Wednesday, December 30, 2015


In retrospect, 2015 has been the year of my cinephilic recovery after 2014, which was one of the worst years of my life. The death of my beloved sister Barbara and a threatening HIV spike hindered my year with compounded stress and grief. By January 2015—recovering from illness in Palm Springs—I was exhausted with darkness and spent a morning stirring regrets and resolutions into my black coffee. I told myself, "Turn it around. Return to writing. Publish in national magazines. Do more on-stage presentations. Become more creatively and politically engaged in your communities."

My wishes came true. Within the month Cineaste accepted two of my interviews, Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive inivited me to participate in their Afterimage series and San Francisco publicists Larsen Associates invited me to conduct on-stage interviews with talent attending film openings in the Bay Area.

So I'm back, once again engendering mischief, with—as wordsmith Phil Cousineau has laid out—the understanding that "mischievous" stems from the same root as "achieve" (rising in popularity in the 14th century "to describe a malicious deed or a selfish accomplishment"). How much in love with words—whether spoken or written—can one fellow be to color some of his most favorite conversations of the year as "selfish accomplishments"? Here they are, offered alphabetically.

Photo: Andrea Chase / Killer Movie Reviews
Robert Gordon (Best of Enemies, 2015)—My third published interview with Cineaste (Fall 2015, vol. 40: 4, pp. 36-39) was with Robert Gordon during the 58th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival. His documentary Best of Enemies staged the opposed political views of William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, as aired live on TV in 1968. Their barbed comments and insults made for great political theater and Gordon's documentary (co-directed with Morgan Neville) proved an important contribution to media history, such that Best of Enemies has advanced to the Oscars® documentary shortlist. My conversation with Gordon also indirectly provided the best working definition of what I feel my job is as a film journalist. When I asked Gordon about meeting Gore Vidal, he relayed how nervous he was going into that interview. He worried, "This is a man who will be able to instantly recognize my ignorance, certainly compared to his intelligence, and will have no problem chewing me up and coarsely spitting me out." In his own defense, Gordon rallied: "It's not my job to be an authority on all this stuff. My job is to be inquisitive about these things, bring what knowledge I've got to it, dive into it open-minded, and learn." I can't find a better articulation of my own working methods.

Hao Hsiao-hsien (The Assassin, 2015)—Everyone and his sister interviewed Hao Hsiao-hsien during his press rounds promoting his much-anticipated chuan'qi, The Assassin. I can't take much credit for that opportunity; but, was pleased that I got him to talk about gun control in the United States. I didn't see him talking about that anywhere else, and felt it was an important corollary to the film's central theme of insurbordinate conscience vs. blind obedience. But, more importantly, I was delighted that Gary Mark Morris published the transcript "A Different Space and Time: Hou Hsiao-Hsien on The Assassin" at his site Bright Lights Film Journal (BLFJ). I've been wanting to publish a piece in BLFJ for years. When I first started writing on film back in 2005, BLFJ gave me the courage to advance the pleasure of queer readings of film. I look forward to an ongoing relationship with Gary and his site in years to come.

Michael Ironside (Synchronicity, 2015; Turbo Kid, 2015)—Genre icon Michael Ironside boasted two performances in films programmed at this summer's Fantasia International Film Festival and—though I got around to reviewing Synchronicity and interviewing its director (Jacob Gentry) and lead actor (Chad McKnight), I haven't yet had the opportunity to transcribe my conversation with Ironside; but, am thinking of pitching that one when it's done at Bright Lights Film Journal. Wish me luck.

Nino Kirtadze (Durakovo: Village of Fools, 2008; Something About Georgia, 2010)—I'm someone who needs their world news curated and the documentary genre has become my favorite way of learning about global issues, specifically events in Russia and surrounding regions. Discussing her documentaries with Nino Kirtadze at her Pacific Film Archive (PFA) residency in conjunction with their Afterimage series was welcome and rewarding. It was a delight to befriend her and I'm immensely grateful to Susan Oxtoby and PFA for their invitation. Kirtadze's Durakovo (winner of the World Cinema Directing Award at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival) profiles the autocratic head of a rehabilitation center outside Moscow, but leads us to consider how political power in the Russian Federation works today. Something About Georgia examines the August 2008 war with Russia over the disputed region of South Ossetia and Georgia's relationship with the European community. Our multiple conversations over her week-long residency have been transcribed and I'm in the process of drafting a feature article on same. I'm hoping to publish that one at Film International sometime next year. Once again, wish me luck.

Dolissa Medina (The Crow Furnace, 2015)—I never take for granted the good fortune (dare I say luxury?) of interviewing lauded film talent, but have long felt it important to give equal attention to filmmakers less well-known rising up through the ranks. When I can use The Evening Class to help promote the work of filmmakers who are also friends, it's even more satisfying. Dolissa Medina and I first met during our involvement with the Galería de la Raza's (Re)Generation Project, founded by Amalia Mesa-Bains in 1995 to facilitate the involvement of the next generation of the Bay Area's Chicano/a and Latino/a artists. Since then, she has advanced as a found footage filmmaker, with The Crow Furnace being her best work to date. I'm often interviewing talent in fancy hotels like the Fairmont or the Ritz Carlton but my conversation with Dolissa was made all the more memorable for being intimately tucked away in a café and in the shelter of a stairwell during a rainy San Francisco afternoon as we assessed our roles as economic exiles gauging how "all skylines frame spectacles of loss."

Caption: Andrea Chase / Killer Movie Reviews
László Nemes & Géza Röhrig (Son of Saul, 2015)—Among the nine films that have advanced to the Academy Awards® shortlist for Foreign Language feature, Son of Saul is reputedly the film to beat this coming year. Admittedly not a fan of Holocaust narratives, Son of Saul nonetheless captured my respect for achieving a subjective experience of the death camps rarely captured on film with no concessions to sentiment. It was great to have the chance to talk to first-time director László Nemes about his auteurial approach and first-time actor Géza Röhrig about how he crafted his characterization. A tremendous first effort on both their parts.

Steve SeidLong the champion of the film maudit and the eccentric, let alone caught in the gravitational pull of the pulp oeuvre of David Goodis, and an exponent of the Mexican mastery of cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, it was with considerable sadness and unflinching respect that I conducted an "exit" interview with PFA programmer Steve Seid upon his retirement. Seid's maverick programming over the years has provided many an insight, often delivered through a laugh, and I'll sincerely miss his curatorial signature in PFA's next phase of exhibition.

Photo: Adriana M. Barraza / WENN
Charlie Siskel (Finding Vivian Maier, 2013)—As part of its ramp-up to the Academy Awards® earlier this year when Finding Vivian Maier advanced to the documentary shortlist, a special screening was held in San Francisco to an invitation-only audience, and I was honored to be invited by Karen Larsen of Larsen Associates to introduce the film, engage director Charlie Siskel in conversation afterwards, and moderate a Q&A session with his audience.

