An interview with director ben wheatley

After four decades of abortive attempts, J.G. Ballard's dystopic 1975 novel High Rise has finally made it to cinemas. Set in a near future that happens to be the 1970s,  the film depicts a luxury tower block as it becomes isolated and descends into savage factionalism. Amid a cast of morally ambiguous residents, the film's nominal protagonist is Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a pragmatic survivor who is able to navigate intricate class loyalties and unafraid to eat dogs when he needs to.

One of the main reasons that Ballard has proved resistant to cinematic adaptation is that his formally inventive prose is so idiosyncratic that it requires an equally distinctive film-maker to successfully translate it. In the case of High-Rise, it required two: director Ben Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump, the husband and wife team behind Sightseers, Kill List and A Field in England, who are among Britain's most promising and ambitiously imaginative film-makers. Ahead of High-Rise's release, we spoke to Ben about his work on the film and having faith in his own voice.

High-Rise is often deliberately disorientating. How did you strive to get the tone?

It's kind of a taste thing and it's also intuition, how you make it all balance out. There was a lot of watching the movie again and again. During the six months that we cut the film, it was assembled within two months and the rest of the time we watched it every day, editing for thirteen, fourteen hours at a time. Every little change rippled up the whole movie, so we couldn't really alter anything without watching it all. That's a bastard on something that's two hours long, but it was the only way. We created the tone frame by frame across the whole running time.

It must be difficult to get critical distance at that point. When you've been working on a movie for years and you're watching it every day, how do you know what's right for it?

Because that's the job, you know? There are ways of working where you throw yourself at the mercy of groups of people and surrender your authorship, but I can't imagine ever working like that. There's two of us editing it, Amy and I, and she's written it as well, so there's enough oversight that that wouldn't happened. Amy is particularly ferocious when it comes to cutting. She'll strip it down and strip it down until it's as hard as a diamond. And then when we're happy with it ourselves, that's when we stop.

On a film like High-Rise everyone can have an opinion on what they'd change, but that doesn't necessarily make the film better, it just makes it different. We wanted to make sure that the translation of our taste and our decisions to the screen was as unfettered as possible. Where things go wrong is if you start taking on other people's ideas: even if in the moment they might be right, by the time you get to the end your film is slightly fucked because it doesn't have a proper viewpoint. It needs one voice, for better or for worse. We stand by ours, and it might not be to everybody's taste but that's just tough. If you feel too afraid and try to double guess what the audience are going to want then you've already lost. You've got to assume that the audience is within you. What you're doing as a creator is producing stuff that you want to see and then making the assumption that others will feel the same way.

The residents of the tower block all have very different objectives, so are we supposed to identify with certain people and not others? How much sympathy do you wish for the audience to have for the characters?

I'd like to think that I'm even-handed. That's important, as part of the emotional realism of a film is that the director isn't short-changing the characters and setting them up to fail. Audiences can detect that really quickly, and life isn't like that because everyone has shades of grey. One character commits an awful act later in the film, but at the same time he's a human being and though he does despicable, terrible things it doesn't necessarily mean that everything he's ever done is despicable and terrible. It's very safe to imagine that people who do bad things are evil, and I don't think that's true.

Other than the change in mediums, the most significant difference is perhaps that book takes place in the 1970s, while the film is set there. What interested you about that?

That's true, but then the book is also a predictive fiction to the near future. It was written in about 1974, so it's predicting somewhere between 1978 and 1983. We made the decision to not do the same and set it in our near future because too much of the technology would break the central core of the book. Social media totally destroys the idea of being able to hide away in a tower block somewhere going crazy because everyone would know about it.

We thought it was a look from our perspective of being born in the 1970s, knowing that our parents would have been like these characters, around the same age. At this point we're in the far future ahead of the story looking back, so we have an insight into what happens after its events. It's almost like we're reaching back from the future to join the book, and from that position is where the film exists.

High-Rise is in cinemas now. Images: Optimum Screenings.

How to invent an imaginary library

In issue 14, we featured the designs of four trashy genre paperbacks that never existed. Their inventor, Jason Ward, describes his winding journey through the throw-away fiction of the Twentieth Century.

The Silent Tomorrow is a 1950s sci-fo novel. Design by Dani Lurie.

The idea for An Imaginary Library grew out of a conversation about the covers of old books. There are scores of long-forgotten genre novels that feature incredible art on their covers, often of a much higher level than the writing within.

Books that once cost 3’6 have artwork that you’d gladly have on your wall: the spare, chilling design of 70s “airport” horror novels, the alien landscapes and abstract imagery of 1950s science fiction, and the lurid sexiness of hardboiled detective novels. Dismissed at the time as populist and disposable, their existence provided an opportunity for talented artists to sell their work, and for some truly awful ones to prosper as well.

But instead of highlighting books that already existed, we decided to invent some of our own.

Death Carries a Spade is a hard-boiled 40s thriller. Illustration by David Doran.

I wanted all of the text to be completely original and yet seem authentic; my intention was for the books to feel as if you might actually find them in a second-hand bookshop.

The internet was useful, but it was rare to find examples of back covers, which are as fascinating in their own way as the front covers, loaded with hyperbolic quotes from long-defunct publications. My favourite was from The Green Odyssey by Philip Jose Farmer, described as a “Wonderful, lusty and roistering adventure…!”

Wanting to see the books properly, I spent several long afternoons joyfully searching real secondhand bookshops, the kind where the owners have non-ironic beards and the books are kept in bins.

Boot Hill is a 70s airport horror book. Design by Fab Gorjian

What I found most striking during my research was how many conventions there were for each genre, like the endless blurbs of detective novels and their tendency to be re-released again and again under completely unrelated titles. As if to compound the sense of disposability, hardboiled covers were pretty much interchangeable, usually with a scantily-clad woman either seducing or being threatened.

Even though the books themselves were churned out, they were created in a very specific way and with very specific language: it’s a given that a science fiction publisher would be called something different to a horror publisher, for example, but even the types of names of the authors (often pseudonymous) were different. Everything about them was designed solely to sell more copies, and yet from that naked pursuit of commerce some great art was made, wonderful, lusty and roistering.

 

Rain On Its Way is a piece of 30s modernist fiction. Illustration by Naomi Elliott.

An interview with rich moore

Considering that most new films are released on a Friday, it seems like a perfect time to think about movies: our new series Film Friday will gather reviews, interviews and general features about some of the most interesting upcoming films. This week: an interview with Rich Moore, director of Disney's new 3D animated film, Wreck-it Ralph.

If you were to make a list of your favourite episodes of The Simpsons, it’s likely that several of them would be directed by Rich Moore. Involved with the programme since its pilot, Rich was an integral part of the show’s glorious, peerless first decade. Rich followed The Simpsons by becoming the supervising director of Futurama – directing many of its best episodes too – and has now directed his first feature, Wreck-It Ralph.

Starring John C. Reilly as the eponymous Ralph, Wreck-It Ralph is about a villain from an arcade game who dreams of becoming a hero. Like his television work, the film is visually inventive, densely-layered, and as sweet as it is funny. To coincide with Wreck-It Ralph’s release, we spoke to Rich about making the film.

How did you first get involved with the project?

Disney had entertained the idea of a video game movie for about 15 years – there had been at least two other versions of the film that didn’t take off. When I joined Disney in 2008 John Lasseter said to me, “We’ve wanted to do this for a long time and no-one has cracked it. Do you think you’d like to take a shot?” I thought, well, yes!

I asked John if he wanted me to take what had been done before and make it work, and he said to start with the idea of the life of video game characters – what that means to me and what I wanted to do with it. I didn’t want to look at the work that had been done previously because I didn’t want to be influenced; if they never really got off the ground then I wanted to make a fresh start and build something from the ground up.

So many films based on video games are overly sombre, whereas what’s refreshing about Wreck-It Ralph is how fun it is. Was that a deliberate choice?

I always found that comedy was a big part of the culture of video games – I grew up playing them with my friends, laughing and joking. Video games movies always seem so grim, trying to tell these really heavy stories and taking themselves too seriously. They set stories in the world of a particular game like it’s any other setting, ignoring the nature of what games are. My approach to it was to own the fact that these are game worlds and that the characters within them know where they work.

What was it like to spend four years working on one film after a career of working in television?

On The Simpsons I’d do maybe four episodes a season, so over four years that’s about eight hours of animation, as opposed to a film’s 90 minutes. On a film you’re really concentrating on those 90 minutes and trying to make them the best they can be. But the longer schedule was great, actually. Television’s one of those worlds where you feel like you’re always behind, even before you’ve started. “You’ve really got to go fast because you’ve got time to make up.” “But this is the first day!” We were always sprinting, trying to get to the end of the line before the clock ran out. Wreck-It Ralph was more of a marathon. You have the luxury of letting things breathe and looking at them from a different angle and trying different things.

