Saturday, April 26, 2008

Ebertfest 2008: Day 3

Sleep deprivation is part of every festival, and I'm starting to hit the wall here at Ebertfest. This entry is going to have to be short and sweet.

-Skipped the morning panel to grab an extra hour of sleep and hopefully obtain a good spot in line for getting preferred seats in theater for myself and friends.

-SHOTGUN STORIES: David Gordon Green lent his name as a producer to give an assist to fellow film school classmate Jeff Nichols, who wrote and directed SHOTGUN STORIES. This lyrical Arkansas drama about two sets of feuding half-brothers bears some similarities to Green's work--strong sense of place, empathy for the characters--but Nichols' handsome and well-acted film differs in that it takes on a mythic quality. Ancient stories tell of quarrels between bloodlines. This one is no different, really, and just as tragic in its exploration of unarticulated emotions and male rage.

-UNDERWORLD: No, it's not the Kate Beckinsale movie with werewolves and vampires battling but the Josef von Sternberg silent gangster pic. The Alloy Orchestra returned to the festival to provide live musical accompaniment, which is always an Ebertfest highlight. The story and love triangle seem slight on this side of the passage of time, but von Sternberg populates the film with many wonderful visual flourishes--the party marking an evening of armistice among the city's gangsters, most notably--to stimulate.

-THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN: This documentary about an Illinois farmer who overcomes business failures and vicious community rumors deals with some of the same internal struggles regarding family property as the excellent film SWEET LAND, a drama that could be comfortably programmed at a future Ebertfest. THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN enjoys introducting viewers to this colorful individual as well as touching upon issues plaguing small family farms. It's an entertaining doc, but considering the plentiful home movies and videotape of Peterson, the film seems to reveal more about his personal philosophies than who he really is. The film wouldn't have been made if Peterson's longtime friend hadn't been behind the camera, but a more objective viewpoint likely would have helped in the areas where the film selectively leaves out information.

-MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS: Paul Schrader's biopic of the Japanese author Yukio Mishima was a challenging selection for the fourth film of the day, let alone one beginning after 10 p.m. I was not entirely up to the challenge as fatigue set in thirty minutes into the picture. I stayed awake for the most part, which allowed me to enjoy the exquisite production design, but I had a rough go of it trying to penetrate a movie about someone I knew nothing about. Schrader was here for the film and mentioned that Criterion is putting the film out on DVD. Purists can get ready to go into a tizzy because the director has inserted alternate skies for the home video version. He said that he wasn't satisfied with the more naturalistic look and that this change keeps those moments consistent with the heightened reality in the scenes from Mishima's novels.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Ebertfest 2008: Day 2

The first full day of Ebertfest '08 events included a morning panel discussion at the Illini Union and three features and one short at the Virginia Theatre. My morning began with a prematurely early wake up call that cut short an already abbreviated night of sleep, so I'm going to allow photos to do some heavy lifting and scratch down a few thoughts before I slump over the keyboard.

Timothy Spall and Shotgun Stories director Jeff Nichols

Chaz Ebert delivered the news that no one wished to hear but which came as no surprise: Roger has decided to focus on improving his health and will not be attending this year's festival. That he would even consider making a three-hour ride with a recently fractured hip should tell you how much he desired to join his festival family.

Housekeeping director Bill Forsyth and Delirious director Tom DiCillo

Film-wise the day for me could be summed up as muted enthusiasm. I liked Sally Potter's YES when I saw it during its original theatrical run, but I admire and appreciate the craft and technique rather than adore the film overall. The iambic pentameter dialogue is an interesting innovation but can be a bit distracting. Potter plays with the dichotomies of attraction/repulsion and God/nothingness in stimulating ways, yet I engage with the film intellectually much more than I do with the heart.

Rufus Sewell and Richard Roeper

I was less taken on both levels with DELIRIOUS, the day's first film. Tom DiCillo's satire about fame took six years to be realized, but it already feels dated in how it presents the chase for the next hot celebrity photo. (The internet is a non-factor in the film.) Steve Buscemi's scummy paparazzo and Michael Pitt's good-hearted homeless character build a friendship that strains under the pressure of Pitt's nascent stardom. The basic problem I have with DELIRIOUS is that its jaded attitude is not anywhere near as savage (or funny) enough about the absurdity of this high stakes publicity and fame game.

