Todd Haynes


After three decades of directing actresses including Cate Blanchett and Julianne Moore in their defining roles, Todd Haynes finds himself amazed by deaf 14-year-old Millicent Simmonds

Portrait of Todd by  Ellie Smith

Portrait of Todd by Ellie Smith

Todd Haynes has been living in the past for some time. Each of his films – from Velvet Goldmine to I'm Not There to the sublime Carol – has been set in earlier periods and made using cinematic techniques from those eras. His most recent film Wonderstruck splits its time between pasts, telling an intertwined story of two deaf children in the 1920s and 1970s as they each run away from home and experience New York's frenzied enchantment.

Wonderstruck nods towards silent movies and 1970s American cinema. Are you interested in capturing something about how the world was at certain points, or is it more what older films tell us? It varies. Speaking through the prism of film language is sometimes exclusively, almost academically what I'm trying to do: Far From Heaven was set in the late 1950s and was about what those films said about their own time through the artificial language of Technicolor melodramas. Wonderstruck is a little different in that I was thinking about the kids' subjectivity. I felt a messiness in the 1970s. You see images of children from that time and their hair is in their face! Particularly there was a sense of the tactile in their creative interests. I think of Wonderstruck as what they're making with their hands. It feels handmade in that way, and going back and forth between the stories it's almost like pieces of a puzzle being pressed together by little dirty fingers. My films are always interpretations of cultural themes, stories, characters, real people, cinema. I never feel like I'm inventing new ideas, nor is that my intention – I'm just commenting on the culture as it exists and recombining components. I'm curating my films, maybe, much like these kids explore the idea of museum curating.


Is there a kinship between the job of film director and museum curator? You both locate different things, put them together and find the relationships between them. Absolutely. You're not just curating themes and references and in my case historical moments – selecting what is relevant from your research and films and popular culture – you're also putting together creative partnerships. Actors, cinematographers, costume designers, all of those elements are selected yet also have an autonomy. You may guide them but ultimately as a director you're letting something out of your control happen, and that's also the thing you want to capture, to let it in.

Until now you've collaborated mostly with adults, but much of the film is on the shoulders of Millicent Simmonds, a deaf 14-year-old. Did that affect how you worked? Every actor is different anyway. They bring their own personality, temperament, and in the case of professionals, their own training and approach to their work. The cliché that directing is really about casting is true: it's selecting that right person and providing them with confidence so they can take risks and do things that neither of you knew were possible. I know I have good instincts and I'm surrounded by people whose opinions I trust, but I've also been very lucky. With Millie there were unknowns on top of unknowns, but we followed our instincts and met this extraordinary kid. She has an understanding of the camera and the medium that you can't teach, that you can't direct out of anybody. I'm not sure how she knows just the right amount of information to express, or even what she looks like when she's performing. How many of us really know what we look like as we talk and emote? And she's a kid! It's a weird thing. Julianne Moore, who has that same understanding of the scale of the medium, would look at Millie on set and say wow, there's something remarkable here.

WS_D09-Millicent Simmons.jpg

There are few deaf characters in cinema, let alone stories about deaf people. Do you feel that in losing dialogue you also gain something in those complications of communication? It asks the audience, who will mostly be hearing viewers, to supplement information, to imagine what it's like to be without hearing but also to interpret things in ways they're not usually asked to. When I was 12, The Miracle Worker became a point of obsession for me. I know it was about Helen Keller as a phenomenon but it made me think about language. Initially she represents a rejection of social norms and law and language, a wilful postponing of entering the codes and terms of a society. That's fascinating when you're young. I think kids feel an affinity for deafness and blindness, for limits and novel ways of improvising how to communicate and express yourself. Limited abilities and freedoms and constraints are built into their status – they get it.

Wonderstruck is in UK cinemas 6 April 2018


The Neon Demon: An interview with Nicolas Winding Refn

"It started off as a horror film, but then I also wanted to make it into a comedy with a lot of camp, because I love extremeness, and it needed to have melodrama. And in a way it also became a science fiction movie."

The inability of Nicolas Winding Refn to precisely categorise his own film is to its credit. The Neon Demon is at once gruesome and arch, empathetic and heartless, icy provocation and savage allegory. Employing the same mesmeric tone as his earlier work like Drive and Only God Forgives, the film follows aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) as she attempts to prosper in the cannibalistic world of fashion. As Jesse's beauty warps herself and everyone around her, however, The Neon Demon's fundamental acceptance of human cruelty unsettles as much as its sudden, brutal lurches.

Ahead of its home release today, Nicolas discussed the meaning of the film, and tried to persuade us that narcissism is a virtue.

A wide-eyed teenager going to Los Angeles to “make it” is a plot that's roughly the same age as movies themselves. What appealed to you about using that story?

There was a simplicity to it that I found very interesting. The more simple something is, the more it resonates. That can be confusing because there's a certain expectation for culture to be “complex” and “thought-provoking”, but those are usually devices to steer away from what's really the essence. I believe that less is more, and none is everything.

What do you think is driving Jesse? Is she just looking for fame? Is she trying to escape something?

I think Jesse lives in two parallel universes. On one level she's the deer-in-the-headlights young girl coming to the big city. She feels she doesn't have any particular skills but she can make money from being pretty, so why not take advantage of that? You never know where it might lead to. And then there's another part of her where she's like an evil Dorothy that comes to meet the wizard, but she is the poison that's going to drive the wizard insane because she has what everyone desires, and she knows it. You never really know if she is manipulating or being manipulated, until she goes through the journey of becoming the complete narcissist.

The character of Jesse has to be the most magnetic person in the room, and yet this is a film where every single actor is beautiful – even the sleazy motel owner is played by Keanu Reeves. How did you work with Elle Fanning to create that effect?

Elle is not just beautiful, she's unique. There was no-one else who could have done this but her. If there was no Elle Fanning I don't think I could have made the movie. It was the same thing as Ryan Gosling in Drive. If you weren't gripped by her then there was nothing to take you in – the whole idea is that Jesse has some ineffable quality everyone wants.

