Category Archives: Filmmaker Interviews

Tribeca Film Festival Interview: Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir, Part II

Tribeca Film Festival, I Am Evidence, Trish Adlesic, Geeta Gahdbhir, World Premiere, backlogged rape kits, rape

Each box represents an untested rape kit. ‘I Am Evidence,’ directed by Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir. (photo from the film)

After viewing the World Premiere screening of the documentary I Am Evidence at Tribeca Film Festival, a few days later, I sat down with directors Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir to discuss the making of the film. For Part I of my interview, CLICK HERE. For my review of the film CLICK HERE.

Could you talk about how this is a pivotal moment and talk about where you think the direction with the testing will go. People will see the film and be impacted. One cannot help but be impacted. So the film is a step in the right direction.

Geeta: This is something we mentioned before. This is such a critical moment with the election that happened. It is a dark time in some ways for women, for people of color. The film encapsulates so many issues that right now everyone needs to be motivated and on the forefront, fighting the battle for citizen’s rights. I am referring to sexism, systemic institutional racism, public safety and basic moral issues. And right now, unfortunately, we have a president in charge who doesn’t necessarily support the different communities that really are trying to be heard in this film. So it feels very timely. I can’t think of a better time.

I Am Evidence, Trish Adlesic, Geeta Gandbhir, backlogged rape kits, Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere, rape, backlogged rape kits

(L to R) Geeta Gandbhir, Trish Adlesic, directors ‘I Am Evidence, World Premiere at Tribeca Film Festival (photo Carole Di Tosti, taken at HBO)

Trish: Yes. It’s interesting. As I sit here now, I don’t think anyone over 40 can’t say they haven’t have had some sort of violence afflicted on them whether it’s related to gender, discrimination in the workplace, sexual harassment, domestic abuse, sexual assault…but I must say that sitting here in 2017, I’m really fatigued for having to keep the fight going. We haven’t really made the progress we deserve with all the women who have gone before us from Betty Friedan to Gloria Steinem, to all our leaders. It’s so disheartening that we are still in the fight at this time. When are we going to move forward and have an Equal Rights Amendment? Also, people would say  to me during the making of this, “Oh, you’re worrying too much. Hillary’s going to become president. She’ll have your back; she’ll have your back. You don’t have to worry about this”

But the real problem with this is the deeply rooted cultural biases that are planted by people who are in control of this issue. We have to have required training in police academies across the country.  The decision must be taken out of their hands, for example, so that they don’t get to determine the fate of a kit. Every kit must be tested and there must be proper funding in place to do something with the findings because it’s just not enough to test a kit. It has to be taken to the next level. And laws need to be created to test and protect the evidence in each kit. Those laws must be adhered to. If this occurs, I think we can make significant progress.

Ericka Murria, Trish Adlesic, I Am Evidence, TFF Q & A, World Premiere, backlogged rape kits, rape culture, serial rapists

(L to R): Erick Murria, Trish Adlesic at the Q & A after the TFF World Premiere screening of ‘I Am Evidence’ (Photo Carole Di Tosti)

We need education as well. That’s where the film comes in. But it’s a difficult film in a lot of ways. First of all, it’s a film about women. That’s already a strike against you. Then you have a film about sexual assault. There’s a lot of shame and darkness around this issue. We wanted to make the film very survivor-centric so people could feel the experiences. And make it relatable to everyone. So this is the tool that hopefully will do that and get everyone in the room.

Do we need to get men on board, a lot of men on board?

Trish: Interesting. As a gut reaction, I asked a reporter that in Cleveland, Rachel Dissell, in a follow-up interview. She got very angry by that. She said, “I don’t understand why we need to actually get them on board. They should already be on board.”

Geeta: I think that the key thing is we cannot come from an apologist’s standpoint. That is really the key thing. This is an issue…that is said in the movie. If you have evidence of a crime and you do nothing with it, that in and of itself is a crime.

Trish: That’s a Polly Poskin (Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Violence), quote. She wrote a beautiful quote about this very thing. She said, “When you don’t utilize the evidence given to you, that in itself is a crime because it’s re-victimizing others. You’re letting a perpetrator run free.

Geeta: And I think in these times, if we have this information, this is obvious neglect. If you don’t stand on the side of women in this…

Geeta Gandbhir, Mariska Hargitay, Sheila Nivens, Trish Adlesic, Nancy Abraham, Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere, I Am Evidence

(L to R): Geeta Gandbhir, Mariska Hargitay, Sheila Nivens, Trish Adlesic, Nancy Abraham, Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere screening, ‘I Am Evidence’ (photo Carole Di Tosti)

It’s criminal negligence. The UN has come out and stated that rape is equivalent to genocide. (CLICK ON ARTICLE)

Geeta: It’s used in war as a weapon of war, and is a war crime.

Trish: It has been a psychological weapon used against people in war.

Geeta: It’s been used as a weapon of war. And as a follow-up to that, Helena as one of the survivors says, “The system should be better than a criminal.” We need everyone on our side of course in this fight. But we cannot be concerned about specifically having to target men.

Trish: I think that any human being should be able to relate to this. I understand the intention of the question because it’s commonly asked…

I don’t believe that by the way. If we look at Kym Worthy’s example, she shows us how we must act. She led the fight in Detroit. She took a leadership role that others, including men, followed because they were ashamed.

Trish: I think that it has to go down to…this may sound trite, but, “When you see something, say something.” When we talk about needing to have informed consent, it’s clear. Sexual assault is sexual assault. It is not an invitation to have sex with someone. So we have a lack of education. And this environment of alcohol use can promote rape, and boys and men and women alike need to understand the boundaries around alcohol use.

I Am Evidence, Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere, rape kits, rape, serial rapists, backlogged rape kits

Sealing a rape kit filled with DNA evidence, ‘I Am Evidence’ (photo from the film)

Geeta: You’re absolutely right. Trish makes a very good point. I think this is what Mariska talked about in one of our Q and As. Young people are not educated about what the definition of consent means. They are not educated about sexual assault. We need to educate young men and boys as we need to educate young girls and women. That’s at the root of it, but as far as we’re concerned we think that anybody should be able to see this film.

Trish: It’s certainly not to say, it’s their fault if they’re not aware. But it’s helpful to know to be careful around alcohol use because alcohol can lead to situations that are compromised.

Geeta: There’s also sexism. I have two boys. I feel that it is our job as parents, as schools, as communities, in the church, wherever we go, to also focus on raising feminist boys. Part of the feminist training for boys is for them to understand sexual boundaries and the definition of assault and things like that because men and boys are also victimized.

Absolutely. I forgot the exact numbers…

Trish: 1 in 6 men and 1 in 4 women…

1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men are raped on college campuses

Trish: I have a close family member who is a male and was assaulted as a teenager and it really tormented him. It was rough. I don’t think for any one of us that we are far from this issue.

