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Monday
Oct082012

HEARTS, MINDS AND TIME: THE COLIN TREVORROW INTERVIEW

Writer/director Colin Trevorrow's Safety Not Guaranteed explores the lives of three tart-mouthed 20-somethings searching for deeper meaning to their shallow lives. For those of you still with me, you'll be ably rewarded; it is also a time travel-themed love story full of warmth and character-driven humour. Having played to the Closing Night audience at the Sydney Film Festival (where it's rousing finale was met with spontaneous rapture by the jaded crowd), Trevorrow's debut feature goes into wide commercial release in Australia this week. Below is an edited text of the San Franciscan's chat with SCREEN-SPACE, during which he discussed the film's genesis, production and, with surprising candour, its US box office fate.

I can’t imagine a high-concept/low-budget premise such as Safety Not Guaranteed is an easy sell to financiers. Was the script-to-budgeting period the usual tough slog?

To a certain extent, high-concept/low-budget is an easy sell. I mean, nothing is an easy sell but in most cases it comes back to the script. If the script isn’t good, high-concept/low-budget can be as much of a disaster as anything else. But on something like this, you are reliant upon the characters feeling real and the story being engaging because you just don’t have anything else to fall back on. There are no fireworks...well, maybe a little bit in ours, but for the most part the people have to be the fireworks. And when you’re talking about convincing someone to lay down money on a movie, it comes down to that script in the end. They certainly had no reason to trust me! It wasn’t my name attracting anyone to this movie.

In both Aubrey Plaza and Jake Johnson (pictured, right; with the director), you capture actors on the cusp of big careers. There is a naturalness to the performances that I assume stems from your influence on the set...

Well, Jake and I have been friends for quite a long time. I have just literally come from the set of The New Girl, where I caught up with him because I haven’t seen him in a while. And that’s just a friendship that existed before the film and that I knew, no matter what, it would exist after. The film is just a great opportunity for the two of us to get together and use the very natural language that we already speak within a filmmaking environment.

So the actors found that chemistry and rhythm in the rehearsal process?

There was no rehearsal on this! We just didn’t have that luxury at all. And not because I don’t like to do rehearsal, which I do. But I do like to find the moment right there, on set. Extended rehearsal can sometimes take away from feeling of discovery that can often capture on film while it’s happening. Whether I wanted rehearsal or not didn’t matter because we weren’t going to have it. Everybody did a lot of homework and came with their characters fully formed. I warned all these actors before we went in that I was going to be very technical director, focussing on something that has absolutely no budget look like an actual movie and so you have to come with these characters fully rounded, complete and whole. Of course, we had a lot of conversations about them at different points, but I really wanted them to be able to play in that sandbox but they had to build the sandbox before they came to set. And they did; everyone understood their character really well. That allowed us to open it up and let the scenes breathe and improvise a little bit.

The casting of Mark Duplass (pictured, left; on-set, with the director) must have been pivotal, given his independent-film background and grasp of what can be both idiosyncratic and warm on screen.

Mark was a big part of that just because that’s what he does on a lot of his films. Not exactly what we did, because his films are completely improvisational and we did have a script. His character could be played very broad and theoretically it could have become a funnier character but I think that playing him as less hilarious and a bit more damaged and real is what creates the balance in the film.

As the writer of the film (with Derek Connolly) and director, was the editing process difficult? Were deeply entrenched visions of the film challenged and changed?

The editing process is an amazing one. You can do a bit of a rewrite when editing. A lot of times what changes are scenes that, you know, feel a bit on the nose. Scenes that perhaps are telling the audience information that they have already deduced on their own. In this case, the script and the film were very similar except, of course, the ending which we changed very late in the game. That’s what you can do in the editing room – make something happen that no one ever thought would be possible.

I want to ask you about the film’s US box office, if that’s ok with you. The film has had a hugely positive critical response; Aubrey’s doing Letterman and the film is in Sundance and closing the Sydney Film Festival, amongst many other festival slots, and the internet loves it. So I was stunned to find it will barely creep over US$5million. And similarly loved films aimed at that 20-something demographic, like Ruby Sparks and Jesse and Celeste Forever, are doing even less business. Has Hollywood forgotten how to sell to this demo?

