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Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Producer Bruce Cohen, a best-picture nominee for his work on “Silver Linings Playbook,” has been obsessed with the Academy Awards since he was 8. During a recent interview at his Hollywood Hills home, looking dapper in plaid pants and shoulder-length blond curls , Cohen exuberantly recalled how his grandmothers, who were babysitting at the time, allowed him to stay up late to watch his first Oscar telecast at his childhood home in Falls Church, Va. “It was love at first sight,” he said. “I thought it was the most glamorous, most spectacular thing I had ever seen, and I decided that night that I was going to win an Oscar one day.”
Cohen — who ran away from home, albeit for only an hour, when his parents refused to let him stay up to watch the Oscars a couple of years later — has more than realized his dream. A place of honor in his office is reserved for his best-picture Oscar for 1999’s “American Beauty,” the searing story of two generations of a suburban family in crisis. “It was in the living room for a while, but then I thought that was a bit gauche,” he said.
Cohen’s second Oscar nod came a decade later, this time for “Milk,” the much-lauded biopic about the life of gay activist and San Francisco Mayor Harvey Milk, who was assassinated while in office in 1978. In 2011, Cohen produced the Academy Awards telecast along with Dan Mischer.
And now he is up for his third Oscar, for “Silver Linings Playbook,” David O. Russell’s offbeat comedy-drama about a bipolar young teacher (Bradley Cooper) and his tempestuous relationship with a troubled widow, played by Jennifer Lawrence. But the joy of an Oscar nod never gets old, Cohen said. His response to his own third nomination was “to scream at the top of my lungs,” he said.
When the conversation turned to what helped prepare Cohen, now 51, to become a producer in the first place, he said he honed his political and organizational skills while serving as a leader within the National Federation of Temple Youth, and later at Yale, where he headed the campus’ United Jewish Appeal drive.
A week after graduating from Yale in 1983, Cohen flew out to Los Angeles to take a clerical job at Warner Bros., where he talked his way into an internship run by the Directors Guild of America and wound up working on the set of Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple” in the mid-1980s.
But he didn’t go out of his way to meet the uber-director. “I was a pisher, and what I figured out is that not only didn’t he know me, but I didn’t want him to know me just yet,” Cohen said. “My job was to keep my head down and work for the first and second assistant directors.”
But Spielberg did end up noticing Cohen — initially for his work with the children on the set — and a collaboration began that eventually led to Cohen producing “The Flintstones” for Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment in 1994. However, there was one matter of business to take care of before Cohen accepted the job: He felt he needed to come out as a gay man to Spielberg — even though not many people were gay and out in Hollywood back in the early 1990s, Cohen said. Spielberg, it turns out, was nonplussed and said to Cohen, “Why do you think I would care?”
Producer Bruce Cohen Photo by Matt Petit/©A.M.P.A.S.
The following year, Cohen co-founded Out There, which was among the first activist coalitions of gays and lesbians in Hollywood, and it was during the group’s early years that he and fellow member Dan Jinks became producing partners and zeroed in on a screenplay by Alan Ball that would become “American Beauty.”
“It was the best script I’ve ever read, to date, in my life,” Cohen said. “But all the studios initially thought it was too dark, too weird and controversial.” Undaunted, Cohen drew on his relationship with executives at Spielberg’s DreamWorks SKG to push the project, which was quickly picked up by the then-fledgling studio and received a green light within months.
“American Beauty” — Cohen’s first effort as an independent producer — went on to receive not only rave reviews, but also to sweep the Oscars with five awards, including a screenwriting prize for Ball and a best-actor statuette for actor Kevin Spacey.
“Milk” also seemed like a hard sell when Cohen first signed on to the film in the mid-2000s. “It was gay-themed, and about a gay politician who gets killed at the end, which doesn’t fit any of the financial models for a how a movie finds audiences and makes money,” said Cohen, who is now president of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which is managing and running the California Supreme Court case to overturn Proposition 8. The filmmakers found a solution to that problem by casting the critically acclaimed but bankable Sean Penn in the title role.
Cohen had set up his own production company in 2010 when Donna Gigliotti of The Weinstein Co. invited him to help her produce Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” along with Jonathan Gordon (“Good Will Hunting”). Cohen jumped at the chance because he was a fan of Russell’s previous films, including “Flirting With Disaster” and “The Fighter,” and, he said, he also was riveted by the characters at the heart of “Silver Linings’ ” edgy romantic comedy. “It was ‘boy meets girl,’ but it was the most f----d-up boy and the most disturbed girl you’re ever going to meet — and they’re mean to each other,” he said. “The characters are uncompromising, and they don’t make any concessions to what one might think of as the traditional Hollywood protagonist.”
