Friday, February 27, 2009

Interview: Zack Snyder (Watchmen)

For 20 years Watchmen has been lauded not only the Holy Grail of the comic book genre, but also its poisoned challis. This graphic novel set in an alternate 1985 where Tricky Dick is still President, heroes don’t have superpowers, and an entire meta-fiction can be woven into the fabric of a neo-noir murder-mystery. A comic book that takes on themes of human determinism, the loss of innocence, nihilism and apocalypse. They said it was unfilmmable.

Years of Development Hell passed by, seeing Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass all attached to direct at various stages until in 2006 Zack Snyder got the call that would send him on a three year journey to this point, sat in Sydney’s Intercontinental Hotel with a journalist also a long way from home.

When I met Zack he is a bundle of energy and enthusiasm on this first leg of the press tour. A one point in our interview he stands up and paces a little, gesticulating with his all of his arms and hands to convey some point how crazy all this is whilst talking a dozen words a second. It’s infectious and it is in this moment I can see how this Zack Snyder could have be entrusted to direct such a treasured property as Watchmen – it's not completely tangible, but it is absolutely apparent,,,

This is the first leg of the press trip then?

Yeah, these are our first interviews for the world. It’s good practice: you get all the crazy shit.

How are you feeling about the film now it’s completed?

It’s pretty exciting for me. Honestly, we’ve been working on it for three years so it’s good to have it come out.

Can you remember the first time you read the Watchmen?

It was in '88 was when the book was first novelised; I missed it as singles for whatever reason, my friends were all reading it. But Watchmen really had a big impression on me, it’s weird and interesting, I haven’t analysed it too carefully but it was one of the few things at the time that – I was in film school at the time – I didn’t think about making it into a movie. I was like it is its own thing and it can’t be a movie. So it was odd when the time came around it was me they called to say ‘hey, do you wanna make this into a movie’? Cos I’d thought about everything else, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, Sin City, everything that came out I was like ‘I can make that into a movie’! But Watchmen for whatever reason I was like ‘man, I can’t make that into a movie’.

How did it feel then that day when they turned round and asked if you wanted to come do that with them?

It was scary. I got the first call from the studio actually, they said ‘we’ve got this thing Watchmen, would you be interested? We’ll send it over’. I was like ‘send it over, what do you mean’? The guy says to me ‘well, we’ve got this script, it’s called Watchmen, I think it’s based on a graphic novel’ [laughs hard]. Really, you think it’s based on a graphic novel – that’s scary. These are the things you hear and think ‘man are we in trouble’. The process was really about me trying to make them realise that it was based on a graphic novel and that it was something that was important to me.

That being said Warner Bros have done something special here in that you weren’t a name director at the time, the budget has been huge, R-rated, no A-listers in the cast…

Absolutely, 300 hadn’t come out yet, they didn’t know. They absolutely have done an amazing work; I mean the movie is bizarre and challenging and violent and sexual. It’s right out there. My editor and I would sit around and we’d be like… I remember when we first screened my director’s cut of the movie he looked at me and I looked at him and said ‘How are they going to release this movie? This is a crazy movie’. And I was just talking about distribution, this movie is going to play on like 5,000 screens in America. That is an assault on pop culture on an epic level. And a movie like this which I defy any to show me a movie with more male full frontal nudity in it, more real sexuality, pretty stunning violence and that’s just all the visual stuff let alone the intellectual challenges it presents too. I really think they have done an amazing job of keeping the movie intact.

How difficult a balancing act has that been content-wise? Obviously there are massive political undertones, thematically themes of humanism, determinism, and science, all on top of the violence and so on – how hard was it to honour and stay true to these element of the novel?

I think that was the process of making the movie to be honest. In a lot of movies the process is making sure the performance are real… it’s interesting because I never really thought of it from that perspective, cos normally the job of the director is to make sure there is truth, reality in the moment. Maybe he is designing shots, maybe he is thinking about story, but you know the moment-to-moment job is ‘yeah, that was real’. I never had that job, my job was never like ‘yeah, that was real’ [Snyder gets up from his chair for water and start punctuating his insights with his hands] because the movie is symbolic a lot of the time. You are constantly measuring tone, I was constantly going ‘gosh, did that feel, inexplicably Watchmen’, which, you know, is crazy hard. The most things I felt was geared around that inexplicable quality the movie had to have.

And hitting all those notes, they had to so specific because the characters are so fleshed out in the book, and it seems to me like you have struck the right tone with Rorschach and The Comedian and Dr Manhattan. Obviously Rorschach drives the story and Comedian is really important to so many of the most significant themes, they all are really but The Comedian in particular...

The Comedian is so super-important. You know, these are the kind of meetings you have. Again the studio has done an amazing job, but you can imagine the knee-jerk reactions where they are like: ‘listen, I’ve read the script, here’s a suggestion I would have: if you cut out The Comedian’s funeral, Dr Manhattan on Mars and Rorschach talking to psychiatrist you really streamline the film. That’s a way to really get the film [snaps his fingers] smoking along’. And I’m like, ‘well that’s a superhero movie, that’s a bad superhero movie that’s what that is’.

For me it was really important that The Comedian’s funeral we get that feeling he was all of their fathers in some way, he’s literally Laurie’s father but in the end he is all of their fathers. That idea of that influence he has over all of them, breaking down Dan, losing all of his idealism about what they are doing and basically planting in Adrian the seed of that the only way to win is to go all the way and also identifying with Manhattan that he has lost his connection to humanity.

Two of my favourite scenes, and it ties into what I wanted to ask you about the music choices, the opening scene with Nat King Cole, but especially the choice of Simon and Garfunkel’s 'Sounds of Silence' for the funeral, a song because of The Graduate that I always associate with the loss of innocence, American innocence specifically, and so bittersweet… it played to the whole contradictory nature of The Comedian…

Exactly. We had a great shot from the title sequence that I didn’t put in that I had to cut because it was just so long. One of them was Blake raising the flag on Iwo Jima by himself. It was just this awesome shot of him raising the flag and these two planes fly over him and I just thought it was interesting because it was the peak of his innocence. From there the atomic bomb drops on Hiroshima and I really tried to use that moment to begin the loss of innocence for American culture, and world culture by the way because that is the moment that you can mark in time where everything challenged. Adrian’s idea of killing hundreds of thousands to save millions is illustrated exactly in real life.

And it’s so interesting that this dystopian Captain America is the one who cracks…

You mean Blake? Absolutely, under that stress he becomes a monster. In some ways he goes through this naïve innocence to the complete opposite. He is completely broken and unimpressed with the world to the point of disdain.

To what extent do you think the Comedian is the sane one in this story then? While everyone else is completely insane he has a perfect understanding of it all…

That’s the argument that Rorschach makes at the end you know about who The Comedian is and I think it’s a strong argument. Look, Rorschach is insane, one of the lines I took out of the movie was the line, Debbie wanted me to take it out and I begrudgingly did, because I didn’t want people to think I was homophobic or anything because clearly I’m not, but the line where he says “possible homosexual, must investigate further” with regard to Adrian Veidt. And the reason I like the line is because right when you’re thinking you really like Rorschach and thinking he’s awesome, like ‘he’s my man’, suddenly he’s this homophobic psychopath. And you have to re-evaluate constantly how you feel. Those are the things the film does for me, right when you start to like a character or you start to think you understand them, they do something that makes you go ‘oh fuck, that’s right he’s a Nazi’.

Was that then the most controversial element of the book then that you had to translate for the film…

Well the attempted rape was a huge deal for the studio…

Which you guys have gone all the way with, I'm mean, that's a wow scene...

