The Cast and Director of Netflix’s Okja

Have you met Okja? The titular “super pig” is at the heart of Director Bong Joon Ho’s newest feature which is currently streaming on Netflix. The imaginative film follows Okja, a creature genetically engineered by the shady Mirando Corporation (headed by a boundlessly enthusiastic Tilda Swinton) as a source of new consumable meat product. In a longterm PR move, this super pig is farm-raised by a young girl in Korea named Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) until, unbeknownst to Mija, she is scheduled to make her big trip to NYC where Mirando aims to cash in on their investment. What follows is a wild journey to the city where Mija encounters a radical PETA-like eco-group, the ALF, as well as some harsh realities of this film’s version of the terrifying food industry.

Last month, cast members Tilda Swinton, Seo-Hyun Ahn, Lily Collins, Paul Dano, Steven Yeun and Giancarlo Esposito gathered in New York along with Director Bong to give their insight on making the film and its message.

Some minor spoilers

Seo-Hyun Ahn carries the film as Mija, an acting and physical feat, her and Director Bong spoke via translators about developing her performance:

Ahn: [I] was always thinking how Mija would perceive all of the things that are happening and [I] would say [I] was there as an intermediate state and Director Bong helped [me] constantly think about why would Mija do this? And what would Mija think? That sort of helped [me] in maximizing how Mija would think in the story.

Director Bong: Ahn is very experienced and she’s very energetic and focused. So She has enough energy to confront Tilda or Paul. And because of this high energy whenever we were shooting the scenic mountain scenes, [I] tried to distract Mija as best as [I] could. Whenever [Ahn] was focusing on the script, [I] would distract her by talking about catering and talking about snacks in the snack corner. [I] did [my] best to distract her as best as possible because if you try too hard then there are times that the performance doesn’t come out right. And because there are so many great actors and actresses around, she might have been pressured into giving a poor performance. [I] did [my] best to try to relax her as much as possible.

As Lucy Mirando, and later Nancy Mirando, Tilda Swinton enjoyed working with her Snowpiercer Director Bong:

Swinton: It’s a very simple and relaxed business when working with someone like Director Bong who invites a kind of playfulness and as he just described , a kind of relaxedness in all his company, not just the performers, but in all departments. What he knows…is he wants people to be relaxed and really bring something fresh and creative. And that’s an environment that I love. It’s like a kind of playpen, it’s like a sandbox to me, it’s like kindergarten. Especially working with him, he’s my playmate.

The Mirando sisters are reminiscent in their emphatic, almost cult-leader like energy of Swinton’s Snowpiercer character Mason, she discussed their similarities:

Swinton: Yes we worked on Snowpiercer together, Director Bong and I, and we kind of whipped up this insane burlesque, Mason, who is supposed to be beyond any reality but as it happens, it seems that we were behind the curve [laughs] With this one we wanted to come at the idea of a fool-clown-villain in a slightly different way. We wanted to find different ways—the different faces of high capitalism and exploitation. And so we decided in fact to split it in fact, either into a schizophrenic—I mean I sometimes wonder whether there are two people here, whether actually there isn’t one. You know because let’s face it when Lucy fades away, Nancy appears and vice-versa. So we wanted to look at two different ways of messing the world up. So we have Nancy, who is the—she doesn’t fall far from the tree of their toxic, horrendous father. And then Lucy, who is so determined to be different. She’s driving 180 degrees away from Nancy and trying to be all user-friendly and “woke” and squeaky clean. And lovable. So it was an opportunity to look at these two different faces. But I suppose you know, especially when you’re working together and your collaboration over projects, the conversation is kind of the same conversation that just evolves and goes into a whole new area. All sorts of conversations we had about Mason just sort of moved into conversations about the Mirandos. So yeah, they are cousins of a sort. And they ALL have teeth. [Laughs]

Director Bong is no stranger to centralizing creatures as metaphors in his stories, after his successful feature The Host, and he spoke about using them in that way:

Director Bong: [I’m] always drawn into creature films and creatures. However in The Host, the creature was a monster who attacked people and in Okja the creature is a very intimate friend of the protagonist Mija. They sleep together, they have a lot of interaction, they hug each other and because of this interaction, it required a lot of cutting edge visual effects work which was [my] first challenge. So it’s a pig and now in retrospect [I’m] wondering when [I contemplate why I] chose a pig as the animal. [I think] there’s no better animal than the pig that humans associate with food. Ham, sausage, jerky, etc etc. But in reality, pigs are very delicate, sophisticated and smart and obviously clean. [I think] that the way the two perspectives we have when we look at animals are all coalesced inside a pig. Through the one perspective, we look at animals as family and friends, as pets. And the other perspective is when we look at animals as food. And [I believe] these two perspectives co-exist inside a pig. In our every day lives, people try to separate these two universes apart. We play with our pets in the day and at night, we have a steak dinner. But in this film, we try to merge those two universes together and try to create this sense of discomfort…A creature film is a very effective tool to create special commentary and to get commentary in the world that we live in.

Lily Collins and Steven Yeun are both play part of the fictional eco-group led by Paul Dano and they talked about their views of such groups and animal rights activism in light of doing the film:

Collins: I’ve always been weirdly interested in food documentaries so during the prep of this movie, I watched more and Director Bong gave us all this ALF handbook. We saw lots of really difficult images of animals and treatment and the facilities…And I’m not a red-meat eater anyway, so it wasn’t that I changed my food habits or my eating habits but I definitely became more of a conscious consumer in many other types of products. I think the great thing about this film though is that it speaks to so many different types of themes—you know, nutrition and environment, politics, love, innocence lost. There’s just so many different things to be taken from this film that I think are dealt with in a way that never tutorialized [sic], but always just prompts conversations…I think what Director Bong is amazing at is taking so many different things and presenting them to you. Never telling you how to think, but if you leave the theater thinking something, we’ve done our job right.

Yeun: …I really enjoyed working with director Bong. Mostly because he likes to just tell it to you how it is, with all the gray. And so, when you get to dive into [something] like the ALF, I know that we were playing a characterization of people that are really doing stuff like this, but I feel like one thing it sheds a light on–at least for myself–was why does an individual sign up for something like this? And they’re all different. Especially in our little subgroup of the ALF. Every single character had a different reason for being there. Or had different ethics that were willing to go far or less than the other person next to them. And I think it an interesting study in that regard because sometimes you see the ALF, as they intend, to just be this giant glob organization, or anything in that way. But when you pick apart the specific individuals that take part in something like this it’s interesting to see that not all the interests necessarily align.

Animal rights groups in real life sometimes draw criticism for their tactics and in this film we see the ALF arguing for non-violence while taking part in it, Director Bong on that contradiction:

Director Bong: There’s definitely a level of contradiction within the group ALF. Even in the film, the ALF shout that they hate violence but you can see throughout the film that they constantly inflict it. They have a very noble cause and you can understand the cause. But the film also portrays them to at times [to] look foolish and portray them making very human mistakes. Simply put, [I think] they’re humans just like us. Even Lucy Mirando. She doesn’t feel like she’s a pure villain or villainess in the pure sense. She also has flaws and a fragility. There’s a moment in the dressing room scene where Lucy talks to Frank and she raises the super pig jerky and says ‘its a shame that we have to tell these little white lies’… That was an honest moment on her part. Whether that be the Mirando Corporation or the ALF members, [I want] to embrace them within the boundaries of humanity where they have flaws or they make mistakes. Actually every character in this movie is pathetic except Mija and Okja.

Dano: And how complicated it is to put a beautiful young girl in the middle of all that contradiction, you know? it’s really one of the special things about the story….I like that the film to me, even though it has many topical issues, I don’t think it’s overly preaching. It’s too complicated for that. Even Mija eats chicken stew, or catches the fish and throws the little fish back in. That’s such an important detail for this film to be true. And even though it has a fantasy animation-comic-book-graphic-novel sort of level to it, I like the truth in the contradictions.

Finally the cast gave their initial response to this project:

Collins:…You know, you sit down with Director Bong–my first meeting with director Bong was at 11am and he orders ice cream and starts talking about this pig, and I go ‘OK, I think I know what I’m signing on for!?’ [Laughs] And I fell in love with the idea that he could see me as this character and I don’t think a lot of people would have been able to see me as someone like this. But it’s so much. It’s a love story, it’s a drama, it’s a comedy, it’s an action movie, it’s a fantasy movie. It’s kind of everything you’ve ever wanted to see in one movie. And yeah…It was a moment of enlightenment really, when you read it.

Giancarlo Esposito: For me it was in many ways a return to innocence. Odd for me to say after having played [Mirando corporation lackey] Frank Dawson, but this story is so absolutely beautiful in its very connected relationship message. It doesn’t matter what that relationship is. It could be a child with their goldfish in the tank who is their best friend, or it could be Okja. But that warmth, that sensitivity and that understanding that’s developed in that relationship, for me, guided me back to thinking about my loss of innocence. When did I grow up? And how could I unlearn that growing up and see the world in a new light? Many times we are so smart, that we are ignorant and they say that education is learned ignorance. We, as performers who fantasize about telling our stories, that will make a comment on our–a social comment, a political comment, an artistic comment– through our creativity, are gifted with our ultimate gift to still remain somewhere in our heart and soul, that beautiful child that Mija is.

Swinton: I didn’t read the script for a long time because I was privileged to be a part of the cloud of the idea before it ever came to script stage. I remember very clearly Director Bong, when we went to Seoul for the premiere of Snowpiercer, he drove us to the airport the following day and leaned over the back of the seat of the car and showed me this drawing of the pig and the girl and that was it. That was three years before there was a script. But even before that moment, I have to say that one of the bonds we share is a great love of the master Hayao Miyazaki, in particular My Neighbor Totoro, and in fact we regularly sing the Totoro theme tune. It’s a thing we do. And so, the second I saw this drawing, I saw that. I this as an opportunity to fill to that homage. But also we talked about the twin sisters in Spirited Away, which I think was the seed of the Mirando sisters. Yeah, so I was, you know, I was in before it existed. Put it that way.

Conference has been edited for length and clarity. Okja is available to stream now on Netflix.

Chris Gethard: Career Suicide

Chris Gethard is a multi-talented comedian and actor (Don’t Think Twice, “Broad City”) who’s worked extensively in NYC’s improv scene at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater as well as having his own successful public access show, aptly titled “The Chris Gethard Show”. This weekend Gethard premiered a much more personal type of special on HBO with Chris Gethard: Career Suicide. In this touching, and darkly hilarious special, Chris uses comedy to detail his lifelong struggles with depression and anxiety including his brushes with suicide. The show held a special screening and talk-back at New York’s Tribeca Film Fest, featuring Chris, fellow comedian Pete Holmes (HBO’s “Crashing”), and moderator Ira Glass (NPR’s “This American Life”). I spoke with them on the red carpet about the development of the show and using comedy to cope with more difficult issues.

