He may never win an Oscar as a director. But he might snag one for acting. 1.932 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
The interview takes place in a suite at the Mark Hotel in New York. Although the director detests speaking to journalists, he understands the imperative of publicizing his new film. His last two movies disappeared with barely a trace; they can’t even be found on YouTube. At 59, he knows that if this film tanks, he may no longer be able to continue doing what he loves.
The interviewer is 26, a recent graduate of an obscure film school where the director fears he may be exiled if this film also fails at the box office. The aspiring critic has made several short YouTube videos analyzing movies of directors she admires and has begun to develop a following. She thinks that an interview with this controversial director can build her audience even more. Although she loves his first movie, his new film puzzles and disturbs her. She’s not sure what to make of it, or the director. At film school she took a class in documentaries and agrees with Jean Rouch, the French anthropologist/filmmaker, that the camera can unlock closed doors and provoke subjects to reveal more about themselves than they realize. She hopes the camera will do the same today and help her make up her mind about the director. She’s never filmed an interview before, though, and she’s apprehensive about it.
She knocks softly on the door of the hotel room. The director opens it, glass in hand. She wonders if it holds water or vodka. Entering the suite with her camera equipment, she looks around uneasily.
INTERVIEWER: I thought your publicist would be here.
DIRECTOR: I don’t have a publicist.
INTERVIEW: The woman who arranged the interview. Ms…
DIRECTOR: She works for the distributor, but she had a family emergency and couldn’t make it this afternoon.
The interviewer hesitates, unsure whether this is a mistake.
DIRECTOR: If we’re going to do this, we should get started. I only have a little time.
INTERVIEWER: All right.
She scans the posh suite, trying to decide where to unload her gear. The director offers no assistance. He watches with veiled amusement as she struggles to set up her camera and tripod.
DIRECTOR: Where would you like me to sit?
INTERVIEWER: That armchair is fine.
DIRECTOR: The light is better by the window.
INTERVIEWER: (embarrassed) You’re right. The light is better there.
She moves a desk chair near the window and repositions her camera. The director studies the new setup, then moves the chair several feet closer to the camera.
DIRECTOR: I like to have some depth in my frame.
He drains his glass and sits in the chair observing her.
DIRECTOR: How’s that?
The interviewer studies the director through the viewfinder. Then she lifts the tripod, moves two feet backwards, and firmly replants the camera to reclaim control.
INTERVIEWER: (looking through the viewfinder) Okay. This works now. If you could just clip this microphone onto your shirt.
She hands it to him. He slowly unfastens several buttons and runs the wire underneath his black silk shirt, then attaches the tiny microphone.
DIRECTOR: Do you always do this by yourself?
INTERVIEWER: I’d like to have a crew someday. Right now I’m a one-woman operation.
DIRECTOR: A true auteur.
She ignores his sarcasm and resumes her position behind the camera.
INTERVIEWER: We can start now.
DIRECTOR: Are you going to hide behind the camera while we talk?
INTERVIEWER: I have to run the camera.
DIRECTOR: The camera can run by itself. I like to speak to a person, not a lens. I want to be able to look you in the eye. Just turn the camera on and sit next to it. I’ll make sure to stay in frame.
The interviewer scans the room for another chair and finally settles on the footstool of the armchair. She drags it over to her tripod. She turns on the camera, sits uncomfortably on the ottoman, crosses her legs, and adjusts her skirt.
DIRECTOR: That’s much better.
INTERVIEWER: (uncrossing her legs) First of all, thanks for agreeing to do this. I know you don’t like to do interviews.
DIRECTOR: No, most reporting about movies is just gossip.
INTERVIEWER: That’s not why I want to interview you. I’m not an entertainment reporter.
DIRECTOR: A critic.
INTERVIEWER: I see myself more as an interpreter. I try to understand how movies work.
DIRECTOR: You analyze them, right? You don’t make them — despite your video camera. I call that a critic. And you know the definition of a critic? A eunuch at a gangbang.
INTERVIEWER: Wow! That’s harsh! And completely false. We’re not neutered. We don’t just watch. We react to what we’re seeing.
DIRECTOR: All right, let me revise it then. A critic is someone who masturbates while looking through the window at a peep show.
INTERVIEWER: That’s a terrible analogy. And very male. How does that apply to me?
DIRECTOR: I don’t know you well enough yet. I don’t know what gets you off.
INTERVIEWER: (recrossing her legs) Are you deliberately trying to offend me? Or do you talk to everyone this way?
DIRECTOR: All I’m saying is that most criticism is masturbatory self-absorbed solipsism. It may turn you on, it may gratify you, it may even make you think more highly of yourself, but why should I care? Why are your reactions to my work any more valid than my own? That’s why I don’t read critics.
INTERVIEWER: Or watch them either I suppose.
DIRECTOR: No, I haven’t seen your YouTube videos, if that’s what you’re asking.
INTERVIEWER: You know I did one on your first movie.
DIRECTOR: So I’ve heard.
INTERVIEWER: Dubuque moved me.
DIRECTOR: I’m glad to hear it.
INTERVIEWER: It was autobiographical, wasn’t it?
DIRECTOR: Any film that’s not mass produced on the Hollywood assembly line is autobiographical.
