Robert Glasper

Grammy Award Winner Scores Miles Davis Biopic

A few years ago Miles Davis’ nephew said the only actor who could adequately portray his legendary uncle was Don Cheadle. Flash forward to 2016 when Cheadle has not only played the role of the musician in ‘Miles Ahead’, but the film (which he co-wrote) also marks his debut as a director. And while Cheadle was the appropriate vessel to bring Davis to the big screen, the same can be said for the Grammy-winning musician Robert Glasper, who was in charge of the film’s music. Glasper, whose work includes the lauded albums Black Radio and In My Element, is one of the most exciting acts in contemporary jazz, blending influences from R&B and hip-hop to create contemporary sounds that Davis would certainly be proud of. Ahead of a pre-release screening of ‘Miles Ahead’ at NeueHouse Madison Square, Glasper sat down with us for a video interview during which he discussed the everlasting genius of Davis, working with Cheadle, and breaking the molds of history.

 

Portrait Photography: Manolo Campion for NeueJournal

Video: NeueHouse Media

 

Anna Rose Holmer

The Fits' Directorial Debut

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The Fits, Anna Rose Holmer’s directorial debut and one of the films that comprises the New Directors/New Films Festival, organized by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the MoMA, takes the universal theme of the confusions of growing up and reinterprets them by adding a psychological twist. Revolving around the young character Toni, who is trying to find her place between the world of boxing and an organized dance crew, The Fits’ harrowing complications of identity, combined with an unexplainable fit spell that takes over everyone in the dance crew save for Toni, elicits the teenage complexities of trying to find oneself. Ahead of the film’s festival release, the writer and director sat down with us to discuss using sound as dialogue, providing diversity in the writing room, and the creative influence of Mad Max: Fury Road.

 

NeueJournal: What is the driving force behind The Fits and what propelled you to explore this story?

 

Anna Rose Holmer: The driving force behind the film has always been about the subconscious choreographies we perform on a daily basis. I really saw adolescence as a culmination of that; the body mirroring and intuitive ways in which we move our body towards each other. For me it was really grounded in physical action. Looking to other girls’ bodies to define my body as an adolescent was something I finally started to understand as a 30 year old, so that’s always been the theme: how to make an unconventional dance film about adolescence and how to focus on a coming of age story that wasn’t about sexual identity but more just about identity.

 

NJ: This film marks your directorial debut. What was the most challenging aspect of it and what has been your favorite part?

 

ARH: Transitioning into directing, coming from both producing and camera work, was definitely the most emotionally vulnerable I’ve felt. You really have to be open. and you cannot ask others to give without first giving yourself, especially when you are working with kids. I felt I had to be this open book. It is a big challenge to remain really vulnerable throughout the whole process, especially with everyone witnessing that vulnerability on set, which was definitely the most challenging part. The most rewarding has been how much I’ve grown as a collaborator. As a director you cannot carry the film by yourself, you have to lean into your collaborators and I’ve grown so much through my relationships with my two co-writers; Lisa Kjerulff and Saela Davis, as well as my DP Paul Yee, our lead Royalty Hightower, Marquicia Jones-Woods and the Q-Kidz, and really the entire crew. I felt I learned a lot about myself and what type of leader I wanted to be because they were showing me what they needed along the way. I definitely feel like directing is the most articulate I’ve felt in any role in film so hopefully I get to keep doing it.

 

NJ: Sound plays an important role in this film. Why did you decide to say more with action and sound than with dialogue?

 

ARH: So much of how I communicate isn’t through words, and we use soundscape and the score to really be our lead Toni’s voice. We needed to give her a space to speak directly to the audience without that being on dialogue, so we used sound design to heighten her isolation, her sense of foreboding, and her internal struggle. We used the score to give the audience a clue about the quiet discomfort that is building, so that by the time the fits enter into the film you are almost prepared for them, since Toni feels out of place from the very beginning.

 

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Photo courtesy of The Fits

 

NJ: The theme of inclusion and diversity in the film industry is as prevalent now as it’s ever been. Is this something that you actively thought about when creating this film?

 

ARH: I co-wrote this film with two other women, and we are all from different backgrounds, so in the writer’s room we were all bringing different ideas about female identity, cultural backgrounds, and story aesthetics to the writing process, which I think bloomed on screen in this really beautiful way. Our crew was so generous and so giving, but in order for that to work the environment needs to be inclusive, which a really deep philosophy for us – every person who was part of this process had a voice that was valued.

