A Cinderella Story for Screenwriter Chris Weitz

Chris Weitz lived with Cinderella for three years. No, not in the attic of her family home where her evil stepmother banished her, but with multiple drafts of scripts that eventually became the screenplay of Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of the classic fairytale that is currently blowing up at the box office.

Weitz, best known for co-writing American Pie, About a Boy, directing Twilight: New Moon and currently working on the upcoming Star Wars standalone origin story, spoke about his experiences on the Disney blockbuster after a screening at the WGA Theater in Beverly Hills a week after the film opened, and crossed $250 million in global ticket sales.

“I was in as long as it wasn’t going to be ironic or snarky. I wanted to do a classicist version of the story,” he said, explaining that he had first been brought on for a six week gig by the Mouse House to do rewrites on a previous version of the script when it was in the hands of director Mark Romanek.

But the latest version of Cinderella is definitely revisionist, a modern retelling of Disney’s 1950 animated theatrical version. The 2015 edition stars Lily James as Cinderella, Richard Madden as the Prince and Cate Blanchett as Lady Tremaine.

Cinderella’s backstory with her parents is fleshed out, as is Lady Tremaine’s motivation for being so cruel to her.

But most importantly, the budding relationship between Ella, as she is known before her stepsisters dub her Cinderella for the ashes on her face from cleaning the fireplaces, and Prince Kit is shown to be one of equals.  They are shown to be attracted to each other more on an emotional and physical level over a series of interactions before the iconic ball and the search for the woman who fits into the glass slipper left behind when her carriage turns into a pumpkin at the last stroke of midnight.

“Yet she doesn’t feel like a contemporary heroine,” said Weitz. “The production has elements of the 18th and 19th centuries but with bits of the 1930s and 1940s and generally feels old-timey, but not retrograde. We had to find Cinderella’s story as realistic as possible but not going to options of running away or calling the cops. Dante Ferreti’s design makes you understand why she wouldn’t want to leave where she grew up.”

Weitz grappled with the balance between false restraints keeping her in an abusive situation and having more character development about her upbringing and how she was lavished with affection and care by her parents – and her promise to her mother to “have courage and be kind,” which becomes her mantra.

“Everyone knows how the story ends,” he said. “So it was about how you make the experience not feel old hat, and not throw out the baby with the bathwater. We took her potential weakness – taking punishment – and made it her strength, with the rusty virtue of kindness at the heart of the movie. To have courage and be kind becomes her motto and emblem.”

Asked about that line, which is repeated many times in the film, he said he initially thought he’d come up with something better, but it stuck. “We say it too many times,” he admitted. “But if you bang something over the head, it’s good.”

With two young children and a third on the way, Weitz felt an immense pressure for the movie to be a positive influence on kids and to show that grit and resilience are good qualities for them to learn about.

“We may have reached peak irony,” he said about other pop culture influences in our society. “For kids, we’re trying to make it all about virtues instead of negative things and I don’t want to mess that up.”

Asked about comedic elements of the movie and his background in comedy, specifically the American Pie films – which he said will be on his tombstone –Weitz noted that he has been cautious about broad comedy ever since and especially in Cinderella.

“A lot of the humor is due to the British actors who are used to shifting between television, film and the theater,” he said. “Sometimes you wonder why Cate doesn’t make a move on the Prince herself.”

That could be a whole other movie. But of course in this one Blanchett’s character gets her own happy ending with the Duke, as Cinderella and Kit live happily ever after.

As for Weitz’ new chapter, it’s in a galaxy far, far away. He has traded in Cinderella for Chewbacca, in a film directed by Gareth Edwards, scheduled to open December 2016.

–Hillary Atkin

Breaking the Code Behind The Imitation Game

Graham Moore’s screenplay for “The Imitation Game” just won the coveted Writers Guild Award for best adapted screenplay, topping a field of contenders including Jason Hall’s “American Sniper” Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman and “Wild,” whose screenplay was written by Nick Hornby.

Based upon the book “Alan Turing: The Enigma” by Andrew Hodges, the Weinstein Company film vividly brings to life a little-known story about the attempts to bring down the Third Reich during World War II – the efforts by a group of English mathematicians working in secret at a compound called Bletchley Park to crack the code of a German encryption machine which would enable them to learn where the Nazis were next planning to attack.