Abderrahmane Sissako (Timbuktu, 2014)—And so we return to this entry's introduction where I am recovering from illness in Palm Springs while attending the Palm Springs International Film Festival, whose Awards Buzz program annually offers the Oscar®-shortlisted Foreign Language films. Affirming to publish in an American film magazine, I have to shout out here to Richard Porton who years back invited me to contribute to Cineaste, and who helped usher in my first manuscript for them—"Hidden Certainties and Active Doubts", my conversation with Sissako—thereby securing my first dream come true for the year. That conversation was published in their Spring 2015 issue vol. 40: 2, pp. 42-45. Moved by a real-life incident, Sissako's Timbuktu depicts how the "values of humanity" have been taken hostage by portraying the menace that Islamic fundamentalism poses for a family in Timbuktu. Elegant and kind as we conversed, Sissako further reminded me that—along with documentaries—conversations with foreign directors allows me a sense of being in communication with the world.

Photo: Rick Madonik / Toronto Star
Andrey Zvyagintsev (Leviathan, 2014)—Likewise in Palm Springs, and again as part of their annual Awards Buzz program, I had the opportunity to meet and share a delicious lunch with Russian nominee Andrey Zvyagintsev and his expert translator Roman Skryabin. Imagine my pride when Cineaste not only published my Sissako interview in their magazine but featured my conversation with Zvyagintsev as a website exclusive! A double hitter in the first inning! Cineaste is currently reformatting their archived Web Exclusives to adhere to the design of their new website. The archives will be available again in the near future; hopefully my "conversation with Andrey" will be among them.

Photo: Kate Grosswiler
Honorable Mention: Sun Blood StoriesFinally, and again within the satisfying domain of friendship, I was delighted to flex my wings a bit to interview Sun Blood Stories, hailing from Boise, Idaho. It's truly different to interview musicians than film talent and I appreciate that my friends were so patient with this fledgling effort. The music scene in Boise, Idaho far outshines its film scene so, perhaps, coming years will see a shift at The Evening Class towards that direction? But those are conversations for another time. See you next December.

Thursday, December 24, 2015


For as much merriment as the Christmas season promises, the holidays prove melancholic for many, either for lack or for the awareness of what others lack. Songs like Joni Mitchell's "River" have inadvertently become Christmas classics for expressing the sadness that many feel as the darkest days of the year shift at solstice towards a return of the light. Depression mingles with hope as the soul contemplates the image of the birth of light at he heart of darkness. Another song that musically expresses that mood would be Laura Nyro's "Christmas and the Beads of Sweat" (1970) from the album of the same name, wherein she incants:

"I love my country as it dies
In war and pain before my eyes
I walk the streets where disrespect has been
The sins of politics, the politics of sin
The heartlessness that darkens my soul On Christmas

Red and silver on the leaves
Fallen white snow runs softly through the trees
Madonnas weep for wars of hell
They blow out the candles and haunt Noel
The missing love that rings through the world On Christmas"

Infusing the season's carols with the longing loneliness of desire and the human weight of sorrow, Nyro made these classic tunes her own through the sheer force of interpretation, such as her unexpected version of "The Christmas Song" (written in 1945 by Bob Wells and Mel Tormé) mashed together with "Let It Be Me" (originally "Je t'appartiens", a French hit in 1955 written and first recorded by Gilbert Bécaud with lyrics by Pierre Delanoë, rendered into English in 1957, and made popular first by The Everly Brothers in 1960, but more definitively by Betty Everett and Jerry Butler in 1964).

Included within the posthumously released album Angel in the Dark (2001) was Nyro's cover of a Burt Bacharach and Hal David tune—"Be Aware"—originally written for Barbra Streisand's 1971 TV special. It's a song that I have come to associate with Nyro's cycle of (arguably, unintended) Christmas melodies for reflecting upon how we have lost the meaning of Christmas in our commodified celebration of plentitude. Along with the necessity of gratitude, the Christmas spirit challenges our willing charity with others. As corporate greed bridles our lives, generosity of spirit and soul seem at times like a midwinter dream. In Nyro's lovely rendition, she gently reminds us with unerring emotional precision—just when we have nearly forgotten—to be aware that somewhere in the world children are hungry while our stomachs are full, and that when we're feeling young someone is old, and that when we're feeling strong someone is weak, and while we speak our minds, somewhere someone cannot speak.

The following obituary originally appeared in the April 14, 1997 issue of the San Francisco Examiner under the title "Laura's Dead" and is being republished here—a sad, misplaced gift, perhaps, yet prescient in its own seasonal way—with the generous permission of its author Marc Huestis. For Marc, as for me, Laura Nyro remains a hovering angel, a holiday of memory, and a gift from the past to future generations.  A continuing promise of light in a world in love with war.

* * *

"I'm not scared of dying and I don't really care, if it's peace you find in dying well then let the time be near."—Laura Nyro, "And When I Die" (1969).

Laura is dead.

There are few cultural icons that are known by first name only. With these chosen few, we share such intimate, aching knowledge of their heart and soul through their art. Joni, Patti, and Laura....

The news of Laura Nyro's tragic death of ovarian cancer at age of 49 is devastating. Laura touched so many lives. As a rebel gay teen growing up in the white suburbs of New York, Laura spoke to me. She spoke of "Stoned Soul Picnic(s)", "Wedding Bell Blues", of "Sweet Blindness", of "Saving the Country", yes even of "And When I Die" (which she wrote at the amazing age of l6)!

Yes, she is remembered for these pulpy hits ... but that was not her best work.

I remember cold dark days when I would rush home from school to put on the well worn grooves of New York Tenderberry ... sitting in my darkened room pounding the imaginary keyboards, turning the volume up full blast as my immigrant mother begged me to "turn that noise down."

She sang of rage, loneliness, sex, and (yes) god. She sometimes screamed, sometimes purred, often wailed. "Gonna kill my lover man," Laura screeched in her masterpiece "Tom Cat Goodbye"; I had no lover man at that time, but I was still ready to kill him ... and kill for her. The girl was fierce.

In the era of the sixties, where most women dressed in varied patterns of potpourri, Laura wore black. Not that she was always dark. Born Laura Nigro in the streets of the Bronx, across from Spanish Harlem, she was a blooming rose. As a teen, she doo-wooped in the streets of Manhattan with the other neighborhood girls.

And in her teens, she wrote brilliantly of her New York. Her rhythms scooped and snapped. You could almost see the girls with anklets and laced blouses jumping rope while the sweating boys cooled off on gushing fire hydrants. From her song "New York Tenderberry": "rugs and drapes and drugs and capes ... sweet kids and hunger slums … sidewalks and pigeon ... you look like a city but you fee/like religion to me." She was an urban worshipper.

Later in her career she paid homage to these city streets in the breathtaking 1971 album Gonna Take A Miracle along with rhythm and blues divas Labelle. She proved with her covers of such classics as "I Met Him On A Sunday", "The Bells", "Spanish Harlem", "Jimmy Mack", and "Dancing in the Street" that she had Motown in her blood. The white girl had soul.