During the 33-day shoot in Philadelphia and beyond, Cohen oversaw both financial and creative choices, including the decision to tone down Cooper’s bipolar outbursts early in the film. “We found that a little went a long way,” he said.
Cohen said he relates to the marginalized character, in part, as a gay man, in a state where his own marriage is not yet recognized as legal. “On any film, I immediately identify with the characters who are thought of as ‘less than,’ ” he said.
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February 6, 2013 | 12:46 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
When Barack Obama heard that his speechwriter Jon Lovett would be leaving the White House to follow his dream of becoming a Hollywood comedy writer, the president joked something in the vein of, “You’re not going to write about me, right?”
The commander in chief didn’t need to worry. True, Lovett, along with actor Josh Gad (a Tony nominee for “The Book of Mormon”) and “Modern Family’s” Jason Winer, has created the new NBC sitcom “1600 Penn,” about a first family. However, the fictional Gilchrists are decidedly not the Obamas: “This is a show about a family with dysfunctions and screw-ups, but it’s pretty clear that this current first family doesn’t fit that mold,” Lovett said by phone recently.
“The Obamas seem extraordinarily normal, which, frankly, is a little boring when it comes to comedy,” Winer said in a recent interview in his office on the 20th Century Fox lot.
It’s also not about Beltway intrigue, like HBO’s wickedly funny “Veep,” nor heady political fare, as on Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing.” “1600 Penn,” rather, is a family sitcom set in a White House led by President Dale Gilchrist (played by Bill Pullman, in his first role as commander in chief since saving Earth from aliens in “Independence Day”), who is having more tsuris managing his family than the nation.
There’s Gilchrist’s gaffe-prone son, Skip (Gad), who is called home after seven years in college in an attempt to keep his Billy Carter-like antics in check; his overachieving teenage daughter, Becca (“Superbad’s” Martha
MacIsaac), who is appalled to discover that she is pregnant after a rare one-night stand; his two arch younger children; and his second wife, Emily (Jenna Elfman), who is struggling not only in her role as stepmom but also with the scheming Washington press corps.
When, for example, Emily hosts a school event and a student asks her what it means when her father says the first lady is a “trophy wife,” Emily erupts in an outburst that has the beleaguered press secretary, played by Andre Holland, hauling her away from the cameras. When the media pounces on news of Becca’s pregnancy, even Al Jazeera picks up the story.
“The press corps on the show serves the same role as it does in real life,” Lovett, 30, said. “They’re just so annoying, but they’re really necessary in that they hold the White House to the fire — although we portray that in a heightened, comedic way.”
Otherwise, the show remains apolitical: “The goal on network TV is to reach the broadest-possible audience, and politics is, by its nature, divisive,” Winer, 40, explained. “We don’t even mention the words ‘Republican’ or ‘Democrat’ in the entire series. It’s more about a family that just happens to be in the fishbowl of the most famous address in America. I’ve always loved the theme of public versus private — of those things that we try to keep to ourselves and, yet, can’t.”
Winer said he draws inspiration from his childhood in Baltimore, where he had his bar mitzvah at an Orthodox synagogue, and “Jewish humor in my family started with laughing at others — not in a mean-spirited way, but looking out at the world around you and marveling at the craziness.”
All that came in handy for him as an Emmy Award-winning executive producer and director of ABC’s hit sitcom “Modern Family.” and now for “1600 Penn.” The show’s history also dates back to when he met Gad as the actor was auditioning for a role on “Modern Family” six years ago. “Josh dropped out of the process to go do this silly little musical about Mormons, which baffled us all at the time,” Winer recalled.
But he was impressed by Gad’s finesse in portraying what he calls “a lovable idiot,” and kept that persona in mind when he and Gad agreed to collaborate on what would become “1600 Penn” around 2011. “We wanted to take advantage of the bull-in-a-china-shop character that Josh plays so well, and we decided that the White House was the biggest china shop in the world,” Winer said. “But I didn’t know if we could give the show enough real-life texture and detail, which is where Jon Lovett came into the picture.”
Turns out Lovett — who grew up Reform on Long Island — got into politics almost by accident in the mid-2000s. After graduating with a math degree from Williams College and trying his hand at stand-up comedy for a year in New York, he went to work for the 2004 John Kerry presidential campaign, where Hillary Rodham Clinton noticed his pithy wit and asked him to write jokes to help her roast Barbara Walters. Before long, Lovett had become Clinton’s full-time speechwriter, and he went on to work for the Obama administration the week of the president’s inauguration. In 2010, he was named Washington’s funniest celebrity, in part for his spoof of pundit Arianna Huffington.