 

NJ: What three films have had a significant impact on the exploration of your personal craft?

 

ARH: The first film I ever saw that made me want to be a filmmaker is a documentary called Streetwise, by Martin Bell and Mary Ellen Mark. Mary Ellen was really my lens into the world of film; I really wanted to be a Director of Photography so that was the first film that sparked this idea that you could tell a story, not just in a single frame like photography, but in a moving elaborate world. Au Hasard Balthazar, by Robert Bresson, is a film that really marked formal language, and Mad Max: Fury Road reignited a spark in me of pure love of cinema and kinetic storytelling. When I think about that film I get so excited to continue to make work.

 

NJ: What did you care most about when you were 10 years old?

 

ARH: My big brother was a big influence for me, he is four years older. I actually mirrored a lot of the relationship between Toni and Jermaine on my relationship with my older brother, Sam. I looked up to him and I thought he was the whole world, but there came a point when I realized I didn’t want to be exactly like him, that my identity was going to go down another path. But I loved playing in the woods with him, and building worlds, building forts, exploring. I cared a lot about my brother.

 

NJ: What is your motto?

 

ARH: “Why are the rules the rules?”

 

NJ: How would you describe the color green to a blind person?

 

ARH: Green is my favorite color because green for me is like the taste of the freshest herbs or lettuce coming out of the ground. I think about spring, I think about rebirth and growth. I think green smells like just after it’s rained and you can feel the ground seeping up those nutrients.

 

NJ: What do you think happens when we die?

 

ARH: I think some people make work so that after they die their work can live on in immortality, but I’ve been trying to practice releasing that idea of ego. It’s really hard when you create work to kind of erase that idea of yourself and that barrier, but I think that maybe in death that barrier is totally erased. But I have no idea.

 

NJ: What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

 

ARH: I am learning, more and more, not to ask for permission and that you don’t need somebody else’s permission to make work. Particularly as a woman in this industry you have to speak up for yourself, because no one else is gonna advocate for you on your behalf. Obedience or silence as a virtue has its place, but also asking for what you want and what you need is valuable.

 

Portrait Photography: Andrew Boyle for NeueJournal

Tony Stone

New Directors/New Films Festival Debut

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In a modern world that relies so heavily on efficacy and instantaneous results, it’s always surprising to learn not everyone adheres to the fast-paced rules of the metropolis. Tony Stone’s first documentary, ‘Peter and the Farm’, explores the intimate life and work of Peter Dunning, a Vermont farmer who has spent over four decades tending to the land and living by the rules of agri-cycles. However, although the film showcases the working life of Dunning, the cameras also capture an exploration of humanity, isolation, and the markers of life, as Dunning delves into meditations of his personal history, from his family choosing not to see him anymore, to his numbing drinking. Ahead of ‘Peter and the Farm’s’ release at the New Directors/New Films festival, organized by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the MoMA, Stone presented the film and its subject matter at NeueHouse Madison Square, where he sat down with us to discuss his anti-hero, and his foray into the documentary world of filmmaking.

 

NeueJournal: How did you first hear about Peter Dunning and what interested you in telling his story?

 

Tony Stone: I first met Peter Dunning when I was about eight or nine years old at a Farmers Market in Vermont. My parents had a connection to him as they were both artists, and I developed my own relationship with him over the years. I actually put Peter in a movie where he played an 1800s logger, so he was very apropos for the role. He ended up being cut out of the film, but I developed my own rapport with him, due to his charismatic spirit and his sort of performative nature. Although I’ve known him for over 25 years, I didn’t go to the farm until he invited my wife and I a few years ago. We were struck by the beauty of it and by its whole operation.

 

Peter is sort of this fading spirit. There aren’t many people like him and of that specific generation, so it felt like there was a need or urgency to document his world before it may collapse. Farming is such a Sisyphean undertaking, but what he had built was so magical and amazing, so we were drawn to the farm and wanted to have a reason to film there. Being a narrative filmmaker, I felt that documentary kind of lacked the visual and experiential qualities that I wanted to pursue since they are usually comprised of sit down interviews. I wanted to visually translate the farm and experientially translate Peter’s micro-world, which is why the title is Peter and the Farm, since it represents the experience and duality of the man and his setting.

