Capone With MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS Director Wong Kar Wai!!
Published at: April 16, 2008, 11:12 a.m. CST by merrick
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here with my conversation with a director whose works I literally salivate while watching sometimes; they're just so damn tasty.
The lush colors, the perfect atmospheric music, and of course the beautiful women (and handsome dudes, let's face it). Hong Kong's Wong Kar Wai has directed some of the most lauded and loved films in the last 20 years. Those of you whose experience with Wong's work only goes back as far as HAPPY TOGETHER or IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, need to dive back a little. Go back to the beginning--AS TEARS GO BY, DAYS OF BEING WILD, CHUNGKING EXPRESS, FALLEN ANGELS. Some of these films are ingenious and insane, but they are all perfect works of art and storytelling. His last feature, 2046, didn't even make sense half the time, and I still relished in its loveliness.
Wong's new film is the long-in-the-works MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS, starring Norah Jones, Natalie Portman, and Rachel Weisz. That's a whole lot of hotness, I know, and he makes this collection of beauties (as well as Jude Law and David Strathairn) interesting as well as stunning. The film's threadbare plot and emphasis on look might disconnect some from the proceedings, but I found the film radiant and a great joy to watch. I don't think Portman has ever been better, and Jones holds her own as the films eyes and ears.
Here is the master, WONG KAR WAI…
Capone: You not only have a gift for getting the best performances out of your actors, but you also seem to have a gift for casting the best-looking actors in the world.
Wong Kar Wai: [laughs] Is it a compliment or what?
Capone: I absolutely mean that to be a compliment. Do you deliberately seek out these wonderful faces, both male and female? Does that make the rest of the work a little easier?
WKW: No, actually, I don’t cast them because of looks. Of course, I enjoy a good-looking person, no matter male or female. And, the thing is, I cast them, first of all, because they are right for the part, and the second thing is, they are exceptionally talented.
Capone: So, in the case of someone like Norah Jones--and she’s, obviously, a first-time actor, do you work differently with her? Does she need more attention?
WKW: Not at all. In fact, I created the character of Elizabeth mostly based on my imagination of her personality and spirit. So, she seems like the first person to play this role.
At first, I thought, Well, she may be a bit nervous, because it’s intimidating to work with a bunch of very talented screen partners. But, I was surprised, she’s very, very, like, well prepared. And, also, I think the rest of the cast--Jude [Law], Natalie [Portman], Rachel [Weisz], David [Strathairn]--they’ve been very supportive during the process. And, I can see the chemistry between them.
Capone: Was it refreshing to work with someone who, maybe, wasn’t aware of the camera, or how to play to the camera the way a more seasoned actor would be?
WKW: At first, she wasn’t very experienced about angles and all these tricks in front of the camera. She learns very fast. I still remember the first week we were shooting, she didn’t know what we were doing at first, about the angles and eye lines, but by the next week, she was very professional. She’s like a sponge.
Capone: Many non-American directors who eventually make films in America seem to be drawn to road movies, putting someone in a car or a bus and having them discover the country. Do you consider this your road movie?
WKW: I don’t think this is a road movie. At first, the idea was to shoot the whole film in New York, but in the end, we realized it’s too expensive to shoot the whole production in New York, because we just couldn't manage with our very tight budget. And, I think, it also applies to a lot of directors, foreign directors who come to the United States to shoot a film. So, we decided to have Elizabeth take this journey.
I think, at that point, it’s a practical choice. And also, given we are working with Norah, I think, this is the best format, because it’s like a road tour with her playing the lead. And, also, it gives me a chance to travel the country. Also, no matter where we live or where we have grown up, it’s like we always have fragments of American culture in our life. So, I think, the joy of doing this film is really like revisiting all these fragments and paying homage to them. Because this is our first film, and this is our first time to work in this country, we should do that.
Capone: Why was this the right time to do this--to make an English-language film in America? Was there something in your life that suggested, ‘Now is the time for this’?
