Monday, August 11, 2008
A Moon in the Gutter Q&A with Author Derek Hill on his Charlie Kaufman and Hollywood's Merry Band of Pranksters, Fabulists and Dreamers
Today I'm very excited to present another exclusive interview here at Moon in the Gutter for my readers to enjoy. This week I have the honor of sharing a Q&A I recently did with a writer I greatly admire named Derek Hill. Many of you will be familiar with Derek's work in print via publications like Video Watchdog and Videoscope, as well as his online activities which includes his terrific blog Detours.
This Q&A is mostly concerned though with Derek's new book, one of the first major publications centered on a very special and unique group of modern filmmakers. Entitled Charlie Kaufman and Hollywood's Merry Band of Pranksters, Fabulists and Dreamers, Derek's new book focuses on filmmakers like Sofia Coppola, Wes Anderson, David O. Russell and of course Charlie Kaufman among others. It promises to be an important work and I am thrilled to help promote it here. The book is already out in England and while the release date in the States wasn't supposed to be until September, it appears Amazon is already shipping it. Damn my luck for pre-ordering it from Deep Discount.
A big thanks to Derek for taking the time to do this. As I read over his answers, I realized we have a lot in common in our history of loving film as well as our shared admiration for this special group of filmmakers.
Moon in the Gutter: Derek, thanks for agreeing to do this. I greatly admire your writing and this is a real treat. Can you start out by giving us a little background on your life and work?
Derek Hill: Thank you very much for inviting me and thanks for the kind words. Briefly, regarding my background, I was until recently a resident of my native Portland, Oregon. Travelling has always been a vital element of my life, so I've uprooted again and I'm currently living in cloudy, rainy, rural Ireland. Hopefully, for the foreseeable future. As far as my writing background is concerned, I've been working in the trenches, so to speak, since 1989. Started reviewing books and movies (and getting paid) for small genre periodicals. But since 1999 I've written for a number of publications (print and online) such as Images—a Journal of Film and Popular Culture, The Third Alternative (a UK magazine now known as Black Static), Video Watchdog, VideoScope, among others. I was a regular DVD reviewer for the All Movie web site for a couple of years, and a book reviewer for Mystery Scene magazine. A little bit of everything, I guess. Oh, and then there's blogging, of course.
MITG: Who were some of the key influences that got you into writing, specifically writing about film. Was there a pivotal moment for you in your youth that captured your imagination?
DH: I wouldn't say there was one significant person who influenced me initially. I always wanted to be a writer and since films were ever-present in my life from an early age, I'd do things like "adapt" various novels into screenplay form. This was when I was eleven or twelve. At one point, I "adapted" a storyline from Creepy magazine into a script thinking if I could only get it into the hands of the right person, it would get made. My screenwriting ambitions sort of dimmed not long after that. My teens were pretty lost and reckless and for a time I didn't do much but get into trouble. I don't want to be melodramatic about this, but film became this sort of lifeline for me during a particularly bad couple of years in my late teens. I started engaging with films on a deeply personal level. Serious readers and music lovers do the same thing and it changes you, marks you, and there's no turning back after that.
In my early twenties I did what many film lovers (cineastes, cinephiles, obsessives) do, which is work at a good video store. It was either that or get a job at a good second-run cinema and I couldn't manage that. At the time, the store was one of the best, if not the best video store in Portland due to its extensive foreign, arthouse, and classic collections. I started filling in the gaps and furthering my own film education. Although I later took some extended studies film courses through Portland State taught by a great teacher (the film critic and writer Shawn Levy) that made me even more serious about writing film criticism, I soaked up more about cinema in those five years at the video store than anything else. Just to have access to so many different kinds of film was a great opportunity. Definitely a pivotal moment in its way.
Other than that, the most important film moment that happened to me was probably being taken to see Apocalypse Now during its original theatrical release when I was ten years old. I have no idea what my mom was thinking, but I'm glad she did it. I was changed from that moment on—or scarred depending on your viewpoint—and it was then that I realized that a movie could be more than a just a story, something to soothe you from daily reality. It completely warped me. I couldn't entirely go back to "kid movies" after that. It was like this weird rite of passage. Sure, I still watched what all the other kids were watching (The Muppet Movie, The Black Hole, Rocky II), but I was also supplementing it with stronger, more adult fare like Stanley Kubrick films and Mad Max and Monty Python films. So yeah, I can blame Francis Ford Coppola for my film-going degeneracy… as well as my mom.
