Interview with Derek Hill, author of Charlie Kaufman and Hollywood’s Merry Band of Pranksters, Fabulists, and Dreamers

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Derek Hill is an American abroad, currently residing in rural Ireland. His writing has appeared in numerous print and online publications, such as The Third Alternative, VideoScope, Mystery Scene, Video Watchdog, Images: A Journal of Film and Popular Culture, and All Movie (previously The All Movie Guide). He was also a contributor to the three volume Greenwood Press Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (writing about the Planet of the Apes film series and Close Encounters of the Third Kind). He’s currently writing a book for Wallflower Press’ Cultographies line about Alex Cox’s seminal 1980s cult film, Repo Man.

RA: Could you briefly describe the book, and tell us what motivated you to write it.

DH: The book is a look at contemporary (mostly) American filmmakers Richard Linklater, David O. Russell, Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola, and Michel Gondry-a sort of new American New Wave if you will. Using the films of Charlie Kaufman as the center-pieces, so to speak, I felt that there were a number of filmmakers who had enough shared themes and comedic sensibilities to be viewed as a movement. It’s an unconscious, unplanned movement, to be sure, but a vital psychological one. I think that these filmmakers are some of the most engaging, imaginative, original, storytellers working in commercial film today. There’s a real sense of experimentation (especially with someone like Linklater or Russell), virtuosic style, and a peculiar mix of angst and comedy that seemed pertinent to these troubled times. There’s a real sense of dissatisfaction with a lot of the characters and the humor running through all of the films. And while most of these films are ostensibly comedies, there’s an underlying melancholy and seriousness in them as well which seems completely antithetical to what’s coming out of the Hollywood machine or even the indie-trenches for that matter. Many of the filmmakers had been written about only in terms of their loose affiliation as directors in the “independent film” scene or whatever… not in terms of their thematic or stylistic similarities. It just felt appropriate to engage them on an aesthetic or thematic level instead of a consumer-oriented level which would be much too broad for what I wanted to do.

(more after the break)

RA: What was your first Wes Anderson film, and what was your reaction to it?

DH: Rushmore was the first one. I immediately liked it for its sense of style, acting, and comedy, but I was really impressed with Anderson’s assured directing and he seemed to be cinema literate. Any half-clever filmmaker can pop off references to other films, dropping them into their story like synthetic bonbons. But I felt that Anderson actually understood the context of the things he was referencing. It’s a fine line for some, I guess, between stealing and paying homage to the film being referenced. Time has shown, though, that Anderson is no mere collagist. I think the emotional weight that he gives his stories is proof of that and I’m curious to see where he’ll go after Darjeeling Limited, which seems like a transitional film-a mix of the looseness of Bottle Rocket with some of the exuberant stylistic flourishes from Tenenbaums and Life Aquatic

RA: What is your favorite Wes Anderson film, and why?

DH: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. It was really the first one that I fell completely in love with. Maybe it was the whole Jacques Cousteau thing, the Bowie covers, or the exaggerated anti-action plot, the fact that it was shot in Italy at Cinecittà which gave the film a physical scope that Anderson hadn’t had before, but I fell in love with the whole wild thing. I then went back to the earlier films and sort of saw them with new eyes, I guess. But Life Aquatic is still my favorite, with Darjeeling Limited pretty close behind.

RA: “I lose my touch, man.”

Wes has been fiercely criticized in some quarters for his obsession with ‘minor’ details, for revisiting the same themes, for developing a troupe of actors that he uses in every film, and (most shockingly) for being racially insensitive. What do you make of these criticisms?

