*Interview is not complete, I will endeavor to transcribe the remaining bits soon!
(Note: This interview is posted in ‘ascending order’)
Water for Elephants phone chat with Francis Lawrence: Part Five ~
April 23, 2012 ~ After over a one year lapse I am finally gathering my energy to transcribe another part of my conversation with Francis. It’s a little bit weird listening to your own voice asking, what you hope are intelligent questions, of a Hollywood director… I cringe at how nervous I was and find relief in the calm, patient tone of Francis’ thoughtful answers… He really is a very down to Earth person and clearly loves what he does… In this part we continue our conversation about the casting and wardrobe designs with regard to the ‘extras’, the actors that made up the circus performers/workers,etc. We talked about the scene where Jacob gets his ‘initiation’ (cream pies and seltzer water baptism) into the Benzini Bros. circus family and how wonderful the background actors looked and how Jacqueline put together their vintage costumes. Francis replied: “The casting and that kind of stuff, well, Denise Chamian did the casting for the film… But when it got down to the side show, the musicians, the roustabouts and all that, we had an ‘extras casting team’ (Sande Alessi Casting)… They were really fantastic and they did an amazing, amazing job and they really scoured for great, great people… And not only for every roustabout, but for the sideshow people, the musicians, the circus acts, the coochie girls, the show girls… they brought them all in an we cast them in person… It was really important to me to build a real circus family that was always going to be there… A lot of movies take the approach that they’re only going to be in the background, that they can be switched out, that no one will recognize them… I wanted to have the same faces around all the time whether they’re workers or part of the show and we cast them that way and then decided day by day who we needed, what days they would be on set… we really built a family… So then Jackie and her team got a hold of everybody and created characters for all of them… I replied, “Yeah, that’s the way it comes across… in the clothing, costumes, wardrobe that she’s dressed them in… I am just so pleased, every little detail that I’ve seen, is so well done… I have this feeling that this film is going to grab people and they will notice how detailed everything is… You, Jack, Jackie and Rodrigo created this ‘world’, with the coloring, the way it was shot, it doesn’t look like a ‘modern’ film it looks like a vintage film…” Francis continued, “Yeah, it does have that feeling… what’s interesting about it is I think we all loved the detail and the textures and our approach to it was that it was a romantic and magical vision of the circus from the 1930’s… There’s a very obvious bleak approach that one could take with regard to circus’ in the 1930’s… But this is the imagined reality of a man (Jacob) who is 93 years old telling the story of what (sort of) made his life the way it is… So he has this romantic vision of it, so we all wanted to create the romantic version… I replied, “So it’s his version, leaving out a bit of reality?” Francis continues, “Yeah, it’s definitely heightened, the romance is heightened, the magic is heightened, the violence is heightened… And I think that’s also part of why it (the film) looks the way it does, it has sort of a timeless quality to it… it’s not as precious as some of the older period pieces might be, but we’re also not trying to impose a modernity on it either.” I replied, “I think it’s a good balance…” I then asked Francis about the St. Francis medal that Jacob wears in the film and why/if he chose it, since it wasn’t mentioned in the book and also did he take any mementos from the film as a keepsake… Francis replied, “Yes, and yes… the medallion came about because when Richard (LaGravenese) and I were working on the script, there was a scene of him (Jacob) putting it on, and then we came to decide what is the medallion that he’s wearing and I just kind of quickly thought , ‘oh, St. Francis, the patron Saint of animals’… and then great, you don’t have to think on it anymore… but there’s this extra bit of detail, with the chain and medallion that’s become part of him… which I sort of love… And in terms of keepsakes… The day we toppled the tents, the last day of shooting the Big Top, there are these big, Benzini Bros. flags… red flags with yellow letters that were up at the top of the center poles… (producer) Gil Netter ran over and quickly pulled them off, took them and had them framed and I have one… A torn and tattered Benzini Bros. flag from the Big Top… In fact, it’s sitting in front of me right now… I replied, “That is so cool! I’m glad that you did that… I was hoping that you would take something…” This concludes Part Five of my phone chat with Francis… Believe it or not this is only about 30 minutes of our 1 hour conversation… (I’m a bit weary of the sound of my nervous voice, so I will endeavor to transcribe more very soon… )
Water for Elephants phone chat with Francis Lawrence: Part Four ~
