AMERICAN SYMPHONY Subjects Jon Batiste and Suleika Jaouad and Director Matthew Heineman Talk the Moving Documentary
By Sean Boelman
American Symphony is a new documentary following musician Jon Batiste and his wife, writer Suleika Jaouad. Although the film might have started with the intention of following Batiste as he composed his latest work, its focus shifts when Jaouad learns her cancer has come out of remission. The result is a wonderfully emotional documentary in many unexpected ways.
In a recent press conference, Batiste, Jaouad, and director Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land, The First Wave) discuss their artistic process and some of the key takeaways they hope audiences have from the film.
Part of what makes American Symphony stand out from the mass of other music documentaries is that Heineman gets such an incredibly personal glimpse into the lives of his subjects. While Batiste and Jaouad are both acclaimed artists, and the film is about Batiste composing one of his most ambitious and audacious works yet, their creative processes are intertwined with their lives.
Batiste had this to say about how his work reflects the experiences he has had in his life:
“We were talking a lot about synthesis and the creative process when I’m with the musicians, and I’m talking about how to synthesize all these things and to create a new sound, a new approach, really my own approach. I think about life in that way. And in this time, you can’t be in the present without having some form of integrative synthesizing thought. You’re bringing it all together. You’re using this in that and that in this. That’s inspiring this piece, and this piece is inspiring how you show up for your wife. And this is inspiring the Grammy’s performance. And that all becomes one. To me, that was what happened in this moment, and that’s typically what I’m doing anyway, but it was on hyper-drive in this seven-month period. How do I take everything that’s happening and integrate it all into one? Because that’s the only way I’m gonna be able to be present in all of it effectively and move forward and keep the momentum going.”
Indeed, one of the most moving things Batiste says in the film is “music comes from life experiences.” When asked if he thought this wisdom rings true in other mediums of art, including film, this is what Heineman had to say:
“I hope, if there's nothing else that comes out of this movie, it’s that life imitates art imitates life. It's inseparable, especially with Jon and Suleika. They feed each other, both as a couple in their lives and their music. I think one of the moments in the film that really personifies that is when John dedicates the songs to Suleika, and he pauses for 90-100 seconds or so. And in that moment, he writes a novella for us about what he's feeling. The way he puts his left hand and then the right hand, and obviously, there's so much weight that he's carrying with him. He’s obviously worried about Suleika and trying to sort of transfer that from wherever he’s channeling his energy into his hands and into that moment. So I think that really highlights the duality that exists between their experiences and their music.”
American Symphony is now streaming on Netflix.
THE HOLDOVERS Stars Paul Giamatti, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, and Dominic Sessa Talk Alexander Payne's Holiday Dramedy
By Sean Boelman
The Holdovers is the latest film from filmmaker Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants), and stars Paul Giamatti as a boarding school teacher who gets stuck over the winter holidays with one of his dejected students (Dominic Sessa) and the school’s cook (Da’Vine Joy Randolph)
One of the biggest highlights of the film was the chemistry between the three leads. In a press conference with the trio and director Alexander Payne, they were asked how they worked to build this chemistry on set. This is what Giamatti had to say: “We had time. You always make time. I mean, when I’ve worked with [Payne] before, [he] make[s] time. So, we had a couple weeks to sorta get to know each other. I remember that specifically on Sideways, we had more time probably. But any time is more than you usually get.”
Randolph adds, “For this project, let’s say we had three weeks in which we were doing table reads and text analysis and working stuff out. Because people have been asking this question about what was improvised and what wasn’t. I think that was very unique, to me at least, that Alexander did, was that there was room for that, but we did it at the early phase of the table read session. So then it was kinda like this is our collective, agreed upon script, and that we stuck to. But the fact that we had that time to do that, I haven’t had that in a very, very long time.”
“It was this little group of the three of us. It felt like a little chamber play thing sometimes,” Giamatti concludes.
