Telluride 2013: “Blue Is the Warmest Color”

“Blue Is the Warmest Color” received the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival from a Jury headed by Steven Spielberg. Instead of the usual practice of awarding the Palme solely to director Abdellatif Kechiche (“The Secret of the Grain”), the Palme was shared with lead actresses Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos. All three were at the Telluride Film Festival with the film, based on a graphic novel, which has received controversy for its explicit lesbian sex scenes.

Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos, “The Roundup”) is a fifteen year old student from a working class background. Scenes of Adele’s literature class over-emphasize the idea of “love at first sight” which will soon become crucial to Adele. She begins a relationship with a boy from the school. The early scenes of this nearly three hour film are overlong and familiar from other films, only stressing Adele’s conventional student life.

Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux in "Blue Is the Warmest Color"

Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux in “Blue Is the Warmest Color”

Adele sees a girl with blue-tinted hair (Lea Seydoux, “Midnight In Paris”) walking by with her arm around another girl. Eyes meet. Adele’s sexual fantasies are not of her boyfriend but of the blue-haired girl. Adele contrives to meet her fantasy object.

Eventually they hook up. The blue-haired girl is Emma, an artist. The intimate and frank love scenes between the two women emphasize the passionate nature of their attraction and the intensity that will suffuse their relationship. Both Seydoux and Exarchopoulos give deep performances. The pacing of the film improves considerably when both actresses are on-screen, playing off each other. Adele and Emma become a couple. Adele, who becomes a teacher, is also Emma’s muse, posing for her paintings. The fervor of their feelings toward each other also affects the stability of their bond.

Director Abdellatif Kechiche appeared with Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux at an outdoor panel at Telluride.

Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos at Telluride

Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos at Telluride

Exarchopoulos spoke about “confidence and trust” while making the film and added that, with love and passion, the relation of flesh is important. They did not want the frank scenes between the two women to be choreographed, they all trusted one another, gave everything, totally involving their bodies and emotion.

Kechiche said he did not want music during the intimate scenes and wanted things on film to happen naturally. He considers rehearsal as “kind of a safety net”.

Seydoux said “We had to forget the camera”, it “takes time to let oneself go.” She added that Kechiche prefers long takes and that all three (director and actresses) were “generous with one another” to convey the magnetism that makes the love story.

Telluride 2013: “12 Years a Slave”

The Telluride Film Festival had sneak preview showings of “12 Years a Slave” as well as providing the welcome opportunity of getting insights from the film’s director Steve McQueen (“Hunger”), stars, and producer Brad Pitt. The film had an enthusiastic audience response, becoming a leading award contender.

“12 Years a Slave” is a powerful and harrowing experience. The film is based on the 1853 book by Solomon Northup about his true experiences, written only a year after he regained his freedom. Screenwriter John Ridley’s adaptation contains a wide variety of individualized personalities.

In 1841, Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, “Dirty Pretty Things”) is a free black man living in Saratoga Springs, NY with his wife and family. His violin playing is applauded at parties. On a pretext of a well-paying job, he is lured to Washington, DC, drugged and sold into slavery. The truth of his background is disbelieved.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor in "12 Years a Slave"

Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor in “12 Years a Slave”

Ejiofor gives an exceptional performance of emotional depth, conveying Northup’s incomprehension, torment, and determination to survive. He must hide his knowledge so as not to seem a threat to his less intelligent overseers.

Director Steve McQueen who realistically recreated a prison hunger strike in “Hunger” (2008) presents a vivid and unflinching view at the misery caused by the widespread institution of slavery, an antidote to films like “Gone with the Wind” that romanticized the era. McQueen gives the film a strong physicality, particularly in scenes of slaves being tortured. Northup’s story is extremely compelling. The film was shot on plantations in Louisiana.

Northup’s first “master” is William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Fifth Estate”), a preacher who holds prayer services for his slaves, but still treats them as property. He shows an interest in Northup.

In a memorable scene, for punishment, Northup is hanged by a noose and, for survival, desperately stretches so that his toes can touch the ground. Behind him the other slaves go about their daily routines.

Northup is sold to the vicious Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, “Hunger”) as payment on a debt. Northup befriends Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), the hardest working slave owned by Epps. Epps is attracted to Patsey, but that does not prevent him from violent treatment toward her. Epps’ wife (Sarah Paulson, “American Horror Story”) is aware of her husband’s feelings toward Patsey and is subtly sadistic toward her.

Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Chiwetel Ejiofor in "12 Years a Slave"

Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Chiwetel Ejiofor in “12 Years a Slave”

At Telluride, Fassbender said that he saw a tragic side to Epps, as he’s in love with his slave and conflicted in how to respond. This insight gives his performance a complexity so that Epps becomes much more than a conventional Southern villain.

Nyong’o makes a notable film debut with an intense and moving performance as Patsey. She is from Kenya and studied at Yale.

Alfre Woodard (TV’s “Steel Magnolias”) makes a distinctive impression in a brief role as a former slave who has become a slave owner. She befriends Patsy and Northup.

After the screening at Telluride, there was a fascinating Q&A.

Brad Pitt at Telluride

Brad Pitt at Telluride

Brad Pitt is one of the producers of “12 Years a Slave” and also plays a supporting role. At Telluride after the screening, he described Steve McQueen, the film’s director, as having a “unique and special voice”. McQueen had asked him why there were no more films on slavery. Pitt said there are ” lots of movies on the Holocaust…why not slavery?…It took a Brit (director McQueen) to do so.” Pitt described himself as “humbled and proud” from his association with the film. He said “12 Years a Slave” is “why I wanted to be” making films.

Chiwetel Ejiofor at Telluride

Chiwetel Ejiofor at Telluride

Chiwetel Ejiofor found the story of Solomon Northup, whom he portrays in the film, as “incredible” and “beautiful”. He said the “nasty scene” where Northup is hung as a “crucial part of film” where he “recognized he was not going to break.” He described his character as a “contemporary man…spiritual, soulful”, with “extraordinary strength”. Ejiofor added that the film is about “human respect” and “taking a stand.”

Lupita Nyong’o said that making her first film combined the “oppressive heat” in Louisiana of over 100 degrees with a “joyful set”.

Michael Fassbender at Telluride

Michael Fassbender at Telluride

Michael Fassbender who portrayed a dying hunger striker Bobby Sands in McQueen’s “Hunger” joked “I like to be punished and “Steve punishes.” After seeing newcomer Nyong’o act, he thought “Shit, I’ve got to do my homework”. He described her as having the “hunger of someone new”.

Steve McQueen at Telluride

Steve McQueen at Telluride

Director Steve McQueen described “12 Years a Slave” as having “a lot of hope”. He added that the wants his work to be “as direct and real as possible”.

At a later outdoor panel, McQueen said he has “no ground rules”. Ejiofer said that for the hanging scene in the film it was “important to connect and feel a little trust in the director” for “how far you’re all going to go”. He later added that “I haven’t found limits”.

Both McQueen and Ejiofer agreed that risk in filmmaking is “important”. Ejiofer described the first take as “really important” because the “tension and excitement” of the first time can be the “most remarkable”.

Telluride 2013: Robert Redford in “All Is Lost”

When asked at Telluride why he agreed to appear in “All Is Lost” in which he is the sole actor, Robert Redford laughed that it was ironic that before J.C. Chandor, the film’s writer/director, no one coming through Sundance had asked him to be in a film. In 2011, Chandor’s debut feature “Margin Call” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, founded by Redford. Unlike “All Is Lost”, “Margin Call” had many characters and a lot of dialog.

In “All Is Lost”, Redford, plays an unnamed man sailing alone in the Indian Ocean. His ship has been damaged by a floating shipping container. The man (called “Our Man” in the credits) tries to stop the flooding. He has lost outside communication. “All Is Lost” maintains tension throughout with different situations and dangers as conditions deteriorate. The film is never repetitious.

Robert Redford in "All Is Lost"

Robert Redford in “All Is Lost”

Redford, mostly wordless, impressively conveys Our Man’s determination, ingenuity, and increasing desperation as conditions deteriorate in his weakened boat. Storms buffet the vessel and sharks surround him. He uses nautical charts to move toward possible contact. His face becomes reddened by the sun. Redford’s familiar voice is briefly heard as Our Man reads a possible farewell note with deep feeling.

Most of the film was shot in Mexico in the world’s largest filming tanks, constructed for “Titanic”. The three boats used in filming receive end credits.

Redford, who recently directed himself In “The Company You Keep”, said at Telluride that he was looking to return to acting for hire when he was asked about “All Is Lost”. The filmmakers purposely only left hints of Our Man’s past. Redford called the ocean “the most unexplored planet” with a “mystique” and where “nothingness turns to turbulence.”

