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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Top Chef All-Stars: Jamie continues to skate

Last night “Top Chef All-Stars” resumed on Bravo, and there are 13 chefs left. They began as host Padma Lakshmi announced the Quick Fire Challenge, and told the chefs that they would be going up against a world class chef in a race of speed. That chef would create a dish quickly and they would each have to create their own dish in that amount of time. The chef? Head judge Tom Colicchio. This was must-see TV, because no one who watches the show has likely ever seen Tom cook before. And these all-star chef-testants were in awe of Tom, as was everyone watching. The dude created a fish dish in 8 minutes, 37 seconds that looked amazing, and I don’t even like fish.

So the least favorite dishes were Dale (pad thai gone wrong), Jamie (one single clam on a plate) and Angelo (made a raw dish when Tom specifically said not to). The top dishes were Mike Isabella (made a similar dish to Tom’s–black sea bass with capers and olives while Tom’s was with clams, tomato and zucchini); Marcel (made a similar dish but with Asian flavors like dashi broth); and Richard (grilled beef tenderloin and foie gras). The winner was Mike, and his prize was a new Toyota Prius as well as immunity! Wow.

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A roundtable chat with Kate Bosworth and Danny Huston of “The Warrior’s Way”

The movies often make for strange companions, if not actual bedfellows. So it was that a bunch of entertainment writers at the junket for the genre-blending martial-arts western fantasy, “The Warrior’s Way,” met with a pair of actors with a definite air of  beauty-and-the-beast about them.

Kate Bosworth of Kate Bosworth is, oddly enough, the beauty of the pair. Perhaps best known as Lois Lane in the unfairly maligned “Superman Returns,” Bosworth has appeared in a number of films, including a solid appearance as Sandra Dee in Kevin Spacey‘s offbeat Bobby Darin biopic, “Beyond the Sea.” She also played porn star John Holmes’ teenage girlfriend in the fact-based “Wonderland” and was the female lead in the gambling-themed hit, “21.” Bosworth launched her career starring in the short-lived “Dawson’s Creek” spin-off, “Young Americans,” which wrapped in 2000 and followed that up with the lead role in the surfing-themed “Blue Crush” in 2002.

Danny Huston is often cast in the role of beastly types and authority figures, and usually a combination of both. He was the leader of the cold weather vampires in “30 Days of Night,” a memorably creepy power broker in “Children of Men,” and the mutant hating Col. William Stryker in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” He was also the despicably ultra-vicious desperado/gangleader brother of Guy Pearce in the 2005 mega-grime Australian western, “The Proposition.”

Danny Huston of It’s also mandatory that I mention that Huston is about as “Hollywood royalty” as people get, being the son of acting and directing great John Huston, whose best remembered acting role remains as the deeply evil Noah Cross of “Chinatown” and whose iconic films included “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” and, still going strong decades later, “Wise Blood” and “Prizzi’s Honor.” That additionally means that Danny Huston’s grandfather was the early Hollywood star and character actor Walter Huston and his half-sister is Oscar-winner Angelica Huston. Still in his forties, he also was a director early on in his career, helming 1988’s “Mr. North.”

Bosworth and Huston were there to promote their roles in “The Warrior’s Way,” which was released this last weekend in a modest wide release. In the film, the first English language starring vehicle for Korean superstar Jang Dong-gun, Bosworth plays Lynne, a knife-thrower in training bent on revenge against the man who killed her family and attacked her. Naturally, that man is the Colonel (Huston), a mask-wearing evildoer who was badly disfigured by Lynne as a young girl, so it’s clear these two just aren’t going to get along.

Off screen, however, the two got along just fine as they sang the praises of the film which none of us entertainment journalist types had actually seen. About 10-15 minutes worth of clips had been shown to us the night before, prior to a very pleasant reception with some really delicious sushi and yakitori treats. The next day we got more American style fare at the Beverly Hilton. Did I mention that the food is often the best part of a press day?

The conversation started around some of the costumes used in the film. One journalist asked Kate Bosworth if she enjoyed the costuming aspect of movie-making. This might have turned into a very interesting piece if she’d said, “God, no, I hate it!” But, of course, that’s not how she feels.

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Roman Polanski arrested in Switzerland

Roman Polanski in 1978

I’ll be getting to the weekend box office fairly soon but we have some breaking news today. Kind of a bombshell, actually.

As if to fill the void left by the conclusion of the Phil Specter case, a long-running Hollywood legal drama of some real significance has reemerged this morning and is almost certain to be filling the gossip and news pages for some time. As I write this, arguably one of one of the world’s five or so greatest living directors, whose resume includes “Chinatown,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” 2002’s “The Pianist” and the psychological horror classics “Repulsion” and “The Tenant,” is under arrest at age 76 and may be extradited back to L.A. county. This one could get messy and makes yet another painful and extraordinary chapter in the life of a director and occasional actor who escaped the Holocaust as a child, became an internationally famous filmmaker during the sixties, lost his pregnant actress wife in one of the most brutal murder rampages in U.S. history, and then nearly lost everything else over a inexcusable drunken encounter nearly a decade later.

Younger readers may not be aware how, in 1978, 45 year-old director Roman Polanski was arrested after having sex and sharing champagne and part of a Quaalude — a tranquilizer and de riguer party drug of the time — with 13 year-old Samantha Geimer. The victim’s name has only become public knowledge in recent years when, now middle-aged, she has come out publicly to forgive Polanski and call for a conclusion to the extremely muddy and muddled case which, however you come down on it, has more sides to it than you are likely aware of.

Indeed, though you may be hearing now end of moral grandstanding this week, this is no simple case. Even as someone who literally grew up with the matter and with Polanski’s career, I really knew very little about it before seeing and reviewing Marina Zenovich’s outstanding film about the matter: “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired.” As Zenovich said in the film’s commentary, Polanski was both a perpetrator and a victim of a publicity hungry judge who used to case for his own ends and drew out the case needlessly. The real heroes of her film were, ironically, both the prosecutor and the defense attorneys in the case. Yes, Virginia, there may be two honest lawyers in greater Los Angeles.

Anyhow, there are any number of questions at this point, including how did Polanski’s lawyers not know what the Swiss authorities might do? (Polanski has been able to live peacefully in France because the U.S.-France extradition treaty does not cover his particular crime and he is highly regarded there. He has carefully avoided being seen in countries such as England where the laws are different.) Nikki Finke calls it a double-cross.

This case is huge and has already been condemned by French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand who is in communication with President Nicolas Sarkozy. No doubt, even as we speak poor Robert Gibbs is probably trying to figure what President Obama’s answer should be when he’s asked about it. Maybe he can use the whole “ongoing legal matter” construction to avoid it. That’s what I’d try to do.

Whatever happens, we certainly won’t be avoiding the case here. Stay tuned.

  

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