The movie I am looking forward to most next year is I SAW THE LIGHT, Marc Abraham’s Hank Williams biopic starring Tom Hiddleston. Executive Music Producer (and one of the great singer/songwriters of our times) Rodney Crowell offers a report:
Stephen Beresford first met Jonathan Blake when he was doing research for his screenplay that would eventually turn into this year’s feel-good dramedy Pride. It’s been a dream project for Beresford, 42, who first heard the story of Lesbians & Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) and the unusual alliance the London group formed with Welsh miners during the 1984-85 British coal strike over 20 years ago. Blake, 65, who grappled with what was thought to be a death sentence—an HIV diagnosis—during his involvement with LGSM, made such an impression on the screenwriter that he became one of the script’s main characters, played in the movie by The Wire‘s Dominic West.
The relationship didn’t end with Beresford’s research. A story lost to the mists of history lives again in Pride and both Beresford and Blake have been active in promoting the film. Recently, the affable Brits traveled to San Francisco to attend a San Francisco Pride screening and to spend a day meeting the press to talk about the movie and the real-life events that inspired it.
Q: Stephen, how did you first learn about Jonathan’s story?
Stephen Beresford: [When I was researching the film,] I would look at photographs, and go, ‘Who’s that?’ And there was a photograph of somebody dancing, and it was Jonathan. That was one of the first moments when I thought that Jonathan was an important part of the story. And, of course talking to Jonathan and hearing the story. Some stories just step to the front, and his did.
Q: What was your reaction when Stephen first approached you to talk about events that happened nearly 30 years ago, Jonathan?
Jonathan Blake: I was surprised, but I was very happy to speak. Shut me up! It’s my story, so I don’t find it unusual. It’s unusual that people want to hear it, but that was fine. Basically, we chatted and that was fine. Then I get this phone call from him saying, ‘I need to come and see you. If you remember, I came and interviewed you for this film. Well, I’ve written it and not only is the screenplay finished, but it’s going to be produced and I need to come and have a talk with you.’ So the doorbell rings and I open the door and there is this tall man standing there and he says, ‘You don’t remember me, do you?’ He basically says, ‘There was something in your story that just sparked my imagination and I’ve written a character and he’s called Jonathan.’ That was basically it. I thought, ‘Oh, wow! This is extraordinary.’
But again, I didn’t really think anything about it and then a few months later and they are actually now in production, I get another phone call from him. ‘The director and actor who is going to play you would like to meet you.’ Stephen arrives with a bunch of flowers, amazing flowers, cabbages roses and cabbages, an amazing mix. The doorbell rings again and there is [director] Matthew Warchus and there is Dominic West standing there, an idol, The Wire, fantastic!
It was wonderful, Matthew was brilliant. He just came in, my partner was there, Nigel, and he just asked us questions. He just wanted to know how we got into political activism, what life was like, all this, just so Dominic could hear, and then later on we walked around the garden, and Dominic and I chatted. But it was very easy, it just seemed so totally natural. It’s weird. And then seeing the movie was extraordinary. It was very difficult the first time. But they have done it such justice. It just has the feel of the time and there’s an energy there, and the intention is there. They’ve been really truthful to what we were about and what the whole thing was about. That’s very special. We’ve been very fortunate.
Q: What I have find extraordinary about it is that you take a story that essentially does not have a happy ending. The strikers didn’t win. AIDS is about to sweep through the gay community, yet the audience leaves the theater feeling uplifted and you never resort to that sentimentality that kills so many films.
Stephen Beresford: It’s probably why the material appealed to me. I love things that are uplifting and have heart and are human. I love people. Even the worst people have something in them, a human nature that I respond to. I’ve always felt like that. I like that kind of stuff, but I don’t like sentimentality, so it’s great that the story has those dark elements. That’s sort of, I think, what drew me to it. There’s a message in it, which I love, which is that failure is not an excuse. They do fail, both groups, in a sense, you could say, but it’s not excuse for not doing it.