And her soul soared! Perhaps the most brilliant concert memories I had was seeing her on a stormy night at the Fillmore East. It was Christmas Eve, 1970, the year she released Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. A black begowned goddess appeared, surrounded by a sparkling Christmas tree and a plethora of red roses. Not saying a word, she sat at the piano, tossed back her long flowing black hair and took flight. As the hypnotized crowd listened in rapt attention, she tore into her version of Carol King's "Up on the Roof" and, as if on cue, the sound of pelting rain battering the roof accompanied her wailings. To this day that memory exists.

It has been written that she has influenced so many important artists, from Stephen Sondheim to Suzanne Vega. But the fact remains that she also influenced countless others: lesbian politicos, earth firsters, stoners, spiritualists, drag queens. And even in her most recent incarnation as earth mother, coming on stage bedraggled and untidy in flip flops and plain hippie skirt, her legends of fans followed. Her local appearances were filled with an eclectic blend of misfits that hung to every lyric, singing along as it were gospel. It was church and she was singing to the converted. Hallelujah!

In keeping with that spiritual bond, last night I lit a candle, darkened the room, and once again pounded on those imaginary keys. I called friends ... we cried, exchanged our favorite verses, and drank to Laura. She was our diva.

In this age of segmented identities, Laura found common ground—emotional truth, raw madness and pure joy. The fact that such a vibrant, important artist can die so young overwhelms. In an era where AIDS deaths numb, where internet suicides are frighteningly tidy, when pre-fab Madonna's and out-there Ellen's grab the spotlight, perhaps Nyro is an anachronism. Perhaps there will never be another Laura again? Still, I doubt if she would have agreed. We are left only with her words: "And when I die and when I'm dead, dead and gone they'll be one child born and a world to carry on."


Monday, December 21, 2015

BEST HORROR MOVIE OF THE YEAR: WE ARE STILL HERE (2015)—The Evening Class Interview With Ted Geoghegan & Travis Stevens

I could make a list this "Listmas" season. I could rattle off my top ten, or my top five. But why go through all that when—in my estimation—there so clearly is a top contender in this year's clutch of horror films? Namely, Ted Geoghegan's We Are Still Here (2015) [Facebook], which premiered to rave reviews at SXSW 2015, but which I caught mid-summer at its Fantasia screening in Montreal where—in his introduction—Geoghegan specified how much it meant to him to have his movie play the Concordia Hall Theatre at Fantasia, "the most important festival in the world." He couldn't think of a better festival to play horror, sci-fi or fantasy than Fantasia, whose audiences "get" these films, and which makes him feel "a lot less lonely."

"I grew up with the video store being my babysitter," Geoghegan explained. "Big box releases of Lucio Fulci's movies and Mario Bava's movies are the reason I got into film as a fan." We Are Still Here is his love letter to all those weird, ultra-melodramatic, mindfuck films from the late '70s. I could hardly wait after seeing the film to sit down with Geoghegan and his Snowfort producer Travis Stevens to talk about the project.

[This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!!]

* * *

Photo: Daniel Bergeron / Indiewire
Michael Guillén: Since I'm catching We Are Still Here at Fantasia, speak to me about "bringing it home" to Montreal and, perhaps, about why you elected to open elsewhere first?

Travis Stevens: When you decide to make a movie, you're always focused on what's in front of you. On the flight up here, when I really thought about the journey this movie had taken, and the fact that it had started with a coffee date across the street from this very building, I was like, "Wow, it's really crazy." At the screening, having it play so well, it was like being home. You can lose track each step of the way because it's such a long journey to get a movie made and out there, so it was really nice to have the journey come back so vividly.

Premiering elsewhere, a lot of that is about when you shoot the movie, when it's finished, and trying to shrink the window where the movie's just sitting there doing nothing. You basically want it to premiere as early as possible so that the buyers can see it as early as possible so that the investors can recoup their money as early as possible so you can move into your second film as early as possible.

Guillén: At its Fantasia screening, I was sitting a little behind and across the aisle from you and Ted and could watch you watching the movie. Watching you two added a lot to my enjoyment of the film because you were having such a good time with the audience reception.

Stevens: As I mentioned to you earlier, it was awesome watching Ted hit a guitar solo and watching the crowd respond to it. [Turning to Ted.] What was it like for you? What was it like being in a room where everyone got everything you were trying to do with the movie?

Ted Geoghegan: It was pretty awesome! It's definitely the most well-received screening we've ever had of the film—not to say that it wasn't well-received elsewhere—but, the audience at Fantasia is so genre-savvy that even the little intro speech that I've gotten oh-so-accustomed to doing felt completely unnecessary. I felt like I was preaching to the choir. There was no need for me to say, "If you grew up with '80s movies on big box VHS…." and I look out at the crowd and think, "Well, of course you did. Every single person in this room grew up with those movies." It was definitely a pretty awesome feeling just to hear the reactions non-stop. I've never been at a screening where literally every single gag got a reaction. That definitely says something for the audience and how the audience views movies like this.

Guillén: Talk to me a bit further about "shrinking the window" for the film and why that's important.

Stevens: We went into We Are Still Here with a partner who said, "Hey, rather than lose the momentum that comes from festival buzz, why don't we set a release date really close to the premiere and see how that plays?" That was kind of a new thing because normally you spend a year on the festival circuit, the movie comes out a year later, and then you have to rebuild the buzz. We premiered We Are Still Here in March and were out a few months later in June and the festival awareness of the film made the release work.

Guillén: That speaks as well to how viewing habits are changing over the years. You basically leapfrogged theatrical? You didn't feel a need to have a theatrical release?

Stevens: No, it had a theatrical release. A lot of these smaller genre films will have a "day and date" theatrical. We got up to 20-30 cities. It was like old school indie film releasing where you're in Cleveland, you're in North Carolina….

Geoghegan: "Wokashaw has a screen that will like us…."

Stevens: [Laughs.] Yeah, it was a weird thing where we had to have it in certain theaters in order for certain VOD providers to pick it up or charge a price point for it—some of it is a technicality of sorts—but, we were in New York and Los Angeles. It was nice watching it on a big screen with a big crowd; but, the thing is: nobody gives these movies a chance to grow an audience anymore.

Guillén: It's that first weekend or nothing?

Stevens: Even a movie like It Follows (2014) where their first weekend was on two screens and it did really well, instead of letting that grow over six months—like they would in the '90s, where they kept it in those two theaters for six months and built the audience and then went wide—now they're like, "Oh, we should go wide right now!" It all dies.

Guillén: Let alone that there's the social issue of people getting killed in theaters these days so that home entertainment systems feel safe, satisfying and, for many, preferable. Do you think the theatrical arm is going to become less important for genre films?

Stevens: My feeling is yes, unless the theatrical experience becomes something special, like what the Alamo Drafthouse is doing, or similar chains, where—you're not just choosing to watch a movie at home, or even out—you're having a meal or having some kind of special event around the screening. If distributors and exhibitors spent more time re-creating the theatrical experience, there could be really good money there.