Besides hosting NPR’s “This American Life” podcast (which Gethard has appeared on), Ira Glass produced Don’t Think Twice.

Lauren Damon: Working with Chris on Don’t Think Twice, did you see the development of his show at all?

Ira Glass

Ira Glass: I mean, it’s funny, Don’t Think Twice…Chris is such an amazing actor. He’s so for-real in Don’t Think Twice, and that character does have a lot of overlap with who he is in real life. And who he is in this special. My main thing with the special is I’ve seen him develop it. I saw like a super early version in the basement in Union Hall, and then saw when it was up on stage. So I’m really curious how it translates to video.

LD: With the heavier themes, I feel like we have a need for that in comedy because things seem sort of dire in general…

Glass: It’s true…But I feel like the whole trend in comedy has been comedians getting super real about stuff that’s going on, you know. And I feel like when you look at the people…who are doing the most work right now, it’s like Louis CK and Tig Notaro and Mike Birbiglia, Aziz [Ansari]…You know that’s people talking about stuff that’s pretty real. Which I like because I like a real story. I think when somebody can tell a story that’s super funny but also is really a real thing, and emotional, it’s just like what could be more entertaining? That’s everything a person could want.

LD: That’s basically the best episodes of “This American Life”…

Glass: On a good day, yeah. On a good day. The formula on “This American Life” is we want it to be really funny, with a lot of plot at the beginning, then it will get kind of sad and sort of wistful at the end, then like throw a little music under it, you’re done!

In Don’t Think Twice, Gethard played Bill, a comedian coping with a hospitalized father on top of dealing with general anxieties of where he fits into his shifting improv group.

LD: In Don’t Think Twice, your character did a lot of the heavy emotional lifting, was your show already developing kind of around that time?

Chris Gethard: It’s funny because [Don’t Think Twice director] Mike Birbiglia was the one who kind of threw down the gauntlet and said ‘You should do a show about this side of yourself.’ I would talk about it to a degree in my work, but he was the one who was like ‘You got something here, go for it.’ So the experience of Don’t Think Twice and this show kind of went hand in hand. I was opening for Mike on the road, he developed the film on the road [and] during that process is when he really said ‘You should really go for it, I promise you, give it a shot.’ Really the first time I attempted the show was in an effort to sort of prove Birbiglia wrong and say like I don’t know if people are going to laugh at this. But I have learned never to doubt Mike. And those things really did dovetail nicely and springboard off of each other.

Chris Gethard

LD: How did Mike respond to it?

Gethard: Oh he’s been so supportive and I think he was–he also, as far as these off Broadway shows that are kind of comedy but that go serious, I think he really has helped pioneer that in the past few years. So I think he was very proud and flattered. I always give him a lot of credit as far as walking in his footsteps. So I think he was very psyched that I went for it. i think he also had a little bit of glee that his instincts were correct and mine were not. So thank god for that.

Pete Holmes had his own hilarious HBO comedy special (Faces and Sounds) as well as starring in their series, “Crashing”

LD: How do you know Chris?

Pete Holmes: It’s funny, I thought more people would ask, but here we are at the end of the line and you’re only the second person to ask, so it’s still fresh! It’s still a fresh answer. I was a fan of Chris, I would see him at UCB –actually not far from here, right around the corner. And then I took improv classes at UCB and Chris was actually my level 3 teacher because I had heard that he was so wonderful. And he was. I actually think Chris likes to downplay what a wonderful improv teacher he is because obviously he loves to perform more. But it’s almost a shame that we can’t clone him, because he’s such a great improv teacher.

LD: Your stand-up is a lot more silly and irreverent in contrast to the work Chris is doing in this special and I love that there’s space for both

Holmes: That’s nice, there is space for both! And I really love this show. It’s not the sort of stand-up I do but I also on my podcast [“You Made it Weird”] love to get very deep and weird and uncomfortable so I love seeing it in the live version with the laughs.

Pete Holmes

LD: On “You Made it Weird”, have you had any especially surprising guests?

Holmes: That happens all the time actually. For example The Lucas Brothers, the twin guys from 21 Jump Street movie…I [didn’t] know them that well either and they’re kind of low energy [in the film] and then they came on and were like the most high-energy, introspective, eloquent amazing guests. And you know, I didn’t really know them that well. So one of the things that I love about the podcast is that happens over and over. Your expectations just get completely blown out of the water.

The better answer would be Aaron Rogers, the quarterback for the Greenbay Packers…I didn’t know him either, but here comes a quarterback. And J.J. Redick who’s a basketball player just did it. And whenever these athletes come on and just kill it just as hard as the comedians, it makes me happy.

LD: With Chris being your teacher and then you had an HBO special and series first, is that kind of funny to you?

Pete Holmes: [laughs] I beat my teacher! It’s so funny, Chris and I had another thing where I did a talk show for Conan–he talked to me about this on his episode of my podcast. [Chris] was like when they gave you the talk show after Conan–which lasted about a year–he was like they were talking to me about [doing it] Like we’ve been competing in ways we didn’t even know! So I’m happy that now we’ve both landed at HBO, it’s not one or the other, but we can both be here. [laughs]

Chris Gethard: Career Suicide is now available on HBO, HBO Now & HBOGo

TFF 2017: Executive Producers of “The Handmaid’s Tale”

“The Handmaid’s Tale”, Hulu’s stunning adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel held its premiere screening at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival as part of their Tribeca TV series. The series follows Elisabeth Moss’s “Offred,” one of many handmaids forced to serve a man in a dystopic American society where a wave of infertility has caused women to be stripped of their rights and utilized strictly for reproduction. The series debuted its first three episodes on Hulu on April 26th, with new episodes available every Wednesday. I spoke with the executive producer and showrunner of this brutal and hopefully not too prescient series.

What kind of freedom did you find adapting this novel into a streaming series rather than a regular tv or film?

Executive Producer Warren Littlefield

Executive Producer, Warren Littlefield: Well look, it’s not network television. Margaret Atwood’s vision, that she created in her book 32 years ago, was a dark dystopian world. And Bruce Miller adapted that and it’s a powerful, dark and very disturbing world and our partners at Hulu did not limit us in what we were able to do. In language, in action and physicality, in sexuality, in brutality. We were able to deliver the message that we wanted to deliver. I think it’s a thriller, I think it’s entertaining but it’s pretty damn powerful, so fasten your seatbelt.

Showrunner and writer, Bruce Miller: I haven’t worked in film very much at all. Almost all my work has been in tv which is much more fun because you could have stories that go on forever. But working in a streaming service, you get the great benefit of not having to have a show that’s forty-two minutes and twenty-two seconds long, but it can be longer or shorter. Which, more than you know, throws the audience off. They don’t know what’s gonna happen when you don’t know how much is left! It could end five minutes from now or fifteen minutes from now and that makes all the difference.

Were you very familiar with the novel before you worked on it?

Miller: There’s a novel?! [Laughs] Yeah I read the book when I was in college, in a ‘New Fiction’ class–which shows you how long ago I was in college. I loved it and I read it a whole bunch of times, completely on my own just as–I was interested in it. So I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of turning it into a television show. And then when I started to get more into writing tv and my career took off, I probably looked at it more in that way. But when I heard they were making a tv show, I was excited because I would get to watch it! Not because I was going to be making it. And then over the years, the show didn’t come out and there were reasons and this and that and you know, I ended up, despite my gender, getting the job. And it was wonderful after having been so familiar with the book but also having been familiar with it in a lot of different time periods. Because it kind of was perennially relevant. Every time I read it seemed like ‘wow this is just the time!’ to read it.

Especially this election year, where it seemed like assailing women’s rights was just a common trend…

Miller: It’s a hobby!

At which point when you were filming, did you realize what a hot topic you were handling?

Showrunner Bruce Miller

Miller: I wrote the first few episodes before the election season started and then we were writing all the way through the debates and the election. And then we were shooting you know, in the middle…when Trump was elected president, we were shooting then. It was interesting, we were in Canada, so we had a little bit of a different perspective…But that was all very interesting. I don’t know–I’m sure subconsciously or unconsciously it changes the way you shoot things. But we were just trying to be gutsy. You know when you’re working from a book that showed so much bravery to write in the first place, you don’t want to be the wimp that turns it into a safe tv show. You want to be as bold as Margaret Atwood was. And so it just reinforced that idea that we should continue to be bold because its an important story we’re telling. But really, in a lot of ways like I said, I’m a writer, I’m in the question business, not the answer business. I’m just trying to put interesting questions out there, that doesn’t really change. I mean I certainly saw the relevance and certainly we went from saying ‘oh my gosh’ to ‘we better not screw this up!’ But I don’t know that anybody changed their story tact. I think we just became a lot more comfortable with what we had decided to do.

Littlefield: I think like the character of Offred, who is a fighter, that was our intention. We always felt a lot of pressure to live up to Margaret’s vision because it’s such a strong vision. And I think when we woke up in November in the middle of production, we were like ‘we better not screw this up!’ like…oh my god. But I think we were kind of fueled by [saying] ‘Alright, this is what we need to do.’ And I think the audience will be as well.

Streaming shows often come with binge-viewing, how do you feel about that approach?

Littlefield: Well, I kind of love what we’re doing. Hulu is presenting on the 26th of April, the first three hours, so you engage in a big way. And then each week, they’ll roll out an additional one. And so, I think that that also is really good because you want time. You may want to watch it again and it’s best I think in smaller doses, because it’s complex. I mean the world of television allows you to do complex characters and a complex narrative and we embrace it.

Can you discuss casting Elisabeth Moss in the main role?

Miller: Elisabeth Moss is astonishing in this. I’ve been a fan of hers forever. She has just such a range of skills and I can’t imagine anybody else in this role. She was who I wanted to be in this role from the beginning. She has main circuit cable connecting her heart to her face that doesn’t have an off switch. So whatever she feels bubbles up. But it’s a really interesting role to play because she’s got all this stuff showing on her face that she doesn’t want anybody else in the room to see, but she wants you to see. The best thing about Liz is she likes to be challenged so I got to write stuff that I never would have written for anybody else because everything I wrote that was harder and harder and harder, she loved it! So we got to really push the boundaries of the skills of an actor.

Series star Elisabeth Moss was understandably pressed for time on the carpet, but offered this comment on acting out the defiance displayed by her character Offred:

Elisabeth Moss

“It was important to me, I mean that’s her whole story you know? That she’s so beaten down and torn apart, and has everything taken from her and just will not give up. And she’s so stubborn. And I think it goes up and down throughout the season, to me that defiance that I think we would all find in ourselves if we had to.”

