SXSW '06 Interview: 'Conversations With Other Women' Director Hans Canosa
By Scott Weinberg
Posted 03/06/06 16:42:13
The 'Conversations With Other Women' Pitch: The compelling story of a couple whose reunion at a wedding reception ignites a mysterious attraction for each other that is deeper and more emotionally perilous than they are willing to admit.
Describe your movie using the smallest number of words possible.
Sex. Comedy. Split screen. Emotional. Helena Bonham Carter. Aaron Eckhart.
Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience? If you’re a festival veteran, let us know your favorite and least-favorite parts of the ride.
This is my first trip to SXSW. I went to some festivals with a student film. With Conversations, I've been to Telluride, Tokyo, Valladolid and HBO Comedy Arts in Aspen. My favorite part of the festival is watching my film with an audience and seeing how they feel, what works and what's funny. You learn a lot by just listening to an audience. My least favorite part is that I'm so busy with my film that I can't see all the other great films at the festival that I'm dying to see!
Back when you were a little kid, and you were asked that inevitable question, your answer would always be “When I grow up I want to be a …” what?
I grew up in a fundamentalist missionary sect that took the Second Commandment literally ('no other gods, no likeness of anything on earth or in heaven above') and forbid art, including movies. I found a book on the making of Kubrick's 2001 when I was ten, and after reading that I decided that was the best job one could ever have. So I wanted to be a filmmaker before I'd ever seen a movie. But I couldn't tell anyone that, so I said "Psychologist." I thought that since movies are about creating emotion, psychologist would be the best code for working with emotions.
Not including your backyard and your Dad’s Handycam, how did you get your real “start” in filmmaking?
My real start in filmmaking came from collaborating with a writer. I met Gabrielle Zevin in college; she was the best writer I encountered at Harvard. At the time she was a playwright. I convinced her to work with me in creating screenplays for me to direct. We had good fortune in getting scripts optioned with me attached as a director, but no luck in getting one produced. So we finally made one with a low enough budget that someone would let me make it.
By the way, this plan of getting a writer to collaborate with you only works if you find a great writer. I told everyone for years that I'd found a great one and had good indications that I was right through the years of optioning scripts. But last year really proved me right: Gabrielle published two novels and we got our movie made! A big part of being a director is recognizing other people's talent, challenging them to be great and then channeling that greatness into your movie.
Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it’s on “the festival circuit?”
The most intriguing thing about this film on the festival circuit is that the audience really responds to the emotions of the film. I'm not saying this to pat myself on the back or hype the movie. I just find it interesting that this storytelling experiment doesn't get in the way of people laughing or relating to the characters. Of course, I told my producers that that is what would happen so that they would give me the money to make it. And I'd storyboarded the entire movie and test shot most of it on video to make sure it would work. But every film is a total risk. You never know if it will really work for audiences, or if the thing in your head, which means so much to you, will have any resonance with someone watching it. I'm happy that people at festivals are responding with many of the emotions that I wanted them to have, and that they are surprising me by having responses that I did not anticipate. Making a movie is an amazing learning experience if you are open to it. Everything you learn becomes tools for the next film you make.
Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?
Kermit - he's a director. One of my producers reminds me of Animal.
During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?
Since I only had two weeks of production to shoot 82 pages of dialogue and a sex scene, I wasn't really thinking of anything but getting everything I would need in the editing room.
How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.
In the fall of 2002 I went to several film festivals with a student film. Since I wanted to get a feature made, I asked my writing partner, Gabrielle Zevin, to write a low budget script that we could get made if the festivals put us in touch with someone who could make it happen for us. We'd already optioned four scripts with producers, including one with a studio, but since I hadn't made a feature, the budgets of all of them were too high to entrust to me as a director. So we thought two people in a New York hotel would be about the lowest budget we could write. We didn't meet that fabled person at any festival, but the producer of my student film met a guy who introduced us to another guy that knew Ram Bergman. Ram was visionary enough (or just crazy enough) to get the money together for this experimental feature. At the same time we were looking for Ram, we kept sending the scripts to agents.
I knew a casting director, Kerry Barden, who co-produced my student film. Kerry got great response from agents when we sent the script out. In fact, without naming names, we had seven other 'indie name' actors attached to the movie at various stages before we reached our wonderful cast of Aaron and Helena. We could never work out getting a man and a woman attached at the same time! But in November, 2004, everything came together very quickly. I had two weeks to do pre-production (including four days of rehearsal with the actors) and two weeks to shoot. In January 2005 I started working with an editor, but after two weeks he quit. He told me that because the split screen editing was unlike anything anyone had ever done and since I had the whole movie in my head, I should just edit it.