I was amazed at a lot of the information I learned from the film. Was there any information that was just staggering to you?

Trish: Tell me what you learned as a viewer…I’m curious.

The number of rape kits that were allowed to molder on shelves. The fact that there are states and whole police departments that are not looking at them. The fact that they discount them. I found that to be egregious. The fact that New York is doing OK, now, and they have a law that all rape kits must be tested. But New York is only 1 of 8 states. Shouldn’t every state in the union have a law?

Trish: There are different types of legislation being put forth around this issue. There is progress happening. But they’re not the law that we’re looking for which is the requirement for all kits, current and backlogged to be tested and to be followed up on. There are varying forms of those laws being legislated. The movement is happening. I think a number of states now are looking at legislation to improve the conditions.

So that is important. But I remember our travels…we’ve gone to many states. We couldn’t put everything in the film. If we had more time we would have. But I remember being in Kentucky, going to jurisdiction after jurisdiction counting. There are varying degrees. In Kentucky, once they know they are backlogged, they do an audit. The state auditor goes to the police departments and counts. Or they’ll give them a survey. And I remember being in one precinct in Covington, Kentucky, I believe it was.  The auditor was asking, “So when you go into your data base and you look up a rape kit, how do you find the right number for your rape kit in your data base? Do you type in rape, sexual assault?” The woman said, “Other.”

Sheila Nivens, Ericka Murria, Geeta Gandbhir, Mariska Hargitay, I Am Evidence, TFF World Premiere Red Carpet, backlogged rape kits, rape culture

(L to R): Sheila Nivens, Ericka Murria, Geeta Gandbhir, Mariska Hargitay, TFF World Premiere Red Carpet for ‘I Am Evidence’ (Photo Carole Di Tosti)

Geeta: There wasn’t even a category for it.

Trish: So that to me was so stunning. She said we have a category for a bicycle, for a stolen bicycle. And I thought that gives you an indication of the organization around this.

Geeta: I have to say that everything was shocking to me. I would lie awake at night thinking about this issues. And I’m sure Trish felt the same. When you say was there one thing? There was one thing after another after another. I was in shock.

Trish: One thing I wanted to share with you is something that one of the survivors told us when they were investigating and the police came to her house. One of the officers pulled her aside and said to her. “Do you know why this happened to you?” She said, “Because the guy was a jerk?” And he said, “No. It’s because you don’t have a father.” Just to give you an indication of what that feels like.

Geeta: She was a teenager. It’s an indication of the police training.

I just have to say I was shocked when you featured the courtroom scene and the poor woman who was the rape victim was on the stand. The defense was implying that she was responsible for her rape, and she responded, “Well, a gun was being pointed at my head.”

Trish: It’s always like that. It’s standard procedure for Defense Attorneys for rape. They do that for every case. I sat in on many cases from East to West in this country. And  every single case is conducted in exactly the same way by the defense. And sometimes it’s quite colorful and humiliating. What there intention is, is to trip the victim up and to scare the victim, to stifle the victim so that they won’t come across as reliable, as a reliable, credible witness.

Geeta: Ericka spoke to that in the Q and A. She said that she was put on trial, too.  She felt that basically, she had to pull out her underwear in front of the entire place. She felt that she was as much on trial as her perpetrator.

Any plans for International Woman’s Day for showing this film?

Trish: You say where to be and I’ll be there. We’re ready. We’re working toward our broadcast date with HBO. In the meantime we’re going to do many other film festivals.  Social engagement campaigns. East and West, high and low, theatrical campaigns. We’ll do everything we can, and we’ll be there.

You might get in touch with Girl Be Heard! (CLICK HERE for website) It’s a theatrical organization. At one of their productions I first heard about untested rape kits; I had no idea. They are a youth organization in NYC. Lin Manuel Miranda fund-raised for them.  They are a wonderful organization.

Geeta: Also, there is the website if anyone is interested in keeping up with this.

Trish:  CLICK THE LINK https://www.iamevidencethemovie.com/

To see how your state is dealing with the backlog CLICK HERE.

Thanks, Geeta, Trish.

‘I Am Evidence’s’ Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir, Interview Part I

Geeta Gandbhir, Trish Adlesic, I Am Evidence, Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere, HBO, backlogged rape kits, Mariska Hargitay

(L to R): Geeta Gandbhir, Trish Adlesic, directors of ‘I Am Evidence.’ Interview at HBO Offices after Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere screening and Q & A. (Photo Carole Di Tosti)

Tribeca Film Festival held the World Premiere and screening of I Am Evidence, a compelling documentary which follows the story of four survivors of rape as they attempt to gain justice over a period of many years. During the process that they contact and work with law enforcement, they and filmmakers highlight the fate of what at one point amounted to 400,000 untested rape kits filled with evidence that various police departments left forgotten on storage unit shelves because rape is a low priority, high complexity crime. Behind each of the 400,000 + kits is the DNA of a woman who was sexually assaulted and who waits for her perpetrator’s DNA to be cross-matched with known criminals, serial rapists, murderers, through the federal database, CODIS.

Rape victims often hear nothing from the police departments for years leading to miscarriages of justice and an unfettered crime spree. Research has shown many rapists are serial rapists and some serial rapists murder. In one example in the film a serial rapist raped 10 women until he was picked up. The egregious negligence of  various police departments across the nation, who allow criminals to run free, is one of the many issues directors Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir examine and explore during their journey shadowing the four women survivors.

Filmmakers show there is hope as the backlog of rape kits is slowly being addressed. More states are passing laws to enforce the testing of the kits. The film focuses on the backlog issues, the causes and solutions and the heroes in the fight, like Kym Worthy, Detroit prosecutor, whose untiring work to have Detroit’s 11,000 kits + tested is resulting in prosecutions that get rapists off the streets. The shining moments of the film reveal the survivors who are overcomers: they remain unapologetic about the miscarriages of justice that have occurred and have become advocates to change the laws so that every rape kit is tested, matched up in the criminal data base nationwide and followed up. They inspire hope as they encourage other women to come forward and join the fight to end this systemic institutional injustice of backlogged rape kits..

I met with directors Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir at the HBO offices a few days after the film screened.

I loved the film. Could speak to what the title refers to and what the film is about?

Trish: Well, the title came very organically through the process of understanding the journey for women who have been through this violence of sexual assault. In pursuing subjects for the film, I wanted to find someone who had not had their rape kit tested yet in Detroit because Detroit had a backlog of over 11,000 untested rape kits. I thought that it would be incredible to find someone who was still looking for their kit and still looking for justice. There was an organization called The Sasha Center which is geared toward the needs of African American women because the church is predominately African American. The Sasha Center (it provides sexual assault services for holistic healing and awareness) had someone they were working with who was still looking for her rape kit. She agreed to speak with me. When she walked into the room, she had this phenomenally beautiful pink hair and this beautiful skin. Then I look down and see, “I Am Evidence” on her T-shirt. I immediately got chills. I thought, I’m about to have a profound experience.