WKW: First of all, obviously, I cannot ask Norah to speak in Chinese. And, most of all, I think, it is a time, especially after 2046--not making a film for about five years--it’s a chance for me to work entirely in a different context, which is very opposite, very different from our previous work, a foreign language in a foreign country with a brand new crew. I think, some people take vacations after five years of work, and I just make a film, which is very different from the rest. It’s kind of refreshing for me.
Capone: Did you do much traveling in the States before? Had you spent much time here?
WKW: Yeah, I’ve been working in New York or in Los Angeles before, but the rest of the country, this is my first trip.
Capone: Okay. I know that the film had a premiere in Cannes in 2006, and the version that I’ve seen is obviously shorter. Can you talk about the ways that you’ve fine tuned the film since it premiered two years ago?
WKW: The version in Cannes is, like, 15 minutes longer than the version we are seeing now. The Cannes version is more elaborate, and this version is more straightforward. I’m happy with both of them, because they represent different mind sets at the different stages. But for the distributor, I guess, they would like to have the straightforward version, especially for the United States, because they believe that some things will be understood by the audience here with the shorter version.
Capone: Will the version shown in other countries be the longer version?
WKW: No, the American version is definitely the shorter one.
[When I did this interview, I thought Wong had answered my question concerning there possibly being a longer version of MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS shown in other countries. Clearly, I was wrong, and it's my fault for not clarifying this point. It would seem that the U.S. version is shorter--it clocks in at about 90 minutes--than the version that played in other countries and is on DVD in other regions--which has a running time of 111 minutes.]
Capone: It’s interesting. Elizabeth and Leslie [Portman's character] seem to be two halves of the same person. Do you see them that way?
WKW: Yes. Basically, all of them are like a mirror to the character of Elizabeth through their linkage. And, not only Leslie, but also David, I think. For Elizabeth, she kind of identifies herself with these persons, because he’s also betrayed by his partner, And, that’s why she learns to see herself, from these reflections and to be happy with herself at the end of the film.
Capone: I love the way that she changed her name slightly in each place. That’s a subtle thing, I’m not sure everyone’s going to see that, but it’s a great thing, the way she reinvents herself just slightly at each new place.
WKW: In fact, the original title of the film was called ASPECTS OF ELIZABETH. We call her Elizabeth because ‘Elizabeth’ has so many different possibilities: Beth, Lizzie, Liz.
Capone: That was a nice touch. You’ve certainly covered the theme of falling in love with someone you can’t have in other films. This one almost seems like the opposite: Elizabeth and Jeremy [Law's character] seem destined for each other from the minute they meet, but you keep them apart. And, it drives us crazy, because we know--we hope, at least--that this separation will lead eventually to their being together again. Do you see it that way?
WKW: No, you know something, we shot the first three chapters in the summer. And then, we know the final chapter in New York will be shot in the winter, because we have to show that she’s been traveling for a long time.
When we finished our shoot in the summer, we hadn’t decided how the film should end, because we know there might be the possibility that there would be reunion, or it might be possible that by the time Elizabeth goes back to New York, Jeremy is already gone. And actually, we cut the first chapters during the break. And, I must say, Jeremy and Elizabeth convinced me that the reunion was the most sensible and satisfying ending for this film.
Capone: People always tend to discuss your visual style, which is certainly beautiful in this film, but I wanted to talk about the music, which you always seem to get exactly right. How do you go about selecting your music?
WKW: The soundtrack of the film, at least, was quite decided during the few trips I took before the shooting, because, basically, it’s a long trip across country, and it’s me, my D.P., Darius Kondji, and my location managers. We drove, like, 15 hours a day, and we realized when we reach from one State to the other, the sounds are different, especially from the music on the radio, because that’s the only thing we do almost the whole time--listening to the radio.
Each of the states or cities have their own music reference, so I thought it will be interesting to do it like this. And, music can be like a reference of the place, and it gives a sense to the audience that this is where she is now. We have four chapters in 90 minutes, and, I think, it will be helpful for the audience.
