Tag Archives | Scott Holleran’s interviews

Leonard Maltin on Lizabeth Scott

Recently, I talked with author, podcaster and Hollywood historian Leonard Maltin (whom I interviewed about the new and final edition of his annual movie guide last year) about the late actress Lizabeth Scott, who died on Jan. 31.

This is an edited transcript of our short interview.

Scott Holleran: Did you meet Lizabeth Scott?

Leonard Maltin: I met her twice, ever so briefly. Many years ago, we met at a reception honoring Hal Wallis—Bette Davis and Earl Holliman were there—and then again at the Golden Boot awards years later.

Scott Holleran: What do you think of her?

Leonard Maltin: On screen for me she defined the word sultry, which I realize brings me nearly into cliché territory, and most recently I saw the Film Noir Foundation’s restoration of Too Late for Tears (1949). I think I’ve underrated the film in the movie guide—she was good. Whether she had more range than we realize or she was perfectly suited to those femme fatale roles we’ll never know. But she certainly filled them very well.

Scott Holleran: Is she a good actress?

Leonard Maltin: Yes, I think so.

Scott Holleran: What are three essential Lizabeth Scott pictures?

Leonard Maltin: Dead Reckoning because it’s one of her more significant films. It teamed her with Bogart at the peak of his career and it’s a good movie. Then I would add Too Late for Tears because I think it is a prototypical film noir with a great part for her because she’s so persuasive as the femme fatale, and I suppose Pitfall (1948).

Lizabeth_Scott-publicityScott Holleran: What’s at the root of her cinematic appeal?

Leonard Maltin: She had a unique look—her looks were unusual. They were not conventional Hollywood looks and she had a certain bearing and attitude that seemed particularly suited to that film noir genre. She didn’t look like a sunny ingénue. So she’s always convincing.

Scott Holleran: Is it fair to describe Lizabeth Scott as a film noir actress?

Leonard Maltin: I don’t think it’s unfair because that’s what we really remember her for—but it is limiting because it implies that that’s all she could do.


Reference Links

My Thoughts on Lizabeth Scott

Interview: Leonard Maltin on Movies and the Last Movie Guide (2014)

Book Review: Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide (2015)

Interview: Leonard Maltin on Movies (2011)

Interview: TCM Host Robert Osborne on Lizabeth Scott

Dead_Reckoning_(1947)_film_posterCommercial Links

Buy Too Late for Tears

Buy Dead Reckoning

Buy Pitfall

Three New Interviews

Three new interviews focusing on music and movies are posted. Robert Osborne, host of Turner Classic Movies, talked about TCM’s Star of the Month, Robert Redford (who’s in Utah kicking off the Sundance Film Festival) in a candid exchange about the elusive movie star (read the interview here).

Melissa Manchester sat down with me to discuss her early years with music industry mogul Clive Davis, the challenges of maintaining a 40-year career in show business and writing, recording and crowdfunding her first new album (You Gotta Love the Life) in 10 years, which debuts next month (read the interview here).

And writer and director Mike Binder (Reign Over Me, The Upside of Anger) gave me an exclusive, in-depth interview about his controversial racially-themed picture, Black or White, starring Academy Award winners Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner, which opens this Friday, January 30 (read the interview here).

Interview: Volker Schlöndorff

2012-02-14-9440-2280_Volker_Schlondorff_IMG_x900Filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff, whose new movie, the subtitled Diplomacy, opened today in New York City (opening at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles on November 7), studied economics and political science at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographique (IDHEC) in Paris, the setting of his fictional Diplomacy, which we recently discussed. Diplomacy concerns two men, a Swedish diplomat and a Nazi commander in Paris during the fascist occupation of France, in a tense conflict over the final Nazi command to totally annihilate Paris as American troops came to liberate the city of lights.

Schlöndorff worked as an assistant director with Louis Malle (Viva Maria!) and directed operas in Germany and Paris and a controversial, Oscar-winning surrealistic adaptation of the Gunter Grass novel The Tin Drum (1979). This is an edited transcript.

Scott Holleran: Does Diplomacy, based on a stage play, humanize and thus legitimize the Nazi regime?