The film is littered with nods to video games. How did you decide which games you wanted to reference?

It was all based on the characters that we loved. What were the ones we grew up with? Which ones were appropriate for jokes within the movie? There were definitely favourites of mine, since I really loved playing games as a kid and a teenager, but I didn’t want it to all be coming out of my head. I went to a lot of the crew at Disney and asked them. We even put up a board in our break area that said “Which characters do you feel need to be in a video game movie – who could you not live without?” We got a great cross-section of different people’s opinions. There were hundreds of different characters suggested. 

Until now you’ve worked almost exclusively with traditional animation. Was it difficult to transition to CG?

It’s like working with another tool. The fundamentals of animation don’t change: the same language that I used on The Simpsons and Futurama, talking to animators in Korea, is the exact same language that I used talking to CG animators in Burbank. For me as a director, I would be communicating with animators the same way if I was directing claymation. The job of a director is conveying emotion and clarity in a scene, and to that end the Simpsons and Wreck It Ralph are not that different. You’re trying to tell a compelling story with characters that the audience invests in and cares about, and set that story in a world that feels like ours but is fantastic. That’s The Simpsons, that’s Futurama, and hopefully that’s Wreck-It Ralph too.

An interview with director steve james

Roger Ebert was perhaps the most prominent American film critic of all time, known not just for the 46 years he spent writing reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times but also for his popular and enduring television programme At the Movies. After complications from cancer treatment necessitated the removal of his lower jaw, Roger spent the final years of his life unable to eat or speak, and yet his writing diversified and flourished during this time. In Steve James' absorbing new documentary Life Itself, based on Roger's memoir, the film-maker explores his extraordinary story while filming him during what turned out to be the last few months of his life.

Ahead of its release in cinemas, Steve sat down with us to talk about the film's complicated road to production.

When you're making a documentary about a man who co-hosted a television show for decades, published scores of books and reviewed almost every film that came out over nearly half a century, where do you start in your research?

The memoir itself was the template. It was an incredible bible for the film, and inspired in so many ways. It helped to organise his life and tell me what was important to him, which guided me towards who to interview. He devotes chapters to significant film-makers like Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog but also Bill Nack, his friend from college, and John McCue, his newspaper buddy. That said, he doesn't really talk about his film criticism in the book. He excerpts some of his profile writing, but not a single review. He doesn't talk about his show much either – there's just a simple chapter devoted to it. So there were things that I wanted to do more on and in that regard it also led me to other sources. There was a lot to get my arms around.

In addition to being a prolific writer, Roger also had a storied life. How did you decide how best to weigh your coverage of it?

After I read the memoir I knew I wanted as much as reasonably possible for the film to be a comprehensive biography of Roger's life, taking account of his critical place in cinema, his impact and what he contributed, as well as his remarkable personal life and journey. I wanted it all, but we weren't going to make a three-hour film or a mini-series, either of which we could have easily done. Instead, I wanted it to be no longer than two hours and as comprehensive as it could be in that time. That meant picking and choosing. There were lots of things we could have dealt with that we didn't, but I feel good about the choices we made. I think we hit most of the significant milestones in his life, but hopefully not in a scattershot way.

One of the most affecting things about Life Itself is how you show Roger handling the prospect of death with dignity and grace. Was that important for you to capture?

Absolutely. When we started the film we had no idea that he would pass away four months in. That just wasn't in our thinking. His health was more unstable than it had been and he was growing increasingly fragile, but he was otherwise fine. The memoir is written from the perspective of someone late in life who has been through a lot and is reflecting, so I loved the idea of going back and forth between the present and the past and finding interesting ways to do that. I wanted to film Roger going to the cinema, writing, travelling, seeing friends – even though he could no longer speak he'd still throw dinner parties and sit at the head of the table. I was going to show what a vigorous life he continued to live despite all he'd been through, and in that we would get some sense of his perseverance, his courage, his good humour in the face of everything. All of that is in the movie, it's just we didn't get to film it. We ended up shooting him largely in a hospital and a rehab institute, but those earlier things became far more poignant because you know that he is dying.

There's a moment in the documentary where Roger writes that it would be a major lapse if you didn't depict the full reality of what he was going through, but was there anything you were personally worried about showing on film?

I was initially concerned when I first got to the hospital. If you look at any pictures of Roger in public after the start of his health problems he was either wearing a black turtleneck or a white scarf wrapped around his neck. He was always very stylish, but it was strategic as well. When I walked into the hospital room for the first day of actual filming he was asleep and his jaw was hanging down. There was nothing there. It was quite pronounced and I remember thinking, “I don't know how people are going to handle this.” But I filmed it, he woke up, smiled, and his eyes lit up. I put that early in the movie to let people see what he was going through and allow them to feel that inevitable discomfort. My hope was that they'd have the same experience I had where it stops being shocking – you see past the illness and see him. You're looking into his eyes, not down his throat. For a man who was dying, he made this easy. He was remarkably co-operative and engaged.

Memoirs are usually adapted for the screen as fictionalised accounts rather than as documentaries. What did you think a documentary could express about Roger's life that might have eluded a scripted feature?

Biopics are particularly hard to do because there's a tendency to want to tell everything, and trying to tell too much can work against the inherent drama of the storytelling. It can feel like a connect-the-dots presentation of a person's life – you're never in one place long enough to feel the deep significance of that moment in their life. You have the same potential hindrance in a documentary, but one of the advantages if the subject's alive is you have them there in flesh and blood, so who they are is communicated as much by their presence as by their important milestones. For example, if we were making the scripted biography of Roger's life, we probably wouldn't spend as much time as we did on his daily travails and him coping with his condition. You're not going to give up screen-time to illness when you could be showing him when he adapted Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, hanging out with Russ Meyer and big breasted women. But in a documentary you can get so much from observing simple moments in someone's life: the way they answer a question, or how they look at their wife.You see how they live.

Life Itself is out in UK cinemas today.

An interview with playwright alecky blythe

In 2006 the playwright Alecky Blythe was researching a new work set in a brothel when she heard news reports of an apparent serial killer murdering sex workers in Ipswich. One of the stage's most notable practitioners of verbatim theatre – a technique in which plays are constructed from the exact words of interviewees, including every “um” and “ah” – Alecky headed to the area to speak to local people about the events. The material she collected didn't make it into the play she'd been working on, but over the next few years she followed the story's difficult aftermath, paying particular attention to the residents of the street where the killer had lived as they formed new bonds. Working in collaboration with the composer Adam Cork, Alecky turned her interviews into something genuinely new: a verbatim musical.

Inventive, funny, moving and unsettling, London Road received ecstatic notices upon its debut at the National Theatre in 2011. Four years later, the film version is an equally distinctive presence on screen. Ahead of its release in cinemas on 12th June, and the stage version's NT Live premiere on 9th June, we sat down with Alecky to talk about verbatim theatre and the complicated process of adapting it for a new medium.

London Road is perhaps the first verbatim play to be adapted for film. Why do you think there's been a lag?

One of the main reasons is that verbatim is by its nature quite wordy because it's interview-based. A written play might naturally have more action, which film requires as a medium. One of the challenges in making verbatim theatre is finding dynamism. I'm always looking for situations that are active so that you don't just have actors sitting on chairs talking, which is why I try to collect my interviews not after an event but as it's going on. London Road the show had a lot of movement compared to some verbatim, so it became a matter of pushing that even further visually. It's a big step for producers to realise verbatim can work for film and be a better approach than a documentary, which would be cheaper.

Has your relationship to the work changed over time? As you return to the text, does your increasing distance from it change how you see those events?

I think it probably does. It's easier to take some creative, imaginative leaps with the material because it didn't just happen last week. Things become a bit fuzzy. I have notes but you don't remember everything, and that allows you to be more free with moving it on in another direction. It's a good thing as long as you know the truth of what happened and the story you're trying to tell and you never deviate from that too much. If you take it too far out of context it breaks it.

Do you feel a sense of obligation towards your interview subjects?