However, even more impressive is that Sessa, who has never had a screen credit prior to The Holdovers — even in short films — is able to hold his own against the two more experienced performers.
This is what he had to say about the prospect of working on Payne’s latest film with his acclaimed co-stars: “I mean, yeah. I just didn’t know what these people were gonna be like to me beforehand. These are celebrities to me, you know? So, I don’t know if they go back to their trailers and plug themselves back in or whatever.”
He adds, “I genuinely could not have asked for better people to do this with for the first time around. Everyone was so down to earth, grounded, and confident in what they were bringing, but also confident in what I was able to bring, too. Like, you guys really, genuinely trusted me in my creative process, my artistry, and that’s all I really could’ve asked for the first time.”
If his performance in The Holdovers is any indication, we can look forward to seeing even more great things in the future from Sessa.
The Holdovers hits VOD on November 28.
Interview by Daniel Lima
In another era of filmmaking, Jesse V. Johnson would be a studio stalwart — an auteur at the helm of a deluge of two-fisted tales about individuals who lead lives of violence. Even without the support of major studios, he has maintained a decades-long career in the action and crime genres, with films like Avengement and the Debt Collector series cementing him as one of the most exciting directors working today. His latest effort, Boudica: Queen of War, relays the story of a Celtic warrior queen who fought against the Roman occupation of Britain millennia ago.
We at disappointment media had the privilege of talking to Johnson about the film, delving into his personal motivation to bring the legend to screen, the importance of grounding a figure like Boudica in reality, and developing the visual aesthetic.
On Finding Humanity in Legend
disappointment media: When you first wanted to write this story, were you attracted to exploring and relaying the legend of Boudica? Or were you more interested in delving into the psychology of the woman who experienced what she did?
Jesse V. Johnson: It was the woman that interested me. My mother took me to the statue [of Boudica in Westminster] as a little boy, and she would have been a divorced single mother, a very fiery redhead. This was a legend she was obsessed with from her school days. It represented a powerful woman who got what she wanted and protected her children with everything she could, which I think is how my mother saw herself at that particular point in time. As a child, you feed off your parents, and this feeling of importance to her laid the foundation in me quite young. As I grew older, I researched her life and her story, and it just fascinated me.
I don't know if it was because of my mother, or because of my own imagination, or what I saw in that story. But what I find interesting is that a normal person, the everyday person, the person who we are familiar with, we may live next door to do, having to find something within their soul to deal with the problem that's presented to them.
In my mind, she’s a well kept housewife and a wonderful mother worrying about the sort of things that a housewife and a mother worries about, and there wouldn't have been much reason for her to worry about things beyond that. They were in a very comfortable situation, collaborating for quite some time with the Roman occupation forces. They would have had everything they wanted, food and land and servants, it would have been quite a good lifestyle.
Then this act happens, this terrible, terrible act. We're not sure what really caused it — I've invented my version of events — but we then have the second life for this character, where she becomes something else altogether. Completely motivated, but reaches deep within her soul and forces this other person, whether by people's expectations to where she is or particular timing of what's going on, to become this warrior, a million miles away from where she started. I find that stimulating and powerful, and whether it's a man or a woman, this is dramatic for me, and it was something that obsessed me, and I wanted to make the movie in quite some time. It just presented dramatic problems that took me a long time to figure out.
On Historical Fidelity
disappointment: You mentioned having to invent what was there, because so much of her story was lost to history. When you were filling in those details, for you what was most important to emphasize about her character?
Johnson: I wanted her to be believable and organic, to feel like someone you knew: layered, textured, fickle. She has a fascination with cooking, with trying to better herself in the arts. She wants to be fashionable, she wants to make sure her children are well kept, and educated, ready to take over when she and her husband become older. It's remarkably similar to how we feel about our children now. I didn’t want these to be cut out of a history book, like a living history. I wanted them to be as palatable and acceptable as if we were watching people from the 21st century, because to embed her in that familiarity in the first act would make the second act more profound. My biggest concern was making it feel like a world that they lived in — that they walked from A to B for a reason, that they were eating at that particular time of day for reason, that he loved her for a reason, that they were king and queen for a reason. If I could make that feel believable, the second half was going to be feel believable too.