How much of The Neon Demon is specifically a comment on fashion? Do you think it's more vicious than other industries?

I don't think fashion is more vicious than other industries, but it's very complex and non-complex at the same time. It is about the most beautiful image, and yet fashion reflects our cultural evolution, our historical evolution. Fashion is very important to us as people. I love fashion personally, I love making fashion commercials and working in advertising. I enjoy the glamour of it, and also the vulgarity and the silliness. It's a great mirror of society.

The models in the film take their competitive nature to extreme, bloody ends. To what extent are their actions allegorical?

It's just normal human behaviour. We're competitive creatures. That's usually seen as something negative, but a lot of The Neon Demon is about celebrating narcissism as a virtue. It's the next human level, our next evolution is a full love of thyself.

Are we supposed to support Jesse throughout? Is there a certain point where we start judging her, and is that hypocritical?

Secretly there's a desire to go through her journey, but then there's morality that's very ambiguous because we still live in a world where narcissism and ego and vanity is usually considered negative. However, we all have it to various degrees, and I think that with the next generation there's more of an acceptance of narcissism, an encouragement of it – the idea that it's okay to completely love oneself openly. For my generation that was a very terrible thing to even admit to, but my kids' generation accept so much more of human behaviour, and fully accepting oneself is a part of it. Of course there's also the hypocritical nature of us, that we all teach this notion of equality, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. All those things that I tell my own children, but I also know that if it's not beautiful I don't look, and neither do you. We have to accept that rather than trying to dismiss it, but it's a horrible feeling. It's also very refreshing because it's like letting go of your own fear of what is right and what is wrong and just accepting what thou will. It's about giving in to your urges.

The Neon Demon is out now on DVD, Blu-ray, Digital and VOD.


Culture Monday

Georgia O’Keeffe,  Abstraction White Rose , 1927.  Oil on canvas, 36 x 30 (91.4 x 76.2). Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. Gift of TheBurnett Foundation and Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation ©Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Georgia O’Keeffe, Abstraction White Rose, 1927.

Oil on canvas, 36 x 30 (91.4 x 76.2). Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. Gift of TheBurnett Foundation and Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation ©Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

The nights are getting longer and the days cooler so even more good reason to throw yourself into all things cultural. To inspire you, here are our pick of events happening this week, ranging across art, film, music and books. One strong piece of advice, if you can get yourself to London - don't forget to visit the Georgia O'Keeffe exhibition before it closes at the end of the month - as the curator told us in issue 30, it's a once in a generation chance to see the artist's work in Britain. Enjoy! 



Georgia O’Keeffe @ Tate Modern, London (Until 30 October). Read our interview with the exhibition's curator in issue 30

Jeff Koons @ Newport Street Gallery, London (until 16 October)

Lie of the Land @ Gallery 40, Brighton (until 22 October)

Girl Town @ St Margaret’s House, Bethnal Green, London (until 1 November)



Wild Beasts @ The Junction, Cambridge (10 October)

Sussex Songfest @ Snape Maltings (15 October), featuring issue 33 interviewee Anna Meredith. 

Hackney Wonderland @ various venues, Hackney, London (15 & 16 October)

Mystery Jets @ Coventry, Cambridge, Bath, London (11 to 15 October)



London Film Festival @ various venues, London (until 16 October). Our associate editor, Jason, recommends: 

  • American Honey, directed by Andrea Arnold @ Odeon Leicester Square (11 October)
  • Certain Women, directed by Kelly Reichardt @ Embankment Garden Cinema and Hackney Picturehouse (12 & 13 October)
  • Prevenge, directed by Alice Lowe @ Haymarket and Picturehouse Central (13 & 16 October) 
  • A United Kingdom, directed by Amma Asante @ Curzon Mayfair (11 October)
  • Heal the Living, directed by Katell Quillévéré @ Prince Charles Cinema (14 October)

The Greasy Strangler @ general release (requires a strong stomach!)


London Literature Festival @ Southbank Centre, London (until 16 October)

Birmingham Literature Festival @ various venues, Birmingham (until 16 October)

Waterstones presents Vivienne Westwood @ St James’ Church, Piccadilly, London (14 October) 



Plant Life Drawing @ Ace Hotel, Shoreditch, London (11 October) 

Wool weaving workshop @ Wool BnB, De Beauvoir Town, London (12 October)


Show us where you've been and tell us what we should include in next week's round-up via our Twitter or Instagram.

Culture Monday

With the aim of brightening up your Monday, we bring you a selection of delightful cultural offerings for the week ahead. Diaries at the ready...


- Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond @ Wellcome Collection, London (15 September to 15 January 2017). Read our feature 'Putting Pen to Paper' in issue 32 of Oh Comely.

- Prints Charming @ Hamilton House, Bristol (14 to 19 September)

- Hurvin Anderson: Dub Versions @ NAE, Nottingham (until 18 September)

- Maria Lassing @ Tate Liverpool (until 18 September 2016)

- Metamorphosis @ Morley College, London (until 22 September), featuring Oh Comely contributor Eleni Kalorkoti



Station to Station @ Hoxton Square Bar, London (12 September)

London Fashion Film Festival @ Courthouse Hotel, London (14 September)



Sunflower Bean on tour @ Bristol, Brighton and London (13 to 15 September)



In Pursuit of London @ Waterstones Piccadilly, London 


'Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond' opens at Wellcome Collection on 15 September. Photo: Lara Watson

'Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond' opens at Wellcome Collection on 15 September. Photo: Lara Watson



Roald Dahl Day @ nationwide (13 September)

Estuary Festival @ Various venues, Essex (17 September to 2 October)

D.I.Y. Art Market @ Copeland Gallery, Peckham, London (17 September)

Open House, London (17 & 18 September)


Show us where you've been and tell us what we should include in next week's round-up via our Twitter or Instagram.

