Monday, 30 June 2014

Charlie Lyne Interview

We sat down in Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Big Yellow Bus to speak with Charlie Lyne, director and writer of Beyond Clueless.

Image: Martin/Fohnhouse

In the end credits, you mention Not Another Teen Movie as an inspiration for this whole project – I really like this film…

As all right-minded people do! I organised this teen movie film festival at a cinema in Hackney, and eventually we dug up the original premiere print of Not Another Teen Movie. I think it holds up perfectly. We did get a review in Time Out where someone said that we were showing everything from the sublime (Election) to the unspeakably awful (Not Another Teen Movie). Clearly it’s still an acquired taste…

In its way, like your film, Not Another Teen Movie is a sort of coalescence of what a teen movie is.

You’re absolutely right. I honestly think the closest thing to my film, before my film existed, was absolutely Not Another Teen Movie: this film that completely tore apart the teen genre but also clearly had huge affection for it. We wanted that balance of affection and criticism. If our film could be half as good, I would be very pleased…which in many people’s eyes is not a high bar to reach for! ‘I want to be half as good as one of the worst reviewed movies of the last fifteen years!’

You are a critic yourself – what was it that spurred you on to make a film, and was this a difficult transition?

Well, it originally started around the time that I was putting on that festival, so I was rewatching a lot of those teen movies that I had loved as a teenager. I knew I wanted to do something about them, some work of criticism around them. I realised how dangerous it was walking the line between analysing this genre and taking the piss out of it. I was thinking, how can I display my ample affection for this genre while analysing it? The best way to do that seemed to be to put forward what is, in effect, a teen movie, as well as a work of criticism. It felt quite organic, but of course there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and fucking up in that organic process!

Could you outline how you went about funding the film?

I feel ridiculously spoilt getting to say this, given the funding horror stories you hear at a documentary festival, but as this idea was coming together, Kickstarter launched in the UK. Within half a month we had our project up, and a month later we had the funding. It was ridiculously smooth as a process, but I think we were lucky that we were tackling a subject that people have a real connection to already. I had no background as a filmmaker. It would have probably been very hard to convince people were it not for the fact that we could say, ‘you already have a connection to this material’. At the end of the day we were just very lucky that people were into it.  

Did your position as a well-known critic help?

Undoubtedly. People always say about Kickstarter, the second you’re over that hump, the first 10% or whatever, then it’s much more smooth sailing. Had I not had Twitter and everything like that, and people who’d read my work and liked it, and the same with Summer Camp who did the score, if they hadn’t had the Twitter following that we could use to push the project, I don’t know what would have happened. That people were willing to trust that just because they liked my writing they might also like the film was very flattering.

The choice of clips was quite surprising to me – it often seems like you are analysing horror films and their process.

The funny thing is that everyone has their own specific thing that they don’t think is a teen movie, and no-one seems to agree on what that is – we had a very basic rule of thumb, which was ‘is it about the process of adolescence? Is it about the sense of growing up?’. So sometimes that would mean films like Mean Girls, which are unequivocally teen movies, and sometimes that would be something like Jeepers Creepers or Bubble Boy, which people are more reluctant to think of as teen movies, even though they are about teenagers in these processes of transformation.

The Dreamers?

You know what, I’ll concede that The Dreamers is a borderline case, but it gets at a sense of adolescent discovery, so I felt justified in putting it in there. We knew we’d upset some people with some of the choices, for sure, but you would be missing such a vast part of it to not include them.

I loved the moment when the title appeared over a shot from Ginger Snaps

Well, if you’ve not seen Ginger Snaps, and Ginger Snaps Back and Ginger Snaps Unleashed…they’re incredible! One of the main things I love about teen movies – and this reoccurs again and again in the film, hopefully – is that sense of these frothy things actually getting at much bigger issues. Teen horror, especially, is a goldmine for that sort of stuff.

You don’t have a clip from Heathers, but you do have Happy Campers

We had that dilemma going in as to how wide an area to cover, historically. I didn’t want to set up any hard-and-fast rules, but we did want to stick within a certain period, just so that it wasn’t jarring to suddenly go between Clueless and Rebel Without A Cause. The earliest film that we did use in the end was ’93, I think. It’s no comment on Heathers, which I love!
Apart from anything else, these were all the teen movies that I grew up with, the ones I feel close to. There is already a glut of writing and analysis of John Hughes movies, and we wanted to tackle something a bit less analysed.

What about the narration – how did you get Fairuza Balk involved?

