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Tuesday
Apr232013

DRESSING FOR A WAR: REMEMBERING 1941 WITH DEBORAH NADOOLMAN-LANDIS

One of the film world's greatest costume designers, in Australia for the launch of her exhibition Hollywood Costumes, recalls her first big-budget studio feature - Steven Spielberg's grand folly, 1941.

Steven Spielberg’s 1941 holds a very special place in film history as one of Hollywood’s most grand follies. The 1979 production, which comedically chronicled one night of mayhem when Los Angelinos were convinced Japanese forces were launching an attack on Hollywood, ran way over budget and opened to scathing reviews, leaving co-financiers Columbia Pictures and Universal Studios in the red on a film that was greenlit to give the super-hot director total creative control on a scale he had never known.

It was to be the third feature for a young costume designer named Deborah Nadoolman (pictured; right), who had honed her craft on the low-budget comedy The Kentucky Fried Movie and the surprise smash hit, Animal House (both directed by her future husband, John Landis). Now one of Hollywood’s most revered costume designers with credits that include Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, Trading Places and Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, the two-term President of the Costume Designers Guild spoke to SCREEN-SPACE of her experience on Spielberg’s enormous spectacle.

“The first thing I should say is that Steven really gave me carte blanche,” Nadoolman-Landis says from her West Coast home, prior for leaving for Melbourne to oversee the launch of Hollywood Costume, a collection of iconic outfits that she has spent five ears curating. “He had come to a screening of Animal House and had fallen in love with the film. So he called me to come in and talk about designing on 1941. I had never designed on a movie of that size. My entire CV at that time was Kentucky Fried Movie and Animal House.”

Spielberg has since admitted that his self-belief was running rampant at the time, after the one-two box office punch of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Clearly taking its inspiration from Stanley Kramer’s frantic 1963 farce, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the director was in charge of a cast that included Hollywood bad boys John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd (both pictured; right) and Treat Williams, veterans Toshiro Mifune, Warren Oates and Slim Pickens and wide-eyed stars-in-the-making Bobby Di Cicco and Dianne Kay. For Nadoolman-Landis, it was clear her director was going to need all the help even her limited experience could offer.

“He was a still very young,” she remembers. “He had Jaws and Close Encounters, both of which I had adored, but he had not had a lot of experience with costuming or with costume designers. In fact, on those films, I don’t think he had even had a costume designer!” Conversely, 1941 would use 100’s of extras, all of who required fitting for a very specific time in American history; the key characters include a troop of USO girls, a tank crew, some zoot-suiters and a Japanese submarine crew. “He was going to be making a period film and he had no idea what to do,” she says with a laugh, tempered somewhat by hindsight.

“He and I sat together, and got on very well at that first meeting. He told me that the film was going to be as Spielberg/Nadoolman co-production,” she says. Thrilled to be offered a gig on a major studio production, the breadth of her task soon dawned upon Nadoolman-Landis. “I had read the script and, at that time, I was like ‘Oh, my goodness!’, this is going to cost a fortune. At the time, the budget was like $22million, but…well you know, right. A huge film.” (pictured left; Spielberg on-set with actor Ned Beatty, centre).

“After the meeting, I was walking to my car and it just struck me, ‘How am I going to do this?’,” she recalls of a moment when the pressure to make real a vast directorial vision consumed her. “My last costume budget, on Animal House, was $50,000 out of a $2million budget. On 1941, my budget was going to be $250,000! I ran to a payphone and called my boyfriend, John Landis, and cried ‘John, this is going to be such a huge movie and I’m in way over my head’ and I really did start spinning out. And John said, ‘Just realax. It is the same job.’”

Thirty-four years later, Deborah Nadoolman-Landis would recognise it as a defining moment in her career perspective. “Costume design, whether its on Kentucky Fried Movie with $15,000 or 1941 with $250,000, is exactly the same job. And that’s what I took away from 1941. Steven and I had a fabulous time working on the movie, as we did on Raiders of the Lost Ark,” she says.

Spielberg’s costly flop went through a number of re-edits and has emerged as cult favourite for many, though still carries the stigma of being associated with a flagrant period of excess in Hollywood history (it is often spoken of in company with infamous bombs Inchon, Heaven’s Gate and Ishtar). However, Nadoolman-Landis has no regrets, emerging from the production with the utmost respect for her colleague. “I just think he is terrific and adore him as the captain of the ship,” she says, fondly recalling the production and its director. 

Deborah Nadoolman-Landis has curated Hollywood Costume, which begins a 4 month season in Melbourne on April 24 at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. 