Culture Monday

Each Monday, we bring you a selection of the best cultural happenings, compiled from the suggestion of the Oh Comely team and our readers. We hope that our tips will inspire and entertain - do let us know where you've been and what you've seen. 

Ragnar Kjartansson,    The Visitors    ,  2012   Nine channel video, colour, sound. 64 minutes Commissioned by the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavík. Photo: Elisabet Davidsdottir

Ragnar Kjartansson, The Visitors, 2012
Nine channel video, colour, sound. 64 minutes Commissioned by the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst
Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavík. Photo: Elisabet Davidsdottir



Ragnar Kjartansson @ Barbican Art Gallery, London (until 4 September 2016)

- Resident @ City Gallery, Peterborough (until 28 August)

- Fashion on the Ration @ Imperial War Museum North (until 1 May 2017)


- Bath Folk Festival (until 16 August)

Green Man Festival, Brecon Beacons, Wales (18 - 21 August 2016) 


- Nomad Cinema showing films including Casablanca, Orlando and, yes, The Goonies @ London venues ranging from Coram Secret Garden to Queens Park


- Edinburgh Book Festival, Scotland (13 - 29 August), including Lionel Shriver on 20 August (read our interview with her in Oh Comely issue 19)


- Flower press printing and woodcarving workshops @ Farmopolis, Greenwich Peninsula (13 August)

Show us where you've been and tell us what we should include in next week's round-up via our Twitter or Instagram.

A festival of silent film

The biggest misconception that people have about silent cinema is that it was silent. In fact, early cinema was never silent, as there would always be a musical accompanist present.

If you’ve had the chance to actually see silent films in this way then you’ll understand how wonderful it can be. It brings not just the films, but the whole era, to life, in a way thats difficult even for later cinema. It isn’t difficult to see why an audience in 1924 would enjoy silent film, because you’re enjoying it in the same way. Silent films stop being objects from an earlier, intangible past and become something that is current, a performance, something that engages with you.

If you’ve yet to experience silent films in this way, then this year’s British Silent Film Festival is a good place to start. It starts today and runs at the Barbican until Monday.

The use of sound and music in British silent cinema is the Festivals theme. It will be showing some of Britain’s best interwar silent films, many of which haven’t been screened since their original releases.

Musicians such as Neil Brand, Philip Carli, and John Sweeney will accompany the films, and there are a number of other presentations and events.

Highlights include the world premiere of the restored original score for Morozko, a Soviet film based on the Russian fairytale “Father Frost”; Yasujiro Ozu’s classic I Was Born, But…, and a lecture by Matthew Sweet from Radio 3’s Night Waves, on the stories behind the history of British silent cinema, and the role of gossip within it.

So long, farewell to 16mm film

The visual artist Tacita Dean wrote an interesting piece in the Guardian last week about Deluxe buying the London-based Soho Film Laboratory, and how as a result they will no longer be processing 16mm film. It’s worth a read. Dean focuses on the effect this will have on artists such as herself, but I’d argue that there’s another group that also thrives on 16mm: film students.

The appeal of digital for film schools is understandable: it’s cheaper for the course runners, and is easier to use for the students. Speaking as a former film student myself, the first 16mm films that one makes inevitably end up looking like bawdy British sex comedies from the 1970s. It’s depressing.

However, the value in 16mm is not in the picture quality (although it can look gorgeous, actually) but what’s gained from the process of using it. There’s a horrible sinking feeling that accompanies the knowledge that you have more footage left to film than stock left to film it with, and it’s one of the most valuable things a film student can learn. Not only does it force you to be economical, but it teaches you to be creative and decisive. What is the most efficient way of telling this story? How do you want to shoot it? These are things you can’t learn when it’s possible to leave the camera running all day.

If British Cinema in the 2020s is bloated and unwieldy then this decision by Deluxe can be pinpointed as its genesis. Dean has started a small campaign of letter-writing and has created an online petition; if you’re interested in signing, its online here.

Notes on Blindness: In Conversation with James Spinney and Peter Middleton

Just days before the birth of his son, writer and theologian John Hull went blind. Desperate to make sense of a world that was rapidly evaporating, he filled hundreds of cassettes with daily musings on life, loss and love. These lay abandoned in his office for almost a quarter of a century, stacked from the ceiling to the floor, until James Spinney and Peter Middleton decided to turn them into a film.

Notes on Blindness is the stunning result. Shining a light in the darkness, it blurs the lines between drama and documentary and delves into the heart of what it means to see and be seen. 

I sat down with the duo to talk about paradoxical gifts, memory, and the challenge of making the invisible visible.

The making of the film has been an extensive journey for you both. When did you first decide to tell John's story through film? 

Peter: About five years ago, James and I were researching first person testimonies on sight loss and came across John’s book Touching the Rock, which is essentially a collection of diary entries he kept between 1983 and 1986, documenting his adjustment to blindness. We found these incredibly compelling, so we reached out. Within six months John sent us the original diary tapes and a box of c90 cassettes that hadn’t been played for nearly twenty five years. They’d been gathering dust. 

So, no one else had access to the tapes apart from immediate family? 

P: Even immediate family didn’t access them, really. John started the diaries as a sort of catharsis. He felt that if he didn’t try to probe blindness it would destroy him, and he didn’t want to burden his family with this pain. They were records of very private acts, and no one had listened in since they’d been transcribed for the publication of the book. 


How has his wife, Marilyn reacted to the film? There are some really vivid depictions of John's internal world. Did these allow her to access parts of her husband she may not have seen before?

James: Absolutely. John and Marilyn were incredibly supportive and open. They described the process as reopening a thirty year-old wound. They were newly married when John started keeping the diary. For Marilyn now, there’s an additional layer of complexity. John sadly died during the second week of filming, so it's a tribute to him. We always saw the project as a collaboration, and our interviews (with them) were a joint act of remembrance. 