The Handmaid’s Tale continues to add new episodes to Hulu every Wednesday and was already renewed for a second season in 2018.

“Genius” Red Carpet at Tribeca Film Festival

Tonight marks the premiere of the National Geographic Channel’s first ever scripted series, Genius. From director Ron Howard, Genius follows the life of Albert Einstein as portrayed in his youth by English actor Johnny Flynn and later in life by Geoffrey Rush. The first episode screened this week at the Tribeca Film Festival as part of their Tribeca TV series. The pilot seamlessly time jumped between Flynn energetically fighting to become a physicist in his own right without the rigidity of his early school and the elder Einstein beginning to encounter the rise of Nazis later in life.

I got the chance to speak with some of the actors from the series at this red carpet New York screening about their characters and how working on the series changed how they see Albert Einstein.


English actress Samantha Colley portrays Mileva Maric, a physicist and Einstein’s first wife.

Lauren Damon: How much research did you put into playing Mileva?

Samantha Colley: Quite a lot. What I focused on was their personal letters–so the personal letters between Mileva Maric and Albert Einstein but also Mileva Maric and her best friend Helene Savic. When you google Mileva Maric you see these kind of black and white pictures of someone very [Colley stiffens her back] sitting erect on a chair. It’s kind of impenetrable and she seems very severe and harsh. But actually her letters reveal her to be very vulnerable, and loving and soft and riddled with self-doubt but deeply loyal. But it was the letters I focused on.

LD: How important do you think it is that you portray a female scientist, considering the general need for more women in STEM fields?

Colley: It’s enormously important! I mean Mileva Maric is an example of one of many many many women who have been snubbed by the scientific world and their works not being properly credited. There’s a school of thought that Mileva Maric was instrumental in some of Albert Einstein’s fundamental works and never cited. So using her as an example and shedding light on her is enormously important. And I hope it does inspire girls today to go ‘yeah that’s not going to happen to me, I’m not going to let that happen.’

LD: You share your scenes primarily with Johnny Flynn, how was he to work with?

Colley: Amazing. He was one of the most generous actors I’ve ever worked with and we had a real sense of play and trust early on and it was wonderful.

Richard Topol plays fellow scientist Fritz Haber, a man instrumental in the weaponization of poisonous gas in World War I.

LD: So you play Fritz Haber–dubbed the “Father of Chemical warfare”, a pretty daunting title, how much research did you do?

Richard Topol: I did as much as I could about what we know about him and I mean I had a lot of conversations with the writers and the directors and the producers about why would somebody do that? Right? …Like if you imagined living in a country that was at war with the countries all around it and you’re running out of ammunition. And if you ran out of ammunition, your country would be taken over, what would you do?

So to me, it was like he came up with an idea and his pitch was the same pitch that Einstein, you know that the Manhattan project and everybody who invented the atomic bomb came up with which is like ‘Look, we invent this thing, we show people how scary it is, use it once, it’ll never have to be used again.’ So that’s the way I thought about it that made it less daunting to me.

LD: Did you have any misconceptions about Einstein that working on this dispelled?

Topol: I didn’t really have any strong conceptions about him so they weren’t really dispelled. But I was like oh, I was excited to know that this guy was like a kid who never wanted to grow up. So I learned some fun things about him…Also I learned he had a really complicated personal life that I had no idea. And I think that’s one of the interesting things about the show: We know about his genius, we don’t know a lot about the personal and political problems that he had to face.


Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser appears in the premiere as an officious member of the US State Department 

LD: How much more did you learn about Einstein in working on this series?

Vincent Kartheiser: I mean I think you’ll hear from a lot of these people, he was a lot more of a scoundrel than anyone ever really–at least that I know–knew. And he was just kind of…he had this ability to lock out all things around him and just focus on the work. So you know, his kid could be slapping him on the leg and his wife could be hollering at him, and the dinner could be burning and he would just focus on the equation. And I think that’s really interesting in today’s world where there’s millions of distractions for all of us and we’re all constantly trying to figure out how to deal with it. He never had to battle with that. He was just always able to focus.

LD: How was working opposite Geoffrey Rush?

Kartheiser: It was wonderful. He’s such a giving actor, and he’s phenomenal. I mean, you’d be having a conversation and he’d be like [calmly] talking about the role, talking about the scene and then they’d go ACTION! And he’d just snap right into it. Just always exploring, always finding new things during the scene, and lots of fun.

LD: Were you also playing a scientist?

Kartheiser: No no, I was playing a person who works for the state department trying to clear his Visa so he could get into the United States…His visa wasn’t something that was just rushed through. I mean relative to today. These special visas…that have been in the news, you know that is these kind of people. Albert Einstein was someone who came in on a visa because of his talent, and his ability to teach, and his ability to give back to our community here in the states. So it’s a good example of how these kind of programs and the visa system works.

Genius begins tonight at 9 on the National Geographic Channel

Christian Bale, Oscar Isaac and “The Promise”

Director Terry George’s new film The Promise, which opened April 21st, sets a love triangle between an Armenian medical student (Oscar Isaac), an American journalist (Christian Bale) and the Armenian-born but raised-in-Paris Ana (Charlotte Le Bon) against the backdrop of the end of the Ottoman empire. The drama unfolds amidst the oft-under discussed Armenian genocide that took place beginning in 1915. It is a controversial subject that George and his cast hope the film can shed light on, even going so far as to donate all the film’s proceeds to human rights charities.

The cast, which also includes James Cromwell and Westworld’s Angela Sarafyan, gathered at their New York press conference to talk about what the film meant to them and some of the pushback making a movie on this subject can draw.

Conference discussion edited for article length.

Why did you decide to take this movie and what kind of approach did you take to your role?

Oscar Isaac

Oscar Isaac: For me, to my shame, I didn’t know about the Armenian genocide before I got the script and spoke with Terry. So it was new to me. And to read about that–to read that 1.5 [million] Armenians perished at the hands of their own government was horrifying and that the world did nothing…Not only that but to this day it’s so little known, there’s active denial of it. So that really was a pretty significant part of it. Also the cast that they put together. And then to learn that 100% of the proceeds would go to charity was just an extraordinary thing to be a part of.

My approach was to read as much as I could to try to immerse myself in the history of the time. And also in LA there’s a small museum that a few of us got to go to and see some stuff. And then for me, I think the biggest help was I had these videos and recordings of survivors that would recount the things that they witnessed as little boys and children. Whether it was seeing their grandmothers bayoneted…or their mothers and sisters sometimes crucified–horrible atrocities and to hear them recounted with, almost they would sound like they had regressed to those little kids again, and that was heartbreaking. So I did feel some responsibility to try to tell their story.

Christian Bale: And for me, continuing off what Oscar was saying, you know he was talking about the documentaries where you can see survivors talking about these horrific experiences that they’d seen their loved ones, families, that had been very barbarically killed…And to try to get into that mindset, to try in a very small way to understand the pain that they must have gone through, and the fact that people were telling them they were lying about what had happened. And they had witnessed it with their own eyes, had all of that emotion, but there were people who refused to call it what it is, a genocide. There are still people who refuse to call it that. We have yet to have any sitting US president call it a genocide–Obama did before, but not during–the Pope did, recently. But it’s this great unknown genocide, and the lack of consequence may well have provoked other genocides that have happened since. And for me, it became startlingly relevant because as I was reading the script and in the same way as Oscar was, learning about the Armenian genocide as I reading this–embarrassing, but I think we’re in the same boat as many people– I’m reading about…Armenians who were being slaughtered under siege on this mountain, and I’m watching on the news and it was the yazidis under siege, being slaughtered by ISIS… And just thinking this is so relevant…and so tragic, it’s very sad that it is still relevant.

Charlotte Le Bon

Charlotte Le Bon: By watching documentaries, I talked a lot with Armenian friends that I have in France…Also it was really present, just like Christian was saying–A couple months before the shooting I was in Greece just on a holiday, I was on Lesbos Island, who is the door to Europe through Turkey, and it was the beginning of the massive arrival of the refugees. And they were coming like a thousand per day, it was really really impressive. And I didn’t know about it by then. And I just remember being in the car and watching hundreds and hundreds of people walking by the street…and it was really really moving to see that. The only thing I could do was just like give them a bottle of water, you don’t really know what to do. And a couple of months later I was on set and recreating the exact same scene that I saw just a couple of months before.

Angela Sarafyan: I had known about the Armenian genocide because I grew up hearing stories from grandparents–the stories they had heard from their parents about their grandparents. So doing this film was very very close to my heart because it was a chance for me to give some light to that world in a very different way. It’s never existed on film, it’s a very controversial issue. So what I got to do was really look at the time and look at what it must have been like to live in that time. The simplicity of what that village was. And kind of survival and the romanticism of living in a small place. And learning how people survived in the atrocity. I didn’t really have to go through some of the horrendous things that you see, but I loved being able to kind of investigate that simple life. And I read more, because Terry had introduced so many books and scripts and material on it. So that was it.

Did the Turkish government give you any problems? Any kind of pushback?

Christian Bale and director Terry George

Terry George: I had a very healthy exchange with a Turkish journalist in LA, a representative of the Hollywood Foreign Press, who presented that the Turkish perspective is that a genocide didn’t happen, that it was a war and bad things happen and lots of people died on both sides…I pointed out to him that that’s exactly true but in the case of the Armenians, it was their own government who was killing them. So we talked…and you know, we had this thing where IMDB was hijacked, we had the sudden appearance of the Ottoman lieutenant movie four weeks ago that was like the reverse-mirror-image of this film right down to the storyline. And there’s a particular nervousness in Europe about the film and about the current situation…So it’s an extremely embroiled subject. But our idea, as always with any of these subjects, get it out there, let some air in, let’s discuss the thing. I’d be more than willing to sit down with any representative of any Turkish organization and talk this out in terms of our different perspectives and present our perspective on it. So we want to bring air to the subject rather than hide away…let’s have this discussion.

Bale: Maybe I shouldn’t say this but don’t you think also though that’s there’s kind of a false debate been created–a bit like climate change, you know?–as though like there’s as strong evidence on one side as on the other? There isn’t. There isn’t as strong of an argument. And then similarly with this. The evidence just backs up the fact that it was a genocide.

Was there a scene that particularly moved you?

Bale: Terry and Survival Pictures decided not to show the full extent of the barbarity of the violence that was enacted during the genocide. There were multiple reasons for that that I’ll let Terry explain. But there was one scene where Mikael, Oscar’s character, he sees many of his family members and also members of his home town who have been slaughtered…that was a very emotional one I think for many people that day. So seeing Armenians who were directly connected, or had family members who knew that their origins had come–that their families had gone through that previously–that was a very affecting day for I think for every single one of us on the film.