DH: Excluding the supposed racism in his films, it’s what auteurs do-consistency of vision, exploration of a handful of themes, using the same actors over and over again. So if we castigate Anderson for these cinematic sins then we have to scold Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford and David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick and Yasujir? Ozu and Luis Buñuel and on and on. I think the criticism is unfair and displays a lack of awareness about how some directors choose to work. If you don’t like Anderson’s style, so be it. It’s the way he’s chosen to tell stories and I don’t think it’s necessarily a negative thing that he may have a limited thematic or stylistic palette. There’s nothing wrong with that. Look at the films of Lynch in regards to style. They’re distinctive yet rather limited; same with his themes. Even Kubrick, who tried his hand with various genres and style, was repeatedly working his way through ideas concerning control systems and the chance that what we label individuality wasn’t even possible within these constraining social and biological systems. Big, bold themes… but “limited” as well. Anderson is no different. In regards to racism, I don’t think his films betray a racist streak. Is he guilty of a sort of cultural exoticism? Romanticizing his foreigners through the eyes of his benign aristocratic misfits? Maybe… but Anderson romanticizes all of his characters in the same manner, so I don’t think the argument holds much truth. He’s very much in the tradition of humanist directors like Jean Renoir or François Truffaut in that way. No room for bad guys, just misunderstood people.

RA: I think that The Darjeeling Limited was, in effect, a response to some of these arguments. What do you think?

DH: Absolutely. I think that Anderson, at first, plays on the misguided attempt of using the Western idea of India and its people as a surrogate, a short cut to some kind of spiritual enlightenment or ridiculous idea of self-improvement, etc. That’s certainly what the brothers intend. But it’s an arrogant and wrong-headed endeavor, which they eventually start to figure out even before the death of the young Indian boy railroads their narratives. Much like Sofia Coppola’s Japan-through-Western-tourist-eyes in Lost in Translation, the India of Darjeeling is a place of secondary sources; experience defined by the books, movies, fantasy of pop culture. The brothers are completely isolated emotionally and physically from a truly vibrant existence, unlike their mother who is doing something worthwhile. But by the end of the film, I think he’s given his lunk-headed brothers an opportunity to keep that door to the outside world wide open. They’re sort of characters lifted from a 1930s screwball comedy-wealthy, sheltered, likeable boneheads-who have been tossed into the imaginative terrain of Rudyard Kipling’s stories and Satyajit Ray’s films. I’m not sure the brothers are more enlightened by the end of the film as they’re racing for the next train. But I have hope for them. Much more than at the beginning.

RA: Some fans and critics questioned Wes’ use of India in The Darjeeling Limitedmost notably the wife from the Reel Geezers — arguing that it was somehow colonial, even orientalist. What do you think?

DH: I’m with Lorenzo on this one.

RA: Who is your favorite Wes Anderson character?

DH: Probably Steve Zissou. He’s such a bastard, as are most of Anderson’s father figures. But I think Murray’s droll, exhausted shell of a man was him at his funniest and most infuriating. Bob Mapplethorpe (Robert Musgrave) from Bottle Rocket is probably third. I don’t have a second one.

RA: Your book is about a group of contemporary directors who you consider the vanguard of an American New Wave. First, might you explain to our readers what you mean by American New Wave? And, how do you think Wes fits into this Nouvelle Nouvelle Vague? How do you think this American New Wave compares to the post-studio system ‘New Hollywood’ films of the late 60s and early 70s?

