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Monday
Dec152014

SNOW ANGEL: THE ANNA MARGARET HOLLYMAN INTERVIEW

Australian audiences first tasted the bittersweet world of Zach Clark’s White Reindeer on the genre festival circuit in 2013. The story of Suzanne, a recently widowed suburbanite who uncovers her dead husband’s hidden world and eventually her own renewed inner strength, has at its core a pitch-perfect performance by Anna Margaret Hollyman. The actress, adored in the indie sector after performances in Small Beautifully Moving Parts (2011) and Gayby (2012), is a revelation in Clark’s cult classic, which took out the Best Feature trophy at the Boston Underground festival. She spoke with SCREEN-SPACE about her friendship with the director, the inspirations that helped her understand Suzanne and the enduring, endearing legacy of the film…

I was fortunate to have met and interviewed Zach when he brought the film to the 2013 Revelations Film Festival in Perth.

I remember I wanted to go to that festival so badly! Zach was trying to get me there but I was shooting something at the time.

What immediately struck you about Suzanne when you first encountered her in early script drafts?

I responded to the quiet heroism in her that I really admired. I equate Suzanne to being my own personal superhero or avatar. She continues to persevere and push forward and put herself in uncomfortable situations in order to work through her mourning. She has a huge heart. She put herself into extreme situations with no judgement of others or herself and that’s admirable to me.

Zach has been very precise in interviews about the film that he wrote this as a break-up movie.

When Zach and I first sat down to talk about it, over tacos in Williamsburg (laughs), he just stated outright, ‘Essentially, this is a break-up movie.’ I do think that is a great way to describe it. I’ve never lost a loved one in the manner that Suzanne has to deal with but we’ve all gone through some kind of heartbreak in our life. Her arc is such a heightened kind of a break-up, because there are so many issues of betrayal and new definitions as to who this person was she was in love with. Recovery is a cyclical process and when someone has passed or murdered in (Suzanne’s husband) Jeff’s case, it seems more extreme but the experience is still a very universal one.

He has been very clear about Douglas Sirk’s classic melodrama All That Heaven Allows being an inspiration for White Reindeer. The collection of DVDs he made you watch to prepare for the shoot has become a thing of legend.

Yes, his stack of DVDs is legendary at this point. I actually thought about them this morning and hoped I could remember all of them (laughs). Apart from All That Heaven Allows, which was so important to Zach and to the film, is Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman* (pictured, left). It is three and a half hours long and is so meditative and quiet and very pervasive. There is such power in the rudimentary and the stillness of this human being. The repetition of this woman’s home life, juxtapositioned with the running of a prostitution ring from her apartment, is so impactful. The two extremes pull her and the audience in a really realistic and emotional way. Understanding how the counter-culture can exist with the mundane in a very symbiotic way was very helpful to me.

*Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Dir: Chantal Akerman, 1975; IMDb)

As dark as White Reindeer goes at times, a very positive Christmas message is part of the film’s resonating charm.

Well, Zach also made me rewatch Scrooged and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. At the heart of it, as I’m sure Zach told you, he really, truly does love Christmas, is very inspired by it. He has this childlike appreciation for it that he really feels and it was inspiring to come into contact with that as well.

You’ve mentioned words like ‘stillness’ and ‘quiet’ and ‘meditative’, all of which come through in your performance and Zach’s film. Suzanne’s journey often feels so painfully personal…

So much of what the film explores is a sense of ultimate aloneness, which is something that each of us experience in our own way. It is something that is not explored a lot on film but it is not necessarily a fun feeling, but one that is often particularly uncomfortable. The reason that many of us go to the movies in the first place is to escape that loneliness. And yet there is something relatable about watching a woman process being alone. It is something we all do every day, yet is something we never really talk about when we do interact. Nobody goes on a dinner date then confides that they spend all day alone and crying. The movie really takes the time to explore the externalizing of an individual’s internal self.

White Reindeer screens in January at the Brisbane Underground Film Festival. It will be available on DVD and Blu-ray in Australia through Accent Films on December 17.

Tuesday
Oct142014

PLAYING FOR THE MOB: THE CAYMAN GRANT INTERVIEW

It would become one of the greatest scandals in a nation’s sporting history. Young men, upon whose All-American shoulders rested the hopes of the 1978 Boston College basketball fraternity, ‘gotten to’ by mob heavies and coerced into influencing the points spread on key games. Central to the scam, mobster Henry Hill, the mafia rat brought to life by Ray Liotta in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, whose small-scale fraud would ultimately lead to the downfall of underworld giant, Jimmy Burke. Director Cayman Grant, working alongside Emmy and Peabody award winning filmmaker Joe Lavine, affords the saga a vivid cinematic treatment in the compelling documentary Playing for the Mob... 

