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Paths of Glory: Robert Fisk on film

An interview with journalist Robert Fisk, in New Zealand to talk about his new book, The Great War for Civilisation, and present his 1993 documentary From Beirut to Bosnia. Photography by Catherine Bisley.

Robert Fisk removes his shoe and slaps and shakes it vigorously, as if trying to remove a stone. He’s re-enacting an incident in epic World War II film Kanal: as the Polish resistance emerges from Warsaw’s sewers, they see a boy perched on a barricade as Nazi shells whoosh past, attempting what Fisk is demonstrating. “I’ve seen people in wars, in obvious great danger, preoccupied by some domestic thing.”

It’s a daunting privilege interviewing Fisk. I worried he might lambaste me for ignorance, as John Pilger did to Kim Hill. “Have you read it?” Fisk asks immediately, glancing at his 1366-page tome The Great War For Civilisation. “A lot of it.” He seems satisfied. Pilger comes up later: “The one thing I try to avoid is people who want to try and co-opt me into causes.”

Fisk, 59, maintaining his gruelling workload in Wellington, appears exhausted. Once the interview begins, however, he is gregarious and committed, animated and passionate, witty and urbane.

Fisk’s vivid, vital book has lots of references to films; he seems passionate about the medium. Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent inspired him to be a journalist. What are some other films that inspired and inspire him? Fisk lights up, enthusiastically reeling off a great list of titles, which include A Man For All Seasons, A Bridge Too Far, and the two films that accompany Kanal in Pole Andrzej Wajda’s World War Two trilogy, A Generation and Ashes and Diamonds.

Nobody’s perfect, but The Independent’s Middle East correspondent’s skill, originality, fearlessness, and tenacity on the ground make him one of the greats. He reported Iranian troops being gassed by Saddam Hussein (then backed by Rumsfeld and Ronald Reagan), chronicling their deaths by coughs of blood and mucus. He exposed America’s Abu Ghraib-style torture in Iraq. He’s interviewed Osama Bin Laden three times—terrifically evocative, riveting reportage, which opens The Great War For Civilisation. “You couldn’t write that with Google.”

A deep sense of history moves through Fisk. “I tell you the movie which really does capture war, the issue of conflict and the ways it affects human beings—apart from Downfall—is Paths of Glory. Kirk Douglas and that terrible story of the three men who were executed for cowardice: that’s the Battle of Verdun.”

Fisk (PhD History) has a richly cultured British voice, which polishes his words. War, he believes, represents the total failure of the human spirit. Downfall, which following the last days of Hitler, captures this. “The fall of Berlin is pretty accurate.”

Fisk, whom the actor John Malkovich famously said he would like to kill, is enthusiastic about contemporary films. “Most recently, I liked Syriana, but it wasn’t as good as I would have liked it... I think Paradise Now is an excellent film, the story of two potential suicide bombers, one of whom is of course a suicide bomber. There was so much in it, you kept having to go back over it and over it again to understand.”

Kingdom of Heaven, Ridley Scott’s tale of the crusades, also impresses Fisk with its contemporary resonances, such as the drive for imperial power. “I thought Kingdom of Heaven was a very fine film. I think there were things that were clearly wrong with it—the fact that the great speech is given to Balian of Ibelin, that we don’t have a great speech from Saladin—[but] there’s that wonderful scene in end when Balian makes terms with Saladin and he turns and says ‘What does Jerusalem mean to you?’ Saladin says ‘Nothing... Everything’. He’s played by this very famous Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud, whom I know quite well, who’s very anti-Bush by the way.”

Fisk furiously bears witness to Bush’s obscenity, but he’s not inherently anti-American. On page 1151 of his book he responds to Donald Rumsfeld’s insidious slurs about France and Germany as ‘old Europe’, “It was Rumsfeld and Bush who represented the ‘old’ America; not the ‘new’ America of freedom, the America of F.D. Roosevelt.”

Fisk’s account of watching Kingdom of Heaven in a Muslim part of his home base of Beirut is illuminating. “It was very interesting to watch the audience. Everytime Saladin did something merciful they stood up and clapped. When he offered his doctors to the King of Jerusalem, who of course was a Christian crusader, they cheered. And the same when at the end of the film he goes into Jerusalem—they’ve captured it—he picks up a crucifix and puts it back on the altar, and they all stood up and clapped. All Muslims, very interesting—the flipside of the fear of Muslims thing.”

Good Night, and Good Luck is another film he recommends. “It’s spot on for now. I saw it in America. It was like watching the present day.” Fisk says the labelling of “criticism as unpatriotic” and journalists unable (or unwilling) to monitor the centres of power—which director George Clooney analyses—are the biggest problems the American media faces.

However, truth isn’t necessarily enough; he cites Jarhead, about the 1991 Gulf War. “Very self-regarding, unsatisfying. It left me with the same coldness of heart as Pearl Harbour did.”

Fisk relates to the ordinary immediacy and urgency of docudramas like The Battle of Algiers and Kandahar. “I thought Kandahar’s power come from the fact that they were real people. Nelofer Pazira is a Canadian [-Afghani] journalist... the Imam teaching the children how to use the Kalashnikov, that is what he does, the boy who collects jewellery from the skeletons of people who die in the desert, that’s actually what he does.”

Talking of Algeria, Ahmed Zaoui recently gained another supporter. Fisk visited him at St Benedict’s Dominican Priory in Auckland, describing the man as “intrinsically decent” and the situation as “very farcical” on National Radio.

The seven-time winner of International Journalist of the Year at the British Press Awards (dubbed the Oscars of British journalism), Fisk is Britain’s most celebrated foreign correspondent. “It’s very lonely.” Despite his legendary, even saintly reputation (striking at his Writers and Readers week sessions), Fisk expresses doubts about thirty years covering people drowning in misery and bloodshed. “You can’t wind the movie back and start again, and you do ask yourself what you’ve lost.” After a second, short interview two days later, Fisk, who is sans wife and family, addresses his last words to my photographer sister: “What’s it like having him as a brother?” Like Clint Eastwood’s God’s Loneliest Man in Million Dollar Baby, there’s something tragic about his role.

Thankfully Fisk, who’s writing his magisterial piece on the third anniversary of the American-led invasion of Iraq around the day’s interviews, has no plans to hang up his gloves and leave the ring. This unrelenting journalist, returning to Beirut and Baghdad, has one particular production he wants no part in. “Tony Blair, can you please remove all the British troops from Iraq?” he imagines himself on video, after being kidnapped by decapitating militants. What scares him most, he laughs bitterly, is imagining Mr. Blair’s response watching that tape.

In another life, he would have written screenplays. “I’ve helped write several screenplays recently, one in particular. I think the film world is very corrupt—I know it is—and I think it’s a very depressing world because you can write and rewrite scripts and then even if a film gets made it’s not certain of any distribution, most films aren’t ever seen as you know... People who want to make good movies end up on these ridiculous tight budgets and people slosh around this huge money for crap. But that’s always been the way in Tinseltown hasn’t it?”

Fisk is intoxicated by the possibilities of movies. “The sign of a good film is when you wake up in the morning thinking about it... I think film has an unstoppable power to convince if it’s properly made. When I was at school I wanted to be a film critic.

“I write about films quite a lot in The Independent. I wrote about Munich at great length... Spielberg’s movie has crossed a fundamental roadway in Hollywood’s treatment of the Middle East conflict.”

Fisk, who is not a fan of Michael Moore, wrote and presented 1993’s under-screened From Beirut to Bosnia. At a packed screening of this eye-opening documentary at the Paramount on Sunday, he sits modestly on the ground, front-left aisle. He approaches me. “Has Munich screened here yet?”

From Beirut to Bosnia strikingly shows Muslim suffering, explaining why there is unhappiness with the West. There are horrific, unflinchingly filmed, images, such as a Lebanese baby that has been hit by an Israeli bomb, and looks like a crushed loaf of bread. (Bizarrely, the Paramount does a roaring trade in boysenberry ice creams.)

Fisk is unapologetic. “This is what I see.”

So Fisk can’t tell us a lot about his secretive film project? “No nothing.” We could probably make some guesses about the themes? “No, you couldn’t make ‘em.”

Fisk, the stone in the boot of Blair and Bush, can tell me about the documentary he’s making, though. After my interview, he’s off to film the words of Ataturk, Turkish commander at Gallipoli and founder of modern Turkey, which appear on the cathartic Ataturk Memorial at Wellington’s Tarakina Bay: “There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us… You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and at peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons too.”

IMAGES © Catherine Bisley 2006. All Rights Reserved.

Alexander Bisley interviewed Robert Fisk in Wellington on March 17, 2006. Significant additions and amendments have been made to this article originally published in The Dominion Post on March 21, 2006.

2006-04-02 · Permalink · FILM Features Interviews Photo Essays

Laurie David: Pretty, Pretty, Pretty Good

A chat with Laurie David, environmental activist and producer of seminal climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Illustration by Elina Nykänen.

On Curb Your Enthusiasm, Laurie David laughs warmly. “Cheryl is Larry [David]’s fantasy wife, a fantasy version of me.”

David, initiator and producer of classic climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth, is a formidable presence, even over the phone. I’m half awake, in the shower, and nervous as hell, when an American lady rings. Luckily, it’s only David’s assistant Claire (“So sorry to interrupt you before you’ve had your coffee”) wanting to reschedule my interview with Larry David’s wife. David rings back soon to discuss her urgent work, smartly structured around a convincing lecture Al Gore has devoted much of his life to.

I tell her Prime Minister Helen Clark was taken with the documentary, and arranged a special screening for Parliament’s MPs and government officials. “I want to write about this,” David exclaims very excitedly. “Our President refuses to see it.” New Zealand Leader Embraces ‘Truth’, U.S. President Ignores, David then titled her blog, concluding “There’s no better way for President Bush to commemorate the tragedy of [Hurricane] Katrina than to see this film now.”

Katrina was a “seminal moment for Americans,” David tells me. “Why were the oceans abnormally warm?... We have had Hurricane Katrina, record heatwaves, people are starting to ask, why is all this happening?”

Americans have flocked to An Inconvenient Truth, then the third most commercially successful documentary of all time. It rehabilitated Al Gore, made him cool. David fervently hopes the burgeoning groundswell will persuade him to run for high office again. He pretends his cellphone’s broken when she asks him about it. “I believe he has no plans to run at this stage.”

An Inconvenient Truth highlights how Tuvaluans have already had to flee to New Zealand due to rising water levels. “It affects all of us,” David says. Auckland’s Flux Animation Studio animated two scenes including one of David’s favourites, where a polar bear drowns searching for an ice flow.

David takes the media to task for their misrepresentation of global warming (“Out of 925 recent articles in peer-review scientific journals about global warming, there was no disagreement”) and Gore. “I blame the media. The ten second soundbite. This is the same Gore he’s always been.”

Conservatives used to believe in conserving the environment, but they’ve lost it. “They’ve really gone astray, we’re destroying our forests, wetlands, climate.” David’s approach to combating global warming is non-partisan. “It’s not a political issue, it’s a moral issue.” With Republican Senator John McCain and Robert F. Kennedy Jr, she formed popular Stop Global Warming, a virtual march on Washington (to conserve fossil fuels).

“She can get any studio head on the telephone within a few minutes, and virtually any Hollywood celebrity,” Kennedy tolf Rolling Stone. “She’s opened up new corridors of power to the environmental movement.”

David is coy about the surge in political documentary, endorsing “the right issues at the right time when done well.” Her favourites include Who Killed the Electric Car? and The Man From Flint’s oeuvre. “Michael Moore makes great documentaries.” She’s forgiven him for campaigning for Ralph Nader and against Gore in 2000. “We all make mistakes.”

David urges people to make steps to reduce their environmental impact, following the mantra of her book The Solution is You! “Not to do everything. Everyone to do something. Tell people. Word of mouth’s what’s spreading it.” David dismisses sanctimonious, unhelpful environmental-leftist purism. “It’s not all or nothing.”

David’s passion is infectious. She even got the notoriously lazy Larry—“My toilet paper’s been changed. That’s been a hell of a struggle”—so enthusiastic he campaigns for environmental causes. She says he will stump for Gore if he runs again. “Absolutely. We’ll be the first two to sign up to help him.” Curb Your Enthusiasm, where Larry pointedly drives a Toyota Prius Hybrid, is peppered with references to David’s environmentalism, her NRDC (National Resources Defence Council) role. There’s no greater present Larry can give her than a Curb mention, David says. “I’ve alleviated the stress of him coming up with the right present.”

ILLUSTRATION © Elina Nykänen 2015. All Rights Reserved.

A version of this article was first published in The Press in 2006. Read more from Laurie David at

2006-09-30 · Permalink · FILM Features Interviews Illustration

Moolaadé (2004); Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring (2003)

Recently at the Wellington Film Society: Sembene’s swansong, Kim Ki-duk’s four seasons.

Moolaadé was the last film from Ousmane Sembene, the Senegalese father of African cinema. The rebel with a cause went out in style. Expelled from a conservative school, Sembene forged a saw-toothed, egalitarian consciousness as an immigrant Marseille dockworker. He damn near perfected art as politics with Moolaadé, a rousing film that recommends itself also on purely aesthetic grounds.

Four little girls ask Colle (Fatoumata Coulibaly) for moolaade (protection) from “purification” (genital mutilation), which she grants them. The village’s chiefs are seriously grumpy, but feisty Colle won’t relent.

It’s facile to make a depressing film that just allows privileged audiences to confirm their predetermined moral superiority and capacity to pity. Unlike the plodding, turgid Vera Drake, Sembene’s aim is more ambitious and nuanced: a provocative, unpredictable feel-good movie. Moolaadé is full of life, vibrancy, girl-power and optimism. It’s even, occasionally, genuinely funny, recalling Xala, his scornful satire of Africa’s black elite.

Like Abouna, 2003’s Chadian masterpiece, it looks beautiful, gently complemented by African music. In probably his best film over a five decade career, Sembene’s belief in ordinary people’s daily heroism is palpable; Colle’s courage is quite inspiring. Sembene affectingly proves one can at once be a patriarch and a feminist. He’s scathingly critical of African sexism; he also nimbly pays tribute to the colourful, traditional charms of an African village.

The remarkable mosque, which is anciently old but kinda looks avante-garde, features in Moolaadé’s hopeful final image.

*  *  *

Simple in its means yet cosmic in its scope, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring is transcendent. The lovely film, seasonally structured, meditates on a cute child’s way to nirvana, instructed by a wise old Buddhist monk. They live on a floating temple in the middle of an isolated, bucolic lake. As with his wrenching The Isle, Kim Ki-duk’s visual rhythms are innovative and beautifully hypnotic.

The indelible images include the child attaching stones to frogs and snakes with puckish glee, the adolescent sneaking under the covers with his girlfriend and the old man’s last scene. As well as understanding aggression and redemption, Spring has a sprightly sense of humour and a beguiling, low key eroticism. As in the similarly enticing Last Life in the Universe, violence lurks beneath the serene surface.

Excitingly, New Zealand and Korea signed a 2008 film co-production agreement (Korea’s only other co-production is with France). Korean films shot (partly/completely) here include: Bungee Jumping of Their Own, Antarctic Journal, Silmido, Laundry Warrior and, most notably, Old Boy’s epilogue. (Black Sheep was part-financed by Park Chan-wook’s Daesung Group, as part of a business alliance with Park Road Post.) I’d like Kim Ki-Duk to direct Rain Redux!

Film Societies in twelve centres run an annual programme of weekly/bi-monthly film screenings. Membership entitles the holder free admission to screenings for a 12-month period. Further details are available online at For information about a film society closest to you, visit the New Zealand Federation of Film Societies.

2009-11-11 · Permalink · FILM Film Society

The Quiet Revolutionary

Talking Dreams From My Father, In Cold Blood, Noam Chomsky, and Michael Moore with Hendrik Hertzberg, Chief Political Writer for the New Yorkerand author of Obamanos!.

Hertzberg is among the very best... the intellectual scrupulosity, the innate scepticism, the uncommon journalistic modesty, the unfailing common sense, the strong sentences, the wit, and the dedication to justice and fair play,” Phillip Roth endorses Politics. Hertzberg’s 651-page masterwork features terrific dispatches from the 1960s (a superb, lissom demolition of the idiotic Weatherman) to George W Bush. Obamanos!: The Birth of a New Political Era covers the times since. His blog and online forums nail important issues such as the Cordoba mosque. In person, Rick is as eloquent, witty, and affable as through his writing. Additional illustration by Matt Kambic.

*   *   *

ALEXANDER BISLEY: You’ve argued passionately that Bush becoming President in 2000 was a coup d’état; that fact seems to be something that many liberal columnists have difficulty acknowledging publicly.

RICK HERTZBERG: They do, and I think it’s clear why they have that difficulty. It’s too awful a reality to face. We’re invested in the wonderfulness of our system and our Constitution and the way we do things. And the idea that somehow a coup d’état could have occurred is just too horrible a thought to have. The idea that we might be as vulnerable to that sort of thing in ways that we associate with places like Venezuela is something that no one wants to face. And both sides had an incentive to ignore it—a short-term incentive, anyway.  The Democrats would have been attacked as bad sports and sore losers if they had harped on the undemocraticness of Gore’s defeat. And the Republicans didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that they had actually lost the election.  So nobody really talked about it, and there was no agitation to do anything about it, the way there had been after previous very close elections. After the 1960 election, the 1968 election and the 1976 election, there were strong moves toward doing something about the electoral college system. Very strong moves, especially after ’68. And we came very close to actually dumping the Electoral College.

AB: In Fahrenheit 9/11 Michael Moore highlighted it was mainly African American Congresspeople challenging the 2000 election theft. That was a good part of the film, didn’t you think?

RH: I did indeed. I am sort of a 65% admirer of Michael Moore. The film he made about healthcare was up in the 90% category. I thought he indulged the worst side of himself in presenting Cuba as the Promised Land. He already had France. By then he’d made the case, it was a slam dunk. And bringing up Cuba was gratuitous and unconvincing. But Moore kept his eye on the ball about what happened in the 2000 election and I think it’s dangerous that we haven’t. I spend my spare time, what little I have outside of family and my job, working to try and get the Electoral College changed. Not actually changed, but have a gimmick that will enable us to elect a president in a normal fashion. I write about it a lot on my blog.

AB: I’ve read it.

RH:  You know what I’m talking about. I think that is the one practical reform proposal that would make a profound difference and that also has a chance of enactment. You know, I was eager to come to New Zealand largely because of New Zealand being the country whose revolution consisted of bringing in proportional representation. That’s my kind of revolution. I’m here partly to find out how much of that is my romantic fantasy and how much there’s something to it. I guess the purpose of our conversation here isn’t for you to tell me but for me to tell you, but I’d be interested in what you think about that.

AB: I’m not an expert on MMP. No system is perfect, but I think it’s significantly fairer than what we had previously. Interestingly, there’s going to be a referendum on it.

RH:  What do you think will happen?

AB:  Not sure. It was very close last time.

RH: It was. I think that either it won’t be abolished or this is the last chance to reverse this revolution, this quiet revolution. Am I wrong to think of it that way?
“I am sort of a 65% admirer of Michael Moore. I thought he indulged the worst side of himself in presenting Cuba as the Promised Land in Sicko. But Moore kept his eye on the ball about what happened in the 2000 election and I think it’s dangerous that we haven’t.”

AB: One of the ironies of MMP was a coalition of businesses and conservative interests. Led by a tycoon called Peter Shirtcliffe, they spent a huge amount of money in the lead-up to the referendum demagoguing against it. It’s been argued that it was them putting all that money against it backfired. It’s a popular system. It’s popular among young people, because young people are more liberal, and a more representative system has seen much greater amounts of Maori, Polynesian, young people, women. New Zealand is now one of the most representative democracies in the world.

RH: What about these right-wingers in that little right-wing party, ACT? Don’t they like it too?

AB: That’s the curious irony. They wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for MMP. I don’t understand how that sort of silly cognitive dissonance works.

RH: ACT is against the system?

AB: They have been hard against it in the past. More recently they’ve become less critical.

RH: I bet, I bet. Now that they’ve discovered that the tail’s swinging the dog… I’ve got the feeling Prime Minister John Key understands that his party have actually got ways they can work with people they normally wouldn’t work with. They can pat the Greens on the head and the Greens all purr.

AB: John Key HQ is a very slick operation and they’ve managed to work with other parties, including the Greens and the Maori Party.

RH: It may not get them any more support from people who are strongly Green-minded or Maori Party-minded, but I bet it will get them some from nice suburban ladies who wouldn’t like it if they were just clubbing the Greens like they were baby seals.

AB: Dreams From My Father is very impressive isn’t it?

RH: If Obama’s even a halfway successful President, that book will be a part of the American literary canon. Because it matters not just how good a book is, but who wrote it in certain circumstances. Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs are a part of the literary canon; they probably wouldn’t be if Ulysses S. Grant had not been who he was, just on merit alone. As for Dreams From My Father, I wouldn’t necessarily argue that strictly on its literary merits it deserves to be in the pantheon, but it is a work of genuine literary merit. And it casts more light on the person who wrote it than any other American political autobiography. I can’t think of any parallel to it. You can look at the early writings of Theodore Roosevelt and you get some idea of who Theodore Roosevelt was. You certainly get an idea that he was energetic and protean. But you don’t really get that much of a glimpse into his soul the way you do with Dreams From My Father. Wonderful book.

The Audacity of Hope’s good too. And there’ll be more, if he manages to live through his four or eight years. He’ll still be a young man as a former president, and I expect that he’ll do a lot of writing. Jimmy Carter has made a living as a writer. He’s actually—weirdly, except for Grant, Carter is the only former president who’s made his living as a freelance writer. Partly that’s because he’s chosen not to be on corporate boards and be a consultant to the Saudis, or give speeches for huge amounts of money—the sort of thing that former presidents typically do. And he writes these books himself. And some of them are not bad.

AB: “Rick Hertzberg is the most eloquent defender of mainstream American liberalism writing today,” Michael Kinsley describes Politics. What do you want an audience to take away from reading it?

RH: I guess it’s the idea that you can be fiercely in favour of social justice and what you might call social refinement and tolerance and secular humanism and all the things like that, without being overly moralistic and judgmental about politicians. And that—it’s a small point, but not all that many people make it as boringly and repetitively as I do—that politicians really are not that bad. Actually I think they are, on the whole, better than average people. And that before you denounce some politicians, put yourself in their shoes and imagine—how many of us regularly do things that would enrage our employer and get us fired from our job? And it’s a real problem in the United States more than other democracies, I think, because of how outdated and full of perverse incentives the particular mechanics of our system are, that our system doesn’t properly harness the natural cowardice of human beings. And it should. I like to think—maybe it’s a fantasy of mine—that other kinds of democratic arrangements like the one you’ve got actually take advantage of the banality of politicians, which is just a subset of the banality of human beings generally, to make it come out in the public interest.

You know, the way markets are supposed to work. We have no problem with markets, and understanding that at least in theory, the combined selfishness of everybody can result in some socially advantageous results. But when it comes to politics, we at least in the US, we say, “That guy, all he ever thinks about is re-election.” Well, yeah. That’s supposed to be how it works. He’s supposed to think about re-election, and that way he’ll do what the people want and therefore the people would be able to govern through their politicians. It’s just that our system is shot through with peculiarities that mean that cowardice will lead them to do things that are not in the interests of the people—that are in the interests of some narrow group that has its finger on the jugular. That’s the take away, I hope.
“I’ve got the feeling Prime Minister John Key understands that his party have actually got ways they can work with people they normally wouldn’t work with. They can pat the Greens on the head and the Greens all purr.”

AB: You were working for the New Yorker when Truman Capote was writing In Cold Blood?

RH: There were some internal complaints about that. The New Yorker’s usual rigorous editing standards weren’t applied.

AB: I’m pleased you’ve criticised the brutal treatment people get at LA airport.

RH: I think it was pretty brutal even before September 11, 2001. 9/11 isn’t really an excuse—it was awful before, it got a little more awful after. I hate that; we don’t mean to be so unfriendly, it’s just that there’s no-one being rewarded for being friendly. I assume that here, if a whole bunch of foreigners complain “We don’t like the way we’re treated when we come to your country,” the government will hasten to do something about it. But no, not there. There are a bunch of foreigners, and not that many of them, and not much of our economy depends on it, so why bother?

AB: It’s a shame, because even Republicans who I’ve met and disagreed with, they don’t seem innately hostile and gratuitously rude!

RH: No they’re not. It’s the system of randomly thrown together incentives. So many of our problems in the United States are due to having too many governments. There’s probably a half-dozen governments involved in airports.  And all of them kind of independent of each other, none of them responsible for the whole thing. And this is such a pattern for us. It’s one reason why Americans have this feeling of being over-governed and over-taxed, even though by international standards they’re under-governed and under-taxed. It’s because the whole pile of machinery is so incredibly clumsy. But we don’t think in those terms. That kind of analysis is, I keep harping on about it, but not too many other people do.

AB: I like that Obama is looking at areas where savings could be made, as well as lots of great new spending.

RH: Well, systemic things, like his plans for computerising health records. I’ve wondered for years why we weren’t doing that. It seems a pretty obvious thing that if you can put everybody’s health records in one big database, then unexpected patterns will emerge. Often a drug, for example, is introduced for one purpose and then it turns out to have what are first thought of as side effects to the therapeutic effect, something entirely different. I think we’d be able to find all sorts of patterns about diet and exercise but also about pharmaceuticals and life habits and all kinds of things that either make you unhealthy or make you healthy. And encouraging people to do the things that makes them healthy is a lot cheaper than waiting until they become deathly ill and putting them on life support. I think Obama does have—well, maybe I’m just projecting on him, we do that with politicians we like—but I think he has a sort of systemic view of things, and a longer horizon about cause and effect. So he’ll do something now that he doesn’t expect to see the results of for a couple of years. And he may even have already discounted the short-term political trouble, whatever it is it’s going to cost him, because the ship will come in.

AB: Your op-eds, such as the importance of gun control, are incisive.

RH: Gun control legislation isn’t on the cards at the moment. I don’t know what it will take to reinstate the assault weapons ban. It might require two or three more large-scale massacres, something like that. But Democrats are so thoroughly traumatised by what happened to them in the wake of that particular former assault weapons ban, they stay away from it like a cow staying away from an electric fence. More than they need to. There are plenty of other reasons why the Democrats lost the 1994 election, the one after Clinton was elected. Plenty of other reasons, especially the failure of the healthcare plan. Particular people lost particular seats over that issue.

And it’s the advantage that any group has that is willing to essentially be political suicide bombers over a single issue—there’s obviously 70% of the American public that would like to ban assault weapons, but the 30% who wouldn’t are willing to vote on these issues. They’re willing to put everything else aside and vote strictly on that issue. And we aren’t, the rest of us, the 70%. We’ll vote for somebody who won’t ban assault weapons—just like I voted for, we voted for, Bill Clinton, even though he was for capital punishment. Or said he was for capital punishment; I don’t believe for a minute he was in favour of capital punishment. But he said he was, and well all understood why he was saying that. And we gave him a pass on it. But the National Rifle Association doesn’t give passes.

AB: Jesse Jackson Jr. features in one of Politics’ memorable pieces. He should have been Obama’s replacement, it’s a shame that didn’t happen after Blago.

RH: That was really heartbreaking. I’m not sure how much, how seriously, they take the notion that he did anything wrong. But he certainly got into a lot of trouble. The atmospherics were all wrong, and it was enough to set his career back, whether permanently or temporarily, I don’t know. I had, and still to some extent have high hopes for Jesse Jackson Jr. It just happens that he happens to be interested in the same weirdo issues. I’m on the board of this organisation called Fair Vote that promotes electoral reform, and he was on the board of it. He’s for the national popular vote plan, he’s for instant run-off voting, he’s for proportional representation, all the things I’m for. So it was particularly wounding for me to see him derailed like that. I think he would have been a terrific senator.

AB: It’s not over yet, is it?

RH: I guess not. He’s still pretty young. The Illinois electorate has been known to overlook certain kinds of alleged misbehaviour. He could still have a future.  It’s just a bit farther down the road.

AB: Rush Limbaugh is such an obnoxious figure.

RH: Really so much worse than you can imagine. I do sometimes listen to these guys on the radio, and they are—Rush is not even the worst of them. Michael Savage is probably the worst. Mark Levin is another one who’s hard to distinguish from Michael Savage—they both have a whiny, insinuating, snake-like quality. Rush has a sort of rich avuncular tone. And so if you didn’t speak English you might actually find his voice pleasant to listen to. But with Savage and Levin, you don’t even have to speak English to know that these guys are scumbags.

AB: Why is Noam Chomsky still popular?

RH: He’s a niche product like Rush Limbaugh is. I mean, obviously Noam Chomsky is a hell of a lot smarter than Rush Limbaugh, and maybe I’m being unjust to him. I have to admit that I haven’t read his books. I’ve listened to two or three of his very long lectures.

AB: I’m not a fan.

RH: The problem is he always ends up in the same place no matter what the circumstances. And it’s always the evilness and awfulness of the United States and its ruling circles that is the explanation for everything. And I just have a problem with any ideology that no matter what the input is, the output’s always the same.

AB: His worldview seems bereft of nuance.

RH: It does, and in that sense it’s very much like the worldview of the hard ideological right, which also always yields the same output. No matter what you put into it, it always comes out with lower taxes. That’s the answer to every problem. How can the same thing be the answer to every problem?

AB: It seems to me that he’s obviously more intelligent and does more research, but at the end there’s that same sort of ideological straightjacket—almost like Ann Coulter.

RH: That’s right. And you point to your voluminous footnotes as proof that you’re right. Which is actually what you hear Ann Coulter herself point to, her footnotes. The footnotes may all only be to Human Events and, but they are footnotes. The disease happens at the moment, and it has been for a generation, inflicted on the right more than the left. I think there was a time when it inflicted the left more than the right, but not in the memory of anybody under 40 years old. I can remember when left-wing rigidity and arrogance was a genuine problem, but it’s been a hell of a long time since that’s what we needed to worry about. And I don’t see that Chomsky’s got a hell of a lot of influence on the left.

AB: Do you think there’s going to be a significant further-left challenge to Obama in 2012?

RH: I doubt it.

AB: Obviously no one in their right mind can take Ralph Nader seriously, but someone else?

RH: If two things happen—if his economic policies do not produce hope by the next election, if instead it becomes obvious that they were too timid—and if the war in Afghanistan goes seriously bad in a way that causes serious American casualties and Afghani casualties, then I think it is possible that there might be a challenge from the left. Those are not unthinkable ifs, they’re clearly plausible.

AB: Some liberals, like Paul Krugman, have been critical of Obama’s economic policies like the Bailout. I have to confess I don’t have a great deal of knowledge about the intricacies of economics. You’re still fairly happy?

RH: It’s not an area that I have a great deal of knowledge on either, and that’s why in fact my usual analytic tools are not of much use in trying to evaluate Obama’s economic policies. I’m better at telling cruelty from kindness, and good from evil, and effective from ineffective, when it comes to this level of complexity. Of course if somebody comes up to me and frames the issue as, “Well which do you think would be better? Bail out the banks or nationalise the banks?” every jerk of my knee will tell me nationalise the banks. But on the other hand I know that that’s just sort of a leftover ideological automatic response from my childhood, my youth. And it’s certainly not a reliable guide to anything. So I just have to hope that Paul Krugman is too pessimistic.

AB: He’s come around on a lot of the other stuff, Krugman has.

RH:  I guess he was always immune to the charms of Obama. And that has enabled him to be a more disinterested critic of Obama’s policies than those of us who fell in love with Obama. On the other hand I think it makes him a little bit deaf to certain realities that can’t be measured in economic tables, but I don’t know that that means he’s wrong. I tend to think if you tell me that Krugman thinks something, I’m inclined to say “Well that’s pretty good evidence that something is true.”

AB: Everyone makes mistakes, Krugman made a few during the Democratic primary, didn’t he?

RH:  Yeah, but those were the political—he made some bad political judgements in the campaign. When he’s making judgments in areas where I consider myself competent, I value my own judgement—but in areas where I consider myself less competent, not so much.

AB: He was onto Bush earlier than most, and in a brave fashion. One always has to respect that.

RH: One certainly does. Frank Rich and Krugman are kind of lodestars. Frank was wrong back in the case of Clinton, but as far as I can tell he’s been right on for the last five years at the very least.

AB: I like how Rich fuses culture and politics, brings it all together.

RH:  I don’t know how he does it, really. I admire and envy it. If you can weave them together, I think that as Frank has shown, there’s what you might call a market for plucking things out of the cultural zeitgeist and clothing political opinions in them.

AB: Blogger Matthew Yglesias reckons Jeb Bush is going to be president.

RH: It still could happen. He could somehow, if he’s smart enough, figure out how to turn the sow’s ear of being a Bush into a silk purse. He could probably market anti-Bushism as a form of racism. Does Matt say that, really? Well, when you look at the poverty of choice that they have, maybe so. And people will be curious about him. It’s not so much they’ll want to give him a chance, but they’ll want to tune in to see if he’s any smarter than his brother, which he is.  I hadn’t thought of it before your question, but he could actually benefit from being a Bush.

AB: From the bottom of the world, I find the concept of the Bush dynasty bizarre.

RH: If you think of the Republican Party as a sort of India, and the Bushes as the Nehru Gandhi Dynasty, it starts to make sense. Nehru Gandhi’s Dynasty does fine even though every once in a while one of them goes terribly wrong.
“I can remember when left-wing rigidity and arrogance was a genuine problem, but it’s been a hell of a long time since that’s what we needed to worry about. And I don’t see that Chomsky’s got a hell of a lot of influence on the left.”

AB: It was disappointing to see the reaction to the New Yorker’s satirical Obama cover.

RH: I understand the reaction to that cover and I think it was not entirely unjustified. Because the cover—though I think its satiric meaning was obvious to regular New Yorker readers—was flawed as a piece of satire in that the object of the satire was nowhere pictured. And Andrew Borowitz, who writes humorous stuff for the New Yorker, pointed out that if the artist had just put a Fox News logo in the corner of that cover, there would have been no problem. As it was, it sort of invited what happened, which was to be put up on Fox News as a kind of “where there’s smoke there’s fire” thing. “Okay, they may be making fun of the idea, but obviously there’s something to it or they wouldn’t be putting it on their cover!” So I don’t know what we’d do differently if we had it to do over again. Seems to me that there was something about that that was misunderstood, you can’t just blame the people who misunderstand it.

AB: I thought the ridiculousness of it was fairly clear.

RH: I thought so too. Of course I thought it was absurd when people, a couple of thousand people, wanted to cancel their subscriptions. “Well I love your magazine and I can’t wait for it every week but I’m so outraged by this that I’m cancelling my subscription!” I just thought that just failed the test of elementary logic, that reaction. And it was a reminder of the kind of liberal suicidal tendencies that we would like to believe we got rid of.

AB: “Gary Hart has now become the first American victim of Islamic justice. He has been politically stoned to death for adultery,” you wrote in ‘Sluicegate ’88’. Puritanism still seems to swirl around American politics?

RH: It hasn’t gone away entirely. I think there has been some progress. Certainly—I haven’t thought this through—but for some reason on the Republican side, they’ve got plenty of people who have been caught with their pants down and it doesn’t seem to have done their careers that much damage. Obviously David Vitter was caught with a prostitute; there’s Newt Gingrich, any number of embarrassments there. Maybe it’s more harmful to left politicians than right ones, because the right ones are supposed to be selfish bastards anyway. So it doesn’t go against peoples’ expectations. The left ones are supposed to be sensitive males who look out for other people’s feelings.

AB: Is Palin’s sidekick Joe the Plumber going to be around next Presidential election?

RH: Joe the Plumber has reached his sell-by date. He will go down in history, along with Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, as an example of American political zaniness and bogus populism. Be careful what you pluck off the shelf and present to the public, because sometimes it turns out to be a little weirder than you think it’s going to be.

It’s a symptom of the played-outness of conservatism right now. That doesn’t mean conservatism won’t come back, even if it remains played out. If you don’t like what happens under the Democrats, the only alternative is the Republicans, and if they’re still completely bereft of constructive ideas, that won’t necessarily matter in terms of their political fortunes. But it is interesting to a liberal like me, kind of gratifying to see the Republicans go from this undeserved reputation as the Party of Ideas to a general recognition that they have no ideas.

AB: Al Gore choosing Joe the Senator as his running mate in 2000, wasn’t that the worst decision of his political career?

RH: I don’t think so. I think it was actually a fairly clever decision in itself, a decision that if John McCain had made the same decision with the same Joe the Senator, might conceivably have got him elected President. Gore chose Lieberman for one reason, basically: that Lieberman had attacked Clinton on the Monica Lewinsky scandal. That was the reason he chose him; that was his selling point. The mistake that Gore made, in my opinion, was once having done that—having established that he, Gore, was not responsible in any way for the Monica Lewinsky side of Clintonism—he failed to then embrace the other side of Clintonism, the part that everybody loved. Having inoculated himself with Lieberman, he should then have gone and given Clinton a great big hug and appropriated unto himself everything that people liked about Clinton. But he didn’t do that.

I fault his judgement for that, but I think it has to be remembered at all times that Al Gore did what a presidential candidate was supposed to do. He won the election. He got more votes. And if you’re going to linger over all the terrible ways that Al Gore failed to connect with the American public, then you also by that logic have to linger over all the terrible ways that John F Kennedy failed to connect with the American public. Al Gore’s majority or plurality was three or four times that of John F Kennedy. And if Al Gore was an out of touch elitist, what about John Kennedy? If what had happened to Al Gore had happened to John Kennedy, then for the next generation we’d hear about the lessons of the Kennedy disaster, and how even after eight years of Republicanism when people were kind of disillusioned with the status quo and wanted something new, Kennedy failed to come through. Why? Well look at the guy, he was an elitist, he went to Harvard, he liked to go sailing off of Cape Cod, he read books, he hung around with people like Arthur Schlesinger, he had a trophy wife, he just wasn’t  a real American. That would be the lesson—not that Richard Nixon had a five o’clock shadow.

AB: Journalism is battling a number of challenges at the moment. Are you hopeful about the future?

RH: No [laughs]. No, although I’m not particularly upset about the present. I know that I do spend an awful lot of time reading blogs, time which hasn’t really come at the expense of reading newspapers and magazines—I just read more in general. And I realise that that’s kind of an unsustainable pattern—it’s a bit like the housing bubble or something. All these blogs I’m reading, which depend for their existence on the newspapers and magazines that they’re leeching off of; and I know it can’t go on forever. I kind of like the way it is right now, but I really don’t have any solutions. I figure it’s not my problem.  You know, I’m old.

AB: You’d happily encourage your son into journalism?

RH: No no no. I’m very relieved that he shows no interest in it. Because he considers what I do to be what he calls a desk job. He does not want a desk job.

Alexander Bisley’s past interview subjects include Robert Fisk, Pico Iyer, and DBC Pierre. Thanks to Christine Linnell for her assistance with this article.

2010-09-06 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Books Illustration

Gabriel Hubert on Hypnotic Brass Ensemble

ALEXANDER BISLEY talks Obama, Prince and New York with a scorching Chicago export.

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble hypnotised WOMAD 2010 (a la Gotan Project, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, and Gurrumul in previous years). The liveliness continued at the press conference where the eight brothers stylishly riffed on and over each other’s answers, from the influence of their father Phil Cohran (Sun Ra and the Arkestra) to taha wahine (“our mothers, our sisters, our lovers, our daughters”). “Pleased to have the Southside of Chicago representin’ in the White House,” I asked?  “We knew him before he was State (Illinois’) Senator even!” was my favourite animated one-liner.

Phil didn’t just give musical DNA, he instilled his sons’ clear hardworking ethic (“the sky’s the limit”) on and off stage. It’s 2.10 am after a Paris gig, but instead of enjoying Parisian pleasures, trumpeter Gabriel Hubert (“Hudah”) gives The Lumière Reader a generous, ebullient half-hour via Skype. He adds he and the band remain supporters of the former community organiser musically battling mendacious vulture capitalist Mitt Romney. Barack is likewise an admirer of HBE:  “I cannot get enough of these guys, they soothe the soul.”

Hudah’s enthusiasm for New Zealand’s environment and people is palpable: “We enjoyed it a lot. Being at the beach, on the sand, looking at the ocean. Seeing those mountains. Seeing the sky, seeing the Southern Hemisphere, having such a close view of Orion, that was amazing.” Astronomer Phil, who sat on the board of Chicago’s Planetarium for many years, taught his sons about the stars, constellations and heavens, and Hudah is hoping to do some more Southern stargazing. “Some of the brothers are named after stars.”

The other trumpeters are Amal Baji Hubert (“Baji”), Jafar Baji Graves (“Yosh”) and Tarik Graves (“Smoov”). Saiph Graves (“Cid”) and Seba Graves (“Clef”) play trombone, Tycho Cohran (“LT”) on sousaphone, and Uttama Hubert (“Rocco”) leads the vocals with vibrant baritone. The varying drummer is the only non (blood) fraternal member. They are a tight, dynamic and intuitive group, born of their years living and playing together from a young age. The Phil Cohran Youth Ensemble played for Nelson Mandela on his post release tour of the US, and at Harold Washington rallies (Phil managed the first African American mayor of Chicago’s ’83 campaign).

HBE have been described as rap-jazz-soul-funk- rock fusion. “Music is a universal language, music is a whole,” Hudah rejects such genre categorising. “As Miles Davis said, there’s only two types of music: good and bad.” He is irritated by academics who over analyse music, sucking out the joy of creation. “I call them smart dummies.”

Though the brothers always had the gift of music, growing up on Chicago’s infamous Southside had challenges, including gangs and violence. One day in 2001 close friend Robert Locke (“like a brother”) told Hudah and HBE: “Ignore the BS. You can do better.” Five or ten minutes after saying bye, Locke—riding in a car with three of the brothers— was shot dead as eleven bullets rang out.  This traumatic incident—eulogised on the track ‘Flipside’—continues to motivate Hypnotic. “It wasn’t like the streets were too rough. He knew like we knew that there was a future in cultivating our music. So he encouraged our music, and his death solidified our journey in this direction.”

They’ve stirred South African crowds singing beautiful ‘Nkosi sikelel  iAfrika’. RZA remixed their anti-war anthem ‘War’ (also heard in The Hunger Games). The array of musicians they’ve performed and recorded with includes Wu-Tang Clan, Ghostface Killah, Mos Def, Femi Kuti, Damon Albarn (pace Liam Gallagher, “a really cool guy”) and Gorillaz and Blur, and Prince.  “Can’t describe the feeling when a person like that calls you and says will you rock with me? He’s touched so many people with his artistry. For many of our generation, he’s number two after MJ.” How was it on stage? “Amazing, man!” Hudah exclaims with Chris Rockesque gusto, recalling how Prince asked the Hypnotics to improvise, fusing their music with his. “Impromptu. Right there Johnny-on-the-spot. Out of this world respect.”

Not all their experiences have been respectful. Blair Hull, the rich financial securities trader who Obama beat in the Democratic primary for Illinois Senator, “stiffed us,” reneging on paying. Another politician only remunerated in “beer and chicken.”

Hudah tributes Chicago’s rich artistic and musical tradition (Quincey Jones, Curtis Mayfield): “Proud to be part of that legacy.” Currently dividing his non-touring time between the Second City (“particularly for my daughter”) and NYC, Hubert is also finding the city that never sleeps is lifting his game.  “Great city. The bar is set so high. You go there ready to work hard. You feel the vibe, New York minute, grind on that. There’s so many great artists. New York keeps you motivated to constantly work harder and be more creative.”

Bulletproof Brass is a movement fighting for real music.” So what can Wellington and Auckland expect? “We have a million songs. We play what we’re feeling that night. It’s about emotions, spiritual connection.”

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble play Auckland’s Powerstation on Saturday July 21 and Wellington’s Bodega on Sunday July 22:

2012-07-19 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Music WOMAD

Beyond 2001: Eleven terrific films from the last decade

“Art is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon. When we love a woman we don’t start measuring her limbs.”—Pablo Picasso

Picasso’s view hasn’t curbed a proliferation of top lists tangential to the August instalment of Sight and Sound’s esteemed Poll. Great critics like Roger Ebert have noted said poll’s bias against recent films. They may not make ‘em like they used to, but there’s more good movies than one person can watch, let alone write about. Alexander Bisley chips his few talas into the conversation, recalling eleven terrific films from his first decade as a critic.

25th Hour (Spike Lee, USA, 2002)

Scorsese on Spike Lee: “It’s a unique vision. And it’s a vision that’s much needed in American cinema.” 25th Hour is a graceful post 9/11 New York elegy. Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) is off to The Big House for seven so long after getting touched with a kilo of smack. His best friend Francis Xavier Slaughtery (Barry Pepper) is a Wall St trader: “I’m Irish, I can’t get drunk.” Philip Seymour Hoffman (troubled English teacher friend Jacob) also got game. Packed with memorable dialogue a la Francis’: “Jacob, you’re a rich Jewish kid from the Upper East side who’s ashamed of his wealth. Fuck that, that’s some kneejerk liberalism bullshit.” Lee soulfully conveys the effect of incarceration (and “the consequences of not examining what you’re doing”) on an individual and their lover, friends and family. Most thoughtful and entertaining, with edgy rhythm. There’s an extraordinary hate-love scene where Monty blows up like Tongariro in August. (Scorsese’s still making damn good films per The Aviator; you can’t really expect the freshly incendiary Taxi Driver, which I was lucky to see alive on the big screen through a restored print of at New York’s MOMI recently.)

Abouna (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Chad, 2002)

Abouna (Our Father), Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s second film, is a rare, sophisticated insight into Mama Africa; awe-inspiringly specific, yet universal. Tahir (Ahidjo Mahamet Moussa), 15, and Amine (Hamza Moctar Aguid), 8, are desperate to find their father, after he suddenly leaves their home in Chad. The boys think they see him in a movie at the local theatre and steal the print. They are sent to a harsh Islamic school in the countryside. Tahir develops a relationship with a gorgeous mute girl; Amine struggles with his asthma. The actors are luminous, especially young Aguid. Abraham Haile Biru’s seductive images, green and orange incandescence, are enhanced by Diego Mustapha N’Garade and Ali Farka Toure’s guitar music. Abouna has a delightful sense of humour, such as “the water’s cut” scene. There are some magnificent scenes: from the shot of motherly tenderness towards Amine to the debate over the meaning of “irresponsible”, the epithet mum has given dad. African runner up: Moolaade, the last word from Senegalese elder Ousmane Sembene, also has some extraordinarily vibrant, optimistic moments. With the wit, fire and saw-toothed, egalitarian consciousness he forged as an immigrant Marseille dockworker. Both a patriarch and a feminist, Sembene believed in ordinary people’s daily heroism; Colle’s courage is hope.

In the Dark (Sergey Dvortsevoy, Russia, 2004)

“They used to be nice to look at,” In the Dark’s Vanya reminisces as we hear the poignant lilt of the swings (painted blue, but unseen) on the ground below his small Moscow apartment. This perfectly observed, beautifully constructed Chekhovian piece of minimalism documents the cosmic story of Vanya and his cat in only 40 minutes. The old, blind Russian painstakingly knits shopping bags out of string; meanwhile his cat causes much mischief, tangling his materials. They have a love-hate relationship. Vanya alternates insults (“It’s not a cat, it’s a monster”) and threats (“I’ll call the police”), with tenderness (“My dear, my sweet honey”). Vanya goes to the street outside with his bags: “Take one. They’re free”. He’s treated with boorish disdain and rejection. Responses such as “We’ve got plastic bags” and “The time for these bags has passed.” There’s a hilarious scene with some drunken, foul-mouthed bums philosophising. Vanya returns to his apartment and cries, but his faith will carry him. A Hollywood remake remains unlikely.

The Last Train (Aleksei German Jr, Russia, 2003)

Profoundly compassionate, The Last Train is one of the greatest anti-war films ever made. Russian Aleksei German Jr’s debut is riveting and startling from its opening shot, which brings to mind a Rembrandt portrait. German doctor Paul Fishbach (the marvellously expressive Pavel Romanov) is a fat, awkward nobody drafted to Germany’s front with Russia during the last days of World War Two. Francois Truffaut said it was impossible to make an anti-war film because war was inherently exciting. German Jr masterfully strips war of any excitement: it’s a humanistic insight into its pure boredom, awfulness, and senselessness. Elegiac and visionary, it shows how everyone is brutalised and dehumanised by war. Fishbach’s mission becomes self-preservation. He stumbles around hopelessly in the snow, seeking salvation. the snowy, harsh environment Stunningly shot in black and white CinemaScope, the images capture like taiaha enveloping puku; complemented by the inventive pitiless soundscape of hacking coughs. Sublime Bach accompanies two key scenes. Fishbach has seen horrors: “Why is all of this happening?” I’d like to include Apocalypse Now Redux, but it’s really 70s turf.

Match Point (Woody Allen, USA/UK, 2005)

Do critics line up to gleefully gangbang Hitchcock, Ozu and the Dardennes for “repetition”? Considering quality, volume, and stamina, few are as good as Allen, and none are better. Smouldering, riveting and darkly comic/true, Match Point marked the start of his exciting foray into Europe.

Nobody Knows (Hirozaku Kore-eda, Japan, 2004)

It’s a shame most of Kore-eda’s films are underdistributed, because he may be the best Japanese film director (Air Doll, Still Walking) working today; challenging, accessible, and profound. Nobody Knows, his masterpiece about resilient wronged children, maintains the Japanese humanistic tradition Ozu and Kurosawa (and Kitano with Kikujiro) are more famously feted for. Freighted by wondrous performances, Nobody Knows still tears me up just thinking about it.

No Country For Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen, USA, 2007)

“They’re just taking more away from you.” Command of cinematic technique wedded to potent content. The Coens capture the nihilism of our times, with a fierce performance from Javier Bardem. The Coens consistently impress, but No Country for Old Men has an emotional and philosophical edge. Kudos to Michael Mann for including Alejandro Inarritu’s  underrated Biutiful, featuring an awesome performance by Barca Bardem, in his Sight & Sound ten.

The Orator (Tusi Tamasese, Samoa/New Zealand, 2011)

I love Taika Waititi’s Boy, but The Orator, the first feature shot in Samoan, is the most ka mau te wehi. Tusi Tamasese’s lapidary debut captures Samoa so sparely and vividly you feel it in your bones. Funny and sad, primal and sensuous, tactile and unforgettable.

Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, Australia, 2009)

Warwick Thornton’s mighty subjects are two runaway Aboriginal teenagers, Samson and Delilah. Superb indigenist visual style and sound design; astonishing, verbally minimalist performances; abundant compassion; intuitive direction. My friend looked like a broken man after watching it; I was inspired.

Still Bill and various documentaries (Damani Baker, Alex Vlack, USA, 2009)

Still Bill is an inspirational Bill Withers record. The soul singer who wonderful contributions include ‘Harlem’ (still evokes the dynamic neighbourhood beautifully), ‘Use Me’, and ‘Make Love to Your Mind’ is an awesome man. “It’s okay to head to wonderful, but on your way to wonderful you will have to pass through alright, and when you get to alright, take a good look around and get used to it because that may be as far as you gonna go.” New Zealand’s patchy distribution system let it down; but, like almost everything else, you can find Still Bill on the internet.

“He’s a cretin, but he’s our cretin”, Citizen King’s Noland Walker on Michael Moore. Spellbound’s Jeff Blitz also told me he respected Moore, not least for beating down the centrestream stable door for docos. Granted, Moore has his faults. He’s often a sloppy or stolid columnist and author, and a recovering Naderite. His forte is television (New Zealand’s conservative Deputy Prime Minister/Finance Minister Bill English confessed to me he was impressed with the “hilarious” The Awful Truth). Moore’s uncomplicated take lurches off in Sicko and Capitalism: A Love Story. But W. Bush and his administration deserve muckraking polemic. Innovating documentary cinema’s persuasive formal powers, Fahrenheit 9/11 nimbly synthesises W’s outrages. Far from the idiot left’s Loose Change “truther” lunacy, Moore audaciously articulates a reasonable opinion. Likewise Bowling for Columbine is, essentially, salutary counterweight. An oafish Munchener in Wheel of Time, Herzog unleashes on Antarctica like Omar on Stringer in Encounters at the End of the World. Here his “ecstatic truth” creative license is alright by me. Rarely is a grizzly, apocalyptic vision this poetic and oddly sublime. An Inconvenient Truth, Inside Job and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room are must-sees.

Talk to Her (Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 2002)

Is there a more sensual filmmaker than Pedro Almodovar? With Javier Aguirresarobe’s cinematography and Alberto Iglesias’s music, Almodovar evokes Talk to Her’s various milieus: bedroom, bedside, bullring. His sublime cinematic palette serves complex, compassionate ideas. The Spaniard explores loneliness, love, and hope with eloquence, and, ultimately, transcendence. Journalist Marco and nurse Benigno keep vigil at the bedsides of the women they love. Dancer Alicia and bullfighter Lydia are in long-term comas, gored by a car and a bull respectively. Almodovar’s masterpiece is further leavened with humour, such as The Shrinking Lover short film. Talk to Her contains many indelible scenes: Lydia being gored in the bullring, Marco visiting Benigno in prison, and world-weary Marco struggling with the futility of his bedside vigil. Benigno has consoling words of wisdom. “A woman’s brain is a mystery, and especially in this state.” He tells Marco that, simply, he must “Talk to her.”
2012-09-09 · Permalink · FILM Features

Julian Farhat on Where Do We Go Now?

The charismatic actor talks Nadine Labaki, religious conflict, and the hollow glamour of Cannes.

In heartening contrast to recent images, Where Do We Go Now? (Et maintenant on va où?) captures the Lebanese charm I enjoyed there in April. The spirit, food, hospitality, pretty women, appealing villages and landscapes, sensual music and dance. Julian Farhat, who plays lead Rabih, joined The Lumière Reader over a scratchy Skype line at the mercy of Beirut’s creaky infrastructure.

Acclaimed at Cannes and Toronto (where it won Peoples’ Choice Award for Best Film), Where Do We Go Now? portrays a cute relationship between Muslim Rabih and Christian Amal (played by beautiful director Nadine Labaki). Julian enthuses about working with the sensuous woman behind Caramel. “Honestly, it was a dream. It was the first time I worked with a professional team. Especially her, she knows what she wants, how she can get it. She’s never overly demanding, or invasive. She made me feel very comfortable and appreciated.” (Lebanese Wellingtonian Steve Wakeem, who co-starred with Julian in indie short The Invisible Hand, is similarly effusive: “He’s great to work with!”)

Funny, sad and thoughtful, Where Do We Go Now? renders a village of Lebanese women’s plucky efforts to extinguish Christian-Muslim conflict. “It has to do with the frustration of living in a place where we are always on the verge of civil war, always on the verge of something exploding,” Labaki says. Over an evocative Lebanese village image, Amal’s voiceover narration begins: “The story I tell is for all who want to hear. A tale of those who fast, a tale of those who pray, a tale of a lonely town, mines scattered all around. Caught up in a war, split to its very core. To clans with broken hearts under a burning sun. Their hands stained with blood in the name of a cross or a crescent. From this lonely place, which has chosen peace, whose history is spun of barbed wire and guns.”

A charismatic presence on the silver screen, Julian is a reflective, humble and appealing interviewee. What does he want the audience to take away? “It’s different for different audiences. Locally, fighting for trivial things will lead to bigger disasters. Fighting over irrelevant things. We can disagree, but we don’t need to kill each other. Outside of the Middle East, the message to show is we are not as barbaric as sometimes depicted. We have thoughts, emotions. We love life, and know how to enjoy it. Not everyone wants to destroy, hate and kill.”

Amal’s voiceover narration, over an image of pallbearers winding through a cemetery, concludes: “My story is now ending for all those who were listening, of a town where peace was found while fighting continued all around. Of men who slept so deep and woke to find new peace. Of women still in black, who fought with flowers and prayers instead of guns and flares, and protect their children. Destiny then drove them to find a new way.”  The pallbearers, disoriented by the cemetery’s segregation, have the last line: “Where do we go now?” Julian is ever modest, emphasising it’s just his opinion: “It symbolises our country. We’re killing our loved ones. Unless you work together, you’ll always be standing confused, not knowing where to go. That’s my interpretation.”

Lebanon’s Muslim/Christian conflict has shaped the softly spoken Beirut-based actor’s life. “Sometimes people pretend it’s not there. It’s always there. With the past wars, many people still cling to their grudges.” Julian is a Christian, but grew up alongside Muslims in Barty, a small village in South Lebanon. “Most of my friends were Muslim. It got me to understand people are people.” His village wasn’t physically damaged when Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006. “We looked after refugees from other villages.”

From Where Do We Go Now?’s beginning, Khaled Mouzanar’s music builds atmosphere. “He’s Nadine’s husband. He’s with her 24/7. He’s involved in everything. He was there when the story was conceived.”

My highlights include: Amal and Rabih sing; Amal vents at Rabih: “Is this what being a man means?”; Amal brings the Russian woman around to Rabih’s place. “That’s one of the cutest. I think it is witty.” A Woody Allen, Annie Hall conversation? “You could say that. It’s my favourite. I enjoyed it so much.”

With a beard that a Brooklyn hipster would rate, Julian has a prominent tattoo on his left arm: “That was a dark period I was going through, I did it myself.” Formerly of many heavy metal bands, he’s recently joined a new progressive rock- metal band (“with fusion of oriental and jazz”), who perform in mask.

Julian is not a political person, but considers my questions like what to do for Syria? “I don’t think I’m qualified to comment. It’s really nice to see people standing up for human rights. Syrians have almost no rights.” As Where Do We Go Now? suggests, he is uncertain which Middle Eastern journalists and media to follow. “It’s hard to know where to get the truth.”

Where Do We Go Now? made me hungry for the tasty food (and amity) I enjoyed in Zahle and Beirut. “Yeah, we have good food. It brings people together, friends and family, we sit together and share. One of the most delicious is mloukhieh, which combines chicken, herbs and rice.” The Lord of the Rings trilogy is Julian’s favourite film. “I think it is perfect. I am a nature lover. I would love to see the country where it was filmed someday.”

So what’s next? “When the opportunity comes I take advantage. I work hard on myself, and see where that leads.” Julian is “really excited” by the Toronto recognition, but nonplussed by experiencing Cannes’ hollow glamour. “Cannes is overrated. I’m a simple person. I come from a village in South Lebanon.”

Alexander Bisley interviewed Robert Fisk in 2006. Hours after filing, Beirut exploded again. ‘Where Do We Go Now?’ featured at the New Zealand International Film Festival earlier this year, and is currently screening in selected cinemas.

2012-10-21 · Permalink · FILM Features Interviews

O, Madon: An Interview with Joe Pantoliano

A sit down, via Skype, with “Joey Pants” to discuss Tony Soprano, Tommy Lee Jones, mental health advocacy, and screen violence.

That distinctive high raspy voice comes clear down the line from Connecticut: “My kid’s in the fuckin’ hospital. I don’t hear you complainin’ when I bring you a nice, fat envelope. You don’t give a shit where that comes from,” Joe Pantoliano is reciting to me Ralphie Ciffareto calling Tony Soprano out just before The Boss whacks him. (“Don’t give me that look: it was a fuckin’ horse. What are you, a fuckin’ vegetarian? You eat beef and sausage by the fuckin’ carload.”)  It’s a memorable reminder of one of his classic Sopranos scenes, puncturing T’s Romneyesque hypocrisy. Unlike Ralphie, Joe is a really nice, big-hearted guy. The villain of Christopher Nolan’s Memento known for dodgy blokes— since early ’80s Risky Business’ Cruise- pimp Guido— is now an ardent mental health advocate.

In May, Weinstein Books published Asylum: Hollywood Tales from My Great Depression, Mental Dis-Ease, Recovery and Being My Mother’s Son. The notoriously taciturn Tommy Lee Jones endorsed it: “Joe has written a brave, fascinating book. It is astonishing what people will put themselves through for the privilege of acting. Maybe we just can’t help it.” Joe says of his old friend: “He wouldn’t have said it if he didn’t mean it,” before describing acting with him on The Fugitive (which he’s just recorded a twentieth anniversary DVD commentary for). “It was great. I’ve learnt more from working with him than any actor. I really like his style. He’s a generous actor, loves actors, unless you’re an asshole. He doesn’t suffer fools well.” What about No Country for Old Men? “Yeah, it’s terrific. But my favourite was his own film, his directorial debut, The Three Burials of Melquaidas Estrada. That showed the deep rooted, great humanity to the man. I’m sure he will direct more movies, hopefully with me in them.” Midnight Run’s Robert De Niro? “Another great actor, another giving guy. I just like doing good parts in good pictures.”

It was on the set of Joseph Greco’s 2006 film Canvas that the guy who started out as Billy Bibbit in a play of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest began coming to terms with his clinical depression. “Canvas is a serious film about mental illness and a sentimental heartwarmer, and succeeds in both ways. It tells the story of a 10-year-old whose mother is schizophrenic, and whose father is loyal and loving but stretched almost beyond his endurance,” Roger Ebert wrote. “Canvas is a heartwarmer, as I said, a touching story of these people for whom the only response to mental illness is love.” Joe’s bipolar mother left his father when his was young, and shacked up with her Mafioso cousin Fiore.

Through The Sopranos Seasons Two and Three, Ralphie had many hilarious, horrifying and memorable scenes. Lines like “I caught the clap from some hippie broad I was fucking. My dick was dripping like a busted pipe.” Then there’s that thing Ralphie/Tony’s goomah Valentina said about a cheese grater. Joe comments: “Ralphie is an insane sociopath. Because he was raped and abused as a young boy, he could not enjoy normal sex, had to have pain involved.” One of the toughest guys—and staunchest Sopranos fans—I know had to stop watching for a few weeks after Ralphie brutally murdered stripper Tracee. Eventually, Ralphie apologised for disrespecting the Bing. Joe points out with everything Ralphie did, it was ironic Tony killed him for something he didn’t do (the death of racehorse Pie-O-My), at a time when Ralphie was showing his better side (“He’s so upset about his son Justin in hospital”). The 61-year-old grandfather recalls Ralphie’s Sopranos introduction as “passionate and obsessive about gladiator movies. When he dies, it’s a real fight to the death.”

One of The Sopranos talking points was Tony visiting psychologist Dr Melphi. “Everybody in that show needed to be talking someone. Tony’s asking for help, but he doesn’t change any of his behaviours.” For Joe, change has meant life has become very good. “I’ve learned how to delegate, and manage my sanity on a daily basis. I know what’s good for my brain. I’ve implemented positive behaviours. Part of my depression was that I was addicted to painkillers and alcohol. Once I stopped doing them I started getting better. I’m exercising, stopping white sugar, and doing increasing amounts of advocacy. Doing anythin’ that keeps you out of your own head helps.”

“We’re a very violent group we human beings. We immortalise bad guys, and make movies about real crumbs, fictional or otherwise, those are the people we want to watch,” Joe reels off a long list of characters including Al Capone, Don Corleone and Bugsy Seagal. “We need a spiritual dimension. That’s why Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death is powerful. We have a cognitive understanding we will cease to exist, so we are constantly searching for something. We need hope to survive. We’re losing faith. There’s so much shit going on, it’s overwhelming. You discover it takes more strength to admit your weakness. Helping others. To love others. Acceptance and forgiveness. The Buddhists got it right. Jesus got it right; the power of forgiveness. You’re as sick as your secrets. You’ve got to let it out.”

Joe’s affectionate mental health advocacy includes his documentary No Kidding! Me 2!, a website of the same name, and the Stomp the Stigma campaign. He has called upon friends from through his career to support, including this striking video contribution from Harrison Ford. “Everybody’s touched by this, through family or friends. There’s not a soul who isn’t,” Joe exclaims. He thinks it is the last bastion of civil-rights. “We’re looking for equal rights for the all-American brain. You can’t replace the brain. It’s an equal rights issue.” He adds that mental illness is too often not respected like physical health problems, and food addiction not acknowledged and helped like other addictions. “If you give a shit about what came first, the egg or the chicken, it’s the disease that came first, before the addiction.”

Another motivation for Stomp the Stigma was Joe’s close friend’s Charles Rocket’s suicide. He is concerned about rising suicide rates of U.S. soldiers (“more than combat deaths”), and has visited mentally ill troops in the Middle East. It’s pleasing seeing the Two Towers again rising high above mighty New York, isn’t it? “They are beautiful. The mirrored glass reflects the beauty and diversity of the city, the friends lost. My country’s pretty much been constantly at war since World War Two. These Afghanistan GIs are killing themselves.  They’re going to start killing us. You can quote me on that.” On a more hopeful note, Joe remembers Abraham Lincoln—“I am now the most miserable man living. Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better”—came through wartime depression.

Driving around Los Angeles with Greco last month, he explained why he chose Joe for Canvas. “I’ve always been a fan of Joey. He is, after all, in my favourite film, Empire of the Sun. He’s played a lot of tough guys over the years and he brought that edge to the film. I wanted the audience to feel that Joey’s character, John, might snap under all of the family pressure. Joey also has a very big heart and I thought it would be an opportunity for him to do something unexpected and reveal that softer side. Finally, I wanted to tell an Italian-American story and Joey is one of the finest Italian-American actors working today. Canvas was inspired by my childhood so all of these things were important.” Greco described his lead’s distinctive qualities. “Joey puts all of himself into everything he does. He is incredibly courageous in his work, and in his life. Joey has done so many films so his craft is impressive, and he isn’t afraid to go deeper and tap into those raw emotions. When he finds that well, he gives 100 percent.”

Robert Irvin, Harvard Medical School Instructor of Psychiatry, also praised Asylum: “A model of inspiration and courage for those who suffer from mental illness in silence to come forward and seek the life-changing help that is currently available.” Joe is pleased to hear about John Kirwan’s mental health advocacy, and would like to visit New Zealand to share his own message of hope. While filming The Matrix (“Buckle your seatbelt Dorothy, cos Kansas is going bye bye”) sequels in Australia, his then cigar club partner shouted him a holiday to Taupo’s Huka Lodge “New Zealand’s something. The fishing. The hot springs. The rafting. So good.”

The emotional man who expressively accepted his 2003 Sopranos Emmy (from three minutes) is palpable through his interview with The Lumière Reader. He’s currently shooting with Goodfellas’ Ray Liotta (“another good Italian boy from Jersey”) on Nashville-set The Identical. Discretely chowing down a healthy dinner smoothie as we talk (“my cholesterol’s gone down 70 points following that Australian diet!”), Joe concludes your health’s your wealth. “I was out on my vespa earlier, enjoying a beautiful day here in Conneticut. The most valuable thing is your health.” He is buoyant after just acing his annual physical. “We are all going to die. None of us are going to get out of this alive. We are motivated by fear. Mentally, spiritually, physically, you have to accept your disease, and enjoy life.”
2012-10-24 · Permalink · FILM Features Interviews

On How to Meet Girls From a Distance

How to Meet Girls From a Distance was made for $100,000, from conception to screen in six months. “Pretty much all interaction that Richard and [director] Dean have is a comic moment,” Aroha White, who plays Mel, told ALEXANDER BISLEY, who chatted to leading man (Toby) and co-writer Richard Falkner.

I liked your leitmotif use of the Eversons’ 'Creepy' and inspired 'Marriage' (which I’ve had on high rotate). At the Roxy Q & A, you said it was a “revelation” hearing those songs in pre-production. Elaborate on their role?

Totally! The night before the shoot commenced we had a few beers. Just before leaving I was on Facebook, and saw a friend had posted a link to an Eversons song. I was kind of miffed I’d missed them in my colossal trawl of Kiwi bands for potential use. I followed the link, and the first track I heard was ‘Marriage’. The lyrics were just so perfectly suited to the story, with their fanciful romantic whimsy, and the rest of the band acting like the voice of doubt telling the vocalist he was a dick and would never get married because he’s a jerk. It was like being inside Toby’s head! I promptly bought the album from bandcamp and listened to the rest of the tracks. I saw ‘Creepy’, and obviously the title alone is fairly much bang on. When I heard the lyrics, employing exactly the same schtick of the vocalist being off-kilter romantic and the band decrying him a creep in the backing, it was mind-glowingly ideal. We couldn’t have commissioned someone to write a song more ideal for the soundtrack. It became the backing for a ‘research’ montage, which it plays against beautifully. I was also very impressed with The Eversons production, I think they do it all themselves, and it sounds great. There’s that kind of Pixies-esque rhythm section with a kind of Weezer-ish vocal style that is really nice. It’s got a great indie feel that is still melodic and broadly enjoyable enough to use comfortably in a romantic comedy. It was important to find stuff that wasn’t going to be too weird for a wide ranging audience, but also isn't cheesy at all. The Eversons just basically ticked a whole shitload of boxes. It was slightly tense getting in touch with them to get their permission, as they were one of the only bands that were signed to a label, but they were an absolute pleasure to deal with.

Tell me how you employed Stanislavsky method acting?

