The 54th New York Film Festival: Global Auteurs Talk Craft and Criterion Goes Digital

A parade of festival stunners make the New York Film Festival an elegant affair, one that reassures that movies aren’t dead and that cinema never stops evolving.

Opening with The 13th, Ava DuVernay’s topical, assertive look at the U.S. prison system, the 54th edition of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s most illustrious yearly event set itself apart—it was the first edition to ever have a documentary kick off the festivities.

Critical favorites like Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea screened at the festival as awards contenders on their way to greater glory, while less talked-about titles—such as Mexican documentarian-turned-fiction-director Natalia Almada’s Everything Else, Eduardo William’s The Human Surge, Dash Shaw’s animated feature My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, and Joao Pedro Rodriguez’ The Ornithologist—were given a prime opportunity to be discovered by press and general audiences alike.

Five years after the release his troubled sophomore feature, Margaret, director Kenneth Lonergan premiered his follow-up Manchester by the Sea at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to nearly universal acclaim. The buzz has prevailed through the all the fall festivals and carried over to New York, where the unassuming filmmaker sat down for a conversation with Kent Jones to reminisce about his short career in the movies, developed from his extensive work in theater. Lonergan wasn’t shy about discussing his arguably greatest talent: his knack for writing genuine dialogue that reflects his characters’ humanity above all. Yet he was equally candid about his initial ignorance with film.

“I’m not embarrassed to be ignorant, so don’t assume I know anything,” Lonergan recalled telling his line producer, Jill Footlick, as he blindly dove into his debut feature You Can Count on Me. Footlick walked him through the first day of shooting and recommended formulating a specific plan of action for the day to reassure everyone on set, a plan from which he could deviate depending on the circumstances, of course.

“I found out I liked two-shots. I like to see actors interacting with each other… It’s something exciting when you see both performers in the same shot,” Lonergan continued. “I have a taste for dead-on shots of people against a flat background. I like the way it looks. And also, it puts a certain amount of visual pressure when you see bodies against a flat background instead of depth.” Lonergan noted that during the shooting of his first feature, cinematographer Stephen Kazmierski provided insight on how to enhance the narrative via camera movement. “Steve said, ‘ One way to create visual energy is to have the camera moving in the opposite direction as the actor.’ That’s just a really simple trick, and I didn’t know it.”

“Experienced film actors are used to the idea that they are not in control of the final product. A lot of them don’t even see their movies,” said Lonergan. Coming from a theater background, that realization was important for the director to work in the motion picture medium.

Often, he said, it’s his actors who want to do more takes of a particular scene. In the case of Manchester by the Sea, the film’s star Casey Affleck pushed for a couple more takes. Lonergan recalled a pivotal scene in Margaret, involving a violent exchange between Mark Ruffalo and Anna Paquin, for which he knew he had what he needed by the fifth takebut the actors continued to perform the scene until their behavior turned excessive. While he ultimately stuck to the take he’d originally identified, he was fascinated by the progression of the performances in later takes.

Laugh-lout-loud comedy is not the norm among the films in the NYFF program, yet, grounded on a heartfelt father-daughter relationship, Maren Ade’s German sensation Toni Erdmann defies genre conventions to become a singular delight. In another public conversation, the auteur, whose film is representing her homeland in the race for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award, shared the road to crafting a personal dramedy in which both protagonist hide underneath humor derived from desperation.

“There were three different cameramen and it was always handheld. There is a very simple rule for me that the actors come first and the camera comes second,” explained Ade, when question about the dynamic aesthetic used in her 162-minute tale.  “When I decide on a location I always think about the actors. I always try to rehearse on location. That’s also a very important moment for the camera because we decide then the perspective from which we will tell the story. I always try for the cameraman to be at every rehearsal, so that he becomes like a third actor. The entire film was shot with one lens, very simple.”