Yes, it's a really big responsibility. I felt it even just in the very beginning telling them this was the first musical piece I'd worked on. It was difficult to explain because there wasn't really a template. It's not Mamma Mia!, it's not an opera, it's not atonal. By that point they knew me quite well and trusted that I would look after the work – I was taking it in an unusual direction but one that would help tell the story rather than get in the way of it. Later, the director Rufus Norris, Adam and I went to Ipswich before we made the film with pictures of the shooting locations, new cast members, all that kind of thing, to try to explain what we were doing. I thought it was important to do that to the people we were representing. I'm in touch with them a lot. If the work is active they need to be kept abreast of what's happening. It's their lives, which are ongoing and obviously the film will now have an impact on them. They've been brilliant, but I have sleepless nights about whether they'll be happy.

What first drew you to the residents of London Road as your main interview subjects?

Although I know why journalism is sometimes mentioned – I work in quite a journalistic way – I just try to come to a subject that people think they already know and shed new light on it. When I discovered what the residents were doing after the murders, I felt this was something that hadn't been talked about. We knew about the tragedies, which was a story that was clearly told in the media, but not the fallout. There were people who weren't in the eye of the storm whose lives had been affected too. Obviously this was to a much lesser degree than the family members of the victims, but I saw there were wider repercussions in the community that seemed to resonate. I was compelled by this, and these people wanted to share their experiences with me. It seemed like a story that wasn't being told.

Your subjects in London Road are the sort of people who usually only pop up in vox pops on the news to give a bit of colour.

That's right, exactly. They're never the centre of the story. It wasn't that I heard about the murders and thought, “Oh yes, I'm going to go and make a piece about the people who were affected by it.” It was very much an organic journey in terms of working out what the story was. I was paired with Adam in a musical theatre workshop run by the National Theatre Studio and I took this material that I'd collected from Ipswich, just as clay for us to work with, to experiment with the form. What we found was that the music seemed to help create this mood of fear that I remembered from Ipswich at the time. I thought the subject and form seemed to work together, and then not long after the workshop it was announced that the trial was going to be in Ipswich rather than at the Old Bailey, which brought the story back to life in the town. As the real life events happened I started to shape my piece around that.

Are certain sorts of stories are better for this approach than others? Your play about the 2011 Hackney riots, Little Revolution, also uses different voices to explore a community in crisis. Do you think that's something that verbatim is particularly suited for?

I think it is. Verbatim is very good at collecting shared voices and depicting different opinions. If there's an event, like a protest for example, it gives you a setting to go into. You can find the story from there. You could maybe say that all of my plays are about communities of sorts, even though I'm not conscious of it at the time. So there isn't really a protagonist in London Road; the community is the protagonist.

London Road premieres on 9th June via NT Live and is on general release on 12th June. Visit londonroadfilm.co.uk for more information.

Jennie lee

Every Wednesday throughout March, we'll be introducing you to women who changed the world with their creativity. Our second instalment of the mini-series shines a spotlight on Jennie Lee. 

“As soon as I had an independent roof over my head, I was ready for battle.”

When the 24-year-old Jennie Lee became a member of parliament in 1929 she wasn’t even old enough to vote for herself. After growing up in a mining community so close-knit that her house literally had no back door, she went on to have one of the most colourful and inspiring political lives of the twentieth century.

A fearless, uncompromising socialist, her accomplishments included becoming the first minister for the arts and founding Britain’s last great social project, the Open University. Her 1965 governmental arts white paper—still the only arts paper ever written—argued for the arts to be a crucial part of everyday life, available to everyone. Under her stewardship the creation of new galleries, museums, music venues, theatres and other institutions fostered an unprecedented creative environment that continues to benefit the entire country.

Until the end of her life, Jennie was unable to attend the theatre without receiving a round of applause.

You can read more about her in Jennie Lee: A Life by Patricia Hollis, and find more of Cristina BanBan's beautiful illustrations of women who changed the world in Issue 29. Inside, we also pluck pennies from pavements, watch caterpillars burst from cocoons, and talk personal turning points. Get your hands on a copy here!

Illustration: Cristina BanBan

Eating a ham roll was the happiest moment of my childhood

In practice, my life began at the age of five, when my family moved from Scotland to Wales. The memories before the move are like a dream you can barely recall the next day: crossing a road, a tricycle, a policeman, my mother picking me up from nursery.

Distinct and clear, the move shook me into existence. My mother drove my sister in the family car, whilst my father drove myself and my brother in a hired lorry along with all of our possessions. I can still remember how it felt like an adventure, my brother and I bundled up under a duvet as we drove all night.
We made a handful of trips back north to visit my half-brother Scott. Travelling again with my brother and father, we would leave after school on a Friday and not arrive until late that night.

To my mind, the journeys were endless, and wonderfully so: strings of motorway lights marking our way, my father’s house music thrumming the car windows as single songs lasted for what felt like hours. My father drove lorries around the country for a time and he knew where all the best motorway services were—always, coincidentally, the ones with the best arcade machines. Each trip was a holiday, was a whole world.

When I was young it felt terribly important to maintain lists of the things I liked. Until the world became too complicated for such categorisation, it was essential that I knew the order of my favourite films, songs, jumpers and places to sit, for how else would I know the appropriate amount to enjoy them? I can say with some certainty, therefore, that the best moment of my youth took place in a service station.

The memory that lingers was the first trip to visit Scott. It was the first time I’d returned north since we’d moved, and my time in Wales had been made difficult by shyness and an impenetrably thick Scottish accent. In the middle of the night, we stopped at a motorway services to fill up on petrol. Thus, the best moment of my childhood was spent half-asleep in the back of my father’s car, as he passed out rolls wrapped in tin foil. The options were cheese or ham. I chose ham, and Stupid Girl by Garbage played on the radio as I ate my roll. As my father opened the door to get out and fill up the car, I felt the coldness of the night, and understood that it was warm inside the car. The song ended, he paid for the petrol, and we drove off again. That’s it, the whole thing.

When I think back now to my childhood I can think of lots of experiences that seem as special as that one and certainly more notable, but that moment in the petrol station is the one I consistently upheld as being the best, remaining vivid in my mind for years after. In a life filled with good and terrible things, triumphs and filling out forms, it would be foolish to claim it was the best moment of my life. But it was perfect and unencumbered: the back seat of my father’s car, a ham roll, and then moving again, waves of orange light flooding us for just a moment, over and over again.

 

Friendship against all odds

From its electrifying opening sequence onward, in which two teams of teenage girls face off in an American football match, every moment of Girlhood pulses with life and colour and youth.

Writer-director Céline Sciamma’s thoughtful yet boisterous film follows shy sixteen-year-old Marieme (Karidja Touré) as she joins a gang of girls in her economically-disadvantaged Parisian banlieue. Neglected by school, parental figures and their community, the quartet rely upon each other to weather their oppressive, underprivileged circumstances.

We spent a day in Paris with Karidja Touré and Assa Sylla, and what follows is an extract of pictures from Liz Seabrook's afternoon with them. The full photoshoot and interview with director Céline Sciamma will be published in the forthcoming Oh Comely issue 25.

Girlhood is released in UK cinemas today.

All photos by Liz Seabrook.

A bigger splash

It is not a coincidence that A Bigger Splash takes place on a volcanic island: the film is comprised of dormant passions, waiting to erupt.

David Kajganich's adaptation of the sensual 1969 thriller La Piscine follows rock star Marianne (Tilda Swinton) and her recovering alcoholic boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) as their blissful holiday is soured by the unwelcome, sexually provocative intrusion of her ex Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and his new-found daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson).

As its foursome flirt and fight, the film throbs with intense, volatile emotion: it is also not a coincidence that in person its director Luca Guadagnino is similarly animated.

One of the central ideas of A Bigger Splash is the conflict between two ways of living: a traditional hedonistic rock and roll lifestyle, which is embodied by Harry, and a contemporary sort of clean living which Paul and Marianne are attempting to pursue. Why were you interested in exploring that divide? You put me in a place in which I feel uncomfortable because you're asking me to give my own explanation of the film, which I am not very eager to do generally. I think the audience should make a judgement by themselves. I would say that the idea of nostalgia and wanting to get back what you've lost is something that I always think about, and in these characters you have that clash, a kind of battle between wills. It's a very universal, powerful dynamic.

When you have characters who have opposing philosophies, as a director do you take a side or is it important to be sensitive to both points of view? A director should never judge their characters. It's a disgrace if you do that. You should be as open as possible, as broad as possible and you should be able to invest in every act the characters make without judging them ever. If you judge your characters you're putting yourself on top of them and it's a disaster.

The characters are all driven by desire for each other--We all are. Aren't you?

Yes, certainly. I thought it was notable however that there's this struggle where each character wants someone else sexually, and is motivated by this. But this is exactly what we are bound to, so I wanted to make a movie about something that people can absolutely recognise in their own lives, even if they're not rock stars.

