Capone sits down with the sexy new "At the Movies" hosts, A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips!!!
Published at: Sept. 6, 2009, 8:54 p.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
First of all, watch the video here. As far as I'm concerned (and the gentlemen that are the subject of the promo reel may disagree), this is one of the greatest attack ads in the history of television. Politics has nothing on what this piece is saying about the last year of the decades-old "At the Movies" television series: "Serious reviews from serious journalists." First of all, Amen. Second, this is a show admitting that going after a younger demographic with two hosts who are essentially TV personalities (and I use the word "personality" loosely with Ben Lyons) for the last 12 months was a catastrophic mistake. Again, Amen.
But I come not to bury Caesar, but to praise him. More specifically, I come to talk about the two new hosts of "At the Movies," a series founded by Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel some 30 years ago, carried on by Ebert and Richard Roeper after Siskel's passing, transferred to Roeper and Michael Phillips (after a long string of temporary guest hosts that did not include me, somehow), and finally got swept up into the Twilight Zone for a year with one fairly informed reviewer and one special needs child, who may not qualify to be a greeter at Wal-Mart.
Critics interviewing critics is the strangest form of self-gratification, especially when one of the two I spoke with I consider a friend. I've known the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips for a couple years and have learned a great deal from both his knowledge of film and his style as a writer. (He's also a bit of a fashion icon and sex symbol in the Windy City, as you probably gleaned from the promo reel.) He's also one of the great interviewers of filmmakers and actors (something he doesn't get to do nearly enough any more) working today, and any opportunity to shoot the shit with him about film is a welcome one.
This interview marked my first meeting with A.O. (Tony) Scott, head critic at the New York Times, and the first thing that struck me was how funny he was. Based on his reviews and some interviews I've read with him, he had always struck me as a fairly serious gentleman, whose reviews and other writings are second to none. I caught up with Phillips and Scott shortly after they had finished taping their first show (which airs this weekend; check your local syndicated listings), and they were still so filled with energy from what I'm guessing was a fairly successful premiere outing. I was brought into a small conference room that contained a board with dozens of index cards with movie titles (along with the studio, director of the film and lead actors' names) pinned to it, and I realized that I was looked at the movie lineup for the show for the coming two months or so.
I haven't seen their first show as of this writing, but just based on this conversation, they have some great ideas about how to change things up just enough to make it their own and something that the viewing faithful (of both the show and of movies) will get the most out of. I, for one, am very much looking forward to seeing the first show and how they tweak it from this point forward. But seriously, even if the format was changed to two guys on bar stools in front of a white background, at least the intellect and passion for films (all films, not just those made after 1990) would be obvious, gratifying, and a much needed change for the better. Please welcome, on the eve of their first show together, "At the Movies" hosts Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott…
Capone: You just got your first show in the can, and you’re already keeping me waiting 20 minutes in the lobby. What gives?
Michael Phillips: Hey, hey, the first, and he's already got these petty demands about wardrobe.
A.O. (Tony) Scott: It’s him. He is such a diva; he’s gotta have the Diet Coke at exactly the right temperature. He's impossible, impossible to work with.
MP: He drinks Evian, but not the Arrowhead [Mountain Spring Water] stuff.
TS: He gets in my shot all the time, trying to steal camera away from me. So, it’s already falling apart, you know, one show and…
MP: They’re announcing new hosts tomorrow.
Capone: Yeah, I was actually going to let you know about that.
MP: [Laughs] They’re talking about it online already.
TS: [To me] Congratulations!
Capone: So, the first obvious question is: What’s broke and how are you going to fix it?
TS: You know, I don’t know if anything’s broken. I don’t know if I’d put it that way. I feel like they hired us to be hosts on the show, because we’re film critics. They know what kind of film critics we are. We’ve been at it for awhile. I think that they want us to more or less be ourselves, maybe a little better dressed and with neater hair than at our other jobs. But, I think, we'll do what we do in print, more or less, on the air, which is approach films as critics with enthusiasm and also with skepticism, thoughtfully, intelligently, and in a way to let the show be driven by our ideas and our arguments.
MP: They took the show in a different direction last year, and they executed it as well as they felt they could under the circumstances. And then, they made this U-turn. It happened very quickly. We both got the calls rather late this summer, and it’s a pretty wonderful thing to hear people say, “Hey, we don’t want to try to change you guys,” because what are they going to do? First of all, they can’t handle the raw glamour we’ll bring into this thing…
Capone: No one can.