David Bordwell interviews the Canvas team (Joey Pantoliano, far right)

Prior to the third feature, the short film CITIZEN COHL: THE UNTOLD STORY honored the life of Dusty Cohl, a friend of Ebert and the festival. Cohl began the Toronto Film Festival and Floating Film Festival, but the smiling bearded man with the cowboy hat was remembered in the short as someone who brought people together. He was a fixture at Ebertfest, and this year's event is dedicated to him. He died this January, but from the testimonies of those at Ebertfest, his spirit lives on at places like this.

Thursday wrapped with CANVAS, a drama in which Joey Pantoliano and his son struggle to cope with Marcia Gay Harden's schizophrenia. The subject matter and filmmaking approach are of a piece with TV movies-of-the-week, but writer-director Joseph Greco earns a pass by dealing with mental illness in a straightforward manner light on actorly theatrics. In many respects this is a children's film. It's told from the boy's perspective and explores how his mother's illness affects his relationship with her as well as his dad. CANVAS is based on Greco's childhood, which may explain why this angle feels so honest.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Ebertfest 2008: Opening Night

Ed Tracy, David Bordwell, Rufus Sewell, and Timothy Spall

Tonight marked the beginning of the 10th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival--"overlooked" has been officially excised from the event's name--but it didn't feel quite the same without his presence on stage at the Virginia Theatre before and after the opening night film. The room felt more subdued. Roger's wife Chaz greeted the audience and left open the possibility that he might make it before all is said and done. I wouldn't bet against him showing up in Champaign-Urbana, but fracturing a hip is serious business. We'll see how things unfold.

Opening night tradition has been the presentation of a film in 70mm, and if I'm being completely honest, as good as the other festival films can be, it's often downhill after the first evening. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, PLAYTIME...these are giant films in cinema history, so it's no wonder that everything that follows cannot reach such lofty peaks.

Kenneth Branagh's four-hour version of HAMLET--the last movie shot in 65mm, I believe, and the only filmed version without any cuts to Shakespeare's text--received the honor this year. I saw it in early 1997 with intermission and all. That 35mm presentation made an impression on me--it made my top ten for the rudimentary year in review/pilot episode of Now Playing-- but it had nothing on the screening of the pristine print that unspooled at the Virginia.

One of the marvelous things about Branagh's film is how well he communicates everything that is going on. It isn't critical to understand every word or mythological reference; the performances and direction keep the audience in tune with the machinations and mental states of the characters. I read the play in high school and have seen at least two film versions about the Danish prince, but it is after tonight's viewing that I feel like I've scratched the surface a bit more than I ever have before. One could make a career of studying HAMLET. I was pleased to gain greater insight into it than I ever have.

Branagh's performance stands out, obviously. His Hamlet is funnier than the brooding Dane is usually remembered being, and he's also less mad. Rather, Branagh plays him as a man in control of his faculties and putting on the countenance of lunacy to advance his plans.

Richard Briers' Polonius is very funny as well and seems to me to be the great underappreciated performance in the film. Charlton Heston brings gravitas to the Player King. I actually thought Billy Crystal's shtick served the First Gravedigger role well. Robin Williams' hammy Osric doesn't feel right, and the less said about Jack Lemmon's Marcellus, the better.

HAMLET is also a terrific visual film. The great mirrored hall where so much of the action takes place is an outstanding piece of set design, not to mention a camera operator's nightmare. On a technical level the film is a rigorous piece of work, whether it's managing the scope or keeping momentum for one of the longest Hollywood films ever made.

After the film, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert's HAMLET review from their syndicated show was projected on-screen. It sounds as though this will be a recurring feature at the festival. It's a nice way of letting Ebert speak, even though he's currently unable to do so.