MITG: Onto your upcoming book, first of all congratulations on it. I am greatly anticipating reading it as I think it's a fascinating idea and I believe that it's the first major book written on this important group of young American filmmakers. Can you tell us a bit about what inspired the book initially?
DR: Thanks. I just thought that there was a level of shared sensibilities at work. Defining these filmmakers under an "independent" film label or a "Sundance" label or what have you, seemed much too broad and erroneous for what I wanted to do. The through-lines connecting these filmmakers on thematic, character, and stylistic levels were more important to me. All of these filmmakers have distinctive approaches to storytelling and style, but I found that they were, for the most part, all attracted to angst-filled characters essentially in spiritual or existential conundrums. The majority of the films were essentially comedies, but there was a level of underlying seriousness or melancholy or philosophical soul searching that appealed to me that felt completely antithetical to everything else coming out of Hollywood… or anywhere else for that matter.
MITG: According to the reports I have read, the book is mainly concerned with the careers of Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze, Wes Anderson, Michel Gondry, David O. Russell, Richard Linklater and Sofia Coppola. It's an inspired group and I was wondering what the challenges were isolating this particular group at perhaps the expense of leaving out other modern major players like Paul Thomas Anderson?
DH: It was difficult. I wanted to add more filmmakers to the mix, but for the sake of some semblance of thematic consistency and the fact that I had a word count limit, I had to keep it focused. Certainly, filmmakers such as PT Anderson (Punch-Drunk Love is examined, though, in the last part of the book devoted to singular films by other directors that have similar angsty/surreal/comedic themes) and Quentin Tarantino could be legitimately argued for, I guess. Using Linklater as a bridge between the independent filmmakers of the 1980s and early 1990s and the post-Tarantino independent film scene, my intention was to localize it to a group of American directors (Michel Gondry excepted) that were blurring the lines between drama, comedy, fantasy, science fiction, what have you.
It made sense to me to focus on Charlie Kaufman as the center of it all, due to the impact his screenplays have had on audiences, critics, and other screenwriters. In the latter case, I wouldn't say that other screenwriters are necessarily influenced by him in an imitative sense--story construction or narrative themes, though that one Will Ferrell movie seems awfully Kaufmanesque in a blatant, watered down way--but Kaufman has raised the bar for what you can do within the constraints of a seemingly idea-barren Hollywood commercial system. Kaufman is perhaps not a household name (I'm not sure that could ever happen in this day and age) but he is the first real screenwriting "superstar" we've had since Robert Towne, judged for his actual talent and not for how much money he's being paid. And now that Kaufman is directing, we might see a fully-fledged great filmmaker emerge. I thought about putting Alexander Payne in the book, but again, I wanted to focus on filmmakers that had shared comedic sensibilities in many ways or who were latching onto similar strange thematic currents or tonal ones. So in that respect, having narrowed it down to those parameters, I was able to pare it down.
MITG: Of the main filmmakers the book covers do you have a personal favorite? I must admit that I love the entire group, with probably Coppola being the one I admire the most. Outside of a personal favorite, is there one that kind of stands out to you as being perhaps the most important culturally?
DH: When I started on the book, I was partial to Linklater and Coppola. Still am. But I really fell in love with Wes Anderson's work. I had always liked his films, but I felt distanced from them to a degree, shut off from their emotional core until I saw Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou back in 2004.
Everything shifted after that point and I'm a great admirer of all his films now. I'm not sure if any of them will influence other filmmakers in the manner that the nouvelle vague or New Hollywood did for subsequent generations. Perhaps on a superficial level the influence is there, with advertising and other films (Napoleon Dynamite, Garden State, Juno, Stranger Than Fiction, Shopgirl) appropriating stylistic mannerisms and such. But I don't see anyone racing out to become the next Linklater, Anderson, or David O. Russell. What I hope is that young filmmakers will be inspired by their work and simply forge their own paths, find their own stories to tell. On that level, I hope that these filmmakers cast a larger role within the culture.