Guillén: As I mentioned to you, Travis, when we chatted in front of our hotel, I wasn't aware until recently that you are the energy behind so many of the genre films that I've enjoyed in the past five years (A Horrible Way to Die, Big Ass Spider!, Cheap Thrills, Jodorowsky's Dune, Starry Eyes). It was about five years ago that Colin Geddes first brought to my attention the concept of "elevated genre." Can you both speak to where you fall within that? With so many indie genre films being made, what is it about "elevated genre" that you wanted to capture or that you feel you have captured with We Are Still Here?

Geoghegan: For me, I feel as though playing something unconventionally can be such an amazing boon for projects. Calling our movie "a haunted house movie" marginalizes how many different things it does. I think that's why people have responded so strongly to it. It's not just another haunted house movie. It plays with a lot of the traditional tropes but becomes its own thing. I feel that audiences are responding more and more to films that do that. They're starting to actually see some of the passion behind films like these. Travis mentioned It Follows earlier, which is such a great example of a film that's elevated genre. It's smart and has incredible subtext and speaks to kids without them even realizing that it's speaking to them. We need more of that. I don't want to see something that's been done a hundred times. That's why I was so excited about working with Travis because I feel everything he works on takes a concept that's tried and true but then does something unconventional with it and turns it into something special.

Guillén: The genre hybrid has also become such a kneejerk formula and I would say that the elevation of genre rests in how a filmmaker sophisticates that hybrid. As an audience member, let alone a critic, I've become frustrated with how so many horror films I see are being played for laughs.

Stevens: Because that's simple. I dislike the term "elevated genre" because, for me, it's like the term "grunge" to describe a rock band. A band doesn't set out to be a grunge band; they're a rock band. But such terms make it easy for people to wrap their heads around what differentiates them. With any film in any genre you should be trying to do something new, or something true. Especially with horror, I think what happened was that the people making horror films and the people watching them were riffing on the same old thing over and over again. Around the early 2000s when cameras started getting cheap enough and production started becoming cheap enough so people could start making their own movies, there were kids going out there trying to do something fresh with it, and some were successful, and that's what sparked the idea of elevated genre—which happened all over the world—but, now, it's just a misused marketing phrase for people to invest in your film or distributors to convince people their film is good.

Guillén: When it should be quality filmmaking from the get-go?

Stevens: Exactly! In general, what are you setting out to do with your movie? Even if it's not thematically groundbreaking, there should be some aspect of it that we haven't seen before. With Ted's script, yes, he wanted to honor the movies that he grew up with, but by layering in certain film techniques and by referencing different types of films from the era—and there are a number of layers going on—Ted's movie says, "Hey, we're trying to do something more ambitious than slam a cupboard, now you jump…."

Guillén: Or get dragged under a bed?

Stevens: Yeah.

Guillén: We Are Still Here definitely harkens back, as you intended, to the Lucio Fulci era, but I would even reference Val Lewton in that you use the unseen to build fear. It wasn't until way into the film that, as an audience, we finally see the true threat. Until then, you used those slow zooms into the dark hole in the basement wall to imply an ominous presence. You created a tension between light and dark, such that when you had that first flashlight streak across the basement wall, I shrieked. That was when I realized I was going to love your movie. I thought, "They have the tension down in the pacing." Can you speak to your sense of that pacing? And how you knew to use that pacing to effect scares?

Geoghegan: It being my first time to direct, I certainly learned a lot on set about how to set some of that up. On a script level, we'd always known that the film was—I don't like to use the term "slow burn" because, not only is it misused, but it also implies a rather tense fuse burning throughout the entire film that eventually explodes—whereas, this film plays for drama in its first act. It's really about these people and their loss and it just so happens there are some shadowy figures in the background; but, your focus is on the human drama of these two—and eventually four—characters. As we were shooting it, we all had a very good idea of how this was going to lay out; but, ultimately, in the edit we got to toy with how much of the ghosts we were going to show and how much of the tension we wanted to build through sound effects and music. The methodical pace of the movie started rearing its head in the edit, which I found exciting. While shooting it, I knew exactly how I wanted it to lay out but it wasn't until we got to tweak a few of those moments that we went, "There it is! That's exactly how it's supposed to land." That was fun.

In terms of how little do we show or how much do we show, we had this conversation on set numerous times: you can flip a script to a horror movie to where it says, "She walks down the dimly lit hallway with a figure behind her" and you go, "Ooooooooh, that's scary!" But it's taking that one sentence and actually making it a scary image on film that's the challenge. There were times when we were like, "All right, we got her walking down the hallway" and she's walking down the hallway and it's not scary at all. [Laughs.] It's so scary on the page, so why is not scary on film? For me, it was certainly an act of discovery as a first-time director to realize there is a craft to taking it off the page. For all my years as a screenwriter, I've always felt, "Well, I wrote the damn thing", but it was exciting to learn there was a lot that goes into crafting something as scary or as tense or as funny on the screen as it is on the page.

Guillén: Certainly some of the success of that pacing has to do with the characterizations of your actors and how they give flesh to the script. And specifically in We Are Still Here, I was struck by the age of your characters. They were predominantly middle-aged, which generates a completely different dynamic than if they had been teenagers in the same situation running around making stupid decisions.

Geoghegan: Right.

Guillén: Maybe it's because I'm getting older, but nothing annoys me more than teenagers running around in a movie making stupid decisions. Can you speak to why you made your cast of characters middle-aged?

Geoghegan: The horror movies that I grew up watching had middle-aged characters. Some of my favorite films from the '70s into the early '80s have middle-aged characters. It's not an issue. It's not something that felt different at the time. I didn't grow up with these movies even thinking, "It's interesting that I like this movie with these older people in it." I watched The Changeling or The Beyond because they were scary. These are movies where the central cast would be anywhere from 40 to 60. I started realizing how much I missed that and—even though I'm a huge fan of slasher movies—it was the slasher craze in the early '80s that took the focus off the adults and started putting it on the horny teenage kids, which became the selling point of the movies: the sex and violence, as opposed to a more mature style of storytelling.

Maturity comes not only from the script but from the talent that's involved. One of the reasons my movie works so well is because of the gravitas a lot of actors brought with them into the film. They have years and years, decades, of experience that helped shape the maturity of the movie. I've had several people mention, "We Are Still Here is very mature and you're only 35." I wrote it attempting to be as mature as possible and aping a lot of the situations that I had loved in more mature horror films that I'd watched growing up. But I do also think a lot of it is due to these people coming onto my set who have been acting longer than I've been alive, in some cases twice as long as I've been alive.

Guillén: I was equally struck by the elemental binary between the wintry snow and the fiery ghosts. Can you speak to that decision?

Geoghegan: That was Travis's call, weirdly enough. The first version of the script was actually set in Autumn and Travis brought up the idea that upstate New York in the dead of winter would change the dynamic of the film a lot.

