Tilda Swinton And Mr. Beaks Get Wrapped Up In The Unabashed Melodrama Of I AM LOVE!
Published at: June 17, 2010, 10:57 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
Tilda Swinton is going to save cinema - or, at the very least, make a lot of great cinema trying.
Her campaign to rescue the medium is already underway, and if you missed the first salvo, Erick Zonca's JULIA, not to worry: it's hanging out at various rental and retail institutions, waiting to be discovered. But that is the past. The present is Luca Guadagnino's I AM LOVE, a sprawling, intoxicating melodrama starring Swinton as Emma Recchi, the matriarch of a wealthy Italian clan whose textile business is poised on the precipice of transition or obsolescence. While her husband and less-than-enthused son - he wants to open a restaurant - are left struggling with the demands of a shifting global marketplace, Emma finds herself in the throes of a sexual and spiritual reawakening. With her children grown and discovering their own identity, Emma is rediscovering hers - and it's frightening to her that it might have little to do with the family for which she's sacrificed everything.
Swinton, who produced and co-conceived the film with the gifted Guadagnino, unabashedly acknowledges I AM LOVE's debt to the visual vernacular of Sirk, Visconti, Hitchcock so many others. This is a return to the type of pure cinema that's anathema in this age of pure calculation; it's about getting drunk on the potential of the medium, not betraying it for awards or box office. This is where Swinton lives. Though she'll probably have to make a CHRONICLES OF NARNIA every now and then to keep her profile elevated, her passion is sharing cinema with a receptive audience. She's especially committed to getting kids hooked on the art form with her 8 1/2 Foundation.
Though Swinton is focused on selling I AM LOVE at the moment, it's hard not to look forward to what should be her next triumph as a producer: Lynne Ramsay's WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN. Based on the novel by Lionel Shriver, Swinton will star as the mother of a high school student who goes on a killing spree. I got a look at some stills from the film (which wrapped two weeks ago), and was knocked out by Ramsay's hauntingly precise compositions; it's been eight long years since MORVERN CALLAR, but Swinton guarantees that we'll never have to wait this long for a new Ramsay film again.
Hopefully, I'll have a little something to share from WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN soon. In the meantime, here's Tilda on I AM LOVE, JULIA and whatever else came to mind in the too-brief twenty minutes we spent together.
We were talking JULIA when it occurred to me to start my recorder...
Tilda Swinton: JULIA doesn't go away. It's a deep burn. It's a cigarette burn.
Mr. Beaks: And it's one of those movies that, for whatever reason, people had to be forced to consider.
Swinton: It's just a long, slightly boring discussion about distribution. It's about a kind of crusty old pinball machine that needs some new alleys built into it somewhere. But I don't mind... I think if one's not particularly attached to opening weekends or prizes or anything, work always finds its time. It's just getting out there. Slowly.
Beaks: But so many of these movies - JULIA is one, and I AM LOVE is another - are movies that I think need to be seen on the big screen. I AM LOVE especially. It's this lush, rhapsodic film...
Swinton: Same cinematographer. Did you notice that? Same DP who did JULIA. Isn't that interesting? They're both glorious for very different reasons; cinematially, they're very different. Yorick Le Saux is a wonderful DP who works a lot with Francois Ozon and Olivier Assayas. He's great. He's really worth noticing. There was a moment when we thought he was going to do [WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN] as well.
Beaks: From the opening credits of I AM LOVE, the film has this very old school way of getting into the story. It puts you in mind, obviously, of Douglas Sirk, if only because of the melodramatic form of the film. But in talking to Luca a couple of months ago, it dawned on me that Visconti's THE LEOPARD was the direct link. Was that conscious?
Swinton: Absolutely. They're all conscious. Hitchcock is conscious. It's so conscious, I have the same hairdo [Kim Novak] had. And John Huston's THE DEAD, Passolini, Antonioni... but Visconti, absolutely. There are Viscontis in the film. You may not even know, but next time you see the film, look at the credits and you'll notice that some of the smaller parts are played by members of the Visconti family. It was very, very clear to us. So much so that the poster [for THE LEOPARD] in Italy had on it "Everything is going to change," and our poster said "Everything is going to change forever." So we actually quoted THE LEOPARD on our poster.
It was part of our original project eleven years ago, when we started talking about how we could make a film language modern that was informed by these classical references - but to make it really fresh again. Would it be possible to take these references and learn from them - not just quote them in some kind of postmodern way, but to actually learn from them and take that language further? That's our school project that we set ourselves.
Beaks: The problem is that studio executives and people of their ilk think audiences don't want to see movies like this. They think people don't have the patience for visual storytelling and long takes.