Ericka?

Geeta: Yes. And what is interesting is that Ericka is deeply involved in her church. That statement is used in her church and it is sort of a traditional saying, “I Am Evidence,” a statement about being a witness. So she took it and basically we reprised it in the sense of talking about her rape kit. It’s a powerful statement. And she makes statements about this in the film. She says that she is evidence that a rape kit is not just a rape kit. It’s not just DNA, there’s a person behind it. It’s also evidence of being able to overcome the struggle that goes along with the violence she experienced as her personal experience. So this background about Ericka was a big part of the decision for I Am Evidence to be the title.

Mariska Hargitay, Sheila Nivens, Trish Adlesic, I Am Evidence, Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere Red Carpet

(L to R): Mariska Hargitay, Sheila Nivens, Trish Adlesic, Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere Red Carpet, ‘I Am Evidence’ (photo Carole Di Tosti)

Trish: Yeah. It’s incredible because it’s a double entendre. The body is a living, breathing crime scene. We are evidence. But the poetry around her is that we are the evidence that we can heal and grow and we can get beyond this, because this kind of violence is so debilitating for people. I found it so inspirational that she had the ability to say those words. I mean anyone can relate to the fact that we are evidence of the lives we live and how we handle trauma and challenges in our lives. I thought that would be something everyone could relate to.

Did she help to evolve the film’s uplifting tone. Could you talk about the extent to which she may have influenced that?

Geeta: I think she did. But there’s an arc, is there not Trish? I think with the subjects that we follow, the women that we follow have an arc and that over a period of time, this was her organic journey. Obviously, her journey was ultimately uplifting. She’s a powerful person.

Trish: Yes, she is very spiritual and that’s the case. She did have challenges. Her kit was found. It was tested and there were really hard days for her to undergo in that process. Ultimately, she came to a place of acceptance characterized by the word that she uses for it in the film: “unapologetic.” In other words we don’t have to apologize for the things that have happened to us. It’s OK to feel that pain and to want to have some satisfaction out of being hurt and you really have justice. And the arc is the unapologetic moment and the moment of acceptance that while I may not get a victory in court, I was heard. That’s what matters most to all of the victims of this kind of violence: the fact that they actually are given the opportunity for justice.

Geeta Gandbhir, Helena, Tribeca Film Festival, World Premiere screening, Q & A, I Am Evidence, backlogged rape kits, rape culture, serial rapists

(L to R): Geeta Gandbhir, Helena (film subject) TFF World Premiere screening and Q & A, ‘I Am Evidence’ (Photo Carole Di Tosti)

You helped in that arc. You helped to inspire her journey. Could you talk a little bit about that and how long the process was as she really was at the forefront of your expose.

Trish: It was about two and one-half years from the moment I interviewed her. I began to contact the prosecutor to find out if there could be some way in which they could try to locate her kit. She simultaneously had met with Ms. Worthy at a fund raising event for the backlog through an organization called the 490 Group. It’s a group of African American women in Detroit who are raising funds to test the kits. Both efforts converged and her kit was located. I think that certainly her participation in the film brought this opportunity. Eventually, her kit would have been found because they are continuing to test all the kits, but it wouldn’t have happened necessarily in the timeline that it did.

Geeta: I have to say that the film had a profound experience on the women because of Trish. Trish is the producer and co-director, and Trish had a profound impact on the women because she was there from the inception. I came onto the film a little bit later, but Trish was there from the beginning. I think that the idea, the thought that someone is working with you, that someone wants to hear your voice, gives you a sense of empowerment. That’s not to decry the fact that these women in their own right are very powerful. But I think that when someone holds out their hand to support you, it makes a big difference.

In our presence at the World Premiere after the film screening in the Q and A, Ericka sang to a packed audience in the theater, which takes courage. And she announced that she’s running for office.

Trish: Yes. City Council. How about that? (she laughs). She’s smart, she’s very smart.

Geeta: She’s an incredible force, I mean with or without us and the film.

So there was a convergence of events which reveals a kind of synchronicity. This leads me to ask this question. Did this project choose you or did you choose it? How did the film evolve?

Trish: That’s a great question and it’s a question we’re always asked. I want to give the backstory so it’s clear. I had worked on the television show Law and Order: SVU for 14 years with Mariska Hargitay, and we became friends through that work together. I began to produce documentaries because I was potentially going to be affected by the issue of fracking in my community in upstate New York. That led me to do these films that had a profound effect on my life (Gasland and Gasland II). I saw the power of the medium and I thought, well, I’m not getting any younger. How do I want to spend my time? I feel like for me this opportunity has been a dream come true to do this work. It’s honestly gratifying.

Mariska saw that journey for me and I knew that backlog was at the forefront of her focus for her foundation (The Joyful Heart Foundation) and we kept saying let’s do a project together. Let’s do something. And it led to doing this film. You know it’s her first documentary. I was excited to do everything I could to give it its best shot and bring it into the light and to bring in all the best people I knew in the documentary world to help complement the work we were doing. So that’s how the film came about.

I brought Geeta on the project. I knew Geeta from working with her before. I trust her work and knew that Geeta would understand and care greatly as I do, and so she was someone that I really wanted to bring in on the film.

Ericka Murria, Trish Adlesic, Geeta Gandbhir, Helena, Maritska Hargitay, Kim Worthy

(L to R): Ericka Murria, Trish Adlesic, Helena, Geeta Gandbhir, Helena, Mariska Hargitay, Kim Worthy in a Q & A, after the TFF World Premiere screening ‘I Am Evidence’ (photo Carole Di Tosti)

Geeta: It was such an honor for me when Trish and I worked together. Obviously, I really respect her and what she’s done. We were talking about doing this film for a long period of time.

Trish: I was serenading her (Trish laughs).

Geeta: I wasn’t able to. I had other things. Then finally there came the time. So it was Trish who brought me on. Also, I had worked with HBO for a long time; I started with them when the levees broke in New Orleans. That was when I became hooked on Social Justice issues similar to Trish, and I realized that these documentaries gave my life meaning. With this work you feel like you’re making some kind of impact, some kind of a difference.

Then, finally, it felt like the time was right. I think Trish and the project and Sheila Nivens (President of HBO documentaries) had something to do with it. Once they all say, it’s time…

Trish: She’s the Goddess (referring to Sheila Nivens).

Geeta: …you come on board. Honestly, it’s been incredibly rewarding and meaningful.

You knew through Mariska that there was a problem.

Trish: I did. We had done an episode at SVU about an untested rape kit. One of the women who actually is in our film, Helena, had an episode written for her. It’s called Behave. That’s when I first learned about the rape kit backlog. I saw what she he had been through with law enforcement being re-victimized by not being heard.

