Notes on Telluride 2018

Based on “Film Watch” — A Publication of the 45th Telluride Film Festival & Telluride Local Media

Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón on Roma

(1) Working through memories

[Cuarón] A lot of the process of making this movie was working through my memories, but a big part of it was days and days and hours and hours of conversations with Libo. I kept a logbook of her memories. Exactly what time she would wake up? How would she sit on the bed before getting up? What was the first thing she saw, the first thing she touched, how did she walk down the stairs?

I started to compile an almost forensic document about her routine. Every time we spoke about her life, her eyes teared up and she said, “My childhood was very deprived.”

She suffered hunger. She described the cold she endured in her village. I realized our incredible lack of awareness and the disparity — my middle-class childhood was absolutely privileged compared to Libo’s childhood.

In order to be able to understand who I am, I had to understand who Libo has been in my life. It’s also a metaphor of who I am in relationship to Mexico. It was important for me to understand my wounds, not just my personal wounds but also my wounds from a point of view of who I am as a Mexican. I was interested in making a mosaic of that perverse relationship that Mexico has between social class and race.

(2) A non-narrative film

[Cuarón] In Children of Men, for instance, I did exhaustive research about social and political conditions. Here, it was a search inside myself, a very introspective process. The uncertainty in memory means that every memory opens a door into labyrinthine passageways, with multiple doors.

When I spoke with my brother about a memory I had, there were discrepancies with his recollections. I wanted to maintain a purity in this film. There had to be integrity to my memory. I was interested in capturing my memory without striving for a logical or narrative coherence. In fact, when I finished the film, I thought I had made a non-narrative film. I was worried about whether people would understand it. I hoped it all would amount to a film.

(3) Emotion is the logic

[Iñárritu] The best decision was not having asked Guillermo, me or your brother for an opinion. You cannot go to therapy and ask a friend how to describe what you lived through with your mother or your brother or your father. The dramatic tensions stem from the emotional logic of the film, not from the logic, let’s say of the events. Remembering is not about remembering the facts just as they were, but as we lived through them emotionally. But you feared that the film would be non-narrative.

[Cuarón] Yes, because I was worried that narrative distraction would arrest the emotional, thematic and memory flow. That the artifice of narrative would get in the way. But for better or worse, I have that narrative instinct.

And so even though I didn’t want to create a narrative, a narrative emerges. I stopped worrying about narrative, and worried instead about the other stuff. I had never done that. My process was always the opposite, a preoccupation with the narrative structure.

(4) Music

[Iñárritu] This is your most musical film, even though you use no composed music. The domestic workers are permanently listening to the radio — an enormous selection of songs that represented popular culture in that era.

[Cuarón] I had to honor the truth in every moment. I didn’t want to impose the music that I liked on a scene. My consultant was Libo. What songs did she like best? What songs were playing on the radio? The stations she listened to were very different from what my siblings and I listened to. One was Mexican pop and Mexican popular music, and the other was pop and rock in English, two worlds, two completely different universes.

Damien Chazelle and Emma Stone on the Telluride Tribute

(1) Keep showing up

[Chazelle] I forgot you were there last year, too. That’s not fair. It must be why they are giving you a tribute. You’re the regular now. I don’t think it has anything to do with your talent. It’s just the number of times you’ve gone.

[Stone] That’s the story of my career. I just keep showing up. I can’t wait to see your movie. I’m so excited. I can’t believe I’m finally getting to play the moon.

(2) Tribute every hour

[Stone] I’m really hoping to see like five movies while we’re there.

[Chazelle] Yeah, but of course you’re going to be doing that whole tribute thing. They’re going to be tributing you every hour.

[Stone] Three hours every day! Isn’t it just like a one-time short thing?

[Chazelle] Oh, that’s not what I’m told. I’m told they tribute you every hour of every day.

[Stone] What? Do I get to wear some type of head accouterment when I walk around the festival? Like may be a ribbon? Or a sash? I’ll put on my sash.

Yorgos Lanthimos on The Favorite

(1) Women and the nation

What drew you to the tell the story and this time period?

[Lanthimos] It felt very intimate and personal. It’s a story that focused on three women, but at the same time, by observing the relationships and the specific circumstances, you could also witness how just a few human beings can affect the fate of a whole nation — even the outcome of wars. It was the juxtaposition between the very personal and the very intimate affecting a much bigger canvas.

(2) Natural light and wide angles

Those candlelight scenes are absolutely gorgeous — how hard were they to shoot? It must have been insane.

[Lanthimos] It was hard, but I find it much harder to work with all the artificial lighting and all the equipment around. When you work with natural light, you’re actually able to focus on the actors and the performances and how the camera captures that, instead of moving all these lights around and wasting time on all of that. The essential stuff for me is the work with the actors. Of course it’s hard to get the exposure sometimes; other than that it’s pretty straightforward.