Timothy Spall, who plays Rosencrantz, and Rufus Sewell, who appears as Fortinbras, were on hand for the post-film Q&A. With the late start and 30-minute intermission, they didn't take to the stage until shortly after midnight, but their hour-long discussion flowed well. I didn't take notes during the Q&A, but one item of potential interest is that Sewell mentioned a director's cut of DARK CITY is forthcoming on DVD.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Pre-Ebertfest news

As I've been preparing to head out the door for my eighth trip to Roger Ebert's Film Festival, I saw the news that the host will not be able to attend this year.

It's unfortunate, to say the least, that Ebert will be in the hospital rather than his regular spot at the back of the Virginia Theatre. His triumphant entrance at last year's festival was an inspiring sight. The man loves what he does, and the people love him for it.

Film critics are stereotypically perceived as being elitist and standoffish--killjoys who fashion themselves superior to who and what they write about and those reading them. From my observations of Ebert at his festival, no one could make such charges about the most famous film critic in America, if not the world. He has time for those who wish to speak to him about their shared love for film.

Fifteen hundred people or so will fill the Virginia over the next five days, but there will be one empty seat. Without a doubt, Ebert will be missed at the fest bearing his name, but his love for movies and his hometown will be felt as the rest of us settle in for his tenth festival. Get well soon, Roger.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Forbidden Kingdom


Kung fu movie-obsessed teenager Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano) gets to emulate his cinematic heroes when he is magically transported to ancient China in THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM. Pawn shop owner Old Hop (Jackie Chan) entrusts Jason with a bowstaff and a promise to return the weapon to its rightful possessor. The next thing he knows, Jason is no longer in south Boston but in a foreign land.

His first acquaintance is Lu Yan (also played by Chan), an immortal who remains as such by imbibing a special wine. He tells Jason that the staff belongs to The Monkey King (Jet Li), a playful warrior turned to stone almost five hundred years ago by the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou). With his mission identified, Jason and Lu Yan set out for Five Elements Mountain to deliver the staff and bring about the downfall of the Jade Warlord and his fearsome army.

Joining them on the quest are The Silent Monk (Li, again) and Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu), a revenge-driven orphan who refers to herself in the third person. The Silent Monk and Lu Yan squabble over how best to train Jason, but together they sculpt him into a worthy fighter for the battle ahead of them.

A slapdash but amiable crossbreed of THE KARATE KID and THE WIZARD OF OZ, THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM functions as a martial arts cinema primer for American youth. References to better films abound, but for any youngster not old enough to be well-versed in the Shaw brothers, not to mention Chan and Li's best works, this is a decent introduction that may encourage curiosity in boys who identify with Angarano's character.

THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM pairs Chan and Li for the first time on-screen, yet this is far from an ideal showcase for the top martial arts stars of their generations. Hong Kong legend Yuen Woo-ping choreographs some good fights combining Chan and Li's styles, most notably their temple showdown, but in the grand scheme of things they are relegated to supporting roles despite receiving top billing. Even if they weren't intended to be the primary players, the film could have had more fun with them as they train their eager pupil. Audiences and the stars deserved more than one brief scene of the mentors' differing fight philosophies.

John Fusco's screenplay devotes inordinate time to convoluted backstory that ultimately doesn't matter, and director Rob Minkoff, whose family-friendly filmography includes STUART LITTLE and its sequel, seems more comfortable with the fantasy elements than the action. Still, amid the thin characterization, cliché-ridden dialogue, and uneven presentation of the fight scenes, one's inner adolescent thrills at the acrobatic fisticuffs and ignores the flaws. THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM doesn't live up to its mythic story or the potential in Chan and Li's momentous meeting, but the boys emulating their moves in the backyard will probably think it's cool anyway.

Grade: C+

Friday, April 18, 2008

Zombie Strippers


George W. Bush, topping a ticket with Arnold Schwarzenegger, is reelected to a fourth term as President, albeit with some well-placed assistance from faulty Florida voting machines and Supreme Court justice Jenna Bush. Congress is dissolved. American war expansion rivals McDonald's franchises for global ubiquity. Public nudity is declared illegal. What a future. And then there are the undead pole dancers that give ZOMBIE STRIPPERS its title.