I think for a lot of the women whom I’ve spoken with, that very re-victimization almost felt worse for them than the assault itself. These were the very people who had been set up to be there for them. Yet, these very people in fact were blaming them and not believing them. Rape survivors felt so violated by that. First, it’s incredible that they have the ability to come forward with such a traumatic experience. It is so hard to tell your story. Then for them to go through the re-victimization with the police?

So I learned about the untested rape kits that way and learned more and more when Detroit broke in 2009. And I saw the heroism of Kym Worthy and thought, this has got to be a documentary. It’s amazing to be in this moment at this

Look for Part II of the interview with Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir.

For my review of the film CLICK HERE.

For the link to the website I AM EVIDENCE, CLICK HERE.

To see how your state is dealing with the backlog of untested rape kits, CLICK HERE.

 

Fisher Stevens, ‘Before the Flood’: Video of the Q and A at Hamptons International Film Festival 2016

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Fisher Stevens at the HIFF 2016 speaking to me about his documentary ‘Before The Flood’ (photo Carole Di Tosti) See the video clip on Theater Pizzazz by clicking HERE.

Fisher Stevens’ Before the Flood is a prodigious effort by the filmmaker who is also an actor, writer and producer. The film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio (he also co-produced the film), which screened at the Hamptons International Film Festival 2016, comprehensively details the subject of climate change through cogent interviews by scientists, activists, researchers, world leaders and more. Stevens’ perspective could have been a browbeating doom and gloom treatise on global warming. Instead, after seeing the film, one leaves the theater feeling the urgency that there are ways one can individually make a difference in the fate of the planet.

Stevens’s documentary is compelling and memorable as he traces how climate change impacts every being on this planet, every microscopic creature and every seed, every spore, every molecule of life that has managed to evolve and survive through the eons up to this point in time.  He shows how experts in climatology and related, supporting fields have been monitoring the planet for years and have produced the facts, details, information, data, maps, visuals, photographs that predict signs of impending global catastrophe. In an overwhelming consensus, they have explained what is ongoing and current: rising seas, melting glaciers, disappearance of the Greenland ice sheet. They have almost uniformly predicted the subsequent inundation of coastline cities, mass population migrations, starvation and decimation of a planet caused by greenhouse gas overload which created chain reactions that many believe are irrevocable.

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(L to R) Fisher Stevens and Artistic Director of HIFF David Nugent before the screening of Stevens/ superb documentary ‘Before The Flood’ (photo Carole Di Tosti)

Stevens also reveals the antithetical arguments to climate change and why they exist. Despite scientific consensus, climate change deniers managed, with Fox news propaganda prestidigitation, for expedience and profit, to turn black into white, to twist up into down and to morph fact into fiction. The result has been a quicker burn, a delayed global response which even after the Paris Climate Summit 2015 is not effectively doing enough to stem the glacial melt, dissipate the acidification of the oceans, ameliorate the dying of coral reefs, end unsustainable practices employed by energy corporations and create an effective reduction of carbon emissions to cool the planet.The scenario scientists, researchers and experts paint has far reaching dire consequences that impact every global culture and every land or oceanic ecosystem with supporting marine and wildlife. This result may be likened to the ushering in of the four horseman of the apocalypse: pestilence, war, famine, death.

But this must-see documentary is uplifting despite the revelatory evidence of overarching power demonstrated by a handful of genocidal nihilists (climate change deniers), who are egregiously and willfully deaf, dumb and blind to the earth’s reality show. How Stevens’ journey (which follows the investigation and work of Leonardo DiCaprio as United Nations Messenger of Peace on climate change), arrives at the realm of hope that suggests a possible rainbow in our future, is miraculous, invaluable filmography.

The film must be seen for its poetic script, its breathtaking cinematography and concurrent dark and soaring music, its cogent analysis and exhaustive documentation through experts’ interviews, visuals, maps, data and much more. Fisher’s documentary is an accessible and definitive work on climate change. It will inspire all those who see it to become involved on a personal and community level to overturn the climate change denier’s lies and take action before it is too late. The film Before the Flood is being aired on National Geographic and is screening at City Cinemas Village East and elsewhere. Check about dates online.

Here, Fisher Stevens speaks to the moderator at the Hamptons International Film Festival 2016 after the screening of this seminal film.

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Talking With Ralph Fiennes About ‘A Bigger Splash’

Ralph Fiennes, A Bigger Splash

The irrepressible Ralph Fiennes press day NYC for ‘A Bigger Splash.’ Photo by Carole Di tosti

Ralph Fiennes was at the NYC press day held at the Park Hyatt to discuss A Bigger Splash. In the film which also stars Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson, Fiennes gives an energetic, profound, and spot-on portrayal as Harry Hawkes, music producer who seeks out his former love Marianne (Tilda Swinton), a rock star who is recuperating from voice surgery. Marianne and Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), are luxuriating on sultry, wind-wily Pantelleria, the island between Italy and Africa. Pantelleria plays an intriguing and unpredictable character in the film, especially as a contrasting presence to the main characters who are well off and revel in their high-end getaway.

Fiennes’ Harry is an amazing personality. He is frenetic, electric, exciting with shades of irrepressible abandon. He is an admixture of winds, like those on the island: he is incapable of drawing lines of propriety when it comes to restoring his love with Marianne; yet he combines his desires for salvation by her with an acute and keen sense of authenticity and blunt truthfulness that is admirable. The character of Harry is quite unlike his film portrayal of Gustav, the honorable, reserved, always impeccable and soulfully noble concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Fiennes’ virtuoso acting skills which are also legion on the stage, allow him to pull out all the stops in his complex, exceptional portrayal of Harry. He discussed Harry and entertained six of us with his effervescent story telling skills during the roundtable. The versatile stage and film actor is also a director and at the end of the interview, Fiennes shared his latest multiple endeavors.

Last time we saw you was in The Grand Budapest Hotel. You were wonderful. I was hoping that the film would receive the Academy Award. It was a phenomenal film.

(Ralph Fiennes shyly smiles.) Good, good. Thank you.

Tilda Swinton, A Bigger Splash

Tilda Swinton is Marianne Lane in ‘A Bigger Splash.’ At NYC press day. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

 

Great contrast in portrayals from The Grand Budapest to A Bigger Splash. It was an inspiration to see you move from that character to Harry Hawkes. Could you feel physically, the difference between these two characters?

Oh, Yes. Very much. In The Grand Budagest, there’s a sort of upright postural thing going on which I think I identified early on as I remember. And of course Harry moves completely differently.

They are like night and day.

It seems to me that they are. Everything about Gustav from his costume to his upright posture is different from Harry. Harry is a rock and roller. (Ralph smiles)

 

Could you talk about the shoot on Pantelleria as an intriguing location which created its own dynamic?

