written by some dudes. That was called Skin and Bones[for the series Fear Itself] and it’s one of my better pieces. It’s always exciting to take something and adapt it and put your spin on it and see how you come out. Like doing a cover song.
Barry Jenkins currently calls San Francisco home but he was born and raised in Florida and attended the filmmaking program at Florida State University, where he made his first films. Inspired by his friend and collaborator James Claxton, the director of photography on most of his films, he moved to San Francisco after graduation. That’s where he made his first feature, Medicine for Melancholy, about a two young African Americans in San Francisco who wake up together after a one-night hook-up and spend the next twenty-four hours getting to know each other as they compare notes being a minority in the city and the effects of gentrification. The film picked up three Independent Spirit Award nominations, including Best First Feature and Someone to Watch For, and landed a distributor. Jenkins has been busy developing follow-up features in the years since, including one with Focus Features, but to date nothing has made it to production stage. In the meantime, he’s continued to make short films.
“I like making things and every now and then an opportunity presents itself,” he explains. “The majority of these films, and I guess it’s how it always is with a filmmaker, is someone saying ‘Hey, I got a little bit of money, do you want to make something?’ and me going, ‘Sure, I’ll make something.’ I’m never going to turn down an opportunity to make something.”
“I’ve been lucky. I’ve made a lot of what, on paper, looks like a wide range of different type of things but they were just all stories I was really interested in telling. It’s a storytelling medium and I’m lucky to tell a variety of stories. But I never put a limit on myself. We’re limited enough in the world as it is.”
Richard Linklater made a splash with the micro-budget collaborative indie Slacker (1991) and followed it up with the evocative high school time capsule Dazed and Confused (1993) has never stopped trying new things. Even while he’s flirted with mainstream comedy in School of Rock (2003) and Bad News Bears (2005), he keeps returning to his indie roots, experimenting with DIY animation, documentary and oddball fiction / non-fiction hybrids like Fast Food Nation (2006). And he is one of the most collaborative filmmakers in American cinema. After exploring the brief connection between two young adults in Vienna in Before Sunrise, he reunited with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy to revisit the characters later in life, collaborating with his stars on the scripts for Before Sunset and Before Midnight to further explore characters and their lives and relationship evolved over the years. What began as a stand-alone film turned into a continuing meditation on the nature of individuals and relationships over time.
Before he embarked on Before Sunset, however, Linklater had already begun an even more unconventional project: Boyhood, a film that covers twelve years in the life of a boy (and to a less extent his older sister) growing up in Texas, from first grade to arrival at college.
Megan Griffiths is not a Seattleite by birth—she was born in Athens, Ohio and received her MFA in Film Production from the Ohio University School of Film—but she has fully embraced the city and its filmmaking culture since moving to the Pacific Northwest fourteen years ago. After receiving her first feature credit was as cinematographer on Shag Carpet Sunset (2002), she made her first feature, First Aid for Choking, in 2003, and then spent most of the decade on the film sets of fellow Seattle filmmakers. She was an assistant on Lynn Shelton’s debut feature, We Go Way Back and a first assistant director and / or producer on films by Todd Rohal (The Guatemalan Handshake, The Catechism Cataclysm), David Russo (The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle), and Robinson Devor (Zoo), among many other productions.
Her 2011 feature The Off Hours, starring Amy Seimetz as a waitress stuck working in a twenty-four-hour diner in a dreary highway town, debuted at Sundance. It earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for cinematographer Ben Kasulke and helped launch Seimetz as one of the most talented and in-demand actresses of the indie scene. Her follow-up film, Eden, won the Audience Award at SXSW 2012 and was showered with rave reviews on the festival circuit and its brief theatrical run. In Lucky Them, an offbeat buddy movie set in the margins of the Seattle music scene, Griffiths directs Toni Collette and Thomas Haden Church. It’s the first film she has not scripted herself and her biggest production to date, and it premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.
Griffiths brought the film, which was shot in Seattle, back home for a gala screening at the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival, where we caught up with the director to talk about the film and her commitment to the Seattle film community.
IFC released the film in New York and On Demand on May 30.
Keyframe: You wrote your last two films. How did the script for Lucky Them come to you and why did you decide to take it on?
Megan Griffiths: It came to me through director Colin Trevorrow, who made Safety Not Guaranteed. He and I were talking during the SIFF screening of that movie a couple of years ago. He knew Emily Wachtel, who wrote the script, and had been talking to her about trying to find the right director for it because they were friends, and as we were talking about it he said, ‘You know what? I think you’d be really good for this. Do you want to read the script?’ I read it and talked to Emily within the next couple of days, and we got along and it just kind of snowballed really quickly from there. We cast and in a few months we were shooting. It just kind of showed up through a friend.
