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- Team Kristen
- Cannes Film Festival 2018
- American Ultra
- Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
- Cafe Society
- Camp X-Ray
- Certain Women
- Charlie's Angels
- The Chronology of Water
- Clouds of Sils Maria
- Come Swim
- Happiest Season
- JT Leroy
- Personal Shopper
- Still Alice
- Scheduled Appearances in 2020
Friday, January 31, 2020
Thursday, January 30, 2020
For Benedict Andrews, Kristen Stewart has some distinctive qualities as an actress: “As a performer, she works from somewhere quite raw. She will kind of throw herself at takes and she’ll often pull herself up if she feels she’s out of tune. She’ll break a take, swearing and cussing like a sailor. She has an incredible truth barometer.”
When he first met her in a Los Angeles restaurant to discuss the screenplay for his new movie, Seberg, she was all business: “There was no small talk. We jumped straight into unpacking the script, talking about (the character), and in that first session it was as if we had already rolled up our sleeves and started to work together, and we never looked back.”
Andrews, an Australian filmmaker based in Iceland who has a long history in theatre and opera, is increasingly turning his energies to film.
At first glance Seberg, his second feature, is a biopic, a portrait of the American actress forever remembered from her role in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 Breathless: cropped blonde hair, New York Herald Tribune T-shirt and an insouciant act of betrayal.
Andrews’s portrait of Jean Seberg, from a screenplay by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, explores some of the ups and downs of her career and private life in Hollywood and Europe, but focuses on the actress at a particular moment in time.
In the 1960s a politically aware Seberg began donating money to civil rights causes, including supporting the Black Panthers. She came to the attention of the FBI, which put her under surveillance and used media contacts to spread stories about her that were intended to destroy her reputation.
This tension, says Andrews, forms the centre of Seberg: “the tragedy of watching a luminous life be damaged and destroyed by FBI harassment, and the truth of her life turned into a lie”.
The film is in some senses a double portrait: it’s an exploration of the figure of fictional FBI agent Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell), a zealous young operative who initially throws himself into the task of covert observation with complete conviction.
To bring out the obsessive, voyeuristic nature of this process, Andrews made a film that saw him “interweaving the story of the watcher and the watched”.
He is quick to acknowledge that a film about filmmaking also heightens some of the movie’s themes: “Surveillance has been a big topic in my theatre work and I think an interest in voyeurism comes with the job. After all, in theatre and in filmmaking I spend my time watching people reveal the most private aspects of their lives and their beings and then invite other people, the audience, to come and do the same.”
It’s an activity that Jack, the FBI agent, is also involved in, “using the same machinery as cinema, cameras and microphones, to look into the minutiae of somebody’s life. I was very interested in those parallels between filmmaking and surveillance, and the idea of truth in both of them.
“Jean is trying to find truth as an actress,” he says, “to mine her most private memories, dreams and emotions, and all the things that are usually kept hidden. She has to reveal them for her work. And she’s also trying to find an authenticity in her politics and her romantic life.”
This part of her world included a relationship with Black Panther, Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie).
“Jack thinks he’s after truth,” Andrews says. “He believes at the beginning of the film in the American dream and he believes in his role as an agent, that he’s fighting the good fight. Then he realises he’s involved in the corruption of it and the weaponisation of truth to destroy political enemies.”
Yet the act of surveillance, Andrews adds, the collection of the minutiae of another person’s life, also allows Jack an insight into that life, and an emotional connection to it, particularly as he witnesses Seberg in free fall. At the same time, making a film about a cinematic subject has its risks.
“There’s a real danger when actors play actors,” Andrews says. “You can end up with a mask. Admittedly Jean isn’t as famous as a James Dean or a Marilyn Monroe, but even so, an actor can feel burdened or haunted” representing someone with a film legacy.
Seberg embraces the many faces of Jean, re-creating scenes from her films, showing her at fashion shoots, press conferences, interviews and film sets, as well as in her most private, solitary and fragile moments — and as a woman under observation.
Andrews never thought Stewart was in any danger of falling into that trap. “She really cared deeply about Jean and her story,” he says, “but she never became protective and she was never playing an idea, she was always trying to find the person from the inside out.
“This was important for me and it was something that I had a hunch she would be able to do because of this kind of volatility she has an actress.”
During the production of Seberg, Andrews says, the events of the film had some disturbing contemporary resonances. The often clumsy analog tools of surveillance of the 60s have been transformed into familiar, ubiquitous, everyday objects that accompany us everywhere and record us without our knowledge or consent.
“There’s this mass culture of surveillance and the movie is a warning about the dangers and abuses of that,” he says.
At the same time, Seberg has an elegance to it, even though it’s made with what Andrews describes as “a scrappy indie budget, way below a period movie that’s shot on film in LA should be”.
He puts much of this down to cinematographer Rachel Morrison and costume designer Michael Wilkinson, who worked alongside production designer Jahmin Assa.
The Australian-born Wilkinson, who was nominated for an Oscar for American Hustle, has an eclectic slate of superhero, fantasy and indie movies to his name and has worked with Stewart before on one of the Twilight movies.
For Seberg, Andrews says the designer’s challenge was to invoke the distinctive worlds of Hollywood, the FBI and the Black Panthers, “and I think his work is just astounding”.
And Morrison, he says, was particularly impressive in the way she approached the handheld camera work in the second half of the film, during scenes that convey Seberg’s vulnerability and despair.
“She’s smart,” he says, “very sensitive, and she had a great team working with her. We were both very happy to be shooting on film and we wanted to shoot a movie with a very contemporary sensibility in terms of the storytelling yet at the same time leaning into those paranoia thrillers of the 70s. We drew on those, we used similar lenses to the ones Gordon Willis used on (films such as The Parallax View and Klute), but we never wanted to make a nostalgic film.”
He is rather pleased, nevertheless, by one aspect of Seberg that could almost qualify as nostalgia.
In researching the Black Panther movement he found a 1968 documentary short by French filmmaker Agnes Varda to be an invaluable resource. He had thought some of the footage from Black Panthers might make it into Seberg but the rights proved too complicated to acquire.
Instead, he found other film shot on one of the days Varda was shooting a Panthers event. So, instead of footage by her, there’s a fleeting glimpse of Varda. “I’m extremely proud she’s in the movie,” he says.
Saturday, January 25, 2020
Friday, January 24, 2020
Two decades into her career and nearing a decade since shooting her final scene in The Twilight Saga, Kristen Stewart is taking control.
At 29, the actor knows who she is, what she wants to do, and she’s determined to get out there and do it.
“Those words strike a serious chord,” says Stewart.
“I definitely don’t want to sort through ‘maybes’ any more – I have to say that is something I have grown out of, but used to covet.
“I used to enjoy the fact that filmmaking was such a strange alchemy, you could never really control it, therefore if there was something appealing in a movie that didn’t seem as sturdy of a bet as maybe some others with a more reliable director or whatever, then I would still go for it.
“Now I’m really feeling the idea that, you know, as female filmmakers in this business right now, I only want to spend my time – which feels precious – on movies that I really stand with.”
Whether it’s last year’s popcorn action flick Charlie’s Angels or her upcoming art house biopic Seberg – about the actor Jean Seberg who was targeted by the FBI in the 1960s, opening January 30 – Stewart says she just wants to be able to look back at the “library of s--- you did in your life” and know that “I spent my time doing it for a good reason”.
“My instinct has always been something I’ve had no fear in following. But now that I’m trying to control things a little bit more it is an interesting balance of following instincts, but then knowing how to protect yourself as an artist and make sure to set yourself up for success.”
But just because she wants to stand with her work, doesn’t mean it all has to be serious, issues-based drama.
While the success part didn’t really pan out at the box office with Charlie’s Angels, Stewart loved the fact writer-director Elizabeth Banks saw her inner goofball and set it loose.
And her new action movie Underwater was all for the thrills: “Human beings scratching into places that they don’t belong and uncovering a wrath,” says Stewart.
“I thought that was a cool baseline of a thriller. I love a scary movie, I love watching people try and not die.”