With wars being waged on so many fronts, the number of available soldiers is dwindling. To combat the problem scientists develop a chemo virus that will reanimate troops killed in action. This battlefield technology enters the general public when an infected soldier escapes from the research lab to an underground Sartre, Nebraska strip club.

Headlining and Nietzsche-reading stripper Kat (Jenna Jameson) becomes his first victim, but as it goes for more reputable artists, dying is a terrific career move for the topless dancer. Kat's zombie stripper act drives the men crazy and rakes in the money. Seeing how successful it is when the undead can dance, club owner Ian Essko (Robert Englund) chooses to keep her around while many of her fellow strippers also opt for this latest biological enhancement.

As if the title ZOMBIE STRIPPERS isn't enough of a tip-off, lead performances by a porn star and the guy who played Freddy Krueger let it be known that this is Z-grade schlock usually sent straight to video, even though the film is getting a limited theatrical run. True to the title, there's plenty of brain and viscera munching and an abundance of stripping. Neither will get pulses racing despite the second act being almost nonstop stripper routines. The bigger question is whether there's more latex covering skin or silicone underneath it in the film. It's probably a toss-up.

Like so many exploitation movies, the name of the film is more enjoyable and memorable than the actual product. Unsurprisingly ZOMBIE STRIPPERS is poorly acted, written, directed, edited, and lit, but it is so tedious to watch that this might be the first movie that would be improved if Uwe Boll were calling the shots. At least the oft-derided director would have dropped the pretense of shoehorning in political subtext in an attempt to bring class to such a trashy film.

Writer-director-cinematographer Jay Lee strains to make a statement about the Bush administration, but his clumsily integrated rants are as politically and intellectually juvenile as those of an anonymous blog commenter. Zombie movies, particularly George A. Romero's, may function as mirrors of current events, but just because something is an allegory doesn't mean it has anything to say. Using the word "ontological" in dialogue doesn't make it smart either.

ZOMBIE STRIPPERS is also plagued with excessive self-awareness of its campy qualities. When the film isn't annoying with its pseudo-braniac act, it's irritating with the nudge-nudge acknowledgement of its intentional badness.

Forget high art. Assessed on its own terms, ZOMBIE STRIPPERS takes it all off only to reveal nothing's there.

Grade: F

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Shine a Light

SHINE A LIGHT (Martin Scorsese, 2008)

Martin Scorsese, one of the most important directors of his generation, and The Rolling Stones, one of its defining bands, combine talents for SHINE A LIGHT, a concert film documenting the group's performance at New York City's Beacon Theater in 2006. Special guests Buddy Guy and The White Stripes' Jack White appear, connecting the band with their roots in American blues and perhaps passing the torch to one of today's most notable practitioners of the tradition. Christina Aguilera also drops by for a duet with Mick Jagger, although how she fits into this is less clear.

As one of the editors on WOODSTOCK and director of films about The Band and Bob Dylan, Scorsese knows his way around a rock doc. Filmed by Jean-Luc Godard, the Maysles brothers, and Hal Ashby, the Stones have been no strangers to cinema during their storied career. SHINE A LIGHT doesn't break any new ground for Scorsese or the Stones, but it's an enjoyable showcase for the prodigious skills the director and band have.

Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson draft a camera-operating dream team consisting of many of the best lensers in the business, including Robert Elswit, Ellen Kuras, and John Toll. Whether fixed on flamboyant frontman Jagger or catching winded drummer Charlie Watts after tearing through EXILE ON MAIN ST.'S "All Down the Line", the cameras always appear to be in the perfect spots to capture the dynamics on stage and between the performers and crowd.

After decades of playing stadiums, the band is accustomed to performances writ large to reach the back rows. Although playing a comparatively small room in SHINE A LIGHT, the IMAX version of the film brings intimacy and enormity to the concert. The closeness of the cameras and enhanced image resolution catch details invisible even from the front row while the bigger frame makes Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and Watts tower over the audience like the rock giants they are.

The Rolling Stones have been playing rock and roll since the early 1960s. Although not now as artistically or commercially relevant as in their heyday, they are still going strong more than forty years later. Probably for close to half that time the band has been asked how long they will stay at it.

