CHILD OF GOD-Scott Haze - 2One of this year’s most startling films has to be Child of God. It took a while for this film critic to warm up to it while watching it. It’s harsh, spare but ultimately eye-opening. Once you tangle with its stark intentions: accepting the humanity of a man who commits reprehensible acts, this is truly a film that deserves respect (read my review: James Franco captures pathos of a necrophiliac psycho with ‘Child of God’). The film, based on the 1974 book by Cormac McCarthy and directed by the popular actor James Franco, challenges the audience on several levels. Viewers are not only expected to bring open minds but also a sense of empathy for a character most movies would portray as frightening or despicable. That demands the audience to travel to a dark place within themselves.

I spoke with the film’s star, actor/director Scott Hazevia phone ahead of his visit to the Miami Beach Cinematheque where he will sit down and talk with two film critics about Child of God for about an hour. “Variety” film critic Justin Chang and “Hudak On Hollywood” film critic Andres Solar will engage Haze during the Knight Foundationsponsored series “Speaking In Cinema.” The event will feature clips of the film and will be recorded on video to be archived for educational purposes.

Speaking from his car in Hollywood, California, Haze talks openly about the lengths of his preparation and the baggage that comes with being judged as part of a Franco-directed film. Much of our conversation has already been published in the “Miami New Times” art and culture blog “Cultist.” Read it by jumping through the logo to the blog below:

cultist banner

We spoke for nearly a half hour, so there was a lot to our chat. Below you will find a modified Q&A featuring lots of the great material I could not fit into the “Cultist” story. It captures the gist of our 25-minute conversation without repeating anything from the “Miami New Times” story:

Hans Morgenstern: Have you ever been to Miami?

Scott Haze: I’ve been everywhere in the United States except for Miami, which is crazy.

Do you have any expectations?

My expectations are really probably very lame. Miami’s been such a backdrop for some of my favorite movies as a kid, so the expectations I have are that it’s a great city, it’s a fun city. There’s a lot of beautiful women. There’s a lot of parties.

I have a sense that you and Franco worked very closely on this film, which I think is one of the most humanizing portraits of a serial killer that I have seen.

You know, this project started as a passion project with James years ago. He knew that Sean Penn wanted to make the movie, and he’s a huge fan of Cormac McCarthy, so I guess it started as his desire to translate this project into a film. He does a lot of adaptations, but this was a dream project. This one and As I Lay Dying were the two movies that he wanted to make before he died.

What is the audience supposed to take away from this film?

I don’t know. I think that’s the cool thing about cinema. People are obviously not going to see The Wizard of Oz or Spiderman. You walk away with different things when you watch Child of God. I’ve talked to a lot of people who have walked away with many, many different things. A lot of people have connected to the feeling of looking at somebody who’s really alone and what it was liked in the 1950s in Tennessee. It could happen to somebody because back then they didn’t have Instagram, they didn’t have Twitter, they didn’t have Facebook, so Lester probably couldn’t have gone online and made friends, so it’s a different time. I think a lot of people have felt — if they look at being isolated and being alone for that amount of time — what it looks like. Some people are deeply moved by it, some people are rooting for Lester, some people cheer him on. Some people are horrified, but they want to see the story unfold, so they stick with it. It’s been really varied.

What did you do to get into this character’s head?

I did a lot of stuff. What I did was I realized I had to lose a lot of weight because I just played a Marine, had a shaved head. I was really built up, so I ended up losing tons of weight. I had a friend in Tennessee, and I went out there with an actress named Elissa Shay, and we did work on the script for about a month, and I filmed like a short documentary on the town and the community and what it was like interviewing a thousand people who were from that actual time frame and where Cormac set the novel. The novel is set in rural Tennessee. My friend actually happened to be the town historian of that city, so he took me on like this crazy tour of learning about caves, and everything Lester does in the novel I did. Half that stuff didn’t make the movie, which is just funny. I think of all that work I did, like scenes we shot where I make my own ax, which is in the novel, so I did everything that Cormac wrote in the novel … and then [my friend] had a cabin there, which was alone in the woods, and then I ended up living in isolation for well over a month in the cabin. Then I was in the caves for a little over a month. There was like this ongoing, evolving process of how this thing happened.