April 9, 2011 ~ Transcribing my conversation with Francis is definitely a ‘labor of love’… I’m not very good at listening to a recording and typing fast enough to keep up so that is why it takes so long to post another ‘chapter’; thank goodness for the re-wind function! In this part of our conversation we talked about August and Marlena’s characters… I began by asking Francis about August’s illness (a Bipolar paranoid schizophrenic in the book) and if they kept that in mind while developing the character so that he didn’t come across as just crazy in a one dimensional way… Francis replied, “Yeah, but what’s interesting for me is that I actually find that the schizophrenia makes the character one dimensional… What we really worked on, Richard and I, was we tweaked him a little bit and part of the new approach to the character is the combination of Uncle Al and August.” I replied that I get tons of ‘search hits’ on the blog asking where is Uncle Al? Why is he not in the film? Francis continued, “It’s interesting, and even Sara (Gruen) says this all the time, when you realize that you have to take a 14 hour read and whittle it down to a 2 hour movie you’re trying to find the heart of it and not skimp on story and as we were going through, Richard and I, we both kind of realized that you could combine the two characters and you really don’t lose a lot of story and what it does is it actually empowers August in a very, very different way. That’s where a lot of the character change came for us… That now a guy who is struggling to keep his circus together is a very different kind of character than somebody who is just ‘sick’. For me, a guy like that, who actually has his own kind of logic to his thinking and to his objective is really interesting.” Francis also agreed that combining the characters helped to define the love triangle as well…
I then asked him a couple of questions about Marlena’s character. The first was why they chose to make her a ‘bottle blonde’ (platinum blond hair color popular in the 1930’s) and if it was his idea? Francis: “It was a combination, when we were working on the screenplay I never thought about changing her hair color; but when suddenly Reese was in (cast) you start to think, ‘I’m not just going to stick to the hair color that was in the book’… We’re going to make Marlena the best character that we can; and so very, very early on (in pre-production) we did hair tests with her. We brought her (Reese) to a soundstage with her hair person and we tried different colored wigs on her just to see the hair colors… Jacqueline (West) was there and Rodrigo (Prieto) and Jack Fisk were there too. We took a bunch of photos and we clearly, clearly saw that day that the ‘bottle blonde’ was the way to go. We had approached her character slightly differently too, a slightly scrappier edge to her, she is a little tougher in the movie than in the book… The ‘bottle blonde’ hair did that for her… When she’s not in the ‘Ring’ (performing), when you see her with a little less make-up on, in a natural state; it made her tougher and it felt like she had been through more… Then, when she was in the spotlight, with her make-up on and costume on the blond hair (made her) like a beacon of light. It’s one of the reasons those woman had that hair color at that time… I thought it just worked on her (Reese), and it was interesting because when she had the dark wig on the darker hair made her feel a little more ‘girl next door’ it softened her up, made her a little friendlier, warmer and a little more innocent; but we really didn’t want that for the character…” I mentioned that going by what I’ve seen in the trailers that it (the hair color change) worked… I also mention that they seemed to have also changed Marlena’s back-story a little bit. In the book she is thrown out her parent’s home for marrying August. Whereas in the film she is abandoned by her mother and lived in foster care… Francis answered, “Yes, she was abandoned as a baby, left underneath the seat on a train…”*interesting*
The second part of my question about Marlena’s character involved her styling and wardrobe. Had Francis modeled her after Jean Harlow and other popular actresses of the early 1930’s? … Francis: “Jacqueline (West) and I had put together a whole bunch of references, I had a bunch of 30’s movies that I liked and Jacqueline had a really good collection of 30’s movies with the ‘bombshell’ character… She gave them to Reese and talked to her about the posture in the 30’s and the body language and the way women moved and walked. Jackie was really good with Reese in terms of conveying that posture… The clothing looks different; the posture of the women in the 40’s and 50’s was different from the women in the 30’s and 20’s; and different from today… Reese really absorbed it and changed her whole body language; it was pretty fun to watch…” I told him that I had noticed that ‘posture’ in the film stills and trailers and also that I’ve been micro-following this film and its details… He said, “Yeah, that is fun for us too, we put a lot of work into the details of these things, especially with Marlena… Like her manicure and the bracelets that she’s wearing, the clothing that she has… Jackie spent a lot of time researching (the wardrobe) … There is a French woman from the 30’s that some of the details are based on… She was a muse for a photographer; she had this sort of unbelievable ‘bohemian chic’ style that we applied to Marlena… The idea that she lives out of a chest (trunk) and only has so many (few) clothes and found a