Wednesday, April 15, 2009

IS ANYBODY THERE? Yes! A meeting with Caine, Milner, Crowley & the producers

So many worthwhile movies sneak in under the grid these days, languish briefly in a theatre or two and then disappear, reappearing on DVD much later (often after their small but interested audience has forgotten that it even had wanted to see them). When a small film manages to garner attention, celebration is in order, and so it is with this quiet little tale that features a very big star: Michael Caine.

IS ANYBODY THERE? tells the story of an elderly retired magician (Caine) who places himself in an old-age home run by the parents of a young boy (Bill Milner from Son of Rambow) who is obsessed with the after-life and the possible presence of ghosts in the home.

The film's focus keeps changing -- from the relationship that develops between the characters played by Caine and Milner to the parents, who are having their own problems (David Morrissey, from the original State of Play) and Anne-Marie Duff of The Magdalene Sisters), and finally onto the aged tenants of the home -- starry geriatrics who include Rosemary Harris, Leslie Phillips (Jimmy Blake in the Chancer series and Venus), the late Elizabeth Spriggs, Peter Vaughan (Tom Franklyn in Chancer, The Remains of the Day), Ralph Riach (chauffeur Willy Stebbings in Chancer) and the amazing Sylvia Syms. With its constantly shifting focus, the movie puts us in touch with a lot of people and events -- and the connections and feelings that rise from these. It proves an interesting way to tell the story: removing us somewhat from any heavy identification with its two main characters while putting us nicely in touch with the entire world that they inhabit.

Caine is wonderful (he seems to get better with each new role), bringing such a rough, alternately-in-and-out-of-touch reality to his character that it's almost as though the viewer has never seen this actor before. Young Milner, quite accomplished considering his few years and short resume, make a fine foil for Sir Michael. The entire cast is equally accomplished and my only quibble is that I'd like to have seen more of each of them. The movie -- at 94 minutes including credits -- is short yet covers a good deal of territory. Screenwriter Peter Harness has based his story on his own life growing up in a retirement home run by his parents, and he's done a creditable job of giving us enough information to carry us along without overloading.

Is Anybody There? has a lot to say but never shouts. It tells its story, whispering between the lines and leaving us to draw our own conclusions with feelings that, though mixed, should contain many more positives than negatives. There's an abundance of humor here, some of it pretty quirky and dark (the magic show with Caine and Peter Vaughan -- whew!) and sadness, too, often coming nearly on top of each other. All in all, a nice little movie.


Granted, I've only been working the review route for a few years now, but the press experience with this particular film was unlike anything else I've had. Press time lasted longer than any I've experienced, with a full roster of producers, stars and director on hand.

Our little group of six bloggers gathered around a long and wide conference table in Manhattan's ritzy Regency Hotel. (It was pouring rain that day, and when I departed the doorman graced me with a classy black umbrella. That's what I call courtesy.) At one end of the conference table sat three of the film's producers: David Heyman, whose credits run the gamut from a classic indie like The Daytrippers to the Harry Potter film franchise; and Peter Saraf and Marc Turtletaub, who have produced a number of films from Little Miss Sunshine and Sunshine Cleaning to Chop Shop and Sherrybaby. For reasons perhaps more obvious to others than to me, film journalists seem to care little about producers. While I admit they may not be as creative (in a certain fashion only) as directors, writers and actors, we wouldn't have our movies without them. There are all kinds of ways to be creative, after all.

First the three men told us the tale of how the film came into being, starting with a single page of a story/reminiscence from the screenwriter Peter Harness, about his growing up among a flock of seniors in a retirement home run by his parents. One of the producers gave this page to another of them, who took it with him on his way to the "loo." When he came back he told the other that he'd quite liked it, and there began what ended up as Is Anybody There?.

One of the unusual things about this project, explained the threesome, was that at several points along the way, when the script seemed to be getting out of hand, the producer actually asked Harness to go back to an earlier draft and work from that. This evidently is not the way screenplays often take shape. It is usually: forge ahead with changes, changes and more changes. Here, instead, what the writer has put on that original page contained the idea and spirit that the producers most wanted to remain. And, yes, Michael Caine was the first major name attached to the project, and no other real possibilities were ever floated to essay the leading role.

Following our Q&A with the producers, a few minutes later Sir Michael arrived. "Class" was never the first word that came to my mind regarding this actor -- who, in the early 1960s, made his major film debut in Zulu, followed by the first in the Harry Palmer franchise, The Ipcress File, followed by Alfie -- and was suddenly a major star. Yet class was the only word that seemed to fit this leonine fellow who, utterly gracious without appearing to give it a thought, sat down, smiled at us all, and proceeded to effortlessly answer questions and tell funny stories about his youth, his mentors, and his early learning of the acting craft via the legitimate stage.

Q: What was the biggest difference in how you approach acting now and how you approached it w hen you were starting out?

