Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sally Potter's RAGE opens all around us -- and TM gets a private Q&A w/filmmaker

RAGE, the new movie from Sally Potter (Orlando, The Tango Lesson, Yes) is suddenly everywhere: on cell and iPhones, the internet, DVD and even theatrically (in Britain, at least). So what is it? And is it any good?

If you're going to entertain us with a stunt, as I think Ms Potter (shown just below) has done this time 'round, there's nothing intrinsically wrong

with that so long as the stunt is a good one. Rage, as a matter of fact, is a very good stunt: smart, swift, nasty, funny and entertaining as all hell.

The cast alone will make the movie a must-see for many: Simon Abkarian (shown at close of this post), Bob Balaban, Steve Buscemi (shown below), Judi Dench (two photos below), Eddie Izzard (three photos below), John Leguizamo and Diane Wiest -- plus several newcomers like Lily Cole (five photos below), Patrick J. Adams and Riz Ahmed (four photos below), who should be going places fast. Ah, yes: and Jude Law in what is his best -- and certainly most unusual-- performance in several years.

The only cast member who seems out of his element is David Oyelowo as a Shakespeare-quoting police detective who looks about a decade too young for the job. Samuel L. Jackson would have been perfect here, but Mr. Oyelowo seem entirely too green and immature: posing in the role, rather than inhabiting it. Otherwise, everyone's just about right, and they're all having immense fun with these characters -- from Ms Dench as a top fashion scribe to Mr. Balaban as a marketing professional, from Mr. Leguizamo, who plays the bodyguard to Mr Izzard, to Ms Wiest as a member of the family who owns the fashion concern.

There's a reason this movie is debuting via the "new" media. It's about the new media: how we use it and how it uses us. In a famous NYC fashion house, a young fellow is recording the goings-on and sharing them with you and me and everyone we know. I thought this character -- his name is Michelangelo and the art connection, I think, is no coincidence -- was an intern in the workplace, but Ms Potter (see the interview below) says no: He's younger than that. The entire movie is made up of talking-head interviews, against a background screen, during which Michelangelo quizzes various members of the fashion staff and its retinue about all that is going on. While the interviews are in progress a lot of interesting stuff happens - and the movie becomes a mystery, a satire, a thriller (a very cerebral one, I grant you) and an exploration of capitalism, globalization, fashion and especially the new media. By the end of its speedy 95 minutes, you'll be hanging on every word and (spoken about) deed. And then Potter really throws a monkey wrench into the works.

With nothing more than these interviews (we come back and back again to each cast member, from one day to the next, as a fashion shows commences and protests mount in the streets outside). The mystery, suspense, fun and havoc that this young, unseen blogger has managed to create (or perhaps he is only reporting) is quite a little feat. As Ms Potter notes in her interview below, she wanted to see how large an imaginative space she could create from a mere skeletal form. A pretty big one, I would say.

It's amazing how much fun, energy and sheer delight the writer/director can wring out of her plot and characters, considering that all (or almost all) is done with simply a camera, a background screen of different colors, a smart script and a bunch of expert performers (casting counts for so much here). Potter creates a whole world with about as minimal effort and expense -- but not minimal intelligence -- as would seem possible. While watching Rage on your cell phone or computer might seem enticing (this certainly fits the movie's modus operandi), I'd still suggest renting the DVD and viewing it on as big a screen as possible. Actors this good deserve to be seen in all their wonder.

Sally Potter has been with us -- and on the radar -- for some time now. Her breakthrough film Orlando came out in 1992, and her first short Thriller appeared in 1979. TrustMovies has always enjoyed her work and looked forward with anticipation to what she might try next (her movies do not resemble one another in any obvious way), so the chance to speak with her in person -- rather than via one of those lucky-to- get-a-word-in-edgewise blogger roundtables -- was too attractive to pass up. She proved a wonderful interview: quick, sharp, funny and appealing. Here's the gist:

TrustMovies: I have to say I was initially shocked to learn that Rage is not getting a theatrical release here in the U.S. The release pattern for this film really takes the cake: Debuting on cell phone and iPhone, simultaneously released to DVD here in the USA, but appearing theatrically in Britain! But then I realized that everything is changing now, distribution-wise…

Sally Potter (that's she again, at right, on the set of Rage): But the film is getting something even more exciting than a theatrical release: it’s the first-ever feature film to be released on cell phones. You know: It’s a choice. And this is so much a part of the story itself -- the grasping of the nettle, of the new technology out there, and then finding out where we can go with that.

