My Podcast Interview with Director Kristin Hanggi

This posting veers a bit astray from the film domain that Magic Lantern is primarily focused on — but still stays in the entertainment venue. This is my audio podcast interview with director, Kristin Hanggi who is a Tony Award nominee for her direction of the Broadway smash hit Rock of Ages. She has just directed the world premiere of the musical comedy And the Curtain Rises at the Tony Award-winning Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. As the Theatre’s publicist, I had the opportunity — and the great pleasure — to sit down with Ms. Hanggi and have an in-depth discussion on her childhood, her work on Rock of Ages, and of course, her current project here at Signature Theatre. She also addresses her thoughts on what it means being a “female director” in what has been mainly known as a gentleman’s club on the Great White Way.

And the Curtain Rises plays at the Signature Theatre until April 10th. Book was written by Michael Slade; Music & Orchestrations by Joseph Thalken; Lyrics by  Mark Campbell; Choreography by Josh Walden.

To listen to the interview in its entirety, please click on the following link:

Peter Eramo Interviews Tony Nominated Director Kristin Hanggi for the Signature Theatre Podcast

For more information about Signature Theatre — or And the Curtain Rises, you can click here.

                                                                                              

Talking “Desert Flower” with Director Sherry Hormann

Based on the international best-selling novel by Waris Dirie, Desert Flower is the extraordinary true story of the woman who crossed a desert – and changed the world. Led by a stellar cast that includes Liya Kebede, Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall, Anthony Mackie, and Juliet Stevenson, the movie has already grossed over $14 million, opening in 17 countries (by the end of 2010). The movie is written and directed by the award-winning German-American filmmaker Sherry Hormann, best known for her films Silent Shadow (her debut in 1991), Father’s Day (1996), and Guys and Balls (2004). With Desert Flower, Ms. Hormann tells the inspirational and powerful story of Waris Dirie (played by Kebede), a Somalian nomad who was circumcised at age 3, sold for marriage at 13 – and escaped Africa to one day become an international supermodel and later, a United Nations special ambassador for women’s rights. The 52-day shoot spanned four countries in three continents.

I had the pleasure of screening this poignant and compelling film last week (it opens in DC this Friday) and was honored to have the opportunity to ask Ms. Hormann a few questions. Here is a play-by-play of our exchange:

Eramo: I understand that you are a fellow New Yorker. Born in Kingston. Do you have any early New York memories – before moving to Germany at such a young age [age 6]?

Writer/Director Sherry Hormann

Hormann: Friday nights. My parents couldn’t afford a babysitter, so they took me to the ice cream parlor first before going to watch a movie at the Drive-In. I fell asleep while driving, but woke up soon. The loudspeakers where blasting into the car, but I felt cozy and funny enough sheltered, while watching the movie secretly from the rear seat. I remember that I somehow managed to save the sprinkles from the sundae and by then they were all melted in my hand…Memories are a funny thing…

Eramo: As a German/American filmmaker, who are your influences – the directors who most inspire you?

Hormann: John Cassavettes and Howard Hawks were my initial influences.

Eramo: Now, I read that Peter Hermann [the film’s producer] was the first to approach you with this film. When you read Dirie’s book, what was it that motivated you to the point of wanting to direct Desert Flower?

Hormann: I was very clear that I did not want to make a biopic. Waris’ story is a global one. She is driven by courage and breaking the rules. Her life sounds like a Cinderella story on the surface, but behind that beauty and sudden success, she surprisingly reveals her scar; a scar that at that point was unheard of. Imagine…she was the first woman to publicly speak about FGM [female genital mutilation]. Her journey — far beyond the atrocity — is deeply encouraging.

Eramo: You managed to assemble an exceptional cast for this very important film. How did you go about finding and casting the very beautiful Liya Kebede as Waris Dirie?

Hormann: I feel extremely lucky about the cast. We have Somali nomads…some of whom haven’t seen a white person in their lives before, a very strong British cast on the other side and a newcomer. I wanted the actress playing Waris to look Somali. So we knew that we had to search. Ros and John Hubbard started a long casting process in Africa, Europe and the United States…and – finally we found the stunning Liya! John called me and said, “Sherry, I am in New York. Our Waris just left the room…” And he was right.

Eramo: How involved was Ms. Dirie in the casting process?

Hormann: Waris watched Liya’s audition and luckily enough, her son was in the room playing. He turned towards the TV and said, “Hey mom, that’s you!”

Eramo: In many ways, Desert Flower seems to be exploring new ground for you as a filmmaker. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced artistically in tackling such difficult subject matter?

Hormann: Opposites! We went to Djibouti at the border of war-beaten Somalia. It hadn’t rained for 18 months. Filming in Djibouti is filming without a plan while you make all these plans in your head. You often react on what happens and you’re happy when you manage to get that on film. In the streets of London, we shot with a hidden camera. One night Liya was approached by Somali immigrants who thought she was in need of help and offered her shelter. On the other hand, you explore these extraordinary actors like Sally [Hawkins], Tim Spall or Juliet Stevenson and try to catch a glimpse of that fashion world. But overall you try to find a subtle way to slowly reveal the main topic without being too much of a messenger. I strongly believe in the power of emotions; if it is laughter or tears. With Desert Flower we have both.