Since I'd never edited a feature before, my producers didn't want me to do it. For three weeks we interviewed other editors, but none of them was a fit. In the mean time, I edited one scene from the movie (Aaron's emotional monologue while Helena is in the shower). When I showed this to the producers, they gave me the go ahead to edit the whole movie. After about four months of editing we started submitting to festivals, and in a few weeks we were accepted at Telluride. We completed post, including DI color timing, mixing film out in the months leading up to that September premiere. After Telluride we went to festivals in Tokyo (where we won a Special Jury Prize and Best Actress for Helena), Valladolid, HBO Comedy Arts in Aspen and now here at SXSW.
If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?
I have to share two because the first is, 'You learn SO MUCH by making a movie.' Even the most experienced directors will tell you that every time you make a film you are learning how to make films. There is just so much that movies can do, and so many things to learn about how to make them, and how to make them work emotionally for an audience, that you never stop discovering more things. There is no way I could have made this film without making the student films and experimental videos that I made before it. And there's no way I could make the film I'm shooting this summer without the lessons learned on Conversations.
The second big lesson I learned was 'Make a demo.' I made a four minute video demonstration in which I described how I planned to make the split screen work. I included storyboards and a test scene that I'd shot and cut on video. This demo DVD was instrumental to every part of the process. It convinced the producer that I knew what I was talking about and had a plan for how to make this crazy experiment work. It showed the casting director a way to convince agents to pay attention to the script ('Your actor will be on screen for the entire movie!') It showed agents that a first time filmmaker knew what he was talking about. And because it addressed the sex scene, it showed the actors that I could be trusted to make a film about sex that was emotional and complex and in no way exploitative. I recommend it to anyone trying to get a film made. If you can make a really good demo, it's a way of setting your script apart (because there are hundreds of thousands of scripts out there) and also showing people something visual in a medium that is, after all, primarily visual. And for that matter, this is also a repeat of the first lesson I mentioned, because you will learn a lot about your film and filmmaking while making the demo! My demo is going to be on the Conversations DVD.
What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition?
When people find out that you are a filmmaker, one of the first questions they ask (after 'Have you made a movie that I would have seen?' and 'Have you met anyone famous?') is 'What is your favorite movie?' I used to answer Persona, by Ingmar Bergman, because I love the fact that he made something so crazy and experimental that is also so emotional. I find him to be perhaps the most inspirational of filmmakers, because he wields cinema as an instrument of personal and spiritual expression perhaps more powerfully than anyone else in the history of the medium.
But after receiving several hundred confounded expressions, I realized that was a completely obscure answer. So I have a different answer today that is just as honest. I now answer Tootsie. I think that movie is almost perfect--it makes you laugh and cry, it has great writing, acting, cinematography, editing, design and directing, and most importantly, EVERYONE HAS SEEN IT. My conversations have been a lot longer and a lot more fun since this became my standard answer.
Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell “This! I want something JUST like this …only different.”?
Since I only had 2 weeks of pre-production, I didn't watch any movies during that time. I did discuss Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage and Michael Mann's The Insider with my DP for specific elements of the cinematography.
What actor would you cast as a live-action Homer Simpson?
Paul Giamatti. He'd kick ass with the comedy and add a pathos heretofore missing in the role. He'd win a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy, but he'd be overlooked by the Academy because they don't still don't appreciate how hard it is to make great comedy.
Say you landed a big studio contract tomorrow, and they offered you a semi-huge budget to remake, adapt, or sequelize something. What projects would you tackle?
I have two novels by my writing partner, Gabrielle Zevin, that I am adapting into movies. One is Margarettown, the smartest romantic comedy you'll ever see, and the other is a young adult novel, Elsewhere. I think it's possible to make smart stuff at the studio level; it just has to be something that a lot of people will want to see.
Name an actor in your film that’s absolutely destined for the big-time. And why, of course.
Since my leading actors Helena and Aaron both have established careers, I want to single out Olivia Wilde as the real up and comer. She is an incredible actress and comedienne. When I cast her, I hadn't even seen her work on "The O.C.", but my casting director said that she was smart and funny and a terrific actress. He was right. Olivia is not only great in the film, but other people know she's about to become somebody. I read in Variety that she was short listed for the next Bond movie. When she gets the right leading role in the right movie, she's going to break out and become a big star. I hope she becomes our generation's Meg Ryan.
Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d almost definitely be...
...dead. It's do this or nothing. I think you have to want it and need it that badly to be able to put up with everything it takes not only to make a movie but work as a director in a very tough industry.
Who’s an actor you’d kill a small dog to work with? (Don’t worry; nobody would know.)
No killing dogs--my pug, Mrs. DeWinter, would not approve. Two of my favorite actors in the world (both of whom I've had the great privilege to meet) are Javier Bardem and Tilda Swinton. I intend to work with both of them on upcoming projects.