Stevens: Sometimes an idea will come purely off the surface, as with the older characters—"That's different. I haven't seen that in a while. I like it."—or the third act—"That's great. A slow burn into total chaos. I haven't seen that before." Opting for snow was a similar thing. We had been at a festival in Boston, I was driving home to Vermont, then was out for a walk that night and I thought, "The winter is cool. The way the sound carries—how silent it is and what you hear the trees doing—that's a creepy environment. I should try to find a horror film to do in winter." Then when Ted's script came in, I thought, "Oh wow. What if we put that in winter?" The initial idea was just surface but then I started analyzing how winter would isolate these characters even more and—as you said—provide a juxtaposition to the burnt ghosts. Sometimes a deep idea can be triggered by a surface thing and then it works out really well.

However, shooting in the snow was unbelievably miserable. I had been reading about The Revenant and its production schedule and thought, "Yeah. Shooting in the snow is incredibly brutal." We suffered every day; but, we ended up with images that—if we hadn't—the movie would have been a little less interesting.

Guillén: Your cinematographer Karim Hussain was quite brilliant in what he captured with his interstitial landscape imagery. Case in point would be his initiating shot of—what I call—snow devils. It was beautiful, but also somehow ominous at the same time.

Geoghegan: Those wisps of wind and snow were not only the first image of the film but the first shot of the production. We snow-shoed out into the fields behind the house, set up, and waited and waited and waited for that perfect gust of wind to go by.

Guillén: In contrast to that snow, let's talk about your burning, vengeful ghosts. How did you go about creating them? They were effective.

Geoghegan: The idea was to do something slightly fantastical but still somewhat grounded in reality. You have this family that was burnt to death in the 1800s but we didn't want them to look like true medical journal burn victims. Having them be jet black like shadows seemed fantastical and fun and felt like something we hadn't seen that much before. A lot of the inspiration came from Marcus Koch, our main special effects supervisor, and his incredible special effects team. He's well-known for his burn make-up so we told him, "Use that burn make-up that you do, but do something different with it, do something that makes it a little more fantastical." He created authentic burn make-up, then covered it in a black ash. The clothing they're wearing is also black.

We tweaked that idea of how to make them—not fake—but fantastical. There's a reason why they all have hair. Of course, if you were burned alive, you wouldn't have hair. Even Papa Dagmar has a beard mushed on to his face. You only catch glimpses of this, but it's those glimpses that help set them apart as original and different. The three actors who worked with us completely got into these roles. It wasn't like a stock stand at the end of the hallway. They roll. We had back stories for these characters. We pushed them to emote. For those quick, little glimpses that you get of them, hopefully they come off as real as the living, breathing characters in the film. At the end of the day, there's all these families in the house and the Dagmar family, the ghost family, is one of the most important. For us, making sure that the Dagmar family landed as actual characters—even though you don't see them very often—was definitely something we were determined to nail.

Guillén: Who was your effects team?

Geoghegan: The company is called Oddtopsy FX based out of Tampa, Florida and run by my dear friend Marcus Koch. He brought in his own team. They worked 24/7 for a good month and a half.

Guillén: Did they also do the final credits sequence?

Geoghegan: You mean the newspaper sequence?

Guillén: Yes.

Geoghegan: No, we had a different team for that.

Guillén: That was another interesting creative decision to provide the film's back story through that newspaper sequence.

Geoghegan: There was a long discussion about how much do we tell? How little do we tell? At one point we toyed with the idea of having that newspaper sequence at the beginning of the movie to offer more context for people before everything happens. Once we started placing in those moments, we started realizing that the mystery of this family and this house is the joy, especially of the first act where you know something is off but that's all you know. I think of the newspaper clippings at the end as an Easter egg for people who want to stay and sit through the closing credits. They're extremely detailed. I wrote all the articles, to the point where—with the Blu-ray—you can pause it and read the whole history in these articles. That was really fun and done by Glenn McQuaid and Lee Nussbaum, who are digital effects artists and directors themselves. Glenn is well-known for I Sell the Dead and he also does the Tales From Beyond the Pale radio show.

Guillén: Over the last 7-8 years of covering genre films, it's become apparent to me that there's a collaborative network of creative agents who are all helping each other with each other's projects. Is this essential at this point? And how much of that played into your having the opportunity to actually direct a film?

Geoghegan: It played a massive part. If it wasn't for this supporting network of people, I wouldn't be here as a director, but I wouldn't be here as a publicist. I don't believe in karma, but I do believe that—if you're a good person and hang out with good people—good things tend to happen. The genre scene right now—especially on the independent level—is filled with the most helpful, collaborative, caring people and I'm happy that so many of them opened the doors that led me to Travis. I'd like to think that not only do I consider them friends but they consider me a friend.

Stevens: The cross-pollination that happens is similar to the music scene. Your band opens up for another band and you jam with their guitarist. That energy that's being transferred between these filmmakers—"I want to read your script" or "You're going to direct this script I wrote" or "I'll produce the one that you wrote"—is how it works. Ted worked with Evan Katz and I on Cheap Thrills. That brotherly, in-the-trenches-together kind of thing, means, "I like this person. I want to work with them." Evan helps us by coming to screenings at my house. This collaborative process is 100% a huge factor in why these movies are at the quality they're at.

Guillén: Which speaks as well to the necessity of wearing multiple hats? You started out in sales, Travis? You finally got production by mastering sales? And you've been doing publicity work, Ted, for years, crossed over to screenwriting, and now directing. Wearing multiple hats is also a prerequisite in today's independent genre filmmaking?

Geoghegan: For me it's a necessity, not only out of an attempt to move forward professionally, but as a personal necessity. I'm a workaholic and I don't think I would be happy being just one thing. I have to have my hands in lots of different places in order for a feeling of fulfillment. I'm deeply fulfilled by my movie. I love that I wrote it, I love that I directed it, and I can't wait to do other things; but, I also love the fact that I can come to film festivals like Fantasia and be a publicist and still interact with people and have a conversation like this one. Especially in the current cinematic landscape we're in, the more hats you wear, the better off you will be.

Guillén: It seems altogether more honest. I was amused by your Facebook post after your Fantasia screening where you said, "I'm a star tonight, and a grunt the next." [Laughs.] Thank you both so much for your time. I'll leave you be so you can go catch your evening cocktails.

Stevens: It's really important to be drinking day seven in a row!!

Sunday, December 20, 2015


'Twas the week before Christmas and all through the town,
Seasonal classics are playing, both upstairs and down.
We re-watch them all yearly (on big screens and small),
Mesmerized by our favorites, heart-warmed by them all,
But that gets rather boring, so we need something new,
So let's watch Santasploitation and quaff a strong brew.

Christmas movies are unjustly neglected. Fantastic Holiday films are one of the oldest, most consistently popular film genres and deserve more respect. The audience's appetite for them has remained constant since 1898 when George Albert Smith released Santa Claus.

Edwin S. Porter's adaptation of Clement Moore's 1823 poem "The Night Before Christmas" was released in 1905, just two years after The Great Train Robbery—one of the first narrative films.

Charles Dickens inspired the 1901 release Scrooge (Marley's Ghost) and another version of A Christmas Carol appeared later that decade (1910).


