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Atom Egoyan | interview (+ cautionary tale about phone interviews)

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I recently interviewed the Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan (pictured above) via telephone—a ‘phoner’, as it’s known in the industry. I’d somehow managed to avoid phoners up to this point in my journalistic career, having luckily always been able to conduct interviews either in person, over Skype, or (always a last resort) email. When this one rolled around, I must confess, I was woefully underprepared. I just hadn’t considered how much of an arseache it was going to be.

A colleague suggested I go to the one room in my house where the T-Mobile signal is pretty solid, put Atom on speakerphone, set up Garageband on my Mac, and then record. It worked a treat until the signal crapped out not once but twice, leaving me sweating bullets over whether I was a) going to get anything decent, and b) making a dreadful, pathetic impression on a director whose work I greatly respect.

By this point literally soaked in perspiration (this took place in the early stages of London’s summer heatwave), I improvised. I grabbed my dictaphone, ran into the kitchen, and reconnected with Atom (via the London PR) on the house phone. I placed the dictaphone in-between my ear and the ear-end of the receiver, pressed record, and strained to hear the softly-spoken director’s replies. I looked, probably, like a cross between this and this. It wasn’t pretty.

Worse was to come when I played back the audio to find that, even though I had held the dictaphone to the right end (I wasn’t quite that incompetent), Egoyan was all but inaudible. I, on the other hand, wasn’t, and promptly jumped out of my skin whenever I heard my own voice barking out questions at comically disproportionate volume. It was all a little redolent of the firecracker scene from Boogie Nights, with my own stupidly deafening voice standing in for Chinese Cosmo’s bangers.

Luckily, I needn’t have worried too much. I’d captured some really decent stuff during the first part of the interview. What I missed, as I recall, was Egoyan speaking about the way in which he treats his Armenian heritage in his films; responding kindly to my fairly banal suggestion that his debut Next of Kin is quite like Bart Layton’s The Imposter; and confirming that David Cronenberg is a) nice bloke and b) the ‘Godfather’ of the Canadian film community.

As for ‘phoners’, I hope it’s a while before I have to do another one, but I’ve since found there are options, and I’ll prepare more thoroughly next time (I’ll still keep my fingers crossed for Skype, though). Folks, don’t be silly like I was, don’t let this happen to you.

The expression I imagine Egoyan was wearing after we got cut off for the second time

The expression I imagine Egoyan was wearing after we got cut off for the second time

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Anyway, what follows is a repurposing of the interview, which originally appeared on the Grolsch Film Works website.

53-year-old Atom Egoyan is one of Canada’s most respected and critically acclaimed directors. His atmospheric and character-driven films, including multi-stranded strip club-set drama Exotica (1994), heartbreaking novel adaptation The Sweet Hereafter (1997), and haunting thriller Felecia’s Journey (1999), are known for their searching intelligence and formal control. Egoyan made the move into Hollywood with 2009’s Chloe, and now has a fictional film about the West Memphis Three (entitled The Devil’s Knot) in the pipeline.

Now, thanks to Artificial Eye, UK viewers have a chance to go right back to the start with Egoyan, as his first two films arrive, fully remastered, on DVD. His debut, Next of Kin (1984), stars Patrick Tierney as a depressed young man who abandons his own family to pose as the long lost son of another. Chilling and drily amusing in almost equal measure, it’s eerily reminiscent of the story which formed the basis of Bart Layton’s recent documentary The Imposter. In follow-up black comedy Family Viewing (1988), another sallow, disaffected young man again takes centre stage, as 16-year-old Van (Aidan Tierney) attempts to come to terms with his dysfunctional family in a series of increasingly unorthodox ways. Seemingly a huge influence on the likes of American Beauty and fellow Canadian Sarah Polley’s recent Stories We TellFamily Viewing is distinguished by its formal experimentation, switching between deliberately flat, sitcom-style shooting on video for the domestic drudgery of Van’s homelife, and lush film for its more thriller-like elements.

Both films hold up incredibly well, and offer slyly seductive meditations on identity and the role which technology plays in family life. To mark their release, we sat down with Egoyan to chew over his early filmmaking days, and get his opinions on the big changes in the industry since he started out.

On audience reactions to his early films…

“What happened with Next of Kin was that that film worked almost too well with an audience. The technique that I was using was handheld camera. It [the camera’s POV] was meant to feel like the real son that the family had lost was watching this all; it was supposed to have an eerie, distancing effect and it had quite the opposite! People reacted quite warmly to it, and felt there was an immediacy. So even though people were taking pleasure in that, it was quite shocking. That’s what led me in Family Viewing to have a strong formal approach where there could be no question of what the intention was; maybe it went too far!”

On re-watching his early films…

“Recently I’ve watched them again for the remasters and it’s been interesting to go back. I’m surprised about how prepared I was to talk about personal issues as I was wrestling with them in my own life. That’s been a surprise. They were big issues for me, these questions of identity: how do you fight this pressure of assimilation [the Egyptian-born Egoyan is of Armenian heritage], and how do you construct yourself as a new person in a place. Those were really urgent. I’m very proud of Family Viewing.”

On tradition…

“I think I was very aware of the tradition I was working against; these films coming from Canada, the docudrama coming from the National Film Board and all these extraordinary films that were made here in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s which made heavy use of hand-held camera. Influenced by John Grierson and this idea that he brought, we were all raised by these films which I actually thought were very different from the films I wanted to make, so it was horrifying to see Next of Kin fall into that very trap! Perhaps ‘trap’ is the wrong word, but it was interpreted as being an homage to the tradition that I was was passionately trying to react against. That was surprising. What these early films taught me was that when you have strong characters and a strong narrative, people will just want to lose themselves in that. They’re not positioning themselves outside of the film, they want to be inside the film as quickly as possible. That’s why I think a film like Family Viewing, at that time especially, with the video textures it was using, was clearly a way of creating a distance – an alienation effect – so that you had to stand outside the film, and really commit to enter into it.”

On technology…

“I started to make films at a time when the characters would have access to the technology that I was using. All this recording and transmitting felt very revolutionary at the time. I was looking at the advent of these technologies on people’s lives in a domestic setting. It’s interesting when you look at Family Viewing. I had to justify these awkward family videos by making the father [chillingly played by David Hemblen] work for the company that made them. We had access before anyone else did. Shooting in 1986 that was the only way that family might have had colour videos of their early life. Even then it didn’t really make sense! But these were huge social revolutions which we’ve seen develop in ways which had been unimaginable. We now shoot these films on professional quality, and there’s downloading, and Vimeo and YouTube. At the time there was a strong divide between the people who made these images and the people who were watching them.”

On changing audiences… 

“I think that people aren’t watching films as a continuous and immutable process. The films that I love, and my whole formulation as a filmmaker was based on the fact that I had to go to the cinema, and I was in that space where there is fixed time. Whether I left that cinema or not the film would continue to unspool. That’s such a quaint image now, people can watch films wherever they want on any device they want. They can reformat it, they can play with it; it’s such a malleable form now. I’ve seen people recreate, reconstruct, make trailers for my films on YouTube – they take a song from the film, they recut it, they’ll take deleted scenes and they’ll cut them into the film. It’s an open forum. That’s changed things. You’re just dealing with a different attention span. People are quick to say we have short attention spans and that things are more superficial now. But I don’t agree with that. I just think people have evolved. And that there’s a different way of receiving visual material. Clearly the other thing that’s changed is that in these early films there was a clear division between the video world and the film world, and you can see where those separations are made within the film itself. That’s just not the case anymore with digital.”

‘Next of Kin’ and ‘Family Viewing’ are being re-released in the UK through Artificial Eye. Head to their website for more info. 

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Shun Li and the Poet director Andrea Segre | interview

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[Editor’s note: An abridged version of this interview originally appeared on the Grolsch Film Works website. This is the full transcript.]

Shun Li and the Poet, in UK cinemas now, is the beautifully observed story of the titular Chinese immigrant (Xhao Tao) who finds herself unexpectedly transferred from a textiles factory on the outskirts of Rome to Chiogga, a small Venetian fishing village. Lonely and concerned only with attaining the documents to secure the safe import of her 8-year-old son, she strikes up a tentative friendship with Bepi (Rade Sherbediga), a friendly fisherman of Slavic origin.

I thoroughly enjoyed this tender and poetic film, so it was a delight to sit down with its director, the charming – and wondrously bearded – Andrea Segre, for a chat.

[PPH in bold]: It’s obvious you come at the story from a humanistic perspective. How did your previous work on social issue documentaries and ethnographic studies influence you?

