Acclaimed, iconic Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou is ready to release his 21st feature film since his debut as a filmmaker in the 1980s. Titled Shadow, the film is another martial arts epic yet also a drama, based on the Three Kingdoms era in Chinese history. Over the years, Zhang Yimou has won two BAFTA Film Awards (for Raise the Red Lantern in 1991 and To Live in 1994), but never an Academy Award or Golden Globe. He still keeps making films year after year, working mostly in China nowadays, though still trying his hand at a Hollywood blockbuster (The Great Wall) in addition to a war-time drama (The Flowers of War). Shadow premiered at the Venice Film Festival this year, and also played at the Toronto Film Festival. I had a chance to interview the legendary Zhang Yimou during his visit to the festivals, and I am honored I could meet him.
"I was trying to create a character that I myself would identify with." A film from Belarus titled Crystal Swan premiered at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival this year, the feature directorial debut of a talented filmmaker named Darya Zhuk. Darya grew up in Minsk, Belarus, but left at age 16 to study in the US. After graduating college and years of working in various jobs, she decided to go and study directing at Columbia University and has finally completed her first feature film - Crystal Swan, about a young Belarusian woman named Velya who is trying to get a visa to travel to the USA. The film premiered to positive reviews and is still searching for an American distributor, but I wanted to bring extra attention to this filmmaker and her film. Here is my interview with Darya Zhuk, discussing the challenges and joys of making her first feature.
"This is telemarketing. Stick to the script." One of the year's wildest, weirdest, most original films is Sorry to Bother You, from the mind of Boots Riley (watch the trailer here). This is Boots first feature film, but he has some experience making music videos and in the theater world previously. Boots is also a very successful musician, not only as a rapper and songwriter but also as a producer. His film is about a kid from Oakland, played by Lakeith Stanfield, who takes a crap telemarketing job to make some money. Using his "white voice", he works up the sales chain until finally meeting the CEO and being introduced to the glorious world of high society and rich snobs. It's already on its way to becoming a huge indie hit. With the film now playing in theaters, I had a chance to chat with Boots for an interview and couldn't pass up the opportunity.
"Not man. Not machine. More." One of the biggest surprises of the year is an action sci-fi titled Upgrade, the second feature film directed by Australian filmmaker/writer Leigh Whannell. Whannell has worked in Hollywood for over a decade. He broke in with a little indie called Saw, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004 and went on to become, well, a succesful franchise and a massive hit. Whannell wrote the script for it with James Wan, and starred in it, then continued his career mostly as a screenwriter & producer. The first film he directed was Insidious: Chapter 3 in 2015, jumping in the hot seat with another horror franchise he co-created with James Wan. Upgrade is Whannell's first time going all out, directing an original screenplay he wrote, working with Blumhouse and mega-producer Jason Blum to get the film made.
"I'm not interested in making a film for a niche audience. I want to make films about people who we don't usually see, but for a wider audience so they can all relate to it." One of the best films I saw at a festival last year was The Rider, a film by Chloe Zhao, set in the heartland of America about a broken cowboy trying to maintain his identity. The film left me an emotional mess, in the best kind of way, and I wrote a glowing review after catching it at the London Film Festival. The person who made this is a Beijing-born filmmaker named Chloé Zhao, and she has many stories to tell - not only her own, about everyone she encounters. I was lucky to meet with her for an interview and to talk about The Rider, and the art of minimal filmmaking.
"Feedback screenings are essential to get out of your headspace." One of my very favorite films of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival was a documentary titled Minding the Gap, made by filmmaker Bing Liu. It won over audiences and critics, and picked up the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Filmmaking at the end of the festival. Minding the Gap follows three skater kids from a small town called Rockford, Illinois as they grow up and become adults and start to realize who they really are and how they were raised. It's quite a moving, powerful, remarkably aware film about American society and masculinity, and the struggle of breaking free from the world you were raised in, and much more. I made it my mission to meet filmmaker Bing Liu, and shake his hand, and talk to him about making this film. Bing's the real deal.