“I could have continued being a speechwriter for as long as I wanted,” Lovett said. “But I felt like I owed it to myself to take a chance on, for lack of a less cheesy word, my dream.”
And so, while he knew it would be hard to watch President Obama’s re-election campaign from the sidelines, Lovett packed up his belongings and moved out of the home he shared with White House co-workers to sleep on friends’ couches in Los Angeles.
Just three days after he arrived, he found himself at a meeting with Winer and Gad at a coffee shop on Larchmont Boulevard, insisting that “literally the only thing I didn’t want to write about was the White House.
“It was, in part, because comedy inherently makes fun of its subjects, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that to the president and the people I had worked with. So I was very reluctant about the whole idea, but the more we talked about it, the more I felt like the things I had experienced could lend itself to the show without being a satire of this administration.”
The “1600 Penn” creators have drawn on some of the shenanigans of past presidential relatives, like Bill Clinton’s half-brother Roger Clinton — whom the Secret Service dubbed with the code name “Headache,” due to his penchant for landing in hot water — as well as a visit to the White House, where Winer was stunned to discover that “the Situation Room was just this simple room in a hallway, not like something out of a Kubrick movie or some bunker in the basement.
“Just outside that room, there’s a brown plastic phone like you’d find in your mother’s kitchen from 1983, and our guide said that if you’ve never been there before, they tell you to pick up that phone and give all kinds of personal information — and then they tell you the phone doesn’t work. So there’s actually this prank phone in the White House, and that’s the spirit of our show in a nutshell.”
When the real commander in chief presided over a screening of “1600 Penn” at the White House last month, Winer said, “It was just art and life commingling in a way that just blew my mind. The president said that at the real 1600 Penn, we have to laugh at ourselves, because we have to deal with a lot of serious stuff every day. I was just so honored when he said it’s great that we’ve been able to create something for TV that brings some levity to this place.”
“1600 Penn” airs Thursdays at 9:30 p.m.
January 9, 2013 | 8:27 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
“It’s an honor to be insulted by you,” I told Judd Apatow during an interview about his new comedy-drama, “This is 40,” about the midlife angst suffered by record label owner Pete (Paul Rudd) and his wife, Debbie (Leslie Mann).
“Yes, exactly!” Apatow replied.
I’d interviewed the comedy mogul several times over the years, most recently about his flick “Funny People,” starring Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen, and about his book “I Found This Funny: My Favorite Pieces of Humor and Some that Might Not be Funny at All.” He’d opened up to me about how his Jewish childhood with atheist parents instilled in him a “frightening, empty” view of the universe that “certainly did more damage than they were aware of at the time.” Whenever I’d asked him if he read the Journal, he’d responded with an enthusiastic, “Oh, yeah!”
So I was thrilled – and initially a tad mortified – to see that “This is 40” actually had a scene with a Journal reporter, which is played for laughs: A schlumpy journalist wearing a yarmulke turns up to interview Pete’s star client, Graham Parker, asking him, “Why is this album different from all other albums.” “It isn’t,” Parker retorts.
Yes, parody is a form of flattery, but is that what Judd really thought of the Journal? Can we possibly appear less hip? And is this what he thought of me? “Well, I insult myself all the time in my films, so why not you?” he quipped when I asked him that question.
Q: Where did the idea for the Journal scene come from?
A: What I wanted to write about is that Pete feels like maybe he’s slipping. He’s in the music business but he kind of likes the older bands, not the newer bands, and it’s a symbol that his taste is not keeping up with what’s happening in the world and it terrifies him. He has this business model he thinks will work, which is, he’ll take these older artists, and he will have very little overhead; they don’t need to sell that many records and that’s enough, but then he’s not even going to be able to sell that many. So when it came to, who’s interested in talking to Graham, we thought, the only people who want to talk to Graham is the Jewish Journal. And we have our friend David Wilde, who writes for Rolling Stone magazine, playing the reporter from the Journal. And then the joke in the movie is that the old people who still buy hard copies of records are older Jews because they don’t download; they don’t understand what that means. (Laughs.) Which is probably because of the fact that my dad probably wouldn’t know how do download; he doesn’t have an iTunes music library. I’m sure this makes no sense to the reality of the Jewish Journal, or who reads it or the ages or any of it; it’s just a general, we didn’t get Rolling stone to cover this.
Q: Does the character reflect any of your impressions of the Journal?
A: No, not at all. But when you think of like the cutting edge of the music scene, you don’t think of the Jewish Journal. I don’t mean to insult your readers, but they are not going to find out the next hot band in the Jewish Journal.