 

NJ: What do you want the takeaway of the film to be, and is there a universality to the story that you’re hoping will translate into some sort of action?

 

TS: I would say to keep the film open-ended, where you wonder what is happening and where it leaves off and whether there is a mythological aspect to it. To ask yourself, is this cyclical? Is Peter, this sort of biblical character, still on the farm? I would also like people to ponder, what is sustainability? There’s a point where your self-sustainability can no longer go on.

 

There’s no specific takeaway, but for me, farmers are obviously heroic. There’s a challenge with working based on the repetition of cycles and years that is just absolutely admirable. I’m in awe of the dedication farmers have to the work and the land. Everybody has their own experience of dealing with characters like Peter in their life, whether it’s a father, an uncle, or whoever, which enables you to relate to certain parts of Peter. Obviously, a farmer would have one view of the film, as opposed to somebody in the city, who would have a different view. It’s interesting in that dialogue too.

 

NJ: What has been the starkest difference in filming this largely isolated subject matter as opposed to other projects you’ve worked on?

 

TS: There’s obviously a difference between narrative and documentaries. Narrative is total self-creation that could start with the director or producer and then unfold from there, but it’s created out of a concept and then built around that. What’s interesting with documentaries is that your subject is everything. We jumped into Peter’s world, and it’s amazing to be at the mercy of his day to day activities – you also sort of wanted to step away and let him lead. He was such a collaborator who had his own ideas, but then our camera brought its own tension and its own reality. We worked mostly with a single camera, which actually reduced options. It’s such a balance trying to show the spectrum of the character without trying to say too much. In a way, I kind of looked at it as if we were editors of Peter’s material, which is so theatrical and sounds, in a way, prewritten because he’s told his stories so many times. By having Peter also film we wanted to remove ourselves so that things could unfold naturally, uninterruptedly, and spontaneously.

 

NJ: How did your childhood affect your decision to become a filmmaker?

 

TS: I spent nine months of the year in New York City and the remaining three months in Vermont. So having context for each of these worlds, I was able to look at them and their different eyes and become aware that my surroundings have different patterns. When I was in Vermont, I was running around, making forts, starting fires, and letting my childhood imagination run wild. In a way the scenarios we create as children is its own form of filmmaking.

 

But also being in New York and going to a high school that had a film department, as well as being exposed at a really young age to so much culture, and movies, and places like the Film Forum, was huge. It became more of an innate language, which stemmed from the cultural exposure combined with the circumstance of living in these dual environments.

 

NJ: How would you describe the current state of the world in three words?

 

TS: Suicidal, solipsistic, and numb.

 

NJ: When is the last time you cried?

 

TS: Recently, talking about Peter and his current predicament.

 

NJ: What is your current state of mind?

 

TS: I guess excited, but fraught.

 

NJ: If you could have witnessed any historical event, which would it be?

 

TS: There are so many. It would be interesting to witness something like World War I, but the extent of it and the carnage was so horrific, which would make me want to see more celebratory occasions of humanity. Discoveries are a always incredible, and one thing I love about that is you would require a return trip, otherwise you don’t realize that it’s a discovery.

 

NJ: Who do you most admire?

 

TS: Peter Steele (laughs). It’s kind of an inside joke.

 

Photography: Andrew Boyle for NeueJournal

Chloé Zhao &
Jashaun St. John

'Songs My Brothers Taught Me'

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Chloé Zhao new film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, is a universal story told through the specificity of its two main characters, siblings Johnny (John Reddy) and Jashaun Winters (Jashaun St. John), and how they deal with daily life living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation after their estranged father’s alcohol-related death. Zhao has an impulse to create universality, meshed with the determination to create fleshed out and realistic portrayals of minority characters, setting her film apart – with a brave idea to cast non-actor members of the reservation to play the complex characters. Chloé and Jashaun sat down with us to discuss the biography of the film, the pursuit of diversity, and the happiness of an open field.

 

NeueJournal: Where did the idea to tell the story of this particular reservation come from?