Swinton: Jeremy, what do they know? Really! They think that people aren't interested in reading subtitles. No. They think people don't want to watch movies in black-and-white. It's not true. It's all rubbish. This is a separate issue, and I don't want to take up too much time talking about it because we're here to talk about I AM LOVE, but I am in the process of forming this foundation for children. It's called the 8 1/2 Foundation; we're showing little children world cinema, and giving them a choice. We can show them thirty-second clips of a certain amount of films from all over the world, from all decades, black-and-white, subtitles, and giving them a chance to choose one for their eight-and-a-half birthday, which we will then send them in the post. And the two that come out on top always on our poll are a black-and-white film by Jacques Tati from the '60s and a Chinese film with Mandarin subtitles called THE KING OF MASKS. And yet studio executives will tell you that children and adults will not watch foreign films and will watch not black-and-white. So that's just in parentheses.
Beaks: That's a wonderful idea. Good luck with that.
You know, it seems with so many of your performances that you're completely consumed by your character, almost possessed. It's as if you've completely disappeared into them. Where do you come down on method? How deep do you go? And is it ever hard to shake the character once you're finished?
Swinton: I need to declare right off the bat - as I have before, but really this is the case - I don't have any sense of myself as an actor. I don't have any kind of method. I never intended to be an actor. I never trained to be an actor. I have no idea what I'm doing. I try and make sure that I've done everything I need to do before we start shooting, so that when we start shooting I can just play. It helps a lot if one is involved from the very beginning of germinating a project and developing it, actually developing the idea of the story and milieu and the character. There was never a time when anybody handed me a script of I AM LOVE and I had to get to know Emma. Emma was something that I co-made with Luca and the writer of our script. So it's very easy. It's like asking someone... I always think it's a little bit like you imagine two parents, and every morning the mother has to say to the father - all by sundown - that "This is a baby, and what you have to do is clean it, and then you have to feed it..." I mean, you don't have to do that if you made something from scratch. It's your work. You made it, and it's a very organic business feeding it. So what I try to do is dress myself up as close as possible to look like someone whose story I'm telling - which might involve changing my shape. It will certainly involve thinking about how this person moves, how they talk, and how they present themselves to the world. But once I've worked out my disguise, I just dress up and play on a daily basis until we're finished shooting. There is no method. It doesn't feel like a possession. And it certainly doesn't feel consuming, as you describe. The whole idea of something being difficult to shake off at the end of the day is bizarre. I'm obviously not trying hard enough. (Laughs)
Beaks: Maybe it's just that you don't have to try that hard.
Swinton: I'm not a great believer in effort. I think I once read somewhere that the great Robert Mitchum said his creed was "The greatest possible return for the least possible effort." I think maybe I'm of that school. I'm very lazy. I'm very idle. I believe in idleness. And I like to see a kind of relaxedness onscreen. So I'm not just saying this because I am lazy; I actually think idleness serves performance well. I think a lot of effort can throw the spectator out if they seem someone working too hard. The lady doth protest a bit too much; she's trying to hard to look like somebody.
Beaks: That's interesting. I've been watching a lot of Cassavetes lately, and it seems that there's so much effort there. Everyone's trying so hard to get into this heightened state of being. That can be very mesmeric.
Swinton: Cassavetes is a very interesting reference for this. Erick Zonca and I obviously both thought a lot about Cassavetes when we were making JULIA. Not because there was some rumor that we were remaking GLORIA - that was absolute rubbish - but because he's a great idol of ours. Having thought a lot about it in the process of preparing JULIA, I realized that our project was not the same as Cassavetes's. Even though he made extraordinary cinema, Cassavetes was very much a theatrical animal. And most of the performers that he worked with... grew out of a theatrical energy, which serves the milieu that he shows in his films very well. A lot of the people that he shows in his films are actors or directors or work in the theater business, so there's a mode, an atmosphere that feels very right. It's very raw and overwrought. And I realized that what I was downloading for Julia is that... Julia is an actress. That's why it was appropriate to download that kind of energy for Julia. Not for me, Tilda, but for her; she's an actress in a way that I'm not. She's got a very different energy to me. She's a much better liar than I could ever hope to be, and throws herself into things in a way that you can imagine like Ben Gazzara or Gena Rowlands would. Tooth and claw.
I think it is about disguise. And very often, as in our film JULIA, Cassavetes is dealing with the theme of sincerity. And insincerity. A lot of the time, these characters are talking to each other constantly, but they're actually trying to wade through thickets of insincerity to get to something real. That's his subject really.
Beaks: And that's akin to what your character is doing in I AM LOVE, except she's completely rediscovering life. It's a reawakening. All of this time has gone by, and now she wants ownership of her life. And there's this tension of having a family that depends on you and knows you as this person, when you've ceased to see yourself as that person.
