In our third edition of the interviews at Sundance: London, we speak to Crown Heights Director Matt Ruskin and Marjorie Prime Director Michael Almereyda who both give invaluable advice to any young aspiring Directors and Filmmakers.
Crown Heights– Director Matt Ruskin
Simon: Matt welcome to London!
Matt Ruskin: Thank you, I love London!
S: How long are you going to be here for?
MR: Basically just for the weekend, I got in late last night.
S: Well you made it here on time so that’s very impressive! So, Crown Heights, it did so well at Sundance: Utah, picking up the Audience Award, what are your hopes and expectations for this time around in London?
MR: I mean honestly, I’m just thrilled to be here with the film. This is a story that obviously takes place in the States but you know, it’s a story about people and we just feel very fortunate to be able to bring it to audiences outside the States. There’s enough in there for people from all walks of life the World over for people to latch onto and to relate to so I’m just really excited to be able to share it with people in London.
S: Given that the film is based on a true story did you feel the pressure or the need to document the story as true to form?
MR: Yeah I did and I didn’t. I did, because I got to know the guys that it’s about really well and so I wanted to get their story right, you know, I wanted to do it justice. I first heard their story on a radio programme and just them talking about their story in their own words had such a big impact on me that I wanted to tell their story in that way as much as I could, so there are court transcripts that we used in the film and a lot of other things that they have said that made it into the dialogue. Beyond that it was just about trying to get their spirit of their story right, even though this guy was in jail for 20 years, he came out with his dignity and his humanity and his friend who was devoted to him who felt he couldn’t live in a world where with this could happen to an innocent man and so he devoted his life to this case. Those things are really extraordinary to me and I just wanted to bring that to life.
S: Well you definitely did that. It’s quite difficult to watch but it is a brilliant film. Obviously this is a story that takes place over 20-21 years and you’ve got to condense that into a feature film. Is that as big a challenge as it sounds?
MR: Yeah, it was definitely the biggest challenge in the writing process was figuring out how to figure out how to structure of a story that takes place over 21 years and so for me it was just trial and error. I played around with a non-linear approach and ultimately I really wanted people to experience the shock of what he felt just going about his normal life and then being pulled in for this crime that he knew nothing about. So we just figured out how to lay it out in a chronological way but also that landed in those important moments in the 20-21 years.
S: The cast are brilliant. Did you spend time with Lakeith (Stanfield) when he was preparing for the role of Colin?
MR: Yeah, Keith is great and he really put a lot into it. We talked for weeks before we started shooting and then he went to Georgia, to actually spend some time with the real Colin Warner, the guy who he was playing. He was just so committed and totally immersed himself in the role. Keith and Nnamdi Asomugha who plays the friend in the film, they were both just so committed and worked so hard to get it right. It was a really rewarding collaboration. I slept better at night after seeing how committed they were to doing a good job!
S: I can see why because I imagine when making a film like this, the chemistry between every member of the cast needs to work and it absolutely does. Was there ever a chance or did you ever think about turning the project into a TV series given how many years the story is set over or was it always going to be a feature film?
MR: This one was always going to be a feature, it’s funny because everything else I’m working on now I’m going to ask myself that question! ‘Should this be a series, should it be a feature?’. For this I never thought about it as a series. Now that you mention it I think there is more than enough material for that, or for stories about wrongful convictions because there are so many, it just takes decades sometimes to prove their innocence but this was always going to be a feature film.
S: I like the fact that I might have just given you an idea!
MR: (laughs) You did! I’ll thank you somewhere down the road, you’re my Producer now!
S: (laughs) Yeah alright mate! So one last question, Verge is the largest student magazine in the UK, it gives students the chance to get their content and material published so I was just wondering if you have any advice for any aspiring filmmakers?
MR: Yeah, I think the first bit of advice is just to start working on other people’s films. I had the opportunity of working on Requiem For A Dream when I was a student and I learned so much from working on that movie and I totally fell in love with filmmaking after that and so I think those kind of experiences are invaluable because it’s all theoretical until you see how films are made. That was really helpful for me in thinking about what capacity did I want to work in, in the industry and then how to develop projects accordingly. So working for other people as much as you can and then also really caring about the material that you’re developing or just having a vision for it, for example if you’re making a horror movie, asking yourself ‘what can I do to bring something new to the table?’ and then just really believing in it.
