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January 12, 2010
Catnip to Women - Interviews - The Huffington Post

October 7, 2009
The Education of Nick Hornby - Interviews - News - IFC.com

June 26, 2009
Dueling with Stephen Frears - Interviews - News - IFC.com

Catnip to Women

With all the awards blather and best-of lists, it's somehow been overlooked that 2009 has been the year of superb male actors. Why must the Academy limit Best Actor to a single person when Ben Foster ("The Messenger"), Colin Firth ("A Single Man"), Jeremy Renner ("The Hurt Locker") and Michael Stuhlbarg ("A Serious Man") have all turned in incomparable performances -- in the sense that because they're splendid in differing ways, they can't and shouldn't be compared? Give 'em all trophies for the art they've brought to this sour year.

And add to the list, in the category of Supporting Actor, charismatic star-on-the-verge, Michael Fassbender. Of mixed German and Irish parentage, he broke through playing Irish rebel Bobby Sands in "Hunger" by Brit director Steven McQueen. Now Fassbender brings his hunky charm to Andrea Arnold's "Fish Tank," which took this year's Jury Prize at Cannes.

Set in the U.K.'s version of the projects -- far more palatable than ours, by the way -- "Fish Tank" shadows fifteen-year-old Mia (first timer and non-pro Katie Jarvis), booted out of school and at war with the world, but dreaming of becoming a hip hop dancer. She lives with a boozing mother and little sister with the preternaturally wizened face of a Dickensian bootblack. Into this female household comes studly Connor (Fassbender) -- his male power calling up Marlon Brando in "Streetcar." Theresults are both predictable and surprising -- and always riveting.

With its pairing of an older man and a young girl, "Fish Tank" might be a grittier, downscale version of "An Education," which portrayed a similar couple. But in offering a vision of marginalized people teetering on the abyss, Arnold's film packs more visceral power. For Mia nothing less than survival is at stake. Arnold, who speaks with a pungent Cockney accent, withheld the complete script from the actors, doling out only the scenes to be filmed that day. Whatever her method, she's pulled a mesmerizing turn from Fassbender as a charmer who's pure catnip to women.

I recently had the chance to chat with both Fassbender and Arnold in the Soho Grand prior to the film's screening at BAM.

Erica Abeel: I was intrigued by Connor, all the more as throughout the film he remains mysterious. What's his background? Do we know if he's married?

Michael Fassbender: I think he's married. Obviously I only found that out as we filmed. Andrea had the script written, but the actors were only given the scenes as we went along. I really didn't have a backstory for him. I pretty much kept him close to myself. I did have the feeling he was running away from something because he was very eager to sort of jump into this readymade family. But the phone conversation that Mia overhears -- that's the first indication that he's got someone else, who wants him to come home. I think he's a fairly irrresponsible kind of guy. Whenever there's trouble, he tends to run away from it.

EA: Do you you work out a lot?
MF: I do at times. Haven't done it in a while now. I think I need to get back into it. Exercise helps my head, keeps it in a healthy space

EA: I'm asking because your physical presence is very much a part of the characterization. In our first sight of Connor in the kitchen, he's very flirtatious and sexual.
MF: One thing about Connor that I knew Andrea was looking for was that he was quite a sexual character. He was coming into a house full of women. That's why she had me come downstairs for breakfast with my shirt off and jeans hanging down every low. You just have to go for it.
What Connor does well in terms of Mia is tell her that she has talent and she should have confidence in herself. He's a fairly good hearted person, not a predator.

EA: Katie Jarvis, who's sensational as Mia, had never acted before. What was it like playing against a non pro?
MF: She finds the truth in the scene, with not a lot of vanity. She has a gut instinct and just goes for it, has a special gift for that. I'd put her up there with some of the best actors I've been privileged to work with.

EA: Your career has taken off bigtime. What's coming up?
MF: I'm working with Steven Soderbergh in Dublin on a spy film, where I'm an MI6 operative. I've been very lucky.

EA: You're extremely handsome and gifted. How is that luck?
MF: A lot of gifted people out there, but there's a large portion of luck ... I'm also doing
Jane Eyre directed by Cary Fukunaga ("Sin Nombre"). It will be interesting to see what kind of angle he'll take on it.

EA: Aren't you too young for Mr. Rochester?
MF: I'll grey up a little. Then a film with David Cronenbourg, "The Talking Cure." I'll be working with Christoph Walz and Keira Knightley. It's about the triangle between Freud, Jung and his patient Sabina, a patient of both of theirs, written by Christopher Hampton.

EA: How do you feel about your success?
MF: Grateful, yeah. Cautious. Wary. Y'know the bottom can fall out of these things at any point.

EA: Andrea, "Red Road," your first feature,l was also set among the working class and folks on the dole. Is this your world?

