Tag Archives: Steven Spielberg

Fantastic Beasts and the Man who made them: An Interview with Chris Walas by Kent Hill

77594-10-maghi-degli-effetti-speciali-da-oscar-11

When I think of the work of Chris Walas, a few things pop into my head.

The first is how much I loved Dragonslayer when I saw it at the cinema as a kid. It like The Black Hole was a dark, different Disney movie. This was the era when Disney was trying to be more like a studio and not purely focused on the animation that had garnered it so much love.  I remember waiting for the moment when the dragon would finally be revealed and I was not disappointed. I was becoming aware of how movies were made at that time, so the prospect of any giant creature on screen, knowing that it was actually there, that it had to be built was incredible.

The second is Enemy Mine. A movie for the longest time I had only seen the last twenty minutes of. During the heyday of video piracy, it was not uncommon to borrow a tape from friends or family and find the tail ends of stuff that had been taped over. Ironically I can’t remember the film that was taped over it, but those final scenes from Enemy had me intrigued. I think it was one of my cousins who I borrowed the tape from, so I asked him about the clip at the end. “Oh I taped over that ‘cause it was kinda boring. Some dude and an alien have a baby together.” Yes folks, I have some really classy relatives, and that was how he pitched Enemy Mine to me. Still, undaunted, I sought it out and it is a whole lot more than that; indeed another great film from Wolfgang Petersen who had blown my mind prior with The Neverending Story.

Finally I reflect on The Fly 2. One of two films I have literally lost my lunch watching. And, let me be clear, up to that point, I had seen gruesome stuff before so it wasn’t so much the imagery as it was the visceral qualities of the imagery. As the years go by, and because I haven’t seen it in a long time, so it’s sketchy at best, but one thing that I recall was Daphne Zuniga wiping away Eric Stoltz’s slimy coating from this one scene and giving him a kiss. I remember that or something like that, like I said, it’s been a long time between drinks, but that scene and a few others helped my lunch get its own sequel that day.

fly2_shot5l

But enough about me, let’s talk about Chris.

Chris Walas has worked on a handful of truly iconic films. You can see is work in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Return of the Jedi, Gremlins. He is an Academy Award winner – that Oscar being for The Fly and part of a terrific association with David Cronenberg who he would go on to work with on other films like Scanners and Naked Lunch.

He has sat in the director’s chair on (of course) The Fly 2, The Vagrant and “Til Death”, an episode of Tales from the Crypt. He was part of the Roger Corman stable; he worked on Airplane!, Galaxina, Caveman and Virtuosity – he is a very talented man who has had a hand in the truly grand cinematic experiences of my youth and it was an utter delight to interview him, and subsequently, to present said interview to you. Ladies and Gentlemen . . . I give you . . . Chris Walas

gremlins chris walas tony mcvey

KH: Sir, it is truly an honour to make your acquaintance. You have the distinction of being the first Oscar winner I have interviewed for podcastingthemsoftly.com

CW: That’s hard to believe with all the Oscar winners out there these days, but I’m happy to be here.

KH: Before we get into the meat of things, I was wondering if working in the picture business has be a lifelong pursuit, and if so, what were the films that lit the fire, so to speak?

CW: You know, it’s interesting because so many interviewers ask “What was the film that made you want to do what you do?”  I don’t think it’s a simple as that. It’s like asking painter what painting made them want to be a painter. It’s not about a single event; it’s about an artform that creates the magic in the imagination. I was a movie fan as far back as I can remember. I loved all films. I loved what the medium could do. I didn’t understand any of it, but I loved “Citizen Kane” as a little kid. It was riveting to me. I grew up on the old Universal Horror Classics and still love them. The Sci Fi films of the 50’s hold a special place in my heart for sure. But I can definitively say that the single film that made me DECIDE that movies were where I wanted to be was Ray Harryhausen’s , “Jason and the Argonauts”. It was the first film I ever saw in a theatre and I was transfixed by the experience. I knew at that moment (even though I understood nothing about it) that that was what I needed to be a part of in my life.

KH: You have worked on some truly iconic movies, many of which are my personal favourites. But, how did you get into the business after your schooling ended?

CW: I wanted to get into films somehow. At that time I was on the East Coast and the film business was pretty dead just then. So I left for Hollywood with a couple hundred bucks in my wallet and a sublime ignorance of the realities of LA.  I was lucky enough to get a job shipping film for Disney, which was magical for a naive kid from New Jersey. Discount tickets to Disneyland, and I could spend all my lunch hours on the back lot talking to the original animators of Snow White or the wire rigger for the Squid tentacles from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. They all brought their lunches and sat out in the backlot relaxing or practicing their watercolours. And they loved to talk. It was my introduction to the world of movies. Wonderful. I then took filmmaking classes for a year until my money ran out and I took a job at Don Post Studios, a company that made high quality Halloween masks and occasionally did some film and TV work. I was there a year and started out painting a gross of masks a day on the cheap line to being a member of the lab crew, developing new product and working on the occasional outside project. It was an education I would have paid for. I learned more in that year than in four years of college. But I was antsy and impatient, and one of the other Lab guys (Bob Short) and I left and started a little partnership doing odd projects. We both started to get good reputations, but each doing different things, so we split up and went our separate ways. And it just grew from there.