The Iceni kept no written records. They had drawings and swirls and beautiful carvings, but there's no writing. The only history we have from their time is from [the Roman historian] Tacitus, and he lived quite a few decades after this event happened. But the more you scratched the surface, the more different historical records you read of the time, the more you see elements that would recur. You try to find your way through all the flourish, find the raw bones, and that's what we've built on.
The museum in Colchester was wonderful. Colchester was the first city that she burned when she went on her initial rampage. It was a temple to Claudius that she burned to the ground, full of Romans that were living there at the time. There's a layer of black in the dirt when you cut down, where the sand and cement was turned to glass from the superheating inferno. It's really dramatic stuff, she was ruthless, utterly ruthless. And compared to the first apparition that we meet of her, I think that's a fascinating sort of journey for a character to go on, and this transfixed me for decades.
On Handling the Story’s Darkness
disappointment: You noted the first half came easier to you when you first sat down to write the script years ago, and that the second half was kind of a puzzle before Olga came onto the project. What was exactly the problem that you couldn't square when you first sat down to write the script? And how did Olga solve that?
Johnson: Well, I wrote the first half of the script. I had no problem with that, I understood her. What I couldn't work out with this act of indescribable evil, which happens midway through, and both of the Roman accounts describe this in detail. There's no way you can film it, people don't want to go to the movies for that. Every single version of Boudica — whether it's written, whether it's filmed, whether it was a stage play — has ruined itself by not handling that correctly. If I showed anything close to that, it would be insulting. If I withdrew and said, “No, this didn't happen,” it would also be insulting. I felt a great responsibility to treat her with respect, her story with respect, and never had quite that feeling before. It became a heavy burden on my shoulders, and I hope it shows in the movie.
Meeting Olga, I realized I had this friend now who I love working with. I adore the way she works, I love the way she looks on the camera. The way she approaches her work inspires me. I could make every film with Olga for the rest of my career. If she agreed to it, I’d have no problem making Olga Kurylenko movies, and then retiring Joseph von Sternberg style after Marlene Dietrich. I'd met her, and I knew I could get the film made.
Then I dragged out the script. I had got thirty-five pages, then stopped. I attempted fifteen or twenty times to get through that act, working out how to do it. It was through reinvigorated interest in getting it finished that I just happened across a description of these Vietnamese mothers during the Vietnam War, who had seen so much evil, been privy to circumstances that were so incomprehensible to us, that they had gone blind through a psychosomatic condition. The doctors could find nothing wrong, but they were blind. It happened on quite a large scale, and it was simply a human reaction to seem too much. I realized that therein lies the answer to my issue.
For me, it was the most befitting way to show that in film. You let the audience realize at the same speed that your character realizes that they're lost, and they've gone, but you don't show it. You realize that it's such horror that she's seen that she's just wiped it out and replaced it with the imaginary.
On the Film’s Visual Aesthetic
disappointment: You're operating in a milieu that you haven't before, historical drama, far away from the inspirations you've cited previously for previous films. In building the visual language of Britannia, what were your inspirations? How did you choose to capture it?
Johnson: We chose to focus on Pre-Raphaelite paintings, neoclassical paintings of the English romanticism era. They used the light extraordinarily well. Everything was quite wide, what we call a “cowboy shot,” where you see below the feet and above the head, and use backlighting as much as possible.
We looked at the Caravaggio's as well, a lot of chiaroscuro-style lighting is taken from paintings. We just put books and books and stuff together from that era, and looked to the classicists from that time. We didn't want to make it a raw, handheld movie, as far away as possible. Try to be invisible with the camera, make these tableaux as attractive as possible.