Andrea Arnold: I come from a working class background. It's a world I feel I know. I'm in this amazingly privileged position of being able to make films. It's not like I decided I'd make films about that world. But it seems to be what I keep writing about. David Lynch said, "there's a time in your life when your windows are wide open." He grew up in Philly and when he's writing he goes back to a lot of stuff he remembers from there. It's the time when you receive all the things you want to explore or talk about.

EA: Did you try and show the worst side of Essex [the project] that you could?
AA: It has some sadness, because there used to be a lot of industry. But it has a really big sky and a wilderness. And that estate [project] in particular is not bad. The whole world of film is very middle class. So when people see a film about people who have less than they do they find it grim. But that's how most of the world lives.
I'd love it if next time they saw a girl like Mia they might think about her a little bit and give her a bit more room. If that's the most that could come out of the film I'd be happy.

EA: How do the Brits feel about the view you're giving of the country?
AA: I think people don't like to look in the mirror, do they. There's a big class system in the U.K. Even though people say it isn't there, I think it's alive and well. But there's a lot of spirit and energy too in the film. We should celebrate people like Mia. She's one of many. People asked, did you have a hard time finding her? I said I knew there were lots of them out there.

EA: Connor is one of the most fascinating characters in recent memory -- both delicious and kind of a scumbag. How do you feel about him?

AA: My relation with him is complex. And I found it complex through the whole process, in writing, filming, editing. I tried not to judge him. Or her. People are complicated and do good and bad things. If I started judging them I wouldn't have them do the things they do. You have to let them live.

EA: This was your second Jury Prize in Cannes.
AA: [Laughing] How did that happen? Where did that come from? I was still just as bewildered the 2nd time. I don't quite know how I got to be here. I was in Telluride and I was thinking to myself, I made a film and all these people are watching it! In Colorado! How strange is that?

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The Education of Nick Hornby

You'd think that the coming-of-age tale about a girl in her teens had run out of juice. But then, along comes "An Education" to revitalize the genre. The darling of this year's Sundance, which instantly put its radiant young star Carey Mulligan on the Oscar radar, "An Education" is based on journalist Lynn Barber's tell-all piece about a youthful affair circa 1961, before "the '60s" took hold. Directed by Lone Scherfig, the film, as promised by the title, recounts the sentimental education of 16-year-old Jenny, an excellent student enamored of all things French and impatient to tango with adult life. A romance with 30ish sophisticate David (Peter Sarsgaard) offers the glamor and culture missing from the drab world of her parents and the Twickenham 'burbs, but risks derailing Jenny's dream of a place at Oxford.

No small part of the film's sparkle comes from the screenplay and witty, literate dialogue furnished by Nick Hornby. A bestselling novelist -- with a second gig in the world of rock -- Hornby is most visible stateside for the screen adaptations of his books "High Fidelity" and "About a Boy," which take a comic but empathic look at the dilemmas of floundering manchildren. But in "An Education," Hornby, a modest, forthcoming fellow, has had no trouble inhabiting the inner world of a teenage heroine who sounds both charmingly herself and like a voice from a vanished, straitlaced era when women faced limited options. From Barber's original ten-page essay, Hornby has conjured an entire world. Adding a subtext of female empowerment, he also created such key characters as Peter's glam friends (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike), who seduce Jenny almost more than does Peter, while capturing the language and attitudes of a pocket in time before Carnaby Street and the Beatles blew it all wide open.

Coming-of-agers are like a tired old workhorse. What made you feel you could separate this film from the pack? Is that a mean question?

No, it's not a mean question and I'm not sure [laughing] I ever felt I could do that. The beauty of the film is that everybody's on top of their game, so you've got half a chance, whatever the material. We were helped immeasurably by Carey. She, by herself -- the charm and maturity of her performance, helps to separate the film from the pack. And the setting felt sufficiently different so that it would not seem like something you've seen a million times before.

What attracted you to this project?

I found the original material -- an essay in Granta -- and told my wife [Amanda Posey, producer of "An Education"], "Look, there's a film in here." I liked it tonally -- it was painful and funny -- and I didn't know much about that particular time, because it was the early 1960s and didn't know the period's underworld bohemia. The rest of Carey's world I recognized, because it's not so different from the way I grew up as a suburban kid who was frightened of missing out on the city. I feel a lot of identification with that character.

Is this story and period going to speak to today's audience?

You don't have to have lived in that time to understand the dilemmas. In some ways, the rules of period drama help because there are boundaries placed on conduct that are clearer than they are now -- it's easier to see when characters are transgressing. And it seems to have spoken quite deeply to teen girls who have seen the movie. Just about every woman I know has come out with a story about a guy in a car looking to pick her up.

You found that literal a closeness?

Smart pretty girls of any generation, the story's always the same.