“My films are a little weird,” says Taylor Guterson. It’s a weird statement to make about his two easygoing features. His debut Old Goats (SIFF ’11) and his new Burkholder both concern a group of of elderly, sometimes cantankerous codgers facing their retirement years on Bainbridge Island, where the director grew up. The films gently meander through their doings and conversations, which have a habit of detouring into blind alleys. Those detours are intentional, says Guterson, the son of bestselling novelist David Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars): “There are people out there who think that that’s not how you tell a story, that you never bring up something that . . . doesn’t have a point. And to me it has a point. They go off on these tangents because that’s what they do.”
Today based on the Eastside, Guterson is a self-made filmmaker with his own video production company. Chatting in a Mercer Island coffee shop, he’s like an earnest, relaxed grad student. So why, I ask, has he created a stock company of senior citizens? Reflecting on Old Goats, he says, “I was 27 and thinking, ‘If I don’t just figure out a way to do it now, I’ll never make a feature.’ ”
The new movie Noah, director Darren Aronofsky’s $130 million epic retelling of the story of Noah’s Ark and the Great Flood, carries this advisory: “While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide.”
Noah has been banned in some Middle Eastern countries, and attacked by some Christian critics for taking liberties with scripture. Aronofksy told the New Yorker that “Noah” is “the least biblical biblical film ever made,” hardly the kind of comment to calm the faithful
Fair disclaimer, but it’s likely not one that will reach all filmgoers who see “Noah” with the expectation that the Aronofsky’s version will closely mirror the biblical series of events. For a little scriptural background and film fact-checking, Steven D. Greydanus, a film critic for the National Catholic Register and his own website, Decent Films, and a Bible student at the Archdiocese of Newark viewed the film before its release. The experts’ general verdict: there’s a lot that closely mimics the epic story, but some liberties are taken. Warning: Spoilers for the film obviously follow.
Is the word God missing from the film as some critics have charged?
No, says Greydanus. “For the most part, God is referred to in the film as ‘the Creator’ and this is a creative choice that I think does a lot for the film. It helps to defamiliarize the language somewhat, it makes the figure of God a little more mysterious to us.” But His name is clearly spoken when Ham, second son of Noah, says to Tubal-cain: “My father says there can be no king. The Creator is God.”
Nollywood—Nigeria’s direct-to-video industry of scruffy, cheap films cranked out on hurried schedules and dumped onto the market at low prices—became the third largest producer of movies in the world in the 1990s. Obi Emelonye is one of the filmmakers challenging the Nollywood paradigm with the New Nigerian Cinema, a concerted effort to create domestic films strong enough to bring audiences back to the cinemas and good enough to be exported to other countries.
Emelonye, who practiced law in Great Britain for two decades, returned to Nigeria to follow his dream of filmmaking. His 2011 feature, The Mirror Boy, was a critical and commercial success and one of the few Nigerian films to be seen in film festivals outside of the country and his follow-up, the homegrown disaster film Last Flight to Abuja, was one of the top-grossing films in Nigeria in 2012. Unlike the fast, cheap, and out-of-control melodramas cranked out by Nollywood, Emelonye’s films took on more complex stories, complicated characters, and themes that cross cultures.
Last Flight to Abuja follows the model of Airport and other American and European disaster dramas of strangers tossed together in a crisis, but frames it within a distinctly Nigerian context. Though inspired by real events, it tosses a bit of everything into the ensemble: romance and marital conflict, comedy and crime, a murder, an affair, a little Nigerian star power (and it’s clear who the stars are simply by their confidence and command on the screen), and of course a crisis on an airplane. And along with the array of stories and experiences, the film presents something not seen in many Nigerian films: strong, confident, successful women in the professional world.
Emelonye took Last Flight to Abujato film festivals all over the world, including the 2013 Seattle International Film Festival, where the film made its American debut, and along with discussing his film, Emelonye showed a shrewd and necessary understanding of the business and culture of Nollywood, the efforts to create a cinema culture in Nigeria and the challenges in taking on the entrenched Nollywood industry.
Keyframe: I understand that before you started directing films you were a lawyer in Britain. Is that right?
Obi Emelonye: It’s more complicated than that. I actually studied theater and drama and film in Nigeria before I went to the U.K. And when I arrived in the U.K. I discovered that it was a bit impractical to make a living as a theater artist starting at the lowest of the lowest ranks, so I had to make a pragmatic decision to find a different career that would allow me the time to still practice my craft and also that would have transferable skills. And I thought law was that. I learned my trade and honed my skills as a filmmaker while still practicing as a lawyer until a few years ago, in 2008, when I decided to concentrate on filmmaking. So in a way I’ve gone full circle with a different career. A friend of mine says ‘Everything we are goes into everything we do.’ The more varied my life experiences are, the more varied my skill set and my knowledge is, the better I will be at whatever I decide to do. In this instance, it makes me a slightly better, more complete, more eclectic filmmaker.