KH: Tell us, if you will, about working on some of your early credits like Island of the Fishmen (Screamers), Humanoids from the Deep and Piranha?

CW: Piranha was my first on set film experience. Jon Berg, who was in charge of the effects on the film, had been to Don Post to see about them running some of the rubber piranhas. That didn’t work out, but the connection had been made and when the FX shoot needed more people, Bob Short got pulled on board and then through Bob, I got pulled in. That was my entry into the crazy world of Roger Corman films. It was wild and desperate filmmaking in those days; no money, no time. The only good part was that IF you could actually make something to get in front of the camera within the meagre time and budget, you were a hero. It was a process that very quickly filtered out those who could from those who couldn’t. But it was exhilarating and magic at the same time. Isle of the Fishmen was a bit of a mess. The original Italian production had been purchased by some fly by night LA outfit and they wanted to “beef it up” for the American audience. We had almost nothing as far as a budget, but it was with some people that I felt comfortable with.  Miller Drake and (unofficially) Joe Dante. It was a small and relatively close group in those days at New World Pictures. We shot out at the beach in the middle of the night in January and nearly froze to death soaking wet in the Fishman costume. Other inserts were shot in Joe’s garage; it was that kind of filmmaking.  But Humanoids was a different story. New World had asked me to do it, but I was busy on GALAXINA and a couple of other films at the time, so I suggested Rob Bottin. But the schedule was a tough one on that show and Rob asked me to come in and do a bunch of the sculpting and running on the Humanoid costumes. As well as those absurdly huge arm extensions! It was an extremely intense time for me as there was way too much work and not enough people in town to do it all.

a1d5fa5869ca270b31756deb87e5a5b7

KH: I know you probably get a lot of “Fly” questions and I think that if people really want a good insight into the making of that film they should watch the comprehensive Fear the Flesh. But, you worked on a few movies with Cronenberg (The Fly, Scanners and Naked Lunch). What was making pictures with David like?

CW: This is a great question, if for no other reason than it lets me applaud one of my very favourite directors I’ve had the honour to work with.  David Cronenberg is an amazing filmmaker. He’s not just a director. His films truly belong to him. They are his vision. He’s an astonishing writer. When I was first approached for The FLY, I turned it down. I didn’t want to do a remake, etc. Stuart Cornfeld, the producer, said, ” I know,  I agree. Just read the script”. I read the script and it was superb. David had redone the original script and made it his own. I couldn’t say no to that script.  And David is an astonishing director because he really understands the process that everyone is going through. A lot of directors are absolutists; it has to be a certain way. David understands that production is about compromises and that a good director only makes compromises that don’t hurt the film. He was demanding and understanding at the same time. Very unique qualities in a film director and I feel very fortunate to have worked with him.

KH: I have vivid memories of The Fly 2. I remember watching it on video with some cousins and felt my lunch coming back on me a couple of times during that flick. How was it to finally sit in the director’s chair on Fly 2 and the other films you directed?

CW: Somehow, we hold the director’s chair as some ethereal pinnacle in filmmaking. And in some ways it is. It is the ultimate decisive position, historically. But I had already been directing teams of dozens of artists at my company, coordinating large operations and such, so I don’t think I was as intimidated as a lot of first time directors. I was quite comfortable directing, especially as I had such a wonderful crew of true talents on the FLY II. I never actually wanted to be an effects person. It was just the easiest way for me to get into the business.  Besides, it’s ALL filmmaking. All of it. From craft service to timing final prints. Directing is just the most focused, exhausting position. But I loved it.

galax14

KH: I interviewed William Sachs recently, director of Galaxina. Can you tell us about your work on that film?

CW: I’ve only lost money on two films. GALAXINA was the first one. At that time there were a lot of productions trying to cash in on the STAR WARS phenomenon. So there were a lot of over-ambitious, under-funded films being made. GALAXINA was right smack in the middle of those. Bill (Sachs) had his hands full on that film. He really did. And for me, it was a really, really tough show as there was a lot of stuff and very little money. We had to make a couple of the alien costumes overnight; the schedule kept changing wildly. I don’t know how Bill dealt with it all, honestly. It was furious alien making, to be sure. We had Angelo Rossito as the little alien creature. Little Angie, as he had been known, was a dwarf who had worked on countless films. The schedule changed dramatically and the three weeks we had scheduled to make his suit turned into 18 hours. But he was a total pro. He showed up with some of his old clothes for us to use as the base for the suit! We built the suit right on him and he never had a word of complaint at all. Total pro. Everything we did for Galaxina was done scraping the bottom of the barrel because there was so much work.

 

KH: I have a great fondness for both Dragonslayer and Enemy Mine, they speak to my youth. Tell us about working on those pictures; especially Enemy Mine, it’s one of my all-time favourites?

CW: Phil Tippet brought me up to ILM to work on the team for Dragonslayer. And that was a wonderful experience working with some of the absolute top talent in the field. Every day was an education for me. I was strictly on the in-house FX team and didn’t go over to England for the shoot. I made most of the molds for the dragons and baby dragons as well as running most of the rubber pieces.  I rigged the puppets for the baby dragons and built a few odds and ends pieces for individual shots; smaller scale grabbing legs, a bit of wing, etc. The biggest thing I was involved with was the close up Vermithrax puppet. It wasn’t part of the original plan, but they just couldn’t get the footage they wanted out of the full size head and neck that Disney had done, so I designed and built, and operated an animatronic puppet head. That was exhausting because the puppet had to be dripping water all the time, so the puppet became supersaturated and just kept getting heavier and heavier. But I think it worked in the end and helped the picture.