I’m very attracted to, in a sense, history, when we talk about history—Chou En-lai said very famously, when asked what were the effects of the French Revolution, ‘It is too early to tell.’ I kind of feel that way myself. We’re fond of saying, ‘Well, that was the 20th century. That’s that in a box, and now we’re something else.’ But it isn’t true, so who knows if the strike failed? Things can change. I like the idea that we’re part of a dialogue. What we perceive to be a failure may actually be a part of a journey to something else.
Q: It’s also very attractive, because it’s two groups you wouldn’t expect to have anything in common finding common ground, simply by being human beings.
Stephen Beresford: And that thing of finding that our struggles have common cause is a very important lesson, really. It’s beneficial to those people who don’t want us to band together and find solidarity, for us to believe that we’re all divided. It’s much easier—I think that on so many different issues, if we divide on race lines or if we divide on class lines or if we divide on gender lines, if we think, ‘Well, men aren’t interested in feminism,’ well, that’s great, because it keeps feminism in its exact place. If we’re interested in equality, then what man could not be interested in feminism? What white person could not be interested in racism? Once we start to think about those terms, it’s interesting what can be achieved.
Jonathan Blake: We live in such an atomized world. Everything is broken down. You can be an activist from your own front room, but you’re not with a group. You may be thinking that you’re changing the world, because you can click a button, but it’s being with other people who are like-minded people, touching them, smelling them, that’s what makes the difference. That’s, hopefully, what people, certainly youth, will get from this film. It is by coming together that things can happen.
Q: Jonathan, can you remember your initial reaction when it was first proposed that you help these miners?
Jonathan Blake: Basically, one was just right up for it. It was such an important point. Here was Thatcher and this government wanting to smash this union. What has come out latterly is the fact that she had planned and worked on it all along. There was a miners’ strike in 1972, which brought down the Tory government. Thatcher never forgave them for that, so she was out for revenge. This wasn’t just about smashing the union. This was real revenge on the miners that brought down the government. We knew that this was so important. As an activist and part of the Left, there was no question.
The fact that this small mining community was there was wonderful. There was real excitement. There was also trepidation. What had we got ourselves into? When we actually got there and met them—Mike Jackson, the secretary of the group, tells this wonderful story and sort of reminded me that when we arrived there, we were really kind of nervous before we go in. As the doors open when we’re walking in, there’s this awful hush. You just think, ‘Oh, shit! Do we run now or what?’ Then one person started applauding and then the room started applauding. We were just welcomed. It was amazing. We had such fun. In all that bleak time, they were so generous and warm. They were going through hardship, but you would never know. It was just extraordinary and life-changing, absolutely life-changing.
Q: And you were already HIV-positive.
Jonathan Blake: Yes. I was diagnosed in October 1982, so it was very early on. For me, it was also great, because it kept me busy. I didn’t have time to think about the virus and illness and getting ill. There was stuff to do. It was a real boon for me. I never expected to, a., live this long, or b., to see this magnificent creation that is Pride. I feel really blessed.
Q: Stephen, it’s been 20 years since you first heard the story and started pondering doing something with it. How does it feel now that it’s a reality?
Stephen Beresford: It took three years to make the film from beginning to end and 20 years to get someone to take it seriously. Looking back on it now, if I had done some of the work I needed to do in three years over 20 years, it would have been a much easier time. What’s interesting is everything was so intense—I was on set all day, every day; I was in on casting; everything, so it was like I never had a moment in which to stop and realize that this was happening..
Then one day we were filming in Wales and I came in a little later, like 6:10 in the morning,and they’d turned over the first shot of the day. I got out of my car and I looked up the road and there was silence. They’d just started and then I heard the band playing and they marched down the street. As I watched them, I had an extraordinary jolt back to a memory of sitting in my office in South London, a funny room with no windows and I remembered physically typing the words, ‘A brass band appears through the mist.’ I’m watching it happen. I thought, ‘Well, I wrote that sentence, and that sentence has made the band, the mist, the village, everything, they’re all here doing that, because I wrote those words and put them in that order.’ That’s an incredible feeling. –Pam Grady
Next Valentine’s Day, Richard LaGravenese’s The Last Five Years looks to be the lovers’ holiday’s hot date movie. Starring Anna Kendrick and Smash star Jeremy Jordan, it is the story of a relationship between a gentile actress and a Jewish novelist weaving backward and forward in time and told almost totally in song. LaGravenese never saw Jason Robert Brown’s award-winning play when it was produced Off-Broadway, but he had the soundtrack.