Yeah, all the way, it’s pretty hardcore. I just felt like if we were going to do it we had to go all the way and illustrate it. It doesn’t serve anyone, least of all the story, if you sugarcoat it. And also Blake killing the pregnant woman by the way was another huge deal. The studio were just like ‘what the fuck’? The problem is that moment is Manhattan’s, Blake could do that all day long, he’s going to walk out the door and kill someone else. But this moment is for Manhattan, Manhattan does nothing and that’s what is so interesting.

Well I just got my wrap up sign…

And I know I’m ranting, sorry.

It’s ok. So the book and the film are this fascinating examination of the human condition. How important do you this story is today? The book was written 25 years ago, and it’s still so relevant…

It’s incredibly relevant. When I first got the script it was updated to the war on terror, sending Manhattan to Iraq. ‘Are you kidding me’? I thought this is the lamest thing I ever read. It made the metaphor, it made the book irrelevant in some way because what it did to me was it said, ok, the movie comes out in a year and who knows, America leaves Iraq and Iraq is its own country. Suddenly the film has no relevance.

And the book is supposed to be an alternate universe anyway…

Absolutely. I was like, don’t you think it is way more powerful then us trying a comment about me trying to make a comment about the war in Iraq? What the fuck do I know really? I’m not on a political TV show commentating about politics, I’m just trying to comment on the human experience, which the book does really well and allows those metaphors to then say ‘that makes me feel this way about the war in Iraq’. That’s much more powerful to me than my point of view on the war in Iraq – who gives a fuck? It’s me, what do I know.

The book is amazing well written. A reporter asked me, ‘now that Barack Obama has been elected President, do you feel like the movie is less relevant’? Wow, that’s really optimistic, it’s only been a couple of weeks. I mean I hope that’s true – it’d be awesome if the movie became obsolete because we were living and everyone was holding hands and singing songs at the end. Is that a post Veidt world or a pre-Veidt world?

That was one of those things I found very fascinating, the cyclical nature of the world, now the Russians are coming back and things are crazy – it never finishes. The book really points out, so we have Vietnam, we have Iraq, we have the Cold War with the Russians, we have the war on terror – there is no end. Just like in the end of the movie we see, “I know what Jon would say.” That line in the graphic novel is given to Manhattan, “Nothing ends, nothing ever ends.” But it is interesting coming out of Laurie’s mouth because it comes at the very end of the movie and because of the cyclical nature of things it’s not the very end. It’s closure but it’s not at all. Sorry, I didn’t mean to rant.

Watchmen is released in cinemas March 6, 2009.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

Interview: Deborah Snyder (producer, Watchmen)

As the press machine for Watchmen slowly began to start turning over, I was first in line to interview Debbie Snyder, Zack’s partner in production and in life. Her feature debut as a producer was on 300 which was made the company Debbie and Zack’s co-founded Cruel and Unusual Films (one suspect’s Zack came up with the name). In this interview Debbie reveals the plans for the director’s cut DVD to be released in July, the lawsuit that made us wonder if we’d ever see the film and Zack’s Watchmen mixtapes…

So the copy of the film I saw yesterday didn’t have credits – you guys really have been working right up to the last minute finish the film…

Yeah, you use all the time you can! The more you can steal for the visual effects, we just kept pushing it and pushing it.

How long have you been in top gear for then?

It’s been crazy. We finished shooting in February, and the other thing is we did three versions of the film. We have the version you saw which is two hours and 36 minutes; and Zack’s director’s cut which will be released on the DVD in July is three hours long; and we did the ultimate Watchmen which has the Black Freighter story that goes in and out with the newsstand stuff – that is three hours and 24 minutes I think. That’ll get released around Christmas time. I was like, wow, that’s an hour longer.

It’s almost a whole other movie!

It really is. We were trying to do it the most efficient and economically, we tried to finish them all at the same time, which lengthened our post-production a little bit.

When was the first time you read the book?

Zack was a fan but it was until Warner Bros, Larry Gordon and Lloyd Levin came and said do you want to do Watchmen that Zack was like ‘oh, I don’t know’. I was not a comic book fan and he told me I really needed to read this. It really was at the beginning of our process when I started reading it and I got to the first Black Freighter bit and I was suddenly, just, woah. Zack told me to read it first skipping the Black Freighter bits, which is what I did, and then go back and read it all the way through. I think it took me two weeks to really digest what it was.

I started to do research and you start to realise all the annotated Watchmen that break down every frame, and which really intrigued me as a non-fanboy or fangirl. It’s very genre and there was question of how it’s going to appeal to a mass audience, I said I thought all the things that Watchmen does really makes it accessible only because, even if you’re not a fan of superheroes, there is so much more. There are these great characters that aren’t just black and white, it’s not like there is a bad guy and a good guy, there’s dimensions. It’s about real people with real problems and it asks bigger questions. For me this as not a big comic book fan, I didn’t think it would be possible in a comic. [The film] scared me because it was so big and it is the Holy Grail, but I also felt that there was so much more to it, it was so intriguing to me the more I learned about it.

How difficult a time have you had as a result of the lawsuit as a production company and a team just trying to put this film out there?

Listen, it’s been extremely difficult for Larry and Lloyd because really with out their tenacity, I mean if it wasn’t for them working so hard, and every time people said no and they got into production, they kept going and going. I mean it’s incredible that the movie has gotten made and it is all to their credit. But listen, no-one wants there to be a lawsuit and for us, because Zack and I weren’t really a part of that, we were in the middle of finishing the movie which, luckily for us, gave us something to focus on because we were still worried about how long it was and whether it was the best cut. So we had practical things to worry about and also not being lawyers, while I think in the back of our minds we were a little nervous, we just figured they would figure it out. It was in everybody’s best interest for the film to be released.

Lloyd Levin also published a very candid and emotional letter

A very heartfelt letter…

Yeah, I think when he came out and said those things people realised at that point what a labour of love this movie was for himself and Larry Gordon… what were they like to work with?

They are awesome, supportive and complete experts. They’ve been down the road so many times and have read the graphic novel probably more than anyone else out there. In every way they were just perfect partners. Everyday there was knowledge that they could bring to it and they were supportive of Zack’s vision. We’ve had a really great relationship with them. Again, it’s their passion, 20 years is a long time to get something made. After a while you would just want to thrown in the towel and they just kept going.

There are so many things that make this film unique despite the fact that it is this long established product. How special is this film and how important are Warner Bros in this story considering that it’s gone out of it’s way to make this $100 million movie with no real established A-list actors, Zack as an up and coming director?

Extremely. They have been so supportive of us, even when we were making 300 I don’t think they fully understood that it wasn’t going to be another Troy or Alexander that we wanted to do something different and really transform that whole sword and sandles genre. Zack was very clear in his vision and even though they didn’t know exactly what is was going to be they supported him, and because of the success of this extremely violent film based on a graphic novel, that enabled us to move forward with Watchmen. Listen, it’s scary, it asks a lot of an audience Watchmen. It is violent and it is sexy and it is long because it has such a story to tell.

And it has intellectual depth…

And it has depth. I think Dark Knight set it up because it has changed the way we see things – it was a great stepping-stone for us. Absolutely it is unique for a studio to sit there and take a chance to do something bold. When you are in these uncharted territory it is really scary, there is a lot riding on it and a lot of money riding on it. Everyone’s inclination is to take the safe road, but I also think that audiences are becoming so sophisticated and they are so sick of things being regurgitated that if you want something new you are rewarded. Audiences are a lot smarter than a lot of Hollywood gives them credit for. I also feel that with everyone now having these huge plasma TVs at home you need to give people reason to go to the movies, an experience, because otherwise you can get you Blu-ray DVD and sit at home. The films that we make I think you want to see on a big screen.

