American Beauties

In his latest documentary, Amir Bar-Lev turns his lens on the Grateful Dead

Sofia Boutella

WILD AT HEART

 

Written by Zan Romanoff | Photographed by Zoey Grossman | Styled by Sean Knight

 

“That’s so dark!”

Sofia Boutella is riding shotgun in my car, perhaps the filthiest vehicle currently on the road in West Hollywood, when she spots a stroller sitting on the sidewalk, abandoned in the dazzling Los Angeles sun. We’re on our way to her dentist, running 20 minutes late for an appointment to get her teeth cleaned. “That’s so dark,” she repeats. “What a weird vision. What a weird sight. There are some things it feels like you’re not supposed to see.”

This is not how the afternoon was meant to go.

The plan was pretty standard: I would meet Boutella on the rooftop of a hip Hollywood hotel. We would sip cocktails and take in the view. I would ask her questions about working opposite Tom Cruise in The Mummy, in which she plays the title role, as well as her part alongside Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde, both of which release this summer. She would tell me some mild Hollywood gossip, repeat a bunch of platitudes about hard work and keeping her head on straight, and send me on my way to write A Celebrity Profile: a greased-lens look at her and her life, constructed in order to give the public a relatable Sofia Boutella character to imagine floating from rooftop to red carpet and set to set.

Altuzarra Bra | Simone Rocha Skirt | Christion Dior Briefs | Christian Louboutin Shoes

Altuzarra Bra | Simone Rocha Skirt | Christion Dior Briefs | Christian Louboutin Shoes

And in fact, though our time together was replete with lifestyle details—our French fries were sprinkled with truffle oil and Parmesan—it was also dotted with pedestrian inconveniences, the kind of humdrum low-key annoyances that are hallmarks of recognizably civilian life. For instance, the rooftop bar didn’t serve French fries, or any food for that matter, and we were both starving, so we ended up in the dark, loud downstairs restaurant instead. A series of scheduling snafus had accidentally sent Boutella to a different hotel before she met me, so we only had a brief window to eat and talk, which is how I ended up steering her through pre-rush hour traffic while I fired off questions and she finished the last of her fries in the passenger seat. It was an intense afternoon—not dreamy, not “relatable,” but mostly very ordinary: two slightly harried early-30s women trying to do their jobs. Which makes sense: Boutella has never been that into the glamorizing softness of a neatly turned narrative anyway.

She was born into upheaval: She spent her early years in the midst of a violent civil war in her native Algeria. Her family fled to France when she was 10; they moved around the country until Boutella left to tour as a dancer when she was 18. She did that for more than a decade before leaving (a gig backing up no less a performer than Madonna) in order to focus on acting.

The decision had been a long time coming: She’d been acting since she was a teenager and always felt drawn toward the discipline. But she kept getting paid gigs as a dancer, and she loved it—until she wasn’t sure she did anymore. “I asked myself the question [am I ready to stop dancing] for about two years,” she explains. “For me, it felt like a question of life or death. I asked random people. I never do what people tell me, but I need to understand. I want to know how people behave in context. When I feel compelled, what do I do?” Ultimately, though, her answer came when it was ready. “I woke up one morning and [the desire to dance] was gone,” she says. “I cannot explain. Nothing happened. It was just gone!”

“I asked myself the question [am I ready to stop dancing] for about two years. For me, it felt like a question of life or death."

But then there was the matter of finding work. Boutella spent the next two years taking acting classes with a teacher named Arthur Mendoza, who previously had been a disciple of the legendary Stella Adler. Boutella studied the nuts and bolts, the technique and history of the craft—and did not get cast at all, in anything. “I did not make a paycheck in two years. I was broke.”

She considered go-go dancing to make ends meet, but discarded both options when she thought they might start to affect her emotionally. She wanted to save herself for what she considered her real work. She decided that she was going to be a housekeeper.