Also, we used a lot of wide angles, which again is a progression of my work. I had a feeling that it would be interesting to be able to capture these people in these huge rooms in a way that enhances the lonely figure.

Yann Demange on White Boy Rick

(1) An ethical question

Talk about the development process.

[Demange] It was a long process because it’s a true story and I didn’t feel comfortable with just taking it and completely fictionalizing it. There’s an ethical question. Am I doing the right thing? Am I exploiting somebody’s life story to project themes that interest me? So I had to go and see the real Rick in jail.

(2) Story from the inside out

What did you learn from Rick?

[Demange] He’s just so funny, in the face of all he’s experienced, and has completely humility. It’s incredible. When I met him, he’s 28 years in prison. I was laughing a lot with him, but when we spoke about family, it was very moving.

The film represents his tone. He wasn’t overly polemical. He wasn’t soapboxing. We could tell the story from the inside out, not projecting an outsider’s gaze onto it. The way he talked about his life gave me a real way into it.

(3) “Didn’t know who Matthew was.”

[Demange] I told Rick I was looking at these amazing actors, non-actors. He said, can’t we get a star to do it? What about Justin Bieber? There’s this whole other version that Rick would’ve liked to have seen.

But when I told him I’d found this kid from Baltimore born into abject poverty, difficult circumstances, 15 years old, had never ever done a drama class, was failing at school, Rick was amazed: “If the one good thing that comes out of this is that my life somehow has changed the trajectory of his kid, that’s amazing.”

Richie doesn’t act, which in turn means Matthew has to meet him, because the kid can’t come up. So he was the barometer of truth, in a way, on the whole shoot, because he wouldn’t emote.

Matthew was street-cast himself in Dazed and Confused — he was pulled out of a bar. That’s how his career started. So it really tickled him 20 years later to have this possibility of working with a non-actor.

He took Richie under his wing. You know, he really nurtured him, looked after him, not patronizing in that respect, just giving him guidance and making him confident and comfortable. The kid didn’t even know who Matthew was.

Damien Chazelle on First Man

(1) Behind the iconic moments

The launch and landing are such iconic moments — were there clichés you wanted to avoid?

[Chazelle] What I found most interesting was that behind this iconic stuff were more complicated, messy truths. We tried to peel back all of the layers, to look at the whole event for what it really was — an event that came with a lot of costs, a lot of failures and setbacks, controversy and debate.

Mikhail Baryshnikov on The White Crow

(1) Passions and frustrations

[Baryshnikov] In Russia, the phrase “white crow” suggests something unusual, extraordinary, not like others, outsider. All these descriptions apply to Rudolf Nureyev. This film is a poetic exploration of why that’s true. Without sentimentality, mythology or pathos, the film weaves through the first 24 years of Nureyev’s life with grace and meticulous attention to detail.

There are so many parallels between Nureyev’s story and my own experience that it’s hard to watch this film dispassionately, but director Ralph Fiennes, writer David Hare and actor-dancer Oleg Ivenko have found the heartbeat of Nureyev himself. Of course, no one can fill Nureyev’s actual shoes, but Ivenko made me believe and care about the passions and frustrations of this singular man.

(2) Deep relevance

[Baryshnikov] The White Crow gives us not just a portrait of an artist in turmoil but a glimpse of how painful it is to leave family and home. Almost 60 years later, as many around the world seek a better life for themselves, Nureyev’s story is deeply and starltingly relevant.

Lukas Dhont on Girl

(1) Courage

[Dhont] It was for me something so courageous — at the age of 15, she decided for herself, for her own identity, and not caring about the reaction. She felt like a girl, and she wanted to be a girl. Her father also was completely with her. I contacted her, and we became good friends. She’s absolutely amazing, and she informed the film at a high level.

Ali Abbasi on Border

(1) Pushing the boundary

Border certainly doesn’t follow the rules.

[Abbasi] With film, I was never interested in story, but more in the boundary-pushing end of the spectrum. Mainstream and even non-mainstream cinema in many ways felt narrow and restricted compared to literature. What I am interested in is looking at society through the lens of a parallel universe, and genre filmmaking is the perfect vehicle for that.

(2) Layer of fantasy onto realism

[Abbasi] One thing I love about John’s writing is that he is at the same level as his audience. It’s not high art and you don’t need to be “literary” to appreciate it. At the same time it’s not just popular fiction; it has a special nerve, but one which is hidden. In Let the Right One In for instance — should we read the story as a twisted take on Swedish society or simply an innovative take on vampire mythos? It’s not a simple endeavor to add a layer of the fantastic onto realism, and John’s special quality is building that bridge between the real and the fantastic, always the hardest part.