From the Los Angeles home she shares with her husband and producing partner Terry City, Grant (pictured, below) spoke with SCREEN-SPACE on the eve of her film's Australian premiere on cable sports giant ESPN, in which she discussed the intricacies of the swindle, the human cost of the crime and of being the last person to interview the once-fearsome Henry Hill…

Tell me about the early days of your involvement with the project and of collaborating with Joe Lavine?

Through our Pittsburgh producing partner, Paula Gregg, we were able to acquire the life rights to Paul Mazzei, who was the infamous “Pittsburgh Connection” in the movie, Goodfellas. Once I learned about the ’78-’79 Boston College Basketball scandal, I knew it would be a fantastic documentary. I started shooting right away and soon found out that Joe Lavine at HBO was looking to make a doc of the same story. We met and he was excited that I had many of the contacts and interviews in place. We formed a partnership with Gary Cohen at Triple Threat and pitched to ESPN. Lucky for us, I had already shot several interviews, most importantly Henry Hill and Paulie’s reunion before Henry passed away in June 2012.

Upon meeting Henry Hill, what struck you about his character and how he views his role in the scandal?

Until the day he died, Henry was somewhat perplexed that this scandal is what took down his friend, Jimmy Burke. As stated in the film, he didn’t even think it was a crime. I’m not sure that most of the people involved really thought it was a huge deal, at least not to the degree that they (would be) charged and sentenced to jail. The Feds wanted Jimmy Burke and this was the way to get to him. They got everybody.

Did the frail, elderly man still exude any of the fierceness one associates with his ‘Goodfellas’ persona?

I wasn’t nervous at all about having Henry in my home. In fact, I was excited to meet the real “Henry”. All I ever knew was Henry Hill as Ray Liotta. Henry was a wonderful houseguest. He was kind. He even kissed my baby. Mind you, he was much older now so that whole gangster persona was gone, aside from his hat (pictured, below).

What insight into the criminal mind, the ‘Mob mentality’, did you glean from contact with the likes of Hill, The Perla Bros and Paul Mazzei?

Once I reunited Paulie and Henry, I saw another side of them. They talked about the old days, crimes they committed together, like it was nothing. I’m not sure that I ever saw any remorse for what they did. They’re over it and have moved on. Actually, we also reunited Paulie Mazzei and Tony Perla, which was a memorable event. For me, it was fun to see their “real” personalities come out over the course of a few hours. I noticed that deep down these guys haven’t changed that much. Their true persona came out when they were all together. Through my encounters and research it was obvious that they all grew up in a time and in an environment that made it easy to get into the things they all got into.

There is a potent sense of tragedy about the purity of the sporting contest and, in a larger sense, the innocence of a society being corrupted by this event. Does this go some way to explaining the longevity of the scandal and the place it has in American history?

As a Canadian, I had no idea about the scandal until I delved further into the life of Paulie Mazzei. Anytime the mob gets involved, people’s ears perk up. The way this film has been embraced shows the fascination of American audiences with the mob and their involvement with sports. It would have been an even bigger deal had there been social media back in the late 70s, early 80s. Americans are huge sports enthusiasts and huge sports gamblers. There are tremendous stakes behind these games. One ‘call’ can affect a gambling spread, which then affects thousands of people’s money. Some people would argue that the reason sports are popular in the United States is that the gambling world is larger than anyone knows. It’s the ultimate form of American entertainment. We take our kids to these games. It’s a family event.

Were ESPN immediately keen to be involved in a story that de-glorifies sport? The network’s image is built on the lionising of sport and its heroes. Was Playing For The Mob seen as a departure for the network?

ESPN and their 30 for 30 Series have been able to show the human side of sports. The heroes that we glorify, the players that have gone broke, those who have done drugs and at times, those whom succumbed to it all. Playing for The Mob, while unique, isn’t such a departure, (although) there are not that many stories with the fame of Goodfellas that connect directly to college sports. I always wanted it to be an ESPN 30 for 30. I knew it was the right place for the story. ESPN loved that Joe and I had all of our bases covered, (with) all sides of the story ready to be interviewed. And of course, having Henry Hill’s last interview already in the can. 

What was the human element that you had to get across in the film? Why is this story still so resonant and relevant?