What are you favourite memories coming of the back of making the film?

I think the first time we saw Dr Manhattan, because Zack didn’t want to just paint someone blue. We had this idea, what if we made Dr Manhattan a light source and we put [Billy Crudup] in a suit and put these tracking marks on him. It sounded like it could work… the first time we saw a test and Sony Image Works did Dr Manhattan, it was a shot of his head one of the animators had him talking we were just ‘oh my God, this could work’. It’s a moment when you realise you could pull of everything you’ve been talking about. That was a good day.

It a large ensemble cast, what were they all like to work with?

I think they were only ever all together when we took the photographs of the Minutemen and the Watchmen, which was actually at the beginning and we had Dave Gibbons there. That was a really special moment. We were really nervous because while Zack had talked to Dave a lot on the phone and Dave had drawn some concept work and the storyboards, you’re out there in Vancouver making choices and you’re aware Dave is coming, ‘is he going to like it’? There’s this nervous anticipation coupled with the fact that it was the first time we had everyone together and also the first time we had everyone in their superhero costumes, so that was exciting. We all breathed a sign of relief because Dave seemed happy.

How much time did you guys spent bashing out the decisions over the music because they are some amazing choices in there: Nat King Cole in the opening sequence, Bob Dylan in the opening credits and my favourite bit The Comedian’s funeral…

The Simon and Garfunkel… which I think is only the second time they’ve licensed that song, the first of course being The Graduate. The way Zack’s process works is that he draws every frame and when he is drawing he listens to music, that’s how he visually and sonically does that. We had a really good guide because there are a lot of references in the graphic novel to particular songs, to Bob Dylan and so whenever there was a reference we pulled the song and made a mixtape. Zack as he was drawing would get inspired by certain songs and put it on that mixtape. Actually before we started shooting when we were still working on development he hadn’t out a cd with I think 15 songs, of which 12 made it into the movie I think, of the songs that were either from the graphic novel or had inspired him as he was working on it and we gave it to all the departments to inspire them. It was kind of an interesting process with the music. Tyler Bates did the score and he had worked on Dawn Of The Dead and the 300.

Dr Manhattan’s theme was another element of the music I felt was pitch perfect…

We licensed Phillip Glass’s music for his origin story. We were playing around with it while we were working on the edit and there was something about it that was just visceral and we immediately wanted to see if we could get it because it was just perfect.

I’ve got the signal for last question so, given the themes of the film, would you rather live in a peaceful world predicated on a lie or in a world of honest good old fashioned violent humanity?

[laughs] God, well, that is the question isn’t it? Was Adrian right or was he wrong? Is he the villain or is he the hero, right? Which kind of world would I live in? God, that’s a hard one, I don’t know if I can answer that.

How do you think audiences will deal with that question? It’s still amazingly prescient…

It really is and it is one of the other things with the ending, when the studio first say it they were like, ‘you need to kill Adrian, he has to die in the end’. And there was a version of the script when we first started the movie where Adrian died and it was one of the things we changed. Zack said this isn’t Watchmen, if you don’t come out of that theatre and say was he right or was he wrong – and I want some people to think he was not the villain at all and other people to think ‘what, are you crazy’? That’s the question Watchmen asks, if you lose that you don’t have Watchmen. So it was interesting because that was a big struggle for us to maintain. The studio were like how is that going to make people feel, it’s going to make them uncomfortable. Absolutely, it should make uncomfortable. I think a lot of times Hollywood wants to tie everything up in a nice little bow and happy package. If it gets people talking that’s what you want, whether people like it or not. If it gets people to talk about it and analyse it then I think we’ve done our job. We’ll see what happens…

Interview by Scott Henderson (Feb 12, 2009)
Watchmen is released in Australia March 6, 2009
Check back in on Dark Habits for interview with director Zack Snyder.


Classic Scene #2: "What do you want?"

Okay, so we're starting back up Classic Scene here on Dark Habits and I thought given I'm still living in Australia I would cast an eye back to something with a bit of Antipodean flavour. Crocodile Dundee might not be a film many (any?) people consider a classic but I would argue that Paul Hogan's portrayal of exotic Aussie bloke Mick who's-one-with-the-bush is a caricature worthy of classic status. More than that even, Crocodile Dundee is also a bloody good love story half set in the home of the romantic comedy New York City...

No doubt most remember the scene in which Linda Kozlowski got attacked by the croc whilst wearing that slip of a swimming costume or perhaps Mick showing us what a real knife looks like, but for me it's the ending that gets me every time. Accompanied by a wonderful emotion score that never fails to carry me away in the moment underpinned by dramatic tension of potentially losing someone you care for without ever telling them you love them; it might be the stuff of Hollywood but damn if it isn't executed well here.

There's character arc in Kozlowski's Sue Charlton fighting off a harasser by kneeing him in the balls (check out the breakdancing who glides out the way in the background) and there's a genius subtle streak of comedy from the supporting players especially in the game of Chinese whispers. First the helpful concierge with that knife, and the New Yawk construction worker who gets to tell Mick he loves him, and then my personal favourite Sullivan Walker credited as Tall Man. When Sue answers his question "what do you want", he turns with a facial expression that speaks a thousand words for the briefest of moments that says 'this lady's crazy but I'm gonna to roll with it'. Finally, when he turns and asks "why not" he is the screenwriter's tool and the audience at once.

In a city like New York, where the personal and private becomes public the finale is all the more enriching for the shared experience. A moment on the subway when angry, sweaty and invaded commuters come together to the point which they will cheer and clap a guy in pointy leather boots walking across their heads.

Happy endings might often be the obvious endings, but sometimes they are also the perfect ones.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Interview: Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen)

Jeffrey Dean Morgan is lying down on a bench far too small for him when I walk into the room set aside for our interview. A former dying patient on Grey’s Anatomy Morgan looks nmore like an LA rock star right now; all black clothes, silver rings and chains and bits of leather wrapped around his wrists. The grizzled star of Watchmen – in which he plays Eddie Blake, aka The Comedian – is wired on the coffee infused with dashes of Bailey’s that have been kept in fresh supply by the publicists. Regardless of his jetlag-compromised state of mind Morgan is funny and charming as he regales stories of seeing Archie for the first time and why The Comedian is just misunderstood. But before I’m even ready to begin, The Comedian starts the interview for me…

How are things?

I’m really well thanks, how are your things?

Good, good. It’s been a long day and I’m feeling it a little bit.


Yeah, at about two o’clock today, just boom [claps hands]. But I’m doing well, hanging in there.

The journalists have all been kind to you?

They’ve all been great, thankfully everyone has liked the movie so that’s helped a great deal doing these.

The film really is an amazing accomplishment, I loved the music… I think perhaps you get one of the best funeral songs of all time.

It’s great, one of my favourite things is that soundtrack and I love that they got all the songs that are mentioned in the novel as well, that Zack fought for and got them is great.

Had you read the graphic novel yourself before becoming involved?

I hadn’t no, I never came from the world of comic books or graphic novels. I’d never heard of it and you know when I found out about this project I was told you’re going to meet with Zack Snyder who directed the 300, you’re meeting him tomorrow and we’re going to send over some material and what they sent me, which was really funny, was a Xeroxed copy of Watchmen, someone had Xeroxed everything. So it wasn’t even the novel and devoid of all colour.