[Segre in regular]: When people ask me why I have an interest in this story as a filmmaker, the answer is that the direction is the opposite. I reached the cinema – became a filmmaker – starting from the interests I had in this story. I didn’t study cinema. I studied sociology and started to have an interest in these topics, these lives. I didn’t know that I wanted to be a director. I became a director through just speaking about this stuff. The reason I had an interest in the story is that it’s related to my experience. I grew up in a country that wasn’t an immigration country. In my class at school in Italy, we were all Italians, in the village. Nowadays in the village in my daughter’s class, there are children from all around the world. This change in Italy happened in my life; I grew up in the 15-20 years of this change. For me to research the story of this change was very important. I wanted to know what caused the tension in the society; not only the Italian one but others too. To be able somehow to use the normal difficulties you have in intercultural relations in a positive way is one of the most important challenges we have to build a better place, a better world.

How did you research the Chinese story in particular?

I researched it for this film only, I didn’t research especially about China before. Before this film I researched specifically Eastern countries, the Balkan areas, Albania, Moldova, the former Yugoslavia, Ukraine. In 2005 I moved more to the south side of the Mediterranean, to Tunisia, Libya, then to Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana. The research was connected to my sociology research. My thesis was about the social communication of NGOs working in post-civil war Yugoslavia. After that I was working as an academic researcher and an NGO activist/militant. I was working on the policies of securitarian countries against so-called illegal immigrants. All of this ran parallel to my filmmaking interests. I was in the middle of this context of social activism, academic research and the filmmaking profession.

The distribution of my documentaries always has a social and political goal. My documentaries have been used to increase knowledge about the injustices produced by this wave of securitarian politics that the European Union has built in the last ten years. It’s something that makes me interested because one major challenge of the future is if we are going to be able to keep our humanity while we insist on the necessity of controlling our space. We have decided that somehow we have to control people’s movements. But to control someone who is moving because he needs to move, that you have to beat him, put him in prison, deport him? That you have to use violence against a human being who didn’t do anything criminal against you? It’s the human challenge. The human subject of these stories that really interests me. I want my films to be used politically to stop injustices, but what is inside my interests as artist, as a storyteller, is the human tension that everyone can feel. You have to ask yourself if it’s just or not to stop a human being in this way.

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Political cinema can sometimes beat the audience over the head with its points. But your film is very subtle in this respect. It’s about the community, the characters and their relationships…

Thank you. Everything started six or seven years when I went to the osteria [fisherman’s bar] that we used in the real film. I knew this osteria because it’s in my mother’s village. It’s like a living room for a fisherman – part of your house! The bar woman plays a very important role in the fishermen’s lives. They speak with, communicate in an intimate way, confide, drink a couple of glasses of wine. She’s the only woman so you speak with her in a way that you don’t speak with the clients. Suddenly she’s Chinese! It’s a difficult change. You don’t have the instrument in your daily life to have an intercultural relationship with her. I’m a fisherman… what is this intercultural relationship!? They started to have a problem, a real one.

Some use this problem to create a public fear. To use it in a xenophobic, demagogic way. That is what the politicians try to do because it is very easy. They say, “your life is going very bad because she is Chinese”. That’s easy and politicians have done that for a long time. But a part of this demagogic side of the problem is that for them it is a [genuine] difficulty, and I thought that was also really important to respect. I didn’t want a stereotypical portrait of them as racists. Yes, there are members of them who are violent and use this fear who don’t have the tools to deal with these difficulties so they react with arrogance. But I try be with them in the film, not to fight against them. In the osteria I involved some of them in the story, they are non-professional actors. They are real Chioggia fisherman. I wanted to build a portrait of this community which was going through an identity crisis. They were born in a poor fisherman’s village and Italy has changed in the last 40 years. We were a poor country made by fishermen, farmers and so on. In the last 20-25 years – even though the recent crisis is changing this again – we became richer and also the identity of the people changed. They know that their world is going to die. In this microcosm I had the opportunity to build a metaphor for what is happening to our country.

The music in the film is powerful. Can you tell me more about it?

Most of the music has been played by the composer Francois Couterrier, but everything started from the piano music you hear when Shun Li first arrives in Chioggia. That is a piano played by an Australian pianist. He tried to build melodies using a destroyed piano. He was trying reveal melodies from an instrument that was no longer producing melodies. I loved this combination of harmony and disharmony and I asked Francois to work in this way. We preferred piano and accordion. We didn’t work on a Chinese atmosphere specifically but maybe we put some in there somehow! What we tried to do was build a harmony between the voice of Shun Li and the music because she is speaking about poetry and it was important to feel that her voice and the music were going well together.

Zhao Tao is wonderful in the lead role. Can you talk about her casting and performance?

I wanted to have her since I saw Still Life, the Jia Zhangke film which won the Golden Lion at Venice in 2006. I really loved the mixture of simplicity and profundity that she has. You believe that she’s a real Chinese woman working in a bar but you feel that she has something else. However, she doesn’t show that she has something else. She finds a way to make you feel what she’s feeling. That is something very difficult and wonderful to do in acting. Another thing that was important for me was that she became an actress with her husband Jia Zhangke and so I knew that she was used to working on the border between documentary and fiction – Zhangke is a master of that. I sent her the script, I asked her if she wanted to play it. She was looking for a project to play outside of China. She’d only ever been to Italy once (for the Venice festival) and for her it was great for her to a play an emigrating Chinese woman for the first time she acted out of Italy.

With Rade [Sherbediga] when I asked him to play Bepi, he said, “How did you know I was an actor as well as a fisherman?!” I didn’t know!

Though it’s being released now, the film was made in 2011. What have you been up to since?

Well, the life of the film has been incredible. But after Shun Li and the Poet, I made a documentary called Closed Sea. It’s the story of the pushing back policy of the Italian police against the immigrants coming from Libya. After that I made another documentary about music in Greece that’s also about the economic crisis. That’s called Indebito. And I made a feature which will hopefully screen later this year in Venice, called The First Snow. It’s a story based in a small valley in the mountains of Northern Italy, about a son who has lost a father, and a father who doesn’t know how to be a father to be his daughter. This son is Italian and the father is African. I’m always trying not to make political cinema, but to make a cinema that doesn’t stress its political content to the audience, rather it makes the audience think about it.

 Shun Li and the Poet is released on 21 June at Renoir and Curzon Home Cinema.

Interview | Ben Lewin, director of The Sessions

Ben Lewin

Focusing upon a brief period of sexual awakening in the life of real-life polio-afflicted Californian journalist and poet Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), Ben Lewin’s The Sessions is an amiable and largely enjoyable comedy drama set in the 1980s. As a survivor of boyhood polio himself, the film’s subject is very close to Lewin’s heart. We sat down with the man recently to discuss his inspiration for the film, getting the right tone, and the experience of working with such a talented cast.

PPH (in bold): What in particular drew you to the story of Mark O’Brien?

Ben Lewin (in regular): To put it very simply, it was the emotional impact on me when I quite accidentally read his article on seeing a sex surrogate [played in the film by Helen Hunt]. I didn’t expect to be reading that, even less for it to reach me in the way that it did. A few minutes later, I took the article out to my wife and said to her, “I think this is our next movie.”

How did you approach adapting the work and what he had written?

I think I tried as much as possible to use his article as a blueprint for the whole thing. And I may have moved away from it at times; you know, I wrote various drafts, but always kept coming back to it to find what it was that had turned me on. When you write, you sometimes lose your way or meander off on a tangent. I think it was a combination of what he had written plus the insight I had got from his girlfriend, who was with him in the years before he died, Susan Fernbach. And the really rich account that I got from from Sheryl Cohen Greene [Hunt’s character] of her side of the story .

How did you approach the tone of the film?

The process of writing goes everywhere for me, it goes dark and light and everything in between. Finding the tone is, in fact, the process. I simply reached a point where I thought that it represented Mark O’Brien’s really unusual view of life and the influence of his poetry on his way of thinking. And I think that I never worried too much about the tone, I never worried particularly about trying to be funny. Sometimes it’s quite a surprise to me, particularly when I heard an audience, and there’s a moment when he says [to Sheryl], “Your money is on the desk over there” and people laughed. And I never intended that to be a funny line, but I think people identified with his awkwardness. And that’s where the humour comes from, so I don’t think that it’s full of funny punchlines and so on. I think the situation itself is what generates the humour.

What are some of your cinematic influences?