And then she got cast as an assassin named Gazelle in Kinsgman: The Secret Service (2014) in a cast that included Colin Firth, Mark Hamill and Samuel L. Jackson. Gazelle is a walking weapon; her prosthetic legs have been sharpened into lethal blades. It was an ideal role for Boutella, something that benefited from the physicality of her background in dance without pigeonholing her as an actress who had to be limited to crossover films. “I did not want to play a dancer in a movie,” Boutella explains. “I did not want to do a Nike commercial with words. I thought if I was doing a dance movie, I was going in through the exit door, trying to shimmy in in a slick way.”

Rodarte Dress

Rodarte Dress

“I did not want to do a Nike commercial with words. I thought if I was doing a dance movie, I was going in through the exit door, trying to shimmy in in a slick way.”

Even after the scare of those lean years, she remains insistently thoughtful about what roles she takes and why. She actually turned down her part in The Mummy when it was initially offered to her: In the first place, she’d just spent months doing four-plus hours a day in makeup chairs as the alien Jaylah in Star Trek Beyond (2016), and she was wary of putting herself in a similar position again so soon. But she also had questions about the role itself: “I was afraid to play a monster. I was afraid it would stick to me, as a woman, and [I would] not work again. Who are the women who played monsters who did anything after? I didn’t see any examples,” she says.

Boutella spoke with the director and told him that her mummy needed to have “a strong, solid back story.” He delivered, giving Boutella not “just the usual: the girlfriend who’s jealous,” but instead a princess betrayed, a pharaoh’s daughter who’d spent her whole life preparing to rule, only to have the throne stolen from her when her widowed father remarries, and his new wife bears him a son whom he names as his heir.

Boutella’s approach to her characters is characteristic of her intensely cerebral nature—though, as with her dancing, ultimately the performance lives in her body, not her brain. “I read the script a lot, and I do a lot of research until I feel like I know what’s happening,” she says of her preparation. “And then I let it go and see what’s in my back pocket.”

For The Mummy, she ultimately found on-screen role models in Kathy Bates’ turn in Misery as well as Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. Not monsters, exactly, but women who were dark and intense—evil but ultimately human.

When I ask Boutella if she feels that being a woman of color has limited her range of roles, she answers emphatically that she doesn’t. “I never want to victimize myself in that regard,” she explains. “Even if it happens to be true, I’m happier being oblivious to it. This is not what’s
going to drive my life, and I don’t want to let it. I want to see these characters as assets.” She attributes this spirit to her upbringing: “I was picked on massively when I arrived in France. The only way to survive that is to take ownership of who you are and what you’re about. That confidence never left me.”

“I was picked on massively when I arrived in France. The only way to survive that is to take ownership of who you are and what you’re about." 

That said, she’s generally wary of taking political stances: “I want to be educated far more profoundly than I’ve ever been before I do anything” in terms of advocacy, she says. “Someone asked me recently, ‘What advice would you give to some little kid who lives in Syria?’ Look, I got lucky. I got lucky to get out of [Algeria] when I was little. Tell me to give advice to someone in America or France, and I would say, ‘Keep believing in your dreams.’ I’m not going to tell someone in Syria ‘keep believing in your dreams!’ It broke my heart, that question.”

Boutella seems mystified by the 360-ness that people demand from their celebrities, the need for them to dissect their lives and work (“My mom is an architect. Very valuable job. She’s never asked, ‘So, how did you come up with that wall? Why did you decide to put a tree on that rooftop? Tell us!’”), the way that the public asks famous folks to tell stories about themselves and then uses them to imagine that they know the person and not just their persona. Boutella’s personal policy is: “If artists are great at what they do, if I meet them and they’re dickheads orassholes, if I meet them and they’re not nice—I’m like, it doesn’t matter. I don’t care. What you do on that level is far more profound. You don’t have to be nice.”

She says she’s always felt this way, but it’s been reinforced over the course of a career spent working with her idols. “I think it’s a protection to dissociate,” she says. Like a Virgin and Bad were the first two cassettes she owned, and she listened to them until they broke; both Madonna and Michael Jackson went on to hire her to work for them. She dealt with this with characteristic sangfroid: “I was honored. I mean, I was honored. A lot of respect. But I just don’t fucking lose it.”