Most low-budget domestic and imported Christmas tales were created as disposable commercial enterprises designed for brief cinematic engagements, so they usually have low (or no) production value, and the existing prints are often far from pristine. But, like Frosty the Snowman (1954), occasionally one of these yearly Saturday matinee screen-fillers was imbued with something special: joyful infectious peculiarity. These rare gems continue to find new audiences online and in sporadic theatrical screenings at extremely cool venues.

Prepare yourself to forgo the familiar danger of a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. Leave behind the comforting sagas of George Bailey, the Grinch, Charlie Brown, Rudolph, Ebenezer Scrooge, the Heat Miser, Jack Skellington and "Sparky" Griswold—and cross the threshold into a far stranger realm of outlandish entertainment: the wonderful world of Santasploitation. Holiday exploitation breaks down into three broad categories: Holiday Horror, Santa: Man of Action and Misfit Toys. The entire genre is rich with surrealism, exotica, bizarre musical choices, bright colors, technical ineptitude, little people, shiny things, love and compassion, and screaming. The great works of Santasploitation range from the sublime to the ridiculous—and beyond.

The following festive selection of peculiar Seasonal treasures are for cinephiles with a hankering for truly unusual cinema. A word of warning: fortify your eggnog to more fully appreciate the unique charms of Magic Christmas Tree and Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny.

The Spirit of Christmas: Jesus vs. Santa (1995) is the funniest personal video Christmas card ever commissioned by Fox executive Brian Graden—and it's the origin of South Park.

The Star Wars Holiday Special—This gets better every year. In 1978, everyone except Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing were (somehow) convinced to reunite for this completely misguided television special. To no one's surprise, it was never officially released after its initial broadcast on CBS. Art Carney, Diahann Carroll, Harvey Korman and the Jefferson Airplane join Han, Chewie and the rest of the gang on Kashyyyk for a "Life Day" Wookie reunion. But that's not all! Bea Arthur breaks into song in the Mos Eisley cantina, and stalwart Canadian character actor Don Francks (working steadily since 1954) voiced the first appearance of Boba Fett in a short segment from acclaimed Canadian animation house Nelvana.

The Junky's Christmas (1993)—William S. Burroughs wrote and narrates this award-winning stop-motion masterpiece produced by Francis Ford Coppola. This is a touching, consistently rewarding film that demands to be seen—every year.

The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus (1985)—L. Frank Baum's little-known tale of the origin of Santa. For many years, this was the weirdest Christmas special I'd ever seen (even topping Rudolph's Shiny New Year (1976)). Thankfully, this one still receives an occasional television broadcast, so watch for it!


Stalking Santa (2006)—Dr. Lloyd Darrow is in search of Santa Claus. However much the government conspirators try to cover it up, the shocking truth of the man-in-red will be revealed! Narrated by William (T.J. Hooker) Shatner.

Santa Claus (1959)—In 1960, Saturday Matinee exploitation impresario K. Gordon Murray released (and narrated the English dub of) Mexican director René (Night of the Bloody Apes) Cardona's foray into Santa Action. The classic weird Santa film is the colorful bizarre, creepy, surrealistic musical fable of Santa Claus and Merlin the Magician vs. the old Devil Pitch (who bears a remarkable resemblance to Satan). SPOILER ALERT: Santa's magic key, sleeping powder and dreaming powers eventually save Christmas Day. This one is guaranteed to jingle the bells of the hardest-hearted Grinch. For more about the Godfather of Kidsploitation, check out The Wonder World of K. Gordon Murray (2010) in COLORSCOPE.

He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Special (1985)—Two children from Earth are marooned on the Planet Eternia at Christmastime, but they are far too cheerful for Skeletor and Horde Prime. He-Man and She-Ra to the rescue! Who will survive and what will be left of them?

True Boo (1952)—The restless spirit of a dead child walks the earth fruitlessly searching for a playmate to ease his eternal, inescapable loneliness. After writing a letter to Santa Claus to ask for a friend, three sadistic demons steal it and torment the doomed young phantom. He sets off to find a friend and stops when he hears the wracking sobs of a young boy. Santa Claus has never visited, so Billy doesn't believe. The ghost disguises himself as Santa and creates toys until Billy's mother (who seems to be a showgirl) wakes up, disrupts her neglected child and banishes the restless soul. Thankfully, overcome by the Christmas Spirit, she invites the Phantasm to return and create more toys for her lonely abused offspring.


Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)—Santa Claus gets kidnapped and taken off-world by jealous Martians in Pia Zadora's film debut. Arguably, the best Santa Claus vs. invaders from Mars film ever made.


A Cosmic Christmas (1977)—The debut film from Nelvana (the animators behind Boba Fett, Droids, Ewoks, and Rock & Rule), is deeply weird. Very much a product of the post Star Wars cultural shift, this is a spacey—not really aimed at kids—late 1970s cartoon. Three aliens (who could pass for the rhythm section of any late '70s prog-rock band) visit Earth to investigate a mysterious 2000 year-old stellar phenomenon and hang out with troubled street youth (with great '70s hair).


Magic Christmas Tree (1964)—A witch, a young boy, a magic ring and an indestructible (though well-trimmed) talking tree who uses arcane spells grants three wishes to a young lad who promptly changes night to day and raises a real ruckus with driverless out-of-control vehicles—and then he (and the evil tree) use a wish to selfishly kidnap Santa Claus. Then a giant appears and threatens to enslave the boy and mete out terrible punishments. Good grief!


Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972)—Santa's sleigh gets stuck on a beach in Florida, so he psychically wills children and animals to come help him. He's still stuck so he introduces a completely different hour-long film, until the ratty Ice Cream bunny arrives on a fire engine. Simply jaw-dropping.

Other Ho Ho Horror treats include Silent Night Deadly Night (1984) (although you may want to watch Silent Night Deadly Night 2 (1987) instead, since it includes all the gruesome violence from the first film plus all-new kills). James Caan, Fran Drescher and Robert Culp join former WWE wrestler Bill Goldberg as he dons the red suit and kills everyone in the pitch-black comedy Santa's Slay (2005). Jack Frost (1997) sports a pre-American Pie Shannon Elizabeth facing off against a horny, homicidal snowman. Digging up Santa Claus from a giant burial mound in Finland proves to be a terrible mistake in Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010), and jolly old St. Nicholas is definitely not to be fooled with in the stylish Sint (2010), from Dutch director Dick Maas (The Lift, Amsterdamned).


Last but not least, the late Bob Clark (Porky's, Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things) deserves a shout-out for directing two perennial Holiday classics: the utterly charming, and eternally delightful A Christmas Story (1983), and 1974's influential slasher masterpiece Black Christmas with Olivia Hussey and Kier Dullea. The ad campaign traumatized an entire generation of latch-key kids. Even the 30 second tv spot was disturbing and absolutely unforgettable. "If this movie doesn't make your skin crawl, it's on too tight." Ho Ho Ho!