Q: You never know.
A: Well, you should change that. If you find them, then you will prove my joke incorrect. You and I have done a bunch of interviews over the years, for a long time, but the joke is literally coming from the fact that it just sounds funny. Comedy is so much like a rhythm idea. And to me, although there’s been many great Jewish rockers over the years, you don’t instantly think that our people are rocking that hard, although the truth is that they probably are (laughs).
Q: Someone on our staff was thinking of doing a videotaped response to your Journal scene.
A: Yes! That’s right. You could, and it would be a great video for every person who doesn’t realize that the guy from that punk band is Jewish, or that the guy in that great rock ‘n’ roll band of all time is Jewish. You could show all of them. We could even get Adam Sandler to record it.
“This is 40” is now in theaters.
January 2, 2013 | 3:10 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In 2008, while doing research for what would become his first feature, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Benh Zeitlin climbed inside the pickup truck he had purchased for $500 and drove down each of the five roads leading to the bayou’s edge about 80 miles south of New Orleans. At the end of one of those roads he discovered the Isle de Jean Charles, a remote fishing village made up of a swampy enclave of about 20 shacks connected by planked walkways over brackish water. Mattresses patched sagging bridges, discarded refrigerators served as wading pools, and dead cypress trees loomed like skeletons.
“I got chills, because I had been trying to write about holdouts at the end of the world, and I sensed that this was truly the last stand,” Zeitlin said of his post-Hurricane Katrina mindset. “It was almost as if there was a different kind of air there; the atmosphere was so salty that everything rusted, and all the dead trees and shattered houses had this incredibly apocalyptic feel. [In another town], I asked someone why they didn’t try to replant the population somewhere else, and they said, ‘We were made by the marsh; we’re like this exotic plant that can’t grown anywhere else.’ ”
Zeitlin thought about the dying towns and their stalwart residents, and how they reminded him of the characters in a play by his childhood friend Lucy Alibar titled “Juicy and Delicious,” in which a child struggles to achieve a state of grace after he learns his previously robust father is dying.
“I realized I had two stories that were both circling around this one emotion: What do you do when the thing that made you starts to die in front of you? And how do you survive the loss of the things that created you — whether a community or a parent?”
The result is Zeitlin’s haunting, operatic independent film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a fable about a 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), who is pondering her place in the universe as her father ails and her harsh but utopian hamlet is threatened by a raging storm. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival last year, the Camera d’Or at Cannes and has four Independent Spirit Award nominations and is now enjoying Oscar buzz alongside the likes of such major studio features as “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” Along the way, it’s joined the ranks of a growing number of acclaimed films (think “Life of Pi” and “The Tree of Life”) that tackle spiritual concerns onscreen.
Zeitlin, 30, called in for an interview from the stairwell of the New York Public Library, where he retreats to work on projects whenever he visits his native New York. His home these days is a rundown house on the outskirts of a construction site in the upper ninth ward of New Orleans, where, he said, his used car recently died. “I’ve pretty much lived in varying forms of shanties or shacks since I moved down there [around 2006],” he said.
The heroine of “Beasts” is left homeless when a hurricane destroys her detritus-filled hovel; only on the precipice of destruction does she come into a kind of spiritual enlightenment, Zeitlin said. “An important moment is when she regards the funeral pyre that is cremating her father and watching the sparks fly out into the air,” said Zeitlin, who directed the film and co-authored the script with Alibar. “She realizes that just because she cannot see them anymore, they have not disappeared — in fact, that nothing disappears, but things live on in different ways. It’s her understanding that while both her father and her community are going to be gone from the earth, the wisdom passed down from them is internalized in her, and she is now the vessel that will carry that forward into the future. She starts to feel like the intangible parts of the universe are taking care of her, as opposed to trying to destroy her, and that moment of enlightenment is related to visions of what God is.”
The funeral scene was influenced by Jewish thought, Zeitlin said — specifically the midrash of two ships, one leaving the harbor as another heads for shore, which suggests that one should rejoice over the returning ship, just as one should celebrate the death of a righteous man. “It’s one of my favorite pieces of wisdom,” Zeitlin said.
Zeitlin’s parents, both folklorists, celebrated all kinds of wisdom and fables; they studied carnival barkers, traveling medicine shows and, during frequent trips to Coney Island, they jotted down histories of the residents of the local freak show. Zeitlin remembers hanging out with a contortionist called the Elastic Man, who could slither his way through a coat hanger, as well as Otis the Frog Boy, who rolled up and lit cigarettes with his mouth.