INTERVIEWER: But it really is your own story, isn’t it? Your mother left you as a child and you grew up with an abusive alcoholic father.
DIRECTOR: You identified?
INTERVIEWER: I grew up in a small town in Kansas, much like the one in your film, a place everyone I knew wanted to escape.
DIRECTOR: Were you abused, too?
INTERVIEWER: Not physically. I wasn’t beaten or anything like that, but
you might say I was emotionally abused.
DIRECTOR: Like most children. I distrust anyone who says she’s had a
INTERVIEWER: In Dubuque the boy escapes at the end. There’s hope that he can put the past behind him. The ending always brings me to tears.
DIRECTOR: I was young then. I wanted a happy ending.
INTERVIEWER: Your movies have been much darker since.
DIRECTOR: And they no longer bring you to tears?
INTERVIEWER: That’s an observation, not a critique.
DIRECTOR: But you haven’t liked them, have you? You haven’t made videos about them.
INTERVIEWER: I’m making a video now about your new film, Nisha.
DIRECTOR: To what end? Have you come to praise it or to bury it?
INTERVIEWER: I thought you didn’t care what other people think.
DIRECTOR: I don’t, but my distributor does. And they’ll want to know. Thumbs up or down?
INTERVIEWER: Your film affected me. That’s why I want to talk to you about it.
DIRECTOR: Affected you how?
INTERVIEWER: It made me angry. It upset me.
DIRECTOR: My film? Or your anger?
INTERVIEWER: (a beat) I felt assaulted by what you showed. The story’s similar to Dubuque, only the abuse is much worse. It’s torture. And you batter us with it. There’s little relief, and no redemption. Nisha is so damaged that you can’t believe she’ll ever recover.
DIRECTOR: You didn’t identify this time?
INTERIEWER: What she suffers is very hard to watch. It’s as if you’re inflicting the same cruelty and brutality on us.
DIRECTOR: I wanted you to experience what she did. To feel how horrific violence really is.
INTERVIEWER: But you don’t leave us any hope. In fact, just the opposite. You’ve turned her into someone almost as cruel as her torturers.
DIRECTOR: You don’t find that true? That damaged people damage others?
INTERVIEWER: Some people, sure, but not everyone. Not always.
DIRECTOR: You know this personally? From your own experience?
INTERVIEWER: Have I been tortured? No. But I have friends who were abused as children, and they haven’t turned into their abusers. I didn’t think the boy in Dubuque was going to turn out like that either.
DIRECTOR: I’m older now.
INTERVIEWER: What’s made you so bitter?
DIRECTOR: That’s your description, not mine. I think I see the world more accurately now. More realistically.
INTERVIEWER: Everyone in your new film is hateful.
DIRECTOR: We all act to serve our own needs. You think that’s hateful. I think it’s just human nature. We all use each other for our own ends. Take this interview. You say you want to understand my films, but you’re really here to further your own career, aren’t you? And the tougher your review, the more viewers you’ll get.
INTERVIEWER: You think that’s what I’m doing?
DIRECTOR: You tell me.
INTERVIEWER: And what are you doing?
DIRECTOR: I’m trying to prevent you from destroying my chances to make another movie. Not that you have that much power on your own, but a negative review certainly won’t help me. Beyond that, maybe I’m hoping that you’ll put aside all the baggage and judgment that interferes with your experiencing my work and really look at Nisha. See what I’m trying to say.
INTERVIEWER: And what’s that?
DIRECTOR: Explaining it can’t make you see or understand it. That’s not going to help.
INTERVIEWER: Why don’t you try anyway?
DIRECTOR: I doubt it will do any good, but I’ll say this much. When I started making films, I wanted to “change the world.” I soon realized how impossible, how grandiose, that ambition was, and how flimsy a vehicle film is to do it. My goal is much more modest now. I have no easy answers for the violence and pain that I see. I’m just bearing witness. That’s all, simply presenting the world as I perceive it. You make of it what you want.
INTERVIEWER: There’s much more to the world than what you show.
DIRECTOR: We look through different eyes. If you don’t like what I see, go make your own movies. You don’t need to trash mine to express yourself.
INTERVIEWER: I’m not here to trash Nisha; I’m just trying to understand it. But you keep avoiding my questions.
DIRECTOR: And you mine. Your “need to understand” is a mask. You’re hiding behind your own confusion. You know what you think and feel. Just spit it out.
INTERVIEWER: (a beat) Your new film is cruel. Misanthropic.
DIRECTOR: (laughs) See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?
There is a long silence.
INTERVIEWER: Maybe I should have turned the camera on myself rather than you today.
DIRECTOR: It wouldn’t have made any difference. I think there’s something wrong with your battery. The red light turned off just after we started.
She quickly stands to inspect the camera. She flicks the switch several times. The camera isn’t working.
INTERVIEWER: Shit! Why didn’t you say something?
DIRECTOR: I didn’t want to interrupt our interesting conversation.
INTERVIEWER: You really are an asshole!
The director removes the microphone and rises from the chair.
DIRECTOR: Well, now that you’ve realized that, you don’t need to waste any more time trying to understand me.
He walks over to the sideboard, pulls out a bottle of gin and pours himself another drink. He raises his glass to her.
DIRECTOR: I look forward to your YouTube piece. This one, I’ll definitely watch.