Tag: independent movies
Julie Taymor, the groundbreaking visionary behind Revolution Studios’ new film Across the Universe, says that she first conceived a film that would, in her words, “investigate the ‘60s. It had to penetrate all levels of the Beatles’ songs. From the love songs to the political songs, the music and the film would not just reflect the microcosm of a character’s experience, but, from my perspective, would also represent the macrocosm of the events that are happening in the world.”
For Taymor, though the film is set a generation back, making the story and the film fresh and alive for today’s audiences was the entire point. “I really want young people to see the passion in this movie – to see with what fervor these characters invested themselves into social movements as well as self-exploration,” she says. “I hope it really speaks ‘across the universe’ and across cultures… that anybody could identify with the situations and the events that are happening in this movie.”
According to producer Jennifer Todd, the film is an artistic statement from Taymor. “In addition to being a unique voice, Julie is the hardest-working director I’ve ever worked with,” she says. “It’s an amazingly satisfying experience to work with someone who lives and breathes the movie morning, noon, and night. One particular weekend, we went away and came back to discover that an entire new sequence had been invented. Because she’s like that, she attracts people who want to work just as hard to achieve her vision.”
Producer Matthew Gross, who generated the project, concurs. “Julie is a national treasure,” he says. “She is a true artist – not only does she bring visual appeal, but she has just the right touch with the singers and dancers, which was so necessary for this film. The work she did in Titus and Frida show her incredible vision. In addition, because everyone wants to work with Julie Taymor – and with good reason – she is able to attract top artists and amazing talent to work with her. She is a tremendous asset to the film in every way.”
Unlike most musicals, where a story comes first and songs are inserted in at key points, the songs created the story. “Beginning with over 200 songs written by the Beatles, we eventually chose 33 that we felt best told the story of a generation and a time,” says Taymor.
Todd explains, “The film is an original musical and it has an original story – one you’ve never seen before, inspired by Beatles’ music in a way that you haven’t heard before.” “The entire concept of this musical,” Taymor explains, “is that the lyrics will tell the story. They are the libretto, they are the arias, they are the emotion of the characters.” Although Taymor was only in her early teens in the 1960s, the story was inspired by her childhood observations:
“Lucy and Max, the brother and sister, are modeled slightly after my own older brother and sister, and I’m Julia, the young girl who’s watching. During that time, I was a voyeur to what my parents were going through with teenagers and then college students who were going through the radical political movement: the draft, the hippies, the drugs. And so I was there – I didn’t get immersed myself, but I watched it.”
Taymor admired the outspoken spirit of the time. “People really took chances,” she says. “As Lucy says, ‘I’d lie down in front of a tank if it would bring my brother home from the war.’ And of course Jude responds, ‘But it wouldn’t,’ and she gets upset and she says, ‘Does that mean you don’t think I should try?’ I’m so moved by the fact that at that time, people would try.”
But Taymor definitely did not view the project as a piece of nostalgia. She notes that many of the issues facing young people in the ‘60s are still very relevant today. The filmmakers’ goal was to translate the passion and feeling of the 60s and have it resonate in a way that made it feel as contemporary as possible. The reason to make a film like this, in her mind, was the immediacy of the themes. “You constantly have to revisit these stories in order to reflect upon your present and really think, ‘What is it that’s different now?’” Taymor says. “That era is explicitly important to our time now.”
In order to bring the era to life, Taymor and screenwriters Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais created an entirely new story, using the songs to guide their way. “Characters were created for the songs,” Taymor continues. “For example, the character Prudence: I loved the idea of taking ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ and giving it to an innocent cheerleader in Ohio.”
The song begins with the young girl singing plaintively on the sidelines of the football field. “We don’t change the lyrics,” says Taymor, “but partway through, you realize she’s not in love with the quarterback – she’s in love with the blonde cheerleader. All of the sudden the song works in a totally different way, because it’s about repressed love. By the end of the song, this young girl, who doesn’t even know what she’s feeling, leaves home. She hitchhikes her way to New York City. Without having to go into the background of the character, without having to see her mother and her father and her life story, the song says it all.”
“As we went through the journeys of characters, songs came up,” Taymor continues. “In the story, Max is going to be drafted into the Army. I went through dozens of songs until finally I got to ‘I Want You’ and it registered in my head, ‘My God, “I Want You,” isn’t that the Uncle Sam motto?’” It was a perfect fit.
In still other cases, like “Revolution,” the directness of the lyrics led them to portray the emotion of a scene in a stronger way than dialogue could. “When Jude sings ‘Revolution,’ he’s actually breaking into the Students For Democratic Reform office, going right up to Lucy, and using the emotion of the music and those lyrics to express himself instead of saying it just with straight dialogue,” notes Taymor. “He keeps singing because he’s in a state of being that is beyond the everyday; he’s in a heightened state that’s going to get him beat up and thrown out by the end of the song. It really helps us encapsulate time, because the music helps you to go very quickly through an emotional state and get to another level that is very, very heightened and very dramatic.”
Related Link: View the Full Production Notes for Across the Universe
The romantic travails of smart, funny, attractive young people are always fodder for light-hearted comedy-except when the light hearts are countered by heartache. CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER transforms the conventional romantic comedy with a bracingly honest real-life vibe, exploring both the comedy and complexity of love and friendship.