George: …Just as I did on Hotel Rwanda, I was determined that this be a PG13 film. That teenagers, schools, people who might be squeamish about the notion of seeing an R-rated genocide movie, that the horror be psychological. And that put the burden–and carried magnificently by both Oscar and Christian on that scene–the horror of the genocide is told through how Oscar conveyed those moments of what he found in his face…

Christian, your character is a journalist who experiences questioning over everything that you’re reporting, did the relevance of that today go through your mind?

Christian Bale

Bale: Yeah yeah of course I mean that was sort of developing during filming and then obviously has become much more present in the news–What’re we calling it now? “Post-truth” era? Just how important it is to have a free press for any democracy. So yeah, that’s another aspect of the film that’s become much more relevant.

I’d love to know more of your thoughts of the web hijacking of IMDB and RottenTomatoes against this film, who do you think organized this or do you think these are individuals?

George: You know it can’t have been 50,000 individuals decided, after we had two screenings in Toronto, to [rate] us 1 out of 10. Seems like a miraculously spontaneous thing to happen. So I definitely think that was a bot, or a series of bots that were switched on…Then we had the contrary reaction from, which I genuinely think was 25,000 votes from the Armenian community–because we didn’t have a bot going–voting 10 out 10. It brought in to highlight the whole question of, not only IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes…just the whole question of manipulating the internet, and manipulating reviews and people being swayed by that. And it’s a whole new world.

For any of the actors, in your research, can you talk about any of the unsung heroes that you found out about? Secondly, can you talk about how this movie may have changed your outlook on specific causes you’d want to support as a person?

Bale: There’s Aurora Mardiganian , she’s a real Armenian national hero…who the award is named after as well, who’s a phenomenal woman who went through real tragic circumstances but came through and told her story with film as early as 1919…She was phenomenal. I mean talk about a fierce, strong woman who overcame phenomenal tragedy. She was very inspiring.

James Cromwell

James Cromwell: I think Morgenthau [Cromwell’s character] is pretty impressive, I didn’t know anything about him when I started. And also you can’t leave out the fact that there were consular officers all over Anatolia who were also sending briefs back to Washington. And that’s one of the reasons that we have the record that we have. Morgenthau’s biography, his memoirs, and these reports which were eyewitness reports.

It strikes me as amazing that today there are no people with that sort of moral outrage as part of our state department. There are ambassadors to Yemen, there are ambassadors to Sudan and Somalia and Assyria and Libya and you hear nothing. No one stands up for the people who are being oppressed all over the world now as far as taking responsibility in the way Morgenthau took responsibility. Wilson was supportive, but not the legislature, not congress. Congress was against him. And after Wilson, Hoover was very much against him, against supporting his work and against establishing the Armenian state.

So as far as a cause is concerned, it just shows us that at the top, down to the average citizen, we have been so desensitized to the suffering of people, that we cannot recognize ourselves in the other. Which is one of the reasons you do a film like this. That it has a narrative at the core, so that the audience can come in and feel what other people feel. And that by doing that you do what Shakespeare said: ‘Hold a mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.’ That’s what we do…

Oscar Isaac and Angela Sarafyan

Sarafyan: For me personally, it would be in my family, the orphans really. Because all of my, I guess great great great grandparents were orphaned. They didn’t have parents left, they were all taken away. So the mere fact that they were able to survive and then able to kind of form families…One of them fled to Aleppo actually to start a family in Syria, and it seems like it’s coming full circle with people today fleeing from Syria to find refuge in other countries. So I find them personally as heroes in my own life. And the mere fact that they were able to survive, form families, have a sane mind–because I think that kind of trauma changes you genetically. So I guess they really would be the heroes and for me doing the film was kind of continuing that legacy and making it kind of live forever. Instead of it just being a story that was told, it kind of lives in cinema and it will be an experience for people to watch and have as their own.

Louis Theroux on “My Scientology Movie”

British documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux is no stranger to controversial subjects. In his wide-ranging tv career, the unflappable Theroux has immersed himself in subcultures ranging from US TV infomercials to Neo-Nazis and the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. For his first feature film documentary, Theroux acted on a years-long fascination with the Church of Scientology. When the notoriously secretive Church wouldn’t admit Theroux to film their practices directly, the documentary took a much more unique approach. Theroux, director John Dower and crew turned instead to former Scientologists to share their experiences within the church and decided to film re-enactments of their stories. Their filming, including casting their own version of Church leader David Miscavige in the form of actor Andrew Perez, quickly drew the attention of the church. The crew finds itself being tailed, filmed and even confronted on public property. The resulting documentary is at once an entertaining examination of the alleged inner workings of the church as well as a realtime account of the lengths the church goes to to defend itself. The film made its debut at last spring’s Tribeca Film Festival where I sat down with Theroux as well as John Dower and Andrew Perez to discuss their impressions of the church and how the doc came together.

Lauren Damon: Before you started making the film, how much did you know, or thought you knew about Scientology?

Louis Theroux: I think I thought I knew quite a lot—

John Dower: You do know a lot.

Louis: Yeah, I mean but then to be honest with you, I’d first been interested in Scientology you know, more than 20 years ago. And then in 2002 or thereabouts, I made my first approach and took a tour of the celebrity center and basically was in negotiation to make a tv doc that way. That fizzled out. And then about ten years after that, our producer Simon Chinn came to me and said ‘Hey what about a theatrical doc? You know, we could do it on Scientology’ And by then—it was around then that the first book, Janet Reitman’s book,  Inside Scientology came out, I read that…I mean the fact is that you could really make a full time job of kind of reading the stuff that comes out on Scientology. The challenge in a way is to not kind of sink into the quagmire…there’s so many threads that you can follow, you know what I mean?

John: You know there’s stories from the past that could be made to whole films themselves.

Louis: You could make a film about just what [ex-Church leader and My Scientology Movie star] Marty Rathbun did in the 80s.

John: The Lisa McPherson Story…

Louis: The Lisa McPherson story. Or you could do one of Clearwater in the 70s and 80s or Bob Minton. About how he went from being a critic to being a Scientology supporter. Or at least agnostic. I mean it’s a lot of individual…and then there’s whole family stories. Not just Lisa McPherson but other ones…There’s a lot. The challenge is not kind of lack of material. It’s a sort of an overabundance.

LD: And that’s also just before you even get to researching what the beliefs are which is also so involved.

Louis: That’s right.

LD: And then Andrew, what had been your experience?

John Dower, Louis Theroux and Andrew Perez

Andrew Perez: I knew just I’d heard some stories of experiences just sort of on the top—the intro levels of communications and courses. I knew that it was on the surface, or to beginners it was a kind of self-actualization, a kind of self-help, kind of therapeutic…I mean going through past trauma and weeding out sensory things that you associate with that. And seeing The Master. So I did have a kind of a good intuition about the introduction to it and why it makes some people get into it. And also the fact that there was also a sort of deep sea of mystery after that intro couple courses or whatever.

Louis: It’s really interesting because—you know when you read Dianetics, like the kernel of what Scientology is is basically just a kind of take on Pavlov’s dog, isn’t it? It’s just about sort of sensory associations.

Andrew: Yeah.

Louis: And when you read Dianetics, it’s got a volcano and it’s like “This is the most amazing book I’ve ever read in my life!” it’s all “Rome fell because of not having a science of the mind!”…Then you find out it’s all about you stubbed your toe and an ambulance went by and now every time you hear an ambulance, you get a sore toe. And you’re like “That’s IT?!” That’s the modern science of mental health? How could anyone think that that was the answer to life’s mysteries?

LD: Then going back, when you considered doing it as a tv series, what do you think it was that made it warrant making a feature movie?

Louis: That’s a good question. And in a way that’s maybe something John would be better at answering.

John: This is my first feature. Yeah, there are…little nuts and bolts, like I think you need a great musical score for instance. And I do think the music in this film is amazing. The composer Dan Jones did an extraordinary score in this film and it needs a sense of scale. If you want people to play eight or nine quid or fifteen bucks, you know they need to feel like they’re getting something with a sense of scale. And I think Scientology has that built into it anyway. And it needs to be entertaining, it needs to feel like you know, it’s…You can ask Michael Moore, he says about his films he wants them to be like date movies. That people will go on dates. You know, it’s a big deal to go to the cinema these days. And I’d like to think that that’s in our film. I’d like to think that it’s entertaining. It’s got to be, it’s a movie.

Louis: For me, I think also it has to do with like in my tv stuff, it is fundamentally journalism and so I have agency but in terms of my place in the film and how I kind of change and push through the journey through the tv shows, but in this one I really do actually really kind of take the story—take the bull by the horns in a sense. So you’ve got—I’m much more of a protagonist which I think is important for the film to work….You know I’m the guy ‘on a mission’ in a sense.

LD: Had it ever crossed your mind to try and surreptitiously join the church?

Louis: Yeah we talked about it—

John: That was floated at one point.

Louis: Obviously when you’re brainstorming, you don’t—everything’s about ‘let’s talk about…well what’re the merits? What’re the ethics of doing this? How would it feel?’ I think quite quickly we concluded that it didn’t feel right.

John: Bad faith…for something like this.

Louis: Plus you wouldn’t even get to see very much. You know without actually having access to someone inside the SeaOrg and even then it might takes months to really get deep inside…Actually while we were making it, I did go along to the Los Feliz mission to just see what happens when you go in the front door. And just show up and say ‘What is this all about?’ To me it was interesting because I’m fascinated by Scientology but imagining if we’d been filming, it would not have been very interesting. It’s just there is a sort of hard-sell that they do at the church.

Marty Rathbun and Theroux filming an auditing re-enactment

LD: How long were you shooting your re-enactments before you were aware you were being tailed?

Louis: Marty said that ‘This car has turned up before’, do you remember that?

John: I think we were probably being tailed when we didn’t realize. There was a couple of times—that car, that white Toyota pickup truck that’s in that scene—one of our PA’s Shane said ‘I’ve seen that at the hotel before.’ You know, a good few days before. Maybe even on a previous trip. So we were probably being tailed but we didn’t realize.

Louis: The first time Marty tippled that we had been tailed, though I don’t think I believed him at the time, was the day we did the drills at the studio.

John: Oh yeah, he dashed around the corner, didn’t he?

Louis: Yeah, I mean that was the same day as two people turned up filming us who were journalists. I don’t know if they actually were Scientologists but on the same day Marty said ‘This car is suspicious.’

LD: So like a couple weeks in?

Louis: Well no, it was a while, we were filming more than a year. About two months in.

John: So how did they know that we put out a casting for David Miscavige?

Louis: I mean that casting went out on the wire, didn’t it?