“The myth in my own family is that we had basically one relative who escaped the pogroms in Russia in a hay cart,” said Zeitlin, whose father is Jewish and mother was raised Protestant in North Carolina. “My father very much studied Jewish culture and mythology, and he wrote several compilations of Jewish stories, folktales and jokes. He was always reinventing Jewish customs and making sure that the tradition was very much part of our lives. Every Shabbat we all had to bring a reading or some piece of wisdom we’d discovered during the week, along with a ritual where we would remember all the people we had lost.”
Not long after his backyard bar mitzvah, Zeitlin traveled with his family to New Orleans, which he found to be “an almost supernatural place where both death and joy are in the air.
“All Jews are obsessed with death, right,” he added, only half joking. “It’s recalling all the people before you who have died, and using their knowledge in your own life.”
Zeitlin moved to New Orleans after graduating from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, initially to make a short film, “Glory at Sea,” and then to embark upon “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” He began writing the film several years ago while recovering from a shattered pelvis after a drunk driver rammed his car as he was on his way to a film festival. When he could walk again, he returned to Isle de Jean Charles, hanging out with his laptop at the town’s marina and interviewing locals, who initially hazed him as an outsider.
Over seven weeks in 2010, his largely improvised production came together in 100-degree heat, amid swarming flies and mosquitoes, with sets cobbled together, in part, from abandoned scrap metal. After Zeitlin’s pickup truck exploded in a fiery maelstrom, his crew transformed the charred shell into the boat in which Hushpuppy and her father traverse the swamp in the film. Zeitlin persevered even after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred on the first day of production, jeopardizing the locals as well as the movie.
The shoot, which took place in 20 locations, proved to be an exercise in independent filmmaking at its most extreme — which is why the low-key Zeitlin particularly appreciates his movie’s Oscar buzz. “It’s certainly not why I make films,” he said, “but any time a film gets recognition that was made outside of the film industry, the more leverage it gives to other filmmakers who are trying to tell stories in ways that are unconventional. So it’s just trying to forge that space in the world.”
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Fox Searchlight.
December 8, 2012 | 11:02 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
November 3, 2012 | 12:06 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Exploding heads, techno-genitals, mutant offspring, a humanoid fly. Such are some of the monstrous images in David Cronenberg’s early “body horror” films, a la “Videodrome,” “Scanners,” “The Brood” and, of course, 1986’s “The Fly, ” starring Jeff Goldblum. Now Cronenberg’s 32-year-old son, Brandon Cronenberg, has spawned his own distinctive contribution to the body horror genre: the viscerally gruesome dark satire “Antiviral” -- starring Caleb Landry Jones and Malcolm McDowell -- which won the best Canadian first feature award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and will screen at the AFI Film Festival Nov. 4 and 7 before opening theatrically in April.
The movie revolves around Syd March (Landry Jones), who works at a clinic that sells injections of viruses cultivated from sick celebrities to obsessed fans. “It’s biological communion, for a price,” the younger Cronenberg said by phone from his home in Toronto.
Syd also sells some of the more select germs on the black market, smuggling them out of the lab in his own body, meaning that he is always nauseatingly ill. Plenty of disturbing images ensue, from viscous blood pouring out of sickened orifices to needles penetrating pale tissue to gray-colored steaks – also for fan consumption – cloned from the flesh of the stars.
When Syd becomes infected with what turns out to be a deadly virus courtesy of superstar Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), he must unravel the microbiological mystery before he, too, becomes dead meat.
Here are some excerpts from my conversation with Brandon Cronenberg this past week:
Q: Your father is a well-known (Jewish) atheist/existentialist who has said that his grisly images are meant to remind people that life and death begins and ends with the body. Do you have a similar outlook about religion?
A: I identify as Jewish, and I feel totally Jewish, but not in a religious sense. I’m a total atheist, but I think that came to me on my own. My parents never pushed me; they were very careful not to tell me how the universe is or to expose me to atheistic propaganda. I guess I never did believe in God. I was never told that God exists and I never experienced anything that led me to believe that God exists.
I don’t believe in the soul, that the body is this inanimate thing that then becomes animated by a life force and then at a certain point stops being animated by a life force. I think the idea of the soul comes from the desire to see ourselves as somehow perfect and immortal despite the physical reality of our bodies.
Q: Is that why you use such visceral physical imagery in the film?
A: Part of it is that; and part of it is to show the divide between celebrities as ideas, as cultural icons, media constructs, and then to contrast that with the human beings behind those constructs. I think we’re very uncomfortable with our bodies; we don’t want to look at ourselves too closely and see the decay, the animal reality of the human body. So in the film, making the body so explicit was partly because of this theme.