I certainly never looked at other films about disabled people – they were not a guideline. In a way, one of the films I kept thinking about was Risky Business. I thought that also had a real verve to it, plus a touch of authenticity. Otherwise I’m not sure that I used any other film as a model. I guess my heroes are Bruno Weill and Billy Wilder and probably people that have been long forgotten by most others! But film is just another way of storytelling, and I would say that I’m as much influenced by storytelling in written literature as I am in film culture.

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in The Sessions

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in The Sessions

Initially, the title was The Surrogate – what was the reason for the title change?

It wasn’t an exciting reason at all, it was the fact that there was a film out called Surrogates which Disney had made with Bruce Willis that was completely different. And both Fox and Disney, being members of the MPAA, they didn’t want to have any confusion between the two films. I was in the end, very happy with the choice of the title The Sessions.

Did you come across across any issues with the MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America]? The film’s surprisingly sexually explicit…

Well, we were concerned. I think that we never thought we would get a PG-13, even though Bill Macy is very vocal on this subject. He thinks that it’s a crime that films full of violence are given a PG-13 and films that touch on sexuality are immediately in the R rating. But we were gratified that the MPAA liked the film and didn’t ask us for any cuts.

That must have been a relief…

It was a relief, because there were a couple moments which are on the edge, and all of a sudden they want you to edit it and you’re in danger of getting an NC-17 [the rating that carries the stigma of box office death]. In the end we were happy with the attitude that they took and they saw the film the way it was intended.

What was it like to work with your two leads?

It was like sitting back and watching the best theatre in the world. I’d like to think that my particular gift is casting! [Laughs] I know that if you do that correctly, you never have to look over your shoulder. I really think they did all of the heavy lifting. We spent a lot of time together before the shoot talking through the script and particular scenes and when it came to the actual shooting, I really tried to let them use the spontaneity of the moment as much as possible, and as much as possible, stay out of the way.

Was William H. Macy your first choice [for the role of the Catholic priest?]

You know, he wasn’t my first choice, because I was actually thinking because this was Berkeley, California at a particular time, I wanted something completely different. I was thinking of a black or Latino priest. Then all of a sudden the suggestion of Bill Macy came up, and it took me all of a millisecond for me to agree to that! But often the best choices come out of left field and you don’t know they’re coming.

What’s next for you?

Well, I know that I’m going to buy new shoes for the children! [Laughs] I’m kicking the tyres of a bunch of projects and writing a couple, but I haven’t committed to one in particular just as yet.

The Sessions is out in cinemas from Friday, released by 20th Century Fox.

The PPH Interview | Jesse Vile, director of Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet

In cinemas now, Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet is the moving story of the eponymous guitarist who refused to give up on his dream despite being diagnosed with a rare, incredibly serious wasting disease. PPH caught up with the film’s eminently likeable young director Jesse Vile to talk about his must-see film, the process of art, and cheese in cans.

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PPH (in bold): From watching the film it’s pretty obvious you have a great deal of genuine feeling for Jason and his family. Having read some of what you’ve written and said in previous interviews it seems this was an idea you had germinating for a while. Apart from knowing his work growing up what was it that drew you to his story?

Jesse Vile (in regular): The thing about Jason is he’s such a rare individual. Everything about him is rare. The fact that he was so talented at such a young age and the fact that he actually achieved the rock and roll American dream at 19 – that’s rare. Not many people get to do that. And for his talent and the amount of success that he was able to achieve he was still a super down-to-earth great guy who didn’t get into drugs and alcohol like most rock stars do – that’s rare. And then he gets a relatively rare disease at an extremely rare age, and then lives 23 years after diagnosis which is…only 5% of people with ALS ever do that so that’s extremely rare. So he’s just a rare person. I thought: what a fascinating guy, everything about this guy is just amazing and he just never stops amazing people and just being brilliant pretty much and that’s what drew me – he’s an amazing person.

So was it the idea of telling an incredible story, would you say, that you wanted to make something that was inspirational to other people in that sense? Or you just wanted his story to be known to a wider audience?

Yeah, well I definitely wanted that that for sure – for his story to be more widely known. But I didn’t want to make just a fan film – I didn’t want to make a film that only fan-boys of Jason and of the guitar would like – I think a lot of directors probably easily could have gone in that direction. I wanted to do something that was… that had more of a universal human story at its core – because it does. I mean – to spend all that time and resources to make a film about Jason which is purely just about his shred and having ALS and dealing with it would have been selling the story short – it was more about incorporating all of the main characters in his life and all the themes that come out in a film. So yeah, I guess I didn’t really set out to inspire people because Jason did that for me, I just pretty much kept myself out of it [laughs] as much as possible.

You can definitely see that in the film. And I would definitely say that it succeeds at being a universal message, one that I personally found really hopeful. As a film that’s aiming for a universal audience – because it is quite niche terms of subject matter – regardless of the way the film turned out some people are still going to perceive it as being mostly about a shredding guitarist. As the producer as well as the director how have you found the challenge of bringing it to that wider audience and how much pressure have you felt being so personally connected to Jason and the people who are close to him, in gaining that wider audience?

I feel very lucky and grateful that it’s been received so well on the festival circuit. I think that’s really helped bring it to a wider audience. It’s very, very, true people either look at my film and go “oh my god it’s about heavy metal and a guitar shredder” or “it’s about ALS and it’s sad and depressing” and they don’t go for either of those reasons. You know, people come up to you after Q&As and they say “great film” or, they don’t [laughs] – but the most satisfying ones are when people come up to me “I just stumbled in. The film I wanted to see was sold out so I came in here and I’m so glad that I saw yours. Has it been out long?” I mean that’s cool because that’s really who I made it for: people who would maybe just stumble in, had never heard of Jason, hated shred guitar and would walk out kind of glad that they saw the film.

I think it would be sad if people were put off by the fact that it involves shredding. In some senses it starts off as being about Jason’s career…but you don’t watch The Wire because you’re really into the idea of being a drug dealer…

Yeah, exactly, like “I’m a crack addict so I’m looking to start selling crack in the streets of Baltimore or whatever”. It’s difficult! Fortunately in the States, the UK and Canada it’s not my main job any more – my job is support and to help get the word out to Jason’s fan-base and things like that.

It was interesting: earlier you called Jason’s success ‘the American Rock and Roll dream’ – what did you mean by that?

Well, just to be a rock star. If you’re an American kid, most American kids want to either be a football player or an astronaut or…a rock star. Maybe some people want to be doctors and teachers and stuff, and those are brilliant obviously but I think kids grow up wanting to be rock stars. You’re in a rock band in middle school and high school because it’s worth aiming at.

It’s funny though because when you’re particularly a teenager the idea of rock and roll stardom appeals because of the lifestyle. But then with Jason it doesn’t seem he was really into all of that, so it’s interesting because he got into it purely because of the music – which I think is quite naturally a part of his success – that he really committed to it.

Yeah, Jason’s dream was never to just get chicks and do drugs and drink. His dream was to be a professional musician – but to be the best one. He wanted to be the best guitar player – and he was on his way to doing that. And that’s what those guys on that label – the label he was on, Shrapnel Records – that’s what that label was about. It was started for guys like that, that were focused on just being the best on the guitar. It was for guitar nerds and really technical guitar playing and – you know the guy in the film Richie Coxon? He’s in the film very briefly, he’s an old friend of Jason’s – he was in the band Poison in the 80s who are known for super glam excess and all that kind of stuff – and he basically said “we didn’t do that any of that stuff. That’s not what we were about on that label. We were all about guitar, being the best at the guitar.” And then what he said is kind of funny – it’s like “and then you know, once I figured out: ok I can play guitar. Now what?” That’s when he got into all the shit.

Jason Becker

There seems to be an obsessive impulse that runs through all these guys…

It’s competitive! And…it’s not just like Keith Richards – they’re not just writing great songs on the guitar that aren’t…well some of those songs are really difficult! But you could probably learn a Keith Richards song if you started playing guitar within a year, whereas one of Jason’s songs you’d spend ten years trying to learn it. It’s a completely different level of technical guitar playing. And so you can’t be all fucked up on drugs if you’re gonna play like that! We interviewed Steve Vai. He had a really interesting thing where he was like: “I was a bee on the edge of the honey pot. And I would just take a little taste every now and again. But I knew a lot of guys that would fall in and that was it.” And for him, again, for him the most exciting thing was getting an idea out of his head and onto tape. And some guys, they’re excited about just being fucked up, you know?

They’re virtuosos. The way those guys look it almost reminds you of the way musicians looked in the times of Beethoven and Mozart doesn’t it?

[Laughs] Jason never wore that stuff though. All that glam stuff you see him in – that was just someone dressing him up for photos. He was just into jeans and sneakers.