Ha! There wasn’t a great deal of time for such things, obviously. But when we were writing it, I was at the bus stop after work, about to go to Dean’s place for a writing sesh, and saw this girl that was wearing exactly the sun dress that I imagined Phoebe wearing in the scene where Toby first sees her. She had the right hair and everything, she was pretty much perfect for it. I thought about asking her if I could get a photo, and then though “Wait… Okay, I could actually try this. Wait, that’s weird. Wait, that’s research…Wait, that’s weird…” I found myself having a total Toby moment! So I couldn’t resist. I took the photo! I actually went through the whole process Toby went through when he first sees Phoebe, just to get a fairly average reference picture for costume. But I think Stanislavsky would probably be proud of me for that! Dodgy eh!

More seriously, how did cast and crew autobiography shape the picture?

Ah, not really at all!

Toby’s relationship with his Mum is key. What did your Mum think?

She was totally stoked! One of the most rewarding things about the whole process has been getting a tangible product in front of my folks to show them that all my arty crap might one day have a place in the financially viable world.

What would you ask Larry David if you met him?

Can I be in your next project?

Any further influences that are germane to mention?

It’s interesting, when we work we don’t really talk in terms of references that much. We all really enjoy surprising the audience, so anything that has good twists and turns is kind of a reference. Strangely we often used Breaking Bad as a reference point, in terms of changing the audiences’ perception of the protagonist. Also Breaking Bad is very good at quietly setting up surprises and then unleashing them on an unsuspecting audience.

It’s good to see our fair city, particularly Mt Vic, on the big screen. (The Wellington Tourism Board should pay for the absence of wind).

[Laughs] Yeah were really lucky with the weather. Of the 17 day shoot, we only had one day that rained when we didn’t want it to, and we ended up moving that shoot inside. It’s the scene at Breaker Bay Hall with Hot Swiss Mistress playing, when Toby first sees Phoebe. That was originally meant to be an outdoor gig, with a kind of dream weaver moment. It was blowing a chilly gale, and at the last minute Ruth and Vanessa made the call that with about 20 extras, it was just going to be a nightmare shooting outside. It was totally the right decision. Art department were prepared for it really well, so they had a busy hour rushing to the new location and making it look like a craft market, and it was back on track. I think the scene is actually better for it. It’s a great example of how well oiled the production machine became that they were able to make such a considerable change at such short notice and it didn’t entirely screw everything up!

It’s important to feed your people well on a shoestring budget production, isn’t it?

It certainly is! If you can’t pay well, you must feed very well. We were lucky to have a guy called Grisham Langston doing catering for us, who is actually a history doctorate, who had just completed his studies. He also makes a bang-up nosh on bugger all! He had fed us wonderfully on a bunch of 48 hours shoots, so he was out go-to guy. And he will be in future too.

Tell me about a comic moment during production?

I remember a fair amount of stress. There was a constant good vibe on set though, but it was always bubbling away under the constant need to get shit done right, first time. The only time there was outright laughter on set was the filming of the climax sequence, which I don’t want to give away, but for some reason the DOP and consequently the entire camera and lighting department, and me as well, started corpsing, or uncontrollably giggling, every take. Ironically this is actually not a particularly desirable moment, as you know the director and 1st AD are watching the monitors swiftly becoming irate with the whole affair, so you try to stomp it out pretty quick. So not really that hilarious, just sleep-deprived.

What overseas film festival would you most like to take the movie to?

I’d love to take it to all sorts of places, but I guess it kind of depends on the reasons behind why. For beer/music/BBQ reasons I’d love to take it to SXSW, which would also be a great festival for it to screen in, but I’d love to see it go to Sundance also. Both fairly lofty goals given our means, so I’ll take what I can get! I’d love to take it anywhere people will enjoy it.

Why general release in Te Awamutu?

People from Te Awamutu have very discerning tastes. That was a bit of a surprise, but a very pleasant one! Distribution is obviously not in our court anymore, but presumably Madman sent screeners around and the local Te Awamutu cinema enjoyed it. It’s fantastic to know that a little kiwi indie film can get support from our smaller centres. For these little indies to do well, it’s vital that New Zealanders get behind them, so I was totally stoked when I saw that Te Awamutu have got behind us. I just hope their local community get behind it too and support their local cinema by going to see it!

‘How to Meet Girls From a Distance’ premiered at the New Zealand International Film Festival in August. It opens in cinemas nationwide from November 1st. For additional commentary, follow Alexander Bisley on Twitter @alexanderbisley.

2012-10-29 · Permalink · FILM Features Interviews NZ Cinema

Can’t Get Enough

Music critic Simon Sweetman relays the stories behind thirty New Zealand pop classics with his new book, On Song.

Annable Fay’s album Show Me the Right Way is a horrible collection of tasteless and meaningless mangles of notes masquerading as music... It has nothing going for it—her voice is without character. The songs are bland. The element of “polish” to mask the cracks and gaps in the songs leaves it as a cold experience.” “If fans want to take their frustrations out on me because I said something that didn’t sit well with them about their favourite artist then I understand that. I’m baffled somewhat by the stupidity that comes along with it a lot of the time,” Simon Sweetman. The lively, engaging critic is also a talented interviewer, as previous chats with the likes of George Clinton and Damon Albarn record. With hundreds of posts over at Blog on the Tracks, from the Fay takedown to a recent Bob Dylan critique, Sweetman’s fierce productivity is intimidating. I asked Sweetman about his passionate, enjoyable first book, which covers thirty New Zealand classics, from ‘She Speeds’ (“a giant wave that pulls in the listener”) to ‘Jesus I Was Evil’ via ‘Can’t Get Enough’.

*   *   *

ALEXANDER BISLEY: Lots of people came to your recent, colourful launch at Slow Boat Records. I particularly enjoyed your marvellous reading of Martin Phillips’s masterpiece: “‘Pink Frost’ is one of the South Island’s siren songs; a Flying Nun touchstone, a song that New Zealanders can recognise as distinctly their own, evocative of our unique landscape.” Could you elaborate why you chose this extract from On Song’s thirty?

SIMON SWEETMAN: I figured I should read something—I’ve seen and heard people read at book launches before. But I wasn’t sure that my book was necessarily one that extracted well—simply because it’s non-fiction. I certainly didn’t want to read one entire chapter. I really enjoyed writing the piece about ‘Pink Frost’ and it features a lot of my writing/my voice—some of the pieces are based more on interviews, others have more of me in them. I interviewed Martin Phillipps for the book and he gave great answers, but I really wanted to try to convey a tone that I hear and feel with ‘Pink Frost’ as it’s such a mood-piece and moody piece. It seemed the right piece to read a portion of—I did my best to tie it to the geography of the region that it reflects.

AB: Music is your all-consuming passion, isn’t it?

SS: I guess so. I’ve never really thought about it  that way—but if it’s all-consuming then perhaps I haven’t had the time to sit back and think about whether it’s an all-consuming passion. I’ve been very keen on music since I was a little kid. I remember asking questions relentlessly about The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley and then reading music bios, copying out lyrics and liner notes, keeping lists of purchases and wish-list records. So, yeah, obsessing I suppose.

AB: You write, “I wrote the book across 2011-2012. And it was a joy to get this involved—this immersed—in some of the defining songs from our country.” What was hard about the project?

SS: It was important to feel like I had an angle—a way in. I wasn’t sure at first that New Zealand needed another book about New Zealand music—but I really like writing about individual songs. You extract a song from an artist’s career and you’re free to just explore the song. But you can also bring in other information about the artist too—Jan Hellriegel for example. It’s interesting to me that she disappeared from the scene. But she returned and her hit song, ‘The Way I Feel’, was the song everyone wanted to hear when she performed in Wellington for the first time in some 15 years.

I decided fairly early on that the way I would pick the songs to write about would be based on songs I felt could only have come from New Zealand. That means it’s my interpretation—and that was important. It meant I was free to explore my connections and associations with these songs as well as getting the stories from the writers of the music.

It was also hard fitting it in—my first book. It felt big. Ominous—more so than writing blogs and reviews. They are not so much easy as achievable. I do them all the time—so that means I know I can do them. I didn’t know I could do a book until I had.

AB: I think Don McGlashan is New Zealand’s greatest singer-songwriter. You wrote about his Aramoana inspired ‘A Thing Well Made’, and, in your profile: “McGlashan’s songs are a huge part of the music that is typically, identifiably Kiwi.” How do you narrow McGlashan down to one song?

SS: Very hard to narrow McGlashan down to one song; very hard to narrow down the Finns and Dave Dobbyn and Jordan Luck too—but I would say that Don McGlashan was the toughest, definitely. And several of his songs were swimming in my head as I was making and refining the lists to work from. There was a very long first long-list. And McGlashan had the most entries on there. I decided straight away that there should only be one song per artist—because I wanted the book to not be lumped in with the Nature’s Best CD series. Obviously I’d be covering some of the same material but I didn’t want four or five Finn or Dobbyn or Runga songs to dominate, as had been the case with that series.

All of that said ‘A Thing Well Made’ was my first choice, because it is exactly that: A thing (very) well made; a song that always gives me chills/sends shivers. And it wasn’t one of the Nature’s Best songs from Don, so that appealed too. There were certain songs that had to be written about (‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, ‘How Bizarre’), songs that have put New Zealand on the map or talked about New Zealand’s map, or both. I also wanted to have a few songs in the book where people were perhaps a little surprised by the inclusion. ‘A Thing Well Made’ has the Aramoana inspiration to it also. And in fact it was battling with picking just one McGlashan song that inspired the profiles of key writers in the book.

AB: The work of the Finns, Knox, Dobbyn, and Runga are also highlighted.

SS: That in turn was hard; I would have liked to include sidebars for more writers: Martin Phillips, Jordan Luck, Anika Moa.

AB: You blogged: “One of my favourite stories in the book On Song is the  story of ‘Victoria’. Because I wanted to reflect the time spent talking with Jordan and his passion for music—his own, and in fact everyone’s. And where he could have wanted to promote any of the songs I’ve named or any of up to a dozen others, he was so very proud of ‘Victoria’. He said he owes his career to that song. It was the band’s first single. It was the one that made them. That and the early performances. It was his reason for being who he was as writer, performer, entertainer, rocker. It was the start of everything in so many ways. And I found that form of honesty refreshing,” Tell me a bit about another favourite story?

SS: Some of the selections in the book come from my idea of what has made an artist; others were obvious selections; and then you find that it really is what made the artist. As is the case with Jordan Luck and The Exponents and ‘Victoria’. But sometimes I was going on a hunch too, hoping that what I heard would be reflected when I spoke to a song’s author. I got it right—and was very lucky about that—when talking with Anika Moa about her song, ‘In The Morning’. I pushed for this song to be included, it was one that the publishers were less sure of, in that it wasn’t necessarily a classic, or any sort of hit. But the song speaks to me on several levels. It is, as far as I’m concerned, Anika’s proudest moment as a songwriter. And it’s a stunning performance. It’s a very powerful song, it comes from deep within her—it’s a very personal song. But I saw all of that as the real start of her career; or at least the re-start and the beginning of the (very) real Anika Moa. She’s so good at playing up the stage banter and she’s sharp, witty, and talented. It’s not that she’s faking any of that but she has mastered a certain shtick. ‘In The Morning’ is so very real that I wanted to get behind Anika’s feelings and motivations in writing the song. I hoped to hear that she was sure it was the start of her songwriting career. And she did say exactly that, she considers it a very important song for her because it was the trigger for her second album. And her second album is what really announces her as a talent. That debut album is a good record for a young kid to make. But Stolen Hill is a great album for anyone to have made.

And then Anika talks also of the publicity and promo surrounding the release of Stolen Hill and ‘In The Morning’. She was coming out, publicly. Her label warned her off doing that, suggested she stay quiet. She took every opportunity to out herself in interviews and with this song, about an abortion, she had a vehicle to show so many sides to herself and she made herself a spokesperson—she made herself approachable, showed strength and vulnerability. I love the song. And I love Anika’s interview for the book. It was one of my favourite chapters to write because it felt like a lot of what I had hoped for had played out. And then Anika was so candid, revealing, warm, and honest in the way she described it all.

AB: I find ‘In the Morning’ powerful also. Speaking of candid, what about a Bill Withers song you would you like to hear the full story of? I agree that Bill Withers, Live at Carnegie Hallis a bible… for teaching the good word in regards to dynamic control; great musicians playing for the song and with each other rather than attempting to show off their chops whenever the chance arrives.”

SS: Bill Withers is pretty special. I’m not sure I need to know the stories behind any of his songs so much though; I think I get enough just from taking in the songs. And that amazing documentary. And the song-intros on Live At Carnegie Hall definitely help tell part of the story behind some of the songs. ‘Grandma’s Hands’ for instance. But you put on one of the great Bill Withers records—particularly that live album—and you are taken to a place. You are transported. He sings with soul and of his soul. He is offering so much of himself in those songs. And I love that.

AB: Name an important local live album?

SS: I think probably there have been a lot of missed opportunities and a lot of things still lying in vaults perhaps. I’m always surprised that more bands haven’t done the cheap live album, minimal packaging, sold only at gigs—near enough to a bootleg but the actual artist is getting the money. I have a very good Mutton Birds live album that is exactly that—a bootleg that McGlashan was selling at his solo shows.

I still believe that Dave Dobbyn needs to tour behind his trilogy of great albums: Lament For The Numb/Twist/The Islander—that would make an amazing live double-disc. Or cherry-picking from it.

The live albums I think of from New Zealand acts are usually not all that strong at all—like the Pacifier Live album (from Shihad’s name-change daze) and the Finn/Runga/Dobbyn album, which was very sloppy.

AB: Your greatest Kiwi love songs are ‘E Ipo’ by Prince Tui Teka (our first chart topper performed in Te Reo) and Chris Knox’s ‘Not Given Lightly’. “How very Kiwi, how very lo-fi and No. 8 wire to take a line from a song about sadomasochism and turn it into an endearing, enduring love song,” you write sharply on the latter. Further top tunes about aroha?

SS: Anika Moa’s song ‘In The Morning’ has so much heart in it and to it. I would have to include that. Don McGlashan would get a bit of a sweep here—but certainly his ‘Andy’ is beautiful; heartfelt. And Jordan Luck’s ‘Know Your Own Heart’ has always been one of my favourite songs. I think we do love songs well here. I think we’re pretty good at coming up with new ways of expressing it. We either remove the cliché or we play with the cliché, fall into it and then subvert it, as I believe Knox did with ‘Not Given Lightly’, and The Mutton Birds’ ‘There’s A Limit’ is another example for me. The 3Ds’ ‘Spooky’ gives me shivers every time. And going back to my book I included Emma Paki’s ‘System Virtue’ and Sisters Underground’s ‘In The Neighbourhood’ for many reasons—chiefly because both are great songs. But they have a lot of heart. And they are all about heart. And love. And passion. And it’s there not so much in the words with those songs as it is in the spaces between the words, in the way the melody has been shaped.

AB: I generally see pungent criticism of a reviewer as a badge of honour. When I panned Mel Gibson’s Jesus BDSM The Passion of the Christ for The Dominion Post, I got a (feeble) death threat. You’ve had one or two people object to your journalism. On Amanda Palmer’s childish blog, a commentator upped the puerile whinging: “He is a nasty douchebag of the highest order. He hates women, particularly women in music, is an arrogant misogynistic arse. I wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire… Note to Simon, I know you wrote these “supportive” comments all yourself. You have a personality disorder and delusions of grandeur, you need help.” Has any of this criticism ever bothered you?

SS: No, I am not bothered by what people say. Fans are—by definition—fanatical. It’s not their job to see through the hype. That’s my job. And if they want to take their frustrations out on me because I said something that didn’t sit well with them about their favourite artist, then I understand that. I’m baffled somewhat by the stupidity that comes along with it a lot of the time—like people telling me that I’m an anonymous internet warrior that would never say these things to someone’s face. They tell me this on my blog, which has my name on it and my photo and they’re telling me this under a name like Wingnut357. There’s an irony.

I’ve had people pick at my weight, my appearance, I’ve had people tell me they will throw bricks through the windows and set my house on fire. And the fact is none of this will ever happen.

People get upset. People don’t like being told they have bad taste. They strike out. They accuse me of getting personal, but if they have that much of themselves invested in the music then they’re the ones that have made it personal from the get-go. This is what happens with music and arts-related experiences and products. I invest a lot of myself and my time in music and arts too. I love far more music than a daily blog can ever explain. And yet I’m very lucky to have that platform, that forum to at least have a go at expressing some of it. But I don’t want it to be the only thing I do—express love for music. If you love everything then that creates very little actual value, if everything is five stars then it might actually all just be three stars too.

AB: How do you produce so much work?

SS: One key after another. Beating the keys of the computer as if they owe me money. That’s all, really. Some days I wish I didn’t have to do this as much as I do it—other days I can’t get enough. I’ve recently started my Off The Tracks site where I’ll be adding more reviews and blogs and keeping the dialogue going.

AB: What do you tell kids who want to get into music journalism?

I tell them to be prepared to work a job, probably full time. Music journalism in New Zealand doesn’t really work as a full-time gig. The pay is not good, and if it is, it’s because you are actually doing PR. Possibly it’s a case of you not even knowing that. I also tell them that if they’re passionate about music and writing and wanting to be involved with both then they need to just hop to it. In a basic sense it’s never been easier: start a blog, get active with social media, create a voice, and see, through that, whether you actually have anything to say, whether you in fact do have a voice. And if anyone is listening; if there’s any weight and worth to the voice. If not, hopefully you didn’t quit your day job—because you were always going to need that anyway. But if the grand plan falls over at the first hurdle at least you’ve got some money coming in. And you’re doing your best to keep the wolves from the door.

Simon Sweetman is a former guest contributor to The Lumière Reader. ‘On Song: Stories Behind New Zealand’s Pop Classics’ is out now. Over at Off the Tracks, Alexander Bisley contributes Five Albums I’m Loving Right Now.

2012-11-13 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Books Music

An Interview with Noland Walker

Talking Obama’s victory, Chicago, and music documentaries with the director/producer of Citizen King, Jonestown, and Boogie Man.

In korero with The Lumière Reader the day after Barack Obama won a dynamic progressive mandate, Noland Walker is smiling. “I’m more hopeful than 2008. This country is trying to figure out who it is in the twenty-first century. Our election direction chosen is very encouraging. Barack Obama has strengthened his progressive coalition. It’s not surprising, but it is affirming. I couldn’t be more excited, relieved, happier. I couldn’t be more impressed with Barack Obama as a human being, and I’m very excited about his next four years as president.”

Lyndon Barrois, The Tree of Life/Matrix Reloaded animation supervisor and director of short film The Lift, is also happy about the result: “Euphoria and pride man, because compassion, truth and logic prevailed over money, superiority, and suppression.”

As when I interviewed him about Jonestown and Citizen King (“Barack Obama is the real deal”), the black director is charismatic and involved, as adept at articulating complex arguments and stories as he is snappy quips. On Politics: “There are things you have to do to stay in the game. Life is long, and it’s complicated.” On Joe Lieberman: “He’s awful”. Is American puritanism re politicians’ personal lives declining? “Not really. Bill Clinton is his own special case.”

Speaking via Skype from his Philadelphia home, he is pleased to hear I had a great Augustan time in Harlem, where Clinton’s Foundation on 125th has been part of the Renaissance. “Harlem is alive and jumpin’, though it’s got its areas that aren’t doing too well. My wife’s mother is from Harlem, she’s still got an apartment there. My joke about Harlem the last few years is ‘the Dutch are taking it back’.”

One of many American improvements since 2008 is better centrestream prominence for compelling, nuanced blacks intellectuals, such as Walker; Jamelle Bouie (“This Senate majority will be far more liberal than its predecessor”); Ta Nehisi Coates (“After Obama won, the longed-for post-­racial moment did not arrive; on the contrary, racism intensified”); Melissa Harris-Perry (“Professor West offers thin criticism of President Obama and stunning insight into the delicate ego of the self-appointed black leadership class that has been largely supplanted in recent years”); and Jelani Cobb (“Nothing better defined the precise nature of his circumstances than that triumphal moment of birtherism, in which a sitting President was forced to prove his own citizenship...racially profiled.”)

Although “in that first debate he looked like he was gonna give the election away,” Walker agrees Obama ran a strong campaign, holding Romney to account for his record. “He took the fight to the Republicans.” One of the makers of Boogie Man, a fascinating documentary about Lee Atwater, the Republican pioneer of dodgy tactics who mentored Karl Rove, he knows what Obama was up against. Were it not for outrageous Republican gerrymandering in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, the Democrats could have retaken Congress. “It is what it is. There’s that baseball saying, ‘If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’. My son says there were reports on the radio Republicans were ringing black neighbourhoods here in Philadelphia and saying the election had been postponed a day because of Hurricane Sandy.” People power overcame. “Variations on other tried and true discouragement methods. A line is not going to keep us from voting. We’re using to waiting.”

Walker moved to Los Angeles a couple of months before Rodney King got the LAPD treatment. “Had that guy with that video camera not been there, nobody would have believed it. There was a history of justified complaints about LAPD police brutality being ignored due to supposed lack of evidence. Black people were like ‘now we have the video evidence; what we have to do to get justice?’”

We discuss recent music documentaries, such as Still Bill. “I really enjoyed the film. How true to himself he is. Bill Withers still talks like he talked in West Virginia. I really like his values, ideas, morals (not moralism). He wasn’t a showbusiness person, he wasn’t interested in being a celebrity. He was a music maker who did great gigs. I liked Marley even more, it’s pretty great. Not conventional in a lot of ways. It’s about the impact on his kids. It’s about the cost he paid.

“Something you said about Mavis Staples made me think of The Johnny Cash Project, maybe sacred music is the connection. If you haven’t seen it, watch the documentary first, then watch the video itself. Both of the creators were at the Sundance Lab last year and blew my mind.” Speaking of Sundance, he unexpectedly participated in a writers’ panel with Bret McKenzie at Sundance New Frontiers Lab a couple of weeks ago, talking about story, storytelling, and transmedia. “I turned up, and there he was in the next seat. He was great. North-easterners love Flight of the Conchords,” Walker chuckles genially.

“Of all the music I came up with, being a parent— and having lost one of my parents— has deepened my appreciation and understanding of what Stevie Wonder’s about. Not blindly positive, it’s an affirmation of life. I watched this documentary about The Spinners recently. There’s beautiful footage of Stevie Wonder at the front of a Spinners gig rockin’ out with ecstasy.”

The Memphis-born father of three says Wonder is also a positive influence on hip-hop. “Hip-hop’s coming back in a certain way, really. As you say, it was becoming repetitive and reductive. All the songs were sounding the same. All the videos were looking the same.”

Walker is happy people are now after more from hip-hop; and that there are new, cross-form opportunities for community media. “Some people would say public media’s under siege.” Well, Mitt Romney did say that he’d crack down on Sesame St; that Big Bird had to go. “That’s been on the table for a long time. We’re finding new ways to tell stories. Everybody knows change is coming. You don’t just sit and wait. There’s real power in the specificity of place. Technology’s only technology. One of my inspirations is Canadian Film Board website, which employs sound, image, sequencing; it’s immersive. Welcome to Pine Point, about an industrial town that doesn’t exist anymore. Almost like a yearbook. It unfolds, very interestingly. You feel like that you’ve been there, and you’ve lost.”

Speaking of the power of place, I raise my enthusiasm for Chicago, with its vivid atmosphere, delicious food, outstanding attractions (Chicago Art Institute, Aquarium, and— on the South Side— massive Museum of Science and Industry), grand architecture, and pastel-blue Lake Michigan. It turns out Walker’s father’s family is from Obama’s hometown; he lived there from the age of three to nine, and went back in the summers to visit grandmothers and cousins. “I may not be the man to give you a driving tour all over Chicago, but I can get you around the South Side. It’s a great town. Sometimes I ask my wife ‘How come we don’t live there?’ The winters. Practical considerations. The time it takes to break in a new city.”

Alexander Bisley recently interviewed Chicago band Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and, back in the day, The New Yorker’s Chief Political Writer Rick Hertzberg.

2012-11-19 · Permalink · FILM Features Interviews

Lord of the Echo

Black Seeds guitarist and producer Mike Fabulous spills on silverbeet, social media, and supergroups.

“I’m terrified of it. I don’t have enough time to keep up on my emails. I don’t like the idea of being instantly contactable. I value my solitude,” Mike Fabulous smiles during a relaxed interview at his busy Newtown home. The Black Seeds’ genial guitarist and producer tells The Lumière Reader that he will definitely not be setting up a Twitter account (or a Lord Echo website).

“He was getting up to some sketchy things.” For quite sometime a dubious individual was pretending to be Mike Fabulous on Facebook; this imposter was deceitfully connecting with some of the Black Seeds’ many American fans. Numerous modest requests to Facebook to act vanished in the ether. The father of two was forced to hardball, emailing: “I’m from a moderately popular New Zealand reggae band. Please do something about this situation, or I will have to talk to my media contacts about identity fraud on Facebook.” Within 24 hours the imposter was deleted, he recalls over a big bowl of silverbeet. “Oh, green vegetables. I punished myself on Saturday night.”

Earlier this year I befriended a Colorado chef at a Barcelona tapas bar. He didn’t mention hobbits, rugby or landscapes. Kiwi music, however? “I love the Black Seeds. Super talented.” Rolling Stone alleged they are “The Best Reggae band in the world right now.” Diminishing returns can set in on some Seeds popular hits when overplayed round these little islands’ cafes; they trend towards terrific live, as at the May Wellington launch of chart-topping album Dust and Dirt.

With Fabulous Arabia, the former Cartertonian’s distinguished partnership with Lawrence Arabia, outputs include Unlimited Buffet, harmonious tracks like ‘ Ballad of State Highway One’. Simon Sweetman, no Black Seeds fan boy, blogged the collaboration as charming, adding: “Mr Fabulous deserves plenty of credit for what he brings to the party. The party for a start.”

Lord Echo, Mike’s 15 piece supergroup, is marvellous and dynamic live.  Alongside bandsters from Fat Freddy’s Drop and Trinity Roots, it includes his brother, landscaper Danny Pash (pictured).

The energetic bloke enjoyed performing at WOMAD 2012 (“I am a fan of so-called world music”), with both the Seeds and the Yoots. The 2011 summer concert season kicked off with the Yoots’ whimsical waiata at Paekakariki’s “beautiful old St Peter’s Hall”, enhanced with a local kapa haka group.  Nick Bollinger described Sing Along With The Yoots!—Amplifier’s Album of 2011—as “raw, spirited, inspired and often virtuosic”. The Yoots are back at St Peter’s on December 7; and are rehearsing for WOMAD 2013, where they will perform with the 80-strong Aotearoa National Maori Choir.

Mike’s boutique solo work features on labels German, New Yorker and Japanese. “My four track vinyl sampler sold out. I’d like to spend some solid time with Kenji in Osaka.” There’s engineering, producing, and recording work for artists like Electric Wire Hustle’s Mara TK. And, further below the radar, drum research: “I’m obsessed with drum sounds.”

Making a diverse group like Lord Echo happen is not without its challenges. Band members live in different cities. Remuneration is modest. Mike makes sure there’s good food and drink, a sense of humour, and ingenuity. “Eight songs and no rehearsal. Yes I want to rehearse,” Venezuelan singer Jennifer Zea said when she met Lord Echo before a gig. So the hotel room quickly became the group’s mock stage.

The Phoenix Foundation’s Sam Scott chimes in, telling me why he rates Lord Echo: “I have Lord Echo demo CDs that I have stolen from Mike’s house at various junctures. The fact that he has now released this music and is playing it live is awesome for everyone but me. I miss being one of the few people who knew how much great music he was stockpiling.”

Seeds vocalist Daniel Weetman explains why this 1997 formation member—along with former Seed now Conchord Bret McKenzie—produces their albums: “Mike has a great ear and vision. He works hard to make things sound good, and knows what we want an album to sound like, but also an album evolves by itself too, and he is good at moving with what is happening at the time, and ready with an open mind to capture anything spontaneous happening in the studio.”

Mike’s productive and easygoing, but he’s unimpressed by the capital’s slovenly support for musicians. “Wellington markets itself on being the creative capital of New Zealand, but, in reality, that’s a fantasy. Increasingly, there’s nowhere musicians can afford to practice and record. We might all have to end up in The Hutt.”

The Black Seeds play venues North and South, including Martinborough, through December. Mike Fabulous will perform at WOMAD 2013, including supergroups The Yoots and Fly My Pretties.

2012-11-25 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Music WOMAD

Southern Comfort

Otago Peninsula, Germany, spiritual cries of pain, and the magic of live music according to The Chills’ Martin Phillipps.

Incendiary ‘Heavenly Pop Hit’ is about freedom, Martin Phillipps says. “Yes. It is an explosion of joy at simply realising that you are alive. I was surprised by how many people found it a horrible song because, I suppose, it was the time of grunge and the much more popular message then was darker and more aggressive. Many people have tried to get me to say that it was tongue-in-cheek, that I was being cynical etc. But I wasn’t, it was a song of the power of beauty and joy and love. And we didn’t really capture the full force of what I had intended; or even those people who found it so lightweight may have been grudgingly impressed.”

I find it lovely; celestial, actually:

“Once we were damned now I guess we are angels
For we passed though the dark and eluded the dangers
Then awoke with a start to startling changes
All the tension is ended
The sentence suspended
And darkness now sparkles and gleams...
So I stand as the sound goes straight through my body
I’m so bloated up, happy, I can throw things around me.
And I’m growing in stages and have been for ages
Just singing, and floating, and free.”

The Chills’ front man suggests that of all his Flying Nun touchstones, only ‘Pink Frost’ will outlast him. He’s modest about ‘Heavenly Pop Hit’ (the video for which was shot in Ireland). “We were rehearsing for the Submarine Bells world tour, which surprises people because it looks, as was intended, like it is New Zealand. It has been issued in at least three versions because of the nature of record companies where people want to be seen to be having an input. So I had four or five matching shirts in different colours and they keep changing throughout the clip. But the bosses, back at Warner Brothers, wanted “more shirt changes” so it was re-edited again and again. More interesting to me is the fact that the wild goat that just arrived out of nowhere to watch the goings on is briefly featured alongside our bus—presumably as we were trying to coax it on board. I do not know why we were trying to coax a goat onto our bus.”

‘Pink Frost’ is marvellously evocative of the Otago Peninsula, near his Dunedin home where The Lumière Reader interviews him from. “I have not been visiting the Otago Peninsula lately as much as I should be doing, which is a shame because it is an extraordinary collection of environments, each powerful and or beautiful in their own way. In my youth I roamed far and wide over the many inlets and mountains and was very much inspired by what I experienced there. On one of my last visits to the tree-lined path to Lovers Leap and the chasm (that path featured in the ‘Pink Frost’ video), I passed by a stranger who said “Oh, back again!” So I realised that the area had become associated, in some people’s minds, with that particular video. Which is a good thing to me as I am still proud of that clip. Although technology has certainly advanced since it was shot in 1984, the basic concept and look of it is still very evocative of the Peninsula’s powerful atmosphere.”

“Abject, staggering genius”, Grant Smithies wrote on The Chills’ Dunedin Double contribution (‘Satin Doll’, ‘Frantic Drift’, ‘Kaleidoscope World’) in Soundtrack, adding the Verlaines ‘Angela’ (on the same 1982 vinyl) made him want to move to Dunedin the next day. Smithies is one of many who have suggested (or evangelised) that in the eighties New Zealand’s best music—such as The Chills, The Clean, Straightjacket Fits, The Verlaines—came from frosty Dunedin flats.

Phillips reflects further on his favourite songs that evoke landscapes: “‘Rolling Moon’ was inspired by youthful trips on the Otago Peninsula in groups of up to twenty or more friends, most of them seeing the world enhanced by the local magic mushrooms. There is something special about tripping in an area on a substance which has grown there naturally. Perhaps it is the pesticides?

“‘Night of Chill Blue’ was also an Otago Peninsula song, although it was more about lying in a car with a girlfriend so that the clouds appeared to fall earthward rather than across the sky.  But I also threw in some Christmas card imagery (“Twinkling stars over foreign lands/ silent camel train on desert sands”), because the sky was amazingly clear and I experienced that feeling of the immense age of the universe and all that had happened under those same stars.

“‘Tied Up In Chain’ was a song that had been undergoing many lyric revisions, but was entirely rewritten following The Chills’ visit to the site of the Dachau concentration camp in the late ’80s. I may be wrong but I recall no bird noises there, although it is surrounded by trees.  The atmosphere was overwhelming, and it was way beyond the typical cynic’s explanation of purely being created by our expectations. Because of this our German tour guides would not take us to Auschwitz because they had done so with a previous touring band, who had been left unable to perform the next night.”

The first Flying Nun band to tour overseas, The Chills have gigged in 39 countries. Playing East Berlin, on November 7 1987, was one of their most memorable performances. “Being only the third or fourth band from the West to be playing in East Berlin to around a thousand wonderfully excited young people was just amazing. Many of them had gone to great efforts to make sure that we realised how special and memorable it was for everyone involved. Young photographer Peter Brune showed us the grim sights under communism. He also pointed out the KGB operatives following us around in their little car. It was wonderful, some years later, to be woken in the middle of the night back in New Zealand by Peter ringing to say ‘The wall is down and I’m out’.”

Blogging recently about his favourite movies, Phillipps also mentioned a German connection, Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin, which translates literally as The Heavens Over Berlin). He adds:It is so long since I have seen Wings of Desire, I remember being very moved by its themes at the time. I loved the look of it and I have always loved a movie that can realistically bring elements of the fantastical into the everyday world in a manner which is convincing, or at least acceptable, on a story-telling level.”

From ‘Kaleidoscope World’ and ‘Don’t Even Know Her Name’ to ‘Submarine Bells’ (“submerged sound sublime”) via ‘Familiarity Breeds Contempt’ (“So simple to be cynical”), I note Phillips’s talent for crafting atmosphere. “Thank you. I used to believe that creating an atmosphere—lyrically or musically—was an important place to start as it meant that you had removed your audience, in a cinematic sense, to some other place where you could then work on them and their emotions. Sometimes the music and lyrics would be in a kind of opposition which could lead to all sorts of strange, new environments and all of this sort of thing meant that the individual listener/reader was in a position to take their own private journey and interpret whatever they encountered there.”

One debate is the Dunedin Sound. “I guess we all shared equipment, band members, girlfriends and stuff,” Phillipps observed on that question in Flying Nun documentary Heavenly Pop Hits. “There is still a staggering amount of very good music being made here but, as with the rest of the world, the ease of communications has brought about changes for the better and has also deprived us all of some of the strange little scenes that sprang up through their very isolation. I am not up on all of the current Dunedin bands, but the idea that there would be a sound that is specific to a particular region or city seems to be pretty much gone. Overall I guess that this is a good thing. The more the world communicates the better for all of us.”

The topical launch of Far South Records means Phillips is in an upbeat mood. “I have had some great times performing alongside labelmates Katie Raven (with her as yet unnamed band), and Two Cartoons, who are just excellent and a lot of fun. We even did a fairly wild version of ‘Pink Frost’ together in Auckland a couple of months back and that was great. I’ve been learning not to be too precious about the way some of my old songs must be played!”

“A spiritual cry of pain,” Simon Sweetman pithily described Phillipps’s chef d’oeuvre in On Song. Some other favourite songs in this vein? “‘House With a Hundred Rooms’, ‘Night of Chill Blue’, ‘Halo Fading’, ‘Don’t Be—Memory’, ‘Submarine Bells’, ‘Entertainer’,” Phillips records an impressive Chills array. “‘Water Wolves’, ‘Sunburnt’, ‘You Can Understand Me’, ‘Lost In Future Ruins’, ‘Walk on the Beach’, ‘True Romance’, ‘Secret Garden’, ‘Small Spark’, ‘Hawea’.”

Multitudinously, ‘Doledrums’’ sharp sense of humour flashes through the interview:

“In the doledrums
On the dole
Counting down lonely hours
Drinking lots and taking showers

...But the benefits arrive and life goes on!”

This sly song may well be the spiritual father of The Phoenix Foundation/Eagle vs Shark’s ‘Blue Summer’, with Luke Buda’s winning romancing line “Oh we could be unemployed together.”  Not to mention Flight of the Conchords’ ‘Inner City Pressure’: “When you’re unemployed there’s no vacation/ No one cares, no one sympathises/ You just stay home and play synthesizers.”

Asking for an account of Phillipps’s favourite gigs as a listener occasions a characteristically lucid stream-of-consciousness. “Just one? In that case I will not mention The Enemy, Toy Love, early Split Enz at the Regent Theatre, Talking Heads beginning their worldwide Fear of Music tour at that same venue, or the two times I saw R.E.M. or Randy Newman or the Pixies or the Rolling Stones or whatever. I will talk about the Clean! I cannot pick a particular gig but there were so many around the early ’80s which were just on fire and primal and life-changing! Actually, no I will talk about the Residents instead. We were lucky to see them, with Snakefinger on guitar, at the (now) Powerstation on a tour that, I believe, only went to Japan, Australia and New Zealand. I don’t think I’ve seen such a diverse audience for one band and I don’t believe that the Residents quite believed the incredibly enthusiastic reception they received here either. At the bottom of the world? No way! Actually I’ve seen Bob Dylan a couple of times and he’s worth checking out. The Troggs were good, too.”

A late friend told me the best moment of his education was when Phillipps guest lectured at his SIT audio-production course. “It is not something I would choose to do often, but it is fun to occasionally engage with a group of people who are there to learn, and I usually rattle things up a bit by showing them that there is no black and white. Young people these days into music tend to know far more about most aspects of the business and performance and creation of music than I do, but it is that very complacency that I try to break through. There are no rules.”

No ironic poseur, Phillipps’s genuine passion through the interview augurs well for Bodega on December 1. “The band is going great! The five-piece has become very powerful as we learn more about our capabilities. We are playing a very strong set of songs well-known and less well-known. I make sure that we all put everything into it or I pinch them later on when they’re not looking. I have to practice on my beautiful new black Gretsch Electromatic so that I can be in tip-top shape for my fellow Wellingtonians at the gig. Yup I was born there, 49 years ago.”

What does a Chills audience member get from a live gig they can’t get from Spotify? “The smell, the bumps, the bruising, the over-charged merchandise.  Being sure that the singer looked straight into your eyes! Sweat, which goes horribly cold when you leave the venue. Slipping on something, or somebody, or something from somebody. Ringing ears. A new girlfriend!”

Alexander Bisley interviewed Brotha D about Dawn Raid’s glory years here.

2012-11-26 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Music

Stairway to Sweden

Catching up with the Datsuns a decade after the British press proclaimed them rock ‘n’ roll’s saviours.

Total rock energy overload, in the best way. But also very tidy. Tidy tidy tidy rock ‘n’ roll band. One of the best—and last!—moshes I’ve had,” The Phoenix Foundation’s Luke Buda tells me about The Datsuns. “And let’s not forget Dolf’s howl which he wields much like mighty Zeus wields the lightning bolt, with Impunity and Disdain for Puny Mortals!”

You know the story about the Cambridge garage rockers. In 2002 they borrowed money from a friend and made a crack impression at Austin’s South by Southwest. Later that year, the British music press bigged ‘em up big time: NME’s front cover proclaimed the Datsuns as the best live band on the planet. However in June 2004, Outta Sight, Outta Mind—their John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin bassist) produced second album—got gang dissed. This brings to mind Hunter S. Thompson’s observation: “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs.  There’s also a negative side.”

From London, guitarist Christian Livingstone tells me he doesn’t agree with Hunter S: “It is not as bad as that. Thieves and pimps are attracted to ventures in which they can make a lot of money. Sadly, it is incredibly hard to make money in the music business these days. I would say that Hunter S Thompson’s quote would apply pretty accurately to the banking sector though.”

Sweden-based vocalist/guitarist Dolf De Borst, however, concurs: “Bang on. Haha.”

Though there’s not much money in music these days—“more of a hobby,” Auckland guitarist Phil Somervell says—music’s original charm still keeps Livingstone in the game: “I was keen on mime initially, but I was never going to impress any girls with my trapped in a box performance.”

I thank the boys for their great (in the genuine, classical sense) gig at Victoria University’s 2004 Orientation, and one at Oakura beach (with Shihad) in January 2007. “My pleasure,” Livingstone replies. Though he declines to reminisce about a favourite gig at home or overseas, the boisterous guitarist says he and the band still really enjoy performing. His pitch on the magic of a Datsuns live gig over downloading? “A big dose of awesome sensory overloading reality. Looking or listening to anything on a laptop pales in comparison to experiencing something for real in the flesh. Gig going tip: when at a gig, put the phone away and experience it for real.”

De Borst adds in the same vein: “A lot of music is best experienced live, the presence of the band, the showmanship. The feeling of a crowd participating in the event. The volume. It’s just as much a visual experience on a good night, we like to put on a show.”

Reviewing the Datsuns in 2004, NME snidely said calling a band great live was like telling a chick she’s got a great personality. “What does that even mean?” Livingstone ripostes. De Borst is sharper: “I’d rather hang out with people with great personalities. Wouldn’t you?”

Death Rattle Boogie was recorded at De Borst’s Gutterview studio in Sweden. “Sweden is a socialist utopia where public transport is a dream to behold and the government raises your children and keeps you healthy too. All you have to do is pay taxes. Their self serve candy is also great,” he enthuses about how Sweden inspired the album. “I suppose there are a lot more like minded bands living in Sweden so we could call in friends and colleagues to record with us, help with backing vocals and such. Having my own recording space is pretty amazing and gives a certain amount of freedom to try different things during the whole process.” Livingstone chimes in: “What’s not cool about Sweden? Seriously!”

Speaking of personalities, Nicke Andersson, best known as frontman for Swedish garage rock band The Hellacopters, co-produced the new album. “He’s super passionate about music in a real light hearted fun way, so to have that energy around us when we’re recording was really essential because you can get so self-involved in what you’re doing,” Somervell says. Livingstone adds Death Rattle Boogie develops The Datsuns’ sound. “Death Rattle Boogie is the sound of the Datsuns accepting who we are, embracing it and enjoying the result. As for my favourite song, too tricky to call. I wouldn’t want to hurt the other songs feelings by picking one out as a favourite song.”

Waikato press have responded favourably. “Here is a band who have—by their own words—rediscovered the ferocious energy they are famous for in their live shows and, in doing so, have produced what time will show is a classic. Nothing is held back from the opener ‘Gods Are Bored’, a stuttering boogie that explodes with trashing guitar riffs,” Hamilton News enthused.

Livingstone’s Death Rattle Fuzzbox is used voluptuously on Death Rattle Boogie. In his London lab he produces boutique and custom effects pedals under the moniker ‘Magnetic Effects’. “It adds a wall of hairy, sweaty fuzz. Every show needs a bit of dirty distortion and the Death Rattle Fuzzbox has more dirt than All Blacks shorts after a match.”

Led Zeppelin and Albert and Costello were formative inspirations. “Apparently I used to watch Albert and Costello films, and roll around the floor laughing. As for Led Zeppelin, well I picked up the guitar because of them.”

And pumped out tracks like ‘Harmonic Generator’, ‘MF From Hell’, and ‘In Love’. “Harmonic Generator was written in my Cambridge bedroom circa 1999. The song was written on a drum machine with a vocoder supplying the backing vocals. The title of the song was inspired by the Paul Crowther guitar pedal Prunes and Custard, which is subtittled Harmonic Generator Intermodulator. Thanks Paul.”

Despite living in London, Livingstone isn’t familiar with Little Britain, where the characters Lou and Andy memorably mock Reed and Warhol. “I have seen Little Britain a couple of times but am not overly familiar with the show. Little Britain used to be on TV when I literally lived on the road. There is a period of several years form the last decade where I missed all the movies and TV shows that were popular as I was too busy burning up the miles in a tour bus.”

De Borst points out there were colourful characters on the road. “We met this guy called NNNNN once. A Scandanavian guy living in the South Island in New Zealand. He stuck his finger in Christian’s nose about a minute after meeting him.”

For a schedule of The Datsuns’ imminent gigs—including Wellington, Auckland and France-wide—visit

2012-12-19 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Music

That Soldier Dave

The three-time winner of Best New Zealand Play discusses physical education, Chris Rock, Jaroslav Hasek, and humourless lefties ahead of the opening of his new play, Kings of the Gym.

Dave Armstrong tells me he doesn’t trust those without a sense of humour. “Never. The trouble with most people who don’t have a sense of humour is they think they have a far better sense of humour than anyone else. People like that either end up as dictators of small African nations or as executives in charge of comedy in television networks. Though I once had a boss who said, ‘Don’t ask me, I don’t have a very good sense of humour.’ This comment made me respect her enormously for her honesty.”

The friendly basil grower’s TV credits include Skitz, The Semisis, and Bro’town. One of his witty sketches for McPhail and Gadsby noted a shark’s airlift to Southland Hospital after a run in with Jenny Shipley. Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby had many broadcasting complaints (none upheld). A Melbourne critic didn’t realise it was an attack on free market economics and called Armstrong and the Jewish co-writer Danny Mulheron Nazis. “Satire can be easily misunderstood. And the more sophisticated it is the more easily it can be misunderstood. If someone misunderstands my point I often see that as a badge of honour. Even though Gormsby was a satire on free market changes in education, I’ve lost count of the right-wing ACT supporters who absolutely loved it and saw it as an attack on left-wing values. Same thing happened with my last play The Motor Camp. A left-wing liberal critic in Auckland loathed it yet one of the best reviews was from an office-holder in the National Party. I also suffer from the problem of people thinking I agree with what my characters say.”

The left wing columnist for The Dominion Post elaborates on his disappointment with elements of the left’s censorious and humourless disposition. “The left don’t have a monopoly on humourlessness. If you don’t believe me, read a Treasury report. But there are elements on the left that get offended on other people’s behalf. Good humour keeps people guessing and is unpredictable, so to be too doctrinaire can make things less funny. For example, I used the N-word in a play recently, and even though the audience roared with laughter, almost every liberal critic told me off. They saw red at the mention of the word, yet didn’t realise that I wasn’t insulting Afro-Americans, I was laughing at the way white politicians try to get down with black people and usually do a dreadful job. Check out David Cunliffe speaking at the Avondale Markets on YouTube in a cuzzie-bro accent to see what I mean.”

The drole writer of Le Sud wants audience to be entertained and provoked by his new play, Kings of the Gym. “I believe all four characters in this play are likeable, there’s not really a bad guy. Though it’s about PE on the surface, Kings of the Gym is really about tolerance and ideology. Each character is trying to capture the soul of the other characters. They want someone else to think and act like them, and, at the beginning of the play, can’t countenance a different or opposing political, religious or educational point of view. Like most of my plays, Kings of the Gym is hopefully an entertaining and thought-provoking plea for tolerance on all sides, even though it’s initially very intolerant characters who are making it.”

Which is what Niu Sila–one of his three Best New Zealand Play winners at the Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards—did so memorably. Any plans to work with Oscar Kightley again? “Living in different cities hasn’t helped, though Os and I have talked about working together on various projects in the future. I’m looking forward to his detective TV series (Harry) that is screening later in the year.”

His grade for the Ministry of Education? “A+ Ms Parata is deeply misunderstood and I am confident that the learnings that she has recently achieved will see her initiate a bold era in New Zealand education, producing cutting-edge excellences and innovations that will see a vibrant and achieving sector emerge that is not beholden to doctrinaire teacher unions.”

A “failed teacher”, the Newtown cyclist loved PE at school. “It was pretty basic but I had a number of teachers not unlike the characters in the play. They were guys who weren’t always good teachers according to inspectors or the senior teachers, yet the kids really liked them and enjoyed spending time in their company. What we learned from them was far more than what they taught. And as we all know, a teacher that kids love is a very dangerous thing in a school.”

Speaking of danger, is Paula Bennett beyond satire? “No politician is beyond satire. Paula Bennett might be a laughing stock for a small elite in Wellington, but most New Zealanders take her very seriously. So when her government gives beneficiaries a ‘whack up the bum’, as John Key said, and give the wealthy a nod and a wink and large tax cuts, many people believe that’s perfectly okay. I believe the job of a satirist is to point out the ridiculousness of situations like that. That’s perhaps why we need satirists—to prick people’s bubbles and show that some people’s normal is not necessarily everyone else’s.”

Although he is an unreliable drinking buddy (“he keeps losing his wallet”), Armstrong enjoys working with Kings of the Gym director Danny Mulheron. “I have been very lucky to work with a number of fantastic directors in my time, and Danny is one of them. Danny understands my writing very well, and he’s a great director for a writer to have, especially for the premier performance of a work. Rehearsals are always fun and he isn’t scared of suggesting structural changes to my scripts or getting me to take risks. This is something other directors who might not know me as well may be too polite to do. No chance of that with Dan. Danny and I also share a common experience. For example, we were in the same PE class at secondary school, so our shared background can be a help because he understands my world and where I’m coming from.”

He’d love to have a drink with Chris Rock. “He’s audacious—not scared to take risks. I love his political and racial outlook and he doesn’t try too hard to be liked. Yet he’s also a warm-hearted guy who’s not scared to diss himself.”

Other formative influences include political satirists Jonathan Swift and Jaroslav Hasek. “I had a very good English teacher at school who introduced me to Swift’s Rules for Servants, which is like a political satirist’s handbook. And I loved Gulliver’s Travels. It’s a great narrative yet fantastic satire at the same time. And I have a soft spot for scatological humour. Hasek, especially in the Good Soldier Schweik and Red Commissar, really understands how authority in institutions like the Army operates. As a leftie, I find Hasek’s ‘party of moderate progress within the law’ very funny as it reminds me of the Labour Party.”

More recent laughs include the cricket. “45 all out was pretty funny. There’s a lot of great comedy out there, but sometimes everyday occurrences make me laugh the most. Stuff people say in passing or stuff I hear on the street or in the bus. People sometimes say how did you come up with such an outrageous line and I have to confess I heard someone say it and nicked it.”

Armstrong is confident about theatre’s future. “Definitely. People have been predicting theatre’s demise for years—talkies, television, Cinemascope and 3D were all going to destroy theatre. But theatre’s still here and I reckon always will be, along with the book and the newspaper. Theatre allows writers to experiment and do things relatively cheaply, which can make it quite a radical and subversive medium. The minute lots of money is involved, people are less likely to take risks. I’ve had far less censorship or people wanted me to change things in theatre compared to other mediums like television. And theatre can be a good living for a writer. Many New Zealand plays make more money at the box office than New Zealand movies.”

‘Kings of the Gym’ premieres at Circa Theatre in Wellington on January 19, followed by Maidment Theatre in Auckland from February 7. Alexander Bisley interviewed Maori theatre maestro Jim Moriarty in 2006.

2013-01-14 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Theatre & Performing Arts

Shelter with Carmen Salvador

Chilean singer-songwriter Carmen Salvador is one of the highlights of Luminate, a festival of music, art, dance, creativity and sustainability taking place from January 30 to February 6:

Takaka’s Canaan Downs is a lovely venue, isn’t it? Does this landscape inspire you?

It’s really beautiful and inspiring, one of the things I love the most about the festival.

Why did you get into music? Music still has that charm?

When I was a teenager music became my shelter, just a way to feel connected to life, and when I started getting that feeling with music I knew it was what I was meant to do. And yes, it totally has that charm and even more because now I’m the one writing those songs!

Do you describe yourself as a feminist?

No, not at all. I just think it’s not necessary anymore (not for me at least). I think being a feminist meant having to stand up against a patriarchal system, which obviously still exists, but I feel we’re in a different place. Now as humanity we need to integrate both feminine and masculine in each one of us and not label ourselves or separate.

Who are you looking forward to hearing at Luminate?

I saw Adham Shaikh and Mamaku Project a few years ago and they were awesome so I’m really looking forward to seeing them, but also it’s great to discover new music and Luminate is great for that.

What does an audience member get from a Carmen Salvador gig they can’t get from downloading? What do you want them to take away from Luminate?

I think being on stage is such a challenge because you can’t hide anything. At the studio you can fix things musically, and also you are not as exposed as you are when playing live. So on stage you get to see a more raw version, and the real person behind the music. At Luminate I will perform with my guitarist and I’ll be playing a native South American instrument with a bit of an effects pedal and that’s something we prepared just for this tour, it’s not on the albums. When I perform in countries like New Zealand where most people don’t understand most of the lyrics, I talk to the audience a lot and people like that, after a little story about the songs they can connect better. It’s nice because they have to just feel the music. Hopefully we’ll get to connect from the heart.

Who are some current and formative inspirations?

Musically, I listen to all kinds of music. Right now, I’m listening a lot to Angus and Julia Stone from Australia, and other folky stuff. There’s a Chilean songwriter named Nano Stern. The first time I saw him live was in Australia, of all places, and he is just so powerful on stage, just him and his guitar, it just blows you away/ In general I think it is really inspiring when you see someone doing what they love and putting themselves out there totally. Tori Amos was a huge inspiration for me when I was a teenager.

What’s one of your favourite pieces of musical memorabilia, any Tori Amos?

I don’t really have many, I’ve moved around a lot and each time I try having less stuff to carry. When I was a teenager I had a nice Tori Amos collection; I still have some of those rare singles with beautiful designs and back then when having just one unedited song was an effort and a treasure (no instant internet downloads). I had a book of the music sheets from the album Boys for Pele, but it got lost somewhere along the road.

Tell me about another favourite gig?

I like festivals in general. I had a lovely time at the Bay of Islands Arts Festival in Kerikeri in 2010, just because everyone was so nice to me; the festival director was a really inspiring woman. Also in 2012, I had a concert in a beautiful theatre in Uruguay, and that was really nice because I’d been wanting to have more concerts in countries near Chile, and the theatre is a very important venue in the country, and it’s just gorgeous.
2013-01-13 · Permalink · ARTS Interviews Music

On the Road

Fat Freddy’s Drop producer Mu takes a break from finishing recording new album Black Bird to discuss touring, Paris, the Wairarapa, rugby, and Withersian wisdom.

“I’ve got one funny story, we were on tour in Paris at the famous Elysee Montmartre, before it burnt down. Dallas [Tamaira] was having a particularly grumpy day. The local Paris press wanted to do some interviews and Dallas said ‘Nah fuck man no way’ and then this girl walks in and she’s just drop dead gorgeous; beautiful. He’s ‘I’ll do it'," Mu laughs like a hyena on helium. “Most press want to talk to Dallas, but that’s about the only time I’ve seen him do an interview. He’s a married boy, so we gave him a chaperone.”

The hugely affable Samoan New Zealander and I are lunching at Mojo Kumototo. Chris Faiumu reminisces about making ‘Midnight Marauders’, which tracks a romantic possibility. “It was early days, 2000, 2001. Dallas had moved in to my flat on Ghuznee Street, we were pretty young then and we were just making music, living the life. No proper jobs, smoking weed, making beats all day, being little ratbags; a lot of music was made in those days, and ‘Midnight Marauders’ is definitely a product of that. Listen to the lyrics, there’s a lyric about Dallas going down to the corner store—the Star Mart actually—to pick up a tinnie.” How do the rest of those lyrics go? The girl at the counter caught my eye. “Yeah yeah,” the laidback beatmaker chuckles. Mu’s marvellous sense of humour through the interview is heartening.

Shortly afterwards, the Wainui native’s longtime partner—and Freddy’s manager—Nicole Duckworth coerced him to move out to their picturesque seaside home in Lyall Bay. “I was really set up for making music in Ghuznee Street. I was kinda dragged kicking and screaming after I knocked her up. I didn’t want to leave but we found a nice spot on Lyall Bay.”

The band’s other members are Tehimana Kerr (guitar), Iain Gordon (keys), Toby Laing (trumpet), Joe Lindsay (trombone, tuba) and Scott Towers (saxophone). In 2005 Based on a True Story—Freddys’ nine-time Platinum in New Zealand album—was recorded in Mu’s basement seaside studio The Drop.

“We wanted one funky tune that was going to have some crossover appeal and we had a beat lying around that was quite funky. Then Dal came up with lyrics and it wasn’t a tune we took too seriously, but funny enough it did its job in the end.” Songs like ‘Wandering Eye were the summer of 2005/2006’s soundtrack. T our guitarist is available— so is Joe Lindsay kind of— but the rest of us are pretty solid, we’re all happy with what we’ve got.”

Mu says the rest of Freddy’s are family men with kids who don’t succumb to temptation. “It is a funny culture though, that whole culture of being on the road touring. After you’ve finished a gig, there’s often lovely ladies around, there’s nothing you can really do about it,” he says with a mischievous glint in his eye. “That whole wandering eye thing, Freddys can’t really go there, so we wrote a song about it.”

Plenty of critics are fans also. The BBC/Guardian’s Jon Lusk praised their "unmistakeably South Pacific swing" in August 2009. “Fans of New Zealand’s most critically acclaimed band since The Clean have had a lengthy wait for the follow-up to their gorgeous international debut of 2005, Based on a True Story. Wellington-based ‘seven-headed soul monster’ Fat Freddy’s Drop are renowned for taking their time to distil onstage jams into meticulously crafted studio creations, and once again that approach has paid off. Dr Boondigga & the Big BW is every bit as good as their last record... And even if Tamaira does rhyme “waters” with “daughters” on the highly aquatic, driving dub of The Raft, the way he chews and savours his words for maximum musicality throughout ensures he's still one of the most soulful singers of his generation.”

Tamaira’s voice is smoother than Princess Bay on a tranquil day on songs such as ‘Hope’. “He’s quite shy, he doesn’t like doing interviews.” So Mu explains Tamaira’s soul influences, including Anthony Hamilton, comeback kid D’Angelo, and Bill Withers. Mu thinks the documentary Still Bill conveyed the inspirational, principled man, both as a musician and man. “One wise thing about him was he entered the industry quite late, and then he got out early. A lot of artists that were in the industry for a long time they got rinsed, they went through a lot of bad stuff. He was a smart man, he knew when to call it quits. Even in his short career he still had ten top ten hits. I don’t think he was too affected by the evilness of American business. A lot of them stay in there for decades, and just get reamed out.”

There’s a funny moment in the tour documentary, Based on a True Story, where a good-looking Deutscher fan approaches Joe Lindsay after a Berlin gig. “Everyone in the band has their role, whether it’s in the studio or it’s live, and that’s when Joe really comes in to his own; he’s a real showman which is good because Dallas is actually quite a reserved frontman. He’s quite a complex character, quite a deep guy, and he’s not so comfortable with all the hype and dealing with the audience. It’s good that Joe can take that pressure off him a bit. Joe just laps it up, he loves it.”

Lindsay, who The Datsuns could have written ‘Supergyration’ about, tells me how he wants an audience to respond is simple. “I think live music will always be relevant. There is an emotional connection between performer and audience that is unsullied by commercialism. I want people to lose their inhibitions on the dance floor. Writhe about, shiver and shake. Gyrate and leave with someone they’ve only just met.”

The drummer from The Eggs chimes in: “Joe Lindsay is any jam band’s secret weapon. While he’s onstage, a jam band are unstoppable.”

The importance of whanau and kaimoana is a Freddy’s leitmotif, from the photo of fish ‘n’ chips in Based on a True Story’s cover art, through to tracks like Boondigga’s ‘Pull the Catch’. “Freddy’s was born around the dining table, kai, sharing,” founding saxophonist Warren Maxwell said in Based on a True Story. Earthy and authentic, Mu adds: “It’s a real family thing. Focus your fellowship with each other around the meal. You know we consider ourselves a family. I mean we piss each other off for sure occasionally. It’s not always good, but it’s mostly good. I can’t think of too many other bands apart from us and Shihad that are still in, still performing a lot, still together, after ten years. You’ve gotta conduct yourself in that sort of way if you want to have any longevity in your relationships and the way you make music. Food’s quite a simple thing, but it’s really quite important to sit down and eat together, and we’ve been doing a lot of that lately cause we’re in the studio a lot,” they are working hard finishing Black Bird after nailing the single months ago.

“Iain’s a bit of a fisherman and he had a really lucrative whitebait season. He’s been up in Paikak and been killing it. We’ve been eating proper whitebait fritters,” Mu illustrates, pumping massive fists like a rapper accepting a Grammy. (“As much as I love whitebait, I’d never buy a fritter in a restaurant because it’s just egg,” he says, picking at less than half of an apparently disappointing Mojo pizza bread, accompanied by a pinot gris.)

Last time I interviewed him, Mu said one of the things the makes him proud about Freddy’s—a Polynesian fusion of reggae, dub, jazz, and soul—is how it sounds distinctly from New Zealand. Still? “Yeah,” he enthuses in his softly spoken way. “I think a lot of bands from this country have been trying to sound like bands from overseas. I’m not going to mention names, but I think these bands don’t actually do a lot of travelling, and if they did they probably realise that what we actually have over here as a sound is actually attractive to a lot of the markets over there, and that’s why they get excited about what Freddy’s do.”

With Black Bird, Mu says the band are moving more towards soul and electronic soul music, from the reggae/roots/dub focussed sound (“that was the flavour of festivals in those days”) they started out with. “There’s two reggae tracks, it’s not completely ditched, we still love it as a genre of music, but certainly when you listen to the new album and compare it with Boondigga and Based on a True Story, there’s less reggae through the thread.”

One of those reggae tracks is beefed up with Trinity Roots’ muscular bassist— Taumaranui’s finest son—Rio Hunuki-Hemopo. “Rio’s mean on bass, and he brings a flash guitar to the party, not some dunger.”

Wearing a bright red Herbs t-shirt, Mu smiles about Trinity Roots planning a new album. “Rio’s in good form at the moment. I haven’t see much of Warren because he lives in out in Featherston. We’re still friendly, I just don’t see him. I hate the Wairarapa so I never go out there.” The Winery gig at Martinborough’s Alana Estate is a rare exception. “There’s something dark about the Wairarapa, I reckon. There’s a lot of criminals hiding out there,” Mu says in a uncharacteristically solemn tone.

Because he didn’t want the less good aspects of the recording lifestyle (“cigarette butts everywhere”) to impact on Mia’s upbringing, Mu moved the famous Drop studio. “We still live upstairs. Our good friend Dexter who’s our production manager he’s moved in downstairs and we’ve actually got a really good studio above Tony’s Tyre Service in Kilbirnie. Joe was kinda in charge of that place, there were a few of the Black Seeds flatting up there as well. We kicked them out, and found them a flat to live, and took it over and turned it in to a big studio and rehearsal space.”

Mu’s aroha for his partner and daughter is palpable— the Ans Westra European tour photo exhibited at Suite Gallery in December—but he’s not afraid to constructively criticise Mia’s musical inclinations. “She loves music. She’s always walking around with her headphones on and making up playlists. Her taste is questionable. But I’ll play her something good and she gets it. She and her mates are thirteen, and starting high school this year so they are in to pop.” Might the management side of music interest her, like her mum? “She’s definitely got those traits, very organised. But she may rebel against everything that we are.”

For Mu, music is about doing what he wants, in the way he wants to do it, rather than making big bucks. The former DJ (“I miss it. You’ve got to be immersed in it, be a digger”) and dedicated vinyl fiend (“Committing to being part of the vinyl renaissance is important for Freddy’s”) is characteristically light-hearted about the difficulty of making money recording in the digital age, and streaming services such as Spotify’s miserly rates. “I’ve pretty much given up on making money from recordings, particularly digital downloads,” he laughs. I cite Bob Dylan’s complaint about journalism being riven with hacks and charlatans. “Bob Dylan has that reputation of being difficult with the press and difficult with the industry and not wanting to sell out and blah blah blah but his voice ended up on Mad Men,” Mu chuckles. “Maybe he had to pay his tax bill?”

In 2013, for the first time, Freddy’s are considering using their music in the right films and television shows. Mu says something like The Orator, impressively scored by Tha Feelstyle, would be the ticket. “It’s a special film man. I only watched it once and it feels like I definitely need to watch it again.”

Mu believes Feelstyle is great. “I lost touch with Kas, I need to get on Facebook. He’s a real talent. He’s smart, he’s conscious, he’s bilingual—fluent in Samoan. He’s really shy—or at least, he used to be, probably still is—but as soon as he gets on stage!”

Although Freddy’s enjoyed touring California (and sold out every venue “small ones” they played), they lost money on it. They make their living touring New Zealand and Europe. Berlin is Freddy’s second home. “Berlin’s very special, very progressive. Munich’s quite straight, but Berlin’s progressive in all areas: music, food, lifestyle, and it’s where we started everything way back in the day. Our first time overseas was moving to Berlin for a month and sleeping on people’s couches. That was before Based on a True Story. Me and Dallas made ‘Midnight Marauders’ and then Dallas, Nicole and I went on a plane went to England, went over to Berlin and hooked up with Ben from Sonar Kollektiv and he loved the record and that was the start. Every time we come back it’s like we’re going to a second home, we know lots of people there and it’s cheap; cheaper to live over there than it is over here. We probably won’t now because of our kids, but if we had relocated it would’ve been Berlin. We’ve got contacts in London, but unless you really hit it off you can’t live in London.”

A favourite venue is Copenhagen’s Vega. “We’ve played there three times over the last three years, and every time it’s one of our favourite gigs of the tour. Great venue, not a big one, about 1500 people in a beautiful room. Everything about it’s good. Last year we missed D’Angelo by about three days, he was on his way to Stockholm. There’s always one artist when we’re on the road that we just miss.”

Rock en Seine, the big Parisian festival, was a highlight of last year’s gigs. “We played on the second stage, which holds 8000 people. It was bursting at the seams, and it was really exciting.” Their next European tour is in June, for summer festivals. “Then we’ll probably go back in September-October and do our own shows, an album release tour.”

Before then, Mu says Freddy’s are really looking forward to the Winery tour.  “We’re getting in 17, 18 gigs around New Zealand, no one does that anymore. It’s quite a big risk, we’re taking two trucks on tour and we’re driving around. A lot of bands can’t do that in the current market, you’d just lose money if you did. There’s three of us, three bands on the road and there’s a promoter behind it, it’s gonna be good fun I reckon. We’re going as far up as Tutukaka and right down as far as Dunedin. And we’re playing reasonable size venues. There’s people that go and do big tours around the country but they’re playing small venues.”

Also, a decent amount of time to play. “Our sets will be a little bit shorter than normal but still, one and a half hours. Not 45 minutes.” Although they sucked in that short straightjacket at the Big Day Out, I’ve enjoyed more than half a dozen exciting Freddy’s gigs.

Although music “took over” for the Wellington Under-21s’ number eight, Mike Fabulous once told me Mu is Wellington music’s most imposing social soccer player. His table tennis stroke isn’t bad, and then there’s his golf habit. He’s a member at Miramar, and plays in the men’s competition every Wednesday. “Yeah I’ve got a handicap and everything, I play reasonably proper. I play at least once a week. I’ve met a few men down there and we’ll play every Wednesday, not all of them are crazy oldies, some younger guys I’ve got more in common with. When I first got greatly addicted I’d be out there at eight every morning playing nine holes before I started work. I’ve got to the point now where I’d rather be playing with other people.”

He plays with other musicians including Scott (“the new Warren Maxwell”) Towers. “He doesn’t play as much as I do but he’s a pretty good and we always take our clubs on tour. We’ll suss out the golf courses near venues on a tour beforehand, chuck the golf clubs in the back of the bus. This winery tour coming up, we’ll be playing at least three days a week, it’ll be all good. Golf takes a long time, but when you’re on tour you are alleviated of your family duties, all you gotta do it make sure you’re showing up at sound check and performing. And then the rest of the time is yours so usually every morning before a gig we’ll try and get out for a hit. It’s a good way to shake off the few rums from the night before.”

Mu no longer goes to the Stadium (“I’ve got MySky”), but he remains a passionate rugby follower. He was in Gisborne performing at a Rhythm and Vines associated gig, but snuck away to watch the World Cup final. “I was a bit disappointed,” he says with Samoan understatement. “Everyone was saying Graham Henry was the Messiah, but we won by just one point. One point! He almost gave the whole nation a whole heart attack.” Mu looks like he’s almost about to have a heart attack just recalling the nailbiter. “We’ve had horrendous games against the French. We needed to thrash them. You don’t want to get me started!” Slightly surprisingly, Mu agreed with Mark Hammett kicking Ma’a Nonu out of the Hurricanes. “Ma’a performs well under Graham Henry, but he was lazy for the Hurricanes. I saw he was spending too much time surfing at Lyall Bay.”

Mu learned new stuff from the Shihad documentary, Beautiful Machine. “I loved it. Watched it on a plane, I thought it was really interesting. Having known those guys for a long time, I reckon it was really good to have something come out about them that was brutally honest. It was good that you found out about the whole namechanging and how it went down in America, good to get some actual facts on that and how it actually went down. We played before them at Coro Gold on the 30th and god they smashed it.” (Later this summery January day, I meet a couple of Danish girls at the Botanic Gardens for Data Hui. “Fat Freddy’s Drop were so awesome at Coro Gold,” they gush).

Mu says Freddy’s would be interested in a Beautiful Machine-style documentary if someone sharp approached them. “We find little things here and there to stick on the Internet. I think we’ll try and shoot some stuff while we’re on this winery tour because I think it’ll be quite funny. We won’t make a big deal out of it, just nice little things to put out on the road. There’s always a camera around so, and there’s some quite dangerous characters on this tour. Anika Moa and Hollie Smith, we won’t be able to keep it up for the whole time, but there’ll be some late night shenanigans that’ll go down that I’m sure will be worth filming, there’s some quite strong personalities. Anika’s got kids now but I heard that she’s bringing two nannies on the road because she’s got twins, seems to me bringing two nannies means you’re gearing yourself up for having a good time. Anika’s hilarious.” How about Shayne Carter—who, like Dallas, memorably riffs on soul music—headlining Jon Toogood’s new supergroup, The Adults? Mu smiles insouciantly: “A very funny guy. Shane’s got a very dry sense of humour, comes up with some hilarious things.”