Due to an operation on her throat, Marianne is almost entirely silent and has to express herself in other ways. Was that a challenge to depict? Not when you have a great performer like Tilda Swinton. In general, no, because I think that people behave and communicate not just with words, but with the position they take in physical space. You are communicating much more through the position of your feet right now than by anything you're saying, in my opinion. A director is someone who has to be very attentive of behaviour and try to capture everything that comes as communication, whether in words or physically.

The original film La Piscine was set on the French Riviera which is warm but cool, while A Bigger Splash takes place on the island of Pantelleria, where there's the intense Sirocco wind. Was shifting the location a key decision for you? It started everything. When I said I'm going to do this movie based on La Piscine, I had to move the action to an island. I needed the movie to be set adrift and for the environment to challenge the characters. I didn't need a luxurious backdrop. That doesn't interest me, I hate it.

What would you say is the biggest difference between the original version and yours? I haven't seen that movie. I saw it only when I was 16, so I don't know what to say.

Do you think it's a better approach to adapt a film from a distant memory rather than looking at it closely? I was just working from the concept that there were two couples: one father and daughter and one new couple. That was my memory of what was in the movie. The writer may have seen it again but I didn't. I remember there was a moment in La Piscine in which Alain Delon slashes Romy Schneider with a branch, but we don't have any slashing in this movie.

You also altered the title to A Bigger Splash, which is the name of a David Hockney painting that depicts a splash of water as someone dives into a swimming pool. Why did you change the name from a location to the consequence of an action? The pool isn't the important point, the point is the clash. I'd much rather focus on the action rather than the concept of the pool itself.  I also wanted, in my megalomania, to buy that painting when I was young. Somehow I feel I now possess it in a way because it's the title of my movie.

A Bigger Splash is released on 12th February.

An interview with domnhall gleeson

While Frank is ostensibly inspired by screenwriter Jon Ronson’s youthful experience of playing keyboards in the band of Frank Sidebottom (the comedy persona of the late Chris Sievey), the film eschews direct autobiography in order to explore ideas about outsider art, mental illness and ambition. Using the basic concept of a frontman who sports a papier-mâché head at all times, the film is an intense, weird, often very funny character study of two men: Frank (Michael Fassbender), an emotionally damaged yet brilliant musician who lives life “in the furthest corners”, and Jon (Domnhall Gleeson), whose crushing averageness makes him both attracted to and envious of his innately talented bandmate. Ahead of Frank's release, we spoke to Domnhall about his work on the film and what it’s like acting opposite a papier-mâché head.

Jon is portrayed very sympathetically at the start of the film, but the depiction of him evolves throughout. Did that influence how you played him?

For me, when I read the script I had empathy with Jon until the end. I really delighted in him being a total dick sometimes. I always think that if somebody’s entertaining you’ll continue to want to watch them. Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood is a nightmare of a man, but there’s not a second you don’t want to watch him because his moral corruption is compelling. So I felt like as long as we could keep people laughing, and as long as Jon kept trying to do things with his life, then no matter how horrible those things were you would want to watch him. Being liked by the audience isn’t really here nor there.

He often makes the wrong decisions but you understand why.

Yeah, the others treat him horribly. And he’s not talented. At a certain point you just want to tell him “Look, you don’t have any talent!”, but he keeps trying. In a way, what else is he to do – just accept that he has no ability and give up? That’s not interesting. What you want to see is somebody struggle, and god help him he struggles hard.

How do you play mediocre?

You’ve got to be really careful how you phrase that question! It’s very easy. You make the character try as hard as he can and have what he does tell you that he’s not any good. The producers were really nice to give me songwriting credits for the terrible songs Jon sings at the start of the film, because I went in and made them up with the music guy. I knew they couldn’t be above a certain level and actually ended up revelling in how far I could push mediocre towards shit. Also, it helped that I’m not talented as a keyboardist: I learned keyboards specifically for this movie, so I was limited in that way too. My mediocrity was all there already, I just had to use it.

Your character is called Jon and the story is a fictionalised version of what happened when Jon Ronson joined Frank Sidebottom’s band. Did you bear the real Jon Ronson in mind at all?

Obviously there was the day when I considered if should I go down that route, but it was really clear that the film was inspired by the way Chris Sievey looked when he had the head on and by his spirit as opposed to his actual life or the songs he wrote. That’s why the film’s called Frank and why they have this character in the movie. You just leave everything else behind, I think. They wrote a character who isn’t anything like Jon Ronson, really, so I didn’t speak like him or behave like him. I just tried to do what would work for the script, and that was already difficult enough without throwing something else in on top of it.

It’s an obvious question to ask, but how difficult is it to act opposite someone when you can’t see their facial expressions? How did it affect your performance?

I guess that’s going to be the question, yes, and the problem is that the answer is probably slightly boring and unbelievable, which is that it didn’t feel weird except for when it was supposed to feel weird. The times when it’s supposed to feel strange in the film are when you really want to tell what Frank’s thinking and you just can’t because he chooses not to let you know. Michael was so expressive when he needed to be: he chose when to be exuberant or expressive and when not to be and in a way that’s the same as anybody else. We got into it really quickly, and he wore the head for quite a bit of the music rehearsals too so we got used to it before we arrived on set.

I’m guessing he wasn’t Method about it – he’d take the head off at the end of the day?

I think Michael is probably a bit mad but I don’t know if that was for the film or if that’s just him all the time. I guess I’ll find out the next time I meet him! I don’t know. But he took it off between takes, yeah. I just know that it was really fun because you don’t know what he’s going to do next, and I have a feeling that would be the case even if he wasn’t wearing a papier-mâché head.

What was the first thing that attracted you to the project?

Well, straight away when I read the script I thought it was really funny. I really like physical comedy and I hadn’t done much of it before on film. Mostly I liked the challenge of it. It’s one thing to write a story like this and another to actually put it in a film. How do you make all that madness into something which isn’t just a mess? I didn’t know how you do that, I really didn’t, but I felt if we managed it then it’d be the exact sort of film that I love, something strange and touching and big and odd.

It’s a film that’s unafraid of being weird, that doesn’t see weirdness as being a bad thing.

Yes, although I honestly don’t think that the film is trying to be weird; it’s just its sensibility. If you stay true to that sensibility it’ll become its own thing. It’ll have its own grammar, its own way of existing, and you’ll be able to have ridiculous sex in a hot tub or punch somebody full in the face or have some weird wrestling match, but also have scenes of full-on emotion. All that stuff is a gas, you know, playing dress up and putting on a holey costume and a big fake beard, it’s fucking great.

Jon is a departure from the other characters you’ve played in the past – is the opportunity to play different sorts of people part of the appeal of acting to you? You wouldn't want to be on a soap opera for thirty years playing the same character.

I’m sure other people do, but I don’t. It’s fun purpose-building a character for a movie and then turning up with him, and knowing you can do whatever you want with him because it will fit, because he suits the movie. And then to let it go and move on to the next one. It’s always scary, which is good. You want to be scared. Look at Michael’s career choices or Maggie Gyllenhaal’s career choices: they’re people that challenge themselves all the time. People talk about longevity like it’s all about what other people will give you but I think it’s also about keeping yourself interested and hungry as well, because if you play the same part over and over surely you’ll just get bored and hate your job. Your interest will drop. Variety is as much for yourself as for other people, and hopefully I’ll get to continue doing this for a while. Of course, you never know. I could be unemployed next year. But we keep our fingers crossed.

Frank is out now in UK cinemas

Lincoln

The problem with many biopics – particularly the middlebrow, awards-courting ones that tend to pop up around this time of year – is that the story they’re trying to tell is simply too large.

These films succeed in recounting the biographical details of a historical or cultural figure’s life, but by trying to convey the entire sweep of a person’s existence, the lives of complicated, messy people are smoothed out into a familiar narrative: a rise, a fall, and perhaps some sort of late rebirth if the protagonist is lucky. The rest is colour – a box-ticking exercise recreating events the audience is already aware of, inevitably featuring a lead performance that is closer to impersonation than acting.

Based in part Doris Kearns Gtoodwin’s terrific biography Team of Rivals (much admired by Barack Obama, as the cover mentions four or five times), Lincoln eschews this convention, focusing solely on the final few months of Abraham Lincoln’s 56 years of life as he attempts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Considering the extraordinary particulars of Lincoln’s life, from his poverty-stricken upbringing through to his unlikely ascension to president through to four years of civil war, it is a bold choice from screenwriter Tony Kushner and director Steven Spielberg. The pair were spoilt with options – Goodwin’s book contains enough material to fill half a dozen biopics – but by concentrating so unwaveringly on a single act of governance Kushner and Spielberg create a rich, compelling portrait of the man, the times he lived in, and what made him so important. A 19th century political drama about the passage of a single bill, Lincoln is riveting, overflowing with murky deals and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring.