Eramo: There is a flashback scene of the day that dramatically changed Waris’ life. It is an excruciatingly painful scene to watch – and frankly, makes James Franco’s infamous scene in 127 Hours look like he’s baking cookies. Where did you find the young girl who plays the 3-year old Waris?

Hormann: A great French woman in our production had spent 5 months in Djibouti to find the whole Somali cast. It was very difficult given the fact that there is absolutely no tradition for acting there — no live theatre, no movie theaters…nothing! All closed due to poverty. So finally she found this little girl Safa playing in the narrow streets of the shanty towns, shyly smiling at her first white woman. I know this sounds like a fairy tale, but it is true.

Eramo: And how did you go about filming that heartbreaking sequence?

Hormann: I admit…it was the darkest day in my career as a film director. But, I always believed that this scene is the core of the movie. What happened was: the little girl (Safa) just looked into the face of this woman who used to work as a circumciser for 40 years…she saw the razor blade and started crying immediately. These girls all know. Later we set up a foundation…Safa is going to school now, her family is supported and she will not be mutilated. That was always a promise Peter Herrmann and I made.

Eramo: This might be a difficult question, but I am curious to know…I’m not sure that I can recall a movie that tackled the subject of female genital mutilation in such an upfront manner. This may be a first. Of course, the film depicts the horrors and injustices of this dangerous procedure. But this is a custom that goes back to the infancy stage of many cultures. To them, I would think that they view this as righteous and compulsory. What would you say to those who think this film takes a reckless or irresponsible position to such an age-old custom? Do more “primitive” cultures just need to “wake up”?

Hormann: I am not a politician. I am a woman, a human being and I don’t want anybody to be hurt on purpose. I don’t see any good in a ritual where girls die, or die later from delivering a baby or live constantly in pain because some outdated philosophy of “uncleanness” drives them.

I will tell you a story. We went back to Djibouti. We screened the movie in the desert where we shot. We set up a screen and expected 800 people. Well, in the end, 4,000 people showed up. A man was standing next to the screen and simultaneously translated the English parts into Arabic for the audience. At the end of the movie it was very silent. Then a random Nomad stood up. He said, “I am the father of six girls. I was not aware of what precisely is happening to our daughters when they do it. We don’t talk about it. I don’t want my daughters to be hurt. This has to stop!” The father was followed by 23 others.

Eramo: Unbelievable. That was very brave of him. So overall, how has audience reception been to Desert Flower so far?

Hormann: Desert Flower has seen more countries than I have ever traveled to. The reactions are very moving as this flower works on a universal level, independent of any cultural background. I guess we are still all searchers, thank God!

Eramo: The UN speech that Waris makes near the end of the film…was this her actual speech verbatim – or was creative license taken?

Hormann: Parts of that speech are actual quotations.

Eramo: And the love interest…the film leaves it open for interpretation, but did Waris and Harold (Anthony Mackie) ever become romantically involved?

Hormann: Doesn’t romance always leave room for our own interpretations?

Eramo: Thank you, Sherry, for taking time out to answer a few of my questions. You did an outstanding job of bringing Ms. Dirie’s courageous journey to the screen.

Hormann: Thank you for your kind words. It is deeply appreciated.

Review: The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau, George Nolfi’s mostly-successful directorial debut, is part sci-fi/fantasy, part suspense/thriller – but at its heart is a true, old-fashioned love story. How much is one man willing to sacrifice…how far is he willing to go — to be with the woman he loves? Do we control our own destiny or does fate direct the story of our lives? There lies the premise in this intriguing and fast-paced flick based on Philip K. Dick’s 1954 classic-paranoid short story.

Matt Damon stars as the young and charismatic New York politician David Norris. He’s the politico flavor-of-the-moment and seemingly has everything going for him – charm, wit, good looks, and perhaps most importantly, on the cusp of winning a seat in the U.S. Senate, has lots of registered voters who adore him. Strange that this man who seemingly has it all doesn’t have a lovely lady by his side, which irked me as I kept thinking how far-fetched that was – until I later realized….that is all part of “the plan.”

David “unexpectedly” meets Elise Sellas (the very beautiful Emily Blunt) in a men’s bathroom just moments before he’s about to make one of the biggest speeches of his career. Elise is a ballet dancer and unlike any woman that David has ever met. She’s not simply stunning (and available, as chance might have it), but funny, free-spirited, and very talented. There’s an immediate connection and David must be with her – it’s kismet. The two were meant to be together. Or were they? [add sound cue here: BA-BA-BUMMMM!!!]