With England’s fate hanging in the balance, and countless lives at stake, the group’s leader is the brilliant yet eccentric Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who must hide his homosexuality or risk arrest and persecution by the country he is fighting to save.

With eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and noms for  Cumberbatch and costar Keira Knightley, the film is directed by Oscar contender Morten Tyldum with a screenplay by Moore, who is nominated for adapted screenplay.

Moore and producer Teddy Schwarzman sat down recently to discuss the extraordinary and compelling story behind “The Imitation Game.” Here is an edited version of our conversation:

Hillary Atkin: Congratulations on all the acclaim the film is receiving. How did this project originate?

Teddy Schwarzman: The idea for the project originated in 2009 when Prime Minister Gordon brown issued a public apology to Turing. Historians, gay rights activists and scientists had been lobbying for years to get him his due.  When that apology reached our team it became very clear this story needed to be told, not just to tell the tragedy of his life but his legacy and how he changed our world.

Graham Moore: Everyone on the film knew from the beginning five years ago that it was going to be one of the most important things in our lives. Alan Turing’s story had been told before on the page and stage but never in narrative cinema. If anyone’s story deserved a film, his did, and we wanted to do a film make his legacy proud. There was a tremendous responsibility to tell it well.

HA: What were the biggest challenges in re-creating the character of Alan Turing, who died in 1954 and is considered the father of modern theoretical computer science?

GM:  There was no audio or video of Alan, which means we had to put together the character from his own writing. One of his nieces who was 18 when he passed away was very helpful, along with other people’s accounts. I was able to put together elements of his character from what he wrote.  Alan was also a good prose stylist, his papers translate ideas into layman’s terms. One of my favorite scenes is where Alan explains the big idea of the Imitation Game —a thrilling monologue to write and see Benedict perform. It was almost helpful that there was no audio or video, especially for Benedict. He couldn’t do an impression, he had to find Alan from the inside.  We had some photographs, and Benedict wore prosthetic teeth to make them more like Alan’s. There were enormous mouthfuls of dialogue with that, yet it’s very subtle. Sammy, our costume designer, used mismatched patterns in his shirts and ties. In his wallpaper, there was some binary code.

TS: Our greatest challenge was to capture his spirit and accomplishments and ultimately capture his character without making it feel like a laundry list–without a sense of who he was. Intertwining three different time periods was the best way to do it justice, in our opinion. We went to London for 14 weeks and reached out to Alan Turing’s family and Bletchley Park. His nieces meet with Morten, and Benedict was able to hear firsthand accounts of his cadence, how he was with children, and listened to recordings with colleagues talking about Turing, which we were lucky to have as a resource. Turing’s great nephew is even in the film, dancing in the background.

HA: Along the way, there must have been some surprises you discovered about him in addition to the secret life he led as a gay man.

GM: It was really the sheer breadth of his accomplishments: we knew he cracked the Enigma code, and theorized the computer, but what we didn’t know is that in his off hours he did algorithms on how tigers got their stripes. When do you find time for that? You got the sense his mind was constantly analyzing, breaking codes and patterns in everything. He was a great botanist, and had an amazing garden he tended. He was an Olympic-level marathon runner, who qualified in his 20s. Where do you have time to also run marathons? I just loved idea of his mind working–that he couldn’t stop if he wanted to stop having ideas. That was something, that there was so much constant activity in his head that it was hard for others to get a fraction of his attention, like what he wanted for lunch. There were so many big concepts and brilliant ideas floating around in his head.

HA: Tell us about the casting process for the film.

TS: What we tried to do instead of casting the biggest names was to find people who were incredibly passionate. We had a director who displayed all the tonal balances and he also understood and fell in love with the character, the man and the role. We put pieces in place that felt organic to the story that needed to be told and respected. We just went through a process of getting the best ensemble that creates chemistry. Benedict and Keira give the performances of their careers.

HA: How did you design or obtain the World War II-era and other period elements you needed for the production?

TS: We had a tremendous props department that spent months working. We had the original Enigma, and the listening stations originally used to intercept Morse code. Everything was sourced. We didn’t use replicas. There were memorabilia collectors who donated items for the shoot.  We did have World War II experts, uniforms, weaponry, vehicles, and we met a number of veterans, and people who worked at Bletchley, who are just now figuring out what they did there. It was very compartmentalized.