Marjorie Prime– Director Michael Almereyda
Simon: Firstly Michael, welcome to London! I was going to ask how you’re finding it but I know you’re incredible jet-lagged!
Michael Almereyda: (laughs) I’m finding it blurry but I’m getting into focus, thank you.
S: So, Marjorie Prime, is very different to a lot of the films here. It’s set in the not-too distant future which to me was actually quite terrifying! What expectations do you have for the film here at Sundance: London?
MA: Well beyond it having a couple of screenings here, I don’t really have any expectations for it here. This is a new festival for me, I know it’s been going for five years but this is a sort of distilled version for me of the festival in Utah. So I don’t expect anything from it but it’s nice to be here.
S: I felt awkward and uncomfortable watching the film, I think because of the way it was shot and the way the actors are so robotic. Did you have to work with the actors in order to cleanse their characters and give them a blank slate as humanoids? It must have been a really interesting process?
MA: Well actually it was pretty straightforward, and, you’re entitled to your opinion but I hope that the humanoid aspect, the artificial intelligence aspect is low key enough to not seem too aggressively unreal because the main instruction I have them was not to make them seem as robots. They’re holograms, they’re computer programmes downloaded into human form, this is an idea that comes from the playwright Jordan Harrison but since I’ve made the film the film I’ve been told repeatedly that this is technology that’s with us now, it’s not commercially available but it’s around the corner and we’ll have to make the decision of how we want to treat our loved ones who are vanishing form view or do you want to be able to have them available and download them. The main thing we did in terms of making the Primes, as they’re called, inhuman was to deduct the sound of human rustling. This is a subtle thing that I haven’t told in an interview before that wasn’t an acting challenge that was a sound challenge, because when a hologram moves, they don’t make a sound so we deducted a lot of noise from them.
S: Yeah, I notice that within the first 10 minutes when John Hamm’s character stands up and sits back down again and it’s quite unnerving.
MA: OK, good so that communicated itself so I’m glad!
S: What was it like working with the cast?
MA: Well Lois (Smith) was the starting point of the film. She told me about the play, she’d been excited about from the first read through and I followed her to Los Angeles to see the play and we had drinks afterwards and talked about making a movie. So it all radiated from her excitement and her investment and then John Hamm joined the cast because I happened to know someone who played softball with him, so I was able to get to him directly and the agents didn’t get too much in the way and then Gina Davis was recommended by her agent and Tim Robbins was in my first feature so we knew each other and when Gina came on board they were already friends so they already had a natural back story. All these actors are incredibly skilled and talented and they don’t require a lot of direction so I don’t take credit for their performances. They came prepared and understood the material and performed beautifully.
S: How did you find the process from taking the film from the play to the screen?
MA: The playwright was busy being involved in a TV show called Orange Is The New Black so he trusted me to take it and run with it and so the differences are pretty simple but I think profound because I took the play and set in a house by the ocean and the ocean’s presence just as a symbol and as a spectacle makes a difference. I was able to have live dogs that weren’t in the play, I was able to add flashbacks, they weren’t in the play, I added William James, there’s an important reference about memory being something that you don’t dip into but something that you refresh every time. It’s scientifically proven that every memory you have is a memory of the memory and that’s an alarming fact about the way our mind works.
S: Well I think the way you deal with the issues of Dementia and the human memory is really touching and beautifully done. So one final question, Verge is the largest student magazine in the UK, it gives students the chance to get their content and material published and so I feel obliged to ask whether if you have any advice for any aspiring filmmakers?
MA: That’s a perfectly good question, I don’t feel very wise these days.
S: Well, you are jet-lagged to be fair!
MA: My humble advice is that school is not a way to learn how to make movies. You learn to make movies by making movies. I’ve done some teaching and in some ways it’s a counter-intuitive thing for a teacher to say but the advice is to just get out of the classroom and just make a film and that’s the truest test and the truest learning experience.
If you haven’t already, check out our guide to Sundance:London here!