“Will and I grew up with romantic comedies, but the ones we love are all about heartbreak,” says the luminous Rashida Jones, who co-wrote the screenplay with actor Will McCormack and also stars as Celeste. “We wanted to invert what everybody expects from this kind of story. Of course we’re all completely familiar with the archetypes and structures and story points of romantic comedy-so we wanted to flip it. To keep the humor and the audience’s emotional connection to it but get something new.”
Rashida Jones and Will McCormack are laughingly frank about the real-life parallel between their own personal history and their collaborative screenplay. “As a couple we were short-lived and ancient history, but we knew we could be friends,” says Will, who nails the sidekick role of Skillz the pot dealer with comic skeeziness. “We wrote this whole movie side-by-side on one computer. We wrote every word together. Because we have been so close for so long, there was a real shorthand during the writing process. And as new writers, we were very encouraging of each other.” CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER is a first-time screenwriting effort for both actor-writers.
As Will elaborates, “Celeste and Jesse are definitely more amplified versions of us. Celeste’s journey is interesting because she is someone who thinks she can outsmart heartache. That’s something that happens to other people. She does everything she can to avoid it.”
Indeed, Celeste offers a twist on an archetype that movies love to scorn: the alpha woman. “Yup, Celeste is the high-powered career driver and Jesse is the passive guy who won’t grow up-all the makings of a clichÃ©,” says Rashida. “But the balance between them keeps shifting out of Celeste’s control, which kills her as a controller. When the reality of losing Jesse hits, she’s just blindsided.” Celeste’s ambitious striver is given more compassionate dimensionality than the alpha woman stereotype is usually afforded.
“Personally, I can relate to a line like ‘The father of my child will own a car'” says producer Jennifer Todd, herself a professional dynamo with both studio blockbusters and independent dramas to her name. “Celeste is a very, very recognizable present-day woman. But by the rules of studio comedy, she would have to lose her job, have a comeuppance. And she would also have to fall down in high heels a lot. Embarrassing things would happen to her. An ambitious woman has to become a loser to be likeable. Rashida didn’t write her or play her that way.”
Director Lee Toland Krieger remarks that “Even in 2012 you rarely see an ambitious Type A woman onscreen who’s more than a caricature. Rashida’s character can be tough and very serious about her career and also have a sweetness and sadness.” Krieger’s first feature, THE VICIOUS KIND, attracted Todd and the writers for its sinewy drama; “Just reading the script I understood that they didn’t want a fluff piece. They wanted a story about what heartbreak is really like. I was thinking HUSBANDS AND WIVES and I could see how a lot of other filmmakers might be thinking of something broader. It’s maybe harder to take at times and a bit more gut-wrenching, but I think people will respond to that honesty.”
“It was a really tricky tone to find,” Rashida points out. “There are so many turns in the movie that are so hard and so quick, and it goes from being funny and broad to really sad and hopefully truthful-it needed somebody who got that range to find what the thread is.”
But don’t worry, it’s still a comedy. Emotional truth notwithstanding, the goal is entertainment-hard to miss with the likes of SNL alum ANDY SAMBERG as Jesse, and an ensemble featuring Emma Roberts, Chris Messina, Elijah Wood and the rest of the supporting cast. As bad girl pop star Riley, Emma Roberts’s sulky stoner is the antithesis of Celeste’s uber-functional know-it-all. “Riley lives in a totally different world than Celeste,” says Emma, “So it’s hilarious to see when their worlds meet and they are forced to interact. Riley is oblivious but she isn’t stupid. I think she just doesn’t know how to behave appropriately in certain situations. I think they both are kind of fascinated by each other because they are such opposites. I love how their relationship goes from annoyance to a kind of love for each other. Or at least an understanding.”
Echoing the film’s themes of love and friendship, a network of longtime relationships enlivens the CELESTE AND JESSE cast and crew. Andy Samberg’s friendship with Rashida dates back to his stand-up comic days around LA, and they are old friends with instant chemistry onscreen. Producer Todd’s acquaintance with Rashida goes back to high school (where Rashida looked up admiringly to the slightly older and reportedly cooler Jennifer), and Jen gave Will McCormack one of his first film roles, in THE BOILER ROOM. Jen’s sister and Team Todd partner SUZANNE TODD shares producer credit (as well as with LEE NELSON). Chris Messina, who plays Celeste’s surprisingly astute suitor Paul, is Jennifer’s husband. On the tech side, director Lee Toland Krieger brought on a crack team of frequent collaborators, including Director of Photography DAVID LANZENBERG and his crew.
To pull it all together, producer Lee Nelson’s Envision Media Arts stepped up with the lifeblood of financing. “Jennifer and Rashida were trying to get CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER done on the financing side, and felt that they weren’t able to make the film they wanted to make when they reached out to us. We read the material, and loving it and loving the people involved, we felt like these are the kind of artists that we want to be aligned with-so we took a flier and financed 100% of the film.” By all reports, the all-union, modestly-budgeted production was remarkably fun for the cast and crew as they dashed around numerous LA locations and onward to San Francisco and Rhode Island (where the wedding scene was shot). “It was an absolute joy making this film,” says Nelson. “It was a very collaborative set with a very positive vibe.”
The joy must be especially rich for Rashida Jones, as the co-writer and title character, seeing her first screenwriting outing come to fruition. “Acting in a film that you wrote is a real privilege and a creative advantage,” she says. “As the writer, you know the genesis of the joke, the scene and the relationship. The process of making the film was extremely grass roots, which gave the movie an organic, lived-in feel.”
Related Link: Celeste and Jesse Forever Full Production Notes