That’s fine to talk about. I think there a couple of factors involved. One, you’re dealing with a generation that just doesn’t go the movies as much as...well, any generation before them. When you and I were kids, there was only one way to see a movie – if you didn’t see a movie when it was in the theatres, then you were never going to see it again. Now, if you don’t see a movie in the theatre, you can see it in 5 different places for the rest of your life whenever you want to (laughs). And that’s a very big difference. Also, movies in America are very expensive to go and see, especially if you factor in kids and stuff like that. Frankly, I’m not sure that if I looked at my film, I wouldn’t say ‘Man, we are going to really enjoy that when it is on Netflix.’ That’s just the reality. If I’m going to spend $50 to go to the theatre, I am going want to see The Master in 70mm or I want to see The Dark Knight Rises. There are other movies where my brain automatically says, ‘Yeah, I’m going to love that and I’ll love it in my home on my couch.

That’s an admirably pragmatic way to look at the business side of your creative output.

I’m not crushed by the box office, to be honest. A lot of the films that I love made far less at the box office and went on to become movies that really matter to people. Everybody cared so much about this movie and everyone involved, all the actors and the writer and certainly with me, wanted to be as good as they know they are. Historically, when you look back at a lot of movies with young people, they have that sort of ‘first-film urgency’ stemming from a need to prove you can do what you have gambled your life on.

Wednesday
Oct032012

THE BEST OF LARRY COHEN

Larry Cohen was born into the archetypal East Coast Jewish family and studied his filmmaking craft at the New York City College. Influenced by the commercial cinema of the 40s and 50’s, notably the Warner Brothers crowd-pleasers that starred Bogart and Cagney, he would meld the grittiness of his own reality with a rich and dark vision for the fantastic that would lead to some vivid and hotly-debated works of pulp art.

On the eve of the spritely 72 year-old’s return to Australia (he attended a retrospective celebration of his career at the 2009 Brisbane Film Festival), where he will be a keynote speaker at the production industry event, SPAA Fringe, and attend the start up genre gathering, Monster Fest, SCREEN-SPACE has cast an entirely subjective eye over Cohen’s vast body of work as director (many will decry the absence of his 1977 FBI expose, The Private Files of J Edgar Hoover, or his blaxploitation films Black Caesar, Hell Up in Harlem and Original Gangsters; we thought the sequels It Lives Again and Island of the Alive minor works, but will listen to all counter arguments). His oeuvre as a writer offers some crisply commercial works (I, The Jury, 1982; Best Seller, 1987; Maniac Cop, 1988; The Ambulance, 1990; Phone Booth, 2002), but we stuck to his career behind the camera (for now...). Here, we offer the following as defining moments in the maverick multi-hyphenate’s challenging, eclectic career.

BONE (aka HOUSEWIFE, 1970)
Featuring a star-making turn by Yaphet Kotto as the home invader whose felonious demands and open-ended threats change both his world and that of  a shallow Beverly Hills married couple (Andrew Duggan and Joyce Van Patten), this pitch-black morality play on race relations and social standing was Cohen’s single-finger salute to the LA lifestyle that he had endured since arriving on the West Coast in the mid 1960’s.
Larry Cohen: “I did that one because it had a very small cast and a limited number of locations. I saw it as a way to break into the business as a director and take the time to learn my craft. I actually think it’s one of the best pictures I’ve ever made because the script was so good. I was lucky to get a wonderful cast, as well. It was a pleasure to work on that film.” – Films in Review, 2009.

IT’S ALIVE (1974)
Such an underground hit it spawned two sequels (no pun intended), Cohen’s occasionally giggly but undeniably chilling mutant-baby horror film was his paranoid take on a generation of children struggling to deal with parents living the dreams of the ‘Me Generation’; for the first time in US history, kids were forced to deal with a sweeping social restructuring that didn’t always factor in their best interests. The message – ignore us at your peril.
Larry Cohen: “We were going through a period in America where people were becoming increasingly alienated from their children. So I said, ‘Oh my God, we’re having monster children, so let’s have a monster baby! Let’s have the whole allegorical approach.’” – ABC-TV Brisbane, 2009.