Part of its resonance is the mafia element but the reason we’ve been successful with the film is the human element. This is the tragedy of three young college kids who made poor decisions that they have to live with the rest of their lives. It’s even more relevant today because athletes at the College level are not compensated. They generally get their education paid for but with little or no stipend for spending money. These kids are broke. How many college kids would say no in this kind of situation? They would be torn, especially those players who grew up in poverty or have no other source of revenue. Boston College wasn’t the first scandal like this and given that colleges make millions off players’ performances, it certainly won’t be the last. (Pictured, above; Grant, second from left, and co-director Joe Lavine, centre, at the recent Boston Film Festival screening of Playing for the Mob).

Narrated by actor Ray Liotta, PLAYING FOR THE MOB premieres on Australian televsion on Tuesday 14th October on ESPN. Check local listings for times. 

Friday
Oct032014

FOR THE BOYS: THE PASCAL VUONG INTERVIEW

The Normandy landings on June 6, 1944, represent arguably the greatest military operation of modern warfare. Despite being documented and studied as one of the most immense and precise invasions ever undertaken, Operation Overlord, or ‘D-Day’ as it is more widely known, still remains an enigmatic event of which much detail has been lost to history’s fading memory. French director Pascal Vuong (pictured, below) aims to rectify that with his epic yet deeply personal IMAX-3D feature, D-Day: Normandy 1944. Ahead of its Australian season, Vuong spoke to SCREEN-SPACE about his long-in-development film and the battle that changed the direction of World War II…

It is a significant departure from your last IMAX project, the 3D hit Sea Rex: Journey to a Prehistoric World, to this much darker material. Where did the inspiration come from?

When I was a kid, I was very taken by the film The Longest Day. It led to a fascination that stayed with me my whole life, though I never imagined that I could ever make my own film version of D-Day. The success of Sea Rex allowed me some time and led to some financing that meant I could make my dream project.

What were your primary aims going into the project, in terms of making the machinations of a military movement of interest to the broad audience?

We made the film with the family audience in mind, especially the children. I know that so many of our children don’t know about World War II and many people consider it so far removed from our social consciousness. So I felt it was important to teach this younger generation the full extent of the battle and of the sacrifice made by so many from past generations.

I was struck by both the familiarity of the tales of heroism but also the bold, fresh means by which the bloody details of the landing were conveyed.

Because of films like The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan, I had to find a way to forge the D-Day story but in my own way. It led to using techniques such as the sand animation you see in the film (pictured, left). We know the story is a very gory one, and we found that sand animation was able to convey so much of the human horror of the war while still catering for the target audience.

How important was the vast canvas that the IMAX screen provides?

D-Day was a giant event, in its planning and in its execution, and the Imax screen is able to convey the scale of the undertaking. It allowed us to immerse the audience in so many aspects of the D-Day landing, adding both visual scope and emotional impact.

One of the film’s finest achievements is that it conveys the true meaning of the term ‘Allied’ as it applies to the war effort.

Beyond the technical planning of the attack and the military realities of the invasion, there are many human beings that were working for the Allied cause. Not just military minds, but also the hearts of men, woman and even children civilians. Do you know that there were about 3000 Australian men, primarily from your Air Force, that were involved in D-Day? So much of recorded history does not include the Australian and New Zealand contributions, soldiers who came from far away to help liberate Europe. So many nations were involved and it was important to show that not only were American and British forces involved, but that it was a truly Allied exercise.

Were you aware of how significant the role of your narrator Tom Brokaw would become in the telling of the D-Day story? Brokaw (pictured, below; with 93 year-old D-Day survivor Tom Blakey) and his French language colleague, The Intouchables’ star Francois Cluzet, bring a great deal to the work.

These men were crucial to the film. Their voices carry such importance and gravitas. Mr Brokaw, especially, brought so much. His involvement influenced the way I wrote the film. The memory of the young men who fought and the respect that we wanted to convey to the veterans of this conflict, of any war, was conveyed so wonderfully in Mr Brokaw’s voice, who has a profound passion for the period and the sacrifices made. Many people have said to me how moved they are by the film and how the voice of Mr Brokaw contributed so much to the experience.