HA: How do you feel the story of Alan Turing resonates today, especially his persecution by the British after the war?

TS: His treatment by his government was terrible. He was one of 49,000 men who were convicted of gross indecency under British law between 1885 and 1967, people forced into jail time. Turing was given the option of chemical castration injections instead of going to jail. It’s a tragedy we wanted to highlight. We’ve come so far yet there are still religions and countries where being gay is a crime. If his genius contributions can help show that discrimination by sex, gender or race is something of no merit, we would love that message to get out there.

GM: I’m extremely proud as an American what great progress in gay rights we’ve made in the last few years, tremendous advances. I think the film hopefully shows audiences there was a gay man at the very heart of the computer revolution, at the heart of the Second World War. Historically, gay figures have been written out of narratives, so the goal was always to correct that, to say that gay men and women have been at heart of our history for a long time, and hopefully there are more gay figures we can recognize. In technology, it was only a few months ago that Apple’s Tim Cook came out.  Now there are 37 states in the union that have legal same sex marriage. We have made a lot of progress since Alan Turing’s time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Making of ‘American Sniper:’ Screenwriter Jason Hall’s Journey

Writing a screenplay based on an autobiography is challenging enough. But for Jason Hall, the real-life story of “American Sniper” took a tragic and irreversible turn immediately after he finished the script for the Clint Eastwood-directing film, starring Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller.

Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, whom Hall had been collaborating with in bringing his story to the screen, had just been murdered, ostensibly by a fellow Iraq war veteran he had been trying to help. (The man goes on trial soon for allegedly gunning down Kyle and his friend Chad Littlefield at a Texas shooting range in February 2013.)

Soon after Kyle’s murder and then the hero’s funeral he received, Hall’s phone rang. It was Taya Kyle, Chris’ widow, and after their four-hour conversation, thus began a new chapter in both of their lives. They spoke daily for hours, similar to how Taya had conducted her marriage to Chris over a period of 10 years during his tours of duty – on the phone.

For Hall, who is nominated for an Oscar and a Writers Guild Award for his adapted screenplay, their conversations were about peeling away the layers of a complex man in a way that only a wife can reveal.

She told of Kyle’s tenderness and how he had charmed her with his sincerity and conviction.

Hall says it’s an honor to be able to tell their story–and at the same time make it not just about one man and one family but about us as a nation and what is sacrificed in our name.

Shortly after the film opened wide on January 16, breaking box office records, we spoke with Hall about his indelible experience with “American Sniper.”

Hillary Atkin: You first met Chris in 2010 less than a year after he got out of the Navy and before he wrote his best-selling book, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History.  What were your impressions of him?

Jason Hall: The big challenge was figuring out who Chris Kyle was and what compelled him to become a soldier and what the toll on him was. He was affected by his experiences in Iraq. It was hard to think of what he had been asked to do. After I first met with him, I saw one moment where his face came alive when he embraced one of his kids and I realized there was another guy in there. My struggle over the next years was knowing who he had been, otherwise his sacrifice would not be known. His book is one-dimensional. If that’s all there was, that was a different story. This guy was someone else before he came a warrior. I wanted to look at what happened and what it cost him.

I did it through Chris initially, and through his book which gave a lot of details. It was unapologetic, kind of angry and boisterous. I knew from him there was a humility that wasn’t represented in the book. Two years into the relationship I felt him changing. The laughter came easier.  I knew he was helping disabled veterans with stress disorders. I got to learn more about him, and started to love him. I turned in the script and he was murdered two days later.

Atkin: I can’t even imagine how shocking, devastating and horrifying that must have been. For him to be killed on U.S. soil after surviving so many enemy threats during combat.

Hall:  I just broke down after he was murdered. I have two kids of the same age, and the thought of them growing up without a father was just heartbreaking. To answer that call from his wife, to face a woman whose husband had just been murdered–I realized that I hadn’t pursued her more. But try asking a NAVY Seal for his wife’s number. The process took on more meaning during my conversations with Taya, 4-5 hours every day for two months. It wasn’t just figuring out Chris and who he was, it was more than just writing, it was very clear. To portray their story with a writer’s detail–how did he smell, their first kiss, the first childbirth–she remembered all of it. In many scenes she remembered exact things that were said and if not, I attempted to create the feelings and to recreate the purpose of their life in the story we tell. She started to process the grief and it took on more meaning, and I was introduced to a beautifully tragic love story that was unlike anything I’d ever known.

