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Interview with Imogene Co-Director Shari Springer Berman

After years of directing documentaries, Shari Springer Berman made big waves in the independent film world with her first feature, American Splendor, co-directed with her husband and filmmaking partner Robert Pulcini. Since then, the pair has continued making narrative features such as The Nanny Diaries, The Extra Man, the HBO film Cinema Verite and the upcoming Imogene, starring Kristen Wiig and Annette Bening. I had a chance to speak briefly with Berman on Wednesday evening, as part of Columbia University’s panel on women filmmakers.

Ezra Stead: I’ve noticed a strong fascination in your films for a sort of cranky and eccentric, but lovable, type of character, such as Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) in American Splendor or Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline) in The Extra Man. From what I’ve read about your next film, Imogene, with the title character faking a suicide in an attempt to win back her ex, it sounds like that character fits the bill. What attracts you to these kind of characters, and what else can you tell us about Imogene?

Shari Springer Berman: I am attracted to cranky, lovable people. Bob and I … both are; I don’t know why, I guess my therapist could probably answer that question better than I could [laughs]. I guess I love the idea of someone who isn’t overtly nice, and I feel like so many movies, especially Hollywood movies, it’s so about people being nice. One of the biggest notes when I write for studio films … is that the character has to be likable, and I think that people can be completely lovable and not, on the surface, nice. Some of the most amazing people I’ve met in my life are people who are a bit cranky, not necessarily traditionally nice, but underneath, some of the kindest, most giving people you’d ever want to meet … My grandmother was kind of a little bit cold, and very snarky, but I knew she loved me more than anything in the world, and when she said something kind, it was very real. So I like characters like that … and Imogene is definitely a continuation of the slightly brittle but completely lovable, root-for-them, character. Imogene’s mom [Annette Bening] is not one of those people; she’s very out there and wears a lot on her sleeve – who she is, is very available.

ES: You started out making documentaries, and certainly some of the techniques you brought to American Splendor reflect that background. What kind of advantages and disadvantages do you think documentaries have over narrative, and vice versa?

SSB: It’s completely different. I love documentaries because you don’t know what you’re going to get. When you make a narrative film, your whole goal is to know what you’re going to get … In a documentary, when you’re approaching it the way I like to approach it, you go in with sort of a general idea and then you allow it to happen to you, and you’re open to all kinds of things, and there’s something really thrilling about that experience. It takes you in directions you had no idea you would ever go … Docs take years, and you have to just give yourself over to it. Sometimes it’s really boring, but I like the adrenaline of shooting verite footage – not seated interviews … but just going out and covering events – it’s this really crazy adrenaline rush, and I love it … I miss that sometimes. In this movie, Imogene, that we just shot, we wanted to shoot a scene of a guy walking around with this strange outfit … in Chinatown, and my ADs [assistant directors] were stopping everybody and we were just putting this guy in a crowd and letting him walk, and I was like, ‘Okay, you know what? We have to shoot this like a doc.’ I told the Ads to go get a cup of coffee … I’m gonna take over … and we got all this stuff … genuine reactions to this guy walking down this massive street, and it was one of the most fun days … Working with actors is probably my favorite part – that or writing – is my favorite part of the filmmaking process.

ES: How do you and your husband divide up the duties of directing a film? What is your working process like?

SSB: We have different strengths, and I think that’s why it works, because we sort of take different areas and run with it. I do a lot of … sort of organizational stuff, and he spends a lot of time with the camera, the shots. I used to be a casting director, so I do a lot of casting and, obviously, Bob’s involved in it and I’m involved in everything, too, but these are just the things that we each take the lead on … I talk to the actors, that’s my sort of arena, and if Bob wants something [from them], he’ll tell me … but usually, we see eye to eye. I mean, you have to have the same aesthetic approach; if you don’t see the world the same way and you don’t like the same films, then you’re gonna constantly be battling, so luckily, we tend to agree a lot.

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A Chat with Lisa Cholodenko, director of “The Kids Are All Right”

Lisa Cholodenko isn’t a household name as writer/directors go, but that may change somewhat after her latest film, “The Kids Are All Right,” which was released smack in the middle of the summer, and came out on DVD and Blu-ray last week. The movie features three of our greatest actors – Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo – doing some of the most astute work of their careers. Expect the movie to snag some Oscar nominations for one or more of the trio, and if there’s any justice, Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg will be nominated for Best Original Screenplay as well.