On the flip side, being the person pretending to try and not die isn’t always a good time. “Literally I look back and I’m like, why did I do that?” she admits with a laugh.
Where Charlie’s Angels was brash and colourful, Underwater is tense and claustrophobic.
The thriller drops us at the deepest point of the ocean as a drilling and research rig springs a leak and all hell breaks loose. With communications shut off, Stewart’s Norah and a small band of survivors (including French star Vincent Cassel and comedic actor TJ Miller) attempt to cross the ocean floor to another station … but something is out there with them.
If Underwater is the underwater Alien, Stewart is the Ripley of the piece, doubling down on her action heroine credentials.
While she was drawn to the idea of doing a project less “in its own head” and more “just propelling yourself forward”, the Underwater shoot was as much a test of survival for her as it was for her character.
“It was really freeing to do Charlie’s Angels, but it was absolutely in no way freeing to do this movie,” she says.
For starters, given her fear of water, even taking a quick run into the waves “always seems like a daring act,” she says.
And this wasn’t so much a drip, as a constant drenching.
“It was so claustrophobic, really uncomfortable and wet and drippy and cold and just awful. It was f---ed up. In every way that it looks uncomfortable in the movie, it was.”
But, Stewart adds, “it was cool to test your limits. The water aspect was appealing ’cos I was like, ‘Man, if I can do that I will be really proud of myself’.”
And much like the impact Underwater aims to have on an audience, fear is the entire point.
“I never want to make a movie unless it scares me, unless there’s something about the story or the character that strikes a chord that is similar to terror,” Stewart says.
“Then moving towards that to figure out how to either get through it, or just understand why it exists, is usually why I want to make a movie.”
While she’s too young to have been directly influenced by Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, she had her own action icons growing up – “women that made it seem like it was possible,” she says.
At the top of that list?
“F---ing Angie” – Angelina Jolie.
“It’s because she also was such an incredible actress,” Stewart explains. “As a really little kid I was like, wow the same girl from Girl, Interrupted – she’s amazing in that movie and then she’s such a powerhouse in Tomb Raider and Wanted. I definitely grew up thinking, ‘Wow, I would like to do that’.”
Thursday, January 23, 2020
Most people remember Jean Seberg as the ’60s gamine with a daringly short pixie crop selling the Herald Tribune in Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard’s game-changing 1960 film about a gangster’s affair with a naive American tourist. That was pretty much all Kristen Stewart knew about her, she admits, before she was sent the script for Seberg. It was then that she learned that Seberg was an activist – most prominently, a supporter of the Black Panthers – who was pursued, persecuted and her career demolished in covert operations by the FBI.
“Figuring out what her actual story was, I was baffled by the fact it wasn’t more commonly known,” Stewart says. “But I don’t think my view of her was reductive, because I wasn’t surprised by the way she led her life. You can tell when she’s in films that her eyes are open. She’s not a performative actor; she’s instinctive and very present.” The film begins in 1968, with the actress setting out for Los Angeles to audition for Paint Your Wagon. Paris, where Seberg lived with her second husband Romain Gary, had erupted into revolution. In the US, the civil rights movement was increasingly militant. Of course someone like Seberg, infused by the spirit of the times, would nail her political colours to the mast.
Benedict Andrews, the Australian director, says that he thought of Stewart for the role as soon as he read Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse’s script. “From that moment, I could not imagine making the movie without her.” There were parallels in their biographies – both had starring roles while still in their teens, both were vilified in the US and found a new freedom in the European cinema – that were interesting without being crucial. Whoever played Jean had to “look like one of the icons of 20th century cinema” but that in itself wasn’t so difficult. “A model can get that great haircut, all of that.” The crucial thing was less tangible.
“Jean had a kind of radical openness, a kind of luminous quality and I didn’t want someone trying to impersonate that,” Andrews says. Impersonation can work in a biopic, he says, but he wasn’t after that. “I was after a kind of raw truth. I think Jean possessed that and Kristen possesses that; in different ways, they have an essence that you can’t pin down.” He wanted Stewart to embody Seberg while remaining herself. “That’s what I think great film actors do. They’re both those things, or it’s just an impersonation. And she does both. She is Jean and Kristen simultaneously.”
The fact that Seberg was having an affair with a Black Power leader, here called Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie) was especially incendiary. FBI agents staked out her house, bugged her bed and the phone, called at all hours. The central relationship in Seberg, however, is between Seberg and her unseen pursuer Jack (Jack O’Connell), a recent agency recruit who is assigned to watch her and becomes obsessed with her. She knows he is there, but nobody believes her; she is driven to the point of paranoia by this gaslighting as much as the surveillance itself.
Andrews, whose august career has been mostly in theatre, says this dual perspective is something only cinema could deliver. “I can’t do that in the theatre. And I love how that works on an emotional level, that parallel connection with the two of them. That is uniquely cinematic.” In a sense, he says, the whole film is about the relationship between the camera and its subject. “Jack is shooting Jean with a camera; we’re shooting Kristen with a camera. The techniques of surveillance are the same techniques as cinema. We see it used to create beautiful iconographic images like her as Jean and we also see it used as a device of lies.”
The film has had mixed reviews, both in Cannes and since it opened in Europe – the Telegraph’s “snappy, absorbing watch” is Indiewire’s “mess from start to finish” – but critics were unanimously impressed by Stewart’s committed performance. Jean/Kristen as Seberg is jittery, vulnerable, intelligent, well-intentioned and impulsive; as one review put it, she plays with fire, including blazes of her own making. “I think she had a sort of voracious hunger for experience, but I think more than that she was at her very core a humanitarian,” says Stewart. “There were interviews from people who grew up with her in Nebraska where they remember her consistently fighting for the underdog. So I think her activism started very, very early.”
Whether actors should become poster people for political causes remains a vexed question, debated most vigorously around Oscar time when stars get their two minutes on the podium. Some believe that with fame comes the responsibility to speak out; others think actors should just stick to acting. Stewart doesn’t think actors are obliged to take up any cause. “As soon as you start feeling imposed upon, if you feel people are pulling things out of you, it’s contrived. Nobody’s entitled to your opinion.” These days, she is comfortable with staying quiet if she has nothing specific to say. “I feel like it’s very clear where I stand. I think it would be really shocking to hear I was a staunch Republican. That would be like a super shocker.”
People can also elect to be entertainers, she says. “You don’t have to be someone who represents your ideas. There is an escapism that is gorgeous and you can be part of that, for sure.” On the other hand, she says, anyone who identifies as an artist is intrinsically political. “There is no way for your art not to reflect the way you view the world you live in. People who are compulsively artistic wear their politics naturally. Without even knowing they are making statements, they are doing it inadvertently. If you’re not living in fear of your career failing and willing to engage in the world around you, that’s political in itself.”
Seberg is in cinemas from January 30 in Australia.
Wednesday, January 22, 2020
Mary Steenburgen, Dan Levy, Alison Brie, Audrey Plaza and Victor Garber and more join the cast of 'Happiest Season"
|Pic: ET Canada|
As Clea DuVall's Happiest Season — the gay rom-com starring Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis — heads into production in Pittsburgh, the movie has rounded out its supporting cast.
Mary Steenburgen, Victor Garber and Schitt's Creek creator and star Dan Levy are joining the TriStar and Entertainment One project, along with GLOW star Alison Brie and Aubrey Plaza.
Happiest Season follows a woman (Stewart) whose plan to propose to her girlfriend (Davis) while at her family’s annual holiday party is upended when she discovers her partner hasn’t yet come out to her conservative parents (Steenburgen and Garber).
Actress-turned-director DuVall will be making her studio directing debut on the feature, which she co-wrote with Mary Holland.
Holland will also appear in the movie, along with Ana Gasteyer (The Goldbergs), Burl Moseley (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), Sarayu Blue (Blockers) and Jake McDorman (What We Do in the Shadows).
The project will be produced by Temple Hill's Marty Bowen and Isaac Klausner. Jonathan McCoy and Wyck Godfrey will executive produce.
TriStar will release the film worldwide, with the exception of the United Kingdom and Canada, which will be handled by eOne.
The movie will hit theaters Nov. 20.