TS: Just because of Michael’s sex appeal, they had to move the show into some later time slots, when no kids are watching.
MP: No kidding, 3:05 a.m. in Birmingham.
Capone: That’s awesome.
TS: I think we’ll own that time slot.
MP: We are going to own it.
Capone: You mentioned how fast it happened. Can you kind of walk me through it? How fast did it happen, and what was the process? Did you even have to think about it?
TS: I got a message on my cell phone, I think it was in early August, from Ann Miller at Disney…
MP: No, it would have been late July.
TS: Late July, okay. Yeah, it was late July…introducing herself, saying “Give me a call. I’d like to talk to you about something.” I didn’t know what, but I figured it might be interesting. And, she said, “This is what we’re thinking about…We’re going to try to change direction for ‘At the Movies’, and would you consider being a cohost?” And, I said, “Yes!”
I’d done--as Michael had--guest stints on the show before, really enjoyed it, loved working with the people here in Chicago at WLS, just terrific people, and kind of missed it. It was okay, I love working at the New York Times, and I was sort of happily going through my life. But then, this came along. I thought, Hmm, this could really be something. And, the more I talked with her and with other people at Disney, the more it became clear that it was a show, you know…that they were approaching me for the right reasons and with some idea of who I was as a critic.
And then, they told me it was going to be Michael as co-host. By then, it was too late to get out of it. [everybody laughs] I threw a tantrum, called my lawyers, but the train had left the station. But, seriously, I thought, Well, that’s perfect. We used to fantasize about that when we were having beers in Toronto and Cannes: "Wouldn't it be be great. [mimics drunken slurred speech] We should have a show! They should give us a show!"
MP: Yeah, I know, it’s true, we did. I mean, everybody feels like they should have a show. I got the call when I was coming back from Traverse City, Michigan, from Michael Moore’s film festival. I went up there, so I had been sort out of touch for a couple of days, and checking e-mail was difficult up there. And then, I get this call from Ann Miller, and I was like "Wait, Ann Miller? I thought Ann Miller was dead." No, not that Ann Miller. And, this Ann Miller, who’s overseeing the show from Disney, loved the fact that I knew who Ann Miller was. So, it’s great to be appreciated by somebody who also likes Ann Miller musicals.
Capone: Yeah, someone who has seen one. I’ve this promo reel that’s going around on the circuit. And, clearly the language is very specific--I even wrote it down.
MP: Let's hear it.
Capone: “Serious reviews from serious journalists.”
MP: Damn serious.
TS: And, as you can see in this room, we’re trying to get as far away from that as we possibly can.
Capone: And the photo shoot aspect of the clip definitely adds to the serious nature of what you’re selling. But that language seems very deliberate--deliberate and almost antagonistic, maybe?
MP: Well, no, I wouldn’t say that. They wrote it the way they wrote it. But I’ve never looked tanner. And, Tony looks like George Hamilton in the promo. Very bronze. And, that’s a wonderful thing.
Capone: I love the shots with the chair turned around, and your straddling it, SCANDAL-style.
TS: It was great, I mean, you’re used to this kind of glamour and star treatment and stuff like that, but I thought it was a lot of fun. I also think that I find it very heartening, given the state of the world and the culture, that seriousness can be used as a selling point. You can get out there and not hide it, not be shy about it, not pretend that…I mean, sure, I wish that they had said, “Sexy reviews from sexy journalists.” [everybody laughs]
Capone: They tried it, man, they tried it.
TS: But then, they would have had to find me a different co-host. But, no, I think it’s great that what we do, and what we care about, and how we approach what we do is the thing that’s also the selling point.
Capone: It’s got to be heartening, too, that’s it back to two print journalists, print critics.
MP: Yeah, I guess. I mean, it’s almost just a matter of happenstance and the luck of the draw. I could just as easily never have been a print film critic and still be roughly the same…have come to the same sensibility that I’m at now.
So, the medium isn’t really…yes, yes, we are two print critics, God knows. But it’s a different dynamic than the old Siskel and Ebert dynamic, because that was really a very different, late-20th century, intense, two-person, two-paper rivalry from the same city. And, it’s not quite the same thing here. On the other hand, look, it’s been a terrific way to pursue what I love. And, I just felt lucky from the beginning to be writing for newspapers, but, right now, your online concerns are as much as in print, if you’re any kind of journalist. So, this is just another medium.