Yeah, Pantelleria. I didn’t know what I was going to encounter there. I had a sense of some place sunny in the Mediterranean. It’s quite an odd place because there is no other island near it, and it’s volcanic. It must be that it’s sort of on a massive finger of rock that sticks up because the water encircling it is very deep. There are no beaches. And it’s very windy. And it doesn’t feel like Italy. It’s closer to Africa, I think. Odd place, odd because it’s quite rugged even though there is this August summer holiday-like thing happening. But that’s only in August.

It’s quite an eccentric place and the winds are unsettling. They sort of nag at you. They tug at you. It’s not that restful. When the winds stop and you feel the heat, it can be very calm. But the winds change direction all the time. Constantly. Because there are no beaches, you’re conscious of there being these homes. Dammusi is the name. And a single house is a dammuso. And lots of wealthy Italians have their holiday homes there. Armani is famous for being there and has a house there and he’s there precisely for the whole of August.

Ralph Fiennes, NYC press day at the Park Hyatt. He plays Harry Hawkes in 'A Bigger Splash,' directed by Luca Guadagnino. Photo, Carole Di Tosti

Ralph Fiennes, NYC press day at the Park Hyatt. He plays Harry Hawkes in ‘A Bigger Splash,’ directed by Luca Guadagnino. Photo, Carole Di Tosti

I remember a couple of times I went out with this local fisherman called Mimo in his little boat composed of flakey wood. Mimo’s a classic local fisherman with his little bottle of wine, offering up some olives and bread. And we jumped over the    side into the water with our masks and the boat would chug, chug, chug along quite slowly.

Once we anchored in a little lagoon. Then suddenly I heard this sort of low throb of an engine. And there was this long, long, sleek, state of the art motor boat that drifted into view. There in the back was…gray hair…sunglasses…Giorgio. And there were all of these beautiful people, men and women, all sort of draped around the boat. And there they sat in the water (Ralph makes a purring noise of the boat engines…smiling at the humor of the incident). And Mimo said, (in Ralph’s best Italian accent), “Hey Gorgio.” And they sat and watched us, with me and a couple of friends looking a bit messy. They sat and hovered in the water (thrummmm), and went away again. Very funny to see all these sunglasses switching to a view in one direction. (we laugh at Ralph’s acutely humorous visual description and innate story telling skills)

Your character is not really likable. But he is charming and witty and is intelligent about a myriad of different subjects, but he’s so self-centered and narcissistic. What was it like reading him in a script and then portraying him on the screen? Do you like him?

I do like him. I like him for all the reasons you said. There’s an honesty about him. I think you can take the view that these four people are privileged people and are sitting in their own dysfunction. For Harry…there is something malign and something benign. He’s a sort of devil figure, like a satyr. He’s there to provoke people into self-recognition. He’s got his own demons. And I agree he is narcissistic to some extent. But I like the things he says. I love the lines where he says, “The men have had their chances. It’s the women’s chance to run the world now.” There’s another great line that he says, “We’re all obscene, but we love each other anyway.”

I think he wants no bullshit connection with people. But he’s also a muddled man. The best of Harry is someone who is very direct and doesn’t bullshit. He’s mercilessly honest. And though the film doesn’t show this, I believe he’s a very, very good music producer. Actually, in the room with an artist, he’s brilliant. He really knows his stuff. But he’s a bit of a lost soul. For all his verbosity and provocative antics, underneath, he’s actually a lost person. That’s why he wants Marianne to give him some kind of anchoring.

In the evolution of his character…how you evolved him through the film, when he first goes to the island, does he sense that there’s any impulse to destroy himself?

Good question. I think it might be unconscious (Ralph contemplates), unconscious. Because I think that it is quite a provocative thing to do. To push yourself in on someone’s private holiday. You have to really willfully ignore all the norms. I wonder what a psychotherapist would say about that sort of behavior? It strikes me that it’s unconsciously self-destructive.

You mention about how important it is that he’s a brilliant music producer. A music producer has a different role from a producer in a film. A music producer takes what’s buried in the music and takes what’s best about the musician and, not imposing his will, the producer gets the musician to channel the best performance      

He’s brilliant at that.                                                                                                                  

Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson, A Bigger Splash

Ralph Fiennes and Dakota Johnson in ‘A Bigger Splash.’ Photo by Jack Engish, Twentieth Century Fox and Fox Searchlight.

Could you talk about what you might have learned from the role. If you met some music producers now, what questions would you ask as a result of the film?

My brother’s a music producer. I sat with him in recording studios and I’ve worked with music producers on films I’ve directed. I’ve seen music producers guide musicians with a language I don’t know, but I can see how they are shaping musicians. And when I was directing these two films, I was able to say, though I’ve not much musical or technical knowledge, I would be able to say, “Can it be more like this?” And they would understand what I was trying to say and they would have the skills to say, “No we need to do this or play that on a lower key, and don’t come in too quick on that.”

So I sort of got a sense of what that would involve. And I was reading these books about The Rolling Stones that were helpful background reading. One was about Keith Richards’ life and the other was a book called The True Stories of The Rolling Stones by an American journalist on the Altamont Tour. He was present at the Muscle Shoals’ recording of “Sticky Fingers” and he was there to hear “Wild Horses” being recorded and put down. That was very useful to connect my own little, tiny experience being in recording studios to understand, you know, how musicians go on and on and on playing, and have breaks, have a row and suddenly the magic is there. Or the producer says, “Try doing this,” or “Try playing in that key.” And I thought that’s what Harry’s really good at. Sadly, the film doesn’t show this. But it helped me to know it (Ralph laughs).

Did you collaborate with Mick Jagger?

No, no I didn’t. I understood that the material was sent to them, meaning their representatives. And they knew about it and we got notes on the story. And they were happy for us to, as it were, incorporate the story for Harry. But it was based on a true story of a producer’s. The name I can’t remember right now, but it is a true story. This producer did say, “Try playing the percussion on the trash can in the recording in Dublin for Voodoo Lounge.”

A Bigger Splash, film poster

Poster of ‘A Bigger Splash,’ courtesy of the film. Photo by Carole Di Tosti, taken NYC press day at the Park Hyatt.

Did you and Tilda work out the characters’ history? It’s such a long and toxic tumultuous relationship.

We talked about it a bit. But I don’t remember talking about it at huge length. We would share our own sense of what our backstory was. But it was quite clear from the script what it was. I think we did talk about it, but it just fell into place quite quickly. All four of us quite quickly seemed to be playing who we are. Luca is not one, and I think he would agree with me, he’s not one given to exhaustive analysis and discussion. There are directors who will pick away in detail at the backstory. I think Luca just got his cast and wants to let the energy unfold between them and doesn’t want to interfere too much.

How do you see your relationship with Penelope? Is he using her to get back on Marianne? There is a lot of ambiguity between them but at the same time there is a good dynamic also.