Capone: I also noticed you repeat the same songs a couple times in your chapters. What are you trying to convey by doing that?
WKW: You know, I worked a lot in coffee shops when I was a writer. And, I realized, in each of these coffee shops, they have their own soundtracks, and it was played in a certain order. So, at one point, you can say, “Well, this song is a reference of time, because by 9 o'clock, they will play this songs.”
So, I want to repeat this song, [because] I think it’s a very good reference of time. That means the place was always the same, and she always reached this space at this point. And also, we all liked these songs, so I don’t mind to repeat them. [laughs]
Capone: It’s a nice touch. In the bar, I understood, because if the bar scenes has a juke box, a lot of times, if you’re there enough, you’ll hear the same songs over and over again.
Capone: The Memphis chapter, the emotions are much more heightened in that chapter than in the rest of the film, which is relatively calm. It stands out, and David and Rachel play it so beautifully. What is the explosion of emotion that’s going on there exactly? It's almost violent.
WKW: The reason I wanted it shot in Memphis, basically, is, like, an homage to Tennessee Williams. So, I told [screenwriter] Larry [Block], “For these chapters, we are going to make a standard Tennessee Williams numbers.
Capone: Yes, the wronged husband and the wife who dresses provocatively.
WKW: [laughs] An unsatisfying wife and the unhappy husband, who has alcoholic problems.
Capone: That’s right. Tell me a bit about the writing process with Block, who is known more for crime novels. What was that like?
WKW: Well, it was pretty much like a spy game, because we didn't work like a normal director’s writer sessions, because I am also a writer. And so, basically, I told him my idea, and then he would go back. And, a few days later, we would meet in a coffee shop. He would hand me an envelope, and then, I go back and make some comments, revisions. And then, we meet again in the coffee shop, I hand him this envelope. So, it’s always a change of envelopes or e-mails. We seldom meet and talk. So, we were writing together, but we just exchanged our drafts, and basically, we didn’t talk much..
Capone: Wow, that’s a potentially dangerous scenario.
WKW: It’s fun, because, I think, we respect each other as writers, so, at that point, I think, it’s much easier to explain ideas by writing instead of talking.
Capone: I had read somewhere that, though you had a break, you shot the bulk of the film in a very short time.
WKW: Yeah, we shot the first three chapters in seven weeks in the summer and the last chapter, which is in New York, in the winter.
Capone: Was the short time frame more because of people’s schedules, or were you trying to do something different and more immediate?
WKW: First of all, it’s schedule, because, at that point, Norah is working also on her album, so the time that we have is limited. And, the second thing is because of the budget concerns.
Capone: Where are you right now with THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI. Where is that?
WKW: We are still working on this project. And, we have to work up a schedule with Nicole [Kidman]. And at the same time, we are also working on several projects at this point, projects like THE GRAND MASTER, which is the story about the teacher of Bruce Lee.
Capone: So, Nicole Kidman’s still planning on doing LADY FROM SHANGHAI?
WKW: Yes, this is my idea to have Nicole play this character. Like MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS with Norah: she is the reason I wanted to start this project.
Capone: Obviously, this isn’t a remake of the Orson Welles' film.
WKW: [laughs] No, no, it’s not. The story is about the woman who…It’s a spy story. It took place in the ’20s, from Russia to China and then back in the United States.
Capone: You mentioned THE GRAND MASTER. How far along are you with that? It sounds fascinating.
WKW: I have been working on this project for 10 years, a story based on true characters. And, it involves a lot of research and practice.
Capone: I don’t think you’ve done true story before, have you?
WKW: No, no, this is something different from my previous films.
Capone: So, a very different kind of preparation?
Capone: But, you feel like that will happen before or after THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI?
WKW: It really depends on the schedule of the cast.
Capone: So, you have a cast set for that one, too?
WKW: Tony Leung will play the role of the master.
Capone: That's great news. Well, thank you so much for talking to us.
WKW: Thank you. Nice talking to you.