Kushner and Spielberg’s efforts to wrest Lincoln into life are supported by Daniel Day-Lewis’ superlative performance, which is at once gentle, wry, gregarious, melancholy and resolute. It’s easy to imagine his portrayal becoming the definitive depiction of the 16th President. Every element of Lincoln is excellent, from screenplay to cinematography to editing, but in a film with 148 speaking parts, Day-Lewis is unforgettable.

For a man whose face is carved into the side of a mountain, it would be easy for a depiction of Lincoln to slide into easy mythologising; instead, Spielberg’s film makes great efforts to show a man whose greatness comes from the management of his own complicated personality, rather than a simplistic, overpowering eminence.

The passage of the Thirteenth Amendment is used as a synecdoche for Lincoln’s life: a man who accomplished his transformative goals against impossible odds using wily political ingenuity, compassion, great intelligence and exceptional oratorical skills. By depicting less of his story, Kushner and Spielberg get to the heart of its importance.

An interview extract with director errol morris

One of the most significant documentarians of his generation, Errol Morris has mostly spent the past 35 years making films about colourful eccentrics and outsiders. In 2003, however, the filmmaker shifted his focus from pet cemetery owners and delusional beauty queens to former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in his Oscar-winning documentary The Fog of War.

Morris’ latest film, The Unknown Known, is another feature-length interview with a former Secretary of Defense: Donald Rumsfeld, one of the primary architects of the Bush jason wardistration’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For all of its superficial similarity, however, The Unknown Known is markedly different in tone to The Fog of War – where McNamara earnestly contemplated his legacy, Rumsfeld obfuscates and eludes.

Speaking to Jason shortly before the film’s release, Errol reflected on how he attempted to engage with a figure who had been interviewed countless times before.

"It was tricky. The first day I met him I was invited to join him whilst he answered questions from reporters on speakerphone about his new memoir. We’re sitting there and he’s asked these completely expected questions that he’s been asked hundreds, if not thousands of times. “Did you really think there were WMDs in Iraq?” “Did you think the number of troops used in the invasion were sufficient?” “Do you believe adequate preparations had been made for the aftermath of the war?”

"It had the quality of a vending machine. Same questions, same answers. I wondered: what is this about? It represents some kind of strange exchange. It’s not necessarily investigative at all. It’s kind of a version of theatre. I promised myself: I’m not gonna do this. I don’t want to ask these same questions. I wanted to tease out something different, without really knowing what that was.

"In interviewing him I found that often the most interesting stuff wasn’t the answers, it was these moments of silence, or his smile, or weird unexpected responses that aren’t really responses at all. The film pushes back on him endlessly but it’s a different kind of movie. It’s a movie about the smile, the vanity, the self-satisfaction, the cluelessness, the retreat into empty rules and principles and slogans."

The Unknown Known is now out in UK cinemas. The full interview with Errol Morris will be published in Issue 20.

An interview with caroll spinney

Impressive facts about Caroll Spinney accumulate rather quickly. 95% of all Americans have seen him perform before they reach the age of three. He's sung on dozens of albums. Five countries have featured him on postage stamps. In 1970 he appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine, while in 2012 he played an unlikely role in crystallising the U.S. presidential election. He's been a regular television presence in over 160 countries for nearly half a century. He's an 8' 2” bird, a grouch who lives in a trash can, and the puppeteer star of America's longest-running children's programme, Sesame Street. In addition to all this, Caroll is also the subject of a new documentary on his life: I Am Big Bird. Ahead of its release this week we spoke to the veteran puppeteer about the film, his long career and working with Mr. Snuffleupagus.

How did I Am Big Bird come about?

The film-makers Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker had already produced one other documentary and were deciding what to do next. Somebody suggested Caroll Spinney, and they said who's that? Eventually they approached Sesame Street, who said it was a good idea. I drove down to New York with my wife and chatted with them. We thought they were nice guys and told them to go ahead. A lot of people ask why now. Well, since I'm 81 I don't know if I'll be around when I'm 91. It's a lovely tribute, because I'm starting my 46th year of making Sesame Street.

How does it feel to watch a documentary about yourself?

It's been really nice because we've been to film festivals and have seen lots of people enjoying the film. We've been enjoying their comments. It's a nostalgic job I have. When you're a child there are all kinds of strains – I think it's easier to be a grown-up. So the film reminds them of how much Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch meant to them at that age. It's talking about the past but then I still have the job, so for me one of the joys of the film is that it ends with me still working and doing these characters.

What do you think is the appeal of Big Bird? Out of all of the Sesame Street Muppets he was the first to break out, and is still the heart of the show.

I decided about two months in that he should be a child. For the first few months he was just a goofy guy, a real yokel. He'd become fairly popular just as a novelty, but when I made him a kid he suddenly embodied something that a lot of children could identify with: the struggle to be a child in an adult world. I love the letters that I get from children. One of them said: “Big Bird you're my best friend, please come and play with me. How about next Thursday?” I've always liked doing something that children could relate to even though I was in my 30s, or now in my 80s. Big Bird is still 6 years old, of course. He never really changes all that much. Oscar is very satisfying too because I wasn't cool at school. I was pushed around, and nobody pushes Oscar around.

What's Sesame Street like as a place to work?

It's a world that seems almost real when you go in. It's quite dramatic for people to walk into the studio. It looks very much like a real street, except for all the lights coming down instead of sky. I remember one time a child was on the set watching us perform and he asked “Where's the real Sesame Street? Where's the real Big Bird?” He thought that we were just grown-ups pretending to be the actual characters.

You've been Big Bird and Oscar since the very start of the programme. Will storylines ever remind you of things that happened to them decades earlier?

I don't remember the day-to-day things. Some are simple little moments of life and so the details pass you by. I've done literally thousands of hours of the show, over 4,000 episodes. We used to make 130 shows every single year. We don't make as many now. The budget cut it down and there are more repeats. I was talking to the head writer who'd been told by accounting that in the future we'd only be able to make 25 shows a year. He said that was impossible. They asked why and he said “Well, what letter of the alphabet are you not going to use?”

Do you have any personal highlights from those thousands of hours, or do you prefer to look forward instead?

There are a few that stand out in my mind because they were so emotional. One was the story where everyone thought Big Bird's friend Snuffleupagus wasn't real. I remember a scene way back in the 70s where Gordon told Big Bird he was tired of hearing stories about his imaginary friend. “There is no such thing as a Snuffleupagus, so forget about it!” Snuffy comes shuffling along and a dejected Big Bird tells him they can't be friends: “You're imaginary and I can't be your friend any more” “I'm imaginary?” Snuffy asks for a hug to say goodbye and starts crying, and because Big Bird can feel the tears he realises that Snuffy is real and they can be friends forever. I remember doing that and being so moved. You get into the real feelings of the characters. I felt the sadness that Big Bird had. When we got out of our outfits, our faces were completely wet with tears. They were tears of joy because Big Bird and Snuffy had realised they could still be friends. That was one of the memories that stands out, but there are so many others that were just so sweet. Life on Sesame Street... it's so nice and wonderful. I love the job I have and that's why I don't want to leave. To still bring these characters to life is just too much fun.

2015 in film interviews

One of the great pleasures of working for Oh Comely – aside from the baked goods that materialise in the office with delicious regularity – is that I get to watch excellent films and then speak to the people who made them. Therefore, when asked to write about 2016 in cinema, I thought that instead of rounding up my favourite films of the year* I would instead share some of the film-maker interviews that I most enjoyed doing. I've cheated by also including an interview with Big Bird performer Carroll Spinney, but given that he tells an anecdote about the time he hugged Snuffleupagus so hard they both cried with joy, I hope you'll forgive me.

(*Spoiler for the results of that hypothetical event: Carol would win, with The Lobster, 45 Years and The Look of Silence tussling for silver. Have you seen Carol yet? Go and see Carol.)

Peter Strickland – The Duke of Burgundy

“For me, the film is about consent and how that veers into compromise and eventually coercion. Everyone likes to think they don't coerce their partner. Compromise is an issue within every element of a relationship, not just the sexual parts – if a couple decides to start a family, one person will possibly have to compromise on a job they might love. I'm not an agony aunt, but you can apply the film beyond the bedroom.”