Alexander Bisley previously profiled Mu in 2005, covering some ground not revisited in this feature. Thanks to Kimaya McIntosh for some transcription help. The Winery Tour information and dates are available at Recent highlights of Alexander’s music series include The Chills and The Datsuns. 2013 plans include Liam Finn and Shihad. Email suggestions to All images copyright Ans Westra, courtesy of {Suite} Gallery, Wellington.

Ans Westra
Fat Freddy's Drop on Tour, 2005
Silver Gelatin Print
280 x 280 mm

2013-01-25 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Music

Home Again

Philip Bell aka DJ Sir-Vere is the prolific DJ behind the popular Major Flavours series (and Mai FM’s programme director). The sunny Aucklander korero ka pai on Homegrown, Savage, and Karaoke Machine. He declines to comment on “often lovely ladies around”, and tracks he’d play if Titewhai walked in the club:

Tell me a good story about performing with Savage, one of Homegrown’s headliners?

In the mid 2000s I played in Dunedin a lot—many times a year. There was this club called Bath Street which was incredible—always packed and the sound system was next level. I took Savage down there and the crowd ate him up. It was so insane he climbed up on top of the speakers—the place exploded! I’ll never forget it.

What was Savage singing from the speakers?

He was freestyling over instrumentals, Roots Manuva ‘Witness the Fitness’ and ‘Agent Orange’ by Pharoahe Monch. He just loved those beats.

Tell me about a favourite Savage track?

My favourite Savage track is the freestyle he did for me on Major Flavours Vol. 2. At the time I didn’t really know him and my MC at the time, MZRE, said ‘you should let him do one’. What I got back from him was a tough, menacing song—it was wicked. We’ve been great friends ever since.

Why see Savage live, as opposed to just pumping it at home?

I don’t believe that it is even comparable – live versus at home listening. There is something very special about the live environment, and certainly about the connection between the audience and the artist.  Savage is unique live, his stage presence is all encompassing. A vocal giant and in stature, his ability to command your attention is impressive.

Can you explain the Karaoke Machine concept a bit more?

About eight years ago I was touring Major Flavours Vol. 6 around New Zealand. In my touring party was DJ Ali, DJ Shan, and PNC. Our Christchurch stop included a gig at the now demolished Concrete Club, an earthquake casualty. The gig was great and by about 3am, close to closing time, PNC and myself decided to get on the mic and rhyme along to our favourite songs. Shan on the decks and me and PNC on the mic, it was a very funny moment. It lasted well into the morning. I took this very fun concept and converted it into a set of our favourite songs from around the globe, and enlisted PNC—who was there that night—K One and Che Fu. We are trying to do justice to some hip hop classics.

What tunes might you drop at Homegrown?

The majority of the songs we are doing are from overseas—PNC does Jigga’s ‘Big Pimpin’—but I’m also get them individually to do each others songs, e.g. PNC and K One share verses from ‘Chains’ with Che doing the hook.

What makes Che special to perform with?

Che and I are very old friends. I was involved with A&Ring his first album (2 B Spacific) so we go way back. I think he’s one of Aotearoa’s greatest MCs and singers. It’s an honour to have him on board. Plus we are both serious sneakerheads, so it’s a chance to catch up and talk Jordans.

How do you describe your style as a DJ?

I’m all about the party. That is the key to me. That’s been the base of my career to date and continues to be. I love watching a great turntablist and their skills, can appreciate a reggae selector and their tunes, but me, I’m the party rocker. A club full of people and my decks and I’m good to go.

What do you want the audience to take away?

A big grin on their face. It’s supposed to be fun and in no way serious, however we want to treat the classics with dignity. Personally for us, being able to perform songs that mean a lot to us is a great platform. We will be belting them out.

Other hiphop acts performing at Homegrown include David Dallas and Homebrew. What do you find exciting about them?

I’ve been a fan of both of them for years, and seen them develop into huge entities in New Zealand music. The introduction of the band element has taken their stage show to another level.

What’s your response to people who don’t have no love for New Zealand hip hop?

Don’t listen, because we don’t need you. Aotearoa hip hop is made by the people, for the people. If you have no love—then it’s not for you.

Elaborate on your love for Chris Rock?

I just think his honest humour really struck a chord with me. I think his new material is okay, but nothing on his shows from six years ago—just some incredibly raw and honest fun. I love Russell Peters too.

What’s your proudest accomplishment?

My children. In the music business I’d say being involved in the signing of the legendary Urban Pasifika Records and working with the late, great Phil Fuemana—he’s a pioneer. Also in 2007, I won the Urban Music Award for Best New Zealand DJ in Australia, I was very proud that night and played a memorable set at the afterparty. I’ll always remember that night.

Name a formative hip hop inspiration who still inspires you?

Roc Raida (RIP). One of the original X-Ecutioners crew, Raida was the man to me. When we met he was a World DMC champion and one of the biggest DJs in the world, yet treated me like a peer. Then I visited NYC and he invited DJ Raw and myself to his house in Harlem. He was a great man and we miss him dearly.

Name a formative non hip hop inspiration who still inspires you?

Dana White. He’s the owner of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and has a work ethic like no other. Plus he’s a straight shooter who tells it like it is: I like that.

What’s your advice to a guy like me who can’t dance to save his life?

Just do what you do. If people worried less about what people thought of them, and more about just having a good time, the world would be a better place.

Alexander Bisley previously profiled the Black Seeds’ Mike Fabulous, also performing at Homegrown. He can be contacted at, and tweets @alexanderbisley.

2013-02-24 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Music

Stray Observations with Jonathan Crayford

Jonathan Crayford is considered one of New Zealand’s greatest jazz musicians, the Mike Houston of jazz piano. Trinity Roots—who he has performed with— are one group who praise his virtuosity. In between living in Paris and Vienna, Crayford is home for summer gigs:

What’s the best/worst thing about living in Paris for two years?

The best thing was the coming of spring and all those beautiful women flowering after the winter. The worst thing was the energy it takes to establish yourself in a new big city. I’ve done that several times now. Paris is very beautiful and demanding.

Tell me about one of your favourite music venues in Paris?

I like Bellevilloise—old and big and has a good cafe too—or Bataclan, which is similar without the cafe. They remind me of places I ran around in as a kid, like the Opera House in Wellington.

What do you think about this New Yorker article about France’s economic malaise/Gerard Depardieu?

There’s a lot of truth in that. The French love fighting with themselves like that—lots of honour at stake. But it won’t really make a difference in the long run. If there is one thing you can’t change in France, it’s the importance of the rights of the people to have rights, no matter who they are. They are very proud of being proud.

Tell me about a formative influence who still inspires your sweet style?

I think I’m very influenced by Monk but I try not to be any more. At a certain point I stopped wanting to discover how someone else did what they did because I had to find fresh new territory to explore myself.

What do you hope the audience take away from your new CD?

Well, Concierto en la Iglesia was recorded live in a very special and dramatic place. A sense of wonder and drama I hope. It’s what I was consumed with as I played this concert.

How did being in Paris influence it?

This CD was recorded in Spain in a very old church belonging to a village on the northern coast called Cadaqués. I was influenced by my time in Spain and the crazy wonderful people there, and a very dramatic thing that happened, a tragedy of love.

I loved New York in August. You lived there eight years. What makes it unique?

Its madness makes it unique, and all the risks involved with doing what you do there. It’s charged with special energy and a lot of people working very hard on their music, art or whatever. Good, good music. I have a chamber project which I started in New York last year, chamber music played by musicians who can also take solos and improvise.

It was great seeing The Roots in New York. How was it working with Questlove on Afropicks?

He’s a hard worker, very thorough and aware of a lot of different music. I didn’t have to do much—just gave him the charts that I was involved in preparing. He liked an arrangement I worked on and moved it up in the show. Very easy to work with. The actual musical direction came from David Murray. I was his assistant on that gig which was called Questlove’s Afropicks, and that concept of taking the AfroBeat music from the ’70s, modernising it and bringing in African American artists from other parts of the musical spectrum—R&B, Funk, Rap, etc. I was more working with David on that gig—not so much Questlove, but he takes it seriously and does a fantastic job as a result. There were two other singers on that gig I thought were great and I loved working with them. Amp Fiddler from Detroit, an ex Parliament Funkadelician who was the cat who showed J. Dilla how to work an MPC—a lot of people out there will know what that means. The other is a beautiful singer from Mali—Mamani Keita. She’s based in Paris. It was a pretty major production.

What did Bruno Lawrence teach you about performing?

He taught me to give what you would normally hold back—because maybe you are shy. He always encouraged people to reveal themselves.

A memorable film composition project?

Well, there is one piece I quite liked writing that underscored a scene in Gaylene Preston’s Ruby and Rata. It’s when the old lady reminisces about the war and I wrote a very hymn-like piece—scored for strings and wind. I also enjoyed working very much with Bruno Lawrence on a score for a film by Lynton Buttler called Pallet On The Floor—a Ronald Hugh Morrieson story. That was a bit of an adventure. At one point Bruno wanted to put our whole music budget on a trifecta and I thought it was a good idea because it was so small. But we thought better not, and kept driving to the studio.

Describe your creative style?

My creative style? I’m not sure. I know that I spend a lot of time thinking about things before I commit them to paper so to speak. But I work better in the moment though so having said that I have developed a way of kind of having a prepared explosion, a period of preparation and then—bam—it all comes out.

How’s it playing with Ahori Buzz?

I am playing at Homegrown and WOMAD with Ahori Buzz. Aaron and the band put out a lot of energy—I like that. It’s like playing with a tribe of Indians from the mountains. Aaron would probably describe them as Hori homos from New Zealand. I suppose, in the end, music has something which is very rare and important. A language that transcends all boundaries.

Updated: Jonathan Crayford performs with Rio Hunuki-Hemopo at the delightful Newtown Festival on March 3, 2013. Photograph by Tiffani Amo.

Jonathan Crayford’s latest albums are the improvised solo concert, ‘Concierto en la Iglesia’, and the jazz trio, ‘Our Own Sweet Way’, appearing with Roger Sellers and Paul Dyne.

Alexander Bisley is currently completing an article on Electric Wire Hustle family, also featuring at WOMAD 2013. He recently profiled DJ Sir-vere, and is looking forward to watching/interviewing Savage at Homegrown.

2013-03-01 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Music WOMAD


Canadian director Kim Nguyen on the making of recent Best Foreign Language Film nominee, War Witch, currently screening as part of Alliance Française French Film Festival.
“It’s the idea of that resilience, and of that strength, that I saw when I was in the Congo,” Kim Nguyen described his extraordinary film War Witch (Rebelle) on Friday. Just home off a delayed flight from the Oscars, the Vietnamese Montrealian writer-director was in convivial, eloquent form. The good-humoured Canadian told me about his Best Foreign Language Film nomination, and discussed Michael Haneke, Gael Garcia Bernal, Robert De Niro and Gerard Depardieu.

*   *   *

ALEXANDER BISLEY: My favourite war film, Apocalypse Now Redux, obviously has Congolese and Vietnamese angles?

KIM NGUYEN: [Laughs] Well, that’s an honour, I absolutely love Apocalypse Now and there’s absolutely that theme of going up the river and fighting and having the external ordeals of the present moment, slowly become like a reflection of your own inner torment. And that’s the same in Fitzcarraldo. There are some emblematic themes in films and stories, there is that going up the river and seeking meaning in your life that I just felt drawn to and that I hope that part of that is in this film.

AB: There’s that line early on, where raped child soldier Komona says to her unborn baby, “I don’t know if God will give me the strength to love you.”  Your lead actress Rachel Mwanza—Berlinale 2012 Best Actress winner—seems to have an extraordinary resilience about her?

KN: Yeah, that’s one of the first lines I wrote in the script. When I did my research, I read there were these kind of autobiographies written by ex-child soldiers and it was part of their reinsertion programme to write their own stories when they were soldiers, and they would write these very simple but powerful stories, and that’s when I read this kid who would say, “We weren’t allowed to cry, so we had to learn how to make the tears leak from within.” And I did read this thing where I learned one of these girls was praying to God that she would be able to love her child once he comes out because he wasn’t created from her loved one, but from her commander.

AB: When the audience walk out of War Witch, what do you hope they’re thinking?

KN: I guess it’s the idea of that resilience, and of that strength, that I saw when I was in the Congo. Also, that the one thing that we can learn from Sub-Saharan Africa and mostly Congo, is that brotherhood still exists. Even though you’re not related by blood, there is that sense of collectivity that still exists, and that we’ve kind of lost; well, at least we lost here in Montreal, I’ve never lived in New Zealand. But people are very by themselves, and it’s much harder to get real help, I find, in our own little worlds, our own houses. We’re much more isolated than in Africa.

AB: You had an armoured convoy with AK47s take you to film at Mobutu’s Forbidden City. You had that former French military guy looking after production logistics filming in Kinshasa and the Congo. He was pretty necessary in a genuinely dangerous place like that?

KN: [Laughs] You gotta have a French guy on your crew when you’re in the Congo!

AB: You’ve cited Fish Tank as an influence. Any other particular film or filmmaker that you felt the influence of making War Witch?

KN: Yes, specifically for this film and the way it was crafted, there’s Fish Tank and also A Prophet, which I just thought was so good. I don’t know if he [Jacques Audiard] is going to make a better film than that, actually. You know, sometimes you feel that a director’s just nailed it and they’re not gonna make a better movie. I wondered if Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind will be Michel Gondry’s best movie ever, and Wong Kar Wai with In the Mood for Love as well. I saw Gondry’s new trailer, it looks really really good, so maybe he will prove me wrong.

AB: I agree, A Prophet was terrific.

KN: Sorry, I digressed, but yeah, A Prophet was a big inspiration. With the aesthetic of War Witch, Fish Tank and A Prophet were big influences. I had tended to overly storyboard things in my past films and over-plan everything. I realised that these two directors were gutsier and just went there, didn’t have a preconceived storyboard, and were capturing the moment, and I felt I kinda lost that edge very early on… And that was the one thing that brought me to filmmaking—taking pictures, writing stories, and doing both of those individually. I would feel very free, and I do still feel very free when I write. But then with all the pressures of industry, I think I kind of lost that idea of going out fishing and capturing stuff in the moment, and instead, just tried to do a shopping list of shots. For me, with War Witch, it’s kind of a breakthrough film that brings me back to my initial impulse of why I wanted to make films.

AB: I thought it was visually very strong, also. In these days of the 3D excess of The Hobbit, I liked the more organic design. How you had the concept of the ghosts in War Witch, I found that really effective.  And I liked the fact that you weren’t gratuitous, a lot of the violence was implied, and I thought it was more affecting for that.

KN: Thank you. You know, it was one of the things that made me the most worried about before filming. Of course, in the beginning it was finding an actress, and then when we found the actress, it was to make sure she could make it through those 40 days. But the representation of the ghost really made me scared—was it going to be cheesy? Was going to be pretentious? That got me really nervous, so we did extensive tests with a couple of 5D cameras, and tried different stuff. At a certain point, I even wondered if they should be translucent, but I quickly realised that was going toward the cheesy Star Trek side, or the pretentious side, so we decided to just acknowledge that this is a very naïve vision and use naïve techniques, that at the same time have the link to tradition. We used dried mud on the bodies to represent the ghosts.

AB: I like having that seventies Angolese music in War Witch.

KN: Yeah, I’m glad you liked it. There’s already an album with that music on it, that’s where I found it. It’s called something like Anthology of Angolese Music from the Seventies, it’s a two CD package. Every single song is from that collection. You have to buy it, it’s amazing.

AB: The Senegalese film maker Mambety made a lovely film called The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun dedicated to the courage of street children. In your film, there’s an indelible performance from a female street kid, and it’s beautiful and poignant.

KN: Sounds cool, I’ll make sure I watch it.

AB: Mambety once said: “Cinema was born in Africa because the image itself was born in Africa... Oral tradition is a tradition of images. Imagination creates the image and the image creates cinema.”

KN: Very interesting and very cool… I’ve been reading scripts for the last year, I received hundreds of them, and there’s only one script that I thought was interesting. It’s still the weakest link, it’s very true that imagination is the most important in film... I find that screenwriting does take a long time and I find that it takes much longer writing than to master directing. And the scripts I’m getting, they rarely have all of the elements of a really, really good script.

AB: “Write about what you feel,” you said recently. You were writing the script for War Witch for about 10 years weren’t you?

KN: Yeah [laughs]. At the time I started I was about 28, so I was still trying to master the craft of writing. There are a lot of scripts that I have been developing for many years, and I feel that there are some very technical elements to writing that I kind of discovered as I went along. I just wish that somebody told me that before, but [laughs]. So that’s part of the reason the script took so long to write.  Then I traveled to Africa, learned about the life there, and discovered these small idiosyncrasies that filled the gaps and made the story more effervescent—I hope.

AB: You’ve just got back home to Montreal from Los Angeles. I read that you shook hands with De Niro; that it was a highlight of being out at the Oscars. So you liked Silver Linings Playbook?

KN: Yeah, I did see Silver Linings Playbook, and you know what?  Sometimes when we do films and when you’re on the festival [circuit], sometimes people become judgemental about romantic comedies. I thought that Silver Linings Playbook was really well done. The craftsmanship behind the film, I find it’s really hard to do, to have such fluidity and the constant rhythm and pacing. I thought it was really well directed. What did you think of it?

AB: I really liked it. I mean, I’ve been disappointed with some of De Niro’s more recent work, but I thought it was great. Along with War Witch, it’s one of my favourite films of the year thus far.

KN: Really?

AB: Yeah.

KN: Thank you so much, I’m touched to hear that.

AB: You were a fan of Michael Haneke’s Amour too, weren’t you?

KN: Yeah, it was a really good film, it was very powerful and it was a privilege to be part of that [Best Foreign Film nominees] crew. I really like No, and it was really cool to hang with Gael Garcia [Bernal], who was there at the Oscars. Gael is honestly one of the most authentic actors I’ve ever met. He’s so true and dedicated to his craft, and he’s a really really good actor. I was just proud to be in that bunch, in the company of all of those films. I haven’t seen Kon-Tiki yet, but I saw all of the others. Haneke deserves this Oscar. He was already nominated before with The White Ribbon. I actually think that The White Ribbon is a better film than Amour, but then I think who’s not going to give an award to Haneke with his legacy? I think it’s time that he gets that recognition.

AB: Have you seen Claire Denis’s White Material?

KN: Her film that takes place in Cameroon? I thought there was some really interesting things in that. I thought that there was some other things that weren’t as powerful, but I thought that there were some really strong elements. Isabelle Huppert is such an amazing actress.

AB: What do you think of Beasts of the Southern Wild?

KN: I thought Beasts of the Southern Wild was the movie! The Oscars, the ones that have won in the last 10 years, are never the films that I admired the most. They’re good films; Argo’s a good film, but I think that Beasts of the Southern Wild was the best film. I thought that Zero Dark Thirty was much more powerful than Argo. The Artist, I didn’t feel that it deserved best actor and best film last year. I don’t feel it’s something that’s going to be remembered in 10 years, do you?

AB: Overrated.

KN: Yeah, overrated, really. And Ryan Gosling didn’t get a nomination for best actor. But just to say, [although] we put a lot of effort in, we shouldn’t put more effort in trying to get another Oscar nomination. It’ll happen if it does and it’s a real honour, but so many things come into play to get there. In the case of a foreign language film, making it into a Category A festival—such as Berlin, Cannes, or Venice—then being selected by your own country as the one, then making it to the 71, then making it to the nine, then making it to the five, you don’t have [any] control over this.

AB: So what’s next for you?

KN: A film is called Origin of the World. It’s an homage to the painting, and it’s the story of three ordinary women in extraordinary circumstances. One is called Amanda. She’s in the United States and she wants to have a complete body makeover, with plastic surgery, to gain back the love of this guy that she lost. In the Middle East, there’s Aigesha, who is not a virgin, but is about to be married, so she has to find something to make it appear that she’s a virgin. And then you’ve got Sharma, who’s in India, and who’s pregnant, but complications arise and she has to find a couple of thousand dollars to have a medical procedure for her child once he’s out of her womb. But getting [the money] is really tough, so that brings her husband into extraordinary circumstances.

AB: Any comment you’d make on Gerard Depardieu? There’s a hilarious article in the New Yorker on all that.

KN: [Laughs] I didn’t read it. I just don’t know what to say about that.  All I can say is that it wouldn’t be a good movie because people would say that’s not credible at all. It’s too over the top.

AB: The conclusion of the article is that he’s been cast to portray Dominique Strauss-Kahn in the DSK biopic.

KN: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s true, that’s perfect. He is going to be good at that.

War Witch’ screens as part of the nationwide Alliance Française French Film Festival. Thanks to Lumière intern Alix Campbell for transcription assistance. Alexander Bisley previously discussed Michael Haneke with Juliette Binoche and Robert De Niro with Joe Pantoliano.

2013-03-04 · Permalink · FILM Features Interviews Film Festivals

Salif Keita and Malian solidarity

A dialogue with WOMAD New Zealand Artistic Director Drew James.

ALEXANDER BISLEY: Malian solidarity is one of two reasons I am driving up this year. Thoughts on this theme?

DREW JAMES: It is very exciting and satisfying to be able to bring three of Mali’s most incredible artists to WOMAD this year: Salif Keita, Bassekou Kouyate, and Viex Farka Toure. At a time when music has been banned in northern Mali by Islamist militants, these musicians are the voice of people that face many challenges.

AB: Salif Keita in 2007 was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. What are you expecting from Mr Keita this year?

DJ: I expect the vocal and musical magic and depth that Salif brings, and am particularly excited to hear his new live set, which features the best of Salif Keita plus songs off his fresh new album, Tale, produced by Philippe Cohen-Solal of Gotan Project.

AB: Gotan were also magic at WOMAD. Pukekura Park, the landscape, is essential to the festival’s, kaupapa isn’t it?

DJ: Pukekura Park and the TSB Bowl of Brooklands is just simply one of the most beautiful venues in the world. The landscape has become part of the festival in so many ways. We add to the environment with the wonderful Angus Watt flag displays, and this year we have invited a number of other artists to add a number of other installations.

AB: Tell me about one of the new art installations?

DJ: Local artist Carmen Rogers is reinventing the string art phenomenon, using trees to create large scale creations. Auckland artist Ashley Turner has designed Metamorphosis I and II, two 4.5 metre interactive structures that reference the ‘pou’ and the signpost, featuring the work of visual artist Fane Flaws, and motion graphics artist Mulk.

AB: Billy Cobham said it was the most beautiful venue he’d ever played. Mariza told me the 2007 powhiri was the best welcome she’d ever had. What role will Taha Maori play at WOMAD 2013?

DJ: We are proud to support and share the manaakitanga and hospitality of the Taranaki iwi. The artist welcome is a very special event at Owae marae, and sets the kaupapa for the weekend. The Te Paepae tent and Maori programme is also central to the WOMAD experience.

AB: What about a particular act?

DJ: For 2013, one of our very special events is the Aotearoa National Maori Choir with The Yoots. WOMAD has provided the impetus to reform the National Maori Choir which last performed 10 years ago. Led by the enigmatic musical director Rim D Paul, with a choir of over 80 and backed by The Yoots, this special performance celebrates and revitalises the superb compositions and arrangements that are a part of our musical heritage.

AB: Who is a formative musical inspiration who still inspires you?

DJ: Actually, Jimmy Cliff. In 1982 I listened to ‘The Harder They Come’ in the tapedeck of an HQ Holden driving from Cairns to Perth via Darwin, over and over again. And I still love it.

AB: What’s your response to critics who say Jimmy’s over the hill?

DJ: I saw him perform at WOMAD in Charlton Park in the UK last year, and was blown away by his energy in performance. He still has the passion and lives for his music.

AB: I’ve enjoy Nick Bollinger’s artist interviews, like Don McGlashan and Sharon Jones, at the Pinetum. Got a pick there?

DJ: We have four extraordinary artists being interviewed by Nick for the Artist in Conversation: Jimmy Cliff, Vieux Farka Toure, Salif Keita, and Mari Boine.  They will all have some very interesting perspectives. For something quite different, I am looking forward to Mari Boine, of the indigenous Sami people of Norway.

AB: What makes WOMAD special?

DJ: For me the special thing about WOMAD is the pure joy that people experience as an audience. With young and old, people from all cultures and an overwhelming feeling of generosity and goodwill, WOMAD is a utopia for three days. I want people to take this back to their everyday lives and hold on to it as long as possible.

AB: How are Ahoribuzz distinctive?

DJ: AHoriBuzz have a great funky energy that is full of life and fun. It’s an awesome musical line-up with Aaron Tokona, LA Mitchell, and Jonathan Crayford.

AB: Another act not to miss this year?

DJ: Ayarkhan. Three beautiful women from Siberia playing the Jew’s harp. You could only find it at WOMAD!

AB: How did you discover Ayarkhan?

DJ: Ayarkhan were found at the WOMEX world music showcase by international WOMAD Artistic Coordinator Paula Henderson. As you would expect she has an encyclopaedic knowledge of music, but she can still be surprised.

Between Paula, our colleagues at WOMADelaide, and myself, we want to see artists on stage before making programming decisions. In a world of digital production, recordings can often be misleading, and we are programming for a live audience experience.

AB: In his WOMAD NZ Q&A for the press, Goran Bregovic answered re: “What’s currently playing on your iPod?”: “Steven Hawking’s ‘The Grand Design’. I don’t think that any normal gynaecologist—even though he works with the best thing in the world—after a work day of eight hours wants to continue his work.  So I mostly sit in silence.” Comment?

DJ: I have been listening to Coba Soundsystem featuring DJs Ramon & Rafael M from Novalima, the Peruvina group playing Sunday night at WOMAD. They specialise in a cross-pollination of world sounds and electronica, blending tropical house, dub and Afro-Latin beats and produced the remix of Novalima's seminal album, Coba Coba. I disagree with Goran on this point. I don’t count the hours, love my work and have never wanted to be a gynaecologist.

AB: A past favourite WOMAD performance?

DJ: Hanggai were one of my favourites from WOMAD New Zealand in 2010. Born from the Mongolian punk scene, they mixed overtone throat singing, horsehead fiddles, and electric guitars in a way that was quite simply wild. They worked the audience into a dance frenzy at 5pm on the Sunday afternoon.

AB: Tell me about another favourite festival?

DJ: Woodford Folk Festival in Queensland. I just love the site, the music, the atmosphere, and the people.They have been tree planting for 10 years and have a 500 year plan. And it’s not just folk.

WOMAD New Zealand takes place from March 15-17. Alexander Bisley has covered five WOMADs for The Lumière Reader. Recent WOMAD interviews include Jonathan Crayford and Lord Echo aka Mike Fabulous.

2013-03-13 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Music WOMAD

The Masterton Sound

“You can’t take the MA out of the boy,” reckons Masterton rapper K.One.

The impressive K.One owned the stage at Homegrown earlier this month with energetic covers of rap standards like Che Fu’s ‘Chains’. Ahead of a North Shore repeat this Saturday at Sounds On, the good-humoured Kaleb Vitale discusses forestry, kangaroos, Tupac, and Jemaine Clement’s stomping ground.

*   *   *

ALEXANDER BISLEY: Eminem sidekick Obie Trice once described DJ Sir-Vere as “king of the mixtape.” What makes him, Che Fu, and PNC exciting to perform with?

K.ONE: I think for me, it’s the fact I came up listening to these guys. Now I’m on stage performing alongside them, it can be pretty surreal at times. The fact we are all mates also makes it cool. It’s all laid back, we’re just having fun doing what we love to do.

AB: Did you rap on the job at all while working forestry? Both forestry and performing music are high energy jobs, yeah?

KO: I’ll admit I used to rap to myself whilst working out the bush. I worked in a stay-out crew so we would be out in the bush for a couple of weeks with no TV, Internet etc. to keep us entertained, so I’d write to beats on my iPod to pass time. Yeah, they’re both high energy but it’s a different kind. Forestry is physically one of the hardest jobs out there. Anyone who has actually done it will know. I’d probably die if I tried to go back to it now, music has been too easy on me.

AB: Tell me a good story about ‘So Long’ featuring Scribe, probably my favourite K.One joint?

KO: Shooting the video for ‘So Long’ was one of the highlights of my career. We shot it on a salt lake eight hours drive inland from Adelaide, real Australian outback. The last two hours of the drive was gravel road and on our way there we hit a kangaroo. We were kind of in shock ‘cos we didn’t actually know what to do. Do we check if it’s alright? Do we keep driving? Some locals had told us horror stories of kangaroos attacking people, I don’t know if they were just trying to scare us, but we weren’t hanging around to find out.

AB: How do you describe your style?

KO: My style is pretty versatile. Obviously my main love is hip hop but I love such a wide variety of music I’ve tried not to limit myself to one genre and incorporate all my influences in my music. I like to tell stories. I grew up listening to a lot of Tupac so I suppose it grew from there.

AB: What’s you favourite rap tune? Is it something you’ll cover North-side?

KO: Growing up all I listened to was West Coast rap so it’d have to be Pac’s ‘Hit em Up’. I don’t know about covering it though, it’s pretty intense. I know PNC is a fan of that song too so you never know...

AB: ‘Hit Em Up’ is one of the most intense tunes ever spat. That bit about romancing... Mrs BIG was provocative, no?

KO: That first line in the intro of ‘Hit Em Up’ is classic. Whether it was true or not only they know but damn, imagine how BIG would’ve felt hearing that for the first time. That’d have to play some serious games with your head, right?

AB: Have you seen the fascinating documentary ‘Tupac Resurrection’?

KO: One of my favourite docos. Love how they chopped up his interviews to make it sound like he was still alive and narrating the whole thing. It buzzes me out how much he used to talk about his own death, like he predicted what would happen.

AB: Tell me about a favourite you will be covering North-side? Tupac will be in your head a bit?

I will cover a Pac joint in the set with ‘All About You’. Another one of my faves that we cover is PNC’s ‘Who Better Than This’. It’s funny ‘cos when I was told I had to learn it, I already knew it word for word, but I didn’t wanna sound like too much of a fan, so I played it cool like ‘Okay, yeah I’ll get onto that’. I’m a big fan of his though. Rookie Card was my shit.

AB: Who’s a formative hip-hop inspiration, who still inspires you when you get on that stage?

KO: Being good live is the difference between a good artist and a great artist. I try to study all the great live performers, from Jay-Z, Kanye, Nas, Talib, to Michael Jackson, Rolling Stones, Queen. Just their stage presence, the way they hold the crowd and the energy they bring. I’m light years off their level but I’m always trying to hone that side of my craft and they say if you want to be the best, you have to learn from the best.

AB: Do you represent Masterton?

KO: Very much so, I have that shit tattooed on my forearm. Born, raised and resided for 23 years. You can take the boy out of MA but you can’t take the MA out of the boy. I have so much support back home it’s crazy, so I feel I owe it to them and my family to do well. Masterton is good like that, they get fully behind anyone who’s left town to chase their dream.

AB: What do you miss about living in Masterton? What’s the best/worst thing about it?

KO: My kids. I have two daughters [Dream and Summer-Jade] back home. I get back as often as I can, pretty lucky that they understand Dad’s gotta do his thing. They’re big fans also which is cool. The best thing about Masterton is that it’s home, and always will be. The worst thing is there’s no Wendy’s.

AB: Who’s another Masterton musician you like, and is there a similarity with your sound/style?

KO: Ladyhawke is actually from Masterton, too. I don’t think there’s any similarity in our sound or style but she has done incredibly well so that’s something I aspire too also. Still waiting for that K.One feat Ladyhawke collab though.

AB: What’s your response to people who have no love for Aotearoa hip-hop?

KO: Middle finger.

AB: “It is a funny culture though, that whole culture of being on the road touring. After you’ve finished a gig, there’s often lovely ladies around,” Mu told me recently. Comment?

KO: Females and music, the two go hand in hand don’t they? It’s no secret that culture is there. Obviously not on the scale of international artists but it’s there. Whether you’re about that life or not is up to the individual artist, I guess.

AB: Do you work 100 percent on music, or do a part-time sideline?

KO: I’m lucky that I can do this fulltime. It’s a blessing to always have a full schedule in terms of gigs. One day it will slow but for now I’m just making the most of every opportunity given. Things have been so flat out the past months it’s been hard to get into the studio and actually focus on some new music, so I’m currently working on that and my new single drops second week of April.

AB: Your proudest musical accomplishment?

KO: Definitely when I dropped my debut album [Far From Home, October 2011]. I’d dreamed about that day for so long. I remember having a moment when I held a hard copy for the first time and actually saw my CD on the shelf in stores. One of the best feelings.

AB: How much time are you spending in Masterton/Australia at the moment?

KO: Like I said, I have two daughters back in Masterton, so I go back every school holidays and spend that time with them. Over summer I went home for two months which was awesome having all that time with them. I’m lucky to have been doin’ a lot of tours and shows in Australia, that’s eventually where I want to be and to have a [full] crack at their market.

© Catherine Bisley 2013. All Rights Reserved. K.One photographed at Homegrown 2013, performing as part of DJ Sir-Vere’s Karaoke Machine.

2013-03-22 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Music

Beautiful Spirit: WOMAD New Zealand 2013

Richie Havens, who opened Woodstock (and appeared in I’m Not There), was charming at WOMAD 2007. As for Havens, Taj Mahal was unannounced this year, complementing both Bassekou Kouyate (and his family), and Viex Farka Toure. Malian solidarity was reason enough to go to New Plymouth.

Salif Keita engagingly opened with Anthology favourites ‘Seydou’, ‘Yamore’ and ‘La Difference’, and closed with his best-of’s ‘Madan’. In between, his set focused on tunes from his new album, Tale, produced by Gotan Project’s Philippe Cohen-Solal. There was a distinctly Solalian edge on ‘Tale’, C’est Bon’ (no Roots Manuva), ‘Samfi’, ‘A Demain’, ‘Natty’ and ‘Yalla’. I was also pleased to hear Keita’s beautiful voice recite ‘Mandjou’ and ‘Yambo’.

Toure blazed the Brooklands on Saturday (and was also the highlight of Friday night, opening the Bowl). ‘Touri’, ‘Fafa’, ‘Souba Souba’, ‘All the Same’, ‘Aina’, ‘Amanaquai’, ‘Lakkai’ and ‘Gido’: A wonderful desert blues performance from a stunningly virtuoso guitarist, singer and showman. He tributed his late, great father Ali Farka Toure (Abouna) with gorgeous, carnal ‘Ai Du’. Vieux Farka Toure is the real deal. You can’t silence Timbuktu, Islamist morons: Mali’s Desert Festival forever!

Goran Bregovic and His Weddings and Funerals Orchestra were really rather good. From Emir Kusturica’s 90s touchstone Underground—representation at WOMAD included ‘Twist’ and ‘Mesecina’—to my Polish nephew’s baptism near Warsaw, I enjoy Brego moving the crowd. The dynamic guitarist/vocalist deftly orchestrated plangent classical bass singers and a rambunctious gypsy brass band. They play the exuberantly celebratory and the poignantly elegiac, the sacred and the profane, the comic and the tragic. “C’est mortelle,” the person next to me put it. Champagne for Gypsies songs such as ‘Balkeneros’, ‘Presidente’ and ‘That Man’ celebrate gypsies, who are still victims of French, Italian, and Hungarian bigotry.

The reformed Aotearoa National Maori Choir (led by Rimini D Paul) was juiced up by The Yoots, led by the irrepressible Joe Lindsay. Waiata from ‘Poi e’ (Boy) to ‘He puru taitama e’ (about a “rough” trip up to Otaki to try and see a wahine) via ‘Nga iwi e’, ‘Hoki Mai’, ‘Pupu ake mai’ and tribute to the 28th Battalion. My favourites were ‘Tutira mai’ (the uplifting message of aroha and togetherness) and ‘E Papa Waiari’. As the choir crescendo went “E hine, hoki mai ra”, a wahine in front of me was so moved she collapsed on a friend, crying joyously.

Antibalas delivered solid Fela Kutian Afrobeat, but, like patchy Hugh Masakela, overdid the sanctimonious environmentalism. I believe in global warming as much as the next barefoot bloke; but the planes-for-me, not-for-thee green brand is irritating. Jimmy Cliff hit a high energy, slick set of standards like ‘The Harder They Come’. AHoriBuzz were going off, but I was committed elsewhere, knowing I could see Aaron Tokona (“the Hendrix of Christchurch”) and co. soon. With plenty on, including unexpected pleasures (the Correspondents’ manic dancer), I didn’t get a chance to see Ayarkhan. Start at a dud (Italian Nidi d’Arac), and you can just go see something else good like sensitive traditional Japanese banjo.

The special closing combined soulful Tibetan Tenzin Choegyal on flute and chanting, monk Jamyang on long horn, Drew James’s words, Wharehoka Wano’s karakia (and some audience members’ impromptu waiata). WOMAD’s beautiful spirit was reemphasised as we left.

This is Alexander Bisley’s sixth WOMAD for The Lumière Reader. Recent WOMAD interviews include Jonathan Crayford and Artistic Director Drew James.

2013-04-02 · Permalink · ARTS Music WOMAD

Buda and I: Luke Buda on Fandango, Part 1

Ahead of the Phoenix Foundation’s fifth studio album release, Luke Buda riffs on Glastonbury, Jarvis Cocker, and the Phoenix Sound.

Luke Buda is the Phoenix Foundation’s funny (co) front-man. One February Friday night we discussed Fandango at his Aro Valley home over peppermint tea and gingernuts. “Don’t forget the biscuits. No biscuits, NO INTERVIEW,” he’d emailed. Both of us were tuckered out, his kids weren’t sleeping. Theatrically throwing the Griffins double-pack up behind his record player to stop us from overindulging, Buda talked entertainingly about Glastonbury (“disgusting”), Jarvis Cocker (“very friendly”), and the Phoenix Sound (“marijuana psychedelic”).

*   *   *

ALEXANDER BISLEY:  Tell me about a memorable gig during the last few years?

LUKE BUDA:  We played Glastonbury, which is quite a horrific experience, to be honest, because it’s a hundred and seventy five thousand people, and there’s a hundred and seventy five thousand people’s worth of portaloos, and there’s a hundred and seventy five thousand people’s worth of overflowing-with-shit portaloos and the entire site smells like shit and mud, and it’s just quite horrific. In fact, on our Facebook page, we’ve got photos, it’s amazing. It was so muddy your gumboots get sucked off your feet. That’s how muddy it is. Gumboots that go up to here. I saw a dude take his cock out and take a piss in the mud by a queue for a food stall at Glastonbury, that’s what it comes to. Anyway, they have a secret band everyday, they have a surprise band. Turns out on the Friday while I was setting up my tent and whinging about Glastonbury, Radiohead were playing their first King of Limbs performance a few hundred metres away from me. I didn’t even know it was happening.

I also missed the Fleet Foxes, Primal Scream and Morrissey that night, but the next day we played and then we were wandering around afterwards and it was a much nicer day, and we hear that there’s gonna be a secret band on at the Park Stage and that it’s either going to be David Bowie or Pulp. “Well, you can’t lose with either of those.” It turns out it was Pulp doing a surprise gig. First time most of those people had seen them in seventeen years, I think. There was quite an amazing atmosphere. A site-specific atmosphere because it was the British, and the band are a British icon, or Jarvis is a British icon. I don’t think you would have that vibe anywhere else in the world other than Britain, where they were singing every single lyric—thirty thousand people or something going up this hill—in Jarvis’s accent, down to all the little inflections, and because the stage was heaps smaller, and thousands of people turned up, you couldn’t hear the band up the hill, but people were still singing and I thought that was quite an amazing vibe. What happened when they played ‘Disco 2000’ was a British icon playing a smash hit to an adoring, worshiping crowd. Quite overwhelming.

AB: This was 2011, the Buffalo Tour. Would you go to Glastonbury again?

LB: Haha, interesting question. Probably. But it was pretty horrific. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to be somewhere where I have to feel intense fear and anxiety when I have to go for a poo. Do you know what I mean? “Oh my god. Oh my god, what am I going to do, where am I going to go, look at that, all the toilets are disgusting.” There were sanitary pads stuck into the corners of the portaloos. Bloody pads. You’d lift up the lid of a portaloo and the shit would actually be like that, like pretty much touching the bottom of the lid, and they’d have massive tractors with silage tanks at the back siphoning shit out of the portaloos the entire time. I found it quite traumatic. Our tent was about twenty metres away from the rave tent, so we had a ‘fuckin’ Glastonbury banging rave’ like twenty metres away from us. [mimics: “Butz-butz-butz-butz.”]. Lying there at night we had duo tents, and me and Sam [Scott] are both going “Oh my god. Oh my god. Fucking hate it.”

AB: The thing I like about VIP accreditation is getting to use a clean toilet.

LB: That’s one of the most important things. Our English tour manager sent us an email before Glastonbury, “Lads, make like you’re going to fucking war. Gumboots, bring everything you need. Rain jacket, gumboots, if you want hand sanitiser, y’just gotta have all that shit in your bag, y’gotta have everything. The toilet paper, wipes, hand sanitiser, bottles of water.” I think the only way people do it, because it’s England, they just slam the drugs, pretty much, and so it just doesn’t matter. But at Glastonbury people die there every year[1], and it’s not even because of getting crushed or anything similar. In 2011 a government aid who had a VIP ticket died of a heart attack in a portaloo. Nobody heard him because it was Glastonbury, and he was in a portaloo in the VIP section. They’ll be clearing up the tents and there might be a tent with someone who died in their sleep. It’s a crazy place.

AB: You guys opened for Jarvis in New Zealand after the endearingly eccentric Krisk EP came out December 2009?

LB: The much maligned Krisk. Which I had a listen to recently, and I thought, “the fuck’s wrong with people? It’s just a bit of a fun piece of shit.” It was just a bit of tongue-in-cheek throwawayness. You don’t hafta get all precious about it, eh? Yep, I’m glad you say that. I find it highly entertaining. But then of course it’s also full of in-jokes and shit, so that’s why I find it entertaining, right?

AB: Jarvis came across as depressed in that memorable Britpop documentary Live Forever?

LB: I’ve only met him a couple of times, but I don’t think he is anymore. He’s fifty or something and he seemed a person who’s come to terms with his success and icon status, he was a really nice dude to us. He was very friendly. He sat down next to us at the Wellington show and said, “Ooh, your manager tells me you’re comin’ to the UK next year. Ooh, you guys should get in touch, I’ll buy you lads a beer.” Which never happened. Cunt. But, yeah, played us on his show, and was definitely, for someone who has been a megastar, a real nice dude. Gives it up on stage. Definitely. Goes for it. Full commitment to the drama and the glory. Sometimes I feel like all of us Kiwi types are almost at a bit of a disadvantage there, because New Zealand’s kind of lackadaisical? I mean, how many New Zealand performers do you see going that far? There’s not many, it’s like you have to break through some kind of weird internal New Zealand barrier.

AB: It was cool, tight having the whole Fandango played in order at Puppies, building up to ‘Friendly Society’. Tell me about Fandango’s style?

LB: I’ve often thought we’re not really a band that has a very particular our-own-sound. I think our strength is possibly more in our range, like we do quite a lot of different sounding shit. I still see it in a weird way what we do as pop, but the way the Beatles did pop once they’d sort of stopped touring? It’s songs, mostly, but they’re just arranged in different interesting ways, and so that’s Fandango. On Buffalo we were quite happy with the fact that we’d gotten things quite concise. ‘Buffalo’ is a pretty tight song, there’s not really any elongated bits, apart from this sorta funny bit in the middle; on Fandango, it’s 76 minutes long but it’s 12 songs, so there’s only three songs that are shorter than five minutes on it, there’s two or three seven minuters, and there’s one that’s 18 minutes.

We worked on it for over a year, quite slowly. Conrad [Wedde] was in Dunedin, Sam and I, our partners were at university, so Sam and I were stay-at-home husbands, we could only really work on the stuff when the kids were at school-slash-preschool. Conrad would send something up from Dunedin that he’d worked on. It was quite weird, it was kind of strangely maddening because it came together so slowly, and then right at the end there was exponential rrrp! when we went to the Surgery. I think it sounds really good, the best sounding album that we’ve made. I’m excited by it, but of course I am, it’s my thing that I’ve just finished.

AB: I think you’re a pretty grounded kind of guy.

LB: I think it’s good. I think it’s probably a slow burner and it’s quite dense and it’s quite long, and I think it might take people a few listens. I think that was the same thing with Buffalo too, I think people took a few listens to get into Buffalo as well, and that’s a good thing anyway, I reckon.

AB: I reckon also. Both Buffalo and Fandango seem good slow burners to me.

LB: This is twice as long as Buffalo, so you have twice as much to get used to.

AB: I like your Beatlesesque comment.

LB: Not that I’m comparing us to the Beatles. I’m just saying, it’s that approach to music, where you’re not sort of hamstrung by your own sense of what you’re doing. There’s no limits, if you wanna put a reggae beat onto a track, fine, why not? I wouldn’t call us a rock band necessarily, even though we occasionally play rock. So I think it’s more of a general [ethos]. Maybe I am comparing us to the Beatles! I don’t know, man.

AB:  Sam once said that he’s more Lennon and you’re more McCartney. Not the best question, but how would you describe the Phoenix’—

LB: Oh yeah, fuck, didn’t get the hint before, man.

AB: Some people say indie, some people say indie-rock.

LB: Yeah, but what does indie mean, though? Because indie to me means probably a bit different than what it might mean to many people these days, because a lot more angsty rock bands have been called indie now.

AB: I think there’s so much cross-contamination from different genres. Why do music writers have to be dull accountants?

LB: Well the other problem is that you risk giving the wrong idea. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t like describing it, because it’s not that I think it’s indescribable, it’s that the words that I use might have a completely different meaning, and give the completely wrong idea. But yeah, it’s psychedelic, but gently psychedelic; it’s not heavy psychedelic trip. It’s um—

AB: It’s psychedelic for people who drink peppermint tea on a Friday night?

LB: Haha, yeah it’s marijuana psychedelic, not acid/ecstasy psychedelic. It’s got a little bit of folky fingerpicky, it’s mostly guitar music, but then it also has a lot of synths. I don’t know, actually, I don’t really want to. There’s a yacht-rock track on it.

AB: Formative musical influences who still influence you?

LB: I like Radiohead, Flaming Lips, although Flaming Lips are much more recent for me than Radiohead. I mean the awesome thing about Radiohead is they’re always trying to be contemporary. You certainly don’t hear any Radiohead and go, “oh that sounds like the Beatles or the Stones.” I didn’t like King of Limbs that much until I saw the gig where it sounded fucking huge and awesome. They don’t stop trying to evolve and be alive. Flaming Lips, I loved Embryonic. Some people are a bit down on Embryonic, but I reckon it’s an amazing aural journey.

AB: “The best album I heard in 2007,” Dominion Post music reviewer Lindsay Davis chimed in about Happy Ending. When I interviewed you about Happy Ending you said the Flaming Lips not holding anything back live had influenced you?

LB: I think I’m constantly fighting for that, cutting loose and not being afraid of going grand, and I almost feel like we got there with ‘Bright Grey’. Fandango we’re a bit more comfortable with that vibe, we’re a bit more comfortable in our shoes, and it’s hopefully the defining album. There aren’t any songs that I don’t like on it. There’s one that was a bit problematic on Buffalo, which I’m not gonna name. Future’s gonna be interesting as well; we’ll always say that we’re gonna do this live band sounding album, and then it turns into a crazy orgy of production. At the moment it’s Fandango, Fandango, Fandango, Fandango, Fandango.

Main Image
© Andy Palmer 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at

You can listen to the Phoenix Foundation’s Fandango here. Alexander’s five Phoenix songs: The Drinker’, ‘Let Me Die a Woman’, ‘Hitchcock’, ‘All In An Afternoon’, ‘Golden Ship’.

This is part one of a three part interview. Thanks to Valerie Tan for some transcription assistance, and Andy Palmer for his photography. Recent highlights from Alexander’s New Zealand music series include Fat Freddy’s Drop and the Chills.

[1] This is incorrect.

2013-04-17 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Music

The Return of the Kasimier: Luke Buda on Fandango, Part 2

More from Luke Buda ahead of the Phoenix Foundation’s fifth studio album release, including stories on new drummer Chris O’Connor, sloppy Phoenix gigs, and the Kasimier.

I think Luke Buda is one of those rare people who just effortlessly exudes musicality. I love how he looks so utterly at peace when he is playing music. I think the differing perspective LPB brings to the Phoenix is crucial to them not being just another ‘indie’ band,” music blogger Jeremy Taylor[1] told me.  I caught up with the Foundation’s amusing (co) front-man over peppermint tea and gingernuts at his Aro Valley home. He riffed on Fandango, being Flying Nunny, new drummer Chris O’Connor, sloppy Phoenix gigs, and the Kasimier.

*   *   *

ALEXANDER BISLEY: What are you listening to this evening?

LUKE BUDA: I’m listening to Real Estate, because I hung out with them at Laneway after the show, and they were really nice dudes, and really, really into Flying Nun. It always surprises me anew each time about how much people fucking love Flying Nun in the States. And Real Estate sound so Flying Nun, I hadn’t realised. They’re like “Are you a Flying Nun guy?” and I was like “Oh, one of our albums came out on Flying Nun” and they’re “Really! Oh we meant, do you like it?” I was, “Yeah, man.” “We got the opportunity to play in Dunedin last year, it was really great.” I’m, “Oh yeah, Dunedin, okay, yeah well, Dunedin’s cool.” So I check them out, totally nice, mellow, Flying Nunny music.

AB: The Independent said the Phoenix (Happy Ending era) are “The most potent band to come out of New Zealand since the far-off days of the Chills. Gorgeous.”

LB: I don’t think we sound that Flying Nunny, apart from the occasional track.

AB: So you didn’t see Real Estate when they played Wellington?

LB: No I didn’t. I hadn’t really heard them. I think I got asked to support them but I didn’t have the time to prepare a solo. I don’t really do solo gigs.

AB: I think the Phoenix are one of Wellington’s best bands, and I’ve seen you guys do damn good gigs, like the first Fandango performance at Puppies. Over the years, I thought a few of your gigs were sloppy. Do you think that’s fair?

LB: Yeah definitely. Much less these days. It’s a much lower percentage ratio of that now, and hopefully that’ll keep going down. We don’t necessarily collapse on the ground and writhe about and kiss all the girls in the front row and do crazy sexual dance moves and blow things up on stage. We look at our pedals and play the music. “Yeah man, we let the music do the talking, y’know?” Definitely done some shit gigs, but, you whittle it down, you get better.

And going on tour overseas, you get so much better. When we went to New York for the first time, I remember having an epiphany. There’s so many fucking bands. And all of a sudden I went, “hang on, these bands aren’t better necessarily than the bands back home in terms of originality or ideas or whatever, they’re still the same woefully low-success-ratio, in those criteria—that’s the right syntax?—but they play so many more gigs, and they’re so much tighter. So much slicker.” Because when you go on a tour in the States, you can go all year. But when you go on a tour in New Zealand, what do you do, five, six gigs? There’s nothing that makes you a better band than playing twenty gigs in a row. When you see a band that’s done heaps of touring, they bang ‘em out. And it means the energy stays there and gets a chance to rise.

AB: You were in New York for Eagle vs. Shark?

LB: Yeah. We went to the States and did more gigs than we’d ever done in a row, twelve or so.

AB: In Shihad documentary Beautiful Machine, Jon Toogood says you need to be doing lots and lots of gigs to distill it down.

LB: Real Estate, they got on stage, and sounded really tight and focused and like they’d been touring lots. You almost feel a bit sorry for New Zealand bands, that they can’t do that. I suppose it takes a band a lot less time to get heaps better, if they can do that touring.

AB: Sad that Richie Singleton’s no longer part of the Phoenix, but Chris O’Connor, he’s another dynamic drummer. I saw him first at WOMAD 2007 with Don McGlashan and Billy Cobham. So Richie, he’s focusing on his environmental work these days?

LB: He was the only dude in the band who had a massive other thing other than the band, and he sort of was concentrating on that, and he was quite fully booked up with climate change conferences and shit like that, and maybe he just started feeling like, rather than just being really excited about playing the drums, it was like he had to do it for the rest of us, but actually he wanted to be concentrating on that shit. And it’s a totally amicable split and I think he’s a seriously considerate and awesome dude.

AB: I liked that Sam, when he announced Richie’s departure on your social media, linked to the Phoenix’s great ‘The Drinker’.

LB: Oh, did he! What did he say? Is that ‘cause it’s the first song that we ever recorded with Richard?

AB: It’s an elegiac song, a song to farewell someone with.

LB: There was a strangely gruelling audition process which was an amazing musical journey because with each drummer we were a completely different band, and in the end it was Chris. He’s awesome, kind of open to whatever, and then he can make music out of it. If someone in the band, say Conrad, who’s probably the most likely to say something like this, suggests to him that he should hit a piece of meat with a broccoli, then Chris is likely to go “Oh yup, okay”, and then do it, and do it with full commitment and to the best of his ability, and perhaps even make it funky.

AB: He was really good with McGlashan.

LB: Yup, and he was SJD’s drummer there for a while, he comes from the Jeff Henderson/ Happy, experimental crazy jazz set as well. Jeff Henderson and Chris supported Connan Mockasin up in Auckland a couple months ago, and I think they played for three hours. While at the same time he seems pretty happy playing a powerful groovy 4/4. He’s a really inspirational musician.

AB: And Olly, he’s a good roadie.

LB: Yep, he knows where to get the good heroin.

AB: Where all the strippers are?

LB: Yeah. We actually haven’t taken him on tour much, because we generally can’t afford it, but he has a very, very calm head. I think he’s getting more into the swing of things now, getting into telling us off, trying to get us to change some of our bad lead-rolling habits and things like that.

AB: Your favourite venue in Wellington?

LB: Mighty Mighty is not really a music venue. People don’t go there to check out gigs, really. The majority of people are there to get sloshed and score. I think probably the Opera House; we’ve played there twice, but in that weird way we make heaps less money if we play the Opera House because we have to pay for production and all, we have to bring in the lights, we have to bring in the PA, we have to hire the venue, because they have to pay the ushers and all that shit, and in the past we haven’t packed it out, so who knows about the future. Every time we have this discussion our manager shows us the budget. And we’re “oh.”

Same thing with small towns. I’m always going “Let’s do Barrytown Hall! Let’s go to Stewart Island!” And our manager Craig says, “Alright, I’ll do a budget.” The more places in New Zealand we play the less money we make. It’s really insane. The only places where you can make a profit are Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin. And it’s just unfortunate that we’re in our thirties and have children.

AB: Well, you gotta knock out the rent.

LB: Exactly. And we’ve got to save some money to go overseas as well. So my favourite venue is the Opera House, but whether we play there this year or not, we’ll see.

AB: Possibly after you launch the album in the UK?

LB: Yup, we’re gonna go to the UK first, because simply, we sold more copies of Buffalo in the UK than in New Zealand, and their summer is in the middle of the year. So there’s gonna be a wait in New Zealand between the album coming out and our album release gigs, but all I can say is we’ll probably be heaps better by the time we get back because we’ll have toured the stuff, we’ll be a tight touring fit act.

AB: Any favourite venues over there?

LB: There’s an awesome venue in Liverpool where we did not play, but we went and saw an amazing band called Fucked Up. Have you heard of Fucked Up? They’re hardcore, which is not really my kind of music, but you just go to see them, there’s about seven of them, horrendously loud; they have this ginormous, obese dude who’s the singer, by hardcore I mean [mimics- “DZHOOFDZHOOOV RAURIRAJJRRAH”]. And he takes his top off, he’s in his undies fat all jiggling around, and they have a roadie whose only job is to hold the mike cable, because pretty much for the entire gig he goes into the crowd and he hugs people, so there’s this lead that goes across the entire venue, and this dude’s hugging people. It was a really amazing experience for a gig. You should check out some live footage of Fucked Up on the internet. The venue’s called The Kasimier, the English version of a great Polish king’s name, Kazimierz. Kasimier’s beautiful, an old-school octagon, we’re playing there this time and I’m really, really excited about it.

AB: Would that rank as one of the favourite gigs you’ve seen during recent years?

LB: Over the last couple of years. I mean I haven’t got any of their albums and I probably would never put it on at home, because I’m never in the mood, really, especially with kids, to have really loud raucous yelly aggressive kind of music. But then like at the gig it’s aggressive but it’s pretty positive vibes stuff.

[1] Fandango explores the more diverse stylistic range that the band has, Jeremy Taylor adds. “I think it’s a very Buda album, ambitious, lots of songs he sings, and lots of things I think of as being very Buda. I love ‘Sideways Glance’, I think it sounds a bit like Roxy Music. I like the 90s/shoegazey influenced things like ‘Thames Soup’ and ‘Inside Me Dead’. I like the fact that there are songs I didn't much care for at first, but that have really grown on me, like ‘Modern Rock’. Mostly, I love seeing my friends’ band evolving, and making consistently interesting and innovative music. I'm quite proud of them really, though I would never tell them.” (The Slowboater was also a backing vocalist on lovely ‘Slumber Party’.) 

Main Image
© Andy Palmer 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at

Alexander’s five Phoenix songs: Bleaching Sun’, ‘Slumber Party’, ‘Nest Egg’, ‘Eventually’, ‘Flock of Hearts’. 

This is part two of a three part interview. Read part one here. Recent highlights from Alexander’s New Zealand music series include Fat Freddy’s Drop and the Chills. Comment/suggestions to or @alexanderbisley on Twitter. At least two witty tweets will win a good, handsomely designed New Zealand CD courtesy of Rattle Records.

2013-04-18 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Music

The Pianist: Luke Buda on Fandango, Part 3

Discussing Poland, piano teachers, and favourite Phoenix tracks with Luke Buda ahead of the Phoenix Foundation’s fifth studio album release.

This April, Luke Pawel Buda Facebooked that his rent had bounced, and he was looking for any work, except. So I engaged the Phoenix’s humorous (co) front-man to review Wilco. I asked him to take take a photo of me with Mavis Staples as we walked towards the green room post gig. He said no, but relented to my pushing a slice of Apple Pie Bedesque dessert. “I need to go to Moore Wilson’s to get some saffron”, he jested re: Sam Scott’s gourmet habit, during a highlight of the tomfoolery at Fandango’s January preview.[1] In February we caught up at his aforementioned Aro Valley abode, discussing Polish Catholic piano teachers, zeitgeisty Phoenix favourites like ‘Blue Summer’ and ‘Bitte Bitte’, pingas, and Boy’s ‘Flock of Hearts’.

*   *   *

ALEXANDER BISLEY: So, favourite Phoenix album—cliché, I suppose—it’s kind of like choosing a favourite kid?

LUKE BUDA: Nah, it’s not like that, I’m just gonna say Fandango at the moment because it’s the thing that is the nearest. It’s gonna take me at least a year before I start admitting that I see the flaws, do you know what I mean?

AB: Right, you’ve just had the baby?

LB: Yeah. Sometimes you just have to understand that, sometimes you have to roll with the punches to get the shit finished and then you still have to feel enthusiastic to get over that. We’ll see what people think of it. I feel pretty good about it. It’s our most ambitious work. It’s a double album, for God’s sake. Got an eighteen minute track.

AB: Looking back to Horsepower and Pegasus, Happy Ending, Buffalo, are there tracks for you that—it’s a bit of a silly parlour game—you’d choose as particular favourites?

LB: I haven’t listened to Horsepower in ages, but the much maligned track of Horsepower, I still really like, which was ‘Bruiser’.

AB: I’m one of the maligners.

LB: Oh yeah, whatever. Strangely it’s a track that polarises people. I remember one of the reviews in the States was, “this album’s alright, until it get to this song, ‘Bruiser’, where it’s amazing.” And the PR company in the States had been trying to get us to take it off the album, and we’re going “nah, fuck you.” It’s not boring. Sometimes I like a really appropriately and beautifully arranged song, and sometimes I like it when people just shit something out and make it insane.

On Pegasus, I really like ‘Hitchcock’, ‘Sea World’, ‘Cars of Eden’, and ‘Twilight’. ‘Slightest Shift in the Weather’ I feel is a track that never fully nailed the vibe. ‘Morning Pages’, the first track, the really quiet one, I think it’s really nice.

Happy Ending, ‘Gandalf’, probably, is standout. ‘Bright Grey’, I think at the time I was pretty excited by, but sometimes the more straight rock tracks lose— because you can’t kinda do anything with them, they lose some of their sheen when you’ve played them live for years—you just have to find that rock enthusiasm again, whereas if it’s more of a interestingy track, you can keep getting into a zone.

AB: One of you guys’ real talents is those sharp lyrics that hook people in. Like in ‘Gandalf’, “she came on like November, pretending to be summer.”

LB: Sam, mostly. Mostly Sam. With ‘Gandalf’ we got together to write the lyrics and it was a classic Sam and Luke lyric-writing session. He’s got the gift of the gab, that guy, in that way. He’s got a very funny wordplay thing going on. He’s quite good. If you get him drunk and get him in the right mood and get him comfortable enough to be rapping, he can bust out some pretty hilarious abstract rhymes, that’s for sure.

AB: Do you guys have any tracks that haven’t been released, Phoenix Foundation bootleg tapes?

LB: Haha, yes we do actually, we’ve got this one from Horsepower that wasn’t very good, unfortunately, called ‘Rotten Town’, which is kind of strangely reggae-ish. And we’ve done one that’s left off the new album because it just doesn’t fit, but it’s probably gonna be our biggest hit, which is a London rap called ‘Dalston Junction’, about working in a secondhand bookshop on Charing Cross Road. And the British record company hate it, but we know it’s probably gonna be the song that makes us.

AB: Seriously?

LB: Seriously. No, not really.

AB: But it’s got some good qualities?

LB: Oh well, it’s kinda like a ‘Bruiser’ in a way, if we’re gonna be serious about it. Check it out. [‘Dalston Junction’ plays] There you go. ‘Dalston Junction’! There’s a couple of others. There’s loads of tracks we abandoned on this album, crazy as it seems, even though it ended up being a double. The only way we could fit an eighteen minute song on was if it was a double.

AB: Tell me about ‘Friendly Society’ influences?

LB: Well strangely enough, I think the middle section, where the drums come in, was definite Stone Roses. Mostly that track is me having a late night jam around on my acoustic guitar, when it started off it was about six minutes and it got more and more crazy and insane and we went into the big Stone Roses bit. [mimics: “brm, drm, zhdmmbmmjmbm”]

I’m pretty pleased with ‘Friendly Society’ because I remember reading somewhere that bands or artists are never as weird or as interesting as they think they are, and sometimes I listen to some of our songs that are some of the more straight ones that I do actually like, but I go “man, this is quite straight.” With ‘Friendly Society’, when we nailed that, mostly a live take, I like the sense of being able to let go with shit. It’s eighteen minutes... Shit, this one meanders off for a while, who cares? I’m into it. Actually into a bit of meandery self-indulgent. I’ve meandered off now with my sentence. Much like the music.

AB: What about Buffalo’s ‘Flock of Hearts’, with your beautiful chord progression? I like Boy a lot, so there’s that association also, with it running during Boy’s closing credits.

LB: I felt pretty proud of ‘Flock of Hearts’ at the time. I felt very proud of the chord progression on ‘Flock of Hearts’. Probably because I’ve heard it lots, probably because it is a kind of an up-pop number and there’s something about that that I find immediately gratifying and the fastest thing to burn out for me. Whereas some of the more perhaps pretentiousy musicky numbers last a bit longer for me?

AB: I love that line on ‘Blue Summer’, “we could be unemployed together.”

LB: A lifetime ago. It was over twelve years ago, I’m sure.

AB: But then resurrected for Eagle vs Shark?

LB: In a way that’s the song that got us signed to Capital Recordings. It was my song that I made by myself, but we called it the Phoenix Foundation. So there you go. Those guys fuckin’ owe me everything, man, the other dudes.

AB: How to make a living: film and TV, that’s a good angle for you guys?

LB: Yeah, just last year was a bit barren, and I wonder if that’s because most of the work’s in Auckland and maybe if we lived in Auckland and went occasionally to say hi to people, maybe then that work would come. We just didn’t get much work this year, that’s all. It’s a bit of a dilemma. I mean it’s kind of sad; to be able to pay the rent, I occasionally have to make jingles for ads. Ultimately I think, well, what are my options? The dole? What, the dole is cooler than that? Not really. Washing dishes?

AB: Talking to Mike Fab, he was saying, “Wellington markets itself on being the creative capital of New Zealand, but in reality that’s a fantasy. Increasingly there’s no way musicians can afford to practice and record. We might all have to end up in the Hutt.”

LB: He’s totally right. It took Lee Prebble three or four years to find a suitable space that he could afford for his new studio, because he has to move out of the Surgery, he’s had to go further out. We recorded Horsepower in there. Trinity Roots, all the Black Seeds albums, heaps of people, he’s been recording in there the whole time. Done a Dave Dobbyn album in the Surgery, for God’s sake, The Islander, “Welllllcome home.” Dave Dobbyn’s a great dude, by the way. I feel very chuffed to have hung out with him on that one day when we did that Flight of the Conchords song. He was a hilarious and entertaining man. If I had a party here, I’d totally invite him. I have parties here all the time, man!

AB: There’s been a lot of stress for artists, contrary to the council’s ‘creative capital’ slogan.

LB: Yeah, and the reason that Lee’s gotta move, is: apartments!

AB: ‘Bitte Bitte’, another one of those sharp Sam Scott lyrics, “What do we do, now that all of the yuppies replaced us?”

LB: “When all of the squats have been turned into gallery spaces.” I think that’s one of his best lyrics. I think what he’s trying to say in that song—I think this because I’ve heard him say this to people in interviews—is that ultimately it’s alright, we’ll just move on to the next spot. Yup, things are just gonna constantly keep changing, and it’s okay, we’ll just go to the next neighbourhood. But it’s definitely happening isn’t it, in Wellington?

AB: Do you have musical memories from Wroclaw, Poland?

LB: Nah, not really. Had some piano lessons when I was about five, but they were just typical funny piano, the thing I do remember was that the piano teacher was a mad Catholic. He would bring around little Catholic kids’ mini zines, with little stories from the Bible and little cartoons for kids that my parents weren’t really into, and he’d sort of leave them for me.

AB: I like your work on the keys on Fandango.[2] You’ve still got family over there, right?

LB: Yep. My dad’s actually moved back, he lives in Warszawa. We were there in 2011. My grandparents live in Wroclaw, only about two-and-a-half hours’ drive from Berlin.

AB: Has there been any—

LB: Talk of Poland? In 2011 we said no to a couple gigs in Spain. We could go to Poland for the sentimental value, and—I would love to, I would love to take the dudes to Poland—but until we have some kind of industry support, there’s no point.

AB: So UK’s number one for this tour?

LB: The gigs booked in the UK, they’re all definitely step up from last UK tour venues. The one in Bristol’s quite cool, it’s like an old ship in the harbour called the Thekla, and loads of [good] people play at the Thekla, and the Electric Ballroom in London, which I think is reasonably big, like eleven hundred or something like that, and the Òran Mór, in Glasgow, which is an old cathedral they’ve turned into a three-level pub with a big venue down the bottom. We played there previously. And they have two hundred and fifty whiskeys in the Òran Mór. All the pubs in Scotland rule hard. I really like whiskey.

AB: Who are some other New Zealand bands you really like at the moment, apart from the Feelers?

LB: Lawrence Arabia, Connan Mockasin, Unknown Mortal Orchestra. I really like the Mint Chicks’ last album. I haven’t heard Opossom, but I’m really keen to hear it.

[1] “Something people don’t know about Luke is that he is an excellent contemporary dancer. One day this band will end, or take a break, that is the day I retire as a songwriter and become the pianist for Luke’s solo dance company,” Sam Scott told me yesterday. In 2007, when I interviewed him about Happy Ending, he asked Buda and I whether we’d ever had a threesome? “No,” I said. “No,” Buda said. Scott continued: “I was talking about threesomes with Jessica [Scott’s wife], the other day. She said ‘isn’t that boring for one of the people?’ I thought ‘you obviously haven’t seen much pornography’.” Buda later chirped he wasn’t about rock‘n’roll’s orgiastic excess life. “It ain’t really like that for the Phoenix.”

[2] “I love the narrative quality of keys. I think Luke totally gets that—he’s good at using keys to add drama, or tension, or to shift a song through some sort of catharsis,” Buda’s partner Sarah Jane Parton told me very recently. ”The thing about his playing is that he’s incredibly aware of all of the brilliant and trained piano players out there and, consequentially, doesn’t think he’s that shit-hot in comparison. I reckon he’s pretty good on the keys for someone who thinks he’s only okay. We live in a teeny tiny house, as you would’ve noticed, so—as much as we’d like to have one—we don’t have a piano or keyboard at home. We simply can’t fit one in. This means that I only ever see him playing keys at his practice room or at gigs. Our eldest son Moses has just started piano lessons, which is pretty exciting. He’s learning from a pianist, Treefrog, who lives a few doors up the street from us, and he’s loving it. I harbour a fantasy that one day he’ll play alongside his dad. I think they’d both really like that.”