Atkin: What else did you learn about Chris’ character from your conversations with Taya?

Hall: She explained the caring side of a guy who had pulled her out of a dark time. I was shocked to find the architecture of this guy before the war, that he was tender in a way. It was hard to comprehend. She walked me through how the war had changed him, hardening his character, which affected him in such a profound way. He struggled with drinking, seeking help, and when he came home, he had to find a purpose and a reason to live. The book enabled him to walk into any VA and talk to fellow vets about what they had faced. He afforded them that opportunity and in doing so found a little bit of grace that began to heal him.

But the importance of the story didn’t start and end with Chris Kyle. The narrative purpose was to try to get the story of every soldier through exploring the archetype of this warrior and to offer up to every family who can identify with it the truth in their experience.

Atkin: The film has obviously struck a huge chord with audiences. What reactions have you been receiving?

Hall: The stories started pouring in, stories from soldiers, wives, grandparents, people who came home from Vietnam 40 years ago. I’ve been told stories about how parents have been affected, and now have an understanding of what they have gone through and how important it is to have a greater understanding. These accolades are nice, but I’ve cried over some of these stories–I am so affected to the bone. I’ve heard about some guys who don’t go out of house, going to see the movie, and then have opened up and finally talked about their experiences. It’s so beautiful.

These guys wanted to serve their country, but here’s what comes home, that we’re asking them to live with some stress injury. It’s important for us to understand this. I’m telling the point of view of one warrior, a personal character of one man. Soldiers don’t get to know the enemy, they get orders. They’re told to take out anyone with a gun. That’s the exact experience of a soldier, that’s what he experiences when he’s in combat. To allow that to occur and not politicize it, you try to be as honest as possible because truth resonates. Through human truth we can access the universal. The point of art is to create and inspire emotion and thought and conversation. This film has done that. It’s important for that to happen. It’s time to have the conversation about how we can welcome them home.   We’re doing a shitty job of it, it’s too painful, and we tell them, “Thank you for your service,” and that ends the conversation. They had to make choices they have to live with through the rest of their lives.

They carry an awareness of how this country feels. There’s a defensiveness, like “You don’t know what I went though.” When Chris called the Iraqis savages in his book, he was six months home from the war. You’re hearing the voice of a soldier, of a psyche still at war, and we ask these guys to do something not natural. They take on characters to take on an ugly job. That was the voice of a shadow character, not the entirely of Chris Kyle. Our job was to tell the entirety of the man he was.

Atkin: What was your biggest takeaway when you first saw the finished film?

Hall: The most important thing is the enormity of what Bradley did and how he inhabited the character of Chris. To watch him bring him back to life gave me goose bumps.  Kaya said, “I don’t understand how he brought my husband back to life.” It’s a testament to Bradley, his spirit and soul. It is a remarkable achievement.

 

 

‘Selma’ Brings MLK and the Civil Rights Movement to Vivid Life

Director Ava DuVernay has said she doesn’t like historical black pictures, and she’s made sure that her “Selma” stands out from the rest in its tone, in its focus and in its style of storytelling. It’s already nabbed four Golden Globe nominations and five Critics’ Choice nods that are a testament to her work.

Unbelievably, although the US civil rights movement has been chronicled extensively, this is the first feature-length film with Martin Luther King Jr.– brilliantly played here by David Oyelowo– as its central character. Even as he contends with FBI surveillance of his home and activities, he is shown dealing with the personal strains of his efforts, which won him the Nobel Peace Prize.

“Selma” focuses on a few critical months in 1965 with Selma, Alabama as the proving grounds for King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference to fight for blacks being able to register to vote.

Even though they are legally able to, the racist power structure of the newly desegregated South prevents them from actually exercising that right, aided and abetted by Alabama Gov. George Wallace, law enforcement and local politicians and judges.

