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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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 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.