Thursday, July 2, 2009

"Kafka," Steven Soderbergh, Jeremy Irons and Sundance: The press conference

I covered the Sundance Film Festival from 1986-1996. I attended hundreds of screenings, conducted a lot of interviews and attended plenty of press conferences.

Since a big story of the past week out of Hollywood has been the way Steven Soderbergh’s “Moneyball” was canceled just days before it was to begin shooting, I thought I’d publish the transcript of a press conference he and star Jeremy Irons gave in January 1992 to promote “Kafka.” The story I wrote from it is tucked away in a box somewhere, and maybe I’ll republish that someday. I think this was Soderbergh’s sophomore effort after having such a smash with “sex, lies and videotape.” (That’s another Sundance story, with Soderbergh taking to the mic prior to a screening of “slv” and lecturing the Sundance folks on how to improve the acoustics in Park City’s Egyptian Theatre.)

Here you go:

JEREMY IRONS: "When I arrived in Prague, Steven was very keen that I should see an astounding set that had been built -- the main office set, which had something like a thousand typewriters and a thousand desks and a thousand chairs, or something like that; it was incredible. I was still a bit jet-lagged, and he said to me, ‘That's your desk there.' And I said, ‘Great.' And I went and sat in it, trying to impress him that I'm preparing myself.

"And I said, ‘It's very nice, good.' And he said, ‘When you get promoted, you go into that office there. And I said, ‘Thank you very much,' and I went into that office and I sat in my new desk, and imagined having been promoted and looked at the typewriter and on the typewriter there was some paper and ... it said: ‘Working with a second-time director, eh? That's a touch risky. Signed, One Who Knows.'

"And I thought, well, this is obviously a joke on the unit, it's marvelous, and continued on and looked around other bits of the set. And after about an hour, Steven said, ‘Did you get my message?' ... So he was well-aware, I think, of the onus on him. But he is a man without bullshit, and so we'll know that quite clearly and in my opinion, from what I saw, not care at all about it. I think like every artist who stands up and says their thing, has to have an element of ‘f--- you' about themselves. And Steven has enough self confidence.”

STEVEN SODERBERGH: "Yeah, I was not being glib in tossing that to Jeremy. The pressure is self-imposed. If you start worrying about what people are going to think you just cripple yourself. From a creative standpoint, I don't care about that. So my concerns were just trying to make a good film, a different film, use some filmmaking muscles I hadn't used before and stretch a little bit. And the good thing about shooting in Prague is that nobody comes to visit.''


SS: "I know that for me, being in the city in which he lived and wrote had an effect. It might have been an intangible effect, but it permeated the film as far as I was concerned. You know, that aspects of the changing of the guard over there -- politically speaking -- I think only affected us in the sense that we were able to go and shoot there. I can't begin to speak for the Czech people, who I know were going through a bit of confusion probably, in some sense, of Westerners. That was my impression.”

JI: "If I try and imagine shooting that film on a lot in Hollywood, I think it was quite important that we shot in Prague. But it is quite intangible. I had to go home for a short weekend about three weeks into the shoot, and I was, you know, Prague's all right, but the food's not great and I hadn't really gotten into the plan then -- I hadn't met many people -- and I was quite pleased to be going home for the weekend. And I landed at Heathrow in London and drove out, and I thought, ‘Where is this place? This is like the moon.' And it was then I discovered what Prague had done to me in three weeks. For me, it was essential to have been there. It's not just what you see on the camera, it's the whole feel. As an actor, it made my job considerably easier, similar to shooting ‘The Mission' in South America rather than Los Angeles.”


SS: "Part of the blame, or I should say, RESPONSIBILITY, for the German Expressionism in the film lies with Lem [Dobbs, the screenwriter] -- it was his script and it was kind of seeped in that. Certainly, I have an appreciation and a like for German Expressionism. I'm a big fan of Fritz Lang. I think Welles, perhaps, exists in the form that he does, if Fritz Lang doesn't come before him. And certainly there was a lot of Welles tossed in there, too.

“I had second thoughts about naming the character Murnau [played by Ian Holm], and ultimately decided I liked the sound of the name and I'm gonna leave it, whether people think it's stupid or not. So it really, you know, I really felt the film was filtered through three sensibilities: Lem's, mine and Jeremy's. So, I can only, in a sense, account for certain things in the movie; so many things in the movie that you think were directorial choices were actually in the script. And in this case, German Expressionism was heavily laced through the script.”


SS: "I can tell you that they were very conflicted. When we were completing principal photography they were a month away from disbanding the state-run film industry and there were a whole lot of people who were about too go freelance, which was an alien concept. When we went back for some brief re-shooting in the spring, we spoke to some of the people we worked with before, and they said, ‘Yeah, everybody's scared. There's a couple of films coming in and they're making more money.' We had no guarantee that when we went in and started talking about overtime, and saying yeah, we wanted to pay them overtime, we found out that they weren't being paid overtime and we had to kind of pitch a fit to make sure they were.

"What the long-term effects are going to be, I don't know. There are a lot of films over there now -- from everywhere.”


JI: "I did come out of the movie, and I did say to the lady I was with -- I think it was my wife, although she denies it -- I'd love too work with that man. Because I was struck by a freshness and I don't really describe it very well, but a clearness, an originality of vision, a lack of bullshit and a lack of manipulation, which I found very refreshing in an American film. And I also had watched I don't know how many good performances -- how many characters are there in the film? And I knew it was Steven's first film, and I think it's very exciting working with new filmmakers, who are not set in their ways, who are still trying things, still learning; I think people in flux are the most exciting to work with -- people with a hunger, an appetite, which young directors have. And people who can do it well, that's a rare combination.”