(3) Animal instincts

What do you learn from your own films?

[Abbasi] Movies are unique because they are mirrors that can be a deceitfully close simulation of human life. I see humans as well developed animals and I’m interested in the situations when our animal instincts clash with society’s structure: when the thin layer of civilization we are living under starts to crack and protagonists are pushed into the extreme, not just because the extreme is interesting. Their answer interests me. The complexity of this situation is its beauty, not its sadness.

Pawel Pawlikowski on Cold War

(1) Homeland

What is the significance of homeland in the film? And do you feel nostalgic about the old days?

[Pawlikowski] I consider homeland to be a very broad term but not in the nationalistic kind of way that’s currently in fashion. I think of it as the sphere of emotional, inquisitive cultural space in which you grow up. In my case, I lived abroad most of my life but when I came back to Poland I just felt at home.

I don’t think nostalgia is the driving force in my films, but I definitely miss the simplicity of a world that’s not so crowded with images, information and noise.

(2) To love was an obstacle

Why is the era of post-war Europe such fertile ground for romances?

[Pawlikowski] There were a lot of obstacles, and to love was really another obstacle. For me, love stories these days are so distracted. We’re always on our phones and surrounded by so much noise; you can’t just see someone, fall in love and pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist. In the years of the film, things were more graphic and dramatic, and feelings were deeper.

Joel Edgerton on Boy Erased

(1) Start a conversation and let love find its way through

[Edgerton] That was the spirit we went into with: “Let’s not play heroes and villains.”

It’s a better place to start a conversation if we don’t demonize people. I don’t think anybody wanted to hurt anybody else. They think they’re helping somebody to a better place. That’s where the disconnect is, and the drama.

There’s this amazing group of women called the Mama Bears — mothers of children who are of the LGBTQ community, who have had an evolution from judgment to a place of acceptance. That’s the kind of space I wanted to occupy in this movie. If we can just show them one family and how they managed to evolve in their own way, then we can at least start a conversation.

Garrard’s story wans’t filled with villainous people just trying to torture him. They felt that they were helping him to a better place. Garrard said something wonderful in an interview recently: “Love is here; it just needs to find its way through.”

Melissa Mccarthy and Marielle Heller on Can You Ever Forgive Me?

(1) A love letter to New York

[Heller] This movie was a love letter to a New York that, if not totally lost, is slipping away. We wanted to conjure up the New York of those dusty bookstores where the windows haven’t been opened in years, that specific smell.

As we scouted bookstores we found ones where Lee really sold her letters, and places where she actually was caught, and places where she had really close relationships.

(2) Storytelling connects us

What do you hope audiences take from the experience of watching this film?

[Heller] This is a story about an interesting woman who could have been deemed too difficult or too oddball to be the lead of a movie. She’s real, complex woman, and the more of these we see, the better. If you passed Lee on the street, you might walk right by her and never think a thing about it. Or if she was your across-the-hall neighbor, you might think nothing is going on there. But she has the most fascinating life happening inside those four walls.

[Mccarthy] It shines a light on how incredibly important storytelling is and how it connects us to our humanity. It doesn’t matter what the story is. You don’t have to particularly like stories about writers. A well-told story taps into us all. In this day and age, with everyone buried in their phones, it is more important than ever to realize how storytelling reconnects us.

Hirokazu Kore-eda on Shoplifters

(1) Anger

The later scenes showing the family being split up are heartbreaking. We haven’t seen such anger at social injustice shown so nakedly in your recent films. Can you comment on this?

[Kore-eda] It’s true, maybe not since Nobody Knows. The core emotion when I was making this film might have been anger. Since Still Walking, I have dug desperately deeper and more narrowly into the motif of personal things and after finishing After the Storm, I put an end to this approach of not broadening my vision to society, of minimizing as much as possible. It could be said that I have gone back to where I started.

(2) Poetry

Can you tell us why you decided to work with cinematographer Kondo Ryuto and composer Hosono Haruomi?

[Kore-eda] I have always wanted to work with Mr. Kondo as I think he is one of the best cinematographers currently working in the Japanese movie industry. He has very much a director’s point of view, with a deep interpretation of story and character. So it was a good balance that allowed me to focus on directing the actors without having to worry about the cinematography. Before the shoot, I was thinking of this film as a kind of fable and sought ways to find a build poetry within reality. Even if the film was realistic, I wanted to describe the poetry of human beings and both the cinematography and music came close to my vision. As for the music, I have been a fan of Mr. Hosono’s film scores in his previous works so I have always looked for an opportunity to work with him. In this film, his music captures the fantasy side of the story.

Jason Reitman and Jay Carson on The Front Runner

(1) Authentic portrayals of campaigns

[Reitman] I was introduced to Matt’s book through a Radiolab piece and I immediately purchased it. I remember being on a plane and jotting down notes on what the movie could be. At one of our first meetings, we sat down and watched the Michael Ritchie film The Candidate together, which remains one of the most authentic portrayals of being in a campaign.