Simone Rocha Dress

Simone Rocha Dress

Her detachment had been a survival strategy during a turbulent youth and remains a professional asset as she continues to move into ever more rarified circles as an actress. But it does also come with certain costs. We’re still cruising down Fountain, a few miles past the abandoned stroller that so unnerved Boutella, when I ask her about languages (she learned English on tour in her late teens and early 20s) and about where she lives. After so many years of touring, does she consider any place in particular home?

This is the thing about having stories: they can help other people turn us into digestible, comprehensible soundbites, but they can also help us better understand ourselves. Boutella is at peace with her past, but she isn’t quite ready to start predicting a future for herself yet, in part because the only constant in that past was its chaos and unpredictability. “I’ve never done anything that I should have done,” she says. “I never knew anything I should have known when I should have known it.” She knows where her things are, but that doesn’t mean she knows where she wants home to be just yet. She knows what works she wants to do, but not how she’s going to spin it into the Sofia Boutella character the public is, increasingly, demanding of her.

Boutella isn’t fazed, though. “I’ve decided to just embrace it,” she says of her vagabond tendencies, and all of the things she doesn’t know. “It gave me strength in the sense that I can go anywhere. I’m always a suitcase away from anything.” MM

James Gray

GET LOST

Written by E. Ryan Ellis | Photography by Sandro Baebler

Percy Fawcett is more famous than he ever could’ve imagined. The 20th-century explorer made several trips to Amazonia, seeking to find the ancient ruins of a city he named “Z,” a sort of extension of El Dorado but based on Fawcett’s very real findings in the South American jungles. Fawcett made many treacherous expeditions to Amazonia, making the acquaintance of natives but never finding his lost city. He fought in WWI, and afterward, on his final expedition, he went missing, never to be found again. Fawcett’s story was written and published in 2005 as The Lost City of Z by David Grann. The film adaptation of the book stars Charlie Hunnam, Sienna Miller and Robert Pattinson, and was adapted and directed by James Gray. It’s set for release April 21.

Gray, who directed We Own the Night (2007) and The Immigrant (2013), was fascinated by the internal and external conflict of Fawcett’s story. We spoke at length with Gray over the phone and discussed the beginnings of the film, the difficulty in filming on location in South America and the problematic nature of Fawcett himself.

MM Can you talk about the genesis of wanting to direct The Lost City of Z, personally?

JG I had gotten the books sent to me by Brad Pitt and his producers. This was before it was published, and I was very excited after I read it because to me it was an excellent exposé. It didn’t start out that he was an explorer and that was interesting; what got me excited was that he was a person struggling against his family history. Percy Fawcett was a person of great internal conflict as well as external conflict. It was an excellent way of exploring the roots of the creation of an obsession and what that does to a man.

MM Do you ever have moral views of those characters in the beginning?

JG There is no way that you don’t, because that is who we are. But what I will say is that I try to remove judgments and try to express the film in a way that has total sympathy, if not empathy, toward the character. Even if you wouldn’t do what he does, it is not even the same thing. It is like you’re essentially making a movie that extends people’s sympathy and breaks down the wall between the movie and the character and the viewer and the character. We can then understand exactly what he is going through, so we are impassioned through our support of his endeavors. It doesn’t mean we don’t judge him morally; we judge people morally anyway, even when we don’t want to. He makes decisions I wouldn’t have made, but it does not mean I don’t like him. I personally love him.

MM In some ways, Fawcett is a man of his time, but in other ways he’s quite progressive.

JG That was the idea—that he was a very conflicted, screwed-up character because he was in some ways exactly a product of his times and in other ways he was ahead. It’s hard to know, but that is what makes it interesting to me. Abraham Lincoln was like that, as much as we whitewash the history of Lincoln; he said racist things but that does not mean we dislike him. What it means was, for his day, he was as good as we could’ve hoped for.