Volker Schlöndorff: Oh, no. I hope not. I don’t feel sympathy or compassion for the conflict of the [Nazi] general. He was looking for and he got [what he gets]. I added a lot more to the play in that sense. I had access to [the history of] what he did in Poland and the partaking in execution of Jews, so I wanted him to be as much a villain as possible because of the dynamics of the drama. He has to be unflinching. He has to do what he is told to do, namely destroy Paris. At the end, the consul has to somehow break this armor and get through to the human being which exists in every human being but that does not humanize the Nazi regime to me. He is not even a Nazi he’s more of a military man—he’s a [character] construct—a military man used to obeying orders.

Scott Holleran: Had you seen the play on stage?

Volker Schlöndorff: No, I did not, I must say fortunately. I was just doing another World War 2 film in Paris for French television while the play was on but I never had time to make it. Two years later, the offer [to adapt the play for film] came to me, which I was grateful for. So I was free to imagine it in my mind. I wanted to make this [movie] very intimate, not stagy at all. I never saw the play, so I have no idea how they did it on stage.

Scott Holleran: Did you read the play?

Volker Schlöndorff: Yes, of course.

Scott Holleran: Did playwright Cyril Gely drive the script?

Volker Schlöndorff: I did. I submitted it to him and he reacted to my first draft. I had taken off quite a bit, maybe too much, but I had also edited it and did quite a bit of research so a lot of stuff became much more realistic. It still is, of course, fiction. This negotiation never took place in this way. However, if they had met, I think this would have been the conversation and I think this must have been going on in the mind of the general.

Scott Holleran: Is the Swedish diplomat character, Raoul Nordling, neutral?

Volker Schlöndorff: Not at all. Sweden was neutral. But he was not acting on behalf of his government. He wanted to save Paris, he wanted to save the people and he was passionate. The two of them had a number of encounters and, when you read their memoirs, the [Nazi] general is very self-serving and the [Swedish] consul explains his lifelong attachment to Paris. With the general, what comes across is that he’s a military man devoid of any imagination and humanity. With him, it’s more of a dogmatic sense of honor—you feel that his only dilemma was how he saves his honor—and whether destroying Paris would forever destroy the honor of his family.

Scott Holleran: Duty to the state is among the Nazi’s most closely held ideas. Why?

Volker Schlöndorff: The most terrible things happen when people follow duty to the state. Following one’s individual conscience is more important—you have to take orders from yourself, not just take orders you’ve been given—and it’s not always easy to achieve that. To really examine yourself—and, then, to have the strength to disobey—is difficult.

Scott Holleran: —Like Edward Snowden—?

Volker Schlöndorff: —Absolutely, though I’m not that familiar with his case. But I think he must have had that double dilemma and faced the difficulties. He must have found the strength.

Scott Holleran: What’s your most influential film?

Volker Schlöndorff: My own or films by others?

Scott Holleran: Both.

Volker Schlöndorff: The easy answer is [Elia Kazan’s] On the Waterfront. I was a boy of 15 or 16 years old [when I saw it] and I was very upset. The movie always stayed with me at difficult moments and periods of my life. I know it’s a bit silly but I don’t care. I can commit to that. It’s hard to say which of mine are most influential. I know that The Tin Drum (1979) is important to people in their imaginations and feelings. The Last Honor of Katharina Blum (1975) had a huge impact but I don’t think that the influence of movies can be measured in immediate terms. It’s more that every one of us has his own attitude but needs nourishment and encouragement to persevere—and that’s where movies come in. They are the food for our souls, though they don’t change our minds.

Scott Holleran: Did controversy help or hurt The Tin Drum’s reputation?

Volker Schlöndorff: It helps. Controversy is always good. A movie is made to be debated, if you have a committed and engaged audience. We often do not have enough debate and polemics. I hate when people say ‘I love your movie’ or ‘I hate your movie’ and leave it at that. I want to know why.

Scott Holleran: Do you think Gunter Grass’s later disclosure that he had worked as a youth as a Nazi SS officer hurt the perception of The Tin Drum?

Volker Schlöndorff: It hurts himself. I don’t think it hurts the novel or the movie. But his own aura was hurt tremendously. I understand him and we are friends. He says ‘I couldn’t say [I was a Nazi sooner] and if I had said it, I probably couldn’t have written The Tin Drum’ because he was trying to deal with this thing in him.

Scott Holleran: You made an American film for television, A Gathering of Old Men (1987), featuring Richard Widmark and Louis Gossett, Jr., which explores a similar theme of people’s complicity in widespread injustice, redemption and a single act of defiance against the state. How did that film shape your career?