Ruben Östlund – Force Majeure

“We have a culture today where we're allowed to put 99% of our time and concern into our relationships. There's something about this lifestyle that creates existential crises. We feel like love should be a problem, and we hear it in pop music over and over again. In movies, on television, it's all relationship challenges. As long as we have that kind of focus for our lives we won't be able to look at society's problems from a proper perspective. I wanted to question that.”

Caroll Spinney – I Am Big Bird

“I decided about two months in that he should be a child. For the first few months he was just a goofy guy, a real yokel. He'd become fairly popular just as a novelty, but when I made him a kid he suddenly embodied something that a lot of children could identify with: the struggle to be a child in an adult world.”

Olivier Assayas – Clouds of Sils Maria

“Juliette and I are friends but we're not that familiar or intimate – I've never known what her everyday life is like. I know her but I also fantasise her. I imagine things about her. Some of them are true, some are totally off the mark. So when I'm writing a character like Maria Enders I know that I'm playing with my own assumptions as well as the assumptions of the audience, the way the audience imagines her. I'm playing on this border between fiction and reality.”

Alecky Blythe – London Road

“We knew about the tragedies, which was a story that was clearly told in the media, but not the fallout. There were people who weren't in the eye of the storm whose lives had been affected too. Obviously this was to a much lesser degree than the family members of the victims, but I saw there were wider repercussions in the community that seemed to resonate. I was compelled by this, and these people wanted to share their experiences with me. It seemed like a story that wasn't being told.”

Desiree Akhavan – Appropriate Behaviour

“That's the worst: when you hold on to the nostalgia for a moment you had two hours ago, hoping that the person will go back to your first impression of them. That happens quite often and I don't see it depicted in movies. Films lied to me about sex, and everything I learned about sex until a certain age I'd learned from watching a movie. It wasn't a conversation I had with my parents or something I could find out on my own. When I finally started dating I realised I'd been fed fairytale lies about simultaneous orgasms and never-ending love. ”

Django unchained

Eight films into his career, Quentin Tarantino’s methods and themes have boiled down to a single purpose: the pursuit of vengeance for the historically oppressed.

While the pictures Tarantino completed in the 1990s used his impressive cinematic techniques for no purpose other than enriching the films themselves, the writer-director now employs the nonlinear narratives, extravagant violence and relentless pop-culture sifting for which he’s known in an attempt to obtain retrospective justice on behalf of subjugated groups. Using the apostatised genres of cinema’s past (Grindhouse, Blaxploitation, Spaghetti Westerns), Tarantino has created a series of films where women (Death Proof), Jews (Inglourious Basterds) and now slaves (Django Unchained) bloodily reclaim agency from their oppressors.

This evolution in objectives has been accompanied by a shift in public perception: where once Tarantino was overrated, he is now decidedly underrated. By using the same mixture of violence, comedy, pop culture-cribbing and stylised filmmaking as he has done throughout his career, his motivations are routinely called into question – it doesn’t help that he’s from none of the groups who comprise the vengeful protagonists of his films.

However, a film like Django Unchained demonstrates the value of his approach. In making the Spaghetti Western his template, Tarantino uses the disreputable, historically subversive genre to express a raw, genuine sense of moral outrage at the subject of slavery and the accompanying myths of the antebellum period. When faced with such inhumanity, Tarantino argues that the only appropriate response he can provide is bloody retribution through the power of cinema.

As a result, while Django Unchained shares the stylistic tics that run throughout Tarantino’s work, the film it most resembles is his most recent, Inglourious Basterds – a picture, of course, in which a coalition of film projectionists, critics, and actors destroy Hitler in a cinema. Like Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained provides its eponymous former slave hero (Jamie Foxx) with an endless supply of persecutors to exterminate, exploding in gore as selections from Spaghetti Western soundtracks play in the background. But even though the sight of Django extending brutal vengeance upon slave owners works as wish fulfilment in the same manner – a carthartic release after the many torments the film’s black character endure – the effect is less striking a second time around. There’s a sense that Tarantino isn’t quite challenging himself, content to make a retread of what worked before.

Despite being set a century earlier, on a different continent with different characters, Django Unchained feels like it could be a sequel, featuring several long, tense senses of characters undercover, trying to conceal their motives through verbal jousting. Indeed, Christoph Waltz’s dentist/bounty hunter Dr Schulz is essentially a reprise of his Oscar-winning role, except now the villain has become the hero’s sidekick, his ominous politeness used against the antagonists rather than for them.

While the relationship between Django and Dr Schulz has its basis in Spaghetti Westerns – a mentor working alongside a protégé – it mainly seems that Waltz was brought back because he was so much fun last time. He’s just as watchable, inevitably, but the character lacks the element of danger that made its predecessor so compelling. Fortunately, this deficit is made up for by Leonardo DiCaprio, who is exceptional in a similar role as the terrifying-yet-genteel Calvin Candie.

Other than the sense of familiarity, another factor that provokes weariness is the film’s sheer length. Django Unchained meanders into all sorts of interesting places, but it doesn’t really have enough plot to sustain itself for three hours, and its relatively straightforward narrative often means lengthy waits for scenes you know lie ahead. In particular, the film builds to a natural climax but doesn’t quite finish, and so has to take half an hour to return to what’s essentially the same scene again. But while Django Unchained is imperfect, the film carries itself with such vigour, flair, and righteous fury that you’re willing to forgive it.

An interview with dakota blue richards

Despite being only 19 years old, Dakota Blue Richards has already had a long and varied acting career – one which began when she memorably played the lead role in 2007’s cinematic adaptation of The Golden Compass. Whilst the remaining two parts of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy were unfortunately never made, Dakota has continued to work steadily in film and television – most notably joining the cast of Skins towards the end of its successful six-year run. In her latest film, The Fold, Dakota plays the daughter of an Anglican priest (Catherine McCormack) who is having a crisis of faith after the death of her other child. Ahead of The Fold’s release in cinemas and on VOD, we spoke to Dakota about her role in the film.

The Fold features both a first time director (John Jencks) and a first time writer (Poppy Cogan). What was it like to work on a project where you were a veteran on the set?

It’s always interesting working with people at the start of their career, because they have such an enthusiasm for what they’re doing, and that was really evident with John. It was clear that he really cared about the film, and that he wanted to make it as good as he possibly could. He just had this real excitement for the project, which is sometimes lost along the way when you’ve been doing it for a long time. It made everyone else excited as well.

What was great was that it made me think about my character and what I was bringing to the performance in a different way. John wouldn’t come in and say: “We’re going to do this, this and this”. He was always open to my ideas and Catherine’s ideas. Everybody could put what they thought out there and he’d take that, think about it, and come back with a properly formed way of going about that day’s scenes.

Has your approach to acting changed over the years you’ve been doing it?

I think you get into habits, which can be good and can be bad. Because everyone has their own method of working, it can become easy to approach everything in the same way. What’s nice is having the opportunity to think about things differently, and to be challenged by how other people approach things when they haven’t been doing it long enough to fall into patterns.

How did you build a believable mother-daughter relationship with Catherine McCormack? Did you have to get quite close?

Our relationship as a mother and daughter in the film is fairly distant. What I found hard was that I’ve never had that distance with my own mother. I’ve always been very close to her, so playing that level of discomfort was more challenging than building a relationship would have been. Catherine is lovely and brilliant at what she does, so it was great having her around. If anything, I found it difficult trying to act like I didn’t get on with her.

Your character Eloise exists primarily in relation to her mother’s journey. How do you make a supporting character compelling whilst serving the story?

It’s not so much about how big a role is or how many lines you have; rather it’s how interesting the character is in their own right and how they influence the plot. Quite often when you see things that are badly written there are major characters who don’t actually affect the story at all. What’s nice about The Fold is that even though it’s a smaller role, I see Eloise as being the light in the gloom of her mother’s depression and grief. She’s trying to be strong for her family and help them through it. She plays a strong role within the film regardless of how often you see her.

One of the film’s key scenes revolves around you playing the violin. Can you actually play one in real life?

I played when I was a child, very briefly, which possibly helped me a little bit. To be honest it was such a short shoot that we didn’t get a chance to learn the instruments that well. We had a couple of lessons but the violin is one of the most complicated instruments, especially if you’re not a musician. There was just no way that I was going to actually become good at it, so we had a double. Whenever you can’t see my face it’s not me. That’s a good thing because you definitely wouldn’t want to see me playing.

I was curious about your experience making The Golden Compass. With some distance from the film, what is it like looking back?

It doesn’t really feel like that long ago. It’s funny actually because if I think about college, which was a couple of years ago, that feels like ages, but The Golden Compass still seems fairly recent even though it wasn’t. It was really just the best experience I could have had as a 12 year old. It was perfect and fun and I loved every minute of it.