MM Fawcett was interested, in some ways, in the equality of the native South Americans but not necessarily the equality of his own wife. Can you speak about that?

JG The whole idea was that I was trying to make a film that had many different levels. I was trying to say that human beings have a brutal and violent sense of the hierarchy. The upper class looks down on Fawcett. Fawcett keeps his wife in a box. He may see the indigenous people of South America, in some ways, in a better light than the upper class does, but we don’t know if it was part of his experience or also an experience mixed with a need for glory that makes his desire complicated. The indigenous people also, even in their case, have some battling between groups, as you see in the end of the film when one throws a spear at another. I was trying to say this is the way the world is, not the way I want the world to be—but I do not think that is my job, that is fantasy. This is what I think the world has done and is doing to human beings, and I don’t think it is much different at all even though it is hundreds of years later. Fawcett is more familiar with his wife, and, in some ways, you can understand—not sympathize—why he feels the way he does toward her. The indigenous people have a certain idealism for him, and, in some ways, he has idealized them in a way that is not helpful to him by the end.

MM I like to think of this film and Fawcett’s story as a microcosm of life. It’s interesting you were filming this before the election in 2016. It has strangely become even more relevant.

JG Yeah. I am actually not proud of that fact.

MM It doesn’t seem like it’s on purpose, just serendipitous.

JG There is no way it could’ve been on purpose. What is creepy and kind of horrible about it is it speaks more to the unpleasant aspect of our lack of progress over the span of hundreds of years. I do believe in progress, but progress is a tricky and complex thing because it doesn’t work like you think. Progress is an ever growing, burgeoning thing, and every year you have better and better societies, and everything is better. It moves and starts, and sometimes you take three steps back to take one step forward. It is very uneven. For example, in the early 20th century you get the polio vaccine and you also get Hitler, so it is a very complicated thing. I think that when I read the story I thought it was relevant even in 2015 or 2014. When I wrote the story in 2009, not to get too political, I didn’t feel that Obama was getting a fair shake in a white male Congress. It was on my mind, I think. Trump is not a surprise. He is just a lack of progress, lack of forward movement.

MM Can you talk about how important it was for you to develop Sienna Miller’s character, because often I think those “left behind” characters are marginalized.

JG We felt it was very important to convey a complex idea about who that person was. [In film] it is always about the extension of our sympathies. It is critical when we look at a character like this that we say, “it seems to me, that she was the one with the tragedy.” He achieved a level of transcendence because... he died in the jungle and became remembered forever. She was just swallowed up by the same expression, but nobody knows who she is. She is the one who really suffered. He got killed, which is true, but he was the one who saw part of the world that most white Europeans will never understand at all. To me, that made the story beautiful for him. That gave him and his son, even though they died, a level of transcendence. She was the one who wound up having to suffer. She was owed something by the movie; the movie owed her a moment.

MM The Amazon almost acts as a character in the film. Like a character that Fawcett continues to miss and revisit. Can you speak on that a little?

JG It is impossible to go down there and not have it be a character. It is so unforgiving, and you go down there, expect to have a tough time and hope you can plan enough of it to make it manageable. There is no plan you can take down there, and it dictates exactly what it wants to do. You realize very quickly that we are essentially a world populated by insects occasionally invaded by humans, and that is kind of how it feels. It is so harsh. You say to people 100 degrees and 100 percent humidity, and people don’t understand how horrible that is.

MM Not to give too much away, but the ending was beautiful. There is a transcendental beauty to it.

JG We wanted it be like a religious service and that he was given to the gods. When you see the footage of ISIS killing the reporters, or whomever they are about to murder, the imagery or the videos are strangely calming. It is not the panic/weeping thing that you’d expect. The video evidence is something quite different. It is a lack of belief that it will actually happen. My instincts tell me I would be panicked. [You] see a grace, which is really weird. We talked about that very specifically when we were shooting. Not that they were happy about that, but that there was an awareness that the story is not necessarily over for them in the spiritual terms. That is the way we treated it and also the idea that we would go back to [Sienna Miller’s character] who was alive with the tidbit about the compass, which I didn’t make up, but I do find very weird. I found it quite haunting that it would bail me out of what was a dark ending, and I didn’t want it to feel like an oblique ending.