John: I guess so.

Louis: So it wasn’t a secret.

Andrew: But yeah that’s one thing that we’ve said was that they knew that you’d done the casting for a young David Miscavige with Marty in the room.

John: With Marty, that was the kicker. So I wonder did they follow Marty the first day he arrived—

Louis: Maybe.

John: So maybe they were following us from the—

Louis: Anytime Marty came into LA, there’s a chance they might have known about it.

LD: Andrew, when you saw that casting how did you react to it? How did you feel knowing you were kind of playing half yourself and half re-enactments?

Andrew: I just came in, I knew they were doing re-enactments, it said like a BBC documentary on Scientology and I just—I knew that they were kind of shooting outside as I was entering, so I was aware of that and I just focused on playing the role. And I didn’t know where it was all going. It was kind of fun…They would go back to England and then they would come back and have some more material for me and it was kind of a workshop at first. Mike Rinder would show up, Marty was normally there. So I was learning through Marty. They were shooting the rehearsals. There’s a lot that you don’t see that was just the process of….So we were in a blackbox theater listening, watching Marty lead some auditing kind of sessions. Then we did that day at the Mack Sennett Studios, a full day of communication TR training and things. But yeah, I knew that there would be some stuff of just me being me…but I just wanted to focus on the role.

LD: Now do you guys have any idea of where all that footage that they shot of you goes?

Louis: I think it goes into an editing suite somewhere probably in Hemet, California and I think they will be piecing it together into some kind of online video.

John: I suspect they’re waiting for the film to be here. It’s already been seen in the UK—been to festivals in the UK, I think they’re more interested about…I have no idea.

Louis: I think they’re waiting to see what happens with our film and if our film reaches a certain kind of having a profile, that they will release their counterpunch.

John: It would be great if—obviously it would never happen but—I imagine theirs is going to be a shorter film given they only filmed us on two or three occasions…It would be great if, you know how they used to have shorts before the main feature? It would be nice to have theirs.

LD: Is the church as prevalent in the UK as it is here?

Louis: No. It exists and it has high profile kind of missions in locations—orgs, they call them— on Tottenham Court Road and by Paddington…but in terms of their actual number of followers, I think it’s really small.

John: No, it’s quite telling that there’s a road in London—Tottenham Court Road— and they have an Org on Tottenham Court Road and actually there was a time when it was very, in 90s even, I worked in the company around the corner and there were always people sitting outside, always people trying to get you to do a personality test but it’s just dead now. There’s like one person at the front desk, which is quite telling in and of itself.

My Scientology Movie is in select theaters, OnDemand and available to stream on Amazon and iTunes starting March 10th. For more information visit MyScientologyMovie.com.

Film Review: “Trespass Against Us”

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Brendan Gleeson, Sean Harris, Lyndsey Marshall, Rory Kinnear
Directed By: Adam Smith
Rated: R
Running Time: 99 minutes
Film4

Our Score: 3 out of 5 Stars

For a man seeking a quiet life, Chad Cutler drums up an awful lot of trouble in Adam Smith’s rural family drama, Trespass Against Us. Set deep in the English countryside, the feature debut from Smith can be tonally uneven but boasts enough solid performances and pops of quality car chases to recommend it.

Michael Fassbender stars as Chad Cutler, the heir apparent to a family of thieves in a caravan park. His father is the blustery Colby Cutler (Brendan Gleeson) who preaches only what his father taught him. In between sending his son and their gang out on robberies, Colby interferes with Chad’s young son Tyson (Georgie Smith) getting an actual school education. It’s a life Chad wishes to escape as he sets his eyes on moving into an actual house with Tyson and his wife Kelly (Lyndsey Marshal). Unfortunately Colby’s infamy looms large over the local population, often stifling Chad’s ambitions. Also impeding his progress? Chad himself. Chad is a caring father, but his whole world has been crime and he’s great at it. Despite his illiteracy, he’s the most intelligent of his crew as well as the best driver–crucial for their hit and run robbery jobs in the neighboring towns. The entire trailer crew becomes endangered when Colby sends them unknowingly to invade a local judge’s mansion.

Fassbender isn’t often cast as the family man (Steve Jobs was hardly the best example) and here it works well. Him and Smith share some touching scenes and I also got a kick out of Chad’s chastising of Tyson at a chip stand. More importantly Fassbender skillfully conveys the simmering conflicts within Cutler. His shark-like grin when dealing with his cohorts is equal parts charming and threatening, belying his frustration with his continued position in this dim gang. Conversely Chad clearly enjoys the thrill of the car chases when he is persuaded to work. Most of the persuasion here carried out by Gleeson’s formidable Colby who growls his way through some good scenes.

The English countryside makes for an unconventional crime story background and Smith does quite a lot with it. The car chases through the village then out into the woods are well shot and thrilling despite their relatively small scale. I’d never seen cows incorporated into a manhunt quite like they are here! At times, the local population can skew too quirky (Sean Harris as a perpetually filthy yokel is a bit much) but the familial drama central to the story keeps things grounded thanks to the strong performances of Fassbender, Gleeson, Marshal and newcomer Smith.

Trespass Against Us is now out in theaters as well as on DirecTV

Film Review: “The Founder”

Starring: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern and Linda Cardellini
Directed By: John Lee Hancock
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 115 minutes
The Weinstein Company

Our Score: 4 out of 5 Stars

A hyper charismatic Michael Keaton drags a pair of wholesome Americans into a deal that they soon regret. No, it’s not Beetlejuice, but rather John Lee Hancock’s The Founder, the true story of the man responsible for making McDonalds the global franchise it is today. Director Hancock is no stranger to selling shrewd businessman stories having previously helmed the Disney-pursues-Mary Poppins pic Saving Mr. Banks. Like Mr Banks, The Founder relies on how charmingly its entrepreneur can overtake a profitable concept from its hesitant creators. In this respect, The Founder zips along on the boundless energy that Keaton infuses into Ray Kroc.

It’s hard to imagine America without the golden arches of McDonald’s. It’s a vision that not even the franchise’s namesake brothers had foreseen when the wily  Mr.Kroc rolled up to their booming San Bernadino burger stand in 1955 to sell his milk shake mixers. Here the brothers, Dick and Mac (played by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) devised the fast food kitchen as we know it, breaking away from the slower drive-ins of the day. Traveling salesman Kroc has had more than his fair share of drive in frustrations–slow carhops, wrong orders, cumbersome trays–and knows an opportunity when he sees one. “Franchises!” he enthuses to stoney faces of Offerman and Lynch. They prefer quality over quantity. What the McDonalds don’t know about Kroc is he falls asleep to the recorded mantra “nothing is as powerful as persistence.” Which he has in spades.

Despite Kroc’s triumph Hancock does not give Ray a pass on his swindling ways. Played by Michael Keaton (accompanied by his thematically appropriate arched eyebrows), Kroc is a magnetic presence to be sure and like many cinematic villains, fun as hell to watch work. However, the perfectly cast Offerman and Lynch are infinitely more sympathetic. Aesthetically they’re the stoic hound dogs to the fox in the henhouse that is Keaton. John Carroll Lynch specifically tugs on the heart strings multiple times as he watches his family’s vision slip out from under them. A trauma great enough to hospitalize him at one point. And if that weren’t enough, a sulking supporting turn by Laura Dern as Kroc’s first wife, Ethel, goes a long way to showing what an exhaustive personality her husband has always been without the film needing to delve much into his backstory.

Viewing this film from 2016 makes Kroc’s success in his endeavors a foregone conclusion but to Hancock’s credit, he keeps the burger flipping and legal gymnastics interesting. He manages to condense the McDonalds’s “overnight success thirty years in the making” in one balletic montage that really showcases the ingenuity of the brothers in designing their “speedee service model”. In a world where the fast food assembly line is omnipresent, it is somewhat heartening to see the genuine human element and efforts that went into its inception. That the fruits of said efforts were ultimately swiped by a ‘founder’ who hadn’t founded anything luckily let me get right back to regretting the dubious influence the fast food trend had on the dietary habits of millions…but hey, did I mention how much fun it is to watch Michael Keaton?

NYCC 2016: Adult Swim’s DREAM CORP LLC

Have you made your appointment with Dream Corp LLC yet? The mind-bending new series from creator Daniel Stessen is currently admitting new patients every Sunday night at 11:45pm on Adult Swim. Starring Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite), Stephen Merchant (“The Office”, “Hello Ladies”), Nick Rutherford (Balls Out, “Drunk History”) and a host of guest stars, the series follows a strip mall clinic that uses advanced technology to invade its patients dreams in order to solve their real life problems. At New York Comic Con this year, the Adult Swim panel was treated to the first two episodes of Dream Corp which blend live action sci-fi and trippy rotoscope animation.

Accompanying the new series to NYCC was creator Stessen with stars Gries, Rutherford and Merchant (who also serves as an executive producer on the show). I sat down with them to talk about this new addition to the Adult Swim lineup.

How did you develop Dream Corp?

Daniel Stessen: I had the concept, been developing it for a while, and created this world and kind of came over to Steve for a little guidance as to how to make it more palatable to a larger audience. Being that he has some–

Stephen Merchant and Daniel Stessen

Stephen Merchant: I think he’s being immodest–or he’s being too modest, I should say, that’s not right. Too modest. I was there as just a friend of Danny’s…to do a voice for this robot [T.E.R.R.Y] that’s in the show and inevitably whenever there’s anything creative going on, I like to start meddling, and just offering thoughts. And we started talking more and more. And it was just for me, it was something I would have done as a friend anyway…but I just thought, you know, let’s try to screw these guys for some money. (Both laugh)

Stessen: And the robot, we love the robot, he was built by Jim Henson Studios…That was one of the more validating moments of my last ten years on Earth, just getting that call that they were on board to build Terry the robot.

Merchant: There’s a really strong visual sense to the whole thing, again largely down to Danny. He’s just got an incredible visual imagination. And so you see that both in the real world–where you see this kind of twisted, eccentric sort of laboratory– and then also when you enter that dream world. And that’s done with the rotoscope animation. When you go on the set, it’s you know, it’s bits of cardboard and people with fake cardboard wings and cardboard jaws and things. All of which is going to eventually going to be animated but which only [Danny] can really see. So a lot of people I think are just stood there and like ‘you want me to what? I’m drowning in spaghetti now?’ And he’s like ‘Trust me.’ So it’s sort of extraordinary, an extraordinary kind of vibe there. Wouldn’t you say people were confused [on set]?

Stessen: It’s just, when people would walk on when we were shooting the dream world stuff, people would walk into an empty room and I would just be like ‘this is going to feel super weird, just trust me, it going to look real cool.’

Can you speak about your characters?