Capone: You mentioned that the should was born out of a rivalry, and, from what I can tell, you guys are both very nice gentlemen most of the time. Is there a place for true arguing here?
TS: Oh, yeah. I think so. I mean, obviously, the personal dynamic between us is not the same as it was between Gene and Roger. You can’t replicate that, and you can’t force that. That was who they were temperamentally and also who they were as stars at rival papers. Those were days of newspaper wars and great crosstown rivalries. We don’t quite have that.
But, I think what we do have, I think we get along well, and we have a good time together, and tease each other. But, I think that when the arguments happen and when they arise, they’ll go as far as they need to. I don’t think either of us shrinks from that. We certainly don’t in print.
TS: And, here’s the great thing that we’ve heard, another thing that I really took heart from, from the producers here: they do not want that manufactured combativeness that a lot of people seem to be tied to, because it was less manufactured with Gene and Roger.
But, what we can do, and what we want to do, and the kind of show I would watch is just somebody who says, “Wait a minute, why do you think that? Give me your evidence.” You know, backing up your opinion. The world is full of opinions on movies that are just floating with no evidence and no kind of good argumentation.
TS: And, television is full of people yelling at each other and producing very little in the way of insight or the advancement of thought. And, part of being serious, in a way, is taking ideas seriously and listening to what the other guy has to say, bringing your best argument. And, I think that is good for the viewers, too, and for people who care about movies, who have strong opinions about movies themselves, want to see people defending their own opinions, making their arguments, but also engaging in a real conversation, not just sort of talking past each other or shouting.
MP: They’ve done some very astute things--with our input, thank God [knocks wood table]--and, it will be evolving as we go, about changing the physical environment of the show, subtly, so that it isn’t like these two nerds air-dropped into a show where they don’t look comfortable. Again, they did a lot of good work in a hurry.
Capone: What are some of the specific format changes, and what have you kept?
MP: Are you writing this after you see the show, or are you going to write it before you see the show?
Capone: I was going to try to do it as promotion in advance of the show
MP: A weekly piece is really what we’re after [laughs].
Capone: Yeah, I’ll be back every week.
MP: A chronicle.
TS: I would say one thing--and this is not a specific answer to your question--but, I think that the rhythm and the pace and the flow of the show are going to be driven much more by the content, that is, by what we think the most interesting movies are, what we think [are] the most interesting discussions that we’re going to have. Already, in the first show, we’ve rearranged some things. We saw one movie that we both really liked and thought was really interesting to talk about, and we moved that to the central segment, and, stretched that one out. So, there’s a lot of flexibility with how long what we call the cross-talk is and where the movies are placed, based not on how big the movie is or how hyped the movie is, but about what we think the most interesting stuff to talk about is.
Also, the DVD segment is expandable and not always pegged to new releases on DVD. So, it’s not just, you know, Here’s the movie that we talked about six months ago that now you can rent or buy. But, a way of sort of opening it up and expanding it to other areas of film history.
MP: Yeah, as an example of that, for the first show, we’re doing something--I think we’ll probably come back to it--where we talk about movies that actually turned our heads around as kids, like, some of our earliest formative experiences with something that really got us thinking about movies seriously, or as serious as you can be at age eight, which is pretty serious, depending, because most eight-year-olds are pretty…They’re kind of in the bag for movies.
And then, we thought, Well, let’s expand that for the online thing, and we did another 10 minutes after we had finished the first show. “Let’s roll the cameras.” And, I think we’re going to do that every week. So, why not, you know, Web exclusives. Sounds good to Disney.
TS: And, using the Web to sort of expand. If there’s stuff that wants to go on longer, or sort of a more free-form, uninterrupted, less tightly constrained-by-commercial-breaks kind of conversation, using the Web or Web-video for that.
MP: Profanity, there’s just tons of it.
Capone: Well, that’s what it’s really for. Michael and I have talked this before, about the ‘Rent It’ option of the program. For my own reasons, I’m completely against that option.
TS: Why, why?
Capone: Many reasons. Mainly, it goes back to the fact that I think that home video has ruined the theater-going experience for a lot of people. And, I’ve thought that for, probably, half my life. Watching movies at home has encouraged types of behavior in theater-going that are chasing people away now.