If there was ever a movie I’ve seen that worked with this new technology, it’s this one!

It’s the story: And you can’t really separate the story from its method of release.


So for me this is not disappointing at all! Theatrical releases: I’ve been there, done that. The Angelika and... da-da-da. But all that is an old model, in a way. Mind you, I am not saying that this is the end of movie theaters or anything like that.

No, don’t say that!

I don’t think so. It can’t be. What it might do – just like the debut of photography stimulated painters to find new ways of exploring paint, and so this was not the end of painting but the beginning of new painting -- maybe an internet/cell phone release can be the revival of a thrilling, collective cinematic experience. Where cinema becomes somewhere to go for something you can only uniquely do in that way.

We saw Rage on our home TV -- which has a nice, big widescreen -- a few weeks ago, and we really enjoyed it that way. It’s a fun movie!

Well, I hope so.

I had thought of you as much more prolific, but then when I went on IMDB, it has only been five films in the past 17 years.

Six. This is my sixth. The Gold Diggers was before Orlando.

I was surprised because in my mind there were a lot more.

It’s because I am a writer/director, so the cycle is a long, slow one. If you are a director for hire, somebody else has spent the year or two working on the script, so you can come in and do the preparation for the shoot, then the shoot, the edit and then you move on. That way, you can do a film a year. Of course, there’s Woody Allen…. But I don’t know how he does it. But when you are a writer/director – which I have become: I don’t think most people start out to be that. You just end up there because I found there was no one writing scripts that I wanted to do -- then the cycle is slow. You can’t write a good script in less than a year, in my humble experience, so by the time you have written for a year or two full-time, and then you shoot and then you edit and find out what you’ve got, that’s a four-year cycle.

Do you find that you film changes at all from the writing to the shoot to the edit.

Does it change?! Yeah -- you try to keep the film changing at the rate that you as a human being are changing. In a way. But sometimes it just has to be what it is. By the time is has arrived, it has got its own life, which you have to obey and follow. I think this cycle is very similar to that of a novelist. I don’t think most novelists turn out a book more than every few years. It’s a kind of marathon runner/stamina thing – in the middle of which there is a sprint called “the shoot.” But, really, it’s a long haul.

Because your films are so different, one from the next, do you have a guiding force that drives you in certain directions: Or is it just exploration of the possibilities of narration and film?

Joan Allen in Potter's YES

The guiding principle, the choice of projects, is really intuitive, I think. What I do know is, because it is going to take so long, it must be a subject that I am really enthralled with, passionate to explore more of, and feel that it will sustain me through the ups and down of a long period of time. It must have enough in it to keep me feeling that it will be worth spending this long period of time on.

Yes. That four-year period is a long one, particularly as we get older.

Earlier in my life I imagined, hey, a movie a year, maybe a movie every two years! I’ve got all these movies in mind, waiting to be done. And so there was a great feeling of frustration and disappointment that I could not do more. And it has been a struggle. Well, in the end, then I think of a film that comes to mind: The Third Man by Carol Reed. And it’s as though I can’t think of anything else he did.

Odd Man Out? Oliver?

(She laughs.) Yes, yes, I know he did those, but for me it’s The Third Man that counts. So when people think of me and my work….

Ah — I see what you mean. Now I am thinking of Rage, but I would think first, I guess, of Orlando. That was the film that introduced me to Tilda Swinton.

Yes, and I suspect most people might think of that one first. But not everybody. For some people it’s Yes. That’s the one that really stands out. For others, it’s The Tango Lesson. People find their own “one.” But I think this business of somehow, "more is better"… Well, I am trying to adapt to the idea that this is not the case. We’re in the age of “too-muchness”

And also, if, like me, you are doing films where each appears very different from the last, you have to go back to zero point where financing is concerned. After Orlando, they all wanted me to do Orlando 2. Son of Orlando, Daughter of Orlando. Or history, or costumes….

Christina Ricci, left, and Johnny Depp in Potter's The Man Who Cried.

How did you go about assembling such a nifty cast? Rage is cast so well with wonderful choices and each does a fine job.

First of all, I love casting. It’s a process I enjoy: the alchemy of that moment and how this actor is going to fit with that scene. And I really love working with actors -- the process and the nature of the process. I have never had a problem of getting people I really wanted for a film.