Nick Rutherford and Jon Gries

Nick Rutherford: I play patient 88–
Jon Gries: Nick!
Rutherford: Yeah, Nick as well, who comes to the office to work on erectile dysfunction and pretty quickly realizes that the office itself is kind of dysfunctional.
Gries: What happens is that he has to work for us because he can’t pay for his procedure
Rutherford: Yeah I can’t pay for the procedure and you think that it’s a confidence issue and I don’t have a job so you say–
Gries: A job?
Rutherford: Why don’t you work here? And I’m like this is a terrible place, but I kind of go along with the flow.
Gries: So he’s really the eyes of the audience. Because obviously he’s come into this place that is so–well from some perspectives, would be ridiculous and crazy. It’s not from my perspective.
Rutherford: It’s your life’s work.
Gries: It’s my life’s work. Dr. Roberts has this vision that this is the most transforming and necessary procedure but he’s lost his funding. So now he’s working out of a strip mall because he believes and he knows that it’s working. He knows that he’s changing people’s lives. There’s a little problem here and there but–
(Both laugh)
Rutherford: There’s a lot of problems.
Gries: There’s a couple of bugs that get worked out of the system. But it could be because the system’s really old and we haven’t had the money to update it.
Rutherford: And I think Nick, Patient 88, comes into it and kind of sees a family forming. Because everybody trusts and loves each other. Like there’s, Stephanie Allen plays Joey, his protégé–
Gries: My intern for nine years. No pay!
Rutherford: (laughs) Yeah, Nine year intern. Who loves him and obviously thinks he’s the most brilliant guy ever and he just does not give her the time of day. And Mark Proksch plays kind of the navigator of sorts, I don’t know if you know his work–
Gries: He’s amazing. And he doesn’t ever leave the building. For fifteen years he doesn’t leave the building.
Rutherford: So he’s incredible. And then [Ahmed Bharoocha] plays kind of the nurse and he’s just this big stoner who doesn’t even really care. So Everybody relies on each other in a nice way. So the meat of the story is us working together and growing together and me being thrown into this world. And it being very dangerous, but also fun. And then bringing in these amazing guest stars and throwing them into that.
Gries: He gets attacked by June Squibb at one point. She stabs him.
Rutherford: Yeah she stabs me in the neck with a a screw driver. I’m kind of like the Kenny, I get hurt a lot. (both laugh)

Have you ever had a weird celebrity dream like with [episode one guest star] Dave Coulier?

Rutherford: Yeah that was really surreal.
Gries: I did, I had a weird celebrity dream. I was very nervous, I was about to do a movie years ago and I dreamt that I was in a barbershop. And I was sitting and the man sitting in the next chair was Fred Astaire.
Rutherford: Really?
Gries: True story. And he looks at me and he goes, “Are you worried about something?” And I said “I’m just a little uncomfortable” And he said “Have fun. Just have fun.” I swear to god! And that was like two days before I started shooting Fright Night Part 2.
Rutherford: Have fun out there.

What was it like working with the rotoscope animation?

Dream Corp LLC/Adult Swim

Rutherford: It’s really fun because everything is so grand. You know it’s like now you’re falling off of a hot air balloon, or now you’re running away from your bullies in high school. So you’re playing these large characters, so you just kind of jump into it. Like, I remember thinking when I was very young and being an actor, how it must be really hard to shoot like Jurassic Park when you’re in front of a green screen and then they’re like “and THAT’S a velociraptor” and you’re like “ahhh!” I didn’t feel that at all during the production that that those scenes were difficult thing to do. Because they’re just so silly and fun and you’re wearing kind of a half costume so they can animate it later. Like I’m dressed up like Legolas–
Gries: And literally it was sometimes it was pieces of cardboard, you have cardboard on you almost like a really bad–
Rutherford: Like a play
Gries: Like a kid’s play. But you know it’s all for reference and they’re gonna draw on top of it. And the thing is, knowing how beautiful the animation is also gives you the impetus that when you’re in it, you understand what it’s going to look like, so it helps, it augments. Whatever decision or choice you’re going to make, you can go further with it because you just have that confidence behind that animation. It’s almost like ‘pay no attention to me, it wont be the real me, it will be a better me.’

Stessen: The inspiration came from working with his name’s Michael Garza [of Artbelly Productions] out of Austin, Texas. He worked on A Scanner Darkly, and then a couple other guys on the crew are Scanner Darkly. And one of the woman who was an animator on Waking Life. Which I’m a huge fan of. I saw Waking Life a while back and watched it over and over and over again. Huge inspiration. And we made a short film together that did well in festivals and kind of, we started developing that style in trying to evolve it and I think we’re pushing it forward a little bit and figuring out that we can build things out of cardboard. And make a dragon face. Because all he has to do is draw what’s there. Not that’s all he has to do–his job is to draw what’s there. So we could draw you [all] here and now you’re on a volcano, you know what I mean? So it gives us a lot of flexibility and the fact that with where we are, with little funds, we could do a ton.

What can viewers expect for the rest of the series?

Gries: Surprise after surprise after surprise. I’m not kidding you, it’s different every time!
Rutherford: Yeah it really is. I mean there’s this kind of thread of these different guest stars coming in and getting their therapy as our relationship progresses and as the interrelationships between Joey and Ahmed and…Randy–Randy’s arm gets cut off (laughs)–
Gries: There are things that happen, there’s a continuity within the core group and yet at the same time it’s absolutely ridiculous what happens–but it still stays, it still answers that continuity. And yet the people that come, the patients that come, their stories individually are so different from week to week that it just gives us a whole other area to run through.
Rutherford: yeah There’s like a couples therapy–a gay couple comes in to get like couples therapy. June squibb comes in to quit smoking but then finds out that really just she just wants to have sex.
Gries: And have a baby–and she’s never had sex in her life.
Rutherford: So Roberts appeases that in the dream world–
Gries: You know he says, it’s been a while!

Dream Corp LLC is on tonight and every Sunday on Adult Swim at 11:45pm, with the premiere episode currently streaming at AdultSwim.com

For photos from Adult Swim and many more NYCC panels, make sure to check out our Facebook page!

 

Paradiso Chapter 1 “NYC’s Most Interactive Escape Room”

In a New York Comic Con weekend filled with virtual reality experiences, nothing entertained my imagination more than Michael Counts’s escape room, PARADISO: CHAPTER 1. Billed as “part immersive theater, part escape room, part existential game,” Paradiso satisfies multiple action movie nerd fantasies in one pulse pounding hour.

The Paradiso experience begins, if you choose to provide your smartphone number, before you reach the venue with some ominous video messages ‘exposing’ the Virgil corporation who you are due to meet at your appointed time. Everyone in my party also received different clues to help us but to keep secret from each other.

In midtown we met up with our contact in a functioning karaoke bar to begin our experience. Ostensibly we are being welcomed into the offices of the Virgil Corporation who are on the lookout for genetically gifted escape artists. A wonderfully spacey secretary doled out forms and waivers in Virgil’s reception before the “normal” procedures were quickly overridden and the ‘real’ escape experience begins. Cue the Saw-ready voice changer demands from the heavens. Suddenly the office was revealed to be full of puzzles and my team sprang into action.

Chapter 1 features four more spaces after that reception office, each offering their own distinct look. For my money, the best room was a vintage library where we encountered a frantic handcuffed woman who upped the tension and hastily armed my teammate with a pistol. Other thrills included an air duct for us to feel extra John McClane-y and a massive bomb to be disarmed complete with digital countdown clock. The actors, handcuff lady included, make for an extra level of intrigue as they can help or hinder your progress and to this day none of my team can decide on if we allied ourselves correctly.

Teams who have diversified their skills roster get rewarded as the in-game puzzles range from visual clues to math and physical puzzles. If you’ve ever fantasized who would be in your Oceans-type heist amongst friends, that’s the crew to bring. And going into this Halloween weekend, Paradiso provides an excellent alternate to conventional horror houses by getting your heart-racing without scaring you silly. Ultimately my escape team was done in by some algebra in the final room–who knew that would come in handy?!–but we eagerly look forward to many more chapters to come.

View the Paradiso trailer below, and find ticketing information at its official website.

“Star Trek: 50 Artists. 50 Years” Lands at New York’s Paley Center

September 16- “Star Trek: 50 Artists. 50 Years”,  which made its debut at this year’s San Diego Comic Con opens up to New York fans today at the Paley Center for Media in midtown. The exhibition, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the original Star Trek television series, features fifty pieces from ten nations as well as tie-in fan screenings and whimsical photo ops sure to please the Trekkies of Manhattan. Noteworthy amongst the art on display is a piece of the famous Vulcan salute by none other than the late Leonard Nimoy himself.

Work by Leonard Nimoy

To my eyes, Spock looks to be favored character by the show’s artists, including a digital illustration from Stanley Chow whom I spoke with at the exhibition preview:

Where are you from?
Stanley Chow: I’m from Manchester England.

What Inspired you to choose Spock?

SC: I think like when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s and then watching reruns of Star Trek, the first person I kind of looked up to was Spock. He seemed like the more intelligent one and slightly different. I guess with me it was–when I was growing up, I was the only Chinese boy in the village, you always kind of–I felt you needed someone different to look up to and aspire to, you know? And Spock was always the one, with his cool, calm, collected demeanor. And his pointy ears.

Artist Stanley Chow with his work

Do you have a favorite Spock moment?
SC: There’s not been a favorite moment, but I’ve always liked the kind of relationship he had with Uhura. You know? It was never kind of like a fully fledged relationship. It was always kind of like an underlying thing…Which was sort of my life with lots of girls when I was growing up.

Do you enjoy Zachary Quinto’s take on the character?
SC: Oh, I think he’s amazing! When he was picked, obviously he was off of “Heroes”…And then once he puts the ears on and he does his thing [in the] movies, he’s the only actor–it’s sounds kind of cliché to say he’s the only actor who could do Spock but he’s done it so well but that’s why it’s become a cliché isn’t it?

Head of CBS consumer products, Liz Kalodner was also on hand to celebrate the opening.

Do you have a Star Trek favorite character?
Liz Kalodner: Well Captain Kirk is the classic, c’mon! Although I have to say, Captain Janeway [From Star Trek: Voyager], also pretty good.

Do you enjoy the new film franchise?
LK: Oh, absolutely. i think JJ Abrams has done a wonderful job. It’s brought in a new, younger audience, and really has given the franchise great energy.
As you’re from consumer products, I noticed you’ve got a fictional cereal here in the exhibit, is that a favorite item?

LK: Yeah! So that’s by an artist named Juan Ortiz who loved Star Trek from when he was a kid and actually had that idea when he was a child. And he always wanted to do it. And I don’t know if you saw the back but there are cutouts, trading cards, because cereal boxes always had you know, the free in-pack or on-pack, so he created that.