He strikes me as an incredibly unpretentious guy from an incredibly unpretentious family. His parents and his brother – all the people around him – are obviously crucial in his life before as well as after the illness. The influence of his parents shines through the film as a big part to his character…

I’m glad you saw that because that was definitely intended – they’re huge characters. They’ve done everything for Jason – they’ve given up their lives for him – not just to take care of him for the past twenty years, but for everything. At the very beginning they nurtured him. They saw that he was interested in the guitar and they nurtured that. They supported him and, yeah, they’re huge characters. Hid Dad invented how he speaks now for Chrissakes! You know what I mean? They’re not going to not have a huge part in the film. They just awesome people, and really interesting. Gary (Jason’s Dad) has the greatest voice. He’s so great on radio. Everything about them was brilliant so I just wanted to include them as much as possible.

I think there are certain moments of the film that really bring out an optimism in humanity. The fact that his parents devoted themselves so much to their children…you can infer that from the film – they seem extremely tight as a unit and it was almost like a blueprint of how to be a good family. The parents are artists, really creative people but not in the way that they’re trying to use that creativity as a leverage above other people. Where was it they live? 

Richmond, California. It’s quite near San Francisco.

It’s not an amazingly affluent area, it’s quite run down…

Dave Lopez says it’s pretty ghetto. And he’s right man. A couple of the guys from my crew went and picked up the Chinese food we ordered for lunch when we were shooting and they were scared to death! It’s rough man! Jason’s old high school has got barbed wire, a fence and metal detectors.

I love that though, I love that they’ve brought him up in a really… I guess it’s realistic urban environment. Some of his friends were interviewed in the film, and again, they just looked like an amazingly tight knit group – good people you know?

Yeah. I met some amazing people making this film. Everyone I met. Well, just about everyone (chuckles ironically) were just unbelievably amazing.

It’s just unbelievably selfless a lot of these people and what they give up for Jason. That was amazing. I never really saw a family that close before and people just give up their lives to help someone else before like that. It was really inspiring.

In the wrong hands this film could have been incredibly melodramatic. I could tell that wasn’t your intent…

I’m not a sentimental or melodramatic guy. Most Brits I think definitely aren’t and that’s why it was great working with a British film crew and a British editor because you want some drama but you don’t want it to be…[sighs] lame. I think it’s more of an American thing. Because we love our cheese.

Yeah. Why is that?

We just love cheese. We love it so much we put it in cans. And squeeze it out on ourselves.

Spray it all over each other.

Yeah! We love it! But you know, I think you’re just immediately aware when something’s just [grimaces] cheesy so it’s kinda…there are certain scenes in the film where I asked “dude was that cheesy” and they’d be like “no, that’s great” and I’d be like “OK, cool”, you know?

I think it struck a nice balance. To sentimentalise a situation like that is to patronise Jason quite a lot and you showed him the appropriate amount of respect – the tone of the film was spot on in that sense.

It could have been really easy to do that if you didn’t try and keep a close eye on it – not because he’s someone to be pitied but it’s not something you deal with every day is it?

Becker with director Jesse Vile

You’re in a situation where it’s really easy for someone from the outside to say “Oh, poor you”, though.

He gets that all the time. At the end of the film you see him go see his spiritual guru, Amma – and he gets people going up to him [speaking in a loud, slow voice] “hello – how… are… you… today?” And I saw that and I was like for fuck’s sake. And Sorana’s like “he’s not deaf you know”. Or they’ll go round and go, “you’re such an inspiration” and he’s just like “thanks, that’s really sweet but it’s a bit much!”

The thing with Jason is once you hang out with him you know he’s not like everyone – in many ways. And not just because he’s ill. Especially in emails because on email he can ramble on and crack jokes…

He comes across as having a sharp wit.

He does. And he’s really observant. For obvious reasons. He can’t just jump in and start chatting. And he was really getting the whole film thing. He was picking up a lot of stuff, with people in interviews. He’d say “no, you have to go back and do it like that” and it was like “oh yeah!” No, he’s really observant and he’s a smart dude. He’s not just great at guitar he’s a smart guy as well.

You talked once before, in another interview I saw, about waiting to make this film until you were ready – you had the idea in film school – what prepared you to finally take that step of saying “alright, I can do this now”?

It was a combination of regret and the challenge. I think I always regretted not following through with it. I’d always see his name in my ITunes and just go “oh!” – I couldn’t even listen to it – I was so like “damn, when am I gonna make this film?” and all the rest of it. So it was kind of that, thinking “I don’t want to feel that way any more. I want to make this film. Fuck that. Fuck regret.” And the other was just – I’m ready. I was 29 when I started and I was like “I want to make – or be making a film – before I’m thirty at least” and…I don’t know! I just felt I was ready. I’d experienced things in my life.

It must take an emotional maturity to deal with such a vast subject matter that, as you say, requires a lack of sentimentality in certain areas…

For sure. And I think I was just really creatively starved. I wasn’t doing anything too creatively fulfilling at the time.

Were you working a normal job at that point?

Yeah. I’ve always worked in the film industry – helping other film-makers have their work be shown and put out there and exhibited – but never my own. And it was always like: when am I going to get around to doing that? You know, you get stuck in your day job, paying the bills and going on holiday and all the bullshit and then you come home and you’re tired – you don’t want to write. You don’t want to put a project together and raise a hundred grand of funding. You don’t do that stuff so…really, it’s a big effort so it just takes something to push you over the edge to think “Fuck it. Just do it.”

And now that you’ve done it have you got other ideas germinating? New plans forming?

Yeah, I’ve been developing something for the past few months. It’s not concrete. I don’t really have the rights to do it yet. Unfortunately. I’d love to be able to talk about it because I’m quite excited but because it might not happen. But yeah, it’s going to be amazing! It’s got to be something you love to do because you’re going to be busting your ass doing it for two or three years – longer sometimes.

I remember I saw a Q&A with Shane Meadows and he said just don’t work on anything you’re not passionate about. He said he wasn’t that passionate about Once Upon A Time In The Midlands and that’s why he didn’t like it, or it didn’t turn out as well as it should have – because he didn’t love it. And I feel the same way. I can’t get involved in anything I’m not crazy passionate about. So anyone who wants to make a film just needs to love it and do nothing but think about it, and hopefully they stay that way for two or three years! Otherwise you’re like halfway through a project thinking “I hate this, I just want to get it over with.” You just find ways to get out of it like “ok, that’s fine, cut, next one.” And it just becomes, you know…shit!

I think the only inexcusable art is lazy art, ultimately.

Yeah, and I think a lot of artists are (lowers his voice conspiratorially) lazy [bursts into laughter].

Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet is in cinemas now, and released by Dogwoof. It’s available on DVD from December 3.

Interview | Malika Zouhali-Worrall and Katherine Fairfax Wright, directors of Call Me Kuchu

In the lead-up to the recent Film Africa festival, I sat down with the co-directing/producing team of exceptional Uganda-set LGBT activism doc Call Me Kuchu to discuss how they approached such a tough subject, how they went about making their film, and their views on the Ugandan media landscape. An edited version of this interview has been published on the excellent website Grolsch Film Works, but what follows is the unabridged transcript. The interview contains a fair few references to the real-life events depicted in the film, so if you’ve yet to see it, and want to view the film cold, exercise caution. Enjoy:

PPH (in bold): What motivated you to make the film?

MZ-W (Malika Zouhali-Worrall, in regular): There are a bunch of reasons but the main one was that we heard about the case of a female-to-male transgender activist called Victor Mukasa from Uganda and a while back his home was raided by the Ugandan police. All his stuff was taken illegally and one of his colleagues was harassed. He decided he wasn’t going to stand for it and he sued the Ugandan Attorney General for police harrassment in the Ugandan court. He ended up winning that case. When we heard about that in 2009, we were intrigued to hear about this really gutsy activist community, or at least one gutsy activist who was willing to sue. That would be a big deal in the US or the UK. Also there was a judiciary system that was independent enough to be able to find a case against the government, and there was a constitution that was enforced by the courts. And then all of that in opposition to the fact that there are all these horrible anti-sodomy laws on the books, and that people are being imprisoned for their sexual orientation. There was awful discrimination going on. It made it clear that it was somewhere where the fight for LGBT rights was crucial in the sense that the stakes were really high, but it wasn’t a hopeless story. There were people who were already changing the situation and fighting back.