Volker Schlöndorff: It shaped my life. I loved doing it. I discovered the South and Louisiana, made a lot of friends and adopted two children as foster kids. I took them out of public [government-controlled] schools and put them in private schools. They were from welfare mothers and they didn’t know their fathers. So, now I have family in Louisiana. Richard Widmark and I got along very well and he became a true friend.

Scott Holleran: Widmark’s character grows and comes to accept new ideas in A Gathering of Old Men. As a German, do you accept the thesis of Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg that one can hold an entire country accountable for the evil acts of its government?

Volker Schlöndorff: Absolutely. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been doing the movies I’ve been doing. Even though we were children and were not therefore responsible, [Nazi Germany] is [part of] our culture and [as Germans] we are responsible for that culture—we have to work on that because the march of [human progress] is very, very slow and none of us is on his own; we are all part of society. When I’m in the South, even though I have a lot of Cajun friends and they are a minority, I feel as though these groups in the South as a whole are responsible [for the South’s culture], not only individuals but as groups.

SMV5BMTg1NDIzNTQ5N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjY2MTU2MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_cott Holleran: Coming back to Diplomacy, does diplomacy, properly understood, mean negotiating with fascist states, such as Nazi Germany or Islamic Iran?

Volker Schlöndorff: Absolutely. One should always try to negotiate. Whether in Ukraine or Syria, the military option is always the worst. The role of diplomacy is to prevent wars.

Scott Holleran: What is your favorite aspect of Paris?

Volker Schlöndorff: Under the bridges, because I’m a runner and that’s where I run. It’s where I used to sit when I was a student to do my reading. I like running on the left bank [of the Seine River] or the right bank.

Scott Holleran: Your work dramatizes the rise and fall of the totalitarian state, in The Tin Drum, its effect on the individual in The Handmaid’s Tale (1990), and, with Diplomacy, its bitter end. Why the interest in dictatorship?

Volker Schlöndorff: My birthday, 1939, the year of my birth. My strongest remembrances to this day are of the [second world] war and, then, the postwar period, which was still a continuity of the war. I didn’t ask to deal with dictatorship. I was thrown into it and, as a student in France, I was confronted with it daily for almost 10 years, being a German in France. Life dealt me with a deck of cards. I wish it had been a different deck of cards.

Interview: Brett Goldsmith on ‘Hotel Sessions’ by Olivia Newton-John

Brett Goldsmith - image by Carbie WarbleMusician, producer and photographer Brett Goldsmith recently talked with me from Melbourne, Australia, about his new work with Olivia Newton-John, Hotel Sessions. The record is an extended play (EP) collection of previously unreleased demo tracks that he made with his famous aunt between 2002 and 2011 at various Melbourne hotels (read my review here.)

Goldsmith, 52, is the son of Olivia Newton-John’s late sister, Rona Newton-John, to whom Hotel Sessions is dedicated. Hotel Sessions is available at the Flamingo Las Vegas, where ONJ is an artist in residence for her premiere residency program, Summer Nights, as CD and digital download on her Web site and soon for downloading on iTunes. This is an edited transcript.

Scott Holleran: What would Rona Newton-John, to whom Hotel Sessions is dedicated, think of the record?

Brett Goldsmith: I think she would like it. My mother was a fan of Olivia’s. She was a big fan of Olivia’s voice. Being a fashion model and hanging out with rock stars, my mom Rona was a super cool kind of chick. I think she would especially like [the song I co-wrote with Olivia Newton-John] “End in Peace”. I would send my records for her reaction and she would criticize them in terms of my songwriting and my voice, which she told me she thought was getting better. A couple of lyrics were written while she was alive. I think she would like certain parts of Hotel Sessions. She would be the first to say what she didn’t like.

Scott Holleran: Do you consider this record a tribute to your mother?

Brett Goldsmith: I do now, yeah. It was almost like this record was never going to come out. The inspiration [for release] was Olivia cancelling her [impending] Las Vegas show after Rona’s death. Then, we said let’s make this happen and put this in some sort of cohesive order. We figured Rona would like that we were working together. Some of the songs mean a lot to us. Hotel Sessions was originally for me to put my production sound on Olivia’s voice. That’s how it was originally conceived.

Scott Holleran: How did Hotel Sessions evolve into an extended play record?