MP: Well, not way down this year. I mean, if you look at the numbers, you’re down a little bit, but you’re not down a lot.
Capone: But, people keep complaining about the decline of the experience of going to the movies.
TS: And, it is appalling when people are texting and talking on the phone.
Capone: Yeah, and that all kind of goes along together. I mean, as Gene once put it, it set a trend of bad behavior, a decline in manners.
MP: No question. I do think--without naming any names--that designation is easy to misuse. You’ve got to be careful how often you use it and careful in what way you use it, because if you’re really just saying, “I didn’t like this movie, but my standards go in the toilet when I’m watching at home, so I say ‘Rent It’,” that’s not going to help anybody, because you’re just lying. It’s just two-faced. But, if you use it for something where you really have, fundamentally, a movie thatmay not work, but you have one performance or some aspect. It’s a more complicated reaction, and the movie refuses to be dismissed, and, you do it sparingly, then it makes sense to me.
TS: I was skeptical of it, and then, when we were doing rehearsals of the first taping and sort of going over what we were going to do, I came around to it because I think that it could sharpen the argument, that is, if, as Michael said, you don’t sort of abuse it or just use it as a way of being noncommittal, and if you say, “This movie had some real problems, and I can’t really recommend that you go out to the theater and spend $12.50 or whatever.”
Capone: And, I realize, in these financial times, it is about money sometimes.
MP: It is.
TS: But, I think sometimes if there’s a particular aspect of this movie that’s interesting, maybe not good enough as a whole, but there’s something worthwhile about it. And then, you have the other person who’s saying, “No, go see it,” you have, in a way, already a…
MP: …a split.
TS:…a clearer…a split and sort of more clearly articulated and defensible positions than if you were just saying, “Yeah, I liked this movie okay. See it.” And, the other guy is saying, “No, I really, really liked this movie. Really see it.” It sharpens it a little.
MP: I think it’s actually more true to life, when you think about it. I wish more of my movie-going year was spent in the heights of inspiration and then, maybe conversely, in the depths of disaster, just because those are easier to write. It is easier to write and to argue a rave or a pan, but 50 percent of…I would say…
TS: …at least.
MP: Many, many pictures you see in a year fall somewhere in between inspiration and disaster.
TS: Sure, I mean, it’s a bell curve. And, most things fall in the middle. The landscape of mediocrity is wide and vast--and crowded.
Capone: I didn’t realize I was against it until they started using it on the show last year--misusing it, as you put it. I felt like some people were using it to sort-of recommend films that they didn't understand.
MP: Maybe so, maybe so.
TS: I didn’t realize I was for it, until I started using it. [laughs]
Capone: The other thing I was curious about is whether you were going to address films that don’t get screened in time for taping, or for critics at all before opening.
MP: Oh yeah. We are.
Capone: That seems to be, like, this little segment of sometimes very popular films that don’t get addressed on the show.
MP: Well, just like there’s a lot of people who have been late to the idea of hitting movies at the right time that have been on VOD [video on demand] for three weeks, and then they get a theatrical release. Yeah, it’s all…This notion of time is sort of changing quickly, you know, time and platforms…
TS: And also, we come in late, in a way, anyway, because if you think about it, and there’s this obsession with being early and getting out in front of the opening weekend, but in most of the markets where the show airs, it’s on Saturday and Sunday, so a lot of people have already seen it or are in the middle of seeing it. So, we’re not right out front, giving people, “Hey, there’s this new BATMAN movie opening up!” By the time we go on, of course, most of them have already seen it or decided not to see it. So, I think that actually, rather than being a disadvantage or us being late, it means that we’re coming in right when people are talking about the movie, right when the discussion is happening. And so, sometimes, if something’s in platform release and going wide, we may not do it the first weekend it opens in New York and Los Angeles, but the next weekend, when it’s in the top ten markets where more people are out there seeing it. If it doesn’t screen for critics, you know, we can buy a ticket and go see it over the weekend, and then come back to it.
MP: Yeah, I think people give too…I’ve heard that argument, “Oh, well, the show is too late." What I was really excited to hear from Disney, truly, was when they said on the first phone call, they said, “Look, a lot of these people are seeing your show after they’ve seen the movie, so we can talk about these movies in a slightly different way than they may have five years ago.” To us, that’s, like, great, great, because then you feel like it’s…I mean, you can’t presume, but it’s no longer all prescriptive.