really smart, fashionable way of taking what little she has and putting it together in a really stylish way…” Knowing that Jacqueline likes to use actual vintage wardrobe pieces I asked Francis if any vintage pieces were used in the film… Francis: “I couldn’t tell you which piece was (vintage) or not (vintage), I remember when we first went in for the fittings, she (Jackie) had tons and tons of vintage stuff, but I also know that she custom made a bunch of stuff based on vintage designs that were just for people’s bodies… I’m sure that there were pieces that were actually vintage; I think some headbands and scarves and some of the clothing (were vintage) but then there were ‘new’ versions made by Jackie and her team based on vintage ideas.” … Being a bit of a costume/wardrobe fanatic I really enjoyed this part of our conversation… Francis clearly understands the importance of accurately defining this time period through wardrobe and set design… He also collaborated with two of the most knowledgeable and talented artists for the job, Jacqueline West (costume designer) and Jack Fisk (production designer)… I adore Jack and Jackie they’re both amazing; one could not ask for a better team… So, this concludes Part Four… Can you believe that I’m only about half way through my conversation with Francis… In Part Five Francis talks about the ‘extra actors’, building a ‘circus family’ and the ‘romantic vision’ of the film… To see/hear more of Jack and Jackie’s comments watch the excellent HBO special “Water for Elephants First Look” (this links to my Videos page) More to come!
Water for Elephants phone chat with Francis Lawrence: Part Three ~
March 26, 2011 ~ This is ‘Part Three’ of my conversation with Francis Lawrence where I asked him about casting the film and choosing his production team. Francis and Co. have put together an amazing group of film professionals and from the very start I knew that “Water for Elephants” was going to be very special! I have a great deal of respect for Production Designer, Jack Fisk. He has over 35 years of experience in the film industry and has worked on two of my favorite films; “Days of Heaven” and “Badlands”… He is a master at bringing ‘lost worlds’ to life, part architect, part anthropologist and pure artist; the perfect individual for Water for Elephants! I also admire the amazing Costume Designer, Jacqueline West. I would say that her most astonishing work was on the Academy Award winning film, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, where the costumes/wardrobe spanned nearly 100 years. Jacqueline likes to use ‘authentic’ vintage clothing from the period and her attention to detail is exactly perfect for Water for Elephants. If you take a look around Image Gallery 3 (behind the scenes and ‘extra actors’) and Image Gallery 4 (movie stills) you will see just how talented she is … (more on Jacqueline West’s contributions will be covered in future ‘Parts’) Here is Francis’ response when I asked him about his choices for his production team and whether he was able to ‘hand pick’ everyone: “Yeah, it’s always a little tricky, because you have a goal as to who you want to work with and you never know how it will turn out because they may be off doing some other movie, or they may not like the script or whatever the reason is… But luckily for this one all of the people that we wanted to work with were available they all really liked the script, we all really got along… We all sort of shared the same vision for the movie and we really put together an unbelievable team that was beyond just being super talented, but such a great group of people and everybody had a shared love for the project… Really nice, good creative people who are really thoughtful and caring about what they do, we had so much fun, all really nice to be around, a really greatgroup...” Sounds like he couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to be a part of Water for Elephants and I am so happy that everyone was available and wanted to do the film… The next topic we discussed was how Francis went about casting the film and had he already had people in mind from the beginning. When I first learned over a year ago that Reese Witherspoon had signed on to WFE I was really pleased… I knew that she would bring something special to the role of Marlena… I was equally happy that Rob Pattinson had been offered the part as it would really give him a chance to display his talent as an actor… Christoph Waltz was the icing on the cake for me, he’s the perfect August! Here is Francis’ response to my casting question: “Well, casting the movie came before we hired the production team.. To get a movie going you need to have the ‘cast’ because that is part of what helps dictate whether a studio is actually going to make the movie, what the budget is going to be, all of those kinds of things… How commercial it seems, all of that… So, Reese was the first person that we talked to, she was one of the original people that I pitched the movie to, and she had really liked the book and she had really liked Richard’s screenplay, she saw very early versions of it… We actually worked with her quite a bit while we were putting the rest of it all together… We worked on her part (Marlena) together and she was really a partner from the very beginning and very supportive which was really nice… And