Q THE WINGED SERPENT (1982)
From his own screenplay (which New York Times revered critic Janet Maslin caustically described as being full of “inadvertent gems”), Cohen crafts the near-perfect low-budget mash-up of monster-movie malarkey and gritty NYC cop story. A giant flying-lizard is on the loose in the Big Apple, beheading passers-by and hiding out amongst the concrete jungle; lowlife Michael Moriarty (Cohen’s favourite leading man) secures one of the creature’s eggs and develops delusions of grandeur.
Larry Cohen: “Originally, the Michael Moriarty character was not a piano player or an aspiring performer, but I found out on the first day of the shoot that he was very musical. So I wrote that into the part, which I feel in the end gave the character much more depth. It was just by chance that I happened to find that out about him." – eFilmcritic, 1999.

FULL MOON HIGH (1981)
A pure indulgence on the part of SCREEN-SPACE, whose VHS copy wore thin back in the day but which, in hindsight, is a very threadbare effort. Cohen melded the popular werewolf trend of the day (The Howling, 1980; An American Werewolf in London, 1981; Wolfen, 1981) with the booming teen-comedy market with this high-school/lycanthrope comedy starring Adam Arkin. An ultra-cheapy that hasn’t aged well (nor which Cohen talks about much, despite our best efforts to find his thoughts on the film online...)

SPECIAL EFFECTS (1984)
A kind-of updated, B-movie homage to Michael Powell’s seminal shocker Peeping Tom, Special Effects saw Cohen take on dark psychological themes and an art-vs-reality aesthetic in his story of a film director (Eric Bogosian) who murders a starlet, then is inspired to recreate the narrative of his real-life murder for his new film (going so far as to cast the husband of the slain woman).
Larry Cohen: “I cast a wonderful young actress, Zoe Tamerlis (aka, Zoë Lund). She always came about with a big bag. ‘That’s my screenplay (in the bag)’, she’d say, ‘I can’t leave it home because someone is going to steal it’. She was paranoid about it. I asked her if she had copies, why she didn’t make copies. But no – she didn’t want anyone to have a chance to see it, take it. That script turned out to be the original Bad Lieutenant that Abel Ferrera made with Harvey Keitel. I guess she was addicted to drugs, though, because she died in Paris from an overdose in ’99.” – Horror Society, 2010.

THE STUFF (1985)
The director’s ravenous dissecting of 1980s consumerism and blind Reagan-era social conformity, Cohen secured a stellar cast (Morairty, again; Danny Aiello; Patrick O’Neal; Paul Sorvino; Garrett Morris) to tell his fiendishly satiric tale of a natural substance found oozing from underground and marketed as the most delicious dessert treat ever. The catch? Those who consume it turn into zombie-like cravers of the goo. As good a spin on our mindless, modern society as Don Siegel’s (or Philip Kaufman’s) Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.
Larry Cohen: “Instead of being a monster that comes into your house after you, (The Stuff is) one that you go out and buy and bring home, and you consume it of your own free will. You’re a willing collaborator in your own destruction.” – Time Out London, 1986.

Friday
Sep212012

INNOCENCE AND LEGACY: THE CATE SHORTLAND INTERVIEW

When her debut feature Somersault took home 13 AFI Awards in 2004, the cinematic world opened up for its young writer/director, Cate Shortland. While the film's stars, Abbie Cornish and Sam Worthington, went onto Hollywood careers, Shortland went to ground. Her first shoot had been difficult and the kind of substantive project needed to coax the Temora-born filmmaker back behind the camera all-too-rare. It finally materialised in the form of Rachel Seiffert's novel, The Dark Room, the story of teenage girl Hannelore, 'Lore' for short, and the journey she takes with her orphaned siblings across the German countryside as the ideals of her beloved Fuhrer and the genocidal agenda of his government collapses. With the Audience Award at the Locarno Film Festival already in the bag and its Toronto campaign about to launch, SCREEN-SPACE sat with Shortland on the eve of the film's Australian release and found the director, charming to a fault, in a remarkably candid frame-of-mind...

Let’s go back to the source material, Rachel Seiffert’s novel The Dark Room. What were the most crucial elements of the book that you felt had to translate to the screen?

The thing we really struggled with, the core of the book, is that [Seiffert] is treating these people like human beings, so she never actually says. “Oh, look at this Nazi monster.” But she also never says, “Look at the poor Germans, aren’t they sad victims.” She walked this really amazing tightrope, where she manages to maintain a fair degree of distance from the politics, instead just letting the reader make up their own minds. And usually, when people write about these subjects, they will naturally define who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. And she never does that. (Maintaining that) was really tricky when we were writing the script and we fought and fought to get that balance right.