Q: How did you get the idea for “Antiviral?”
A: It was 2004; I had just started film school, I had a baddish flu and was very sick in bed. And I was having a kind of fever dream where I was half awake and sort of obsessing over the physicality of my illness and how I had something in my body, my cells, that had come from someone else’s body. The penetration of the virus into your cells is totally erotic and intimate, if you see it that way. Afterwards, when I was more sane, I started thinking about who might see disease as something intimate, and I thought a celebrity-obsessed fan might want to be infected with a virus from the object of their obsession as a way of feeling physically connected to them. And that developed into a metaphor for dissecting celebrity culture.
Q: You’ve been able to witness some of the unpleasant aspects of celebrity through the public spotlight on your own father. What kinds of things did you want to explore about celebrity culture in the film?
A: The commodification of celebrity is a huge theme. The cannibalism aspect, for me, becomes a metaphor for (literally) consuming celebrity. I think the film may take things to the extreme, but I think it’s only a slight exaggeration of what’s already out there – like people buying John Lennon’s teeth, which sold for quite a lot of money recently. Or people will buy scraps of someone’s underwear. Anything that is associated with a celebrity immediately has some market value because there’s this kind of physical fetishism.
And speaking of religion, I think this fetishism is very connected to the religious impulse. I was thinking about, say, sainthood, which is sort of like the creation of celebrities in a way; saints are people essentially elevated to the status of gods, and there’s also that element of deification when it comes to celebrity. And just as with sainthood, where old churches claim to have the finger bone of such and such saint, we fetishize celebrity “relics.” (Coughs.)
Q: Are you sick?
A: Yes, I have a cold.
Q: Can I have some?
A: (Laughs.) Yes, come to Toronto and you can catch my cold.
Q: Was there a limit on how far you would go with sickening imagery in the film?
A: I think that that imagery feeds the satire, because the film is meant as a commentary on a part of our culture that I find disgusting at times – so the film makes it viscerally disgusting as well. But I wasn’t just trying to be gross for the sake of being gross; I think it’s thematically relevant and also ties into the themes I mentioned about the body.
Q: Did you use fake needles or dummy arms to create the injection effects?
A: No, we used real needles – we had a medical professional on board – and yes, there were quite a lot of them.
Some people have fainted while watching the movie in the theater; the thing I didn’t realize is that [viewers] are very uncomfortable with needle imagery. I didn’t realize how extreme it got, so now it feels like a kind of cheap way of freaking people out.
Q: For a long time you told people you didn’t want to be a filmmaker. What changed your mind?
A: There were people who approached me with all these preconceptions based on who my father was or who they felt he was and to a certain extent that turned me off to film, because people assumed that I absolutely must be a huge cinephile and that I must want to follow in my father’s footsteps. It was very obnoxious, so it gave me great pleasure to say, no, I have no interest in film whatsoever. But then at a certain point that seemed like a bad reason not to do something that could be potentially interesting.
Q: How do you feel about being compared to your father as a filmmaker?
A: I don’t mind being compared to my father if it’s legitimate, but I do think some people overstate the comparisons. We do share the interest in issues of the body and technology; those are some of the things he explored particularly in his earlier films, although I think he’s really evolved as a filmmaker over the years.
Q: What do you like about the horror/science fiction genre?
A: It’s a good medium for caricature, and for dissecting our culture, because you can take things that we’ve become habituated to, or become too used to to see clearly, and exaggerate them to heighten the context.
“Antiviral” will screen at Mann’s Chinese 1 theater on Nov. 4 at 6:15 p.m., and at Mann’s Chinese 4 on Nov. 7 at 7:15 p.m. The festival will also screen Eran Riklis' new film, "Zaytoun," starring American actor Stephen Dorff and set in 1980s Beirut. For more information, visit AFI.com/AFIFEST.
September 11, 2012 | 10:34 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
David Geffen, the notoriously press-shy billionaire Hollywood mogul, stared at me as if I had asked him to yank out a tooth. The setting was PBS’ summer 2012 press tour, on July 22, and Geffen was there to talk about the “American Masters” documentary, “Inventing David Geffen.” I asked him how his Jewish background had influenced his marked commitment to philanthropy.
The 69-year-old music and movie industry maverick brusquely replied that his parents had met in Palestine, his mother had arrived in the United States in 1931, and that his parents “were socialists. … I was bar mitzvahed, but we didn’t have much of a religious life at all.
“Does that not answer your question?” he added, icily. When I pressed him further, he snapped, “My parents were poor. They weren’t into philanthropy.” And also: “I would think that everybody’s childhood is an influence on what happens in their future, don’t you think?”