Saturday
Apr062013

APOCALYPSE NOW: THE ANDREW ROBERTSON AND LILLY KANSO INTERVIEW

Under their New York-based Passerby Film banner, the team of director Andrew Robertson and producer Lilly Kanso shot the gritty, post-apocalypse thriller The Mansion in the eerie abandoned middle class suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia over 19 days in the fall of 2011. The long journey from script to screen has been a labour of love for the pair, who are about to premiere their gripping, moving film to an enthusiastic Australian audience. SCREEN-SPACE spoke with them ahead of the screening of The Mansion at the A Night of Horror Film Festival on April 18.

The 'post-apocalyptic' genre is a tough one to freshen up. What differentiates The Mansion?

Andrew: The post-apocalyptic genre is so popular right now and we feel it taps into much of the same fascination people have had with westerns. It's like the neo-western in a sense. The two genres share a lot in common, in that they basically put modern humans in a paradigm of lawlessness and then watch to see how they treat each other. When you watch a western, you know the genre instantly. There is no need to explain the setting at the outset..."In the late 19th/early 20th century America, the west was a lawless, uncivilized land, etc..." We all know the deal and there's no need to over explain. I think the post-apocalyptic genre has reached that point. There's no need to explain, we all recognize that human life and the societies we've constructed can be quite tenuous. We have a lot of extinction anxiety, which is what accounts for the fact that our movies, tv shows and video games are all obsessed with the genre. What differentiates The Mansion is that it doesn't try to explain what happened to civilization. I mean, it hints that there was a plague, but it just accepts that you hopefully know the genre and don't need over explaining. Also, it's an intimate film that hopefully portrays what life would really be like after the fall of society. There would be a lot of waiting. Life would be quite slow and there would be a lot of vigilance in dealing with other humans. 

Is it a pessimistic film? It could be interpreted as suggesting that society implodes without a structured order or government control in place.

Andrew: I suppose it is pessimistic in that people treat each other pretty poorly in the movie. But don't want to over think it too much, because the truth is when we make movies and tv shows about the post-apocalypse we're just playing with the idea. We're not taking it very seriously. We like adventure movies and thrillers, because they are entertaining and let us pretend. But if we really wanted to honestly explore our darkest fears about the end of the world, there would be no swelling, anthemic music and heroic grandiosity. We would all split our time between being terrified and bored out of our minds. I guess The Road did that pretty effectively. But I wasn't interested in doing a bleak film like The Road. I grew up on Raiders of the Lost Ark and Terrence Malick. I wanted to do something more fun and hopefully a little bit thoughtful.

The ensemble seems very tight. What was explored during the rehearsal period?

Andrew: Our cast had a natural chemistry from day one and there weren't any rehearsals. We have always felt that bad acting is the achilles heel of small indie films and that it's worth the time and investment in picking solid actors to sell the story. 
Lilly: But that they had such a strong chemistry between them right off the bat was something we really didn't anticipate. A lot of this we attribute to the trappings of being a low budget film. We rented a house for them all to live in and it really paid off. They actually lived together, in a real suburban Georgia house throughout the shoot. So, they lived together in their post-apocalyptic house scrounging for food and struggling to survive by day, then rode home together, made dinner together, and basically spent time bonding by night. I think this is significant, because we really couldn't have afforded to put them up in their own hotel rooms. But it really played into their dynamics in the film-- they were a real family, on and off camera (pictured, l-r; Kanso, cast members Carter Roy, Chris Kies and Sebastian Beacon, and Robertson). 

How difficult is it to direct a child actor in scenes such as the final confrontation? This extraordinary young actress seemed to be very in the moment. 

Andrew: We based the character of the young daughter in the film on our niece Eva (pictured, right). She was always in our minds and so when it came time to cast the role, we decided why not just use Eva. We know her, we're a close family, we all speak the same language... so why not? We did entertain casting experienced young actors and auditioned the part with a handful of kids, but Eva was a natural and she really wanted to do it. Working with her was a fantastic experience because she's a real kid. She's not an actor. So you didn't get a young performer, you got the reactions and reads of an actual kid, which really felt right for the often solemn mood of this close family unit living in isolation. There was an austerity to how she carried herself that worked really well for the film. As for the final scene: this was one of the final scenes of the film, so Eva was very seasoned by that point. Plus, there wasn't much for her to do beyond clinging to her mother as a sadist held a gun to their heads, so, I think she pulled it off pretty effectively.