Since Star Trek is coming back to TV are you getting ready with your department for that?
LK: We are getting ready! We’re working with showrunner but it’s all in the development stage. But it’s a wonderful time to be in the Star Trek business.

“Star Trek: 50 Artists. 50 Years'” brief stop in NYC concludes on September 25th. Details on the Paley Center’s screenings to coincide with the exhibit can be found here.

The Paley Center for Media is located at 25 West 52nd Street.

Top Five Things I’d Like to See in A Ghostbusters Sequel

There seems to be a whole lot of doubt swirling around a possible sequel to Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters. Sony came out of the gate proclaiming its green light but when the feature didn’t set the box office absolutely ablaze, detractors flocked to the numbers as validation for their months’ long rally against the very notion of the reboot, sight-unseen. Sony is still keeping mum on their plans, although they maintain the brand is strong with cross-platform opportunities. I’m not here to argue numbers, especially in a summer where other properties have had the privilege of quietly underperforming on a near-weekly basis from Independence Day: Resurgence to Star Trek Beyond.

All I’m saying is I have a feeling that once the paranormal dust settles and we head towards its home video release and secondary markets, the word will get out that Feig’s Ghostbusters is actually a damn good time. We’ll see this word spread by the enthusiastic little girls–oblivious to the internet furor– who saw new kinds of heroes in the unconventional quartet and take to ghostbusting on the playground. We’ll see it in the array of cosplayers inspired by the new looks of the franchise (McKinnon alone has a week’s worth of iconic outfits!) And we’ll see it when a sequel debuts to larger numbers than its predecessor because those girls will come back. And they’ll bring their friends.

Our own Mike Smith gave the film 4 stars, but my take on it briefly: The new characters, lead by Kate McKinnon’s standout weirdo Holtzmann, Leslie Jones’s NYC-history-savvy Patty and Chris Hemsworth’s much lauded comedic turn as dim receptionist Kevin, were a joy insofar as they weren’t even trying to step into the shoes of their forebears but bringing their own. Or in Kristin Wiig’s case, a pair of quirky turquoise wellies. Additionally the effects were cool, evoking the glowing spookiness of Disney’s Haunted Mansion rides–which is to say, just the right level for a Ghostbusters installment. And of course, seeing four women take up arms against a ghost army with brand new kick ass weaponry that Bill Murray and co’s point and shoot models could only dream of, was something I haven’t seen before and I need to again.

It’s with this blind hope in mind that I’m going to forge ahead with the following top five wishes for their sequel. Because I live in a world where there’s six Police Academies, four Sharknadoes and my Ecto-Cooler juice box is half full.

(Minor spoilers ahead)

1 – An equally stacked cast
The four female leads were front and center of the marketing, rightfully so, but Feig’s supporting cast was nothing to sneeze at either and one of its best surprises. “Silicon Valley” star Zach Woods’s haunted tour guide started it all off on the right foot, quickly joined by the likes of Ed Begley Jr, Cecily Strong, Andy Garcia and Michael K Williams. Heck even the taxi driver from Deadpool (Karan Soni) got big laughs. Whoever cast this thing, stick around.

2 – Some better usage of NYC
The Ghostbusters are based in New York and their strong ties are upheld at their firehouse headquarters, Hook & Ladder 8, which displays the team’s logo on the sidewalk. However for budgetary reasons, the movie was mainly filmed in Boston. Nothing wrong with saving some money, but screening the movie in Manhattan, the fake 6-line subway station raised some eyebrows. And the greatest offense? The ladies dining on Papa John’s pizza. I can suspend my disbelief to hellmouths in the middle of Times Square, but native New Yorkers opting for Papa John’s is a bridge too far. Get those product placement dollars elsewhere. And rope in some more actual locations, if only so this obsessive fan can visit them.

3 – A more sinister villain
I really did enjoy Neil Casey in his minimal screen time as Rowan from a comedic stand point. Still, he wasn’t as menacing as the original’s demonic invasion of Dana’s (Sigourney Weaver) fridge or even the first specter featured here, Gertrude Aldridge (Bess Rous, below). Later when Rowan’s spirit wound up in a couple of our heroes’ bodies and finally a CGI giant, he became still less memorable. More to the point, the Ghostbusters franchise as a whole is now 100% saturated with finales featuring behemoth figures tromping through skyscrapers. Let’s be done with that. The most effective supernatural stuff whether it was the aforementioned Aldridge Mansion, green ghouls lurking behind glass waiting to be released onto our plane, or just a regular mannequin temporarily brought to life, were smaller in scale and creepier for it. A more intimate antagonist would be novel to the team and hey, bonus, also could cut down that budget again. Are you listening, Sony?

4 – A few more original cast cameos for the completists
Rick Moranis, please. Okay, I know this is pie in the sky stuff, especially seeing as he officially turned down a cameo in this first one (wishing them well in a 2015 Hollywood Reporter interview), but juice box half full right? I have a hope that Mr. Moranis checks Feig’s work out and supports the new team in the way that his fellow cast mates did this time around.(I may or may not have yelped when Annie Potts arrived.) Plus I’m a kid of the late 80s…I just super want to see him back in front of a camera and I feel like this is the best shot we’ve got. Failing that, Peter MacNichol would not be unwelcome. If I have a soft spot for Ghostbusters 2, it’s because of him.

5 – Let Kevin join the team!
Chris Hemsworth’s dumb puppy dog of a receptionist was so adorably eager to be a Ghostbuster that in a latter portion of the film, he’d made his own jumpsuit and outfitted a motorcycle with duct taped laser canons. Unfortunately apocalypses being the inconvenience that they are, he didn’t get to realize this dream. Seeing as Hemsworth’s scenes were serious highlights, I’d be happy to see what he would do when faced with the supernatural. It’s probably a safety hazard to the general public, so Holtzmann could start him off with a pimped out laser pointer and train him up from there. At the very least, I hear he’s good with a hammer.

Seriously how can you say no to that face?

I implore you Sony, Paul Feig, Katie Dippold, cast and all the ghostly powers that be to let this team take up proton packs again in the future!

Ghostbusters is still in theaters and is expected to arrive on Blu-ray/DVD in October, hopefully in time for Halloween.

Film Review: “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”

Starring: Julian Dennison, Sam Neill, Rachel House
Directed By: Taika Waititi
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 101 minutes
Orchard

Our Score: 5 out of 5 Stars

Last year New Zealand director Taika Waititi breathed life into the vampire genre with his brilliant What We Do in the Shadows, my favorite comedy of 2015. The director this week turns again to his home turf to even more success for the quirky tale of Ricky Baker in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Wilderpeople is an unconventional spin on the tried-and-true old mentor meeting his younger match that manages to be action packed, unpredictable and heartfelt without veering into the saccharine territory oft trod by coming of age stories. Not only has Waititi matched my expectations based on his Shadows and “Flight of the Conchords” work but he’s significantly upped my excitement for his next project–Thor: Ragnarok (as if that was even possible!)

Julian Dennison stars as a ‘real bad egg’ called Ricky Baker, an orphan from the city who’s been to his share of foster homes. Child services drops him at a remote farm in the New Zealand bush kept by the sweet Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and bearded grump Hec (Sam Neill). Bella invites Ricky to dub them Auntie and Uncle, though Ricky and Hec are less than keen. When the welcoming Bella passes away leaving Ricky under Hec’s care, his new country life looks about to be ripped from under him again by child services. Naturally Ricky flees to the wilderness with Hec following along. They quickly become a pair of outlaws–everyone believing Hec a kidnapper–and infamous for evading a country-wide manhunt.

As Ricky Baker, newcomer Julian Dennison delivers a star-making performance. He is the perfect age for this little adventure of Waititi’s. A foster child who’s been passed around with a long list of ‘offenses’ (which child service agents will rattle off at the drop of a hat to hilarious effect), Baker is on the verge of puberty and of actually buying into his own bad reputation but is still very much malleable. There’s glimpses of Ricky posturing his ”gangsta” image between his wardrobe or his Scarface references but the brilliance of Dennison is watching the child that he actually is come to the surface. Dennison’s vulnerability is exposed when faced with the prospect of being separated from his most stable home to date. Meanwhile, his curiosity and eagerness to learn the bush life chip away at his city-kid exterior and the fact that he’s wont to spout haikus only makes him all the more endearing. There are a million layers to Ricky Baker and Dennison plays them all with great heart.

This isn’t at all to belittle the terrific support Dennison receives from his adult cast. It’s been 23 since Sam Neill begrudgingly led some kids through Jurassic Park and the years and the beard have only hardened his ornery exterior to perfection. His soft center is tougher to wear down to, but Ricky is game for the challenge. And there aren’t any dinosaurs that Neill needs to evade, but as the formidable Paula from Child services, Rachel House is an absolute scene stealer with dreams of being the Terminator. Rounding out these guys is an appearance from frequent Waititi collaborator Rhys Darby used to wacky effect as Psycho Sam.

Despite some real live threats in the bush and some choice language from kids and adults alike (“Like hell!” abounds), I can’t help but feel that Hunt for the Wilderpeople might be a perfect family film. Shot in beautiful locations, it’s hilarious without being malicious, populated with quirky characters forming genuine human bonds and I can’t stress enough the joy I derived from Dennison’s honest performance. Add to all that an action packed finale and you’ve got A Summer Movie to compete with the biggest of blockbusters. As Uncle Hec says, truly “Majestical.”

June 24 – I screened Hunt for the Wilderpeople at TFF 2016, it is now in limited US release. Visit Wilderpeople.film for trailer and local release dates. 

Director Matt Brown on “The Man Who Knew Infinity”

In 1914 a self-taught math genius named Srinivasa Ramanujan left behind everything he knew when he boarded a ship that would take him from his life in Madras, India to Cambridge University in England. He was drawn to the prestigious school via a correspondence with English mathematician G. H. Hardy who recognized Ramanujan’s enormous potential not just for discovering known theorems without any formal education, but for seemingly cracking brand new ones.
Their collaboration is charted in director Matt Brown’s new feature The Man Who Knew Infinity starring Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons as Ramanujan and Hardy. Despite the left brained subject at hand, Brown’s film delves further into the very human story of a man faced with living in an entirely new world. Patel and Irons make for a compelling duo experiencing a huge, but ultimately fruitful, culture clash. The pair are supported by a roster of talented actors including Stephen Fry, Toby Jones and Kevin McNally. The road from Robert Kanigel’s book of the same name to its film adaptation was one that took over twelve years to travel and Brown spoke with me on the phone about how it all came together (Spoiler: It didn’t involve shoehorning in an unnecessary romantic subplot!)