Main Image
© Andy Palmer 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at

Alexander’s five Phoenix songs: ‘Friendly Society’, ‘Blue Summer’, ‘Let Me Die a Woman’, ‘All In An Afternoon’, ‘Omerta’

This is the final part of a three part interview. Read parts one and two. Recent highlights from Alexander’s New Zealand music series include Fat Freddy’s Drop and the Chills.

Comment/suggestions to or @alexanderbisley on Twitter. At least two witty tweets will win a good, handsomely designed New Zealand CD courtesy of Rattle Records.

2013-04-19 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Music

Sweetman on Simmons on Cohen

A conversation about Sylvie Simmons and music journalism ahead of the Leonard Cohen biographer’s trip to New Zealand in May.

ALEXANDER BISLEY: Lots of people have interviewed/written about Leonard Cohen. What makes Sylvie Simmons’s I’m Your Man[1] special?

SIMON SWEETMAN: The secret to Sylvie’s book about Leonard Cohen is the access to the women[2]; the crucial muses. Perhaps because she’s a woman she found it easier to approach the women in Cohen’s life; perhaps they felt less threatened being asked by a woman? But from the other bios I’ve read I think the writers just didn’t try hard enough, didn’t think the women were important, perhaps. Actually there are several key aspects in what makes this book great, the fact that Simmons treats the prose and poetry writing with equal weight/importance as the songwriting. She understands that his career needs to be examined as a whole. It seems to be that Cohen books are either about the songs or they’re about the writing in a stuffy, academic sense. She manages to combine the vestiges. She seemed to know that the important things in Cohen’s life, the women, the depression, the work—it’s all related. She writes like a dream. The timing is great, too. There’s a new level of Cohen appreciation.

AB: Pico Iyer, another impressive Cohenista writer, told me recently. “There have been many fine books on him, most notably the huge recent biography by Sylvie Simmons.”  He feels his new Graham Greene “counterbiography”, The Man Within My Head, is essentially about Leonard Cohen. “In so many ways, he’s Greene’s twin. I took out the 20 pages explicitly linking the two, but I think Cohen hovers behind every other page.” Do you see a connection between Cohen and Greene?

SS: Well I’m sure there are plenty of connections—both suffered depression, both had reputations for being ladies’ men. Within that, somehow, both were viewed, often, as being complete gentlemen. Both have been critically praised as writers but also made no secret of having commercial intentions for their work, of stepping down from the ivory tower. But Iyer would know more about that. It’s a shame he took the pages out by the sounds.

AB: Leonard Cohen, Wellington 2010, is the greatest concert I ever went to. You?

SS: The first time I saw Leonard Cohen in New Zealand [2009] was very special, in fact I called it the best gig I’d ever seen in the review I wrote for the paper. There was just a feeling, so palpable, among the audience. I loved it. It seemed almost everybody loved it. It was what anyone should have been expecting from a Leonard Cohen gig. And it was so much more. He then returned a year later and played almost the same show, so that cheapened the thrill slightly. I hear he’s added new old songs now, so I’d be up for seeing him again. But the magic, as is often the way, was in that first time.

AB: Sylvie’s interview with the outrageously rude (and not amusingly so) Lou Reed is terrific. Is Annie Clark still the rudest interviewee you’ve ever had?

SS: Yes. I had a tough time with Annie Clark, aka St.Vincent. She was rude, uninterested in being interviewed. I later read a transcript of the interview that had taken place before mine. She was rude.

AB: That was Lumière’s Brannavan Gnanalingam. He said she was incredibly rude, starting with her mercilessly abusing the poor operator. What’s a Cohen song that’s been resonating for you this week?

SS: So many of his songs resonate, more recently I’ve been interested in revisiting the early poems, some of them went on to become songs in their own right. I’m enjoying his most recent album [Old Ideas]. Most of it is very good, a tiny amount of filler but better than expected. The first three Cohen albums are all sublime. And I’ve always been a fan of the Field Commander Cohen live album and 1979’s Recent Songs.

AB: What got you into Sylvie initially?

SS: I’ve enjoyed reading Sylvie Simmons’s work for many years, her Americana column in Mojo, her book of short stories, her previous bios (Neil Young, Serge Gainsbourg) and her interviews, going back to the early 1980s with the legends of rock and metal (Van Halen, Sabbath et al.) and on now to the work she still does for Mojo. She’s a great writer—you know she’s done the listening, she’s believable, she has a good turn of phrase.

AB: You’ve (sharply) interviewed some big names (George Clinton, Damon Albarn, Mavis Staples). Why are you particularly excited about this event?

SS: It’s always nice to try something different. Interviewing people is about getting their story, sure you want to put it across in your words when it’s for print. And that’s part of the challenge/angle but it’s ultimately about serving the person you’re interviewing, getting their story to share. In that sense interviewing someone live on stage, in front of an audience, is about facilitating a conversation—it’s about getting those stories. I’ve had some conversations with Sylvie already and she has so many great stories.

AB: What has doing a lot of interviews for On Song taught you about interviewing fellow writers?

SS: It’s nice to get the story from the source—there’s a real feeling of privilege in being told, first hand, about the creating of a song, the writing of a book, the interviewing of a famous person. It’s something I never take lightly.

AB: What is the challenge/opportunity of interviewing someone in front of an audience, as opposed to just your cat?

SS: When you interview someone for a story to write up, you are thinking about the audience mostly after you’ve filtered it. Here you are going straight to the source and it’s going straight to the audience. That’s exciting.

AB: What did she say when she found out you named your cat Sylvie?

SS: I never told her that directly, but I mentioned it in a blog post after, and she told me recently that she was aware of that. Actually the cat was named, in the first instance, after Sylvia Plath. When shortened to Sylvie I mentioned Sylvie Simmons as a great writer. We named our cats after writers, Sylvie and Baxter.

AB: I hope you put her on to Hemi Baxter, if she didn’t know about High Country Weather’s poet already. Speaking of the superb, are you going to Sylvie’s Auckland Writers and Readers Festival event with Don McGlashan? He’s my favourite New Zealand singer, so I hope to attend that, and her session with Noelle McCarthy.

SS: No, I’ll be missing those.

AB: “The ruthless critic who has given out more hits than Savage,” Mike Alexander wrote in a preview for your Carterton event with Sylvie. Do you regret any of the hits?

SS: Publish and be damned. Nothing to regret.

AB: Paula Morris concluded an essay on reviewing (first published online by The Lumière Reader in 2007) with those words, publish and be damned. Did you relent somewhat on Fat Freddy’s Drop?

SS: I wouldn’t say I relented. The first piece about Fat Freddy’s that I wrote was about how distinctly underwhelming I found them as a live band—on the back of everyone raving. The second piece is a review of the second album, a far better effort than their plodding debut.

AB: “I hate the Wairarapa,” Mu told me. Your thoughts?

SS: I don’t have any thoughts on the Wairarapa. But I’m happy to be representing as thinking the complete opposite of Mu.

AB: That’s the first time I’ve ever heard of you not having any thoughts. All the things people have said about you, the only time it seemed to me that you really cared was when Mu implied that you were racist on Kim Hill?

SS: Well it was an absurd charge—he grasped for racism in the wake of finding out someone didn’t like his band. Poor form. Limited understanding of the role of criticism.

AB: How has Sylvie influenced your writing?

SS: I admire her skill, and she’s got great ears.

AB: Who’s another music writer you’d like to interview on stage in New Zealand?

SS: I’ve chatted with Mick Wall and he, coming up through a similar era to Sylvie, has some great stories. He’s one of the people named in Guns‘n’Roses’s Get in the Ring for a start. He partied as hard as many of the metal stars from the ’70s and ’80s and early ’90s. And he’s an entertaining, engaging writer. He comes from the great Irish storytelling tradition; that’s his ancestry. He’s now mellowed with age, enjoying his time writing from the sidelines. And so he’s learned a good line in self-effacement also. He’d be a blast.

AB: Who’s the dead music writer you’d most like to interview?

SS: The correct answer is probably supposed to be Lester Bangs. But I think I’d go for Nick Kent. When he was on form Kent was the best. His book The Dark Stuff is a must. For anyone interested in music. Or writing. Or music-writing. What’s that? He’s not dead yet. Somebody should tell him.

AB: What about New Zealand’s Dylan Taite?

SS: I used to love watching Dylan Taite’s TV3 pieces because he had fun, he took the piss, he created entertaining TV. He got away with a surprising amount on mainstream TV. There was a wonderful chaos about him. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about if I had spoken with him, but he was definitely someone I considered an influence at one point. He was New Zealand’s only visible music commentator for a time. The only one that mattered really. And he celebrated the silliness of it all too. I think you’d get him talking easily enough if he were still around and you’d be best to just let him go for it and not stand in the way.

Sylvie Simmons talks about ‘I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen’ with Simon Sweetman in Carterton on May 21, and with Noelle McCarthy and Don McGlashan at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival on May 17 and 18 respectively.

Alexander Bisley interviewed the Phoenix Foundation’s Luke Buda here. He tweets @alexanderbisley. Upcoming Auckland Writers & Readers Festival coverage on The Lumière Reader to include Don McGlashan, Rebecca Priestley, James McNeish, and Kate Atkinson.

[1] “To spend that much time investigating someone so closely, it really is like stalking in a way,” Sylvie Simmons told James Robinson. “It is a sort of intrusion of the laws of most civilized countries.” Simmons bristles as she relays the remarks of one Canadian reviewer who commented that they “couldn’t find any evidence that she did a Petraeus.”

[2] “It’s a complex story, in which he spends long periods away from his love, the now immortalised Marianne; has a constant collection of young women ‘muses’ and lovers,” our Saradha Koirala reviews. “Among the details fleshing out Cohen’s portrait are many huge and enduring names, especially during the years spent living at The Chelsea Hotel. It’s amazing to imagine all these pop icons—Joplin, Warhol, Hendrix, Nico, Reed, Dylan, Bukowski, Mitchell—living together or coming and going from each other’s rooms. After reading about this time, it becomes impossible not to look for the references and links between artists—songs that talk to each other, are passed from writer to singer, or are inspired by the shared moments.”

2013-04-22 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Music Auckland Writers Festival

Reel Brazil 2013

An interview with Reel Brazil Film Festival director Leandro Cavalcanti.

ALEXANDER BISLEY: Who’s a Brazilian director who inspires you?

LEANDRO CAVALCANTI: Walter Salles (Central Station, Motorcycle Diaries, Behind the Sun, Foreign Land, On the Road). I basically love all his films! He’s got a thing about road movies—I find myself relating to his movies a lot because of all the travel in my life.

AB: Motorcycle Diaries makes me want to travel again. It’s long interested me that Brazil has the largest Japanese population in the world outside of Japan. Variety writes about post World War Two Brazilian fight Dirty Hearts: “Sequestered during the war and cut off from all Nippon publications, most immigrants refused to believe their country did not triumph. Fanatical societies sprang up, targeting those who acknowledged Japan’s surrender as ‘dirty hearts’.” There is, of course, a significant Brazilian Japanese community in Japan also. The Jerry Collins yarn about issues with a Brazilian Japanese gang seemed fantastical to some, but it seems distinctly plausible to me. You? Dirty Hearts, my pick of the festival, is part of this dark territory?

LC: Brazil is home to the largest Japanese community outside of Japan, mostly in São Paulo. In regards to Collins’s story, yes it is plausible, but regardless of it being a gang of Brazilians or from any other ethnic group! There are gangsters in every culture. Dirty Hearts is a story based on real facts. I think Dirty Hearts shows the pride of a nation being broken and how important it is to hold on to your references like your language, religious practices, and even your nation’s flag. In Brazil the Japanese immigrants were treated like enemies, and not allowed to live their culture. That was the 1940s and 1950s, but I still see this happening today with minority groups in many countries. Brazil has its own problems with minorities—take Pirinop, a film in this festival about the indigenous Ikpeng people of Brazil and their experiences of land loss and diaspora.

AB: This journal has shown enthusiasm for your festival/Brazilian films in the past. Tell me about your favourite film in the festival?

LC: All films have their purpose in the festival and they each come with their own accolades, but Heleno (2011) is very special. This film made me fall in love with cinema again. I watched it twice within twelve hours. The film is about the controversial 1940s football star Heleno de Freitas. It’s beautifully shot, in black and white, and reminds me of those classic Hollywood-era movies.

AB: How do Brazilian films represent the dynamism and excitement of Brazilian culture?

LC: People associate Brazil with dancing, drinking, eating, football, laughing, basically having fun. These things are often why people think Brazil is exciting and dynamic, however there is also the serious and quiet side of Brazil. The last two editions of the festival I went out scouting films that also showed this aspect of our culture because it reveals something different about the Brazilian way. I have found that New Zealanders really connect with these films, such as Reflections of a Blender (RBFF 2011), Neighbouring Sounds (NZIFF 2012), and in this year’s lineup, Found Memories.

AB: What do you hope people take away from the festival?

LC: That they learn something new about Brazil and feel they were able to connect at some level; be it through humour or sadness. It would also be fantastic if several businesses connect through our corporate night and create a strong partnership.

AB: What got you into movies?

LC: I’m not much of a book reader and my way to interact with the storytelling world has always been from listening to people’s stories and by watching movies. Now, what got me into film festivals was pure chance. I worked at the Brazilian Embassy in Wellington, and one of the things under my wing was organising the Latin American Film Festival. After four years at the Embassy, I left for Toronto, Canada, and helped set up the Brazilian Film Festival there. In 2009 I returned to New Zealand and Reel Brazil was born.

AB: There are a lot of film festivals these days. What’s special about yours?

LC: At its core, Reel Brazil has a different concept from your usual film festival as it came together as a business initiative. I also have a commercial background from my time working at the Embassy of Brazil and wanted to use the festival platform to also foment business relationships between Brazil and New Zealand. Generally Latin Americans believe in mixing business with leisure and a lot of deals are started through informal gatherings. Through a drink or two, information is shared and people get to know each other in a more honest and relaxed way. An excellent film, great food, and fantastic music is also a social drawcard so I decided to put them together into one opening night event.

AB: What are the similarities/differences between Brazilian and Kiwi film culture?

LC: Both countries have an emerging film industry, including in the short film arena. There is a big appetite for stories about ourselves, take Whale Rider and Boy here, and City of God and Central Station in Brazil.

Where I feel they both differ is actually in the financial space. Brazil has a lot more favourable tax shelter laws that will allow the private sector to invest in film. Having better tax shelter laws in New Zealand would increase the participation of the private sector, and would free the public sector from the weight of always being the provider and gatekeeper. The government would still be filtering and approving projects, but the fund pool becomes as large as we can make it by reaching out to different companies. If New Zealand does a co-production film with Brazil, they can also take advantage of these benefits.

The 4th Reel Brazil Film Festival opens in Wellington on May 2, through until May 12. (The festival graced Auckland earlier in April.) This coming Monday night’s Wellington Film Society screening of ‘Heleno’ is presented in association with the festival.

2013-04-30 · Permalink · FILM Features Interviews Film Festivals

All About My Father

An interview with Electric Wire Hustle’s Mara TK.

CMJ is like meeting a thousand people all at once and to break the ice you shout at everyone; spaz-out, say something too intimate, weird people out. Some folks like that kind of shit though and you win them over,” Mara TK told me on September 11, 2013. The witty frontman’s Electric Wire Hustle is one of five New Zealand bands going to New York City’s biggest music festival. (The other four are David Lynch faves Tiny Ruins, Black City Lights, Streets Of Laredo, and Ghost Wave.) Earlier in the year I met the affable Mara on a sunny afternoon out back at Newtown’s Cafe Baobab. The fretful guitarist/father with the manuka-honey falsetto talked about his Dad Billy TK and Kanye West, Parihaka and NYC, and Austin's SXSW. “Quite simply this is the best, most exciting R&B, soul, electronica, whatever you want to call it, record I’ve heard this year,” hip Okayplayer wrote about Electric Wire Hustle.

The moon moves high into the sky
I watch it like a dream
Your love falls down like firefall
But, I ain’t got time to see

When you call my name out loud
You know that I can hear
Long distance is my enemy
Until I have you near

—‘Moon Song’, Billy TK.[1]

ALEXANDER BISLEY: Billy TK’s ‘Moon Song’ is ataahua (beautiful) and moving, Tuwharian.

MARA TK: It’s my favourite song of his. It’s a heirloom, so I’ve been freaking out about actually letting it go and putting it out [on Data Hui’s first album]. “Long distance is my enemy until I have you near” is so great. He wrote wonderfully poetic lines like “The moon moves high in to the sky/ I watch it like a dream/ Your love falls down like firefall.” So what I’m doing now is trying to preserve his legacy and get it out for people to see before he’s gone.

AB: Data Hui at the Botanic Gardens was cool, particularly seeing Billy, he’s still got presence. They call him the Maori Jimi Hendrix.

MTK: You’ll probably find there are about three or four or five Maori Jimi Hendrixs in the country. So which one is he? He’s still playing really well for a 65 year old guy, got a new lease on life, got the pension, went to Europe for the first time in 2011, and I think that changed his life a bit. He’s been going to these peace festivals in Europe and sort of preaching the gospel of peace; spirituality delivered through a blistering guitar.

AB: Talk to me more about Billy TK’s legacy?

MTK: He’s done a lot for Maori musicians, he’s been hugely influential to guitarists. He’s been an educator, he formed a group called Wharemana, or Powerhouse, and that became a massive community project where he was bringing young Maori kids in to learn their craft and how to play instruments. He brought in people from the theatre and dancers and elements of kapa haka, that production was 30-strong and they took that in to prisons and marae, he was one of the pioneers of Maori modern fusion. Songs like ‘Poi E’, half kapa haka, came out of the same circle of friends. And he copped a bit of flack for that at the time.

AB: Going into prisons, is the tradition that Jim Moriarty continues?

MTK: Exactly, what Jim Moriarty does is take kids while they are young and tries to get them interested in theatre, impart skills to people and I think that was part of Dad’s thing. I don’t think he directly saw himself as a social service [laughs], but he was in a lot of ways, taking young kids on the road. I don’t know how well they were fed or put up, but they certainly came out of it with a whole new set of survival skills, and skills on their instruments as well.

Over at least 45 years, he’s been a working musician. He’s covered a lot of ground geographically and bumped in to everyone[2] and so many people have seen him one place or another so yeah he’s lived it, he’s a proper blues man.

AB: Where’s he based these days?

MTK: He’s based in the West Coast of the South Island. Just south of Karamea, little Wanganui down on the West Coast, the biggest dead end, the biggest cul-de-sac in New Zealand.

AB: He’s happy down there?

MTK: Oh yeah, he’s good. He pays $25 a week rent.

AB: So he’s been quite a musical influence for you?

MTK: I didn’t grow up with him 100% of the time, but certainly the time we did spend together was intensely musical and I believe that he spent enough time with me to impart his philosophies as a musician and a band leader and a producer. How to work hard and run a band, and try and get the best out of people. He’s been a huge influence. There’s a reason I can’t stop playing A minor and D minor.

I think Data Hui will be an interesting record for those reasons, and also you’ve got amazing players who come out of traditions of funk music. Crete Haami started out as a metal player, and he’s got the baddest chops because of it.

AB: Probably my favourite Electric Wire Hustle, ‘Burn’ (featuring Billy TK), is a powerful political statement, in New Zealand’s tradition of protest music like Herbs’ ‘French Letter’. It begins with this clip from David Lange’s mighty korero on the evils of nuclear weapons: “Rejecting nuclear weapons is to assert what is human over the evil nature of the weapon; it is to restore to humanity the power of the decision; it is to allow a moral force to reign supreme. It stops the macho lurch into mutual madness. And for me, the position of my country is a genuine long-term affirmation of this proposition: that nuclear weapons are morally indefensible. And I support that proposition.” Tell me a bit about the genesis of ‘Burn’?

MTK: We had been buzzing out on this debate between Lange and a foreign delegate of the States [Jerry Falwell] on nuclear weapons and how well he represents his own views, and the views of his country at large, it turned out. I don’t think any political issue has rallied so much of the country since?

AB: What do you want people to take away from ‘Burn’?

MTK: It might be the guitar that gets people, might be the harmonies. But if it made you look up David Lange and check him out and what a great politician he was then that would be cool. Compare him to the ones we’ve got in at the moment.

AB: You’ve had impressive international press. Must be quite cool and surreal, being given props in Polish by media in Poland?[3]

MTK: One of the guys that gets us, Maceo Wyro, who’s based in Warsaw, maybe he had an inside man? But we’re lucky we created a sort of cult classic. I guess we’re lucky hipsters like to fucking talk.

AB: Have you got more protest songs on Electric Wire Hustle’s second album?

MTK: There’s a couple on the second album, which is completed, one in particular is pretty overtly anti-government. We’re still looking for a record label to put it out through. It’s kinda a guitary album. You know my contemporaries are Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Opossum. The Mint Chicks, I really liked that band, and I think they came from the same place as me with psychedelic rock. You could say our first album was a take on soul music; this is our take on psychedelic rock, guitar albums. [Drummer] Myele’s a musician’s musician. I would call Taay Ninh [keys] the vision. He’s a designer, so we were able to do our website ourselves. There’s some protest songs on the Data Hui album also.

AB: Data Hui’s drummer Ricky Gooch, most well-known for Trinity Roots, has done a variety of very interesting projects since.

MTK: Oh man that guy is just great, he’s the best drummer that New Zealand’s ever produced. Him and Myele, but there’s nobody better in the studio.

AB: Why is that?

MTK: Well firstly as a musician, as a drummer he just knows how to hit his drums in the right way. Some drummers, when they get in the studio they don’t realise that if they smash their symbols like it’s the last song on a live show, then you’re probably going to wreck the whole drum take in mixing. As a producer he thinks outside the square. He has that sort of vitality that I think people need when they’re working in the studio to say ‘I’m going to climb the fucking rafters and hang this type of mic off the banisters, I’m going to risk my fucking life climbing this rickety fucking ladder, but I’m going to get up there and I’m going to hang this microphone in a particular way, and I’m going to drag the piano over and take the back off it and get the natural reverb from the piano strings vibrating,’ and then they go and they fucking pull the piano down and they scale the roof, and they do all those extra things that get you the type of sound that makes you go ‘wow that’s really something’ or ‘I haven’t heard that before.’ He’s got that. Other people who have that include Mike Fab.

AB: So in terms of your current musical inspirations, you get a lot from these local guys?

MTK: Yeah man, shit these are the guys I spend most of my life with. As much as I love Coltrane, the dude’s been dead how many decades now? Every time I see Aaron Tokona I’m thinking about our conversations for a week, just digesting all the crazy shit he was talking about. And the same with Ricky Gooch, and Crete Haami. I ask Crete about his Maori studies degree he did, and he always has some interesting proverb that he talks about. These Wellington musos are intriguing personalities. People like Ricky and Aaron and Crete are the best Maori musicians alive to me, the best musicians in the country.

AB: Wu Tang’s RZA is someone you rate?

MTK: Oh man, look at what the guy’s achieved. You couldn’t say they aren’t the biggest hip-hop group in the world. On top of that he’s one of the savviest businessmen in the game. He’s just put out a movie, The Man With the Iron Fists, and he spent around $50,000 of his own money to go and hang out with Tarantino on the set of Kill Bill in Shanghai. And hung out for weeks, and learned how to direct and somehow gets the money together to make a kung-fu film. What a crazy and interesting dude, chess master.

AB:  He was ahead of the game, with Ghost Dog, getting in to film composing as a way of making a living. For people like you as a musician and me as a writer everyone expects to get our shit off the internet without paying for it. It’s hard making a living as a musician these days?

MTK: It can be, yeah man if you’re gonna be a musician you should be a singer. It’ll probably get you more money in the long run, think Jamaicans had the right idea, only singers and producers. It’s a double-edged sword. I’m pretty thankful for my life on days like today and I can’t complain too much, it’s up to me to make it work and that’s what I intend on doing. I’ve got a couple of exciting production jobs in the pipeline, producing Ria Hall for example.

AB: Did you meet any New York rappers while you were in New York?

MTK: Haha no, but we did meet Gandalf, Sir Ian McKellan, and had a great dinner with him, if you want me to name drop.

AB: He is impressive.

MTK: I don’t know about his skills on the mic.

AB: He’s got some gravitas.

MTK: He cooks a pretty fucking good pasta. I met the guy who represents Wu Tang the brand and he was interesting. He said he went to law school to figure out how to break the law. I didn’t realise a lot of them are deeply religious.

AB: Your flattie Mike Fab enthuses about your fried chicken (and your dancing). What was your favourite rap album of last year?

MTK: I want to produce a rap album for Shabazz Palaces. The Black Up, lyrically that’s amazing. People are saying the Kendrick Lamar album. I think he’s quite a strange rapper, but there’s definitely some stuff on that album that I love. Watch the Throne had some great joints on it.

AB: I have to confess I’m a Kanye West fan.

MTK: Hell yeah man, there aren’t many more compelling rappers than him out and he happens to be the baddest producer as well.

AB: Have you seen him live?

MTK: Yeah the dude travels with like 30 ballet dancers, it’s crazy. I think he’s probably a pretty deep cat. As much as people say he’s annoying, you can’t put on a Kanye West track without being enthralled by it, for better or for worse. You can’t ignore the dude when he comes on the radio.

AB: He’s been putting out terrific, varied albums for a while. 808s & Heartbreak was resonating a lot for me after a winter travel romance ended.

MTK: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an incredible body of work. It’s hard to separate [single out] tracks on that record. Fuck he’s great.

AB: It was exciting being in New York?

MTK: Yeah man, it was at the end of our SXSW experience, and that was hectic, crazy; five days of traversing the town multiple times to get from this venue to that showcase to that showcase, 20 minutes of material, set up and go.

AB: I’d be interested to hear more about SXSW and Austin?

MTK: It’s a cool festival. We saw Erykah Badu and after the MC finished, the presenter said “look the next act is a surprise and you want to stick around for them,” we didn’t and it turned out it was Nas. There’s incredible stuff happening everywhere, and Austin, you keep being surprised you are in Texas, it’s quite liberal. There’s some good food around. We had an amazing time. I’ve had a few tour experiences when they’re better in retrospect. You sort of distil them, over the course of time, so they all end up being quite good memories.

AB: Distil down the best bits and forget the rest?

MTK: Women forget all about childbirth and want to have another one. That’s topical. My partner Jessie [Elsie Locke’s granddaughter] wants to have a second baby.

AB: How’s it being back from your big European tour, and living in Berlin? I saw you performed at a Hungarian festival the electrifying The Roots also played.

MTK: I kiss the ground because my family got back safe and I didn’t end up homeless in Lithuania or something. I love our country. I drove back past the state-house I grew up in Christchurch,[4] and it was pretty poor when I was there and now it’s like driving into South Auckland. It was crazy, this is Christchurch. So I think people are poorer than they ever have been in this country, the disparity. Have you ever seen so many Countdowns before? Doing some travel abroad, I think you always come home with a lot of perspective, and I’m always shocked by our own country, shocked by its beauty and potential, and some huge problems.

AB: What’s your favourite local music festival?

MTK: Parihaka is probably my favourite New Zealand festival of all time. I performed there twice.

AB: There’s magic in those hills, a really special feeling.

MTK: There is. It was a tragedy that Te Miranga Hohaia passed away.

AB:  It’s so sad. He was a lovely and inspirational man.

MTK: That’s right. I hope someone has the drive to pick up that mantle again and I’ll be the first one to put my hand up to go and perform.

AB: What’s a film you found stimulating recently?

MTK: Life of Pi covers a lot of ground. It talks about a lot of things like nature and while he’s out there on the ocean he has to smash up this fish, and he’s this vegetarian Indian kid and he’s forced to kill in the movie. The carnivorous island blows my mind, what does it mean? Is it a metaphor for cities? Life of Pi sorta deals with fatherhood also. I remember him talking about his dad at the end.

© David St George 2013. All Rights Reserved.

This article was updated on September 30, 2013. 

Data Hui play at the Wellington Jazz Festival opening party on June 7.  Thanks to Kimaya McIntosh for some transcription assistance on this article.

Recent highlights from Alexander’s New Zealand music series include the Phoenix Foundation and Fat Freddy’s Drop. He interviewed Ian McKellen about King Lear in 2007, and is currently finishing a significant article on Savage to be published at the end of May. A key angle on South Auckland’s finest is his father.

[1] This is the first time ‘Moon Song’ has been published. Published with permission, copying prohibited.

[2] He later played WOMAD with Sam Hunt and David Kilgour. Electric Wire Hustle Family also played WOMAD 2013.

[3] Pages such as 17, 21, 22 at link.

[4] Mara TK led this Christchurch Earthquake fundraising CD and launch concert. He opens the CD with a beautiful rendition of ‘Ma Wai Ra’ (‘Who Will Take Responsibility?’).

2013-05-01 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Music

Days of Heaven

An interview with essayist and novelist Pico Iyer.

And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed my familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end,” Pico Iyer writes in his essay Why We Travel. He is admired for such characteristically perceptive and rousing writing. “As a guide to far-flung places Pico Iyer can hardly be surpassed” (The New Yorker); “The rightful heir to Jan Morris, Paul Theroux and company” (Los Angeles Times); “A writer like no other” (Jan Morris).

From his Japanese home near Nara, Iyer tells me he’s living ninety minutes from the beloved Kyoto he evoked beautifully in The Lady and the Monk: Kyoto and the Four Seasons. “A safe distance for keeping the sense of wonder and excitement alive. Even after 25 years here.” The most visited city on the planet bar Mecca boasts 17 World Heritage sites. “You will never get the better of Kyoto or get to its heart; Nara, by comparison, offers silence and emptiness and a vision of antiquity that is perhaps what many imagine when they think of Kyoto.”

The multicultural Indian who wrote The Global Soul (2004) first impressed readers with Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-so-Far East (1988). “Lanterned nights in Kyoto so lovely that I almost held my breath for fear I might shatter the spell.” In this first book he returned to Manhattan and Time: “Homesick—not just for the gentleness and grace that I had found in many parts of Asia, but also, and more deeply, for the gentler self it had found in me... The country of my dreams is still Japan.” Still? “I took a lot of trouble over those lines because, unlike much in that speedy book, they really came from the depths of me. They are just how I still feel, though by now I perhaps feel them so deeply that it might be hard for me to put words to them.”

At home, this contemplative writer follows a routine. “I awaken early, with the light. Alas, in summer this is at around 4:30, so I far prefer winters, when I can stay in bed till much later. I always take a simple breakfast of toast and tea.” He goes to his desk. “Ideally to write, but sometimes just to gather myself and hope that the words will come the next day.” He takes a good walk around the neighbourhood, before reading. “In late afternoon I head out again, usually by foot, for furious games of ping-pong with the local grannies.” He goes to sleep by nine, after dining with his wife Hiroko. “Every day seems to last a hundred hours in this stillness. I can work for five straight hours, read half a novel every day, and take care of often quite complicated business, and still, thanks to the absence of cellphone and TV and car and most Internet, I feel as if I have all the time in the world.”

His sweetheart sells punk clothes from Britain during the day, and is a metal fanatic who devotes herself to Metallica and other loud bands, he confides. “But next to her boom box she keeps a shrine and every day she puts out fresh tea and food for the gods. And, before she goes to work, she meditates for thirty minutes, waving incense around and generally pays her respects to the ancient deities.”
“Every day seems to last a hundred hours in this stillness. Thanks to the absence of cellphone and TV and car and most Internet, I feel as if I have all the time in the world.”

What are the differences between Nara and Kyoto? “Japan has a deeply traditional soul beneath its cutting-edge surfaces and in Nara you’re essentially walking into an eigth century world. Nara is the sleepy, somewhat grumpy, largely forgotten great-uncle of contemporary Japan and Kyoto is his slightly younger sister, chic, still impeccably made-up and a past master of knowing how to charm and seduce visitors. Nara was the capital from 710 till 784, which means it has been the ex-capital for more than 1228 years, a dusty attic in which various old treasures are thrown around haphazardly.

“Kyoto, by comparison, was capital immediately afterwards for 1000 years and so has all the polish and sophistication you’d expect of one of the world’s great cities, which has seen courts come and go, entertains 50 million visitors a year—the most visited city on the planet outside of Mecca— and boasts 17 World Heritage sites. You will never get the better of Kyoto or get to its heart; Nara, by comparison, offers silence and emptiness and a vision of quietude that is perhaps what many imagine when they think of Kyoto.”

The 56-year-old disagrees the 2011 Tsunami has changed people in Japan much, particularly how they think about their government. “Not at all. People around the world have heard about a newly restive and protesting Japanese populace giving voice at last to its distrust of their government. Japan is an old and very seasoned culture that has been through 1000 years of calamity, warfare, natural disaster, and more. And in some ways it is set up for suffering, if only because the first law of Buddhism has less to do with the pursuit of happiness than with the reality of suffering: impermanence, extinction, and loss. Besides, I fear the Japanese were sceptical about their rulers long before the tsunami hit them.”

He tells me his personal observations suggest the Land of the Rising Sun has not been moved as the prevailing media narrative has it. His neighbours have strong memories of deprivation during World War Two and the ensuing occupation. “Everyone was shocked, humbled and rendered bereft by the tsunami, but it’s not in the nature of stoical, uncomplaining, unbreakable Japan to be swayed by a passing disaster.”

Iyer followed the Dalai Lama—his longtime friend and subject in elliptical biography The Open Road (2008)—on his visit to the Fukushima plant a few months after the meltdown. “I met young Japanese who were flocking there to help their country in its time of need. My granddaughter was born in Tokyo fifteen days before the earthquake, and although her home was rendered untenable by the shaking of the ground, she and her parents moved only a short distance away and picked up their lives as before.”

Iyer spends several months a year in California, staying at a cherished Benedictine monastery near Big Sur (a spiritual home of the Grateful Dead scored counterculture of his teenage years), and visiting his mother, Nandini. He confides to me that—“beautiful and seductive though it is, a byword for possibility”— he finds the Golden State increasingly alien. “I’ve always felt that California is best enjoyed by those from outside California, and in the dreaming phase of life… My neighbours in California seemed much more traumatised by the Japanese tsunami than my neighbours in Japan... I’m ever more aware that it’s speaking a different language (morally, emotionally, psychologically and, of course, literally) than the one I know. Nothing I say makes sense to most of my neighbours there, and little they say makes sense to me. I’m not being facetious when I say that I have far more language problems in California, where I think I have words in common with my friends, than in attentive, deep and old Japan, where people prefer to communicate without many words.”

He has written memorably on Leonard Cohen. Liner notes for a lot of his albums, including the 17-set Complete Collection; essays on three of his last four albums; the text to his 2008 tour program; and the illuminating essay that opens Sun After Dark (2007). “A part of me would clearly love to write an entire book on Leonard Cohen, a talisman for me since I was 17 and someone I’ve been lucky enough to get to know a little over the last 17 years.” But, he’s spent plenty of time writing on him already. “Besides, there have been many fine books on him, most notably the huge recent biography by Sylvie Simmons. I wrote a 5000-word review that appeared in April.”

Most of all, Iyer feel his new Graham Greene “counterbiography”, The Man Within My Head, is essentially about Leonard Cohen. “In so many ways, he’s Greene’s twin. I took out the 20 pages explicitly linking the two, but I think Cohen hovers behind every other page.”

Iyer hopes younger people who don’t know about Greene will respond to the idea of “someone occupying and haunting one’s imagination as Jay-Z or Kanye West might.” He hasn’t had a chance to consider the rappers’ music, but enjoyed reading Zadie Smith rhapsodise about Watch the Throne’s twosome. “The power of writing is that it puts another writer inside you—puts you inside a stranger’s head—and you may lose track of where the writer ends and you begin.”
“I sometimes tell myself that all my writing is a feeble attempt to echo the vision of Terrence Malick, whose Days of Heaven, seen 33 years ago, remains the great, lifechanging artwork of my time. He distills his many ideas into images that affect us in some post-verbal way, entirely sensually."

He responds to praise for The Man Within My Head, and his general importance as a writer, with characteristic humility. “I’m always pleased when someone likes something I’ve written, but there will always be just as many people who dislike my writing. So I don’t think one can afford to define oneself by other people’s responses.” He adds many people find his most cherished writers—from William Shakespeare to Phillip Roth via Herman Melville—insupportable and not worth reading. “A writer has to follow his own instinct and not be deterred by the consequence. If you write to be liked, you’ll write things you never like yourself.”

Iyer worked hard to get his position, starting travel writing as soon as he left school. “I think I did say that, writing for the Let’s Go guidebooks in the early ’80s, I did have to travel as cheaply as my readers did, which meant sleeping in gutters every night. Who knows but, in an imprudent mood long ago, I might have said something about eating rats?”

Iyer finds himself decreasingly detached from Oxford, where his father Raghavan was a distinguished philosopher, he was born, first went to school, and later university. “Oxford, the place, the idea I’ve been fleeing all my life:  Only when I hit 50, did I suddenly notice how beautiful it was and why so many people love to go there. So, as the years go on, I return more and more often to Oxford, if only because so many of my formative experiences, innocent and sometimes challenging, took place there. I don’t love England, but I can’t deny that it made me who I am, and most of my closest and most trusted friends—as well as most wonderful formative experiences—are there. Oxford, like many an Old World spot, can be savoured most by those who belong to its intricate weave of localism.”

Earlier this year Iyer interviewed the Dalai Lama at India’s Jaipur Literary Festival, and headlined the Tokyo International Literary Festival with Junot Diaz (This Is How You Lose Her) and J.M. Coetzee. “It was so exciting to hear Coetzee, especially because he’s hard to catch. He and Naipaul and Pamuk and Walcott are the recent Nobelists I think are true immortals.”

Iyer modestly says Diaz provides better amplification of our “post-national age,” but I prefer his vivid portrayal: “Our world full of shifting borders reminds me of a Jackson Pollock canvas. Everything is happening all at once in every possible direction.”

In Falling off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World (1993), Iyer’s varied, astute explorations included North Korea, Cuba, Iceland, Argentina, and Australia. His friend Paul Theroux conveyed the Routeburn track’s lonesome majesty in The Happy Isles of Oceania. When I first interviewed a dynamic Iyer (at the 2007 Auckland Writers & Readers Festival), he enthusiastically shared his first impressions of New Zealand’s apparent multicultural potential, and independent foreign policy. Might he write about these lonely islands? “I’d dearly love to revisit New Zealand, but I’m not sure I have anything fresh to offer as a travel writer. I’m really trying hard to push myself into new territories, as you can probably tell, so that although The Man Within My Head had many foreign locations, it tried not to make those locations the theme or the central interest: inner foreign states and lonely places are probably more my interest these days.”

For more than 20 years he’s been possessed by Japan’s autumn. “I experience it every year, in all its buoyancy and melancholy.” And the Benedictine monastery in California where he’s spent much of his life. “I actually have well over a thousand pages accumulated on each, and one day I hope to grapple with those pages and write at length on those two locations that have so much made me what I am. But I’m not sure when that will be, and I haven’t even yet decided whether it will be fact or fiction that I write.”I will contact Iyer again during April. Roger Ebert, another intimate writer, passed away the previous week. I note the last review Ebert filed was of Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, and express my hope that Iyer will write more on the director of Badlands. “I’m just gearing up for the new Malick, which I may even get to see here in L.A.” He did, writing in Harpers, “Does To the Wonder reveal a director lost in his own vision?”

Terrence Malick inspires Iyer. “I sometimes tell myself that all my writing is a feeble attempt to echo the vision of Terrence Malick, whose Days of Heaven, seen 33 years ago, remains the great, lifechanging artwork of my time. I love the way that very accomplished professional philosopher and reader of everything from the Bible to Huck Finn was able to tell so straight a story, and to distill his many ideas into images that affect us in some post-verbal way, entirely sensually. As a writer I have to take the too many ideas swarming around my head and somehow distill them.”

UPDATE 26/11/14

AB: The Art of Stillness is your beautifully written new book. The arresting, complementary Iceland images are by Icelandic Canadian photographer Eydís Einarsdótti. She calls the country one of the few places where she finds “perfect stillness in mind and body”. What makes Iceland special for you?

PI: Iceland, more than anywhere I know, reminds you that travel takes you to forgotten, unvisited, amazingly exotic places inside yourself. Of course it is the geysers, the rowdy pubs, the people—out of some ancient Norse legend—and the haunting open spaces of Iceland that transfix one on arrival, and look like nowhere else, with their treelessness and their quaint, boldly coloured little houses set against vast stretches of nothing.

But what that brings home to you is that the external landscape springs a gate open so that suddenly you’re in somewhere new within your memory or imagination. Sitting on a hill in rural Iceland, the wind whistling in your ears, with nothing around you but scrawking birds and maybe the sound of distant bells, you can’t fail to feel taken very far away from your rushed and congested daily life and into somewhere deep and transporting.

“To go out,” as the great Scottish-American naturalist John Muir had it, “is to go in.”

Countries explored at Pico Iyer’s new website include Australia, Cuba, and Japan. Then there’s the ‘Inner World’. Alexander Bisley previously interviewed Iyer about ‘The Open Road’, and ‘ The Man Within My Head’. ‘Badlands’ is screening at New Zealand Film Societies nationwide.

2013-05-05 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Books

All About My Mother

New to DVD: Son of Charlotte Rampling, Barnaby Southcombe, talks about directing his debut feature, I, Anna.

An ability to reduce a man to helplessness through a chilly sensuality,” Barry Norman coined the term ‘to rample’[1] for Barnaby Southcombe’s  legendary mother,[2] Charlotte Rampling. When Lumière skypes the British director at his London home he laughs voluptuously. “How perfect is that!? I think you’ve arrived if you become a verb or an adjective.” Well-spoken Southcombe yarns engagingly about Mum, Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Spacey, Gérard Depardieu and other cinematic subjects.

In I, Anna, Rampling’s Anna attends a London speed dating. Detective Bernie (Gabriel Byrne) investigates a murder. An enigmatic woman near the crime scene intrigues him. “I had never done a thriller like this before and it was gripping and a page turner,” Byrne says.[3]

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ALEXANDER BISLEY: Almodovar’s All About My Mother is a favourite film of yours?

BARANBY SOUTHCOMBE: Yes. I love how he deals with family and emotion in this rather soft but very profound way. I think he’s got something about the way he looks at women, which I find really interesting. There’s so much love and respect for them, and I like female led films, hence why I wanted to do I, Anna as my first one.

AB: You were affected by Charlotte Rampling’s serious depression when you were younger. There’s depression in I, Anna. How is this film all about your mother?

BS: Well I think why you’re drawn to things are because of a certain darker or more complex nature. Thankfully it [depression] is not something that she’s still caught up in. When you’ve been to dark places I don’t think you want to forget that you have been there, and I think it’s always healthy to acknowledge that there are things that are stronger than you. There were numerous emotions that we wanted to explore and look at, and not necessarily in some cathartic way. These are very real and very powerful emotions, and that’s what cinema is about.

AB: What do you want the audience to take away from watching I, Anna on DVD?[4]

BS: I hope that there’s a sense that—even though it’s a dark film—there is hope for us all. I hope that even though it’s an ambiguous ending, that people see that there is some ray of hope out there, that human relations and love is what life is all about, and to think that people have a chance of love at any age.

AB: What’s a favourite Charlotte Rampling film of yours? What do you think of The Night Porter?[5]

BS: Have you heard of Max My Love? It’s a Nagisa Ôshima film, the director of In the Realm of the Senses. It’s very beautiful. It’s like a fable. It was written by Jean-Claude Carrière who wrote for Buñuel a lot, and he did this very funny comedy of manners about a woman who falls in love with a chimpanzee. Her husband thinks she’s having an affair with a man but it turns out she’s having a relationship with a chimpanzee. So it sounds very mental but it’s actually a very beautiful, very funny and poetic film. Stardust Memories is another very good one; probably one of my favourite Woody Allen movies.[6]

AB: The French noir films that influenced I, Anna? Melville? I saw Claude Sautet’s hilarious A Few Days with Me last year in New York.  Sautet was an influence on I, Anna, wasn’t he?

BS: Le Cercle Rouge, The Samurai. I remember not being allowed to see [Sautet’s] Max et les Ferrailleurs because it was inappropriate for my age, and I remember sneaking back down and watching the film through the crack in the door as my parents watched it. Those kind of illicit moments were pretty defining in my appreciation of French film. I like the way the French deal with odd, slightly perverse relationships.

AB: Any other French films that have been a particular influence?

BS: Le Choix des Armes, an Alain Corneau film with Catherine Deneuve and Yves Montand (who was in Le Cercle Rouge), and Gérard Depardieu. Again, it’s a really interesting triangle between these three characters. And that’s aesthetically something that we spoke about quite a lot.

AB: Have you met Gérard Depardieu?

BS: [laughs] Yeah he’s not as tall as I imagined him but he’s quite a presence, that’s for sure. I’ve met him a few times and he’s probably about 25 kilos lighter or heavier every time I’ve seen him. I’ve never seen anyone swing so much in weight. He’s quite a character.

AB: There was a fascinating, hilarious New Yorker profile on Depardieu and the French economic malaise.

BS: He’s become a bit of a figure of fun with all his tax things in France at the moment. He’s certainly been outspoken.

AB: The most compelling film person you’ve met?

BS: Kevin Spacey. I’ve met a lot of actors growing up with mum. A lot of them are a shadow of their screen personas, but Kevin Spacey is as charismatic as he is on screen. He’s a formidable presence and he has this extraordinary twinkle in his eye. I was very impressed by him I’ve gotta say.AB: The primary thing with any artist is that it’s the actual work that’s the main thing.

BS: Yeah, it’s true.

AB: How has your mother influenced you as an artist?

BS: I think the overriding sense that I get from her is honesty in how she approaches all her work.[7]

AB: What did you think of Melancholia, which also plumbed mental illness?

BS: I thought it was extraordinary. Like all of Lars Von Trier’s films they become quite frustrating as well because he’s very confrontational, and so at times it’s almost unbearable. But he’s always so inventive. I thought Melancholia was one of his more entertaining films.

AB: Was it challenging filming a violent sex scene with Charlotte Rampling in it?

BS: We had a set visit from a friend of my mother’s who I hadn’t seen since I was about five years old. She hung around and so [laughs] it was a slightly awkward situation. But Ralph Brown, who’s a very experienced and wonderful actor, and my mother, who is also pretty experienced at all these things, took things in hand and said “okay, come on, right, should we just do this?”, and I was sitting in the corner being a bit red in the face. They were very funny about it and diffused the situation. So although it seems a very dramatic and difficult scene actually, actually it wasn’t. It certainly wasn’t the hardest scene to film.

AB: I’m a Gabriel Byrne fan also, love Miller’s Crossing. Is there a particular Gabriel Byrne film/s for you, or his oeuvre as a whole?

BS: Miller’s Crossing was the most defining for me. I like Usual Suspects very much as well. It’s what he brings to everything that I found really exciting.

AB: How’s it working with him, his process, on set?

BS: They [Byrne and Rampling] come at it from a very instinctive place. They need to find the truth in their characters as it happens to them.  Gabriel would work through the scene, the character- how his emotions felt; grow and develop as the takes went on. So, the early stuff was a bit formless and a bit aimless and then he would really start to discover what the moment was for him. So it was a fascinating process to watch.

AB: I’ve been hearing good things, but I haven’t had a chance to see his HBO therapist series In Treatment yet.[8] There’s more dynamic and compelling HBO (and other quality TV) than I have time to watch. I rewatch most of The Sopranos and The Wire again and again, and have often referenced Curb Your Enthusiasm. There’s this lazy and incorrect assumption from some other media producers that people are stupid and unadventurous.

BS: HBO take so many risks, and what’s great is that quality is paying off. Rather than assuming that the masses don’t understand anything, it’s great that they’re not patronising, and they assume that mainstream audiences want to be challenged and want to be entertained and don’t necessarily want everything to be spoon fed to them. It’s just wonderful. HBO’s a golden age of television. Not only HBO, Showtime and AMC and FX and others are doing some really interesting work.

AB: Some older film critics, they complain about how people aren’t making good films anymore—which is rubbish. They might have sentimental associations with older films because they are missing their youth, a lovely date.

BS: [laughs] Absolutely.

AB:  There’s a variety of good and exciting and interesting films made all around the world.

BS: I agree.

AB: What’s a film you’ve seen recently that’s really impressed you?

BS: I’m a big, big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, but The Master ended up being quite hard work by the end, for me. I need to watch it again. I was really quite taken by Silver Linings Playbook. I was quite surprised, I thought it’d be a bit slight. It’s such a pleasure to be reminded De Niro’s one of the greatest actors ever. I thought he was also brilliant in that he didn’t overshadow the other two.

AB: I, Anna’s cinematic aesthetic is interesting: Primarily browns and grey and dark blues with bursts of primal red; I enjoyed the scoring by Richard Hawley.

BS: I thought of doing French lyrical, melodical piano, as in the films that were my inspiration. I, Anna is a homage to that style of French cinema, but that music didn’t sit right in this environment; I found this combination of French electronica and Richard Hawley’s rather haunted voice worked quite well.

‘I, Anna’ (Transmission, NZ$34.95) is out on DVD. (Thanks to Lumière intern Melinda Jackson for transcription assistance. As the New York Times says, our conversation has been “edited and condensed.”) 

Alexander Bisley previously discussed Depardieu and ‘Silver Lining’s Playbook’ with Kim Nguyen, Robert De Niro with Joe Pantoliano, and French cinema with Juliette Binoche.

[1] À la fisking for Robert Fisk.

[2] Barnaby’s late father was Bryan Southcombe, a Kiwi PR man. Southcombe acted in The Man With Two Heads, a 1972 horror riff on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde that came out around the same time as Barnaby.

[3] In press materials.

[4] BS: On the UK (Region 2) DVD, there’s quite a few deleted scenes. There’s some stuff that was really hard to lose, one in particular with Gabriel Byrne which I want people to see. It didn’t work within the framework of the film. I did a director’s commentary with my mother. I think it’s great when you can have some good honest debate, and I hope some of those things come out in the commentary. AB (post): There are no extras on the Region 4 DVD release.

[5] BS: I wasn’t allowed to see it growing up as it was all a bit full on. I do remember seeing it when I was in my very early twenties on this terrible VHS copy. And to be honest I didn’t know what all the fuss was about. I think it wasn’t helped by this terrible copy that I’d seen it on. I’d seen it in the afternoon and it just felt very dated. It is still iconic in its visuals and its design because it’s inspired so many things that I’ve subsequently recognised, including Madonna videos. It’s kinda weird seeing that after what it’s inspired. AB: Jean-Luc Godard films, everything they inspired or changed, those radical impulses have been so thoroughly absorbed since. BS: I agree, a lot of it is also experiencing it. The ones that don’t date for you are if you saw them when you were much younger, like Max et les Ferrailleurs for me.

[6] BS: I thought stylistically it was very interesting in the way that a lot of Woody Allen films are not. They’re wonderful on character, they’re wonderful on story, but in essence they’re not so visual, and I thought this was a perfect combination of his rather playful style, and he worked with Gordon Willis who, you know, shot. The Godfather, and Gordon Willis has bought this extraordinary aesthetic to the film and I just think it’s really one of his most interesting films as a result. AB (post): This is questionable. Allen and Willis did eight films together, starting with visually dynamic, iconic Annie Hall and Manhattan.

[7] BS: She’s very unaffected in a way that some actors are very aware of how they are perceived, and that goes as far as how they should look on screen, how they should be lit. There’s a level of control and controlling that they exert, and the older they become, the more obsessive that becomes. And I think something that I’ve learnt from her is that: be true to yourself and be true to what it is you’re expressing, and not really mind what it is. She’s very eclectic in her choice of films, and she’s very unguarded in that way, it doesn’t always work out, but that’s also about taking risks. I hope that I’ll be able to keep that level of honesty and risk-taking.

[8] BS: It’s wonderful, an extraordinary thing. I mean it’s a series of half hour shows and they run every day of the week. They’re therapy sessions and he’s a therapist and every day of the week it’s a different patient. But the next week you rediscover the patient, and on the Friday he goes and does his own therapy with Dianne Wiest who was, you know, in Bullets over Broadway and a hundred films. So you see him going through four different patients’ therapy and then he does his own on the Friday and then you start again with the same patients all the way through and you follow their therapy. It’s amazing, just brilliantly written.

2013-05-06 · Permalink · FILM Features Interviews Home Video

Bohemian Rhapsody: An Interview with Antoinette Halloran, Part 1

The star of New Zealand Opera’s Madame Butterfly dishes on her plum role, and more.

I don’t remember hearing a better soprano in this country than Antoinette Halloran in the title role,” Metro said.[1] Madame Butterfly’s entertaining star drinks elderflower juice with Alexander Bisley at Finc Dining Room in Wellington. The chic, earthy Melbournian talks about La Bohème, Arj Barker, opera in Woody Allen movies, and Mozart/Puccini being root-rats. Photography by Daniel Rose.

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ALEXANDER BISLEY: You previously made an impression on New Zealand as Mimi in La Bohème. That was a memorable role?

ANTOINETTE HALLORAN: I’ve been really lucky here. I think some of my best works have been here. Thank god Aidan Lang likes me and hires me. I don’t think there’s a New Zealand girl who can sing these roles, but if there is then I won’t come back.

AB: The idea of La Bohème is exciting to a writer.

AH: The thing I love about La Bohème, is that the women in the opera are the bohemians and the men are trespassers in that world—little rich boys who thought, “I’m going to be a writer for a year,” and they’ve gone and lived in bohemia and enjoyed their experience but they’re not the real bohemians. Puccini writes great roles for women and he really robs the men of good stuff, I reckon.

AB: You’ve been described as bringing sexy back to opera?

AH: [Laughs] Oh god, poor opera. Look, I just play the role how I think it is and I think the act one love duet in this particular opera, Madame Butterfly—the lyrics are just so sexy the things she says to him, you can’t not play sexy. If it comes across sexy that’s good, when it stops being sexy then I’ll hang up my hat.

AB: The book you wish you’d never read is Fifty Shades of Yawn, but it did encourage your show Fifty Shades of Opera. “Opera has been doing all that ‘shady’ stuff for 300 years and better,” you put it. Tell me more about Fifty Shades of Opera?

The Spiegel team offered me a solo show, so I thought I’d write a show, Fifty Shades of Opera. I was like “why is everyone going crazy about this stuff, this stuff has been in the operatic canon for 300 years?” So we found the sexiest, most alluring parts of different operas and pieced them together into a pastiche of a show, in which we used the words of Mozart and Puccini, and it all came together. It was very funny; it travelled from medieval music through to now.

AB: Did you include any Don Giovanni?

AH: We did. We had Zerlina’s aria, which she sings to Masetto when Don Giovanni has bashed him up and basically she says, “I have a potion in my body and it can cure you but you have to work out where it is.” So there’s some really sexy stuff in operas. It’s not realised because people think opera’s not sexy, but it is. Mozart and Puccini were root-rats. They loved women, so of course the music’s going to reflect that. And of course if you write a scenario about a 16-year-old girl and her boyfriend it’s going to be about that.

AB: Were Mozart and Puccini at a similar level of womanising?

AH: I’ve looked at some of the letters Mozart wrote about his wife and they were completely beautiful, so I don’t think he was as much of a root-rat as Puccini, who was married but had many affairs. They inspired a lot of Puccini’s music so thank god he did. He had a passion for sopranos and lyric sopranos so he wrote all the good roles for them.

AB: Inspired like George Simeon.

AH: While he was writing Madame Butterfly, Puccini was having this torrid affair with a girl and he was passionately in love with her. But he was obsessed with her so much that he hired a private investigator to follow her, and he found out that she was having affairs with other men, and there was a possibility that money was exchanging hands. So he was devastated; but I think that passion and anger and angst are in the opera. It’s great to know he was alive in that way.

AB: How did that wind up?

AH: He wrote a letter to her saying “you’re a filthy shit and I leave you to your life.” In Fifty Shades of Opera, we used that whole story. We used it to inspire the character Rosetta who is this crazy girl, who wherever she lays her hat is her home.

AB: Backpacking around Europe and being in Puccini’s Tuscany was inspirational for you, earlier on?

AH: I had an epiphany in a house in Lucca, which is where Puccini grew up. I was working for the Puccini Festival, they asked me to sing this concert there and so I went to this little stone cottage in the middle of nowhere. I said, “where should I get changed?” and they said go into this room, and I thought, “it’s a bit shabby.” Then I realised I was in the room Puccini was born in. I thought, “oh my god this is the bed Puccini was born in!” and then I crawled around the house, up the stairs and I found an attic. Under the attic window was a little cot. I opened the windows and I saw the rolling hills of Tuscany. I realised that was what greeted Puccini every morning he woke up. It was the most amazing experience and all the hairs on my arms stood up, I could hear the music and I had this incredible epiphany.

AB: I found visiting Robert Louis Stevenson’s house in Samoa— looking at his sickbed— powerful.

AH: Seriously, I heard the music it was like I just went to some happy place. It was also at a time in my life where I was really feeling the need to make a decision as to what direction to take. As an artist it’s not nine to five—it’s not secure. I’d already had a child and here I was in Italy on my own. It made me realise I was actually there for a good reason.

AB: What would you ask Puccini if you met him?

AH: Probably something really rude. I would ask him on a date and see what happens. But musically I would ask him why he doesn’t let Butterfly breathe in the second act.

AB: It’s a great job being an opera singer, but it doesn’t stop being tough does it?

AH: It never stops being tough. But then the flipside is that there are moments of sheer joy that you hang out for—it’s like heroin.

AB: Puccini’s 1904 Madame Butterfly opening night was famously a fiasco. Tell me about one operatic fiasco you’ve been involved in?

AH: There’s two. The one where I was a fiasco was Gilbert and Sullivan at the Opera House and I was singing Josephine in H. M. S. Pinafore. My tenor (who was divine) was singing his aria early in the evening, before I entered the stage and did the worst crack you ever heard. I promised myself that I would pretend I didn’t hear it. I walked out on stage for my scene with him and our eyes locked and his eyes looked at me as if to say “did you hear that?” and I just lost it and I didn’t sing or say a note for about five minutes, I just walked the stage doubled up laughing. That was pretty horrendous.

You know the New Zealand film Heavenly Creatures? Someone wrote an opera on that story called Matricide the Musical; it was a very contemporary piece where we all had to be naked. The show was a complete success, there were queues around the block trying to get in, but the actual show was pretty ‘how’s your father’. It was a bit of a fiasco, but people came because there were six women in the nude. AB: Samuel Johnson famously labelled opera as “an exotic and irrational entertainment.”

AH: Of course it’s irrational. To sing over a 65-piece orchestra with no microphone to a two thousand seat theatre is irrational. For three and a half hours, completely irrational. I always say whenever I come home after playing that role “what was Puccini thinking?” It’s an extreme sport when it gets to that level, it’s exhausting, you really have to be fit to do it. Fat or fit they say, but I choose fit. At the moment.

AB: What’s your creative philosophy?

AH: That’s a big question. I’ve never been asked it before. Honesty, no bullshit. If I see the certain singers that are doing all this intellectualising of the music, trying to make themselves look like they’re smart, it infuriates me. Music should be an emotional response and you can’t manipulate a good emotionally honest response. So when I see cerebral manipulation going on in music I think “just sing it, do what the composer wanted. Don’t screw around with it.”

AB: So that would be the worst diss you could get from a reviewer, being accused of cerebral manipulation?

AH: Absolutely. Singing out of tune is not good either.

AB: I doubt that’s going to happen. The book that changed you was Anna Karenina.

AH: The thing is, actually it’s a very similar story to Madame Butterfly. She falls in love with a younger man—her marriage is dead in a way (in a way it’s a normal marriage), but she gets that lusty feeling for a younger guy and she has to make a decision between her son and her new love. And it’s horrendous, she chooses her love but in the end that decision kills her because how can you leave your child? That’s exactly what happens in Butterfly, not that she’s given the decision of a new love but she’s told “give us your child” and she has to make the decision whether that’s the right thing for the child. How can you go on after that, if you lose a child? It’s a similar story in a way, and it’s a very sexy book, Anna Karenina. I didn’t love the recent film.

AB: Formative musical influences that still influence you?

AH: Dare I say Kiri Te Kanawa? There seems to be a bit of the tall poppy syndrome with her here. Because the people say she’s a bit controlling, but when you’re responsible for controlling a brand like that you have got to be surrounded by excellence and I completely understand that.

AB: Steven Sackur, the BBC’s chief interviewer, said the interview he was most excited excited about in 2010 was Kiri Te Kanawa. She’s given us wonderful music.

AH: I listened to her when I was a student. She was my go-to for anything I was singing—I would listen to her, how she sang a verse.

AB: Outside of opera, Nick Cave is someone you’re into?

AH: I suppose when I was really going out and seeing bands it was that late ’90s indie rock. Now I’m into Flight of the Conchords, watching it with my kids. Me and my little boy, we watched it like, five times over, we’re saying the words now.

AB: Do you have any particular favourite songs?

AH: ‘Too Many Dicks on the Dance Floor’.

AB: Actually, Dave aka Arj Barker—

AH: He’s in town isn’t he? If I see him I’m going to run up and get his autograph.

AB: I recommend him live Wednesday night.

AH: If I’m free I’m going to go because I love him. Some of his lines in the second series are classic. My son and I always do that thing where we have to double it.

I remember we were watching the first series last time I was here five years ago, and now we’re watching it all the time.

AB: What about Australia’s The Chaser? I miss that.

AH: We did a live performance of La Bohème on national TV in Australia, and Chas was the MC, so I had a chat to him. He seemed really nice.

AB: Chas and the guys showcase the humorous, feisty Australian spirit at its best!

AH: Absolutely. I really love though the Flight of the Conchords take on Australians—they’re really racist toward Australians. One of them was going out with an Australian and she was really trashy, and bogan—

AB: And that conflict between Murray and the Australian Embassy. I think that’s good-natured Australian/New Zealand competitiveness.

AH: Absolutely. Although I have to say this Butterfly in New Zealand is possibly my favourite cast of players of this opera ever, wherever I’ve done it. I’ve done it in Italy, but it’s just come together really well here. Italian tenor Piero Pretti is wonderful as Pinkerton.

AB: Where did you do Madame Butterfly in Italy?

AH: Torre del Lago, that Opera House on the lake, but I played Kate, but then the Puccini festival toured me into Norwegian areas where I sang Butterfly.

AB: Have you seen the Marx Brothers A Night At The Opera?

AH: I haven’t seen it, but I do know the reference to it in the Woody Allen film, Hannah and Her Sisters, where he’s going to kill himself and then he goes to the opera and realises it’s going to be okay. I love that.

AB: I’m really into Woody Allen.

AH: Me too, I’m really into Woody Allen. And he uses opera a lot in his films. Opera in the soundtrack. That last film where the opera singer could only sing in the shower.

AB: To Rome With Love.

AH: It’s actually true, you sound great in the shower, it’s the acoustics. And there’s more oxygen from the steam so it’s a really good place for singing. So that’s why it was so funny.

AB: So you do sing in the shower.

AH: I sing in the shower. I warm up in the shower. But often I’ll go to an audition and I’ll warm up in the shower and just like that film, I sound like shit and I think “what happened I was so good in the shower,” so this guy just moves the shower around wherever he goes, it’s a great concept.

AB: That’s interesting.

AH: There’s truth that being fat helps you be a better singer because the fat deposits on your soft palette, and you get a very mellifluous tone so that’s why all those big, fat singers—

AB: Pavarotti—

AH: [Like] Pavarotti, do have a more beautiful, honey tone. So there’s truth in a lot of those old myths.

© Daniel Rose 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at

New Zealand Opera’s ‘Madame Butterfly’ season is at the St James Theatre, Wellington from May 11-18. Performance dates and ticketing info at

Thanks to Alice May Connolly for transcription assistance on this article.

[1] “She gave a gutsy performance—beautiful, sexy, innocent and motherly—everything she needed to be as the opera's tragic story unfolds.” Waikato Times. “Antoinette Halloran holds the audience in her hand as her character waits seemingly endlessly for her long lost love and ‘husband’ Mr Pinkerton to return from his world to hers. It is performed so sensitively, so raw, you could feel the moment approaching when Butterfly’s love sank beneath hope. You witnessed when her hope faded to loss, and how worthlessness took hold as the Japanese lanterns dimmed behind her.” Selwyn Manning.

2013-05-08 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Theatre & Performing Arts Opera Photo Essays

Bohemian Rhapsody: An Interview with Antoinette Halloran, Part 2

The star of New Zealand Opera’s Madame Butterfly dishes on her plum role, and more.

This is like a blind date,” Madame Butterfly’s erudite star is winningly humorous from the moment Lumière asks, “Are you Antoinette?” The girl from Wagga Wagga talks to Alexander Bisley about the Japanese aesthetic, playing a role, and what makes her version of Puccini’s magnum opus special. “I don’t remember hearing a better soprano in this country than Antoinette Halloran in the title role,” Metro said. Photography by Daniel Rose.

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ALEXANDER BISLEY: How was it being Carlotta in The Phantom of the Opera in Japan?

ANTOINETTE HALLORAN: It was all fun/no responsibility. Doing musicals, it’s a different ball game. So it was so much about seeing Japan and having a great time with my cast members. The show was great, but it was kind of secondary to us having a ball in Japan.

AB: Did you make it to Nagasaki (where Madame Butterfly is set)?

AH: Beautiful. It was good to go, so when I’m looking over the harbour [on stage in Buttterfly] I can visualise where I was. It does help to have spent some time there. Also to have spent some time around the women there, because they’re an extraordinary race of women who have that incredible mixture of seeming gentile and subservient. They seem to be not the masters of their domain, but yet they’re incredibly strong and are actually ruling the roost in most households. They’re not subservient.

AB: Indeed. Pico Iyer told me, “Having been with Hiroko, my Japanese wife for 25 years now, living in Japan, I can see that the way surface plays off depth, the importance of a role (which may have nothing to do with who you are), the relation of compliance to conquest are all much different from the way they are in the West.”

AH: Wow. Exactly right. If anyone says anything negative about me in Auckland, it was that I was a little bit simpering in the first act, but she’s a geisha, you don’t see geishas walking around ruling the roost. She’s just stepped out of being a geisha to marry this American and he’s seen her as a geisha so that’s what she’s portraying. So it’s very important in the first act to play the geisha and to play the subservient wife because that’s what Pinkerton wants. It’s when he marries her that she becomes a lover and a mother and a real woman.

AB: Did you talk to any geishas for research purposes?

AH: Look, I’m so lucky because when I went to do Phantom [in Japan], I had no idea one day I’d sing Butterfly, which is the pinnacle operatic role. I’d hoped that I would, but I didn’t actually dream that I would. Luckily enough I spent some time with geishas. I went to a tea ceremony and chatted and spent an hour with a geisha and she made me take the tea and she spoke to me about my life. She was extraordinary. She was beautiful and intelligent and not simple, at all. She had a lot of depth.

AB: Where else did you go in Japan?

AH: We went all over. We travelled the whole length of it, did 17 cities. We were there three months. The theatres are five-star the whole way. Even if you’re in a remote village the ­theatres are completely five-star and amazing.

AB: Did you have a favourite place?

AH: Tokyo is amazing. In Shinjuku, I felt like I was on the set of Blade Runner. It just blew my mind.

AB: The contrast between that futuristic Blade Runner stuff and ancient, peaceful temples and parks is fascinating.

AH: Those gardens and the temples are amazing. I loved it all, couldn’t say a bad word about it.

AB: It’s perhaps the world’s most often performed opera, so what makes this version of Madame Butterfly special?

AH: A woman has directed it and I don’t think many operas have been directed by women. It’s a pretty male dominated industry and I think she’s just gotten really into the psyche of who this girl is, we’ve really unravelled her emotional journey from a female perspective. I think it’s more of an insight and more of an interesting look at who this woman is. She’s not a perfect flower, she’s flawed herself, and that’s what makes it a more interesting performance.

AB: Could you expand on that idea of getting into the psyche of her not being a “perfect flower”?

AH: Well, at some point in the rehearsal process I drew Kate [Cherry], the director, aside and I was slightly concerned that there’s some violence in this: a butterfly loses/lashes out a lot and is very impetuous, and I was slightly concerned that it might lose some of the audience: they might alienate her. But Kate assured me that a woman in this situation who has been abandoned and is fighting for survival in a country that believes that she has done such wrong, would at times, lose it. And losing it is not at all times beautiful; it is actually what makes the character more real. And I understood that. It’s a risk because you’ve got your purists sitting there who’ve seen twelve performances all around the world of Butterfly and this is different. Hopefully they’ll go with her—she’s more real than I think I’ve played her before and hopefully that makes the end more real for everyone in the audience.

AB: Kate is into making opera more accessible?

AH: She’s amazing. This is the third opera of hers that I’ve seen and the first I’ve done. She just tells the story; it’s not rocket science. She’s really clear and simple and calm. I’ve done Tosca, where Cavardadossi dies and then comes back to life and the directors play around with it so much trying to make it interesting, at the end of the day you lose the story and your understanding of it, whereas Kate’s really clear and honest in her interpretations.

AB: She says you are a “great fun to have around in the rehearsal room.” Any funny stories?