Cheap bastards…

Yeah really [laughs], that’s exactly the thought that went through my head. And then of course I read it, got to page three and I was like ‘I’m dead? You send me this phonebook and I die on page three. The response from my agent was can you just finish it, can you just read the whole thing before you pass judgment? I put it down after I read it the first time and was just ‘what the hell did I just read’ you know? It’s just such a massive, dense and epic piece of work. I’ve since read that thing I can’t even tell you, like 30 or 40 times and I’m surprised how continuously whenever I read it there is something new I notice, or some nuance about the book. It’s an amazing piece of work, I don’t know how I could ever get sick of reading it and I don’t can’t say that about a whole lot of things I’ve read. And that’s not just cos I’m in the fucking thing! We all became such rabid fans of Watchmen in the process of doing this it’s just been a thrill.

I saw the film for the first time three weeks ago having been a part of it for two years now I guess, really just kind of living and breathing it Watchmen for so long and finding out about the fans of this novel and the passion everyone has and frankly being a little bit scared about it you know. Everyone has questioned if Zack is the right guys, if these are the right actors, all sort of impassioned blogs on the Internet about the potential fuck ups we were gonna make. I know how hard we’d worked on it, but to finally see it and what Zack has done, it exceeded my expectations that were really high.

Of all the characters Eddie Blake, The Comedian, was the one you really had to have the courage of your convictions to translate to the screen. How was it for you playing the anti-Captain America?

The world where I had come from being this really nice guy on a television show who dies this was the polar opposite. Reading it the first time I knew this was what I’d really love to do as an actor. It’s a complete flip flop from what I’ve been doing, not that I don’t love what I do in being the nice guy and all, but I really wanted to show what I could do with this. It’s a testament to Zack for deciding after meeting me that I could pull it off. Not to say there weren’t moment that were really hard, Blake has some serious stuff that, I don’t care if you’re only working in a movie, that’s hard stuff to even shoot. Beating the crap out of Carla (Gugino – Sally Jupiter), that was a hard couple of days of filming.

But it was also a really cool thing, and this shows how complex and crazy the Watchmen world is, what I loved about The Comedian/Blake was I didn’t hate him. No matter how many times I’ve read this thing, no matter what he does, I never hated him. I had kind of a sympathy for him. I still can’t quite put a finger on it, but I know that it was really important in one of my first meetings with Zack when he said ‘it’s yours if you want it’, it was really important to me to somehow humanise this guy amidst all the shit that he causes. Assuming, uncaring, doesn’t give a shit about anything kind of guy, I mean he really doesn’t give a shit about anything, then you find out that he in fact does and there’s this humanity to him that is sort of crazy. Trying to bring that to the screen in such a short time-span is difficult.

Despite the fact he is this vigilante, murderer and rapist, do you think he is just a little bit misunderstood?

He is a little bit misunderstood. I like to say he had some communication problems. He really needed to go to the Hallmark store, get a couple of greeting cards for Silk Spectre along the way, that might have solved some problems [laughs]. I always play him like the love of his love was the original Silk Spectre and when he fucked that up, you know I always think he was a very hard man. When he was 16 or 17 I think there was still maybe some hope for him, but what happens that night with the attempted rape whatever chance he has of having a relatively normal existence is gone. That’s when the hard man emerges and relishes being the hard man. That’s way he’s so successful in Vietnam and other efforts.

Obviously you had some of the much heavier scenes to film, but to get away from that what were some of your favourite memories from the set?

My single memory, I mean I’ll remember all of it, but the one thing that I will remember forever was when we were doing the Keene riots. It was so cold and we were working all night, getting the age makeup was a long process, I remember walking out and they’d already lit the buildings on fire and the bus was on fire and Archie is floating about my head and there’s 500 extras freezing their asses off, and this alternate reality was right there in front of me: it was a panel right out of that fucking book come to life. It hit me in that moment, I was just ‘oh my God, we are making this movie’. And we’d been living that movie a month, I’d been training and all this stuff for five or six months, but that moment and seeing that was so weird and surreal. I was just ‘oh right, this is for real’. I knew what Zack’s vision was all of a sudden. There was some moment there as I was getting ready to jump out of Archie that I knew we were making something special. It was cool.

Talking to Malin I just really got the impression from her just how onboard everyone was, 150 per cent believing in what they were doing. How much of that is down to Zack and what he brought to the table?

He’s the captain of the ship, he brought everybody together from the director of photography Larry Fong – I mean it’s beautifully shot, an amazing piece of work – all the way down to craft service, this all comes from Zack. The cast, he put together not a well-known group of actors, he could’ve got anybody to do this movie and instead he went this alternate route. But what he did that was really impressive was the love that everybody kinda had, it wasn’t like we were doing this $150 million movie at all, it was like we were doing a $1 million movie and we were all pitching in our own money. Everyone cared about it and were like ‘let’s not fuck this up’, so it became this humongous passion project for 600 people. That was trip.

I don’t know anyone else who could have done it other than Zack. It was a hard shoot, it was long, winter in Vancouver, colder than shit, there were a lot of night and the hours were stupid and in the middle of this is Zack keeping the ball rolling. He kept everyone happy and we all wanted to work and do our best for him, he’s that kind of guy. Extraordinary man. And now that I’ve seen the movie…

How did you feel about the ending?

Unbelievable, I thought it was great. Did you?

I thought it was great… like a lot of people I knew what was coming and I was still just hanging on the edge of my seat.

Yeah, I think he did it man, he made the unfilmable novel. That’s an amazing thing to say, the unfilmable novel and everyone has been saying it for 20 years. I saw it and he did it. And to be a part of that is the coolest thing ever. I can’t believe it. I’m still pinching myself and I was a part of that thing. And I’m The Comedian, come on… holly shit! Best role in the movie I reckon.

Interview by Scott Henderson (Feb 12, 2009)
Watchmen is released in Australia March 6, 2009
Check back on Dark Habits for interviews with director Zack Snyder and producer Debbie Snyder.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Interview: Malin Akerman (Watchmen)

Until recently Swedish born Canadian model turned actress Malin Akerman would probably have done well to be recognised as that crazy blonde psycho from Ben Stiller’s The Heartbreak Kid. Not so much anymore: Malin it seems is destined to become the next Hollywood household name if Watchmen hits a home run, and probably even if it doesn’t.

When I caught up with Malin I found her to be quite a genuine, unassuming and fun-loving character with honest, smiling eyes, and one who has come a long way to find this role. As Silk Spectre II/Laurie Jupiter, Malin puts in a solid performance that at times is very good. Her dialogue might not always hit the mark, but I was impressed by the sense of wonder she brought to the character. Here she tells me how she became involved in Watchmen, her thoughts on Laurie and about singing karaoke with Patrick Wilson and Billy Crudup…

How are you doing?

I’m alright.

Feeling pretty excited yet?

Oh my God, you know what’s really cool has been getting all of people’s reactions to the film today. This is our first view into what people are thinking and feeling about it.

Is this the first press you guys have done since finishing the film?

We haven’t done anything yet, you guys are the first. You’re popping our cherries! We’re still excited at this point – I can’t say what we’ll be like by the end of the month… we’ve got a long way ahead.

So, the inevitable question you'll be asked a hundred more time: had you read the novel before casting?

Not before casting, I read the script and after reading the script I went out and bought the book right away. I read the script, did the initial audition just off the script then bought the novel and started reading it and was amazed at how allegiant it was apart from few scenes cut out because of length issues. I read it and fell in love with it like any fan and I get the craze for it, it’s so well written and such a thought-provoking novel. Yeah, that was my first time and I got to read it before I went in for my second audition.