Sunday
Sep212014

A GOOD YEAR: THE NADIR CASELLI INTERVIEW

Nadir Caselli will remember 2014 very fondly. Already a beloved TV actress, the 26 year-old Tuscan native has chosen her big screen roles with wisdom and purpose. She debuted in a crucial support part in Matteo Rovere’s Bad Girls (2008), followed by Gabrielle Muccino’s critical and commercial hit, Kiss Me Again (2010). Over the last 12 months, she has featured in two domestic blockbusters – Federico Mocia’s millennials rom-com, University: More Than Friends; and, Sydney Sibilia’s raucous drug-culture romp, I Can Quit Whenever I Want. Accompanying both films as part of the 2014 Lavazza Italian Film Festival, the slightly jetlagged but flawlessly charming actress sat with SCREEN-SPACE to discuss, in fluent English that she needlessly apologises for over and over, her career to date…

Nadir Caselli’s upbringing in the township of Cascina was worlds away from Rome, long the production hub of the Italian film industry. With no connection to the sector (her mother is an office worker; her father, owner/operator of a self-defence academy), she recalls embracing the ‘dream factory’ quality of cinema, like most kids.  “When I was a child, I was inspired by colour and images,” she recalls. “Cartoons in general and the great films from Disney of course, are some of my earliest memories. I remember the magic, the sense of wonder, when something makes you go ‘wow!’ That is what I remember most about films as a child and that is what I look for every time I go to the movies, even now that I am 26.”

Intelligence and ambition led her to the nation’s capital, where she graduated from the esteemed Università degli Studi Roma Tre. Her years of studying were supported by a modelling career that saw her become one of Europe’s leading teen models. She still occasionally accepts photographic assignments, but Caselli admits that those heady days were, in hindsight, a means to an end. “I was not really happy in the role of model,” she confides. “It is a very hard job, don’t get me wrong, but it is not very artistic and ultimately was not very satisfying.”

What did satisfy were the small acting parts that she sought out. As ‘Alice’ in fellow debutant Matteo Rovere’s Bad Girls (pictured, above; Caselli, far left), she experienced first-hand the frenzied nature of the business when the sexually frank, female-centric narrative caused a censorship stir.  Steady TV work followed, until Gabrielle Muccino, one of Italian cinema’s most highly-regarded filmmakers (The Last Kiss, 2001; Remember Me My Love, 2003; The Pursuit of Happyness, 2006; Seven Pounds, 2008), cast Caselli in her most high-profile hit, 2010’s Kiss Me Again.

The work afforded the actress many hours on set, watching and learning from such respected stars as Filippo Nigro and Stefano Accorsi (pictured, left; with Caselli in Kiss Me Again). That said, Caselli’s preferred method is to draw from emotionally impactful moments rather than the acting style of any particular role model. “I don’t have specific actors who inspire me. I see moments of magic on the screen and I try to grab them,” she says. “I memorise them and think ‘that is what I want to achieve someday’ or ‘I want to be able to use that’.”

Despite her tender years, Caselli has amassed many hours of television and accumulated seven features to her credit. It put her in the unique position of being the most seasoned performer amongst the six principal cast members of University: More Than Friends. “I’d never thought of that but, yes, I suppose I was,” she admits, allowing her a big, broad grin at the very notion. “Only myself and Primo Reggiani were experienced on the set so I guess I was a mentor to the other actors, at least to some degree.”

Under the guiding hand of veteran director Federico Moccia, a master of the broad romantic-comedy having helmed Sorry If I Love You (2008) and Amore 14 (2009), the core group quickly established the chemistry so crucial to such sweet natured melodrama. In describing the cast dynamic, Caselli’s English trips her up for the only time during the interview, when she enthusiastically recalled, “We had long rehearsal periods that would end with all of us sleeping together. I mean, in the hallway, y’know…not…you know what I mean!”

Her small but pivotal role in Sydney Sibilia’s I Can Quit Whenever I Want was a favour for the first-time director; she had starred in his 2010 short, Oggi gira cosi (see the full film here), and was happy to step into any part the director asked of her. The film is a ‘Breaking Bad’-esque black comedy about a group of retrenched academics who turn to narcotics production as a late-in-life career change. She had no reservations about working with untested talent, she says. “I had worked with a first-time director on Bad Girls. Each bring a fresh new vision to material.” Her faith in Sibilia has paid off, with the film a box office smash taking close to US$5.5million.

When the discussion turns to the line-up on offer at the Italian Film Festival, it is noted that many of the films are very contemporary stories, embracing a positive perspective on Italian society and culture. Nadir Caselli agrees, clearly proud of the passion for life that is synonymous with her homeland. “Italian cinema is very optimistic at the moment,” she states, any indication that the side effects of international travel may be taxing her now entirely gone. “Italian people like to look beyond the hardships of the moment, and there have been some very hard realities in Italy over the last few years. Our cinema reflects the healthier, happier aspects of life. It can be very critical of our society, but it is most often done as a celebration of some sort, from a hopeful outlook that celebrates what we can do and who we can be.”