AH: Oh god, I lost it on stage the other night. We have a little boy in the opera, we have two to choose from and one was very still and cerebral and the other was really inventive and amazing and bubbly. And so stupid me, pushed for the other one to do opening night, but what I didn’t realise was that he was six years old and after 6pm at night he was this complete nutcase. I’ve never been on stage with anything like it he was out of control he was screaming in my ear “shut up you’re too loud I can’t hear,” and on the last night I lost it at one point. I was trying to sing something really delicate and he was just looking up at me doing all of these horrible faces. That was a bit hilarious and I just lost it. The girl who was playing my maid came and took him away from me and said, “I’ll take it from here,” and took him to the other side of the stage.

AB: Aidan Lang says “the resulting set is unmistakingly Oriental, restrained and beautifully crafted, complemented by exquisite period costumes which are themselves works of art.” You second that?

AH: Absolutely. When I first put on the entrance costume, besides the fact that it was 30 degrees in the room we were rehearsing (because the tenor doesn’t like air conditioning), it was basically a duvet, and I would just be pouring with sweat. I thought, I can’t wear this costume, but now we’re in the theatre and there’s a bit more air, it’s actually amazing. You’ve got two kimonos on and you’re wrapped up in an obi, which is about three metres long, and overtop of that goes this incredibly ornate, embroidered duvet in the shape of a kimono. I had to have a serious talk to myself and say “okay you’re not going to have a thin waist if you've got three metres of material wrapped around your waist,” and my breasts were squashed down so there was no boob action. It’s confronting the western ideas of what is beautiful. Then when I saw images of them that the paper had taken, that aesthetic is also very beautiful.

AB: Your partner’s a singer as well?

AH: Yes. Stupid me [laughter]. He’s a tenor. So he’s actually just done the role, Pinkerton at the Opera House. It’s very difficult to sit in the audience of a show you've just been in.

AB: So he was Pinkerton at the Opera House with you as—

AH: No, he was Pinkerton at the Opera House and then the cast changed and I was Butterfly. They don’t put us together; they’re not crazy enough to do that because we’d be arguing about who would do the washing up, on stage.

AB: Is there a womanising connection from Puccini and Mozart through to Nick Cave?

AH: I don’t know, is he a womaniser? My sister just played with him, she’s in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and he came and did a concert and she’s never been more excited in her life. She’s played with everybody. They had to wear black, so she came over and borrowed these great black clothes.

AB: His music for Australian Western The Proposition was great.

AH: He’s a great artist. There’s another Australian artist called Tex Perkins who’s in a similar vein. I met him last year and that was exciting, I was pretty tongue-tied. He’s extraordinary as well.

AB: Is there a film you've particularly enjoyed this year?

AH: I just saw I’ll Give it a Year on the plane, and I got in trouble with my kids for laughing so loudly. It’s a really funny film.

AB: Yeah, it’s very entertaining. It’s Dan Mazer, Sasha Baron-Cohen’s creative partner, Ali-G, Borat, all that. What have you been writing about for ABC’s Limelight?

AH: I’ve written two articles recently. One was about opera companies who are sticking microphones on pop singers and sticking them in operas—it gives me the shivers. The other one was about how my career in Australia has been largely understudying the great divas of the world, who come over as guest artists, and then doing the second run, so I haven’t been the prima donna. I’ve been the understudy and then when they go home, I step into the role. So it was about what it’s like to have that journey instead of always being the prima donna. And having the journey of sometimes sitting in the dark and watching someone else do it before you have a chance to show what you can do, and how that’s been enriching in some ways, and also very frustrating in others.

AB: In another life, what might you have done?

AH: I was enrolled in law when I got late entry into the College of the Arts. The only part of law that interested me was being a barrister, the performance side of things.

© Daniel Rose 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at

New Zealand Opera’s ‘Madame Butterfly’ season is at the St James Theatre, Wellington from May 11-18. Performance dates and ticketing info at

Thanks to Alice May Connolly for transcription assistance on this article.

2013-05-09 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Theatre & Performing Arts Opera Photo Essays

Hurt: Jonathan Holiff on My Father and the Man in Black

The son of Johnny Cash’s manager discusses the Man in Black’s final masterpiece, pain and catharsis, his abusive father, Larry and Jeff, and antics on the road.

Jonathan Holiff first met Johnny Cash when he was nine months old. He later became convinced that the Southern Baptist had super powers, he tells me. “I would stare at him for a long time believing that if I took my eyes off him he would don a black cape and fly away just like superman.”

Jonathan’s father, Saul Holiff—the Man in Black’s renowned manager between 1960 and 1973—committed suicide in 2005. The guy who put June and Johnny[1] together left no note, no explanation for his estranged son Jonathan. He did, however, leave sixty hours of audio diaries. Jonathan found a gritty record of Johnny Cash’s wild rise, and Saul’s troubled psyche, anchoring his compelling[2] documentary My Father and the Man in Black.

The giving interviewee tells me he loves Johnny’s ‘Hurt’. “The music video makes his great performance even better, it doubles the emotional impact. Watching it brings me to tears.” Nine Inch Nail’s Trent Reznor famously said ‘Hurt’ wasn’t his anymore and would forever belong to Johnny.  Jonathan was told by someone involved in making the video that June and Johnny’s home was a shambles when the crew arrived. “Despite protestations about ‘cleaning up first’, the video’s director, Mark Romanek, convinced them to leave the house as it was. Johnny’s home had, in many ways, become an empire of dirt. “Maybe that’s why I cry,” Jonathan says. “I remember being in that house as a child. It was beautiful. It was a happy place.”

His favourite scene in romantic Walk the Line (“based very loosely on a true story”) was the one where June throws empty beer bottles at the boys on stage and they return fire. He’s heard so many stories about the “crazy shit” on the road, usually involving hotels: firing off a cannon in the middle of the night; releasing 100 baby chicks in the lobby; making an adjoining room by taking a fire axe to the wall between two rooms; Johnny smashing a bunch of chandeliers with his guitar. “That scene made me remember these stories and gives the audience a glimpse at just how wild these guys could get.”

Dr. Hunter S. Thompson said: “The music business is a dark, plastic hallway; where pimps and thieves run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” Jonathan says you could say most of these things about the movie business, too. “But I’ve never seen anything as salacious as the music business. On the other hand, that’s part of its curious charm and perhaps what Thompson meant when he said ‘There’s also a negative side’.”

Saul had to deal with Johnny’s drugs binges, arrests, court appearances, no shows; and 1966 near death in Canada. In the early 1970s Johnny became ‘born again’. There’s an explosive audio diary of atheist Jew Saul venting at Johnny’s chutzpah attempting to convert him to Christianity: “He robbed me of my soul and now I think he's trying to save it for me—through his fundamentalist Christianity jazz. I find it very offensive. And here I am, inundated with it; the very thing I've always objected strenuously to; so I know that the rupture is on the horizon.” Saul and Johnny never inked a written contract, despite the volatility of their relationship. “They had a handshake deal all those years, which is unheard of today. My father’s word was his bond. He had remarkable attention to detail.”

Johnny once described Saul as “the greatest agent in the world,” but he was a lousy father, who Jonathan says hurt him profoundly. The documentary doesn’t go into a lot of detail on the how and why. So, time for a tough question, what exactly did he do? “My father rarely hit me. I can't say I was physically abused, nor would I compare the abuse I suffered to someone who was. But emotional abuse at the hands of my father—someone who went toe-to-toe with Johnny Cash for years—was no small matter. I was told I was ‘worthless’ and ‘would never amount to anything’ so many times I truly believed it—and for many, many years. My father didn’t so much parent me, as he managed me like one of his clients. He had me sign contracts as a child. He kept an accounting of every cost of raising me, from birthday presents to swimming lessons. He was a real hard ass and head case. But I realise now, given his self-loathing I heard in his audio-diaries, that I reminded him of himself. And because he didn't like himself, he didn't like me. And that was that.”

Prior to Saul’s suicide, Jonathan was a commended talent manager in Los Angeles. So what does he think of loveable Jeff Greene’s work for the objectionable Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm? He laughs: “I love the show and Jeff Garlin does a great job as the put-upon but ever loyal manager, Jeff Greene.” But the character or situation never reminded him of his father. “Saul was no gofer that’s for sure. But I was surprised to learn (and document in the movie) about those times, in the 1960s, when Saul did do things for Johnny that were rather humiliating, both men would later deny them. Saul always handled the fall-out, whether it was battling the KKK over death threats made against Johnny, handling Johnny’s divorce from Vivian, or dealing with countless no-shows and lawsuits, Saul never let Johnny down professionally.”[3]

Jonathan has received awards at film festivals in America (Memphis International Film and Music Festival) and Europe, and got many good reviews. “But, as Cash might say, it has the heart, and it has the blood, and by the time childhood chatter is played back again, feeling is soaked through it like the sweat in Cash's guitar strap,” the Village Voice said. “I had zero emotional intelligence [until recently],” Jonathan tells me. “To read a review that compared my film with the kind of feeling Johnny Cash could bring to an audience is the highest compliment I have ever been paid.”

During our interview, he pays his respects to Nathaniel Kahn’s comparable My Architect.[4]

He hopes people take away a cautionary tale. “I have the privilege of telling a universal story about estranged fathers-and-sons, about dysfunctional families, because it happened to involve Johnny Cash. My greatest hope is that certain parents will spend more time with their children, and that certain adult children will not wait too long to reconcile with estranged parents. I always say: You’re not going to find a storage locker with 60 hours of audio diaries after the fact, like I did. I got lucky. I was able to reconcile with a dead man.”

My Father and the Man in Black concludes with a knock-out audio clip, recorded when Saul was 75. “You ask about,” there’s an agonising pause, “parenthood,” he says, before confessing that he has been an abject failure as a father. Jonathan can’t say it’s his favourite scene. “I usually leave the theatre.” But listening to the diaries, Jonathan forgave Saul. “My father had been so abusive and critical, he had me convinced there was something fundamentally wrong with me. Meeting him first as a man, then as a father, through his audio diaries, was a truly cathartic experience.”

Cowboy Junkies performed eloquent closing song ‘Staring Man’. “The song shares so much in common with ‘Hurt’, but with lyrics that put me in mind of my father’s journey. It was perfect!”

Saul’s audio diaries also document abuse he got from his own father. Jonathan’s brother Josh broke the cycle, he has kids and a happy family. Jonathan concludes: “I don’t have kids. I decided not to have children, I didn’t want to risk doing to my children what my father did to me.” But all that changed with My Father and the Man in Black. “Now I welcome having children.”

My Father and the Man in Black’ is a highlight of the Documentary Edge Festival, currently on in Wellington until May 19. Alexander Bisley is tweeting about the festival @alexanderbisley. He recently talked to Mara TK about his father Billy TK. In ‘The Man Within My Head’, the great Pico Iyer writes moving about his father Raghavan, and Graham Greene, another father figure.

[1] One excellent Cash website is, with the dazzling song/video ‘Ain’t No Grave’.

[2] Albeit patchy.

[3] Johnny influenced Jonathan as a writer-director; wrangling this film he often employed Johnny’s line from San Quentin: “Try to put the screws on me and I'll screw right (out) from under you”. He adds: “you have to be a rebel to make an independent film”. His favourite Cash song is ‘Big River’. “It serves the story as an example of how electrifying Cash was when he was on pills, something my father didn’t know about when he agreed to be Cash’s manager.” His favourite Cash album: Live at Folsom Prison. He’s not a religious guy, but loves many of the spirituals, especially ‘Were You There?’ “Anita Carter’s vocals are hauntingly beautiful.”

[4] How has Doug Block (the excellent 51 Birch Street) influenced? “Doug Block, as you know, specialises in making personal films—mostly about his own family. I was floored by 51 Birch Street and, after doing a little research on him, I stumbled across a list he had written called “The Top 10 Rules for Personal Documentary Storytelling”. I had a bad case of writer’s block at the time (no pun intended). I was afraid of being on camera, and I didn’t want to get ‘personal’. His list saved my film. The takeaway was this: don’t use your narration to talk about your emotions. Show the audience what was happening around you. If you do your job well, the audience will infer how you felt—in a way more powerful than you could possibly explain to them.”

2013-05-11 · Permalink · FILM Features Interviews Music

Exclusive: Masha Gessen Decides to Leave Russia

The brave author of The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin tells ALEXANDER BISLEY why she decided on Sunday to leave Russia.

Masha Gessen, the inspirational (and mordantly witty) mother-of-three with the big book deal on the Boston Bombers, talks Vladimir Putin, Pussy Riot, and filmmaker Alexei Balabanov. Photography by James Black.

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ALEXANDER BISLEY: On stage at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival earlier this afternoon (Sunday, May 19) you said in response to the risk you face for courageously criticising Putin: “That’s my least favourite question. When I was working on the biography, I kept it secret. My partner she knew, my editor, no one else knew I was working on it. When the book came out to a great deal of publicity throughout the West, I think it gave me some kind of protection. It sounds horrible, but the death of Anna Politkovskaya taught the Kremlin that the cost of killing high-profile critics in the West is extremely high… There are journalists and other people in much greater danger than I am precisely because the eyes of the world aren’t on them. Because nobody knows their names.” You told Kim Hill yesterday your son's going to boarding school in America this year because of the significant risk to his safety?

MASHA GESSEN: And I'll probably join him soon. We'll probably go to New York. I haven't said that in 20 years. Last year I was in Sydney and my answer to this question was, “This is my home, Putin can leave. I’m staying.” I can do the work in Russia, and I would do the work in Russia, but I have three kids and it's one thing to bring up your kids in a place that’s risky and difficult; I think in many ways it’s enriching them, and I’m glad my kids have that experience. It’s another thing to bring up your kids in a place that’s hopeless. Now that I’ve lost hope, I need to take them out.

AB: You describe Putin as a “bloody executioner,” saying he’s created the climate where it’s open season on journalists and opposition politicians and dissidents. On March 4, 2012, his “re-election” night, Putin cried: “We showed that no one could impose anything on us.” How do you think he's going to respond to growing opposition? Will he crackdown harder?

MG: I think at this point they’ve set in motion just this unstoppable countdown machine. He’s going to turn the screws tighter and tighter. That brings more and more pressure on the people—it’ll ultimately explode, the longer it goes on the more violent it will be and also less the likelihood of a good outcome of something good coming afterwards. The worse life is and the less hope there is, the more people leave [Russia].

AB: So the murdered politician Galina Starovoitova, whose killing you began your prologue with, represented the hope of Russia changing. There’s not much of that  hope now?

MG: No.

AB: A year and a half ago you hadn’t lost hope?

MG: Even a year ago I hadn’t lost hope.

AB: I particularly enjoyed the story in your book’s 2013 afterword of refusing to do the propaganda story about Putin hang-gliding with the cranes and being fired. Then being in Prague and getting the summons call from Putin himself as you go past Kafka’s grave. You go to the Kremlin, and the ‘no one’s driving the bus’ theory resonates, the press office staffer doesn’t even know where his office is. You meet Putin, and he’s cartoonish, flat, ignorant—doesn’t seem to know about your book, your critical articles about him. He appears the isolated dictator, who people don’t want to bring the bad news. That’s a spectacular story isn’t it?

MG: It’s my favourite part of the book; it’s only in the new paperback. It bore out a lot of my hypotheses about his personality, and the way the government is being run. It’s a little ridiculous that it should require my meeting with Putin, but the reason that story has gotten a lot of play in Russia and abroad is that we don’t normally hear of people meeting with Putin for any length of time on an informal basis. The meetings are always tightly controlled: either he spends time with members of the presidential pool; and you have to remember that it’s not the editors who appoint the presidential pool, it’s the Kremlin. If it’s someone outside the presidential pool then normally it’s a six-hour wait for a five-minute meeting. So 20 minutes and you actually get to talk and argue with him, that’s unheard of—or at least unheard of among people who’ve written about it. That’s why I think it deserved pretty close scrutiny and certainly it was pretty spectacular. We were walking to the meeting and I asked the more senior press person what the format of the meeting was and she said, “what do you mean?” I said, “How long is it going to be, and is it on the record?” and she said, “I don’t know.”

AB: You’ve got this endearing, sharp Russian wit.

MG: Thank you. That’s very good to hear.

AB: Are there humourists in any medium you draw inspiration from?

MG: I spend my days cycling when I’m not writing and I listen to podcasts all the time while I’m cycling. I really love the Moth Podcast—it’s a similar format to what was used at the gala opening here in Auckland, the short, spoken-word. There’s humour in there. I love Slate’s podcasts, especially the Slate Culture Gabfest. I think they’re very smart and very funny at the same time; I love the way they take things apart.

AB: I appreciate your writing at places like Slate, Vanity Fair and the New York Times. Last year you said you didn’t think Russians had to wait six years: “Tyrants create a trap for themselves.” But on May 7, 2013, your prognosis was gloomy in ‘Standoff on Bolotnaya Square’. “It was Monday evening, as Moscow’s latest protest rally was beginning, and the mood was anything but uplifting—and nothing like what it was a year and a half earlier, when Russia’s so-called Snow Revolution began with hundreds of thousands of newly minted activists happily discovering one another in cities and towns across the country. For a few months back then it seemed that this emergent force might actually bring down Vladimir Putin’s regime... This unhappy standoff may last a very long time.”

MG: The blog, which has been going since November 2011, has this very clear narrative arc; it starts out distant and ironic, and then the protest movements started and I got more and more excited. The mood of the blog has been going steadily down over the last seven or eight months or so, dark chapters of the Putin crackdown.

AB: Despite all the dysfunctional and humiliating things in Russia, there are inspirational Russian writers and artists. There are several Russian filmmakers that don’t necessarily reach a large Western audience that are very good.

MG: There’s a Russian filmmaker who died today actually, Alexei Balabanov?

AB: He wasn’t very old was he?

MG: Fifty-four. It’s very sad because he was certainly the best director of more recent times, and I think he’s done some very significant stuff. She’s not in the same league, but I like Dunya Smirnova. I’d recommend you, Kokoko. It’s very small-scale, intimate, lovely film. Another good one she did recently was Two Days.

AB: Any particular favourites by Balabanov?

MG: Cargo 200 is brilliant, incredibly dark. It’s based on a Faulkner story, which I think a lot go people don’t realise. So I think he’s really brilliantly transferred that to Russian soil—the Russian psyche. But my favourite moment in the film, is when there’s already a decaying body in the compartment, and the mother of the police officer is letting someone in and there’s all these flies inside (because there’s this decaying body) and she says, “we have flies.” Sometimes when there’s just a single line in a book, or moment in a film, that is so precise—it’s such a precise snapshot of the way pathology is normalised. I thought it was absolutely brilliant, and I like the film otherwise but that single moment made it completely worth it.

AB: What about the filmmaker Alexei German Jr’s work, particularly The Last Train?

MG: I haven’t seen that one. I’m not crazy about his other films. Do you like it?

AB: His others I’ve seen were more mixed, but The Last Train is great. It’s about the end of World War II. Have you seen In the Dark and Tishe!?

MG: No. You’re obviously better versed in Russian filmmaking than I am.

AB: I wouldn’t say that. Pussy Riot are amazing-

MG: It’s a great work of art. Seriously, I’m writing a book on them, probably out in March, where the premise is the making of a great piece of art—how does that happen? I think the tragedy of living in a police state is that it has a way of killing everything, so you get very little variety and there's a great paucity of cultural conversation and the [ensuing] lack of cultural production.

AB: I liked a lot your recent post on the Pussy Riot parole hearing and how it seemed like it was running like a fair parole session and then the judge decided—or she got the word from somewhere else—to go back to the old farcical show-style. At least, given the Western media are interested, they’re not being tortured, which happens to other Russian dissidents. How are Pussy Riot doing in prison?

MG: They’re coping. I think that it’s a very difficult life. You can tell from looking at Nadia at the last hearing, she’s not looking well, she’s gained weight, she’s still incredibly charismatic, I think they will get through this intact, it’s difficult but it’s not debilitating. It may have been more traumatising for Katja who got out after six months and she is in the most very odd position—just profound loneliness, lost and not knowing who she is—she’s not one of the ones in prison, she’s not one of the ones who’ve avoided prison. She doesn’t have a lot of liberty to-

AB: Doesn’t have her creative outlet-

MG: Right. She lives in fear of being put back in prison so she can’t take risks. She’s devoted herself almost full-time to writing judicial complaints and trying to fight the sentencing. I asked her, “Why are you doing this? It’s pointless; it’s tedious, pointless work. You could just lay low you have less than a year of being in parole to go, you can do what you want,” and she said, “No, no I have to, it’s my duty I have to do this.” At the same time, the ones in prison don't feel like she’s doing her part.

AB: Because they’re going through worse-

MG: And their spokesperson said they want her to be very public. She’s not well suited for that in the first place; but she’s also scared.

AB: What about Shostakovich, you like his Ninth Symphony right?

MG: Yes.

AB: You play it on occasion?

MG: The older I get, the less music I play. I used to be able to work to music but now I can’t even live to music; I find it too distracting. I become difficult to live with because I go home and I make everybody turn the music off.

AB: You’ve got difficult work to do all the time. What do you think of that Churchill quote, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”?

MG: I think it’s brilliant. That and his “Trying to fathom Kremlin politics is like watching a fight among bulldogs under a carpet—you hear much growling but have little idea what is going on.”

AB: You convincingly argue Alexander Litvinenko’s polonium poisoning is the smoking gun against Putin. Because he had that incredible Morgan Tsvangirai constitution, Litvinenko survived for an extraordinarily long time.

MG: Exactly. His friend Alex Goldfarb, who’d previously devised the plan to get him into Britain, he’s a microbiologist. Goldfarb organised a lot of the research, brought Britain’s top poison experts into Litvinenko’s hospital room.

AB: That classic Bushism where he foolishly talked about looking into Putin’s eyes and saw his soul. There was September 11, 2001, Russia being seen as an ally on the war on terror. Journalism’s big resourcing decline that decade. For a long time this narrative of Putin being the energetic, liberal reformer—an embarrassing amount of journalists had no idea what was going on?

MG: There are circumstances that created that situation, but still I think the western media is abdicating its responsibility. Partly because of over-confidence.

AB: New Yorker Editor David Remnick has written some good things on Russia.

MG: I loved his book Lenin’s Tomb. I think it’s one of the great books written about Russia. I didn’t like Resurrection.

AB: You incisively pointed out that the Pussy Riot case had shown to the West—had got into the popular consciousness—the true colours of Putin’s regime.

MG: It’s an incredibly important case, in addition to showing the true colours, it will serve the opening battle in the cultural war that is very much part of the crackdown. That’s how Pussy Riot, the homophobic laws, they all fall into line. All of that shows his power base: who the other is; who the enemy is.

AB: Is there a message you want people to take away from your trip to New Zealand?

MG: Buy the book.

© James Black 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at blackphotographic.

Masha Gessen was a guest of the 2013 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. Alexander Bisley profiled Middle Eastern investigative foreign correspondent Robert Fisk in 2006, and writes about two favourite Russian films here. Thanks to Alice May Connolly for transcription assistance.

2013-05-21 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Books Auckland Writers Festival Photo Essays

Puppet Fiction

Mu of Fat Freddy’s Drop talks about the band’s killer new music video for ‘Clean Your House’, launching the Black Bird era, Brazil, and (J) Toogood vs. (S) Carter.

Fat Freddy’s Drop—whose Black Bird is poised to swoop—have scored a number of cool music videos like infectious ‘Wandering Eye’. Just out, ‘Clean Your House’ is their best yet: different, grunty, and striking. Mu, Fat Freddy’s Drop’s genial producer, agrees. “Yeah, those are good words: grunty, striking; it helps deliver the song.”

A prominent New Zealand musician tells me: “I don’t like Fat Freddy’s Drop general dub genre thing, but this song is way more soul, real Motowny and cool. I love the video man, love the production and the whole vibe.”

Mu, Lyall Bay’s most iconic resident, found out his barista mate Jon Coddington—at his local, Queen Sally’s Diamond Deli—is a marionette master. “All of a sudden we’re making this video with puppets.”

Drunken, violent, card- playing puppets. Freddy’s enjoys a bit of poker on the road. “I’m a very avid poker-player. Over the years a lot of our looser moments stem from late-night, drunken poker games. Director Mark Williams always wanted to do a big fight scene.”

Mark says for him it’s a really positive song. “About starting again, discovering the mess you may have made, sorting it out, and moving forward. People will interpret it how they want, and that’s the beauty of music. Maybe it’s about cleaning the house? Or car chases with puppets?”

He thinks there is no band quite like Freddy’s in the world. “From writing, to recording, to release, to performance they are a law unto themselves. The band have an endless capacity to jam and freestyle loosely, while at the same time being absolutely meticulous about what they do.

“Mu has a gravitational pull that has kept the band of brothers together for years. His patience, intelligence, competitiveness, and wickedly wicked sense of humour is a driving force. He can be tough, and sometimes ruthless, but he’s actually one of the most thoughtful and considerate dudes I’ve ever met.”

Having toured with them for the better part of seven years, he’s surprised by where the songs go, and are reinvented. “It keeps it exciting for the band and fans alike. The Freddy’s are a hilarious, deep, and interesting group of individuals, all with their own distinct flavours and styles, but still unified as a group. I’m into lots of music, which is why I love the Freddy’s.”

Mark concludes that he tends to see the funny side of most things. “I like to see where the humour happens in a story, and make the most of it. Working with Jon Coddington and the marionettes was awesome fun. Jon gets puppets doing things they don't usually do.”

The marionette master, no relation of Anna, tells Lumière it’s great being part of Freddy’s video lineage. “I’ve served coffee to Mu and a few other members of the band for years now—Mu has quite the coffee addiction—it’s been nice to work with them in a creative sense. The song is so soulful, but there’s kind of this danger in it. Some of it’s sexual, some of it seems like a romantic crime scene. Either way I’m into it. After this, and my Pulp Fiction homage [Australasian fringe festival show Puppet Fiction], grindhouse puppetry is my niche. I love the immediacy of marionettes. I like to see horror and grotesqueries in such a delicate form, it makes it a little surreal. I was inspired by Reservoir Dogs mainly, I tried to make the female [character] a little more Pam Grier.”

Mu chimes in that the genesis of this more darkly comic song was the Drop studio being an absolute mess one day, ahead of rehearsal launch for an upcoming tour. “So we said, ‘Look, we’ll just need to do a major spring-clean here.’ This whole process took half the day.” Everyone pitched in, they kept the MPC running through the PA and came up with ideas for the beats.

The earthy producer chuckles that ‘Clean Your House’ is a relaxed way to launch Black Bird, and a new era for Freddy’s. “It’s slick, but it’s also a laugh, not taking ourselves too seriously.”

The video has quickly snared over 13000 views. Enthusiastic commenters include Brazilians and Argentinians demanding local gigs. “Yeah we’ve had some serious booking offers from Brazil and South America, might look at those in 2014. It’s a bit hard to go everywhere. With Black Bird it seems important to consolidate the markets that we have already first, like Germany.”

Oxford to Lisbon via Stockholm and Paris[1]—after Auckland and Wellington in September—has just been announced for October. The main, headlining European tour this year is October. “We’re off to Europe in three weeks, to release the album and play summer festivals. We’re playing the Brixton Academy in October and we’ve already sold over 1500 tickets. Like I said in in our interview, [almost] all our business now is Europe, and that’s why we’re going to go there at least twice a year.”

But Freddy’s still enjoy touring home. Mu even visited his despised Wairarapa on the nationwide Winery Tour. “The Adults’ Jon Toogood and Shayne Carter are really good to hang out with. I did enjoy the fishing. It was great to get to know Jon better. I’ve known him for years, but not at this level of hanging out everyday. Shayne is an especially funny guy. Jon’s such a professional: they were on stage early and he was very adamant that as soon as they come off stage they’d have to go straight to the merch-tent and sign CDs. He’s very business-like, and Shayne is not. Watching Jon trying to get Shayne over to the merch-tent to do signings became a very funny thing, because Shayne was very reluctant. He was more interested in coming off stage and smoking a joint. That was probably one of the funniest things, watching that day after day.”

Alexander Bisley (retrospectively) profiled Mu in January. Thanks to Alice Connolly for some transcription help. ‘Blackbird’ and 2013 tour information and dates available via Twitter @fatfreddysdrop1 or the official website,

[1] “We were on tour in Paris at the famous Elysee Montmartre, before it burnt down. Dallas [Tamaira] was having a particularly grumpy day. The local Paris press wanted to do some interviews and Dallas said ‘Nah fuck man no way’ and then this girl walks in and she’s just drop dead gorgeous; beautiful. He’s ‘I’ll do it’,” Mu laughs like a hyena on helium. “Most press want to talk to Dallas, but that’s about the only time I’ve seen him do an interview. He’s a married boy, so we gave him a chaperone.”

2013-05-25 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Music

The Return

More insights from journalist and gay rights activist Masha Gessen’s revealing interview with The Lumière Reader.

At the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, the feisty Putin critic talks about Dmitry Medvedev being Putin’s First Lady, why her Boston bombers book is exciting, her family, and Leonard Cohen live. Photography by James Black.

*   *   *

AB: I quite liked New Yorker Editor David Remnick’s one-liner where he referred to Putin as “Batman to Medvedev’s Robin.”

MG: The analogy I’ve used when I still had to talk about Medvedev, which I don’t anymore, was Medvedev is the First Lady. He had a ceremonial robe, he was there to reach out to the disenfranchised. By who he was reaching out to, you could tell who was perceived as the disenfranchised in Russia. So he’d visit a prison one day and talk with the inmates, and the next day he’d meet with the intelligentsia. That was his audience; everybody who was not part of Putin’s support base.

AB: The same journalists who were gulled by Putin were fooled by Medvedev?

MG: There was a little more reason to do that, because at least Medvedev’s rhetoric was substantial. And I think that has had a bit of a positive consequence. I remember listening to his address to parliament and thinking, “wow we haven’t heard a political speech like this in many years,” because Putin’s rhetoric is bureaucratic and Medvedev’s was substantive. No actions ever followed the rhetoric, when on September 24, 2011 Putin appeared at the United Russian Conference and said “we have it all arranged, now Putin will be President and Medvedev will be Prime Minister,” that was a much heavier blow for having had three-and-a-half years of Medvedev’s nice rhetoric... My father’s name is Alexander.

AB: What did he do?

MG: He was a computer scientist, now he’s a computer forensic specialist. He’s still working.

AB: You write poetically of your feeling for snow when you arrive at your dacha in The Man Without a Face’s epilogue. I appreciate the book’s dedication to your partner, Darya Oreshkina, “who has made me happier and more productive than I have ever been.” Also the mention of her father at one of the big anti-Putin protests in Moscow.

MG: It’s hard getting babysitting because their grandpa’s at the protest... I have two questions for you. I have to get a souvenir for my kids. These jade things [gestures at mine], do they have a particular meaning?

AB: Mine is from a carver based on the East Coast, he uses only pre-1840 tools/methods. There are various meanings. I wear my one for good luck, say for important interviews, or when I travel, to keep me safe.

MG: Perfect. I’ll get some for my kids, to give them on my return. I broke my tablet computer this morning and I urgently need to get a couple of paperbacks to take on the plane with me. Have you seen anything in the festival that really strikes you?

AB: I’ll show you at the bookstall downstairs?

MG: Good.

AB: Sri Lankan Shehan Karunatilaka, who studied in New Zealand, won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Chinaman. His session with Melbourne journalist Gideon Haigh was hilarious.

MG: I had a great time talking to Gideon last evening. We were sitting in the corner at the writer’s party for two hours. He’s wonderful.

AB: Max Hastings, he’s feisty, in the vein of Churchill. In All Hell Broke Loose, his book on WWII, he’s going back over important statistics, and from the human perspective. He was talking to a former head of the British Army who was completely wrong-headed on the statistics: the massive Russian civilian and military casualties, the whole Russian dimension (“The Germans didn’t know they were fighting people inured to suffering”, Hastings argued), on the Eastern Front. You’d know all that already, I presume?

MG: Not necessarily. It’s always good when there’s some stuff in the book that you know, it makes you feel smarter. Have you checked out the Leonard Cohen biography?

AB: Yes, it’s really good. Sylvie Simmons is lovely, I interviewed her. One of the strengths of her book is she got access to the muses. She spoke to Marianne, she spoke to Suzanne.

MG: Oh good!  So that’s my aeroplane book.

AB: She wrote a terrific article on Johnny Cash, too. She had five days with him during the last year of his life, around the time of that video ‘Hurt’, after June had died, and he was alone in Tennessee.

MG: He’s a great character.

AB: Amazing. You persuasively argue how Putin’s brutal Chechnya policy was key to his former popularity in The Man Without a Face. It’s good to see your skills and experiences, particularly regarding Chechnya, being recognised with the book deal on the Boston bombers.

MG: Yes. I’m under strict orders not to discuss it [yet]. It’s exciting for me to write because obviously I know a lot about Chechnya, and I was a Russian immigrant in Boston, so it falls into place.

AB: Have you seen Leonard Cohen live? His 2010 Wellington gig is probably the greatest concert I’ve ever seen.

MG: I haven’t been to a lot of concerts, but Leonard Cohen is definitely the greatest concert I’ve ever seen. I distinctly remember the effect of listening to his songs on my iPod incessantly, and then hearing them live. Somehow they acquire depth of sound when you know how they’re performed.

AB: For two decades you’ve been a pioneering gay rights activist in homophobic Russia. You’d appreciate New Zealand’s inclusive attitude towards gay people?

MG: It seems to be.

AB: With everything you’ve got on at the moment, I don’t suppose you’ve managed to experience much of New Zealand?

MG: Unfortunately not. I have to be disciplined about going back to my hotel room to work. I’ll have to come back.

© James Black 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at blackphotographic.

“Putin’s a small guy in every sense,” Masha Gessen’s sharp, mordant humour was also on display in her interview with The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart in February 2012. Alexander Bisley interviewed Gessen one week ago. His exclusive is here

Alexander profiled New Yorker Political Editor Rick Hertzberg in 2010, and wrote about Zyagintsev’s ‘The Return’ in 2005 (“Russia is a mess, but the artists are still managing to make some terrific films.”) He tweets @alexanderbisley, and can be emailed at Thanks to Alice May Connolly for transcription assistance.

2013-05-26 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Books Photo Essays

Pania of the Streets

Anna Coddington has the voice, the look, the presence, and the songs.

New Zealand’s finest female singer-songwriter[1] talks to Alexander Bisley about her new single ‘Bird in Hand’, stalker songs, Azealia Banks, and Charles Bukowski. At Kingsland’s Shaky Isles cafe, ‘Little Islands’s scribe is at once feisty and relaxed, earthy and sophisticated, serious and funny. Photography by James Black.

*   *   *

ALEXANDER BISLEY: Recently you performed at Wanaka’s Festival of Colour with Don McGlashan. Your song you want to be remembered by was ‘Underneath the Stars’?

ANNA CODDINGTON: Yeah. ‘Underneath the Stars’ is about being a human in the context of the universe and feeling insignificant and like your life span is so short in that context and you're so tiny. But it’s the relationships between yourself and other people that make life significant.

AB: It’s a beautiful song. One of the cool things about being down here on these little islands is our view of the Southern Cross.

AC: Yeah I went through a phase of reading about quantum physics, the Universe, the lifespan of stars and planets, there’s so much going on. We get caught up in our own little lives, which is human and fine, but I find thinking of those things really liberating, it puts your life in context, you come and go. So all the stuff that happens in between, you’ve just got to enjoy it. There’s one sun and we all have to share it. No one gets a special star.

AB: You did backing vocals for Shayne Carter’s There My Dear, brilliant songs like ‘Don’t Even See Me’. Your favourite Shayne Carter track?

AC: Shayno—gee, he’s written a lot of great songs hasn’t he? Hard to pick one. ‘If I Were You’ [Straightjacket Fits], that is a really great song: stalker song [sings some ‘If I Were You’].

AB: What speaks to you particularly on ‘If I Were You’?

AC: I quite like writing those songs too. I’ve written quite a few stalker-songs myself, because it’s not appropriate to be like that in real life, but when you really have a strong feeling for someone that's how you feel, you want to wear their clothes and steal their friends, just be psycho and love them in psycho ways. But you can’t, so you write a song about it. It’s cool, it’s really intense. I like intensity.

AB: You got that line “I feel somewhat like a stalker” in Duchess’ ‘You Buried Me Alive’.

AC: Yeah, that’s a break-up song [laughs]. You know when you break up with someone and you’re obsessed with them like ‘What are they doing? Who are they hanging out with?’ because you’re so used to being in contact with them everyday, and then suddenly you’re not and you feel like you still have a right to know exactly what they’re doing but you actually don’t. So you feel like a stalker.

AB: I think you’ve got some enduring songs.

AC: I think that’s a good thing about being an artist like me, and there’s loads of us, our fans are very loyal because they feel like they’ve found you. It’s not who’s got the number one single, who everyone knows. When you find something for yourself it feels special.
“I like [Bukowski’s] crazy, real-life writing style. He’s always writing about someone’s shitty life and how they just get on with it... From the narrator’s point of view his life’s not shit, it’s fine. I like it; it’s got this real detachment you know? It’s got that sad story but not in a sad way.”

AB: You tweeted recently about how you loved the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik when you were younger, quoting “I’m on the porch coz I lost my house key pick up my book I read Bukowski!” from ‘Mellowship Slinky in B Major’.

AC: Blood Sugar Sex Magik was one of my first musical obsessions. When I was 13, I was really heavily into that album.

AB: How is Charles Bukowski an influence?

AC: I like his crazy, real-life writing style. He’s always writing about someone’s shitty life and how they just get on with it. He’s always writing about this alcoholic who’s got no job and no money who just hangs out with out-of-it prostitutes, and alcoholic slags, and spends all his money on the horses but isn’t depressing. From the narrator’s point of view his life’s not shit, it’s fine. I like it; it’s got this real detachment you know? It’s got that sad story but not in a sad way.

AB: Writers and musicians are going to be broke, so just enjoy it.

AC: Well yeah, exactly; partly that. I like books where the character’s language is very specific to them.

AB: There’s a good Bukowski quote I read recently, “Find what you love and let it kill you.”

AC: Pretty much [smiles].

AB: Do you have a desert island Bukowski book?

AC: I really like his stuff, I really enjoyed Ham on Rye and Post Office. I’ll tell you whose books I really really like, Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated. I love the Russian kid. Instead of saying “spending money” he talks about “dispensing currency”; he’s trying to be fancy with his language but he says really weird shit. One of the weird things he says, when he feels down, “my boots were so heavy then.” I wrote this song on my last album called ‘Heavy Boots Blue Skies’. I thought it was such a great way to describe that feeling, having heavy boots.

AB: You got good reviews for Cat and Bird, words like “breathtaking”, “captivating”, “sensual”, “thoughtful”, “harmonious”, and “sophisticated”.

AC: You try not to put too much stock in that stuff because you don’t know which way it’s going to fall. I think someone from Pluto once said you put an album out and then you brace yourself for a battering. There’s always going to be someone who hates it. You have to believe in it enough yourself. But then when people say nice things about it, it’s very good and it’s very handy to use them in your press releases [laughs].

AB: ‘Little Islands’ is another favourite of mine.

AC: That’s about feeling like there’s a glass ceiling in New Zealand. You can see the rest of the world, you’re really aware of what’s going on in the music industry, or whatever industry, but it’s very hard to get out there and be a part of it from here because we’re so far away. It’s also about what’s awesome about living here.

AB: Tell me more about ‘Bird in Hand’?

AC: I wrote that song towards the end of last year. And it’s a song about letting go, in a way, without wanting to go in to too much personal detail, it sums up that feeling of watching someone fly away from you, and not really wanting that to happen. The lyrics say: “To watch you fly it hurts me, why can’t I be the one with my face to the sun.” It’s partly about letting someone go without really wanting to but knowing it’s the best thing, and it’s partly about watching somebody else succeed and being happy for them but also feeling a bit left behind. It’s like a dream, you know what it means, but some of it’s your sub-conscious throwing up crazy shit that you don’t even know where it comes from.

AB: What’s your creative philosophy?

AC: I’ve come to realise over time that song writing is a craft and the more you do it, the better you get. I’m really into that. My creative philosophy at the moment is trying anything, being open to anything, being open to influence. My ex-boyfriend [Ned Ngatae, got together at Bic Runga’s Birds launch party] and I were together for seven years. He was my guitarist and we just made music between the two of us for so long so it was hard to branch out of that. But now I’m collaborating with lots of different people, producers, and I’m getting so much out of it. It’s a creative philosophy but it’s also a work ethic. Be always looking for new, better ways of doing things. You’ve got to try hard all the time... I liked your piece on Mara [TK], what a groovy dude.

AB: He told me, “Anna makes outrageous demands. One time she wanted a banquet table just for herself for some alone time, and was it too much to ask for a completely new wardrobe full of Karen Walker pieces? That’s not too much to ask for. She’s awesome, an amazing songwriter, one of the funniest people I know.”

AC: [laughs] I can’t believe he knows Karen Walker. He gave me a great rap name, Pania of the Streets.
“I just finished a month of writing a song a day—30 songs in 30 days and I had this rule that I wouldn’t go on the Internet until 3pm, once you start getting sucked down that path it’s difficult. To write a song I have to be in a certain frame of mind, and going on the Internet takes me out of that.”

AB: You’ve just done that rappish song with Latinaotearoa and rapper Tom Scott.

AC: That’s true! I’m in there; I’ve got my foot in the door. [Homebrew beatsmaker] Haz is doing a remix of ‘Bird in Hand’.

AB: So tell me about your favourite female rapper, Pania of the Streets?

AC: Azealia Banks is my current fave, love her. Listen to her heaps when I run. I saw her live and she was fuckin’ awesome. She’s so sexed out it’s crazy. Vector Arena was full of wasted yoots going mental, so it was vibing. I quite like to hear a female rapper be quite gangsta, so I occassionally enjoy Lil’ Kim. MC Silva is amazing. Fuck she’s badass, I just watched her video with Bulletproof. Not shy, man, when she goes for it I find that really inspiring, to see someone cut loose.

AB: You wrote Cat and Bird mainly on the back deck, in an early morning haze writing down dreams you didn’t want to forget?

AC: Yes, I definitely think that’s my best writing time—early in the morning before I do anything else. Because once I start answering the emails and doing business things my brain switches that way. I just finished a month of writing a song a day—30 songs in 30 days and I had this rule that I wouldn’t go on the Internet until 3pm, once you start getting sucked down that path it’s difficult. To write a song I have to be in a certain frame of mind, and going on the Internet takes me out of that.

AB: On Cat and Bird you have that bird-like, free, spacious feeling. I reckon ‘Bird In Hand’ producer SJD gets that spacious feeling, also?

AC: For ‘Bird In Hand’ I was interested in achieving the best result with the most space. I like that spacious vibe because it’s a good head space to be in, cluttered anything is not my buzz. I live by the mantra tidy house, tidy mind. The first thing I do every morning is tidy up and I can't start working until everything is tidy.

AB: You did backing vocals on SJD’s best album, Songs from a Dictaphone, terrific songs such as ‘Lucifer’ and ‘Black is a Beautiful Colour’. How has he influenced your process?

AC: SJD was doing 50 songs in 50 days and I thought that’d be great, I’ll do that when I have time, but I adjusted it to 30 songs in 30 days coz I’m slightly lazier than him.

AB: It’s a good feeling when you get into it, isn’t it?

AC: Five out of 30 were good, you normally wouldn’t write five good songs in a month. I decided I do have time, I’m just not using it in the right way, I’m spending too much time on fucking Facebook and the Internet. So I had to take those variables out for a month and yeah, it was good.

© James Black 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at blackphotographic.

More about ‘Bird in Hand’ at This is part one of a three part interview. Thanks to Alice May Connolly and Kimaya McIntosh for some transcription assistance.

[1] Along with Bic Runga, and possibly others.

When on assignment in Auckland, The Lumière Reader stays at the five-star Pullman Auckland.

2013-05-31 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Music Photo Essays

Anna Get Your Gun

Anna Pinenga Coddington’s Maori side.

At Auckland’s Shaky Isles cafe, the girl from Tuwharetoa is pumped about her new varied collaborations. The ataahua singer korero ‘T Shirt’, Te Reo, Tuhoe, and Taupo with Alexander Bisley. Dubbed Pania of the Streets, ‘Bird in Hand’s imminent rap dabbler is both staunch and charming, European and Maori, scholarly and witty. Photography by James Black.

Purea nei e te hau / Scattered by the wind
Horoia e te ua / washed by the rain
Whitiwhitia e te ra / and transformed by the sun,
Mahea ake nga poraruraru / all doubts are swept away
Makere ana nga here. / and all restrains are cast down.

E rere wairua, e rere / Fly O free spirit, fly
Ki nga ao o te rangi / to the clouds in the heavens,
Whitiwhitia e te ra / transformed by the sun,
Mahea ake nga poraruraru / with all doubts swept away
Makere ana nga here, / and all restrains cast down.
Makere ana nga here. / Yes, all restrains are cast down.

ALEXANDER BISLEY: A beautiful, lesser known Anna Coddington song is your version of ‘Purea Nei’. My great grandmother was a direct descendant of Ngapuhi paramount chief Patuone. In one version of the story ‘Purea Nei’ is about Ngapuhi chief Ueoneone’s courting two Waikato wahine. “Ueoneone sent a bird to the Waikato to carry the sisters northward. However, when the bird landed near present-day Whangarei, Reipae fell in love with a chief named Otahuhupotiki, and married him.”

ANNA CODDINGTON: I always thought it was about somebody’s spirit after they die.

AB: In any case, you’ve got exceptionally good pronunciation.

AC: Kia Ora! [smiles radiantly and humorously, pauses] You’ll find a lot of Maori people my age have the same story, which is that we don’t speak Maori because our parents weren’t taught to speak Maori, because their parents were punished at school for speaking Maori. I studied at the AUT night classes, which was really cool. As a linguist, I think language is really precious and it’s a bee in my bonnet that Maori is such an effort to learn in the one country in the world where it’s spoken. You really have to go out of your way to learn to speak it because it was cut off at the knees in one generation.

I would love to be fluent in Te Reo. There are courses you can do that are full-immersion, but they really have to be full on full-immersion. I’ve got a few friends who have done them and they say you can’t do anything else at the same time. You need to take a year to just do that. Go to really remote communities and be forced to use Te Reo all day, only speak Maori. So it’s something I’d like to do but I’d need to find a spare year.

AB: You have to go and immerse yourself in Mitimiti or Ruatoki?

AC: Exactly. But I’ve been thinking about doing night classes again, going over them again, to refresh. It’s good now we’ve got Maori TV and a few other resources like that.

AB: Have you been to Tuhoe? Rain of the Children director Vincent Ward says you’re “wonderful.”

AC: I’ve been there once, we did a karate camp down at Ruatahuna Marae. There’s this kaumatua that lives down there, Sempai Temara. He used to be one of our countries top fighters back in the ’80s, but he hasn’t been training for years. A couple of our senior guys in Wellington were like “let’s do this fighters camp” because there were people training for the world tournament at that time. So we all went down there and stayed on this marae and got up at like five in the morning and did four training sessions a day. It was amazing. There was this group of rangatahi that had been doing kickboxing from one of the neighbouring marae and they were all naturals, they had this real natural fighters’ spirit, with the right attitude.

The thing I loved about being down there was how it was a place where everyone speaking Maori, that was their first language. And they all sing these songs that went on for ages and there’s three-year-old kids who know every word. Because they grow up with it, and they have a direct line to the past through their language, which has never been broken.
“As a linguist, I think language is really precious and it’s a bee in my bonnet that Maori is such an effort to learn in the one country in the world where it’s spoken. You really have to go out of your way to learn to speak it because it was cut off at the knees in one generation.”

AB: When were you down there?

AC: It was August 2010. It was so beautiful to see how it was so natural. It was their life, no one had to make the effort to be this or that, it was just done. Their culture is so solidly intact, not even staunch, just normal. I don’t think anyone ever went in there and made people scrub the floor with the toothbrush because they were speaking Maori. They retain their autonomy.

AB: You’re still passionate about language as social function?

AC: Oh shit yeah. Definitely, I mean, I spent five years studying that concept [laughs], I love linguistics, it really fascinates me. Sociolinguistics is what I ended up doing my thesis in and that is all about the most practical angle of linguistics, about social attitudes towards the way people speak [adopts ‘Boy’ accent]. Here, if a kid at school talks like this, their teacher might think they’re dumber than some of the other kids in the class, but it’s not true at all. It doesn’t give you any indication of intelligence or anything like that. All it tells you is how someone speaks. So that’s what I liked about sociolinguistics, is a lot of people in the field are about breaking down those misconceptions. That’s something that still gets me worked up, people are like “it’s not proper English.” I’m like, “well, what is proper English? Show me who speaks proper English. Is it the Queen? Is it someone in America?”

AB: You did your Masters comparing two Anika Moa albums, the American one and the New Zealand one?

AC: No, I did one paper for my honours year on Anika. My lecturer loved that paper, so she talked to me into expanding it for my Masters thesis. I was listening really closely to a whole bunch of albums for specific linguistic variables, and thinking about whether people pronounce them in a New Zealand way, or another way. Then I interviewed them to find out the reasons why that would be, and then drew my conclusions, roughly over the course of an entire year. And then as a singer I would go to sing those variables and just be thinking “am I singing it like a New Zealander or not?” It did my head in because I was thinking about it all too much.

AB: Were you friends with your houseguest before you wrote that paper?

AC: Anika and me have been friends since we were in the Rockquest together, 1998. She’s one of my best friends. Potty-mouth, relentlessly funny, I love her.

AB: Quite a full on guest?

AC: Yeah! [laughs, pauses] Anything for a mate.

AB: With The Lake’s ‘The Lake’, is that Lake Taupo?

AC: In my mind it’s Lake Taupo, yes. I don’t often write super super specific, to the letter, this-actually-happened songs. They might start like that. ‘The Lake’ is definitely about the feeling that I have about that place feeling safe for me, somewhere that’s always there for me.

AB: Tell me about your connection with Tuwharetoa’s Waihi Marae?

AC: Waihi Marae is my marae, my mum grew up there and we always went back there as kids. It’s a very special place for me. But ‘The Lake’ is also about going down to Western Springs Park a lot, a safe place for me, too. I like to run around there and just be down there next to the lakes even though they're gross, they're full of duck shit. I find the presence of water very calming maybe because I grew up by the sea, I find being by a body of water very relaxing.

AB: Growing up seaside in Raglan City, you knew the Datsuns before they were world famous?

AC: Way before. They’re good friends those Datsuns guys, I grew up with them. My band Handsome Geoffery used to play gigs with them when I was 16, they were called Trinket back then. We used to use the same rehearsal space in Cambridge. Guitarist Phil is married to one of my best friends from high school, they’ve just had a baby last week. He’s a beautiful human being. I’m supposed to visit them tomorrow [two weeks ago] but I’ve got this cold so I don’t know if I’ll be able to now.

AB: Anna Coddington is not a name people expect for a Maori singer?

AC: People have been telling me that when I was first starting out, trying to talk me into changing my name but fuck, what do you change your name to?

AB: Your name’s your name.

AC: What do you change it to, Crazy Chick? You’ve got to live with it the rest of your career. Occasionally I kinda wish I had, if only to save space on my posters. But I’m very indecisive, I hate naming my songs or my albums, picking a name for myself would be quite an ask. I did think about changing my name to Codds because that’s what lots of people call me, but I don’t know if that’s any better.

AB: Do you have a middle name?

AC: Pinenga. It’s Maori but doesn’t have a specific meaning. It’s a family name from Te Arawa.
“Waihi Marae is my marae, my mum grew up there and we always went back there as kids. It's a very special place for me. I find the presence of water very calming. Maybe because I grew up by the sea, I find being by a body of water very relaxing.”

AB: Your contribution to the Rattle Ya Dags series had good advice for people, like your autobiographical song, ‘Never Change’.

AC: I try to deny that’s autobiographical but yeah, it was.

AB: The idea you got to be yourself resonates.

AC: That’s something I like about that song—if people don’t listen to it properly they think it’s just a love song, but you got it.

AB: ‘T Shirt’, “It’s a lovely idea/beauty exploding from despair,” that’s cool, as is your quirky sense of humour. You were at an awkward party, didn’t know anyone there, and wearing that T-shirt of a girl with a gun to her head and a flock of red butterflies flying out.

AC:  I ended up just talking about the T-shirt all night because I didn’t know anyone and I felt really uncomfortable and out-of-place, and I went home and wrote a song about it. I sent the artist that did the picture the video, and he said he loved it and he sent me a signed print of that image, with a little note to me. I was stoked. I’ve got it framed hanging on the wall in my lounge.

AB: Do you have other meaningful memorabilia?

AC: Lots of cool stuff given to me over the years. Some really cool fan art, someone once gave me this amazing book called called Tangi. It’s quite an old New Zealand book, beautiful black and white sketches. I worked with Bic Runga for a few years, and she’s really lovely. Anika and I were doing backing vocals for her and she took us under her wing, took us on this song writing retreat to Mahia. She hired this big house and we all went there, us three and Shayne Carter, and wrote songs. We girls didn't actually write any songs, we just hung out, but Shayne wrote nearly a whole album. For my 25th birthday she made me this mother-of-pearl necklace, half-circle shape with jagged edges.

AB: When’s the new ‘Purea Nei’ coming out?

AC: If I got asked to do another project like that, I’d love to. I think Te Reo should be compulsory in schools, because it’s not a stretch for kids to learn some language. New Zealand’s very monolingual on a world scale. There are not many countries in the world where everyone only speaks one language. There are lots of people who wouldn't want their kids to, not that I can see why they wouldn’t.

© James Black 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at blackphotographic.

More about Anna Coddington at This is part two of a three part interview. Part three is scheduled for July. Thanks to Alice May Connolly and Kimaya McIntosh for some transcription assistance.

When on assignment in Auckland, The Lumière Reader stays at the five-star Pullman Auckland.

2013-06-02 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Music Photo Essays

I’m Your Woman: A Conversation with Sylvie Simmons

One of rock‘n’roll’s great journalists on Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, Lou Reed, and Bob Johnston.

Two handsome men, we should do this in my room,” she smiles. I’ve just got out of the lift[1] on the tenth floor of an Auckland Hotel, and she welcomes me with a warm hug. Despite jetlag etc. (“I’ve gone beyond frazzled”), Sylvie Simmons gives me a charming hour, complementing her biography I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen with vivid, sprawling stories.

Demanding Cohenista Pico Iyer had recently said, “please tell her I loved the book and its nuances.” He emailed me: “One of the beauties of Sylvie Simmons’s new book, which instantly becomes the definitive sourcebook for all material on the man, is that she brings to Cohen much of the discretion, perceptiveness, tight focus and wit that he brings to the world.”[2]

Iyer added Cohen is the sort of man you want to be around: funny, kind, and disciplined. “Whenever I spend time with him, I’m spellbound by the droll gravitas, the warmth, the constant solicitude and the extraordinary gift with words; but when I come away from the small house in a very rough part of L.A. he shares with daughter and grandson, I realise I’ve been most moved by what you don’t hear so much on the records: his deep commitment to his kids, the seriousness and voraciousness of his reading, especially on matters of the spirit, the depth of his silences. Many a visitor finds herself just sitting with him in his small garden, saying nothing, enjoying a communion deeper than personality or intention.”

After I spoke with Sylviephile Simon Sweetman in advance of her visit to Auckland, she’d tweeted: “Some people have a street named after them. Yeah, yeah. But do they have a cat they've never met named after them?”[3] On stage at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival the night following our interview, Noelle McCarthy said that “Sylvie Simmons is one of the world’s best rock‘n’roll journalists.”

During Sylvie’s encounter with the relentlessly rude Lou Reed, he flopped out the old lie: that she was a music journalist because she had no musical talent. Sylvie concluded her Noelle session with a moving version of Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’: “Thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes, I thought it was there for good, so I never tried”. “Rather wonderful voice,” The Listener’s shrewd Guy Somerset said. “She should put out an album. I’d buy it.”

Sylvie’s the sort of woman you want to be around: funny, kind, and insightful. “One of the most delightful things about this tour is a lot of it’s on a wing and prayer. So occasionally it’s insane and other times it’s sublime, but the sublime tends to beat the insane,” the five-foot San Franciscan says, in her soft Londonian lilt.

“Do you mind if I take my shoes off?” She broke her toe at Austin’s South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival. “It’s a wonderful thing to go to, even if it breaks your limbs. I always seem to cause some damage to my body there.” Photography by Rath Vatcharakiet.

*   *   *

ALEXANDER BISLEY: You had an exciting time at South by Southwest?

SYLVIE SIMMONS: Lovely, singing with Julie Christiensen and Perla Betalla and Ronee Blakely. Leonard Cohen’s songs have got so much space and generosity in them, and they really work with women’s voices. I had this panel called Leonard Cohen and his Women, I counted myself among them; and we sang some of his songs and told some ribald and moving stories.

AB: Leonard Cohen has a great appreciation and understanding of women.

SS: He does. He is so totally truly a ladies’ man in every way. He totally focuses on you as if you are the most interesting person on the planet. You come out with a blush in your cheeks and a spring in your step, smoking an imaginary cigarette. He’s a real character, lovely man.

AB: 2010 was the first time I’d seen Leonard Cohen. He’s in his seventies with such infectious joy in life. Skipping around the stage, it’s impressive he can maintain it over such a long and magnificent concert.

SS: Well after such a long and magnificent life he’s found happiness. The book is almost a redemption story. He’s come towards the ending years of his life on a real high. He’s getting more love and more attention than he ever has in his whole life. And he’s happy, he’s over his depression.

AB: Pico Iyer’s Graham Greene counterbiography The Man Within My Head begins with a quote: “What means the fact which is so common, so universal that some soul that has lost all hope for itself, can inspire in another listening soul infinite confidence in it even while it’s expressing its despair.” Leonard Cohen songs have done that for people.

SS: I’m looking forward to reading that book. That’s very much true. There’s something cathartic about the darkness in Leonard Cohen songs. And, generally speaking, his songs have more depth and mystery than they have darkness. I could never really understand why Americans, and Canadians in particular, didn’t take to those early albums because they found them too dark. I found them so deep. Leonard told me sadness is the engine for almost everything he did: the women, the wine, the drugs, everything. It was a way to quieten that demon of depression. To him, the music isn’t dark, it’s deep.

AB: His music is beautiful.

SS: And mysterious. I fell in love with his music the day I hit puberty. I got this compilation out and ‘Sisters of Mercy’ was on it and that voice came out of my little tiny tinny speakers, one single speaker on my record player, and just threw me against the wall. I have no idea why he moved me as much as he did, but I would save up my pocket money and go out and buy his albums. He was the strange old poetic looking bloke on the cover, he didn’t look anything like Paul McCartney and therefore was not fanciable. There’s a comfort in the mystery of Leonard Cohen’s songs that kept, and keeps, drawing me back.

AB: ‘Sisters of Mercy’ still draws you in?

SS: Because it was the first. It’s probably one of the least enigmatic of the songs. As a kid of course I knew that sisters of mercy were nuns. Other songs like ‘Suzanne’ get metaphysical. We’ll never know who the heroes in the seaweed are, or the children leaning out for love.

AB: You’re wearing a Brooklyn T-shirt. One of the charms of New York is that it’s so big and energetic and chaotic, you can never understand, do it all. With Leonard Cohen the work is so rich and varied, you keep returning to the songs.

SS: Yeah. It keeps having different shades when you go back to it. It’s like seeing a perfect painting. There’s always something that always makes you want to sink into it and see something new.

AB: At fourteen I got into Leonard Cohen, compelling songs like ‘So Long, Marianne’.

SS: Everything was so mysterious about that. Even with the second album Songs, that photo on the cover of Marianne sitting there, strangely she’d be on the cover even when she’s been broken up within the first album. That’s Leonard for you, confusing the girl. That feeling of strange innocence and longing in that. Quite often Leonard would long for the person that he left, that seemed to be one of the great engines of his work. Having to be alone, and through that loneliness, longing for something.

AB: It’s remarkable in your book that his muses, women like the Norwegian beauty Marianne he lived with in Greece, have such good things to say about him.

SS: They do, it’s quite remarkable. The bottom line with most of them was he didn’t pretend to be anything else than he was. In other words it wasn’t like they caught him cheating, it was a case of “we knew who he was.” Nobody really spoke against him. He seems like a very decent man, especially for a celebrity.

AB: Speaking of celebrities, one of my favourite interviews of yours was with Lou Reed. Have you run into him since?

SS: No I haven’t, funnily enough. What was so strange was at the end of the interview I gave him an out, I said “As we’ve explained from the beginning this is a Q&A, there’s just going to be a very short introduction. I don’t know what you think, but I think this isn’t really going too well, and would you like to do it again? We can do it by phone, we can start again.” But he went “No.” So that was it. He was very strange. The oddest thing was when he wanted to play Ornette Coleman and I said, “Well, shall we stop and listen?” and he said “You can do two things at once can’t you?” I said, “yes I’m multi-talented.” And then he played Coleman and started yelling at his female assistant to turn off the music because he couldn’t talk and listen to it at the same time. He stood up and lifted [gestures] his sleeve up and thrust his arm in my face and said he had goose pimples. “See how moved I am by music.” He was an awkward customer.
“One of the interesting things I’ve found when talking to people who were very close to him was that they kind of talk like Leonard Cohen sometimes. They speak in a somewhat slow and deliberate way and in the beginning it felt a bit creepy, like the cult of Lenny and am I going to be part of the cult of Lenny? He kind of slows things down somewhat, in a way that makes you examine what you’re saying and how you’re saying it.”

AB: Don’t believe the mythology, to borrow from Chuck D. Little Britain, Lou and Andy poking fun at Reed and Warhol, that was amusing.

SS: Lou Reed seemed like he couldn’t get enough love. Joni Mitchell seems to suffer from that, too. When I was speaking to Lou Reed, I said, “For heaven’s sake you’re loved by critics. How can you possibly say you weren’t given respect?” But it wasn’t enough for him.

AB: It’s weird Sylvie, you’re highly regarded, done your research, been vetted by his people. But Lou Reed decided from the start he wasn’t making any effort?

SS: It was quite the opposite: he was making an effort to be as unpleasant as a human being could. People with a lot of passion and creativity are usually interesting to talk to even when they’re peculiar. I’ve certainly met some peculiar people in my life, been in some peculiar situations. Lou Reed did disappoint me, I thought I really want to have a good conversation with you, but it was all about some strange ego.

AB: In writing I’m Your Man, partly because you know your subject(s) so well, you had a good run interviewing people?

SS: Yeah, I was really lucky. I started out going to Montreal, because that was where Leonard started his life, in winter. I realised very soon his life really was this holistic thing. It was like the strand of a DNA, a helix, that if you took away any one of these strands the whole thing was pointless. So, the women, the depression, the written word, the musical element of his life, everything came together. If you took one away, you wouldn’t have Leonard Cohen. I had to get in deeply, so I interviewed about 110 key people. Not all of them were initially very willing to talk, but gradually Leonard was giving people approval to talk to me, everybody that I wanted joined in. Except Joni Mitchell.

AB: Joni Mitchell, everybody knows.

SS: She’s become rather difficult in later years and seems to be rewriting history a lot, so what she said would not have panned out with what she was saying at the time.

AB: Phil Spector was a tough ask, too?

SS: I tried. I tried to smuggle myself in in a cake, I’m small enough, I thought I could do it. I wrote to him in prison. I tried going through various other people who knew people, but couldn’t get in and that’s rather a shame. But I can understand his point because there were guns used in the making of Death of a Ladies’ Man with Leonard, and he’s sadly locked away for something awful that happened with a gun. He probably doesn’t want to bring any of that up, so I spoke to as many other people as I could who were involved in that album and got different sides of the story.

AB: You manage to bring all Cohen strands together, including the rabbis.

SS: I spoke to the rabbi who taught his bar mitzvah class. Do you know the Coen brothers film [A Serious Man], where the guy goes to see the old rabbi? It reminded me of that. It was so funny, I was being shown around this synagogue that Leonard’s great grandfather had founded, and was rabbi of. They brought me in to meet this rabbi, who qualified in every way of being old and rabbinical, he was ancient. Leonard is 79 this year, this man knew him when he was 13. One of the questions I’d asked him was, “You know when Leonard was a little boy in the synagogue, did he sing?” And he kind of gave me this old rabbinical peering look, like looking deep into my soul and then he went, “Leonard sing?” [laughs] I said, “A lot of the critics used to agree with you.” He said, “He spoke very well.” [laughs]

AB: [laughs]

SS: Then I got his most recent rabbi and we spent a day talking about all sorts of elements of Leonard’s studies and his serious knowledge of the Kabbalahl. (Madonna and her little bracelet don’t have anything to do with it.) I spoke to monks. I couldn’t speak to Roshi because he didn’t understand what I said, I didn’t understand what he said, and he was already in his hundreds and not really doing much.

Women are a very important part of his life and it seemed to me that that started very early. Chapter two is called House of Women. When Leonard’s father died Leonard was nine years old and from that moment on he was raised in a house of women: an older sister and a doting mother. He was constantly loved, supported, and indulged but probably also smothered half to death, which might be where he got his need to always run away from women, but then to long for love.

My interest in the women wasn’t getting an account, almost a telephone directory, it would have been a fifteen volume book. I’d spend my whole life interviewing them. Just put your hands up if you didn’t, would be easier.

There was constantly this idea of supportive women in his life. Leonard’s first manager was a woman, Mary Martin, and Judy Collins was the first to introduce him onstage and on record as a singer-songwriter. Then also there’s these great loves, the muses.

AB: It was good hearing from Rebecca De Mornay.

SS: Rebecca De Mornay, the actress, was the last of the muses I spoke to. I said to her, “Leonard had this album called The Future, it was his biggest album as far as sales went in the U.S. And, he went on tour, had his sixtieth birthday, he’s engaged to be married, didn’t happen often. Then next minute he’s living as a monk on Mt Baldy. What happened?” And she said, “Did you ask Leonard?” I said, “Yes. And he told me something that I thought was a crock.” She sent me a really articulate answer. She said that Leonard has always had problems throughout his life with commitment: committing to a woman in a marriage, committing to the music business. He always hated touring up until recently, he always felt that in some way it would damage his work by singing the same song night after night. This innocence and truth and honesty that it came from is going to get pinched out by doing it to paying customers night after night when he’s not in the mood to sing it. She said he told her being married is harder work than being in a monastery because it’s 24/7 and you have to be there, if you’re doing it properly, and so in the end he chose the monastery. You couldn’t have got that from anybody but his fiancé.

AB: I enjoyed evocative chapter two, his time growing up in Montreal, discovering Lorca, wandering the streets as a thirteen year old looking for women.

SS: Looking for girls at 3am in the morning, and wondering why he couldn’t find them. Nice girls are not going to be standing on the streets at 3am in the morning, and you’re a bit young for the other ones.

AB: He’s always been motivated by women. You describe the young man with the hypnotic voice discovering hypnotherapy, hypnotising the maid to undress.

SS: Yes, he loves the women. That’s always been a major thing for him. He’s not a lech. I’ve met him on occasions before the book and you could tell that he is a very seductive and very flirtatious man. He’s got it down to an art. But there isn’t this sort of predatory feeling you can get from some rock stars, where it’s ‘put it away’. There’s none of that, he is a very gracious and well-mannered man.

AB: So, the Petraeus question, how do you keep writer’s distance?

SS: Fortunately, having been a music writer for 35 years and having spent not just days but nights on tour buses, with rock stars, I quickly learned to resist temptation.

AB: I love your in-depth interview with Johnny Cash six weeks before he died.

SS: That was one of the assignments of a lifetime, both wonderful and horribly poignant. Johnny Cash had been working with the brilliant producer Rick Rubin. I got to know Rick through his heavy metal life, he really is a music journalist trapped in an extremely wealthy record producer’s body. Rick and Johnny decided we were going to do two books, first a small one that would go out with the boxset marking the ten years that Johnny and Rick had worked together. Ten very successful years, because Johnny’s career had been on the skids for a while, he’d been thrown off two record labels, and he was playing the blue rinse circuit in the middle of nowhere to little old ladies.

AB: Rubin/Cash saw great music such as American Five: A Hundred Highways, ‘Hurt’. The excellent black documentary maker Noland Walker told me: “Cash’s story is all of our story in the end, no matter what we amass or achieve in a material sense, most of it crumbles or goes away. But what can remain is the effect of the lives we touch (though the scale varies). Trent Reznor’s right, ‘Hurt’ is no longer his song (in the way that ‘Natural Woman’ and ‘I Say a Little Prayer’ no longer belong to Carole King and Dionne Warwick, respectively).”

SS: Absolutely, he made it his own.

[caption id="attachment_6798" align="aligncenter" width="582"] A still from the music video for ‘Hurt’.[/caption]

AB: Your article on ‘Hurt’ is sharp: “His physical frailty comes as a shock. Just as it did in the Hurt video... It doesn’t seem right somehow; the Man in Black always seemed mythic, carved out of granite. But the defiance and determination are still visibly there. The life force seems to burn brighter in this white-haired old man than in any young pretender.” And “the father of our country!”, as Kris Kristofferson calls him in your conclusion, was now living in an empire of dirt.