What was your impression when you read the script; was it something that surprised you?

Yes, I didn’t understand what had just happened to me. I mean I did understand, but it was one of those things where you just could never have expected, at all. When I was told it was based on a graphic novel I was expecting Superman, Batman, but it’s nothing like that at all. It’s very disconcerting and it turns your stomach at certain times and makes you happy at others. It really is an emotional rollercoaster you go through that leaves you thinking at the end going, ‘shit, so who is the bad guy’?

What was that casting process like and talking through those themes with Zack Snyder?

The casting process was quite quick, just two times. One was I sent in a tape and he responded to it and I went and met with him and we just connected just as people. You know Zack has so much energy and he’s so enthralling and gets you excited. We talked about Laurie a bit and it’s easy to relate to her aside from the fact that she’s a crime-fighter, which I’ve never been. She is a girl who has a complicated relationship with one of her parents, her mother, and she’s going through a crisis figuring out who she is as an individual and what she wants to with her life. You know we all go through that soul-searching coming of age. So we were just talking about making her a real person who happens to be a crime-fighter. I mean that’s basically what it is, we’re not superhuman, we don’t have powers, it’s a real story and the struggles are more within us than it is bad versus good in the real world.

Laurie is an interesting character and has a lot more to her beneath that surface level, a sense of pent up anger and frustration with her life and also these other scenes in the film where she has a total sense of wonder about the world around her…

Absolutely, for me it was almost as if she had grown up in a family where she had a stage mom who pushed her into something she didn’t necessarily have a choice in and I think there’s a lot of resentment in her toward that. That’s where her anger comes from fighting crime and doing her thing. She’s go that fire within her but at the same time she’s feels very innocent because I think she’s been very sheltered at the same time. She’s has lived with Dr Manhattan for 15 years, she doesn’t really know the real world, it’s such an alternate world for her compared to everyone else living around her. I think that’s why the range of emotions is such, because she gets out into the real world and finds a real man that she falls in love with and she gets to take out her anger and reconcile with her mother. It’s very real for her, almost like a child coming into age when she leaves Dr Manhattan.

All the characters have some kind of arc but Laurie’s does feel like one of the largest and most tangible…

It’s a nice sort of journey that most people take over a matter of years, finding out who they want to be and what they want to do.

How hands-on is Zack as a director?

He’s very hands on in the sense that he is super supportive and he knows what he needs to get out of us. But you know he was very collaborative, a lot of times we’d all come in and be like ‘this line in the book is really cool, can’t we incorporate it into the scene’, and he’d be like ‘yeah sure, let’s give it a shot’. He was always excited and his energy level was always a 100 per cent, he never lost his cool. He was phenomenal to work with, I put all my trust in him working on this.

It sounds from what you’re saying, and some of the other impressions I get from the film and the people I’ve spoken to, that what everyone has brought to this project. Everyone brought 110 per cent and really gone for it… it must have been an amazing cast and crew to work with…

Yeah it was incredible and I think that anyone what reads Watchmen automatically becomes a fan – it’s just too good. So when we had all read the novel and started working on this film we knew what we were getting ourselves into and we all wanted to make it the best it could be because we were all now fans. It was a fabulous experience, the actors were great, I’m so happy Zack choose the people he did, every single one of them was perfectly cast. It just felt like everyone just fell into their characters and it was an amazing thing to watch. The crew were amazing, it was just such a supportive environment and we needed that because it was six months of work.

How difficult was it for you as an actress to work opposite Billy Crudup covering in blue LED lights?

It was crazy, the first week it took a bit of getting used too. Poor Billy, everyone just laughed in his face. It was just such a silly costume and he’s supposed to be this larger than life type of character and here he is looking like a human Christmas tree. We poked a lot of fun at him. There was a lot of imagination that you had to use in scenes with Billy, but you got used to it after a while of course and it wasn’t hard because he is such a wonderful actor as well. Once you start to get into it you forget about all of the dots on his face and the light. But yeah, it wasn’t easy at first, it was a little challenge to overcome.

Always with these big ensemble casts that strike up a repartee there are some great stories, anything you could share?

There are stories that I can’t really talk about… no I’m just kidding. We all hung out a lot together. I can’t remember anything on set…

Off-set is good too!

Off set, well you know I had one really fun night with Patrick (Wilson) and Billy and all the rest of the boys out of town…

It must have been a bit of boys club…

It was a bit of a boys club going on and I love it, you guys are so cool. We were walking down the streets after dinner in an area where there were a bunch of Korean stores and we said, let’s go do some Karaoke. And so we walked upstairs into this very random Korean shopping mall and at the very back there was these tiny little karaoke booths and so there I was singing karaoke with Billy Crudup and Patick Wilson. Billy was singing Sinaad O’Conner and it was just a surreal amazing moment and we had so much fun. It was so random. Patrick Wilson is an amazing singer, he was Phantom of the Opera at some point, yeah, he did the show as the Phantom.

You didn’t get some cast and crew karaoke going in later then?

We wanted to, we never got around to it…

Obviously you wouldn’t let Patrick Wilson play.

Yeah, he’s not allowed. Well he had to add a lot of foul words to the songs to make it kinda fun you know cos otherwise it’s not fair.

What your take on the ending? Would you rather live in the peaceful world with the lie or continue on in this honest violent world we live in today?

I would prefer the first, because there’s this old saying what you don’t know won’t hurt you. And there’s some truth to that. If the end result is what matters, then however you’re going to get there – actually let’s not put it that way because I don’t know how I feel about the people who have to die to get there. It’s a really tough question. I’d prefer the little white lie, just a little white lie you know.

Has working on Watchmen opened doors for you? Are you already finding that to be the case you think?

Absolutely, I feel like it’s opened doors to not only comedies now and this was exactly what I was hoping. I wasn’t specifically looking for Watchmen and I’m so glad that’s what it became, but I was looking for something that wasn’t comedy and when I read the script it was phenomenal and a great opportunity and I still can’t believe I got it, it’s just crazy. But definitely it has opened more doors to non-comedic roles, so now I can do both.

Interview by Scott Henderson (Feb 12, 2009)
Watchmen is released in Australia March 6, 2009
Check back on Dark Habits for interviews with Zack Snyder, Debbie Snyder and the Comedian himself, Jeffrey Dean Morgan.


Watchmen review: some early thoughts

So the embargo (Australian at least – already a punch up brewing between US critics on twitter as I write) has been lifted and today I saw Watchmen for the second time. I haven't as yet been able to sit down a really bash out all my thoughts on the film in a critical fashion (that's for later tonight) but here I just want to share with you my impressions and reflection on the experience as well as my reaction to the film...

There's going to be something like two distinct groups of people who go to see Watchmen at the cinema: those who have read the graphic novel and have experienced the months and months of endless anticipation and build up to the release; and then there will be those who haven't read the novel and are just going because the trailer looks great, it's full of superheroes and the advertising spend is huge.

Falling into the previous of those two my feelings are that the film is absolutely a success and can bare the weight of expectation for anyone reasonably-minded. For the uninitiated I envy the wild ride you are about to embark on, the transformation the comic book genre might take in your perception and that as a result you too might be encouraged to seek out the original book and read it for the first time, experiencing a property that has meant so much to so many for so long.

Contained within the glorious opening punch-up and the wonderfully vaudevillian credits sequenced played out to Bob Dylan's 'Times They Are A-Changing' are the beats, themes and spirit in which director Zack Snyder has gone about capturing the essence of Watchmen. Darkness and the loss of innocence is all pervasive.