Just then, Susan Lacy, the creator of the “American Masters” series and the filmmaker behind “Inventing David Geffen,” mentioned a story she wanted to tell about Geffen’s mother, Batya. “She wants me to talk about how my mother’s family was killed. Let’s not,” Geffen said. Lacy managed to get in that the perpetrators had been the Nazis, before Geffen cut her off and moved to other questions — a number of which he also dismissed.
After the press conference, I met with Lacy, 63, who had gotten Geffen to open up significantly about numerous subjects in her fine documentary — including the gay mogul’s torrid heterosexual relationship with Cher.
Lacy said she had very much wanted to interview Geffen about his family’s wartime experience, in part because her own father’s German family had died in the Shoah. “Growing up I was obsessed, and I still am obsessed, with the Holocaust,” Lacy said. “I had nightmares for a long, long time; I would see the Nazis coming to get everybody. It had such a profound impact on me that I thought it might also have had an impact on David.” Was the subject too painful for Geffen? “Whether it was or not, he wouldn’t talk about it, and I respected that,” Lacy said. “I got him to talk about almost everything [else],” she added.
Lacy had learned a bit about the Geffens’ experience from other sources: “David’s mother, I think, had gone out of town, when the Nazis were marching into that part of Russia; and as they were coming, the townspeople rounded up her whole family and shot them,” Lacy said. “David’s mother ended up going to Palestine and didn’t know for a very long time what had happened to her family; but there was a sister who also survived who [told her]. And when his mother got the news, she had a bit of a breakdown for six months, when David was a little boy. And David just doesn’t like to talk about it; for one reason or another he’s uncomfortable.”
Geffen did talk about the issue in some depth with Tom King, author of “The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys and Sells the New Hollywood” (2000); it’s a biography Geffen initially endorsed before abruptly canceling further interviews, King writes in the introduction to his book.
The biography recounts how Geffen’s mother worried when her parents did not answer letters she mailed from New York to their home in Tiraspol, Ukraine. After the war, Batya’s sister, Deena, phoned from the Soviet Union with unsettling news: “I am the only one alive. Everyone else is dead,” she said. Most of their relatives had been shot in the September 1941 massacre at Babi Yar, the enormous ravine outside Kiev that had become an infamous execution site. According to King’s biography, Batya did not tell David and his older brother about the tragedy, but repressing the news eventually led her to have the breakdown, requiring her to spend months in the psychiatric unit at Kings County Hospital. She eventually recovered and became a successful businesswoman.
Of Geffen’s Jewish identity, Lacy said, his family members “were Jews, and everybody in his Brooklyn neighborhood was either Jewish or Italian; that’s the only thing he really talks about. He’s culturally Jewish but he’s not [religious], which is true of a lot of people.”
September 5, 2012 | 11:22 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
"My favorite kind of comedy is so wrong that it's right," actor Jared Gertner said.
So it's fitting that he's starring in the blessedly twisted megahit musical "The Book of Mormon," which after scoring nine Tony Awards and a reputation for almost impossible-to-snag tickets has embarked on a national tour opening Sept. 5 at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles.
Created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of TV's satirical "South Park" along with Robert Lopez of the naughty puppet musical "Avenue Q,' "The Book of Mormon" is a blasphemous-yet-endearing bromance story of two mismatched Mormon missionaries trying to convert villagers in war-torn Uganda. The show manages to skewer all things sacred while still coming off as oddly reverent.
Gertner plays, in his own words, "the screw-up Mormon," a slovenly, insecure, "Star Trek"-obsessed schlub named Elder Cunningham, who is paired with a church golden boy, Elder Price (Gavin Creel), on their mandatory, two-year mission. They are sent to Africa, where they encounter villagers ravaged by AIDS along with a genocidal warlord with an unprintable name and a penchant for circumcising every female within reach. It's in this unlikely scenario that the nerdy Cunningham finds his mojo, converting the villagers by reinventing the Mormon story with pop culture references to "Star Wars," "The Hobbit" and, of course, "Star Trek."
One of the musical's most hilarious (and scandalous) moments comes when a tribesman denounces the religion and declares that he's off to copulate with an infant to cure his AIDS. "People back then had even worse AIDS," Cunningham replies, then goes on to improvise a hilariously profane story about Mormon founder Joseph Smith to suggest sex with amphibians actually cures the disease. When the formerly meek Cunnigham later sings, "like Jesus, I'm 'growing a pair,' " one wants to celebrate along with him.