Enemy Mine was basically problem after problem. I started out working with the first director, Richard Loncraine, who I really liked and admired. We shot for six weeks on lava fields in Iceland before 20th Century Fox closed the picture down and hired Wolfgang Peterson to direct. We were supposed to be closed down for two weeks for the restart, but it was a full six months before we got going again.  I think, for us, the production got bogged down in a lot of committee decision making, which slowed everything down.  But in the end I was happy with the designs. We had an opportunity to do quite a lot of different effects for the film between the Dracs and all the odd creatures. The newborn Zammis puppet was one of my favourite rigs on that show.

toht chris walas raiders of the lost ark strange tales1

KH: You worked with Joe Dante on Gremlins which was produced by Steve Spielberg whom you worked with on Raiders which was produced by George who brought us Return of the Jedi which you are also credited as having worked on. In retrospect, what was it like working on these milestones of cinema?

CW: Every once in a while you get lucky. Gremlins was a true milestone for me in both my life and my career. It was the first time I was in charge of running such a big crew on a studio picture. It was truly an insane experience for me as the picture just kept changing and growing, with new gags being developed for the Gremlins almost daily.  I don’t think I’ve ever been worn out so completely on any other film. But at the same time it was great fun, like a bunch of grown up kids playing. We had no idea we were working on a film that would be so successful and impacting.

Working on Raiders of the Lost Ark was great. Challenging. But it was at ILM, which was then the absolute pinnacle of FX houses in the entire world. I really wasn’t used to being able to say, “I sure could use one of these…” and then having someone order it right up or just get it from another department. So I had options available to me that I hadn’t really had up to that time.  Richard Edlund was in charge of the FX on the show and he was great about making sure that I had what I needed for the melting head and the other shots. I didn’t get to see the film until just before it opened and I was blown away. It’s such an amazing film. I feel so lucky to have been a small part of it.

For Jedi, I really only did design maquettes for some of the alien races in the film. I set up the creature shop for ILM, but then I left to pursue other projects. It was very nice to be included in the credits on that one!

 

KH: You have a number of diverse entries among your credits like Deep Star Six, Arachnophobia, Hot Shots and Virtuosity. Were these genres you sought after or were the film’s concepts interesting or was it simply the want to be constantly working that brought you to these projects?

CW: After Gremlins, I had set up a genuine facility with a great crew who knew what they were doing and so I had to take what projects I could to keep the shop going. But some of the projects were favours; Deep Star Six was for Jim Isaac, who was striking out on his own after being on my crew for a number of years. House II was for Ethan Wiley, who had also been a member of my crew on Gremlins and others. Some films were projects I really wanted to do; ANYTHING David Cronenberg was doing. Anything for Amblin, Spielberg’s company. But in between those projects it was a matter of trying to choose what projects seemed like they might be good films as well as keeping the shop going as long as possible.

KH: You’ve been a writer, director and producer having a film you co-wrote come out in 2016. Did you ever want to make more of your own pictures and do you, like so many people in the industry, have dream projects that might have come close but never saw the flickering light of the silver screen?

CW: I would have loved to have done more directing.  But it just wasn’t in the cards. I have a number of projects I would love to see resurrected someday. One of my favourites is a project called “Dathulgon”, which is a steampunk combination of characters and plot lines from Jules Verne and other early steampunk writers mixed with the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft. That project was humming along nicely when the big market crash ruined a lot of financing for films.  I have a whole list of projects I would still like to see happen!

KH: Well sir, as a long-time fan this has been a very large pleasure, and though we were not able to conduct this interview via recording I care not, for as I said I am honoured to have met you and am humbled that you have taken this time to be interviewed for podcastingthemsoftly?

CW: It’s been a pleasure. It’s fun to reminisce and I really appreciate knowing that there are people out there who look back fondly and remember the work kindly. Thanks!

scanners 1981 movie pic2

So there you have it. Chris Walas folks. Applause is totally necessary for this talented man and his amazing career.

 

I’ll just take a moment to let you know some other interviews I have coming up. I’ll be bring you chats with Mike Marvin (director of The Wraith), Chris Olen Ray (Two & Three-Headed Shark Attack), The Outlaw film critic VERN, Scott Rosenberg (creator of Cowboys and Aliens). Prior to the release of SHARKNADO 5 (because that’s the kind of nerd I am) I’ll be presenting a double feature that week prior to August 6th of my interviews with Steve Alten (we discuss the long cinematic gestation of Meg) and the man himself Anthony C. Ferrante (director of the SHARKNADO series). So as ever, thank you for checking out podcastingthemsoftly.com, and watch this space…

Cheers

Kent

Advertisements

Out of the Shallows: An Interview with Sandy Collora by Kent Hill

“Why weren’t you in the pros making stacks of cash and getting your toes licked by beautiful women?”

This line of dialogue from Shyamalan’s Signs always springs to mind when I think of the man and the career of Sandy Collora – and I told him as much. I have watched as filmmakers of lesser skill, passion and moxie rise and rise again with relative ease through the ranks of the Hollywood system.