Holding spoilers, Aden briefly touched on how the positive tension nudity added to the shooting of a particular scene, and the reason why the film has a longer-than-average running time (though it hardly feels its length): “I had almost 50 shooting days, and that’s about two hours of footage per day, and with digital you can tape everything. “

Glowing with charisma while dissecting his stylized new work, Spanish master Pedro Almodóvar appeared after the press screening of Julieta, which debuted at Cannes last spring and is based on short stories by Alice Munro. Actresses Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte were also present to dish on the titular character they both play at different stages in her tumultuous life. Initially, Almodóvar wanted Julieta to be his English-language debut and planned to film it in New York, but ultimately realized that it was possible to make it in Spain—though he had to make changes to adapt the stories into a European context and take into account cultural specificities that needed to be addressed, such as the presence of spirituality in the film.

“For the first time I wanted to be very austere and very restrained. That was a huge adventure for me as a storyteller,” said the Oscar-winning moviemaker about leaving behind melodrama, thanks to Munro’s writing.

Confirming that there is nothing left to chance in his films, Almodóvar talked about the song he chose to include in the film’s closing credits, “Si No Te Vas” by the late Latin American singer Chabela Vargas. “I tried to make a drama and not a melodrama, which is my natural inclination. I tried to control myself and not have Julieta singing and not use humor. I tried to avoid all these elements that identify me. At the end, Chabela Vargas came to my mind like the best singer to talk about being abandoned. Nobody sung to abandoned women like Chabela Vargas did. When she was on stage, she transformed a priestess of abandoned women. The lyrics of this song could be the perfect continuation of what Emma Suárez says in the car.”

Suárez and Ugarte revealed that Almodóvar directed them separately, and therefore consider the seamlessness of their performances a miracle. Almodóvar gave Suárez numerous references to construct the personality of an older Julieta, while Ugarte, on the other hand, didn’t receive much material upon which to shape the personality of the younger character.

Using NYFF as an unbeatable testing ground for their digital venture, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and the Criterion Collection hosted a fabulous event in the heart of Manhattan to celebrate the launch of FilmStruck, a streaming service aimed at cinephiles offering the best of classic and world cinema. FilmStruck is a curated platform that doesn’t rely solely on algorithms, but on avid film fanatics to curate thematic categories from their title selection. As to be expected from Criterion, special features and exclusive content will also accompany each film, making for a much more insightful experience than that of more mainstream offerings. The casual event featured a reenactment of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal with a life-size chessboard, a Moulin Rouge-inspired suite, and an opportunity to be immersed in the world of Mad Max.

Beyond being an online utopia for art-house lovers, the service is also a tool for moviemakers seeking to explore canonic titles in depth and learning from the masters through the featurettes and bonus content. The basic monthly fee of $6.99/month gets you access to TCM’s content, while premium charges ($10.99/month, or $99/year) open the doors to a Criterion vault of wonders known as The Criterion Channel. This new iteration doesn’t aim to be in opposition to the successful Blu-ray and DVD business for which Criterion is known, but to expand on it with channel-exclusive content, guest-curated series and live events that differ from what the physical releases provide.

Isabelle Huppert and Mia Hansen-Løve. Photograph by Daniel Rodriguez

Isabelle Huppert and Mia Hansen-Løve. Photograph by Daniel Rodriguez

Other programming highlights across two busy weeks: an Isabelle Huppert double feature, actress Sonia Braga and director Kleber Mendonça Filho discussing Aquarius, director Pablo Larrain and Neruda star Gael Garcial Bernal in conversation, and a panel that included Ira Sachs, Roger Ross Williams and Rose McGowan commemorating 20 years of film website Indiewire.

If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere, they say. Here’s hoping that bit of common wisdom applies the artists in the NYFF class of 2016, whether in the form of accolades, distribution deals or career ascendancy. MM

The 54th New York Film Festival ran September 30 – October 16, 2016. Visit the festival’s website here. Featured image photographed by Julie Cunnah.

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