This is day one of filming and our first full view of Kristen as 'Abby'.
Actor Dan Levy (Schitt's Creek) is pictured with Kristen and is part of the cast. Alison Brie (Glow) has also been spotted on set and is part of the cast.
Actor Dan Levy (Schitt's Creek) is pictured with Kristen and is part of the cast. Alison Brie (Glow) has also been spotted on set and is part of the cast.
Tuesday, January 21, 2020
First 10 minutes of 'Charlie's Angels' (above).
The actress starred alongside Ella Balinska and Naomi Scott in the reboot directed by Elizabeth Banks. In a PEOPLE exclusive preview of the bonus features on the upcoming Blu-ray release, out March 10, Stewart reveals it was Banks who convinced her to take on the comedic role of Sabina.
“I wanted to help Liz tell the story. I think primarily that was the initial thing that I was really excited about,” Stewart, 29, says. “The dopest people that you meet in life usually see aspects of yourself that you don’t, and she was like, ‘You’re funny!’ Like, ‘No I’m not, dude. Give me line readings, tell me exactly how you want me to do everything and it’ll be great ‘cause you’re hilarious.’ She would make me feel so able."
Her costars noticed the energy Stewart brought to the role, with Balinska equating it to how Sabina herself would handle the super-secret spy missions.
“Kristen definitely brought her feisty, super passionate personality to Sabina,” Balinska, 23, says. “She’s super exciting to work with because whenever we were on set, you never knew which way she was gonna throw the ball, which is kind of how Sabina is like. You never know what she’s gonna do next.”
“She’s hilarious and she has these funny lines, but you bring truth to every scene that you’re in,” Scott, 26, agrees. “So it’s still so authentic and for me that’s always the best combination.”
Charlie’s Angels is out on digital Feb. 18 and 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD on March 10.
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Monday, January 20, 2020
Friday, January 17, 2020
As a working screen actor since the age of nine, Kristen Stewart has already gone through multiple stages of her career over two busy decades. The 29-year-old Los Angeles native has been in turn the coolly self-possessed adolescent of Panic Room, the emotionally attuned franchise star of the Twilight supernatural romances and an unreadable but compelling presence in acclaimed French arthouse hits The Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper.
Stewart's path has been transformative, outlining what a 21st century movie star can possibly be, but last year she took on an unexpected new challenge: how to star in mainstream Hollywood movies on her own terms. In 2019's action-comedy reboot Charlie's Angels and now next Thursday's deep-sea horror-thriller Underwater, Stewart is trying to bend the roles to her own persona without breaking the film's multiplex appeal.
"I haven't done a larger-scale movie like Underwater in a long time," says Stewart, speaking from home on a mid-December day, where she was alternating interviews with decorating a Christmas tree. "I was definitely interested in doing something that wasn't in its own head and was overtly physical. I needed to do a big movie and I thought maybe this time it's the thing to do, so I went for it."
In Underwater, which begins with a calamitous incident at a mining company's facility 10 kilometres below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, Stewart plays Norah Price, a buzz-cropped mechanical engineer trying to stay alive minute to minute with a handful of survivors as tenable options diminish and unknown creatures reveal themselves. Directed by independent filmmaker William Eubank (The Signal) with echoes of both Alien and Aliens, the film draws a claustrophobic B-movie charge from limited air supply and swarming threats.
The camera work in Underwater, often handheld, emphasises the physicality of survival, and with its feel for straining sinew and desperate endurance it tries to remove gender as a consideration. Unable to ignore her growing existential doubts, Stewart's Norah is simply an individual defined by the will to survive, as opposed to her unseen relationship or children.
"Gender is something we fixate on as a culture and as an audience. I dislike the idea that for women being represented in movies there's always an overt curiosity about who she wants to be with, versus that not always being the focal point for male characters," Stewart says. "I want to shy away from that and make movies about people rather than a girl movie, which tends to be reductive and boring. That's something I'm interested in very much."
Stewart took a similar approach to Charlie's Angels, a film of caper hijinks and female-focused fight scenes. Within the constraints of writer/director Elizabeth Banks' reboot, Stewart's Sabina Banks is a source of insouciant commentary and flippant bravery. She crashes cars and roundhouse kicks anonymous goons, but also folds her body across furniture like a golden age Hollywood screen goddess aware of the camera's fascination.
"I was definitely never going to play a role in a mainstream movie that seemed archetypal or useless to perpetuate. I wanted to offer some different ideas that you don't normally get from a leading lady in movies that size," Stewart says. "I would love to not step outside of my own tonal quality, which hasn't always been very mainstream, and have that be successful."
Charlie's Angels underperformed at the box office, and Underwater faces competition for the attention of genre fans, but Stewart tends to look ahead with an optimistic outlook. Her answers have a nervy, enthusiastic energy and when she punctuates a sentence with a hearty expletive it indicates her excitement at something, rather than annoyance.
Advances in digital effects technology meant that Underwater was not actually shot in a water tank, but even so, the bulky replica deep-sea diving suits the actors wore on the dry studio sets required a level of exertion that Stewart hadn't planned for in the excitement of making a genre film. When production wrapped, Stewart happily walked away from her suit.
"I just wanted to end that toxic relationship as soon as possible," she jokes. "This movie was just something to get through because it was uncomfortable and deeply claustrophobic. I thought it would be fun to do an action movie, but I forget that they're scary to do and hurt like hell. It ended up being a total bitch but one that I'm glad I did."
Later this month Stewart stars in the 1960s biopic Seberg for Australian director Benedict Andrews (Una), but beyond that she's hoping to shoot her own feature debut this year. Stewart adapted The Chronology of Water, a study of grief and emerging sexuality, from the 2011 memoir of Portland writer Lidia Yuknavitch. Part of the production process will be finding a young actor for the lead role – Stewart is too old to play the book's Yuknavitch.
Stewart makes choices that open up her life and career. In the same way that she makes a variety of movies she's been open about her bisexuality and being in relationships with women, even after some in Hollywood explicitly advised her against that. She will go to Paris as part of being a brand ambassador for Chanel, but also seek out filmmakers. Last year she saw Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the acclaimed French period romance currently in Australian cinemas, and then sought out director Celine Sciamma.
"I f--king love that movie. We met up and talked about making movies for a few hours," Stewart says. "I do feel entirely activated and stimulated by the times we live in and the stories we're discovering and the people I'm meeting. I definitely feel like I'm gunning it."
Underwater opens nationally on Thursday, January 23 (in Australia).
Thursday, January 16, 2020
** Interview contains SPOILERS **
All three of your films explore confinement to varying degrees. Have you figured out what attracts you to this theme?
I don’t really know, but I will say this… When I was making my first movie, Love, that was a really strange time. I started trying to make that movie, and it really was not working. Basically, I had to move back home, and when I started building the sets to make the movie, I was just doing it by myself and trying to keep the rain off me. There were so many things that were going on in my own personal life, and after moving back home with my parents, I really was confined and on my own at that time. You don’t really think of making a real movie because you’re just in your own backyard, but I think a lot happened during that time, personally, where I was able to channel that loneliness to a certain degree. It was easy to write that kind of stuff and figure out how to get into characters’ heads when I was by myself at that time. It was an easy thing to channel, I guess.
On Love, you made the most of a tiny budget. The Signal also looked more expensive than it was. Since you had a more substantial budget on Underwater, was there a feeling of relief, or was it a whole different type of anxiety?
Obviously, Underwater is my first big, big movie where you’re just like, “Oh my gosh, the armies of Mordor are building this.” At the same time, you’re also like, “I worked pretty hard to get here.” So, you feel pretty certain of what you’re doing at that point — and grateful. I’m really grateful to get to be a big kid and make this kind of stuff. As a kid, I would always try and sneak into R-rated movies, and back then, I just wanted to make movies. To finally get to that place where you have all these assets and unbelievably talented people working with you, there’s not a day that goes by where I’m not grateful to be here.
When filmmakers are limited or constrained in some fashion, they’re often more creative and resourceful, something you proved on your first two films. Even though you had a bigger budget, did you still find ways to be resourceful so you could allocate the money where you needed it most?