Robert Redford in "All Is Lost"

Robert Redford in “All Is Lost”

Redford, who said he was active physical sports in his early life, described his stunts in the film as “fun”. He added “At this age, the more I did, the more he (director J.C. Chandor) pushed. He described himself during filming as “always wet, I felt like a reed”.

In a striking scene, Our Man shaves in a flooding boat. Redford described it as “trying to maintain normalcy in an abnormal situation”.

Telluride 2013: Robert Redford Tribute

Robert Redford received one of the three Tributes at this year’s Telluride Film Festival. After a series of clips from Redford’s extensive career, the Tribute Silver Medallion was presented by Ralph Fiennes whom Redford had directed in “Quiz Show” (1994). Fiennes, who was In Telluride with “The Invisible Woman”, said he had not seen Redford in 20 years.

Robert Redford at Telluride

Robert Redford at Telluride

Redford gave an entertaining analysis of his career. He said the Sundance Kid in “Burch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969) was the part that was the most fun, since the Kid grows up in the film. Redford could identify with the outlaw at that early stage of his career.

A big reason Redford enjoyed making the film was his co-star Paul Newman. The studio did not want Redford in the film as he was relatively unknown then. Newman, already cast, supported Redford as co-star. Newman was originally cast as Sundance and the actors switched parts. Redford described working with Newman as “so much fun” with their personal connection and playing gags on each other, which carried over when they reteamed in “The Sting” (1973).

The most demanding part for him was the British big-game hunter in “Out of Africa” (1985), directed by his “old friend” Sydney Pollack. Redford felt he was used as a “symbol” and felt “encased”.

Robert Redford at Telluride

Robert Redford at Telluride

Redford grew up in Southern California and began with an art career. He believes that for an actor, listening and watching is as important as talking. He began listening and watching with his sketchpad.

On television, his silhouette was seen from behind a screen on a game show. TV performances included “Perry Mason”, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh”.

His Broadway roles included the newlywed in “Barefoot in the Park” (1963). He repeated his part in the 1967 film version. He does not think he’s geared to a long stage run, finding it hard to be the same each night.

Early in his career, he turned down the part of the male guest in the film version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966) because he felt the character was “false”. He also didn’t think he was right for “The Graduate” (1967). Both films were directed by Mike Nichols who had directed Redford on stage in “Barefoot”.

Redford’s film debut was “War Hunt” (1962) in which Sydney Pollack, who would later direct Redford in several films, portrayed Redford’s commanding officer. Redford joked that the two kept up that connection. He said they both “hit it off”. For his second film with Natalie Wood, “This Property Is Condemned” (1966), Redford successfully recommended Pollack as director because he “wanted companionship” since “the script was not very good.”

Pollack directed Redford in the popular thriller “Three Days of the Condor” (1975). Redford said they collaborated on the screenplay. He described their “wonderful relationship…challenging each other, open and accommodating.” The film was based on the novel “Six Days of the Condor”, described by Redford as a “potboiler” with stun guns and parachuting over DC. He said the film stripped the book to “Three Days” and kept the core of the central character (played by Redford) forced to “think in order to live and survive” after his fellow agents are killed.

In the 1966 “The Chase”, Redford played a prison escapee returning to his home town where the sheriff (Marlon Brando) struggles to prevent an outbreak of violence. Redford said he didn’t watch Brando on the set since it was “unfortunate” that Brando was then tired of acting, not fully into the character and he “threw it away”. Redford described the situation as “painful”.

Robert Redford at Telluride

Robert Redford at Telluride

Redford said he never made a sequel to his 1972 “The Candidate”, about the behind-the-scenes of a political campaign, because “everything is out there” now in the media. He added politics is “so divided now” and he doesn’t think there is “anything new to tell” on the subject.

One of Redford’s most acclaimed films was “All the President’s Men” (1976). Redford read Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s bylines covering the Watergate scandal in the Washington Post newspaper. He was intrigued by their different backgrounds and by what happened when they worked together. He called them at the paper. His call was not returned because they were under the heat of deadlines. Eventually Redford made contact, telling Woodward and Bernstein he wanted to “tell the story of what you did” on film. Redford’s Wildwood Enterprises produced “All the President’s Men”, the film on the Watergate reporters, which took four years to get made. Redford portrayed Woodward.

Redford said that after his long career, he still has the “acting drive”, he “can’t help it.” The next blog will be on Redford’s latest “All Is Lost” in which he is the sole actor.