Ultimately we wanted to explore the issue of LGBT rights outside the global north, and we didn’t want it to be a hopeless story, which narrowed our options down a bit, tragically. We felt it was very important to tell a story which had some hope in it. We ended up researching some more and we were introduced to David and the Bishop, and we spoke to them on the phone before we went to Uganda, and then the anti-homosexuality bill was introduced and it was really obvious that we had to go as soon as possible.

PPH: It’s a tough subject matter – how did you go about raising funds to get it made?

KFW (Katherine Fairfax Wright, also in regular): Initially we just went on our own funds. We bought tickets ourselves and hard drives and I already owned the majority of the equipment. So our overhead was pretty low, but it was still significant because our savings accounts are minimal to say the least! We thought it was a worthwhile risk and we went on our first shoot like that, and came back, started editing what we had and started applying for every grant under the sun. Six months later we got our first grant from Chicken and Egg pictures which is this wonderful female filmmaker organisation in New York. This film is particularly well suited for the way the grant world works in the US because there are so many different disciplines at play: there’s African’s rights, LGBT rights, women’s rights. And we’re also female filmmakers and so these grants became open to us. It’s also highly competitive because in the US very few people are commissioning stuff, and few are giving you money up front, especially for documentaries. So we’re all in the same boat.

l-r: David Kato, Malika Zouhali-Worrall, Katherine Fairfax Wright

Is the idea that it’s easier to make films these days because of technology etc… a bit misleading?

KFW: I don’t think it’s a myth in terms of making the film, I think it’s a myth in terms of getting it financed or distributed.

As filmmakers, unlike a lot of social issue docs, you’ve elected not to impose yourselves. You’re not heard asking questions, you’re not in front of the camera etc… What motivated that decision?

MZ-W: I think ultimately in terms of the style of filmmaking we both like, we kind of just wanted the audience to know and become intimate with the characters. We knew that there was going to be a social issue at play, and we knew that we’d want the film to somehow have an advocacy role, but we personally felt that only way we would want to do that would be through empathy and through humanizing the people involved so that audiences related to them and didn’t see them as “black” or “Ugandan” or “LGBT” or “African”. “African” was something we were very wary of because we’ve seen loads of films and social documentaries about famine or conflict or what Africa’s generally understood to be about. We wanted to make a film that took people beyond these labels. It could have been possible to do that with the filmmaker being in front of the camera but we didn’t see how we could do that. We were far more interested in spending that time examining and getting to know the cameras, rather than working out how we could insert ourselves.

It’s interesting you bring up the issue of representation of such issues in the media. I’m thinking about the Kony 2012 campaign here. How do you guys feel about that – is that something you guys were actively trying to avoid?

MZ-W: Well that happened recently relative to when we started working. But yeah, definitely! [Laughs] We definitely tried to avoid what Kony 2012 did.

In terms of the characters in the film, you let them speak for themselves. Do you have empathy with what might be seen as the villains in the film?

KFW: Someone like Giles [managing editor of inflammatory tabloid Rolling Stone] I have less sympathy for because I don’t see him as being as genuine as the others. He admits to what he’s doing. People like reading articles about homosexuals so he’s publishing articles about homosexuals. Recently I read an article when he said, “It was a mistake to print all that!” [laughs], kind of back tracking, because now it’s uncool to print stuff about homosexuals, so I find him a bit more problematic. Whereas someone like the vehemently anti-gay pastors… I certainly don’t agree with their position and certainly I’m not a religious person so I can’t empathise to such a strong extent, but I do understand that it’s coming from their reading of the Bible. I think it’s a misreading of the Bible, but it’s their reading of the Bible and something they hold very close to their hearts and minds, and everything that they do. You can understand how it’s coming to pass that way. I also disagree with the way that they are carrying out that misreading of the Bible, but to some extent you can see how they’ve come to those conclusions.

MZ-W: It’s funny, because pretty much everyone who was actually campaigning on the anti-gay side, they pretty much all seemed opportunistic. They had a vested interest that wasn’t entirely about their religious beliefs. Bahati was a young, freshman MP who kinda wanted to get attention. Giles, also, was a young newspaper person who wanted to get attention. It seemed that everyone who made it a central part of their campaign, and the same for religious leaders, at least the Ugandan ones. It seemed opportunistic. If it wasn’t, they wouldn’t be trying to become famous off it.

KFW (to MZ-W): The problem with that argument, however, is that that’s exactly what they say about the activists. And that “they’re getting funding!”, “They’re on the cover of the New York Times!”

MZ-W (to KFW): But at least you can see that activists, that their interest in it is their experience, their existence. It all just seemed fake and opportunistic; Giles and Bahati shared this characteristic. There was bravado, and they wanted to be the centre of attention. They are showmen.

With Giles, were the stakes not so high in your subject matter, he’d be something of a pantomime villain. Did you have to restrain yourselves from giving him a smack?

KFW: Of course I disagree with what he’s saying, but he was also weirdly entertaining. It’s not every day you’re around someone so eerie and creepy and goofy. I think it’s easier also because I wasn’t the one talking to him, I was the one filming him. I could focus on that smile, and hope that giggle came across well in the audio waves. It was easier to distance myself because I was focusing on the filmic aspects.

Ugandan MP David Bahati, who introduced the anti-homosexuality bill

MZ-W: Also, in terms of the logistics of storytelling, it’s a fact that there’s all these homophobic people who have influence in Uganda, and Gilles was a storytelling gift in terms of conveying this movement in one person. And when you’re telling a story, if you can convey a story in one person, and do it honestly, and that person can become symbolic of a bunch of people, that’s gold, because that makes your life easier. Giles was really helpful in enabling us to show a) where things come from and who’s instrumental and b) encapsulate anti-gay sentiment and the source of that, and the ludicrousness and hysteria in this one guy.

KFW: He did it also while passing the checklist of legitimate journalism for us. At first it was like, “can we really have the whole opposition movement stand on the shoulders of this one guy?” If we pick one crazy outlier who says a bunch of looney stuff – will it play well for a left-wing audience? But the reason why we thought it was moral and passed journalistic integrity was that he was the one that was printing his views for an audience of thousands, and they were interpreting it as purely factual and disseminating it amongst their family and friends. And even though he was one man, he stood for the understanding of an issue for many thousands of people.

In the last couple of years of years we’ve had an incredible series of developments within our [UK] tabloid culture, and I didn’t think anything in your film was too far away from what we’ve had in the UK. How do you feel about those parallels?

MZ-W: I think one that was a bit scary, but we always really enjoyed, and in a way that makes you reflect on these issues, was the way that Giles talks; he has a really good vocabulary in terms of ideas of journalism. He talks about things in terms of the “public good” and “public interest”. He talks about moralistic journalism, but the morals he’s playing by are awful. I feel like that was one of the most interesting things about him, because I feel that everybody thought he was going to be an ignorant idiot who hates gay people, but he’s talking about why he’s doing journalism in the same way that people at the The Guardian or The New York Times would talk about why they would do journalism. Not for the money etc…, he had these high-falutin’ dreams, but the problem was his moral structure. It makes you think about how it’s all about perspective, and it’s an extreme version of the UK.

But yes, there are people who work at tabloids who would claim that what they’re doing is for the moral good, like outing paedophiles or whatever. It does make people think about tabloid culture. One thing that was a shame was that we weren’t able to quite illustrate the breadth of media in Uganda. They really do have a diverse media, and there are one or two government papers, there are tabloids, and there are independent, socially liberal papers that are relatively supportive of the LGBT community. But there’s only so much you can squeeze into an hour and a half.

I was pleased that your film paid some attention to the fact that a lot of these attitudes were imported in the colonial era. There’s often a tendency to sit in this Western ivory tower and “other” the third world. Was it important for you to include something about that in your film?

MW: It was, yes.

KFW: That woman Sylvia [a Ugandan contributor to the film] had so many great soundbites, and really understands the issue, and there were so many of her soundbites that we really wanted to include but had to come out. I think yes on the one hand it’s important to bring up, but on the other it’s just starting to prove why that’s a non-issue. The Bible you could say is from the West, because it’s missionaries who brought it there, but then this form of activism could also be said to come from the West, as the training is all happening there. Also this recent vitriol against the gay community is from the West. So it’s this constant cycle of import and export which makes, for me, the whole argument null and void, but it’s worth addressing.

Did you have any difficulties in getting participants to agree to be in the film?