Oh my gosh, yeah. Even though this is a pretty big-budget movie, it’s in a weird place because it’s not a $100 million-dollar movie. With the tax credit, our budget was about $50 million in Louisiana. We knew right away that we had to do a lot of this “dry-for-wet.” So, that was going to eat up $30 million, right then and there, for visual effects. A lot of the stages were dark, and we used a faint haze. We would then measure the volumetric lighting — from the actors’ flashlights and such — and use that information to start the water simulations.
So, it was kind of like a big-small movie. I learned this on Love, but you’re working with puzzle pieces. It’s absolutely no different, no matter how big the movie gets. There’s a lot of the exact same problems — just with bigger toys — and that’s part of the fun of it.
While the Disney-Fox merger likely played a role, how did this film sit on a shelf for this long?
The merger was obviously a big thing, and to be totally honest, I had to be quiet about it. I didn’t know what was going to happen, and the people above me didn’t seem to totally know — or couldn’t speak of it — for a while. You start to wonder, “Did we make a movie that won’t get seen?” I was getting pretty nervous, for sure, but you just have to trust that you made something with your heart and somehow people will see it. In the end, it all worked out. We weren’t sure what Disney was going to say, but eventually, they said, “We love it, and we’re going to release it.” When you work for so long on something, that was a tough time. People were like, “After a five-year hiatus, Will Eubank is back,” and I would respond, “I wasn’t on hiatus; I’ve been working on one film!” (Laughs.)
Did you tweak the film off and on the entire time?
Our post was unbelievably long. We were in post for over a year, and we finished the movie a year ago. I remember we shut the doors a year before last December. So, there was a long time where I was just at home reading books and things. So, no tweaking during that time period.
Kristen hasn’t done too many major studio films since Twilight ended. Since she’s mostly been focused on independent film, was she a tough sell at first, or was she more receptive than people might expect?
When we sat down, it was my first time meeting her, and she read the script. She then said, “I hate underwater.” She didn’t mean the movie, she just really doesn’t like water. She doesn’t like swimming in the open ocean; she has a desperate fear of water. Kristen does what her heart tells her, and she does what she wants to do. She said, “I love this movie. I love Norah’s character, but I’m gonna be frank: I hate water. So, I wanna do this.” It really blew my mind how direct she was about what she loved, what she wanted to do and putting her fears out there on the table. It was almost like a challenge to her. At that point, I was like, “We’re going to be really safe about any actual underwater stuff,” and she was like, “Great, thanks. I hate it.”
We did some scuba training, and there are some actual underwater scenes. The suits that they wore were about 100 lbs., but when they actually went underwater, the suits were over 200 lbs. They needed to have that weight to go underwater. Once you get sealed in that, it’s like being in a coffin; you can’t get yourself out. They had to go through diving training on all that stuff, and Kristen was just like, “What are we doing?” (Laughs.) She also said, “As soon as I get in this thing, turn the camera on because it’s going to be real fear.” So, those shots where you see her going underwater for the first time, that’s her working extremely hard to overcome something that would make most of us look terrified.
Many critics have commented on the film’s homage to Ridley Scott’s Alien, but I’ve noticed several other influences, too. What was on your mind as you were making this?
Honestly, I almost took more influence from video games I love such as Dead Space, BioShock and Soma. Although, I’m sure all of those took a lot from Alien. But even when you look at Alien, Ridley hired all the artists from Jodorowsky’s Dune [H. R. Giger, Chris Foss, Jean Giraud] and a lot of his visual choices were taken from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. You can’t build the future without building on top of the past.
Obviously, I love Alien, though, and Ridley has always been one of my favorites. While I was scouting in China, I got to meet him at the top of the Grand Hyatt in Beijing. He was doing press for The Martian at the time. He said he watched The Signal, and he told me he thought my attention to detail was spot-on, which made me so happy. His company almost produced another movie I wrote called World Breaker, but I took Underwater instead.
When filmmakers show an early cut to friends and family, they'll often receive some feedback that unlocks something important in the movie. So, is there an unsung hero who looked at your movie and noted something that made a big difference?
100 percent. I don’t know if you saw last night’s Q&A [Jan. 7], but Andy Muschietti, the director of It, hosted it. He’s a close friend of mine. In fact, I met him at a screening of The Signal, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m such a huge fan of yours.” At the very start of that movie, when Nic wakes up Jonah and goes, “Hey, Nomad’s back,” that’s an homage to Andy’s movie, Mama. Anyway, he visited many times during the cut, and he’s such a mastermind of horror, suspense and true characterization. He’s so thoughtful about character choices and the spiritual aspects of horror. There were a lot of times that he gave me great advice, even simple things. He would come over late at night, after whatever he was working on, and we’d sit in the editing room as he’d sketch up these pictures of the creature coming out of the shadows… It was really fun having a friend and confidant to look at some of these things and give me his opinion. So, he helped me a lot with the things I was doing with the creatures, and I owe him a huge thanks.
I've talked to several DPs turned directors, and some of them have admitted that they drive their DPs a little crazy. Were you able to take your DP hat off for the most part?
For sure. I’m happy to take that DP hat off… I would hope that it’s more like I’m supporting the DP in the sense that I’m trying to give them great things to shoot. I just try to fill the frame up, and when you get somebody as talented as Bojan Bazelli, he’s like a big kid but so talented. I’m in awe of the stuff that he does. As long as I gave him great things to put on camera, he did all the work. Sometimes, you think you’re better at stuff than other people, but there was never a second that I thought I was better at this than Bojan. I was constantly blown away… Anything he and Roberto De Angelis, the cameraman, would do with the camera was magical. Some people you work with are just the real deal. Any of my DPism was completely gone.
I also tend to ask directors about composing cool shots, and most of them insist that their shot composition is always in service of the story. Very few have admitted that they’ll compose a shot for the sake of being cool. Since you know how to compose a unique shot, where do you stand on this subject?
Near the end of the movie, I went into the camera guys’ room at one point, and there was this massive list of movies that they’d been writing on the wall. I was like, “What is this?” and they were like, “That’s you! All you talk about is these movies and getting a shot for the trailer!” Sometimes, I just feel like it’s easy to distill what you’re working on if you’re actually thinking about how you’re going to get people to see it in the first place. I know that sounds silly, cheesy and cheap, but I just love thinking like that. When you think about the movie from the trailer and what a trailer shot would be, it distills your movie in your head of what’s important and what’s not. All these choices cost so much money, and you can only do certain ones. So, I’m not afraid to admit that I’m often just going for the cool shot. (Laughs.)
Can you talk a bit about casting Jessica Henwick?
She’s amazing. She read for us, and she floored me immediately with the scope of what she could do. You’re always trying to see someone’s range, and she delivered these moments with accuracy and pinpoint precision. She seemed so thorough with her characterization of Emily in the film. You know right away when you see it. When you’re watching tapes, you’re like, “Oh, that could be good,” and suddenly you’ll see one where you’re like, “Oh, wow! That’s the level.” She’s just one of those people. We were watching something happen.
Did you use a Phantom camera for the slow-motion sequences?
Yeah, that’s all Phantom. Ironically, I had a Phantom on The Signal for the whole movie. They just sort of gave it to us. On this movie, we could only get the Phantom one day here or one day there. So, I was always trying to milk as much as I could out of it. Kristen actually got on a wire and got shot back for one of those shots. It was pretty crazy to watch.
Did you ever shoot a moment where Smith (John Gallagher Jr.) finally gives Emily (Jessica Henwick) Paul’s Moon Pie once they washed ashore?
We did, yeah. There’s a lot of stuff that didn’t quite make it out of the backend. Unfortunately, a lot of these things had to be cut because we had such a limited budget in terms of what we could finalize with visual effects and certain things. Maybe someday there will be a director’s cut, but the problem is even with a director’s cut, they’d have to go and make more water, extend hallways… Because it’s so perspective-driven, mainly Norah’s, there are some rare scenes where you cut away from that, and one of them was that Moon Pie scene with T.J. and John.
Relative to the sci-fi horror genre, I thought the character dynamics were rather interesting since we rarely see two women saving each other while dragging an unconscious man along with them.