But, while it boggles the mind as to why a man of Sandy’s talent has thus far been denied a shot to bring his truly awesome visions to fruition – his career has not been without triumphs. He has worked on some truly cool pictures like The Abyss, The Crow and Men in Black; along the way enjoying the benefits and encouraging tutelage of such luminaries like Stan Winston and Henri Alvarez.

Then came that little fan film you may have heard of, Batman: Dead End. Not only was it a game-changer, but it was also a life-changer, propelling Sandy into a league of his own and catapulting him toward the attention of the Hollywood players.

I referred to this period as Sandy being romanced by the industry. He refers to it differently. But he concedes that mistakes where made, and what might have been is anyone’s guess had he played the game by their rules.

Still the testament of all great artists that we applaud still, no matter the length of time it has been since they delivered unto the world their masterworks, is a resolve born of (in some ways) uncompromising vision and unshakable self-confidence. And, while Sandy freely admits the art of compromise will be necessary, if he hopes to realize his works on a larger scale, he (I hope) shall not lower his standards below that which work of his quality richly deserves.

Hunter Prey gave us a taste of feature-length Collora, and now he is at it again with his dynamic and compelling short, Shallow Water.

A new beast emerges, and with it comes the prospect of the reawakening of a genre made famous by its creatures like Alien and the Predator. It also marks the opening of another door for Sandy to, at last, the big time – a place in which he has fought hard to attain and worked tirelessly to offer some exuberance and, no doubt, something extraordinary.

There are so many great stories of great stories that have been a part of the life and cinema of Sandy Collora. I encourage you to check out the link below; find yourself a copy of, not only his incredible art books, movies and merchandise, but also the inspiring documentary: Behind the Mask.

Grand adventures, heartbreaking turmoil; this is the agony and the ecstasy, but also the the wisdom and the wonderment of the Collora cinematic universe. Dear listeners, it is my pleasure to present . . . Sandy Collora.

VISIT SANDY’S OFFICIAL SITE:

http://montaukstudios.com/

AND DON’T FORGET:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBSm6ZDY7n0

PTS Presents Writer’s Workshop with MARK PROTOSEVICH

protosevich-banner

mark-protosevichWe’re very excited to be joined by screenwriter Mark Protosevich, who we are huge fans of.  Mark’s credits include THE CELL, I AM LEGEND, POSEIDON, OLDBOY, screen story for THOR, the unproduced follow-up to BATMAN & ROBIN, and the upcoming FLASH GORDON directed by Matthew Vaughn.  We go in depth with Mark, talking about his writing process, his love for cinema, and his journey to becoming a writer.  We hope you enjoy, this was an amazing chat!

 

 

A Chat with actor Chris Ellis: An interview by Nate Hill

Very excited to bring you my latest interview, with actor Chris Ellis! Chris has an epic and wonderful career, appearing in many films including Armageddon, The Island, The Dark Knight Rises, The Devil’s Rejects, The Guest, Catch Me If You Can, Transformers, Wonderland, Planet Of The Apes, October Sky, Mr. Bean, Con Air, Wag The Dog, A Little Princess, Crimson Tide and many more. He’s a true gentleman, a hard working performer and a great guy. Enjoy our chat!

 

Nate: How did you first get into acting? Was it something you always wanted, or did you stumble into it?
Chris: From age 5 while watching the Mickey Mouse Club on early television, I warbled, “Hey diddley dee, that actor’s life for me.”
Nate: I’ve heard you referred to as a character actor before. What is you opinion on the term, and would you categorize yourself as such?
Chris: A male character actor is one who never gets the girl because he is not pretty enough – too bald, too chubby, too southern. I have played such roles throughout a lengthy, undistinguished career. Just once I wanted to kiss the girl.