MZ-W: To varying degrees. It became obvious that the only people we could really follow intimately as our main characters had to be people who were already out or had already been outed themselves. Just because there was so many security risks of filming a lot with someone who wasn’t out. That determined who the main characters were. Beyond that, whenever we were filming a group scene we’d try to ask every single person within the shot if they were OK being filmed and if they understood the implications. Some people would say, “Yeah, it’s fine! As long as it never appears in Uganda…” And you’ve have to say, “Well there’s this thing called the internet and it really might!” It was trying to have as many conversations like that. Some would say, “You can film me but you can’t show my face”. Others would say, “You can’t film me at all”, so Katherine would try to film around them to minimize the risk of having any footage of them. We screened it in Uganda two years ago, but ore recently we screened it there again to launch their first ever gay pride, but part of the purpose of that screening was to get everyone in the film to sign-off on it because people’s situations can change so much in the space of two years. Everyone signed off again which was great because we were really nervous. I feel that that’s also maybe a sign that things as rule have got better because people signed off on it really relatively easily; they didn’t seem to have any questions or concerns. That was pretty good.

David Kato

Did the passing of David Kato make you consider not carrying on?

KFW: No, it was actually the total opposite. It was like, “Wow, suddenly we’re responsible for this man’s story living on”, because we had documented the last year in his life and we had really fallen in love with the way he did his activism, and he was so active on so many levels, to an extent that we weren’t able to fully capture it all. We were in the process of filming one final long shoot with him right before he died. So we felt this incredible responsibility immediately to disseminate that story as widely as possible. But before we were ready to do that we had a pretty difficult task in front of us; completing a film that was watchable, and that people would walk away with the feeling that it had been something powerful. That’s not an easy task when you no longer have your main character to participate. I think we felt a little bit apprehensive about that but also we felt encouraged by it, and the need to carry on with it.

Did you ever experience danger on set yourselves?

MZ-W: No, not really. And I think that’s partly because Uganda’s pretty open and open to journalists and foreign journalists; there’s a pretty strong sense of freedom of the press there. We got media accreditation for whenever we needed to film with an MP. Other than that it was pretty straightforward, honestly. It was really only after David’s death that suddenly everyone – not just us, but the activists’ – sense of what the key threats and risks were had been turned on its head. We had to suddenly reassess the situation. But Uganda is a really open and liberal and pretty free society, and relatively – with everything going on in the north – peaceful country. It made our job pretty easy in terms of security.

Have you stayed in touch with the participants?

MZ-W: Naome is in London with us, doing the press stuff, and she’s going to be at all the screenings. She now has asylum in Sweden. We’re in touch with everyone else. I think now that every main character has travelled with the film somewhere. Stosh is in St. Petersburg, Russia, with the film, which is interesting, because they’ve just passed a law outlawing homosexual propaganda.

It’s become more than a film, really…

KFW: That was always our intention. Yes, to make a film that satisfies our filmmaker sensibilities and helps our careers, but certainly there was a whole other aspect which was to make a tool that was going to be useful for them in their work, documenting their work so that others could learn from it and feel supported by it and inspired by it. That whole aspect of it is what’s still underway. We’re still forming partnerships that need to be formalized in order for us to carry on that work.

Like Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, there’s an accent in your film on the importance of social media in activism. What’s your take on that?

KFW: It somehow is only really evident now in the end bit of our film. Some people have seen it as a coda – like negatively, as in “Oh, how nice of them to tack on a coda for American audiences”. It’s frustrating that it only came out in the end because Facebook and things like that are hugely important to the movement. From day one people were talking about Facebook. There’s that one scene where they’re talking about the outings in the newspaper and Long Jones is like, “Did you see it on Facebook”? And we didn’t. It’s hugely important, because for security reasons they actually can’t convene as often as they’d like and they don’t have money for transport.

MZ-W: Every morning I’ll look at Facebook and be like “Oh great, 20 notifications! I wonder what people have been saying to me”. And it’s actually them posting to different groups that they’re members of. They’re incredibly active. And really strict sometimes about what each group is for. There’s often posts like “THIS IS NOT A DATING SITE! TAKE YOUR DATING ELSEWHERE! THIS IS FOR IMPORTANT ISSUES!” [laughs]. So they are all over that.

KFW: Twitter took a bit longer because they don’t really have smartphones.

MZ-W: And Twitter’s less about groups. The thing they use most on Facebook is the group settings. Twitter is more individual.

Call Me Kuchu is screening on limited release in UK cinemas, and is being distributed by Dogwoof.

PPH @ LFF: Interview | Ira Sachs, director of Keep The Lights On

When the London Film Festival was on recently, I interviewed Ira Sachs, director of New York-set drama Keep The Lights On (which is in UK cinemas now, released by Peccadillo Pictures). He was a thoroughly lovely bloke, and we covered numerous topics, from the autobiographical elements of his film, to his extensive use of the music of the late Arthur Russell on the soundtrack, to the theme of excavating gay subculture that runs throughout Sachs’ work. An edited version of this interview (with an extended introduction) has been published on the excellent website The Quietus, but what follows is the unabridged transcript. Enjoy:

PPH [in bold]: This is quite a departure from your previous films – I’m just wondering how you came into this project.

Ira Sachs [in regular]: I think it’s different because it’s less repressed… which doesn’t mean better! It’s not a film that utilises metaphor; it’s a film about transparency. So the subject is very much an inverse. And yet, similarly to my previous work, it’s a film about what people hide. I wanted to make a film about shame, but do so shamelessly. And I hope I succeeded in doing that. And I think in a lot of ways you can see the arc of both characters to grow to accept themselves in a different way, and be comfortable with themselves in a different way that mirrors my own experience as a filmmaker and as a person. So I think those are all reasons why this film is, I think, my most accessible, emotionally. It’s certainly the one that is most, on the surface.

Can you discuss the film’s autobiographical elements?

Well, I ended a relationship in 2007, and on the last day of the relationship, I was aware that ten years before there had been a very first day. That doesn’t always happen with relationships; there was literally a moment when the whole story was over, and it had been quite a story! So I knew there was a drama there and I knew it was also a film that if I told it with enough detail and specificity, that it would actually resonate to a wide audience. Like somehow with a memoir, if you get the details right, then it relates to people who have no connection to the details. But they have connection to the dynamic of the two characters.

And I was also aware that my first film had had gay characters in it, and then for fifteen years, I didn’t have a gay character in my work… and I think that’s there are lots of reasons for that. There are these different closets that we go into. I came out of the closet at 16, but there’s many other closets that an individual might enter; for me, that included sexual spaces I couldn’t share with other people, issues with addiction that were other dark corners that I tried to hide. And professionally, you want to be accepted, so you start to shift the stories you tell – you want to be accepted economically too, to sustain a career. These are all questions which tend to guide you into certain places.

The characters are very raw and real – can you talk about the casting process?

I feel very proud. People sign up for something and they don’t know what’s going to happen, and it’s nice when it turns out well, and that they’re being recognised for it – it makes me happy. I met Zach first, I was friendly with his agent who set us up for lunch. I loved how much he loved Paul, which I though was really important. The film needed empathy for Paul, and understanding, and certainly Zach brought that to the table.

Erik was much harder to cast, it took a bit longer. I send the script to one agent in LA who came back and told me that he loved the script, was very excited about the movie, but no one in his agency was available for the part. So there was a resistance to ultimately what doesn’t seem to be a very radical film, but somehow on paper the explicitness of the sexuality was challenging in the context of American cinema and American moviemaking. I heard about Thure Lindhardt who was described to me as the bravest actor in Denmark and also one of the best. He’d already done three or four films with the lead, and he’d just played Hamlet which is interesting… [this film] is about a Danish man who can’t make a decision [also]. I think making ambivalence compelling is difficult, and I think he does it very well.

How did you find him, contact him?

I had a friend who was a screenwriter in Denmark.

Zachary Booth (left) and Thure Lindhardt

Because the character wasn’t written as a foreigner, originally.

But in Forty Shades of Blue, a film I made earlier, that character was a blonde American woman; first it was going to be Julianne Moore, then Maggie Cheung, then it ended being Dina Kurzun, who I’m actually going to see tonight, she’s in London. I actually think of filmmaking, fiction or otherwise, as a form of documentary. So I’m always just trying to find people who interest me who fit into a story. You can’t fake acting; you are who you are. So Thure was very interesting to me.

The Paul character [played by Zachary Booth] is quite elliptical – he comes into Eric’s circle. We don’t see him coming out or leaving his girlfriend. Was that to accentuate the helplessness of the Erik character?