MITG: I strongly believe that time will someday recognize the mid to late nineties as a key period in American film history. Without giving anything away from your book how do you think this period compares with other already noted movements such as The French New Wave and the various independent movements in American cinema from the late sixties and early seventies?
DH: It's an unconscious movement to be sure, but I think there's a strong philosophical and thematic connection between these filmmakers and New Hollywood and to the earlier nouvelle vague. I think the playfulness, from either a narrative or stylistic standpoint, that shapes many of the films in my book is directly tied to the nouvelle vague. That sense of experimentation--albeit on a much more expansive and expensive level than anything Godard or Truffaut had access to—was a defining feature of the earlier French wave. The desire to ground many of the stories within the framework of gritty, "everyday" reality, but then shifting the parameters into something more theatrical, absurd, or outright fantastical seems to me linked with the French directors, specifically Godard. But it's definitely more of a "spiritual" influence, I think, than some kind of direct correlation. Same with the New Hollywood influence. It's there, obviously, especially in the sense that all of the filmmakers in my book (except for Linklater) are routinely working within the constraints of the Hollywood (either with the major studios or with one of their "independent" divisions) machine. There have certainly been problems, failures, missteps along the way, but they're still getting their visions out there intact. Film movements are a romantic notion. I'm not sure cinema is capable of moving us on the same expansive cultural level that it did decades ago. There are simply too many other distractions for our entertainment cash. But whenever you least expect it, another wave comes crashing down. A Dogma 95 emerges fully formed or a "mumblecore" or something strange and beautifully unintentional like the directors in my book. The medium is always changing, so I guess the expectations should as well.
MITG: The book is already out in Britain. How has the reception there been? Do you find, in general, that these filmmaker's more provocative works have been more accepted outside the states?
DH: The worst I know of was from some woman reviewing for a UK daily tabloid who hadn't read the book, didn't understand the title (which is a play on John Pierson's book Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema, something she obviously didn't get) and asserted that I'd written the book as an excuse to trawl through my DVD collection. I only wish I'd thought of writing about films I already owned--it would have saved me a lot of expense and research time tracking down all the films! Then again, I guess making things up is part of the training for tabloid writers. But other than that the book is doing well over here and I've received some very nice email from readers who were familiar with one or two of the filmmakers but maybe didn't know anything about the others or the nouvelle vague. Now they're exploring the work of Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, Rohmer, and others. That's extremely gratifying, since those filmmakers are unjustly relegated, I think, to the pantheon of the unapproachable for many people… when they're anything but. So, I couldn't be happier. And the reviews have ranged from the good/decent (Total Film) to the great (Empire).
MITG: Can you tell me a bit about your research methods in writing the book? Is it a specifically critical guide or were there any interviews conducted for it?
Also, did you have any trouble securing a publisher for it considering this isn't a movement that has reached universal acceptance?
DH: I had no problems with my publisher. My editor at Kamera was immediately receptive to the idea and enthusiastic and supportive through the entire project, so I was left alone. There were interviews planned, but not everyone answered my interview requests and the ones that did eventually had to drop out due to their own work commitments. I was disappointed, but I honestly don't think it hurts the book. Hopefully, if I get a chance to do a revised version in years to come, we can finally get those interviews in there.
MITG: What are your hopes for the book and are you happy with the way it came out?
DH: Yeah, I'm happy with it. There are perhaps things I would do differently now, but I think it reflects what I set out to accomplish. I wish it could have been longer… though maybe no one else does.
MITG: Finally can you tell us about some of your future plans?
DH: Well, I'm writing a book on Alex Cox's film Repo Man for Wallflower Press' Cultographies series, though it won't be out for a few years. Also, I'm hoping to write another book for Kamera on contemporary dark filmmakers—directors such as David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky, Guillermo Del Toro, Michael Haneke, Gaspar Noe, and Park Chan-wook. I have a couple of proposals with publishers at the moment for other books, one being on a specific director and another on a specific film. And I would certainly never say no to working on a longer book focusing on any of the directors I just dealt with. I get a feeling that I haven't yet heard the last of them. I'm also working on a crime novel while waiting for one or more of the above projects to come through, so I'm trying to keep busy.
MITG: Thanks so much Derek for taking the time to do this...I can't tell you how much I appreciate it.
DH: You're welcome, Jeremy. Thanks again for inviting me to your great site. Cheers!