Nate: The Dark Knight Rises: How was your experience working on this film, with Christopher Nolan and such an epic scene on that bridge?
Chris: You have the advantage of me, sir, as I have never seen that movie. More to the point, I have never read the script, though I understand I appeared in it in the early, middle and late sections. The reason I never read the script is that I was never shown any part of it other than the pages containing my own dialogue, and those pages were drastically redacted such that I was able to see the immediate cues for my dialogue and nothing else. At one point, after shooting a scene over my shoulder, the camera was turned around on me for a reaction shot. My query as to what I might be reacting to and how was answered by Nolan so: “That is on a need to know basis and you don’t need to know.” He fleshed out that response by suggesting I react as if I were “reacting to the sight of two guys talking.” No one I know who saw the movie hinted that I never looked as if I didn’t know what the hell was going on, but in fact no plot point was ever made known to me, nor any suggestion of the long arc of the movie. On the other hand, I got paid well, travelled to Pittsburgh, New York City, and Nottinghamshire in England. In all three places I had lots of time off in which to wonder what the hell the movie was about and to do lots of sightseeing. Any time, Mr Nolan.
Nate: I’ve noticed that you work with Michael Bay very frequently. Are you two pals, or has that just been coincidence? How has you experience been on his films, Armageddon/The Island etc.?
Chris: I worked with Bay on Armageddon, Transformers, and The Island. He is said by some to lack gentility and sophistication, and I have seen him on sets demonstrating a want of courtesy to actors who permit him to do so, but if you want a big action movie grossing a billion dollars about exploding planets and trucks turning over in high speed traffic mishaps, he is your boy. If you want art, go to the Lemmle Theatre in Santa Monica. I do this for a living. I go to museums for art. 
Nate: The Devil’s Rejects: such a wild and crazy film. Very memorable part as the goofball cop. How was your experience on that set, working with Rob Zombie and William Forsythe?
Chris: One day I mentioned to my theatrical agent that I had always been a fan of horror movies, by which I meant the classics of that genre, mostly from the 1950s and 60s. Very next day he called me with an offer for “a horror movie by Rob Zombie,” of whom I had never heard. I wouldn’t call The Devil’s Rejects horror – more like a Charlie Manson wet dream, but Zombie was the soul of gentility on the set. He is covered in tattoos, many of them visual renderings of famous horror movie characters from a simpler time, and when I worked with him he kept his wallet attached to his person by a length of chain sagging with languor between the wallet and his belt loop. This is a fashion accessory I associate with the Donald Trump demographic but which was belied by Zombie’s gentle and quiet spirit. 
Nate: What are some of your favourite roles you have played in your career so far?
Chris: Last year I played a judge on a TV series called Murder In The First. That was my dream job, as it involved sitting in a comfortable chair all day long on set, frequently unshod, and with an improving book in my lap to which I could refer between the words, “Cut!” and “Action!” I quite enjoyed yet another incarnation of Sheriff Cracker von Peckerwood in a 2000 movie called The Watcher, not least because I was given a rather wide berth by the director and screenwriter in making the dialogue my own. Also, it was a character with whom I felt a comfortable intimacy. The same applies to the character I played in the movie Armageddon and in one episode of the TV show X-Files. Playing Deke Slayton in Apollo 13 was probably the actual thrill of a lifetime because we all believed while working on that movie that it would become a significant movie (which it remains) and because I remembered Deke while he had been part of the Soyuz/Apollo mission in 1975. But, I hope it will not appear to be taking the liberty of rodomontade to utter the hope that there never has been a time of stepping onto a movie set without breathing a prayer of inarticulate gratitude for the consummation of a lifetime’s desire.
Nate: How was your experience on Catch Me If You Can?
Catch Me If You Can was a joy to work on, first because the script is superb, and because it gave me the chance to work with Spielberg who is a gentleman non pareil and who offers every artistic freedom to everyone on set. When I worked with him, at the completion of each set up, he would ask to the crew as well as to the cast, “Does anybody want to try another one? Anybody want to try something a little different? We have the time, so let me know if you’d like to do anything else with this shot.” Of course he has a very competent crew surrounding him, so his movies are apt always to come in one time and under budget, so it was a joy to work with such freedom.
Nate: Do you have a favourite or preferred genre to work in, or is it all equally enjoyable? Just once I’d like to kiss the girl, but as I say, every time I step onto any kind of set I remind myself that I am not laying roofing tar in Phoenix during the summer. If you ever hear me complain about any circumstance of my livelihood, you are invited to come where I am and kick me in the nuts.
Nate: What is next for you? Any upcoming projects, cinematic or otherwise that you are excited about and would like to mention?
Chris: Nope. Mostly what I do for a living is wait for the phone to ring. My family and I are now on vacation, but soon as I get home I will be slouching toward the telephone hoping to god it rings.

Nate: Thank you so much for your time Chris, it’s been a pleasure, and keep up the awesome work!

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

closeencounters1

I have been fascinated by UFOs and the notion of life on other planets ever since I was a kid and saw Steven Spielberg’s film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). At the time, it made a huge impression on me as it did with many of my generation. Nowadays, most people dismiss stories about UFOs or alien abductions as tabloid fare. They laugh at the stories of people being snatched by “little green men,” but over the years there have been some really interesting cases that have come to light.

In the past 40 years, the idea of UFOs and alien sightings has been investigated by numerous psychologists and psychiatrists like Carl Jung. Some of the first recorded sightings can be traced back to the late 1940s and during the 1950s when the UFO craze really took off. After this initial phenomenon died down, reports began to drop off as more and more people scoffed at the idea that people may have been abducted. They say that there’s no physical evidence that UFOs exist, but perhaps there is no publicly acknowledged physical evidence that UFOs exist. Spielberg’s film takes this idea and runs with it in an entertaining and engaging way that continues to fascinate me after all these years.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind begins in the Sonora Desert, Mexico during a blinding sandstorm. A group of scientists drive up in two vehicles. They are there because of a squadron of American World War II era fighter planes that have mysteriously resurfaced minus their pilots after disappearing during a training run in 1945. The scientist, led by a Frenchman named Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) question an old man who was there when the planes appeared and he claims that the sun came out at night and sang to him. I love the opening image of headlights just barely piercing the intense storm. Spielberg establishes a fantastic air of mystery during this sequence, which leads us right into the next scene.

At an air traffic control center in Indianapolis, a controller is in communication with pilots in two different planes that experience a brief run-in with a UFO. Nobody can explain it, but the pilots don’t want to report it as such. What I like about this sequence is that we get a few more teasing details about the alien craft from the pilots, but we don’t actually see anything, which only adds to the intrigue.