I think I always knew that there was a protagonist to the film, and yet, it’s the story of the relationship, so there’d be a shift between those two drives. But it was written by ‘Erik’ so that’s the narrative push, his story. Ultimately, about halfway though the film, it really becomes a relationship film, and that really begins when Paul gets sober and he reappears in the film sitting at that table when they’re together after they’ve been apart for a year and suddenly he seems like a different person. To me, that’s a testament to the performance – because he wasn’t a different person, that was the next day – that somehow you sense that he is more comfortable with himself and he’s suddenly visible to the audience in a different way. Like, you actually feel like: ‘I know that guy’. And that happens with the story as well, when in the last third, it becomes about the two of them and everyone else disappears. I’m not so interested in trying to create the backstory of why people are who they are. I hope that the front story answers that through the audience’s interpretation of another individual. You need to buy into the characters in the world they’re in now.

In the film you make extensive use of the music of Arthur Russell. What about his music so suits the film, and secondly to what extent do you feel you’re continuing the excavation of his canon?

Well, excavation is a good word for me; I think the whole film is a form of excavation, of making visible the invisible. And also telling history. I think that’s one of the roles you have as a filmmaker, it’s one of the fortunate roles, you become the documenter of a time and a place and a city and the characters. I saw Wild Combination by my now friend Matt Wolf, which is a great movie about Arthur Russell who was a musician who lived in New York and died in ’93 of AIDS. And I was very moved by both the story and music and I had the idea that I could use Arthur Russell’s music similarly to how Simon and Garfunkel is used in The Graduate or Aimee Mann is used in Magnolia. I just thought, ‘oh I’m going to that with Arthur Russell.’

I worked very closely with my editor Affonso Goncalves  and music editor Suzana Peric, and they spent months just listening to the entire catalogue. What I didn’t realise and what’s been very moving to me is the last song in the film is called ‘This Is How We Walk on the Moon’, and in a way, I think that’s what the film also could be called. And that’s the excavation. The film is about how these two men walk on the moon but it’s also about how – I bet London’s not too dissimilar from New York – we walk on the moon…. And it’s different from when I started to make films. As a queer filmmaker, questions of identity were so central, the coming out narrative, which is no longer – having lived 30-something years ‘out’ – that’s not where I’m struggling. I’m struggling with lots of things, but I think this film is a form of progress.

You mentioned earlier Wild Combination and I noticed some parallels when the characters move out into open space. You’re from Tennessee and Arthur Russell is from Iowa… you both ended up in New York, which is a completely different vibe. To what extent do you think the effect of New York is a life giver and a life sapper?

I think more the giver and the sapper is adulthood, more than the city itself. I think adulthood is hard. And I think all of my films have been about coming-of-age and the struggle of an individual to accept him/herself within their adult self, who they become. I think that’s there’s this internal turmoil… I don’t think New York is necessarily unique in causing that turmoil. On the other hand, I do feel like New York gripped me when I arrived there in a way that it took me until I was 40 to disentangle.

In what ways?

Drugs and sex and love and career and ambition and all those things that were hopeful substitutes of what I was… I think I was a little alone in the struggle of what made life worth living and also what made me worth living it. And I think both these characters, there’s this sense that they’re not enough, that they need something else. I feel less like that, and I think that you still have hunger and drive and needs but I think the enormously compulsive energy of this film – we thought a lot about Goodfellas because I think that’s also a film driven by desire and told with the same energy the characters exhibit, and that was partially what I hoped… to make a film about bad behaviour but do so without judgement and without avoiding the consequences of that behaviour and have the joys and the pleasures that cinematically come with that, so the film would be propulsive in a way.

Could you just talk a bit about the Avery Willard thread? There’s a real sense of the importance of bringing that subculture to life. You talked earlier about being a historian when making fiction…

Well, I think there’s lots of layers of excavation, to use that term. And this is a film that makes important the story of these two men, and yet, it’s within the context of a lot of other stories that the film brings forward. Including the opening paintings, a series of portraits that are actually by my husband Boris Torres, who’s a painter. The character of Igor is based on Boris – so Eric married Igor, which was something I didn’t want to put in the film per se, and yet, there was this sense that there were possibilities in the future. And I think what I wanted to say is that this story is important, but no more important than all the others that are layered into a city. I think one of the last shots of the movie is the two men saying goodbye on the street, with the street going by; I think many people know that moment, like ‘how can something be so important and so unimportant?’ I think the shift back and forth of focus is something I’m interested in.

In general, I’m also trying to make a lot of things visible that aren’t visible, including the history of art-making in New York, and counterculture in New York. James Bidgood is the man interviewed in the middle of the film and made a film called Pink Narcissus and he is an underground filmmaker. That history is for me is like super-inspiring and very different than the history of independent film. It’s not the history of sex, lies and videotape and Reservoir Dogs. It’s the history of David Wojnarowicz and Felix Gonzales-Torres and even in a certain way, John Waters. This underground that I feel isn’t economically rewarding but something else comes out of it, and it’s powerful. This film might be just that – I’m not sure that’s it’s economically rewarding but it’s powerful!

Late New York musician Arthur Russell, whose music features prominently in the film

In the film, New York seems to be a character itself – was that by design?

Very much, to the extent that it took me 25 years to do it – I’ve been in New York for that long and hadn’t made a film there. I made a short film called Last Address in 2010 that’s eight minutes long – there’s actually a website built around the film called lastaddress.org. It’s a film about a group of New York artists who had died of AIDS, and I went and shot the last residence they lived in, so it’s just a series of images of their houses, and it dipped my toe into looking at the city as a narrative filmmaker.

But for me, I see a city within a context of a story about intimacy, so you view the city from the inside. I think that’s very much how the city comes out to the audience, it’s how these people live in the city, so there’s very few exteriors, not a lot of wide shots; so you often see houses and restaurants and apartments and bedrooms and I think by doing that, with some sense of flair, to tell you the truth, in the sense that you’re making lots of choices. All the locations ended up being places that were nearly 100 years old – I know we’re in London, but in New York, that’s old. The restaurant where they meet twice, Al Forno, just closed last weekend for good. So I feel like there’s a sense of trying to hold on without being nostalgic – I don’t think it’s a nostalgic film, but appreciative of the history. My cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis who’s from Greece and shot Dogtooth and Attenberg, he’d never been to New York when he shot the film, so there’s this freshness in his eye

He finds the sunlight, somehow, in an extraordinary way for a New York film.

If you see the film now and think, ‘oh it was shot by a Greek guy,’ it starts to make sense because there’s lots of bare walls; there’s a simplicity to it. I think he also shoots sex really well because he’s not uncomfortable with it. So there’s a way in which there’s this warmth in those scenes and also a lack of distinction between those scenes and the other scenes, which to me becomes part of the theme of the movie – that the movie doesn’t suddenly shift nor does it hide when characters are intimate with each other.

It’s very rare for an American film dealing with a gay subject to be so accessible to general audiences – they seem to be put into a subgenre, hidden away. But this one doesn’t find within that, it transcends that. Were you deliberately trying to break that? What do you think the status is of gay films in America?

I wasn’t approaching it that way – I was just approaching it as a storyteller and I think I have a way of telling a story that’s consistent. I think that if I get the details of the particular story right I think it’ll be specific to the characters and also be a good film. I think that these labels – ‘gay cinema’ and ‘queer cinema’ – are significant and insignificant. There’s not meaningless because there is an absence of that kind of representation so they do play some kind of role for people culturally. I think it’s minimizing to narrow a film like this, and for me, my inspirations are certainly people like Cassavetes or Assayas or Pialat, none of whom are gay. On the other hand, I am inspired by certain films that give me permission, like Taxi zum klo, or L’Homme blessé by Patrice Chéreau, or Parting Glances, an early American queer film; and I needed that representation to see it and think that other things are possible.

You don’t see many American films that deal with gay characters this honestly, and it’s really nice to see.

But part of that is that it’s really hard economically – it’s very difficult for a gay filmmaker or a non-gay filmmaker to make a story about gay people and economically sustain your career. So how do people get better? That’s a big question, and I think many people make other choices in order to continue.

The film won a Teddy award – congratulations! There’s a short scene when someone wins a Teddy; a case of life imitating art. How did that feel?

It was funny. It was rewarding because people in Berlin asked me what hotel in Berlin we shot it in and I was very happy to say that we shot it on 16th Street in New York City – so clearly we had done something right! I just read a review that said something about how the film had used the real Berlin Film Festival, and I was like ‘no, we didn’t – got you’! I guess people do many bigger things in terms of making things real – the fact that we were authentic enough was rewarding.