 

Chloé Zhao: I’ve always lived in big cities and I wanted to go to a place where nature is still wild. The idea of home is a theme that I explore a lot in my work, and upon reading more about the reservation I found they are so extremely identified with the place and such a complex relationship with it, which is the opposite of my experience. I don’t identify with a single place that I feel I could call home. Pine Ridge is the ground zero of all the struggles that Native Americans go through – historically and today.

 

NJ: Jashaun this is your first acting role, which is hard to believe since you were spectacular. Was acting something you had thought about doing before meeting Chloé?

 

Jashaun St. John: Yeah, when I was younger I used to make-believe stuff, and acting was always fun for me. So when Chloé told me about this opportunity, I was excited.

 

NJ: It’s interesting you say that because your character has such creativity. Chloé, you were inspired by the stories of the reservation inhabitants, but how much of it is biographical?

 

CZ: Jashaun draws, but she’s more of a cheerleader and she plays basketball. The film’s Jashaun was an artist. Johnny, on the other hand, said that 80% of his character is who he is. Jashaun is maybe 40%. She doesn’t have a lot of brothers and sisters like Johnny did, and she’s the oldest, but after meeting with her we talked about the role and she said she always wanted an older brother. Johnny and Jashaun only met once before acting together, but right away there was a connection. I knew it was going to work from day one, because when I looked over she was throwing these black olives to the roof of the trailer and he was catching them with his mouth.

 

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Film still from Songs My Brothers Taught Me

 

NJ: What was the biggest challenge with your first acting role and what was your favorite part about it?

 

JSJ: I think the most challenging thing was all the emotional scenes. I usually don’t cry that much. My favorite part has been traveling and meeting new people.

 

NJ: The theme of inclusion and diversity in the film industry is more prevalent now than ever before. Is this is something you actively think about when creating projects?

 

CZ: I think so. It’s not even a matter of who is more righteous, it’s just a matter of curiosity. I’m not saying white stories are not good and important, but there’s quite a lot being done already. I’d like to see places I don’t know about, and images I haven’t seen as much in our mainstream media. Plenty of the portrayal of Native Americans is either as historical figures or just very two-dimensional, and we all know – if we really take a minute to think about it – it’s not reality.

 

I was an American Politics major in school and my focus was racial relations, so I think it’s in my nature to seek representations that are lacking, and try to put them on screen. Like these kids, their Native American identity isn’t their only identity. They’re a mother or a daughter, a rapper… a cowboy. That’s who they are, and to represent them that way – as a human being first – and to show what’s similar before just saying what’s different, that’s the kind of thing I’m interested in. Not just Native Americans…for Asians, and for any representation.

 

NJ: In what way would you say your upbringings have influenced you the most?

 

JSJ: Because there isn’t much to do, you’re more free…

 

CZ: Remember going to your grandma’s house and going in the backyard? The sun was setting and you could really hear everything. You could hear the animals. I thought as a kid, you can’t really get away. It’s hard in the city to really find those moments.

 

NJ: Did you grow up riding horses or having a relationship with animals?

 

JSJ: No, I wasn’t really familiar on how to ride a horse until the movie came out.

 

CZ: Johnny was definitely more the physical. She grew up in the city of the reservation and John grew up in the boonies, as he would say. He grew up with horses in front of his house. Jashaun was more in town. But she’s been a pow wow dancer since how old?

 

JSJ: Three.

 

NJ: That’s amazing!

 

CZ: Yeah, and her dad is a sun dancer. Jashaun was a trader when she was young, but John didn’t really have this aspect. She was more attuned with the ceremonial culture, whereas John is more in touch with the western side. Like the horses, rodeo, that kind of world. His dad is quite well known in the rodeos as a bareback rider. He actually has 25 kids. John has the Wild West in him.

 

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Film still from Songs My Brothers Taught Me

 

NJ: This film is particularly important because, as you were saying, there is no real human representation of this type of character in the canon of cinema. What three films have had the biggest influence on you?

 

CZ: Tree of Life or Days of Heaven…I haven’t decided which one. Terrence Malick really gave me a lot of courage that films could be made while trying to discover what’s invisible. Another is Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together, which is a big reason why I made this movie. And Harmony Korine’s films too.

 

NJ: Malick studied philosophy, so I think having an alternative background, like you and your political background, makes you have a different approach to creating.