The movie is blisteringly funny while at the same time painfully honest. It tells the story of a lesbian couple (Bening and Moore) who’ve been together for 20 years and raised two children (played Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) who are now at an age when they’re interested in meeting their sperm donor (Ruffalo). Human comedy ensues with unexpected results. “The Kids Are All Right” is one of the best movies of the year, and Cholodenko, whose previous films include “High Art” and “Laurel Canyon,” is a huge factor in its success. Now you might be thinking that a movie about two lesbians and their kids isn’t exactly what you’re looking for. If so, you’re exactly the person who should see this film, because it’ll change your ideas of what makes a family in this day and age. And it will make you laugh – loud and hard.

Cholodenko took some time out to talk to Bullz-Eye on the occasion of the film’s home video release and after some introductory chit-chat we discussed the lesbian right, gay porn, and new meanings for the word “tribe.”

Bullz-Eye: “The Kids are All Right” was like this oasis of reason in an ocean of CGI and fart jokes this past summer. Do you get frustrated when you look around see the types of movies that rake in the big bucks these days?

Lisa Cholodenko: I wish we would kind of go back to the time where there were more interesting, idiosyncratic human kinds of comedies and dramas, and not such the kind of broad and farcical, box office driven fare, but that’s where we are right now, so, I just accept it, and I’m glad that there’s space for films like this.

BE: Well, so am I. There was some fairly vocal criticism of the film from the most unlikely of places – the lesbian community. Where do you think that kind of outrage comes from and, outside of raising awareness for the film itself, does that kind of anger serve any worthwhile purpose for a thoughtful movie like this?

LC: I keep referring to them as the lesbian right (chuckling), and I think that in any kind of group there’s going to be a contingent of people that are more extreme in their views of things, and more politicized and so, I think there’s room for everybody, and I don’t have a problem with that. It’s gets a little tedious speaking to it – not to you – but when I’ve heard it in Q & A’s and stuff, but I’m sympathetic. There’ve obviously been no great representations of lesbians in cinema, or certainly there hasn’t been in a long time, and it’s kind of an old school doctrinaire, “Oh of course the lesbian goes off with a man.” But if you look at the film with any kind of care, it’s really not about that at all.

BE: No, no, it isn’t.

LC: She really goes off with her partner. So it gets a little knee-jerky and tedious for me, but I’m sympathetic that there’s no representation, and with starvation sometimes you get a lot of mixed feelings.

BE: Well, here’s a weird question, and you gotta help me out here, because it was the one thing in the whole movie that baffled me. Lesbian couples watching gay male porn to get in the mood. Is this common? Is this something that I’m just totally unaware of?

LC: You know, I don’t know because I’m not a social scientist. I just thought, you know, different strokes for different folks, and it’s always fascinating to find out what people do to turn it on. Stuart [Blumberg, co-writer of the movie] and I stumbled on that idea, and wrote a scene, and laughed and I said, “No, it’s too risqué,” and he said, “No it’s not. It’s funny. It’s great.”

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It’s a villain vs. vampires, and some predators vs. an airbender

Things are crazy for me this weekend, so forgive me if I cross the line between succinct and downright terse, and I make no typo-free or anti-cliche guarantee either. Even so, this is an unusually interesting box office weekend, though inevitably a far less lucrative one than last weekend’s holiday free-for-all.

The major new entry that just might hit the #1 spot is the PG-rated 3-D animated comedy, “Despicable Me.” Though not every film geek loves this movie about a James Bond-style super-baddie redeemed by instant parenthood — veteran animation critic Charles Solomon was particularly cool to it on the L.A. area public radio show, FilmWeek — it’s being noted for having a bit of a more of a Looney Tunes/Spy vs. Spy vibe than your typical family animation and is getting solidly good reviews.  Indeed, the only thing that looks bad about this film is that it’s come out only two weeks after all-but-univerally praised and hugely successful “Toy Story 3,” but then Pixar exists in a world of its own anyhow, where a perfectly entertaining little movie like “Cars” somehow becomes the “bad” one.

Jolly Carl DiOrio at THR is predicting a $30-35 million weekend. Since “Despicable Me, helmed by two first time French directors, is from a new animation division from beleaguered Universal, every little of good luck is badly needed right now. Jolly Carl says that all the suspense will be over the holding power of last week’s huge winner, “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” which has already passed the $200 million mark. It’s all up to the Twi-hards now.

The other major new release is “Predators.” Produced by Robert Rodriguez and directed by Nimrod Antal, it’s an attempt to revivify the old action/monster franchise with a straight-forward multi-star action plot largely lifted from one of the most frequently borrowed of all horror/suspense premises, “The Most Dangerous Game,” which even spawned an episode of “Gilligan’s Island.” This version has been getting relatively good reviews for a movie which is decidedly not critic’s bait and it appears to be very much in the spirit of the effective, if not wildly brilliant, original. It’s Rotten Tomatoes stock has lowered considerably over the last 24 hours or so, however.