Stripped from the film are elements such as the Black Freighter (to be inserted separately and in its entirety in the director's ultimate cut on DVD), sub plots with psychiatrist's home life, and police detectives. Snyder, using David Hayter and Alex Tse's fission-fused screenplay, resolutely stays as close as possible to Rorschach's (Jackie Earle Hayley) mean streets noir pursuit of Edward Blake's (masked 'hero' The Comedian) killer. Hayley is brilliant as the menacing, snarling, ass-kicking masked vigilante with sociopathic tendencies. Rorschach looks and moves the part as he slopes about the rain-drenched city in his fedora, trechcoat and ink-oscillating mask before leaping into action with the reflexes of a puma when called upon.

Patrick Wilson hits all the rights notes as washed-up Nite Owl Dan Dreiberg, always with a simmering strength beneath his bookish exterior. Malin Akerman doesn't always convince in her line delivery, though this might be do to some too literal page to screen transfers of slightly clunky dialogue, but does reach levels of wonder, hurt and innocence in the character of Laurie (Silk Spectre II). She also looks great and kicks ass in leather. And Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian? He nails it, you'll wanna hate him, but he's just too fucking good... argh.

I don't have time to write much more at this junction, I've another screening to go to, but the bigger themes of Watchmen are truly to be found within Snyder's film. Questions of humanity, determinism, mutually assured destruction are all handled well and concisely for the discerning viewer – never lost amid a flurry of slo-mo action sequences that are frankly stunning. Punches land with thunderous impacts, bones snap with sickening cracks, knifes plunge into flesh, glass shatters and blood splatters. Snyder showed up what he could do with 300, and revels in his style here whilst never going overboard.

There are definitely flaws: Ozymandias is largely a disconnected figure hard to associate with and the tougher philosophical questions his character asks, as well as his place in an argument of good and evil, is not as well-delineated as I would have liked and as a result the ending suffers just enough to notice. Second time round this came across much better, but I think I was filling in more gaps this time round. Also Matthew Goode might be the weakest of all the castings – which is disappointing.

Watchmen is a wholly satisfying intellectual and emotional experience as a film removed from its paper context, and one hell of a action ride. For my money it was better than The Dark Knight, which people forget was far from a perfect film itself.

WatchmenQ&As to appear here this week with Zack and Debbie Snyder, Malin Akerman and Jeffrey Dean Morgan.
Watchmen is released in cinemas March 6, 2009.

Scott Henderson


Monday, February 23, 2009

Film review: The Combination

Director: David Field
Cast: George Basha, Clare Bowen, Firass Dirani
Country: Australia

Gangland immigrant tales have been a staple of American cinema for years. As a genre it traditionally explores issues of racism, violence and disconnected youth, but always within a very specific cultural context, whether that be Italian American, African Americans or otherwise. These Bronx Tales of Boyz In The Hood are not the sole-prerogative of the American immigrant experience as testified by The Combination. Welcome to the mean streets of the Sydney’s western suburbs...

Newly released from prison, John Morkos (screenwriter George Basha) is returning to his Lebanese-Australian family with change on his mind. Back home with his mother John looks to reassume the man of the house role over his 17-year old younger brother Charlie (Firass Dirani), who through a mixture of social circumstance and peer pressure is starting to become involved with a gang of lads led by Zeus (Ali Haider). As violence and drugs take an increasing strangle hold on Charlie it is up to John to protect him and his family.

The Combination isn’t all guns and gangsters as no film with two sides of a cultural fence is complete without a Romeo and Juliet. After arriving home John meets Sydney (Clare Dowen), a young, beautiful white girl he saves from a pair of nasty would be harassers/muggers (non-whites for the record). Poor John’s courting skills are a little bit rusty after a couple of years in Joliet and so invites her to the boxing gym where he works for a bit of self-defense training around a bunch of other leering sweaty men. It’s probably not the most successful first date ever but enough to earn John a second shot before the two inevitably fall in love.

It is through Sydney that audience experiences much of the cultural beauty within the Lebanese community, the food, the generosity, dancing in restaurants. Of course it is also through Sydney, and more specifically Sydney’s parents, that we experience some of the social observations about prejudice and xenophobia The Combination contends with. The long and short of the film's non-too subtle remarks sees white people assume dark people are Muslims (which is like double points prejudice), states Lebanese-Australians are Australians too, portrays the older generations against mixed relationships (“It’s not racist, that’s just the way it is”) and that racism is, you know, bad.

George Basha does some good work here but his script while very competent is a little on the nose, falling into obvious narrative traps and archetypes. Impressive support does come from the film’s younger talent, in particular Haider and Dirani respectively as the gang leader destined for jail or worse and the kid-in-the-wrong-crowd who might just be going with him.

Debutant director David Field with Basha’s screenplay has transplanted this classic American genre experience into Australia with some success here. The Combination might not be this year’s Bra Boys, but it certainly is an interesting companion piece.

UPDATE (2/3/09): In light of reports coming out of The Combination's first weekend in Australia I wanted to make an annotation to this review, not something I've done before but with the wonder that is blogging about film... I mainly left it out first time round because in some regard it gives away the ending's climax, one that I think is pretty inevitable.
Violence proliferates The Combination and the film makes explicit mention of the 2005 Cronulla Riots here in Sydney, during which the action takes place as a background to reference rather than a driving force in the narrative. Fights in school, street stabbings over video games and the tentacles of gang violence in general reach deep into the live's of the main protagonists. These actions (and involvement with drug dealers) are not without their repercussions as some boys go to jail and while others head for the morgue – violence is not the answer is screenwriter Basha and director Field's resolute message. That is until it is necessary for a narrative exclamation mark of course.
In respect of this central meme of The Combination the film sacrifices much of effort to show the consequences of violence in favour of an act of vigilante justice which says it's okay when someone who deserves much worse instead just gets beaten senseless and humiliated in front of more upstanding members of the community. It is a moment that muddies the message and one showed a lack of courage, or thought, in its completion of the circle of violence.

The Combination hits cinemas February 26
To read my interview with director David Field click here


Interview: director David Field

A couple of weeks ago I spoke to David Field about his directorial debut The Combination, a new Australia film exploring gang violence in Sydney’s western suburbs. It was a pretty interesting chat about the film’s background and the issues faced by the Lebanese-Australia community…

Was the screening last week the first time you’d sat down and seen the film with the cast?

No, I’ve had one cast and crew screening I’d already sat in, but this was only the second time I’d really sat through the film with any sort of audience.

How are you and the cast all feeling about it now that the film’s finished and you just gotta get people out to see it?

Well yeah, the hard work is still to come unfortunately mate. I think almost this is the hardest part of the film, especially in this country where Australian films aren’t carrying any currency with them at the moment and it’s difficult to get to the screens to reach your audience. So it’s actually quite a difficult time, the easy part is making the film and that’s the joy, when you are in your pleasure. This other stuff is a real learning curve, especially for me. I think the cast and crew though are all very proud of what they’ve done and confident that they have at least made a film that certainly can be respected.

This is your feature directorial debut, how did you come to be involved with the project?

I was selling a car to a couple of Lebanese mates seven years ago up in the Cross, they came up to discuss the price, saw that I was an actor and said they had a mate who was also an actor and I said great, get him on the phone and we’ll have a chat. We happened to have been in the same film Blackrock five year earlier and George (Basha) had written a script because there was no real work for him as a Lebanese actor, he couldn’t seem to break back into the back again. He had written this script, I read it and thought it was a really important piece of work. So we’ve spent the past seven years working on a script, developing it to a point where we were happy and trying to raise money in between.