The Mansion - Trailer : www.themansionfilm.com from Passerby Films on Vimeo.

Thursday
Apr042013

'COS IT'S WHO WE ARE: THE JOSH LANER INTERVIEW

'Cosplay' is the phenomenon of dressing as one's favourite fictional character and parading your creation wth pride, specifically amongst the like-minded at huge cosplay conventions. Canadian documentarian Josh Laner (pictured, below, at right) has given a cinematic voice to the community, focussing his camera on three idiosyncratic personalities in his documenatry, My Other Me. He spoke with SCREEN-SPACE ahead of the film's Australian premiere at the Gold Coast Film Festival on April 19.

Describe your first experience of being submerged in the cosplayer’s world. Did you have to confront your own preconceptions, even prejudices, about the cosplay universe?

My first experience with cosplayers was through a local convention that was near my house. I was walking my dog and kept seeing people dressed in various costumes all heading towards the Vancouver Convention Centre. Being an avid gamer I recognized many of the costumes so I decided to follow a few of them to see what was going on. It was a beautiful summer day so most of the convention goers were outside near the waterfront playing glomp (a flying, tackle hug game) and having their pictures taken by fans and random tourists. I ended up running home and grabbing my own camera and came back to take my own photos of the cosplayers. I had always known in a very small way about the cosplay universe but had never been to a convention or known anyone who indulged in the hobby. I suppose I was most surprised by how social the event seemed to be and having always feeling a bit like an outsider myself I could relate to them and really got excited by the social aspect of the hobby. I couldn't help thinking that I wished it had existed when I was younger and if it did that I would have known about it. I played Dungeons & Dragons as a kid/teenager and got made fun of and picked on a lot for it, I was even told by a camp counselor once that'd I'd be going to Hell for playing D&D. I knew by the end of the weekend of that convention that I wanted to make a film about cosplayers.

How did you select the three personalities in your film? Were there others who you chased but said no?

I met Danae aka Rifa first. She was working on set with Matthew Tingey our films Co-Executive Producer/Camera Man. Matthew mentioned to Danae in passing on set one day that he was trying to help me get a film about cosplayers off the ground when she informed us that she herself was a cosplayer and had won awards for her costume designs and she wanted to be involved since she could help us get our foot in the door of a universe that generally is very wary of outsiders, especially a documentary film crew. I immediately brought Danae on board as a n associate to help us find the cosplayers we would follow. Her first choice was Lucas aka Twin Fools since they have many mutual friends and Danae knowing about Lucas beginning his transition from female to male figured he'd be a great personality for the film, she was right. I don't recall when we decided that Danae needed to be one of the cosplayers we follow and not just help us find the cosplayers but then our search was for a "noob" to the hobby, hopefully someone who'd never cosplayed before, so we put ads on local cosplay forums that we were looking for someone to fill those shoes. We ended up with 2 girls to be our potential noob and after meeting with both of them and their families we knew that Lily aka SecretAttire was our girl. There were no other cosplayers that were considered, we felt lucky to have what we got really.

What were you confronted with on that day when a key participant backed-out of the project? Did you ever consider that the film may not come together after that happened?

Truth be told he never said to us that he was backing out of the film, he just made it increasingly difficult to get him on camera. Our last convention we all went to his group of friends basically made a wall around him and would heckle the film crew as we tried to shoot. I never felt like the film wouldn't get done but I realized I had a huge valley to fill if I couldn't get that final interview.

Your past work Wastings and Pain also addressed an outsider’s world, one of disconnect from what is considered ‘normal society’ or ‘respectable behaviour’. What do you believe draws you to these fringe worlds and unique individuals?

I was a punk rocker in my teenage days, before there were stores in the mall where you could buy your "punk" clothes, so I always had the attitude that I wasn't part of 'normal society' and was always questioning what is 'respectable behaviour'. While I wont tell you which way to feel in my films I do like showing that people you may not relate to or think are dirty, crazed drug addicts or living on the fringe of society's norms are really not very different than you and I at the end of the day.

With the film finding festival exposure and word-of-mouth spreading, what have been the initial reactions to My Other Me from the cosplay community?

The reactions have been mostly positive from cosplayers. The negatives we've heard is that there isn't enough about the costume making process in the film but I felt strongly that there are hundreds of fan made mini-documnetaries that delve into the costume side of the hobby much more than I wanted to. I wanted this film to be about the people not necessarily their costumes.