We realised, because we had so little money, that we were going to have to pretty much make the film, and then take it to people and say ‘what do you think of this, would you like to be involved?’. It wouldn’t have been practical to get anyone involved from the beginning. Obviously, with the kind of film we were making, we had the luxury of doing that. All through this process that was about ten, eleven months, we’d had this list pinned up on my wall, our narration dream choices. Number one was, absolutely, Fairuza Balk. I remember the day that someone suggested that, and thinking ‘oh my god, that’s perfect!’. I don’t know if it was the best idea having her pinned up there for months, because we started to hear the film in her voice. We were just really fortunate that she said yes!

Her voice is idiosyncratic, maybe not what we immediately think of as the voice of teen movies. It’s not Molly Ringwald…

She has that brilliant duality of feeling completely at home in that world, but also feeling like a bit of an outsider. We wanted that sense that we were absolutely inside this world, being shown around by someone who’s part of it, not a distant observer, and yet someone who has that sardonic edge that her voice conjures.

What about your collaboration with Summer Camp?

That was literally the first thing, when the film felt real to me. I’d been a massive fan for years, so I was already giddy at the idea of even pitching it to them. They are very Americana-influenced, and their first album has explicit references to teen movies. So I knew it would be not a million miles from their sensibility, but it was really fortunate that they were totally up for it. They were there from day one. They were creating music even before we had anything cut. They were writers and editors and directors as much as they were composers.

As a critic, having made this film, where do you think the teen movie stands now?

It’s something we consciously chose not to talk about in the film itself, because we wanted it to be about the world, not the money or the business or the history of it. Towards the end of the movie, there’s that section on Spiderman, which to me is emblematic of what happened with the teen movie around that time. Something like Transformers would have been unimaginable ten years prior, because a big tent-pole action movie would have had a man in it, not Shia Laboeuf, a teenager who makes jokes about wanking in the middle of these big set-piece monster scenes.

These movies became so huge that there wasn’t really room for teen movies around them. Then when that fell out of favour there was this down period without any teen movies. Now I feel like it’s coming back, a new wave is coming through. A good litmus test for whether the teen genre is in good health is whether adults are getting upset about it. When Project X came out, when there were all those outraged articles about that movie, I thought ‘oh good! This has made 100 million dollars because teenagers have actually gone and seen it’, as opposed to these so-called ‘return of the teen movie’ films where all the adults go and remember how great their youth was. I just though ‘yeah! Teens are getting their own genre again!’.

Would there be any advice you would give to somebody who wanted to follow your footsteps and make their own film?
In a pragmatic sense, Kickstarter is completely brilliant, if you have an idea that is strong enough that people will be interested in it, regardless of who you are or what you’ve done. Obviously it depends if it’s a movie that can be made on as small a budget as ours has been. This is a movie that could barely have existed ten years ago – there are new worlds opening up every moment. This kind of movie is everywhere – but normally they’re on YouTube and people are just calling them ‘supercuts’ or whatever, and not thinking of them as actual artistic creations. There’s a whole wide world of people making films like this, and they need to stand up for what they’ve made and not think of it as a throwaway thing.

If you feel like you can answer this question, do you have a favourite teen movie?

I feel like everyone’s favourite teen movie is not the best teen movie; it’s the one that, for some odd reason, they cottoned on to when they were at that perfect, impressionable age. If our film gets anything, it’s the idea that those films stay with you, but they come to mean very different things as you mature and turn into a different person. The one for me is, as you may have guessed from watching the film, Eurotrip. It just meant a very specific thing to me when I was 15, and it means a very specific thing to me now, and between the two it has meant the world. I think I will always cherish it, even though, like Not Another Teen Movie, people malign it unfairly!


Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Steve James Interview

Image: Indiewire

Hoop Dreams director Steve James was in town for the premiere of his new film Life Itself at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, and we sat down to chat with him about his latest documentary and its subject Roger Ebert.
Were you aware that Roger Ebert would no longer be with us by the time the film was finished?
No. When I started the film I had no idea that he would be gone. That did not become a possibility until we had been filming a while, then it became a distinct possibility when he said that his cancer had returned and that he did not expect to be alive when the film was done. Then it became a distinct possibility and then he came to pass.
When I started out I wasn’t determined to make a film about the death of a famous, prominent film critic, but it ended up being that. But it’s not just about death, you know. It has many aspects to it, and it does end up being a film about how one dies with grace and courage, and I think he did that. That’s what is inspiring and sad.
Being so close to that, did it make you evaluate your own life, as these types of films tend to make us reflect?
Well, I think what I was struck by towards the end was, what I said a moment ago, his grace and courage in the face of it, and the way he maintained his sense of humour to the end. But I think the real lesson of the film, to me, in a way, was just the exuberant way in which Roger embraced life, and it’s something that I try to capture in this film – this sense of a life well lived. You know, he didn’t title his memoir “Life in Films”, he titled his memoir “Life Itself”, and I think that’s significant because he loved movies, of course, but he also loved life apart from movies. And his life apart from movies informed his love of movies.
And you see this in the part where he talks about meeting his wife, Chaz…
Oh my god, yes. I think he had many achievements, but I think Chaz was the most, maybe, life-changing chapter of his life. He found this incredible love. They were married for 22 years, so even though they found each other relatively late in life, they still had a significant life together, and it was pretty remarkable. Roger was someone who, at different stages of his life, managed to reinvent himself. But not reinvent him like Madonna reinvents herself, where you wonder if it’s the real Madonna or not. He managed to reinvent himself in ways that helped him grow and change in really wonderful ways. He reinvented himself when he left small-town Illinois, Chicago as a writer, and he reinvented himself as a film critic, and then he reinvented himself as an iconic celebrity film critic, and then, with the cancer, he became an inspiration for many people about how you cope with cancer. He reinvented himself when he met Chaz because he went from being a kind of confirmed bachelor to an extremely happy family man. His life was full of amazing turns and that’s what really, ultimately, made me want to make this movie.
And even when he realised his life was coming to an end, his spirit wasn’t broken and he was very accepting of it…
Yeah, and he said, “I’ve had a great life.” He realised that. Some people come to that realisation as life comes to an end and they get a different perspective and they look back. Many people don’t. But I think Roger didn’t have to get to the end of his life to realise what an extraordinary life he had. He lived it and he revelled in it.
Was Chaz opposed to the idea of the film, given its sensitive nature?
I think she was, absolutely, more protective of him because she was used to playing that role. He’s a famous guy but, by nature, very unguarded, and she loved him and wanted to protect him. I think that was a very wonderful trait for her, but I think when it came to the film, Roger was going to be Roger, and I think she came around to understanding that.
You mentioned in the Q&A after the screening that it was actually Gene Siskel and Ebert’s review of Hoop Dreams that put the film on the map and propelled it to the top at Sundance that year. Was that one of the things that led you to direct this film?
Well, i’m sure if you had asked Roger there were more names on the list, but I was fortunate enough to get the call. He really prized my work and prized the honesty of the work i’ve done, and so I certainly appreciated that. But I wouldn’t have made the film if all that interested me about him was that he was a great film critic and that he had been an important support in my career. I might have felt some obligation, like maybe I should do it, but I wouldn’t have done it. I had to read his memoir and see everything we’ve been talking about. That’s what really made me what to direct this movie.
Is there something that you want to say about the film that hasn’t already been said?
Well, it’s not like I haven’t said this, but often times when people interview me, they are fascinated with the cancer and they’re fascinated with the candour of how he dealt with that, so we spend a lot of time talking about that, which is great because I think it’s an important part of the film. I think sometimes what gets lost is just how entertaining and funny the film is. It’s a film that has a great deal of humour and it’s because his life was full of humour and full of funny situations, and his relationship with Gene Siskel was both intense and rather entertaining, and so I just want people to be reminded, when they read about it, that it’s not just a film about a courageous man suffering through cancer and dying, but that it is a pretty entertaining ride of a life story.
Obviously we’re here at Sheffield Doc/Fest and you’ve had a chance to watch a few films yourself… Does watching other documentaries inspire you much or do you already have an idea of where you’re going to go next?
I draw lots of inspiration from watching other films. When I was just starting the Ebert film I saw a film at IDFA (International Documentary Festival Amsterdam), a film made in Scotland called I Am Breathing. I thought it was a terrific film. It got the wheels turning. Here’s a man who’s dying… and at that time Roger wasn’t dying, but he was going through illness and coping with it, and I planned to film him dealing with it, and I wanted to deal with that and his past, and that’s a film that goes back between his present and his past, and that was great. I thought it was a beautifully sensitive, intimate portrait, you know, and I just really loved it. And so that was a great film, for example, for me to see, that really informed my process on the film I made, and that happens consistently.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Sheffield Doc/Fest 2014: Pulp

Sheffield Doc/Fest began on Saturday with the return of local legends Pulp, gathered to present Florian Habicht's doc Pulp: A Film about Life, Death and Supermarkets

This opening, taking place at Sheffield's City Hall, was a joyous occasion, full of local wit. Idiosyncratic national treasure frontman Jarvis Cocker entertained public and press outside with his dry humour, with extra atmosphere provided by the acapella choir.

While the film itself was not as in-depth as we would have liked, the event was still a touching celebration of both the power of documentary - with the well-chosen archive footage accurately capturing the passion and beauty of Pulp's era - and Sheffield, this medium-sized Northern city which produced such magic. 

An impressive opening, with a parallel screening also going on in last year's hot spot, the Devil's Arse in Castleton.