Bruce Fletcher owns all of the stop-motion Rankin/Bass Christmas Classics and has an extremely odd collection of ornaments on his Christmas tree.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

WE COME AS FRIENDS (2014)—An Evening Class Question for Hubert Sauper

I first watched Hubert Sauper's We Come As Friends (2014) at the 2014 edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival, where Curtis Woloschuk synopsized in his program capsule: "South Sudan may have declared its independence in 2011 but that hasn't kept outside forces from staking their claims in the world's newest country. A Chinese oil company is exploiting the natural resources, sapping 300,000 barrels a day from the ground and contaminating the equally precious drinking water in the process. Meanwhile, American missionaries are exerting their religious influence, offering education in exchange for compliance with their notions of propriety. Having liberated themselves from the devil they knew—Sudan President Omar al-Bashir, charged with genocide in Darfur—these embattled people now find themselves confronted by a new breed of predatory adversary that's eager to reap financial gains while turning a blind eye to the human cost of neocolonialism. An uncompromising documentarian, Hubert Sauper collected a much-deserved Special Jury Prize for 'Cinematic Bravery' at January's Sundance Film Festival. Crossing South Sudan in an aircraft he constructed himself, Sauper captures staggering images of the fledgling nation while simultaneously achieving a remarkable intimacy with its people. While on the ground in this unstable region, he poses the direct, difficult questions that need to be asked and frequently receives harrowing answers. His previous film, Darwin's Nightmare (2004), earned him death threats. The unflinching We Come as Friends should prove no less incendiary."

I welcomed the opportunity to watch Sauper's documentary over a year and a half later as a ramp-up to the 2016 edition of the Academy Awards®, where We Come As Friends has achieved the short list of 15 films considered for Best Documentary. If anything, this is a reminder of how films gestate and mature over a long period of time and a filmmaker has something of a parental responsibility to walk their film through both its festival life and—with any luck at all—it's later theatrical run, through Awards Season. We Come As Friends proves that this can be a commitment that takes years.

Hubert Sauper flew to the Bay Area from Europe and had arrived no less than a hour before appearing at San Francisco's Dolby Lab for a consideration screening, introducing his film, engaging in an on-stage conversation with Michael Fox, and then fielding questions from the audience. I seized the chance to ask the following.

* * *

Michael Guillén: As a documentarian, you impose yourself into your film—not as a character, but as a presence—and I understand that imposition to be a form of witness, and your craft as a filmmaker to be that of articulating your witness. My question, however, is technical, and has to do with your editing. You enter and witness many scenarios in We Come As Friends, they build up one on top of the other, one after the other, until they achieve a certain din of hypocrisy, a certain sound level, if you will. And then, suddenly, you interject Malia's jazz vocals to calm the din down. You did this two or three times. It felt like you were putting water on too much heat. Can you speak to that editorial decision?

Hubert Sauper: You just gave the answer. It's a great answer. When you edit a movie, you take a big audience—who you do not yet know—on a journey, right? You say, "Look, guys, you're going to sit here for two hours and I'm going to bring you on this journey." There are moments when there's too high a concentration of bullshit, or of militarism, or of information that brings you into despair that you just can't take anymore. Then you need a moment of reflection, a moment of calm, or a moment of something completely different that is also abstract. When you see someone's land being taken away from them, 6,000 acres gone, it's so precise, so complete, and revolting that it brings you into a state of despair—if you're a feeling person—and if you don't get a moment of looking over a river or just breathing or flying without noise, then you cannot take the next scene.

Guillén: But the choice of jazz, instead of—let's say—a classical adagio?

Sauper: It's not an intellectual decision. I tried a couple of things. I tried Phillip Glass. I tried classical music. None of that worked. And I didn't choose jazz because jazz is associated with Black culture in America—absolutely not—though some people may read it that way. I can't blame them. It's an instinctive thing. I tried different things, but when I used Malia, it worked. There's no explanation for why or what—I can't even explain why—and, of course, for some people it doesn't work. For some people the whole film doesn't work. And that's just fine.

Guillén: It did work.


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

SON OF SAUL (SAUL FIA, 2015)—The Evening Class Interview With László Nemes & Géza Röhrig

Photo: Andrea Chase
Winner of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival's Grand Prize, as well as the FIPRESCI Prize, the François Chalais Award, and the Vulcain Prize for technical artistry, as well as being Hungary's Official Selection for the Academy Award® for Best Foreign Language Film, László Nemes's feature debut Son of Saul (Saul Fia, 2015) recounts the horror of 1944 Auschwitz, as Saul Ausländer, a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando—the group of Jewish prisoners isolated from the camp and forced to assist the Nazis in the machinery of large-scale extermination—is forced to burn the corpses of his own people, but finds moral survival upon trying to salvage from the flames the body of a boy he takes for his son. As the Sonderkommando plans a rebellion, Saul—intensely embodied in a riveting performance by poet Géza Röhrig (in his feature acting debut)—decides to carry out an impossible task: save the child's body from the flames, find a rabbi to recite the mourner's Kaddish, and offer the boy a proper burial.

At Fandor's Keyframe Daily, David Hudson has rounded up the reviews from both Cannes and the New York Film Festival. Further, the current issue of Film Comment offers commentary on the film, both pro (Jonathan Romney) and con (Stefan Grisseman). Son of Saul was also awarded Best Foreign Film by the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

László Nemes was born in 1977 in Budapest, Hungary. After studying History, International Relations and Screenwriting in Paris, he started working as an assistant director in France and Hungary on short and feature films. For two years, he worked as Béla Tarr's assistant and subsequently studied film directing in New York.

Géza Röhrig was born on May 11, 1967, in Budapest, Hungary. After a visit to Auschwitz during a study tour in Poland, he decided to become a Hasidic Jew in Brooklyn. He graduated from the Academy of Drama and Film in Budapest with a degree in filmmaking. He has lived in New York City since 2000 and has published many collections of poetry, including two on the theme of the Shoah.

Son of Saul opens in New York on December 18, and opens in San Francisco on January 15, 2016.

[This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!]

* * *

Michael Guillén: An amazingly assured first feature!

László Nemes: Thank you.

Guillén: Can you speak a bit about the genesis of the project and what motivated you to take such a brave, bold first step?

Nemes: It started when I first read Mark Ber's The Scrolls of Auschwitz, the writings of the Sonderkommando members of the cerematoria in Auschwitz. Some of these journals were found after the war. They transported me, as a reader, into the here and now of the extermination. I wanted to find a way in cinematic terms to communicate with today's audience; to give them an intuition of the individual experience within the camp, and not from without, not from an external point of view. I felt the external points of view were so widely accepted as the position to view the Holocaust. So-called Holocaust cinema has been effective with the survivor's point of view, the exceptional point of view, the angle that you can never have as the victim from within, but always giving the audience a positive meaning from the outside. I really wanted to change that and that's why I made this film.

Guillén: I presume that you knew that approach would be controversial?

Nemes: In what way?

Guillén: It has polarized the critical audience….

Nemes: I don't think it has polarized the critical audience. When you have 85%-90% of critics saying it's an important film, I don't think you can say it has polarized the critics. Although certainly some people—particularly the French—found the film systematic. They said you cannot think while you are watching the film. But I don't think they understand that that's exactly why I did it. When you're immersed in the situation you say something about the individual experience in the camp. Thinking comes after the war. In cinema, we're so used to the external point of view, which offers the best angle to be in a comfortable position as a viewer. But the Holocaust is not a comfortable position and I wanted to say something about the nature of it. The critics who are saying Son of Saul is polarizing are not really thinking about the film, but are talking about the subject of the film.