MM It very easily could’ve been.

JG Well, yeah. He was probably eaten, and with a story like that, you don’t want it to end with a super bummer. Maybe it does now, but I did not intend for that. I think he achieved a measure of his dreams, and, ultimately, he turned out to be right. He made a miscalculation; he believed—wrongly— that he would find big stone temples and so forth. That part is absurd, but what isn’t is the idea of pre-Columbian settlements all over Amazonia, and he was 100 percent right about that. The one part that is a tragedy, scientifically, is that he was probably walking on top of Z all the time and did not realize it. The cities weren’t made of stone. They were working with organic materials, which dissolved into the jungles, which is why they found all the pottery, roads and bridges ... but not buildings. I wanted to shoot where Fawcett really was, which was the Pantanal region of Brazil, but so much of the area is cleared for soybean farming that it looks like Nebraska. It doesn’t look like it did when he was there.

MM The only question I have left is what will you be working on next?

JG I have an opposite-end-of-the-spectrum: I will be doing a science fiction film, believe it or not. It is exciting to me going to the end of our universe. And I’m going to try to do it in a way that is not too hackneyed, the type of that you don’t see. It is like science-future fact. MM

Jake Kean Mayman

THE ART OF THE DECEPTIVELY UNCOMPLICATED HIDDEN DEPTHS

Written by Augustus Britton | Photography by Jonathan Chu

Thank god for people like Jake Kean Mayman. Just when I thought all hope was lost, just when I thought the bleak vortex of social media had taken its hold on the throat of all and surreptitiously crowned the illiterati as new rulers of the world, I meet someone like Jake Kean Mayman. Thank god for Mayman. He’s part rabid, obsessive contemporary and historic news headline junkie, part conspiracy theorist (my claim, not his). He’s handsome, he’s generous, he’s singularly intelligent, he’s also, and maybe most importantly, a gifted and committed painter.

“Watch your head,” he says, guiding me into his studio, which looks like an elfish hovel. The ceilings are low. The floor is carpeted and daubed with oil paints. “Yeah, the carpet is funny,” he says. The studio sits behind a quintessential Los Angeles pad, one that is littered with cookbooks, stark white walls, sleek furniture, succulents outside and on a palm-tree-lined street.

Mayman stands there, in front of a group of paintings that will be shipped off for a show at Night Gallery in Downtown Los Angeles, with an opening date of March 18. He immediately begins talking politics, the majority of it I can’t understand or can’t follow. At times I feel like I’m being conned. The knowledge of foreign policy, the bizarreness of the Cold War, the patterns made by the nukes dropped on the Bikini Atoll, the feverish research into space exploration, climate change—all of it seems strange coming from a painter with his technical skill; it almost seems unnecessary. Then he points to a painting of a leaf, a large, dangling elephant ear gorgeously rendered. “This leaf piece is discussing the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, which was the first ever global meeting of world leaders specifically dealing with environmental issues.”

“I think what you’re doing is honorable, Jake,” I tell him, sincerely,  referring to the amount of gently veiled political commentary imbued in his work.

“I’m not trying to be honorable,” Mayman says, sitting down. “There is an existential crisis as an artist: What good am I doing in the world? And not that I’m trying to change the world, but am I opening people’s minds in any way?” He raises a hand and talks like a mixture of Jerry Maguire and David Foster Wallace. “What do I paint? Why do I paint it? How much do I pay attention to the market? How much do I pay attention to academia? Do I do this just for me or do I do it for other people?”

“Well?”

“A combination. When I read the news now, I get concerned about things and fret about things and our future. I want the audience to ask questions, I want them to be curious, and that is what I’m feeling. I’m questioning everything, and I’m curious about everything and with the end result of getting a better understanding of where we’re at now. I think it comes back to the issue of what am I'm trying to do with art."