He believes, as I imagined it, that this is his daughter as a result of an affair or a fling he had 18 years before. I’m not sure whether Harry knows her real age. I imagine the daughter said to her mother, “I want to meet my father.” She had been a model or whatever…Penelope/Dakota had her backstory. Anyway, the mother rings up, we have a daughter of 18 years, or maybe he knows about the daughter but he’s never met her.  It moves to “Our daughter wants to meet you.” So he says, “Cool. Fine. Let’s meet.” He’s been with Penelope the last month or so traveling around Italy. And I think he’s enjoying the experience. Harry is someone who’s open to what that experience will be and who she is. He hasn’t pushed her away or closed her off. And I think he’s gotten to like her, finds her interesting. She challenges him and he says in a scene…of course she’s sexy, a young, sexy girl and he can deal with that.

I don’t think he’s tried anything transgressive or incestuous with her, but I think because they’ve never experienced each other as a child or baby or young adolescent, I think they enjoy this slightly flirty vibe that they have. But I don’t think it’s fucked up in any way. I think, as you say, it’s ambivalent. Dakota and I seemed to find it quickly whatever this thing is. She’ll sing “Unforgettable” with him and she’ll enjoy the vibe of sort of flirtatious proximity. I don’t think that Harry’s trying to get into bed with her. Not at all. Not remotely. In fact I think he likes to feel that energy, but he will never cross that line. I think he’s actually quite protective of her.

Any more directing for you?

Yeah. I’m developing some screenplays to direct, but it won’t be for a while.

Any chance you’ll come to Broadway? I’ve seen everything you’ve done there and loved it.

Well, I was hoping to come to Broadway this autumn with The Masterbuilder.

Great.

But actually the producers…well, it’s a sellout in London.

Of course. I’ve read that it is.

I don’t know. I think it will come here in the next couple of years.

I hope so.

 

This article first appeared on Blogcritics.

‘WTC View’ Director Brian Sloan Talks About His Film and Star Michael Urie’s Breakout Debut

 

Brian Sloan, director of 'WTC View.' Photo courtesy of IMBD website.

Brian Sloan, director of ‘WTC View.’ Photo courtesy of IMBD website.

In a phone interview I spoke with director Brian Sloan about his film WTC View, which is having its 10th anniversary first-time digital release in HD format on iTunes. (Click here for the film on iTunes) Starring Michael Urie (Ugly Betty, Buyer and Celler). WTC View is an intimate look into the life of one New Yorker in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The film is constructed in a subtle way. The character Eric posts an online ad for a roommate on September 10th. On September 20th he is able to return to his apartment and interview prospective candidates. Inevitably, when they investigate the apartment, they go to the window of the bedroom they will be sleeping in only to see the smoking rubble of the WTC site, a horrible view. Then each opens up about where they were when they heard about the events and how their lives have changed as a result of 9/11. Eric listens, and as the film progresses, situations and conversations gradually unfold; we understand what he has been through and how he is in an emotional crisis that he struggles with and denies he has. Only after Eric has a meltdown, does he finally begin to face his crashing emotional devastation. We are there with him every step of the way.

I really liked the film. I’ve lived in NY for most of my life so I can’t see how any New Yorker wouldn’t enjoy this film. Congratulations on its release on iTunes tomorrow, March 3rd in HD format.

Thank you.

I’d like to start by discussing that it was a play first. Could you just talk about how what motivated you to evolve this into a play.

It was a few months after 9/11 and people asked me about this as a film because I was a filmmaker. They asked me questions like, “Oh do you think 9/11 is something that you would write about?” I hadn’t really considered it because it just seemed like too big of a topic and seemed too large for a film. I couldn’t see any way into it. I guess it was about 6 months after 911 that CBS aired the documentary by the Naudet brothers I think it’s just called 9/11. The Naudet brothers were following a rookie fire fighter that day and they ended up having all this footage of them actually in the WTC when this was all happening. I watched that documentary and it struck me that these guys had such a personal perspective on this event. They were unfortunately at the wrong place at the wrong time, but they ended up being able to capture this incredible story and it got me thinking about my story on 911.

At the Seattle Film Festival, 10 years ago (L to R) A fan of the actor and director, Michael Urie and Brian Sloan. Photo courtesy of this site.

At the Seattle Film Festival, 10 years ago (L to R) A fan of the actor and director, Michael Urie and Brian Sloan. Photo courtesy of this site.

My story was that I had taken out this roommate ad which is the last thing I did before I went to bed that night. And then I left my apartment on September 11th. I was in that frozen zone below 14th street. When I got back to the apartment almost a week later, there were all these messages of people calling me about coming to see my apartment. Some even called me on September 12th, which I just thought was crazy and strange. When I started thinking about this whole thing, I thought that this could be an interesting way, a very small look at what was happening, through a small lens, though not even a lens. But it was a situation happening in one room where people are having conversations and monologues about what life was like in the city at that time after 9/11. And I like to say everyone knows what happened on 9/11. The piece really is about what happens after 9/11 on September 12th and the days after that, and what is happening in the city at that time. So I was thinking about these things as a play. I didn’t think about it as a film. I thought the only way this could work was a play in one room and people having these conversations.

I started writing the play.  A friend of mine had directed a couple of one act plays recently which were more comic one acts, like comedy sketches. With his encouragement I started writing this up as a play. We submitted it to the Fringe Festival and that’s where it first had its debut onstage.

When you cast this play… did you know the actors you wanted before hand? How did you cast the play?

We were doing it at the Fringe Festival. So it was sort of a no budget operation when you’re doing a show like that. You get actors wherever you can. Basically we kind of pooled our resources. I, the director, and the producer Helena Webb, we all thought of people that we knew who would be right for some of these roles. Andrew Volkoff had a lot more ideas because he had worked in theater and Helena too. Since I worked in film I brought in some people I knew from film. And we started auditioning people. In the end, I had actually seen Michael Urie in a play that Andrew directed the year before. And we were having trouble finding this lead role. I remembered that Michael was at Julliard. And I remember thinking well, this is great because we need someone with serious training because the actor’s onstage for the entire show for like two hours straight. No break. And I considered that it’s hard for a film actor to make that transition and to do that role. Some people who came in were great, but I didn’t know if they could do that role for two hours on stage. It’s a different operation.

The window overlooking a sight too horrific for all of us to see. From 'WTC View,' directed by Brian Sloan. Photo courtesy of the film.

The window overlooking a sight too horrific for all of us to see. From ‘WTC View,’ directed by Brian Sloan. Photo courtesy of the film.

