Media's celeb obsession at 'Interview's' heart

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"Interview" interview: The media's obsession with celebrities is at the fascinating heart of "Interview," directed by Steve Buscemi, who also stars in it with Sienna Miller.

"Interview," a remake of the 2003 Dutch drama of the same name directed by the late Theo van Gogh, opens in select markets July 13 via Sony Pictures Classics. Produced by Bruce Weiss (producer of "Side Streets" with Ismail Merchant) and Gijs van de Westelaken (producer of the original "Interview" with van Gogh), it was executive produced by Nick Stiliadis and written by David Schechter and Buscemi.

Van Gogh, the great-grandson of Vincent van Gogh's brother Theo, was the victim Nov. 2, 2004 of a murder motivated by political and religious intolerance. Before his death he'd decided to remake three of his Dutch films (the others are the 1994 romantic drama "06" and the 1996 drama "Blind Date") in English and set them in New York. "Interview" is the first of the trio to be remade.

In the original film a political correspondent named Pierre (played by Pierre Bokma) is given what he considers to be the trivial assignment to interview real-life Dutch actress Katja Schuurman. The remake doesn't stray very far from that original storyline. Buscemi plays Pierre Peders, a serious journalist and war correspondent, who's unexpectedly assigned to write a puff-piece about the fictional celebrity Katya (Miller), a blonde pop diva, TV and movie star.

For Buscemi it's his fourth full-length feature film as a director and comes at a time when his acting career is sizzling. Buscemi was seen earlier this year opposite Chris Rock in Fox Searchlight's "I Think I Love My Wife." He'll be seen next opposite Adam Sandler in Universal's "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry," opening July 20, and he's a voice talent in the Weinstein Co.'s animated feature for 2008 "Igor," along with such other voices as John Cleese, John Cusack, Jeremy Piven and Jay Leno.

Buscemi is also starring this fall in Peace Arch Films' drama "Delirious," written and directed by Tom DiCillo (1995's "Living in Oblivion" with Catherine Keener and Buscemi) and also starring Michael Pitt, Alison Lohman and Gina Gershon. In "Delirious" Buscemi plays a New York paparazzi fascinated by the world of celebrities whose photos he's desperate to shoot. I've already seen "Delirious" and liked it a lot. It's actually an interesting companion piece to "Interview" when it comes to understanding the dynamics of today's celebrity media culture. I'm looking forward to talking to DiCillo about "Delirious" later this summer.

Having really enjoyed my early look at the new "Interview," which hopefully will generate some Oscar and Golden Globe attention for Buscemi and Miller, I was glad to have an opportunity to focus recently with Buscemi on the making of the film. The project came about, he told me, when he "got a call from the producer Bruce Weiss and he explained to me that his friend Theo van Gogh had three films that he wanted to remake as English language films and that Theo loved New York and he loved actors and it was their idea to find American directors who were also actors (to do these remakes). At first I was just curious to see the films because I did not know his work (although) I knew of him. I really liked all three films that I saw, but 'Interview' was the one that really spoke to me. I just loved the characters and loved the story and was really interested in being involved."

Asked how he approached remaking Van Gogh's original, Buscemi explained, "We changed some of the details of the characters and plot a little bit, but we pretty much stuck to the structure of the original. We opened it up a little bit in that we added a restaurant scene, which was not in the original, and changed some of the details. But I really wanted to stick close to the spirit of the original, which was the relationship between Pierre and Katya. When I saw Theo's version it was as if I was watching the break up of a longstanding couple and they were just meeting for the first time and only spending a few hours together."

In Buscemi's version of the film, the reporter and pop star's first meeting takes place in a New York restaurant where he's supposed to interview her for an article, but hasn't bothered to prepare any questions since he's not happy about having been given the assignment, which he considers is trivial and beneath him. Pierre doesn't keep his feelings a secret and Katya tells him to forget the interview. She walks out of the restaurant, but a short time afterwards events wind up bringing them back together to spend the rest of the night talking.

Was he attracted to the idea of studying the relationship between media people and the stars they report on? "For me, I was less interested in making a comment on all of that," Buscemi replied. "But I did like the fact that these two characters were seemingly from different worlds and would be at odds with each other. But I was more interested in them as people and what they had in common -- that they're both damaged people. They both, I think, come from places of pain and I think they recognize that in each other and that's what draws them together and it's also what makes them really insecure and defensive and probably contributes to the reason why they want to hurt each other."