Tom Wilkinson plays LBJ, who is also resistant to King’s pleas to step in and make things right– until a confluence of events forces him to do so, culminating with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The events of nearly 50 years ago, including the storied march from Selma to Montgomery, are even more resonant in light of current civil rights protests taking place.

“Selma” opened in select cities on Christmas, and goes wide on January 9.

Christian Bale as Moses Powers ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’

The opulence, sophistication and the sheer spectacle of ancient Egypt as the backdrop for one of the most resonant tales in the Old Testament is brought to vivid, 3-D life by director Ridley Scott in “Exodus: Gods and Kings.”
It’s the story of Moses, played evocatively here by Christian Bale, who was raised into a life of Egyptian privilege and “knighthood” before learning he is actually the son of Hebrew slaves and is exiled to the desert by Ramses, (Joel Edgerton) the Pharoah’s son and a rival for the ruler’s attention and affection.
With a gritty realism and an unexpected depiction of the character of God, Moses takes his place as leader of the Jewish people to deliver them from slavery in Egypt, sacrificing for a time the family life he’s created.
The religious may find the film not faithful enough to scripture. The secular will enjoy the dramatic interpretation of a story for the ages, complete with vivid and haunting imagery of the ten plagues.

Redmayne, Jones Reach for the Stars in ‘The Theory of Everything’

As we move deeper into the heart of awards season, you will be hearing more and more about British actors Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, and for very good reason. In “The Theory of Everything,” both are equal parts spellbinding, charismatic and heartbreaking as they portray the time and space of a relationship that not only shaped two individuals and their families but the entire universe of astrophysics.

As the legendary, brilliant scientist Stephen Hawking, Redmayne brings to cinematic life the time before he was struck with Lou Gehrig’s disease– and given just two years to live. Playing Jane Wilde, a fellow student, Jones vows to be by his side throughout the unknown challenges that lie ahead, and puts marriage to him and having children into hyperdrive. The rest, as they say, is history.

In reality, Hawking has survived for half a century with the disease, and was married to Jane for 25 years before each moved on to other relationships.

This beautiful film, with stellar performances from its leads, serves to make their lives even more inspirational.

Deep Dive With James Cameron to the Ocean Floor in ‘Deepsea Challenge 3D’

Everyone who heard James Cameron proclaim “I’m the king of the world” after winning the Oscar for “Titanic” knows he has a huge pair.

But what many don’t realize is that prepping the 1997 blockbuster, which brought in more than $2 billion worldwide, was also a touchstone in his lifelong wanderlust to explore the deepest, darkest recesses of the ocean.

The audacious director’s quest to make a solo voyage to the bottom of the Mariana Trench is chronicled in the new “Deepsea Challenge 3D,” a dramatic 90-minute documentary of his odyssey in theaters nationwide August 8. It was a journey of historic proportions and risk, with the thrill of its many discoveries captured on camera. Tragedy also struck. Along the way, two of his crew members were killed in a helicopter accident.

The forbidding and mysterious trench is located in the Western Pacific east of the Philippines and is nearly 7 miles deep, deeper than Mount Everest is high – 36,000 feet. Think of the altitude a jetliner flies and that’s how far under the ocean we’re talking about.

For Cameron, it was a very personal journey to go to a place where only one expedition had been before, and that was 50 years ago.

U.S. Navy Lieut. Don Walsh and Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard had explored the trench in 1960, and Walsh was part of the Cameron team whose goal was to make the director’s journey the deepest solo dive in history.

He and his team of engineers and scientists built a submersible called the Deepsea Challenger, outfitting it with cameras inside and out that allow viewers to ride along on the exploration and experience the thrill of true discovery under the sea.

The film was produced by National Geographic and directed by John Bruno, Ray Quint and Andrew Wight, one of the two men who died in the helicopter crash while shooting aerials of the sub. The other fatality was Mike deGruy, an underwater cinematographer.

After much soul-searching, the rest of the crew and the families of the two men decided that the expedition should move forward.

“Things get real real quick,” Cameron said in an interview about the documentary. “The answer that came back from the group was to honor what Andrew and Mike stood for as explorers and complete the task.”

“Working with Jim, it’s always an adventure,” Bruno said in an interview. He’s a visual effects supervisor who has been with Cameron since the 1989 underwater adventure film “The Abyss.”