The once smooth cheeks and rebellious swagger have given way to relief map-like faces and institutional approval--the concert was a benefit for the Clinton Foundation--but in crosscutting yesteryear's news clips questioning their staying power with a still energetic live show, SHINE A LIGHT celebrates the Stones' music and longevity with a mischievous wink of the eye. They've probably played "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" thousands of times, but the Stones attack it like a brand-new song. Time is on their side after all.

Grade: B

Friday, April 04, 2008

The Ruins

THE RUINS (Carter Smith, 2008)

In THE RUINS best friends Amy (Jena Malone) and Stacy (Laura Ramsey) are enjoying a sun-soaked vacation in Cancun with their boyfriends Jeff (Jonathan Tucker) and Eric (Shawn Ashmore). They might be up for a little adventure if it presents itself, but otherwise the couples are content to lay on the beach and by the pool the entire time.

Along comes Mathias (Joe Anderson), a German tourist who tells them about an archeological dig at some Mayan ruins off the beaten path. Mathias plans to visit the site to find his brother, who ran off to the jungle location with a girl he met during their time in Mexico. He tells the four Americans that they're welcome to join him. Jeff, a medical student who sort of acts as though he knows what is best for everyone, has been trying to convince the others that they should see something beyond their oceanside hotel during their stay. A visit to the ruins sounds like a nice way to cap their trip, so they all agree to meet up with Mathias the next day.

Dimitri (Dimitri Baveas), a Greek tourist who ditches his drunken friends sleeping on the beach, is added to the group Mathias leads to the ruins. They hop on a bus and then pile into the back of a pickup truck that takes them several miles from town to the jungle. The entrance to the final part of the path to the ruins is obscured, but Mathias finds the way. Soon enough they are basking in the large, vine-covered structure before them; however, their architectural awe doesn't last long.

Residents of a nearby village approach them in what appears to be a theatening manner. Before they can realize what is happening, one member of the group is dead, and the remaining scramble to the top of the ruins. More villagers emerge to surround them. The natives keep a reasonable distance and do not ascend the ruins, but it is clear they will not allow the captive tourists to leave.

THE RUINS explores how people react when placed in dire circumstances. For Jeff, the thing to do is to take on the leadership role. He urges agreement to conserve their minimal supplies of food and water as much as possible. While the group panics, Jeff assures everyone that Dimitri's friends, who were given a copy of the map to the ruins, will surely come looking for them in a day's time when he doesn't return. They just have to wait out the situation for a night. He reminds them that this sort of thing doesn't happen to Americans; however, like any leader's words without standing, Jeff's are cold comfort to them as bad developments tip over like a line of dominoes.

The nifty thing about THE RUINS is that Jeff may be less inhibited when it comes to making choices, but it doesn't mean his actions are correct. His response to fear is commonly accepted as heroic and decisive, but his pigheaded boldness may be as responsible for multiplying the group's problems as anything. Sometimes not having an answer is less dangerous.

Scott B. Smith wrote the novel and screenplay for THE RUINS. He also did the same for A SIMPLE PLAN, the fine Sam Raimi-directed thriller in which bad decisions snowball. Where A SIMPLE PLAN focused on whether a victimless crime is moral, THE RUINS tests the characters' mettle when confronted with fear of the unknown. Although THE RUINS isn't explicity about post-9/11 issues, it can function as a potent statement of how collective fear leads to enormous damage to individuals and society as a whole.

Subtext aside, THE RUINS is a stripped down genre exercise that goes about its business with brutal efficiency. Dread hovers over the situation like cumulonimbus clouds. Director Carter Smith extracts tension by virtue of permitting the tension to sit there unabated. No relief is in sight, especially with the violent scenes that induce frequent squirms.

A better film would have fleshed out the characters more. As it is, all behave about the same except for Jeff. The lack of explanations in THE RUINS may prove unsatisfying to some, but the unknown is often more terrifying than the tangible. Such are the wages of fear.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

A Conversation with David Gordon Green

With GEORGE WASHINGTON, ALL THE REAL GIRLS, and UNDERTOW, writer-director David Gordon Green has built a strong body of work that shows him to be a keen observer of human interaction and, along with cinematographer Tim Orr, a crafter of some of the decade's most beautiful films. SNOW ANGELS, his fourth feature, is no exception. The film stars Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale in a lyrical exploration of love and tragedy.