The actors in the film lip-sync from the original audio material. Was there any method acting involved? It must have been difficult to portray blindness authentically as a sighted person…

P: It was very difficult, because as well as denying Dan's voice (Skinner, who plays John) we were also denying him his eyes. He lost all of his key faculties, in a way. But when we auditioned him he excelled at lip-synching, and he had this wondrous facial furnishing, that reminded us a lot of John's beard. We sent him audio, and instead of rehearsing he'd just play it over and over again to familiarise himself with the cadence of the voices. Then, on set, a playback engineer would count him in. 

J: I love how grandiose the term playback engineer sounds.

P: Yeah. In reality, we just had a guy sat in the corner with a laptop... 

J: On a surface level, blindness is one of the easiest things to imitate, because you can just close your eyes. But actually, it took John several years to stop himself from having a sighted person’s brain, to truly "become" blind. It was partly a neurological re-wiring over time, but it was also a conscious decision to no longer live in what he called the nostalgia of the visual world. What he initially saw as a loss became a simple process of change and, eventually, a paradoxical gift. 


I was really intrigued in how that manifested for John, actually. Like when he stops smiling because he can't see if his smiles are being returned, and feels suddenly exposed and conscious. 

J: Through the process of grieving his sighted life, John starts conceptualising what sighted experience is in itself. He loses eye contact, intimate glances, and smiles, but the account looks both ways. Back at what he has lost, and forwards to what he has yet to discover. 

P: His dreaming life was also so compelling. John continued dreaming after losing his sight and his mind had an incredibly active dreaming life. He dreamt of seeing his children’s faces, of being dragged down to the depths of the ocean, of biblical rain and floods... so we had this huge range of cinematic, vivid material to draw from and visualise. The film is designed as an entry-point to his story. 

Notes on Blindness is currently in UK cinemas nationwide. Several screenings will also feature a Virtual Reality experience that delves deeper into John's internal world. 

Further reading: Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness by John Hull, The Mind's Eye by Oliver Sachs

Adult Life Skills: An interview with writer-director Rachel Tunnard

The protagonists of debut films sometimes resemble their creators, but in keeping with Rachel Tunnard's impassioned advocacy of collaboration, the editor-turned-director states that her lead character Anna in Adult Life Skills is a combination of herself and two of her actors, Jodie Whittaker and Rachael Deering. The inspiration for the film – a sensitive comedy-drama about a bereaved twin living in her mum's shed – came from a holiday the three friends took together in 2009, where they commiserated over how rarely they saw women like them believably represented on screen. While Rachel herself has never suffered such a loss, at 29 she found herself in a similar morass of late twenties confusion, moving back into her parents' house “like a bloody teenager.” The experience was one of many to feed into the screenplay: “There's lots of stuff in there that I've taken from different areas of my life,” she explains. “You patch them together until it feels like a cohesive world.” Ahead of its release in cinemas today, we spoke to Rachel about making the film.


Do you think Anna would be experiencing the same existential panic if she hadn't lost her twin? How much is her lack of direction tied to her grief?

I think if you're somebody who's creative you can have a little bit of a crisis around the end of your twenties. You might have done an artsy degree and you imagine that you're going to work in the arts and get an Oscar or whatever, and then suddenly you're 30 and it hasn't quite worked out the way you thought it was going to. Your parents are looking at you wondering is this ever really going to work out. Potentially Anna would have had an early mid-life crisis anyway, but I was interested in twin loss because it manifests itself differently to normal grief. It provokes an identity crisis and in my work I like to explore big existential ideas in a really lowbrow way.


Film production notes are usually very staid and formulaic, but the ones for Adult Life Skills are covered in irreverent annotations by you. They have the same handmade quality as Anna's various projects in the film. Where does that impulse come from?

It's how I present everything really, mainly because I can't use Photoshop. I draw stuff and then I take a photo and that's how I've always done it. As an editor you get sent statements by directors and I always find them really dry. But the main reason it came about is because the credits says “A film by Rachel Tunnard” and I completely hate it. All the way through the production I said I didn't want that credit, and in the end my agent pointed out that it was something her male clients actually ask for. It seemed really arrogant. Even though I've done loads of jobs on this it's a collaboration between so many different people. It's our film, so I wanted a chance to add the words “and everyone else.”


Are small creative endeavours a useful outlet when you're working on one large project like this film?

I just do all of that stuff without thinking about it. My husband and I write pep talks to each other which are nonsense, and I started doing this thing called Tunnard Tasks, where I made my mum, dad and brother do a task every month, like write a limerick. My parents begrudgingly do them when I ask but it's really interesting to see what my 68-year-old dad writes in a limerick about our house growing up. I can't stop it. The film is one part of that continual amalgamation of crap.


Before making Adult Life Skills you directed a short called Emotional Fusebox that you've described as being a “pilot” version of the film. How did it come about?

The Adult Life Skills script was getting some attention from the BFI and Creative England but I hadn't directed anything. They asked if I wanted to direct it and I said no, so they suggested all these other people and I kept saying I don't know, I don't know. Somebody told me if I didn't direct it then I had no right to complain about the fact that there are so few female film-makers, and they were right. But before we received the money to do the film I had to prove I was going to be able to direct it, so I wrote a short film based on the characters.


Was it a good exercise?

Absolutely, because I wasn't 100% sure I wanted to do it. I knew that I liked editing and writing, but I wasn't sure if I was going to enjoy directing. I'd never considered it before. Rachael Deering who plays Fiona in the film said it was like when we were at uni and used to make projects together, and I saw it a bit like that too. We were just going to make something and it could be shit or it could be alright, but we were going to have a go regardless.


So did you enjoy directing in the end?

Yes! I loved it. I felt very secure with the cast and the crew. I'd worked with a lot of them before and we were careful in trying to put a crew together that would all get on with each other. I was adamant that people had to be positive and friendly and have a good sense of humour, because low budget film-making is like going into battle. It's tough and you need to be surrounded by people who really care about it and want to do it. When we were making the selections for heads of department there was a pressure to choose the most experienced person we could possibly get, whereas I felt it was much more important to get the one who cared the most.