Brett Goldsmith: I had made an album in 2002 called Drive Time, which I’d made in a room on my own featuring songs I had written [that were] recorded by eight different vocalists—all Australian—and I was thinking it would be great if [my aunt] Olivia sang “Best of My Love”. She sang it and then went back to L.A. to [her manager and the record’s executive producer] Mark Hartley—or I sent her a mix—and she wanted to re-record the vocal and do another performance, so I went [to L.A] and did the vocal. While we were there, we wrote “End in Peace” in Malibu. After that, I think Mark Hartley turned to me and said how would you feel about taking a few of these songs and turning it into an Olivia record? I didn’t have to think about that for very long. So, Mark was very instrumental. I had pretty much let it go, storing these songs for whatever reason. I thought one day it might come to fruition. When Rona passed [due to brain cancer on May 24, 2013, in Los Angeles], I don’t think Olivia wanted to sing for while. So Mark was instrumental in pulling this together. Her publicist Michael Caprio and his partner, Randy Slovacek, also helped put Hotel Sessions on track. Randy in particular with his input and enthusiasm was a champion for making it happen. I shot the cover, we added dance remixes from David Hornos as DayBeat, because he had a good groove about him, and Mark went along with all that. It was very organic.

hotel+sessionsScott Holleran: When was your cover photo taken?

Brett Goldsmith: After Mom died. It wasn’t planned. Unless I’m shooting [photographs for] a fashion story—that’s all premeditated—it’s improvisational. Olivia had asked me to find an image for the cover. I was actually at a soccer match—and I’m not that into soccer—and I saw this flock of seagulls. My iPhone was actually on the HDR setting—which means it takes two or three images in one hit and you get a flock of seagulls—and I happened to get that shot. So, I didn’t lay the images together. The double image was some weird anomaly. The phone was in portrait [not landscape mode] and [the image was] super grainy. And the city shots [on the back and inside the compact disc packaging] were taken during the same soccer match when the iPhone was pointing at Melbourne. I remember [looking out and] thinking that the city [Olivia’s hometown] would be a great shot. When I sent the images to Olivia, she loved them. There was no manipulation of the image, though. It just looked so haunting.

Scott Holleran: How was working as a producer for Olivia Newton-John?

Brett Goldsmith: Like most artists, Olivia knows exactly what she wants. She left me alone – she respects me as a photographer and as a musician – to work. The same goes with production. In fact, there wasn’t a moment when she questioned my grooves, arrangement or production. We’re talking about a singer with absolutely perfect pitch. I think I know what she wants, I know where the vibrato works and I know she has an incredible ear. When you’re cutting vocals with Olivia Newton-John, you’d better be on your best behavior. She’s a serious singer.

Scott Holleran: Are there any unreleased songs not included on the CD?

Brett Goldsmith: I did record one other song written for Olivia—but I got another engineer to come into the hotel and unfortunately he distorted the vocal. It sits in my computer. There were meant to be more songs.

Scott Holleran: Do you have plans for another ONJ collaboration?

Brett Goldsmith: Olivia’s the artist, I’m the producer and it’s her call. If she rings me up, of course I would jump at the chance. I would actually like to do a kind of modern country record or something in that type of genre.

Scott Holleran: You’re also a singer and your own music album includes the original version of “Ordinary Life”. Why no duet with Olivia on Hotel Sessions?

Brett Goldsmith: I never thought about that. I mean, Olivia sings duets with [singers such as] Tony Bennett. Every time we recorded in one of the hotels, I would literally go pull it apart. I would bring a Macintosh, a pre-amplifier, microphone, microphone stand and headphone and engineer and record her vocal in a hotel. I would hear the room as it is and record one song at a time. Because her time was so limited and frankly I was not sure if she was recording these songs as a favor – I could only do a couple of songs in Melbourne at different hotels while she was in town for the hospital in order to raise money, so it wasn’t a priority. I had these songs sitting on my hard drive and, as formats would change, [keeping up with upgrading technology] was crazy. In fact, I just found some video footage [of the hotel recording sessions]. I had happened to record some footage of Olivia and I’m there coaxing her through the vocals—she didn’t like her vocal—she wanted to record it more like the way I had done it. I knew I could get a beautifully tuned, unedited performance and maybe some harmonies. I think I managed to do that under tough circumstances.

coverScott Holleran: On your version of “Ordinary Life”, you sing a different lyric than Olivia sings on Hotel Sessions. Why change the lyric?