Green visited Columbus on March 28 to introduce SNOW ANGELS for its local premiere at the Wexner Center. (The film will begin a commercial run at the Drexel Theatre on April 4.) I met with him to discuss SNOW ANGELS, his methods and collaborators, and what the future holds for his career.

Mark Pfeiffer: SNOW ANGELS features your first adapted screenplay. How did that come about?

David Gordon Green: It was a book that was brought to me by another director that was interested in having someone develop a project with him. So I started as a writer and was excited about the idea, the experience, the experiment of adapting a book. I started with page one and started writing it.

MP: How was it different working with material that you didn't generate first?

DGG: One thing with anything that I write, I try to find characters that I emotionally relate to, and if they're not on the page, then I evolve them to be so. I personalized it, but the architecture was there. It was a really great book by Stewart O'Nan. I felt like the structure was in place so that it just was up to me to try to bring a little emotional authenticity and personal spin on it.

MP: The subject matter of the film is heavy, which is true of your other movies as well, yet there's a sense of hopefulness and optimism in spite of the tragedies. Is it fair to say you see the world in that way?

DGG: Yeah, that's definitely how I am from my personal perspective on life. That's how I deal with rougher situations, but I think in this particular movie it was an experiment in emotion and having a shared experience by people going to a theater, seeing it together, witnessing it with people they know and people that are stranger, and, at arm's length, being able to digest the cautionary tale. At the same time it's being shown through the perspective of a young, hopeful high school relationship of two people that are going through the invitation and imperfections of their own connection.

MP: Sense of place is something you do really well in your movies. What I really admired about SNOW ANGELS is that it seemed to understand what life is like in a small town, the people that are there, the connections that are made, and even how the homes look inside and out. Are these places familiar to you from your background, or is this something that you've picked up along the way?

DGG: Both. I've spent a lot of time of my life in small towns and find a real genuine sincerity to my affection for those cultures. There's a beauty in places that people don't see the obvious beauty, and it's not in the sterilized, Hollywoodized version of it. It's in the rust and the cracks and the shadows and the areas that people aren't always looking that I find the beauty in small towns and rural existence.

With this movie I wanted it to be universally appealing. Everything from the casting to the art direction to the selection of locations, I wanted to make sure that it was vague enough where everyone could relate to it. It could be anywhere, and it could be down the street. It could be you and me. By being in a cold environment it kept people indoors. A lot of this movie for me was about opening up the doors and seeing what the secrets were behind them.

MP: Is there anything you learned making this movie that you didn't on the others?

DGG: I learn things every day. I try not to set up a situation during production that is so preconceived and planned and designed that it's not open to the evolution of a project, and once you have a great sense of artistic and technical collaborators, you just let it loose. So I learned a lot about working with actors.

It was the first film that I'd worked in that wasn't crewed by all of my friends. I brought all my department heads, and we went up to Nova Scotia. There was us and there was them. It was trying to communicate with them so they could become us and we could all work together and form that kind of unity that a true collaboration advances from. It was an experience in communication and working with bigger name actors that are experienced professionals. They demand discipline, trust, and energy from directors and all of us. We just brought our best plan and most open minds to the table every day.

MP: You've worked really well with kids in your movies. Obviously GEORGE WASHINGTON comes to mind, but even the little girl in SNOW ANGELS come across unlike the typical child performance. If anything, it feels like it documented how she is on the set that day. What's your method working with kids to get that out of them?

DGG: My method working with kids is exactly what you said, documenting the kids as they are that day, not telling them what to say. Grace Hudson was three-years-old, and that's a really fun age to work with kids for me because they're not self-conscious. A lot of times you'll work with actors that have some degree of experience. They're seven-years-old and can smile at the camera and mug for you and be cute as a button, but that's not as interesting to me as some kid that's not trained and comes from a good, supportive place of family where you can trust emotionally they're not going to be damaged by the experience. I'm not going to lie. It can be a pretty challenging thing to go through emotionally.