As the two quickly fall for one another, a mysterious group of men conspire to keep the two apart, interfering in David’s daily routines. These are the men who control our fates – the men of the Adjustment Bureau, and though they may look like government agents, they are operatives of a far different kind – agents of Fate itself who do their clandestine work on behalf of The Chairman. You see, there is a remarkable future mapped out for David – a future that the Bureau desperately wants to ensure – that may lead all the way to the White House. Elise is to become a world renowned dancer. None of this happens if the two lovers end up together. A fascinating dilemma that is handled quite nimbly, as David must consider whether to give up the one woman he has ever truly loved – or go up against seemingly overpowering odds and tackle the forces of destiny.

Nolfi (author of the screenplays for The Sentinel, The Bourne Ultimatum, and the disastrous Ocean’s 12) shows that he can surely direct a big-budget Hollywood thriller. And he has made sure to get a top-notch creative team to assist him, leading with two-time Oscar winner John Toll as his cinematographer. The many exterior shots of New York City are wonderfully handled and the pacing during the action sequences happens at breakneck speed. In fact, the city itself is marvelously showcased here, taking you back to Lumet’s 1970’s city films. Jay Rabinowitz’s editing is effective and at times, razor-sharp, while 10-time Oscar nominee Thomas Newman has composed a fitting score that deftly weaves in and out from action and suspense to the more intimate scenes between the two lovers.

Matt Damon fits the bill quite nicely here, though at first I was a bit surprised to see him representing the great state of New Yawk (rather than his beloved Massachusetts). Damon, for the most part, has made a habit of selecting choice roles and strong films to star in. His political demeanor comes off as authentic, as does his love for the stunning dancer. When Fate intervenes and separates the two, David takes the same bus at the same exact time every day for three years with the hopes of seeing her yet again – and Damon illustrates this longing determination in subtle fashion, careful not to step into overly melodramatic territory. Blunt’s playfulness and spontaneity help showcase the strong chemistry between the two. She also has the slender body to play a professional dancer. The supporting cast does a fine job as well. Terence Stamp brings his magnificent presence and weighty voice to Thompson, a kind of “cleanup” guy for the Bureau. He never loses his cool and, much to his credit, doesn’t play the “villainy” role, but rather, tries to convince David of the greater good in the Chairman’s master plan. As the sympathetic Bureau agent Harry Mitchell, Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker) brings an intelligent humanity to the situation and offers careful guidance to David when it is most needed.

But for all of its merits, the film comes to a crashing halt in its last few minutes. And it isn’t so much how the film ends that totally bummed me out (happy or sad – I won’t give that away), but the abrupt way in which it ended that left me feeling absolutely disgruntled and unsatisfied. This is not simply a bad ending, but, dare I say, a lazy one sans any creativity (which is even more of a letdown considering how inventive the story is to begin with). Here we are treated to an absolute deus ex machina in its most blatant form – one that would make Euripedes himself blush with shame – that we half expect to see The Chairman him/herself descend down to earth and put an end to the proceedings. I’m also not much of a stickler for continuity errors, but this film had one of the sloppiest ones in recent memory — Elise makes such a strong point of loosening David’s tie before he speaks to his constituents and in the very next shot, his tie is nicely tightened. I just couldn’t let it go. For 90 minutes, The Adjustment Bureau has all of the makings of being an excellent film – romantic, intriguing, and suspenseful. And though the lethargic storytelling and overall corniness of the finale nearly ruins all of this goodwill, I would recommend the movie to anyone who likes a smart action flick or an imaginative love story. I simply wish it ended with more of a Bang and much less of a feeble Clunk. Oh, what might have been…

Rating:   
Year:       2011
Director:  George Nolfi

The Adjustment Bureau & The Conspirator

As I stated in a previous post, in addition to trying to keep up with my own Magic Lantern, I am now writing for the abundantly productive online entertainment magazine, Brightest Young Things. A few weeks ago, I enjoyed my very first critics’ screening in Washington DC for the highly anticipated romantic thriller, The Adjustment Bureau starring Matt Damon and the ravishing Emily Blunt.

My review will be posted on Brightest Young Things when the film opens this Friday, March 4th. I will make sure to post the link to my review on the Magic Lantern FaceBook page – as a gentle reminder to any readers/fans this site has…and because I am just so excited to have my first official film review published by a media outlet. I hope there are many, many more to come. I will then make sure to publish the review here on the Lantern over the weekend.

Next up — I can’t wait to see Robert Redford’s new film The Conspirator this week! I believe it opens in theatres on April 15th, so I am thrilled to be able to see it beforehand. My friend and I visited the Crime and Punishment Museum last week in DC and there was a whole room dedicated to this film. Oddly enough, we also visited Ford’s Theatre, where President Lincoln was shot. The story of Mary Surratt, the only woman charged as a co-conspirator in the assassination trial, seems like a fascinating one to tell. Plus, Redford is a brilliant filmmaker. Check out the trailer — it looks riveting and so authentic!

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