Like your two previous films, Monster's Ball and Birth, The King suggests a fascination with dark subject matter.
“I guess dark, yeah. You know, the reason I get scared of dark is because, in Los Angeles, dark connotates (sic) as something that won’t sell, that they don’t want to give to an audience, that’s bad. It’s much like they’ve taken the word art in ‘art movie’. I mean how has this now become bad? I question this. This is what’s interesting: we have this wonderful poster that Richard Pindiscio designed, who did Gummo and Elephant, all of Gus Van Sant’s, and we love it, and prior to that we were having a battle with some of our executives and they were saying, ‘You know the poster? It’s like it should be in a gallery or a museum,’ and James [Marsh, director of The King], said, ‘Is that bad? Do you not go to a museum? Do you not go to a gallery? Do you not like the art? So why don’t we perpetuate and promote this?’ So I’m curious. Why do we all of a sudden say, ‘OK, the masses do not want to see a great film, they want to see easy, fast-food consumption’? But we don’t want to make movies that are like McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken, do we? I don’t think so. I think we want to do something that resonates with people and that lasts a little longer than an hour. At least I’d like to think that this is possible.”
Have things got to a point where it’s going to be difficult to turn that kind of attitude around? The hysteria around Star Wars when we first met in Cannes last year was overwhelming.
“Well, we suffered. I mean we had a media suck up. We had to wait because of George Lucas and his movie. But, look, for a start, Star Wars, kids go see it. Their parents bring them. And then there are some diehard Star Wars fans. It’s an interesting thing. I would say, of course, that I’m not designing a story, necessarily, for a child, so I’m going to lose that audience, which is a huge, huge audience. I believe that teenagers could come to see our film, The King, though, and actually enjoy it, much as they would films like Rebel Without a Cause, that were designed for teens and adults. But when you deal with such a large scope picture, like War of the Worlds or like Star Wars, or Indiana Jones, the big blockbusters, meaning they get everybody on the block to come out and see their movie, it does make our job far more difficult. “Since Los Angeles has been basically consumed by Wall Street and it has become a large money venture, film has been taken out of the hands of the artist and put into the hands of the banker. So what you have now are bankers designing movies and stories, and they want things that they know will sell, because they don’t care about art. Art is for the gallery. Leave it in the museum. But what they don’t understand is that film suffers. And that the audience, a great audience, is cheated. In a way I suppose it makes our job harder. But it also makes us work harder. And I guess you need one for the other.
“It’s not like the blockbuster just came out with Spielberg, even though it really, truly, seemed that that term was coined from his films. But you always did have the films that did better than the other movies that were bigger. Back in the 50s you had the spider movies, the Gigantic Woman movie, which probably knocked out anything that Orson Welles or Hitchcock may have been doing, I don’t know. But it’s always been around and it’s very frustrating.
“I don’t want to talk down to my audience – and I’m just starting to realise who my audience is, or understanding them. I never thought about them before, but having done three movies now, I realise I actually have my audience that will come to see the stories that I’m part of, and I feel that there’s a responsibility. I’d always like to increase the size of my audience, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to start doing easy, consumable movies. I can’t do that. I’d rather bring them up than talk down. I believe we are all born with the same intelligence capabilities, I suppose.”
Where do you see your main audience? Is it in Europe? Have you read the review of The King in Variety, for instance?
“Yes, well, Variety was difficult. But listen, somebody told me that David Lynch said, ‘You have to take in the bad reviews if you want to take in the good ones.’ Now, obviously the Variety review [Laughs], to be compared to your previous works is very simple to do. I mean this is nothing like I’ve done before. It truly isn’t. It’s designed differently. I am who I am and I put in what I have. My soul and my heart is the same thing I work with every time I make a film. I appreciate that this person did not care about our picture. I have to. But I know that some people are really responding. And even people that don’t like it are talking about it, you know?