“I would listen to it over and over and over,” LaGravenese says at the Toronto International Film Festival where The Last Five Years had its world premiere.
The writer/director knew Kendrick from the movie Camp, and knew she was perfect for the female lead. Casting the male was trickier. Within the film is a joke about a brilliant actor who is a terrible singer cast in the musical, a recent trend in big Hollywood musicals. LaGravenese was having none of that.
“A lot of the actors who wanted to do it, couldn’t sing it,” he says. “The deal I had with Jason was I pick the actor I want, because they have to be able to act the score, but he has to tell me whether or not they can sing it, because I don’t know enough about music. I would meet them and then send them to Jason and they would have to sing for Jason. Except Jeremy. We knew Jeremy could sing, so we had to make sure he could act it.
“I’m so sick of musicals, especially ones that I love, where they cast actors, ‘Oh they don’t have to sing well, they just have to act well.’ No! You have to sing the score I love.”
LaGravenese’s first love is the theater, so The Last Five Years is a way to pay homage to that. It was his wife, Anne, who first suggested he try his hand at screenwriting. After apprenticing with a friend, his first solo screenplay was The Fisher King.
“I wrote it just to be a writing sample so that I could get a job,” he says. “I never thought it would get made.”
And while The Last Five Years makes its debut on the world stage, LaGravenese is touched to learn that The Fisher King is screening this weekend in San Francisco as part of the Castro Theatre’s celebration of Robin Williams’ life.
“That was a heartbreaker for me,” LaGravenese says of Williams’ recent death. “I owe that man so much. That movie would not have been what it was had he not said yes. He was the most respectful, kind, lovely man. It’s a heartbreaker to think he was in so much pain.
“He was wonderful,” he adds. “He ad-libbed maybe five lines, but other than that, he treated the script like the Grail. He was just fantastic.”—Pam Grady
The Last Five Years opens Friday, February 13, 2015. The Fisher King plays the Castro Theatre Sunday, September 14. For further information, contact castrotheatre.com.
In The One I Love, Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) have reached a rough patch in their marriage. Their therapist (Ted Danson) suggests they try to reconnect during a weekend retreat at a gorgeous country house. There is much more to this wildly inventive romantic comedy than that, but the challenge in writing or talking about director Charlie McDowell’s sublime feature debut is to not give too much away.
“It’s certainly tricky,” says Duplass. “It is such a good conversation piece, but at the end of the day, we have just discovered that you do better as a viewer of this movie when you don’t know what’s in there…We did this really cool test screening where we put 100 people in one theater on the left and 100 people on one theater on the right. People on the left knew everything about the movie that you would know from an average Hollywood trailer, lots of spoilers. People on the right went in blind, just with, ‘It’s a romantic comedy with Mark Duplass and Lizzie Moss. They go on a couples’ retreat to try to save their relationship.
“Everybody loved the movie. It was great, but the way that people would talk about it when they didn’t know what was there, there was like an electricity in their eyes and in their voice. In particular, they would just arrest people, ‘You have to see this movie! You have to see this movie! Oh my God!’”
The One I Love was born out of Duplass and McDowell’s friendship and desire to make a movie together. Duplass furnished his pal with the kernel of an idea that McDowell and his writing partner (and the film’s eventual screenwriter) Justin Lader transformed into a 10-page outline fleshing out the story and characters.
“Then we picked this location to set it in and reverse-engineered the movie to take place inside this location and wrote for all the things in there,” says Duplass. “It’s kind of following along in the thing I’ve always described as ‘the available materials school of filmmaking.’ Don’t write a script and figure out how you’re going to make it. Write a script for what you have at your disposal, so you know you can make it.”