Caine: When you become a star pretty much overnight, which I was lucky enough to have done, you tend to show a great deal of yourself and your own personality. Plus, you tend to get pictures which are pretty much the same. You get the girl, you lose the girl, and you get the girl again -- and it's all very glamorous. Then you get to a certain age where, what happened to me was that a producer sent me a script, which I read and sent right back to him saying, the part's too small. . He sent it back to me with a note that said, Don't read the lover, read the father. So I rushed over and looked in the mirror and thought, Oh my god, he's right. At that point you stop being the movie star -- who relies on personality -- and you start becoming the movie actor. And the point of all this is that for you people out there in the audience, you don't look at Michael Caine and say, "Oh, isn't he a wonderful actor. If you do that, I have failed. Instead, you should be sitting there watching and thinking, Oh, I wonder what's going to happen to Charlie Smith -- or whatever character I am playing. The actor should disappear, and so should the acting .And that's been the major difference for me now. Really, for the actor, this is a necessity. Because at my age you're not going to get the girl, anyhow. (You might get the odd widow, of course….)
Q: Since this movie is about a kind of mentor/apprentice kind of relationship, have you ever had a mentor like this in your own youth?

I started out at about the age of 7 at a little country school where and the head mistress was single and she decided that I was something like her son and she adopted me -- not legally but, still I was always at her house, spending more time with us than with my own mother on many occasions. She taught me to read, what to read, and I got an incredible education. She was a tremendous influence on me, as was my grammar school English teacher, Mr.Watson. My greatest influence was the cinema itself. I loved it! I am one of the biggest film fans anywhere-- whether I was in the movie or not. It was for me an escape from where I was. I grew up in a very tough project in South London.. It was very, very hard. At the movies, I could escape anywhere, I was fascinated by movie acting, and so I became an amateur actor. What happened was I did nine years of theatre, very small theatre . And when I finally got my first very big play in the West End, a producer saw me and signed me to do Zulu. And I never went back to the stage again. Ever. And I don't want to now. .I have become completely a movie actor.

Do you miss working before a live audience at all?

No, not at all!

What movies have you seen recently that you would recommend to us?

A French film called Tell No One which I think is the best thriller I have seen in my life. I thought it was wonderful. Really I have seen practically every movie via screener. I am a member of the Academy over here and in Europe, and so I get those too. I also loved The Lives of Others. I enjoy all sorts of films, blockbusters included.

How did you find working with your co-star Bill Milner, who is relatively new to films?

He is the most self-possessed little boy I have ever seen. And I think this is because he did not go to theater school. He was in an amateur dramatic society, and so he had no wrong ideas about movies acting nor any suggestions to make about anything. He was just a little boy! And he is highly intelligent. And his mother is not a stage mother, either and she is also highly intelligent. We rehearsed a little and became very close friends. He was a treasure to work with, and you can imagine what we would have gone through if we have gotten the wrong boy. The picture would have gone into the toilet!
What is the difference between American comedy and British comedy?

The Americans don't have much of a sense of irony. My favorite comedians are the great American Jewish comics. They are the best in the world, I think -- Milton Berle, George Burns -- they have a basic Jewish humor which is always self-efficient. But I also love the British humor like Monty Python!

You strike me as actor who is always growing and changing. How did you grow on this film?

I had some unfortunate help, actually, because while I was making this film, my best friend was dying of Alzheimer's. So I knew exactly what I was doing and where I was coming from the whole time I had been involved with my friend and Alzheimer's for four years before I stared this film. Really, this was the greatest training in how to be an Alzheimer's patient. I tend to choose roles like this. My next film, a small British called Harry Brown , I play a man who I much tougher than Clarence the magician, whose best friend is killed, and he must go out to avenge him.
Do you plan to retire?

That is generally a decision we actors do not make. This business retires you!

That does not seem to be happening in your case.

No. I don't plan to retire, and fortunately I have another Batman movie to make! But it could do, you know? If they decide not to make another Batman, and I sit here waiting for the next script. If it happens, I would not make any official announcement, of course. I would just not work again.
Are you interested in initiating your own projects at this point?

No, no. Too much hard work! But the reason I am here, doing this PR business is that I believe in this little movie. It's quite an obscure picture, really, and what do you say to someone who asks what's it about? Well, an old peoples home? People are not going to say Oh, I must see that! I want to show people this movie so that they see that it is not just this! If you can make a movie in which audiences roll with laughter and then cry their eyes out, as I have seen them do with this film, then, well…

If you could remake any of the movies you did earlier, how would you do it and whom would you cast in it?

I've never really been asked this question nor have I thought about it. (He does now.) Which? Hmmmmm. It would have to be one of the failures, rather than the successes, I think. (He thinks hard.) I' ll tell you what I'd remake: Gambit, and I would play the Herbert Lom part. The older man part. You know, I think I am saying this because I just heard form somewhere that the Cohen Brothers have bought rights to that script!

Do you think you could sink your teeth into pretty much any kind of role at this point in your life?

Well, yes, given the age and physicality of the role, of course. But yes, pretty much any kind!

After the heads-up from the PR contact that our time is up, Sir Michael stands and shakes each of our hands warmly and thanks us individually. As he departs for his next session down the hall, in comes young Master Milner and the film's director John Crowley.

My eyes are now boggling from sitting at the computer all day and evening, so the Milner/Crowley episode will have to wait. (But not too long, as it's too good not to transcribe and share.) Meanwhile, go see
Is Anybody There?

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