 

CZ: If you believe there is something bigger in the universe that connects us all, that’s worth exploring. Finding something universal is not necessarily about what’s right in front of us, and Malick talks about that connection all the time. If you believe you’re a part of something bigger when you make art, even if it’s about a particular subject, you try to find something universal within that community or that culture or that individual.

 

For example, one of my friends told me the film reminded him of growing up in a small village in the south of France, and having to figure out how to leave the only place he’s ever known. That, to me, is the best way for us to bridge differences…showing issues that can be identified with at large, and then laying in the political, specific stuff about Native Americans.

 

NJ: Who do you consider your biggest hero?

 

JSJ: My grandparents. My mom had me at a very young age; I was born after she graduated high school and she wanted to go to college. So I grew up living in my grandparents house while my mom was away at college.

 

NJ: What is your idea of perfect happiness?

 

CZ: Mine would probably be having a horse ranch with like fifty dogs, or having an animal sanctuary of any kind – surrounded by lots of dogs. I’d pick up some cats too, but, you know, they can take care of themselves. But dogs and  good food and making movies!

 

JSJ: I’m very active, so I like the summer more than I like anything else. Where my other grandma lives they don’t have a lot of buildings around. Living around open fields is what I enjoy the most.

 

Photography: Manolo Campion for NeueJournal

Bobby Cannavale

'Vinyl' & The Transcendence of the Stage

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Bobby Cannavale is perhaps best known for his television roles in Boardwalk Empire and the new HBO hit Vinyl, created by Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, and Terence Winter, in which Cannavale plays a music executive in New York during the 70s. However, Cannavale is a also a seasoned thespian, whose work, like The Motherfucker with the Hat, has earned him a plethora of accolades. In his own words, Cannavale told us about the transcendence of the stage, Louis C.K., and choosing to break free from typecasting.

 

I’m not really fooled by the action hero we’re being sold on these days. Then again, no one’s coming after me to play leading man roles; but frankly, I find those to be less interesting than they used to be. Usually, it’s the friend who’s more interesting, or the bad guy. That’s what I go for, the character roles. I’m proud of my decisions to be in movies that target a narrower audience. You can’t control what people write about you or what people think about you, so you decide what characters you want to play and which directors you want to work with. I get to work with people like Al Pacino and Woody Allen, people I’ve always wanted to work with—I can’t worry about what people say afterwards.

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After Boardwalk Empire ended, I had to decide whether I wanted to typecast myself as “the mafia guy.” Every actor has that choice, and I just didn’t do it. I know actors in this business who get their shot doing something really well, and they spend their careers playing one character, but that’s not for me. I have to be unsure if I can even do it before I can get excited about it. I like to be scared and take on a challenge, and at the end of the day I can say that I love to go to work.

 

Going on stage is one of those challenges: it’s a different game, and it works for me. I get to play leads in theatre, and those are different from the lead in a rom-com, for example. Beyond that, there’s a methodical nature to theatre that I thrive on. I really like rehearsing. I like coming in, starting from the same place with everybody in the room, and building something. There’s also the thrill of performing eight times a week, with a new audience each night. It’s a totally different high than I get from being in a movie or a TV show. Don’t get me wrong—there are times when I go to the theater and I understand why people hate it. Sometimes it’s just really bad. When it’s great, though, it’s transporting, in the same way a great movie can be.

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It makes sense. Plays are what got me into the acting game to begin with. I grew up with a single parent and I wasn’t allowed to go out much, so I went to the library and read a lot. I used to read a couple of chapters of a book and then put on a little performance for my family, based on the story. I’d write down the dialogue and make my sister do the scenes with me. I don’t really know where it came from because I don’t have anyone in my family who has any kind of artistic bent; it was just part of me. I had the bug early on, and it really came from plays.

 

A few years ago, I was in The Motherfucker with the Hat, with Chris Rock. Louis CK came—he always comes to see my plays—and after the show he said to me, “Man, I just can’t get over the fact that I can throw something at you.” Louis came to see that play three times. He told me that he had to come back to Motherfucker because he felt like he was in the room with us and shouldn’t have been there. When that happens, it’s incredible, because there’s no real logic to it. You’re sitting in the theatre right next to a stranger, and there’s people standing right in front of you, people you could technically throw things at—but instead you’re transported.

 

Photography: Brigitte Lacombe for NeueJournal

Guest Photo Editor: Janet Johnson