Thursday
Apr042013

RAW LIKE SUSHI: THE KERN SAXTON INTERVIEW

Emerging as one of the cult hits of the year is Sushi Girl, the debut feature from writer/director Kern Saxton. The story of a naked woman covered in raw fish who must remain immobile as a desperate group of violent crims air their grievances, the film has wowed midnight crowds at genre events since its premiere at the San Diego Comic-Con. Ahead of the film’s Australian red-carpet launch at the Gold Coast Film Festival on April 19, Saxton (pictured, below left) spoke to SCREEN-SPACE from his Los Angeles base.

Your cast is a who’s-who of great genre actors – Tony Todd, Sonny Chiba, Michael Biehn, Danny Trejo, Jeff Fahey, James Duvall. How did your script (co-written with Destin Pfaff) get to all these iconic names?  

When you go out to attach actors to your script, you have to go through this wall that is the agencies and it can be a very disheartening experience because there is a lot of politics and money involved. We were, and still are, a very small budget film and when we got the script to Tony Todd, his representation said that he wouldn’t be interested because it just wasn’t a big enough budgeted project. So we hung our head and wandered the streets because he really was our ideal for this role. Then a couple of weeks, later we got a phone call from our casting director who just said, “Tony Todd is in, he wants to do the movie.” And we said, “You mean, he wants to talk to us about it?” and she said “No, he’s in, he’s doing it because he loved the script and is dead set on making it happen.” The amazing thing about this group of actors and how professional they are is that they pretty much all said they didn’t want to stray to far from the material.

Arguably stealing the film is Mark Hamill (pictured, below) in one of the most hilariously villainous turns in recent memory. Where did this character come from?

When Mark first read it, he thought the violence was so extreme. But then his kids got a hold of it and they told him, “Dad, if you don’t do this, don’t complain that you don’t get the roles that Malcolm McDowell or Steve Buscemi gets!” So he read it again and read it in character, allowing the devious side of the character to take over, then came to us and said, “Oh, I get it! I’m the comic relief!” He’d mentioned he wanted to do like a Truman Capote thing, very flamboyant and high-pitched, which I was fine with, even though it was written more as a Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon type of thing. Mark blended the two and came up with this bizarre character. He walked this fine line between the comedic and the over-the-edge sadistic.

Some may argue that the role that the role of Sushi Girl, bravely played by Cortney Palm, is a very submissive, even exploitative one. She’s naked, unable to react to all the violent machismo around here.

The idea was to have a completely vulnerable character as the eyes and ears in this scenario, sort of (the audiences) window into what was going on.  In that regard, she was 100% crucial to the story. And I purposefully wanted to have the naked girl in the movie to make a statement about exploitation in general. What would be more exploitative than a naked girl covered in sushi with all these violent guys in the room attacking each other and she can’t do anything about it. Remember, if she moves she’s dead, there’ll tear her apart, so we went from there.

Essentially a single-setting film, how did your camera create drama and tension within four walls? What filmmaking techniques did you need to employ to bring energy to the setting?

We broke up big scenes into little mini sections and concentrated on giving every little self-contained scene a different vibe. Everything existed under the same umbrella, as it were, but we wanted to create the feeling that each scene represented a different setting. We wanted to shoot chronologically, as well, because things do get messy and we wanted to show progression, where things started out a lot prettier and softer but is stripped down by the end, where things have gotten very gritty and grimy.

Yes, it does get messy. What boundaries and principles did you apply to your use of violence in the film?

I was of the mind that the best way to present the audience with horrific types of violence is to say ‘less is more’. Back in the 1970s, which is a period of filmmaking that I reference specifically in this film, the mechanical effects were not nearly as good as they are today, where you get lots of practical effects, often melded with CGI. Yeah, it might be shocking in the short term, but in the long run it just doesn’t impact anymore. What I wanted to make sure was that the violence in Sushi Girl was not fun, but that it was devastating and horrifying. The ideas we employ are really very caustic and I think that is what has gotten under people’s skin. We applied the approach that Hitchcock took with Psycho, in that a lot of what you think you see is actually done with editing and framing. When people say, “Oh, it’s so violent”, I take that as a compliment because it means it has been effective. It means they don’t like feeling that sensation.

Kern Saxton will appear with writer/producer Destin Pfaff and cast members Tony Todd, Noah Hathaway, James Duval and Andy McKenzie at the Australian premiere of Sushi Girl on April 19 and the panel discussion Slice and Dice on April 21 at the Gold Coast Film Festival; the Sushi Girl team will also be appearing at the Supanova Pop Culture Expo, April 19-21, at the Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre. 