And we begin staring at a landscape—or a sort of trompe l’oeil version of one (an effect Mayman is keenly aware of). It’s an image of an image of a landscape, a trick smacking of Ed Ruscha along with being accompanied by one of those SoCal gradations in the background made by the sun setting. It’s a kind of “movie poster” of a landscape, as Mayman called it, complete with small nicks and rips and tears in and around its surface, as if someone had stepped into the canvas and hung this thing there, forgetting they left the old-school ladder leaning against it. “There is a parallel anxiety or intertwining anxiety with all this work that is the anxiety and fears that play out in my studio process.”

Mayman is excitedly referring to how to make “not just another landscape.” To do this, he adds his signature rendered-out blue tape to the painting, leaving me observing it with a kind of head-cocked peculiarity running across my eyes, in that moment, suddenly noticing these other small illusions, or painterly puns on the canvas, like the couple of blank pages drawn at life-size scale, not adding up with the visage of river and landscape behind it. Mayman explains that “at a certain point I realized that to render out a narrative object would be just too direct for people, and for my sake, compositionally, I got so used to it that it seemed fitting to put it in...”

Too direct for him maybe. You see, after speaking with Mayman, I realize he is hooked on facts, but he’s also quite possibly hooked on subversion as well as the twisting river of time that helps reach those facts. His work is a veritable trail of breadcrumbs as to how he went about making it. “I can basically keep painting these forever, the only reason they’re going to have to be done is that the gallery has to take them out. But in my ideal heavenly world, I would only work on one or two paintings a year and just go full in crazy detail on them.”

And that particular landscape I just referenced is a riff off the current opening to Disney movies. Again, if you take Mayman’s paintings at face value, you might be cheating yourself—although it could be argued that the political commentary isn’t necessary. Like I said, because Mayman’s use of color is so rich, so vibrant, so inviting, you can’t help but have positive chemicals bubble up inside you upon viewing. “This is based on the opening sequence of all the Disney movies now. When I was growing up, it was this simple blue background with this white drawing over it; now it’s this complex 3-D animation, where you start in the clouds and you pan back and naturally it is a pretty dark image; it’s bizarre to have it opening up these joyful Disney movies. It seems morbid, and eventually the castle spire comes into view. ...”

Mayman has collected a lot of his theories from working as an assistant to critically acclaimed painter Raymond Pettibon. “He is a very prolific history buff, and it comes out in his work, and I think I picked up a lot of that. ... He’s very antiauthoritarian, and I don’t want to say I’m antiauthoritarian, but I definitely question, and I was fed a lot of knowledge just listening to him. There were books sitting around everywhere, and he would go on rants. But, again, with some things, I would say, ‘This is a crazy conspiracy theory, Raymond.’ And other things I was like, ‘Whoa.’ And I would go home and verify it.”

Mayman has a real take on life; I venture to say something like, what’s really going on here? He’s decisive; his work is inspiring, its also relaxing— never mind that the show is titled The Earth Dies Screaming. It sets a tone, it keeps it real, it keeps it native, not forgetting the past, respecting the future and paying homage to where we’re at right now.

It’s funny to think about the little corners of the world that we rarely see. Who knew someone like Mayman was back there in that nutty professor lab of oil paint off the alley in Venice, Calif., making these images—Mayman concocting visions of how life ought to be, revealing secrets to himself, a meditation on what it all means to be on this rock. MM

Marc Webb

Marc Webb

IN A SIT-DOWN WITH JENNY SLATE, DIRECTOR MARC WEBB TALKS CHILD ACTORS, SIMPLICITY IN FILMMAKING AND HIS LATEST PROJECT, GIFTED

 

Interview by Jenny Slate | Photography by Zach Gross

In Marc Webb’s upcoming film Gifted (out April 7), a blue-collar bachelor named Frank, played by Chris Evans, is raising his child prodigy niece Mary (played by Mckenna Grace) and is pulled into a custody battle with his own mother—the crux of the conflict being the young girl's school life. Frank wants Mary to have a normal education while Frank’s mother has other plans. Jenny Slate plays a schoolteacher who has recognized the mathematical ability of the young girl and developed a close relationship with her.