Brett Goldsmith: I wrote that song reflectively talking about myself. When we got to sit down, she changed a lot of lyrics—we did it together just before we tracked the vocal, to change perspective [to reflect] her age and feeling. When I get up and sing, I sing whatever comes out. It starts with a melody. I never really think about it once I have the first verse. Olivia wanted to change a few things.

Scott Holleran: Had you recorded with Olivia before Hotel Sessions?

Brett Goldsmith: I did the world leg of her Physical tour and I’ve been in the studio with her, though not with musicians, bands and producers. We recorded “End in Peace” at a home studio in L.A. Olivia bought my first guitar for me and encouraged me to become a musician. She’d told me: ‘you’re a great songwriter’. I wish I had been in the studio during her country records in the 1970s. I’ve never really thought about this until you asked.

Scott Holleran: Is it possible that Olivia will perform the Hotel Sessions songs during her show in Las Vegas?

Brett Goldsmith: I really hope so. I would love that. If she put them in a set, that would be awesome. There’s no going back years later and fixing this or that. I’m glad it’s been released as demos, other than “Ordinary Life”.

Scott Holleran: Let’s talk about the impetus for each song on Hotel Sessions. What made way for “Ordinary Life”?

Brett Goldsmith: The whole point of the lyric is feeling pretty ordinary. The flipside is feeling pretty extraordinary. We all have ordinary types of days. The idea is that you can get through them, no matter how mundane [things seem]—you have an extraordinary story. We tend to feel ordinary based on fear of the unknown—I’ve had those days and all have been scary and worked out just fine. You remake yourself. Making records of my own is another reinvention. Now, I’m a photographer. But I was not until after I was 40 years old. Every one can remake oneself.

Scott Holleran: What is the impetus for “Best of My Love”?

Brett Goldsmith: It’s a love song, really, with a bit of heartbreak. It’s a story about people who give their all and get nothing back. I had that Emotions record [an entirely different song, “Best of My Love” on their Rejoice album] and it reminds me of [producer and musician] Nile Rodgers. So, I wondered if I could sing that title and lyric. I had to sing that [other] song in order to find Olivia to sing [mine]. I’m not a big fan of my own vocals—but she kicked it.

Scott Holleran: What is the impetus for “End in Peace”?

Brett Goldsmith: I watched 9/11 happen. It was overwhelming. I’m Australian—not American—and everyone was so sad about what happened. That’s all I had. When I went to L.A. to re-record the vocal for “Best of My Love”, we wrote “End in Peace”. I didn’t want to tell Olivia [what moved me to write the tune] because I am not an American. It was not really my place to say something but 9/11 was the impetus. I gave it to Olivia. Within an hour, I was sitting around the pool, playing verse chords and that’s when she wrote it. It happened quickly and I didn’t preempt her writing with my meaning. I’ve never even told her that. I didn’t think it was appropriate.

Scott Holleran: What is the impetus for “Bow River”?

Brett Goldsmith: The song is written by Ian Moss [of the Australian band Cold Chisel] and I came up with the idea to completely change the groove. I slowed it down. I recorded the whole music track in a particular key, then I rang up Olivia and she ended up nailing the vocal. It was originally done by Cold Chisel. Their song was literally in double time. Who knows what they think of it.

Scott Holleran: What is the impetus for the cover of Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings”?

Brett Goldsmith: I wish I had more originals but I just had an idea to produce a version of that song even though I wasn’t a huge fan of the original. I must have picked up my guitar and I think it was in A minor with no singer in mind. I got a groove and I thought this record was really cool. So I flew it over without the vocal. They liked it and it ended up being on there because that’s all I had. The five you have on the record is the five I had.

Scott Holleran: How did David Hornos, as mixer DayBeat, become involved for the dance remixes?

Brett Goldsmith: Unbeknownst to me he had been recording and remixing Olivia’s songs. He had actually sent them but I didn’t know it [because his messages were unopened]. There had been some other dance remixes [of Olivia’s songs] I’d heard. Most of them including mine were awful. Then David’s [messages] turned up and I was quite embarrassed and said what have you got. He’d done a remix of “Broken Wings” and he mixed his beats and added piano. I gave him the vocal and he got it back in two weeks. Then I also sent him the vocals for “Best of My Love”. He did a great job.

Scott Holleran: Your parents, nightclub entrepreneur Brian Goldsmith and Rona Newton-John, divorced when you were three years old and your dad owned music clubs and bars in Australia. Did having access to your father’s businesses influence you?

