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:

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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.

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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.)

ChildOfGod_keyart_406x600Note: This review does go into spoilers, but I feel I needed to in order to explain some of the film’s redemptive and misunderstood qualities.

Some of the bleakest films in recent memory have been based on books by Cormac McCarthy. The Road almost felt like an exercise in hopelessness. No Country for Old Men had a sense of inevitable futility. Respectively directed by John Hillcoat and the Coen Brothers the films captured McCarthy’s dark sensibility via cinema. Now comes the media factotum James Franco to take on McCarthy and one of his earlier novels: Child of God, which is not only told from the demented perspective of a serial killer who has sexual relations with corpses but does not forget those who failed to stop him. Whatever you might think of this actor/director/author/poet who seems to spread himself kind of thin, there is no lack of quality direction invested in his adaptation. It follows Lester Ballard, a man abandoned by his family, community and humanity as a whole. What becomes of such a person is disturbing in its implications of society, and that Franco pulls off channeling that from the book as well as he does — though not flawlessly — deserves praise.

Smartly constructed, Franco’s Child of God (like the book) unfolds across three distinct acts that subtly grow baser and more harrowing as the story unfolds. The film takes place in rural, mid-20th century Tennessee. It’s winter, and the trees are mostly stripped bare of their leaves. Actor Scott Haze puts himself into the titular character of Lester Ballard with a grandiose lack of inhibition. We meet him confronting a group of people and an auctioneer on what Ballard says is his rightful property. Rifle in hand, he yells bloody murder at those who show interest in the land and large house. The scene, as with much of the film, is presented via handheld camera. It establishes the movie’s raw tone early on. Furthering the film’s earthy quality, the extras and bit players come across as non-actors genuinely recoiling as this beast of a man in a scruffy beard spits angst and frustration in an almost unintelligible drawl.

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Child of God would probably not be as watchable were it not for Haze’s go-for-broke performance. His version of Ballard recalls what Denis Lavant did with Mousier Merde, a remarkable monster who could hardly speak and ate bouquets of flowers after emerging from the sewer in two films by Leos Carax, a short film in the omnibus Tokyo! and his terrific feature Holy Motors. But Haze doesn’t get the cartoonish flourishes of living underground and devouring flowers. Ballard feels more realistically and frighteningly grounded in the primal.

What Child of God is more interested in exploring — if it’s not already apparent in the title — is the underlying, universal basis that everyone needs human connection. In one scene after another Ballard is denied genuine, vested sympathy by others on screen. Haze channels Ballard’s anguish with a visceral performance beyond his unkempt exterior and a nose prolific enough to produce large globules of mucus when he’s at his most desperate. His hangdog face and over-bite add to his character’s pitiable quality, but there’s also a conviction in his eyes and posture that never wavers throughout the movie.

Franco also uses cinematic flourishes that speak to his keen skills as a director. The perspective of this man is of course easily manipulated through cinema. It’s about editing and the decision of what to show of the narrative, but it is a film that “shows” in the best narrative sense. CHILD OF GOD-Scott Haze - 1The banjo music by Aaron Embry brings Deliverance to mind and unknown narrators give background vignettes that allude to the ghost of the person Ballard once was, though they make him no less frightening. “He’d grown lean and bitter. Some say mad,” says a voice-over narrator as Ballard stalks the side of a road, his gun in plain view, yelling at cars. Oh, Ballard also defecates in the woods and scrapes between his butt cheeks with a stick (just one more element of Haze’s conviction to his character).

With a harsh, layered musical sting out of a horror movie, Franco turns to Part II of the film. The unseen narrators have dropped out at this point, reflecting the notion that what lies ahead will seem inconceivable to the civilized person. Eventually, Ballard stumbles across a pair of young lovers who have died in their car of carbon monoxide poisoning, and during an extended sequence that features him having his way with the corpse of the young woman, he finds love. Ballard is now cuddling up with the young woman’s body in an abandoned home, saying “it’s me and you.” Companionship at last. As noted, the film is only headed further down a grim path. The sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson) who enters the film to the sound of bells is half on alert for Ballard. As the unkempt, homeless man is left to roam the woods, he eventually finds shelter in a cave. Ballard is mostly regarded as a nuisance… until his crimes are revealed.

This is a man presented with little human connection from the beginning of the film and alluded to as much by the mysterious narrator(s) who help flesh out Part I of the film. It’s an extreme and ultimate example of the dissolution of humanity, but it stays true to the McCarthy ethos. Yet, deep under the murder and necrophilia, COG-1073Franco finds a way to keep the humanity of the film’s protagonist relatable while maintaining an objective sensibility that does not make his acts forgivable. The film only seems to jump too ambitiously toward the end, after Ballard seems to have come to terms with his impulses, giving him an alien quality that betrays the film’s ambitions… or maybe it’s making its point even more harshly.

It’s tough to say because Child of God demands a lot from the audience that dares to seek out truly adventurous filmmaking. Far from a feel good film yet not deserving of the label of exploitation, Child of God aspires for a kind of enlightenment via the shadows that should not be ignored. As with much of Franco’s work, it’s the fact that he dares to explore certain themes that does not always make him easily palatable but no less worth shrugging off as irrelevant. He’s not.  Of course there is no excusing Ballard’s crimes, but the film speaks to the need of sympathy for such people. It’s a cautionary tale that supposes psychosis as a social problem and not all psychological. A lack of moral guidance can happen from the outside as well as from within. The film dares to indict society and the onlooker as much as its protagonist. No one is innocent of horrors because, let’s face it, stuff like this can happen.

Hans Morgenstern

Child of God runs 104 minutes and earns its R rating. It opens exclusively in South Florida at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Friday, Sept. 15, which provided a screener link for the purpose of this review. 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.)