Color-wise, it's very lush, everything's alive at the beginning of the film. Flowers, everything is a rich green, you just grab a handful and eat it like salad. After the event, we make it brown and darker, a little less lived-in. Towards the very end of the film, where everything seems to be brown, black or gray, a more dead feeling to nature than the lush of spring — which is sort of how it happened anyways, because it was wintertime when we were finishing up. We sucked out a lot of the green and replaced it with autumnal colors, small things just to subdue it a little bit. We all associate lush green with life and springtime, and vitality and vibrancy. As you dispense with that, it feels like a transition.
Boudica: Queen of War is now in theaters and VOD.
Interview by Sean Boelman
Thomas Hardiman’s one-take hairdressing murder mystery Medusa Deluxe made a big splash at last year’s Locarno Film Festival, where A24 quickly picked it up for American distribution. A dazzling technical feat, it is one of the most ambitious directorial debuts of the year.
We at disappointment media got the opportunity to talk with Hardiman about the inspiration behind the film, as well as some of the film’s unique messages and themes. Check out the full interview below!
On Medusa Deluxe's Technique and Style
disappointment media: What was the inspiration for Medusa Deluxe and telling this story as a seemingly unbroken shot?
Thomas Hardiman: The inspiration behind the film is that I want to put hairdressing on a pedestal. I want people to go, “Wow, hairdressing is flippin’ amazing!” At the same time, I make absurdist comedy. I want things to be kind of dramatic and kind of comedic and fun at the same time. So it's that knife edge and hairdressing gives you it. It's how people present themselves to the world. It has a kind of cultural value. You've also got the backbiting, the salon gossip. And you can pinball between the two — that’s comedy. In terms of the one shot, the specific inspiration is taken from my niece, actually, who was watching long hairdressing and makeup tutorials on YouTube. I just felt like they were taking media in a completely different way to what we had all grown up with. Like, you and I are talking on Zoom right now. We're getting used to this. This is how we inhabit the world with cameras now. And for a filmmaker, it just gives you incredible opportunities. Like with a murder mystery, you would cut for a red herring or a clue. But you're not gonna cut — it's gonna become a character drama, and it changes storytelling. And you get so excited by those possibilities. You want to go, “How can I make something emotional, heartfelt, comedic with this radically new technology and this radically new media landscape?”
disappointment: Ever since Birdman re-popularized the long take format, opponents have criticized it for being “gimmicky.” How do you think Medusa Deluxe avoids the gimmick?
Hardiman: To be honest, gimmicky is a funny, particular word. When people say phrases like, “style over substance,” I think they're sometimes easy catch-alls, and I don't think they're necessarily engaged with the topic on the level it deserves. If you look at, let's say, a one-take, filmmaking is connected to technology and things changing. Sound at one point was a fad. Color at one point was a fad. Every single technology is always a fad at some particular point. And I don't think it’s necessarily true. Those ones, obviously, are not, but I think having this potential to use cameras in slightly different ways is just reflecting modern life. The way we'll shoot on our iPhone is just standard to anyone. Anyone might do a 10 minute shot on their iPhone, that's just the normal world. And as filmmakers, all we're doing is responding to contemporary life. So for me, if you're coming from a point of view of being genuinely interested in the modern media landscape and character, and putting people in a space and world, you're never going to have a problem with being gimmicky because you're coming from a classic cinema point of view. A second ago, I was talking about 12 Angry Men. Sidney Lumet famously changed the camera's view during the film. It starts high, goes middle, and then goes low to increase the claustrophobia. We're all doing the same things. This is an AR rig Steadicam. There are times in which you want to increase the claustrophobia, so you go low. There are times when you want to orbit someone to work with the geography of the space. Those things are, in one sense, incredibly new and modern, and we can do them because of modern technology, and in another sense, it's traditional filmmaking. I feel like if you're doing that, alongside thinking about characters and their emotional sensibility at that moment, you're always on.
disappointment: I think one of my favorite things about Medusa Deluxe compared to other one-take films is how seamlessly you weave between characters — both in terms of the camera and narratively. How did you plan this effect?