As far as lines and working with her, there was one line where I needed her to say, "I want to go play outside." That was essential to the plot of the movie, and I needed her to say that, but I just gave her a Skittle and said, "Say this twenty times." (laughs) It was pretty easy. But then there would be situations when the little girl has to cry. The camera was there, she was crying, and we worked it into the scene. We filmed it and it plays to the emotional authenticity of what was going on in the scene, but it wasn't something that we had the agenda of filming.

MP: Do you use a lot of non-professional actors in the smaller roles? I get a sense that the people seem more authentic, that you're not necessarily having actors dealing with other trained actors on a lot of occasions.

DGG: I love two kinds of actors. Well, three kinds. I love all of them. What am I going to say? I love non-actors that are just charismatic, confident, crazy, or whatever they bring to the table, they're just characters. I love who they are, and I want to film it and have them say what they're going to say. I also love the extraordinarily talented, gifted, trained performers like Sam and Kate and Griffin Dunne and Jeanetta Arnette and the actors in the movie that brought more resume to the table. I love putting the extremes of those two together.

I was talking a little earlier about making it feel universal. In the casting too, I wanted to cast every one of the little bit parts with an ethnicity. So we've got a Croatian Chinese restaurant owner, we've got a Russian photographer, we've got an Australian carpet store owner. I really tried to find people within the local community of where we were filming in Halifax that weren't from there that brought an accent. It's another good way to dodge a Canadian accent when you're trying to make an American movie in our northern friends' country. There's a lot of effort in that. I love the idea of just having people be who they are and not telling them what to say but giving them a guideline of what the scene's about. If you set up the right environment, it can be really believable.

MP: It's interesting you say that because one of the things I think that you do well as far as, I don't know if you'd even say it so much as dialogue, but characters in your movies seem to have a lot of trouble articulating what it is inside them. I think it's really difficult from a filmmaker's perspective to be able to write that and to get that out of actors because otherwise it would seem rather unformed or lazy if you just say to them, "Well, go in front of the camera and not express yourself."

DGG: Right.

MP: But in your films it seems much more refined to where I think of ALL THE REAL GIRLS where you've got these two people who are falling in love but also really don't know how to communicate. Of course, that's all over SNOW ANGELS as well. In the case of Rockwell's character, it's how he is saying one thing and he's putting on this mask of having redeemed himself and become a new man, but you can see the desperation leaking out. That's not something that really comes through in the words so much. I guess the question with that is how do you write that? How do you get that out of the actors because it's not something really that you can put on the page?

DGG: It's not. It's weird because for me the perfect is the imperfect and that's what we go for. Sometimes that's the first take when they don't know what they're going to say, and you have those awkward pauses and imperfections of speech. Sometimes it's more rehearsed. So, depending on who the character is and what the specific instance of it is, it's always different, but in the editing room I find myself so drawn to those moments of vulnerability and awkward silence and two actors that are genuinely listening. You can see such a wonderful rhythm that feels believable. If I'm in a situation, especially of any drama or intensity, the last thing I am is eloquent. You see a lot of really amazing Oscar-nominated performers that go in there and always look cool and know the right thing to say, but how often do we really, especially when there's tension and emotion at stake? So I try to capture how would it really be.

MP: How much is improvised? How much do you stick to the script, and how much do you let them do on the set?

DGG: I don't know percentage-wise. I haven't read the script since before we shot it if that gives you any sort of indication of my possessiveness of a script. I can just say a substantial amount of it is improvised. A lot of it is taken from the book. The actors had copies of the book and would take things from that.

But there would also be something like a scene when a detective comes up to Sam Rockwell when he's beginning his investigation. It's kind of a confrontational scene. It was cool. The detective was in a trench coat as he stereotypically would be, and we're kind of playing to the clichés. When we rehearsed it, I said, "It's missing something." While we were talking about what it might be, the actor dropped his pen that he was taking notes with. I said, "That's what you do. You come in there, and you have a confrontational scene, an aggressive scene. You approach. You drop your pen, and you have to pick it up. And that takes all the tension out of it. And then we're going to zoom into it as if that dropping the pen is the most important thing of this whole movie. That becomes what it's about." The scene is now not about two guys confronting each other. It's about a guy walking into an intimidating situation and dropping his pen. That never would have happened if we weren't just bullshitting about what makes it interesting and there was that happy accident.

