I remember e-mailing this clip to both Mélanie and Ewan as the editing on BEGINNERS was about to finish. I don’t remember why though. Obviously it’s just pretty beautiful, but maybe I was trying to share my relief at being done, or exhaustion, or just paying homage to the mysteries of editing. To me, living with an animal gives you an everyday encounter with the all the things we don’t know and can’t control - with otherness. Being so close and such dear friends with a someone who doesn’t talk, who smells emotions, who lives in packs, who really lives under a whole different paradigm is sort of an everyday anti-depressant. And clearly this kitty’s been listening to Erik Satie.
Images that pointed the way
As I was writing the script I kept a file of things that felt like what I hoped the film would be. Little clues or reminders or signs in the forest that said “the world you want is this way”. Some of these things were obvious, a William Eggleston photo, a Robert Adams photo, but the things that weren’t so directly related to film or photography were often the richest for me. Often, I didn't know why I picked it, and wouldn't question it too much, just stick it in the file. I just looked through the file and came across this bit of rug, I think I got off of fffound or some site like that. Oh lord, this is a beautiful thing no? It’s not that I wanted my film to look like this; borrow its colors or design, but it gets at what I wanted my film to feel like: Dense, unpredictable, heterogeneous, emotionally vivid, like some strange dense bouquet of many elements.
François Truffaut 1960
Again, trying to talk about these gorgeous films is a bit daunting, but then not trying seems a bit chicken. I was late to discover this film, and ended up watching it many times while writing and trying to get BEGINNERS made. It’s hard to say why it became a sweet little medicine for me during hard times, but good things always feel more possible after watching it. I think it’s because the film is so wonderfully misshapen, the story does not progress in anything like a straight line (but it works so well). Most dramatically, there is filmically delicious whole-life-in-20ish-uninterputed-minutes-flashback that occurs halfway through the film. The film does follow a typical gangster story and is based on a David Goodis novel, but it’s like a conversation that can’t stay on course. Even the plot-driven scenes, maybe especially the plot-driven scenes, find a way to meander inside their dramaturgical duties: gangsters talk about wearing women’s underwear while kidnapping our heroes, lovers talk about getting good deals on underwear while undressing, a stranger talks intimately about his marriage after helping a thug come back to consciousness. And then, every once and a while out of nowhere comes an over-the-top narrator that speaks to Charles Aznavour’s character Charlie, telling him to not be shy, not look at her legs, to list athletes’ names as a way to stay calm. It’s as if all the characters are grabbing at what amuses them as they unwillingly perform the requirements of this faux-gangster plot. And maybe that’s what I love the most, and relates to my experiences with my dad’s illness, the sadness and pain that came with it, the hospitals and the whole complicated web of health care you enter. You’re on a ride you can’t control, a ride you all know is going to get nothing but worse, and all you have are the little jokes, little moments of grace where you remember yourself, some absurdist digressions that break everything open, a few glimpses of your old free life along the way. And these little grabs at what makes you happy while the prison guards aren’t looking are your only way of re-claiming yourself in a world (or hospital, or plot) that is the last plot you want to be in. Both my parents were actually very good at this, and Christopher Plummer for reasons I don’t know has deep, deep access to this comic subversiveness. Maybe it comes from growing up and finding yourself during the Depression and World War II and the emotionally repressive post-war America? Maybe it’s just that they’re deeply funny people.
And of course Shoot The Piano Player has the most romantic score created by Georges Delerue. As Henry Rollins would say “If you haven’t heard it, you’re gonna dig it, you’re gonna dig it with a big shovel”. (Did anyone hear his amazing show on February 12 celebrating Abe Lincoln’s birthday?) The “honky-tonk” piano piece that Charlie plays through the movie is one of my favorite pieces of music ever (yes I have lots of favorite things), the happy-sad tone of the lone piano, like the characters in the film, sort of cheerily trots along in the midst of a storm. That tone did really influence our score, and me in general. You can hear a sample in the clip above, immediately after the studio credits.
Jorgen Leth 1967
OK, anyone who hasn’t seen this owes me one. And Mr. Leth, I owe you a whole lot. I kind of think anything I say will not begin to get at why this is a masterpiece, one of my favorite films ever. It’s one of the first things I shared with Ewan McGregor when we began talking about Beginners, and I think the first thing we really bonded over. You may notice that the character Oliver’s dancing style is more than a bit indebted to this film. Strangely, I once very randomly had dinner next to Mr. Leth, years before I saw this film. He was so self-deprecating and unassuming, when I asked him what he did (I know, horrible question) I think he said “this and that” – funny way to meet a future hero.
I’m so happy that one of my favorite pieces of music made it into the film and trailer, “Stardust” written in 1927 by Hoagy Charmichael (lyrics written in 1929 by Mitchell Parish). Besides just being so beautiful, with a warmly melancholy feeling, it’s oddly connected to many things I love:
1. Thinking about memory: "Though I dream in vain/In my heart it will remain..."
2. My mom. Born in 1925, she had me late in her life, and “her” music was always exotically out of sync with my 70’s childhood world. I remember the soundtrack to The Sting playing all the time, hence there’s a lot early jazz-rag in the film - Jelly Roll Morton, Mamie Davis, Mr. Charmichael, Josephine Baker, and Gene Austin.
3. The song personally reminds me of “To Have and Have Not” (1944; Howard Hawks, starring Bogart and Bacall). While the song isn't in the film, Carmichael himself plays “Cricket” the piano player. Being a good Depression-era kid, my mom loved Bogie. And so in my family, if Carmichael was in the same room as Bogart, he must be great. It’s also the film where Bogart met Lauren Bacall for the first time, and to my romantic mind this is some of the cleverest flirting dialogue ever performed.
4. Woody Allen’s amazing “Stardust Memories” which features a Louis Armstrong version of the song, and of course the title. This is a gorgeous film, both so real and unreal, honestly sad and funny, funny, funny. Does anyone else act out the “I’m doing my face exercises, it’s important” scene with their loved one?
If you were worried that it was strange, or outlandish, or at least really pushing your own sense of decency to create a film about some of the more intimate, vulnerable-making questions of your parents and yourself, wait until you make a trailer and advertisements for that film! While you tried to show all the humor that came with these unanswerable questions, and how much we all share these emotions, on the day when your trailer appears on Apple, you still might feel Rather Exposed. Simply put, it feels as curious and out of control as a dream, seeing the film broadcast out into the world. Luckily I’m in the very smart and thoughtful hands of the people at Focus. And, even more luckily, so many people have been really kind and generous in their response to it - especially my family. There were many times when it seemed very likely that as much as desperately I wanted it, this film might not happen, and so, it's kinda hard to imagine how it got out of my head and is running around in the world. Like the first time I saw one of our location signs out in the world (picture above) and I thought to myself, "How is someone else making a film with the same title as mine?"