Hardiman: Nashville, Altman, Slacker — those things are really important to me. I love ensemble dramas. You know, cinema, generally, is going to tell the story of two or three people, but occasionally, you get these filmmakers who are like, “I want to tell the story of an entire city. I want to tell the story of an entire community.” And I just find that incredibly exciting. That kind of broader canvas, that level of ambition where you're really shooting for the stars. In terms of meeting characters and being in the space with characters, I've thought for a long time. In a film, traditionally you'll have backstory, or you'll have someone who announces themselves, whereas my experience of meeting people is that you don't tell someone your entire backstory when you meet them. You create a portrait of someone through the little things that they say and the time that you're spending with them. That's how I approach filmmaking, and that's how I approach inhabiting spaces with characters. I feel like it comes from a place of reality, actually. So hopefully, the seamlessness of going between people is reflective of actual, genuine life experience because this film is on this knife edge between reality and incredibly heightened absurdism. And that's also something I love. I feel like realism is an interesting thing because a lot of people associate realism with something that's quite dour. And yet you happen to be with people sometimes when they are in the saddest moment of their lives, and it's so strange how comedy is used in those situations to lighten the moment. And I feel like comedy is almost the most realistic art form. We'll probably laugh a few times during this interview. It's just a way of humans interacting with each other that's sometimes not associated with realism in the way that I think it should be.
On the Themes of Medusa Deluxe
disappointment: I think one of my favorite moments in the film is when Clare Perkins’s character talked about how hairstyling was this service profession, but it has allowed her to do something meaningful and beautiful. Why do you think the message of lower-to-middle class workers taking what are effectively crafts and turning them into art is so resonant?
Hardiman: I genuinely want to put hairdressing specifically on a pedestal. But I guess there's something that's reflecting on my family in this film. My mum's an Irish immigrant, so it is kind of like the characters in this film are my family. She grew up in East London, which was going through a pivotal time during her lifetime. There was a lot of immigration, so my family is incredibly diverse. So it's trying to find a way to tell stories that can be inclusive and reflective of modern Britain. At the same time, it's giving the respect that I feel a lot of crafts deserve. I hate this kind of, “This can be in a gallery, or this can be in a cinema, or this can be in a book,” culture. I just think it's rubbish. I think that all these people are singing from the same hymn sheet and deserve the same level of respect we give any other art form. Specifically with hairdressing, Eugene Solomon, who did the hair on this film, he's a very famous hairdresser, and I think the best hairdresser in the world. And I begged him to do this film. But when you look at the way he's crafting hair, he's working with the exact same kind of creative framework that a contemporary sculptor works with. He's doing the same thing. And that's what I want to shout from the rooftops. I want to say that all this craft and passion that people have for their industry, I have a real respect for it. Like when someone gets into weaving and then you have a conversation with them about weaving, there's an entire history there. There's an entire world, and suddenly, not only do you learn about their incredible weaving, you learn about them as a person. You understand why they did this, and I love those things as a conduit to character and personality.
disappointment: Obviously salon gossip plays a big role in Medusa Deluxe, but I think gossip and murders go hand in hand as well. Like when there’s a death, people often start to spread rumors. How did your film explore this macabre connection between death and gossip?
Hardiman: That's a great question actually. It's funny, right? Because yeah, I love gossip, I'm not gonna lie. I don't work in an office anymore, so if I ever go into an office, as soon as I can find out who fancies who, who's going out with who, I'm all over it. But then there's something else in it that is like gossip. These things, which can be really frivolous and silly in one sense, when they go from micro to macro on a kind of societal level, can become very dangerous and they can become mean. Like bullying is completely linked to gossip a lot of the time. And it's very interesting how everything you engage with, even if it feels silly, and something you might dismiss, has this kind of interesting duality. I guess that’s something I write about quite a lot. And what my characters are interested in is how things are always two things at once. How things can on one side be fun, and on another side, be spiteful. I guess it's that butterfly effect, isn't it? Something that feels very small and dismissible here suddenly grows into something that's incredibly big and either good or dangerous.