Did you find that making a low-budget film gave you more creative freedom? Was it important to have that sort of autonomy?

It depends on what you want to do. I'm in a relatively privileged position to have written, directed and edited a film, and what that means is that whether you like it or not it's got a distinctive style and feel. I'm not particularly interested in taking the big money and having no control – I'd much rather have less money and more creative freedom. But then I'd also really like a massive house with a water slide from my bedroom into a swimming pool.


Adult Life Skills is in cinemas now. You can read Jason's interview with its lead actor, Jodie Whittaker, in issue 31 of Oh Comely, also out now.

Interview with the writer-director of Green Room Jeremy Saulnier

Interview with the writer-director of Green Room Jeremy Saulnier

Like a thunderous punk song that's over before it's really begun, Green Room can be surmised in a single slight phrase: neo-Nazis versus punks. Jeremy Saulnier's siege horror concerns a struggling band who find themselves trapped in a far-right dive bar, trying to fend off a murderous gang led by an against-type Patrick Stewart. While Green Room is an unabashed, whippet-thin genre exercise, it has been patently crafted with a great deal of care: ahead of its release, we spoke to its thoughtful writer-director about making the film.

Our Little Sister: An Interview with Director Hirokazu Kore-eda

words Jason Ward

14th April 2016

It seems fitting that talking to Hirokazu Kore-eda closely resembles the experience of watching his films. The august Japanese director and his work share the same quiet, gentle, contemplative qualities: our conversation was filled with long pauses as he carefully weighed his thoughts. There is something respectful in the act, which finds its match in his films' humanism.

Kore-eda's latest, Our Little Sister, is no exception. A drama about three house-sharing sisters who invite their teenage half-sister to move in after their father's death, it delicately explores the inner lives of its characters and the complications and joys of sisterly relationships. Ahead of its release, we spoke to the director about making the film.

Our Little Sister is based on Akimi Yoshida's manga Umimachi Diary. What about the story made you want to turn it into a film?

I'm a fan of Akimi Yoshida so I've read all of her work, not with the intention of adapting any of it at all. I normally write original scripts so it's rare for me to adapt other people's work. It's not something I look for, but as I read this particular one I knew that it would make a great film and that other people would be trying to make it too. I really wanted to do it myself, which doesn't happen often so I trusted it.

The film's key dramatic action is the death of the estranged father, which takes place before the story even begins. Your work often looks at the aftermath of a big event rather than at the event itself. What interests you about that approach?

You're right that I'm attracted to the aftermath of events. I wonder why. It's quite difficult to explain.  Portraying people left behind and how they deal with that is interesting to me. I started as a documentary film-maker, and when I was 28 the first documentary I made was about a man who committed suicide. There was a big scandal in Japan about factory poisoning causing Minamata disease. He'd worked in the ministry of the environment, felt responsible and killed himself. The documentary was shot, of course, after his death, so while it was about him it was more about how his wife coped. That was my first proper film and I wrote a nonfiction book about it too, so maybe that's how I became drawn to aftermath as an idea. Sadness and new hopes are always together. I'm moved by the duality of life, that losses come with gains too.

What I like most about your work is that it's deeply humane. All of the characters in Our Little Sister naturally show kindness towards each other in both big and small ways. Why is the kindness between people important for you to depict?

“Why?” questions are the very hardest for me to answer. I was attracted to how the characters accept each other. The sisters are able to accept their late father's weaknesses, and the younger sister who felt guilty about her existence eventually accepts that it's okay for her to be alive. Kindness is reflected in acceptance. In Japanese society, maybe that is something that's disappearing. Everybody just wants to fight each other. I want to show that it's possible to accept others and therefore to be kind.

The film depends on the audience believing the relationship between the four sisters. How did you work with the actresses to make it feel authentic?

It's a combination of a few factors. We shot over a ten-month period to capture the different seasons and in between the girls did a lot of things together, they went to see movies or went for meals. They bonded quite well away from the filming. What also contributed is that I interviewed a lot of real sisters about their relationships and incorporated the research into my depiction. What came out of those interviews was that, certainly in Japan, a lot of the quarrels between sisters were about clothes – who borrowed what and who's wearing what.

At this point you've been making fiction films for twenty years. Do you think what you're fundamentally interested in is the same or has it changed at all over that time? Are the things that excited you about film-making in 1995 the same things that excite you now?

I think it has evolved through the years. It's not the same as it was originally. From a viewer's point of view I can't quite say how my work has changed, however. It may or may not be related to the way that cinema has changed over that period too. To bring in a baseball analogy, though: if you're a young pitcher you'd just throw straight with speed, but as you get older, two decades later you might start to throw curveballs. The sheer power can't continue over twenty years. So now I may try to do different tricks and throw some curveballs. That's an analogy, but it reflects what's changed within me. The more I make films the more confused I get, but it gets more fun, too.

Our Little Sister is in cinemas now. Images: Curzon Artificial Eye

High Rise: 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.

London lesbian and gay film festival

Friday marks the start of the BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, reliably one of the stronger of London’s many film festivals.

The significance of the Festival is that it exists both as a celebration of a community, as well as a cultural entity in its own right. There’s an unfortunate tendency to ghettoise queer filmmaking, and the Festival’s value derives from the range of work it shows not just to a LGBT community, but to a wider audience as well.

Highlights this year include special screenings of classics such as When Night is Falling and Mysterious Skin, to celebrate the Festival’s 25th anniversary; Resist Psychic Death, a lecture on “DIY cultural production for queer community building”; a discussion on feminist pornography, and novelist Sarah Waters in conversation. An adaptation of her excellent book The Night Watch is also being previewed.

The Festival’s gala opening film is Kaboom, written and directed by Gregg Araki. Its the story of a libidinous college student who somehow finds the time to uncover a conspiracy between his endless couplings. As a film Kaboom is profoundly stupid, but it’s difficult not to be charmed by it. It’s hard to hate a film that’s enjoying itself so much. The whole thing is effortlessly subversive and its lack of shame is gleeful.