Swinton: One of the things that's a stumbling block for so many people, maybe all of us, is the temptation to believe that you can avoid change. It's just not possible. Change is inevitable; it's the only thing we can rely on. Evolution. I've looked at in a number of films now, the idea that you become a mother or a parent - particularly a mother - and your task is to be some still and constant point for your children while they grown. While they change and move, you have to stay steady. And then this point comes when they are leaving, and you don't have to be steady anymore. And you realize what an effort, being steady all those years... you realize you've actually changed. And you're maybe nineteen again. That's something that's really not so exotic in peoples' lives; I think there are a lot of people in that situation, who had children young enough that when the children are leaving, when they are sort of the same age as when you had them, there's a sort of strange crossover. It's something I looked at in a film that David Siegel and Scott McGehee made together called THE DEEP END. It's the same sort of story. The mother was at the same tipping point.
Beaks: And this intense emotion is reflected, or really enhanced, by John Adams's score. It's one of the most shockingly dramatic scores I've heard in years, and I adore it. I miss film music like that.
Swinton: Did you know his work earlier?
Beaks: I knew of it. I'd heard a little, and knew that he was a prominent modern classical composer. But like so many people, I'm not in the habit of listening to modern classical music.
Swinton: You know what you have to do? You have to do yourself a favor. Buy yourself THE JOHN ADAMS EARBOX. All of his music is in one set. It's a beautiful little thing. And just listen to it. Put it on every morning, and you'll become addicted to it. That's what Luca and I did. We became addicted to the music around about the last draft of the [script], so it infiltrated the DNA of this film very early - which was dangerous because we knew John Adams had never allowed his work to be in any film before. We knew we were getting addicted to a very dangerous drug. And by the time we had shot several scenes to the score, I realized that we needed to ask his permission. We found him by a very short series of degrees of separation, and he was just up for it. We still can't believe he was up for it.
Beaks: Did you find that the music heightened the emotions in the writing of the story?
Swinton: It was the music that we needed. In fact, this discussion is making me feel very sort of faint because I'm trying to imagine what we would've if he hadn't let us use it. I think we really need to ask Douglas Sirk this, because he has made more than one melodrama. Having just worked with one melodrama now, what I've noticed is that you have to play a very fine game of timing your emotion and layering your emotion. And you have to locate your emotional breaks in the story in the behavior of your characters. You have have to hold you jokers up your sleeve for a very long time. You can't waste them; you can't play them too early. You have to play this waiting game. But if you imagine that on the screen unsupported by any other ambient atmosphere, it could be very dry. It could be too dry. The waiting game for the audience could actually be too tough. So having the emotion held in the music, held in the score, was really essential for us, because then we could play this really tough game with... not tightening the screws of the actual behavior until later on.
Beaks: I could talk about writing to music for hours. It's something that more people should do--
Swinton: It's interesting that you say we long for that kind of score. It's very rare to have that sort of directional score. And one would hope that if people like it in I AM LOVE, others will have the courage to be that directional in modern cinema.
Beaks: It's just finding composers who can rouse themselves to write that music.
Swinton: And just be that brave. Of course, that's not an original score. It's sort of a cut-and-pasted greatest hits. Next time, we want John Adams to do a full score.
Beaks: I know SHUTTER ISLAND is a film that did that cut-and-paste thing with modern classical also.
Swinton: It did. And they also chose a bit of John Adams.
Beaks: I can't let you get away without talking a little about Lynne Ramsay.
Swinton: We just finished principal photography two weeks ago, and it's looking very good.
Beaks: I was just looking at stills, and the compositions and use of shadows... it looks amazing.
Swinton: It's really going to be something.
Beaks: You've sort of mentored Lynne.
Swinton: Again, that's another seed that's been in my ground for years. JULIA, I AM LOVE and KEVIN. Meanwhile, I was in some American films, and worked with the Coen brothers, but, truthfully, I've been working on those films for years. They've been slowly moldering away, or growing at least.
Beaks: How difficult has it been to find people who want to make this kind of film with this type of director?
Swinton: It hasn't been easy, but let's just hope it gets easier. That's all I have to say. I'm so sick of biting my lips off and having to say "I told you so" to people. I told them all about JULIA. I told them all about I AM LOVE. And I'm telling them all about KEVIN. Let's just hope that people begin to see that all a filmmaker like Lynne Ramsay needs is not very much money, but enough to just shoot it. Making people sweat and wait for years doesn't serve anybody.
Beaks: I can't go another eight years.
Swinton: You're not going to have to. If I've got anything to do with it, you're not going to have to. She's up and running.
I AM LOVE opens this Friday, June 18th. See it.