For all session and ticket information visit the official website of the 2014 Lavazza Italian Film Festival.

Friday
Sep192014

WAR STORY: THE CATHERINE KEENER INTERVIEW

One of the great unanswered questions in recent Hollywood history has been, “Why doesn’t Catherine Keener do more lead roles?” Beloved for support turns that enhance everything and everyone around her (notably, Living in Oblivion, 1995; Being John Malkovich, 1999; The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Capote, both 2005; and, Synedoche New York, 2008), the 55 year-old actress takes on that rare central role in director Mark Jackson’s War Story, an intimate, painful account of a warzone photojournalist, Lee, left struggling with PTSD after witnessing the murder of her colleague while on assignment. Genuinely enthused about any chance to reconnect with Australia (“I was there for five months working on Where The Wild Things Are and it was a dream being there,”) the two-time Oscar nominee spoke with SCREEN-SPACE about one of the most psychologically challenging roles of her career…

Mark Jackson has been open about writing the script with you in mind for Lee. Were you immediately won over when you read it? What made the darkness of Lee and her plight so attractive to you?

Oh man, I didn’t quite realise how dark it was before I jumped into it (laughs). Sometimes I don’t realise quite what I’m getting into. I like the story and then we get into it and I start thinking, ‘Oh shit, I’ve got to be that beat-up person.’ Some characters creep up on you and that’s what happened with Lee. Sometimes you don’t want to go all in for a while, but you ultimately cross that line and admit to yourself ‘Ok, I have to do it.’

Mark has said that he cast the actress with H’wood’s warmest smile and most beautiful voice then made sure she did neither for 90 minutes. Did your exploration of Lee feel like a particularly new direction for you?

He said that (laughs)? Well, Lee comes from the same body and spirit as all the characters I’ve played, but they all feel different. Even if they appear to other people as the same, they are living a different story, a different life (pictured, right; Keener as Lee).

The war zone photojournalist makes for a fascinating film character but few films have tackled the PTSD effect. How deeply did you research both the frontline dynamic faced by photojournalists and the PTSD impact?

I was fortunate enough to hang out with journalists, one very generous and respected one in particular. I became a bit of a groupie at the LA Times in their photojournalism department, especially with the war photographers. From doing that, I just became more and more aware of the impact of PTSD on correspondents who cover violence. We are only just starting to crack open what that does to these people, that they are not just objective observers in the middle of it all. These are human beings who are doing something particularly noble who are not immune to the horrors they are witnessing. And that’s what they are doing – they are ‘bearing witness’ – and that takes its toll. Where does all that they witness go? One moment is documented and then released and then the next one comes, and then the next one. It is just a barrage of images that haunt us, the viewer, but then we can turn away. But for the photojournalist, it is never ending, just one after another, until it becomes impossible to process. At some point, they pay for that.

The key emotional element in the film is the deeply personal relationship between Lee and Hafsia. Tell me about working towards that intimacy with Hafsia Herzi (pictured, below).

I love her so much. It was very easy to establish intimacy with her because she is a very soulful, very beautiful actress. She was immediately committed and we found that we bonded from the very first day. We grew very fond of each and shared a real sense of caring for the story.

The setting and the plotting opens the door to commentary on foreign involvement issues, but the film foregoes any grand political statement in favour of a more personal, humanistic approach. Was politicising the narrative ever discussed in the context of Lee’s journey?

No, it was never Mark’s intention. I tried to ferret out certain realities, because that’s what we do as actors. We try to find these reality-based touchstones, but this was not that (film). I mean, it was sort of based upon the region of Italy that houses Libyan refugees and that was shown somewhat, so I made up a lot of stuff based on that. I made up a backstory for myself, just to help me figure out how Lee got to be where she is when the story starts. But our focus was on what happens after that.

The final moments suggest that it is Hafsia’s story that ultimately moves forward. Lee seems mired in her grief; even the camera leaves her behind. Is there hope for Lee? Is War Story a film that suggests there is no happy ending for some people?

I can see that, but I do think that Lee accomplished what she set out to do. She finished her journey, finished an aspect of her life that was connected to that war. Even if much of the life of a journalist is never ending, she was able to bring some small aspect of her pain to a point of closure. In my mind, Lee had been following the story of the refugees and I had projected so much onto her…I think she fulfilled a sort of mission, in the end. I think that’s why a lot of warzone journalists do what they do. It represents a kind of call-out, like being on some mission. My God, why the fuck else would they do it?

War Story is currently in limited release in US theatres and premieres on DVD in Australia on October 22 from Accent Film Entertainment.