I have a slight problem with David, Sarsgaard's character. He was pretty smarmy, like when he asks to look at her topless. And at the screening I attended, the combination of his unattractive aspects plus the fact that he's Jewish struck some viewers as anti-Semitic. Do you anticipate any flack over that?

That's interesting. One of the things that is quite clear in [Barber's] piece is that Britain was anti-Semitic at the time, and Peter's an outsider and has to use whatever tools he has at his disposal. I hope the movie makes it clear that it's other people's reactions that are anti-Semitic. One of the things that drew me to the piece was there's a charm in the guy, yet he's clunky as well. So he wasn't just a smooth predator.

What was his job, exactly?

He's a property developer, an art dealer and a semi-burglar [laughs]. In Barber's original piece it's clear he knew Peter Rackman, who was one of the big property developers in England at the time, and a crook. Rackman's behavior towards little old ladies in flats was so disgraceful it led to a change in the law. "Rackmanism" is still an expression that's used in England. And Peter's character was one of that little gang of Jewish gangsters that was around at the time.

How did you expand ten pages into a feature film?

The piece gave me three worlds: the world of home, the world of school and the world that Peter's character introduces Jenny to. So it's a question of fleshing out scenes and inventing dialogue, and then trying to look at what I thought the story meant. Certainly, Jenny's complicity in her own downfall was an important part for me. I wanted her and David to get a double act going, where they were hoodwinking her parents -- those scenes needed to be invented.

You're known in your fiction for writing about commitment-shy boy-men, like Rob in "High Fidelity." Was it harder to write out of a girl's point of view?

The moment you're making something up that's not yourself it's all an equal challenge. It also helps that we had a woman producer and woman director as a safety net.

How do you account for your great success in fiction?

I think people recognize the characters. I'm partly a comedic writer, though I think I take the people seriously as well -- maybe there's a total mix that people respond to. And my books are not hard to read. My attitude is that I have to work hard [in writing] so you don't have to. I don't like books being a struggle for anyone.

So you wouldn't recommend "Finnegans Wake" as a good read?

It depends on your time of life. If you've got three kids and 20 minutes to read before going to sleep, I'd say "Finnegans Wake" is not the book for you.

You've been called the male equivalent of chick-lit. Does that bother you?

Over the course of a career you get called a lot of different things, and you start to outlive them. There was something in England called "lad lit" -- fiction about guys, I suppose. But I stopped being called that. You just write the books. I really don't take much notice.

With one foot in the music world yourself, you must have had a lot of input about the soundtrack of "An Education."

We avoided rock music altogether. I used Juliette Gréco, some classical music, jazzy bits. One of the things that's clear in the piece: this is the last time English teens were having a cultural conversation across the Channel instead of across the Atlantic. Everything then was French for those kids. The Nouvelle Vague had started, they were reading Camus, even French Elle at school. The music couldn't be Elvis Presley, who was recording then, but had no place in this movie.

Why cast an unknown as Jenny?

How many English actresses below age 22 can anyone name? And there's a degree of innocence about the character. I don't think you could have chosen a 25-year-old whose face is very well known. It was supreme luck to find a girl who was right on the cusp of turning into a movie star. And Carey is going to have a long and fantastic career.

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Dueling with Stephen Frears

Stephen Frears burst on the scene in 1985 with his cheeky "My Beautiful Laundrette," igniting a winning streak that included "Prick Up Your Ears," "Dangerous Liaisons," "The Grifters" and "The Queen." Though famously hard to pigeonhole, the genre-spanning filmmaker gravitates toward folks struggling on the social margins or engaged in emotional gamesmanship. Frears is also, famously, a royal pain to interview. He almost defies you to extract responses from him, looking simultaneously gleeful and contrite, so you somehow empathize with him. In a sit-down for his new film "Cheri," he was reliably armored -- perhaps because his antennae are exquisitely attuned to pick up what he might call a "dodgy" reaction to his latest project.

More than two decades after "Liaisons," "Cheri" reunites Frears with ace screenwriter Christopher Hampton and Michelle Pfeiffer. Set in Belle Époque Paris, the saucy tragicomedy centers on the sumptuous world of courtesans -- demimondaines -- banned from polite society, yet another of Frears' fringe groups. Pfeiffer plays Lea de Lonval, a retired, still-seductive courtesan who's ambushed by love for boy toy Cheri (Rupert Friend), the wayward son of her former rival played by Kathy Bates.