It was after “Titanic” that Cameron began devoting himself to the project and in 2005, with assistance from Australian cave diver Ron Allum, began designing the sub – paying for most of the costs himself with support from National Geographic and Rolex.

He won’t say how much the tab was but noted that the cost of similar government expeditions in today’s dollars would be $100-$150 million.

The submarine is 24 feet tall and weighs 11.5 tons. It was worked on by two teams of engineers, one in Silicon Valley and another in Sydney, Australia.

When Cameron took his solo dive in it on March 26, 2012, the thrusters failed and he was able to stay down just three hours – two hours less than he planned – before returning to the surface, which took about 70 minutes. From samples he collected from the ocean floor and analysis of HD images from the journey, at least 100 new species have been identified.

Just a day after accomplishing the historic dive, Cameron headed to London for the premiere of “Titanic 3D.” Now, he’s working on three sequels to “Avatar.” It helps him pay the bills, he says.

–Hillary Atkin

Blanchett, Washington, Longoria Make For an Exceptional Night at Women in Film Awards

Exceptional. That was the theme of the Women in Film 2014 Crystal + Lucy Awards on June 11, held at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza’s California Ballroom.

 

Hosted by actress Tracee Ellis Ross, the gala event raised funds for WIF’s educational and philanthropic programs and honored Cate Blanchett with the Crystal Award for Excellence in Film and Kerry Washington with the prestigious Lucy Award for Excellence in Television.

 

They shared the spotlight with some of the industry’s other exceptional women: director/writer Jennifer Lee (“Frozen”), who received the Dorothy Arzner Directors Award, Rose Byrne, recognized with the Max Mara Face of the Future Award and Eva Longoria, who was honored with the Norma Zarky Humanitarian Award.

 

The proceedings got started with someone who was perhaps a little unexpected under the circumstances: actor Fred Willard. In a taped piece, later revealed to be a Funny or Die production, he uttered platitudes like, “100% of all blockbusters are directed by men.”

 

“Thanks for the sad plight,” said Ross, who appeared on stage before a sold out crowd just after she entered the video with Willard at its conclusion. “But what really brings us together is our passion for gift bags. Last year, WIF turned 40, but it’s 34 on IMDb.”

 

Actress Laura Dern referred to her daughter as she presented two-time Oscar winner Blanchett with the Crystal Award.

 

“I think often how I would want a woman to inspire my daughter, like Shelley Winters, a dame, did for me,” Dern said. “Cate Blanchett is the dame of my generation. She’s sassy, sexy, a goddess, a lover of fashion, gifted, graceful and versatile.”

 

“I’m old, blind and unprepared,” Blanchett retorted, after hugging Dern and putting on a pair of reading glasses. “I hate to write something, but I shan’t subject you to interpretive dance. This is a big deal. Female achievement is still discussed as being niche. I don’t accept this without acknowledging women like Lucille Ball, Thelma Schoonmaker, Ida Lupino, Megan Ellison and my agent, Hylda Queally, who’s been a mentor. When risks are taken, rewards are reaped. If a misstep is made by women, it’s feared as a career killer–but it shouldn’t lessen our desire to take risks.”

Washington has been thrilling audiences and racking up awards and nominations (BET, Image, Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG amongst them) for her role as Olivia Pope on ABC’s “Scandal.”

 

“In her three years as Olivia Pope, she’s been brilliant and her chameleon-like quality had taken off on a new level,” said showrunner Shonda Rhimes, who presented Washington with her latest honor.

 

The Lucy Award for Excellence in Television was first handed out in 1994– joining its sister, the Crystal Award for Excellence in Film, which was instituted in 1977. It is named after Lucille Ball and is presented in conjunction with her estate to those whose creative works follow in the footsteps of Ball’s extraordinary accomplishments, particularly in enhancing the perception of women through the medium of television.

 

Washington has achieved an additional accomplishment – she is the first African-American woman around whom a television show revolves in 40 years.

 

“A lot has been made of that, and that is something,” Rhimes said. “The business has started to catch up with reality, but there are a lot of requirements placed on her as Olivia and as Kerry. Being a trailblazer has challenged her but she’s courageously leaned into playing not an idol, not an icon, but a human. All the scrutiny and pressure – she blew the box wide open. She’s smart, funny, goofy, a thinker.”

