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Interview: Tilda Swinton

Ioncinema met director Mike Mills and actors Tilda Swinton and Lou Pucci in New York.


Q: You declared, “If I had to choose between films where you turn up as an actor, say the lines, don’t bump into furniture and go home; or else, be involved in lenghty fundraisings, script enhancement, holding people’s hands while they write scripts, trying to drum up money from whoever, and then, on the first day of shooting you don’t get to shoot the film at all, I would definitely choose the second.” Was it really that hard to make Thumbsucker happen?
A: The truth is: I’ve always done that. I’ve worked with so many first-time filmmakers that I can’t even count them! I know that films that break new grounds take time to find funding. That’s all. And, I also know that it is possible to finds funding, so that’s what I do. You see, it’s always a really demoralizing experience for first-time filmmakers because people tell you that you are insane. In my experience, the more enlightened your material is, the more people will tell you that you are insane. So, it’s important to have somebody there who tells you, “Don’t worry: I’ve been through this 10 times before.” I’ve been fortunate enough for never having been involved in a film that couldn’t be made, or worse, that got made but wasn’t released. I really have to touch wood because that must feel hellish. Anyway, to be involved in all the process is something I’ve always done. I did it for Derek Jarman, even though he didn’t need it as much. I did it for Sally Potter for 5 years before we got to make Orlando. I did it with David Mackanzie, Lynn Hershman, Susan Streitfeld and so on… Occasionally, there is someone like Spike Jonze that turns up with a script that is gonna happen anyway, which is refreshing, but generally speaking this is what I do. It’s such a great privilege to be able to say in the end: “They were insane, not us!”

Q: So, how does it feel to switch from Independent films like Thumbsucker, Possible Words, The Deep End, Young Adam, to big Hollywood productions such as Constantine, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe?
A: Some things are exactly the same and are the reasons why I chose to make these big films. The first one is the comunication with the filmmaker. This is the main principle for me. I would have made Constantine with Francis Lawrence even as an independent film for 200.000 dollars, and I also would have played the White Witch in an Andrew Adamson’s avante-guarde production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe [the first installment of The Chronicles of Narnia], because I really thought they were good projects. Then, of course there are also incredible differences. For example the rhythm of big budget filmmaking is entirely different but, most of all, the creativity is in completely different places. In low-budget films the creativity is so connected to chaos! You know that chaos is going to be there, and you have to make friend with it and use it. When, for example, you make a low budget film and you have written a scene for bright sunlight and you’ve got the location for one day and it rains, you’ve got to shift, use your brain to find a solution so that it would work perfectly that it rains in that scene. Whereas in a big budget film, you just wait. And you can wait for entire weeks.

Q: Is there any contemporary director that you find similar, in some way, to Derek Jarman?
A: Derek of course was unique, but between the many inspiring directors I’ve worked with, I have to say that in many ways Mike Mills is very similar. I don’t say that because we just did Thumbsucker. The sense of family that I feel with Mike and the dialogue I have with him is similar to those I had with Derek. This is why we are already working together on his next film. Like Derek, he is an eclectic fine artist who uses films as a way to explore the issues that he is interested in, just as he does with other media or in his work as a graphic designer. But now that I think about it, I realize that almost all the directors I’ve worked with were fine artists or painter or musicians, rather than just professional directors…

Q: How would you describe the way you prepare for a character?
A: I really love the science of filmmaking. That’s how I see it: as a science. I deal with stories of people that don’t exist. So, what I do is put together a sort of forensic pattern which will send messages out to the audience, and I need to do so in a very short period of time, usually 90 minutes. Really, the first scenes are the ones that you have to particularly look at: how your character is supposed to look, which clothes he chooses to wear, how he chooses to hold and articulate himself, which is the timber of his voice, how he decorates his house, how he uses his body, even how he positions himself in the frame… all of these things! This is why I consider it pure forensic. For me, it is crucial to work closely with the cinematographer. You could do a fantastic job in putting together your character, and yet the camera could not get it because it may not actually be framing what you are showing or not be corrispondent to the scale of what you are giving. I work in building all this forensic pattern in an incredibly geeky way. Yet, once you’ve done all this work, something else has to happen. You need to make it all real.

Q: You had two weeks of improvisation before shootings.
A: Yes, and it was really invaluable. When I first met Mike we actually didn’t talk that much about the novel or even the script, because I hadn’t even read the script at that point. What really brought us together was a sort of atmosphere that we both agreed in: the idea of a world were there are more questions than answers, where people are more vulnerable. Society wants us to believe that people communicate openly to each other, but both Mike and I saw that this is not true. In both our experiences, we realized that comunicating with other people is really hard, particularly in our own families. First, we talked about this, and then Mike told me about the narrative and the structure he had in mind. To build that particular atmosphere, so realistic and truthful, was even more important than going where the story was supposed to go. We wanted to make something real, like a documentary. Something very undramatic, in a way. It was to be the kind of family experience where people don’t have great words to explain what they want to say, and when they actually find the way to say it, somebody leaves the room and there’s no chance for dialogue. This is why we all hang out and improvised for a couple of weeks in order to feel comfortable as a family. Actually, a lot of this improvisation ended up in the film. When the time for the shooting came, we just said to ourselves, “Ok, it’s going to be business as usual except a camera is going to be there.” I remember, for example, that one of the crucial lines of the film came out of the improvisation. It’s towards the end of the film, when I finally say to my son: “I know you, Justin. I’ve been watching you your whole life.” One day, during the improvisation, I thought, “You know what? That’s possibly the most important thing a parent needs to say to his child!” Because parents always think that their children know how much attention they are getting, and the children don’t. We all think our parents don’t pay any attention to us. I thought it was a great thing to say to my child.

Q: How was working with Jim Jarmusch in Broken Flowers
A: It was really wonderful. I remember when I first saw Stranger Than Paradise many years ago. That film had an extraordinary impact. There was something so wonderful about seeing an American director doing such a truly independent international hit. The funny thing about Jim Jarmush is that he’s been doing the same for over twenty years, and he’s still doing it! It’s also moving for me because I think that Derek Jarman is not around anymore, but Jim is, and that’s great. It was a real gift to my life that he asked me to play a part in his film. I worked with him for just two days, but for that, I flew all the day to New Jersey from New Zealand where I was shooting Narnia.

Q: So, how is your White Witch in the Chronicles of Narnia going to be?
A: Very white. And very evil. She is the Ultimate White Supremacist. That’s my line on her. Yet, at first they wanted me to have dark hair. They always want evil people to have dark hair, don’t they?

Thumbsucker opens in New York and L.A on September 16th.

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