(Laughs.) Yeah! Honestly, I know it sounds stupid, but I didn’t even think about that while reading the script. While shooting it, we were just like, “These girls are saving the day.” When you look back, you thought that maybe Smith would save the day since he said, “I’ll be there with you every step of the way.” He ended up being there — but as dead weight. (Laughs.) I love John so much. We had our little event last night, and he and I were in some bar afterwards just drinking. It was his first time seeing the movie, and he goes, “I know they were just dragging me, man, but I loved it.”
When the Captain (Vincent Cassel) said his daughter was fourteen years old and Kristen’s character disputed that by saying that she should be the same age as her, I immediately thought you were setting up a reveal that Kristen was his daughter, and that they’ve all gone crazy down there. Obviously, that didn’t end up being the case, but did anyone else bring this theory up to you?
Oh, wow. No, I’ve never heard that, but I can see how that can be thought of that way. There’s some really cool secret things in the movie that I don’t want to say until way down the road when the movie has been out for a while. There’s some fun stuff with Alice in Wonderland and some other things. Running down the hallway at the start of the movie, that’s Gunner Wright from my first movie, Love. I think I gave him the same name, Lee Miller. He’s also the voice throughout Roebuck Station.
I did want to build this idea that you’d have to be a little crazy to truly work down there. There’s just no way you’d go to a place that isolated and that hard to get out of without being a little loose in the noggin. But, yeah, that’s a really cool thought about that direction with his daughter. Unfortunately, it’s a little darker than that.
At the end of The Signal, were the Albuquerque rail yards the foundation for the shot that initiated the closing sequence?
They were, yeah! How did you even realize that? That’s amazing.
I’m overly familiar with Albuquerque’s filming locations, and I was always impressed by this shot because you managed to do something new with a location that’s frequently used.
That’s awesome, and I love that you noticed it. When you’re popping out for that ultimate reveal, I tried to keep some of the influences of that structure. You can still see those long window panels that are kinda cool. I can’t believe you noticed that. It’s a crazy location.
Since you’ve had some time to think about it, do you know what you’re doing next?
I’m working on a lot of different things. Right after this one, Fox optioned my next one, Warbot, which is a pretty cool story that I wrote. With the merger, I’m not sure how that all shakes out, but we’ll see.
Saturday, January 11, 2020
The clip starts at 1.03 mins (below).
Click on the image of Kristen as Jean (below) to watch the 3rd clip below.
Friday, January 10, 2020
This is of course based on a true story. Did you have any knowledge of that history before they came to you with the screenplay?
Andrews: No, I didn’t.
Have you found it to be known at all?
It’s certainly not well-known. In my experience, people will know and adore Jean Seberg from Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and some people will know of her other films, but they tend not to know her history. That said, there are some people interested in American politics and that period who will know a lot about it. There is a lot of material, once you start to dig. But I think there is a reason why this wasn’t known, and it’s because those in power so effectively destroyed her and destroyed her truth. There’s been rumours in some of her biographies of there being attempts to tell this part of her story before, and of the FBI leaning in to stop these stories being told. I don’t think that’s the climate we live in; I think there’s now permission to talk about this era of Hoover’s FBI because enough time has passed.
The interesting thing is that, as that time has passed, the story becomes more about now. The writers wrote this script ten years ago and there were several attempts to get it made. When I came on board along with a new bunch of producers, then it happened fairly quickly. But I also think there’s a ‘film gods’ thing happening, in that now feels like exactly the right time to tell her story. And Kristen is the only actress I can think of to play her, which I think is something people are also really responding to: what Kristen stands for, where she’s at as an actress, the transformation she’s going through, and all of that. The similarities are spooky. What I’m saying is that I believe some movies get made when they need to be made.
Didn’t it first screen on the 40th anniversary of her death?
Yes it was, while we were in Venice.
Was that intentional?
It was a coincidence. I mean, we were shooting 50 years later, events from 1968-69, and so I was aware that the Los Angeles we were in was 50 years later and all of that… but it’s all the million coincidences that led that to happen… And it doesn’t look like it – it looks like a very lavish, very elegant film – but it’s made on an indie budget.
That might be surprising to some, because that limited budget doesn’t translate visually.
I don’t tend to say this, but it was a motherfucker to make. And to get that money, and to cross all those different worlds that the movie crosses with such authenticity… and we shot on film! And the costumes also look so authentic. So to get the kind of elegance and value that her life needed was difficult because we couldn’t go outside much. You know, Tarantino was shooting Once Upon A Time In Hollywood at the same time for 11 times the budget [$8 million versus $90 million], and he recreates the entirety of Sunset Boulevard! We can’t go out there but in a way – again with the film gods – the movie is about privacy and private space, so there’s a kind of special feeling that the movie gets by not being able to go outside. She leans out the window in New York and there’s the city, but we don’t have any establishing shots of New York.
It’s claustrophobic in that sense.
Yeah, and also true to her experience, right? Kristen said that to me the other day like, “I don’t even know which city I’m in.” The actress is moving from place to place, and often only seeing the inside of a hotel room because they can’t go outside so easily. So that had become true to her experience… I don’t know how we got on to that! But anyway, it was a fight to get the movie made and all those things then come to it being released at Venice Film Festival. I literally only knew it was on that exact anniversary because I was plugging back into the movie ahead of promoting it in Venice, and I was looking back through an old notebook and saw I’d drawn a cross with her birth and death day. Isn’t that crazy?
Eerie, that’s for sure. You’ve mentioned Kristen Stewart‘s many parallels with the subject. Were you picturing her when reading the script or did that come later?
No, it did come later. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the difficulty of casting an actress to play an actress… She came into the conversation relatively late, but from the moment we sat down with each other to talk about it and feel each other out, literally from the first word, we were already making the movie. And now I look back and think, there is no version of this movie without her. Even if you had a wonderful actress, technically brilliant, who could have been given the haircut and look like her, that movie is still just a movie. She [Kristen] taps into some other rhythm and frisson between her and Jean, where there’s a level of truth and understanding that only she could bring to it. It’s a chemical reaction.
And do you think that’s because there are so many ways in which she is a modern equivalent of Jean? They are both vocal activists, they’re both young actresses who started off assigned to a certain persona which they then wanted to move away from…
It’s all of that. They’re also wildly different: Jean was a Protestant girl from the Midwest and Kristen grew up in the valley. But you have this ridiculous amount of parallels that you’ve touched on, plus being thrust into the public eye at a very tender age, being unfairly treated by domestic press, both of them unfairly savaged. And Kristen is the only American actress to have won the Cesar award while Jean Seberg became known as a French actress, so they had parallels in European cinema, while keeping star status in the States. Kristen certainly understands this idea of living in a glass house, and as a director it’s a gift for her to have an innate knowledge of that.
And another thing is for her to play such a style icon; there’s maybe a couple of people in the world who are on Kristen’s level, who are avant-garde or experimental while also working with Chanel and major fashion houses. And Jean… we don’t portray Jean wearing denim jackets, looking like Jane Fonda or looking like a hippie. She’s still dressed in Chanel, that Left Bank culture and forward-thinking couture. All of that was groundwork and in the end, she’s just a fucking good actress, and a hungry actress, and a singular actress. And she has a similar thing to Jean in that she didn’t go to drama school in London – no disrespect to those who did – but neither of them had that protection of technique. Kristen of course has incredible technique that she learned being directed by David Fincher at age 11 and coming up on all those film sets but, like Jean, it’s a raw and instinctive kind of technique.
She certainly gave something spectacular. You’ve spoken of media treatment and living in a glass house – and in many ways, the period you focus on marks the beginning of the surveillance state as we know it. What commentary is the film making in today’s socio-political climate?