Webb has said he chose to direct Gifted because it was a step away from the choreographed intensity of his films Spider-Man and 500 Days of Summer, and his earlier career in music videos (Green Day, Maroon 5). The film is stripped down and relies heavily on the raw emotional performances of Slate, Evans, young Grace and Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer. For Malibu Magazine, Slate interviewed Webb over the phone, and talked about Webb’s process, his relationship with actors and his desire to direct a warm, minimalistic film that manifested in Gifted.

JS What is the main change in your process from your first film to the most recent film, Gifted?

MW I am much more comfortable collaborating with actors and more respectful to the script, and I try to adhere to the spirit of it. People react to humans on screen, not just words. The gift writers give us—the words, structures, story, beginning, middle and end—is the foundation, and I am more comfortable with thinking on my feet and understanding context. I am more comfortable trying to engage in something spontaneous. A lot of my processes I developed when I worked on music videos. [It’s like] when you are doing stand-up, you exercise certain muscles, and you get comfortable with being present. Some of my process remains the same in that regard. I’m less susceptible to people badgering me from the studio and being fearful of that.

JS I think being affected by other people’s wants and desires is a big part of [growing]. As you look at the timeline of your work, do you feel it represents how you have changed as a person, and is it as valuable to you as the work is?

MW I think [it’s] hard to understand [as a director] why you engage with a movie or a story at any one time. A lot of it is chance, and it does connect to something. [With Gifted], I have nieces who are Mary’s age, and I think about them a lot. One of them is very good at math, and it was an easy thing to connect to in the script. There are other reasons: It may reflect where I am at as a human, but not in an obvious way, not just because I’m thinking of childhood or education. I wanted to do a small movie that was minimal, where I could go off and be creative, and not be obliged by a huge crew. The process was a need to get back to my roots and do something very simple with people I liked and cared about and could relate to. This is reflected in the movie, but not in an obvious way. The protagonist was not about finding simplicity for himself; it was, in a way, the opposite—someone who was trying to engage in more complex relationships but not sure how to do it.

JS That is the essential human struggle. You have directed a lot of movies and music videos. 500 Days of Summer (2009) was a very musical film. This was a different type of movie, but would you say there is a musical element to it?

MW Not in an explicit way. Math prodigies often have an overlap of math talent and musical talent. There is that sequence in Gifted in which Bonnie [Slate’s character] is connecting with Mary. It was all about connection, the whole intention was about making eye contact with her. I couldn’t crack that sequence until I listened to the music from the soundtrack of The Untouchables. It was a very romantic sequence. The pinnacle is when [Mary] looked up to you and smiled. It was a very subtle thing where the girl connects to that person, and a very deep moment where she realizes she has a friend. I would have never gotten to that moment without listening to music. It is just a part of the process and helps me meditate. It is not reflected musically in the film itself, but it is how I think and get myself away from the world and get in touch with myself.

JS What do you think you learned about working with a young actor, and what would you do again or not do?

MW Every kid has their own language, and learning how to speak that language is a very powerful thing. They are still developing it, and they have their own words, pauses, securities, insecurities. I think in terms of what I learned, Mckenna was pretty extraordinary because she could act out emotions on cue and could get to places [we] needed to get to in order to have that really ... emotional experience. I think that is raw talent and extraordinary, having looked at all actors we did. Dealing with more groups of kids, you can’t fake it. In order to get authentic behavior, you need to create a situation where they are feeling those feelings but, of course, less traumatically because you need to protect kids in those regards. It is a fun type of directing; you create a scenario where they need to feel, and you put a camera 10 feet away so they are unaware, and you record like a documentary. That was the process we developed in the movie that was very fun. We had a code word; when we said “Garfield” that meant to roll camera without saying action.