Despite some initial concerns by the show's backers in New York, Mormon viewers have reportedly enjoyed the show. Gertner says even he was startled when he began perusing the script as an understudy for the role of Cunningham before the show's opening on Broadway last year. "I remember reading it and thinking, 'They can't say this!' " the 32-year-old actor said in a telephone interview from Denver, where the musical was playing to sold-out houses recently.
In fact, the cast and crew were given security briefings before the Broadway opening, in case angry patrons lashed out against the production. "We were warned to be careful as far as receiving mail and packages to the theater, because I think they expected the show to be more controversial," Gertner said. "But the fact is, we've been very pleasantly surprised, because people have really embraced us. And I think the show is so funny, has so much heart and so much to say."
The tone of the production is key to offsetting jokes about such things as maggot-infested genitals and pedophilia: "The best way to approach material like this is to keep it as honest as completely possible and not focus on what you're saying as blasphemous, or even on making people laugh," Gertner said, sounding as earnest as one of the doorbell-ringing missionaries in the musical. "Ultimately the show is not a platform for offending people; it's a story about two young kids who are unprepared for the horror they're about to see in the world, and how they deal with it defines who they are and who they want to be."
"My character is Mormon, but the religion doesn't really interest him," added Gertner, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish home in New Jersey. "He just wants to fit in, to have friends, to be part of things. He hasn't even read the Book of Mormon, though he was supposed to, and he doesn't really know how to be a missionary. And then he gets paired with this perfect Ken doll of a Mormon, who's ready to go out and change the world. So when they go to Africa and see all the devastation, they don't really know how to handle it, and Price, who's the 'perfect' one, kind of crumbles under the pressure. But Cunningham, to even his own surprise, rises to the challenge and is able to connect with and inspire people."
Cunningham — with his mop of unkempt hair and his gut practically bursting out of his clothing — is the fish-out-of-water among the other bright-eyed and bushy-tailed missionaries, who look immaculate in their black trousers, nametags and pressed shirts. Gertner notes that all of the actors who have portrayed Cunningham happen to be Jewish — including the Tony-nominated Josh Gad, who starred in the Broadway production before Gertner took over in June, and Gertner's own understudy, Jon Bass.
"Maybe if you're looking for people who are very different from an all-American, uptight, very white, very blond person, then physically you're going to look for a difference; maybe you're going to find a Jewish person," Gertner said. "And if there's any Jewish humor in the show, it's just humor that comes from us, because we actually all are Jewish."
Gertner's childhood home was "very Jewish," he said. His father served as president of their synagogue; the Gertners kept kosher for Passover, and young Jared attended Hebrew school as well as Hebrew high school. Then there was Gertner's Broadway-themed bar mitzvah: "We made the table centerpieces out of Playbills, so my elderly aunts and uncles sat at the 'Fiddler on the Roof' table, and my young female cousins, at 'Sophisticated Ladies,' " he recalled. His own centerpiece featured "Falsettos," a Broadway show he had unsuccessfully auditioned for not long before his bar mitzvah.
As a self-professed theater nerd, Gertner said he didn't fit in among his childhood peers; in this way he identifies with his outsider character of Cunningham.
"I've always been chubby, and I was one of, like, 10 Jews out of 450 students in my class, so I definitely remember feeling out of step," he added. Then he discovered his talent for making people laugh, "which helped me get through a lot of things, like gym class, which was always a disaster." Gertner found his niche onstage and while in his 20s went on to star in New York productions, including "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" and "Ordinary Days."
His first job on "The Book of Mormon" was as an understudy for Josh Gad, although he was initially hesitant about accepting the gig. "I've never covered before because I like being onstage," he explained. But Gertner had friends who had participated in early workshops of the show — they said he just had to be part of it — so the actor went in to audition for the musical's creators with only the goal of making Parker and Stone laugh. He succeeded and got the call that he was hired the very next day.
To prepare, he began researching the Mormon religion in earnest: "The only things I had previously known about Mormonism came from episodes of 'South Park,' " he said, sheepishly.
But he insists the show doesn't disrespect any religion.
"The stories of every faith can sound a bit goofy if you've never heard of them before," he said. "If you took someone who's [unfamiliar] with Judaism, and you said, 'There's this burning bush and a parting of the [Red Sea],' they're going to say, 'Hold on, you're crazy.' The point is, you're brought up in a tradition and you learn its stories and you take what you can from them to become a better person."
The show is actually "very pro-faith," he added — if unapologetically outrageous. "It's so funny to take in the audience's reaction, because they're simultaneously delighted and horrified," he said. "You can hear people shriek and gasp and laugh because it's affecting them in such a visceral way. But there's so much joy behind it."
For tickets and information, visit www.BroadwayLA.org.