We get very close to both sides of a surveillance operation during this great shift in American history. It’s like you were watching the Big Bang of it, the beginning of the modern state and modern culture. Now, we all carry those surveillance mechanisms around and we are completely complicit in our loss of privacy… The film is a warning or reminder of what happens when this machinery is turned against a dissident or activist, by a very reactionary, conservative and racist government machinery. Today, that’s not a fairytale or something out of a quaint past; it’s the daily reality of governments that use racism to split and gain voters as part of their warfare against truth. And we watch Jean caught in the crossfire of that war waged by White America on Black America. That manufacture of fake news, not the journalists’ version of fake news, but by the state who are manipulating truth and weaponizing lies. That’s still what’s going on. And with Jean in that conference standing up to the lies, and Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell)’s gesture of coming to her and becoming a whistleblower, those both present as non-didactic, non-dogmatic instances of people valuing truth. That’s really urgent for the culture we live in now. It’s incredible the parallels between a burning 1968 and a tumultuous 2019.
Electric Ghost Magazine UK
Electric Ghost Magazine: We’re speaking at the BFI London Film Festival, where Seberg just had its UK premiere. What is your relationship to the city and the festival?
Benedict Andrews: London is a second home to me. Film4 funded my first feature Una and at that time I was living in Smithfield Market. I’ve also done work at the Young Vic [Andrews worked on productions of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire for the Waterloo theatre]. We showed Una at the BFI festival in 2016 and I came to find that there’s a real density to the festival, similar to Melbourne in my home country. It’s a really smart cross-section of movies that you have to plot your way around. It’s a kind of injection into the complex cultural life of the city and its strong, critical filmmaking culture, opening a door to what is out there. It recognises the diversity in today’s cinema and feeds that.
Una was your first feature film after years of directing theatre. Can you talk me through the jump from one medium to the other?
With Una, I was adapting the play Blackbird by David Harrower, so I still had a foot in the theatre. It is a complex study of sexual abuse, and also of a nihilistic relationship. It’s about two people trapped with each other, moving through a series of spaces and cutting out the rest of the world in their little bubble. Our grammar for shooting was very rigid, the camera never came off the tracks. This allowed us to concentrate on the performances and the dialogue in a way that is very similar to the theatre.
You mentioned there about your directorial grammar. On Seberg, you certainly seem to have added to your vocabulary — it’s got a much more explicitly cinematic feel to it. What changed from one film to the next?
I worked with Rachel Morrison [cinematographer: Mudbound, Black Panther] for Seberg and she is a wonderful handheld shooter with this sensitive, intuitive way of working. There are still plenty of steadicam shots, but we had these moments where I wanted to let the camera fall off the track, so to speak, and move more through the world. It’s a story about worlds overlapping and we wanted to use the camera to put across this feeling of crossing to either side of the wall. I am now starting to want to move more and more into that way of entering worlds, so I think this is the direction I will keep developing in on my next film.
Jean Seberg’s story is a complex one, and well-known by cinema buffs. What is it that drew you to the material?
I’ve been making theatre all over the world — in Australia, Berlin, London — and it’s such a privileged space to drill down into the human condition where I have worked with many very talented actors. I developed my muscles there and, with Seberg, I was interested in those questions of voyeurism and the opportunity to study actors’ vulnerability and bravery — how they show their scars to the world. This movie reflects that and depicts the trauma of seeing your private space destroyed in the spotlight. There’s an element of performance to all the characters, whether it’s Jack [O’Connell] as the secret agent playing at being a superhero, or the activism Jean becomes a part of. It plays into my core philosophy that all the world’s a stage.
So, you’re familiar with acting and the processes and traumas that come with it, but were you familiar with Jean’s story before taking on the project?
I wasn’t familiar with Jean really, I knew a lot more about the Black Panthers. The film is not entirely about them, but it does look at her relationship with Hakim Jamal [Black Panther activist, played by Anthony Mackie]. Off the back of making Una, I was introduced to the team at Automatik — this exciting indie production house making interesting films like Teen Spirit (2018) and Destroyer (2018) — and they sent me a stack of stuff. I wanted to be part of this powerhouse making brave creative choices and the script for Seberg was the first to truly grab me. It was so many things — not just a light shone on this period of history, but it also had the pulse of a thriller and dug deep on her life as an actress, which really spoke to me.
Let’s talk about Kristen Stewart. How did you come to cast her in this role? How did you find working with one of today’s most in-demand performers?
It took a while to land on Kristen, but once we did it was like “Holy fuck, how could it have been anyone else!?” After travelling the world to festivals with her to promote the movie I have increasingly come to see that there is no other version of this movie with another actress. It’s just one of those rare things; her symbiosis with the role and where she meets Jean in the middle can only come from the understanding she has for this kind of life. She’s a contemporary style icon who is incapable of faking it and I think she and Jean are the same in that regard. From the moment I met her in a restaurant in LA there was no small talk for four solid hours.
The version of Jean you portray onscreen is of course not a carbon-copy of the actress herself. It feels more like an interpretation on the part of Kristen. So how did you conceive of the character ‘Jean’ and her relationship to the real Seberg?
We decided quickly we were not interested in doing an impression of Jean, so we workshopped the script together quite a bit to shift things around and I would feed Kristen a lot of stuff to read, too, but she found plenty of things herself beyond the obvious material. Many of Jean’s lovers wrote these fictionalised works about her which gave this great, metaphysical impression of what others thought of her. There are only two moments in the film where we recreated things exactly based on archive footage, one of them being a clip we recreated from Saint Joan (1957), but otherwise it’s entirely interpretive. The performance had to be living, not robotic, to truly capture Jean. If you listen to old footage of her, she speaks with this affected mid-Atlantic accent that we didn’t use, but sometimes you’ve got to bend the truth to actually get to the truth.
At Electric Ghost Magazine, we talk about cinema as a guide to life. What should people take away from your film, and from the life of the real Jean Seberg?
I can’t remember the exact quote, but there’s an interview somewhere where she says something like, “Between a career and the adventure of life, I choose the adventure of life.” There was just something in how Jean was wired where she was incredibly open and stood up for what she believed in that I think is very valuable. In terms of our movie, we are depicting a woman who goes through fire and comes out radically transformed. Both she and Jack’s character are people who want to find the hard-won truth and change in the act of doing so. Our world is treading on the brink and so I think, now more than ever, the grace of truth is a very urgent thing.
“She’s been making movies with Kelly Reichardt, with Olivier Assayas, very interesting choices. But then she also does Charlie’s Angels, and I know she’s proud of doing this and Charlie’s Angels at the same time, she’s proud of that movie,” Andrews said of his lead star’s eclectic range of career choices – which he feels is similar to Seberg’s.
“Jean did similar things, big marquee films at the same time she did smaller films. She also straddled both those worlds, and I feel very blessed to have had Kristen play Jean at this moment where she’s really transforming, bearing the fruit of these choices she’s been making over the last decade, and you can really see that in Seberg, it’s a brave, confident performance.”
He’s not wrong. It’s a wonderful performance by Stewart, and didn’t require a huge amount of physical transformation, like we saw with Renée Zellweger in another biopic of a star from a similar era, in Judy. Andrews admitted this was a purposeful decision.
What’s better than one Kristen Stewart? Two Kristen Stewarts!
“We’re not trying for a Judy Garland-esque transformation, she’s becoming Jean, so she has to change her voice and change her body to do that, and lose some Kristen mannerisms, but at the same time I always wanted you to see Kristen in the role, to see Kristen in Jean, to have their life forces meet,” he explained.
She’s not the only star signed up to this project, as supporting roles couldn’t have landed in more capable hands. Jack O’Connell, Vince Vaughn, Anthony Mackie and Zazie Beetz – the latter two illuminating the screen during the scenes featuring Seberg’s involvement with the Black Panthers, and how she sought to use her influence in the public eye to help support their cause. This whole side of the actresses’s life is one that was entirely new to Andrews, despite the fact he was such a big fan of her work.
“It was entirely new to me,” he said. “I knew her from Breathless and I carried her around in my imagination. This is the lapse Catholic in me maybe, but they become Saints in our imagination, and she was always flickering there. That’s what an incredible and original performance does. There’s something about what she did in that film which helped to invent what modern acting is, which is so luminous and so raw. But I didn’t know of her involvement with the Civil Rights Movement.”
The other side of this narrative is the how the aforementioned support led to the FBI feeling anxious about her potential impact, Seberg became a threat – she was powerful, and she had a platform. For Andrews the FBI’s investigation into her personal life has a certain resonance with modern society.