Brett Goldsmith: Yes—in everything. You couldn’t find a 14-year-old collecting every vinyl record [like I did]. My dad having the hippest clubs when I was 14 or 15 years old, I was playing my record collection—from Kool and the Gang to orchestral music—and my music to an audience and seeing them out on the dance floor. It was amazing. Between the experience of his nightclubs and his encouragement for me to become a musician and letting me be who I am was really encouraging. I went to a stuck-up private school—it was sort of Ivy league and people became lawyers and doctors—and my dad was great. Between Olivia and him, I felt very encouraged [to pursue a career in the arts]. That and I’m really good at reading manuals.

Scott Holleran: Some people might not realize that growing up privileged with an aunt who’s Olivia Newton-John might not always be so fabulous—

Brett Goldsmith - image by James NewtonBrett Goldsmith: —That’s true. My sister Tottie and I had a band called the Chantoozies—we were a kind of cheesy Bananarama type band—and we had a couple of hits in Australia. We toured for years. I got to write those songs and it was my dad who paid for our first video. So, there’s no doubt that our upbringing was privileged and, yes, there is a lot of pressure to live up to expectations. I can certainly see how difficult it is. Privilege and money can be the kiss of death. And there are people out there that just up and go about their lives without much money. So, it’s a personal drive that everyone needs to have—you have to eat well and get sleep—and if you wind up in the wrong place, know that there are people who want to help.

Scott Holleran: We’re coming up on Mother’s Day in the U.S. What to you is your mother Rona’s legacy?

Brett Goldsmith: She was the coolest. She is known by people who didn’t know her as being beautiful—and my mother was beautiful—but within and behind that beauty was a great fashionista and reader and writer and movie watcher who had talents of her own. Some of them were fulfilled and some were unfulfilled, just like all of us. Her legacy is that she was witty, sarcastic, brutal, funny and cool—she didn’t brag—and she lived a life and married interesting men, met presidents and traveled with Olivia and was a super cool chick. She had style and she loved my photography—she was a model and I started as a fashion photographer—and she was a fan of mine. And I am a fan of hers.

Interview: Alejandro Amenabar on Agora (2009)

Filmed in Malta between March and June 2008, Agora, co-written and directed by Alejandro Amenabar (The Sea Inside), takes place in ancient Alexandria, Egypt.

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The story concerns the rise of religious fundamentalism through the lives of three individuals: astronomer Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), whose father Theon (Michael Lonsdale) is the last director of the surviving library in Alexandria, and two young men in love with her: a bright, willful student named Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and her equally intelligent slave, Davus (Max Minghella). The motion picture will be playing in both New York and Los Angeles by June 4, 2010.

Director Amenabar, whom I first met and interviewed at the Mondrian Hotel on Sunset Boulevard to discuss his haunting, Oscar-winning The Sea Inside in 2004, talked briefly with me about Agora from Spain during an interview by telephone. The South American-born composer, writer and director, who speaks in a thick Spanish accent, talked about Agora’s ideas.


Scott Holleran: Is Hypatia an agnostic or an atheist?

Alejandro Amenabar: She is obviously looking for something [meaningful] but she doesn’t believe in God. I don’t think the word atheist even existed in that time, but she is fed up with all these [moral] codes that get people to kill each other.

Scott Holleran: Yet you told the New York Times that Agora is “a very Christian film.” Why?

Alejandro Amenabar: It all depends on what we consider by being Christian. We see Hypatia being merciful and we see [the Christians] torturing her and [wanting to] skin her alive so in that sense I found that the character Hypatia is more Christian than those killing people. The movie’s not against Christians and Jews; it’s against fanatics. I don’t think Christians should be offended and I would feel ashamed if that happened. There were Christians and Moslems and Jews [working on the film’s production] and we insisted on that idea because offending them isn’t my intention. Some of the actors are very strong Christians and we openly discussed ideas while we were on the set. The problem is when people of faith start killing people who don’t have faith. Personally, I lost my faith when I did The Others [in 2001] and at the time I considered myself an agnostic. Now, I consider myself an atheist. That doesn’t mean I don’t identify with taking care of the people nobody wanted. So [in Agora] I tried to show that side of Christians—as good people.

Scott Holleran: What was the turning point?