Guillén: Deciding to focus on an individual perspective of the death camps, this is where the casting of Géza Röhrig as the individual became absolutely essential. Did you have him in mind from the beginning?

Nemes: No.

Guillén: How did you become involved in this project, Geza? Why did you decide to say yes to this project?

Géza Röhrig: I came in at quite a late stage. The first time that I read the script was the sixth version of the script—there were only seven versions altogether—but, I was convinced by the script. I had a lot of confidence in this movie.

Guillén: I have to say yours is one of the finest performances I've seen this year for being impeccably restrained, which leads to another question I wanted to ask. There's a built-in dialectic to the whole project, actually a couple of them, but the first is what I think of as almost a Dionysian frenzy, in the sense that one of the icons for Dionysos is the mask. A mask conceals as much as it reveals. It's, in fact, in the act of concealing that it reveals. I felt this with the film's commitment to close-ups on your face. Your face is amazing. You're not really emotive, one could mistakenly think you're not even expressive, and yet you're very expressive. Can you speak at all to the craft involved in creating this mask that was concealing and revealing at the same time?

Röhrig: That was the challenge of the character. When you have a movie that is made up entirely of close-ups where the viewer is going to be watching your face for 107 minutes from 30 inches, then the face—being the most expressive part of you—has to manage the issue of the audience not becoming bored with you. One of the "tricks" is that you have to remain enigmatic. You can't reveal too much. On the other hand, if you're giving the viewer too little, that gives them another reason to be bored.

I had to find a balance through using this triangle of the eyes and the lips and all these tiny little muscles engaged in gazing for such a long time, to give the viewer enough so that they wouldn't starve but not give too much so that they lose their appetite. That was the existential challenge. This was not a performance where I could show an emotional spectrum. I had very few lines. The scope was narrowed. My understanding was that—if I was in it—then the viewer would be in it.

Often times, people have asked me if I worked out the past history of Saul, and I did not. I felt that—if there were no secrets about him—to me, then the viewers would pick up on that. It's not that I was consciously hiding aspects of Saul's psyche or personality, but I did consciously shut in and stay away from getting into, building up, and coloring his figure a little too much. I, myself, had to be curious about him.

Guillén: As I was watching your performance, I was reminded of the well-worn adage that cinema is thought. Yours was one of the most thoughtful performances I've seen in some time, where I was engaged in thought with what I was imagining were your character's thoughts.

Röhrig: Adding to that just a bit, given the circumstances and conditions that Saul and his other Sonderkommando members were living under, this—what you call "thought"—is more a state of mind or mode of being. He was, in a sense, one thought—that was the issue—and that one thought was done with his whole being. His was an extreme reality, it was not a normative reality, and to do what he did mentally, and even physically, pushed him into an extreme, out of the ordinary, sphere. I agree with you that there was thought, but it wasn't necessary cognitive.

Guillén: The other dialectic built into the film, which fascinated me, was—as you were saying, László—the tension between an immersive, individual experience that's at the same time, perhaps necessarily, detached. It was especially pronounced technically, I think—along with Geza's performance—but achieved technically in the tension between sound and image; that is to say, between Mátyás Erdély's cinematography and Tamás Zányi's sound design. The image was focused on Saul with events in the background being a bit out-of-focus, so that the viewer couldn't really see what was going on, though the sound confirmed and emphasized what was going on, such that the viewer could imagine with precision and clarity the horrors that were going on. Can you speak to that decision to approach the events in the camp that way?

Nemes: It had to be an immersive experience and, in that, sound is very important. More and more, cinema is used to illustrate what you can see, whereby it loses its muscle, and becomes a means to shock the audience for whatever reason. It aligns with the cinema of attractions. We wanted to use sound to suggest much more than the image. In Son of Saul, the images are restricted but the sound always refers to something that's much larger. It's very important in building a mental perspective within the viewer of the suffering that's taking place, and the scope of what's in place, of the machinery of death that's functioning. The sound was a very important factor and it took a long time to design it, which was an intuitive process between me and my sound designer in how we made it happen. It was almost like composing a piece of music. We never used the same sounds. As we followed our main character, the sounds were always different and were always morphing into something else. The soundscape of Son of Saul is an organic world—the crematorium is almost like a living thing—and it took a tremendous amount of time for us to add all those layers of human voices. We have eight languages in the film that had to represent the Babel of languages taking place in Auschwitz that made it difficult for the individual to exist. The sound is also there to frustrate, you know? For the individual it was frustrating to have all these sounds with no key to unlock them. The sound participated in the sense of being lost.

Guillén: And sound slices into the body in the way an image cannot.

Nemes: Yes, that's true.

Guillén: Where I felt this the most was in the scene at the pit, which was horrifying in its random confusion. My final question, I have to inquire after the motivating impulse of the child and the visual and narrative rhyme between Saul believing the young boy was his son, which was held in abeyance….

Röhrig: But not his biological son.

Nemes: [To Röhrig] Why not?

Röhrig: What I mean is that it's ambiguous.

Guillén: That's right. That's how I mean it. Purposely ambiguous, even beautifully ambiguous, and equally ambiguous when he spots the young boy, the other child, just before he's executed. I know it's unfair to ask you to unpack that rhyme, but I'm genuinely intrigued. Especially as it resulted in Saul's final smile, which was possibly the most emotive moment of your performance. Can you speak to me about that smile?

Röhrig: I think there were two emotive moments. The first was when the boy was being killed. Saul's face is emphathetic at the moment the Nazi doctor is suffocating him; but, you're right about the smile. To me, Saul was not smiling at the Polish boy. That's directorial, and I understand it follows from the situation as it was being edited, but when I composed that smile I was basically smiling out of fulfillment. As Saul, I had saved my boy from the flames. I had done what I could. I had put whatever I had into the effort and the outcome was obviously never in my hands entirely. I was smiling because that effort was my life and I was possibly the happiest person there because I had a purpose that singled me out—just as the boy was singled out by surviving the gas chamber—and that singularity, somehow, was transmitted into me. Again, when I was smiling I wasn't smiling as some sort of message for the Polish boy to see my smile, but it was an internal smile, which would have happened even if there were no boy whatsoever. It was a smile that expressed in a couple of seconds a sense that my life was over. The Kabbalah speaks about death as being a kiss for the righteous. Saul's smile basically says that his life is complete and that—whatever is coming—is not so much a completion. He has had a full life.

Guillén: From your side of the lens, László, were you directing him that way? Was that the direction you were going?

Nemes: What do you mean exactly?

Guillén: Did you know he was going to smile like that?

Nemes: It was in the screenplay.

Röhrig: I was instructed to smile. I'm just saying why I smiled.

[At this juncture László Nemes expressed his discomfort talking about Saul's final smile, especially for readers who have not seen the film, and would only respond further off the record.]