Moss, another friend of Duplass, was quickly recruited to play Sophie, and added her input into her character. Producer Mel Eslyn also contributed notes to the story. The project came together quickly. It was only six months from the time that McDowell and Duplass started talking about the movie until they were actually shooting it.
“There’s something about the energy that happens when you do that,” says Duplass. “Everyone’s still excited about the movie. It still feels fresh. It’s like the difference between getting married when you’ve been dating for six months and getting married after you’ve been dating for five years. When you’re standing there on the altar and you’ve just been together, you’re like, ‘This is so exciting! This is so exciting!’ After five years, you’re like, ‘Yeah, I suppose it’s about time we do this.’”
McDowell says he is often asked what The One I Love‘s ending means, but the ending relates to everything that comes before it. With or without that which makes the film so unusual, it is the story of a relationship. McDowell points out that it is a romantic comedy that focuses on real people with real problems rather than the usual rom-com stereotypes and conventions. Still, Duplass notes, what the film is actually about only emerged in the making of it.
“The theme that came out sort of posthumously, after the first draft of the outline, is that we tend to when we’re first dating people, to put forth this perfect version of ourselves where we try to be more sensitive and more loving and more intelligent,” he says. “They bring up a book and you’ve never read it and you say, ‘Oh, I love that book!’ Then the shine comes off and how do you deal with that disparity between who you said you are and who you really are? That seemed fun and playful, but also meaningful, and we were like, ‘This is a good theme to explore through this magically real plot machination that we employ in the movie.’”
Adds McDowell, “They’re in this place a lot of us get into where you’re in a rut and it’s like, how do you get out of it and should you get out of it? A lot of times it’s, ‘Should we cut our losses and should we move on?’ We kind of came to a place in their relationship where Ethan had cheated on Sophie and so he’s kind of created this separation between them. Now, they’re stuck. A lot of times something needs to happen for a couple to get out of that rut.” —Pam Grady
A little-known moment from contemporary British history steps into the spotlight with Pride. In 1984, as U.K. coal miners strike in a showdown with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, they receive support from an unexpected quarter: gay and lesbian activists. Director Matthew Warchus’ comedy drama limns this unusual alliance in a film that stars Bill Nighy (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Pirate Radio), Dominic West (The Wire), Paddy Considine (Submarine, The World’s End), Andrew Scott (Locke), Sherlock‘s Moriarty), and Imelda Staunton (Maleficent, Another Year. This CBS Films release opens stateside on September 19.
Writer/director John Michael McDonagh admits he hesitated before casting Domhnall Gleeson in the small but pivotal role of serial killer Freddie Joyce in his latest film, the blackly humorous drama Calvary. For Gleeson—whose credits include both parts of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, True Grit, Anna Karenina, the upcoming comedy Frank, and a Tony-nominated turn in Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore—it would be casting again type, but that wasn’t what concerned McDonagh. It was just that in this single scene, Domhnall would be acting against Calvary‘s star, Domhnall’s dad, Brendan, playing a priest whose week starts with a death threat and doesn’t get any better with his jailhouse visit with Joyce.
“I was a bit worried about it, because I thought it would bring the audience out of it. They’re going, ‘Oh, that’s Brendan Gleeson. That’s his son,” McDonagh says.
“It’s a very intense scene obviously,” he adds. “There were a lot of things being said that unnerved people in the crew as they were listening to it. And we go from a very big wide into really close. It’s very intense … It’s deliberately a kind of black hole right in the middle of the film. I think it’s about 50 minutes, so it’s right dead center.”
For Brendan Gleeson, sharing the scene with his eldest child was a revelation. They have acted together before on a number of occasions, including a 2006 Irish football comedy Studs and Ian Fitzgibbon’s 2009 comic thriller Perrier’s Bounty, and Domhnall directed his old man in his 2010 short Noreen.