I guess a lot of people would have said it would be a dream come true, something they’d wanted for a really long time, but I just sort of fell into it. I’d never really wanted to act before then so I had no preconceptions, and that was a really nice way to start my career. I felt really looked after by the producers and the people I was working with, and the other actors were lovely and taught me so much. It was such a positive experience, and there was so much I could take away from it.

As an introduction to filmmaking it must have been quite overwhelming.

It was. But I think it was good that it was such a challenging job to do, with so much CGI and being produced on such a scale. It was a really long process – even though the official shoot was about six months we were still filming a month before it was released. Having that as a first experience meant that I jumped all sorts of barriers very early on, so now if I get a job that has a lot of green screen, say, I’m not going to freak out and get daunted because I’m very used to it.

It’s just a shame that you didn’t get a chance to make the second two. The books are terrific, and they only get better.

Yeah, it is a shame. It’s one of those things that I’ve come to terms with. I was very upset about it at the time. Like you say, the books are brilliant and I really wanted to see it through and do them justice, but then I can also completely understand the reasons why they didn’t make them. Looking at it positively, it means that I’ve been able to move on, and I did jobs at the time that maybe I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. I’ve been able to move away from the character in the way that some of the people that have done big trilogies or long series haven’t. They get put in a box: the Harry Potter kids or the Narnia kids. To an extent I’ll always be the Golden Compass girl, which I don’t have a problem with, but people have been able to see me in other roles too. I feel more established in my own right than I might have done if we’d made all of them.

The Fold is released on 28th March in UK cinemas and simultaneously on VOD through iTunes and Virgin Media.

Life of pi

For a technology that spent fifty years mouldering alongside curios like Illusion-O and Smell-O-Vision, the public perception of 3D has shifted massively in the past three years.

Widely acclaimed in the billion-dollar wake of Avatar, 3D’s value was irrevocably damaged by the cheap 2D-to-3D conversion jobs that followed: as dire blockbusters like Clash of the Titans and Alice in Wonderland sought to cash in on Avatar’s success, cinemagoers paid extortionate fees for dark, muddy 3D that felt like reading a bad pop-up book. By the time influential filmmakers like Steven Spielberg (The Adventures of Tintin) and Martin Scorsese (Hugo) got a chance to use the technology, audiences were no longer interested.

At least until James Cameron gets around to making his Avatar sequels, this is probably how the situation will remain, with audiences either indifferent or hostile towards 3D. The technology is a victim of its own success: seen by studios as a balm against piracy, its omnipresence means that films using 3D in interesting ways are doomed to be ignored amidst the dozens of releases blandly employing the format.

In an ideal world—i.e., not this one—3D wouldn’t cost extra and only films that really benefited from the technology would use it. Falling into that category would be Ang Lee’s new film Life of Pi, which employs 3D not just for spectacle but as an important tool in establishing spatial relationships within shots.

An adaptation of Yann Martel’s middlebrow blockbuster, Life of Pi tells the story of a 16-year-old boy (Suraj Sharma) stranded on a boat with a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. As reflective as it is exciting, Life of Pi is one of the year’s most beautiful films.

While the source material affords Lee many opportunities for immersive visuals, from Pi’s whimsical upbringing in an Indian zoo to a leaping, bioluminescent whale, his use of 3D is most effective during the film’s shipwrecked middle section. Lee ensures that the audience is aware at all times of the boat’s size and the tiger’s proximity. As such, he remains a constant threat, careful framing establishing that Pi is never further than a lapse in concentration away from his own death.

In large part due to its impressive CG rendering, Richard Parker is a wholly believable living creature, existing without pity and powered only by animalistic instinct. Representing the untameable danger of nature, the decision not to anthropomorphise the tiger adds tension throughout, and is crucial to depicting his association with Pi—the film concerning their ever-shifting relationship as much as Pi’s struggle to survive. Focusing on this is also essential to avoiding the quirkiness that might have engulfed the film in lesser hands. There are islands of meerkats, and strongmen uncles, yes, but at the film’s core is a desperate battle for survival.

It’s impossible for the film about a boy and a tiger trapped on a boat to feel entirely realistic, especially considering the amount of computer imagery involved, so Lee instead opts to make the struggle biblical in its size and grandness. Entwined with Pi’s practical difficulties, the film retains the spiritual dimensions of Martel’s novel, capturing Pi’s quest to hold onto his faith after everything in his life has been torn away—not just to survive but to find a reason to do so.

Director ruben stlund on family life and the crisis of masculinity

This article contains spoilers for the central premise of the film. 

Force Majeure charts the slow-motion unravelling of an affluent model family. As Tomas (Johannes Kuknke), Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two children dine during a skiing holiday, they become briefly convinced that an avalanche is approaching. Faced with a moment of reckoning, Tomas impulsively grabs his iPhone and abandons his loved ones to their fate.

In darkly comic, excruciating detail, writer-director Ruben Östlund explores the aftermath of this event as the family confronts Tomas' failure to conform to his socially-ordained role. Ahead of the film's release we spoke to Ruben about gender expectations and nuclear families.

Were there any real life events that inspired the story?

The starting point was that I've skied a lot and have made ski films and wanted to make something set in a ski resort, but hadn't known how because it's such a kitschy world. Then I saw an online clip of a group of tourists sitting at an outdoor restaurant, similar to how it's visualised in the film. They see an avalanche and think it's beautiful but seconds later they're screaming in panic and fleeing, before realising their error. They become ashamed of themselves, of losing control and exposing something that is uncivilised.

I was talking about the incident to a friend. You could tell that he's done a lot of things in his life that he's ashamed of. I'd had the idea of putting a family in that situation, and he said “What if it's only the father that runs away?” Immediately I realised this would expose expectations of gender. I started to talk with a lot of different people, and many had personally experienced women losing trust in men because of how they behaved when it came to a crisis situation.

As I was watching I kept thinking about what happened on the Costa Concordia.

I thought it was extremely interesting how the captain of that ship started this lie that he fell into a lifeboat to avoid losing face. At one point Tomas says "I am a victim of my instinct", which is a direct quote from that captain.

Ultimately the worst thing that Tomas does isn't momentarily running away but continuing to lie about it.

I agree with that, but it's so painful to lose your identity. If you're a man and a lot of your identity is this expectation of what a man is, then lying about it is a way of trying to avoid that moment. The outside perspective of who we're supposed to be has such a strong influence over our behaviour. In our society a man is supposed to sacrifice himself when there's a sudden outside threat.

As a man or a woman you're adapting to the role of being a man or a woman, to the expectations that come from those cultural influences. For me Tomas and Ebba are just performing the characters of the woman and the man in a family, acting like what's expected of them. It's role-playing. When tested, that brings out silly behaviour.

Were you trying to deconstruct the idea of a family unit?

It's not very often that we see the nuclear family from an economical and historical perspective. We think of it as a fundamental thing about being a human being, but the actual term "nuclear family" was invented in the 1950s. Before then we lived in large families, and the industrial movement made us move into towns and small flats so we had to cut the bands with an older generation.

To motivate ourselves in this new lifestyle we conceived the idea of a nuclear family, but it's totally stupid to not have grandparents around. In the large family there were more adults taking care of the children that were being brought up. The nuclear family is so much more vulnerable. If the mother and the father are not functional then the children are much more exposed.

If we look at the kind of lifestyle we can see that we're following a pattern: we're going down to individuals, which is the most efficient consumer unit. Stockholm, for example, has the most single person households of any city in the world. If there is eventually only one person in every household then they have to buy all the equipment that they'd buy when there are four people. We're going from nuclear families to living alone in our apartments, being more and more efficient consumers all the while.

Is Force Majeure offering a critique of that process? Does it argue for a different way?

No, that part is not the film criticising. I wanted to look at the kind of family that is upper middle class and has that kind of lifestyle. By our criteria Tomas and Ebba have succeeded. They're a beautiful couple staying with their beautiful children in a five-star luxury hotel. But then actually the perspective of the film is we're looking down at them. These poor people! Going out in the hallway to have arguments about a catastrophe that never happened.

You're right that they're not actually in real peril at any point. Do you think Tomas and Ebba are looking for things to be unhappy about?

We have a culture today where we're allowed to put 99% of our time and concern into our relationships. There's something about this lifestyle that creates existential crises. We feel like love should be a problem, and we hear it in pop music over and over again. In movies, on television, it's all relationship challenges. As long as we have that kind of focus for our lives we won't be able to look at society's problems from a proper perspective. I wanted to question that.