Look out for our interview with Gregg Araki when the film is released nationwide in June. For now, more information is on the festivals website. 

Film Interview: Nina Forever

Nina Forever is constructed around a single elegant metaphor. Depressed supermarket employee Rob (Cian Barry), still mourning the death of his girlfriend, begins an uncertain relationship with his co-worker Holly (Abigail Hardingham), but whenever they try to have sex Nina (Fiona O'Shaughnessy) comes back to life to harangue the couple. The internal is made physical: Rob's grief assumes physical form, and it's that of the loved one he's lost, appearing naked, bloody and sardonic at the symbolic event of him attempting to moving on

With its ambitious visual language and sensitive depiction of bereavement, Nina Forever is the striking feature debut of Chris and Ben Blaine. We spoke to the brothers about lost loves and the benefits of close collaboration. 

Bereavement is a sad, dramatic topic, but the film is also funny with horrific elements. Was it difficult to balance that tonally?

Chris Blaine: Not really. Partly it's a function of how we write, in a variety of different moods all at once, but I think it came out of our experience of grief. Often in films grief is the bit where you're sad and you look at the dead leaves and you go for a walk by yourself, and we both found that it was incredibly sad but also weirdly funny and terrifying. You have this strange embarrassment and almost magnetic sense of feeling everything all at once.

Ben Blaine: You also feel incredibly horny because you've lost someone and there's this big gap. So much of it is that presence of the person, their touch and their feel and their smell, so you've just got this desire and you kind of latch on to the next person that you see. I think Rob does that, where he's not jumping into this thing because he's thought about it, but because there's something deep within that craves the attention of someone else. He's lacking it from the person he really wants to still be there.

So many of Nina Forever's most crucial scenes take place during sex scenes that are using lots of practical effects. There's blood everywhere and the cast are all naked, and you're trying to tell an emotional story. How did you accomplish that?

BB: It was a challenge but one we knew we were getting into, and I think it was one of the things that excited us about making the film. We liked the idea of these scenes where the characters are totally honest and everything is absolutely stripped away both physically and emotionally. It was very difficult, that mixture of sex scenes with naked actors and the technical challenge of it all, but the emotions gave us something to steer us through. We could focus in on that, so we knew where our priorities were in the scenes. We knew that what really mattered was that the audience understands how these people are feeling, and as long as we were getting that we were on the right course.

As a film-making team how do you divide your labour? Do you do tasks together or do they naturally separate?

CB: In terms of writing we used to try to do individual passes of scripts, but we found that the best thing for us was to be in the same room and to talk about it constantly, and that's kind of how we do things all the way through to the edit. It's really liquid and it's not like there are assigned jobs. We slowly but surely we keep improving on each other's ideas because we're talking about the ideas rather than the words on the page.

BB: It's easy to fall in love with the way you've written something, and easy therefore to forget that no-one's going to see the script. The script is a blueprint and often not a particularly useful one, and so we find ways to talk about the ideas that we're actually going to put to the audience. Similarly that fluidity extends to the actors and the crew. It becomes a creative space for everybody who works with us, and anyone can come up with ideas.

That makes a lot of sense: the creative process starts as a conversation rather than the choices of a single person, and so it can easily expand.

CB: We really enjoy that. It's one of the things about film-making that's so great, the fact that you're working with loads of other people and it's not just you on your own. You've got a full cast and crew around you and crew who are all coming up with magical stuff and it makes the work and the experience so much better.

Nina Forever is available on DVD and Blu-ray from 22nd February. For a chance to win a copy courtesy of the Blaine Brothers, head over to our Facebook page and leave a comment on the post. The film will also screen at select cinemas throughout the month:

Images: Fetch Publicity

Film Interview: 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?

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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.

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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.


In Conversation with Director Ariel Kleiman

Told through the eyes of Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel), an eleven year old on the cusp of discovering his own moral compass, Ariel Kleiman's debut film Partisan is a cautionary tale about the effects dogma can have on vulnerable minds.

Alexander's father Gregori (Vincent Cassel) is a charismatic ringleader of a closed community made up of eight seemingly abandoned mothers and their offspring. Children are shielded from the dangers of the outside world and warned that curiosity can create vicious fires. Denied permission to wander, they barely leave Gregori's side, except when he sends them out on assassination missions.

Although extreme, at its heart Partisan is a story about the inevitable moment when every child realises the adults around them are fundamentally flawed. It's heartbreaking and quietly fantastic.

We sat down with Ariel to talk about innocence lost, growing pains, and casting Vincent Cassel as the lead in his first feature.

What inspired you to create Partisan?

The original spark came from an article in the New York Times about child assassins in Colombia. Everything I’ve made has been inspired by an image, and in this case it was literally the image of a child gunning down a man. Not only was it disturbing, it was so surreal and absurd. I immediately knew I wanted to turn that gut reaction into a film, but I didn’t feel I was the right person to make that specific story about Colombia. What I was more interested in was the human drama behind the crime: the tragedy of adults passing their insecurities and fears onto children.

The film has an ambiguity that adds an almost magical element. You don’t state where it’s set, or in which time period. Why leave those details out?

I didn’t see this movie as being a realist work. I wanted it to feel more like a myth, or a fable. A lot of fables use extreme characters and stories to tell tales about very ordinary things. At most points, for example, Gregori is incredibly paternally motivated. That’s what Vincent connected with most in the script: many of Gregori's anxieties and motivations are scarily relatable.

Another big inspiration was the decision to tell the story from Alexander’s perspective. He’s growing up with blinkers on. Like any child experiences, as you grow up the blinkers slowly widen, and it can be a mind-altering experience, realising that the adults in your life are just people too.

It was great to see Jeremy Chabriel, this tiny person, holding his own against an actor like Cassel. How did you find him?