“OK, the idea that my films don’t necessarily have a happy ending takes people into an experience that they don’t necessarily want to have to leave the theatre with. Also, I guess, at least my last two projects, and even the first one, Monster’s Ball, divided people. There was a black and white issue. We got a lot of negative reviews. It was very difficult. There were not huge amounts of praise on it. But the film did very, very well publicly, which tells us something. Birth, obviously, upset, I suppose, a religious sect of people that really were averse to us having a boy in a bathtub with Nicole. They saw that and said, ‘Are you trying to tell us that paedophilia is acceptable?’ So they didn’t quite understand what we were trying to do there. I have to take responsibility and say maybe I could have found a way to clarify. But I thought it was inherent that the film was about an opportunity lost and love, not about sexual molestation. And now with The King we have the Church and the sins of the father being revisited, atonement, and all of these things. People are going to say, ‘Are you saying that we’re hypocrites? That what we do is judged so harshly?’
“So I’m like look, it’s like holding up a mirror. We hold people in the clergy and in official positions on a very high level and they make mistakes, and they have to pay for them. And we make mistakes, too, and we have to pay for them. That’s all this is about. The pastor David, played by William Hurt, he stumbles, he made a mistake, he paid dearly for it – we leave the audience with, would you forgive him? What would you do?”
I think what’s interesting is that at the end of the film you’re putting Southern Baptists on the spot and taking them at their word.
You are kind of asking them if they can live up to what they preach.
“I suppose so. You know, sometimes when you’re writing you’re not consciously concerned or thinking. You get responsible towards the end, like, ‘Oh wow! What are we doing here? Are we saying this?’ I just really enjoyed this world. I enjoyed these people. I think people of faith are fantastic. To dedicate yourself to your beliefs and to follow them is really wonderful. I’m not part of it, man. I’m just as guilty as anyone else. We all are. I’m not trying to exclude or target any one group of people. I don’t want to attack the Bible. I’m reading the Old Testament now. It’s an amazing book, truly. It’s difficult to read but truly amazing. It’s our source. It’s where we go to, you know? It’s where we lean from, and often it’s what we ridicule, and there’s a lot of things to debate and argue in it. So that was my intention. You know, I’ll be curious to see how we’re received in the States.”
Of course it’s coming at a time when religious teaching and religious faith has practically become policy.
“Well yeah, separation of Church and State, that gap, is getting narrower and narrower by the day, and I think that’s a very dangerous direction we may be going in. But some things need to go to a certain point for them to come back to where they should be. So, you know, I try to take away my own indulgence, my own ideas, but there is always a trace – James and I especially – when you collaborate and design a story, yeah, there’s a piece of us in there. But I hope that we treated everyone with respect and were fair to all the characters involved, and what they represent outside for people who identify with them.”
What does Gael Garcia Bernal’s character, Elvis, represent to you? You make the pastor’s son a Creationist and it’s as if Elvis is the other side of the coin, representing the survival of the fittest and Darwinism.
“That’s interesting. I wasn’t consciously thinking of that. Ask the question again.”
I wondered what Bernal represents for you because he’s also a kind of classic existential anti-hero.
“That’s certainly true. He is very much the Prodigal Son. From the day he gets out of the Navy it’s destined. This is his story. This is what has to unfold. But I think Gael represents many things, not just because of his ethnicity, his disenfranchisement from the family, and his abandonment by his father, but he represents a young man who is in search of a father, who is in search of love, something he hasn’t had. He lives on a boat in the Navy, an island unto itself; he travels the seas, he sees faraway places, but he’s never at home. And he wants to go home. He wants to go where we all do. He wants to be safe. He wants someone to take care of him. I think a great deal of whether people get that is it is achieved, and that’s why we don’t hate him so much after he commits this horrific act. Because we understand what he wanted, you know?”
When he asks to be saved, I wasn’t sure whether he was sincere or not.