So all of these people were handpicked by you?

Absolutely. I worked with two wonderful casting directors (Editor's note: Irene Lamb and Heidi Levitt), but each actor was my choice.

Did they all work for scale?

Yes they did. They were all shot for two days, exactly. Some had a bit more preparation and some a bit less. And they were all paid the minimum union rate.

What is that?

The exact amount I don’t know, but it must be pretty small. More in the range of I think about perhaps $350 per day.

Where will you go from here? Any plans for the next film?

I always have "dreams and schemes." Something floating around in my mind. And indeed some are already in treatment or outline. But until this one, Rage, is out there in the world -- maybe a couple of months more -- well, I am a monogamous devotee: Right now, there is only Rage.

There is something I’ve got my eye on. But I want to know, first, if this latest experiment, if you can call it that, this kind of “barefoot film-making” with a global reach….

Yes. Your movie is global, and it’s about so many things: the fashion industry, globalization, capitalism -- but it is also about the new media more than anything else.

It is -– you are absolutely right.

And this is so interesting and exciting – and scary.

I think a lot of people find this scary. The whole film industry is in a paroxysm of terror about it.

Tilda Swinton in Potter's Orlando

That’s probably the only reason I am even here. I started reviewing on my own, and after a time got asked, “Would you like to work for us? We can pay you in DVDs and a little bit of money.” So I said, yes, and I loved doing it, but after a couple of years, the money ran out and the gig shut down. So now I am doing it all for free. But – I am getting invited to so many films and getting to meet people whose work I have admired. And since I am old enough now to perhaps retire and live on my savings very frugally for a few years, until the end…

You know what: Those of us who have never made huge sums of money out of what we’ve done are freer. We are freer! Those who are terrified are the ones who have made huge sums of money and are frightened of losing it. I have never made much money, so I have nothing to lose and everything to gain from the new media. And so you find that you are suddenly ahead of the pack and waving, as you go shooting through the gate!

When you were making RAGE did you worry about never being able to show anything but talking heads? This worked for me, but it’s quite a gamble.

No. That was my choice. I am a huge fan of minimalism, anyway. Not for its own sake, but there is something about the purity of a skeletal form that enlarges the mental space around it. I wanted to see how big an imaginative space I could create.

You really have done this. Before we close, is there anything you’d like to talk about that journalists never seem to ask?

No. I loved your questions and I don’t think there is anything missing.

Do you want to soapbox about anything? Like they do in London Parks and talk to the crowds?

I actually did that once. I was quite young at the time. I am trying now to remember the subject…. Probably it was one of the more abstract things I was thinking about. Perhaps I did it as a kind of performance art. I generally try to say the things I want to say in my films and through my characters rather than anywhere else. But I am very excited to find that after 30 years of experience since my first film -- slightly more, really -- that I have ended up being one of the first to use this new technology. There is some sort of sweet revenge there. I mean I am the first person to have ever had her film debut on cell phones!

That’s true. Other films have debuted via streaming and such.

But this is the first on cell phone. Ever. Can you believe it?!

When I first heard that kids were watching movies like King Kong on their cell phones, l just thought, Oh, please! How stupid! All those neat special effects on a 3-inch screen? But your film seems perfect for this media.

Yes: designed for it.

I saw a bit of it on an iPhone, and it looked simply beautiful!

And what people often don’t seem to plug into about the new media is that is that these new things always seem to build on the old. Looking at these small things: they are miniatures, and the history of miniatures is the history of painting.

Were you an artist originally?

Well, I did a foundation course at St. Martin’s School of Art in London, but I really started out in movies. Where I found the exploration of scale was often a thrilling thing.

Yes, and once you have sat through two or three movies on an IMAX screen, you really crave something small. And the idea of miniatures is so part of the younger generation now. Even the leading character, though unseen in your film, seems like a miniature. He is what –about 16 or 18 years old.

You mean the off-screen character, Michelangelo? No --I imagine him to only be about 12.

12 years old?! That never even occurred to me. Well, then he wouldn’t be an intern.

No, but they never call him an intern. They say things like, Why aren’t you in school? Or they refer to him as small or young. Really, anybody can invent their own age for him, but in my mind he was 12!

It’s time for the next journalist’s turn, so we say good bye to one of our favorite interviews so far – wishing Ms Potter great good luck for the success of her new film.

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