That was really daunting. When I wrote the script, I was pretty naive. Then it got to a point where I thought, “Shit, how are we going to find this boy?!” He’s the hero of the film, he's in pretty much every scene, and he has to go up against Vincent. We knew we needed someone remarkable and ended up finding Jeremy through a French school in Sydney. He’s a very sensitive young man. He’d never acted before and his audition tape was shot on a really average camera, but his eyes just kind of glowed and he held himself with this real maturity.

The other child actors weren’t all stretched in quite the same way, but as director you still had to communicate the story to them. Given the difficult nature of the film, how did you accomplish that?

Jeremy read the whole screenplay and knew what was happening, but we mainly kept the other children away from the themes. They were all so different, each with their own big imagination and personality. One girl would hug my leg every morning and wouldn’t let go, and there was another who was always asking when he was going to get more lines. Overall the girls were very easy to work with, very professional. The boys, on the other hand, were mainly troublemakers, pouncing around the place.

What was your thinking behind commissioning musicians like Jarvis Cocker and Metronomy to record original faux 1980s pop songs?

When we wrote the script and started to shoot the film it just didn't feel right to use pop songs that existed in our world, because people have existing memories associated with them. The setting is constructed as this nowhere land, so we went about crafting pop songs that would have been hits in our no man’s land, pop classics that no one has ever heard of. I basically made a list of artists I’d love to see tackle that brief, and amazingly, some of them said yes.

One of those numbers, “The Hardest Thing To Do”, is sung by Alexander at karaoke. The music video made for it is so much fun to watch – so ridiculous and reflective of 80s styling. Where did the idea come from?

I got a good friend who I knew could bring the cheese to make those videos. We talked a lot about a need to make them feel realistic.

The karaoke scene in the film was actually inspired by my travels in Asia. We were travelling through Vietnam and were lucky enough to be invited over for dinner by a Vietnamese family. After dinner, they had this ritual where they all huddle around the TV to sing karaoke. The kids sang with such sincerity and deep emotion. These songs were about love and heartbreak and whatever adult pop songs are about, but somehow it was incredibly powerful.

What was Vincent like on set? Partisan is your first feature film, so working with such an established actor must have felt exciting?

He was a nightmare. Really difficult and arrogant.

No, he’s a special, special guy. The second he came on set, you felt the energy of the whole crew shift. Everyone wanted to be at the top of their game, and he made everyone feel more confident. I’ve seen him portray menace and threat and foreboding, and he does do all of that effortlessly, but some of my favourite moments of him on-screen are tender and vulnerable. Those sad, insecure moments. The way he brought those aspects of Gregori’s character to life was really something.

Partisan is released in U.K. cinemas on 8th January.

Images: Metrodome

The Forbidden Room: An Interview with Director Guy Maddin

words Jason Ward

11th December 2015

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.

Dressed as a Girl: In Conversation with London Drag Legend Jonny Woo

words Aimee-Lee Abraham

2nd October 2015

Today marks the release of Colin Rothbart’s fly-on-the-wall documentary of London’s East London drag scene: Dressed as a Girl. In its depiction of the dizzying highs and devastating lows encountered along the way to cult superstardom, the film is unflinchingly honest, capturing a world where Queens fight to pretend “everything is fabulous… and no one is ill” while battling an array of personal and collective demons.

Having been at the forefront of the Shoreditch scene for over twenty years, Jonny Wooacts both as the film’s narrator and a primary subject. We sat down with him ahead of the frockumentary’s release to talk about drag, debauchery and the families we choose. Spoiler: it turns out they’re just as dysfunctional as the ones we’re born into.

Six years’ worth of footage was condensed into just two hours, and the narrative jumps very quickly from hilarity to heartache. How was it for you to watch yourself developing on-screen in such a measurable and visceral way?

For all of us there’s a great deal of revelation, especially with the benefit of hindsight. What’s great about the film is that it’s real; people aren’t trying to act up or be relentlessly positive for the camera. It’s not a sycophantic representation of drag that tries to falsely portray us as one big happy family. Thereis a real sense of camaraderie and community running throughout the scene, but the people within it exist as complex beings. Their relationships change and ebb and flow. There’s ambition, there’s disappointment, there’s friendship, and there are strains on those friendships. It’s messy.

It made for pretty difficult viewing at times.

Some parts are uncomfortable to watch. I felt like I was on trial at the premiere, up to be judged by a hundred people. Ultimately the film only presents a snapshot of each of our personalities, and we knew what was coming when we granted Colin access to our lives. We accept that as his subjects. The presentation is fair but it’s not wholly rounded. Certain segments make me wince, but when you look back on life as a whole it can all be a bit cringe-worthy. Audiences have appreciated that honesty so far.

Despite the conflict you’ve mentioned, there was a real sense of solidarity, and it was touching to see you all raising funds for Amber to have gender re-assignment surgery. On film we see some members of the public scoff at the validity of the cause, but it was such a transformative and redemptive experience for her.

Exactly. On screen it’s all dressed up as bit of outrageous fun, which it was, but these are real fundraisers with the power to affect real lives. Of course there are more pressing issues in the world, but if we want to raise money to help out a friend in need then that’s absolutely our business.

Dressed as a Girl goes beyond the humour and superficiality featured in glamorous mainstream shows like Ru-Paul’s Drag Race. Do you think it serves up an alternative version of the art form?

We all enjoy the liberation of dressing up, but we don’t all have this big, instantaneous personality change the moment the drag goes on, which you sometimes see in more mainstream drag. What characterises our drag is that you see the person underneath. The make-up and hair goes on and it generally falls off before the night is over, leaving you half made-up and half undone. You’re exposed, and the real person and the artifice are all kind of mixed together.

The film frequently references personal tragedy and substance abuse: Scottee reveals that his mother once stopped to pick up whisky while driving him to hospital in the middle of an asthma attack, and you discuss your own battles with alcohol. How has your life changed since sobriety?