JS [Laughs.] I didn’t know what that meant, and I didn’t want to seem like an amateur, so I never asked.

MW We brought the kids in, and they behaved like they were in class and became the best actors in the world.

JS Part of what is interesting for me about working with you is that you respect the fact that everyone has his or her own code, and there isn’t one way an actor is going to work. It is demoralizing if they are forced to do it one way. One thing you said to me is that I could say 70 percent of what you asked and 30 percent of whatever I feel like. You created a really safe environment on the set, and we all became truly close—went out to dinner on the weekend and played games and became close friends. Did you feel it was important for this closeness to happen, that you had to get yourself very deep and be the leader of the closeness or set yourself aside? What was the balance for you?

MW I think I needed to feel warmth. Having just come off of these big movies that have powerful global presences, as a human I needed to be nourished. In a way, I was careful to select humans that were not just actors but allowed for that warmth. I have never felt like I needed to sacrifice myself.  I learned that if people have possession of their own characters and departments, you will get a richer experience because of it. People tend to be respectful if I request something specific, but I am allowing people to have a fullness of their characters. In terms of the closeness, I feel like I needed that in that moment of my life. And given the warmth of the movie, it was really crucial. I thought there was a version of the movie with a lot of warmth there, and I tried to photograph that and keep it edgier in how we executed it so it wouldn’t be as contrived as it could be. I think it required naturalism. That kind of filmmaking is very specific and less rigid and more fun.

JS It was very fun. In addition to the naturalism, there is a “bayou-feel” of the movie, which is such a specific environment. What else would you say are the major differences with Gifted and The Amazing Spider-Man or 500 Days of Summer? Those are more heightened films, whether it’s heightened action or magical realism. With 500 Days of Summer, when I think of that movie I think of a big, red, cartoon heart—I think of candy, and it’s wonderful and makes you feel a specific appetite.

MW 500 Days of Summer was really technical. There was no improvisation. There was the “reality/expectation” sequence, and [the actors] had to hit their marks at an exact pace—the camera moved, and it was really rigid. I like that kind of filming; it was what I did with music videos. With Gifted, I didn’t want to be obliged to a technique. We kept everything handheld, and we shot everything on location. There was a very simple filmmaking philosophy. The lighting was pretty natural. We didn’t have a huge lighting unit, and it was there to make as little of a footprint as possible. Even at the beginning of the movie, there is no credit sequence. I just wanted to be minimalist. I didn’t want to show off. I was just watching To Kill a Mockingbird, which is an incredible movie and will bring you to tears in 20 minutes, there’s so much good shit in it. And there is a great little opening credit sequence with the box [of trinkets] that Scout collects, and I thought, “Oh, I should’ve done that.” And then I was like, “No.” I wanted to keep it simple, and that was the philosophy I was going to adhere to. I didn’t want to make it technical; we weren’t using special effects or green screens. [We kept it] very real and very natural; we were not trying to show off and just keeping it about performances. I think it really worked. I think when audiences watch the movie, they respond to a very honest, very warm movie. It’s refreshingly uncomplicated and un-cynical. I liked that, and I’m proud of that—even if it isn’t a director’s showpiece. It reassures the audience about positive things, about nontraditional families. I really believe in the message and warmth of it. It is important to put out into the world.

JS Going forward now, especially with the way that our world is and a sense of anxiety and aggression and a sense of others feeling being pushed out, do you feel a responsibility or inclination toward creating more work like this that has warmth?

MW I think there are so many different, great things to do with art, and not all of it is being warm. I think you have to challenge yourself and be intellectually rigorous. Movies that are daring and propose ideas that are uncomfortable to people are really important. Those aren’t always warm movies. I was [in the middle of] making a movie when Trump got elected ... and half of our crew was pro-Trump and half were Hillary supporters. It was a complicated situation. Every filmmaker I know had an awakening in that moment and felt like we have to do something about this, and whatever that may be is personal. It made everyone sit up and take notice. ... Your question was about warmth. I think it’s an important component but not the only system that needs to be firing. MM

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