In Muncie, Indiana, a little boy named Barry (Cary Guffey) is awoken in the middle of the night by his toys suddenly activating. He’s not scared, but excited as if he’s met some new playmates. The sounds of crickets and the play of shadows across Barry’s room reminds me of summer nights as a child and really draws me in to this scene. The use of light inside and outside the house (including a brief glimpse at an incredible starry sky) is tremendous.

These three atmospheric teasers are all part of the same mystery – that whatever made the planes reappear almost caused two commercial airliners to crash into each other and also activated all of a little boy’s toys. Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography really shines in these early scenes, from the sandstorm in Mexico to the rural Muncie home to the beautiful night sky full of stars as electrical lineman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) goes on a call. Spielberg creates a tangible sense of place that immediately draws you into the film.

Roy is the film’s protagonist and I like how Spielberg expertly sets up the family dynamic of the Neary’s, like how Roy chastises his kids for having zero interest in going to a screening of Walt Disney’s animated classic Pinocchio (1940). He lives in a noisy, chaotic household and kind of acts like a kid himself. Roy soon has his own close encounter that changes his life forever. While he’s out on a call, late one night, a UFO hovers over his vehicle and bathes him in a blinding light. On his C.B. radio, Roy hears of others seeing what he saw and heads off in pursuit. Spielberg continues to tease us as a large shadow flies ominously over the stretch of road that Roy is driving along. He literally crosses paths with Barry and his mother Jillian (Melinda Dillon), narrowly avoiding running over the little boy with his truck. They witness several UFOs flying by in graceful formation at an incredible speed.

After his experience, Roy becomes obsessed with what he saw much to the chagrin of his family who don’t understand what he’s going through. Richard Dreyfuss does a fantastic job at conveying his character’s newfound mania. Roy is practically euphoric, but there is also a sense of child-like wonder and we are meant to share these sentiments. Spielberg takes us back and forth between the global and the personal, with Lacombe and his assistant Laughlin (Bob Balaban) going all over the world gathering evidence, and Roy’s own journey as he tries to make sense of an image of a large mountain in his head, which turns out to be Devils Tower in Wyoming.

Roy and Jillian’s journey to Devils Tower is an exciting adventure as they cover a lot of terrain, first by car and then by foot, facing constant opposition by the military. Throughout, Spielberg creates all kinds of tension as the two run across ominous signs that something isn’t right, like the livestock that lie dead by the side of the road. They risk getting caught several times and when they are captured, even manage to subsequently escape. This sequence also shows the United States’ government’s response to all of this activity. They create a fake threat to get people who live near Devils Tower to evacuate because Lacombe and his team believe that is where the aliens will establish contact. With the scandal of Watergate still fresh in people’s minds at the time, this elaborate ruse must’ve rung true with audiences who had a healthy distrust of their government. Spielberg really uses the environment around Devils Tower to great effect. You get a real sense of place and how imposing a structure it is for Roy and Jillian to traverse.

Fresh from his excellent supporting role in Jaws (1975), Richard Dreyfuss delivers a wonderfully layered performance as a man who doesn’t understand what’s happening to him. He knows what he saw and experienced, but is unable to get anyone to believe him, not even his family. Roy also has visions of a place he feels compelled to go to, but can’t articulate beyond constructing mountain-like images out of his mashed potatoes or mounds of dirt. It drives him and his family a little crazy and there’s a moving scene where Roy breaks down in front of his family during dinner that really makes you empathize with the poor guy. Eventually, his obsession is too much for his wife (Teri Garr) and kids and they leave him, afraid that his madness will consume them as well. It’s really quite incredible how much Roy alienates his family – something that, sadly, Spielberg has said he would never do now that he has a family of his own. It is heartbreaking to see how Roy’s mania affects his kids, causing them to act out, but Roy can’t help himself. Dreyfuss is so good at conveying this compulsion, this drive to make sense of what Roy experienced. Spielberg is unafraid to show the extremes of Roy’s behavior and how it affects his family.

Close Encounters’ impressive practical visual effects still hold up, like the animated cloud formation that occurs when the aliens appear and take Barry away or the colorful quartet of UFOs that Roy chases in his truck. These effects, in particular the show-stopping finale, are still awe-inspiring and have a tangible quality that has not dated at all. With the Barry abduction sequence, Spielberg demonstrates how you can convey so much by doing very little. With the use of lighting effects and some practical tricks, he creates an intense, nerve-wracking scene as the little boy is taken from his mother right from their house. We never actually see the aliens or the craft. This is all left up to our imagination. For most of the film we are only given glimpses of the UFOs as Spielberg gradually builds to the exciting climax where contact is achieved.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s influence can be seen either stylistically or thematically in other like-minded film such as The Abyss (1988), Contact (1997), Signs (2002), and, the most obvious homage, Super 8 (2011). For the ending of his film, Spielberg took a page out of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by making the aliens benign and enigmatic. Instead of falling back on the tried and true clichés of alien invasion movies from the 1950s, Spielberg presents aliens that only wish to communicate with us. He created a film full of wonder and hope, culminating in the transcendent climax where we make contact with the aliens. It is an incredible display of good ol’ fashion practical effects that is truly something to behold.

closeencounters2Close Encounters of the Third Kind was made by someone who sincerely believed that there was intelligent alien life on other planets and that if it did exist would not want to wipe us out. This yearning for answers, for wanting to believe is embodied perfectly in Spielberg surrogate Roy Neary. Whether or not you believe in life on other planets, this film still tells an entertaining and engaging story – a global-spanning epic that still feels personal and intimate. This was the first film Spielberg had made that he felt truly passionate about it and this is evident in every frame, brimming with sincerity and idealism that flew in the face of a lot cynicism of the 1970s. As a result, Close Encounters was a touchstone film for me. Seeing it a young age affected me profoundly and still does to a certain degree. It also spoke to a young, impressionable generation, instilling in them a fascination and wonder for the possibilities of intelligent life on other planets.