MP: You've worked with cinematographer Tim Orr and composer David Wingo since the beginning of your career. How did you all meet, and what keeps you continuing the collaboration with them?

DGG: I met Wingo, who I happen to be conveniently wearing the shirt for his band Ola Podrida, I met him in the third grade when I was seeing THE KARATE KID and he was there too. We were the only kids in the third grade that went to movies by ourselves, so we became friends. He works musically in a way that I work in movies, so it has always been a very quiet partnership where you read each others' minds, and that's been really awesome to have that. Then, depending on the project, we determine who his collaborator on the project might be. Sometimes it's bringing in electronic musicians, like in SNOW ANGELS we brought Jeff McIlwain, who we met at freshman orientation at college. So the two of them collaborated on the score.

With Tim Orr and a lot of my crew on the movie, we went to film school together. We were assigned to work on a documentary project together, so he shot a documentary I did about the artificial insemination of cattle. Driving to and from set, which was an hour away, we were listening to music and talking and quickly realized that we liked each other and became friends. Then when I was looking at the dailies, I said, "Whoa, this is a DP I don't have to look over his shoulder and question the composition. I really trust his instincts in lighting. When he says we should shoot over here, he's right." So, he's a guy who literally, in a good way, I don't have to worry about the camera department. I just let him do his thing, and it always falls into line with my taste. There's a communication and a discussion sometimes, but in a bad way, I've lost all the vernacular and education and some of the insight I had to the camera department because he's so good that I don't study that. I just leave it up to him. It's been a great relief so I can work a hundred percent with the actors and the other elements of moviemaking.

MP: Is that your favorite part, working with the actors?

DGG: My favorite part is actually casting a movie, which is working with actors and discovering who these characters could be. Everybody that you audition brings some new insight and love or repulsion of these characters. To me every moment is a discovery. Ultimately I guess that translates into working with actors. It's the most fun because you're in a room asking people to behave in ways that you want to see them behave, and how often in life can you play God like that?

MP: You've made smaller films up to this point. The action comedy PINEAPPLE EXPRESS is coming out this summer. Certainly in scale or release pattern it's a much bigger film for you. Do you see yourself continuing to do those sorts of movies, going back to the smaller ones, or alternating between the two?

DGG: Literally I don't try to put that expectation on myself. By working with a group of people that I trust--department heads, friends that I've made, and actors--I look to them when I have an idea of what might be the next move. They really help me guide my own instincts and come up with what's unusual, what pushes me, what educates me, what's more of an adventure but also what maintains some degree of soul and intimacy that rings with a truth that says yeah, invest the next year of your life in this project, because you don't want to do that for nothing.

Something like PINEAPPLE EXPRESS was a blast, it was a fun project that was made in a really wonderful way with an extraordinary, inspiring group of collaborators. And yet it can be a popcorn movie that people bring their friends to and have a great time at the movies. So I like to not put that expectation or that burden of what's next or where I come from or what makes sense and literally just follow my gut and bring the band.

MP: What haven't you done yet that you'd like to do?

DGG: A ton of things. The difficulty is that I have a lot of professional ambition, and to be healthy that has to be balanced with my personal life outside of movies. I get pretty excited. It's easy to get aggressive and take advantage of opportunities, but it's important to maintain and make sure you're walking your own beat and picking up stories that aren't just regurgitations of books or other people's screenplays, that they come from a real place. I'd love the opportunity of working in the genre of horror or making a western or science fiction movie. Right now I'm adapting a John Grishman book that's about a guy on death row, so I've been researching and hanging out in pretty interesting places and meeting some characters.

I'm interested in anything that is a path to other worlds. A lot of people use movies as escapism, as entertainment. I feel really fortunate to work in an industry that says, hey, go and invest, research, learn, occupy, and then entertain.