But Calvary is different. Brendan Gleeson remembers reading through the scene with Domhnall in rehearsal, and then the younger Gleeson went away until it was time to shoot it, adopting radio silence with his dad as he worked to find the character. On the day, Domhnall was not only in character, but McDonagh had directed hair and makeup to make him as unrecognizable as possible.
“It was very difficult in a sense. It was a harrowing day,” says Brendan Gleeson.
“We had kind of retreated to our separate corners and we just came out fighting on the day. Then we sat down at this table in this vast room and we didn’t really talk to each other very much. My analogy for it afterward was we were two sparring partners who were great friends or brothers or something, but when you do it in the ring for real, you have to park all that stuff and just fight your corner, basically, and that’s what we did.”
The scene between Freddie and Father Michael is an arresting one, one of the darkest in the movie, and one that McDonagh discovered, from Calvary‘s first screenings at the Sundance Film Festival where the movie premiered, has a curious effect on audiences.
“After that scene, I thought, ‘That’s going to turn the film into a really dark, somber place,” says McDonagh. “What I found … was that we would still get laughs after that sequence and they would be bigger laughs than what I was expecting. I think it’s because that scene is so dark and somber that the audience wanted relief from it. They’re looking for any kind of relief and so they laugh a bit more than probably they should.”
For Brendan Gleeson, it was just a relief to finish the scene.
“It was fantastic to work with Domhnall, but in retrospect, it was nice to get him back at the end of the day,” he says.
Gleeson starts to say that in that scene he saw in his son something that he’d never seen before, but then he corrects himself. That face, the expression on Freddie Joyce’s face, that was familiar.
“When I tried to get him out of bed too early maybe over the years, I’ve seen that look before,” Gleeson laughs.
“I think Domhnall did extraordinarily well,” he adds more seriously. “He’s quite chilling. I’d be proud of him, anyway, but I was particularly so after that.”—Pam Grady
For more of my Brendan Gleeson interview, click here.
Twenty-six years ago, book lovers and science geeks everywhere bought Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, his attempt to make cosmology understandable for the layman. The book made the astrophysicist a rock star among scientists, a legend that continues to fascinate not just for his big brain, but also for his very survival. Diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease) when he was only 21, Hawking was given two years to live. He’s now 72.
Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 7th and in theaters on November 7th, The Theory of Everything relates Hawking’s story as a young man who does not let a horrible disease prevent him from working on his theories or stop him from falling in love with fellow Cambridge student Jane Wilde. Directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire, Shadow Dancer), the film stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.
Racoons are funny creatures. Some people regard them as vermin and you don’t want them messing with the house pets, but they’re cute and they’re clever. Sure, they’re bandits, hence the furry masks. Now, there’s a new raccoon in town. He’s genetically modified, he talks, he walks upright, he’s whip-smart, and he’s even more larcenous than the average garden pest. He’s Rocket. He’s voiced by Bradley Cooper and he is one of the reasons Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the most entertaining movies of the year. All of the Guardians—Chris Pratt’s goofy Star-Lord, Zoe Saldana’s intense Gamora, Vin Diesel’s sweet, sweet Groot, and Dave Bautista’s vengeful Drax—are pretty special, but the wise-cracking raccoon is GOTG‘s secret sauce.
People‘s 2001 Sexiest Man Alive made his big screen debut in Wet Hot American Summer, mixed it up with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson in Wedding Crashers, and was a key player in the Hangover franchise. But lately Cooper’s had a more serious career: two Oscar nominations in a row for his work with director David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle; upcoming are yet another collaboration with Jennifer Lawrence, Susanne Bier’s dark drama Serena, and Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, in which he plays Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. In November, Cooper will fulfill a long cherished dream when he steps on a Broadway stage to play deformed 19th-century legend John Merrick in a revival of The Elephant Man. It is becoming a truly serious career, but Cooper is a gifted goofball and so it is a delight to hear him embrace that so fully as Rocket.