Michael Urie came in and he read for us. I suspected that he was a bit younger than the part that we were casting. I asked Andrew not to tell me what his actual age was and he didn’t. And it turned out that Michael was about 9 years younger than the role called for in the script. But we figured that he’s a really great actor and that he could act a little bit older, and we can do some hair and makeup stuff that will make him look slightly older as well. When people saw it, people didn’t think that he was too young for the part. And then we really kind of cast around him. You can set a cast up to make them look younger or older.  When you tell the audience the age, you create a world in which it is true and it is believable to them.

Wish I had seen the play. He was wonderful in the film. Looks like he turned out to be a find since he hit with Ugly Betty and other things, like Buyer and Cellar.

Yeah. Ugly Betty came out I think a month after our broadcast premiere of the film which was on MTV’s Logo channel. With Ugly Betty coming out a month afterward, it was show he’s become much more widely known for. After that he’s been doing better and better.

That could only be positive for WTC View which stands on its own. But his performance and the other actors were really wonderful. So it started at the Fringe and people really liked it. I read somewhere that you were wary about whether or not it was too soon for something like this, but turns out it was well received. How did it evolve from there?

Michael Urie (Ugly Betty, Drama Desk winner for Buyer and Cellar) stars as Eric in 'WTC View." He originated the play also written by Brian Sloan. Photo from Michael Urie's website.

Michael Urie (Ugly Betty, Drama Desk winner for Buyer and Cellar) stars as Eric in  ‘WTC View.” He originated the play also written by Brian Sloan. Photo from Michael Urie’s website.

From the Fringe, we got some really great responses and very good reviews and the show did very well. We initially hoped that we could move it to some Off Broadway house or somewhere Off Off Broadway, but we really had trouble finding commercial interest. At that time, 2003, the commercial feeling was that this kind of a play is not something that New Yorkers are going to see. It was still too close to the 9/11 attacks. There was a feeling that since there were two other high profile plays that were also 911 related and they had failed that year, it was a risk. We couldn’t get anybody interested in making that transfer.

When that happened, I just started thinking about making this for a broader audience. Initially, we were thinking of something like a PBS style live playhouse and actually filming the play. That didn’t really go anywhere. Then I started thinking about making an actual film because this is what I do and what I know how to do. I know how to make a very low budget film and make it good. I started thinking that if I look at this carefully, I can turn it into a film. Then it didn’t seem possible after all. But I started talking to some people and other producers and people encouraged me. They felt that the topic was what makes this really interesting, as well as the way that the topic is approached. You know it might not be the most cinematic movie because it still has its roots in the play and you can’t get away from that.

But the thing that made it unique was dealing with this topic in such a different way. We are dealing with the events after the attacks from this one person’s perspective. We’re showing this very realistic look at life in NY at that time. A lot of films about 9/11 tend to treat the subject very melodramatically or super tragically. It definitely was a major tragedy that happened in the city.  But I think life in the city was not that way afterwards. People were trying to deal with events in different ways. Some people were dealing with it with humor. Some people didn’t want to talk about it. I wanted to show that range of experience in the film.

You were encouraged to transfer it to a screenplay. I love the fact that the entire film takes place within Eric’s apartment until the very end. What were some of the issues and concerns that you had making the play into a film.

Well the biggest concern was probably not trying to make it something it wasn’t. I thought of ways to make the action break out of the apartment. You know have Eric walk through the city.

Michael Urie as Eric in 'WTC View,' directed by Brian Sloan. This film was his breakout film debut. Photo courtesy of the film.

Michael Urie as Eric in ‘WTC View,’ directed by Brian Sloan. This film was his breakout film debut. Photo courtesy of the film.

 

I’m glad you didn’t.

But I didn’t because the more I thought about it, it doesn’t really make sense for what this is. The guy is almost trapped in his apartment.

In his mind

In his mind, truly. I thought I could continue that in the film. Also there’s a history of films that take place in one location. It’s not something that hasn’t been done before. The most famous is probably Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, which also was adapted from a play. So there are a lot of other films. I actually started watching a lot those movies. Rope was definitely a big one for me. I watched Rosemary’s Baby; most of it takes place in their apartment. And there was also an indie film from the 90s, called What Happened Was. It is about a date in an apartment that sort of goes crazy over the course of an evening.

My Dinner With Andre is another one in just one location.

Yeah, My Dinner With Andre

That was a great decision on your part.

Thanks. I’m definitely glad that we stuck with what we did. I think it would have lost its focus and lost its feeling. And that’s what I think this movie is about. The film gives you a sense of this character and what he’s going through.

Michael and Elizabeth Kapplow in 'WTC View,' directed by Brian Sloan about the aftermath of 911 and its impact on New Yorkers.

Michael and Elizabeth Kapplow in ‘WTC View,’ directed by Brian Sloan about the aftermath of 911 and its impact on New Yorkers. Photo courtesy of the film.

Then you took the original play and staged it at 59E59 Theatres. How did that happen?

That came about because we wanted to do a full production of the show that would be different from the Fringe where we had no money. We wanted to do a full, traditional production. And also we wanted to do something around the 10th anniversary of 9/11. We felt that NY is a constantly changing city and maybe there is an audience living here now who is interested in seeing this. It turns out that there was. A lot of people came to see the production. We had a great run at 59E59. I feel that because there were a few more years removed from 9/11, people were able to see the play as a play. That for me was really heartening. People were able to see that it is more than just a strict documentary. They can see that the play is really getting at this character, getting at what he’s going through and telling this person’s story in a theatrical way.

One thing I think every New Yorker will identify with in perpetuity is getting living space in the city and having to have a roommate or partner to afford living here.

It’s a New York thing for sure.

As cities nationwide become more expensive to live in, that is a topic that will continue to resonate. I like how you dealt with the window subtly, the view of the WTC site. I also liked how we don’t know what really happened to the character until the end of the film. I thought you unfolded it in a very human and realistic way.

You mention the window. That’s one of the things I really love about the film which we couldn’t do onstage, which was sort of to see what people are seeing, I mean to see their reactions as they are looking out that window. It’s a very intimate moment. In the play the characters are generally faced away from the audience who don’t see their reactions as well. In the film we could get in there and closely focus on their reactions. That’s one of the more interesting adaptations that happened in the film version.

I loved the many meanings of WTC View, a play almost on Room With a View…

Yeah

It’s a powerful and beautiful film. Good luck and looking forward to its release on iTunes March 3rd.

Yeah. It’s great to talk to a fellow New Yorker about apartments. It’s very true. I was looking at the original ad for this apartment and now it’s about double the cost, so the real estate situation gets crazier and crazier.

Click Here for the HD Format 10th Anniversary Edition of WTC View on iTunes.

This interview first appeared on Blogcritics.

Johanna Hamilton, An Interview With The ‘1971’ Director

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‘1971’ directed by Johanna Hamilton. Photo taken from the film website.