Preying on “Predators” is the widely unloved yet successful family action picture from M. Night Shyamalan and Paramount, “The Last Airbender.” This weekend will be an interesting test to see if there’s any effect from all that critical hate and a lowish Cinemascore result which has to have translated into some poor word of mouth, at least among adults. In any case, “Predators” should almost certainly emerge victorious in terms of profits considering that the frugal and innovative Rodriguez has kept the budget to an extremely reasonable $38 million — a minuscule budget for an effects-heavy action film based on long-running franchise. The production budget of “Airbender,” we are told is nearly four times as much. Jolly Carl says the R-rated action-monster picture should earn $20-25 million.

On the limited release front, the movie getting all the attention this week is the highly lauded dramatic comedy from Focus Features with a title borrowed from the Who, “The Kids Are Alright.” Even considering the no-longer-terribly-edgy subject matter (gay women raising children), this movie stars two of the best and most famous actresses of our day in Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, it’s a little sad this is considered a “small” film, but then I keep writing stuff like that.  Welcome to 2010.

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Red Carpet Chatter: Mike Nichols Gets His AFI Lifetime Achievement Award

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Born in 1931 in what was very soon to become Hitler’s Germany, young Michael Peschkowsky was living in Manhattan by 1939. It was great luck both for the future Mike Nichols and for the country that accepted him.

Nichols is, of course, one of the most respected directors in Hollywood, and for good reason. He’s the original, craftsmanlike, and emotionally astute directorial voice responsible for such sixties and seventies classics as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,”  “Carnal Knowledge” and, of course, “The Graduate” (the source of his only directorial Oscar so far) as well as such eighties, nineties, and oughts successes as “Silkwood,” “Working Girl,” “The Birdcage,” and “Closer.” Even if some of the later films are not on the same level of quality as his earlier films — and several, especially his 1988 box office hit, “Working Girl,” stray into mediocrity — it’s still one of the most impressive and diverse careers of any living director in Hollywood.

That’s just on the big screen. On television, Nichols has rebounded in the eyes of many critics, directing two of the most acclaimed television productions of the last decade, 2001′s “Wit” with Emma Thompson, and the outstanding 2005 miniseries adaptation of Tony Kushner’s brilliant and mammoth epic play, “Angels in America.” With his 80th birthday just a year and a half away, he’s still working hard with two thrillers movies planned, including an I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low” currently being rewritten by the decidedly counter-intuitive choice of Chris Rock.

Before he directed his first foot of film, Mike Nichols was a noted theater director. That in itself is not so unusual a root for directors to travel. What is different is that, before he was a noted theater director, he was half of one of the most influential comedy teams in show business history, Nichols and May. (His comedy partner, Elaine May, went on to become an important, if less commercially successful, writer and director in her own right.)

Still, from the moment he directed his first major play, Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park,” Nichols mostly abandoned performing. Today, his highly regarded early work is mostly known only to fairly hardcore comedy aficionados.

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Trailer time — “The Killer Inside Me” (updated)

It’s a bit glib, but it’s fairly safe to say that Jim Thompson was probably the most hard-boiled among the better known hard-boiled writers of the mid 20th century. The new film version of his best known novel proved his work still has the capacity to shock thirty-three years after his death. At Sundance and elsewhere, “The Killer Inside Me,” directed by the very prolific Michael Winterbottom (“A Mighty Heart,” “The Road to Guantanamo”), inspired praise and walks out, particularly for some reportedly extremely rough and bloody scenes of violence perpetrated by Casey Affleck as the brutally sociopathic lead character against costars Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson. Being green band, this trailer merely implies the brutality, of course, but I don’t think it hides from it, either. This really does look like a likely career breakthrough role for Affleck.

This is far from the first time Thompson’s work has been on the screen. Stanley Kubrick was famously impressed with The Killer Inside Me, which came out in 1952. Thompson wound up working on two Kubrick classics, “The Killing” and “Paths of Glory,” but his cult fame had to wait until after his death  in 1977, the year after the first film version of The Killer Inside Me was released to not much interest.

This time, though, that’s looking to be a very different story. Other notable Thompson adaptations include Stephen Frears’ memorable “The Grifters” with John Cusack, Angelica Huston, and Annette Bening from 1990, “The Getaway” (filmed by Sam Peckinpah in 1972 and Roger Donaldson in 1994), and Betrand Tavernier’s haunting 1981 “Coup de Torchon.” None of those were what you’d call family films, but it’s safe to say that this will be by far the most controversial of the bunch.

UPDATE: I just stumbled over an earlier European trailer which is really interesting and a bit more blackly comic. It’s courtesy of a 5/5/10 post made by Simon Dang at the Playlist. Dang also offers that the he thinks the violence has been played up perhaps a bit more than is the case — and this wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened. In any event, the other trailer is after the flip.

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