SS: My article kept getting put off. I was out in Tennessee at one point and I met up with June. She was very generous and hospitable, she seemed kind of unwell. Then the next thing we knew she died. It was very sudden, she’d gone into hospital and she’d died. Johnny Cash had been going in and out of hospital during that period. It was over and over and over again, and June was organising prayerathons online and things and somehow getting him back from the edge. So everybody expected John to go and not June. He was devastated. I thought he’s going to pass very soon. She was the one keeping him alive. I got a call from Rick saying Johnny wants you to go out this weekend, can you do it? Sure.

I’d met Johnny Cash and interviewed him a few times before, but this was really quite shocking. I met him in his kitchen in that big house they had in Walk the Line. He was coming down in, as he called it, the “Popemobile,” one of those lifts that they put on the wall for people with wheelchairs. It was a glass fronted thing and his face looked almost dead. He came out and he looked so shrunken but swollen at the same time. His face looked like he’d been having a boxing match with Ali, bent in and out of shape and eyes were nearly blind with glaucoma and his hair was white. He came up and said, in that voice, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” It sent chills through you. He was like, let’s have breakfast. So I spent five days with him. We spent a lot of time together, usually one of his daughters would be there visiting, at one point lovely Roseanne Cash was there.

Other times doctors would be coming by because he was determined to get out of his wheelchair and walk, and throw the damn wheelchair in the lake, which was by the house. We’d talk, we got along.

AB: He must have liked you to have you around for five days.

SS: Down in the basement where they shot the ‘Hurt’ video he had a baby grand piano at each end of the room and when he was spending the morning with his doctors, I said “Do you mind if I play some music?” He says [adopts deep voice] “That’s what it’s there for honey.” And so I sat and played Chopin on the piano downstairs. In the afternoons, I sat with him while he was recording in the back room, the one with the circular bachelor boy bed and hunting trophies on the wall. It was remarkably poignant to see this man who was 71 but looked about 90 determined to get back. I think one of the most moving moments was when I asked about how he and Rick had taken out a full page ad and billboard when they got the first Grammy, sort of giving the finger. He pushed himself up from his wheelchair, “I went ‘fuck you’.” He was flipping the bird, this little old man and it made my heart soar. This is Johnny Cash, this is the Man in Black.
“With the second album Songs, that photo on the cover of Marianne sitting there, strangely she’d be on the cover even when she’s been broken up within the first album. That’s Leonard for you, confusing the girl. That feeling of strange innocence and longing in that. Quite often Leonard would long for the person that he left, that seemed to be one of the great engines of his work. Having to be alone, and through that loneliness, longing for something.”

AB: I enjoyed you alluding to the connections between Cash and Cohen: the colourful Texan producer Bob Johnston; the cover of ‘Bird On A Wire’; Live At Henderson Hospital, I’m pleased to know there’s a good unreleased recording of that, the parallel with San Quentin and Folsom.

SS: Bob Johnston’s a friend of mine, I love him. He’s 80 years old and a complete red headed devil. He’s trouble, but he’s good trouble. Bob Dylan wrote about him in Chronology, he talked about how he should be with a big sword, wearing a red cape and coming in and killing all the record company people. Bob was always a wild boy, he wanted to record the first Leonard Cohen album. He was a Columbia Records star producer, but he was already recording things like Simon and Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, Dylan, and about four or five other albums. So they said you’ve got enough, you can’t do it. After that first album Leonard Cohen was so unhappy with the production, that they’d added too much to it, he was trying to strip it down. He happened to run into Bob Johnston in Los Angeles and told him he wasn’t going to make another album. Bob gave him a key to a log cabin in the middle of nowhere, Tennessee that belonged to Boudleaux Bryant (‘Love Hurts’).

So Leonard went and stayed out in the log cabin and loved working in Nashville with Bob. Songs From a Room, Songs of Love and Hate, two of my favourite albums, and of course the Live Songs after that. He insisted that Bob went on tour with him, so that was wild because things happen around Bob Johnston, people will draw guns and it was Bob Johnston’s idea to ride the horses on the stage at one of the shows when they needed horses to get to the gig cos the roads were blocked. Bob was a wild guy and still is.

AB: Did you ever discuss Johnny Cash with Leonard Cohen?

SS: Before I’d worked on the boxset with Johnny Cash, I’d done a story in the ’90s on Cash’s prison albums, on the whole story behind them. Bob Johnston said, “These people like Dylan and Cash and Cohen, there’s something about them. When they walk into a room the air changes. As soon as Johnny Cash got on stage the whole mood would shift. It’s the same with Leonard Cohen.” Bob Johnston produced Johnny Cash’s prison albums. In order to get him out of New York, because he was causing so much trouble, Bob Johnston was posted to Nashville by Columbia to head up their Nashville division. As soon as Johnny Cash said I want to do San Quentin, Bob got on the phone to the warden and set it up.

AB: You also interviewed Muddy Waters? I felt lucky to see Eddie Shaw who played in his band for a while in Chicago last year.

SS: He was lovely. I’ve interviewed most people, most are really good, but there’s some that you just love. Bob Johnston became a guy that I am really drawn to. When I go to L.A. he’s almost like some old family member I go and visit now. Once we had this lovely day, he was having a hard time, living under the LAX flight path. I had my uke and played ‘Avalanche’ from Songs of Love and Hate. The rumbling of the planes went overhead, taking off and landing and singing ‘Avalanche’ together.

AB: Who’s next up for you? Tom Waits?

SS: There’s a few people that are hollering in my head that I think I would really like to write, Tom Waits is no secret. He deserves a really really good book, but he doesn’t want one and so it’s pointless. At some point he may change his mind.

AB: How about interviewing Bob Dylan?

SS: I was offered an interview with him once and unfortunately had to turn it down because the conditions were such that it would have been a waste of time.

AB: How has Leonard Cohen influenced you as a writer?

SS: Persistence, patience and a kind of discipline that sometimes falls apart when you’re writing for a magazine and you’re just getting things in. That diligence with which he works, it does rub off on you. One of the interesting things I’ve found when talking to people who were very close to him was that they kind of talk like Leonard Cohen sometimes. They speak in a somewhat slow and deliberate way and in the beginning it felt a bit creepy, like the cult of Lenny and am I going to be part of the cult of Lenny? He kind of slows things down somewhat, in a way that makes you examine what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. I’ve been working on some short stories recently, just to keep my hand in, and those have got that slight slowness and patience and calm to them. They’re not my usual rabid, crazy short stories.

AB: You’ve said journalism’s “fucked.” I am pleased I’m Your Man isn’t too short.

SS: I proposed to them, they bought it. One thing I insisted on, though the publisher didn’t like it, was those little conversations with Leonard that go through the book. The other thing missing from biographies of him was his voice, he has this amazing way of talking that’s so precise and funny. There’s always a slight modesty in everything, and so why paraphrase that, when I could have his words? It’s almost like a Greek chorus of one, “I actually jammed with Jimi Hendrix.” Or the story he gave of walking down the street with Joni Mitchell and a limo goes by and in the back is Jimi Hendrix trying to chat up Joni Mitchell. I wouldn’t have minded if I was Joni, Jim Hendrix was very handsome.

AB: I like how you captured Cohen’s voice in the book’s prologue. I was pleased to see you loved Searching for Sugarman.

SS: Oh, I had tears in my eyes when I saw that, a great film. My friend opened for him [Rodriguez] recently so I went.

AB: How was it?

SS: It was good. It wasn’t quite what I expected. Maybe he’s got some very bad eyesight problem, he was led on stage.

AB: What do you want people to take away from I’m Your Man?

SS: That’s not easy to answer. Viewed from a certain angle, it can be seen as a story of a life devoted to art and work. Or, from another, a story of undying faith, of perseverance, of redemption, or of finally finding a way to get through life, which isn’t always something a ‘tortured artist’, in other words a serious artist, manages to do. To quote Leonard, “This world is full of conflicts and things that cannot be reconciled. But there are moments when we can transcend the dualistic system and reconcile and embrace the whole mess.”

© Rath Vatcharakiet 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at

Update: Leonard Cohen returns to New Zealand for concerts in Christchurch, Wellington, and Auckland from December 14, 2013.

Sylvie Simmons was a guest of the 2013 Auckland Writers & Readers Festivalwhich also featured Masha Gessen. This conversation has been condensed and edited. Thanks to Alix Campbell (and Alice May Connolly) for some transcription assistance.

[1] With my photographer Rath. “She’s a legend,” he says after the interview.

[2] Iyer adds: “Sylvie Simmons has meticulously collected all the evidence that allows us to enter the house of Cohen and see all its furniture; but if you want to see what’s truly there—and not there—the only place to turn is the songs.”

[3] And reposted the preview feature on her website.

When on assignment in Auckland, The Lumière Reader stays at the five-star Pullman Auckland.

2013-06-07 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Books Music Auckland Writers Festival Photo Essays

First we take Park City, then we take Berlin

“I could feel the fear and weight in her and the Samoan side of my family.” The directors of Shopping on the Dawn Raids and coming home.

Shopping’s cool writer-directors, Louis Sutherland and Mark Albiston, talk with Alexander Bisley about making their film. Photography by Daniel Rose.

*   *   *

ALEXANDER BISLEY: Good to see the Dawn Raids sharply referenced on the big screen (and the clip from Patu also). Louis, tell me about a memory from the Dawn Raid period as a half-Samoan kid?

LOUIS SUTHERLAND: Personal memories are hearing about it as a child and not quite believing what I was hearing. My instant view of the police, politicians and all things palagi took a dive. My mother kept it under the radar, but I could feel the fear and weight in her and the Samoan side of my family. Kids pick up on stuff adults think they have cleverly hidden away. I used to have nightmares they’d take Mum away so it wasn’t too shit hot a time.

AB: What do you want audiences to take away from Shopping?

LS: If anything we’d love the audience to own Shopping as a part of their historical make-up that is from their culture, and therefore something we all can share. If not that, then at least that kiwi films can compete with what the rest the world has to offer, and films don’t have to have an imaginary race of people with large hairy feet, or dudes that wear spandex with special powers, or fast as cars even. Actually, we have a V8 Monaro in Shopping, so scratch that last one, you need fast cars.

AB: Of the cast, I was particularly impressed with Matthias Luafutu, who plays Red. How did his mahi with Te Rakau inform Shopping? What do you think of his work as Afa Sorrenson in Harry?

LS: We’ve long known Matthias is a very talented dude. I went to Toi Whakaari with him over ten years ago, which is also when Albie (Mark) met him. This was not long after Matthias spent time with Jim Moriarty’s troupe Te Rakau. Personally, we feel the skills Matthias has were there well before he got ‘taught’ to act by anyone. Really, the opportunity to perform was one of timing where someone like Jim came along and lead him in the right direction. Mathias did some solid work in Harry with his talented cuz Oscar, and to be honest he probably finds the hard guys easier to play than anything else. He’s seen a few, including in the mirror. His challenge now is to look beyond the known and into areas where he can really establish himself in New Zealand as an actor. You don’t want to become typecast and I can remember at Toi Whakaari he skillfully played everything from the mentally challenged to highly effeminate characters. Our bro has bandwidth to burn as an actor, and we hope he gets a chance from other directors to show it.

MARK ALBISTON: We have been enjoying watching Harry unfold on screen and watching our friend Matthias, he has a commanding presence on screen.

AB: Alastair Browning (Terry) has a flair for failing dads, as in Rain?

It’s acting, and Alistair is a gifted actor. I think he has a lovely balance a lot of other male actors lack. Mr Browning can play the lost, failed father as you say, but he plays it with large quantities of empathy. His work’s beautifully crafted, something we noticed that sets him apart from others, and why we loved him in the role of Terry.

AB: Tell me about an intense, biographical scene?

Anything with the mother figure of Theresa was hard. Maureen is such an amazing soul it felt like she was channelling Louis’s Mum sometimes. It was hard not to hug her a lot.

AB: Is blood thicker than water?

That’s a very subjective question mate, but from where us boys stand absolutely.

AB: I liked that scene, “What are you doing?” “Flying my fly.” Aim?

The aim of the fly my fly scene was to: 1) perform the beat of transition of the watch between brothers; 2) allow the repair of the brothers’ relationship as they’d been split for quite some part of the film. By making it comedic, and giving Solomon some humour, it made him cute—the audience can understand Willie forgiving him.

AB: Lumière’s Nelsonian photographer Daniel Rose was deeply impressed by the camera-work, was seduced by the texture and evocative aesthetic inherent in celluloid film (combined with the location, it captured the nostalgia of growing up in provincial New Zealand and created a strong sense of place). This (adopted) Wellingtonian adds that it captures the Kapiti Coast’s sea and sky. What idea were you going for with your visual weave?

Ginny Loane is an amazing cinematographer, and her talented eye captured the coast in the way that we remembered it. We always saw the coast as another character in the film. Paekakariki is amazing place with a dramatic cliff on one side, and the Pacific and Kapiti Island on the other.

Water was big element in the film and helped us to show the boys freedom, underwater they were free. The cliff bears down on the community like outside influences – the [Springbok] Tour, Dawn Raids, nuclear war, and everything else that we were having to think about in the eighties.

AB: Why use expensive 16mm film? Because you can’t recreate the accidents and imperfections of film in digital post?

16mm feels like we wanted our film to feel. It was the natural choice, as was the squarer format. Ginny Loane really wanted it to have a modest, honest looking frame. It complements the amazing work that our art department and wardrobe designers did on the film, the best compliment we’ve had on the aesthetic of the film is that ‘you could smell the rooms’. It’s pretty amazing when people can fall that far into the world of the film that it triggers those kinds of memories. 16mm is like bubble and squeak, it tastes good but you never quite know what it’s going to look like.

AB: I thought Grayson Gilmour’s score was effective. Why did you choose him? And the Clean’s ‘At the Bottom’?

Grayson is a real craftsman and artist. He can create stuff from thin air then refine. He also had the subtleties in his work that meant we could trust he wouldn’t try to steal the show, he has nuance. Originally we had New Order and Laurie Anderson mixed in the record store scene. The way the two tracks collided in Willie’s ears made an amazing track. Sadly they weren’t budgeted for, which kinda stiched us up, but then we went through a lot of old Kiwi tracks and found that Clean track and the Tall Dwarves. They also created another track, this one was really discordant, which suited the magnetism between two teen lovers in the scene.

AB: What did you think of Boy, which people are going to compare you guys to?

Boy proved that there was an audience for New Zealand films, it’s one of the most successful films of all time in New Zealand, foreign or domestic. It’s important for New Zealand films to do well at home. Taika has led the way in New Zealand making distinctively New Zealand films.

AB: What’s special about working with each other?

Someone described our collaboration as a working biculturalism, and that the government should use us as a model to build a functioning government off. We think they were taking the piss. Ideas can build fast when things are working well.

AB: Tell me about a formative filmic influence who still inspires you?

MA: We’re both fans of Francis Ford Coppola. We’re fans of film innovators like Steve McQueen, director of Shame, who turn filmmaking ideals on their head. They shot that film in four weeks, they traded a long production schedule for a long workshop period. The level of performance and assured photography was impressive. Conversely we also loved Beasts of the Southern Wild, which shot for seven weeks with an untrained cast who all lived with each other for preproduction and the shoot.

AB: Tell me about Cannes?

MA: Cannes is an incredible festival, we have been lucky enough to get there twice, and win a prize twice [for short films].

LS: I think Cannes really celebrates its creatives, the actors, writers and directors first. Once I, a kiwi lad from the coast, got in-front of Willem Dafoe in a photo shoot. I apologised and he laughed saying, “Sometimes it’s your turn to be in front, sometimes behind.” So very true, he’s a lovely guy.

AB: What makes it exciting to live and make film here in Wellington; what do you miss about living on the Kapiti Coast?

MA: Wellington City has all the best stuff about being in The City, without the traffic and masses of people. Great creative scene, and amazing movie theatres. But it always feels like coming home when you drive through Pukerua Bay, or even better over Paekakariki Hill to see Kapiti Island and the ocean, it’s a magic place.

LS: I love our Coast, I think most kiwis love theirs too. Hopefully they can see a little bit of ours in theirs. Actually, we’d be surprised if they didn’t.

© Daniel Rose 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at

‘Shopping’ is currently on general release in New Zealand, and premieres in Australia at the Sydney Film Festival on June 14, followed by the Melbourne International Film Festival on July 31. Alexander Bisley profiled Dawn Raid’s Brotha D about the Dawn Raids in 2005.

2013-06-10 · Permalink · FILM Features Interviews NZ Cinema Photo Essays

An Interview with Lil B

The prolific rapper on Bill and Barack, Ellen and Hillary, 50 and Puffy. Photography by Daniel Rose.

The strangest rapper alive,” The New Yorker bitched. “A brilliantly warped, post-Lil-Wayne deconstructionist from the Bay Area. He freestyles prolifically and deftly,” Slate. “One of the most visible rappers on the Internet, and also one of the most inscrutable... a folk hero of the rap counterculture,” The New York Times. These publications didn’t actually interview the social media phenomenon with almost 90 million YouTube hits and 700,000 Twitter followers.

“I’ve gotta get some rest, man.” It’s 1am Thursday in Wellington. Lil B looks tired, tells me he really doesn’t want to do our scheduled interview. The 23-year-old Berkeley rapper who’s put out hundreds of songs flew in from San Francisco the previous day. Opening/closing with dope trio ‘The Age of Information’, ‘Ellen Degeneres’ and ‘Giving Up’, he’s just delivered a lively 80-minute set at Bodega. His army of fierce fans extends to New Zealand, and he’s capping the gig with an hour with them saying hi, taking photos, signing things, and doing hongis.

Despite playing a disappointing one-minute cut of his/the Pack’s 2006 breakthrough ‘Vans’, Lil B is still wearing the same busted pair of white Vans he’s had on for years. Shirt-off, ripped, his upper torso is thoroughly tattooed. He’s taking low-riding next level, with near half his green boxers above his red shorts. I tell him I’ve put notable prep time in. “I feel ya,” Lil B relents to a quick, friendly interview (after getting a jacket).

He’s getting so much female interest, he’s making Bill Clinton look unloved, I say. He laughs loudly, energised and animated out of his torpor into a characteristic stream of consciousness. “Sup man!? You know it’s all love! I’ve got love for Bill. I just followed Hillary Clinton on that Twitter, shout out to Hillary.” Hillary signed up to Twitter last week, not long after the Big Dog did. “Hell yeah he there.”

His song ‘Bill Clinton’ is really funny, I enthuse. He beams, irreverently busting out the lyrics: “I’m Bill Clinton/ Fuckin’ all these women.” He then adopts a sober tone: “Respectfully.” Lil B is buzzing with the fun he’s had adopting a Bill Clinton persona; and personas for Miley Cyrus, Mel Gibson, Paris Hilton, Dr Phil, Justin Bieber, and Ryan Duffy. I find his exploration of celebrity more entertaining and interesting than (the overrated, outdated) Andy Warhol. “I appreciate Andy Warhol, man.”

His energetic performance was motivated by the crowd’s enthusiasm. “Beautiful people. Man, I love Wellington, one of the best places I’ve ever been, most positive people.” He got most of Bodega’s mellow crowd putting their middle fingers in the air against haters mid set.

Is Ellen still denying him? “Yeah, you already know.” He’s stoical about Ellen not showing him any love, any acknowledgement on Twitter. “Ellen know about me though. I’ve got love for Ellen. I understand, I understand.” He should be on Ellen (but understands it ain’t gonna happen). “I know, I know, I know, I know. It’s all good, we don’t want Ellen to get fired.”

Lil B is reluctant to play favourites from his series—“Every one’s my favourite you know what I mean?”—and doesn’t think any celebrities have been unhappy. “Man not really, not really, not that I’ve heard of. I mean all these ones will be getting millions of views.” He’s releasing a new celebrity song very soon. “I got a big one that's going to be big. Coming out next couple of days. You’re gonna see it. I can tell you right now it’s a girl who’s popular now, it’s not who you think.” (Right before the gig, Lil B tweeted out his new, crappy Rihanna remix.)

Having Puffy as his hype man at SXSW 2011 was exciting? “Yeah definitely, it was beautiful.  Puff opening man, hyping me up, man that was a lifetime experience. Shout out to The Fader.” Lil B also felt like he’d made it in 2011 when he featured on Lil Wayne’s ‘Sorry for the Wait’, comparing the experience to playing basketball versus Michael Jordan. “I was nervous, and I don’t even get nervous about nothing. It’s great if you get a chance to be around Wayne.” He’s also worked with Jay Z collaborator 9th Wonder, and hung out with 50 Cent. “Hanging out with 50 is a humbling experience in this hip hop legacy.”

“Hell yeah. Prince is on my list. I’ve got some money for Prince,” Lil B is keen to collaborate with the artist Hudart from Hypnotic Brass Ensemble described working with (to Lumière) as “Amazing!” What about Lil B’s famous tweet trying to get Kanye West’s attention; has he heard anything from Kanye, got anything more to say on that? “Nah.”

Last year, Lil B (no tertiary education) gave a pauseless, packed 80-minute lecture at New York University. “It’d never happened before and it was just amazing, I mean there was so much love, it was so real. I went there unscripted, I went there and just spread the love. It was great to play a part with the staff and see other intelligence get respected. The NYU faculty and the students and the beautiful people were respecting my intelligence, what I have to offer to people, to the progression of humans and love.”

The happy atmosphere reminded people of Obama’s 2008 election victory. Uncharacteristically, the Spirited Away fan[1] equivocates on Obama. “I don't know too much about politics, I need to learn more, I don't know where to start. He looks cool.” Jay Z wouldn’t be supporting Obama if he wasn't the real deal? “Yeah. That's what I think too; we'll see. I like a positive attitude, and that's what I want to bring in: whoever’s positive. Bill Clinton was positive.”

“He got four years to straighten out 50 years of bullshit, shit’s been going on a long time, but they gotta put it on the black man,” soul’s Bobby Womack, recently in New Zealand, defended Obama. I point out Bill Clinton said Obama needs another four years to build on cleaning up after Bush’s mess. Lil B can’t curb his Clinton enthusiasm: “I fuckin’ love Bill! Bill’s Bill. He got over there. Some people don’t get over there. Mitt Romney didn’t get over there.”

Christian rockers Section Zero frontman turned promoter Josh Mossman interrupts: my time’s up. So before wishing Lil B all the best for his Melbourne gig later tonight (Thursday), I tell him I really like his thoughtful March release ‘Giving Up’. (Not just because, as with Daft Punk sampling, Diplo-hustled ‘Hipster Girls’, it gently makes fun of B supporters.) His message? “You know, just love each other. You know, all your friends and everything you know could be gone so it don’t matter. Spread love.”

© Daniel Rose 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at

Lil B performed at Wellington’s Bodega on June 12, and is currently touring Australia. Alexander Bisley interviewed Kiwi hip-hop notables DJ Sir-vereK-One, and Anna Coddington earlier this year. He is currently working on an in-depth feature on David Dallas.

[1] Obama hopeful ‘Gon Be Okay’ samples Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away soundtrack.
2013-06-13 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Music Photo Essays

The Lyricist

An interview with Mark Turner, the Eversons’ witty, amiable frontman.

“Imagine Flight of the Conchords in a long passionate embrace with a dazzling diaspora of Clean fans.”—Everett True.

Only twenty people turned up to watch the Eversons open for the Wedding Present in Brisbane. But one of them was the legendary Everett True, who introduced Kurt to Courtenay. The influential music critic wrote a passionate endorsement. Mark Turner, the Eversons’ witty, amiable frontman, talks to Alexander Bisley about humorously scoring, Scottian lyrics, their Japan release, and Beautiful Machine showing Shihad as “pre-internet.” Photography by Catherine Bisley and Rath Vatcharakiet.

*   *   *

ALEXANDER BISLEY: The Phoenix Foundation’s Sam Scott fulsomely endorsed The Eversons: “Hilarious and bleak lyrics but sung with this awesome cheeriness and I think it maybe epitomizes what they’re all about. Very fun, bright music with a cynical and hilarious undercurrent.” ‘Heading Overseas’ is his (and possibly my) favourite. (Being the chronic insomniac that I am, I really rate ‘Fall Asleep’ also.)

MARK TURNER: I’m glad Sam likes that song, that’s a pretty sweet compliment considering his cool lyrics. Chris and I write all the songs in the band, but we usually write them seperately. With ‘Heading Overseas’ Chris had the musical idea and structure, and then we sat down and did the lyrics together one night. We’d both been through that same O.E. experience a few years back. Chris was in England and I was in Holland. It was the whole feeling [that] New Zealand is too small so heading off, then running out of money and asking your parents for help. Both Chris and I think New Zealand is probably the best place in the world to live so it felt good to make fun of ourselves trying to run away from paradise. Most people are stupid and worth having a chuckle at now and again. Ourselves included, of course.

AB: “The Eversons have released what feels pretty close to a classic,” Simon Sweetman wrote last year. Like True and I, he thinks The Eversons have international promise. Sweetman added: “Clever songs, catchy, funny, playful, subversive—every song with its own pop hook to hang on and from; loads of ideas. And they back it up live. They’ve got the tunes. Boy, do they have the tunes... at one point you might swear you’re hearing Woody Allen’s idea of a Greek chorus put to use in a pop song.”  Do you like Woody Allen?

MT: Definitely. Most musicians I get on with dig Woody Allen I reckon. I mean, he’s the basis for most of the modern humor I like, stuff like Larry David, Seinfeld, Louis C.K.

AB: Like Lil B, you’ve had acclaim for ironic humour, on songs such as ‘Vote for Act’. Your vote for five of the funniest Kiwi songs?

MT: I find stuff that presents an unusual view or has some clever one liners to be the funniest. Songs like Darcy Clay’s ‘Jesus I Was Evil’. Voom’s ‘Happy Just Bumming Around’, Flight of the Conchords’ ‘Business Time’ (or most things by those guys), Edmund Cake’s ‘Gunga’. The video clip that the Sneaks did for ‘I’m Lame’ is hilarious, where they gamble their NZ on Air grant at the horse track, win, and celebrate dressed as hotdogs on top of a building with fireworks.

AB: ‘Marriage’ and ‘Creepy’ (video for the latter due out mid this-month) worked sharply for last year’s film, How To Meet Girls From a Distance. The actor who played lead Toby told me: “‘Creepy’ was mind-glowingly ideal. We couldn’t have commissioned someone to write a song more ideal for the soundtrack. It became the backing for a ‘research’ montage, which it plays against beautifully. There’s that kind of Pixies-esque rhythm section with a kind of Weezer-ish vocal style that is really nice. It’s got a great indie feel that is still melodic and broadly enjoyable enough to use comfortably in a romantic comedy.”

MT: Ha, that’s cool! Well it’s a lot of fun having the music in a movie, because I can tell my mum and my non-music friends about it and it makes me sound like I have a real job. The Eversons stuff has also been on a couple TV shows in New Zealand. I also recently wrote a piece for a short film and drummer Tim mixed it. I’d love to do more stuff like that. Writing to a brief is a nice change of pace.

AB: I enjoy your sharp, Scottian lyrics on songs like that and ‘Marriage’. Were there particular inspirations for ‘Marriage’?

MT: Thanks man, the lyrics to ‘Marriage’ were inspired by a couple things. My good friend Peter was getting married at the time, and being a young man of 23, he was the first of my friends to tie the knot. So it was the first time I’d really thought seriously about people I know getting married. I was listening to the Beach Boys obessively and in a song like ‘So Young’ the singer is sad that they’re too young to get married to their sweetheart. I thought it’d be interesting to do a song from the perspective of a version of myself where I’m jealous of Peter’s happiness, desperately wanting to find a wife.

The sadness of the delivery in ‘So Young’ comes across as potentially kinda emotionally manipulative to me, so I figured taking that to its logical conclusion would be interesting. I’m kind of obsessed with the accidental darkness of some ‘60s lyrics. Where the intention is to be sweet, but they come off as kind of rapey or pushy or something. Something dark. Lyrics like Buddy Holly’s “I’m gonna tell you how it’s going to be/You’re gonna give your love to me,” or the Beatles on ‘Please Please Me’.

AB: Appropriately for a group who’s been played in-flight on Air France, you’ve got cool tunes about romance, like ‘Hot For Me’ and ‘The End of the World’. How is Chris Knox an influence?

MT: My favourite classic Flying Nun stuff at the moment is Chris Knox. Seizure is a fantastic album, and so is the Toy Love best of. It’s great how he’s self sufficient, he writes and records himself, and then he makes his own videos. That’s something we’ve got going with the Eversons. We’ll be making all of our own videos for our second album. But we’re a team of people compared to the one very impressive Chris Knox.

AB: Other Flying Nun influence on the Eversons?

MT: Chris has been into the Clean and the Bats and all the Flying Nun stuff for ages, it comes through in his guitar playing, with bendy bits and jangly bits. He’s got a cool shred style.

AB: What’s the story behind your release in Japan?

MT: ThisTime Records over in Japan got in touch with us and were keen to release the album, which is really cool. They wanted to have bonus tracks and extra liner notes and stuff so we worked with them for a while on getting it all together. The liner notes, two thousand words, were all translated into Japanese.

AB: The Japanese are pitching you as “Pavement meets the Beach Boys.”

MT: That’s an accurate description of Summer Feeling.

AB: How would you describe the Eversons’ sound?

I guess we’re a guitar band that’s heavy on the vocals and lyrics? On Summer Feeling we sound musically like Weezer, and Pavement, and the Pixies, with singing and lyrics more along the lines of the Streets and Motown call and response songs. I think we sound quite different on each of our releases.

AB: Tell me about new album’s style, development?

MT: The new album is less of a live rock band thing, and has a much wider range of sounds on it. Lots of acoustic guitar and tambourine. There’s a song that’s a cross between Randy Newman and the Flaming Lips, and there’s one that sounds a bit like David Bowie meets Nirvana. We’re more confident now so we’ve started trying a few more things. I sing the lead single as a woman, in soft falsetto.

AB: A new favourite song?

MT: I’m loving Chris’s song ‘Good At Making Enemies’. It has piano and baritone sax all through it, and a big guitar solo. His singing on the new album is awesome, he goes from super soft falsetto to full on yelling bits.

AB: So you guys are now part of the Auckland Sound? Why did you move ? Mike Fab told me, “Wellington markets itself on being the creative capital of New Zealand, but in reality that’s a fantasy. Increasingly there’s no way musicians can afford to practice and record. We might all have to end up in the Hutt.”

MT: We decided to move to Auckland for a bunch of reasons. Our musician friends at our label Lil Chief are all up in Auckland, and it’s great being round people who are on a similar buzz. My girlfriend Lisa Crawley is up in Auckland, too. Tim’s gonna set up his studio in Auckland where there are more bands to record than down in Wellington. It’ll be so good for him when more people realise what an excellent engineer he is, but I’m happy keeping him to myself for as long as possible [laughs].

AB: “I was also very impressed with The Eversons production, I think they do it all themselves, and it sounds great,” How to Meet Girls from a Distance’s Richard Falkner told me. I’m impressed you guys don’t waste any money. For instance, instead of pingas on a local publicist, you just emailed me to say you’d be keen to do a decent interview.

MT: We all chip in with production work on the album, so we’re our own producer. We’re gonna all be living together in the same house. Our friends who run Lil Chief Records live in a semi-infamous flat called ‘the ghetto’. They’re in Europe playing as Princess Chelsea, supporting Alt-J, so we’re subletting their place. We’ll be recording b-sides in the garage out back.

AB: How did Cobain influence the Eversons?

MT: We all grew up playing Nirvana covers with friends. I remember doing horrible versions of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and ‘Come As You Are’ and ‘Heart Shaped Box’ in a garage in Johnsonville when I was 13. Nirvana was one of Chris’s obsessions growing up. He actually kinda sounds a little like Kurt Cobain when he’s lost his voice [laughs]. Nirvana are pretty sweet.

AB: Any songs about being that young on the new album?

MT: Not really. There’s one song that’s not gonna make it onto the album. It’s from the perspective of an old guy telling a bunch of kids how to get girls. The band plays the naive kids and I play the old guy. As the song goes on you realise that the old guy is pretty awful and doesn’t have good advice on talking to women etc. It nicely summarises my experiences of getting advice growing up from adults that I thought at the time were cool, but they then revealed themselves to be idiots or arseholes. I decided not to have a song on the album that has lyrics like “trick her real good into thinking you’re the man,” and, “are you sure that all the women are shallow and thick?” because we have plenty of other songs. Maybe we’ll put it out as a b-side at some point.

AB: Being in a band isn’t all good times. What did you think of Shihad documentary Beautiful Machine?

MT: It’s weird to see the personalities in a band like Shihad. Those guys are so different to any musicians I know. I don’t relate to their outlook really, maybe it’s partly because they grew up without the internet? Me and my friends are all pretty aware of what other bands are up to and about the history of music. We have access to every song ever written, and we can read endless info about the music while we listen. This makes for a more cynical outlook, I reckon. In the documentary, Shihad come off as lacking insight into their own careers, they don’t come off as very analytical. I couldn’t imagine seeing things the way they do. Maybe it’s just a temperament thing? I love music documentaries though, I recently watched one about the Flaming Lips called Fearless Freaks. Every musician loves a story that involves a band becoming amazing in their forties.

AB: Connections between the Eversons and Wellington Rockquest champs The Henderson Experience?

MT: That was my high school band. We had a good time and toured the South Island. That’s how I know Chris from the Eversons so well, he’s from Christchurch.

AB: What’s one thing Rockquest mentors Autozamm taught you?

MT: That’s right, at high school I was assigned Autozamm as my mentor band. I went round to one of the guy’s houses and that’s where I met Blink who runs all the A Low Hum stuff. Blink has been hugely supportive with my music, particularly with my last band Little Pictures.

AB: Blink is also running new Tory Street venue Puppies, of course. Tell me about a memorable Eversons gig?

MT: One really cool show was our first ever time playing in Wellington. We played at a friend’s house in Aro Valley and someone filmed it, lots of people having a good time and we played surprisingly well.

AB: How about the other side, as an audience member?

MT: I was blown away by the Clean at San Francisco Bathhouse when Flying Nun did that Nunvember series of tours. I think the best show I’ve been to in Wellington was Lawrence Arabia at the Opera House, though. Again great songs played really well, but with the added bonus of being in a beautiful theatre. The audience is on their best behaviour and it’s seated so it’s easier to get into ballads and a longer set.

AB: Luke Buda told me that’s his favourite venue. Who are some other New Zealand bands you really like at the moment?

MT: There are heaps. Some stuff I’ve been listening to recently is Homebrew, the Phoenix Foundation, the Salad Boys. I’m lucky to be on Lil Chief Records so I’m surrounded by sweet music all the time. One Lil Chief album I’ve been listening to a lot is Edmund Cake’s album Downtown Puff. I love his strange style. There’s my girlfriend Lisa Crawley’s new album.

AB: Anna Coddington, who did some backing vocals, said she was impressed with how Lisa is sounding.

MT: I’ve been tagging along to recording sessions out at Revolver studio in Waiuku, Djeisan from Cool Rainbows is producing it. Lisa’s new stuff is a really awesome evolution from her 2011 album, she’s gone heavier on the 60s meets modern pop angle.

The Eversons music video for ‘Creepy’ is due out any day now. Rath Vatcharakiet photographed the Eversons during their Auckland gig at Cassette on May 17. The Eversons play Piha on July 7.

© Catherine Bisley 2013. All Rights Reserved.

© Rath Vatcharakiet 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at

2013-06-15 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Music Photo Essays

The Photographer

A succinct interview with photographer Ans Westra, whose new book Nga Tau ki Muri: Our Future looks at New Zealand’s environment through 20 years of images.

David Alsop, the 77-year-old’s business partner and gallerist, explains to Lumière why Washday at the Pa’s photographer is an icon. “She’s an Arts Foundation Icon Artist responsible for the most comprehensive documentation of Maori culture over 55 years of significant political and social change.” Why is Ans work special? “Her ability to reveal things about ourselves that we hadn’t noticed and in some cases preferred not to see.” Westra answered Lumière’s questions with Dutch concision.

*   *   *

ALEXANDER BISLEY: What’s been the best/worst change in Maori culture?

ANS WESTRA: Best—Maori Renaisance and accepted use of Te Reo. Worst—Boredom and short attention span, which shows amongst the young people.

AB: How was it visiting Ruatoria half a century on?

AW: We noticed many changes. The town now seems to be populated mainly by women, children, and old people. The men are working elsewhere to support their families and might only be able to return sporadically.

AB: Photos of the Te Runa whanau tamariki in their dilapidated Ruatoria house were pulped after a scandal. How was it visiting members of the Te Runa whanau now?

AW: Going back they recognised me immediately and were very happy to make me welcome. They were proud to have been featured and were asking me what the controversy had been all about.

AB: Is there a subject/image from Washday at the Pa you feel particular enduring affection towards?

AW: Several, the swinging in the basket and the doll made from washing, for instance.

AB: Tell me about a landscape in Nga Tau ki Muri: Our Future you have a lot of aroha for?

AW: Perhaps the dancing pony on the tip site with a Poison laid sign. Not so much a landscape, but an image with a lot of things to think about.

AB: The Tuwhare poems in your book are powerful. How has he influenced you as a photographer?

AW: Even just by being Maori.

AB: You note Geoff Park’s essential influence on this book. Could you elaborate?

AW: He taught me about New Zealand and it’s devastating development.

AB: I like the kaupapa David Lange gave you in ’87, “My country can become the pioneer of a new style of nation where people are honoured for their creativity and tolerance... where there is contentment among people and empathy with the sea and landscape.” Where is today’s David Lange? (Don’t tell me Russel Norman.)

AW: If anyone, Shane Jones, but have you got an answer here?

AB: “What gives us the right to alter the landscape, cut down our hills and exploit our waterways?” you poignantly ask. Your opening photo of a ruined hill is striking. I think the world is probably doomed environmentally. You?

AW: We are at the very point of NO RETURN. Of course it is not possible to undo the damage humans have caused quickly, but we now need to at least start thinking.

AB: Other favourite photos of mine from the book include the striking “private property” pair. This brings to mind the great Woody Guthrie song ‘This Land’? Verse Four: “Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me. A sign was painted said: private property.” This song resonates for you?

AW: I can see why it might appeal!

AB: How do you feel about photography’s impact in an era where we are awash in trivial iPhone and Instagram shots?

AW: People are very literate pictorially and contrary to popular belief not everyone is greedy and stupid. Nothing is trivial insofar as whanau is concerned, privacy has become more of an issue these days.

AB: What could the Netherlands learn from New Zealand? I guess our landscape was one of the things that kept you here in New Zealand.

AW: No, the freedom in being away from restrictions imposed by family and the overcrowding now in Holland. But New Zealand should learn from the Netherlands how to create a stable economy and how to live with nature harmoniously.

AB: Any comment on foreign buying of our land?

AW: No foreigner can own land in China and what do we do?

AB: What do Maori people tell you about the buying of Papatuanuku?

AW: When you talk to Maori about these issues you find that despite the settlements concluded recently land going into foreign hands is another thing altogether. The selling means that local people will never have the resources to buy the land back.

Ans Westra provided evocative Fat Freddy’s Drop photos for Alexander Bisley’s retrospective. All images copyright Ans Westra, courtesy of {Suite} Gallery. Fat Freddy’s Drop third album ‘Blackbird’ is due out on June 21.

Ans Westra
Nga Tau ki Muri: Our Future
Suite Publishing Limited, May 2013

2013-06-19 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Books Visual Arts Photography

City Life: The Human Scale

Danish filmmaker and social anthropologist Andreas Dalsgaard discusses cities and their inhabitants, with special concern for Christchurch, ahead of the New Zealand International Film Festival.

The Human Scale is a salient, visually articulate look at successful cities (Copenhagen, New York), failed cities (Chongqing, Dakar), and the visionary Danish architect Jan Gehl’s ideas. Via Skype from the Sydney Film Festival, pleasant young director Andreas Dalsgaard talks to Alexander Bisley about romantic cities, memory, Werner Herzog, and whether Christchurch will be like Los Angeles or Copenhagen.

*   *   *

ALEXANDER BISLEY: “I am interested in people,” you say. “How we work, sleep, make love, fight or talk.” What is the most romantic city in the world?

ANDREAS DALSGAARD: I just lived for two months in Buenos Aires with my wife, and that felt romantic. We moved the family and everything there for two months. New York’s doing pretty well, too. Of course Venice, but that would be a cliché.

AB: What makes Buenos Aires so romantic?

AD: Buenos Aires has a really wonderful mix of small streets where it’s nice to walk. It was mainly built around 1910–1920, so it has this art-deco architecture, really wonderful craftsmanship. Great rooms, great buildings. You walk around the city with this wonderful architecture that’s really inviting. You feel it, you want to touch it. And it’s full of wonderful restaurants.

It’s a place where you really feel like walking, and where every corner, building, ironwork is interesting. You want to check out the details, go inside these rooms and spend some time there.

AB: Who’s a formative influence as a documentary filmmaker who still influences you?

AD: I really admire a director like Werner Herzog, because I think he really manages to connect storytelling and ideas. And make philosophical films that share ideas and thoughts about the world in a very artistic way.

AB: What about his idea: ecstatic truth versus the accountants’ truth?

AD: I have mixed feelings about it. I had a discussion with Errol Morris about this recently. He has a different perspective, where he says there are truths, and he criticises Herzog’s concept of ecstatic truths. Let me rephrase the issue. Herzog is a big fan of Wagner; he uses Wagner in his films. Wagner has this idea that art should replace the church, it was related to Nietzsche’s ‘God is Dead’, and instead of God we should have art. And of course the new god should be the artist, and the real person Wagner was thinking about was himself, that he should be the new God. And I think the celebration of the artist genius is something I don’t like very much. And I think that’s a problem in Herzog’s work, that he constantly celebrates his own genius, I’m not fond of that. But I am fond of many of his films.

AB: I have heard good things about The Act of Killing, which Herzog was a producer on.

AD: The Act of Killing my company co-produced. It’s also screening in Australasia, it’s a film you have to look out for.

AB: Tell me about a favourite Herzog?

AD: I just recently did a master class together with his editor, Joe Bini, who edited, among others, Grizzly Man. Grizzly Man is a wonderful, human, touching story that resonates on so many levels. Les Blank’s documentary behind the making of Fitzcarraldo, Burden of Dreams, is an all-time classic. It’s a fantastic film about a crazy project Herzog has where he wants to make a film about a man who wants to take a steamboat across a mountain in the Amazon, and he decides that he should do it for real in order to make a film about it. So he actually drags a steamboat across a mountain in the Amazon in order to make this film [laughing], where most other directors probably would have just used special effects. The documentary tracks all the problems about making that film, and it’s wonderful.

AB: It’s quite a yarn. What’s your creative philosophy?

AD: My creative philosophy is that I come from anthropology, and anthropologists are very humble in the way they go in to the place they study. They go in without predefined ideas, into areas, and they spend time together with people there. And thereby understanding the story, or the narrative, or the way people live and perceive the world. I like to approach filmmaking that way. I don’t come with a predefined aesthetic, or predefined way that I have, but I subject myself to the story, or point, or case, and try to develop a story or style from that. I apply this anthropological curiosity, and from that the creative work grows.

AB: One of the interviewees who impressed me in your film was Janet Sadik-Khan, New York City Transportation Commissioner since 2007. (She is responsibile for a $2 billion annual budget, 6,300 miles of roads, nearly 800 bridges, 1.3 million street signs.) Could you comment on her, and why New York’s great?

AD: Often when we look at pictures from New York, we look at the skyline of Manhattan. The funny thing is, what are actually the places when you visit New York that you want to spend time in? Well, it’s not the area around Wall Street, it’s not the area around the Empire State Building, those are really dull, boring areas. Where you want to spend time is in Soho, or Greenwich Village, or Little Italy, or Williamsburg. And these are all low-rise areas, where you walk between the places. I think the real greatness of New York are all of these neighbourhoods, that’s what I love about New York.

AB: It’s cool they close down Park Avenue four Saturdays in a row during summer. I really enjoyed walking the Avenue in August, intimate spaces like the High Line. I love the people; New York’s so cosmopolitan, vibrant, energetic, and friendly.

Andreas: Very true.

AB: I became a fan of Jan Gehl when I did some comms work for Wellington City’s talented urban designer Gerald Blunt. We all agree “the city is for the people.” New York’s variety and energy of people is really exciting.

AD: New York has attracted a variety of people because of so many reasons, it being the capital for many creative things, the capital economically, and so on. When a city doesn’t have that variety of people ethnically, culturally, it starts getting a little bit dull. You want that kind of frenetic energy and diversity that a city like New York has.

AB: Your segment on Christchurch with Gehl’s British David Sim resonated. The idea of memory, “this is where I first met my girlfriend.” The idea of cities as overlapping human memories, stories, and heart.

AD: Cities are full of our memories of what we experienced in a certain place, where I had my first coffee with my girlfriend, when I was walking in that park I took part in that demonstration, we had a wonderful party there, or we had a great concert. Those are emotions, those are memories, and that’s really what a city is. When we talk about New York, we talk about it with great emotion. If you look at China, by contrast, they have managed to eradicate traditional neighbourhoods in order to build these new areas that don’t have that history, don’t have that memory. In Christchurch they decided to tear down the church [Cathedral], it was a big discussion because it was like tearing down people’s memories.

AB: What’s an enduring memory you have of Copenhagen? Why is it an exciting city to live in?

AD: Oh my god, I have memories from pretty much every corner of that city. I was in a relationship for a few years, and we had a very heavy breakup, so I met with three of my friends. It was night time and we had some beers and we broke into Copenhagen’s botanical garden. We climbed over the fence, and we sat there in the botanical garden and had beers and smoked cigarettes. It was a very emotional moment in my life, whenever I walk past that park, whenever I go through this park; it always reminds me of that experience, of those emotions.

AB: Your least favourite city?

AD: I think my least favourite city, but also a city that I’m quite fascinated with, is Los Angeles. Because Los Angeles has a city structure that’s horrible; you spend hours in traffic, it has no sense of centre. And at the same time, it’s a city that has a lot of creativity. I remember the first time I came to Los Angeles I had no idea where to start; I didn’t know how to grasp the city. It wasn’t until I had a few friends there that I started getting into the city. In that sense Los Angeles is a very excluding city, the city itself doesn’t do it for you. So I’m fascinated about Los Angeles for the people there, but I think it’s a horrible city.

AB: It’s a fascinating dynamic. Much of Los Angeles looks unattractive, but then there are all these great people, exciting projects, and gems like the Getty, with its peaceful central garden.

AD: Exactly.

AB: The Human Scale documents that 106,000 ideas were submitted for the Christchurch rebuild. What would be one idea you’d leave for Christchurch?

AD: I think the really interesting story about Christchurch is not the specific ideas that came up, but the fact the citizens became engaged in what kind of city they wanted. Suddenly they had this shared story about what they wanted for their city. Everywhere it’s always a struggle between different interests, economic interests, political interests, and so forth. In Christchurch they managed to create this unified public voice about that they wanted: a low-rise city. There were huge economic interests pushing for that idea not to prevail.  But the government wasn’t able to overrule it simply because they would get in so much trouble with the public. So I think the big story of Christchurch is how can you create this public shared story?

AB: Tell me about a strong memory from your visit to Christchurch?

AD: I’ve been one of the few people who were actually able to go in to the red zone and spend time there. Most citizens of Christchurch have been blocked out of the city centre, the red zone, for security reasons. They haven’t been inside their own city centre ever since the earthquake. I was able to move around this dead city, with everything just left the way it was the day of the earthquake. Coffee cups were still standing on the tables, some of them with coffee in them still. Walking around this landscape that was without people, it really made a very strong impression on me, that cities are really about people. Because once the people are not there, it’s just empty; it’s like an empty stage set. There was a really weird, really eerie feeling to walk around this death city. It was an incredible experience.

AB: Do you think Christchurch is going to be Los Angeles or Copenhagen?

AD: I think that’s still to be defined, right now it’s definitely Los Angeles because everybody moved out of the city centre, and the big question for Christchurch is, is it going to be able, possible, to get them back? It is Los Angeles right now. The question is, can it become Copenhagen?

Alexander Bisley’s interview with Andreas Dalsgaard was made possible by the Sydney Film Festival. Thanks to the Kimaya McIntosh for transcription assistance on this article.

The Human Scale’ screens at the New Zealand International Film Festival 2013, opening in Auckland on July 18, Wellington on July 26, Christchurch on August 1, Dunedin on August 8, and tours the remainder of the country thereafter. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit

The Lumière Reader reports from the New Zealand International Film Festival every winter. For additional commentary and opinion, follow us on Twitter.

2013-06-27 · Permalink · FILM Features Interviews Film Festivals NZIFF 2013

Raglan Girl

“If it wasn’t for Home and Away, I would’ve been fucked in the last year or so.”

Charismatic performer Anna Coddington (‘Underneath the Stars’) talks with Alexander Bisley about earning a living, Don McGlashan, Dads, and why you should see her live in New Zealand’s oldest cinema. Photography by James Black.

*   *   *

ALEXANDER BISLEY: These days musos have to get a song, a TV show, a film, or an ad to earn pingas?

ANNA CODDINGTON: I’m the most played artist on Home and Away, [laughs] that’s my claim to fame. I’ve never watched an episode of the show in my life, but that’s been really good. It’s a good income stream. In fact if it wasn’t for that, I would’ve been fucked in the last year or so [laughs].

AB: As you say, you sell a thousand albums and you’re doing well?

AC: Yeah, and you’re not making your money back. You sell a thousand albums and you’ve paid for a tenth of what you spent on that album. At the same time you can’t write for that purpose. I mean, things like this kids’ TV show I’m writing, commissioned specifically for something, that’s different. But when you're working on your own music you can’t have that in the back of your mind, ‘Is Home and Away going to play this song?’ Music in an ad, that’s the golden egg for lots of musicians. But I wouldn’t know, I've never had one. Making a living out of music, you’ve gotta let the money trickle in little bits from lots of different places. No one thing is enough.

AB: You were 30 last year?

AC: Yeah, let’s go with that [laughs]. You know, it’s not polite to ask a lady about her age? Let’s keep the mystery, I’ll be as old as you think I am [laughing], whatever you think I’ll get away with.

AB: What’s your favourite live Don McGlashan song?

AC: We did this beautiful song of his together for the Wanaka show called ‘While You Sleep’. Julia Deans and me sung the amazing harmonies. He’s got a couple of songs about his daughter, which I really love. I really love to hear a man sing about his daughter. I’ve got a thing about dads, I reckon they’re awesome, it’s such a special relationship.

AB: Probably my favourite Anika Moa song is that one about her Dad, ‘My Old Man’. It’s really lovely.

AC: Her Dad was a really cool guy, real character, real crazy dude. When Anika and I lived together, I remember coming home one day and there was a pot of corn on the stove, and I was like, ‘Oh where did this pot of corn come from?’ Her Dad had come round and no one was there and he’d just cooked a pot of corn and bailed. Men are supposed to be staunch and this and that, especially in New Zealand. I think a lot of New Zealand men have this idea that they need to be a certain way. But you see a dad with their kid and it’s really lovely, that their heart melts the same as a mother.

AB: So might you write a song about your dad sometime? I guess you pay tribute by playing at Raglan City’s Yot Club, which he owns, on tour?

AC: I’d love to write a song about my dad. I love him, he’s amazing. My dad has always been self-employed and that’s really something I get from him. I really hate the idea of working for someone else, always hated people telling me what to do, and my dad’s the same. He’s never been able to stomach working for someone else. So I get that from him, and he’s also likes to work with his hands, he likes to make stuff and so do I.
“With any artist you get more of a sense of them as a person, physically and also personally. And there's no trickery with live performance. Anyone can make something sound good in a studio these days. I think a good live performance is what will really separate the wheat from the chaff.”

AB: So you still have some of those possessions?

AC: I’ve got stuff my dad’s made for me. He made me a cover for my amp. He made me a bed.

AB: You are a second dan black belt. Do you still do karate for balance?

AC: Twice a week. Mondays and Thursdays. The kids are real cute. I’m mostly teaching now, that’s why I’ve been running a lot. Because when I teach I don’t get to train as much. Singing’s really physical. You have to be fit for it, you got to keep your chops up.

AB: I enjoyed your yarn about running off a rip-off Parisian meal. The first time I saw you live, at WOMAD 2010 with Anika Moa, she joked on stage about how none of the musicians were getting paid, then looked at you and said “in money.” You replied, “Have to ask him about that [referring to boyfriend on stage].” What does the audience get seeing you live, that they don’t get at home?

AC: My sense of humour [laughs]. I think with any artist you get more of a sense of them as a person, physically and also personally. And there’s no trickery with live performance. Anyone can make something sound good in a studio these days. I think a good live performance is what will really separate the wheat from the chaff. If you can’t deliver, people will know. I put a lot into my live shows. I enjoy it and I really try and give it everything every time, regardless of whether it’s three songs down the road at Kingsland’s Portland Tavern, or a solo show in Devonport at the Vic Theatre, New Zealand’s oldest cinema.

AB: Despite all the musical and personal changes, you’re still going to play songs like ‘Never Change’ and ‘Little Islands’ at gigs, right?

AC: Of course. I still love those songs. I’m working on finding new ways to play them live.

AB: The music industry’s not easy to live off, but there’s lots of good music and good live gigs, that’s what it’s all about.

AC: Totally. And I think if you’re willing to work hard you can make it work. There’s lots of ways to make little bits of money. You’ve just got to try and enjoy it, otherwise go and not enjoy something else and get paid. That’s what it comes down to.

© James Black 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at blackphotographic.

More about Anna Coddington’s Vic Theatre gig here. This is the final part of a three part interview. Thanks to Alice May Connolly and Kimaya McIntosh for some transcription assistance.

When in Auckland, The Lumière Reader’s stays at the five-star Pullman Auckland.

2013-06-28 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Music Photo Essays

La Double Vie De Viggo

An interview with Ana Piterbarg, director of Everybody Has a Plan.

Ana Piterbarg is one of the most impressive new female filmmakers of the last two years. Everybody Has a Plan features exceptionally strong, Denisian atmospheres and textures, and she draws a terrific Spanish performance from lead Viggo Mortensen. Connecting exclusively (in New Zealand) with The Lumière Reader from her Buenos Aires home, the 42-year-old Argentinian talked in a charming Spanish lilt about Mortensen, duality, atmosphere, whether Buenos Aires is romantic, and suffering for your art.

*   *   *

ALEXANDER BISLEY: There’s a dynamic connection between your film Everybody Has a Plan and A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and The Road.

ANA PITERBARG: In those films, Viggo works with contradictions of character, all of the characters have two sides; a light side, and a dark side. In Everybody has a Plan, his twin brother characters Agustin and Pedro both have two sides. All of these movies have abnormal atmosphere, something strange in the earth, talk about stuff that goes differently, take a different way into the ordinary life. I don’t know how to say this [all as precisely as I mean when not speaking Spanish]. My English, Alex, it’s a horror.

AB: No; your English has a winning cadence. These films are all strong explorations of violence.

AP: I think the violence in this case, and in the other films too, is a way to talk about something different. I don’t think it’s violence for violence.

AB: You’re quoted as saying, “Everybody Has a Plan is a story about two contradictions, about the two sides that live within us all and about our needs… to find a way to merge them”, and “the story that I wrote, that has so much to do with my own story.”

AP: [laughs] I said that?

AB: [laughs] Maybe? It’s in press materials.

AP: My own story, I don’t know. Maybe the contradictions in my life? Sometimes I ask if this is the life that I want, and sometimes I have to change it. Maybe it’s because I started to study medicine, and sometimes you have to break a model, a plan. I think the story tells about how it’s difficult to change the plans.

AB: Buenos Aires paediatrician Agustin tires of life in the city, and assumes his mysterious beekeeper twin brother Pedro’s rural identity. Why did you give up medicine?

AP: When I studied I went to the emergency room; when I watched the blood I felt very bad. I started to see some movies like Dead Ringers, I felt the movies can make you feel something you can’t explain with words, a lot of sensations.

AB: Everybody Has a Plan’s charismatic Rosa says, “we all have some evil inside”? You agree?

AP: Yes, it’s true. Rosa is the only character in the movie who can say something about what she thinks, she has a plan and she can talk about that, she’s the only one.

AB: Is Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water an influence?

AP: Maybe, I like this movie. Roman Polanski’s dark and really elegant. The films [emphasises], not the person.

AB: I like the idea of internal travel in your film, travelling inside yourself.

AP: Yes, I think it is a trip, it’s the beginning, it’s an essence.

AB: Speaking of travel, I asked my last subject, The Human Scale’s director “what’s the most romantic city in the world?” and he said “Buenos Aires.”

AP: [laughs, palpably surprised] Why!? Why did he say that?

AB: He said: “Buenos Aires has a really nice mixture of small streets where it’s nice to walk. It was mainly built around 1910 to 1920 so it has this Art Deco architecture, really wonderful craftsmanship. Great rooms, great buildings, you walk around the city with this wonderful architecture that’s really inviting. You feel it, you want to touch it, and it’s full of wonderful restaurants.”

AP: Yes that’s true, all of that is true. But I don’t think it’s romantic because it’s a really heavy city. There’s a lot of violence, the people are always pressured about the time and the money. Maybe all of this is romantic too, I don’t know, maybe it’s an explosive combination? It’s like the tango, extreme. We are very passionate people, you can feel that in the street.

AB: Passionate is romantic.

AP: Yes, yes it is. For me, yes.

AB: The romance between Agustin and Rosa is really nice, especially among the bleakness. What do you think the most romantic city in the world is?

AP: Maybe Prague. It’s beautiful. I’ve been there 20 years ago in winter.

AB: The Secret in Their Eyes’ Soledad Villamil also has a strong presence as Agustin’s wife Claudia.

AP: Si! She has a very strong presence. When I talked to Soledad to do the movie I thought of her because she’s a strong woman. She is an icon for women and Claudia is a character who needed that. Someone told me they wanted to watch more of Soledad in my movie; she has so much presence that the people miss her.

AB: The scene where Pedro dies, that was outstanding.

AP: Yes it was hard to do. It was a pity. It was sad.

AB: As a critic I’ve seen so many films where people are killed, people dying in all manner of horrible ways, and that was still really unsettling for me.

AP: Thank you. I liked this scene a lot. Viggo and me always talked about this scene as the most difficult to do for the movie. For if this scene doesn’t work, nothing in the movie works. So we were a little nervous to do it, but yes Viggo was great, and it’s only Viggo, so—

AB: He was well directed.

AP: We made a good team.

AB: He’s worked repeatedly for directors, Peter Jackson, David Cronenberg (who’s an influence on the film). You’ll work with him again?

AP: I hope so. I know that depends upon projects and life. He’s very busy but yes I hope like another dream, it was a dream and I don’t know when we’ll have another dream to come true.

AB: There’s the story of how Viggo Mortenson got involved. He often gets handed scripts by strangers, but this time at a Buenos Aires swimming pool it worked. “Generally speaking, they’re earnest efforts, they’re never gonna make a good movie. I read ‘em, eventually,” he has said. Now you’re a successful filmmaker, do you have people handing you scripts?

AP: Yes, some. I received a script to do in Prague. I like it but it’s just an idea. Right now I am working on another project about a young woman who makes a trip in the north of Argentina. The north of Argentina is a very strange place because it’s very different from Buenos Aries. It’s like Bolivia or Peru, it’s Altiplano. The people are really different from the people of Buenos Aries because there are no Europeans there.

AB: Can you describe your creative instinct?

AP: I like to work at first with the image. An image comes to me, only an image. I think when you come to imagine something like this, it is because there is something to discover there and you have to follow that. I like the process to discover.

AB: Could you tell me about one of the images from Everybody Has a Plan that you started with?

AP: Rosa alone on the island. I didn’t know what happened, why she’s there alone. The scene where Adrián returns, I thought with this image.

AB: Can you tell me about your earliest film memory?

AP: As a child I went to the popular cinema of my neighbour. You went there to see two movies, with a break between. Fellini, the Italian movies, were very important for me.

AB: Have you seen any films from New Zealand?

AP: When I was a child I watched a movie from there. It was really strong to me because it was a terror movie, an Australian terror movie about a group of Cavaliers. I remember the sunset—no, the late afternoon, when the sun goes out like a landscape, a really red landscape with gorse and really bloody fields.

AB: Atmosphere—particularly Le Tigre Delta—is as important as character for you in Everybody Has a Plan?

AP: Yes, the place was really important for the story. As a child I went there some times, when I was writing I went there again.

AB: It’s an intense, bleak film and you were on Le Tigre shooting in Winter.

AP: It was hard and really cold but it was amazing. The scenes with the bees were difficult, too.

AB: It’s good suffering for your art?

AP: For me it’s impossible not to suffer. But I don’t think it’s needed to be an artist. I think the artist, a lot of times, has to feel and think a lot, to live a lot. To be open, to live or think or feel something different, and maybe this is like your need to take your imagination to find something, to talk. But I don’t think it’s necessary to suffer.

AB: Good art is hard, but worth it?

AP: Yes, we have to think more to be amazing, and to feel hard and to do hard stuff, but not suffer too much.

‘Everybody Has a Plan’, released by Rialto Distribution, is currently screening throughout Australasia. Thanks to Melinda Jackson for transcription assistance on this article.

MAIN IMAGE: Ana Piterbarg (right) with cast and crew on the set of Everybody Has a Plan.

2013-07-04 · Permalink · FILM Features Interviews In Cinemas

The Venice Connection

An interview with Venice International Film Festival consultant Paolo Bertolin.

The articulate, simpatico Venetian discusses Peter Jackson, Venice, and Japanese versus Korean cinema with Alexander Bisley. The well-dressed 37-year-old became increasingly passionate and animated during the Wellington interview, especially when discussing the Samoan/New Zealand film The Orator, awarded Special Mention at the Venice International Film Festival 2011. Photography by Daniel Rose.

*   *   *

ALEXANDER BISLEY: I appreciated your BFI Sight and Sound poll introduction. “Rather than trying to choose the most important or best films in the history of cinema as a whole—a demanding challenge I don’t feel at ease facing—I preferred to concentrate on the films that molded, influenced and reshaped my perception of and passion for cinema since the time I started developing a specific interest for Asian films, in the second half of the 1980s.” I’m not knowledgeable about Asian Cinema as you are, but I am a fan. On the great Shohei Imamura, you wrote about Black Rain: “A deeply humanistic and rigorous remembrance of the harrowing fate of those who survived the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, Black Rain stands as one of the greatest condemnations of the horrors of war.” Did you ever meet Imamura?

PAOLO BERTOLIN: No, which is a great regret. I started going to Cannes in 2003, his last time there was 2001 with Warm Water Under a Red Bridge. He was part of the September 2011 project—the closing segment— that was shown in Venice, but Imamura didn’t travel to that festival.

AB: The soldier is traumatised by the horror of war; he believes he is a snake.

PB: It’s my favourite out of those films in the September 11—

AB: Easily.

PB: I do remember that many people were puzzled by the film, “what the hell does it have to do with the September 11?” Come on, it’s trying to tell you that it’s not only about September 11. That it’s about war in general. That it’s about the history of humanity.

AB: It’s a Japanese sensibility.

PB: It’s a very abstract one, which is totally right. Some others try to be abstract but in the wrong way, like Inarritu’s segment, [which] was horrible. I think Imamura managed to be the most universal and the most humane in his segment. I’m sorry that I never had the chance to meet Imamura, but it’s also somehow a good thing, because for those great filmmakers you have this worship attitude, it’s good that they stay gods and you don’t see the human presence.

AB: That’s right. Pico Iyer wrote a book about Graham Greene recently. He said he preferred that he never met Graham Greene because he’d already given him so much through his books, and sure there would be some good things about meeting him, but there would also be a down-side.

PB: Exactly.

AB: There are probably some exceptions. Tell me about a director you’ve especially enjoyed meeting?

PB: I’ve met many directors, because of my work with Venice, also because of other festival jobs like running introductions and Q&As. As you said about Graham Greene, there are always good sides and bad sides, because you realise that directors are human beings too, and not some kind of totem that you have to worship because of what comes from them.

One especially inspiring meeting is Lav Diaz, who’s famous for his very long films. The very first time I met Lav, I had a very great admiration for his work, and also for his commitment towards the practice of filmmaking and also politics; politics of his country, politics of the art of cinema, politics of global issues. I have a profound admiration for him as an artist, as someone who creates film, especially in terms of being someone who sacrificed his life for that. He went a very long way to make the films he wants, and to maintain integrity in his work and his approach to politics and life and cinema.

AB: My colleague Brannvan Gnanalingam, loves Lav Diaz. Brannavan saw Norte, the new Diaz film, at Cannes and rated it. In the great Susan Sontag’s book Illness as Metaphor, she writes about how people sometimes mean-spiritedly argue that people deserve diseases they suffer from. In Black Rain, Imamura was challenging this idea. What do you think of that interpretation?

PB: It’s an interpretation. I can agree to a certain extent. This is a general remark I can make about film criticism: sometimes I am skeptical, and I’m very skeptical when that becomes a dogma. There are some film theorists, critics who talk about having a ‘vision’ about cinema. I totally disagree with that because I’m a very stark supporter of the idea that cinema is about being poly-taste. If you really want to love cinema you have to love different things, different identities, different approaches to cinema, especially as someone who works as a film programmer in film festivals, you have to be a poly-taste. You have to love more than one god; you have to love more than one religion. So even this remark, which might be quite apt here, I agree with that up to a certain point.

AB: These lists, they’re hard to do, aren’t they? How do you reduce the glory of Asian cinema—or any cinema—down to ten films? For example, my colleague Tim Wong, he chose A City of Sadness over A Brighter Summer Day for his BFI list. Sometimes, one’s humour affects things. On different days I see it slightly differently.

PB: Or a different time in your life. We all experience growing up and loving certain films and then going back to those films a few years later, and realising they meant a lot to us because we saw them at that specific time in our lives.

AB: Did you grow up in the Veneto?

PB: Yeah I’m from the Veneto region. My hometown is one-hour away from Venice.

AB: How much time do you spend on the road?

PB: Most of my time. I’m one of those nomadic people who travel from festival to festival.

AB: You’ve had an affinity for being a nomad for a while?

PB: I’ve been working for Venice for six years now. I’ve been in the festivals as a travelling correspondent, and working as film critic and journalist for ten years.

AB: That’s exciting territory you cover: Korea, Southeast Asia, New Zealand, Australia, the Islands, and Turkey. Going back to Korea, what do you think of the director Park Chan-wook?

PB: I like very much some of his films, but I’m not fond of everything because I think as many directors from Korea in recent years, whenever they gain the status of auteurs, they gain also too much freedom, and probably that went to their heads. The problem is also that in Korea there aren’t many strong producers to tell these auteurs “cut”. I surely liked Stoker. I think Stoker is his best film since Oldboy.

AB: Oldboy is great; it was so dazzlingly cinematic, inventive, and energetic watching it for the first time.

PB: I don’t think anything done afterwards was really satisfying. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance was the worst film in the trilogy for me. I’m a Cyborg, But That's OK was okay. I didn’t hate it as many people did. Thirst was really too self-indulgent.

AB: I’m looking forward to interviewing Park in Auckland in August at the Big Screen Symposium. I saw video of the affable-looking director being interviewed by the head of the International Film Festival Rotterdam, and he said: “In Asia, the director is King. In America the director is Prime Minister.”

PB: Which is not necessarily always a good thing. Once again, I’m reluctant to accept entirely this kind of statement because Asia, what is Asia? What country are you talking about?

AB: South Korea is very different to North Korea.

PB: Well definitely the director is not the king in North Korea [laughs]. It’s an interesting statement to a certain extent.

AB: It’s interesting in relation to him.

PB: Yeah, for Park Chan-wook, absolutely. But also for other established Korean filmmakers, and that also reflects in the fact that Korean films, especially the commercial Korean films where there is also an established director, to be too long. It’s a problem.

AB: Kim Ki-duk is a director who polarises critics. I like him, want to see Pietà, which won the Golden Lion in 2012.

PB: In his case he’s totally outside the industry there. He was—and still is—a total outsider. His freedom on his projects is special to him. Often he produces his own films, and they’re always done on low budgets, so he’s a king in his own small kingdom.

AB: Nicely phrased. It seemed like a strong programme you had in Venice last year, with films like Me Too? Another director I really like, from what I’ve seen of his work, is May’s dearly departed Alexei Balabanov. What did you think of Me Too?

PB: I thought it was great, really special and I hope you will have the chance to see it. It’s a fabulous testament to his crazy, crazy work. I have to say that throughout the years I had mixed feelings about Balabanov, because he also made War, a terrible war propaganda film, the equivalent of a Rambo movie in Russia.[1]

AB: Disappointingly, our festival isn’t screening Me Too at this stage. I’m hoping it might be a late inclusion.

PB: You should write to them recommending they include it, and also tell them that I recommend they include it. It’s really crazy, I also think that it’s another film to polarize opinions. Maybe Balabanov was aware of the fact that he was very ill, and he was going to perish at some point, he made a film that was really about that, about dying. He is in the film at the very end, and he plays himself. It’s a very entertaining, yet powerful film. The plot is [about] this character trying to reach this safe place to transit to the hereafter. It’s very wacky, but thought provoking.