Lauren Damon: First off, speaking as someone who knows nothing about math, you made a very touching film!

Matt Brown: [Laughs] Thanks, I don’t know much about it myself so thank you.

LD: Since this is your second feature since 2000, how long ago did you come across Ramanujan’s story and what made you decide to make it?

MB: Well…my aunt was a member of a book club and about twelve years ago I was visiting her and she introduced me to Robert Kanigel biography. I had done a small film right out of school that I never really got to finish and so this was my first sort of opportunity to do a little bit of a bigger film–or we were hoping it would be–but it was a long road. I mean it was twelve years trying to get this film made so I sometimes joke that I think I was nervous to go through the process of having to make another film and I picked maybe the hardest film in the history of the world to try to get made. [laughs]

LD: I read that you had had an interest in World War One, which this story takes place during but it’s not really the focus…

MB: No it doesn’t, it’s just with–You know I’d read Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks and I was really fascinated by the period, as anyone that has read that incredible book might be afterwards, and this was set against the great war and that just sort of got my attention for a second look at it. Once I’d read it, I really fell in love with the human story and the relationships. You know, as a writer, you’re always looking for conflict and drama and it just had two characters that couldn’t have been any more different. So it drew me in. I was drawn into the isolation that Ramanujan was going through…This illness and everything he went through was something I could really relate to because I was helping caretake actually for my brother at the time. I was helping with his wife because he had cancer. He subsequently got better and wrote all the music for the movie, so it was a happy ending.

LD: That’s amazing.

MB: It was pretty amazing.

LD: There are many biopics that handle these mathematical geniuses–like Theory of Everything or A Beautiful Mind–did you look to any of those?

MB: Sure I guess like over the years, I couldn’t not have. You know it was over such a long period of time, and I’m a movie lover so I’ve them all at this point, I think! [laughs] And it’s funny because we all have perceptions of films and they’re not always totally accurate what our perception is of what the film was. I remember watching Beautiful Mind one time to try to see how they portrayed the mathematics visually in it. And it was shockingly small, the amount actually. It was like the one moment where he adjusts the tie, and he makes the pattern of the tie work. And it was like small and subtle. I don’t even know if there was another moment in the movie that did it besides doing lots of math on the chalkboards. People writing furiously. You know and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to do a film that was organic. Anything we tried to do we wanted to do it in the camera. And it was really important to me to just portray the mathematicians as multidimensional human beings that weren’t crazy and weren’t like frenetically insane and were actually, you know, complex flawed characters. So I didn’t need to make it into something it wasn’t already. I think just trying to be authentic to what the story as more than enough. I mean this had so much drama: Man breaks caste, leaves his country and his home, gets trapped by the war, goes all the way to England only to find that the one person that brings him there is emotionally completely unavailable…And how these two had to come together.

LD: Throughout the film, so many of the actors have to speak so passionately about what their characters are working on. Did any of them delve into studying what they were talking about?

MB: Yeah they both spent some time trying to–Well, first of all I just would say it was really important to Robert Kanigel who wrote the book that I philosophically understood some of what was going on with the mathematics. And certainly I came to respect them as artists, pure mathematicians. It was really important to Jeremy and to Dev. Jeremy, I know read A Mathematician’s Apology, they both read the biography and I think that they both wanted to do right by this story. So they, they did a lot of research on their own and they worked with [mathematician] Ken Ono who came to set and worked with me while we were shooting which gave the actors a lot of confidence that the script was right. That when they would point at a formula or when they would look at the notebooks, everything was exactly right. And you know it’s one of those things that afterwards you know people always say that ‘well, the math people of the world will love your movie’ but I’m like ‘well, actually you don’t take that for granted.’ It’s really been humbling that I can have Freeman Dyson or Steven Strogatz be like ‘You got us. You did it.’ You know and that really means a lot to me. And so that aside, I want the movie to touch people that are not mathematicians. It’s very important that–that’s who I made for was for people like me or you or anyone that doesn’t know math and maybe we could just respect it as an art form and come to see their passion with it. Really the movie is about acceptance and the human story.

Jeremy Irons with director Matt Brown

LD: Meanwhile, I feel like Dev Patel probably wasn’t so much a household name until after Slumdog Millionaire in 2008, but you had the rights to the story for so long, how did that casting come together?

MB: I mean it’s been, it’s just been a process. I think when we started Dev was  you know just had  done [Slumdog Millionaire]. It was so long ago. You know, we went through different actors at different points over twelve years trying to get a movie made. But you know I think it was sort of–I have to think that there’s a plan for these things in some sense. And I knew that I wasn’t gonna compromise on the film in terms of the overall authenticity of it. I mean I’ve mentioned to the press at different times that [producer] Ed Pressman really stood by me when we had been offered opportunities to make the film if we would have Ramanujan fall in love with a white nurse to get it financed. And we didn’t do that. So I think there’s just a bigger plan at work and it happened the way it happened. Dev was ready to go at the right time and committed to it and felt like this was a character–he saw the nobility of the character and it was really important for him to play this role. And it’s a different kind of role for him than we’ve seen him in before and he does it brilliantly.  And for Jeremy, I think it was an opportunity to revisit something in a different way as an actor for him. And he, his performance is just so pure and beautiful.  I’m just humbled to be part of it.

LD: You also have an amazing supporting cast with Stephen Fry, Toby Jones…

MB: Yeah and Jeremy Northam, all those guys. You know, Stephen Fry is amazing–they’re all amazing–but Stephen you know he had his own project, for ten years trying to get it made,  and when we found out that we were gonna be making the film I reached out to him and I said do you wanna maybe join our team for this? And he did! And he flew all the way to Chennai for a weekend. Just took two days to shoot, to play Sir Francis Spring in it. And it was such a big thing for the movie to have the first time you see British actor to have that kind of gravitas that Stephen Fry could bring to it. That authenticity was a really great gift that he gave the film. But they were all wonderful.

Dev Patel and Stephen Fry

LD: How long were you filming in India?

MB: Not long, about nine days. Which was really…it was hard because it was an independent film and you obviously get compared to I don’t know, movies like–I mean, I’m really flattered anytime anybody ever mentions like the John Nash film for instance that was about fifteen times our budget [laughs] you know? So if it’s even in the conversation. But you know, we had a very short shoot compared to those kind of movies and we did twenty two days in England and then we had to say goodbye to our crew after we’re in a great rhythm. And then we switch to India, to Chennai, which is nothing like Madras in 1914. It was a real challenge and a brand new crew all of the sudden which is Indian and goes to a totally different rhythm. It was a tribute to my team–my production designer Luciana Arrighi, the cinematographer [Larry Smith], my costume designer [Ann Maskrey]– that they all came out alive and in one piece. [laughs]

LD: I’ve read now that you’ve also adapted an Ian Fleming biography, are you actively working with that?

MB: No that’s something I had written a while back. That’s, I’m not really sure what the state of that. I think that they said that that was going into production this year though so that was exciting. I have another movie called London Town that I think is in the Los Angeles film festival right now and then doing, I think it’s having a premiere maybe in Cannes. And that’s about falling in love with a band for the first time. A young man coming of age story with the band The Clash and Joe Strummer. Jonathan Rhys Meyers stars in that.

LD: That’s quite a change from Mathematics and World War One!

MB: Right? But you know what, it’s not though. That’s the funny thing, I thought the same thing then I was thinking about it more and more…It’s socially conscious kind of and it’s about artists, you know, so in a weird way it isn’t so different. But yeah, it is different because it’s a little easier on the face of it to rock out to Joe Strummer.

I screened The Man Who Knew Infinity as part of the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently in limited theatrical release with national expansion in the coming weeks.

TFF: Keegan-Michael Key on “Keanu” and the Upcoming “Don’t Think Twice”

Keegan Michael Key rose to fame on Comedy Central with Jordan Peele on their hit sketch show “Key & Peele”. The television duo rode off into the sunset of that series this past September but they’ve already reteamed on the big screen in the action comedy Keanu which opens today. The film finds the pair fighting drug gangs to recover Peele’s character’s stolen kitten. Keegan was in attendance at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival to premiere Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice which he stars in alongside Birbiglia, Gillian Jacobs and Chris Gethard. On the red carpet, the hilarious Key was glad to joke about working with the many felines of Keanu as well as his role in the touching improv-centric Don’t Think Twice.

Lauren Damon: So how was it working with that cat?

Keegan-Michael Key: The cat was super difficult. The cat—lemme explain to you—this cat, you wouldn’t believe how fast this thing became a prima donna like ‘Nah, I’m not gonna eat cat food anymore. I’m only going to eat caviar. The salmon has to be from Alaska.’ I mean, it’s like what are we doing?? It took like—I can’t believe we got the movie finished to be quite honest with you. [laughing] In real life, it was seven cats. So the thing is it was each cat was given the job of doing a particular thing. So some cats run from point A to point B. Some cats really relax and chill out in your arms and some cats put their paws up and go ‘meeeeow!’ All this kind of stuff. So they were actually not as hard as you would think. Especially for kittens. Like they’re trained. They always say it’s hard enough to ‘herd cats’ well, imagine herding kittens! But we had amazing trainers. Really amazing trainers. And a lot of kibble. [Laughs] Like a lot of cat food and catnip to keep ‘em in line. 

LD: Was it a relief for you coming off “Key & Peele” to get to work with Jordon so soon again?

KMK: Oh yeah! And also it’s easier even though a movie’s longer, it’s easier to play one character. You know, it’s easier because there’d be times you’d be in wardrobe and looking in a mirror but learning lines for a different sketch as you’re like ‘I’m dressed like an Egyptian pharaoh but these are the lines for the gangster!’ You know, and so just to play one character and have there be an arc was really helpful.

In Don’t Think Twice, Key plays a member of an improv troupe who snags a job on an SNL-like comedy show, seriously affecting the dynamic of the whole group.

LD: Did the theme of Mike’s film–that idea of “going above” your peers [in having your own comedy show]–resonate with you? Had you experienced it from either side?

KMK: Yeah, it resonates with me. I think that because you have to remember at the end of the day, do everything in your power to just to make it be about the work. Because the success will trip you up. If you start thinking things like you’re better than somebody it’s of no use to anyone. It’s not helpful, it’s not kind. And so I think that what I’ve been trying to discover or negotiate is just working. Work as hard as you can. If somebody else is at the same level or different level works—does work that inspires you, let that continue to inspire you, even if you’re ‘higher than’…you know? That doesn’t mean anything. That’s not real. Those are just labels. Good art is good art no matter what level it’s being made at.

The cast of Don’t Think Twice

Keanu opens in theaters April 29th (read our review here). The fantastic Don’t Think Twice is scheduled for release this July.