Have you “made it” yet? If not, what would have to happen for you to be able to say “Yes, wow. I have totally made it!”
No. I've been really fortunate with this small indie movie. We've been to terrific festivals, gotten great reviews and won prizes. We're getting domestic distribution in August and we're getting theatrical distribution in more than thirty countries around the world. And yet, I think the only definition of "made it" in the film industry is making a film that makes a lot of money. You could argue that winning top awards like the Globes or the Oscars is making it, but no film really gets to those awards that hasn't already made someone a lot of money. So I consider the critical and financial success of this movie to be a step toward making it. Luckily, even with this experimental split screen film, I always want to make films for audiences, so my future films and my goals as a filmmaker are not incompatible with making a lot of money.
Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?
This question necessitates a complex answer. When you are taking your film to festivals or markets or even into distribution, lots of people will tell you that reviews are all important. And I have personally benefitted from a good review. Roger Ebert called our film one of the best he saw at Telluride last year and waxed enthusiastically about the film on his website. Since our peers at Telluride included Brokeback Mountain, Walk the Line, Capote, Paradise Now and other great films, that was a wonderful compliment and really an honor. I also got to meet him and thank him seeing my movie, for his support of independent films through the years and for just loving film so much. His review opened a lot of doors for me. A lot of people in the industry sought out the film and saw it because of him. My next film is coming together faster because of it.
A complicating factor to the importance of reviews is that many distributors say that reviews can no longer open even an art film, that there is too much product and that people don't read reviews any more. So you must have good reviews, but they don't mean anything.
I think one of the reasons that people 'don't read reviews' is that the proliferation of Internet reviews and reviewers as well as millions of bloggers make for many more opinions fighting for the limited attention of the movie audience. I think it's a good thing that the Internet has given voice to more people, but not necessarily a good thing for people who try to market movies. As a filmmaker, I really like to read what people say about the movie, whether they like it or not. I think people are more forthcoming in their blogs about how the film made them feel than in test audiences where they fill out cards. And I think Internet critics or print journalists using the Internet outside of their 'paper jobs' are also more candid and often write in greater detail than their peers in print.
You’re told that your next movie must have one “product placement” on board, but you can pick the product. What would it be?
I actually will have product placement in my next film. One of the characters is a video artist. He'll be using the same Macintosh laptop with Final Cut Pro that I used to make this film.
You’re contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated film to your producers. The MPAA says you have to delete a sex scene that’s absolutely integral to the film or you’re getting an NC-17. How do you handle it?
If I really felt I had the best cut of the scene, I might try to convince the producers and/or the distributor to release the film unrated. Since they would probably not go for that, I would try to anticipate this fight long before the editing stage. I'd shoot as much footage as I could for the sex scene; not just a bunch of camera angles, but think about what story is being told by the scene and shoot coverage of several different ways of telling that same story. If you had the time to get several versions of a sex scene on set, it would be a good strategy to give them an entirely new sex scene, rather than just making cuts and trims, as a way of showing that you were really trying to work with them and deliver something new. But on a practical level, I don't think there are many situations in which you'd have either the production time or the tolerance of your actors to accomplish this.
In my film, we have a two minute sex scene that involves four actors. It's not an orgy, it's the same two characters in two different times in their relationship (thus played by younger actors in the earlier scenes). I had 45 minutes to shoot Aaron and Helena, and about the same amount of time to shoot Erik and Nora.
The most useful approach to a sex scene is that it tells the story and represents emotional beats for the characters that cannot be expressed in another way. If the scene is essential to the story, it makes it much easier to talk to actors, agents, managers, lawyers and everyone else who has to be convinced that the scene belongs in your movie.
What’s your take on the whole “a film by DIRECTOR” issue? Do you feel it’s tacky, because hundreds (or at least dozens) of people collaborate to make a film – or do you think it’s cool, because ultimately the director is the final word on pretty much everything?
I didn't take the credit on this film and don't plan to ever take it. I don't judge people who do, I just prefer to be identified as the director because that is my job. This film and all of the films I want to make are completely personal expressions, but I don't require the 'film by' credit to establish that fact. I've seen producers and writers argue that they deserve the 'film by' credit, but I've never seen anyone suggest that actors get it. I could see making a good argument for actors since they are the ones on the screen, going emotionally and sometimes physically naked for the sake of the movie. Doesn't that kind of make it a film by them as well?
In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?
If you want to see a funny, emotional love story that uses a unique and cool new way of telling its story, this movie's for you.
Conversations With Other Women, starring Helena Bonham Carter, Aaron Eckhart, Nora Zehetner, Erik Eidem, and Olivia Wilde, will premiere at the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival. Click here for festival information, and be sure to check out the official Conversations website.