[Carson] It’s one of the very few movies that gets the feel of a campaign right. When Hollywood does politics, everyone in the room is talking about politics. In The Candidate, they’re fighting over who gets the steak sandwich. That’s how campaigns really feel.

(2) A different filmic time

[Reitman] Our approach was, “Let’s do this like we were making the movie in 1975.” Let’s use technology that was available in 1975. Let’s shoot on film. Let’s shoot in the style of early Michael Ritchie films. The style, the color palette, the details of the props and wardrobe. Even the wandering shooting style of picking up conversations as they passed camera. It’s a film where the audio tells where to look before your eyes catch up. All of it was designed for realism, so we could take the audience back to not only a different political time, but a different filmic time.

Karyn Kusama and Nicole Kidman on Destroyer

(1) Discomfort

[Kidman] In certain roles, I’m playing someone so physically, emotionally different than me that I have to transport into a different place, to step out of what feels like “performing”, which I’m not interested in. That’s what the limbo is. It’s very uncomfortable. It’s not pleasant to be in that space. I don’t enjoy it. But I’m also deeply committed to an artistic path, and that’s part of my artistic path. There can be joy in certain roles. Others are going to be uncomfortable.

We were telling a story about a character who has so much discomfort. We had to test our psyches by being there with her. We were bearing witness for these women like Erin Bell who are so thorny and have had to make so many compromises.

(2) Work with an artist

[Kidman] I liked you from the minute that I sat with you, years before. I love that — we said, “Maybe something will come up.”

I like when things come around. We’re both trying to push ourselves. It was exciting to me, to reconnect. I’ve seen you work and your tenacity and your love of what you do. Every day to make compromises, to lose shots, and to constantly have to say, “Onward, onward, onward” — that was so touching to me.

Part of the motivation for me to do a film is the desire to build a relationship with somebody very quickly, very intimately and deeply. And it was a gift to work with an artist at your level!

[Kusama] Stop! [laughs] The way you, as an artist dialed in to the character was really a truly beautiful thing to witness.

Daniel Kasman, Cristina Gallego, and Ciro Guerra on Birds of Passage

(1) Realism and myth

The film is structured as a Wayúu myth. What were other key references for your film?

[Guerra] We weren’t going after realism. We are interested in the way that people take reality and turn it into myth. We took inspiration from the Wayúu’s Jayechi songs for the structure of the film as way to organize the story and transmit it. The songs work as literature for them, with each song having a specific theme and story. The idea of filming one long Jayechi song felt right for the narrative. It’s the way the Wayúu people tell their stories. But we’re also interested in Western myths, which are essentially told through the codes of genre. The film is building a bridge between the Wayúu way of telling stories, but also understandable and accessible to a person who is not Wayúu.

(2) Complexity and humanity

How did you avoid the trap of idealizing Wayúu culture?

[Gallego] It’s an indigenous culture, but it’s the most capitalist culture that you could imagine. All things have value. You buy and sell honor; you can buy and sell a woman. When a girl becomes a woman, the better she’s hidden the higher a price will be paid for her.

[Guerra] Wayúu culture is tremendously complex. They have achieved balance through a very strict set of rules, which can be arbitrary and unfair. We didn’t want to shy away from that. We don’t think that the indigenous culture should be idealized — it has as much shade and brightness as any other culture.

And it’s a violent world in which the Wayúu people live. They have lived through smuggling and contraband for centuries, as a way of surviving this extremely hard landscape. It’s important that their portrayal always remain human in its complexity. If you deny the complexity of the indigenous experience, you’re denying them their humanity.

Greta Gerwig and Olivier Assayas on Non-Fiction

(1) Democratic value is losing in this digital age

[Gerwig] I was in heaven listening to your characters talking about these issues. They’re dealing with their actual lives as they unfold. You don’t get to figure it out and then do the right thing. You’re doing it and figuring it out all at the same time.

[Assayas] People are aware of how much the world is changing, and in profound and complex ways. But the politics don’t seem to adapt. No one seems to be able to handle this notion of democracy in the age of the internet.

What terrifies me is the way we are losing democratic values. The digital age is tearing apart the basic tools of democracy. With newspapers, people had a source of information that they trusted, and there was a discussion based on reality. Now you have discussion that’s based on some kind of absurd fantasy world. This isn’t cultural studies — it’s the very core of modern society. It’s happening so fast. We seem to have a difficulty dealing with it.

We are in the middle of major changes, and I think we’ve only seen half of it. I’m not sure where it’s heading. It’s important that movies be part of the conversation. That’s one of the reasons I made this film.

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