How much did you know about the Lebanese-Australia experience prior to that?

I think like a lot of people, more of what you hear than what you know. Obviously it was a real eye-opening for me getting into that world. The moment I entered George’s street I know I was in a world I hadn’t been in before. I was so welcome by the community and his family. One of the things that appealed to me in the script was that we could find the beauty in the Lebanese culture, which is why I never wanted to shoot the film like TV with handhelds or fast cutting. I wanted to see the beauty of the world come out as much as the ferocity of everything else going on around it.

There’s obviously an authenticity throughout the film, and in the music as well, that must have been hugely important for you…

A lot of people haven’t mentioned the music and I’m glad you have. I think Labib Jammal’s music here surely one of the best soundtracks to come out of this country for a long, long time, not just for its authenticity, but its artistry. Jimmy really knows how to sit with a film and feel a film, like that beautiful scene that comes out of the break-up of the couple and into the shooting at the dance – it’s just a masterful piece of sound and music work that goes on there.

Morricone used to state that you should never have more than two sounds on the screen, that was his golden rule and I always thought it was a wonderful idea. We actually tried to stick to that formula throughout the film but we got to that point and there was three or four sounds coming through and it just adds to this segue-way from the lovers fight to this amazing scene then come out of it with Mishline Jammal singing. I just think he was able to do what a lot of people in this country can’t, which is instead of backing up the violence with some overt sound that we’re all supposed to get scared by and intensifying the drama, what he has done is worked against it with a beautiful ‘scape that holds the drama up. I think he is an extraordinary talent and we were lucky to find him.

How much of what you captured of the Lebanese culture was from George’s input and how much from what you saw as necessary?

That was always a mixture, I was probably as pushy as George about that. I always knew that the restaurant scene was one that I wanted to make the audience wish they were there for, that they could get up and dance right there and then. Anywhere we could encapsulate that we tried to move towards it. Even the shots of Parramatta with them by the river almost has that Venetian look. We tried to utilise the beauty of Parramatta wherever we could and at other times we tried to use that kind of West Side Story alleyway, leaving a layer between the camera and the actor to also show the economic background that exists around the area. There’s always that mix, but you never want it to be overt or that much of a statement tot he audience.

The film is also quite an ensemble piece, how was managing all those young and inexperienced actors in that context?

To be quite honest a lot easier than people might think, they responded so innately to the piece. There’s a couple of guys there who are going to be actors in the industry, they’re not just first timers who are going back on the trail. There are kids there with genuine talent who I think have been given this opportunity as an actor and grabbed it. They were very disciplined in fact.

I’ve gotta ask you about Ali Haider who plays Zeus in the film and is currently in jail on assault charges, it must be very difficult especially as you’re just starting to promote the film for release…

It’s difficult, but our concerns are more with Ali than with anything else. I would dare say it looks as if we’re going to get him out, but I can’t really comment on the situation that much other than to say I was very sad when I heard and saw Ali because he was an absolute gentleman to work with. I got on with Ali like a house on fire, on his last day of filming I asked him how he was feeling and he said ‘I’ve been really affected by this. This has challenged a lot of things about racism and all sorts of things I feel in my heart that have been affected by this film’. I think he could have an immense career, I don’t think we’ve seen anyone with so much charisma on the screen for quite a while.

Obviously that experience in the western suburbs of Sydney is extremely important to the film, were you ever worried about how you were portraying that side of things in the film?

Not at all because I always had faith in George’s decisions about things. George was always the one who I bounced back off of, he’s incredibly intuitive and streetwise. We never introduced religion though people tried to convince us left, right and centre for example, it’s already there in the back of people’s minds. What we were more interested in was telling a story that was entertaining. I knew culturally that there was a lot of back up not just from George but other Lebanese people who had read the script, also when the boy came I asked them if there was anything that didn’t seem right or that agitated them. They said ‘no, this is how our world really is’. It was never a problem because once again I knew how much beauty we had within the Lebanese culture.

I think there are certain Lebanese businessmen, upper-middle class in Australia who would not want to be associated with this and would rather we just have made a nice middle class love story, but that’s not this film. I think one of the other great things about George’s script is that he has a dig at his own mob as well as the Aussies. It’s a complex issue rather than a statement and the job was to retain those complexities, which is important in drama.

You been an working as an actor in Australian film and television for some 20 years, how has that experienced contributed to you directing style?

I’ve been directing other people’s rehearsals in films for the last five or six years and I’ve directed theatre as well so it as always moving towards that for me. The acting stuff helps greatly because I love the technical aspects of acting as well as the raw stuff. But look, I didn’t sit there and try to give these people a lesson in acting, that’s not how you deal with people. There’s one technique you can give people for a film and that’ll probably last them three or four years. You don’t have to trounce people with some sort of intellectual braggetry that isn’t going to assist them. It’s all about finding other people’s language, that’s what I enjoy finding out, who the people are and how to tap into their language.

How important is this film in respective of being giving honest portrayal of the experiences of all Australians?

Since 9/11 anyone Arabic has been copping a helluva time from the media and I think it is time for us to venture from the eastern suburbs and the inner west and look at the bigger population and the stories from out there. There must be hundreds of George Basha’s waiting to tell their story. I think the future of Australian cinema is going to depend upon the gluing together of an old way of looking at Australia and a very new and realistic way of looking at Australia. Certainly no-one has ever made a Lebanese drama in this country and I think we have succeeded on many levels of entertaining the audience first and foremost. It’s ground-breaking no two ways about it, but it’s only important if you walk out of the film having been transported somewhere else, to a world you didn’t know.

There are only two audiences for a film, those that recognise the world and those that don’t and are curious about it. Bra Boys only came out last year and I thought that was an important film, highly important in fact, I want those guys to come a see this film because I think they will relate to it from the coast end to the western suburbs, there’s a connection between these people. I though Bra Boys was the best film of the year hands down, it was compelling and made me empathise with those kids and where they come from. Again you get into socio-economics and you come back to these tough lives where people come together because they have to. We’re not here to educate people but certainly a dramatic film should have some sense of an emotional experience on you. Hopefully we’ve done that with The Combination.

The Combination is released in cinemas February 26.


DVD: 21 Grams

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring: Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Naomi Watts
Year made: 2003

Soul Survival

Existence is a whimsical kind of beast; it is a path that at times seems beset on all sides by the cruelty of circumstance. As we walk down this valley of darkness we are left to wonder in dismay and amazement at the value of life and death, loss and hope…

In 21 Grams, director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros) more than simply contemplates these themes. Rather, he immerses his 35mm world in them, dissecting and scrutinising their impact on individuals and collectives, presenting us with a vision that is as tangled as life itself.

Much like Amores Perros, 21 Grams is the story of three separate lives that converge by way of a tragic car accident and are forever changed as a result. While the director’s stunning debut told the trio of narratives separately like ships passing each other on a stormy night, here they intertwine, connect and contrast inescapably.

Past, present and future are blurred not to create a pulp fiction, but to magnetise moments in time, heightening their impact and raw intensity in such a way that reduces us to pure spectators gripped by the performances and experience before us. In the hands of a less talented director it is impossible to imagine 21 Grams carrying anything close to the gravitas of intimacy Iñárritu creates with every single frame.

Sean Penn plays Paul Rivers, a mathematician who believes fate can be understood by numerical equations but can’t find an answer to his own. He is terminally ill, dying from heart disease, while he awaits a heart donor to provide him new life. It’s a sombre yet utterly compelling depiction that finally shows the full potential of this brilliantly talented actor.