Lore is a superbly photographed work. Tell me how you and DP Adam Arkapaw (pictured conferring, below) developed the film’s visual language.

Adam showed me a film called Ballast, which I think was the directorial debut of the production designer from Batman, and it was astounding. And I showed him a lot of different things. Then we collaborated really closely with Silke Fischer, our own incredibly fabulous production designer, who had a really tough time because the budget for a period film like this was just a joke! For Adam and I, our rationale was that we didn’t want it to look like a stodgy period film. I was influenced by Claude Lanzmann’s film, Shoah, because that film featured people who were in the camps. They talked to one man who was in Belarus and he says, “Claude, look at this field, look at all these beautiful flowers. This is what it was like when they were murdering us.” That is also why there is a lot of nature in the film, because our lives are transient but nature keeps moving on.

You’ve said that the comparisons to Somersault are coincidental. But (producer) Liz Watts got the book in front of your husband (director, Tony Krawitz) and (UK producer) Paul Welsh got the book in front of you. They clearly felt the material may have played to your strengths. Do you still feel the two works are so distinctly unrelated?

I can concede that [the lead characters] are both the same age and are both dealing with their sexuality. They both don’t fully understand their sexuality, how they use it and what that means. But I think Heidi (Abbie Cornish; pictured, right) almost has Aspbergers and displays that from the start of the film; she almost has no moral self-knowledge from the beginning of the film to the end. But Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) is fiercely intelligent and politicized. She starts the film in this very stringent way of thinking and ends the film in a place of ambiguity. Who am I? What is my society? What is my life? She is asking all these questions. Heidi and Lore have really different trajectories.

As the father of an 11 year-old girl, I watch her viewing the world with an inquisitive, questioning eye but not always with the knowledge to interpret it. Is this early teen character-type, especially with regard to Heidi and Lore, a strong dramatic canvas to work with?

Yes, it is. Also, when we adopted our son, or when we started the whole process, he was 11. Now, he is 18. So I was thrown into his adolescence (laughs), parenting his adolescence. And I think that had a really big influence on this film because it allowed me to understand the story and themes from his perspective. I wasn’t looking at it from the point of view of a 41 year-old and trying to look back at myself. Rather I was living with an adolescent and relating that experience to the character of Lore.

The locations you chose were the sites of many horrific occurrences during the time the film is set. How did the details that history provides infuse the production and your storytelling?

It was hugely influential. We did the 'recce' four years before the film was made, or even funded, because we knew we didn’t want to use any digital effects. In the end, I think we’ve got five effects in the whole film and they are just things like bullet wounds. So we knew we had to find locations that would work on a limited budget. When we arrived in Eastern Germany, we immediately went to Goerlitz, on the Polish border, which is where one of the first concentration camps had been. That was used as a location in the film, though [initially] I didn’t even know that the site was what was left of the camp. There is no plaque or placard or anything on the site. And other locations in the film, like the armaments factory, that was a slave labour site, and we used two big houses for exteriors and then interiors, that were the homes of Jewish merchants who were taken away in the early 1930s. My husband said the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, in the house on the first day of shooting because no one knew what happened to the families.

Being of Jewish heritage yourself and being married to a German-Jew (pictured, below, with husband Tony Krawitz), what impact did dealing with this time in history and the plight of these characters have you upon you?

It has been a massive learning experience that I just didn’t realise would happen to me. What has been really good is that we have been living in Germany and we have got German friends. Germans look at their history and examine their past more than any other country on Earth, so there is a total transparency with the people we are around regarding what has happened. That taught us a lot and has also taught us that here in Australia we just don’t talk about our history and there is no transparency.

Was your teenage lead, Saskia Rosendahl (pictured, below), aware of the details of her homeland’s past when first approached about the role?

Yes, she’s a high-school student and every high-school student goes through an intensive process of looking at The Holocaust and of the German people’s involvement in The Holocaust. It is taught from the point of view that ‘They’ did it, that those people back then did it, and I think the way in which both the film and the book differs from that is that it says, “My family did it.” And that is still a very hard thing to confront in Germany. You just don’t meet people in Germany who will say, “My grandfather was in the SS.” People still find it very hard to personalise it.