I think actually that I was proud to be in that tradition that the Teddy includes – Derek Jarman won one, Go Fish… various films that were meaningful to me, and to feel like I’m a part of that history is hard-won. So it was affirming, and it was encouraging. I think what I’ve found is to make something that is different and to embrace what is subcultural about my life has been empowering, maybe more so for me than if I chose not to, in the sense that I think that I have a particularly unique position and ability to tell this kind of story more than I would in a story that was less specifically about my own life.

Keep The Lights On is in cinemas now.

Interview | Clare Binns, director of programming – Ritzy Cinema

Earlier this year, South London’s beautiful Ritzy cinema turned 100 years old, and it remains a key cultural hub, featuring a diverse selection of classic and contemporary cinema, special events and – recently – live music and comedy. A key factor in the cinema’s success has been the presence of director of programming Clare Binns, a Brixton veteran with a connection to the cinema that goes back over a quarter of a century. We sat down with Clare recently to discuss her career, her affinity with the local area, and her views on the growth of digital technology in cinema exhibition.

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PPH (in bold): Can you explain briefly what your role is at the Picturehouse?

Clare Binns (in regular): I’m what’s laughingly known as Director of Programming and Acquisitions, so I oversee the booking policy for the Picturehouse Cinema Group and we look after 20 cinemas in the UK which are ours and then we look after, programming-wise, about another 40 cinemas across the UK. So I sort of do all of that and then at the same time, we’ve recently gotten into distribution; so I’m heavily involved in the distribution and the picking up of films.

What might an average week entail for you?

Lots of discussions about films, lots of viewing films, lots of strategy. Where we play films, negotiating terms, talking to distributors, going to meetings, talking to film festivals. And also there’s a lot of people who want to work at Picturehouse, so trying to talk to them, encourage other filmmakers about all the new people who are coming through. It’s incredibly varied.

And do you enjoy doing the festival circuit?

Yeah, it’s great! The reason I do this job is to watch films. And it’s just the job’s gotten bigger and changed, but at the end of the day, it’s watching films that I like to do.

You go way back with the Brixton Ritzy and Brixton in general – how did you get started there?

My husband was working as an usher there, I think around 1979, and I was doing other jobs at the time, and I went in as an usher about 1980, and I’ve been involved ever since. So I’ve done everything there.

Clare Binns

So how did your role develop?

I did front of house for six years, but I was a projectionist, I was a manager, started booking the cinemas, started being more involved with other cinemas – just with every transformation of the Ritzy, I’ve been the constant within the organisation. I always say that however many cinemas I program and however much I’m involved, the Ritzy is my template of what a good local cinema should be. You might not always get it right – there’s always more films and more events and other people who’ve got different views. But the fact is that my heart and soul is in the Ritzy and what it means for a local audience, and it’s what I base everything I do on. And I love booking it; I love being involved.

In terms of the path your career’s taken, do you think it’s unique? Do you think those days are gone?

I don’t think it’s unique; I think it’s much harder for people these days. The only qualification I’ve got is a swimming certificate and so I’ve done pretty well. And now most of the people that apply for jobs with me have got university degrees or they’ve been to film school. But I think if you’re hungry enough, if you’re keen enough, if you’re prepared to put in the hours… and you know, I used to do the cleaning at the Ritzy, I did the projection, I was there for the all-nighters and even now, I’m a 24-hour working kind of person. I think if you’re prepared to do that, you can still progress through the film industry. But I think it’s tough.

And do you feel it’s almost not working – it’s a passion, so it doesn’t feel like work?

Yeah, I am passionate about it and I’m incredibly lucky to have the job I have, but at the same time I take my job and what I do very seriously, and I don’t turn off from it – much to my children’s and husband’s annoyance! But you have to be passionate about it; it’s not something you can ever think “oh, I’ll just stop doing this for a couple days.”

What’s your biggest frustration about the job?

Well, there’s times when I wish we had more screens at the Ritzy, and there’s times when 5 screens are too much, because there’s not very good films out there. And you are judged as a programmer on what films you play. I don’t beat myself up too much because at the end of the day someone has to make the decision about what’s played in the cinema, and there’s all sorts of reasons why films get played. It can be frustrating that you can’t always get what you want in the cinema. It’s the best time to be booking; it’s better than I’ve ever seen it, because there’s a lot going on.

Is there something that sticks in your mind, as the ‘one that got away’?

Not really – I suppose it’s been fantastic to see how the Ritzy used to have beg and struggle to get films, and now I spend a lot of my time saying no, because everyone wants their film in there. So I have to work out, with the 13 or so films that are released each week, which are the ones that go in. And that’s why I sometimes get frustrated that there’s not enough screens to do everything in.

The Picturehouse is a chain, essentially, but it’s still very independent in spirit. How proud of that are you of that status in the face of Cineworlds and Odeons that don’t necessarily offer that experience?

I actually think, yes, Picturehouse is an independent company, but to me, it’s what we do, and if we were owned by Microsoft or whoever, the people at Picturehouse all care passionately about film and cinema and what we do. So I think it’s more how you deliver something – and if McDonalds or anyone else delivers anything that’s good and people are excited about it, you don’t criticise that. So I think it’s really about the people that are involved and the passion for what they do. I just think it’s because of who we are here, and it’s not just me – it’s everyone who’s in the fold with Picturehouse.

Do you think that’s there’s an ethos that informs that, that everybody who works at Picturehouse is on the same page?

Yeah, I guess that’s it. And going into distribution, and the sorts of films we’re picking up and what we’re doing – that’s all very exciting. And everyone likes the job – we all like the job; but there’s days when you get frustrated and tired, with any job.

What’s your favourite memory at the Ritzy?

Well, recently, having Harry Belafonte at the cinema was magnificent – because to go into the screen and having a standing ovation from a typical Ritzy audience where it was different ages, races, creeds, colours, politics – everybody. You looked at that audience, where else would you get an audience like this? And it was incredibly moving. But you know, there’s been lots of fantastic things along the way, and we’re talking about having been involved for 30 years. Some of the gay pride stuff we’ve done over the years, Quentin Tarantino coming, I could just go on and on. I think it’s the staff who make that venue, it’s the building, it’s Brixton – it’s everything about it. So I feel just great that I can still be a part of it.

The Ritzy in 1989

In your opinion, why is film important?

Because I think film can do so many things on so many levels – it can entertain, it can make you think. Visually, it gives you something that no one else can… it’s a sharing thing. You can be in your row in the auditorium and feel good, you can be with a full house and experience something like no other. It’s a medium that does not get the recognition like literature or music, but really, I don’t care – I know how important it is. And I know that when you sit in an auditorium like I did at the Ritzy watching The Blair Witch Project with a full house and the gasps and roars and boos. I think film is to me, one of the greatest that there is in life.

And what is it that makes Brixton so special?

I think the Ritzy is part of why Brixton is so fantastic. I’ve lived in Brixton since I was 19 and I’m 57 now – and I love it, I’ve always loved it. It’s changed hugely, and you know, I was in the Ritzy when the ‘81 riots took place. I’ve been there all the way through it and I think what I like about it is this mix. It’s a real mix of everybody – rich, poor, young, old, black, white – and that to me is where I feel comfortable and where I think it’s a true reflection of what this country can be. And it has had some difficult problems and there have been some times when the police have behaved badly, when no money was there, and all the companies suffered. And that’s why I say that after the riots, the fact that Marks and Spencers stayed, and all the other chains left – I’ve seen it grown up. And now I find it remarkable, what’s going on. But I hope it continues to be the liberal, tolerant and exciting place that it’s always been.

What are your views on the current state of exhibition? Do lament the decline of 35mm or are you positive about the future of digital?

I think that 35mm is great, but I think digital has opened a door and we can never go back. For me, it’s allowed me much more flexibility. We can do so many different things that we could never do before. And when you see a 35mm print, it’s great! But if you want to come to the cinema and see a film looking beautiful as the day it was locked, then digital is the way. If you wanted to see Dark Knight in the third week of release, you would see crackles and bumps and jumps and all the rest of it. So I think for the viewer, it’s a really good experiences. And I think for me as a programmer, it allows me to do lots of things I couldn’t do before.

What are your top three films of all time? 

Well, I can sort of give you the three I can think of now. I would say Eraserhead, I like very much. Which Fred Astaire would I pick? Top Hat. And… I should pick one from recently… Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present.

What advice would you give to a young person looking to get into programming?

Be prepared to work hard, not give up, and realise you have to pay your dues. Don’t give up, but you have to keep going and be prepared to do a lot of shit along the way.

You can follow Clare Binns on Twitter @ClareLBinns. Visit the Ritzy Cinema homepage here. A version of this interview originally appeared in the Brixton Bugle newspaper.