AB: Cargo 200, about Afghanistan, was impressive. Masha Gessen told me recently: “Cargo 200 is brilliant, incredibly dark. It’s based on a Faulkner story, which I think a lot go people don’t realise. So I think he’s really brilliantly transferred that to Russian soil—the Russian psyche. But my favourite moment in the film, is when there’s already a decaying body in the compartment, and the mother of the police officer is letting someone in and there’s all these flies inside (because there’s this decaying body) and she says, “we have flies.” Sometimes when there’s just a single line in a book, or moment in a film, that is so precise—it’s such a precise snapshot of the way pathology is normalised.”

PB: It was in Venice, too. He’s made quite a few very interesting films. It’s just War that I was really wondering, “What the hell is this? Why do you have to make such a film?”

AB: What makes Venice a unique, special film festival?

PB: I think the answers should come from the people who actually come to the festival and spot differences compared to Cannes or Berlin.

If you asked me this question two years ago, I would have probably very bluntly answered that what made us different from Berlin and Cannes, was that we didn’t have a market. Whereas in Cannes and Berlin, you can close the deals right away because everyone is there, in Venice you couldn’t do that. That meant that those who worked within the programming team had a much wider space for films that were not necessarily marketable, and were not necessarily the kind of film that sales companies represent or distributors jump on.

Lav Diaz has been to Venice three times during the first four years I worked for the festival. He just missed one, and that one he was in the jury; Venice was a festival that was less dependent from the politics and logics of market. Now that we have started a light market last year, I’m wondering if I’ll be seeing this year how much that affects the programming.

AB: Brannavan wrote last year: “The Venice International Film Festival was supposedly stripped back this year, but as a neophyte accustomed to the homespun charms of the of the New Zealand International Film Festival, it was hard not to be wowed by the glamour of one of cinema’s most prestigious film festivals... and of course in Venice one of the most beguiling and beautiful cities on the planet.” He was dazzled by the grand, seductive setting.

PB: If you’re going there for the first time and taking some time off to visit the city as well, you’re going to fall for it. I’m much more jaded [laughs]. I’ve grown up in the region, I’m less prone to be seduced. Although I have to say every time I take the steamboat and travel through the Canal Grande, the main canal in the city that leads you to the train station, to St Mark’s Square, I am reminded in a very powerful way of the beauty of the city.[2]

AB: I went to Venice for one night in 2001 and was seduced by that magical boat up and down the Grande Canal. It’s public transport so I paid a good flat rate and spent most of the evening on it.

PB: I think it’s the best way to experience the city because the best views are the ones from the water.

AB: How is Austerity affecting Venice?

PB: I think strangely enough with the change of the director, there were several start ups: the market, the Biennale College, which launched as a workshop on low-budget filmmaking and it provides budget to make three small budget (€150,000) films. So strangely enough last year we actually spent more money, I would say. That went against the general trend of cutting budgets. In Europe the source of funding for festivals mostly comes from public institutions. At several levels: the ministries, the regions, the provinces, the cities, in a time when everyone is cutting budgets, culture is one of the main targets to lower expenses. But I would say there has been a quite resolute attempt to find more money in the private sector. With a name like Venice’s, you can attract sponsors internationally. So we did that more last year and it worked out very well.

AB: Do you have a creative instinct or philosophy, a process for what you’re looking for when you program films?

PB: Well, first of all, I have to clarify that I don’t program films in Venice in the sense that the only [ultimate] programmer is the festival director, because the festival director is the only person who has the [ultimate] power to invite the film. With Venice there are several levels of selection, and many people have the power to reject. So negative power to block a certain film from getting into Venice, but then ultimately the only person who chooses which ones make it in, is the director.

AB: You can influence Alberto Barbera’s decisions though?

PB: Yes, you can. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the films get in. Sometimes you feel frustrated because you think, “Why did this other film get in, and the one I recommended didn’t?” Maybe for your own tastes, you find certain choices quite objectionable, or you don’t subscribe to the same kind of static judgment. It can be frustrating, but it can be very exciting and makes you very happy because you manage to bring into a big festival a film that you like, a younger filmmaker whose work you admire (the established ones don’t necessarily need this kind of push).

You mentioned Korea earlier. There hadn’t been a single Korean film in the main competition in Cannes until 2000. Thailand had never been featured in the main competition in Venice until 2006 when Apichatpong Weerasethakul was invited with Syndromes and a Century. A country like the Philippines had been missing in Venice competition for 25 years before Brillante Mendoza’s Lola was featured in competition in 2009.

AB: And then there’s The Orator!

PB: Before 2011, when both Australia and New Zealand were featured with feature films in competition in Orizzonte, respectively Hail and The Orator, both countries were absent from feature films at Venice for almost a decade. Now we are reestablishing a connection. Of course, New Zealand is a smaller industry, so it’s not always easy to get a feature film for New Zealand in a festival like ours, but short films have always been very strong with Venice. I’m quite hopeful maybe new talents coming up from the [Pacific] region will make it to Venice.

I'm especially proud that two years ago Australia and New Zealand were present in Venice with feature films. Going back to the original question, I think it’s especially important in what I personally do, not having a strategy or an operational scheme that I follow. But trying to rely on my own perception and taste and believing in the talent and vision that transpires from the films that I’m watching. Oftentimes you make mistakes; we are all human beings. It’s even easier to make mistakes when you’re talking about young filmmakers, maybe the first feature film you think, “Oh wow, this is great new talent,” and then you get disappointed from what he/she does next. It’s a fascinating process. I like the explorational aspect of the job because it’s so easy to make a festival choosing the big names, you just watch their films and okay yes of course we have to have this. It’s much more difficult and challenging to look for something that still hasn’t been entirely recognised, and to convince the people back home that it has to be recognised. I can assure you that that part is extremely difficult and at times frustrating. When it works, when a film like The Orator gets into Venice, it’s obviously a huge reward that stays with you.

AB: Congratulations on championing The Orator. It’s a genuinely great film, (probably) the best from New Zealand in the last decade.

PB: Venice has been a very friendly festival to great New Zealand films. Before The Orator, there had been at least a couple of great masterpieces in our main competition that actually could have been Golden Lions. Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table, and Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. Actually, Peter Jackson has been three times to Venice, which is the international festival (among the big three) that first recognised him. He was there with Forgotten Silver, Heavenly Creatures, and The Frighteners. We have literally the parable: starting from this kind of indie style, very periodic, mockumentary that shows his love for cinema, and his love for his land; then we go on with this masterpiece which Heavenly Creatures was, which was a very disruptive and disturbing film, which polarized opinion but that showed his incredible visual talent, and also directing talent in the sense of creating performances and launching a career like Kate Winslet’s. I think Heavenly Creatures was such a fabulous film. I remember back then it was really controversial. And then The Frighteners, which I know many people don’t like; it was his transition to Hollywood. This all happened in the span of a few years, in the mid ’90s, and Venice somehow charted that transition in Peter Jackson's career.

AB: I agree with you on Heavenly Creatures, Forgotten Silver. The Frighteners I was a bit disappointed with.

PB: I enjoyed the film back then. Maybe I was biased. I was coming in with the positive bias that it’s a new film from the director of Heavenly Creatures; it has Michael J. Fox in it, and some kind of fantasy—I bought it.

AB: Braindead is dementedly brilliant, sharply complementary to Heavenly Creatures, critical of ’50s New Zealand. I’d like to hear more about what made The Orator wonderful for you?

PB: Yes, it is a wonderful film. I don’t know what to say because I really loved the film. It’s great. It’s one of those films where from the very first few minutes you’re totally captured—it’s not only a matter of the film plunging you into a different world (and of course, you are fascinated by that). What I truly admired from the very beginning was the art of storytelling through images, through rhythm. What I found fascinating from the very beginning was the pacing. It’s a film that is extremely well edited and told throughout time and montage. It creates a time and a space through that. I haven’t been to Samoa [yet, at the time of interview], but my feeling is that the director was able to really connect with the ways, the time, and the life in the place that he was depicting.

So when I say the film is a plunge into a certain specific place and time, it’s that it manages to convey the atmosphere of the place—not just by showing you pictures so you feel immersed in it visually. Because of The Orator’s pace and sound design, it is extremely powerful. In terms of storytelling, I like the fact that this is a very simple story. We are talking about some very specific traditions, within the culture of the Samoan people, but at the same time it’s a tremendously universal story about dignity, respect, and love.

Ultimately The Orator is a film about gaining your confidence through the love of those who are beside you, and then to fight to show the love that you have for someone. I think despite the fact that it’s a slow film, it mirrors the lifestyle of this culture; it’s one that really captures audiences and moves them. I don’t know anybody who didn’t like the film eventually. The final confrontation, the final lines that the main character says about burying the one you love in your heart, it’s one of the most poetically beautiful, lyrical, and touching lines I’ve heard in recent cinema worldwide. I only wish that even more people had seen that film. It’s not only about showing the life in Samoa, bringing a new country to the map of world cinema; it’s really about humanity as well. It speaks to anybody, beyond borders of geography and culture. Going back to the contentious issue of exoticism, I think the film manages not to play that.

AB: I agree.

PB: The power of The Orator in that respect—let’s call it ‘ethnographic quality’—is that from the very beginning it takes for granted that we are there, that we are in Samoa, that we are amongst Samoan people, and there’s no need of explanation for the cultural practices that we see in the film. If the film was truly ‘exotic’, meaning that it would play for ‘exoticising itself’ and exoticising its characters, there would have been some degree of exploitation of this element in a sense that, “Oh look at this, look at this very different way of doing this or that, look at this ritual…” There’s never that kind of highlighting of cultural difference. Instead, they are presented all the time as normal. The scene when three or four big guys from the rugby team come to apologise to the little man—I think this is a very good example of how the director approached the issue of what is typically Samoan, and it’s totally understandable for local people, but needs to be decoded by foreigners.
“[The Orator] really captures audiences and moves them… The final confrontation, the final lines that the main character says about burying the one you love in your heart, it’s one of the most poetically beautiful, lyrical, and touching lines I’ve heard in recent cinema worldwide.”

AB: I spoke to a number of Samoan acquaintances of mine, they have little interest in arthouse cinema/film festivals. They all went to The Orator and loved it; thought it had their really specific Samoan sense of humour; didn’t highlight or exoticise it, or explain it, just showed it.

PB: That’s great.

AB: I’d recommend you visit Samoa.

PB: I’m actually going Friday! I’m staying four days. I’ve wanted to go since The Orator.

AB: Films like The Orator, films like Diaz’s, show that Jean-Luc Godard is wrong when he says, “the cinema is dead.” Venice last year had the new Manoel de Oliveira, too.

PB: I’m a big fan of Oliveira. He’s one of my favourite directors. He’s one of those directors who never stop surprising you. I don’t know how long we will still have him with us but he’s already given so much to cinema. I just wish that he had had more general recognition. At the same time, I have to be objective: his films are not for everyone. They are extremely talky, extremely literary. To most people they feel too theatrical. I wouldn’t agree on that.

AB: It must be exciting for you working for Venice, that the festival has that long association with him.

PB: Of course. Since 1990, Oliveira has been making one film a year, if not more. Because he’s such a hardcore arthouse director, his films have to be in festivals. That’s a part of the mission of festivals like Cannes and Venice, to create the event around a filmmaker like Oliveira, and give his films the right audience. Some Oliveira films are more obscure, more intellectually charged, than visually or narratively enveloping.

AB: What do you think about the Biennale as a whole?

PB: This year I left Italy for my travelling right at the time when there was the vernissage, so I haven’t been to see the art this year. What I can say is that very general assessment that the Biennale itself is the biggest cultural foundation in my home country and it’s the institution that oversees all the cultural events in Venice, including not only the festival but the art exhibition, the theatre festival, the architecture exhibition, the dance festival, so it’s a very important Italian institution.

AB: That’s something the Venice International Film festival has over other festivals—

PB: You think [that], because unfortunately there is not that much communication between the different sections of the Biennale.

AB: I’ve worked in the arts and cultural sector, I understand.

PB: Also because the festival and the other art exhibition are run in different ways. The director of the festival itself is appointed with a mandate of four years, whereas the artistic director of the Biennale of Arts is appointed on a one-off basis, they are so busy preparing the Biennale which is a huge endeavor. It would be nice if there was more of a osmotic process of direct flux both ways from visual arts and cinema, filmmakers that are commissioned to do visual installations in museums, galleries; visual artists entering the realm of cinema—

AB: Shame’s Steve McQueen, for instance.

PB: Venice has been featuring many of these artists long before Steve McQueen: Julian Schnabel; and, also a former winner of the Biennale of Arts, Shirin Neshat.

AB: I love Tokyo’s art galleries, like the Mori Art Museum. Which Japanese film festivals do you attend?

PB: Usually I go to the Tokyo International Film Festival, which is the main event in Japan. It’s quite unique in the fact that in the past six or seven years, it’s been featuring a green carpet, an environmentalist campaign where the festival is trying to use green energy. Mr. Yoda, the director of the festival (until this year), used to wear these very attention-grabbing green tuxedoes and green neckties. It’s undeniable that Busan has overshadowed Tokyo International Film Festival, because Busan is definitely the most important festival in Asia, and it’s happening just a few days before Tokyo. But still it’s a good festival. Last year especially there was a strong line-up.

AB: The Other Son, starring the terrific Emmanuelle Devos, won Best Film. I’m considering going this year for the first time because I still adore Japan and Japanese cinema.

PB: With all my interest and love for Korea, I will never deny that Japan has a far superior filmmaking culture, historically. Japan is one of the very biggest and most relevant filmmaking industries in the world. Historically, Japan is a treasure chest for people who are interested in cinema, because of the insular nature. For the longest time [Japan was] a country with a national industry that could sustain itself internally, so they developed their own ways. Sometimes with a creative freedom and a total wackiness that you don’t find anywhere else. There are few countries that can compare with Japan, in terms of the reaches that their cinematic heritage has.

Today, probably, it is not as strong as it was in the past, but it’s undeniable that Italy or France are not on par with their huge cinematic history. Still, whenever it comes to creativity, and breaking taboos, or venturing into territories that no body has previously chartered, the Japanese are quite one step ahead of others, and definitely one step ahead of Koreans. It’s undeniable that Japanese cinema is one of the great cinematic cultures in the world. Actually, I think even that guy Godard, at some point in a very dismissive statement, listed the countries of cinema: U.S., Russia, Italy, France, and Japan. Period.

AB: Hasn’t Berlusconi been a bad influence on the Italian film industry?

PB: I can put it like this. He’s been a bad influence; not himself directly, but through his outlets, because he owns television, production, distribution. The main problem in the creative process in Italian cinema for the past twenty years or so has been the dependency on television to raise the budget of films… Can you list me an Italian film in the recent year where you see a frontal nude man or a woman, either gender? We don’t have that! Think about some classic Italian films like Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life, they could never be made today; they feature so much frontal nudity, that nobody would want to finance them here at this moment. This is because of television.

© Daniel Rose 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at

Paolo Bertolin is the official Turkey, South-East Asia, and Pacific correspondent for the Venice International Film Festival. Brannavan Gnanalingam covered the festival for The Lumière Reader in 2012. Thanks to Alice May Connolly for transcription assistance on this article.

[1] At the time when Russia was experiencing a surge of Chechnyan terrorism, he made War, this terrible piece of propaganda, which was totally ridiculous and offensive toward the Chechen people. And ridiculous because the way he depicted the hero was almost a caricature, like Rambo. I don’t know how much that was intended—the character was pushed to degrees. For example there was this scene where he was carrying a Chechen prisoner who also was a betrayer because he would be a collaborator, but then he would turn his back on the hero who was carrying him to the top of this mountain, and of course the Chechen guy was very ugly and had a lot of clothes. The Russian guy who was climbing to the top of the mountain in the snow was bare-chested—we were up to that level, and now thinking about it, maybe it was meant to be that ridiculous. Anyway, the last film he made is really great.

[2] Because Venice’s main avenues are the canals, it’s a city on water. The streets inside between the small eyelets are very narrow. They are little alleys, so the waterways are the real streets in the city. The Canal Grande is the main avenue of the city so all the aristocrats mansions there. Palazzi, the main facade is actually the one on the canal, and you would actually enter from the canal—the main door is on the water. Canal Grande, which is the main avenue, was the showcase for all the rich aristocratic families to show off their riches. All the most beautiful views of all the different buildings of Venice are on the canal.

2013-07-06 · Permalink · FILM Features Interviews Film Festivals Photo Essays

The Chaser

An interview with Melbourne actress Caroline Craig, currently in New Zealand performing the stage version of Yes, Prime Minister.

As Senior Detective Jacqui James in Underbelly, and Sergeant Tess Gallagher in Blue Heelers, Caroline Craig has portrayed enduring roles in two of Australia’s most popular TV shows. In Wellington for Yes, Prime Minister, the effervescent, good- humoured actress gives Alexander Bisley a spry interview. She talks about Roberta Williams, Jacki Weaver’s influence, and why the satirical approach to politics by the likes of The Chaser and John Clarke is important. Photography by Daniel Rose.

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ALEXANDER BISLEY: After Tess’s Blue Heelers premiere, an angry old lady clobbered you on the noggin with a bag of frozen peas at the supermarket queue and said, “You killed Maggie Doyle!” How did you respond?

CAROLINE CRAIG: I apologised and let her go first. She was a pretty feisty, very tiny lady. I laughed. What was interesting was she thought: not only was I actually my character, but that my character had also murdered someone [laughs].

AB: Is that the most dangerous situation you’ve ended up in? You were the feisty cop Jacqui James on Underbelly who chased/caught Carl Williams in the first (and best) series. You authoritatively narrated the debut Melbourne series, and narrate the ongoing Underbelly series. You’re from St. Kilda, Melbourne, where it all began when Alphonse Gangitano pumped those bullets into Greg Workman.

CC: As soon as it came to air all these people came out in St. Kilda who knew someone and I’d  get bailed up; at the supermarket by the security guard who’d go, “I know Roberta, she’s my best mate.” So everyone knows everyone. So I suddenly became very grateful that I wasn’t playing a real character. That I wasn’t playing Benji, or Carl, or someone like that. Roberta Williams did actually come to set one time and demand to meet Cat Stewart. We were sailing pretty close to the wind. Nothing really, really dangerous. You know what? It’s good to be playing a policewoman, because it’s good to have the Victoria Police on your side.

AB: What’s the edgiest thing that’s happened in your ongoing role as Underbelly narrator?

CC: Nothing really dangerous happened to me. I was pretty lucky. I’m a terrible driver, so I did get pulled over by the police once for appalling driving. They were very kind when they realised I was in Underbelly. No actual criminals have ever come and talked to me. They wouldn’t dare.

AB: John Clarke had a good line about Underbelly’s Victorian ban when we discussed it: “We’re allowed to dodge the actual bullets, but we’re not actually allowed to watch it.”

CC: It was a really strange time and I was working as a paralegal in a law firm before I got the job. I knew the judge, Betty King, who squashed Underbelly; the rumour was that her article clerks or her assistants were actually the ones who leaked the tapes. Everyone had an illegal copy from this gray market. I didn’t have a copy! I had to get a copy from the police. From the Victorian police [laughs]! I remember going on my bike around St. Kilda Road and having these unmarked DVDs tucked into my bag. It was a really exciting time to be part of that. True crime’s always a bit edgy, I reckon. Especially when it’s happening around you.

AB: Carl Williams was whacked in The Big House, so they’ll have to dramatise that for TV.

CC: That’s right. There’s lots more material, let’s put it that way.

AB: The Chaser and John Clarke are great on Australian politics.

CC: Yeah. I think John Clarke’s a genius, he and Max Gillies. I’ve worked with Max. I feel really lucky to have been part of this very satirical voice in Australian culture.

AB: John Clarke’s satirical news is an important influence on The Colbert Report, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, etc.

CC: If people can laugh about stuff, laugh about really serious issues, then they can engage them again in a fresh way. Especially if they’ve got politics fatigue.

AB: There was a strain of humour shot through the original Underbelly. Do you see a connection between Underbelly and Yes, Prime Minister? You’re here in New Zealand for a 2013 stage version of the British classic.

CC: I guess it’s all about archetypical power games. I think the characters in Yes, Prime Minister are more articulate and slightly less brutal. What I really enjoy about this play is that it’s really clever, these characters have minds like diamonds. It’s a battle of wits, which is really fun. Underbelly was kind of a battle of wits, but they had guns and drugs and quite a few other things [laughs].

AB: Australian politics is a bit brutal; so colourful and comic.

CC: It’s a farce. When you are doing a show something in art or life will always come crashing together. I watched the ballot the other night where Julia Gillard was voted out and Kevin Rudd was voted in, and it really was like watching a farce because everyone was running in and out of doors like they do on a stage in a Restoration comedy.

AB: A Restoration farce like She Stoops to Conquer. On the polls, Kevin Rudd has given Labour a big bounce back.

CC: I know, I know. I wish him luck.

AB: Did you see the musical Keating, satirising Australian politics? It’s the most live musical fun I’ve had, those hilarious numbers like ‘Power’, ‘The Mateship’, ‘Freaky’.

CC: My friend Mike McLeish was in it. We went to secondary school together. He’s born to play that role. He’s an amazing singer. Casey Benetto, the musician, is brilliant. So hopefully they’re going to be making something else. They were working on one about real estate last time I heard.

AB: It’s like Blackadder, the final scene with the song ‘The Light on the Hill’ goes serious. It’s a moving appeal to Australia’s best qualities: that debate’s still contemporary with John Howard’s heir Tony Abbott running dirty for PM.

CC: That’s right. It definitely is, and I hope the higher impulses win. It’s been a slanging match in Australian politics. People just ripping each other apart and not really appealing to higher causes, nobler aspirations and policies. Everyone’s just really hungry for power and that’s what Yes, Prime Minister really plays with: the power games.

AB: Tell me about Claire Sutton, your Blairite/Daveite character in Yes, Prime Minister’s lead quartet, along with PM Hacker, Sir Humphrey, and Bernard?

CC: There was a policy adviser in the original series. She was an absolute ballbreaker. My character’s more amoral. She’s Jonathan Lynn’s vision of a young woman in politics: she knows how to use her sexuality and she knows how to manipulate; she knows it’s all about spin. She’s more of a spin-doctor.

AB: When you perform on Wellington’s Opera House stage over there tonight, who will inspire you?

CC: Jacki Weaver. She’s hilarious, one of the funniest people I’ve worked with. She’s an absolute inspiration. She always has the audience in the palm of her hand: “What’s going to happen with her?”

AB: She went seamlessly from that singularly repulsive gangland matriarch in Animal Kingdom to the adorable, caring mom in Silver Linings Playbook.

CC: She’s an absolute character actor, completely transforms. In one show she tried to black out all of her teeth because she thought her character would have rotten teeth. [Laughs]. She really commits. She’s really playful. She’s got a wicked sense of humour. She has said a few things to me backstage which have definitely made me laugh just before I go on, and always made me feel really good. I always think of her whenever I’m nervous backstage. I remember one time before I went on stage I was absolutely terrified and she held my hand: “It’s magic time!”

AB: What’s your pitch, the magic of seeing you and Yes, Prime Minister live versus rewatching the DVD at home?

CC: I think anyone who knows what it’s like to try to get something done in the face of obfuscation and bureaucracy, will enjoy it.  It’s much dirtier, more like Underbelly, much spikier. It’s been rewritten for now, it’s very relevant to what’s happening now. The series has a lot of relevance, unfortunately: there’s still global warming, stuff that they were talking about back in the ’80s. It’s much faster and it’s much fierier. The characters are much more scurrilous. And it is exciting to watch in real time. I would far rather go and see a theatre show. It’s much more theatrical and farcical.

© Daniel Rose 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at

‘Yes, Prime Minister’ is currently touring New Zealand. For forthcoming dates, see Alexander Bisley interviewed John Clarke in 2008. Thanks to Aaron Caleb Bardo for transcription assistance on this article.

2013-07-09 · Permalink · ARTS Features Interviews Theatre & Performing Arts Photo Essays

Stealing Secrets: An Interview with Alex Gibney

The incisive documentarian on We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks and Silence in the House of God.

We Steal Secrets is as brilliant as you’d expect,” James Robinson wrote for The Lumière Reader after seeing Alex Gibney’s WikiLeaks documentary at its Sundance premiere earlier this year. “It’s a hypnotic, absurd human drama and Gibney turns it over expertly and from all sides. No one has put this story together in such a complete fashion.” Via Skype from his New York office on Friday, the enduring documentarian talked passionately with Alexander Bisley about Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, and inspiration Martin Scorsese.

*   *   *

ALEXANDER BISLEY: Here’s the rub. Two Swedish women including Anna, a WikiLeaks supporter you interview in We Steal Secrets, have made credible allegations of significant sexual crime against Julian Assange. How do his supporters maintain he should be above the law?

ALEX GIBNEY: I don’t know how they make that claim. I don’t know how he makes that claim either. In my view this is a big problem. I don’t think he should be above the law, or above criticism. Now he maintains that if he goes back to Sweden he’ll be extradited to the United States, and that’s why he’s not going. But there’s no evidence of that. In fact there’s evidence of just the opposite, that it’s harder to extradite him from Sweden than it is from the United Kingdom. Furthermore, these Assange people also make a big deal out of this idea that if the Swedes have questions they can just call him up at the [Ecuadorian] embassy. But the Swedish prosecutor has made it clear that they’re not interested in asking Assange more questions relating to evidence in the case. If he goes to Sweden, he will likely be arrested and charged.

AB: This seems to me the definition of power without accountability, which is supposedly Assange’s big thing.

AG: I agree with you. I think he’s all about holding others to account, holding the powerful to account. And he, in relation to these two Swedish women, has power. He has a huge pulpit and a large number of supporters, and he has allowed them to vilify these women without attempting in any way, shape, or form, to stop that. So yes, he’s not willing to be held to account in any way, shape or form, and that’s one of the issues I have with Assange and WikiLeaks.

AB: At first you too thought the Swedish story was a CIA honey trap? But having researched it thoroughly, you don’t believe that to be the case?

AG: I can find no evidence that it was a CIA honey trap, absolutely no evidence. So, people can say what they want, or imagine whatever they like, but until they produce evidence, as far as I’m concerned it’s a matter between one man and two women.

AB: You spent ages, including one six hour in-person session, talking to Lord Transparency about doing an interview, he suggested money, demanded control over the article, that you spread the gospel according to Assange, and then most extraordinarily, he then asked you to spy on your documentary’s other subjects in return for an interview?

AG: Correct. It was the last part that really staggered me. Julian likes intrigue, and he likes the idea of espionage. Julian likes to involve himself in all sorts of intrigue as if he’s in some kind of spy thriller, and suddenly he’s asking me for “intel”—he keeps calling it “intel”. He reprimanded Daniel Domscheit-Berg with language that was taken straight out of The Espionage Act of 1917. It’s this cloak and dagger stuff where Assange loses credibility, let’s put it that way.

AB:  “The problem is power,” you told Bill Maher in your recent interview about priests abusing their power for sex, as documented in your very moving Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. Assange’s initial intentions were noble, but it seems the power—all these sycophantic supporters on the internet—went to his head?

AG: I think so. I think we can exaggerate Assange’s power, he doesn’t have power the way the United States of America has power, but he does have some power, and I think he felt empowered, let’s put it that way, when he became one of the most famous people on the planet, and suddenly he seemed to regard himself and the transparency agenda as one in the same, and they’re not the same. One’s an idea, the other’s a rather flawed human being, who, let’s forgive him for making a number of mistakes, we all make mistakes, but the trick is to learn from your mistakes and also to admit them. That’s what being held to account is all about, and that’s where I think he’s failed. Because I think if you were to boil down my biggest gripe about Assange, and frankly there’s much in the film that praises him at great length, my problem is that he had a wonderful opportunity to carry forward the transparency agenda in a way that could have been unimpeachable, and instead I think he bungled it, in part because of his own self regard and unwillingness to hold himself to account.

AB: “He’s like a guy constantly giving a speech in his Evita-like way on the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy,” I agree with your critique of his mega- statements via megaphone style.

AG: Right, yeah [laughs]. I do think he has become somebody who wants to be the story all the time instead of letting the events and issues be the story, and therefore, in that way, he has transgressed some of his most fundamental principles. He says in the film: “WikiLeaks needed a face, and I regret that it needs to have a face but it needs a face.” In some ways early on, I would say that Julian Assange’s fame, his rather striking looks, and his charisma actually serves WikiLeaks well, but over time fame seemed to overtake Assange in a way that his notoriety was far more important than preserving the fundamental principles of the organisation.

AB: There’s an extraordinary moment in We Steal Secrets where the fêted Guardian journalist Nick Davies records: “Julian said, ‘if an Afghan civilian helps occupying forces he deserves to die’.”

AG: Yes, Nick Davies said that that’s precisely what Julian said to him. I believe Nick Davies, I think Julian often says rather inflammatory things in order to get attention, but I think in a fundamental way Julian Assange is what I would call a Transparency Radical, and I don’t think he had much interest early on in redacting[1] those Afghan war logs.[2]

AB: In another dramatic moment Michael Hayden says, “we steal secrets.”

AG: “We steal secrets,” which is the title of the film, is not something said by Julian Assange, it’s something that’s said by Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA and the NSA. It’s an important admission by a very prominent former public official. I think that title in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks is even more resonant than it was before.[3]

AB: What was your biggest surprise making the documentary?

AG: Bradley Manning. When Julian was resistant to being interviewed and I pursued an interview with him over the course of a year, we began to explore more of the story of Bradley Manning. Because, after all, the story of WikiLeaks is not just a story on Julian Assange. WikiLeaks is a publisher, but in order for a publisher to publish you have to have material, that means you have a leaker. Bradley Manning was the leaker. All of WikiLeaks most important documents and video materials all come from one person, Bradley Manning. So it seemed to me he had been the guy who was written out of the story, and it was very important to put him back in the center.

AB: Trust, the human relationship between a journalist and a subject, net drop boxes can’t provide that necessarily?

AG: Not necessarily I mean I think in this era where’s it’s becoming more and more dangerous to be an investigative journalist, I think that the idea of the anonymous electronic drop box is probably a good one. But I don’t think it’s always a good idea. And in the case of Bradley Manning it honestly failed him, because when he needed somebody to talk to after he had leaked, and not only about what he had leaked but also his own personal situation, he needed somebody to confide in, and the dropbox doesn’t provide for that.[4]

AB: Another problem: The Wire’s David Simon[5] has been cogently writing how journalism has to be a decently paid career, not a hobby. Are you hopeful for the future of written journalism?

AG: It is increasingly tough and I agree with David Simon that that is really a problem, and I think we have to figure out a way to begin to pay for it. There has to be an economic model that allows for it [my raggedy laptop crashes in a metaphorical gesture]. It’s bad. I hope someone figures out an economic solution. I’m not sure I know.

AB: From the outrageously good Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room to Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer via Oscar-winner Taxi to the Dark, you’ve made prominent documentaries. In 2010, Esquire said, “Alex Gibney is becoming the most important documentarian of our time.” How did you enjoy your lesser-known work producing Martin Scorsese’s Blues series?

AG: It was inspirational. It changed my whole career. This was a great idea, the idea of having seven fiction filmmakers all do documentaries on the blues. What was so inspiring about it to me was that they honored the reality of the music and the lives of the musicians that surrounded the music, but they also took great care and pain to try to find a visual style that was both true to them, as artists, and also seemed to make sense for the subject being treated. So suddenly, it was like you didn’t have this straightforward documentary rulebook that said everything has to be the same and you didn’t have to apply these standard rules to everything, suddenly these were authored documentaries in ways that were very provocative and personal. So that taught me a lot, and if I hadn’t served as producer on that series, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I have been able to do.

AB: Scorsese is such a great director. How’s it working with him?

AG: He has such extraordinary charisma, and also he’s like the Energiser Bunny. You see sparks fly, and of course he talks very fast in rapid-fire fashion, but ideas are just sparking off his forehead. His mouth can’t catch up to the number of ideas he has at a certain moment in time. And he has this prodigious knowledge of cinema, which is very inspiring to filmmakers, and he’s a great believer in artists’ rights and supporting artists. So for all those reasons Marty was great to work with, and obviously as a director he’s titanically talented.

AB: Have any of his films been a particular inspiration?

AG: I remember Mean Streets being hugely powerful to me, and also Goodfellas and The Last Waltz, great, great achievements. Raging Bull was an incredible film.

AB: It’s one of my favourites. Scorsese seems to have this infectious enthusiasm for movies, for people, and for life itself.

AG: That’s right. I think infectious enthusiasm is as good a description as any. He’s in love with the movies, and that affection seeps in everybody who’s in his presence.

AB: Do you see a connecting thread through your documentaries?

AG: Embrace the contradictions.

AB: Your message for the new Gibney critics like Oliver Stone is to see the film?

AG: See the film. That would be my message. See the movie, then decide.

Thanks to Melinda Jackson for transcription assistance on this article.

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks’ and ‘Silence in the House of God’ screen at the New Zealand International Film Festival 2013, opening in Auckland on July 18, Wellington on July 26, Christchurch on August 1, Dunedin on August 8, and tours the remainder of the country thereafter. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit

The Lumière Reader reports from the New Zealand International Film Festival every winter. For additional commentary and opinion, follow us on Twitter.

[1] AG: He did redact some, he held back 15,000 Afghan war logs, but there were a lot of war logs that were unredacted when they went out on the WikiLeaks website, which didn’t end up causing anybody any harm, but they did a tremendous amount of political damage, both to WikiLeaks and to the Transparency Agenda.

[2] AB: One bad thing WikiLeaks did was disclosing information that harmed the incredibly heroic Morgan Tsvangirai (leader of Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change), and democracy in that country. AG: I’m not familiar with that.

[3] AG: It became the title in order to set this whole story in a broader context, that there is a huge moral grey area when it comes to this issue of secrets, what should and should not be secret, what secrets should and should not be stolen, what secrets should and should not be leaked. And that’s the context in which that title serves a pretty important function. You look at some of my past films, you mention Enron, the title of that film was Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. “The Smartest Guys in the Room” was intended to be ironic, and did not indicate that I believed that Ken Lay and Edward Skilling were actually the smartest guys in the room. Likewise, there is a certain intended irony in the title We Steal Secrets.

[4] AG: I think Edward Snowden made a very important announcement saying that when he was leaking he wanted to make sure not to leak in a way that was anonymous because he couldn’t discuss with somebody how his material would be used. So in that way I think there are problems. On the other hand, the New Yorker magazine has just adopted a version of an electronic dropbox, which was designed by the internet activist Aaron Schwartz, so I think you’re going to see a lot of different kinds of solutions to the same fundamental problem.
[5] AB: On another note, David Simon is very skeptical about the NSA controversy: “The U.K.’s Guardian, which broke this faux-scandal, is unrelenting in its desire to scale the heights of self-congratulatory hyperbole.”

2013-07-14 · Permalink · FILM Features Interviews Film Festivals NZIFF 2013

“Humour is the most damaging weapon we have”

An interview with Mike Lerner, co-director of the rousing Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer.

Pussy Riot is the frontline of liberty, Salman Rushdie wrote recently. Via Skype, the passionate British filmmaker talks to Alexander Bisley about humour as a weapon, fascism, and documentary vitality; how artists win and why Putin will fall.

*   *   *

ALEXANDER BISLEY: I think Pussy Riot—Nadia, Masha, Katya particularly—are awesome. It’s a much-abused word, but I mean it in the classical sense, they are awe-inspiring. Vladimir Putin’s close relationship with Pope Kirill and the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church demands protest.

MIKE LERNER: Kirill, the Russian Pope, drove the whole thing towards this criminal trial because he was experiencing various PR issues himself. Putin jumps on board and it suits him. Of course, he was suffering various PR disasters, too. So it’s an ever-fascinating storm of events that led to this extraordinary, historically important moment in Russian history. It’s like the Dreyfus affair, at the time, who knew it would live on forever? The trial of Dostoyevsky is a classic moment where the state challenges an artist and guess what? In the long term, the artist wins. In the long term, Pussy Riot win. They win the intellectual argument, they win the moral argument, and they win the artistic argument. The Punk Prayers have got to be the most effective, resonant, famous piece of performance art in the history of art.

AB: Well done to you and your co-director Maxim Pozdorovkin on your stirring documentary. You capture some extraordinary moments. At the end of their show trial, Nadia, Masha, and Katya speak so eloquently. Nadia concludes her defence perfectly: “I would like to read the words of a Pussy Riot song: ‘Open up the doors. Take off your uniforms. Come taste freedom with us.’”

ML: State television filmed their performance in court, and we cannily obtained that material. These carefully crafted and beautifully delivered speeches are a work of art, the stuff of history. One is very excited to think about what these very young women will do with the rest of their lives. It wouldn’t surprise me if Masha became president of Russia one day. God knows what they’re gonna do, I mean consider what they’ve done at age 24. And they’ll overcome their present hardships, which are not to be underestimated. Look at Masha, what she’s done in prison. She went on hunger strike, she lobbied for improved conditions for her fellow inmates. Even in prison she’s controlling the agenda and now she’s considered a hero in the prison, before she was seen as this bourgeois, ‘intellectual’, anti-religious person, as most criminals are deeply religious, having no other option.

I find that amazing, they get into court and they turn that into a piece of art; they go to prison and they transform conditions there. Pussy Riot are mind-blowing, they never miss an opportunity to transform and progress their situation for the good of everyone. We would love the film to convey that: the fact that they are patriots, they are people who love their country, love their society, want it to be more tolerant and more productive and just less in crisis, which it is, in a very depressing way.

AB: “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.”

ML: Ya [laughs]. Exactly what they are doing. So we hope, Max and I, that the film helps to convey the truth of that, because clearly they’ve been so misrepresented by Russian state media, and still are. But the film’s there and the record of what they said and did is there, and that’s of ultimately great use, I think, to the world.

AB: A powerful protest against the Putin regime. I spoke to Masha Gessen recently, and she agreed Pussy Riot has starkly shown Putin’s true colours.

ML: Yeah. I don’t think people have yet come to terms with the enormity of this story even though it’s very, very big. I think it will continue to play out. For example, how many other political dissidents there are in Russia, how many people being given ten-year sentences etcetera for their temerity to challenge Putin’s authority. Millions of people now recognise Pussy Riot and understand, like you say, the nature of their protests, and it is an own goal [for Putin]. It’s interesting that Putin was suckered into it. [Pope] Kirill phoned in a favour, and Putin delivered. It’s definitely characterised his rule for the eyes of the world in a very damning way.

It’s a year since the trial, but in the nature of Russian history a very short period of time. Not a day passes when this story doesn’t have some big turn of events. Indeed, now they have accepted a high court appeal hearing of the Pussy Riot case in Moscow. Fingers crossed it might result in early release, but even if it doesn’t it’s great insight for the rest of the world—and more importantly for Russians themselves—into the nature of this regime, which is vain, stupid, arrogant, short-sighted, and malicious. As shown by the continued persecution of these three women.

AB: Amazing, courageous women. “I don’t want to live in a world where there is no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity,” Edward Snowden self-congratulated.[1] Given the patent nature of the Putin regime, Edward Snowden shouldn’t have gone to Russia. 56 journalists have been killed there since 1992.

ML: I agree with you. It was very naïve and probably a choice made in panic rather than any real consideration, I suppose.

AB: It’s a really bad look.

ML: Indeed... I think what’s so great about the Pussy Riot story is its true nature becomes apparent really quickly—it is what it is. And, obviously the state will continue to justify it and paint it as something totally regular within the rationale of the legal system. But nobody [in the West] is convinced of that.[2]

AB: You weren’t allowed to interview the jailed Pussy Riot members? So you got some insightful comments from their families, like Nadia’s father.

ML: Their families weren’t allowed to visit them, let alone us bolshy Brit journalists.

AB: The Russian state cameramen got some artful—in the Russian cinematic tradition—shots of the show trial.

ML: We were very lucky that their performance in court was so profoundly fascinating and insightful, and that it was filmed in such a brilliant way. Hats off to the Russian state cameramen. There are so many breathtakingly beautiful shots of these women delivering, as I said before, what I think are moments of history.

AB: The scorchingly charismatic Nadia was denied parole for refusing to participate in the prison beauty pageant.

ML: It’s such a good story, isn’t it? Again, they keep on giving the Russian state, they keep on providing these totally surreal situations. That she should be denied parole because of her reluctance to participate in an act of misogyny! In a hundred years time people are going be writing about this stuff.

AB: Pussy Riot is the Russian spirit at its best.

ML: Definitely. Russia’s an extraordinary place and I love it so much because of its love of the mind and its love of ideas, and its love of art and expression and communication. So, in spite of its obvious tragic past and present, it doesn’t give up on the mind, and it doesn’t give up on the heart as well. It’s a very, very passionate place. So I love that.

AB: Were there particular inspirations as a younger man that made you a Russianist?

ML: Oh, many. Tarkovsky, and Solzhenitsyn, what a giant he is.

AB: What incredible books The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich are.

ML: What incredible books, he’s a byword for dissident art. And Malevich and Rodchenko, the passion for the intellect and the passion for passion is something I absolutely adore about Russia. We continue to make films there and hope to do that forever. Russia, Central Asia and the whole former Soviet Union is the most fascinating place for me.
“It’s very important we maintain our sense of humour and that’s probably the most important message I’d like to send to any documentary filmmaker: don’t lose your sense of humour, because however grim things are humour is the most damaging weapon we have, the most effective weapon we have against fascism. The fascists really don’t have a good sense of humour. Hitler never told a good joke, and I don’t think Putin’s ever told a good joke. I mean, he thinks he’s funny, but he’s really not funny.”

AB: Pussy Riot, with their fierce intellects, is the latest proud exemplars of a Russian tradition.

ML: They are typical of it, and they see themselves in a tradition of it. They’re Marxists, situationists, feminists. We are living in an age of consumerism. The world of ideas is so important, and it’s been so lost in Britain. [In New Zealand] you are probably living in a similar condition to America and Europe, where ideas are secondary to consumption?

AB: We got Rupert Murdoch first. Before Fox News, before his British tabloids, he Murdochised the New Zealand media.

ML: Yep, so you know all about that. We’re not victims, and we have to defy that, make a film or write a magazine, we’re so lucky that we can form objection. It’s the only thing I’m interested in, and everybody I respect, that’s what gets them up every morning. It’s the possibility, and the opportunity, to offer a different point of view. And of course we’re drowned out by 90 percent of the media, but we sneak in with ten percent. That’s enough.

AB: I always enjoy Bill Maher? You?

ML: Yeah, of course. We were on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart last week, he’s great. He’s somebody who has no ideological position, he’s somebody that finds inconsistency funny, and hypocrisy funny, and that’s it. He was great. He’s a big fan of Pussy Riot.  And he loves the word pussy.

AB: What do you think of Alex Gibney?

ML: I haven’t seen his WikiLeaks film yet, but I’m a very big fan of Alex. He’s a wonderful filmmaker, very fearless and very skilful.

AB: Is there another documentary you’ve seen this year which has particularly impressed you?

ML: Several.[3] Documentary film has never been so vibrant and so useful and so developed as a form.

AB: I agree, it’s exciting. I think people have to give some credit to Michael Moore for this.

ML: Oh, I totally do. I love Michael Moore; he’s great. He’s got the great skill of making funny films about tragic subjects. And indeed people find aspects of our Pussy Riot film funny. It’s a very black humour, and it’s obviously a very tragic film, but indeed one of Pussy Riot’s great weapons is humour. Alex Gibney is very wry.

AB: There’s some terrific wry humour in his Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room.

ML: Exactly. It’s very important we maintain our sense of humour and that’s probably the most important message I’d like to send to any documentary filmmaker: don’t lose your sense of humour, because however grim things are, humour is the most damaging weapon we have, the most effective weapon we have against fascism. The fascists really don’t have a good sense of humour. Hitler never told a good joke, and I don’t think Putin’s ever told a good joke. I mean, he thinks he’s funny, but he’s really not funny [laughs].

AB: DBC Pierre, the British satirist who wrote Russia-set Ludmilla’s Broken English, told me “Reality isn’t plausible.” Putin’s less smart than he thinks he is; making gaffes that make him look ridiculous.

ML: Thank goodness! [laughs].

AB: I tend to be suspicious of people who don’t have a sense of humour.

ML: Exactly. Humour’s part of Pussy Riot’s armoury. It will continue I’m sure [laughs].

AB: It must be exciting working on this project with HBO?

ML: They’re all about it. They totally get it. Interestingly, HBO’s documentary department is run by women. Sheila Nevins is the boss and all her team are women and from the very beginning they saw this story as so important and emblematic and a feminist victory, ideologically and culturally. And as a man I feel powerfully comfortable in saying that. If men can’t be feminists then there is no future for feminism.

AB: I think most feminists think it’s important that men can be feminists.

ML: Absolutely they do. Certainly Pussy Riot do, and certainly any major thinker on this subject would. We’ve had some criticism of that but it’s ridiculous, and it’s offensive. It only comes from people whose opinion I don’t respect. Every serious feminist thinker, writer, has been incredibly supportive of the film. Two half-baked journalists just want to try to make a point [laughs].

AB: There’s no pleasing some people.

ML: I’ve made films about all sorts of people all over the world and I continue to do that. The idea that somebody should dictate what you should be interested in, and what you should choose to write or film about, that’s offensive, that’s totally censorial and fascistic, really. That’s ridiculous.

AB: Some supposed progressives can also be censorious; labelling fair criticism of Islamism racist.

ML: I think we just have to oppose fascism in all its forms and if it comes in religious garb then we oppose it, if it comes in a Starbucks uniform we oppose it. However it offends us we have to stand up to it. But I certainly don’t decry anybody’s faith...[4]

I would disagree these people are of the left. I think they think they are ideological fascists ultimately and they want to control and censor. Its managerialism essentially, I think a better word for it than fascism is managerialism. These people think there’s an objective way of controlling the world and they are right, and they’re not. And we have to try and expose their weakness in any way we can. Pussy Riot exposed Putin’s weakness in a 40 second performance in a cathedral, and we have to pick out opportunities wherever we can to do the same.

AB: So, what’s it like being in Russia at the moment?

ML: We’re about to go to the Ukraine for the Odessa Film Festival... Russia’s last summer in particular was a very exciting moment, revolution was in the air and there were tens of thousands of people on the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg. That’s not the case right now. People have gone to ground; they have been cowed by legislation and by this Pussy Riot trial, there have been a dozen other trials that have sought to suppress legitimate dissent. So it’s a very sad time. People have retreated. But they’re not defeated. When Pussy Riot are released, they’re not gonna retire. They are gonna find new and intriguing and innovative ways and resources to challenge what is obviously an injust and corrupt situation.

Look at Egypt, Max and I’ve been making a film there for a couple of years and who knew that in the space of three days, the revolution that people had died for is transformed and co-opted and hijacked, but it’s not over. It just takes longer than we thought. You need several acts unfortunately. This is true in Russia’s case too, I mean, last year was the beginning of something. But it’s gonna take a long time for it to mature. People can’t even imagine Putin being out of power, but he will. Putin will fall and what Pussy Riot did will be one of the causal factors of that.

This interview was made possible by the Melbourne International Film Festival and Madman Australia. Thanks to Aaron Caleb Bardo for some transcription assistance on this article.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer’ screens at the New Zealand International Film Festival 2013, opening in Auckland on July 18, Wellington on July 26, Christchurch on August 1, Dunedin on August 8, and tours the remainder of the country thereafter. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit

The Lumière Reader reports from the New Zealand International Film Festival every winter. For additional commentary and opinion, follow us on Twitter.

[1] AB: The Wire’s David Simon is very skeptical about the NSA controversy: “The U.K.’s Guardian, which broke this faux-scandal, is unrelenting in its desire to scale the heights of self-congratulatory hyperbole.”

[2] ML: Many Russians resent Pussy Riot because they think they attacked a victim, the Orthodox Church was a victim of decades of repression and torture and murder [under communism], etc. And people think why the hell are they picking on these people? So that’s still the reason that people are still protective, I think, in favour of the church and therefore anti-Pussy Riot, but I think in time that perspective will change and they’ll see that actually what Pussy Riot were doing was trying to breathe the oxygen of freedom and truth into the Russian discourse.

[3] ML: Have you seen After Tiller? About late-term abortionists in America, which is incredibly heroic, an amazing film and very moving, and raises lots of fascinating questions. Have you seen The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear? It’s a Georgian film, the premise is: the director goes out and is casting for young people to be in a film and she interviews all these Georgians about their lives and hopes and again it’s very, very tragic; but it’s very, very beautiful and profound. Call Me Kuchu is a wonderful film about the gay rights movement in Uganda and the death of one of its leading activists.

[4] ML: I personally don’t feel the need to have any religious faith, but clearly it’s a factor in many people’s lives, and one can understand that people flock to these ideologies because they are victims of economic and social injustice. So whilst I don’t support these ideologies, I certainly understand people’s need for it.

2013-07-15 · Permalink · FILM Features Interviews Film Festivals NZIFF 2013

The Viennese

Yves Montmayeur on his muscular study of Austrian auteur Michael Haneke, Michael H Profession: Director.

“That’s why I don’t need a psychiatrist. I can deal with all my fears in my work.”—Michael Haneke.

With The White Ribbon and Amour, Michael Haneke is only the seventh director in history to win more than one Palme d’Or at Cannes. In 2013, the contentious arthouse institution whose Funny Games remake got critically belted, gained centrestream attention/respect. Amour won Best Foreign Film at the 2013 Oscars, and was also nominated for Best Actress, Director, Film, and Original Screenplay. On a hot Parisian summer day, French documentarian Yves Montmayeur joined Alexander Bisley for a meaty email dialogue on his engaging Haneke documentary, Michael H Profession: Director. They discussed Viennese psyche, process, humour, and chickens.

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ALEXANDER BISLEY: When I interviewed Juliette Binoche, she described Michael Haneke as a “control freak”, with a lilting laugh. “Michael is absolutely and definitively radical,” Isabelle Huppert says in Michael H Profession: Director. Jean-Louis Trintignan describes him as a “terrorist.” How do you describe your friend?

YVES MONTMAYEUR: This is a difficult question. I’ve known him for such a long time, he still appears to me very difficult to identify. Once you think you’re able to understand his way of thinking, he’ll surprise you again with his behaviour. He’s a complex mind. Very cerebral, of course, thinking on several levels at the same time. But also very funny and childish in some moments when you don’t expect it! There’s this dialogue line in Amour when Emmanuelle Riva says to Trintignant, “You’re a monster sometimes, but also a nice man.” I like to think that Haneke is joking here about himself. But Haneke as a friend is like all friends are. He loves eating, drinking good wines, and at the same time making jokes.

AB: What is his biggest weakness?

YM: To lose his physical or mental capacity! I guess he’s aware of his age, 71-years-old, and therefore not making many films in the future. So he really cares about his physical ability. In that way we can see Amour as a visceral fear of an artist who’s witnessing his own mental and physical decline.

AB: There have been other Michael Haneke documentaries. What makes your one special?

YM: Well, I’m not so sure there are so many documentaries on Haneke. I’ve seen one directed by two film students of Haneke’s. They followed him in France and Germany years ago. But it was much more a kind of travel diary than film documentary on his work. The one I did is much more focused on his work as a film director with a lot of film footage that I’ve filmed by myself on many sets from 1999 with Code Inconnu. It’s a unique opportunity to witness his creative process.

AB: My favourite scenes: the end (when he talks about Amour), him laughing about irritating Austrian bourgeois as a young person at a classical music concert, and the exchange where you ask about his obsession with suffering and he replies, “I’m very much afraid of suffering.” Tell me about your favourite moment?

YM: Probably the scene when Haneke is directing White Ribbon actors. The difference between the relaxed and cheerful mood on the set with Haneke joking with his actors and the incredible harshness of the sequence they are shooting is totally amazing and surreal.

AB: “That’s why I don’t need a psychiatrist. I can deal with all my fears in my work. It’s a great privilege artists have.” Revealing, no?

YM: Yes and no. I think Haneke is playing with his Viennese cultural background. Don’t forget that Vienna is the birthplace of psychoanalysis, where Freud was born and wrote most of his essays. From this period all artistic study is based on the life of the artist. It means that we have to look for trauma to understand the work of someone like Haneke. And Haneke who loves to play with interpretations is joking a little bit about that concept. But, of course, it does not prevent at the same time that there are some traces of his primary fears in his films.

AB: When you asked him if you could make this he said, “Surprise me.” What might surprise viewers? His humour?

YM: Absolutely. That’s one of the reasons why I decided to make this film: to show the real man behind the image of the artist. People always automatically assimilate the author with his characters; that’s why they imagine he’s a kind of glacial, cynical monster! But Haneke is very jovial and generous with people in daily life and on set, even if he’s deeply pessimistic about our human condition. This is a typical trait of Viennese psyche: mixing humour with nihilism. You can find it in almost all the Viennese literature fin de siècle.

AB: Haneke says music is the most effective form of communication after sex. Do you agree?

YM: It’s a personal point of view, but according to me music is the less cerebral artistic form. You can more easily enter into a trance-state in listening to music than reading a book or even watching a movie. On that point, it’s the most sensorial and sensual of arts; that’s why we can compare its effects to sexual ecstasy. Music is pagan! That’s probably why the Catholic Church banned the use of the piano—an instrument too sensual—inside the church.

AB: Has Michael changed much over the 20 years you’ve known him? Isabelle Huppert describes him as an unrelenting radical.

YM: Not so much. Physically he looks the same as 20 years before! And that’s true: he’s still as radical as when we met, but perhaps he’s paid much more attention to the quantity of wine he’s drinking at a dinner.

AB: What did Susanna Haneke say when you asked for an interview?

YM: We’re also very close friends, but I never asked for an interview.

AB: What is Michael Haneke’s relationship with Christoph Waltz like? They share a stepfather, Austrian composer Alexander Steinbrecher.

YM: I have to say that I didn’t know that! We never had the opportunity to talk about him.

AB: You include discussion of 1997’s Funny Games, including Cannes Film Festival footage where an outraged woman left the theatre describing it as “a pile of sophisticated Nazism.” You didn’t include Haneke’s American Funny Games remake. The top New York critics hammered it. “The joke is on arthouse audiences who show up for Funny Games, which is basically torture porn every bit as manipulative and reprehensible as Hostel, even if it’s tricked out with intellectual pretension.” Lou Lumenick. “Professional obligations required that I endure it, but there’s no reason why you should.” J. Hoberman.  “The film calls attention to its own artificial status. It actually knows it’s a movie! What a clever, tricky game! What fun! What a fraud.” A.O. Scott.  “Haneke’s assault on our fantasy lives is shallow, unimaginative, and glacially unengaged—a sucker punch without the redeeming passion of punk.” David Edelstein. “In addition to being borderline unendurable, Funny Games is inexplicable, and I don’t mean in any philosophical sense.” Joe Morgenstern.  Do bad reviews like this upset Michael Haneke? What did you think of the Funny Games remake?

YM: First of all, I regret not having included a sequence about Funny Games (2007) in my film. But it was for a practical reason. The producers wouldn’t allow me to film on the set. So there wasn’t any behind the scenes material to use. And the film clips were so expensive that my producers and myself decided to skip this movie. But I really like this Funny Games despite the fact that I was reluctant to see it at first. (I have to say, I was a little disappointed with this idea of remaking a movie that was against the whole idea of commercial and Hollywood hijacking. It was like Haneke betrayed his own beliefs and ethics.) But finally after watching it I stood amazed! The mere fact we changed time and context from the original version changed the whole dimension and reach of the film. When the original version came out in 1997, Jörg Haider, leader of the Austrian extreme right wing, had just got a spectacular score at elections the previous year. So I think Funny Games is partly dealing with the fear of neo-Nazism’s return in Austria. But Funny Games deals with others topics in 2007. Especially, to me, with the Iraq War and abuses committed by American troops, like the Abu Ghraib tortures. The U.S. background absolutely changes the atmosphere and the political significance of the film. And this is absolutely brilliant from Haneke to have anticipated.

AB: Tell me about a favourite Haneke film?

YM: The Piano Teacher. Usually I don’t like the term “perfect film,” but it is!

AB: Your documentary “Thanks” includes “Several Chicken” [sic] on Hidden.

YM: Well, do you remember when the young boy chopped off the head of a rooster in the film? Haneke had to check himself on the set because some real roosters have to be killed. No choice. I filmed these gore “rehearsals.” But after seeing my film, Haneke called me back and mentioned this moment, “I have for years the reputation of being a kind of psycho. Do you want to make me an animal torturer too?” He warned me about the perverse use of YouTube, where sequences are put out of context. So I decided to remove this sequence at the very last moment. That’s why the chicken credits are still there!

AB: Michael Haneke must be happy with all the acclaim he’s had for Amour, including winning Best Foreign Film at the 2013 Oscars? He quirkily describes success as, “the butcher next door giving me a better piece of meat.”

YM: Yes, of course. Like any other director, he loves awards and honours. When he was filming Amour he was already thinking about getting a second Palme d’Or.

AB: Haneke cites Abbas Kiarostami as his favourite contemporary filmmaker in conversation with Alexander Horwath. “He is still unsurpassed. As Brecht put it, ‘simplicity is the hardest thing to achieve.’ Everyone dreams of doing things simply and still impregnating them with the fullness of the world. Only the best ones achieve this. Kiarostami has.” What do you think of Kiarostami?  Have you seen Like Someone in Love?

YM: To be honest, I’m not so familiar with his latest films. What I know about Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love doesn’t interest me. It seems that his cinema became much more academic this last decade. Losing his Iranian identity for a Westerner’s cinematographic passport. Anyway, I really enjoyed his first period when his mise en scène was much more elliptical, with a real sense of poetry.

AB: What connections do you draw between Haneke and Takeshi Kitano, another professional subject of yours?

YM: At first sight nothing. Except the fact that they’re both radical in their choices. They don’t follow any trends. And they don’t like to interpret their owns films. And perhaps their taste for minimalism in mise en scène.

AB: There’s a violent Kitanoesque death in Hidden. Do you draw connections between your creative process, and Haneke’s?

YM: I’m always trying to keep my distance with my subject matter, with the person I’m filming. I did many film documentaries on cinema personalities such as Asia Argento, Christopher Doyle, Johnnie To, Takashi Miike, and each time I’ve tried to follow the same tempo as my “character” without interfering on a film set, or stage some sequences. I hate to play the game of the one who’s the good friend of the artist you’re watching. All these TV tricks that many directors love to use. It’s probably something that Haneke appreciates in our relationship. This attitude helps me to be myself and a little bit ‘Hanekien’ in my way of filming.

AB: What got you hooked on cinema? Tell me about a powerful early cinematic memory.

YM: The child murder operatic scene in Once Upon a Time in the West from Sergio Leone. I saw the film hidden in the back of a car at a drive-in cinema in Marseille. I was 7-years-old. I was mesmerized and scared at the same time. All my senses where alert. I think all my passion for images comes from these mental memories.

AB: Who’s a formative influence on you as a critic/documentary maker?

YM: I was amazed when I was younger with F for Fake from Orson Welles. How Welles mixed documentary with fiction is so brilliant. And what about his art of editing! Everyone who wants to become a director must see this film. But my influences come from features rather than documentaries. That’s why I love to fictionalise my documentaries. Some of my favourite directors who still inspire me, in one way or another, are Jean-Pierre Melville, Erich von Stroheim, Kinji Fukasaku, Kenneth Anger, Alan Clarke, Lars von Trier.

AB: Tell me about another film in the Melbourne International Film Festival you recommend.

YM: I can recommend the Paradise trilogy from the other great master of Austrian cinema, Ulrich Seidl. A must see.

Alexander Bisley’s MIFF ‘First Fifteen’: Grisgris, Jimmy P, A Touch of Sin (director and actress in attendance), The Turning, No Name Big Blanket, Museum Hours, The Trials of Muhammad Ali, Rhino Season, Bastards, Like Father, Like Son, The Dance of Reality, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, Juvenile Offender, Aim High in Creation, All Is Lost; plus, The Attack (wildcard).

Michael H Profession: Director screens as part of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, which Alexander Bisley is covering for The Lumière Reader. Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy also screens at the New Zealand International Film Festival.

2013-07-19 · Permalink · FILM Features Interviews Film Festivals

There Will Be Hope

A conversation with the great Mahamat-Saleh Haroun about his new film Grigris and his cinematic legacy to date.

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun is Africa’s greatest filmmaker. The Chad-raised, Paris-based auteur’s Abouna (Our Father)[1] is a masterpiece. A Screaming Man won third prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. This year Grigris was one of the 20 films in Cannes’ official competition. The lovely, generous African caught up with Alexander Bisley on a sunny Parisian weekend. Via Skype, Haroun talked about the big screen’s magic, intimacy, economic violence, hope, and why he won’t return to Ouagadougou.

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ALEXANDER BISLEY: One of my favourite African classics is the Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty’s moving The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun, dedicated to the courage of street children. “Cinema was born in Africa because the image itself was born in Africa,” Mambéty once said. “Oral tradition is a tradition of images. Imagination creates the image and the image creates cinema.” Do you agree?

MAHAMAT-SALEH HAROUN: Mambéty was a great storyteller. What he says is true, in a way. I think that’s a romantic view of things. If oral tradition were the basis of cinema, African cinema would be very powerful, which is not the case.

AB: What was Mambéty like?

MH: He was very kind. He didn’t talk a lot, so we just discussed cinema when we met at festivals. Also, we spent time sitting there and drinking beer, in a silent moment. Being happy together without saying anything, you feel things without having to talk. He was a prince. I love this guy very much.

AB: In Grigris, like Dry Season (Daratt) and A Screaming Man, your cinematography is beautifully complemented by Wasis Diop, Mambéty’s brother, who also composed the music for The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun.

MH: Wasis Diop is an artist. He’s so sensitive; he has a sense of images because he started as a photographer first, he understands. He understands things very quickly when you talk about cinema. I like the way he composes his music; his music is respectful of your images. It’s to be on the images side, to work together. Wasis knows that my images don’t need a lot of music, this is very important. We understand each other very well. Our collaboration is very strong.

AB: As Grigris memorably records.

MH: Wasis studied by reading the script before making the music. We discussed it a lot as we are neighbours. He made this music on Grigris and in Ouagadougou we met Soulémane Démé. We gave him the music, he performed in front of us and then Wasis started to change the rhythm of the music, just to create a special rhythm for Soulémane Démé. He was very inspired by the guy.

AB: You met and were inspired by Soulémane Démé at Ouagadougou, when you were taking a break from an uninspiring Ouagadougou Film Festival in 2011 (with A Screaming Man)?

MH: I made some interviews saying I’m not going to go to the Ouagadougou Film Festival again. I was invited to a dance spectacle. Soulémane Démé was dancing. He was just divine. He was extraordinary. I thought, “This is the guy that’s going to be the main character of my next movie.” I had a script about gas traffickers and I was not happy about it. Without him there was no film. So I focused on the story about Soulémane Démé. This meeting was a divine meet.

AB: He’s an extraordinary dancer, and a very charismatic and engaging screen presence.

MH: He’s just fantastic. Every time I have screenings, people are astonished. He’s the most important thing.

AB: So you won’t go to the Ouagadougou Film Festival again?

MH: No. I ended with the festival in 2011 because I think it’s not a human experience. How could you be so disorganised after 40 years of organising this festival? It’s disrespectful for filmmakers so I stopped, I don’t want to put my movies in that competition anymore. I just want to show it out of competition, for the audience. I don’t want to be there. You come home, and you can’t get respect; not even at home. This face of Africa doesn’t interest me. I want to show positive images of people. I don’t want anything to do with this failure. That’s it. Normally all filmmakers should stop going, but people are interested in Ouagadougou’s prizes because there is FESPACO money and we all have the same problem: we need money.

AB: Your films are very cinematic. Shots like A Screaming Man’s handsome, blue closing shot; Grigris striking ending need to be seen on the big screen, don’t they? (The big screen is where you dream your images, isn’t it?)

MH: Absolutely. That’s because I started with the big screen. Nowadays I think that a lot of young people start just watching movies on a small screen like a Smartphone or TV. You lose something. The first image you see on a big screen, it’s something magical. When I saw my first movie in Chad, we didn’t have television, so the first image in my memory is the big screen. In a way the ending of Grigris, it’s like Moolaadé, because in Moolaadé the main power used to burn the radios, and now there is a young man who is called Grigris, and he has an alliance with the ladies and he helps to repair the radio. No more way to burn radios. People trying to build something new.

AB: It’s a strong ending, one of the biggest demonstrations of girl power since the late Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaade.

MH: I wanted to make a tribute to all the women I know and love in my country. In Chad we have several mothers; your biological mother, your mother that helped you to do something, and a kind of adoptive mother; you have aunts, sisters, clandestine lovers. We belong to women in Africa. [Spoiler Alert!] The idea is the story, normally when you see a film like Grigris, we could expect that Grigris could be killed at the end. It has been constructed like a tragedy, but because of this community of women they stop everything and they create a new story. When you’re in a community, when you have solidarity, you can create your own destiny, take destiny in your hands. That’s what they do: to save these lovers, Grigris and Mimi.

AB:  Chad’s capital N’Djamena’s cinema reopened in 2010 with A Screaming Man, after Chad’s seemingly endless Civil War ended. Grigris just opened in Paris. Before screening in competition at Cannes in May, it had a special premiere in N’Djamena?

MH: It was more than 30 years. People don’t have a cinema, so they don’t have the habit to go to cinema. But I went there before Cannes for a premiere and there was a lot of people and they were really happy, very crazy about it and they loved Mimi and Grigris. After the screening they were looking for Mimi, “Where is Anaîs Monoroy?” They fell in love with this lady, she became an iconic woman. I think cinema is something to do with dreams sometimes. You can make reflection in your film, it’s also possible to make iconic figures, faces. She became an iconic woman there. Grigris’ ideas were more appreciated [by the Chad audience] because they feel it’s more accessible than A Screaming Man and Daratt. They loved it very much.

AB: There are scenes of wonderful intimacy in your work: the moment of motherly tenderness in Abouna (Our Father); Adam eating watermelon with his wife in A Screaming Man; there’s that gorgeous scene where Mimi unbraids her hair (and you then cut to their interlocking feet) in Grigris.

MH: Intimacy is also to do with tenderness, and we all have this intimacy where we can show another face, that you keep for you and your lover. It’s a secret, and the camera lets me show this intimacy. It’s not just sex, it could be tenderness, or a private joke. I love that. It’s a way to discover parts of the characters.

AB: Well done. “Beware of assuming the sterile attitude of spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of miseries is not a proscenium, a screaming man is not a dancing bear.” You concluded A Screaming Man with a quote paying tribute to the great, then recently departed Martiniquan intellectual Aime Cesaire. How has Cesaire been an influence and inspiration?

MH: Well in Chad we used to learn, to study Aime Cesaire, Senghor, all those guys at school. I think that Aime Cesaire, he wrote his books sixty years ago but when I read him again, it’s like it’s just in the news. I like his way of being engaged, not in a dogmatic political way, I think he’s always there. We are from the desert so we need people who can become our shadows. It’s helping us in some places, so Aime Cesaire is one of my shadows. It’s good to come back to him, and read some of his poems; he’s still in the news because he is right.

AB: You concluded A Screaming Man powerfully with that quote of his.

MH: It was a tribute to Aime Cesaire. Being engaged means being sensitive to what’s happening around you, and being sensitive to the world. As just men, you have to take care of your neighbourhood. Being a citizen is acting for the future.

AB: Father-son relationships are a recurring, strong idea in your films. What did your own father do?

MH: I have a really great relationship with my father. I don’t know why I’m obsessed by this theme of father and son, but I think it’s because I didn’t have a cinematic father, an African one, I mean. I wanted to become a filmmaker very soon when I saw my first movie, a Bollywood movie, when I was nine. I missed African films, African stories, so I don’t remember the first African film I have seen. Maybe I feel awful at not having this kind of African filmmaker father, transmitting to me the way to tell [African] stories. I saw a lot of movies from other parts of the world before I watched an African movie for the first time. So it was down in my spirit when I saw my first African movie. I have already seen films by John Ford, and by Charlie Chaplin. I have seen Roma, and all the things you can't forget. So when I met the first African movie, it couldn’t be that kind of father because I had already seen a lot of films. I think that maybe the theme of father and son comes from that, from this feeling that I didn't get an African filmmaker [father].

AB: I really like all your films but my favourite is still Abouna (Our Father), which I think is a masterpiece.

MH: Thank you very much. I love Abouna too, because it has something very delicate, it’s true love. I think I make movies for that, because I was very happy when I first saw a movie, I felt so good. I think maybe I make movies just to make people feel good. This happiness I had, it was a gift and so I'm trying to entrust [my movies] with the same gift I had. This life, you receive something and, if you’re normal and generous, you give it. Life goes on like the wind; you open the door and you have the wind; open the window and the wind is moving and leaving.

AB: Lovely idea. Like Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us?

MH: Yes. Wind is life, I think.

AB: Have you seen War Witch?

MH: I couldn’t unfortunately. I’m waiting for the DVD because everyone is talking about it. I think the young actress seems great.

AB: Like Abouna’s Ahidjo Mahamet Moussa and Hamza Moctar Aguid, Rachel Mwanza, who won best actress in Berlin, is unforgettable.

MH: It was great, it was so notable. This image: she was listening to her headphones and she was not expecting any prize. When you are an artist, you make it and when you are satisfied, that’s it. It’s like what I want to do, I’m not waiting for any prize. That’s it. She was just listening to her music, she was not in the theatre. She was somewhere else and they called her, “Hey, come on, it’s you!” I think that’s the way we should make our films. By not being stressed about waiting for anything. Just you make it, and if you make it with your heart, they will receive it.