You mentioned earlier that it taught you more about the role of genocide in Australia’s past...

Compared to Australia and how we deal with our history, [Germans] are about 200 percent ahead of us. We have no national day of mourning, nothing. There are massive amounts of money that go into health, education and employment programs, and that is something we can be really proud of. But until we make a big space in all our minds and in mainstream Australia that indigenous people are a part of our society and are a part to be rejoiced...well, that just hasn’t happened. Why is that? Why is it so hard for us? Why do we have this fear and hatred of these people? That [that attitude] is part of our culture, I find really fascinating. I feel very sad about it.

So how does the current social standing of Aborigines compare to that of the Jewish community in Germany?

The Jewish community in Germany is one of the fastest growing communities in the world. They feel really comfortable and welcome and are part of the national community.

Monday
Sep032012

DIRT ON THE UNDERGROUND: THE STEFAN POPESCU INTERVIEW

I met Sydney Underground Film Festival co-founder and director Stefan Popescu several years ago when assigned to interview him; it went well and led to my stint as a jury member on early SUFF incarnations. Expectedly, Popescu’s off-centre film tastes run the gamut from avant-garde to abrasively obtuse to downright bizarre. His charms sneak up on you; he can seem shy, even awkward, but tweak to his passions and his voice ups an octave, his stare becomes more intent and the insightful flow of educated opinion comes thick and fast. He has directed two darkly stylish, low-budget features – Rosebery 7470 (2006; haven't seen it) and Nude Study (2010; didn't like it) – that reflect his commitment to a truly challenging and unique film aesthetic.

Popescu (pictured, above) is a delight to interview; his responses generally begin with “Mmm, that’s interesting” or “Wow, good question”. And I have always thought he looks like the result of a three-way between Janeane Garofalo, Luke Wilson and Griffin Dunne. Wisely, I kept those opinions from him before we chatted via phone about the 2012 SUFF event, which launches this week in Sydney’s inner-west. Here is the edited text of a long conversation which covers an NSFW version of local soap Home & Away, the bureaucracy of an inner-city council, the Aurora shootings, James Franco and bestiality....

Screen-Space: Ok, so how are you dealing with another round of this Festival madness?

Popescu: It’s always crazy but it’s manageable. Every year, I always think ‘Next year will be easier’, because I know the ropes and everything is in place but it is never like that. Every year something wacky happens (laughs).

Screen-Space: What’s happened this year? Oh, you’re on the record by the way.

Popescu: Oh, ok. That’s cool (laughs). The whole Mr Doodleburger thing. Firstly, tracking Mr Doodleburger and then (having him) agree to his first public appearance. I don’t know if you know who Doodleburger is...

Screen-Space: No, I don’t.

Popescu: ...but he’s the guy who redubs Alf Stewart from Home & Away. He’s become this cult figure after (local current affairs show) Today Tonight and A Current Affair tried to track him down but couldn’t. They could only say how horrible he is and when I saw (his redubs), I thought ‘Man, he is awesome!’ (laughs) He’s got to come to Sydney Underground!

Screen-Space: Where did you have to take the festival this year to make it grow? The website looks slicker. There’s seems to be an element of... well, not less underground or less grungey...but certainly a concerted effort to make some of the marketing that might suggest a newfound direction in what you want to achieve.

Popescu: That’s interesting. Maybe we are just getting better at it (laughs). If anything, resources were stretched way thinner this year. Maybe we are just getting better at utilising those resources and focussing our energies. For example, we finally figured out that you need to get one key-art image and design everything around that image. This is one of the first festivals when we haven’t had a professional designer on board. Actually, a lot of that is Katherine (Berger, SUFF co-director; pictured, right, with Popescu).

Screen-Space: She has always done an amazing job. Stefan, I’m playing devil’s advocate here, because I am really looking forward to seeing the films, but there’s a little sense of the mainstream in your choice of films like Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie and films starring James Franco. What makes these films underground enough to warrant their programming?