“There’s a lot of things that make the movie feel very urgent now. We live in a culture of mass surveillance, and in this we see the DNA formed of that. In a quite complex way, it’s a movie about truth, and we’re watching somebody’s truth destroyed, and the machinery of surveillance used to destroy someone’s truth and to spread misinformation and lies about them, to weaponise lies. There’s this ballistics of misinformation flying everywhere, and in Jean we see the human cost of that,” he said.
On the subject of pertinence, and bringing this story into a contemporary climate, we touch upon issues that wouldn’t seem out of place in the current #MeToo movement, and while this contributing themes could make up an entire film of its own right, in this it merely adds an interesting layer to an already complex tale – as we hear of how Seberg was treated by filmmaker Otto Preminger, when they collaborated on Saint Joan – the debut for the young actress.
Many people are unaware of Seberg’s involvement with the Civil Rights Movement.
“Jean was absolutely mistreated by Preminger,” Andrews said. “He picked someone with raw talent, but no experience so he could mould them and that was a brutal relationship and he had her under contract. At the same time, she did do good and interesting work with him after Saint Joan, but she wasn’t protected. Nobody stood up for her when this happened, and she could’ve been a very big star, there either there was no place for her activism in her work or in Hollywood, and/or, she was not the type to have exploited that the way others did. I’m not saying Jane Fonda did that, but she had a very strong media personality which she used to protest the Vietnam War, whereas Jean did not do that.”
Seberg represents another accomplished turn from Andrews, who is known primarily for his work on stage. Where Una was criticised for being a little too play-like in its small cast, and mostly single setting, this second film marks a more ambitious endeavour, and displays his talents for storytelling, far removed from a stage production. But, like he said to us at the end of our enjoyable conversation, he wouldn’t exactly be the first to make the move from stage to screen.
“I’ve always wanted to make movies,” he smiled. “Ingmar Bergman directed both, he directed at the National Theatre in Stockholm while making great movies, doing both at the same time. Visconti did Opera, Pasolini wrote plays, Fassbinder came from theatre as well. They’re my role models, to be able to straddle both of those roles.”
THE BEAT: I know you write a lot of your own material, so was this something that Chernin or Fox have been developing for a while before you came on board?
William Eubank: I don’t know how long they’d been developing, but they got the script from Brian Duffield, kind of under the radar. I don’t think it really went out to market. I think they snatched it up right away. Around that time, I was talking to Universal about trying to get my hat in the arena to do Fast and Furious – I don’t remember which one – but my agent sent me this and they’re like, “Hey, Will, you might enjoy this.” I remember it was one of those scripts where I just sat down – I didn’t really know anyone at Chernin at the time – and I read that script and it was right from the get-go, I was like, “Whoa! This movie just turns on.” It was just such a fun read and such an interesting place. I didn’t know how we would do it, but I was like “Oh, this is cool.” So rarely do you just power through a script because you want to get to the end to learn what’s going to happen, and this was one of those scripts.
THE BEAT: I personally love under sea sci-fi thrillers and space thrillers as well. Were you a fan of the genre yourself?
Eubank: You know what’s funny? I’m going to be totally honest here. I hadn’t seen Leviathan or DeepStar Six. I’m a fan, but I guess I haven’t done all my research and I just say that because everyone keeps saying like, “This is just like Deep Star Six” or “This is just like Leviathan,” and I’m thinking, “Oh man, I’ve never seen those movies.” Now I hear them all the time because people keep mentioning them. Some people say that we can’t make more underwater movies or something. Just because there’s A Fistful of Dollars, it’s not like you can’t make more Westerns, so I just feel like there’s not enough underwater movies, so let’s get some more out there, right?
THE BEAT: I actually was thinking more of The Abyss
Eubank: Oh my God. I’m a huge fan of The Abyss, and obviously I’ve seen that “Making Of,” and it’s mythological what Cameron accomplished there. He’s just not human.
THE BEAT: A movie like this, you have to build a lot of stuff, either on set or in a computer, and then you have all that water, so how do you start preparing a movie like that?
Eubank: Well, you just start eating it one bite at a time. A lot of things that we had to technically figure out because we had some “dry for wet,” and then we had some tanks. We’re not a $100 million movie, we’re $60 after the tax credit in New Orleans. It was really trying to figure out how do we accomplish this, basically knowing we had this much allotted for visual effects and this much for practical effects. It was just like a giant puzzle trying to figure out what order to shoot this in, and how to get the actors in and out of suits and when to put them into actual suits that went underwater… so you’re constantly just juggling everything you can imagine.
THE BEAT: I imagine the creature design was done fairly early on, as they’re certainly very unique-looking creatures.
Eubank: Oh, thanks. To be totally frank, we started with a different creature. Obviously, you start with these creatures, you’re designing them while you’re pitching the movie to get a green light. As we started shooting the movie, they evolved. I started with something that was much more, almost realistic, and as you go down the rabbit hole of really imagining what could be down there, the deeper and deeper you get, there really could be anything. We started to get more and more mythological and without giving any spoilers away, I knew at the end of the day, to have something where what if tomorrow, they get some footage and it seems like there’s something living down there. I just thought it was so creepy. What if you see footprints down there tomorrow off of one of the things? That’s going to freak everybody out. Do you see what I’m saying? If suddenly we got from the submarine little footprints or something, it would just change the way we even think about the ocean — everything. Just going down that rabbit hole of… We know so little, so therefore, there could be anything.
THE BEAT: So few people have actually been down there, too. I think James Cameron might be one of the few people, oddly enough.
Eubank: Yeah, then again, I’m telling you … the guy’s like an alien, and we just don’t know it.
THE BEAT: What about Kristen Stewart? Was she involved very early on as well?
Eubank: Yeah, she was. In fact, she was our first pick and when we got her, it was obviously just so exciting to get her opinion on things. The truth is that she hates water. She said flat out, “I can’t stand water. I don’t want to swim in the ocean. I don’t like going underwater. I don’t like it, so I want to do this.” It sounds cheesy, but this was really a challenge that she really wanted to go for. Right away, we were doing some dive-training stuff, and she was just like, “Look, don’t put me down there that much. Just when you do, turn the camera on and what you will see is real fear.” Obviously, we had the ones that were for “dry for wet,” which were about 80 to a 100 pounds, and then the ones that actually went underwater, there were these huge chest pieces and they weighed over 200 pounds, and you had to be lowered with a cable actually underwater. Once you’re in, it’s like a coffin. You cannot get out. And when it is time to get out, it takes you like 30 minutes to get out of it. So I mean she’s… the whole cast are gladiators for putting themselves in this position. And I have to be honest, I never actually went under water in one of these suits, but from what I thought it looked horrifying. So, they all are champions.
THE BEAT: Yeah, those suits look amazing. They’re bulky and they look heavy and very real when underwater. I’m not sure if that was done with FX or other movie magic, but I doubt people will be able to tell.
Eubank: Oh, thank you.
THE BEAT: Going back to Kristen, she’s been making a lot of interesting choices, and this movie really seems to be out of her wheelhouse in some ways.
Eubank: Yeah, Kristen is such a champion. She literally is so singular and not just her voice and whatnot, but just in her decisions. She was just like, “Look, I don’t normally do movies like this, but this terrifies me and I’m drawn to the character. I’m willing to put my truthful fear out there and try to do this.” When Kristen Stewart says that to you, you’re like, “Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s figure out how to make this happen.” Then it’s my job to try to put her underwater as little as possible. That was the hard part. Sometimes, even in the dry suits when we were doing some “dry for wet,” the suits were so heavy and cumbersome, that to even do another take sometimes it was painful, because you know that they’re in pain. John [Gallagher] was telling me last night when I saw him, that a lot of the days he had itches on his face that he couldn’t even touch his face because the arms don’t get to your face. That’s something that astronauts and people have to go through a lot. I never even thought about that, to not be able to touch your face in these suits would be so awful.
THE BEAT: You do a lot of research into stuff like that during pre-production?