Haze in Child of God

Watching your performance, you really go all out. Was it a fun role to play or was it painful?

It’s both. It was really, really hard, but at the same time, I look back on it, and a lot of people said I was just kinda crazy at that time, but it was fun at the same time. I knew that this was a great role. As a kid growing up wanting to play these great roles, I knew that I was very fortunate. I knew that Sean Penn wanted to do this role, and he couldn’t get this movie made for 15 years. It was like an adventure, like the stuff you watch on the Discovery channel.

Speaking of physicality, why include the scene of you shitting in the woods?

Well, that’s just in the novel. It wasn’t like I said, “You know what, James? What we need to do right now is I need to shit.” I think it was more like it’s what Cormac wrote, and I think there’s like something really wild about showing the conditions he’s living in and his mental state. There’s a lot of things that that does that I think Cormac was thinking about when he wrote that into the book … basically when you see that, the audience should realize what they’re in for. At that moment, when you see something like that, you don’t go, oh, I’m going to see Spiderman now, and I think James is a filmmaker who doesn’t want to shy away from something that may be hard on the audience.”

You are director too. How does that help the performance?

I direct films, I direct theater and I’m a filmmaker myself … I get it. There’s a scene in the movie where I could walk through the cold water in 10 degree weather or I don’t. What it was is it was James and I teamed up to tell the story, and we both understood that we were both completely invested. I think that being a director helps me in so many ways. It helps me in my preparation. It helps me in understanding filmmaking. It helps me in understanding how to help other actors in the scene. A lot of what I did I think it helps in a lot of ways.

The critical reception has been divisive at best. What are critics not getting?

If you were to put Brad Pitt in the role of Lester Ballard would that make Child of God different? I don’t know. I read an article in “Vice” that asked, ‘What are people missing out on by not realizing that Child of God is important to cinema today?’ I think it’s just a testimony to where we’re at with entertainment. These are really important movies that examine situations in life and human behavior that tell a story and don’t involve a green screen and don’t involve a cape or a superhero. Not only that, it’s really tackling serious circumstances in a very honest way. It’s hard to watch if people consider it a horror movie, and it’s not a horror movie. It’s a character study. It’s easy for people to say, ‘this is shocking, this is so crazy,’ and I don’t think it is.

Child of God_09

I think you are definitely touching on the way I feel about it because I think the more you escape, the more you detach from humanity. This film makes you realize you have to have humanity to sympathize with such a character. There’s something more dehumanizing in these cartoon movies as opposed to a film like this which says, ‘Hey, wake up.’

I’m really glad you liked it, man. I really am because I’ve talked to people since the movie came out who are just awful to talk to, and they ask me some of the stupidest questions. Like the worst one is, Did you read the book? I’m like living in a cave to prepare for the movie and ‘I’m like, ‘Did you read the book? Yes, I read the book, a thousand times.’”

I think sometimes reviewers are biased due to the star persona of James Franco, but at least some people, like Jonathan Romney in “Film Comment” are writing intelligently about this movie.

The reason I think that this one was more well-received than a lot of his work, cause this movie played in competition at Venice last year and people like yourself who understand it love it, and they said this was his best movie, and I think it’s because of the story we’re telling that we were able to get away with things that you can’t get away with if you’re doing Ocean’s 11, like we had a camera on sticks in the middle of nowhere or going handheld. The fact that this movie is so rugged in the filmmaking style that he rolled with added itself sometimes to help it when it could have been disastrous. Your overall question is that there’s tons of people that just hate people, and they just want to take people down who are out there trying new or daring projects, so yeah, it’s huge, and I know that he knows it, and I know it, and anybody who roles with our crew know it if he’s named as our director that people are going to come in and hate, and I don’t think it’s fair to him. I think he’s doing something that’s not revolutionary but that they used to do in the theater back in New York. They had a group of actors that all just made movies together that were friends, and I think, as the years go on, people might step back and look at this differently with what he’s doing. Sure some of it is crazy, but most of it is not. Most of it is really daring, challenging projects that no one else thinks to do or doesn’t have the balls to do or doesn’t want to do, and he does it because he wants to do it, and then his close friends get it.