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

raiders

There’s no disputing that Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is one of the greatest action/adventure films ever made, featuring some of the most memorable action sequences ever put on celluloid. Who can forget part-time archaeologist, part-time adventurer Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) outrunning a giant boulder at the beginning of the film? Or the exciting gun battle in a Nepalese bar? Or Indy being dragged behind a truck full of Nazis? However, the older I get the more I appreciate the quieter moments in Raiders – the downtime between action set pieces. These scenes convey exposition and develop the characters. The credit for them working so well should be given to the film’s screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who also wrote the screenplays for such noteworthy films as The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Body Heat (1981), The Big Chill (1983), and many others. He’s written some of the best scripts ever committed to film and knows how to write witty dialogue and create engaging characters.

raiders1Kasdan’s ability to engage us in the obligatory exposition scene is evident early when Indy and his friend and colleague Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) meet with two military intelligence officers about the location of an old colleague of Indy’s – Abner Ravenwood – who might have an artifact – the headpiece of the Staff of Ra – that will reveal the location of the Ark of the Covenant, which the Nazis are eager to get their hands on. Indy and Marcus give the two men a quick history lesson on the Ark and its power. Marcus concludes with the ominous line about how the city of Tanis, that reportedly housed the Ark, “was consumed by the desert in a sandstorm which lasted a whole year. Wiped clean by the wrath of God.” The way Denholm Elliott delivers this last bit is a tad spooky and is important because it lets us know of the Ark’s power, his reverence for it, and why the Nazis are so interested in it. This dialogue also gives us an indication of the kind of danger that Indy is up against.

raiders2This segues to a nice little scene right afterwards at Indy’s home between the archaeologist and Marcus. He tells Indy that the United States government wants him to find the headpiece and get the Ark. As Indy gets ready they talk about the Ark. The camera pans away from Indy packing to a worried Marcus sitting on a sofa and he reveals his apprehension about what his friend is going after: “For nearly 3,000 years man has been searching for the lost Ark. It’s not something to be taken lightly. No one knows its secrets. It’s like nothing you’ve ever gone after before.” Indy shrugs off Marcus’ warning but his words, accompanied by John Williams’ quietly unsettling score, suggest the potential danger Indy faces messing with forces greater and older than himself.

raiders3Kasdan also does a great job hinting at a rich backstory between Indy and his ex-love interest, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). When they are reunited at a bar she runs in Nepal, she is clearly not too thrilled to see him, giving Indy a good crack on the jaw. Marion alludes to a relationship between them that went bad. She was young and in love with him and he broke her heart. To add insult to injury, her father is dead. All Indy can do is apologize as he says, “I can only say sorry so many times,” and she has that wonderful retort, “Well say it again anyway.” Harrison Ford and Karen Allen do a great job with this dialogue, suggesting a troubled past between them. In a nice touch, Spielberg ends the scene with Indy walking out the door. He takes one last look back and his face is mostly obscured in shadow in a rather ominous way as he clearly looks uncomfortable having had to dredge up a painful part of his past.

raiders4Indy and Marion have another nice scene together after they’ve retrieved the Ark from the Nazis and are aboard the Bantu Wind, a tramp steamer that will take them to safety. Marion tends to Indy’s numerous wounds and says, “You’re not the man I knew ten years ago,” and he replies with that classic line, “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.” It starts out as a playful scene as everything Marion does to help hurts Indy’s world-weary body. In frustration she asks him to show her where it doesn’t hurt and he points to various parts of his body and in a few seconds the scene goes from playful in tone to romantic as they end up kissing. Of course, Indy falls asleep – much to Marion’s chagrin. Kasdan’s dialogue gives Spielberg’s chaste, boyhood fantasy serial adventure a slight air of sophistication in this scene as two people with a checkered past finally reconnect emotionally.

raiders5.jpgFor me, Raiders is still the best film in the series. The pacing is fast but not as frenetic as today’s films. There are lulls where the audience can catch its breath and exposition is conveyed. In many respects, it is one of the best homages to the pulpy serials of the 1930s and a classic example of when all the right elements came together at just the right time. This film has aged considerably well over time and each time I see it, I still get that nostalgic twinge and still get sucked in to Indy’s adventures looking for the lost Ark.

Intimidating Rust Cohle and assisting Walter Mitty: an interview with actor Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, by Nate Hill

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with actor Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, who has appeared in a very memorable turn as villain Dewall in season 1 of HBO’s True Detective, the rowdy, loveable helicopter pilot in The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, as well as films including A Walk Among The Tombstones, Contraband,  XL, Stormland, Beowulf And Grendel. He can also be seen in the TV show Banshee, as well as the upcoming fantasy action film The Last Witch Hunter, The much anticipated sequel to Zoolander, and the recently announced adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG. He’s a super nice guy, and I think will be a huge upcoming talent in years to come. Enjoy!
Nate: How did you get into acting, was it something you always knew you wanted to do growing up, or did you fall into it?