 

Cue clip of Washington from when she hosted “Saturday Night Live” last November, playing roles of multiple black women (just before the show added one to its cast), rushing to change costumes from being Michelle Obama to portraying Oprah Winfrey.

 

“The writer you are has changed me as an artist,” Washington said to Rhimes as she accepted the Lucy Award. “It’s thrilling to be in this group.”

 

It was Washington’s first public outing as a new mom to daughter Isabelle, born in April. Her husband, Nnamdi Asomugha, proudly watched from the audience with other guests that included Diahann Carroll, Florence Henderson, Gabrielle Carteris, Joely Fisher, John Lasseter, Jon Tenney, Kate Flannery, Sharon Lawrence and Shohreh Aghdashloo.

 

“Good things come in small packages,” said actress Lake Bell in honoring Longoria’s philanthropic work, which includes an eponymous foundation and Eva’s Heroes, which assists special needs young people to integrate and flourish in society.

 

“I wish I had an accent,” Longoria began, referring to Blanchett and Byrne, both Australians. “Norma Zarky was an amazing advocate, but I hate being honored for philanthropy–which is hard to believe in this room full of egotistical actors. It started at the age of 10 because of my special needs sister Lisa and seeing what she went through. I learned compassion. To quote Maya Angelou, people may not remember what you say but they will never forget how you make them feel.”

Lee’s path to becoming the first woman to direct a film for Walt Disney Animation began when she was an executive at a publishing house and left to enter film school, Kristen Bell, the voice of Anna from “Frozen,” told the crowd.

 

“Frozen,” directed by Lee and Chris Buck with a screenplay written by Lee based upon a Hans Christian Andersen story, has grossed $1.25 billion worldwide since its release last year, becoming the highest-grossing animated film ever.

 

“I feel very blessed,” Lee said, and praised Lasseter for his faith in her and believing she could direct “Frozen” as her first feature. “Animation reaches the new generation first, and we’re seeing, authentic, inspiring female characters.”

–Hillary Atkin

 

 

 

 

 

Leg Warmers and Laughter: Inside the AFI Tribute to Jane Fonda

Jane Fonda has been called many things. The daughter of Hollywood royalty. A complete sexpot. A trailblazer, an activist, an award-winning actress and, gulp, a traitor.

The breath and depth of Fonda’s career was vividly outlined as the American Film Institute feted her with its 42nd Life Achievement Award in a gala ceremony June 5 at the Dolby Theatre, an edited version of which will air on TNT.

And it will need editing, because the stories told about the two-time Oscar winner were seemingly endless – in a good way.

Starting off with Meryl Streep, who reflected back on meeting Fonda during shooting of 1977’s “Julia,” reminiscing about her mentorship and guidance.

“Jane has a feral alertness. She made me feel lumpy and from New Jersey, which I am,” Streep said, as Fonda looked on, laughing. “You told me about how to stand on my mark, staying in the light, and made me, a day player, feel special. Jane, you also helped me lose weight after each child.”

The parade of participants including Cameron Diaz, Lily Tomlin, Eva Longoria, Sally Field, Peter Fonda, Jeff Daniels, Ron Kovic and Sandra Bullock was interspersed with clips of Fonda discussing everything ranging to life—and work–with her famous father Henry, acting classes, living in France with director Roger Vadim, the work-out craze and coming back into the business in rom-coms and most recently, as a Ted Turner-like media owner in “The Newsroom” and as Nancy Reagan in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”

And then there were the movie clips of some of her most memorable and impactful roles. “Klute.” “Coming Home.” “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” “On Golden Pond.” “Nine to Five.” And, yes, “Barbarella.”

That 1968 kitschy but sexy showcase for Fonda—based on a French comic book– was a big topic of conversation throughout the evening. Wanda Sykes even came out in a Barbarella-inspired costume, and made some profane comments that provoked groans from the audience, which included Diane Lane, Morgan Freeman, Dylan McDermott, Melanie Griffith, William H. Macy, Felicity Huffman, Marcia Gay Harden and Sam Waterston.

In the parade of A-list stars to the stage, two especially stood out, Ron Kovic, the partially paralyzed Vietnam War veteran who inspired “Coming Home” and Fonda’s son with former husband Tom Hayden, Troy Garity.