Eubank: Actually, our water safety guy, Jim Pearson, he actually trained me how to dive. I went to him long time ago because I knew he was one of the authorities on diving in the movies, and he’s been diving his whole life. He was in Vietnam diving, and he’s a really awesome legend of a man. Early on, I would go to him and I learned to dive from him; we’d dive off Catalina. I was like, “Yes, I want to do this movie Underwater.” He probably used to think, ”Will is never actually going to do this movie.” One day, I finally called and said, “Yeah, I’m doing that movie.” I used to ask him about these pressure suits and deep, deep water diving and he’s such an authority. So when I called him, I was like, “Come on board, we’ve got to do this.” He ended up working with Legacy who does all of the big effects for Marvel and then built our suits. They worked together to actually build the version of the suit that would really go underwater. It was just so cool to get to work with such a legend like Jim Pearson and actually make something that he said they’ve never really been made like this before with a breathing apparati and all this other stuff.
My research was basically that I used to pester him like all the time: “What kind of suit would work like this? Can you make this kind of helmet?” It was cool to see it come to fruition and really get to use Jim to actually do the movie.
THE BEAT: I think you shot this movie a while ago, so was there a lot of post-production involved? Or has the movie been done for a while, and the studio had just been looking for a spot to release it?
Eubank: Yeah. Because we had some “dry for wet,” which we did in such a unique manner. We would shoot using a technique I think they pioneered on The Martian. You would shoot on dark stages and use a very thin ball of smoke and use volumetric lighting to then measure the lighting and then fill that in with water in post. Lots of scenes are done like that, and we were in post for a year. I would tell people I was really directing bubbles in the end, just trying to make the bubbles look real. We had all these techniques and tricks at times. It’s always like a slight of the hand, so sometimes you’d be like, “Gosh, this water doesn’t feel real or it doesn’t feel right.” So you would come up with, “Well, maybe we can make this happen over here” and playing with these bubbles. You’re almost tricking the eye sometimes, but yeah, that took forever obviously. And then, of course, Fox was bought by Disney, so then we had to sort of wait for that to finalize before we would get our release date and all that jazz.
THE BEAT: Have you been writing other projects during that time as well? I see you have a project with Lorenzo di Bonaventura. Is that something that you might tackle next?
Eubank: Oh yeah. Tautona, that’s a great one. not sure if that’s next, but it’s a really cool script I wrote with my brother, the same guys who I wrote The Signalwith. So we’ll see. I also sold another one, sort of quietly, to Fox right when I finished this called War Bots. That is a huge passion project for me. We’ll have to see what’s next. I’m not totally certain, but I’m always writing, so yeah, hopefully maybe one of these goes next.
THE BEAT: War Bots is a great title.
Eubank: Oh, thank you. It’s so good, man. It’s sort of my homage to things like The Iron Giant and movies that I loved growing up, so we’ll see what happens with that.
THE BEAT: It’s great talking to you again now that you’ve transitioned into making studio movies, and I really liked the movie. And I’m not just saying that either.
Eubank: I really appreciate that.
THE BEAT: I’m not sure other critics will be as fair to it as I am because its January and critics generally hate on all movies in January…
Eubank: We’re doing okay so far. We’re like at 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. I know that’s going to change probably up or down, but I’m really happy. 50% to me means one person likes it, one person doesn’t.
THE BEAT: That’s actually pretty good.
Eubank: Who knew? So we’ll see what happens. With these movies, you’re just making stories for fun. And so at the end of the day, you just want it to reach the audience. So we’ll see.
THE BEAT: I actually liked the tension and thought it was pretty frightening, and I don’t scare easily. I think Kristen brings a lot to that, but you also just don’t know what’s going to happen next, which I liked.
Eubank: Oh, thank you. We put the camera inside the helmet a lot and I just think that would be the most terrifying thing. So it was really funny getting the rating. We were trying to get the PG-13 rating, and they just kept coming back saying like, “We don’t know what to tell you to change, but it’s just so scary.” We were like, “Okay, how do we get this PG-13 rating, but get this down without lessening the intensity?” There weren’t things that they couldn’t specifically say to change, which normally they do, like “Remove this F bomb” or “do this.” But it was just… I think it’s that claustrophobia and that tenseness was overwhelming. We actually got it to this place where it was like “This is overwhelming, just enough.”
THE BEAT: I’m not sure anyone will ever understand the MPAA system, and it’s going to be something that’s haunting filmmakers and cinema for the rest of our lives.
Eubank: We got to turn James Cameron. That’s his next feat… to figure that out.
THE BEAT: That would be awesome. If I ever talk to him, I will suggest it.
Underwater is now playing nationwide.
Refinery29: This is one of the most stressful movies I’ve seen recently, and that includes Uncut Gems.
Kristen Stewart: "Uncut Gems was very, very stressful in a very different way, but yeah, it's stressful as fuck."
What drew you to this particular movie?
“I hadn't made a big movie in a while, and I had seen The Signal, which was the director's first film. I knew that he was really young and didn't have much to put that movie together, and I thought that he made an astounding amount with what he had. Initially [the script] was roughly drawn. It was very foundational. The characters needed to be people. And I [wanted] to do something innate and physical, that dealt with people traipsing on things and kind of depleting resources and being where they shouldn't be, and repercussions of that all coming to a head in a pretty different survival movie that turned into a weird monster movie. I was just like, Look, if I'm going to do a big, commercial movie, that sounds like something that I'm into."
Did you get a lot of input over your character?
“I jumped on and basically came to New Orleans, and we worked with a couple of writers for a few days. It very much found itself kind of immersive and basic. As soon as we started really selling it with plotty type stuff, it just felt false because you start with people that don't really know each other and they're just trying to not die. If you start talking about anything else, it's like, Is this really the moment that you're going to be saying this shit? So, we just existed and tried to survive the actual experience of making the movie, and that's what it ended up being.”
I’ve always been afraid that I’d be in a bathing suit, or barefoot when disaster strikes. And that’s exactly what happens here!
“Exactly! I thought it was such a good idea to start a movie not knowing the person beyond that at all and just being like, 'Oh my God that could be me.’ I'm going to be in the shower, brushing my teeth and naked and fucked.”
Your character either wears sweatpants and a sports bra or a really heavy underwater suit. Did that make you feel vulnerable as an actor?
“The suits were one of the most — and I'm not saying this to have something to talk about or be dramatic about a scenario in a movie. It was the hardest fucking thing I had done physically. I thought at some point that there was something seriously wrong with me, and I could have been maybe sick because my body was not working anymore. We barely survived this, and it is definitely not anything to brag about. It was stupid. The suits were too heavy. We couldn't do our jobs in our suits. It was fucking ridiculous. But initially, before we got into the suits, I did think it was a really good idea to keep her in sweats. We were going to do actual underwear, but then I just didn't want it to seem like I was being a weirdo and wanted to look naked in the movie. But, definitely kept barefoot, and in a sports bra and sweatpants. Absolutely, utterly unprepared to deal with what transpired.”
Were you actually underwater?
“Yes. There was one special suit that was actually able to go underwater, but it was horrible. They didn't work very well because you couldn't hear anything. The air sometimes didn't work, and then you'd have to say, Hey you guys release the pressure or whatever. But they'd say, ‘What?’ And you're trying to make hand signals, but you have gloves on. I'm like, It takes 15 minutes to get out of the suit right now. My body will explode before 15 minutes is up. I don't know if you ever have experienced being claustrophobic — there is no time.”
You directed a short film in 2017 called Come Swim that also has a lot of water imagery. What is it about water that you find compelling?
“I'm totally scared of water. It's sort of functioned in this beautiful narrative way in my life and has definitely become concurrent with other stories that I want to tell. It’s a through-line for sure. But in a literal sense, I definitely am not a strong swimmer, and I'm super claustrophobic. So my whole thing during this movie, I was like, ‘Don't be a pussy.’ At some point you have to try. You're not going to die doing this. But I was crying. When we weren't having to go in these submersible suits, which the other actors didn't find too harrowing. I had to take Xanax and only went in three times. And I am absolutely never, ever doing it again as long as I live.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
“Underwater” is in theaters January 10.