DH: By American New Wave, I mean a movement of filmmakers who have provoked the status quo and energized, revitalized, and altered the way we look at film. The individual filmmakers in the book, although tethered by thematic or stylistic sensibilities, each have strong cinematic visions that aren’t like anyone else. But while they break away from the norm, all of these filmmakers are part of a continuum of cinematic tradition and history. Now, whether or not the filmmakers in my book will ever be viewed by subsequent generations in the same reverential manner as a Ford or Kurosawa or Godard or Scorsese… time will tell. I think they will… but that’s a mug’s game to predict. In regards to Anderson and the nouvelle vague, I think he’s most like Truffaut. Not on a strict stylistic level, but definitely in his approach to characters and narrative. Although Anderson might appropriate little things from Godard-like using distancing effects to keep the audience aware that the film is in fact not “reality”, much like Tarantino does-I think Anderson is much too close to his characters to ever distance himself. He is a commercial filmmaker working in Hollywood after all, unlike Godard. Any similarities are purely superficial, not that Anderson has been trying to emulate him to begin with. I think Fellini has actually been a much stronger influence on him than Godard any way. The whole New Hollywood movement of the late 1960s and 1970s-which was also known as the American New Wave, the Movie Brat generation, the Hollywood Renaissance, and so forth-always seemed too nebulous and all-encompassing to be an appropriate new wave for me. I mean, certainly it was a major movement, a tidal wave of talent washing away the old ways of doing things and all… but it’s funny to me how certain directors who were initially major members of the “revolution”-e.g. Paul Mazursky, Michael Ritchie, Jerry Schatzberg, Monte Hellman-have subsequently been squeezed out (though Hellman has been squished back in it seems) depending on who was fashionable at the moment pen hit paper, so to speak. I skimmed the Wikipedia page about New Hollywood a few weeks ago and was shocked and amused to see Ridley Scott’s name listed as a pivotal member of it! When did that happen? And George Romero? I’m sure Romero, who was no doubt working his ass off in Pittsburgh throughout the 1970s trying to raise cash for his truly independent films, would love to know he was a “Hollywood Maverick” at the time. It’s just silly. So, I guess to answer your question… I think this new wave compares to the 1970s version by getting a smaller book, although one more precise regarding parameters. Seriously, though, I think the filmmakers in my book are similar to the filmmakers of the 1970s in terms of them trying to maintain their creative visions while working within a completely amoral, capitalistic money making image machine. Hollywood is a very different place than it was in the 1970s, but I imagine the problems are still the same for filmmakers who don’t necessarily make “blockbusters” or have concept-driven plots, etc. They have to appease the moneymen, hope the film turns a profit so that they can continue making films on that scale, and still maintain the vitality, freshness, and risk that made them interesting in the first place. That’s difficult. No wonder a director like Richard Linklater chooses to stay based in Austin, Texas, and only deal with the Hollywood machine as little as he has to.

RA: What do you think Wes Anderson’s greatest strengths are as a director?

DH: His sympathy for his characters, in his ability to give them complex, messy psychological lives, and for his ability to generate amazing performances from his actors. He has a strong sense of tonal control and even when things feel out of sorts-as many critics and fans felt about Life Aquatic-I feel that some of the most interesting clashes (let’s say of acting styles) make for fascinating viewing. Individual scenes may pop out of joint, but the overall vision is intact. Not everything has to work perfectly for it to work. And like Jacques Demy in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, Anderson is masterful at infusing a sort of heightened realism into his snow globe meticulousness. What keeps his films from drifting into outright cartoonishness or completely artificial is that emotional weight and complexity. I can’t think of many directors with such an overt theatrical style who are capable of maintaining that balance.

RA: What of his weaknesses?

DH: Losing the balance. That danger is always there with him, and I realize that plenty of people (critics and fans alike) felt that Anderson had gone off the rails with Life Aquatic for becoming too enamored with what a big budget could offer him at the expense of the characters.

RA: How would you assess the current state of American cinema?

DH: As depressing as it ever was and as exciting as you want it to be.

RA: Wes has said, in response to some of the criticism we discussed earlier, that he is happy with the thematic and stylistic continuity that flows through his films so far, that they might sit on a shelf together. What do you think is next for him? Will he add to this shelf, or start a new one?

DH: I hope that he simply continues telling stories in his own peculiar and distinctive voice. That sort of stylistic continuity and unity has served him well so far. I’m still not convinced he should alter what comes naturally. It’s sort of like asking David Lynch to stop being so weird.

Derek Hill’s first book Charlie Kaufman and Hollywood’s Merry Band of Pranksters, Fabulists, and Dreamers, published by Oldcastle Books in the United States, is now available. He also regularly writes on his blog, Detours, and contributes to the Rushmore Academy.

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