Buscemi chose to star in the film as well as direct it: "I liked the character a lot because he had a lot of different sides to him. I like characters that are complicated and complex. He was also funny and he had a past. So as an actor there was a lot to play with."

Early in the film when we're first meeting Pierre, the journalist Buscemi plays, we view him positively because he seems to have the moral high ground in wanting to report only on serious news and not waste his talents writing about celebrities. Later, however, when we've found out more about him, we don't like him quite as much. "Part of what I liked about the original," he said, "is that you think you know these people in the beginning and you actually find out (by the film's end) maybe more about Pierre than you do about Katya. Even though it's Pierre's job to find out about Katya, he ends up, I think, revealing more about himself and some of what he reveals is not very pretty."

When Buscemi signed on to direct "Interview" he knew he'd also be playing the male lead. That left him with only having to cast the role of Katya to set his principal cast. "Her name was on a very short list of people that we were considering," he said. "She was our first choice. She accepted the day that we made the offer before she even read the script. So I was thrilled."

Her quick acceptance, he added, came after, "We just told her about the project. I just explained to her who the character was and what the story was and what the original film was and she just was really intrigued and wanted to work on it."

Although there are other people in the film, the only two principal roles are the ones played by Buscemi and Miller. "I really needed someone who could not only look the part, but who was really a talented actress," he observed, "so I think she really fit the bill well."

Working as both the film's director and as an actor who's in virtually every scene was understandably challenging. "We rehearsed it for two weeks," Buscemi said, "so a lot of the questions that we had about our characters and the story we were able to explore in the rehearsals and not take up that time while we were shooting. Although as we were shooting we were also still exploring. But it really helped to have that rehearsal period. And I had a lot of help with the people who were working on the film, many of whom worked on the original film with Theo.

"I had his cinematographer Thomas Kist and camera crew and his script supervisor and assistant Doesjka van Hoogdalem. She was really helpful. She was at all the rehearsals. She was my eyes on the monitor while we were shooting. I would sometimes watch the takes after we did a few just to make sure that we were getting what we needed. It seemed doable. It's exhausting when you're acting and directing, but it seemed to feel right."

In terms of how he worked on the set, Buscemi noted, "Just the nature of the way it was shot with three handheld cameras (meant) there really wasn't a lot of planning (of) shots. I mean, we did have some rehearsal in the loft before we started shooting with Thomas there so that he could get an idea of the general blocking. But even so, we were never hitting marks. The lighting was kind of general. So we had the freedom to move around and, like I say, performance-wise we covered a lot of ground in rehearsal and after we would do some takes I would watch the playback and give my comments after that. It just required a lot of energy and concentration, but it's certainly not impossible and many other actor-directors have done it before me."

The loft Buscemi referred to is Katya's large apartment with its different living areas where most of the film takes place and which functions almost as one of the film's characters. "We wanted to find a space that was not only big enough," he pointed out, "but also where we could create these little worlds inside of it because we knew that we would be spending so much time in there and that it was an extension of who Katya is or wanted to be. So that became a really important location that we took our time with.

"It was on the west side of Manhattan. What we didn't realize was that there was a club right across the street. We were shooting at night and the nightclub was really, really noisy. But then we worked it into the scene at the end where my character leaves so it ended up being a good thing. I mean, (filming in) New York at night there was just a lot of noise that we had to contend with."

Buscemi shot the film in just nine days. "It is," he said, agreeing it was a very fast shoot, "but (with) the nature of the piece I never felt like we were really rushing. I knew that Theo had done his version in like five days."

So what took Buscemi so long? "Well, we did add a location," he pointed out. "We did have that whole restaurant scene that was not in the original. But the beauty of the piece is that it's primarily two characters and one location. And then (with) the way it was shot, we weren't spending a lot of time doing lighting or camera moves. So that's how we were able to do it that quickly."

With three cameras shooting during production, when it was time for post-production there were some additional challenges: "(When) you have a lot of options in the editing room it takes a long time because there's so much footage to sift through plus we were using these cameras that were from Holland so it was a whole different system of loading it in (for editing and) so it took my editor (Kate Williams) longer just to arrive at the first cut. But those are just technical difficulties. It was really a fun piece to work on and besides losing our initial financing, which is always an obstacle to shooting, the production went really smoothly."