Hans Morgenstern

Child of God is showing exclusively now in South Florida at the Miami Beach Cinematheque through Sept. 28. On Wednesday, Sept. 24 at 7 p.m., actor Scott Haze will join “Variety” film critic Justin Chang and “Hudak On Hollywood” film critic Andres Solar for the Knight Foundation-sponsored series “Speaking In Cinema” to discuss this film. A meet-and-greet party at the Sagamore Hotel ends the night. Tickets for each screening and the event can be found by visiting mbcinema.com.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

321339_10151418354765081_1000988295_n

Day 2 of the Miami International Film Festival provided the experience I was looking forward to most about the 30th edition of this event: an intimate experience with the world of cinema. It began with a riveting discussion on the state of film criticism by some the industry’s busiest film critics in the US, and ended with two screenings at the Olympia Theater in Downtown Miami. One of the films was a world premiere, the other the latest from one of Denmark’s most vital filmmakers second only to Lars von Trier.

The day began at the Miami Beach Cinematheque where an audience of some of the more hardcore film attendees sat rapt for almost two hours, as four of the U.S.’s more influential film critics discussed their industry. They included:

David Edelstein (“New York Magazine,” NPR’s “Fresh Air” and “CBS Sunday Morning” [my favorite morning TV news show around])

Leah Rozen (“The Wrap,” “People Magazine”)

Claudia Puig (“USA Today”)

Kim Voynar (“Movie City News,” “Cinematical”).

Led by Miami’s Dan Hudak (“Hudak on Hollywood,” WLRN and chairman of the Florida Film Critics Circle), who could barely get a word in edgewise, it only took a few questions to get a variety of views from a group of people wired for discourse. Edelstein was the more contrarian of the bunch, which kept the conversation nice and dynamic. He pushed the basic tenet for anyone who wants to write film criticism: “Write and write and write and re-write and read everything.”

Critics panel at the Miami International Film Festival. Photo by Hans Morgenstern

Puig noted anyone who wants to write about film should “get a life.” Though her advice may seem condescending at face value, she elaborated on the wit loaded in her comment. Criticism is a lonely business, but it must also be a well-informed business that comes from the school of life.

Rozen illuminated Puig’s point by adding film students should consider double majoring in things outside of film school, including the social sciences like political science or anthropology (I would add psychology and literature, where my experience also stems from).

Voynar, the youngest of the group, addressed the concern of many trying their hand at this game: money. This is not a passion to follow for money, and aspiring critics need to expect to write for free. Film criticism is about a passion for an art that trumps any desire for making money. If cinema is a true wholehearted interest of any writer, money will come. But going around demanding and asking for it will get you ignored fast.

That was only the start of a discussion that enforced some of my own views on film writing, including a studious desire “to watch films analytically,” according to Rozen. All agreed what a waste of time writers are who summarize films and provide little to no insight into the craft, a rookie mistake of many aspiring film writers.

I think I most learned from Edelstein who spoke about his own struggles with finding his voice. He began by indulging in all first person, reactionary pieces to distant John Updike-like observational.  I tend toward the latter, which made me feel as though I still have something to learn. I was relieved to hear some constructive advice that proves my theory that, as a writer, one never masters writing but always strives to master it.

Finally, they defended bloggers such as I. At the end of the panel, an audience member asked a question deriding the seeming self-appointed nature of bloggers. They all agreed that though the blogosphere is full of clear amateurs who are not hard to spot, it has some voices that rival their own peers. “Some are absolutely amazing and do it for love,” one of them said.

After this most stimulating panel (already this post is too long), it was off to a happy hour at the festival’s official hotel, the Standard. The hotel bar was filled with so many people I should have known but hardly recognized, as I have this inherit problem with names and faces and no interest in the celebrity game. I wound up chatting with Edelstein some more and Canadian actor/director Don McKellar (sheesh, just noticed he played Yevgeny Nourish in Cronenberg’s masterpiece eXistenZ). I also met Puig there who ended up being my movie date for both screenings that night. On the way to the Olympia theater in Downtown Miami, I saw her outside waiting for a van she might have missed, so I offered her a ride.