Popescu: Ok, that’s a really good question. ...Billion Dollar Movie is starting to touch on mainstream, but those guys (stars Eric Wareheim and Tim Heidecker) are die-hard indy talents and always will be. And, I mean, the subject matter...it is a bit like Super last year, which was such an appalling film in terms of (its relationship) to what’s mainstream. And we always need a kicker like that, something that is almost mainstream but still challenges people’s boundaries. But the James Franco film, Francophrenia (pictured, left)...it is essentially a ‘gonzo’-documentary. (Popescu gives a long, detailed description of the bizarre plot). The line between which reality you believe in, because the audience has to choose between three realities  in which Franco plays himself...well, it’s actually really, really smart. It’s one of the more cutting-edge films programmed, even though it stars James Franco (laughs).

Screen-Space: Ok, to counter that, what will really shock this year? What is catering for the really hard-core underground film enthusiast?

Popescu: Something like....um, well there are three that come to mind. Total Bad-Ass is really out there; it is contemporary Texas, sort of like the Hunter S. Thompson of today, I think. Zero Kill will be challenging to some people, this film about people’s murder fantasies in which people have to act in their own murder fantasies and then discuss it afterwards. Snuff film fantasy-type stuff. Oh, and Donkey Love, of course (laughs). When I first watched it, I thought ‘Is this a mockumentary?’, because it is done in this dark, comical way, but at a certain point you realise it is a very real documentary.

Screen-Space: Does your programming of the Wikileaks documentary (Patrick Forbes’ Wikileaks: Secrets and Lies) reflect your personal opinion?

Popescu: Yep, definitely. We always try to throw a very political one in there and we are all absolute supporters of Assange. Mind you, that documentary doesn’t necessarily paint him in the best light.

Screen-Space: Did you have any qualms programming Bobcat Goldthwaits’ God Bless America in light of the Aurora shootings (The film contains a graphic shooting scene set inside a cinema; pictured, below)?

Popescu: Well, firstly, it was programmed before that occurred. But, I guess, when you are working with cinema you are essentially working with fantasy. And then you have something like that shooting, where someone has decided to merge fantasy and reality...I mean, it’s really hard to comment on what goes on inside another person’s head. My reaction is not that it has changed Bobcat’s film, but my reaction is that I feel my secure definition of what fantasy and reality is has been challenged. When those boundaries get challenged, and they rarely get challenged, you think as a film buff, and I’m sure you felt this as well, that ‘Oh shit, what is going on here....” It was programmed so we wouldn’t have pulled it, not that we would have anyway. We encourage discussion when films that we program present challenging moments or ideas. 

Screen-Space: You mentioned that some of the local backing has dropped off this year?

Popescu: (Laughs) The only funding we’ve had for the last three or four years has been $1000.00 a year from Marrickville Council. But this year....God, it’s almost embarrassing to talk about (laughs)...there was a mix-up with their website, which said that the application could be put in up until 7.00pm, so we put it in at, like, 6.00pm, but the website was wrong; it was actually 5.00pm (laughs).

Screen-Space: Oh, no...

Popescu: Yeah! So we rang them and said “Come on, it’s only $1000 and it’s been like 4 or 5 years,” but they were like “No!” (laughs) It is so embarrassing. But the good thing is, this year we are surviving on nothing but ticket sales, purely on public support. When the people decide we are not doing something right, we won’t exist anymore.

Screen-Space: That’ll never happen, mate. Every night I have been there it has been a wild, supportive, full crowd.

Popescu: It is kind of nice. We don’t exist because some consulate says so or some embassy supports us, like other culturally-based film festivals. We are there purely because people want to see what we have to offer.       

Sunday
Aug262012

TFF 2012 GUEST DIRECTOR ON TARKOVSKY CLASSIC: THE GEOFF DYER INTERVIEW 

British-born Geoff Dyer (pictured, below) was offered the role of Guest Director of the 2012 Telluride Film Festival following the publication of his book ‘Zona’, a brilliant exploration of Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic 1979 film Stalker and its impact on the author’s life. “Zona is one of the best books ever written on a single film,” said Tom Luddy, co‐founder and co‐director of TFF. During his visit to the Sydney Writer’s Festival earlier this year, Dyer sat with SCREEN-SPACE to discuss his obsession with the great Russian work and its place in film history:  

 

When, where and, perhaps most importantly, who were you when Stalker first impacted you?