Capone: Okay. We sort of broached on serious journalism and serious criticism, as well as the role of the Internet. Tony, you’ve been pretty vocal--on both sides of the argument--about the role of the ruffians that rule the Internet and write reviews for the Internet…
TS: What have I said?
MP [to Tony]: Have you been huffy about that?
Capone: I read an article, I think it was in the Times actually, that you were quoted in. The story was about those review aggregation sites, where you seemed to in less-than-glowing terms about the role of the internet film reviews. But then, I read some quotes that you gave earlier this year, from a speech you gave at Ithaca College that were very pro.
TS: Wow. Yeah, yeah. Well, I’ve always been very…Look, my feeling has always been [that] whatever medium you’re writing for--whether you’re writing for your school newspaper or a blog or a specialized journal or a daily newspaper, or whatever--I’ve always found the whole thing about the blogosphere and the traditional media to be very overdone, on both sides, because it always seems to me that the question is, Do you have something interesting to say? Do you have an interesting way to say it? The imperative is always, if you’re a writer, to write as clearly and cogently and readably as you can.
I think that the Internet is a very noisy and contentious place. There’s a lot of opinion. It’s not always politely or well expressed, but I think it’s a fundamentally and wonderfully democratic milieu, which can be challenging to someone like me. I’m invested in…I think of myself as a professional and, you know, perhaps, think I’m deserving of respect that the people are not willing to grant.
MP: He's a very huffy boy. Harvard boy! [laughs]
TS: But, I think it’s great. It’s great that rather than writing something or doing a broadcast and wondering, All those people out there, what are they making of this? What are they thinking about it? I actually know. They write back to me, or they link, and so you see the argument. I mean, criticism has always been about argument, and the argument has always been happening out there, where people are reading and talking about critics, whoever those critics are. And now, you can see that argument, and you can hear that argument. And sometimes, yes, you want to tune it out, but there it is. And, I think, on balance, it’s a great thing.
Capone: Yeah. I know Michael thinks it’s a great thing, too. [Laughs]
MP: I do. I’ve always felt that it’s a privilege to be able to say what you want to say for a living. And, that’s a real privilege. I really feel like if you can’t put up with some opinions that don’t agree with yours, however they’re expressed, then you’re just too thin-skinned.
On the other hand, I do find it amusing that when somebody writes in to say, whether it’s responding to the online blog or whatever, just saying, "Ah, he’s a tool. You are this, you are that.” And, if you actually take a minute to respond and just say, “Hey, I’m sorry you think this, but…da, da, da, da,” nine times out of 10, you get this fascinating, kind of abject apology, right away--“I’m so sorry I wrote it that way!” And, I mean it, it’s like an amazing trend, that it’s more just like, Hey, there’s a human being back there somewhere.
And, I’m not trying to win…I don’t really care so much about what people think of me, because if you start worrying about that then…It’s hard enough to get your own opinion right for yourself in any form, and that’s really what this show is about, trying to get our opinions sharply argued in a very small amount of time in a way that we would personally watch. That’s hard enough.
Capone: Also, in that promo reel, you mentioned that this will be a show with three people at the helm--the two of you and then the audience. How are you getting the audience more involved?
MP: Well, I think online, we’re going to kind of roll that in. I hope we get some--this is the most retro thing in the world--reader mail, you know, and responding to that. A lot of it is just also the tone you’re setting on the air. Is it just some sort of insular chat between two people who aren’t really thinking things through, or is it something’s that kind of wide enough to bring people in?
TS: And, the audience is always…When you’re on television, you’re in somebody’s home, you’re in somebody’s living room, you’re talking to somebody where they live. And so, even without the extra dimension of interactivity that the Web could provide, there’s a kind of immediacy. It’s a little different than when you’re behind the columns of type in a newspaper. I mean, we’re hoping that people will find us bearable enough or sort of fascinatingly freakish enough to invite us into their home for half an hour at a time. [everybody laughs]
MP: And, they won’t be intimidated by the charisma levels they’re about to put up with.
Capone: No, not at all.
TS: "Not at all!" [laughs]
MP: Hey, wait a minute! Say!
TS: No danger of that!
Capone: Thank you both for all your time. I can't wait to see what you guys come up with.
And with that, Scott was on his way to the airport for the first in a long line of return flights to New York from Chicago. Good luck, fellas.
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