Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Talk with BILL MILNER and JOHN CROWLEY re method, movies and stage

So. Rex Reed in this week's New York Observer has come down heavily against IS ANYBODY THERE? While I don't think this alone will sink the film's chances at finding its audience, I must admit that an earlier retiree/rest home movie, also featuring its title in the form of a question (How About You?), did not set the world on fire during our last Christmas season. Still, I'm counting on intelligent foreign/independent film audiences to seek out a movie like this and give it a chance.

At the press event for Is Anybody There? (the lion's share of which was posted yesterday), our final meeting took place with Michael Caine's co-star, young Bill Milner, and the film's director John Crowley (shown above, left, with Sir Michael). Here are highlights of that conversation between Crowley, Milner and six of us bloggers, all sitting around a very large conference table at the Regency Hotel:

Q (to Milner, shown just below): How was this movie different for you from Son of Rambow?

Milner: Son of Rambow, I think, was about growing up and about living. This film is more about death and letting go.

When you first met Caine, did you know who he was and what his stature was -- that you were working with one of the top 20 actors in the whole world.

Yes! I was aware, but at the same time it was quite exciting.

When you answered the question about the differences between Son of Rambow and Is Anybody There? you were very analytical. I am wondering how that analytical part of you functions when you are on the set. What are you thinking about?

I don't know. I think…. I don't know if I can answer the question…

Crowley: I can help you out with that....

Questioner. No -- let him. (To Milner) When you go onto the set and are about to play the scene, what are you thinking about? That particular, isolated moment? The longer story? What? Or does all that disappear?

I don't know…That's a tough question. First, you have to really get a sense of what the character has been through before, and then you understand how he is feeling. You have to understand the scene just before that one and what he has done then. And then that scene takes you in the next.

Crowley: This boy takes his brain with him onto the set. Then, somewhere along the way, his instinct takes over. Directing him is not like directing other kids. He's never let me down.

(To Crowley) What is the biggest difference between British and American humor?

I think the British is flinty and tough, with an irreverence toward death. That's probably the main difference.

How do you find the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them into emotion?

There is no easy answer to that. You spend a lot of energy and a lot of time trying things out. It's like three-dimensional chess -- played in the dark. Editing, of course, is there, too, and to me this is the most purely cinematic part of the whole thing. It is astonishing how meaning can develop through editing. You have to keep doing it and doing it and then step back and get a pair of fresh eyes to look at it. I was very lucky to have had producers who allowed me the time to get it right.

How long were you working on this film?

We finished it completely just before Christmas last year. We actually finished editing it last August.

Do you find it is even more difficult because of all the extra footage after editing, and now, with the DVD to consider, how you can put in so much of that footage as "extras" on the DVD?

No. Because you are always after the best version of the film. It's horrible, of course, what you lose in editing those scenes. But the one consolation is that those scenes are not lost forever because you can put them on the DVD.

To Milner: After making the two films, have you thought that you might want to get into something like directing or writing?

Well, I have written and I do have a camera I like to take out with me.

Crowley: And he's very good!

(To Crowley) Regarding how the movie keeps changing focus -- from Clarence and the boy, to the boy's parents to the occupants of the retirement home -- was this planned more in the original script, or did much of it happen in the film's editing?

The movie was always planned to be about the main character Clarence and the boy, but to find the emotional through-line you must weave in these other characters so that you feel they counterpoint and mirror the difficulties and the choices that Clarence faces. You have the boy, who's on the threshold, the father in his mid-life crisis, and Clarence who is wrestling with the end. Within that you have all these other stories of the residents, and you could pick any one of them and it would a major one, equally rich.

Can you talk about the difference between your work on the stage and now on film.

There is something incredibly satisfying about capturing on film a particular moment. On the stage, it can be equally brilliant, but then it is gone. But if you've caught it on film, it is there forever.

What other film directors do you admire?

I am impressed with work of Steven Soderberg, Ang Lee and Peter Weir. They never seem to make the same film twice. Being a film director seems a bit like being somewhere between a creative force and a gun for hire. I mean, look at John Huston's career!

What is the difference between what a live audience gets from a legitimate theatre play and what a film audience gets?

Obviously in legitimate theatre, it is an event, and something that is being shared by the audience. The audience is involved is a very subtle way because the audience is also informing the event -- by silence, by laughter. Maybe not consciously. With a new play, there is nothing as exciting as the first performance in preview. I found that true both in London and here in NYC with The Pillowman. The audience does not know what it is in for -- and there is that sense of discovery, moment to moment. That is very, very special. It is an incredible thing to have helped engineer that event. But film is so much more about internal emotional landscape, and in subtle ways. It's like you are trying to get behind somebody's eyes. It is not so much about the event in the room. There is nothing better than to stand in the back of the auditorium during a screening in which people are really "getting" the film, whether they are quiet or laughing . I don't see the need to have to choose one or the other of these art forms. I am lucky enough to be able to go between them.

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