Tuesday
Apr022013

SKIN FLICK: THE ERIC FALARDEAU INTERVIEW

Thanatomorphose exists within that realm of cinematic visions that challenges even the most ardently cynical of moviegoers. The debut feature from Canadian writer/director Eric Falardeau, it tells the story of a lonely artist (model/actress Kayden Rose) whose body begins to undergo post-mortem decay whilst she is still alive. Like Lynch's Eraserhead or Cronenberg's Rabid, it is a nightmarish work of consummate horror, though also deeply moving. A thoughtful man with an encyclopedic knowledge of the body-horror genre, Falardeau spoke with SCREEN-SPACE about his grotesque but beautiful film...


The artist in Thanatomorphose finds a potent sexuality as her condition worsens. How do interpret the co-existence of these two elements in your work and the horror genre overall?

It is an interesting question because while I was doing researches for Thanatomorphose I’ve found out that there are several states of mind in the mourning process, either when you lost someone or know that you will die. One of the typical reactions a large amount of people tend to have is an increase of their libido to counterbalance the impending death, which is very interesting when you work in the horror genre. It is as if life was fighting death right until the end. And for me it made sense that the main character in my film, who is kind of death inside, slowly comes back to life while her body decays. Her own materiality makes her aware of her existence and that was one of the many aspect I wanted to explore in the film.

Regarding the horror genre overall, sex has always been an important element of the genre for many reasons starting with the transgressive quality inherent to both subjects. I did my Master’s thesis on body fluids in gore and pornography. Both genre focused on the body as a cinematic object and consequently share similar ways of filming and types of storytelling. A lot of renowned directors have made the parallel in their films before me (David Cronenberg, Jörg Büttgereit, Dario Argento to name a few) but I wanted to push this to its logical extremes. Sex, or more aptly reproduction, is the only answer to death.   

We’re only that: flesh and blood. Sex is how we came in the world. Then we die. Between the two, we try to cope with the meaningless of our existence by telling stories and doing what we believe are the best things. In the end, we’re only organic matters, coming from nothing and going back to nothing.

Tell me about the on-set environment. It looked to be a bleak, dark, confined space. Was there ever moments when the relentless nature of the horror or the content of a scene made the work day tough?

That was one of my main tools as a director to put the actors and the crew in the right mood. We had a lot of fun shooting the film but by the end we were all exhausted as much by the work as by the psychological state the film putted us in. I think it shows in the film, the acting, the bleakness, etc.

I think that to properly write, direct, and edit a film you must be in the right emotional state, the one that corresponds to the feeling you’re trying to convey. It must come from the heart. If you don’t feel it as the creator, I highly doubt that you’ll make the right choices. As the great editor Walter Murch once said, emotion is the first rule to follow when editing a film and I think that goes for all the other aspects of production.

The hardest part when making that kind of film is always how much of yourself you put in it and how much darkness in yourself you have to get out to get the proper tone and feeling. That requires a lot of energy.

And, extending the last question, tell me of the relationship between actress and director on a film like Thanatomorphose. You asked Kayden to go to some very dark places in this role, which would have required a huge amount of shared faith and trust.

Kayden and I discussed a lot in pre-production about what I wanted and how I wanted to shoot to get it. She knew that it was going to be difficult. I gave her references to see and feel what Thanatomorphose was about: movies (from Buttgereit’s Nekromantik 2 to Grandrieux’s La vie Nouvelle), books (Camus, Kafka, Dostoeivski), and music (Silver Mount-Zion and the Guild of Funerary Violins). She understood exactly what I was aiming for. She was exhausted but she kept giving all that she had. It was impressive.

We shot the film in chronological order over a 21 days period. We did that for 2 reasons: continuity and special effects. But I think it helped her in feeling the same way as the character, to be as exhausted as the character. It comes across when watching the movie.

Why is ‘body-horror’ still such an effective subset of the horror genre? Why are even the most hardened horror watchers still rattled by scenes of decomposition or body fluids?

For me, great horror films always use the body as an excuse to talk about something else, be it our fears or our human condition. Every body horror film is about the body as an object, a commodity. How do we treat our body and disconnect ourselves of it in the process. And how do we reconnect to ourselves trough our body. Thanatomorphose is a body horror existential film and I had to shoot it in respect to the subject. Horror cinema is one of the most visual genre. It is all about bodies, textures, organic matters, and it main subject is ourselves. What interest me – and I think what interest a lot of horror watchers - is the human condition and this genre allows to explore it in the most extreme ways.