SS: "I must also say that in my first conversations with Jeremy, I never got that impression” (laughter).


SS: "I wanted him from the very beginning. I never regretted that choice.”

JI: "Although we were saying earlier, and I do have a problem, sadly, I have a reputation for being kind of serious, kind of arty -- I suppose because I'm easily bored as an actor and many commercial films don’t demand very much acting, so I tend to choose pictures which allow me to do my craft. Therefore I have this reputation for being a bit serious, a bit straight, a bit arty, and I don't think that helps ‘Kafka,' because the name Kafka doesn't help ‘Kafka.' And I think my presence -- I was saying to him just before we came in -- maybe you would have been better off with ...”

SS: "Yeah, with who?”

JI: "Well, with Billy Connolly or something. But you know what I mean, there's an expectation -- Jeremy Irons as Kafka -- that's it's going to be a sort of erudite piece, which is not what we intended at all. AND IT'S IN BLACK ANND WHITE!”


JI: "No. Not particularly. I love getting to know new places. That's one of the perks of my job. New cultures and new sorts of people. Playing someone who’s very unlike me is interesting. It's true that getting the chance to go to Prague during that time, when it was in flux, was a big plus for doing the film. Had Steven said he was going to shoot this in a field in Arizona, I might have been slightly less thrilled.”


JI: "I'd love to branch out. Comedy, it's very difficult to find good comedies -- for me anyway. I mean, other people get offered them first. I did make a comedy, and sadly without a comedy director, so it didn’t work very well. It was called ‘Chorus of Disapproval,' and if you see it billed, turn over. But I'd like to. I do have a sense of humor, but it's slightly bizarre. I haven't yet found a director and a writer who could latch onto it -- although Steven came pretty close. It contains a lot of IRONY, I know that.” (groans at the pun)


SS: "It'll be one of two things: One is a film set in the '20s, about professional football; I know you're all expecting a sports comedy from me now. I haven't approached Jeremy about it yet. (Laughs). The other is a movie based on a novel called ‘King of the Hill' by A.E. Hotchner [which was, in fact, his next film] about a young boy growing up in Missouri during the '30s. A very small film. It’s just not clear right now which one is going to come first. I'm going to do them both, they'd both be done with Universal.”


SS: [After those two he hopes to return to working with the people who produced “Kafka,” because, as he says, “ ‘Kafka' was an incredibly comfortable experience for me, over and above the physical hardships of making the film. I hope to move back and forth” between independents and studios.


SS: "I knew I wanted to do something different. The script had intrigued me, because I never thought a film about Kafka could be exciting. And so the script really caught me off guard. It avoided what I thought were the pitfalls of making a film about Kafka's life or a straight adaptation of one of his works. I had made one film under the most comfortable circumstances imaginable, and I wanted to do the exact opposite on the second film. So there was some design, but at the same time I'm not going to spend my career reacting against ‘sex, lies' -- that would be pointless. I'm sure I'll make a film similar to that some day, again. But for now I wanted to start, as soon as possible, neutralizing expectations about what kinds of films I have to make.”


SS: "Sundance is, for independents, kind of the ranking festival in the United States for exposure and potential, for filmmakers to reach an audience or a distributor. I've never taken part in any of the labs, so I really can’t speak to that. I'd like to, I just haven’t had the opportunity.

"But it's obviously changing a lot. ‘sex, lies' had some very good effects and some bad effects. So the festival's changing every year, and hopefully it'll keep changing for the better.”


SS: "It's funny, Harlan Jacobson and I were talking about this the other day. Here are the bad effects: ‘sex, lies' established a commercial performance benchmark that I think is unhealthy -- it was an aberration, of sorts, and I think it's unfair for somebody to go see a film and say, ‘Yeah, but it won’t do what "sex, lies” did. That's awful. The measure of success for an independent film shouldn't be box office, necessarily. I think it should be more recoupment of investment. And there are more films showing here that have distribution already than ever before. It's because the level of awareness has risen, and as a result people are getting to these films earlier. That subverts part of the purpose, at least initially I think, of the festival -- which is to help filmmakers find distribution.

"So, there's an increased awareness of independent film, that's great; there's a slightly different definition of success for an independent film, maybe that's not so great. You run the danger of the festival becoming a market, instead of just a festival about just seeing some good movies and appreciating them.”


JI: "No, I knew nothing about Kafka. I'm very badly read. Yes, I read rather a lot about Kafka for my preparation.”

But Soderbergh told him it was all a waste of time. “And he was right. I decided I didn't like Kafka at all; he wasn't my sort of bloke. I think you fall in love with Kafka during your adolescence, probably. All the people who love Kafka met him during their teens -- you know, read him. I personally think he was an eternal adolescent. I mean, all his worries are the worries of an adolescent.”


SS: "No, the switch to color was not in the script. It was something mentioned quite casually by one of our producers, Stuart Cornfeld. I thought it was interesting, I thought it was appropriate.” He said he knew it would interest and disorient the audience.


JI: "I'm trained to go from one character to another with the blink of an eye.”


JI: "I'm always slightly frightened that I'll be disappointed. But apart from that, it's like knowing you're going to have a good game -- it's a good team up there.”

A decade ago, JI said, he spent the summer in Cedar City, Utah, with the BBC filming plays at the Utah Shakespearean Festival. Would he come back again someday?

"Without wishing to seem rude, NO. ... I'd even think hard about going to Broadway for a summer to do Shakespeare.'”

SS: "Don't go to film school. Save your tuition, make a film with the money and make people watch it.” Film schools, he said, are too structured for him.

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