“Well this is fantastic. This is what I love. This is like when people asked whether the boy in Birth is Sean or not? Hey, you can take what you like from it. For me, I would not want to impose my own idea on that. Not me, because people then take that as fact and they’re like, ‘Oh, the writer or the director or the collaborator said it’s this and therefore . . .’ No, no, no. You know, you read a poem, I’ll see it one way, you’ll see it another. Or see a painting differently. I like when there is some ambiguity in film. And I don’t mean to, like, confuse an audience. But when we can study it and think about it, certainly much of Kubrick’s work or Terrence Malick, there is much to be looked at and thought and debated, as in many other directors: Kurosawa, Tarkovsky, all of these guys, you can look at their films for days and say, ‘Hm, interesting. I didn’t notice this before. Do you think he was doing this for blah, blah, blah.’ Well that’s cinema. It’s what lasts. And if we look at all the great films we still talk about, they’re great stories, and this is what’s still around.”
Ambiguity is something that’s quite difficult to get through at script stage, isn’t it?
“Well, you know what? We tried to be as clear as we could. It’s true. I never say, ‘I want to be ambiguous.’ I say, ‘Let’s be as clear as we can.’ I think it’s just an inherent thing in me that I am open-ended. I haven’t made up my mind. Also, we had no idea where we were going with our story. We didn’t have an ending in our head. I will say The King achieves this: you don’t know where it’s going, right? Everyone’s a little surprised, because we didn’t know where we were going, you know what I mean? But I’ve watched the movie a few times and I think there is something in it that you can watch again and understand the way we’re designing some of our shots and so on. Look, the pastor says at the beginning, ‘I want you all to stay away from him. I don’t trust that man.’ Well, they should have heeded the pastor’s advice. He was right, wasn’t he? Pell [James] says, ‘We’re going to Hell.’ This is her belief, her faith, you know? They apologise to God. There’s all these things that are very simple to watch but there is a ripple that’s started in this and I think it continues on after people have watched it.”
When Elvis puts the crown on, after Pell says they’re going to hell, it’s an ambiguous action, because you’re not sure what he thinks he’s won at that point.
“Well, I’m very much into fairy tales, fables, ballads, I like to use these now when I am working on pieces – Birth was very much a fairy tale – and James and myself were really conscious of creating this magical kingdom, if you will, where everything is very pretty and nice, very Norman Rockwell, a nice house, a castle almost. Where does Gael live? The far side of the tracks. He’s on the other side. When he comes into the castle, he is the king. That’s what’s in play there as far as the title goes, because this question’s been coming up. So what does he do? He crowns himself, because he’s proud of himself. He made it. He got there.”
How did you and James Marsh get together on this?
“James had read Monster’s Ball prior to it becoming a film. It wasn’t even in pre-production at that time. And I, simultaneously, was given his tape of Wisconsin Death Trip. We spoke on the phone and immediately connected on the idea that we were going to collaborate together, because he had a little development deal at FilmFour, and I mean little, but I was really taken with his film. I thought there was real beauty in it. And one would say that was dark. I guess I connected. He loved Monster’s Ball, the script, and he said, ‘I don’t want to write like I’m writing from a screenwriting book,’ because I think for him it was a new experience. I certainly don’t follow rules, you know? Structure’s important but I often don’t find the structure until later. You’ve got to find the soul before you can get the body. So we had this discussion and then I met him face-to-face. I flew down to Corpus Christi, Texas, and he was waiting at the conveyer belt for me - I literally almost crash landed there because it was fogged over and they had to do all these go-arounds of the airfield. It was crazy. Anyway, he took me the next day to see the wasteland where some of the darkest stuff happens, and we worked from that. What was there when we saw that place at night was bullet cases, a dog skull, a bloody animal skin freshly killed, we didn’t know what it was – we filmed all of this – and it was lots of mosquitoes. We were attacked by a swarm, just brutally. All this found its way into the movie. But it was a real cornerstone for us and we worked from that. It was a really exciting, unconventional way to work, as everything I’ve done has been unconventional, and the process of how I do it is certainly different.”