then because we landed Reese, because it’s a love triangle, it was really kind of a puzzle, because you want to find people that fit with the ‘piece’ (Reese) that you already have… It was really tricky trying to find ‘who’ was going to play Jacob… You start to look around at the world of 23-24 year old young men in Hollywood that can really do it (the part)… It’s tricky because a lot of those guys are still really boys… Rob was different, he’s really becoming a man… I sat down with him a couple of times and I really felt like he really was naturally very much like Jacob Jankowski and thought that he would fit well with Reese and because I think that both he and she are very romantic in their movies, and I felt that they would have good chemistry… Then Christoph actually came to us, he had read the script and really, really loved it, loved the part and loved the ideas and themes behind the movie and he was passionate about it… So he and Reese and I got together a couple of times and spoke, and we brought him on and he’s done an amazing job!” I replied that it’s sort of a ‘dream cast’ and from what I’ve seen in the trailers it’s really lovely, the casting is perfect… He agreed! *I wanted to note that I didn’t ask him anything specific about working with Rob Pattinson as I knew that he and Rob would be doing lots of press/promos for the film and they would be answering those questions soon enough in printed interviews! So much more to come! As I said, we covered a ton of subjects… More on Marlena’s (Reese) character development… The look of the film… The ‘extra actors’, The costumes and Tai!
Water for Elephants phone chat with Francis Lawrence: Part Two ~
March 21, 2011 ~ In this, Part Two, of my ‘conversation’ with Francis I asked him about the type of research he did to prepare for filming a “Depression Era Traveling Circus”… We also talked about the film’s ‘genesis’ and his collaboration with amazing scriptwriter, Richard LaGravenese, … Quoting Francis: “Well, the research sort of goes in stages, it starts with whatever you have in your head, from looking at things and reading about things over the years, and that is usually sort of wrong, but some things may be right, but it’s usually sort of wrong (that’s Francis being charmingly self-deprecating)… Francis continues: “Aw, so, read the book, obviously, got involved with the guys (producers Andrew Tennabaum & Gil Netter) we found Richard LaGravenese, he was gonna write it , we (Andrew, Gil and Francis ) pitched our ideas to Fox 2000 and then once they hired him (Richard LaGravenese) to write (the screenplay) that’s probably when I did my very first batch of research… So what I did was put together a book of images for Richard, and in a way that was the way of starting research for me, so me and my assistant started researching pictures of the Depression, pictures of trains from the 30’s, pictures of the north east (United States) in the 30’s and circus pictures from the 30’s… The (Circus) backyard, the tents, the menagerie, the animals, the acts… all of that kind of stuff we put into a binder, color Xeroxes (photocopies) and black and white pictures for him (Richard LaGravenese) and we gave one to him and Andrew Tennabaum (producer) and Gil and Irwin (Gil Netter and Irwin Stoff, producers) so they would have it and get to know that ‘world’ a little bit.. and that was kind of all the research that we did for about a year… So then Richard was writing and I was listening to a bunch of music (directing music videos) and after about three months of writing (the script) we put together a production team to start a research phase to figure out how we were really going to make the movie… At that point we really, really dove into what the circus was like and what the trains were like and what they looked like and how they were put together, what order are the train cars in… What are the tents made out of, how big where the ‘walls’ and if Ringling’s (tents) can hold 15,000 people, how many can ours hold and how many ‘Rings’ would it be, and we really got into it… We went out to Circus World and pretty much scoured through their archives, photos, manuscripts, ledgers, books and all of that kind of stuff and spoke to some experts… It really kind of just started from there… We immersed ourselves in the ‘world of the circus in that era’ and it was really fun and that’s half the fun of making a movie like this, getting to know a world like this, that you have nothing to do with…” I loved hearing how Francis and his team methodically researched this film. He really took the time to sort out all of the details to make sure that everything was accurate. When he spoke about researching the film I felt his enthusiasm and genuine regard in making sure they got all of the details perfect… I also admire the fact that he chose the uber talented screenwriter Richard LaGravenese and that they collaborated on the final script (more on that in future installments…) As I said in my previous post we discussed quite a few topics so there will be many ‘parts’ to this ‘conversation’… If you’d like to read more about Circus World Museum and the antique Circus Wagons that were used in Water for Elephants check out the page I devoted to~The Spectacular WFE Circus Wagons~More to come in a couple of days, along with the first phase of my Water for Elephants Contest!