Alejandro Amenabar: When I was doing The Sea Inside, I became aware [lead character] Ramon Sampedro [played by Javier Bardem] was an atheist. It’s not that I don’t want to believe and it’s not that I don’t want to believe in something superior or that I didn’t read the Old Testament or something. I prefer to call it nature. When Einstein was studying the theory of relativity, he was looking for something higher—but he was using reason. I try to do things from a humanistic approach. I do have a moral code but I know that you don’t have to live by the Ten Commandments to be a good person.

Scott Holleran: Is Hypatia a martyr?

Alejandro Amenabar: Yes. Again, I found links to her story and to the story of Jesus Christ. They were dragged through the streets, tortured and killed. We don’t know if she knew what was coming. The fact is that she was a woman who wanted to be treated as an equal to a man. She was very prominent in the city.

Scott Holleran: Agora’s marketing has been underwhelming; the film isn’t indexed on major online movie resources. Why isn’t Agora being promoted in the United States?

Alejandro Amenabar: It’s not an easy film. It looks like an epic film but it’s not a traditional epic. It’s about astronomy and it’s also this weird mixture of history and science—and you expect her to have an affair.

Scott Holleran: Have there been any threats from religious fundamentalists?

Alejandro Amenabar: No.

Scott Holleran: Is Agora making money?

Alejandro Amenabar: Yes, though it hasn’t made all the money that it should. In Spain, it’s done very well and in Italy it’s doing very well but I don’t think it’s going to be a hit in the United States. We made the movie just before the financial crisis and in these times people just want comedy or horror or action. Agora is not that movie.

Scott Holleran: Some critics have said your film is strident. How do you respond?

I understand the criticism. It’s a movie that challenges the audience in terms of reasoning and trying to get into the story. I kept saying the movie is about astronomy and I wanted to express concepts that we study in school—science, mathematics—that don’t show how fascinating the topic is [the way the subjects are taught in modern education]. I wanted to translate [man’s] fascination with the pursuit of knowledge. I wanted to show astronomy and those who study it in the most appealing way. Those are the real heroes of the movie.

Scott Holleran: Has Agora been screened at the Vatican?

Alejandro Amenabar: Yes. From what I have heard, no one said anything. I think there were some priests and journalists there and there was no reaction at all.

Scott Holleran: Why was Agora submitted to the Vatican in the first place?

Alejandro Amenabar: It was the distribution company—I think they wanted to check the reaction of the Vatican and also for the translation into Italian [from English]. There’s one scene in which Cyril reads from St. Paul and [the Vatican] tried to look for the softest version. In the English version, it’s taken from the King James version of the Bible. But I don’t think there is a softer way of saying that women should shut up.

Scott Holleran: Do you think fundamentalists are corrupting Judeo-Christianity?

Alejandro Amenabar: I consider myself a moderate. I think Hypatia was a moderate. I don’t like big revolutions with a lot of blood and violence. I don’t like extremism.

Scott Holleran: If a philosophy is good, shouldn’t it strive to be consistent?

Alejandro Amenabar: Yes. But [a good] philosophy has one principle and that’s that you can refute what your master taught you. Einstein’s biggest idol was Isaac Newton and he dared to refute Newton—he was able to come up with improved theories. Sometimes, you have to play against what your masters taught. Ptolemy was saying one thing [about astronomy] and Copernicus was brave enough to challenge him.

Scott Holleran: What is the theme of Agora?

Alejandro Amenabar: To me, it’s a difficult question. I always say it’s a story of a woman, a civilization, and a planet. I tried to see the earth in perspective. I tried to look at the earth as small—as small as possible.

Scott Holleran: Yes, you frequently pull the camera back to emphasize man’s smallness. Do you see man as small and insignificant?

Yes and, at the same time, as great—you see these highly developed people as small as ants knowing so much about the universe. So the movie shows man at his best and at his worst.

Scott Holleran: What is your personal favorite scene, as seen within the context of the final picture?

Alejandro Amenabar: There’s one shot that I love, when we see the earth as very, very little and you hear the screaming of the women and children—and we’re lost.

Scott Holleran: Which scene was hardest to shoot?

Alejandro Amenabar: The destruction of the library.

Scott Holleran: Why is it called Agora as against Hypatia?

Alejandro Amenabar: We thought about calling it Hypatia but people have problems with pronunciation [it’s pronounced hy-pay-shuh]. It’s probably different in every place and it’s not a beautiful name. That was one of the trickiest things. So, we said let’s call it the place where the old Greeks met and discussed ideas—this changed the world. Agora is the place where we all have to live.

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