How did working on this compare with working on Birth and Monster’s Ball?
“Well Monster’s Ball took seven years to make. Monster’s Ball, at the time, you walk away kind of feeling like you were raped by the system. They take your script, they give you a tiny bit of money, the director takes over and you’re history. It was difficult. That was a painful one to work on. That was a very personal project that I worked with an ex partner on, and we don’t work together anymore, we had an enormous falling out, but our chemistry together at that time made that project. So I recognised that.
“Birth was very, very hard because I was working as we were shooting. I felt like I was running through the park with the script, going, ‘OK, so what are we doing?’ It was constantly go, go, go. To give you an idea, I had written in excess of 21 drafts - that doesn’t include ADR or the additional shooting that we did - so it was non-stop. But it was incredibly exciting to be writing on set and 15-minutes later giving the actors their script. Writing the night before with John [director Jonathan Glazer], the next day he’d take it to the set, and we had a little signal business going on, where I’d scratch my nose, he’d look at me, walk over and we’d have a private moment and say, ‘You know when you’re talking last night you were talking about this motivation, blah, blah, blah,’ so John was a very giving director and I was very much part of that process, as I was with James Marsh on The King. I was on set, but I produced it as well, so that was a whole different game.”
How did that side of it pan out?
“Based on the nature of the material it was very, very hard. I mean originally the plug was pulled when James was down on the set, the first time they took the money out. James had to say goodbye to everybody and a year later we got the money back through, I suppose, the tenacious Ed Pressman, who is a good guy with a good heart, and who made sure that we at least had enough money, barely, to make our film. And we did. The parameters were very difficult, it was move, move, move, and go, go, go. The actors were pushed to their limits. And James and Eigil Bryld, our DP, were pushed to the max. It was hard. But, you know what? We believed in it. We fought hard. We battled with a lot of the powers that be and we got it done.”
Why did you take a producing role on this film?
“I take great pride in it. It’s actually a Milo Addica Production. Why? Because it wouldn’t have gotten done otherwise. It wouldn’t have happened. Eventually I brought in a producing partner, Jim Wilson. When FilmFour was collapsing we had to get it out of there. So I had to take it away. It was put in turnaround back to James and myself, and I decided I’ll produce it and I got it done.”
What is the attraction of the American South for you, because this is the second film you’ve done there, Monster’s Ball obviously being the other one?
“Well, I would say that Georgia’s dramatically different from Texas. Texas, one could say, is a southern state, but Georgia is deeper south. Okay? Different group of people. Different accent. Different culture. But they are alike in that they’re, I guess, gothic American. You know, old America in their mindset, in their collective thinking. Why? Well, with Monster’s Ball it’s where they had an electric chair as opposed to lethal injection. We could have picked anywhere to have this executioner’s story, truly. But it seemed appropriate because of the racial division. This is not true, this is false, but often people think of the south as where it spawned from, racial prejudice. Obviously not. But it seemed appropriate. In The King, Corpus Christi, the body of Christ, it’s very much of the Bible-belt and we thought this would be an appropriate area. And James had found this wasteland and we wanted to set it there. But Birth was set in the Upper East Side in New York, just across from Central Park, as well as a small section of Brooklyn. Now I’m going to Scotland with John.”
Yes, you’ve been working on Under the Skin with him. What’s it about?
“That’s correct. Very good. That’s absolutely right. I signed a confidentiality agreement with him that I can’t talk about it. I joke you not. It’s like such secrecy. But it’s aliens in Scotland. No monster movie, though. Meaning there’s no monsters in the conventional sense.”
You mentioned capital punishment a moment ago and it does seem in your films that you’re homing in on the fact that America is an overtly Christian nation and yet it often doesn't act in a very Christian way.
“There’s a lot of contradiction. There’s a lot. And I’m just raising the point, that’s all. The King appears to be homing in on that contradiction. Yes, we pose the question. That’s what we do: we pose the question. So some people are very disturbed by it.”
The King is released May 19th