Force Majeure is out now.

An interview with director guy maddin

For the past three decades Guy Maddin has operated on the farthest reaches of cinema, employing the film-making techniques of silent and early films in service of creating intoxicating, blissfully confusing works. The late Roger Ebert, as he often did, summed Guy up perfectly: 'You have never seen a film like this before, unless you have seen other films by Guy Maddin.'

Guy's latest work, The Forbidden Room, is his most ambitious to date: growing out of an online project to recreate lost films, it is a compendium of stories that travels deeper and deeper within itself.

A strange, sexy and comic sensorial assault, The Forbidden Room is almost certainly the only film ever to feature the dream of a murdered man's moustache, or a story told by a character's deceased ex-boyfriend who has transformed into a blackened banana. Ahead of its release today, we spoke to Guy about raising the dead.

What was the genesis of The Forbidden Room?

Back in late 2010 I had started this internet interactive project called Seances, without any notion that The Forbidden Room might ever exist. The plan was to shoot in public my own adaptations of about 100 lost movies or lost movie fragments, and I'd lined up a few museums where I'd do this. It would be financed through Telefilm Canada, this fantastically generous state-run film funding body, but it involved them bending their rules to go beyond their maximum allowable grants for new media projects. It was essentially as costly as a film, and after 36 days' worth of shooting Telefilm became uncomfortable and told me the only way we could continue is if I produced a feature film too. In April next year I'll break everything up into little bits and upload them into the Seances interactive, but meanwhile we figured out a way of fitting together all the pieces in a way that made some sense to me.

It might not make immediate sense to viewers though, who may feel they're being presented with a welter, or being tossed into a storm of narrative after two hours of which they're washed up on a shore having barely survived drowning, but that's how it came about. There was a practical, bureaucratic ordaining of the feature. I think it might be the only case in peacetime where a film has been ordered into existence by the government.

Did being forced to make the film help or hinder the creative process?

I loved it. The directors of westerns – which only have about five moving parts – would often say that the restrictions were very liberating, and it's true. When you're faced with too much choice it's paralysing, but it's strangely freeing to have restrictions. And I had extreme restrictions: I had to take the footage I'd already shot and figure out a way for it to make one film. Luckily they were all written and directed by the same people with the same temperament, the same world view, the same sense of masculinity and gender politics.

No matter the genre of the lost film or the actors, the passive or active tenor of each one, each film seemed to be about the same things. Even though there was something like forty different protagonists they are also maybe playing the same man: gripped by the male gaze but a little vaginaphobic, trying to navigate through a fearsome world with bulging eyeballs.

I don't know. I'm not going to analyse my own film, it's just the way I felt while making it. In the writers' room we gave free rein to our dreams, our fears, our autobiographical humiliations. So it was a simple matter of fitting thematic parts together so that the 17 fragments of lost movies, even if they are disparate, all seem to point in the same direction.

What was appealing about resurrecting lost films? Is there something interesting about early cinema or were you attracted to the idea of a film being lost?

At first I told myself I was haunted, that the complete works of Murnau and Hitchcock and Lang weren't available and I was haunted by the missing pieces. I've always been intrigued to try to figure out time's great flow through the twentieth century by the changing context of pop culture, film especially. However, I discovered that what really excited me was that there was a mother lode of fascinating narrative free for the taking. No-one else wanted it. No-one else was interested. I could have it, so I took it. I think it was greed mostly.

As a matter of fact when some lost films have been discovered I've actually felt disappointed, even angered in one case. In Paris I was going to shoot Hello Pop!, a lost Technicolor Three Stooges movie. I was really excited about shooting an all-female version with Elina Löwensohn as Moe and the film was discovered a couple of days before we shot. I was ghoulishly disappointed, so you could hardly say I'm haunted by the loss of cinema if I'm pissed off when some of it gets found. I came to recognise that it was some sort of mania, like a dream in which you find a pound note on the ground and then discover another and another and the next thing you know you've got all this free money. I felt like I was fiending for narrative, and I had this all to myself. I didn't want anyone else to have it.

As I watched The Forbidden Room I felt like it could go on indefinitely – I don't mean that as a criticism – rather it's the result of its structure, the way it goes deeper and deeper within itself. How did you construct the film and how did you find your way back out again?

The structure is one of the things I love about the film but it's also a problem. It's got three acts and there's a story within a story within a story: you go six stories deep in the first act, work your way down to the very centre and then back out again, then in act two you work your way down through nine narratives and back out again, and then in the third penetrating thrust you work your way down through another nine and pull out and climax. I may have gone too far this time. The trouble is I'm still introducing whole new stories with fifteen minutes to go! It gives the viewer no conventional indication of ending any time soon. I hope in the future people feel free to dip in and watch for a while here and there.

Had I known from the beginning that it was going to be a feature film that probably would have affected the writing so that we could have given an indication. But you're right, it could have gone on forever. We shot so much footage that I could have easily made another five or six feature films.

The Forbidden Room is in a fixed state but Seances will create bespoke randomised short films that destroy themselves after viewing. Why create art deliberately to be lost? Cinema isn't an ephemeral medium – do you like the idea of making it so?

I think there's a growing, possibly falsely confident sense that everything will last forever now and everything will be kept. I wanted to reintroduce a sense of loss into cinema, and if someone watches one of these things and the programme in the randomness of matters produces something really enjoyable, it would create a sense of pleasure as that person watches the film slip off into oblivion. It might be giving something to the internet that it's been missing. The missing has been missing! We'll see. It's just a big experiment. I feel for the first time in my life that I am experimenting. There are so many variables in this thing. No mathematician would take it on. I like the fact that there are so many ball bearings rolling around on the floor that no-one knows what they're going to get.

Does that feeling of experimentation come because of the interaction of two different mediums?

Yes, because it's both. The project has one foot planted firmly in the analogue realm, in a big roiling puddle of film emulsion – I picture that foot in a rubber boot – and then the other foot is in the digital realm. It's the 21st century and Internetty but it's also ghosts, it's ectoplasmic goo, and it's definitely made out of emulsion. I just like something that's exactly both.

You mentioned autobiographical elements arising when writing. If you're recreating lost films and then randomly altering them, do they still remain personal?

I'm the medium through which these things come. Evan Johnson too, the co-writer and co-director. We're the medium so it comes out in our voices and inevitably autobiographical details get stuck on the ectoplasmic flypaper. They come out in the scripts and in the direction and even in the gestures of the actors, although I didn't really direct the actors – I just put them in a trance and slapped them on the ass and let 'em go for a day. I was acting as a spirit photographer.

The Forbidden Room is out now.

An exclusive playlist made by director

Adapted from a short story by David Constantine, Andrew Haigh's new film 45 Years is about a complacently happy married couple, Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay), whose lives are thrown into disarray when the long-lost body of Geoff's first love is discovered in the Swiss Alps, frozen and unchanged after decades in a glacier.

A beautifully told, quietly moving two-hander about an unexpected marital crisis, 45 Years features wonderful, lived-in performances from its leads, and further confirms Andrew as one of Britain's most talented film-makers. Ahead of its release in cinemas and on demand from 28th August, the writer-director has put together an exclusive playlist of songs for Oh Comely, inspired by and included in the film.

Given that 45 Years doesn't feature a score, its sound design and use of music is crucial. Andrew told us about his process of selecting music: “Most of the music choices were in the script. I was trying to have songs that reflected the past and parts of their character.” He mentions a key song from the film, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by The Platters, which Kate and Geoff had played at their wedding. “I love their choice for their first dance, because really when you listen it's unclear whether it's a happy song or a really melancholy one. I've heard it being played at wedding parties before and thought, wow, I'm not sure if that's super romantic.” Andrew relates this idea to another song the couple like in the film, Go Now by The Moody Blues: “It has the perception of being romantic but then when you listen to the lyrics you think, 'my god, really?' I find that juxtaposition in music really interesting: that something might have the sense of being a romantic song but the truth behind the lyrics mean something different.”

45 Years: A Playlist Curated by Director Andrew Haigh (available on Spotify

I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire - The Ink Spots

Remember (Walking in the Sand) - The Shangri-Las

Suzanne - Leonard Cohen

The Old Man's Back Again - Scott Walker

Stagger Lee - Lloyd Price

I Only Want to Be With You - Dusty Springfield

Tell It Like It Is - Aaron Neville

Happy Together - The Turtles

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes - The Platters

Go Now - The Moody Blues

45 Years is released in UK cinemas and through Curzon Home Cinema on 28th August. You can listen to the exclusive playlist here.

Photos: Agatha A. Nitecka.