The documentary ‘1971’ screened in a World Premiere at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. I screened the film and later reviewed it giving it 5 stars. The amazing documentary chronicles a time in our history that has tremendous currency and importance for us today. In fact, Laura Poitras (she directed CitizenFour which is about Edward Snowden’s revelation of the US massive surveillance program), is one of the co-executive producers of the film. As Snowden’s revelations were coming out, Hamilton (who also produced), her co-writer and editor, Gabriel Rhodes, producers Katy Chevigny, Marilyn Ness and others were stunned to see that the events of 1971 were being played out but this time on a global stage with Snowden. The chilling question was, since technology had gained huge strides that few comprehended, was it even possible to know how long and to what extent the government’s security programs were covertly vitiating American citizens’ constitutional rights? Snowden’s revelations and the events in 1971 (revealed for the first time in the film), are most likely the “tip of the iceberg.”

Hamilton’s documentary is a superb and thrilling true account of how 8 very ordinary and very brave American citizens, calling themselves The Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI, risked their lives, their family’s well being, and their freedom  to expose the unconstitutional, covert surveillance program COINTELLPRO. In the film Hamilton explores how and why The Citizen’s Commission felt there was a moral imperative at stake: they esteemed the principles of freedom in the Bill of Rights. Their beliefs and our American principles were held in the balance when they went to the Washington Post with FBI files that they had taken, files that were “secret,” and revealed surveillance of average Americans who did not adhere to the politics and philosophy supporting the Viet Nam War. Would the Washington Post prevent publication, in effect censoring the files? Or would they publish the damning documents? Hamilton reveals the fascinating account of what happened in its entirety and includes the identities of the 8 heroic and unassuming Americans who wanted to uphold the constitutional foundations of the country they believed in.

Johanna Hamilton, director of '1971.' Photo taken from the website.

Johanna Hamilton, director of ‘1971.’ Photo taken from the website.

I had the opportunity to interview Johanna Hamilton via email and ask her about the film which is opening on February 6th in Cinema Village in New York City and on March 13th in Los Angeles.

The film tells a fascinating story of individuals who broke the law. It is revelatory about our segments of the government which in effect exceeded their powers to push forth a political agenda that was damaging to our country. Why/how is this story especially relevant for us today?

Sometimes people have to do things that are courageous and even controversial in order to stimulate conversations about checks and balances that are the lifeblood of democracy. I think this film is relevant today because a number of people acknowledge that post-9/11 we have lost a lot of those check and balances. And that was perhaps understandable in that moment but, perhaps, in hindsight we lost too many and maybe it’s time for a fresh look. That was true even before the Snowden revelations; and then he gave us empirical proof just as the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI did back then.

Is the country in better or worse shape than it was in 1971, politically, ethically? Today, do you think that citizens might be less likely to take a stand as these individuals did as a collective group remaining quiet about their actions? Why or why not?

There is so much to say and this subject has filled many books; I feel like you’d need a dissertation to encapsulate the first part of the question! Without doubt, the country is very different than it was in 1971; that was pre-Watergate. Today it is probably more politically polarized than it was then. The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI is unusual in that it was a relatively large group who all had to work together and then keep a secret for a very long time. Back then this type of collective political action was less unusual. Most often people who are leaking information work alone, precisely to minimize the risk to others. I’m not sure a group of people would do it today. Then it was very easy to feel very directly affected by the Vietnam War, for example, because of the draft. You wondered whether the person next to you was an informant. Today, there’s no draft and although in this Digital Age the surveillance capabilities are much more vast they are also more ephemeral. It’s much more difficult for the general public to feel directly affected by surveillance. It’s more personally invasive today, but you don’t necessarily feel it.

Johanna Hamilton director/producer/writer of '1971.' Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

Johanna Hamilton director/producer/writer of ‘1971.’ Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

How did this film evolve? Where did you receive the impulse to dig deep to find the people and recreate the events?

I consider myself very fortunate to have known Betty Medsger, the journalist at the Washington Post, to whom they leaked the documents in 1971 and who wrote the first stories. She and I have been friends for a long time, long before this professional collaboration. She was writing and researching her book that is now The Burglary: the Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.

(In her Director’s Statement, Hamilton says, “…we agreed to share all our primary research materials. I benefited enormously from her many years of research, including access to the 34,000 pages of the FBI investigation.)

I implored her to let me know when she was ready to make the film! Several years went by and one day she asked me if I was serious, whereupon she helped arrange a meeting with several of the members of the Citizens’ Commission and their lawyer David Kairys. We met and a couple of days later they let me know that were ready to go on camera. In terms of the recreations, I immediately thought to recreate the events of that night. Cinema is an immersive experience and I wanted people to be able to put themselves in their shoes. Plus, they left nothing from that night, no notes, no photos, nothing, just memories. I loved the sense of being able to create a nonfiction heist movie or film noir. Without them, it might have been a short film.

In what way did making this film impact you? What did you learn?

I learned a lot about civic courage. And I learned an enormous amount of the inner workings of both the protest movement in the late 60s and early 70s as well as the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover.

Friends, Johanna Hamilton director/producer of '1971,' and Laura Poitras, Co-Executive Producer. Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

Friends, Johanna Hamilton director/producer of ‘1971,’ and Laura Poitras, Co-Executive Producer. Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival 2014.

Laura Poitras is a co-producer of the film. In what way did the making of this film have an impact on her making CitizenFour? The two films have similar concepts. In what way are they very different? What would you like audiences to see and understand about that time (1971) and our time now?

Laura is a Co-Executive Producer on the film. She and I have been friends and colleagues for a long time. She was one of the very first advisers on the film. She was already making a film about contemporary surveillance when I started working on 1971. So my film did not influence her, but she did know the story. Then in March 2013, she sent me an email asking me how I was doing on the film and reiterated her willingness to help. I found out about Edward Snowden with the rest of the world in June of that year. She was already in touch with Ed when she sent me that email in March; clearly she was drawing the analogy between the two stories and the two eras. Our films are similar in that they deal with people who have taken a stand at great risk to themselves by leaking information (in analogue and digital ways), but that ended up benefiting democracy. They both have a thriller element. But they could not be more different in that CitizenFour unfolds in real time; much of it is cinema verite. 1971, a story in the past, had to be reenacted in order to bring it to life.

In her director’s statement, Hamilton solidifies the wide ranging nature of what The Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI accomplished for the country.

“The break-in is a little-known but seminal event in contemporary American history. The decision by the Washington Post to publish the documents was a defining moment for investigative journalism. We know about COINTELPRO, and the FBI’s dirty tricks targeting Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers, and many others, but we only know about them because of the stolen documents and the actions of The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, as the burglars called themselves. They didn’t look for the spotlight. Their mission a success, they returned to their normal lives.”

It also may have indirectly eased the way for the Washington Post to adopt a prominent investigative role during the Watergate scandal which too, began with a break-in, and ended with the resignation of a President.

This interview first appeared on Blogcritics.

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