theboy

The first movie we saw was the world premiere of the Boy Who Smells Like Fish, a film I was drawn to because I know someone who has the disease trimethylaminuria. The film, which also features McKellar, by first-time director Analeine Cal y Mayor approached the disease with a sense of humor that reached for Wes Anderson heights of quirk. Featuring Douglas Smith and Zoë Kravitz (daughter of Lenny), the film came from a sincere place, but the script, co-written by Cal y Mayor and Javier Gullón, both from Spain, was uneven and at times contrived. Kravitz gave it her sincere best, and the movie worked when it embraced its silly side most unabashedly. Conjuring up the long-lost Mexican singing “legend” Guillermo Garibai (a happy-go-lucky “most intereting man” performance by Gonzalo Vega) to give advice for the sad-sack titular boy (a passionless Smith), almost rescues the film. Hiwever, it arrives too late into the movie, which mostly dwells on the boy’s morose suffering.

Much of the cast and crew from Spain and Canada (plus actress Carrie-Anne Moss who has a part) were present for the screening. The applause was kind, but no standing ovation. Director Cal Y Mayor was forgotten at the film’s introduction by the film’s producer, Niv Fichman, and she admitted her nervousness about the film’s reception. She was sweet, and I hope the film works for her in some way, but judging from the night, the battle seems quite steep for this film to gain any attention at future screenings.

Some of the cast of the Boy Who Smells Like Fish at the Miami International Film Festival. Photo by Hans Morgenstern.

Lackluster films only serve to enhance anything that follows, and that happened during the second film of the night: Thomas Vinterberg’s the Hunt. The way cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen shot the children, so key to the film’s plot, even stood above the night’s previous film.

Vinterberg, who co-wrote the script with Tobias Lindholm  proved himself a director comfortably in tune with his craft. The film, which stars Mads Mikkelsen, who won best actor at last year’s Cannes Film Festival for his performance as Lucas, is a rather cruel play on dramatic irony. After a child’s fib goes viral among the inhabitants of Danish small town, Lucas becomes the target of a witch hunt.

As one can expect from the director who made a name for himself with the Celebration, the film becomes a brutal rollercoaster of victimization with the audiences’ sympathy clearly placed on Lucas’ shoulders. THE HUNT_Photo by Per Arnesen 3It’s a brilliant piece of emotional manipulation that will hopefully enhance one’s own awareness to rash judgments of those accused and persecuted solely based around the horror of the crime they are alleged to have committed.

The Hunt ends on an ambiguous note that encourages discussion. We wound up standing outside the Olympia with several other local cinema enthusiasts, including a pair of my colleagues in local cinema criticism: FFCC member Reuben Pereira and the Hialeah Examiner’s Steve Mesa. Despite it being a cold night in the low 50s, we stood outdoors considering the film’s theme, approach and performances for some time.

Next post: a preview of Day 3, for which I have some more interesting published preview writing to share…

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

the guilt trip - posterAs this is my first year in the Florida Film Critics Circle, it meant going out to watch a lot of big studio-produced films with major marketing companies behind them. The group announced its winners yesterday (Florida Film Critics Circle announce awards for 2012). I attended many exclusive preview screenings and received stacks of screeners at home. Some like Flight and Silver Linings Playbook even left me feeling gyped, despite the free screenings (Flight’ compromises redemption with sex and hilarity; Well-acted ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ offers mixed dramatic bag). Others, like the Impossible and Anna Karenina, were serious downers.

However, there was one movie that felt like a big relief, in both its tone and its low-key manner: the Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand road-trip film the Guilt Trip. It offered something refreshing not only from all the heavy-handedness of awards season films, but also for such comedies in general. Nothing big and great happens in the movie, but the humor about the divide between an adult son and his post-menopausal mother is more universal than many of us would like to admit. It may be slighter than even the trailer below shows, but it made for a delightful diversion at the movies.

It really isn’t a movie for this oh-so-serious blog of mine, so I wrote a more comprehensive review of the film for Dan Hudak, a fellow film critic in Miami who does the Hollywood-thing so well. In fact, his site is called “Hudak on Hollywood.” You can read my full review by visiting his website:

Here’s the link

Hans Morgenstern

Trailer:

The Guilt Trip opens today at most theaters, runs 95 min. and is rated PG-13 for its adult talk. Paramount Pictures invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of the review.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)