“If my mother thinks it was difficult being the daughter of Henry Fonda, she should try being the son of Hanoi Jane,” Garity said. “My first 13 birthday parties were fundraisers. My mother never hired a nanny to watch out for me. That’s what the FBI was for. I was sent to school in leg warmers. We took holidays in conflict zones,” he recounted, to raucous laughter from the house.

Kovic, taking the stage in his wheelchair, received a standing ovation and told the crowd how he met Fonda during a rally at Claremont College. “I told the crowd I was a Vietnam vet, shot at, that men were crying out for help at VA hospitals, and that I couldn’t support the war. I may have lost my body, but not my mind. It would lead to ‘Coming Home,’ and I’m happy to have had the opportunity to have contributed in a small way.”

The other anecdotes told by Fonda’s friends and colleagues recognized the scope of her career, her portrayals of strong female characters, her political activism—most with a strong dose of comedy thrown in.

Daniels came out with a guitar and performed a song with the chorus “Did I mention she’s fit? Abs, buns and thighs.”

“We all find her annoying,” said Bullock. “She’s better than us. Everything she does is better – and she’s proved it’s never too late to start over.”

Continuing the humor right up to the end was Michael Douglas, who said Fonda’s career came down to one thing.

“Her body,” he said, before quickly interjecting, “of work.” Douglas, there with wife Catherine Zeta Jones, was the one who got the honor of actually presenting Fonda with her AFI award.

“It’s not easy being the kid of a legend,” he continued. “Jane and I grew up in the shadows of giants but had to come into our own identity. On ‘The China Syndrome,’ I realized she was one-of-a-kind. She left her chosen field and came back. She is that rare combination of movie star and great actress.” As Fonda smiled at him, he told her, “You are true film royalty.”

–Hillary Atkin

(“AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Jane Fonda” airs on TNT June 14 at 9 p.m. ET/PT, with encores scheduled on TCM.)

 

‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ Turn Detroit into a Sizzling Vampire Romance

It’s Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as you’ve never seen them before. They look like the coolest, hippest rock and roll couple ever in Jim Jarmusch’s new film, “Only Lovers Left Alive.”

And here’s a chuckle in this romantic tale. Their names are Adam and Eve.

Yes, that’s a biblical reference and it’s amazing what long hair will do to visually represent the timelessness of love. In this case, Swinton sports waist length, platinum-y locks while Hiddleston has the shaggy long dark-haired British rock star thing going on. And they’re often seen rocking some ultra cool shades, indoors of course, as in “I wear my sunglasses at night.”

There’s a really good reason for that, as viewers soon discover as the goth-style, musically influenced cinematography unfolds. These two are vampires that have been a passionate couple  for countless centuries but somehow have become separated, apparently due to their individual artistic pursuits. For him, it’s music. For her, apparently living life to the fullest.

Without revealing many spoilers, they are reunited in Detroit, where Hiddleston’s character lives in a creaky old house in what looks like a largely abandoned neighborhood, where male groupies–seen through a security camera– often congregate to get a look at the reclusive rock star.

You never know what’s coming next as several supporting characters are introduced into this creepy yet strangely enticing, erotic locale, including a connected music scene dude, Ian, played by Anton Yelchin, who procures rare guitars and seems to be the main connection to the outside world.

Adam himself seems to only venture out of his vamp-mansion to get his drug of choice from a helpful doctor (Jeffrey Wright) at a local hospital.

But when Eve comes to town, traveling from her home in Tangier, where she makes similar nocturnal forays, Adam gets pulled out of his comfort zone.

Things get especially off track when Eve’s younger sister, Ava, (Mia Wasikowska) makes an unwanted appearance and after creating a series of nuisances, commits a crime that needs to be covered up by her elders.

Jarmusch has said he finds romantic appeal in desolate and postindustrial landscapes, and Detroit is filled with them. Tangier, Morocco also swirls with moody mystery in a much livelier environment where another supporting character, John Hurt as a witty, erudite Christopher Marlowe holds court.

The music, the moods, the unexpected humor, the romance, the costumes all blended together to make this one of the most thrilling and evocative films seen in recent years.

–Hillary Atkin