To date the critical consensus on "Cheri" has been mixed. The coifs, costumes, and art deco interiors of Hector Guimard are to die for, and Rupert Friend makes a dishy Cheri. But Kathy Bates is incongruous as a Grand Guignol grotesque who resembles a former courtesan about as much as Mrs. Thatcher. And Pfeiffer is a bit of a tease. Though you could be forgiven for expecting an Anglo-Saxon breakthrough film with a 50-year-old heroine as an object of desire, most of the time Pfeiffer looks, well, 30-something. Her Lea is more about cosmetically contrived youth than the earthy, sensual and maternal temptress of Colette's novella. Maybe it's Brit reserve, but "Cheri" never nails this very Gallic, very naughty world of women who have parlayed sexual savoir faire into gemstones -- or conveys Colette's knowing take on the intersection of desire and love. Fresh off a cigarette he's been sneaking on the terrace, Frears greets me with, "You rather look like Colette." So far so good.

How is Colette's "Cheri," published in 1920, relevant for viewers today?

It's about rich people. It all comes tumbling down in the end. [laughs]

How about the love story of an older woman and a much younger man?

I can see it would have been more subversive when she wrote it. It's unremarkable now.

So you see it primarily as a story about rich people?

[Irritably] Well, I'm not sure that's how I see it, but it's one of the things that I liked about it.

The film is gorgeous to look at, but the display of wealth is also a bit disturbing.

Yes, one man stood up and was appalled, absolutely apoplectic about it. "Why do you make movies about such worthless people?" Well, of course, they're not worthless -- their values are just different. Then it all comes crashing down.

Are you drawing a parallel in the film to what's going on in the global economy now?

Well, you're trying to force me into some position that I'm not sure is entirely mine. [laughs]

How would you put it then?

I don't know, I don't ask those questions. I just liked it when I read it. I thought, "This is rather wonderful." I don't sit around thinking is this relevant or is that relevant. I mean, how is "The Queen" relevant? It's a preposterous institution in Britain -- it's not at all relevant. So I don't really think about relevance. You're more obsessed with this business of speaking to people today than I am. I'm probably rather unworldly.

What is "Cheri" saying about the male/female dynamic?

People say to me, you always make movies about strong women.

Okay, what does the Lea/Cheri romance say about men and women?

That the unconscious is more powerful than the conscious.

But the woman is almost the male figure here, it's a rather striking reversal, with Cheri feminine and passive, and Lea organized and commanding.

That's my experience of life. The women are much stronger, clearer. In films, the women are very, very dependable. The men are frailer, much more anxious about themselves.

Lea's not only strong and worldly. She's footing the bill and managing the money, which is certainly a reversal.

Yes, if Cheri had been in a relationship with Leona Helmsley, I'm sure she'd have controlled the money.

What's it like to direct Michelle Pfeiffer?

She's very, very tricky, you have to get the camera in the right place. If it's not, she's inexpressive. Then you bring the camera in the right place and she simply comes to life. It's quite mysterious, her power. I remember looking at her in a great wide shot and wondering, why is she able to make this shot work?

You've guided some top actresses to Oscar nods. What's your method for eliciting such fine performances?

Oh, we communicate through a series of grunts. [Rupert Friend clarified earlier in the day, "Stephen is a great conductor of humans without ever really saying anything."]

According to Rupert Friend, he and Michelle only met the night before shooting. How did you assure there would be chemistry between the two?

There's not a lot you can do about it. It's out of your hands, and you just hope it's going to work. And in this case, it did. If it didn't, it would be a nightmare.

Colette is such a sensual writer. But the film doesn't dwell on that aspect of her work, except for the clothes and décor. Why did you steer away from that?

I can't answer your question, it's a matter of taste.

We often see Cheri in various states of undress. Why don't you show Lea's body? You never do, ever. When you first see them making love you see her long hair from behind. It seems very coy.

You sort these things out privately.

Is it that you don't want to show a middle-aged woman's body? I mean, a guy can walk around with his gut hanging out and be considered sexy.

Well, you're trying to create a believable world, aren't you? If you're trying to undermine it, there would be no point in doing it.

How would that undermine it?

I don't know. Maybe it's because I'm a discreet person. [Pfeiffer herself came up with more of an answer: it's Cheri we see cavorting semi-naked because the film privileges the female gaze and “Cheri is the object of desire.”]

What was greatest challenge of the shoot?

To deal with the surface and the underneath at the same time. They're not people who talk about their feelings. On the surface, there's all this sort of froth and delight in costumes. Underneath it all, there's a more tragic story going on. The music [by Alexandre Desplat] is a way you illuminate the interior story. So the whole time, you were trying to make the film operate on two different levels.

You have tremendous range in your work. Is there is a common denominator?

I assume there is, but I've no idea. The subversive [interests me], marginalized people -- I see them as an opposition. “Liaisons” is about emotional hooligans. It's about attacking Mrs. Thatcher. I can see that psychologically I'm an odd duck.

Despite all the challenges, do you feel that you've captured Colette's novella?

I never think that, I depend on other people to tell me that.

What's up next?

If I knew, I'd tell you. If you find out, let me know.

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