Water for Elephants phone chat with Francis Lawrence: Part One ~
March 17, 2011 ~ On Tuesday (March 15th), after many months of planning, I finally had the opportunity to have a nice, long phone conversation with Water for Elephants director, Francis Lawrence! He had promised the interview right around the middle of filming, but for obvious reasons we could never pin down a time for a chat. Once post-production was finished and the film was ‘in the can’ Francis’ schedule opened up and we were finally able to have the long awaited ‘interview’… Because we covered so many topics related to Water for Elephants, as well as other interesting subjects, I have decided to break down the conversation into several ‘parts’… By doing that I can cover everything in more detail, trust me, there are plenty of details… Francis is incredibly genuine, laid-back and open; he’s very easy to talk to and so accessible. He truly appreciates all of the positive support that everyone has shown with regard to Water for Elephants, the film… He’s accustomed to the ‘fanboy world’ which is typically so negative, whereas this ‘fandom’ is ‘very nice’… quote: “It’s like a breath of fresh air”…
For this, Part One, I will begin at the beginning of our conversation. Because I was so interested in what drew Francis to WFE, I asked the obvious question:
What drew you to Water for Elephants, how did you get involved with this project, did you read the book beforehand?
“Well, it was a slightly different way for me, I’ve always been kind of fascinated by the circus and I always wanted to do a movie about the circus, or a movie set inside of a circus, and I just never really read the right story. My wife had read the book, and recommended it to me, and thought that it would make a great movie and I read it and really, really loved it… But, for some reason, I thought that somebody else was already doing it… So I didn’t pursue it in any way, because typically when something is really good and especially when something is really cinematic, it gets snatched up very, very quickly usually in the manuscript phase, before it’s even published… So I just assumed that something that is clearly such a great movie would have been snapped up, and I was wrong… Or that people had the option and it wasn’t being made yet, and literally a couple of months later, I was doing something in New York and I got a call from my agent saying that the guys that had the rights, which was Andrew Tennenbaum and Gil Netter wanted to meet with me, if I was interested in doing Water for Elephants and said sure, absolutely!” I replied, “It was such a cool coincidence that you had wanted to do the film and then they called you about it”… Francis continued: “Yeah, it’s also very lucky on my part… I mean, when one likes a book they should actually sort of research it to see… Luckily, it ended up coming back my way, which is a great thing”… I told Francis that I really liked the fact that he had read the book beforehand and wanted to film it and through a twist of fate that it did come back around to him… He really was the perfect director for this particular film… I will end ‘Part One’ on that note… I promise that there is SO much more to come! As you can imagine transcribing an hour long conversation is going to take some time… Topics covered in future entries involve Rob, Reese, Christoph, Tai, the production crew, the ‘background’ actors, Francis’ challenges on set, what influenced WFE, what ‘keepsake’ did he save from the WFE set, what’s up next for Francis and so much more! I just want to reiterate that Francis Lawrence is not only a talented director, but he’s a very sincere person who genuinely believes in the art of film-making and gives 110%… Water for Elephants will fulfill all of our expectations, more to come!