The film came to Sony Pictures Classics, he said, when "they picked it up after Sundance (in January 2007). They're going to open it in five or six cities initially and platform it and, hopefully, it will be around throughout the fall."

Given the many hats he wears as a filmmaker, I asked Buscemi what he most enjoys doing. "What I like about filmmaking in general is that you're involved in all the aspects of it," he answered. "In this case, I did have a hand in the writing along with David Schecter. But then I enjoyed the whole location scouting and planning and, in this case, acting. This is a role that I found really enjoyable and challenging in a good way. But in general what directing is is being involved in every aspect of the film. That's what I really enjoy -- having all of that creative input and being able to work in that collaboration with everybody connected to the film, with the crew and the actors and everybody."

Over the years, of course, Buscemi has been interviewed by many journalists so he's no stranger to how such conversations are conducted and that had to have been helpful to him in preparing to play the role of Pierre. "I did talk with a political journalist, who we ended up casting in the film -- Danny Schechter, who is David Schechter's cousin. I just talked to him about that world a little bit. I was so impressed with him that we decided to cast him at the end of the film in a scene where he's being interviewed by a newscaster, played by Donna Hanover. They improvised that whole scene. I just gave them some key things to touch upon."

After we'd finished talking about "Interview," I asked Buscemi for some quick thoughts about his work in Tom DiCillo's drama "Delirious" in which he does a terrific job playing a New York paparazzi. "Well it does end up sort of being a companion piece (to 'Interview') because I play both sides of the media, but very different characters," he observed. "My character in 'Delirious' is a guy who is an outsider really trying to get in and is desperate to be in that sort of celebrity world. But what's similar is that at the heart of both films are these relationships.

"So in 'Delirious' my character befriends the young (homeless guy/actor) Toby, played by Michael Pitt, and that connection is very important to him although it's in his personality to exploit that relationship and ultimately sabotage it. But it is something that he feels terrible about (exploiting). It's another complex character who's also sort of damaged goods, but he's got a lot of heart."

Unlike "Interview," with "Delirious" Buscemi didn't have the additional responsibilities of directing to contend with. "I enjoyed working with Tom DiCillo, who I've worked with before (in the 1995 drama 'Living in Oblivion')," he said. "Tom is the kind of director that gives a lot of responsibility to the actors. So we really worked on that character together. That's always a joy to have that much input and responsibility and it was really fun."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Aug. 3, 1989's column: "As Hollywood heads down the home stretch in this summer's boxoffice sweepstakes, it is clear this has been a summer of surprises. Chief among them is the fact that this didn't turn out to be the summer of sequel successes that so many industry pundits were anticipating.

"If you take calculator in hand and look at cumulative grosses for the 22 summer releases that opened from Memorial Day through last weekend, you find that seven sequels and one reissue grossed $500.1 million while 14 originals earned $510.1 million. In other words, the originals did about 2% better than their high awareness sequel cousins.

"The sequel group, ranked by cumulative gross, includes 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade' ($177 million); 'Ghostbusters II' ($102.1 million); 'Lethal Weapon 2' ($88.8 million); 'Star Trek V: The Final Frontier' ($48.9 million); 'Karate Kid III' ($33.3 million); 'License to Kill' ($24.3 million); 'Peter Pan' reissue ($19.4 million); and 'Friday the 13th VIII' ($6.3 million).

"The originals are 'Batman' ($202.9 million); 'Honey, I Shrunk the Kids' ($95.4 million); 'Dead Poets Society' ($74.7 million); 'When Harry Met Sally' ($24.2 million); 'Weekend at Bernie's' ($21.6 million); 'Do the Right Thing' ($19.4 million); 'No Holds Barred' ($26 million); 'Great Balls of Fire' ($12.7 million); 'Turner and Hooch' ($12.2 million); 'Pink Cadillac' ($12.1 million); 'Renegades' ($8.2 million); 'Shag' ($4.4 million); 'UHF' ($4.4 million); and 'Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills' ($1.9 million)...

"This summer's real strength has been in originals -- product to date like 'Batman,' 'Honey,' 'Sally,' 'Poets' and, most likely, 'Turner.' Indeed it appears we will be seeing sequels based on some of these pictures. Batman could next be crossing swords with the Penguin. Honey could be hearing her kids have been accidentally dispatched to outer space. And Turner could wind p with a new but still slobbering canine partner.

"With successful new originals sparking new sequels, it puts a new perspective on some of those presummer media criticisms about how Hollywood has lost its creativity."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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