Cooper has likened the pint-sized bounty hunter to Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. And, yes, Rocket is a motormouth with anger issues, which may relate to his small stature. Plus, Rocket has reason to be furious, thanks to his very nature. “I didn’t ask to be torn apart and put back together over and over and turned into some little monster!” is how the little raccoon puts it. But with Pesci’s Tommy DeVito, there are a lot of laughs until that rage surfaces in a violent eruption. In contrast, Rocket has a big heart beneath the bluster, expressed most profoundly in his friendship with the tree being Groot, but also emerging in the way he bonds with the other Guardians.
Rocket is also chaotic and unpredictable and snarky, but he’s ultimately a good guy and that snark makes him hilarious. Like his real-world counterparts, Rocket is maddeningly mischievous and can be truly annoying and is also ultimately disarming in his clownish charm. Guardians of the Galaxy wouldn’t be the same without him. Well cast, well rendered, and well served by director James Gunn and Nicole Perlman’s screenplay, Rocket is one of the keys to GOTG‘s success.—Pam Grady
No wonder Mick Jagger came on board as a producer to the James Brown biopic Get On Up. Fifty years ago, he and the Rolling Stones were the closing act, coming on after The Godfather of Soul and his Famous Flames’ 18-minute set at 1964’s T.A.M.I. Show. Brown’s performance is transcendent, otherworldly. Pity the fool that had to follow that. After 50 years, Jagger is still in awe and now he pays homage to the man with this kaleidoscopic drama. Anchored by 42 star Chadwick Boseman’s incandescent performance in the central role and directed by Tate Taylor (The Help), Get On Up is a magnificent mess, overlong and its various parts never quite gelling. But whenever Boseman steps on stage (which is often), like Brown at that long ago T.A.M.I. Show, the film is electrifying.
The approach that screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth take to Brown is nonlinear. They begin with a particularly low point in his life with his glory days seemingly behind him before heading backward, weaving back and forth in time. Here he is a little boy (Jamarion and Jordan Scott), caught between an indifferent mother (Viola Davis) and an abusive father (Lennie James), and eventually abandoned to live in a brothel with his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer). There he is a young adult honing his act with the Flames. There is again and now he’s a superstar.
In some ways, Get On Up takes a greatest hits approach to Brown’s life, as the film tries to cram in all of the highlights: the beginning of his collaboration and friendship with singer and musician Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), the most sustained relationship of his life; a meeting with Little Richard (Brandon Smith in a scene-stealing cameo) that changes the course of his career; his first meeting with agent Ben Bart (Dan Akroyd); the T.A.M.I. Show; the Apollo; Ski Party; 1968 Boston Garden, in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination; Paris 1971, etc. All of Brown’s funk and soul classics are represented as well: “Please, Please, Please,” “I Got You,” “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” and so much more.
At the same time, the drama contrasts Brown’s dazzling onstage persona with the fractious personality offstage. He could be petty, abusive to his wives and disrespectful to his bands. There is too much of the offstage melodrama, which becomes repetitive after a while. Like a lot of great artists, James Brown wasn’t necessarily a great guy. Establish that and move on. And moments where Boseman breaks the fourth wall to address the audience directly just don’t work. Spaced at odd intervals, those scenes don’t just break that fourth wall, they break the movie’s spell. The offstage scenes that work best are those with Little Richard, one of the few scenes where Brown is not fully in charge, and with Byrd and Bart, the two people who seem to most fully see past the bluff and into Brown’s heart.
All is forgiven every time James Brown steps on stage. Boseman’s performance overall is magnificent, but not for nothing was Brown often called “the hardest working man in show business.” No one could touch him on stage: not his voice, not his charisma, not his dance moves, or his boundless energy. Boseman has to put those last three things together while credibly lip-synching Brown’s voice. He’s flawless. Like the man he’s portraying, the actor seems to exist on a whole, other higher plane from mere mortals in Get On Up. Whatever the movie’s flaws, Boseman erases them in every musical scene. Or put it this way: Mick Jagger wouldn’t want to have to follow him, either.—Pam Grady