It’s a miracle that I managed to do what I did for so long. I used to come home on a Monday morning and hibernate until Thursday. I was absolutely living for the weekend, I didn’t know how to stop, and I eventually suffered multiple organ failure. I don’t drink or do drugs any more and I have so much more time to keep up with my career and the business.

What’s next for you?

I have a few ongoing projects. As well as co-managing The Glory, I’m doing a rock-theatre show based around Lou Reed’s Transformeralbum and I have my East London Lecture which, to put simply, explores gentrification in the area.

As someone who has lived in East London for twenty years, are you nostalgic about the way things used to be?

I have this big hang-up with what I think is the overuse of the word 'gentrification’. I remember sitting in Geography class when I was fourteen learning about how it was just a natural evolution that occurred within urban settings, and change is certainly synonymous with the area. I don’t think East London has lost its sense of individualism or its sense of community. You only have to walk through London Fields or Victoria Park to see the an entire cross-section of the city enjoying the same beautiful facilities. The parks here really are the most fantastic things. They’re melting pots. I am proud to be a Londoner, and even prouder to be giving back through the business.

Dressed as a Girl is out in cinemas now, and released on DVD and On-Demand on the 7th of December from Peccadillo Pictures

45 Years: An Exclusive Playlist Made by Director

words Jason Ward

10th August 2015

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.  

An Interview with Director David Gordon Green

words Jason Ward

6th August 2015

David Gordon Green has made so many left turns as a film-maker that he's found himself back where he started. After drawing repeated comparisons to Terrence Malick for his stunning debut George Washington and becoming a reliable source of underseen but critically admired dramas, David surprised many by directing the stoner action comedy Pineapple Express. A sizeable sleeper hit, the film heralded the unlikely second phase of his career. However, just as big, broad comedies like Your Highness seemed to define his work, the film-maker shifted direction again and moved into deliberately unassuming character studies. The latest of these is Manglehorn, a lovely, low-key story about a brooding locksmith with little time for anyone except his sickly pet cat. As the eponymous near-hermit Al Pacino gives his best performance in too many years, matching the understated charm that the film exudes. Ahead of its upcoming release, we spoke to David about his exploratory creative process.

You conceived of Manglehorn after meeting Al Pacino about another project. What quality did you want him to bring out of him with this film?

Al does a lot of larger than life characters and Manglehorn is smaller than life. I was really looking to do an intimate, very vulnerable character study, inspired by the meeting I'd had with him where he was laughing and soft spoken and had this wonderful modest quality. It was something that I hadn't seen in a movie of his in a long time. I was thinking about his old films like The Panic in Needle Park and Scarecrow, early Pacino work that I've always admired. As a big fan I wanted to find a good reason to get in the ring with him. I thought one way might be generating a great character for him first.

I found it quite telling that both Manglehorn and your previous film Joe are named after their protagonists. What's the value of focusing on just one character?

A couple of years ago I'd just had kids and wanted to live in a place and make movies in that place, so I moved to Austin, Texas and started thinking less conceptually about big budget explosive content and more intimately about the area I was walking around in. The locksmith shop in the film is just two blocks from my house. I could walk to the set every day. When you have kids you have this epic mindset – the universe around you explodes, in a way – and I wanted to focus on something that was less extraordinary and look at it through a microscope.

Do you think you'll ever have the urge to make films again on a larger scale?

Actually just last week I finished a movie that's like that. There's a bus chase on a cliff and big name actors and set pieces and everything. It's fun to have money and toys, and there are a lot of Hollywood things that appeal to me, but it's nice to strip all the conversation away too. On the movie I just completed there were hundreds of people I needed to refer to in order to discuss visual effects and action sequences and safety and set design and construction. For a film like Manglehorn it's just three or four people walking around looking at the light and moving some set dressing from one side of the room to the other. There's something really calm and peacefully collaborative about that. It's more meditative. I think I have the type of mentality that needs to bounce back and forth between things.

How did that calmer approach apply to your working relationship with Al Pacino?

For many months before we shot I would fly to California and sit in his back yard and eat strawberries and talk about the character. We'd invite friends over and just read the script aloud, start to hear it and evolve it. There were some characters in early drafts that we decided not to incorporate. We wanted it to be organic, so we shot mostly in order and I didn't want to know how it ended necessarily. There was a screenplay, a roadmap for what we were doing financially and logistically but the film became very different because we found detours.

How did you come up with the name Manglehorn? It's evocative of folk stories.

That was part of the goal, to make something that felt like a fairytale. In an early conversation we said that we wanted to make a children's film. We got a little too melancholy for that, but still there's no profanity or violence or drug use. We tried to refrain from anything objectionable as a subconscious reference to the idea of a magical craftsman. I've always seen the locksmith profession in that light, like woodcarvers or the toymaker Geppetto or other things that might exist in a fairytale.

Were you interested in the symbolic idea of a man who can unlock any door but can't open up parts of himself?

Once you take anybody and start looking at what they do you invoke a world of metaphors. This was a situation where we weren't resistant to that. None of it was conscious but we started smiling our way through when we realised the fable that was unfolding had that little nod to symbolism. It was a very casual production process. It wasn't one of those calculated, storyboarded, pre-conceived type of movies. It was really just getting a creative, collaborative group of artists together and convincing Al Pacino to show up and then everybody felt their way through filming. That's a fun way for me to work, to carve time to do some unique weird shit during the day.

Have you always been that way, or did you have to establish your own voice to be confident enough to explore and experiment?

I think any film-maker evolves in their enthusiasm and their process. For me it's always changing and I wake up every morning with different interests. Sometimes that means to do a big movie or a little movie or a television show or  a TV commercial. I try not to think about the end result too much but I follow things that appeal to me, narratives that appeal to me, people that appeal to me. I just go with my intuition and instinct and sometimes everybody's happy and other times it takes me to strange and questionable places.

Manglehorn is released in U.K. cinemas and through Curzon Home Cinema on 7th August.