"Sometimes you need luck as a director. We always think it's all about control and it is a lot about control when you direct a movie, but it's also about things that you can't foresee." There's a film now playing in theaters titled The Divine Order, from Swiss writer/director Petra Volpe. The film is Switzerland's entry in the Oscars this year and it's obvious why when you see it. This very entertaining, exciting, engaging film tells the story of a woman in a mountain town in Switzerland who rallies other women to join in the fight for the right to vote. Swiss women only passed a law in 1971. I had a chance to talk with writer & director Petra Volpe and I'm so happy I did - she's a joy to talk with and had much to say about making empowering films.
"It's the multiplication of brains and [all] the people that you have to tune to make sure that they are all dreaming in the same direction." He's a master filmmaker and continues to deliver some of the best films of this decade - Denis Villeneuve. Born in Quebec, Villeneuve has been an acclaimed filmmaker for many years but finally got his foot into Hollywood's door after making Incendies in 2010. He followed that up with Prisoners, as well as Enemy released the same year, before making Sicario and Arrival. His latest is Blade Runner 2049, a highly anticipated, long-awaited sequel to the sci-fi cult hit from 1982 starring Harrison Ford as a cop named Deckard. I didn't get to chat with Villeneuve for Arrival last year (it was one of my favorite films), so I chased him this time for Blade Runner and got to spend a few minutes talking with him.
"I tell stories. All I can ever do is express how I'm feeling at a moment." In theaters this week is the new film from acclaimed filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, a very provocative and intense feature titled mother!. The film stars Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem as a couple living in a secluded home, trying to fix it up and make it nice until one day uninvited guests show up. Mother! premiered at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals, and the reviews have been all over the map. I loved the film (here's my review), because I understood exactly what he was doing. This is Aronofsky's outburst of anger about the state of the world, and the way we abuse and mistreat this beautiful planet we live on. While at the Venice Film Festival, I met with Darren briefly for a chat about mother!, and the state of the world - he's always fascinating to talk with.
"I feel very proud to put something out there that is kind-spirited." Lake Bell has a new movie hitting theaters this week and it's worth a watch whenever you have the time. Many people know Lake Bell as an actress, from shows like "Boston Legal" and "How to Make It in America" and movies like Million Dollar Arm, What Happens in Vegas, and Man Up. But Lake is also a talented filmmaker, writing and directing original feature films. Her feature directorial debut, In a World…, a charming comedy about voice-over actors, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013. She has followed that up with a romantic comedy titled I Do… Until I Don't about marriage that is opening in theaters soon. Lake stars in I Do… Until I Don't as one of the lead characters, and she also produced, wrote & directed it, which is an impressive feat.
"You really have to drive your own train and you have to keep it running." Yes indeed. Meet Jim Strouse. Also known as James C. Strouse. Jim is a filmmaker originally from Indiana, who now lives in New York City. If you don't recognize his name, hopefully you will recognize his films - Grace Is Gone (in 2007), The Winning Season (in 2009), People Places Things (in 2015), and now this year he has brought us The Incredible Jessica James. Jessica James stars the talented Jessica Williams as Jessica James in an optimistic, engaging story of a struggling playwright in New York. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, like every film Jim has made, and is being released by Netflix - it's available to watch now. I caught up with Jim at the Sundance Film Festival this year for a chat, and I'm happy to finally present our interview in full. I love his films and I'm glad I had the chance to talk with him out there.
"We pitched that movie. I pitched it to the studio. And they said yes." It's here - one of the best movies of the year. War for the Planet of the Apes is now playing in theaters, and it's a masterpiece. I've seen it twice already and it gets better on the second viewing. Andy Serkis is extraordinary as Caesar, concluding this sci-fi trilogy with one of the best performances you'll see in any movie this year. War for the Planet of the Apes and the film before it, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, were both directed by Matt Reeves. Reeves broke in directing Cloverfield, and followed that up with a remake of Let the Right One In titled Let Me In. I was anxious to talk with him for this movie, it was one of my most anticipated of the year and surpassed all expectations. I was able to catch up with Matt briefly on his press tour and chat about making these movies.