Ólafur: I didn´t really decide to be an actor until after my first year of drama school. I know that sounds weird but I sort of fell into acting in college. When college was finishing up, I had no idea what I wanted to do, I loved acting but had never really considered a career doing that. Then one of my friends wanted to audition to get into the drama school here in Iceland and sort of dragged me with him. Of course I ended up getting in but he did not. Even though I got in it still took me awhile to really take the plunge. But in retrospect, getting in was the first step. I was lucky, I got a lot of work straight out of school, lot of smaller parts and as your get older you realize how important experience is. But I wasn´t really using all my potential.

As weird as it seems, one of the best things that has ever happened to me professionally was when I was fired from The City Theatre of Reykjavik in 2003. That really forced me to look at my career and where I wanted to take it much more critically. That´s where the decision was made. I was going to be a better actor, person, an artist. I was going to have a much more honest dialogue with myself and be someone who takes responsibility for their art.

Nate: Who were some of your favourite actors, filmmakers and films growing up?

Ólafur: I was in love with everything film. I remember walking home late New Years night about 25 years ago and seeing one of my favorite films, High Anxiety, I thought it was brilliant (HERE IS YOUR PAPER!) Jaws, Alien, Star Wars, Kentucky Fried Movie, all of James Bond, ohhhhh, to be able to go back and re-watch them for the first time?!!! I also remember loving these teen comedies like Better of Dead and Ferris Bueller´s Day Off. All those actresses and all that teenage angst. I had a crush on quite a few of them.
Nate: Working with Marteinn Thorsson: You and him have done several projects together, what is your working relationship like, and do you plan to collaborate again soon?

Ólafur: Me and Matti are blood brothers. We have done two features and one short together and have in the works at least a couple of films that we want to do. Marteinn is just such a great director to work with, he thinks big and has an extensive background in film, he has worked as a script supervisor, producer, editor, director and screenwriter. There are probably more titles he has held on a set. He is easy, fun, collaborative and honest. You can´t ask for more than that.
Nate: True Detective: You are an integral part of the story despite only appearing in one episode. How was your experience playing Dewall, working with Nic’s writing and acting opposite Matthew? How did ty approach the character? Backstory and intentions etc.

Ólafur: True Detective was such a great experience. I auditioned for a bigger role but was offered this part and fell in love with it. The scene in the bar with those excellent actors, Matthew McConaughey and Joe Sikora was so much fun to do. Joe who plays Ginger in the series is one of my best friends today.

I had studied an Algiers (a neighborhood in New Orleans) accent for my role in a film called Contraband which I was able to use in True Detective. And the writing made the scene easy to do. Overall it was a show filled with good, talented, hard working people led by a man who is one of the best directors working today, Cary Fukunaga.
Nate: A Walk Among The Tombstones: How was your experience working on this, playing Jonas and acting with Liam Neeson?

Ólafur: I had a general meeting in New York with the great Avy Kaufman during which she asked me if I would be around two days later to meet a director. When I met Scott Frank two days later, I had a taxi waiting for me downstairs to take me straight to the airport for my flight home. Scott is such a lovely artist, it was a pleasure to meet him and after a couple of Skype readings he offered me the role. And I can´t really tell you how happy that made me. I though Jonas was such a wonderfully twisted creation. Someone who could so naively get himself involved with the wrong crowd. A crowd consisting of two monsters really. And filming it was truly great. Liam Neeson is one of my favorite actors and he is such a good, kind man. It was one of the best experiences of my life and I would give anything to work with Scott again, which I hope might happen soon…
Nate: Walter Mitty: your character is so funny and memorable, you really gave him a sheepish drunken amiable quality that lights up the whole sequence. How was your experience playing him?

Ólafur: It helped that I had recently played an almost entire film “drunk”. I worked with Jermaine Clement on a film and he asked me twice if I really hadn´t been drunk, I think that might be the best review I ever got. But I have to say that Ben Stiller really made it easy. Both as a director but also as an actor, you could really feel how much he enjoyed the “acting” part and how he made me able to just relax and enjoy being there and not to worry about having to perform. I´ll admit that I there were moments where in my mind was going “holy s..t, that´s Ben Stiller and I´m working with him”. One of the best days of my life was spent at that table drinking that fake beer.

Nate: Do you have any upcoming projects you are excited for and want to speak about?
Ólafur: There are a few projects that I´m excited and a few that I can´t mention. I got to reunite with Ben for a tiny cameo in Zoolander 2. There is a Icelandic tv series called Trapped, which will premiere around Christmas. The series is the biggest thing we have produced here for tv and I´m really looking forward to seeing it. Then there is a film directed by Jörg Tyttel and Alex Helfrecht called The White King. A series for Cinemax, Quarry that really looks incredible and finally The BFG which was an absolute pleasure, directed by Steven Spielberg.
Nate: Thank you so much for chatting , Ólafur, and I look forward to all your upcoming projects, especially The BFG which is a favourite book of mine.