AB: Mati Diop is another impressive actress, as in the Claire Denis film, 35 Shots of Rum.

MH: She is a great actress and also a good filmmaker. She made a documentary about her uncle, Djibril Diop Mambéty called A Thousand Suns. She got the big prize in Marseille very recently.

AB: What do you think of Claire Denis’s work set in Africa?

MH: I know Claire Denis. She’s a friend. I love her work. Claire Denis moved from Africa when she was a child. She didn't make the choice to leave Africa. So she had this very strong relationship with Africa and so I think she’s trying to recreate this paradise childhood every time she makes a film there, which is very interesting and poetic. I love her work, anyway.

AB: Like you, she has given us some beautiful, memorable images.

MH: She’s documenting Africa, holding Africa in her head. Cameroon is her place. She has a lot of love for Cameroon, but also for Chad because she has been there, she knows a lot of things. She’s really very connected to Africa. In part, she has an African way of being a filmmaker.

AB: I was pleased to see she was also at Cannes with you (although out of competition), with her new film, Bastards.

MH: I haven’t seen it yet, unfortunately. When you have a film in Cannes, you are so busy with your own work; doing interviews and things. You stay there for three nights, you don’t have any time to see [other films]. There is so much stress, it’s impossible. It’s an egocentric spectacle: all your film and nothing [else] exists.

AB: With Grigris, I saw perhaps elliptical homage to Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood?

MH: A lot of people talk to me about They Live By Night by Nicholas Ray. I know all of his movies but it was not a reference. I love very much There Will Be Blood. For a long time I was thinking about this film when I saw it. I didn’t see it again to be inspired. You never know, you know? When you like a work, it’s just in your memory. I love the idea of There Will Be Blood.

AB:  That scene [Spoiler Alert!] when the gangster drives Grigris out into the field may be in the vein of the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing?

MH: I love the Coen brothers. They have a humour and ironic way sometimes. They take real pleasure in making films. That’s very important.

AB: Last time I spoke to you, you said your (compassionate) creative philosophy is, “Human being is the centre of all.” How does this develop through your creative process?

MH: I think that means that complexity is in human beings, and when you have a character, follow affection, give more freedom and liberty to the actress to be themselves. I like how actors and characters sometimes are the same. I don’t like to be in fiction always. It’s very difficult to explain in English, I’m sorry.

AB: Can you tell me about any upcoming film projects?

MH: I cancelled this project called African Fiasco because the producer asked me to make this film and I wasn’t very happy, as it’s not my way of making cinema. We don’t have the same point of view on the project so I gave up. Right now I’m trying to write a story in France. I want to make a film in France because it’s been 30 years I’ve been living here. I love this country, my next movie will be [set] in Paris and the title will be A Life in France.

AB: It will be about Chadians in Paris?

MH: It will be a story about a worker, an old worker remembering some things. He has been there for more than 40 years; he knew France in those beautiful times, before Le Front National, before the racism against immigrants there is in Paris now. It’s just like his memory and how he had kids in France. It’s a small story meeting the big story. Dominant cinema forgets the point of view of old workers. We don’t see a lot of workers in cinema, not nowadays. I want to tell this story.

AB: Sembene formed his saw-toothed consciousness as a Marseille immigrant dockworker. In A Screaming Man you evoked that degrading experience people have of unfairly losing their job, having that meeting with inhuman HR people. I’ve seen that in New Zealand.

MH: Nowadays because of globalisation, we experience the same things everywhere. That same kind of economic violence is made everywhere. Cinema has to deal with that violence, show it, and let people reflect about that.

AB: You told the BBC “All my films are political,” a politics that’s very much grounded in human beings: human being as the “centre of all.”

MH: Absolutely. When I talk about, “human being is the centre,” it’s trying to give dignity to people and let them respect their own regard, their own point of view on themselves. In Grigris, Soulémane Démé feels he has no problem.

AB: You have that extraordinary scene at the end. Even though Grigris has a deformed leg, he is a happy and inspirational character. Throughout your films, you're wanting people to take away hope, aren't you?

MH: It’s important to give dignity to people. Be part of a human experience. That’s what I’m talking about when I say, “human being is the centre of my work,” It’s political because it deals with the question of society, the place of people. It’s political because it’s life in the city. So everything is political for me. If there is no politics, there is no point.

AB: I love those scenes of Grigris dancing, on the rooftop by himself, they’re beautiful and inspirational.

MH: We made the movie and his life changed. He is considered an artist, and so he has a contract. He dances like he did in the film. If cinema can transform things and let people be more independent, it’s very important. I think the experience of making the movie also has to change people. It’s not a question of money because we don’t have big budgets, we have to deal with what we have. My first ingredient is a human. I have to take care of them.

AB: It’s great news that Grigris’s work conditions have improved thanks to your film. He’s dancing in Ouagadougou?

MH: Now he gets a fixed salary, he has become a professional. Now he’s trying to write a solo dance show, a spectacle of one hour about his life. For me, this is more important than the film because this is reality, and this is change. I love when you change the lives of people by just making a movie.

Alexander Bisley’s MIFF ‘First Fifteen’: Grisgris, Jimmy P, A Touch of Sin (director and actress in attendance), The Turning, No Name Big Blanket, Museum Hours, The Trials of Muhammad Ali, Rhino Season, Bastards, Like Father, Like Son, The Dance of Reality, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, Juvenile Offender, Aim High in Creation, All Is Lost; plus, The Attack (wildcard).

Grigris screens as part of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, which Alexander Bisley is covering for The Lumière Reader. Thanks to Alice May Connolly for some transcription assistance on this article.

[1] Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s second, 2002 film, one of the films of the decade, is luxuriously specific, yet powerfully universal. Abouna’s devastatingly touching; vibrant, lyrical, uplifting. Daratt (Dry Season), the follow-up, is a spare, powerful look at the futility of utu (revenge).

2013-07-26 · Permalink · FILM Features Interviews Film Festivals

The Master: An Interview with Park Chan-wook

In conversation with Asia’s biggest filmmaker ahead of the New Zealand release of Stoker and his appearance at Auckland’s Big Screen Symposium.

The day after Snowpiercer’s[1] world premiere, producer Park Chan-wook joined me for a Skype from his Seoul offices. The director of Stoker, Oldboy, and Thirst was a jovial, endearing subject. Via Stoker’s trusty translator, Wonjo Jeong, Park talked energetically about his new film’s eroticism, South Island mountains inspiring a new final shot for Oldboy, and standing up against fate. Photography by Rath Vatcharakiet.

*   *   *

ALEXANDER BISLEY: You’re busy directing and producing films. Do you have any times these days to read philosophy, which is what you studied at university?

PARK CHAN-WOOK: Because I don’t get a lot of time, I tend to read more works of literature rather than books on philosophy. I find myself, however, revisiting this one book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.[2]

AB: Oldboy is Nietzschean, a great revenge film; it was dazzlingly cinematic watching it for the first time. The last scene was filmed in New Zealand’s South Island mountains. Did you film that yourself or was it your second unit?

PCW: There’s no concept of second unit in Korean cinema so I went to New Zealand myself to shoot it.

AB: Full auteurship. Did the landscape inspire your creative process?

PCW: Yes. First of all, my reason for going to New Zealand was because of the opposite season down under. The way I wrote the last scene of the script was I wanted the story to take place in a completely different environment, to speak to a passage of time between that last scene and the proceeding scene. So to put a stark contrast to the seasonal background that you have seen, where the main story takes place, I needed a snow-covered landscape. Having come to New Zealand, I shot my scene exactly the way I wanted, but then I walked up Mount Lyford and looked at the visage of an open plain from the heights on top of the mountain, this great visage in front of my eyes, and I felt I really wanted to capture that and wanted to create a new ending. So you know the last, panoramic shot of the film? Where the two protagonists, the man and the young woman, when they are at the top of the mountain overlooking that landscape in front of them?

AB: Yes.

PCW: That’s something that the location inspired. And I really love this new ending—the new last shot that I came up with inspired by the location—because in a way it’s sparse enough for the audience to try to fill in the gaps with their own imagination when it comes to what lies before them. In other words, what would become of their future, the outlook of what is to come. I wanted the audience to fill in that gap using their own imagination after having seen the film. And that visage at the end of the film, I thought it was a great visual metaphor that speaks to that.

AB: Speaking about the difference filming in South Korea and America, there was a great quote from the International Film Festival Rotterdam, where you said, “In Asia the director is King, in America the director is Prime Minister.” You’ve also been quoted as saying, “I was very hesitant at first to work in Hollywood, mainly due to the existing prejudices regarding Hollywood producers. They are seen as these bumbling idiots until you get to meet them.” What’s exciting and what’s challenging about working in L.A. (on Stoker) versus Seoul?

PCW: I’m sometimes misquoted in interviews. I want to be certain in terms of my quote, I said: “In Korea the director is King, and in America the director is President.” I wish I was the one that came up with this great quote. I got it from Ang Lee [laughs] and I was quoting Ang Lee when I said that.

As for this quote about prejudice against American producers as bumbling idiots until you meet them—I feel my comments were misinterpreted, perhaps. When you see films like The Player by Robert Altman, and when you watch all these other films coming out of Hollywood that deal with the Hollywood scene, they tend to depict the studio executives as these people who surround themselves with beautiful women and drive around in sports cars and so forth. So these films on Hollywood, they create a stereotypical image, right? But these people I’ve met in person, they always put filmmaking at the fore, and they’re unbelievably diligent and hard-working people. So from a director’s point of view, it’s not easy, it’s challenging because they have a lot of questions they want to talk to the filmmaker about and a lot of discussions they would like to have. So that is a prime example of what was challenging, as well as surprising, as well as exciting, all at the same time.

AB: Do you have a funny story from working with your brother, Park Chan-kyong? Your 2011 collaboration Night Fishing won Best Short Film at the Berlinale. I’m at the Melbourne International Film Festival (with my siblings), we’re going to see your new partnership Day Trip.

PCW: When my brother went to America to study the arts, I tried to convince him to go to film school. And back then I was talking to my brother, “you go to film school and once you’re finished we can direct like the Coen brothers, co-direct films.” Because [with] the Coen brothers, one brother went to a film school and the other brother went to study philosophy, just like how I went to study philosophy, and if my younger brother had just listened to me and went to film school, we would be exactly the same as the Coen brothers [laughs]. But my little brother said, “no, I’m going to study fine arts.” But after having returned to Korea and establishing himself as a media artist in Korea, now he’s started to become interested in filmmaking. And that’s one of the reasons why I started working with my little brother to co-direct these short films. So far we’ve been keeping our collaborations to a small scale. I think it’s an interesting way to collaborate, and interesting projects to do as the brother team. I think it would be fun to do more experimental work under this brother brand of PARKing CHANce, and do stuff like documentaries or even TV commercials maybe, and more music videos (which we’ve recently done). We are agile about how we work, and we’re able to work on smaller budgets as well, very much guerilla-style. That’s why we named the brother brand PARKing CHANce. If we see an opportunity to park the car we’ll get right on in there.[3]

AB: On a different note, on Stoker, Tolstoy supposedly said: “All families are dysfunctional in their own way.” Do you have a comment on that idea?

PCW: My focus on Stoker was—rather than that idea of all families are dysfunctional—to give more weight tn the perspective of how girls of that age have a tendency to be curious, and are confused about this idea of evil, and are curious about it and get attracted towards evil. That’s what I wanted to explore metaphorically, through Stoker.

AB: “It’s hard to deny that this Gothic, slow-burning psycho-thriller’s the work of a master stylist, whose obsessive attention to detail is intoxicating,” Filmmaker magazine said. In reference to a couple of scenes in Stoker, India’s shower scene and the piano scene with her Uncle Charlie, you’ve said: “I think suggestions are far more effective and erotic than explicit imagery.”

PCW: Yes absolutely, I was correctly quoted there. If I were as a filmmaker to depict those scenes more literally in terms of the sexual connection or those sexual moments, if I were to turn that literally into a physical moment and depict it more explicitly, it may have attracted some curiosity from the audience, but certainly it would not have made an elegant film. And considering my approach towards my film is to really deal with the confusion of girls going through that time of puberty or coming-of-age, and to make a metaphoric film that speaks to the growing pains or what you go through as you come of age, it wouldn’t have been appropriate for what I was setting out to achieve in that regard.

But not only those scenes that you mentioned; the movie is filled with this sexual energy throughout. For instance, there’s also a scene where Evie [Nicole Kidman], the mother, and Uncle Charlie, they come back from their shopping in town and they start chatting about the wine that Uncle Charlie selected. Evie talks about the mature aroma and Uncle Charlie responds by saying it’s much better than the younger wine that’s not ready to be opened. It seems that they’re making sexual references in saying that mature woman are sexually superior to the younger girls. But then we find out later on that the year that Uncle Charlie has picked is the same vintage as the year that India was born, and then it takes on a whole new nuance doesn’t it? When India takes the glass from Uncle Charlie, it’s a form of approval; India approving Uncle Charlie’s advances as it were. Because it means that she’s ready to be opened. The same thing with the high heels scene. In its own way, the entire film is full of sexual energy.

AB: How old were you when you first became hooked on movies?

PCW: I decided to become a film director back when I was at university. It must have been when I was 22, that was when I first saw Vertigo at a screening run by a film club that I was a part of.

AB: I just read brilliant comment by Martin Scorsese on why Vertigo is special. As a former film critic do you miss writing criticism?

PCW: [laughs] Not at all, Alexander. Not because the job of a film critic is bad, but you know I started out as a film director not as a film critic. My first couple of films didn’t do that well at the box office, so I was forced to somehow make a living, and I was thinking what can I do to put bread on the table for the family, and I started working as a film critic. It wasn’t by choice that I started working as a film critic, it was more a job that I needed as a necessity to make a living. That’s the reason why I don’t miss it.

AB: Your Joint Security Area powerfully explores Korea’s partition, and the DMZ Bill Clinton once described as “the scariest place in the world.” Are you interested in making another film about the traumatic divide?

PCW: I don’t have any plans at the moment, but who knows what’s going to happen in the future? I wouldn’t write off the possibility of making one. Since JSA, a lot of films have been made in Korea about the divided situation of North and South Korea, so I wonder what new things I can bring to the table. But if I do make another film that deals with the North and South Korean divide, I would probably approach it from a spy thriller perspective as the last remaining region in the entire world where the country is divided due to Cold War Ideologies. It’s still the last remaining remnant of the Cold War, and as a person living in that place I feel that setting, the situation, is very ripe for a spy thriller, and that provides great material for a spy thriller. Although saying that it’s great for anything when you’re talking about something like the North and South Korea divide is a bit ironic.

AB: To close, how do you describe your creative philosophy?

PCW: [laughs] I reckon it’s different from film to film. Whether it’s something I can concisely sum up in a sentence—with enough consistency to be found in all these different works—I’m not so sure. One commonality running through all my films, I suppose, is a person who rises up against fate, or who’s not afraid of fighting against fate, or who doesn’t run away from fate, in other words. Regardless of whether that effort is successful or a failure, that very act of standing up against fate is a noble thing.

© Rath Vatcharakiet 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at

The Big Screen Symposium is an annual Auckland event Park Chan-wook and Wonjo Jeong were speakers, along with Guillermo Arriaga, David Wenham, Rolf de Heer, and other international and local filmmaking guests.

The terrific ‘Stoker’ opens New Zealand wide on August 15. Thanks to Melinda Jackson for some transcription assistance on this article.

[1] Snowpiercer, a Korean/American/French co-production, is the new film by Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host). Park Chan-wook is a producer.

[2] Park’s translator, Wonjo Jeong, co-producer of Stoker (and producer of Night Fishing), lived in Lower Hutt for more than half his life.

[3] PCW: PARKing CHANce is also a play on our names, as well. We’re both Parks, as in our surnames, and we both have the syllable Chan in our given names.

When on assignment in Auckland, The Lumière Reader stays at the five-star Pullman Auckland.

2013-08-08 · Permalink · FILM Features Interviews In Cinemas Photo Essays

Hemingway and beyond

A conversation about great writers and filmmakers with British film boss Adrian Wootton, fresh off lecturing on Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

After his terrific Melbourne International Film Festival keynote on Ernest Hemingway, film culture tsar Adrian Wootton talked to me about Ken Loach, Graham Greene, and Venice. The lively Brit with colourful socks was expansive, fascinating company.

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ALEXANDER BISLEY: In your talk earlier today about Hemingway, you spoke about his amazing energy for writing and life. Who’s around these days who’s in that vein?

ADRIAN WOOTTON: In terms of filmmaking, I’ve always thought Steven Soderbergh. Even though he’s now said he’s retiring, I personally don’t believe it. He’s somebody who I’ve met and done stuff in festivals with over the years; I’ve always been incredibly impressed by how he wants to do everything. I’ve always been extremely impressed with Steven Soderbergh as a filmmaker and as a person who has got a lot he wants to say and a lot he wants to do. I can’t believe he’s not going to come back and make more movies. The biggest writers—it’s almost like a truism now—they keep themselves away from public life and celebrity. Most of the major writers hide from it, they run from it like the plague. They don’t court the publicity, they churn out books and people don’t really know anything about them. Whereas actors have become even more dogged by celebrity, film directors/writers have retreated. I think the biggest writers have retreated from celebrity and their personalities have almost become, in a lot of cases, anonymous.

John Le Carré spent years and years being enigmatic. I love him, he’s such an incredible raconteur and wit; he tells these wonderful stories about ludicrous incidents writing films and trying to be in a film. Being a friend of Graham Greene’s and friend of Alec Guinness’s, he’s got amazing stories. But he doesn’t do that kind of celebrity interview, so once in a blue moon he’ll give an interview and the rest of the time he hides away in Cornwall or Switzerland (where they’ve got a house in Geneva) and you don’t see him. I think that’s characteristic of a lot of writers. You name all these big serious novelists that publish books and you think, how much do you actually really know about any of them? The only person who you could say is a bit larger-than-life—which was kind of thrust upon him, and he’s retreated from it in recent years—is Salman Rushdie because of the whole Satanic Verses thing, and being guarded by armed police for 20 years. I guess a long-winded way of saying I can’t think of an example of an equivalent of Hemingway in the 21st Century.

AB: Alex Gibney was telling me about Martin Scorsese’s exceptional passion and energy for filmmaking and film history.

AW: There are three film makers that I have met in my life whose encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema astonishes and awes me. One: Quentin Tarantino, but even he doesn’t know as much as Marty. Scorsese is unbelievable. The first time I ever met him was when I was in my 20s, and I wrote a big article about him, and I hosted him at this event we were doing in the UK. I picked him up from the train station in a car, and in the half an hour we were in this car he went through more film references than I’ve ever met in my life before. I thought, “My god, how am I going to cope with this for three days?” It was amazing.

[caption id="attachment_8485" align="aligncenter" width="582"] ‘The Color of Money’[/caption]

AB: What film was he introducing?

AW: We did a special preview of The Color of Money. He had three gigs, one in London, one in Yorkshire and one in Scotland. It was my first real job and I couldn’t believe I’d got him in the town for 48 hours. I was looking after him and talking about movies every day. The other person I have to say who is up there with those two, is Bertrand Tavernier. Tavernier is astonishing. He started out as a press agent when he was very young in France. He ended up looking after John Ford. These American filmmakers came over with their late movies and he would look after them in Paris. John Ford liked getting drunk all the time, so he had to hide the bottle from him because he was doing his interview. Tavernier has these amazing stories about meeting great Hollywood filmmakers near the end of their careers. I think he’s a great filmmaker and every time I have the pleasure of going to Paris to meet him, he’s always got something to say which absolutely amazes me. I would agree with you, Scorsese is life-affirming in terms of his passion for cinema. But Marty isn’t a kind of actioner, he’s the reverse of that, he’s locked away in a projection room saying “I just need to see that again,” and he leads in that sense. When he’s not working, he leads quite a sedentary life and in fact it’s almost like he’s never not working, he never stops. He’s an amazing character.

AB: You’ve seen him a number of times over the years since that first meeting?

AW: Yeah, and it’s a funny thing because when he came to Yorkshire and when he came to Bradford, the people that were running the place then insisted that he visit the IMAX cinema. He’d never been in an IMAX before and it made him feel quite queasy seeing the film in IMAX. And then he said to me, “Well we’re in Bradford, Adrian [imitates Scorsese slapping his knee], so are we going to go for a curry tonight?” And I said, “Yeah Marty, whatever you want to do.” My bosses said, “Oh no, no, no, can’t take him out for a curry.” I said “Well this is kind of the curry capital of the UK, what’re you talking about?” And they said “No, no, we’re going to take him to a French restaurant.” I said, “a French restaurant in Bradford?! What are we taking him to a French restaurant in Bradford for?” We had this amazing row, and anyway we went to this flaming French restaurant which was mediocre. All the way through, Scorsese kept saying to me, “But where’s the curry Adrian?” For years afterwards, every time I met him, he said to me, “We never did get that curry.” So it’s a memory that has stuck for 25 years. Years ago, myself and a journalist called Jonathan Romney wrote a collection of essays called Celluloid Jukebox about popular music in the movies, and he was kind enough to write a preface for me. Then when he edited and put together the Bob Dylan documentary, he couldn’t come to the screening we had, but he did a small film for me which prefaced the screening of the film, which was just lovely. He’s always been very kind, a great friend to the British Film Institute, the Archive. He’s a terrific guy, for me personally, but also for the BFI.

AB: Godard famously said there were the five cinemas period, and he didn’t include British cinema in that. Your riposte would be to cite people like Stephen Frears and Ken Loach?

AW: I would cite them. Stephen Frears said something when he did a documentary about British cinema for the BFI and he cited Truffaut. I love Truffaut as a critic and filmmaker, but he cited Truffaut saying the problem with British cinema is that everybody speaks English, and he said the British in cinema is a contradiction in terms. Frears said, “What I said is bollocks to Truffaut.” I feel that. And I feel it not just about Loach and Leigh, who I love. I’m a huge fan of Stephen Frears, and all the young filmmakers; people like Lynne Ramsey, Andrea Arnold, and Ben Wheatley. But then I also have to say, “Hang on boys”: Carol Reed, David Lean, Pressburger, Hammer, and the Bond movies. So let’s not get carried away with ourselves, because for me there’s an amazing tradition of fantastic British films and British filmmakers. And then there’s our actors.

AB: Going back to that Frears documentary, they talk about Ken Loach being the greatest British filmmaker. What makes Loach special? Tell me a good story.

AW: Ken’s ploughed his own furrow forever, you know? And he’s never compromised. I’ve spent time with him, interviewed him on stage, and hosted him at film festivals over the years in different places. He’s always so kind of mild and meek until someone pushes his buttons. I remember one famous press conference that I was at in Cannes when he’d done Fatherland and the late and famous English film critic, Alexander Walter, stood up and started ranting at Loach as if he was a traitor, and Loach just got up and lacerated him. It was a moment of great theatre in the history of the Cannes Film Festival with Alexander Walter duking out at Loach who gave as good as he got. I’ve liked so many of his films over the years. I mean, how can you not? From Kathy Come Home and Kes, through to Raining Stones and beyond. Even things which people think are superficial. Looking For Eric is imbued with this unique sensibility. He manages to develop those long relationships with people like Paul Laverty. He manages to keep on making really interesting, idiosyncratic, and powerful films. And his Spirit of ’45 documentary is terrific, so I’m a great admirer.

[caption id="attachment_8486" align="aligncenter" width="582"] ‘The Spirit of ’45’[/caption]

AB: Yes, that documentary is a MIFF highlight. My 2013 favourites include A Touch of Sin, Grigris, and Stoker. You?

AW: Good Vibrations is warm, funny, and likeable dramatisation of a story of an Irish record shop owner who discovered the band The Undertones. The documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom is joyous and life-affirming, about a group of legendary but still obscure female backing singers. I am a friend and great fan of its director Morgan Neville, and think this might be his best film to date.

AB: That great sense of humour in Loach’s work, does he have that in person?

AW: It’s very wry and gentle in person; he’s not a bit joker or big wise cracker. He’s quite a private person and he’s quite retiring except when he’s promoting his work or he’s talking about something that he feels very strongly about. I have had more to do over the years with Mike Leigh; he goes to the film festivals a lot, he wants to argue with you about movies. I’ll be doing a Q&A with another filmmaker and he’ll be at the back of auditorium sticking his hand up to engage. So I have engaged and spent more face time with Mike than I probably have with Ken. But I admire both of them enormously.

AB: As someone who’s an advisor to the Venice International Film Festival, what are your thoughts on Venice; its strengths as a festival relative to the other Euro big boys?

AW: I love Venice. It’s a fabulous place to be. I find—as someone who goes to Cannes and Berlin—that you can get into pretty much everything you want to see. You get your press accreditation; it’s accessible. It is quite informal. They’re friendly. My friends who I help on the Venice Days programme are great, and there are worse places to be than on The Lido where it’s all being held. I’ll be there for the opening weekend; I always really enjoy it.

AB: Anything you particularly recommend this year?

AW: There’s a lot of stuff in the official competition at Venice, which I think is really good. Some of the Italian films in the competition; Gianni Amelio’s L’intrepido, for instance, is great. The other Italian film that’s in the competition that I really like is A Street in Palermo. The Venice Days programme is very strong. Bethlehem, a Palestinian film, and a Korean horror/thriller called Rigor Mortis are very good, too. I talked to Stephen Frears about Philomena and he’s very excited about it, and I’m really looking forward to seeing that there.

AB: Woody Allen hit England aided by your Film London outfit. Match Point is terrific.

AW: Woody came to the premiere and introduced the film with the then-Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. So there was this surreal, strange moment when Ken met Woody with me in the middle. He loved making films in London. Wherever he went he said how much fun he’d had, and so he made three movies in London. It’s been fantastic to see him have a career renaissance with really successful movies. The one I was talking about today, the Hemingway Midnight in Paris, is a wonderful love poem to Paris in the ’20s. It’s fantastic that he’s still inspired to make movies and that those movies are still really entertaining.

AB: On Midnight in Paris, that exciting Parisian cultural scene seems much harder to find these days, if it exists at all?

AW: I think you’re right. I think it is different. Obviously France and Paris still has a very strong film culture. You know they’re very passionate about movies and there’s a lot of really interesting movie makers, like Abdellatif Kechiche, who just won Cannes with La Vie D’Adèle. I think there’s a lot of really interesting movie makers, and I think French film culture is still very potent. I think in terms of artistic, art and literature, it doesn’t exist. It’s fair to say that, with the exception of one or two writers that sort of have an international appeal, it seems to me to be far less accessible and far less influential than it was. Paris doesn’t have the same zeitgeist that it’s had in the past. These things go in waves, but I think other places have outpaced Paris; whether it be London, New York, or other parts of the world. Paris has become a bit old fashioned in that context. You sort of struggle to name a really great French novelist at the moment.

[caption id="attachment_8487" align="aligncenter" width="582"] Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway in ‘Midnight in Paris’.[/caption]

AB: Your lecture quoted very funny Hemingway one-liners like, “Write drunk, edit sober.” Any of those that particularly resonate with you?

AW: I can’t write drunk [laughs]. A friend of mine who’s a scriptwriter said it was the other way around; he couldn’t write drunk, but he thought he was a much better editor of his own material when we was not sober. But I find that the only way that I can consistently write anything remotely sensible is by pretty much being sober. Which is very boring, so I have to be abstemious when I’m working. I think there’s a lot of bombast with Hemingway, but he had a kind of purity and vision about writing and about what he wrote. Even though it comes across as hyperbole, all you have to do to be a writer is sit at a typewriter and bleed, and he believed it. I think he had to believe it. Those things he said were his way of processing working, they were his mojo to focus him on the task at hand. He had to believe it was a tough, hard profession so that he could rationalise away the fact it was a sedentary occupation where you sit in a room quietly and don’t talk to anybody.

AB: But he did all that other stuff at the same time which informed his writing, essential to it.

AW: Well yes, even though some of the adventuring, philandering, drinking, and fishing was a distraction. The fact is, whereas Graham Greene was a machine, Hemingway had to do the things he did because he needed to draw on his own life. He wouldn’t have written The Sun Also Rises if he hadn’t gone bull fighting and hung out with all those people. He couldn’t have written A Farewell to Arms if he hadn’t been injured and had that love affair in 1917. He couldn’t have written For Whom the Bell Tolls if he hadn’t gone to the Spanish Civil War. So he had to have those experiences to write. Not all writers are like that. Greene was a bit like that; he did travel to the most dangerous, troubled spots in the world, whether it was Vietnam with The Quiet American, or Haiti with The Comedians. But the difference is Greene was a machine.

I went to Greene’s 1992 conference just after he died, and they gathered together a group of his friends. It was quite remarkable. Most of those people are dead now—the priest on whom he based Monsignor Quixote, and one of his great writing friends, a guy called Michael. He told this wonderful story about how in the 1950s he travelled around the world with Greene. But he became so disheartened by the end of this trip that he stopped travelling with him. Asked why, he said, “Well the thing is, Graham was a very big womaniser, but he could compartmentalise it all.” And it was a fact. If you see Greene’s manuscripts you can confirm it: he got up in the morning, and it didn’t matter how much he’d had to drink the night before or what he’d been doing, he would be at his desk at 6am and he would start writing. He would have an absolute ruthless routine where he’d write from 6 until 12, whereby he had to have written no less than 2000 words. And then downstairs, cocktails, parties, etc. And his mate would just be surfacing at this point because he’d be smashed from the night before, and Graham would say, “I’m finished writing for the day, let’s have a cocktail.” This guy said Greene was so demoralising to be with because he was churning out all this work and he wasn’t.

AB: There have been a lot of works about Graham Greene so I’m pleased your book approaches him from the film angle. When is that out?

AW: I hope next year. It’s something that is in a semi-finished state, and I just need to crack on when I have a space of time when I’m not running around the world doing five lectures and four panel discussions in four days. Graham Greene is someone who I am extremely passionate about because I admire his work so much and because of his engagement with cinema. He was such a brilliant film critic, and he had a really fantastic moment in the summers as a screenwriter, working with Carol Reed. He was a sort of producer; he appeared in movies and saw almost all of his work—certainly in terms of novels with the exception of A Burnt-Out Case—made in to a film or television adaptation. I don’t think there’s another writer who you can say, “He was a film critic, a scriptwriter, a producer, an occasional appearance, and had all of his work adapted.” I think he’s unique not just in the British cinema, but in world cinema for having that perspective. He led such an extraordinary, rich and complex life. And also, the reason I’m doing it is because there’s some great movies in there.

AB: Any burning question you’d like to ask Greene (and Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner, who you’ve been talking about here at the Melbourne International Film Festival)?

AW: With Greene, the burning question I always ask and I’m always fascinated by: why he could never make another movie with Carol Reed. They made two, and they made A Man in Havana almost as an accident; almost to stop Alfred Hitchcock doing it. Even though Greene suggested some ideas with Reed, it was a very long period and they clearly were natural collaborators. The question I would ask Greene is why didn’t it happen? Why did you not manage to carry on collaborating with Carol Reed? Because it seems like such a missed opportunity to not continue that collaboration. With the others, those great writers I’ve been talking about, I’d love to ask Faulkner what it really was like working on set with Howard Hawks and their adventures. I’d love to be in the room when they were arguing, gambling, drinking, because I think that must have been pretty special. I’d love to know what it was really like being with them in there.

Adrian Wootton will hopefully present his Graham Greene book at the Melbourne International Film Festival 2014. Thanks to Kimaya McIntosh for transcription assistance on this article.

MAIN IMAGE: Adrian Wootton speaking at the Sundance Film Festival 2012. Source: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images North America.

2013-08-17 · Permalink · FILM Features Interviews Film Festivals Books

The Hunter: An Interview with Guillermo Arriaga

Keynote speaker at Auckland’s Big Screen Symposium, writer and director Guillermo Arriaga shares thoughts on his film craft and collaborators.

Amores Perros in Spanish means: a very tough, profound, intense kind of love. You grab someone [grabs throat], you fight for it. That is Amores Perros, what it means for us. It was badly translated into English as Love’s a Bitch.

Guillermo Arriaga is a great cinematic reinventer. After his fractured, dynamic scripts for Alejandro Iñárritu’s Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel, his writing for Tommy Lee Jones’s directorial debut, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, was similarly luminous and resonant. “He’s so charismatic!” the Roman actress Alexia Murray (Gangs of New York’s Topsy) tells me at Arriaga’s rousing Big Screen Symposium keynote address. Writing, the Mexican filmmaker testifies, is an act of life over death. (At home the 55 -year-old tells himself: “Work, work, work.”) Earlier, in an incongruously insipid, Auckland University Business mini-lecture theatre, he shook my hand firmly, and we discussed Gael García Bernal, amore, hunting, and why screenwriting has no rules. Despite significant jetlag, he’s a commanding presence, whose perceptive answers are peppered with bursts of passionate intensity and gesture. Photography by James Black.

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ALEXANDER BISLEY: Amores Perros is such an exciting, visceral film, as urgent as a bullet to the throat.

GUILLERMO ARRIAGA: Amores Perros in Spanish means: a very tough, profound, intense kind of love. You grab someone [grabs throat], you fight for it. That is Amores Perros, what it means for us. It was badly translated into English as Love’s a Bitch. Amores Perros is people fighting for love, in one way or the other.

AB: During your writing lecture earlier today, I laughed out loud at your romantic fantasy exercise (as an earthy media studies professor), where all the guys desired threesomes.

GA: The sex fantasy, not romantic fantasy [laughs].

AB: As you said, it shows the clichés good writers are fighting against, even for such personal, intimate things. I have to say, I’m part of the five percent. The idea of a twosome is still exciting for me.

GA: Sometimes one woman can be two thousand women.

AB: Can you draw an overarching idea you want people to take from your work?

GA: The importance of love.

AB: The importance of love has come through very strongly since Amores Perros.

GA: Every one of the stories I have written has to do with love. It’s not only romantic love, it’s love for your family, love for your woman, even love for your dog.

AB: Love for your collaborators?

GA: Love for a friend, in the case of The Three Burials; love that damages and hurts, because love can be a bullet.

AB: Joe Pantoliano told me The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Best Screenplay winner at Cannes), captures the deep-rooted humanity of Tommy Lee Jones, and is his best film.

GA: When I planned to work with Tommy Lee Jones, I knew that I could write anything for the character because if I asked Tommy Lee to become a dog, he will become a dog. He’s such a good actor that he can be whatever he wants to be. And his persona, he’s like a very tough guy. But once you know him there are some fragile parts of him that can be used to develop a character on screen. So I knew I can put everything into the bag and he will pull out everything.

AB: What makes Gael García Bernal special to work with?

GA: That was a decision of Alejandro [Iñárritu], I have to acknowledge. Gael’s a cinematic animal! He has a very good presence. Everything he has to do for me is with the eyes, how much he can tell with his eyes. He has gravity.

AB: You won’t work with Iñárritu again?

GA: I will not work with Iñárritu again.

AB: I don’t believe directors are unique, singular gods; like you I believe in the essential importance of writers.

GA: We are creating the bones of the story; the bones and the blood of the story. We have the structure [from] where everything’s going to be built. If we have a bad bone structure everything will crumble done. It will be a corpse falling down.

AB: In your 2011 England talk you jibed wittily about bourgeois cinema: you know, nothing really happens, boring routine, people sometimes have sex—with themselves. The complete opposite to your work, which has an invigorating rawness.

GA: Well thank you.

AB: You’ve judged a variety of film festivals, Venice for example. How did you find it?

GA: I’ve been a juror at two main festivals: San Sebastian and Venice. The great thing is that you are seeing a panorama of what’s going on in world cinema. And you are discussing it with people you respect a lot, like Quentin Tarantino.

AB: Yeah.

GA: It’s very enjoyable. It’s what I call beautiful fights. I’ve been part of juries where there are real fights. Real, real fights like [mimes people hitting each other] “fuck you...”—

AB: In Mexico?

GA: No [laughs]. I was once in Venezuela on a jury.

AB: Shakespeare style, you like to put your characters on the edge of the abyss?

GA: Love it. Because I think that once you put people on the edge of the abyss the character is going to reveal.

AB: Words with Gods sounds like it does that? Tell me the idea of your short in the nine-film collaboration you are producing? Also featuring Serbia’s Emir Kusturica (Underground), Japan’s Hideo Nakata (Dark Water), and Australia’s Warwick Thornton (Samson and Delilah)?

GA: Words with Gods is to do with religion. I created the project, it’s almost done. My short has to do with atheism, I’m an atheist. It’s very strange, and Mario Vargas Llosa [Nobel Laureate creative consultant] decided it was going to be the closing short film, because he made a story thinking of which was the first religion to the last way of dealing with God. And he says the last way of living with God is atheism.

AB: Warwick Thornton’s film is strong?

GA: Yes, of course. He’s a good friend of mine from years ago. I was an advisor on his film Samson and Delilah.

AB: That’s my favourite Australian film of the last decade.

GA: Warwick’s a very strong guy, handsome.

AB: Very eloquent.

GA: Yeah [laughs]. He plays the tough guy, but he’s not that tough.

AB: Peter Gabriel, Words with Gods composer, notably scored Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.

GA: It’s a privilege working with him. He’s a great musician and a great human being. I love working with him.

AB: Tokyo featured memorably in Babel. How’s it working with Hideo Nakata?

GA: A great guy to work with, also. I have Hideo, I have Emir, I have Bahman [Ghobadi, Rhino Season], Hector [Babenco, Carandiru], Amos [Gitai, Ana Arabia]; Alexander, directors I have always admired are in this project.

AB: So, from Babel, the global interconnectedness of humanity: that’s quite a philosophy of yours, isn’t it?

GA: Yes, I would like to push for that. Because, for example, now we are interconnected. We are meeting each other. Life brought us to this exact point.

AB: Amores Perros was one of the first films that truly inspired me as a young critic. Now, I’m talking to you.

GA: Thank you very much. This is the very point.

AB: 21 Grams was inspired by your former health problems, the past possibility of needing a heart transplant. Forgive me for such a personal question, but you’re okay at the moment?

GA: Absolutely. Do I look bad?

AB: You look very well, particularly for a man who’s just flown halfway around the world. 21 Grams was very powerful. You still see that doctor who said to you, “I have good news. You’re not a hypochondriac”?

GA: He was great. He’s still my doctor. I still see him.

AB: Even for someone who has an interconnected global philosophy, there’s something to be said for staying based working from your home, isn’t there?

GA: I think most of my work has to do with my culture and my country, the contradictions and the products of my country so I want to be fed by it, you know? The nutrition that comes from living there.

AB: What is it like living in Mexico City these days?

GA: It’s the best place in the world. It’s a very interesting city. It’s a very beautiful city. When Tarantino went there, because I begged him to stay at my place, he thought of Mexico City like Mumbai—goats and cows on the street. It’s not like that. It’s a beautiful city. It’s a cold city. It’s not a warm city, in terms of climate, cause we’re up in the mountains. It’s more or less the weather for Auckland [at the (winter) time of interview], and many people think they are going to a tropical island.

AB: What happened when Tarantino stayed with you in Mexico?

GA: That’s a secret.

AB: You’re self-described as a “hunter that works as a writer.” What’s the connection between hunting and writing?

GA: When you are hunting you are looking for something, when you are writing you are looking for something. For my writing it’s important because hunting allows me to go to the very edge of life and death, and I like to write about life and death.

AB: Is hunting also relaxation from the stresses of writing?

GA: No, writing is not stressful. Stressful would be being a bank teller. Stressful would be a guy who works doing something, a job, he doesn’t like.

AB: Everyday it’s exciting, we get up and we’re doing something we want to do.

GA: It’s a privilege, man! It’s not stressful.

AB: You’re right.

GA: So, I will never get stressed because I’m producing; I’m excited because I’m producing. I’m excited because I’m going to shoot a film. I’m excited because I’m writing a novel. I’m not going to be stressed. This is very enjoyable.

AB: It must have been very enjoyable hunting with Tommy Lee Jones?

GA: It was very enjoyable hunting with him. We only hunted once together because the way we hunt is, he goes to one place and I go to another place. We scatter and then we come together. There was only once when we were in the same truck, and I killed a deer.

AB: What’s the longest time you’ve been out hunting?

GA: I think it was fifteen days, hunting deer in Mexico. I have always hunted in Mexico, basically. A bit in Texas, and just once in Argentina. This will be the fourth country I’m gonna hunt in my life.

AB:  Where are you taking your bow and arrow here in New Zealand?

GA: Ngamatea, I’m going for deer, some venison if it’s possible.

AB: Do you have a burning question you’d ask Hemingway and Faulkner?

GA: Both were hunters. So I will ask William Faulkner “where shall we go hunting bears?” [laughs]. And Hemingway, I’ll ask him “where shall we go hunt pronghorns?”

AB: Hemingway didn’t flourish in the Hollywood environment as Faulkner did. Faulkner adapted Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, a magical Bogart/Bacall film.

GA: Yeah I know, the success of Hemingway was the way he sold himself, as an outsider man, as a macho guy, tough, and his way of writing was very modern at the time. He was breaking the rules. When most of the people were very baroque, he was very straightforward. He sold his persona himself, and that was a great thing.

AB: I liked what you said earlier about how it’s important not to compromise your integrity, be bland.

GA: Well I think that there’s an audience for everything. There’s people who want to be entertained, there’s people who want to be confronted, there’s people who want to just have a good time, there’s people who want to have a party in the cinema. But they like to be challenged. So we cannot have everyone in the same bag, not everyone is in the same bag.

AB: Any films you’ve seen this year that have been particularly must-sees?

GA: I have been working as a monk, writing a new novel, so I haven’t been to cinema, but Beasts of the Southern Wild, that would be my favourite of this year.

AB: What can films do that books can’t, and vice versa?

GA: Films tell stories in a way that it has to do with third person. Books more in first person. So it’s depending on… films can portray more of the circumstances, books more how the circumstances affects someone.

AB: You acknowledge complexity, you point out your friends who also wrote great films—Y Tu Mama Tambien­ and The Motorcycle Diaries—they have a different philosophy on rules. But, I agree with your approach: the first rule of screenwriting is that there are no rules.[1] It’s totally against the idea of creativity, to put things in the straightjacket of rules.

GA: I think so. But there are people like Jose Vieira who think putting creativity on rules make you be more creative.

AB: More principles than rules?

GA: No, no, he says rules! Rules, not principles. Rules. Rules. On page 30 exactly, you have to have a turning point. Those rules. He loves them.

AB: Who are some film writers you enjoy?

GA: I enjoy, for example, Sam Shepard, Charlie Kaufman, David Mamet. Or a Spanish guy called Rafael Azcona, who I’m sure you don’t know. He’s already dead. He was a friend of mine. But he was our greatest film writer. You should look for it: Rafael Azcona.

AB: I will. What about Roberto Balaño? He’s the South/Central flavour of the moment down here.

GA: I know Roberto is very, very popular. I once had dinner with him.  I must confess I am not very much into what he writes about. I know he’s a good writer.

AB: Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is your favourite novel?

GA: Most of Faulkner, especially what he wrote between the age of 30-40.

AB: You’ve disproved that, your gallon of ink has gone well beyond 40.

GA: It’s running out I think. I shall keep it.

AB: Another interesting thing, unlike Faulkner you don’t drink?

GA: I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I’ve never done any kind of drugs.

AB: It’s a good way of being productive.

GA: It’s a good way of being alive! Of being aware of what’s happening.

© James Black 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at blackphotographic.

Guillermo Arriaga delivered the 2013 Big Screen Symposium’s keynote address. This conversation has been edited. Thanks to Melinda Jackson and Aaron Caleb Bardo for some transcription assistance on this article.

[1] GA: What I think is the one trick pony is really the three act kind of structure. Why do we think that we have to put rules on storytelling? Just because a Greek philosopher said two thousand years ago it has to be. Who says that on page 30, page 60, page 90, we always have to follow the same structure?

I think that every story has a different way to be told; each one of them. And we have to realise that in real life, in our daily life, we use extremely sophisticated storytelling. We never go linear, we never structure with a first act, second act, and third act. We always use this back and forth kind of storytelling. So why do we have to go always with this kind of structure?

I already said that I have no education at all in screenwriting. But when I have read all these manuals of screenwriting, they say things that I will never follow. And I have learned that the first rule of screenwriting, or any art, is having no rules. Everyone has to find their own way of doing things.

When on assignment in Auckland, The Lumière Reader stays at the five-star Pullman Auckland.

2013-08-20 · Permalink · FILM Features Interviews Photo Essays

The Dancer

A conversation with writer-director Toa Fraser, whose latest project, a film version of the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s acclaimed Giselle, heads to the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

The affable Toa Fraser, Giselle’s sharp-eared director, talks about learning from Peter O’Toole, No. 2’s debt to Graham Henry, romanticising the boozy self-destructive writer, and dancing between the carnal and the heavenly. Photography by Rath Vatcharakiet.

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ALEXANDER BISLEY: We talked about your passion for rugby 13 years ago. You must have been happy to do that Marmite ad with Graham Henry?

TOA FRASER: Graham Henry just wanted to do it and I wanted to get a performance. We talked a lot about performance psychology, which he knows a lot about, obviously. I like to think I know a little bit about it, too. So coming from two very different angles, there was a sort of ‘shots across the bow’ moment initially, but we really connected after a while. I learned a lot from him about ‘Red Head Blue Head’, the psychological way the All Blacks simplify what the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about: the state of flow being the most creative state to be in.[1] The All Blacks have figured out rituals. Each member of the team has a different personalised ritual for reminding himself to get out of what they called ‘Red Head’ and into ‘Blue Head’; a more creative, emotional state. Brad Thorne apparently chucks water all over himself, and Richie McCaw slaps his thighs a lot. I found it fascinating.[2]

AB: Does Mr Henry have a ritual?

TF: I don’t know. I didn’t ask him, Sir Graham. I felt that he was little suspicious of me at the start. We figured it out. We had some people in common. I went to Sacred Heart College, which is a rugby school. I’m really good friends with Chris Grinter who’s head of Rotorua Boys High School, and was a New Zealand secondary schools selector with Graham Henry.

AB: Were you nervous working with Sir Graham?

TF: Not really. I guess I learned a long time ago that I do my best work when I’m working to earn the respect of people that I respect.

AB: You’re energised by the challenge?

TF: Yeah. And I’d worked with Peter O’Toole. Peter O’Toole and I bonded over rugby. He’s a big rugby fan, knows a lot about rugby.

AB: He’s an All Blacks fan?

TF: He’s more of an Ireland fan. But when he and I met it was during the 2007 World Cup, and Ireland had just performed particularly badly and so had the All Blacks. So we had something in common.

AB: Working with Peter O’Toole on Dean Spanley; what a moment! Peter O’Toole said to you, “I’m going to teach you something that David Lean taught me.”

TF: How do you know that? I promised I wouldn’t share that, but must be loose-lipped.

AB: So, what did he teach you?

TF: It was a great day, one of the most memorable moments in my life. It was about the fourth day of shooting for Dean Spanley. He called me into his green room in the morning. He was reading the newspaper. I was a bit nervous and I said, “Hi Mr O’Toole, what’re you up to?” And he goes, “I’m just reading about my mate Norman,” meaning Norman Mailer. I was like, “Oh yeah, how’s he?” And he goes, “He’s dead,” and slammed down his obituary, which he’d been reading. He stood up (he has this way of standing up where he uses a lot of energy and power) and sort of towers above me, puts his hands on my shoulders and said, “I’m going to teach you something that David Lean taught me. Look into my eyes; what do you see?” I was like, “Um, I don’t know… um courage… ah, generosity.” He said, “Light. You see light,” and he showed me a picture of a model he’d cut out from a magazine, and you could see the fluorescent tubes in her eyes; very powerful. He said, “Make sure you light the actors eyes. The actors will love you for it.” I thought that was a really powerful lesson from somebody who’d done so many things. He’s most remembered for being in one of the greatest action movies of all time. His big tip from the epic cinema master was something very intimate, and was all about actors’ performance.

AB: I think what made Lawrence of Arabia was how it married the epic with the intimate. Your story reminds me of a quote from another favourite legendary actor, Robert De Niro: “The eyes have it.”

TF: Yeah it’s true. Norman Mailer wrote about ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ and Muhammad Ali. Mailer said that he felt like Muhammad Ali won the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ by using his eyes, an acting performance; convincing Foreman that he was panicking.

AB: Ruby Dee was also special?

TF: No. 2 was my first movie and I had spent four or five years developing it. I always hoped but never quite believed that it was going to happen. The day that she arrived was the day I finally said, “This must be happening.” But that night Ozzie Davis [her husband] died, and we all just felt like Ruby Dee’s going to go back to New York, and we’ll probably never see her again. I remember going into her hotel room to give her my condolences, and she said they had dimmed the lights on Broadway. She went back to New York to a funeral that Bill Clinton spoke at and Wynton Marsalis played at. But she came back a week later to Mount Roskill help us make our movie. She said before she left she was looking forward to coming back and celebrating life.

AB: In No. 2 Ruby Dee says, “Look at all this life.” That’s one of the strengths of your films and plays; life, vibrancy, energy. Contrastingly, in No. 2, Dean Spanley, and now Giselle, death is also a theme. Giselle is meatier, gruntier than Cinderella, which the Ballet initially proposed?

TF: I didn’t look too hard at Cinderella, but certainly I responded to Giselle, not only because the light and dark thing the story plays with really powerfully, but also because of the new take Johan [Kobborg] and Ethan [Stiefel] had on their production, which was to frame the whole story through the eyes of Albrecht [who woos Giselle] as an older man. I felt there was a real connection to Dean Spanley and No. 2.

AB: “Increasingly I see my work as a dance between accepted oppositions,” Murray Edmond quotes you in his essay, “I want you boys to cook a pig.” In Giselle and No. 2, there’s the dance between life and death, the carnal and the heavenly.

TF: I always liked Martin Scorsese talking about his work being very much like a conversation between the carnal and the heavenly. The opening to Casino, where they play Bach.

AB: The lovely opening from St Matthew Passion. There’s a fascinating documentary about music in Scorsese films, it opens with that.

TF: I grew up in the kind of family that wore that idea on its sleeve. Similar to the family in No. 2. Pacific Island families believe we can talk about our relationships with our dead ancestors very easily and go to church and participate in the Catholic mass, which for other cultures is more prohibited in terms of the kind of polytheistic attitude. But it was very common for us to go to church and then come out and start drinking sort of straight away. When I was living in London (after Dean Spanley, actually), I’d go to the Italian mass at the Italian church and I was always struck by [the way] you’d have this amazing mass with Verdi (it’s all in Latin and very operatic), and you’d come out and the old matriarchs would be puffing on their cigarettes and buying booze straight out of the van that’d parked straight outside. That’s what we’re here for right? To rub up against the world, and try to find some meaning through our conversations.

AB: Scorsese is one of my favourite directors.

TF: Yeah, I keep coming back to him. I don’t feel like my style is particularly influenced by him, but certainly I’ve been influenced by his career and his influences. He was certainly helpful with Giselle. What made The Last Waltz so special was being influenced by opera and theatrical productions. I love the fact that he’s kind of doing what hip-hop did a few years later by taking influences from wherever and dissolving the boundaries between high culture and low culture; pop culture and classical; finding some meaning in the connections between the two.

AB: More Toa Fraser dances include: light-dark, movement-stillness, introvert-extrovert.

TF: Introvert-extrovert is one of the oppositions I play with every day, especially professionally. I’ll say it again, I’m really inspired by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his work on creativity, and what he has found is that most genuinely creative people don’t fit within one extreme of introversion or extroversion. What they do is spend a lot of time in each position, and that’s very true for me. I spend a lot of time on my own; that’s very important to me. But then spend a lot of time being extremely connected to other people; I found the ballet process is a real encapsulation of that.

AB: As a lowly freelance writer I’m the same.

TF: It’s really important because you’d never write anything down if you’re not on your own. I think other people find it very difficult to live with. I’ve struggled with it over my lifetime.

AB: What are you like as an actual dancer, by the way? I can’t dance to save my life.

TF: It’s ironic because it’s one of my biggest fears, dance. My daughter who’s eight has got a very natural affinity to movement and dance, but I’m the guy at the parties that sticks very closely to the wall. I was very strongly looking for something more athletic to do after Dean Spanley, but it’s ironic that I’ve become involved in dance the way that I have because [laughs] I’m a terrible dancer.

AB: Muhammed Ali couldn’t dance. The Greatest had two left feet with women on a dance floor.

TF: One of my big regrets is that I haven’t invested the time in my life to figuring it out; why it’s a big fear, because it wouldn’t take long to get good at something like that.

AB: Has it impacted your personal life?

TF: Many a time. Story of my life [laughs].

AB: What’s your angle on it?

TF: It’s been a problem; let me put it that way. It’s been a perennial problem that I should really get around to addressing at some stage, and I’m sure I will. Actually, this had been an inspiring process, Giselle. Hanging out with some of the world’s best dancers and feeling confident and relaxed in the company. There is something about people that have got dance in their bones that is quite intimidating.

AB: How’s your routine as a filmmaker going?

TF: I fully embrace the change now. There are specific things I do in order to lock myself away, but I used to write from 10am to 2pm; that’s not feasible anymore. I’m the director of a company, so there’s a hell of a lot of marketing and admin stuff that I never really gave enough weight to.

AB: Marketing, we’ve all got to do it, be on Twitter.

TF: Yeah, and I really love that stuff. When I made No. 2, I think Facebook was in its real infancy. It was all Bebo and MySpace, and I was pretty resistant to it. But I have really turned the corner over the last couple of years. I read a book by this guy Frank Rose called The Art of Immersion, and he talks about the ways that the digital revolution is changing the way that we tell stories. For me, it comes back to a more Pacific Island storytelling idea, which is a lot more participatory.

AB: “How do we handle the blur not just between fact and fiction, but between author and audience, entertainment and advertising, story and game?” Mr Rose put it.

TF: I’m now a real advocate of digital. It relates to the idea of a Pacific that is connected in a world that’s connected in a deeper way than just talking shit. It’s all Papatuanuku underneath. I don’t think it is just about LOLcats and people showing each other pictures of their tits. I think there is a genuine way that digital has been able to take our connections as human beings to another level, like the Arab Spring on Twitter.

AB: The great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami says good writing is like manual labour’ really energetic. So you could also say that writing is like rugby?

TF: Yeah, there’s a physical component to writing. It’s something else that Graham Henry and I connected on, and the word ‘holistic’, which is something that he’s passionate about. I would like to think that I take a lot more of a holistic approach to my work these days.

AB: What does holistic mean?

TF: Well, I take care of myself a lot better physically than I used to, and I have made peace with when I was a younger writer. Like a lot of young writers, I had the romantic idea of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Ian Fleming, romanticising the boozy self-destructive writer thing and I’m not interested in that any more. I want to be able to continue doing what I do for a lot longer than 40.

Actually, that wasn’t for me. I mentioned that I played rugby as a teenager and in my early 20s, and I was really fulfilled doing that, so I have really embraced a physical lifestyle more than I did back in my early writing days.

The big turning point was when I got a Fulbright scholarship to Hawaii. I was really inspired by Laird Hamilton, the big wave surfer. It’s my two biggest work-ons: surfing and dancing. I’m a lot less nervous about surfing than I am about dancing, but I’m as good at each. I followed him to the north shore of Maui where he lived, and I ended up getting in touch with his yoga teacher, and she ended up organising an apartment for me under her yoga studio. So I was writing everyday, and doing yoga everyday, and it was a very special time.

AB: When I interviewed you in Mt Victoria 13 years ago—with the thrilling No. 2 on stage at BATS Theatre—you were overdoing it?

TF: Very much so. One of my regrets is not playing rugby when I was living in Mt Vic.

AB: To give you some balance?

TF: Yeah, and also meeting some new people and figuring out a way to do that introvert-extrovert thing.

AB: DBC Pierre told me, “I can’t drink and write, it’s a great sadness.” So kicking the romantic notion of the excessively drinking, self-destructive writer is a critical weakness you’ve had to overcome?

TF: It’s a destructive concept. It might be right for other people and I don’t want be dictatorial like that, but certainly I feel in a very fertile creative patch at the moment, and I know that I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t taken my health as seriously as I did.

AB: You’re 38 now?

TF: Yeah. I wrote the famous sex scene in Bare when I was 23, and all care and no responsibility. Some of the students who are performing that at school were two when I wrote that, and it feels a bit awkward.

AB: Vincent Ward told me you’re a “good guy, a character.” Last time you spoke to Lumière, you talked compellingly about River Queen[3], and had a snappy one-liner on long weekends at influential friends’ “number two homes of number one citizens.”

TF: I have enjoyed Sam Neill’s hospitality. It’s fantastic how Sam did Harry[4] for instance, and sends cases of wine to people that he wants to support, and tweets about theatre he’s seen in New Zealand that he’s found inspiring. He’s a genuinely supportive New Zealander, and a great guy to boot.

AB: Speaking of number one citizens, another thing about Graham Henry, which many people don’t realise, is his quietly groundbreaking multicultural approach with the All Blacks, bringing the best aspects of Polynesian, Maori, and Pakeha culture together.

TF: Absolutely. When I was at school, Laurie Mains picked the first all-Pacific All Black backline, which included Walter Little and Stephen Bachop. That was inspiring for me as a Pacific Island teenager. It came out of the groundbreaking schoolboy teams that Chris and Graham Henry had picked, coached. I don’t think people have appreciated the groundbreaking work that they did in terms of bringing more Maori and Pacific Island players into the All Black fold, and making that a part of our national culture in general. I’d even go as far as to say that I’m not sure if there would’ve been a Sione’s Wedding or No. 2, if it hadn’t been for people like Graham Henry and Chris Grinter[5] especially, making those changes in such an important mainstream part of our culture as rugby.

AB: Indeed. Is there an All Black that would make a particularly good biopic?

TF: I wrote two All Black scripts a while ago, and I don’t know if anything’s going to happen. I came back to New Zealand after Dean Spanley to begin a project that was an All Black biopic; I was more interested in telling the player’s story as a teenager. We got really close to getting the money together for that but didn’t and it was disappointing. I’ll hopefully get to do that at some stage.

AB: You find collaborating with your friend Don McGlashan energising?[6]

TF: Don’s written a new song for Giselle, a very different song to ‘Bathe in the River’. He made this beautiful piece of work called ‘When the Trumpets Sound’. Very personal, very heartfelt and very challenging.[vii]

AB: I’m happy we agree about Sal’s friend Dean in On the Road; you tweeted your disproval. I do not get why people like Dean. I find him so unpleasant and uninteresting.

TF: Well, I was really looking forward to that movie, and I didn’t get through it, I found it difficult to watch.

AB: Dean did the worst thing you could possibly do; his friend was really sick in Mexico and he not only abandoned him, but took all his fucking money and stuff. That’s the lowest of the low.

TF: He’s just an asshole. The worst, more annoying thing, was that the friend kept admiring him. And maybe in the book (I wouldn’t know), maybe there’s a reason for that. But in the movie it just came across as, “now why the fuck do you do that to yourself?”

AB: James K. Baxter wrote that famous poem dissing Auckland: “Oh Auckland, you great asshole.” We disagree.

TF: I really love Auckland. Auckland’s my home for better or worse. It goes back to that thing, it’s where my Pacific Island family is.

AB: In addition to Hawaii, are there other places in the Pacific that are particularly powerful for you? Your Dad’s Fijian?

TF: Yeah sure, I’ve never really come to terms with Fiji. I went a few times at the beginning of the 2000s, including when I had a scholarship to USP. But Levuka is a very potent place and very inspiring place for my storytelling. Levuka is a place where all kinds of people from all over the world came and it was a real late 1800s mash up of cultures. I think the kind of culture that emerged from the town was something that my dad grew up with and gave to me and has informed my storytelling.

AB: To close, When We Were Kings, an inspirational documentary for Giselle, isn’t it?

TF: Absolutely, nice circularity from you there with Norman Mailer. The ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, I loved that. I remember my legs shaking because I didn’t know who won that fight; I was genuinely shaking with tension. I saw that with my brother at the St James, at the Auckland Film Festival.

AB: What connections do you draw between boxing and ballet?

TF: Oh, plenty: the discipline, the footwork, and taiaha. In Maori martial arts, the feet are the most important element of the whole body. There is a holistic approach to both disciplines that I’m interested in.

AB: Giselle’s male lead Qi Huan is a fighter; a martial artist.

TF: Absolutely. Spending time in rehearsals with the Royal New Zealand Ballet, I learned and I knew this, but I didn’t appreciate it as strongly as with the All Blacks. We want to see the All Blacks sweat and we want to see them get cut. We want to see them bitch about being tired, and we don’t want them to come off the field looking like they haven’t exerted themselves. If they’re not looking like shit, then they haven’t played the game. Whereas ballet is totally the opposite, they’re exerting themselves to the most incredible athletic heights, and yet they are expected to disguise this fact from the audience totally.

© Rath Vatcharakiet 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at

‘Giselle’ premiered at the New Zealand International Film Festival, and is on general release now. This conversation has been edited. Alexander Bisley was Salient/’s Rugby Writer 2004-2006, including writing ‘Legally Centre’, the first feature on All Black Conrad Smith. Thanks to Kimaya McIntosh (and Alix Campbell) for some transcription assistance on this article.

This article is the unabridged version of the transcript that appeared as a 1300 word interview in The Sunday Star-Times, published August 18, 2003.

[1] TF: It’s crazy. You know you’re in the right place when connections start firing and it turned out that I knew—obviously, unconsciously—that Bob Dylan had his motorbike accident in 1967 and was treated to in Saugerties in the Catskills [Fraser had just got back from filming pick-ups with Giselle female lead Gillian Murphy in New York State, in a late location change]. And the whole sequence, the story, in I’m Not There with Richard Gere playing an older (or rather introverted) version of Bob Dylan, was in the Catskills, just over the hill from Woodstock. And The Band, who Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz had been about, they produced the Basement Tapes album with Bob Dylan in Saugerties in the Catskills. I’m buzzing about this because I’ve only just got back. It’s actually something Csikszentmihalyi talks about: when you feel like you’re connected to the universe and feel very confident things are firing, you know you’re in the state of flow and you know you’re in the right place in terms of creativity. James Fenimore Cooper, who’s seen as a romantic writer—he wrote The Last of the Mohicans, and I’m a big fan of Michael Mann—I like that he was inspired by that particular part of the world. And I only found that out after we got back from the Catskills.

[2] AB: When did you stop playing? TF: I played until I was about 20. It’s one of my biggest regrets that I didn’t carry on playing. I was pretty good. I started playing when I was at school in England and I was terrible. Then I came here and I got very competitive at Sacred Heart.

[3] TF: With River Queen, Vincent Ward brought a really really powerful forty page long treatment to me. My thing was more about getting the action story happening. I was intrigued by the idea of taking that sort of Joseph Conrad, John Ford’s The Searchers, journey up the river or journey into darkness, and flipping it and making it into a story about people who are constantly moving. People talk about going back to your roots. In my family, we’ve always been sea-based family. My grandfather was a seaman and his father was a seaman. That’s the thing that really intrigues me about River Queen, the idea of people who are constantly shifting in terms of identity. The Maori characters were culturally complex. It wasn’t cowboys and Indians... It was a really challenging experience working on River Queen. Vincent is a hard task master, a guy with real vision and determination. We are a bit chalk and cheese in terms of our writing practices. Yeah, I have to say I stopped working on River Queen in 2001 and Vincent went off and continued the development with other people. I did a couple of notes occasionally. When I saw it I was blown away and proud of my involvement.

[4] Harry is out on DVD this month.

[5] TF: Chris [a former top schoolboy coach, now Rotorua Boys High principal] was Jonah Lomu’s First XV coach when he was at Wesley. He was picking Pacific Island schoolboys when he was being recommended not to. If you look at it, Jonah was the first kind of real ‘ghetto’ All Black. We’d had Pacific Island All Blacks before—you think of Brian Williams and Michael Jones—but Jonah was a new mould, and it was kind of challenging for mainstream New Zealand.

[6] AB: What makes Don McGlashan a special person? TF: Well he’s a very generous man and has been very kind to me over the last five years. I was in hospital recently for a minor surgery; it was a result of working too hard. I checked in to hospital myself, but Don was the first person I called to ask to shift my car out of the car park and stuff like that. My story’s not uncommon. He’s a very genuinely, generous guy, for a lot of people. AB: He’s got a gentle but sharp sense of humour, also. TF: Yes, very strong. And it’s not without a perceptive nudge when you’re needing it.

When on assignment in Auckland, The Lumière Reader stays at the five-star Pullman Auckland.

2013-08-21 · Permalink · FILM Features Interviews Theatre & Performing Arts Photo Essays

The Orator

New Zealand’s inspirational Savage on Samoan humour, ‘Swing’, his deadbeat dad’s death, and dissing Wiz Khalifa.

Is that guy from New Zealand? Really? He’s great!” Seth Rogen once exclaimed about Savage before collapsing into laughter like his affectionate Knocked Up character. We were discussing his and Judd Apatow’s accidental father classic: the South Auckland rapper’s ‘Swing’ scored that scene where Rogen hooks up with Katherine Heigl’s hottie on the club dance floor. Like many, they don’t know that before Demetrius Christian Taanuu Savelio’s smash hit made him a star in America, came an extraordinary journey up from South Auckland’s toughest streets.

“I was born a fuckin’ mistake,” Savage growls on ‘All In’. His violent father Sefo Lefe’e Savelio never wanted or loved him. While Demetrius’s mother Aiga was pregnant with him in 1981, she was looked after by a Greek woman. Two decades on, Dawn Raid’s Deceptikonz dropped their pioneering 2002 album Elimination, hitting #2 on the New Zealand charts. The cover art wittily featured Savage sitting holding the sky tower like King Kong. His song ‘Broken Home’, the Once Were Warriors of hip hop, hacked its way into heads like mine, as raw and powerful as a machete:

Brought up in Manurewa was a little rugged kid
I struggled through pain as if I broke a hundred ribs
I was 7 years old eating lunch from garbage tins...
I waited on you until the hours got darker
I just couldn’t believe I had a coward as a father…
Is it true? You never once held me or showed me love…
Because of that you will grow old all alone...
It’s hard for me to stay still and stay calm
I looked into the mirror ripped half of my face off…

It’s Wellington, 2013. Cool and collected, Savage shakes my hand firmly, and takes a seat.

I raise his 2005 debut solo album Moonshine’s ‘Set Me Free’, where he orated about overcoming being a suicidal young man. I thank him for representing on suicide, mentioning a close friend killed himself. “Oh bro,” the big man with a big presence says emotionally, leaning towards me from a comfy black chair. “Wow, no journalist’s ever picked that one out. That was actually my favourite song on Moonshine, particularly close to my heart. I try to reach out to people that are going through the same shit. If I’m not out there letting people know that they’re not alone, then I’m not doing my job, not just as a rapper, but as a human being.” He’s always wanted to give back to the community, particularly to young people. “I came from man, you name it, I pretty much went through it.”

Savage is a focused and engaging subject, confiding vivid truths about his life that haven’t seen print. At his lowest ebb, he tells me, he was homeless and sleeping under bridges, inspiring ‘Set Me Free’. “That song meant set me free from my past and let me go the right way and make something of myself. I was singing about my darkest, darkest hours when I was on the streets, that’s the part where I don’t wanna live. Then to the music side where I’ve actually got something to fight and live for,” he pauses, lowering his voice almost to a whisper, “I don’t wanna be going anymore.”

The earthy, genial guy is wearing a black lavalava, tshirt, glasses and cap, with a sweat-soaked white towel draped around his shoulders. One plain chain around his neck, and well-groomed facial hair. After Elimination, he realised he had to let go of all the anger and hurt about what his father did and didn’t do; it was gnawing away at his insides. “You’ve gotta let go of it,” he says. “A lot of it really fucked me up as a teenager. I did a lot of bad things.”

He was expelled from high school, and got caught up in a cycle of gangs, drug dealing, and violence (“I put myself in a lot of hard situations”). Following serious trouble with gangs (“I had to go into hiding. I had a lot of people after me”) and an ugly confrontation with his father during his grandfather’s headstone unveiling in Samoa, he went back to Auckland resolved to get stuck into recording. “Bro, to be honest ‘Broken Home’ was that song that was me taking all this shit that I bottled in about my old man and putting it out there on tape. The tape got to him in Samoa somehow, and apparently it really hurt him emotionally. My mum would tell me that she heard stories that he was really upset. I just laughed, I was like ‘fuck, I hope he’s upset. I want the world to know what kind of arsehole he was.’”

“I wasn’t going to put ‘Broken Home’ on Elimination, but my Deceptikonz boys sat me down and said, ‘Look, we need to put it on the album. People need to hear your story.’ I thought it was just for me, no one will ever understand this kind of shit,” he says, raising his arms—as he often does— displaying his South Auckland tattoo on his right arm, his Samoa tattoo on his left.

“You will find peace beneath the wood beneath the stone,” ‘Fallen Angels[2] kicked off his redemptive journey. In 2008, the song’s totemic line “Against all odds we kiwis do fly” came true. Moonshine’s ‘Swing’ soared through an American music industry decimated by piracy, selling 1.8 million singles (and also featuring on