I saw it when I was in my early 20’s, so about 30 years ago, when it was first released in the west in 1981. In my time in university I had seen a lot of the canonical works of film history, so I was very up to speed with things. I guess, most important of all, I was used to this idea that really great works of art often had a little quality of boredom attached to them. I got very used to things moving very slowly. I found it a bit frustrating to watch and I went away from it, not knowing it was one of those life-changing experiences, but the film never quite left me. I’ve found that that is not an uncommon experience with Stalker. Goodness knows I’ve done other things in the last thirty years but one of the things I’ve continued to do is see the film over and over again.

Another Tarkovsky work, Solaris, holds a similar fascination for me. I must be frank and state I found Stalker (pictured, right) a challenging film to get through.

It is so interesting that you should say that because I’ve always felt the way about Solaris that you feel about Stalker! There are amazing bits in it, but I’m in that minority of Tarkovsky admirers who finds Solaris a bit of a bore. I think the Steven Soderbergh remake, with Natascha McElhone and George Clooney, is pretty good.

Admittedly, I was fortunate to have seen Solaris on the bigscreen and have only ever seen Stalker on television.

I think there is something really special about seeing the film, and seeing any serious film, in the cinema. It demands such an absolute, complete immersion in it so that you can totally transact with it and seeing it in the cinema makes that easier. But also there is something about the quality of the images and seeing them projected in a cinema. I don’t mean to be rude about your television but I think any television struggles to convey Stalker. The first time that it was shown on British television in, I guess the 1980’s, Channel 4, a very serious channel, transmitted the whole film in black-&-white. This meant that one of the great moments in cinema, when they get to The Zone and the film switches in that amazing, beautiful way from black-&-white to colour...well, the Channel 4 broadcast never let the characters and viewers get to The Zone. They were stuck in this monochrome world for the duration.

I came across this wonderful quote of yours, in which you state, “If you give yourself over to Tarkovsky-time, the helter skelter mayhem of the Bourne Ultimatum will seem more tedious than L’Avventura.”

Time is sped up so much so that we have all become habituated to films and TV shows that are cut very quickly. Stalker is a long film with only 142 shots in it, thereabouts; just these really long takes. Now, I don’t like boring films, but generally speaking the last 20 minutes of these Hollywood blockbuster when things just start blowing up and any psychological element of the film is just abandoned is incredibly boring. Tarkovsky said something very instructive and that was, “When you expand a take in a film, people’s first reaction is boredom, but expand it further and the scene takes on a quality of attention, then expand it even further and you can deliver (your audience) into a trance-like state.” (American composer) John Cage said something similar. And think about those long tracks by (Australian jazz band) The Necks or about classical Indian music, pieces of a fantastically expanded duration. Once you get over that friction of wanting time to move, then you do this beautiful thing where you move into a kind of timeless zone. To loop this point back to the film, once they get to The Zone there is no time there; it is very difficult to tell how long they have spent there.

Do readers run the risk of missing out on their own ‘Tarkovsky awakening’? Of experiencing Stalker only through your book rather on their own, via their own perceptions?

In my books, I’ve tended not to give an objective account of what I’ve written about because I don’t feel that when I decide to write a book I haven’t sworn an oath, I’m not a witness at a trial. I’m just giving my very prejudiced, very partial, highly contingent version of things. One of the weird things is that, by being as faithful as I am to that principle, maybe in the course of the book I’ll end up articulating certain feelings about the film which are shared by people who have seen it in very different circumstances and who bring to it a very different set of cultural expectations.

The New York Times said that, “Just as Stalker is about the artist himself so too is Zona.” Is it too grand a notion to suggest that Zona is Stalker remade in your image, through the prism of your existence?

(Laughs) Yeah, I guess, maybe. There is a paradox at work because I am always trying to make the writing of a book come close to sharing some of the qualities of the film. How does that work in this instance? Well, one of the qualities of The Zone is that, allegedly, it has these magical properties and is always reconfiguring itself to the beliefs and expectations that people bring to it. So I quite like the idea that Stalker maybe doesn’t exist in some absolute way but that is itself reconfiguring to where or when or who you are in your life when you see it. Zona is very much my experience of it, my version of it.

Finish this sentence. Stalker is what it is to me because...

Oh, because I can’t imagine what my life would be without my having seen it.

And, out of curiosity, what’s your second favourite film?

Well, in all seriousness I would probably say another Tarkovsky film, Mirror. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, probably Where Eagles Dare (pictured, right). Some people don’t believe Where Eagles Dare to be the work of genius that I believe it to be (Laughs).