Equally impressive is Del Toro, who seems to discover new depths with every character he tackles. As Jack Jordan, an ex-con who has turned to God for salvation, Del Toro is breathtaking with every Soul survival 21 Grams utterance, expression and movement his body is capable of. Jordan has put his life and faith in God’s hands because he cannot carry the personal guilt he feels. It is hard to imagine Del Toro ever topping this performance.

As for 21 Grams’ third act, there are just not enough superlatives to describe Naomi Watts. When we first meet her character, Cristina Peck, she is mid-confessional in her Narcotics Anonymous group. It is possible that her loss is the greatest of all and the succession of events that Watts is forced to endure throughout the film demands a full expanse of emotional reaches that few actresses in this world would even consider possible.

To say anymore would take away from the experience of watching a film that relies so much on the eloquence with which it delivers its insights into relationships and revelations therein. Iñárritu is a filmmaker who respects his audience enough not to spoon-feed his ideas, but use subtlety and devastation in equal measure where needed to delicately build his opus from middle to end to beginning, until the stories are resolved for better or worse; this is his canvas, like it or not, and it is left to us to make of it what we will.

Film: 5 stars
Extras: 1 star

If you like this why not try…
Amores Perros
One of the very best films of 2000. Don’t expect an easier ride though.

This review first appeared in DVD Review issue 64


DVD: Spirited Away

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Voices of: Daveleigh Chase, Michael Chiklis, Lauren Holly
Year made: 2001

The greatest animated adventure ever?

Hayao Miyazaki has bestowed on us an anime adventure of Tolkien-like imagination. If you buy, rent, borrow or shoplift one film this year that you wouldn’t normally try otherwise, make sure it is Spirited Away

Like Tolkien, Miyazaki has created a uniquely original, rich, textured and fantastic world in which he tells a very simple tale in simple, yet stunning, 2-D animation. Chihiro is a typical 10-year-old girl, moody, brash and stubborn. She finds herself trapped in a spirit world where her parents have been transformed into pigs, her identity erased and then she’s put to work in the spirit’s bathhouse, run by the sorceress Yubaba.

In order to escape and rescue her parents, Chihiro must find strength within herself and overcome the many challenges laid in front of her in this strange universe. Along the way she gets helping hands from an array of incredible characters that come in all colours, shapes and sizes. It is wonderfully captivating Alice In Wonderland stuff, flawlessly realised by a master craftsman.

More than his skills as an animator and director, Miyazaki’s talent lies in his storytelling and the insightfulness of the world and people therein. Blink and you will miss the subtle observations it makes in a brilliantly intelligent sleight of hand.

After two hours of dedicated viewing, and after three years’ hard work on the part of Miyazaki, you would think a better treatment would have been given to the DVD release. Picture and surround sound are magnificent; our disappointment lies in the extras, or lack thereof.

The storyboard-to-screen comparison is nice for about five minutes, at which time the novelty of flicking the angle button newly discovered on your remote will wear tediously thin. A short featurette on transferring the feature to English (which was overseen by the mighty John Lasseter of Pixar) is of little interest as it whimsically flies through the process.

And while the Nippon TV special runs to 41 minutes, it gives very little insight into the man we want to know more about and his personal take on his work. The boat has been sorely missed.

Film: 5 stars
Extras: 2 stars

Special features:
• Full-feature storyboard-to-scene comparison
• Making of Spirited Away Nippon TV special (41 mins)
• ‘Behind The Microphone’ featurette (6 mins)
• Japanese trailers and TV spots

If you like this why not try…

Alice In Wonderland
More characters than a mad hatter’s tea party and as surreal as any David Lynch movie.

This review first appeared in DVD Review issue # 63


DVD: In America

Director: Jim Sheridan
Starring: Samantha Morton, Paddy Considine, Djimon Hounsou
Year made: 2002

Not born in the USA

Director Jim Sheridan has carried out a kind of magical balancing act out here – life in one hand, death in the other. In America toys with and ponders these polar opposites while recognising their inseparable nature, pulling at the heartstrings and raising more than a smile in the process...

It is an old-fashioned immigrant’s story set in contemporary New York. There’s no flag waving, as the title might suggest, just a personal journey of one Irish family overcoming the everyday obstacles of starting a new life while recovering from the loss of its youngest member.

Johnny (Considine) is struggling to become an actor. His inability to feel anything since the death of his son casts a shadow over his very existence and his relationship with wife Sarah (Morton). The only things holding them together are their two remaining children, Ariel and Christy (Emma and Sarah Bolger). Living below them in their Hell’s Kitchen apartment is Mateo (Hounsou), a reclusive artist.

His entry into their lives changes things and forces Paddy and Sarah to deal with the living and the now. Teetering on the brink of painful sugar-coated melodrama, the film somehow stays the right side of tasteful thanks to its selfcreated charm, honest emotions and sublime performances by its players. It would take a cold person not to be touched by the finale.

Unfortunately the extras are disproportionate compared to the tears shed. What there is, though, is of a high quality. Sheridan’s commentary is an extremely engaging talk-a-thon as he reminisces about moving to New York and how he went about transferring those experiences to the big screen.

Some of the deleted scenes provide further nice moments with the family but nothing that expands the story as told in the film. It is the short making-of featurette that ties everything up on this disc. Great behind-the-scenes footage is mixed with contributions from the actors and Sheridan’s own two daughters, who co-wrote the script with him.

In America
is a wonderful experience, touched with emotion, that will fill you with sadness then warm you up better than a hot cup of cocoa.

Film: 4 stars
Extras: 2 stars

Special features

• Audio commentary by director Sheridan
• ‘A Personal Journey: The Making Of In America’ featurette (20 mins)
• Ten deleted scenes

If you like this why not try…
It’s A Wonderful Life
Arguably the greatest feelgood film of all time. Tissues at the ready.

This review first appeared in DVD Review #63


DVD: Buffalo Soldiers

Director: Gregor Jordan
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris, Anna Paquin
Year made: 2001

Peace is hell

Once again we have a film depicting American soldiers running amok with cheerful disregard for the job they are hired to do. Germany 1989: the Berlin Wall is about to fall, crumbling like the discipline of the US troops stationed there...

Gregor Jordan’s Buffalo Soldiers plays like a traditional black comedy with the added zest of political satire. Phoenix is company clerk Ray Elwood with the self-invented job of facilitating the barrack’s drug habit while partaking in whatever wheeler dealing on the side he can manage to maintain the lifestyle he has forged for himself in the army.

When new sergeant Robert Lee (Scott Glenn) arrives, things get trickier as Elwood simultaneously tries to date Lee’s daughter and slip one last big score under his nose. The ensuing story strays from the convictions of its creators, leaving you with the sense that they lost sight of their core and followed something a little less rebellious and a little more conventionally subversive.

One might have hoped for a commentary from the director on a smaller film like this but no such luck. The Sundance Channel’s ‘Anatomy Of A Scene’ piece, while focusing on the rampaging tank scene, provides more than enough detail about the production to entertain the grey matter. It includes contributions from key collaborators and makes up for the disappointing behind-the-scenes featurette.

Film: 3 stars
Extras: 2 stars

Special features:
• Sundance ‘Anatomy Of A Scene’ featurette (20 mins)
• ‘Buffalo Soldiers: Behind The Scenes’ featurette (5 mins)

If you like this why not try...

Black comedy and war go together like Bush and war: Catch-22 is the classic example.

This review first appeared in DVD Review #63