Medusa Deluxe hits theaters and VOD on August 11.
[SXSW 2023] TETRIS Executive Producer Maya Rogers and Producer Gillian Berrie Talk on the Red Carpet
Interview by Diego Andaluz
Launching at this year's edition of the SXSW Film Festival, Tetris hosted its world premiere and red carpet to much success, with reviews locking it in at 80% on Rotten Tomatoes and a promising streaming release on March 31st. Ahead of its theatrical release this Friday, disappointment media had the chance to attend the red carpet of the world premiere and talk with some of the supporting players in the release of Tetris itself.
As the current President and CEO of the Tetris corporation, executive producer Maya Rogers attended the carpet in support of the film, which tells the story of her father Henk Rogers’s quest to nab the publishing rights to Tetris. A young version of Maya Rogers is played in the film by Kanon Narumi, which Rogers calls “surreal.” When asked about her experience seeing her story told to the cinematic masses for the first time, ultimately, she says, “I forgot we were watching the Tetris movie because that story was so engaging. It was just touching to see that at the end of the day, it was a story about my family and about how Tetris touched so many people.”
However, none of the success of the film could have happened without one of the producers herself, Gillian Berrie. Attending the carpet, she explained that during the pandemic, the crew “were looking at places in Eastern Europe, London, Berlin, Tokyo, but couldn't figure out what to do because a lot of those locations still looked like they were going to be closed down.” Then, all it took was one call from Matthew Vaughn to ask for help shooting in Scotland. Her initial response? "Yeah, why not?" However, that started a fruitful collaboration on the film that landed it many of its shooting locations, and shaped it into the film that premiered that night.
Below, disappointment media readers can find the full interviews with Maya Rogers, CEO of the Tetris Corporation and executive producer of the film, and producer Gillian Berrie.
Gillian Berrie Talks Filming Tetris in Scotland
disappointment media: So obviously, there's more to this story than just the creation of Tetris. What drew you to telling this in a larger than life way?
Gillian Berrie: While I wasn't part of the initial development phase, I've been working with [director] Jon S. Baird, who's Scottish as well. During the pandemic, they were looking at places in Eastern Europe, London, Berlin, Tokyo, but couldn't figure out what to do because a lot of those locations still looked like they were going to be closed down. Matthew Vaughn then said "Gillian, we could make this film in Scotland," and I said "Yeah, why not?" and that's how I came on board. So I quickly started doing my research to see what parts of Scotland could pass as Russia, and we actually shot the whole thing there.
disappointment: Why do you think Scotland would make a great filming location in general?
Berrie: The infrastructure is so fantastic. The crews are wonderful, and everything is so close. You never have to wait an hour in traffic — maybe five minutes of traffic. It's got everything. It's the best.
Maya Rogers Talks the Cultural Impact of Tetris
disappointment: Maya, congratulations on the release of Tetris. What factors do you think made Tetris such a massive global cultural phenomenon?
Maya Rogers: I'm gonna say this: everybody wants to create. That's a basic human need and Tetris does that, so that's why Tetris is a perfect game.
disappointment: Yeah, absolutely. And you know, I'm sure you're aware there's more to this story than just the creation of Tetris. Why do you think people should be excited to see this movie?
Rogers: It's a story about love. It's a story about friendship. It's a story about family, and about all cultures coming together. At the end of the day, we're all the same.
disappointment: So what was it like seeing the story that was yours told to the cinematic masses?
Rogers: It was just surreal. In fact, I forgot we were watching the Tetris movie because that story was so engaging. It was just touching to see that at the end of the day, it was a story about my family and about how Tetris touched so many people.
Tetris screened at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival, which ran March 10-18 in Austin, TX.